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Training with the paladins of Voltron is certainly an interesting experience. Their time away from the garrison has given them the advantage of developing truly unique styles, differentiating from each other. Each paladin is distinctive, completely comfortable in what their own skills bring to the table. Hunk is strong, Pidge is dainty but fierce. Allura works with deceptive grace that can mutate into something truly fearsome at any moment. Lance roots himself in movement as opposed to actual moves. And Keith is a marvel to watch.

James finds himself rapt, unable to focus much on his own fitness agenda whilst Keith thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to workout in a thin tight-fitted black t-shirt and even tighter fitting black pants. It’s almost as unforgiving as the paladin undersuits, almost. This is just one of three training sessions they’re scheduled for this week. James isn’t sure how he’s going to make it to the sparring stage if he can barely get through one gym session. Captain Shirogane approaches Keith, hand pressed against his shoulder. He leans down to say something, earning a small smile from Keith.

And that’s all it takes for James to know immediately what he should do about his dilemma. Or to be more specific: his giant all-consuming crush on Keith.

“Captain Shirogane,” James gives a salute, approaching when the session is over. “I wanted to extend a thank you from myself and the MFEs for your work on building these new training routines.”  

“Hey don’t thank me, thank Keith. He helped with a lot of the format,” at mention of his name, Keith looks up from tying his boots on the other side of the room. Sweat drips down his brow, and it’s a crime he’s let it trail so far down his face. Keith’s eyes narrow, flitting between them both. James isn’t sure what that means, so turns his full attention back to the Captain as any good cadet would.

“Still, you’re a true inspiration Sir.”

Shirogane really is. And the way he moves when he fights, it’s as dynamic to watch as Keith, only in a different way. Keith is fire and blazes through his enemy with the force and a fluidity that is truly mesmerising. Shirogane is like the air itself, impossible to evade, wrapping around you and suffocating with the intensity of every move until you’ve found yourself gasping. Nobody in the garrison can hold a candle to the pair of them in physical close-range combat, really. The only two that come to mind are the blade of marmora agents, one of them Keith’s mother, both extremely fond of Keith.

“You’re not so bad yourself, Griffin.” Shirogane wipes the back of his head with his towel, earnest in his praise. “Maybe next time, we can spar and I can give you some pointers.”

The words are a surprise, and an honour. There’s only one person Shirogane spars regularly with, instead of talking others through their matches, and that’s Keith. It’s not everyday someone gets an offer like this so directly. For a moment, James strives to find his voice again. More than half the kids in school idolised Shirogane, and whilst James is beyond that point now it’s still surreal to be standing here and working with someone as legendary.

“I’d appreciate that.” James salutes a final time before retreating to where two members of his team are sat. Sometimes, the best ideas come at the most unexpected of times. But brilliance isn’t something you can force, you have to wait for it to unfurl itself. If that happens in the midst of a workout, then so be it.  

“Ew, what on earth was that?” Rizavi asks, wrinkling her nose.

“Griffin is seeking out the attention and approval of Captain Shirogane, believing it could increase his chances of developing a romantic relationship with Keith, the leader of Voltron,” Leifsdottir says without missing a beat, eyes locked on the screen she’s reading. It’s simultaneously impressive and disappointing how quickly he’s been exposed.

“That’s literally the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever head.”

James pointedly ignores Rizavi, because he knows this plan is good. It’s not ridiculous at all. He doesn’t need to hear the baseless criticism, when it’s already deep in motion. Shirogane is important to Keith, and they’re important to each other. Earning the respect of Takashi Shirogane beyond their professional setting is a complete no-brainer, and not just because of everything Leifsdottir outlined. This is not a quest of selfish personal gain, it’s a quest to genuinely better understand. Unlike the days of his misguided youth, Jame is actively pursuing the path nobody else in his class ever did.

He wants to understand Keith, get on equal footing the right way he never bothered to before. But a lot has changed since those days of brusque encounters and catty swipes. Back then, for example, he wasn’t falling at an exponential rate for Keith.

Behind him, Rizavi is snickering. Whilst knowing he will probably regret asking, James stages his own intervention. It’ll only get worse if he doesn’t.

“Something you’d like to share, Rizavi?”

“Nope,” She replies, leaning back in her seat with a grin. “But Captain Shirogane is heading back this way, and I’m waiting to see what your next genius move is.” 

---

James saves his next genius move for another day, because you can’t put too much pressure on something without it bursting. So he waits, finds his opportunity two days later when Captain Shirogane is planning out the flight formation sessions for Voltron and the MFEs to complete. It had been mostly Shirogane’s idea to blend the groups together, make sure they could gel and respond well enough to become a fluid team on the battlefield if necessary. Admittedly, it is a smart move whilst also being James’ best chance at pursuing his masterful plan. Especially since they're all being roped into test flight drills now. 

“Captain Shirogane, Sir,” he salutes at the doorway.

Glancing up from his holopad, Shirogane welcomes him inside with his floating prosthetic. James is momentarily too caught up in wondering whether the hand will shut the door for him or if he should push it shut himself to actually continue executing his plan. He decides that, no, it would be too presumptuous and disrespectful to leave the door open. So once closing the door, he takes a seat opposite the desk Shirogane is sat at, and instead of following his own well-devised steps, launches straight to phase four.

“Request to be partnered with Keith in the flight drill, Sir.”

It’s a request he doubts can be denied on any logical grounds. He and Keith are both respective leaders, who could not only learn a lot working together but develop their own styles more naturally in the presence of another person in similar shoes. The leader of Voltron and the leader of the MFEs need to be in sync, need to be on the same page. To do that, they’ll need to spend quality time with each other. Their shared enthusiasm of piloting is a great place to start, surely. Maybe if they’re lucky sparks could fly outside the parts of their machine’s engines.

“You’d like me to schedule a date for you and Keith?”

Shirogane’s expression is unreadable, and James grips the arm rests of his seat tightly to mask his surprise. There is absolutely no way Shirogane can be poking fun, can really mean what he said in a humourous way. But James hates how he hears the undertone, can’t clear his mind enough to make sense of the question and answer it seriously.

Instead of answering, James finds himself caught in the worst kind of stasis. He is too close to reaching for the glass on the table, before reprimanding himself because it’s not even his water to chug for lack of something better to do.

“Go ahead,” Shirogane gestures to the glass. “I can tell you’re thirsty.”

He’s no longer a cadet taking exams in the simulator, with an officer scrutinising his every move, but the energy here is eerily similar. It’s just a glass of water, and Shirogane isn’t wrong about James being a little dehydrated. And thirsty isn’t a word Shirogane would use in his own office so crudely… is it? Wait - is it.

Something deep inside of James’ soul tells him if he reaches for that glass, if he really does that and becomes that person, he will never know peace again. It will start with Captain Shirogane magically manifesting at random hours suggesting he quench his thirst, and it will end with his entire team on the floor out of action for an entire week due to sustained injuries from treating laughter like an extreme sports.

Worse, Keith will be witness to it all.

James just isn’t sure he can live his life that way, it’s not worth the risk. With a light shake of his head, he declines the drink. Words evade him for longer than he wants them to. Despite absolutely nothing happening, this is the most embarrassing situation he’s found himself in for some time.

“Give me a sec,” Shirogane’s focus goes back to the holopad. James feels relief for reasons he can’t exactly pinpoint. “Just need to get you two together.”

“On the system,” James adds to clarify because he cannot bear another vague remark, desperately trying not to sink into the seat in shame that he thought it was a good idea to clarify such a thing to the Captain of the Atlas. His remark goes ignored, which is probably good. They sit in silence, bar the clicks of the screen. James’ eyes roam back to the glass of water that taunts him on the desk. He begins reciting the Garrison handbook from the top to try and get himself back on form. Succumbing to a lapse in composure because of a glass of water really is pathetic, he’d even let Rizavi have that one over him.

“There,” Shirogane finally says, tapping the screen once more. He looks up, and James doesn’t know what is real anymore so he’s no longer sure if the twitch of Shirogane’s lips actually happens or not. “I’ve hooked you up with Keith.”

Sometimes victory isn’t sweet or satisfying, because it’s overshadowed by the pain and embarrassment it plucked from your bones to get there. As James goes to leave the office, he finds himself standing inches from Keith at the doorway. Had he moved any faster, the pair of them would have definitely crashed into each other. If Keith is started by how close they are, he doesn’t show it. For one long moment, neither of them move. James can barely make out the features of Keith’s face without his vision getting a little blurry, that’s how close they are. And when Keith lets out a breath, James feels it tickling his face. Out of a truly terrible impulse, his eyes slide down, settling on those pursed lips.

Play it cool, Griffin, but not cool enough to get kissed senseless in the doorway of Shirogane’s office.

“What are you doing here, James?” Keith asks, stepping back and shackling James a little bit more to his miserable existence. His body feels compelled to move and close the space between them. Instead, James leans back against the wall. It’s the safest place for anybody to be in every situation. The way Keith looks at him, it’s like he sees everything yet nothing all at once.

“It’s nothing our greatest hope needs to concern himself with,” James parts with, hoping the sincerity cuts through despite his growing exasperation for today’s events. Perhaps it’s cowardly that he turns to leave before there’s a chance to reply, or perhaps it’s just common sense kicking in. EIther way, at this point in time he prefers imagining there’s a bemused smile on Keith’s face than verifying if that’s really true.

---

Running flight tests with Keith, is one of the most enjoyable experiences James thinks he’s had for a long time. A job that can usually become so mundane and repetitive, is transformed into something truly exhilarating the second they make it out to the hangar. Testing out the remaining fighters, marking up the sketchy ones, is a time-consuming task nobody really wants to get lumped with. With the MFEs and Voltron, piloting the older tech like this feels restrictive, primitive almost.

They start with simple enough exercises in the slightly outdated garrison jets, testing out the controls of each. Considering a lot of these have been repurposed and remodelled, awaiting to be merged with Altean technology, they’re in pretty good shape. After a few jets, it slowly becomes a competition as to who can pull off the most elaborate stunts before moving onto the next one. James doesn’t miss the whistle through the comms Keith makes as he executes a perfect and extremely flashy series of spins. And he makes sure to let Keith know how cool the dive he does really is. There’s no need for them to be hooked up to comms whilst doing this. But the moment James held out the earpiece to Keith, it was taken without hesitation and he revels in that.

Hours pass as if minutes, and when they’re finally finished it’s to the backdrop of the orange sun on the horizon. It baths Keith in an ethereal glow, a sight James is hardly able to turn away from. And when Keith gestures up to the black lion perched proudly outside, lips twitching, he’s well and truly done for.

“Wanna go for a spin? There’s room for two.”

James doesn’t doubt it, that thing looks big enough to house at least ten people. Curiosity piqued, he follows Keith up the steps and into the cockpit. The screens emit a purple light, the panels all different shades that paints the cockpit in a colour that feels almost more sombre than it should be. There is history here, stories. Smoothing a hand over the dashboard, James admires the controls. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and it’s bound to fly just as magnificently as it looks. Keith settles into the pilot seat, warns James to hold onto something. Unfortunately they’re not on a motorbike, so that something can’t be Keith’s waist. James grabs the back of the pilot seat, raw excitement rippling through him as the black lion roars. The vibrations shake through the floor, resonating in the cockpit. Then, in one smooth motion, Keith steers them up and they’re off.

It’s so much better than James could have ever imagined.

“Remind me to thank Captain Shirogane for assigning me here today!” he says with a grin.

He’s too enthralled by the way the black lion soars through the sky to notice the way Keith clutches the controls a little tighter, goes a little stiff at the shoulders. The rest of the ride is quiet, but there’s no need for conversation. In fact, talking would detract from the amazing sensation of flying in the black lion.

When they land, James is almost too stunned to move. But the sharp, quick way Keith moves recaptures all his attention. As he reaches the bottom step, Keith is already striding ten paces ahead. James frowns, jogging to catch up with him. They had fun today, he thinks. Keith definitely did too, so this shift in disposition makes no sense.

“There’s still some time before sundown,” James starts, managing to coax Keith into walking a slightly slower pace. That’s something, at least. “You could take a closer look at the MFEs if you want.”

“Thanks, James. This was fun. But I-...” It’s not just Keith’s eyes struggling to pick something to focus on, his mouth can’t seem to shape the words right either. “It’s - I mean, I-... I should probably get back to the paladins.”  

James only has time to wave him off with an absent flick of his wrist. Keith offers a near imperceptible smile over his shoulder, before leaving.

---

The knock on the door is a surprise, given curfew is all but ten minutes away. James brushes aside the irrational part of him hoping to open the door to the man responsible for reducing him to a chaotic shell of his past self. It won’t be Keith, he knows this. For starters, the pattern is too concise and neat to be Keith. Three modest rapps against the wood, lacking the whirlwind force James is sure Keith puts into everything he does. With a sigh, James makes his way to the door. The laughter that breaks over him is weary, entirely turned on himself and his ridiculous crush that is so much more than that.

It’s always Keith yet somehow it also never is. Accepting that doesn’t make it sting any less, not all truths are nice ones to bear. Today with the jets had been an anomaly, a lucky break. He needs to get over it already.

What greets him on the other side of the door has his eyes involuntarily widening. It’s not Keith, but maybe that would have been less of a shock.

“Captain Shirogane,” James breathes. In one swift motion, he pulls the door wide and steps aside. Leaving any commanding officer out in the corridor is poor conduct and extremely impolite. Shirogane steps inside, as if he’s squeezing into a space he can’t fit, and gives a sheepish smile. Closing the door is just about the only thing James is good for right now. By the time he turns around, Shirogane is already roaming his eyes over the room. If this were a spot check, James would probably pass. But there’s a book on the table, splayed out in a way that sticks out too much against the uniformed backdrop.

“Sorry, Captain. I wasn’t expecting visitors at this hour,” James manages, reaching down for the book.

“It’s... immaculate.” Shirogane doesn’t sound particularly surprised, more distracted by his own awe which doesn’t make much sense. This is the man who pilots the Atlas, overcome alien abduction and successfully led many garrison operations into space. He’s seen so many corners of space, experienced the wonders of it. A tidy room shouldn’t be so beguiling in comparison.

“You like Krean?”

James blinks, staring down at the book in his hands Shirogane is gesturing to. Everyone in the Garrison is required to read the first volume of Krean’s work, which practically renders the question moot. “I’ve read this one more times than I can remember.”  

Shirogane smiles at that with a thoughtful hum that sounds fond. “Volume five is my favourite too. It’s been a while since I’ve read it myself.”

There are at least a dozen copies in the library, James knows this, But it doesn’t stop him from offering the book out. “I just finished. So it would go to better use with you, Captain.”

Eyebrows raised, Shirogane takes the book. “Thank you, I’ll make sure to return it safely when I’m done.”

“Take your time, Sir,” James glances over to his bookshelf. “I still have the next two to get through.”  

He actually has two copies of volume five anyway, but it doesn’t feel like the kind of trivial information you pass over to your superior officer. Especially the one you’re desperately trying to impress for reasons not only tied to the greater mission at hand. There’s a question dancing between them, one James can hardly bring himself to ask. Shirogane is here for a reason, but it could be highly disrespectful to be so up front about why that is.

“Is there anything I can help you with, Captain?” James finally manages, rolling his shoulders back to stop them from locking into place with a flinch. There is no polite way to cut to the chase, and it’s in times like this James truly admires Keith’s blunt albeit biting directness. It’s an impressive skill James can rarely accomplish himself, all his attempts are far too fractious.

The book is placed back on the table, as if it never left. Then Shirogane works his way across the room, towards James.

“Griffin,” Shirogane begins, pressing his hand to James’ shoulder. The touch is startling, something James never expected to experience first hand. It’s gentle and grounding, the gravity of it would ease the tension brewing in his chest if circumstances were different. His eyes flit between Shirogane’s hand and face. Whilst Shirogane keeps formalities in meetings, he endeavours to use first names outside those doors. This is the first time he has called James by his last name off the clock, and that has definitely not escaped James’ attention.

He wonders, whether this is a professional visit or a personal one. Somehow, it’s as if it straddles both.

“As Keith’s…”

Shirogane trails off in a way that is just shy of awkward, and James somehow feels like he’s the one intruding on his privacy despite Shirogane being the one who knocked on his door and stepped inside. Friend is inadequate, family is a start but still not right. James has seen it, felt it, everyone has. There’s not really a word for it, for them and how tethered their souls are. They’re entwined, for eternity - beyond that, even. Maybe that isn’t possible, but this bond is unshakeable enough to defy the laws of space and time, never bowing to higher forces. It’s as hushed and quiet as the flickerings of a tempered fire, whilst simultaneously as powerful and vast as the known universe. And this is a story written into the fabric of their reality, with only a handful of pages on public view.

To be threatened by it is like and fearing the constancy of the sun hanging high in the sky above their heads.

It’s never been spoken into existence, it simply always has been there. Since the day Shirogane showed up and Keith stole his car. James doesn’t understand what it is completely, but he thinks he’s got a little closer to this treading on this nameless thing. How much further he should tread is unclear, because Shirogane’s eyes are almost unreadable again. Almost. James sees the silvery wisps of starlight glistening there. It’s a constellation, and it’s crafted out of love for everything Keith is.

James can’t compete with that, can hardly make a statement as beautiful and sincere as that. But he isn’t trying to, and he doesn’t have to. Love shouldn’t be wielded as something to fight or to be conquered, it should be celebrated. The invasion came and dealt a crushing blow to humanity, it destroyed homes, obliterated whole countries. Perseverance had not been the only thing to survive. People cared, and whilst hardened by war they strived to never become unkind.

“I just wanted to let you know, I support you,” Shirogane says with a smile. “If he makes you happy, and you treat him as well as he deserves, then I can only wish you the best.”

His hand slips away, leaving a gratifying kind of ache in James’ bones. This is it, everything he’s been yearning for. Hearing it is different to imagining the moment. Bringing his hand to salute, James straightens up. The only indication this isn’t strictly official, is the smile tickling the corner of his mouth without his permission. But it’s stuck there now, and if he wriggles his lips too much, doesn’t get these words out, there’s a chance it will explode into something as giddy as the first stifled laugh that broke over him the day he climbed into the MFE and started the engine.

“Thank you, Captain.”

---

Mission accomplished, is always a satisfying thing to proclaim and today is no different. James wakes up the lightest in months, practically floats through his early morning routine. There’s a spring in his step he is too relieved to stampen out with his usual poised gait as he walks down the hall. Gaining Shirogane’s approval, arguably one of the most important people in Keith’s life, to give this his best shot is as exhilarating as it is daunting. A lot rides on what comes next. Today, his feelings are the most tangible they’ve been for some time, and he’s one step closer to spilling the whole can of beans to Keith.

He’s one step closer to flight or plight.

As he enters the VAM longue, still a bad and needless acronym for Voltron-Atlas-MFEs, he grazes the room for Keith whilst heading over to his usual congregation. The paladins seldom use this room as much as the MFEs, but there have been at least five occasions Keith has strived to make conversation with James’ team here. There’s no reason to rule out today becoming the sixth occasion. From the sofa, Rizavi gives a wave. Beside her sits Verona, also grinning, and Leifsdottir not grinning. Kinkade is on the other side, and the judgemental look alone heavily indicates James has been caught with his hand in a cookie jar.

“The leader of Voltron isn’t here,” Leifsdottir explains before James even has the chance to sit down and compose himself. Somehow, Rizavi’s grin gets wider. “He hasn’t been in here for approximately three days, and before that it had been two weeks, therefore there is an extremely slim probability he will show up until at least another eleven days pass.”

Kinkade hums at that, supposedly in agreement.

“What makes you think I was looking for Keith?”

It’s a dangerous question, and he should’ve known better than to try and engage in serious conversation with his team on this subject when Veronica leans forward and raises both eyebrows.

“Please! When are you not ?”

“When he is looking for Captain Shirogane.” The noise Kinkade makes is too close to a snort to be ignored. Leifsdottir is on fire today, and James is so hideously under-prepared for her incredibly quick-witted wonderful brain being wasted on such abysmal snark. Out of all of them, he trusted Leifsdottir to be on his side the most.

“Actually,” leaning back in his seat, James drapes an arm over the sofa. “Something pretty interesting happened last night.”

The bug-eyed reaction from Veronica and Rizavi is enough for him to take his sweet time with this. They don’t have a meeting for another half hour, he could really play this as brilliantly as his plan if he wants to. Reaching for a juice pack on the table, Leifsdottir blinks slowly. There’s a curiosity there she can’t hide. Even as Kinkade throws a juice pack James’ way, he voices intrigue.

“Spill.”

Poking a straw into the juice pack, James takes a deliberate, slow sip. All eyes are on him.  James takes satisfaction in that, draws the moment out just a little longer. It’s what he deserves after their remarks this morning. Impatient, Rizavi swings her leg and her boot gets too close to his face. WIth a graceless splutter, James sets the juice pack down and wipes his mouth with his sleeve of all things. Leifsdottir has definitely taken the tissues again, a spiteful gesture to note her disapproval of his schemes. Truly terrible behaviour.

“Are you gonna tell us?” Rizavi drawls. “Or am I gonna have to use my other foot?”

One damp sleeve of sticky juice is plenty enough, but there’s still twenty minutes left to go back and change his shirt for the meeting. That’s incentive to move this forwards pronto.

“Captain Shirogane came to speak with me. He said I have his full support.”

The reaction is not quite what James expected. Veronica glances over to Rizavi who seems to be practicing her best fish impression. It’s not very good, her jaw hangs a bit too low.

“Oh,” Kinkade parts with. Meanwhile, Leifsdottir has the audacity to look surprised.

“Wait a second.” Standing up, James pieces this together. He looks upon his so called friends in shame and utter betrayal. “You guys thought I couldn’t do it.”

“Eh,” Rizavi waves a hand. “I was kind of hoping for something juicier than that, but then I remembered this is you we’re dealing with. You need to win over his badass alien Mum next.”  

The thought of even trying to talk to Krolia, a highly respected leader of the blade of marmora, has James paling. In truth, he is a little intimidated. It’s no secret she is fiercely protective of her son, and he dares to wonder what could happen if a suitor got on her bad side.

“Listen James, confess to Keith. Then consider me impressed,” Veronica chimes in with a smirk.  

“And then earn the trust of his cosmic wolf so it will teleport you places.”

Kinkade merely looks at James, expression tinged with hints of amusement. Glancing from the juice pack to his sleeve, James wipes at it once more. Still damp, a representation of how his day may be going if he’s not too careful. In hindsight, it’s probably a good thing Keith never showed up in the longue. His team are far from subtle in this area of teasing, he can only imagine how disastrous it could have been had the green paladin and the red paladin in blue armour were here too. So, worst eventualities considered, he considers himself lucky.

With seventeen minutes left on the clock to spare before their meeting, James takes his leave to a cacophony of laughter.

---

The meeting is something nobody seems particularly thrilled to be entertaining their time with. But brave faces are mustered, posture held rigid and uniform. It’s been nearly three months since Sendak’s attempts to eradicate earth were thwarted. Complacency is a mistake, and routine is vigorously maintained. But the result of that is the daily debrief meeting, confirming nothing has changed in their current situation. If there’s a threat out there, it has yet to rear its head or hiss. 

Keith sits besides Shirogane for the meeting, of course, their shoulders close to brushing each other. James isn’t sure why he punishes himself and takes the seat directly opposite Keith. Their eyes meet across the table, more frequently than James thinks is necessary but he’s not about to complain or be foolish enough to look away. Maybe it’s because James chose the best seat in the room to dote, or maybe it’s something else entirely. He isn’t sure of the cause. All he knows is that besides Shirogane, Keith seems to be giving him the most attention.

If he’s being purposefully delusional, he’d even call it appraisal.

Something shifts, however, once the Captain hails him into the discussion. Currently, they’re debating the best emergency flight paths for the MFEs to clear for the new fighter support jets. James responds diligently, giving the best and most practical solution to the scenario he can think of. It seems to do the trick, Shirogane gives a nod and even smiles whilst congratulating him.

Catching Rizavi in his peripheral completely undoes his well-practiced composure. Despite receiving encouragement from the Captain on personal matters, it’s still a little overwhelming to get one of those starlight smiles. James clear his throat with the intention of pushing things along, only it’s louder than he plans. Paired with the - hopefully - subtle shuffle in his seat, he’s created more of a scene than there was to start with.

“Are you okay, Griffin?” Shirogane asks, concern palpable.

He feels more than sees Veronica biting down her laughter by his side.

“Fine, thank you, Captain.”

From that moment, Keith doesn’t look his way once. A dramatic shift ensues. Those eyes rake right past him, never settling remotely near where he sits. It’s not something James expects anybody else to notice, but it’s monumental enough to have him tapping fingers anxiously against his thigh. From appraisal to full evasion, that is quite a horrible feat. The rest of the meeting passes this way, and it’s agonising. By the time it’s finally over, James has found himself too hooked on figuring out what made Keith change his tune so abruptly, and he’s absorbed nothing of value.

He waits until enough people have dispersed to make his move. Shirogane lingers, talking comfortably with some of the paladins whilst Keith stands close and listens intently. James pretends to look over the files on his holopad, eyes drifting from the screen to keep track of Keith’s position. Once Keith turns on his heel, shows all the signs of leaving, James promptly closes the holopad. He’s good at this, calculating the best moment to start something.

“Keith,” he says when they’re both out the door. “Do you have a moment?”

“Sure,” Keith replies, in a tone that hints he is not actually sure at all.

Gesturing towards the room on their right, James ushers them both inside. There’s a tight pinch in Keith’s brow, lips pressed tight enough together to push them into a pout. Despite the number of times James has rehearsed this dialogue, considered three different variations of the speech depending on Keith’s reaction, he still feels inadequately prepared for this. Steeling himself, James takes a breath, releases the door handle and turns to face Keith. An eyebrow quirks in his direction, beckoning him to speak.

“There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“I know,” Keith replies with such sharp confidence it almost throws the entire planned speech out the window. But James is good at adapting to whatever life throws at him, so he continues as unfazed as possible.

“I understand that-”

“-You have feelings for Shiro.”

What. James gawks, incapable of doing anything else other than trying to close his mouth when faced with such a statement. Granted Shirogane is an attractive, incredible specimen of humanity, but that’s besides the point. The fact Keith sounds so certain, so assured of this, is concerning. Taking a step forward, James abandons his speech. It’s going to be a little difficult to craft a whole new one on the spot, but he’s improvised in worse situations. Maybe if he treats this as a flight exercise, he’ll get through it.

He starts, full throttle ahead. “I don’t have feelings for the Captain.”

“You do,” Keith says, as if knowing the inner workings of James’ heart better than him, which blatantly he doesn’t. The conviction of those words is infuriating, too prickly to swallow. “It’s obvious.”

“How so?” James shifts gear, wants to know exactly what has led Keith to this conclusion.

“You’ve been trying to get his attention recently, and talking to him a lot more. You keep waiting after meetings and pretending you’re doing other things whilst looking at him.”

Oh. Keith has certainly been eerily observant about this, which is no surprise considering his near superhuman instincts and heightened senses to just about everything. But whilst all of what he’s seen is true, none of it means what Keith thinks it does. James folds his arms, and the words he plans to say die a painful death as something as foolish as pride jumps into the pilot-seat. Some impulses are hard to break, especially when they were forged in middle school beside the person you’re talking to right now. It’s stupid, James know this and knows he should be slamming the breaks - it doesn’t stop him from reverting back to an indignant teenager.

“I wasn’t... pretending to do things.”

Keith’s lips upturn a little at that, melting away some of the embarrassment remarkably fast. “You were. You do it all the time.”

There’s no response James can form at that. With those words comes the knowledge Keith has been observant, about him. He’s noticed him enough to spot behaviours James himself isn’t fully consciously aware of. It’s mortifying that heat rises to his cheeks at the thought of being granted that much attention. Unfortunately, because the universe has no remorse, Keith notices enough to shuffle forwards.

“Hey,” he begins, wetting his lips with his tongue. James follows the movement more intently than he should. “I won’t tell anyone about this. And… I know how it feels when someone - when it’s not…I-”

Averting his gaze, Keith bows his head. There’s something very wrong about that, and when he talks again the rasp in his voice threatens to cleave it all open. James wants to personally seek out and destroy whoever has brought such dejection, made him sound so sad.

“If you ever wanna talk about it,” Keith’s eyes flick up then, earnest and haunted. The smile once on his lips has withered into something almost too poignant to bear. Worst of all, the ghosts cascading over his face are too recent to call off. “I guess I understand what you’re going through.”

There’s no protocol for this, for what to do when a brilliant plan suddenly goes this far south. At least, not for something so personal. It’s been years, but James can almost feel those knuckles against his cheek, the hot flash of pain it brings. Honestly, being punched is the only sensation that matches the way his chest currently aches. But that’s not the only reason the memory has crept back into the forefront of his mind. Because when an officer had yanked Keith off him during their first year, beneath the raging fire and fury had been this same breed of disappointment. His eyes had, momentarily, been crushing in a way that could only be described as devastating.

It had confused James back then, annoyed him even. Now he knows better, and he knows Keith better to realise what that look meant. People had never tried to do more than categorise Keith without really trying to see more, strike him off as a loose cannon ready to blow - including himself. Keith didn’t expect much, anything, from people back then. That definitely included James. The terrifying thought that seizes him isn’t that things haven’t changed, it’s that things have changed. More than he had anticipated. Words are never wasted with Keith, they always have a purpose.

Those words were chosen carefully for his ears alone, for James.

“Keith,” he starts, only to find the room now empty.

And it’s in that moment that James Griffin, leader of the MFEs and esteemed pilot, resignedly accepts the title of World’s Biggest Fool.

---

He doesn’t see Keith for almost a week. It’s incredible how elusive somebody can be despite walking the same hallways, using the same rooms, everyday. Even in meetings, the scheduling for the foreseeable future has meant Voltron and the MFEs rarely cross paths. With training, Captain Shirogane insists they revert back to old formations, just to double check they can still operate as individual teams alongside one greater unit. James knows it’s illogical that Shirogane has changed the schedule on purpose, because of how disastrously wrong this has gone, but it certainly feels more personal than it should. Especially when the Captain struggles to push the smile onto his face as means of a greeting.

When James eventually does bump into Keith, it’s in a corridor riding the edge of curfew. Despite always being a stickler for rules, James finds Keith has this infuriating ability to override that. It’s not that James had been actively wandering the halls, hoping to meet Keith, but staying up a little too late to read over Shirogane’s latest progress report has proven to be worthwhile. Currently, Keith is swiping his keycard, mumbling something just out of earshot heated beneath this breath. The door remains red.

“You know, you should really stop assuming you know everything around here,” James calls out, making his presence known. There’s a huff, a sharp click of Keith’s tongue as he tries the keycard a third and final time to no avail. Sauntering forwards, James takes out his own keycard and swipes it down. Nothing happens. James tries again, refusing to be bested by a keycard that just worked less than five minutes ago through this exact doorway.

On his fourth attempt, he realises that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t going to work. Doing what any logical person would, James goes back to the door he came from and swipes. Nothing. In the reflection of the glass, he sees the devil incarnate standing on the observation deck a few floors above. Veronica is grinning, hands cupped together to form a heart. Beside her is Rizavi, saluting comically. Kinkade is standing arms folded, a disgruntled pillar. And then there’s Leifsdottir, pointing quietly to her computer which has to mean she’s temporarily disabled the damn doors.

Barking out a laugh that’s too brittle to last, Keith ducks his head. The sound breaks a little too close to James’ ear, has him turning back immediately. So far, Keith’s shown no signs of realising the cause behind their little problem. But another glance back up to the window is fruitless. The traitors are gone. James hopes they’re happy with themselves, happy enough to be running extra training drills over the weekend.

“Looks to me like you don’t know any better.”

James knows better, he really does. But he’s not about to tell Keith they’ve been purposefully set up by his fellow MFEs and Veronica. That’s a private kind of humiliation he will have to carry on his own shoulder forever.

“There must be another way out of here,” Keith hums absently as if it’s the right thing to say but he doesn’t quite agree with the words. His actions don’t even try to match up with the statement. Those big, life-ruining eyes barely search the room, and he doesn’t move an inch from where he stands. If there’s any urgency to leave this hallway, he certainly isn’t pursuing it. That’s unusual, and fills James with more hope than it should. Maybe Keith is tired, maybe he doesn’t want to turn everything into a mission. It might have nothing to do with the fact they’re both trapped in this corridor alone.

Weighing up his options, James presses his eyes shut. He hasn’t had time to perfect this speech, or meticulously craft these sentences into something that glides as smoothly as he does in flight. And if it goes wrong, then he’s going to be stuck in this corridor with Keith mopping up the splintered pieces of his own heavy heart. Blinking one eye open, he watches Keith settling down on the floor. Back pressed against the door, Keith glances up at him.

“I’ve contacted Shiro,” he says. James doesn’t remember seeing Keith ever pulling out a holopad or any kind of device to hail someone. But he finds himself nodding in response, anyway. “The door should be back up and running in another ten minutes or so. And, the surveillance is off.”

James nods again, unsure why Keith felt it was worth specifying the cameras were offline too. A breathy raspy kind of laugh escapes Keith’s lips, rough around the edges and truly far more attractive than any sound should ever be. Patting the floor beside him, Keith raises an eyebrow.

“You gonna join me?”

“Why not,” James says because he can’t just nod three times in a row.

If Keith did contact Shirogane, then they’ve got ten minutes of privacy. That’s more than enough time to utter three simple sentences, clearing up the worst misunderstanding James has ever personally dealt with in his life. He takes a seat, on the wall adjacent to where Keith is sat. There’s too much space between them here, and James is at least two metres off the spot made for him to sit. Keith leans his head back to the wall, huffs in a way that indicates something has annoyed him. His eyes fall shut, arms folded over his knees. It’s in that moment, seeing Keith so unhinged and strangely off-kilter, James plucks the final ounces of courage he has.

They’ve fought in a war to save the earth and they won it. This shouldn’t be this hard.

“You got it wrong, about Captain Shirogane.” Keith’s eyes dart open, sharply turning to focus on James. The intensity of his gaze is too much to handle, so James settles for the floor instead. “I don’t have any romantic interest in him, I never have. I wanted to make sure he liked me not just as a pilot but as a person… because I know he’s important to you.”

Silence falls over them. James isn’t sure how long it lasts, because his mind is still processing that he really went ahead and said it.

Suddenly Keith leaps to his feet, fist clenched. Right now, he looks the epitome of decisive and determined. Their eyes meet, and James slowly mirrors him.

“Get over here.” Keith’s voice drops deliciously low, smouldering. James isn’t sure how he makes it two steps without tripping over himself. But Keith’s eyes don’t leave him, he’s watching so intently it burns. It’s a huge ego boost, to be honest. As he gets close enough to see Keith is actually less composed than he seems, he recollects himself and stops walking. Keith’s eyes widen, mouth falling open a fraction.

“What, you’re not gonna meet me halfway?” James teases, barely able to keep the quiver from his voice. “Here I thought you-”

The rest of his sentence is lost to a mouth that moves hot and merciless against his own. James’ back hits the wall with an audible thud, as Keith pushes further forwards into his space until their bodies are pressed together in a tight, firm line. Hands tangle themselves in his hair, tug with the right amount of pressure to have him gasping at the sensation.

That gives Keith an opening and he takes it, biting down on James’ lower lip before chasing over the path with his tongue. What he may lack in experience, he certainly makes up for in enthusiasm and passion. The sound that escapes James is foreign to his own ears, embarrassingly enough. But the curiosity of what sounds Keith is capable of making is incentive to set that aside and kiss back just as fiercely. One slow drag of his tongue later, James discovers the answer is a raspy moan and it’s very satisfying.

Pulling back, James catches his breath. It’s mind-blowing just how good this feels, just how well they slot together this way. Curling his hand round Keith’s neck, he meets dark eyes as his thumb swipes just below the ear. Really, James can hardly believe they’re here. That thought has him pressing a chase kiss once more against those dangerous lips.

“Yep,” he sighs, probably a little too dreamy. “Definitely still there.”

Keith looks ready to dive back in again already, probably would have done if the mechanical whirring of the door opening didn’t completely disrupt the moment. Fortunately, nobody is there. That still doesn’t prove that nobody is spying, however. James knows his team better than that. Keith doesn’t step back, not even as James looks over his shoulder to double check the doorway because he trusts nobody in this facility. If the doors are back online, then the surveillance will be too. He isn’t sure he could ever live down facing Iverson or Captain Shirogane ever again if he and Keith got caught making out on camera. It’s that thought which has James regrettably peeling himself off Keith. Another time another place he sincerely hopes with every fibre of his being.

“So,” he starts, running a hand through his inevitably messed up hair.

“So,” Keith parrots, smiling enough for it to light up his eyes.

Holding out a hand, James grins. “Think we should give this thing a shot?”

Keith takes the hand, yanking James closer once they’re entwined. For a second, James pretends the surveillance isn’t there and slips further into this. According to Keith, he’s good at pretending to do things so he might as well put that skill to good use in this moment.

“I’m game if you are, Griffin.”

“Oh,” James says against Keith’s lips. “I’m very game.”