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the love you left behind

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He leaves the same way he came.

Slowly at first, like dipping your toes into the water and gradually wading in until you just start to get comfortable—and then all at once, unexpected and overwhelming in all the best and worst ways.

The only difference is, he leaves something behind that wasn't there before. 

It should make him feel empty, but instead, it leaves him bursting at the seams with unchecked emotion that's begging to be let out.

Because that's how love works, isn't it? It comes and goes in waves; either you fight against it until your heart aches with the effort, or let it wash over you until you're drowning in it.

The irony lies in how it all ends the same, anyway: everything goes down in flames.

 

He still sees him, sometimes. Chatting in the hallways, laughing at something from across the lounge, smiling at him in the mirror while he's getting ready for the day.

He's everywhere.

Everywhere, but here.

I love you, Adam.

Famous last words. He almost wishes he hadn't said them.

 

The pain never lessens, exactly; more like he becomes desensitized to it, after being exposed to it for so long.

Eventually, it gets better. At the very least, it becomes manageable. Coexistence is the concept that comes to mind. He knows he's not the only one dealing with it.

Sometimes he'll catch Keith staring at the old, beat-up leather armchair that he always used to sit in to read, before he left. 

"What are you thinking about?" he always asks.

And Keith always looks at him, and says: "Nothing," and then pretends to work on his homework, even though his mouth turns down and his brow creases and his eyes never leave the same spot on the page. 

He doesn't say anything when Keith climbs into the backseat of the car every morning, even though he's seventeen years old, and the front passenger seat is empty.

Keith doesn't say anything, either, when Adam absent-mindedly touches the ring hanging around his neck that he keeps tucked underneath his collar, or finds himself staring distractedly at the old picture frames on their bookshelves.

Because they both understand. They're both familiar with the feeling of missing something that's become so much a part of them that they feel lost without it.

   

He comes home late one night to find Keith passed out on the couch, pages of flight equations and physics calculations scattered across his lap and the coffee table. Adam shakes his head with a quiet sigh as he collects the papers and stacks them into a neat pile on the table. He finds a blanket in the hall closet and carefully lays it over him before going to the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee, despite it being nearly midnight and the fact that the caffeine will probably keep him up for at least an hour more than he'd like. Keith wanders in soon after with the blanket draped over his shoulders and climbs onto one of the stools at the counter, rubbing his eyes.

"You're back late," he notes, watching as Adam pours the coffee into a mug.

"Had to finish up a few things at work." Adam explains patiently. He glances over his shoulder. "Want some hot chocolate?"

"I'm not twelve," Keith mutters, although Adam notes the hopeful look in his eyes when he reaches for the empty kettle on the stove. 

So Adam starts some anyway, smiling to himself when Keith doesn't say anything as he pulls the milk from the fridge and fills the kettle. He puts it to warm on the stove before pulling out another stool and sitting down beside Keith with his coffee. "Looks like you've been studying pretty hard."

Keith glances over at the stack of papers in the living room. "I guess."

Adam takes his coffee in his hands and twists in his chair to press his back to the counter, looking out at the stars through the window. "Your scores for last week's flight simulations came in. You're doing really well." He blows into the coffee, frowning when it fogs up his glasses and Keith stifles an amused huff. "Still have quite a lead on Griffin, too."

The expression on Keith's face sours, and he drops his chin into his hand. "I could care less."

"That implies that you do, in fact, care."

He rolls his eyes. "Let me rephrase, then. I don't care."

"Not even a little?"

Keith groans in exasperation and buries his face in his arms, and Adam laughs a little as he gets back up to take the kettle off the stove, pouring the milk into a mug and stirring in the chocolate mix from the cabinet. "Whipped cream?"

"What kind of dumb question is that?" Keith's muffled voice comes from behind him. Adam finds the can stuffed in the back of the fridge and piles a generous amount into the mug, then slides it across the counter into Keith's waiting hands. "Thanks," he mumbles. 

Adam sits back down, crossing one leg over the other. "Anything interesting happen today?"

He glances at Keith out of the corner of his eye when he doesn't respond right away, the relaxed smile on his face fading when he realizes Keith is just staring down at the mound of whipped cream, instead of digging into it like he usually does. In other words: he's distracted. Adam slowly sets his own mug down onto the counter, watching Keith carefully. He hesitates—and then, quietly: "What are you thinking about?"

Keith shifts a little as he starts absent-mindedly tracing his finger around the rim of his mug. "Shiro always made fun of me for eating so much whipped cream," he says softly.

It's the first time Adam thinks Keith has answered his question honestly. And, the first time he's heard Keith actually talk about him in months. He studies him for a moment, before looking back down at his coffee. "I know."

Keith reaches up to rub his eyes again, and Adam doesn't say anything, but he thinks maybe this time it's not just because he's tired. "I keep thinking I'll wake up and he'll just—" he breaks off to find the right words, then shakes his head slightly. "I don't know. Be here."

Adam takes his glasses off and folds them on the counter, scrubbing a hand down his face. He tries not to think about all the mornings he's woken up and rolled over expectantly, only to find a cold, empty space next to him. "Yeah."

"I just—" Keith pushes the hair out of his face, then lets it fall back into his eyes with a sigh. "—want things to go back to normal."

"They will," Adam murmurs, even though he's not sure that's true. "Eventually."

They're quiet, for a while. Keith still doesn't drink any of the hot chocolate, only tugs the blanket tighter around his shoulders and wraps his hands around the mug for warmth. Adam thinks his coffee has probably gone cold, but he's too distracted to care all that much. He wishes he had more to say, but the fact of the matter is that he's in the same boat as Keith. It's easier to wish for what used to be instead of accepting what is.

Keith's next question is a little unexpected.

"Do you still love him?" he asks quietly.

Adam laughs softly. "Of course I do." He takes his glasses from the counter and pushes them back onto his nose. "Don't get me wrong, I'm still pissed as hell." Keith snorts, and Adam instinctively brings his hand up to the chain around his neck as he looks back out the window, at the stars. "But, yeah. I still love him. That much hasn't changed." That much will never change.

Keith smiles a little, and finally takes a sip of the hot chocolate. Adam refrains from pointing out his new whipped cream mustache. "Speaking of change, will you move the astrophysics test back to next week?"

"Not a chance."

Adam is a little too tired to bother scolding Keith for swearing under his breath.

Despite a few stifled yawns and stubbornly insisting that he isn't tired, Keith falls asleep again a few minutes later, arms sprawled across the counter and cheek pressed to the cool marble surface. Adam doesn't want to risk waking him, so he just readjusts the blanket, turns out the lights (he leaves one on in the hallway, in case Keith wakes up later and needs to get to his room), and retreats into his own bedroom, closing the door quietly.

When he finally climbs into bed for the night, the empty space beside him is just a little bit more noticeable than it usually is.

 

Adam looks up from his lecture notes when Keith walks into class at the end of the week, his head ducked down with one of his classmates' as they whisper conspiratorially to one another. He watches in quiet amusement as the other boy—Lance McClain, as pictured on the class roster—says something; Keith snickers, and Adam smiles to himself before they part ways, Keith heading toward his desk near the back of the room, Lance toward his near the front. 

This has been something of a regular occurrence for a while now, even before the crew left for the Kerberos mission. They have an interesting dynamic, to say the least. Keith is relatively quiet, reserved, and generally (outwardly) disinterested. Lance, on the other hand, is loud, lively, and exceedingly energetic. Put them together, and somehow it all evens out. The two of them seem inseparable, walking to and from class, eating in the commissary, waiting for their turn on the flight simulator—always together. Keith would never admit it, but Adam thinks this McClain kid might be the only person he's ever seen Keith willingly smile at. Which Adam sees firsthand, because Keith's eyes will trail toward the front of the classroom and his lips will quirk up just so every time Lance raises his hand to ask a question—and he asks a lot of questions.

Like today. Keith’s been staring out the window for the entirety of Adam’s lecture, chin propped in his hand. He likes to pretend he's not paying attention, but Adam knows that he's actually absorbing everything he says like a sponge, if his grades are any indication of that. Then Lance raises his hand, and Keith's eyes flick to the front of the room when Adam pauses mid-sentence to call on him.

"Okay," Lance starts, as if he's got an entire monologue planned. ”You know how we've only explored, like, less than five percent of the ocean to date?"

Adam sticks his pen behind his ear and folds his arms. He's not sure where Lance is going with this, but he knows from experience that it'll go—somewhere. "Not sure what this has to do with dark energy, but go on."

"Well, it got me thinking.”

Adam tries not to smile when, out of the corner of his eye, he sees Keith fully turn away from the window to watch Lance curiously.

”So you're saying that the majority of the universe is made out of dark matter, which is all the stuff we can't see. Right?"

"Right," Adam agrees slowly.

"And we've barely even explored a twentieth of our own planet's oceans. Here, on Earth, where we all live and breathe every day. So how much of space have we actually explored?"

He considers Lance for a moment, mouth quirking up as the class collectively turns to await his response. "Interestingly enough, less than five percent to date."

Lance squints a little as he processes. "I need some kind of comparison."

Adam sits at the corner of his desk and crosses one leg over the other. "In theory, the entire diameter of the universe is estimated to be about ninety-three billion light-years long."

There's a brief pause, and then Lance just gives him a deadpan look. "I have no idea what to do with that information." There are a few giggles and slight nods of agreement from the class.

"Okay then," Adam allows, tapping his finger on his arm. "What do you want to use for reference?"

"How many oceans could fit in it?" Lance asks immediately, and Keith actually smiles, although he seems to duck his head down slightly as if to hide it. 

Just to humor him, Adam returns to the large screen on the wall behind him and opens an empty page. "First thing's first, we have to translate the light-years into miles." He writes out the conversions with his finger as a few other students call out the necessary numbers and units, then completes the calculation. "So if the universe is about five point five times ten to the twenty-third power miles—"

Lance's hand shoots into the air again. "Divide it by eleven thousand nine hundred!"

Adam glances over his shoulder. "Interesting you should know the collective distance of Earth's oceans off the top of your head, McClain."

"I'm very intelligent," he allows, grinning as he leans back in his seat with his hands behind his head. There are a few muffled groans among his classmates. "Or maybe I googled it before class. I'll never tell."

Adam just shakes his head and continues the calculation, stepping back from the screen after circling the final number and turning to measure Lance's reaction.

"Four point six two times ten to the nineteenth power," Lance reads slowly. "Oceans." Adam can practically see the gears turning in his head. 

“The universe is a big place,” he says, smiling a little. “That’s why we need people like you to get out there and see it.” 

Lance looks a little starstruck. “Dude,” he breathes. “Imagine how many whales we could fit into the universe—" 

"Okay, back to the lecture," Adam interrupts, earning another few quiet giggles from the class when Lance sinks back into his seat with a dramatic pout. Keith's gaze returns to the window. 

When Adam lets class out, Lance slips out of his seat and marches up to the front of the room and plants his hands on the desk. "I have another question."

"Shoot," Adam responds, amused. 

"Dark energy acts like the opposite of gravity and is probably what's causing the universe to continuously expand."

Keith joins them as the rest of the students empty the room and hoists himself onto the desk, ignoring Adam's annoyed look. Lance just stares at him expectantly. He raises an eyebrow. "...Is that your question?"

Lance sticks his arms straight up in the air, earning an irritated huff when he almost thwacks Keith in the side of the head. "What happens when you get to the end of the universe?"

"There isn't an end, technically speaking," Adam explains patiently. "Our best guess so far is that it's expanding like a balloon." 

"Very scientific," Keith says dryly. 

Lance lets out a squawk of disbelief. "Keith! This is serious! I cannot, with a good conscience, tell the future love of my life that I would go the ends of the universe for them if there is no end!" 

Keith rolls his eyes, but Adam notes the way one corner of his mouth barely turns up, the way it does when he's trying not to smile. "It's just an expression, Lance."

"Oh, Keith," Adam pats his arm sympathetically, receiving a half-hearted scowl in return. "Where's your sense of romance?"

"We're leaving," Keith announces, sliding off the desk and pulling Lance along with him toward the door. 

Lance waves as Keith practically drags him out of the room. "Bye Dr. Wajdi!"

"Call me Adam," he calls back. 

"Bye Adam!" 

"Bye Dr. Wajdi," Keith's sarcastic voice floats back from further down the hallway.

Adam rolls his eyes and smiles.

 

"So," Adam says in the car later, after they've left the Garrison. 

"Don't," Keith says from the backseat. 

Adam does. "You seem to be getting along pretty well with—" 

"Adam," Keith groans and sinks lower in his seat. "I don't want to do this right now."

"Do what?" Adam glances at Keith's irritated reflection in the rearview mirror, resisting the urge to smirk.

"Oh my god," Keith mutters. 

"It's just nice seeing you really connect with someone," Adam clarifies. 

"Gee, thanks."

"He's very," he pauses, searching for the right word. "Expressive."

"I guess," Keith allows. 

"Pretty passionate, too," Adam continues, watching him carefully.

Keith folds his arms and kicks lightly at something in the floor of the car. "Mhm."

"He makes you smile a lot."

Adam expects some kind of protest, but instead Keith just turns and glances out the window, chewing on his lip. He watches him for a moment, glancing back and forth between the road and the rearview mirror, but he doesn't press any further. He realizes he doesn't need to, anyway. Keith's silence says enough.

 

He's grading papers in the living room the next afternoon when Keith tries to duck out the front door without him noticing. "Where do you think you're going?"

Keith's shoulders visibly slump as he slowly turns, his hand still on the doorknob. "I was just gonna take the bike out for a little bit."

Adam slowly sets his pen down, and Keith shifts uncomfortably. He hasn't even touched the bike since the crew left for Kerberos. "Really?" is all Adam asks, even though he suspects he's not getting the full story.

"Yes?" Keith tries.

He attempts a small, hopeful smile when Adam narrows his eyes at him. Just to add to the suspense, he lets the silence stretch for a bit longer than is strictly necessary before returning to his papers. "I'd better not get a call from the police telling me I have to come pick you up later."

Keith's eyes light up and he swings the door open with a big smile. "You won't," he assures him, maybe a little too excitedly. "Promise. Bye!" And then the door closes and Adam watches through the window as he practically leaps down the front steps and quickly starts for the bike shed.

Adam just shuffles the papers in his lap and smiles to himself. “There it is.”

 

Keith comes home late that night, discarding his jacket into a crumpled pile on the floor and sinking down onto the other end of the couch. He slumps down until his knees bump the coffee table and closes his eyes with an exhausted sigh.

"You're back late," Adam observes, setting his book down.

"Didn't realize I had a curfew," Keith mutters tiredly.

Adam eyes him for a moment, considering. "When are you going to invite him over?"

Keith opens his eyes and turns his head to squint at him. "What?"

"That's what you've been doing all day, isn't it? Hanging out with that kid from class."

"I—wh—no," he stammers.

"What's his name again?" Adam asks casually. "Landon?"

"His name is Lance—" Keith catches himself, but his face flushes when Adam just smiles knowingly. He scowls and turns away, crossing his arms over his chest. "It's not—he's just—" Adam can't help but laugh as he snatches the blanket draped over the couch and hides underneath it with a muffled groan. "Whatever, Adam. He just wanted help studying for your dumb test next week."

Adam considers this, taking a sip of coffee to hide his smile, since Lance has one of the highest grades in the class. "Hm. Interesting."

Keith peeks out from underneath the blanket and shoots him an annoyed look. "What are you reading?" he asks, in a clear attempt to change the subject rather than out of genuine curiosity.

"The Connection Between Space Exploration and the Ocean," Adam reads off the cover.

"Nerd."

He gives Keith a sidelong glance. "I bet Lance would like it."

Keith splutters as Adam just smiles again. "I hate you," he mutters, disappearing back underneath the blanket.

When he doesn't reemerge, Adam picks his book back up and continues reading. After a while, Keith finally lets the blanket fall into a bunch on his lap and he rubs his eyes. "I'm going to sleep," he announces. 

"Thank you for the information," Adam says without looking up. Then Keith just slumps over, his bangs spilling over the cushions with the momentum as he pulls his knees up onto the couch and lets the blanket settle over him. Adam lowers his book. "Oh. You mean, right here."

"Yep." Keith's voice is muffled by the fleece tucked underneath his chin.

"You're sure you don't want to sleep in—you know, an actual bed?"

Keith opens his eyes to glance at Adam, slowly. Adam raises an eyebrow. Then Keith closes his eyes again and seems to tuck a little tighter into himself. "Jus' don't wanna be by myself," he says quietly.

The honesty of it catches Adam a little off guard. His gaze lingers for a moment on the bundle, that is Keith, lying on the couch beside him, watching the way his body rises and falls and listening to the sound of his soft breathing. It makes his heart ache just a little, remembering all the times Keith had fallen asleep on the couch just like this. Only before, there'd been at least one other person in the room.

"Watching me sleep is weird," Keith mumbles sleepily, without opening his eyes. 

Adam lets out a huff of laughter, and returns to his book.

(He falls asleep about an hour later, the book lying open on his chest, arm resting across Keith's back.)

 

Keith hangs back after Adam ends class a few days later, letting Lance go ahead of him into the hallway and pausing with one hand on the doorframe.

"Hey, Adam?"

Adam looks up from his tablet. "Yes?"

Keith glances back over his shoulder uncertainly before looking back at Adam, although he seems to be avoiding direct eye contact. "Can, um." He shifts a little. "Can Lance come over after classes today?"

Adam smiles, but he decides not to make this any harder for Keith than it probably already is. "Sure. He can come home with us and we'll just bring him back before his curfew tonight."

Keith tries but fails not to smile back. "Okay."

"Hey!" Lance's voice can be heard down the hallway, and Keith turns to look. "Hurry up Mullet, we're gonna be late for the flight simulation!"

"I'm coming!" Keith calls. 

"Mullet?" Adam teases, raising an eyebrow.

"Not a word," Keith points a vaguely threatening finger in Adam's direction before disappearing from the doorway. He reappears just a few seconds later and clears his throat. "Please," he adds. 

Adam laughs. "Bye, Keith."

Keith bites his lip to conceal another small smile. "Thanks," he says quickly, and then jogs back out into the hallway.

 

It's on the way home that afternoon, that Adam finally solves at least part of the mystery of how Keith and Lance get along so well. Lance pretty much never stops talking the entire way there, filling Keith in on whatever parts of his day that he missed, telling stories about his family, going on and on about what he would do if he ever got stranded somewhere out in the middle of space. Keith seems content to just sit and listen. Adam keeps quiet, occasionally glancing discreetly in the rearview mirror. The smile on Keith's face is still there every time he looks.

Adam lets them have the living room to themselves for a while, although he leaves his bedroom door cracked open out of innocent curiosity so he can still hear them. 

It sounds like they do homework for a while. Adam learns that Lance tends to study everything out loud, reading quietly and muttering under his breath as he solves calculations. When he comes out into the kitchen to make some coffee, Lance calls out an enthusiastic 'hello,' and Keith offers a shy smile before ducking his head. And at some point, he hears Keith start laughing, although he missed what Lance said that was so funny. Eventually, the noise sort of fades comfortably into the background. Adam is reading his own book when something Lance says catches his attention again. 

"Hey, when do we get to go for another ride on your bike thing again?"

Keith sounds like he was caught off guard. "Oh—I mean—do you want to? Again?"

"Uh, duh. It's only like, the coolest thing ever. Where'd you get it, anyway?"

"It was my dad's," Keith answers. 

"That's cool," Lance says, and Adam can't help but admire how easily he says it, without the implied pity he knows Keith hates so much. Then it occurs to him that the way Keith answered Lance's question so quickly, and so willingly, suggests that he's talked to him about his dad before. Lance continues. "Who taught you how to ride it and stuff?"

Adam stills then, listening intently. It's become quiet outside his door. 

"Oh," Lance speaks again, realization in  his voice. "Sorry, I didn't—"

"No, it's okay," Keith says, although he sounds suddenly subdued. He doesn't say anything else, and Adam has to resist the urge to go outside.

It's quiet again, for a moment. Then: "You miss him." Lance says it more like an observation than a question. 

There's a bit of shuffling. "Yeah," Keith answers softly. 

Curiosity gets the better of him, and Adam silently gets up and moves to the door, leaning against the wall to listen. 

When Lance talks again, his voice is hushed. "Do you ever talk to Adam about him? I'm sure he understands."

Adam pushes the door open slightly and peeks out into the living room. They're both sitting on the floor with their backs to him, books and papers scattered across the coffee table in front of them. Keith is shaking his head slowly.

"Sometimes." He pauses. "Not really."

"Why not?" Lance asks, like he's genuinely trying to understand.

Keith pushes his hair back, and Adam can tell he's frustrated. "Because. That wouldn't be fair." 

Lance shifts so that he's facing Keith completely. He's frowning now, which Adam has quickly realized seems to be a rare occurrence for Lance. "What do you mean?"

"Well—" Keith's hand falls back into his lap, and he starts to pick at the cuff of his jacket. "He misses him too. More than me. And I miss him a lot, so—" His voice cracks, and Adam feels something tug at his heart. "I can't imagine how bad it must be for Adam already. I don't talk about him because I don't want Adam to feel worse just so I can feel better."

Adam watches as Lance bites his lip, then looks down at his hands, his voice growing impossibly softer. "You know you can talk to me about it."

Keith's head turns slightly as if to look at Lance, who looks back up. "I know," Keith says quietly, and Lance offers him a small smile. 

That seems to end the conversation. Keith looks away, and Adam notes the way that Lance's smile seems to fade, his expression replaced with a kind of uncertainty, before they both slowly return to whatever work they were doing before they started talking. Adam watches for a moment longer, then retreats back into his room, sinking down onto the bed. Something suddenly seems to be weighing heavily on his chest. Either that, or he's suddenly aware of what was already there. He lets his head fall back and shakes his head at the ceiling, before closing his eyes and letting out a quiet sigh.

Adam had thought—hoped—that maybe Keith was starting to get comfortable with sharing his feelings, that they were making progress. And he'd especially hoped he'd made it clear that it was welcome, even encouraged. Apparently, he hasn't communicated that well enough. 

He tries to read for a while longer, although his mind is too distracted now. He ends up re-reading the same sentence or paragraph over and over again because once he starts it, by the time he reaches the end he doesn't remember half of what he's read. His mind is caught up replaying the boys' conversation in his head, and the reason Keith gave for keeping all of this to himself—how he doesn't want Adam to feel worse just so he can feel better. Adam works his jaw, frustrated. That wouldn't be fair. He closes his eyes and shakes his head. What isn't fair, is Keith making himself go through this alone. That's what makes Adam feel worse.

If he weren't worried that Keith would realize Adam had been eavesdropping, he would bring it up later, after Lance is gone. Maybe not even tonight, but soon. He can't let Keith go on like that. 

Adam goes out into the living room an hour or two later, after it's gotten dark outside.  

"It's probably time we take you back, Lance."

Keith and Lance both look up from the book they're hunched over. Keith blinks, confused, and Lance turns to look out the window. "Wait, already?"

Adam laughs a little. "Yeah, already. You need to be back before curfew."

"But you're a professor. Couldn't you like, write me a note or something? So I can stay a little longer? You know, bend the rules?"

"As a professor, I'm probably supposed to enforce the rules," Adam says. 

"You do look really tired," Keith allows, looking at Lance, even though he sounds a little disappointed.

"I'm not tired!" Lance protests, although the yawn he stifles immediately after says otherwise. 

Keith closes the book and shoves it into Lance's bag for him. "You tried."

Adam goes back into his room to get the keys while the boys start packing up Lance's things. Keith passes him when he comes back into the hallway. 

"I'm coming," he promises. "Lance wanted to borrow one of my flight manuals."

"Be quick," Adam agrees, before Keith disappears into his room.

But when Adam comes back out into the living room, Lance is standing at the bookshelf, his bag lying on the ground near his feet. He's staring distractedly at the picture frames on the shelf just below his line of vision, his brow creased thoughtfully. Adam slowly sits down on the armrest of the couch, watching for a moment. He doesn't think Lance realizes he isn't alone anymore, and the longer he stares at the pictures, the deeper his frown seems to become. When Adam finally clears his throat, Lance jumps and whips around, looking like he's been caught. 

"Oh! Sorry, I was just looking at—" His eyes flick from Adam back to the shelf behind him uncertainly. "Uh—"

"Relax, Lance," Adam laughs, holding his hands out placatingly. "It's fine. That's what they're there for."

Lance's shoulders deflate a little, and he turns a little to look again at the pictures. A brief moment of silence passes between them before he speaks again. "How much longer will he be gone?" he asks tentatively. 

"If everything goes according to schedule?" Adam bites back a sigh. "A year. Maybe longer." Lance doesn't say anything after that, but the crease in his brow has reappeared. Adam folds his arms, drumming his fingers. This could be his chance to find out what else Keith has said about all this, if anything. "Does Keith ever talk about him?" he asks carefully.  

He's not particularly surprised when Lance shakes his head slowly. "No." He seems to hesitate, then: "Sometimes I think he only lets me talk as much as I do because it helps distract him from hurting so much."

Adam can't help but stare a little, after that. Because he's suddenly realizing that there is much more to this boy than meets the eye. He only ever sees the loud, enthusiastic side of him; never the sensitive, subdued side—the side that sees when people are hurting and actively tries to help in any way he can. No wonder Keith seems drawn to him, after all that's happened in his life. Adam opens his mouth to respond, but then Keith comes back into the room, and Lance jumps away from the bookshelf. 

"I found it—" Keith slows to a stop when he looks up from the book in his hand and sees both Adam and Lance staring at him. "What?"

Lance quickly recovers. "Thanks, Keith!" He hoists his bag onto his shoulder and crosses the room toward him, giving him a somewhat forced smile before taking the book out of Keith's hands and slipping it into his bag. Keith shoots a questioning look at Adam, who just shrugs and gets up from the couch, doing his best to feign nonchalance. 

"Ready to go?" 

"Ready." Lance shoots Keith another smile, pulling him along as they follow Adam to the door and down the steps to the car parked out front. 

The ride back to the Garrison is much quieter than the ride to the house had been. Not that that's a bad thing. When Adam peeks in the rearview mirror, Lance has fallen asleep with his head on Keith's shoulder. 

Keith is looking out the window, a faint smile tugging at his lips. For the first time in a long time, he looks content. 

So Adam is too. 

 

Lance starts coming over a bit more frequently after that—about once a week, especially when they both have a big test to study for. Adam has to shoo Lance away on multiple occasions when he starts trying to (mostly jokingly) convince him to give them the answers on their homework assignments. And at the Garrison, Keith and Lance regularly stay for a minute or two after class to talk with Adam.

So far, Adam has learned three important things about Lance:

One, he can seem loud and obnoxious at times, but he's actually incredibly sensitive to everyone around him.
Two, he doesn't like whipped cream in his hot chocolate, only marshmallows.
And three, he seems to make Keith really, really happy.

Adam tries to keep his teasing to a minimum, mostly for Keith's sake, but also because he's genuinely glad to see Keith smiling again. 

He ends class early one day, and doesn't even blink when Keith and Lance both wind up at his desk. 

"Can you show us that picture of the white hole again?" Lance asks excitedly as Keith takes his regular seat at the edge of the desk, swinging his legs.

Adam hums, picking up his tablet and pulling up the picture Lance is talking about. "Remember, I said it's not a real white hole. Just what it would look like, in theory. We're still not sure they actually exist."

"Didn't they use to say that about black holes?" Keith points out, looking over Lance's shoulder as Adam places the tablet back down onto the desk.

"Yes, but just because white holes could exist doesn't necessarily mean that they actually do."

"Today, I make a vow," Lance says, holding a hand to his heart, although he's still peering curiously at the picture. "I will be among the first to discover an actual real-life white hole. You guys are my witnesses."

"I'm holding you to that," Adam says very seriously as Keith rolls his eyes, even though he smiles when Lance laughs. 

They're interrupted by the sound of someone clearing their throat. "Dr. Wajdi."

The three of them look up from where they're hunched around Adam's tablet to see Iverson in the doorway, hands clasped behind his back. Keith and Lance both immediately snap to attention, but Iverson quickly waves them off. "At ease, cadets."

Adam straightens slowly, measuring Iverson's body language. He looks tense—that's the norm, generally speaking—but even more so than usual. And his expression is unusually unreadable. "Everything alright?" 

Iverson's eyes sweep across the three of them, like he's considering. He steps back out into the hallway. "You'd better come with me." Then he fixes his gaze on Keith. "You too, Kogane." 

Adam sees Lance frown, and Keith's eyes widen slightly and his shoulders go stiff. He tries to stay relaxed. "Of course." 

Lance watches them go, a befuddled expression on his face, and then Iverson is leading them toward the offices.

He can't help it. Adam can't help but worry. He takes a quiet breath in an effort to calm his nerves and push down the panic already trying to climb up his throat. There are only so many reasons that Iverson would seek both Adam and Keith out during scheduled class hours to meet with them privately. The way Keith is staying close to Adam's side and stares straight ahead, a slight crease in his brow, tells him he's probably thinking the same thing. Adam feels unsettled and off-center, his heartbeat quickening slightly the longer they walk on in silence. They must draw the curious gaze of every single cadet they pass, but he sets his jaw and maintains his composure. This must look bad, probably suggests that something is very wrong, but maybe everything is fine. Maybe they just have a status report, or they've received some kind of special transmission. Maybe there's no reason to worry.

When they arrive, Iverson steps aside to let them into his office, where two other supervising officers—Walker and Lovell—are already waiting. And Adam does not like the looks on their faces. The door shuts and Iverson moves toward his desk, motioning toward the two chairs in front of it. "Have a seat."

Neither of them move. Adam sees Keith glance at him out of the corner of his eye, his expression uneasy. "What's this about, Iverson?" Adam asks as calmly as he can. 

For better or worse, Iverson cuts right to the chase. "The team on the Kerberos mission."

Adam's blood freezes, and he feels Keith stiffen beside him. His hand unconsciously goes to the ring tucked underneath his collar, and he has to force his mind to go quiet after a rush of horrible thoughts and assumptions flood in. "What about the team?" 

The look on Iverson's face says it all. Adam feels the blood draining from his own. 

"No," Keith whispers beside him. Then, louder: "No. No—"

Adam puts a calming hand on Keith's shoulder, which is hard to do when his entire body is so numb he can hardly feel it and it's taking all his strength to keep his voice level. "Iverson."

"They've missed the past two check-ins," Iverson continues, and Adam is trying to decide if he appreciates or resents the way he seems to be intentionally keeping any emotion out of his voice. "Nothing is showing up on the satellite feed, and we've lost all contact with them." 

The tension in the room is almost unbearable. Adam tries to think logically, fighting down the rising panic in his chest. "Can't you get a read on their location? Their spacecraft should be sending regular transmissions—"

"Those transmissions stopped coming in about a week ago," Walker cuts in, shaking his head. 

There's a second of silence. A week ago. Radio silence from the Kerberos mission for an entire week. Seven days, with no contact. Adam can't believe his ears.

Keith recovers before Adam does. "And you're just now telling us?" he asks suddenly, his tone sharp. 

"Keith," Adam warns, tightening his hand on his shoulder despite how much he's struggling to keep his own composure. Keith reluctantly backs down and Adam looks back at Iverson. "There must be some way to reach them."

Iverson clears his throat. "We've done all we can to make contact, with no results. They're officially MIA."

"Then we have to send out another crew to look for them," Keith says immediately. "That's what you're doing. Right?" 

Walker and Lovell glance at one another, and Iverson just looks at him. "No."

"What do you—" Keith's eyes narrow dangerously. "What do you mean no—"

"Keith," Adam warns again, but Keith angrily shrugs his hand off his shoulder and steps forward, his fists clenched.

"No, this is—there should already be people out there looking for them—"

"We've already done all we can," Iverson repeats, fixing a hardened gaze on Keith. "We have to assume the worst."

Both Keith and Adam freeze at that. It's getting increasingly difficult for Adam to even breathe. "Iverson—" 

"Adam," Lovell starts gently, which only makes the feeling worse. "It's the only explanation."

"What is?" Keith demands, and Adam doesn't reprimand him this time. He holds his breath. 

"They're dead," Iverson says flatly, and Adam feels like something just snapped in his chest. "Most likely crashed, due to pilot error."

There's a moment of awful, deadly silence. Adam feels completely detached, Iverson's words echoing mercilessly in his mind so loudly he can hardly process it. This can't—they're wrong. They have to be wrong. There has to be some kind of mistake. There has to be. But before he can voice anything, Keith snaps.

"Pilot error?" he spits. 

The only reason Adam manages to keep himself together is so he can try to diffuse the situation before Keith does something he regrets. "Don't, Keith—" he tries, but Keith won't be interrupted, only raises his voice to make sure he's heard. 

"Shiro is the best damn pilot the Garrison has ever seen and you're going to stand here and tell me the entire crew is dead because of pilot error?" 

"Stand down, cadet," Iverson orders, a dangerous glint in his eyes.

"You're just giving up that easily?" Keith is near shouting now, his fists still clenched and his face twisted into a scowl. "You don't even know what happened, they could still be out there!"

"This is your final warning, Kogane—"

Then Keith lunges forward and Adam isn't fast enough to stop his fist from connecting with Iverson's face.

"Keith!" Adam cries, reaching out and grabbing his other arm before he can get in another punch—Walker and Lovell both leap to their feet as Iverson staggers backward into the desk, holding a hand to his face. All of Adam's feelings are momentarily forgotten as he struggles to hold Keith back, who's still trying to get back at Iverson. "Keith, stop—" 

"Let go of me!" Keith nearly succeeds in ripping his arm out of Adam's grasp, but Walker manages to grab hold of his other as Lovell steadies Iverson, her expression frantic. "You aren't even trying to find them—"

"Get him out of here," Iverson growls, his voice deadly calm given the circumstances. 

Adam's heart is beating uncontrollably in his chest as he and Walker start to wrestle a shouting Keith out the door and back into the hallway. "No! No, they're still out there!" He tries to wrench his wrist out of Walker's hand, kicking at their feet. "Get off me—" He's drawing the attention of every cadet who happens to be in the hallway, until a small crowd is gathering to watch the commotion. Keith keeps thrashing, pushing against Adam's chest in an effort to free himself. "You can't just leave them out there!" he yells, his voice echoing through the hallways as everyone starts muttering amongst themselves, eyes wide. Adam hears someone ask what's going on, but he doesn't have time for explanations.

"Parking lot," he manages to say over Keith's shouting, and Walker nods. They've managed to drag Keith halfway to Adam's car before he finally seems to give up and lets them lead him the rest of the way, although his breathing is heavy and his shoulders are shaking.

"Oh my god," he starts muttering, his eyes wide and panicky. Adam can't tell if he's finally realizing what he just did, or if he's still stuck on what Iverson said. "Oh my god, oh my god—"

Adam wrenches the passenger door open and they have to half-guide Keith into the seat before Adam shuts the door again, taking in a deep breath. He can't seem to form any coherent thoughts, his mind is too dazed and frazzled and his body feels too numb and absolutely nothing seems to make sense right now. Right now, all he knows is that he needs to get Keith home. Getting Keith home is his primary focus.

Walker puts a hand on his arm. "Adam, I'm so sorry. Lovell and I wanted to tell you sooner—" 

Adam shakes his head, waving him off. "Just—I'll be back, later. But I've got to—" He takes another deep breath, glancing through the window at Keith, who's got one hand clutching at the collar of his uniform, the other clamped over his mouth as he stares straight ahead, his entire body still visibly shaking. 

Walker's hand pulls away. "I'll find someone to sub for your afternoon classes."

He just nods distractedly, already making his way around to the driver's side. "Thank you." 

Walker watches as he climbs into the car and starts the engine, looking once at Keith. Now he has his head between his knees, his fingers digging into his scalp in a clear attempt not to break down, and it physically pains Adam to see him like this, but his mind is so blank, he doesn't know what to do, or say. He reaches out, then thinks better of it and pulls away, staring ahead and peeling out of the parking lot.

All he remembers about the drive back home is that it was deafeningly silent; other than that, his body goes on auto-pilot, making the usual twists and turns like he has so many times before without a second thought. Keith doesn't move once, his hair twisted in his fingers so tightly Adam knows it has to be hurting him. When they pull up to the house, Adam lets the car sit idly for a moment, staring at nothing in particular. He lets out a breath and kills the engine, looking over at the hunched body in the seat next to him. 

"Keith."

He still doesn't move, so Adam climbs out of the car and goes around to the passenger side and opens the door.

Keith does look up then, clamping his hands on his knees, and Adam almost gasps at the near-literal fire in his eyes. "You're not just gonna sit back and let this happen, are you?"

Adam rests his hand on the door, his heart sinking. "Keith—I just don't know if there's anything I can do—"

"Were you even listening back there?" Keith snaps, unfolding completely and forcing Adam to move back a few steps as he clambers out of the car and onto the ground, his fists clenched. "Adam—"

"I know, Keith," Adam interrupts. "I know. Just—" He falters, rubbing his forehead in an attempt to clear his head. This is all so messed up, he doesn't know where to start. "I don't know what you want me to say. We don't know everything yet, okay? The best thing we can do is just wait—"

"Bullshit!" Keith shouts, shoving Adam in the chest so that he staggers slightly. Adam's a little too taken aback to immediately address it—he's never, in all the years he's known him, seen Keith this angry. "What if they're stuck out there and they need our help, what if they—" He rakes a hand through his hair, gritting his teeth, his chest heaving. "You don't even care, do you?" 

Adam's mouth actually drops open at that, and his gaze hardens, everything else forgotten. That was low. Even for Keith. He's let him off the hook for plenty of insensitive comments, but this one? "Excuse me?"

"You don't care," Keith repeats furiously, moving to push at Adam again, who catches his wrist this time. "You don't even care about—"

"I'd be really careful with your next words if I were you," Adam finally snaps, glaring. "You're already on thin ice after what you pulled back there. You'll be lucky if you're not expelled."

"Good riddance," Keith hisses, ripping himself out of Adam's grasp and shoving past him to climb the front steps and let himself into the house. 

"Keith," Adam says sharply as he swings the door open. "Don't you dare—" 

"You're just as bad as they are!" Keith yells at him, whipping around in the doorway. His voice sounds strained from so much shouting, but that doesn't seem to keep him from stopping. "You're all cowards. And liars—"

"Come back, Keith," Adam orders, but Keith doesn't listen. He turns on his heel and storms into the house, and a moment later, Adam hears a door slam.

Adam lets out an exasperated growl and pushes the passenger door closed, leaning against it and letting his head fall back to look up at the sky. Which turns out to be a mistake, because it suddenly brings the awful reality of everything crashing back down. All of his anger and frustration melts away, replaced by an overwhelming wave of pure dread. He inhales sharply as a sudden pang of panic shoots through his chest, and he brings a hand to his mouth.

We've lost all contact. They're officially MIA. 

But they couldn't have just disappeared, they couldn't have just—Most likely crashed—pilot error. 

"Stop, what am I doing," Adam mutters to himself, taking calming breaths. "What am I doing. Keith. Keith, I have to be here for Keith. I have to be."

He closes his eyes, takes a final deep breath, and shoves himself away from the car, climbing the steps into the house and closing the door behind him. There's nothing but the sound of his footsteps and his heart beating in his chest as he goes down the hallway to Keith's room. He stands at the door for a moment, trying to collect himself. There's no sign of movement on the other side, and when he tries to twist the doorknob, he's unsurprised to find that it's locked. He sighs, pressing his forehead against the wood.

"Keith. C'mon. Open up." There's no response. Adam pulls away, lifting his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. "Keith, I know—I know you're angry. And scared, and upset." He shakes his head. Keith isn't even listening for all he knows. He could be burrowed underneath his sheets with his pillows shoved over his head to purposely block him out. Adam goes on anyway, although he tries to keep it short. There's no use wasting his breath when he knows Keith wants to be left alone. "I am too, Keith. But you can't shut me out now. Don't you dare shut me out." He inhales slowly. "I have to go back to the Garrison and get all of this sorted out. I'll be back." He waits for another moment to give Keith a chance to come to the door, just in case. He doesn't.

Adam wanders back out into the living room, slowing to a stop beside the bookshelf and letting his gaze sweep across the room. He gets that same odd, detached feeling from before. The logical part of his brain tells him he's in denial. The other part doesn't care. 

Until his gaze falls on one of the pictures on the shelf behind him.

His hand seems to reach out without him really thinking about it, lifting the frame from where it sits on the dusty shelf so he can look more closely. He sees himself standing in one of the hangars at the Garrison wearing his flight suit, helmet tucked by his hip. He'd been trying to act annoyed, arms crossed and expression disinterested—only, he'd failed spectacularly, thanks to the man beside him, his arm slung casually around Adam's shoulders, an enormous smile on his face and two thumbs up that made him look so happy you'd think he just won the lottery. Adam stares at him, tries to ignore the numbness spreading across his entire body as he holds his breath and lightly traces a finger across the figure.

Iverson's gruff, flat, emotionless voice rings through his mind: They're dead.

Adam finally has time to actually process. And the gravity of it finally hits him, and he's completely and utterly blindsided by the pain it brings, so much that he almost can't breathe. He sinks to his knees on the floor, his eyes wide and unblinking, his breath coming in ragged gasps as he clutches the picture in his hands and the tears start spilling down his face, his shoulders shaking.

"Takashi," he whispers.