Chapter 1: You Start Here
It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.
"Is that everything? Please say yes." Keith leans against the wall, pressing the heel of his hand into his eye as if it'll stop the headache that's coming on like a freight train. "Did you leave anything at home?" he asks. He pulls up the bottom of his shirt to wipe the sweat away from his forehead. It's gross; he can hear Pidge make a disgusted sound, but he does not care. His back aches and she'd promised him one of the illicit beers that she'd quickly stashed in the back of the closet if he helped her dad and brother bring all of her boxes to their room. He's been working all day; there had better be beer once her dad leaves.
Staggering through the doorway behind him, Pidge sniffs and plunks down a box of what looks like old, busted calculators from the last century on one of the two identical desks. "Are you sure that's everything?" She gestures to his single duffel bag on the floor "Seriously?"
"Seriously," says Keith. "I don't need much." He sits on the edge of the desk that's apparently his now. At least he was able to call dibs on the bed by the window. "I have clothes," he says with a shrug. "I can do homework on the library computers. I'll probably buy some stuff while I'm here."
He's not telling her that he hasn't got much money, just the tiny stipend from his scholarship, until he finds a job. He's not telling her that this is all he'd brought because this is all he has, and he's not telling her that he'd aged out of care and hadn't said anything because she'd have tried to make her parents let him come live with them, and that likely wouldn't have gone over well. He doesn't tell her any of that because she's too full of joy and magic and wonder at her new life as a college kid and he doesn't want to derail her excitement with his fucking Boxcar Children bullshit.
Pidge frowns at his attempt at deflection and starts to say something, but Keith never finds out what it is because her brother suddenly bursts into the room, sliding across the floor and ending with a flourish of hands and a little bow.
"Dad says to move your ass, he's hungry." Pidge's brother—Matt, she's only told Keith about him a thousand times—looks at him and smiles. "You're invited, since you and your beeg muskles helped us get all her shit up here." He waves his fingers at Keith. "We didn't get introduced beyond hi, hold this. I'm the brother. And you're Pidge's internet boyfriend."
Pidge sighs and punches Matt in the arm before Keith can even open his mouth to protest. "Yes," she says in a monotone. "Keith is my internet boyfriend. You've got it absolutely right." She looks at Keith. "Isn't that right, Hugbear?"
"You got it." Keith picks up his duffel bag and drops it onto the bed, unzipping it. "I think I'm just gonna stay in and put my stuff away."
It's a lame excuse and he can see that Pidge picks up on it before he even finishes the sentence.
"Okay," she says, waving his words away with her hand. "Because that's going to take up the rest of the evening." She crosses her arms and looks at him, eyebrow raised. "We can wait."
Matt looks between them, confused for a moment, and then he just shrugs and adopts Pidge's stance and expression. Keith sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.
"I just can't people anymore right now, Pidge," he says. "It's been nonstop people all day, and I'd like to just sit and not people for a while." He gives her what he hopes comes off as a pleading look. Pidge nods, relaxing her posture, and elbows Matt into doing the same.
"Okay," she says. "Matt and I can just go get something and come back. Do I count as a people? I know for a fact that Matt's not a people."
Keith nods at her. "Okay. But, uh. You don't have to bring anything for me. I'm fine." He's not, he's so hungry he's queasy, but he's watching his measly savings like a hawk. "I can just get something at the dining hall."
"That's not open for another day," says Matt. "C'mon—"
"I'm not—" Keith starts to panic, he hates this part of being fucking dirt poor, but Matt's not done talking.
Keith hesitates for a second, and that's exactly how long his stomach needs to growl audibly. Pidge and Matt giggle as Keith's face burns.
"We'll get you a sandwich or something," says Pidge. "Move your concave ass, Matt."
"How will Dad feel when I tell him you were talking about the Holt family scion this way?"
"He'll be fine, because I'm not talking about me."
Keith shuts the door behind them and leans against it. He surveys the room; one side is full of bags and boxes and piles of technical journals and three (?) laptops on the desk. Keith can't see Pidge's bed anymore. She has already put up an art-deco print of a Tesla coil and a poster of the schematics for the first Apple Computer on her wall and there's a string of little lights shaped like fish stretched over her bed. They've only been here for about four hours, and her side of the room already looks lived-in and loved. Pidge's life, like her brilliant mind, is cluttered and chaotic and full in a way Keith can't imagine his own life being.
In confirmation, the other side of the room is almost completely barren save for a scratchy red thrift store blanket on the bed, a lopsided lamp rescued from the curb on the walk from the transport station, and one duffel bag containing: three t-shirts and one button-down, six pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, one pair of halfway decent-looking dark pants he'd found at Goodwill specifically for job interviews, a single towel from Target, and the crappy school-issue PADD with his textbooks already loaded onto it. Everything else he has he's wearing, right down to his well-worn and too-small boots.
Except the knife, which he pulls out of the bottom of the bag. He's always had it, though he's not sure exactly why it hadn't been confiscated and sold with the rest of his stuff after his dad died. For some reason they'd kept giving it back to him as he was shuffled from place to place. He likes to think that maybe it'd been his mother's and maybe she'd cursed it to haunt people who wanted to hurt him and that's why he passes through so many hands. Like he's a haunted doll from Antiques Roadshow.
No, you know better than that. You're not that interesting and you have no value.
He shoves the knife in between the mattress and the bedframe. It makes the bed a little lumpy, but he's pretty sure that even dull a big scary knife qualifies as a weapon and it's best not to get caught with it. He could probably trust Pidge to know about it, but he'd like to live with her a little while before he reveals that he's a knife-carrying maniac. Normally he doesn't give a shit what other people think, but Pidge is different. He cares about what she thinks, because she's the first person to care what he thinks since his dad.
Pidge had first popped up on Keith's radar as ecalevol1957, a name he'd seen online in a forum about mystery objects spotted in the sky over southwestern Texas. He's sure there's life elsewhere; he likes the idea because it makes their planet feel really small, which Keith can appreciate because the rest of the time the Earth feels too fucking huge and he gets overwhelmed.
He'd said as much in a private message to ecalevol1957, thanking him for the background info on the Phoenix Lights. They'd exchanged a few short messages, then longer ones, and before long Keith had learned that ecalevol1957's real name was actually Katie, she preferred to be called Pidge (my fucking brother thinks he's funny but it stuck and I kind of like it now), and at the time they'd met she was, like him, a junior in high school. She's a couple of years younger than him, bumped up a few grades, which he did not know until long after they'd started talking and it was too late to freak out about chatting with a thirteen-year-old. They both like to spend their time reading, researching something or another, talking about space, and in Pidge's case writing acres of code for projects that never come to fruition.
After several months had passed and they'd continued talking with Pidge showing no sign of leaving him alone, Keith had had to admit that they'd somehow gone and become friends. When he'd told Pidge as much during a video call, her response had been to push her glasses higher on her nose and look a little bewildered: "Yeah, I can't believe it, either."
Keith kicks the empty duffel bag under his bed and collapses face-first into the mattress. He presses his face into the pillow until it starts getting hard to breathe, then rolls over and looks up at the quickly darkening sky; apparently it's later than he'd thought. He stares at the clouds until a bright flash startles him and he realizes it's about to rain only a second before the sky opens up. Keith pushes himself up so that he can lean against the sill and watch people scamper for cover while still dragging suitcases and plastic tubs from car trunks and SUVs.
The door bursts open a few minutes later, Pidge and Matthew spilling into the room, dripping wet and laughing. Keith sits up and folds his legs under him, watching as they shed their soaked hoodies and shoes.
"I knew we weren't going to make it," says Pidge, shaking her head and spraying rainwater everywhere. "Run, you said. It'll be fine, you said."
Matt releases his hair from its tie and runs his hands through it, fingers snagging. "We're fine," he says, dropping a plastic bag on Keith's desk. "You're not made out of sugar, I don't care what Dad says. You won't melt."
Pidge shoves him out of her way and descends upon the bag. "Here," she says to Keith, chucking something at him that takes two hands to catch. Keith's never seen a burrito this big before. "I got you the works because when I do see you eat you eat like you haven't in days. I figure there's not much you'd say no to."
"You figured right," says Keith. "Where's your dad?"
"Wnff thnntl." Pidge has just taken a huge bite. She holds up one finger, chews, and swallows. "He went back to the hotel. He's a wuss and didn't want to get wet. Also, he's a cryptid who doesn't like Mexican food. Which, by the way, you should eat." She gestures at it and then at him. "Nom nom, motherfucker."
Keith salutes and unwraps it, casting aside what seems to be an entire roll of tinfoil. After a few minutes of studying it and working through some engineering and physics equations in his head, he manages to actually take a bite out of the thing without getting it everywhere.
He nearly cries, it's so good. He looks at the creation in his hands with awe. "Oh."
"Mmf," says Matt, mouth full. He's got a bean on his chin. "Mmfmm."
Pidge reaches over and plucks it away. "You're real gross, Matt."
Matt leans over to plant a wet, bean-y kiss on her forehead and she roars in fury. Keith tunes out the sounds of their scuffling and focuses on the task at hand: the burrito. His stomach starts to protest that it's getting too full, but he ignores it and keeps gnawing on it. He hasn't had anything else to eat today besides the McGriddle he'd bought at the transport station on the way in.
He can't wait to get a job if it means he can eat like this all the time.
"Hey!" Pidge reaches out and grabs his wrist. "Wow, you were starving, weren't you? Why did you say you were fine, dumbass?"
"I was," says Keith. He stifles a burp. "But this is good. What, now you want me to not eat it?"
She rolls her eyes. "I'd like you to actually taste it," she says, releasing his wrist. "You haven't stopped to breathe since I put it in your hands."
"Leave him alone, Pidgeotto," says Matt, neatly ducking a crumpled napkin. "Let the guy eat." He looks at Keith and it feels a little too knowing. Keith isn't sure why. "So, you gonna be a rocket scientist too?" asks Matt.
"Astronaut," says Pidge. Keith glares at her, betrayed (it'd taken him weeks to tell her his dream career. She'd sent him a GIF of a dancing cartoon potato). She looks unapologetic and waggles her salsa-covered fingers at him dismissively. "Not sorry, Kogane. I think it's awesome. You should see his aptitude scores, Matt. He makes you look like a complete moron." Her eyes widen as she lifts her burrito. "He even makes Shiro look bad."
"Pfft, right." Matt pops a bean into his mouth and takes a pull of his soda. "Nothing makes Shiro look bad. Not even the naked kegstand I made him do last Halloween made him look bad. It got him six numbers."
Pidge laughs. "Did he call any of 'em?"
"Nope," says Matt, popping the P. "Of course not. He's a monk."
"Who is this?" asks Keith. He's doesn't really give a shit, but he hates being left out of conversations. He's gotten enough of that from social workers to last him a few lifetimes.
"Shiro," says Pidge, as though this should be answer enough. At Keith's blank stare she adds, "Matt's best friend. They're finally roommates this year, which is sure to go extremely well."
Matt preens. "We'll be the picture of good behavior," he says. "As we always are." Keith looks to Pidge for confirmation. She gives him a wry smile.
"Matt got arrested last year," says Pidge, expertly avoiding the same crumpled napkin. "He peed in the quad fountain."
"I was drunk," says Matt, hand to his chest in mock offense. "I had to pee."
Pidge ignores him. "They almost charged him with indecent exposure which is, you know, a felony, but Shiro talked them down to just making Matt clean the fountain." She grins. "Dad almost killed him."
Keith laughs a little. "Good for Shiro, I guess."
Matt wipes his hands on his jeans before pulling his hair back and tying it with a band from the collection around his wrists. "For the rest of the year, every time we passed it he'd ask me if I was feeling the urge, and no matter how many times I pushed him into the fucking thing he'd just keep doing it. Guy's a jackass."
"But he's your jackass," says Pidge. Matt beams.
"He is," he says as he stands and starts picking up their trash. "He's my good, good boy."
Keith nods, though he can't remember if Pidge had ever told him about her brother's boyfriend. Maybe they're new. "You guys are a thing?"
There's a beat of silence before Matt and Pidge both explode with laughter. "Shiro is way out of this guy's league," she says, jerking her thumb at Matt, who vigorously nods.
"Oh yeah, he's way out of my league." He grins at Keith. "You'll meet him at some point and you'll see what we mean." Matt claps his hands and rubs them together. "Speaking of, I need to get home to the little woman."
Pidge kicks him in the shins.
"Sorry, ow," says Matt, wincing. "Keith, a pleasure, good luck with Pidge, don't bother password-protecting anything. To both of you: vaya con Dios." He swans out of the room, aiming for majestic but only managing to bang his elbow on the doorframe. They can hear him whimpering all the way down the hall.
"He's an idiot for how smart he is," says Pidge fondly. "Come with me, I need to brush my teeth." She sticks her hand into a pile and emerges with a little basket of bathroom supplies dangling from her fingers. "You should shower, you look gross."
"I feel gross," says Keith. He retrieves a t-shirt, clean shorts, his little tube of toothpaste and his toothbrush and follows her down to the bathrooms. She immediately commandeers a sink and leaves him to his own devices, so he heads off in search of the showers. He finds a bank of them around the corner, not unlike the Y where he'd had his last shower the night before. This is nicer though, with a door on the stall and a panel on the wall for selecting the exact temperature and strength of the water, and even a soap and shampoo dispenser. Fancy.
He sets the water to scalding and steps in, stifling a whimper when it hits his skin. It's this side of too hot and he stands under it, perfectly still, for a long time, letting the water soak into his hair and spill over his shoulders. It's a far cry from the chilly shower at the Y. Keith exhales so deep he can feel it in his toes, and he wiggles them in amusement.
When his skin is pink from the heat and his fingers started to prune he soaps up and scrubs down, and by the time he shuts the water off Keith feels like an entirely new person. He dries and dresses and finds his way back to the room, ducking out of the way of other, more energetic freshmen who don't know what to do with themselves now that they're away from home for the first time. It's loud and crowded, and he's glad for the relative silence when he lets himself back into the room and finds Pidge already in a Cubs shirt and a pair of shorts with sharks on them.
"Sorry about inflicting Matt on you," says Pidge as he comes in. She's shifting boxes around, digging out her bed. "He's just excited. I am too, it'll be great having family here." She stuffs a plastic bin of USB cables under her desk. "And now you've met him, so that's two people you know here. Three if you count Shiro, which you might as well considering he and Matt are joined at the hip most of the time."
"I haven't actually met him, though," says Keith. He drops his dirty clothes into the corner of his side of the room; he'll find the washing machines tomorrow. "Hard to be friends with someone you haven't met."
"Worked for us, didn't it?" Pidge stops and pulls her arms inside her shirt. Keith frowns as she does something complicated beneath the fabric until one hand emerges through a sleeve, holding her bra. She chucks it to the floor and sighs happily, scratching her chest and stretching. "We seem to be doing fine."
"We're different," is all Keith says. He slides into bed, tugging his shitty blanket up over his chest and twisting so he can see out the rain-streaked window. He closes his eyes and exhales, counting backwards from twenty, his go-to method of coming down at the end of the day. At ten, he can't prevent a yawn from escaping.
"Sorry," says Pidge, skittering around the room, putting this and that here and there. "I'm gonna settle down, I swear, I just have to find a place where I can, uh. Do that. Heh."
"S'fine," says Keith. "Today was just a lot."
"Yeah," says Pidge. She bustles around, stacking boxes in the corner and shoving her suitcase into her tiny closet. "Matt's also a lot. I should have cleared it with you before letting him hang out and eat with us."
"Nah." Keith rolls onto his side so that he can watch her move around the room. For someone so small she cuts a commanding figure and is strong as an ox going by the way she's throwing stuff around the room. "He's fine. Knowing more people is probably a good idea, right?"
Pidge shakes her head at him. "Sometimes I think you're like an alien," she says. "Not in a bad way. You just sometimes ask these questions, like you're trying to understand how to be a human."
"Maybe I am an alien," he says. "That'd explain everything."
"It would. Like how you ate that burrito like you'd never seen one before. It was like watching one of Matt's nature shows, you know, where polar bears eat baby seals." Pidge finally uncovers all of her bed and darts across the room to hit the overhead light. Keith reaches over and turns off his lamp, plunging the room into darkness, cut by the occasional flash of lightning.
They're silent for a long time. Keith listens to the rain and the hum of conversation out in the hallway.
"You okay, Keith?" Pidge asks suddenly, sounding unusually timid compared to her usual excitable self. Her voice aches with concern that's ready to serve and it makes Keith's chest burn with guilt and embarrassment.
He is okay, really, in that he's got a roof over his head and a little card that guarantees at least three squares a day, he's got Pidge, and he might even have a future if he can keep it together and make it through the next four years. He's on a full ride, thanks to a combination of his test scores and being a charity case, so all he has to do is keep his head down and work his ass off, and maybe someday he can get the hell off this stupid fucking planet for a while.
But is he okay, is what Pidge's actually asking. And he doesn't really have an answer for her.
He goes for the easy one. "Yeah," he says. "I'm good." He rolls onto his back again and looks up at the ceiling. "We should sleep, it's after midnight." A roll of thunder punctuates his words.
"Old Man Kogane," mutters Pidge. "You weren't kidding about how you're going on eighty." She heaves a big sigh and Keith hears the rustle of her blankets as she gets comfortable. "I'm waking your ass up for breakfast," she says with a yawn. "Gonna get some meat on those bones."
"Yes, ma'am," says Keith. He's actually being mothered by someone with all the maternal instinct of a rock. It's awkward and dumb, and kind of nice.
"Goodnight, Keith." Pause. "I'm glad you're here."
It's a rainy night in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room with an unfamiliar person in the next bed. Some of the other freshman might be anxious or scared, or terribly homesick. Keith's not. This is not his first rodeo.
"Same," he says. "Night, Pidge."
Chapter 2: Radio Waves
The first couple of weeks are, to Keith, kind of boring. It doesn't take him long to memorize where his classes are—he's always been able to adapt quickly—and map out the campus in a way that makes more sense than the info on his PADD. He adds and drops a couple of classes, studies all the syllabi the professors have sent out, and downloads the last of his textbooks.
On the first day of actual classes, he bumps into Pidge in the quad. She immediately shrieks at him about how exciting to finally be doing challenging work.
"You take graduate-level classes," says Keith, a little woozy from the onslaught of her enthusiasm. "You're barely seventeen."
"Yeah, it's actually a little difficult for once!" She slings her bag over her shoulder. "My next class is on the west side in the Nye building. What about you?"
"Astrodynamics," he says. "In al-Haytham, over by the planetarium."
"Cool," says Pidge. "When're they going to stick you in the Vomit Comet?"
Keith makes a face. "You'll know when I do."
Pidge nods. "Well, no puking until I'm there to document it," she says. "Anyway, smell y'later, I have to go make another professor cry."
Keith watches her skip away; in just a few weeks Pidge has already adjusted to college life as if she'd been born here, leaving him in the dust. He heads off to his own class, keeping his gaze straight ahead but avoiding eye contact with anyone. He's managed to get by just fine over the last week without having to make much small talk or do anything more complicated than asking and answering questions during class. He doesn't need a lot of friends. Pidge is more than enough.
As he walks by the Turing building the doors open and people come spilling out into the quad. Keith navigates through them as easily as he would an asteroid field, but when he bumps into someone and has to look up, he catches the eye of a man on the steps.
After a split second of silent appraisal, the man lifts his hand and gives Keith a little wave.
Keith frowns. He glances around, but there doesn't seem to be anyone else the guy could have been waving at, at least no one looking in that direction. Confused, Keith looks back, but the guy is gone.
Keith rubs the tired from his eyes. Pidge had once said that Keith gives off more DO NOT TOUCH vibes than blue rings on an octopus. So how does Keith's perpetual scowl inspire the guy to wave at him? And then not even stick around to talk to him—not that Keith wants that, but it's still weird.
Despite his curiosity, Keith decides to let it go—for now. He trudges off to class, trying to focus on escape velocity.
He spends that evening watching Pidge play Zelda on an ancient console held together by screws, duct tape, and Pidge's infallible command of electronics. He eats her Cheetos and drinks the contraband beer she'd promised him when he'd moved her in. Keith quickly learns that listening to Pidge yell DODONGO DISLIKES SMOKE until he passes out in a haze of alcohol and orange cheese dust is a pretty good method of stress relief.
Keith sees the Guy again the next day from across the quad, on his way to class. Guy (as Keith has started calling him in his head) gives him another little wave before jogging to catch up to a white-haired girl who had been walking ahead of him. Keith immediately remembers the first time it'd happened and is just as confused as he had been then and even more confused when it happens again two days later in the dining hall. And then every other day, to the point where he wonders if he ought to tell Pidge. But what would she do?
Keith doesn't get it. Guy never stops, never introduces himself or even says something simple like hello, he just waves whenever he sees Keith. Keith's gotten a better look at Guy now and he has to admit, he's pretty handsome—from afar, at least. He's never close enough for Keith to get a good look, but he does notice the shock of white hair across his forehead, can't really miss it. He learns to look for it in crowds and wonders why he cares when he doesn't see it. He tries to tell himself he gives no shits, but the fact is that he's curious, too much to be able to leave it alone. Goddammit.
So the next time it happens—Keith has lost count by now—he detours from his route to the library and slips behind a tree, watching as the guy bids goodbye to the white-haired girl from a few days ago and walks toward the fountain.
Keith scrambles out from behind the tree. "Hey!" he calls, jogging after him. "Hey!"
Guy stops and turns around, looking around in confusion until he spots Keith. And then a smile breaks over his face like a fucking sunrise and Keith stumbles and almost falls into a pile of leaves. Oh no, he thinks to himself. He's cute.
Keith recovers with most of his dignity still left intact and comes to stop in front of Guy. He's pretty tall, over six feet at least, and his shoulders are very broad, shaping him like Captain America. He has a dark undercut with the forelock of white hair hanging in his eyes; it's a goofy hairstyle but Keith has a feeling this guy could pull off a reverse-Mohawk should he ever lose a bet. There's a scar across the bridge of his nose that makes him look a little dangerous, but his eyes are bright and friendly.
Keith tries not to stare, but Guy is really hot up close and Keith is only human (sort of, according to Pidge).
"Uh," he starts, but he's got no follow up. He shakes his head and tries again. "What's your deal?"
Guy blinks, but the smile stays sincere. "What?"
"You wave at me all the time," says Keith. His tone is harsh, but he doesn't care. "I don't know you. Pretty sure you don't know me."
"You're right," says Guy. "Takashi Shirogane."
Keith stares at him for a moment too long. He sees the guy's smile falter and Keith immediately feels bad—how did the guy do that? "Keith," he mutters, and the smile returns.
Takashi Shirogane nods. "Okay, Keith. Now we know each other."
Keith narrows his eyes at him. "No, we don't. Who even are you?" He can feel his temple beginning to throb. "I want to know why you keep waving at me."
Keith is surprised when Takashi's expression twists in uncertainty. "Uhm, okay. This is going to sound kind of weird, but I saw you a couple of days after move-in and you looked… really upset, or angry about something."
"That's just my face," says Keith. Takashi smiles at him faintly.
"Possibly, but I thought you looked kind of, I don't know, lonely," he says. "Maybe not, I don't know, could just be me projecting, but I just thought I'd wave at you. When I was in high school it was always a easier if I had at least one person I could wave at in the hall. Even if we weren't friends, being acknowledged by someone really helped me feel like maybe I belonged."
"So, you waved at me because you wanted someone to wave at?" Keith frowns. "To make me feel better?"
"Well, yes and no. I just thought—it's nice to have a person who will always say hello to you and you can say hello back. Even the smallest interaction can be a real morale booster. I just… I kind of hoped I could be your person." He scratches the back of his neck. "Man, that sounds pretty stupid when I say it out loud."
Keith thinks about this. "My person," he says. "You want to be my wave-at-in-the-halls person."
"Well, now that we're talking maybe we could be 'say-hello-on-the-quad people' or maybe even 'sit-at-the-same-table-at-lunch people'."
"But why?" asks Keith, suspicious. "You don't even know—"
Takashi grins. "Nope, names have been exchanged, we know each other now."
"Yes, as of five seconds ago," says Keith, exasperated. Okay, he doesn't care how hot this guy is, he's becoming annoying. "You don't just walk up to people and tell them you're going to be friends." Keith pauses. "No, actually, you probably do. And then you bench-press them."
Takashi laughs. "You're right, except about the bench-pressing thing. I have exactly five friends on campus—six, now—and I got them all by waving at them."
"That actually works?"
"You're talking to me, aren't you?" Takashi looks pleased as punch to be talking to Keith, which makes no sense to Keith because Takashi does not know him. "Where are you headed?"
"Library," says Keith. He holds up his bag. "Paper due Thursday, first one. Trying not to fuck it up."
"What's the paper?"
"Hyperbolic orbits." Keith sighs. "I know it, but writing it all down is different."
Takashi nods. "Do you have Kaltenecker?" Keith nods. "He's pretty take-no-prisoners when it comes to tests. He likes to give pop quizzes on Wednesdays."
"You had him?" asks Keith. "What year are you?"
"Junior. I had Kaltenecker last year, too. You'll learn a lot, though. He knows his stuff, and if you want to get off the ground you should definitely pay attention."
Keith frowns. He wants to know how the guy guessed that Keith wants to fly, but if he asks he's revealing too much. "Just hoping to pass," is all he says.
"Bullshit," says Takashi cheerfully. "No one taking Kaltenecker's course just hopes to pass. You can't even take his course without hitting or exceeding his GPA requirement and acing the entrance exam. There's no way you're just hoping to pass."
"We're only a month in," says Keith. Who is this guy? "How can you know what I want? As I keep saying, you don't even know me."
"Well, we'll have plenty of time to work on that now that we're waving at each other, and possibly saying hello. I might have to buy you lunch to get you to sit with me, but I'm prepared to make that sacrifice."
"Are you hitting on me?" Keith blurts out. "Is that what it is?" He doesn't mean to be so blunt but holy shit, Takashi may be hot but that is definitely not on his radar right now.
Keith's question does seem to give Takashi pause. There's a flash of something in his expression—it's too fast, Keith can't read it—that is quickly replaced by the same dashing dork aesthetic Keith suspects is just his normal operating mode.
"I—No," Takashi says, a little subdued. "No?"
Keith scoffs. "Everyone wants something," he says. "Nobody's intentions are 100% pure."
"That's not true," says Takashi. "But no, I'm not hitting on you. I genuinely want to talk to you more. It's hard not to be fascinated by the short, angry guy you see going to class every day."
"I might be short," says Keith, because Takashi's got at least a foot on him so there's no arguing that point, "but I am not always angry. I'm just busy." He adjusts his backpack. "You know, with all the school and everything."
"Yeah, this is really the calm before the storm, though. The first few weeks are really all over the place with moving in and picking classes and getting your life figured out before you have to start all over again." Takashi sticks his hands in his pockets and rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet. "I wish I could say it gets easier, but it doesn't, you just get better at adapting."
"Why are you telling me this stuff?" asks Keith. He doesn't need to be told how to adapt. He's been adapting for most of his life.
"I know, I know, sorry." Takashi holds up his hands in mock defeat. "My roommate's always giving me crap about acting too much like a guidance counselor and not enough like, you know, a normal person." He coughs, ears red. "Sorry."
"Whatever," says Keith with a sigh. "Was a good speech. Very Independence Day, the first one."
When Shiro chuckles at his joke the fact that Keith had made Shiro laugh somehow makes him suddenly, inexplicably nervous. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other and looks off toward the library.
"Listen," he says, taking a step away. "I really need to get started on this thing, so—"
"Of course!" Takashi waves him off. "Go, get to work. If you want a proofread, you know where to find me."
"I don't, actually." Keith regrets it the minute he says it. "Not that I would need to," he adds quickly.
"Oh, well." Takashi looks nonplussed. He holds out a hand. "Your PADD?"
Keith hesitates. He could just walk away and leave the guy hanging. It crosses his mind, but there's something about this guy's charm that has Keith handing his PADD to a near-stranger and watching as he carefully taps his number into it.
"Now," he says, handing it back as he draws his own PADD from his pocket. "Message me so I have yours?"
Keith hesitates, then sends a message (who the fuck are you) to the number typed in and notices that it's named Shiro. "Shiro?" he asks.
"Yeah," Shiro (apparently) says, chuckling at Keith's message. "Sorry, that's what everyone calls me. I got tired of hearing my name get completely butchered by white people. Shiro is easier for everyone involved, and I think it's kinda cool, too."
There's something about Shiro's name that catches on the edge of Keith's memory. He can't grab ahold of it, though. "Okay," he says slowly. "I should call you that?"
"Yeah, I mean, even my moms call me Shiro." He grins goofily, ducks his head in a manner Keith can only describe as endearing.
Endearing? Yeah, okay, Keith.
"Do you have a nickname?" Shiro smiles down at his PADD and types, presumably adding Keith's name to his contacts. "Anything interesting?"
"No," says Keith. "No one ever gave me a nickname, it's always been just Keith. Sometimes Kogane, if my roommate is mad at me."
"Kogane?" Shiro asks. "Is that your name?"
"That's what they tell me." He shrugs. "Just Keith is fine." He turns to go. "See you around, Takashi Shirogane."
"Remember, my friends call me Shiro!" he calls after him. Keith doesn't turn around.
Chapter 3: Static
Keith had known college was going to be a lot rougher academically than his myriad high schools had been, but he also knows he can handle it. He just doesn't need any distractions, and the people around him are so distracting. Pidge is the only one he tolerates, her brother on a case-by-case basis. He's friendly and outgoing, two things Keith feels light years away from, which results in Keith being overwhelmed and finding excuses to bail.
Fortunately Pidge has figured out Keith's anxiety tells and when she sees them she kicks Matt out, draws the curtains, and puts on classic media for them to work or zone out to. Keith does his homework and falls asleep to an array of early twenty-first century cartoons, all of the Marvel reboots, Close Encounters (his favorite movie, despite it being as old as it is), all 20 seasons of Supernatural, etc. Pidge's vast media library spans centuries.
Sometimes they talk about Pidge's weird friends from her physics class, or chaos theory, or they trash-talk their professors over late-night taquitos cooked in the communal microwave. But most of the time Pidge leaves him to his own devices and focuses on hacking the planet or whatever it is she does. She seems to know when to engage and when to retreat, and Keith respects the hell out of her for that. He thinks they're doing well so far.
The library is Keith's true refuge. Pidge had lent him a laptop after the first week, despite his protests, so he's able to set up in one of the isolated corners of the library and work uninterrupted. No one ever comes back here because the overhead light flickers just enough to bring on a headache, but Keith doesn't care, just pops some Tylenol and settles in, sometimes for hours at a time.
He's in the library and halfway through his H–R diagram paper when someone falls into one of the chairs next to him and puts their feet up on the table. Keith is ready to smash some skulls when he realizes it's Matt, who grins at him wearily.
"Fancy meeting you here," says Matt. "I keep trying to find you on campus but I never see you. Are you teleporting from class to class?"
"Yes," says Keith. "I have a magic teleporting space dog." He pulls his PADD closer and scrolls to the page he needs. "I met him on the back of a space whale. In space." Matt laughs, a little too loudly, and Keith lunges across the table at him.
"Shut the hell up," he hisses. "Do not get me thrown out of here, this is the best fucking spot in the library."
"Relax," says Matt. "They can't hear us over there; the desk lady's listening to PADDcasts." Matt studies him. "So, anything fun happen to you today? Break any hearts? Burn down a Dairy Queen?"
"The screams were delicious," says Keith dully. He resumes typing, though he's too distracted to really string together anything coherent. He pretends anyway so that maybe Matt will get the hint and buzz off. When he doesn't, Keith sighs. "Did you want something?" he asks.
"Nope!" Matt leans back in his chair, stretches out his long legs and folds his arms behind his head. "Just tired as hell. I forgot what the first few weeks are like."
"It's really not that bad," says Keith. He looks at him over the top of his computer. "I mean, I don't think it's been hard to adjust."
Matt laughs. "That's because you don't know what finals are."
Keith frowns. "We had finals in high school. At least a few of the ones I went to did."
"You went to a few high schools? Matt raises his eyebrows. "How many is a few?"
Oops. "Um." Keith hesitates. "Four," he says finally. "It was hard trying to keep up with different schools but it wasn't really so bad." It was, in fact, plenty bad, but Matt doesn't need to know that.
"You did it, though," says Matt. "That's pretty impressive, no lie."
Keith shrugs. "Not really," he says. He gives up on his paper—he's written the same sentence twice—and snaps the laptop closed. "I'm done, I think."
"Did I mess you up?" says Matt, dropping his legs and sitting up straight. "Was just saying hi."
"Yeah, hi." Keith starts gathering up his stuff. "It's okay. Uh, how're your classes?" he asks, because he thinks that what you're supposed to do. Then he realizes something. "I don't even know your major," he says.
"I'm in the Aerospace program like you," says Matt, unfettered. "Interstellar Communications if you want to get technical. Which sounds like something from a cartoon, but I promise it's real."
"Oh." Keith stuffs his books into his bag. "Yeah, ok."
"They put you in the sim yet?" Matt grins. "Everyone gets sick in that thing. I know the techs and everyone there hates their job."
"Pidge asked me the same thing," says Keith. "Not yet, but I don't think it'll be as bad as you all think it is. Sims are a lot better, now." He hoists his bag over his shoulder. "Uh, okay. I gotta go."
"Where you headed?" Matt springs up from the chair. "I'm headed back to my dorm, come hang out?" His eyes widen a bit and he laughs. "I promise I'm not trying to get into your pants," he adds quickly. "I just realized that come back to my room sounds like a really bad pickup line."
"It's fine," says Keith. He considers it. He spends so much time with Pidge that he's always afraid he's monopolizing her and keeping her from other things. He knows she's got other friends—she keeps mentioning people named Hunk and Lance, and how they make their professor cry more often than she does, and she's involved in the school's underground-but-not-really hacker club—but he's never met any of them and they never come to the dorm. He worries he's cramping her style.
So Matt's invitation feels like more than just hanging out, it feels like he's being given a chance at friendship other than just Pidge's. Keith is also reluctant to alienate the brother of his best friend by refusing the overture, so he nods.
"Sure," he says. "Okay."
Pidge will be so proud of him.
Matt bounces on his toes like a little kid. "Great! I think my roommate has a late class so you won't have to deal with a stranger in an enclosed space."
"Sounds good," says Keith, relieved. Matt seems to have picked up on his anxiety as well, or Pidge gave him some hints. Keith is grateful either way. He's going to be awkward enough, he doesn't need an audience.
They make their way across campus, Matt chattering away about his major, his classes, his family. He talks about a girl he has a crush on, and a boy he dated last year who turned out to be a furry (Matt didn't have a problem with it until the anatomically-correct fursuit showed up).
Matt also talks about his roommate's perfect simulator scores like he's reciting psalms. Keith doesn't know if he likes the sound of this guy or if he hates him for being apparently perfect. He still hasn't met him, and at this point he has to admit he's a little curious.
When they get to Roddenberry House, Matt holds the front door open for Keith and he ducks under Matt's arm—Matt, thankfully, has the sense not to make any short jokes. They walk up a flight of stairs to a landing where Matt unlocks a bright yellow door. "Home sweet home!" he exclaims, waving Keith inside.
The dorm is actually a suite; there's a hall leading to where he presumes the bedrooms are, and a common area, and Keith can see a kitchenette and door to the bathroom from the entryway. It's bright and big and everything Keith's room with Pidge is not. He can't help the low wow under his breath.
"Yeah," says Matt. "It's a serious fucking upgrade from Edison, sorry you're stuck there. Roddenberry is the newest building and I, uh, might've made sure we got a room here." He grins and scratches the back of his head. "Don't tell anyone."
Keith snorts. "Yeah, it's no accident that Pidge and I ended up sharing."
"Figured. Okay, down here, this is my room," says Matt, leading Keith down the hallway and pushing open a red door, waving him through. Keith would feel weird about inviting someone into his personal space like this, but Matt seems excited by the prospect of company so Keith follows and pokes his head inside.
Immediately he sees that Matt and Pidge are in fact not exactly alike as Keith had initially thought. Matt's very neat, bed made, floor clear, his massive number of books tidied away to the shelves, organized by color and arranged in a rainbow pattern. There are photos stuck to the wall by his bed, pictures of Pidge, the Holts, and others. There are little paper birds pinned all over the ceiling, their wings fluttering lazily in the breeze from the open window. And one entire wall—completely swallowing the desk—is made up of a very complicated, sprawling snarl of computer equipment that appears to be doing something. It's very impressive.
"Brr," says Matt, crossing the room to close the window. "Man, it stopped being summer real fast, didn't it?"
"I'm fine with that," says Keith. "I grew up in the desert. S'nice to have four seasons." He stands in the middle of the room awkwardly. What does he do? Does he sit? Does he wait for Matt? No one had ever bothered to teach him the important stuff, like how not to make an ass of yourself with people you might want to be friends with.
"Sit!" Matt waves a hand around. "Anywhere's fine. Not a whole lot of options, I know." He kicks off his shoes and hangs his jacket on the back of the door. "I usually just sit on the bed. Desk chair sucks."
Keith drops his bag and sits down on the edge of the bed to unlace his boots. "You don't have a floordrobe like Pidge does," he observes, pulling off his boots and putting them aside.
"She's a mess," says Matt emphatically. "When Pidge was fourteen Mom took her bedroom door right off the hinges and told her she couldn't have it back until she cleaned her room. She still doesn't have a door."
Keith chuckles. "I had a, um, roommate like that." He doesn't say sibling since that isn't true, but roommate requires less explanation. "He hoarded his dirty dishes. No one knew until the mice showed up."
"Yikes," says Matt, wrinkling his nose. "Did you befriend any of them? Are you actually Cinderella?"
"If I am," says Keith. "My fairy godmother is real late." He eyes the computer, the biggest thing in the room. It's beeping softly, displays glowing green in the fading daylight. "So what's with Mission Control over there?" he asks, curiosity getting the best of him. "Found any signs of life, yet?"
"Maybe," says Matt.
Keith detects a touch of serious in Matt's tone. "Oh, yeah?"
Matt nods. "Pidge has a portable setup like this, you've probably seen it by now." Keith shrugs; he can't parse most of Pidge's computer stuff; it all looks like beloved recycling. "She uses it up on the roof of Edison because that place is basically a Faraday cage. My box is stationary, but this is a wooden building and there's a window right here with no trees in the way, so I've got a clear view of the sky."
"What does it do, though?" asks Keith. He gets up and peers at all the screens. It's not like it makes no sense to him—he's doing fine in his comp sci classes—but he's no computer whiz and anyone else would feel as lost as he does looking at this thing.
"We're scanning the solar system," says Matt proudly. "We can reach all the way out to the edge of it and maybe even a little further, we're still confirming that."
"No shit," says Keith on a breath. "Seriously?"
"Yeah!" Matt flits around, clicking here and there. "So, there's the usual ambient stuff we pick up, like air traffic control and normal Armstrong chatter, and and we can get Mars—Thunder Road is the most gossipy station I think we have out there right now. Sheesh. Oh, we've also heard Christa-1 a few times."
"I thought that left the solar system ten years ago."
Matt flashes him a coyote grin. "That's what I thought, too." He clicks around some more and pulls up an audio file. "And then there's this," he says.
Keith listens. There's nothing but undulating static for about ten seconds before he definitely, distinctly hears a half-formed word that fades back into static. He looks at Matt with wide eyes.
"That came from around Eris," says Matt in a hushed voice, though there's no one else to hear. Keith thinks it's appropriate for the moment. "We've been fucking around with it since summer with no conclusions. We thought for the longest that we'd made a mistake, that it was just gobbledegook from a cargo ship or whatever, but every time we analyzed the data we kept coming back to the Belt."
"This is amazing," says Keith, truly floored. If he's just heard an alien broadcast he's going to need a few beers when he gets back to his dorm. "Have you told anyone else?"
Matt nods. "My roommate, because he really can't miss the equipment and he's stupidly curious about everything I do. Haven't told else, 'cept you."
"But why tell me?" Keith wants to hear the sound again, but he's also real confused as to why he got to hear it at all. "I'm nobody."
"We're all nobodies in the universe," says Matt sagely, "but we're always a somebody to someone else."
Keith just stares at him. "That made no sense," he says.
"Yeah, I know." Matt disconnects something and plugs it in somewhere else and nods to himself, seemingly satisfied by whatever he'd just done. "I told you because Pidge says you're smart and you can keep a secret, and that you're a real space nerd who'd love shit like this. And the more trustworthy minds we have working on this the more likely we're going to figure it out." Matt looks over at him. "Matthew and Katie Holt: discoverers of alien life." He grins. "D'you think they'll name a satellite after us?"
Keith shakes his head. "Might even name a crater for you on the moon."
"There aren't any craters left," says Matt. "They sold them all." He queues up the sound file. "Wanna listen again?"
"Yes," says Keith. "Yes I do."
They end up listening to it a dozen more times. Keith tries to sound it out by comparing it to other languages. He must be muttering under his breath because Matt turns to him with his eyebrows raised. "Just how many languages do you know?"
"Don't know," says Keith. "A couple." He holds up one side of the headphones to his ear and closes his eyes, clicking PLAY once more. It's still just gibberish and it's no language he recognizes. "Spanish, Russian, you know. Useful stuff."
"Huh, I didn't know that." Matt blinks owlishly at him. "You're just full of surprises."
Keith is surprised. "Pidge didn't tell you?" he asks.
"Pidge doesn't actually tell me that much about you," says Matt. "Normally I'd be real leery of a guy I don't know hanging around my little sister, but she trusts you and I trust her, so here we are. In my dorm room, listening to an alien say ajhgfjagh over and over again."
"Is that the official translation?" Keith smirks. Matt's really not so bad, he thinks. He'd even go so far as to say he's having fun.
Matt grins. "It is now."
There's a knock at the door.
"Matt? You in there?" Keith freezes. The voice sounds familiar.
"Yeah?" Matt calls out. "It's open!"
The door open and Keith's eyes go wide. Shiro's do too.
"Hey!" he says with a bright smile. "Good to see you, I didn't know you knew Matt."
"Pidge is his roommate! I told you about him."
Shiro shakes his head. "You never mentioned his name. He and I ran into each other the other day." He waves at Keith. "Hi."
Keith nods. Shiro steps all the way into the room. "You guys working on djhakdajg?"
"I thought it was fgajkhjh," says Keith. Shiro looks over and laughs, and Keith wants to make him do it again.
Matt sniffs. "I'm pretty sure it's kgsklhjgs."
Shiro catches Keith's eye. "I believe in you guys," he says, with a subdued punch in the air. "But, I don't know, maybe we should tell someone? I feel like at the very least one authority figure should know about this. Maybe, I don't know, Slav?"
Matt scoffs. "You're enough of an authority figure, Space Dad. And no, we're not telling Slav. I can't believe you even suggested him."
"Who's Slav?" asks Keith. He's heard the name from Pidge a couple of times, usually accompanied with a shudder, but never in context.
Shiro makes a face. "Mechanical engineering professor. He also dabbles in astrophysics. He writes books about alternate realities, he's… challenging to talk to." He sighs. "You're right, he's a bad idea. Coran is, too—he'd talk. Hm."
Shiro crosses his arms and suddenly Keith's eye level with the most advanced piece of technology he's ever seen, in the form of a prosthetic human arm. It's sleek, most brushed metal and plating, and throughout the seams a pale blue light pulses in what Keith realizes is Shiro, breathing.
Keith immediately averts his eyes to the floor and tries to focus on the conversation but his mind is racing, what is it how does it work how did he get it what is the story there. To Keith, Shiro has just gotten ten times more interesting, because golden boy has a tragic past, too.
"Ryner!" says Shiro suddenly, snapping his flesh fingers and startling Keith right out of his thoughts. It takes every bit of his attention span not to look at the arm again and instead tune back in to what Shiro and Matt are saying.
"Bingo," says Matt. "Yeah, we could tell them. But let's bring Allura in first. If all of us can't figure this out on our own, I'll toss this rig into the sun and take up bonsai."
Shiro laughs. "Hey, so I came to ask if we could get food, because I'm starving. Keith, want to come along?"
"Oh." Keith hesitates and does some quick math in his head. Nope. "I can't, sorry." He tries to laugh it off. "I'm pretty tired and I just want to go home and sleep like the dead for a few hours."
"Legit," says Matt. He looks up at Shiro. "Chinese or Thai?"
"Whatever you want," says Shiro. "I'm going in the shower, we can go when I'm done?" Matt nods and Shiro gives a little wave to the both of them—and a smile in Keith's direction—before he heads off to his own room.
"So," says Matt, when he's sure Shiro's out of earshot. "I'm not gonna tell you how he got it, that's his story to tell, but I will give you some specs on it so you don't kill yourself trying to be polite and pretend you're not dying to know how it works."
Keith looks at him. "You're a good man," he says earnestly. "Really."
Matt's already transferring the info to Keith's PADD. "It's a deed that moves the wheels of the world," he says. "Should be there now. Happy reading."
That is how Keith becomes friends with Matt Holt and, by proxy, Takashi Shirogane.
Chapter 4: Silver Hair
"Pardon me," says a voice with an accent Keith can't place, "is anyone sitting here?"
Keith looks up from the hippo he's doodling the back of his hand. The white-haired girl he's seen Shiro talking to looks expectantly at him and then at the seat across. He shakes his head. She smiles, drops her stylish messenger bag next to the chair and sits down.
"My apologies if I'm disturbing you," she says. He really can't figure out her accent but she's a striking figure: tall and slender, with acres of silver hair. But he gets the sense she could destroy him with her pinky finger if she wants to, so he just shrugs. She sets down her tray and gestures around at the dining hall with an elegant hand. "I recognized you as one of Matt and Shiro's friends so I thought I'd come say hello."
She offers her hand. "Allura," she says. "You're Keith, right?"
"Sure," says Keith. He takes her hand and shakes it quickly. Her grip is strong and warm. "Who told you about me?"
"Shiro did," she says, picking up a massive cheeseburger. "Had a lot of nice things to say."
"I met him for the first time a couple of weeks ago." Keith ducks his head and continues work on the hand-hippo. "I don't know what he could have to say about me."
Allura swallows a bite of her burger. "Well, I do know you're studying to become a pilot," she says, wiping her chin with a napkin. She sips daintily at her Diet Coke. "You're highly intelligent, if you memorize star charts in your free time and earned a four-year scholarship to come here."
He frowns. "How did you know about all that?"
Allura flutters a hand at him. "Pidge is a funny, chatty drunk." She winks and descends on her burger again. Keith tries not to stare, but he's hungry as hell and the pitiful sandwich he'd had before Allura'd arrived isn't doing the trick. But he's down to his last $10 until the beginning of the month, so for now he lives vicariously through this strange friend of Shiro's, well-dressed and wispy, eating her meal like a pack of starving dingos in a nursery.
"Please don't talk about me behind my back," he mumbles. "It sucks."
Allura pauses and looks at him. "Oh," she says, and she looks genuinely contrite. "I'm sorry. It wasn't anything bad, I promise you. I asked her about you and she volunteered a few little tidbits, and I found you quite interesting."
She offers him an apologetic little smile. "Pidge said you like to draw, and I can see that you're rather good at it." She points to the hippo on his hand. "She also said that you're a Scorpio, so happy early birthday."
"Thanks," he says. "Sorry, I just don't like gossip."
Allura sighs. "This is a small school," she says. "Reputations can be quickly established and difficult to shake. Trust me. I have very few friends here, people see me as a bit pretentious because I like to dress nicely and 'bitchy' because I do not smile when told to by other people." She taps her chin with the tip of her finger and looks thoughtful. "Er, and there was an incident, last year."
"What?" Keith leans forward a little, curious about this incident. "What happened?"
"Well," she huffs, her cheeks and nose coloring a delicate pink. "He was very rude and I may have explained that to him, ah, by throwing him across a classroom."
Keith grins in spite of himself. "Nice," he says, and he offers up a fist bump. She raps their knuckles together and draws her hand back, fingers spread, making an explosion noise and giggling. Keith can't help but smile; she's nice and he's very impressed by the throwing-people-around.
"Did you hurt him?" asks Keith, clicking the pen in his hand. "Did he bleed?"
"Bloody nose and he lost a tooth." Allura preens. "My father started me on Krav Maga lessons in grade school. He's a bit overprotective. That was the first time I've ever put it to use."
If he weren't gay, Keith would date the hell out of this girl. And he's never wanted to date anyone before. Wow.
"How do you know everyone?" he asks. She's too busy chewing on her burger to answer, but she pushes her tray in his direction and gestures toward the fries. He hesitates, then takes one, and it's so much better than McDonald's. Keith makes a small, happy noise that he hopes she doesn't hear and takes another, dunking it in the ketchup. "I've only seen you with Shiro a couple of times."
She drinks from her soda. "I'm double-majoring in Astro-Navigation and Mechanical Engineering, and I'm also president of the Women in STEM club," she says. "I have no time for any sort of shenanigans beyond a few trips to Marvin's with you lot and whatever's happening on campus once in a while. I've no life to speak of except in the summer, which is when everyone goes home, of course."
"Sounds great," says Keith. "Where can I sign up?"
Allura laughs. "Anyway, you asked how I know them. Shiro was my first friend here," she says, swiping a French fry through a dollop of ketchup and crunching on it. "He waved at me across campus one day in our first year. I didn't know him at all and I thought he trying to chat me up, but instead he just told me he wanted someone to wave at and that I looked like a good friend candidate."
At that Keith's blood runs cold. Oh, he thinks. You're not special, it's just a thing he does to everyone.
"He doesn't do it to everyone," says Allura, as if sensing his thoughts. "He has an uncanny talent at reading people, even if he doesn't know them at all. He also told me how you chased him down and got right in his face about it. Well done. I may have shouted at him a bit, but in the end we just had a lovely lunch and everything worked out."
"I didn't chase him down," says Keith. "I walked up to him, like a normal person, and asked him what his deal was."
"He said you nearly tackled him." Allura finishes off her cheeseburger and licks grease from her fingers. She stifles a burp. "Pardon me! Anyway, Shiro's deal is that he's really quite a lovely person and, I think, rather lonely. He likes to collect people, but only a few and he keeps them very close. Almost like a team, I suppose. Hunk sometimes calls him Captain as a little joke."
"Matt calls him Space Dad," says Keith.
"Also acceptable," says Allura. "As for the others—Matthew's delightful, so very smart. Devoted to Pidge, who I just adore. You're so lucky to have her as a housemate. I cannot believe her mind. My uncle is a professor here, and he calls her his 'Future Turing Award Winner'."
Keith nods. "Yeah," he says. "They should just give it to her now, for that array she set up with Matt."
"Oh!" She claps her hands. "They told you about kjksjkjf!"
Keith nods. "Still don't know why, I'm not much help."
Allura shakes her head. "Matt said you're a polyglot. It's very helpful to have on hand."
"Nah," Keith says, embarrassed and resolving to kill Matt. "I don't know that many languages."
She eyes him. "How many?" she asks. There's something in her tone that makes Keith think he can't lie to her. He sinks down in his chair a bit.
"Russian. Mandarin. Spanish. Xhosa. Urdu. French. Japanese." He looks down at the table, picking at a crack in the wood. "I'm good at picking things up." While most of the languages he'd learned from the tutor pods at the library, Russian was out of necessity; they'd spoken next to no English in that particular home and it was adapt or starve. He'd adapted, and managed not to starve, so his Russian's passable at the very least.
"Well, hell." Allura leans back, looking satisfied and not just from the burger. "You're a wonderful catch, I'm so glad Shiro found you. He's quite good at reading people's potential."
"You make it sound like we're engaged, or I'm a new employee." He picks up another fry and pops it into his mouth. "Or the starting pitcher for the World Series."
"Well, I did tell you that Shiro likes building teams. You've been recruited, I'm afraid." Allura tidies up her tray and rises. "Thank you for the chat, Keith. It's lovely to get to talk to you. I hope we'll see more of each other?"
"Sure," says Keith. "We probably will, if I've been adopted into some kind of cult."
Allura nods. "We meet in the basement of an abandoned church on Thursdays. Bring chicken livers. See you later!" She gives him a little wave as she drifts away, leaving Keith a little dizzy. He takes out his crappy PADD, restarts it, and taps out a message to Pidge:
Did you talk to someone named Allura about me
He bags his PADD and bails on the dining hall. He might as well go to his next class early. Halfway there his PADD trills and he digs it out to look, stepping off the path into the shadow of an oak tree.
She got me shitfaced and grilled me about you.
I didn't tell her anything important!
Also drunk me has no filter.
You know this
She turned out to be nice
Oh, I could have told you that
Did you guys hang out?
Smart as hell and really hot.
Lance loves her.
Yeah we talked for a little while
it was alright
Look at you making friendz
More like people keep coming up to me and being aggressively friendly
Matt Shiro and now her
are all people like this
Nope. but you're lucky to go to school with a few of them.
Welcome to college hugbear
where families come together like space dust becoming a planet.
Anyway I'm in class and it's slav so i gotta go before he starts talking about realities in which we all fail his course but be good ok
You got it
He stuffs his PADD back in his bag and trudges off to History of Spaceflight, trying to imagine willowy Allura flinging people across a room. It's a great mental image that has him smiling all the way to the classroom.
Keith gets a job fixing hoverbikes at a garage in town that is thankfully just a twenty-minute walk from campus. It's a lot of hard work, especially on top of his classes, but the sudden influx of money after years without is enough to give him a panic attack when he sees his first paycheck. It's more money than he's ever had at any given time. He knows it's not a lot, not in the grand scheme of things, but to him it's a fucking fortune.
So, the next night, when Pidge asks him to come with her to Marvin's—she has never stopped asking, even though he's never taken her up on it—he actually says yes, knocking her right out of her desk chair.
"Really?" She scrambles back into it, grinning at him. "Why now?"
Keith shrugs. "I'm hungry," he says. "Don't freak out, it's not like I just figured out what dsjkadgfhjg is."
"I'm not, just—wow!" She grabs her PADD. "Let me call Matt. This is an occasion."
"Sure," says Keith with a sigh. So much for his first quiet dinner out with his best friend. "But just Matt, okay?"
Matt meets them at Marvin's, a centuries-old Jersey-style diner just a few blocks from campus. It's pretty dead at this hour, only a few of the booths are taken up by sleepy TAs plugging away at their grading and the remnants of the weekly D&D club meeting in the old smoking section. He's got Shiro with him, which was not part of the deal, but Keith schools his expression into what he hopes is indifference.
Shiro, on the other hand, looks apologetic. "Sorry to crash the party," he says as they go inside. "I was going to stay in but Matt shamed me into coming out and being a part of society, so here I am." He gives Keith a little smile. "Nice to see you."
Keith nods. "Hey," he says. He slides into the booth next to Pidge, Shiro ends up across from him. "How's it going?"
"S'good," says Shiro. "What brought you out this time?"
"Felt like it," says Keith, hoping he comes off as nonchalant and not rude. "Got hungry and felt cooped up. Pidge asked so here I am."
Shiro nods, paging through his menu and squinting here and there. Keith wonders if he sometimes wears glasses. Is that something you can just ask someone? He doesn't know.
"I don't come along all the time," says Shiro, "but Matt tried to carry me out of the building. He got pretty far before the crying started."
"What the fuck do you eat, Shirogane?" Matt flicks a salt packet at him. "Rocks and toddlers?"
"Maybe if you hit the gym more than once a semester things would have worked out better for you," Shiro says loftily. "Not my fault you don't even lift, bro."
Keith bursts out laughing, surprising the table and himself. "Sorry," he says, clearing his throat. That'd come out of nowhere. "Just—s'funny." He ducks his head and hides behind his menu.
"Oh God, don't encourage him," says Pidge. "Shiro tells the worst dad jokes. That's why he's Space Dad."
Keith peers at Shiro. He's laughing good-naturedly but Keith can see that his ears are red. "My jokes," says Shiro, "are hilarious."
"No, no." Matt nudges him. "Go on, tell him one. Let Keith be the judge."
"No," says Keith quickly. "I have a weird sense of humor. I won't get it, probably."
"It's a dad joke," says Pidge. "They're not difficult, just stupid. Hit him with your best shot, Shiro."
Keith lowers the menu and looks at Shiro, who's rubbing the back of his neck and gazing up at the ceiling. He sighs and drops his gaze to Keith and clears his throat.
"A skeleton walks into a bar," he says, very seriously. "He says, 'Bring me a beer and a mop!'"
There's a half-second of silence before Matt and Pidge groan so loud it wakes up the TA three booths away and she knocks over her coffee. They all duck down until the server comes by the clean it up.
"That was awful," says Matt. "Keith?"
Keith sniffs. "Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon?" he says. He's met with three blank stares. He shuts his menu. "Great food, no atmosphere."
Pidge and Matt stare at him, but Shiro laughs. "What do you call an elephant that doesn't matter? An—"
—irrelephant," finishes Keith with a smirk. "Five out of four people admit to being bad with fractions."
Pidge whimpers. "Please," she says. "Stop."
"No, keep going," says Matt, his elbows on the table and chin in his hands. "This is great."
Shiro tilts his head and taps his own chin in thought. "I'm terrified of elevators, so I'm taking steps to avoid them."
From the corner of his eye Keith can see Matt and Pidge having a silent conversation of complicated facial expressions, but he ignores it in favor of whatever dance he's got going on with Shiro. Who would have thought Golden Boy would love a terrible, awful joke?
"What do you call a chameleon that can't change color?" says Keith. "A reptile dysfunction."
Pidge makes dying penguin noises while Shiro sips at his water and thinks. "How many apples grow on a tree? All of them."
Keith grins and goes in for the kill. "Did you hear about the movie Constipation? It never came out."
"I— Oh, wow." Shiro pinches the bridge of his nose, shoulders shaking. "You win, I can't top that one."
Satisfied, Keith sits back in the booth, as Pidge and Matt honk laughter into their napkins. The server actually has to shush them before he takes their orders, which they all give with contrite politeness. He quickly takes their menus and hightails it out of there.
"Where the hell did that come from?" asks Pidge once he's gone. "Keith, how did I not know that you have a thing for bad jokes?"
"It's never come up," he says. "There hasn't been a 'yeah, let's tell bad jokes' phase of our friendship. And it's not something I really lead with, you know?" He's weird enough, thanks.
"Yeah, it was memes all the way down with us," she says. "Well, whatever, this is great, now Shiro can torture you and leave the rest of us alone."
"You guys just can't appreciate the comedy classics," sniffs Shiro.
Keith shakes his head. "I don't know about the comedy part but classic, definitely." Keith finds a pen in his jacket pocket and clicks it absently. "I'm pretty good at knock-knocks, too."
"NO," say Pidge and Matt. "Just, no," says Matt. "Please."
Shiro sighs. "Fine," he says. He looks over at Keith and winks. "But only because we like you."
"Yes, thanks." Matt breathes a sigh of relief. "Not that it wasn't enjoyable weird to see Kogane smile with all the muscles in his face."
"Fuck you, I smile," says Keith. "I'm not as angry as you guys seem to think I am all the time."
Pidge pats his hand. "We know, Hugbear. But this is the first time you've come out with us. I feel like we're helping you out of the nest, our little baby bird."
Keith looks at Shiro, who's hiding a smile behind his hand. "Help?" he asks, because Shiro might be his only ally here.
"Don't look at me," says Shiro, holding up his hands in mock surrender. "I waved at you the first time because I thought you were having a really bad day."
Keith dips forward and lets his forehead bump against the tabletop. Bump. Bump. Bump.
"C'mon," says Shiro, grabbing Keith's shoulder and gently pulling him up. "We're just glad to see you. Now you can know firsthand how boring we are."
"Speak for yourself," says Matt. He's trying to catch the eye of the sleepy TA, who is far more interested in her coffee and the tiny flask of something she keeps pouring into it. "I'm a perpetual cyclone of fun, as evidenced by my really cool BSG t-shirt."
Pidge's response is cut short by the arrival of their food. Keith inhales half his biscuits and gravy almost immediately, realizing after his first bite just how hungry he really is. He's almost tempted to flag down their server and ask for seconds, but that might get him funny looks. As it is, he's almost done and Pidge isn't even on her second pancake yet, and Matt's still got most of his BLT left. Only Shiro has noticed Keith and it's only because Shiro has already finished his omelette.
"Guess I was hungry," he says. He filches a fry from Matt, who doesn't even notice because he and Pidge have a PADD between them. It looks like they're mapping out new audio pulled from their array. "Oh," says Shiro, gesturing at them with the fry. "We've lost them. They have already totally forgotten we're here."
"Yep," says Keith, polishing off his last biscuit, swiping it through the remnants of gravy on his plate. "Think I'd get in trouble if I got another?"
"With who?" Shiro shrugs. "You know what, flag her down. I'll do it too, I can definitely do another omelette like that one."
The server seems surprised to take a second order from them—Keith in particular, he supposes it's because he doesn't look like he can eat that much—but he dutifully writes it in his notebook and hustles off. Matt and Pidge are now having a very spirited discussion about longitudinal and transverse waves, so Keith is left with Shiro, who is tracing patterns in the condensation on the side of his glass with the tip of his finger.
"Uh," says Keith, in a moment of true inspiration. He curses himself and tries again. "What's with the dad jokes?" he asks. It's as good a jumping off point as any. It works, because Shiro looks up with a smile.
"My mom," he says. "Whenever she hears a bad one she sends it to me. I have a huge file on my PADD that's nothing but jokes she's sent for the last few years."
"Yeah, mine came from my dad." Keith finishes off his Coke and wonders if they'd have a fit if he just got up and refilled it himself. The machine is right there. "He had a never-ending supply of them. I never heard the same joke twice, and he told me one every day for as long as I could remember."
He doesn't know why he's volunteering this, but for once talking about his dad doesn't ache as much as it normally does. Also, Shiro looks appreciative, like Keith's let him in on a secret. Which, Keith supposes, he has. Huh.
"What's the worst joke you think he's ever told you?" asks Shiro. Keith rests his chin in one hand and thinks for a long moment. His dad had some real stinkers, but he's thinking of the one that made him laugh the most when he was a kid.
Got it. "What is a pirate's favorite letter?" he asks.
Shiro shrugs. "Y'got me."
Keith curls his lip in a snarl and covers his eye with one hand, the same way his dad had. "Ye may be thinkin' it be R," he says, "but his true heart be the C."
"Get out," says Shiro, tossing a balled-up napkin at Keith. He looks delighted. "That was really bad. But also great. Kudos to your dad for that one."
"To be fair, he probably heard it from a much cooler dad." Keith pops a piece of biscuit in his mouth. "I've only ever made up one joke on my own."
Shiro leans forward. "Go on," he says. "Tell me."
Keith picks up the butter knife and waves it in Shiro's direction. He hisses. Shiro laughs and puts up his hands, leaning back.
"Okay, okay," he says. "I'll get it out of you eventually."
Keith sighs and knows he's better off just telling him now rather than be pestered about it. "How do astronomers keep their telescopes from being stolen?"
Shiro smiles. "How?"
"They install a star alarm." Keith covers his face with his hands. He's pleased however by Shiro's laugh-groan. "Okay?" he asks, peering through his fingers. Shiro nods.
"A-plus," he says, giving him an enthusiastic thumbs up. "Here's one, but it's not great. Uh, so I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day, but I couldn’t find any."
Keith throws the napkin back at him. Shiro catches it and lobs it back again. "Okay, not my joke," he confesses. "I'm not funny on the fly. Most of my humor is carefully scripted ahead of time."
Keith snorts. "You should fire your writers."
Shiro gasps and covers his chest with his hand. "I'm hit. Mayday, mayday."
Keith laughs. Is this flirting? Are we flirting? Keith doesn't know, he'd never be able to tell. He does know that he's having a good time.
"Want to write one together?"
Keith snaps to attention. Shiro's looking at him expectantly.
"Sure," says Keith. He clicks his pen. "Let's try it."
By the time Pidge and Matt resurface from their discussion, Keith and Shiro have been hunched over Shiro's placemat, flipped over to the blank side and covered in Keith's scribble, for the last fifteen minutes as they try to create the ultimate dad joke. It's not going very well, but Keith couldn't care less. He's having fun. And he really, really likes hearing Shiro laugh.
"We're gonna head back," says Pidge, scooting out of the booth. Matt follows. "You guys coming?"
"Nah," says Shiro. He holds up his coffee cup. "I think I'm gonna be up for a while."
"Same," says Keith, gesturing to his own. Pidge rolls her eyes.
"Good luck not being dead tomorrow morning," she says. She gives them a little salute that Matt mimics. "Later, taters."
After they're gone, Shiro and Keith look at each other for a moment, then laugh.
"Okay," says Keith. He taps his pen against his chin. "Where were we?"
They don't come up with a good dad joke, and Keith doesn't get in until almost 3am, but the sand in his eyes and the foggy brain when he wakes up four hours later is worth it.
Thank you, Facebook friends, for the terrible dad jokes.
Chapter 6: Queer Eye
"Look at you, snazzy dresser," says Pidge when she comes home one Sunday afternoon in November and catches him preening in the mirror, wearing a new red jacket instead of his dad's worn hoodie that's too big on him, that he's worn for years. "This is like your third new thing in a week. Who're you trying to impress?"
"Myself," he says. "It's cool, right? Found it at Goodwill."
"I hate you," she says, flinging herself onto her bed. "You can actually pull off a crop jacket. I put one on and I look nine."
"You're five feet tall and a hundred pounds soaking wet, you look nine in everything." He slides out of the way of her foot. "It's not really practical I guess, I can't wear it in the snow, but." He looks over at her. "I liked it."
"You don't have to rationalize it to me, Hugbear." Pidge kicks off her shoes and pulls one of her laptops toward her. "A good crop jacket can really anchor a wardrobe," she says, humming.
"You wear the same sweatshirt every day," says Keith. "I'm not taking fashion advice from you." He never sees her in anything else; he knows she has other clothes, but Keith can't remember not seeing her in that same green-and-white sweatshirt. Matt wants to stage an intervention; Keith's take is that she doesn't smell bad so who cares. Alura despairs of them both.
"Fine," says Pidge, hunkering down in her blankets. "But if you're trying to impress anyone else with your new fancy gear, it's working."
Keith turns around. "What?" he asks, confused.
She smiles sweetly. "Sorry, time to code!" She slams her headphones on and cranks the volume until Keith can hear the tinny rattle-and-shriek of her usual techno-metal.
Keith gives up on Pidge and picks up his keys, tucks his PADD and wallet into his pockets. He flashes her a peace sign that she returns without looking up from the screen, and he heads out into the fading late autumn sunlight. Matt's gone home for the weekend so Keith can't get his opinion, but he thinks that Shiro might be around. While Shiro's wardrobe is almost exclusively black and white and shades of grey, he does know how to dress himself and Keith has definitely noticed. Shiro wears a lot of tight clothing that show off his ass(ets) and it's funny to watch people walk into trees or dribble coffee on themselves when he goes by.
(And if Keith's done both things himself, it's no one's business but his.)
He sits by the fountain and gets out his PADD, brain buzzing with doubt—what if I'm bothering him, what if he ignores me—
He sits there for a minute or two, thumbing the power button on his PADD, before he takes a deep breath.
Chill the fuck out, he thinks to himself. It's just Shiro.
He starts typing.
Hey you around
It's a couple of minutes before the reply comes in. Keith stares at a squirrel without really seeing it until the notification chimes.
I just got out of the shower, good timing.
What's up with you?
Got a new jacket need an opinion
You're asking me?
Matt's gone and pidge is not helping
I'm more like Blind Eye of the Queer Guy.
i just need to know if i look stupid
Level of stupid-looking on a scale of one to Matt?
Keith laughs and ducks his head when a passerby gives him a funny look.
Sure something like that
Where are you?
I'm about to leave the dorms.
Be there in ten.
Keith draws his legs up and fiddles with the buckles on his new boots. It's not the first time he and Shiro have hung out one-on-one since that night in the diner. They've eaten lunch together a few times, sat in the library studying in companionable silence, kicked leaves around in the quad while guzzling mochas in the biting air of swiftly approaching winter. Keith definitely counts Shiro as a friend, but this is the first time he's ever taken the initiative and invited Shiro out instead of them just bumping into each other, or staying behind after the others have left. It's a little nerve-wracking, a twisty anticipation in Keith's chest. He doesn't know what to do with it, but he's spared having to think about it anymore when he spots Shiro coming up the path and stands, waving him over.
"Hey!" Shiro's hair is still wet when he jogs up to him. "This the jacket?" At Keith's nod he steps back and whistles. "Turn around," he says. "C'mon, do a little turn on the catwalk." He twirls his finger with a dopey grin.
Keith rolls his eyes but obliges. As he spins he sees Shiro nod. "Do I pass muster?" he asks once he's facing him again. "Satisfactory, sir?"
"Eh, I guess it'll do." Shiro tugs on the hem of Keith's sleeve. "Actual leather? Wow. Where the hell'd you find it?"
"Goodwill," says Keith. "For basically nothing." He takes in Shiro's sweatpants and hoodie, too thin for November but from what Keith knows from sitting next to him at Marvin's that Shiro seems to run five degrees hotter than everyone else, so he looks completely comfortable.
Keith, on the other hand, is beginning to think this jacket isn't going to see much wear until it warms up a little again. "Where you headed?" he asks.
"I'm just going to go get some food," says Shiro, shoving his hands in the pockets of his hoodie and rocking in place on the balls of his feet. "What about you?"
"I could eat," Keith says, belatedly realizing that Shiro's question was maybe just that, a question, and not an invitation. Shit. He might be comfortable enough with Shiro now but that doesn't mean Shiro necessarily wants him around all the time.
"Great," says Shiro. "Let's go to the crêpe stand. It opened a couple of weeks ago. Allura says they're good."
The crêpes are, in fact, really good. Shiro pays for them both before Keith can even get out his wallet and steadfastly ignores Keith's protests and punch in the bicep (which hurts, because Shiro is made out of bricks). Keith gives up and inhales his ham-and-cheese, while Shiro nurses one that's more Nutella than crêpe. He has a smear of it just below his mouth that Keith stares at while Shiro tells the story of his first time in the sim, complete with enthusiastic hand gestures.
"I got sick," he says with a laugh. "I won't go into detail, we're eating—well, I'm eating, you pretty much vaporized yours. But yeah, when they turned the damn thing on I moved and managed to flip the craft upside-down almost immediately, and I was not prepared for that. So, no." He wrinkles his nose. "I've been in the thing a few times now and it doesn't bother me as much anymore, but I still don't like it. I can't wait for those stabilizers NASA's building right now. That's going to change everything—less vomit in the machinery, for one."
He's only half-listening, distracted by Shiro's chin. Keith leans forward suddenly. "Sorry, just—" He swipes the Nutella from Shiro's face and without thinking licks it from his finger as he leans back. For a moment he's really confused by the deer-in-headlights look on Shiro's face, and then his brain kicks in and helpfully plays back what he'd just done in slow, agonizing motion.
Keith's blood runs cold, but he manages to keep his expression relatively neutral. He picks up his Coke and takes a casual sip. "Matt won't tell me much about when he did it."
He hopes he looks calmer than he feels. On the inside, Keith is screaming what did I do what did I do what did I just do.
"Yeah, it didn't go well," says Shiro, sounding perfectly pleasant. Keith resolutely does not look at him and shreds his napkin into little pieces instead. "He didn't follow safety protocol when they shut the sim down and he unbuckled too soon. He was thrown clear across the cabin. He broke a rib."
"Jeez," says Keith, looking up finally. There's some color in Shiro's cheeks but it's warm in here, so Keith dismisses it as not a blush. Otherwise, he seems normal, so apparently they're going to pretend it didn't happen. Works for Keith. "That's embarrassing. No wonder he doesn't want to fly."
"You'll find out what's like next year," says Shiro. Keith slumps in his seat and grumbles. "It's worth the wait," Shiro adds. "I promise."
"Fine," mutters Keith and Shiro laughs.
"Next best thing," he says. "They're doing a thing at the planetarium called Light of the Valkyries, it's about the aurora borealis. Wanna go?"
Keith shrugs. It sounds kind of cool and he's not really ready to say goodbye to Shiro for the day. "Yeah, when?" he says.
"Later tonight. You can wear your fancy jacket." He finally finishes off his crêpe and picks up their trash from the table. "I'll meet you there at 7:45?" he asks. "Starts at eight, I think."
"Got it." Keith gives him a little salute, pleased at the prospect of the planetarium and hanging out more with Shiro. "Thanks for the fashion advice."
"Anytime," says Shiro. He dumps their trash and returns the salute. "It looks good. See you later."
Keith watches him go and doesn't realize he's staring at Shiro's ass until a girl walks by and whistles. He looks up at her and sees that she's gazing at Shiro's retreating figure with thinly-veiled thirst. "Hate to see him go, love to watch him leave," she says. "Please tell me you're hitting that."
"Uh, no." Keith stumbles over his words. "Nope. We're friends."
"Oh!" She actually licks her lips, looking sly. "Really? Okay, so I'm not a creeper or anything, but… could you give him my number?" She reaches into her bag and pulls out a pen. "I'll write it on your hand!"
Keith croaks what he hopes is no at her and flees.
"Here," says Shiro, passing him a piece of paper when Keith finds him at the planetarium at a quarter to eight, because Shiro is always early. "I got your ticket."
Keith automatically reaches for his wallet, but Shiro gives him a dismissive wave. "You get the next one," he says. "C'mon." He lets Keith go first and for a split second, Keith could swear there's a hand at the small of his back. But it's gone lightning-quick, leaving Keith wondering if he'd imagined it. Keith considers just asking when some guy bumps into Shiro, hard enough to make him stumble. Shiro keeps his balance but the guy doesn't even acknowledge that he'd almost knocked him over. He keeps walking, which infuriates Keith and he starts after him until he feels a hand on his shoulder.
"Nooope," says Shiro, steering Keith toward the entrance. "You are not getting us kicked out. I came for some northern lights and I will get some damned northern lights."
Keith flails at Shiro until he lets go. "I wasn't going to pick a fight, I was just going to try and kill him with the power of thought." He aims another glare at the guy's retreating figure. "He should have at least said something to you."
"Yeah, but he didn't and he's gone now." Shiro gives Keith a little shove through the door. "Move it, cadet." Keith's not sure when the cadet business started, but he likes it. He's never had a nickname before (he doesn't count Pidge and her wealth of creative endearments), and Shiro giving him his first one is kind of nice.
Keith mock-salutes. "Yes, sir." He doesn't know when that started either, but he likes how Shiro smiles every time he says it.
They pick seats in the middle and toward the back, because Keith's been here so many times and has figured out the best spot in the house. The two-hundred-year-old dome itself is one of the biggest ones in the country, but there are fewer seats than Keith had expected when he'd first come to a show, which gave it an immense feeling that reminded him of the sweep of the desert. It's busy but not crowded, and there's no one on either side of them, or even in their row, when the lights start to dim.
"There was an old planetarium in the town where I grew up," Shiro leans over and whispers in Keith's ear, making him shiver. "I went there all the time when I was a kid. My friends would give me hell because they thought it was pretty lame to go to a planetarium when you could just walk through virtual star fields."
"Not the same," murmurs Keith. "And anyway, not everyone can get their hands on VR. I sure as hell didn't have it when I was a kid, but museums are free and I usually had a lot of time to kill." He'd go to museums and the planetariums to avoid going back to whatever house he'd lived in at the time. Stargazing, even artificially, was often the better option. He doesn't say this to Shiro, but he does think that maybe one day he would, which is new.
"Exactly." Shiro sounds exasperated. "I did have access to it but I liked being in the dome more. You feel… Smaller. The way you would if you really were looking at the universe. VR is immersive and you're right there in it, up close like you're part of it. Sometimes I'd just like to see something from further away. A lot further. I want my pale little dots, you know?"
"It's good practice," says Keith, a little dazed by the fact that Shiro fucking gets it, Keith might actually cry. He quickly scratches his nose to hide his sudden need to blink. "For when you're actually out there and all that black is bigger than you," he says. The lights flicker and dim.
"Exactly," says Shiro quickly. "Gotta get used to being one of the smallest things around if you're gonna go up there with all that… big."
Keith starts to ask him where he'd like to go first when he gets cleared for flight, but the lights go out. Keith starts craning his neck even though it's only the turn-off-your-fucking-PADDs-assholes announcement. He feels Shiro lean into his side a little and breath on his ear.
"Thanks for coming with me," he murmurs. Keith shivers but smiles in the darkness.
"Thanks for asking." Shiro bumps their shoulders together then leans away when the show begins.
After a while, Keith gets lost in it enough that for a moment he forgets that Shiro is next to him, nearly jumping out of his skin when something suddenly touches his shoulder. He covers his flinch by scratching his arm, without taking his eyes off the screen. Shiro is leaning into him again, probably not even realizing it, and Keith is hyper-aware of Shiro's proximity. He wants to look over at him so badly but he's completely paralyzed with fear that Shiro would catch him looking and things would get weird. It's not Shiro's fault that the words kiss me kiss me kiss me are suddenly blaring in Keith's head like a klaxon. That's definitely new.
Keith now understands what it means to be hit in the face with the clue-bat.
He gives his arm a a stealth pinch to jumpstart his brain and tunes it back in to the show. He's missed a few seconds but the whole thing is pretty much just here is some great footage of the northern lights with old music by someone called Yanni, which is completely fine with him. He doesn't move away from Shiro, who doesn't move either. They stay like that, bicep to bicep, until the lights go up.
Shiro stretches and looks over at him. "Want to stay for the next one?" he asks. "Intergalactic travel. I haven't seen it."
Keith has, thinks of the press of their arms together, Shiro's warmth, and a desire to stretch the night a little longer. He nods.
"Sound good," he says. "I'm in."
The answering smile he gets could power space stations.
Pidge looks up from where she's curled over her laptop as Keith comes in. He's not entirely sure she's moved since he'd left.
"Oh hey, I was wondering where you went," she says, sitting up and stretching until her back makes a disgusting and probably satisfying popping noise, making her exhale in a rush. "Ack, ow. Where y'been?"
"Planetarium," he says, taking off his boots and dropping the jacket over the back of his desk chair.
"Aw, you went by yourself again? Why didn't you call me, I'd have gone with you."
"I went with Shiro, sorry. I figured you were still working." He shrugs off the jacket and hangs it up on his closet door before sitting on his bed to unlace his boots. "It ended up being a double-feature, you would have fallen asleep anyway."
"You went with Shiro, huh?" she says. There's a funny lilt to her voice that sets off a warning bell in Keith's brain, though he doesn't know why. "Did you have fun?"
"Yeah?" He pulls off his boots and socks and wiggles his toes a little before standing. He digs around in his clothes around for some shorts to sleep in. "I mean, it's Shiro. He's not boring, so."
Pidge suddenly shrieks, a high-pitched sound that reverberates off the windows and pierces Keith's skull. He's never heard her make a sound like that before, she's not a shrieky person. Keith slaps his hands over his ears, then slowly lowers them when he sees she's too busy flailing around to shriek again. "What the fuck, Holt?" he asks. "Are you a fucking screech owl?"
"I'm so excited!" she says. "My two friends are dating each other. It's like one of Lance's romance novels, not that I've read them, but we get subjected to dramatic readings sometimes, and—"
"What?" Keith stares at her. "Shiro's not— We're not." He hopes his face isn't as red as it feels.
"You went on a date, though," she says, insistent. "Wait, was it your first date?!"
Keith is bewildered. "No! We just went to the planetarium together. You and I did that last week, for fuck's sake."
"Yeah, with Matt and Shiro and Allura," Pidge says. "You guys went alooone."
"We aren't dating." Keith grabs a balled-up sock from the end of his bed and chucks it in her direction. "You wanted me to have friends, so I made some. Shiro's one of them, and sometimes we do stuff together. The end."
"Fine, fine, it wasn't a date." She looks at him for a long moment and then her expression changes into something concerned. "Do you wish it was?"
That is a question Keith is not ready to answer, not to Pidge and not to himself. Keith turns away and yanks his shirt over his head, tossing it toward his laundry pile by the desk. "I don't want to talk about it," he says darkly.
"I really don't want to talk about it," he says. "Leave it alone, Pidge." There's a pleading edge to his voice that Pidge must pick up on because she just sighs and sets her laptop aside. Wordlessly she follows Keith down to the bathroom to brush their teeth.
She watches him in the mirror; he resolutely does not look at her. He keeps his eyes on the toothbrush in his mouth and focuses on counting seconds as he brushes.
"He likes you," she says quietly.
Keith spits and rinses his mouth and the brush. "Okay, I guess we're talking about it anyway," he says, tossing his stuff into his toiletries bag with a little too much force.
"Don't be an asshole," she says. "You're so much better than you were a couple of months ago. This environment agrees with you and you've fucking flourished, Keith. There's no other dang word for it."
"What the fuck, Pidge, I'm not a fucking orchid." Keith grabs his towel and stands at the door. "You done?"
She is done, so they trudge back to their room side by side. Thankfully Pidge waits until they're inside before speaking up again. "Anyway. You're more like amorphophallus titanum, blooming after years of vegetative growth."
"They smell like dead bodies," says Keith, mildly offended.
"Okay, a cicada," Pidge says stubbornly. "Seventeen years to pupate."
Keith huffs. "They only live for a few weeks."
"Would you just let me have an analogy?" Pidge scowls. "I don't know why you're so resistant to the idea that Shiro likes you."
"Of course he likes me," says Keith. "He voluntarily spent several hours with me tonight in an enclosed space. I doubt he'd do that for anyone he didn't consider a friend." And that is true of Shiro, he would have asked any one of their friends to go with him tonight. Keith just happened to be the one he found first. Which hurts a little, because Keith has to admit to himself that it would have been nice had Shiro sought him out specifically. He's usually absorbed into group things by way of just being there when plans are made, or everyone else is busy and he's there. Which is fine, he's not complaining. He's come to like being included.
(Though, maybe it'd be nice to be sought out specifically for something instead of being the default.)
He quickly changes into pajama pants and a t-shirt. His head's a mess and his stomach hurts, which is not how he wanted his day to end, not when it'd been a pretty good one. Dammit, Pidge.
Behind him, he hears Pidge sigh and get into bed.
"Get the light?"
"Yeah." Keith flips the switch and climbs into his own bed, scooting close to the wall where the view through the window is best. Outside, an owl hoots insistently and air brakes whine on the distant highway.
"Stars out?" asks Pidge after a moment. Her voice is muffled, like she's got her blankets up to her nose.
"Yeah," murmurs Keith. He can recognize an olive branch. "Planetarium shows are great but the real thing's so much better."
Another silence. Then:
Pidge yawns. "Shiro really does like you," she adds. "I swear I'm not fucking with you. You should go for it."
She grunts. "Fine. Night, lil' man."
"I'm two years older and a foot taller than you."
She doesn't answer. Keith turns back to the window and picks out the constellations. There's some light coming from a nearby building so it's not a perfect view, he can't pick out some of the stars he knows he should be able to see. But he can see Vega which means it's Lyra that he's looking at right now, its stars flickering an interstellar Morse Code that Keith knows by heart. Not for the first time, he wishes he could wink back a message that wouldn't take thousands of years to get there.
He watches Lyra shimmer at him for a few minutes, his mind going quiet the way it would when he lived rough and had to tune out traffic noise or coyotes in order to sleep. He counts the stars he can see, smiles at the occasional meteor, and wonders what satellite he's tracking as it crosses the sky.
It's so much better than the planetarium. Keith wishes Shiro were here to look at these stars, too.
So much for sleep.
Chapter 7: Found You Instead
One week before Thanksgiving break it hits Keith that he's staring down the barrel of five days completely alone while everyone else goes home. He's never had much use for the holiday; his last actual Thanksgiving had been with his dad over ten years ago, but the idea of being alone again after being surrounded by people he actually likes for months isn't just unsettling and nauseating.
Which is why Keith finds himself out in front of Roddenberry the Sunday before the holiday, trying to raise Matt on his PADD to let him in. Matt's not answering, which means he'd better be asleep or dead. Keith wouldn't have come at all, but he needed company and Pidge is out with a few of her classmates at the movies. He doesn't want to bother her with his fucking abandonment bullshit. Matt, however, is fair game. At least he had been before not answering his fucking PADD.
He should go back home, but it's the last thing he wants to do. However, it's snowing in earnest and Keith's shivering so hard he almost drops his PADD. He grabs for it with numb hands, smearing his thumb across the screen and accidentally scrolling through his contacts, landing on P. The entry directly under Pidge's name, because there are no entries for Q or R, makes Keith actually slap his forehead. Oh, you moron.
His finger hesitates over the DIAL button. He and Shiro hang out a lot now, more trips to the planetarium without the others, but Keith's still not sure if he's bothering Shiro when he messages him. He wonders if he'll ever stop second-guessing himself over how other people react to him.
He presses the button. Might as well start today.
Shiro's voice sounds a little gruff and it does weird things to Keith's insides. "Yeah, hey. Did I wake you?"
"No, I was up. What's going on?" He can hear Shiro's frown. "You okay? Where are you?"
"That's a lot of questions," says Keith, trying not to let his teeth chatter too loudly. The wind picks up because of course it does. "I just wanted to know, is Matt around? He's not answering his messages." He looks up at the clouds and blinks snow from his lashes. "I was in the neighborhood, and thought I'd stop by." It's a pathetic lie, but he's got nothing else.
"Seriously? Keith—Oh, I see you."
"What?" Keith whirls around and looks up at the windows. Shiro's staring down at him with his PADD pressed to his ear. Keith winces and gives him a weak wave. "Hey," he says into his PADD.
"Hang on, coming down." Shiro hangs up and vanishes from the window. A moment later he flings the door open and pokes his head outside. "Get in here!" he says, gesturing frantically toward the house. "It's twenty degrees out!"
Keith shuffles inside, shaking off the snow and kicking it from the soles of his boots. "Thanks," he says breathlessly, the sudden heat of the building making his eyes water. He takes off his coat and hangs it on the wobbly rack by the door. "Sorry, I really thought Matt would be home."
"He called a couple of hours ago to say he'd bumped into Pidge and her crew downtown and went to the movies with them. I don't know when it's over so I have no idea when he's getting back." He steers Keith into an armchair and gently pushes him into it. "Take off your boots and your socks too, we can put them by the radiator."
"Thanks," Keith says again, obeying because the change in temperature is making him a little loopy. He clumsily unlaces his boots with numb fingers and puts them aside, peeling his freezing, wet socks off. The rest of him is relatively dry, but the lingering cold in his core makes him shiver still.
"C'mon," says Shiro, leading him down the hall to his room. "Sit, I have blankets." He slips out of the room, leaving Keith to wrap his arms around himself and sits down heavily on the end of Shiro's bed, shivering violently. The cold has seeped into his body and has taken up residence there.
Shiro returns holding a pile of blankets. "I'm making you hot chocolate. I keep it around for nights like this." He smiles and heaps them around Keith's shoulders. The warmth is amazing; Keith pulls them around himself and buries his face to thaw out his nose and lips. "Hang in there," says Shiro, patting his back. "We'll fix you."
Keith starts to say better people than you have tried but he's not entirely sure that's true anymore, so he keeps his mouth shut and hooks his hands together under the blankets, trying to thaw some feeling back into his fingers. He peers around Shiro's room. It's clean and well organized as always—except for his desk, which is a chaotic maelstrom of books and papers and half-empty bottles of coconut water. Right now it also has two dirty cereal bowls, a dying houseplant, a pile of crumpled sticky notes, and six coffee mugs that are getting a little too close to science experiments stacked in a precarious pyramid. Keith smiles and ducks his face into the blanket again.
A few minutes later, he feels a nudge against his shoulder. "Hey," says Shiro. Keith emerges from his cocoon and peers up at him and the mug of hot chocolate held at eye-level. "Here. This'll help."
It does help, a lot. Keith takes it and sips at it gingerly, feeling pleasantly warm now. Keith can see the snow through the window, coming down sideways, and he's really glad he's not standing out there anymore.
"Thanks again," he says. He looks down at his mug and swirls it a little to make the bubbles dance. "I mean, I was going to go back to Edison. I wasn't going to stand out there all night like an idiot. Matt's cool and all, but he's not worth frostbite."
Shiro laughs from his place at the head of the bed, back against the wall. "You're welcome to crash here if you don't want to try and go back out in that tonight. We have an air mattress for when people are too drunk to get home. I doubt there'll be classes tomorrow. Call Pidge and let her know where you are."
Keith nods, unaccustomed to being made a fuss over. "Okay, okay. Yes, sir." He mock-salutes and digs out his PADD:
Got stuck at Shiro's because snow
will probably stay here
pillage before you burn
"Okay," he says, tossing his PADD aside. "Pidge is now aware of the situation."
"Great." Shiro tucks his arms behind his head. "Was Matt supposed to be here? Did he bail on you?" He bristles, apparently offended on Keith's behalf. Keith smiles and shakes his head.
"He didn't know I was coming," he says. He doesn't have to look to know that Shiro's watching him.
"You okay, Keith?" asks Shiro.
It's on the tip of his tongue to say I'm fine, but the concern in Shiro's voice is so sincere that Keith can't even answer him. He presses his lips into a thin line and wracks his brain for something distracting to say.
Shiro drops his arms and sits up, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.
"What's wrong?" he asks.
Keith shakes his head. He can't talk, because he never knows the answer to this question. He's worried that the truth isn't the right answer, the one people are actually looking for (I'm fine). But something in Shiro's tone offers safety, and Keith finds himself aching to talk to him about all the shit he keeps from everyone because he doesn't want to burden them.
"I'm a foster kid," he says quietly. It feels weird to talk about to anyone who isn't Pidge. "You've probably figured that out by now. Pidge knows, Matt kind of knows. But I don't really want a lot of people knowing about it."
"I suspected, from context clues," says Shiro. "But yeah, it doesn't leave this room."
Keith nods, grateful. "Anyway, most of my life sucked up until I met Pidge, and then it really sucked after I aged out of the system and graduated high school and…" He coughs. "I was kind of… lost. Lived rough for the months before I got here."
Shiro's looking at him intently but not with pity. The room's so quiet Keith can hear his own blood thrumming in his ears.
"So," he says. "Things have been good here. Really, really good." He picks at a hole in the knee of his jeans. "And I got that job, so I have money coming in finally so I can hang out with you guys without having to say no all the time." He pauses to breathe; he's talking so fast he's forgetting to. "It's great and I'm scared I'm going to fuck all this up, because now that I know what a normal life feels like I don't think I can go back to what I had before, which was nothing."
He draws his legs up and wraps his arms around them, chin resting on his knees. "I don't have anywhere to go this weekend and I thought I wouldn't care, but I do. I don't want to be alone." Once he admits all the air in his lungs leaves in a rush. He feels so relieved, "So I freaked out and since Pidge was out I came looking for Matt." He looks at Shiro and smiles faintly. "Found you instead."
"Sorry," says Shiro.
"No." Keith grabs his arm without thinking, then pulls his hand away quickly, embarrassed. "I probably wouldn't have told Matt any of that." He's surprised to find that it's true. There's something that makes Shiro so inviting, like a comfortable room full of books and models of old spacecraft, that Keith suddenly feels like he could tell him everything.
"Why me?" Shiro asks. Keith shrugs, he doesn't really have an answer for him that isn't embarrassingly poetic books and old spacecraft bullshit. "Does Pidge know?"
"She knows a lot of it," says Keith. "But not everything. I've never told her about the money stuff. And she doesn't know a lot about what went down at some of the foster homes." He looks away, thinking of Pidge and her crooked little smile when she's explaining a new project. "She doesn't need to know about all that. Just upset her."
Shiro nods. "Have you ever talked to a professional about it?" He slides over so that he's sitting next to Keith. "The counselors here are free."
Keith shakes his head. "Nope," he says. "Couldn't afford to, before. Could go now, but..." He looks at his hands. His left thumb has a hangnail. It's such an insignificant detail to notice during such a heavy conversation, but suddenly it's the most fascinating thing. "It's not really that big of a deal," he says, picking at it.
"You say that a lot." Shiro says, not sarcastically but slightly worried. "It can be a big deal, it's okay if it's a big deal. I'm not saying it has to be one, or that it is one for you. I'm just… saying. I guess." He clears his throat and rubs his hands on his pajama pants.
Keith mulls this over. "It used to be," he admits. "Still is, sometimes. Tonight was an awful lot of quiet in my head that I didn't want to deal with. I had enough quiet when I lived on my own."
"How old were you when you... got lost?" asks Shiro softly.
"You age out as soon as you turn eighteen," says Keith. "Sometimes they help you find a place to live and a job and get you stable before they let you go." He clears his throat. "Sometimes they don't.
"I lived in the city at first. Then I just felt drawn back out to the desert. I stayed out there for a while, then I came here."
It feels amazing to have said it out loud. He feels vaguely guilty for trusting Shiro with something that he hasn't even told Pidge, but he knows her reaction would be sadness and fury, and Keith did his mourning years ago. Shiro, on the other hand, can be trusted to respond with quiet respect and acceptance, and the comfortable silence that follows his reveal tells Keith that his hunch had been right. Warmth unfurls deep in his chest where it hasn't been in a long time.
"I lost my arm five years ago," says Shiro. Keith looks up, startled out of his reverie. Shiro's staring down at his mechanical hand. "Plane crash. My uncle took me out in his classic turboprop when we hit a bird and went down. They're still not sure how it happened but I was thrown into the propeller and my arm was severed. I'm lucky it wasn't my head." He taps the scar on his nose and sighs. "My uncle was killed. I was seventeen."
Tentatively Keith reaches out and touches Shiro's hand. The metal is smooth, the seams fluid and flawless, and the whole thing is surprisingly warm, perhaps from the power source or Shiro's own body heat. There's a very faint hum of whatever NASA-grade (or beyond) mechanics are under the hood, and when Shiro moves the plates shift with a sound like the metal is breathing.
Pressing his fingers to the lines of Shiro's arm, Keith feels like he can read the Braille of him. It feels deeply intimate to touch Shiro this way. Shiro shivers visibly, looking at Keith's hand before lifting his gaze to Keith in confusion.
Keith feels himself smile. "Matt sent me the schematics the day we met, after I saw your arm for the first time," he says, tracing along the metal plates in Shiro's palm with his fingertips. "So my head wouldn't explode wondering how it works."
He's so fascinated he doesn't have time to freak out that he's definitely crossed an unspoken line and he has no idea why he did it. No, scratch that. He knows why. Because Shiro's missing his damn arm after a plane crash, and the guy still wants to be a pilot. And he's got this super-futuristic arm that's cool as hell, but everyone's scared of it. If Shiro needs some kind of validation as a person then Keith—no stranger to the same desire—would give it to him. So he'd put out his hand, the only thing he could think of to do, and touched.
It's taking Keith everything he has not to look away from Shiro. He seems okay. Mostly bewildered, which causes a flash of heat behind Keith's eyes as he wonders just how often people refuse to touch his hand. It's his right hand. Do people just wave at him instea—oh.
Shiro smiles a little. "You could just ask," he says. "I don't mind."
Keith huffs, because he really ought to have known Shiro would be as candid about this as he is about everything else once he gets to know you. "I know that now," he says. Keith squeezes Shiro's metal fingers, they twitch in his grip. "You can feel this, right?
"Yeah," says Shiro. "Heat, pressure, texture. It's all part of the alloy itself. The engineering alone won the Russ Prize and my medical team got the Nobel. I only got this because my aunt had submitted my name for a prosthetics trial and I won the lottery." He holds up their hands. There's a faint blue glow beneath the plates of his arm, and when Keith leans forward and presses his ear against Shiro's forearm he can hear the click-whirr of processors. He sits up and looks at Shiro.
"Thanks for telling me," he says, and he means it. He feels hollow and dazed by his own confession, but Shiro's tempers that to a pleasant buzz. "And thanks for listening."
"I don't like the idea of you being alone," he says, giving Keith's knee a squeeze. "My parents live in Japan and we never really did this holiday anyway. I usually just hang out here, get work done, see a bunch of movies in empty theaters and eat junk food on Thursday."
"Sounds lonely," says Keith.
"Yeah," says Shiro. "You can stay here, if you want. Matt won't mind if you use his room." Shiro scoots back and leans against the wall again. "There's a place downtown that does really good turkey sandwiches."
"What, no junk food?" asks Keith with a mock scowl. "I'm disappointed."
Shiro chucks a pillow at Keith's head, laughing. "It'll be fun," he says, and the way he says it makes Keith really, really want to believe it.
"Yeah," he says. "Looking forward to it."
Chapter 8: Bring It
"Hey, Keith. Keith."
Keith groans and swats at whatever's poking him in the side. "Gfckyrsf," he says, shoving his face into his pillow hard enough to suffocate him if need be. "Gway."
Matt's bedside lamp clicks on. Shiro looms over him. "Rise and shine, princess."
"What." Keith peels his eyes open as he rolls over and casts about for his PADD, squinting at the time.. "You're kidding," he says, sitting up a little and reaching for the lamp to turn it off again. Shiro knocks his hand away. Keith growls.
"Trust me, you're gonna like this." Shiro's practically vibrating in place. "I have coffee. Get dressed and you can have some." He yanks back Keith's blankets, dousing him in cold, predawn air.
"Fuck!" Keith grabs for them but Shiro tosses them aside, much to Keith's horror. He regrets not wearing a shirt last night. "You asshole, what the hell?"
"Be outside in fifteen, cadet." Shiro raps on the doorframe and heads off in the direction of what better fucking be coffee.
"You're not the boss of me!" Keith calls out after him. He grumbles inventive curses to himself and tries to find his clothes while half-asleep. He really, really wants to go back to bed, but Shiro's enthusiasm keeps him from retrieving his blankets and going to curl up again. Instead, Keith is dressed and outside in ten.
"Give me the hot bean juice," he says, making grabby hands at Shiro who quickly hands the Thermos over. Keith unscrews the cap and takes a sip. It's not as hot as he likes it, but it'll do. "So why the hell am I awake at 3am Thanksgiving morning?" he asks, holding the Thermos under his nose and breathing in deeply. "This better be good." Lack of sleep has left his filter turned off, and he doesn't give one fuck if he sounds rude or mean, even if it's Shiro.
"C'mon," Shiro ushers him down the steps and along the snowy path. "I have to show you something."
"Where are we going?" Keith clutches his coffee like a lifeline.
"You'll see," is the response. Fine, then. He'll play along. He's out of bed and dressed, so he may as well.
Bolstered by the coffee, Keith lets himself be herded across the quad. The campus is silent, snow muffling what little sound there is now that everyone's gone home. It'd be eerie if it weren't for the sharp, clear expanse of stars overhead. Keith wants to stop and look up but Shiro keeps urging him along. If Keith weren't so confused he'd put up more of a fight but the coffee hasn't really hit him yet and it's Shiro anyway, it's probably important and he will be sure to care about it once the caffeine kicks in.
They come to a stop in front of the largest building on campus. "The observatory?" Keith looks at Shiro, baffled. "What?"
Shiro holds up a keycard. "Just wait," he says. He pulls Keith up to the staff entrance and swipes the card. The door unlocks and Shiro pushes it open, rushing inside like he lives there. Keith follows, confused as hell and while he's more awake now than he was five minutes ago it's not enough that he feels equipped to handle whatever this is.
"Shiro, c'mon." Keith pulls on his coat sleeve. "Just tell me already." He's impatient, he's never liked surprises because usually surprises meant Surprise! They didn't want you, either! He doesn't think that's what Shiro's doing, but you can't shake an ingrained fear overnight. "Seriously."
Shiro ignores him in favor of descending a flight of stairs to another door. "Just wait," he says again. That door leads down a hall to a spacious room full of equipment surrounding the school's massive, expensive, pride-and-joy telescope.
Wow is an understatement. Keith looks up at it and whistles.
"Never seen one this big before," he says, his voice echoing around the cupola. He feels deliciously small in such a big space, next to such a big, ancient device. It's an incredible, freeing feeling, like he could just lift right off and take to the vast unknown. "The only ones I ever got to use were portable." He looks at Shiro quizzically. "Gonna explain, now?"
"Professor Coran is Allura's uncle," says Shiro, turning on some of the lights. "When she told him we were staying over the holiday he felt bad and left her with his keycard." He waggles it at Keith. "You can't get any kind of free time with this thing when classes are going on, and Pidge told me you liked the real thing better than a planetarium, so." He waves Keith toward the stairs leading up to the telescope. "I can't move it or anything but she said Coran would aim it in a good direction before he left. Go on, look!"
Keith swallows hard and climbs up and turns around to look at Shiro while he opens up the cupola. Once it's open, he gives Keith a thumbs up that Keith returns before he ducks his head and looks through the old-fashioned eyepiece.
He must say it out loud because Shiro chuckles. "Yeah," he says. "Ooh."
So great was Keith's desire to see the heavens from close up that he had once joined a high school astronomy club so that he'd be able to use their telescopes. Once a week however just wasn't enough, so he'd started borrowing one a few times so that he could sit on the roof of his school and pick out the smudge of galaxies and nebulae and try to identify them. The way he'd done with his dad when he was still alive, when they'd go up high on a bluff and watch the Leonids, keeping a tally of how many meteorites they saw cascade down to Earth.
Nothing, though, nothing he's ever seen with his own two eyes is anything like this. He pulls away to catch his breath.
"You okay?" Shiro calls out. Keith nods and waves his hand, to dismiss the question and the distraction.
"Fine," he says. "Just—" He loses track of his words, something he hates when he's nervous.
"—overwhelmed?" says Shiro. Keith gives him a weak but grateful smile. "The first time I'd ever looked through a telescope, Mom had it pointed at Saturn. When I saw the rings, I cried. I think I was seven."
Huffing a laugh under his breath, Keith turns back to the telescope and looks through the eyepiece again. A galaxy winks back at him with so many stars in her eyes, more than he's ever seen before, gathered together in a smear of light and dark. Too far to reach in a thousand lifetimes, but that will not stop him from fucking trying.
He's so mesmerized that he loses track of how long he spends looking through the telescope. It's not until he takes a deep breath and feels a twinge in his neck that he realizes it's probably been a really long time. He jerks his head up and looks over at Shiro, who is leaning against the wall and poking at his PADD.
"Shit," says Keith, flooded with guilt, and Shiro looks up. "Jeez, I am so sorry." Keith runs a hand through his hair. "You must be bored off your ass."
Shiro shakes his head and holds up his PADD and smiles goofily. "Level 112. I have all the strawberries, too." He sounds genuinely pleased. "They're worth fifty HP each, you know."
Keith chuckles. "You want to come look?" he asks. Shiro nods and pockets his PADD and climbs up to where Keith is. He ducks down and peers through the eyepiece.
"M31?" he says. "Nice. I've never seen it that clear before."
"Yeah," says Keith. "One of the first things I learned to pick out of the sky. My dad showed me." He leans against the railing. "I always look at it and wonder who's looking back. Can they see us? Do they wonder if there's anyone here? Or do they already know?”
"My dad and I used to stargaze all the time out in the desert," he goes on. Shiro stays quiet, watching him, just listening. "He taught me how to navigate by the stars. I asked him once what he'd do if he were somewhere where the stars were different, and he said 'the stars will always guide you home'." Keith looks over at Shiro. "I mean, he didn't answer my question at all but it stuck with me, and I think that's why I keep trying to memorize them all."
"You don't want to get lost again," says Shiro. He looks up at the telescope itself. "My favorite book when I was a kid was The Little Prince. It's pretty old but kind of a classic."
Keith shakes his head. "Never read it," he says, hoping he doesn't sound rude.
He must not. "You alone will have the stars as no one else has them," says Shiro, voice softly reverent. "In one of the stars I shall be living, in one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. You—only you—will have stars that can laugh."
Keith rolls that around in his head for a moment. It's sweet and lyrical. It makes Keith feel warm and a little sad. "Is that what made you want to explore space?" he asks.
"Actually," says Shiro, "I got interested in space because I saw Star Wars when I was five. Wanted to be Han Solo, just like everyone else wanted to be Han Solo." Keith laughs and Shiro continues. "But I remember reading that part of the book and thinking—this is six-year-old me—that I wanted to hear the stars laugh. And the only way I was going to do that was to go up there and listen for myself."
"Seems like a plan." Keith shivers and claps his hands together. "Okay, it's cold with the thing open."
"Want to take one last look before we close up?"
Keith gazes at Shiro, whose eyes seem to reflect every scrap of the dim light in the room.
"No," he says. M31 is beautiful but he likes the view he's got now. "I'm good."
They close up and go outside, Keith once again in possession of his true best friend: coffee. He takes another drink—still relatively hot, god bless tried-and-true technology—and they walk back to Roddenberry side by side. Daybreak is imminent, the snow on the ground taking on the soft, silver glow of approaching sunrise. It's the most peaceful Keith has ever been and it's overwhelming, but he manages to keep it together long enough to get inside, then begs off for a shower.
"To warm up," he says, even though he doesn't need an excuse. Shiro just nods and passes him a towel. Keith thinks he might love that about him, and that's what sets him off once he's under the water and the hole in his chest opens up and everything comes out in silent, wracking sobs. He's not even sad, in fact he's just had one of the best nights of his life. But it was just three months ago that he'd arrived here with only a bag of clothes and an online friend he'd never met. Three months ago he'd told some guy off outside the comp sci building. And now Keith is crying in the shower because a nice boy brought him coffee and showed him the stars. He doesn't know what to do, and there's no one he can ask.
He wonders if this is something he would have brought to his mom or dad, had he either.
That thought threatens to set him off again, but he swallows stubbornly against the lump in his throat. Focus, he tells himself, but it's hard, it hurts. He thumps his fist against the shower wall in frustration. Focus, goddammit.
"Keith?" There's a tap on the door. "You ok?"
"Yeah," he croaks. "Sorry, be right out."
"Take your time," says Shiro, and the shadow under the door moves away. Keith takes a deep breath of humid air and lets it coat his lungs. He lets it out in a rush and ducks his head under the spray, scrubbing his face before he shuts the shower off. When he steps out he catches himself in the mirror and is relieved that he doesn't look like he'd just been ugly-crying in the shower for the last ten minutes. He looks tired. Which is acceptable, considering it's 5am; he'd rather not invite questions.
He throws on a t-shirt and shorts and goes to find Shiro. He's in his bedroom, sitting on his bed in pajama pants and—Keith chokes a little—no shirt. Keith is proud of himself for noticing the arm before he does the abs, though he might spend a little more time on the latter than what's strictly necessary.
He's kinda awkward, not dead.
"Hey," says Shiro, putting aside his table as Keith comes in. "Feel better?"
Keith nods. "Warm." He hovers by the desk. "Going back to sleep for a while? 'Cause I sure as hell am going to."
Shiro laughs. "No regrets, though?" He's smiling but Keith can hear a little uncertainty in his voice.
"None," says Keith. He doesn't miss the relief in Shiro's eyes. "Thanks."
"Pidge told me about how you look at the sky every night that it's clear, and I thought maybe this would make spending the holiday alone a little easier."
"Not alone," says Keith. Shiro smiles at him and Keith thinks of Andromeda. "You're staying up, then?"
"I'm pretty awake," he says. "Figured I'd relax for a bit, wind down. The cold really gets under your skin and wakes you the hell up."
"Shower helped, you should take one," says Keith, shaking his wet hair at Shiro. "Here's a preview."
"Hey!" Shiro shoves him away. "It's okay, I'm fine. We're not really doing much today, are we? Just eating turkey sandwiches and watching football?"
Keith makes a face. "Do we have to watch football?" he asks. "It's men in tights slapping each other's asses while moving a ball back and forth across a big field very slowly."
"Ooookay, no football." Shiro frowns a little, thinking. "There's plenty of stuff on our server we could watch." He perks up. "Matt sent me a cool documentary about lions the other day."
"Sold." Keith kicks his feet. "I'll watch a big kitty eat a gazelle anytime."
Shiro stretches and rolls the shoulder with the prosthesis. "You still going back to sleep?"
Keith shrugs. "I want to, but maybe I'll stay up. Can always nap later." He's actually thinking real hard about his bed right now, but he wants to be in Shiro's orbit for a little while longer so he soldiers on despite the sleep tugging at his eyelids. He has lost so much sleep because of this guy.
"Oh, yeah. Naps are fantastic," says Shiro with a happy sigh. "I almost want to stay awake just to take a nap later." He draws his legs up and gestures to the foot of the bed. "C'mon up. I'm up to my eyeballs in applied mathematics and could use another brain."
"At 5am?" Keith asks, crawling up onto the bed and sitting with his stretched out across the mattress and his back to the wall. "You're studying fucking math—which you hate—at 5am Thanksgiving morning."
Shiro's ears turn red. "When I can't sleep, I work. Usually because depending on the work it'll probably end up putting me to sleep in the end. Math always does."
Keith huffs. "And yet you're acing the course." Keith can never figure out how someone who puts off his math homework as much as Shiro does can pass every exam that's been thrown at him so far this year. Keith can't afford to slack in any of his classes because when he does, it shows. The resentment is mighty.
"I didn't say I was bad at it," Shiro says defensively. Keith kind of wants to strangle him. "I just hate it."
"Wow," he says, slow-clapping. "Takashi Shirogane hates something."
Shiro kicks at him halfheartedly. "I hate a lot of things. Olives, the sound of tinfoil, stepping in gum, The Real Housewives of Armstrong Station, Slav's voice—"
"Wasps," says Keith. "And apple pie."
"Fruit doesn't belong cooked in dessert," says Shiro stubbornly. "Anyway, I do hate some things. I just don't dwell on it."
"You definitely dwell on how much you hate the Patriots." Keith ducks away from the pillow flung at his head and laughs. Shiro launches another pillow at him, this one smacking him right in the head. "Oh, it's on now." Keith grabs one of the pillows and lunges, shoving it in Shiro's face as he pins him down.
"Uncle?" says Keith. Shiro's laughing if the shaking of his shoulders is anything to go by, and he keeps trying to shove Keith away. Finally, Keith relents and rolls off of him, only to be grabbed and shoved completely off the bed. "Hey!"
"It's on, as you said," Shiro says, peering over the side of the bed at him with a smug look. "And now you're off."
Keith roars and climbs back up, hauling Shiro in for a headlock. "This is for that really, really bad pun." Shiro flails and squawks, and slaps at Keith's arms with his flesh hand.
"Let go," he says. "Keith, I swear to god—"
Keith doesn't know what he's swearing because there's a loud thud and his head hurts. He lets Shiro go and blinks.
"Shit!" Shiro sits up and grabs Keith by the shoulder. "Hey, you okay? I'm so sorry!"
"What?" Keith shakes his head to clear it and winces. "Oh, ow."
"My fucking arm," says Shiro. "I should have been more careful."
It finally clicks for Keith that Shiro, in his flailing around, must have knocked Keith in the head with his prosthesis. Keith rubs the side of his skull with two fingers and feels the smallest of lumps beginning to form. "It's fine, Shiro," he says. His head doesn't even hurt that much now, just residual pain from the initial collision. "Don't freak out."
"It was careless of me," says Shiro, and Keith reaches out and smacks his hand over Shiro's mouth. "Mmf?"
"Shut up," he says. "Stop talking. We were playing around and it could have been an elbow or a knee and it could even have been me who clocked you. Same thing." He smiles. "You should probably check for dents in your arm, though."
Shiro doesn't look convinced. He pushes Keith's hand away. "Let me go get you some ice, at least," he says, and before Keith can stop him he's up and off to the kitchen. Keith can hear him rummaging around in the freezer and a soft curse and a crunch as ice spills to the floor.
Keith shakes his head and flops over on the mattress. He nearly hits his head again, this time on Shiro's tablet. He picks it up to move it and stops cold, because instead of the graphs and figures of math homework that Shiro had said he was working on, there's a photo from earlier of Keith at the telescope.
He hears footsteps in the hall so he quickly tosses the tablet aside and flops over again, pushing his face into the blanket and listening to his heart throb like a pulsar. He can feel the air shift when Shiro comes back into the room, but he can't look at him just yet. What.
"Hey," says Shiro. Keith hesitates before he sits up fully and looks up at him. He's holding a lumpy dishtowel. "Here, put that on."
Keith takes it and obediently presses it to the lump on his head, and Shiro relaxes visibly. He gets back into bed, scooting back into the corner and sitting up against the headboard. "I have Advil, too," he says. "If you need it."
"I'm fine," says Keith. "Really." He adjusts the ice pack and hisses at the cold. "I've had a lot worse."
"The way you fight tells me that's the truth," says Shiro. "Up until I lost my arm the worst thing that'd ever happened to me was a sprained ankle. Should have counted my blessings."
Keith says nothing as Shiro holds up his arm, turning it over so that the metal—a pale, brushed alloy that Matt's schematics hadn't quite explained—flashes in the lamp light. There are metal plates where the arm connects with his shoulder and Keith can't stop a shudder at the fact that it's almost certainly bolted directed to bone. "It's not the first one I got. After the accident I had to heal for almost a year before they fit me with the first one."
"What was it like?" asks Keith. Shiro picks up his tablet.
"I'll show you," he says, and Keith catches him quickly minimizing the photo of Keith before pulling up his gallery and sifting through dozens of files. When he finds what he wants he turns the tablet around so that Keith can see. "There's the first model."
A younger Shiro, no more than eighteen, looks back at Keith from the screen. His eyes are kind like they always are but also tired, with dark circles under them. The artificial arm is bulkier and a dark gray, and instead of the faint blue glow of his current arm there's a distinct purple tinge to it. "It was fine, except it malfunctioned a lot. Almost blew up one day when it overheated. I felt like I could have fired a laser right out of my palm."
"You should have asked for that," says Keith.
"I wish 'weaponized arm' had been an option." Shiro turns the tablet toward himself again and taps at another photo. "Here, come around and look, it's easier."
Keith puts the ice pack aside and scoots over to sit next to Shiro, peering over his shoulder. This time Shiro stands grinning with two older women in front of what looks like a waterfall. It's more recent than the other one, though Shiro's hair is still a uniform black and he's a lot less bulked up than he is now. He looks more rested than he had in the first photo.
"My parents," he says with a smile. "That's Mom," he points to a tall woman with acres of natural hair, sticking her tongue out at the camera. "And that's Kaachan." He points to a shorter, muscular woman wearing long braids and a smile at the corner of her mouth. Shiro is not wearing a prosthesis in the photo. His arm ends at the shoulder, the sleeve of his t-shirt hanging limp and empty.
"Does it come off?" he asks. How has he never asked this? He feels ashamed of himself. "I mean, I know you shower and swim with it on so I wasn't sure if it ever has to be removed?"
"It does," says Shiro. "It's not fun. You have to kind of disconnect it from the nerves, which sucks a lot, though once it's off it's nice not to have to carry it around for a little while." He flicks to another photo, a laughing Shiro in swim trunks, waving at the camera with yet another version of the same prosthetic arm. "Here's the model before this one. It was a lot better but still really heavy."
"When did you get the one you have now?"
"Last summer. I've only just really gotten used to it. Spent a lot of weeks picking up quarters off flat surfaces as part of my PT." He holds it up again. "You're really not freaked out by it, are you?"
"Nope," says Keith. He reaches out and takes Shiro's arm by the wrist and pulls it closer, studying the seams of his palm. "I think it's fucking cool, and it makes you mysterious which I think is a better reputation than Shiro-the-Hero."
"Oh God," says Shiro, face-palming with his free hand. "I want to kill whoever started that fucking nickname." He groans. "I already have a nickname."
"Yes, but this one rhymes," says Keith. He presses his hand to Shiro's metal one, palms together and fingers spread. "So it must be true."
Shiro's quiet. Keith glances at him to find him looking at their hands, and then at him.
They stare at each other. To Keith time feels delicate, the moment balanced on the tip of a knife. Keith's got no idea which way it's going to fall. He wonders what Shiro's thinking. Shiro looks a little shaken, maybe as much as Keith feels. His metal fingers twitch. Keith inhales.
Shiro pulls his hand away first. "The sun's all the way up," he says, gesturing toward the light through the window. He gives Keith a little smile. "We might as well get breakfast."
The moment impales itself and dies.
"Sounds good," says Keith. He pushes off the bed, disappointment heavy in his limbs, in Shiro, in himself. "I'll get dressed."
"I'll hop in the shower now." Shiro hops up and grabs a towel from the back of his door. "See you in a few!"
When he's gone Keith's fingers ache to pick up the tablet and find that photo of himself again. He wants to know what it means, that Shiro took a photo of him but hasn't shown it to him yet. Does it mean anything at all? Why does it matter, it's just a stupid picture, and not even a very good one. You can barely see the telescope; the focus is all on Keith.
Keith pinches the bridge of his nose. He picks up his ice pack and heads back to Matt's room to find clothes and change.
"I don't know where it came from." They're sitting on Keith's bed as he puts the knife in Shiro's hands, almost reverently. "It was with the stuff they took out of our house after my dad died. I hid it in a teddy bear at first, some real goddamn Stephen King shit, then in a backpack that I always kept with me." He runs a finger along the swirling pattern on the blade. He can't tell what kind of metal it is, but he doesn't think it's steel. "I got caught with it when I was ten but for some reason they gave it back to me—dull—when I went to the next home. Whenever they'd find it they'd always confiscate it, but when I would leave they'd always give it back."
"Weird," says Shiro, turning the knife over in his hands, holding it up to the lamplight. "Your dad never mentioned it?"
Keith shakes his head. They're sailing into here-be-monsters territory, but after their conversation about Shiro's arm Keith feels like he should reciprocate with something just as important.
"No," he says. "He might not have even known about it. It might have been my mom's."
Shiro passes the knife back to him. He doesn't say anything immediately, he seems to recognize the significance of Keith voluntarily bringing up his mother. "Do you remember her?" he asks after a moment.
"I remember a face that might be hers," says Keith, sheathing the knife and tucking it between the mattress and the wall. "But it's weird, distorted. The colors are all wrong." He falls back into the pillows, head resting on his arms. "She didn't die, by the way. She left."
"Oh?" says Shiro. His naked, honest curiosity is so unlike the judgmental, pitying bullshit he gets from other people—except Pidge, of course—whenever his past comes up that for a moment Keith doesn't know what to say. How do you reply to something so uncomplicated and sincere?
His hesitation must look more like unease than indecision, because Shiro looks immediately concerned. "You don't have to talk about her," he says. He reaches out and grabs Keith's socked foot and gives it a squeeze. "You can if you want to, but it's not required or anything."
"It's okay," says Keith, wiggling his toes. Shiro chuckles and relaxes his grip on Keith's foot but doesn't remove his hand. The contact is bolstering. "I don't even know her name, he never told me. I know next to nothing about her except that she was tall—yeah, you can laugh, I know—because there was a mirror on the wall in Pop's room that was too high for him to use. It was probably hers."
"Smart," says Shiro. "How do you know she left?"
"Hunch. My dad was a sentimental guy. If she'd died we would have visited her grave on her birthday and holidays. We did it for my Grandma, so why wouldn't we do it for my mom?" Keith sighs, blowing the hair out of his eyes, not even trying to hide his terminal frustration. "He hardly ever mentioned her. He once told me that I have her eyes, and it was another six months before he mentioned her again."
"What did he say then?"
Keith's quiet for a moment. "That she was a pilot," he says softly.
Shiro makes a surprised sound. "Do you know what kind?" he asks, which for Keith is exactly the right thing for him to say.
"I don't know anything else," he says. Just that when I was little my dad and I were looking up at the sky when I saw a one of the Mars transports fly over. I told my dad, and he just looked really sad and said your mother is a pilot."
Shiro blinks. "Is?"
Keith nods at him and taps the side of his own nose. "That's why I think she left. I don't know what kind of pilot she was. She might have been transport or cargo, so maybe a long assignment, one-way trip? Maybe an exploratory mission she never came back from? I've checked logs and records for anyone named Kogane but only my dad came up. Maybe she went by her maiden name, I don't know."
Shiro releases Keith's foot and shifts so that he can stretch out across the bed. "Do you have pictures of your dad?" he asks. "I want to see."
"Yeah, uh. Hold on." Keith finds his PADD and scrolls through the gallery. They're pretty far back and he doesn't look at them too often so it takes a minute. Shiro waits patiently as Keith finally finds a good one. He tilts the screen so that they both can see.
"I'm, like, five. That’s Pop." Keith points at the square-jawed man with kind eyes and a thin smile. "State Fair. I threw up on the Ferris Wheel."
"And you want to be a pilot," Shiro laughs. "What's going to happen to you in the simulator?"
Keith kicks at him and misses. "I know I don't look like him," he says. "But he's definitely my dad."
"You do look a bit like him," says Shiro. He gestures at Keith's face. "The shape of your mouth. You have his ears, too."
"Well, that's great." Keith might sound flippant but in truth he's quietly pleased. No one ever tells him that he looks like his dad because he's short, wiry, and doesn't have that chin. They don't tell him he looks like his mother either, the obvious reason being that apparently no one remembers what she'd looked like. All Keith has eyes that are his and not his, and always looking back at him.
"It's a compliment," says Shiro. "I don't look anything like my parents." He winks. "Adopted."
"Oh, cool," says Keith. Adopted kids are wanted kids, and finally Keith feels properly jealous of Shiro. "What are your parents like?"
Shiro smiles so fondly that Keith thinks he might have tapped into a favorite subject. "They're both doctors," Shiro says. "Pediatrician and psychologist. Pretty easy-going for the most part but kind of traditional." He rolls his eyes and Keith snorts into his hand. "Two hippie lesbians yelling at me for not using honorifics when talking about professors. Sorry, but I am not going to call Coran sensei. Nope, we're not doing that."
Keith laughs. "Please call him that, just once." He cackles. "Please? Make it a late birthday present?"
Shiro's eyes widen. "Wait, when was your birthday?"
"The week before Halloween. Why?"
"You didn't say anything." Shiro sounds almost betrayed.
"I barely knew any of you except Pidge," says Keith defensively. "I wasn't going to just announce my birthday to a bunch of people who were basically still strangers. What would be the point?"
Shiro pouts. "I'd have done something," he says. "Even if it was just, I don't know, a balloon and a cupcake."
Keith huffs and tugs a pillow close, burying his face in it in case he blushes. "Mmf." He waits a moment, then lifts his head. Shiro's looking at him, openly amused. "Shut up."
"I said nothing," says Shiro. He flops back down and lets his head loll to the side, looking at Keith with heavy-lidded eyes. "I bet you look exactly like your mom."
Keith sighs. "It's a nice thought."
"I bet I'm right." Shiro yawns and stretches like one of the big cats. Keith tries not to let his eyes linger on the planes of Shiro's body, the rise and fall of muscle beneath rumpled clothes. He looks up at the ceiling and hums the theme song to a movie he can't remember in his head.
"Listen," says Shiro. "I know it has to be frustrating not to know so much about where you come from, but what's missing doesn't define who you are. If you can't go back, you can only go forward."
Keith doesn't know what to say to that. "I have no family," he says quietly. "I want to find out what I can about them. I want to know that they were definitely here. I want someone to remember them before I'm gone and they're completely forgotten."
"I understand. Just don't let it eat at you from the inside. Don't stop looking, but don't get lost." Shiro reaches out and pats Keith's knee before using it as leverage to haul himself upright. He lets go and runs a hand through his hair. "Wow, is it that late already? I'm gonna go for a run. You in?"
"It's 25 degrees and there's two inches of snow on the ground." Keith stares at him. "You're fucking with me, right?"
Shiro shakes his head. "C'mon," he says. "I've been slacking off the last couple of days. If we're not going to run, we should see if the gym's open."
"It can't be open, there's only about seven people on campus." Keith hops off the bed. "We're not running or going to the gym. We're going to fight."
"Fight?" Shiro looks intrigued. "You mean like sparring? Since when do you fight?
"Since always," says Keith. "I know you do, Allura told me she goes to the gym with you and that you wipe the floor with people on a daily basis. She also said you need to learn to loosen up and stop spending so much time on defense. You're gonna need to be aggressive if you want to fight like I do." Fight like you're trying to survive, he thinks.
Shiro nods along with Keith's advice, fidgeting like he wants to get going already. "And you." Shiro taps Keith's forehead. "Not everything can be solved with just fists. You have your entire body and it can do a lot of damage if you know how to use it. Let me see what you've got, and we can figure out where to go from there"
Yes, teach me how to use my body is on the tip of Keith's tongue but there's no way he could defend it as being purely innocent. "Alright," he says instead. "Common room. It's big. If we move the furniture we could fight there."
"I'm with you," says Shiro. He cracks his knuckles dramatically. "Let's go."
The common room is indeed big and empty of any other living soul. He and Shiro drag the tables and couch and chairs to the edges of the room, leaving a space in the center. They pull off their socks and Keith removes his hoodie, heaping everything on the couch and meeting in the middle.
"Rules?" asks Shiro.
"To first blood," says Keith. For a fraction of a second Shiro looks nervous, though it is quickly replaced with a laugh.
"How about we just try and pin each other," says Shiro. Keith huffs. "No blood, stay away from the important parts." Shiro flashes him his winning smile. "Sound good?"
Keith nods. He studies Shiro's posture, his stance, his distraction, taking it all in. He does the calculations in his head, and he can see a clear path to victory in just a few moves—but he needs to have the advantage. The solution might be playing dirty, but that's how he fights. Dirty.
He must have an interesting look on his face because he sees Shiro's brow furrow with concern.
"Hey, you oka—?"
They sit next to each other on the floor, trying to catch their breath. Keith rotates his shoulder and winces at the bruise he can feel is forming there. He sees Shiro rub the bicep of his flesh arm, and Keith remembers the kick he'd aimed at it. He chuckles.
Shiro turns his head and they look at each other for a moment. Shiro grins crookedly.
"Best two out of three?" he asks.
Keith smirks. "Bring it," he says.
Chapter 9: Giggling
Matt and Pidge get back on Monday.
"You didn't violate my bed, did you?" he asks Keith Tuesday afternoon. They're meeting Pidge and the mysterious classmates Keith hasn't met yet. "I'm not sleeping in your shame, am I?"
Keith flicks a strip of shredded carrot at him. "I had many orgies with many beautiful men," he says, checking the time on his PADD. "Where the hell are they?"
"Lance is late for everything," says Matt. "Guarantee Pidge is giving him hell right now."
A few minutes later Pidge arrives at last, accompanied by two boys around Keith's age. One is lithe as hell and wearing a haughty expression, the other guy is a big dude—more bulk on him than Shiro, even. He's laughing at something Pidge is saying. She brightens when she spots them and gives an enormous wave before making her way across the dining hall.
"Sorry!" she says when she reaches them. "Fucking Lance."
"No, none of that!" The gangly one, Lance apparently, throws himself into the seat across from Keith. "This is not pick-on-Lance day!"
"Yeah, that's only on the second Tuesday of every month," says Big Man. Pidge laughs.
"Okay, introductions, and I am sorry it took this long to get us all together. Lance is the asshole—" she points to him and he waves "—and Hunk is the good boy."
Big Man preens. Keith eyes them both warily. "Hey," he says, with a tentative wave. "Keith."
"Oh yeah," says Lance. "We know all about you. I thought you were Pidge's brother for the longest time instead of Matt because she talks about you all the time."
Keith looks over at Pidge, and she grins and gives him a thumbs up. Yeah, as quasi-sisters go, he could definitely do worse.
Lance steals one of Matt's fries. "S'good to finally meet my rival, though."
Keith frowns. "Rival?"
"Yeah! You know, Lance and Keith, neck and neck."
The whole table stares at him.
"I'm on the same track as you!" he says to Keith, gesturing wildly. "Our aptitude scores differ by a decimal point."
"Yeah." says Hunk. "But his are still higher than yours."
"Betrayal," cries Lance, pointing at Hunk. "Impeach. Christmas is cancelled. You can all thank Hunk."
"It's not a competition," says Keith, exasperated. Who is this guy? "We're all headed for the same place."
Pidge groans. "God, you sound like Shiro," she says. "You guys spent way too much time together over break." She looks up at him. "What did you even do the whole time? Please tell me you didn't binge all the Planet Earths." When Keith feels his face color Pidge sighs. "You did. You absolutely did. You incredibly lame people."
"Shiro?" Hunk looks at Keith. "Shirogane? You're friends, too?"
"Boyfriends," says Matt and Pidge in unison. Keith chokes and has to spit a green pepper into a napkin. He glares at them.
"Knock it off," he warns. It's too late, Lance and Hunk are staring at him with interest.
Lance leans forward. "Man, that guy's my hero. Half the school wants in his pants," he says. "What makes you so special? I mean, you're hot and everything but you're kinda glare-y all the time and Takashi Shirogane is a ray of goddamn 100% grade-A sunshine."
"Nothing," says Keith. "We're not— We're friends. We hung out over break because neither of us had anywhere else to go. That's it."
"Allura said Coran opened up the observatory for you guys," says Matt. "That you went there in the middle of the night to do some stargazing." He wiggles his eyebrows at Keith. "Alone."
Keith sighs and wraps up the rest of his sandwich. "I'm done," he says, rising and picking up his tray. Pidge grabs his arm.
"Don't go!" she says. "Please? We'll be good."
Keith looks at her for a long moment. He doesn't believe her, but he doesn't really want to leave; he thinks maybe it'd be rude to bail on her and her friends when she'd brought them specifically to meet him.
Pidge squeezes his arm. He sits back down.
"Methinks thou protesteth, yada yada," says Lance, flapping a hand at him. "Shiro's a catch, man. My heart already belongs to a pale-haired siren, but if it didn't I would want to ride that pony into the sunset."
"Ooh, also," says Hunk, talking over Lance. "He's got that cool arm. I would love to take it apart—is that weird? That's probably weird. Ugh, it's weird, I said it and it's weird." He looks around at the table anxiously and Keith has to hide a smile.
"I'm sure he's heard that before. He's pretty well-adjusted about it," says Keith, unwrapping his food and biting into it again. "He'd probably let you if you asked nicely enough and donated to his favorite charity." He frowns. "But it's not the most important thing about him."
"Oh, we all know what Shiro's most important thing is—ow!"
Lance rubs his bicep where Pidge has just punched him. "I told him we'd be good, McClain," she says, with an edge of warning. He starts to say something. "Ah ah!" She holds up her fist again and Lance scowls.
"Fine, fine." He leans back in his chair, arms behind his head. "No more talk about handsome Shiro-the-Hero. Anyway! Did you hear?"
"Hear what?" asks Matt. Keith hasn't heard anything and probably doesn't care what it's about, so he focuses on his sandwich as Hunk bounces around in his seat.
"They're opening up spots for first year flight candidates to try out the sim," says Hunk. "If you're in the Astronautics program and you're in good standing with Kaltenecker, you get in."
Keith jerks his head up as soon as he hears simulator. Shiro had said he wouldn't get a shot until his second year. "What?"
"The flight simulator," says Lance, as if speaking to a particularly stupid child. "Zoom zoom." He soars his hand through the air. "It's supposed to be scary accurate. I would give my left nut to fly the real thing, though."
Hunk grins and smacks Keith in the arm. "You're definitely in," he says brightly. "I hacked your records once when Pidge told us you have a full ride, because damn. I had to see for myself, sorry." He doesn't sound sorry, just awed. "Your scores are nuts."
"Hey, so are mine!" says Lance. "Remember, decimal points." He looks to Hunk. "When is it, again?"
Keith's not listening anymore. He's got his PADD out and is texting with the hand that isn't slippery with chili sauce.
Did you hear about the simulator
The response is almost instantaneous. Shiro must already be on his PADD.
I heard! You're going to be great.
Will you come if you can
I'll be the first one there.
Keith smiles and pockets his PADD. He catches Pidge looking at him with thinly-veiled satisfaction and he sticks his tongue out at her. She returns the favor.
"What's Shiro got to say?" she asks, beatifically.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he says, resolutely looking away. "Please leave a message and I will never get back to you."
Pidge snorts and stands. "I'm getting food. Lance? Hunk? Anyone coming with me?"
"Count me in," says Lance. "I'm starving." He gets up and follows Pidge toward the stalls, leaving Keith alone with Matt and Hunk. Matt's completely laser-focused on his box of nigiri rolls, which means Hunk is Keith's new conversational partner.
"So!" says Hunk. He's building a little house out of salt packets. "Pilot, eh?"
"Yeah," says Keith, watching Hunk's hands work. They're big and deft. "What're you doing?"
"Engineering." The little house collapses. Hunk starts over again. "I'm not real thrilled about the idea of going into space. I'd rather stay on the ground and build the stuff that sends you guys up there instead."
"Legit," says Keith. He likes engineers; he tends to have a lot in common with them since they're not often not terribly social. Hunk, radiating friendliness like Chernobyl, seems to be an exception.
"What's your focus?" Keith asks him.
"Flight vehicles," says Hunk. The salt packet house becomes a tower. "Gonna build some space airplanes." He laughs. "I have some designs of my own that I'm working on, though some of 'em will never get off the ground—oh, haha. But it'll be great to finally have real training on something other than taking apart old Roombas and turning them into drones."
Keith nods, trying to imagine what a drone Roomba would look like. "Can't have pilots without engineers," he says. He's heard a lot of people talking shit about the other tracks, their tone equating cargo pilot and engineer with menial and boring. "Space program is shit without you guys."
"Oh, I know," Hunk says. "Lance gets kinda shitty about it sometimes, but I can always just hold him over the balcony by his ankle if he needs to settle down."
"Wait, what?" Keith's eyes go wide, impressed. "You've done that to him?"
Hunk shakes his head. "Nah," he says. "But I could. All I have to do is open the sliding door and he shuts right up."
Keith laughs. He decides he likes Hunk. Jury's still out on Lance, but yeah, Hunk can stay.
Hunk takes apart his salt house and starts building a salt fort. "So hey, you and Shiro, huh?"
Keith reconsiders his feelings about Hunk.
Pidge and Lance pick that moment to return, Lance's tray loaded down with an enormous salad and Pidge's with tacos. They fuss over where to sit for a moment, but in the process Lance has definitely overheard Hunk if the narrowed-eye look he aims at Keith is any indication. Damn it.
"Oh, are we talking about it again?" he asks, plunking his tray down on the table and his ass in his chair. "Good, because I have many questions."
"Do you ever think about anything else?" Keith asks incredulously. Lance taps his own chin and hums.
"Rollercoasters," he says, ticking things off on his fingers. "Cats with their tongues sticking out. My mom's ropa vieja. Foucauldian discourse. Allura in that pink dress she wears sometimes. Space propulsion. Seeeeeex. You know, normal stuff." He tilts his head and studies Keith. "What do you think about?"
"I reminisce on how good my life was before Pidge introduced us," says Keith, but there's no heat to it. He kinda likes Lance, though he definitely can't explain why. Still, that doesn't mean he's not annoyed. "Can we please just not talk about Shiro? He's my friend. That's it. It's not funny. Okay?"
"Okay." Pidge, Hunk, and Matt speak in unison. Lance looks mutinous but Keith just glares at him. Finally, Lance sighs and holds up his hands in mock defeat.
"Alright. Subject taboo. Verboten. Lips zipped." He mimes locking his mouth and throwing away the key. "So! Allura got a haircut, I think. Her hair looks at least an inch shorter than it was on Thursday."
Keith gathers his trash and picks up his tray. "I've got class in fifteen," he says. "I'll see you guys later."
On the way out of the dining hall he pulls out his PADD again.
Finally met Pidge's friends
This time the reply doesn't come until he's in Extragalactic Astronomy. He feels his PADD go off in his pocket but can't check until the class is over thirty minutes later and he can retrieve his PADD from his bag.
The ones who aren't us
Lance and Hunk!
I'm surprised you haven't met them before now.
You know me and new people
I think pidge was hiding them from me because they're a lot to deal with
Hunk's cool though
You're better with people now, you know.
I guess. I blame you guys for that
it's really all you, buddy.
You were so uncomfortable when you started here and now you seem a lot happier.
Keith smiles to himself.
i blame you for that too
ok maybe it was a group effort.
glad to have been of service :)
The emoji makes him giggle, out loud. Glancing around to make sure that no one's heard him he quickly drops his PADD in his bag and picks up the pace. He's got Kaltenecker next and he is not fucking up his shot at the simulator.
He'll deal with the fucking giggling later.
Chapter 10: Exquisite
"Okay!" Kaltenecker stands in front of the simulator, holding up his hands to quell the buzz of excitement. "You're all here because you want to fly bad enough to do well in my class. We've got some good test scores this year, which is the only reason they're letting us use this thing for freshmen. So pat yourselves on the back for a job well done."
Keith folds his arms across his chest, self-conscious because he's still in his grease-stained work clothes, having come directly from the garage. He tries to give himself a surreptitious sniff, but no one nearby is recoiling in disgust so he can't smell too bad. Next to him Lance leans against the wall and picks at his thumbnail with disinterest. He might be aiming for nonchalant but to Keith he's coming off as just plain nervous, if the sound of him swallowing repeatedly is any indication.
Keith is also nervous, but he's doing his best to hide it behind his best resting bitch-face, at least.
A few feet away, Shiro stands with a few other upperclassmen who have come to watch. He glances over and catches Keith's eye and gives him a wink. Before Keith can react Lance leans into his space and smirks so hard Keith's surprised he doesn't sprain his mouth.
Keith looks away and focuses on Kaltenecker, but he can still feel that wink in his knees.
"Alright, so." Kaltenecker holds up his tablet. "We're going to do this at random, so when I call your name, come on up and let's get the ball rolling." He checks the roster. "Hayaz, Athena!"
One by one they all disappear into the simulator. The rest of them watch it move and jerk and jump and dip, and more than once someone comes out looking a little green around the edges. Keith flexes his fists at his side and grows more and more impatient. Then:
"Awright!" Lance cracks his knuckles. "Let's see how you like this." He walks backward into the simulator, making finger-guns the whole way.
He comes back two minutes later, shoulders slumped and scowl between his eyes.
"Rigged," is all he says, retreating into a corner. Keith wonders if he ought to go say something but a quick glance at Shiro's silent not a good idea right now face is enough to keep him where he is. He vows to say something later, even though he has no fucking idea what. He doesn't know the guy very well but Keith isn't a dick. He knows all about being disappointed, especially in yourself. He's seen the look on Lance's face plenty of times in the mirror.
A few more people go in and come back out minutes, sometimes seconds later. A boy comes out in tears, led away to cry it out by a couple of seniors. Keith understands; the stress really gets to you in an enclosed space like that. Also stressful: hurtling thousands of kilometers an hour to certain death. The simulator, especially a good one, is not kind.
One girl manages to last almost five minutes. She steps out all smiles, looking a little dazed and green around the edges. Her friends high-five her as she emerges, and Kaltenecker gives her a nod before looking at his PADD again.
Keith looks over at Shiro, who mouths you got this. Keith nods and steps inside the simulator.
"Okay," says the tech, helping him buckle into the cockpit. "You ever seen something like this before?"
"Just from reading schematics and videos," he says. "Manuals. But yeah, I pretty much know this system."
"Great." The tech pats him on the shoulder. "You're ahead of the pack, then, I've had to explain this over and over and you're doing me a favor by not being an idiot."
Keith smiles. "I think can handle it," he says.
"That's the spirit!" The tech pauses at the door. "Yell if you think you're going to puke. I hate cleaning this thing out." She knocks on the wall. "Clear to launch." The door slides closed behind her.
The simulation starts off slow and easy, and Keith makes it through the first three levels without incident. The ride is smooth with the odd bit of turbulence thrown in, which Keith thinks is a nice touch. There's even the gentle plink of tiny bits of space dust striking the hull. The screen displays so many stars that Keith has to cross and uncross his eyes to get them to focus properly until he gets used to it. He fulfills the 4th level requirement of refueling at a moon outpost and the display blinks green as he moves up to level 5.
Level 5 is flying through the Kuiper Belt, and this is what Keith has been waiting for. The simulator is suddenly a lot less smooth and not as easy to control. He nicks the hull on the sharp point of an asteroid but manages to maintain control and not go careening into ice and rock. It's exhilarating.
By level 6 he's really got the hang of it and the next asteroid field is a piece of cake. He gets a little fancy, adding a couple of unnecessary but impressive loop-de-loops here and there, the tilt of the simulator making his stomach twist and swoop. If this is a simulation, he wonders what the real thing feels like.
When he finally does crash it's only because gets a sudden cramp in his thumb and lets go of the controller involuntarily. He flexes his hand once before grabbing the stick again, but it's too late—he's clipped a small moon and lost an engine, sending the craft spiraling off toward the planet surface.
He's at a loss of what to do when he suddenly decides that if he's going to die, he's either going out on a Hail Mary or with a literal bang. At the last moment before impact he pulls up on the stick and glides the craft into a somewhat-controlled crash on the planet surface. The display shows the horizon as Keith skids to a stop, and the instrument panel abruptly goes dark. An alarm goes off and the door opens, and the same tech from before comes in looking pale and awed.
"I hope you know you just broke, like, all the school records," she says. "I mean, you even broke Shirogane's, right in front of him." She helps him out of the seat. "You should have seen his face when your score kept going up and up. He looked intense. He actually walked out."
"What?" Keith stumbles out of the simulator. He has to shade his eyes from the overhead lights, but after a second he can see everyone staring at him. A few people come right up and pat him on the back but some warily keep their distance. He can see Lance in the corner wearing a look of pure rage and grudging respect and avoiding meeting Keith's eye.
"Yeah," says Keith to Kaltenecker, who is talking at him excitedly. Keith isn't registering anything he's saying. He feels sick as he looks around the room, confirming what the tech had said: Shiro is gone. Keith almost regrets doing the sim, even though it was amazing and if he could have his way he'd go back in and fly it until he breaks the program. Hell, he'd like to write the next program, and he can't code for shit. But his euphoria is short-lived, because Shiro is gone.
Goddammit, thinks Keith. I did it. I fucked it up.
He manages to make his escape by claiming he needs the bathroom. Keith walks out of the room and pauses just outside the door to catch his breath and push his hair out of his eyes. He thinks about texting Pidge, because if he's going to go to anyone with this it's going to be her. Maybe he can even embrace the cliché wholeheartedly and pick up some ice cream on his way back to the dorm. Might as well go all out; a boy did just break his heart on what should have been one of the best days of his life. Fuck.
He's about to pull out his PADD when someone grabs him by the arm and hauls him around the corner.
Shiro looks at him with wild look in his eye, not saying anything. Keith starts to ask him why'd you leave when Shiro palms his cheek and it shuts him right up.
"Can I kiss you?" asks Shiro in nothing but breath, like he'd just run a mile.
Keith nods immediately. "Yes," he says.
It's not that Keith has never kissed anyone before, it's just that until now he's never kissed anyone who mattered. He's also never been kissed like this, tongue and teeth and determination. Keith feels Shiro's hands—the mechanical one is so gentle—in his hair and all Keith can do is grip Shiro's sleeves and hang on.
After a minute or ten, Keith isn't sure, Shiro finally pulls back to breathe and to clutch at Keith's shoulders, knocking their foreheads together lightly. He's got his eyes on him, searching for what Keith assumes is some kind of protest or discomfort. Keith clings to Shiro as his brain reboots.
"Wow," he says, completely bewildered. "Hi?"
"You are unreal," says Shiro. "You fly like you were born with wings." He kisses him again. "I've wanted you forever, this reminds me of why." He pulls back and takes Keith by the arms and shakes him a little. "Also, you are really fucking hot and I've been wanting to tell you that for weeks."
Keith laughs, almost giddy with this ache in his chest that might be joy. "You had a picture of me on your tablet," he says, running his hand up and down Shiro's artificial bicep. It's warm and solid and real against his palm. "I wondered why."
"I've had a thing for you since before Halloween," says Shiro. "I wanted to hang out with you all the time, and I was hoping maybe if we did things together that felt like a date you'd think it was a date and I wouldn't actually have to come right out and ask you."
"But you did ask me," says Keith. "A bunch of times. Marvin's, the planetarium..."
"And you never got the hint." Shiro laughs softly and kisses him again. "God, I can't wait to fly with you."
On a whim, brought on by the alien feeling of delight, Keith throws his arms around Shiro's neck and lets himself be spun around and kissed again. "If this is what happens when I beat your sim scores," he says, "I'm going to kick your ass for the next two years."
"I'll give you new scores to beat." Shiro hugs him and noses at his throat. "Do you need to stick around?" he murmurs into Keith's skin.
"Kaltenecker acted like he wanted to talk to me more," says Keith, tilting his head and nuzzling their mouths together. "But whatever you're asking me, yes, Kaltenecker can go fuck himself."
"No," says Shiro, releasing him and stepping back. "Go talk to him, see what he has to say. I can wait for you." He gives Keith a little shove. "Go on."
Keith groans and goes. He checks in with Kaltenecker, who invites Keith to come to the next sim session after winter break, with the grad students. Keith's keenly aware of Shiro hovering behind them in the doorway, every atom of his body attuned to Shiro's presence in the room. He can still feel Shiro's mouth, carries Shiro's breath in his lungs. He can barely hear what Kaltenecker is saying and hopes to hell that he's nodding in all the right places.
Once Kaltenecker's had his say and moves off to talk to the girl with the other high score, Keith finally turns to leave and join Shiro for whatever comes next—he has no idea what happens now. As he crosses the room he spots Lance, still lurking in the corner. He can practically hear his teeth grinding from several feet away, so Keith takes a deep breath, holds up a hang on a minute finger to Shiro and risks the approach.
"Hey," says Keith. Lance doesn't even look at him. "I know you want us to be rivals, but I don't see why we can't just be equals. I'm a better pilot than you are right now, but if you want help, I'll help."
Lance grunts. "How did you do that?" he asks. "You made that sound both sincere and condescending."
"I'm not condescending. I did better than you with the sim. It's just a fact. You can work on it, though. Two minutes is nothing to sneeze at, half these guys barely lasted thirty seconds."
"If this is your idea of a pep talk—"
"Okay, forget it." Keith throws up his hands. "I'm just trying to help."
"Oh, shut up, I know you are," says Lance wearily. "I just don't know how you got that good. You just—I don't know, we were all watching out here and you could have heard a pin drop. It's like you're not even human."
Keith shrugs. "I don't know," he says. "I sit down and I just know what to do. You just do it." He doesn't know how else to explain it. It's not something he has to really think about. He knows the systems, he knows the basics, the rest just comes to him. But he doesn't know how to say that to Lance, who is eyeing him suspiciously.
"Yeah, okay, fine." Lance sticks out his hand. "I guess I could hear what you have to say, so long as it's better than just do it. That hasn't been Nike's slogan for like forty years, dude."
"Whatever." Keith takes Lance's hand and shakes it. "No more rivals?"
"Hell yes, rivals!" Lance lets go and waves his arms around. "I mean, okay. Your actual rival is clearly Shiro since you just, like, broke all his shit. But here's the deal: you help me get better than you, and I will be your wingman when it comes to him, because I don't care what you say, you clearly want his space babies. So, you help me, I help you, everyone wins, right?"
Keith snorts. "Deal." He looks over to where Shiro is still waiting, seemingly patient but Keith can hear metal fingers tapping against the doorframe.
"Gotta go," he says, jerking his thumb toward Shiro. "We need to, uh, work on some stuff."
"Yeah, yeah." Lance waves him off. "You—wait, what?" He looks over at Shiro and then back at Keith. "You aren't getting extra training, are you? 'Cause that isn't even a little bit fair."
"No extra training, promise." Keith salutes. "See you."
He's halfway across the room when he hears I'm coming for you next Shirogane shouted at his back. Keith is smiling when he walks up to Shiro, who reaches out and pulls him in by the front of his shirt. He kisses Keith's forehead, making him sputter. Shiro pulls back and must catch the look of irritation on Keith's face because he grins sheepishly.
"Not a fan of PDA, huh?" Shiro slings an arm around Keith's shoulders regardless. Keith is vaguely aware of some Lance-shaped noises of disbelief behind them but he doesn't care. Shiro is warm and smells good, he can allow this. "I can dial it back if you want. I'm just, you know, really happy that you kissed me back. And you beat my scores, like I knew you would. But mostly because you kissed me, too."
Keith leans against him as they walk out into the winter daylight. "So, the telescope was a date, huh?"
"I really, really wanted it to be. I was going to try and kiss you when we were talking about M31 but I was worried I'd spook you and fuck it up." He scratches the back of Keith's neck as they walk. "I actually wanted the planetarium shows to be a date. Couldn't figure out what to say to make that happen."
"Hey can this be a date might've been ok," says Keith with a soft laugh. He tilts his head back a little into Shiro's touch and marvels at how it makes him feel like his blood is carbonated. "Pidge thought it was. She knew before I did."
"Yeah." Shiro gives him a squeeze as they climb the steps to Roddenberry House. Shiro lets them in and steers Keith down the hall to his room. When Keith shuts the door behind them Shiro is there, crowding him up against it and seeking another kiss. Keith lets him, slowly getting used to the press of a mouth to his, to the sensation of a questing tongue, the hands at his hips, one gripping a little harder than the other. They stay there, slouched together in the doorway, kisses slowing down until they're just breathing together.
The only other time Keith has ever felt like this—reckless, dangerous—was in the simulator, when the floor dropped out from under him as he went into freefall. For years, Keith had thought that this wasn't something on his horizon. He'd never let himself think about it, too keen on day-to-day survival to consider taking on the problems of someone else as well. And on a number of cold, dark nights Keith had wondered if that part of him wasn't profoundly dead.
He tells Shiro this.
"No." Shiro pushes the hair away from Keith's eyes. "It's not, it's not dead. No one who flies like you could be missing something like that."
Keith nods and sighs a kiss into Shiro's mouth. "I haven't seen you fly, yet."
"Yeah, you will." Shiro bullies him out of the doorway. "Go shower, you're pretty greasy and those coveralls don't smell very good."
"And yet you just made out with me for fifteen minutes," says Keith, and goes off to shower.
Pidge is sitting on the kitchen counter when he emerges. She has an IPA in one hand and her PADD in the other and she's kicking her heels against the cabinets as she scrolls through what Keith suspects are pictures of baby alligators. She looks up as he enters. "Hey!"
"Hey." He's not exactly thrilled to see her, but she's here, no sense in getting worked up about it. He wonders where Shiro is, though.
"I heard about the bloodbath," says Pidge, kicking her heels against the cabinets. "Gave no quarter, huh?"
Keith frowns. "Huh?"
Pidge rolls her eyes at his apparent stupidity. "You crushed it at the sim today. It's all over campus already. Allura told me about it when we were at GoBerry."
"Frozen yogurt in December?"
"Not the point, Keith." She points her PADD at him. "You made yourself a legend today."
Keith considers this. It does sound nice to be respected, especially to a little foster kid from the middle-of-fucking-nowhere who's been told, many, many times, that the world would forget about him the way everyone else did. For a long time he'd believed that, but Keith thinks that now he might have a decent shot at being remembered for something after all.
"I'd agree with that," says Shiro, wandering in with Matt in tow. He sidles up to Keith and smiles at him. "Hey."
"Hey." They grin stupidly at each other for a second before remembering their audience. Shiro steps back and ruffles Keith's hair, Keith bats him away. He catches Pidge's gaze and in her eyes Keith can see all the questions she's going to bombard him with later, but for now she just grins and turns to Matt. Keith tunes them out in favor of Shiro's soft little smile.
"We can go to my room," he murmurs. "Do you have anything left to do today?"
"Nothing I can't completely abandon in favor of this," says Keith. He steps a little closer into Shiro's space. Shiro's makes to put his hand on Keith's hip but alters course and lands on the counter instead. They must look awkward as hell trying not to look awkward. Keith can't help it, he starts to laugh.
"Okay," says Pidge. "I'm going to work on shgaghfjd with my brother. Please, continue being cute and gross." She grabs another beer out of the mini-fridge and follows Matt to his room.
The door slams and Shiro looks at him. "Okay," he says. "I guess."
"I guess." Keith takes Shiro's artificial hand. "Your room. I just want to be alone with you for a little while."
"Yeah." They herd each other down the hall to Shiro's room, slipping inside and shutting the door. Shiro locks it, draws the shades and turns out the light, opting for just the moon-shaped lamp on his dresser. It bathes the room in hazy gray that turns Shiro's white hair into comet dust. Shiro guides Keith to the bed and they sit in their usual positions: Shiro at the head, back to the headboard, and Keith in the middle, leaning against the wall with his legs drawn up under him. They sit like that for a few minutes until Keith reaches out and takes Shiro's hand in his.
"I've almost kissed you so many times," Shiro says. "Like on Thanksgiving. When you put our hands together. I've never met anybody who had interest in this thing as just a part of me instead of as all of me."
Keith squeezes Shiro's fingers. "I wish you had kissed me," says Keith. "I thought maybe you would. I couldn't tell. I don't know shit about this stuff."
"Like I do?" Shiro laughs. He twists until he's lying on his side, his head in Keith's lap. Keith's hands automatically start sifting through Shiro's hair, running his nails lightly over the short, shaved sides. Shiro practically purrs and Keith laughs. "I haven't done this in years."
"Yeah?" Keith looks down at him, hanging over him like a gargoyle. "I haven't done this at all. Kissed some people but no one important."
"Mmm. I was with Adam for most of high school. Then I had the accident and I sort of pulled away from him. He was not as supportive as I needed him to be and I was demanding and jealous of any time he spent with other people." Shiro taps a metal finger against Keith's big toe. "I thought he'd replace me with someone who wasn't broken. In the end he did, but the whole thing was mostly on me."
Keith doesn't say you're not broken, because he's said the exact same thing about himself and he wouldn't have wanted to hear platitudes, even if they are meant well. "I'd be pretty hypocritical to replace you for being a little fucked up."
Shiro catches one of Keith's hands and kisses the knuckles before releasing it. "Adam moved on because I wouldn't. It had nothing to do with this—" Shiro raps his knuckles against his right bicep. "—and a lot to do with this." He knocks them lightly against his head. "We gave each other a lot of last chances until we just ran out of them."
Shiro blanches suddenly and looks up at Keith. "Shit, the last thing I want to do right now is talk about that. Come here." He leans up a little, inviting a kiss. Keith obliges, and it's as sweet as it is awkward because of their positioning. "That's better," says Shiro. Keith can't help but agree. He gently dislodges Shiro's head from his lap so that he can stretch out beside him, and Shiro arranges them both so he has his head on Keith's chest, ear pressed to his heart. Shiro seems content to lie there for a long time, just listening to the thud thud thud Keith can hear thrumming in his own head as he cards his fingers through Shiro's hair.
Eventually they drift together, lazy kisses expanding into kissing with purpose, until Shiro pulls away and drops his forehead to Keith's clavicle. "What?" asks Keith, short of breath. "You okay?"
"Mmmfh." Shiro nods without looking up. "Just give me a minute."
"Sure. What's wrong?" Keith rubs his back. "I thought we were working on something, there."
"We are, just give me a minute, or this will be over before we even get our damn clothes off." Keith listens to Shiro count his breathing. "It's been a really long time, okay."
"Well, I will probably blow it the second you get your hands on me, so." Keith snickers. "It's not like we can't do it again."
Shiro huffs. "Good point," he says. He pushes himself up so that he's looming over Keith with mischief in his eyes. "Don't forget, we have neighbors."
"I'm aware," says Keith. He draws Shiro in for a kiss. "I'm aware.'
They paw at each other's clothes clumsily, dropping their shirts and Keith's sweatpants over the side of the bed. Keith still has one sock on and Shiro's still in his jeans but Keith makes short work of that, tugging them over Shiro's hips and flinging them away. Shiro's underwear lands on the moon lamp and plunges them into semi-darkness, making them both laugh into each other's skin.
After that it's easy to move together like moon and tide. Shiro, true to his word, finishes quickly and messily everywhere; he grabs his shorts off the lamp and uses them to wipe come off his chin. Keith, breathless and overwhelmed, can't stop laughing.
It takes Keith longer, wound up tight as he is, and it's not until Shiro uses his mouth that Keith's brain finally shuts off and a supernova bursts behind his eyelids. Somehow, he manages to keep it quiet and buries his breathing in Shiro's neck, sucking a mark there at the same time that he sure as hell hopes will be hard for Shiro to hide. They lay together silently, Keith still twitching with the aftershocks.
"Water," says Shiro after a long moment, slipping out of bed and grabbing two bottles from the tiny fridge under his desk. He passes one to Keith as he climbs back in, draping them both with the blanket. They drink quietly for a moment, leaning against each other and listening to dgshjfgh coming from next door in varying tones, cut with the low drone of human chatter. Shiro drowses at his side, and Keith never wants to move again. He's too satisfied to feel self-conscious of how naked and damp and sticky they are, so he just closes his eyes and moves closer to Shiro's warmth.
"Well," murmurs Shiro. "I think that went okay."
Keith groans. "You ruined it," he says. "Why'd you have to talk."
Shiro snickers and rolls into him. He goes for a kiss, then another one. "It was pretty fun," he says, punctuating his statement with one more kiss. "Can we do it again?"
"Yeah," says Keith. "Later, though." He runs his hand over Shiro's forearm that he's flung across Keith's chest. "Right now it's nap time."
"I can get behind that."
"That's what she said."
They must doze off, because when Keith next opens his eyes it's after being startled by a loud noise that eventually processes as the slam of a door. The house is eerily silent except for Shiro breathing next to him, soft and deep with sleep. Keith's sort of pinned down by Shiro's arm, but with some wriggling he could probably get out if he wants to. Not yet, he's still drowsy and warm, and Shiro is solid and there. He'll stay put for now.
He does manage to get a hand free and casts about for his PADD, finding it next to Shiro's elbow. He thumbs it on and checks his messages, including several new ones from Pidge.
Hey! I went home and Matt's crashing here. He says you guys need some space and he also doesn't want to hear you bang all night.
There's pizza in the fridge. I can't believe you guys slept through us making it, we set the alarm off.
Jesus how much sex did you have that you're this asleep.
WELL goodnight gentlemen. Be safe, consent is sexy, I love you.
I'm not telling you anything
Did you just wake up?
Oh no is it time for round two?
Remember to hydrate!
It's hard not to laugh but Keith doesn't want to wake Shiro. He turns away from him as much as he can manage and bites his tongue as he types.
we've been talking and sleeping mostly.
I don't think he's totally recovered from finals.
Nobody has. What about you?
I'm tired but i am ok
Oh, I bet you're tired
Shiro shifts in his sleep and Keith holds very still until he settles again, wrapping his arm around Keith a little tighter. Keith is this close to being completely blissed out, either by oxygen deprivation or proximity to Shiro, he can't tell which.
His PADD buzzes and startles him.
Well this is all really great but I'm not afraid to crack skulls so be nice to each other and don't fuck it up. Okay?
Ok. Keith twists around as much as he dares and takes a quick, fuzzy photo of Shiro's sleeping face. He sends it to Pidge.
I'm making that his school ID
It'll be his birthday present.
You and I have very different definitions of present.
already in the database.
Sweet dreams and congrats
Mr. Keith LEGEND Kogane
He can't reach his charger so he drops his PADD to the side and shuffles closer to Shiro, pressing a kiss to the side of his jaw. He must make it a little too enthusiastic because Shiro stirs and Keith can see one sleepy eye trained on him.
"Hey," says Keith, skritching the top of Shiro's head. "Sorry I woke you."
"S'ok." Shiro sighs and stretches a little before wrapping both arms around Keith and pulling him closer until he's sprawled heavy across the bed, half on the mattress and the other half on Keith. "Where'd they go?"
"Edison. They gave us the house to ourselves."
Shiro lifts his head and levels Keith with a look. "Hmm?" He prowls a little closer, nosing at the corner of Keith's mouth. Keith licks him and Shiro squawks, making Keith laugh. He's kissed breathless a moment later, and just like that they're off and running again.
Keith could get used to this.
This time it's Keith's mouth with Shiro shaking above him, and it's Shiro's fingers making Keith's body bow like a heliosphere. He has no idea what he's doing but Shiro's got him covered, guiding Keith like a lodestone through the landscape of their bodies. Keith learns how to kiss, lick, stroke, do everything that gets Shiro to make those breathy low noises Keith decides he likes a lot. He finds out which of his own buttons he wants pushed, like hands in his hair and teeth at his throat. Things he never would have thought he'd like, let alone experience. Shiro shows him so much.
With their orgasms Keith feels himself flying higher and higher, a ceaseless climb. He's going to fall if he's not careful.
When they're damp and disheveled again they take a shower that is more about round three than it is about actually bathing. Eventually they emerge clean, with sore knees and wobbly legs.
"Do you think we're overdoing it?" Keith asks Shiro as they stumble back to bed with a package of Oreos. "Maybe we should have talked more first, or something?"
'Do you want to talk more?" asks Shiro, popping an entire Oreo in his mouth and chewing thoughtfully before swallowing. "I mean that honestly. We can talk about it if you need to."
"Do you need to?"
Shiro shrugs. "I'm pretty good. A nice boy broke all my sim records and then kissed me and let me touch his dick. It's been a really good day."
Keith laughs and twists open an Oreo. He licks the frosting and catches Shiro looking at him with a soft, secretive smile.
"What?" he asks, finishing off his cookie.
"Nothing," says Shiro. He pulls Keith in and kisses him, Oreo crumbs and all.
The fall is exquisite.
Chapter 11: Therapy
Keith spends Christmas break with Shiro and the Holts, since Shiro's parents are in Dubai for work. They hadn't discussed getting each other presents but Keith errs on the side of caution and starts looking for something as soon as plans for the holidays are set. He's not sure what he could possibly get someone like Shiro until he finds a well-worn 20th century pilot's helmet in a dusty old antique shop on Main Street. He haggles the price down to something that doesn't wipe him out completely and takes the thing back to Edison, swearing Pidge to secrecy as she helps him painstakingly restore it so that the numbers on the side are legible and the goggles are clear again.
When he gives it to Shiro on Christmas morning he expects maybe a polite thank you, not an enthusiastic kiss under the tree while Pidge and Matt cackle and Colleen takes pictures. There's so much fucking love in the room, this overwhelming, almost oppressive sense of family, that Keith has to shove Shiro away and roll over for a moment, curling in on himself because his chest just aches.
"Keith?" Colleen crouches next to him. "Honey?"
"Sorry," he chokes. He offers her a weak smile. "It's—" He doesn't know how to explain that he's happy on a level that's so alien to him that he's afraid of it. He doesn't know how to say that he's also furious that he's been denied this until now, that this is how he should have grown up. He doesn't know how to explain that he loves and hates their stupid, wonderful family without insulting them. He shakes his head and presses his lips together.
She smiles and pats his foot. "You're okay," she murmurs. "We've got you now." She hauls him upright and kisses the top of his head before returning to her spot on the couch. Still rattled but more functional after Colleen's comfort, Keith gives Shiro an apologetic smile. He gets a an oddly-shaped box thrust at him in return.
"You're up." Shiro's ears are scarlet. "I mean, I don't think it's as cool as what you got me, but I think you'll like it."
Keith tears into it and opens the box. Nestled inside some tissue paper is a beautiful telescope. Not the cheap one Pidge salvaged from a tag sale and resurrected for him, but the good one, with built-in star charts and navigational tech. It can't have been cheap.
"I…" Keith wrings his hands and looks up at Shiro. "I can't take this."
Shiro shakes his head. "Sure you can," he says. "It, um, it was my old one. It's in good shape and works just fine, practically new." He clears his throat and smiles. "I wanted you to have it."
Keith looks at him warily. He isn't sure he buys Shiro's story, but Shiro's smile is so hopeful that finally Keith just sighs and lifts the telescope from the box. It's lightweight, but when he checks it over he finds that it's really powerful, enough that distant nebulae will be clear as day.
Keith leans into Shiro. "Thanks," he murmurs.
"You're welcome," says Shiro, kissing the top of his head while Matt and Pidge throw balled-up pieces of wrapping paper at them.
He kisses Shiro at midnight on New Year's Eve, when they get wasted on champagne and Matt tries to teach Shiro a few dance moves that he looks completely stupid trying to do. It's a tiny gathering, just Pidge and Matt, their parents, Shiro, and himself. They video chat with Lance and Hunk for a little while, with Allura joining in later. They're all drunk except for Shiro and Keith who are more or less just tipsy by now, but they all yell Happy New Year at each other repeatedly until Allura starts singing ancient sea shanties. Shiro exchanges a look with Keith and promptly begs off for the night, ignoring protests. They leave the others warbling The Banks of Newfoundland and sign off laughing. They crawl into the attic's guest bed and put out the light.
"You too drunk to mess around?" Shiro must be a little buzzed still if he's being this candid. "If you are, that's fine. Just asking."
Keith laughs. "Fuck you, get over here."
It feels scandalous to have sex in the Holt's attic (Pidge's room is directly underneath them) but that only makes Keith more eager. They move quietly, Keith biting curses into Shiro's shoulder, Shiro choking on his own breath. Shiro comes faster than he typically does but it takes Keith forever to get there, to the point where Shiro's jaw gets tired and he has to bring Keith off with his hand.
Drunk sex is clumsy, hilarious, and unpredictable. Keith likes it a lot, but he's glad they don't do it often. Too frustrating.
"Happy New Year," says Shiro, rubbing his chin and opening and closing his mouth a few times. "How was the year for you?"
Keith stretches out next to him, head on his shoulder. Shiro hooks an arm possessively around Keith's body. "Shitty, at first," says Keith. "I didn't have a place to live for ten months." He's never fully admitted it out loud before. He feels Shiro stiffen next to him, so he reaches up and runs his hand along Shiro's forearm. "I stayed under an overpass for a while, then it flooded and I had to move. I ended up in a little abandoned house in the desert. Once I got the generator working it was almost like a palace. I actually kinda miss that place. The stars were amazing out there."
Shiro kisses the top of his head. "You're amazing," he whispers into Keith's hair. "How was the rest of your year?"
"Oh, you know." Keith shrugs. "Meh."
Shiro scratches Keith's bare stomach. "Oh, really?"
"Mmf. Stoppit." Keith shoves his hand away, but Shiro puts it right back and scratches a little more. "Hey!"
"My year was pretty good," says Shiro. "Especially the last few months."
Keith rolls his eyes. "This is the corniest—could you shut up?"
Shiro hauls Keith up and kisses him soundly. "This year's going to be good."
"Yeah?" Keith grins.
"Yeah," says Shiro. He hunkers down in the blankets, drawing Keith in too. "I got a good feeling about this."
Once classes start up again, Keith starts seeing one of the school's in-house therapists twice a week. Hunk had recommended her. "She helped me when my Nana died," he'd said, tapping her number into Keith's PADD. "She's nice."
She is nice. The first thing she does is tell him to call her Rena. Then she asks him to introduce himself by naming something he does well. He hesitates, then offers her his hand.
"Keith Kogane," he says. "Pilot."
She grins and takes his hand. "Nice to meet you, Keith Kogane, pilot."
It takes Keith a few sessions but eventually he notices that it's a little easier to talk each time. He tells her about his dad, a couple of the homes he'd been sent to, and some parts of high school. He tells her about meeting Pidge, meeting Matt and the others and feeling like he's part of something for the first time in his life. He tells her he thinks Shiro is right, that this year will be good.
He tells her about Shiro during their 4th session.
"This is your first relationship?" she asks him. He nods, avoiding her gaze. "Intense?" He nods vigorously. "First loves usually are. They're a lot. Good and bad. How's the good?"
Keith smiles at the floor. "Real good," he says. "He's nice to me. We have a lot of fun together. He gave me a telescope because he knows I love the stars."
She nods. "That is a lot of good. Bad?"
Keith hesitates. "He's…" He tries to find the right words. "He's really important," he mumbles. "To a lot of people. He's just really important. I don't—I don't know why he picked me. I'm afraid to ask."
"Why?" Rena tilts her head. "It can only be positive if he chose you because of it. What's scaring you to hear it?"
"I don't know." Keith can feel his walls going up. "I just— This happened so fast. We met in September and spent Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's together. That's fast, isn't it?" He's not sure if he wants her to validate his fear or contradict it. Rena adjusts her glasses and scribbles in her notebook.
"Whirlwind romance," she says, looking at him as she continues writing. The only other person Keith knows who can do that is Allura. "They happen, and they can go well, you know." She smiles at him and taps her pen against her chin. "There's no good outcome to being fatalistic, Keith."
"If you had lived my life, you'd have a little trouble with optimism, too." Keith doesn't mean to snap at her, but this is hard to explain and even harder to talk about and he doesn't like feeling cornered. "Out of nine foster homes I only felt welcome in one, and that's the one the fucking government yanked me out of. Because God forbid I enjoy any part of my adolescence. So excuse me if I'm a little bit fatalistic in assuming that the best thing that's ever happened to me—this entire fucking school, not just Shiro—is going to get taken away too. It always happens."
"Because something happened once or twice doesn't means always, Keith. Let's try and eliminate that word from our vocabulary today."
"You don't get it," says Keith, getting agitated. "It really does always happen. And I don't want it to happen with Shiro." He curls into himself in his seat. "I really don't."
Rena is silent during his outburst. When he's done, his fingers digging into his own thighs, she sighs and turns to a new page in her notebook, scribbling something before tearing it and handing it to him.
"That's your homework," she says. "It's very simple. I want you to try, okay? I know it's a lot, maybe too much this early on, but try. Report back to me, and don't think I'll be disappointed in you if you can't do it quite yet. Alright?"
Keith looks down at the paper. In Rena's chicken scratch are three words:
Talk to Shiro.
"This isn't helpful," he says. "I'm talking to you, you're the therapist. You're supposed to listen to me and then tell me what to do."
"Yes, and this is my therapeutic advice. Tell Shiro what you told me. You told him about being homeless for a while. If he's anything like you say he is, if you bring up your fears with him I think you'll get a good response. Don't present it as a problem to be solved. It's not. Some problems can't be solved, not entirely. It's discouraging to think they can. Like when I quit smoking—I'll always be addicted to nicotine, a problem I can't solve, but I work around it by quitting. Which was hell, incidentally. But your PTSD and your anxiety, these are things you'll both need to cope with and work around, for a long time. It's not for every couple, no. But if you think you can get through it, you should talk to him about it."
Keith scowls, then shrugs. "Fine. I'll try." He might be lying, but he'll decide that later. "We done?"
"That's all I ask." She walks him to the door. "You have my number. Message me how it goes."
It takes him two days to work up the nerve, and he waits until Shiro is sated and sweaty and sacked out next to him, minutes from sleep. Keith's wide awake, still buzzing from orgasm and anxiety. "Shiro?"
"Mmm." Shiro scoots closer and catches him with the artificial arm, keeping him firmly in place. "Shiro's not here right now."
"Shut up, I want to ask you something." Keith nudges his shoulder. "Open your eyes so I know you're listening."
Shiro obliges, brown eyes trained on Keith's. "What's up, babe?"
He doesn't have a script for this. "Why me?" he blurts out. "Lance said half the campus wants in your pants. I know why I picked you—
"Why did you pick me?" asks Shiro.
Keith huffs in surprise. "I was going to ask you that," he says. He's still nervous about the answer, but Rena's right: he should know.
"I beat you to it," says Shiro. He pulls a pillow closer and tucks it under his chin. "So tell me?"
Keith takes a moment to think in silence, Shiro waiting patiently.
"You're the kind of guy who pulls kittens from trees but can bench press a truck. You want to be a pilot so bad I can see stars in your eyes."
"Corny," says Shiro, yawning and shuffling close. "Anything else?"
"Your stupid hair," says Keith, running his fingers through Shiro's forelock. "The way you smile at people, like you're genuinely interested in them."
Shiro nuzzles at him. "People are interesting," he murmurs. "You turned out to be very interesting."
Keith laughs, feeling the blush creep into his cheeks. "The way you waved at a stranger across campus because you thought I was having a bad day."
"Mmm." Shiro laughs, little puffs of breath against Keith's neck. "All good reasons."
Keith nods. He thinks about leaving Shiro distracted and sleepy and not asking him, but he doesn't want to disappoint Rena and he does not back down from challenges. "So what about you?" he asks softly. "Why'd you pick me?"
Shiro wakes up a little more at his question. "I thought it was obvious," he says, twisting so he can look at Keith. "Do you need to hear it? I can tell you. I'm happy to talk about all the reasons I like you. I have an itemized list."
Keith groans. "If you're not going to take this serious—ack!"
Shiro has rolled on top of him, caging Keith with his arms. Keith feels powerless and small, and oh boy does he like it. He wouldn't if it weren't Shiro. He files that away for later.
"You're cute, for one." Shiro holds himself up with the mechanical arm and tick things off with his right. "I did think you were having a bad day, but I also noticed you because you're really, really hot."
"Fuck off." Keith shoves at him but Shiro doesn't move.
"Noooope, shut up." Shiro puts his hand over Keith's mouth. "Shiro's talking, now. Anyway, you turned out to just be grumpy, and who knew? I like that in a guy. And smart, if you're here and you got full marks on Kaltenecker's entry exam."
"Pidge told me." Shiro pretends to think for a moment. "Oh, you like astronomy and the stars, and so do I, that was nice to find out. So! We have hot, grumpy, smart space nerd so far. How'm I doing?"
Keith glares at him. "Fyoo," he says emphatically.
"That's nice, babe," says Shiro airily, and Keith considers biting him. "Anyway, I like you for a lot of reasons but there are some for you to chew on for the moment. I'm going to let go now, and you're not going to argue with me, right?"
Keith, full of rage, licks his hand.
"Ergh," says Shiro, pulling his hand away and wiping it on the blanket. "Well?"
Keith rubs his face. "Fine," he says. He kind of wants to put up more of a fight, but he's still a little dopey from the endorphins, a Shiro's little speech had made him feel all wriggly on the inside. "They're good reasons, I guess."
There's a knot in his chest that's always been tight and cold, and over the last few months he's felt it loosening. Shiro's words have made it collapse almost completely. Keith climbs on him and kisses him.
"You're a hot, smart space nerd, too," he says. "And stupid cheerful, who knew that I liked that in a guy?"
Later, once Shiro's asleep, Keith sends a quick message to Rena that is just a thumbs up. She replies almost instantly with confetti.
Yeah, she's good. She can stay.
Chapter 12: Leap
It's not a leap year so they have Shiro's birthday party at midnight on the first of March. It's a small, family affair, just the few of them plus some other people from Shiro's other classes. Keith's still not great around strangers but he doesn't want to cling to Shiro all night, so he takes up residence in the ancient papasan chair by the TV and ignores everyone in favor of his PADD. He's fucking around on Reddit when a message pops up, from Shiro. Keith looks up but can't see him through the crowd. He looks back at the message.
Keith sighs. He's made Shiro worry, again. Goddammit. He doesn't mean to withdraw the way he does, but there's only so much he can take after having been alone for so long. He has to hide and recharge, or he'll flip out and bolt for the hills.
Fine. you know me. Lots of people
I can get everyone to leave if you want.
Or we can go.
this is your birthday party
You can't kick everyone out or bail
I'm fine just let me sit here for a little while.
I don't want to miss the cake or you opening presents anyway
Okay okay. :)
I'll try and hurry things along a bit though.
I'm pretty tired
Keith goes back to yelling at idiots on the internet. Eventually a few of the people Keith doesn't know leave, and then it's just the seven of them. Matt stands on a chair and makes an off-key trumpet noise.
"Good news, everyone!" He looks around to make sure he has their attention. "The hour is upon us where Shiro receives his final gift of the evening."
Keith snorts loudly. Allura bursts out laughing, Pidge and Hunk pelting Keith with popcorn. Lance looks horrified.
"Okay," says Matt, giggling. "Second-to-last gift of the evening. Though I can safely say this one's way cuter."
Allura picks up a shoebox and presents it to Shiro. "Whatever you do," she says sternly, "don't shake it."
Shiro blinks, then eases the lid open. Keith comes over and peers over his shoulder at a tuft of fluff the same color as Shiro's own hair. But then it moves.
"Oh," Shiro gasps. "But this is—" He looks around at all of them. "We're not allowed to have one."
Matt hops down and pats him on the back. "What the RA doesn't know won't hurt him," he says. "I found her out by the transport stop, in the rain. She's healthy, just tiny. And I talked to Az and Chelsea next door. They won't rat us out if they hear her."
Wordlessly Shiro scoops the scrap of bedraggled black-and-white fluff to his chest. He holds her there for a long moment before lifting her up and looking her in the eye.
"Atlas," he says, his tone indicating there would be no argument.
"What?!" Lance protests anyway. Keith kicks him but Lance is undeterred. "That's a weird name for a kitten!"
"She's strong," says Shiro, cradling her in his organic hand and tickling her belly with the other. "She's got initiative."
Matt pipes up. "Atlas was his D&D character freshman year," he says, followed by a yelp when Shiro kicks him without looking away from the cat. Keith has no idea what the hell they're talking about, but the happy blush on Shiro's cheeks is sure pretty so he tunes it out in favor of watching Shiro cuddle a kitten from close range. It's almost like it's his own birthday.
Shiro refuses to put Atlas down for the rest of the night, relenting only when everyone leaves and they have to go to bed. She spends one night in the bathroom, but her tiny mews are too much for everyone and she ends up spending the next night nestled between their legs until morning, and then every night after that.
Keith doesn't mention that he's mildly allergic. The smile on Shiro's face when she wakes him in the morning by nibbling his nose makes the itching worth it.
True to his word, Keith tutors Lance throughout the spring, sending him the same manuals and videos he'd used. Turns out Lance is a natural at spaceflight theory; Keith thinks he just can't shut up long enough to let his talent take over when he's actually flying.
"What did you do in the real sim," Keith asks him after Lance blows the computer sim for the umpteenth time. "When you crashed."
"Nothing!" Lance grumbles. "I might've showed off a little. A lot. And I kind of got cocky with the computer."
Keith raises an eyebrow. "Kind of?"
"Look, I come from a huge family. You're either confident or you're ignored." Lance looks away. "I hate being ignored."
Keith's surprised by the rare glimpse at serious-Lance, or as serious as Lance ever lets himself get around Keith. "Okay, I can— I get it. I'm like that, too. I guess." It pains him to agree with Lance but he does, wholeheartedly. "I've spent my life being ignored. I was forgotten. It sucks. I hated it. And it made me reckless. You're overconfident and it makes you reckless. Both things will get us killed if we don't shape up."
"How'd you do so well, then?" asks Lance. He's already pulling up the computer sim again. "If you're as bad as I am."
"I'm not," says Keith. "I'm just better at controlling it. I've had a lot of practice."
He leans around Lance and sets the difficulty rating up a notch, ignoring the squawk of protest. "Something Shiro said to me once," he says. "Patience yields focus. It sounds like some kind of self-help bullshit, but it works."
He leans back and crosses his arms. "Don't try and impress anyone, no one's here but me. You don't need to impress me."
"Damn right, I don't," huffs Lance, but there's no bite to it. "But if I did do it right, would you be impressed?" He's trying to sound bored but Keith can hear the uncertainty.
"No," says Keith. He wants to say you're just not that impressive but that would be a lie. He's already impressed by Lance's technical aptitude. He doesn't dare say so, though. "But I'll be impressed if you can do this entire run without any added commentary."
It's not overnight. It takes a few weeks of bickering, some yelling, and a few creative curses flung around, but eventually Lance does figure out how to just fucking focus, and Keith can see in Lance's expression when the last of the pieces falls into place and he suddenly gets it. So it's no surprise that when the first years are given another shot at the sim in late April, Lance comes out on top. He's so thrilled that as soon he emerges and spots Keith, he beelines for him an plants a huge kiss on his cheek before scampering off, presumably to call Allura and humblebrag his way into her heart. Keith is left a little bewildered, scrubbing at his cheek with his sleeve, but pleased that Lance's hard work has paid off.
And hey, they could even be called real friends now.
In early May Keith borrows a bike from the garage and he and Shiro take it out to the bluffs overlooking the valley. They sit out there for hours, talking about nothing, until night falls and the town flickers phosphorescent at them from below. The sunset burns out into deep grays and blues, freckled with millennia-old starlight. They track satellites and pick out a comet before thin clouds move in and bring with them the first drops of rain.
Keith whispers something in Shiro's ear.
"Me too," says Shiro, delighted, kissing Keith's temple and then his mouth. "Me too."
The end of the year seems to come upon them like a jump-scare, June leaping from the shadows and cornering Keith wherever he goes. Finals loom over everyone's heads as they retreat indoors to cram everything they should know by now into their brains over the course of three weeks.
Keith's doing okay and he knows he can pass with minimal effort, but nevertheless he throws himself into studying to ignore the rapid approach of move-out for as long as he can, hoping to get through his exams before panic sets in. He does, but right after his last test he finds himself sitting in his usual corner of the library, folded into a chair and frantically making plans in his head while thumbing through transport prices on his PADD.
He'll have to go back to the house in the desert. He's not even sure it's still there at all, but that's what he's got. He's dreading three months in that place, but he knows can do it. He can because he knows now that it's not forever. And everyone—Shiro— will only be a video call away. He can do it. Keith gives notice to the garage, promising to come back after the summer, and they give him a good bonus. He'll buy a pass to Amarillo and a transport to Fort Sumner. He knows the rest of the way from there.
But on the day of move-out, when he can't find anyone and he's about to give up and just go to the transport station and message his goodbyes (he and Shiro had said goodbye the night before, repeatedly) when Pidge comes marching up to him.
"Keith!" She's got Lance by the sleeve. "There you are!" She drops Lance in front of him. "Go on, ask," she says, poking Lance in the arm.
"Okay, get away from me, woman." Lance sighs and looks at Keith. "Pidge told me you don't have anywhere to go."
Keith glares at her. She blows him a kiss.
"Anyway," says Lance. "We have a spare room, and my mom says if you help out around the house and fix her car she won't charge you rent and she'll make you dinner. And believe me, that alone is reason to take her up on it. If you wanted to."
"You—okay?" Keith looks over at Pidge, bewildered.
She rolls her eyes and points at him. "You," she says, "need a place to live for the summer, right. And he," she points at Lance, "—has a place for you to live for the summer." She crosses her arms and looks at him expectantly.
"Imagine that," says Keith, bemused. To Lance he says, "What kind of dirt does she have on you that you'd ask me to come home with you for the summer?"
"I'm insulted because I think you're insulting me." Lance looks put out. "Do you want the room or not? Mom's got a Honda, can't be that hard to fuck around with. And we're not slobs or anything, you won't be scrubbing floors. She means, like, killing spiders. Woman hates spiders."
"Why are you doing this?" asks Keith.
Lance actually turns red and mutters in Spanish under his breath. "You, Shiro, and I are playing tag on the scoreboards," he says. "I didn't get there overnight. I guess this is, you know. Thanks for the help?" he finishes weakly.
"Okay. That's… good. Thanks." He's genuinely thankful; he really doesn't want to go back to that shack again.
"That's it? Just 'okay thanks'?" Lance gives him an unimpressed look. "No oh Lance thank you for saving my ass from being loooonely. Your enthusiasm is underwhelming."
"No, I mean it." Keith doesn't know how to articulate it. He never does, which makes people think he's a dick. "Thanks, Lance."
Lance looks at him warily.
"Okay, yeah," he says finally, his posture changes and he slouches in what Keith suspects is relief. He looks over at Pidge, who smiles approvingly, which perks Lance up a bit. "No problem. Anyway, heartfelt moment over?" He claps his hands together. "I'll text you when I know when we're leaving. Don't bring much; V drives a Beetle and it's already got all my shit in it."
Keith gives a half-hearted wave. "See ya," he says. Lance gives him finger-guns and saunters off to where Allura's talking to Professor Coran. When Lance approaches she lights right up. Ah.
Pidge claps her hands, jarring him out of his thoughts. She rubs her palms together. "I love when a puzzle gets solved."
"I'm not a puzzle," says Keith wearily. "Pidge, you can't fix me."
"I think you'll find that I can," she says, waving a hand at him. "You might want to do a little self-reflection there, Hugbear. You've changed a lot since September."
She stands on her tiptoes and hugs him around the middle. "Back then I couldn't get you to come out with us, or talk, or even smile once in a while. Making you laugh was harder than Mechanics and Special Relativity."
He wraps an arm around her shoulders. "Back then I was coming right out of being homeless after the system dropped me." Pidge shudders against him and Keith rubs her back. "It's okay. I'm fine now." She's got her face buried in his shirt and he can feel it getting wet. "C'mon, Katie, it's okay."
After a couple of minutes, Pidge sniffles and pulls away, lifts up her glasses and wipes them on her sweatshirt before rearranging them on her face. "You've been through so much shit," she says sadly. "I hate it."
"Yeah." Keith drops a kiss to the top of her head. "But here I am. You created this." He holds his hands out, gesturing to himself. "This is your fault."
Pidge shakes her head. "Nah. You were already made. We just had to find you and let you out." She pokes him in the chest. "And there you are."
She hoists her backpack over her shoulder. "Mom will be back any minute and I still have to find Matt. Message me?" She pokes him again. "Every day, I want to know how you're doing. And that you and Lance haven't committed murder-suicide."
"You got it," he says. Pidge looks up and smiles at him. She hops up and kisses his cheek.
"See you on the flipside," she says, marching off to the loading zone. Keith hangs out on the Edison steps for a little bit, watching people stuffing suitcases into trunks and backseats and waiting for Lance to message him and let him know when to leave. And waiting. And waiting.
He's about to get his PADD out and call Lance to yell at him when Hunk spots him as he goes by with a box of baking supplies and veers off course.
"Sup, bro?" Hunk nods at him as he approaches. "You talk to Lance?"
"Yup," Keith calls out. "All set. Just wondering where the hell he is. What about you? How far do you have to go?"
"Austin," says Hunk. "I'm doing most of the driving, I think. Dad hates highways." He adjusts his box. "When are you leaving?"
Keith nods. "No idea, I don't even know where Lance went and he still hasn't messaged me. Have you seen him?"
"Not since this morning," says Hunk. "He's around somewhere, though. He's probably saying goodbye to Allura still."
"That's where I left him. Uh, how's that going?" He thinks about how nine months ago he wouldn't have given a shit about Lance and Allura even if he'd known them at the time, but now he's genuinely curious. Maybe even invested. Though he's not sure he'd wish Lance on anyone, let alone Allura. But inexplicably she seems to like him. Keith is very conflicted.
Hunk grins. "We're taking bets. I won the pool for you and Shiro, I totally knew the simulator would be the thing that did it for him, but I'm worried Pidge is going to win this one. Allura's parents live a few blocks from Lance's mom, so they're gonna hang out a lot this summer. Plenty of time for smoochin', yanno?"
"You know, you can put that down," Keith says, pointing at the box Hunk is trying valiantly to hang onto. Hunk grins sheepishly and puts it down on the steps. He exhales.
"Whew. Anyway, I think it'll be Halloween. Dissecting pumpkins can be romantic, in the right lighting. Oh!" He snaps his fingers. "We're renting a house next year, you and Pidge should get in on it. We're going to have so many parties. I'm going to fail my classes because I'll be cooking all the time." He doesn't look particularly upset about it.
"We'll see," is all Keith says. A house off-campus might be cool, though he kind of likes dorm life. He'll go where Pidge goes, though. He can't imagine not living with her again next year, and she'd told him the same thing two days ago and said she would hack the school's database again and assign them to Roddenberry if he wanted. Both options are tempting.
"So where's Shiro?" asks Hunk, looking around. "You guys are usually attached at the hip."
"He's coordinating with the Holts," says Keith. "He's going to Japan for the summer and they're taking him to the airport. They're also taking Atlas while he's gone."
"Cool, cool." Hunk rocks back and forth on his heels. "You guys are totally the power couple, you know that? You're two of the hottest guys on campus—shut up Keith, you're pretty hot, accept it, moving on," he says, when Keith starts to protest. "And then you start dating each other. And you keep beating each other's sim scores. Is that some kind of weird courtship thing?" Hunk looks a little uneasy. "Is it a sex thing?"
Keith shrugs. "Sometimes," he says. Hunk makes noises of pain and Keith smirks. "Most of the time though it's just dicking around with the sim."
"If those scores are just dicking around I really want to see what you do when you're actually trying." Hunk glances toward the parking lot when a blue Jeep pulls in. "There's my dad," he says, gesturing toward a man even bulkier than Hunk. His biceps are the size of Keith's head. He makes Shiro look as reedy as Lance. Definitely Hunk's dad.
Hunk picks up his box. "See you next year. Don't let Lance be, like, Lance too much. He actually really likes you, and he'll kill me for telling you that. He thinks you're super cool."
Keith laughs a little. "I don't know about that, but I'll take it under advisement." He nods at Hunk. "Take it easy, drive safe."
Hunk tries to salute with the box and almost drops it. "Nope, that isn't going to work. Okay, I salute you!" He stands up at attention for a moment, then gives Keith a goofy smile and trots off toward his dad.
Keith's about to go look in the parking lot for Lance and his sister when he spots Shiro on the other side of the quad. He's talking to Commander Holt and Professor Kaltenecker and—oh, there's Lance, hovering next to them. He catches Keith's eye and waves his arms around.
"There you are!" he yells. "C'mon, move it, Veronica's gonna kill us if we drag our asses."
Keith snorts and rises, hoisting his duffel over his shoulder. He looks at Shiro and when he catches his eye, Keith lifts his hand and gives him a little wave.
Beaming, Shiro waves back.
Keith hops off the stairs and goes to catch up with Lance.
And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
— The Little Prince
Chapter 13: Epilogue
[October, Sophomore Year]
Keith's eyes snap open when Allura comes flying into his room. At first all he sees is silver hair but then she appears out from behind it, grinning a little maniacally. He glances at the clock on the wall and groans.
"It's 3am. What is it with people waking me this early?" He flops back into the pillows. "Leave me alone, I told you guys, I have a cold and I want to sleep."
"But we've cracked it!" Allura bounces up and down like she's made of caffeine. At this hour she probably is. "The shjfgajhg sound! Come listen!"
Suddenly a bit more awake, Keith pulls himself out of bed and throws on a hoodie before following Allura to the living room. Matt, Hunk, Lance, and Pidge sit around one of Pidge's laptops, chattering excitedly. Shiro looks up when Keith comes in and holds out a hand that Keith takes. He allows himself to pulled in for a kiss on the temple. "Okay, I'm here," he says, stifling a cough. "Show me what you've got."
"Hand me the headphones, please," says Allura, waving her hand at Matt. He passes over the good ones and she hands them off to Keith. "Here, listen."
Keith nods and puts them on. He nods at Hunk, who presses PLAY.
He listens. He frowns.
Hunk nods and clicks. Keith shuts his eyes.
"It sounds like it's saying," he hesitates, trying the word out in his head first before he continues, "Vol—"
In the other room, Keith's knife starts to glow.