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The Cockblocker

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“Hey there.”

Shiro barely managed a wan smile before pointedly turning back to his drink. The club was hot and oppressive, the thumping dance music and flashing lights doing more to make him feel nauseous than get him in the mood. Going out to gay bars hadn’t really been his idea, but he’d let himself be convinced that it was better than spending another weekend on his couch waiting to die alone. Ouch. When his friends put it that way, it was hard to say no.

Saying no to the guy leering at him from down the bar was relatively easier. Shiro knew he shouldn’t be so judgmental, but the guy clearly had too much to drink and was looking worse for wear. It didn’t help that the mark from his wedding band was obvious on his finger, like he’d slipped it into his pocket to pick up some cute guy on a business trip before going home to his wife. Those types seemed to be almost as common as the cute club kids that made Shiro feel old and out of touch. It was a testament to how long it had been that he was even considering it.

A one-night stand wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, though he’d take a pass on Mr. Drunk Cheater. It wasn’t what he was looking for. The quick hookup scene had gotten old years ago, and Shiro hoped to find something a little more lasting. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like his drunk companion picked up on his signals.

“I said, hey there.” The businessman slid closer into Shiro’s space. This close, it was impossible not to breathe in the reek of cheap beer.

“Not interested, sorry.” Shiro gave the man another smile, trying for the polite brush-off.

“Handsome guy like you is practically begging for someone to take him home. C’mon, let me buy you a drink.” The businessman wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I’m only in town for a couple of days and I was really hoping that I could find someone to show me all the…local sites? I’m sure you know all the best ways to have fun around here.”

Not interested.” Shiro said again, with more emphasis as he tried to lean away.

The jerk only leaned closer. “Don’t be like that, it’s okay if you’re shy. I can take it slow. Just give me a chance.”

Shiro grimaced. God this was painful. Mr. Drunk Cheater was still looking at him expectantly, like he thought aggressive dislike was an invitation. Suddenly, take out and reruns didn’t seem like such a bad idea now. At least take out and reruns didn’t cause a scene.

“Babe, there you are.”

Then there was an arm around his waist, grounding and familiar, and Shiro smiled before he even turned around, shoulders sagging with easy comfort. Gentle knuckles brushed against his cheek, an old gesture that still left Shiro shivering, and he moved into a kiss without a second thought. Keith was there to catch him, pulling him in, holding him close. His mouth was soft and warm, moving against his like they had all the time in the world, and Shiro sighed sweetly, moving to drape his arms around Keith’s shoulders. Shiro almost forgot they had an audience, until Keith pulled away and glared. Loudly .

“Who the fuck are you?”

Keith let off annoyance like he was radioactive, annoyed, unimpressed and unapologetically so. It was like every line of his body had been calibrated for maximum judgement. Mr. Drunk Cheater didn’t stand a chance. He sputtered embarrassingly and tripped over himself in his haste to get as far away as possible. Keith didn’t stop glaring until he was out of sight, and Shiro burst out laughing.

“I think he pissed himself.” He wheezed, miming wiping a tear from his eye, but Keith still hadn’t moved. Shiro followed his gaze just in time to watch Drunk Cheater race out the front door, and he cackled. “Oh god. Oh no. That was completely worth it oh my god.”

Keith’s scowl slowly eased up, but he hadn’t moved his arm. Shiro was not inclined to complain. “He looked like he wanted to jump you.”

“I would not have put it past him.” But Shiro’s mood had swung up quickly, and it wasn’t coming back down. “Score one more, for the Cockblocker.”

“Hmph.” Keith snorted irritably about the nickname, but he couldn’t keep the glow of satisfaction from his smile. “Someone had to rescue you from bad pickup lines and old drunks.”

“My hero.” Shiro teased, leaning into his best friend and sliding off his stool. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Dinner’s on me. Just don’t tell the rest of them I gave up early.”

Keith settled in beside him and Shiro relaxed, letting himself enjoy the night now that the ‘find a date’ part of the evening was over. Pidge was going to be disappointed that he’d given in so early, but his heart wasn’t in it. He’d tell her honestly that he’d tried, but it hadn’t worked out and he’d be off the hook until she and his other friends pressured him into trying again. Keith always came with him as backup, the best sort of wingman. Instead of herding available dates his way, Keith had declared himself the one to drive away the creeps and the ones who didn’t want to take no for an answer. Lance had declared him the Cockblocker, and the name stuck, no matter how many times Keith protested.

For his part, Shiro couldn’t have been happier. It was always a better night with his best friend, though staying in and enjoying takeout while catching up on the backlog of tv shows they’d been putting off for weeks sounded a whole lot more fun than this pageantry. Spending the entire night with Keith curled up in his arms sounded even better.

Shiro wrenched his thoughts away from the danger zone like he’d done a thousand times before, repainting the boundaries between friendship and a deep-seated crush that he’d been nursing since he and Keith were in the Garrison together. He’d thought that after all these years, the lingering embers would burn themselves out, but all it took was Keith’s wicked, smug smile or the sound of his laughter when his walls were down for it to flare up again. It didn’t help that Keith drove away the unsuitables by pretending that he was Shiro’s boyfriend, complete with the feigned public displays of affection.

He didn’t want to admit to himself that he agreed to these find-Shiro-a-date nights more for Keith than for actually finding a new relationship. It was dishonest and underhanded. He should definitely stop… right after tonight.

Shiro had no reason to keep Keith so close. He still held his hand all the way out of the club.

They found themselves at Doodlebugs, a twenty-four hour breakfast place that they’d been visiting at three in the morning for as long as they’d known each other. Shiro remembered dragging Keith out when exams felt more like monsters than bits of paper, and Keith returned the favor whenever Shiro fell asleep in front of a report he needed done before dawn. There’d been five separate birthday celebrations, and one fateful evening, after a party that went on for too long, Shiro had fallen asleep in the staff bathroom. He was sure someone still had pictures.

They knew the waitress on duty had three cats and three times as many grandkids, and she knew both their orders before they sat down. They found a seat in the back, and Shiro hid a grin when Keith didn’t say anything as he squished into the booth beside him, vinyl seats squeaking when he moved. An extra fluffy pile of pancakes had his name on it, and Shiro wondered if Keith wouldn’t mind a few shakes to go with it.

“Are bars the only place we can go?”

And just like that, Shiro’s bubble popped. Right. This again.

“Not you, too,” he groaned, reaching for the toothpick dispenser, just looking for something to do with his hands. “I promise I won’t die alone tomorrow or adopt cats. I’m just looking for the right person.”

And if Shiro was honest, the right person was already right beside him. It just never worked out right.

They’d met in college, but it felt like they’d known each other their whole lives. Keith had turned heads from the get-go, a cadet with too much skill and a too sharp tongue. He had a sense of humor that was as dry as it was biting, but his biggest problem was that he cared too much about people who didn’t care enough. People called him prickly because they couldn’t see past his bluntness, but once Shiro had fallen into his orbit, he’d never wanted to leave. Respect turned to admiration, and then something more. Shiro couldn’t remember a time he’d known Keith without feeling this way. The timing had never been right. Shiro had been an upperclassman, and any advance felt like he’d be taking advantage. Then he’d landed a position on the Kerberos mission right out of graduation, and he’d spent the long months in space psyching himself up for the chance to tell Keith everything only to find that Keith was dating someone when he returned. Then Keith was chosen for the first manned extrasolar flight, and the list went on and on. Whoever Shiro ended up dating would have a lot to measure up to, and that just didn’t seem fair. So maybe he was going to end up alone with only the company of a dozen cats to keep him warm, and maybe he was only going through the motions to keep his friends from worrying.

It was a good thing Shiro didn’t feel like being honest.

Keith wrinkled his nose. “That’s not what I meant. I meant, maybe we can go somewhere the music isn’t shit, and the tables aren’t sticky, and you can just tell Pidge you tried.”

“I don’t mind the tables and the music.” Shiro laughed, sticking one finger to old maple syrup stains to demonstrate. “It’s more about the company. You think there’s something weird that I just keep attracting the same kind of person?”

“The loser guy on business looking to pick up some young guy before going home to his wife? Nah, that’s their problem.” Keith was always quick to leap to his defense and Shiro smiled.

“Somedays, I’m just about ready for them to stick me in some shuttle and launch me back to Kerberos. Don’t tell Pidge.” Shiro paused. “Or any of them. I know they’re just trying to help.”

“They should stop pushing so much.” Keith huffed irritably, not caring how good everyone else’s intentions were. His mood brightened considerably when the waitress set two heavy plates of sympathy pancakes down in front of them. Keith stuffed his mouth full, realizing it was much harder to glower when he couldn’t swallow. Meanwhile, Shiro took his time to carefully drizzle maple syrup over each layer, making sure it soaked through.

“They’re just worried, it’s what friends do. I can’t even say they’re wrong, I know I work too much sometimes.” Shiro chewed thoughtfully on his comfort food while Keith sputtered.

“That’s because you’re trying to get back into the pilot program. They know how hard you’re working!” After Shiro had lost his arm and his medical qualification to pilot a Garrison mission, he’d thrown himself into training, trying to find ways to compensate with his prosthetic. His times were still off, but Keith had been training with him just like they’d used to back in the Garrison when Shiro had been the one mentoring a young, hotheaded pilot with too much skill and no patience.

“Which doesn’t have anything to do with my love life. It’s fine, it’s over for tonight. The only thing I need to do is relax, kick back, and buy the best Cockblocker I know some thank you breakfast.” Shiro was more than grateful. He knew he failed at the bar, but he’d still managed to spend the night with the best guy in the place. “Besides, I wouldn’t need the Cockblocker if I walked around sleeveless.”

It was supposed to be a joke, but the fire in Keith’s eyes was enough to make Shiro stare. It was too late. Keith was shoved up against him, jabbing him in the diaphragm with a surprisingly harsh finger. “I’ve seen that gun show, Shirogane. You’d have people throwing themselves at you, and any asshole who doesn’t is a piece'a crap, good-for-nothin-”

All too gleefully, Shiro slung an arm around his shoulders and shoved a soggy glob of pancake into Keith’s face. Keith squeaked through his annoyance, aggressively chewing around gooey goodness. Keith tried to glare, really he did, but he was also scooping bits of pancake into his mouth. It wasn’t as intimidating as he probably hoped, but Shiro wouldn’t stop smiling at him, inching closer until he could hide his smile against the side of Keith’s head, eyes crinkling as he laughed.

Keith sighed from the vicinity of Shiro’s collarbones, tucked under his chin like he was made to fit against him, and it was a daily struggle for Shiro to remind himself that Keith wasn’t. “Stop selling yourself short.” His best friend murmured. “You’re a great guy, Shiro. Anyone would be lucky to have you.”

Shiro swallowed thickly, wishing he could tighten his grip, just a little. Just enough that Keith knew how much he meant to him, but it tangled in his throat, and he didn’t know where to begin unravelling it.

“Isn’t this cozy.” The waitress returned with a large plate of fried bacon, putting it in the center of the table and completing their order. The perfect comfort food combination.

Shiro laughed and snuggled in deeper when Keith tried to sit up straight, not the least bit apologetic. “Hi, Dolores. No cozying here. Just owe Keith another one. He got me out of a bad date.”

Dolores looked him dead in the eye, her mouth pinched at the corners. “You don’t say. I’m shocked.”

Shiro ignored the sarcasm and the huff that went with it. He thanked Dolores and breathed with relief as she shook her head and moved on to serve another table. “You know.” He said, turning a wicked smile on Keith. “I’ll bet I can eat more pancakes than you can.”

There was no way Keith could ever resist a challenge. The battle was on and by the end of it, their stomachs hurt too much to care about who won.

Then when Shiro was too full of laughter to move, Keith bundled him into his car and drove him home. They spent half the night watching television before Shiro was forced to dig out some of Keith’s clothes. They spent so much time together, and sometimes driving home was just too much of a hassle so there was always something in the laundry that belonged to him, and Shiro kept a designated Keith blanket in his linen closet. Just in case.

But Shiro never noticed the way Keith watched as he walked away, or the tired sigh that came with it.

It was the perfect end to the day. The next one, however, wasn’t so great.

The next morning was Sunday brunch, a tradition the old gang held twice a month, usually at Doodlebugs unless someone was feeling creative. Even if sleeping off a pancake gut and a lazy morning sounded nice, Shiro always looked forward to the time his friends set aside to spend together. Now that Shiro wasn’t able to fly missions like he used to, it was getting harder and harder to have these moments when they were all constantly blasting off to the far parts of the solar system.

It had started when Shiro was a student at the Galaxy Garrison, back when it was just him, Allura and Matt, and they needed a way to keep their eyes open as 4 AM dawned. Allura called it Hell Hour, too late to go to sleep and too early to want to be awake, but good cadets didn’t get to slack off. Towards the end of their course, they picked up Keith, and then Lance and Hunk, classmates and students and colleagues at one point or another. After graduation, they switched one Holt for another as Matt went off to ‘find himself’ somewhere in Asia, but his younger sister, Pidge proudly claimed she was an upgrade anyway.

By the time Shiro sat down, Pidge had already had three cups of coffee, and Allura was watching her warily in case she vibrated off her seat. Lance and Hunk were debating the merits of brunch versus linner with a singular focus, though Shiro suspected it was only so Lance could hear Hunk talk so passionately about something he loved. Even Keith seemed to be in a good mood, which was unusual with so large a crowd around.

There was only one downside to a wonderful morning like this.

“So Shiro.” Pidge chirruped brightly. “How did it go last night?”

That immediately got everyone’s attention as Lance leaned over the table and all but leered. “ So Shiro , you have any luck at that place I was telling you about? It’s literally crawling with singles, I’m betting you had quite the night, right dude?”

Shiro winced, casually stuffing his face with a mouthful of omelette to buy himself some time. Keith didn’t even let him get that far.

“If by singles you mean sleazebags, then yeah, crawling with them.”

Lance booed loudly, and Pidge lobbed a rolled up tissue at Keith. It landed about a foot away from him, and Keith watched it with a pointed stare the entire time he chewed.

“It’s because you brought that dicknugget, isn’t it.” Lance huffed, gesturing rudely in Keith’s direction. “How’s a night supposed to go any way but terrible with him around?”

“I literally haven’t said anything, Lance.” Shiro said, taking his dear sweet time. He half-hoped that if they thought he wasn’t interested, they’d drop the subject. It hadn’t worked yet. “You don’t know anything was terrible because of Keith.”

“It was terrible because you have shitty taste in clubs.”

Before the table could devolve into indignant squawking, Pidge held up her hands impatiently, with the sort of ease that made Shiro wonder how she was doing in the Garrison’s R&D department. “Wasn’t the whole point of this thing to find someone? Not chase everyone away.”

Shiro made a noncommittal noise and shrugged. “It wasn’t a good crowd anyways.” The rest of the table just groaned as Shiro stood up and retreated with an excuse about using the bathroom. As soon as he was out of earshot, every eye was locked on Keith.

“What did you do?”

“You seriously should just tell him.”

“I swear, I’m going to duct tape the two of you together if you don’t get your act together.”

Keith glowered at them all, sparing one quick glance towards where Shiro disappeared. “I keep telling you, he’s not interested, so stop pushing. I was just there to help. And it was lucky I was. The only people there were gross. It’s all your fault for suggesting it.” He turned his ire on Lance, an easy target as Allura rubbed her hand against her forehead.

“Fine.” She said. “You know we don’t mean to push, we’re just worried about him lately is all.”

“Yeah, he needs to get laid.” Pidge said, earning a pinch from Hunk. “Well he does . Prove me wrong.”

They bickered amongst themselves, familiar and without any anger. Every get together was like this, boisterously loud and argumentative. No one respected anyone’s privacy, determined to meddle and give advice even when it wasn’t wanted. Especially when it wasn’t wanted. But it all came from a place of love and respect that somehow never managed to go too far, Keith thought this must be how a family would act. They were annoying, but they were his, and he’d learned to accept their good-natured prodding.

“Hey, Keith?” Hunk tapped him gently on the arm to get his attention. “I think you might need to use those special powers of yours.”

The whole table turned as one to look. Subtlety was not their strong point. Shiro had been caught coming out of the bathroom into a conversation with a pretty young girl who already had her hand on his arm. Keith could see from the table how uncomfortable that made Shiro.

“You know, instead of cockblocking him, you could just cock him.” Lance said, almost too seriously, and was met by a chorus of shushes that he valiantly fended off. Keith wasn’t paying attention, his focus already realigned to fit Shiro in his sights.

The table watched as he got up, all but leering at the stranger before slinging an arm around Shiro. Like putty in Keith’s hand, Shiro melted, leaning into him too readily and proudly baring his cheek for a kiss.

“Not interested. Right.” Pidge grumbled, and threw her orange juice back like she was taking a shot. “February 30 guys. February fucking thirty.”

“Oh enough with that silly bet.” Allura snorted, even if she knew she had next summer down for her money. “How’s that nice RA from Engineering doing, Pidge? The one with the robot you like so much.”

Pidge flushed all the way to the tips of her ears. Just like that, the herd moved on.

Shiro thought he was in the clear by the time he got back. Keith pulled out his chair for him, and Shiro had to remind himself that it was all an act, like the way their knees bumped under the table, or how Keith couldn’t seem to move without his elbow knocking against him. It was all an act, but it was Shiro’s favorite one. “What are we talking about?”

“The Cockblocker strikes again.” Lance piped up dryly.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Shiro said, preemptively defending Keith, even if his best friend sat up a little straighter, unapologetically pleased with himself. “She just needed to be let down easy.”

“You’re too nice for this game, buddy.” Lance said darkly, or as darkly as one could around a mouthful of waffles, with ketchup on his chin. He slung an arm around Hunk, before casually adding, “You and Hunk. Way too nice for this. Good thing I’m here. I’ve got a plan. What’d you guys do without me?”

“We could find out.” Pidge grumbled, loud enough for everyone to hear. Lance generously ignored her.

“Check this. Online dating.”

“That’s your big idea?” Keith deadpanned.

Allura clasped her hands in delight. “Oh, I think this could be a great idea! I know that you’re uncomfortable in all those bars, Shiro, but this could work out really well. You’ll be home and comfortable, you’ll only have to meet the people you think are interesting, there won’t be any real pressure!”

“And there’s only like, a teeny tiny chance someone is going to turn out to be a serial killer and murder you.” Hunk offered helpfully as everyone turned to shush him. “What?”

“I’m serious.” Allura ignored Hunk and smiled at Shiro, always the persuasive diplomat. She took his hand, her fingers squeezing around his prosthetic. “You know we only want you to be happy. Maybe this could be a way to meet someone without feeling so uncomfortable. Besides, everyone tries it. Keith has, Pidge has, and how do you think I met my girlfriend?”

“Keith does?” Shiro asked, genuinely surprised.

Keith’s expression soured, but Shiro had already looked away, brows furrowed like he was considering his breakfast in a new light. This was trouble. Shiro took the time to actually consider the idea. It had always seemed like such a real step. At least in a bar he could pretend that he hadn’t found anyone suitable. Online, there wouldn’t be that same excuse. This felt too much like moving on and he wasn’t sure he was ready.

“I’ll think about it a bit, we’ll see.”

“If you don’t, I can make a profile for ya.” Lance offered helpfully. “Pidge and I can make you sound irresistible, people will be knocking down your door!”

“How about instead of that, we talk about that hard landing you had on the base the other day, you almost clipped the wing right off your ship!” It hadn’t been that bad, but Lance squawked at the gentle teasing just like Shiro knew he would. The group let the topic drop.  

They always called it brunch, but they ended up staying until the lunch rush came and went. If it wasn’t for all the good will they’d earned over the years, Doodlebugs probably would’ve kicked them out by now, but they’d unlocked regular privileges. It might’ve taken them a couple of years, but it was well worth it. Shiro always left their meetings a strange sort of exhausted. He doubted he was the only one, yet there was something comforting in knowing that after they all went their separate ways, Keith still stayed with him, even if it was just because they were riding together.

Conversation tapered off after the radio station was chosen, and mostly that was just Keith asking if Shiro was okay with what they already had. After that much food and such enthusiastic company, the silence was normally a welcome balm. This time, Shiro broke tradition.

“So…” He started, his eyes pointedly on the road, even when he saw Keith shift in his periphery. “Online dating.”

Keith hunched in on himself, his lips pursed, but when he spoke, his tone was even. “What about it?”

“I just didn’t know. Are you-, did you have any luck?” Shiro asked because he was a friend and friends asked things like this. They didn’t hope the answer was no or feel a strange punch to the gut at the thought of Keith falling for some stranger when Shiro hadn’t yet managed enough courage to say the words. He was supportive, the way he felt had no bearing on Keith’s heart and Shiro knew he had no right to it. He wasn’t going to be possessive or jealous, even if it hurt. This was his own pain and his own problem, Keith never had to know.

“Not really. I was just checking it out, I didn’t spend much time on it. I’m too focused on training up for space travel anyways.” Keith didn’t seem worried about it and Shiro felt the small guilty knot in his stomach ease slightly. Even if Keith should have been talking about Alpha Centauri.

“When you’re ready, you’re going to find someone amazing. You deserve it, Keith.”

Color flooded into Keith’s cheeks as he huffed his disagreement, but it was clear he was pleased. People didn’t ever offer Keith praise, Shiro had recognized that years ago when they first met. He’d been too much of a loner. No one had gotten close enough to say they were proud. Shiro had promised himself he’d change that. After all these years, the strategy remained.

“I’m going to head back to my apartment for a nap after all that food and try to get a handle on the new exercises from the physical therapist.” Shiro held up his prosthetic and flexed. “ Hand led, get it?”

Keith only rolled his eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow at work then, right?”

“Right.”

They stopped in front of Keith’s apartment. In another world, in another life, Shiro could’ve leaned across the clutch between them and reached out to kiss Keith goodbye. In this one, he watched him go with a wistful smile because even if it wasn’t exactly how he wanted, he still had him in his life. That was enough.

It had to be enough.

Later that night, between far too many reports and schematics, Shiro opened his email to see Allura had sent him a website recommendation. He ignored it, convinced himself there were better things to focus on, like television, or a news update, or contemplating the color of his apartment’s walls. He might even be able to ignore it forever, but two hours later, Shiro found himself staring down the sleek blue-grey lines of close2u.com . He told himself that it was better he do it than let his over-enthusiastic friends try their hand at creating a profile for him, but a sort of morbid curiosity had gripped him and refused to let him go.

It’s not too late, he thought. Still time to turn around.

But he’d already found the register button. There was no turning back now.

There was no harm in trying. It was time to really move on.

Chapter Text

Shiro sat in front of his computer, mug of coffee in his hands as he scrolled through the list of messages. Forty-three in the last 8 hours alone, that was… overwhelming. He’d never really thought anyone would answer when he made his profile, though he had to admit, the picture helped. Lance had insisted that Shiro use one with his abs and had even sent him a picture to use. Shiro hadn’t asked where it came from. It was carefully cropped to show off his assets without showing his face or his arm or too many of the scars that would identify him. All of that could come later, if he was lucky. It was just such a difficult thing to start with.

“Hey baby.” The first message started. Shiro winced. It didn’t get much better from there. Did people really think they were going to score like that?

He clicked open the next one and promptly backed out immediately. Close up pictures of some stranger’s dick wasn’t the thing he needed to see in the morning. He wondered if that strategy had ever worked for anyone ever. Weren’t there any normal people out there who could start a conversation with a hello?

It was tempting to just give up. He needed to get ready for training. It was promising to be a long day and he didn’t have time to waste. This was a stupid idea anyways, the only reason he’d even been willing to try was because of Keith. He told himself it was a problem for another day, he didn’t really need to change anything yet.

Except, it was time to move on. If he put it off again, Shiro worried he might not ever get around to it.

With a sigh, he started clicking through the list, one after the other. A few seemed like actual people, most started off by asking for private pictures of his body. Some bolder ones sent example pics of themselves, or maybe they were stolen pictures from somewhere else and he was dealing with someone’s horny 90 year old grandmother.

That was a sobering thought.

He should have gone with the dog pic. Not that Shiro owned a dog, but he certainly had enough pictures of them.

Just when Shiro was ready to throw in the towel, something caught his interest.

“Hello.” It was sad that Shiro was already impressed. “Saw that you were an amateur astronomer.  That’s really cool.  Have you seen the new Jupiter exhibit at the Natural Center? And don’t worry about all the dick pics, you can block them by checking under the top right arrow icon. And it’s no surprise you’re into astronomy.  You look like an expert in heavenly bodies.”

Then, sent two minutes later. “Sorry that was dumb.”

From Akira.

Shiro snorted despite himself, a hesitant smile on his face. He had no picture, only the default icon all registers got, but Akira was already miles ahead of the rest of the competition, in that Shiro was sure he was an actual human being. Someone who was (according to his profile) into hovercraft racing and renovation, and when asked what he would do if he could go on sabbatical, said he wouldn’t. Shiro typed back a reply, self-conscious and excited all at once, grinning to himself as he tried to work ‘out of this world’ into a sentence. Then he clicked on his next suitor’s message, and came face to face with a close up of someone’s pubes. Shiro closed the website with a tired sigh.

That had been… painful, but altogether not as disastrous or as dispiriting as he’d expected. If he didn’t have to run to a physical therapy appointment, he’d probably still be on Akira’s page.

Okay, maybe this wouldn’t be quite as bad as he hoped. There was still a chance that there was someone normal to meet. Even with all the pictures, it was nice not to be pawed over or have someone spill their drink on him as they tried to shout over too-loud music to flirt. Oh god, he was getting old, wasn’t he?

Shiro put it out of his mind as he headed out for the day. His lack of a love life could wait, right now he needed all of his attention to get through physical therapy and log some flight hours.

The accident had cost him more than just his arm. He’d been one of the top pilots in the Garrison just a few years ago, tapped to lead missions out beyond the known solar system. It had been his dream ever since he was a child and he never stopped working hard to reach it, finally finding his place among the stars. Then while returning from Earth’s atmosphere, on a routine trip to their local satellites, their landing equipment met a snag. There was nothing he could have done to stop it, and only his quick thinking had saved both him and the rest of his crew, but it had come at a price. It had taken his arm and with it, his dream.

The Garrison hadn’t turned their back on him, even as he struggled to relearn how to move his body with the new prosthetics. They provided support for the PTSD that haunted him after the accident, they sent the best doctors and therapists to help, they even kept his job at the Garrison. He couldn’t be a pilot anymore because of his slowed reflexes, but he could teach and lead and inspire. It was good, but sometimes Shiro couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t enough.

With a final glance at his screen, he logged out and grabbed his gym bag. Keith would already be waiting for him at the gym, and out of habit, Shiro double-checked that he’d brought extra pre-workout, in case Keith forgot his again.

It was only a quick jog across campus, but he didn’t expect to see Keith so soon. He was coming out of Bai Heng Hall, hurriedly talking to one of the administrators from the Research and Development Department. Talking was putting it mildly. Shiro was pretty sure he could see storm clouds crackling overhead.

“I told Williamson already. I’m not interested. He’s wasting his goddamn time. If I have to staple it to your head, I will-”

Shiro hurried up to them, immediately concerned. It didn’t take much for Keith to lose his temper, but it took a lot for him to act on that anger.

“I said no.”

Shiro didn’t make it in time before Keith turned on his heel and stalked away. As soon as he caught sight of Shiro, the scowl on his face disappeared and he changed course, making his way over. “Hey! You ready to work out already?”

“What was that about?” Shiro gestured towards the retreating back of the administrator.

“Nothing.”

“Keith…” All it took was his name and the other man sighed.

“Fine. It’s nothing important, they were just talking about the Alpha Centauri mission.” Keith squirmed, clearly uncomfortable bringing it up. “I told them that you were still the best choice for pilot. If anyone should be leading the first mission to another solar system, it’s you.”

He was always so protective, Shiro appreciated that, but sometimes that fierce belief in him was hard. Especially when he failed. He had been working so hard to find ways to compensate from his injury, but he still hadn’t managed to match the required response time. If he couldn’t find a way to overcome this, he’d be grounded for life.

And Keith ground those scores into cosmic dust. He was one of only a handful of pilots with any extra-solar experience under his belt. Even if Shiro had been at his best, he’d have thought Keith was the better candidate. It hurt in ways he didn’t expect it to, inciting bitterness that Keith didn’t deserve and anger Shiro hated to dwell on, but Keith looked drawn and unhappy. Shiro wouldn’t let him linger on that today.

He squeezed his shoulder, offering him the most sincere smile he could manage, and Keith’s expression hardened with determination. “Come on, we’re going to be late for your session. You’re improving a lot, anyone can see that.”

“It helps that I have the best training partner around.” Shiro said, and he meant it, he honest-to-god did. He still couldn’t shake the idea that if he was really a good friend, he would have told Keith to apply for the job. “Come on.”

Halfway to the gym, Shiro asked, “Did you forget your pre-workout again?”

When Keith groaned, he had no right to feel as satisfied as he did.

 


 

Some sessions felt better than others, but they were all a lot of hard work. There were warm-ups before they did rounds in the simulator, and after that, Shiro and Keith liked to try and beat the daylights out of each other on the wrestling mats. When Shiro started, his main focus had been expanding his range of motions, but over time, it had shifted towards endurance. If he wanted to pilot a mission that was over two years long, he still had a lot of work to do.

Shiro wasn’t thinking about that. Now, splayed out on a locker room bench, his shirt plastered to his chest, Shiro was thinking about maybe passing out forever.

“Ugh.”

A wet towel dropped on top of his face, and Keith snickered unhelpfully, clearly responsible.

Ugh. Don’t make me snap this at you.” Shiro warned, but Keith just waved off his threat, unworried. Shiro decided he was going to have to do something to salvage his reputation.

“I think that was our best run so far. I know you’re going to pass the physical, they’re not going to have any reason to turn you down for the Alpha Centauri mission.”

“We’ll see what happens.” Shiro ran his hand across his metal wrist. It wasn’t just the reflexes, though Shiro wondered if he was getting to his limits. He wasn’t quite as fast as he used to be back when he and Keith were breaking all the records in the Garrison. They worried about his mental health and even with therapy and medication, they weren’t sure how he would deal with being in a situation that might trigger his PTSD. Not when other people's lives depended on him. If he could get the Garrison psychologist to sign off on him, then there might be a chance.

“Shiro?” Keith was hovering closer until Shiro gave him a bright grin.

“Everything’s fine. Hey, so I actually gave it a try last night?” He deftly turned the conversation before Keith could launch into a tirade against the Garrison’s leadership.

“Gave what a try?”

“Allura’s advice on online dating. I guess I wasn’t really prepared for quite that number of nude pictures in my inbox this morning, but it seems like it’s going well. I met a few normal people, at least. Who knows?” He said it casually, testing out the waters. It still caused his stomach to knot to admit out loud he was moving on, especially in front of Keith, but it was just one more step he needed to take.

“What do you mean well?”

Shiro sat up, brows furrowed, a smile half-formed. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say that Keith was scowling. Keith always did get a little intense when he was concentrating. Shiro shrugged, busying himself with folding away his used towel. At least that way, he wouldn’t start fidgeting. “Good? I mean. There was this one guy. Everyone else was pretty terrible, but he was kinda funny.”

“And you’re going to meet this guy?”

“Maybe? I haven’t thought that far. That’s how this sort of thing works. Hey are you okay?”

Keith slammed his locker shut, swore and wrenched it open again, only to grab his gym bag.

“Keith. Are you okay?”

“Fine. I’m fine.” Keith ground out between his teeth. He took a breath, trying to calm himself, before reeling himself in. “Sounds good, I hope it works out.”

“They said you tried it too. Have you ever met anyone online?” Shiro didn’t really want to know and he kicked himself for asking the question. It was easier to pretend if he didn’t have to come face to face with the truth.

“I, uh. Not yet.” Keith shrugged one shoulder like it didn’t mean anything. “But I’ve met a couple of people. Interesting people.” He said, selling it with everything he had. “In fact, there was one person I’ve been talking to for a few weeks, I might meet them eventually. It all depends on how it goes.” He hesitated before plunging ahead. “It worked out pretty well for me, you should at least try.”

“You like this guy?” Shiro asked too softly. It was a stupid question, but Shiro couldn’t help it. Keith seemed only too happy to answer.

“Yes. Yes I do. He’s very nice, and tall. He’s nice and tall.”

“Oh.”

Shiro hated him already. That wasn’t fair, but it hadn’t been fair when he’d hated Marcus or Cora or Alex or any of the people Keith dated either. He’d never let them know, and no one ever suspected it, but that didn’t make the feelings any less real.

“I have to-” Without another word, Keith grabbed his bag and high-tailed it to the showers, leaving Shiro a little stunned in his tracks. Shiro watched him go, something heavy sitting in the center of his chest.

“I don’t suppose you like me more?” He whispered, but there was no one around to answer.

 


 

Shiro stretched out on his bed and willed himself to fall asleep. There was too much on his mind, the upcoming fitness test for the Alpha Centauri mission, the way he wasn’t back to his old skills even after so much work, and… Keith. This crush was getting out of hand, it should have ended years ago. It was his own damn fault that he let it go on for so long. Keith wasn’t interested, when was he going to stop holding out hope for the impossible? It was getting creepy, he needed to stop obsessing.

Maybe his friends were right. Allura and Hunk had always been more subtle than Lance and Pidge, but they all wanted him to be happy and not caught in this tailspin anymore. Keith was meeting people and having relationships he hadn’t even told Shiro about yet. It was a wake up call.

Shiro had to move forward, no more pining away. He was too old to for this.

He gave up on sleep and reached for his laptop, tapping out a few commands to log in.

He was debating whether or not truly terrible pick up lines ever actually went out of style, when he saw the little notification bubble at the top of his screen and jolted. There was only one person he wanted to talk to, and when he saw Akira’s username in bold, something warm skittered across his belly, leaving Shiro a little more excited than he expected to be.

Shiro scanned the messages he’d sent earlier. “Thanks lol! Haven’t checked out the new stuff yet, but I want to. If you go, don’t try the space ice cream, it’s a real let down :( But I gotta ask, do you live on Mars? Because you’re out of this world :D”

Akira’s new message answered, “I take back my apology you don’t deserve it.  Hahahaha”

The notification pinged again, this time with a chat alert. It looked like Akira was online too and the cursor blinked on the screen as Shiro wondered what he could say. It was awkward enough over messages but this was, there was actually someone on the other end who wanted to talk to him.

“Hello.” He typed out carefully, trying not to sound as lame as he felt. “You’re awake late.”

“You too.” The message came back swiftly. “Is this okay? I don’t want to be weird, I just saw you were online and wanted to say hi.”

Shiro found himself smiling. The best part of being awkward was knowing you weren’t the only one. “No, it’s fine. You stargazing tonight? I live in the city, there’s too much light to really get a good look unless I drive an hour or so into the country.”

“Not tonight.” Akira said. “When I was younger, I’d go stargazing. I grew up on a farm. Fell asleep on the roof once or twice, scared the crap out of my parents. They used to tell me aliens switched me out to make me stop.”

Shiro snorted out loud, and rubbed the side of his face, feeling a little dumb for it. He couldn’t say he minded when Akira’s next message came through.

“Was that too much?”

“I don’t care I laughed. :D” Shiro sent back. “Sorry if I’m a little stiff.”

Shiro froze, and rushed to edit his post, but Akira had already replied.

“…”

“Not like that!” Shiro hurried to explain. “Sorry I’m just trying to figure this out. My friends kind of pushed me into this, and I’m in over my head.” Another rush of embarrassment and panic coursed through him, and Shiro was painfully reminded of that speed dating Lance had dragged him to a year ago. Wooing someone on a time limit didn’t work out well for Shiro.  

“I know the feeling. They’re trying to run your dating life?”

“A little.” Shiro hesitated, wondering if he should just be upfront or if it was too early for honesty. They weren’t even using their real names and a profile picture of his abs didn’t exactly scream that he was looking for anything serious. He decided to tell the truth. If it scared Akira off, then all the better. He wasn’t sure about trying to date anyways. “My friends have decided my unrequited crush on my best friend was getting really pathetic. This was the compromise.”

“I know that feeling too.” The reply was so swift that Shiro smiled. “I’ve been chasing the same guy since forever and he hasn’t even noticed me.”

“I just want to be honest about this. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. I thought I’d try and then see how it goes. I don’t want to start out with a lie.”

Akira’s reply was a little slower to pop up this time. “You really like them, huh?”

“Yeah, but it’s never going to happen.”

“Then no worries. I’m not asking for anything more than a chat, I don’t really know how to talk to people in real life. I guess that’s why I’m here. It’s easier to talk to people online than it is face to face. There’s no strings attached to any of this.” Akira’s message came back and Shiro smiled. Awkward, well that was a feeling he was well acquainted with, but it was easier, too. There was a little more freedom to just be open and honest when it was easier to control the situation. If he changed his mind about being interested, all he had to do was log off.

“Same. For me, it’s just been a while.”

Akira sent back a laughing face. “Up until now, I hadn’t really met anyone I could actually talk to. I was ready to give up.”

“I changed your mind?” Shiro teased.

“Maybe I’m just a sucker for terrible puns?”

“Oh wait I’ve got more!”

“Oh god.”

“Someday we should go to space together because I don’t need gravity to fall for you.”

“We’re not doing this.”

“Are your pants meteors? Because they look better when they’re falling.”

“No.”

“Comet me, bro.”

“I’m blocking you right now.”

But Akira never did. They spent the whole night talking, and Shiro had laughed himself stupid before he realized in was past two in the morning. He just needed a few more minutes to find that song he was telling Akira about, but Shiro hadn’t expected this to go so well. The chat box dinged with a new message.

“         ghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”

“Hey?” Shiro asked, brow furrowed. It took Akira a little while longer to reply.

“Sorry fell asleep there.”

“You should go to sleep.” Shiro stifled a yawn himself. Somewhere along their conversation, he’d relaxed without even realizing it. It was nice to just laugh without any expectations. There weren’t any demands, no unwanted advances. There weren’t any pedestals from those who recognized him from his flights with the Garrison and no not-so-subtle looks of pity when people noticed his prosthetic. There was just conversation, easy and nice, no strings attached.

“I guess.” There was a pause so long that Shiro thought that Akira had fallen asleep again, but the little dots appeared back in the chat box as the other man started typing. “Could we talk again? It’s been nice..”

“I’d like that. See you tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow!”

And as Shiro shut down his laptop, he couldn’t help but hope tomorrow came sooner.

 


 

It had been a long day, the sort of day that never wanted to end and hated itself because of it. Two of Keith’s meetings had run over time. He’d missed lunch entirely, and Keith didn’t think he was exaggerating when he considered stabbing his own eye out to escape. When he first started his career, no one told him how bogged down by bureaucracy and red tape space travel was. By the time he got home, he was cranky and annoyed at everything that twitched, and he couldn’t wait to throw himself into bed and hopefully never wake up. He had a few hours before he promised to help Hunk out, and he needed a shower or death. He never got that far.

Someone was already in his apartment, and he was the best thing Keith had seen all day.

“Shiro!” Keith laughed, sour mood immediately forgotten. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for food.” Trapped between an empty fridge and the possibility that Keith didn’t have an empty fridge, Shiro had taken the path that would hopefully lead him to an afternoon snack faster. They were supposed to meet up anyway. It happened so often, he didn’t think twice about it. He gestured unnecessarily at the table. “I made sandwiches.”

“You didn’t touch anything else, did you?” Keith asked darkly, and left Shiro snorting. “Don’t look at me, you’re still banned from walking inside Hunk’s kitchen.”

Shiro made disappointed noises that Keith would have had more sympathy for if it had been anyone but Shiro. At least he couldn’t mess up a peanut butter sandwich. Keith still checked that it was just peanut butter before taking a bite out of one.

“Hunk made a list of things we need to pick up for the party, he’ll meet us at the grocery. He also told me that you weren’t allowed to cook anything, even if you wanted to. Don’t blame the messenger, I’m just passing along the information.” Keith said matter-of-factly as Shiro burst out laughing.

“Just for that, I’m going to bake a cake and do some kind of casserole. I don’t know what kind yet, but it’ll be extra creepy.” He threatened. Keith mimed gagging and Shiro gave him a playful punch.

“It’s not my fault that you can’t follow the instructions. I have no idea how you managed to learn all the rules and regulations of being a pilot, but you can’t follow a simple recipe.”

Shiro slapped his hand over his heart. “That’s different, I just like to experiment a bit.”

“Uh huh. Next time, try not to experiment with my mac and cheese.”

“It wasn’t that bad!”

“I had to throw away that pot, Takashi. You don’t get to talk.” Keith scowled. It lost its effect as Keith yawned around his sandwich, and when he looked up, Shiro was watching him with such gentle eyes that Keith forgot to breathe.

“Get some rest, we’ve got time.” Shiro offered, voice softer than it had been. “I was expecting you around an hour ago, something happen?”

“Just… Johannsen being an ass.” Keith was ready to dismiss his concern, but it was difficult because he took it for granted so often. Shiro always remembered the little things about his life. It still caught Keith off guard sometimes, made his heart flip when he least expected it. “I’ll be on the couch, so I don’t… You know.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, see if I can get him to focus on a project away from you for a while.”

The last thing Keith saw was Shiro check on his phone. Then he fell asleep, tucked against his best friend.

When they reached the grocery, Shiro parked directly across Hunk’s familiar Jeep. Keith put himself in charge of the trolley, leaving Shiro to play runner. There was a familiarity to it, born of years of experience as they brought up Shiro’s pantry and the chance that it didn’t have to be so empty.

Hunk was already waiting for them at the bakery, considering their selection with a critical eye. “Hey guys, so… we could buy one of these, or I could build Pidge a rocket.” Then Hunk snorted. “That’s a trick question, we’re eating the Enterprise.”

“If anyone could make a spaceship out of food, it’s you.” Shiro clasped Hunk on the shoulder as Keith sighed heavily, not really seeing the point. If it was edible and it did the job, it’s shape didn’t matter.

“Okay, everyone have their lists? We’ve got a lot to do to make Pidge’s birthday special.” Hunk could be dangerous in a leadership role. Absolute power and corruption and the like, but he was in his element, and there was no one else they’d rather follow. He approached cooking with the skill and dedication of an artist or a scientist. Shiro always enjoyed seeing him like this, passionate about what he loved to do without doubt or hesitation.

The three of them headed off to find their required items and Shiro slipped his phone from his pocket, loading up the dating site app and checking his messages. The last two weeks had been fun, it was strange to actually admit it. He looked forward to the little puns and messages Akira sent throughout the day, and he’d spent too many nights up late discussing space flight theory or talking about nothing more important than tv shows.

It was nice. It was easy. It was exactly what he needed right now.

“What are you looking at?” Keith asked, and there was something in his tone that Shiro couldn’t quite place but didn’t want to linger on.

“Oh hey, you’re almost out of cereal right? Try these.” Shiro answered instead, grabbing a box of flakes that he’d been meaning to tell Keith about. “Eat something that doesn’t taste like cardboard for once.”

“What’s wrong with my cereal?” Keith asked, and Hunk let out a pained sound across from them. There was an age-old argument there that Shiro knew better than to get in the way of. The look in Hunk’s eye and thinness of Keith’s lip told him it might have been best to duck for cover so he scooched a little to the left, pretending to be considering oatmeals so he could look at his phone again. He should have scooched farther.

“Seriously what are you looking at?” Keith repeated. “You stared at that thing the entire drive over.”

“Sorry.” He gave Keith a guilty half-smile as Hunk dumped an armload of groceries into their cart. “Remember that guy I was talking about from that online dating site? We’ve been talking for a few weeks now. I was just checking for messages.” Shiro looked embarrassed but pleased, feeling that small spark of excitement in his chest instead of just that quiet loneliness he’d accepted years ago. For the first time in so long, the potential of a new relationship felt right, not just a burden put on for show.

“You actually tried that online dating thing?” Hunk leaned over as Shiro slipped the phone away. “You meet him yet? Her? Dude, it could be like, a dog on the internet or something that someone trained to type and steal your credit card numbers or something.” He wiggled his fingers ominously as Shiro and Keith stared at him. Hunk huffed and shrugged. “Or not?”

“He’s a guy, and things are going well. Really surprisingly well. I actually think I like him.” It was the first time Shiro had said that out loud and he rolled the words around his mouth to test them out. It felt good.

“You meet him yet?” Keith looked bored, turning his attention back to the shopping list and trying to stay focused on their mission.

“No, but soon, maybe. I’d like to.”

“If you want one of us to come with you to make sure he’s not an axe murderer…” Hunk said seriously, and Shiro laughed, both surprised and pleased by the affront he felt on Akira’s behalf.

“Hey.” He said. “He’s not a bad guy, but I promise I won’t go down any dark alleys with him or give out my social security number.”

“That’s all I ask for, dude.” Hunk said, and Shiro clapped him on the shoulder. A kernel of pride sat in the center of his chest, warming him in a way Shiro hadn’t expected. It was softer than the first time he’d managed to hold a training ball with his prosthetic, but it still echoed the sentiment. He was moving on, and it felt good. He just hoped Keith liked Akira, too.

“We didn’t come here to stand around.” Keith snapped, and Shiro shook himself, sheepishly going for his list.

“Hey, do you have eggs? I think you needed eggs.” Maybe Shiro should have been concerned about how easy it was to remember the contents of Keith’s fridge, but Keith was waving him off. “I’m grabbing the butter, too.”

“Yeah and orange juice. The-”

“I know, I know, the pulpy kind.” Shiro said, but he was already walking away, wondering if he should get pudding, too. It was terrible for you, but Keith liked food that he didn’t have to microwave in the middle of the night.

His friends watched him go, Keith while pretending he wasn’t, and Hunk without a shred of subtlety. He barely waited until Shiro was out of earshot, before rounding on Keith so quickly, Keith nearly toppled over. “Talk to him. This is painful.”

“He’s fine.”

“Keith.” There was worry in Hunk’s eyes and Keith hated seeing it. It was too honest and too vulnerable, he felt exposed. This was private, no one else should see him like this or know exactly how much it hurt. “Tell him the truth, he’d want to know. He likes you, even if you don’t believe it. If you really care for him, this might be your last chance to tell him. Don’t waste it.”

Keith bristled at the advice. No one had asked Hunk or any of them to try and meddle in his love life, and it was bad enough that Shiro put up with it when they did it to him. This wasn’t their business, none of it was. “He’s interested in computer guy, I think that sends a pretty clear signal.” He snapped. Interested and happy, that much was fucking transparent. Shiro was his best friend, most days that alone was enough to surprise Keith. There wasn’t anything else there, no matter how much he wished there was.

He snatched the shopping list from Hunk’s hand and turned back to the shelves, purposely ignoring them both. He’d already made his peace with this, everyone else needed to get off his back. Keith knew, this was as close to happiness as he was going to get.

Chapter Text

“You heading out soon?”

Shiro smiled as the message popped onto his screen, flopping back on his bed to answer. This had been their ritual for a while now, late nights spent chatting. Sometimes they’d watch the same program on television, sending each other snarky sarcastic commentary. Sometimes they’d argue about nothing, each passionate about their opinions and typing out furious arguments about the right way to hang toilet paper. Most of the time, they just talked.

It was too easy, that had been the part that surprised Shiro the most. It was nice to laugh with someone who shared the same lame humor that he did. He found himself opening up to a faceless person online, sharing too much about himself. His whole life, there’d been so many expectations. He had to be the top of his class, make his parents proud, be a leader, a mentor, the one who could never fail. Now, he just got to be himself, no strings or platforms. There wasn’t a risk with his honesty, and it felt like a weight had been lifted.

He was only honest with strangers. Shiro decided not to dwell too deeply on that.

“Yeah, but I’ve got some time.” He typed back to Akira. “Sorry I can’t make our chat date tonight.” It was the third time he apologized.

“Yeah me too. It’s the highlight of my day. Who else is going to tell me exactly why Blu-Ray remakes are a scam?”

“I just have a lot of opinions OK?” Shiro snorted, but he was smiling as he typed. This was getting out of hand. For a moment, he seriously considered staying home on a Saturday night to talk about old movies with someone who’d already watched them all. Except Pidge would never forgive him for missing her birthday. His hands hovered over his keyboard, a treacherous sentence dancing around in his head, and it would have been so easy to ask. Do you want to come with me?

Shiro didn’t though. Not yet. Not like this. The first time he met Akira, he wanted it to just be them. It incited a possessive streak Shiro hadn’t expected and didn’t often experience. They had a good thing going. Shiro wanted to keep it as his alone for just a little while longer.

“But I mean it.” Akira posted. Shiro watched him type and go silent. And type again before he finally posted. “I like talking to you. I look forward to it.”

“Me too.” This time Shiro was the one who hesitated. “Maybe we could meet sometime? Go for lunch or coffee, it would be nice to put a name to a face.” He held his breath while Akira typed, letting it go in one big whoosh as he read the reply.

“I’d like that.”

Shiro felt like cheering.

“That would be awesome! I could, I dunno. Do you want to send pictures ahead of time?” Nerves crept back into Shiro’s belly. He hadn’t told Akira about his prosthetic, it wasn’t something that just came up in normal conversation. It shouldn’t matter as much, hell it shouldn’t matter at all, but that didn’t stop Shiro from worrying. The man on the other side of the screen had become someone important and if he was rejected because of something stupid and shallow after letting himself even consider the possibility of a relationship, Shiro knew it would hurt.

“Are you threatening to send me nudes? Because I warn you, I’d send some right back!”

Part of him wanted to know though, to just rip off the bandage and see how Akira would react. It would be so easy. Shiro hadn’t been very fond of taking pictures after the accident, but it wasn’t like he forgot to work his phone.

He must’ve taken too long to reply. Akira posted again. “I didn’t mean to make it weird.”

Shiro exhaled loudly, scrubbing a hand over his face, only to hesitate. After all this time, the mix of metal and plastic and synthetic skin felt normal to him, but there was no disguising what it was, not for long at least. And as much as it pained him to admit it, Shiro shouldn’t want to hide anyway.

“You didn’t. Sorry guess I’m a little nervous about it.” Shiro typed eventually. “But those are my abs. If we go out you can count em?”

“LOL”

“If you’re nice to me, I might even let you touch?” Shiro teased with a little thrill. They’d never gone quite so far, always moving slow to keep from spoiling anything. But this brought up a whole new dynamic and Shiro found that the possibility excited him. It had been so long.

“Now that sounds tempting. I might have to do a thorough check to make sure they’re all real.” Akira seemed just as receptive and Shiro snapped a few pictures. Just to set the other man straight, of course. They sent with a whoosh.

“Now you’re just being mean. You sure you have to go out tonight LionO?” Akira typed a page full of frowny faces as Shiro laughed.

“Yeah, but I’ll be back. If you’re around tomorrow, maybe we can catch up on some shows and I can tell you how wrong you are about pineapples on pizza. Oh, and maybe I’ll even throw some abs in there for you.”

“I can’t wait. Maybe those abs will actually be yours.”

“HEY!”

Shiro left ten minutes later than he was supposed to, and almost forgot to put on his shoes before he left. If he was honest, he left a little bit of himself behind, too.

 


 

Ten minutes was almost ten minutes too late, because Allura grabbed him by the arm, hushing him fiercely and dragging him behind the curtains. He’d taken the back entrance up to Pidge’s apartment, and he’d barely got his bearings around him before she shoved a party popper in his hands and a pair of glow in the dark glasses.

“What?”

“Lance’s idea.”

“I’m not surprised.”

But they were giggling with each other, and someone was passing around a jug of spiked ice tea. The lights were dimmed and everything was set. Then when the doors open, they jumped out screaming, “SURPRISE!”

Only to find Keith frozen in place, hissing angrily, “Everyone get back Pidge is right behind me!”

They scrambled back into position, Shiro squeezing behind the couch with one of Pidge’s co-workers as they quickly flicked the lights off. There was barely time to hide before Pidge walked in and they tried it again, throwing the lights on and jumping out with a bellowing “SURPRISE!”

She could only laughed, especially when Lance over calculated and tumbled over the edge of a chair onto the floor. Pidge reached her hand out and helped her friend to her feet before being swept up in the crowd of people clamoring to congratulate her.

“You’re all so bad at this, I could see your cars parked down the street.” She giggled as Shiro grabbed her in a big hug.

“Yeah, but that’s only part of the surprise.” Lance crowed. “Wait until you see what Hunk put together for you, this is going to be awesome.”

“And I promise I didn’t cook a single thing.” Shiro set Pidge gently back on her feet.

“Thanks, I wasn’t looking forward to spending my birthday at the hospital,” Pidge snarked, but it was lost in a gasp as everyone started to sing. Not because they were all horribly off-key, but because Hunk was making his way out of the kitchen pushing a trolley. On it was a beautifully constructed model of the USS Enterprise, in bright green with a set of sparklers sticking out of it. Pidge squealed.

She rushed off to scream at Hunk’s face, but before Shiro could get lonely, someone settled into the space she abandoned, leaning against him with too much familiarity. As Keith looked up at him, Shiro couldn’t help but laugh, carefully slinging his arm around Keith’s waist to keep him there. It never stopped being easy, but this time, Shiro had someone else to think about. What would Akira say to this? Before he could change his mind, Keith slumped against him with a laugh. “So maybe it’s not just a cake.”

“What?” Shiro teased. “I think Pidge deafened me in one ear.”

“At least you wouldn’t have to hear Lance as much.” Keith muttered as Shiro chuckled and tightened his arm around his friend.

“Hey, I wanna apologize for being busy lately. Things have just been a little much with trying to get ready for this fitness exam for the Alpha Centuri flight and everything.”

Keith tensed slightly, trying to make himself sound as nonchalant as possible. “That and the new guy in your life. Have you actually met him yet or what?”

“No, not yet. I know, as soon as I do, I’ll introduce him to you so you can make sure he’s not a creep.” Shiro said gently. “But we’ve been talking for a while now, I might not even need your special cockblocking services this time. It might actually work out since I know what I’m getting myself into.”

“Oh. Then good. I’m glad about that.”

There was something in Keith’s tone, something too soft for the party that was kicking up around them, and when he tried to move away, Shiro couldn’t let go. Keith was looking at him again, in that same gentle way that always made Shiro’s stomach tie up in knots. Forget butterflies, he had an entire zoo down there, and it wasn’t fair that it still wasn’t going away.

He had a good thing going with Akira, something that might grow into something more. This was just Shiro being selfish. And yet… And yet…

Across the room, someone called Keith’s name. He was forced to detangle himself from Shiro’s side, and Shiro’s voice caught in his throat. I missed you, he should have said. Don’t go.

But it was already too late. Keith had slipped from his hold with a crooked smile and gestured Shiro towards the table with food. He hadn’t held on tight enough, but then again, he never did.

Why was he playing at this? Shiro had made the decision to stop mooning after Keith like some lovestruck teenager, he wasn’t going to let himself fall into bad habits again. It wouldn’t be good for either of them. Right now, he wasn’t going to focus on how much that hurt and instead, he’d enjoy Pidge’s birthday no matter what.

Keith didn’t look back.

Keith should’ve been relieved. It was good for him to get some distance. He wasn’t dealing with Shiro’s new situation very well, and he didn’t want to make Shiro feel bad just because Keith couldn’t act his goddamn age. Except it felt like so long since he’d seen Shiro, and he couldn’t help but want to go back.

“Oh for Christssake dickwad, I’m talking to you.” Lance snapped. Nothing set him off worse than being ignored. Keith considered doing it just out of spite. “Just fuck him already.”

“Lance!” Keith snarled, the only warning Lance was going to get, but the other man was obnoxiously unaffected.

“This isn’t funny anymore. It’s downright sad.”

"Shut up. You don’t get to talk about this anymore. You already screwed me over once.” Keith had known it was a bad idea from the very beginning. He’d spent months inhaling information of progress of the Kerberos mission from any source he could get, missing his best friend dearly. He’d worked up his nerve to finally confess the truth to Shiro, to tell him everything. How much he cared about him, how important he was, how being with him made the good in his life feel even better. Except he panicked at the eleventh hour, terrified he’d ruin things between them and convinced Shiro could never feel the same way. He’d just needed a clue, a way to figure out what Shiro thought of him, if there was any chance he could see him as more than a friend. It had been Lance’s brilliant idea to tell Shiro that Keith was seeing someone. He said Shiro would be jealous, said that’d tell Keith everything he needed to know. What really angered Keith was that he’d went along with it anyway.

Shiro’d been nothing but supportive. Keith never got his chance.

But Lance was glaring at him now, thoroughly unimpressed. “Look, asshole, I know grudges are your thing or whatever, but wake up. He’s happy now. If you don’t do something, it really won’t be because of you.”

Keith watched us Shiro snagged a bottle of beer and joined the crowed, losing himself with friends, co-workers, and strangers alike, and something ached in the center of his chest.

“You know,” Lance sounded almost sad as he shoved his hands in his pockets. “If you actually trusted us enough, you might actually believe us.”

Keith snorted and turned away, brushing off Lance’s concern even as the words cut deep. He did trust them, but they were wrong about this. The only one whose opinion mattered was Shiro’s and he made it clear long ago.

Now all Keith could do was watch from the sidelines.

“Hey Shiro?” Pidge called as she flagged him down. “Could you-ah!”

She barely got the words out before Shiro grabbed her and lifted her up over his head as she screeched and laughed, clinging tightly to his arms.

“Oh my god, put me down!”

In his most bellowing voice, Shiro sang, “Happy birthday to Pidge!”

A cheer went through the crowd and they were singing again, and Pidge laughed and laughed, taking her bows from her perch even as she clung to Shiro with everything she had. It was silly and dumb, and Shiro loved it. He didn’t get the chance to let his hair down often. There were always too many things that demanded his attention, too many responsibilities that he couldn’t let fall to the wayside.

Tonight, Shiro let himself have fun. His friends were there, cheering him on. He talked too loud and danced with anyone who would let him, bending Hunk over the back of his arm and letting Allura twirl him around like a princess. He even talked to that guy from Pidge’s department, Slav. That was a mistake, just like every other time he tried to talk to Slav, why did people still let them breathe the same air, Shiro was going to punch a thing- until strong arms wrapped around his middle, and Shiro found himself being dragged in the opposite direction. When he turned around, Keith was grinning at him, his eyes twinkling like he knew something Shiro didn’t. “Shirogane, you are drunk.”

“I am not.” He protested, mostly to see Keith’s mouth move again, and also because he was sery vober thank you.

“You were yelling.”

“Yes, well he started it, and it wasn’t really yelling.”

Then Keith laughed, and Shiro was falling, falling into the soft fabric of Pidge’s couch. He dragged Keith down with him.

“I could lift you.” Shiro said seriously, looking Keith blearily in the eye. “I could lift you like you weighed nothing.”

“Don’t you dare .”

“C’mon, lemme bench press you. I totally could. I’d be like, do you even lift, bro? And then lift my bro.” Shiro made himself laugh at that one and even Keith had to grin. This was nice, he needed a night like this to help put things back into perspective. Things were all going his way, but that didn’t stop him from settling down next to Keith’s warmth and letting himself enjoy it.

There was no crime in that, right?

Someone interrupted and Shiro tried to focus on the face of one of Pidge’s co-workers, a nice young man who’d been trailing after him all night trying to get up the courage to say hello. He stammered a greeting, mumbling an invitation to go dance “Maybe, if you want to and you’re not busy, it’s okay if you are.”

Shiro opened his mouth to agree, but Keith bristled. “Sorry, he’s busy. We’re about to start making out, it’s going to get pretty gross. You might want to move on.”

Shiro didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone move so quickly. One minute he was there, and the next minute poof! With a little cartoon sound effect. It would have almost been funny, if not for the look of pure venom on Keith’s face. His arm was still wrapped around Shiro’s waist, and Shiro recoiled like he’d been stung. “What’s your problem?” He asked, a little sharper than he intended. “You were being an ass. He just wanted a dance.”

He didn’t expect Keith to turn that ire on him, twisting away from him with a sour look on his face. “Yeah? What about that guy you’re so crazy about?”

“That’s his problem now. You’re not actually my boyfriend.” Shiro threw back, his brows furrowed, mouth pinched in a thin, unhappy line. But Keith jerked away from him, and Shiro was immediately apologetic. “Keith wait-”

His friend wouldn’t stop, already crossing the room and headed for the door, and Shiro stumbled over himself to catch up. “Keith wait!”

They were making the worst sort of scene. The party was no way big enough to disguise any of their fight. He passed Pidge, sending her a horribly guilty look, but she just waved him off, a peculiar expression on her face. She looked almost resigned.

“Pidge, I’m-. Sorry, I gotta-”

“Go.” She said as Shiro ducked passed, catching up to Keith out in the hallway.

“Keith. Keith, wait.” He called after him, catching the edge of Keith’s sleeve which just made the other man whirl around, yanking his arm out of Shiro’s hand.

“Don’t you have a dance to get back to?” Keith’s words were a little sharper than he meant, but it was too late to take any of it back. He held his ground, shoulders squared and hands clenched.

They stared at each other, something unspoken and electric buzzing between them, filling up all the empty spaces. It danced down Shiro’s skin, settling hard in his throat. Too many words fought to escape all at once and he bit them back, swallowing each excuse and confession. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.” Keith knew he should just turn and walk away, there was nothing worse than trying to explain the mess of feelings that tore him open inside. Better to pretend they weren’t there, bury them deep and focus on the mission, a goal, anything to keep from holding still too long and letting them catch him. But Shiro never let him go.

“Talk to me.” Shiro’s voice was soft and gentle. “No matter what it is, just talk to me.”

Truth bubbled out before Keith could stop it, too vulnerable to hide how much it hurt. “It’s over.”

Shiro frowned, confused. “What’s over?”

Us. Pretending this was the real thing. Keith forced a laugh, the sound too harsh to his own ears. “I guess I just got used to helping you out all the time and now with internet guy, you don’t need me like you used to.”

“But I’m always going to need you.” Shiro spoke with such heat that Keith had to take a step back. Shiro just pressed closer. “No matter who comes into my life. Even if this guy’s a dick or the second coming of Jesus, you’re my best friend, Keith, and I will always need you.”

A spark ignited, flickering between them in the empty hall, looking for something to catch and burn. Keith held his breath, wanting to push further but not knowing how, not knowing if he could risk it, but there was just enough adrenaline in his veins to not care.

“They offered me Alpha Centauri.” The words came out in a rush, but the moment he spoke, Keith felt brave. “I’m turning it down. First thing Monday morning, I’m turning it down because it’s yours. You’re the best pilot at the Garrison and I’m not taking it from you just because of bad luck. Shit luck. Because you’re the only one who-”

“Keith what the hell ?”

The sheer rage in Shiro’s voice froze Keith to the floor. Emotions flickered behind his eyes too quickly to distinguish: anger, bitterness, regret, jealousy, pride. Shiro crushed the ugliest of them, locking them away to deal with later. He’d tried so hard, he’d worked his whole life and they had picked a pilot before he’d even had a chance to test for the position. They’d known he would never be able to pass.

And now Keith was going to throw it all away?

“I have watched you work just as hard as I have. You fought for this, you deserve this.” Shiro growled, grabbing Keith by the shoulders and giving him one hard shake. “You’ve been following in my footsteps ever since we were in the Garrison, I’m not letting you throw your chance away because of me.” His grip gentled and he pulled Keith into a tight hug, resting his chin on his best friend’s head.

If it wasn’t him, it could only be Keith. Keith was the top pilot in the whole Garrison and they all knew it. The mission had to be his, it was going to be his first real command and the beginning of a brilliant career as a pilot and a leader. Keith had proven himself capable and Shiro had believed in him ever since the beginning.

“Don’t use me as an excuse not to chase your dream. You’re ready.”

Keith inhaled sharply, and Shiro could feel him tense in his grip before going boneless. He slumped forward, tucking his face into the hollow of the other man’s throat. A warm huff of air tickled his skin, intimate like no one else had been for Shiro in a long time.

“Shiro, I can’t.” Keith rasped, his voice muffled against Shiro’s side. “This is your dream. It wasn’t your fault. You shouldn’t have to give it up.”

“But it wasn’t your fault either.” Shiro squeezed his eyes shut. This wasn’t supposed to hurt so much. But he smiling. Even if Keith couldn’t see him, he was smiling. No matter what how his resolve shifted, his voice never wavered. Shiro wouldn’t let it. “You can’t look me in the eye and tell me you haven’t been dreaming of space since before you could read. I know you Keith. I know how badly you want this. And I know, when you get there, when you go farther than any of us have ever been, it’s all going to be worth it.”

Keith was breathing hard, shaking so faintly, Shiro couldn’t help but hold on tighter. “I can’t do this,” he said. “It’s too much, I can’t.”

Shiro hushed him gently, combing his fingers through his soft hair. “That’s why I’m here. No way am I gonna let you go through this alone.”

Keith laughed, and Shiro pretended he didn’t hear how wet it sounded. He pushed forward, just a little, trapping Keith between himself and the corridor wall. They stayed that way for a long time.

“This wasn’t what I was expecting,” Keith mumbled, his voice shaky with emotion. Shiro was surprised by how easy it was to laugh.

“Well your expectations sucked.”

That startled a chuckle out of Keith as he relaxed into Shiro’s arms, the fight gone out of him. Shiro leaned in close, heart beating hard against his ribs. It should be now, this was the moment. He’d wasted the last ones, the timing was never right and he’d waited too long, but Keith was looking at him like he was the only one left in the world. It would be so easy to just bend down and kiss him, taking that risk for the chance that had eluded him for so long.

Instead, he was the mentor Keith needed him to be. “You are going to be amazing. I know you will.”

“It’s a two year trip.” Keith said weakly. “It was supposed to be yours.”

“It’s yours, it always was. I’ll just have to take the next one.” Shiro said gently, feeling the moment slip from him. He cut his friend off before Keith could protest. “Besides, two years isn’t any time at all. I’ll figure out how to wrangle some comm time and keep you company, okay? Perks of actually working in the Garrison.”

It took a minute before Keith gave a small nod, like he was still going to fight this. Of course he was. He was too stubborn and loyal for his own good. It took a long time before Keith trusted anyone enough to open up and when he did, he never let go. He was fiercely protective, it was one of the things Shiro loved about him, but also what made him worry. Keith couldn’t miss out on an opportunity just because he was holding on too tightly.

They both couldn’t. Damn it.

“C’mon.” He pulled Keith under his arm, squishing him fondly. “I didn’t get enough of Hunk’s cake, and I’m still sober enough to say the entire alphabet. I’m planning on having a lot more fun before we go home. You in?”

Keith nodded again, content to spend the whole night by Shiro’s side. He was still there hours later, when the party had wound down and he helped Shiro stumble home.

When Shiro closed the door to his home, Keith’s laugh was still warm in his ear, and the phantom weight where his arm had been still lingered around his hips. His apartment felt too quiet in comparison. Quiet and empty and hollow, and he considered calling out to Keith, asking him to stay the night. He wouldn’t even need an excuse. There was a Keith-shaped indent in his couch as it was. But the moment Shiro considered it, he knew he shouldn’t, and he knew he didn’t really want to.

He should have been happy. Happy for Keith, happy for a successful not-so-surprise party. Happy for too many dances and too much laughter. And Shiro was. But the silence felt too heavy, and he didn’t expect to feel this tired.

The tips of his fingers were still tingling, and the back of his mouth felt too dry. Shiro overestimated the distance between steps and walked into his coffee table, hard enough to ache. He swore under his breath as his thigh throbbed, and shoved at it, making glass and metal drag across the floor. When his right fist slammed down, it jittered.

Because he was happy, goddammit he was. It just wasn’t enough.

Shiro toppled over into his couch, curled on his side. He didn’t want to feel this way, didn’t want to feel lost and stupid, but for one night, maybe it was okay. Keith was moving on with his life in a big way. Keith was going to leave his mark on the history books. Again. They’d always competed, almost as much as they supported each other. Shiro hated that it felt like he was being left behind, but that was the thing with competitions. Eventually someone won.

He lost track of time, drifting in and out of consciousness before a stiff leg woke him with a start. He looked down the corridor, towards the dark shadows of his bedroom. Then he turned over and pulled out his phone from where it was digging into the flesh of his leg. Its screen lit up like a new dawn, and Shiro squinted. It wasn’t enough to stop him from typing out a message.

“It’s late. Hope this doesn’t wake you. Just wanted you to know I’m thinking about you.”

He didn’t actually expect Akira to reply.

“Awww, LionO. Can’t sleep either?”

Shiro chuckled and got comfortable, cradling his phone in his hands. “Not really. Just thinking about things tonight.”

“Sounds like things didn’t go as planned. You okay?” Somewhere, out there in the sleeping city, Akira was awake and worried about him. Somehow, it made Shiro feel better even though he knew it was stupid.

“I don’t know. We should just go to sleep.”

Akira’s answer was swift, words popping up on the screen. “I’m here if you just need to talk.”

There were a thousand things to talk about, none he’d ever voiced before. It was hard to be open about his insecurities when everyone always looked to him for guidance. He had to be strong for their sake, even after his accident when he felt like breaking down and giving up, or when he had a bad episode and the panic threatened to choke him. He was always more worried about other people than himself, but wasn’t that what he’d just lectured Keith about?

“I guess I’m feeling lost.” It was so honest and scared, that it took Shiro a minute to push send. “I always had a plan for my life, and then things sort of derailed. I can’t do what I used to and there’s people better than I was at my peak now. It’s hard to give up the dream when it’s the only one you had.”

“Who said you have to give it up?” Akira’s question blinked on Shiro’s screen.

“The promotion is going to go to someone else who deserves it. There’s no way I can compete anymore, I just didn’t want to actually admit it.”

“Then you’ll get the next one. Don’t sell yourself short. You’re a smart guy and you work hard.”

Akira was always so openly supportive, and most days Shiro was grateful. Really, truly. It was what helped make Akira so easy to talk to. Tonight it just made him hate him, and it made him hate himself.

It was a kneejerk reaction that he didn’t really mean, but it soured his thoughts and sat in the center of his chest like a stone. He stared at the screen, knowing objectively he was going to make a bad decision, but angry enough to do it anyway.

“I have a prosthetic arm.” He clicked send before he could change his mind. His ears were too hot, flushed red in embarrassment, and Shiro didn’t want to be himself anymore. “Some days it doesn’t feel like I can do anything.”

It sounded like he was fishing for pity, and Shiro scrubbed a hand over his face. He seriously considered grabbing his laptop just so he could edit his last few posts, with the desperate hope that Akira hadn’t read anything. His pulse was racing, but this wasn’t a panic attack. Shiro almost wished it was. At least then he’d have an excuse for sabotaging a good thing, for pushing away a friend he desperately hoped would stay. Slowly he typed out I’m sorry.

Then very carefully, he deleted it.

“I probably should have told you sooner. I know it’s a lot to spring on someone.”  

“You’re not the only person in the world with prosthetics, there’s nothing wrong with it.” Shiro could almost hear the anger in Akira’s reply. “That’s your excuse?”

Shiro had been expecting almost anything else. His arm was a symbol of his failure, it had set him back years and he’d worked hard to overcome the loss, but he couldn’t ever forget. He was the hero of the Garrison, respected, idolized, but beneath it all, he was insecure. It was a private and personal grief that he’d never shared with anyone, not even his friends. Talking to someone faceless was easier, but he half-expected that Akira’s answer would be the same one he saw in the mirror.

“It’s not an excuse. Why are you angry?”

Dots appeared on the screen as Akira typed, but never sent. It went on for so long that Shiro knew he must be writing a novel sized rant. He was wrong.

“Sorry.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.”

The flood of words came then, filling up Shiro’s screen. “Yes I did. I know I can be defensive about this, I just know people who were hurt and I know a little about how hard it can be. I like you. A lot. If that’s your dream, then you shouldn’t give up on it. That’s advice I’m still trying to take too.”

It was like his own words were coming back to haunt him and Shiro had to laugh. Now he knew how Keith must have felt, pinned against the wall by the weight of Shiro’s aggressive support. “It’s scary to think you can fail, sometimes it’s easier not to try.”

“You have to try, LionO, even if it doesn’t work out.”

Shiro scrubbed his hands over his face, putting his phone down on his test. It was good advice. Of course it was. Shiro couldn’t just stop working, or physical therapy, or waking up in the morning, he knew that. He was moving forward. Sometimes, he still wished it wasn’t so slowly. “I’m just getting really tired of losing.”

“Then you can talk to me about pineapple pizza again. You’ll change my mind every time.”

Akira made him laugh. Akira always made him laugh, and Shiro was grateful he met him. He sent a string of smileys that made Akira *sigh* . He didn’t realize he’d fallen quiet until his phone dinged.

“Still there LionO?”

Shiro had to swallow back a yawn, smiling down at the message. He was such a sap, and he knew it, but he was hopeful. After the night he’d dealt with, it was nice. “Just trying to figure out if you’d still be interested in lunch sometime.”

“Yes”

There was no hesitation, but Akira went back to add an exclamation mark at the end of it. “Yes! Are you free on Monday?”

Maybe he wasn’t moving forward as slowly as he thought. “I am, there’s a good diner I know that’s right downtown. It might be a good place to meet.”

“I’m a sucker for some good pancakes.” Akira shot back. “I’m looking forward to meeting your abs, I mean you in person.”

Shiro flopped back onto his pillow with a grin, sending the other man a few sly winky faces but enjoying the rush of heat beneath his skin. He’d admitted his flaws and Akira still wanted to see him. To maybe start something. He couldn’t hold himself back anymore, Keith had to fly on his own and Shiro had to find a way without him.

“I can’t wait.” Shiro was surprised at how much he meant that. He was ready to try again.

A few blocks over, Keith stretched back on the bed, slowly closing his laptop.

It was a date.

Chapter Text

Monday came too quickly. Keith was surprised, but he had spent most of Sunday hungover and unsatisfied.

Being offered the dream position on a two year mission to Alpha Centauri was everything he’d worked for, he never knew that having everything he wanted could hurt so badly.

But it wasn’t everything was it? He closed his eyes and pulled up the memory of Shiro’s body pressed hard against his, the weight of him, the gentle brush of his hands. Always so gentle, like Shiro was afraid that he would hurt anyone he touched. How many times had Keith wondered what it would be like if Shiro touched him without that restraint, bruising, crushing and desperate. A thousand fantasies played out in his mind over half a dozen years until they were so familiar that they almost felt real.

They had fought for this one goal side by side, it wasn’t fair that only one of them would get to go. Shiro was the better leader, no matter what. He deserved this, but Keith had rarely seen Shiro so angry. Not at losing the chance but at the thought Keith might throw it away. If it meant so much to Shiro, Keith knew he could never turn it down. Either way, he was losing his best friend.

And LionO hadn’t sent in another picture yet.

Everything had started off on a whim, after Keith’s friends reminded him that he actually still had a dating profile. He’d seen those abs immediately, snorted, dismissed the guy as a spammer, and came back to look at them ten minutes later. A couple of weeks after they started talking, LionO had changed his profile picture into a sleepy retriever. Keith hadn’t even been slightly surprised.

They’d hit it off from the first conversation, and that surprised Keith. Both of them had been so awkward and unsure, but that’d worked for both of them. Keith only used to use his phone to look up information to prove people wrong. Now it felt like he was constantly attached to it, eager to get that little notification to read another message.

He’d only meant to find a human at first, wary of the entire dating scene, even after seeing Shiro throw himself head first into the mess. Especially then. LionO was a distraction, but he was a damn good one. He never expected to find a friend. He never expected to fall for him.

He could admit that he only looked at LionO’s profile because of the abs. He knew his weaknesses and there wasn’t any harm in a little distraction, even with such a stupid username, though LionO’s profile was the only one that hadn’t been describing his junk. Keith was content to just browse a few pictures and move on, but he saw the description and the way he’d talked about space had peaked his interest. The bad puns and worse pick-up lines had hooked him.

Now Keith was in too deep.

The distraction had become something more and Keith knew exactly why. He’d picked someone exactly like Shiro, a fake replica that he could pretend was the real thing when they were the only ones awake at 2 AM and making each other laugh. He really did know what he liked and now he didn’t have to pretend. LionO was a real man, and a good one, someone that Keith wanted to get to know. It was a chance to stop pretending and start something new.

If he could just get to his date in time! Keith snarled curses, banging his head against his steering wheel. The cars in front of him hadn’t moved in 40 minutes and he was late. It took every ounce of self-control not to lay on the horn again. It might have made him feel better but it wouldn’t help at all. This was just giving him too much time to think and doubt that he was making the right choice.

Was it right to date someone when he wanted someone else? LionO knew exactly what it was like, that’s why they’d taken it so slow. He honestly liked the guy, they had a connection that made Keith’s heart thump whenever he checked his messages and saw one with that stupid lazy golden retriever icon (even if he missed the abs a little bit).

Keith couldn’t say for sure that he was doing the wrong thing, but he knew that he wouldn’t forgive himself if he hurt LionO like this.

I’ll be there. Red shirt and setting off metal detectors probably.

And Keith wanted to see him. He even had the perfect line picked out, and it only took him all of yesterday to figure it out. You look nothing like a golden retriever. He planned to say. Shiro would’ve approved.

If only traffic would get the message.

His phone rang, and Keith jumped a foot in the air, certain that LionO was calling to break it off, never mind that the dating app didn’t have a call function. But Shiro’s name flashed across his screen, above an old picture of them at a marathon. Shiro was holding Keith’s phone, his hair still jet black and plastered to his skull, features a ruddy pink and his shirt soaked through. Keith didn’t think Shiro knew he still had it.

He put him on speaker and immediately knew something was wrong.

“Hey Keith.”

Shiro’s voice was unsteady, pitch just sharp enough to put Keith on edge. He tacked on an airy laugh at the end, mumbling indistinctly under his breath, and that didn’t help his case at all. Keith wondered if he could get to the U-turn lane in time, if he needed to. “Hey, you okay Shiro?”

They hadn’t spoken much since the party. Keith guiltily realized he’d spent the day ‘with’ LionO, watching movies and skirting responsibilities.  

“Totally fine except for the feeling like my empty stomach is trying to digest itself in self-preservation. But besides that, perfect. “

Keith sighed for him. “Shiro.”

“Fine, I just haven’t talked to you recently.” Shiro tried to make things sound lighter, but Keith knew him too well to let him off the hook so easily. There were few people who could see past the smile Shiro usually wore to the troubles he tried to hide from everyone. Keith counted himself among the select few.

“You can talk to me if you need to, I’m not going anywhere.” He said a bit more sourly than he’d like. At this rate, Keith would be lucky if his car didn’t just plant itself here and he’d be forced to live out of his trunk for weeks before he could move again. “C’mon, Takashi. What’s wrong?”

Maybe it was the fact no one usually asked Shiro that question or the soft way Keith had said his first name, but Shiro sighed into the phone. “Nervous, I guess. How stupid is that? I’ve logged thousands of hours in the simulator and on actual missions, I can do all of their scenarios in my sleep and I’m still nervous about this test.”

Anger prickled through Keith, immediately on the defensive. There was nothing that could push his buttons like the idea someone was disrespecting Shiro. Including Shiro. “You are going to do great. I’ve been right there training with you the whole time, you’ve come a long way. You’re going to crush the test and prove to everyone that you’ve always been the best pilot.” And then take the Alpha Centauri mission and I’ll…I don’t know. I’ll be left behind again.

“It’s been a long time since I did something like this, Keith. I think I already messed up.” Shiro whispered, and Keith could imagine him perfectly, like Shiro was in the car with him. His shoulders slumped, his faraway gaze. The fact that Shiro was calling meant it was bad. It wasn’t normal for Shiro to actively seek help with what he thought were little things, even when they weren’t so little.

“Don’t say that.” Keith insisted, wishing he could be there to hold Shiro’s hand. That was all he really wanted. Just the chance to hold his hand. “They would be lucky to have you.”

Shiro let out a shaky exhale, and Keith heard him fidgeting in the distance. He almost offered to come see him. He thought long and hard about it, with only Shiro’s breathing in his ear. It would be the right thing to do. If Shiro needed them, he would be there. LionO just had to understand, his best friend would always come first. Keith scrubbed a hand over his face. He really hoped LionO would understand.

“Keith? Thanks. That’s - that’s kind of just what I wanted to hear.”

“Always. If you wanted, I could come over…”

“No. No, it’s okay. But I’ll see you around? Maybe we can do a movie some time.”

Keith exhaled slowly, careful to disguise the relief he felt as he slumped into his chair, tapping against a steering wheel. “Yeah, definitely. We can check out that new robot one.”

It was right up their alley. LionO had suggested it a few days ago. Shiro liked the idea. Keith could tell by how his voice raised. If he had to guess, he’d say that Shiro was smiling. “That sounds great. I’ll catch you later okay?”

“Yeah. See you.” For a moment, there was nothing but silence in his car. Keith’s thoughts started to wander. There was still the practical portion of his application. The pilot position was guaranteed, unless he messed up terribly. It was a few weeks away. He still had time to think things through.

Then two minutes later, the close2u application went off. LionO sent him a message.

“Hey if this is a bad time, we can always reschedule. No hard feelings :)”

And Keith panicked.

“No! Oh god, I’m so sorry.” He frantically typed. “I’m not flaking on you, I swear. I’m stuck in traffic. Please don’t think I’m not coming.” Keith was dying inside, just imagining what LionO must think of him. What kind of first impression was this? The poor guy probably thought he’d been stood up or catfished and if he walked, then Keith was back to square one. He’d already lost one person he could never have, he wasn’t going to blow this chance to start over too.

He took a picture of the cars in front of them and attached it to his message, praying that LionO actually believed him.

The other man just laughed and sent back a winking face. “I get it, road work or bad accident. That road is the worst.”

“I know! I shouldn’t have taken it, I’m literally stuck. I’m so sorry. I’m trying to get there as quickly as I can, but it’s not looking good.” Keith chatted with LionO, letting his friend distract him, but guilt was gnawing at him the entire time. The minutes ticked by and they still weren’t moving. It wasn’t fair to make LionO wait any longer, he was over an hour late at this point as it was. “I’m not sure this is ever going to move.”

A few miles away, Shiro finished his second glass of water and was trying to dodge the looks from the waitress. Being a familiar customer only got you so far when the diner was packed and he was taking up prime booth real estate without ordering anything. He briefly wondered if he should text Keith to come join him instead if Akira wasn’t going to make it, at least then the afternoon wouldn’t be a complete waste. It would be good for the two of them to spend a little time together, repair any hurt feelings.

But would that be fair? He’d set aside this time to actually go on a real, honest-to-god date. If he ended up back with Keith, then that would show that things hadn’t changed at all.

Besides, he really wanted to meet Akira.

He looked at the pictures his friend had sent him for the umpteenth time. Shio had checked his local traffic app. He absolutely knew there was a mess going down Salvatore St. right now. Akira wasn’t necessarily lying to him. Yet logic wasn’t always enough to calm his nerves, and Shiro had too many examples of that. He stared down at his messenger until his phone screen went dim. Are you real, he wondered. Please, please be real. Please let some of this be real. Then held his breath and typed up a message.

Keith’s phone went off with a message from LionO. He lunged for it… and scowled.

“What did the lonely hotdog say?”

“??? LionO”

“Maybe we can ketchup some time.”

Keith snorted, scrubbing a hand over his face. “That’s not funny.” He typed, followed by as many sad faces he could copy and paste.

“What did the ketchup bottle reply?”

“LionO no”

“I would’ve liked to meat up.”

“LIONO NO”

“Dill with it.”

“You’re the worst.”

“That’s what happens when I’m about 20 minutes from starving to death. I honestly think that my stomach is going to digest itself in revenge. But other than that, everything’s totally fine.” LionO’s reply was dry and snarky, and Keith couldn’t help but laugh. Oh god, he really did have a terrible sense of humor. He made a note to tell Shiro about this, his best friend would enjoy it.

“If it’s too late, then you shouldn’t have to wait. I think I might need to give up, there’s no getting around this.” Keith typed, apologizing profusely. He’d have to do something make it up to LionO and prove that this was just a mistake. Their first meeting had to be something special, doubly so for making him wait.

“Are you sure?” The humor was gone. “I don’t mind waiting.”

“I don’t even know how much longer this is going to last. I’m so sorry. I want to do this right, I promise. This wasn’t really how I hoped to impress you.”

Shiro chewed the inside of his lip, thinking. “I could come to you?”

“Lol! I doubt you could get anywhere near this gridlock, nothing’s moving.”

“I have my ways. I could use a good run?”

“It’s okay. Let me try again, okay? Something special, I promise I’ll check the traffic before I ever leave the house.”

Keith put his head down as soon as he sent the text. He felt like shit. If there was one thing Keith knew, it was how awful it felt to wait around for someone who never showed up, and that struck a more personal chord with him than he’d expected. He hoped this didn’t mean he’d lost LionO.

Someone was yelling up ahead and suddenly the streets were being filled with water. Keith stared in awe as a fire hydrant started spewing a mess, and all around him cars started honking. He snapped a few pictures, sent a few dozen sad faces, but the moment the left lane opened, he repositioned himself to take a U-turn. Keith was pulling into a staff parking space at the Garrison when he noticed his phone. Then he nearly dropped it, because LionO had sent him a picture with the caption: So which one’s yours

It was a picture of Salvatore St. and the parking lot-slash-swimming pool it had become.

Then right beneath it was another picture. A red dress shirt had been scrunched up and tucked under his chin to reveal a glistening set of the tightest abs Keith had seen all day. Captioned: Told you I could make it.

It had been sent twenty minutes ago.

“Oh my god, you actually ran there?!”

“I told you I would.” Another picture was attached, sweaty skin pulled taut over muscle, and Keith swallowed hard. He’d always half-expected the abs to be sort of an exaggeration, people didn’t normally look like that. But now it seemed like they were the real deal and Keith’s entire body flushed. Oh god, he was so predictable.

“I found a way to turn around, I’m not there anymore!” He typed frantically, even more guilty than before. He’d ruined their date twice in one day.

A flurry of sad faces came back. “That’s okay, my abs just wanted to meet you.”

“Tell them all I’m sorry. VERY VERY SORRY.” It couldn’t be that bad if LionO was making jokes, right? “I mean it though, no joking. I’m so sorry I messed this whole thing up.”

“It’s okay. It’ll happen soon, we’ll make it work.” LionO was nothing but supportive. “I really can’t wait to meet you.”

“Me too. Next time, I’ll make up for all of this, I promise. Thursday?”

“I can’t.” LionO replied, with a string of sad faces, and Keith flinched, completely expecting to be let down. “It’s that work thing. I might still have a shot at that promotion. And if I don’t, at least I tried.”

Keith could’ve laughed, relief threatening to drag him down, but he was grinning from ear to ear. “You’ll do great you know. Beat that loser to a pulp.”

There was a pause, before LionO replied. Keith still thought he read hesitation between the lines. “Thank you. Maybe Sunday? I think I’ll need a pick me up.”

“Or a celebration >:D”

“Lol. Deal.”

Keith let himself into his office and sighed heavily, slumping down on his chair in defeat. What a failure, he could have just ruined everything if LionO hadn’t been so understanding. He’d missed out on meeting him twice in one day, he wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Next time, it would work. He’d be the one running across town if he had to.

He walled in self-pity for a while, letting himself worry about if LionO was really so forgiving before he picked up his phone and dialed without looking. “Hey, Shiro? Lunch fell through, you up for cafeteria pie?”

“Sure.” His best friend sounded only slightly out of breath. “But let me beat you at a few sim runs first. I need to get some more practice in. See you in 10 minutes!”

 


 

Shiro locked the door to his apartment and sighed, rubbing his hand against the cold metal of his prosthetic. Everything ached, Keith hadn’t pulled any of his punches during their training session. With the pilot test looming, it was good to push himself to his limits and he’d hoped that he’d be tired enough to fall into bed, but he was still too keyed up to think about bed. His body buzzed with a restless, nervous energy at what the next few days would bring.

If they’d offered the position to Keith already, then what was the point in working himself raw to pass this test? They’d made up their minds, he wasn’t going to qualify and even if he did, he’d be taking the position away from his best friend. Keith would have to put his dreams on hold again to let Shiro take the lead and the worst part was knowing Keith would do it willingly without hesitation. And yet, he couldn’t just give up. This was his dream too and he had to prove to everyone else that he was still the same person. That the accident hadn’t changed him.

Maybe he was just trying to prove it to himself?

He stripped off his sweaty shirt and left it on the floor, raiding the fridge for something cold to drink and gulping juice straight from the bottle before putting it back. Maybe he’d feel better after a shower, wind down somehow until he was able to relax. By instinct he checked his phone, noticing the icon from the dating app lit to indicate a new message.

“Still sorry about today.”

“LOL!” Shiro sent, because he had laughed, out loud and everything, and he was smiling as he flopped down on his couch. “It’s OK. I’m looking forward to Sunday.”

He sort of wished he could skip straight to Sunday, but that might’ve been too much to tell Akira. Anyway, Akira was busy trying to jam as many sad faces as he could into their chat box.

“Still.” Sad face. Sad face. “I really wanted to meet you. The abs didn’t hurt.”

It sharpened Shiro’s smile, and he reclined in his seat, putting his feet up on the other end of the couch. He shouldn't. For all he knew, Akira could still be a serial killer, and there were all sorts of terrible horror stories out there. But Akira already had two pictures. What was a couple more?

Shiro reached above him, dimming the lights as he spread himself out across the cushions, carefully angling his camera before he snapped a picture and pressed send. “You mean these?”

He watched as Akira started typing and stopped. Stopped for a good ten seconds, and not because his reply had been all that complicated.

“Ya”

Shiro let out a rumbling laugh, the sound almost too loud in his empty apartment, and he pressed himself tighter against his couch. Maybe it was a bad decision, but Shiro was going to make a terrible one tomorrow. He might as well warm up. His left hand spread out across his belly, fingers carefully tracing the dark scars that hardened his skin. He wondered what Akira would say if he had a better camera, or if he could see them for himself, wondered if he’d still feel the same way, but his phone buzzed with another message.

“Can I see more?”

Shiro exhaled slowly. His eyes falling shut as he dragged his hand across his belly, abs tight and hard beneath his fingertips, and it had been so long since anyone else had wanted him like this. “Only if you return the favor.”

“Are you serious?!” The answer came back so quickly that Shiro laughed. “If you want to. Only if you want to. No pressure, please don’t think this is all I wanted.”

“No it’s okay. I’m kinda needing a bit of a release right now.” Shiro did his best to type with one hand, settling himself back on the couch. He paused for a moment, then shifted the camera to his right hand. Everything was more awkward with his left hand, but he still wasn’t comfortable showing off his prosthetic. Not like this. It was just a reminder of his anxiety and god, all he wanted right now was a distraction. And maybe someone to want him for something as simple and honest as his body.

He sent a request for a video, wriggling as the warning light lit up on his phone as the invitation was accepted. No face, no words, no discussion. Just this, his body splayed back on cushions, the image too grainy to make out anything except his skin as he slid his pants lower to expose the cut of his hips. Maybe once they knew each other he’d feel comfortable with something a little bit higher definition or putting his face out there, but the anonymity made everything easier and Shiro didn’t want to jinx things.

He always kept the door open in case he needed to pull back and Akira never demanded too much. It left him feeling brave.

“Ohs mygfod” Akira typed back and Shiro swallowed another laugh. “ur wow. wow. im so”

“What do you like?” Shiro thumbed, slipping his fingers beneath his waistband.

“What can I ask for?”

For the first time, Akira seemed to hesitate, and there was something comforting in that. Shiro slowly slipped his hand beneath the hem of his pants, feeling bolder than he had in a long time. He hadn’t even touched himself, but he was getting hard, anticipation its own drug as he rolled his hips for the camera.

“Shit.” Akira swore. Shiro wondered if he could ask to hear his voice, and that sent another wave of want through him, leaving him warm all the way to his toes.

“Anythin” he replied, considered editing it, and gave up. “Tell me what to do. But I want pictures of you too.”

Shiro closed his eyes, trying not to focus on how quickly Akira typed, trying not to read between lines he could only be imagining. His right arm felt heavy, the position less than ideal, but when his notification went off, he couldn’t click fast enough. Akira sent him a picture, it was grainy and dark, but the hard lines of his chest and belly were clear. An athletic build, a trim little waist Shiro wanted to hold on to. A clavicle he wanted to bite. God, he hadn’t hoped for much, but Akira looked so damn good.

And he sounded almost shy. “Is that OK? I wanna watch you get off.”

“I’d get off thinking about you fucking me.”

“I want to hold you down and fuck you into your mattress. I’ll bet you feel so good. I want to get my hands on you.”

“I can be your hands.”

Shiro couldn’t seem to get his zipper to cooperate, his left hand clumsy as he finally unbuttoned the snap and worked himself free from his pants. He was hard, cock thick in his hand as he stroked himself. In Akira’s hand. He closed his eyes and imagined that it was the other man touching him, demanding more from his body as he widened his thighs to give him a better show. He didn’t know what Akira looked like, but his mind helpfully supplied a substitute.

He could picture Keith bending over him, the brush of his black hair falling forward. Shiro could almost feel the weight of him bearing down against his chest, the wet drag of his mouth down his neck. Shiro’s body clenched around nothing, imaging the feel of him inside, fucking deep. He blinked his eyes open at a screen full of jibberish.

“You okay?”

“HOLYSHITHOLYSHITHOOLSYHIT HOLYYSYTHIT” Akira’s reply was barely coherent.

Shiro shifted so he could type carefully with his metal thumb. “I think it’s your turn now.”

The pictures came back in a flurry, Akira already hard with his cock curved against his tight, muscled stomach. A light trail of black was just visible beneath his navel, almost lost in the shadows. No face though, that was okay. It made it easier for Shiro to imagine.

“Do you like kissing?” Shiro asked, feeling a hot flush of want course through his veins. He thought about asking Keith, thought about how he’d laugh at him, or tease him. Or maybe he’d get that look in his eye, that same heated look he always got before he broke his best time, and Shiro trembled, trying to imagine what it would feel like to have his best friend’s undivided attention.

“I want to  jknow what it feelslike to kiss you”

Shiro exhaled slowly, but his pulse was racing, and he couldn’t do anything to slow it down. Wasn’t really sure he wanted to. He tightened his grip around his cock, fucking into the circle of his hands, rolling his hips as he dragged pleasure through his nerves. Would Keith tease him? Or would Keith overwhelm him?

“Where?”

“Everywhere.”

Shiro bucked up, moaning long and low, but there would be hands on his chest, keeping him pinned, or in his hair, or around his throat. He thought about crying out, into Keith’s mouth, past those soft, soft lips as he hammered into him and took him apart.

“I want to tasteyou. I want your mouth and your cock. I wnat to eat you out until youre sloppy and loose and I can fuck you so good”

He could almost hear it in Keith’s voice, filthy little promises whispered hotly against the shell of his ear. All those nights playacting for overzealous potential partners had just given Shiro a taste of how sweet Keith could be. There was a hard edge to him, sharp as a knife and could cut twice as deep. Shiro had always imagined that he’d be careful but cruelly kind, wringing out every last drop of pleasure with his demanding touch.

Akira sent back another picture, his pale skin mottled red with exertion as his cock drooled across his abdomen. His hands circled around the head of his cock, teasing against slit and pulling away, trailing thin drops of precum from his fingers.

Shiro swallowed hard, wondering what it would be like to taste him. Keith’s hands would be knotted hard in his hair, holding him down as he choked, the tip of Keith’s cock just kissing the back of his throat. He would be heavy, slick with the taste of salt with Shiro’s lips stretched around him.

“Wanna taste you.” He typed to Akira, getting another burst of jibberish back. “Suck your fingers clean. If you ask, I might even get on my knees.”

“God yes!” Akira wrote back furiously. “You’dl ook so pretty fuck.”

You’d look so pretty. In Keith’s voice, rough and breathless like after a good run, but more. More demanding. More heated as he held Shiro down, moaning into his skin, and how would that sound, how would that feel with Keith thick and heavy buried inside him, or in his mouth, dragging across his tongue, making it so hard to breath. Shiro turned his face into the cushions, panting openly as he touched himself, the camera shot shaking as he struggled to hold still.

I’m sorry, Keith. Shiro thought, stroking harder, faster. I’m sorry I’m sorry-

He came with his best friend’s name on his tongue, biting down on his pillow, his legs kicking out as thick ropes of cum splattered across his stomach. Shiro fucked himself through it, rubbing and touching until everything was oversensitive and prickling. It was the best handjob he’d gotten in a long time.

Almost a full minute later, Akira sent him a picture, cum splattered all across his belly, his fingers spread out across his mess, smearing it into his skin. It was almost enough to make Shiro fall apart all over again.

Shiro switched off his camera and laughed, his voice hoarse and ragged as he reached for his shirt and cleaned himself off. Already he felt calmer, tired and sated in a way that training couldn’t reach today. Maybe he really could get some sleep tonight.

“Thanks.” He sent to Akira with a winking face. “I can’t tell you how much I needed that.”

“Same. You seriously weren’t kidding about the abs.”

Shiro laughed again, arching his back and stretching until the bones clicked back into place. Sure, he’d let his imagination run away with him again back into familiar territory he knew he should leave behind, but it had been a long time since he’d been with anyone even over a computer screen. It felt good to stop worrying and just let go, no strings attached. It felt even better to be wanted by someone and know that he’d provoked that much of a reaction. A little ego boost never hurt.

“Wait until you meet them in person.”

“I think you enjoy torturing me.”

“Only a little.” Shiro teased. “But really, that was good. We should do it again sometime.”

“Deal!!!!!” Akira was enthusiastic about his reply and Shiro couldn’t help but tease a little more, too tired to do much more than a few innuendos and a promise of a repeat performance.

Besides, Akira was pretty incredible himself.

“When do I get your picture?” Shiro teased, as his eyes drooped. He was almost too comfortable to bed, but if he fell asleep on his couch, he’d end up shivering in the middle of the night.

Akira replied without hesitation. “Sunday. I’ll let you take it yourself.”

Sunday. Shiro just had to get through the rest of the week first, but this time, he really felt like he could.

 


 

“Quit pacing or you’ll wear a hole in the floor.”

Shiro looked up sheepishly, caught in the act, but unable to help himself. He’d tried sitting still, really he did, but it felt like every nerve in his body was firing off at once. He was pretty sure he hadn’t been this bad when he was a cadet. Then Keith was in front of him, giving his overalls a firm tug like he could anchor Shiro to the floor that way. Shiro didn’t tell him that he was more effective than he had any right to be. “I’m trying. I’m just… nervous.”

“No shit.” Keith snorted, but not unkindly. He was in the same uniform, but the blue bands on his arms declared him an engineer this time around. It was an unusual pick. Shiro was so used to seeing him in reds. But his voice softened, and his touch gentled. When he smiled, there was a sweetness to it that belied the sharp determination in his eyes. “You’re going to do great, Shiro. No one knows these sims as well as you do. There’s nothing you can’t handle.”

With Li, a young woman in navigator yellow that they’d both worked with since before graduation, they made up Shiro’s evaluation team. The administrative team had allowed Shiro to pick his team, and there was no one else Shiro would rather fly beside. He might have had his reservations, but Shiro had put them behind him. Today, he flew to win.

If Keith was chosen for the Alpha Centauri mission, it was going to be because he was the best candidate for the position. Not because Shiro was too afraid to try.

“Are you sure you want me here?” Keith plucked at the unfamiliar insignia on his uniform. “You know I’ve never been a great engineer. You deserve to have the best team, if you don’t pass because of me…” He shook his head, ready to call the whole thing off. There was too much riding on this, they’d trained so hard and Shiro had worked so hard for this moment. If after everything he failed because Keith was the weak link, he’d never forgive himself.

A heavy hand clasped Keith’s shoulder tight and he looked up into Shiro’s smiling face. “I trust you, we’re a team. I wouldn’t do this without you.”

Damnit, Keith was the one who was supposed to be reassuring Shiro! He took Shiro’s metal hand in his own and squeezed it tight. “We can do this.”

“Takashi Shirogane and flight crew.” The test instructor called his name and Shiro saluted. “Please enter the simulator and take your seats.”

They settled into the simulator and the doors sealed after them. Shiro took a deep breath and closed his eyes, running his hands along the controls like he had a thousand times before. He knew this, he could fly this ship to the edge of the atmosphere and calculate the slingshot velocity to speed his travels into deep space. He’d flown the real thing, piloting months long missions to the very edge of the solar system where the known space touched that dark, infinite unknown. He’d been one step away from something entirely new, real exploration just like he’d always dreamed. He could do this.

“Simulation Exercise KE93. Mission Objective: land on Charon Excavation Site. Retrieve research team. God speed.”

Shiro cast a glance over his right shoulder. Keith gave him a thumbs up. They were off.

Take off was textbook smooth. The feel of the engines beneath his hand fit better than any glove, like there was a part of him that had been missing this whole time and Shiro didn’t even realize it until he had it back. The stars greeted him, as endless and overwhelming as they were every time he ran a course, but somehow brighter today. Because they were going to lead Shiro to the real thing.

“Activating long-range thrusters. Brace for implementation.” Shiro ordered, and his crew was right there with him.

“Captain, I’m getting readings of an unidentified vessel. Coming in quick.”

Unidentified vessel? Shiro checked his readings with a frown. Of all the scenarios he’d run, there’d never been a hostile encounter with aliens before. What were the instructors getting at? “Let’s open up the comm channels and see if we can reach them. Be prepared, but if this is a First Contact situation, then we need to follow protocols. Everybody ready?”

His crew voiced their agreement as Shiro took over the broadcast channel to identify their ship. It didn’t seem to work. Before Shiro could make contact, the alien ship opened fire and their cockpit rocked with the impact. The power fizzled and flickered, alarms blaring across the control panel as the entire ship lurched heavily sideways.

“Engine one is out, I’m reading cascading failures through most primary systems.” Keith called out. “Whatever it was they hit us with did some damage.”

“Prepare for evasive maneuvers!” Shiro snapped, already rerouting their remaining engines to compensate for the loss of the first. “We’re going to outrun them.”

There was no other choice. Earth didn’t attach fucking lasers to their spaceships. Charon was too far away, they were barely passing Saturn, but enough distance between them and hostiles meant they could land somewhere, repair their engines. It was all wishful thinking unless Shiro could shake them and- “Ahh!”

The cockpit rattled with the force of the blast, throwing them hard into the right. They were bleeding fuel and scrap metal, and it was terrifying. They were going too fast and not fast enough, their enemies gaining with every second, and no matter what Shiro did, every blast was too close. It was too loud, too hot, the sound of alarms blasting through his skull dimmed as the pressure dropped. Someone was screaming Matt was screaming Matt they had to they had to-!

“Shiro they’re gaining!”

Shiro snarled, throwing his weight behind the controls until they dug into his palms, a new, grounding sensation. He pushed everything he could into their thrusters, pushing them towards a frozen satellite. A cold sweat broke across his brow, and bile churned in the back of his throat, but they caught the moon’s atmosphere.

Then they were falling.

The noise blurred into an unending scream and he was see flames licking at the edges of the view screen. Shiro froze, mind a blank as they hurtled towards the rocky surface of the moon. They were going to die, he was trapped in his memories as panic rose up into his throat and threatened to strangle him.

“Shiro!”

Keith screamed his name and suddenly the world snapped back into focus and Shiro blinked down at the control panel blaring with alarms. The ship was pitching, spiraling down as he wrapped his hands around the dead controls. He closed his eyes and took a breath, forcing air into his lungs despite the iron bands that squeezed around his ribs.

Think. Think through this. You have to do this.

“Keith, take the controls.” He snapped out commands, tearing his sleeve open. He couldn’t pilot the ship, not with his reflexes and not when they needed perfection. There was only one person who had the skill to pull off a save like this.

“What?!” Keith hesitated, caught between his engineer role and Shiro’s order. It only took a single look before he was scrambling out of his seat. Shiro pried open the forearm of his metal prosthetic, quickly sorting through the delicate mechanical pieces and wires until he found its power source.

“Just be ready on my command, I want a short three second burst. There’s only enough power for one go at this before it shorts, so make it count.”

Shiro dove under the console, prying it open and taking it apart with almost painful familiarity. His prosthetic had gone still, dead weight attached to the end of his stump that he didn’t even have the time to remove. “You need to slow our descent and stabilize our flight path. Li, get us landing coordinates! On my count. Three. Two.”

Keith was grim-faced but his grip was steady. Li was juggling multiple options, their speed making no target a good option, but enough decent options possible. This was a good team. Shiro was going down with a good team.

But he would not let them crash.

“One!”

All at once, the control lit up, every button gone bright, and Keith pulled them out of their tailspin. Everything tilted sideways. Shiro was thrown into the far wall, the impact leaving his teeth clanging in his skull. He picked himself up like nothing happened.

“It’s not enough, Shiro! I can’t slow her, we’re coming in too hot.”

Shiro already knew. It was inevitable. They were going to burn out. They were going to die and it was all his fault, all his goddamn fault. “Keith.” His voice felt too stiff, detached like he was listening to someone else speak, but Shiro would not drag them down. “Initiate flight pattern Zeta 4.1. Like we practiced. Li, bring up the atmosphere thermal readings. Thermal winds specifically.”

Keith’s eyes bugged out of their sockets, surprise cutting across his features, but only for an instant. He was already moving, adjusting their flight patterns. He would never question Shiro in the middle of a mission, not when Shiro needed him the most. “I need Engine One, or this won’t work.”

“I- okay. Okay I can control it manually,” Shiro said, stumbling towards the back of the simulator. His legs felt like they were going to give out at any second, and he had no idea if he could, but he was damn well going to try. He pried open the control panel, and it clattered as it fell. “Keith tell me when.”

A hush fell over the cockpit. The sound of creaking metal settled between them, a physical weight Shiro could feel on his skin that did nothing to soothe his screaming nerves. It was all up to Keith. “Hey Shiro, remember when you told me to never do this ever again?”

Shiro laughed like it was his last chance.

“I guess this is the one time you should.”

This was impossible, but the one thing he knew he could trust was his team. Li’s skills were impeccable and Keith moved like his other half. They barely had to speak, anticipating each other’s movements and decisions with precision. If they were flying blind, Li would be their eyes. If Shiro couldn’t move fast enough, Keith would be his hands. All that was left was to direct them and bring them together. There was no way he could win this alone, but maybe together, they had a chance.

Shiro sparked the engines as Keith rode the thermal winds, turning the spacecraft into a glider to slow their descent. Li called out coordinates, making rapid adjustments as their hull overheated, just enough to keep them from burning up completely in the atmosphere. Shiro controlled the listing side of the ship as Keith matched him with the forward engines, totally in sync as they leveled off their descent.

“Landing Zone identified!” Li yelled “But you’re going to have to do this manually, the gear’s been fried.”

“Easy.” Shiro huffed, sweat dripping down from his temples as he threw Keith a fierce grin. “Come around to 22.59 mark eight, get our speed out of the red zone. Li, you keep an eye on that LZ, I want to know if we wobble as much as a centimeter off course. Keith, I can manage the power flow and the engine burn, but I need you to thread this needle. You’ve got this?”

“Yes, sir.” Keith didn’t even turn around, eyes locked on the small patch of flat rock that rose to meet them.

“Now!” The engines burned again as Shiro fought to maintain their speed with just one hand on the controls. Li called out warnings as the ship pitched, steadied, and then dropped in for a landing. They hit the ground with enough force to send them sprawling off their feet, the impact tearing through the belly of the ship as the alarms wailed.

Then it stilled as Shiro picked himself up and staggered to the readouts. They were alive, they were alive.

But they’d crashed before completing the mission. The simulation blinked off, the screen fading to black as Shiro stared hopelessly at the resetting controls.

He’d failed his objectives.

He’d failed.

He could feel the blood draining from his face, his nerves prickling with tension that had nowhere to run. After everything, he’d thought, he’d really thought that he had a chance.

He turned to his flight crew, saw the same realization twisting across their faces and offered him the most sincere smile he could muster. “Thank you for flying with me,” he said. “That was a good run.”

Shiro meant every word.

He held his head high as he walked out of the simulator, staring defiantly up at the spectator box, his jaw grit against the wave of emotion that threatened to drag him down. He couldn’t salute.

Shiro swallowed thickly, around a sob or a scream he couldn’t tell, but he would not break, not here. Not in front of all these people. He inclined his head respectfully as he past, and walked away with his back straight and head held high, even with his right arm pressed against his chest.

“Shiro wait!”

Keith just wouldn’t let him leave.

Shiro let Keith catch up in the hallway, his features flushed with exertion, eyes bright and wild, and god it hurt to look at him. He was brilliant and beautiful, and Shiro wanted one moment where he could hate him without hating himself for it. “Get back in there, Keith. You have a sim to beat.” Shiro said, and he didn’t know how his voice kept steady when he wanted to scream, but Shiro refused to back down. “You were incredible. I couldn’t have done that without you, what you did was-.” He exhaled, shuddering all the way down to his toes. “No one else could have done what you did today, and no one else deserves this mission like you do. So go back in there, and give them hell.”

No one.

“Shiro, no.” Keith was pleading even as Shiro yanked him close, wrapping him in a one armed hug tight enough to crush the air from his lungs. “I don’t want to do this alone.”

“You’re ready.” Even exhausted and defeated, he was still so kind that it made Keith’s heart ache. “I believe in you, you can do this.”

“Please?” Keith breathed. I love you. He meant. I need you.

“I’m proud of you.” With a tired smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, Shiro let Keith go. “I need to get out of here, but I want you to know, it’s been an honor to serve with you.” He couldn’t quite manage to keep his voice from shaking and turned around, giving his friend a wave as he walked away. If he was going to fall apart, he wasn’t going to do it here. His dream was over, but Keith’s was just beginning.

He wouldn’t break until he was alone.

Keith watched him gather up what was left of his pride and go, cursing his own cowardice at letting Shiro walk away.

Chapter Text

It was a long time before Shiro went home. There were too many messages waiting for him, the hopeful calls from his moms, the worried texts from Keith, the flood from Allura, Hunk, Lance, and Pidge that started off celebratory and switched to comforting when they must have found out what had happened. He couldn’t deal with any of them, so he just walked through the city for hours until he was too exhausted to hurt.

Tomorrow, he’d be able to face them all with a smile. He could tape the pieces of his life back together and pretend that everything was going to be okay. He could stand there as they pitied him and offered their apologies and reassure them that he’d be okay. Tomorrow.

Right now, he wasn’t okay.

It had been a long shot, he’d known that going in. They hadn’t believed that he would be able to pass the training, they’d already moved on and had their eye on Keith. Even as he trained and tried to push past his limitations, he knew he’d never be the same as he was before the accident. He couldn’t be. It didn’t stop him from trying or from hoping.

The question Shiro couldn’t answer was ‘now what?’ He’d poured everything into this, there hadn’t been a plan B. By the time he’d gone home, it was dark and Shiro closed the door behind himself, tossing his keys on the table. What if he just went to sleep and never got out of bed again, that seemed really appealing right now.

He dropped into bed, ready to do just that but something was digging into his thigh until he was as uncomfortable as Caesar was on the Ides of March. He shoved off his pants but found his phone tucked into it. Shiro wasn’t sure what he was expecting, probably nothing at all, but he picked out a picture of a turtle on a skateboard and sent it to Akira.

Two seconds later, he got a reply. “I can see you’re very skilled on a board.”

For the first time in hours, Shiro cracked a smile, and he buried his face in his pillow, like he could hide away all the shitty things he felt if he burrowed far enough. “I try :)” he said, but hesitated before he could find the courage to speak up next. “I had a bad day. Is it okay if we just watch something? Or music. Just something quiet.”

“I’m sorry.” Akira replied. Shiro snorted, wondering if he was being too condescending by saying he was sorry as well. “Do you wanna talk about it?”

“Not really. I don’t know.” Shiro said, but it was easy around Akira, easier than it was with anyone else. “I just really wanted this promotion. And I thought I had a chance. I didn’t realize how much I thought it. I kept telling myself it was a long shot, but I ended up thinking this is itthis is my chance nd I dont know anymire. I don’t think Ive worked so hard for anything in a long time.”

Shiro sighed and he could feel it in his bones, leaving him shaking with cold. “And I don’t know how to face anyonr. My friends keep wanting to make it better and say that it’ll be ok and ya it will be eventually but i don’t want eventually. I wanted this now and it feels like shit and I’m tired of people trying to make me feel better.”

Once it started, Shiro couldn’t seem to get himself to stop, typing too fast for his spellcheck to keep up, but Akira knew just what to say.

“I promise I won’t make you feel better.”

“Deal.” Shiro swapped his phone for his tablet, curling up in bed and pulling the sheets up around him. He was being childish, there was no way he could just pretend that this hadn’t happened or hide away from the world forever, but it felt good to try. Akira didn’t ask him any questions he wasn’t ready to answer and didn’t force him to pretend that things were okay. It was a welcome break.

“So, what should we do to tell this shitty day to screw off?” Akira asked.

“Besides sleep for a hundred years? At least that’s something to look forward to, I haven’t been getting much this week. Too focused on the promotion, I guess.”

“We could quit, run away and join the circus or something? Move to the middle of the desert and live in a shack in the middle of nowhere?”

Shiro laughed, letting the tension slowly ease from the muscles in his back. “Sounds great.” He typed. “Though I’m not sure how much money we’ll get in being hermits these days. Seems like there’s not really a demand.”

“Damn economy.” Akira replied.

“Plus, imagine how much sand would get everywhere? I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a real chafing hazard. It might be fine for a couple of nights, but I’ll bet that you’ll be missing a shower really quickly.”

“I guess.” Akira seemed almost disappointed. “I’ll bet the view would be nice though, that far outside of the city. You’d probably be able to see a sky full of stars.”

“Yeah.” That did have a nice allure and Shiro closed his eyes. With a night that clear and far away from the light pollution, it would be like he could reach out and touch the stars. It might be as close as he ever got to them now.

“Maybe I can take you some time?” Shiro’s first instinct was to agree. His own eagerness stopped him in his tracks, and he was forced to reconsider. Driving out into the middle of nowhere with some stranger probably wasn’t the best idea, no matter how well he thought Akira. But he knew Akira. He must have hesitated long enough, because another message was quickly tacked on. “Not as a first date. But some time. Sorry did that go too far?”

At least they were on the same page. “A little but I wanted to go. We have to do all the dumb space dates like the observatory.” Shiro winced. If Akira suggested a Garrison public tour, he might burst out laughing. “I’m really looking forward to Sunday.”

“Me too.” No uncertainty, no shyness. Shiro felt a rush of affection for a default icon, and simple, easy hope. It was nice. “It’s kind of the highlight of my week.”

Come over tonight, Shiro almost said. It would take him a second to type the request and even less to send it. He wanted to. He came so close to taking the risk. But Akira was familiar and comforting this way. Shiro wasn’t sure he could take seeing a stranger where his new friend was.

“Same here.” He said instead. It didn’t feel like enough.

“Can I ask you something?” Then Akira hastily added. “Don’t make that joke.”

“LOL aww :(:(:(:( What’s up?”

“I just wanted some advice. I can’t stop thinking about this.” Akira went silent as he typed, getting his thoughts together. “What happened today. On my end. It didn’t go well for anyone. A friend of mine took it really hard and I want to help him. I don’t know how. You’re just really easy to talk to. And I want to be that for him.”

“Just do what you did for me? Don’t push too hard, just be there to listen if he needs to talk and if he’s not ready for that, just be there anyways.” Shiro offered, surprised at the question. He was sure Akira would never refer to himself as caring, even if he was. Shiro didn’t need to see his face to know that the other man worried when Shiro was hurt or celebrated when he was happy. He offered support without hesitation, it took a rare person to give so much.

“I guess. We both screwed up and I don’t want to make it worse.” There was a pause and then. “I think I let him down in a big way.”

Shiro let out a sympathetic sigh, even if Akira couldn’t hear him. If I knew you, I could ask you to be here. If I knew you, maybe I could ask you to hold me.

“Then ask him what he needs, just like you did with me. That’s a good way to start. It might not be as bad as you think.” Shiro typed. “You can do this.”

“I hope so.”

“If it doesn’t work out, I promise I won’t try to make you feel better, too.”

 


 

Keith considered pulling up his roots and running, putting as much distance between himself and failure as he could. It had a certain appeal, leave behind everything frustrating or complicated and starting over again with a clean slate. Maybe somewhere he could just be alone for a while until he sorted out the way he felt, it was never easy trying to deal with the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.

He hadn’t spoken to Shiro since that day at the Garrison when they’d crashed in the simulator and he watched all of his best friend’s dreams die. Worse, when it had been his turn to pilot the simulator for the test, he hadn’t been able to keep from crashing in a blazing fireball to end the session. Even with all of his skills and a solid crew at his back, there hadn’t been a way to beat their test and failure didn’t sit well in his gut.

If anyone was going to beat him for the role of pilot for the Alpha Centauri mission, it should be Shiro. If it wasn’t Shiro, then it should be him , Keith had enough pride in his abilities to feel the sting sharply.

Officially, the powers that be were still deliberating over their decisions, but after months of being actively courted, their silence was stony and unforgiving. Keith hated to admit it, but part of him had been affected by their campaign. He’d thought that one way or another, there would be reason to celebrate once the final decision was made. He hated it even more that he still hoped he could have been picked over Shiro.

It was a lot to think about, and he didn’t have his best friend to share it with.

Keith missed him. Shiro replied to every text and call. He was still going into work. He hadn’t run off to join a cult. Keith knew exactly where to find him, whenever he wanted to. But Keith knew Shiro. He could tell when his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, or when he was so invested in making everyone believe he was okay that he never took the time to be. Shiro needed his space, and Keith was always going to be the one who looked out for him.

Keith just missed him. He didn’t want distance to be the only way he helped.

LionO had helped in a big way, filling the void Shiro had left. He was funny and supportive, and obviously hurting. He didn’t talk about it directly, but Keith liked to think that talking at all made a difference. If only Keith didn’t spend so much time talking about Shiro. He’d have felt more guilty but LionO gave pretty good advice.

LionO had helped get here, in front of Shiro’s apartment, with a tub of ice cream in hand and those giant waffle cones that always cost too much.

When Shiro opened the door, Keith knew he made the right decision.

His friend smiled and Keith stammered as he handed over the ice cream, knowing he was rambling and unable to stop himself. “I thought that you might want this. We just haven’t had a chance to talk and I was thinking maybe we could hang out a little because things have sucked lately and I kind of missed you and-“

“It’s okay.” Shiro cut him off and gestured Keith into his apartment. Things were neatly in place and organized, Keith wasn’t sure why that distracted him. He’d kind of expected Shiro to draw the curtains and block the doors, but he seemed almost alright as he put the ice cream in the freezer.

“It’s not okay. This whole thing is a mess and it’s my fault. I let you down, Shiro.” Keith knew he should apologize for failing as Shiro’s engineer, but doubt and fear had kept him from saying it sooner. He’d promised to always be Shiro’s right hand and his partner, to help him and follow his lead no matter where Shiro went. The one time that Shiro had needed him to be at his best and Keith had failed.

“No, you didn’t.” Shiro grabbed two beers from the fridge and tossed one to Keith before flopping down on his couch. “You did your best, I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.”

“But you could have, that’s the thing. I wasn’t the right engineer for you, someone else could have been better and things would have turned out differently. After how hard you worked, it’s not fair.” Keith hesitated before joining Shiro on the couch. “I failed.”

Shiro took a breath, holding on to the half-formed words as he struggled with the truth. He’d never talked about his fears with Keith before, or with anyone really. It had taken a faceless friend online before he felt comfortable opening up about his vulnerabilities, safe from anyone who actually knew him. But he’d been honest with Akira and it had helped. Maybe it was time to be true with his closest friend in the world.

“Keith, you did better than anyone could’ve asked you to.” He saw Keith stiffen, shoulders tight with tension as he prepared to argue, and without hesitation Shiro dragged him in closer, tucking him tight against him. All it took was a breath, and Keith was melting against his side, boneless and tired. Shiro hated that he’d worried so much.

It felt like Shiro was going to choke on all things he wanted to say. It would have been so easy to back out, but the way Keith was looking at him made his stomach flip. Shiro couldn’t stop now. “Anyone, anyone would’ve been grateful to fly with you, Keith. You’ve been in my shadow for so long and the way you look at me… You look up to me instead of looking inside yourself.”

“I don’t understand.” Keith admitted freely, but his brow furrowed enough to tell Shiro that he didn’t like what he was hearing.

Shiro swallowed thickly, but his voice went soft. “You’re so hard on yourself. You don’t have to be on my behalf. I’m not worth it.” He laughed and it sounded strained to his own ears. “You know, I think I can see your apartment from this pedestal you put me on. ”

His heart was beating too quickly. He felt obnoxious, certain he’d embarrassed himself and Keith, but Shiro was tired of being everyone’s idol. The pedestal had crumbled long ago.

“Wow Shirogane, I thought you were bad, but you really are full of crap.” Keith sounded honestly angry. Shiro tried to pull back, but a strong hand kept him in place. “I push myself because there’s nothing I want more than to fly as far as I can, as fast as I can. And yeah you’re a part of that, because no one else has the same drive I do, and that means something to me. You help make me better, but I work really hard for this on my own too.”

Then Keith was looking down at him, and his expression softened, even as his tone hardened with steel. “I want to be the best I can, because you wouldn’t do any less. I don’t know how you can be such an arrogant asshole and so self-conscious at the same time.”

Shiro stared, caught like a deer in the headlights, but Keith was still fuming, so clearly unhappy that there was only one thing he could do. Shiro dropped on top of him, pinning him to the couch and rubbing his face against his arm. Keith reached up to hold him, gripping Shiro’s right shoulder tight with his left arm, leaving his metal limb tucked neatly against Keith’s side.

“You should’ve served the ice cream. If you were gonna lecture me. I want ice cream.” He muttered into Keith’s shoulder, just to hear his friend laugh. When Keith tried to squirm away, Shiro just held on tighter. When he looked up, Keith’s eyes were closed, and his fingers absently traced the sleeve of Shiro’s shirt. Shiro brushed a stray strand of hair out of his eyes, only for it flop back into place. Shiro did it again anyway. “I wish you could ease up.”

“Do you hear yourself? I swear,” Keith grumbled under his breath, but he was smiling. It was small and hurt, and far too brave, but it was sincere. It took Shiro’s breath away every time. With a mirthless laugh, Keith tried to press closer. “It’s not enough anyway. I fucked up with you, and I messed up my sim, too. It was awful.”

“Oh, Keith.” Shiro’s arm tightened around him like he could shield Keith from his pain.

“I crashed, I never crashed. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Shiro. I worked hard for this and now I don’t know what to do. If I can’t fly, I don’t know what I’m going to do, it’s all I know.” Keith sounded so hopeless and so familiar.

How many times had Shiro thought the same thing about himself? When he’d first faced his future after the accident, he wasn’t sure he’d ever fly again. Even with rehab and training, he still wasn’t back to where he used to be and for the longest time, he’d been convinced that meant his career was over. The Garrison would pass him over and he’d never be able to touch the stars again. He saw that same doubt and guilt on Keith’s face now, coming to the realization that failure was real and this might be the last chance.

Shiro’s heart ached as he held Keith close and brushed his fingers through his hair. He missed the feeling of Keith in his arms and he couldn’t deny how he missed this.

“I’m never going to be the pilot I used to be, I know I can’t. It took me a long time to be able to admit that, but it’s true.” Shiro said. Keith opened his mouth to argue, but Shiro didn’t give him a chance. If he was going to be honest, he needed to lay his insecurities bare. “I feel like everyone expects so much from me and I haven’t been able to live up to that. I’m tired, I hurt, I try and it never seems to be good enough.”

“You don’t need to be!”

“I know, but just because I know doesn’t mean I can stop. I’m scared you won’t look at me the same way you do now. You stand by me and I don’t want to let you down.”

Keith looked shocked as he clung to Shiro. “You never could! I don’t want to let you down either.”

“You didn’t, they set us up to fail.” The older man sighed. “They gave us a scenario we weren’t supposed to be able to win, that was the real test.”

“What?” Keith jerked back, confusion and fury in his eyes.

“But it taught me something. Even if I can’t fly like I used to, I don’t have to. Our run was the only one where the crew survived, no one else has ever managed it and we only did it because we were together. I could never have pulled that off on my own, I needed you, Keith. You’re my partner and I’m better with you too. We’re stronger as a team than we are on our own.”

“Shiro, how do you…” He could see the wheels turning in Keith’s head, his thoughts racing behind those brilliant lavender eyes. A rush of warmth coursed through Shiro’s veins, and his smile sharpened into something wicked and hopeful.

“I need you, Keith. Apparently the Garrison needs you too.”

Keith launched himself at him, throwing himself into his arms at full speed. It was awkward and clumsy, but Keith was laughing as he wrapped himself around Shiro, a hairsbreadth from toppling over. If he fell, Shiro would’ve fallen with him. They wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Then just as quickly, Keith jolted backwards. “But Shiro-”

Shiro held him down, dragging him back on top of him. It felt like his chest was going to burst, anticipation and joy and hope leaving him breathless. “Or should I say, the both of us?”

Keith latched onto him like an overeager octopus, but that was okay because Shiro wouldn’t let him go. “How! The- they said?”

“I got a call from Mission Control two? Three hours ago?” Shiro laughed, burying his face in Keith’s soft hair. In tickled his nose, and Shiro didn’t know how to stop. “They said they were reevaluating the mission parameters.”

“What do you mean?” Keith gasped, a burst of hope so powerful in his chest that he couldn’t breathe. Shiro was laughing, so he was laughing too. “How is this even possible?”

“Because we’re im possible. No single pilot could have pulled off what we did and neither one of us could have done it alone. It made them realize that a two year mission to a whole new solar system needed a little bit of that impossible if we were going to pull it off. So…you in, co-pilot?”

“Yes! Oh my god, oh my god?” Keith was overwhelmed, all of his emotions a whirlwind that threatened to sweep him away. He went from nothing to everything in a heartbeat. He’d shown up on Shiro’s doorstep a failure and was now a partner, he could barely wrap his mind around it. “You didn’t call me right away?”

“I’ve been trying to just process everything. I thought it was over for me and now, I get a second chance. I couldn’t have done any of this without you.” Shiro’s voice gentled. There’d been so much he’d never been able to say to Keith, he’d been too afraid to admit his weaknesses or how much he needed his best friend. He would never do that again. They were equals, they were both afraid and it was okay to break down those unrealistic expectations. Things couldn’t be the way they used to be and they’d wasted too much time pretending everything was okay instead of admitting they needed help.

Or admitting he was in love with his best friend.

Now Keith was warm and soft against his side, his smile impossibly fond and eyes impossibly bright. Shiro thought he could see the stars in those eyes.

Eventually they would break out the ice cream, put on a cheesy movie, laugh until someone was sick. And that was how Shiro realized he could never let him go.

 


 

Keith hadn’t left until the next morning. They’d fallen asleep on each other, and woke up to find the television still on and their limbs stiff. Shiro couldn’t remember what had kept them up so late, but they’d talked deep into the night. Not ten minutes after Shiro had confirmed his acceptance, Keith had gotten a call from Mission Control. They’d barely kept from giggling through it, then there was nothing to stop them. It was official.

Alpha Centauri was theirs.

In the bright afternoon light, it still felt like a dream. He was still floating. It was only a matter of time before the news spread to the rest of the Garrison. Shiro’s bet was Allura would hear something before anyone else, but sometimes Pidge got lucky with the updates. He’d know as soon as his phone blew up. He had to call his moms, they’d be thrilled. And maybe it was time to make a few other calls as well.

Shiro checked his phone, but there was nothing new from Akira. That was unusual, but right now, Shiro was grateful. His mind was made up, and he knew what he needed to do, but that didn’t mean it was going to be easy.

“Hey.”

Akira replied almost immediately. “Hey yourself”

“Thank you for the anti-pep talk the other day. Not making me feel better made me feel much better. Everything sort of worked out in the end.” He typed as Akira sent back an emoji smile.

“I’m glad! Same here, just got some great news that was pretty well-deserved.”

And now came the hard part. Akira had helped him feel confident and be honest in all parts of his life, he’d been a good friend and Shiro hadn’t lied when he’d fallen. But that new honesty had led him to a truth he couldn’t deny: he was still in love with Keith and it wouldn’t be fair to start something new if he hadn’t moved on. Maybe Keith wasn’t interested or maybe their relationship would change in ways Shiro wouldn’t like, but it was worth the risk to at least try. That wasn’t fair to Akira.

“Hey, can we talk?”

“Those are pretty ominous words.” Akira joked back and Shiro winced.

“I like you, a LOT. You’ve been such an amazing friend and I could really see myself moving forward with you but-” He hesitated, trying to find the right words that would be true but wouldn’t hurt Akira. There weren’t any, there was no way to do this and spare his heart.

“But you’re not ready for anything more?”

“It wouldn’t be fair. I can’t get over my best friend and I know that sounds silly because I’ve been pining over him for years without doing anything and I really should let it go, but I can’t. I haven’t been able to move on and I don’t want to start something with someone and know I have feelings for someone else. I’m so sorry.”

Shiro inhaled deeply, forcing himself to type out the last few sentences.

“You’re amazing, Akira. Really amazing. But he’s my best friend.”

For a long time, there was silence. Shiro kept his eyes trained on the bottom of the screen, waiting for the alert that Akira was typing. Once he started, Shiro couldn’t keep himself from holding his breath. It was a problem. He ended up choking on his tongue.

“Has he seen your abs yet? That might work.”

Shiro burst out laughing and felt immediately guilty for it. He had no problem telling people he wasn’t interested in every other aspect of his life. It was just when people wanted a chance to get closer that he faltered. He knew he could be cutting and judgmental at the best of times, but when people wanted him , the rules switched, just enough for it to matter. It was stupid, but telling someone to take their experimental quantum physics and jam it up their ass (Slav) was a lot easier than telling someone he wasn’t interested.

He never could do something that would hurt someone else, even if it meant keeping his own feelings bottled up inside. Keith had been his cockblocker for long enough, he needed to be honest with everyone.

“I don’t think they’re his thing.” Shiro said, sending as many nervous smileys as he could.

“Maybe get him glasses?” Shiro sent another string of sad faces that Akira laughed at. Shiro was still trying to figure out where he stood when Akira asked, “So you’re going to tell him?”

It was the same thing Shiro had been asking himself all day. It felt strange telling Akira about it, but at the same time, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. He’d never been anything but honest with Akira, and Akira didn’t even know his name. “That’s the plan, I think. I need to figure it out, but at least if he knows, then it’s over. Whatever happens. IDK. Sorry I’m rambling.”

“You’re a genuinely good guy you know.” Shiro didn’t know how to reply to that. “He’s your best friend right? He should know that, even if he has shitty taste. If you ever get together, you should tell me how. Maybe I have a shot with my guy. We’re going to be spending a lot of time together.”

“If I learn the secret, I’ll definitely let you know. Your guy would be lucky to have you.”

“So I keep telling myself.”

Shiro smiled as his anxiety eased. Akira understood, of course he did. That’s why they had always gotten along so well together. There’d been some kind of innate connection, a shared sense of the world how they felt. Akira had even thought his dry, sarcastic sense of humor was funny, which just went to show he had the best taste in jokes. Even if this was the end of something, it could be the start of something else. Shiro didn’t want to lose him, a good friend was too important.

“Hey, do you still want to grab something to eat on Sunday? No expectations or anything, I just would really like to meet you. Maybe we could still be friends?”

The answer came back as if Akira didn’t need to consider it at all. “Absolutely! Friends sound great, especially if we’re going to help each other figure out how to break the ice with our best friends. Besides, you owe me some pancakes or something and I get to see your abs in person. I call that a win for me.”

Shiro laughed and agreed, he had made a promise. Just a few days ago, he’d felt like his life had fallen apart and he’d lost everything he’d ever wanted. Now, he had the dream job, the courage to be honest with Keith, and on top of everything, a new friend he cared about. He was lucky, no doubt about it.

 


 

Shiro agreed to meet Akira at Doodlebugs. After everything that happened, it seemed fitting that it would end there, and Akira said he liked their pancakes. Red shirt, guns out and a large box of peanut-butter filled chocolates, the ones his friend had once mentioned in passing. It was just like the first time, but this time, Shiro was sure Akira would show up. If he didn’t, well, Shiro wouldn’t feel too guilty about eating the entire box.

Shiro still hoped he’d get to meet him.

Maybe it hadn’t ended the way he’d wanted, but it was a lot better than it could have been. You couldn’t put a price on a good friend.

“Shiro, hey.”

He looked up in pleasant surprise as a familiar voice called out. Shiro was smiling before he realized it, and he waved Keith over the same way. “You getting lunch?”

Keith shrugged, and looked around the room. His expression soured, the longer he looked. “Waiting for someone.”

“Same.” Shiro checked his watch, as he inched across the booth, making room for Keith at the end of the table. “He’s late.”

Keith frowned, clearly disappointed in Akira. This wasn’t exactly how Shiro had wanted to introduce them, but he was certain Keith wouldn’t scare his friend off. Keith would leave anyway, once whoever he was waiting for showed up.

“Who are you waiting for?”

“The guy I’ve been seeing. You can keep me company until he gets here?” Shiro grinned at Keith’s expression. “And you don’t need to chase this one off, we just decided to be friends.”

Keith’s eyes narrowed slightly as he stole a chocolate before Shiro could stop him. There was something wary, a sudden tension in his shoulders that Shiro couldn’t place.

“What’s wrong?” He asked, immediately concerned. “I know the last few days have been stressful, are you feeling okay?”  

“Shiro, what’s your friend’s name?” Keith asked carefully.

“We haven’t actually exchanged real names yet, but his online handle is Akira. What?”

Keith choked on the chocolate, coughing so hard that Shiro had to thump him on the back. He gasped for air, eyes wide and watery as Shiro gestured wildly for the waitress to bring them a glass of water. Keith closed his hands around it as soon as it was offered, gulping it back and feeling sick. He was the brightest red Shiro had ever seen, even worse than when Keith had downed half a bottle of rum by himself, and he refused to look Shiro in the eye.

“Hey, what’s going on? Keith?” Shiro knelt down beside him and tried to coax him to look up. “Just breathe, buddy. You’re going to be okay, just relax.”

“So much for being in love with your best friend, huh?” Keith croaked weakly.

Shiro froze.

But Keith didn’t.

All at once, Shiro was being pulled forward, wrapped in strong, steady arms, and Keith was kissing him. Kissing them in the middle of their favorite breakfast place, in the middle of everyone, kissing him like he never wanted to let go. Shiro gasped into his mouth, eyes falling shut, his entire body trembling like a live wire. When Keith tried pull away, Shiro wouldn’t let him.

“Oh god.” Shiro whispered. “Oh god .”

“For the record.” Keith said very seriously, breathing hard like he’d ran a marathon. His lips were the most impossible pink, and Shiro couldn’t look away. “They were always my thing.”

And from somewhere in the back of the diner came a loud WHOOP as Dolores pumped her fist in the air. “Finally! Tell your friends they owe me $300, I called it.”