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until our ribs get tough

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It began on a stormy night, but one might also say that the wheels had been set in motion even before that.

Perhaps it began on the gray, gloomy afternoon right before that storm-hidden sun set.

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Perhaps it began when a little boy chose to secretly follow his big brother and his friends that afternoon. This boy adored his big brother, because his big brother was amazing and cool - even though he fought with jii-chan often. But it didn't matter, Takashi thought, because Ryou was always kind to him.

That afternoon though, Takashi couldn't understand why Ryou and his friends were trying to pry open another man's car, or why they were taking things from inside it. Did they know that man? They couldn't be stealing. Stealing was bad.

Then someone shouted - “Police! What’s going on over there?!” - and Ryou and his friends froze.

Takashi slid back against the alley's shadows, hiding deeper in his big brother's worn black hoodie that he always liked to borrow, even though it was too big, reaching past his knees. From the shadows, Takashi saw Ryou and his friends run from the policeman, who didn't slow down and cursed as he chased after the teenagers.

Takashi followed, but his short legs were unable to catch up, and he found himself skidding to a halt when he heard the gunshots.

“R-Ryou?” the little boy called out. But there was only silence and the beginnings of rain.

Takashi ran again, and when he rounded the corner, he saw his brother lying on the pavement. 

" Ryou! " he screamed, but Ryou didn't move.

He didn’t realize that they weren’t alone.

The policeman was there. The policeman saw him. Ryou still wasn't moving.

Takashi ran.

Takashi ran, heedless of the storm, tears mixing with the rain.

Takashi ran until the ground collapsed from under him and he fell into the water.

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Or perhaps the story began with another little boy. This boy wasn't hiding, though. He was waiting.

Everyone else in the studio had left, even the teacher. Still, Keith sat quietly on the front steps of the building, still in his tank top, leggings and white ballet shoes. When the clouds started turning gray, he went up to the nearby phone booth and made a call.

"Can someone pick me up please?" he told the woman on the other line. "You don't have to tell dad. It's okay if he's busy. Just have someone pick me up, please... I'm getting cold."

He waited again. It wasn't very long before a car pulled over and the familiar driver told him to hurry and get in, a storm is coming.

They rode to the Galra Corp factory, where Keith had been to a lot of times. He always thought it was cool, like a place out of an adventure story. A building standing in the gulf, its lower half underwater, and one had to drive across a bridge to get to.

When his father saw him, he was quickly pulled into a tight hug, but he was let go just as fast.

"Wait." Dad said. "Why are you here? Why did they bring you here?"

Keith had thought maybe he was angry at Keith for showing up at his work, but no. Dad looked scared. Keith couldn't help but feel scared too. "I asked them to. I told them not to tell you because I'll just disturb your work-"

"They're not supposed to bring you here. It's too-" Dad took a deep breath. "Keith... we're in a very critical situation-"

He didn't get to finish what he was supposed to say, because static crackled from the communicator in his belt and a voice said, "Dr. Kogane, we tried everything- It's impossible to go down there now, it's too late-"

Dad pressed a button and replied, "Get everyone out of here. I don't care what Galra Corp said. Spread the word: everyone out. Now."

Everything was too fast for Keith after that. Dad had taken him in his arms and ran out his office and into the garage. Everyone else was running around, shouting things Keith couldn’t make out. They get to their car. Dad told him to fasten his seatbelt and without even waiting, he drove out the factory.

"I can't risk anything happening to you." Dad said, driving the fastest Keith had ever seen him drive.

"Dad?" Keith asked, hands clutching his little duffel bag. "What's happening? Why is everyone scared?"

He didn’t get a reply.

Did Dad hear him? The storm was pounding so loud against the car. It was all dark except for the headlights, but Dad didn't slow down.

Then there was a noise even louder - too loud - Keith felt like his ears were bleeding. His eyes hurt. Everything was white, then red, then black.

There was a sudden heat, then freezing cold.

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Takashi tried to swim, but he couldn't get to the surface, and he couldn't breathe anymore. Keeping his eyes open hurt, but he saw something - a light - and suddenly he saw clearly. It was bright, too bright - but it didn't hurt, it didn't blind. He was so cold, but it felt warm.

He reached out, and something took his hand.

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When Keith opened his eyes, he was underwater, but everything was on fire. He grabbed Dad's arm, but Dad wasn't moving. There was red. Keith clawed at his seatbelt but he couldn't get it off. As he began to lose his breath, he felt something, and when he looked - really looked, despite the sting in his eyes - he saw something dark and misty, floating just in front of him, stark black against the fire surrounding him.

It felt cold, but it felt safe, and without options, he reached out. He latched on. He didn't let go.

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Perhaps it began even before that explosion, that storm, that gunshot, that afternoon.

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Perhaps it began that morning when Ryou fought with jii-chan again. Takashi didn't know what about, but Ryou sounded upset.

"Those bastards in their tall buildings never cared about any of us, old man." he had said. "They lie. They cheat. They steal. Everyone does. Why shouldn't I?"

Ryou left after that, and jii-chan told Takashi not to worry, and to continue doing his homework.

Takashi worried anyway. He had waited for jii-chan to take a nap, and then he snuck out.

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Perhaps it began the night before the explosion. Keith was telling his father about his day. His teacher praised his progress. His teacher said he was already a fine dancer, and he'll get even better with practice.

Dad's phone rang, and he left the room to answer it.

Keith switched the TV on to find something to watch.

But he heard Dad's voice, unfamiliar- angry-

"I'm telling you, it's too dangerous! I know we're all replaceable to you, but there's no amount of money that will convince me to risk innocent lives-"

Keith hugs his favorite hippo plushie, trying to focus on the cartoons on the TV. To forget Dad's angry voice.

"Keith?" Dad called, and Keith was slow to look back at him. "You look tired. You brush your teeth and go to bed, okay, buddy? I'll be up there in a few too."

Keith only nodded, and ducked out the room to do what he was told. Anything to not hear Dad angry anymore.

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Perhaps it all began much, much longer before all of that. Years, decades - even a century before.

Or perhaps it was difficult to pinpoint when it all began, because there were multiple beginnings. Perhaps it all simply recurs.

One thing stays the same, however - there are always two.

Light and dark.

Hope and fear.

Brought together to restore an upset balance.

There is no set time, no set period. The wheels turn when there is a need to.

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Perhaps for clarity, we can just say that this one began on a dreary morning on the beach, in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Keith woke up, coughing up sea water, shivering from the cool morning air.

There is a weight on his hand, and when he looked to his side, he gasped.

There is another boy, about his age, unconscious, hand clutching his. This boy had white hair, and there is a bleeding cut across his nose. Keith was quick to move.

"H-Hey... Hey!"

His hands grasped the boy's arm, but he immediately drew back when he felt liquid. His hands were stained red. The boy's sleeve was soaked too.

Keith wanted to scream, but he couldn't. With trembling hands, he touched the boy's shoulder instead, trying to shake him awake.

"Hey... Wake up... Please, you're-... You're bleeding-"

The boy didn't move. But he was breathing, Keith could see that. He looked around. He saw no one, but he could hear the faint sound of cars and crowds from the distance, above the ringing in his ears.

"Help!" he cries, voice cracking. "Someone's hurt! Please, help!"

Keith shivered again. It was so cold. He was on his tank top and leggings, all dirty now, still damp from the water. His fingers caught on something, and when he looked down, he saw that he and the boy were lying on a large black hoodie. He pulled at it, then hesitated, looking at the other boy, whose arm was still inside one of the sleeves. This must be his. But his shirt was long-sleeved, he should be warm enough. Keith was very cold, so he took the hoodie anyway and wrapped it around himself.

Keith stood up, feeling faint and wobbly. His cheeks were wet - when did he start crying? No. He had to look for help. He wiped his tears in the hoodie's sleeves.

"Hold on. I'll get help." he said, even though the boy still hadn't moved. With shaky legs, he ran towards the sounds of people and cars.

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Jii-chan was there when Takashi woke up. There is a soft pillow under his head, and the blanket was his favorite, the fluffy one, but he is not in his bedroom. The walls were all white. There were machines beeping around him.

He felt weak, and his body hurt all over, and-

He couldn't feel his arm.

"Takashi." Jii-chan began to say, but his voice sounded distant, like he was calling someone else.

When Takashi looked down to the side, his sleeve was empty.

"What happened?" he asked, or felt like he asked - even his own voice sounded far away.

Jii-chan was crying by then, holding the boy's hand, stroking his hair. "Takashi, oh my boy..."

"Jii-chan," he said, blinking up at his grandfather. He asked again, "What happened?"

His eyes scanned the room. He felt tears sliding down his cheeks - why was he crying?

"Jii-chan, where's Ryou?"

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The lady was nice, Keith supposed. She was very kind, and very sweet, and she kept asking if Keith was okay.

Keith was okay.

"It's okay if you don’t feel okay, Keith." she said.

"No." Keith insisted. "I'm okay."

She held his hand during the funeral.

She helped him pack his things. He asked if he can keep Hippo. She said yes, of course, he can keep Hippo.

Unlike the lady, the men were not kind, nor sweet, nor nice. They didn't even look twice at Keith.

"What are they doing?" Keith asked, watching them take things from Dad's office. "Tell them to stop. That's Dad's work!"

"They used to work with your dad, Keith." the lady told him.

"No they don't. I know the people who work with Dad."

"Well... Well, perhaps, you haven't met all of them-"

"Where are they taking Dad's papers and stuff?"

"Um... Since... since, you know, your dad wouldn't be able to... continue the work, they can continue for him. Wouldn't that be good? Wouldn't your dad like for his work to continue?"

"But Dad keeps 'em neat and tidy- They can't just put 'em into boxes all together like that! Stop it!"

She was unable to keep him from running towards one the men and pushing him aside, grabbing things from the box the man had been filling, demanding they put all those back-

"Keith, please! They know what they're doing. This is for the best, honey. This is how your dad's hard work can continue helping other people-"

He looked up at her, defiant, clutching an armful of random things to his chest. She looked sternly at him, but her face softened when his lips started to tremble. "Promise they'll take care of Dad's work?"

"Of course they would."

"Can I... Can I keep some of them...? The pictures? And... and the pen? Please, it was mom's-"

She nodded, slowly, glaring at the men when they started to complain about delays.

Keith took two picture frames. Mom's pen. A little notebook, the one Dad liked keeping in his pocket when he wasn't working.

One of the men said he couldn't keep it, but Keith was faster, running up the stairs and slamming the door of the bedroom that wasn't his anymore.

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Takashi had black hair before the "accident". After that, he had silver hair, a scar across his nose and no right arm.

The scar and the arm were easy to explain away - it was a huge explosion, causing a huge structural collapse. He was wounded by sharp, heavy debris.

The hair, however, the doctors weren't too sure about what happened there.

The most plausible reason they could come up with were chemicals. The Galra Corp factory that exploded and crumbled into the ocean was part chemical plant, after. Being in the water, with those various unknown chemicals, might have caused the hair color change.

But that wasn't important, really.

What Takashi really wanted was some sort of explanation. Justice. Closure.

He gave the police the description of the cop that he saw that night.

The one who shot Ryou. Who killed Ryou.

They don't find any records.

They don't find any of Ryou's friends, either.

The case remained unsolved and was shelved after two long years.

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The social services lady might have been nice, but the people who ran the home weren't. The other kids weren't much better either.

Keith learned those facts the hard way.

At fifteen, he put on the black hoodie - still too big, sleeves still falling past his fingers - and then he packed his few clothes, the old photos, his mom's pen, his dad's notebook, a cheap phone and an old gray and faded Hippo in one backpack.

He left in the night through the home's second-story window and he never looked back.

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Takashi was sixteen when jii-chan had to move to assisted living. He got fostered by the Holts, long-time family friends on his father's side. They already had two children, fifteen year old Matt and twelve year old Katie, and they had all welcomed him with nothing but warmth and love. He was grateful, and he quickly grew attached to his new family.

They called him Shiro, like the other kids in school did, like everyone else did. It was fine. He liked that only jii-chan called him Takashi.

School was great, too.

"You have a good future ahead of you, Takashi." Jii-chan had told him. "Ryou would have been proud of you."

Takashi heard what his grandfather didn't say: You're smart and studious. Stay in school. Stay a good boy. Get a good job someday. Something that does not risk you getting shot and dying in the pavement. Something that does not brand you undeserving of justice and closure.

So Takashi continued to be Shiro.

Shiro the model student - with straight A's and medals and debate team trophies.

Shiro who was humble and obedient. Shiro who was not Ryou. Shiro who always had to make sure that he was better than what Ryou could’ve been, who will not make the same mistakes that Ryou did.

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Keith was sixteen when he learned what he is really good at.

Smiling.

He was very very good at smiling. And laughing. And batting his lashes. And biting his lip.

He was good at running, yeah, and picking locks, too. He was good at taking thick wallets and designer purses and gold watches and diamond earrings without getting caught... but those were all just tricks up his sleeve.

The real skill, he discovered, was walking to a club or a party with confidence, coming up with a new name the second another rich boy asks, then smiling, giggling and tucking his hair behind his ear at just the right time until they both have drinks in their hand, but only one of them is getting drunk.

The real skill, by his experience, is to let himself be taken home, or somewhere, whatever, but before they so much as got a hand up his shirt, they were already too drunk and sleepy, and Keith was free to rummage through their wallet, or pocket some nice trinkets of their parents’ that he could sell for some cash.

It should be fine. They had plenty. Keith had nothing.

Then he'd sneak out from the flat, mansion or hotel room, and trudge back to the old abandoned decrepit church that he'd been calling 'home sweet home' for the past year and a half.

It got cold sometimes, and he got sad sometimes, but he had a tiny portable heater, a worn comfortable black hoodie, and Hippo.

Whenever he felt too restless to sleep, he'd stand before his wall of newspaper clippings, documents, charts, photos and sticky notes. Everything he had gathered over the years.

Galra Corp never really issued a clear official statement about that explosion. So many people died, so many families left wanting answers. Worse still, his dad and the others who worked there were the one who took the blame - there was an error during one of the operations, or there were flaws and vulnerabilities in the building structure.

Keith didn't believe any of those.

What Keith believed in, is that someday, he'd figure it all out.

He'd figure out what his dad was angry and worried about the night before the storm.

He'd figure out what really caused the explosion that took his dad from him.

He’d figure out what Galra Corp had been hiding.

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Takashi was seventeen when he met the boy with the eyes and the smile.

Matt had dragged him into someone's party - he'd rather be studying, really, or catching up on sleep - but no, he had to go with Matt, because Colleen didn't want either of them going alone, and only allowed it if they went together.

He didn't know any of the other kids in the party very well, but he recognized some from school.

"Shiro!" Many greeted him. "Good to see you come out for once!"

They looked happy for him. It was nice, but nobody really stuck around. Even Matt got pulled in by his friends, promising to come back and find Shiro later.

Perhaps this was how it really began, on some stranger's party. When Shiro turned, and someone crashed against him, and beer was spilled on his jacket.

"Sorry! I'm so sorry!" the boy said, stumbling back. He was swaying, and he looked like he was going to fall over. "I'm really- really sorry-"

"Hey, now-" Shiro reached out to steady him, but between the cropped jacket already slipping halfway down the boy's arms, the loose tank top, and the tight jeans, he didn't really know where to put his hand. He held on the boy's elbow to anchor him instead. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I just- I-... I kinda arrived early, y'know? So... so I've... had a bit to drink." The boy lips curled into a smile - perfect and beautiful - but his eyes didn't follow. "I'm fine, I- I'm really sorry about your jacket."

His brows furrowed as he looked at the wet spot on Shiro's jacket. His free hand started patting around his hips, but he found nothing. It threw Shiro for a loop when the boy took off his red beanie, and started dabbing it at Shiro's jacket.

Shiro could do nothing but watch. "Uh."

"It's... it's not working, is it." the boy said, holding back a snort. "Stupid Keith."

"That's you?" Shiro asked softly, looking at the boy - Keith - still trying to get the beer off his jacket. "Keith?"

"That's me, yeah." Keith nodded, peering up at him, the dark blue almost blending perfectly with his messy dark hair. "You gonna tell me your name too or should I just call you Handsome?"

Shiro felt his cheeks his cheeks heat up, and he had to clear his throat before answering, "Shiro."

"Okay. Shiro." Keith nodded, finally giving up on the beanie method. "I'm gonna go over there, okay. And I’m gonna get some tissues. Towels. Whatever, something asbor- abser- absorbet-"

"Absorbent?" he chuckled.

"Absorbent. Wow, handsome and smart." Keith grinned as he nodded, and he pat Shiro’s jacket one last time before stepping back.

"You don't have to-"

"No, I do. Don't wanna ruin your jacket... Very good jacket... Good... shoulders." he said, gesturing vaguely at him before he finally turned around and stumbled towards where the towels probably were. Shiro wouldn't know.

He watched Keith disappear into the crowd. He decided to stay there, so Keith could find him easier on his way back.

It took him a while to realize that something was wrong. It was when Matt found him, asking to borrow his phone because his just died.

Shiro reached into both his jacket pockets at the same time. On one, he easily found his phone. His other pocket however… was empty.

He frowned, digging deeper. Nothing. He started patting his jean pockets. Nothing.

Oh.

"Shit."

Matt almost spit out his drink. "S-Say what?"

"I'll be back!"

He wove through the party crowd, searching for the messy black hair and the red beanie, but Keith was nowhere to be found.

He kept walking, and walking, until he found Keith again, talking to another boy in the corner, grinning and perfectly sober.

"Hey!" he called.

Keith jumped and turned to him with wide eyes. For a moment, he just stood there, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, then without another word, he ran.

"Stop!"

Shiro ran after him, through the crowds of people, out the door, away from the party.

Keith was fast, not looking back for one second, determined to escape - but Shiro ran with all he had.

"You took my wallet!"

Keith didn't respond to that. He just kept running.

Then he stumbled, and Shiro sped up - the gap grew smaller, and smaller, and smaller until-

"I said stop!"

His managed to grab Keith's hand.

For a split second, he thought he had Keith, but then something wrenched them away from each other, throwing them mercilessly on opposite directions.

They both land in a heap on the cold hard ground of an empty public playground.

Keith is the first to recover, sitting up with a yelp, staring at his hand. His palm was glowing - luminous white.

"What-"

"What did you do to me?" Shiro whispered, staring at his hands, seemingly surrounded by some sort of black smoke.

"No, what did you do to me ?!" Keith shot back, holding out his hand, bright and shining.

Shiro could not help but reach for it, but as soon as their fingers touched, they felt a sharp, all-encompassing pain and both quickly drew their hands back.

Keith stood up on shaking legs, staring at him in fear and fascination. Shiro also got up, keeping a wary distance while he stared down at the black mist in his hands, to the glow of light in Keith's hand that the boy was trying hard to keep hidden, to no avail.

When he looked at Keith, Keith was already looking at him, expression unreadable.

"Wait... It's you." Keith said, voice soft, vulnerable, shaking. "It's you, isn't it?"

"What?" Shiro asked in a whisper.

"You're that boy... from the beach."

He just stared at Keith for a moment, trying to understand. "Beach...?"

His eyes looked into Keith's, and in the white glow from his palm, Keith's eyes seem brighter, the sharp glint in them almost like a stroke of lightning.

Shiro let out a quiet gasp.

"A-After the storm?"

Keith only stared back with eyes just as stormy as that night, and Shiro already knew the answer.

"I…” he started to say. “I gotta go-"

"No! What's happening? Who are you?"

Instead of answering, Keith only rummaged through his belt bag and then threw something that landed on Shiro's feet. It was his wallet.

"Shiro!" he heard a call from the distance. Matt. "Shiro, dude, where the hell are you?!"

Shiro whirled around to look at his foster brother.

Matt looked concerned. "Hey, man, what happened? You just ran off."

Shiro was in no state to answer. "I-... I was just-"

He remembered his hands then - panicking - how was he supposed to explain this? But when he looked down, the black mist was gone.

"Shiro?” Matt called, softer this time. “Come on. Talk to me."

But Shiro didn't hear him, not really. He turned his head, a question ready-

Keith was gone too.

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