Keith covers his ears because that's the only way he can hear his breathing. He's curled under his sheets and pressing his palms down, down, down over his ears until he's sure they're stuck together, immovable. His little fingers dig into the back of his skull, into his recently short-cut hair. He hates it, but there's not much else he can say.
Its hot under his sheets, a clawing, rising heat that makes his skin itchy under his sleeping clothes. A whisper of noise filters in even with how loud he thinks he's breathing, with how hard his palms press on his ears. It makes Keith's stomach roll as his breathing kicks up joined by the furious jump of his heart somehow lodged in his forehead.
He wants them to be quiet, to whisper. There's a line of bile from his throat to his stomach that courses up and down. Between his breathing he repeats be quiet be quiet be quiet over and over until he thinks they've finally relented.
His knees touch his chin, the sheets barely rustling.
Keith can hear the wavering noise of how hard he presses on his ears, like wind trying to force its way through a cavern, beating and scratching. His breathing fills up everything; every exhale leaves his throat dry like there's something stuck at the top. Its like there's a crosswind battling the one swirling past his ears.
But he doesn't dare come out from under it. He's finally alone like he wanted, away from the panic that being around the other people causes him.
They look at him like he won't ever understand, but at the same time like he should be keeping some great secret. It makes Keith's stomach cave in on itself, a sickness that attacks the back of his throat and makes a spots along his body lock up with tension. He's wired up, twisting every time he looks into their faces and they smile and then the sickness comes back again, two-fold, three-fold.
Keith lashes out at them and gets scolded because they don't understand. All that tension rattles inside him, a special molotov almost shaped like a rocket, sleek and precise but overflowing with nothing but impulse and sickness guiding its way. His fists clench and his eyebrows crush together trying desperately for some understanding and getting nothing but a wall and his words thrown back.
Its continues like that. The rocket files up until the tension sets it off and then Keith slams his palms against walls because that's all that's around him.
Keith curls further into himself and bites down on his lower lip.
It's a special isolation, Keith thinks. He's not actually alone, but he might as well be. He's tended to, fed, given clothes and what he needs for school, but not much else.
He's eight when he realizes what he's so jealous of when he waits on the stairs of his school and watches the other kids walk away with their parents. He watches their hands curling around little ones, or smoothing down curls. He sees them throwing small children up and little knees resting on chests.
His caretaker comes for him fifteen minutes later, a few steps away from where Keith is and beckons him over. They're already turning before he's caught up with them. They walk in front and he in back, head bowed as he tries to keep pace. He gets reminded enough times when he seems to lag behind, an annoyed tick in their voice.
Keith tries to reach for his latest caretaker's hand but he gets scolded because he is too old for such behavior, or you are a boy don't be ridiculous.
He doesn't try again after that.
When Keith is fifteen he gets accepted to the Galaxy Garrison. He's always liked science and space is the farthest place imaginable. Keith's hotwired enough cars and bikes to have a great deal of driving ingrained into muscle memory. He memorizes schematics for fun, drawing them out in his notebooks. It also helps that they have their own dorms, too.
It's all too easy to gather up what little things he has and be into the dorms a week early. The last thing his caretakers give him are two Garrison uniforms and a little bit of money for his trip up there. The rest he earned in a full ride scholarship.
His peer-mentor, or whatever term they used, is a tall guy with a funny undercut. He's chipper and uses outdated lingo that Keith secretly appreciates having grown up watching nothing but outdated television programs. He's touchy-feely in a way Keith is unused to. He claps him hard on his shoulder or shoves him playfully when Keith apparently says something funny. He even refers to him by name, like Keith is somebody.
Takashi Shirogane's positive attitude is draining at first. How anyone can get up at the asscrack of dawn to do pushups is beyond Keith. How anyone can have such an old man's mental dictionary for proverbs and life quotes is also beyond Keith. Underneath it all, Keith is just happy Shiro is actually an insufferable nerd.
He spots Keith's X-Files poster in his dorm (one of the few non basics Keith owned) and lit up faster than a bottle rocket. They spend no time at all going over Garrison rules and regulations, course expectations, or tips for survival so much as they debate the real existence of aliens (Keith is a firm believer, Shiro remains tactfully on the fence), and Shiro's reluctance to admit he spent his entire first year at the Garrison doing almost nothing but quoting Fox Mulder.
"Shut up, Keith," Shiro retorts. "Don't think I don't see those Zoids model kits you hide under your bed. They're all Ligers. Who's the real nerd now?"
"Still you," Keith snorts. "Exactly two people know about it, and that's you and the guy who sold it to me. Your entire graduating class knows your 'secret'."
Shiro groans, hands coming to cradle his forehead.
Keith's would be roommate ends up never showing up, which means Keith is one of the few to have a dorm to himself. He and Shiro spend enough time making it "homey" as the other says. Keith just thinks its clutter. He'll be out of there in a few years so why bother? He relents anyway if only to try and convince Shiro of the existence of cryptids. They get into a debate as to whether werewolves are cryptids or not.
Shiro is more than a little surprised to realize that Keith has no cell phone, never has had one. A week later, Shiro presents him with one and they synchronize each other's ringtones for each other to be the X-Files Theme song.
(Looking back, Keith can probably, jokingly say it is Shiro's fault why he flunked out. His older brother figure never actually taught him the Garrison's guidelines.)
They find the remains of a battered old hoverbike thrown out and barely anything but bones. Shiro learns of Keith's obsession with fiddling with things, creating them. He says it reminds him a lot of his friend's sister, who had taken a part a toaster once to try and create a universal translator at the age of 9. They hoof it a good couple miles back to the Garrison, to the little garage Shiro is afforded as a top-ranking senior student and teacher-in-training for his own car he had driven up from his mother's house.
Its mostly Keith who tinkers with it, though he gives menial tasks to Shiro like holding up one of the turbines as he secures it in place.
When it's all done they take it for a test drive out in the desert the Garrison is stationed at. They make it a good couple miles out before everything malfunctions and Shiro goes flying off and Keith wipes out. They're covered in sand and minor scratches and bust out laughing just the same. They push it back to the garage and Keith starts all over again.
Keith isn't a people person. He's known that for years. He sees other people and a part of him just locks down. It's like he's looking outside his body, and all the words he wants to say do the opposite of what he intends.
Keith remembers trying to tell a girl in his class he'd liked her pencil box (he had, Charmander is his favorite), but somehow he'd said something wrong and her face had fallen. They barely spoke at all after that. He'd tried again with another quiet boy in his class if only to somehow strike out then too.
His hands would sweat, stomach locked in protest, before he simply found it hard to reply. In that little window of time it was as if Keith was running through the whole timeline of human evolution and every question on earth.
So Keith became a kid of few words unless it was necessary to speak. He was coarse and blunt, and a lot of times that was bad. He frowned a lot, but he wasn't really upset. He thought a lot about what he wanted to say and didn't end up saying anything at all. That was somehow bad. He didn't understand why.
His first caretaker had called him shy, his next few had had much worse words. The less he wanted to interact the more they took his silence and uneasiness for rebellion. The isolation has solidified a part of him that made it harder.
Keith rarely interacts with his classmates, avoids them when he can. He sits in the back, keeps his head ducked except when he needs to scribble something off the board. He absorbs what he cares about and breezes through enough in what he doesn't. The only interesting part is piloting and barely much else. He doesn't care for equations and the like. If he gets to build, if he gets to fly in the simulator, that's all that matters. Everything else, he will provide on his own.
There's a boy in his class, a loudmouth that grates on Keith's nerves and declares he will be the best pilot in their class. It ignites something in Keith a bit he can't explain, because obviously the best pilot is going to be Keith. He scowls to himself, furiously drawing out designs to stamp on the bike, trying to block out the boy who only seems to get louder. When they have to work with other students, and Keith lucks out with him and his friend, he rarely speaks, barely looks at them. The other boy, the quieter boy, is a toucher. He touches and he pokes, but expression and voice are always gentle. He's nosy to a fault and he and the skinny loud one sneak snacks into class which Keith always declines. They do their work and that's that.
The boy catches up to him one day after class, shoulders relaxed and expression open. He introduces himself but Keith barely hears it, too busy staring at his outstretched open palm and the short circuit in his head. He doesn't respond and walks away, feeling all kinds of uneasy and justifying that he isn't there to make friends. He only wants to be as far away from Earth as possible.
"Maybe its social anxiety," Shiro had offered. "Sounds a lot like it. I have a cousin like that. She gets these attacks when she had to go interact at family gatherings."
"I don't get those," Keith mumbles. "I don't think." Did he?
"Maybe you just don't realize?" Shiro replied.
He threw something at Keith's face, laughing when Keith blinked too long and didn't react fast enough. He catches them in his arms before they fell, and furrowed his brows when he inspects them.
"Are these fingerless gloves?"
"Yup. Thought it'd go with that whole biker look you're going for," Shiro jokes. "That is why you have the jacket right? Keith?"
Keith mutters under his breath.
Shiro shrugs, "Don't tell me then. But don't worry. Your secret Akira aesthetic is safe with me."
"Oh my god, shut up," Keith groans. "It's actually Generator Rex, thanks. Please don't get me any goggles."
Keith slips the gloves on, holding his hands out to inspect them. There's a small window of skin on the back of each hand, and little holes that nestle each knuckle in them.
"These don't even cover my whole hand," Keith says. "What's the point."
"For better grip," Shiro says. "Also, they make you look pretty cool, don't you think?"
Keith looks at them again, clenches and unfurls his fists as he tests it out. He looks at his palms, at the smooth black covering them, and raises his hands up in fighting position like Shiro taught him. Shiro stays where he is on Keith's bunk looking smug and obnoxious like Keith says he is.
"Yeah, I guess they're pretty cool," Keith agrees. "Don't expect me to wear them outside of taking the hoverbike out, though."
Shiro holds his hands up, "Whatever you say, little bro."
The nickname makes warmth bloom in Keith's body, starting from where he doesn't know. Maybe his hands, if anything, even if they offer barely any protection. It makes his brain go fuzzy like static, numbing. All the blood is rushing out of his head and pumping too loudly in his heart.
"Keith?" Shiro tries. "You okay?"
"I, uh," Keith begins, lamely. "It's just. Do...do you really think that?"
"What?" Shiro asks, incredulous, trying to backtrack. His face twists hilariously in confusion. Then his eyes widen in realization. "Oh. Oh. That we're like family? Of course I do. I'm an only child you know, I always wanted at least one little sibling. I kinda gave up after I hit fifteen."
Shiro comes up to rest his arm around Keith's shoulders and draw him against him sideways. Their height difference makes it a bit awkward. Despite what Shiro says, Keith begrudingly feels that he will never actually get taller. Shiro pats Keith on the head, snorting, making a mess of his already messy hair.
"Of course, I should have known that siblings are much more of little shits than I realized."
Keith elbows him in the ribs, tears at the corners of his eyes drying up as he laughs. "Thanks, Shiro."
For the first time, Keith feels a sense of belonging. He has a family in only one person. But it's a family nonetheless.
Then, Shiro tells his mother, and his mother sends back sweaters and old handmedowns from Shiro's closet for Keith to wear. He drowns in old X-Files sweatshirts and sports tshirts of teams he doesn't actually care about. He rags on Shiro for his old clothes but refuses to give them up when Shiro sputters in embarrassment and protests. Shiro's mother nags Shiro for Keith's birthday and sends him birthday cards, . Sometimes with a gift card, sometimes with a tin of homemade sweets and snacks. He declines each time for Christmas, but he promises soon. Soon.
It's more than he can ask for. Sometimes, he wonders if it's more than he deserves.
Kerberos fails. Pilot error.
Keith is stunned and then he is angry.
It's easier than feeling despair.
It's an age old reaction. Keith is a bottle rocket, an aerosol can with contents under pressure. If he's pierced, he'll explode. He endures and he endures, he clenches his fist, he glares and bites his lip, and keeps his business to himself. But it stirs inside him ferocious and beastly. The tension attacks and sticks to his joints and his muscles, between his shoulder blades. It swirls in his stomach until he is sick and his head is numb. He can feel a wall against his palms firm and building as the days go by. It ignites a gunpowder trail, coiled and slowly going until it hits his impulses and he's gone.
Iverson had always been a spark to his hair trigger.
He lashes out, he threatens Iverson, he calls the entire Garrison into question, and profanes their intentions to the highest degree.
He gets kicked out, abandoned again with nothing but his handmedowns, the few posters he had allowed Shiro to get him, his fingerless gloves and his hoverbike. He piles them all on, and flies off into the desert.
He will not go back where he came from. He'll walk himself. He'll understand why a part of him that tells him that what he wants is off of Earth is somehow beckoning him ceaselessly in that same desert.
He goes far enough in, away, and builds a new home from scratch and gets to work.
Keith is alone.
When the adrenaline is gone, and the night chill settles. He realizes it. He is alone. Again.
Inside of him feels like the desert, big and wide, empty and jagged. It is extreme, hot and cold. He curls into his futon under sheets, in his red jacket and under piles of Shiro's old clothes. His knees touch his chin.
There's not much sound in the desert, but Keith covers his ears all the same. He hears the rattling of his own breathing, wonders if there is a wall within himself. The adrenaline returns, makes his legs kick, makes his breathe kick. He exhales and inhales through his mouth, eyes squeezed shut until strange pulses behind his eyes ripple and his head aches. Keith's teeth ache, he clenches them too hard. He tugs at his hair, feels tears at the corner of his eyes, and can't understand why his body is trying to turn itself inside out.
Keith claws at his chest, at his belly, can't place the overwhelmingly discomforting warmth that comes. His throat is going dry and he can't get out. He can't decided if his eyes are open or not, its all dark, he's all alone.
Shiro left him alone.
(He doesn't want to say the other word)
Keith kicks off his sheets and falls out of the futon. He puts on his shoes and leaves. Just walks, and walks and walks. He's already memorized much of the place. He lets the moon light up enough for him to see. It's full tonight, and bright enough that he has to squint. His eyes already hurt from crying.
He walks until he can breathe through his nose. He walks as a feeling at the back of his brain moves his feet and turns him westward. He walks into a cave and uses the flashlight option on his cell phone.
There's markings everywhere of lions, a blue one at that. Keith runs his hands over them, only his fingers able to feel the grooves in the walls.
The feeling comes back fullswing, like some strange energy, like feeling static against a TV but more. It travels through his fingertips and connects to that tingle at the back of his head. It's calming, Keith realizes.
There aren't any words but maybe images that he can't really place. Maybe he's just sleep-deprived and hallucinating. Keith presses his forehead against the markings and lets the strange warmth steady his heart.
He sleeps and the energy tells him something will come to Earth. There is something more to do and be seen. He needs to get to it. It fills him with urgency and yet tells him not to fear. He doesn't understand any of it. But he's nothing if not a believer in the supernatural and impossible at heart. He listens.
Keith erects a conspiracy board just as he'd always wanted to and redoubles his efforts.
Keith is tacking on another photograph of the lion carvings when something faster than a jet and more like a comet pierces its way down into the desert. It strikes the ground and sets everything into a tremor, vibrating Keith's shack until everything threatens to fall apart before it is done. The energy yells at him, tells him to go until blood is rushing in his ears.
Keith throws everything aside, grabs a bandana, and hops onto his hoverbike. Flash bombs he's been experimenting on rattle in his jacket pockets.
As he expects, the Garrison beat him to the site. They set up tents in little less an hour and excavate whatever landed. Keith plants the bombs, timed for a good two minutes before he watches and waits. When they go off, the Garrison's jeeps set off and Keith swoops in.
He makes short work of the scientists and finds...
He finds Shiro.
And the loudmouth from the Garrison.
And the loudmouth's friend and some nerdy-looking shorty.
Begrudgingly he lets them come along. He drives through the desert, having way too much fun with how much they yell and screech when he drives. He's glad Shiro is unconscious or else he might get chewed out. He pulls off that move he's been practicing for months, and escapes the Garrison over a cliff. The energy almost feels scolding but it also feels as though it is laughing.
He doesn't understand it, but he welcomes it.
Shiro did leave, and Keith knows he can’t fault him. Shiro has always wanted to go exploring in space. But Shiro also came back. That’s all that matters.
They all end up crashing at his shack. Keith lets Shiro have the futon and takes the couch for himself. The three of them, Lance, Hunk, and Pidge, huddle together in one corner under a blanket, tucked under Hunk's arms. He hesitates because he doesn't know them but takes a picture anyway. Maybe it will be funny in the future about how a bunch of weird teenagers pissed of the Garrison and discovered aliens. Lance turns to nestle his face under Hunk's arm, and Pidge makes a pillow out of Hunk's belly. The sheets barely cover anyone but Pidge, and yet they're probably all too tired to care.
It makes Keith ache in a way he can't explain.
He wakes up when he hears Lance tell Hunk to shut up and go back to sleep. He peeks out of his sheets to see Shiro looking bewildered at them, at him, at the shack, and decides he might as well get up.
He "accidentally" kicks Lance and sidesteps his swipes at his ankles to guilt Shiro into making breakfast out back. Shiro's disapproval at the strange little pit he made for cooking doesn't go unnoticed.
Keith thinks he's actually taking everything pretty well. Everything he had told Shiro is true. Mechas are not some anime pipe dream. He's trying not to barf while Lance does loopty-loops above Iverson's head and claws the hell out of an alien warship.
He's handling things well.
They wind up in an entirely different galaxy in a weird alien castle and meet a bunch of, well, aliens.
He handles it even better when they get cool armor and he (surprise, surprise) gets to be red ranger.
He shoots Shiro a smug look that completely says everything like "I told you so" and an eyeroll in response, and they head out to get his mecha cat.
Keith doesn't handle said mecha cat ignoring him and getting shot the hell out into space all that well. He gets rejected, shot at, and ejected. He's allowed to be pissed and frustrated, and not handle this well. Because who the hell does?
But it all fixes itself more or less when the damn cat breaks out of its hold and swallows Keith right into the cockpit. He falls down what he assumes is its throat in the worst way, but the pilots chair is there to greet him, pulled up right to the controls. He pilots Red like the back of his hand, everything natural and singing inside him.
She feels him images, laughing at him but also impressed with his skill. She tells him she feels free, that she can let go and run circles around any Galra ship and does so with grace and ease.
It's almost worth it as long as Shiro doesn't find out.
They form Voltron, and for all the damn rattling around transforming takes, it's the coolest thing Keith has ever experienced. He wishes he could see it from outside, but the pulse of Red joining with the others and the images he gets fed has his leg bouncing in the pilot seat, grinning like a child.
He's in a giant fighting robot punching aliens and every part of him at 8 years old that discovered Gundam and Zoids is having the time of his life. Near death experiences excluded. This weird mind-bond thing feels so Pacific Rim, Keith has to keep his feelings on lockdown before he goes hollering like Lance and Hunk like he truly wants to. He wanders if they get any cool weapons unique to their cats.
Shiro shoves him when they defeat Sendak, and he beams with pride. Later when they enter the castle, his brother pulls him into a headlock, makes him spill at his nerdy little feelings and tells him how proud he is of Keith.
Keith feels complete again. He has a family again.
Everything is shit again because Keith thinks everyone is kind of deadweight. They did well in their respective lions, but the disparity in their skills is glaring. It drives him up the wall. The lack of synchronicity Is painfully obvious, that he can't even find it comical.
If it's not Lance's showboating, its Hunk's reluctance, and its Pidge's secrecy. Keith's own stubbornness plays a heavy part as much as he hates to admit it.
He gets shot at, electrocuted, allows himself to be goaded into face-planting Red straight into the ground until his brain rattles in the course of one day.
He's getting tense again, everything coiling up inside of him. Keith stuffs it all in a little bottle, packing it on more and more until it threatens to pop out on its own. When Pidge gets hit with goo, everything ignites.
He ignores Shiro's feelings of "Don't Do it Keith" stretching like a big cloak from the other end of the table when they all start yelling at Allura, and throws food straight at her face. One arm blocks Pidge as she swings out the other at Coran. Beside him Lance blocks him and Hunk fires away. When a spoonful of goo comes flying, Shiro yanks them all to the side and they manage to shift out of the way, but not before he takes one for the team in the face. He and Hunk block Lance with their arms as the other boy comes from between them to fire at Coran. Pidge manages to beam Allura before she can fire away.
Keith doesn't realize how light he feels until its all over, wondering if this is how Red feels when she flies. They assemble Voltron, and all he can feel is triumph.
They slap him on the back, he gets hugged by Hunk, and his hair ruffled. It feels good, it feels right. It feels like he's helped build something unfamiliar.
It isn't easy, Keith realizes. He wonders sometimes if this is what it was like when Shiro first met Keith, all taciturn and reluctant to talk to him in the first few days they were introduced. They all get on each other's nerves, in each other's spaces, especially with the crazy training exercises Allura comes up with.
Keith and Lance can barely be in the same room together before someone (Lance) decides to start something and they end up doing something ridiculous and petty. It's always this way, and despite how Keith may want to think he's just riled up because Lance is annoying, he can't stop any laughter that bubbles out. Inevitably, Keith always laughs when he and Lance are doing something stupid. They nearly break Coran's back with a competition mopping competition, and get chewed out together, sitting on their knees as Allura jabs a sharp finger in both their faces and makes them swear to knock off the idiocy. To no one's surprise, they don't. If anything, they get worse, mutually so. Lance tells him it reminds him of being home with his own brothers, and it makes Keith feel...good.
Hunk is much easier than Lance because he's so reluctant to fight. Keith thinks that's a flaw he'll have to get over if he's going to be pilot one fifth of Voltron. Regardless, he's blunt and sharp when he wants to be and puts Keith in his place more often than not. It surprises Keith, makes him nearly drop his food goo on his lap when he realizes it. Hunk also has anxiety, which he finds out one day when he stumbles across the other boy just barely coming down from an anxiety attack. They sit together, they talk, and Keith feels like a part of himself has been found. Hunk knocks their shoulders together in camaraderie and Keith knocks back, grinning lopsidedly.
Pidge is a little more guarded. He finds out her secret, not long after Shiro does. He knew Matt, too, it's not that hard to figure out. She congratulates him on his discovery which he seriously attributes to an interest in conspiracy theories. It gets a laugh out of her; Keith smiles. She's a tireless worker, much like him, absorbs what she loves and what she thinks will aid in what she cares about. They sit together compiling notes and theories. Pidge surprises Keith with hoarded episodes of tv shows on her laptop, grinning wickedly and secretly as they ditch the other Paladins to watch.
They argue, they bicker, they reveal embarrassing stories. Keith learns to mesh better with everyone. He messes up, he knows he does, he oversteps his boundaries. But he gets it, too. Slowly, with surprising patience on his end, and his new teammates'. Keith sits with Pidge and discusses things and makes secret contingency plans, he builds with Hunk and finally learns all those silly equations, he kicks Lance's ass but also lets him fuss over his hair. He talks with Shiro, and Allura, and Coran. Keith breathes because he feels like he can.
"We're all a good team," Keith says to Shiro. "It feels right."
Shiro nods, "It does. Gets chaotic, but yeah. Kind of like...a family, am I right?"
"Kind of. Getting there," Keith replies.
Shiro exhales with an amused snort. He nudges his brother in the arm and lets a slow, terrible smile cross his face.
"So, go on. Tell me how cool it is to pilot Red. Tell me all of your Zoids feelings, you big nerd."
Keith shoots him a look, "Only if you tell me yours."
"Do I get to tell mine, too?" Hunk pipes in, lays down next to Keith. He folds his hands onto his stomach and turns his head sideways to grin at Keith. "Zoids right? Did you ever have those little model kits? Oh man, I had like ten of them! You look like a Liger buy, Command Wolf myself."
Keith lights up, "Command Wolf was my second favorite."
"Everyone knows Berserk Fury was the best,"Pidge cuts in. She lays down next to Hunk and kicks at Lance's flat ass when he tries to get in between them.
"Is no one going to mention that we're all Drift Compatible?" Lance interrupts. "Anyone?"
Keith meets his gaze across the group and they lock eyes as an understanding passes them. Lance smiles slowly as Keith feels himself do the same, small and a little shy. Hunk nudges him with his foot, his own smile bashful. Pidge waves her hand between where Lance and Hunk block her out.
"Ten space bucks say I can get Allura to recite Stacker's apocalypse speech next mission," Shiro says, grinning.
They all turn to him and laugh.
Keith hopes he will not have to let go of this or them anytime soon.