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The Observable Universe

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Goodbyes were easier to say than Shiro had thought.

The day before the Kerberos launch was the most beautiful of his life. He woke to a warm September sun, the skies cloudless, the kind of day that made some people wonder why you’d ever leave Earth, or even Arizona.

Most of his farewells had been said yesterday, timetabled pragmatically so that he could spend today focused on preparations. Matt had laughed at Shiro for this, and for not colour-coding his spreadsheet by friendship group like he would have done, but what it meant was that Shiro had the whole evening before the launch to do whatever he liked.

Someone was calling him from behind as he strode down the corridor. “Shiro! Shiro, wait a sec!”

He turned; it was Purbright from Diana Squadron. She was shoving her way down the hall to get to him, so Shiro paused, his eyebrows a little high. “What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing,” she said, elbowing past a cadet before arriving in front of him, slightly flustered. “Our section was going to get dinner and drinks before the big party tonight, we’d love it if you came with us.” Shiro smiled and opened his mouth to reply, but she pressed on before he could. “Mal will be there, he’d love to see you before you go.”

“I’m afraid not,” he said lightly, hoping to cut her off at the pass. “I’ve already got plans.”

“Oh, come on!” Purbright dismissed these with a wave of her hand. “We won’t be seeing you again for three years, Shiro, don’t ditch us now!”

“I’ll try and look in on you guys before the party if you’re still on base,” he said, trying to recalculate his schedule for the evening in his head before giving up. “No promises.”

“What’s this, you gonna stand us up?” said Jankowski, appearing suddenly from behind Purbright. He was shorter and bolshier than she was, and Shiro’s heart sank at the prospect of an argument the day before the Kerberos launch. “Screw Diana Squadron, man, you should spend your last night with your actual old section.”

“Like I said, I’ve already got plans,” Shiro said firmly. This was usually the right tack to take with Jankowski, or had been back when Shiro was his LT, but now it made him bristle.

“This is a time for celebrating with old friends,” he said, too sharp. “What, you don’t wanna talk to Li Qiang?”

Li Qiang, his ex before the current ex, was probably the last person in the Garrison Shiro wanted to talk to, barring Adam himself, who he was late for a meeting with about pre-flight checks. He forced another smile. “It’s going to be an early night for me, I think,” he said.

“That’s okay,” said Purbright, and Shiro’s shoulders loosened. “We’ll be done with dinner about twenty-hundred hours, so if you want to slope off after that we won’t mind – well, Mal might, but I’ll protect you from his terrible wrath!” She laughed, as though the whole problem with Mal wasn’t that he never actually got angry, just more and more passive-aggressive until you ended up agreeing to whatever it was he wanted just to make the conversation end.

“I just don’t think I’ll be able to make it,” Shiro said, his patient smile strained by a clenched jaw.

“Yeah, stop harassing him, Purbright,” said Jankowski. “He’s hanging out with us – not too good for us nowadays, are you, Shiro?” His tone was jocular, the kind of cheeriness that could turn on a dime.

“I’m really sorry, guys,” Shiro said, ignoring his words and clapping a hand on Jankowski’s shoulder. “I hope you all have a great time this evening.”

He swung on his heel and strode away before they could argue with him, feigning not to hear Jankowski shouting his name. At least he’d got away without jettisoning both friendships, although Purbright was liable to be cool for a while and there was clearly something churning beneath Jankowski’s determined show of camaraderie. That would take some mending and Shiro didn’t have the time or the energy to do it before the launch tomorrow, especially since he had no actual intention of spending the evening with either of them. It was the kind of thing that he would have usually taken a few weeks to smooth over for the sake of maintaining the peace, but the idea of trying to do it from three and a half billion miles away daunted him.

His actual plans were much simpler: pre-flight checks with Adam, which was excruciatingly awkward, last-minute rundown of the first day’s itinerary with Commander Holt and their newly-minted junior science officer, Matt, who hadn’t technically graduated yet. After that, he was more or less free to do whatever he wanted, within reason.

Some days prior, he had coaxed a special pass from Iverson for him and Keith to go out into the desert with a proper chicken dinner ordered from a real restaurant and a telescope. He strapped the box of food to his hoverbike before retrieving the second helmet and goggles for Keith, who was hesitating near the garage door.

“What’s up?” he asked when Keith didn’t immediately trot on over.

Keith chewed over whatever was bugging him for another few seconds before saying, in the sullen, closed-off way he had whenever he thought he was concealing his emotions: “Are you sure you really wanna hang out tonight?”

“Of course I’m sure,” Shiro said, lowering the helmet in surprise. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I just figured – you don’t have to spend your last night on Earth with me.” Keith wasn’t looking at him; he was staring at the dirt. “I’m not that needy, you know?”

Taking offence, even in jest, might have shocked Keith out of his obvious misery, but Shiro didn’t have the heart for it. He said: “Well, I am.”

“What?”

“I am that needy. Come on, you want me to spend my last night playing fifth wheel at the Holts’ house? Or at a big Garrison party I can’t even drink at, and which you’re not allowed to come to? Save me, Keith Kogane, you’re my only hope.”

“You’re so dumb,” Keith said, but he was smiling down at the accumulated crud of the day on the garage floor. “I thought, maybe, you and Adam – ”

“Definitely not,” said Shiro firmly. That was part of the reason he’d asked Keith to begin with; a weird conversation with Adam this morning had made him suspect one last hurrah might be in the offing, and that was an emotional nitroglycerin canister he had no intention of taking into deep space with him. Better to avoid the whole thing entirely.

Whatever Shiro’s ulterior motives, Keith received this news with a radiant smile, finally convinced that Shiro really wanted to spend his last evening with him, which he sincerely did. They flew out together over the wastes at a hundred and fifty miles an hour, Keith leaning eagerly over his back to try and catch the wind in his hair. Your face is going to be on fire tomorrow, Shiro thought, and for the first time felt a pang of pre-emptive homesickness. The scratches on Keith’s face would heal up; he’d pass astronavigation; he’d make pilot officer; all of it without Shiro there to see it. By the time Shiro got back, Keith would likely be on a deep space mission of his own, maybe even out to the Kuiper Belt, but more likely one of the ones to Proteus or Venus’s trojan asteroids that had been floated. He had no illusions: tonight was likely the real end of their friendship. It might go on for a few more months – it would always remain a cherished memory – but it was hard to sustain any relationship when you weren’t seeing each other every day, never mind one of this intensity, never mind a distance of three and a half billion miles.

He imagined himself, ten years down the line, touching base with an old friend - Shiro would need a cane by then, if he was lucky, but Keith would be not yet thirty, probably he would already be Commander Kogane, on shore leave before his mission to whatever Shiro and the Holts found out there beyond the Kuiper cliff. Keith at thirty would be magnificent, and Shiro would be telling everyone he met how he’d always known, but he’d see him only once every four or five years for a two-hour dinner.

The thought made his throat close up, not pleasantly.

“I can’t find Pluto,” complained Keith. He was glaring at the telescope like it had offended him by failing to show the right celestial object at the right time. “It’s too cloudy.”

“Never mind,” said Shiro. “I’ll be seeing enough of it for the next three years.”

“I thought you wanted to stargaze.”

“I can live without it for one night. I’d rather talk to you.”

Keith threw himself down on the blanket next to Shiro. “Is this gonna be a lecture?” he asked, but his grin belied the sulkiness of his tone.

“When do I ever lecture you?” Shiro said. “That’s not my job.”

He regarded Keith silently for a moment. Keith was a jumping jack firework in human form; a blue flame that he had no idea how to keep from burning out. This evening, he held out his hand and Keith took it somewhat confusedly, his cheeks flushing. Shiro squeezed.

“Promise me you’ll stay exactly who you are,” he said.

“I don’t know what that means,” said Keith, his brow furrowing. “I guess I’ll try?”

“It means that there aren’t many people like you.” A number of thoughts rose to his lips, Shiro took a deep breath to buy himself time to sort through them. “I’m not going to be easily contactable for a while, so I’m telling you now. The Garrison’s not always the best place in the world, but you’re one of the best people in it and I have complete faith in you. That will never change, okay?”

When Shiro looked at him, Keith’s eyes were wide and his mouth slightly parted. His embarrassment had become hectic; he was suffused with colour right down his neck. “I…”

Shiro let go with one last parting squeeze and sat back. “You don’t have to say anything, Keith. I’m not fishing for compliments. What I want is to come back in three years and find that you haven’t given up. I don’t care if you’re here at the Garrison, or if you’ve found something better – ”

“Better than flying?” Keith croaked out. Shiro laughed.

“Okay, but the point is that I’d be proud of you even if you weren’t a pilot, buddy.”

Keith’s mortification hadn’t abated; he found a hole in the blanket and dug his thumb into it, twisting the threads around, rather than look Shiro in the eye. Shiro couldn’t suppress the rush of fondness in his gut. Eventually Keith cleared his throat.

“I’m gonna be a pilot when you come back,” he said. “I promise.”

“I’d never trust my ship to anyone else,” Shiro told him and Keith’s embarrassment intensified again.

They spent the rest of the evening picking over the remains of the chicken dinner and pretending to map the necessary trajectory to fly to Mintaka; an impossible dream but one that seemed very close, lying on a picnic blanket in the middle of the desert, knowing that tomorrow he would fly out further than anyone had ever been.

When the time came to head back, Keith paused before he swung a leg over the bike, and said, very quietly, “Can we go slow?”

“Sure,” said Shiro, equally quietly. He went at twenty miles an hour the whole way and pretended not to know that Keith was crying behind him, his face pressed into his back to muffle the sound. They didn’t get back to the Garrison until two in the morning, and Iverson was furious, but there was no disciplinary action to be taken. Shiro had to be on the shuttle by eight a.m. and Keith – one look at Keith’s face and both Iverson and Shiro knew that attending the launch would be punishment enough.

The whole of the last year it had felt like he was fighting every last person with a claim on him just to get a chance at Kerberos. Keith might have been the last straw; if he’d begged him to stay, Shiro might have cracked. But he never had, even when he’d found out about the muscular dystrophy, even when he’d known that Adam and Sanda and half the admiralty were against it and Shiro had nothing to answer them with except but I want it.

The debris from the big Garrison party to celebrate the Kerberos launch was still cluttering the corridor to his room as he went to bed there for the last time. He hadn’t wanted to go, but he’d been unable to summon a rational reason why not, until Sam had told him gently that he and Matt weren’t going either, that they were going to enjoy a quiet family dinner at home. “Spend time with those you value,” Sam had said, “not those who value you.”

Tired as he was, as necessary as he knew it was to be well-rested in the morning, Shiro found that he couldn’t sleep. There was something knotting in the back of his head, a formless conviction that wouldn’t let go. An endless amount of time passed before he gave up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed to go and find his tablet. The alteration to his list of contacts was quickly made, and the tension went out of him as soon as he’d done it. He’d never had a particularly long list of people he wanted to be able to contact him on Kerberos; cutting it down to one name felt more selfish than he had ever been before, but the relief was intoxicating. He crawled back into bed, and was out like a light.

***

The shuttle bus nearly left without Keith, not because he was late but out of spite on the part of the driver. He scowled at his nemesis – under other circumstances, the guy was his electronic engineering instructor – but distracted immediately by Shiro calling his name. He made his way down the bus as it accelerated, flopping into the seat next to him.

“You look tired,” Shiro said and proffered his disposable coffee cup. Keith hesitated, but Shiro didn’t waver.

“Don’t you need it?”

“Nah,” said Shiro easily. “When you get to my age you stop needing the straight eight to function.”

Keith snorted but he took the coffee. Shiro never bothered with cream or sugar and this tasted like he’d just ordered six shots of espresso in a grande cup, which was how Keith liked it, too. Adam had said in Keith’s presence that Shiro had zero taste in food or drink, but Shiro had just shrugged and said the commissary coffee was there when he needed it, unlike Adam, which had sort of put the finishing touch to their relationship.

Actually – he glanced around the bus. Where was Adam?

Shiro noticed him looking and said: “The Holts are coming by car. Matt and Sam – ah, Commander Holt – didn’t sleep in barracks last night.”

“Guess they wouldn’t,” muttered Keith, momentarily jealous – on Shiro’s behalf or his own, he wasn’t sure.

“You might as well get some shut-eye,” Shiro said, slinging his arm over the back of Keith’s seat. “It’s going to be an hour before we get to the launch site and you’ll be wrecked for the rest of the day if you don’t sleep.”

“You just gave me coffee,” Keith said accusingly. He didn’t want to nap for the last hour Shiro was going to be on Earth. “I’ve only got astronavigation afterwards anyway.”

“Oh, good,” said Shiro, nudging him. “I’ve got some last-minute advice for you that I think you’ll love – ”

Keith slumped down in his seat and pretended to snore loudly. Shiro threw back his head with a shout of laughter. This should have earned him glares from the rest of the bus, but no one ever glared at Shiro. Keith couldn’t imagine why anyone would.

Cracking open one eye, he said: “Eat me.”

Shiro opened his mouth to reply, but the person behind them interrupted, leaning forward to ask: “Shiro, are you excited for the launch?” as if approximately forty thousand people weren’t going to ask him that today. Keith would launch himself into space just to get away from them.

Shiro turned around to answer politely and Keith wriggled a bit so he could sit up straight again. The drive to the launch pad passed in much the same way – every time Shiro and Keith got to talking, someone would butt in to try and maneuver Shiro away, and Keith was scowling again by the time the shuttle bus pulled up outside the site.

The site itself was vast, the blast-off point for thousands of missions down the years, and this one was historic. The crowds were already lining up with their tickets as the crew from the shuttle bus – all Garrison personnel there to ensure the whole thing went smoothly, including Keith’s electronic engineering instructor – slipped in through a side entrance.

“There you are!” said Commander Holt cheerfully, looking up from his clipboard as they trudged in. “I was worried you’d got cold feet.”

“Not me,” said Shiro. That was his real smile he had on, Keith could tell – you could see his teeth, a little wolfish and dangerous. “I was worried Matt wouldn’t be able to tear himself away from that memory foam mattress he’s been bragging about having at home.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Commander Holt said, “but Colleen and I have experience.”

Mrs Holt was inspecting Matt’s flight suit. “At least it doesn’t have lint,” she said, brushing at the shoulder. There was something tense in her fingers that didn’t show in her face; it occurred to Keith that patting her son down might be an excuse to touch him and reassure herself that he was still there.

Mom, you’re embarrassing me,” whined Matt, and Keith felt a burst of irritation so strong that he had to look away. It wasn’t jealousy; it was a rational response to someone who clearly had no idea how good he had it.

His fingers were reaching out for Shiro’s sleeve before his brain could catch up with his body. Shiro glanced over his shoulder at him questioningly and Keith’s heart attempted acrobatics in his chest. “…It’s nothing.”

“Is it?” Shiro asked, but his attention was immediately called away by one of the flight co-ordinators. Keith hadn’t had anything interesting to say anyway.

He wanted to tell Shiro something that would explain everything, the way Shiro always did for him, the way he had last night. There was something that could be said, words that would express how he felt perfectly, and preferably without Keith having to actually say them. That part felt dishonest, though. The idea of sending that kind of message through, say, Commander Holt was so horrifying that Keith clenched his fist in the wool of his pants.

They were permitted to go into the ship itself, mostly because everyone on the launch crew was going and Commander Holt’s daughter wouldn’t let go of his hand. It was bigger than Keith had thought it would be, designed to hold three people who didn’t want to be constantly tripping over each other for three solid years. It was the cockpit that fascinated him most, though: it was top of the line, the best the Garrison had to offer. He’d never so much as been allowed to get within a hundred feet of one of these. Even the pilot’s seat was perfect, upholstered in a new synthetic fabric designed for comfort during spaceflight. Keith ran his forefinger over the back of it.

“She’s a beauty, all right,” said Shiro quietly, coming up behind Keith and putting his hand on his shoulder. “I’ve never flown anything like her.”

“I’m going to fly something like this one day,” Keith said, looking him directly in the face. It sounded like a vow, but Shiro didn’t laugh.

“I know you will,” he said.

Keith floundered for a moment, trying to summon words to his tongue. Shiro just watched him patiently, waiting. Eventually, he managed: “I’m gonna miss you.”

He hadn’t said it the whole time they were preparing for the mission, scared that it wouldn’t affect Shiro’s decision in any way, terrified that it might. Here and now, with the mission a fait accompli, it seemed like it might be okay.

Shiro’s hand on his shoulder squeezed tightly once and then let go. “I’ll miss you, too.”

“You’re like a brother to me,” Keith added, barrelling on desperately, hardly aware of what was actually coming out of his mouth. “I – I – ” His jaw clamped shut, protecting him from humiliation.

“You’re my best friend,” Shiro said gently, like a benediction. Keith looked up at him, his eyes wide and tearless. He was silent. All the words were gone.

The launch went okay, in the end. Keith stared up at the sky past the facility, past the lightning arresters, past the stars, trying to figure out where Shiro was now. Behind him, Commander Holt’s daughter was sniffling and denying loudly to her mother that she was sniffling. Keith didn’t understand why she was crying. He felt hollowed-out, as if Shiro had carved out something important and taken it with him to Pluto.

Mrs Holt was approaching him, her daughter clasped firmly to her side. “It’s Keith, isn’t it?” she asked. “The rest of the Garrison people will be here for hours organising the recovery of the launch system. Can we drive you back to the compound?”

“Um, yeah,” he said, scrambling to find his jacket and, remembering his foster home manners, added: “Thank you?”

“You’re welcome,” she said warmly. Keith made a good-faith effort at a smile.

He spent most of the journey back gazing out of the window. Mrs Holt talked mostly to her daughter; it felt like the two of them were trying to fill a silence that, mercifully, had nothing to do with Keith. They made it to the compound just as Keith’s astronavigation class was finishing up, so even though he sprinted the other cadets were already filing out of the classroom when he got there. The instructor was packing up his briefcase as Keith flung himself into the room and his face, when he glanced up, was hard and unamused.

“I assume you had permission to go to the launch,” said Adam coolly.

“Yeah, I did,” said Keith. He meant it to come out forcefully; it sounded sulky.

“Then there’s no problem.”

Why weren’t you there? Keith wanted to ask. What did Shiro do to deserve that? But he didn’t. Adam brushed past him on his way out the door.

Keith sat on the edge of Adam’s desk until dusk began to bleed through the windows. Normally he would have found some thin excuse or other to track Shiro down; now he could only narrow his eyes at the setting sun, knowing how impossible it was to pick out Shiro and the Persephone at this distance.

He hadn’t got the words right. He knew that now, but it was far, far too late.

***

That was the beginning of one of the worst weeks of Keith’s life. James was pissed that Keith had gotten to go when no one else had, and made loud noises about how special Keith was, how favoured, how he’d probably sucked Shiro’s dick to get the pass. The last one made everybody else unbearable, too, because while none of them actually thought Shiro would do that, they all wanted to think Keith would, as a way of explaining why Shiro liked him so much. It was kind of cool, for everybody but Keith, to pretend to be worldly and cynical and aware of How These Things Worked. It got so bad that even James the living nightmare was beginning to look sorry that he’d ever brought it up.

What this meant was that no one in his class talked to him except to wheedle information out of him about the launch and Shiro and by Friday he was snapping at shadows.

Then his engineer threw up on him.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Keith snarled, his cadet uniform soaking through with Jesus Christ the remains of canteen chili.

“I’m sorry, man,” said his hapless engineer, his hand still pressed over his mouth so that it came out sounding like “Umm soh weh mum.” He looked at Keith’s pants, and either regret or intense nausea overwhelmed him. This time he made it out of the simulator, at least, tripping over his own feet and ending up being sick on his hands and knees.

Keith was not a sympathy vomiter, but the sight of someone having a worse day than him checked his immediate urge to start yelling again. Shiro would have done something here – something that was not running away down the corridor like their comms officer was doing, the fucking coward. He took a deep breath.

“Uh,” he said, and patted their engineer on the back in what he hoped was a comforting way. Shiro had done this for him once when he’d gotten fucked-up on store-brand vodka and called him in tears. Shiro had been way better at it, but Keith couldn’t bring himself to hug a guy covered in sick and no kindly words were immediately coming to mind. “It’s okay?”

“I’m really sorry,” moaned the engineer.

“No, it’s okay,” Keith said, more confidently this time. “I probably took that last loop-the-loop too fast. It’s natural.”

“Thanks, man,” said the engineer to the puddle on the floor. “Oh, no, I gotta clean this up now.”

“I’ll do it,” Keith said, forging ahead with his being-Shiro plan. “You focus on, uh, not throwing up.”

He found the janitor’s closet and retrieved paper towels and cleaning solution. By the time he got back, his own shoes and pants as clean as he could make them without fleeing to his room, the engineer was sitting on the steps up into the flight simulator, taking deep breaths. Keith mopped up the mess, trying not to think about it too hard, and offered the paper towels as a token of goodwill.

“Keith, you’re a freaking angel,” the engineer said. “Ugh, I need a shower so bad.”

“Yeah,” said Keith. Wait, that was rude. “Um, me, too.”

“Can you give me a hand getting back to my room?”

“Sure.” Then Keith hesitated, his hand suspended in mid-air. Where did this guy even bunk? What if it was in Gagarin, with the rest of the new blood? That was on the other side of the compound from Keith’s room. He’d have to walk across the quad covered in someone else’s vomit. Everyone would see. Fuck, James would see.

“Oh, wow,” said the engineer. “You totally don’t know who I am, do you?”

“I do!” Keith snapped, his mind frantically raking over the morning assignments board. “It’s Hunk, right?”

“That took you like thirty whole seconds,” said Hunk, but he was kind of laughing. “Do you just not, like, talk to anyone unless they’re bugging you?”

“Pretty much,” said Keith, shouldering Hunk’s weight so that he didn’t have to look at him. Shiro had used to push him about it, telling him to make other friends, but he’d stopped when he realised it just made Keith more knotted up inside, even though he knew – he knew – that Shiro didn’t mean that Keith was a burden to him.

It turned out that Hunk was in Sharman, too, literally right across the hall from him, and Keith was able to drop him there without any trouble. After his own shower and change of clothes, he made his way down to the commissary for dinner. Resigning himself to another lonely meal – which he was used to, Shiro hadn’t exactly monopolised him, Shiro had always given him time to be alone, but it was subtly, horribly different to know that he couldn’t just text him to let him know where he was and have him appear a few short minutes later as if it had been his plan all morning to eat lunch on top of a busted-up T2-614.

The lemon chicken sitting on his plate looked as depressed as Keith felt. Picking at it sullenly, he was startled out of his misery by a bright, friendly, “Hey, Keith!”

He jerked his head up to find Hunk standing across the table from him, hunching awkwardly to let people through the narrow spaces between the chairs. There was another guy with him, shorter and skinnier, but otherwise pretty nondescript.

“…Hi, Hunk,” he said belatedly. “Are you feeling better?”

“Oh, sure,” said Hunk. “Easy come, easy go, you know? You get used to it. Hey, can you settle a bet for me? Do you know my friend here?”

Keith froze up again, but Hunk’s open, affable expression ameliorated some of his suspicion that this was a set-up. He ventured: “…no?”

“Ha, awesome,” said Hunk, and his friend made a noise of outrage. Keith recoiled. Hunk added hurriedly, “Well, his name’s Lance! He’s in the cargo pilot class, so, uh, I guess you both like flying?”

“Flying’s good,” said Keith warily. He looked at Hunk’s friend again, who was reddening with what was probably anger, and attempted to commit his name to memory. Lance. L-A-N-C-E. Lance. “Do you get to do Dos Santos’s sims?”

“Uh, yeah, and I did the Grand Canyon run in twenty-two minutes! That’s the class record, baby!”

Keith said: “Oh. Cool.” Twenty-two minutes was slightly under the slowest time set by his fighter pilot class, but he reasoned, charitably, that cargo pilots weren’t supposed to be fast, they were supposed to get there in one piece. After a moment’s struggle, he summoned the determination to lie. “That’s pretty good.”

Lance made a stifled sound and then said, cautiously, “Thanks?” His voice went up at the end, as if he were uncertain of whether this conversation was real. Keith was beginning to feel that way himself.

“Anyway,” said Hunk cheerfully. “Thanks again, Keith! Talk to you later!”

“Sure,” said Keith, doubting it. As the other two walked away, Lance still stupefied, he heard Hunk hiss at him, “See, I told you he was okay, dude!”

The conversation hadn’t done anything to improve his appetite and Keith eventually gave up, trudging back to his dorm room. Normally he would have gone to one of the hangars and stayed there until lights out, listening to the quiet bustle of the evening shift. Today he didn’t have the heart. He doodled his way through his homework, but the Persephone didn’t look anything like the picture of it in his head.

Shiro would be a hundred and twenty million miles away by now, flying through the asteroid belt and heading for Jupiter, where they were planning to use the planet’s gravity to swing themselves out again. That was the most dangerous part of the journey, except for all the rest of it, but they wouldn’t get there for another three weeks, probably.

He slumped back on his bed, staring up at the blank ceiling. The first time he’d ever met Shiro, it’d been borne down on him how far away he was from anything Keith could be. He hadn’t even been invited to try the sim at first and then even when he’d proved himself they’d left his name off the list of Garrison recruits. But Shiro had ignored all of that, had reached across the vast gulf separating them, and made Keith feel like someone truly wanted to hear from him.

“Keith Kogane to the Persephone monitoring station, please. Keith Kogane to the Persephone monitoring station, please.”

Iverson’s harsh bark cut across his thoughts and he sat up abruptly, his homework sliding off his lap and onto the floor. His first thought was fuck, no, please, no before he realised that no, if something had gone wrong they’d call Adam, not him. Still, he ran, not walked, to the monitoring station out on the edge of the compound, forgetting in his haste to lock his door behind him. He skidded round the corner of the entrance, doubling over and panting in front of the officer on desk duty. She gave him a not unsympathetic look.

“You didn’t have to run,” she said. “It would have kept another minute. The first messages from the Kerberos just got back, that’s all.”

He stared at her blankly for a minute, not understanding. “There’s…one for me?” he said eventually, utterly bewildered.

“Yes,” she said patiently. “There’s a big lag in comms, of course, so they can’t stream data, but they’re going to be sending messages at least once a week.”

He took the memory chip she offered him like it was made of solid gold and walked back to his room still holding it in both hands. Shiro had remembered? Shiro had bothered?

When he got back, he put the chip in his speakers and lay back down on his bed. This time his body was thrumming with excitement and he had to take a couple of deep breaths to keep himself from bounding back up again. He closed his eyes just as Shiro’s voice began to play and it was like having him in the room, his head resting against the arm of Shiro’s couch as he talked Keith through the basic principles of relative time.

“Hi Keith,” Shiro began, warm and exultant, joy bubbling away beneath his calm tone. “We’re about two and a half days out from Earth and I’m happy to say the novelty of deep space hasn’t worn off yet…”

Chapter Text

It was only a month into their mission and Shiro was already a murderer in his heart.

Matt hummed. He cracked his knuckles. He scratched. Every last one of these mundane movements sent a knife into the base of Shiro’s skull, forcing him to practice the deep breathing exercises he’d originally learned for the purpose of staying calm during launch.

Today – for a given definition of “day” which referred to the twenty-four-hour cycles based on Universal Time that, while technically meaningless out here, nevertheless gave structure to their periods of sleeping and waking – Matt was reminiscing. He was lying spread-eagled over his bunk, which should have been folded up and put away at this hour, but Shiro wasn’t his father, so he said nothing and turned his attention back to his instruments. No mercy there, either; they remained silent.

“I really miss my bed,” said Matt. Shiro, who had already heard more than he would have liked to about Matt’s bed (so comfortable) and his duvet (like sleeping under a cloud, but not, like, a real cloud, which would just be wet and freezing cold) and once, depressingly, about his teddy bear (Katie had stolen it), made a noise that could absolutely in no way be construed as encouragement.

“And my cactus,” Matt continued. “And my laptop.”

“There’s always Daisy,” Shiro said. Daisy was the super-computer that ran the Persephone’s day-to-day functions, such as the water recycling and the ersatz gravity. Matt had already reprogrammed her five times out of sheer boredom.

Shiro considered his options. His tablet contained three thousand novels, a huge chunk of which tended towards the space operatic. To lend it to Matt meant offering himself up for months of complaints about shoddy, outdated science and intense mockery over the sentimental bits. He was on the point of doing it anyway, out of pity, when Matt started to sing.

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do – ”

The answer Daisy gave, much to Shiro’s relief, was the sharp ping announcing that a data packet had arrived from Earth. Matt bolted upright immediately, already reaching for his tablet even as Shiro was sorting out the files. Two for Matt, six for Sam, one for Shiro – about the usual, then.

“Oh, hey, Katie sent me a message! She can’t be that mad about what I said last time, then. And – um, so did Lara.” Matt flushed as Shiro immediately rose to leave. “You don’t have to go right now.”

“Nah,” said Shiro. From a certain point of view, it was oh-eight-hundred hours and past time for him to be making breakfast anyway. He stretched, cracking a couple of vertebrae. “You don’t want to listen to, uh, Katie’s message with me hanging round.”

Matt blushed harder, but he said, “Thanks, Shiro.”

Lara had been about halfway to being Matt’s girlfriend when he got called up for the Kerberos mission. After that, things had cooled off a little for her, Adam apparently not being the only one who preferred partners with their feet firmly on the ground, but Matt’s side of the affair ran as hot as ever. Glad to avoid all the billing and cooing, Shiro made his way to the tiny galley, which just about held him and a vegetable knife but at least meant he got some blessed solitude.

He pulled up Keith’s message on his tablet and hit play as he found the dehydrated rice in the sealed cupboard. Arguably his diet had never been healthier than aboard the Persephone, but it was hard to credit.

There was a long silence and Shiro was just about to crane his neck to make sure that the message really was playing when Keith spoke suddenly.

“Hi Shiro,” he said. “Uh. I always feel stupid starting these recordings. I just don’t really know what to say, I guess. How are you?”

Shiro laughed, feeling some of his tension drain away.

“Montgomery said I should talk about myself and make you feel connected to everything that’s going on here on Earth,” Keith said, sounding dubious. “Everyone on the contact list had to do a seminar about how to foster connectedness and support with people on deep space missions. It was embarrassing.”

If they were talking – really talking – Shiro would ask How so? and Keith would shrug it off, probably muttering something noncommittal until Shiro gently weaseled it out of him. Here, Keith let out a deep sigh and added of his own accord: “Everyone kept looking at me like they had no idea why I was there.”

Shiro opened his mouth to reply, but Keith was already darting off on a tangent. “The Holts came in this souped-up old Mercury – I don’t know what engine they have in there, but it’s not the original one – and the little girl was on her laptop the whole session, because she’s a genius or something. She didn’t have to play Darling I Love You.”

Keith’s explosive snort forced Shiro to put down the cup of rice he was holding as he imagined Keith being held hostage by the parents and friends of the Kerberos mission and coerced into playing his least favorite icebreaker game. “Anyway, that sucked, but now I know I’m supposed to talk about a load of boring shit to make you feel like you’re part of my life.”

There was a short, ragged breath on the tape, and then Keith said: “Okay, so for my birthday I took your bike out into the desert and just rode around until I got tired. It was kind of nice, I guess. Professor Lewiston had been on at me all day, so it was good to get out and just be peaceful for a bit. I wiped the bike down afterwards, so don’t worry about the dust. Iverson actually came over and helped, it was weird.”

Another short silence – that was Keith chewing something over. Finally, he said: “You know when you’re in the desert at sunset and the sun just drops down over the horizon? I was watching it and thinking … you can still see it, right? Where you are? It’s the same sun. And I wondered what it looked like to you at that moment, just before eighteen hundred on October 23rd.”

Immediately, Shiro cast his mind back over his strict daily routine. Barring emergencies, eighteen hundred usually saw him in the observatory module, which meant that he would have been in roughly the right position to be looking. Had he looked at the sun that day, rather than trying to puzzle out which constellations were which from where he was standing?

Yes, he had.

The sun, from that angle, had almost looked like the face of a lion, the solar flares bursting outwards like a mane. It wasn’t a thought he’d ever had on Earth, where the sun was too bright to examine closely, not that that stopped some people. At this distance, though…

He should have taken a picture of it. He would this evening and send it back for Keith under the guise of scientific research, as if such photographs weren’t dime a dozen now that they had the Jupiter observation station. Keith would know it was for him.

“I tried meditating again,” Keith said, sounding about as serene as an angry cat. “It’s not the same when you’re not leading it. Ad – someone else is running the old group now, so I can’t go. I wish – anyway, Lewiston yelled at me again over it. Sorry, you’re probably sick of hearing me whine about him.”

Shiro hesitated, stirring the rice mechanically. There was something in Keith’s voice that he didn’t like; something that was always present when he talked about his electronic engineering instructor. This was new. They’d never got along, as far as Shiro was aware, but Keith had never sounded this stressed out when he mentioned him before the mission launch.

“It’s just – ” Keith paused again and Shiro stopped stirring, willing him to go on. “I feel like he never lets up, he’s always picking at me, making sure I know how shitty I am at engineering compared to everyone else. I mean, it’s fine, but he keeps making these little digs about how everyone knows I’m only here because of you and getting the rest of the class to laugh as well and I just wanna break his goddamn face. I’m not gonna,” he added hurriedly, even as Shiro jerked straight as if to hold Keith back from hundreds of millions of miles away – so that was what it was like to get your protective hackles up – “I know that’s dumb, okay, but I hate him so fucking much.”

Keith took a long, shaky breath. “I know what you’re gonna say, but please don’t tell anyone, okay? I can deal with it. If you get involved it’s just gonna blow up and everyone’ll hear about it.” His tone turned pleading. “I’ll handle it, just promise me, okay?”

“I promise,” said Shiro to the empty galley. He chewed on his lower lip for a moment while Keith forced himself to talk about other things: the new sim based on the Kerberos launch, the cactus he was supposed to be tending in Shiro’s name in the Garrison botanical garden, the new-gen planes that were already outdated before they were christened. Shiro tapped the wooden spoon against the edge of the pot, thinking, before realizing that the bad smell was actually burning rice. He’d put too little water in and it had boiled dry.

He swore aloud and snatched the pan from the hob. There were a limited number of safe places to put it; he found one and swung round to turn off the heat. The stench lingered, however, and Sam popped his head round the door.

“I thought I could smell you making breakfast,” he said dryly. Shiro grimaced at him and paused Keith’s message with his free hand. “Why don’t you let me sort that out for all three of us?”

“I don’t think you can rescue this rice,” Shiro said ruefully. “It’s dead on arrival.”

“Why don’t you get out of the kitchen and let the master chef work,” said Sam, as if a knack for rehydrating spaghetti bolognese made him King of the Michelin Stars – which, Shiro thought with sudden amusement, it kind of did out here in the kingdom of the blind.

He shuffled out of the galley, doing an awkward do-si-do with Sam in the narrow doorway. As he escaped to the corridor, swiping his tablet from the top of the sealed cupboard, he said, “Thanks, Commander,” and Sam harrumphed, examining the hash Shiro had made of the rice. “By the way, what kind of engine do you have in your old Mercury?”

“Oh!” said Sam, brightening considerably and giving no indication that he thought this was a bizarre non-sequitur. “That’s from my old Zippity-Doo-Dah,” which was not a make of car, but Sam’s nickname for his beloved thirty-year-old death trap, the pride and joy of his salad days, tragically retired after Matt’s birth. Itself a Frankenstein’s monster as cars went, it had apparently donated parts to the family sedan.

“So it’s the old F1 engine?” said Shiro, genuinely appreciative.

“Aha, yes! Did I ever tell you how Colleen stole it?”

He had, actually, but Shiro leaned back against the titanium wall to listen to it again. Sam’s voice when he talked about Colleen nowadays often had a strained quality to it, not because of any marital difficulties but because it seemed like he was on the verge of tears. He missed her, that was all. Shiro thumbed the edge of his tablet as Sam rattled on, explaining how Colleen had spotted the elderly race car at a vintage steam rally and made it her afternoon’s work to thwart the rich creep who owned it. There were still two and a half minutes left in Keith’s message. They’d been getting longer as Keith grew more and more confident in his monologue – he’d started off with notecards so that he didn’t just ramble his way through, as if Shiro would have minded.

He closed his eyes, already planning his reply.

***

“Eyes front, Keith.”

Keith jerked his head automatically to face the whiteboard, then cursed himself. It hurt his pride to do as Lewiston told him, even knowing from bitter experience that resisting only prolonged the torment. The first six times he’d gotten himself thrown out of class and his only reward had been six missed sessions in the flight simulator, hours that they wouldn’t let him make up.

“Now, as I was saying while Keith had his head in the clouds, this is an Ngozi micromirror device. None of you have ever seen one before, unless Keith here smashed up a holographic TV during his days as a juvenile delinquent.”

An uneasy ripple of laughter ran round the class. Everyone knew that Keith had done time in juvie; no one was sure what for. James’s proprietary attempts to spread the real story had been summarily dismissed as too boring, not enough prison showers and sharpened toothbrushes. That would have spitefully amused Keith, except that he found he didn’t actually like people thinking about him like that, like he was a wild animal Shiro the Hero had tamed and brought home as a trophy for the Garrison menagerie.

Lewiston was rolling on in that nasal tone, always tinged with a faint contempt that wasn’t exclusive to Keith. Scuttlebutt said teaching electronic engineering at the Garrison had been his second career after a huge, embarrassing flameout in the private sector, and Keith believed it. “This is the thing that makes the pretty pictures happen. Micromirrors power almost every device with a backlight from here to – hah – Pluto.” Keith suppressed his kneejerk desire to recoil. It felt like a dig, though even as it crossed his mind he knew he was overreacting. “Well, most of them do. This one is a very pricey piece of garbage, but it’s not the only one in the room, so let’s keep it civil, shall we?”

Another giggle. Keith’s neck was burning underneath his tight collar. This was another of Lewiston’s hobby horses, occasionally expressing incredulity at how much money the Garrison spent on training its cadets, all the more when it came to future washouts like Keith.

“Today one of you is going to come up here and show us how to fix this, using only the tools available to you on a spaceship. Any volunteers?” A single abhorrent hand was thrust into the air. “Not you, James, give someone else a chance. Besides, this is a tricky problem. Only someone who already knows it all should try.” With grim inevitability, Lewiston turned his searchlight gaze on one of the half dozen people attempting to sink beneath their desks. “Keith. You’ve been staring out of the window all class. How about you come up here and show us all how it’s done?”

Keith held his scrutiny for a long moment, conscious that there were only seventeen minutes left in the lesson and every second he spent shuffling his feet on the way up to the front was one he didn’t have to spend fiddling around with the micromirror.

“A round of applause for our demonstrator, everyone!” There was a smattering of half-hearted claps from the others. Lewiston smiled, faintly reminiscent of an alligator who’d just had a really good bit of long pig. “Now, Keith, you know what all these tools are so I won’t bother explaining them. Make sure everyone can see your hands while you’re working.”

Keith hesitated, then picked up the only one of the tools he was certain of, the power screwdriver. He glanced at the rest of the class. Hunk was biting his lip and looking queasy, but Hunk had resting bellyache face.

“A bold choice!” said Lewiston. “Not what I would have picked, but I don’t have your level of expertise.”

Keith gritted his teeth, swallowing the urge to glare up at him beneath his eyebrows. He began to painstakingly unscrew the back of the device, exposing the damaged wiring to the class. His palms were slippery with sweat and he knew his face was bright red. Patience yields focus. That was what Shiro would say if he was here.

His hand slipped and the screwdriver dug into the bony part of his thumb, leaving a raised pink scratch. Keith hissed and shook off the sting but, for a small mercy, Lewiston didn’t say anything. Keith imagined he was giving the class an ironic look. He couldn’t resist the temptation to glance up at them and his eye fixed on Hunk again, who was – making faces at him? Jerking his chin vaguely in the direction of the toolkit?

“Hunk, are you having some kind of epileptic fit?” Lewiston never missed a trick.

“No, sir,” said Hunk, retreating into his high collar. What Keith could see of his face was flushed right up to his ears. Keith wasn’t the only target in Lewiston’s class, just the easiest one. As Lewiston opened his mouth to attack, Keith set the power screwdriver down with a loud clack.

It ended up being the seventh time he was thrown out of Lewiston’s class, and his seventh missed session in the flight simulator, but it was worth it. Maybe Shiro would even think it was funny.

***

Shiro adjusted the mic and hit record on the computer interface. “Pilot’s log. This is Lieutenant Takashi Shirogane of the Starship Persephone, on day forty-two of our three-year mission to Kerberos, star date 2164.304.” It actually was; Shiro had counted. Keith would probably roll his eyes at the effort involved in such an unfunny joke.

“We’ll be passing Jupiter within the next seven days – I’ll get Matt to take some pictures. I’d do it myself, but this is one part of the journey where you really need a pilot with his mind on the job. We’ll be using Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot us all the way to Kerberos. When you get this, you should sneak in some extra telescope time – we’ll be in the big red spot, you can’t miss us. Until then, it’s mostly me and the stars.”

In front of him was the observation window, where Shiro spent most of his off-duty hours. There was no point in going to space and spending all your time holed up in a windowless alcove. He’d heard it said that space travel encouraged agoraphobia; some people came home unable to shake the idea that anywhere outside their house was an environment as hostile as the vacuum of space. That was a trauma reaction, though, and one Shiro found it hard to imagine. To him, there was something uplifting about the enormity of it all, the same feeling people must have had crossing the Sahara or climbing Mount Everest in the days before hovercraft had trivialized such journeys.

“I wish I could explain what it’s like,” he said, hushed. Before him the blackness was vast and unknowable, dotted with stars so close he could reach out and take them, so far he would have to spend his whole life trying and never manage it. There was something unfurling in his chest, a desire to keep going forever, a sense of isolation so great it became transcendental. Without realizing it, he had stopped speaking.

There was a short, sharp bleep, then another, jolting him out of his reverie.

“That’s the Juno,” he explained for Keith’s benefit. Juno was the main observation station orbiting Jupiter, manned by a dozen personnel, including one of Shiro’s old classmates. He tapped out a message and a moment later Farah’s face flickered to life in front of him.

“Shiro!” she began, with such obvious pleasure that Shiro forgot the void outside and smiled back. “I heard you’d got the Kerberos mission. Everything all right over there?”

“Everything’s ten-four, Lieutenant,” he said. “Just ships passing in the night. I’m recording a message home for my friend Keith. Got any words to inspire the younger generation? Keith,” he added into the mic, “this is Lieutenant Farah Michel of the Juno. She flew the last TJX-Rani before they were decommissioned.” He could see in his mind’s eye Keith rolling his eyes and saying, Yeah, I know, Shiro, as if that were something everyone learned at their grandmother’s knee.

He mouthed favorite plane at Farah, who grinned and said: “She cornered like a spinning top, but she was so light you had to watch out for drift every time you were in formation. If a ship of any size got in her way, the backdraft would waft her off-course if you didn’t have an iron grip on the controls. You a pilot, Keith?”

“He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Shiro told her, allowing fondness to leak into his voice. Her eyebrows went up.

“Well, making allowances for bias,” she said – what bias? – “I’d better see you up here soon, Keith. I could use some company that isn’t scientists, bless their little cotton socks.”

“Couldn’t we all,” muttered Shiro.

He switched off the recorder while he made his goodbyes to Farah, heartened somewhat by the reminder that human contact was a mere forty thousand miles away, and not half a billion, and took a good long while to think about what he was going to say. He had been working hard at suppressing his natural reaction to the complaints about Lewiston, because fury was something that was completely useless both to him and to Keith, stuck in a spaceship heading ever further away from Earth. Eventually, taking a deep breath, he hit record again.

“Hey there. Farah’s gone now. I wanted to talk to you about Lewiston. If he’s got his knife into you, the best thing to do would be to talk to another instructor, one you can trust. I know you and Commander Iverson don’t get along, but it’s his job to look after the cadets and at worst he’s pretty pragmatic about this stuff. You can also always talk to – to Adam, Adam knows you always tell the truth, so he’ll take this seriously.” Shiro took a gulp from his water bottle, glad to have cleared that hurdle. “There’s also the possibility that he’s pulled this before – it’s pretty likely, actually, the way you describe it. He sounds like a guy who’s had a lot of practice. If so, that means that there’s someone else, probably more than one, who can testify to this being a pattern of behavior. It might be worth asking around.”

There was an art to classroom control. Adam had learned it the hard way; teenagers could smell a newbie teacher as soon as they walked in. Some teachers put all their stock in charisma, some into a megaphone voice, and some … divided and conquered. You found a kid – usually the most vulnerable one, without the kind of parents who would storm the school gates at the first hint of bullying – and you made them the butt of the joke every time. Establishing the pack hierarchy, Adam had said, disgusted.

Shiro had never had to do much more in the way of pedagogy than introduce himself and throw students in the sim. He’d never been certified as a teacher, though the Garrison had occasionally pushed a top-flight cadet or two at him for one-on-one tutoring. Right now, he was regretting that, although his meager training had only ever discussed bullying in terms of breaking up spats between students, not what to do if a colleague started harassing a student themselves.

“Whatever you decide to do, you should know that he’s the problem, not you. It doesn’t matter what he says. I know you’re a good student and if he doesn’t like your work it’s his job to help you, not belittle you.” He passed a hand over his eyes, trying to push away the deep-seated anger he felt at the idea of someone trying to tear Keith down after everything he’d achieved. “Keep me posted, okay? I promise I won’t tell Iverson on you, but in return I want to know what’s going on.” He forced a smile so that Keith could hear it in his voice. “I’m told it’s important to feel connected to the people I care about on Earth.”

Just then, the door swished open, revealing Matt, who plonked himself down in the copilot’s seat. “Hey, you busy?”

Shiro had stopped the recording just in time to preserve the integrity of his message to Keith, not that this soothed his annoyance much. “Not at all,” he said cordially, shoving his irritation somewhere it couldn’t leak out.

“Oh, were you recording? Dad says all messages have to be done by nineteen hundred hours.”

“I will be,” Shiro said, a little more tightly than he would have liked. “I just need another ten minutes.”

Matt didn’t seem to get the hint, instead letting out a deep sigh and staring moodily out of the observation window. Shiro wanted to ignore him and get back to recording, even if he had to hide out in the laboratory module to get those ten uninterrupted minutes, but there was something in Matt’s face that gave him pause. “Is everything okay?”

“Lara was kind of upset,” Matt said. “This guy we know, Malik, he’s been giving her a hard time the past couple of weeks because of what happened between me and her, and she needed to talk it out.”

“Did you record something for her?”

“Yeah, and a little something for him, too, telling him to back off. It’s none of his business, anyway.”

Matt sighed again, unaccustomed to bitter feeling and clearly unsatisfied by whatever invective he’d thrown at Malik. He brought a knee up to his chest, hugging himself. “Do you ever feel like you sacrificed something for this mission?”

Silver linings, Shiro thought. At least his break-up with Adam hadn’t been a nine-day wonder for everyone at the Garrison.

“Nothing I wasn’t willing to give up,” he said. That had been the crux of the issue, hadn’t it? He’d been willing to live without Adam, but not without flying, not while he could still have it.

“Yeah,” said Matt, but his voice was very quiet.

***

Keith had his head down on his desk, drifting in the halfway state between sleep and waking, when his holoreader chimed right next to his ear. He jerked upright, grabbing for his knife, before remembering that he was at the Garrison, not on his first night at a group home. The hazing was classier here.

The chime had been an incoming message, the results of his finals. He scanned them anxiously, grimacing at how far his mark in electronic engineering had dropped, and pulled up in another tab the scoring algorithm he and Shiro had worked on before he left. The mechanics of figuring out who got shortlisted – or even longlisted – for something like the Kerberos mission were complex, Shiro had said, and pilots’ careers lived or died by how much they could bring to the table in other areas.

Keith’s heart sank as he looked at the results, chewing on his lip. His shitty electronic engineering mark had pushed him below the threshold of acceptability for deep space missions. It wasn’t the end of the world – he could pull it back up next semester, maybe, if he put in the extra hours in the library or wangled tutoring out of someone, though the idea of asking made him want to cringe. But none of that would matter if he was still in Lewiston’s class.

One thing that was handy, Shiro had said, and which the algorithm couldn’t measure, was cultivating friends in high places. Keith had the opposite of that; he wasn’t like Shiro, who had been camera-ready even when giving a rote speech to bored kids in a rural Arizona high school. Shiro had laughed when he said that and made a show of flicking his bangs out of his eyes. A lot of people want to see you succeed, he’d added, more seriously.

A lot of people want to have had a hand in your success, Keith had replied. Shiro had laughed again, more bitterly, and said: That’s true, too.

Anyway, Keith had said, I’m no good at – at cultivating people, or whatever. In case you hadn’t noticed.

I don’t know, Shiro had said, with a smile that made Keith’s stomach swoop. I consider myself pretty cultivated.

Shiro aside, Keith had never attracted the attention of the brass for longer than it took to ascertain that behind the talent at flying lay a bad attitude that was more trouble than it was worth. It was obvious that Shiro thought he should go to Adam, or he wouldn’t have mentioned him at all, but the idea stuck in Keith’s craw. He kicked the leg of his desk moodily and let the momentum of his swivel chair spin him round until he faced the door.

Iverson, then. He probably wouldn’t do anything, but at this point it was that or break Lewiston’s jaw and that would only put the bastard out of commission for half a semester. Iverson meant he’d have to go carefully, though.

Winter break turned the Galaxy Garrison into a ghost town. The cadets who stayed were usually accorded privileges like eating in the officers’ mess or all the flight sim time they could log, because otherwise the vast compound echoed and even hermit crabs like Hedrick or Montgomery felt it. It didn’t get cold in the well-regulated dorms, not like out in the desert where he’d lived with his dad, but there was a loneliness to the place. Shiro had stayed on base the last two Christmases and played Santa at one of them, the memory of which still mortified Keith.

This time it would be only him and one other person from his class. That suited Keith, especially since Lewiston had been complaining about having to spend Christmas with his family in Sydney and taking it out on the class. His misery was Keith’s gain, and he waited until two days after Lewiston had got on his plane to go and find her.

Leifsdottir was sitting on the steps up to the flight simulator, her laptop balanced on her knees. She was chewing hard on a stylus; getting closer, Keith could see that instead of a keyboard she had a smooth tablet surface on which she was writing so neatly he couldn’t figure out why she didn’t just type. None of his business, anyway. He cleared his throat.

“I won’t tutor you in anything,” she said.

Wrong-footed, he stared at her. “That’s not it.”

“What is it?”

“Lewiston.”

That got her attention. She paused, the stylus still in her mouth, and then she put it down and scrubbed out everything she’d written with her sleeve. Keith jerked forward to stop her, but the tablet surface had already gone blank.

“It saves automatically,” she said, her eyes flicking up and away from his. “What about Lewiston?”

Keith hesitated, unsure how to begin. Lewiston usually got on Leifsdottir for slowness and daydreaming, although as far as Keith could tell she understood the lesson plan better than anyone else in the classroom and was just utterly unconcerned by the actual lecture. “He’s an asshole.”

“That’s what Rizavi said,” said Leifsdottir. “But she only has second-hand reports to go on. She has all her engineering classes with Montgomery.”

“We both know first-hand,” said Keith, gathering steam. “He’s a total shithead and we can’t let it go on like this.”

It wasn’t exactly Patton to the Third Army, but Leifsdottir seemed to be listening. She swiped her stylus over the tablet surface again and all her tabs flew up into ordered rows in a mosaic of screens. She touched her tablet to one of them: a spreadsheet.

“My marks in electronic engineering have dropped by twelve per cent since last semester,” she said. “My parents said it was a learning curve.” Her usual dispassionate tone wobbled slightly on the last part.

“If I do this badly next semester, I’m screwed for deep-space missions,” Keith said. He’d meant to say it matter-of-factly, but his voice cracked like he was thirteen again halfway through.

He hadn’t understood what it meant to want something until that first day in the flight simulator, with his high school class suddenly silent and Shiro’s delighted smile reflected in the brightness of the screen. For a few glorious minutes he’d felt like he could do anything, be anything, and he’d eavesdropped on Shiro and his teacher with a desperate eagerness. She’d had nothing good to say about him and he’d felt his heart drop. Of course Shiro would believe her. Why wouldn’t he?

So you went out and took control of your future, Shiro had said cheerfully. That’s something I admire about you, Keith.

I stole your car.

I didn’t say you made good decisions, Shiro had said, his tone warm with suppressed laughter that Keith couldn’t find it within himself to take offense at. But they were definitely your decisions.

He wasn’t going to let a groundpounding dick like Lewiston stop him from flying, even if he had to fight for every minute. Even if he had to go slow and steady. Patience yields focus.

“Shiro suggested I start recording classes on my phone,” he said, getting his voice under control. “Except I can’t have my phone out on my desk, Lewiston’ll confiscate it. What about you?”

Leifsdottir looked at him, bewildered. “You don’t record lectures?”

“You do?”

“I always do,” she said. Leaning over her shoulder, Keith could see that the spreadsheet she’d called up was actually a log of incidents, cross-referenced with hyperlinks to audio recordings. “Rizavi said I should. I just don’t know what to do with it. I tried to give it to Commander Sedaris, but he said I shouldn’t stir up trouble.”

“I bet he didn’t want to redo the class schedule,” said Keith sourly.

“Likely.”

After a moment, Keith started to pace, eight quick strides from one side of the flight simulator room to the other. There was a tight, restless energy beginning to unfurl in his limbs. “Why can’t we just go to Iverson now?”

“Now?”

“Lewiston’s away,” Keith reasoned, more to the ceiling lights than to Leifsdottir. “That gives us time. We’ve got the evidence. Why not go now?”

“No reason, if you think Iverson will listen.”

“We’ll make him listen.”

The words came out with a fierceness that surprised even Keith. Saying something like this too often sounded foolish or brittle the moment after he’d said it, like he was the only person in the room who believed it. Now it just sounded true.

Iverson’s office was in the same building as the flight simulator, two floors up. Keith’s resolve didn’t falter as he raised his hand to knock. Leifsdottir’s knuckles were white where she was clutching her laptop to her chest, although her face was as remote as ever. He nodded at her, trying to shore them both up against nerves, and she nodded back.

“Come in!” said Iverson from within. For the first time ever, Keith did so voluntarily.

Once when he was a kid and even shorter than he was now, he’d contracted a boil on the underside of his forearm. That hadn’t been uncommon, but it was the first time Keith had been old enough to understand that it wasn’t some kind of divine eternal punishment visited upon him for the week or so it took to heal, but a bacterial infection. It had been an unnervingly dry summer and they were short-handed at the firehouse, so Keith’s dad was pulling double and triple shifts and Keith swore to him that he was old enough not to need a babysitter. Instead he got used to the quiet, got used to checking the news for word about brushfires, got used to food magically appearing in the fridge overnight or before he got home from school. He ate a lot of cold meat and salad that summer, anything that didn’t require cooking more complex than hitting start on the microwave.

He’d put up with the boil as long as he could, cleaning it and putting the biggest band-aids in the box over it; when those ran out he made do with smaller ones criss-crossed over each other. But the pain had only worsened, until eventually he swiped his dad’s holoreader and searched online for how to lance a boil at home. Armed with dubious knowledge and a sterilized pen knife, he set to work digging out the accumulated gunk in the boil. It hurt like a son of a bitch, a phrase Keith alone among his classmates could get away with saying at home, but after the ten worst minutes of his life to date, the boil was cleaned out and Keith was tugging the bandage tight with his teeth.

His dad came home just as he finished up, saw the bandage and blanched. What happened? he’d asked, kneeling swiftly by the couch and taking hold of his injured arm with a gentleness Keith never forgot. Keith, kiddo, what happened?

He’d explained, shrinking a bit into the depths of their old bucket of a couch, and his dad’s face had undergone a number of funny expressions, most of which Keith hadn’t understood. What he did understand was his dad saying ruefully, You’re your mother’s son, all right. At the time, he’d been hungry for any scrap of information about her, and he’d brightened considerably, moving in closer so he could hear more. But his dad had instead said, It’s been a pretty crappy summer for you, huh? and We should go on an adventure when summer’s over. We’ll have some money to spend after all these extra shifts. An adventure usually meant hiking some part of the Arizona Trail, but this time it meant the mega theme park just over the state line, which had the third biggest rollercoaster in the world.

Keith had been elated, although in the end they never did go. By the end of the summer, his dad was dead, he was in foster care and he didn’t want anyone calling him his mother’s son ever again, because it never meant anything flattering.

Anyway. Talking to Iverson felt like lancing that boil, long ago. Every word took effort; every abortive sentence cost him. But eventually it was out, he felt cleaner and Iverson’s face, when he looked at him, was not unkind.

Not kind, either. But not unkind.

“You’ve got an incident log, you said?” This was to Leifsdottir, in a more muted bark than usual. Keith should’ve known he’d really like that. If it didn’t appear in the appropriate report, then as far as Iverson was concerned, it didn’t exist. Leifsdottir handed it over. Keith felt his fingers twitch as Iverson took it, just in case it was a set-up and he tried to delete it off her holoreader. The fear was unfounded; Iverson merely skimmed through the entries, his brow furrowing occasionally. At last he put it down again and folded his hands in front of him.

“This is very serious,” he said. No shit, thought Keith, why do you think we’re here? “I’ll be speaking to the board of governors about this and the two of you may need to as well.” Leifsdottir’s face curdled and Iverson held up a restraining hand. “I’ll do my best to prevent that, cadet,” he said, with a glance at Keith that was totally unnecessary. “In the meantime, I’ll have you both moved out of his class and a teaching assistant moved in to reduce Professor Lewiston’s … stress.”

“I have core competency exams coming up,” said Leifsdottir instantly.

“You could both use some one-on-one tutoring anyway,” Iverson said grimly. “If for different reasons.”

Leifsdottir nodded and rose to go, her task completed. Keith hesitated at the door, and Iverson called him back.

“You said Shiro told you to come to me?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Keith hovered for a moment on the horns of a dilemma, but his defensiveness won out. “We’re friends. He said I could send him messages and he asked.” He wouldn’t have said anything at all if he’d thought it would be a distraction from the mission.

“I know you’re on his contact list,” said Iverson, a note of exasperation in his voice. “That wasn’t – oh, never mind.”

He pushed his chair back from his desk and came round the corner of it until he was standing in front of Keith. With a heaviness Keith felt the words didn’t exactly merit, he said, “You did good today, Kogane.” He raised his right hand as if to pat Keith on the shoulder, realized at the same time Keith did that that was what was happening and immediately put it down again. He nodded awkwardly at Keith, who snapped off a speedy salute and fled.

***

Shiro was fixing up some of the wiring in the outermost module when Sam floated in, bopping gently off the wall frame, as calm as if he were treading water in a kiddie pool. They turned off the artificial gravity every now and then, to conserve power, and it was much easier to fix ceiling wiring without it.

“New messages from Earth,” he said. Shiro nodded, screwdriver clenched between his teeth to stop it from drifting away. But Sam didn’t leave. After a moment, he asked, “Is zero-g harder or easier on your muscles?”

Shiro controlled his kneejerk reaction and reminded himself firmly that from Sam it was just a question. He took the screwdriver out of his mouth, hung it in the air and frowned at it until it seemed like it would stay where it was. “Easier,” he said. “It keeps them loose.”

Sam stroked his chin thoughtfully, unintentionally comic in a man who was effectively lying on his front. “We’ll turn off the gravity more often, then.”

“Is that all?” Shiro was already reaching for his holoreader, stuck somewhat haphazardly to the wall where it could play Starship Paradise: A Planetary Romance while he worked. Not his favorite; needed more lasers. Keith had liked it, or rather he had said it was okay, he guessed, and then borrowed the rest of the series from Shiro.

“Hmmm,” said Sam, turning a sedate somersault in the air to face the door. Shiro’s hand hovered over his holoreader and then fell away; he knew that tone of voice. “Can you check on Matt for me? He’s not answering when I knock.”

“Sure?” Shiro felt his eyebrows go up. “I hope it’s not bad news from Earth.”

“Well, he got four messages today, when you and I only got two each, so I assume so – don’t look at me like that, Colleen and Katie are in clover without me and Matt leaving the toilet seat up all the time. He won’t talk to me, so my guess is that it’s girl trouble. You’re a bit closer to him in age, will you try?”

“I don’t think he sees it that way,” Shiro said dryly. He rarely felt older than when he was talking to Matt. “But sure, no problem.”

Matt turned out to be in his berth, curled up beneath all the blankets from both his bed and – oh, fantastic – Shiro’s. Most of them were foil blankets, which suggested that, whatever else was happening under there, Matt was probably overheating.

He suppressed a sigh and sat down on the edge of the berth, ducking his head to fit under the low ceiling. Good thing he’d never been claustrophobic. “What happened?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” said the lump of foil blankets, muffled. Shiro waited patiently, although the temptation to say “okay” and leave was high. After a long silence, Matt emerged, pushing back the blankets and wriggling into a sitting position. He didn’t have to hunch, either. All the Holts seemed like elves, sometimes.

“Lara’s mad at me,” Matt said. His voice was thick, as if he’d been crying and his nose hadn’t yet recovered. “She says I made everything worse. She and Malik had already m-made up by the time my message got to her and now he isn’t speaking to her because I told him she told me he was a dick and n-now she’s not going to m-message me any more – ” Matt scrunched up his mouth against a fresh onslaught of tears and Shiro put his hand on his shoulder, gripping tightly. It took a long, shuddering breath, but Matt managed to get himself under control.

“A-anyway, I guess that’s it. Her and Malik are gonna start dating soon. I always figured she’d – like, not wait for me, but kind of keep me in the back of her mind, you know? But not if she’s dating Malik. He’d never stand for that.”

Shiro had unwillingly gleaned enough of Matt’s romantic drama to gather that Malik was his chief rival for Lara’s heart and he nodded sympathetically, if not empathetically. Neither he nor Adam had ever gone in for fits of jealousy – though that wasn’t true, was it? Just that for Adam, the Other Woman had been an entire dwarf planetary satellite.

“How did you deal with it? Leaving everyone behind, I mean.”

“I didn’t,” Shiro said. At Matt’s startled look, he clarified: “There isn’t a lot I really care about back on Earth.”

There wasn’t. On Earth there was the tinpot medal won by a grandmother he could barely remember for a charity skydive in her seventies, which had been passed on to him as a lucky charm by a grandfather who was now dead. Keith had it in his sock drawer. The key to his hoverbike was in Iverson’s custody, to be given to Keith when he graduated or Shiro died, whichever came second. Then there was Keith himself. Everything else had fit into his titanium footlocker.

“I just thought,” Matt said, looking a little like he was trying to be red-eyed and sensitive. “You and your boyfriend, um, broke up before the mission, right? Dad said – ” He abruptly shut his mouth before he could reveal any more about how Sam had gossiped about Shiro’s personal life at the dinner table.

“A break-up’s a good reason to declutter even when you’re not going on a deep space mission three months later,” Shiro said lightly. “And I’ve lived on base since I was seventeen, anyway.”

Matt’s sharp intake of breath was mostly funny for the way he blatantly tried to pretend he wasn’t shocked and that that sounded totally normal to him. There honestly hadn’t been any particular reason why he hadn’t found an apartment in town as soon as he graduated. Even when he and Adam had moved in together, they’d only requested couples’ quarters. The additional privacy of an apartment off-base hadn’t seemed like an attractive trade-off for reduced time in the simulator or the dojo.

He’d never gone out of his way to put down roots. After his grandfather had died, he’d packed up their tiny rental in Sendai and got on a plane inside of a week. His place at the Garrison had been held for him through the first half of his freshman year while his grandfather struggled through the last days of his illness and Shiro had spent the long hours of keeping vigil trying to keep up with his studies while nursing a man with whom he’d never had much in common.

It’s no good caring too much, his grandfather had said. He had said things like that often after the death of his wife and son. You get tired.

By the time his grandfather passed away, the doctors had been expecting it daily for almost seven months. For someone who claimed constantly that he had nothing to live for, he clawed at life, forcing himself to spend several hours of each day awake. Do you want to know the secret? he asked Shiro once, a week before the end. It’s because there’s nothing else but this. There’s no point to not living while you have it.

Less than a year after that, Shiro had been diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. He’d kept his dignity, although his eyes had felt hot and he’d stared hard out of the window while the Garrison doctor talked. Afterwards, he’d made a list of what he wanted to do before he died and compared it against the time he had to do it in. It hadn’t been enough.

Just go faster, then, Keith had said many moons later, with characteristic teenage tactlessness.

“Who’s the most important person to you back on Earth?” he asked abruptly.

Matt paused, giving it some thought. “I mean, I don’t really like to rank people – ”

Shiro waited.

“ – but if, like, the aliens came and took me away, and I could only call one person to say goodbye, it’d probably be Katie.”

His mental image of Katie Holt was somewhat hazy – she was small and Mattlike – but Shiro nodded. “Didn’t she send you a message today?”

“She – did, actually.” Matt brightened slightly.

“Well, then.” Shiro clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll let you get to it.”

He left Matt with a promise to remake Shiro’s bed and made his way to the cockpit, where he could listen to his own messages in peace. All two of them, which was odd. Keith didn’t usually send more than one with each data packet; Shiro had assumed he wasn’t allowed to. It was with some misgivings, then, that he pulled up the first message, and an icy bolt of lightning shot through him as he heard Iverson’s voice.

For the first few seconds he couldn’t quite process what was being said, too afraid of what might have happened. His immediate thought was a panicked idea that Keith might be injured or dead, the victim of a hoverbike crash, maybe, before he caught himself. It was vanishingly unlikely that Keith was badly injured, unless he’d been massively downplaying the severity of the bullying, which he absolutely would – but Shiro would have detected that, unless Keith had a greater talent for dissimulation than he’d ever displayed before.

Besides, they wouldn’t call Shiro if Keith were hurt. Why would they? It wasn’t like…

But suspended – expelled – serious disciplinary action, without Shiro there to argue in his favor, all of those seemed horrifyingly close as possibilities. Had Lewiston gone after someone else in front of Keith? What could Shiro do from Jupiter?

“ – disappointed in you, Shirogane,” said Iverson, cutting through Shiro’s fear. He blinked, startled. “If you knew what was going on, why didn’t you come to me yourself?”

That stung; his first reaction was defensiveness. Why should I? and You wouldn’t have listened. That passed almost instantaneously. He knew why he should have. If he’d been back on Earth, he likely would have gone to Adam for advice, even in the last awful days of their relationship, or wangled himself a TA position out of nothing, or coaxed Iverson into introducing a classroom observer. He would have forced someone to listen, even if he’d had to take it all the way up to Admiral Sanda’s office. All of that was impossible at this distance, on a lengthy time delay, with no ability to push Lewiston himself, and no ability to explain to Keith why he’d betrayed his confidence.

Because Keith would think Shiro had betrayed his confidence.

Keith hugged his secrets tight; he owned so little, but he at least had those all to himself. His trust was difficult to earn; a kestrel who had never allowed himself to be hooded. More than two years into knowing him, Shiro had mostly learned which subjects Keith couldn’t bear to talk about, what would make him snap at Shiro’s fingers and what would make him retreat to lick a wound Shiro couldn’t see. That was all right. Shiro couldn’t bear to be poked and prodded at, either. How do you feel about your terminal illness, Shiro? Aren’t you frightened you’ll get sick in space, a million miles away from any help? Does it make you angry to know that you’ll be dead before you’re forty?

He cut Iverson’s voice off with a sharp click and sat for a few moments in the remote silence of the cockpit.

It had been a long time since he had had a best friend.

For years it had been Adam, but that hadn’t been true since he’d first heard there was a chance he might get the Kerberos mission. His own damn fault, really. But he remembered what it had been like to be partners, first and foremost in each other’s corner. That kind of loyalty came from the heart, not the head; it was inherently irrational, because people weren’t computers. Keith had asked for his trust.

The other message was still blinking at him. Before he opened it, Shiro turned on his microphone and said, “Keith. Hey.”

He swallowed, dry. “I haven’t listened to your voicemail yet, but I just got chewed out by Iverson for not telling him about Lewiston. So before anything else, I just wanted to tell you that I’m so, so proud of you.”

He’d said it before a hundred times, but this was the first time it had made his voice crack. For a moment he hung there, suspended between utter loneliness and the sense that somewhere out there, just beyond his grasp, was the person he was closest to in the universe.

“Your friendship keeps me sane out here,” he said simply. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

He liked Matt, beyond all the little annoyances that came with living cheek by jowl with someone you hadn’t chosen yourself, and Sam … Sam knew things about Shiro that no one else did, not even Keith. But this – the knowledge that someone out there in the black was doing exactly the same thing as him, for him, painstakingly writing out notecards so that his voice messages wouldn’t ramble too badly, earnestly sitting through purgatorial seminars on how to maintain long-distance relationships, when he had a whole world out there waiting for him – made his throat close up.

“Talk to you again soon,” he said very quietly.

Chapter Text

The Garrison botanical garden was generally quiet at this time of the morning, late enough that Keith’s fellow early risers had already gone wherever they were going, and too early for the kind of cadet who rolled out of bed three minutes before breakfast ended. Keith jogged briefly on the spot to keep his muscles warm, glancing around to find the sweatpants and hoodie he’d stashed under a bench for when he came back. He liked the botanical garden, even though it wasn’t very big; for all the prickly cacti, it felt friendly and welcoming.

The cadets and officers were supposed to tend to the garden themselves; there was a gardening club, of which Keith was not a member and with whom he rarely crossed paths. There’d been a big hullabaloo when it first got planted five years back. Everyone at the Garrison had been given something to plant and, ostensibly, look after, though a bunch of them were stationed elsewhere after graduation and most people had forgotten about it now.

Armed with a watering can, his calves still burning from his run, Keith trudged down the dusty, winding path, limned by large desert shrubs and tall thin night-blooming cereus. The botanical garden was a favorite make-out spot for a reason, not that he’d know. Through the wooden arbor, near the eastern side, stood the cactus Shiro had planted just before he graduated. He’d shown it to Keith during orientation, correctly divining Keith’s lack of interest in anything except flying or the man in front of him. Adam had groaned loudly and put his hands over his ears to ward off the story he’d obviously heard a dozen times before, but Shiro had just laughed and explained about how the garden came about. When Shiro had been here, the stupid thing hadn’t been very tall, but it had been fat as all hell, even though Shiro hardly ever did anything to it.

Now, Keith stared ferociously at Shiro’s cactus, which despite everything continued to look pale and sickly. “What more do you want?” he demanded, gesturing wildly with the watering can. The water slopped against the insides, wetting his knuckles. The plant bed was dark with moisture; Keith had been faithfully watering the damn thing every other day after his morning run, but none of it seemed to help. Was it the garden itself? Was there some kind of cactus-killing parasite lurking beneath the top soil? Spurred by this thought, Keith knelt down to dig in the dirt with his hands.

“Wow, dude, what have you done to that poor cactus?”

The voice behind him was familiar and, while the exaggerated tone of horror was really not what Keith needed right now, he forced his hackles back down. “Hi, Hunk.”

“Uh, you know you don’t have to, like, drown a cactus, right?” Hunk squatted next to him, regarding the dirt – all right, mud – with a disapproving eye. “They’re used to not having a lot of water.”

“I figured that,” Keith said defensively, yanking his hand out of the soil. When Hunk continued to look at him in a way that was too mild to be anything but incredibly judgmental, he exploded: “I just thought – it’s in a garden, now! It can have more water than it can in a desert!”

To his horror, this melted Hunk completely. “Awww, were you trying to give it a little TLC?”

“No.”

“Did you worry it was lonely?”

“No.”

“You did! Did you talk to it?”

“No!” He really hadn’t. He wasn’t twelve. He’d kind of thought things at it a couple of times when he was watering it, once about his dad, who had taught him how to identify the kind of cactus that was safe to drink from in a survival situation. He’d never had to do it, but he’d thought about it a lot in the years before he’d met Shiro.

“Why this little guy, anyway? You’re not trying to love any of the others to death.”

Keith shot him a glare from beneath his lashes. “None of your business.”

Hunk ignored him and picked the little laminated placard out of the soil. “Echinopsis hybrid, huh? Did you have one when you were a kid or something?” He inspected it more carefully. “Oh, hey, Shiro planted this one. He’s gonna be real mad when he comes back to find it dead, you know.”

Keith flinched slightly at the reverential tone Hunk used for Shiro’s name and harder at the idea of his reaction. He wouldn’t be angry – Keith had never seen Shiro angry at him, not ever – but he’d be disappointed.

“Aw, don’t look like that,” Hunk said. “I’m sure he won’t be! Much!”

“How do I fix it,” said Keith. It wasn’t a question.

“I dunno, man, plant food?” Hunk held out his hands helplessly. “I mostly only deal with plants once they’re out of the ground.”

Keith scowled at him until he took out his phone and did a search for “how to save an overwatered cactus, I’m pretty sure there are xenobotanists here who’d know better than I would, man”, which led to Hunk posting on the Garrison’s private forum, in all caps, EMERGENCY CACTUS HELP. The Galaxy Garrison’s xenobotanists spent the vast majority of their time correcting people who called them xenobotanists, which was apparently a totally different sub-discipline from figuring out how to make plants grow in space, and would be thrilled to have the opportunity to crowdsource the answer to a totally different problem, Hunk said.

It turned out that none of the Galaxy Garrison’s xenobotanists woke up before nine a.m. on a Sunday, so the two of them hung out in front of Shiro’s cactus, talking. It was the longest conversation Keith had held with someone who wasn’t a frustrated instructor since Shiro had left; it felt oddly tentative, like trying to exercise a muscle that had atrophied. Keith had developed two modes of speech in the last few months: clipped, inarticulate replies to direct questions and monologues. He was getting better at the monologues: a little forward planning about what he was going to say helped, and he’d stopped worrying about whether Shiro got annoyed at him rambling around the third or fourth time Shiro had told him that he didn’t. He couldn’t monologue at Hunk, though, and he deserved better than a retreat into silence, so Keith…made an effort. It seemed to satisfy Hunk.

It’s a skill like any other, Shiro had said once. All you need is ten thousand kicks.

***

Fragments from recorded correspondence relating to the Kerberos mission

Recorded 2165-01-03, 20:30 UTC: “…Look, if you’ve killed the cactus I planted with my own two hands, you’re just going to have to make it up to me. Go find the smallest, prickliest cactus in the nursery and raise it as your own. Its name is Keith. Godspeed.”

Recorded 2165-01-08, 14:14 MST: “It lives. It got better once I left it alone for a bit, which I guess I understand…”

Recorded 2165-01-13, 16:36 UTC: “Stop beating yourself up about it. Some plants grow best in adversity.”

Recorded 2165-02-01, 19:56 MST: “I like the botanical garden. I’d rather be out on the bike, but it gives me the same feeling, you know? Anyway, it turns out cadets aren’t supposed to leave base without permission from a senior officer, which it turns out you’re not.”

Recorded 2165-02-06, 08:21 UTC: “I was senior to you, that counts, right?”

***

The thing about landing a spaceship was that it was like very carefully and deliberately crashing head-first into a sheer rock face.

Matt couldn’t bear it, though he’d hid it well during training. Now he was clutching the harness strapping him to the wall like a lifeline, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. Shiro could hear him muttering to himself, two thousand seven hundred ninety-one, two thousand seven hundred ninety-seven, two thousand eight hundred and one, and would have reached out to pat him on the shoulder, but he didn’t dare take his attention away from the HUD even for a second.

“Count prime numbers in your head, please, Matt,” said Sam. He was strapped in, too, but much calmer, an old hand. Matt paused for a second, then nodded vigorously, never once cracking open an eyelid.

“Descending at a rate of fifty meters per second,” Shiro said. The Persephone was quiescent beneath his palm, a model ship. “Thirty thousand meters above ground level and falling.”

“Oh, God, why did you have to put it like that?”

“In your head, Matt,” said Sam sharply.

“It’s all right,” Shiro said. Matt’s panic had no effect on him; he knew himself and he knew Persephone. “Eleven minutes to landfall. Don’t worry, Matt, I’ve done this before.”

“In simulations,” Matt muttered, not quite under his breath.

“And on the Moon,” said Shiro placidly, “and on Mars. It’s really not that different.”

There was a short silence while Matt tried to focus his attention on anything except his newly-awakened sense of gravity – at the edge of his hearing, Shiro caught the first half-dozen digits of pi – and the sound of heavy breathing filled the cockpit.

“Twenty-one thousand meters above ground level and falling,” he said, cutting through the pregnant pause. “Eight minutes to landfall.”

“I didn’t tell Mom I loved her in my last message,” said Matt. His breathing was quickening, fogging up the visor of his spacesuit.

“She knows, Matt,” Sam said, gentle and with a note of finality that he and Shiro both already knew wouldn’t take; Matt was working himself up into a panic. Well, it had been worth a try. Shiro was beginning to see the benefit of a co-pilot – one to fly the ship, the other to remind the scientists that terminal velocity worked differently in space.

“Well, Katie doesn’t! Dad, if we die out here, what’s she gonna do? She’s at a formative age!”

“Pidge knows, too, Matt,” Sam said, his voice strained.

“Bodies don’t decay in space, Dad!” Matt seemed to be following his own train of thought. “If we die, we’ll still be floating around when she makes it out here!”

That wasn’t true, of course – if Shiro screwed up the descent, there wouldn’t be anything of them left to find.

“Nine thousand meters above ground level,” he said. “Four minutes to landfall. Engaging retrorockets.”

The noise from the thrusters was deafening and drowned out anything Matt or Sam might be saying to each other. Shiro studied their deceleration carefully: too fast and they’d smear the best Earth had to offer all over the rock; too slow and they’d end up dropping out of the sky like an overripe tomato. At one thousand meters above ground level, he began the flare proper, aiming for a spot on his HUD that overlooked a canyon.

With some flourishing that Matt did not appreciate, he landed the ship safely and immediately unclipped his harness, disentangling Matt and Sam a moment later. Matt sank back against the wall, his hands over his face.

“Re-entry is gonna suck,” he said.

“Oh, yeah, re-entry always sucks,” Shiro said, in charity with him again after a successful landing. He held out his arm to Matt, who clung on gratefully, his knees apparently not having recovered as quick as his mouth.

“You get used to it, boys,” Sam said genially; he loved getting to play the old tar to their young scrubs.

“Who’s gonna go out there first?” Matt asked.

Shiro opened his mouth and then closed it again instantly. You didn’t really get to choose: Galaxy Garrison protocol was that the most senior member of the team was the one who got to step out the door first. This was ostensibly because they were responsible for the safety of the team; in reality, no one wanted to share the glory and the senior officer had the most clout.

Almost unwillingly, his eyes flickered over to the sealed door. A place in history. Indelible, indisputable.

“Shiro will,” said Sam. Shiro jerked his head towards him in shock, but Sam was smiling.

“No, no,” he said, not as vehemently as he would have liked. “It’s your privilege, sir.”

“It was my privilege on Triton, too,” said Sam briskly. “And on Enceladus. About time I gave someone else a turn, if you ask me.”

He smiled at Shiro through the plexiglas front of his helmet and Shiro smiled back, helplessly. “All right, if you’re sure.”

“This is reverse nepotism,” Matt grumbled.

It was habit by now to check every inch of his EVA suit for possible tears before unsealing the door to the outside world. That was the only thing that held Shiro back: he checked once, twice, three times, not quite able to contain the shaking of his hands. Eventually he steeled himself and punched in the door code.

The blast of cold wasn’t unexpected, exactly – the suit protected him from the brunt of it and they’d spent months acclimatizing – but he’d never been this far from the sun in his life. His breath misted his visor and he tried to exhale more shallowly to save it, so that he could see.

He stood at the head of a few metal steps down onto the ground. He thought about it for a second, and then, in lieu of descending slowly, leapt as high as he could into the air.

“Woo-hoo!” Matt hollered. Shiro laughed, eight meters above, and reveled in the weightlessness of his fall, which took almost ten seconds. He landed with a soft thud, something he hadn’t done since his first growth spurt at thirteen. What did he weigh on Kerberos, twenty-five pounds? God.

He bent down and picked up a handful of dirt – alien dirt. Another world just within his grasp, slipping through his fingers. He stamped his foot three times on the rock beneath him. It felt like normal rock. It probably was normal rock – granite or shale or limestone. Except that where every inch of every mountain on Earth had been trampled and studied and mapped over and over again by a hundred thousand geologists, cartographers and climbers, no one else had ever so much as set foot here.

He glanced over his shoulder at the Persephone, where Matt and Sam were lit from behind by the setting sun, tiny and dim but persevering. Just for this moment, Takashi Shirogane was the furthest any human had ever been from home.

If he took his helmet off, he’d die.

Shiro could recognize an intrusive thought when he heard it, and it vanished as quickly as it came, but the attraction remained, like standing on the edge of a high building and tilting forward. To die on an alien world, to be buried there, forever proof of human endeavor…

“Say something cool!”

He jerked his head back towards the Persephone, to where Sam had his holoreader held up in front of him, filming Shiro as he took his first steps. Matt was leaning out of the Persephone’s door, just out of shot, as he heckled him. Shiro hesitated, searching for something momentous. Their mission deserved a little ceremony.

“This is only the beginning of what humanity can do,” he said finally, looking directly into Sam’s lens. “It took us two hundred years to get here. Imagine where we can be in two hundred more.”

“It’ll do, even if it’s kind of historically truncated,” Sam said. “Give Galileo his due, I say.”

“‘If we have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,’” Shiro quoted. Sam was still recording, so he added, “To our friends and families at home, and everyone at the Galaxy Garrison – we couldn’t have done this without you and your unfailing support.”

Sam did something to the holoreader camera, reversing the lens, and Matt crowded into the shot with his dad, making a peace sign with his fingers. Shiro left them to record a sign-off for the video, distracted by the beauty of Pluto’s faint blue nitrogen haze, something he had only seen before in satellite images transmitted from the Juno telescope.

There’s nothing else like this.

The thought was bittersweet, even then.

***

Fragments from recorded correspondence relating to the Kerberos mission

Recorded 2165-02-23, 17:52 MST: “I’ll be doing my first solo flight soon. I wish…Anyway, I’ll be up there with you before you know it, old timer.”

***

Keith jabbed at the common room microwave and watched it light up, his mug cake slowly revolving inside. It had been as easy as the box promised. He had no talent for cooking, his repertoire limited to anything that could be made edible with only the stopwatch on his phone to guide him, but he’d wanted to make a cake today.

It was a pretty woeful cake, but Shiro wouldn’t have noticed. He wasn’t a picky eater; last year for his birthday – his proper birthday – Adam had bought a cake from the fanciest bakery in the city, and Shiro had devoured it with exactly the same vigorous enthusiasm he’d given to Keith’s dollar store brand swiss roll caterpillar thing, which had been the only one left in the shop. Adam had rolled his eyes at Keith and they’d shared a moment of real communion. It had been…nice, actually. The last moment of honest sweetness Keith had seen between the two of them, about a month before they broke up.

That had been then. February 29 existed this year for a split second in the turnover from 23:59 to midnight, and Keith had no intention of missing it.

“Are you cooking?” asked Hunk, appearing from behind him like a nosy-ass jack-in-the-box.

“Quit snooping,” Keith said. The microwave beeped and he rescued his piping hot mug from its interior. He made for the door with it, but Hunk followed, chattering away.

“I mean, I call it cooking, I’m being kind of generous there, not that I have anything against a good old-fashioned cake in a mug, because sometimes you’re just sad, you know? And when you’re sad it’s hard to get up the energy to do something big, even if that would make you happier in the long run, but a chocolate mug cake with a little something extra to make you feel good – my secret is chili powder, no joke – ” Is it really a secret if you tell people? Keith wondered. “And basically, hey, man, you don’t have to feel sad on your own if you don’t want to, you know?”

“What, Keith’s sad?” Hunk’s friend popped his head out of his bedroom door. “Aw, man, I’m so sorry to hear that!”

He didn’t look sorry, but Keith shrugged it off. “I’m fine. I’m not sad. I was just going to watch a movie.”

“What kind of movie?” Hunk asked, but his friend interrupted before Keith could answer.

“I bet it’s just some dumb action flick, anyway.”

“It is not a dumb action flick,” Keith began hotly, but Hunk said at the same time, “You love dumb action flicks!”

“Oh, yeah,” Hunk’s friend said. “What are you watching?”

What Keith was watching was Supernova 47, a classic martial arts sci-fi epic, where all the choreography had honest-to-God been done in zero-g. This, he was more than willing to explain to the other two, made it unique among its peers, because twenty years ago doing stunts in zero-g had been prohibitively expensive. Half the scenes in it had been more cheaply mimicked or parodied to death over the last two decades, but the original power of the film remained.

“That actually sounds pretty cool,” said Hunk’s friend, who Keith had by now figured out must be Lance, the guy Hunk mentioned all the time. “Gimme a sec, I’ll be back.”

A few minutes later, he lumbered into Keith’s room with two fat pillows and an eiderdown duvet, clad in fleecy pajamas. “I also got us some snacks,” he announced. “And – ta-da!”

From the depths of the duvet, which he must have used to conceal it from the security cameras, he produced a bottle of vodka more than three-fifths full. Hunk cheered and immediately went to rob the common room fridge of its orange juice for mixers, which Lance complained was “responsible”.

Thus settled, Keith was able to dig into his mug cake just as the titles came up. Lance pretended to “ooh!” and “ah!” at the opening sequence, but Hunk must have elbowed him, because he went quiet after that.

The first time Keith had watched Supernova 47, he’d been both drunk and wired as hell, in the exhausted, sleepless way of being far beyond one’s limit. He’d thought the vodka would help him sleep after the awfulness of finals week, but instead he’d just got hammered on it and ended up calling Shiro when he felt so sick he couldn’t make it to the bathroom. Shiro had cleaned him up, had put him on the couch, and hadn’t minded when Keith slid off it onto the floor, where he stayed for the rest of the night. Instead, he’d joined him there, using the remote to flick through the channels on Keith’s dorm room TV.

Here we go, he said, choosing a film. This was my favorite film when I was your age.

Keith had groaned, but Shiro had thrown an arm around his shoulders and he’d been so warm and heavy that Keith couldn’t find it within himself to argue. Supernova 47 turned out to be a revenge story, about a soldier whose CO was forced to kill himself by a corrupt general and who turned into a ninja assassin to avenge him, bringing the rest of his weirdly huge squad along for the ride.

It’s basically Forty-Seven Ronin in space, Shiro had said, a little shamefacedly. Keith didn’t know what that was, so he rested his head on Shiro’s shoulder and pretended to be totally absorbed in the movie.

“This is a date movie,” Lance said about half an hour in. He was chewing a huge gummy worm with his mouth open, transfixed by what Keith thought was probably the greatest hand-to-hand fight scene ever filmed. His opinion of Lance went up a notch and then instantly backslid when he realized what he’d said.

“It is not a date movie,” he snapped.

“Sure it is! You get all the cool fight scenes to watch, she gets all the big weepy flashbacks to the guy and his CO. And then you get to put your arm round her and be all sweet when she’s crying, so she thinks you’re amazing. Win-win.”

“That’s not – I don’t – ugh, you don’t get it,” Keith said, and slumped further beneath Lance’s vast comforter. It wasn’t a romance.

“No, yeah, this is totally a romance, though,” Hunk said about an hour later, after the final flashback sequence that solidified Captain Yamashita’s resolve to go through with his bloody vengeance. “Do they kiss?”

No,” said Keith, by now thoroughly annoyed. “It’s a story about honor, and revenge, and how far you’d go for the person you – ” He stopped, caught.

“It’s a romance!” Lance crowed, punching the air and dislodging his bowl of popcorn. It tumbled over the duvet and onto the carpet, scattering everywhere. “Keith likes kissing movies!”

“They don’t kiss,” Keith said crossly. Obviously whatever relationship they’d had had never quite gotten to that point, that was all part of the emotional theme of missed opportunities and never going after what you wanted until it was too late. There’d been a lot of reviews and retrospectives on Supernova 47 and Keith, always thorough, had read all of them.

Lance paused in his triumph. “Seriously? Aw, man.”

Keith wielded the remote with great force.

The last half hour of the film was more satisfactory: Hunk and Lance’s heckling gave way to audible sniffles as Captain Yamashita laid the villain’s heart on his CO’s grave and proceeded to offer up his own. Keith, hardened by multiple viewings, nevertheless felt a lump in his throat that he could not admit to in front of Lance. The actor playing Captain Yamashita was really talented, he thought: a slender, lithe kendo champion who whirled through the air like a gymnast. He’d never emulated Shiro’s teenage crush on the actor, though; not his type. If he even had a type. He’d never actually given it much consideration.

He was just pondering how he could get rid of the other two and go to bed when his and Lance’s phones vibrated at the same moment, precipitating a wild dive from both sides of the couch. Keith was faster, but he stood there staring at the notification, his heart beating uncontrollably.

“They did it!” Lance yelled, throwing his arms around Hunk and crushing him to his chest. “Oh, my God, they actually did it!”

Keith had believed sincerely that he’d never doubted Shiro, not once, but the way his breath was catching meant that that had been a lie. Some traitorous part of him had wondered if it could be done at all. But there in front of him, in stark black and white, was the truth.

The Persephone had touched down on Kerberos.

“There’s a video,” Lance was saying, already scrambling to open it on his phone. Keith, against all logic, crowded him so he could watch over his shoulder.

It opened with a long shot of a cliff on Kerberos, obviously taken from the ship and by someone so excited that the camera shook a little. Then it panned down to someone who was…flying? No, leaping – oh, the gravity must be crazy there. Even before the camera zoomed in clumsily on the leaper’s face, Keith knew it had to be Shiro; no one else was so dedicated to the air.

There was a funny look on his face that Keith didn’t quite understand, but it vanished when Matt Holt exhorted him to say something historic, which he did, and which Lance and Hunk at least seemed pleased with. When he got to the part about unfailing support, Keith had to back off, his face hot.

He kicked the other two out after that, citing his need for sleep, but instead of going to bed he sat down at his desk. There was a sense of weight on him as he fiddled with his pen. He had no idea what to say, or how to compete with the hundreds – thousands – of messages of congratulations that Shiro would receive in the next transmission packet.

His fingers clenched briefly on the pen and then, with renewed determination, he began to write. He’d just have to make it worth Shiro’s while.

***

Fragments from recorded correspondence relating to the Kerberos mission

Recorded 2165-03-01, 21:14 UTC: “The important thing is that we’re here and we’re safe. The landing was perfect, no matter what Matt Holt says in interviews when we get back.

“I wonder when we’ll stop thinking of Kerberos as an alien world. It hit me earlier that it isn’t, actually. Oh, it’s probably the closest thing to one we’ll ever touch down on in our lifetimes, and it wasn’t always here – a billion years ago Pluto collided with something out there in the Kuiper belt and now we have Kerberos…

“But if you turn and face away from the sun, if you look out there, you’ll see there’s a hundred billion stars with trillions of satellites, just like here. One day we won’t think of Pluto or Kerberos as alien planets. They’ll be part of our home system. An alien world will be something orbiting Vega, or even further out. Andromeda, maybe.

“I hope one of us gets there.”