Chapter 1: video killed the radio star
Monday mornings had never been Keith’s favourite. He doubted they were anyone’s; hell, who could enjoy them? Nothing about them had thrilled him since the very first day he’d been dropped on a primary school playground and told to go make friends. If it wasn’t dragging yourself to a school you hated to attend classes you were indifferent to and hang out with kids who irritated you, then it was nodding off in an eight am lecture with a hangover pounding in your head, and if it wasn’t that it was sitting in the traffic trying to get to work, and if finally, that wasn’t the way a Monday went, it… it was this.
“Looks like your first dance class starts up today, huh?”
Keith looked to his right hopefully, fingers dancing along the steering wheel. Ear buds in, arms crossed firmly and slouching, the fifteen year old buckled into his passenger seat oozed dissatisfaction. Great. Keith hated Mondays.
A fierce scowl, polished black nails, and a set of angry eyes that matched Keith’s to a frightening degree.
The way she said his name… it made Keith feel like some dumb kid on the playground again, not a fully functional twenty five year old with a job and a life and friends and-
And two kids.
“Dance class?” Keith prompted with a smile.
Judy blinked at him, her fringe threatening to spill over her eyes. He’d have to book her in for a haircut. Oh my god, where was she meant to get a haircut? He couldn’t take her to his barber, he only did men’s hair, but where else? What if he took her somewhere awful, what if they cut her hair badly and then she’d have to show up to school feeling bad- no, what if she refused to go to school at all and her grades started to slip and-
“Do you… have everything you need?”
Judy stared at him for a good minute, the pout on her lips contradicting the fierce look in her eyes. Was she… oh my god, did she have eyeliner on? Were they allowed eyeliner? Okay, Keith was pretty sure he’d worn makeup when he was fifteen and rebellious but maybe this school had different rules. What if they called him in? What if she was sent home? He should say something. He should definitely, definitely ask. Judy looked away with a roll of her eyes. Keith hated Mondays.
Keith jumped a little; he still hadn’t gotten accustomed to the car seat in the back and the small being occupying it. He shot a look over his shoulder, smiling at the chubby toddler.
“Dada, dada, dada…” Yumi kept babbling, slapping her little hands together.
At least someone liked him. Judy ignored her sister and Keith, looking pointedly out the window. She didn’t like Yumi calling Keith dad, he wasn’t stupid, he knew that. Still, surely it was better for the toddler to adjust to him now, when she was just two? Or maybe not. Maybe he shouldn’t try and pretend; after all, Judy knew her sister better than he did. He was practically a stranger.
Keith hung his head a little, navigating through the traffic with a dull feeling filling his chest. He’d never known his sister. He didn’t know he had a sister, not until three weeks ago, when he’d gotten a call informing him of her a) existence, b) death, and c) two children who had been left in his care. In that exact order. Keith had never known any of his biological family. He’d been abandoned as a baby as far as he knew, spent a few years circulating the foster system before the Shirogane’s plucked him up and adopted him. But apparently his sister had known about him. And maybe she didn’t know any one else she trusted, or maybe she thought that because they were related he was somehow qualified, because come the accident that took her life…
Keith glanced at Judy, the stubborn teen still ignoring him. He sighed. He wished he’d known about them sooner, wished he could have known them as nieces, not… not this.
A car horn blared, and Keith jumped, slamming on the brakes and waving apologetically at the car he’d almost run into at the red light.
“Nice,” Judy muttered.
“Dada!” Yumi squealed.
Keith hated Mondays.
When they pulled up to the school drop-off zone a little while later, his hands ached from how tightly he’d been gripping the wheel. He smiled at Judy as she shoved her way out the car, snatching her school bag from the backseat and placing a small kiss on Yumi’s head- but the teen ignored him.
“Have a nice-“ The car door slammed. “…day.”
Keith sighed, watching his niece retreat into the mass of children filing into her high school. Her new high school, where he didn’t even know if she was making friends because she didn’t talk. A car horn blared behind him, telling him to get a move on out of the drop-off zone.
“Jesus!” Keith swore.
From the back, Yumi just giggled. At least she found joy in just about every mistake he made.
It was a five-minute drive from the high school to the day-care, which usually passed rather uneventfully. Keith kept the children’s CD on for Yumi, finding it was easier to drive without Judy glaring holes into him. When they pulled into the day-care, he could already see a few of the teachers out front greeting the kids. This was the one place Keith didn’t mind, the one place he could leave Yumi without fearing for her life every second he was away from her. The toddler was still grinning at him when he came round the car to unbuckle her, kicking her feet as he lifted her from seat and into his arms.
“Dada, dada,” she kept babbling as Keith grabbed her bag from the boot and locked up.
Should he be teaching her new words? Or was she meant to pick up that stuff by herself? When were children supposed to talk; Jesus, he couldn’t even figure that much out? Yumi was probably going to develop a speech impediment, and then maybe he’d have to keep her back from first grade- oh god, thinking all the way ahead to first grade was doing funny things to Keith’s head. He was brought back by pudgy hands swatting at his cheeks, and he shot the girl a smile as they walked towards the day-care.
Yumi was… different to her sister. Obviously, she was only two, but Keith just… hadn’t experienced anything like her. A toddler. He’d never thought too hard about babies, or kids in general (the reality of them anyway), until he was standing in front of their social worker swearing he could care for the two children who were somehow related to him. It was too early to tell if Yumi would look like her mother, Judy did though. Keith had seen the pictures of his sister, somewhere in the mess of being introduced to the kids and given the run down on the situation. She’d been born in Korea, just like him, but it sounded as if she’d immigrated before Judy was born. While Judy shared her mothers eyes and… frown (don’t ask Keith how, they just had the same damn frown), Yumi was simply a pudgy kid with a wild bob of jet-black hair that Keith enjoyed tying up in a whale spout on top of her head because for starters it was convenient, and secondly, she looked adorable.
He wasn’t the only one who thought so. Yumi had only been attending this day-care for two weeks, but she was a clear favourite. Keith smiled as his eyes locked on Pidge, one of the teachers, and his friend. It was Pidge who’d arranged for Yumi to slot right into the day-care, and who made sure Keith could afford it. Today she was dressed in denim overalls, yellow hair tied up in a similar manner to Yumi’s. She was waving madly at the toddler, who was cautiously waving back, as if she wasn’t sure that was the correct procedure.
“Nice to see you too,” Keith muttered playfully as they approached.
“Sorry Keith, but ever since you got a toddler you’ve become a hundred times less appealing in her shadow.”
“Thank you, Pidge.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, in a pitched, squeaky voice that was meant only to appeal to Yumi.
And appeal it did. Yumi squealed in delight as Pidge tickled her sides, cooing over the toddler as if Keith was simply there to hold the child up for inspection.
“How’s Judes?” Pidge asked seriously, leaving her co-worker, Coran, to deal with the other parents.
“She hates me,” said Keith. “So, great.”
Pidge gazed up at him sympathetically.
“If anyone can get through to her, it’s you. You… know what it’s like.”
Keith smiled stiffly.
“I think this is different.”
Pidge sighed, offering him an encouraging smile.
“At least Yumi likes you.”
Keith huffed, ruffling the toddler’s hair fondly.
“Yeah. I don’t think I could take it if she didn’t.”
“Who could? She’s like the cutest kid ever. I’m gonna need to see your baby pics again soon for a comparison.”
“Absolutely not,” Keith said, laughing. “Anyway, I gotta go, work and all.”
“Alright, hand her over.”
Keith passed the bag over to Pidge, then began trying to extract the toddler from where she had her arms wrapped stubbornly around his neck. At first she went easily to Pidge, but once she realised he’d be leaving, she began to whine.
“Aaw,” Pidge cooed, as the girl’s eyes followed Keith, reaching for him.
“Okay,” said Keith, taking Yumi’s little hand and stroking her palm. “Okay, dada has to go.”
And he was not going to cry this time, he was not. It was Monday, he’d had the whole weekend with her, if anything he should be thankful for the break. So he was not going to cry, even though Yumi was starting to, her little face scrunching up and fat tears rolling down her cheeks no matter how much Pidge tried to sooth her.
“Keith, if you cry she’s going to cry more!” Pidge scolded.
“I’m sorry! I just- ugh! I don’t like leaving her.”
“Yeah evidently, dude. Your kids gonna develop attachment issues.”
Keith clenched his jaw, a ridiculous, scrunched expression swallowing his face as he tried to hold in the tears.
“Okay,” he said. “Bye Yumi. Bye-bye.”
“I’ll get Coran,” Pidge assured. “She’ll calm down.”
Keith nodded shakily, jaw too tensed to talk. God dammit. He waved quickly at them as Pidge began to retreat, rocking Yumi on her hip as she motioned Coran over. He always seemed to be able to calm her down, but dammit, Keith missed her already. It was ridiculous. Still, he forced himself to walk back to the car, let Pidge distract Yumi with toys and other kids.
Keith let his head thump back against the seat, sitting still for a moment in the car park as children and their parents continued to filter into the day-care around him. It was funny, as much as it was a relief knowing Yumi was being cared for and occupied, he kinda… missed her. Missed her happy little babble and all.
Keith started up the engine, finally switching from the tapes of kids music to the radio, specifically, his favourite station. A song was just finishing off, and Keith congratulated himself on his timing as his two favourite hosts announced their arrival on the show.
“Welcome back every one to another average Monday morning. I’m Lance McClain, here with Hunk Garret, and we’ll be your hosts, getting you through the day. Well, half the day, don’t know what poor suckers gonna be on after us because we are a hard act to follow.”
“Oh my god Lance you cannot say that.”
Keith pulled out onto the main road, setting course for his work place. He’d picked up on this station around a year ago, when he’d moved to be closer to Shiro. His adoptive brother had been the one to prompt his move from the country, after years of nagging Keith that living alone on a farm wasn’t good for him or his future prospects and relations. Keith kinda missed it, living out in the country; but Shiro was right, he had been kinda lonely. Still, maybe now that he had kids… No, that was an awful idea. The worst idea. Where would they go to school? He wouldn’t have Shiro or Pidge or Allura or anyone to help look after them.
Besides, the real reason Keith moved was because of Adam. He’d known Shiro was going to propose soon, and the idea of being closer to them while they started up their own family… it was nice. He’d envisioned they’d be the ones adopting kids, that he could be the uncle he’d always wanted to be. Hah. Funny how that one worked out. Keith shook away those thoughts, focusing on what was being said on the radio instead. There was always traffic on his drive, giving him the perfect opportunity to listen in. It sounded as though one of them had just finished up telling a joke, because loud, obnoxious laughter was filtering in from over the speakers, and Keith smiled without even knowing what had been said.
Since discovering the station, Keith had quickly become invested in its two hosts. He remembers taking time out of his day to search up the duo, Lance and Hunk, strictly out of curiosity at first. And maaaybe seeing their profile pictures on the station website and maaaybe Lance’s handsome smile and sparkling eyes might have had a little bit of an effect on his interest as a listener, but that wasn’t the only reason, okay? It wasn’t as if he could stare at Lance over the damn radio; in fact, their host made a point of that everyday, a joke of sorts.
The important thing was, Lance and Hunk were childhood friends, who’d attended college together, where they realised their clear knack for entertaining, and after getting their first gig… well they were popular now. Popular enough to have their faces plastered to the bus that went shooting past Keith’s car anyway. And he liked them, enjoyed the three hour segment they got each weekday morning, not that he got to listen to it all. They started around the time he usually dropped the kids off, so he had a good half hour to listen to them recite the morning news or get impassioned about some recent social controversy or entertain their listeners with music or by bringing guest callers on.
Since taking in Judy and Yumi, the station had kind of been his escape. It was a time to unwind and think about something other than how badly he was screwing up their lives. Hunk always seemed to have surprisingly optimistic anecdotes to start the day with, and Lance was always joking around with listeners, and had a nice voice in general. Like a really, really nice voice. So nice that Keith might’ve tracked down and downloaded an audiobook he’d read so he could listen to it to fall asleep at night despite the fact the book was a sci-fi type-robot-apocalypse novel that he had absolutely no interest in. No one had to know that Lance’s voice helped him sleep, which meant absolutely no one got to judge him.
“No I’m telling you man! They were plotting to murder me,” Lance exclaimed over the radio, over Hunk’s helpless laughter.
Clearing his throat, the second presenter spoke up, clearly still stifling laughter.
“For those of you just tuning in, Lance spent the weekend at his brothers house, where his niece and nephew apparently attempted to murder-“
“Oh no it’s not apparently, they were blood thirsty. I’m telling you, you go two months without visiting, they were ready to bury me alive. I still find sand when I shower, it’s all the way-“
“No! Nope, don’t wanna hear,” Hunk exclaimed with a chuckle. “Your sand, your problem.”
“I was victim to a crime, Hunk. I don’t know if Luis like spoon-feeds them sugar before I get there or what, but those kids are hyped up when I arrive. Every time!”
Hunk just laughed, immune to Lance’s offended spluttering.
“If it helps,” the former continued. “Tomorrows chat line is open to all, we’re gonna be discussing nieces and nephews. So if you’re an aunt or uncle who’s been victimised like Lance, give us a call. We want to hear it all, kids you wanna rave about, kids who are actual devil spawn and you can’t believe came from your siblings.”
“You gotta actually give them the number, dude.”
“Oh, right!” Hunk exclaimed, before rattling off the chat line number.
“Look, I do love my niece and nephew,” Lance amended. “But ay! They want to kill me sometimes. It’s a struggle, I’m telling you.”
“And we want you to tell us too,” Hunk said. “So call in tomorrow if you have a story like Lance’s that you wanna share. Once again, that’s-“
And Keith had a pen and was scribbling the number onto his hand before he could think twice. He wouldn’t actually call, and if he did, it wasn’t as if he’d be lucky enough for his call to go through. But… but he had the number now anyway, no harm in that, right? He was nearly at work, but once again he’d timed it excellently. Lance was rattling on about something, joking, before his attention turned to the same joke he made everyday, the same song he played everyday, the one Keith usually finished off his listening with.
“For all you folks out there listening,” Lance said. “I hope you have eventful days. And in case today is the day the studio cuts my funding, I want to play you a little tune before we kick off our next segment.”
Keith scoffed; as if they’d ever cut funding to this station. Still, he grinned a little as the first few notes of the song kicked in and Lance’s voice trickled off as Video Killed the Radio Star began to play. It was endearing almost, what a kick Lance got out of playing it. Keith liked it, pulling into work with the song he’d heard at least a hundred times now following him in.
Allura was already seated behind her desk when Keith walked in, dumping his bag on the ground as he collapsed into his office chair. She spun around upon hearing him, a bright smile lighting up her face. Allura had to be the only person he knew who did like Mondays.
“Keith!” She exclaimed.
Allura was one of those people who somehow succeeded in bringing life to their dull little office space. Keith had known her for years, but their friendship was only recent. She’d started off as Shiro’s friend in high school, so he knew about her whilst living out in the country. After moving to the city though, she’d helped find him a job where she worked, and they’d hit off quickly. Now they were inseparable.
“I’m so tired,” he grumbled. “Already. It’s like nine.”
Allura looked sympathetic.
“Kids kept you up?”
Keith sighed, rubbing at his eyes.
“Yeah. Judy didn’t want to go to bed, then Yumi was up at like five. Ugh, Allura, why are kids so difficult?”
She smiled, twirling around on the office chair. “Sorry Keith. You want me to come over and help out tonight? I could make dinner?”
He scoffed, shooting her a smile. “Thanks Allura, but I think if you tried to cook we’d have a bigger problem.”
“Oh shut it!”
She pushed him playfully, sending his chair sliding out into the walkway.
“Thanks ‘Lura, but Shiro’s coming over tomorrow anyway-“
“Keith? Oh good, just the person I was looking for.”
Keith cringed inwardly, and Allura mouthed a little sorry as he began wheeling himself back towards his desk. He’d just set his hands on the keyboard when their boss appeared at the entrance to Allura and his little cubicle.
“Hey Lotor,” he said through gritted teeth, trying to keep the edge out his voice.
Keith didn’t hate his job; it wasn’t the best, but he didn’t mind it. He was thankful Allura had managed to find him a position working for her father’s company so quickly. But two months after he’d secured the position, some complications with higher ups meant suddenly the company didn’t belong to Alfor anymore, instead it was owned by-
“Lotor!” Allura said cheerily, except it was fake cheery, and only Keith could tell.
Keith didn’t hate his job, but he sure as hell hated Lotor. Still, with the kids just starting school and all the adjustments they were going through, he couldn’t exactly go looking for a new work place. Besides, he was lucky to get to work with Allura. And lucky she was usually there to distract he and Lotor from how much they hated each other. It didn’t seem to be enough today though.
“Allura, it’s lovely to see you,” Lotor chimed, but the stack of papers in his hand was slowly gravitating towards Keith.
Sure enough, a second later they hit his desk, and Lotor was glaring down at him.
“This report,” he said. “It wasn’t the analysis I asked for-“
“That’s because I asked for it,” Allura piped up. “I wanted to make sure we were keeping a closer eye on customer feedback, so I asked Keith to design and collate a number of reviews.”
Lotor turned, smiling stiffly at her.
“That wasn’t exactly your job, if I recall.”
Allura returned the smile, much more sweetly.
“Old habits,” she said, laughing it off. “I guess I can’t help getting more involved. This is my father’s work, after all.”
“Yes,” Lotor said. “And now it’s my father’s work.”
“I’ll get the report to you soon,” Keith said quickly, sensing Allura’s mood was souring fast.
“Soon?” Lotor scoffed. “I needed it today.”
“You don’t need it for another two weeks,” Allura muttered.
Lotor looked between the two of them, trying to repress his glare.
“I can sense that maybe not enough work is getting done here. Perhaps I ought to find you separate cubicles-“
“Oh please,” Allura snapped. “This isn’t middle school. Now how about you give Keith and I some space to do that work you’re so intent on receiving. Or I could simply report to your father that you’re distracting us? I’m sure he could find you something else to do to keep you occupied.”
Lotor stiffened, huffing slightly as Allura stared him down.
“Fine,” he said. “But Keith, I want that report. You should be thankful you’re even still here.”
Keith glared after the man as he retreated from their cubicle, Allura rolling up beside him.
“What an ass,” she muttered.
“Tell me about it.”
“I’m literally going to murder him if he keeps treating us like this.”
“Too many cameras,” said Keith.
“I know an alley he cuts through on his way to his car-“
“Jesus, Allura,” Keith exclaimed, turning to her as the woman began to laugh.
“Better get onto that report,” she said, snickering.
Keith rolled his eyes, waving her off.
“And thanks for doing the other one for me. I just… I’m going to prove this company isn’t rightfully theirs. I know its true.”
“I know you will,” Keith said, smiling.
Maybe work wasn’t the best, but Allura was.
The end of the day rolled around quicker than Keith expected, and somewhere between avoiding Lotor, fetching Yumi from day-care, going to school to collect Judy then remembering Judy had dance class so leaving school then returning to school two hours later, Keith had developed a headache. His phone read seven o’clock when he finally managed a glance at it, which meant Yumi should have had her dinner hours ago, because by now she was always far too tired.
Keith cursed under his breath as he tripped over a moving box, hauling a tub of cutlery into the kitchen because he couldn’t for the life of him find the knife he’d used that morning. Their move had been recent, and sudden. They’d only been in this apartment for a week, and Keith had found it in a rush, because as much as he liked his old apartment, it didn’t have space for two children. He thought he’d have managed to get through the unpacking on the weekend, but for some reason having a toddler made that harder than it sounded. So here he was, seven o’clock on a Monday night, a screaming toddler on his hands and one very, very moody teenager slumped at the kitchen table.
Judy had her homework spread out between her elbows, glaring at it as if she hoped it might catch fire, all while trying to block Yumi’s screams out with her hands. Keith loved Yumi, he loved how cheery she was, until he was reminded that she really was just a toddler, and that came with problems.
“Okay, okay, dinners nearly ready Yumi, it’s okay.”
Keith’s hands felt shaky as he scooped plain pasta out the pot, wincing at the heat radiating off it before trying to blow on it to cool it down. Yumi was sat in the little high chair the Holt’s had kindly donated to him, and she was not having it. Little hands balled into fists, she brought them angrily down on the table, screaming her head off because she was tired and hungry and Keith was clearly failing at whatever it was he was meant to be doing. He couldn’t even find it in him to be worried about a noise complaint right now, not when he was so concerned about his own sanity. A crying toddler was not doing wonders for his headache.
“God, why didn’t you feed her earlier,” Judy snapped, the noise getting to her.
Keith shot her an apologetic look over the counter, a pot of pasta held helplessly in his hands. He’d tried to tie his hair back so Yumi would stop pulling it in her foul mood, but now the strands were coming loose and getting in the way of his eyes. He must look a mess, a stupid, embarrassing mess, nothing like a parent was meant to be.
“Sorry Judes, I’m just- I-“
But Judy was already rolling her eyes, dark hair sweeping across her face as she went back to whatever homework she was trying to do. It was probably something difficult, something she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on with Yumi screaming like this. Just about giving up, Keith doused the pasta in cold water, nibbling on a piece to test it before lumping a spoonful onto a plate for Yumi. The toddler quieted down for only a few seconds as Keith set the plate down, before her face was screwing up with anger and she let out a high pitched scream, but not before throwing the plate halfway across the room.
Keith sucked in a sharp breath, hands threading through his hair and wincing as the child screamed. His head was killing him, and Judy’s judgemental look was making him feel worse and worse by the second. Keith felt heat building behind his eyes- no. No, he wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t going to cry about something as stupid as not being able to get a toddler to eat pasta. That was ridiculous, he was the adult of this household, he… he was meant to be the dad, for god’s sake. So Keith lowered his hands, taking a deep breath and willing his brain to stop pounding away at his skull. It didn’t, but he managed to retrieve the plate, and top it up with fresh pasta.
“Yumi,” he said, trying to speak calmly.
She screamed back at him, face all red from crying. And it was horrible, it was horrible, he was making her cry because he hadn’t fed her on time, because now she was upset, and just wanted to sleep, and he was useless.
“Yumi, do you want some food?”
Keith held out a piece of pasta, trying to direct it towards her mouth. She slapped his hand away angrily, sobbing. Did he just take her to bed? No, she was too worked up, and he didn’t want her to go to sleep hungry.
“Yumi please,” he said. “C’mon, dada has food for you.”
The toddler wasn’t interested. She was too little to understand he was trying to help, far too worked up about it. A chair scraped against the floor behind Keith, and he was only aware of Judy coming up beside him when she huffed angrily, almost pushing him away.
“You’re doing it wrong,” she snapped.
She snatched the plate from Keith, planting herself in front of her wailing sister. Keith stumbled back, watching the older girl hover the pasta in front of Yumi. She moved it around, making some buzzing sound that caught Yumi’s attention. Tears still trickled down her cheeks, but she watched in mild interest as Judy moved the pasta to her own mouth. She squeaked as it disappeared, shocked that her sister had eaten her pasta that she hadn’t wanted til about two seconds ago. Yumi watched two more pieces disappear into her sister’s mouth before she was reaching out for the plate, huffing slightly as snot and tears trickled down her face.
Judy handed it over, plucking up piece after piece and feeding them to her sister. Keith stayed where he was, not daring to interrupt. Pressure was building in his chest and in his eyes, a horrid, hateful, feeling of disappointment in himself. Judy, who was just a kid herself, who was fifteen, was doing a better job than he was. And she shouldn’t have had too. The whole point of Keith was to make sure Judy didn’t end up raising her sister. Yet here she was, distracted from her own work, having to calm her sister down because he had no idea what he was doing, he was only making the situation worse.
Keith barely managed to hold back the tears as Judy finished feeding her sister, picking up the fallen pasta from the floor to distract himself. Yumi had stopped crying, and finally satisfied that she’d eaten enough, Judy swept her up off the highchair to carry her to bed. Keith moved over hastily, desperate to help out in some way.
“Here, let me-“
“I’ve got her,” Judy muttered, disappearing down the hall with the sleepy toddler clinging to her neck.
Keith lowered his arms until they hung limply by his sides, watching both children vanish into Yumi’s room. He let go a shaky breath, listening for the sounds of Judy tucking her sister into her cot. Knees trembling, head still aching, he slid down the counter, head cradled between his hands as he sat on the kitchen floor. Don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry. Most people in Keith’s life assumed he never wanted kids, not after the disastrous childhood he’d had. But that wasn’t true. He wanted kids a lot, wanted them still, spent hours fantasising about a stupid future where he’d marry a man he loved and they’d go about adopting all the kids they found that were scared and alone like Keith had been. And it would be easy, because that’s what it had seemed like to his imagination. Because as long as he loved them, everything would slot into place, right?
Wrong. Keith pressed his palms to his eyes to stop the tears leaking out, short, sharp breaths leaving his lips as he tried desperately to calm himself down. He loved Yumi, and he loved Judy, but it wasn’t doing them any good. It wasn’t enough. He knew the second he found out about them that he wanted to give them the world, wanted them to have the childhood he hadn’t. He’d be ace at it, surely; he’d spent so much time thinking about what the perfect family would be like, how happy he’d be to finally be a father, and now… Keith shook slightly, desperately trying not to cry from his place on the floor. He wasn’t making them happy, he couldn’t even give them the basic support they deserved.
His head shot up, and Keith stood in a flurry, realising too late his path lead him straight to hitting his head on the counter top.
“Ow,” he hissed, clutching his head as he stood shakily on his feet. “Ow ow ow.”
Judy was staring at him across the counter, her hair tied back in a ponytail now. Keith resisted the urge to grimace, dusting himself off and ignoring the red she may or may not have seen in his eyes.
“Uh, thanks Judes,” he mumbled. “Thanks for taking her to bed.”
Judy didn’t grant him a response, just let her eyes trail over his dishevelled form, the bits of pasta thrown about their kitchen, and the stained sweatpants Keith was wearing. What a good example, he thought glumly.
“Is there any of that pasta left?” Judy asked.
She kept her expression impartial, indifferent. At least she hadn’t snapped.
“Uh, yeah, yeah of course.”
Keith hastily pulled two more bowls, proper bowls, from the half packed cupboard, setting them on the countertop. Judy immediately went for the scoop, lumping a bit of plain pasta into her bowl.
“Hey, you want some sauce?” He said hurriedly, tearing the fridge open to dig out the jar of tomato sauce.
Judy stared at him, dissatisfaction and exhaustion evident in her look.
“You’re supposed to heat it up first,” she muttered, before turning away.
Keith looked between her and the sauce, heart rate climbing rapidly again. He wasn’t going to make her eat plain pasta for dinner, it was bad enough that was all he’d fed Yumi tonight-
“I can heat some up quick, it’ll just take a second-“
“Seriously, let me-“
“I said it’s fine,” Judy snapped.
She set her bowl down hard, glaring at Keith as she took a seat. Words formed on his lips, apologies, but Judy was shoving earphones in and staring down at her homework again. Keith let it go with a sigh, frazzled and upset, trying not to think too hard about what a failure tonight had been lest he have an actual breakdown. Not feeling hungry himself, he set to work tidying the kitchen, unpacking a little more of their stuff quietly. Eventually Judy got up from the table, washed her own plate despite Keith’s protest, and disappeared into her room without a word. There was a minute of silence, during which Keith believed their awful night had finally drawn to a close. Then an insistent crying started up from Yumi’s room.
“I’ve got it,” Keith said, rushing past Judy’s door before she had the chance to get up.
Because it was a school night, and she needed sleep; she’d done enough of the parenting for one day. Judy watched him with suspicion as she shut her door, but Keith couldn’t find it in him to care at that moment.
“Hey,” he said softly, stepping into the toddler’s room. “Hey darling what’s wrong?”
Yumi was reaching for him, probably spooked by the dark or a nightmare or whatever else it was that caused her to cry at night. Keith settled down in the chair beside her cot, tucking the toddler into his arms and preparing himself for a long night. She settled down with him holding her, but he knew the second he placed her back in the cot she’d start up again. So Keith grabbed a book from the floor, cradled the child in his arms, and began the first story of many.
Chapter 2: hello, goodbye
Keith places a call, and the family bonds
Thank you so much for the lovely comments last chapter guys! I really appreciate them, they make me warm and happy thank you <3
There was a suspicious weight on Keith’s chest when he woke up, a warm weight, one that drooled a little onto his shirt as he grunted and tried to orientate himself. There was sunlight streaming in through the cracks in the curtain, and… this wasn’t Keith’s room. A dresser full of colourful clothes, toys scattered on the floor, and the audiobook teetering on the arm of the chair he was dozing in. This was Yumi’s room, and it was Yumi asleep on his chest, on the armchair in her room where he’d fallen asleep and- Keith’s blood ran cold- forgot to set an alarm.
He shot up, jostling the sleeping toddler and sending Lance’s audiobook toppling off the chair. Yumi whined softly, but with no sense of urgency, clung to Keith’s shirt as the man struggled to his feet and trampled noisily down the hall to the kitchen. His phone was where he’d left it on the counter, at a stunning 15%, the time reading-
“Judy!” Keith yelled.
Hoisting Yumi onto his hip, he backtracked down the hall, knocking urgently on the teen’s closed door.
“Judes? You awake? We…”
Keith shut his eyes, grimacing. This was not how he’d planned made amends for last night.
“We’re gonna be late, I forgot to set an alarm!”
Keith only waited a few seconds before the door was wrenched open, revealing Judy’s scowling face.
“What time is it?” She grit out, hair un-brushed and crinkled pyjamas bunched around her ankles.
Hesitantly, Keith held up his phone screen for her to see. He winced as she made a noise somewhere between a huff and a growl, before slamming the door in his face.
“Sorry!” Keith called.
He raced back towards the kitchen, lumping Yumi into her highchair and grabbing a cup of fruit puree from the fridge. Blame it on how late she’d gone to bed, but Yumi was not feeling the rush this morning. She yawned, little hands scrubbing over her tired eyes, staring blankly at Keith for a few seconds before she began to nod off again. Much to his surprise, feeding her was easier like this. Keith managed to get five spoonful’s of puree into the docile toddler’s mouth before Judy was barging her way into the kitchen to get breakfast.
“You’re not dressed?” She screeched, her school shirt only half tucked in and hair done up in a hasty bun. “Keith we have to leave in five minutes!”
Keith jumped, looking down at himself. He hadn’t showered this morning or last night, so he probably stunk, still dressed in the stained sweatpants and a tank top Yumi had drooled all over. Judy looked ready to impale him with the knife she was using to angrily slap jam onto bread as he raced down the hall. He emerged minutes later, the teen’s finger literally tapping her wrist to insist he hurry up, dressed in the least thought-out attire he’d ever worn to work.
“Your shirt is on backwards!” Judy shouted, the stress of their morning rush getting to her.
“That’s not your problem!”
“Yumi doesn’t have lunch!”
“I’m going to make her lunch!”
Judy scoffed. “In thirty seconds?”
Keith stopped, dropping the loaf of bread he’d yanked from the fridge onto the counter and staring the teen down. Okay, so Judy was right to berate him for most of what he did, but Keith could make a damn sandwich, alright?
“Yes,” he said.
If growing up in children’s homes and orphanages had taught Keith anything, it was that when you had food in front of you, you put it together and you ate it like a god damn pro. In the space of ten seconds, he’d slathered peanut butter onto Yumi’s sandwich, cut it, and packaged it, tossing the container towards her little backpack before grabbing a packet of raisins to go with it. Then, because he reckoned he still had fifteen seconds on the clock, and because not having dinner last night had left him hungry enough to be feeling ill, Keith threw together another peanut butter sandwich, shoving half the thing into his mouth as Judy looked on in horror. He raised an eyebrow at her as he chewed, the sandwich in his mouth making it kinda difficult to breath, but god it felt good to prove a point.
“That’s disgusting,” said Judy.
Keith shrugged, pointing to a door as a gesture for them to leave. Keys, phone, half a sandwich in hand, he slung both he and Yumi’s bags over his shoulder before managing to juggle them and the toddler out the door and after Judy.
Keith was not a reckless driver, at least, not when he had kids in the car, but this morning he received no complaints from Judy when he took a corner too fast, or maybe pushed ahead of a car trying to merge into their cue. When they finally came to a halt at the school drop off zone, there were very few cars still around. Judy grabbed her bag off the seat, threw open her door-
“Oh my god,” she muttered. “I didn’t pack lunch.”
Panic filled Keith for a second, before he remembered he was in fact an adult, with money, that could buy and solve things.
“The cafeterias got food, yeah?” He asked, already digging around for his wallet.
Judy was glaring at the ground, probably angry at herself for forgetting, when in reality Keith should have made lunch for her anyway.
“That’s fifty dollars.”
“I don’t have anything smaller.”
“I’m not taking-“
“Judes, just… I literally don’t care what you buy, okay? Get like every pudding cup or something, sorry for making you late.”
Bribery wasn’t the way to solve things or apologise, they both knew that, but Keith was kinda out of options. Begrudgingly, Judy snatched the note from his hand and slammed the door, hurrying off towards the school buildings before she was any later. Keith sighed, watching her go. He jumped when a car horn blared behind him.
“You can stop! Literally anywhere else!”
Yumi was still verging on comatose when Keith dropped her off at day care; thankfully, because it meant this time she didn’t cry. He did though, prying the clingy toddler off him, feeling ever the more pathetic as he watched her lower her squishy cheek onto Pidge’s shoulder. After briefly explaining to Pidge that she hadn’t eaten much for breakfast, Keith was back in the car, nerves all jittery as he finally pulled out onto the road in silence. Now that he had the headspace to consider it, his stomach kinda hurt, probably cause of how fast he’d eaten that damn sandwich. He was tired, there was a crick in his neck from sleeping in a chair, and he definitely should have put more deodorant on. He let his head thump against the wheel at the first red light, finally giving up on pitying himself in silence and switching on the radio.
They were halfway through the song, so Keith plugged his phone in to charge, waiting for his favourite hosts cheerful voices to hopefully bring him out of his stupor. Sure enough, as the notes wound down, Lance’s chirpy voice came filtering through the speakers. Keith sighed, listening to them rattle through the news, only vaguely interested until-
“And remember, the line opens after this song, so if you’re an aunt or uncle with a story you think deserves to be shared, get dialling, and we’ll be back with you soon.”
The song started, and Keith glanced down at his phone. He’d saved the number he scrawled on his hand yesterday morning, entered it into his phone when he’d been bored at work. He hadn’t thought he’d actually use it but… it was a bad idea. His call wouldn’t go through, and on the off-chance that it did, what was he even going to say? If he didn’t break down crying the moment he got Judy’s name out his mouth, he’d be struck silent by Lance talking directly too him. He wouldn’t get anything out of it, and it wasn’t as if any listeners would either. Keith was the last person they’d wanted sharing his woes on their show and- oh there he was pressing call.
Keith shoved his phone back into its GPS holder, annoyed with himself, but letting it ring on speaker nevertheless. Hunk and Lance were talking in the background, but he barely paid them any mind, too focused on how much of an idiot he was for-
“You’ve reached Radio Voltron, please hold for a moment.”
Keith froze, every muscle in his body tensing. His phone beeped, before falling silent. That was cool, that was okay, he was sure everyone reached that point. Didn’t mean his call had gone through-
“Congratulations, you’re our hundredth caller, we’re patching you through to our hosts now,” said a woman’s cheery voice. “Would you like to give a name, or remain anonymous?”
Keith couldn’t breathe. His hands clutched the steering wheel, glad this was a empty stretch of road, because he just about swerved when she said that.
Oh my god, that was a real person, that was a real person talking.
“A-anonymous,” Keith stuttered.
“Alrighty. Remember you’re talking live, so try not to swear. We maintain the right to terminate your call at anytime.”
And what? What the hell? Was he actually…
“Alright! First caller of the day, welcome onto the show! We have an… anonymous! Welcome anonymous, want to give me a code name or something?”
Keith held his breath, eyes wide and staring at the road because the voice wasn’t just coming through over the radio, it was coming through over his phone. Lance’s voice was coming through over his phone. Lance McClain, the host, on Radio Voltron. Keith felt like crying.
“Hi,” he blurted, because maybe this was some crazy fever dream, but Keith could never ignore a voice like that.
“Hey! Thought we had a dead line there for a second! How’s it going buddy?”
“Uh…” Keith’s mouth felt dry, his heart rate picking up fast. “Good.”
His own voice played back to him on the radio, and Keith quickly turned it down, finding it was easier just to listen over the phone.
“H-how are you?”
Lance chuckled, and the sound was like music to his hears. “I’m good, thanks for asking man. Now do we get a codename or something? Anyway we can make this a little more personal?”
Keith panicked, looking around desperately for a hint. His shirt.
“Red,” he said hastily. “You can call me Red.”
“Red, huh? That’s my favourite colour.”
“Your favourite colour’s blue,” Hunk said, and wow, okay, he was there too, Keith was talking to both of Radio Voltron’s hosts.
“No, everyone thinks my favourite colour’s blue.”
Hunk sighed, but it was clear Lance was staying adamant.
“So anyway, Red! Tell us a little about yourself, how old are you, where are you from?”
“Uh, I’m twenty five,” Keith said, thankful he was getting so many prompts. “I… I was born in Korea, but I’ve lived in Texas mostly.”
“Hear that Hunk? We have a Texan on our hands.”
Keith couldn’t help but laugh slightly at the humorous tone of voice Lance used. He really was a natural at this, getting people to talk.
“Alright Red, let’s cut to the chase why don’t we? I’m guessing you have a niece or nephew you wanna tell us about.”
Oh, right, the whole reason Keith called. He opened his mouth, half hoping the words would just come easily like Lance’s seemed to. Instead, silence.
“Aw, you don’t have to be shy,” Lance said. “No judgement here, if your niece or nephew is a little s-“
“I have two nieces,” Keith said. “They’re, um, they’re nice.”
“Two nice nieces!” Lance exclaimed. “We’re off to a good start. And how old are they?”
“One’s fifteen, and the other’s two,” said Keith, happy to be given prompts again.
It struck him then that there was a smaller age gap between he and Judy than there was Judy and Yumi. Christ. That meant he was only ten when she was born, yet here he was trying to parent her.
“Wanna… tell us about them?” Hunk prompted.
Dammit, Keith was bad at this. He was probably the most boring person they’d ever had on this show.
“It can be anything, like-“
“I didn’t know I had nieces,” Keith blurted.
He froze when he realised he’d cut Hunk off, but when the silence stretched, he supposed he ought to continue.
“Uh, I didn’t know til three weeks ago.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Lance said, being patient with him.
“Yeah I… I didn’t know I had a sister,” said Keith. “Until she died last month.”
His throat was closing up, hands growing tighter and tighter around the wheel.
“And now I… now I’m, um, I-I’m like a single parent to my nieces,” Keith finished.
He took a huge breath to steady himself, waaay to worked up to be on live radio.
“And I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
For a moment, silence, then Lance let out a long whistle.
“Wow, okay that… was not what I was expecting to hear.”
Keith could feel himself starting to breathe faster; why the hell had he shared that with them? Why had he called in the first place? Because you’re desperate and kinda lonely and the world literally feels like its crushing you, a little voice reminded him.
“Hey, hey Red, you okay man?”
Keith realised with horror they could probably hear him on the verge of hyperventilating, and slapped a hand over his mouth as he tried to get himself under control. He’d pulled up on the side of the road without really thinking about it, thank god.
“Listen man,” Lance began calmly, remembering his own composure. “You just stay on the line, and I’m gonna talk it out with you, yeah? Does that sound good?”
Keith nodded, then realised how dumb that was.
“Yeah,” he squeaked.
“That’s it. I want you to know Red, we’re pretty proud of you over here. Taking on responsibility for two kids you didn’t know is an amazing thing, yeah?”
“The oldest hates me,” Keith sniffled. “And I’m screwing up the toddlers life. I keep making them late for school, and I’m not cooking for them properly, I can’t get them to bed on time-“
“Hey, less spiralling, more unravelling. Let’s take it step by step buddy. The eldest hates you? You sure about that?”
Keith wiped at his nose, finally managing to keep his breathing consistent.
“I am. I can’t take proper care of her sister or her, and… and I keep messing things up. She just lost her mom and…”
A deep sigh.
“I can tell she doesn’t want to be here. They had to move from interstate so I could keep my job, s-so she’s at a new school and stuff. I don’t… I don’t know her at all, and I don’t… she’s going through so much and I can’t help her.”
“But you want to, right?”
“Well yeah, of course, but-“
“So you have the right intentions.”
Keith sighed, wiping miserably at his watery eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Having the right intentions doesn’t solve anything,” he said glumly.
Because Keith had met people like that, foster parents with the right intentions. It had never been enough though, had it?
“Look I… I had foster parents like that, who tried and stuff, but it doesn’t… it doesn’t matter if you can’t actually give a kid what they need.”
A pause, and then-
“Hey Red? Let me know if I’m over stepping any boundaries here, but I’m picking up that you had a foster family too?”
Keith sighed, trying to relax his fingers around the wheel. A car zipped past him on the road, and he was definitely going to be late to work, but he didn’t care.
“Yeah,” he said. “I was an orphan.”
“Alright. How old were you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“No, it’s okay. It was always like that.”
Keith paused, rubbing angrily at his eyes.
“I found the family that adopted me when I was thirteen, though.”
“So a similar age to your niece. How’d you feel about them at first, the family that adopted you?”
“Um…” Keith hesitated.
Nowadays, he could talk about the Shirogane’s and how much he loved them for hours on end. Maybe they’d never felt quite like parents, maybe he was too old, but he loved them to the ends of the Earth. And Shiro… Shiro was the best person he’d ever met.
“I didn’t like them,” Keith said honestly. “I didn’t want to be there.”
Lance sighed, and Keith didn’t know if it was pity or relief or something else entirely that was directed towards him.
“I don’t know the whole story,” said Lance. “But so far, you seem like a great guy, Red. And your nieces, they’ve gone through something really tough, something I wish no kid had to go through.”
Keith nodded, still feeling miserable.
“But,” said Lance, and he raised his head. “I can tell you care about them. You’ve got a home for them- wait, you do have a house right? Please tell me you have a place to live?”
Keith laughed shakily. “Yeah, yeah we’ve got an apartment.”
“Oh thank god. Okay, the first few weeks, months maybe, they aren’t going to be easy. Kids are unpredictable man, one day they love you, the next they’re talking about running you over with the wood chipper so… My advice to you is, don’t stress so much about the big picture, at least not yet. A two year old? Hell, that’s like the hardest age! You don’t need to worry about screwing up their lives, you aren’t going to do that, man. One problem at a time, that’s how you handle kids.”
“Ah! No buts! That’s something you have to learn to say by the way, and let me tell you kids do not like hearing it. One problem at a time, man. What were you worried about, getting them to bed on time?”
Keith sighed. “Yeah…”
“Honestly Red, I think at fifteen they kinda gotta figure out bedtime for themselves. You can still make a deal of it, say goodnight, but ultimately, if she wants to stay up until three am, that’s something she figures out by herself. The two year old… yikes. I don’t know how to help you out there man.”
“Your... your audio book actually helped,” Keith said, before he could think any better of it.
Biting his tongue, Keith cringed a little into his seat as he explained.
“That book you narrated. The sci-fi one, I actually played it for her last night, got her to sleep somehow.”
Keith was suddenly very, very glad Lance couldn’t see him. His mood lightened when the announcer laughed, though.
“Oh my god, I almost forgot about that thing! That seriously helped?”
“Yeah,” Keith said, smiling. “Yeah, your voice is like soothing to kids or something.”
Your voice is soothing to me, he avoided saying.
“You should narrate some children’s books, I feel like it would change my life.”
Lance laughed aloud, and Keith could hear he was smiling.
“I’m so doing that! I mean I love reading books to my niece and nephew before they sleep, but I didn’t think it would actually help. Man, we have a deal.”
Keith couldn’t help but laugh a little too; Lance sounded way to happy about such a simple thing.
“One problem solved,” he announced. “I’m gonna narrate some children’s stories.”
“Can Hunk teach me how to cook? Then we’d solve two,” he joked.
Hunk gasped, actually gasped.
“Dude!” He said. “I’m so sharing some of my quick and easy recipes with you. And it’s stuff kids like, I promise.”
Keith laughed. “Seriously?”
“Yeah man! Check our page, everyone check our page actually, I’m gonna have those recipes up there. And Red, they’re gonna change your life.”
Keith was grinning now, still jittery with nerves but feeling like he could breathe easier.
“See? Not everything has to be awful forever Red,” Lance said gently, and Keith felt tears forming for a whole new reason.
“Thanks guys,” he croaked.
“Here to help,” said Lance. “I’m proud of you, Red. And I reckon if anyone can do it, it’s you. One step at a time, and be patient with them. Remember that they… they’re not so different to you, to what you went through.”
Keith nodded shakily, not even realising this time.
“I’m being told we have to move on now,” said Lance. “But Red, you’re gonna be okay.”
“Yeah man, we believe in you!” Hunk chimed in.
“Thanks,” Keith mumbled, suddenly feeling shy thought they still couldn’t seem him. “Uh, seriously guys, thank you.”
“No problem. Give it up for Red everybody!”
Hunk’s cheer of encouragement and Lance’s soft you got this, were the last bit of transmission Keith received before his call terminated. He lunged for the radio, cranking the volume back up in time to catch their post call conversation.
“Yeah I really liked him,” Lance was saying. “I hope it all goes well.”
“Yeah totally. And a reminder to our viewers, we’ll be taking calls again, same time tomorrow, so tune in and give us a ring if you’re interested in sharing your story.”
Keith smiled softly, indicating to pull back onto the road. He definitely felt more under control now.
“Aaand would you look at that,” Lance said. “It is my favourite time of day.”
Hunk groaned, and Keith chuckled softly as the beat of a familiar song started up.
“I could never trust the executives,” said Lance. “So if this happens to be my last day broadcasting to you all…”
“Oh my god, Lance,” Hunk said, as Video Killed the Radio Star kicked in fully.
Lance’s resounding laughter faded into the music, and Keith sped off down the road, well aware that he was very, very late to work.
Keith was in the middle of wrestling a lump of play dough away from Yumi’s mouth when the doorbell rung that evening. He set the toddler in her highchair to temporarily keep her trapped while he went to answer it. Shiro barely had the chance to greet him before Keith yanked his brother into a viciously tight hug. He laughed, patting Keith’s shoulder in a hapless attempt to free himself.
“Tough week?” He asked, when Keith finally pulled back.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” was all Keith said.
Shiro chuckled, stepping in so Keith could greet Adam as well.
“Good to see you!”
Ever the polite one, Adam hugged him tightly before stepping past with bags of ingredients in each hand. Keith shut the door behind them, amused to see Shiro was already chatting to Yumi, trying to win the toddlers trust. Adam and Shiro had met the kids a few times already, but never for very long, so they were still adjusting. On the bright side, it hadn’t given Judy the excuse to hate them yet.
“Hi Judy,” Adam called.
He set the bags down in the kitchen as the teen poked her head around the corner to see what all the fuss was about.
“We’ve come to relieve you of Keith’s awful cooking,” Adam joked, but Keith had to stop himself outwardly cringing.
Judy didn’t say anything, but wandered further into the room, coming to sit at the kitchen table. Shiro, who’d managed to coax Yumi into his arms, turned to her with a smile.
“Hey Judy? How’s school?”
“No!” Adam snapped from the kitchen. “You can’t ask fifteen year olds about school!”
“What? Of course you can!”
“No,” Adam shook his head. “No. You can’t remind them about school when they’re not at school.”
He was joking, and Keith swore he could see a small smile tugging at Judy’s lip. Shiro shook his head, taking a seat across from Judy with Yumi propped on his lap.
“How’re you going kid?” He asked earnestly.
Judy glanced between the two of them, a little shy under all the attention.
“Yeah I’m good,” she said quietly. “I’ve just got homework and stuff.”
“Ugh,” Adam muttered.
He was already unpacking the ingredients they’d brought, since he’d promised to cook dinner to help out.
“Oh yeah, anything I can help with?”
Judy frowned at Shiro’s offer, probably wondering if it was alright to actually ask for help.
“He’s a pilot,” Keith offered. “He’s good at basically every subject if you need help with anything.”
It was true, and he knew Shiro was fine with him extending the offer. His brother was adamant he wanted to help out with the kids.
“I… kinda don’t understand one of my physics questions,” Judy said.
“I love physics!”
“He isn’t joking,” Adam muttered. “Keith, do you have any pots in this kitchen?”
“Oh, sorry,” Keith jumped into action, wading through the boxes to get to Adam, leaving Shiro to help Judy with her homework.
“They’re just… under here.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “I am going to unpack your kitchen. Okay?”
“No arguments. This is a disaster.”
Keith grimaced. “Sorry…”
Adam waved him off.
“Can I help out, maybe cut-“
“No, this is a one man job.”
Adam turned to him, smiling kindly, even if he was gripping that knife kinda tight.
“Relax, Keith, that’s why we’re here. Get off your feet for more than five minutes.”
“But I wanna help-“
“Nope! Takashi, get your brother out of the kitchen, he’s affecting the happy vibes. And he smells.”
Keith paled, subtly trying to sniff himself.
He did. He hadn’t showered in two days.
“Yeah, you kinda do,” Shiro called. “Go shower. We can handle the kids.”
“And the food.”
“Please wash your hair it looks gross.”
“Haha Shiro,” Keith muttered, stepping out of the kitchen.
His brother already looked pretty set, Judy’s homework spread out on the table between them and Yumi propped happily on his knee. Judy looked almost amused as Shiro and Adam waved him away in synchrony, urging him towards the shower. Keith shook his head, but he supposed they were right; the kids were fine, and he really did need a shower. So begrudgingly, Keith left them to it.
It was definitely a good idea, he decided, when he emerged half an hour later feeling like a new person. Clean clothes were a great idea; he should really invest in them more. There was a rich scent wafting down the passage when Keith emerged from his room, making his mouth water. He hadn’t eaten much apart from that stupid sandwich, and whatever Adam was cooking smelt heavenly. The pair had actually managed to make their new apartment look somewhat cosy, with Adam stirring something on the stove and Shiro seated on the couch with Judy while Yumi played at his feet. Keith took a deep breath, feeling a lot calmer than he had that morning.
“He even washed his hair,” Adam said, smirking.
Keith scoffed, about to flip him off before remembering there were children present.
“What’re you making?” He asked. “It smells so good.”
Adam looked pleased with himself, as Keith leant forward to investigate the stew of ingredients simmering away in the pot.
“I’ve got something plainer for Yumi,” he assured. “But we can’t all eat plain pasta.”
Keith grimaced. So the pasta story had come out. Adam smiled.
“It’ll get easier,” he said. “Promise.”
“Hey Keith!” Shiro called. “I have a job for you.”
Keith turned expectantly, happy to finally be able to help out. Shiro was grinning, which meant trouble. His brother pointed down, to Yumi, and the pens and paper spread out around her.
“Yumi needs a muse.”
Keith rolled his eyes in amusement, making his way over and taking a seat on the carpet by Yumi. She perked up a bit seeing him, but was mostly occupied by her drawings. Shiro and Judy were deeply engrossed in the latters homework, so Keith grabbed some paper and a pen for himself, and joined Yumi drawing. Admittedly, it was fun, and a good way to unwind for just a little. Yumi seemed to be having the time of her life, and though he had no idea what she was drawing, he grinned every time she held up a picture to him. Relaxing against the edge of the armchair, Keith sketched mindlessly, listening to Adam humming in the kitchen or to Shiro and Judy talking through a problem. When Yumi got tired of drawing, she came and curled up in his lap, cuddling up to him and watching Keith draw.
Eventually Shiro was called away to set the table, and Judy sunk to the floor by Keith and her sister, plucking up a piece of paper for herself.
“Finished your homework?”
It was a little less of an aggressive yeah than usual, which Keith counted as a blessing.
“What did you draw?” She asked.
Shuffling Yumi off his arm, Keith held out his drawing to her. Judy took it gingerly, surprise written across her face.
“It’s a lion,” she said. “It’s really good.”
Keith smiled, just happy to see her actually impressed with something he’d done.
“Arts major finally paid off. Thought the one on your door looked lonely.”
Judy’s head shot up, hands still clutching the lion drawing. He’d been right then, going off the singular lion poster stuck to her door; she did like them.
“Keep it if you want,” Keith said, trying to play it off causally. “Else throw it away, ‘s all good.”
Judy stared at the picture for a little longer, her expression unreadable.
“Okay,” she said. “Thanks.”
Keith smiled stiffly, unsure what to do now that they weren’t arguing. Thankfully a knock on the door saved him.
A cheery voice rung through the apartment as Shiro opened the door, and Allura came spilling in with about a million bags looped over her arms. She dropped them upon seeing him, sheer delight on her face as she grabbed Shiro and half tackled him into a hug.
“I haven’t see you in ages,” she exclaimed, in that posh accent Keith loved. “Where have you been hiding?”
“Anywhere you can’t find me,” Shiro wheezed, trying to escape the arm around his neck.
Allura laughed, releasing him so she could go and greet Adam, before turning her attention to Keith. Her smile was much kinder now, and Keith welcomed the hug, happy to be engulfed by the smell of her sweet perfume.
“How are you doing?” She asked earnestly.
“Good,” Keith said, because currently, he was. “Thanks for coming.”
Allura’s smile grey wider, and her voice louder. “It’s my pleasure. Now do I finally get to meet them?”
Keith chuckled, stepping aside to reveal Judy lingering a few feet back, shy and cautious. Allura gasped, forgetting all about Keith as her eyes landed on the girl.
“Oh, you must be Judy!”
Judy nodded slowly and Allura was rushing forward, stopping just short of the girl, practically buzzing with excitement.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you, I’ve heard great things.”
Keith doubted she’d be hearing great things in return, but he was happy to see Judy introduce herself, and ask Allura’s name.
“Yes, it’s Allura. I work with your uncle.”
“It’s… nice to meet you,” Judy said.
It was strange. With Keith, she’d become so hostile. From day one she wanted nothing to do with him, yet with strangers, she was always so polite, cautious even, never wanting to offend them. Keith sighed, and wondered what he was doing wrong. Could it be because he was the replacement? The fill-in she’d never wanted, who was trying to replace her mother? Only time would tell he supposed.
“Allura why the hell do you have so many bags?” Shiro called, helping Adam lump them onto the kitchen counter.
“Because I brought dessert, and-“ Allura gasped, her eyes settling on the toddler in Adam’s arms. “Oh my heavens, is that the other one?”
Yumi looked just as shocked to see Allura as Allura did Yumi. They stared at each other from across the room, the toddler’s eyes so wide and startled Keith nearly laughed.
“Come say hi,” Adam offered cheerily, bouncing Yumi on his hip.
Allura smiled, but it was more of a grimace. “Hi. Oh she is so cute.”
“C’mon,” Shiro teased. “Come hold her.”
With a huff, Allura crossed the room, wiping her suddenly sweaty palms on the white jeans she wore. She smiled tensely at the toddler, who gaped back at her. Yumi’s eyes flickered to Keith, as if to ask him who this new person was. He resisted laughing aloud as Allura awkwardly took the child from Adam.
“Oh, you’re so sweet,” Allura cooed, somewhat enchanted by the baby but still terribly uncertain.
Yumi squirmed a little in her arms, too hesitant to grab Allura’s shirt. Allura attempted another smile, and the toddler shrunk back, whining softly. She spotted Keith over Allura’s shoulder and reached for him, starting to cry.
“Oh dear, oh no,” Allura said, attempting to calm her but failing. “Oh, she doesn’t like me.”
Keith did laugh now, moving forward to take the fussy toddler from her arms. She settled immediately, wrapping chubby arms around Keith’s neck and half strangling him as if it were his fault for leaving her at Allura’s mercy.
“She probably hates your perfume,” he said, grinning.
“Yeah, that and the fact you suck at holding babies,” Shiro snickered.
“No matter,” Allura announced, straightening out her shirt. “Judy would you like to help me unpack? I have some things for you.”
Judy moved forward curiously, joining Allura before the array of bags. Keith shook his head as she began offloading the dessert she’d brought, Judy’s eyes going wide.
“Yes, but you just get an apple Keith.” Allura looked at him and grinned. “Kidding, I have like three other things without lactose.”
Keith shook his head, amused, paying attention to Yumi instead. She still looked a little put off, betrayed even, that he’d let Allura hold her in all her perfume-y glory.
“Hi,” he said.
Yumi beamed. God he loved toddlers sometimes.
“Wow this smells so good,” Shiro said, and Keith spotted him inching closer to the various pots and pans sizzling away on the stove.
Adam screeched, actually screeched, throwing himself over his cooking and hissing at Shiro.
“No! You stay back! If you come within three feet of this food it will be ruined, you’re just that bad.”
“C’mon babe,” Shiro teased, laughing.
“No- let me go!”
Keith laughed as Shiro descended on his fiancé, drawing another shriek from him. Allura just shook her head, returning to the conversation she was having with Judy. The teen at least seemed pleasantly amused.
“No! Shoo! Go finish setting the table,” Adam scolded, finally shrugging Shiro off. “It’s nearly ready, we need plates.”
Shiro surrendered, grabbing what else was needed for the table as Adam finished up their meal. Keith saw Allura handing over a few bags to Judy with a smile, and he inched closer.
“Whatcha guys doing?”
“I brought presents,” Allura announced.
Keith frowned. “But it’s-“
“Ah! Don’t suck the fun out of it. This is my first day meeting Judy. Do I not take you out for lunch every year on the anniversary of the day we became friends?”
A sigh. “You do.”
“Exactly. And by the way this is for Yumi. Coran had some second hand children’s books, and I maybe saw a bear she’d like.”
“I think Allura’s trying to win you over with her money,” Keith whispered to the toddler in his arms, ignoring Allura’s indignant gasp.
“Keith Kogane! You’re such a rude man.”
“The rudest,” Shiro called. “I don’t know what you’re saying but I agree.”
Keith turned to him to mock offence, while Allura handed Judy two full bags.
“Why don’t you go put those in your room, I think dinners nearly ready.”
Judy accepted the bags with a small thanks, and excused herself. Keith frowned, curious.
“What did you…”
“I already bought her pads-“
“Enough for six months I’ve been told,” Allura said with a chuckle.
“Hey, there’s no harm in being prepared!”
“You didn’t know how many she’d need.”
Keith sighed. “I… didn’t know how many she’d need.”
Allura shook her head with a smile.
“You are certainly trying. Come, I think foods ready.”
Food consisted of two sorts of curries, a steaming bowl of rice, and some small dishes Adam had made ‘just for fun’. It was far too much food, but Keith wasn’t complaining, especially once he started eating. This was better than anything he’d fed the kids ever, and when he actually tried, he did know how to cook. He kept having to stop to help Yumi eat, the toddler seated obediently in her high chair, shoving plainer rice and vegetables into her mouth. It was the first dinner he’d actually enjoyed since taking on the kids, and not just because the food was good. Judy had a semblance of a smile on her face as she ate, listening to Shiro and Adam bicker playfully and Allura entertain them all. Judy seemed quite taken with her, and Keith couldn’t be more thankful. Allura would be a good person to have in Judy’s life.
“I am absolutely not doing to date him. Why would you think that!”
“I’m just saying,” Shiro said, placating Allura’s scandalized expression. “You did date that one guy in high school just to destroy his chance at running for class president.”
“Brought him down from the inside,” said Keith. “I remember the story.”
“That- that’s not the same as dating Lotor.”
“It’s not,” Keith agreed. “Please don’t date him Allura. We’ll find another way to destroy his empire.”
“Who’s Lotor?” Judy asked.
“Our boss,” said Keith, and groaned.
“He’s such a turd,” Allura said dismissively. “A total-“
Keith froze in his seat, following Allura’s horrified gaze across to the toddler seated at the head. Keith looked quickly between Allura and the child, eyes growing wide.
“Did she just-“
“Turd,” Yumi said happily.
“Allura!” Keith yelled, a second before Shiro burst into untamed laughter.
He whipped to face Yumi, eyeing the toddler sternly.
“No,” said Keith.
He raised a finger, placing it over his lips. “Yumi, no.”
“She did not say that,” Adam was saying. “Was that… was that her first word?”
“Surely not-“ Allura began.
“Yes!” Keith yelled. “Yes it was! Thank you, Allura.”
“Pretty sure her first word was Dee,” Judy offered. “Like, my name.”
“But this was the first proper word! That wasn’t a name!”
“I thought she said bird,” Adam said.
“Turd,” said Yumi, shutting him up.
Keith buried his head in his hands, groaning, before looking up to glare at Allura.
“You,” he said. “I say please a thousand times, but one t… t! And she repeats it?”
Shiro was wiping tears from his eyes at this stage.
“Oh my god Keith,” he said. “You look like an angry mama bear right now.”
“Literally, your hair looks puffed up,” said Adam.
Keith glowered at them, gritting his teeth.
“My nieces first word,” he bit out, “is turd.”
“Turd!” Yumi yelled.
“Where’s the baby book, I need to write this in.”
Keith groaned, hiding his face.
“This is not happening,” he mumbled.
“I am so sorry,” Allura said, but she was drowned out by Shiro’s laughter.
Keith felt like dissolving into the floor. Since Yumi was already a late speaker, he was half thinking she’d be one of those kids to suddenly start sprouting full sentences. Apparently not.
“Takashi stop,” Adam insisted, though he was grinning too.
Keith was going to have serious words with his brother. Then again, peeking at Judy from between his fingers and seeing her smile, Keith wondered if maybe this wasn’t the worst thing to happen.
Dinner finished, as did dessert, and now, much later, Keith found himself out on the balcony with his brother, Yumi asleep against this chest. Inside, there were shrieks of laughter as Adam, Allura and Judy all battled around a board game set down in the living room. Keith let the sound wash over him through the walls, sitting on the cold concrete, his back against the railing. It was dark out now, and below, headlights and streetlamps lit their city block, a siren wailing somewhere in the distance. Yumi had her cheek smushed against his shoulder, her chest rising and falling slowly as she dozed. Keith sighed, appreciating the peace, glad for his brother’s presence just a few feet from him.
“Got a date for my wedding yet?”
Shiro, who moments ago had been staring thoughtfully at the dark cityscape, turned to Keith with a questioning look in his eye. Keith scoffed lightly.
“I’ll get a date to your wedding when you set a date for your wedding.”
His brother smiled. “Why do I not believe you?”
“Allura and I will probably go together anyway.”
“Oh?” Shiro smirked. “I thought she was gonna bring that girl from the pet shop.”
Keith’s head whipped around. “What girl from the pet shop?”
Shiro shrugged, suddenly the picture of innocence. “I don’t know Keith. Only maybe your go to date won’t always be available, you know?”
“Okay firstly, we’re each others go to date. Also, your wedding isn’t for months.”
“Whatever you say…”
Keith shook his head. Why did he need a date for Shiro’s wedding anyway? He was going to be best man, he’d be preoccupied, especially with Yumi and Judy there.
“You doing alright?”
Keith glanced up, meeting Shiro’s earnest gaze.
Shiro hesitated, his expression unreadable.
“I know your struggling with the kids.”
Keith went still, his hands covering Yumi’s back protectively.
“Uh, I mean, I’m managing.”
Shiro looked at him sadly. “It’s okay, Keith. You’re allowed to feel uncertain.”
Keith looked away, watching a pedestrian hurry past on the dark street below.
“You know, if you need more help, we…” A pause, followed by a long sigh. “Adam and I would be happy to take on the kids for a while-“
Shiro’s mouth snapped shut, something so final in Keith’s tone. The youngest cleared his throat, shuffling Yumi so he could wrap the corner of his jacket around her.
“No, thank you Shiro, but… I’m not… I know you could, you’d take good care of them. But I don’t want to just… pass them off. I want to do the best thing possible for them, but I want to do it. They aren’t the problem; it isn’t them who needs to change. That’s… that’s what it felt like, sometimes, when I was in the system. They expected me to change, all those foster parents, like I was the problem. But it’s not the kids, it never is, it’s… me who has to change, and… get better at this, And I want to, Shiro, I want to. I want them, and I want what’s best for them, but I won’t… I’m not letting them circle around like I did. If… if this is what my sister chose, then this is what it’s going to be. And I’ll get better, okay? I can get better.”
Keith met his brother’s eye, pleading, almost, for confirmation, for hope, that he could do this. Shiro was watching him curiously, arms folded over his knees.
“You don’t need to prove anything, Keith.”
“I know, I know, and I promise I want this. I want them, I love them Shiro, so much. They don’t need to love me, but I want to give them the life they deserve, I… okay?”
“Everyone needs people to love them,” Shiro said, softly.
Then he smiled, and it was kind in a way Keith knew.
“But I know you can do it, Keith. Maybe the best way to help you all is to be someone they can love.”
By the time the evening was well and truly over, and everyone was filtering out the door, Keith was feeling pretty tired himself. He’d managed to lay Yumi down in her cot without a peep, before returning successfully to the others to bid them goodnight.
“Now remember,” Adam was saying. “Two containers in the freezer for later, and one in the fridge for lunch tomorrow. Nobody’s going hungry!”
Keith chuckled, thanking him again, before Shiro and he were moving out the door.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Allura said, swooping in to give him and Judy a hug, almost reluctant to go.
Keith sighed once they were finally out the door, plonking down on a kitchen stool, surprised to find the apartment in a much tidier state since before they’d arrived. Between Adam cleaning the kitchen, Shiro unloading boxes in the living room, and Allura adding a colourful bouquet of flowers to a vase on the table, it was beginning to look something like a home.
“So why haven’t you married Allura yet?”
Keith jumped, forgetting Judy was still in the room. She stood across the room from him, arms folded, yet the question wasn’t aggressive; if anything, it was just curious.
“Um…” Keith looked down, fiddling with the hem of his shirt. “Good question. I… I’m gay.”
He glanced up, a little afraid of what her reaction might be.
“Oh,” said Judy. “I guess that’s a good enough excuse.”
Keith cracked a smile. “Yeah, else I’d have no reason not too.”
It wasn’t exactly a smile he received in return, but it was soft, whatever it was. Judy rocked awkwardly on her toes for a moment, before speaking up again.
“I’m going to bed,” she announced.
“Okay. Sleep well.”
Keith would probably sleep soon too, but this chair was comfy, so he let his feet dangle as he waved off Judy.
“By the way,” she said. “Set your alarm.”
Keith sighed sheepishly, fishing his phone out as the teenager disappeared down the passage and setting it immediately. Tomorrow would be better, he promised himself.
With both kids in bed, Keith took another shower, partially to make up for all the ones he’d missed, partially because Yumi had drooled all over him gain. When he settled into bed, he pulled up Radio Voltron’s website on his phone, eager to do one last thing before sleeping. There were a couple of new posts on Lance and Hunk’s blog spot, and Keith smiled at the two at the top.
Hunk’s Quick n’ Easy Recipes, was the first title to pop up, and Keith scrolled briefly through the ones he’d posted. They looked pretty good actually, and doable. He liked the post, wishing he could do more to thank Hunk. Moving onto Lance’s post, Keith went from amused, to shocked. When Lance said he’d narrate some children’s stories, Keith expected maybe one or two a month from now. Instead, ten recording links were listed in the post, storybooks of five to ten minutes each.
For my buddy Red, the post began. These are a couple of my niece’s favourite bedtime stories, so many it will help your tiny terror sleep as well. We’re rooting for you!
Keith was smiling wildly, gripping the phone as he shook his head. He couldn’t believe Lance had actually done that, and so soon. He didn’t even need them tonight, not with Yumi already asleep, but Keith plugged his earphones in anyway. He selected one, a book he didn’t recognise. He didn’t even care what it was about, or that it was intended for children, because the second he heard Lance’s voice coming through his earphones, Keith relaxed. He must have just recorded himself reading on his phone, then posted it to their site. Keith was brimming with happiness, shutting his eyes and curling up in bed. It was about the space, this story. He was asleep before Lance could even finish describing the stars.
Chapter 3: our last summer
Keith attempts to do family things, and an unexpected encounter occurs
Thank you so much for reading this <3
gonna start naming chapters after cheesy songs so I can force my music taste onto people
Come Wednesday morning, Keith felt ready to take on the goddam world. His alarm went off half an hour earlier than strictly necessary, so he was out of bed, showered, and in the kitchen before he even had to consider waking Judy up. He pulled up Hunk’s recipes on his phone, finding the lot labelled breakfast and picking out an easy omelette one. Hunk should seriously write his own cookbook or something, Keith thought, as he pulled out the ingredients for that as well as what he’d need for the kids lunches.
Feeling somewhat happier with what he was feeding them today, Keith set down the pan filled with steaming eggs and went to wake Yumi. He knocked on Judy’s door on the way, fist freezing when he saw the lion he’d drawn was stuck up with tape beside the existing poster. Something went through Keith then, like shock and relief all the same, a small, warm feeling that unfurled in his chest.
“Judy, wake up time,” he called, moving off quickly before she could open the door and see how much he was smiling.
Yumi was either up at five, or midday, and there was no in-between. She grumbled when Keith came to lift her from her cot, curling around him and going back to sleep on his shoulder as he carried her to the kitchen. In all honesty, this was one of Keith’s favourite times with her. No screaming, no crying, no pulling on his hair either; Yumi was just a small, soft bundle in the mornings. Were there cutest children competitions? Like they had for cats and horses? Because Keith would win.
As tempting as it was to curl up on the couch with Yumi and go back to sleep, Keith was determined they wouldn’t be late today. He was spoon-feeding Yumi bits of egg when Judy came into the kitchen.
“Hey,” Keith said, retrieving the pan from the stove. “Omelette?”
He asked, but it wasn’t really a question, because for the first time he’d succeeded in being organised, and making breakfast on time, and they weren’t going to be late, and maybe Judy wouldn’t actually hate him after today-
“It’s international vegan day,” Judy announced. “So I’m experimenting with veganism.”
Keith stopped, ham and cheese omelette still steaming in the pan.
“Oh,” he said.
“It’s just for today though.”
“Okay,” said Keith.
Judy looked at him, and frowned.
“Keith?” She asked. “Are you crying?”
Yumi was none to pleased about being left at the day-care again; Keith wished he could explain it to her, outline exactly why bringing a two year old in with him to work just wasn’t doable. But he couldn’t, so he was scolded again by Pidge for getting too emotional about leaving his toddler, ordered back to his car so Yumi could get on with enjoying her day.
Back on the road, his only solace was the radio, drawing him out of his misery as Lance and Hunk welcomed them to the day. It was almost better now, now that he knew what Lance sounded like speaking directly to him, how kind they both really were.
“We’ve got a new single from the Blades of Marmora now,” Hunk announced, “but right after we’ll be taking your calls. We’re still on the topic of nieces and nephews, so aunts and uncles, give us a call, that’s-“
Keith glanced at his phone balanced on the GPS stand. It was tempting, even though it wouldn’t amount to anything. It would bug him if he didn’t though, so as the car came to rest at a stoplight, Keith opened up his call list and selected Voltron Radio. It was impossible for his call to be selected twice, but maybe the feeling of trying would be enough. He hummed as the phone rung out without answer, until-
“You’ve reached Radio Voltron, please hold for a moment.”
His lip quirked, remembering that yesterday this had actually led to-
“Congratulations! You’re our hundredth caller, we’re patching you through to our hosts now.”
Every muscle in Keith’s body tensed. What. Despite the fact the that the chance of being the hundredth caller two days in a row was near impossible, shouldn’t the radio have measures against this?
“Would you like to give a name, or remain anonymous?”
Oh my god, oh my god. Was this illegal? Should he just reveal who he was now to avoid confusion on the radio?
“Anonymous, please,” Keith said croakily.
“Thank you. Remember this is a live recording, if you swear we maintain the right to terminate your call at anytime.”
“Okay,” Keith said.
He felt like a criminal. Keith wondered if they’d be angry, if he should try and disguise his identity. That would involve lying though, and he sucked at lying. It was bad enough talking about his own life, trying to invent a new story on the spot… oh god, oh god Lance was going to answer, what was he even going to say? Keith thumped his head against the wheel, listening to his phone ring. His heart skipped a beat when the ringing stopped and a voice picked up.
“Hey, hey, first caller of the day! Who do we have on the line this morning?”
Keith bit his tongue, already affected by Lance’s cheery voice. He should lie; he didn’t want to ruin Lance’s day. He should definitely, definitely, tell a lie.
“Uh, hi,” he said. “It… it’s Red.”
For a moment, there was silence.
“Red, like… Red from yesterday?”
Keith wasn’t sure what Lance’s voice was doing; was he angry?
“Y-yeah.” Keith sighed deeply, fingers tapping anxiously against the wheel. “Hey guys.”
Oh god, they were going to disconnect him now, weren’t they? They were going to be angry, and he’d be banned from the radio. He’d probably be too ashamed to visit in the future, maybe he’d become the latest joke-
“Is it really you? No way!”
Keith blinked, stunned. Lance sounded… happy?
“It’s Red!” He exclaimed. “Oh my god, how… how did that happen?”
He was laughing, despite the fact that Keith could hear Hunk discussing something urgently with someone in the background.
“What?” Lance asked suddenly, not directed towards Keith. “W… no, don’t disconnect him! What the hell, man, let him stay on the line.”
“I’m sorry,” Keith blurted. “I s-shouldn’t have called, it was kinda just for fun, I… I didn’t think it would connect again, I can go-“
“Woah, hey, everyone slow down a minute, yeah?” Lance said, and Keith could almost imagine him trying to placate a room full of angry studio members. “No ones hanging up, no ones terminating the call, I wanna talk to Red, alright?”
There was a tense moment of silence, before something was mumbled very softly on the radio side, just audible through the microphones.
“He’s my buddy,” Lance assured, trying to get them back on track. “I wanna hear about the nieces.”
Keith wasn’t exactly sure what was happening over there, only a second later there was muffled laughter, before Hunk’s microphone was back on and he was welcoming Keith to the show.
“It’s good to have you back, Red. Looks like our system went a bit wack, recognised your number from yesterday and random selections became, uh, less random.”
Lance chuckled beside him. “You do well in lotto’s, Red?”
“No,” Keith breathed, still full of nerves. “I haven’t even won back my two bucks on a scratchie.”
“Clearly you were saving all your luck for this!” Lance announced happily, and Keith couldn’t help but agree.
He’d never been lucky, ever; was this meant to be worth the wait?
“So how you been, Red? I missed your voice.”
Keith frowned, surprised they even remembered him.
“Y-you did?” He blurted, then cursed himself over how desperate it sounded.
“Yeah man, you have a great voice.”
Hunk burst into laughter over the mics, but Keith couldn’t understand what was so funny. Neither, apparently, could Lance.
“What?” He demanded. “He has an awesome voice! You agreed with me yesterday.”
“I think we’re getting off topic here,” Hunk said with a dwindling chuckle. “Red, tell us what’s been going on.”
Keith swallowed his anxiety, comforted by the fact that they seemingly did want him there.
“Uh…” He began. “I… well, thanks guys. Thanks for the recipes, and… and Lance thank you for the book recordings, I didn’t actually think… anyway, I didn’t think I’d get to thank you in person but, um, things happen, I guess.”
“All good man! Did they actually help?” Lance asked hopefully.
“Yeah,” Keith said, “I was asleep so fast- I mean, Y-Yumi, I- fuck- no, uh, my toddler-“
Keith was cut off by how hard Lance was laughing. He tensed up around the wheel again, waiting for them to terminate his call or something.
“Whoa, oh man, that was… a lot of words, and swearing, first thing in the morning.”
“I am so sorry,” Keith whispered, hating himself, but Lance just kept laughing.
“Don’t sweat it Red, I swear all the time. You wanna try that sentence again? I assume Yumi’s your niece.”
Keith sighed. “Yeah… yeah, my toddler’s Yumi. I wasn’t gonna say that on radio, but…”
“Don’t worry, I’d say you’re still pretty anonymous. Besides, Yumi’s a sweet name.”
Keith cracked a small smile. “Yeah. She’s a sweet kid. And your recordings helped, by the way, putting her to sleep.”
At least they would help, tonight, when it was Yumi listening to them instead of Keith.
“That’s amazing man,” Lance exclaimed. “I can’t believe it!”
“I can,” said Hunk. “Lance, you’re awesome with kids.”
Keith smiled at that, letting himself imagine, for the briefest second, what kind of father Lance would be. He wiped that thought away very, very quickly.
“So are you saying today was better?” Lance inquired.
Keith nearly laughed aloud at the question, that morning’s familiar irritation and disappointment bubbling up in his chest.
“I wish,” he said, ready to complain. “I aced it last night, thanks to my brother helping out. Like seriously, they got cooked dinner, got to bed on time, I cannot believe how well it went.”
“Yeah! Then this morning I woke up extra early, made them breakfast, was so ready to start the day and you know what happened?”
“What?” Lance asked eagerly, as Hunk mumbled a little string of oh no oh no oh no in the background.
“My teenager decided to try out veganism,” Keith said, slapping his hands down on the wheel.
“She’s becoming vegan?”
“No! Only today! Only today, the day I decide to make ham and cheese omelettes.”
Keith sighed, but was drowned out by Lance’s raucous laughter over the line.
“It’s like the second you think you know what you’re doing, they decide to change their mind. I was so sure I had it under control, but no.”
Lance was still giggling, but had calmed down enough to give him an answer.
“Welcome to life with kids, Red. Indecision is their specialty. They can change their mind a hundred times before breakfast, and you just gotta roll with it. It’s how they learn.”
“It’s exhausting,” said Keith.
“We’re getting like… a million tweets from parents who agree,” said Hunk.
Keith didn’t know what to think of that, that his experience was universal.
“Just saying, the parenting book I read did not cover this.”
“Those books are useless,” said Lance. “All kids are different. Yours are gonna have their own quirks and their own personalities and things that make them amazing, y’know?”
Keith paused, thinking on that.
“Yeah it’s… cool, I guess. Like Yumi she… I like seeing what she draws, and stuff. Kids are fun when they’re not…”
“Giving you hell?”
“Yeah. Exactly, yeah.”
Keith smiled a little; there was something so comforting, so reassuring, talking to Lance.
“Why don’t you tell us some of the good stuff? Help you get back on track?”
“The good stuff?” Keith echoed, confused.
“Yeah, like… like what do you enjoy about having kids?”
Keith paused, but it wasn’t for lack of reason. There were countless reasons he loved having kids, the question felt too vast, soft and personal in a way he didn’t really understand. It shouldn’t have been, parents were supposed to love gushing about their kids… was it because Keith had doubts he could really be called their parent?
“Sorry, I… I’m not hesitating cause I don’t have reasons, it’s just… they were more than I expected. In a good way. Like… I expected to love them, but it’s different to what you think.”
Lance hummed, eager to hear more, but not wanting to press.
“I think I always wanted kids,” Keith admitted. “A lot. And I pictured it as this… this really wonderful thing. Like a goddam storybook, like somehow I’d meet the perfect guy and we’d go and adopt some kids and… and it was perfect, but now that I have them it’s more. It’s not the perfect I expected but it’s bigger, and the love I have for them isn’t something I… I really thought about.”
He paused, the silence ringing in his ears.
“Sorry,” he said quickly. “That was dumb.”
“No!” Lance blurted. “No, that wasn’t dumb at all Red, that was… I don’t think we expected that, is all.”
Keith felt himself turn red, even though no one could see him. It was absurd, he had no reason to feel so comfortable sharing all this on radio and yet… yet Lance just made it easy.
“Still,” he mumbled. “Sorry.”
“Dude, I never wanna hear you apologise for literally the most heartfelt thing I’ve heard in my life. Jeez, Red, you really care about them, huh?”
Keith felt a little relief creep in. “Yeah. Yeah they’re… they mean a lot.”
Lance seemed on the verge of wanting to say more, but Hunk cut in reluctantly.
“Hate to break up the chat,” he said, “but I’m being told we have to move on. But Red, it was great to hear from you again.”
“Yeah, you guys too,” Keith said hastily. “Thanks for not… uh, kicking me off the show.”
“Are you kidding?” Lance blurted. “Dude, you made my day rocking up here twice.”
Keith couldn’t help the smile that lit up his face.
“Thanks,” he mumbled. “It… it’s helping, talking to you guys.”
“Well once again Red, good luck.”
“Yeah! Tell your nieces I say hi,” Lance added excitably. “Sounds like they have the coolest uncle in the world.”
Keith laughed. “I don’t know about the coolest.”
“The most dedicated then,” Hunk said kindly.
“The one with the coolest voice!” Lance yelled, aware their call was about to be cut short.
Keith opened his mouth to thank them, trying to find some appropriate parting words, but the call went dead. On the radio, he could hear Lance and Hunk shouting final farewells, before they were forced to delve into the next section of their show. Keith sat back with a faint smile gracing his lips. It felt bittersweet; he was overwhelming happy he’d gotten to speak to them again, couldn’t believe his luck, but now there was a tinge of sadness knowing it was the last time. Oh well, not that it was ever going to last. He enjoyed the end of their segment regardless, smiling when Lance’s song came on, feeling calmer, finally, as he pulled in to work.
On Thursday, Keith didn’t call the radio. He doubted it would have gone through, since they would have fixed up the error, but he felt too wary anyway. There was already guilt over taking up two of their slots, so he sat back and listened to another caller chat away about her nephew, and tried not to feel too bitter when Lance laughed at her jokes.
On Friday, Yumi threw up all over his shirt in the car. They were late, and Judy ignored him the entirety of the drive, and Keith hoped none of the parents were staring at him shirtless in the drop off zone, because there was only so much mortification he could take. Despite Pidge’s sympathetic look as he handed over his crying toddler, and the too-small shirt she gave him to borrow, Keith’s mood did not improve. He sat in the traffic on route to his office, his fingers itching to go for his phone as Hunk announced they’d be taking the last guest callers for their niece and nephew stories. He wanted so badly to reach out to them again, to have Lance laugh the morning off with him, and leave feeling somewhat comforted.
But he didn’t. Keith glared at the taillights of the car in front of him, white knuckling the wheel as the presenter talked some other uncle through his troublesome niece and nephew on the radio. Keith ended up at work in a shawl belonging to Allura, still in a bad mood and still smelling faintly, wondering if he’d called, and managed to get through, Lance could have brightened his morning.
By the time the sun filtered in on Saturday, Keith was already awake. Usually he’d jump at the opportunity to sleep in, but he had a plan, and he was keeping to it. He needed to keep to something, after all. Yumi continued to doze as he loaded her into the car seat, the city just beginning to wake around them as he and Judy clambered into the car. Then they were off.
They hit the freeway before most other cars, not that there’d be that much congestion on a Saturday anyway. Keith followed the signs out the city, heading towards the country, towards where he used to live. Yumi was completely quiet, dead asleep, but Judy watched it all pass curiously.
“Where are we going?”
She had earphones in, but must have turned her music down.
“It’s a surprise,” Keith answered.
At least, he hoped it would be. Hoped it was a good one. They pulled into a roadside bakery in a small town, just as eight am rolled by.
“Are we here?”
“No, I just need to grab something. Stay in the car?”
“Leaving children in hot cars in against the law.”
Keith looked at the small smirk on Judy’s face and frowned.
“Haha. I’m leaving the keys with you.”
He returned not three minutes later, and they were back on the road. Yumi woke when they pulled off onto the dirt track, coming to slowly before insisting Judy pay her attention. Keith found it peaceful, driving through the countryside, now that the buildings had given way to sparse covered hills and patches of forest. The farm didn’t look like much as they approached it, but Keith knew from experience it was nice. Judy frowned as they pulled up in the small parking lot, only ten or so other vehicles there.
“We’re… at a flower farm,” she said, hesitantly.
Keith smiled stiffly, unsure yet whether she was happy or not. He elected to get Yumi out the car, sure the toddler was eager to be free of her car seat. Judy climbed out very slowly after him, adjusting the wide brimmed hat she had on as she gazed at the wooden sign welcoming them to the farm, the sizable cottage, and the vast expanse of roses in the field beyond.
“Why?” She asked.
Keith paused, shouldering the backpack he’d brought and setting Yumi down on the ground.
“It, uh, seemed like a nice place to take you guys. On a Saturday.”
Judy stared and stared at him. Keith began to itch under her gaze, face a perfect slate, so he couldn’t tell if she were happy or angry or disappointed, or… or whatever it was Judy mostly felt about him. It certainly seemed like a nice day to go to a flower farm. It was clear, warm, but not too humid. He couldn’t see a cloud in the sky; it was just them, and the quiet hum of the country, and the sweet scent rolling off the hills from the flowers.
“Dee! Dee dee!”
Keith was saved from scrutiny as Yumi toddled her way over to her sister, latching onto the teens skirt and tugging insistently on the fabric. Seemingly remembering herself, Judy took hold of her sister’s hand and led her slowly after Keith. The woman manning the counter was friendly, but didn’t speak much as she handed Keith a bucket and clippers, gazing fondly at Yumi for a moment before returning to her magazine. He thanked her, leading the girls out into the fields beyond. There were a few little tables scattered about outside, and beyond that, simply fields. A person or two milled about far off, but mostly the day was quiet.
“So… what now?” Judy asked.
She still seemed confused.
“We’re just gonna explore,” Keith answered honestly.
There wasn’t any way to hype it up, in his mind it had simply been an idea to… what? Bring them peace?
“We can pick flowers,” he said. “I brought lunch. If you want to just…”
Yumi released her sister’s hand in favour of walking off clumsily towards the first line of flowers. With another hopeful look in Judy’s direction, Keith began to follow, trailing after the little girl as she wandered off to see the fields.
They didn’t really talk, but Keith didn’t mind that now. He kept an eye on Yumi, following her on her way through the rows of roses, carefully teaching her not to grab at the thorns. Sometimes Judy strolled alongside them, other times she wandered off a little. Never too far; Keith could look across a few rows and find her smelling an array of yellow roses. She didn’t seem to mind, either, when he brought out a camera to capture them exploring the vast fields. It seemed right, to be making memories of their own. Maybe one day Judy wouldn’t resent him, and he could show her pictures of her and her sister, lost in a maze of flowers, and she’d smile. Maybe one day it would make her happy.
When the sun was highest in the sky, Keith found them a shaded patch under the trees near the stream, laid out a picnic blanket, and attempted to feed Yumi lunch. It was quiet here, just the slow flowing water of the stream and the faint buzz of insects in the tree. Judy still didn’t say much, accepted the food without a word, and stared out at the fields below. Once Yumi became occupied playing with her bear, Keith pulled out the little sketchbook he’d brought, settling back against the tree to draw. He hadn’t had a chance to draw much recently, not with all that had been happening; he’d missed it.
He sketched out the hills, the neat rows of flowers, the road approaching the farm from beyond. He’d just gotten onto filling in the farmhouse when he realised Judy was sniffing.
The teen flinched, swiping angrily at her eyes. Keith’s stomach dropped; she was crying.
“Judy, what’s wrong?”
“What?” She blurted, turning away from him. “Nothing.”
Keith bit his lip, setting his book down but too hesitant to come any closer.
“Are you alright? Do you want to go?”
Judy sniffled, tucking her knees up to her chest. “I want to stay here. Just- i-ignore it.”
Keith frowned, knowing he couldn’t ignore it but completely unsure what to do.
“Judy, you can tell me if-“
Keith laid a hand gently on her shoulder, trying not to startle her. Judy whipped around, and her eyes were a little red, and she was frowning and pouting and trying to maintain her indifference all at once.
“I just miss mom,” she blurted hastily, voice cracking. “Okay, so you should… leave it. I-I made this for Yumi.”
Keith blinked at the little crown of daisies clutched tightly in the teens hands.
“You should take a picture of her.”
Judy was rushing through her words, trying to distract from the problem. She dumped the flowers unceremoniously on Yumi’s head. Then, on second thought, went to adjust them as her baby sister blinked at her owlishly. Keith sighed sadly, wordlessly pushing a tissue towards Judy as the teen fretted.
“Please. I want a picture of her.”
Deciding it would be worse to refuse, Keith drew the camera back out from the bag, tempting Yumi to smile at him so he could get a picture of her and her flower crown.
“Thanks,” Judy said stiffly.
She sat there for a moment, still and silent, debating.
“I want to stay here,” she said eventually.
Keith set the camera down.
“Do you want to talk?”
“Can I… have a piece of paper?”
Keith handed her the sketchbook, pulling extra pens from his bag.
“Yeah, take as many as you want.”
Judy nodded, neatly tearing off a single page before handing it back. She balanced it on the lid of Yumi’s lunchbox, and began to write. Keith didn’t know what, but he didn’t pry. They returned to silence, but it felt all right. Yumi kept playing, and Keith kept drawing, and Judy did whatever it was she was doing; and Keith hoped one day he could make her happy.
It was hours later, well into the ends of the afternoon, that they finally packed up to leave. Keith could barely believe how well behaved Yumi had been, even as Judy dragged her away from the flowers towards the car. He handed her the keys to let them go ahead, carrying the huge bucket of flowers they’d picked back to the cottage to pay. The woman smiled knowingly as he set the bucket down.
“Their mother’s going to be very happy,” she said.
Keith was smiling and nodding before even realising what he’d implied. Still, no reason to give her the truth, he’d let her believe anything. So he pocketed his wallet, thanked her for her help, and was heading for the door with an armful of roses blocking his view. They smelt of a million wonderful things, at least ten different shades of colour piled into the bucket and ready to decorate their home. Keith staggered awkwardly out the door, struggling to see through the stems and petals obscuring-
He walked smack into someone in the doorway, a small sound catching in their throat at the collision. Keith flooded with embarrassment immediately, a thousand apologies on the tip of his tongue as he lowered the bucket to see who’d he’d hit and-
Keith promptly raised the bucket. Leaves and petals flooded his nose, but he didn’t care, because he wasn’t going to, he couldn’t…
“I’m so sorry man!”
Keith cringed at the voice, peering cautiously through the petals to spy the man he’d collided with. He couldn’t make out much, and he imagined they could make out even less of him, but that was exactly how he wanted it.
“No, that was… that was my fault, sorry,” Keith amended quickly. “Should’ve- uh, looked where I was going.”
A short chuckle, and Keith nearly died, hugging the bucket closer to his chest.
“I can barely see you through there, don’t know how you’re managing.”
A hand on his arm to steady him, so warm. A pause, then-
“Here, let me help. Get a better grip and hold them lower, hopefully you’ll be able to see.”
Keith wanted to protest, insist that no, he was quite fine breathing scented petals, but it was too late. A pair of hands helped him lower the bucket, adjusting it so he could hold it just a little lower.
“Hey! There you are!” The man said, and beamed.
Keith hoped he wasn’t as red as the roses he was holding, because…
Lance McClain was not photo-shopped. Keith had wondered, not often but he had, how much they touched up those pictures on the buses, or if they added a little extra glow to his profile on Radio Voltron’s website. But no, alas, here in the flesh, Lance looked every bit as good as he did on a billboard or a tacky advertisement. Actually, he looked better.
“I’m so sorry,” said Keith, but he wasn’t sure if he was talking about the collision anymore.
Lance held up a hand, dismissing the apology, and Keith’s eyes went from his fingers to his face to the blue hoodie he wore. He’d gone from concerned to smiling to approachably calm in the space of about ten seconds, all the while Keith stood there gaping at him. Because… because what? What was Lance doing here? Wait- was it really him? Keith frowned, peering over the petals he was still trying to use to hide behind, taking a good long look at the man before him. It was unmistakable. The crinkle around his eyes as he smiled, the slight flush of embarrassment across his cheeks as he reached out a broad hand to fix one of the roses that had come loose from Keith’s pile… He was taller than Keith expected; he supposed standing next to Hunk in pictures would make anyone look short. He held a dozen roses himself, but stood there casually in his washed out jeans and hoodie. Lance looked nice. Oh no, thought Keith. Lance was nice. Lance was also talking, and Keith was pretty sure he’d just missed the last five sentences.
“I totally crushed one of your flowers,” Lance went on, oblivious to his dilemma.
Keith blinked as Lance plucked the broken flower from Keith’s bucket, replacing it with a fresh one from the bouquet he held (and Keith really, really wanted to know who he was getting those for). A small, confusingly genuine smile, and Lance stuck the broken flower into his own bunch. It didn’t match the others at all, since all the ones Lance held were pink, so Keith just stared at the crooked yellow rose, feeling as invasive as the thing itself.
“Anyway, sorry to hold you up,” Lance said with a smile. “Better get those home, huh?”
“Oh. Yeah. Yes. Thank you, thanks... and sorry. Sorry, I’m going. Thank you.”
Lance smiled kindly as Keith fumbled over his words, stepping aside to let him past with the bucket. Keith cursed himself a thousand times over as he waved jerkily in way of goodbye, nearly dropping the flowers as he did so. Because sorry, but what the hell? Why was Lance here, how did Lance know about this place? He’d never even considered a person like Lance would leave the city, not come out here to… to some remote little flower farm. Keith half ran for the car, relieved to see Judy had already gotten her sister in so they could make a hasty getaway. He secured the bucket on the backseat as fast as humanly possible, before throwing himself in and starting up the engine.
“Are you okay?” Judy asked, staring at him. “You’re like… super red.”
“Fine,” Keith squeaked, then cleared his throat. “Fine. I am… I am allergic to roses.”
Judy raised a brow.
“It’s genetic. You… you should watch you. For the roses.”
“Woes,” Yumi said from the back seat. “Woes, woes, woes.”
Keith couldn’t help but agree. He reversed a little faster than strictly necessary, eyeing the cottage as if he half expected Lance to come running back out and call his bluff. Keith froze. Should he have introduced himself? No, he decided firmly. No, absolutely not. He’d already made an idiot of himself, trying to explain that he was Red… oh god, then he’d have to confront all the personal things he’d told Lance over the radio and- no. Better to leave it, let it pass; he wasn’t meant to mean anything to Lance. Still, as Keith pulled back onto the road, his eye caught on a singular pink rose sticking skew out the bucket, the one Lance had put there. Why replace one of their roses, even if he had crushed it? It was only one, Keith wouldn’t have noticed- then again, that didn’t seem like Lance’s nature.
Keith tried to ignore it, forget the rose and the man who’d given it too him. Besides, what was he gonna do, treat it differently? Stick it in its own little vase? Keith scoffed. Absurd. He was way more subtle than that. Subtle enough to stick it with five other yellow roses, so it might reflect the singular, mismatched rose protruding from Lance’s own bunch. Yeah, Keith had this subtlety thing down pat.
Chapter 4: holding out for a hero
A mysterious call and an icy encounter
Thank you!!! For the lovely comments!! You guys are so kind and I'm glad I can share this happy sappy story with you... not gonna lie the best part about this is having the excuse to watch oh so many old music videos
“Attachment issues,” Pidge said, first thing on a Monday morning, as Keith pried his crying toddler’s arms from around his neck.
“I read about it on five parenting websites,” Keith protested, wrangling Yumi into a bundle to hand over to the day-care worker. “This is normal.”
“I’m not talking about Yumi,” said Pidge.
Keith dropped the toddler into her arms, wiping angrily at the tears on his cheeks. “Shut up.”
“No swearing in the presence of children!” Coran shrieked.
Keith wasn’t even aware he could hear their conversation.
“I’m just saying,” said Pidge, rocking Yumi on her hip as she continued to scream and reach for Keith. “You’ve been a parent for three weeks and you already cry dropping your kids off at school.”
“Well yeah. I have the most excuse to, I didn’t… get maternity leave.”
“Paternity leave,” Pidge corrected. “You’re saying you haven’t had enough time to get sick of your children?”
“What! No, I mean… I didn’t get… all those months… with her. I should get compensation. Do you know how hard it is not to want to hold her all the time?”
“Uh, yeah,” said Pidge. “That’s why I’m a day-care worker.”
She scoffed at Keith’s stunned expression, taking pity on him.
“You need to get to work. But how’s that art teacher dream coming along? Maybe one day you can work with kids all day.”
“Okay, all day seems a little excessive,” Keith mumbled.
Pidge grinned, tickling Yumi’s side as the toddler sniffled miserably.
“Go to work, Kogane. You know she’s fine here.”
Keith nodded reluctantly, waving to Pidge as he made his way back towards the car. Pidge was right, Yumi was fine at day-care. It was Keith who struggled most with it, which was… kind of pathetic, honestly. Caring, he tried to reason. He just had an awesome toddler, it wasn’t Keith’s fault some parents had children who sucked so much they couldn’t wait to dump them at day-care. Yumi was a cool kid, even if she threw up on his shirt sometimes, and screamed when her socks were on the wrong way, and tried to eat all their fridge magnets, and stuck her fingers into the electrical outputs, and-
And Keith should definitely think about these things more often, especially when dropping her off. Sighing, he started up the car and began the final stretch of his commute towards work. He let the radio play quietly this morning, a little sleepy after the temper tantrum Yumi had thrown at four am. Still, he could hear Lance’s voice chattering away softly, was reminded of their unusual run-in on the weekend. Lance had probably forgotten, unlike Keith, who’d been hung up on it since the first goddam rose to find its way from Lance’s bouquet into his own. Stupid stupid stupid. What was he, hung up on a radio presenter? Keith could have laughed, had he not been such a hopeless romantic, falling for his own cruel joke.
Crushes were harmless, he reasoned. There were probably a thousand other listeners hung up on Lance all over the city. In fact, Keith knew there were; although he was adamant, stumbling upon the popular blogging spot ladies4(1.7FM)lance was an accident. A terrible one, at that. So let him crush on Lance, who was it gonna hurt? Keith had zero ability to act on it. The chance had been presented to him on a golden platter at the flower farm, and what had he done? Gaped like a fish out of water and blabbered like a squeaky door hinge. Oh god, thinking of it made him cringe. He turned the radio up a little, just to drown out his thoughts.
“We have a special surprise for our listeners this morning!” Lance was in the middle of announcing.
Keith found himself wondering what it was.
“Uh, well, we hope he do,” Hunk amended. “We don’t know if this is actually gonna work.”
“Faith, Hunk! Now, for all those who put in the request for this segment, we want to extend our thanks. And now, for the first attempt!”
Keith scoffed; Lance made it sound like he was attempting a circus trick. Hunk was making some dramatic humming noise, as they awaited the result of whatever the hell it was Lance was doing. Keith probably should have listened to the start of this segment-
He jumped as his phone rang, cutting through the sound of the radio. Keith glared at it, an unfamiliar number flashing up on the screen. He should probably answer, it could be the school, Judy could have done something, like burnt it down. She’d certainly seemed in the mood that morning. Keith accepted the call, switching it to speaker as he answered.
Keith was very, very glad he was stopped at a light, because the sound of his own voice playing back to him on the radio was just a little too much to handle at this hour of the morning.
“Hellooo, I’m looking for a Mr Red?”
Then there was Lance’s voice, coming through his phone a second before it came across on the radio. Oh my god. Keith turned down the volume on the radio out of instinct, attention fixed on his phone.
“Uh… what’s happening?” He managed.
A small whoop of excitement sounded on the other side of the call.
“Red! It is you, I recognise your voice!”
Well, Keith was glad Lance did, because he sure as hell wasn’t familiar with the pitch his voice took on as he squeaked out, “Lance?”
“Hey buddy,” the presenter replied warmly. “Hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time?”
“Hey,” Keith said.
Why did he feel like he’d swallowed a brick?
“Can you talk right now?”
“Uh… yeah. Yeah I can talk. I’m just, a bit confused I think.”
“As you should be,” Lance said happily. “Sorry to spring it on you Red, but honestly we’ve been dying to have you back on the show all week.”
Keith blinked, once, twice.
“Yeah! Turns out we’ve got a ten minute segment to fill, and instead of filling it with music… lets just say we had a lot of requests to have you back on the show. You’re relatable, Red! I think we all need to hear the honest side to having children.”
Keith was…relatable? Well there was a fucking first. Lance was chuckling, correctly interpreting his silence as shock.
“Don’t believe me?”
“Not really?” Keith croaked out.
“Will you believe Amanda James?”
Keith frowned; was he supposed to know who that was?
“Amanda wrote to our page yesterday,” Lance continued. “Hi Red, I hope you see this, so you know you aren’t alone. I’m a single mother to my nephew, going on twelve years now. Took him in when his father had a run in with the cops, never looked back. Hearing you talk reminded me of those early days. It’s going to get easier, I hope I can encourage you from the future as you’ve reminded me of the past.”
Keith stilled, heart skipping a beat as he listened to Lance read. Wow, that was… surprisingly nice.
“We’ve got a whole lot of similar stories here,” said Lance. “And we were hoping, if you want, of course, to do a few segments with you. Just… talking about the kids, the ups and downs. Lets share the burden a little, huh?”
Keith was thrown. He sat rigid in his seat, trying to process what he was hearing because… there were people out there who wanted to listen to him? Who could relate to him?
“It’s totally up to you,” Hunk went on. “But I’m guessing we’ve been catching you during your morning commute so… if you wanna fill the time, have a little chat on the show-“
“Okay,” said Keith.
Because what the hell else was he going to say? No? Talking to Lance and Hunk every morning, getting tips on what to do with the kids… was he dreaming? Maybe all those hours of sleep he’d lost trying to get Yumi to settle down had made him delusional, he was probably slumped at his desk right now, asleep until Lotor decided to send a foot in the direction of Keith’s ass. If so, he hoped Allura would be there to battle him off so he could get at least five more minutes because this… this was the best thing to happen to Keith all year.
“Is that a yes?” Lance asked, sounding excited.
“Uh, yes, yeah I guess it is.”
Two loud whoops from the pair of presenters, and Keith’s felt himself smile.
“You guys seriously wanna talk to me though?” He asked, trying to sound like he was joking, though a little insecurity snuck through.
“Of course, man!” Hunk assured.
“Even if you’re boring, I wanna know what Yumi’s been up to!” Lance said, though it was mostly a joke.
“Uh… well she’s thrown up on me a few times since last time. Thrown a few tantrum. She just likes… throwing things, in general.”
“Ooh, maybe she should do archery,” Hunk said.
“I’d be dead,” said Keith.
“But your kid would be so cool.”
Keith chuckled, shaking his head at their suggestions and electing not to mention that he was perfectly capable of teaching Yumi to throw knives if she wished.
“What about the weekend, Red,” Lance said suddenly. “You get up to much with the kids?”
Involuntarily, Keith found himself flushing red. Thank god this was just the radio, right?
“I… took them to the beach,” he said. “Yeah, we went to the beach.”
“The beach! Oh man, I wanted to go to the beach so badly…”
“Oh?” Keith prompted, praying Lance would talk more about his weekend so there was no risk of a flower farm slip-up.
“Yeah, it’s my favourite place. But my sister-in-law was having a baby shower, so… I mean on the bright side, I’m getting another nephew!”
Keith felt an inkling of relief; maybe that was who the roses were for, not… not like a girlfriend, or something. Which wouldn’t a problem. If it was… if Lance did have a girlfriend. Of boyfriend. Or… it didn’t matter, cause Keith wasn’t concerned, why would he be? He had no problem, no issues at all, with the thought of Lance handing a sweet smelling bouquet of roses to a girl a hundred times prettier and more put together and more social and more deserving than Keith. Would he have kept the yellow rose in? Taken it out? What if he had, did he just throw it away? Probably, it was broken after all…
“-so now Nadia loves swimming, she’s gonna be like an Olympic champion, I swear.”
Oh god, Lance was still talking, and Keith really needed to stop zoning out like that.
“What about your nieces?” Lance asked. “They any good at swimming?”
And honestly, Keith had no idea. He didn’t know if they knew at all. Judy, hopefully… but it wasn’t guaranteed. Should he be sending them for swimming lessons? He’d heard toddlers could drown in puddles-
“This is going to sound really bad,” said Keith. “But I don’t know.”
“You don’t know if they can swim?”
Keith cringed; oh boy, he could feel the judgement already.
“I know I should, and that’s really important, b-but I kind of forgot.”
“Hey Red, don’t stress. You’ve only had them for a few weeks.”
Keith still felt bad, anxious now that he hadn’t even considered that. What else hadn’t he considered?
“Well you know Lance teaches kids to swim,” Hunk cut in, immediately flipping what Keith felt from shame to panic. “Maybe Yumi should join one of his classes.”
Lance taught kids swim classes? Goddammit, Keith did not need another reason to like him.
“He’s probably had enough of us after this morning,” Lance said, laughing, but there was something else to his tone of voice. “We gotta stop forcing ourselves on him.”
“You’re not forcing me,” Keith said quickly. “I… I’m really glad I have you guys to talk to, actually.”
“You’re making Hunk cry.”
“I’m serious though,” Keith insisted. “You’ve both helped so much.”
“No, he’s gonna use me as a tissue!”
“Lance, I’m not that emotional!”
“You kind of are, bud.”
Hunk made a sound of resentment, ignoring Lance’s laughter, which had probably been set off by whatever gesture he’d made.
“Why don’t you tell us about the beach, Red? Provided no one drowned.”
When Keith stepped into the office a little while later, it was with a smile and a slight spring in his step. Allura noticed immediately as he sat down in their shared cubicle, spinning on her chair and fixing him with a knowing look.
“So what type of dog was it?”
“You only ever look this happy when you’ve seen a cute dog, Keith. So, where was the dog?”
“It… wasn’t a dog.”
Allura frowned. “You’re lying.”
“I’m not! What, am I not allowed to look happy?”
She narrowed her eyes further. “Not not allowed. But it is unusual.”
Keith scoffed. “You’re imagining things.”
Allura studied him for another few seconds before giving up, pulling something from her handbag instead.
“Remember that girl I’ve been talking to?”
“Mhm. Well it turns out she works at the ice rink.“
“I thought she worked at the pet store?”
“And the ice rink-“
“Wait, is this the same girl who works at the library?”
Allura thrust out her hands, displaying the four little pass cards she held.
“There’s a special event on Wednesday, and she got us tickets for free!”
“You, me, and the kids of course!” Allura exclaimed, gripping the passes tightly. “And I’m so excited, so you have to come.”
“I don’t know how to skate-“
“So? Come on Keith, it’ll be fun.”
Keith sighed, and couldn’t help but smile at Allura’s blatant excitement.
“Alright, we’re in. Wednesday?”
“I hope Judy likes skating.”
“Granted you fall over, what’s not to enjoy?”
Keith could only pretend to be offended by Allura, trying to topple her off her chair until Lotor came by and he was forced back to work.
Keith was half expecting his phone not to ring on Tuesday, but, true to their word, five minutes after dropping Yumi off, there was a familiar ringing and a familiar voice answering when he picked up. Lance talked to him about how he might have luck getting Judy to open up, and Keith shared how proud he was of her. It was personal, and touching, yet humorous all the same. Lance had a way of making him feel included, and wanted, so calm and down to Earth and kind, that it left Keith feeling dizzy.
On Wednesday, they called again, and Hunk made them laugh by quizzing Keith with a parenting test he’d found online. It was dumb, but Keith took it seriously anyway, and it was worth all his embarrassing answers to hear Lance laugh. Something had changed, suddenly. Instead of feeling hopeless and alone, he had someone who understood. And it was nice, nicer than Keith could have imagined.
The line for rental skates was longer than Keith had expected, making him even gladder he’d left Yumi with Judy, so he and Allura could speak. The ice rink Romelle worked at had been done up for some kind of light show, so colourful patterns were projected across the ice, and twinkling high above on the ceiling. It was a little chilly, but nice, and he found himself enjoying the atmosphere despite all the people about. Well, mostly enjoying it.
“I’m just worried about Yumi,” Keith mumbled, hanging his head pitifully. “I read on a parenting website that most kids are supposed to be able to talk properly by the time they’re fifteen months old. Fifteen months, Allura! Yumi’s twenty seven months and the only words she knows are Dada, Dee, andturd, two of which aren’t proper words, and one of which is an expletive.”
“Keith,” said Allura, “if you ever refer to your child as being twenty seven months old again, we shall cease to be friends.”
Keith pouted, and she took pity on him.
“Yumi is two. That’s still little. I know most children are speaking by now, but it’s not impossible, she could just be a late developer. Besides, she’s walking, laughing, interacting in other ways just fine. Maybe she… well, I did ask my father, and he said sometimes children that have been through trauma take a little longer.”
Keith frowned, glancing miserably at Yumi, who was giggling as Judy bounced her up and down on her knee, Romelle pulling funny expressions for her to laugh at.
“Yeah but… she wasn’t… in the accident.”
“Maybe not,” said Allura. “But she still lost her mother. Maybe she doesn’t understand but… but that will still have an effect.”
“You think I should take her to a paediatrician or something? Or… what do you take kids to, do you think-“
“Keith,” Allura said kindly, setting a hand on his arm. “I think you just keep doing what you’re doing. Give her a stable home environment, and be there for her. If you’re really worried, yes we can see someone. But things will work out, I promise.”
Keith sighed, offering her a weak smile. Allura beamed back at him, but didn’t say any more as they’d reached the front of the line. She turned her attention to the attendant, smiling widely.
“I need four pairs of skates please.”
Keith had been skating a total of two times in his life. The first occurred when he was nine, and was invited to a birthday party of a boy he barely knew, where he’d stumbled around on the ice for twenty minutes, having the time of his life, before he fell and broke his arm. The second time, Shelly Pearson in seventh grade asked him to go with her and her friends, except her friends didn’t come, so it was just the two of them, and Keith realised maybe a little to late it was her idea of a date. That time when he fell face first and split his lip, he was kind of happy for it. He hoped this time wouldn’t end in bloodshed.
Allura, of course, was a natural. Not as good as Romelle, who could glide around effortlessly and perform all kinds of tricks, but good enough to go shooting off around the rink without him. She looked the part too, in a flowy blue skirt and dainty white gloves. Keith didn’t think any one could manage to look good in the clunky rental boots, but as usual Allura was out there proving him wrong.
Keith was far less graceful, though this time he had Yumi for an excuse. To his and her shared delight, the rink provided little support structures for children in the shape of penguins, so Yumi could toddle around on the ice with minimal fall damage. Allura was right in her assessment: Yumi may not have spoken much, but her co-ordination was good. Keith was impressed by how well she managed to keep her balance clinging to the plastic penguin. As a safety measure, he’d dressed them both in the thickest gloves he could find, images of fingers and blades not doing wonders for his anxiety.
On the other side of the rink, Keith spotted Allura helping Judy, and smiled. His eldest niece was bundled up in a red sweater, clinging stubbornly to the sides until Allura came to offer her a hand instead. Keith smiled as he watched them take to the centre of the rink, Judy’s look of terror slowly morphing into a dazzling grin as Allura skated them around. It was nice to see everyone enjoying themselves, especially Judy. She deserved to laugh more than she did.
Yumi was gaining confidence, picking up her pace and pushing the penguin along faster, so Keith was forced to actually skate clumsily after her. She stopped when she reached a portion where the ice had been hacked up, leaving a slight mush for her to stomp about in. Keith looked down at her fondly, her little face alight with joy as she kicked at the ice. Suddenly that happy face was turned on him, and Keith resisted laughing at the way Yumi’s hair stuck out from her beanie and flattened against her forehead.
She thrust a hand up at him, cheeks ridiculously rosy from the cold. She wanted to be picked up, but deciding that was not the best idea in skates, Keith crouched down to be on her level instead. Yumi rushed to give him a hug, and Keith laughed again at how aggressively affectionate she could be. Maybe all people should be like toddlers, at least when it came to hugs. Yumi beamed at him once she was finally done strangling a hug out of him, clumsily reaching down to grab a handful of the icy mush.
“Ice,” said Keith, and pointed at it.
Yumi blinked at him, squeezing the mush in her gloved hand.
“Ice,” Keith repeated, hoping maybe the word would stick.
It was better than nothing.
“Yumi,” he said, and pointed to her.
Keith sighed. “You’re not wrong.”
Yumi held out the ice to him again with a hesitant smile.
“Yes, I’m dada. That’s ice.”
Yumi stared at it, bringing it a little closer to her face.
“Thh,” she said, then proceeded to try and stick it in her mouth.
“No! No, Yumi no!” Keith snatched her hand away, gently prying her fingers open to dust the slush off her gloves. “No, not for eating. Yuck.”
“Yuck!” Yumi yelled, shaking her glove now that she’d apparently changed her mind on the edibility of dirty ice.
“Yes, yuck. Not good, please… please don’t eat that.”
Whether or not she was listening, Keith didn’t know, only a second later Yumi decided to return to her penguin. She didn’t go anywhere, just patted the plastic animals face as she inspected it. Keith sighed, rising shakily to his feet and looking for the others. Allura and Judy were in a heap of giggles on the ground on the other side of the rink, luckily neither hurt as they picked themselves back up to keep skating. Keith was just considering trying to make his way over to them when the lights shut off. Not entirely, but instead of the main lights, a series of colourful beams came on instead, casting them in darkness and swirling patterns that danced across the ice. A few people ooh’d and ah’d, while Keith just considered how much harder it would be to skate now. And to watch Yumi, who was… taking off with her penguin at alarming speed.
“Yumi,” Keith called, trying to coax her back to the edge of the rink.
But Yumi was done taking the low road, because with a giggle and a mischievous look in his direction, she was taking off across the ice. Should Keith enrol her in ice-skating or something? Jesus Christ, toddlers were not meant to be so fast.
Realising he couldn’t get her back unless he went after her, Keith glanced around at the oncoming skaters before plunging into the middle. He was bad enough on skates as it was, but somehow being away from the edge where he could hold onto the wall made him even more fearful. The flashing lights and momentary bouts of darkness weren’t helping either, not when he was trying to keep track of a wayward two year old and her cursed penguin. Couldn’t she just fall, give him a chance to catch up? Keith swore he could hear her laughter like it was taunting him.
Keith apologised as he bumped into people on his way, nearly falling as he skated clumsily across the ice. Yumi was happily headed towards a group of teenage boys, who were pushing and shoving each other and all in all creating a dangerous obstacle that she was certainly going to fall into. Oh my god, what if they knocked her over? What if they crushed her?
Keith gasped as he nearly toppled again, now dead centre of the rink. Where was Romelle when he needed her? Fuck it, he decided, noticing Yumi was nearly upon the rowdy group of teenagers. He could skate fast, fast enough to catch her. He was a damn adult, she was two; this shouldn’t be difficult. Squaring his shoulders, Keith put one foot ahead of the other, speeding up across the ice, barely maintaining balance as he sped towards Yumi. Yumi, his wonderful niece, who moments before detrimental impact decided she had no problem changing direction. Keith watched as the toddler came to a neat little stop before the group of boys, then turn with her penguin and take off in another direction, never even sparing Keith a glance.
Keith would almost be offended, if he weren’t, at present, filled with greater concerns. Like the group in front of him, who he was approaching at speed. Was there any way to brake with ice skates? There should be, Keith decided, as he waved his arms around wildly as if that would slow his approach somehow.
“Oh god, I’m sorry,” he mumbled miserably, already envisioning the injury this impact would certainly create.
Maybe a fractured kneecap, or another sprained ankle. He could be lucky enough to get away with a broken nose, but then again, maybe he’d loose a finger. Keith grimaced, shutting his eyes moments before he could go crashing through the group of boys, wondering why he’d ever agreed to go skating, given this was clearly about to result in bloodshed-
He nearly squeaked when someone grabbed him, accompanied by the sharp scrap of metal against ice as they brought Keith to a steady stop. He still had his arms bunched before him as they awaited impact, except now they were crushed between Keith and someone’s chest, his hands instinctively grabbing the arms that had saved him. For a moment, he envisioned it was Romelle, but whoever it was felt a lot bigger than their friend, which meant…
“Close call there buddy,” the man said, accompanied by a short chuckle that Keith could feel through his chest. “You alright?”
And Keith felt his heart sink through his stomach, all the way down to his toes, where it dribbled out onto the ice in a miserable, frozen little heap. Before he undoubtedly became lost in the eyes of the guy that was holding him, Keith shot a look over their shoulder, searching for Yumi. He spotted Romelle a second later, having intercepted the toddler, breathing a sigh of relief as she shot him a thumbs-up. Then he turned back, readying himself for certain disaster, as he looked right up at Lance McClain.
Oh god. There was a grin on his face, but he somehow managed to pull off playful and concerned at the same time. Lance was wearing a simple black fleece today, and with the colourful lights dancing over them and the ice… he looked amazing. Instead of letting go of Keith the moment he’d found his balance, he let him hang there, adjusting, arms around his waist to support him as Keith clung embarrassingly tightly to his arms.
“First time skating?” Lance said, now that he had Keith’s full attention.
Full, full attention. He couldn’t even remember who it was he’d been about to crash into.
“Third,” said Keith. “I’m really sorry.”
“All good man. You looked like you were going through all five stages of grief back there.”
Keith snorted, finally withdrawing his fingers from around Lance’s biceps. He’d probably left goddam bruises, poor Lance.
“Guess it's not my element. Thanks for catching me.”
“No problem-o. Always here to help prevent a crisis.”
Keith flinched as the room was plunged into complete darkness again, a little glad Lance was still there to steady him as thousands of blue dots of light illuminated the ice rink. He could barely see a thing in the dark, just the shapes of people as the small dots of light danced over them. Then again, maybe that was a good thing-
“I was about to say you looked familiar,” said Lance. “But now I guess we’ll never know.”
Keith chuckled to hide his nerves. “Yeah. Guess not.”
“You need a lift back to the side? I’m guessing it was a mistake coming out to the centre.”
Keith’s laugh was genuine now, accompanied by a flood of relief.
“That would be awesome, actually.”
Lance flashed him a grin, just visible as the blue dots crowded his face.
“Come on then.”
Keith almost mourned the loss of an arm around his waist, but he figured both of Lance’s hands taking hold of his own was enough of a compromise. And goddammit, of course Lance was good at skating, because he was good at everything apparently. He glided easily away from the centre, travelling backwards so he could keep an eye on Keith whilst leading them. Keith was too embarrassed to even try and skate, letting Lance drag him across the ice, and… it was kind of nice. The darkness obscured most of his face, hiding the embarrassing blush, while the dots of light swirling across the ice made it seem like they’d sunk deep within an ocean of bioluminescence. Keith watched Lance in awe, the glances he threw over his shoulder to check where they were going, the small smile he offered Keith as he squeezed his hands and guided them to safety. The blue dots of light grabbed for the tips of his brown hair, and Keith wondered if he should tell Lance that right then, he was the most beautiful person he’d seen in his life. He decided against it, that it might be a little weird to say to a guy you’d just met.
It was over too soon, and Keith was forced to confront reality quickly as Lance dropped him off on the edge of the rink, right beside a door he could use to get out.
“Uh, thanks,” said Keith. “Don’t think I would have survived that without you.”
Lance laughed, waving him off.
“Happy to help. Take care on the edge.”
“Yeah, that’s where all the danger happens,” Keith mumbled, pulling another chuckle from Lance.
“Well, see you around.”
“Yeah, see you.”
Keith waved jerkily as Lance began to backtrack out onto the ice again, ignoring the little flutter in his chest as Lance smiled. Keith stumbled off and away from the ice rink, before the lights came back on and he could be- god forbid- recognised. He found the others huddled outside the entrance to the heated café, waiting for him.
“Ooh,” Allura called as he approached. “That was a nice looking skater.”
A huge grin was spreading over her face, and Keith glowered as he came to a stop in front of her.
“You’re officially buying me hot chocolate.”
She just laughed, holding the door open for him as warm air gushed out to meet them.
“Whatever you say, Keith.”
Chapter 5: father and son
A bad day occurs
Thank you so much for the comments and support everyone! You make me smile <3
Thursday rolled around and Keith rolled out of bed with a distinct ache in his ankles from skating, but a warmer feeling in his chest than he’d felt in a long while. He had a text waiting from Allura, a picture she’d snapped of their group at the ice rink. It put a smile on Keith’s face as he trudged into the kitchen, knocking on Judy’s door to wake her up on the way. He pulled out the ingredients for the kid’s lunches, preparing for the day.
Yumi woke a few minutes later, her happy babbling reaching his ears from her bedroom down the corridor. Keith retrieved her, glad to see she was full of smiles this morning, and knocked again on Judy’s door.
“Come on Judes, wake up time.”
He got Yumi fed, got her into her day clothes, got her to stop throwing a tantrum over the fact her sock was on skew. Keith took time to think as he mindlessly went through the morning’s chores. Yesterday had been… unexpected. That was an understatement; yesterday was something straight out of a nightmarish daydream that was simultaneously all that Keith wanted and everything he feared. He’d bumped into Lance twice now, twice, in only a small matter of days. Was this usual? Had their paths crossed before and Keith had just never realised? Or did having children suddenly put him in the same places Lance hung out. Ice skating, the flower farm… they were things he rarely did before he had Yumi and Judy. So maybe that was it. Or maybe some higher power up there just loved handing it to him, watching him flounder.
Keith slammed a cupboard just a little to hard, starling himself out of his thoughts. So he’d bumped into Lance, the real life Lance McClain, coincidence was a funny thing. He wasn’t going to reveal himself; the radio and Red were something private, an escape, somewhere he was safe to bare all. That seemed silly, to be comfortable sharing the deeper things whilst thousands of others listened in. It was anonymous though, and that’s how Keith had always lived, and preferred to live. Anonymous.
Judy still hadn’t emerged by the time Yumi was finished with her breakfast, which was a little unusual. Keith sighed, leaving Yumi in her high chair to go and wake the eldest girl properly. He knocked.
“Judy? It’s getting late, are you awake?”
Nothing, not even a go away Keith. Keith frowned, staring at her door and the lion drawings adorning it.
“Judy, we’re gonna be late for school.”
Keith knocked again, louder. If she’d decided to give him the silent treatment again, he at least needed to know she was awake.
More silence. Keith felt a sliver of unease unfurl in his stomach. She should definitely be awake by now, was she just purposefully not responding?
“Judy? Judes I’m… going to come in, alright?”
Keith bit his tongue, wishing she’d just respond.
“Say no if you don’t want me to. I’m opening to door.”
Bracing himself for a fist to the face or a harsh bout of insults, Keith cracked the door open, pushing it in slowly to give Judy plenty of time to slam it shut. She didn’t, however. There were no protests, and no complaints. Keith stepped into her little room, eyeing the pale purple wall and messy closet, the desk piled with sheets of math homework until finally his eyes landed on the bed, and the lump under the covers.
There was no reply, but Keith could just see her dark hair sticking out from beneath the blanket. He approached with caution, irritation fading to confusion fading to fear.
“Hey, are you awake?”
A small, shaky breath; the only indication she was.
“Judy, it’s time to get ready,” Keith said softly, still confused.
Judy spoke very quietly, so he almost had to strain to hear the word. It wasn’t angry, or irritable, or tired. It was just… empty. It made Keith step back, a chill running up his spine.
“Judy?” He asked, because suddenly he didn’t know what to say.
Something was wrong, very wrong. If she was angry, or tired, or grumpy, well that was normal. But this… this was just empty. It reeked of nothingness, of resignation, and it scared him.
“Hey… are you not feeling well?”
Judy sighed, but there was a hitch in her breath.
“Leave me alone,” she mumbled.
It should have been angry, leave me alone Keith! But it wasn’t, and that made it worse.
“Do you… want some breakfast?”
There was no reply; Keith got the feeling she was done responding. So he stood there awkwardly in her room, fretting, eyes darting between the miserable girl curled up beneath the covers, and the door through which he could hear Yumi chattering. And he had absolutely no idea what to do. He returned to the kitchen, because Yumi detested being left alone for long. His phone told him it was nearly time to leave, but there was no way Judy was getting out of bed. So what the hell was he meant to do now? With shaky hands, Keith fumbled through his contact list, landing on Shiro and pressing call.
His brother picked up quickly, his pleasant greeting cut short by Keith’s frantic voice.
“Hey, Shiro, can you please… c-can you take Yumi to school?”
Shiro arrived quicker than Keith had expected, but it still felt like hours spent pacing their little apartment, keeping Yumi away from her sister’s room whilst peeking in on occasion to see if the elder girl had moved. What was wrong? Had something upset her? She looked like she’d been having so much fun yesterday, but just like the flower farm, she’d turned out miserable. Was he not meant to try and make her happy? Keith buried his face in his hands, nearly running for the door when Shiro finally knocked.
“Hey, what’s going on?”
His brother looked concerned, speaking quietly as he stepped into the apartment. Yumi charged at his legs and he scooped her up, her happy babbling at seeing Shiro again the only noise in the apartment at all.
“Judy, uh, Judy doesn’t want to get up,” Keith stuttered, trying to keep himself under control. “I don’t- I don’t know why.”
“Is she sick?”
“I don’t… I don’t think so, but I’m not sure. She just told me to leave her alone, I… I didn’t know what to do, sorry for calling-“
“Hey, it’s okay.”
Shiro set a hand on his shoulder, supporting Yumi with the other, and smiled.
“I’m happy to take Yumi to day care, but are you going to be alright?”
“Yeah,” Keith lied. “Yeah, I was… I was gonna make her some breakfast. Uh, s-she should probably take off school, yeah?”
Shiro nodded. “Just remember to ring the school. Work too, if you’re staying home.”
Keith nodded jerkily, still too worked up.
“Call me if you need me, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah I will. Thanks Shiro.”
Shiro nodded, motioning for Yumi’s bag.
“Say hi to Pidge for me.”
Shiro smiled, pausing in the doorway. Yumi didn’t even seem that concerned to be leaving Keith, not when she had an older, bigger, more sensible, not-really-Keith-at-all to look after her.
“It’ll be okay,” said Shiro. “But call me.”
Keith nodded, waving them off out the door. It clicked shut behind them, and he was alone. Well, not quite. Now he just had a miserable teenager to deal with. Feeling a little frantic and unsure, Keith placed a call to the school and then to his workplace before he could forget. He sent off a quick text to Allura explaining himself, before coming to stand before Judy’s door. When he peered inside, she hadn’t budged. Keith battled with himself for a few seconds before allowing himself in, kneeling near the end of the bed and trying to coax a reaction out of his niece.
“Hey Judes, you wanna tell me what’s wrong?”
She didn’t respond. Through her open window, Keith could hear cars and people far down on the street below, honking and chattering, the din working its way up and through the blinds that rattled softly against the windowsill. They were still shut, but the bright daylight poured in through the gaps, leaving Judy’s room in a warm sort of haze. It seemed so off then, that she was acting so coldly.
“Did something happen at school?”
A part of Keith’s mind was berating him, yelling at him to just leave her alone. That’s what he’d always wanted as a teen, wasn’t it? To be left alone? He thought he had, anyway, but in reality… in reality, being left alone made everything worse. Sometimes it was hard to accept that. Keith sighed, itching with the need to do something, to fix it. He looked around Judy’s room, her half folded clothes, the cup full of scrunchies on her desk, her school bag splayed open on the floor, and the little portrait photograph of her and her mother.
“Is it… is it about your mom?” Keith asked softly.
Outside, the gate to the parking garage slammed shut, a dozen engines started up as the light changed from red to green, and the rolling wheels of a shopping trolley clattered along the pavement. In here, it was safe, but it was also detached. Like Judy, not tethered to anything, adrift in the loud, cluttered world, never really latching on.
“Please just leave me alone,” said Judy.
Keith’s heart sank as she pulled the covers up and over her head. He left the room again, clearly not wanted, and stood in the kitchen for a few minutes trying not to pull his hair out. His phone rang, the sound jarring, and he stared and stared at the familiar line of numbers of Radio Voltron before hitting decline. Lance and Hunk would have to understand, and if they didn’t, well, then it was over.
The call at least spurred Keith into action. He pulled out the pot to set on the stove, went about boiling water and prayed Judy hadn’t taken another vegan day. He tried not to overthink as he cooked, but it was inevitable. Judy was bound to have days where she slipped, but then it was Keith’s job to fix that. He needed to talk to her, show her he cared, then she’d feel better, right? Carefully he plated up the eggs and toast, slicing the bread and cutting the tops off the shells, just the way Shiro used to do for him. Then it was back to Judy’s room, balancing the plate in hand, nerves twisting his stomach painfully.
“Hey,” he greeted, setting down the plate on her nightstand. “Made you some food.”
Judy didn’t budge, and Keith wondered for a moment if he should leave. He sat down instead, drawing his knees close and pressing anxious fingers into the carpeted floor.
“Shiro used to make me eggs and toast, when I was feeling down. Which… which was a lot. When I was your age.”
His phone buzzed from the kitchen, and Keith wondered if it was the radio calling again, or just Lotor to yell at him. Either way, he didn’t care; Judy was most important.
“It’s okay to have bad days Judy, it’s okay to have a lot of them. I know you probably… I know you miss your mom. We don’t have to talk about her, but if you want to, I mean…”
Keith bit his tongue, struggling with the right words.
“I miss my mom. And I never knew her. The ideas nice though, and I have Mrs Shirogane, so it’s… I-I know it hurts to lose people, Judy.”
There was a quiet sniffle from underneath the covers, but nothing more.
“It won’t be this hard forever,” Keith said. “I know that’s difficult to believe, and I know it doesn’t erase how you’re feeling now, but… but know that if you take your time, and you can, we’ll all be here for you, you… it will be a lot better one day, Judes.”
The silence was better than a protest to leave, so Keith stayed, for the time being.
“I used to feel really lost,” he admitted softly. “Before I found my family. Even after, for a long while… it took time to adjust.”
Keith stared down at his hands, at the nails he used to pick at until they bled, and the knuckles that would show up bruised more often than not.
“I felt really lonely,” Keith said. “And… and bitter. Really angry, at everyone, for leaving me in that situation. I didn’t know I had a sister, I didn’t know about your mom… I wish I did, but when I was younger it was just me and… and I was angry.”
Judy had stopped sniffling, but she still didn’t move from beneath the blankets.
“I don’t expect you to be happy about your situation,” said Keith. “I’m not angry at you, you don’t have to force yourself to like it here. I just… I just want to try make this somewhere you can be happy, Judy. If you want to talk, if you want… t-to cry, that’s okay. I’ll never be angry at you for hurting, Judy. So if you ever want to talk I… I’m here, okay?”
Keith paused, wiping at his eyes.
“I’m sorry you’re hurting.”
A small sniffle, but still no movement. Keith sighed, pushing himself up onto his feet and gazing down at the miserable girl. The best he could do now was give her some space, let her eat breakfast if she wanted it, let her think about talking if she wanted to. Keith itched to reach out and comfort her, a hug maybe, just a soft hand in her hair like Shiro used to do for him, but it felt unwelcomed.
“I’m gonna do some laundry,” he said. “But uh… shout, if you need me. Okay?”
He didn’t expect an answer, so with a pinched expression, Keith left. He kept her door propped open, so he would hear her if she called, and set to work. The laundry got done, and then because he was anxious and fidgety, the final boxes got unpacked. The kitchen got cleaned, the floor got mopped, the Tupperware cupboard got sorted. Keith popped his head into Judy’s room and hour later, and his heart sank at the sight of her untouched breakfast. He left her a glass of water, then a box of tissues. Then Keith dusted every inch of exposed surface in their apartment.
Yumi’s closet was a mess, so he folded her clothes and put away the books Allura had given her and shook out the carpet. Anything he could clean, anything he could do to pass the time. He checked on Judy and she hadn’t drunk a sip of water, and Keith began to worry. He talked to her again, patient and soft, but she didn’t move and she didn’t speak and she wouldn’t even drink. Keith forgot to eat himself, and midday rolled around and he took to washing windows because there was nothing else to do.
Another hour and he replaced the glass of water with another, colder one. He sat in Judy’s room and he waited, waited for her to change her mind and say something. He talked to her gently, laid a hand on her forehead to check if she had a fever before she shrugged him off. Then Keith began to plead. A glass of juice joined the water, then a cup of tea, then a chocolate bar, but Judy touched none of them. She wouldn’t speak, she wouldn’t get up, she wouldn’t eat, she wouldn’t drink. Keith had tears in his eyes when he left her room next, biting his lip to keep quiet as he sat down on the floor outside and shook.
The internet was no help, because nothing Keith attempted worked. Nothing he gave her, nothing he said. He tried being stern, for all of a minute, insisting she drank some water. When she started to cry and it was clear, Keith gave up, wishing he could take her pain, feel it himself, anything. The afternoon came and he let her sleep, played music softly from the living room for half an hour but it didn’t coax her out. So he waited, and waited, and nothing came of it. Keith grew more anxious, and more desperate, until every minute felt like it dragged for hours.
There was a knock at Keith’s door at three pm sharp. His body felt so tensed he was ready to snap, practically shaking as he pried it open and came face to face with Shiro on the other side. Keith’s lip was quivering, teary eyed and frail, because Shiro noticed immediately, the questioning look on his face falling away to pity.
“Oh Keith,” he said, and grabbed him into a hug.
Adam came in behind him, Yumi held in his arms. She shrieked when she saw Keith, oblivious to his watery eyes as she kicked and demanded to be passed to him. Keith accepted her from Adam with a whispered thanks, drowning in the sympathetic looks the two men gave him.
“Hey darling,” he mumbled to Yumi, as the toddler threw arms around his neck and hugged him as if she hadn’t seen him in years.
Still rocking her, Keith turned to the others, sniffling slightly as they looked questioningly towards Judy’s room.
“I can’t get her up, I… I-I tried.”
And then he was crying. Shiro moved forward silently, hugging his brother gently. He shared a look with Adam, before leading Keith to the couch.
“I’m going to try and chat with her. It’s okay, Keith.”
Keith nodded, half aware of Adam moving about in the kitchen to make him some tea. He sat down heavily with Yumi in his lap, finding the toddler was somehow a good distraction as she tugged at his hair and demanded attention. Shiro wandered off to Judy’s room, and Keith hoped he’d have better luck. If anyone was good at talking people down from being angry or miserable, it was Shiro.
“Here, you should drink something.”
Keith smiled shakily as he accepted the cup of tea from Adam, propping up Yumi on his lap. Adam took the seat beside him, the both of them waiting patiently for Shiro to remerge. When he did, it was with a solemn look on his face. Keith glanced up expectantly, and Shiro sighed.
“She wants to talk to Allura.”
By the time Allura arrived some forty-five minutes later, Adam had volunteered to take Yumi to the park to keep her distracted, while Keith and Shiro continued to try and get Judy up, or at least drinking something. Keith was a mess when Allura opened the door, exchanging a few tense words with her before she was nodding gently and heading towards Judy’s room. The second she disappeared through the door he sagged, hours worth of stress and anxiety bubbling to the surface, erupting as he felt tears well in his eyes and all the strength drain from his body.
“Hey, you’re okay.”
Keith didn’t even realise he’d been heading straight for the floor before Shiro was there propping him up, leading his brother back to the couch where he could sit properly.
“I c-cant do it.”
There was no stopping the tears now; they’d been building up all day, and with his brother right there, and Judy still distraught in the other room, Keith let it all out.
“Shiro I can’t do it, I’m-“
He doubled over suddenly, an ill feeling crawling up his throat.
“Oh my god, I’m gonna be sick.”
“Keith, woah, Keith, just breathe. Have you eaten anything today?”
Keith shook his head, screwing his eyes shut at the rolling in his stomach. No food, mixed with overworking himself and stressing through the roof, it was making him feel beyond ill now.
“Deep breaths, that’s it. You’re alright.”
Shiro ran a hand over his back, waiting for Keith to catch his breath.
“You want me to make you some food?”
“No, no I don’t want… I can’t do it, Shiro. I t-thought I could help her, I can’t, she’s just so sad, and I don’t-“
Keith caught himself, his harsh whispers dissolving into little sobs. Suddenly it was as if he were the miserable fifteen year old again, the angry, damaged, untrusting boy who Shiro was pulling into a tight hug.
“I wanted to be better,” Keith mumbled, sniffling into Shiro’s shoulder.
“You’re doing fine, Keith-“
“I’m not. I’m not, I couldn’t even get her to talk, o-or eat, nothing Shiro, I thought I could help her but I can’t. They deserve better than me, and I’m sorry, I’m so sorry-“
Keith was crying again, and for a moment, Shiro said nothing, just tucked his younger brother in close and held him.
“Why did she trust me?” Keith asked. “She didn’t even know me.”
Shiro sighed, cradling Keith’s head against his shoulder as he cried.
“I don’t know why, Keith. I guess she didn’t trust anyone else. But… whatever her reasoning was, she wasn’t wrong, alright? She wasn’t wrong.”
A sniffle, then, very quietly-
“Yes she was.”
Shiro shook his head, squeezing Keith even tighter.
“No, Keith, no she wasn’t. When… when you first came to us, and joined our family, what kind of brother was I?”
Keith frowned through the tears, squinting up at Shiro.
“You were a good brother.”
“Yes of course you were,” Keith grumbled, defensive of Shiro.
“What? Shiro why-“
“I just wanna be sure. I was a good brother?”
“Okay. So if I was a good brother, but you still spent months hating me, and ignoring me, are you sure that’s true?”
“Shiro that was me. I was the shitty kid, you were-“
“It wasn’t you, Keith. It wasn’t. That was the world, chewing you up and spitting you out and treating you like shit. And you were sad and angry, and it was neither of our faults.”
Keith blinked up at his brother, tears still leaking from his eyes, but at least he’d stopped sobbing.
“It’s neither of your faults,” Shiro said, softer. “Judy lost her mom, she’s devastated. And you… you had to become a parent. Neither of those things are easy, Keith. Neither of those things are gonna fix themselves over night. You’re doing okay, it’s okay to need help. You’re sister was right, Keith. It’s going to get better I promise.”
Keith didn’t know if he believed him, but he was too tired to argue. Too upset, too worn-down; he simply curled up against Shiro on the couch and let whatever other tears were left flow freely.
Keith didn’t notice himself drifting off, finally feeling safe and comforted enough with his brother there. He was horribly disorientated when he next awoke, squinting at the dim lamp in the living room before his eyes settled on the window and the dark night outside. There was chatter from the kitchen, and vaguely he realised he could hear Yumi giggling. He felt at peace, for a moment, before the day’s events came rushing back.
Keith sat up fast, wincing at the slight headache he’d developed. There was a glass of water propped on the coffee table beside him, which he gratefully took and began to gulp down, before spotting the person residing on the armchair across from him. Keith nearly spat out his water, waking up fast now that he knew Judy was right there, awake, wrapped in her blanket but there.
“Hey,” he said gently. “You’re awake.”
Judy still looked miserable, her feet curled up under her, staring dismally at the floor. At least this time she acknowledged he’d spoken.
“How are you feeling?” Keith asked, desperate to know what he’d missed.
“Fine,” Judy said croakily.
There were voices in the kitchen, and Keith realised Adam, Shiro, and Allura must all still be here, respectfully giving them some privacy. A small sniffle, and all Keith’s attention was back on Judy.
“I’m sorry I didn’t eat the eggs and toast,” she mumbled, so quiet it was barely audible.
There were tears welling in her eyes, and her expression was becoming pinched, and what? She was apologising for that?
“Hey,” Keith said quickly. “Hey, no, that’s okay. I-I’m not angry, Judy. I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”
The girl bit her lip, trying to withhold the tears, and nodded.
“Thanks,” she said.
Keith felt a mix of pity and warmth and love all swirling in his chest. He was stuck on what to say, a million things he wanted Judy to know, that they cared for her, and loved her, and only wanted the best for her.
“Dinner is served!”
His train of thought was completely derailed as Allura came waltzing into the living room bearing two plates and dressed in a ridiculously frilly pink apron.
“Where did you get that?” Keith blurted.
“It’s Coran’s,” Allura replied, sweeping down to hand Judy, and then Keith, a plate.
“Why does he have that?” Keith asked, before the smell of home cooked food hit him and he lost interest in that thought entirely.
Shiro almost laughed when he came to take a seat beside Keith, his brother’s eyes comically wide as he stared down at the burger on his plate.
“Eat before you pass out.”
That was hard to argue with. Adam came from the kitchen with the final plate, Yumi clinging to his heels until she spotted her sister.
A huge smile plastered itself across the toddlers face, and she pattered over to the armchair, hoisting herself up and depositing herself in her sister’s lap. Judy didn’t seem to mind, silently sharing her food with Yumi, who was more curious about nibbling on the bread than anything. And Keith felt… calm.
It wasn’t as if the problem had been solved, it wasn’t as if the world was perfect, but it was okay. They had their footing again, and Judy was eating, and he had his family, all of them, there with him in that room. Maybe Keith could believe his brother, maybe it could get better.
Friday morning was a little tense; Keith almost held his breath in anticipation until Judy appeared in the kitchen, quietly pouring herself a bowl of cereal and sitting down. Yumi hadn’t noticed the disruptions of yesterday, and was back to being her happy, mildly temperamental self. They didn’t speak much, Judy didn’t want to, but she got herself ready for school, and thanked Keith when he handed over her lunchbox, and… held it together.
Their drive went by in silence, Keith agonising over what to say the whole way there. It was almost unbearable by the time they spotted the school grounds, and he pulled up wordlessly at the drop off zone. Judy grabbed her bag, fingers on the door handle-
She paused, eyeing Keith with guarded patience.
He paused, and Judy glanced out the window. She needed to go, else she’d be late, he needed to say something now-
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” said Keith. “I’m sorry you got put in this situation.”
He took a deep breath to steady himself; at least Judy was listening intently.
“I wish I could have met you two sooner,” Keith continued. “Known about you. I would have loved to have nieces, and... I know I’m not going to be like a father to you, probably never, that’s alright because I’m still your uncle and… and I still love you, Judy. We’re family, and not having your mom here… makes it hard. But no matter what, I promise to take care of you, and Yumi. I didn’t expect you, and I know I’m unprepared and I mess things up, but I will never, never, not want you.”
Keith took a shaky breath, daring to meet Judy’s tearful eyes in the passenger seat.
“W-we’re family. I… am lucky to have family. And whatever you’re going through, Judy, we’re going to be here for you, and listen to you. I’m so proud of you.”
Keith stopped before he could start crying, wondering if his words meant anything to Judy or if she’d just storm out the car.
“So have a nice day at school-“
He yelped when he was tackled into a hug, Judy reaching over from the passenger side to just about squeeze the air from Keith’s lungs.
“Okay,” he wheezed, patting her shoulder. “Okay, thank you.”
Judy pulled back just as abruptly, wiping her eyes before finally flinging her door open.
“Have a nice day too,” she said, tight, like it took a bit of effort.
Keith smiled brighter than the goddam sun.
It wasn’t until he’d left the school, dropped of Yumi, and was sitting in the morning traffic that Keith remembered the radio. In fact, he’d barely thought of it at all until his phone was ringing insistently, the all too familiar number flashing up on the screen. Keith froze up like the first time they’d called him, staring at the number he could scarcely believe seeing. Unwilling to let his second chance go to waste, he pulled himself together and quickly accepted the call.
Keith felt relief flow through his veins at the sound of Lance’s voice, just as hopeful and cautious as his own.
“Yeah, yeah it’s me. Hey guys.”
“Red! Welcome back,” Hunk exclaimed, over the sound of Lance’s happy sigh. “How’s it going, man?”
Keith cracked a smile, a little wobbly, but genuine.
“Uh, okay, I guess.”
“We missed you yesterday,” Lance said.
Did he sound concerned?
“You doing alright?”
Keith paused, touched by his concern and fearful of saying too much all the same. He took a deep breath to steady himself, then spoke.
“I… I wasn’t sure you guys were gonna call today. I’m sorry about yesterday, it was… it wasn’t a great day.”
Lance inhaled sharply, barely masked by Hunk’s sympathetic statement.
“Do you… want to talk about it?” Lance asked.
It was kind, and patient; this wasn’t for the entertainment of listeners, this was for Keith. This was for Keith to be able to shed some of the weight he carried.
“Yeah,” he breathed. “I really do.”
And he did. Keith told Lance all about their morning, about Judy not wanting to get out of bed, about his attempts at talking, at getting her to eat. Keith broke down, hands squeezing the steering wheel as he began to cry again, spilling all his insecurities as if it were nothing. He told them about Adam, and Shiro, and Allura coming over to help. He told them about the tension he’d felt that morning, and the things he had tried to convey to Judy when he dropped her off.
“And I’m sorry,” Keith finished, sniffling. “I just though I could do better.”
For a moment, there was silence, then-
“Oh Red, I’m sorry.”
Keith shoved his face into his shoulder at the traffic lights, embarrassed, suddenly, trying to wipe the tears away.
“Please don’t say that Red,” Lance continued. “I… I think you did everything you could.”
“Yeah,” Hunk agreed. “Situations like that… they’re never gonna be easy.”
“But I just…” Keith sighed deeply, preparing himself before continuing. “I want to do what’s best for her, but what if… I’m not the best. You know? If she… if she had a proper family, that knew what they were doing, maybe they’d know how to help and-“
“Woah, Red, listen to me,” said Lance, sounding concerned. “You are a proper family, alright? Don’t… don’t say stuff like that. I think people twist the idea of a family, Red, get it all muddled, think there has to be some preordained structure to it. The truth is, no one knows what they’re doing. The good people, they’re the ones who might not have any idea, but are trying their best for the people they love. And I think that’s what you’re doing for your nieces.”
“But what if she…” Keith bit his lip, hesitating. “Had a mom. Or something.”
For a moment, there was silence, and Keith almost feared what their response would be. Before the reply could come, he pulled into a little service road and out of the main traffic. He was close to work now, and he needed time to finish what he’d stared here.
“She had a mom,” Lance said softly. “And now she doesn’t. Red do you… feel like you should be replacing her mom?”
Keith squeezed his eyes shut, the noise in his head overwhelming him.
“Kind of,” he whispered. “I guess I do.”
Lance sighed, and Keith could almost feel the pity weighing on him.
“I’m gonna be honest, Red. You’re not her mom, or her dad, and I don’t think you ever will be.”
Keith flinched, but Lance clearly wasn’t done.
“That’s not your fault,” Lance said quickly. “That’s just how it is. If… if anything had ever happened to my mother, when I was your niece’s age, I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to replace her. I don’t think she wants, or needs, another mother. Because she had her mom, and she has the memory of her, and that’s something precious to her. You told me… Yumi calls you dad?”
“Yeah,” Keith said croakily. “She does.”
“Good,” Lance said softly, and he sounded so caring. “That’s good Red, you can be a father to her, because she’s young, and those are the connections she is making. But you can’t force those connections with your elder niece. She had a mom, and she loved her, and the devastating thing that we all have to accept is that, at this age, she isn’t going to have a mom again.”
Keith raised a hand to swipe away some tears, glad he’d pulled over. “But I want her to.”
“I know you do, Red,” Lance said sadly. “I know.”
“If she had someone else-“
“Who?” Lance asked. “Red, it’s not about being a replacement. It’s about being something new. You’re her uncle, and her carer; you can’t be her mom, you can’t do everything her mother could’ve, but you can still be there. Found family is precious, and it’s difficult, but you… you really are something, Red.”
Lance paused, a small noise of sympathy filtering through the radio once Keith realised Lance could probably hear him sniffling.
“Stop trying to be her mother, Red,” he said. “Start being her uncle. Because you are, and there is no less potential in that title to be incredible.”
Keith took a huge breath to steady himself, wiping at his eyes and staring glumly at the phone screen.
“You doing alright over there?” Lance asked.
“Yeah,” Keith said, and sniffled. “It just… hurts I guess.”
“It’s okay,” said Lance. “It’s okay. You don’t mean less, for not being everything her mother was. And I know you’re doing everything you can.”
Another miserable sigh, and Keith nodded.
“I… I guess. Thank you, Lance.”
“Honestly, I don’t know if I just upset you more,” Lance admitted.
“You didn’t,” said Keith. “Well, you did. But… I think I needed to hear that.”
“We’re here for you man,” said Hunk.
“We care,” said Lance. “We care a lot. I… I’m really rooting for you Red, no joke.”
Keith managed a weak smile. “Thanks guys.”
“No need for thanks, Red,” said Lance. “Now, how about we think up some things to cheer Judy up?”
Their segment ended up running at least ten minutes over, but no one mentioned it, and no one made any move to stop Lance as he talked Keith down, hearing all his insecurities out and leaving him feeling so much fuller than before. By the time the call finally ended, Keith could hear the difference in Lance’s voice as he continued on with the show; it was softer, caught on something, not fully in the moment. Keith had never felt so grounded.
Chapter 6: shout
Keith digs himself a deeper hole and a rivalry is formed
This chapters short and a bit of a mess cause I've been drowning in uni and work and everything, so sorry, I hope it's readable <3 Thanks so much for the lovely comments guys, I've been awful at replying but I appreciate them so much~
The weekend came, and while Keith mourned the loss of his favourite pair of radio hosts, he was thankful for the chance to breathe again. Yumi woke at the charming hour of six in the morning, and since she’d worked out how to escape her crib, came toddling into Keith’s room to tug his hair until he got up. He spent the morning tiredly sculpting play dough animals with her, grateful for the time with her, but really quite exhausted.
The knock came when Judy was up and finishing off breakfast, and drew Keith towards the door with a slight frown. He only grew more confused when he opened it to find-
“Hey Keithers,” she greeted, and grinned.
“What are you doing here?”
As happy as he was to see Pidge, it was a little unexpected.
“She’s your babysitter.”
“Jesus Christ!” Keith swore as Shiro popped his head in through the doorway, followed shortly by Adam. “What are you doing here?”
“Wow, way to great your best bro,” Shiro said, faking offence.
“Don’t ever call yourself my best bro.”
“I’m your only bro, I have to be your best bro.”
“By that reasoning you also have to be my worst bro.”
“Let us in,” Adam pleaded. “Unless you don’t wanna go somewhere fun.”
Keith frowned. “Somewhere fun?”
Pidge adjusted her glasses, still grinning. “I’m eating all your snacks while you’re out. Also, I already hacked your wifi.”
“I could give you the password.”
“No fun,” said Pidge.
Keith sighed. “Just… where are we going?”
Judy stared wide-eyed out the window at the field full of obstacles as they pulled into the parking lot. Shiro was grinning ear to ear, and Keith wondered how long his brother had been planning this for. The four of them, Adam included, were dressed in their scrappiest t-shirts, though Keith and Judy had spent the entire drive without a clue where they were headed. Yumi had wisely been left at home with Pidge to watch over her, and finally it was making sense to Keith.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon!”
Keith grinned; Shiro was the most eager of all. Peering over at Judy, the girl looked as if she was trying to conceal her own excitement, so Keith nudged her out the car.
“We’re going to beat those two, got it?”
Judy’s answering grin was so similar to Keith’s own Shiro nearly fell over.
Ten minutes later, and Keith found himself out on the field, scouting out a good starting point with Judy. There were plenty of strangers out playing today, but Judy and Keith had insisted on being in a different team to Adam and Shiro, so the two pairs could battle it out. Judy looked a thousand times better than she had on Thursday, and Keith realised what Lance had said was right. Kids were elastic, so while it was possible Judy could be back in a bad place tomorrow, today she might actually enjoy herself; that was all Keith could hope for, really.
“Remember,” said Keith, a little muffled through the helmets they had pulled down over their faces. “Shooting at Shiro’s chest is like shooting at a brick wall. You gotta go for his sides.”
Judy nodded seriously, crouching behind a haystack and levelling her paint gun at the hiding place of the opposing blue team a few hundred feet away. Keith glanced at her red helmet, then the red gun he held; that was Lance’s favourite colour, supposably. Maybe he could tell Lance about this on Monday. The siren went off, startling Keith a little, and the game was thrown into action.
Judy and Keith worked as a team, watching each other’s backs as they steadily crept closer to the enemy, shooting at the more daring players who darted forward. Keith flinched at the first bullet that hit him, splaying blue paint all over his hip. He fired back at them, considering chasing after them until Judy was tugging on his sleeve and pointing.
Keith narrowed his eyes at the pair of people shooting from behind the wheel of a large, rusted tractor, and nodded to Judy.
“We going for the kill?”
Keith nearly laughed at how serious she sounded, but gave the go ahead anyway. A second later they charged from their hiding place, taking off at a dead sprint towards Adam and Shiro. His brother noticed a second later, and they were shot at mercilessly, but it was already to late. Keith rounded the tractor, shooting at his brother’s legs, hearing Judy laugh as they were all painted red and blue.
The whole field became a blur of paint and people, shrieks of laughter or victory cries. Judy and Keith chased the others back to their hideout, still working as a team to avoid the opposition. Shiro was in hysterics laughing, whilst Adam looked like he was truly in it to win it, dead set on pummelling the others with blue bullets.
Minutes later, Keith collapsed behind a temporary building shelter besides Judy, peering through the open window at the chaos outside. Judy began to chuckle, and Keith saw she’d spotted Shiro and Adam hiding in a vulnerable position behind some dirt mounds. They had the upper ground, the perfect place to fire on them. Keith joined her by her look out, squeezing in by the low window and readying to shoot. He yelped as a bullet hit him directly on the butt, whipping around but not finding anyone, just blue paint covering his pants as evidence. Keith glared, but quickly turned back to help Judy, who was firing mercilessly on his confused brother. He only managed to get one shot off before another bullet hit him, again on the butt.
“Oh my god!”
Keith tried to shuffle out of sight, but it was impossible with Judy already occupying most of the hideout. He yelped when another two bullets struck him. Standing up, Keith shuffled to the open doorway, where the bullets were coming through. His eyes scanned the distant maze of haystacks; that must be where his attacker was hiding. Try as he might, he couldn’t see anyone. It was only when a blue bullet came flying from behind a taller stack that Keith’s vision closed in on the nose of a gun poking out, glaring at the new blue splatter on his leggings. He fired back, but whoever it was had already taken refuge, waiting until Keith turned slightly before firing another bullet that hit him, as per usual, on the ass.
“Stop shooting at my ass!” Keith yelled.
He was met with raucous laughter from the haystack, which only provoked him further.
“You good here Judes? I’m gonna go deal with a prick.”
“Go get him,” Judy said, eyes like a hawk as she tracked Shiro and Adam across the field.
Resisting the urge to shout as another shot narrowly grazed him – goddammit didn’t this guy miss? – Keith steeled himself, and sprinted from their hideout. He charged straight for the stacks of hay, hoping his attacker wasn’t some wimp who’d run already. Cause he had words for them. And a boot, if they got cocky. Keith vaulted over a haystack, ignoring the rest of the playing field as he jumped another obstacle and skidded around the make-do wall to confront-
“Stop hitting my ass!” Keith snapped, raising his helmet roughly so he could glare at the man.
Caught in the act, someone in a blue helmet stood up, literally shaking with laughter. Keith felt his glare turn to a glower, fist clenched around his gun, ready to shove this bastard to the ground except-
They’d frozen. The laughter they’d had going died on their lips as they stared at Keith. Then their helmet was also being lifted, pushed back through a sweaty brown fringe, revealing a flushed face and stark blue eyes and-
“I know you,” said Lance.
And oh. Of course. Keith’s soul left his body for a moment, mouth agape as he stared at Lance.
“No you don’t,” he snapped.
Lance beamed, gun dangling forgotten from his fingers.
“No, I do! You were at the ice rink!”
Keith felt shear horror spread through him, mouth falling open and stuttering helplessly.
“I…I have never been to the ice rink,” he defended weakly. “In my life.”
“No no no,” said Lance. “No. It’s so you, man. Wednesday? You nearly fell?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Lance scoffed. “What? No man, come on, we’ve met. I’m sorry for shooting-“
“At my ass! What’s your problem?” Keith snapped.
Clearly struggling to hold back laughter, Lance lowered his gun further.
“We’ve met,” he insisted. “I’m so sure it’s you.”
“And I’m so sure we haven’t,” Keith insisted.
He knew he was being overly defensive and hostile, but he was terrified of Lance discovering his identity. And maybe a little ticked off that he’d hit his butt so many times too. Lance’s lip quirked, and Keith hated how good he looked when he smirked.
“Come on, don’t act so butt-hurt-“
He yelped when Keith raised his gun to fire on Lance, close or not; a red splatter across his chest would look really satisfying right about now.
“Woah woah woah! Where are your guy’s helmets? You’re gonna get hurt!”
Keith dropped his gun as another man came charging into their hideout, and nearly suffered a stroke when he realised it was Hunk. It was all on Lance for not recognising his voice, but maybe Hunk…
“Sorry,” Lance whined, lowering his helmet at his friend’s request.
Hunk huffed, looking thoroughly unimpressed with the pair.
“Sorry if Lance was being an idiot,” he said.
“What!” Lance blurted. “Dude, you don’t even know what we were talking about!”
Hunk raised a brow, staring pointedly at the concentrated blue paint on Keith’s pants and then to Lance with a sort of as if you’ve never pulled this before look. Lance gasped, offended.
“Hunk, I wouldn’t-“
He didn’t get to finish, not because Hunk didn’t let him, but because at that moment a red-clad ball of fury decided to come leaping over the haystack firing ruthlessly on them. The pair of men screeched as red paint made home all over their clothes, and Keith tugged his helmet down just in case a stray bullet hit.
“Run!” Hunk yelled, grabbing Lance by the arm and pulling him away.
“We’re not done!” Lance called over his shoulder, yelping when Judy’s bullet hit him square in the face.
Good thing he had his helmet back on. Keith laughed, watching them flee, high-fiving Judy as she came to stand beside him.
“You looked like you needed some help.”
“I think you just literally saved my life,” Keith answered.
“Wanna follow them?”
They spent the rest of the game trailing Lance and Hunk, firing at each other as the pair fought back. And maybe Keith was a little bitter Lance’s aim was so good, or maybe he was just in it for the fun, but Lance definitely had some sort of rivalry going now, because he was relentless. It didn’t matter though, not when Judy shrieked with laughter every time Keith got hit, or when she cheered as they forced the blue team back. Keith was breathless by the end, high on excitement and adrenaline and happiness.
He didn’t risk Lance finding him after the game, managed to get the others to the car quickly with the promise of taking them for ice cream, and fled the scene. He did glimpse the man though, watched Lance pull his helmet over his sweaty hair, watched his eyes search the room for Keith. Keith saw the grey sweatshirt that clung to his arms, the dashes of red paint splattered across his clothing and the small patches of his exposed skin, marking him. Red looked good on him, maybe every colour did. Keith ducked out the room before those searching eyes could find him, blaming the blush on his cheeks on the jog he took to the car.
“Let me get this straight,” Lance said on Monday morning. “You set off the entire buildings fire alarm making two minute noodles.”
“Sunday was a long day,” said Keith. “I was very tired.”
“Two minute noodles!”
“I made the kids food alright, it was just my noodles.”
Keith sighed, slumping back in his seat as Lance burst into laughter. Their weekend had gone but fairly uneventfully, right up until last night, when Keith had managed to set off the entire complex’s fire alarm with his cooking.
“Did you all evacuate?”
Keith shut his eyes, yesterday evening’s events not doing wonders for his stress levels.
He shook his head at Lance’s laughter, merging into a lane of traffic before the presenter finally settled down.
“Oh man, I’m sorry Red. How about Saturday? Was that any better?”
Keith went very still, clearing the squeak out of his throat before answering.
“Uh, yeah. Yeah Saturday was great. We just like, chilled, at home. Didn’t go anywhere.”
He bit his lip, cringing slightly as Lance hummed.
“How… about you?”
A sharp inhale, and Keith heard Hunk mutter, “here we go.”
“I,” Lance announced. “Had a run in with my rival.”
Keith scoffed. “Your rival?”
“Mhm. Dude’s a menace. Keeps pretending not to know me.”
On the verge of chuckling, Keith suddenly froze.
“Yeah! I’ve met this guy three times now, and he keeps saying we don’t know each other. Paint ball yesterday! I run into him-“
“Because you were shooting at his butt,” Hunk reminded them.
“As you do when someone has a nice butt, Hunk,” Lance whined.
Keith half hoped a sinkhole might open beneath him.
“-I thought I’d only seen him at the ice rink,” Lance was saying, “but then I remembered! Vince’s Flower Farm! Dude’s pretending not to know me on purpose.”
Keith laughed nervously to mask his utter horror. “Sounds like a prick, huh.”
“Thank you!” Lance exclaimed. “I just don’t know what his deal is.”
“Stage fright,” Keith blurted.
“Uh, you know… maybe he like, recognises you.”
“Recognises me?” Lance laughed. “We’re radio presenters, no one recognises us.”
Keith hit his head against the steering wheel.
“Enough about that though,” said Lance. “Hey Red, have you ever been ice skating?”
After bullshitting his way through a five minute conversation on ice skating, and surviving a close to hellish day at work, Keith spent the afternoon keeping Yumi entertained before driving back to school to collect Judy from her dance class. She’d been quite grumpy that morning, but that was nothing unusual, and was easily excusable since she was doing so much better than last week. They were a little early, so deciding to drop by the last minute of class, Keith collected Yumi from the back and went for a walk through the school.
Yumi was perfectly fine walking by herself, but insisted on holding Keith’s hand as they travelled down the stairs. She chattered to him in nonsense as they walked, Keith replying with little hums, and in full sentences when he could guess what she was talking about. By the time they reached the dance rooms, rehearsal was just finishing, and Keith stood outside as kids filed out with their parents, chatting and tossing shoes or water bottles into their bags. He waited for Judy, waited until the rush was over, but she didn’t appear. Hoisting Yumi onto his hip, Keith ventured into the room; the teacher was still there, along with a few kids and their parents but… but Judy wasn’t.
He couldn’t have missed her leaving, surely not; Keith had been posted right by the door. A little confused, he ventured over to the teacher.
“Excuse me, sorry, I’m Keith, have you… is Judy still here?”
The woman looked him over, a little suspicious.
“I’m her uncle,” Keith said. “Judy Kogane, she’s meant to be here, did she leave early?”
“I’m sorry,” the teacher replied after a moment. “I don’t have a Judy in this class.”
Keith frowned. No, no that couldn’t be right.
“Uh, no, you do. She’s been enrolled since the start of term. Judy-“
“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “But there definitely hasn’t been a Judy in this class.”
Strangely enough, Keith’s first reaction was to argue. Because surely she was lying, surely there had been some mix up. Maybe Judy had given her a fake name, or… and Keith was out of ideas. A little flustered, he nodded to the teacher, hastily exiting the room to search the corridor outside. Yumi made a questioning sound, picking up on his sudden change in demeanour as he spun her around and kept walking. Okay. So Judy wasn’t at dance. Judy had apparently never been to dance in the first place. Then where the hell was she? Beginning to feel nervous, Keith scanned over the other rehearsal rooms, hoping he’d mixed the groups up and waited outside the wrong class. But there were no other classes on.
Frantic now, he left the building, searching the surrounding courtyard and then the usual path she took to meet them at the car. It wasn’t until he saw a familiar head of black hair waiting by the drop off zone that Keith allowed himself to breathe. Anger quickly replaced relief though, especially when Judy turned with a close to innocent expression on her face.
“Where have you been?” He blurted, probably sounding more fearful than angry.
Judy frowned, fingers fidgeting with her sleeve.
“No,” Keith said, finding it was hard to be firm with a toddler poking his cheek. “You weren’t. Because I just went to your dance class, and the teacher didn’t know who you were.”
Judy paled, but wiped her shocked expression away quickly. She folded her arms.
“Well she must be wrong. Because I was there.”
Keith straightened his shoulders, staring back at Judy with equal stubbornness. God, why was she so much like him sometimes?
“Judy,” he said. “Are you lying?”
Judy’s lip twitched, but she said nothing. And Keith could do this, he could be firm. If Judy wasn’t at dance, where had she been? Skipping school? Talking to boys? Smoking? Weren’t those things teenagers did?
“Judy. Where have you been on Monday afternoons?”
Nothing. Keith huffed, adjusting Yumi so she’d at least stop pinching his cheek.
“I need to know where you are-“
“It’s none of your business, alright?” Judy snapped.
And oh, okay, it was gonna be one of those conversations.
“Actually,” said Keith, “it is. I need to know where you are, Judy. You might think you’re very grown up and responsible, but you’re still a minor, and its still my job to take care of you. What if something goes wrong?”
“I heard, and I’m saying I know you’re lying, so Judy, where were you?”
Judy glowered, folding her arms tightly and shuffling her feet restlessly. Keith bit his tongue, wondering if he’d come on as being too invasive.
“I won’t be angry Judes,” he said, calmer. “I just need to know where you are to keep you safe.”
Judy kept her eyes downcast, looking angry and tearful all the same. Oh god, this was gonna be something bas wasn’t it? Something really bad, going off her guarded posture and look of shame. She mumbled something and Keith almost didn’t want to hear, didn’t want another problem and a new complication to deal with, didn’t want-
Wait, wait what did she say?
“I said I joined the mathletics team,” Judy bit out.
Keith stopped thinking for a second, his brain coming to a complete halt, so completely on the wrong track he might just have to reconstruct the railroad altogether.
“The… the mathletics team?” He said.
“Yes,” Judy snapped. “I wasn’t my idea to join the stupid dance group, okay? I hate dancing! It was that dumb social worker lady who just wanted to talk about her daughter, and how much she liked to dance, and because I was trying to be polite I said oh wow Jane that’s so cool your daughter dances, like no it’s not cool it’s boring and I don’t care but Jane didn’t get that obviously because she was the one who told you to enrol me in this dumb program and I don’t like it, okay?”
Judy took a huge breath before continuing, while Keith’s brain was still trying to kick into action.
“And I’m sorry I wasted your time and lied and said I was going, but I don’t want to dance, and I don’t want you to force me to do it because I wanted to join the mathletics team because I like maths but Jane didn’t even want to listen to me-“
“-so I’m really sorry Keith b-but I never wanted to do it and I suck at dancing, please don’t make me go to dance class-“
“Judes, hey, Judy, slow down a minute,” Keith tried, dissolving into light-hearted laughter.
Judy looked shocked to see him on the verge of laughter, but Keith couldn’t help it, couldn’t believe this is what Judy was stressed about.
“Are you angry?” She blurted.
“Am I… no, no Judy. Even if… I said I wouldn’t be angry, didn’t I? And this is-“ Keith cut himself off, the shear relief of it all making the situation all the more funny. “Judy, I’m not angry you cut dance class to join mathletics.”
“Mapics,” Yumi muttered seriously from her place on Keith’s hip, coaxing a hesitant smile from her sister.
Keith sighed, shifting Yumi’s weight.
“Judes, of course you can go to mathletics instead of dance. I… I didn’t know you wanted to, is all.”
Judy looked to be rearranging a whole lot of thoughts in her head, suddenly withdrawing a thousand lines of defence and aggression when met with simple, unexpected acceptance.
“I just need to know where you are,” said Keith. “I don’t want you to have to lie. Okay, Judes? You… you can talk to me, you know that right?”
Judy looked a little dumbstruck.
“Yeah,” she said eventually. “Okay.”
Keith smiled a little, just as hesitant as Judy, but somewhat happy over how their conversation had gone.
“You… you want take out for dinner or something? Maybe you can tell me more about your mathletics team?”
Judy frowned, but she looked hopeful.
“You actually wanna hear about that?”
“Course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”
The girl shrugged, staring at her feet. “I don’t know. It’s… maths.”
Keith snorted. “You’ve met Shiro. Nerds run in the family.”
Judy grinned this time, an honest to god smile. Keith returned the gesture, before nodding towards the direction of the car.
“C’mon. I gotta know how good your team is.”
Judy scooped up her bag and followed, still a little hesitant to talk but trying.
“We actually have a competition in a few weeks.”
“No way! Like, competitive competition?”
“Can parents come?”
“I think anyone can.”
“Can I bring a cheer squad-“
Keith laughed at Judy’s outraged expression all the way to the car, thankful when she smiled in return, dumping her bag of faux dance supplies in the boot for the last time.
Chapter 7: stay
The unexpected is beginning to be expected, and Keith learns a little more about the girl's past
Thank you SO MUCH for reading everyone, and thank you for the comments they're so NICEEEE
On Wednesday, the rain arrived. It came down in a torrential downpour all night, so that Keith was up with Yumi well into the early hours of the morning keeping her calm. When sleep did come, Keith was soothed by the patter of the rain and the sound of Lance’s voice, which chattered softly over the downpour as he read out one of the audiobooks recorded for Yumi. It was a lovely way to start their Wednesday. But if Keith had learnt anything about having kids, it was that the peaceful moments never lasted long.
“Judy! Wake up! We’re- shit- we are so late!”
Keith stood knocking rapidly on his niece’s door, nearly tearing his hair out in frustration. Judy flung the door open a second later, fire in her eyes.
Judy drew a deep breath to calm herself, and Christ, did Keith also look this scary when he woke up? Was this a family thing? Was this why his first and only boyfriend left him three days after accidentally falling asleep on his couch New Years Eve two and a half years ago-
“What is the time?” Judy grit out.
Grimacing, Keith held up his phone.
“Oh my god Keith!”
By the time he’d loaded both kids into the car and pulled out of their complex at alarming speed only to hit peak traffic, Keith was close to simply accepting his fate. Judy was so late already, what did a few more minutes matter?
“It’s called an alarm.”
Judy looked incredibly grumpy, arms crossed tightly and a scowl on her face. Just as they were making progress. Yumi chattered away to herself in the backseat, quite unaware of the predicament they were in. Rain hammered down on the roof of the car, slowing the traffic even further; hell, there was probably an accident ahead, at this rate it would take them hours to get to school. This had to be rigged, they had to be getting every red light, it just wasn’t possible-
Keith jumped at the sound of his phone ringing, the device buzzing away where it was plugged into the GPS system. His eyes widened when he realised it was Radio Voltron’s number flashing up on the screen. Dammit, were they that late? He nearly choked when he saw Judy reaching to answer.
“It’s okay, you- ignore it, you can ignore it!”
“’S fine, I got it,” she mumbled, and hit accept.
“Dammit,” Keith whispered.
“Hey,” said Judy. “You’ve reached Keith. But, this is Judy.”
For a blissful moment, there was utter silence, then-
Keith hit his head against the wheel, jumping when he accidentally pressed the horn. Yumi screeched from the backseat, less in fright and more just to match the noise.
“Who’s this?” Judy asked, sounding suspicious.
“Oh! Sorry,” Lance said over the phone. “I’m Lance. And I’m looking for a Mr Red. Though I’m thinking he might actually go by… Keith?”
“Yeah,” Keith sighed. “That’s me.”
Judy looked terribly confused, glancing between Keith and the phone.
“Do you guys… know each other?” She asked.
“Judy, right?” Lance asked. “Sorry for not introducing myself properly. Lance McClain, here with Hunk Garret, we run a morning radio show. And your uncle joins us during our segment!”
Judy shot a sideways look at Keith, frowning. “I didn’t know you spoke on the radio.”
“I don’t,” Keith insisted. “I… talk about parenting-“
“You talk about us on the radio?” Judy asked, raising her voice.
“What? No, no, Judy, I talk about me.”
“You talk about yourself?”
“I talk about what a bad job I’m doing!” Keith cried, giving up. “Like right now, literally, at this moment.”
The pair stopped their arguing at Lance’s sudden laughter, which was kind and amused all the same.
“I see there might be some confusion here. Don’t worry Judy, there’s no bad things being said. See we ran a short segment on nieces and nephews, and your uncle managed to get through to us on the phone line. Now we just keep him around for good.”
“What… what do you talk about?” Judy asked, still suspicious.
“Mostly about how he messes up,” Lance said smugly. “I’ve heard he can be a bit of a clutz, huh?”
“Yeah,” Judy said. “He kinda can be.”
Keith scoffed, offended by how quickly this conversation had turned on him. “I-“
“We’re forty-five minutes late to school, Keith,” said Judy. “And we’re not even halfway there.”
Keith shut his mouth as Lance laughed, sinking into his seat.
“Aw Red, every one has those days,” Lance said more kindly. “And you know we love helping out.”
“Helping out?” Judy asked.
“Mhm. Those new meals he’s been making? That’s on Hunk.”
“That’s me,” Hunk piped up. “Hey Judy, it’s nice to finally meet you.”
“Hey,” Judy answered hesitantly. “And yeah, his cooking has kind of been improving.”
“Thank you,” said Keith.
“Oh, and the recordings Lance made,” Hunk added. “To help Yumi sleep.”
“Is that what you’re always listening to?” Judy asked, turning to face Keith suddenly.
“Uh, no,” he stuttered. “No-“
“Like almost everyday,” Judy went on, never sparing him a shred of mercy. “It puts you and Yumi both to sleep-“
“Hah! Haha, very funny Judy, that is- w-we are definitely talking about different things,” Keith said, his voice cracking.
“Wait, does this mean we’re on radio right now?” Judy asked, thankfully losing interest in that embarrassing chain.
“Sure does!” Hunk replied happily. “Anything you’d like to say?”
“Uh… this is kinda embarrassing,” Judy said.
And wow, Keith was glad she got her fair share of embarrassment too.
“Aw, don’t be shy!” Said Lance. “We’re pretty casual here. You tell us your problems, we fix them.”
“We try to fix them,” Hunk corrected.
“We usually succeed in fixing them. And right now I’m sensing a pretty good opportunity to hear the other side of this story. What say you, Judy? We started this segment to hear about people’s nieces and nephew, but do you want to tell us anything about your uncle?”
Judy looked stuck on the question, still a little bewildered to find herself on live radio.
“Uncle Keith?” She repeated.
“The one and only,” Lance said. “Good to finally learn your name by the way, Red.”
Judy snorted. “You called yourself Red?”
“I was trying to remain anonymous!”
Judy cracked a grin as Lance said, “how’s that working out for you?”
“Terribly, thank you for asking.”
“So what’s the dirt on your uncle,” Hunk asked, far too eager to participate in the gossip.
“And what does he look like?” Lance asked, trying not to come off as eager but failing.
Judy hummed, studying Keith with scrutiny.
“If you say something mean, Yumi's picking our Friday night movie.”
Judy’s nose crinkled, and then she was grinning.
“He looks like if Dolly Parton was a samurai, and really strangely similar to the cartoon guy off that show with-“
“Dolly Parton!” Keith shrieked. “How do I look anything like Dolly Parton?”
“You have a mullet!”
Lance gasped. “He has a mullet?”
“He looks like a samurai?” Hunk yelled over him.
“Yeah,” said Judy, grinning ear to ear. “And he practises sword fighting when he thinks we’re not watching him.”
Keith gasped. “I do not.”
“Do too, and you knocked over a chair last time and tried to blame it on the cat. Keith, we don’t have a cat.”
Lance was absolutely cracking up with laughter on the other side of the call, and Yumi shrieked with delight at the sound of it.
“Oh! He also dyed my best shirt red because he forgot to separate the whites from the laundry,” said Judy, a huge smile plastered across her face.
“He didn’t,” said Hunk.
“He did. And!”
And then Judy was talking. Judy was listing, rattling off thing after thing Keith had done to make them laugh. One time Keith burnt noodles, one time Keith vacuumed up his car keys, one time Keith gave himself concussion trying to put together an Ikea desk. Hunk and Lance were in hysterics for most of it, listening to all the everyday disastrous activities Keith partook in. And Judy went on. One time Keith thought there was a burglar so he answered the door with a blowtorch, but it was just our social worker Jane. Now she’s stopped suggesting he dates her daughter. Keith sings along to really bad country music, Keith’s accent changes when he uses baby talk with Yumi, once he accidentally switched his beer with her apple juice and he’s still cringing right now thinking about it. It was funny listening to Judy talk, and she looked to be having the time of her life.
“Man Keith, we are getting all the dirt on you,” Hunk joked, and Keith…
Keith was smiling. There was relief, somehow, a loosening in his chest because… this was the dirt? This was what Judy had to say about him? It was so… ordinary. It wasn’t I hate you Keith, you’re failing as a parent Keith, I wish you’d never even met us. Instead it was Keith spending half an hour herding a spider out of Judy’s bedroom, or adding sugar to their stew instead of salt, or getting one of Yumi’s clips stuck in his hair and having to wear it to work. They were dumb things he’d done, meals he’d messed up and mistakes he’d made, but they were just… so ordinary. So human, so natural, that suddenly it felt as if a million tonnes of weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Because Judy… didn’t hate him?
“But he’s a very good artist,” Judy was saying, seemingly done roasting him. “He drew a lion for me, it was kind of amazing.”
“That’s an awesome talent to have,” Lance said. “When did you get good at art?”
“Oh, I… I wanted to be an art teacher,” Keith answered, still a little dazed from Judy’s positive response.
“Wanted? You don’t do that now?”
“No, uh, I guess things didn’t work out that way,” Keith said, and smiled tightly.
“Maybe they still will,” said Lance. “Who knows what could happen, right?”
He sounded a little off, a little too hopeful. Keith frowned.
“Yeah. I mean… I guess it could.”
“Anyway,” Lance said hastily. “Judy, what have you guys been up to this week?”
Judy’s face lit up immediately. “Oh my god! On the weekend Keith’s brother took us to p-“
“To the movies!” Keith yelled, cutting her off.
Judy looked confused. “No… we went-“
“To see a movie,” said Keith, wide-eyed and afraid.
If Lance found out they were at paintball, if Lance found out about him-
Please, Keith mouthed. I’ll explain everything please please please.
Taking pity on him, though still terribly confused, Judy nodded slowly before adjusting her story.
“Oooh. Yes, we went… to the movies. And not… outside.”
She grimaced, and Keith slapped a hand over his eyes.
“Oh cool!” Said Lance. “Sounds fun.”
Keith breathed a sigh of relief through his teeth.
“It was great,” said Judy, and shot Keith a look that said you will explain.
“So we’re like, nearly at school,” Keith stuttered. “I hate to end this, but…”
“You need to go, no we get it!” Said Hunk. “And Judy, it was so nice meeting you. Thanks for dishing out the much needed gossip.”
Judy laughed, and Keith couldn’t help but feel she’d developed a connection with the pair already.
“And is Yumi there?”
Keith grinned, turning to look at the curious toddler.
“Yumi, say hi.”
“Ha!” Yumi yelled. “HA!”
“That means she loved meeting you and talking was a pleasure,” Judy said, making both presenters laugh.
“It was a pleasure meeting you too Yumi,” said Hunk.
“And Judy,” said Lance. “I hope we can talk to you again!”
“Bye guys!” Judy said, a huge grin still on her face.
“Catch ya around, Red,” said Lance, and Keith could almost envision him winking.
“Yeah,” he murmured, as the others shouted their final farewells, “see you.”
The call cut out, the phone went silent, and in the space of half a second Judy’s smile had vanished and she was staring at him.
“So,” she said. “Why did I have to lie to Lance about paintball?”
Keith hesitated, wondering if there was any way he could lie.
“Because Lance was there,” he answered honestly.
“Lance was there?”
“Yep. You know the guys you saved me from? Lance and Hunk. Lance was the one shooting at me.”
“What! That’s crazy,” Judy said. “Why didn’t you… why didn’t you tell them, or say something?”
“I didn’t want them to know who I was,” Keith admitted.
“Why not? They’re so nice.”
“I know they’re nice Judes, I just…” Keith paused, gnawing on his lip. “I guess I’m scared.”
“Of what?” Judy asked, softer.
Keith laughed pitifully. “I don’t know. Of them knowing me, in person, putting a face to a name and… and knowing all the things I’ve told them. Like… like they know all my mistakes and… that’s scary.”
“But they like you,” said Judy. “They wouldn’t have you on the radio every day if they didn’t.”
“They like Red,” Keith said. “But I don’t know if… if they’ll like me.”
He stopped, realising what he’d just said to a fifteen year old.
“Sorry! Sorry, that’s- that was very negative of me. Y-you should always, be proud of yourself and like, like yourself, don’t worry about what people think-“
“Keith, it’s alright.”
“I’m serious Judy, you’re a very cool person, and believing in ones self is important-“
“Keith I get it,” Judy said, louder. “It’s okay. I get why you’re scared.”
Keith shot her a hesitant look, and saw she was smiling kindly.
“I’d be scared too,” she said. “It’s good that you like talking to him so much.”
“Uh, yeah,” said Keith, and cleared his throat. “Lance is pretty great.”
He realised his wording a second too late, choking on his sentence.
“Both of them, Lance, and Hunk, you know the two of them, they’re both cool.”
Judy grinned. “They are pretty cool. Now would you hurry up and drive faster? I kind of had school an hour ago.”
By the time the evening rolled around, Keith was exhausted by work, tired of sitting in the traffic, and still marginally damp from the rain. Judy collapsed onto the couch for a nap the second she got home, briefly complaining about the sports coach and the extra two miles he’d made them run. Yumi was set on entertaining herself, seated on the counter and ripping up a newspaper to shreds.
Keith watched her fondly as he dialled in the number of his favourite Korean restaurant, having decided that home cooked meals were overrated on days like this. He tickled Yumi’s cheek as the phone rang, smiling when she giggled and grabbed for his fingers. When a voice finally answered, Keith recognised it as the owner, an aging man he’d often stop and talk to when he went in person to collect food. He answered happily in Korean, familiar with the place and it’s staff, caught up in a conversation before he’d even placed the order for food. There were the usual questions; do you have a girlfriend yet? How are the children? What meal did you burn this time? Keith was happily lying through his teeth about the noodles he’d burnt when a third, much smaller, much younger voice joined the conversation.
“Dada, you talk too!”
Keith froze. He whipped around, phone in hand, to stare at Yumi. She was still sat there on the counter, shredded papers in hands, looking as innocent as ever except for the words that had just-
“Apple juice please,” said Yumi, in clear, perfectly pronounced, Korean.
“What the fuck?” Keith yelled.
Allura picked up on the third ring, once Keith had managed to end his call to the restaurant and successfully retrieved their takeout.
“Keith!” She exclaimed. “How are you?”
“Hey Allura,” he answered tightly. “So you know how I’ve been worrying about Yumi not talking yet?”
“Yes. Oh! Don’t tell me she’s said another word?”
Keith slapped a hand over his eyes.
“She’s fluent. She speaks perfectly. She speaks fluent Korean!”
Allura gasped. “She’s bilingual! At such a young age-“
“No, no Allura, she is not bilingual, because the only words she knows in English are Dada, Dee, turd, and… a-and…”
“FUCK!” Yumi yelled.
Keith cringed. “And that.”
Judy, who had woken from her nap at the initial outburst and was now standing chatting curiously to her sister, turned to glare at him.
“She surprised me.”
The teenager scoffed, flicking back her fringe as she turned to feed Yumi another piece of chicken.
“I don’t know how I didn’t realise,” Keith muttered, running a hand through his terribly messy ponytail. “She didn’t speak until I spoke, and now it's like the floodgates have opened.”
“Dada, want the juice,” Yumi demanded.
“No juice before bedtime,” Keith replied in Korean.
Yumi pouted and he pouted right back at her. On the other side of the call, Allura gasped.
“What did she say?”
“She wants juice.”
“What else has she said?”
“She’s… literally just asked for juice. She may not be as fluent as I initially thought but still, Allura, she can speak!”
“This is just wonderful,” Allura exclaimed.
“I mean I guess,” Keith mumbled. “But now I have to get her fluent in two languages. One was hard enough.”
“She’s going to be top of her class I can sense it already.”
“Allura,” Keith whined, “that’ll just put unnecessary pressure on her.”
“I think you’re worrying far too much about this Keith,” his friend announced. “Children pick up languages so quickly, this has simply proven that she can speak. Don’t worry about the whens and hows, the rest will work itself out just fine.”
Keith sighed, glancing at the bubbly toddler, who had food all over her face he’d have to go wipe up.
“Thanks ‘Lura,” he mumbled. “I guess you’re right. I better get back to dinner though.”
“You’ll be fine,” she chastised. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you,” he replied, setting the phone down once Allura hung up.
Sighing, Keith made his way back over to his nieces, thanking Judy for keeping her sister occupied before he took over guiding Yumi through her very messy meal. She could feed herself fine, just not… neatly. Keith grimaced as she slapped a sauce-covered hand over her cheek, humming excitedly around a mouthful of food.
“She must really like that,” Judy muttered, politely dishing herself some more.
Keith nodded, sneaking a larger piece of chicken off Yumi’s plate to cut up before she tried to deposit the entire thing into her mouth.
“So…” Judy began after a minute, sounding a little hesitant. “My mathletics competition is in two weeks time.”
Keith looked up to find the teen swirling food anxiously around her plate.
“That’s exciting,” he said. “Am I still allowed to come?”
“I mean if you want,” Judy said.
That was about the biggest, brightest yes he could get out of her.
“Is something wrong?” Keith asked, noting how reluctant she sounded.
“No,” Judy said quickly. “No, just…”
“I mean. They told us we had to wear school colours. So… orange. A-and I have an orange shirt, but I’m the only girl on the team, which sucks, and I don’t really want to wear like… jeans, cause that’s what the guys are wearing and I don’t want to just fit in with them because I kind of want more girls to join the team, but I don’t have… I don’t have an orange dress.”
She paused, staring at her plate and refusing to meet Keith’s eye. That meant he was meant to be continuing this conversation, which meant… uh…
“Do you… want to go shopping for a dress?”
Keith tried for a smile, but was a little too uncertain to commit to it. Judy’s head shot up though, dark fringe flopping over her eyes and goddammit he still hadn’t taken her to get a haircut but-
“Can we?” She asked.
“Uh, yeah. Yeah of course, Judes. That’s cool you want to stick out from the others. We can go tomorrow after school if you’d like.”
Because why not? It was likely to be raining again tomorrow, Keith’s work was pretty manageable at the moment, he could totally, definitely help someone pick out a dress. That was… going to be so easy. He definitely knew what colours to help look for, and… materials?
“Do you want Allura to come too?” He asked.
“Yes,” said Judy.
“So Keith, huh? Keithy Keith Keithers. Not the name I was expecting, honestly.”
“How long can I expect this to go on for?” Keith asked, as Lance continued rattling off variations of his name.
“Who do you think named me Hunk,” Hunk deadpanned.
“Wow guys, it’s like I’m not even here,” Lance complained. “C’mon Keith, you gotta give a guy time to adjust to a name like that.”
“Like what?” Keith bristled.
“One with so much potential!”
Keith shook his head in exasperation, watching the droplets of rain trickle down his windscreen.
“How come you picked Red?” Lance asked.
He was… irrationally caught up on this name thing.
“I had a red shirt on.”
“Why don’t we talk about something other than names,” Hunk suggested. “Like Keith, it was so great meeting your nieces!”
“Oh yeah,” Keith said with a smile. “Judy talked about you guys for hours yesterday.”
“She seems like a great kid,” said Lance. “Have things been better between you this week?”
“Definitely, yeah. She’s been more open this week, and today we’re gonna go look for a dress for her. She’s got this big maths competition coming up.”
“That’s great Red- oh, sorry, habit,” said Hunk. “Tell us more about that.”
Keith told them all about her maths competition, and the lead up to it. It was a good way to start the morning, watching the rain trickle down the windscreen as he chattered away on the radio. It made the traffic fade away into nothing, until it was just him and Hunk and Lance in the cosy interior of his car, untouched by the rest of the world. By the end of their segment, Keith was certain about one thing: he had become one of those parents who didn’t talk about anything but their kids.
Lotor wasn’t in the office that day, which made Keith exceptionally happy, and left him and Allura in a bright enough mood to still go shopping with Judy. Allura seemed the most excited of them all when her and Keith finally escaped work, running through the rain to reach the car and heading to collect the kids. Keith drove them a little way out to the larger mall, determined to find Judy the right dress. It was decently busy when they arrived, but he managed to find parking and wrangle Yumi into some shoes as she insisted on walking. Judy and Allura took off at light speed into the shops, leaving Keith to tempt the toddler along and keep her from getting too distracted by the various toyshops they passed. Allura already had an armful of dresses by the time Keith caught up to them, and was herding Judy in the direction of the change rooms.
“Keith!” She called. “We need your opinion.”
Which was how Keith found himself seated outside the change rooms, bouncing Yumi on his knee as he and Allura waited to see the outcome of each dress.
“That one looks nice,” Keith said, when Judy came waltzing out in the fifth dress she’d tried.
“Absolutely not,” said Allura.
“”Okay, but that one's nice.”
“Put it back Judy, don’t even look in the mirror.”
“I think it’s alright-“
“The hem is just wrong. Who is making these?”
Keith sighed as Judy disappeared after the ninth rejected dress.
“I thought it was nice...”
Allura patted his knee. “Keith, you think fingerless gloves are nice.”
Keith gasped. “They’re cool-“
“And cropped jackets.”
“I’m going,” he announced. “I’m gonna go find another dress. And it’s going to be the nicest dress.”
Allura chuckled as he got up, right up until Yumi was deposited in her lap.
“Oh, you don’t… I’m sure she’d like to look with you.”
“Nah,” Keith said, and grinned. “She’s been dying to bond with you all day.”
Allura grimaced at the toddler, who’d gone rigid in her lap, staring up at the woman with wide, wide eyes.
“What if she cries,” Allura whispered.
“I’ll hear her,” Keith said, waving dramatically as he backed away from the change rooms.
Yumi made a questioning noise, before her eye caught on Allura’s necklace and she became sufficiently distracted. Keith resisted the urge to laugh as he disappeared back into the clothes isles, on a mission to prove Allura wrong. This store was massive, rows and rows of clothing for Keith to look through. He set to work in the teen section, scouring through racks of dresses in search of the perfect one for Judy. He hadn’t heard crying yet, so assumed Yumi was still in good hands.
Keith was still searching through the racks when a familiar voice made him freeze. At first, he thought he may have just been thrust into another unfortunate encounter, but a glance up at the television screen posed in the corner of the store made him realise it was just a recording. An interview. Keith set down the dress he was holding when he realised it was Lance on the screen, seated in a comfy looking chair on the set of some kind of talk show. Hunk was there with him, but Keith couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from Lance. The sound quality was poor, just enough to grab his attention, but not actually let on to what they were saying. Lance threw his head back and laughed, and Keith felt his lip twitch.
They’d dressed up for the occasion, whatever it was. He supposed it wasn’t rare for Lance to appear on talk shows, they just weren’t usually televised. He wasn’t used to hearing and seeing, watching Lance’s lips move and the expressive way he gestured with his hands, wasn’t prepared for his fluid comfort, the way he propped his ankle on his knee or patted Hunk’s shoulder when the other told a joke. Lance was dressed in a suit, and it looked good on him, navy, with a pale blue shirt that Keith refused to say brought out his eyes. Said eyes crinkled when he smiled, charming the pants off their host and no doubt the other thousands of viewers watching. Keith felt a little unsteady, suddenly, watching Lance.
“You really like him, don’t you?”
Keith leapt about a foot into the air when Judy came up behind him, fisting the dress he held.
“What?” He blurted.
Judy raised a brow. “What’s Lance doing on tv?”
“I… I don’t know. I wasn’t watching.”
“Uh-huh,” said Judy, a sly grin creeping onto her face.
“How- how’d you even know that’s Lance?”
“I looked them up, obviously.”
“I thought you were still trying on dresses,” Keith mumbled, clearing his throat.
Judy shrugged. “None of them were right.”
The girl pointed over her shoulder, and Keith followed her thumb to the woman wandering the store looking very lost, a giggly toddler dangling from her hands. Keith would have laughed if it were not, in fact, his child being held at arms length. There was an old woman glaring suspiciously at Allura, and Keith really did feel laughter working its way out as she shuffled over to his friend.
“Oh god,” Keith chuckled, as the old woman angled a finger at Allura.
“Excuse me,” she began, “are you stealing this child?”
Deciding now was a good time to intervene, Keith made his way towards them while Allura was trying to explain herself.
“It’s alright, they’re with me. That… that’s mine,” he said, as Yumi spotted him and began kicking wildly in Allura’s grip.
The woman, easily placated, smiled wildly once Yumi was settled in Keith’s arms. She patted Allura’s hand, squinting up at the young woman, who still looked put off by the whole occurrence.
“You have a lovely family.”
“Oh thank you,” Allura replied, going right along with it.
The woman still hand a grip on her hand, so with her poor eyesight, brought it right up to her face.
“No wedding ring?” She asked, almost accusingly.
Allura looked to Keith, then Judy for help, her own joke turning on her. Keith just shrugged, flinching a little as Yumi tugged on his hair. He hadn’t even realised Judy moving until one of the dollar rings off jewellery stands they’d passed was being shoved onto his finger by his niece, and Keith’s own hand was being held out proudly for inspection.
“Oh!” Allura said shrilly. “That’s because my… uh…husband-”
She snorted, and if looks could kill-
“Oh lovely,” the old woman announced, cupping Keith’s hand in her own and inspecting the ring closely. “You have a lovely wife.”
And Keith didn’t know if she was speaking to him or Allura, only that his traitorous acquaintance owed him at least twelve additional days leave by now.
“You’re hands are incredibly rough, my dear,” the woman went on, and Keith glared pointedly at Allura.
“I’ll moisturise,” he said gruffly, causing the woman to frown.
A little confused now, she simply nodded, releasing his hand and wandering off muttering something to herself.
“Very funny,” Keith growled, as Allura and Judy dissolved into laughter on the floor around him.
“I think you charmed her,” Allura cooed.
“Take it off,” Keith demanded, presenting his ringed hand.
Allura gasped. “Are you rejecting my proposal?”
“Only because he wants to marry the cute radio host,” Judy said with a smirk, tugging the ring off harshly.
Keith froze as Allura’s laughter died down, and she narrowed her eyes.
“Ooh,” she said. “What cute radio host is this?”
Keith’s eyes darted to the tv screen, but thankfully it had gone to advertisements.
“No one,” he said. “Unimportant.”
“It’s who he was spying on when I came out here,” Judy said, the traitor.
“So that’s why you wanted to go,” Allura said with a smirk.
“No,” said Keith. “No, I was- hey, that’s not fair guys. I-I was looking, okay?”
“I see that.”
“I found a dress! Okay?”
“Y-yeah,” Keith stuttered, reaching blindly for the rack he was sure he’d left the dress on and snatching it. “See! I found one!”
Allura burst into laughter, but Judy, for once in her teasing, traitorous existence, paused.
“Oh,” she said. “I kind of like that one.”
They ended up getting the dress Keith picked out. Whether it was a glorious accident or whether he was actually gaining some eye for decency, Keith had no idea, only that he spent the rest of the day riding a high knowing he had successfully selected something Judy liked. Allura bought Yumi a sparkly orange scrunchie to match, claiming she wanted Judy to have a visible support group on the day, and Keith had invited her over for dinner as payment. It was so nice to see Judy and Allura getting along; Allura was nothing like a mother, but she was a friend, and although Keith knew Judy was steadily making some of those, it was nice to see her talking so openly with someone outside their family.
Allura left relatively early so Keith could put Yumi to bed without distraction, waving her way out the door and leaving their whole apartment smelling vaguely of a flowery perfume. Then it was just the three of them, winding down from the day, putting Yumi to sleep and going through their homework or chores. Keith had just finished with the dishes and was sat down to listen to an audiobook when Judy collapsed heavily beside him on the couch.
“Are you sure you won’t marry Allura?” She asked, clearly joking.
Keith chuckled. “Sorry Judes.”
She smiled, then went back to staring at her feet as Keith checked the weather for next week, trying to act nonchalant and not desperate to hear whatever it was Judy seemed set on saying.
“Thanks for the dress,” Judy began.
Keith did an internal fist pump, because finally, thank you world, Judy might just talk about something deeper than overcooked noodles.
“Your welcome,” he replied, casually as possible. “We’re all really proud of you for making it into the competition.”
Another minute went by in silence, and for a moment Keith feared she was done talking.
“Does it bother you that I don’t call you dad?”
Although he felt the question coming, for a moment Keith couldn’t react. He stared straight ahead, just like Judy, avoiding their reflection in the window overlooking the dark night.
“No,” said Keith.
A pause, then-
“Does it bother you that Yumi does?”
Judy bit her lip, bringing her feet up onto the couch to cling to her knees.
Keith breathed a little sigh of relief, and thought he heard Judy do the same.
“What if you- I mean, will you expect me to call you dad?”
Working up the courage, Keith finally looked over at Judy, but the teen stared stubbornly ahead.
“If you want to call me dad, you can,” said Keith. “But no I don’t expect you to, Judes. Fifteen is… I know it’s a little old, to try and accept someone as your parent. I struggled at thirteen, I’m still… it still feels unnatural, sometimes. You don’t have to… force yourself to see me as a parent, Judy. I’m gonna do all the parent stuff, y’know, feed you terrible food and mess up your laundry-“
“-but right now, I’m doing that as an uncle. And I’m… I’m happy with that. If you are. I don’t have to be your dad to care about you Judy. We’re family, you know, whichever way you want to look at it.”
Judy looked at him, finally, some of the tension ebbing from her posture as she smiled.
“Thanks Keith,” she said. “You’re pretty alright for an uncle.”
“Wow, that’s the nicest thing you’ve said to me.”
Judy laughed, and Keith kept frowning.
“No seriously, that’s literally the nicest thing you’ve said to me.”
He smiled as Judy began to settle down, folding her legs and relaxing into the couch.
“Just cause you’re not my dad though, doesn’t mean I don’t get to say who you should marry.”
“What? I’m not marrying anyone-“
“And I think if it can’t be Allura, then it should definitely be the cute radio guy.”
“Who?” Keith spluttered. “H-Hunk? Yeah I guess he’s pretty nice-“
“Oh my god Keith! You like Lance it’s so obvious.”
“Hah,” said Keith. “No I don’t.”
“Whatcha listening to on that audiobook,” Judy said with a smirk.
“You know what I think,” said Keith, tucking said audiobook faaar out of sight. “I think you are way to invested in my dating life, thank you.”
“Because I have to know who we’re letting into the family, right?”
“What if we’re not letting anyone into the family?”
“But Lance is nice,” Judy said, and it came out a little harsh.
A little too harsh.
“I know he’s nice-“
“Do you? Not all men are like that, what if you… I just mean not all men are nice.”
Keith blinked, stunned, as Judy turned from him quickly, folding her arms over her chest. Danger, his mind screamed. Danger danger danger she's upset.
“Judes,” Keith said slowly, suddenly very, very afraid. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
Judy huffed, angry and upset at the same time. She did get like that sometimes, often actually, but this just felt… like more.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
“Hey, there’s no need to be sorry. You alright?”
Another heavy sigh, and Judy glanced at him through her fringe.
“I just mean, like… dad wasn’t great, so… so it would be cool if you had someone like Lance, alright?”
Keith froze, hand halfway to patting her shoulder, and Judy curled up a little tighter.
“You… knew your dad?” he asked.
He couldn’t help it. Keith knew nothing about their dad.
“Well yeah,” Judy huffed out angrily, but underneath he could sense she wanted to be listened to. “He wasn’t around much but he did visit.”
“Oh,” Keith said, suddenly at a loss for words. “Judy did he… was he-“
“He was just a deadbeat,” she muttered. “And whenever he came back he’d act like he was going to stay and… then he’d just ditch again. And mom fell for it every time. I thought he was going to stay when Yumi was born but he just… ugh.”
Keith winced, glad it wasn’t worse but… well, it could have been one hell of a lot better.
“Is he… gone?” Keith asked, cursing himself over how insensitive that sounded.
“No,” Judy muttered. “Why do you think you got dumped with us, Keith? It’s so we didn’t… we didn’t go to dad.”
“I didn’t get dumped with you,” Keith said suddenly. “Judy, don’t think of it like that. I want you here. You didn’t… you know I would’ve wanted to know you, even if your mom… you guys are the most important two people in the world to me.”
Judy sniffled slightly, still glaring at her feet. When she turned to Keith, it was with steady resolve.
“You know, I don’t want to call you dad, ever,” she said, and for a second Keith feared all that anger was directed at him. “Cause dads suck. You should just be an uncle, they’re much better.”
And… woah, okay. There were definitely some unresolved problems there that would… need to be addressed, but for now, it would do. It would do just fine.
“Deal,” said Keith.
“Deal,” said Judy.
“But I guess you’re an alright dad if you want to be Yumi’s dad. Y’know? It would be kind of cool if she had a dad.”
“Deal,” Keith said croakily.
Tears had just started brimming in the corners of his eyes when Judy spoke next, all traces of deep and meaningful emotion successfully banished from her voice.
“Hey, can we make cookies?”
“Please,” said Keith, leaping up off the couch before Judy could notice how tearful he looked. “Let’s make cookies right now.”
Chapter 8: throw your arms around me
The limit is pushed, right before the game changes
Hi sorry I'm rubbish at replying to comments- I've just hit exam period and it was either update with a new chapter or reply to comments and I chose update but please know I appreciate you all so, so much, thank you for reading and continuing to motivate me to write <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The city aquarium was a place Keith had only visited once over the course of his life. He’d never been huge on the idea, but since the place had taken a huge leap in conservation efforts, and since Judy was so keen on animals, he decided the following Saturday it would be a good idea to visit with the kids. Also, he was going to take advantage of price discounts awarded to two year olds for as long as he goddam could.
Keith realised when they got through the ticket booth and found the aquarium mostly empty that they’d chosen the sunniest day of the year to go, meaning most people were outside enjoying the weather. That worked fine for him; the less people the better. Judy was entranced immediately, leaving Keith and Yumi to trail after her as she rushed towards the first display tank.
It was nice in here, Keith thought, the slight chill in the air and the dark rooms giving it a more authentic feel. Yumi squealed when he held her up to see the jellyfish, trying to hit the glass until he explained calmly to her why she couldn’t. It was as if Keith was learning more, watching her learn. They played at the touch pool, and Keith showed Yumi how to gently handle the starfish, until she began splashing water and Keith fled before they pissed off the attendee. Yumi stuck her nose against a coral tank, chattered in nonsense to the little shrimps she could spy through the magnifying glass, and ran shrieking back to Keith whenever the seal swam a little close to the glass, only to venture back cautiously and await it’s return.
“Hey, is it cool if I go back to the jellyfish?”
Keith glanced at Judy, who’d been watching the seal come and go with them for about ten minutes now.
“Yeah, of course. We can meet at the entrance in an hour?”
“Sounds good,” Judy said with a smile, hopping up and wondering off down the passage.
It appeared the seal had returned. The air was punched out of Keith as Yumi collided with him, throwing herself into his lap. He chuckled, even after he got a knee to the stomach and a sympathetic look from the mother seated a little way down from them.
And then Yumi was speaking Korean, rattling off a whole lot of nonsense, but words nonetheless. Keith smiled at her fondly and straightened the bright orange scrunchie Allura had bought her.
“Yumi, do you like the seal?”
Yumi beamed, grabbing for his cheeks and nodding enthusiastically. Keith chuckled, scooping her up and heading for the underwater tunnel he’d spied earlier on.
“Look Yumi, more fish.”
Yumi seemed content to be carried for a while, clinging to Keith’s collar as he lead them into the tunnel. She jumped as the ceiling above them turned to glass, water and animals all around. It frightened her at first, and she gripped him even tighter, until Keith brought them to a stop and spoke to her gently.
“Look Yumi,” he said, and pointed out a turtle. “Turtle.”
Yumi’s eyes widened as the animal swam over their heads, gracefully gliding past the glass and continuing on its circular path around the massive tank. Keith tried again, picking a simpler specimen.
“Fish,” he said, and pointed to a shiny silver fish that went swimming past.
“Sss,” said Yumi.
“Ish,” said Yumi.
Keith chuckled, and she grinned back at him.
Yumi looked stunned by the graceful black tip that skirted the glass, tightening her hold on Keith’s shirt.
“Yumi, that’s a shark.”
Yumi paused, then said hesitantly-
Her pronunciation was a little off, but Keith was absolutely ecstatic.
“Yes! Yumi, that’s right. Shark. You’re right, that’s a shark.”
Keith laughed; she was excited about it now. Catching onto his game, Yumi thrust a finger at the next animal to swim by, another, larger fish.
“Fffish,” said Keith.
Yumi giggled, happy she was getting the names right.
“You are very clever,” said Keith.
He kept walking, through the tunnel, where one tank morphed into another. This one had a more diverse range of colourful fish, and a number of rays settling in the sand amid thick sea grass. Keith pointed at a fish.
“Do you know what that is?”
Yumi wasn’t listening, her eyes wandering the tank. Keith studied the colourful fish, trying again for a response.
“Mommy,” said Yumi.
Keith froze, pulling back a little to look at his niece.
“Mommy,” said Yumi, her eyes sparkling where she gazed into the tank.
Keith turned, following her gaze. He felt a brick settle in his stomach as he watched the animal gently picking its way through the seagrass.
“Uh, yeah,” he said. “That’s a mommy.”
The manatee made its way very slowly toward them, dragging its nose through the sand as its baby hovered by its back.
“Mommy,” Yumi said again, planting her little palm against the glass as the pair of animals came swimming idly past.
Keith’s throat felt tight, watching the baby circle its mother almost playfully. He pointed to it, setting his hand just next to Yumi’s on the glass.
“Baby,” he said, very softly.
Yumi looked at him, then the manatee.
“Be,” she said. “Baby.”
Keith smiled at her, nodding, not quite trusting his voice. Yumi looked curious, almost as if she could sense what he was trying to tell her, just couldn’t quite understand it. Keith tapped his finger very lightly over her heart.
“Baby,” he said.
“Baby,” Yumi answered without hesitation.
She smiled and… and it was stuck. Keith knew that smile, it was her uncertain smile, when she wasn’t sure if what she was feeling was right. She was trying to learn from him, figure out what was and wasn’t funny, or happy. So he smiled at her, kind, and gentle, and Yumi’s eyes went from him, to the pair of manatees, and back. She had a word, a word she was trying to say, but wasn’t sure if she should.
She was looking at him, and the question hung in the air and Keith wished he could answer it, he did.
“No baby,” he said, trying not to let his voice crack. “Do you know who I am?”
He tapped a finger against his own chest, and immediately Yumi’s little hand fell to the spot, imitating him. She paused, and Keith almost wanted to cry-
“Dada,” Yumi said with conviction.
She smiled at him, a bright, childish grin, and Keith was gone. He hugged her close, careful not to crush her tiny form as he held his niece- daughter, his mind supplied, because if she called him dad then he could… then she was… she was his daughter, wasn’t she?
“I love you baby,” he whispered, trying not to sniffle like some loser who cried because his toddler called him dad.
And maybe she didn’t quite understand yet why she didn’t have a mom, or maybe she did, but she had Keith and he was going to anything to make up for whatever she’d lost.
“Down! Down, down!” Yumi began insisting after a minute, because as touching as the moment had been, she was still a toddler who was distracted very, very easily.
Keith let her down reluctantly, heart squeezing at the little smile she gave him before tearing off to peer through one of the portals in the tank. He sighed, wiping his eyes and leaning back against the glass for a moment while Yumi was distracted by the fish. What the hell had he done to deserve such a sweet kid? To deserve both Yumi and Judy? How had they come into his life so suddenly, and how had they torn down every bit of structure he’d had going and rebuilt it, better and stronger? Keith hadn’t loved a whole lot of people in his life. There was Shiro, his adoptive parents, perhaps Adam and Allura, and Pidge he supposed. But this… his own children, how was he meant to know how much he’d love them?
He didn’t understand it, he didn’t know how to word it. And yeah, sometimes imagining his future scared him; sometimes thinking of all the years it would take to raise Yumi, all the opportunities to mess it all up frightened him, but sometimes… sometimes it was a nice thought. Sometimes the thought of getting Yumi her first school uniform, or helping her with her homework, or teaching her how to tie her shoes, they were good thoughts. And sometimes Keith wished he had someone there to maybe go through it all with him, but going at it alone, it would be alright too. He sighed, gazing up at the glass above his head, giving in to the urge to smile as he watched the pair of manatees continue their path along the sand. He hoped what he’d tried to tell Yumi was okay, hoped it didn’t upset her. Speaking of…
Keith glanced at the portal she’d been looking through, but she wasn’t there. Oh. Oh no. Oh god oh no oh shit oh no.
“Yumi?” Keith tried again, hoping she’d wondered just a few feet down the tunnel and would come running back to him.
Unfortunately, that seemed to not be the case, because Yumi neither replied nor remerged. Cursing, Keith picked the direction she was most likely to have slipped off in and jogged down the tunnel in search of her. Nice one, Kogane. He could see the headline already, Inattentive Man Loses Child to Shark in Aquarium. Toddler Drowns in Touch Pool as Father Looks On. Small Girl Vanishes in City Aquarium- Father is Prime Suspect. She was going to be one of those kids who disappeared and never resurfaced, or she was going to fall into a tank and he’d loose custody of her once she narrowly avoided being eaten by a grouper fish and Keith didn’t even know if grouper fish ate toddlers only that they looked big enough to and if one had the appetite-
No, no, Keith was not going to think about all of that. He was near frantic when he reached the end of the tunnel and still there was no sign of Yumi. It opened out into a much larger, darker room, where a massive glass wall separated him from a tank full of graceful sharks. It was eerily quiet in here, and there were almost no people, no one except that man, who was holding his toddler. Keith felt fury building in his chest, marching forward and about to demand what the hell anyone was doing picking up his kid until the man spoke and Keith stopped, quite abruptly, his defences falling flat and pooling miserably at his feet, because… oh.
“Hey? Where did you come from?”
The man hadn’t noticed Keith; all his attention was on Yumi as he bounced the toddler in his arms to make her giggle. His eyes swept the room, moving right over Keith in the dark confines. It gave Keith another moment to just look, to breathe and accept what was about to happen, to let his eyes linger just briefly on Lance holding Yumi and realise how right it looked.
“Where are your parents?”
As nice as the picture may have looked to Keith, Lance was clearly getting worried, easily supporting the toddler but beginning to search more frantically for her parents.
“There you are.”
Keith stepped forward from the little patch of shadows by the entrance to the tunnel, fighting to keep his voice steady when Lance’s face lit up at the sight of him.
“Dada!” Yumi squealed when she spotted him, effectively proving to Lance he was indeed handing over the child to the correct person.
Keith hid a little smile, walking forward sheepishly to collect his daughter.
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “Thanks.”
“All good man,” Lance mumbled, never taking his eyes off Keith.
Yumi came to him easily, and for a moment he felt genuine relief at having her back amid the rush of other emotions.
“You can’t wander off like that,” he said, carefully taking Yumi’s face between his fingers to check she hadn’t hurt herself on the way here, or tried to consume any bits of garbage (which was very much a signature Yumi thing to do).
Satisfied no harm had come to her, Keith finally worked up the courage to look at Lance. It was a bad idea. From a distance, in the dark, holding his toddler he’d already looked a dream. At this proximity, in a shadowy room illuminated by the shifting blue lights that lit up the shark tank behind them, Lance was… Lance was really beautiful.
“Thank you,” said Keith. “Sorry, I don’t know how she got away.”
“’S all good,” Lance said, sounding uncharacteristically soft. “They’re pretty speedy at that age, huh?”
“Oh, do you… do you have kids too?” Keith blurted.
It was a weak cover up, but Lance smiled and answered anyway.
“Me? No, no I’ve got nieces and nephews though. They’re a bit older now, but when they were that age I’d lose them all the time.”
He chuckled weakly and Keith smiled. It was almost painful, the expression Lance wore. It was like they knew, but they wouldn’t say it-
“I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot lately,” said Lance. “But you… look kind of familiar.”
This was nothing like the last time they’d met. Paintball had been fast, and aggressive, and accusing. Now Lance just had the time to look at him, to look and look and look. His eyes drifted over Yumi, then back to Keith’s face, and when he spoke it was gentle, holding a little ounce of curiosity.
“Guess I have one of those faces,” Keith said, brushing him off nonchalantly.
“I-I mean… I don’t know.” Lance glanced at his feet. “Sorry.”
He thrust out a hand suddenly, startling Keith a little.
“Sorry, I’m Lance, by the way.”
Still shaken, Keith gingerly took hold of his hand, supporting Yumi with the other.
Keith looked at the shark tank, looked at the animal information board beside it.
Lance gasped, and for a moment Keith seized up in terror thinking he’d been caught.
“You have the same name as their giant stingray!” Lance exclaimed, releasing Keith’s hand to whip around and stare at the tank.
“Huh,” Lance said, planting hands on his hips. “That is so crazy.”
Keith stared at him, almost felt sorry for him. Because come on.
Keith nearly jumped when Yumi attempted Lance’s name, coaxing a stunningly bright grin from the man.
“That’s right, I’m Lance. And what’s your name princess?”
“Me!” Yumi yelled.
Kith huffed out a laugh, hugging her tighter.
“You sure are.”
“Baby,” Yumi tried again, making Keith smile wider.
“She’s been learning some new words today. Her name’s Shelly.”
“Hey isn’t that the name of the seal here?” Lance asked, frowning.
“Yeah I think so…” Lance grinned. “Sure you’re not making these names up?”
Keith’s eyes went wide, heart skipping a beat or two because-
“No,” he said defensively. “Why would I do that?”
“Oh, sorry, that was a joke.”
Keith forced a smile, and Lance chuckled nervously, shoving his hands into his pockets. Keith liked the jacket he had on today, had liked all of Lance’s clothes so far, but this one looked particularly comfy. It looked soft, a little tattered but only because it was well worn, loose enough that Keith might just be able to tuck up in it too if he came a little closer-
“Man, she must really like sharks.”
Keith was pulled from his thoughts, praying that wasn’t a blush burning his cheeks. He distracted himself by looking at Yumi, who was gesturing wildly to the tank and muttering something that did sound vaguely like ‘shark’.
“They’re my favourite animal too,” said Lance. “The have a leopard shark, and some reef sharks, but they’re all real friendly.”
Yumi followed Lance’s pointer finger to the animal swimming by gracefully, looking between it and Lance in bewilderment. Lance chuckled, as gone for Yumi as just about everyone who met her inevitably was.
“I think she wants to jump in there with them.”
“No, no swimming for you,” Keith huffed.
He repositioned the toddler and tapped her nose gently to get her attention.
“You can’t swim.”
“Shark,” Yumi whispered, as if that might be her answer to everything now.
“You know- uh, I teach kids swimming lessons.”
I know was on the tip of Keith’s tongue, until he remembered that while he knew, Lance did not, and blurting out that wonderful little fact was a perfect way to blow his cover.
“Sorry, I don’t know if that’s like, a weird offer, coming from a guy you just met, but… in case you were looking. She seems pretty keen on water, huh?”
Keith paused, taken back by how genuine Lance sounded and… looked. He was reminded of the first time offered, the first time Lance offered anything really. To all the advice he’d given, and the time he allotted to Keith almost every day, and the books he must have spent hours searching for, reading and recording all for a family he didn’t even know. The first time he’d offered swimming lessons over the radio, to now, to right now in this moment where he didn’t just sound genuine but looked it. Lance looked kind. And that was the curse of getting to know someone through words, Keith thought, that was the curse of maybe, maybe, falling in love with someone through the sound of their voice and their indirect actions. It was a curse, because once you met them… Keith didn’t stand a chance.
“I actually… I was looking,” he said.
Lance jolted a little, like he hadn’t expected to hear that. His surprise faded quickly, replaced by a quiet sort of joy.
“Oh. Cool, cool… well do you… look, I’ll give you the number of the swim school. You can call, well when you call you can specify which class she’ll need and- yeah, you get it.”
And then Keith was watching Lance withdraw a pen from his pocket, was watching him fumble around until he produced an old receipt, smiling sheepishly as he scribbled the number down for Keith.
“Just ignore my grocery choices on the other side of this- frosty flakes are the better flakes, I’m just saying- and we’ll be good.”
Keith stared numbly at the receipt as it was placed into his hands, the one complete with a number that would reach Lance directly, a number he didn’t have to go up against chance by calling, a number that lead directly to the man before him. And why the hell was Keith hiding?
“Thank you,” he said.
He met Lance’s eye. The leopard shark was just passing by, and as it’s speckled form flooded the glass, Lance was cast into momentary shadow. Then it was gone, and he was bathed in blue light again, blue in his eyes and painting the tips of his ears, his hair and his clothing awash in the colour, blue like a varnish over his neck. Tell him. Tell him. I’m Keith, he wanted to say. I’m Red. And you… It’s your voice that puts my daughter to sleep, and it’s you who teaches me to love them better, and It’s you who I want to speak to every morning, every day, it’s your stories I like to hear on the radio, and your laugh and sympathy and your love of every living day.
“Are you… are you sure I don’t know you?”
Suddenly Lance’s voice sounded a whole lot older. Those were the words that had been on their way from the beginning, fighting their way through the rest of it, the stumbling introductions and the short lived laughter and the offerings. They’d fought their way through it, and now they were here, sounding older, and wiser, and softer. Are you sure? Lance looked so hopeful Keith thought it might kill him. He was frowning, softly, eager in a frightened way and happy in a sad way and all in all just a desperately hopeful person anticipating failure.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” said Keith.
“What? No, no don’t be sorry.”
Lance forced himself to chuckle, though it sounded weak.
“That’s on me, sorry, I don’t know why you looked so familiar, it’s stupid.”
Lance stopped his rambling, looking at Keith curiously. And Keith couldn’t take it. He needed to get out of here, needed to get away from Lance before that look and this moment got to him any more than they already had.
“I- I have to go,” he said. “I’m meant to be meeting someone.”
“Right,” Lance said quickly, as if he’d been shaken out of a trance. “Yeah, you should get going then.”
“Uh, thanks for finding her and all,” Keith said, squeezing Yumi a little tighter.
“No problem, man,” Lance replied with a smile. “Glad she got back in one piece.”
Keith smiled, but it felt stiff. Lance’s eyes followed him as he began to turn and back away towards the tunnel. He hadn’t even reached the entrance before he stopped.
When Keith turned, those blue eyes were on him, just as hopeful as they ever had been. Lance looked smaller now, with the tank at his back, no more Yumi and no more Keith to keep him company. Tell him. And it hurt how much Keith wanted to. Lance’s lips were parted slightly, as if he had a reply waiting already, and Keith just needed to speak, to admit it, and things would fall into place.
Except they wouldn’t, he reminded himself. Because life wasn’t that simple. And Keith might have wanted, and wanted and wanted and wanted, but he did not deserve. It was better this way, better to never give Lance the chance to leave them. He’d leave first, he could do that. It would hurt, but he could. They were two strangers, nothing more, and nothing less.
“You should check out the coral tank, if you haven’t, it’s… it’s pretty cool,” said Keith.
Lance’s lips caught on a word, swallowed it. He shrunk back a little, some of that hope draining.
“I will,” he said, but Keith was already gone.
Coward. He knew he was, but he didn’t turn around. He walked straight back through the tunnel, away from that scene, holding Yumi close and ignoring the way she whined and called after Lance like Keith was ripping away the best word she’d learnt all day.
Judy found them nearly half an hour later, father and daughter curled up together in a little alcove near the entrance, sulking. It had taken Yumi a long while to settle, to accept she wasn’t going to see Lance again. Now, tired from a long day out, she was curled up half asleep in Keith’s lap, sucking her thumb and glaring at him.
“Wow,” said Judy. “Rough day?”
Keith’s fist closed around the receipt bearing Lance’s number, startled.
“What’s that?” Judy asked.
“Ready to go?”
“Yeah I guess,” the teen replied. “Are you guys alright?”
“Yeah,” Keith lied, and forced a smile. “We’re fine. Which animals did you see?”
As much as Judy’s excitable chatter cheered him up, Keith still drove them home with a sick feeling in his stomach, which only grew worse once he bundled up the receipt Lance had given him and threw it in the bin, determined not to chase away the little bit of the man he had.
Hunk wasn’t on the radio come Monday morning. He’d come down with some kind of flu, and had written a very long apology letter that Lance dutifully read out to the listeners. Keith felt sorry for him, but at the same time, thankful, because when he picked up the phone and it was just Lance… He wasn’t stupid, he knew there were thousands of others listening in, but with just him and Lance speaking, it gave the illusion of privacy, of intimacy, almost. Lance was just as soft spoken that morning, and Keith was drowning in it.
“Is she seriously falling asleep to those books I read?”
“Almost every night,” said Keith, and smiled. “The Mermaid’s Tail is her favourite, but she also loves that one with the frogs. I think it’s how you do the voice of the father frog, it makes her laugh.”
Lance did laugh then, a disbelieving chuckle.
“It’s true. I barely read to her anymore.”
“I’m stealing all your reading time?”
“No, don’t worry,” Keith said with a shake of his head. “I’m getting more sleep cause she’s getting more sleep. So, thanks.”
“Not a problem Red.”
Keith heart did something at the mention of his nickname; Lance still called him that, even now that he knew Keith’s name. Rational thought went out the window for a moment, with Keith feeling so drunk on the sound of Lance’s voice.
“I kinda wish you could read to her in person sometimes.”
Lance made a choked noise, and Keith realised his mistake a second too late.
“Sorry,” he blurted. “I meant like, you said you always read to your niece and nephew, t-that seems like a nice thing, you do for them.”
“Don’t sweat it Red, I know what you mean.”
Lance laughed shakily, but there was something deeper to his tone. Oh god, had Keith gone to far? Did he hate him now? This was why he refused to introduce himself, this was why he’d thrown that number away; present Lance in person to him, present an actual, tangible possibility, and Keith was sure to screw it up.
“What about Judy?” Lance said, clearing his throat. “How’s she doing?”
“Really well,” said Keith, and breathed a sigh of relief. “She got invited to a sleepover with some girls from school. She’s making friend now, slowly. It’s really good.”
“And you and her, you’re managing?”
“Actually, better than ever,” said Keith, and smiled. “She um… we had a good talk, the other day. After the dress and… well you know that stuff you told me? After she slipped?”
Lance hummed softly.
“Yeah. You said I couldn’t try replace her mother, or father. A-and you were right, and she doesn’t… want me to. Because we’re family no matter what, right? I don’t have to be her father to care about her and she doesn’t have to be my daughter. I’m her uncle, and that’s… I feel so lucky, you know? To have them.”
“Man Red,” Lance said softly. “Hunk isn’t even here but I can tell you he’s crying his eyes out back home.”
That made Keith smile wider, happiness flowing through him at the gentle tone Lance was using.
“Yeah, it’s been a good week,” he said. “Yumi even… she’s been calling me dad for a while, but I think she like, finally understood on the weekend.”
Keith sniffled suddenly, hit with a wave of strong emotion.
“I think she finally got what it… meant, and stuff.”
“Keith, that’s amazing,” Lance said. “How did… that’s so amazing man, I’m happy for you.”
“I love her so much,” Keith spluttered, caught between crying and laughing. “I don’t understand how I have such an awesome kid, and it… I’m not used to calling her my daughter but it doesn’t feel wrong?”
“Of course it won’t feel wrong,” Lance said. “Look at you Red, you’re the best father any kid could ask for.”
“I don’t know about the best,” Keith said.
“Well you’re pretty alright, how about that? Pretty more than alright. Found family’s a precious thing, huh?”
“Yeah,” Keith said shakily. “And I was so worried when she first pointed it out, this manatee and it’s baby, I thought she was going to be upset, cause I wasn’t her mom, but she just got it and… I don’t know. It was right.”
Keith let go a trembling breath, tilting his head back to stop the tears because come on, this was a happy moment. Lance was agreeing with him, but he was also distracted, because-
“Manatees? Man, where were you that you saw manatees?”
And Keith froze. His fingers felt too stiff around the steering wheel, and his tongue too heavy. It should have been overwhelming, the panic, instead-
“Oh right,” he said calmly. “We went to the aquarium. On Saturday.”
Lance’s breath caught for a second, loud enough that Keith couldn’t have imagined it.
“You were at the aquarium?”
“No way! I was at the aquarium too.”
Keith smiled, pushing through the loud thumping in his chest and his anxious thoughts begging him to flee.
“Yeah! Man I… I could have seen you guys.”
Keith lost his breath for a second, dizzy with possibilities.
“That would have been crazy,” he breathed.
“That would have been awesome,” Lance said.
He chuckled, and the sound was like honey, filling Keith’s ears and warming him from the inside out. It was sweet, and it was personal, and in that moment he wanted nothing more than to have Lance before him, to look him in the eye and take his face between his palms and tell him. It’s me. It’s me, I’m Red.
Lance’s voice pulled him from his thoughts, but it wasn’t directed at him. A sigh, then-
“I’m being told I have to wrap this up,” Lance mumbled, trying not to sound so dejected but failing.
“Oh,” said Keith.
“I don’t… want to stop talking to you,” said Lance.
“I’ll be back tomorrow, right?” Keith said, trying for a smile.
Lance just sighed, and it did things to his heart he didn’t understand.
“I guess so,” he said. “I just… wish I could keep talking to you right now.”
Keith’s heart did a big thing then, skipping and jumping and maybe trying to climb right up and out his throat.
“I want that too,” he said.
Seeming to remember he was on live radio, Lance cleared his throat, trying to sound more cheery as he bid Keith goodbye.
“But I guess you’ll be back tomorrow!”
Keith smiled, though in a way it hurt.
“I look forward to it.”
“You have a good one, Red.”
“Yeah, uh, you too, Lance.”
Lance. Keith realised he hadn’t said that name very much. It felt right, sounded right. He felt giddy.
“See you around, Keithy-boy,” Lance said, and this time Keith knew he winked.
He opened his mouth to reply, but the call cut off. He just had to get the last word in, huh? Keith smiled, and reached to turn up the radio without seeming too desperate. Whatever Lance had said immediately after the call remained a mystery, only now Video Killed the Radio Star was blaring through his speakers. Keith shook his head, continuing on his way to work with a light feeling in his chest. Lance had better not disappear, ever. Keith didn’t really know what he’d do without him, what he’d been doing before him. Could you fall in love with a voice and idea and a glimpse of a person? He thought so.
Ten minutes later, Keith pulled in to work. Allura’s car wasn’t there yet, which meant for once in his life he was early. Still smiling, Keith grabbed his backpack off the seat and locked up the car, meandering towards the building’s entrance. There weren’t too many people there yet, and Keith found his way to their cubicle-
“Ah, I see you’re on time, Mr Kogane.”
Keith froze, backpack slipping from his shoulder on it’s way to the floor. Lotor smiled up at him, seated in Keith’s chair with his feet propped up on his desk; his empty desk.
“Don’t worry about putting that down,” Lotor said smarmily, gesturing to Keith’s backpack. “You’ll be picking it up in a second.”
“What… what’s happening?” Keith asked, trying to swallow around the lump in his throat.
“Redecorating,” said Lotor, then laughed. “Just kidding. I think we both know what’s happening, Keith.”
He pat the box resting beside his elbow, the one containing all of Keith’s belongings.
“I packed up your things for you, thought it’d make the process go a little quicker. Hopefully you can… move on out before Allura gets in. Given that she doesn’t know and all. I’d hate to cause a fuss.”
Keith just stood there, numb, staring at Lotor’s smug face and his empty desk.
“I… I don’t understand.”
Lotor frowned. “Seriously?”
“I suppose you have always been a little on the dumb side.”
He stood, picking up the box and dumping it straight into Keith’s arms.
“Congratulations Keith,” he said. “You’re fired.”
Chapter 9: the end of the world
An easily solvable problem continues to go unsolved, and Keith despairs
Thank you so much for the lovely comments everyone (and thanks to everyone who wished me luck on exams i love u)! ughughhhughgughg I don't know how I feel about this chapter but I hope you find it alright... anyhow thanks to everyone reading and sorry for the unnecessary amounts of drama but thats just how its gotta be ;)
The sand felt cold beneath Keith’s feet, but then again, he supposed it was a gloomy day in general. The wind had picked up, more so here by the bay, and the sky was a dull, dry grey. Perfect. Perfect for sulking, that was.
Keith felt a little hopeless, staring out at the turbid water, a little lost and a little battered, letting the wind pick him apart bit by bit. He recognised the pink car that came screeching to a halt in the parking lot by the beach, sighing as he watched Allura emerge in a flurry. Keith dug his toes in further, work pants rolled up to his knees and shoes forgotten somewhere near his car. He didn’t really know why he’d come to the beach, for a bit of quiet maybe. Allura was storming towards him now, her hair gone wild in the wind, a purple scarf fluttering around her neck. She came to a stop ten feet from him, hands balled into fists and breathing hard. She was angry.
“How’d you find me?” he mumbled.
“I called Pidge and she tracked your phone.”
“That’s so weird Allura.”
“I know,” she said, and grimaced. “But I had to find you.”
For a moment, neither said anything. The waves crashing against this little sandy beach were low but rough, churning up the sand vigorously while a seagull rode the currents overhead.
“I’m quitting,” said Allura.
“No you’re not.”
Keith sighed. “Allura, you can’t. That company means everything to your family. You have to stay so you can get it back-“
“He can’t do this, Keith! He had no cause to fire you other than not liking you-“
“What am I meant to do, get Lotor to like me? Go grovel and apologise and beg for my job back?” Keith scoffed. “I’m done.”
Allura’s expression was pinched, and her hands kept going in and out of fists.
“It’s not right.”
“He can’t do this.”
Keith sighed. “He kinda can.”
Allura stepped forward then, taking a gentle hold of his arm.
“You have to think about the girls-“
“I-I know. I know, I’m working on it.”
Allura’s brows drew up in pity.
“In case… in case the rent gets tough, you know you’re welcome-”
“We’ll be alright,” Keith said. “Thank you, Allura. But we’ll be alright.”
Because he could support them. He could get another job; it wouldn’t be that hard, right? Allura shook her head and pulled him into a tight hug, masking some of the chill in the air.
“Maybe I’ll finally get down to that art teacher stuff,” Keith huffed, and Allura squeezed him tighter.
“I’m going to kill that man,” she said. “I am.”
“I believe you,” Keith wheezed, starting to feel a little constricted by how hard she was hugging him. “We’ll be okay Allura, I promise.”
He lied. That’s what Keith determined no more than two days later. He’d looked Allura straight in the eye and told her one big, fat lie; because no, they were not going to be okay.
“Yumi, dada has to go. Please, Yumi.”
It didn’t matter than Keith had tried to sneak off before she woke up, or that Shiro was there to take care of her, Yumi seemed to sense she wouldn’t be getting her half hour drive in with Keith, and she was not liking it.
“Yumi,” Shiro murmured, rocking the toddler and trying to take a step back with her.
She wasn’t having it; she dug her fingers into Keith’s sweater and wailed. Keith cringed, peeling the toddler off him and hating himself for it. Yumi continued crying, even once she gave up and wrapped her chubby arms around Shiro, snivelling as Keith began to wave at her while heading for the door. Judy had just emerged from her room, rubbing sleep from her eyes and staring dismally after him as he left. Throat too tight to speak, Keith shut the door and hurried down the stairwell, trying not to cry all the way to the car.
It hadn’t been hard to find another job, it just… wasn’t the job Keith wanted. At all. He’d never finished his degree thanks to getting thrown out (which was not his fault, just for the record), so as much as he may have joked about the art teacher position with Allura, it just wasn’t feasible. What was feasible was a contact of Pidge’s, a number to a diner Matt worked at that was hiring new staff. As much as Keith appreciated having work not two days after losing his job, the position meant he had to leave home an hour earlier, couldn’t take the kids to school, couldn’t even make them breakfast, and-
“Phones in the box.”
Rolo, Keith’s new co-worker, looked just as enthused as to be there. He gestured vaguely to the box situated in the diner’s kitchen, still tapping away at his own phone. Keith hesitated, glancing at his phone and the clock up on the all. Because starting this early also meant he wouldn’t get to speak to Lance.
“I’m serious,” said Rolo. “Boss gets super pissy if you don’t.”
Keith sighed, dumping his phone in the box and tying up his apron. He hoped Shiro had gotten the kids to school alright, hoped Yumi hadn’t cried too much. This is what Keith hated the most, what he’d feared, losing time with them, relying on others to take them places and look after them. Making Judy breakfast and singing along with Yumi to songs in the car may not have seemed like that big of a deal, but to Keith, they were. He missed them, and this was only the first goddam day.
The manager got in a few minutes later, while Rolo was boredly pointing out various things to Keith and getting him familiar with the place. He was an unfriendly looking man who Keith had only spoken to very briefly, and didn’t seem like he wanted much to do with him. Good. Keith wasn’t there to make friends, he was there to work, and get enough money to keep the kids properly supported. And that was it? It sounded so dull, suddenly, and so hopeless. Day after day of this, without spending much time with his kids, without doing anything he loved, without speaking to Lance and Hunk… Keith felt sick. He doubted he’d ever forget Lance, but wondered how long it would take Lance to forget about him. One more cheery caller, and he could move right on. He’d probably like them better, whoever Radio Voltron found to fill the new spot. Keith couldn’t even call to say he was sorry, couldn’t even explain himself, couldn’t even call the number of the swim school Lance had given him because like an idiot he’d thrown it away.
“You here to wait tables or what?” Rolo muttered, brushing past Keith to attend to the man that had been waving him down for the past minute without his notice.
Keith mumbled an apology, but he hadn’t sounded angry; more sorry for him if anything. The bell by the door signalled the arrival of another customer, so Keith tucked a pen into his pocket and stepped up to greet them.
His first day on the job was nothing short of hell. He missed Yumi, and he felt bad for not saying a proper goodbye to Judy, and he spent all day wondering if they’d gotten to school alright, if Shiro had been on time to work after dropping them, and how long this could keep going on for. On top of it all, Keith was feeling downright miserable given it had been three days since he’d spoken to Lance. During his frantic search for a job, he hadn’t exactly had the time to answer calls, and now that he was working, it was impossible. There was another missed call displayed on the screen when Keith finally got to checking his phone during his break, which meant they were still trying to get hold of him. It would stop soon, he reckoned. They’d stop calling, they’d move on, and he’d lose them. He’d known it was coming, hadn’t he? There was a reason he never got too close to Lance, and a reason he stayed hidden; loss was inevitable. And Keith felt sick.
Despite his brother insisting all was well, Keith still thanked him a million times once he arrived home to take over caring for the kids. Yumi seemed upset with him, but still clung to Keith’s shirt as she was handed over, soundly refusing to let go. He let her, wasn’t going to chase her away even if she made cooking dinner a little tricky.
“How was work?”
Judy was seated at the kitchen table, her homework spread out before her, twirling a pen distractedly.
“Uh, good,” Keith lied. “Yeah, I work with some nice people. You know Pidge? Her brother works there.”
Not that Keith got to work with Matt much; he only took short shifts, since he was busy studying. Judy nodded slowly, unconvinced.
“That’s a really long shift they gave you.”
Keith glanced up, swirling soup around the pot he held while Yumi tugged at his hair.
“Well, we uh… we need the money. It doesn’t pay too well so I’m going to have to work longer hours now.”
Judy looked down, pretending to scribble something in her book but she was clearly distracted.
“How often are you working?”
“So is… Shiro gonna keep taking us to school?”
“Uh, yeah. Why? His driving terrify you?” Keith asked with a chuckle.
“No,” Judy said quickly. “I just… liked it when you took us to school.”
Keith sighed, setting the pot down a moment so he could seat Yumi on the counter instead of hauling her around one handed.
“I liked dropping you guys off too,” he said softly. “Y’know I… I might not have this job forever. It’s just for now, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Judy agreed stiffly. “Okay.”
Keith didn’t know what to say, didn’t know if she was angry at him or just the situation. He went back to cooking, giving Yumi a piece of cheese to chew on so she’d stop trying to stick her hand into their soup.
“You’ll be at the maths comp though, right?”
Keith’s head shot up this time.
“Of course I will. I told them already, I’m finishing early next Friday.” Keith smiled, hoping it would placate Judy. “I wouldn’t miss that for the world, don’t worry.”
Judy smiled back, clearly still a little miffed that Keith wouldn’t be dropping them off at school, but happy he could make the competition. As if anything could make him miss that.
“Oh and Keith?”
“You’re adding Yumi’s fruit puree to the pot. Not tomato sauce.”
Despite Keith staying optimistic, and despite having the kids there to cheer him up when he got home, work did not improve. Nothing did, in fact. Keith’s boss was named Varkon, which firstly, was a dumb name, but secondly, happened to suit him. He wasn’t so much intimidating as he was irritating, someone who shouldn’t possess any power except he did, because he could chose to fire Keith whenever and however he so pleased. He was short, with poorly styled hair, and Keith made a habit of avoiding him. Despite not doing much, he always seemed to be there, just watching them, which irked not only Keith but the others too. So work sucked, and getting up at the crack of dawn everyday sucked, and leaving without saying bye to Yumi sucked, and missing out of driving the kids to school sucked, and the final, additional thing that simply sucked, was that come Monday morning, Keith’s phone received no missed calls.
He’d had a hellish weekend, complete with an unwanted visit from their social worker Jane, three separate tantrums thrown by Yumi, and a full half-day of sulking from Judy because Keith was made to work a Saturday shift. He was pissed off, tired, and upset when he made it to work on Monday, not in the mood for anyone or anything. And maybe it was pathetic that he was getting some comfort out of the missed calls, and maybe this was a sign that Keith needed to move the hell on, but it still hurt. He knew it was coming, knew Lance and Hunk couldn’t keep calling his phone forever without ever coming up with an answer, knew they had to move on. But it still hurt. It hurt a lot. Keith stared at his blank phone screen for the entirety of his break, wondering if there had been a mistake, if they’d call back tomorrow and by some miracle he’d answer and all would be well again. They didn’t call, and he shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was (and it hurt).
Keith was tired. He was tired before, having kids tended to do that, but it was different to this. He was tired of getting up so early, and tired of Varkon watching his every move at the diner, and tired of the rude customers, and tired of plates burning his hands, and tired of listening to Rolo because even if Rolo was a half decent guy there were only so many times Keith could listen to the story about that time he and his girlfriend nearly stole a car before he went out of his goddam mind. He was tired of the unwanted compliments from regulars, and tired of smelling like overcooked grease every time he came home, and tired of the snark little comments his boss made whenever he slipped up, and on the topic of it all, Keith was tired of being tired. He was spending less time with Yumi and it showed; she was more grumpy, and more desperate to spend time with him when he was there, which meant staying up later with her and having less time to talk to Judy and Keith… didn’t know what to do.
Wednesday night, and Keith found himself in bed unable to sleep. He’d spent hours getting Yumi to calm down, and now, past midnight, he was still awake, staring at the wall and thinking. He tried sharpening the pocketknife Shiro had given him as a distraction, pictured printing out a photograph of Lotor and using it for target practice, but hastily decided against that. Attempting any sort of work out would wake the kids, and while he could try drawing, he had no motivation. All there was to do as stare at the blank ceiling above him, trace out the slight irregularities in the paint with his eyes, and think.
Disliking the present was one thing, disliking work sucked, but day-by-day Keith could get through it. But thinking about the future… He swallowed, throat feeling tight. Thinking about the future made him sad. Thinking about tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, showing up to a job he hated, it got to him. Then coming home, coming back here to two awesome kids, but feeling only guilt because he couldn’t spend the time he wanted with them. Coming back to an empty bed, because the person he thought could one day have been the one, was not. Coming back feeling unfulfilled, and tired, and angry, and doing it day after day after day.
Keith jabbed his earphones into the audiobook, slumping back against the pillows. He knew it was a bad idea the second he heard Lance’s voice, knew it wouldn’t help him sleep, but he was still going to listen. So Keith lay there stubbornly, growing less tired and more upset by the second, listening to Lance read until his eyes stung with unshed tears and a need for sleep, and Keith had never hated himself for wasting an opportunity so much in his life.
Thursday morning, and Keith was feeling downright miserable. He was running on little over four hours of sleep, and the slight discomfort of his shoes was not helping his mood. The wind was howling today, and the city was full of people bustling past in thick black coats and grey hats and scarves. Keith fought his way through the weather and crowd into the diner, already feeling like shit with his hair made messy by the wind. He didn’t even feel angry today, or resentful, just tired.
“Jesus, would it kill you to smile?” Rolo joked as he walked by, but Keith didn’t grant him a response.
He wanted to curl up on the floor and sleep for a hundred years, followed immediately by quitting this job, picking up Yumi from school and cuddling her, then marching directly up to Radio Voltron’s office and demanding for one Lance McClain to sweep him off his feet please and thank you. They were wild dreams in Keith’s mind, and he was too tired to even entertain the possibility of any. There was a deep misery settling in his stomach, and his limbs felt heavy when he dragged himself back out onto the floor to begin the day. The coffee machine burnt his hand, and he stared at it for a while wondering how many customers would notice if he burst into tears in the middle of the restaurant. Too many, Keith decided, carrying the smouldering pot out with a drag to his step and an unfulfilling smile.
A family of four came in for lunch, and Keith watched them sadly. There were two little kids, a brother and sister, who bickered and played and blew bubbles into their milkshakes. Their parents held hands across the table, and it was such a simple, raw display of open affection and love that lasted that Keith had to excuse himself to the bathroom for a moment just to get his breathing under control. Idiot idiot idiot. Today was just particularly bad, he reasoned. It would get easier, it had to. He couldn’t just look at people in love and families with children and break down in tears; he simply wouldn’t be able to function.
Keith stared at his reflection in the mirror, the darkening circles under his eyes, and downturned edges of his lips, the bit of un-brushed hair curling around his ear. What did one have to do to deserve something like that? A happy family? It wasn’t as if Yumi and Judy didn’t make him happy, but now, this situation… he couldn’t be all he wanted to for them. And there was more. Maybe it made him sound weak, or needy, but Keith was lonely. Not the lonely even his brother, or children, or friends could fix. He thought of the mother and father seated out there with their hands twined together, and it ached. Couldn’t he have that, an equal, someone he could hold and talk to about the things others didn’t understand, and someone to fit into their family like a perfect, missing piece? Keith sighed, splashing water over his face to wake himself up, because no; no he couldn’t.
By chance, Keith got buzzed to run food to the family when he re-emerged, hurrying into the kitchen to collect the plates. The kids were engaged in a vicious thumb war as he set the final plate down, grabbing handfuls of fries as their parents protested that they thank Keith first. He was halfway to asking them if they needed anything else, when a blue coat and black scarf bustling past the window caught his eye. And Keith’s throat went dry. The table was still staring up at him expectantly as he’d been in the middle of saying something, but Keith had forgotten all about them.
“I have to… “ He took a step back, eyes trained on the window and-
That was Lance.
That was Lance.
The was Lance McClain, bundled up in a jacket and marching past their window, his eyes glued to the ground, looking downright miserable as he battled through the wind but-
Keith abandoned the table without a second thought, barely tearing his eyes from outside he rushed towards the door. He ignored the questioning noise Varkon made as he passed by the bar, and Rolo’s widening eyes as Keith rudely ignored a customer in his haste to get out. Because that was Lance. That was Lance, right there, and this time he wasn’t getting away.
The wind hit Keith as he burst out the restaurant, making him wish he’d tied his hair back today as it was swept into his face, blinding him. It was lunch hour in the city, meaning it was busy. It took Keith a second to orientate himself in the crowd, looking left and right before taking off after Lance. He could barely see him, just a flash of blue coat through gaps in the crowd.
It was useless- the wind was howling, and Lance looked like he may have had earphones in anyway. Keith’s heart clenched; he’d looked sad. He shoved his way through the crowd, probably looking a little out of his mind in his thin work shirt and apron, rudely pushing past people in his rush to get to Lance. Shit, where did he go? A flash of blue caught his eye, and Keith was onto it, following the brown head of hair across of busy pedestrian crossing.
He was so close now, if he could just-
His fingers grappled with the back of the man’s jacket, pulling them to a stop. Keith was breathing wildly now, a million words on the tip of his tongue, just waiting for them to turn with his fingers around a blue coat and a head of brown hair and a grey scarf and-
“Can I… help you?”
Keith’s heart sunk. The wind was howling along this street, and even with the hair obscuring his eyes, he was sure the man could still see the disappointment in them.
“Uh, no,” said Keith. “No, sorry I… thought you were someone else.”
He let go of their coat, ashamed to even meet this stranger’s eyes.
“Sorry man,” Keith said, waving them off.
The man nodded, similar looking, kind looking, but distinctly not Lance. He walked off, and Keith was too disappointed to even feel embarrassed. He stood there on the road side for a long minute, watching the traffic lights change, feeling people bump into him on their way past. He looked around, just one last time, just in case, but Lance was gone. Hundreds of other people swarmed the streets, and Keith had lost him. The one time it really mattered, the one time he was finally ready, and Lance had slipped through his fingers.
It was getting cold out here, and Keith was beginning to feel a bit ridiculous in just his apron, so reluctantly he began dragging his feet back towards the diner. Varkon’s furious face was there the second Keith stepped through the doors, and though he knew he’d be getting an earful for running, he didn’t even care. The family were still seated there, laughing at something the father said. Keith looked away before he could get too caught up in dreaming, back to reality and back to right now and back to being alone.
His near encounter with Lance left Keith feeling miserable for the rest of the day. It was unfair, unfair that the one time he really needed him, Lance had slipped by. Keith got home later than he would have liked, meaning Yumi was already tired and upset with him as he tried to get her to calm down and eat dinner. Not even Judy could get her to settle, and eventually the teen retreated to her room to try and get some peace and quiet while Keith sat for hours rocking Yumi on his knee.
It took her forever to fall asleep. She quietened down after a while once Keith began reading to her, but stayed wide away, her little hand gripping his shirt as if fearing he’d run off. And it broke Keith’s heart. He tried playing her a little of Lance’s audiobook, but it just made her cry; Keith was thankful, it made him want to cry as well. When at last she drifted off, Keith laid her down very gently in her cot, carefully unwinding her fingers from around his thumb.
Keith watched her sleep for a while, his daughter- the thought was strange, but not unwelcome. Despite his exhaustion, the idea of it made him smile. Yumi didn’t look quite as much like their mother as Judy did; maybe she was just too young, or maybe she’d taken after their father’s side of the family. Not that Keith knew what he looked like, or wanted to know. Or maybe he did want to know, so if he saw him he could kick his ass. That would… not be great for his custody rights, but it was a comforting thought. Yumi curled up into a smaller ball on the mattress, and Keith tugged the blanket up to cover her. She was well into the habit of sucking her thumb in her sleep, and Judy claimed it was because she was always hungry, but either way it was sweet. Keith stroked her hair, watched his daughter sleeping and tried to get his head around that fact.
He liked that they looked similar, so the assumption would be made, that she was his daughter and it had always been that way. It hurt that she wouldn’t remember her mother, but at the same time, there was relief knowing she wouldn’t mourn like Judy did. Because Keith would be there, from now until as long as she needed him. He was tearing up now, looking at her. She’d start first grade in a few years, she’d be speaking fluently to him, and he’d help her learn to write, and make sure she’d have school shoes that fit. Keith sniffled, brushing back some more of Yumi’s hair. When did she decide how long she wanted her hair, or was he meant to choose when she was little? What kind of friends would she make? What was she interested in? Maybe she’d like art, like him, or maybe she’d be good at maths, like Judy. She might play sport, or maybe too much Pidge would mean she’d take to technology like a natural. Keith didn’t care- no, didn’t mind, he just wanted to know, was excited to know.
Judy would have to tell her about their mother when she was older. She’d want to know, surely. Keith hoped she wouldn’t resent him, wouldn’t feel like she’d been robbed of the possibility of having a mom. Maybe if she had another dad-
And Keith stopped, because there lay the problem. You’re lonely. He ducked his head, giving Yumi’s tiny hand a pat before withdrawing from the cot. You miss him. There was nothing Keith loved more than being a father, and an uncle, having Yumi and Judy and watching them grow. But he was lonely, lonely in a different way, and he missed Lance’s voice and he missed having someone to talk to and he missed feeling like his life was headed in the right direction.
Sighing, Keith stepped from Yumi’s room, closing the door half way so the light from the kitchen wouldn’t bother her. The light in Judy’s room was out, meaning she was probably asleep, so with no one else to worry about but himself, Keith wandered into the living room and sat down heavily on the couch. The small bookshelf across from him seemed to be taunting him. He tried to ignore it, tried staring out the window, then at the carpet, then at his own damn reflection in the glass. Eventually Keith gave up, shifted to sit on the floor so he could tug the photo album loose from its place on the shelf.
It was a heavy, dark coloured book, which Keith hadn’t done the duty of looking through yet. Not because he hadn’t had the time (okay, a little because he hadn’t had the time), but mostly because he was afraid. Because it wasn’t his photo album, it was hers. It was, with the exclusion of the children, one of the very few items that had been given to Keith following her death. Keith took a deep breath to calm himself, laying the album down flat before him. Only one way to get it over with.
The first page was blank, thank god, because Keith’s stomach was feeling a little queasy. The second wasn’t, and Keith caught his breath at the sight of Judy, no older than six, beaming brightly for the camera on what looked like her first day of school. Steadying himself, Keith began flipping through the book. The next two pages were filled with pictures of Judy and her mother, some with her as a baby, then as a toddler. She looked remarkably like Yumi, but different all the same. Judy was tiny for her age in some, balanced on her mother’s hip or laughing or standing beside a pond pointing at the ducks. Keith felt a laugh catch in his throat, too emotional and too in love with the idea of their family to trust himself to make a sound.
There weren’t just pictures of Judy, there was his sister too. This had been her book, and she’d cherished it, clearly. It was a little disorganised, and some of the pictures were coming loose from their bindings, so Keith made a pact to fix it up. There was one from her younger years, early adulthood, with her arms slung around a man Keith didn’t recognise. He turned the page quickly, knowing who it was and caring very little for him. He stared for what could have been ten full minutes at a picture of Judy and her mother. It was the former’s birthday, given away by the cake on the table before them, with a number 5 drawn on a little shakily with icing. Keith’s sister had her arms around the child, both of them grinning at the camera, Judy’s little face so lit up with happiness it was almost hard to breathe through it. His sister…she must have been his age in this picture. Keith didn’t quite know how to feel.
Keith kept looking, page after page, feeling tears gather in his eyes at the sight of his sister and her children. There was Yumi, even younger than she was now, a chubby baby with half a handful of scrambled eggs towards her mouth. She was there again, cradled in someone’s arms, but their face had been neatly cropped with the upper half of the photo. Keith really was crying, he realised, when he turned the page and was met with a picture of his sister hoisting her youngest daughter into the air. They looked so happy, they looked so happy. They weren’t so different, he and his sister. Her hair was long, swept neatly over a shoulder as she cradled Yumi to her chest. She was beautiful, and her smile was so genuine it hurt a little, and Keith wanted nothing more in that moment than to meet her, to be able to look her in the eye and tell her they were safe. Her children were still loved, and they still had a family. And they missed her, they all missed her everyday, but she was loved and so were they. Keith sighed, turning the next page-
He flinched as the folded piece of paper slipped from between the pages, landing neatly on his lap. It was almost as if it wanted to be read, and Keith would have laughed were he not, at current, struggling not to bawl his eyes out. He plucked the page up gingerly, setting the rest of the album down so he could inspect it. It was a letter, and even before Keith opened it, he knew.
Her writing was neat. It reminded him a little of Allura’s, loopy and a little stylised, but very readable. There was a photograph attached to the bottom of the paper with a clip, but Keith avoided looking at it for the time being. His vision swam for a moment, the page full of black ink dissolving before his eyes before he blinked the tears away and focused. There was a date marked at the top of the page, a date from two years ago. Two years before his sister’s death, just a little after Yumi’s birthday. Taking care not to scrunch the paper in his state of anxiety, Keith straightened it out and began to read.
This is addressed to my brother and I ask that anyone else who might find this letter respectfully does not read it.
Keith paused, remembering that he was, in fact, said brother, and that this letter really was addressed to him.
Brother, it began, we didn’t have time to name you, so I never know who to address you as. I used to call you my little angel, maybe it’s embarrassing for you, if I call you that now, but to me you are still a baby. You were like an angel, very small, and very quiet. I wanted to keep you so badly. I begged to keep you, and I wanted to hold you forever, but that could not happen.
Keith stopped breathing. He was clutching the paper so tight he feared it might tear. Tears burned at his eyes, but he kept reading.
I don’t know much you’ve figured out, little angel, but we did not come from a place with very much love. I loved you though, and I will never forgive them for giving you away, no matter what the circumstances were. Our parents are dead, now; I don’t know how much you looked into finding them, or me, if you even knew about me. I like to think you found a new family, a good one, and you got to grow up so, so happy. Did you? I always think about asking you in person, about finding you again. I think if I see you, I will recognise you in an instant.
I have just had my second child, I’ve named her Yumi. She is a little angel, like you were. Judy is my eldest, she’s thirteen, and I would love for you to meet her. But I have been a coward, and I have not found you. I have the fullest intentions to send you this letter, though, I think now I must find you. Not just for me but for them. I fell in love too early, with the wrong man, because where I came from, he seemed like a way out. I would not give my Judy away for the world, or Yumi; they’re sleeping beside me now and I love them more than words can describe. Maybe you have children. You’re probably a little young, but still not as young as I was. I want my children to know you, and I have made it my resolve to find you, not for me but for them. If anything were to ever happen to me, I don’t want them to go to their father. I have been hurt by him, and betrayed, and though it is my fault for being obnoxious and naïve, there is nothing I can do to change any of that, only trust that you are a better man.
I try and think about what kind of person you are now, but it’s hard. Are you tall now? What do you look like? Did you need protection growing up, should I have been there? I hope you are living a happy life, little angel. I hope you’ve fallen in love, and maybe you will have your own children. I want you to know them, Judy and Yumi, I want them to grow up knowing a man like you. Maybe in a few months I will manage to find you; it will be difficult, but I don’t think impossible. I think I’ve been afraid of finding you, afraid you will hate me. But you are my angel, and I remember holding you, sitting up with you all night because I didn’t know if they were going to take you away. What is your name? Do you know about me? Do you remember me, or just the memory of someone holding you? You were loved, my little angel, you were loved so, so much. Please do not hate me when you get this letter, please do not resent me. I’ve been a coward, and I’ve hid from you I know, but one day I’ll find you, I promise.
Here is a picture of us, look at Yumi she is so little. She’ll be bigger when you get this, I’m sure, but hopefully not too much. Can we both be brave, for me? Be brave for me, because so few people are, and I need you even now when you are somewhere unknown, without a name, or even a face. I’ll know you when I see you though, I’m sure of it. I’ll find you in person, I think, and give you this. I want to see your face, will you be confused? Will you recognise me too? I cannot wait to meet you, little angel, and neither can they. We will all take good care of each other, won’t we? I’ll find you soon.
With all my love, your elder sister, Ki
Keith set the letter down with trembling fingers and teary eyes. The little photo clipped to the bottom was in his hands, and he was staring at his sister and her two daughters in the delivery ward. There was Ki, in the bed, a very small Yumi shaped bundle in her arms. Yumi’s face was bright pink and all squished up, and true to the letter, she was tiny. Judy, thirteen and fresh-faced and bubbling with excitement, was perched on the bed by her mother’s elbow. And they were a family. They were their own, happy little family, and Keith was sobbing before he knew it.
He set the letter aside so it wouldn’t get ruined, pulling his knees up to his chin and crying. None of it was fair. Not his sister dying, nor the fact they never met, nor Judy and Yumi being left without her. Keith hated it, hated all of it, from his shitty job, to losing Lance, to the difficulties Judy was going through, to his sister dying. He hated it, but he was too tired to feel angry. There was just despair now, just him, alone, near midnight on a Thursday, curled up and crying on the floor. And he couldn’t seem to stop. It was hard to stay quiet, knowing he risked waking the kids, muffling his noise into his sleeve pathetically. This is what he’d come to? This was the best he could do? Their mother died, and he was all they were left with-
Keith nearly choked on his next sob, scrambling to sit up straight and wipe the tears from his eyes, though it was all to obvious what he’d been doing.
“Are you… alright?”
Judy was stood between him and the kitchen, an empty glass clutched in her hand and all ready for bed except instead she was out here, in the living room, where she could see him crying.
“Uh, yeah, yeah, sorry Judes. Don’t… don’t worry, okay?”
Keith hated the sound of his voice. It was weak, and kept cracking, and he still couldn’t stop crying despite the fact his niece was now staring at him and aware of how stupidly pathetic he looked and it was only getting worse-
“Stay there,” said Judy, and turned towards the kitchen.
And Keith did. He was a little stunned, really, nose all stuffy and tears dripping off his chin and all in all a mess. He could hear Judy retrieving something from the fridge, heard the jingle of glasses and then her footsteps headed back towards him. Keith blinked as a glass of juice was set down before him on the coffee table, seconds before Judy took a seat across from him on the carpet.
“We’re bust if Yumi sees us,” she said, “but you looked like you needed some apple juice.”
She went quiet then, a little awkward, taking a sip from her own glass. Keith just stared, a little dumbstruck, still trying to stop the flow of tears.
“You found mom’s book, huh?”
Judy’s eyes had settled on the album. Maybe it was that, Ki’s smiling face as she held up Yumi that finally booted Keith back into reality. He hurried to shut the book, wiping away the last of his tears though his eyes remained red from crying.
“Sorry, Judy, you should go back to bed, I didn’t mean to wake you up-“
“It’s okay, I was awake.”
“Okay but you shouldn’t… see me crying. It’s-“
“Why? Don’t guys cry?”
Judy was staring at him intensely, and Keith fought hard not to look away. Kids weren’t meant to be the ones comforting their parents, or uncles, or whatever. Kids were the ones who got to cry and be selfish and be draining because they were kids. They were supposed to be hard work, and be loved anyway. Keith wasn’t.
“You had a bad day, it’s okay to cry. Work sucks, doesn’t it?”
Keith sighed, running a hand through his hair to bring some order to it.
“It’s not… it’s not that bad.”
“Did you get fired cause of us?”
“What? No, no absolutely not. I got fired cause my boss hates me, it’s… that’s the only reason.”
Judy looked suspicious, but all she did was nudge the apple juice a little closer to him. Relenting, Keith took it and downed half the glass. She was right, in a way; apple juice did make things better.
“Did something happen today?” Judy asked. “You were like… really quiet.”
“Oh. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be.”
“No, it’s okay. Just… do you want to talk about it?”
Keith huffed, straightening out his posture and trying to look a little less miserable.
“Judy, no, it’s okay. You… you mustn’t worry, okay? You’ve got school to think about, I’m okay-“
“You’re not. You were a lot happier before.”
“I know you think I’m like a kid, and you can’t talk to me about anything because it will be too much for me to handle, and I’ll get all upset or whatever, but-“
“You are a kid.”
“Okay, fine, but I can still talk, Keith. I know the worlds not all great, it’s not like you’re gonna ruin the illusion for me by talking about things that suck.”
Keith studied his niece for a moment, her fierce frown, and that steady look of determination. She was a kid, but she was also right. Judy had handled just about the worst thing that could happen to her.
“I’m okay Judes,” he said. “I promise.”
“What happened today?”
Keith sighed deeply; it was gonna be like that then, huh? He took another sip of apple juice, Judy watching him all the while. She knew half of it, why shouldn’t she know all of it?
“I saw Lance today,” he said. “He passed by the diner. I tried to like, follow him, but I lost track of him.”
“You wanted to talk to him,” Judy said.
Another, heavier sigh.
“I guess talking to them on the radio was pretty fun.”
“And you don’t get to anymore.”
“No. And I feel bad I couldn’t… explain.”
Judy paused, staring thoughtfully at her drink, and Keith had to stop himself laughing at how pensive she looked, just studying some apple juice.
“You like… really like him.”
Keith felt the protests building, but his shoulders sagged.
“Yeah. Did you… did you like him? I know you only spoke to him once-“
“I thought he was really cool,” said Judy. “I thought you guys got on well.”
Keith offered her a shaky smile, and she returned it.
“It wasn’t just paintball. I saw him at the flower farm too, you know. And ice skating. And at the aquarium. We keep… just bumping into each other.”
Judy wiped away her look of shock in favour of cynicism. “And you didn’t tell him who you were?”
“And he didn’t recognise you?”
“Wow.” She sat back, stunned. “He’s a bit oblivious.”
“I’m the bigger idiot,” Keith muttered. “I would have told him, if I’d caught him today. I would have told him, and the one time I knew that, I missed out.”
“I’m sorry,” said Judy, and she looked it.
“Hey, no, don’t be sorry,” said Keith. “I’m okay, I promise.”
“Maybe it’ll happen again?”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Keith, but his heart wasn’t in it. “But don’t worry about it. It’s minor, you know? Besides, there’s exciting stuff happening, like your competition tomorrow.”
Judy smiled. “Yeah. Are you gonna be able to make it?”
“Are you kidding? Nothing could make me miss that. Speaking of, you need to get to bed if you’re going to win tomorrow.”
Judy’s smile turned to a grin.
“Yeah, I will. Can I have more apple juice first?”
“As long as you don’t tell Yumi.”
“Do you want some more too?”
“As long as no one tells Yumi.”
Despite setting at least three alarms, it was Keith who woke Judy up Friday morning. He hadn’t meant to, obviously, but he’d dropped something in the kitchen, because she woke to the clatter of pots and pans, followed by a very quiet shit. Judy sighed, pulling on a pair of socks and shuffling towards the door. Keith had been leaving earlier and earlier for work, and it sucked. He always looked tired, and she missed having breakfast made and being driven to school, even if Shiro was fun too.
“Judes!” He exclaimed quietly as she wandered into the kitchen. “I’m so sorry for waking you up-“
Keith looked a mess. He was in the process of picking up a couple of pots from the floor, work bag slung over his shoulder and dressed in the plain blacks of the diner he worked at. He looked stressed, and tired, and Judy wondered if he’d gotten any sleep after their talk.
“I really didn’t mean to wake you. Shiro’s gonna be here in a few minutes but you can go back to sleep if you want-“
“I have really bad cramps,” Judy whined. “I’m bleeding like three times as much as normal.”
Keith’s face paled.
“T-three times?” He stuttered. “Judy isn’t that- that’s not good, do you want to me call Allura-“
“No, but can I please not go to school?”
She clutched her stomach and grimaced.
“Of course you don’t have to go to school, but-“ aaaand Keith was panicking.
Maybe she shouldn’t have exaggerated quite so much.
“Is anything else feeling unusual? Here are the painkillers, but remember, you can’t take more until at least four hours have passed- do… do you want me to stay home? I’m sure I can call work-“
“No! Keith, seriously, I’m fine. I just don’t feel great and want to stay in bed.”
“O-oh. Okay. Only if you’re sure. I’ll ask Allura to keep her phone on today, so you- are you going to be okay for the competition tonight? It’s okay if you need to stay home Judes-“
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I just want to rest this morning. Don’t worry.”
Keith still looked frantic and distressed, but not as much as before.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes. Oh my god, I’m going back to bed. Please tell Shiro I’m not going to school.”
“Okay. Okay, take care. There’s leftover soup in the fridge, and ice-cream. I mean- you know what food there is, but remember to eat.”
“Will do,” Judy called, already shuffling back to her room.
“Allura will pick you up at four to take you to the competition! And I’ll catch you there-“
“Sounds good, bye Keith.”
Judy shut her door, flopping back onto her bed and waiting for the noise outside to die down. She heard Shiro arrive, heard him exchange a few words with Keith, before her uncle was flying out the door. She listened to Yumi waking up and getting ready, nearly laughed when Shiro started singing for her. He knocked on her door just before they left, but she pretended to be asleep. Keith was pretty easy to fool, but Shiro… not so much.
Finally, when everyone else had left, Judy wandered out to make breakfast. She kept a keen eye on the time, going over some of her revision until she was sure the show had to have ended at least an hour ago. Pulling the rumpled receipt from her desk drawer, Judy shook her head. It had taken her ten minutes of sorting through the trash to get this thing, thank you very much Keith. It was scrunched, and stained, but still very readable. Judy eyed the list of groceries on the back before working up the courage to call; frosty flakes, they had to keep this man.
She pulled out her phone, dialling in the number and waiting. It rung for about a minute, before finally a woman’s voice answered.
“Plaxum’s swim school, how can I-“
“I need to speak one of your teachers.”
For a second, silence, then-
“I’m sorry, but that’s not possible. I can pass a message along?”
“No,” said Judy. “I need to talk to him. Tell them it’s an emergency.”
“I’m sorry, who… who is this?”
“Judy,” Judy said flatly. “Now can you please get-”
“I’m afraid our teachers don’t have direct access to the phones.“
“But this is a family emergency!”
At least, a family emergency was what she was hoping to make it.
“I… we don’t really allow-“
“I promise he can make time for this,” Judy snapped, though she sounded a little desperate. “So please, please, can I just talk to Lance McClain?”
Chapter 10: hey jude
It all adds up
Big big BIG apologies that this was posted a lot later than usual... thank you to everyone who sent such nice comments and thank you for reading. I was feeling a bit down about my writing which is part of why this took so long so just thank you to everyone who encouraged me you're the best <3 <3 hope you like this very cheesy, climatic chapter!
anyway you know that vine or video or whatever of that lil toddler who grabs hold of that pigeon and plucks its bread crumb right out its damn mouth and eats it herself? yumi.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Keith used to hate Mondays. Now though, given his change of career and lifestyle, he was pretty sure he just hated every day.
“But I asked for the diet coke to be in a can.”
Keith stifled a sigh, fingers tightening around the notebook he held.
“I understand,” he said. “But like I said, we don’t sell diet coke by the can.”
“But you brought me the other coke in a can,” the customer insisted, and Keith had officially had it.
This table had been a problem table from the second they walked in, and Keith was temptingly estimating how many more years this old man could possibly live, and how many more servers he’d manage to antagonise in that time.
“That’s because that was ordinary coke. Not diet coke.”
“But you brought me this diet coke in a glass!”
“Because,” Keith bit out, “we sell diet coke, by the glass.”
“Then just bring me the can!”
“It comes, from a two litre bottle, which I cannot sell you.”
“No, I don’t want the two litre bottle. I asked for the diet coke in a can.”
If this pencil snapped between his fingers it was officially not Keith’s fault. This day would have been bad enough without this ratbag telling him what they did and did not sell. It was bad enough that Judy was home alone, probably still suffering bad cramps, maybe stressing about her competition tonight- ugh, Keith had just had enough.
“As I explained-“
“Woah there, sorry to steal your table from you Keith, but you’re needed over on twenty-five.”
Keith whipped around just as Matt saddled up next to him, three seconds from shattering the lead pencil he held.
“Uh,” he said. “Okay?”
Matt shot him a smile, but his eyes said please leave before you kill three customers and get me fired for ever putting in a good word for you.
“Seriously,” the eldest Holt said. “Twenty-five.”
Frowning, Keith turned around and- oh. He sighed, shooting Matt a thankful look before trudging over to the table at the back of the diner. Typing away at her laptop, Pidge looked up to smile at him.
“Can I talk to the manager?” She said. “The service here is appalling.”
“Fuck you,” said Keith. “Shouldn’t you be at day care?”
“Nope. I filled in for Coran last Saturday, so I’m getting today off.”
“And you decided to hang out here?”
“Oh, don’t flatter yourself. The coffee’s actually pretty good if you get the right people to make it.”
“Not me then.”
Pidge grinned, lowering her laptop screen so she could look at him properly.
“I’m assuming you can’t sit down for a chat, so just pretend you’re taking my order or something.”
“Dude, Varkon knows you’re Matt’s sister. You two are practically clones.”
“How’s working here?”
“I’m trying not to think about it.”
“That’s not a very solid tactic, Kogane,” Pidge said, looking a little sad.
“Yeah, well, it’s not like I’ve got a lot of options right now.”
“You’ll find something else eventually, right?”
“I hope so,” Keith muttered.
He paused, sighing heavily at the look Pidge was giving him.
“How’s Yumi been at day care? Has she… does she still cry?”
“I mean, she cries a little when Shiro leaves, not as much as she did over you. I guess she gets most of that out at home, huh?”
“Yeah, she’s… she’s been a little difficult this week.”
Keith looked down sadly.
“Hey, it’s okay. She’s not heartbroken, alright? It’s a normal toddler thing.”
Keith nodded stiffly, still feeling a little upset. He did notice the dirty look Varkon was giving him from the direction of the bar though, clearly spending too much time on one customer.
“Hey,” Pidge snapped, a little louder than necessary and rustling the menu she held. “I take a while to order and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t judge me.”
Varkon rolled his eyes, as did Keith, but he perked up a little.
“Judy’s competition is tonight, right?”
“Yeah. You gonna be there?”
“For sure,” Pidge said. “She’s my little Padawan now.”
“I’m serious. Kid’s a genius.”
“Okay, just don’t teach her to hack my stuff.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it Keith.”
“Are you gonna order anything? I kind of have a job.”
“Here I was hoping you’d want an excuse to get fired,” Pidge said, then grinned. “I’ll have a water. On the rocks.”
“I hate you.”
The rest of the morning passed fairly uneventfully, especially once Pidge packed up and left. They survived the lunch hour rush, though everything did seem to drag slower now that Keith knew he’d be leaving early for Judy’s competition. He’d asked to finish at four, giving him plenty of time to change before heading to the school the competition was held at. It was a little further out than Judy’s school, nearer the city centre, so part of the time was to ensure he didn’t get lost.
Come three o’clock, Keith was getting impatient. Every minute his eyes were back on the clock, watching the seconds tick by, trying to distract himself by polishing cutlery or refilling customer’s water or wiping down the same counter top ten goddam times-
“Keith, I need to talk to you.”
Sighing, Keith tucked away the cloth he’d been using to wipe down a table, and made his way around the bar to confront Varkon. God, this man got on his nerves. Half an hour, thought Keith, half an hour and you’re out of here.
“I need to extend your shift.”
Or not. Except- no, that couldn’t be right.
“I’m worried we’re a little understaffed,” Varkon drawled. “You can clock off at six.”
Six? Judy’s competition started at five, they’d be nearly finished by the time it was six.
“I can’t,” Keith stuttered. “I have to get to-“
“You have to get somewhere do you?” Varkon snapped, fixing him with a nasty look.
And even though he was a good foot and a half shorter than Keith, that glare reached him.
“Like you had somewhere you had to be yesterday when you went running off?”
Keith cursed internally.
“Look, again, I’m really sorry about yesterday. I thought- I’m sorry, okay? I’ll take extra weekend shifts or whatever, I just really need to leave, my niece has something starting at five I have to be there-“
“Keith, Keith, Keith,” Varkon tutted, and it was infuriating.
Or would have been, weren’t Keith currently paralysed with fear at the thought of missing Judy’s competition.
“You think it’s appropriate behaviour, running out on the job?”
“Do you understand that your job is hanging on the line? I should have fired you on the spot yesterday. Except-“
Varkon reached out and gave his shoulder a firm pat, except he was short, so ended up just reaching Keith’s upper arm.
“I’m giving you a second chance.”
Keith had to work very hard to get his breathing under control and not snap.
“Thank you,” he said. “But please, I need to be there at five.”
“And I need you to work until six.”
He could have shouted in frustration.
“Any other day,” Keith snapped. ”Any other day, I’ll work as long as you want, okay? Please, I just, please-“
He stopped, trying to keep his voice down, trying to get a handle on this-
“Tell you what,” Varkon said suddenly, and Keith didn’t like the way his eyes slid to the door, or the sinister smirk that was growing on his face. “As soon as you finish serving this customer, you can leave.”
And… okay? He could get a customer in and out quickly, especially if he asked the chef to prioritise their meal. Besides, customers could be cold, but what kind of insensitive bastard wouldn’t leave once Keith started begging to leave to see his niece? He turned, ready to grab the opportunity, ready to prove Varkon wrong and-
“That customer?” He squeaked.
“My favourite nephew,” Varkon announced proudly. “You just make sure he has everything he needs, and you can go.”
With that, Keith’s boss retreated behind the counter, leaving him to greet the man that had just entered their diner. His legs felt numb as he dragged himself onto the floor, scooping up a menu and coming to stand before the table.
“Ah, hello Keith. How unexpected.”
Lotor beamed up at him, and Keith had to force down the thoughts of just smacking this menu right over his head.
“Lotor,” he said, and dropped the menu on the table. “What do you want?”
“I’ve only just sat down,” the man exclaimed, smiling in a way Keith hated. “I think I’ll need a few minutes to decide.”
Smiling tightly, Keith just nodded, retreating from the table before he did anything violent.
“Who’s that?” Rolo asked when Keith slid into the waiter’s station beside him.
“My old boss,” Keith muttered. “He’s a dick. Plus Varkon isn’t letting me leave until Lotor’s gone.”
“What? Dude, I can just take over from you. You’ve got your nieces thing, right?”
“Thanks, but I don’t think that’s going to work.”
Rolo shot him a questioning look, but Keith just shrugged it off.
“It’s fine. How long could he spend here anyway?”
When Keith returned in five minute to take Lotor’s order, he wished he’d just eaten his words. Because he wasn’t quite ready to order. Nor was he ready ten minutes after that. The forth time Keith approached his table, he asked for a single glass of lemonade and some advice, on which meal was best to get. Keith politely suggested the fastest cooking one, and Lotor rudely ordered the slowest. Keith resisted the urge to glare as he stomped off with the order.
The chef, Sal, was at least a half decent guy, who solemnly accepted Keith’s request to please try and get Lotor’s meal out as fast as possible. When it did come, finally, Keith had to resist running it to his table, dropping it down along with the cutlery and about every sauce or spice he could envision Lotor needing and delaying eating by asking for. Lotor shot him a knowing smirk, which Keith dutifully ignored as he made his way back towards Rolo. And then, the wait began.
Keith had seen customers eat slowly. Had seen a girl take a full forty-five minutes to get through a bowl of fries, but was Lotor… was he even eating? Keith would practically lilt forward every time he’d go to take a bite, only to throw himself back in frustration when Lotor seemingly became distracted by something written in the paper he held. Keith glanced at the clock, heart hammering away when he saw it was already quarter past four. It was a half hour drive at least, plus he’d need to find parking, then make his way to the right building-
“I get you hate him,” Rolo said, while Keith was glaring daggers at the man idly chewing his food. “But you’re acting kinda creepy dude.”
“How can he be eating this slowly?” Keith muttered. “Does he know? He knows.”
Rolo raised a brow. “Still man, maybe find something else to do for a while? I think you’re scaring customers.”
Realising he was indeed getting a few odd looks, Keith set about trying to distract himself. It was tough, especially with the time hanging over his head like that. If he didn’t leave soon, he was going to run the risk of getting there late. As it was, he didn’t look like there was going to be time to wish Judy good luck beforehand. When Lotor finally finished, Keith practically rushed to collect his plate, dragging the last of his meal out from under his nose.
“So, can I get you the check?”
It was 4:40, he was late.
“But I’m not done.”
Keith almost grimaced. “Uh, are you sure?”
Lotor frowned. “I’d like some coffee.”
Okay. Okay, Keith could do coffee. It wasn’t like he had to make it, just needed to fetch the jug.
“Okay, okay I’ll get you coffee.”
He dumped Lotor’s plate in the kitchen, nearly slipping up on the tiles in his haste to get to the coffee pot. All the while his old boss watched him, as if he knew what he was doing to Keith and it amused him. Keith’s smile was tight as he poured the coffee, working up a bit of courage before he spoke.
“Look, Lotor. I know we’re not… I know we haven’t always gotten along. But I have to be somewhere, in a few minutes. It’s for my niece it’s… it’s really important. But I can’t leave until you’re…. you know, done. So… so you can stay here but would you maybe- could you… could you pay the bill, so long? Please?”
Lotor quirked a brow. He was swirling the coffee Keith had just poured for him, black liquid sloshing about in the cup as he considered what the man had said. Keith stood his ground, refused to snap, just waited patiently because surely if he could be respectful and patient towards Lotor then once, just once, he could show an ounce of decency and just-
“Why don’t you come back in a few minutes?” Lotor said. “After I’ve finished my cup.”
Keith nearly bit his tongue in frustration. On instinct, his eyes darted towards the clock.
“Fine,” he said. “Fine. I’ll come back.”
Lotor smiled, and took a small sip of the coffee.
“Thank you,” he said. “The service here is really wonderful.”
Keith ignored him, turning around and stomping off towards the kitchen.
“Tell Varkon I’m going to the bathroom,” he muttered to Rolo.
The second he was in the kitchen, Keith was rummaging around in the box holding his phone. There was already a text from Allura asking him when he’d be there, and with only ten minutes until it all began…
“Shit,” Keith cursed, shooting off a quick text.
Lotor here, can’t leave. Need distraction, get him out!
He dropped his phone before Varkon could catch him, praying Allura got the memo. Keith returned to the floor, eyes skirting the room and settling on Lotor.
“Come on,” he muttered, because now every minute was beginning to count.
“Come on, come on, come on.”
Allura was a lovely person, but she was also the least chill person Judy had ever met.
“We are so close to the perfect look Judy. Just hold still for one more minute.”
Judy didn’t know so many bobby pins could be applied to one head of hair, especially since this was meant to be a basic high ponytail.
“We have to get the perfect movement in,” Allura was saying. “It has to have a nice swish you know? For when you get a question right and just… flick it.”
Judy raised a brow at Pidge, who was leaning against the sink across from them, bouncing Yumi in her arms.
“Yeah, I don’t know what she’s talking about either,” said Pidge.
“Honestly you two,” Allura scolded. “Were you raised in a cave?”
“Yes,” Pidge replied. “Why am I here?”
She gestured around the deserted girls bathroom, making Yumi giggle when she shifted the toddler to her other hip.
“What do you mean? You’re here to advise her hairstyle!” Allura announced, jabbing another pin into Judy’s hair.
“You’re here to hold Yumi,” Judy said honestly.
Pidge grinned. Allura simply sighed, fixing up a few stray strands.
“It’s okay Allura,” Judy assured. “I’m sure it looks fine. Besides, this is a maths comp, it’s not like anyone cares.”
Hands on shoulders, Allura turned Judy so the girl was facing her.
“It doesn’t matter about them though, does it? It matters how you care. So… what do you think?”
She shuffled them over so Judy was in front of the mirror, letting her admire the incredibly tidy pony she’d tied her hair up in, complete with a neatly braided strand of hair around the base to disguise the tie.
“It’s really nice, actually. Thank you.”
Judy smiled, finding she didn’t mind this look.
“I’m so glad- oh…”
She turned, and found Allura staring down at her phone.
“Oh that idiot,” she exclaimed suddenly. “Lotor’s got Keith held up at work. I’ll be right back. You two head back to the main hall so long.”
“Is he okay?” Judy asked.
“Yes, yes, don’t worry. I just need to… ugh, I’ve just got to make a call.”
Nodding, Judy allowed herself to be herded from the bathrooms by Pidge, who set off with her back towards the main hall. There were already people milling about near the entrance, school teams and their supporters, along with teachers, school officials, and quite a few other children. Shiro and Adam would be here somewhere, and Pidge seemed intent on finding them. Judy would offer to help, but her eyes had just caught on a newer, lost looking person.
“I’ll be right back. I just need to talk to someone.”
“Sure?” Pidge said, sounding confused.
Judy took off into the crowd, nerves all jittery and impatience building in her chest. Keith had to get here, he just had to. Come on, she thought, hurry up.
Keith nearly cried with relief when Lotor’s phone rang from across the diner. He watched subtly as the man answered, pausing with his coffee to speak to whoever had called. Please please please; he could only pray it was Allura. Trying not to look too desperate, Keith waited for a minute after the call had ended to wander over. He smiled brighter now, more genuine, hoping-
“Ready for the check?”
Lotor dragged his eyes up from his empty coffee cup to Keith, and smirked.
“Oh Keith,” he said. “Did you really run crying to Allura trying to get me to leave?”
Keith throat went dry.
“I’ve been over her for ages. I guess she’s fine to look at, but after listening to her talk-“
“Hey,” Keith snapped, “don’t talk about Allura like that.”
It must have come out harsher than he’d intended, because the table beside them glanced over curiously. Lotor just scoffed, and nudged his mug towards Keith.
“Might want to tell her you’re going to be a little late,” Lotor said. “And since I won’t be meeting her for, I assume, fake drinks, I’d like another coffee.”
Keith felt something building in his chest then. He glanced towards the coffee pot on the counter, noting it was empty.
“There isn’t any left.”
Lotor set his newspaper down harshly, looking up at Keith with some of that familiar resentment.
“Then make some more.”
And Keith… turned around. His feet felt like they were burning as he made his way over to the coffee pot, snatching it from it’s heating pad and going to boil more water. It was five o’clock. It was five o’clock and they’d be going in, they’d be announcing the schools, and welcoming everyone. They’d be starting without him. He could envision Judy right then, her eyes searching the crowd hopefully, trying to find him so she could wave then pretend she hadn’t in an effort to look cool. Then he could envision her eyes landing on his empty seat beside Allura, the slight frown on her face as she realised he wasn’t there, that he wasn’t going to make it. It would probably put her off, maybe she’d mess up a question, end up feeling unworthy standing up there in a dress Keith had helped pick because he promised he’d be there.
Keith yanked the coffee from its place in the cupboard, measuring out the scoop messily, not even caring for the quality. Judy would be so disappointment in him, so upset he hadn’t cared enough to show up. This was going to ruin weeks of bonding, would probably develop into a permanent trust problem and Keith couldn’t bare the thought of it. The kettle hadn’t finished boiling, but he didn’t care. He grabbed it off the stand and mixed the coffee together. No, no this wasn’t fair. Because he did care. He cared more than her stupid father, and more than the social worker who’d brushed over Judy’s interests, and more than anyone. Because he was her uncle, and the only parental figure she had left, and Keith was going to make it. It didn’t matter he was running late, cause one way or another he was getting to that competition. Keith turned, coffee pot in hand, resolve in his chest, and made his way back to Lotor.
So Keith was late. Keith was late, and was going to be later, judging by the scowl on Allura’s face as she sat down heavily beside Pidge. Judy couldn’t ask what had happened, was already sat up on stage with her teammates and the other competing schools. Either way, it couldn’t be good, not with Allura muttering darkly to Adam and Shiro seated just behind them. Judy’s eyes shifted to the empty seats on Allura’s right, and she swallowed the lump in her throat. She’d really wanted Keith to be here. And it wasn’t just because it would be cool to have him support her, it was-
“Alrighty, is this thing on?”
A finger was tapped against the microphone, sending slight static through the speakers.
“Okay! Well, good evening everyone, thanks for joining us! I’m here on behalf of Radio Voltron, one of our sponsors this evening, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Annual Interschool Mathletics Competition.”
Judy’s eyes darted between the empty seat and the man on stage, dressed in a sharp looking blue shirt and rocking on his heels excitedly behind the mic.
“I’m Lance McClain,” he said. “And I’ll be walking you through this evenings induction.”
Since he was a child, Keith’s favourite movies had always been those with the largely exaggerated, dramatic standoffs at the end. He didn’t really care how unrealistic some of those gunfights got, even if he did know enough to be able to critique the sword fights that sometimes took place, because he still enjoyed the hell out of them. He doubted this was going to come to quite such an end, but still, making his way back towards Lotor with the coffee pot in hand, he was fuelled with renewed vengeance.
Lotor didn’t even look up when he arrived, so Keith did him the duty of yanking his empty cup nosily across the table. When the man did look up, it was unhurried and smug, as if he was daring Keith to mess up. Keith held his eye, even as he poured the coffee. Lotor was smirking, which only made Keith want to hit him, especially once he pulled back and nudged the cup towards Lotor.
“You need to pay,” he said. “Now.”
Lotor had the audacity to look surprised, though Keith knew he was faking it. He was getting a kick out of this, out of making Keith miserable. And Keith had officially had enough.
“I need to leave,” he said sharply. “Which means, here’s your bill, so pay it.”
Keith put on the fakest, most serviceable smile he could manage.
Brow still quirked in that infuriating way, Lotor raised the cup to his lips, tasting the coffee. He set the cup down, fixing Keith with a self-satisfied look.
“Coffee’s a little cold,” he said. “I think you’d better heat it up.”
Coffee pot in hand, Keith just stared at him. Stared at the man who’d spent months antagonising him at work, who’d thrown out derogatory comments about Allura, who’d been the one to fire Keith and land him here. The man who clearly knew what he was doing, who was clearly enjoying making Keith and his family miserable. Keith stared at him, and pictured Judy’s disappointed face in his mind, and simply did not care. Not for Lotor, not for Varkon, not for this stupid diner or the stupid smirk he wore. He didn’t care, not even a little bit, for him, for any of them, and certainly not for the clean blouse this bastard wore.
“The coffee’s cold?” Keith asked.
And Lotor must not have picked up on his tone, that, or he simply underestimated.
“It’s cold?” Keith repeated, louder.
Rolo glanced up from his workstation, but neither noticed. Lotor dragged his eyes up to meet Keith, and smirked.
The pot was in his hand, and Lotor was smirking at him, and well… no one had ever accused Keith Kogane of being patient.
“I quit,” he said. “I quit.”
And poured the contents of the pot over Lotor’s head.
Keith would remember hours later, once his hands had stopped shaking, how poorly the action might have influenced his future employment opportunities, but in the moment all he could see was Lotor’s startled face, coffee dripping from his hair and staining the pristine shirt he wore. Coffee, hotter than the man had claimed, absolutely soaking through him and the paper he’d been reading.
“I quit,” said Keith, surprised to find his voice wasn’t even shaking.
He set the coffee pot down hard on the table, splashing a little of the spilt drink. Lotor gaped up at him, too stunned to say anything. Keith turned away before he did, marching through the restaurant and ignoring the looks from other customers. His apron was already untied by the time he slammed it down on the counter in front of Varkon.
“I quit,” he hissed.
His pen and notebook hit the table, then the stupid buzzer he wore.
Keith made for the kitchen, snatched his phone from the box and his satchel from where it hung on the hook, and shot a wave in the chef’s direction.
“I quit!” He yelled, and Sal shot him a thumbs up.
Rolo was standing like a statue near the door, blinking owlishly at Lotor as the man began dabbing napkins frantically over his entire being. Keith shook his hand because Rolo was a decent guy and deserved something of a farewell.
“I’m quitting,” he announced.
“Hell yeah,” Rolo replied, still not really looking away from Lotor.
With a final glance in the direction of the coffee disaster, Keith walked from the restaurant. He made it five steps before giving in to the urge to run, taking off down the busy street to where his car was parked.
“Oh my god,” he muttered. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god.”
His car was where he’d left it, and Keith practically threw himself into the drivers seat, starting it up. The engine spluttered to life, only to fall flat a second later. Keith tried again, turning the keys to start it up only to have the whole thing go dead. Had he… cursing, Keith checked the switches along the dash. And of course, of course, he’d left the lights on.
He cursed, flinging the door open and checking his phone for the time. Oh god, it was already five past; he wasn’t going to make it.
Keith took off sprinting, emerging back onto the main street in a flurry and waving frantically at the many cars streaming past. It didn’t take all that long for a taxi to stop, but to Keith, it felt like decades.
“Please, I need to get-“
He was fumbling with his phone, forgetting the address of the new school and trying frantically to open it. The taxi driver eyed him oddly, but no doubt he’d encountered many customers in a rush before.
“This one!” Keith yelled, jabbing his finger at the address. “Quickly, I- I need to be there as fast as possible, please.”
“Okay man,” the driver responded nonchalantly, pulling out into the road as Keith got buckled in.
He couldn’t stop bouncing his leg, realising now how he reeked of coffee, even had some of the stuff splattered across his shoes. He looked a right mess, but Keith didn’t care, as long as he got to the competition.
“We’re gonna make it, we’re gonna make it,” he muttered under his breath.
A sigh front the front, then-
Keith watched the city pass impatiently, wising time would slow down, wishing for just a little longer.
Kudos to Lance, his speech was pretty good, considering he’d only known about this event for about five hours now. He was clearly a people person, and Judy could see why Keith was so besotted with him, when he dazzled the crowd with his smile and welcomed them to the competition in a way that was informative and funny. He’d done some reading, obviously, because was currently running over the history of the competition for everyone. As charming as it was, Judy couldn’t relax, not when Keith still wasn’t there. None of the others knew, not even Allura, and the anticipation was killing her. She stared at his empty seat as the audience laughed, loving whatever it was Lance was saying.
Judy could scarcely believe he’d shown up. Either she’d done a great job convincing him over the phone, or he was equally as besotted with Keith, because despite only hearing her request this morning, here Lance was with a fully planned speech and a fancy shirt and a very sudden sponsorship from Radio Voltron. Judy supposed you could do these sorts of things where you were a popular, influential person.
“We’ve reached that point in the evening folks,” Lance announced happily, and Judy cringed.
No no no, they couldn’t start yet, Keith was here, he couldn’t… not yet.
“It’s time to introduce you to tonight’s contestants!” Lance said, accompanied by a cheer.
And thank god Lance was a charming person, because she doubted anyone else could talk for this long at the start of a maths competition without being booed off stage.
“Without further ado, would the team from South Grammer please stand!”
Judy glanced at the door as the school team beside them stood up, watching and waiting and hoping for her uncle to come bursting in.
“Traffic. We’re in traffic. We’re in traffic.”
Keith was officially having the worst day of his life.
“Sure are, man,” his driver replied, giving him a bored look.
Keith was also officially panicking. The competition had begun, it had to have, he’d missed the start and maybe he’d miss Judy’s team and this officially could not get any worse.
“How long?” He said in a rush.
“How long are we gonna be stuck?”
“Don’t know man,” the driver said, and shrugged. “Sometimes we sit here for like forty minutes.”
The driver just sighed; Dave, Keith noted from his badge.
“How much do I owe you?”
“How much?” Keith asked. “For the ride?”
“But we’re not-“
Keith slapped double the estimated amount into Dave’s hand, grabbing his satchel from the seat.
“Sorry about the traffic,” said Keith, before he was stepping from the car.
“Hey man, what…”
Dave looked on helplessly as Keith shut the door, shouldering his satchel with a final apologetic wave at the driver. And then, Keith ran. He’d never been the best at planning ahead, or at on the spot ideas in general, but Keith no longer cared. There was coffee staining his shoes and he was still shaking a little from the restaurant and his satchel knocked uncomfortable against his hip as he ran but Keith did not care. Because right now, and perhaps always, the only thing that really, really mattered, was his family. It was Judy, and Yumi, and the things that meant a lot to them. So Keith ignored the looks he got from those within the stationary cars, ignored the looks from shopkeepers and other pedestrians, and ran.
They were close, really, they’d nearly made it. He didn’t care how far he had to run, he was going to make it, and he just needed Judy to hold on for a little bit longer.
Keith was officially late-late. Thankfully, Lance had apparently gotten distracted enough to start up a beat boxing battle between two younger contestants during his introduction. The event supervisor looked a little put-off, constantly glancing at her watch, but the audience was loving it, so who was to stop them? Unfortunately, however, the battle seemed to be coming to a close, and Lance was remembering himself. He walked back to the podium, thanking the contestants who quickly returned to their seats. Judy shut her eyes; this was it. This was it, and Keith wasn’t here.
“It’s been an absolute honour welcoming you all tonight,” said Lance. “I’ll be handing you back to the lovely Dr Jones in just a minute.”
He shot a grin in the supervisor’s direction, and she smiled back politely, though Judy could tell she was stressed for time.
“But there’s a quick announcement I’d like to make first.”
For the first time that evening, the tone of Lance’s voice changed. He went from confident, cocky, charming radio presenter, to just… Lance. He sounded more serious all of a sudden, as he took to centre stage with the microphone, fingers playing nervously over his pocket. He looked scared out his mind and excited all the same, his eyes desperately raking the crowd just like Judy’s. For a second, Lance’s gaze flickered to Judy, and his smile solidified a little. He reached into his pocket, fishing out his phone.
“Alright guys, this ones gonna require a little bit of audience participation.”
Keith liked to think of himself as a relatively fit person, but still, sprinting down the side walk of a busy road as the afternoon heat came wafting off the streets, inhaling the hot car fumes and feeling his work clothes rub against his back, was proving to be difficult. He wasn’t going to stop though, or slow down. The school was close, he kept checking the map on his phone to be sure. It was past half past, and Keith would have been close to tears weren’t he currently on a mission not to pass out from inhaled car fumes and just get to the goddam school. He saw a sign for it, turning like a mad man and sprinting down a quieter street. This school was nearer the bay, and he could see preparations going up for the evening’s street markets.
Keith ignored it all, running as fast as his legs could carry him, aware of how strange he looked but finding no room to care. He could see it now, the school building up ahead, so he sprinted. Judy’s disappointed face and the slump in her shoulders and the no, it’s fine, she was bound to give him spurred him to move faster. He was too late, he knew, but he couldn’t stop and he had to try, and hope that by some wholly unexpected miracle, something was holding them up.
“So I was actually invited here today by one of our competitors,” Lance said.
The room had gone very quiet now, probably sensing he had something more meaningful to say. Lance had done his job entertaining them, now it was time for something new.
“And me and her, well, we’re here to find someone. Someone special. I have a feeling they’re in the crowd today, but…”
Lance squinted out at the crowd of people, the dozens of stackable chairs laid out in this school’s auditorium, all looking onto the stage. Judy glanced at the double doors set at the back of the room, but they didn’t budge.
“Well there’s quite a lot of you,” Lance said with a huff, prompting a few people to laugh.
He may have sounded like he was joking, but Judy could tell there was something in his tone. He hadn’t spotted Keith either, he was just as unsure as her.
“See this person… means a lot to us, and I’d really like to meet him. In person. If I can.”
The crowd stayed quiet, but their captivated expressions prompted Lance to continue.
“And I know this isn’t always how you kick off a maths competition, but what’s better at bringing people together than some good old… addition and subtraction and… division and… matrices, and pi… symbols.”
The audience chuckled a little, and Lance’s shaky smile returned.
“So if you’re with me on this, and I know this is an unusual thing to ask before a show, but if everyone in the audience could please turn on their phone. A-and make sure it’s not on silent.”
The crowd clearly liked Lance, because Judy watched in amazement as just about every person with a phone reached down to turn it on. She even saw her friends near the front doing the same, chuckling a little at Shiro’s confused frown. Her chuckle died on her lips however, when she remembered the star of the show was not in fact there yet.
“Alrighty!” Lance said, sounding excited though he looked utterly terrified. “Thanks everyone.”
He waited until people had settled again, everyone’s phone held expectantly in their hand.
“So I’m gonna…” he paused, wetting his lips nervously before continuing. “I’m gonna try give someone a call now. And… and we’re gonna see who picks up.”
Judy was close to crying now, staring and staring at the door. He had to get there, he just had to. Else he’d leave Lance heart broken on the stage, embarrassed in front of the crowd and Judy couldn’t take it. She almost wanted to stand up and demand he wait, but she was paralysed with fear and embarrassment. This had been her idea, if it all fell to pieces…
Lance was staring down at his phone, seemingly running a thousand thoughts through his head. His smile returned, and it broke Judy how hopeful it looked.
“Here goes nothing,” Lance murmured, and it didn’t seem like that was even intended for the crowd.
He hit call, and she felt the entire hall hold their breath.
Keith was sweaty as hell. He was throwing these shoes out when he finally got home, because they were uncomfortable as hell, and then he was burning this shirt, just because he hated it. Why was this school situated on a slope, and why was this school so big? How the hell was he meant to find the right hall when he was barely thinking, panting up a storm and flickering hair out his eyes until he gave up and just tied it back.
His phone began to buzz in his pocket, its irritating tone trickling out. Keith ignored it, because it didn’t matter who it was, he didn’t have time. Whoever it was would have to call back if it was that important, because Keith had places to be. So ignoring the ringing in his pocket, Keith picked the direction he hoped was right, and took off running.
Lance was losing momentum by the second. It was actually catastrophic, watching such a cheery person come crashing down like that. He’d looked so hopeful when he’d first pressed call, and so had everyone else. Even Allura was listing forward with her phone in hand, curious as to who they were trying to get a hold of. Judy watched with pain in her chest as Lance’s phone rang and rang, but the rest of the auditorium remained silent. She watched the smile slowly slip from his face, watched his eyes grow more restless as they searched the crowd, watched his confident stance slacken to shuffling from foot to foot nervously.
Lance was completely vulnerable. He was a loud, funny, dazzling presence, but right now he just looked shunned. Judy’s eyes went to the door, feeling anger and frustration and sadness all build at once in her chest. Come on Keith. The phone kept ringing, but the hall was silent. People were beginning to look at each other now, realising this wasn’t going quite as planned.
“We’ll just… let it ring for a minute,” Lance said very softly.
Just a minute. And then what? He left? Judy glanced at the door, heat building behind her eyelids. Come on come on come on.
This had better be the right fucking building, Keith thought, as he stormed through the doors of a fancy looking brick structure with some latin motto on the front that he didn’t have the time for. There was some artwork done by students up on the walls, but Keith didn’t exactly stop to admire it. He was on a mission, panting, locks of hair coming loose from the messy pony and irritating him to no end. Oh, and his phone was still ringing.
Keith burst through another set of doors, catching a glance at some sign before taking off down the hall. It was eerily quiet down here, though he didn’t really know how loud maths competitions were meant to get. One more minute of this though, and Keith was going to loose his goddam mind.
There were a set of double doors down the end of the hall, and they were officially Keith’s last hope before he just sat down and cried, because he was a terrible uncle and a terrible father and a terrible person in general. Keith raced towards them, almost limping in these goddam shoes and so sick of anything and everything that he didn’t even think to switch off his goddam phone before he was crashing through the doors like a rhinoceros straying from its rightly path.
The first thing Keith noticed were people. Dozens and dozens of people, all with their heads turned staring at him. The next was his phone, still ringing loudly in his pocket, ringing ringing ringing causing such a disturbance that everyone was looking. Keith fished it desperately from his pocket, fumbling around with the thing, consciously aware of just how many eyes were on him, and come on, why were they all so attentive, it was just a ringing phone, why were they staring at him like… like they’d been waiting.
Like they’d been waiting for him.
There was a clear parting in the chairs all the way from the door to the stage, and Keith looked up, blinking through the bright lights to see the dozens of people seated around the room and then… on the stage…
His thumb fumbled for his phone, hitting decline, and the ringing stopped. But everyone, everyone, was still staring at him. And on the stage, bathed in the tacky orange lighting, Lance stared back at him with his own phone cradled in his hand. Somewhere to his left, Keith was sure he heard a girl laughing, but he couldn’t be sure, because suddenly all his attention was on the man on stage.
Lance might’ve been frozen to the spot, but there was still a microphone held in his rigid grip, so the word carried to Keith like an amplified whisper, hitting him like a truck. Because that was… this was… this was not the maths competition. Except there was a sign to his right saying Annual Interschool Mathletics Competition, and at least ten parents holding little support signs, and that was definitely his one and only mathematically inclined niece up on stage. And Keith couldn’t breath.
There was a burst of static as someone wrangled the microphone from Lance’s locked hand, and he stared at them, stunned.
“I think it’s time we begin the main program,” Dr Jones announced, giving Lance’s shoulder a light pat and smiling at him kindly. “Thank you, Mr McClain, you’re welcome to take your seat now.”
Lance shuffled forward, stunned, slowly making his way off stage. The audience applauded to farewell him from the stage, and Keith could not possibly be more confused. He moved forward on instinct, making his way down the little isle between the seats where Lance was coincidently making his way towards him. The man stopped a little way down though, and Keith’s eyes flitted along the row, to where Allura was motioning desperately to him and the couple of empty seats beside her. Numb, Keith moved towards them.
Lance was just staring at him, awestruck, neither paying attention to the events going on around them. Keith came to a stop just before him, embarrassed suddenly, by his dirty work clothes and untamed hair, but Lance just smiled. A beautiful, breathtaking smile, as he gestured to the row of seats.
“After you,” he said.
Keith was either hallucinating, or just straight up dead, because nothing had prepared him for this. He shuffled along the row, collapsing into the seat beside Allura, who just beamed and squeezed his hand. Lance sat down beside him, the same time Pidge passed along a very obedient Yumi. The toddler squealed when she saw him, flinging her arms around Keith’s neck and squeezing. Before he even had time to shush her, her eyes had landed on Lance, and the girl went eerily quiet. Lance shot her a little smile, and her face lit up, and was this real?
Keith glanced to his right, his eyes accidently meeting Lance’s, and the pair looked away, each blushing furiously. Keith needed to focus on something else, he needed- His breath caught when his eyes landed on the stage, and the whole reason for being there came rushing back to him.
Judy was smiling at him. A big, bright, genuine smile, one that reached her eyes. She stood beside her four teammates at the long desk allotted to them, and though the real competition was close to starting, she was looking at Keith. He felt tears spring to his eyes, because she looked so… so Judy. With her black nail polish, and the orange dress Keith had helped her pick, and the sure way she held herself up on stage though she was the tallest of her team. And in that moment, Keith could not have been more proud. He smiled back, a huge grin as he cuddled Yumi tighter and waved to his niece on stage. She shot back the smallest, most subtle wave, before her attention was back on the supervisor and the questions that were soon to be announced.
The supervisor took her place by the podium, and everyone quietened down as the rules of the first round were explained. There was more encouragement from the audience than Keith had expected, especially once the competition kicked off and Judy was up there making them all proud answering questions diligently alongside her team. It wasn’t until the commencement of the second round, whilst everyone was clapping, that Lance turned to Keith.
“You… you’re Red, aren’t you?”
Keith looked at him, distracted from the competition for a moment, while Yumi clapped enthusiastically in his lap.
“You didn’t guess?”
Lance was smiling, and it was that same, soft, knowing smile from the aquarium.
“When?” Said Keith.
His throat felt dry, and he only hoped the blush on his cheeks didn’t give him away as easily as he thought it might.
“Flower farm, flower boy,” said Lance. “I saw you with the kids.”
Keith looked away, slightly ashamed. Thankfully the second round was kicking off, so they were forced to focus on stage again. They didn’t speak again, mostly because they were preoccupied with the competition, but Keith also didn’t mind the companionable silence. Allura kept shooting him huge, happy smiles, and Keith pretended they were all directed towards his niece on stage. Judy was amazing, clearly the brightest in her team, and she hid a smile every time Shiro cheered absurdly loudly for her.
Their team didn’t win, but they came in at second, and Keith clapped so loudly for them his hands hurt when Judy came forward to collect the little trophy. She beamed down at him from on stage, standing out in her orange dress as she stood beside the victorious team. There were many thanks, and farewell speeches, and instructions for joining next years team, but Keith barely paid attention, was too excited to congratulate his niece in person. As soon as things finished up on stage, Judy was bounding towards them with a happy smile and a paper certificate. Every one had risen in the auditorium now, and Lance and Keith considered each other with awkward half-gestures and glances as they shuffled out from the seats. Parents were reuniting with children and teachers, some leaving immediately, others staying to chat a while.
“Here she is!”
Allura’s exclamation gave Keith a second of warning before a bright orange ball of happy teen was colliding with him.
Judy’s hug only lasted a second, because immediately she was pulling back to smile at him.
“Of course I came,” Keith answered with a smile. “What? You thought I’d miss this? You were amazing Judy, I’m so proud of you.”
Judy tried to brush him off, but he could see how happy she was.
“Oh my god, we have to frame it.”
Keith glanced over to where Adam was holding out and admiring the certificate Judy had gotten, Shiro hovering over his shoulder. They were all there, suddenly, their whole mismatched family, Adam and Shiro and Allura and Pidge, then Lance, hovering awkwardly a few feet back, hands shoved into the pockets of his pants. Keith tried to ignore his presence for the moment, turning back to Judy with another comment stating just how proud he was-
“I hope you’re not mad.”
She was looking at Keith, still all bubbly with excitement but a little hesitant too.
“So this was your plan?” Keith asked, being sure to smile so she knew he wasn’t angry.
Keith sighed, holding out his arms to offer another hug. Judy didn’t hesitate, and didn’t pull away as quickly this time, squeezing the air out of Keith’s lungs so he could barely speak.
“’M not mad, Judes. Shocked, yeah, but not mad. Mostly I’m just… I’m so proud of you, for tonight, and the competition.”
Judy hugged him a little tighter before finally letting go, smiling briefly before she was turning to the lost looking member of their party. Lance was still standing there awkwardly and fidgeting, but he brightened up a little when Judy went bounding over to him, forcing the group to engage.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she exclaimed. “Your speech was awesome.”
Lance laughed sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. He was clearly extremely out of his element, surrounded by their group who all already knew each other.
“It was great, thanks for-“
“We should head outside!” Judy announced suddenly. “The night markets starting and I really want to see it!”
Clearly up to ulterior things, Keith gave in and followed Judy out, making sure Lance was trailing a few feet behind him. Their group emerged from the school grounds surrounded by other parents and students, navigating their way towards the main street and docks, where the market Keith had seen being set up was now in full swing. It was nice out here, full of people but not overcrowded, just a few street lamps and stringed lights to illuminate the path along the docks, where multiple store owners had set up.
“I need to find Coran,” Allura said suddenly. “I think he was headed to the cotton candy machine and I have to… be there.”
“I need to buy things,” said Pidge.
Judy snatched Yumi out of Keith’s hands, then latched on Adam.
“We’re getting ice cream, but you’re allergic so you can’t come.”
Shiro sighed, watching the rest of Keith’s friends desert him.
“I’m just gonna give you guys some space.”
Keith was about two seconds from protesting loudly that he not be left alone with the man of his dreams, but Shiro shot him one of those I believe in you smiles, an Keith had always been a sucker for that kind of stuff. So there he was, watching his brother and the last of his support wander off into the crowd, leaving him with Lance and Lance alone. Keith was entirely too embarrassed to even look at him, shrinking into his shoes and wishing he’d at least made the effort to comb down his hair before he went bursting into that auditorium.
“Do you… do you want to just walk?”
Keith nodded enthusiastically, because thank you, finally a suggestion that wouldn’t just leave them standing there awkwardly. With an abrupt start, they began to wander along the docks, letting their eyes drift over the many people filling the outdoor market place.
“So, I’m Lance.”
Hearing him speak caused Keith to falter in his steps, glancing at the man beside him.
“Uh, I know.”
“It just seems like none of my previous introductions stuck.”
“I- I’m sorry.”
Keith turned to apologise properly, but Lance was smiling.
“I’m kidding, man. It’s alright.”
Keith looked away, glancing at his shoes.
“Oh. Still, I’m… sorry.”
Lance hummed softly, as if he was accepting the apology but was really very unbothered by it.
“I did think I was going delusional for a while there,” he joked. “But you’re… I mean, you…”
“I’m Keith,” Keith confirmed. “It’s nice to meet you. I guess.”
“For the third time,” said Lance, and stuck out a hand.
“Fifth,” said Keith, and took it.
Lance laughed as he shook it, holding on for just a little too long. “That many?”
Keith looked away sheepishly.
“Fate really has it out for us, huh?”
“Fate and Judy,” Keith muttered. “I’m assuming, anyway, today?”
“Judy,” Lance confirmed. “You’re a tricky man to pin down. But yeah, she invited me to speak at the competition so… I-I guess the studio liked the idea.”
“Why?” Keith blurted suddenly.
Lance frowned, so he figured he should elaborate.
“Why come, today? Why did you… do that?”
“Why… did I want to meet you?”
They’d just accumulated about five questions between them, and Keith didn’t have the strength to answer any. The lack of response caused them to fall into silence, each looking the other way as they awkwardly continued down their path along the boardwalk. It was a nice evening, pleasant by the bay, with sweet smells wafting off the various food carts, and warm lanterns and strings of lights illuminating the way. When Keith glanced out at the bay, he could see the dark shapes of boats bobbing in the water, some hosting a crowd of dormant seagulls. A little way down from them, he caught sight of Judy chatting away to Allura, while Adam lingered a few steps behind, keeping Yumi entertained. For a second, Keith was tempted to chase after them and escape this conversation. But… Judy had done all this for him. Judy had listened to Keith, taken note of his relationship with Lance, then decided for herself he was someone not only Keith, but she wanted in their lives. Lance was welcome here, that much was apparent. Judy had worked hard to get him here, their friends had cleared off to give them the time and space they needed, and Lance himself had gone out of his way to meet a man he barely knew because…
Keith paused, finding himself short of a reason. Did Lance… did Lance feel things? What were those things? Friend things? Keith’s eyes darted to the man beside him, quickly taking in his serene expression as he gazed at the fairy lights they were passing under, taking in his eyes, and the soft crinkle in his brow, and then down to the sleeves of his shirt that had been rolled up to his elbows and were now beginning to fall loose. If Lance felt anything like Keith did, it was more than friendship. The thought had Keith panicking, just momentarily, staring almost fixatedly at the water until he forced himself to calm the hell down. Regardless of how Lance felt, he’d still made the effort to be here. In fact, everyone had put in effort to make this happen, everyone except Keith. It was time for him to pick up his goddam game.
“Did you really know since the flower farm?”
The question was softer this time, just as they came to the edge of a pier, one that jutted out into the water. Lance motioned for them to walk along it before answering.
“I had this really strong suspicion.”
He scoffed, like he found himself ridiculous.
“I spotted you and the girls, and I guess something clicked. But then it happened again and I kind of doubted it, after you denied it. I thought I was fooling myself into believing it.”
Lance paused then, shoving his hands into the pockets of his pants and glancing at Keith. He looked… nervous?
“Why did you keep denying it?”
Keith’s breath caught in his throat, hands growing clammy under Lance’s watchful gaze.
“I was scared I’d disappoint you,” he answered honestly. “On the radio, with Red, it was all so good. I thought if you met me, and we had to talk I’d… bludge it.”
He looked away, ashamed and scared of the open look on Lance’s face.
“It sounds dumb saying it aloud, and I’m really sorry, for ignoring you and… I guess I came off as being pretty rude. It shouldn’t have taken me this long, and I’m sorry.”
“You know I’m not mad, right?”
They’d come to a stop by the waters edge, toes pressed to the edge of the jetty as the dark ripples lapped at the wooden supports below. Keith cringed inwards, hands forming light fists. Lance was still staring at him.
“I thought maybe you wanted space,” he said softly. “That if it really was you, you needed… I don’t know. I didn’t want to force myself into your life, and I still don’t, Keith-“
Keith scoffed, lightly, shaking his head as he finally built up the courage to meet the man’s eye.
“Sometimes it was almost frustrating,” he admitted. “That we didn’t meet- properly, sooner.”
There was a smile creeping onto Lance’s face, a warm, impossibly soft gesture that had them both blushing. Keith turned back to the water, now hyperaware of Lance’s presence beside him. What the hell was this, what the hell happened now?
“I’m glad you made it tonight,” Lance said, sounding strained. “You seemed a little rushed.”
“Yeah. I got held up at work.”
“That sucks, man. Judy told me about… you know, losing your job. I hope this ones better.”
Lance sounded pretty unsure, and Keith could only imagine Judy telling him how Keith hated the diner even more. He swallowed, images of Lotor and his coffee drenched table floating into his mind.
“Well it wasn’t the best, but I, uh… I quit. Today. When I poured boiling coffee over my ex boss so…”
Keith cleared his throat, overcome with embarrassment and refusing to look up from his toes. It had been a weird thing to do, and the more he thought about it, the more terrible it sounded. Instead of running though, because Keith clearly had unresolved issues and was, once again, unemployed and probably unemployable, Lance burst into laughter. Keith’s head shot up, just as Lance straightened from being doubled over laughing.
“I… poured coffee on him.”
“Just spontaneously? Come on man, there’s gotta be a lead up to that.”
Keith’s lip twitched, so tempted to smile but still scared of the consequence.
“He was being a dick,” he argued weakly. “And my boss wasn’t gonna let me leave until he left, and I was going to be late… He just wouldn’t leave!”
It was becoming impossible not to smile, not with the way Lance was laughing. He was always like that, his emotions seemed infectious, so when he laughed Keith was helpless to it, and if he cried Keith might actually die.
“He told me the coffee was cold,” Keith muttered, then smirked. “So I… yeah, I poured it over his head.”
It took a while for Lance to calm down, and by the time he finally managed, the awkward air between them had vanished. He shook his head, still grinning ear to ear.
“I’m gonna be honest with you Keith, I’m pretty sure that’s defined as getting fired. Not quitting.”
“No, I definitely quit.”
“I said I quit!”
Lance chuckled, and that slight smirk and knowing look in his eye nearly had Keith keeling over.
“Wanna keep walking?” He suggested, before he actually did.
Lance shrugged, following Keith as he made his way back towards the main pier. There was a street musician set up along the main walkway, and Keith could just make out the tune he was playing.
“Did you set that up?” He asked, whipping around to look at Lance.
The man held his hands up in surrender.
“Why would you accuse me?”
“Because it’s that radio star one,” Keith said. “And that has to be your favourite song cause you play it every goddam day.”
Lance grinned, but shook his head.
“Wasn’t me, I promise. I’m telling you, fate likes messing with us.”
Keith made to continue, but a shrill voice cut him off before he had the chance.
He made it to his knees a second before Yumi collided with him, throwing herself at Keith with all the force of a speeding truck. He chuckled, standing up with an armful of very excited toddler. The orange scrunchie had remained in Yumi’s hair, but it was much messier that earlier, and her cheeks were all pink, suggesting she’d been running around and probably causing her carer hell.
Yumi shrieked, grabbing Keith’s cheek and- yup, they’d definitely fed her something sticky, because he’d have preferred if that hand had not just lathered whatever it was onto his face. Keith smiled at the toddler anyway, adjusting the little clip that held her fringe back and holding her close.
“Yumi definitely suits her better than Shelley.”
Keith went red. Lance was smiling when he turned to him, this time with Yumi in tow.
“Uh… sorry about-“
Lance waved him off, stepping closer as the toddler made a noise indicating she probably recognised him.
“Hey princess,” Lance said gently.
He held out a finger, and pretended to shake it like it was a hand when Yumi took hold.
“It’s very nice to meet you.”
Yumi was all smiles, looking between Lance and Keith as if she’d found two of her favourite people in the world. She was followed shortly by a disgruntled looking teenager, who came wandering towards them with a slight shake of her head.
“Sorry,” Judy called. “She missed you.”
“Thanks for watching her.”
Judy smiled, probably due to how absolutely delighted her sister looked to be where she was.
“They tried to arrest Coran for sticking his hand in the cotton candy machine so Allura and Pidge have taken him home,” Judy explained.
Lance looked a little shocked, but Keith knew that after just one conversation with Coran, such things would no longer surprise him.
“Adam and Shiro?”
“Waiting by the road,” Judy explained. “They were gonna head off, but didn’t know if we needed a lift. I heard the car broke?”
Keith stifled a sigh.
“Yeah. Yeah the battery died, but I thought we’d get the bus.”
“Oh, which bus are you guys on?”
Lance was looking between Judy and Keith, though Yumi had now latched onto his finger and was not letting go. He didn’t seem to mind.
“The 47,” Keith replied. “Are you…”
“Me too! Man, you guys wanna get the bus back? I mean, we don’t have to, it’s only if-“
“No that would be cool,” Judy cut in. “Right Keith?”
Keith felt like he might’ve just swallowed a brick, but persevered regardless.
“Yes,” he managed. “Yes.”
“Alrightly! I’m glad you agreed, cause I don’t think she’s letting go anytime soon,” Lance said, gesturing to the toddler and her death grip on his thumb.
It didn’t take long to track down Shiro and Adam, after which they said their goodbyes and moved their separate ways. Lance followed somewhat quietly as they walked to the bus stop, and Judy began telling Keith all about the lead up to the competition, and the pieces he’d missed. The presenter lingered, cautious of how much of him was wanted, a look of startled happiness crossing his face when Judy brought up his involvement in the competition.
Yumi was fading fast after the busy day she’d had, and Keith along with her. It went by without a word when Lance silently took the toddler, giving Keith’s arms a break as he gently lifted the sleeping child and cradled her against his shoulder. Lack of sleep and the stress of the last week was all weighing on Keith, but this time he had someone to lean on, someone he trusted to hand Yumi to, and someone to help him hand out the bus fare for the kids. It was so oddly domestic, to be this way with a man he’d met yet hadn’t, and knew yet didn’t. It felt brand new and routinely all the same. Lance’s presence sat there beside him like a new shoe, one that should have been stiff and uncomfortable and needing to be worn in, yet it fit like a glove, like he’d spent years just waiting for this. It was so simple, it was so beautifully simple.
“It’s been a long day for all of you, huh?”
They’d taken the seats at the back of the bus, which was mostly empty anyway, the dim blue lighting lulling them into a bit of a trance. Keith glanced at what Lance was referring to- Judy passed out against his shoulder. Keith smiled, shifting slightly so she’d be more comfortable, and in doing so leaning a little more into Lance. Lance, who still had Yumi asleep on his shoulder, and seemed quite unbothered by it, despite the fact that he had all three members of the Kogane family in various states of sleep surrounding him.
“It’s all that plotting,” Keith murmured, mustering up a glare that was entirely fake.
Lance chuckled softly, less heard than felt through his chest. They’d been talking quietly for some time now, careful to keep their voices low to not wake the children, speaking mostly about the radio show and the various nearly-meetings. Keith could feel himself growing more tired by the second, and listening to Lance talk softly about his own niece and nephew, or how Hunk was bound to react, was only lulling him further.
“Your stop’s before mine,” Lance said after a while. “I can wake you up.”
Another time, Keith may have protested, but now, given how tired he was, he only nodded.
“I’m sorry, I’ll stop talking.”
He forced himself to mumble, too tired to raise his head from Lance’s shoulder but desperate for him to keep speaking.
“I like hearing you talk,” Keith slurred “’S nice.”
“Oh. Okay then.”
So Lance kept talking. What about, Keith wasn’t even entirely sure, only that his voice sounded so, so much better in person, and that he clung to every word offered, even once they became muffled like white noise in his ears. It was too easy to sleep like this, with Judy resting on his shoulder, and he on Lance’s, and Yumi tucked up fast asleep in the radio hosts arms. Lance kept talking, until his voice was just background noise, something Keith could still hear faintly in his state of rest.
The bus arrived at their stop a good half hour later, and Lance woke Keith a few minutes before they were due to hop off. Yumi didn’t wake as she was handed over to Keith, and Judy was still half asleep as she plodded off the bus after them. The driver seemed understanding enough of the children, not bothering to hurry them as Keith carefully stepped onto the pavement with Yumi. Lance helped them off before jumping back on, standing in the open doorway as if there was something more he wanted to say.
“Thanks for helping with the kids,” Keith offered, slightly embarrassed now that he’d fallen asleep.
“All good, you guys get home safe.”
“Yeah, you too. I, uh… I’d like to see you, again?”
He seemed to have stolen Lance’s words, as a huge grin split his face before he could reel it back in.
“Uh, yeah, yes. I’d like that to. I could- I mean, I could call you?”
“Maybe without an audience this time.”
Lance huffed, returning Keith’s smile.
“Maybe. I should- I should go.”
He jerked his thumb in the direction of his seat, aware they were holding the driver up.
“Yeah! Yeah, goodbye.”
“See you guys.”
Lance gave a short wave, and Judy sleepily returned the gesture. Keith nearly lost his nerve, but the second Lance turned he was spurred into action.
He turned back but Keith was already there, one foot on the bus as he reached up to plant a kiss on Lance’s cheek. Well, it was barely a kiss, just a short press of lips, but it had Lance blushing and near gaping at him as the doors shut between them and the driver pulled off with a small chuckle.
“That was so smooth,” Judy mumbled.
“Yeah. Especially cause he can’t see that you’re blushing too.”
Keith stuttered soundlessly, unable to form a response that would wipe the smug smirk off his niece’s face.
“I think it’s past your bedtime,” he said instead, trying to get back what little leverage he had.
“Sure thing Keith,” Judy said with a snort, though she was still smiling.
Keith shook his head as he followed her towards their building, fumbling for the keys and trying not to wake Yumi.
“Thanks for coming tonight, by the way.”
“You kidding? I told you I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Still, thanks. Heard you got fired.”
“By pouring coffee on your boss?”
“They’re both your ex boss now.”
The soft sound of their shared laughter could just be heard down the street, disturbing the quiet night in a pleasant way as their mismatched family made their way home. Keith’s phone buzzed in his pocket with a text that was probably from Lance, and Yumi curled her arms a little tighter around him as he carried her up to their apartment, and Judy looked happy, truly happy that night, a little sleepy and a little worn but excited all the same. And it was everything Keith wanted, because they were a family.
This chapter is being posted in honour of one of the worst shifts I've ever had to work
fuck the restaurant industry, y'know?
Final chapter won't be up for about three weeks because I'm gonna be away from civilisation, apologies! Thanks for reading <3
Chapter 11: chapel of love
A year or so later
Can you believe I said 2 weeks until update? Thanks for being so patient everyone <3
The amount of support I received from you readers was just incredible, and I can't say how much I appreciate it. Thanks for keeping the story fun, I really hope you've all enjoyed reading this, please take all my love and keep it
Final chapter is posted in honour of me quitting one of my shitty jobs because if I can't listen to my own advice then what the hell
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The months following Lance’s formal introduction to their family, Keith found disaster did not unfold, like he’d once predicted. Lance slot in effortlessly, seamlessly, as if he’d been there all along. The world did not turn on its head, reality did not fall to pieces; if anything, it was easier. It was easier, having a hand to hold when they visited the park. It was easier having someone who knew how to braid Judy’s hair, and easier having someone who knew how to calm Yumi down if Keith had exhausted all his ideas. It was easy watching Lance and Judy get riled up discussing politics, and easy waking up on Sunday’s to find breakfast had been made. It was easy watching Lance rock Yumi to sleep, and easy having his forehead kissed as they dozed on the couch. Having an extra arm to swing Yumi as they walked, and having a smiling face to thank him when Keith made dinner, and having someone to hold him while he slept and when he cried, that was easy. Lance being there to teach Yumi to count on her fingers, and to help Judy nail the little picture frame with her mother’s face up on the wall of their new house- it was all so easy. And easy was good.
Keith sighed, pressing his face into the pillow and trying to ignore the chirpy voice calling him from the edge of the bed.
“It’s six am,” he grumbled. “You promised eight.”
“Actually, it’s nine,” said a kinder, warmer voice, accompanied by a soft chuckle as someone stroked his hair.
“You are. You want to hurt me.”
Lance laughed as Keith begrudgingly pried open an eye. He was already fresh-faced and showered and- okay, maybe it wasn’t quite six am.
“Time to wake up,” Lance whispered, pressing a kiss between his brows and causing Keith to frown.
Keith shut his eyes and shoved his face back into the pillow. He should have anticipated the peace was over, because a bout of giggles and a few seconds later, a much smaller, much squirmier bundle was being deposited on his back.
“Dada! Wake up!”
Lance grinned as Keith’s eyes opened again, fully this time.
“Yeah dad,” he said, leaning down to be on Keith’s level. “Wake up.”
“Never call me dad again.”
“You’re right, that’s me.”
Keith grumbled, tempted to shove that face out’ve view, except it was perhaps the only thing he did want to see this morning.
“Dad, dad, dad, da-“
Yumi shrieked as she was toppled off Keith’s back, a second before he had the three year in his arms and cuddling her.
“Hi darling,” he mumbled, blinking sleep out his eyes.
Yumi beamed up at him; her hair was brushed but still quite untidy, and she was in her pyjamas.
“I want pancakes. Lance said I can have pancakes.”
“No no no,” Lance protested. “We agreed pancakes, or cereal, and you already had your cereal.”
“Pancakes,” Yumi whispered, and Keith just sighed.
An arm settled around his shoulders, pulling him to Lance’s side as Yumi settled in for a hug. He was extremely warm, suddenly, and extremely comfortable. Almost comfortable enough to drift back to sleep…
“You’re still in bed?”
Keith’s eyes shot open, and Lance flinched beside him as a freshly woken teenager came bursting into their room.
“Judy!” Yumi squealed, kneeing Keith in her rush to leap off the bed and go to her sister.
Her sister, who may as well have had fire pouring from her eyes.
“You’re still asleep?”
Keith frowned, as did Lance.
“Is that… a problem?”
Judy gasped, then held up her phone.
“Judes, are you-“
“We’re going to be late!”
“Keith,” Judy snapped, and crossed her arms. “It’s your brother’s wedding.”
It took a near ten seconds for the words to process for Keith, in which time Lance mumbled, “Oh, I genuinely forgot about that.”
“Shit,” he said. “Shit!”
“Sit?” Yumi asked.
“Sit,” Lance affirmed.
“Oh my god,” said Keith. “Oh my god, we’re going to be late.”
Judy threw up her hands in frustration before storming out the room, yelling something about needing to hurry up.
“Lance, Lance get up, we’re going to be so late-“
“Hey, woah, calm down, we don’t have to leave for hours-“
“We,” Keith snapped, turning to his partner with the fiercest glare he could muster at the tender hour of nine in the morning, “are going, to be late.”
Lance blinked back at him, stunned, Yumi in a similar state where she was bundled in his arms.
“You want us to… start getting ready?”
Keith didn’t even get a chance to reply before Judy had poked her head back through the door to yell- “Yes!”
Despite Keith’s best efforts at getting the family ready on time, he was right, like he was every time about this. Five minutes after the time they were scheduled to leave, he stood in the hall with a tie undone, mismatched socks, two packets of dried fruit for Yumi and absolutely no goddam idea where-
“-the hell are Yumi’s shoes?”
Judy brushed past him with half her hair done up, sliding along the tiles in her socks while her nice pair of heels waited by the door.
“Dada, can I have pancakes?”
“I thought we left them by the counter,” Keith insisted to himself, turning in a circle. “Did anyone move them?”
“Dad,” said Yumi. “Pancakes.”
“No darling not now- did you move them Judes?”
“Keith! Kosmo stole my ribbon!”
“I put them there last night, I placed them right there, like two shoes just right there-“
“Yumi, sweetheart, you can’t- no don’t eat plain flour. Yumi! I said no.”
Keith dropped Yumi’s snacks on the counter, snatching a full bag of flour away from the three year old and toeing Kosmo, their troublesome puppy, out’ve the way of the mess Yumi had managed to make of the floor.
“Kosmo,” Judy snapped, appearing to stare down the dog with a cold glare. “Where did you take my ribbon?”
“You can use a different colour Judes-“
“Can you please take him outside? He needs to pee before we go.”
“Ugh,” Judy muttered, before turning on her heel with Kosmo bounding happily after her.
“Dad,” said Yumi. “I want juice.”
“You can have juice in the car.”
“Kosmo’s outside but he doesn’t want to pee!”
“He’s been there for five seconds Judy!”
“But he’s not peeing-“
“I wanna see!” Yumi yelled.
“Yumi, where did you take your shoes sweetheart?”
“Pee, pee, pee!” Yumi began to chant, hitting the door through which she was watching Kosmo run around their small backyard.
“Guys we need to go,” Keith pleaded. “Yumi- Judy have you seen your sister’s shoes? I really need her shoes-“
“I need my ribbon!”
“Keith your shirt has a paint stain!”
“No, it what-“
“I found the shoes! I have the shoes!”
Lance’s voice was like a goddam rush of fresh air, as was his presence when he came into the room brandishing a pair of tiny purple slippers.
“And the ribbon. It’s also purple, yeah Judes?”
Judy looked ready to erupt, but calmed the second she saw her ribbon dangling from Lance’s fingers.
“Ugh, yes, that’s it. I need to do my hair-“
“In the car,” Lance announced. “You can tie it in the car.”
He handed Judy the ribbon, and placed Yumi’s shoes into the little bag Keith had left by the door. Then he was there before Keith a hundred times calmer and more collected than the other, setting hands on his shoulders to confront the pout on his partners lips.
“Babe, there’s paint on your shirt.”
Keith sighed, almost ready to start pulling his hair out-
“Hey, hey, I’m gonna grab Kosmo inside and get the kids in the car, just go change it.”
A kiss on his cheek, then his lips, Lance ensured there was a flicker of a smile on Keith’s face before turning to scoop up Yumi.
“Hey princess, let’s get Kosmo, yeah?”
Keith waited until Kosmo was bounding over to Lance before racing back to their room to change shirts. He didn’t think much, just grabbed the neatest looking one that could pass as having been ironed once in its lifetime, and raced back outside. There was plenty of giggling coming from outside, and he spotted Kosmo distracted with a dog treat, meaning the kids were already by the car.
“You got the keys?” Keith yelled.
“Yup!” Came the reply from outside.
With a final glance at the dog, Keith was out the door and racing down their driveway. Lance had just finished buckling Yumi in, with Judy frantically smoothing down her hair in the backseat.
“You chose red,” Lance said with a glance at his shirt and an obvious wink. “My favourite colour.”
“Oh just get in the car,” Keith muttered, trying to hide his smile but failing.
From then on it was doors closing, engines on, and a slight curse from Keith as he shot off the curb a little too fast. Lance kept turning in his seat to help Judy with her hair, or to hand Yumi her toy when she dropped it. Keith tried to keep his attention on the road, but it was hard not to want to watch the man beside him.
“Oh! Radio!” Lance almost yelled, once they’d finally broken free of the neighbourhood and were on their way. “We have to catch Nyma’s segment.”
There was a song playing when they frantically found Radio Voltron’s station, and Lance turned the volume up as it wound to a close and a voice filtered through.
“It’s eleven forty eight here on Radio Voltron, and for those who missed it, I’m Nyma, filling in for the boys on this Monday morning.”
A pause, then-
“Since they’re at a wedding. On Monday. Who gets married on a Monday, like can we talk about that?”
Lance cracked a grin, glancing over at Keith.
“Why are they getting married on a Monday?”
“If I had any idea,” Keith muttered.
“Anyway,” Nyma droned, sounding a little put off that she had to cover the morning radio segment. “Come midday, we’re going to be discussing Rambo, what are they, why are they so useful in the home- oh, wait no, sorry, we’re talking about Roombas. Yeah, this definitely actually says Roomba.”
“I think she’s doing great,” said Lance, looking to Keith with a huge grin on his face.
“You owe her so much.”
“But before then,” Nyma said. “I have a special request from our absent host.”
“You didn’t,” said Keith.
“Lance,” said Nyma. “I pray the prophecy comes true this time.”
Lance laughed as Video Killed the Radio Star began to play, looking far too pleased with himself.
“How much did you pay her?” Keith asked.
“Two trays of Hunk’s lemon poppy seed muffins.”
Keith scoffed, glancing at Lance and admiring how right that smile looked on his face.
“Fair trade,” he said, softer than intended, intent to keep on looking at Lance for eternity.
And if not for eternity, until the car behind them slammed on its horn as the light turned green.
Shiro and Adam got married on a Monday, when the weather was warm and clear, in a beautiful field in the countryside where they’d gone on their first date. Either that or the place they’d first bunked school together; Keith wasn’t sure how much of a date it actually counted as. Their whole family attended, and Keith sat amongst them and their friends as he watched his brother tenderly exchange vows with his husband to be. Allura was brimming with tears the whole ceremony, clinging to Romelle’s hand and thanking Coran as he handed over tissue after tissue. Judy and Yumi scattered flowers over the lawn where people sat, and Keith watched them fondly as the pair of sister’s giggled and chatted together.
When the ceremony came to a close, they gathered under the large tent set up under the clear blue sky. Guests filled the place, drinking and talking, and then dancing when the music began to play. Keith danced with Lance under a string of fairy lights, one more drink than strictly necessary making his chest feel warm and fuzzy. Yumi found him and wanted to dance, to be rocked in a circle as Lance hooked his finger through Keith’s belt loop to pull him closer and smile and sway in a slow little dance that they all could be a part of.
“I want another family picture! Come, come on, everyone in!”
Their dance was interrupted by Coran striding through the tent, rounding up all immediate family members to capture a picture of them outside before the sun sank too low beneath the horizon. With a sigh, Keith’s hand found Lance’s, and he carried Yumi over to where the rest of the family was waiting. It had become less immediate family, more found family, with Adam and Shiro crammed into the middle with their parents hovering beside them. They’d dragged Pidge in, and Hunk, both of whom were so caught up in conversation they barely noticed they’d been roped in. Allura saddled up next to Keith, Judy tailing her, and Lance’s hand settled on his shoulder as Coran shouted orders for them to arrange themselves better.
“Aren’t you glad we finally found dates who weren’t each other,” Allura whispered to Keith, right as Romelle squeezed into the picture beside her.
“You were always the best date,” Keith whispered back, delighting in the bright smile on Allura’s face.
“Oh you,” she muttered. “You weren’t half bad. And it was a pretty good speech you gave.”
“You think so?”
That was comforting to know, and Keith was left smiling as Coran ordered them to stop talking and look at the camera. Yumi was more interested in playing with Keith’s hair, but a little bit of bribery from Lance, and she was glancing at the camera while Coran bolted towards them in time for the timer to take the picture. They had to stay and pose for another five pictures before the man was satisfied, but just when he thought they might be free, another request was being made.
“No, don’t run away! We need smaller groups now,” Coran insisted. “Let me see… Keith! Lance! Your family first, before Yumi loses interest.”
Keith paused, unsure of what to do.
He looked to Shiro, but the man was already moving off with Adam.
“The Kogane-McClains,” said a familiar voice, before Lance’s arm was being slung over his shoulder and Keith was tugged in close.
He felt off balance, suddenly, despite Lance being right there to support him. Yumi giggled in his arms as he swayed, playfully grabbing for her sister as Judy came to stand on Keith’s other side. And then it was just… them. The four of them, their… family?
“Kogane-McClain’s a bit long,” Lance whispered into his ear, making Keith shiver. “I think we should shorten it.”
It was obvious what he meant, but Keith couldn’t move past the image and the idea of the four of them. There they stood, as natural as could be, Yumi on his hip and Lance’s arm around his waist and Judy beside him, the kids smiling obediently for the camera as Lance was scolded for talking instead of posing and-
“You can’t propose at my brother’s wedding,” Keith said in a rush of air, so soft the words reached Lance and Lance alone.
“Who said I’m proposing?”
Keith scoffed, but he could feel his heart hammering away in his chest.
“Hypothetically,” said Lance. “If I was…”
He paused, swallowing the lump in his throat.
Keith couldn’t breathe, couldn’t find his balance as the camera flashed and Judy quickly adjusted her hair.
“For convenience,” he whispered. “I suppose.”
Lance chuckled softly, and Keith smiled at the devilish smirk on his lips.
“Oh, Keith, can you lift Yumi’s chin a little? Thank you, thank you hold it right there!”
Lance sighed at Coran’s antics, sliding over to be between Keith and Judy and pulling them both in close.
“Alright family, we’re giving him the good expressions this time. So I want big smiles, eyes open, and someone had better do a peace sign.”
Judy laughed, and Keith couldn’t help but join her. The concept of this, of a family, might have bewildered him, but the man he loved was there to steady him, and Judy and Yumi, the people he cared for most, were there within reach and they weren’t going. So Keith smiled, did his best to blink away the wetness gathering in his eyes when Lance kissed his forehead and whispered it’s okay. It was okay, it was okay. It was okay to have and want this family, okay to feel overwhelmed. It was okay to mourn who’d they lost and celebrate who they’d found, okay to love each other, and care for each other, and to make mistakes and to heal them. He had a family, in his arms and crowding around him, gathered under the tent or placed in a framed picture above the mantle. Perhaps families could be hard, and they could hurt, and they could fight. Perhaps love itself was not always enough on its own, perhaps patience, and time, and kindness, and a million other powerful things, they were needed to. But love was what held them there, love was at the core. Keith could love them with everything he had to give, and together, it would all be enough, for love was the most important piece of all.
so sorry for the fuckin cheesy ending but what did you expect? Thank you so very much for reading this story...
and since i totally completely forgot to include it in the story, keith's teaching art now for anyone interested i cant believe i didnt mention that