Shiro learns three important things during the Kerberos mission:
- Aliens exist.
- They speak English.
- They are as enthusiastic about the institution of marriage as Jewish moms.
He thinks it’s fitting – one truth for every head of the legendary beast, sinking into him before it’d rip him apart like a juicy piece of meat.
Kneeling in front of the alien who kidnapped them – an actual purple-blue alien, with spikes on its skull and the general appearance of some humanoid-marine-life out of Atlantis. Shiro’s head is swimming, and his bewildered brain is trying to convince him he’s hallucinating, because aliens are supposed to be green.
“Emperor Zarkon, we were scouting System X-9-Y as ordered when we found these primitive life forms. I don’t think we encountered it before.”
“Is that so,” a voice engulfs the space like stifling smoke, coming from seemingly everywhere at once. “Take them back to the main fleet for processing. The druids will find out if you are correct – and if so,” the voice drops to a low purr that makes Shiro’s breath hitch, “you’d be rewarded accordingly, Commander.”
“Please,” Shiro says, trying to gain any sort of leverage even when his position offers him none, “We come from a peaceful planet! W-We mean you no harm! We're unarmed!”
“We know,” the alien speaks, smiling with all the warmth of an icicle, “allow me to be the first to welcome you into the arms of the Galra Empire.”
As far as greetings go, The Galra Empire could do with some improvement. Namely, introductions that don’t involve the greeting-committee pointing guns at their guests’ heads.
“I’m Takashi Shirogane,” he introduces himself, trying not to stare at the alien, who creeps him out in every way; from its yellow eyes to the small dark bumps on its skin, and the smile of a famished T-Rex who’s seizing up its future lunch. “And these are my crew-members, Sam Holt and Matt Holt,” he gestures to his comrades with a jerk of his head, seeing as his hands are still bound behind his back, risking a quick glance to inspect them for any sign of fatal injury – luckily, there’s none. “We’re human beings, from planet Earth.”
“What’s… where…?” Sam slurs in the background, but Shiro keeps his eyes trained on the alien.
“We thank you for your welcome,” Shiro forces a smile onto his face and sincerity into his voice, and prays the aliens are not telepaths.
“The pleasure is all ours,” the alien replies, and Shiro barely suppresses a shudder. “Which one of you is eligible to claim the honour of joining your people onto our Empire?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Shiro attempts to keep his smile, feeling every wrong move might explode in his face and backfire directly onto the human race. “Please accept my sincerest apologies, this is the first time any human came across a… friend,” he risks, “from another planet.”
“Of course,” the alien says silkily, coming closer. “The Galra Empire is the strongest in the universe; it held it for the past ewi-kveo. Unity breeds strength.” The alien leers at him, “Of course, each new species that’s introduced to the Empire is welcome to join it, and reap the benefits of its success and the benevolence of our leader, Emperor Zarkon. The Empire prospers with many different species, living in harmony and peace under our gracious leader’s wisdom and guidance.”
Shiro continues smiling, hoping his forehead doesn’t blare with the message ‘FAT CHANCE’ projecting from his mind like a flashy rainbow lightshow of a billboard in Tokyo.
“That sounds wonderful,” he supplies at the sudden pause, and the alien seems pleased with it. “Therefore, what better way is there to join the Empire, if not by marriage?” It asks.
There’s a choked sound; Shiro’s mind is filled with a wash of anxiety as he realizes – Matt just woke up.
“Marriage?” Matt almost whines, “You can’t–“
“Marriage,” Shiro speaks over him, his cheeks hurting by the fakest, broadest smile he plastered on his face in his entire life, while wishing he could shove a literal boot into Matt’s mouth, “is a delightful idea, but sure–“
“I’m afraid I was unclear,” the alien speaks, its voice cutting Shiro off. “It is not merely an idea. To join the Galra Empire, the first to meet with the any representatives of the Empire are the ones to wed. Unless, of course,” its tone is like a chunk of lead in Shiro’s stomach, promising a thousand threats Shiro has no doubt it’d carry, “you do not wish to join the Empire, and share its benevolence?” The undertone of the question implies Galra believe in the saying that claims ‘If you’re not with us, than, you’re by default, against us.’
As a species who just achieved space travel, Shiro doubts humankind would do well against them.
“No!” Shiro blurts in alarm, “No, of course not. I mean– we want to join the Empire. You do us great honour.”
Shiro is hardly in position to make decisions for the entire human race - he's not even thirty, and there were mornings on Earth he couldn’t even make up his mind towards which brand of cereal he’d like to eat for breakfast. Oftentimes he felt unqualified to make decisions for his own future by himself. One could argue that whichever doubts Shiro has about his decision-making skills are clearly disputed in the face of his achievements, and the fact he's one of the youngest astronauts to ever make it to space.
(Shiro, however, would argue the current situation speaks for itself.)
“Wonderful,” the alien replies, like they just agreed to meet for an afternoon tea party to gossip over scones and butterscotch. “Who would it be, then?”
Shiro hears Matt draw a sharp intake of breath. He needs to think – but there’s no time.
“How about you?” the alien turns to Sam, tipping off his helmet and letting it drop onto the floor loudly. Sam’s face is the grimmest Shiro’s ever seen; each line on his face became more pronounced than it ever did, etched deeper by fear at the inevitable loss one of them would have to make. Sam's grey hair gleams under the light; usually carefree and jovial, the man has never looked as old as he does at that very moment, opening his mouth to make what Shiro knows would be a colossal mistake.
“He can’t!” Shiro calls, almost breathing in relief to have the alien’s attention back on him. “He’s already committed. He’s married.”
“How unfortunate,” the alien says, not looking very regretful about it as he turns to Matt, who flinches back and tumbles to the side before catching himself. “What about you, then?”
When Shiro was young, there was a movie that he loved more than any other, even with it being old. It wasn't his favourite by far, but it held a place in his heart. It was about a brave woman who risked her own life for her younger sister, taking her place on the battlefield to keep her safe and sound. As an only child, Shiro used to imagine what it would be like, to have such a bond with a sibling - your own flesh and blood, someone you'd give your life to in a heartbeat, without hesitation, willing to take any burden for their sake, no matter the cost.
Matt has a sister – Katie, he told Shiro, a younger sister who looks remarkably like him, but acts nothing like Matt. They’re both bright, with a knack for electronics and science that seems wired into their genes – but when Matt is more demure and mild, Katie is a crafty firecracker. Matt keeps a photo of them both in his breast pocket, and sometimes Shiro catches him taking it out and just staring at it, tracing his fingertips over the characters. They both have a dog, a cheery bull-terrier named Sneeze; he’s six and has a habit of stealing Matt’s socks and downright swallowing all of Katie’s hair accessories. That last habit had the Holts running to the vets’ at peculiar hours at least five times by now, and has led their mom – Johanna – get a speeding ticket and a fine for trying to lose the cops, who cut them a break when they saw how Matt cried over his chocking dog.
No one is any good with anyone else crying in front of them.
Johanna is an agronomist; Matt and Sam always say she’s the one who took root for the four of them, the anchor of their family whose strength allows Matt and Sam to float away. She plans urban landscapes and Sam once told him her hair always smells like flowers, even though she uses a special, hypoallergenic unscented shampoo since she’s allergic to a wide variety of different chemicals and compounds. Johanna’s fluent in three different languages and the fanciest thing she cooks is a mean cup of tea, and not much else.
Those are the reasons Matt and Sam have to get back to.
People. Stories. Lives.
And Shiro? He has a small apartment, an aging dusty gravestone and a father who’d been considering him dead to him for many years now.
Matt has a kind heart, a quality Shiro always appreciated about him. He rarely gets angry, but not because he suppresses it all –only to burst like a volcano every once in a while – it's because he genuinely doesn't resent others. Sam has the same trait, but he also gathered years and experience over time; Shiro found it's easier to compare himself to Matt as a peer, rather than his father.
Space gives one plenty of time to get to know each other, and oftentimes Shiro found himself bewildered at how Matt flaunted with his kindness in utter obliviousness, like it was completely natural to give your coat to a homeless person, your notes to the girl who dumped you over text, to give your umbrella to a pregnant woman because ‘what if the baby got sick!’.
But the world they both share isn’t a world where selflessness is a virtue; it’s a privilege, one Matt is in no way equipped to handle once it's been stripped away from him.
It’s really not much of a choice at all.
“I’d do it.”
(I volunteer as tribute! The woman calls frantically, and Shiro can’t help to feel anything but admiration swelling in his five-year-old heart.)
“I believe we have an eligible choice. Excellent.” The alien turns to look at the sentries. “Escort him to the druids for processing.”
“Wait!” Shiro protests as he’s pulled up from the floor, “what about my crew?”
“It’s unseemly for different candidates to spend the preparations together,” the alien replies, “they’d spend their time in different accommodation, until you are to be wed.”
“Don’t worry, it wouldn’t take that much time.” It says, as if it didn’t just find a fancy way of saying its taking Shiro’s crew as hostages, before it turns to another sentry who’s by the consoles. “Send a message to the fleet. Tell them there’s a wedding taking place in the Avesk base, three xhil from now.”
Shiro has no idea what’s a xhil. Days? Weeks? Months? How long would he have to wait before he’d see them again?
No kind of simulation ever prepared him for this. He’s flying blind.
Considering he’s the pilot, that’s very bad.
As it turns out, the Commander was being perfectly sincere when it said it wouldn’t take much time. Three xhil is not a count of days or weeks – it’s closest time measurement is hours.
The ‘processing’ wasn’t as bad as it sounded; he’s stripped of his uniform and sent through a chamber that resembles a decontamination chamber – many doors around and not a single soul to interact with. He’s there for a short amount of time – before one of door slides open to the next stop, where a new set of clothes waits for him. They are plain and dark, looking too small for his frame, and considering the aliens’ size, it’s baffling. The fabric is pleasant and cool to the touch, and when Shiro puts it on it stretches and molds against his frame like a pair of tights, without being too tight or restrictive. There are even socks, which start off looking like the cut-off fingers out of a fingerless glove, with a matching pair of boots that look suspiciously like the pair he had just been made to discard. The next door leads him to a bare room that has nothing in it, not even a door. He turns to the door he came through to watch it vanish into the wall, like it was never there to begin with. He sits down on the floor, staring blankly at the well as he constructs one of his own.
He places brick after brick around his awareness, but it feels more like sandbags that had been pulled together at the sudden threat of an upcoming flood. He doesn't let himself think about any scenarios, but grinds into his consciousness a simple, basic command - survive. He ought to endure whichever ordeal he'd be put through, whichever person his bride turns to be. His mind tries to whisper about possible ordeals, but he stubbornly ignores it, choosing to breathe in and out over and over and act as if it’d help.
The sentry that was sent to fetch him is as tall as the aliens he’d met on the ship, but Shiro can’t make their eyes through the helmet and visor that covers most of their face. Their mouth is a tight, pursed line, and they carry a faint scent that reminds Shiro of motor oil.
They're covered from head to toe with armor, holding a large rifle across their chest, coming through a door that just shapes itself suddenly, giving out muted pink light as it does. A brief thought to seize the weapon flickers in his mind only to be smothered with alarmed protests. Don't try to be a hero, he scolds himself. Heroes aren't always over-masculine Rambos that barge in, guns blazing; sometimes it's the people who duck their heads and do as they're told for the greater good. It might not feel as thrilling, but reality rarely lives up to one's fantasies.
“Aren’t you moving a bit too quickly?” Shiro speaks as a sentry leads him roughly by the elbow
Unlike the alien on the ship, however, this one is not allowed to pull rank over Shiro; at least, that’s Shiro’s optimistic assumption as he tries to fish for information; not even useful one, just anything at all. If he keeps talking, he thinks, he’s bound to get something.
“I don’t mean you, specifically,” Shiro clarifies when the sentry sends him a dirty look Shiro distinguishes through the lines tightening around their lips, as if Shiro is trying to slow them down on purpose with his short human legs and inefficient gait. “I’ve meant the Empire. Err, not that I mean there’s something wrong with it, of course–“ Shiro’s sure the dirty look is now evolving towards a thunderous expression – “Just… it can’t be that all the representatives of the Empire are already here?” It comes out more like a question, because Shiro’s mind slowly adapting to the possibility all the representatives might very well be here.
“The Empire favors those who are in the universe’s favor,” the sentry replies, “If they were unlucky enough to get held back from a wedding, they should not attend it. ”
The hall is long and unsettlingly desolated, like a sterilized version of a seedy alley; there’s nothing about it indicating danger, but it’s the lack of anything from it that makes it all feel wrong. It’s different than the halls he’d been walked through before; when those were gloomy and dark, this one is lit, with its ceiling twice as tall. Their steps echo as Shiro is herded in a straight line alongside the alien. The Galra seem intent on remaining cryptic about the wedding, and Shiro is losing ground with each and every step.
Shiro has never been a very bright conversationalist; at least, not in making idle talk. He knows how to debate and how to hold his ground at whichever professional discussions he attended or participated at, but he’s not good at breaking the ice – not physically and not atmospherically. Back on Earth, it didn’t seem like much of an issue; he made it into an astronaut, so what did it matter if every time he went out he ended up returning home by himself? It wasn’t as if he had time for friends, surely not for a romantic relationship – he’d been committed to his duty and mission first and foremost. And at nights he couldn’t sleep and he’d lie awake in bed and stare at the clock on his nightstand ticking the seconds away, curling up in a bed too big for him, he’d muse he could always pick up people’s skills later in life.
If he ever made it back, Shiro thinks, he’d be sure to tell the program to include ‘Obligatory Socializing Skills’ into the weekly schedule, along with Diplomacy Skills.
“Have you been to many weddings?” Shiro tries, looking at his companion to spot any sign that could be a sort of an emotional clue.
“A few,” the sentry admits. “Anyone who can attend – would attend.”
They don’t add anything else, and Shiro knows their time must be short; he can make the hallway changing about twenty feet from them, so he decides to throw caution to the wind and just ask.
“What–“ Shiro swallows. “What should I do?”
The sentry’s expression doesn’t change, but their pace slows just a fraction, so that for a moment, Shiro walks ahead of them.
“Stand still.” They speak lowly. “Keep quiet.”
Shiro halts in place. “But–“
“Keep going!” the sentry barks, “Enough with the chatter! I’ve already told you,” the sentry repeats, “keep quiet.”
They stress the words, and Shiro makes the faint hum of a whirring mechanism before they turn a corner, where a pyramid-shaped robot buzzes through the air, its lens zooming towards them to loom and fly around them.
Shiro shuts his mouth and keeps walking until they reach a round white platform; there’s a small box on the floor, around half the size of a shoe-box, made from an iridescent alloy and decorated with intricate patterns and small uneven bumps. His step falters when he can’t see the sentry in the corner of his eye, but he doesn’t let himself appear unsure under the scrutiny of the limelights. There are now three floating robots around him, and even without knowing where their feed is being streamed to, he’s sure he can’t afford to lose-face, as he bends down and picks the box, surprised with how light it is.
There’s a cackle in the air, like a sharp spark of electricity, followed by the thick scent of ozone, before Shiro can feel the ground beneath his feet shaking and then stabilizing, the platform rising upwards without any hitch as the sentry slowly disappears from sight.
Dimly, he understands the sentry wasn’t trying to get him to shut up.
They were giving him advice.
The first thing that gets him when he breaks into the surface is the lights. They’re artificial, but clearly different from anything he’s experienced; they somehow chill his skin and colour the arena around him in a way that just seems off, over rows and rows of an ocean of aliens, so incomprehensible Shiro can only think of them as a rich display at a toy shop, brimming with customized action figures stocked in the seats of an arena that looks like a mashup between a coliseum and a Star Trek episode with a considerable budget, with Shiro standing at the very center of it over a pristine circular podium. Above them the entire galaxy is stretched in majestic spirals of hues and shapes, curling around the ceiling that fakes the impression of an open sky and a chance to fly free out of the pit if you just aim high enough.
It might be loud, it might be silent, but Shiro can’t hear anything but his own beating heart, pulsing in his ears. Some part of him still hopes it’s all some sort of a strange, incredibly lucid dream he’s having, strangely vivid. Maybe he’s in a coma, he tries to calm himself as he breathes out, letting detachment wash over him like a shield. Maybe he’s in a coma and that’s what his subconsciousness is bringing up after years of fascination with space combined with his ego-bruising past-experience with relationships, mixed with an extended exposure to the Holts that scraped over his inner yearning for a stable home until it was raw and aching. His oxygen-deprived brain is mashing it all up and that’s what happening, and all that’s left for Shiro is just to watch as the events unfold.
“Citizens,” a voice booms, “The Empire welcomes you to witness the joining of yet another race to our Emperor’s ever-growing reign, crossing galaxies and limits whenever he so chooses, connecting being from the endless universe to a united center, to grow and prevail over the vast empty space that diminishes all but him. It was discovered by Commander Vorex, under the watchful eyes of our Emperor Zarkon.”
The crowd cheers, and there’s suddenly even more lights; there are humongous screens, with Shiro’s face plastered across them from every angle, the robots whirring ecstatically around him like fat metallic flies he’s not allowed to swat away. He never understood what people meant when they said they could hardly recognize themselves in the mirror, but he’s starting to; his skin looks too clammy, his posture too hunched, his eyes too frantic. He sees more of every trait he doesn’t even have, making an overall ill first impression for human kind as whole. He tries to straighten his shoulder, but stops himself before doing so; it feels like he’d needlessly expose himself to more danger, even though he knows it wouldn’t matter either way.
He keeps his shoulders hunched, and wills a part of himself to drift away and fiddle with his memories like an old collection of vinyl records pulled from an abandoned attic.
“Many stride,” the announcer’s voice continues, and the crowd are quick to chant with him, joining along – “more so fall – for one to join us, we’d risk all.”
The words hold an ominous tone that is impossible to ignore, and Shiro’s gut clenches right before the hush that falls on the crowd.
There are numerous gates unlocking all around the arena, having people – no, creatures – spilling out of them. They’re much closer than the crowd is, growing closer until they stop at an invisible line, barricading Shiro from every possible direction. Some of them are huge, some are small; others have weapons (tools would be more accurate, but Shiro’s certain those are weapons, he just doesn’t know what part they have in the overall skirmish that’s about to break).
Shiro tenses; surely, they can't expect him to fight all of these opponents with nothing more than a jewellery box? He has a glum suspicion that 'wedding' might hold an entirely different meaning to the Empire; maybe it's an event where everyone just pummel whichever representative they forced into the position until they're dead and gone, their broken corpse with the blood seeping to the arena’s dirt that's already been soaked with blood spilled over hundreds and thousands of years, mixing together, the specks of dirt assuring the survival of the species as a whole. Not a bad way to go, Shiro tries to convince himself. Hundred to one seems rather unfair, he almost protests, but his tongue is too heavy and his throat is too dry. He clutches the box in his hands, nails digging into the surface, until he feels three of them starting to crack.
‘So much for family’, he thinks.
“Vrepit sa,” The announcer’s voice carries above the arena like the word of God, before all hell breaks loose.
Movement smudges the lights and the colours as the aliens race towards him like famished beasts at a coliseum, ready to chew through him. It’s like watching a movie, he thinks, feeling numb; the aliens around him, different in every possible way imaginable, rip into each other. There’s one that looks like a combination between a frog and a turtle, with red slimy skin. It has two bulging pink eyes at the top of its head and an anemone for a mouth; it’s fighting an alien who looks like a Cyclops-sunflower that has wheat-stalks around its face, rather than petals. Sunflower is holding some sort of a rifle, but it doesn’t help much against turtle-frog, whose skin drips some sort of acid that sizzles against the ground. It bursts from around its eyes like an endless stream of toxic pus, not stopping even as Sunflower ducks for cover and uses a smaller, scalier alien as a living shield.
It doesn’t remain living for too long.
He should head for cover, but his feet might’ve just been cemented into place; his knees are locked and despite the face Shiro knows, objectively, he can move, his brain just doesn’t have the capacity to comprehend it at the moment. Standing still like a sitting duck feels like suicide; but his brain latches to the sentry’s words, and keeps still, while Shiro makes a silent prayer towards his ancestors. He wonders if they can hear him, across the galaxy; they might not be tethered to the living world, but their remains are still on Earth.
He wonders if his mother can hear his prayer. Is she listening?
He feels the sweat gathering at his upper lip, dripping on his temple and brow. The drones around him buzz in a way which reminds him of the coffee machine they had back at the base, and it's all he can hear as he stares ahead, fixated on a gleaming gem one of the aliens has embedded into its back.
A sudden blur in his peripheral vision catches his eyes, but his brain is too sluggish, too focused on keeping still, that even as he turns, he knows he wouldn’t be able to avoid being hit. It’s too late – one of the aliens was thrown his way, and Shiro can only watch as its body makes a slow descent towards the platform. From the way it looks, Shiro would be squashed and dead in seconds; it’s too late for him.
He keeps his eyes open.
A cackle of electricity crisps in the air, and sparks scatter in the air around the suspended body; the alien cries out, sounding like a pan being hit repetitively by a toddler.
The force field is barely visible, surrounding Shiro in a secure formation of octagons, forming a dome around him, keeping Shiro safe in the middle of the chaos, an artificial eye for a bloodbath of a storm.
With a few more cackles as a final eulogy, the alien evaporates into thin air, the scorched armor thrown back like a polarized magnet, hitting the other alien who must’ve thrown the first one onto Shiro and splintering its shell with a sickening crunch.
Shiro doesn’t feel practically safe, considering.
In fact, he doesn’t feel anything particular at all; he lets numbness flow through his limbs and coat his mind until the ordeal is over, huddling behind the punctured sandbag that are starting to leak all around him, making a parody of an hourglass.
A figure rushes to finish off the shelled-pitcher, using a thrust of their arm to plunge into the exposed flesh beneath the shell. They wear an armor similar to the one worn by the commander back on the ship, only they’re purple and the armor is black instead of dark green; he can’t make their face clearly from such distance, but they have the general outline of a bipedal gassy bulldog, with two small fangs poking out of their lower lip.
Their eyes meet and Shiro shivers and looks away from the small prickly yellow dots, but doesn’t turn; he may be surrounded from all sides, but he doesn’t want to turn his back to this one.
He looks to his right; a huge oozy centipede screeches at another alien, who looks like a Beast-Warrior from a Magic card, its coat smudged out like it’s been painted and blurred on Photoshop. The thought helps, somewhat – he could see this all as a very sophisticated hologram, where Incest Creatures fight Tolkien Creatures and Shiro’s in the middle of it. There’s dozens of them, and he’s not even sure what’s even happening – they can’t be fighting to the death, because another purple alien doesn’t kill any of the ones who try to battle against them, but does render them entirely immobile. The alien carries around a floating mechanic arm, whose only possible reasoning for working the way it does – connected in the shoulder via lightening but still complex enough to have maintained its claws dexterity – must be space-voodoo,
Centipede wins by clawing out most of Beast-Warrior’s skin off, exposing a bone-white flesh underneath, which, with an excited click of mandibles, it soon starts to devour.
Only Beast-Warrior is still alive.
Shiro’s mind slams the picture out of his thoughts and quickly replaces it by looking to his left, keeping Bulldog in his peripheral vision. An alien who looks like a cross between a Boston-Terrier and a sad tuna, with seven joints in each limbs, spits acid onto its opponents’ face, making them roll onto the earth, screaming, as the flesh melts away in a gruesome display.
The air feels humid, like a sauna that’s meant to boil rather than purify; it smells of cauliflower and rotting dill. Shiro's gaze is now upon a mere dot in the crowed, in a stark white colour, sticking out like a burnt-out pixel on a screen.
No one is wearing white on the field, Shiro notes, nor a dress. Are they all still waiting for the bride to arrive yet? Shiro mind puzzles as it tries to make the details of the person in the crowd, but they’re just swallowed in the masses – then they’re gone.
In the background, Beast-Warrior is trying to fend off Centipede, howling for help.
“Help!” They cry, “help me! Someone, please–”
He kind of wants to switch the channel.
Why was he watching this, again?
‘Ah’, he thinks, as Bulldog takes down a hulking mess who waves an electrical mace around.
‘It must be the reception.’
Shiro can’t tell the time, between more voices joining Beast-Warrior in fearful, pitiful cries for help; the drones continue circulating him like small insistent moons, catching every twitch of his muscles, and the chalky horrified expression on his face is kept on at least four screens at every given moment, while the other screens air different matches on field. The ground is saturated with liquids of different consistencies and colours, a floor in a messy kindergarten after finger-painting.
It’s painted with blood, with people’s internal organs, with muck and gore and toxins; the stench is so potent and putrid it makes Shiro’s eyes water and sting, and he has to blink a few times and keep himself from scratching at them.
Stand still, the sentry said, and Shiro does, even when every muscle in his body is tense, burning and stiff and his joints are pained and overloaded.
Between the bodies and the dying, the final two contestants face-off; Bulldog against the space-voodoo counterpart, who Shiro dubs as Armstrong. Its mechanical arm – a prosthetic – is unproportionally huge, and the alien itself is already gigantic. They’re going all-out on each other, but at this point they’re both running on fumes. Bulldog’s armor is heavily dented and the mid-section fell off entirely, while Armstrong lost the armor on its right leg and shoulder. Armstrong also has numerous lacerations along its right arm that bleed a sluggish orange; Bulldog’s upper lip is torn.
The opponents hop between smashed and broken bodies, baring their teeth to lash out barbs at each other which Shiro can’t hear over the ruckus of the bloodthirsty crowd, so loud it merged into a white noise at the back of his mind he ignores. Shiro knows now every move counts, every opening – as soon as either of them makes the tiniest slip, it’s over.
And though neither of them seems appealing, though he can’t really make himself think of any future past his next breath, he shifts his attention from Bulldog to Armstrong, and hopes Armstrong wouldn’t slip.
There's nothing appealing about Armstrong; Shiro isn't even sure he's an organic being, considering his voodoo-arm and weird thick monocle; but Shiro is averse to the idea Bulldog would win. There's a sense of violence in his that's too visceral, too raw to be left unchecked. Shiro doesn’t want to be left with that person.
The end is abrupt and rather ironic; Bulldog ducks sideways to avoid an upcoming blow, and steps right on Sunflower’s unseeing eye. The wheat-stalks appendages act like a bear-trap and snap around his calf, though Shiro can’t tell if it’s on purpose or just reflex milked out of a fresh corpse. It stalls him just enough for Armstrong to land a brutal blow into Bulldog’s back, which slams them into the ground.
The noise from the crowd finally pierces through, almost deafening; Shiro thinks his eardrums are close to popping, but doesn’t dare cover his ears. A flock of pyramid-drones swirl towards Armstrong, whose grim face is now on every screen, along with text written in an alphabet Shiro can’t read.
It’s over, Shiro thinks, and he can’t will himself to look away from the screens; whichever ordeal Shiro is about to undergo, his life are now over. He might still be alive, but his life wouldn’t be his anymore; he’s a prize, he knows, and to the victor goes the spoils.
Shiro’s so out of it he doesn’t even register the champion had been moving, until Shiro’s own image enters the frame, miniscule in comparison, no matter which angle the drone-pyramids try at.
He turns around.
Even standing on the podium doesn’t make the champion seem less of a giant; its easily seven feet tall, and the arm is a glowing monstrosity, a grotesque caricature of a limb.
“I offer you this tribute,” the alien speaks in a deep, masculine voice. “Do you accept?”
Shiro supposes it’s a guy, and with everything he’s been through, doesn’t know why this fazes him at all. Yet the fact Emperor Zarkon might be a tyrant, but one who’s apparently cool with gay marriage, makes a very depressing indication about the state of humankind as a whole.
Shiro tongue ties itself up; he should keep quiet. He nods, instead, but the alien keeps looking at him – it has a creepy face, and Shiro faintly thinks he might be a cyborg.
It takes a few moments for Shiro to realize nodding means squat for an alien; he can’t pass a gesture as an answer.
“I do,” Shiro replies, voice surprisingly steady, and a line in Armstrong’s shoulders visibly loosens.
“Which part would you have?” Armstrong continues, gesturing at Bulldog’s limp body that’s all but strewn at Shiro’s feet. That must be the tribute he was talking about, but it doesn’t make sense.
“Part?” Shiro echoes back, confused.
“The eyes?” Armstrong asks in a drawl, giving Shiro the impression he’s being mocked. “They’re rather plain. Would you rather his stomachs? His spine? Maybe his tongue?”
“No need, Commander,” Bulldog wheezes, before straightening his back as far as he’s able to, looking Shiro dead in the eye; “I offer my hearts to the union’s realization, may they–“ he coughs wetly for a moment– “May they rest as cornerstones for the Galra Empire’s glory, for eons to come.”
The crowd cheers and Shiro can only stare in horror as Armstrong mutters something under his breath and plunges his claws right into Bulldog’s exposed midsection.
Shiro looks away, putting a hand on his mouth. He doesn’t know if he’s allowed to move now, but he’d much rather not heave on the platform in this crucial moment. He takes shallow breathes through his mouth and tries to tune out the horrifying squishy sounds and the final chocking gurgles of a dying soul; it splatters his boots with droplets of bright orange.
“To you, I offer this,” Armstrong recites, kneeling before Shiro; the robotic arm hovers ahead, palm up and open. It cradles in its center two purple organs that drip orange, like the maw of a Venus flytrap with organs in its midst. The heat of the organs makes vapors rise around them. “If you choose to accept.”
“I do,” Shiro says in a hollow voice, and takes the offering while trying to create complete detachment between the nerves in his palms and his brain.
Just a slippery water-balloon that warmed up in the sun and drips orange juice, Shiro thinks. If he wouldn’t looks down, that’d be what he’s holding. The box he placed next to his feet pops open, unprompted; inside of it there’s an embroidered piece of cloth Shiro pulls out in order to make room for the offering he’d just been given; it takes every ounce of self-control he has to keep from rubbing his hands clean against it, like a cheap dishtowel.
Armstrong remains kneeling, and Shiro wishes someone would’ve tipped him in on the mandatory dialogue; he has no idea what to do now other than try and keep from throwing up.
“The cloth,” Armstrong hisses under his breath. “Throw it on my head.”
“What.” Shiro hisses back disbelievingly, heart pounding. The entire coliseum seem to await in bated breath for his next move; if he’d mess it up– he can’t even afford to think about it. Yet every instinct in him tells him it would be an immensely idiotic idea to throw the only fancy piece of fabric he was given on the head of a person who just fought for their life for his hand in marriage.
‘Well’, Shiro thinks sardonically, ‘Trust is one of the main foundations of any healthy relationship.’
He swirls the cloth through the air in a circular motion, like a monarch removing his cape, and lets it out of his hold to fly across and cover Armstrong’s face completely, like a veil.
The crowd erupts into cheers and the screens light up with both of them, while the other half of the screen counters the bright lights with black screens with a dark-purple symbol across them. It looks like someone overlaid a ‘Y’ over and ‘X’ to their upper half would merge, then stretched the lower part of the ‘X’ to make two scythes, their blades turning inwards. It doesn’t stand for anything in Shiro’s mind, but the sharpness of it, the cutting lines and dark colours, make him instantly dislike it.
“Now what?” He hisses at Armstrong as the alien rises up, cloth still on his face, nothing showing but his ridiculously huge ears that poke out.
An eye-blink later – and Shiro’s not in the arena anymore.
He stumbles into stopping, faces with an onslaught of information on all fronts. He has no clue how he’s gotten here. What feels like a brick wall collides into his back, and as he turns he sees Armstrong stepping back, ears twitching slightly. The cloth remains in place, and his arms dangle at his sides.
He must’ve blacked-out, Shiro thinks, because any other explanation is just too much; he turns around and starts walking down the street.
It’s a surrealistic parade with Shiro in its center, surrounded by armed guard and tracked by a mammoth fanged alien murderer Shiro could practically feel on his back. It’s endless, each step longer and heavier than the one before, each blink followed by more faces and limbs and shapes of too many different life forms to count. Shiro had no idea where they were heading; he just puts one leg after the other in whichever path is clear, letting the uproar of the masses fade from his consciousness to a white, meaningless noise.
He loses track of what’s going on until they make a curved turn to the right, and an enormous vessel comes into view. A shudder runs through him as he continues walking towards it; it’s uncomfortably similar to the spaceship that abducted him less than twenty-four hours ago. It’s stationed within a platform, like a hovercraft, and Shiro notices the crowd has thinned and has been replaced by what could only be troopers, wearing the same armor as the ones functioning as his de-facto honourary-guard.
There’s an open hatch lowered to the ground, but no one is standing anywhere near it; there’s vacant space between the assembled forces and what Shiro assumes is a spaceship, about half the length of a football field. A small hopeful voice in him thinks it’s there to take him home, but its hopefulness diminishes as Shiro crosses the barren terrain at the outskirts of the settlement. He doubts the generous colonial Empire that weds people by conducting an all-out Battle Royale would make things so easy.
The guards leave him at some imaginary threshold, and he halts for a moment, feeling exposed without their protection. Without their presence around, he feels countering gusts blowing from several directions at once, as their bodies aren’t there to keep it away. The open territory feels like another upcoming challenge, and Shiro doesn’t know where his body stacked all of the adrenaline it’s pumping through his veins to make his heartbeat sky-rocket.
Nothing happens when his boot lands on the staircase with a thud, and he climbs up to an empty aircraft with a monster tailing him. It’s not until they reach the top of the platform there’s a loud metallic clang behind him that has him startling and turning, to see Armstrong kneeling again. Now, when Shiro isn’t on a pedestal, the top of the alien’s lowered head reaches the middle of Shiro’s chest. Nothing happens for long moments, as Shiro watches the huge ears twitch a few times, ruffling the long cloth between them. Wordlessly, he reaches out and tugs the cloth off his head.
“I’ve been led by your core,” he speaks, and Shiro shudders at how guttural and deep his voice sounds, “to our home.” He looks up at Shiro expectedly, like they’re in a play and Shiro is making an embarrassment of himself by forgetting his lines.
“… To our home?” Shiro tries repeating the last phrase, and while it comes out more as a question, it seems to do the trick; the alien raises to his imposing height and starts striding ahead with purpose, and Shiro has little choice but to follow.
The hallways suck Shiro in like they do with any light; they’re dark, lit by a dim purple light that is hard on Shiro’s eyesight. The ceilings are tall arcs and it’s all so empty and cold, nothing remotely homey about them. They would barely do to make a house.
They stop before a large door; the alien presses the flesh of his right palm to a small screen that scans it, and the door slides down at an oblique line, and Shiro takes a deep breath before following inside, trying not to break down when he hears the door sliding close behind them, the gust tickling the short hairs bristling on his nape.
He stands awkwardly at the doorway, one hand bracing the box against one hip and the ceremonial cloth held in the other, both still sticky with the blood of the offering.
The room, circular in shape, doesn’t have enough in it to be called spartan – it is downright bare. Coloured in dark grey shades, Shiro tries to look anywhere but on the alien who’s currently fiddling with the clasps on his armor. His eyes dart around but have nothing to linger on, no escape – just like Shiro himself. With every piece of armor that thunks against the floor, Shiro feels the lump in his throat getting higher and higher, the dam of the icy dread that’s been leaking from every one of his cells getting close to burst. When the alien turns to him, down to a tight torn suit, his legs are already shaking, and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t lock his knees to make them stop.
Armstrong gives him a cold, predatory look, before huffing and heading towards the door.
“Where are you going?” Shiro asks before he can stop himself; while the prospect of an upcoming rape that’s been surfacing ever since they were left by themselves is petrifying, being left alone in a bereft holding-cell after everything he went through today is unacceptable. The alien is dreadful, but he is the only social connection Shiro has right now, and he can’t be left alone to deal with the immense weight of today’s events by himself.
“Med-bay,” Armstrong replies in a smooth tone. “In case you haven’t noticed, I was injured during the wedding.”
Shiro’s tense; he knows he should keep his mouth shut, but at the same time, can’t bring himself to. The uncertainty that’s weighing him down has him feeling on the verge of a heart-attack, and he can’t let even an ounce more of uncertainty in. If Armstrong leaves now, Shiro would just be held in suspense until he’d be back; he hadn’t eaten or drank anything for what feels like a week, and he’s so exhausted and drained he thinks this whole charade took a decade off his life-span and earned him at least a stripe of grey hairs.
He doesn’t have it in him to come with the perfect way to go about things, so he just speaks his mind; the consequences can’t be worse than the current situation, anyhow.
“What about consummating the marriage?”
“Consummating?” Armstrong frowns. “I’m afraid I don’t follow. We’re wed.”
Shiro decides it’s better to press a wound clean and let all the pus out with the blood, rather the letting infection set it before the rot takes hold and spreads. “In Earth, it’s… traditional to have sex, after the wedding.”
Armstrong snorts in amusement. “Don’t be deft. We hardly know each other, why-ever should we have sex?”
Shiro almost chokes.
Space-koala is a prude. Who would’ve thought?
“Even if we did know each other previously, there’s long time yet before my musth, so that’s not an option.” He snorts again. “How does this tradition even works?” He suddenly perks, looking much more interested as he steps back inside. “Did your kind found a way to synchronize musth between partners?”
“Musth?” Shiro asks, baffled. He vaguely thinks he heard the word, regarding elephant bulls, but the memory is fuzzy. “We don’t have musth. We just have… sex.”
“Just have sex.” Armstrong repeats the words mockingly, snorting before laughing in a boastful way. “So you’re always ready to mate? You can’t seriously tell me your species are in a constant state of musth.”
“Um.” Shiro offers, blushing horridly, and looks to the floor. From the way Armstrong says it, humankind sounds like a frivolous wanton breed of nymphomaniacs. Shiro hadn’t gotten any for the past year, so he hardly thinks it’s fair.
“You mean to tell me,” Armstrong looks torn between fascination and horror, Med-bay temporarily forgotten in favor of bizarre locker-room talk, “you are able to reproduce at any given moment? Even now?”
“Technically speaking? Yeah.” Shiro speaks, than hurries to amend. “But not… now-now.” He says, hesitantly meeting Armstrong’s eyes to judge his reaction. It’s futile; he’s about as expressive as a brick. Shiro wonders if there’ll ever be a time he’d consider sleeping with Armstrong, and pushes the thought off a cliff to the depths of his bottomless denial-chasm.
One problem at a time.
“I don’t understand. What’s the difference between ‘now’ and ‘now-now’?”
Shiro sighs. ‘Great,’ he thinks, ‘a lifetime of this.’ Which is a lifetime Shiro would have to be embarrassingly exposed and open about his needs and wishes, without any of the comforts intonation and context provide.
“I’ve meant–“ he hesitates briefly, reminded, as he forces himself to look at Armstrong’s face, that he’s in a serious danger if he’d so much peep the wrong thing and unintentionally insult him. “I’ve meant I’m not interested in having sex with you now. It’s not a subject people on Earth are comfortable talking about with strangers–“
“We’re not strangers,” Armstrong frowns. “We’re married.”
That doesn’t even make sense. Not a minute ago, Armstrong all but called Shiro out on being strangers, but apparently when Shiro says basically the same thing – he’s wrong.
Not an hour into their marriage, and Shiro’s already had hit his quota.
“We’re married now,” Shiro argues, “but we weren’t two hours ago. That makes us strangers.”
“Thank you,” Shiro grits his teeth, “how charming of you.”
“I did not mean it as a compliment.”
Shiro groans. No cynical comments either? For life?
“Look, it doesn’t matter now. I think we’ve both had a long day. I’m tired, you were heading to Med-bay. Why don’t you show me where is it I’m supposed to be sleeping and we’d talk about it later?”
“You’d be sleeping here. These are our quarters, now.”
“Here?” Shiro asks, still unsure how the quarters fit for their new sleeping arrangement. “Here where?”
Armstrong scoffs, but seems to hold back a response before turning and pressing his palm to the wall. It lights up, and a horizontal rectangle door just shapes itself out, its upper level protracting slightly out of the wall Armstrong tugs it towards him and it opens. It looks like an adult-size return-box, like the one Shiro had in the academy’s library.
Shiro approaches cautiously; Armstrong is still frightening up close, and the primal instinct in Shiro warns him it’s an incredibly stupid idea to approach him. He places the box and the cloth by the wall.
He does anyhow. The upper line of the drawer-bed is taller than Shiro’s head; he has to pull himself up, and does so with relative ease; years of using the upper bunk-bed had him used to it by now, and the similarities are a small comfort.
That turns even smaller once Shiro gets a look at it.
The “bed” is a collection of small round jello-balls in dark-pink colour, in uneven sizes and different hues, reminding Shiro of styrofoam pieces around a piece of new equipment. He supposes that he’s meant to dive right in it like a piece of cargo, and that’s not even the worse of it.
“There isn’t a blanket in there.” He speaks out, because surely there’d been some sort of mistake.
“Where’s the blanket?”
“Blanket. I can deal without a pillow, but where’s my blanket?”
“You’d have to clarify. Is this an object?”
Shiro tries to keep a straight face; a furred creature wouldn’t have much to do with a blanket. “Blanket. It’s a big cloth square.” He’s use even the tiny traditional cloth, but it’s covered in grime.
“We don’t have those. What are they used for?”
“To cover up at night.”
“But the temperature on the ship is adjusted to your body-heat, along with the thermal wear, there’s no need for you to cover yourself up further.”
“I know there’s no need, but I need it.”
“I’d work on procuring one as soon as I’m back from Med-bay.”
This is the point Shiro’s brain decides enough is enough.
Kidnapped by aliens? Okay. Coerced into a marriage with a furry mountain with legs? He’d deal. Made to sleep in a human-sized FedEx box? Fine. But not providing him with a blanket? How is he supposed to sleep like that?
“I want my blanket”, Shiro says, albeit faintly.
“Your wants are irrelevant,” Armstrong says, about to carry on, and the way he says it, looking at Shiro likes he’s a worthless speck of dirt, before turning from him to head out, is the tipping point which has Shiro promptly burst into tears.
Shiro isn’t used to crying; the last time he did was fifteen years ago, when he was eleven and his mother’s casket was lowered to the ground.
He tries to make himself stop, but it just makes it worse; years of emotional repression rear up to seize the opportunity and pour out of him, through his eyes as well as his nostrils. He tries to take a steady breath but his throat make him choke and cough, and all the anxiety and despair that’s been building ever since he was first captured flood him like a tsunami he can’t contain, the result of relentless earthquakes jarring into his psyche.
“What’s the point of this display?” Armstrong asks as Shiro slides down to lean against the wall, and Shiro tries to respond but he’s crying too hard to manage actual words.
That’s it, Shiro thinks. He’s stuck with an emotionally stunted partner for the rest of his life, where he’s spend his time bending backwards and forwards, over and over, like putty in the Empire’s hands to keep them from destroying Earth. He’d forfeited the remaining time he had for the Earth’s benefit, where his needs and wishes are inconsequential to anyone else, and he doesn’t even have the blanket to hide under and wish he’d never come out.
Crying feels awful; it’s disgusting and messy and humiliating, with Armstrong looming over him.
“Stop staring at me!” Shiro snaps at him when he finally gets enough air to do it, snot dribbling down his face before he wipes it away with his sleeve, eyes already too puffy to see through the tears. He buries his head between his knees and pulls them to his chest, even when all it does is just smear snot all over his pants. It’s childish, but Shiro doesn’t care. Why should he?
“Haxus,” Armstrong says, and Shiro’s almost tempted to look to see if it’s some sort of a curse when a smooth voice speaks.
Shiro does look up, eyes searching to room for the new person, but it’s just Armstrong, pressing his hand to the wall and speaking to it, eyes still on Shiro.
Shiro wonders if the ship might be sentient.
“Arrange for a crate of new uniforms to be delivered to my quarters. With a dije.”
“Now?” the voice on the other side of the line drawls, sounding skeptic and prickly.
“Immediately,” Armstrong commands, then turns to glare at the door. Soon after, the communicator in the wall beeps.
“They’re outside your quarters.” Haxus says.
Armstrong opens the door from within, and four sentries carry in a crate big enough to fit five adults into it. They place it in the center of the room, along with a small hand-held tool they leave at the top of the crate.
As soon as they leave, Armstrong pries open the crate with his prosthesis, throwing off the lid to the side, then flips the crate effortlessly. Armstrong spills the contents of the crate onto the floor, the side of the crate thunking loudly against the floor with such a powerful impact it shudders through the floor so Shiro feels it where he's sitting. He wonders if that's some sort of Power Display, maybe an attempt to intimidate Shiro into submission, to make him stop crying.
Armstrong glares at the spilled uniforms for a few more moments before sitting down on the floor next to the pile. He does so gingerly, movement careful and halted; obviously still stilted by his wounds that no longer bleed but still stand out in patches of torn-out fur. He doesn't pay Shiro any mind as he starts picking the uniforms and ripping them apart, one by one. Some he rips with his artificial arm, others with his regular one, and a few with his teeth; the sounds of tearing fabric carry on and on and are oddly soothing, Shiro finds. He looks at the repetitive action Armstrong does and sniffles quietly, still jarred by the appearance of the strangers from before. He's not sure what it is Armstrong does, but he must hold some sort of sway or power to be given such a huge crate of uniforms only to tear them apart, maybe as some sort of anger-coping mechanism, or as chew-toys.
It's a bit discontenting, to think about Armstrong as an animal; while he’s certainly humanoid-shaped, which is more than Shiro can say about more than few of the aliens he’s seen by now, he doesn't look particularly human. but there's something humiliating, personally, for Shiro at this thought, thinking he'd now share his life with something that is less than a human. Obviously not in physical strength, but in some mental aspects, not necessarily wits; he can't imagine he can cope with such a behaviour for a long period of time. Would he have to give up on a part of his humanity to deal with it? The gloomy thought sinks further in, like fangs into an exposed youthful neck, and Shiro stares and lets the tears roll down his cheeks.
When he's done with most of the crate, Armstrong rolls his shoulders, then flinches, barely noticeable. Shiro feels the flow of his tears staunching, somewhat, even if his nose still feels stuffed and his face grimy as his pants. He wants to pop his knuckles but stops himself; he doesn't want to draw Armstrong's attention back to him. Not when he's potentially ruining property to cope with his rage instead of directing it at Shiro. Then he flinches himself, as Armstrong picks up the added tool that he was given with the crate, before he sat it aside. It looks like a small handgun. Shiro doesn't think he'd shoot him, but it still sets him on edge - being around armed people tended to do it, even during his military days, and even more so when he himself was unarmed.
Shiro is proficient with a wide variety of weapons and arms; he even got a chance to fire a tank a few times, and an old cannon as a reward back at the academy. But this still didn't make the presence of weapons in his nearby radius any comfort to him - he'd much rather not to have any. Weapons always held within them the promise of death, rather than safety; even unintentionally, it'd take nothing more the pull of one lone finger to cause serious damage - even cut a life in its prime. So Shiro doesn’t like the fact Armstrong is now armed, and it doesn’t help his already sensitive state.
Armstrong doesn’t pay him any mind; he takes the handgun in his right hand, and two pieces of cloth, holding one with his teeth and one with his prosthetic, unpractical arm, before awkwardly pulling the trigger; Shiro can't make what's happening very well, besides the smell - there's a soft light and the smell of sulfur, unpleasant and stinging, but with a chemical twist to it that make his already itching eyes water even more and sting like hell. He gives up and starts rubbing them, which only serves to make it worse - it aggravates them further.
As the smell intensifies, Shiro starts coughing and flinching, as his sore muscles pull with every cough. Maybe Armstrong is trying to poison him? Maybe suffocate him? The fact that there's breathable air on the ship is a miracle by itself, not to mention the planet they’ve been at – Shiro doubts whoever captured him had in mind to even check what compound of gasses humans needed in order to survive - he just happened to be on luck. But what Armstrong is doing now suggests his luck might have just reached to its bitter smelly end, and Shiro feels exhausted with that heavy thought, with this depressing death of choking and suffocating in an alien spaceship, without even having the chance to learn and explore the universe, the first-ever human to reach out of the Milky Way onto the unknown.
Because despite it all, Shiro is still one of the only three people that have met actual, sentient aliens - and it's not like human kind hadn’t prepared for the possibility they'd be hostile. 90% of the sci-fi movies Shiro watched as a child had humans and aliens killing each other, and with humans' violent aggressive natures, Shiro is certain the Galran would be happy to engage in the same scenario. Shiro can't let that happen – not on his watch.
Too focused on the task of not choking to death on the floor, Shiro doesn't notice when the sound of shifting fabric stops and the flashes of light dim until they stop altogether.
"Ventilation up thirty percent," Armstrong claims into the air, and soon Shiro picks up the whirring of something mechanical and feels a slight breeze pass through the room, as the ventilation system sucks up the stench and smoothly replaces it with the best excuse it has for fresh air. A small part of Shiro is impressed - it's just like in the movies, he thinks. Not the ones with aliens killing humans and vice versa, but the 10%, the ones he liked better, growing up. The ones where the humans get to see the aliens spaceships, there's misunderstandings that can always be sorted out and worked through, there's technology so advanced it doesn’t even get to be wishful thinking, but downright magic, where both sides understood they have much to learn from each other, reconciled their differences and learnt to work together and even be happy about it. Shiro liked those. He wishes he could ask Armstrong how the computer here worked - or was it even a computer? The thought about sentient ship is still on his mind, and a part of him thinks it'd be cooler, even if the ship definitely didn’t look like a sentient thing. But it's not like Shiro know how sentient spaceships ought to have looked like, not like he has anything to compare it with. For all he knows, this is the prime specimen for sentient warships, and all the others take example after it. Who knows? He didn't think aliens would be purple, of all possible colours.
"Does this fit your criteria?"
Shiro feels Armstrong approaching, the way his weight thudded against the floor; he didn’t carry himself lightly, even though he could’ve. It was like he was making a statement - 'this is my turf, I have no reason to hide'. Shiro hopes he wasn’t considered prey. A childish part of him wishes to hide and not look back up, but Armstrong's question managed to make him look up and squint his eyes at the sight, trying to make sense of it.
"What?" he asks, voice scratchy after crying and coughing, throat dry and itching.
Shiro raises his head, blinking blurrily until the shape made sense. He has to tilt his head up, since Armstrong was much closer now, and it was hard meeting his eye.
"The criteria for the lacking equipment you’ve described. Would this suit it?"
Shiro's mind isn’t very sharp at the moment, as he takes the offered patchwork from Armstrong, hands quivering slightly. It’s lumpy and still smells slightly, and feels incredibly soft against his fingers.
"Yeah," he rasps, "this- that's a great blanket." he feels choked up all over again, all the symptoms reappearing for no reason, and he doesn't know what to say other than a small "Thank you". He clears his throat and looks Armstrong in the eye when he repeats it, louder.
With the blanket around his shoulders like a cape, Shiro feels fatigue creeping up on him, spreading through his bones like wet ink on a piece of paper. He can make the lines of Armstrong as an actual person; he doesn’t know if the same things apply to an alien, but exhaustion has similar features on most creatures – Armstrong's posture is both tense and hunched, and there's an unnatural, uneasy quality about it, like he's trying to hide a painful truth - not to show any weakness. There's his torn clothes, the missing armor that’s still on the floor that exposes the uneven fur where it's been cut through, peppered with clumps of dried up blood in several shades and consistencies. The scowl seems permanent on each Galra face, and Shiro thinks that while it's natural he took it for hostility, it's also unfair - it's a bit like those bulldogs with teeth protracting from their lower jaws over their upper ones, making them seem scary when they're nothing but drooling loveable snoring cuddleballs.
At the thought of bulldogs he feels an unintentional shudder run through him, with the cooling hearts in the box only a feet away from them.
"I'd take my leave, then," Armstrong says, "I'd return as soon as I'm cleared for duty, it shouldn't be long."
"Okay," Shiro says, just because Armstrong doesn't move until he answers.
When Armstrong's already by the door, Shiro calls out "Wait!"
And Armstrong does. It feels silly sitting on the floor, hiding in a cloth of patches fashioned into a large malformed piece of cloth that can pass for a blanket in dire conditions, such as Shiro's, but he doesn't have it in him to get up.
“I’m Takashi Shirogane,” Shiro introduces himself.
“That’s my name,” Shiro explains, “though you can call me ‘Shiro’.”
“Shiro,” Armstrong repeats without stumbling over it, and offers nothing in return.
“What’s your name?” Shiro asks after a few tense moments, in which both parties seemed to try and glare the other into action. Does he have a name? For all Shiro knows, he’s but a commander. Maybe he has nothing more than a title or a number. But the Emperor has a name, surely–?
“I’m Commander Sendak,” Armstrong answers, and Shiro thanks whichever deity that’s within earshot for a name he can actually pronounce.
“Thanks for the blanket, Sendak,” Shiro repeats; he doesn’t rank lower than him and there’s no reason for him to call him by his position in the Galra military hierarchy.
Sendak turns without answering, and before the door even closes behind him, Shiro is already asleep.
Sendak wakes him up with a kick to his ribs, sending him down to the floor.
“You’re lighter than I expected,” he says as Shiro glares up at him, clutching at his side and coughing. Sendak is in a new armor, no wounds visible, fur clean of any dirt. “Come.”
Shiro bites his tongue as he gets up; the impact already fading away from his mind.
“This isn’t how we wake people up, back on Earth,” he snipes.
“Were you asleep?” Sendak inquires, like it wasn’t obvious. “I called you several times, but you didn’t respond. I was under the impression you passed out.”
‘So your first thought was to kick me?’ Shiro glowers, one hand catching the blanket as it slides down his frame. It makes him bite his lip, looking away as he takes to fold the blanket into the tidiest square he can manage. It still ends up looking lumpy and uneven.
“I wasn’t,” Shiro says, “please don’t do that again.”
“We are required elsewhere,” Sendak speaks as if he hadn’t just heard him. “Follow me.”
“Where are we going?”
“To see your crewmates.”
The Holts look at him with grief-stricken faces; like they can’t look at him, but also can’t look away. They look in good health – if tired and scared. Shiro hopes he looks any better than how he feels, and focuses on the relief at seeing them, alive.
There’s a small armada of armed troopers surrounding them, and Shiro can’t help but grimly appreciate the fact the Galra Empire doesn’t do any other way but bluntness, doesn’t even give a pretense of privacy between them.
“I’m glad to see you’re both well,” he smiles at them. He really is, even if the only thing he can do is just see them.
Matt breaks down crying.
“I’m sorry, Shiro!”
“Hey, it’s okay, really,” Shiro assures him, wishing he could pat his shoulder. He does hate seeing Matt cry.
Sam smiles at him, devoid of any joy. He looks like he’d aged a decade in less than a day.
“You did your country proud, son.” He tells him, and Shiro’s heart twinges at the last word.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Is that your sire?” Sendak interrupts, stepping closer and getting into view. On the other side, Matt and Sam both flinch back. Shiro grimaces at them, raising his eyebrows twice pointedly to try and communicate for them to sit still.
“No, Sendak,” he tells him, “that’s just an expression.”
Sendak gives a stern look at the screen, then at Shiro, and finally settles to stand at Shiro’s side, right arm behind his back and the prosthetic resting on the ground.
“That one is demonstrating the same behavior you did, at our quarters,” Sendak says and Shiro wishes the floor would swallow him as Matt and Sam’s eyes widen in alarm.
“We’d talk about it later,” he tells Sendak, before turning his full attention to his crewmates, who are as white as a sheet. There are so many things he’d like to tell them, mind racing – he doesn’t know how much time he has, and how to say the right things under such heavy surveillance. This very well may be the last time he’d ever get to talk to any other human being.
“They’re sending us back to Earth,” Sam speaks, and Shiro tries to swallow back his heart after it jumped to his throat.
“Have a safe travel back,” Shiro smiles at him, and they all know it’s as fake as a three dollar bill.
“Is there-“ Sam stumbles on his words for a moment. “Are there any messages you’d like us to relay, when we’re back?”
Are there any people you’d like us to tell goodbye for you, Shiro hears.
“Of course.” Shiro says. “As Earth’s new envoy under the Galra Empire’s protection, I hope the people on Earth could work together to see the benefits and advantages this new alliance offers to the human race as a whole, for a fruitful cooperation from now onwards.”
(No, Shiro says. There’s no one waiting for me.)
If the Holts even make it back, there’d be a tremendous fallout around this ordeal. The government would reach his father anyhow (they wouldn’t care he renounced him; he can tell people he has no son, but his ID tells a different story).
“I see,” Sam says, and Shiro knows he does, and that eases his next breath, even when he sees the soldiers behind the Holts starting to advance towards them.
“Take care of each other,” he says as farewell.
The connection dies before he hears their response, and Shiro feels his hope flicker before it dissipates like a snuffed-out flame.
“Are they really going to send them back to Earth?” Shiro asks when they’re back in their quarters, because he’d spent all his breath matching Sendak’s pace on the way back. The box and the cloth aren’t there anymore, but the blanket remained where he'd left it. He picks it up just to have something to hold in his hands. Without chairs in the room they’re standing again, with Sendak’s full attention trained on Shiro.
“Yes.” Sendak answers, but the way he says it, squinting an eye at Shiro, implies Shiro had just been wrong in asking that. Shiro doesn’t care; he didn’t come this far to have the Holts dying because he didn’t make sure.
“They’d transfer them via a transportation ship, then deliver them to the surface in a smaller portable shuttles. They’ve probably finished cataloguing your technology by now, they could send them back with it, I suppose. According to the reports it was downright primitive. I’m surprised your species achieved any sort of space travel at all.”
“So they’re not going to actually land on Earth?” Shiro inquires, ignoring the taunt.
“Most planets would consider the landing of an unannounced and unpermitted aircraft on their soil an act of war,” Sendak says, like kidnapping-said-planets’-civilians is perfectly fine, “not to mention the possible health-hazard both parties pose by exposing themselves to an unfamiliar array of microscopic parasites and an entirely foreign eco-system. There’s protocol to follow considering these affairs.”
“It can be an issue,” Shiro says, “if they both return in their craft, with one crew member missing – saying they encountered aliens with nothing to provide as evidence. People wouldn’t believe them. Humans never made first-contact– that is, contact with any sorts of aliens. They’d think they’re nuts.”
“They’d think they’re making it all up, that it didn’t happen.”
“Yes, there had been cases in the past that happened.” Sendak says thoughtfully. “That’s why you’re here.”
“Why I’m here?”
“That’s what I’ve said.”
“But I’m here.” Shiro stresses the words, frustrated. “If I’m here, what good am I to them, over there?”
“You’re not going to remain here for the rest of your life,” Sendak replies dryly, like he resents the fact he provides Shiro with answers.
“What did you think, that I would keep you confined to this vessel and keep you from your home planet, like some sort of a prisoner?”
Shiro thinks a ‘Yes’ would be a bad call right now.
“Of course not,” Shiro laughs awkwardly, in what passes as one of the most horridly-executed lies in his life.
Sendak is non-the-wiser, and just smirks, like this pleases him, and offers to show him the dining hall.
Shiro’s recent fake-admission seems to have affected Sendak in a positive manner; he’s sure it’d take quite a while to be able to read him properly, but for now, Shiro’s thankful, since it means Sendak can’t read him as well.
The explanations are more easily provided now; on the way to the dining hall, Shiro thinks Sendak even slows down his gait, enough for Shiro to be able to actually respond.
As it turns out, the bullshit Shiro spewed under stress and scrutiny to the Holts isn’t that far-off from the truth. He’s to serve as the equivalent of an envoy of good will, connecting between the Empire to its recent addition – planet Earth. The implication is staggering, but Shiro doesn’t have enough time to even process it as Sendak continues to provide information he’s honestly too tired to fully comprehend. His headache grows worse as he tries to concentrate; he’s to spend several refokev upon the ship, studying the Empire’s very, very long history, its language and customs. By the end of Sendak’s lecture about the extent of Shiro’s future studies Shiro can mostly just stare at the dining hall, taking it in as Sendak’s voice drones on and on. It’s shaped like a teardrop, with round, low tables spread around, with one of the tables placed on a small mound at the back.
When Sendak tells him it’s their table, he’s not very surprised; his attention already strayed to the transparent portions of the walls. Looking at space is breathtaking, and in that small moment, just watching the stars, the tangibility of his situation slams into him, making him draw another sharp breath, and if Sendak notices, nothing but a small twitch of one of his ears indicates as such.
Sendak adjusts their quarters for Shiro’s benefit; first he programs Shiro’s biological-signature into the ship’s framework, allowing Shiro to use the doors and unlock his bed and such. Noting the different time-measurements between them, he uses Shiro to estimate the duration of a second, then goes through the calculations to adjust their quarters to dim the lights every fifteen Earth-hours so Shiro’s biological clock wouldn’t break down along with his mind.
When Shiro cautiously asks about Sendak’s sleeping arrangement, Sendak unlocks another portion of the wall, above Shiro’s, and Shiro can breathe another sigh of relief. Sendak himself has a hectic biological sleeping schedule, which is roughly summed up in that he only needs about twenty minutes of rest every fifty-five hours, which Shiro can just gasp at.
“You mean to tell me you spend a third of your life sleeping?” Sendak’s lips curls, seated next to Shiro who’s about to experience the replicated food on the ship for the first time.
“Actually,” Shiro chews into the grey kibble slowly, noting how the other soldiers around the tables are carefully not looking at them, “as babies, humans can sleep up to sixteen hours. When we’re old we require more rest, as well. So it’s probably a bit more than a third.”
“Unbelievable,” Sendak mutters.
The kibble turns out to be quite good, up until five minutes later, when Shiro throws it all up.
“That seems like an inefficient way to process nutriment.” A familiar voice drawls. “Quite unseemly, as well.”
“You don’t say,” Shiro coughs, then spits to get the taste of bile out of his mouth, before looking up.
“Haxus,” Sendak says, as Shiro takes in the alien – tall and lean, whose most surprising quality are his expressive thick eyebrows. Shiro wipes his mouth against his other, relatively-clean sleeve, and shifts an inch to his right, closer to Sendak, who’s entirely unbothered by the smell of the nearby vomit.
“Yes, Commander?” Haxus asks, and Shiro fights the immediate urge that swells in him to blacklist this person.
“Please collect a sample of this,” he nods towards the vomit, “and sent it to the druids for them to analyze. There’s clearly been a mistake regarding Shiro’s digestive capabilities during the processing. Consider amending the situation a top priority.”
“Yes, Commander.” Haxus replies, sounding much less smug about the situation, and Shiro has to bite his lip to keep the first genuine smile he has from showing.
Galra aren’t big on clocks, nor on calendars. It’d be far too easy to fall into depression – so Shiro makes sure to keep a daily regime, as well as a track of time. He uses a sock to count the days by hiding one of the pink-styrofoam pieces of his bedding in it for each passing cycle. He’s been given spare cloths, and by now knows how to unlock the storage in their shared quarters, though Sendak is hardly ever there. He keeps the sock hidden deep in the bottom of his bedding, which actually proves to be comfortable and cozy, once Sendak reprograms the bed not to budge under any other touch than Shiro’s.
Mornings are spent in idle talk at the dining hall.
Galra, and specifically, Sendak, are not fans of making idle talk – but considering the fact Shiro spends most of his waking hours with a computer acting as his tutor, he chooses to ignore it.
"Seems kind of heavy," Shiro says, chewing thoughtfully on his customized replicated food while seizing up Sendak's armor, "to walk around with that all the time."
It wasn’t long before the druids responded to Haxus’ query; Shiro didn’t get all the details, but did catch bits and pieces of Sendak refusing to send further “samples”, which led to a back-and-forth exchange out of Shiro’s earshot. It resulted in two more failed attempts, and the current goo he was given, a salty-sweet mix coloured bright-blue.
"You get used to it," Sendak answers plainly, going through something on his alien-ipad-tablet. It’s amusing looking at him work it, tapping at it with his claws; Shiro makes another note to ask what the screen was made of, to be able to withstand those claws and remain intact. There were so many new things on the ship, even small things like this one, and Sendak always supplies answers if he knew them, and if he didn't, he'd quietly search for the answer and bring it later to Shiro, never leaving a question unanswered. He’s easily better and fairer than more than half of the professors Shiro had in his life. It’s funny, that Shiro liked this bluntness in him, another small thing- just admitting ignorance. It’s an essential part of their relationship – Shiro’s still embarrassed to call it that – even when it had no romantic inclinations on either sides, he hardly feels two weeks count as what makes a relationship.
Sendak made it a habit to sit through all of Shiro's meals, even when he usually didn't eat himself. He ate every other day, and when he did, he stacked himself and stuffed himself full like a crocodile about to face the rest of the year in a drying river before the prey returns. At first Shiro thought he was only being civil, and it was expected, given the nature of the official bond between them; but when he later thought about it (and Shiro had plenty of dead-time to dull and chew things though, either during the day or clutching his tattered blanket at night-time), Sendak admitted he hadn't had any concept of "meals", nor mealtime. He ate when he was hungry, and didn't when he wasn't hungry. Yet every time Shiro was about to depart for the dining hall, Sendak accompanied him - either getting straight into their quarters or joining Shiro as he walked down the halls. There was a different motive there, Shiro assumed, but he had time to figure it out later. From time to time Haxus would join them, but Shiro still had the feeling there was a deep grudge there Shiro had never done anything to earn, and that made him feel uneasy at Haxus’ presence.
Meanwhile, Shiro found an odd joy in teasing Sendak; it was a bit like poking a sleeping dragon in the eye, knowing the dragon wouldn't do anything about it. There was something intoxicating about trying to get Sendak's ire flaring; provoking him and teasing him. It wasn't just his sharp intellect and snide remarks, or how easily the banter flew between them, good-natured and natural. It was due to the fact Shiro knew, for a fact, Sendak could rip him limb by limb without any effort, but that he chose not to do so. There was a strange sense of control and power, for Shiro, to know he's able to provoke Sendak when others could not. To know he's allowed something that would cause others serious harm. It was probably a depressing attempt from Shiro to get any sort of validation from Sendak, even twisted, even extorted through a broken prism of emotions and words – but this was the best he could have, and he had to make do. Shiro has certain liberties that’d get others disemboweled, and a diplomatic immunity any envoy on Earth can only dream of.
He takes his wins where he can get them.
Sendak remains witty in his own way, and Shiro’s pleased he’s brain, as well as brawn. It’s another thing that helps Shiro calm down when his anxiety peaks; that Sendak is reasonable, is logical, can be reasoned with and offered compromise. It helps humanize him, to remind Shiro he’s not bound to some mindless animal, but a being of equal standing. It’s a thought he doesn’t like to dwell on, but keeps surfacing, persisting, forcing Shiro into slowly accepting it.
Sendak isn’t very argumentative by nature – perhaps after too much time spent in the army, broken by the chain of command – but Shiro manages to goad him anyway.
"It's protocol", Sendak says, "and it makes sure we'd be ready."
"Seems kind of strange, don't you think? For the Empire to make it protocol for everyone to always be ready to battle."
"It is a war ship."
"In a peaceful empire, isn’t it?" Shiro asks, judging Sendak’s reaction out of the corner of his eye.
"We have enemies." Sendak replies, nonchalant, his expression grouchy as ever as he taps on the screen.
"Everyone has enemies. That doesn't mean they arm themselves to the teeth and go wander about with guns, ready to smash down everyone."
"That's their choice, and they're entitled to it. Once they'd been defeated and joined the Empire, they'd know better than to repeat this mistake."
"Doesn’t this strike you as odd? At all?"
Shiro noticed Galra weren't big on critical thinking. Who would've thought. An Empire built on worshiping its one Emperor for an ewi-kveo (–Shiro’s not sure how long that is, because according to his estimations it translates into ten-thousand years, and that just doesn’t make any sense–) did not encourage its military personnel or civilians to ask questions or do anything that disturbs its proper conduct in day-to-day basis.
"What seems odd," Sendak says, looking up from the space-tablet, "is your constant discontent and ill-ease with the state of things. Why do you keep looking for things to be bothered by? They do not affect you, nor your life. In case we do engage in combat, you'd be perfectly safe, and all of the crew would know their roles and would efficiently squander any opposition. You should be pleased by it. This is not only my Empire, you keep forgetting, but yours as well. We're connected, you and I. We're both part of the Galra Empire, a small fraction of its might and power.”
The casual way Sendak says it, sincere and open in his own brash way, has Shiro blushing. There’s nothing soft about it, but it’s easy for Shiro to forget Sendak perceives him in an entirely different manner. It’s another subject his mind avoids – how readily Sendak accepted him into his life, the fact he risked his life for a chance to wed Shiro.
He shakes his head, half in the hopes the thought would fall off one ear.
“I guess,” he mutters, shoving food into his mouth to keep from speaking, and concedes one victory to Sendak.
Shiro has a list.
It’s on his personal space-tablet-device, some advanced AI he has to teach him everything he should know about thousands of different species, as well as to help him practice how to read and write standard Galra text. The stylus is too big and thick, and has small indents in it, made for people with claws and larger hands, but Shiro manages.
When Shiro has to do something that could go horribly, horribly wrong, he tended to make a list. He listed the pros, the cons, and the worst case scenarios on both cases.
After three weeks of forgoing physical contact, Shiro reached the end of his rope. Propped in his bed, with the room to himself, he contemplates going to Sendak for help.
Right now, the list looks like this:
- stop being depressed
- keep mental sanity
- could be seen as an invitation and end up in rape
- could be some cultural insult
Worst Case Scenario:
- Go - Rape and/or Death
- No Go – getting too depressed, Earth destroyed
Since Shiro was under no illusions his tablet wasn’t monitored, he was glad to find out the Galra had different alphabet. Sendak saw his notes from time to time, but did not pray.
Shiro stares at the list; neither options seems particularly inviting, but he was feeling the heavy toll it took on his body; a glimpse at his reflection on one of the windows reveled gray hairs starting to pepper his undercut, and it was starting to get harder and harder to get out of bed each morning.
The logical thing to do was ask Sendak to provide physical contact, but this was a risky road to take; Shiro was still deeply uncomfortable with their– relationship wasn’t the right word for it yet, but maybe, as Sendak phrased it – their connection. He couldn’t delude himself in silly romantic notions every time Sendak acted in anything resembling kindness, like he already caught himself doing each night as he tucked himself in with his patchy blanket. Sendak was military, and he was probably shrewd and cunning to get to where he did and make into a commander – he ripped someone’s heart out to get Shiro, after all. The Galra Empire didn’t seem like it viewed any kindness or empathy with any sort of tolerance.
He taps the end of the stylus against his lips.
If he is being honest with himself, contact with Sendak creeped him out. They still haven’t discussed the option of sexual relations between them further after Shiro’s first night on the ship, and Shiro would very much like to pencil that conversation in for never. Initiating physical contact and intimacy, even non-sexual one, was a step down a frightening path, like walking blindfolded into the woods and hoping nothing would maul you to death until the rise of dawn.
Yet, Sendak was the only one he could approach with that request; the only other person who spoke to him was Haxus, and even if they didn’t mutually dislike each other, Shiro didn’t know enough Galra etiquette to go through all the possible implication of such requests.
Besides, objectively, Sendak just seemed far better option than Haxus, who was thinner and had less fur. That was just Shiro observing data. Haxus was all angles and sharpness, in a way Sendak wasn’t.
He couldn’t avoid the subject forever; he adds another line to the ‘Pros’ column:
- enter at your own risk
It’s best if Shiro addresses this unavoidable subject before Sendak does; he could have the element of surprise and establish ground-rules before Sendak could. Or before he’d get too depressed to even talk to Sendak; the lack of physical contact was growing worse with each passing day, the itch on his skin constant.
- needs 102% mental capacity
He jots down. Shiro had a responsibility for the Earth he has to carry now, but getting depressed would affect his ability to carry it. No one promised him the Galra wouldn’t turn on Earth once Shiro’s out of the picture. If he could take off the load of just one of the many things that he has to bear with, he should at least make an attempt at it.
“I see you are faring well,” Sendak’s voice cuts through his musings and he startles badly, jerking his head up from his bed-pod.
“You’ve scared me,” Shiro huffs out a breath, placing a hand on his chest, against the thuds of his racing heart. Even in armor, Sendak proved he could move around without making any sound, when he wanted to.
“In which manner I’ve accomplished it?” Sendak says, and Shiro keeps from sighing, just barely. Sendak has the affronted tone, and in the three weeks they’ve known each other, Shiro knows this tone is one step away from a hissy-fit. A very calm, methodological, reserved hissy-fit in which Sendak’s sensitive Galra sensibilities were somewhat offended by Shiro, which results in a passive-aggressive dialogue. Most of the time Shiro remained entirely clueless about what threw Sendak off.
He pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Humans’ hearing isn’t as sharp, may I remind you,” Shiro says, “and if we’re concentrating on a task, our brains filter all unnecessary information out, so we don’t actually hear what’s around us.”
Sendak gives Shiro that look which makes Shiro feel like an underdeveloped sea-mollusk; he’s starting to build-up resistance for the embarrassment it made him feel. Sendak is stronger and faster than Shiro, and has keener nose and better hearing; for him, the default human is somewhat disabled in comparison. He’d like to think Sendak didn’t think his own intellect is far superior to Shiro’s, but he also thought it was better to remain purposely ignorant of the truth.
“If you could try and be louder when you enter, or maybe knock on the door, that’s be helpful.” Shiro forces a smile, tolerating Sendak’s arrogance; with the list he’d been at, he was on the verge of casting his pride to the vacuum of space, anyway. What would one more concession matter?
Sendak grunts some noncommittal sound as Shiro set his tablet aside, biting his lip as he forced his limbs to climb out of bed. It was a bothersome task, as he knew he’d have to make a small drop down, then later climb back up, but he did so, not one of the pink-styrofoam balls following him out.
“Actually, I have another thing I’d like to ask of you,” Shiro says quickly, before his mind could catch up and stop him. “I want a hug.”
“You want a hug.” Sendak parrots back, tone dry.
“Yes.” Shiro shifts from foot to foot, fiddling with his suit
“A hug?” Sendak repeats, on the verge of a sneer.
Shiro, already feeling like an exposed nerve, instantly recoils.
“No need to rub it in,” Shiro snaps back, “Forget it.”
“Forget what?” Now Sendak just sounds frustrated, his right hand twitching at his side. “The hug?”
“In order to forget it, I’d first need to know what it is.”
“What’s a hug?” Shiro snorts. “You seriously don’t know.”
It’s really convenient how Sendak knows all sort of stuff – right up to the point he doesn’t. Space-travel? Easy-peasy. Blanket? Surely it’s human sorcery at works.
Sendak doesn’t reply. Sometimes, Shiro gets the impression Sendak just doesn’t want to talk to him less he’d get stupid-human-cooties all over him that’d feast on his superior IQ and leave him as moronic as he finds Shiro.
Now it’s Shiro’s turn to repeat himself. “You don’t know what’s a hug?” He asks.
“No,” Sendak speaks after a few tense moments, like it cost him blood to admit it.
“Oh,” Shiro answers, rubbing the back of his neck. The skin of at his nape is cold against his fingers – he hadn’t realized. “I’m sorry, I- it’s a touchy subject,” Shiro says, and flinches at the unintentional pun.
“Humans are sensitive to a very wide variety of topics,” Sendak notes; from anyone else it would’ve sounded like a provocative insult, but Shiro knows Sendak is just making another crude observation. For all the clinical conduct, Sendak seems to be much more frank and open with Shiro than the other way around.
“We are,” Shiro agrees, pulling in one of his sleeves. “I– well. It’s best if I show you.” He says, because he’s feeling mortified enough as it is.
Sendak is silent for a few moments. “Very well,” he surprises Shiro. “Go on.”
“You need to take off your armor first,” Shiro says, not quite managing to make eye-contact. With every sentence he speaks out he already hears the upcoming rejection – but Sendak turns to the door, locking it with a press of his palm, before returning to stand next to Shiro by the wall and start unclasping his armor.
“Just the top is fine,” Shiro blurts after Sendak set his armor aside on the floor and steps away from it, frowning at Shiro. It’s times like these Shiro has to take several deep breathes before reminding himself Sendak just seems overtly aggressive, when he’d been nothing if not accommodating towards Shiro. He changed his personal quarters for Shiro’s benefit, he took time off his schedule to keep him company during meal-times and provided him with the best conditions he could’ve managed.
“Now. Don’t move.” Shiro gulps nervously, approaching Sendak. His stomach is parkouring around his midsection and his palms feel sweaty and cold. Sendak is as still as a statue, the only movement is the occasional flare out of the beam of energy that connects his left arm to his shoulder.
Shiro stops in front of Sendak; the top of his head tickles the start of Sendak’s chest. With his heart in his throat, he shuts his eyes tight and leans forwards, arms coming to rest by his head.
The relief is staggering, so immediate it feels like a drug. The heat pours out of Sendak, through Shiro’s cheek and frigid palms, and Shiro presses close, torn between laughing and crying. He loses track of time; he can’t believe he managed so long without any physical contact, when it was just within reach. He lets his arms spread around Sendak’s torso, feeling him flinching slightly at the gesture.
“Am I required to reciprocate?” Sendak's voice rumbles through his chest, and Shiro shivers against him when he feels how it tickles through his skin. He nods into the fur, too content to speak – by now Sendak figured out the gesture. Shiro feels the warmth of Sendak’s right arm lingering next to him, like he’s hesitating how to place it. Shiro feels a smile tugging at his lips; considering the first night where Sendak tried to kick him into action, it’s great progress. He lets his own hand guide Sendak’s and place it over his shoulder, where it settles between his shoulder blades.
“Your technology is deplorable,” Sendak speaks, “but some of your habits are rather agreeable.”
Shiro laughs into Sendak’s frame, startling him, before regretfully pulling back. He feels warm and content, flushed. Even happy. It’s Sendak’s first attempt at a backwards compliment, and it is rather thoughtful, in its own way.
“Thank you,” he says, looking up at the unchanging frown.
“We are married,” Sendak replies. “It is my duty to fulfill your specified needs.”
It’s like being dunked with a bucket of ice, dozed with a harsh, fresh reality that’s there to wash away the cobwebs of any notion Shiro has about a gathering sentiment between them.
“Of course,” Shiro speaks and his heart twists in his chest, and swears he’d keep the hugs to the bare minimum possible.
His resolution doesn’t last long.
When Shiro’s upset to such an extent even Sendak notices, Sendak had developed a new way to diffuse the situation.
“Do you require a hug?” He’d ask, entirely-too-serious, and whichever anger or frustration Shiro had been feeling just drain out of him, as he’d nod and try not to cackle like a madman. He’s not sure he’s already not one, as he readily agrees to Sendak’s advances, forcing himself to rid of any thoughts Sendak might be doing this for his own benefit, rather than Shiro’s.
Every time such thoughts snake their way into his head, he lets the word “duty” ring through his head, loud, clear and sharp, to have them slither away.
Still, watching a beast like Sendak asking that, sincerely, doesn’t stop being charming.
(The fact Sendak is a great hugger doesn’t hurt.)
“ – wedding.”
Shiro startles, focusing; he’d been dozing off at the table, distracted by his recent history lessons concerning a great war that happened eons ago, delivered in a detailed hologram sequence he couldn’t help but stop and admire from every direction.
It’s been roughly two months by now – he’s already started using a third sock to count the days – but it’s the first time anyone mentioned a wedding.
“Unfortunate, what happened on Celekydev.” Sendak replies, chewing his food. When Sendak did eat, he consumed enormous amounts of food; it was rather fascinating to watch.
“What did?” Shiro asks, earning a scorn from Haxus. He doesn’t mind – Haxus would never like him anyhow. It took him a while to figure out Haxus out, and he’s still unsure, but his theory is that Haxus is a xenophobic who resents him from stealing his precious Commander from him. Like most of Shiro’s theories, it’s probably false, but Shiro had to make up the Galra’s motivations on his own, since it’s not like he could’ve gotten it out of either of them.
“There was a wedding in the nearby quadrat,” Sendak says, “but the candidate perished.”
“The one chosen to represent their people,” Haxus snaps, his lips curling to an unpleasant expression. “As chance would have it, there are times when the runts of the litter steal the honour of representing their planets.”
Shiro’s used to Haxus’ vitriol by now, and he’s far too curious to let himself be distracted by it.
“What happened to them?” He turns to question to Sendak, who’s going through his fourth dish.
“They stepped down the platform.” Sendak says simply, as if it explains it.
“I don’t understand,” Shiro replies, turning to Haxus as the Galra snorts loudly.
“What did you think the platform was for, human?” Haxus asks, tone deceivably sweet. Shiro frowns; he doesn’t mind to let Haxus feel he’s winning this one if it means he’d get some answers.
“I don’t know,” he replies, honest. “No one told me anything.” He thinks back to the sentry who warned him, but for some reason, keeps from speaking about them.
“Of course they didn’t,” Haxus snorts again, his mouth sharpening to a cruel smirk, baring his fangs. “Don’t you know anything?”
“Not really,” Shiro replies calmly, taking a bite of his own cooling dish. Sendak’s fangs are twice the size of Haxus’, so it doesn’t make a particularly successful intimidation.
“The Galra Empire wouldn’t accept any race to its ranks,” Haxus gives Shiro a pointed look, “Even if sometimes, there are few lesser races that make it through the cracks.”
Shiro doesn’t let Haxus goad him and keeps playing dumb; he long since learnt it’s the best way to deal with types like Haxus.
“The platform is a test,” Haxus continues. “If the candidate is cowardly, they sentence themselves to death – perishing instantly when they decide to step-off. It weeds out the weaklings and keeps the Galra Empire strong.”
Shiro wants to ask what happens to the candidate’s race, if they prove to be cowards.
He decides it’s better not to know.
“Weddings are exceedingly rare,” Haxus carries on, waving his utensil at Shiro’s general direction from his seat on Sendak’s other side. “To have two weddings, within four k’nadje of each other – it’s practically unheard of.”
“Is this why so many people sign up to it?”
Haxus glares at him, and Shiro calmly stares back. It’s hard to find Haxus scary, when his ears make him look like a jester.
“To be given the honour of joining a new race under the Empire is a singular occasion in one’s life.” He says. “To get personally acknowledged by Emperor Zarkon himself, to go down in history as the one who triumphed over the unworthy to–“
Shiro frowns again, tuning Haxus’ tirade out; Emperor Zarkon was also the head of the entire militia, and the Commander who abducted him had a direct line to him, so Sendak must’ve had already been personally acknowledged by Zarkon before. Unless–
“You married me to get promoted?” Shiro blurts at Sendak.
“Sendak was already a Commander.” Haxus bristles, the utensil bending in his clenched grasp. “He’d won dozens of battles long before your species wandered off– “
“Haxus.” Sendak cuts in sharply. “Enough of that.”
It’s an opportune moment to ask.
“Why did you participate, then?” He turns to Sendak, who seems to find his empty dish quite fascinating.
“Commander Prorok – that’s the last opponent I defeated at our wedding, who offered his hearts –“ he clarifies, “– was an extremely unpleasant individual. I would not wish his continuous company on anyone.”
Shiro feels the spoon drop out of his hand, hears it clattering against the table, but can’t make himself look anywhere but Sendak.
“When it came to my attention he would be participating–“ Sendak clears his throat, –“rather, when Commander Prorok found it necessary to notify the entire fleet in the sector about the wedding he’d soon attend, I considered it imperative to the Empire’s conduct that he does not bring himself to win.”
Shiro stares some more.
“He was a very poor conventionalist.” Sendak adds.
The implication of what Sendak is saying –
“So you’ve risked your life,” Shiro says, “your position, and your achievements, all of it–“ he licks his lips, postponing the next incredulous words, “Just so I wouldn’t have to marry a douchebag?”
“Of course not,” Sendak scoffs, suddenly very busy with the clasps on his armor. “Don’t be absurd.”
(At an unhappy future, many, many months later, Shiro would realize that’s the point where he’d started falling for Sendak, and hate himself for asking.)