Keith's last foster home is as much of a disaster as his first one. It's better than the alternative though; with no known living relatives, and no one else close in his life, it's this or adoption by complete strangers. Luckily, Keith's too old and too sullen and too problematic for any couple to pick him.
It's not that he has anything against it, in theory. But the memory of his dad is still too raw, too vivid. Maybe it always will be, and that's fine. Keith is fine.
He repeats those words like a mantra in his head, laying under thin white covers his first night in yet another new home. The bed squeaks loudly every time he moves, but the sound is drowned in the snoring from the bunk above. Keith's lips sting from where he's been punched by a boy twice his size.
Surprisingly, he wasn't the one in trouble. Probably on the account of being the new kid.
It won't last, of course. Even if the middle-aged, primly-dressed woman running this place is nice and doesn't believe in punishment. But Keith's one of the older kids, expected to be responsible and patient—he's never really been either. It's something you get from me, his dad used to say. Rest is all mom.
Keith doesn't know whether that's true, though the tone of his dad's voice always suggested so. He's never met his mom, and there hasn't been even a picture of her in their old house in the desert.
He misses that house like he would a cut off limb, like a part of himself that he can't ever get back.
But not as much as he misses his father. Chilly mornings in the desert with him, permeated with the smell of tobacco and black bitter coffee. The shrill, high-pitched call of woodpeckers that used to scare Keith, until his dad would pick him up on his shoulders, and let him wear his bright yellow helmet that was too big on Keith but made him feel like a hero his dad was. The lollipops they used to buy on their way home from school that tasted more like sugar than any fruit or berry and coloured their tongues identical bright red. Every vibrant sunset flooding their messy living room, and every bedtime story that didn't sound like any Keith had to read in school.
Now all he has is cold stone in a cemetery too far to visit on his own.
Whining about it won't change a thing. Keith knows that, of course he does. He isn't five anymore, and his dad isn't a toy that a temper tantrum in a store would get him.
His dad is dead, and Keith has accepted that. He doesn't need therapy, or pity. Too bad he has no say in either.
A few years, he tells himself, over and over. Just a few years. Then this will be over. Then he can go back home, to the desert and the tiny old house.
Still, sleep evades him. His lower lip stings even more from where he's bitten it, carelessly forgetting the raw scab already on it.
It had been a stupid fight, not worth it at all. One kid said a thing, then another joined. As bad as his hold on his own temper is, Keith would've ignored them both. But then they had to mention his father, then his mother. And Keith had lost it.
He regrets it only a little.
That he hadn't been punished was a miracle, one he was plenty suspicious about. Maybe no one was cowardly enough to say anything about him throwing the first punch, or maybe they wanted to trick him into some false sense of comfort and trust. Keith doesn't care either way.
He has no plans of getting attached to anyone.
Just a few more years.
Exhausted, thrumming with anxiety and impatience, Keith curls onto his side, ignoring the annoying squeak of the bed. Sighs. Counting to one hundred doesn't help, and his eyes refuse to stay closed for that long anyway. Involuntarily, they trail to his hand curled into a fist on the thin pillow that smells like floral laundry detergent.
In the dim light coming from the open hallway door—one of the youngest girls is afraid of the dark—the mark on the back of his hand is stark and sharp, beautiful in the darkness it belongs to.
A shooting star.
A mark that is supposed to lead Keith to the person who was meant to be his, only his, always. No matter where they were, or how far apart, their souls were wound together so tightly, so intricately, no obstacle could ever keep them apart, in this life or the next.
Or so his dad used to say, admiring the black outline with sad awe, yet never touching it. Keith had once asked him about it—the whys behind the awe and the sadness, the no touching and the looking. He regretted it immediately when his dad laughed in a way that didn't sound amused at all, or like his dad. Some other time, he said. When you're older.
They never did get to have that talk, and now they never would.
Not that Keith believes in magic anyway.
After all, everybody left, eventually. No silly mark could stop them, could make them want to stay. No matter how wonderful and warm it feels under his own touch.
There are many things Keith doesn't understand; some enough to scorn at. Such as people's fascination with soulmates, their need to flaunt the marks like fancy possessions. In Keith’s middle school, kids used to show off their soulmarks like pretty tattoos, colouring inside the lines with bright erasable markers and making up stories of fairytale happy ever afters. Teenagers liked to try it all before they got to meet The One, or went on entire worldwide adventures to look for them. And adults... well, adults were just stupid. With their looks and their smiles and their promises.
The new school is no exception: not a day goes by without someone mentioning soulmates.
Despite so few ever meeting theirs.
Keith keeps his own mark hidden, covered under soft warm leather of his gloves. Pretends it isn't there. Except for those few dark nights when everything is cold and still, and he just needs to feel the warmth of it. Comforting and familiar. Like human touch, only different.
What a ridiculous thought.
He doesn't realise he's scowling until the teacher barks, "Something to say, Kogane?" Or maybe it has nothing to do with his face and everything with the fact that he hasn't been paying attention for the past hour. Day. Week.
Teachers don't like him. He's uncooperative, unfriendly, unwilling to please them like the rest of the class. But when they ask him questions or about homework, he always answers, and there's little they can do.
Which, he supposes, makes them like him even less.
His classmates aren't much different. Or they were, in the beginning. Some, mostly girls, tried to talk to him, get him to hang out with them after classes. But Keith has zero interest in answering their pointless, useless questions, and even less in making friends.
If they resent him for it, he doesn't care. Mostly they just leave him alone.
Except for one.
Keith truly doesn't know what he's done to deserve the attention of prim and proper, star student extraordinaire James Griffin, but even this early, on this dull Monday morning, he's glaring at Keith like they're mortal enemies.
"What?" Keith finally caves in when the teacher turns to write something on the blackboard.
James's scowl intensifies before he looks away with a soundless huff. It's nothing new; James would never interrupt a lesson, and not just because he doesn't want to get reprimanded. Rather, his mind simply cannot comprehend anything but order.
Maybe Keith's just an irregularity in his otherwise perfect, rule-abiding world.
It isn't until lunch break that James actually speaks to him. Keith eats alone, as always. So when a tray slides across the table right in front of him, he raises an almost curious eyebrow.
It's James—surprisingly, alone. Normally he's surrounded by at least two of his friends, just as prim and proper but way less ambitious. Keith can't even remember their names, or faces.
This time Keith says nothing.
Neither does James.
They finish their lunches in silence, James diligently eating all his vegetables and Keith barely picking at his food.
He's just about to get up and leave, convinced this is it when James finally snaps, "Why don't you ever try?"
"Anything! You've got the brains, I know you do. You almost beat my earth science score last week. You do well in gym classes. And if you just talked to people, or better yet—smiled—they would talk to you."
Keith gives him a look. "You're talking to me."
James flushes, and his left eye twitches imperceptibly. "You know what I mean."
Maybe Keith does, but James is wrong. There are things Keith would die for in order to keep, like the knife in his pocket and the rundown shack in the desert. Things he cares about, like the rush of wind in his face when he's running as fast and as far as he can, mindless and reckless, empty of thought. Things he simply enjoys, like red lollipops that still taste like artificial sweeteners.
But school isn't on any of those lists, and neither is impressing people or gaining their admiration. He has no need for either. The only reason he's done so well on that test is because he likes space, likes the universe and the sheer amount of mysteries it holds. His dad used to tell him stories about far away planets, and alien cultures, and spaceships that could cross galaxies, from one star to another.
Some nights, Keith still dreams about them. And the strange, bereft look on his dad’a face—the one that little Keith tried to battle with sticky fingers on his dad’s cheeks, and a toothy grin that somehow worked.
James though, doesn't know that. Never will because they aren't friends.
Keith stares at him for a while, leaning over the table. James doesn't back down, his brows furrowing, jaw clenching. The reaction is surprisingly pleasant and Keith answers him honestly. "Don't have any reason to."
There's still some time left before the bell would ring, but Keith isn't interested in the subject anymore. Plus the stares and the whispers from everyone else in the room are getting less and less inconspicuous. Are they even trying at this point?
It's another thing Keith simply doesn't get, this constant need to be in everyone else's business. It's annoying as hell, and he pushes his chair back with perhaps a bit more force than necessary. He's always been abnormally strong for his build.
"Wait!" James says just as Keith gets up. "What's—what's your soulmark?"
It isn't a strange or even uncommon question; most people are curious about those things. Some to the point of obsession.
Yet Keith pulls the cuff of his sleeve further down his hand, until only the tips of his fingers are visible.
Then he gives the sprig of laurel sitting low on James's neck a pointed look, an almost-smirk. "Not the same as yours."
James doesn't say anything to that.
Keith doesn't have a lot of dreams, but when he looks at the night sky—at the endless expanse littered with stars and constellations, so beyond anyone's reach—he feels a longing deep in his soul.
For what, he doesn't know.
Knows only that his chest feels too tight, too small some nights and his hands clutch the knife wrapped in rough, faded fabric and he doesn't return to his bed until well past the curfew, tiptoeing past booming snores and silent doors. He's never been caught, but he suspects the old lady knows and simply lets him do as he pleases. It's not like he's harming anyone, including himself.
One night, he even dares to venture farther than the empty backyard with its double swing set and dry, overgrown bushes with tiny wilting flowers. There's a path that leads to the smaller gate, off to the side, usually used for taking out the trash or as a shortcut to the bus stop. But Keith lets it take him to the outcropping further down the road, away from the residential area.
It's just a few big rocks, easy to climb even in the dark, with nothing but touch and memory aiding him. But from the top of the biggest one, right where it sticks precariously over the cliff edge, Keith can see it: amidst the calm, open sea of sand and dust, standing like a bastion, is the Galaxy Garrison.
At night, it's even more stunning. The moon is hidden tonight, its shine obscured by a thin layer of clouds, but it doesn't matter because the Garrison never sleeps, and the lights twinkle in and out, in and out. From this distance, it looks like a string of fairy lights, colorful and beaconing.
Yesterday, James bragged about applying. He'll probably get in, too.
The thought shouldn't be so bitter.
Keith knows the Garrison isn't for someone like him—a lost cause, that's what most people call him. And yet his eyes still refuse to stray from the view, transfixed and longing.
Just once, Keith would love to fly. Not here, on Earth; but there, amidst nebulas and cosmic dust. In a world unexplored, so far from home that doesn't feel like one.
He doesn't need to look down to know that the ever-falling shooting star on his hand is mocking him.
Keith runs a little faster, a little farther after that. Every day, just a little bit more. Until his legs give out under him and somehow, breathing becomes easier despite the burn in his lungs.
When trouble happens, Keith is usually the first one to be suspected. Something about him screams troublemaker.
Sometimes, the accusations aren't wrong.
But on the day Takashi Shirogane comes to the no-name high school dressed in neatly pressed Galaxy Garrison uniform, Keith has no plans for causing trouble. He blames the sight of a flight simulator outside for making him forget that this is exactly how most things in his life tend to happen—unexpectedly.
At first, the simulator seems like a game, one of those fancy ones Keith has never had access to. So he stands on the sidelines, watching. But not his eager like puppies classmates who move through the line faster and faster, as each and every one of them crashes the fighter long before they reach the end of level one. No, Keith is looking at Shirogane.
He's exactly what Keith expects of a Garrison officer: smart, built, social. When he talks, people listen. When he walks, people watch with backs straightening. And when he smiles… Keith has to look away, scowling at nothing.
But he can't stop his eyes from coming back, just a moment later.
Only to find Shirogane looking right at him.
His smile this time is different, subdued. Encouraging. His expression mildly curious. Seemingly so genuine.
But Keith doesn't need charity—his or anyone else's.
"Looks like you're the last one left," Shirogane tells him. "Think you've got what it takes?"
Under watchful gazes of everyone present, Keith moves. He strives for nonchalance because this is nothing—this should be nothing—but he can't help the flutter of excitement in his belly, the nervous surge of something deep inside him.
After all, this might be the closest he'll ever come to flying.
Even his soulmark burns like it's on fire.
Keith ignores it. Takes the seat in the simulator.
In some ways, he's perfectly aware that this isn't real, that this is just a game. He's aware of his classmates and teachers, of their occasional startled gasps. Of Shirogane standing right behind him, hand on the back of his seat.
Yet at the same time…
The feeling of flying through space is the realest thing he's ever felt. Truly indescribable. Everything he's ever dreamt it would be, and more.
Every twist and every turn, every soar and every plummet—braver each time, daring, reckless. Thrilling. Natural.
Like an extension of his arms, the controls move seemingly at mere thought. And it's exciting. Utterly satisfactory. Each new obstacle avoided a shot of adrenaline injected straight into his bloodstream, each level cleared a vicious kind of validation.
He wants it all.
Until the asteroids disappear and big bold letters announce the end of level five training sequence. Someone whistles low and impressed. And it's a sign for everyone else to move even closer, and James is suddenly in Keith's face, and people start talking all at once, and there's so much noise, and the simulator launches the next sequence.
But Keith isn't paying attention, to any of those things.
Because Shirogane is talking to their headmistress. About him.
"Keith? He's a bit of discipline case," Keith hears loud and clear. She's never liked him, was the one to get on his case about the gloves he eventually had to take off during school hours, and has given him too many detentions to count. "I don't think he'd necessarily fit Garrison's rigid regime."
Somehow, it still manages to sting, that certainty of hers.
He knows he's difficult, knows people take one look at his thick file and think they know everything there is to know about him. And yet...
Getting his first taste of this—of his foolish, foolish little dream—was such a mistake.
"This is James Griffin. He has the highest grades in school."
Keith makes it easy for them all—he steals Shirogane's car.
Out of all the things Keith expected to happen next, it isn't Shirogane bailing him out of juvie.
"Just a misunderstanding," he tells the officer, smiling charmingly and easily. No one can possibly question that honest face. When the officer looks down to fill in the paperwork, Shirogane winks at Keith.
Keith snorts quietly, mostly because he doesn't know what else to do. This entire situation makes no sense.
He tells Shirogane as much once they're outside, where the midday heat is in full blast and it's hard to see because the sun is glaring mercilessly. Keith's eyes water at the corners when he squints.
Yet somehow, Shirogane is still in sharp focus, the starkest thing Keith can see. The only thing he can see.
"You're getting a second chance," Shirogane answers simply. Like that's all there is to it.
He leaves Keith with an address on a bright orange Galaxy Garrison business card, a promise to not be late.
And a terrifying burst of hope igniting slowly in Keith's chest.
The next day, bright and early, standing on Garrison grounds talking about dreams of space and exploration, Shirogane gives Keith more than just a promise—he gives Keith a choice.
A responsibility for his own future. If it doesn't work out, Keith will have no one but himself to blame.
Shirogane gives it to him like he knows it's everything Keith's ever wanted—like he knows on some deep visceral level what's it like to want it too.
"Oh, and by the way, it's Shiro. Except maybe when Commander Iverson is present."
When Keith lays awake that night, listening to the now familiar cacophony of his bunkmate snoring and his bed squeaking, unable to sleep once again, he reaches for his soulmark, curious. It's been itching and burning periodically since the day of the flight simulator, as if reminding Keith of its presence. He's ignored it every time.
It's calm now, like it used to be. But when he touches it, sceptical, it feels impossibly warm. Similar to open fire in the middle of the night. Or Shiro's hand when he laid it on Keith's shoulder.
Like dreams that might actually come true.
Life in the Garrison is everything Keith expected it to be, and nothing like it at all. He's moved into the dorms a few weeks ago, right after graduation. Since then it's been mostly orientation and familiarising new cadets with their surroundings and explaining the rules. Of which there are many.
Keith somehow manages to not break a single one so far. Well, except finding a way to sneak out to the roof, but that doesn't count because he hasn't actually spent any time there yet. So, clean record.
It helps as much as it doesn't that one of his roommates happens to be James, because apparently they just can't escape each other.
On some unspoken agreement, they stay civil towards each other and don't interact much. They're both neat and organised so chores are minimal, split equally. Though James has a lot more personal paraphernalia on his tiny desk and the bookshelf hanging above his bed; Keith has only the knife he keeps under the pillow.
They wake up at the same time to different alarms, dress in silence, walk to the mess hall together yet not. Sometimes they even sit at the same table. James still has plenty of friends, Keith still refuses to make any.
It's a lot less awkward than it used to be, if at all.
Probably because they both have other things to worry about now, such as when will they finally get to fly again. That's certainly all Keith can think about.
Well that, and Shiro.
It's hard not to think about Shiro when he's everywhere in the Garrison. A golden boy, a shining example. Everyone seems to love him, everyone does admire him. He's the best pilot they've had in years. Every simulator score has his name at the top as indisputable proof.
Yet he still chooses to spend time with Keith.
He's a TA in one of Keith's classes—the most interesting one, dubbed unofficially as piloting 101—so sometimes they get to talk about nothing at all, right before or after class, or as they walk together from one classroom to another. Other times it's somewhat planned study dates in the nearly deserted mess hall after the busy hours. And a few times, Shiro even takes him out to town for dinner in the same car Keith had stolen. His food taste, Keith learns, is very, very questionable. And somehow that’s very, very cute.
Keith wants to be wary, he really does. But no matter how hard he tries, it doesn't seem to work.
Being with Shiro is fun, the most he has had in years. And it's baffling too. There isn't an ounce of pity in Shiro when he looks at Keith, all golden light and impossible warmth as sunset spills over the pavement in the parking lot, and Keith still doesn't understand why Shiro bothers with someone like him. No ulterior motive Keith can detect.
Even James asks him about it one day. "What's your relationship with lieutenant Shirogane?"
It's late, less than an hour until lights-out. The hallways beyond their door are mostly silent—one of those things Keith had to adjust to. No one would be breaking curfew either, in fear of Iverson. Though Shiro did say older cadets had their ways, and that Keith had a lot of parties to look forward to.
The only thing Keith is looking forward to is flying. And for Shiro to finally let Keith drive his car.
He scowls at James, surprised by the question. Annoyed that he doesn't have an answer. Every time he tries to come up with one, he gets a bunch of words—best pilot, mentor, saviour, the only person Keith wants to spend time with—that don’t even begin to describe Shiro. He is all of those, and none of those. "He's our teacher?"
James shakes his head and taps a pen against the textbook he's been reading, for emphasis. "No, he's my teacher. And you don't see him taking me—or anyone else for that matter—out for dinner."
"None of your business?"
It's one thing for Keith to question the whys and the whats of Shiro, it's completely another to have someone else do it. It feels like a violation. Or maybe just adds to the fear that one day, Shiro will see that Keith has nothing worth staying for.
But James is James and he plunders on, past his own sullen scowl. "He has a boyfriend, you know. It's pretty serious."
It sounds almost petty, but Keith fails to see the relevance. "What does that have to do with anything?"
He's met Adam, been introduced to him by Shiro himself. Probably didn't make a very good impression, seeing as they rarely crossed paths after that—a polite nod of acknowledgement when they pass each other in the hallways, a grumbled greeting when Adam is teaching a class, that's the extent of their acquaintance. Shiro doesn't talk about the two of them either, even if everyone else in the Garrison does.
Keith couldn't care less about gossip. Or Adam.
James just shakes his head and goes back to his homework.
They don't talk about Shiro again.
When Keith does sneak out to the roof—he's lasted an entire month—he discovers he's not the only one who knows that the rooftop door in the oldest simulator wing has a faulty lock that can be easily opened with the right set of skills.
"Shiro?" he asks, somehow not nearly as surprised as someone else might be. Being really good at not getting caught is one of Shiro's lesser known talents.
"Keith!" Shiro says, in that way that is quickly becoming something Keith considers achingly familiar and his.
Shiro is sitting right on the edge, legs hanging casually over it, with no railings to restrict him. It's a tactical spot; should anyone come in, they won't notice him from behind neat rows of solar panels.The tea mug beside him is half-empty and no longer steaming, almost forgotten. Keith knows Shiro likes his tea plain but extra hot. It never fails to make him call Shiro an old man.
He doesn't look very old now though. Even dressed in his Garrison greys, with three golden stripes shining silver in the moonlight, he could almost be a cadet—lost and contemplative.
Keith has never seen him look either.
It doesn't feel right.
He’s not quite sure what to do—if he even should and is allowed to—but determination to do something, anything to try and erase that sadness that doesn’t belong on Shiro’s face makes Keith move forward and plop down gracelessly next to him.
Shiro’s smile is a tiny fragile thing. “Should’ve known it wouldn’t take you long to find your way here.”
And it hits Keith like a comet—how afraid he’d been that Shiro wouldn’t trust him, wouldn’t want Keith to be here and see him like this. It’s a revelation, that Shiro’s still Shiro, still welcoming. A surprisingly unsurprising one. “Should’ve known you wouldn’t reprimand me.”
Shiro snorts and the undignified manner of it makes Keith feel weirdly pleased.
They say nothing for a while, each lost in their own thoughts and the stars all around them. They’re exceptionally bright tonight, the moon stark and full. Somehow so much closer than ever before.
"Do you think we'll ever get to reach them?" Shiro asks, eyes still on the view. There's a longing in him that Keith recognises.
"It's why we're here, isn't it?"
The wind blows softly, messing up Keith's hair. And still, Shiro's words are quiet enough to be drowned by it. “Yeah. Yeah we are."
Silence falls again, the kind you can only experience in the desert, the kind you can listen to.
"I used to dream about this place, you know," Keith confesses unexpectedly. He draws up his knees when he feels Shiro's gaze on him. Lays his chin on top. Tries not to sound as vulnerable as he feels. "My last foster home had the perfect view of it."
"Did you always want to be a pilot?"
Keith shrugs as nonchalantly as he can. "My dad used to tell me stories about space. Guess it stuck. You?"
Shiro nods, rubbing one of his wrists absentmindedly; a habit Keith has noticed before. "My grandpa." The fondness in his voice makes Keith's chest hurt—he knows it too well. Even his soulmark echoes the ache. "After he got sick, he liked to sit on the porch and point out the constellations to me. Tell me stories about their origins. Guess it stuck too, huh."
"Is that why you sneak out here in the middle of the night?"
"It's silly, but being under the same sky, in a place where it feels the closest, makes the distance seem a little less. Adam doesn't really get it but…"
Adam, Keith guesses, has never felt utterly alone in the universe.
"For me, this used to be the closest I could get to flying."
At that, Shiro smiles. Handsome and mischievous. "Then allow me to give you something even better."
Something better turns out to be two polished hoverbikes parked in one of the older hangars, alongside a broken desert jeep.
"Woah," Keith gasps. "Where did you get these things?"
"Perks of being higher up the command chain. Give it a few years and you'll not only be the best pilot we've ever had, but you'll have all the privilege too."
Keith snorts, eyes drinking up the sight greedily, palms daring to run along the bike handles reverently. "Please, you're always gonna be the best pilot. I've seen you fly, Shiro." The metal is smooth under his fingers, the leather of the seat warm and scratched. It gives a little under his touch.
He looks up, right at Shiro—finds him stunned, for some reason—and snatches a pair of goggles from his hands. "C'mon! That doesn't mean I won't beat you in a race."
Shiro blinks, then lets out a disbelieving chuckle. He snaps the other pair of goggles around his head. "Yeah? Let's go, punk."
It's nothing like the simulator.
It’s the hot rush of wind in his face as he gains up speed, and the breathless dryness in his mouth when he brakes too hard, careening dangerously along the cliff edge. The storm of sand in his wake, grains of it scorching as he zigzags down the hill. The blinding burning realness of it all.
It's trying his damndest to catch up to Shiro.
Who glides through the air like it's his second nature, the bike a part of his body.
Keith is mesmerised.
And when Shiro dives off a cliff with a laugh—of freedom and joy and something utterly beautiful—Keith is left behind, mouth gaping. The wow that slips past his lips is nothing short of honest, and doesn't come even close to describing how he feels.
"Alright, you win this round," he tells Shiro when he finally drives up to him. "But I'll get you in the next race, old timer."
The sun is already setting, bathing everything in golds and reds and oranges. Against the flaming backdrop, Shiro looks serene—looks like he belongs, with his jacket halfway open, leaning casually against his bike. "I don't doubt that."
It’s picture perfect, and his casual chuckle causes something warm and fluttering to go wild and crazy in Keith’s belly. Even his cheeks feel weirdly hot. Probably from the desert air. "How'd you do that dive anyway?"
"Liked that one, did you? It's all about timing. Pull up too soon, and you won't have won't have the momentum needed to create lift. Too late, and there won't be enough lift to avoid the crash."
Keith thinks it over; eyes the cliff he’d just had to go around. "You think I'm ready to do that?"
"What do you think?"
And it's a first, someone asking Keith that. In words as casual as they are genuine.
Perhaps that's why he says, just as honestly, "Maybe I should be patient and keep focusing on the basics first."
It becomes a tradition, after that first time. One that continues despite Keith learning to execute the dive perfectly.
For once, he feels content. Grounded. Like this is exactly what he needed after his fight with James and all that followed.
The memory of it still stings.
It hadn’t been the first time he’d gotten in trouble, or his first fist fight, but it had been the one that mattered. Because detention Keith could take. Even being kicked out would've been acceptable, if hard to swallow.
But letting Shiro take responsibility—or worse, disappointing him after everything? That's not something Keith can live with. Not when he can still remember the warmth of Shiro's hand grasping his firmly, words honest and full of faith.
Like he truly thinks Keith can do all that—be all that—and more. If only he dared.
So, Keith tries.
The simulator sessions are still boring, still too regulated and not enough. And he still slips out of formation more often than not. But even Iverson has learned to close his remaining eye on that since Keith and James have reached another unspoken agreement to not acknowledge each other outside of teamwork requirements. The tense atmosphere makes their other teammates think twice about speaking too.
Keith doesn't care how uncomfortable that might be for them.
He's only here to fly the sim, break every record he can, and hope to see the proud look on Shiro's face. He's doing well on all three.
Even his grades outside flight drills go up, his attendance no longer marred by anything worthy of reproach, which he supposes makes him even more of an annoyance.
It’s not that Keith hates his new routine. It just pales in comparison to when Shiro takes him racing, more and more often with each passing month, as the weight of the world on his shoulders seems to increase.
There, in the desert, away from rank and responsibility, he shows Keith yet another side of himself. A more carefree one, with a thrill for adventure.
Evening after evening, inch by inch, they explore the endless plane on two beat hoverbikes, rarely talking past the howl of wind and sand and speed. Then they would find a new cave, or an outcrop, or a cliff that's too steep even for Shiro, and stop for a moment, to breathe in the scenery. To listen, and to talk.
One day, they go as far as the shack that Keith used to call home. He doesn't say it out loud but somehow, he thinks Shiro knows it anyway.
It is there that Keith finally asks the question that's been burning on the tip of his tongue for a while. "Shiro? Do you believe in soulmates?"
If Shiro is surprised, or even offended, by the question, he doesn't show it. Instead, he answers with his usual gentle honesty that Keith is still gratefully getting used to. "Depends on what you mean by believe."
In the dusty abandoned living room of his childhood home, it isn't hard to find the words his dad used to tell him all the time. Seems fitting to share them with Shiro, whom Keith has never seen display his soulmark to anyone, despite Adam never hiding his. "Do you think there's someone out there, who would stand by you no matter what? Who would never leave you behind? Someone who… someone who would never give up, because they're supposed to be yours?"
Connected in ways no one can explain. Destined to be together. Walk together, across the universe.
"I do," Shiro says softly, just a little pained. "But I don’t think it has anything to do with whatever mark you happened to be born with.” When he moves towards the bare dirty window, the dust particles raising in his wake glimmer in the bleak sunlight.
Keith waits, unmoving.
“I think… I think that you have to find that person on your own, and you have to want to be that someone for them, just as they should want to be that for you. A mark can’t—or shouldn’t—make you love someone. It can't make you trust, or try...” Falling silent again, Shiro looks down at his left hand, there a brace hides whatever mark is underneath.
Keith’s own burns in solidarity.
Is that what you and Adam have, he wants to ask. But doesn’t. Knowing that Adam’s outline of a mountain rest high up the nape of his neck.
Nowhere near the hand Shiro is squeezing tight into a fist.
He's grateful for that uncharacteristic restraint when two days later he hears them fighting in a hallway.
It isn't that late yet and most people are only starting to trickle to the mess hall for dinner but Keith was promised burgers at the new diner downtown. When Shiro didn't show up at his door, he'd waited for an hour before going to investigate.
Maybe he shouldn't have.
"Kerberos, Takashi? Really?" Adam says heatedly, a lot less nicely than his usual detached monotone. "What's next?"
Keith can’t see neither him nor Shiro from where he stopped dead in his tracks just around the corner, but there’s a chill clawing up his spine and it’s paralysing when he hears Shiro say in a voice too small, "Nothing's finalised yet. Admiral Sanda might still say no."
"But that's beside the point, isn't it? Because you want to go."
Shiro says nothing.
"Two years, Takashi. Two years, in space, in your condition.”
For some reason that’s the word Keith’s mind latches onto first, even though it makes no sense. No sense at all.
Adam’s voice, now endlessly tired, becomes nothing but background buzz. “When will you stop trying to prove yourself? When will you have enough? Everyone knows you’re the great Takashi Shirogane."
Because another word penetrates the haze of Keith’s confusion:
Shiro has been chosen for the Kerberos mission.
There is no doubt in Keith’s mind, never has been; Shiro is the best, always will be. Keith just hasn’t realised what it would mean. Not until now.
Shiro is leaving.
He hears Adam ask quietly, bitterly, “Is it because I’m not your soulmate? Is that why it’s so easy for you to leave me?”
Then he walks away, as silently as he came.
Shiro finds him on the roof later that night. “I’m afraid I might have woken Griffin up looking for you.”
Keith merely shrugs. “He’ll live.”
“I’m sorry about tonight. Something came up and I—I’m sorry, Keith. Really sorry. Tomorrow?”
He sounds exhausted, drained. And when Keith finally turns his eyes on him, he finds him looking even more so. “Hey,” he says as softly as he can, “it’s fine.” There’s a slump to Shiro’s shoulders, a ragged look to his appearance. But it’s the eyes—heavy and dim, void of starlight—that strike the biggest blow. “More importantly, are you okay?”
Shiro chuckles; Keith feels his heart crack at the sound. “Can I sit with you?”
They both know he never has to ask. And maybe it means something, that he does. Keith doesn’t want to ponder it, not now.
They sit quietly, comfortably. There are no stars tonight, only a heavy veil of dark clouds. The smell of ozone in the air is sharp and distinct. Keith breathes it in.
Shiro doesn't ask him how he found out; Keith has always had a habit of being where he isn't supposed to be. “Yeah, Kerberos.”
“The farthest we’ve ever been.”
“What do you think you’ll find there?”
“Ideally? Anything at all. New elements, maybe. Samples for Sam to analyse. Ways to explore farther.”
“Signs of life beyond?” Keith smiles.
It earns him another chuckle, lighter this time. “I wish.” The wind blows softly, in tune with Shiro’s words, ruffling the fluffy top of his hair. Keith’s stomach clenches painfully. “I used to, you know? Wish of going as far as I possibly can, to see as much as I can.”
Shiro laughs again, bittersweetly. Shakes his head. Then pulls back the sleeve of his jacket.
There is no brace this time, no bandages either. Only pale, dry skin.
And a beautiful outline of a shooting star.
Exactly like the one blazing on Keith’s hand.
"Your mark," Keith whispers.
"Doesn't match Adam's, I know." Shiro traces the mark reverently, in reacquaintance. Keith wonders if it burns under his touch. “We agreed it wouldn’t matter. But maybe it did.” To him. “Or maybe I’m just trying to come up with an excuse. Maybe we both are.”
“He doesn’t want you to go.”
It’s not a question, but Shiro shakes his head in an answer. “He won’t be here waiting if I do.”
It’s a testament to what kind of person Shiro is, that he doesn’t sound angry. Or resentful. That there’s only defeat. And hurt.
Despite which he still plans to go.
In the end, there is only one truth Keith needs to tell him. "Kerberos has always been meant to be yours. You deserve it, Shiro. More than anyone. I'm happy for you."
He feels his heart break when Shiro says, “Thank you, Keith."
Like he hadn’t heard those words from anyone else.
Though Keith returns to his bed, to the sound of rain and thunder, sleep eludes him. He stops trying after a while.
Alone in the dark, with lightning flashing, startling, illuminating, he stares at the back of his hand. At the mark he never quite believed in, yet still considered his . Took comfort in it. Treasured with the desperation of someone who had nothing else.
He still doesn’t know what that means.
Shiro is my soulmate.
It sounds ridiculous even in his own head.
Wonderful, amazing, handsome Shiro whom Keith doesn't ever want to see unhappy. Whom he would give up his life for, no questions asked. Who showed him what’s it like to not be alone.
Shiro and I are soulmates.
Shiro, who deserves everything.
And Keith, who can give him nothing.
Which is why he doesn't tell him.
Not once in the months before the Kerberos launch.
The last punch comes as unexpectedly as the first ones, with Keith once again pressed into a wall, listening to something he isn’t meant to hear.
"The man is sick and he shouldn't be sent on another mission. Especially as far as Kerberos."
He recognises the Admiral’s voice, harsh and unyielding. Then the Commander’s, protective and sure, driving the hardest of bargains.
Shiro is the only one who says nothing. Which to Keith says it all.
He confronts Shiro later, outside, where he’s polishing his hoverbike, and gets the flat confirmation of someone who’s accepted his fate.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Because that? That hurts nearly as much as the apparent lack of fight in Shiro. Trust matters only when it goes both ways.
“I didn’t want you to know.”
Keith snorts. “Obviously.”
“No, Keith, not like that.” Shiro sighs, weary. And Keith isn’t even angry, never really has been. “I didn’t—I didn’t want you to see me any differently. Didn’t want to disappoint you.”
Keith doesn’t tell him how ridiculous that is, how impossible. He leans on the bike, arms crossed.
“Adam doesn’t want me to go. Neither does Admiral Sanda.”
“Adam’s a dick. So’s the admiral.”
Shiro shakes his head, then he too leans against the hoverbike, tilting his face towards the sun. “They have a point, you know. I might jeopardize the mission. I might not come back.”
“No, you won’t, and yes, you will.” Shiro might not believe it, but Keith knows. “You care too much. With two more lives depending on you, there is no way an illness can defeat you. No way at all. You’re going to Kerberos, and you’re coming back.”
You have to.
Because without Shiro…
It’s not a life Keith is willing to consider.
Shiro closes his eyes. Breathes in, then out. His lips quirk up at the corners. “By the time I’m back, it’ll be you flying these missions. Your name as every record.”
“Maybe,” Keith says, grinning back. “One more reason to come back and see, right? C’mon, old timer. These bikes are far too shiny. Let’s take them for a ride.”
In some ways, nothing changes after that. In other, everything does.
They still sometimes study, even if Shiro no longer teaches, his duties taken over by some boring nerd who’s never even been to space. And they still go on their desert adventures, now less frequently with Shiro so busy prepping for the mission but for longer now that there is no Adam waiting for him. Midnight drive-throughs become a thing.
It's just a little bittersweet, no matter how much Keith doesn't want it to be.
He knows Shiro isn't leaving—not him, and not behind. He knows Shiro will come back. Believes it with every fibre of his being.
But it doesn’t make the Shiro-shaped hole in his heart any less gaping or aching.
He doesn't miss the way Shiro starts avoiding some of his officer friends, or how he wants to spends as much time outside Garrison grounds as possible, or doesn't ever mention Adam at all.
Desperate, Keith does the only thing he can think of—he breaks into the simulator room.
“You do know I have keys,” Shiro whispers, but it’s fond and he’s scanning the area for any unwelcome passersby.
“Where’s the fun in that?”
They took the long route, past the cameras Keith knows very well how to avoid, along dark hallways filled with blind spots. It’s not like anyone is actually stupid enough to break into a highly-secured military facility.
The lock poses a bit more of a problem, but Keith is prepared and eventually there’s the telltale click followed by the hiss of an opening door.
All joking aside, he doesn’t want Shiro implicated if they do get caught. Which the keycard he indeed does have would.
And maybe Keith wants to show off. Just a little.
“After you,” he says, gesturing into the room.
“Do I want to know where you learned to do that?”
The sim rooms have their own designated wing, far away from the living quarters and the offices, close to the equally spacious hangars. But turning on the lights seems like too much of a risk so they stick to the flashlights, then to the blue screenlight once the simulation starts to load.
It takes forever.
“Patience,” Shiro chuckles.
“Yields focus, I know, I know.”
It’s not that he minds being here, alone in the dark with Shiro. Far from it.
It’s just that he isn’t sure how to tell Shiro everything he wants to. Where to even begin.
Words have never been his strongest suit.
Shiro, of course, doesn’t miss his hesitation. “Keith? You know you can tell me anything, if you want to.”
Keith climbs into the co-pilot seat. Wraps his fingers around the controls. “Fly with me?”
“Don’t you want to lead?”
He shakes his head, grips the controls a little tighter.
“Alright,” Shiro says easily. With practised ease, he takes the seat that will always be his in Keith’s mind. Even if one day Keith plans to surpass his numbers. Because they’re just that—numbers.
While Shiro… is everything.
“Without you, I wouldn’t even be here.”
Without you, I would have nothing.
The words burst out unbidden, all the more true for it.
Shiro’s eyes widen, soften. “That’s not true, Keith. All I gave you was a chance, but you are the one who took it. Who broke every record, including some of mine. Who stuck despite everything."
His hand on Keith's shoulder feels like a lifeline.
“Then fly with me,” Keith says, clinging to it, tasting something suspiciously like desperation on his tongue. "Let me see what it would be like to pilot a ship with you one day, to go to space and see the universe. To uncover its secrets, together."
It might be just a dream, an impossible one. But Shiro made one of those come true before, didn’t he? Wasn’t Keith sitting in this very flight simulator proof enough of that?
“Yeah,” Shiro says hoarsely. “Yeah, let’s do that.” And it’s a promise.
Maybe that’s what being soulmates means—that he and Shiro were always destined to cross paths. That he could spend the rest of his life repaying Shiro with devotion and determination.
Because the truth of it is simple: Shiro is Keith’s hero. Human, flawed, and most beloved.
And maybe one day Keith would be able to return that favour.
If the mark is what brought them here, then Keith is grateful for its existence.
On the day of the launch, Keith stands next to Shiro. Miles away from the cheering crowd. There’s no one else around them, aside from the crying babbling cluster of Holts.
Keith feels empty and full, proud and devastated.
Shiro smiles, happy and sad. Perfect, in his brand new flight suit and bathed in sunrise. Always a part of Keith’s soul.
He isn’t sure who initiates the hug, only knows that Shiro’s arms are big and warm, lingering. Like he too isn’t ready to let go. But the Holts call his name and he has to.
Then Keith is all alone.
Watching the ship twinkle out of existence. Like a shooting star, never meant to be caught.
He has only one wish: for Shiro to come home safely.
The mark on his hand burns, like a promise.