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Love and Other Questions

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A parched desert wind tugged at Keith’s clothes as he crested a short, steep cliff and paused to plot his course forward. After several weeks of nothing new in the southern reaches of the canyon system, Keith had decided to approach the source of the mysterious energy from a new direction.

A good plan, except the canyons here narrowed to impassable twists within the first half mile, forcing Keith up into the sun and stifling wind. He’d taken his hoverbike to the edge of the canyons, but it was impossible to spot cave entrances from the air. He was starting to think he should have gone somewhere else.

It was still early—he’d set out as soon as it was light enough to see, intending to spend the hottest part of the day in the caves, then return home at dusk—but he hadn’t counted on the journey being quite so difficult. The canyons widened again ahead, but even if Keith could get there, he would have to cut the day’s investigations short. There was no way he was coming back this way in the dark. A broken leg out here was as good as a death sentence.

He couldn’t do that to Shiro.

Shifting his stance on the uneven outcrop, Keith pulled a bottle out of his largest belt pouch. He tugged down the black bandana covering his nose and mouth against the blowing sand, and took a long drink of tepid water. Two hours in and he was already tired. More tired than he should have been, thanks to the ache deep in his hip that told him Shiro had had another bad day.

There was nothing physically wrong with Keith’s leg; the bond he shared with Shiro carried only pain and scars. Still, it was hard to hike the canyons when it felt like someone had tried to pull his leg out of its socket.

Keith sighed, rubbing the stark black Mark that cut across his nose—a platonic Mark, like the many black and green scars tattooed across his body (more black than green, nowadays.) He’d had the Mark on his nose for close to a year now, long enough that he no longer flinched when he caught sight of himself in a mirror. It matched a new scar on Shiro’s face—and it was all the proof Keith needed that the Garrison was lying about the fate of the Persephone’s crew.

Recapping the bottle, Keith forced himself to move on. Standing around wasn’t going to bring Shiro home.

He stepped across a ten inch fissure in the ground onto a level shelf of reddish stone. An ominous wobble was his only warning before the shelf gave way, and then Keith was falling, his palms scrapping against stone as he scrambled to catch himself.

It was over in an instant, leaving Keith flat on his back at the bottom of a narrow canyon. Pieces of the shelf littered the ground around him—not stone, as he’d thought, but clay, soft and crumbly. The canyon, he now saw, was wider than it had appeared from above. Not exactly spacious, but there was enough room for Keith to fall clear to the bottom, collecting new bruises along the way.

Groaning, Keith uncurled slowly, cataloging his pains. Sorry, Shiro, he thought, grimacing. At least he hadn’t broken anything.

The sky was a vibrant blue ribbon ten feet above him, squished between the red-streaked canyon walls, which bowed out like a three-dimensional Rorschach test. Climbing back up would be difficult.

Well, fine. At least down here Keith was out of the sun, and he might find a new entrance to the caverns with the lion carvings. He might as well see where it took him.

That was easier said than done. The canyons were still impossibly narrow here. Keith had happened to fall in one of the wider sections, but as he walked onward the walls pressed in on either side, sometimes wide enough to walk normally, often so narrow he had to turn sideways and shimmy through several turns before he could breathe again.

He stopped just after nine to rest, rehydrate, and eat a ration bar he’d stolen from a Garrison transport last week. He’d long since given up feeling bad about the thefts. When you were a seventeen-year-old with no cash living in a shack in the desert, you did what you had to. Besides, they’d already stolen something far more valuable from him.

There was a sharp pain between his shoulder blades, and Keith couldn’t tell if it was coming from Shiro or if he’d cut himself in his fall. His arms didn’t twist quite right to feel the fabric of his jacket for a split so, reluctantly, he took the jacket off to examine it.

There was no tear, no blood, and Keith wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or worried. His eyes went to the black Mark on his right arm, a ring all the way around his bicep, smooth on the bottom but gnarled on top like the Mark was reaching ghostly fingers up toward Keith’s shoulders.

Keith felt sick just looking at it. Shiro was out there somewhere, hurting. Being hurt. Keith wouldn’t delude himself into thinking all the new scars had happened by accident. Whether the Garrison was holding him prisoner somewhere on Earth, or whether the Persephone had run afoul of aliens (a ludicrous theory, but one that fit surprisingly well with the facts Keith had uncovered so far) Keith didn’t know.

It didn’t matter, anyway. Keith was going to get Shiro back, somehow, and something in his gut told him the lion carvings in the caves held the key.

As Keith moved to put his jacket back on, he caught sight of another Mark. Words—new since this morning—scrawled in a near-illegible chicken scratch in a vibrant blue that matched the Mark on the inside of his left wrist.

There’s something wrong with my cell phone, the words read. It doesn’t have your number in it.

Keith rolled his eyes, glad his pen pal wasn’t here to see his lips twitch. Keith had been trying for years to get his soulmate to give up on the bad pickup lines; letting Blue know the lines actually had some (perverse, unexplainable) effect on Keith would only serve to undo what little progress he’d made.

The smile soon faded, though, and Keith yanked on his jacket without replying to the words. He didn’t have a pen on him, but even if he did, what would he say? Sorry I haven’t written you in a year, I’ve been busy looking at cave paintings while my other soulmate gets the shit kicked out of him on a daily basis?

Yeah, no thanks.

Keith rarely even saw his pen pal’s messages anymore, with as much as he wore his jacket. (To keep off the sun, he told himself, and not because he couldn’t stomach the sight of Shiro’s scars.) Frankly, he was surprised Blue hadn’t given up by now. God knew Keith wouldn’t blame him.

Blue’s Mark—a tiny pair of royal blue pilot wings—peeked out from beneath Keith’s glove and he tugged it down once, firmly, to hide the stinging reminder of what a terrible soulmate he was.

The caves, he reminded himself. The caves were what mattered now. The calendar he’d found six months ago carved into the floor and walls of an oddly round room pointed to something happening tomorrow. Something big. An arrival, if Keith had interpreted the pictographs right. He’d copied them down in his notebook, taken pictures with his stolen Polaroid camera to pin on his board back at the shack, spent almost every night staring at them under the garish light of the shack’s lone lightbulb. And he still wasn’t completely sure his hunch was right.

The date, though—that he would bet his hoverbike on. He’d spent a full month studying the calendar, which marked time by the angle of sunlight through a shaft in the cave ceiling, and he’d been back twice since to make sure he hadn’t messed up the calculations.

Tomorrow.

Which meant today might be Keith’s last chance to explore the caves and find more clues. Tomorrow he would stay near his shack, maybe do some patrols on his hoverbike while he watched for signs of the arrival.

Crumpling the wrapper from the ration bar, Keith stood and dusted off his pants. If today was the last day, then Keith was going to take full advantage of his time. He stepped out of the small recess where he’d stopped to rest, glanced at the strip of sky overhead, and set off deeper into the canyons.


Pidge could hardly remember a time when she hadn’t been aware that her brother was her soulmate. She wasn’t sure how she’d found out—maybe she’d seen one of her own scars mirrored electric green on Matt’s skin, maybe she’d heard Matt or their parents talking about it.

Certainly it hadn’t been her own Marks that clued her in. Matt had very few scars of his own—a little triangular one on his thigh from crashing a bike before Pidge was born; a little puncture on his hand from a rowdy game of tug-o-war with the family dog; a few acne scars on his face. (Pidge was lucky Matt’s Marks were a muted red-brown, like a sepia-toned photograph, so the acne scars just looked like freckles.)

More than likely, Pidge had found out the same day Matt had—when Pidge was four and careening around the house. She’d apparently tripped and fallen against a bookshelf hard enough to knock down a cast-iron Scottie dog statue.

Its pointy metal ear had gone through her lip, she’d ended up with two stitches, and Matt forevermore had a vibrant green diamond tattooed on his lip.

You know I’m going to have to grow a mustache to hide this, Matt had once told her, staring at his reflection in the mirror. He’d been sixteen at the time, and somehow still worried about looking good for the person who’d been writing in Sharpie black on his arm every day for four years. (As if the sickeningly lovey-dovey words weren’t enough to show just how love-struck Matt’s pen pal was.)

Pidge was glad she didn’t have that kind of soulmate. All that romance crap seemed like an awful lot of work for very little payoff. Pidge would keep her two pain pals, thank you very much. (Even if she did kind of want to track down Red and twist their ear until they learned to calm down and stop getting in so many fights. Pidge had had more than enough sympathetic split lips and bloody noses and sore knuckles—and with blood-red Marks, it was always a chore to convince her teachers that it hadn’t been Pidge who had been fighting.)

Thankfully, most of the fist fight Marks faded as the real wounds healed without scarring, so Pidge didn’t usually look like she’d bathed in the blood of her enemies. Only sometimes.

Soulbonds were fascinating, really. Pidge had been obsessed with them for a while around the time her classmates started talking to their pen pals—romantic soulmates, the literature called them, or Type I Soulbonds. Most people found the official terms too stuffy to use in casual conversation, so they fell back on colloquialisms. The word soulmate was used to mean either kind, and people came up with a variety of ways to distinguish between the two. The most common that Pidge had seen was pen pals for romantic soulmates, who could communicate by writing on their skin, and pain pals for platonic soulmates, who shared each other’s pain.

All that assuming, of course, that the bond was reciprocated. It wasn’t always, and then you got the Marks—a symbol on the inner wrist for romantic soulmates, phantom scars for platonic—without the metaphysical cherries on top.

Pidge had been twelve at the time. Tradition said you didn’t reach out to your pen pal (or pals) until you were thirteen, or better yet, sixteen—but in reality, as soon as the first person in the class discovered writing on their arm, the whole class devolved into tittering clusters of love-sick scribblers.

In the case of Pidge’s seventh grade class, it was twelve-year-old Kara Johnson who was lucky enough to break open the floodgates. Hi, her pen pal had written in pastel green. A little heart had been drawn underneath the word, and all of Kara’s friends had cooed over it for a good twenty minutes before two or three of the more adventurous ones grabbed pens and wrote their own timid messages.

The infection spread for two days, then came to a screeching halt after the first heartbreak. Joey Kaetz had tried three times, and he still hadn’t received a response. His friends tried to tell him there was probably a good reason for it. His soulmate didn’t speak English, or was too shy to write back, or was a fifth-or-sixth grader and wasn’t allowed to write back, not until seventh grade at least.

But everyone knew that the most likely answer was that Joey’s soulmate didn’t reciprocate.

It happened, and most of the time it didn’t matter. People who weren’t soulmates dated and fell in love and got married all the time, and most of them were perfectly happy. Happier, sometimes, than the people who were only together because of some silly picture on their wrist.

“I don’t get why it’s such a big deal,” Pidge said, her voice muffled by the pillow she had pressed over her face.

She’d taken over Matt’s bed as soon as she returned from a particularly gossipy day of school. More than half the class still hadn’t reached out to their pen pals, and debates raged left and right over whether or not they should risk it. It was safer to wait for the other person to write first, but if they wanted to play it safe, too, then you could easily get stuck in a loop. Some people waited years before they worked up the courage. Some never did.

“It’s scary,” Matt said, still distracted with whatever prep he was doing for the Kerberos mission. Launch day was still a year off, but there was a lot to be done before then. Physical training and research and setting up experiments and more simulations than Pidge would ever have thought possible.

Pidge lifted the pillow and stared at Matt, upside down. “You were never this worked up about your pen pal.”

Snorting, Matt reached over and poked her between the eyes. “And you were two when I got my first words. How would you know how scared I was?”

“You’re you,” Pidge said. “You’re going to the edge of the solar system, Matt, you aren’t scared of anything!”

“Not true,” Matt said, rubbing his thumb over his left wrist, where the Mark was. He was wearing long sleeves today, so Pidge couldn’t see it, but she remembered it well enough. Letters were unusual in Soulmarks, especially when they didn’t even say anything. Pliv. Pidge had Googled it once and come up with nothing. Some kind of medicine, and pipe-line injection valve. Real helpful--if Matt was going out to a deep sea oiling rig instead of outer space. Maybe it wasn't even a word at all. The P and L were squished together so they almost looked like one symbol.

Gibberish, but it clearly meant something to Matt.

He turned toward her, smiling. “A couple people in my class had already started writing to their soulmates,” he said, “but there were five people in eight grade who never got an answer. The only reason I wasn’t freaked out about it was because my soulmate wrote me before I had a chance to work myself up. And even then, we were both too scared to tell each other who we were, in case we knew each other in real life and didn’t like each other.”

Pidge stuck out her tongue, wrinkling her nose. “Well that’s silly. You obviously did like each other, or why’d you keep writing?”

“It’s not that simple, kiddo.”

“Sure it is. If I could write to Red, I’d tell them exactly who I was, and then I’d ask them why they’re so masochistic.”

Matt laughed, fully abandoning his mission prep work now. “That’s different.”

“How?”

“It just is.”


That was the best explanation Pidge was going to get out of Matt about the difference between soulbonds. Though, to be fair, Pidge didn’t press the point. She had better things to worry about than pen pals and lovesickness.

Like the fact that Matt was leaving for Kerberos, and Pidge wouldn’t see him for eight months.

“I’ll be in high school by the time you get back, Matt!” Pidge complained, draped over his shoulders as he tapped out an email to someone Pidge didn’t know letting them know he needed to cancel something Pidge didn’t care about. “I thought you stayed at home so you didn’t have to worry about this.”

“So I didn’t have to worry about renting an empty apartment for eight months,” Matt said. “I’ve still got to cancel my subscriptions to all the journals, and the museum downtown.”

“Or… you could give them to me.” She raised her eyebrows hopefully, and Matt laughed. “How many times are you going to go to the museum while I’m gone?”

Pidge shrugged. “More if I have a membership than if I don’t.”

Matt tugged on the end of her ponytail, which dangled down beside his face. “Tell you what. First weekend I’m back we’ll go out to the observatory and I’ll give you the guided tour.”

“Deal,” Pidge said.

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. Three months into the Persephone’s eight month mission, the news broke. Critical failure. Pilot error on landing. The pilot, along with Pidge’s father and brother, were dead.

“They’re lying,” Pidge said, tears in her eyes. Her mother looked at her like she wanted to send Pidge out of the room, shield her from the news, pretend this had never happened.

Pidge backed up as her mother reached out to hold her.

“They’re lying,” Pidge repeated, and hated that her voice broke. “Matt’s not dead. I’d know. I’d—Mom, I didn’t feel anything!”

She wanted to believe it, Pidge could tell. Neither of them wanted the other half of their family to be dead, but Karen Holt was a realist above all else. “It would have been fast,” she said. “There wouldn’t have been any pain.”

“I would have felt something!

Pidge stopped, suddenly breathless. She had felt something. A pounding headache, several days ago now, that had faded and returned several times before it went away for good. But Pidge got headaches all the time, especially from bright lights, and she hadn’t thought anything of it.

She realized now it might have been Matt. There might have been a head wound. He might have lost consciousness and regained it a few times before he--

No. There would have been other wounds, too. Broken bones. New Marks where he’d been cut or burned. You didn’t come out of a shuttle crash with a fatal head wound and absolutely nothing else.

Too angry and too scared to argue with her mother, Pidge turned and retreated to her room, slamming the door behind her before she collapsed on the bed, where she lay for several hours, wondering if Matt really was dead.


The pains continued over the next few days. Pidge was certain they came from Matt, but her mother gently reminded her that she had another soulmate, who liked to get themself beat up. She was probably just feeling something from Red.

(Pidge could almost hate Red just for that, just for existing and confusing the matter of Matt’s survival, except that in the dark hours of night when she couldn’t make herself hope, her only consolation was the thought that, someday, she might meet someone else who understood her as completely as Matt had.)

One week after the news broke, Pidge got her answer: a ragged, sepia-toned scar on her shin, and pain that made her vision go white at the edges for just a moment.

She let out a strangled cry and shoved her laptop onto the pillow beside her so she could reach down, clutching at her leg as the pain crested, sharp and hot. Her mother was making dinner in the other room, but she came running at Pidge’s shout, throwing open the door with a look of distress and—hope?

Oddly enough it was that expression that broke through the pain and made Pidge shoot upright, nerves tingling with the possibility.

Swallowing the pain, she yanked the leg of her pajamas up over her knee, and there it was. Fresh and sore and ugly—and the most beautiful thing Pidge had ever seen.

“He’s alive,” she whispered, her eyes already filling up with tears. “He’s alive.”

Once they had their proof, no force in the world could stop Pidge and her mother from finding the truth. When Iverson caught Pidge searching his computer one too many times and kicked her out, she enrolled in the Garrison under a fake name, careful to always wear pants so no one would see the most incriminating Mark. She used concealer on a few others, and hemmed her uniform sleeves long so no one would see her bare wrist—not a dead giveaway, but rare enough that someone might remember Katie Holt and get suspicious.

After that was a lot of busywork and snooping around. The Garrison didn’t keep any smoking guns out where Pidge could find them, but she built a receiver to intercept their transmissions, then steadily increased the range until she started picking up strange transmissions from way beyond Kerberos.

She wasn’t saying it was aliens… but it was totally aliens.

Still it was a year before she found anything worthwhile. A year of aches and pains from Matt—maybe from Red, some of them, but her second pain pal seemed to have finally cooled down a little. Pidge hardly got any red scars that year, just a couple of scraped knees and hands that had disappeared by the following day.

By the end, Pidge was starting to worry she’d never find anything. She still watched, and she still went up to the roof every night to listen to the alien chatter about Voltron, and then she returned to her room and tried not to cry under the weight of Matt’s pain.

Then Shiro arrived.


Keith had been expecting any number of things on the day marked on the ancient calender. A ship, a signal, maybe just some celestial event the ancient people had found especially noteworthy. He set up shop on the rocking chair on the shack’s front porch, two different radios broadcasting static, his hoverbike ready for a quick start if something happened in the distance.

He had everything he’d managed to steal, make, or repair on the bike or in his belt pouches. His knife, two flashlights, water and a first aid kid, a couple of small grenades; his go bag, with its foil blanket, flint, spare clothes, and enough rations for two weeks.

He was as prepared as he could be.

The one thing he wasn’t prepared for was the pain. He’d mounted his hoverbike and set off after the meteorite as soon as he spotted it in the sky, several hours after dark, determined to be there the instant it landed, but as the impact shook the ground beneath him, a wall of pain hit him, so intense Keith momentarily blacked out and nearly fell off his bike.

He held on, gritting his teeth against the pain, and increased his speed still further.

The Garrison beat him there.

They had to have known about the meteorite—no, the ship . Keith’s blood ran cold, and then a hot surge of adrenaline shot through him. That was a ship , and unless Green had been up to more daredevilry than Keith had guessed, the pain pointed heavily toward Shiro being on that ship.

Keith waited until he saw the Garrison medics wheel someone—Shiro, said his gut, though it was too far away to see his face—into a quarantine tent, then pulled out every grenade he’d managed to steal and tossed them at the Garrison equipment ringing the crater.

Alarms blared, and troops rushed to do damage control, and Keith circled back toward Shiro. His pain was rising again—pounding head, aching back, muscle strain, bruises everywhere.

Then, abruptly, it faded.

Heart pounding, Keith charged in. There were medics inside the temporary structure, or maybe guards. Keith didn’t stop to check, just knocked them out as quick as he could and headed toward the central room, where two medics stood over a bed.

They went down even faster than the others.

“Shiro?” Keith asked, his voice hardly a whisper. With one trembling hand he reached out and turned Shiro’s face toward him. And it was Shiro. Ragged, bloodied from the crash, with a shock of white hair and a scar across his nose.

He was out cold, but still breathing. Probably a sedative. Anger burned in Keith’s gut as he cut the restraints binding Shiro to the bed and crouched to get an arm under Shiro’s shoulders. The right arm ended in a mechanical prosthetic attacked above the elbow—just where Keith’s Mark was. He straightened, staggering under Shiro’s weight, and turned toward the door.

“Nope. Nope. No-no-no-no-no. No you don’t. I’m saving Shiro.”

Keith spun, tensing, as someone—some kid in civilian clothes came striding forward and grabbed Shiro from the other side. He didn’t seem hostile, him or the other two kids lingering in the doorway, wide-eyed and skittish. But he was a stranger in a restricted military zone and that was reason enough to be wary. Keith turned back to the Latino kid hefting Shiro’s mechanical arm over his shoulders. “Sorry… Who are you?”

“Who am I? Uh, the name’s Lance.” The kid paused expectantly. “We were in the same class at the Garrison?”

“Really?” Keith looked him up and down. He was the right age, at least, and he seemed maybe a little bit familiar. Same class, though? “Were you an engineer?”

“No, I’m a—never mind.” Lance straightened, taking more of Shiro’s weight. “Point is, I’m saving Shiro, so you can just scoot on out of here, mullet.”

Keith’s sour mood turned fetid. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Lance opened his mouth to argue, but one of the kids by the door—the shorter one—spoke first. “You’re soulmates?”

Three gazes turned on Keith, who squirmed. The Mark across his nose started itching, but Keith didn’t have a hand free to rub it. So he just scowled and started toward the door, ignoring the short kid’s question entirely.

Lance lagged for a second, but he had to choose between following or letting go of Shiro. So he followed, his gaze hot on the side of Keith’s head. “Oh,” he said. “Ohhhhh.” He laughed weakly. “Right, of course. Is it reciprocal, then?”

Keith shot him a quelling look. “That’s none of your business.”


Keith made it back to the shack in one piece (and then some.) He supposed he couldn’t really kick Lance and the others—Pidge and Hunk—out, after they’d basically burned their bridges helping him get Shiro out. Not that he’d asked for help, or needed it. The extra weight had only slowed down his hoverbike, which had made it that much harder to lose the Garrison patrols.

The real problem, though, was once they got back to the shack. It was after midnight, and everyone wanted to crash, but the shack wasn’t built for visitors. Keith had his cot in the corner and the lumpy couch along the far wall.

Shiro got the bed—no one argued with that, thankfully—and Keith didn’t protest when Lance claimed the couch. As old and ratty as it was, one spring poking through the middle cushion, it was probably less comfortable than the floor, and Keith had slept worse places.

There were only four foil blankets, including the one in Keith’s go bag, so Keith told Lance he could pick: couch or blanket.

He picked the couch, and Keith tried not to smirk as he claimed a spot by the foot of the cot. He dug through the crate full of civilian clothes he’d stolen from a surplus truck until he found something that might fit Shiro. He laid the clothes on the cot by Shiro’s feet and lingered there, staring at Shiro’s face. He could hardly believe Shiro was here, alive.

“What did they do to you, Shiro?” Keith whispered.

With a self-conscious glance over his shoulder at the three strangers, Keith lay down, pulled his blanket over him, and fell asleep in minutes.


 

He woke to the sound of the door closing. Sunlight streamed through the shutters, the watery, colorless light of dawn. Keith sat up, fully alert, and glanced first to Shiro.

He was gone, as were the clothes Keith had left for him. The ragged jumpsuit he’d been wearing lay abandoned on the floor by Pidge’s feet. Pidge—as well as Hunk and Lance—still slept soundly, Pidge curled into a ball, while the other two seemed to be trying to take up as much room as possible.

Keith pulled on his shoes, then headed outside. Shiro was there, on a little rise of sand twenty feet from the shack, staring down at his hand.

Keith approached slowly, letting his feet scuff along the ground so Shiro would hear him coming.

“It’s good to have you back,” Keith said, laying his hand on Shiro’s shoulder. The words sounded trite, but he couldn’t think of anything more to say.

Shiro’s eyes stuck on the Mark across Keith’s face. He smiled, but it was only an echo of the smile Keith remembered. “It’s good to be back.”

His voice wavered, and the weight of Shiro’s absence, the year that had passed with no answers but a mountain of pain and scars, settled over Keith. He let his hand fall to his side. “What happened?”

“I—I don’t remember most of it,” Shiro admitted. “We were captured by aliens. They separated us, I think, I--” He paused, glancing almost nervously at Keith. “Do you have a pen?”

Keith was startled by the request, but only for a moment. Shiro and his pen pal had talked often enough, even in the short time Keith had known Shiro. “I’ll go get one,” Keith said, and went back inside, creeping past the sleeping teens to grab a pen from his desk. Most pens worked fine with the soulbond—the darker and thicker the ink, the better—but Keith tested a couple on scraps of paper and old receipts until he found one he liked.

As soon as Keith handed it to Shiro, he rolled up his sleeve, revealing the brownish Mark on his wrist and the bare, scarred skin above.

Shiro touched the pen to his arm, then hesitated. Keith was about to ask if he wanted privacy, but before he found his voice, Shiro started writing, the letters shaky and crooked.

I’m alive, he wrote. I love you. Be safe. He clicked the pen and started to lower his arm, then thought better of it and added one more sentence below the rest.

If you ever find a way to write, don’t use your right arm.

Keith’s eyes flickered to the smooth metal plates and intricate joints of the prosthetic, his stomach turning. Shiro met his gaze, smiling in a way that didn’t reach his eyes, and handed him back the pen.

“So,” he said, his voice forcibly bright. “What’s for breakfast?”