And the air was full
Of various storms and saints
Praying in the street
As the banks began to break
And I’m in the throes of it
Somewhere in the belly of the beast
Shiro can’t even pronounce the name of it, though his doctor and the two specialists who came from off base have already repeated it to him several times. They’re being very sympathetic, but that hasn’t lessened the damage of it, the diagnosis dropping like a bomb. Shiro can feel the crater opening up inside him, blowing a hole in his life.
His father pulls him into his side, gripping him so hard, so reflexively, that there will be bruises. Shiro grips back, held together by his father’s arm around him, so desperate for any kind of hold against the enormity of this.
His mother doesn’t reach for him, doesn’t even say anything. She just sits there, habitually unbending even now, as stark and rigid as ever in her uniform. Then, abruptly, she curls over herself—all those crisp lines ruined—and she bursts into tears.
It’s like watching a building suddenly collapse.
Shiro’s never, ever seen his mother cry before. He hardly imagined it was even possible. The sound of her sobbing is so unfamiliar, so jarring, it makes everything suddenly and sharply unreal.
This can’t be happening.
Shiro tries to process what they’re saying about how the symptoms will progress, what the next step is, what treatments are available, how he can keep up with his high school courses as things get worse—but he can barely take in the words, a bubble of rage rising up in him, blocking his thoughts. When he can’t take it anymore, he doesn’t even excuse himself, just twists out of his father’s grip and all but runs out of the room.
Furious with everything, he flees until he hits sunlight and fresh air, and then throws himself down on the ground when he can’t go any further. He refuses even to cry, bites his cheek hard and stares up at the sparse clouds, dry-eyed and tasting blood.
He’s seething with an anger so bright and hot and seizing that every breath actually hurts. He doesn’t care that he’s lying on the tiny strip of lawn between the parking lot and the ambulance lane. He dares someone to come tell him to move, dares someone to tell him that anything matters right now. He rips the grass up between his fingers, claws the dirt under his finger nails, can’t stop thinking this isn’t fair, this isn’t fair, this isn’t—
He stares at the sky for a long time, so long that his eyes start to sting with it. His vision, and his mind, fill with blue. His chest slowly unclenches, his breathing slowly eases, and the tumult in his mind slowly dies down. Without the anger he feels empty and aching, numb with growing dread.
The slight, insistent tingling in two of the fingertips of his right hand could even be pleasant, if he doesn’t think about the fact that this is what brought him here in the first place. The sensation is still diffuse, and it won’t become pain and spasms for many years, they’d told him. There’s no question, they’d insisted, that it will eventually. This early diagnosis doesn’t give them that many more options—there are so few options—but it does give him time to prepare, they’d said. He’d been lucky that they’d caught the signs at all at this early stage. The disease is progressive and irreversible and rare, they’d said, and there is no cure.
He’s going to weaken and wither and then before he’s even middle aged he’s going to—
No, he’s not thinking about that.
An airplane creeps into view, moving inexorably across the sky, impossibly far up and driven steadily by twin jet engines. He wishes he could be up there, in all that blue, wishes he could be free of the weight that feels like it’s anchoring him to the dirt, burying him already.
He aches to fly, so fiercely that it finally drags a sob out of his chest.
Keith gets off the old rickety bus at the crossroads like usual and walks down the dusty lane until he gets to their simple little shack-house. His father isn’t home, but that’s normal. Sometimes people look at him oddly when he mentions that he’s often home alone, but he’s ten already and he can take care of himself. Besides, his dad works hard and works late and there’s no getting around that. Keith let’s himself in with the key hidden under the red paving stone near the door, dropping his backpack in its usual spot against the side of the couch and wandering into the kitchen.
In the fridge, there’s a big covered bowl of leftovers with a note on it—‘Be home later Buddy, eat up’—so Keith puts the note between his teeth and carries the heavy bowl carefully up to the lip of the counter and then maneuvers it into the microwave. While it spins and whirs, he goes to his room. He tucks the note into the box on his bookshelf with all the other notes and then reaches under his low bed to pull out the cloth bundle.
It’s his favourite possession, his most prized thing, and he unwinds the material to bring out the knife.
He never ever gets tired of looking at it, studying it, though he doesn’t play with it, doesn’t pretend to use it like a weapon. The one time he’d actually been pretending to fight with it, intent on cutting the air in a way he was sure he’d seen in a movie once, his father had caught him at it. He hadn’t scolded him or told him it wasn’t safe, nor had he come forward to guide his hand and correct his form. His father had just looked… distant, and so sad, and Keith had never had to heart to hold it and wield it like that again, even when his father wasn’t home.
Keith doesn’t realize that he’s been staring at his reflection in the blade until the microwave beeps.
He eats at the table like he’s been told, but he keeps the knife with him.
Later, after he finishes his homework and re-wraps the knife to put it away, he turns on the TV and waits. Sometimes it takes his father ages to get home, but Keith would rather be here when he does than be in his own bed and maybe miss greeting him. Like he often does, Keith falls asleep on the couch with the TV still on.
He wakes up much later and it’s already dark out. His dad was supposed to be home before nightfall, wasn’t he?
“Dad?” he calls out, just in case his father didn’t want to wake him, but there’s no one else in the house.
He gets up and checks the stove clock, his stomach sinking when he sees that it’s already after nine. His dad has never been this late, not unless there was a real emergency. His heart thumping a little in his chest, he grabs the phone and dials the number for dispatch by heart. He knows he’s not supposed to call unless it’s really important, but Shauna is nice and doesn’t ever give him trouble for checking up on his dad when he’s worried.
“County fire station,” she says.
“Um,” he says, and he hears her rush of breath into the receiver.
“Keith? Lord, Keith is that you?”
“Yes ma’am,” he says, feeling a rush of unease at her tone, “I just — I wanted to know if my dad’s still there?”
The unease yawns into fear when she doesn’t answer him. Keith knows her voice more than he knows her face, but he’s always liked her no-nonsense manner. He’s never known her not to speak frankly. Her silence is alarming. Wrong.
“…Oh child,” she breathes, unsteady, and it’s this that finally makes his eyes prick with tears.
“What’s—where’s my dad?”
“Keith, listen to me. Can you do that?” She doesn’t continue until he chokes out an affirmative sound. “The Chief’s on his way now. He’s coming to your house, and he’s going to tell you what happened.”
“Why?” he almost yells, “What happened?”
“There was a fire in Old Creek today. Your dad responded. It’s… It’s not right to hear the rest from me,” she says softly, “I need you to stay on the line, sweetheart. Stay with me until the Chief—”
But then there’s the sound of a vehicle on the driveway and Keith drops the phone with a clatter. For a second he thinks it’s his dad’s truck and his heart lurches in relief, but he hears — no, that’s more than one set of tires, and his dad’s headlights never shone through the front window like that, not at that angle. It’s not his dad, it’s not his dad. For a second, he’s frozen, doesn’t want to go outside, doesn’t want to know. But then he rushes forward, wrenches open the front door, wet eyes blurring in the sudden flood of light.
Later, he’ll remember how he’d cannoned into someone’s legs, how they’d had to grab him to stop him from kicking, how he couldn’t get enough breath, how the air had smelled faintly of smoke and how everyone’s voice shook when they spoke to him. He’ll remember how he’d sobbed into a scratchy woollen uniform for so long that he fell asleep.
Shiro’s mother is a Squad Commander Second Class, in charge of hundreds of sailors on multiple ships. She’s been deployed all around the Pacific for the JMSDF and even for the UC. She’s always been the tireless one, ever-ready, the one who his father likes to joke doesn’t understand the difference between fun and training.
Shiro’s never been able to keep pace with her on a hike, never known her to sleep in, has never been able to distract her from anything or convince her to change her mind. He’s seen her stand her ground on the listing deck of an aircraft carrier in a squall, saw her throw a regional judo champion straight onto their back three bouts in a row, even watched her break up a fight and then wear the black eye to her personnel meetings the next day.
She’s the one who always cared about legacy, who always talked about the people in their family tree like they were still watching him and would have opinions about his life choices. She’s the one who keeps her parent’s wartime service medals mounted in frames, and whenever they move bases, those frames are the first to come out of the boxes. She’s the only one who still calls him Takashi, no matter what everyone else calls him, no matter how many times he tells her not to.
Shiro’s mother doesn’t take his diagnosis well.
Distantly, he supposes none of them do—how could anyone ever take something like that well—but of the three of them, she’s the one who just shuts down, in a way he never, ever thought she could.
In the roiling mess of things he feels about what’s happening to him, he can’t stop himself from feeling betrayed. After that day in the doctor’s office, she can barely look at him, and he hates—hates—how it makes him feel like he’s dead to her already.
The next time his mother has to ship out for another tour of command, it’s both too soon and not soon enough.
His father tries to be there for him, tries to ease him through it, but his father is a gentle person and he won’t tell his wife to grieve the life she thought her son would have in some other way, a way that doesn’t make Shiro want to scream. His steady, silent support isn’t enough, not for what Shiro needs, not for the desperate urgency thrumming through him like a hurricane.
Keith doesn’t want to leave, but they tell him he can’t stay here alone, not now. He argues with them, tells them it’s his dad’s house, it’s his house, they can’t take it away from him. He hates how patiently they explain to him that it’s just not possible, and eventually he’s too tired to keep fighting them.
A nice lady with a data pad comes and helps him pack the most important things, like his books about space and aeronautics, his clothes, his school stuff. He has to wait until she’s called into the other room by the nice man who came with her, and only then can he get the knife out from under his bed and into his bag. He grabs his second pair of sneakers, the ancient little handheld game console his dad got him from a garage sale, his personal notebook, and—
The box of notes.
He almost opens it, wants to see his dad’s handwriting, but then he realizes his eyes are already wet and he can’t. He closes the box and puts it into his bag with the rest.
After that, he just… doesn’t know what to bring. They told him he can’t come back, not until he’s older. They say things like ‘your father’s will’ and ‘the estate’ and ‘held in trust’.
Keith already misses this place—the marks on the doorframe that show how much he’s grown, the simple wooden walls and the faint smell of pine from them, the way the sunrises always come right through the front windows—and he hasn’t even left it yet.
Neither of his parents say anything when Shiro looks up from a science textbook one day while his mother is home on leave and declares that he wants to be an astropilot, that he wants to be on the next mission to the moons of Jupiter. Two weeks later, neither of his parents protest when he applies to the Galaxy Garrison’s accelerated admissions program and starts preparing seriously for years of intense flight and then officer training just three months shy of his seventeenth birthday. He expects his mother to argue—she’d always talked about him joining the Officer Academy back in Etajima like it was a foregone conclusion—but she doesn’t.
The Garrison doesn’t even usually accept applications for accelerated training at his age, but his extraordinary sim scores make him an exception right from the beginning. The way they stare down at the numbers and then at his young face and then back down at the numbers with barely contained shock makes him grind his teeth, but they always stamp whatever needs to be stamped and then tell him to wait for the next round of paperwork.
He can’t wait, though, can never wait. He can only stand being idle for a few days, and then he’s going out on his hover bike, flying toward the horizon at full throttle.
He’s not even out of high school yet, but he feels time closing in on him like a vice, choking him unless he’s in motion. He needs to go faster, farther.
Somewhere in the back of Shiro’s mind, he understands that his father is seriously alarmed by this, by the way he starts to hate his medical appointments, by the way he starts to ignore his friends, but something tight and turbulent inside him won’t let him stop long enough to feel guilty about any of it.
Shiro’s resolve hardens, and he rushes out of his parents’ house and into the world without looking back. It doesn’t matter how numb his hands will go eventually, how weak his arms will get someday.
He’s going to find a way to fly.
The other kids who lost their parents – the other kids who are grieving and angry and alone – they always have some kind of picture of their family, a memento that lets them look over those smiling faces and remember better times. Sometimes they’ll show him this precious record, shy and protective of it, and other times they won’t, keeping it close and hidden. Keith can show his own precious handful of pictures, all of himself tucked small against his dad’s big form, but he’s started to hate doing it because another question always follows, and he never knows how to answer it.
What about your mom?
Keith doesn’t have any pictures of his mother.
He’s never even seen one, doesn’t think they exist. He realizes that he has to stop voicing this because saying there aren’t any pictures of my mom makes people… look at him oddly. It’s just one more nail into the coffin of any bond he could have had with any of his foster mates. Most of them talk about mothers as if they’re a miracle, the sweetest and most caring being imaginable, an angel of love, but Keith has no idea what that’s like.
He knows very little about his mother, except that she was strong and loyal and loved her family fiercely. His father revered her and missed her equally, pained by her absence in a way that never healed and which Keith only now understands his father didn’t want to be healed of. Keith only now understands that maybe all that time his father was waiting, and that his mother maybe didn’t actually die, but that thought fills him with a riot of confusion and anger and hurt, so he turns away from it as hard as he can.
He holds tight to the fact that his father wouldn’t have always spoken of her so admiringly, so tenderly, if she had really wronged them, left them for any reason except one that was noble and right and enough. Keith can’t fucking imagine what reason would be good enough for her not to have come back to them – to him, especially now – but Keith has always trusted in his father’s judgement more than he’s trusted pretty much anything else in the world, so he can let it lie, mostly.
He can’t help but dredge it up sometimes, though, when he can’t stop himself from wondering where in the whole goddamned world she could possibly be, if she’s not in the ground somewhere, level with his father. Keith knows they loved each other, and he reasons that they must have had a deep, powerful bond for his father to remain so loyal and bound to her, but he has nothing to help him understand this.
No pictures, no letters, no videos, no record of her at all.
He only has a knife.
Life is one day at a time, one foster home at a time.
By the time he’s thirteen, Keith supposes that he shouldn’t feel like he knows who he is, but he does. He knows exactly who he is, exactly what they all say about him, and he’ll fight it until his dying breath.
He’s the fuck up, the charity case, the weirdo, the drifter, the loner.
He’s forgotten, unanchored, unhinged, at odds with everyone around him. But there’s a knot of certainty in him somewhere deep, the only calm thing he can find inside the wildfire of himself. He carries it with him everywhere and it’s the only thing, sometimes, that can keep him sane.
This place, these people, this whole shit situation—it doesn’t matter.
He’s going to find a way to get out of here.
When he’d turned thirteen, Shiro’s father had bought a broken down old model hoverbike that was about as far from the cutting edge as you could get and still not have wheels. Then he’d told Shiro he could ride it when he fixed it.
Shiro had thrown himself into it like he never had with anything else. He’d learned every nut and bolt, worked odd jobs on and off base to buy each part one at a time, and then installed everything himself. The day he got it running was the most exciting of his life, and it had hooked him on flight so deeply that he’d felt like maybe he’d been born for it.
Six years on from that day, Honours Graduate Cadet Takashi Shirogane knows he’s born for this.
Shiro loves—loves—being in high atmo, loves breaking out of the blue into the black beyond. He’s always loved flight—velocity and angles, thrust and drag—but finally getting to be above the earth?
It’s almost spiritual. The wonder of it is staggering.
For the first time in his life, he feels small and mortal and insignificant and impermanent… and that’s okay. He’s travelling at five miles per second and he finally feels like he can slow down. Up in orbit, between the interplanetary dark and the bright blue light of the planet, dwarfed by the scale of the universe around him – it’s the only time that he isn’t scared of dying. What’s coming for him is something right, up here, something natural. He gets to see a new sunrise every ninety minutes and each one makes him feel like a new man.
He’ll do anything to get on the next off-planet mission.
He’ll do anything to stay up there, where his death sentence makes sense.
When Keith sees the red leather jacket at the thrift store, he knows it’s his.
He has it in his hands, feeling the weight of it – it’s a well-made thing, a very lucky find in this hole-in-the-wall shop – when he spots a group of kids from his school coming up the mall. He hears them talking too loudly about how bored they are, hears one of them suggest the thrift store. He buys the jacket in a rush with the last of his cash, doesn’t even try it on before he’s out the door, racing back to the home.
It isn’t until he’s in his room with a chair wedged under the door handle that he finds out it’s too big for him.
He doesn’t care, though. Every second that he can, he wears it anyways.
Of all the responsibilities that come with his fresh promotion to Second Lieutenant, Shiro actually likes this part. He doesn’t mind at all when he has to leave off his regular duties and go into all the local communities around the Garrison, hauling the flight sim game and hunting for hopefuls. He likes meeting new people and talking to kids, even if it can be a little nerve-wracking to give speeches in front of roomfuls of people who are all staring at him. It can feel a little weird, too, when everyone already knows him from photos in the news, especially when people use words like ‘impressive’, or ‘handsome’, or on one memorable occasion, ‘hero’.
Hiro is my uncle, he’d joked, a little desperately.
Anything would be less awkward than being called a ‘hero’. He would much rather be winked at by crinkly-faced older women who tell him he’s ‘dashing’. He doesn’t even mind when they pat his shoulder and tell him their wartime stories while they run a sharp, nostalgic gaze up and down his uniform.
And it is usually the Garrison greys that catch the eye, fills them with stars, gets everyone riled up. After more than a dozen schools, Shiro has developed the vague understanding that a man as tall and broad as him in a uniform like this can expect some kind of reaction. He would feel a bit like a performing monkey except that he genuinely enjoys trying to get people excited about spaceflight.
Today is yet another middle school, two dozen fourteen-year-olds who look like they’d be delighted to watch paint dry if it got them out of class. It’s his usual speech, and it goes off without a hitch, gets the usual reaction, except… he’s caught short by the one kid in the class who won’t even look.
He’s never seen such a young face filled with such adult disinterest.
Most kids, when they say they don’t care, do so defiantly because they secretly do. But this kid? Shiro thinks he really, actually doesn’t. The way this kid ignores him isn’t posturing or pretention at all; Shiro in his shiny insignias and welcoming smile just isn’t on his radar. Shiro, and by extension the Garrison and all it stands for – scientific and human advancement, the grand endeavour of the space exploration program, even respectable career advancement—just doesn’t impress him.
And that? That’s something.
His attention snags on the kid’s profound lack of interest like a thorn catching his sleeve. He looks closer, keeps an eye on him while the whole class files out to the parking lot and gathers excitedly around the sim, notices the dark looks the others throw at him and the wide berth they leave around him. Shiro feels for someone who’s so clearly alone.
While he’s here, he thinks, he’ll see what he can do to encourage the kid.
The sim levels clock up, and up, and the babble of noise from the other kids goes from snide jeering to raucous excitement. And then the sim levels keep going up, and up, and the tone shifts from cheers to disbelief to sullenness.
But Shiro couldn’t care less about how this kid obviously trips something in his agemates, makes them hostile without even really doing anything. He’s watching the way the kid flies—and he does fly, flies it like a real ship, doesn’t treat it like a video game at all, not like the others—and he thinks maybe this is the real deal.
Shiro feels a thrill go through him, something palpable and electric.
When he asks, the teacher makes the kid—his name is Keith—sound like a Troubled Case, clearly thinks that Shiro’s nuts for considering him for the cadet program. Shiro only has a moment to process her unsympathetic reaction before there’s the noise of someone failing the sim, and then the sound of his car getting stolen.
On some level Shiro wonders if he was crazy for bailing the kid out of juvie, for giving him his card and a second chance, but he would eat the cost of a whole new car if it meant he was right about what he saw in that sim.
For the first time, Shiro realizes what it must have been like for those dumfounded recruiters who hadn’t been able to take their eyes off his scores even as they’d reached blindly for their PDs. At the time, he’d been annoyed by their hushed and urgent phone conversations, the way they’d only barely bothered to go half out of earshot before they’d said things like but ma’am, you won’t believe this guy’s reaction times and I don’t care about the academic forms, you have to process this immediately.
Now he gets it.
Shiro feels vindicated and relieved in equal measure when Keith actually shows up at the garrison the next day.
Standing next to him on the tarmac, Keith side-eyes him skeptically. His body language is a knot of doubt and reluctance, but he can’t hide the hungry way he looks up at the Calypso shuttlecraft, and he can’t keep the fervour out of his voice when he starts spouting trivia about space missions. Shiro knows that he’s found someone with the same madness as him, the same drive to get up higher into the sky, faster up through the atmosphere, out into the solar system and then farther even than that, and it lights an eager spark in him.
Shiro realizes he already has a soft spot for the kid, tells him he wants to help him.
“I think you’ve got a lot of potential, Keith,” he says, and he means it. “What you do with it is up to you.”
The kid’s face twists into a clear yeah right, but then he looks down at his dusty shoes, thinking intently. Then he looks up at the shuttle for a long, silent moment. Finally, he shrugs slowly, cautiously. Without looking at Shiro, he says, “Okay. Whatever. I’ll give it a shot.”
There’s a flicker of hope in what Shiro can see of Keith’s eye – the first time he’s seen anything like it in the kid’s face – and Shiro feels the mission click into place in his being. He has a responsibility, now, to help this kid get into the cockpit and then into the sky.
He’ll make sure Keith flies.
Someone has to go up after him. Someone has to go farther than he ever will.