When his ringtone goes off, Shiro rolls over groggily. It’s dark—two-thirty in the morning, his watch reads—and he’s ready to slam whatever button will make the phone shut up when he catches the caller ID on the screen.
Shiro scrambles to unplug his phone, puts it to his ear. “Hello?”
Silence. A rush of cars in the background. Then: “Shiro?”
“Yeah, it’s me.” Shiro pauses. Keith hasn’t called him at all these first few weeks of the semester. And there was nothing after he left Shiro’s to go back to his foster family, either. “Keith, what’s wrong?”
“Um,” says Keith, “I’m—um.”
“Keith,” Shiro says. “Where are you?” He starts getting out of bed, pushing his feet into his shoes and grabbing a non-uniform jacket so he’s less likely to get caught sneaking out, which it looks like he’ll have to do. “Keith.”
“Town,” Keith says. “Fifth Street. Shiro, I…”
“I’m on my way,” Shiro tells him. “I’m coming to get you. Okay?”
“Okay,” says Keith, and his voice shakes.
“I have to hang up,” Shiro tells him. “I’ll get caught in the hall if I’m talking. But as soon as I’m clear, I’ll call you back. Okay?”
“Okay,” says Keith. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Shiro says. “Talk to you in a minute.”
“Bye,” Shiro says. He gets into the rest of his clothes and slips out the door, shutting it noiselessly behind him. The last thing he needs right now is Matt waking up and insisting on joining him for an adventure.
This does not count as an adventure. Like, sure, all the cadets sneak out once in a while; even Shiro’s done it, and—to his chagrin—he’s still the biggest teacher’s pet in the place. Keith sneaking out isn’t exactly a surprise. But the call? That was definitely a surprise.
Shiro debates maneuvering down to the hangar that stores his hoverbike, but the bike is loud and sometimes the hangar is locked. It’d be faster, but the last thing Keith seems to need right now is a dressing-down from whatever commander is on night watch duty. It’s too much of a risk, Shiro decides, and he walks instead.
The road down the hill to town is quiet. Shiro jogs down the sidewalk a ways before pulling his phone out again to call Keith back.
Hi, this is Keith. Leave a message.
Shiro hangs up, tries again.
Hi, this is Keith. Leave a message.
It’s off, going straight to voicemail—or else someone is hanging up on him. Shiro ups his pace a bit. Keith could be in serious, serious trouble, he thinks, and tries not to panic.
When he gets to the edge of town, he slows to a quick walk. Fifth Street, Keith said, but where on Fifth?
Maybe he’s at Fifth and Main. That’d make sense with the fact that he didn’t say where. Shiro strides down Main Street, squinting against the streetlights that suddenly light his way. The street’s pretty quiet for a Friday night, but it’s a small town, after all. Even rule-breaking cadets tend to be back in their barracks by two.
At the intersection of Fifth and Main, Shiro slows down again. He doesn’t see Keith. He doesn’t see anyone.
Better call again, he decides, and his hands shake a little as he hits the button.
Hi, this is Keith. Leave a message.
“Damn,” Shiro mutters under his breath. He crosses the street, keeping an eye out. Maybe Keith’s at Fifth and E Street instead? That’s the other big intersection, the other one that might be obvious enough not to require explanation. He turns, crossing Main to head right down Fifth towards E Street, and as he steps back onto the sidewalk, he catches movement under a nearby awning.
“Keith?” he calls. With an effort, he keeps his voice steady. “You there?”
Someone steps out from the darkened doorway under the awning. “Shiro?”
“Keith!” Shiro rushes over. His heart pounds as he looks Keith over, searching for injuries. “What are you doing?”
“I,” says Keith. “Uh.”
He looks so small, so scared. His arms are crossed around his chest, hugging himself, and his shoulders are slumped. His eyes flicker around like he’s looking for danger.
“Keith,” Shiro says again, carefully. “Let’s get back to the Garrison, okay?”
“They’ll kick me out,” says Keith. “They’ll—I can’t go back.”
“Yes, you can,” Shiro says. What the hell happened to make Keith like this? “Cadets sneak out all the time. Should they? No. Does it get them kicked out? Also no.”
He holds out a hand, beckoning Keith towards him. Keith takes one small step, then another. He doesn’t unfold his arms.
That’s okay, Shiro thinks, and wraps his arm around Keith’s shoulders instead.
“They’ll kick me out,” Keith says again. It’s like he’s frozen, on repeat.
“Come on,” Shiro says, and starts leading the way back up Main Street. Keith presses against his side, shaking.
It takes longer for them to get back to the Garrison than it did for Shiro to get to town. By the time they maneuver their way back into Shiro’s dorm room, which is closer than Keith’s, it’s almost 3:30. Thank fuck it’s the weekend, Shiro thinks, or they’d have exactly an hour and a half until wake-up call. Keith needs to sleep.
Shiro helps him get his shoes off and into the bed. It’s a clear sign of how bad Keith’s doing that he doesn’t protest, just closes his eyes and lets Shiro tuck him under the covers.
Shiro sits down at his desk and lays his head down, intending to at least grab a nap. But his thoughts are racing too fast, and before long the sun is rising. He gives up, leaves a note for Keith, and goes to the commissary for coffee.
When he comes back, Keith is gone.
Shiro looks up from the Mars station policy handbook to see Keith sliding his lunch tray onto the table. He breathes in, steadying himself.
“Hey,” he says. “Long time no see, huh.”
“Yeah.” Keith sits down, refusing to meet Shiro’s eyes. “Couple days. You know.”
“I don’t know, actually,” Shiro says. “What’s been going on?”
“Figured you wouldn’t want to see me,” Keith says to his plate. He drains half his glass of water.
“What made you think that?” Shiro asks. Patient, he reminds himself. Patient and casual.
Keith shrugs again. “You know.”
“No,” Shiro says. “I don’t.”
“Fine.” Keith gets up. “But I’m not talking about it in here.”
“Okay,” Shiro says. Patient and casual. “My room should be empty.”
They go back to Shiro’s room. Matt isn’t there, and Shiro’s relieved—Keith’s sure not to say a word if he has to say it to someone other than just Shiro. They settle down on the edge of the bed together.
“Okay,” Shiro says again. “What’s been going on?”
Keith swallows. “I’m such a shit person,” he mutters, as if he’s talking to himself. But Shiro hears.
“What makes you think that?” he asks, repressing his need to grab Keith by the shoulders and tell him he’s brave and amazing. For whatever reason, that makes Keith shut down sometimes, and Shiro needs more info.
“Uh,” says Keith. It’s like every sound is sore in his throat, stinging at his lips. He’s that reluctant. “The other night—you know—the other night, I was sneaking out.”
“Right,” says Shiro. “And then I snuck out too, so if sneaking out makes you a bad person, we’re even.”
“You snuck out to help me,” Keith shoots back. “That’s different.”
“I’ve done it for worse reasons,” Shiro says, then gets back to the point. “Is that why you feel like shit?”
“No,” says Keith, quietly. “Not totally.”
“I met a guy,” Keith says.
Shit. Either Keith is dealing with some deep internalized homophobia, or something terrible happened. Either way, Shiro is out of his depth.
“He was—older,” Keith says. “An older guy. I sucked him off.”
“How much older?” Shiro asks carefully. “Like, my age?”
Keith shakes his head.
“Younger than me?”
Keith shakes his head again.
“Older than me.” Shiro swallows. Okay, well, that’s a problem. “Keith—I’m a TA. That makes me a mandated reporter.”
Alarm flares up in Keith’s eyes. “You don’t know how old I am.”
Does he? Not totally for sure, maybe, but he knows Keith isn’t eighteen yet. He’s still in foster care.
Shiro takes in a slow, deep breath and opens his mouth.
“No,” Keith interrupts. “Shiro, no. If you report it, they’ll kick me out and then, then I’ll have to go back—Shiro, if you tell them I’m never telling you anything again.”
Shiro shuts his mouth. What the hell, he thinks; how did he end up here? He knows Keith, knows his foster family isn’t great, knows Keith loves being at the Garrison more than anything else. And he needs Keith to keep talking to him. He needs to know someone is making sure the kid’s okay.
“Why would they kick you out?” Shiro asks slowly. “You aren’t the one who broke the law.”
Keith squeezes his hands between his knees. “I did it for money,” he whispers. “That’s against regulations. And the law, too. Shiro—” He looks up, finally, his eyes wide. “I’m so fucked, Shiro.”
“No, you’re not.” Shiro reaches to touch him, but Keith shies away. “Listen, we’ll fix this, okay? But first you have to tell me what you needed the money for.”
“Summer break,” Keith says. “I don’t want to go back, I can’t go back. If I have money I can live on my own; they won’t care. I’ll just make sure I go over when my social worker’s visits are, and then I won’t have to put up with them and they won’t have to put up with me.”
What the hell, Shiro thinks again.
“You can come home with me,” he reminds Keith. “Like you did last summer, like you did for a couple days over winter break too. Remember? You don’t need to live on your own.”
Keith shakes his head. “I asked my social worker. She said she couldn’t get it approved again.”
What the hell. Shiro reaches to touch Keith again and this time Keith lets him, hiding his face against Shiro’s shoulder.
“I don’t want to go back,” Keith whispers. Shiro can hear a sob threatening in his voice. “I don’t—I know it’s not that bad, they feed me, they don’t hit me, it’s fine, I just can’t deal with it anymore, Shiro, I hate it so much—”
“It’s only six weeks,” Shiro says. He doesn’t know what else to do. “Keith, just six weeks. That’s not worth breaking the law for. You can make it, okay? I’ll call you every day.”
Keith shakes his head desperately. “I can’t,” he says, and there’s the sob. “I can’t do it, I can’t, I hate it so much—”
What the hell, Shiro thinks again. He can’t think of a solution this time, not even a dubious one.
“Every time,” says Matt. He sprawls on Shiro’s bed. “Every goddamn fucking time.”
“It just keeps happening,” Shiro protests, pacing the room. “It’s not my fault!”
“Suuuuuure,” Matt says. “Sure. And when did I become the expert, anyway? Matt, help me hack the meal plan database. Matt, help me cover up fifty-seven different policy breaches. Matt, break the law for me—”
“You break the law on a daily basis anyway,” Shiro points out.
“It’s just pirating!”
“It’s still illegal!”
Matt huffs. “The point is, this is bad, Shiro.”
“I know it’s bad!” Shiro stops pacing and perches on the edge of Matt’s bed, since Matt is on his. “Keith’s foster family is bad enough he’s selling sex to avoid seeing them for just six weeks. And worse, there’s a goddamn adult out there who took him up on it.”
“Did he ever say how old of an adult?” Matt asks.
“Not at first,” says Shiro. “But he’s dropped some hints—I think the guy must’ve been at least in his forties.”
Matt punches the bed. “Shit, Shiro, what if it’s a teacher?”
“It can’t be,” Shiro says. “Keith would’ve…”
He stops. Would Keith have told him? Shiro suddenly isn’t sure. And it’s a small town, too, basically a college town. Other than the store and restaurant employees, hardly anyone lives there. And it makes twice as much sense with Keith’s fear of getting kicked out.
“I’m gonna make a list,” says Matt. His voice is hard.
“You are not gonna make a list,” says Shiro. “The last thing we need is to have Keith’s personal business lying around on scrap paper.”
“Pssh,” says Matt. “I’ll encrypt it, duh.”
“Why do I tell you anything,” says Shiro.
The next time it happens, Shiro is eight pages deep in a research paper on alternative fuels for spacecraft. It’s due the next morning and he’s got a whole draft, but earlier that evening he found a new source that is proving both necessary and yet impossible to incorporate. So it’s two-thirty in the morning, again, and he’s sipping slowly at a third cup of coffee when his phone rings.
At the sight of the caller ID, his gut tightens.
“Hey Keith,” he says, picking up. “What’s going on?”
“Can you come to my room?” Keith says.
Matt, across the room, lifts his head from his gaming system. “What—” he starts.
Shiro waves a hand, shushing him. “Yeah,” he tells Keith. “Give me just a minute.”
“Okay,” says Keith. He hangs up.
Slowly, Shiro stands up, pushing his chair under his desk. He digs around for a hoodie and shoves his feet into sneakers—he’s still in pajama pants, but it’ll have to do.
“Is he—” Matt starts.
“He’s in his room,” Shiro says. “And no, he didn’t say what’s up.”
Matt sighs. “I still say we should tell Dad.”
“You know,” says Shiro, “it’s nice of you to want to fix Keith’s problems, but have you considered that doing it behind his back is not the way to earn his trust?”
Matt shrugs. “I don’t care if he likes me, Shiro. I can be the bad guy. But I can’t just sit around and be passive while he’s so deep in all this shit.”
“Maybe you should respect his agency a little more,” Shiro says. Patient and casual, he reminds himself. Even with Matt. “I get the feeling most people haven’t.”
“Where’s the line between respecting his agency and letting him self-destruct?” Matt asks, and Shiro doesn’t have an answer, so he just slips out the door.
The night duty hall monitor is one of the junior RAs, easy enough to avoid. Shiro makes sure to think up a couple excuses just in case he’s caught, but there’s no need.
When he gets to Keith’s room, he raps on the door. No answer.
Where’s the line between respecting his agency and letting him self-destruct? Matt’s voice echoes in his head. Shiro twists the handle, finding it unlocked.
“Keith?” he whispers, as he cracks the door open.
“Come in,” Keith whispers back, like he doesn’t care, like he didn’t just call Shiro for help at two in the morning for the second time in a month.
Shiro goes in. Keith is sitting on the floor against the edge of his bed. He’s just in boxers, arms wrapped around himself against the chill of the room. The lights are on and his roommate’s bed is empty.
“Where’s Ruiz?” Shiro asks, shutting the door behind him.
Keith shrugs. “Went home. Family emergency or something; he got leave.”
Shiro hums a response, then moves to sit on the floor across from Keith. “You called me,” he says, when Keith doesn’t strike up a conversation.
“Yeah,” says Keith.
“Did something—” Shiro hesitates. “Is it a thing like last time?”
Instead of answering, Keith lowers his head, resting it on his knees.
Okay, Shiro thinks. Okay. At least Keith is in his room this time, not stranded out past curfew—but how similar of a thing, Shiro wonders. The same person?
“Do you wanna talk about it?” he asks.
“I’m going to ask you some questions,” Shiro says, making up his mind. “If you don’t want to answer, you can just say ‘pass.’ Or something. Okay?”
“Okay,” Keith mutters. He doesn’t lift his head.
“Okay,” Shiro says. He takes a deep breath, trying not to let it shudder on the way out. “Do you know where you are?”
Keith snorts. “Barracks. My room.”
“Cool,” says Shiro. “Just checking. How old was the person?”
“Pass,” says Keith.
Shiro swallows. Where is the line— “Did they hurt you?” he asks. “Physically, I mean.”
A long silence. Then: “Pass.”
“You know that gives it away, right?” says Shiro.
“Pass,” says Keith. He’s getting angry, his body angling up for a fight.
Well, too bad, because Shiro’s getting angry too—angry that anyone could hurt Keith, let alone someone right here in the Galaxy Garrison.
“Who was it,” he asks.
“I said pass,” Keith insists, and this time he peers over his knees to glare at Shiro.
“And I said no,” Shiro says. “Was it the same person as last time?”
“You set up the rules,” Keith says. “You don’t get to take them back.”
“I think this is an exception to any rule!” With an effort, Shiro gets himself under control. “If they did it to you, they could do it to other people. Keith, you have to—”
“I don’t have to do anything, thanks,” Keith shoots back, his voice rising. He unfolds his legs, standing up and going to the window.
“You know, what do you expect me to do?” Shiro says. “How can I help you if you won’t even tell me what’s wrong? I’m not—I’m not magic, Keith!”
“I don’t need your help!”
“You called me!”
“Which was clearly a mistake!”
Shiro is heaving in a breath to retort when the door bangs open.
“All right, cadets!”
Shit, thinks Shiro, as he snaps to attention. It’s Iverson, with the hall monitor behind him. Shit. Why couldn’t Doc Holt have been on duty tonight?
He slips a glance over his shoulder. Keith’s standing at attention in his boxers, shaking.
“What kind of rabble-rousing, unprofessional behavior—” Iverson sputters dangerously, looking them over. “Shirogane! I would’ve expected this of Cadet Kogane, but you? You are risking your position as a teaching assistant, cadet, I hope you know!”
“Yes Commander,” Shiro answers, his eyes straight ahead.
“And Kogane! Can’t even manage to wear regulation pajamas, can you? If you keep this up, cadet, you’ll be on probation!”
“Yes Commander,” Keith says obediently. His voice is like a dead thing, a flatlining heart monitor.
“I’ll be writing you up,” Iverson says. “Report to me in the morning. Commissary. Oh-five-hundred.”
“Yes, Commander,” Shiro says, and Keith echoes him half a beat behind.
Iverson gives the hall monitor gets the job of smugly escorting Shiro back to his room. Matt, thank God, has the good sense to turn off the light and at least pretend to be asleep, so there’s no further yelling.
That went well, Shiro thinks, kicking off his sneakers and climbing under his quilt. The whole school’s going to be angry in the morning, and Keith—
“What the fuck happened?” Matt asks, without lifting his head from the pillow.
“You were right,” Shiro says, instead of answering. “We should tell your dad.”
[3:31 am] Matt Holt to group: can we talk
[4:27 am] unknown number to group: Sure son, what’s going on?
[4:29 am] Matt Holt to group: it’s Shiro’s problem child
[4:29 am] Shiro to group: Matt, don’t call him that
[4:37 am] unknown number to group: Come to my office at 14h. We can talk.
[4:38 am] Shiro to group: thanks, Commander.
[5:04 am] Matt Holt to group: see you dad!!
“Is that your mobile communication device, Shirogane?” demands Iverson, as Shiro fumbles to cover the vibration in his pocket. “Hand it here!”
Shiro obeys, his heart sinking. No one’s really in the dining hall yet, just a few cadets who are morning people or else stayed up all night working, but a public dressing-down from Iverson is bad enough without getting a phone violation in the middle of it. Fuck you, Matt, he thinks half-heartedly.
Keith, beside him, is shaking again, and Shiro wants nothing more than to reach out and wrap him in a hug. But even if it weren’t for Iverson, Shiro’s not sure Keith wants that right now.
“Any more of these violations, Shirogane,” Iverson bellows at the top of his voice, “and I’ll personally go to General Richards to see that your Kerberos assignment is revoked. Understand?”
“Yes Commander,” Shiro says. Could Iverson really—Kerberos is all Shiro’s wanted, ever since he joined the Garrison and heard about the planned mission. The edge of the solar system! Flying the asteroid belts, passing Jupiter and Neptune up close—God, he can’t lose that. But Keith…
Iverson’s turned on Keith now, leaning into his face to yell. Shiro isn’t sure whether Keith looks like he’s about to yell back or just burst into tears, but thankfully he’s refraining from either. Shiro’s pretty sure that getting sympathy from Iverson would be about as easy as wringing water from a rock.
They get lunch period PT for a week. Could’ve been worse, Shiro tells himself reluctantly, as Iverson dismisses them. PT isn’t the worst thing, and he did get his phone back. As Keith grabs a piece of toast and heads over to a table in the very corner, Shiro follows.
“Hey,” he says, quietly, sitting down across from Keith. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled. Even if it wouldn’t have gotten us in trouble, I shouldn’t have.”
“Yeah,” says Keith. He still won’t meet Shiro’s eyes. “Me too. And, uh—”
“Yeah?” Shiro asks.
“The person,” Keith says. He takes a deep breath. “I—I asked them to hurt me. So it’s okay, you don’t need to worry.”
Shiro feels himself blushing. Here he was assuming Keith was being abused, and Keith is saying it was kinky sex? He almost can’t trust it.
But casual, casual.
“You dropped pretty hard, after,” he says.
“First time,” says Keith. “Sorry I called you. I didn’t mean to make you worry about me.”
“I like to worry about you,” Shiro jokes.
“I’m still sorry.” Keith crams the piece of toast into his mouth, talking around it. “You had a paper, right?”
Shiro starts. “Shit,” he says. “Yeah.”
“When’s it due?”
“Nine. I’d better get back and finish it up, I have oh-six-hundred PT and I teach at eight.” He sighs. “You’ll be okay?”
“Yeah,” says Keith. “Don’t worry.”
[8:53 am] unknown number to group: I’ve asked Keith to visit my office too
[9:02 am] Matt Holt to group: oh boy
[9:03 am] unknown number to group: Matt, stop texting in class :)
“Sorry I’m late, Commander,” Shiro pants as he jogs into Doc Holt’s office and comes to attention. Matt is already there, sprawling in the office chair while Doc Holt examines a bookshelf.
“Don’t worry about it, Shirogane,” Doc Holt says. “Have a seat. –No, I insist.”
“Thank you,” Shiro says. He sits down across the desk from Matt and works to even out his breathing. At lunchtime PT, Mr. Harris worked him and the five other cadets currently in disgrace—including one of Shiro’s students, and his face still burns at the thought—until the very last minute of the period, leaving Shiro barely enough time to run across campus.
“Where’s Keith?” Matt asks. “Isn’t he on extra PT with you?”
“Yeah,” says Shiro. “But he wouldn’t talk to me during. I don’t know where he went, Commander, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Doc Holt says again. “I asked him to come at 14:30 so I could talk to the two of you first. You know, get a feel for the situation.”
“How much has Matt told you?” Shiro asks.
“Well, Keith’s been calling you in the middle of the night.” Doc Holt leans against the bookshelf, peering gently at Shiro. “He seems to have been interacting with some….unsavory characters.”
Shiro nods, grateful for Doc Holt’s knack for talking around a situation. “I don’t know what to do, Commander,” he says. “If I fulfill my duties as a Garrison employee, Keith may view it as a betrayal.”
“And if I fulfilled those duties?” Doc Holt asks.
“He’d know it came through me.” Shiro sighs. “I just don’t want to chase him away; I don’t want him to feel like he can’t talk to me. But my gut tells me this is more serious than he’s saying.”
Doc Holt nods. “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, Shiro. How bad do you think it could be?”
Shiro swallows. “It’s at the least statutory,” he says. “But—”
He doesn’t know how to say it.
“Dad,” Matt picks up. “Are there any teachers here you think are—iffy?”
Doc Holt’s eyes narrow. “I want you two to go for now,” he says. “Let me talk to Keith alone.”
The other problem, Shiro thinks, as he salutes Doc Holt and heads out side-by-side with Matt, is that the Kerberos mission starts in less than a month. That’s him, Matt, and Doc Holt, gone. That’s Keith with no support network left.
They’ve got a timer ticking, Shiro thinks, and he hopes with everything in him that Doc Holt can figure it out.
Keith avoids Shiro steadily for a week. Shiro tries, but he can’t even get Keith to meet his eyes in lunchtime PT. His texts go ignored, too. Shiro hardly sleeps, gaming with Matt till all hours in order to keep himself distracted.
They’re deep in a first-person shooter on a Friday night when Shiro’s phone goes off. He drops his controller, fumbling to see the caller ID. Then he mashes the answer button.
“Hello,” says an unfamiliar voice. “Is this, uh, Takashi Shirogane?”
“Yes,” says Shiro, slowly. In the background, Matt turns off the game. “Who is this?”
“Uh, my name’s Hunk?” There’s a pause, some nervous breathing. “I found this guy and his phone and you were the most recent contact and you seemed, you know, concerned about him, so I figured I should call or something.”
“Where are you,” Shiro demands.
“Fifth Street? Fifth and….something. There’s a gross bar, I’m in the alley outside. I came here to throw up because the bathroom line was too long but then I found this dude; he looks kinda beat up—”
“I’m on my way.” Shiro’s grateful he’s still dressed. “Hold on one sec.”
When he pulls the phone away from his ear, Matt is already up, slipping into a jacket.
“No,” says Shiro. “I need you to call your dad.”
“I can do both!”
“What, you’re gonna carry Keith back to the Garrison all by yourself? That’s like, a mile.”
“I’m going to take the hoverbike.”
“Keith’s hurt!” Shiro hisses. “There’s no telling what happened. I need to get there fast, and I need you here for alibis, research, and emergency contacts.”
“Fine,” Matt huffs. He steps back towards his desk, out of Shiro’s way. “And Shiro—take care of him.”
“I will,” Shiro promises. He eases the door open and heads out, making his way down the dark halls to the hangar. When he hears the hall monitor’s steps, he presses his back to the wall and hopes desperately. He’s snuck out successfully so many times and he just needs this one more, just this one; he promises himself he’ll never do it again if Keith will only be okay—
The hall monitor passes. Shiro, breathing out in relief, slips down to the hangar and uses his ID card to open the door out. Thank you, TA clearance, he thinks, and he starts up the hoverbike. He goes easy on the acceleration until he’s clear, to keep the noise minimal. Then he floors it down the hill to town.
When he swings left onto Fifth Street, he slows down, scanning for anything that looks like the alley Hunk described. No luck, so he backtracks through the intersection with Main again, and then—there. Not far from where Keith was sitting the first time, a guy is waving him down.
“Hey,” says the guy, when Shiro sputters to a stop. “You’re Shiro, right? Your friend, he’s over here, I’ll show you.”
Shiro follows Hunk into the alley. Keith is sitting up against the wall, his knees folded up and his arms wrapped around his shins. Shiro kneels next to him.
“Keith?” he says. “Buddy?”
Slowly, very slowly, Keith turns his head. He’s got a black eye forming, a bruise at his jawline. “Yeah,” he says in a faint voice.
A smile breaks across Shiro’s face. “Hey,” he says. “I came to get you, okay? Let me know when you’re ready for me to help you up.”
“I will.” Keith still sounds impossibly small.
“Good.” Shiro looks up at Hunk. “I can take it from here if you need to go. Thanks so much for calling me.”
“Hey, no problem,” Hunk says. “I’d better go collect Lance. He’s probably getting himself into some kind of trouble.”
Hunk heads off. Shiro’s phone vibrates—a text from the number he’s come to recognize as Doc Holt’s.
I’m on my way. Stay put.
Shiro types a quick reply (Thanks, we’re just past Fifth and Main) and turns back to Keith.
“How are you feeling, if one is ‘I’m great’ and ten is ‘I feel like I’m going to die’?”
Keith’s brow creases, like it’s taking him a long time to process. “Physically? Four.”
“How about emotionally?” Shiro asks.
Keith’s intake of breath stutters. “Uh,” he says. “Nine?”
Shiro feels worry wrap around his heart like metal bands. “Do you want me to hug you?” he asks.
Keith nods. His eyes squint closed and tears leak out. Shiro moves in close, reaches around Keith’s huddled body. And they stay that way, Keith shaking in his arms, until Doc Holt pulls up with Matt riding shotgun.
Keith seems too out of it to freak out at the sight of a teacher knowing what’s happened. Shiro bundles him into the backseat and Matt gets out to drive Shiro’s hoverbike.
“Thanks,” Shiro tells him quietly, as they part.
“Sure thing,” Matt says.
The drive is mercifully silent. Keith leans against Shiro’s shoulder; Shiro runs his hand through Keith’s hair. They aren’t going back to the Garrison, Shiro realizes after a minute. This is the wrong direction.
“Commander?” he asks quietly, so he doesn’t disturb Keith too much. “Where are we headed?”
“Holt family residence,” Doc Holt informs him, a gentle joking tone covering over his clear concern. “It’ll cause less of a fuss, since I can just fill out the leave of absence forms for you and back-date them to last night. Is that okay?”
“Yes,” Shiro says, relief flooding him. “Thank you, Commander.”
“It’s the least I can do,” Doc Holt says, and they fall back into silence.
When they get to the Holts’ place, Matt is already there, backlit by the bulb that hangs over the porch.
“I texted mom,” he says, as the three of them come up the steps. “Told her we’ve got it handled for tonight. She said we got lucky; Katie’s at a sleepover.”
Doc Holt laughs softly, digging out his keycard to unlock the door. They all stumble into the dark entryway, then the kitchen, where Matt flips on the light.
“Keith,” Doc Holt says, “are you hungry?”
Keith looks up, his eyes wary, and nods.
“All right then!” Doc Holt opens a cupboard, then the fridge. “Shiro, Matt, what about you? What do you want?”
“Grilled cheese,” says Matt. Moving expertly around the kitchen with his dad, he waves for Shiro and Keith to sit down at the kitchen table. Keith stares at his lap.
“Hey,” Shiro says in an undertone. “You doing okay?”
“One to ten?” Shiro tries.
Shiro smiles at him. “Better than nine.”
“Let me find something for those bruises,” Shiro says. “Okay? Sit tight.”
“Okay,” Keith says. It’s kind of robotic, but at least he’s answering.
Shiro wanders out of the kitchen and finds a bathroom, where he digs in the cupboards until he locates a tube of cream that looks helpful, as well as a bottle of painkillers. Matt, who’s settling a pan on the stove, gives him a thumbs-up as he comes in and hurries to fill a glass of water for Keith.
Shiro hands Keith the bottle. “Want me to put on the cream?”
Keith tips back four pills, swallows some water. “I can do it,” he says.
Shiro hands him the tube, too, and Keith uncaps it. He smears the ointment roughly onto his face.
“Matt,” Doc Holt says, “I’ll finish this. Go make sure your room is livable so Keith has a place to sleep, okay?”
“Hey,” Matt half-protests. “I cleaned it before I moved back to school!”
“I know you did,” Doc Holt says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s clean now.”
Matt heads out of the kitchen, muttering imprecations at his sister if she’s messed up his room. Keith shifts a little, looking uneasy, and Shiro finds himself holding his breath. This has to go okay. It has to.
Doc Holt gets out plates and settles three plates with grilled cheese sandwiches on the kitchen table, leaving Matt’s on the turned-off stove to keep it warm. He slides two of the plates towards Keith and Shiro, then turns to the pantry to grab two bags of chips.
Keith picks up his sandwich. Maybe it’s only to avoid answering questions, but Shiro’s not going to complain. He takes a bite of his own, savoring the warmth, as Doc Holt sits down across from Keith.
It has to go okay, Shiro thinks again. They have to get this straightened out, and they have to do it before Kerberos.
“Keith,” Doc Holt says, and Keith looks up slowly. “Son. I can’t let this go this time.”
Keith swallows his bite of sandwich. “I understand, Commander,” he says, as if he’s being ripped into in front of the entire Galaxy Garrison for breaking a rule, rather than sitting at the Holts’ table in the middle of the night with a professor who promised to back-date leave of absence forms to cover his ass.
Doc Holt sighs, shakes his head. “Keith, who’s hurting you?”
Keith freezes, sneaking a glance to Shiro as if Shiro could fix it. Shiro’s heart pounds in his chest; all he can do is put a comforting hand on Keith’s shoulder.
“Whatever they’ve threatened,” Doc Holt goes on, “I’ll make sure they can’t do it. Trust me, Keith. I have enough institutional power to keep you safe.”
“No,” Keith breathes. “You don’t.”
“What do you mean?” Shiro asks. Terror starts to creep though him.
Keith looks up at Doc Holt. Takes a deep breath. “He outranks you.”
Shiro feels a shudder pass through Keith, feels it echo in his own body. God, it’s General Richards, isn’t it. They are so over their heads. They are so, so over their heads.
He sees Doc Holt pause, as if he’s calculating everything that could possibly go wrong. Then he folds his arms, resolute. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Keith, listen to me. Even a superior officer who’s breaking the law can be held accountable.”
“Even a general?” Keith asks. He sounds so small, smaller even than Shiro feels.
Doc Holt hesitates only a fraction of a second. “Yes,” he says. “It won’t be easy, I admit. But we have to believe we can do it. If we don’t, of course we won’t be able to.”
“But he,” Keith starts, and then stops.
He’s starting to cry again. Shiro slides his chair around the corner of the table and reaches out to hold him. Keith leans into the hug, breathing shakily.
“Even a general,” Doc Holt says again. “I promise. If I lose the Kerberos mission, if it’s the end of my career—that’s worth it, Keith. Your safety is worth it.”
“Absolutely.” It’s Matt’s voice—he’s come back, Shiro realizes, and is leaning unnoticed against the fridge. “But also it won’t necessarily take that. I mean, there are unofficial ways to go about this stuff.”
“Matt’s good at those,” Shiro puts in. He runs a gentle hand over Keith’s hair. “Keith, we’ll keep you safe.”
“Okay,” Keith says. “Okay.”
“You should get some sleep,” Doc Holt says. “Finish that sandwich, deal with this tomorrow.”
“Yes Commander,” Keith answers. He straightens up a little, and this time he doesn’t look so afraid.
Shiro turns on the couch in the living room. It’s comfortable enough, but he can’t sleep—he just keeps thinking of the visits from General Richards, of the times he saluted him in the hall. And all that time, the bastard was raping Keith.
Shiro sits up, tossing aside the spare quilt he’s using, and flips on the lamp next to the couch. God, he thinks. How did he not know? How did he not see through Keith’s attempts to disguise it, his obvious falsehoods? I asked them to hurt me—yeah, right.
Shiro runs a hand through his hair and gets off the couch, stepping quietly into the kitchen to get some water. He’s not thirsty but he’s restless, like if he opened the door he could start running, miles and miles. He can’t do that, though. He needs to be here when Keith wakes up.
Shiro drops his hand from the cupboard door and turns to see Matt, still dressed, wandering in and flipping on the kitchen light. He’s got his laptop nestled in one arm, a bag of chips in the other hand.
“Cups are over there.” Matt points.
“How do you know I’m looking for a cup?” Shiro asks, stepping in the direction Matt pointed.
Matt snorts. “You’re too polite to eat someone else’s food without asking first. And you never eat when you’re worried anyway.”
“I could eat,” Shiro says, eyeing Matt’s chips. He pulls down a neon green plastic cup and fills it at the sink. “What are you doing up?”
“Illegal shit.” Matt grins. “I’m gonna run it by Keith first, when he wakes up, but I’ve got the gist of a plan. Gotta contact my cousin, too. She’s a lawyer; she can help out.”
“You’re going to contact a lawyer about your illegal plan?”
“Hey, Elise is rad.” Matt settles at the table, stuffing a handful of chips in his mouth. “She works with Title Nine—or what’s left of it, anyway. She’s been trying to push for better consent education at the Garrison, plus a safer reporting system. I have to see what Keith wants, but she could get a nonprofit to sue on his behalf, I’m guessing. Or at the least she can leak his story anonymously to a bunch of people. Ruin the asshole’s career.”
Shiro sips at his water, then sits down next to Matt and grabs his own handful of chips. “What would I do without you?” he asks, and he can hear the exhaustion leaking into his voice.
“Stay on the right side of the law, probably.” Matt peers at him. “Are you okay, man?”
“No.” He can’t bring himself to lie. “God, Matt. I let this happen.”
“You didn’t know,” Matt says. “Did you do everything perfect? Probably not, nobody ever does anything perfect. But that doesn’t mean it’s your fault.”
“Doesn’t it?” Shiro asks. “I’m being serious, Matt. I stood by. I suspected that something was wrong, and I didn’t figure it out.”
“You fucking well tried,” Matt says. “And now we have figured it out, and we’ll stop it. Let it go, Shiro. Your guilt won’t do a thing towards helping Keith.”
“True,” Shiro admits. “But what am I supposed to do? I’ve let him down.”
“Apologize?” Matt suggests. “Tell him you care? Let him get some sleep and then ask what he needs?”
Shiro sighs. “You’re so rational about this. I wish I could be.”
“I have more distance than you.” Matt squints at something on his screen, types furiously for a second, then looks back up at Shiro. “Honestly? I’m a doer. I wish sometimes I could just sit down and feel the—the importance of something, like you do. But I don’t. I just try to fix it. Which can be great, sure, but a fix to the situation isn’t all Keith needs. He needs someone to listen to him talk it out, someone to sit there with him in that silent sort of way that I’m shit at.”
“I guess,” Shiro says. He drains his glass of water. “Matt?”
“I’m thinking of dropping the mission.”
Matt looks away for a second. “Can’t say I didn’t expect that.”
“Keith is—” Shiro looks away too. “He doesn’t have a support network. And Kerberos… it’s far.”
Shiro can tell that Matt is trying to be quiet, trying to be tactful, trying not to impose his opinions. He appreciates the restraint, but he also somehow wishes Matt would just tell him what to do. He reaches for some chips and shoves them in his mouth. The crunching echoes loud in the silence.
“You should ask Keith, though,” Matt says at last. “He cares about you, Shiro. And my guess is he’d feel bad if you gave up your future for him.”
Shiro bites his lip. It is his future, there’s no arguing with that—the Kerberos mission would jumpstart his career like nothing else, and turning it down at the last minute would take him out of his superiors’ good graces for sure. He wouldn’t want Keith to feel guilty for that. But—
“Where is the line,” he says, slowly. Matt’s own words. “Where is the line between respecting his agency and letting him self-destruct?”
“That is the question,” Matt says, falling into a cadence. “Whether tis nobler—”
Shiro throws a chip at him. “Just admit it when you don’t know.”
“I don’t know.” Matt sighs. “God, Shiro, is there really no one else looking out for the kid?”
Shiro shakes his head. “There’s just us,” he says. “Just us.”
“How’d you sleep, Shiro?”
Shiro can’t hold back a grimace as Doc Holt comes into the living room, two mugs of coffee in his hands.
“I didn’t, really,” he answers, folding up the quilt he used for barely an hour. “Matt and I were both up until five. We worked on a plan.”
Doc Holt shakes his head. “No wonder Matt’s still asleep. He’ll probably be in bed until one in the afternoon at that rate.”
“Mm,” Shiro acknowledges. “How’s Keith?”
“He’s in the shower.” Doc Holt hands Shiro one of the mugs. “I’m getting breakfast started; Colleen is off to the hospital for work.”
“Thanks,” says Shiro, accepting the coffee. Just the warmth against his hands makes him feel a little more alive. “Commander—is Keith going to report?”
“I won’t force him to.” Doc Holt’s face is lined with concern. “If he doesn’t want the police involved, I trust Matt to make sure it can’t happen again. There’s definitely a chance that word could spread if he reported, and the risk may not be worth it to him.”
Shiro swallows. “I don’t know what to do,” he blurts out. “What am I supposed to do, Commander? Keith, he’s—he shouldn’t have to deal with this alone.”
Doc Holt tilts his head. “You’re talking about Kerberos.”
“Yeah.” Shiro sips at his coffee, just trying to keep himself calm. “I have to be here for him. Don’t I?”
Like Matt, Doc Holt doesn’t really answer. “We can build Keith something of a support network in the next month,” he says. “But you’re right, that’s not the same as having your closest friend.”
“I don’t even know what I can do, if I stay,” Shiro goes on. “I don’t know what to say to him, how to help. But if I go—if I go, who’s left?” He runs a hand through his hair. “I just don’t know what to do,” he repeats, and his voice threatens to break.
“Shiro,” Doc Holt says, gently. “You’re blaming yourself.”
Shiro meets his eyes. “Am I wrong to? I knew something was wrong, and I didn’t stop it.”
“Keith knew something was wrong, too,” Doc Holt points out. “He didn’t stop it. Would you blame him?”
“Is it?” Doc Holt steps closer, puts a hand on Shiro’s shoulder. “Listen to me, son. There’s only one person to blame for this, and that’s General Richards. Don’t let a disgusting bastard like him off the hook by shifting responsibility onto yourself.”
There’s nothing to say to that. Shiro bows his head, tries to push the guilt away. Tries to push away, too, the invading images of Keith suffering, hurt, violated. He shouldn’t imagine that, he tells himself. There’s no use. Besides, those things are Keith’s until he’s ready to share them.
“Shiro.” Doc Holt sets down his coffee on the end table and opens his arms. Shiro sets his down, too, and lets Doc Holt hug him. It’s a little odd, his professor and commanding officer comforting him this way, but it’s nice. Shiro lets a few tears leak out.
When they pull back, Shiro catches a glimpse of movement—Keith, lingering awkwardly in the hall. Shiro wipes hastily at his damp eyes and tries to smile.
“Morning,” he says.
“Hey,” says Keith, quietly. He takes a step closer to the living room.
Doc Holt turns, smiling too. “I’m going to wake Matt up,” he says to nobody in particular, and slips past Keith towards the bedrooms. Keith stiffens, almost flinches as he passes.
“Did you sleep okay?” Shiro asks. He feels like his heart is physically breaking, sending a slow sharp pain through his chest.
Keith half-shrugs. “Yeah, actually. You?”
“It was fine,” Shiro lies. “Stayed up talking with Matt for a while.”
There’s a silence, like neither of them knows what to say. Keith is still hovering at the doorway.
“Are you hungry?” Shiro asks.
“Do you want coffee?”
Keith shrugs again. “Sure.”
“Okay,” Shiro says. He picks up his mug again and leads the way into the kitchen; Keith follows at a distance. The coffeepot is still half-full, so Shiro finds a mug in the cups cupboard and fills it, handing it to Keith.
“Thanks,” Keith says. He doesn’t look Shiro in the eye. They sit down across from each other at the table and sip at their coffee.
“Um,” Keith says. He hesitates.
“Yeah?” asks Shiro.
“Um,” Keith says again. “The general—I know you admired him, you know? That’s why I didn’t tell you. Part of why. I just, I was worried you wouldn’t believe me.”
Shiro feels the sharp pain inside him again. “I believe you,” he says. “Keith, I trust you. I know you wouldn’t make up something like that.”
“Yeah,” Keith says, slowly. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” Shiro counters. “I wish I’d done more.”
Keith shakes his head. “What could you have done? I didn’t—I wasn’t giving you enough info. That’s why I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you worried.”
“I like to worry about you,” Shiro says again, and a ghost of a smile crosses Keith’s face.
“I guess you’ll get plenty of chances,” Keith says. “I’m—Shiro, I don’t even know what to say about all this. I feel like such a shit person for letting it get out of hand.”
“Keith,” Shiro says, because parroting Doc Holt is the only thing he can think of to do, “the only shit person in this situation is General Richards.”
“I should’ve—” Keith starts, and then he abandons the sentence, lifting his mug again, hiding behind his hands.
“Doc Holt called the general a disgusting bastard,” Shiro says, again in absence of anything else to say, and he’s rewarded with a second tiny smile.
Matt’s lawyer cousin Elise shows up after breakfast, proving to be a capable and friendly person who seems to put Keith at ease. She brings Katie back with her, and together, the six of them figure out an official plan of action—a therapist, a psychiatrist, a survivors’ rights nonprofit to sue for damages while protecting Keith’s identity—and an unofficial one, which seems to involve blackmail. Doc Holt files and back-dates leave of absence forms while Katie, Matt, and Elise head into the deep net. Keith lets Shiro sit close to him on the couch.
“Shiro?” he says, underneath the busy chatter.
“Yeah,” Shiro says.
Keith shifts a little so he can look Shiro in the eye. “You have to go to Kerberos. Promise me.”
“Keith,” Shiro says.
“Promise me,” says Keith.
“Give me some time.” Shiro runs a hand through his hair. “Let’s wait and make sure this will work. Please.”
Keith shakes his head. “I couldn’t live with myself knowing you turned that down for me.”
“Yes you could,” says Shiro. “Keith, you deserve—”
“And so do you!” Keith folds his arms, but manages to keep his voice down. “You deserve to be happy too, Shiro. There’s no way I’ll let you ruin your future—”
“You’ve always wanted this!”
“It doesn’t matter,” Shiro says. “Not compared to you.”
“Then do it for me,” says Keith. “Do it because it seems like the one good thing that still exists right now, you know? The edge of the solar system—and when you come back I’ll be all therapy-ed up and ready to copilot your next mission.”
Their eyes meet. And Shiro can see it, that spark of hope and excitement that Keith hasn’t had in ages—tiny, dim, but there.
“Promise,” Keith says.
“Okay,” says Shiro, slowly. “I promise.”