Keith was one human cross Galra who, in comparison to the Castle of Lions, was minuscule. There were so many different rooms and hiding places that meant, at any given time, it was next to impossible to find all of the paladins at once. They could be anywhere from the multiple training rooms or kitchens to the extensive libraries or dormitories. It was any child's dream location for a game of hide and seek with countless options for hiding places that could make the game last forever. Keith liked it because he could be alone. When he felt an oncoming meltdown, he could easily hide himself away in one of the desolate storage rooms so he could brood and not have to interact with anyone. It made it so much easier to hide the discomfort that constantly ate at him, waiting for its moment to drop a load of emotion on him to cause a meltdown.
One of the drawbacks of travelling in a cool spaceship with cool aliens was the food. It wasn't like Keith could go to one of the space malls and ask for a bag of Cheetos (as much as he wanted to). That left Keith and his fellow paladins with a delicacy Lance had coined 'space goo'. Exactly as the name implied, it was runny and sticky, just like goo. The consistency reminded Keith of porridge; something Keith detested even thinking about. It made his stomach flip and tempted the rise of bile in his throat, though that was a feeling Keith's words couldn't sufficiently describe.
Once Keith realised the goo was all he had as a means of energy up in space, he tried it. He sat down in the dining room in between Lance and Allura with a bowl of the stuff in front of him. If the many foster homes he had lived in had taught him anything, it was that he needed to hide when he felt the first signs of a meltdown coming. As Keith stared into the green goo (it looked like something that belonged in his nose), all he wanted to do was run but he didn't. Instead, he gripped his Altean cutlery and scooped it up. Lance was right beside Keith, eating the goo as if it really was a bag of Cheetos. If he could do it, so could Keith. Lance always made the point to make everything a competition so Keith tried, deciding he was going to 'beat' Lance at dinner.
Trembling hands lifting the goo towards his mouth, Keith thinned his eyes into a glare. Forget Zarkon and the Galra, his worst enemy was a bowl of goo. The spoon edged towards his mouth and, for a brief second, Keith thought he could do it. He closed his eyes and imagined he was running towards a Galra with his sword in his hand, the food the enemy. All he needed to do was eat it and then the intergalactic battle would be over and he would be victorious in his rivalry with Lance. His lips locked around the utensil but, as soon as the goo hit his tongue, he wanted it OUT.
It was too smooth; too soft. He couldn't chew it and it gathered on his teeth like the disgusting toffees some of his foster grandparents used to give him from the bottom of their handbags. They always tasted so warm and gross that Keith felt obliged to spit them out as soon as he could. Keith dropped his spoon and excused himself from the table. He had to get it out. He had to get it out. He had to get it out. As soon as Keith was safe in the bathroom, he spat it out. Without thinking much, Keith grabbed his toothbrush and scrubbed at his tongue, just so he could get every last bit of the goo out.
He hated the texture. He liked a crunch or something he could actually chew without getting it all in his teeth. He didn't like anything that stuck to his teeth.
After that day, Keith decided food goo wasn't for him which created an abundance of issues.
Firstly, the questions. Keith knew it was better to lie about how he felt. Back in the foster homes, if Keith had had a meltdown or even mentioned something making him uncomfortable, he'd have been kicked out. Either that or they'd hurt him. That just made everything a million times worse and Keith hated it. So, when Hunk asked why he never showed up to meals, Keith lied. He was quite good at lying. It was a skill he once didn't understand but had acquired over the years. Practice did, after all, make perfect.
It was okay for a while. Keith trained regularly, usually opting to practice alone so he couldn't be bothered by any of the other paladins. The training room tended to trigger overstimulation and that was why he preferred being a lone wolf: no one could see him amidst a meltdown. The lights flashed; there were so many sounds ranging from the shing of Keith's sword to the voiceover and then there was all the pain that came with a fight. Keith was an expert at keeping his guard up but it was inevitable that the training bot would land a few hits.
After one particularly extensive training session, Keith was hurting. His ears were seemingly blaring from the noise; his eyes hurt from the light and each of his limbs ached. His body was tense like a statue and his head was pounding so much that the world seemed to spin around him. He needed to get out. Without even considering that the training bot was still active, he ran. If anyone had been around the training room when Keith made it to his room, they'd have heard it enter sleep mode due to inactivity.
Keith collapsed onto his bed but quickly scrambled up again once he realised his bed covers were too soft. It made his skin crawl, adding to the ache that was already there from training. He started to pace up and down but all his senses were on overdrive. He couldn't breathe. There was so much input from his senses so he didn't know what to focus on.
Curling in on himself on the floor, Keith just wanted to switch his brain off. His heart was thudding inside his chest; he was hyperventilating: the carpet was too soft against his feet; the Altean clock on his table was ticking much too loud... Where was the mute button? Was there a switch Keith could press to turn it off?
Keith wasn't sure how long he had sat there, rocking back and forth, but eventually, someone came to check on him.
"Hey, buddy, you're late to training and I thought you might've fallen asleep or forgotten or something." Keith looked up at Hunk through wide, tearful eyes. He looked like a frightened little kid- far from the brave defender of the universe Keith was meant to be. "Are you okay?" Keith's only response was to bury his head into his knees, unable to put his thoughts into words. He wanted to tell Hunk to go away and leave him alone because he didn't want anyone to see him like that. He had let his guard down and didn't want to risk anyone taking advantage of his moment of vulnerability like his foster parents had once upon a time.
A deep frown spread across Hunk's face, seemingly unnatural due to his bubbly nature. Realising Keith was digging his nails into his wrist so harshly that beads of blood were dripping down his pale skin, Hunk reached out to grab his arm. The attempt to stop Keith hurting himself was met with a prolonged groan from the red paladin. He sounded like he was in pain but Hunk couldn't see any visible signs of injury, besides the small cuts on his wrist from his nails.
"Uh... Keith? Are you... having a panic attack?" Hunk tried to guess what was going on in Keith's head due to his familiarity with panic attacks. He had suffered with them from a young age, being diagnosed with anxiety before he had even started middle school. Mentally, he created a checklist, checking off basic symptoms such as shortness of breath so he could approach the situation in the best way possible. He got onto his knees to meet Keith's height and attempted to murmur some calming words. That always helped Hunk when he was panicking as it let him know someone was there and everything was going to be okay. Panic attacks made him feel like he was on death's doorstep so it was important to reiterate that the world wasn't going to end and panic attacks didn't last forever.
It was when Keith didn't calm down and just continued to groan that Hunk realised he didn't know what was going on. "I- I have to get Shiro." He murmured, feeling guilty about leaving Keith but knowing he had to. Shiro was the closest person to Keith on the ship so, if anyone could help Keith, it was him. The pair had been rather discreet about their past together, keeping the details to a minimum, but Hunk knew they were so close that they may as well have been brothers. He took off in the direction of the training room, legs a blur beneath him as he hoped to get Keith help as soon as he could. He didn't even force out an explanation before grabbing Shiro's arm and pulling him in the direction of Keith's room.
As soon as Shiro's eyes laid upon Keith, his heart plummeted. "Keith?" He choked out, gesturing for Hunk to give Keith space by waving his arms. Hunk backed up into the doorway, watching as Shiro dealt with whatever was going on with Keith like an expert. Shiro spoke so quietly that Hunk was unable to tell what he was saying and each of his movements were slow and gentle. With a feather-like touch, he eased Keith's helmet off his head. It was almost like Keith couldn't breathe under it as he gulped in big breaths of air to fill up his lungs. "Hunk? Can you give us some privacy?" Shiro turned to Hunk with raised eyebrows, silently pleading.
"Oh, uh... yeah, sure. Is he okay though?" Hunk questioned, reluctant to leave Keith in such a state. He wanted to help his friend and be there for him; not feel like a useless bystander.
"He will be okay. I think he overstimulated himself." Shiro spoke as if it was obvious, eyes trained on Keith as he started to trace the tips of his fingers over Shiro's palm. Keith's face was scrunched up as he concentrated on the movement and it seemed like he was lost inside his own head. For someone who seemed so impulsive and angry all the time, the gentle touch seemed so out of character that Hunk wasn't sure if his eyes were playing tricks on him.
"Oh." Hunk didn't seem to understand (because he didn't) but didn't push it. He just shot Keith a sympathetic smile to let him know he was there for him and left them alone.
"I didn't realise it was this bad, Keith." There was something comforting about Shiro's soft voice; it was almost like a sedative. It wasn't as intruding as some of the other noises like the ones in the training room.
"It's been like this forever," Keith murmured, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. For someone who didn't live with autism, it was difficult to understand. Keith couldn't read Shiro's expression at all throughout his meltdown- both because he didn't get people and because all of his attention had been focused on the NOISE and the FEELING and the LIGHT. "Are you angry?"
Shiro furrowed his eyebrows into yet another unreadable expression. Keith couldn't tell whether it was anger or not but he didn't want to take the chance. Hands still flicking at the spinner he had in his pockets since Earth, he pulled himself up onto his feet so he could escape. His tongue felt heavy inside his mouth as he attempted to formulate some sort of excuse to getoutgetoutgetout.
Without contemplating his actions, Shiro laid a hand on Keith's shoulder. It was heavy and it made Keith's shoulder feel funny in a way that was difficult to explain. His breath hitched as he ducked away from the touch as if it was going to burn him. "Did anyone ever... help you after I left the Garrison? At home?"
"Yes," Keith answered honestly because they had told him they were helping him. They told him something about learning to suppress his 'tantrums' if he got punished for them; they being his foster parents. It made Keith extremely uncomfortable but they had told him over and over again that he needed to behave and stop seeking attention. "I can't make a big deal out of it. I have to internalise it."
Keith's words- along with the fact that he wasn't looking Shiro in the eye- hurt. Shiro felt guilty: as if it was entirely his fault that Keith hadn't received the help he needed throughout his life. He couldn't help but wonder if anything would be different if his foster parents had treated him properly, instead of taking advantage of his naivety. "That isn't right... There are things we can do to help prevent and predict meltdowns."
Blinking his eyes and sending Shiro a blank expression, Keith span his spinner. His eyes followed the plastic as it moved as if it was sending him into a trance. When he next spoke, he sounded like he was only half paying attention. "Meltdown?" The word felt foreign on Keith's tongue as he had never heard it anywhere before.
"Yes, Keith, meltdown. That's what it is called when you feel overwhelmed."
"What makes you feel overwhelmed? Maybe I could get Allura to change some things around the Castle to make you more comfortable."
Keith hadn't talked about it in detail before. He could vaguely remember his foster parents screaming at him when he refused to eat things of certain textures which always lead to him screaming back without realising. He could also remember telling some of his classmates back at the Garrison to stop chewing so loudly which- long story short- resulted in a trip to the nurse's office. Then there was the time Keith had gone shopping with one of his foster dads and been shouted at as soon as they got home because he refused to try anything on that was too scratchy. All in all, he had bad experiences of telling others how he felt.
"I'll survive." Keith wasn't lying but Shiro's expression remained the same, making Keith wonder if he had answered incorrectly.
"Keith-" Shiro was cut off by a knock on the door. It flew open to reveal Lance with a bashful grin on his face. He barely gave Shiro enough time to greet him before jumping into what he needed to say.
"You two need to come to dinner or I'm going to starve to death. Allura won't let us start eating until you're there. She had an announcement or something too." Lance explained, speaking at such as rapid pace that Shiro struggled to keep up and it went straight over Keith's head. Just as Lance went to turn around and head back to the dining room to eat, he froze and his eyes dropped to the fidget spinner in Keith's hand. The object was rotating innocently as Lance followed it, eyebrows furrowed as if he was trying to figure it out. "Where did you get that from?" Lance had one just like it back in his room so he was curious as to where Keith had gotten a hold of his, especially considering he didn't appear to have ADHD like Lance did.
"We should get to dinner." Keith avoided the question like an expert. He shoved his fidget spinner into his pocket before grabbing Shiro's hand and tugging him out the door. Whilst Lance glanced at their intertwined hands with an unreadable expression on his face, Shiro seemed unphased. Keith didn't think anything of it, just admiring how soft and warm Shiro's skin was.
Once they were all sat together around the table, Allura cleared her throat to gain everyone's attention. Lance groaned, rolling his eyes as he gripped onto his cutlery. All he wanted to do was eat; why did things keep getting in the way? Keith hadn't even glanced at his food so was more than happy to listen (he appreciated anything that postponed eating). "Pidge has created a device that allows her to track nearby Galra more efficiently. Based on our last encounter with Zarkon, I think we should expect an attack."
"Is that it?" Lance questioned, shoving a spoonful of goo into his mouth. "I thought it was an emergency. You made me starve for this?" His words came out muffled as a result of the food in his mouth that made his cheeks look like a chipmunk's.
"Don't speak with your mouth full." Keith said, mainly to deter any attention away from the fact that he wasn't eating. Lance sent Keith a thin glare, eating more of his goo.
"I assure you that it is important. We need to be prepared, Lance."
"To be prepared, I need to eat."
"You can survive around three weeks without food, although that depends on factors like your weight or height." Keith replied to Lance, turning to face him but avoiding eye contact. Keith's awareness of that fact was probably the sole reason he hadn't died of starvation. He hated eating the food goo but knew he had to eat at least a little bit of it every so often so his body could keep functioning.
"Know-it-all." Lance stuck his tongue out at Keith like a toddler, only encouraging Keith to huff and raise his eyebrows. Shiro turned to look at the pair, not at all surprised by their childish actions. Once he realised Keith didn't look threatened, he turned back to Allura, a grin on his face as he explained something to her.
"It is impossible to know-"
"Oh shut up, Keith. We get it, you know everything."
Keith didn't understand. Lance's words sounded nasty (he was telling him to shut up like his foster parents used to when he screamed) but Keith thought he and Lance were friends. Sure, they had the 'rivalry' going on but Shiro had assured him it was a joke. Keith turned to Shiro for help but Shiro was too engrossed in a conversation with Allura.
"No comeback, huh? I guess you're good at everything but comebacks."
"I'm going to go and train." Keith blurted out, pulling himself up and fleeing the room. When approached with an unfamiliar situation, it was usually best to run before anything drastic happened.
"Hey, man! It was just a joke!" Lance yelled after him but Keith was too far away to hear. All but one paladin failed to notice that Keith hadn't even touched his goo.