They are watching pokemon re-runs, all of them cuddled up in the living-room. It's a day like any other and that means it's perfect.
“What's your favorite pokemon?” Lance asks into the ending credits, sprawling across Shiro's lap.
Shiro pretends to think for a moment before he answers. “I'll have to go with Pikachu on that one.”
“You're just saying that because you can't think of any others!” Lance pouts, even as Shiro reaches out a hand and wipes the frown off his face.
“Nope,” Shiro grins, “Pikachu just kind of reminds me of Keith when I first met him.”
“Hey!” Keith complains from the other end of the couch because he knows exactly what Shiro is thinking.
“My favorite is Magnemite!” Pidge announces to the surprise of absolutely no one.
“What your favorite pokemon, Keith?” Hunk wants to know, leaning closer into Keith's side.
“Hm,” Keith hums, “Probably Charizad.”
“Because it reminds you of Shiro?”
“Nope,” Keith huffs, “Because it's a big bossy dragon with a temper.”
“So it reminds you of you?” Lance asks slyly and Keith can't even be peeved because he definitely set himself up for that one.
In a lot of ways, anime is what connects him to the children.
As a teenager, Keith had latched on to anime because it seemed like the only thing that tied him to his heritage, to the blood in his veins.
He never knew his parents, never spoke the language. For the longest time, he had been vaguely aware of how being Asian had been one of the many reasons why no one ever wanted to adopt him, and he had started to loathe that part of himself.
Eventually, however, that self-loathing had turned into spite. If they didn't want him, then he could at least embrace his roots.
He still doesn't speak Japanese, only understands a few basic phrases and enjoys the comforting sound of it. So when Shiro starts teaching the kids Japanese, he only vaguely listens in, making sure to set up his work laptop somewhere close, so he can smile to himself now and then whenever someone totally mangles the pronunciation.
Shiro is a good teacher, though, patient and kind, his soothing voice putting you at ease while the knowledge simply seems to seep into your brain, and it's all quite reminiscent of how they had first met.
Back at community college, Shiro had needed some extra credits while Keith had needed a tutor. He couldn't afford falling behind in class, so he studied like a maniac, every single day.
“Can you give me some more homework over the weekend?” he had asked at the end of one session when they were already packing up, “A worksheet or something? Or some pointers for how I can improve?”
For a long moment, Shiro had just given him a contemplative look.
“Okay,” he said at length, leaning back in his chair, “For one entire day, until we see each other again, I want you to relax.”
Keith frowned, confused, unsure how to react to that.
“Relax,” Shiro repeated, as though assuming that Keith had never heard the word before, “Just take a break for once. No studying, no working, no exercising. Just hang out with your friends or something.”
A hot-and-cold shudder had run down Keith's spine, rooting him to the spot. Then he quickly stuffed his papers into his bag.
“Yeah, thanks for the holistic life advice, man,” he said sarcastically, “Real game changer right there.”
Shiro, however, seemed dumbfounded, “Have I said something wrong?”
“I'm not here for fun, okay,” Keith growled, “I need to get through college as quickly as possible so I can find a real job and pay off my debts.”
Shiro's face pulled into a grimace, “Your parents really put a lot of pressure on you, huh?”
“I don't have parents, alright?” Keith hissed, quietly because they were still in the library, but when he abruptly stood up the legs of his chair scraped across the floor, “And I don't have friends either. So just... let me do my thing. I'll manage.”
He turned to leave, unwilling to wait for the pity and the back-pedaling, but Shiro just lifted a placating hand.
“Okay,” he said simply, “Then, instead of a worksheet, how about we do another study session on Saturday. How does 3 pm sound to you?”
Keith had bitten back an angry reply. Shiro was a really good tutor after all and Keith didn't want to have to find a new one.
“Alright,” he agreed, “Same place?”
“Same place,” Shiro said, but on Saturday he showed up with a couple of his friends instead, Matt and Chafin and Daisy.
“We're heading to the mall,” he explained to Keith who was nervously clutching his backpack, trying very hard to ignore how Shiro's friends were very obviously eyeing him in curiosity.
“Oh,” he said instead, slightly annoyed but already with half a mind to just study on his own then, “Should we reschedule?”
But Shiro just laughed, “That was actually an invitation for you to join us.”
It still took Keith a moment to understand what that meant. Shiro had planned this. From the very beginning, Shiro had wanted him to just chill for a day.
And Keith didn't like it, didn't like anyone interfering with life or acting like they knew what was best for him.
But Shiro. Shiro looked so fucking earnest. So... very nearly concerned.
Keith opened his mouth to turn him down anyway.
“Sure,” he said instead.
It had been the best decision of his life.
Pidge is sitting in the baby seat of the shopping cart, absentmindedly playing with the drawstrings of Keith's hoodie. In the meanwhile, Keith is trying to actually get the shopping done while simultaneously keeping an eye on Hunk and Lance.
Shiro is running an errand in the electronics store next door, and Keith should not be feeling this overwhelmed. They are his kids, too. He can handle them on his own.
Lance seems insistent on touching every fucking thing along the aisle whereas Hunk thoughtfully pulls items from the shelves and occasionally throws some of them into the cart.
Keith doesn't object. For a while, he had worried whether, in a previous home, Hunk maybe hadn't gotten enough to eat. But there was nothing in his files to indicate that and Hunk himself simply seems to enjoy food, doesn't gorge himself on it or steal some from the dinner table to hide under his bed for emergencies.
Keith wishes he were a better cook, just so he could have something to teach Hunk, but as it is Shiro is the one who generally takes the role of chef while Keith dutifully cuts up meats and vegetables. He's good with knives, after all.
They are already standing in line at the register when Keith sees her, just a little way ahead of them. He isn't even sure why he recognizes her because the years have not exactly been kind to her, but when she angles her head to smile at the cashier, Keith is struck with the empty realization that this random woman on this random day is one of his former foster mothers.
Almost automatically, Keith ducks his head, combs fingers through his fringe so that his hair hides most of his face, because old habits die hard.
“Keith, can we buy this?” Lance asks in that moment, having grabbed a package of chewing gum from the candy display.
“Shh, Lance, put that down,” Keith says quietly, hoping the woman hasn't heard his name.
He cannot even recall hers.
It's been twenty years, he tells himself. Twenty years and she probably won't even recognize him. Keith doesn't even know why he still remembers her, why his heart is beating so frantically, hopping around in his rib cage like a nervous rabbit.
She had been okay, really, in comparison. Whenever her husband had had a temper, she had locked Keith in his room for hours on end, preventing him from getting underfoot. All in all, pretty unremarkable.
He still had only stayed with them for little less than five months until they needed him gone.
Not his fault, for once. Marriage trouble, they had cited, when usually Keith was returned to the orphanage for a number of reasons. Too belligerent, they called him. Too mouthy, too rough. Doesn't play well with others. Doesn't behave.
Keith spends the next ten minutes in a daze, places the items on the conveyor belt, slides his credit card through the checkout machine, ushers the children out of the shop, finds his way back to the car, begins loading everything into the trunk.
“Hey,” Shiro calls out when he catches up with them, “Sorry it took so long. You got everything?”
“Yeah,” Keith says, his own voice like an echo in his hollow head.
He is vaguely aware of Shiro looking at him in askance. “Did something happen?”
“You are really pale,” Shiro tells him, “Are you alright?”
“Sure,” Keith shrugs him off, lifting Pidge into his arms while Hunk and Lance rush off to return the shopping cart.
“How about you let me drive,” Shiro offers and Keith only nods.
When Keith first met Shiro's family, it had been based on another unexpected invitation.
Shiro had asked and Keith had said yes, not knowing what would happen if he didn't. Shiro looked so damn hopeful about it, too, and Keith just didn't know how to explain that he thought it was a terrible idea.
Shiro's family was lovely of course. They were loud and lively, rather unlike from what Keith had expected of stereotypical Asians. The women also outweighed the men, a bunch of granddaughters, Shiro's three older sisters, his mother and aunts, and of course Shiro's grandmother, the family matriarch.
While Shiro had immediately been apprehended by his nieces, the old woman had seized the opportunity and sat Keith down on the sofa, before enthusiastically starting to talk to him in Japanese, slow enough that Keith caught some random words here and there but still rapid enough that he didn't know when to cut it.
He had sat there, mortified, hands clenched around his knees, until she finally stopped talking, looking at him in expectation.
“I- I don't actually speak Japanese,” he had stammered out, his mouth dry, “I'm really very sorry.”
She had blinked at him, only to narrow her eyes and then turn her head, yelling square across the room, “Takashi, boy, you should have mentioned your boyfriend doesn't speak Japanese!”
“And you shouldn't just assume that every Asian-looking person does!” Shiro yelled back, half-buried underneath a baker's dozen of kids.
“How would I know?” she complained, “We all look the same to me!”
“My parents were Japanese Americans,” Keith told her hurriedly, though he was still stuck on the fact that Shiro had apparently introduced him as his boyfriend, “I just never... I never...”
“That's quite alright,” she waved him off, “And you know, to be frank, Takashi's kanji are actually atrocious-”
“So, what happened today?”
Keith rolls over in bed, blearily blinking at Shiro who is propped up on his elbow, looking at him in concern.
“In the parking lot today,” Shiro reminds, “Something must have happened.”
“Oh,” Keith says, lowers his eyes and thinks for a moment. Then he gives an offhand shrug. “That was nothing, really.”
“Shook you up pretty badly, though.”
Keith sighs, purses his lips. This was one of the reasons why he had fallen in love with Shiro in the first place, but sometimes it still irked him how perceptive this man was.
“I just kinda... caught sight of a former foster parent,” he admits, “That just... threw me back a little.”
Shiro frowns, but other than that he stays wonderfully, reassuringly calm. “Were they one of the bad ones?”
“No,” Keith thinks, “No, I guess not.”
Shiro is silent for a long moment. He knows that sometimes Keith reactions are not exactly rational. Keith himself knows so, too. Sometimes... things just get away from him.
He knows there's nothing that can hurt him but he still does not much like dark confining spaces. He knows that, between the two of them, they earn more than enough money, but the idea of splurging still freaks him out. He knows the people in his life are there to stay for good, but he still obsessively goes over every worst case scenario he can come up with.
“Do you want to talk about it,” Shiro asks, but Keith just shrugs.
“There's nothing much to talk about.”
For the most part, his childhood had been nothing but rinse and repeat. Second verse same as the first. He's told Shiro about enough of it that he must have gotten quite sick of the melody.
“There kids were worried about you,” Shiro says and Keith's head jerks up.
“They noticed how you were suddenly somewhat absent,” Shiro explains, “Hunk said you didn't even reply to when he asked whether you were alright.”
Keith is not used to anyone but Shiro noticing these things. He's not used to worrying about anyone asking questions. CPS had asked questions, sometimes, and only when the answers were already obvious enough.
“I- I'm sorry,” he stammers out, mortified. The kids weren't meant to notice. The kids shouldn't have to worry about him. They were supposed to have a carefree childhood without constantly side-eyeing one of their caretakers.
Distantly, he understands that his flashback today had made him a liability. He had only been curt with the kids, which had been bad enough in and of itself, but as a parent he needed to be responsible. He couldn't allow his brain to go off on weird tangents when he was meant to be taking care of them. They were depending on him to do a good job. Shiro was depending on him to do a good job.
So he takes a deep steadying breath.
“I'm sorry,” he repeats more calmly, “It won't happen again.”
The smile on Shiro's face is pained in its sympathy.
“Keith,” he says with emphasis, “I am not your boss. I'm not- I'm not about to fire you.”
“I know.” Nervously, Keith picks at his fingernails, “But I'll try to do better in the future.”
Shiro gives a sigh, that sigh that Keith knows all too well. He sighs like this when he is exasperated but always rushes afterwards to explain that he is not annoyed by anything that Keith does.
“Let's go to sleep now,” Keith hurries to preemptively cut him off, “I have to get up early tomorrow.”
Shiro looks like he wants to say something more but then thinks better of it. Instead he just lifts his arm in silent invitation. And that, at least, Keith can accept.
Keith spends all day at work thinking about how to do better, biting his fingernails. He's never actually had to tell anyone. Most people, once they get close, just kind of suspect. Shiro had suspected, but never asked, until Keith had volunteered some of it willingly, bit by bit, memories of his childhood like pieces of broken glass. They don't quite fit, though, too many ragged edges, and the picture is always incomplete with what Keith has forgotten and what he refuses to remember.
So this is a first. This is jumping into a dark lake that he had previously barely dared to skip stones on, wary of what he might wake in its depth.
That afternoon, he finds the kids playing in the living-room, scattered on the floor, each occupied with their different hobbies, but still preferring to stick together.
“Hey,” he says, uncomfortable about intruding on their triumvirate and awkwardly clearing his throat when they look up, “Can I talk to you guys for a minute?”
They all turn toward him, even if Lance looks reluctant at having to abandon his drawing.
“So,” Keith says and allows himself to postpone everything a little by taking a few moments to fold his legs under him, “Shiro told me you guys were worried about me yesterday. Um. At the supermarket.”
“Yes!” Lance pipes up at once, “You looked like you had seen a ghost.” His eyes widen, and he looks scared for a moment. His voice drops down to a whisper, “Did you see a ghost?”
Keith huffs out a laugh. “Kinda,” he admits and quickly adds, “I saw someone I knew a long time ago.”
“Oh,” Hunk says in understanding, but then he frowns, “Why didn't you go say hello to them?”
“Yeah, see, that's what I wanted to talk to you about,” Keith admits and twists his fingers. He thought of this speech all day. It shouldn't be this difficult to finally get it out.
“So, you know how I lived at the orphanage, too, right?” he asks and the three of them nod dutifully.
“Right, so, I never got adopted,” he reveals, swallowing hard, “But sometimes I stayed with foster families.”
“And?” Pidge asks, her eyes wide and guileless.
“And... they weren't always... that great.”
Lance's nose scrunches up in confusion, “What does that mean?”
“They... would lock me in my room,” Keith says, hesitates, “Or not give me a lot of food. Or they'd just not talk to me.”
Of all the things, that had probably been the worst. When they took care of his physical needs and everything, but they just... didn't even look at him. Acted like he didn't exist.
Keith had been younger than Hunk and Lance then, hadn't even been going to school yet on grounds of slow development. He didn't speak very well, avoided eye contact. It took the orderlies almost a year to figure out why that was.
The home after that had been better, much better. For some reason, Keith still doesn't remember it quite as well. The bad ones, however. The bad ones always stuck.
The kids' eyes are wide now, full of worry.
“Why would they do that?” Hunk asks, “That's so mean.”
“Yeah,” Keith agrees with a small off-kilter laugh, “But, see, I was a bit of a problem child and-”
“No,” Lance says and Keith blinks.
“No,” Lance repeats, decisively crossing his arms, “Mister Altea at school said that there are no problem children, only adults who don't understand them.”
Yes, Keith could easily imagine Allura's congenial uncle saying something spirited like that. He was just confused that Lance would so readily apply that world view to this specific situation.
“Locking someone away is wrong,” Hunk says, worrying at his lower lips, “Not giving them food is wrong. And not giving them love is even wronger.”
“So the someone you saw was one of those meanies?” Lance asks and Keith heart swells with how perceptive the little bugger sometimes is, but all he manages is a mute nod.
“I'mma beat them up,” Pidge says dangerously and this time it does startle an honest laugh out of Keith.
“No beating anyone up,” he says, “That doesn't solve any problems. Trust me, I've tried.”
“What about biting?” Lance asks.
“No biting either.”
“Lance,” Keith chides, though he cannot help but grin.
On the other side of the room, leaning his shoulder against the threshold of the door, stands Shiro, watching them with an approving smile on his lips.
One week later, they are back at the supermarket. Hunk and Lance are racing down the aisle in exhilaration because they were promised pizza.
“Sorry!” Lance yells over his shoulder when he accidentally jostles an older woman.
This time, there is no abyss when Keith recognizes her. This time, Shiro is by his side and he just keeps pushing their cart along, making a game out of avoiding Pidge's idly kicking feet.
“Sorry about that,” Shiro tells the woman as they are passing her by, “Our sons are a little overeager for dinner.”
“No worries,” she says amicably but when her eyes land on Keith they widen in recognition. He doesn't bother with looking back.
They round the corner and Shiro's hand is on the handle bar of the cart now, his pinky finger overlapping with Keith's as though on accident.
“Tou-chan,” Pidge says when they pass the DIY section, tugging at Keith's shirt, “Can I have a drilling machine?”
“What?” Keith says, completely caught off-guard, “What did you just call me?”
“Tou-chan,” she repeats petulantly.
“That means daddy in Japanese,” Shiro adds helpfully.
“I- I know,” Keith stammers, “Why-”
“Well, it'd be confusing to call both of us daddy, right?”
“I- I guess?” Keith says and all of a sudden it's a bit difficult to swallow.
“So can I have one?” Pidge presses.
“What on earth for?” Shiro wants to know.
“Zombies,” Pidge says as though that would explain everything and Keith realizes that maybe this, all of this, had been the best decision of his life after all.