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don't call me baby (unless you mean it)

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Sweat damp curls stick to the back of Keith’s neck as he pulls up the last of his black tees and gives it an experimental sniff. He has to stop himself from physically cringing backward. It smells like desert and sweat and barbeque. Must’ve been what he wore when he took his bike out of town to visit the rib shack he remembered from sixth grade, when he’d lived near here in foster home number nine, but that’s beside the point.

It’s his last wearable shirt and it somehow smells worse than the one he’s currently wearing. Reluctantly he drops it to the floor and shuffles over to his closet. Up until a year and a half ago his entire life had to fit into a literal twenty-pound garbage bag so he’s not—

Well, it’s not like he has a whole lot of anything. Especially not clothes.

But there has to be something he can wear down to the laundry room, at least, because last time he went without a shirt to do laundry three girls and one guy followed him back to the room. Shiro was pissed. Probably because that was the same day as his Radiation Measurements in Astrophysics midterm. Keith’s not entirely sure how much coffee Shiro drank to stay awake all night but it was clearly too much. The door got slammed in his stalkers’ collective faces. After that, Shiro tugged off his own tee and threw it at Keith’s face, saying that he could wear it until laundry was finished instead of parading around shirtless. Well, ‘saying’ is too general a verb. Shiro’s voice was calm enough, especially considering he’d just slammed a door in several people’s faces and pulled off his shirt, but it had the kind of steely command underlining it that had Keith rapidly putting the shirt on to appease him. Their size difference made the shirt look ridiculous but Shiro just nodded tightly, gave Keith’s hair a ruffle, and stalked out the door to take his midterm. Three months later, Keith’s still got mixed feelings about that experience. So he’s planning on not pissing Shiro off, if he can help it.

It’s laundry week so the closet is more barren than usual. But in the hard to reach corner, under a few mismatched socks, there’s a grey tee. Keith can’t remember buying it. But it’s a shirt, so he contorts his body until his fingertips snag over the collar and yanks it free triumphantly. It smells fine. A little musty, maybe, but clean. Keith’ll chalk this up as a win.

“Hey, Keith?” A gentle tap on his door. Shiro’s voice has that slow rhythm that marks the content drowsiness of a good night’s sleep. Rare for someone who’s been through what Shiro’s been through. “Breakfast’s ready. You want some coffee?”

Straightening up from the crouch he’d had to get into to grab the tee, Keith says, “Yeah. Be out in a minute.” He barely hears the acknowledging hum from Shiro as he yanks his sweat soaked shirt off. Dropping it on the floor—he’ll collect his laundry after breakfast, definitely, he’s not avoiding it or anything—he pulls on the new shirt.

It fits fine. Better than fine, actually, close fitting to his pecs and arms but looser around his waist. Just how he likes his shirts. Keith has a moment where he wonders, somewhat blankly, how he bought this perfectly serviceable shirt and then promptly forgot its existence. Then he looks down. And remembers in a series of post traumatic flashbacks exactly why he’d blocked the shirt from his consciousness.

Namely, three words, in a font that isn’t comic sans but comes insultingly close to it, garnished with red glitter: Daddy’s Little Boy.

Four or maybe five months ago, toward the middle end of summer, Lance dragged him out clubbing. It’d been a bad arrangement. Necessitated by the fact that Hunk had a class on Moroccan cuisine at the extension school, and Pidge was replicating some Stanford built AI, and Shiro was at a reunion with his old Ranger buddies, and— The point is, everyone had things to do. Keith was the last resort. They both knew it. Mostly Keith was supposed to make sure Lance didn’t go home with anyone too questionable and didn’t puke in the Uber. Instead, they both got incredibly drunk on tequila and walked home because they forgot Uber was a thing. Somewhere in that neon lit haze of a walk there was a shop with joke tee shirts. Lance saw the shirt and pointed at it, gasping in that too exaggerated way of the fiercely inebriated, and said, “that’s you,” with such vehemence that Keith couldn’t help cackling. While forcing the poor cashier to break a hundred dollar bill to buy an eighteen dollar shirt, Lance attempted to explain that Shiro was basically Keith’s daddy, or wanted to be at least. Then he’d refused the bag and the receipt in favor of shoving the tee shirt over Keith’s head. After they’d made it home, Keith threw it in the back of his closet and forgot it existed.

“Keith?” Very slowly, he turns to look at the closed door to his bedroom. “Keith, are you okay? I heard…” Probably some kind of vaguely strangled noise. But Shiro’s too nice to articulate that kind of thing. “Keith? If you don’t answer, I’m coming in.”

What follows is a moment straight up out of a horror movie. Keith’s vision narrows to the doorknob turning in achingly slow motion. Somehow his legs are weightless but his arms are impossibly heavy. Organs collide into one another like stars going supernova. Vocal chords stretch with the urge to scream but he can’t force sound past his numb lips. Light spills from the increasing crack in the doorway. Death approaches.

Later, Keith will piece together the following two or three minutes. He won’t remember it, not really, because his brain goes offline around the time that the door fully opens to reveal a bare chested and intensely concerned Shiro, and it doesn’t come online again until he’s sitting across from a still bare chested and intensely concerned but now also nursing a scalding burn Shiro at their shitty kitchen table. It’s been an eventful two or three minutes.

So here’s what he will piece together. Later.

Based on the burns on Shiro’s left forearm and the coffee stain in Keith’s doorway, Shiro brought a mug of coffee with him after hearing Keith make some sort of ‘please help me I am actively dying’ noise. Upon seeing Keith—or more likely Keith’s shirt—he proceeded to pour the coffee all over his arm. Somehow. That’s unclear. Shiro’s remarkably cagey about it. They went to the kitchenette to run Shiro’s arm under cold water and get a damp cloth to keep down the swelling. Around then, Keith finally become a coherent human being again. Mostly.

They’re sitting there at the kitchen table and Keith’s thinking about exactly two things. One, how he’s still wearing The Shirt. Two, how Shiro’s looking literally anywhere else except at Keith. it maybe wouldn’t be so obvious if Shiro just focused on his burned arm or his refilled cup of coffee or whatever. That would be reasonable. Instead, Shiro’s eyes keep skittering back to Keith and darting away twice as fast. His gaze won’t settle on anything. Keith knows that it’s because of The Shirt.

“Is your arm…okay?” Keith tries. It sounds awkward even to his own ears.

Shiro coughs. “It’s fine.” That seems dubious. No blisters yet, but the skin’s red and painful looking. Maybe Shiro realizes that his arm’s making a liar out of him because he fixes his gaze on Keith for the first time since this whole mess started. “It’s fine,” he says again, firmly. “Don’t worry about it.”

If it was Keith who’d gotten burned, they wouldn’t still be here in the dorms. They’d be halfway across campus on their way to the health center. Setting his jaw, Keith says, “It doesn’t look fine.”

“The coffee wasn’t that hot,” Shiro says.

Keith opens his mouth to point out that he didn’t ask how hot the coffee was, but Shiro raises both of his eyebrows in that very particular expression that mostly translates as let it go, Keith with a little no, Keith for good measure. Settling back into his chair, Keith narrows his eyes in his own very particularly expression that entirely translates as for now, Shiro. Then he punctuates it by crossing his arms.

Normally, this is the part of the philosophical disagreement where Shiro cracks a smile and a terrible joke. The signaling of the truce. Keith waits for it. Keeps waiting, even as the seconds drag into minutes.

Something gritty rubs against his arm as he shifts in his chair. Dirt? No, glitter. The Shirt. Which Keith is still wearing. Because he never took it off. Just let himself get distracted by Shiro’s burn. And yeah, Shiro’s eyes are focused on the garish red Daddy’s Little Boy half hidden beneath Keith’s crossed arms.

“I’m just—” Keith tries to get out of his chair without uncrossing his arms. “Just gonna—” Like he’s accomplishing literally anything by covering his shirt like a maiden covering her tits in a Renaissance painting. “You know—” Eventually, he will finish a sentence.

“That a new shirt?”

Not really. Maybe. “Yeah.”

The worst part about this is that Shiro doesn’t look amused or judgmental or some other entirely normal reaction. Mostly he looks contemplative. He lingers on Keith’s chest for a few seconds more before flicking up to center on Keith’s face.

In the three years they’ve lived together, Keith’s learned and catalogued every single one of Shiro’s facial expressions. Call it a hobby. The expression on Shiro’s face right this second isn’t one he knows. Firm jaw means determination and command, the way Shiro gets when he’s falling back on the soldier he used to be. But the softness around the eyes, open and gentle, comes out only when Shiro’s handling him carefully. Something about that combination steadies Keith. Makes him wait for Shiro to decide what to do when he’d maybe rather be running for the safety of his room.

Finally, Shiro asks, “Why?”

“Lance,” Keith says. Explanation and excuse in one neat package. It even happens to be true. But it feels insufficient, when Shiro’s looking at him like this, so he adds, “Remember when we went to the club last summer?” A hum of acknowledgment. “We saw this on the walk back. I guess Lance thought it was…”

See, Keith remembers what Lance thought. It’s one of the few things he does remember from that tequila soaked night. Shiro’s like the answer to all your daddy issues. But he doesn’t want to say that.

“Lance thought it was?” Shiro prompts. He’s leaning forward slightly, elbows braced on his knees.

Approximately forty-six seconds pass before Keith settles for: “Relevant.”

“Is it?” One of Shiro’s eyebrows goes up and he tilts his head a few degrees. Like he really needs to punctuate that question.

“What?” If Keith makes a break for it now, he’ll be forever shamed. That doesn’t mean it’s not tempting. Fourteen steps and he’ll be in his bedroom. Fuck having a shirt for laundry day. Naked would be better than this.

“Is it relevant?”

Lucky, maybe, that Keith hasn’t tried to move away from the table just yet. When his legs give out he lands neatly back in his chair. Said chair skids half an inch but no more. “No,” he gasps out. Even he isn’t sure if that’s an answer to the question or a general protest against the shape of his morning.

One corner of Shiro’s mouth tucks in, like he’s physically biting back a smile. The kind of expression that from anyone else would have Keith on the defensive. But it’s paired with the infinitely gentle way Shiro says, “It would be okay if it was.”

“Well, it’s not,” Keith says. Mulish, because he doesn’t know how else to deflect.

God, he hates whatever is in his expression right now. Whatever Shiro reads with a quick once over. It must be approaching vulnerable, since the bitten back smile disappears and Shiro moves his chair closer. “It’s okay if it’s not,” he says, “It’s okay, Keith.”

People tend to get like this with Keith. They see him, teeth bared defensively, and either bite back or try to soothe him down. By age fourteen he’d realized that most people saw him as a wild animal first and a human boy second. It kept away the worse things in the home, though, so he’d gone with it.

Now he just wants to hide from it. Or maybe, more accurately, from the fact that Shiro’s still the only person who treats him soft because he thinks Keith deserves soft instead of because he thinks Keith will bite him.

“I know it’s okay. It’s Lance’s dumb idea of a joke. I don’t care.” They both know he cares way too much. “I don’t even know why he thought it was funny.”

With a huff that’s close to laughter, Shiro settles his prosthetic hand over the nape of Keith’s neck. The metal is cool; an easy, familiar weight. Fingertips dig gently into the pressure points at the base of Keith’s skull. Shiro moves slow and deliberate. Takes his time and doesn’t let up until the tension finally starts to leaking from Keith’s spine. It turns gentle then, closer to petting than anything. “Maybe Lance knows you need someone to take care of you.”

Keith struggles to keep his eyes open. He’s listing into Shiro, he realizes, but they’d been arguing about something. “I don’t,” he says.

Another huff of that almost laughter. “Keith,” Shiro says. There’s this particular way he says Keith’s name, gentle but firm, like he’s making a promise he intends to keep. “You could stand to let someone take care of you sometimes.”

“But—” Keith is ready to argue, on principle. Shiro’s fingers tighten on his nape, pulling him in so that his face lands in the notch on one broad shoulder. Keith rubs his cheek against warm skin and breathes in the masculine, heady scent of Shiro in the morning. The combination means safety and it saps all the fight from him. “Cheater,” he mutters.

“I know,” Shiro says. He sounds only a little smug. Hard to resent him for that when he keeps stroking his fingertips over Keith’s neck. It’s too easy to sink into his strength. “You going to be good for me, now?” he asks.

Oh. Oh.

Here is the shape of Keith’s life:

Dad gets ready for a shift at the local fire station. It’s before dinner but there’s leftover pizza in the fridge. Dad ruffles his hair on the way out the door and laughs at Keith’s pout. Keith does his homework, and eats the pizza cold, and tucks himself into bed. Some of the kids at school think it’s cool that his dad already lets him stay home alone. Keith, most nights, just thinks it’s kind of lonely.

A cop and a social worker are waiting on the front stoop when he gets up the next morning. They say a lot of things. Keith will never remember what. Only the tired folds at the corner of the cop’s eyes, and the social worker’s birdlike hand movements. The cop knows him. Want to baby him through it. The social work doesn’t know him, won’t ever really bother getting to know him, so she’s the one to say the only important thing. Dad’s not coming home.

Keith is eight when he goes into the foster system. It’s not that he’s a bad kid, not at first. Keith’s quiet, and smart, and keeps out from underfoot. But he’s old for the system. Too old. By the time he’s fourteen, they put him in a home instead of with a family.

People say he’s angry but he’s angry in the way of wounded animals. He learns fast that it’s better to be feral and lonely than to be vulnerable and abused. Keith is sharp teeth and ready fists. They’re never fed quite enough, but he packs on some weight once he learns to hustle pool and can afford his own meals. Four years and he never sleeps longer than three hours at a stretch because sleep leaves him helpless.

A judge seals his juvenile record because he’s still smart. She wants him to relearn how to be quiet and how to keep out from underfoot. Keith doesn’t thank her, but he doesn’t snap his teeth at her either.

Ten months later he shows up at freshman orientation with his bike, his knife, and the clothes on his back. He’s got money in the bank from working on oil rigs, enough to get him through the next four years if he’s careful, and too many student loans. Like the judge wanted, he’s learned how to be quiet even if he’s still more feral than not.

Shiro arrives with a ruck slung over his shoulder and the kind of brilliant smile that instantly disarms everyone in a three hundred yard radius. He’s easygoing and handsome. Keith wants to hate him. On principle.

But then they’re roommates, and Shiro gives him a smile that’s softer than the ones he’d given everyone else. Damn him but it leaves Keith defenseless. Wary but accepting as Shiro offers food, teases about the superiority of astrophysical engineering over mechanical, and basically makes himself a place in Keith’s life. They work together. Shiro doesn’t ask about the home or the rigs, and Keith doesn’t ask about the tours or the arm. Comes time to sign up for the next year of housing, they agree over 3AM pizza that this is probably as good as it’s going to get and sign up to room together again.

Good as it’s going to get is an understatement. Keith falls in love with Shiro by degrees. For a while, he can fool himself, because he’s still a comet in freefall through the universe.

The first day of sophomore year they get drunk with all their friends. Keith goes to sleep, draped over Shiro’s chest with Shiro’s prosthetic fingers stroking the nape of his neck. Three hours stretches into five, into seven, into nine. When he wakes up, well rested for the first time since he was eight years old, he understands.

Shiro’s the center to his universe. The axis around which his world tilts. He’s going to spend the rest of his life orbiting around this man. (Maybe he should’ve figured it out when he started using astronomy in his metaphors, but he didn’t.) There’s no escaping, even if he wanted to, and Keith’s fairly sure he doesn’t want to. Being with Shiro is the only thing he’s had in his life that felt like gravity.

The chance of getting with Shiro is worth anything. Anything. Including Keith’s dignity.

Lance will literally never be Keith’s first choice for relationship advice. Or life advice. Or advice. But Lance drunkenly glimpsed some kind of higher truth and now he’s going to deal with the consequences.

“Get up, Lance!” Pounding the side of his fist against the door, Keith waits for the inevitable moment when he can hear the whining sounds of his friend shuffling to let him in. None of the passing students even look at him. They’ve been broken into this particular ritual. To the way Keith pauses, then thumps the door so hard it rattles in the frame. “You’re way past your beauty sleep!”

Before he can bring his fist down again, the door yanks open and Lance scowls at him. Fridays he doesn’t have class, which means that even though it’s nearly 10AM the other boy still has on a face mask. “I am not past my beauty sleep,” he snaps.

“Now you are,” Keith says. He ducks under Lance’s arm and into the room with startling agility. “Do you remember when we went to that club?”

Lance whines in his throat but closes the door instead of trying to kick Keith out. “I guess?” Between the two of them, Lance is hands down the partier. Clubs and pretty girls are near the top of his favorite things. Alcohol isn’t necessarily high on the list, but it does make the list. “Did we ever club together?”

Because Lance rooms with Hunk, there is exactly one part of the dorm that is reliably sanitized. Keith carefully edges into the kitchenette and then rests his hip against the countertop. He’s not exactly organized, but part of his soul still cringes when he looks at the rest of the common area. Better to focus on the task at hand. “Yeah, we did,” Keith says. “Last summer. We got trashed on tequila. You bought me a shirt?”

An excruciating pause follows. Lance squints hard enough that his mask cracks. It reminds Keith a lot of the desert mesas, but he doesn’t say as much.

“Oh shit,” Lance says finally. His eyebrows—which may be that skinny naturally, but Keith’s pretty sure he’s seen tweezers by the bathroom sink—rise up. The face mask cracks more. It’s honestly a little gruesome.

Crossing his arms, Keith attempts to look dignified. “This morning, I…”

“You wore it?” It’s a little hard to tell what expression, exactly, Lance is attempting to make right in this moment. Some combination of delighted, horrified, and confused. All open mouth and scrunching eyebrows and too much nostril flaring. “Why did you wear it?”

There’s a long version of the explanation, but Keith doesn’t intend to give it. Mostly because if he does, Lance is never going to let him live this down. Scratch that. Lance is still never going to let him live this down. But. “Accident.”

Very slowly, Lance nods. His expression tips more towards amusement. “Did you wear it down to the laundry room?” he asks. Clearly fishing for the chance that someone got a picture that’s even now floating around the campus Snapchat. Or at least the possibility that someone, anyone, witnessed this moment.

“No,” Keith says. On the one hand, Shiro really is worth anything. Worth everything. That genuinely does include Keith’s dignity. On the other hand, this is Lance. “But Shiro saw.”

Predictably, Lance bursts into howls of laughter. He grabs blindly for something to hold on to. What he finds is the wall, which he leans against, still cackling. It’s pretty obvious he’s trying to choke out words in between the laughing. All that’s coming out are wheezy little syllables that don’t mean shit.

Lance,” Keith growls.

The other boy settles with a few sputtering wails. A chunk of his mask just falls off. Jerked loose by the laughing. It’s really gross. How this qualifies as beautification is beyond Keith’s grasp. “This is perfect,” he says. Reaches up to flick away a nonexistent tear. “I needed that.”

It’s the perfect segue. Gritting his teeth, Keith says, “I need…your…help.”

Dead silence. Lance might not even be breathing. Without saying a word, he trails off to the bathroom. Running water, some splashing, the water being turned off. More dead silence.

Keith digs his fingertips into his biceps. If Lance won’t help him, he’s honestly not sure what his next step will be. Up until yesterday he hadn’t ever really thought about daddy kink being a thing that people were into. Now he’s trying to invent a seduction plan for it on the off chance that Shiro really does have a daddy kink. That would apply to Keith. Instead of to some pretty twink who doesn’t get into fights in pool halls. Fuck.

“Okay,” Lance says. The face mask is gone, thank god. He’s draped himself against the bathroom doorframe. Probably he’s going for cool but it’s coming across like he doesn’t trust himself not to collapse again. “So, why do you need my help? It’s not like we’re…”

Forget dignity. Apparently he’s going to need to sacrifice his pride too.

“You knew that Shiro is.” It’s happening again. “That Shiro wanted to.” He can get through this. “You know.” Or maybe not. Clearing his throat, Keith musters up every ounce of spiteful courage he possesses and tries again. “I think Shiro has a daddy kink and you said he wanted to be my daddy and you have to help me make that happen.”

They’ve grown up a lot since freshman year when Lance hated him for no reason that Keith could figure.

It helps that Lance got out of mechanical engineering in favor of sound engineering. Not that Keith thinks the friction was entirely based on direct competition. After all, he was a year ahead of Lance so it wasn’t even a real competition. But it helps, anyway, and Keith’s just grateful for the way they’ve eased into a kind of friendship.

“All you’ve got going for you is legs,” Lance says. It’s equal parts clinical and critical. He rubs his chin with one hand. Tilts his head back and forth. Like he’s trying to contemplate Keith from angles and dimensions unknown to the average human. “You’re like, 68% leg.”

“Okay?” Keith looks down at himself and tries to figure out what has Lance so concerned. Sure, he’s got long legs. The same length as Shiro’s legs, actually, even though Shiro’s got a head on him. “Is that bad?”

“Mm.” The hum is entirely noncommittal. At least Lance has stopped doing that weird head tilting thing. “How do you feel about women’s clothes?”

Whatever friendship they had before has taken a distinctly weird turn.

Keith crosses his arms. “Why?”

Honestly, he’d been dubious when Lance announced that they needed to go to the mall to put the seduction plan into practice. Especially since Lance wouldn’t actually explain why a mall was necessary. They are friends—maybe, probably, mostly—but that doesn’t mean that Lance wasn’t desperately trying to find out if there was photographic proof that Keith wore a humiliating tee shirt a mere two hours ago.

Some of this must show on his face. Lance holds his hands up in a staying gesture. “Look, we agreed that the best way to kick things off is to highlight your assets.” A pause. “Hah. Assets.”

“Clever,” Keith says dryly. He actually doesn’t remember agreeing to highlight his assets. Mentioning that seems like more trouble than it’s worth though.

“Luckily you’re disastrous gremlin. I mean, you think a mullet is a reasonable hair choice—” This, coming from a man who owns nine different moisturizers and insists they all do different things. Reasonable doesn’t even belong in Lance’s vocabulary. “—so literally anything is going to be an improvement. But all you’ve really got going for you is legs, which means booty shorts, which means women’s clothes.”

Not the logic that Keith would’ve followed. He bites the inside of his cheek for a moment, eyes narrowed, before nodding. It still doesn’t make sense to him, not really. But he asked for Lance’s help so he should probably let Lance help him.

Lance leads the way with terrifying accuracy into the women’s ‘nightwear’ section of the department store. He moves with a purpose and doesn’t seem to care that the way he immediately starts flicking through nighties gets them a few looks from other customers. The confidence pays off. People shrug the oddity off and move on. Even the sales clerk, who briefly looked like she might call them out for whatever mischief they might be up to.

Keith, for his part, slinks behind Lance like an alley cat ready to get kicked for pawing through the trash. He’s a little overwhelmed by the amount of lace and ruffles and pink on display. “I don’t like this,” he says. More to have said it then because he thinks it’ll make Lance stop.

“Well you’re not going to be wearing this,” Lance says, brandishing a lacey scrap of nothing in a truly eye searing shade of crimson.

“Why would I?” It’s got lacing up the sides too, like a corset, but how does a corset work with lace anyway? Are people really supposed to sleep in that? Isn’t this supposed to be a department store that serves middle class white women?

Lance waves it a few more times in Keith’s face. Like every cliche of a matador with a bull. “Because it’s red and you have terrible taste.”

Mutiny seethes in Keith’s soul.

Apparently he does a half decent job of containing said mutiny because Lance rolls his eyes and turns back to the rack. “You have to wear something that says ‘hey, call me baby and go all 50 Shades of Grey on me.’  This is what we’ve got.” It’s horrifying how casual Lance is. “Hey, maybe we should get you a pacifier too.”

“It’s not that kind of daddy kink!” Keith hisses.

Lance’s shoulders jerk with a suppressed laugh. “Are you sure? Are you really sure?”

Unable or unwilling to take the combo of Lance’s teasing and the seemingly endless supply of frilly no, Keith makes a break for it. For a moment he thinks about bolting from the department store. Going clear across the mall to the food court, where there’s soft pretzels and sunlight filtered through the skylight and no nighties trimmed in feathers. The problem is he can’t go too far or he’ll lose Lance. Which leaves him with either the underwear section—so much no—or the less frilly part of the nightwear section.

Ducking behind a rack lined with soft flannel nightgowns, he sucks in a deep breath and tries to astral project himself out of this situation. It doesn’t work. The chatting of the two ladies over by the bras cements him firmly in reality.

“Shiro’s worth it,” he mutters, latching onto the next best thing to astral projecting. “Shiro’s worth it. Shiro’s worth it.” When he closes his eyes, two and a half years of Shiro rushes up on him. The phantom weight of Shiro’s hand on the back of his neck steadies and anchors him. It’s easier to mean it when he says again, “Shiro’s worth it.”

You going to be good for me, now?

Yeah, he thinks. Yeah, he’ll be good for Shiro. Which means he can’t just lurk awkwardly waiting for Lance to come up with something. Especially since Lance’s idea of ‘sexy’ isn’t Keith’s idea, and he’s pretty sure it’s not Shiro’s idea either.

So the frilly shit Lance is still working through is out. The flannel nighties Keith’s hiding by are also also out.

Biting the inside of his cheek, he looks at the racks around him and zeroes in on the paired separates. The pants are mostly shorts. Extremely short shorts. Booty shorts, even. Keith can work with that, he figures. Lance is right that Keith’s got long legs.

Keith thumbs through hangers, completely ignoring anything pink or covered in hearts and/or flowers. He pauses at a set of pajamas in green dotted with little mugs of hot chocolate. It’s a possibility. Booty shorts, long sleeved shirt, and less overtly feminine than most of what’s available. He runs a fingertip along the shirt’s collar and down one sleeve thoughtfully.

During the tail end of August, when summer’s still got its teeth in the weather, Keith wears a tank top to work on his bike. Too hot otherwise. When he comes trailing in to grab a Coke, Shiro always grasps his sweaty shoulder and teases him about looking like a grease monkey. If Keith doesn’t pull away, Shiro’s eyes go a little distant and he swipes a thumb over the jut of Keith’s collarbone like he can’t help himself.

Maybe that means something. Keith’s always wanted it to mean something.

Keith resumes his search through the rack. Unlike Lance, he doesn’t linger over each possibility. Within a minute he’s on the other side of the rack, hangers rattling as he moves them aside with dismissive focus.

Blue and stars makes him pause. Gets his attention enough to let him assess the option with greater care. Paired separates, booty shorts and a tank top with thin straps. The material is some kind of cotton blend, so soft that he can’t stop touching it, and clearly meant to be loose fitting. Light blue, covered in pale yellow stars. Not too feminine.  Shiro loves stars, the nerd, and this is...this is cute.

Pulling it from the rack, he holds it up to his chest. There’s only one set of these and he already knows the sizing is going to be a little big. Doesn’t matter.

When he finishes buying the pajamas ten minutes later—resolutely not blushing when the cashier cheerfully asks if these are a gift for his girlfriend—he returns to find Lance with an armful of lace and feathers and sheer fabric. “Let’s go,” he says, jerking his head toward the department store’s exit.

Lance looks from the exit to the small bag dangling from Keith’s fingers. “You already bought something?” he asks. “But you didn’t even try on any of the things I found.”

The thing is, Lance looks genuinely crestfallen. So Keith tries, valiantly, to come up with a way to nicely say ‘I wouldn’t have tried them on in any universe, but thank you for trying.’ If he looks at the pile of awful in Lance’s arms, he’s not going to manage it. Maintaining eye contact, he says, “Your plan worked. I found something. Can we go?”

A minor miracle occurs as Lance, apparently, gets that Keith’s trying. He walks over to a ‘we’ll put it back on the rack for you!’ display and dumps the clothes. “Okay, but I want to stop for smoothies in the food court first.”

Realistically, they live in a desert. Or at least they live desert adjacent. It’s hot, pretty much year round, and dry. Large swathes of the population live entirely in tank tops and shorts and flip flops. The air conditioning doesn’t make indoors ‘cold’ so much as ‘livable.’

Keith’s freezing.

Someone hacked the AC for the hall, he’s pretty sure, because they’re a bunch of engineers and they do that kind of shit. He’s even willing to put down money that it was one of the Holts. Pidge is always building something in her room that requires a cooler environment to keep from overheating. Anyway, someone definitely hacked the AC because he doesn’t remember it being this cold when he was wearing boxers to bed earlier this week on account of not having clean pajamas.

Gritting his teeth, he tries to sink deeper into the couch with his Calc 2 notes. Shiro’s out on his morning run. If he gives in and pulls on something warmer, then Shiro will get back and want to go out from breakfast and it’ll all be over. Keith will never get the guts to attempt this again. If he doesn’t give in, he’ll probably freeze to death while Shiro’s doing a completely unnecessary eleventh lap around the quad.

Fourteen minutes pass. He’s cold enough to negotiate a deal with himself. If it hits twenty minutes, he’ll go change and forget that all of this ever happened.

Eighteen minutes and the door to their dorm opens. Shiro comes in wearing a bright smile and sweatpants. Apparently something happened to his shirt. Again. Kicking the door closed behind him, he tosses his keys on the kitchenette counter. “Hey, you’re up!” Shiro opens the door of their mini fridge and pulls out a water bottle. “Do you want to grab breakfast at the diner after I shower?”

Sweat drips off the hard line of Shiro’s jaw, drops onto one perfect and bare pec, and then starts a seductive trail down toward his abs. The fact that he’s lifted the water bottle to his lips and started drinking it in long pulls that do things to the tendons in his neck and cause his bicep to flex is just. Unfair. All of this is unfair.

“Yeah,” Keith croaks. He’s suddenly grateful for the textbook covering his lap. “Sounds good. How was your run?”

Wiggling his prosthetic in a ‘so so’ gesture, Shiro finishes off the water bottle and tosses it into the recycle bin. “I’m surprised you’re up,” he says. Now he’s combing his bangs back with his hand. Things are still flexing. Keith’s throat is so dry. “More surprised that you’re up and studying.”

Reflexively Keith glances down at his textbook. There are so many numbers and for once he doesn’t understand any of them. He looks back up, feeling like a deer caught in the headlights, fumbling for an explanation.

Turns out he doesn’t need to give one. Shiro’s eyes aren’t on the textbook. Not even close. “Are you…” Shiro pauses. “Are you wearing pants?”

Not really. “Yes.”


The silence is excruciating. It drags on, and on, and on.

Whatever half chub he’d gotten from the sight of Shiro fresh off a run has disappeared beneath going on a minute of dead silence and the weight of Shiro’s stare. Clearing his throat, he closes his textbook and drops it on the coffee table with an audible ‘thwack’. The next logical step is to get up from the couch.

Halfway through unfolding his legs from beneath him and pushing to his feet, he remembers that he’s wearing booty shorts that barely skim the tops of his thighs. Not a lot is left to the imagination. When he’d looked in the mirror this morning after getting dressed he’d suddenly understood why Lance was so noncommittal about whether or not ‘68% leg’ was a good thing.

“Those aren’t pants,” Shiro says. He sounds vaguely wrecked and that’s enough to jerk Keith out of his own thoughts and into the present. Shiro hasn’t stopped staring at him. Or, specifically, staring at his thighs.

Mustering up all his defiant bravado, Keith lifts his chin and says, “Yes, they are. They’re just short.” It’s a criminal understatement, maybe, but one he’ll stand by until his grave.

“Oh.” When Shiro swallows, there’s an audible click. He’s gone a dull sort of red beneath his tan. “Oh.” Absently he scratches at his stomach and the thin trail of dark hair that leads down into his pants. Licks his lips. Jerks his gaze up to Keith’s face and the drops back down compulsively to where pale blue shorts cling to his hips. “Oh.”

Something warm curls in Keith’s gut, then. It’s not exactly arousal. “Do you like them?” The warm feeling is buoyant and fizzy. He doesn’t even feel stupid for asking.

Keith can count on his hands the number of times he’s seen Shiro go predatory in their two and a half year acquaintance. It’s all dark eyes and furrowed brows and the deceptive looseness that apex predators get right before they lunge in for the kill. Whatever this is, it’s not quite the kind of aggressive instinct that makes Shiro so dangerous in the sparring ring and in bar fights. But it’s familiar, anyway, in the way those eyes drag up over Keith’s body like he’s assessing exactly how to best take down his prey.

“Yeah,” Shiro says. “You look good.”

Curling his toes into the carpet, Keith lets the praise wash over him and feels the warmth in his gut settle. He’s got the weirdest urge to do a little spin, or fiddle with one of the thin straps of his tank top, or ‘drop’ something and pick it up. He wants Shiro to notice him more, to praise him more, to grab him and toss him onto the couch and fuck him.

The moment stretches out, then snaps.

“I’m going to go shower,” Shiro says. He doesn’t sound wrecked anymore, just a little rueful. “I smell like hell.” There’s the wry smile he wears when he’s being sheepish. Fuck. This is falling apart. “You should get changed. Breakfast’s on me.”

All Keith can do is stare as Shiro turns and walks out of the room, easy as anything. The shower turns on before he’s even finished processing that whatever happened is over. Just like that.

With a growl, he heads for his own room and all but rips off the tank top and booty shorts. They drop to the floor while he pulls on his more standard gear. Jeans, one of his tee shirts that doesn’t say ‘Daddy’s Little Boy’, and hiking boots with reinforced toes. He’s a quick change. Gets back out in the living room in under five minutes, even with having to hunt for his wallet and trying to comb his hair into something resembling neatness.

It takes another ten minutes for Shiro to come out, hair still damp and Henley clinging to his biceps. By then Keith’s settled back on the couch with his textbook. “Took you long enough,” he says. “What happened to those Army short showers?”

Huffing out a laugh, Shiro reaches to hook his arm around Keith’s neck and pulls him into a half hug. “I had things to do, you brat.” It’s gentle, chiding, familiar. “Come on, let me make it up to you with food.”

So much for Lance’s grand seductive plan.

By Tuesday, Keith’s still wearing the pajamas mostly out of a sense of spiteful penitence. The same way monks used to wear hair shirts. The whole experience of attempting to seduce Shiro with daddy kink has been suffering. Apparently his life now is suffering. So fine, whatever.

They’re both neck deep in homework, sitting together on the floor so they can spread out all their notes.

“Do you think Holt’ll give us a study guide?” Keith asks, idly crossing out a bad equation so he can restart it. Shiro took Dr. Holt two semesters ago and promises he was a good professor. So far he’s been excellent. Excellent and exacting. “I might actually use it.”

The AC kicks on just then, ruffling the loose papers and sending a chill chasing up his arms. Keith grits his teeth against the urge to shiver. This is his penance.

“If he doesn’t give you a guide, I’ll lend you my notes from that semester,” Shiro says. It’s said absently. Like he’s focusing on something other than this conversation. Homework, Keith figures. At least until he follows up with, “You’re cold.”

Keith looks up, eyes a little too wide and panicked. “No I’m not,” he says.

“Yes, you are,” Shiro says. He lets his eyes skim deliberately along Keith’s bared skin for several long moments. The goosebumps don’t lie. With a sigh, he pushes to his feet and picks his way through their notes toward his own room. Shiro pauses next to Keith. Passes a hand over Keith’s hair, almost like a caress, before saying, “Don’t move.”

Before all of this started, Keith could’ve gone back to his homework without too much issue. Rolled his eyes and adjusted his grip on his pencil and ignored whatever soft command Shiro handed out.

Now, the remembered weight of Shiro’s hand keeps him utterly still and hyper aware of the sounds of Shiro moving around his bedroom. He fidgets with the pencil until it nearly goes spinning out of his fingers. Then he drops it onto his long forgotten homework for Dr. Holt’s class. Relief only comes when he hears Shiro’s bare feet on the vinyl, a slightly sticky sound that always means they need to clean soon, and—

Something drops into his lap.

Vaguely he’s aware of Shiro moving back into the little island of space in their mutual sea of notes. Knows that even as Shiro settles cross legged on the floors he’s got his eyes locked on Keith. And all of that would mean something, except Keith’s just gotten around to fingering the something that dropped into his lap and realizing that it’s one of Shiro’s sweatshirts.

The black cotton blend is heavy but worn. Yellow lettering over the chest spells out R A N G E R and it’s cracked after so many washings. It smells clean but also like Shiro.

Keith’s pulling it on before he can even fully register that Shiro just gave him his old Army Ranger sweatshirt—the one he’s been wanting ever since he first saw it because it’s the perfect combination of soft and softer. The warm material enfolds him, big enough that the hem pools over his hips and the neck pulls toward one collarbone. With a quiet, disbelieving laugh he holds up his hands, entirely covered by the sleeves of the sweatshirt.

When he looks at Shiro, he realizes that the other man’s watching him with another one of those indecipherable looks. “I wasn’t that cold,” Keith says. Nervously, he reaches up to fiddle with the hood’s drawstring. Part of him thinks he should offer to give it back. Maybe Shiro didn’t intend for him to wear it. “You didn’t…have to…”

“I know,” Shiro says. He leans across the sea of notes and pushes the hood off Keith’s hair. As he draws his hand back, his fingers curl around the shell of Keith’s chilled ear, the gesture so brief that Keith almost wonders if he imagined it. “You can keep it if you want.”

Yes, Keith wants.

No one in their friend group is stupid, but Pidge is still the smartest of them. There’s not insubstantial evidence that the only reason she hasn’t taken over the world is a generalized lack of motivation to do so. None of them are exactly sure what her major is. Something with biomechanical engineering, maybe, except she also builds robot AIs in her spare time. All of that is beside the point.

The point is that Lance still hasn’t gotten Keith out of the mess he’d gotten Keith into. The point is that Pidge is the smartest person Keith’s ever met. The point is that Keith tracked her down to her favorite burrito food truck during her 4PM afternoon lab break.

“I wondered how long it would take you,” Pidge says. She undoes the foil on her burrito with meticulous care. Rover settles near one edge and lets out a chirping noise. Supposedly, the robot isn’t entirely sentient, but Keith’s not sure Pidge would tell them if she did manage to create life.

Pidge opens her burrito with surgical precision and begins rearranging its guts to better distribute the salsa. By the time she finishes and reassembles the burrito, Keith’s going to be finished with his burger, which is about their usual pacing. It’s not that Pidge is so fussy or Keith is so hungry. Just that Pidge grew up in a middle class family where her food was her food. And Keith…didn’t.

“To ask me how to seduce Shiro,” she says.

God hates him, because he inhales half chewed cow down his windpipe and has to spend a good thirty seconds hurking like a cat with a hairball. Pidge watches him with interest, still fiddling with the exact specs of her burrito. His throat still has a special kind of rawness when he gets out, “What.”

Rover lets out another little chirp and launches to hover next to Pidge’s ear. The outlines of its pyramid form glow pink, then teal. Keith’s fairly sure it’s laughing at him.

Having apparently rearranged to her satisfaction, Pidge rewraps the burrito and takes an experimental bite. “Perfect,” she says. Then she refocuses on Keith. Offers an explanation in the form of a single word: “Lance.”

Weird how many of their explanations can really be summed up by that name.

“Do you have any ideas?” Keith asks. Reluctantly. In some ways this is easier. He hadn’t fully figured out how, exactly, he’d go about explaining that Shiro probably has a daddy kink that Keith is definitely trying to take advantage of. Except there’s a good chance that if she didn’t know he never would’ve told her. Just would’ve talked equations and how much of a hardass Iverson is for twenty minutes before going back to their respective labs.

But now she knows.

Will he ever be able to look Matt in the eye again, he wonders, when he’s asked Matt’s baby sister for seduction tips. Yes, he decides. Sophomore year he had to listen to Matt fuck Allura’s ex-boyfriend in the bathroom at that one frat party, and they survived that.

Crossing her arms on the table, Pidge leans forward. The streetlights glint off her glasses and give her a hint of danger. People wouldn’t figure her for dangerous, given that she’s all of a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet and still hasn’t cracked 5’2”, but. With the air of someone delivering an unshakeable argument, she says, “Cartoons.”

Back when he was a kid, before the system, the TV only got local channels. If he thinks long enough he can dig up faint impressions of the bright colors and brighter sounds of Saturday morning cartoons. Dad let him watch them while he ate his breakfast, which was frozen toaster waffles on payday weeks and cereal during by-weeks. Most days Dad had to go to work. But sometimes, he’d get in from the night shift and eat breakfast next to Keith on the couch.

Keith reaches up and reflexively swipes at his dry, prickling eyes. He hates rewinding that far back in his memories. Not because the memories are bad, but because inevitably he has to fast forward back through all the shit that came after.

When Pidge first suggested cartoons, he figured that he’d just try to start with the ones he enjoyed as a kid. That was a fucking terrible idea. No matter how hard he pushes his memories, he can’t grab onto a single piece of identifiable information he could use to find one of his old favorites. Maybe he never even had favorites.

“Okay, cartoons,” he mutters. “I can handle this.”

Clicking his way through the Netflix queue is an adventure. He lays down some rules—nothing aimed at preschoolers, no ponies, and nothing with a pastel color scheme—mostly in the spirit of retaining his sanity. Somehow he still ends up on something aimed at girls, but he’s secure in his masculinity so whatever.

The plan, as outlined by Pidge, is to choose a cartoon that he actually likes. Then, he just has to be casually watching the cartoon when Shiro comes in. After that the plan gets remarkably fuzzy, maybe because Shiro’s basically her second older brother, and also definitely because Keith really didn’t want to have any kind of sex talk with Pidge. Not when he had to look her father in the eye for the rest of the semester. Not when he’s still friends with her brother. Not when…any of this.

Keith’s got an addendum to the plan. The booty shorts did something. Not what he wanted, but still, something. Combining Lance and Pidge’s plans can’t hurt, he figures.

It’s still cold in the dorms though, so he pulls on Shiro’s sweatshirt along with the shorts before heading back to the couch. He turns on the show he picked, grimacing through the overly cheerful theme song, and settles in to wait.

Shiro texts him halfway through episode two.

Shiro 3:58 PM I’ll be running late tonight. Had to move back a meeting for a group project.

Keith 4:00 PM that sucks

Shiro 4:01 PM Yeah, it does.

Shiro 4:01 PM Do you want me to pick up dinner?

Keith 4:02 PM stir fry

Shiro 4:03 PM What’s the magic word?

Keith 4:03 PM please

Shiro 4:05 PM Stir fry it is.

Rolling his eyes, Keith puts down the phone. He could stop watching until Shiro texts that he’s headed home. But he’s kind of invested, and he hasn’t got anything else to do except wait. He hits the play button and snuggles deeper into Shiro’s sweatshirt.

By the time Shiro trails in nearly three hours later, juggling stir fry containers and his backpack, Keith’s snarling, “Let her die!” at the TV with more vehemence than is probably strictly necessary. He just really hates Chloe. It’s like she’s the embodiment of every middle and high school bully he had to survive. It’s not that he advocates the murder of innocents it’s just that clearly the universe has decided it’s Chloe’s time and Marinette just needs to accept that.

Shiro drops onto the couch next to Keith. The backpack goes on the ground, while the stir fry containers go on the coffee table. He pushes one container in front of Keith, then unzips his backpack to fish out the utensils. “What are we watching?”

“Miraculous Ladybug,” Keith says. “Chloe needs to die.”

From somewhere to his right comes a barely muffled snort. “Is that so?”

Yes.” Keith feels this truth in his soul. He squints at the screen as the blond girl screams while dangling above the city of Paris. Absently he rolls back the sleeves of his sweatshirt before grabbing the stir fry container and popping open the lid. A fork appears in front of his face and he takes it, immediately using it to start shoveling food into his mouth. “This is really good,” he says after several bites. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Shiro says. The couch behind Keith’s head gives a little as Shiro drapes his arm across it. His own container of stir fry sits untouched on the coffee table. “Is there a reason we’re watching a magical girl cartoon?”

Pidge. It’s on the tip of his tongue. But he distinctly remembers what happened the last time he attempted to offer up a friend’s name as explanation.

Instead he gives a half-hearted shrug. Licking his lips to get off some of the grease, he says, “I was bored and…” Keith doesn’t intend to trail off, but he does when he feels Shiro’s fingers starting to comb through his hair. A soft, encouraging hum gets him started again. “I guess I never really watched things like this when I was little. It seemed like it could be fun?”

The fingers pause. “You mean you didn’t watch magical girl cartoons?”

“No, I just…didn’t watch things in general. I never really got the chance.” Later, he’ll blame the words tumbling out of his mouth on any number of things. The comfort of Shiro’s petting or the fuzziness in this part of Pidge’s plan. But that doesn’t change the fact that he says, “I guess I might’ve, with my dad, but after they put me in the system I— The last place I ever wanted to be was at one of the homes watching a TV show.”

An explosion on the TV almost covers the sudden silence as Shiro’s breathing hitches. His fingers curl into the hair at the nape of Keith’s neck and hold, the backs of his knuckles brushing against sensitive skin. “Keith…”

Keith flinches and tugs away from Shiro’s hand. “We can watch something else,” he says, too quick and too loud. He tosses the remote in the general vicinity of Shiro’s lap. “Your choice.”

Shoveling more stir fry into his mouth and keeping his eyes fixed on the TV is about the only consolation he’s got. Fake it till he makes it. Relief slows his movements as Miraculous Ladybug is paused, then disappears as their shared Netflix queue pops back onto the screen. Movies and shows flick past as Shiro works through them at near blinding speed. Keith’s fork scrapes the bottom of the empty container.

“Did you get to watch Disney?”

The question almost makes him drop his fork. Warily, he puts the takeout container on the coffee table and tucks his legs up toward his chest. On the screen, the remote cursor hovers over a title card for something called Lilo & Stitch. “Not really,” Keith says.

“Okay.” Lilo & Stitch starts to load, causing Keith to blink a few times before it sinks it that this is what Shiro chose. Not a science documentary about space. Not an old school sci-fi b-movie that no one’s ever heard of. Not even one of his dumb overrated superhero movies. Warily, he looks over at Shiro.

For his part, Shiro looks entirely unbothered. He’s finally opened his own takeout container and digs into the food with way too much enthusiasm. “I love this movie,” he says. Casually. “This part is great.”

It’s weird. All of this is weird. Keith spends approximately twenty seconds trying to decide why it’s happening. Nothing comes to mind. There are aliens, which probably is the closest to a reason he’s going to get for why Shiro likes the movie and is making them watch it.

Anyway, he did say Shiro’s choice, so. With a sigh, he settles in to watch as the tiny blue alien is sentenced to exile and escapes. It’s kind of funny. By the time the title card comes up, he’s not invested but he’s willing to admit it’s better than the alien conspiracy shows Shiro likes to watch when he’s got the flu. By the time the girl adopts her dog-alien, he’s into it enough that he jolts when Shiro’s feet brush against his ankles.

“Sorry,” Shiro murmurs. “Trying to get comfortable.”

Keith glances over. The takeout containers have been stacked neatly, waiting to be taken to the kitchen. He didn’t even realize Shiro’d finished eating. “Do you want me to take the floor?” he asks.

“No.” There’s a pause, then Shiro nudges his foot against Keith’s. “You should come over here,” he says.

It’s soft enough to be a suggestion, but the words sink over him and he’s scrambling over to Shiro’s side of the couch before he’s really processed it. He stops, straddled over Shiro’s chest, aware the the other man’s swung a leg up onto his own vacated spot on the couch. His knees dig into the couch and he feels a blush starting at the back of his neck. There’s not really any space for him unless he hovers like this, or...

Shiro smiles up at him, teeth gleaming in the light from the TV. Metal fingers slip up under Keith’s sweatshirt and press to the dip of his lower spine.  “I said come here,” Shiro says. The weight of his hand pushes Keith down gently but inexorably.

Warmth radiates from Shiro, whose chest is clad in a worn cotton tee that Keith barely resists rubbing his cheek against as he settles down. It’s awkward, at first, and he’s too aware of the way his legs are stretched out along Shiro’s and the way his entire upper body is splayed across Shiro’s. The fingers stroking at the base of his spine ease the tension out slowly, until he barely flinches when one of Shiro’s legs hooks over his.

“Good?” Shiro asks, and Keith feels it more than hears it.

“Yeah,” he says. On the TV, the little girl is trying to teach the alien manners. His lips tip into a grin and he nudges his face more firmly into the hollow of Shiro’s throat. “I like this.”

Shiro’s throat moves as he swallows, but when he speaks, he sounds a little hoarse. “Me too.”

A month later, Keith wakes up sprawled across Shiro’s chest and their couch. Pulling his arm out from where it’s sandwiched beneath his body, he rubs the sleep out of one eye with the heel of his palm and tries to assess the damage. Overall not too bad. Blanket is still draped over them both, even if it’s tangled with their legs. Netflix asks ‘Are you still watching?’ like the accusatory bitch it is. Muted winter sunlight, filtered through clouds, streams in the windows.

Grumbling, Keith turns his head and buries his face in Shiro’s neck. There’s a faint murmur from beneath him as Shiro shifts, hooking his ankle over Keith’s and tightening the arm he’s got slung over Keith’s hips. Both of them settle down easily enough.

Somehow this has become the new Saturday normal.

Keith’s still not sure how he feels about it. It’s nice. Knowing that at least once a week he’ll get a proper eight hours of sleep in the safety of Shiro’s arms. It’s disappointing too.

Like right now, his face mashed into Shiro’s neck, it’d be the easiest thing in the world to bite down on the tendon. Half hard with morning wood, he could rut against Shiro’s stomach and whimper around the skin caught in his teeth. If he closes his eyes, he swears he can feel the phantom weight of Shiro’s hand tightening on his hips and the low rumble Shiro always lets out right before he pins Keith during sparring. But he’s not allowed any of that.

“You awake?” Shiro asks. He doesn’t sound entirely awake himself.

Instead of answering, Keith grunts.

That gets him a soft laugh. Shiro’s thumb sneaks beneath the hem of Keith’s tee shirt and rubs a soothing circle on his hip. “You’re still tired?”




“If you get up, I’ll make us breakfast,” Shiro says. This is also normal, now. Used to be they went to the diner or one of the dining halls for breakfast, if they were eating together, but now Shiro always wants to stay in on Saturday mornings. Even if that means cooking.

Later, once they’ve cooked and eaten and drank coffee with their feet tangled together on the couch while arguing about how science actually works in the MCU, Shiro reluctantly admits he needs to return some library books. Keith figures this is probably as good a time as any to find Pidge. The last three times he staked out the burrito truck didn’t pan out which means his idea to ‘casually’ run into her is getting nowhere.

The only possible place she could be is the bioengineering lab. That’s where he heads once he and Shiro split outside their hall.

“Pidge, please,” he says. Ignoring the irritated lab assistants, he dodges around a table to follow her.  “You’re my—”

“Only hope?” she asks, wrenching open one of the massive storage cupboards in the lab. Without even looking at him, she begins handing him tools that he’s pretty sure shouldn’t be available to undergrads. Maybe she’s got a special dispensation. “I agree. But I also refuse to be drawn any further into this. I had dinner with my family last night. My dad asked how you were doing and if I’d seen Shiro lately.”


Keith obediently follows her back toward her workbench. Since he’s fairly sure at least one of the things he’s carrying is combustible, he lets her unload him instead of dumping all the tools on the table. Pidge doesn’t say anything about that but she does give him an approving nod. Once his arms are empty, he crosses them and leans back on one heel.

Rolling her eyes, Pidge brandishes a wrench at him. “Go talk to Hunk. He’s the most emotionally intelligent and competent out of all of us.”

Somehow, it feels more sordid to bring in Hunk than it did to bring in Lance or Pidge. Keith rationalizes it as he stands in the kitchenette of Hunk and Lance’s dorm. First, Lance started the whole mess with that goddamn shirt, so he deserves whatever suffering comes out of it. Second, Pidge might be young, but she’s the most sensible person in their friend group. Third, Hunk is…

Hunk is offering him fresh shortbread cookies, made in the communal dorm kitchens, with a beaming smile on his face. “I’m trying this new recipe,” he says. “Some people say that shortbread is too easy, only three ingredients, but that just shows they lack imagination.”

Reluctantly, he takes one. Keith loves Hunk’s cooking. All of them do. But it just feels wrong somehow to take a cookie when he’s about to ask Hunk how to seduce Shiro’s daddy kink.

“You not hungry, buddy?” Hunk asks. Still cheerful, though his eyes are fixated on the uneaten cookie in Keith’s hand. Weighing and judging the reasons why Keith hasn’t consumed it in under 15 seconds the way he normally would. The only thing worse than taking a cookie before asking Hunk how to seduce Shiro’s daddy kink is taking and then snubbing a cookie before asking Hunk how to seduce Shiro’s daddy kink.

Keith shoves the entire cookie into his mouth and chews. “It’s really good,” he says honestly.

“Better than the lemon butter cookies from last week?” Hunk asks.

Wrinkling his nose, Keith grabs another cookie and takes a smaller bite. “I think it’s less sweet,” he says. “I like that. It’s denser too, right?”

These are the wrong things to say, in that they are exactly the right things to say to an experimenting baker. There’s a slightly manic light in Hunk’s eye that says he’s about to start asking questions about things like mouth feel—which is both more and less disturbing than it sounds—and it gives Keith the courage to skip the awkwardness. Or skip to the awkwardness. Either is accurate.

“I need your help,” Keith blurts out. A few cookies crumbs spray out with the words and he winces. “I need. Help.”

Surprisingly, Hunk doesn’t even grimace at the food spray. He just sighs, very deeply, and sets the tray of cookies down on the counter. “Oh, man.” Another sigh. Hunk leans against the counter and puts his hands on his hips. The look on his face, as he stares into the middle distance, is that of a general about to order half his army to their glorious deaths. “I knew this was coming. And here’s my advice: stuffed animals.”


“Yeah, stuffed animals,” Hunk says. “Everyone likes stuffed animals. They were my favorite as a kid. Right behind Legos. And Easy Bake Ovens.”

This is a conversation they’re having. Keith doesn’t know how or why they’re having it, but it’s happening. “Okay. But... what?”

“You know, the whole—” Either Hunk’s having a localized seizure in his eyebrows, or he’s trying to communicate an entire monologue via morse code with his eyebrows. It takes him a whole thirty seconds to give up. Those massive shoulders slump into obvious defeat. “The whole daddy kink thing.”

Keith opens his mouth. Closes it. “You knew?”

“Lance,” Hunk says.

One day they really need to figure out why the fuck that one name can serve as the only explanation and justification necessary for 98% of the bullshit that happens in their friend group. Today is not that day. Or at least…

“Did he put you up to this?” Keith asks. The aftertaste of butter and sugar in his mouth goes ashy with betrayal. “Is this his way of getting me to use a pacifier?”

Hunk’s been pretty composed throughout their conversation. Clearly wishing he could astral project right out of the situation, but persevering nonetheless. Now he goes pale beneath his dark skin and holds up both of his hands like he needs to ward off the wild animal that is Keith. “Dude, Shiro’s not into that kind of daddy kink right?” If possible, he goes even paler. “Wait, no, don’t answer that. Do not answer that. I don’t want to know!”

Groaning, Keith lets his face drop into his hands. The half eaten cookie grinds against his face and that feels symbolic somehow. “It’s not that kind of daddy kink,” he says. Maybe a little too desperately, but he doesn’t want their friends looking at them thinking that.

“Cool, great, that’s cool,” Hunk says.

Things don’t really get better after that. Keith eats the rest of his cookie without really tasting it, and hollowly accepts the teddy bear Hunk shoves into his hands with a, “You might as well take it. Save some money. It’s just been sitting in the closet. Lance got it for Nyma know how that worked out.”

Yes, they all know how that worked out. Now Keith has a mouth full of ashy betrayal cookies and a cursed heterosexual teddy bear.

It sinks in around the time that he sits on his bed with the teddy bear still in hand. It’s a nice teddy bear, he’s pretty sure. Medium brown, with big black eyes and a red bowtie around its neck. Squishy. Generic. Apparently all his hopes for salvaging this slow moving trainwreck of a seduction rest on it.

Tucking his leg under him, he rubs a thumb against the grain of the bear’s synthetic fur.  “What am I doing?” he asks. Something releases in his lungs. When he breathes in, it seems to go deeper. Easier. “What am I doing?”

Questioning it out loud makes all of it feel real. The fact that he took Shiro’s sensible and kind reaction to a humiliating tee shirt as proof of some semi-obscure soft BDSM kink. The fact that he dragged all of his friends into helping him craft a shitty Frankenstein’s creature version of a plan to provoke Shiro’s possible kink. The fact that even if Shiro’s genuinely got a daddy kink, he probably would never choose Keith to be his baby boy, see Exhibits Booty Shorts through Movie Nights. The fact that he should give up because this is never going to happen.

Something just beneath his breastbone twists sharply at that last thought. He doesn't—he doesn't want to give up. Biting his lower lip, he stares at the bear. It stares back with it's glossy black eyes. Judging. “Fuck you,” he tells the bear. It doesn’t respond, but he feels a little better when it disappears into his closet with a muffled ‘thump’ after he throws it.

If someone was around to witness all of this, they'd probably point out that he should think about his feelings and attempt to make sense of them in a mature way. No one's around to witness this. And, god willing, Shiro's never going to find out about this.

Chapter Text

Bad things happen on laundry day. It’s probably time to just accept that. Keith doesn’t want to, particularly, but he’s a logical person. The last nineteen laundry days have ended in disaster of some kind. Ending up with pink socks because he mixed his colors with his whites now registers as maybe a two on his personal Laundry Disaster Scale, while wearing a shirt that says Daddy’s Little Boy in front of Shiro is a firm eight. Someday he’s going to tempt fate and end up with a ten on the Laundry Disaster Scale and it’ll all be over.

This isn’t a ten, but it feels like it might qualify as a six point three.

“It’s not a big deal. I have to do laundry today anyway,” he says. Quite possibly he’s been possessed by some kind of helpful, doting, June Cleaver style ghost. That’s why he’s saying, “Just leave it in the main area.”

Shiro rubs at the back of his neck. Honestly, he looks like shit. Or as much like shit as it’s possible for someone like Shiro to look. The faint furrow between his eyebrows just highlights the bruises beneath his eyes and too pale cast to his skin. But he wouldn’t be Shiro if he didn’t offer an out: “Are you sure, Keith?”

And Keith wouldn’t be Keith if he didn’t ignore the out: “Yeah, I’ll take care of it.”

Whatever he’s expecting next, it’s not the way Shiro huffs out a laugh and leans back against the kitchenette counter. Scrubbing his prosthetic through his hair, he says wryly, “I must look like absolute shit.”

“Kind of,” is out of Keith’s mouth before he can stop it. A flush climbs up the back of his neck even as he tries to backpedal. “I would’ve. Anyway. It’s not a big deal. I just wanted to make things easier for you is all.” No, that’s worse. “It’s not a big deal.” If he says that enough maybe he’ll make it true.

Coffee churns in Keith’s gut as he forces himself to shut up. The sudden silence is nauseating. Unable to meet Shiro’s gaze and desperate for something to do, he grabs their abandoned cereal bowls. Damn that June Cleaver ghost that has him heading for the sink. It only occurs to him as he elbows on the faucet that he’s put himself right next to Shiro. At least the running water means it’s no longer silent.

Halfway through rinsing Shiro’s bowl, he has to bite back a yelp as a hand cups the side of his head. Fingers tangle in his hair and rub gently against his scalp. Petting him. Shiro is petting him. Weird, but nice.  “Thank you, Keith,” Shiro says.

“It’s not a—”

Shiro leans down and presses a kiss to Keith’s temple. His lips are warm and slightly damp. The rush of his exhale ruffles the wisps at Keith’s hairline. Heat blossoms from where they’re connected. When he pulls away, Keith’s fingers convulse around the cereal bowl at the sudden loss. A whimper escapes Keith’s throat, barely covered by the easy way Shiro says, “You’re so good for me.”

It’s not something Keith’s proud of, but he spends the next three minutes scrubbing at a cereal bowl with white knuckle fervor until his brain comes back online.

Doing their joint laundry will take most of the day.

It shouldn’t. They both live in some variation of jeans, dark tees, and the occasional flannel or button down for variety. All of their towels and sheets are dark grey, because those were what was on clearance sale when they went to Target. Even if Keith believed in the “sort loads by color and cloth weight” system that Lance swears by—for the record, he doesn’t—they’d max out at two loads.

Except he forgot to factor in that both of them avoid laundry until the need is critical. Which means that he’s got four loads to process through the shitty shared laundry in the dorm’s basement. And best of all, he’s missing pants to go downstairs in.

Stomping back into his room, he goes for his closet and surveys the barren landscape. Mismatched socks, a sweat stained tee shirt that probably also belongs in the wash, and a pair of sweatpants. Grabbing the sweatpants, he puts them to his nose for the sniff test. They pass. It’s as he’s yanking them on that he notices what they’d been laid over.

That fucking bear.

It stares up at him with beady black eyes. Judgmentally. “There’s a reason you’re in here,” he tells the bear. “You’re stuffed with lies and lust.” While true, this does not stop the bear from judging him.

Somehow he ends up taking the bear along with the shirt into the living room. The shirt goes into one of the less heaping piles of laundry. The bear gets chucked onto the couch.

Keith, for his part, ignores it as he takes down the first load of laundry, and as he gathers up his study materials, and as he settles into working on an essay due next week for his world lit class. When he finds himself reading the same paragraph for the third time, he finally gives in. Closing his laptop, he leans forward and mutters, “Why did Hunk even think you’d be helpful?”

The bear doesn’t answer. Just sits on the other end of the couch. Despite being inanimate, he feels like it radiates condemnation. Its eyes really are beady. And the red bow is ugly.

Lance has terrible taste and absolutely deserved the hot mess of a five minute relationship he got with Nyma. By all accounts Hunk has better taste (and better luck with women) but that’s gotten called into question because this fucking bear. Keith doesn’t understand straight people.

“You’re cursed,” he says, nudging the bear with his foot.

Maybe he’s been doing this wrong. None of his friends are kinky—or if they are, they haven’t volunteered that information and he’s sure as hell not going to ask now. Also, they’re straight. Except for Pidge, who’s...something. Another thing he’s not going to ask. Either she tells him herself or he goes to his grave not knowing. Point is, maybe the plan is flawed because he’s drawing from flawed sources.

That would explain Lance’s continued persistence in suggesting that he buy a pacifier. (“All I’m saying is it could be useful. You know, just in case.”)

Keith reopens his laptop and starts a new browser window. Chewing at the tip of his thumb, he stares down the accusatory blink of the cursor. What information will he bare to Google about his lack of sex life today?

Daddy kink gives him definitions of dubious quality and articles from women’s magazines about how having a daddy kink isn’t by definition unfeminist and a sea of pastel toned & lace frothed Instagram feeds. Daddy kink gay takes him straight to the porn. How to do daddy kink mostly leads him back to the first set of results, with a few personal blogs sprinkled in for flavor and an op ed that tells him he has daddy issues.

He’s reading that last one when he bites straight through the cuticle and tastes blood. Wincing, he pulls his thumb away from his mouth and surveys the damage. It’s bleeding freely and stings. But probably it’s not too bad, he decides, just enough that he needs to make sure he puts on a band aid before he goes into the lab.

Closing out the tab, he clicks on the next promising link in the results. Advice about how to discipline subs when in a daddy kink dynamic. Not useful. The problem is this:

None of the things he’s reading sound like him. They’re all talking about ‘natural submission’ and ‘getting back in touch with your inner child.’ Forget that he doesn’t know what ‘natural submission’ would look like to some middle aged Cosmo writer. Keith doesn’t have an ‘inner child’ to get in touch with. That’s why he had to ask his friends. Somewhere in his gut is a sinking sensation that maybe he’s not actually cut out for this.

Another link takes him to a list of traits that make up an ideal baby. Keith’s only half paying attention as he scans down the page. Pretty? Well, he’s never been turned away in bed. Young? At least on paper, yeah. Knows her worth when it comes to negotiating her sugar allowance? Oh, wait, Keith’s on a page about sugar babies.

Exit the tab. Try again. It’s not a bad idea to change tack. Most of his research so far has been about what daddy kink is. But nothing’s really talked about the daddy side of the equation which, come to think of it, is kind of weird.

Ideal daddy doms finds more porn. Also, more lists.

Yet another blog done in pink and sparkles opens, promising the nine essential traits of daddy doms, and he reads. Daddies are kind and protective and loving, the blog tells him. An ideal daddy nurtures and disciplines and indulges his baby in equal measures. Buried beneath the anecdotes about shopping trips to the lingerie store and the blog writer’s worrying tendency to capitalize masculine pronouns, there’s. There’s something.

Keith lifts his thumb back to his lips and nibbles at the end, ignoring the salt sting of blood. In all honesty, he hadn’t really thought through the concept of Shiro as a daddy dom. Somehow he’d kept it in the abstract. But now he’s thinking about it.

Daddy fits Shiro. Natural as the way he brings Keith food in the lab, or reminds Keith to tape his hands before having a go at the bag in the gym, or pulls Keith close by the nape of his neck when they’re moving through crowds. There’s not a place on Earth that Keith knows of that feels half as safe as Shiro’s arms. Even discipline would come easy as the way Shiro swats Keith’s ass when he’s mouthy, or waits Keith out when he’s sullen, or talks Keith down when he’s angry.

So it turns out Shiro’s a naturally ideal daddy, and Keith’s...

Frustration pulses through his veins. If there weren’t three more loads of laundry waiting, he’d dump the idea of studying in favor of going to the gym to work out the sudden burst of aggression. Instead he puts aside his laptop and launches to his feet.

Pacing around the small common area is kind of disheartening. Not enough space. Exactly seven point three ground eating strides take him from the front door to the far corner of the room. To add insult to injury, he’s pretty sure that the teddy bear’s eyes are following him as he paces in semi-frantic circles.

Almost an hour of research adds up to nothing but confirmation of what he already knew. Which is that Keith isn’t fit to be anyone’s baby. He’s not delicate or innocent. He doesn’t giggle or wear pretty things. He’s just—

The alarm on his phone chimes. Time to switch loads of laundry.

It goes like this for a while. Switching out laundry loads on the hour, washer to dryer, rinse and repeat. The mound of clean clothes piled on their couch awaiting folding grows slowly but surely. Google racks up more and more questionable searches that probably put him on some kind of government watch list while the teddy bear judges him.

Only then he goes down with load four and finds Griffin opening his washer. Presumably to pull out his and Shiro’s towels and replace it with Griffin’s own smarmy Ralph Lauren polos. Fuck that.

Keith ‘accidentally’ smacks Griffin with the laundry bag he borrowed from Shiro as he elbows past. Because Griffin isn’t expecting it, or maybe because Keith used more force than strictly necessary, Griffin goes stumbling out of the way. “My washer,” he says. Casually. “Back dryer is mine too.”

Everyone knows that the back dryer is the only reliable one in the building. All the others range between theoretical fire hazard and actualized fire trap.

Griffin sputters. This is only slightly more effective as a threat than his puffing, polo clad chest. He looks like the world’s most offended pigeon. “You can’t just claim the best washer and dryer as yours!”

“Okay,” Keith says. Pulling out the towels, he takes them over to the back dryer and starts to change out the loads.

Since it’s Laundry Day—the day of certifiable disasters—Griffin follows him. “Hey, I was talking to you,” Griffin says. That one stupid flippy part of his hair practically quivers with indignation. “This is a communal laundry room.”

“I’m doing communal laundry.” Somehow he manages to say this with a straight face. Because, look, he knows this is a bit of a stretch. Like using the carpool lane when Shiro and he go into town for groceries. But it’s worth it to see the look on Griffin’s smug face.

Turns out he didn’t need a trip to the gym to work of his aggression, just an encounter with his middle school bully.

“You’re doing laundry for someone?” Griffin couldn’t sounds more shocked if Keith had outright decked him. Keith would know. He’s outright decked Griffin before. Griffin appears in his peripheral vision, eyebrows pinched together. “ Who?”


The dryer door shuts with a ‘clang’ but it’s not loud enough to cover Griffin’s amused snort. Unease pricks at the back of Keith’s spine. It’s the only warning he gets, and it’s not enough. “Really? What did you do to tick him off that you’re on laundry duty? I thought he’d put up with anything from you.”

Keith grabs the bag of clean clothes, turns on his heel, and leaves.

Folding laundry doesn’t do much to drown out the thoughts swirling through his head. He tries to ignore them anyway. None of it’s new. The teddy bear judging him from the pile of folded clothing next to him is proof enough of that.

“You didn’t have to fold, you know.”

Keith flinches and whips his head to look at the front door. It takes that long for his brain to register that the person talking to him is Shiro—who’s not and never has been a threat to his safety. Forcing out a rusty chuckle, he says, “It’s not a big deal.” Ignore the tension. Play off his own reaction.

It doesn’t work. Shiro’s still got his backpack slung over his shoulder, keys dangling from his fingertips, but his focus is on Keith. “Did something happen?” he asks. When Keith doesn’t immediately answer, he straightens up. “What happened?”

“Nothing.” Compulsively, Keith looks back down at his own lap and smooths out the creases on the tee shirt he’d been folding. It’s one of Shiro’s. He goes to add it to the ‘folded’ pile when he catches sight of the bear. “Shit,” he mutters, eyes widening.

Keys jingle as they’re dropped on the counter. “Keith, buddy—” There it is, the coaxing tone that Shiro only brings out when he’s decided that Keith’s hiding something from him. The floor creaks beneath his weight as he heads for Keith. And the couch. And the fucking bear.

Dire circumstances call for action. This last month and a half has taught him that much, at least. Keith makes a command decision and grabs the bear. Turning like he’s turning to face Shiro, he stuffs the bear under the couch. It goes reluctantly, because the clearance between the bottom of the couch and the floor is maybe three inches on a good day. The resistance hitches his otherwise smooth motion.

“What are you doing back so early?” Keith grasps at straws. At salvation.

Exactly two wrinkles appear in Shiro’s forehead as he furrows his brow. “My last meeting got canceled.” There really isn’t enough space in this room. When he comes to a standstill, he’s maybe a step away from Keith’s kneeling form. “Keith, what are you doing?”

Trying to shove the bear deeper under the couch. “Looking for a sock. I think it got pushed under there. Earlier. Um.”

“Okay,” Shiro says. “Do you need help?”

“No!” Panic overrides rational thought. “I’ve got it.” What he’s got is a blind certainty that Shiro can never know that he’s trying to hide a teddy bear from him. Keith drops, hips up and face down, as he shoves his arm—and the bear—deeper under the couch. It takes some doing and a little bit of wiggling on his part but the bear disappears into the dusty abyss. Fucking finally.

“Keith.” The growl that comes out of Shiro’s mouth is nearly unidentifiable as a word.

“Yeah?” Keith withdraws his arm from under the couch, gets his elbows under his body, and turns to look over his shoulder.

Whatever he’s expecting, it’s not this. Yeah, Shiro’s still standing exactly where Keith left him. Looming over him, dressed in jeans and a black henley that clings just so to the powerful lines of his torso, basically a wet dream come to life. Nothing new with that. Except there’s a heavy shadow near Shiro’s groin and down his left thigh. It could be a trick of the light, or. “Keith,” Shiro says again.

Unwillingly, Keith drags his gaze up to Shiro’s face, haloed in the shitty lights of their dorm. Hard to make out the exact expression, but Keith gets an impression of vaguely pained. “Guess I was wrong. Nothing under here.”

“Are you sure?” Words are coming out clearer now, but Shiro definitely has a punched out cadence that worries Keith. “You don’t need to look again?”

“Nah.” No one ever needs to look under the couch for anything ever again. Ever. Keith settles back on his heels and picks up the folded pile of Shiro’s clothes. Getting to his feet is an effort—so long spent kneeling has put his legs mostly to sleep—but he manages it.

When he’s closed the distance between them, he can tell that vaguely pained is actually a pretty accurate read. Maybe Shiro’s getting a migraine. Those happen—something about how the IED concussed him makes migraines come on with pressure systems. Keith feels dickish for keeping Shiro here this long, worrying about him, when Shiro should be laying down to sleep off the nightmares and a migraine. That’s why he bites his lip and holds out the clothes like an offering. “Here. I know it’s not military standard.” But I refolded everything at least twice to get it close.

Shiro stares down at the offered clothing. Takes in the neat corners and crisp lines. “Looks pretty close,” he says. Whatever was eating at him before drifts away. Leaves behind a fond smile and gentle eyes. “Thanks for doing this.”


“No.” It’s said firmly, and that would be enough. But then Shiro puts his hand over Keith’s on the clothes. Holds it and rubs his thumb over the backs of Keith’s knuckles. “You did a good job, Keith.”

Part of him still wants to protest. “Okay,” he says, maybe a little subdued but his mouth is dry from the way Shiro’s focusing on him.

There’s barely enough space between them as it is. Shiro steps closer. Looming. Used to be he only did this once in a blue moon, but in the last month or so it’s turned into a real habit. Keith still can’t figure if he hates it or not. Depends on the day. “Now tell me. What happened today? You’re tense.”

No fucking way is Keith explaining about the teddy bear or the Google deep dive into daddy kink. Which leaves: “I ran into Griffin in the laundry room. I handled it.”

An understanding kind of hum leaves Shiro. They’ve never really talked about the couple years he spent around here in middle school that put him at odds with Griffin. It’s okay though. Shiro gets it. Even now his eyes have gone softer, and his prosthetic comes up to press against the dip of Keith’s spine. “I’m sorry,” he says. The words don’t mean anything—sympathy, maybe, or empathy—but they soothe over Keith anyway. Make him want to duck his head and tuck his whole body into Shiro’s chest.

That’s not something he can have though.

Besides, migraine or no, the earlier exhaustion has just written itself deeper into Shiro. The bruises beneath his eyes look darker, and his skin seems a little too tight over his cheekbones. “How did your day go?”

“It was fine,” Shiro says. Lies. Just from the pinch between his eyebrows, Keith knows what he’s going to say next before he says it. “I should probably head back to the library and get ahead on my work.”

“Can we stay in tonight?” Keith blurts out. All he wants is to curl into Shiro’s side, and feel the rumble of Shiro’s laugh under his cheek, and drift off to the sound of Shiro’s heartbeat knowing that they’re both okay. Things he doesn’t know how to admit but he can ask for them if it means Shiro doesn’t go back to the library to avoid the nightmares. “I know it’s not Friday but…”

Fingertips rub over the knobs of Keith’s vertebrae in a calming motion. It feels like Shiro is weighing the consequences as he examines Keith’s face. When he gives in, he gives in easy. Like it doesn’t cost him anything even though it does. Keith knows it does. “Yeah, we can stay in tonight. Whatever you want, buddy.” Maybe it makes him a bad person, but Keith’s selfish enough to take this.

“Go put these away then,” Keith says, pushing the clothes into Shiro’s chest. A warm glow settles in his gut as Shiro takes the neat stack, proof that Keith did something good today. “I’m gonna call for takeout.”

“Bossy,” Shiro says, but there’s no heat behind the word. “I’ll be out in a minute. Remember to order an actual salad to go with the pizza this time, would you?”

All of that was too fucking close, Keith thinks as picks up his own pile of clothes—unfolded, because unlike some people he doesn’t have years of military discipline riding his ass. They get dumped unceremoniously into his closet.

Grabbing his phone, he dials the number of the closest pizza place and starts up their usual order. As he confirms toppings with the kid on the other end, he wanders back into the main area. The last tension of the day releases from his spine at the sight of Shiro sitting on the couch and flicking through their movie queue.

Salad , Shiro mouths at him. Keith rolls eyes eyes but adds a salad to the order. When he hangs up the call, he says, “Should be here in twenty minutes.”

“Sounds good,” Shiro says, “Now come here.”

Of course Keith goes, and lets himself be pulled down onto the couch to sprawl over Shiro’s lap. Movies scroll by on the screen but he doesn’t pay attention. Whatever Shiro picks is fine. Instead he focuses on the shift of Shiro’s thighs beneath his belly. Folding his arms under his head, he lets himself drift, barely aware of anything beyond the weight of Shiro’s hand as it settles gently on the small of his back.

Turns out it’s a good thing Keith asked for a movie night earlier in the week because by the time Friday rolls around their dorm has been commandeered for a group study date. Keith shouldn’t put it that way. Group study dates are pretty standard for the weeks leading up to midterms. But he liked the way Friday nights belonged to him and Shiro.

A half hour before people are supposed to start showing up, he finally slinks into the main area. He’s not sulking, he’s not, even if the jut of his lower lip feels uncomfortably close to a pout. Shiro’s already shuffling through their pile of takeout menus by the kitchenette. “Hunk’s going to judge our poor food choices,” Keith says. In fairness, Hunk is going to judge everyone for everything. Just in a loving way. Still, there’s a petty victory in this.

Shiro glances over his shoulder at Keith and pauses, eyes sweeping over the bared length of Keith’s legs, before he goes, “You’re wearing that to study in?”

It feels like there’s a right answer and a wrong answer to that question. Keith’s just not sure which is which. Reaching down to fidget with the too short hem of his pajama shorts, he says, “Yes?” Okay, he didn’t mean it like a question, but it came out that way and now he’s got to stand by it. “I don’t want to wear jeans and I don’t have anything else.” This is absolutely true. His only pair of sweats is currently crumpled on the floor in his room after a rough bout at the gym.

No sign if Keith chose the correct answer. Of course not. Why would it ever be that easy. “Nothing?” Shiro asks. He turns, propping his hip against the counter and reaching out to hook a finger in the waistband of Keith’s shorts.

“I— Um— No?” Keith’s intensely aware of the heat pricking at the back of his neck and the urge to lick his lips. “Should I change?”

Shiro tugs him closer. “You don’t have to,” he says. Another finger slips beneath the waistband. His knuckles rub at Keith’s hipbone in a way that short circuits any and all thought. “But if you want to, I do have some recently clean laundry you could borrow from. Including sweats. You’ll like the black pair. They’re warm.” Something about his slow, insistent touch combined with the sureness in his voice makes Keith want to melt. “Why don’t you try them on?”

Stumbling out of Shiro’s grasp, Keith says, “Yeah, I’ll. I’ll go do that. Now.” Despite his less than graceful exit, Shiro just gives him an easy and entirely platonic grin when he comes out a few minutes later in the pair of black sweats.

They are warm, and Keith does like them.

Half an hour later he’s wedged into the couch and grateful that Shiro had him change. Because he could not have this conversation if he was in shorts. Absolutely, categorically, definitively could not. The loss of dignity would obliterate him. Even in sweats it’s the kind of conversation that has him sinking back into the couch with his shoulders hunch up around his ears. “It’s not what you think,” he says. Croaks, really. Probably that’s the most cliche thing he could say in this moment but he doesn’t care. “That’s not— It’s not mine.”

“You do not need to be ashamed, Keith,” Allura says. It’s quite possible she’s never looked more like a Disney princess than she does in this exact moment. All glossy white curls and sincerity and glittering blue eyes. Keith kind of hates her for it.

What he hates more is that right now she’s the only person on his side. Hunk left fifteen minutes ago to pick up the take out. (Small mercies, he took Shiro with him, because while Shiro would’ve put a stop to all of this he also would’ve been witness to all of this and that. That can’t happen. Ever.) Pidge has been gifting him with intensely judgmental and long suffering glances over her glasses ever since she found the teddy bear while trying to get a highlighter than rolled under the couch. And Lance...

Lance won’t stop cackling. “I cannot believe that Keith has a stuffed animal.” His spindly thumbs dig into the bear’s plush belly, like he wants to eviscerate it alongside whatever might’ve been left of Keith’s self respect. “Dude, my eight year old niece has outgrown stuffed animals.”

“It’s your teddy bear!”

Dead silence falls for all of six seconds. Then Lance’s cheeks puff with displeasure. “No, it’s not!”

“Yes, it is!” Keith will die on this hill if he has to. Jabbing a finger toward Lance, he adds with a triumphant snarl, “It’s the one you got for Nyma.”

“Wait, Hunk gave you the Nyma bear?!” New horror enters Lance’s expression as he looks back down at the teddy bear. Maybe he’s finally sensing its inherent malevolence. There’s a kind of kinship in the way that Lance’s throat bobs with a too hard swallow and the quietly strangled whimper he lets out as he stares into the bear’s beady eyes. Keith doesn’t want to feel kinship. Not with Lance. Not right now. Even if Lance does give Keith a genuinely tragic expression and says, “Oh man, I am so sorry.”

Pidge groans and takes off her glasses, rubbing at one eye with the heel of her palm. “I should have left the bear where I found it.”

“Most likely,” Allura says. “But here we are.” Turning to Lance, she holds out her hand in a silent hand it over. Either because he’s obedient when it comes to Allura or because he doesn’t want to keep holding a clearly cursed item, Lance hands it over without another word. Briefly she turns the bear over in her hands. Examines the source of all the chaos. When she looks at Keith, her lips are pressed into a thoughtful line and her eyebrows are pinched together. It is not a reassuring expression. “So you wish to be Shiro’s baby?” she asks.

Vertigo hooks Keith behind the navel and at the base of his spine. The rush of blood in his ears nearly masks the sound of Lance choking on his own saliva and Pidge squawking like her namesake. “I— What— You—”

“Lance,” she says. Tapping one perfectly manicured finger against the bear’s nose, she adds, “Though the bear is also a bit of a giveaway.” Apparently she’s still going for ‘sincere’ and ‘warm’ and ‘compassionate’, because she leans forward and places a hand on his knee. “As I said, you do not need to be ashamed. The pursuit of love is never something to fear or regret.”

Keith’s not proud of this, but his first thought is to remind Allura of Lotor. What about your ex boyfriend, he could ask, the one who stole all your research and then also seduced your dad in the Ancient Egyptian Artifacts special collections? Biting his tongue, he makes a noncommittal grunting sort of noise instead of lashing out at one of his few friends in the world. Because no matter what people think he does have some impulse control.

“If you would like, I could offer my own advice,” she says. No. Keith would not like. “You must simply use bandaids.” The beatific smile on her face, paired with the way she pats his knee, suggests that she feels this is a good suggestion. A brilliant suggestion, even. It is not.

“What?” Bless Pidge for verbalizing what Keith hasn’t figured out how to. “How is that supposed to help?”

The hand on Keith’s knee pauses in its semi-maternal patting. Allura’s eyebrows draw together once again, this time with significant less concern and significantly more irritation. Lance beats her to whatever put down she was about to dole out with a quick: “You’re the one who suggested cartoons!”

Pidge fears no man or goddess. Defiance sets her jaw and the corners of her eyes into mutinous angles. “At least I got them to cuddling.”

“That’s not—”

“Excuse me,” Allura says. Polite as the words are, her tone is tart with warning. “I had not finished.” When no one immediately tries to jump in, she inhales deeply before turning back to Keith. Maybe she doesn’t realize it but her nails dig in slightly at his leg. He’s not sure if she’s doing it out of generalized frustration or as a deliberate move to keep him still. “This kink is about Shiro caring for you, correct? Well, if you allow him to tend to some minor wounds—like the one you have now—then he will be filled with the protective urges that will allow you to. Ah. Seduce him.”

It’s quiet enough to hear a pen drop. That’s not a metaphor. Pidge actually drops a pen and the sound of it hitting the carpet, muffled though it is, can be heard throughout the room. Keith knows as much because Lance twitches, just a bit, in perfect sync with Keith himself. After that the silence just keeps stretching. On and on and on.

“That’s a terrible idea,” Pidge says.

Lance’s words almost overlap hers, only a half second behind, “That’s not a bad idea.”

As the two of them turn on each other again, Keith looks down at his bandaged thumb. Shiro hadn’t said anything when he’d realized over dinner that Keith had chewed the cuticle bloody, just frowned a little, but he had been the one to hand Keith a bandaid before he went to lab the next morning. Allura isn’t wrong. But Keith’s fairly sure she’s not right either. If minor injuries and bandaids were the way to Shiro’s heart, this all would’ve been over a long time ago and with considerably less suffering. Using the most neutral tone he can muster, “It’s an idea.”

Clearly, Allura was hoping for something a little more enthusiastic. Tough shit. It’s not like he’d actually asked for her opinion or her advice. Keith doesn’t like seeing her sad though. None of them like seeing her sad. Which might be why he grits his teeth and adds, “I’m planning on giving up. Anyway.”

“On Shiro?” Lance asks, breaking off halfway through some volley of insults with Pidge. He yelps as she throws her pen at him with unerring accuracy.

“Keith will never give up on Shiro,” Pidge says. “Don’t be stupid, Lance.”

“On the daddy kink plan,” Keith says. He doesn’t want the fighting to escalate any further. It’s already taking every fiber of his being to resist vaulting over Allura and running for the nearest exit. More arguing would make that impossible. If he does run, then Shiro will give him that look—the one that’s equal parts understanding and disappointed.

Twin squawks of outrage come from Pidge and Lance, but Allura’s the one who manages actual words. “But why? It sounds as if the plan has been working, even if it is a touch… Unorthodox.” What a charming summation of the last month and a half he’s spent in quiet agony.

“Look it’s not a big deal, I just—” There’s nothing to follow the ‘just’, Keith realizes as he trails off in an abortive grunt. Nothing he can say that will make the three of them stop looking at him like he’s personally offended them. “Would you give me the bear? I need to get rid of it before Shiro and Hunk get back.”

Allura reaches up to pinch at the bridge of her nose. With her other hand, she shoves the bear in Keith’s general direction.

Taking it with a quiet thank you, he gets off the couch and heads for the front door. If he’s quick there’s a decent chance he can dump it in the communal kitchen or something. Let it curse someone else’s relationship. No one says anything. Allura’s still too busy with pinching her nose and looking professionally tragic. The other two have settled for merely looking betrayed. But as he reaches for the lock on the door, he hears voices. Specifically:

“We should’ve gotten your keys out in the car, man.” Hunk sounds vaguely winded—Shiro probably made them walk up the three flights of stairs, he’s like that. Keys jingle. “Uh. How many keys do you have?” Ever since Iverson gave Shiro keys to the various engineering labs, it’s taken him a good thirty seconds to get to his dorm key. “No judgment, but I’m just saying you could have separate key rings.”

Panic lends Keith speed. It does not lend him intelligence.

Opening the freezer door—Shiro never uses the freezer, doesn’t believe in frozen food, he jokes but not really that he’s got some ice related trauma—Keith shoves the teddy bear into the very back. Behind the broken ice machine. Behind the ice cream that’s made of freezer burn at this point. Behind the four bags of peas they keep around for bruised knuckles. Where it will never be seen again. Like exile to Siberia.

The lock clicks. Keith slams the freezer door and spins, pressing his back full length against the fridge. The door knob turns. Keith glares over at his friend in a silent warning to keep their mouths shut. The door opens.

“We’re back.”

“Welcome back.” Keith’s trying, desperately, for casual. But his voice cracks over the syllables and his palms are damp with sweat and his entire existence is a fuck you to the very concept of casual.

Pizza boxes cover Hunk’s torso and face. Still, he manages to convey sympathy with a friendly elbow nudge to Keith’s side as he shuffles deeper into the dorm room. “Get it while it’s hot!” he announces cheerfully. Grease and cheese scents the air as he puts the boxes down on the coffee table and pops the topmost lid. It’s  enough to distract everyone who isn’t Keith from the spectacle that is Keith.

Everyone except Shiro, of course, because the universe is cold and unfeeling. “Are you okay?”

Reluctantly Keith looks up. Whatever’s on his face must be answer enough, because Shiro steps in front of him and his bulk blocks off the sight of their friends scarfing down pizza. “Is this too much for you?” he asks, quiet. “Keith, is the study group too much right now?” Yes. No. Maybe. A vein tics at Shiro’s jaw as he clenches it, then releases. “You seemed down earlier. I should’ve canceled.”

“It’s fine,” Keith says. He doesn’t want Shiro to blame himself, because this all would’ve been fine if Keith hadn’t started all of this in the first place by being desperate. Shiro doesn’t look convinced. But the thing is, he’s not going to kick their friends out without due cause, and Keith’s not going to give him due cause.

They’re in a good old fashioned stand off for about thirty seconds before Keith’s stomach growls and puts an end to it. Rolling his eyes, Shiro curls his fingers loosely around Keith’s forearm and tugs him over to the couch. It doesn’t occur to Keith—still high on the victory of ‘winning’ the stand off—that he probably should resist. Not until Shiro collapses into the corner of the couch that Keith had previously claimed and tugs Keith down next to him.

Hunk hands Shiro a pizza box with pineapple scrawled on it in Sharpie. “Pineapple?” Keith asks. It’s not a real question, more of a placeholder. He’s too busy trying to figure out how exactly he’s supposed to pull out of the gravitational pull of Shiro’s weight and warmth.

“Yeah,” Shiro says. One shoulder lifts in a shrug as he lets the box rest on his lap. He pops the lid and says, like it’s not totally devastating, “I got it for you.” Because Keith loves pineapple on meat lovers not hawaiian, and not another soul on this earth shares his tastes, and this is totally devastating. It is. “We can share, right?” Keith nods mutely and stops trying to pull away.

They do share, eating through the entire large pizza over the next fifteen minutes with the single minded purpose of two hungry and athletic college boys. Food helps settle Keith. So does Shiro’s body next to his, an solid foundation that he leans into on the excuse of not wanting to drip cheese everywhere. Normalcy settles over the group and banishes all of the earlier stupidity in favor of more familiar stupidity.

When Shiro gets up to put the box away, Allura leans toward Keith in a parallel of earlier. The others are distracted, but she still pitches her voice for only his ears. “You see? Shiro takes very good care of you.”

It occurs to Keith that the problem is how now that he’s seen how perfectly ‘daddy’ Shiro is, he can’t unsee it. And honestly, he doesn’t know if he actually wants to unsee it.

Part of him already knows that he’s going to regret this. That part of him hasn’t caught up yet as he flips the lock on his bedroom door. Nerves has him fumbling and he keeps thinking about the way Shiro’s lips felt against his temple earlier this week and the way Shiro’s knuckles felt against his hipbone earlier tonight. All of it’s enough to send him stumbling back until his knees hit the low frame of his bed and he lets himself collapse.

One shoulder knocks into the wall. Pain shudders down his arm but he barely notices, too busy shoving his sweats and briefs down with one hand and spitting into the other. Barely gets his clothes down around his thighs before he’s gripping his cock just this side of too hard. Everything sparks as he swipes a thumb over the head. His hips jerk up, needing more friction, and he bites back the high whine building in his throat. It’s never been like this—not this zero to one twenty need to orgasm—but now it is and he’s helpless against it.

Planting a foot on the mattress and bracing his shoulders against the wall, he tries to chase down what he needs. Sweat curls the hair at his temples. Pre does more to slick his hand than the spit did and soon the glide is, not perfect, but good. Right. Just enough burn that he shudders each time he reaches the head.

But minutes pass and he’s still right there. Every inch of him wound tight and clenched with need. Almost, almost, almost.

Inherent self preservation has always kept him from fantasizing about Shiro in anything but the most obscure terms. Yeah, he knows that when he imagines being pinned down and fucked by someone with Shiro’s build, he’s imagining Shiro. But so long as he doesn’t name Shiro, there’s plausible deniability.

Now, he imagines being pulled into Shiro’s lap. How the prosthetic would ruck up his tee to press against his sternum, pinning him in place, the metal cool against his overheated skin. Rutting up into the tight channel of his fist, he imagines the way Shiro would nip at the shell of his ear.

Look at you, Shiro whispers in his mind. The words come out soft. Eager. Proud. Falling apart for me so sweet. Relief is so close his teeth ache with it. Maybe later he’ll regret it but for now he lets himself sink deeper into the fantasy. Shiro would push a thumb into his mouth, the callused pad salty as he pressed down on Keith’s tongue, muffling his whining cries. This is just the warm up. Shiro’s big. Keith would need to be orgasm loose to take him. Be good for me, baby boy.

Keith grits his teeth as the world goes shocky white behind his eyelids. Both hands drop to the sheets, and he fists up the material til it nearly tears. His hips buck as come splatters across his stomach in hot arcs.

By the time his cock softens into a warm line across his hip, he’s satiated and relaxed and close to sleep. Tossing an arm over his face blocks out the lights he’s too exhausted to turn off. Sleep drifts closer, hazy grey, and he kicks off his sweats and briefs in slow movements. Curling over onto his side, he curls his face into his pillow and lets himself imagine it’s Shiro.

Predictably, he does feel like shit the next morning. And the three mornings, all marred by guilt hangovers from jerking off to the thought of Shiro, after that.

Keith thinks it might be time to give up. Theoretically, giving up would free him from this guilt or at least make it more bearable.

When he braces the punching bag to steady it after a hard punch sent it swinging wide, he decides that it does feel freeing. Or it will, once it sinks in that he doesn’t have to think about how he’s going to “seduce” Shiro today, and that while “seducing” he may end up tempted into doing something he shouldn’t. With that off his shoulders, everything will go back to feeling like normalcy if not happiness. It will. It will. It will.

The thing is, his friends won’t let this go. Earlier he had to turn off his phone just to stop the constant parade of text messages. Apparently they all have opinions about how he should handle the fucking teddy bear. And Shiro.

Especially Shiro.

That’s the problem, he’s pretty sure. That his friends won’t let this go. Not that Keith himself doesn’t entirely know how to let this go. Another too hard punch sends the bag squeaking on its chain. Quickly he reaches out to brace it before starting up again. There’s a faint burn in his shoulders from the strain. As quick workouts go this is a bad option—he knows that, and knows that if Shiro was here he’d be in trouble for pushing it—but he needs to hit something that isn’t one of his smug, nosy, well meaning friends.

Anyway Keith knows how to let go. He’s tried plenty of things in his quest to get Shiro to love him. Most of them involved a variable level of dignity lost—which Lance has documented evidence of and is always happy to walk Keith down the memory lane of. Sometimes it was better to retreat than to keep trying something that obviously wasn’t working. Retreat wasn’t calling it quits. Giving up on a plan wasn’t the same thing as giving up on Shiro.

Not that it’s like that now, either, because giving up on this stupid daddy kink plan isn’t the same as giving up on Shiro, it’s just giving up on Shiro as his daddy and that’s fine, it is, because Shiro’s never been—

“Keith, you’re fifteen past!”

Veronica’s voice cuts through the generic pop music they blast in the gym and his own thoughts. It’s got the sharp note of command to it that only older siblings ever really manage, at least according to Lance. Keith turns toward her blindly. Opens his mouth to ask what he’s fifteen past on.

Something heavy slams into his hip. Years of surprise beatings means he doesn’t yelp, just grunts and tucks as he slams into the ground. Above him, the punching bag keeps squeaking as it slows to a stop. Nothing’s hurt aside from his side. It’ll bruise, but not enough to keep him from walking. It’s fine. He’s fine. No one’s coming after him and what he needs to do now is breathe through the adrenaline.

So he’s lying there on the floor of the gym—with Taylor Swift wailing now I’m lying on the cold hard ground like a goddamn unsatisfactory bitch of an oracle—thinking about his life choices and their generally poor quality.

That’s when Veronica shows up and leans over him. Hands on her hips, lips pressed together in an expression that could be sympathetic or judgmental or both, eyeing him over the frame of her glasses. Lance calls that her “power pose”, and it’s one that Keith could do without. Personally. Right now.

“Are you okay?” she asks. No preamble. “Do I need to call someone for you?” One thing he can give her credit for: she does appear genuinely worried for his well being.

“Fifteen past?” he asks. Answering is highly overrated, at this point, and even if she is genuinely concerned like hell is he going to let this become a thing. Veronica adopts sad college students the way frat guys adopt new versions of beer pong. Keith categorically refuses to become one of her projects.

Veronica raises one eyebrow with excruciating slowness. “Fifteen past when you said you needed to leave for class,” she says.

Right. Right, he did tell her on his way over to the bags that he needed to leave by 3 if he was going to make his 3:30 class. Figures she would’ve remembered that even if at the time she’s just gestured toward the evenly spaced bags on the back wall.

“Oh,” he says.

“Mhm.” The amount of judgment she fits into those two syllables would be impressive in any other situation. “Sure you don’t need me to call someone?”

Keith pushes himself into a vertical sort of position and shakes his head. “‘m good,” he says. “Going to head to class.” Thanks to her warning, he’ll still make it on time. Whoever ends up seated near him will just have to deal with the sweat. “Thanks for the heads up,” he adds. Because he does have manners. Also, Lance would try to kill him if he was a jerk.

Veronica raises her other eyebrow. “If you’re sure,” she says, in a way that’s clearly meant to suggest that she is the opposite of sure.

It’s official. Keith can never come back to the gym when Veronica’s on shift. Which is unfortunate, because she’s just about the only person who reminds him of when he needs to leave for class. This shit is exactly why he needs to give up on the daddy kink plan. Even if that thought makes him want to punch something again.

Four hours later, both his body and his pride still feel the bruising. There’s a distinct soreness that’s slowly expanded from his hip to his entire side. By tomorrow morning it’ll be the kind of pain he grits his teeth through. Honestly it’s the hit to his pride that’s rougher. He can’t believe Veronica caught him out like that. If she tells Lance…

If she tells Lance, he’s never going to hear the end of it unless he commits a felony and flees the country.

Maybe the only consolation prize in all of this is that tonight’s a Tuesday. Shiro’s always out until at least ten on Tuesday nights. Working in the lab, mostly, or doing homework in the library. Keith won’t have to hide his new injury until tomorrow morning at least.

Unlocking the door to their dorm, he ignores the chattering sophomores walking behind him and giggling. “Is that…?” he hears one of them ask. Defensively, he hefts his backpack higher onto his shoulder and darts into the room. Barely catches the follow up, “No, it totally is him!” that could mean so many things, none of them good.

All that matters is he’s back in his dorm. Habit makes him lock the door even as he drops his backpack onto the kitchenette counter. Slowly he collapses back against the door to take the weight off his aching hip.

Eventually he’s going to have to turn back on his phone. Answer all the texts from friends. Not tonight though. This is the first time since Friday that he’s been alone in the apartment and that means he’s got shit to accomplish. Namely, getting some frozen peas for his knuckles. And his side. And his pride.

Opening the freezer, he grabs a bag of peas. Brown fur catches his eye and his hand tightens reflexively. Peas grind in his fist. The bear. It’s probably safe where it is—Shiro never goes into the freezer. Except when Keith is injured.

Keith snatches up the bear with his free hand and elbows the freezer door shut. The bear is cold and oddly firm in his hand. When he squeezes, there’s a weird sensation of something crunching beneath his fingers. If he was Pidge he’d already be figuring out how to break the bear open and see what had frozen and why. Maybe that’s how he should get rid of the bear. A sacrifice to Pidge.

For now he takes it with him back to his room. Drops it on his desk with the peas to be dealt with when he has a few brain cells to spare. Right now he can’t think much past getting out of his sweat stained clothes, taking a shower, and shoveling food into his mouth.

It’s as he’s doing that first part—the getting out of his sweat stained clothes—that he realizes that probably he didn’t do as good of a job assessing his injuries as he should’ve. Bruises have settled in deep, all the way down to his marrow. He’s caught, shirt halfway over his head, the collar snagged in his fingertips while his ribs ache each time he breathes in. Reflexive tears sting the back of his eyes.

“Not that bad,” he tells himself. “It’s not that bad.” Because it’s not, relative to what he’s dealt with before. Keith inhales too deep and yanks the shirt the rest of the way off on the exhale. If he’s trembling faintly when he drops the shirt to the floor, then there’s only the damned bear to witness it.

Waking up hurts. More than he expect it to. If he’s being entirely honest. Might as well be honest with himself, since he’s going to spend the day lying to everyone else.

Keith prods at the bruise. The blue of last night has deepened to indigo. At the edges, it’s mottled with a color that could almost be lilac. Judging by where and how his muscles pull as he tries to roll onto his side, it’s covering from his fifth rib down to mid-thigh. Lower regions hurt more. Took more of the bag. When he flexes his hands, he’s reminded that his knuckles are bruised too beneath the raw skin. That’s fine. Keith has always bruised easy.

Catching a groan in his lungs, he manages to shove himself out of bed and get to the bathroom. Brushes his teeth with jerky movements. Grabs more bandages from under the sink. Heads back into his room. Stubs his toe on the bedframe and lets out the stream of cussing that his dad taught him was the best way to express pain.


According to the alarm clock he’s still got a half hour before Shiro finishes his morning run. Except clearly Shiro either finished early or didn’t go at all, because that was definitely Shiro’s voice, and that is definitely Shiro’s footsteps. Worse, any minute now Shiro is going to realize that Keith’s door is open, and he’s going to come in—open doors mean free range in the unspoken terms of their living arrangement.

Decisive action really only works when he only has one thing that needs to happen in the span of a few seconds. The bear, still sitting on his desk, needs to be hidden. The bruises, still scattered over his entire torso, need to be hidden. Indecision keeps him still.

At the last possible second he decides. Snatching up the bear, he leans down and chucks it violently under the bed. It tumbles away into the darkness. Now if he wants to actually get rid of it, he’ll have to crawl under his bed, but that’s Future Keith’s problem. Current Keith’s problem is straightening up instead of giving into the urge to crumple onto the floor. It’s not going great.

“Keith?” There’s a creak as Shiro pauses in the doorway. “What happened?”

Theoretically Keith should have more time to respond. Shiro has a habit of lingering in the doorway until invited in, even with open doors. Instead he ignores two and a half years of habit in favor of crowding into Keith’s space. No questions and no polite waiting and no boundaries.

Pride and maybe a little shame makes Keith straighten. Reflexively he looks up at Shiro. To judge how much Shiro has seen. To minimize whatever Shiro’s response will be to the sight of all the bruising. A ready made answer comes to him, instinctive as breathing, for the question that must come next. Shiro will ask, Are you okay? and Keith will answer, I’m fine. Neither of them will entirely believe it but it will restore equilibrium.

Shiro doesn’t ask though. Just assesses Keith’s body. Pause on the bruise streaking like twilight over Keith’s side, on the raw knuckles from going too hard with too little tape, on the faint trembling that Keith’s not quite able to contain. “Oh, Keith,” he says. Quiet. Worried.

Keith’s heartbeat feels uneven. He thinks of the teddy bear under his bed, the smug lilt to Allura’s voice as she suggested bandaids, the guilt of another night jerking off to the fantasy of being Shiro’s. Mostly, he thinks of his decision to give up. Because he has to give up, can’t keep doing this to their friendship, doesn’t want to keep looking into Shiro’s eyes when they’re dark with worry. Giving up is what’s best for Shiro.

When Shiro reaches for him, fingertips skimming along his jaw, he jerks back. “I’m fine!” he snaps. Keeps his teeth bared even as he bumps into his desk and feels lightning strike pain fracture up from his hip.

Too late Keith realizes he’s fucked up.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro says. Quieter. It’s sincere but it feels like a reproach. Or maybe Keith’s just reading too much into the way that Shiro’s squaring up, falling into an echo of military parade rest that he always does when he needs to deal with something painful. “It’s just—” The noise he makes is frustrated. Soft. Aching. “You’re hurt, Keith.”

Like Keith doesn’t know. “It’s fine,” he says. Ducks his head so he won’t have to meet those dark eyes that always see right through him. “I’m fine.”

Even without looking, he can feel Shiro weighing the odds. Discarding questions that he knows Keith won’t answer. Judging how far he can push Keith before the whole situation shatters. How fucked up is it that Shiro even has to do that?

The thing is that people—Griffin, Iverson, Rizavi—like to think of Keith as Shiro’s charity case. More accurately, they think of Keith as some feral desert cat that Shiro managed to coax home and now brings to polite gatherings despite it probably being rabid. Keith doesn’t know how to behave in a way that would convince people that he’s worth keeping around. Can’t help himself when the rage or the fear sets in. And so people give Shiro the same pitying looks that people give cat owners covered in scratches and bite marks.

(No matter what Romelle says about how drunk they’d been when he came up with that, it’s a valid metaphor, and Keith carries it around like a talisman.)

Scraping together his bravery, he dares to look up at Shiro. Keeps his fingertips pressed into the mottled edge of a bruise to keep himself anchored against whatever he’s going to see. It’s a good thing because Shiro looks tired in that way he only ever does when Keith’s done something that pushed him back into the war. “You shouldn’t worry about me,” he says, desperate to get that look off Shiro’s face.

Maybe he means it like a peace offering. Shiro takes it like a punch.

“You don’t get to decide that.” Each word comes out in a bitten off snarl. Tension coils in his limbs and his hands curl into loose fists. It’s not a threat, even if maybe it should be, because he releases them on an exhale. “You don’t get to decide how I feel about you showing up looking like you got hit by a car. I trust you to tell me when you’re ready but you— You need to—”

Do better, Keith thinks. “I’m sorry,” he says. Even to his own ears his voice sounds small and uncertain. “I’m sorry, Shiro.” And he doesn’t mean to say it, would cut his own tongue out rather than say it again, but when their eyes meet he says, “Can you help me?”

The next ten minutes goes like this: Keith sits on his bed because Shiro told him to and listens to the sound of Shiro washing his hands in the bathroom. Keith lets Shiro smear antibacterial gel over each knuckle and wrap his hands even though the tenderness makes him shake. Keith tries to understand what shifted between them when he asked for help and Shiro agreed.

“There you go,” Shiro says, tucking the bandage end in securely.

“I’m sorry,” Keith says. Again. Because it feels like he hasn’t said it enough. He flexes his fingers experimentally, just to test the bindings, and he’s not surprised that there’s just enough give to keep him from losing circulation. About three times better than he would’ve been able to manage on his own.

Before he can say as much, Shiro reaches up to grasp the back of his neck in a hold that’s firm enough to act as a scruffing. Like a kitten, Keith’s tremors fade and he goes slack with something like relief. “You already apologized, Keith,” Shiro says. “And I forgave you. It’s okay.” Probably it shouldn’t be okay, but if Shiro says it is then it is. Shiro leans in closer, pressing his lips to the center of Keith’s forehead in a gentle kiss. It feels like forever in the space between heartbeats. “We’re okay.”

The home gave him a lot of bad habits. Briefly, back in freshman year, he went to the counseling center and they told him he had a lot of trauma. Like he didn’t know that. Keith doesn’t really contextualize his habits with his supposed trauma though.

He sleeps in three hours stretches, light and wary, spine pricking with awareness whenever there’s an unexpected noise. Now that he’s got a door that locks, he doesn’t keep his hand on his knife most nights. It stays under his pillow though, just like his boots stay next to his bed and the keys to his bike stay on a chain around his neck. Always be ready to fight or run or both.

He’s almost stopped hiding food, but he can’t help the triple sealed Ziploc of jerky he keeps in the boxspring. It’s fine. Some days he doesn’t think he can see anyone, not even Shiro, and he gets out the jerky. One strip can be chewed on for hours. Hunger sometimes feels more familiar than fullness.

He thinks he can remember a time when he didn’t like fighting. It’s all blurred up in memories of his dad, when he could still be the quiet boy in the back of the class who no one bothered. He still fought back then. Mother’s Day, when another boy tore the card he made in class because he didn’t have a mom did he? and Keith punched him right in the gut. Dad looked at Keith with such sad eyes over dinner that night and so he never made another card for Mother’s Day. But even without that, he hadn’t enjoyed the fight.

The home taught him to like fighting. He likes when he clenches his fists and feels the old scars pull taut over his knuckles. He likes baring his teeth and reminding people that smiles are threat signals in other species. He likes how his blood sings in his ears. He likes winning, mostly because that means he’s not losing.

Shiro taught him how to contextualize all of this. Not on purpose, but when he came home with a split lip after picking a fight in the local bar that doesn’t card, Shiro looked at him with sad eyes and empty hands.

Only once did he say anything about it. Spring semester of freshman year, he caught Keith stumbling into the room, and he said, “If you keep going like this you’re going to kill yourself.” It’d been different from the counselor or the social workers. Keith understood then that people had killed themselves this way and Shiro had witnessed it. More than that, he thought maybe he understood that Shiro didn’t want to witness him going out like that.

Keith’s trying to be better for Shiro. He’s just not sure what ‘better’ means anymore.

Chapter Text

When Keith asked for help he meant it like a placation, maybe. Like if I let you bandage my knuckles will you please stop looking like I punched you in the gut? for emotionally repressed idiots. Concession of territory valid for one night and one night only.

Shiro takes that concession and turns it into a conquering.

Twice a day now Keith is directed to sit at the kitchenette table for Shiro to fuss over. Protesting doesn’t get him anything but a stern Keith that has him biting back a whimper he doesn’t understand the source of. Keith sits. Of course he sits. And it’s not so bad—the ice packs for his side, the carefully portioned out pain medication, the fresh bandages for his hands.

No. That’s a lie. Physically, Keith’s healing faster and better than he probably would’ve if he’d been left to his own devices. Emotionally, Keith hasn’t known suffering like this since they first started movie nights.

“Left hand,” Shiro prompts.

Obediently, Keith offers up his left hand. The right has already been tended to, the bandages perfectly neat and his knuckles pleasantly cool from the gel. After that first morning Shiro’d gone to the CVS off campus to pick up the antibacterial gel with ‘pain relief.’ The kind of stuff Keith never would buy for himself because why waste the extra three bucks? Probably it was still a waste of money but he can admit that the way it numbs the pain for a few hours is nice.

Coating his fingers in more Neosporin, Shiro gently rubs it across Keith’s knuckles. “You’re healing well,” he says. “I think by tonight you should be able to sleep without the bandages. The open air will help at this point instead of hurting.” All of this is phrased like an observation. Keith knows instinctively that it’s not. Tonight he’ll get the ice packs and the pain medication and maybe even the gel, but he’ll be sent to bed without the bandages. “Thumb up,” Shiro says, wiping off the excess gel on a paper towel.

By now Keith knows the shorthand. Thumb up, palm flat, fingers relaxed. Keith can hold the position as long as Shiro wants him to, but Shiro never makes him hold it for longer than a minute or so.

Gauze is laid over his knuckles, then Shiro pins the start of the bandage to the center of Keith’s palm with his thumb before he starts to wrap. “Good,” he says, as soon as he’s gotten the first two layers done. This is shorthand too—Keith lets his hand relax into Shiro’s grip and be turned this way and that as the wrapping continues. After this point he just has to stay loose and let Shiro move him.

The first couple of times, Keith tried to move for Shiro. To anticipate how he should hold his hand and do it before Shiro had to ask. Each time Shiro stopped him, gripping his wrist just hard enough to settle him before saying let me in a way that Keith didn’t know how to argue with.

Shiro pins the tail end of the bandage in place. “All done,” he says. Even as he says it, he checks over his work again. Like they don’t both know it’s perfect. “You did well, Keith.”

Here is another thing Keith’s learned in the last few days: the way he sounds when Keith’s done exactly as Shiro wanted. It’s quietly proud, edges softened by something that resembles contentment, and it makes him want. Sometimes he wants to straighten his spine and preen, because it’s golden and bubbly at the base of his spine like that champagne Allura snuck them sophomore year. Those are the easy times. Sometimes, like now, he wants to sink to his knees and rest his head against Shiro’s thigh and whine, because it’s not enough.

Keith’s always afraid that his wanting bleeds through into his expression. It must. There’s no other reason for the final part of this new ritual. Still holding onto Keith’s hand, Shiro leans forward and presses a chaste kisses to his forehead.

World Literature II, better known as Lit for Science Majors, is held in a cramped room in the old Altea Center for the Humanities building. There’s only one window and everyone knows there’s asbestos in the ceiling that the university is too cheap to do anything about. Keith always makes sure to arrive a half hour early so he can grab the good table—in the back, by the window, away from the saggiest ceiling tiles—for his group.

Today isn’t any different, except that he’s got a half hour to prod at his bandaged knuckles and think.

All of the listicles he read on his research binge said the same vague things. That he just needed to unlock his inner child. That he just had to give in to his natural submissive side. That if he was good enough to justify having a daddy then all of this would come easy. Keith’s not sure, honestly, if he’s good enough to justify having a daddy at all, never mind one like Shiro. If he had to rate himself on a five star scale of ‘baby boy’, he’d be a solid zero. None of this comes easy for him.

Except—and maybe it’s just that he’s desperate, but—he can’t help thinking about Shiro when Keith tried to anticipate how to move his hand for wrapping. Let me. Nudging his finger along the seam of his bandages, he figures that maybe being good enough for Shiro wouldn’t be so hard if he could just let Shiro decide what ‘good’ meant.

Or not. After all, his knuckles are bandaged because he couldn’t control himself. Because he keeps giving into fantasies that have him biting his pillow to muffle his moans, and giving into his temper that has him hitting punching bags until his fists ache, and giving into all the weaknesses that have him wishing he could go back to not feeling anything. If that’s all he has to offer up to Shiro...

“You look like a raincloud.”

Keith’s full body flinch is miles better than the reaction he would’ve had a year or two back, but it’s still bad enough to make Romelle flush a guilty pink as she inches out of his personal bubble. What’s nice about Romelle is that she doesn’t apologize. Not because she isn’t sorry, but because she understands that apologies come with the burden of going it’s fine when it isn’t. Instead, she waits until he’s relaxed again before she leans into him deliberately.

Because it’s Romelle, he allows himself to relax even further into a slouch. Her blonde princess hair, longer even than Allura’s, smells like bubblegum today. Everywhere their skin touches is warm. Turning big blue eyes on him, she says solemnly, “Remind me to bring you a lavender bath bomb tomorrow.”

“I don’t use bath bombs.” Or face masks. Or seaweed wraps. If Romelle and Lance were ever able to tolerate one another’s presence for longer than thirty consecutive seconds, they’d probably become spa buddies.

Rubbing her cheek against his shoulder, Romelle coos, “But lavender is relaxing.”

Keith glances down at her and weighs his options. Right now she’s smiling—wide and cheerful and easy—but there’s an arch to her eyebrow that suggests challenge. Well then. “If I tell you why I look like a raincloud, will you spare me the bath bombs and the lectures about essential oils?”


Fuck. There’s no shame in being outmaneuvered by Romelle, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow when it happens. Without ceremony he shows her his bandaged knuckles.

Small hands seize his, thumbs pressing into his palm as she twists his hand this way and that  to examine it from all angles. He wishes he could smooth away the small furrow between her brows. Upsetting Romelle falls maybe two degrees below upsetting Shiro on his personal I fucked up scale. After a bit she lets his hand—still caught between her own—fall to her lap. “You didn’t do this,” she says, tapping at the bandages.

“No.” Biting his lip, he looks away from her. While they’ve been talking the classroom’s started to fill up. No one approaches their table, even though there’s still an open seat left and even though it’s the best table.

The reason for the empty seat comes gliding in then. Really, gliding, with her hair blowing in some unseen and unfelt breeze. Per usual, Allura looks effortlessly flawless. No one could tell, looking at her now, that she complains all the time about how much the back of her neck sweats when she leaves her hair down in this type of weather. Despite the narrow rows between the tables, she weaves back to their table and settles herself delicately in the last chair. Like a queen taking her throne.

“Good morning,” Allura says. Gently she runs a hand through her hair, causing it to fall back in perfect waves that probably gave half the room a hard-on. Because none of them know about the neck sweat. Idiots.

Keith nods at her, which is all he’s expected to do this early in the day.

And Romelle? Romelle lifts his hand from her lap and holds it out in front of Allura for inspection. Like he’s a naughty puppy.  “Look at this.” Or like he’s a destroyed chewtoy and Allura is the naughty puppy. Neither metaphor is flattering.

Lips pressed into a considering line, Allura tilts her head and says, “This is not what I meant when I suggested bandaids, Keith.”

For a few blessed seconds, Keith’s brain can’t connect ‘bandaids’ to literally anything. Then it all comes back. In aching detail. Heat floods him and he knows, instinctively, that both his cheeks and the tips of his ears have gone red. “It wasn’t like that,” he says. “I wouldn’t—” Do that? Be that stupid?

“Of course not,” Allura says. It doesn’t sound like she believes him. Mischief enters her expression as she leans forward. “At the very least, did you ensure that Shiro knows that it was a sandbag and not another person that knocked you about?”

“I—” Keith stops.

Maybe it’s just that it’s morning, and he’s been in his head too much, and Allura is overwhelming at the best of times. Only he’s pretty sure it’s weird that she knows about the bag at the gym. Keith planned on taking that information to the grave. Hasn’t even told Shiro, which has been a hell of a thing to manage.

Settling her chin on his shoulder, Romelle goes, “How did you know where he hurt his knuckles?” Though her tone is entirely pleasant, he can feel the hint of tension in her body as she leans into him more heavily. “And what did you suggest bandaids for?”

“Ah,” Allura says. It’s a blatant, obvious placeholder. One that only becomes more obvious the longer she stalls. Finally she offers up a single name as explanation: “Veronica.”

Keith allows himself a muted growl.

“And the bandaids?” Romelle asks.

People tend to look at her with a certain set of expectations. Romelle is blonde, and soft, and feminine. Most everything she owns is pink. She’s double majoring in International Relations and Social Work. How could she be anything but a kind and cheerful Disney princess of a girl? They focus on the surface, and miss the fact that underneath she has a crocodile’s tendency to sink her teeth in and refuse to let go. Even death will not pry Romelle’s jaws open if she’s set on something.

Today, apparently, is the day that Allura discovers that last bit. Very slowly she leans back in her chair. Even more slowly, she looks from Romelle to Keith and back again. As though trying to judge which one of the wild animals is more dangerous.

(It’s Romelle. Absolutely. One time Romelle delivered a callout post to Lotor in the middle of the quad and made him cry. If he’d been straight, Keith would’ve proposed on the spot.)

Whatever conclusion Allura might’ve drawn about who it was more important to placate is interrupted by the professor walking in.  Probably it’s for the best. No one would’ve won in this scenario. Better that they get distracted by today’s PowerPoint—How to Get Away with Murder: The Development of the Russian Novella in the 20th Century—than deal with Keith’s terrible life choices.

Somewhere in the blur of the last week he agreed to study in the library with Pidge and then promptly forgot it until his phone pinged with a reminder. Given everything, he figures he owes it to her to show up and let her rant at him for an hour about theoretical physics.

(This is a lie. Keith gets the reminder at the same time that Romelle tries to corner him about his bandaged knuckles. Retreat is the better part of valor, sometimes, and with midterms coming up it’s actually a semi valid excuse. There’s a chance he’ll bomb Dr. Holt’s test without the assistance of Dr. Holt’s plucky genius daughter.)

But then, because the universe hates him, Pidge decides to rant at him about the fact that he’s given up on his daddy kink plan and the fact that despite giving up on it he’s still managing to fuck everything up.

“Wow, you really are a disaster,” Pidge says. The most cutting part of this observation is how impressed she sounds. She examines the highlighter in her hand critically before covering an entire paragraph of her textbook in neon yellow.

As Keith tries to form a response—any response—she caps the highlighter and tosses it at his face. Reflexively he dodges, and the yellow highlighter flies past his ear to hit some other poor fucker. The ‘ow’ confirms a direct hit. Neither of them look back to see who, exactly, got hit. If it was bad enough, the person will come over. If not, they got a free highlighter for their suffering.

Shoving his hands through his hair, Keith says, “I know.” Because he is a disaster. A real live trainwreck of a human being. Watch him make the front page of the newspaper. Tightening his grip at the roots, just enough to hurt, he makes himself admit, “I just didn’t think it would be this…”



Pidge, as a general rule, does not do sympathy. So there’s no surprise when all this nets him is raised eyebrows. “It probably wouldn’t have been so complicated if you bothered to research all of this in the first place,” she says. “You could have gotten some actual advice instead of relying on Lance.”

“And you.”

This time he’s prepared enough to catch the highlighter she throws at his head. It’s the neon blue one—he’s pretty sure it’s one of her favorites, which makes it all the better he didn’t dodge and let it go flying into the library ether. Pidge would’ve been ticked and it wouldn’t have mattered that she was the one to throw it in the first place. Letting the highlighter play between his fingers, the same familiar motion he uses with his knife, he waits for her to use her words.

What he gets, after several seconds, is: “Fine. You have a point.” A victory only in the space it takes for Pidge to push her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “I should have asked if you had done the obvious step of research.”

Honestly, there’s nothing he can say in his defense. Lifting his shoulders in a defensive shrug, he says, “I got around to it.”

In a show of magnanimity, she inclines her head and asks, “So, what’s the next step according to your research?”

Keith taps the highlighter against his own textbook for a few seconds. Debates if he wants to admit the truth or bury it down. Eventually he settles on, “Nothing.” Because it’s as close to the truth as he really feels like discussing in the middle of the library at 11AM on a Monday.

“Are you still pretending like you’re giving up on the daddy kink?”

Desperate and more than a little panicked, he looks at the nearby tables to check if they overheard that particular announcement. If they did, they don’t seem to care, because no one meets his eyes. This close to midterms everyone is more preoccupied with their own lives than they are with strangers. Even inappropriate strangers.

“Could you be any louder?” he hisses anyway.

Pidge props her chin on her hand and rolls her eyes. “Yes,” she says. “I could be. Look, we both know that this has gotten you way closer to climbing on Shiro’s dick than anything else in the last three years. It’s awkward as hell. I’m deeply traumatized. But, realistically, we’re all grateful that it’s put a pause on the pining. You’re going to keep doing this—” No, he’s really not. “—so what’s the next step?”

Setting his jaw, Keith says, “Nothing.” When she opens her mouth to keep haranguing him, he overrides her with: “The research said that it would come naturally. I’m supposed to just...let it happen.”

“Wait, really?” Pidge freezes, mouth open and fingers going white knuckle around her highlighter. “Nothing?” Dropping the highlighter, she reaches up to rub at both her temples. “All you have to do to get him is nothing? If you had researched this beforehand you could’ve spared all of us a lot of trauma. I have to live with the knowledge that Shiro wants you to call him ‘daddy’ now, Keith.”

“He doesn’t,” Keith says. Maybe a little too defensively. Hunching his shoulders up around his ears, he mutters, “He doesn’t want me to call him daddy.”

There’s an achingly long pause. Pidge looks like she’s caught between the need to keep massaging her temples and the desire to throw every highlighter and pen she owns at him. Which is bullshit. It’s not like she’s the one who found out that she’s not good enough for the love of her life’s very specific kinks.

Finally Pidge says, with great feeling, “You are a disaster.”

Two days later, Keith’s still got Pidge’s emphatic wig snatching rattling around in his head. Ignoring it hasn’t gotten him anywhere. Punching his feelings out at the gym isn’t much of an option, given the way Shiro’s been watching him like a hawk. Which leaves talking.

And, okay, theoretically, Keith has three options of who he can talk to about his feelings. Realistically? There’s only one option.

Shiro is obviously out. Discussing how Pidge deconstructed his poor life choices would require explaining what those poor life choices were, in the first place, which cannot happen. Ever. Romelle is also out. Mostly because he doesn’t want to explain his poor life choices to her either, and partially because she might go for Pidge’s throat if she felt that Keith had been genuinely wronged.

Hunk’s in the communal dorm kitchen when Keith finds him. This time it’s not shortbread cookies on offer, but cornbread. Four kinds of cornbread, specifically. With a fifth kind on the way as soon as Hunk finishes annotating the recipe.

“Why?” Keith asks, vaguely mystified.

“Why the adjustments?” Hunk doesn’t look up from where he’s color coding his notes. That system was definitely cribbed from Pidge’s. “Because my auntie is a heathen who thinks that cornbread should be made with jalapenos.”

Blinking, Keith grabs another piece of the sweet southern corn cornbread and stuffs it in his mouth. “Jalapeno cornbread sounds good,” he says. Mostly because he wants to be a helpful  and supportive friend. Only a little because he wants to eat jalapeno cornbread.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Hunk says. “You’ll get crumbs in my cooking space.” Without even looking up, he gestures broadly to the counter space he’s claimed as his own. The area is not insubstantial. Honestly, Hunk’s all but colonized the kitchen in his quest to experiment with cornbread. Keith’s occupying a carefully staked out corner of the counter, but if he moves his elbows too much he’ll probably knock into one set of ingredients or another. “It’s sacred turf, dude.”

This is fair. Keith chews—with his mouth closed—until he’s finished the bite in his mouth. “I meant why are you making five different kinds of cornbread.”

“Chili cook off after midterms.”


For a little while it’s enough to be around each other. Hunk mutters to himself and annotates recipes and starts mixing ingredients. Keith plows through seven pieces of cornbread. They talk about the chili cook off. Some of the tension starts to leave Keith’s spine, enough that he doesn’t even flinch when Hunk shoves his latest batch of cornbread into the oven and then slaps down his oven mitts.

“Are you here for advice about Shiro’s daddy kink?”

Chewing keeps his mouth occupied for a few critical seconds while Keith processes this. When he swallows, his throat clicks dryly and he suddenly wonders if he shouldn’t have drank more water between pieces of cornbread. “Uh. Sort of?”

Hunk reaches up to rub at the back of his head. “Not gonna like, kind of feel like I screwed up the last time with the teddy bear,” he says. “Are you sure you want my advice, man?”

That’s actually a really good point. But.

“Yeah.” Lifting one shoulder in a half shrug, he down at his hands with their butter greased fingertips before saying, “You…know me, I guess. You see shit that other people don’t. And I just… I need you to tell me if this was a bad idea.”

“Okay, man.” Hunk’s voice is equal parts solemn and kind. “I don’t know anything about daddy kink. Pidge did research, but I’m staying out of it. Don’t know. Don’t want to know.” Before Keith can feel too bad about the reminder that he’s essentially traumatized his entire friend group, Hunk breaks him with: “But I know that Shiro loves you, and that means even if this whole daddy thing is wildly off base you’re still gonna be okay.”


A pause. “Keith, buddy, which part of that are you responding to?” Another pause, longer than the first, and filled with intense trepidation. “Also, do I need to get a chair and a whip because you’re kind of scaring me?”

Gripping the counter’s edge, Keith eyes his second or third best friend in the whole world with predatory intensity. “What do you mean Shiro loves me?”

“I mean he loves you?” Hunk blinks and then gestures at the entirety of Keith with both hands. “How do you not know this?” When Keith just keeps staring at him, he groans. “Buddy, how do you not know this? No. Don’t answer that. I know why. Because you’re pricklier than a cactus. An armed cactus.”

Keith feels judged, but not in the way he expected to feel judged. It throws off his reaction time. Leaves him spluttering out a half offended, “I’m not—”

“No,” Hunk says. With authority. Enough that Keith actually shuts up. Taking the victory, Hunk snatches up a red handled paring knife. “This is you. You’re very guarded.” The knife—which is apparently Keith—disappears behind little walls of butter. “Sometimes you do what you’re doing now and you kind of peek over the walls.” One side of butter is nudged aside. Hunk places a yellow measuring cup next to the newly made break in the wall. If this is all a metaphor, that probably means the measuring cup is Hunk. “But the walls are still there.”

Forget judged. Keith feels called out.

“With Shiro, you’re a little more open.” Apparently Shiro gets to be represented by an entire cast iron pan. Okay. “You let down one wall. Sometimes, if you’re drunk, two.” One wall of butter is nudged aside, leaving Keith-as-paring-knife surrounded on three sides. “That’s progress, man, no doubt. But Shiro can’t get to you when you’ve got most of your walls up.”

As metaphors go this is the worst. Even so, Keith did ask for this and it feels like he ought to commit at least. “Okay,” he says. “So?”

So,” Hunk says. “You need to take down all of your walls.”

Thankfully the over timer dings then. Keith gets to settle back into his corner and literally chew over Hunk’s advice along with his eighth slice of cornbread.

Part of him wants to ask Hunk again what he meant by ‘love’ because he’s not an idiot, he knows that Shiro loves him. Platonically. But he also just got compared to a paring knife in a terrible extended kitchen metaphor and he doesn’t think he can handle another round of that. Anyway the counselor freshman year said he had attachment issues. It’s one of those things that felt like she was stating the obvious and Keith thinks Hunk might’ve been stating the same kind of obvious. Like even if Shiro never loves him back the way Keith wants him to, Shiro does love him.

“By the way,” Hunk says. “You should definitely get rid of that bear.”


All things considered, Keith probably ought feel insulted by the sticky notes. He’s a student in one of the top engineering programs on the west coast. He’s not relying on “C’s get degrees” as a motto. He’s smart, okay, even if not a lot of people want to believe it.

Part of him is still grateful that Hunk marked each tupperware with a sticky note listing whether or not the food needed to be refrigerated, an expiration date, and reheating instructions.

Stacking the tupperware feels a little like playing Jenga in reverse. Keith’s focused on not making a mess and ensuring that nothing gets shoved to the back of the fridge. Enough so that he doesn’t notice someone else is in the room until a throat gets cleared and he nearly brains himself on the freezer door as he straightens up.

“Oh, hey,” Keith says. At this point he’s not even aiming for casual. It’d be a lost cause. Looking at Shiro just makes Hunk’s words echo around in his head like the worst kind of movie voiceover. “You’re. Here.”

“Not for long,” Shiro says. “I’m going for a run.”

“Okay.” The response is automatic. Shiro goes for runs all the time. For some reason that Keith’s never been able to fathom, Shiro likes his runs. Says it’s soothing.

They stare at each other for a few seconds before Shiro clears his throat again. Which is a little weird. Not one of Shiro’s usual tics. “I need a water?” he says. Questioning. Like he’s not sure if Keith’s going to deny him a water bottle, of all things.

“Okay,” Keith says again. Reaching into the open fridge, he pulls out a water bottle and hands it to Shiro. Their fingers don’t brush when Shiro takes the bottle. When Keith asks, “Which route are you taking?” Shiro doesn’t meet his eyes. Deliberately, Keith closes the fridge door and then leans against it. “Shiro?”

Briefly, Shiro’s eyes flicker up to his. Don’t quite lock before they skitter away. All his muscles are tense. Primed for flight. (Or fight.)

“I’ll come with you,” Keith says.

“You don’t need to.” More damning than the fact that Shiro won’t meet his eyes is the way that Shiro’s trying and failing to keep his voice even. That failure pricks at the back of Keith’s neck. If Shiro makes it out that door without him, then bad things will happen. Keith knows that down to his bones.

He’s wearing sweats and a tee shirt. Not ideal for running, even at the tail end of February, but beggars can’t be choosers. Better than jeans at least. Grabbing his running shoes, he starts to jam his feet into them. Keeps his body between Shiro and the front door as he does so. “I want a run,” he says.

“Keith, you’re still hurt.”

The scrapes on his knuckles have faded to new skin, and the bruise at his hip still pulls in odd moments but has faded to a sickly yellow. “Not that bad.”


“I’m ready. Let’s go.”

Another time, he might feel bad for the way Shiro glares at him. Only Shiro is still glaring to the left of him, not looking at him directly, and his body still promises danger. (For himself, if no one else.) Keith lifts his chin and waits it out until Shiro gives in with a grunted, “Fine.”

They head out. Shiro sets and keeps a brutal pace. That’s fine. It’s what Keith expected and he’s familiar enough with this routine by now to know to keep his mouth shut about it. Once his muscles warm up, he makes sure to match his stride to Shiro’s. Keeps their feet pounding out the same rhythm on the asphalt. Being in perfect step with another runner reminds Shiro of PT, and he said once that it’s grounding.

Roughly an hour and eight miles in, Shiro jerks to a stop.

These runs always have sudden ends but Keith didn’t expect it quite so soon. Momentum carries him a few extra steps before he manages to slow to a stop. When he turns around, he takes quick stock. All the earlier barely contained rage has melted out of Shiro. What’s left behind is disorientation that will turn into dissociation if Keith lets it.

Keith’s not going to let it.

“Looks like you kept us at a fifteen minute two mile,” he says. “Still at Army standard. We made it about eight miles in a little less than an hour. I’m pretty sure that’s the Marmora History Museum over there, which means we’ve done half the campus loop.” The words feel stupid in his mouth. False and forced. But he keeps them up anyway, because they’re what Shiro needs to keep him grounded. “I’m glad it’s February. If you’d had us run that in a month or two we’d be dying from the heat.”

It’s important not to crowd Shiro in these moments. He knows that even as he aches to reach out and touch. The controlled exertion of Shiro’s breathing and the faint tremble in his muscles makes Keith ache.

“Must be close to six. Almost dinner time. Hunk sent me home with a lot of food. I think I put it all away correctly.” Honestly, Keith doesn’t remember. Quite possibly he left a tupperware or two of chili on the counter. That doesn’t matter. All that matters is keeping Shiro grounded. “You know he put sticky notes on every single tupperware?”

Shiro lets out a short noise that’s trying to be a laugh and reaches for him.

Keith goes. Tucks himself into Shiro’s chest and lets Shiro’s arms close around him, just shy of too tight, one hand fisting in the material of his tee shirt at the small of his back. Presses his own palms flat to the broad expanse of Shiro’s shoulder blades and absorbs the trembling of over exhausted muscles and Shiro finally comes out of fight or flight. “It’s okay,” he says. “You’re okay.”

Lips brush against his sweat streaked temple even as Shiro crushes him closer. “Are you okay?” Shiro asks, and he sounds almost afraid of the answer.

“Yeah, I’m okay too.”

“What about your hip?”

That’s a good sign. Shiro’s grounded enough in the present to remember that Keith had a bruised him, and that the injury happened recently enough to be a potential issue.

Crooning low in his throat, Keith rests his cheek against Shiro’s chest and takes in the steady thump of Shiro’s heartbeat. “My hip is okay.” Honesty is important when Shiro’s in residuals, so he adds, “It’ll be sore, but it’s okay. I’m okay. You didn’t push me too hard.”

Another one of those noises like Shiro wants to laugh but forgot how. Some of the desperation eases from his hands though. Gentles him until the hand at the small of Keith’s back is less crushing and more caressing. “We’ll walk back to the dorm,” he says. Promises. Orders. It’s hard to tell. Maybe all of those things.

“Yeah, okay,” Keith says. Makes sure to pull back enough for Shiro to see the eye roll. “I guess I’m lucky that you’re not trying to carry me home.”

This time—finally—Shiro manages a real laugh.

The third time Keith has to stop himself from going to check on Shiro, he decides it’s time to occupy himself with something more productive than watching the door like a puppy. Listening to each muffled noise wears his nerves down. Frays them until he feels like he’s going to snap. Unlike most times when he’s in danger of snapping, this kind of snapping would involve less punching and more bursting into the bathroom while Shiro’s in the shower so he can make sure that his best friend isn’t mentally half a world away in a warzone.

Making dinner feels like a halfway decent compromise. They both need to eat. For the next ten minutes, he goes through the motions of pouring juice, scrambling eggs, and reheating the cornbread that Hunk sent home with him.


Keith flinches and turns from where he’d been moodily watching the cornbread reheat in the microwave. Shiro’s standing right on the line between the laminate and the carpet. Like he’s not sure he’s allowed in. “Hey,” Keith says back. Mostly on automatic.

It’s obvious that Shiro’s fresh out of the shower: hair still damp and his tee shirt clinging to his pecs. Every line of his body screams exhaustion. No amount of military discipline can keep the telltale slump out of his shoulders. Guilt lines the set of his mouth, and there’s a furrow to his eyebrows that usually signals a growing migraine. Residuals are riding him hard. But his eyes are clear and alert and focused on Keith.

Okay. They’ll be okay. Slowly, Keith lets out the breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding. Tension bleeds out with that exhale. It’s not hard to be gentle as he points toward their small kitchen table. “I made some dinner,” he says. “Why don’t you sit down? It’ll be ready in a minute.”

“Bossy,” Shiro says, but there’s no heat to it. Just a little gratitude.

Plating doesn’t take long. Keith puts the food, juice, water, and a max dose of motrin in front of Shiro. When Shiro looks up at him, mouth opening to either form a protest or an unnecessary apology, Keith cuts him off. “You don’t get to go to bed until you’ve taken your pills, eaten, and drank all the water.”

Shiro gives him a lopsided grin. “It’s going to be like that, huh?” he asks. But he obeys, eating through half his eggs before taking the motrin with a swig of juice. Sluggish as he is, it’s clearly Shiro, and Keith feels himself calming down.

Whenever he has to let Shiro out of sight during residuals—for a shower, or class, or sometimes even sleep—there’s this gnawing fear that something bad will happen without Keith there to soften the blow. No one ever seems to realize that the aftermath is usually worse than the initial flare up. It’s less dramatic. Doesn’t fit as neatly into carefully constructed ideas of trauma. But Keith knows that Shiro needs more support after, not less.

“I’m sorry.”

Blinking, Keith refocuses. Shiro’s finished all his food and drained the juice. The water bottle is still in his hands, uncapped and half empty. He’s not meeting Keith’s eyes now. Time for guilt round two, apparently.

“Don’t be,” Keith says. When Shiro still doesn’t look at him—which isn’t entirely unexpected, honestly—he scoots his chair closer until their knees bump together. That does get Shiro to look up. Briefly. Keith’s heart thumps too hard in his chest as he takes in the slight glassiness. Pitching forward, he doesn’t wince as his forehead knocks against Shiro’s collarbone. “Shiro.” No response. “Shiro.”

A hand curls over the back of his neck, anchoring him in place with deceptive strength. “I know,” he says. “But this isn’t fair to you.”

Irony is somewhere in the way neither of them know how to ask for help, but Keith doesn’t care to examine that just now. Thumping his knuckles against Shiro’s chest, he goes, “As many times as it takes, remember?” Feels the way Shiro inhales sharply and then lets it out slowly. Relishes the way Shiro’s fingers tighten around his nape, just shy of bruising.

“You need to eat,” Shiro says.

Changes of subject are expected at this stage. Encouraged, even. Keith still blinks and pulls back to eye Shiro. “What?”

The grin Shiro gives him is worn but genuine. “You haven’t eaten your dinner,” he says. Which. Okay. No, Keith hasn’t eaten his dinner. Since he was more concerned with watching Shiro for signs of disassociation or worse. “You need to eat.” Reaching across the table, Shiro pulls Keith’s plate over next to his own and picking up the fork.

Wrinkling his nose, Keith asks: “What, are you going to hand feed me?”

It’s clearly sarcasm, but Shiro doesn’t miss a fucking beat. “Yes.” He stabs some scrambled egg and holds it up to Keith’s mouth. “Open up.”

“You’re the worst,” Keith says. He’s a little surprised that Shiro doesn’t take the opportunity to shove the food into his mouth, then feels bad for being surprised. Of course Shiro wouldn’t risk potentially stabbing him with a fork.

Still patiently holding the fork, Shiro coaxes, “Think of it as a birthday present.”

“One, that’d be a shitty present.” Mulishness has set in by now. It’s out of self-preservation. Allowing Shiro to hand feed him feels like it might unlock something in Keith that he’s not quite ready to deal with. “Two, your birthday isn’t until this weekend. Three—”


God fucking damn it.

Keith opens his mouth and allows Shiro to feed him a bite of scrambled eggs. Chewing with more viciousness than strictly needed doesn’t give him enough outlet, but it’s the only outlet he has. Any chance of complaining or protesting went out the door when he saw the way Shiro’s entire body softened as Keith’s lips closed around the fork. Later, he’ll need to deal with what all of this implies or resolves. Now, he lets Shiro feed him another bite.

Nightmares stalk Shiro when he’s in residuals. They’ve never spoken about the nightmares. Don’t have the vocabulary to. They handle it silently and separately. Keith waits up, listening to the faint thump of Shiro trying to fight something off in his sleep, and then judges how bad it was by the sleepless bruises beneath Shiro’s eyes the next morning.

Tonight Keith waits up for three hours. Waits until his own eyes start to close without his permission and his limbs starts to feel disconnected from his body. No matter how hard he listens, there’s no sounds of struggle from the other room.

In the morning, he gets up late and finds Shiro at the kitchen table with coffee.

Some exhaustion still clings to Shiro’s spine. But there are no sleepless bruises beneath his eyes, and there are no ghosts hiding in his smile, and there are no nightmares for Keith to wish he could bear. The man sitting at the table is tired but whole.

For no reason Keith can figure, his throat goes tight. “Sleep well?” he asks. It’s easy to distract himself with pouring his own cup of coffee.

“Yeah, actually,” Shiro says.

Craft stores make him break out in metaphorical hives. Keith thinks, as he stands in line at the checkout, that it might turn into literal hives if he’s stuck here much longer. Something about the fake flowers and the white women beaming emptily from cookbook covers.

At 2PM on a Thursday, there’s only one person manning the checkout: an older woman who strikes him as the retired-but-got-bored type. She stops to chat with every customer, most of whom seem to be regulars, and it’s nice of her and all but. Keith grinds his teeth as he realizes that he’d started bouncing on the balls of his feet sometime in the last three minutes. Fuck.

Desperate for a distraction, he eyes the shelves that shore up the checkout line. All the better to prompt impulse purchasing. Tucked between more of those damned cookbooks and more magazines than he knew existed about crafted is a section for kids. Little plastic toys and a Play Doh set and coloring books. It’s the last that he finds himself staring at. Probably more intensely than the slender books really warrant.

One of the first foster homes he’d stayed at—he’s pretty sure it was the second, maybe the third—had been in a nicer area. The father was a doctor. The mother was a lawyer. They had two older children, both in highschool when Keith was only in third grade, who were nice enough. Everyone left him alone. That was fine. Anyway Keith’d had to go when the oldest kid got into an Ivy League college. Not enough money to go around. But before then, he’d had his own room and as many art supplies as he wanted.

None of the homes he went to after let him have coloring books. Too expensive. Probably even if he had been given coloring books, he wouldn’t have stuck around long enough to make use of them before he was running.

Keith’s got a stack of coloring books in his hands and a pack of crayons before he can think better of it. It would be sensible to put them back. Still too expensive, and when is he going to have time to color? Even as he thinks it, his fingers tighten around the new prizes with a surprising amount of possessiveness. Stupid, but he wants them.

Later, in his room, he carefully dumps out all the supplies he’d bought on his desk. Notecards, markers, stickers. One tube of glitter, to be used only in dire need. A small wooden recipe box that he’ll repurpose. Ribbon.

The thing is, his desire to indulge Shiro has always outstripped his wallet’s actual capacity. It’s worth going hungry a couple nights a week to be able to see Shiro’s eyes light up when Keith gives him a subscription to that astronomy journal he’d been going on about. Only Shiro disapproves of that—of Keith going hungry to buy him things—so Keith doesn’t get away with it as much as he’d like. Instead he does things for Shiro—truck tune ups, flashcards, the occasional back up in bar fights—which keeps him total poverty while soothing his need to make Shiro happy.

But that’s never translated into how he’s handled birthdays. Last year he’d subsisted off of ramen for three months to save up for a weekend trip to the Kitt Peak National Observatory. In comparison, this feels almost like a cop out.

Ripping open a package of notecards, he reminds himself that this is what Shiro wants. Not the coupons, specifically. But the time and care spent on creating a handmade gift, and the thought needed behind each coupon, and the fact that this would ensure they spend time together, and maybe… And maybe…

Maybe Keith, soft and sweet, being a good boy for Shiro.

Hours pass as Keith makes coupons. I owe you… Mac and cheese dinner, laundry, three hours of watching Ancient Aliens without complaining or making fun of the “experts.” Once he’s got the words down, he decorates the coupon with drawings and stickers. Sometimes it takes him a couple of tries to get it looking the way he wants. If he’s going to do this, he feels like he needs to give it his all and he’s nothing if not determined.

The wooden box fills up slowly. Eventually he stops being self-conscious and builds up a good rhythm. By the time he’s down to his last blank card, his hands are smeared with marker stains and his shoulders ache from hunching over the desk for so long.

Weirdly, he feels proud—each one of those coupons is proof that he thought carefully about what Shiro values. No one else could’ve made this. Out of everyone in the world, only Keith knows Shiro well enough to have filled out over a hundred notecards with specialized IOUs. That counts for something, he’s pretty sure.

Now he just has to decide what to put on the last card. Tapping the edge of the card against his desk, he lets his gaze and his mind drift. Everything obvious has already been exhausted. No. That’s a lie. Some obvious options—I owe night to fuck me any way you want me—are still technically on the table. If he’s willing to give up all dignity and subtlety. Which, for the record, he’s not.

With a groan, he slumps deeper into his chair and swivels away from his desk. It’s mid-chair swivel that he spots the other bag from the craft store. The one that still contains the coloring books and crayons he’d impulsively bought.

Keith freezes. Probably it’s the exhaustion—closing in on two in the morning, of course he’s tired, no wonder he’s not thinking straight—but the fantasy that pops unbidden into his mind is fully formed. What would it be like to color with Shiro?

They’d do it at the coffee table. Spread out the crayons and have a Disney movie going in the background. He could wear his sweatshirt and sit in Shiro’s lap, one of those muscular arms around his waist to keep him still and secure. Indulgent as Shiro is, he probably wouldn’t even protest if he only got to color the crappy pages that Keith didn’t want. And when Keith finished a page and held it up, every section colored neatly within the lines, Shiro’d press a kiss to the side of his head and tell him how good—

Jerking violently out of his daydream, Keith swivels back toward his desk and ignores the flush crawling up his neck.

Fifteen minutes later he drops the coloring books on his desk next to the wooden box. Ribbon circles the box neatly—a guard against regret and reopening the present. Keith’s hands are stained with even more ink and he knows instinctively that when he’s more awake he will regret that last card. But for now, he pushes that away in favor of crawling into bed.

Like they do every year for every birthday, they go to the one bar off campus that only bothers to card at the actual bar. Or, more accurately, the one bar off campus that does a shitty job carding. Both are accurate.

It’s still early enough that they’re able to claim the biggest booth in the back, tucked near the jukebox and the pool tables. Makes it a slog to the bar but only three of them are old enough to buy alcohol legally anyways so it’s fine. Allura buys the first round—shots to get the night started off right. Keith buys the second round—beers they sip on as Shiro opens his presents.

That’s not entirely true. Most everyone does go for beers for the second round. Keith doesn’t. Needs something stronger to combat both his nerves and the fact that he’s all but in Shiro’s lap because the ‘biggest booth’ is still too damn small for their group.

Whiskey slides easily down his throat and numbs the edges pleasantly. Sure, he doesn’t quite know how to join in the teasing and the toasting, but he’s okay. He’s able to enjoy Shiro’s abashed delight as he opens each new gift. At least until Shiro reaches the bottom of the pile and finds Keith’s box, with its single red ribbon tied in a messy bow, and the nerves turn into outright nausea.

Shiro tugs the ribbon loose and coils it thoughtfully around his fingers. When he opens the lid, Keith wishes he could look away. Instead he watches, trying to annotate the reaction to his present as Shiro quietly thumbs through the cards.

“Does anybody else feel like they’re missing something?” Lance stage whispers. Tries to stage whisper. It’s more like a stage yell. He’s never been great at holding his liquor.

Ignoring the heat at the back of his neck, Keith turns his gaze down to his half empty glass of whiskey and contemplates downing the rest of it like a shot. Probably wouldn’t end well. But at least he’d have a reason for his steadily escalating blush.

Someone must elbow Lance. Or pinch him. Either way he lets out an indignant squawk, followed by, “I’m just saying! It feels like we’re missing something.” The table jostles as he tries to throw his arms out for emphasis.

“Oh my god,” Pidge says.

Allura clears her throat and raps her knuckles against the table top. “I believe you all promised to show me how to play pool. We should do that now. Before it becomes crowded.” This is an obvious ploy to get them all out of what’s rapidly becoming an uncomfortable situation. For all their past issues, in this moment, Keith could hug her.

Everyone clears out, and Keith’s getting ready to follow them out when Shiro’s hand lands on his thigh. “Wait,” Shiro says. Like he’s not already anchoring Keith in place.

Reluctantly, Keith turns his head to meet Shiro’s gaze. Fuck. He really, really, really hopes that his blush is going to be excused as an alcohol meets pale skin thing instead of the embarrassment meets pale skin thing it actually is. “Yeah?”

“You made these?”

Not what Keith was expecting. Then again, he’s not sure what he was expecting. “I… Yeah.” He thinks of the last coupon he put in the box. Wishes he’d been smarter or at least more of a coward. Swallowing past the lump in his throat, he adds, “You don’t have to use all of them. Or any of them. If you don’t want to.”

Somehow he’s avoided making eye contact, but then Shiro squeezes his thigh again and he looks up on reflex. It’s hard to judge his expression, and the dim bar lighting isn’t helping with that. Shiro’s still touching him though. That counts for something.

Their friends chose the pool table furthest away from their booth. Even so, Shiro ducks closer before asking, “You’ve got coloring books?”

“Yeah,” Keith says. He doesn’t know if he should be grateful that Shiro’s trying to preserve his dignity by keeping their friends from overhearing, or distinctly ungrateful because it’s hard to focus when Shiro’s lips are all but brushing his temple. “I… I saw them. At the store. When I was getting the stuff for your present. And I thought…”

“You thought?”

Closing his eyes, Keith sucks in a deep breath and thinks that the idea of liquid courage must hold some weight. Liquid courage or liquid stupidity. The words come tumbling out anyway. “I haven’t— I haven’t colored since before, either. Like with the cartoons. But I like watching cartoons with you and I thought that maybe I’d like coloring with you.” Mostly he’d just wanted not to sound too needy. Too clingy. Too much like a baby. In retrospect he’s pretty sure he didn’t succeed. “I guess that one is more for me than you. You really don’t have to use them, if you don’t want to.”

A firm kiss is pressed to his temple. It knocks the breath out of his lungs and the insecurities out of his head. “Okay,” Shiro says. “Last question.” When Keith blinks open his eyes, he sees the I owe you...coloring together. card held between two of Shiro’s fingers. “Do I get to keep a picture you colored when I use this?”

“Yeah. If you want.”

They’re still close enough that Keith feels when Shiro’s lips turn up in a smile. “Good.” Nudging his nose against Keith’s hairline, he adds, “This is my favorite present. You did so good.” And suddenly, Keith doesn’t care how anyone interprets his blush.

Over the next three hours, Shiro burns through five of his coupons. When Keith tries to chide him that he should save them, Shiro just leans into his space and says, “But it’s my birthday. They shouldn’t count on my birthday.” It’s stupidly convincing.

A card reading I owe you...a round of drinks has Keith rolling his eyes and heading for the bar. He flags the bartender easily enough, but the woman’s busy so he settles in for the inevitable wait. Two or maybe three minutes in, he feels someone lean into his space, which is the most fucking unnecessary thing. No one’s crowding this end of the bar. “Here for Shiro’s birthday?” asks the leaner.

“Griffin,” Keith says. It’s a show of goodwill that he doesn’t grit the name out between his teeth. Straightening up, he inches away from the other man until it feels like he can breathe without their skin brushing.

Starting a fight on Shiro’s birthday is a bad idea. Which means he needs to behave. At least until he can get the drinks and leave.

Oblivious to the bitter end, Griffin leans in closer and closes the tiny bit of distance Keith’d managed to create. “So, is it for Shiro’s birthday?” he asks again. One of his hands drops to the scarred bar top. It’s too close to Keith’s own. “Or are you looking for someone to buy you a drink?”

There’s a tic starting in Keith’s jaw. “Birthday,” he says.

Whatever he’s expecting, it’s not for Griffin to lean even closer and laugh. Strike that. Keith’s never surprised when Griffin laughs at him. It’s just that he’s not sure why Griffin keeps getting into his space. That’d mostly stopped after the last time Keith decked him. “Of course,” Griffin says. “You don’t let people buy you drinks, do you?”

“No.” Short. To the point. No room for argument. Most of the time when he says things that way, people are smart enough to drop the conversation and find and excuse to get out of his way.

Griffin just laughs. Chuckles, really. Indulgently amused. It occurs to Keith that Griffin has a lot more in common with Allura’s ex than he’d previously realized. Their hands are still too close together but Keith doesn’t know how to pull his hand away without making it seem like a retreat.

“Maybe you should consider it,” Griffin says.

“Consider what?”

The bar smells like bars do, but Griffin smells like expensive cologne. “Letting people buy you drinks.” Keith wants to leave, but the bartender’s coming his way and if he’s suffered this long he might as well finish the job. Griffin’s still talking. “—for Shiro’s sake. Half the people in this bar want a chance at him and you’re scaring all of them off.”

If this is true, then all the people in this bar want a chance at Shiro. As the bar filled up, people swung by to wish Shiro all the best, and buy him drinks, and slap his back. (Or his ass.)

But probably Griffin’s referring to himself. Keith figured out pretty early on that Griffin’s into Shiro. It’s the one bone of contention that they always circle back to, even more than they circle back to old middle school hurts or the time that Griffin mocked Keith’s foster home. Griffin’s always implied he’d be better for Shiro than Keith is. Turns out he’s probably not wrong—Griffin’s exactly the kind of eager to please teacher’s pet that probably wouldn’t have any problems unlocking his ‘natural submissiveness.’


The bartender asks what he wants and Keith orders on autopilot. “I’ll cover his tab,” Griffin says. It takes a few seconds for that to process, and the bartender’s gone before Keith can protest.

Large hands cup Keith’s hips and tug him back. There’s no stopping the instinctive flinch or the way he jolts half a step forward. But there’s also no stopping the way his muscles go lax as he finally registers that one of the hands is sleek metallic prosthetic. When Shiro tugs again, Keith goes willingly, letting himself be pulled into the shadow of Shiro’s greater bulk. The prosthetic slips forward and curls around his waist, anchoring their bodies together.

“Hey there, James,” Shiro says.

Griffin’s eyes are a little wide and his mouth is a little open. “Hi, Shiro,” he says. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but Keith thinks he might hear a touch of squeakiness to Griffin’s voice.

“What were you two talking about?”

Sometimes, Keith really hates how friendly Shiro is. With a grunt he turns in Shiro’s hold and buries his face in Shiro’s pecs. For the first time in minutes, he can’t smell the bar or Griffin, and it quells some of the nausea he hadn’t even noticed churning in his gut. “Buying drinks,” he says. Then, out of spite or pity or both, he adds, “Griffin bought this round.”

The arm curled around Keith’s waist tightens briefly. “Did you?” Shiro asks. “Guess I should thank you.”

“No need,” Griffin says. “It was my pleasure. I— Happy birthday.”

Because Shiro’s stupidly friendly, they keep making small talk over Keith’s head until the bartender comes back with the drinks.

That’s when Shiro nudges Keith and goes, “Why don’t you pick up our drinks?” in a way that makes it clear it’s not a suggestion, even if it’s phrased like one. Reluctant as anything, Keith turns and picks up the drinks from the counter. Maybe the only saving grace is that Shiro keeps both his hands on Keith’s hips. One of Shiro’s thumbs rubs a gentle circle over the divot of his hip. “Say thank you,” he says.

“I don’t expect—” For some reason, Griffin looks mildly pained as he holds up a hand. Like he can stop Keith from saying anything else.

“Thank you,” Keith says.

Slowly, Griffin’s hand falls back to the bartop. “You’re welcome,” he says. Still mildly pained. Maybe a little deflated. Honestly, Keith doesn’t care enough to dissect the complex expression he’s working like a tragic hero.

Even if he wanted to, Shiro takes the opportunity to start guiding him back to the booth. It’s busy enough and he’s tipsy enough that Keith’s grateful for it. Shiro has a way of making him feel safe even in the middle of a crowded room. Only after they’re sliding into the booth does he remember that they’d left their friends playing another round of pool. And, actually, he’d left Shiro playing a round of pool.

“Don’t you want to go back with the others?” Keith asks. “You were winning.”

That earns him a gentle cuff to the back of the head. “I left the game when I saw what you were dealing with,” Shiro says. Instead of withdrawing his hand, he lets his fingers dig into Keith’s hair and tangle in the locks. “You looked uncomfortable.”

Uncomfortable would’ve been a criminal understatement, but Keith knows better than to admit that. “Thanks. For coming to get me.”

Probably Keith should let it go at that. Enjoy their bodies pressed close in the booth and the quiet moment to be alone together. Sip at his local craft beer. Ignore everything and everyone else. So of course, Keith does not let it go at that.

“Griffin said that I’m cockblocking you,” he says.

Shiro actually does half a spit take, managing to stop himself at the last minute and pounding at his own chest none too gently after he manages to swallow. “What the fuck,” he says. With great feeling.

“Yeah,” Keith says. Nudging his own beer away, he props an elbow on the table and then leans his chin on his palm. “I don’t think I’m that scary.” That’s not the takeaway he meant to go with. It’s probably the least important takeaway. Focus, Keith. “But, I mean, am I? Do you want to be finding someone hot for a one night stand?”


Keith takes a contemplative sip of his beer. Liquid courage. Or liquid stupidity. “I’m pretty hot,” he announces. “I would make a great one night stand.”

“What?” Shiro’s fingers are still caught in his hair, which Keith only realizes when said fingers tighten and force his head to tip back until he meets Shiro’s gaze. The lights back here are still dim and shitty. But Shiro’s expression is an open book, this time around, and that book reads what the whole entire actual fuck, Keith.

“I’m hot,” Keith says. Mulish. “People think so.”

“You’re not going home with him, Keith,” Shiro says. It feels like they might be having two different conversations. The hand in Keith’s hair keeps a firm grip even as his free hand plucks the beer bottle out of Keith’s hands. In this position, his jaw is just a breath away. He’s set it into a firm line that Keith wants, more than anything in the world, to nibble on.

“Don’t want to go home with anyone.” Which is true. Mostly true. Keith does, in fact, want to go home with Shiro. “But I’m hot.” It’s important—vital, even—that Shiro understand this last point. “Hot enough to have a one night stand with.”

Closing his eyes, Shiro leans down and rests his forehead against Keith’s. It’s a nice gesture. Soothing. Grounding, even. “Now I know you’ve had too much,” he mutters. If they weren’t so tangled up in each other, Keith probably wouldn’t have heard it over the general din of the bar. But they are so tangled up.


There’s a too long pause, or maybe the alcohol just makes it seem that way, before a hand cups his jaw. Keith puts up only a token resistance as Shiro directs his head up and to the side. Callused fingers tighten on Keith’s jaw until he couldn’t pull away even if he wanted to. “Trust me, Keith, I know you’re the most beautiful boy in the world.” It’s the kind of hyperbole that Keith associates with people being dicks, but Shiro sounds oddly sincere.

Maybe that’s why Keith feels a shiver chasing down his spine. “I am?” Shiro doesn’t answer, but Shiro doesn’t need to answer. Not really. If he answered—if he said anything—Keith wouldn’t have the impulsive courage to do what he does next.

Which is collapse face first into Shiro’s lap.

It only works because Shiro lets him. And apparently Shiro only lets him because he thinks Keith is either going to puke or take a nap. “You okay down there?” he asks. Somehow his hand is still in Keith’s hair, though he’s gentled his hold into something close to petting instead of the grip it was earlier. Keith almost misses the subtle tug at his roots.

“Mhm.” Hair pulling or no, Keith can work with this. Planting a palm against Shiro’s abdomen, he turns his head to nuzzle at where Shiro’s tucked. Left side. Shiro always tucks left. Keith mouths at the length of him through the denim and relishes the way Shiro’s stomach goes taut beneath his palm.

“What are you doing?” Shiro asks hoarsely.

“Gonna suck you off,” Keith says. Matter of fact. Sure, he’s never actually done anything like this before, but he’s figuring it out as he goes.

Figuring out how to pop the button on Shiro’s jeans is his first major challenge. Which he does figure out, by the way, managing to get it undone and the zipper tugged down. That earns a low groan that Keith feels more than hears, but Shiro’s being difficult and won’t lift his hips to let Keith shimmy his jeans down.

Mouthing at him through the thin cotton of his boxer briefs is a good alternative though, especially as Shiro starts to harden beneath Keith’s eager licks and nuzzles. Shiro smells good and tastes better. The world narrows down to this. To Shiro’s cock twitching against his lips, and Shiro’s hand buried in his hair, and Shiro’s body surrounding him in safety. Keith wants to purr like a sated cat when he feels those fingers tighten in his hair, just enough that his roots ache and he wants to arch his spine. Maybe he moans. Shiro’s hold gentles and Keith suckles at the head of his cock through his briefs with all the desperate adoration he’s got in him.

“Fuck, Keith.” This time Keith does moan at the sudden pull on his hair. He looks up hazily and feels his stomach dip pleasantly at the wrecked expression on Shiro’s face. “We can’t do this.” They’re both breathing a little too hard. “You can’t suck me off in a bar booth.”

“Why not?” Keith asks. That’s his voice, he realizes distantly. Edged with a hint of a whine and small and stupidly fearful. “Don’t you want me?” The hand disappears from his hair and for a few seconds he feels completely unmoored. “Shiro—”

Hands hook under his arms and haul him upright. There’s an easy strength to this, tempered by the gentle way he’s resettled half across Shiro’s lap. “Shh.” Part of him wants to be offended by the coddling. Most of him wants to accept the offered comfort. That’s what wins out. “Shh, Keith, you have no idea how bad I want you.”

“Then let me—”

Keith,” Shiro growls.

Something about the rumble in his voice makes Keith realize that he’s toeing the line. It should scare him, he thinks. In a way it does. Just not the normal way. The threat with Shiro’s anger isn’t ever violence, but disappointment. Keith doesn’t want to disappoint Shiro. To be the source of Shiro’s unhappiness. To be yet another burden that Shiro has to tolerate.

Voice gone even smaller, Keith says, “‘m sorry.”

With a sigh, Shiro rubs a hand up and down Keith’s spine in a soothing motion. “It’s okay,” he says. Like he really means it. He grabs a glass of water—Keith’s pretty sure it was Hunk’s, earlier—and puts it in front of Keith. “I want you to drink this.” His chin rests on Keith’s shoulder as Keith picks the glass up. “Small sips.” Keith obeys and feels Shiro’s jaw dig into his shoulder just a little. “Good boy.”

“You’re not mad?” Keith asks. Just to make sure.

“No.” Warmth bleeds from Shiro’s hand into the skin at the small of Keith’s back. It occurs to him that he’s all but surrounded. That he probably couldn’t escape unless allowed. It’s a good feeling. A safe feeling—almost like they’re back on their couch at home instead of in the middle of a crowded bar. “I’m not disappointed either. I just need you to trust me, okay? You’re too drunk to consent and— Just...just let me take care of you, okay? Let me get you home.”

The next few minutes are a blur as Shiro rebuttons his jeans and condenses his presents into a couple of bags. Keith keeps sipping on the water, even though it doesn’t really seem to be doing anything, because Shiro smiles every time he looks over and sees Keith obeying. Eventually, once Shiro’s checked the booth for the third time, he runs his thumb along the corner of Keith’s mouth. “I’m going to get Hunk and Pidge,” he says. “To help me carry things out to the truck.”

“‘kay,” Keith says with an agreeable nod.

“Stay here.” The command is clear, but it’s softened by the way Shiro runs his thumb along Keith’s bottom lip again. If Keith were a betting man he’d bet that Shiro’s not even aware he’s doing that. Somehow that makes it even better. Like Shiro can’t help touching him. “I’ll be right back.”

“‘kay.” And then, to prove he can be a good boy, he take another sip of his water.

With a soft huff of amusement, Shiro steps back from the table and into the crowd. There’s a few heartbeats before he turns to start looking for their friends. Heartbeats where their eyes stay locked and Keith feels oddly seen, and doesn’t immediately hate the accompanying vulnerability of it.

It could be a few seconds or a few minutes before Shiro comes back with Hunk and Pidge following in his wake. Either way Keith’s finished his water, and he pushes the empty glass toward Shiro.

“Good job,” Shiro says. One hand cups the back of Keith’s skull. It’s a gentle hold. His fingers warm and reassuring as they tangle in dark locks. Keith almost wants to whimper, and definitely wants to lean into the touch. “You ready to go?”

Not really, but Shiro wants to take him home and Keith doesn’t want to be here without him.

A few uncoordinated wiggles get him to the edge of the booth. Shiro offers him a hand, which is nice and which Keith takes. Once he’s on his feet it’s fine. Mostly fine. Passing a sobriety test is probably out of the question but he can walk. Leaning on Shiro—okay, letting Shiro take most of his weight—is entirely because who wouldn’t lean on Shiro, if they could, with all his muscles and his warmth. No one, that’s who. There’s no one alive who wouldn’t take the chance to have Shiro’s arm around their waist as they navigated an overcrowded bar.

It takes a while to get through the crowd to the door. After a bit, Hunk starts clearing the way in front of them. That’s usually Shiro’s job, but Shiro’s job is keeping Keith upright. Pidge brings up the rear and sticks her tongue out at Keith when he tips his head back to look at her.

Cold night air slaps Keith right in the face. He whines and turns his head, mashing his face into the warm crook of Shiro’s neck. This is a double bonus. Warmer, and instead of smelling the asphalt-piss-desert scent of the bar’s parking lot he gets the cotton-sweat-home scent of Shiro. Keith breathes in deeper and then lets out a giggle that’s probably closer to a coyote yip.

“Is he gonna be okay?” Hunk asks from somewhere to the left. “I’ve never heard him make a sound like that.” Bless Hunk, he actually sounds legitimately concerned. Out of everyone in their friend group who isn’t Shiro, Hunk is Keith’s favorite, and this is why.

Awkwardly, Keith tries to lunge for Hunk. They need to hug. Like, right now. Hunk gives the best hugs out of everyone who isn’t Shiro.

Except it turns out Shiro is still hugging him. Kind of. Or at least there’s a heavily muscled forearm digging into Keith’s solar plexus as he tries to scramble across the distance to his other best friend. Most of the time they’re pretty evenly matched in strength—Keith might be lean but he did his time on the rigs hauling welding tools. But now he’s reminded that when it comes down to it, Shiro’s maybe a little stronger, and if he wants to keep Keith pinned against his side then he can.

Whining breathily, Keith collapses against Shiro’s forearm. Shiro grunts at the sudden dead weight, but keeps them both upright with a powerful flex of his arms and core. “I’ve got him,” Shiro says. This is officially the hottest and best thing to happen to Keith since nuzzling at Shiro’s cock in the booth.

Keith’s mouth waters. He’s not sure if it’s because he needs to puke, or because he still wants to choke on Shiro’s cock. Maybe both. Probably both.

“Shhhi-ro,” he manages to get out around the sudden flood of saliva. God, this is gross. Gross and hot. “Don’t feel—” No, that’s wrong, he feels a lot, but none of it is good. Frantically, he paws at Shiro’s chest, fingers snagging on the other man’s tee. Smacking his lips, he tries to swallow down the worst of it. “Shiro,” he says again. It comes out clearer this time. “Shiro, hol’ my hair.”

Immediately, Shiro’s prosthetic fingers comb back his bangs. The cool metal feels magical against his overheated skin and he nuzzles into the touch. “Are you going to be sick?” Shiro asks.

“No?” Keith pauses, thinks about it, smacks his lips a couple more times. Yeah, he feels a little queasy but he’s never drunk puked before. Now doesn’t seem like the time to start. “I don’t want to,” he says, a little surer this time.

Pidge’s low cackle fills the parking lot. There’s a few clicking noises, almost like a camera shutter. “It’s a good thing Lance left earlier,” Pidge says. More clicking noises. “Otherwise these would be going on Snapchat.”

“Delete those, Pidge,” Shiro says.


“My birthday,” Shiro reminds, “And my b—” With a groan, Keith curls over Shiro’s forearm, digging his fingertips into the warm skin hard enough to leave bruises as he dry heaves. Like a saint, Shiro keeps his hair held back. Nothing’s coming up. “Shh,” comes the low croon. “I’ve got you. You’re okay.” Keith nods agreeably and lets the side of his face mush into Shiro’s bicep.

“Your what?” Pidge asks. Because clearly, she doesn’t know a blissful moment that is not to be interrupted when she sees one. “Buddy? Best friend?” A pause that gives way to another cackle. “Your ba—”

“Baker!” Hunk yells, then grunts like he’s just been elbowed in the gut. He probably has been for speaking over Pidge. Keith’s not entirely sure what’s going on, but he’s got a vague feeling that Hunk probably just saved his life and deserves hugs. Hunk gives amazing hugs. The best hugs out of everyone who isn’t Shiro.

Keith feels more than hears Shiro’s groan. If his arms weren’t full of Keith, he’d probably be rubbing his eyes. “How much did you two have to drink?”

“Not enough,” Pidge says. Only a little mutinously.

Hunk isn’t mutinous at all as he says, “Don’t worry, man, Seven’s the DD.” It’s hard to focus his gaze, even with Shiro’s bicep stabilizing his head, but Keith’s pretty sure that the hazy yellow shadow holding out a hand in a placating way is Hunk.

A barely audible oh thank god ruffles Keith’s hair. He giggles and squirms at the odd sensation. Shiro gives him a warning squeeze before turning his attention back to Pidge and Hunk. “Good. After we get everything in the truck you two go back inside and stay with Matt until Seven gets here.” When he hands out commands, his bicep flexes and his forearm digs into Keith’s stomach. It’s nice.

Keith needs to tell Shiro how nice this is. How safe. How fucking sexy. Words are hard though, and his mouth tastes like warm beer and fuzzy caterpillars. Easier is to show Shiro. Keith rubs his cheek, kitten like, against the curve of Shiro’s bicep.

More clicking sounds. “Pidge,” Shiro growls. Literally growls. Keith whimpers, cock twitching against his thigh. “Delete all of those pictures, now.”

“I’ll get her to delete it.” When Pidge squawks, Hunk bravely overrides her despite the danger. “Just get Keith home. It looks like he’s going to pass out.” Yeah, Hunk is a prince among men but he clearly doesn’t understand that Keith is an excellent drunk. Hasn’t even puked, has he? Forget what he said earlier, he could probably pass a sobriety test right now. “No, you can’t,” Hunk says, very gently. Fuck off. Keith doesn’t want that kind of traitor’s sympathy right now. “Sorry, buddy. Shiro, you need help getting him to the truck?”

The real tragedy is that Shiro hums consideringly. “Depends.” On what, is what Keith wants to ask. “Are you going to be good, Keith?”

“‘m gonna be so good,” Keith says.

Maybe he says it too loud, because he makes his own ears ring and that brings back the nausea full force. Dry heaves send him curling over Shiro’s forearm again. Pinned there by his own misery, he barely notices whatever exchange goes on over his head. It takes a good forty seconds to get upright again. By then their friends are gone and the truck’s cab door is open.

“You think you get into the truck?” Shiro asks. He sounds doubtful, like even if Keith says ‘yes’ he won’t believe it. Which is fair. Keith also wouldn’t believe it. Admitting that seems like quitter’s talk though, so he settles for a noncommittal noise that Shiro correctly interprets as nah, hard pass. Possibly because Keith’s collapsing more heavily into his arms by the second. “Okay. If I pick you up, are you going to puke?”

Dry heaving aside, this is officially the best day of Keith’s life. “Nah, ‘m good, ‘m good,” he babbles happily. Shuffling around, he flings his arms around Shiro’s neck. “Pick me up.”

Shiro snorts. “You’re going to be so wrecked about this in the morning.”

The copper yellow lights of the parking lot touch Shiro’s face just right. All shadow and bright and contrast. Freshman year he had to take an art class and they called this chiaroscuro. Shiro looks good in chiaroscuro. Like an amused and benevolent god. Keith would worship him, if he could. “No, ‘m not,” Keith says.

With a wry smile, Shiro bends down. One of his arms—the prosthetic—presses into Keith’s back. “Hold on,” he says. Doesn’t wait for a response, just curves his other arm beneath Keith’s thighs and lifts.

It may have been a bad idea to promise not to puke. Keith groans, the sound muted due to the way he’s clamping his lips together. The world feels spinny and unmoored. Hooking his legs around Shiro’s hips doesn’t help much. Another groan, verging into a whine, leaves him as he presses his face into Shiro’s chest. His cheekbone nudges against Shiro’s collarbone and it’s not comfortable but it’s anchoring. Makes it so he’s pretty sure he can breathe through it.

“You good?” Shiro asks.

“‘m good,” Keith says. They start moving, slow enough that his nausea doesn’t kickstart again. Shiro’s good to him. Gentle and strong and good. It’s why Keith wants to give him anything. Everything. “‘m always good with you.”

That gets a chuckle, and normally Keith’d be okay with that because Shiro doesn’t laugh enough. Only with this, laughter means Shiro doesn’t get it. “No,” he whines, fingers knotting in the back of Shiro’s tee shirt. “Don’t laugh.”

“Sorry,” Shiro says. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t laughing at you, buddy.”

“You don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

Shiro shifts Keith’s body so it’s draped more firmly against his chest. It’s probably good that the truck is already unlocked. Shiro just has to let go of his grip on Keith’s back to open the passenger side door. It probably also helps that Keith’s clinging to Shiro like an overgrown koala. Now that’s a metaphor. Keith as a koala, and Shiro as his highly specific home range eucalyptus that he would die without.

“Not goin’ home with anyone else,” Keith says. “Can’t.” Even though he’s clinging onto Shiro, it’s nice when Shiro’s arm comes back and curls securely around his midsection.

“I know.” Even though Shiro’s not laughing, he still sounds amused, which means he still doesn’t get it. Plus he’s trying to maneuver Keith into the truck now. Yeah, Keith promised to be good, but he doesn’t want to let Shiro go.

Frustration claws at him. “No,” he whines again, louder. “You don’t get it.”

“Get what?” Shiro asks again. Patient as a saint, and if Keith remembers this in the morning he really will be wrecked.

“Can’t go home with anyone ‘cause you’re home.” Wrinkling his nose, Keith runs what he just said over in his head again. Not good enough. Tries again. Burying his face in Shiro’s chest, he says like a confession: “You’re my home. Only home I’ve got. So don’t leave, ‘kay?”

Shiro inhales, sharp and tight, like taking a corner so fast on his bike that he can feel the ghost of the asphalt. When he exhales, it comes out as a ragged croon. A flex of his arms brings Keith higher up his chest, cradled more firmly, like he’s afraid of someone trying to rip Keith away. Below Keith’s ear, his heart beats hard and steady. “I’ve got you,” Shiro promises. “I won’t leave. I won’t ever leave you. I’ve got you.”

And Keith’s not sure how, but he knows—deep in his gut, tucked alongside the blossoming hangover—that something just changed.