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“I am going to die,” Matt grudges, huffing shivering breath around the thickness of his scarf.  He has chunky wool mittens, three sweaters, a rain coat, and two knitted hats (Shiro let him borrow his).  He looks like a padded up snowman, but it does actually feel cold enough to snow and it’s also five in the morning so no one judges him.  The sun’s not even out and it seems ridiculous that they are, but Shiro’s bouncing excitedly on his heels, so Matt closes his cold little eyes and endures.

“Nothing can be worth this pain and agony,” Matt despairs.  “Nothing.”

“Oh, come on,” Shiro says, craning his neck over the crowd.  They’ve been waiting on the sidewalk under the flimsy covers for over fourteen hours now, but they’re second in line.  Behind them, the line wraps around the building, across the next street and through the government pavilion. Second is good.  Second will be enough.

Already, the sign for the event is there, waiting innocently, but Shiro keeps reading the words and getting that bubbling excitement in his gut: Akira charity performance - VIP signing.

“This is going to be so worth it,” Shiro whispers excitedly.

“I sure hope so,” Matt puffs out, rubbing his mittens against his arms.  His voice is muffled as bundled as he is. “My birthday present better be the best present in the world.”

Shiro laughs.  “What do you want?”

“Oh, boy...  One of those oil heaters,” Matt says around a shiver.  “A heating pad. A bucket of hot coals, I don’t know.  Something warm.  Something toasty.”  He tugs his hats down lower for good measure.  “How are you not dying?”

“I’m excited,” he says breathlessly, still bouncing up and down on his heels, his breath puffing out in small clouds.  “Only three hours left.”

“Really?”  Matt almost dares a smile, relief tinging the edges of his tone.

Shiro checks his phone.  “Oh, wait. Four.”

“Oh, god.  I’m going to be a popsicle by then.”

“You’ve got this.  We’ve got this. Won’t it be cool seeing him?  Don’t pretend you don’t love him too.”

“I do , but not enough to lay my life down on the line for a signature.  I’m so cold,” he cries. His phone goes off and he whimpers.  “I can’t get my phone. My hands are frozen.”

Shiro fishes it out of his jacket for him and laughs into it.  “It’s Katie and Hunk. They’re laughing at us. She wants a picture.”

“No.   No -” Matt protests around his scarf, nose blaring red and he groans as Shiro lifts the phone up, grins, and takes a picture of the both of them anyway.  “I hate you both,” Matt sniffs as he sees Pidge’s responding text calling him Rudolph.  “How do you still look like a god ?  It's like negative five thousand degrees out here.  I won’t survive this.”

As it turns out, he does.  The four hours pass quickly for Shiro, less so for Matt, but when they do, the ultimate gift presents itself to them and the amazing happens: the door handle rotates, the door opens, and it’s Kolivan - the Kolivan! - Akira’s uncle and bodyguard, coming around the corner and shifting the sign to the side.

He looks even bigger in person, towering over all of them, blotting out the morning sun.

“Okay,” Kolivan’s voice booms across the line.  “This is how it’s going to work.  I get to check your bags. I get to pat you down.  I get to see your pass and your ID.  You go in, get the signature, and then follow the arrows down to the pavilion and wait for the concert.  Any funny business, you’re gone.  If Akira wants you out, you’re gone.  Behave and you’ll get your signature, but we want to move this line as fast as possible, so remember there are others waiting.”

The excited chatter escalates all around them, people leaning outside of the line, jumping up to see over those taller than them, all aching to get sight of Akira, of Kolivan, of anything.  Beautiful, kind, bad boy Akira.  No one would believe they’d just been waiting several uncomfortable hours for this; the air is sharp with joy.

Shiro bites at his lip and tries to force himself to breathe.  He is just in this room, right around the corner.  Him.  Actually him.

“Got your book to sign?”  Matt says as he looks down at Shiro’s empty hands.

The line’s already moving up and Shiro stumbles forward, arm digging through his backpack frantically, seeking for the book.  He finds it, soothing over the front cover with gentle care even though it’s a hardback.  It’s of Akira and his easy self assured grin.  A memoir of his life on tour, of what it is to be an actor and a singer, of how he (‘and others!’ the back of the book reads) can work together to make this world a better place.

He’s so good.  He’s the perfect talent, the perfect heart.  Shiro couldn’t love anyone else as much as he loves Akira.

“Pass, please,” Kolivan asks and Shiro scrambles to hand it over, already distracted, peering around the wall and inside the room, gripping the book tightly to his chest.

The group ahead of them are already there, squealing loudly over him.  And Shiro can hear it, like flower petals on a new spring day - deeper inside this room, the rich low tones of his voice.  The soft rolling laughter that is so heaven-sent it can only be his.

“Okay,” Kolivan says.  “You’re good to go.”

It’s their turn.  They round the corner and, god, there he is.  Akira.  His long platinum flowing hair, pulled into a ponytail today.  The ivory skin.  The purple eyes.  Those elegant limbs.  The way he sits forward in his seat, elbows balanced on the table and legs spread out casually before him.

He’s so perfect.

“You guys must’ve been out in the cold for awhile,” Akira raises a sympathetic eyebrow at them as they approach.  “You hanging in there?”

Shiro presses his lips together tightly.  He nods his head up and down with vehemence and tries to speak, but absolutely nothing comes out.

Matt hands his book over like he’s supposed to and Akira signs it, looking up for the next, but Shiro’s still staring at him.

The lighting in this room is warm.  It makes Akira look golden almost.  It catches the soft shimmer of his skin, the tips of his thick eyelashes.  He’s gorgeous.  He’s so gorgeous. He just can’t be human.

Akira tilts his head and holds his hand out to Shiro.  “I can sign that for you, if you’d like.”

“I - Uh, um.   I...?”

Regris, Keith’s other bodyguard, yells from the front of the room.  “We need to keep the line moving. Next person, please.”

Matt sighs and grabs Shiro by the arm, guiding his hand up to the table for Akira to grab.  Akira chuckles under his breath and sets the book down in front of him as he picks up his pen again.  “Who do I sign this to?  Want me to write anything special?”

“Uh...”  Shiro tries to force out breathlessly.  Were Akira’s eyes always that big?  Did his skin always look this soft?  This creamy?  This perfect?  Shiro can’t believe he’s real, moving like an actual person, right here in front of Shiro’s hands, in real life.  Not through a screen.  Not on a billboard.  Shiro could technically reach forward and touch him.

But you wouldn't touch a god.  No way.  A mere mortal would just be burned.

Matt nudges him again.  He looks up to Shiro, sighs as he sees his face, and then takes over, “Excuse him.  I swear he’s not usually like this, he’s just...a big fan.  Shiro.  His name is Shiro.  As for writing anything else, honestly, you could write gibberish and Shiro would flip.”

Akira laughs - it’s such a nice sound - and tosses one last amused glance at Shiro, smile on his beautiful red lips.  He leans over the book and his hand dances across the pages in his loopy god-like penmanship.

“Thanks for coming, Shiro,” he says as he hands the book back over and so much emotion wells up in Shiro’s throat, he thinks it’s going to choke off his air passageway and strangle him.  He can die happy.

“Th-thank you,” Shiro breathes out in one sharp gust.  “You - You - inspiration.  An inspiring...inspiration.  A lot.”

“Thanks,” Akira chuckles and tilts his head and Shiro thinks he blacks out.  How can a voice be as smooth as molten lava and attractively rough all at once?  Shiro doesn’t get it.

Matt laughs as he grabs Shiro by the arm and pulls him out.  When they hit cold air, Shiro remembers this is reality.

“We got to see him,” Shiro breathes.  “Akira.  We got to see him again.”

“Yeah.  We totally did.  And look at that.  He wrote your name out in his hand.”

“Oh, my god,” Shiro blinks down at the book as he realizes it’s true.  He tries to push his hair out of his face so he can see it clearly in all its glory.  “He did.  My name.”

And you didn’t even hyperventilate this time.  There are many victories abound.  What’d he write?”  Matt asks as he leans into Shiro’s arm to see.

Shiro runs his hand over the ink again, carefully, taking in a deep breath.  There, above Akira’s signature, it says in bold proud script:

Go.  Be great.

 

Shiro sits in his cubicle, sighing and trying to drain the last of his coffee into his mouth as the sound of typing drones around him.

He’s so tired.  He knows there are black circles under his eyes and his nose is red with the remnants of his cold, but god, seeing Akira was so worth it.  Shiro’s face right now might not look like it, but it totally was.

His signed book is now presented in his shrine (his room).  He’s put it behind glass, in the dead center of the display case, right beneath the direct attention of the light.  It basically glitters like gold.  It’s almost a shame to ever turn the light off.

Whenever Shiro even thinks about it, he remembers how, only recently, he saw Akira's face and heard his low chuckle.  It fills him with a joy few others can understand.

And then, later in that day, when Akira came out onto that stage and sang, Shiro’s heart set aflame.  He’s always beautiful, but when he sings - well, that’s something Shiro can’t even explain.

The way Akira can create this energy, this special air that tastes like color, like inspiration in a world of grey...there’s just something about him.  Akira’s voice - the warm rich tone that fills Shiro’s heart and body - it makes him feel alive again.  Akira gets so into it, like the rest of the world just melts away from him, and it’s like Shiro’s up there with him too, feeling the heat of the lights up above, the warmth of the microphone between his hands, the freedom and hope of this world that he had once felt too.

Shiro thinks Akira’s acting is somehow even better though.  Maybe it's being able to watch his movies over and over and still be sucked into each performance as if for the first time.  He's incredible.  A triple threat.  Quadruple threat.  Every kind of threat.

Pidge comes by and laughs as she sees Shiro frowning up into his coffee cup.  She taps a pile of envelopes on his head.  “Got some more fun stuff for you.  The tech department sends their regards.”

“Kill me,” Shiro groans, leaning his head back even more aggressively as he taps the bottom of the cup.  The chair squeaks with dangerous warning and the man in the cubicle in front of him turns with moody disapproval.

“Can't kill you today.  Matt told me to deliver a message for you.”

“I don’t want it.”

“What if it’s important work business?”

“Then I definitely don’t want it.  Ask that other guy over there.  He seems like he likes his job.”

She snorts and reaches over to point out the one Akira mini print he’s allowed himself to bring here, mostly hidden behind his computer in NASA’s most boring department.  Working here is like pulling teeth. They’re not allowed personalizations, but Shiro needs this one small thing to keep him sane.

Pidge says, “He told me to remind you that you owe him your life.  And that he had the flu for a week because of last time’s stunt, so he humbly requests a favor.”

That’s fair.  Shiro got sick too and it was a bad one; he’s only now just recovering.

“He wants coffee.  Two extra shots of espresso.  If you go, can you get some for me too?  A frappuccino, though.  I think they’re coming out with their pumpkin spice this week.  I want that one.”

Shiro rubs a hand over his face.  “Yeah, might as well.  I’m so bored here, I can’t take it anymore.”

“Sweet.  We’ll be where we always are.”

“I’ll just deliver it, since apparently I’m your coffee boy.”

She laughs.  “As long as you know it.  Thanks, Shiro.”

It really is nice to get out though.  Sitting in a seat all day long, week after week, typing numbers and vague disconnected mumbo jumbo into some bright computer screen is not what Shiro had in mind when he had told everyone at the end of his high school days, full of belief and pride, “I’m going to work for NASA!”  This isn’t what he had wanted when he began this journey, but it’s what he has.  It’s all he has.

It should feel like a victory, but it doesn’t.  He has a job.  That’s good, right?  That’s what Matt keeps telling him.  He’s doing well.  And he tries very hard to be appreciative and open-minded about the good that this job surely brings him, but he can’t.

It supports him and that’s it.  There’s no thrill.  There’s no love for the work.  Not anymore.  He wanted better than this.  He deserved better than this.

He sighs, rolling out his shoulder and stretching out his prosthetic.  It aches sometimes, mostly when he accidentally thinks about it, so he tries his best not to.

Life is not always fair, but Shiro does have amazing friends, and he’s so thankful for that, at least.  They keep him going.

And Akira.  He has Akira.

The coffee shop is nearby.  He rounds the corner and pushes the door open - and almost runs into someone on their way out.  They toss him a dirty look and he apologizes, trying to force himself to pay attention.

“Yeah, did you hear -?”  Some girl is excitedly shoving her phone at her friend.  “He’s coming here.”

“Holy shit.”

Ugh, he’s not in the mood for people today.  His cold is still clinging to him like a cloud of cotton crammed into his head.  He sighs and goes to the register, orders two coffees and a frappuccino for Pidge, and waits.  He can see out the window as a child grabs a newspaper and jabs his finger at it, looking up to his mom.  There are stars in the boy’s eyes.  Akira, his mouth forms over the words.

But it would be just like Shiro to think that’s what he’s seeing.  He shakes his head and looks away.

“Your order’s up, Shiro,” the barista says.  She grins at him, her eyes twinkling.  "Are you excited?"

For the coffee?  He laughs and nods to be polite, thanks her, grabs the cup carrier and makes his way out.

“Did you hear the news?”  Some man is saying to his friend on another street corner.

Shiro frowns, looking over.

“-Akira.”

Okay.  For sure this time, he heard it.  What about Akira?  Shiro’s not allowed his phone at work - it’s locked up in his boss’ desk right now, so he hasn’t been able to check his usual forums for news, not since two hours ago.

He purses his lips and keeps going, trying to ignore the curiosity that’s beginning to boil in his stomach.  Akira just released a new line of merch for his rescue animal foundation.  It’s probably that.  He had a shoot just the other day with a bunch of dogs where he’s laughing and smiling as he sits in the middle of a group of them all vying for his attention.  Shiro could hardly look away from the released images all night - even though they were blurry and had watermarks stamped all over them.  Who wouldn’t love and be excited about that?

Akira is everywhere lately and Shiro loves it.  In the stores, on the TV, plastered across advertisements on the bus, on the covers of cereals.  Shiro stops on the sidewalk beside a tall glass building.  He’s definitely not surprised to see, in the window, a big blown up poster of Akira modeling some fancy brand of clothing.  He's leaning casually over his leg, hair falling over his shoulder in a gentle cascade.

God, he looks so good.  Everything he wears is so damn stylish.  And those small wrists.  Those exposed forearms.  The way the jacket hangs over him in a devil may care sort of attitude.  The signature crooked smile, tinged with a bit of smokey smirk, and, of course, the sunglasses he loves.  One of his catchphrases is at the top in bold letters, This is how I lead.

Someone jogs past and Shiro distractedly tries to step out of the way, still staring.  They say something to him, but he’s not listening.  When he finally realizes they’ve stopped and are waiting for a response, he turns from Akira’s poster and blinks at them in surprise, “Hm?”

It’s a young man in joggers.  His hair is pulled up into a messy bun, hair as black as coal.  He has sunglasses on and an earbud in one ear.  He nods toward the poster.  “Heard he’s a real prick.”

Shiro shrugs.  He doesn’t get why people feel the need to shit on other people’s interests, but whatever floats their boat, he guesses.  “I think he’s really nice.  I’ve met him before at a signing.  I totally panicked, but he was really cool about it.”

The man rolls his eyes and scoffs in tired amusement.  “Whatever you say,” he mutters before shifting his weight and continuing his journey onward.

Shiro’s got to go back too.  He’s slacked off long enough.  With a sigh, he tears himself from Akira’s poster and walks back to the boring lifeless grey building, going downstairs to seek out Matt and Pidge only after sneaking around the office to take back his phone.

Matt’s face lights up when he sees him - or, more specifically, the drinks in his hand.  “Can’t believe you actually did it,” Matt grins.

“Well, you made a lot of valid points in your argument.”

“I almost died ,” Matt says.

“That’s the valid part.  Hey.  Have you heard anything about Akira?  People were talking about it on the streets.  Everyone was buzzing.”

“I dunno,” Matt says over sipping his coffee.  “Turn on the TV.”

“Oh, yeah, I forget you have one in here.  You guys are so lucky.  Adopt me into your department.”

Matt grunts and rolls his eyes.  “You don’t even know what a screwdriver is.”

Shiro takes residence on Matt’s desk and flips through the channels until it hits the news.  “I hate when you present such harsh truths,” Shiro grumbles as Matt chuckles and goes back to tinkering with whatever project he’s working on.

Pidge must smell the sugar on the wind because she comes wandering over, laughing when she sees Shiro hanging out on Matt’s desk.  “The boss is going to grill you again if he finds you just hanging out.”

“Eh.”

“Aaaand is that your phone I see?  You snuck it out of the boss’ desk?  Shiro...  You’re going to lose your job,” she mutters, looking up at him.

He hums without interest.

“Well, if this job doesn’t work out,” Matt says.  “There’s always being a coffee boy.”

Shiro laughs.  “Yeah, sure.  I am pretty good at it.”

“Uh.  This is a caramel frappuccino, Shiro,” Pidge snorts as she swirls it around.  “I said pumpkin.”

“Kinda the same thing?”

“Pumpkin’s special edition, so no.  You’re fired.”

“That’s too bad.”  He finally settles on a news station and tosses the remote away.  He sits there, drinking his coffee, eyes on the TV but they’re just talking about local ducks or something, so he lets his focus fade.

“Maybe you can ask for another position,” Matt says, his voice forced into some fabricated form of cheerfulness.  “They’ve got to have something else that’ll suit you better than this.  Something to get you excited about things again.  Stir up your old passion.  If you hate it -”

Shiro groans and opens his mouth to argue, but then his eyes catch on something on the TV.  He jolts in his seat.  His phone flies out of his lap and hits the ground with a loud thud, where his Akira charms jingle with betrayal.

“Oh, my god,” Shiro breathes.

“What?”  Matt blinks, looking up, startled.

Shiro shifts forward, leaning toward the TV like he wants to dive through it.  He hops off of Matt’s desk.  “Oh, my god.”

“What’s up?”  Pidge says, setting her drink down.

He tosses his head around himself quickly, desperately searching.  “Where’s the remote?  Matt!  I need the remote!”

“Uh - uh - You had it last...  I don’t know.”

“Here.”  Pidge tosses it.

Shiro snatches it from the air and madly clicks on the rewind button while turning the volume up with his other hand.  He settles back onto the edge of the desk and stares at the screen with the intensity of a dog on the hunt.  “... Look.”

“Oh, my god,” Pidge says.

“Oh, my god,” Matt groans.

Shiro bites at his nails to stop any strange noise from bursting out of himself.

It’s Akira.  His Akira.  He’s the most beautiful display of casual grace.  He’s got his telltale sunglasses on and his piercings in full.  He pulls up the corner of his lip and he smiles crookedly at the camera, giving them one relaxed wave before heading into some restaurant.  Everyone’s screaming.

It’s a familiar restaurant.  Shiro knows it.  He went there himself just the other week.

The newscasters speak over the footage: “The whole world’s crazy over him!  Singer, actor, activist...  You know who I'm talking about - Akira!  Well, to all his crazy fans out there, do I have some news for you.  He’s going to be here, in our own city.  Sources have it that he’ll be staying for months, using our local scenery for his own sets.  Has anyone managed to spot him yet?  Some say he’s like a ninja, Frank.”

“He sure is, Sarah.  He seems to only be spotted when he wants to be, but he’s got to be around here somewhere.  Who can find him first?  He can’t hide from his fans forever.  Send in any of your lucky pics here.”

He’s coming here.  Here.

“It’s him.”  Shiro’s voice is shaking with excitement as it bursts through to an octave it’s never touched before.  “It’s him!  He’s coming here!   Here!  Matt!  Look!!  Look at him!”  He sits back in his seat, trying to take a long slow breath.  His voice just shivers.  “Oh, my god.  He’s coming.”

“Sounds like you just did,” Pidge mutters under her breath and Matt squawks and yells.

But Shiro is staring at the screen still, not paying any attention to them at all.  His eyes are shining like stars.  He feels like he’s three years old again, looking into space, allowing himself to dream about better things.  “Do you think they’ll say where he’s going?  Do you think we can - uh - uh, I don’t know.   Find him somehow?  Just to see him.”

Matt pulls a face.  “Oh man.  I mean, we’re not going to be camping outside for a week again, are we?  I’m still recovering from last time.”

“You think we can find him by camping out?”  Shiro blinks around stars.

Pidge says, “I bet they’ll herd him in secretly through the backs of places.  Being in the public eye is a security hazard.  You hear about all the crazies going after him.  Remember when he disappeared from the limelight for like six months a few years back?  Suspicious.”

“He’s trained in four different styles of martial arts.  He doesn’t need anyone to protect him.”  Shiro presses his hand to his mouth as they show footage of Akira winking at the camera.  “Oh, my god.  What do we do?  You think we should look down the alleyways?”

“Um.  No.”  Pidge and Matt snicker quietly to each other as they watch Shiro’s dazed face.

“Calm down, buddy,” Matt puts a hand on his hip.  “He’ll be here for months, right?  We’ll think of something in that time.  Don’t get creepy.  You get kinda...crazy about him. I’m sure he’ll do some signing or we can wait outside like...the police lines of the sets.  You know.  Feel the atmosphere.  We could probably get a glimpse.”

“That would be so great,” Shiro whispers.  “He’ll be sitting at our diners.  He’ll be walking through our marketplaces.”

“Who knows,” Pidge says.  “Maybe you passed by him walking to Starbucks just now.”

Matt hums and tilts his cup at Shiro.  “He does always seem to have a coffee in hand.”

“Don’t you dare.”  Shiro clutches at his heart.  “Don’t tease me.  This is too much too fast.  I need... I need to calm down.  I need to go work or something.”

“Huh.  Working at work, that doesn’t sound like you.”

“It’ll bore his nerves to a standard level,” Pidge laughs.  “Shiro, call us if you’re having a heart attack or something.  Honestly, I would not be surprised.”

He just groans, trying to control the frantic beating of his heart and the nerves that are zipping inside his brain at the speed of light.  This unimpressive overlooked city is being graced by an angel.  How can he calm down knowing that ?

 

A few nights later, they’re having dinner with a few of their close friends.  Over the years, Shiro’s become a permanent fixture on Matt’s couch, living here more than at his own apartment.  He slept over the night before so he's settled and comfortable on the couch, waiting for the others to arrive.

He still almost can’t believe the news about Akira, even as he scrolls through the internet for any scraps of more info.  In the background, Pidge had turned the TV to one of Akira’s more recent movies.  It’s a complex time travel movie actually done right, directed and written by someone who actually knew what they were talking about.  In other words, worthy of Akira.  He plays a government agent in tight fitting combat wear and he looks so fine.

But Shiro’s seen it about a million times, so he just listens, flicking through some forum titled with the age-old question: “Akira’s hair - wig or not?” (It’s definitely not a wig.  Akira is perfection, why would he need a wig?)

The door behind him bursts open and there’s chaos in the background.  Shiro ignores it.  He knows it’s just Lance and Hunk, home after a day of work, and he can say hi later.  He’s on the hunt right now - until Lance tosses his head right in front of Shiro’s phone so he can’t see it anymore.  “Have you heard the news?”

“Uh.  Hey, Lance,” Shiro says, pushing him gently out of the way.  “What news?”

“‘What news?’ he asks,” Lance laughs.  “Duh. The news.  Your boyfriend news.”

“Don’t even joke,” Pidge says as she sets the table.  “He’s only just calmed down.”

Matt’s laughing as he helps Pidge.  “You should’ve heard him screaming the other day.  He sounded like a little schoolgirl.”

Lance says to Shiro.  “I bet you can’t wait to camp outside and stalk him, am I right?”

“I’m not going to stalk him,” Shiro says, perfectly rational and level headed and definitely not crazy.

“You’re just going to hide in alleyways and wait in hopes he might randomly appear,” Pidge snorts.  She taps a fork to her lip.  “You know, I do wonder though.  If you did see him in an alleyway, would you just like...leap out of your trash can and surprise him?  Where exactly are you going with the alleyway plan?  I’m really curious.”

Shiro snorts.  “No.  I’d just....  I dunno.  Follow him some more?”

“That is so creepy,” Pidge snorts.

“So you were going to hide in trash cans?”  Hunk laughs from the other side of the couch.

“N-no!”

“Hey.  No.  Back to me,” Lance waves his hand in the air.  “So you know how everyone always gives me a hard time for forgetting about your birthday?”

“You forget every year,” Hunk says.  “About all of ours.”

“Okay, well, I remembered this time all on my own.”

Shiro’s frowning.  “It’s not my birthday.  It’s November.  My birthday’s in February.”

“Sometimes,” Pidge adds.

“Yeah, only sometimes.”

Lance rolls his eyes.  “Well, believe it or not, sometimes even I, the greatest Lancey Lance on the planet, have regrets.  I want to be a good friend, you know?  So...I think this makes up for it.”  He hands over an envelope that has “LANCE” on the front.

Shiro takes it with a small smile and raises an eyebrow at him as he runs his finger beneath the seal.  “Are you re-gifting?”

Maybe.”

He slips the paper out.  On the top are two suspicious short lines.  He turns the paper over, searching for the rest of it, but there’s nothing else.  “An address?  Where am I going?”

Lance leans over the couch dramatically, using his hands to animate the story.  “It’s an invitation to your biggest wildest craziest dreams ever.  It’s the height of your fantasies!  The peak of your life!  They’re coordinates to a secret location.  The most secret you’ll ever know!”

Shiro scratches the top of his head.  “Ugh...  This isn’t another one of those dating services again, is it?  I hate to say it, but I really didn’t like the one last time.  They blindfolded us.  He had rough clammy hands and he kept trying to grab at mine.  ...He smelled like cheese...  I told you I don’t need a boyfriend.  I’m fine being single.”  He tries to give the paper back.

Lance blocks it.  "Well, can you blame me for that?  It's kinda sad seeing you always sitting here on Matt's couch, alone."

Shiro frowns.  "I'm not alone, I'm with Matt."

Matt yells from the kitchen, "Yeah, what the hell?  I'm nobody?"

Lance waves his arms in front of his face.  "That's not the point, Shiro needs love."

“Lance, you're getting distracted.  Just tell him,” Hunk groans.

"I am not signing up for any dating service," Shiro insists firmly.

“This isn't a dating service!  This has nothing to do with that!"  Lance agonizes.  "Look at the paper.  Look at the trademark logo thing on the back.”

Shiro flips it and squints down at the tiny font.  “Marmora Company...” He murmurs, ready to tell him that a fancy dating service still counts as a dating service.

And then it clicks.  His mouth goes slack.  When he looks up, he’s deadly serious.  “What is this, Lance?”

Lance can barely contain his smile.  “So, my bro knows a buddy who knows a buddy who knows a buddy who knows a - well, you get the picture.  He knows Regris .  You know, one of Akira’s bodyguards.  And I met the guy at a bar the other night and they were looking for a local who could run errands for them and he thought I’d be perfect for the job and I mean, I’d love it for myself, sure, but then I thought - who would love this even more?  And it’s you, man.  It’s definitely you.  You’re always ogling him.  You’re crazy about the guy.  It’d be wrong of me to keep it.”

Pidge comes walking around the couch to stare down at the invitation.  “...No way,” she murmurs.

“Are you up for interviewing to be a coffee runner?”  Lance shrugs.

“Holy shit !”  Matt whispers.  He stares down at the invitation for a few seconds like he can’t believe it’s real.  And then, with a surprised laugh, he smacks Shiro’s metal arm with his hand.  “Holy shit!  Shiro!

“...Marmora...?”  Shiro’s blinking rapidly.

Hunk and Pidge start dancing around the living room, hollering to each other.  “Lance!  This is the coolest thing you’ve ever done!  Way to go, man.  What the hell? !”

Lance is blushing and sputtering, pleased little sparkles in the air.  “Come on, come on, you’re embarrassing me.  Anyway, it’s just a job interview for Akira.  They have to like, screen you and everything and Regris says they’re super picky.  It’s not like, a sealed deal by any means, but I just thought you’d like it.”

“Shiro?”  Matt’s almost breathless himself.  He pats Shiro on the arm and then shakes his shoulder.  “Shiro, you okay, man?”

Shiro is not okay.  His wildest dreams were never even this crazy.

Akira.  The Akira.  This can’t be real.  Maybe he got clipped by a biker when he was staring at the ad of Akira on the sidewalk and he’s dead.  He’s dead and this is heaven.

“Akira?”  Shiro manages to breathe out in question.

Everyone leans in front of him, kneeling on their knees and staring into his stunned face.  Their excited grins are brighter than the sun.  “Akira,” they confirm.

Chapter Text

Shiro fidgets outside the tall new building as printed on the invitation.  Their city is kinda run down - there’s a lot of trash on the sidewalks and side of the freeways, potholes that aggravate, and buildings worn with the telltale sign of age.  But this building isn’t any of that. It’s brand spanking new. Tall long glass windows and architecture with sharp angled walls that shouldn’t make sense plastered together as they are.  Somehow they end up looking so sleek. It reminds Shiro of a nicer city. Bigger city, at least. San Francisco. Los Angeles. New York. Class, style, money.

...Way too bright for Shiro.  He thinks he’d feel better if it were a decrepit stinky old building, but as it is, he is definitely way in over his head.  But hey, Matt lent him his suit so he looks as decent as he can. And he’s got to admit, his excitement has left a bright glow high in his cheeks and a bounce in his step he hasn’t had in years.  He’ll have to put his shitty job on hold and hope that they accept him back if he fails this, but honestly, Shiro knows he won’t have regrets even if they don’t. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  This is the height of anything he’ll ever do. It’s the epitome of what he’s always wanted right here, at his feet. He’d be a fool to not go forward.

“You can do this,” he closes his eyes and whispers to himself as he bounces up and down.  He’s got to psyche himself up in the best way he knows he can. He imagines it, like a phoenix: golden, proud, fiery.  “Go. Be great. Go. Be great. Go.  Just go.”

He takes in a few deep empowering breaths, shifts his posture so he’s standing high and proud and...he can do this.  He pushes through the glass doors and takes a definitive step inside.

The lobby is huge.  His footsteps crack and echo through the building, scattering with heavy presence all around him.  The sound gives him the illusion that he is more confident than he actually feels, like he belongs here; the vibrating stars in his belly hope that he might.

He stops at the desk, looking down at a young woman on a headset, posture upright and proper.

“If you could give me one moment please,” she hums, eyes focused on the computer in front of her.  She types away for a bit and then turns her eyes up to him. “Hello. Can I help you?”

“U-um, hi.  I have this.”  He takes the envelope out of his pocket, soothes the wrinkles that just had to appear right now, and hands it over.

She hums into it.  “Ah, interviewing for the, erm...”  She turns the paper around with a slight frown.  “‘Assistant's assistant’? Huh. Are you Lance McClain?”

“Takashi Shirogane.  I’m Lance’s friend; he gave it to me.  He said that he told the one coordinating this...  Uh, does it not say? He said he called. I’m sure he just forgot.  I can -” His heart is beating hard in his throat.

She flashes him a reassuring smile.  “Oh, no, don’t worry. Let me pull it up now.  And there it is. Takashi Shirogane. You’re all good to go.  If you go up the elevator to the sixth floor, it’s down the hall and to the right.  There’ll be a few seats there, just wait and you’ll be called in.”

“Thank you,” Shiro breathes.

“You look nervous,” she chuckles softly.  “Don’t be. We’re all family here. Try not to think of it as an interview; we just want to make sure we’ll all get along.  Just be yourself. I know you’ll do great.”

Some of the tension eases from him as he lets the words soothe him.  Even their receptionist is god-like. “Thank you.”

“The elevator’s over there,” she gestures toward it and he tries to walk purposefully to it.  He can look presentable if he tries hard, and boy, is today the day he wants to try his hardest.  He still can’t get his head around the fact that he might actually be in the same building as Akira and it’s not even some grand event.  There aren’t screaming crowds. There are no lines looping around street corners. It’s just silent open building.

There’s someone already waiting for the elevator.  He stands tall and the air about him speaks of purpose .  His suit is ten times sharper than Shiro’s and much nicer.  It reeks of money and the man knows it.

Immediately, every bit of effort Shiro had put forth to make himself feel worthy of this falls through.  He knew it.  He's unprepared.  Matt’s suit doesn’t really fit the best.  If you look hard enough at the pants, they’re basically floods, even hanging low on Shiro’s hips as they are.  The blazer is tight at the seams - all of them.  And the sad thing is that its main purpose is to hide the shirt, which is stretched across his chest and pinching at the back, pulling at the buttons that are holding on for dear life.  They feel like they might pop at any second; Shiro can feel them tugging now. He was only slightly awkward about it at home, where everyone assured Shiro he looked great, but now, he’s not so sure.

He really should’ve just stopped being cheap for two seconds and invested in a nicer outfit, but hindsight is 20/20, after all.

This man looks so ready for this, not just in his appearance but in his expression.  His hair shimmers as he turns his head and arches his eyebrow at Shiro. But he’s smiling.  “Ah, the competition,” he says, holding his hand out.

His hand is warm and dry.  Shiro’s certain his hands are sweaty.  “Seems like it. My name’s Shiro.”

Shiro.  Do you know the Kogane family?”

“N-no.  I mean, I met Akira once.  He signed a book for me. He was really nice.”

The man arches his eyebrow again, a hint of amusement building beneath his eyes.  “Ah.”

“Do you know them?”

“Yes, of course.  We’re family friends.  This is just a formality.”  He waves his hand in a carefree manner at Shiro, like he’s brushing him off his shoulder like a speck of dust.

Shiro’s heart drops into his stomach.  How on earth can he compete with a family friend...?  He figured as much, but... He clears his throat and remembers his manners.

Go.  Be great.

“Well.  I wish you the best of luck,”  Shiro says.

“It isn’t about luck, my friend,” he says as they both get into the elevator and he punches in the right button for the floor.  “It’s about who you know.”

“...Yeah,” Shiro says lowly because isn’t that truth?

He catches sight of himself in the elevator wall’s reflection.  Yeah. It’s all about connections. And who would trust a man they don’t know with a suit too small for him, an arm made of metal, and a marred scar across his plain face?  It speaks of a history in which he made a huge mistake.  He does not smell of money and poise, like the put-together man standing opposite of him.  He’s a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of Regris, who isn’t even Akira’s main bodyguard.  Shiro is no one to them. No one.

The elevator doors roll to a close.

He’s seeing it again - his dreams going up in smoke.  The panic is real, burning up from his core and spreading through to his fingertips.  He can’t do this again. He can’t watch his hopes fall apart again. He should just go.  He should just leave -

Footsteps strike the flooring from the direction of the lobby, cracking noisily through Shiro’s thoughts.  Frantic.

“Wait!”  Someone calls.  “Hold the door! I’m late!  I’m fucking -”

Shiro moves forward to hold it, but the ‘family friend’ slaps Shiro’s hand away and mashes the close button faster.  “We’re full.”

They’re not.  Everyone can see that.

The doors almost close, but the person pushes through at the last second anyway.  There’s not enough space through the crack. His arm clips the side of the door and the two coffees he was holding go everywhere.

“Oh, hell!”  Mr. Family Friend hisses, grabbing Shiro to use him as a shield.

The coffee is hot.  Steaming hot.  It pours onto Shiro’s blazer and down the front of his pants.  He yelps, but that’s not the worst of it. The majority goes all over the stranger, splattering over his core and onto his face, soaking through his thin black shirt.  Everywhere.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!”  The stranger hisses, ripping his shirt off the top of his head in one rough swipe.  His pale skin is crab red across his front. They’re spreading into burns already. “ Ow.  My coffee....”  He looks down in mourning.

“Oh, great going, coffee boy,” the man behind Shiro hisses, tossing his hand to the sullied floor.  “You’ve got the mess everywhere! Use your damn head. What’s wrong with people from around here?”

The newcomer is indignant, even shirtless in the middle of an elevator.  He crinkles his nose and hisses, “I saw that, asshole. You heard me and you still tried to close the elevator doors!”

“We were full.”  There’s more bite than smile to his words.

The stranger looks down at his bare self in dismay.  The burn marks have grown even more prominent. He hisses as he rubs his shirt over them to clean the mess but it’s no use, the shirt is already soaked and still steaming.  It just does more damage than good.

The doors ding and they’re both pushed to the side roughly as Mr. Family Friend brushes past them, getting out of there.  His clothes are perfectly clean. He escaped the coffee incident completely mess free.

“Gah...  I’m sorry about your suit.  I feel like such an asshole,” the man says sadly.  He wilts as he looks over Shiro and sees him dripping.  “I should’ve just waited. The elevator takes so damn long though and I’m already going to get yelled at for being late...”

“No, hey, don’t worry about it.  Worry about yourself. You’re burned.  Did you need to go to the hospital?”

His mouth twitches into a small smile.  “Over a coffee burn? I might not make it otherwise.”

“You shouldn’t discount it.  It looks painful.”

“I’m okay,” he sighs.  The door starts to roll to a close and he holds his foot out, stopping it.  “Thanks for trying to hold the door. I saw you doing it before that other guy -” He shoves his hands to his hips as he tries to put a stopper to his anger.  “Ugh. Whatever. You’re here for the interview, right? You should go. Wouldn’t want to be late.  Don’t let that asshole win.”

Shiro should do that.  ...But the stranger looks so miserable as he stares down at the mess everywhere that Shiro’s empathy trumps any selfish desires.  Yes, Shiro wants this job and he wants to be on time. If that asshole was here for the interview that probably means this person is just more competition.  Maybe he would’ve dumped coffee on Shiro on purpose to lower Shiro’s chances.

Shiro doesn’t know.  He doesn’t know him, but that’s not the point.  Here this stranger is, half naked in an elevator with a burn across his chest.  His day is probably looking pretty hopeless and what has Shiro learned from Akira if not to help others who are in need?  It’s why he loves Akira so much, after all. He has to do what’s right even if it’s a little thing. One tiny act of kindness could mean the world to somebody else.

“Here,” Shiro says, shrugging his blazer off, trying to ignore the way his buttons strain and pull on his shirt as he gets rid of the one thing pressing them down.  “I know it’s...dirtied, but maybe it’s better than nothing?” He holds it out for him.

The stranger just blinks in surprise.  He looks down at the blazer and then back up to Shiro’s face like he doesn’t understand.  “...Your blazer?”

“Take it.  I’ve got a shirt.  You don’t.”

The man laughs - a rough low pleasant sound that sends Shiro’s heart fluttering - and holds up his balled coffee-soaked ball of ruined cotton.  “That is embarrassingly true. The blazer hides the coffee stains though... Without it, all you have is your white shirt and that’s... ruined to say the least.  I’m not going to lie, it kind of looks like you had a terrible accident and it just got everywhere.”

Shiro looks down.  Yeah. Yikes. Like reverse diarrhea or something.

The man shakes his head and pushes the blazer back to Shiro.  “You’ll need it to make a good impression. They’re sticklers about this sort of thing.  I’m fine.”

Shiro crinkles his nose but shrugs, holding out the blazer closer to the man.  “Well, in that case, it seems like you might need it a little bit more than me.”

He just stands there as he stares at Shiro, like he can’t understand what his game is.  He scopes Shiro’s expression like he can find the lie, but the more he sees in Shiro’s face, the more his expression softens.  He takes the blazer from Shiro gently. “...Thank you. That’s - that’s really nice of you...”

“Maybe if we get some towels from the bathroom we can clean this up -”

The man laughs for a second like it’s a joke and then stops.  “You want to help me clean the elevator?”

Shiro says, “With both of us, we can get it done twice as fast.”

“...You’ll be late.”  The man’s brow is furrowed in confusion as he stares Shiro down.

“Well, so will you, right?  Between you and me, I don’t think I have much of a chance anyway.  That last guy says he knows their family.”

He furrows his brow as he tosses his eyes up and thinks.   “...No...no. He’s probably just messing with you. Trying to psych you out.”

Shiro just smiles patiently.  “In any case, let’s go to the bathrooms and -”

He laughs again.  And god, it’s such a nice sound.  It fills the elevator and the room and weaves through Shiro’s senses, making him feel golden and warm.  His laughter tapers into a chuckle as he rubs at his cheek. He shuffles his feet and shakes his head, humming lowly, “...Go.  March. I’m serious. It’s my fault. I’ve already taken your blazer. I can’t ask for more.”

Shiro opens his mouth to protest and the man’s laughter renews.  He puts a finger up to silence Shiro. “You know,” he says, “I don’t think I’ve ever had to fight someone this hard to not help me clean.  What are you doing?” He hums. His eyes are so warm as he watches Shiro. “I’m just some random stranger. You don’t even know me.”

Shiro just laughs.  “It’s no problem, really.  I don’t mind. We all need to help each other, right?”

“Ah.  What Akira says, isn’t it?”

“Right.  I learned it from him.  He’s one of my biggest inspirations.”

“Hm.  Go,” the man says softly.  He has this dazed little smile on his face as he watches Shiro, like he’s completely and utterly charmed.  “Good luck. I mean it.”

Shiro grins.  Somehow, his confidence soars.  “You too. Don’t worry. Accidents happen.  I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“...Right,” he says, voice still a little dazed.  The clock down the hall begins to chime. Late. The man blinks to himself.  He pushes Shiro out quickly. “You should go. But thanks for this. I’ll find a way to repay you.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

The doors begin to close again, but he’s still standing there, staring at Shiro.  Before they close completely, he stammers out on a yell, “I-I’m Keith! It’s nice to meet you!”

Shiro blinks as he turns.  “Oh, I’m -”

But the doors are already closed.

Damn.  If only he had gotten his number.  Competition or not, Shiro felt something there.

...And he had looked a lot like Akira.

 

He was late.

He was late, he was late, he was late.  He sits on the seats where the receptionist had said, but no one comes for him.  He wrings his hands. That asshole is gone, probably inside like Shiro was supposed to be, doing a flawless interview like Shiro wishes he could.

What is he even doing here?  His white shirt is too tight, doused in brown.  Literally the coffee dripped down his crotch. Keith was right.  It looks like he had a horrible accident in the bathroom. He might as well have.  This is already a disaster. It’s too late to run back home and find something else to wear.

His one chance.  He thought he could change his life, do something bright and colorful that’d open his eyes to a world he never got the chance to know.  But he hasn’t even been called in and he feels like he’s already managed to ruin it.

No.  He can’t think like that.  What would Akira say? What would Akira do?

Fifteen minutes of agonizing wait time and the door finally opens.

The asshole walks out, looking extremely self assured and pleased with himself.

He spots Shiro sitting on the seats below, wracked with worry.  He chuckles as his eyes slip down to Shiro’s accident. “Wow. Nice shirt.”  His step only grows more confident after that as he leaves.

The receptionist from earlier appears at the door, smiling brightly.  “Oh, so you found your way. I apologize for the wait. You weren’t here, so we thought we’d interview the other candidate first.”

“It’s no problem,” he says, standing quickly.

She blinks down at his shirt with a quick frown before tossing a sympathetic look at him and gesturing him in.

“If you could take a seat here, please.”

Here is at the side of a long table, across from a line of people he recognizes from magazines and the news and interviews with Akira.

Akira’s family.

The air immediately leaves his lungs.  Oh, god. He had assumed he'd be interviewed by assistants or some random people only sort of in charge, not Akira's own family.  There’s his uncle, his cousin, his mom.  They’re all too beautiful to be human.  And they’re sparing their attention for him - him.  Or...at least...the mess on his shirt.

What is on your shirt...?”  Krolia arches an eyebrow at him.

But Shiro is too starstruck to notice.  It’s like before, only Matt isn’t here to bail him out this time.  He can’t even move, let alone talk. They’re all so tall and glowing and he feels like an ant in the presence of gods.

The receptionist had said to sit.  She told him one simple thing and he’s frozen standing like an idiot.  He’s got to do this one simple task. He needs to take a seat. He’s got to -

“Sorry I’m late.”  The door on the side opens with a swift push, silencing the tornado of Shiro’s thoughts.

Shiro’s insides freeze over.

He had not expected this.

He hadn’t even thought -

It’s Akira.  It’s him.  It’s the Akira.  His white long hair flowing from behind him and his piercings, god, they catch the light and glimmer like stars.  He pushes his sunglasses up and off his face - they’re his trademark - and Shiro nearly actually pees himself right then and there.

Oh, god.

Shiro prays that the whimper he hears is in his head and not out loud.

Shiro is so not adept for this.  He’s way in over his head. He can’t, he can’t, he can’t -

Akira goes to sit in the center, directly across from Shiro, and the entire world just shifts.  They’re feet apart.

“Let’s begin.”  Kolivan starts as he reads from the paper in his hand.  “Welcome in, Takashi -”

“I want to do this interview,” Akira says and the room goes quiet.  Some turn their eyes to him in surprise. Akira leans slightly and slips the paper from Kolivan’s hand.  “Name, please.”

This will not be a repeat of the signing.  It’s make it or break it. This is his one chance.  Be great, be great, be great.

“Shiro,” Shiro forces out on breath.  “Takashi - ah - it’s... It’s just Shiro.”

“Okay, Shiro,” Akira hums.  He leans forward and bites on the edge of his thumb, pressing the pad of it against his fang tooth.  It’s terribly entrancing. Shiro tries to look away and can’t. “It’s nice to meet you. We’re going to start off by getting to know you better.  Seeing as you’re looking for a position here, I can assume you know who I am. But I’d like to know who you are. We have some questions for you and if you can answer them as truthfully as you can...”  His eyes skim over the list of questions but he frowns into them with discontent. He tosses the paper away and turns his violet eyes up at Shiro as he asks, “Who’s your favorite band?”

“Wh-what?  My - my favorite band?”  Shiro blinks. This wasn’t part of the hundreds of questions he’d rehearsed with Matt and Pidge over and over the other night.

“Yeah,” Akira leans forward onto the table like he’s actually interested in Shiro’s answer.  Shiro can smell him as the air wafts over him. Like coffee and sugar. “What sort of music do you listen to?  Don’t say me. That’s not what I’m asking. I just want to know what you like.”

“...Um.  I... I guess sometimes I used to listen to classical when I did homework.  Or uh, S. Carey. He’s pretty good.”

Everyone is just staring at him.  It feels important to offer an explanation under such scrutiny.  “Helps me think.”

Akira laughs softly.  “Nothing’s wrong with classical.  I’ve never heard of him; I’ll have to check him out.  What’d you go to school for?”

“Astrophysics.  Um. I used to work for NASA.”

Krolia shifts in her seat, pursing her lips.  She still can’t stop frowning at the brown all over Shiro’s shirt.  “...And you want to work here ...?”

Kolivan leans forward, “Do you have any work experience in the entertainment field?”

“U-um -”  God, he can’t take his eyes off Akira.  He shines even brighter in person. He feels like he needs another reminder that he’s actually real .  A living, breathing, moving person.  His wrists are so dainty but his body is so lithe and Shiro knows how Akira’s adept in different kinds of martial arts and he tries not to think of all the ways he could bend Shiro to his will - literally maybe, and Shiro wouldn’t even protest.  He swallows hard. “No.”

“Hm.  Ever been an assistant before?”

“Oh, um.  I... Not really, no.  I mean...sometimes I, ah...  I get coffee...for my...friends...”  He realizes how lame that sounds only after he’s said it.  He wishes he could immediately get a do-over.

Kolivan and Krolia exchange tired exasperated looks.

Akira bites at his lip, playing with the sunglasses on top of his head for a moment before looking back down at a paper set out.  “Who gave you this invitation...?” He mutters lowly.

“Regris gave it to Lance McClain, who gave it to Shiro,” Allura says.

“Oh.  Why’d he do that?”

“I...  I love you...”  Shiro murmurs and then immediately realizes what he said and wishes vehemently for death.  If the gods have any pity in their hearts, if they are just at all, they’d be merciful and send lightning to strike him down right where he stands.  But they don’t.

He desperately clears his throat.  “Your movies.  I love your work.  And your message. You’re.  You’re the reason for my arm -” he says, gesturing to his prosthetic.  “I mean. Not like that. Acceptance. I had a hard time? Oh god. I’m just...  I swear I’m not usually like this. I just - I’ve been wanting to meet you for so long - not a signing, but like this - and I wasn’t sure how I’d react, but I definitely didn’t anticipate it would be like this and now I’m making a huge fool out of myself and my friend gave me this opportunity instead of him but really, you would’ve loved him and I just blew this whole thing for the both of us and -  Oh, god, is it hot in here? It’s really, really hot. I think I need... I think -” He casts his eyes around desperately, not entirely sure what he’s seeking. The door seems about the only right answer.

“A-ah,” Akira’s cringing for him, looking across the table.  “Let’s get you some water. Here -”

Shiro’s so wound up he’s forgotten how to breathe.  His lungs are bloated with nervous air and the tension pulls tight against his chest.

The worst possible thing happens.  His body is too big for this borrowed suit.  Matt is tall, but he’s small, a little elf boy.  It just can’t hold all of Shiro in. The strained shirt meets its limit.  Right... now.

A button goes rogue.  With frightening speed and force, it shoots through the room with aggressive vengeance.  It can’t just fling through the air on a benign trajectory - no, that’d be too easy. It has to hit the one person Shiro would rather die for.

It pops Akira right square on the forehead.

Akira makes a strangled noise in the back of his throat like a disturbed cat.  His head knocks back. The wheels of his chair slip out from beneath him and he nearly topples over backward.

Krolia and Kolivan are faster though, grabbing Akira before he can fall and readjusting him.  “Are you okay?” Krolia hisses, leaning in to press her finger to the bump already growing on his forehead.

Akira just nods quickly, blinking a few times.

Everyone’s eyes snap to Shiro, feral as a room full of hungry hunting mountain lions.

Oh, my god, ” Shiro claps a hand over his mouth.  “Oh, my god!”

“It’s...it’s fine,” Akira says as he holds up both of his hands to stop Shiro’s panic.  He’s pressing his lips together tightly like he’s battling really hard not to laugh. Krolia and Kolivan look like they want to tear Shiro apart.

“It’s okay.  I’m not hurt.”  Akira insists, but he rubs at the spot tenderly.

“I didn’t mean - !  It was my shirt!” To make matter worse, his shirt is literally left hanging open, exposing his chest.  He tries to press his hand over it, but it’s hardly enough.

Akira chuckles and places a hand over his mouth to hide his amused grin.  “Seriously. It’s fine. Take a deep breath. Don’t worry about it. People get nervous sometimes.  It’s a compliment. Really.”

“M-my shirt exploding is a compliment?!  I’m so sorry. It’s just. You’re way more beautiful in person than I thought and even though I’ve already seen you before I’m sort of panicking and I guess my shirt sensed that -  I mean. Your hair is so... Your face - I mean -” His brain is like a car spinning out of control and he’s almost just hoping for the crash to put him out of his misery.

“I think we’re done here,” Kolivan mutters.  And there it is. He takes the paper right out of Akira’s hands and crosses the form out with a deliberate heavy-handed x.  Shiro closes his eyes to the feeling of his insides shriveling.

“Right.  I’m sorry...  I’m so sorry. Thank you so much for your time.  I’m sorry.”

This did not go how he had envisioned it.  At. All.

“NASA’s amazing,” Regris says behind a deeply amused smile.  “Seriously, you’d hate it here. Everyone’s always disappointed when they find out Akira’s only human anyway.  He bleeds red, as you can already see.”

Akira tosses a dirty look at him.

Shiro gives one more brave smile despite the prickling behind his eyes and the tightness in his throat.  He feels like he’s about to start bawling right then and there. He’s about to turn, fish his cell phone out of his pocket, and cry to Matt over a tubful of chocolate ice cream all evening and all night, when Akira rises from his seat.  He snatches the paper from Kolivan’s hands, and says quickly, “Don’t listen to them. You did great. It was nice to meet you. Really. Thanks for coming in.”

Everyone turns to stare at Akira like he’s lost his marbles.  Shiro included.

A bit of his horror and embarrassment melts away.  God, Akira really is beautiful inside and out. Shiro manages to make his smile genuine as he rubs at his nose.  There’s a reason he loves Akira so much. He’s so touched.

“It was an honor meeting you.  Thank you.” Before he can manage to disgrace himself further, he picks himself up and leaves.

 

Shiro was supposed to call Matt after the interview so he could pick him up, but - stupid Shiro - he forgot that his phone was in his blazer’s pocket.  Matt’s blazer. The blazer that he gave to Keith. And where’s Keith? Nowhere around here. Probably long gone.

Hopefully Keith got the job, Shiro thinks as he looks sadly down at his hands and stands awkwardly at the edge of the sidewalk.  He can’t believe a button decided to pop off right then, right there, and hit Akira square in the forehead.  It’s like instead of dealing Shiro mercy, the gods decided they wanted a nice joke.  Hell, he’d laugh too if he wasn’t so mortified.

And he told Akira that his injury was because of him...  That’s not it at all. The opposite, in fact, and he’s always been dying for a chance to tell him how important he is to him.  But all his words just got tangled together and... Wow. He really is an idiot. He can’t believe he messed it all up that badly.  And after Lance gave him such a clear shot too.

Well.  At least he got to see Akira again.  Have a legit conversation with him. That was cool.  And Shiro actually managed to kind of talk this time.  Making progress. And it was still a once in a lifetime sort of deal.  How many people can say that Akira interviewed them? He’s grateful for that.  He really is.

Yeah.  He’s going to hold his head up high and do his best.  He won’t let this get him down. That’s what Akira would do.  So Shiro will do it too.

He will.  He definitely will.

He fishes some change out of his wallet, walks to the nearest bus stop and sits.  It’s getting dark out and he’s kind of cold, but he likes the silence. He likes just sitting here in his thoughts, coming down from his nervous high.

Akira was nice.  He was heart shatteringly beautiful, but not an asshole about it.  Normal. Not that Shiro ever thought he wasn’t, but getting reminders somehow makes him that much more happy.  He stretches his legs out and smiles.

Yeah.  Today was a good day.  Embarrassing. And crazy.  But...nice.

And Keith was really beautiful.  ...So there are people Shiro can feel a connection to without getting to know first.  Not that he’d ever admit that to Lance, but it’s a nice thing to know for future reference.  Melts some of his pessimism away. Maybe there isn’t something wrong with him after all.

There’s a knock against the bus stop’s glass wall that startles him a bit.  It’s getting dark and cold out. Not a lot of people. Shiro looks up.

He meets two purple eyes.

It’s Keith.  He’s in a different shirt - clean, this time - his hair pulled up into a messy bun.  He’s watching Shiro with concern on his face. “Hey. It’s you again.”

“Just me again.”  Shiro gives a small wave.  “You got a new shirt.”

“Yeah, I changed.  Everyone kinda balked at the no shirt with a blazer kind of look.  They thought I was trying to be funny. Like...making a new fashion statement or something.  The new Guns N’ Roses.”

When he sees Shiro’s blank confused look, he chuckles.  “No? The band? Well, anyway, I saw you from up above. Aren’t you freezing?  It’s got to be cold enough to snow.”

Shiro laughs softly under his breath, turning his eyes toward the sky.  Stars are starting to appear, making their way through the evening’s fading warmth.  “You’re not from around here, are you?”

He leans his head against the side of the bus stop’s frame.  “Hm. What gave me away?”

Shiro just shrugs, still smiling.  “It is cold,” he allows. “But it gets colder.”

“Well, I know one thing.  If you’re waiting for the bus, it’s not coming.  You missed the last one.”

Shiro blinks down the road like maybe the bus will come to prove Keith wrong.  “Are you serious?”

“I tried to catch a ride around this time the other day.  Never came.”

“Oh...”  Shiro scrounges around for another way.  “Oh! The jacket I leant you. Do you still have it?  I left my phone in it.”

Keith cringes.  “Ah... I sent it to the dry cleaners...  Let me call them really quickly to see if I can get it...”

He steps away, kicking his feet around and shoving a hand in his jacket pocket as he calls someone.  He comes back, looking totally downcast. “Uh... They found the phone, but it’s at my house.”

“Oh.”

“They say someone’s been calling like mad.”

Shiro laughs.  “That’s him. That’s my ride home.”

“Your boyfriend?”

Shiro looks up at the assumption.  There’s something in Keith’s voice.  Affected cool. “Nah. Just my friend.  More like my mom sometimes, though.”

“Oh,” Keith laughs under his breath quietly.  “...I’m really sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.  I should’ve returned it to you immediately, but I didn’t think I’d see you so soon...  I, um... Thanks again. For the blazer.”

“Of course, Keith.”

“Let me - Let me make it up to you.  I can drive you home. Or is that - That’s a little weird, isn’t it?”

Shiro looks to his right and to his left.  There are no other cars, just long dark empty roads.  Keith’s right - there are no buses. And he has no phone.  Technically, he could probably go into the Marmora building and ask the nice receptionist if he can phone home, like a kindergartner calling his mom.  He might as well humiliate himself to that level, they’ve already seen the worst of him.

Or, better yet, he could just ask Keith to borrow the phone literally right in his hands.  He’s rotating it between his fingers like he’s aware of it, like maybe he will ask before Shiro will, but he’s holding back for some reason.

Yeah, Shiro could ask to borrow a phone...but why would he be so foolish as to do that when he has a beautiful young man standing beside him, tapping the tip of his shoe nervously to the cement, asking with his enchanting purple eyes?

Like Akira’s eyes.  Shiro didn’t know purple was a thing.

He’s beautiful too.  Shiro thought it earlier and abruptly tried to suppress it when he saw Keith pulling the shirt over the top of his head.  It just wasn’t right to ogle in that sort of situation.

“A ride home would be really nice, ” Shiro says, getting to his feet and rubbing friction into his arms this time.

“Yeah?  I hope you don’t mind if I stop by Starbucks on the way.  I need it or I’ll die.”

“Not at all.  You don’t use the one on Aaron Street, do you?  They never make the drinks right. There’s one a bit out of the way, on the other side of the underpass.  It’s kind of a local secret and it doesn’t even show up on maps, but that’s my favorite. I can show it to you if you’d like.”

“Oh, I knew I liked you,” Keith laughs.  He pats the glass once more before pushing off and walking back to the building.  “Follow me then. I have my car in the parking garage.”

The Marmora parking garage is blocked off to the public.  Keith types in a code to enter and leads Shiro through. They approach the only car left in the parking garage that also happens to be the shiniest most high tech looking thing Shiro has ever laid his eyes on.  He chokes on nothing. “This is your car?”

Keith snorts.  “Yeah, she’s new.  She’s pretty fast too.  But I like fast, so -”

“Wow,” Shiro breathes.  “I’m kind of afraid to touch it.”

Keith claps the top of the hood.  “Don’t worry. After all, I wrecked your outfit, stole your phone, and am now holding it hostage.  I’d say that you’re allowed to dirty my car a little. I won’t even complain.”

Shiro chuckles as he slides with special care into the passenger seat.  It smells like coffee inside. Coffee and sugar and Shiro is incredibly charmed.

“How are the burns?”  Shiro asks as he clicks his seat belt on and they’re on their way.

Keith laughs under his breath.  “You’re still worried about that?  Probably healed by now.”

“They looked painful...”

“How’d you feel about the interview?”

Shiro groans.  “Those wounds definitely haven’t healed yet.”

“It probably wasn’t as bad as you think.”

“Ugh.  No. So imagine this: I borrow this outfit from a friend because I don’t have one of my own.  But it’s a little tight, right? Matt’s pretty small and I’m...not. So I go into the interview room, panicking - you saw all of them sitting there, it was terrifying - and I’m a huge stuttering mess, easily the worst interview I’ve ever given, when the button pops off right in the middle of it and hits Akira square on the forehead.”  Shiro tries to laugh but it sounds pained so he quickly gives it up.  “His forehead ...”  Shiro says in despair.  “I basically assaulted him.”

Keith chuckles lowly and says in his softest most sympathetic tone,  “...I’m sure he understood.”

“...Ugh...  It was pretty bad,” Shiro murmurs, taking the look for pity.  “They were pretty gracious about it though.”

Keith scoffs lowly under his breath, his mood souring as he turns back to the front.  “No, they weren’t.”

“Hm?  What’s that?”

He lets out a small sigh.  “...I think you’re a good person, Shiro.  Some people don’t appreciate that, but I do.  In a world like we live in...they’d be crazy not to choose you.”

Shiro chuckles.  “If only you were hiring then.”

Keith snorts.  “Yeah, if only.”

“It’s alright.  I don’t have much experience or anything.  It was just fun to even get the interview.”

Keith watches him from his peripheral.  When Shiro catches his eyes, he smiles softly.  “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

“Oh, turn here,” Shiro says, pointing out the road.  “It’s around the corner here.”

Keith follows Shiro’s directions until they get there.  He pulls into the drive-thru that is blissfully empty.  “Want anything?”

“No, thank you.  I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I drank any coffee now.  I’m already still hopped up on nerves.”

Keith orders a coffee and a hot cocoa at the window, holding out the hot cocoa for him with a small smile.  “You don’t have to drink it,” he promises.

Shiro smiles as he grabs it and takes a sip.  “What is this?”

“Peppermint.  The little chocolate bits are seasonal, but they’re my favorite.  No caffeine. My mom used to get it for me when I couldn’t sleep.”

Shiro smiles to himself.  “Wow. It’s good.”

“Yeah.  I like it too.”

“So how did your interview go?”  Shiro asks, lowering his cup into his lap.  “Hopefully better than mine.”

“Mine?  Uh. Well, I doubt any interview story could trump yours.  That’s a gem. It’ll probably be passed down their family for generations.”

Shiro groans as he leans his head back on the head rest.  He laughs though. “Augh, don’t say such a horrible thing.  You’re going to make me snort this drink.”

“Is that another one of your special talents?”

“Nooo,” Shiro laughs and Keith joins in.

There’s an ease between them that feels suspiciously like good chemistry.  They talk to each other the whole way - nothing serious, just shallow chit chat, but Shiro’s never felt so warm.  It feels so natural, like they’ve been doing this for years now, just the two of them, and it’s all too soon that Keith is pulling into Matt’s driveway.

Shiro knows Matt’s probably brimming over the top with anxiousness.  And, right as he thinks it, Matt is already poking his head out the door and frowning at the unfamiliar car.

“Your friend looks way too suspicious,” Keith snorts, leaning on his steering wheel and laughing into his fingers.

“Matt will make a great old man.  He looks like he’s about to yell at us to get off his lawn or something.”

Keith laughs harder.  “It really does.”

“Granted, I did tell him I’d call him like...four hours ago and just never did.  So I’d probably be a little put out too if I were him. Maybe he thinks it’s my kidnapper coming to request the ransom.”

“He cares for you.  That must be nice.”

“Yeah, in all honesty, he’s the best,” Shiro says.  “But I’ll be off now. Can’t keep you forever.”

Keith smiles up at him at that, like maybe, if Shiro were to ask, he just might agree to it.

“Thanks for the ride.  I mean it.”

“...Yeah.  Of course.”  Keith looks down at his hands and bites at his lip as Shiro unbuckles himself and pushes the door open.  Before he even takes his first step out, Keith says quickly, leaning over in his seat, “Um... I dunno if this is too forward, but, ah, would it be too much to ask for your phone number?  Is that weird?”

Shiro blinks twice in surprise as he turns back.  Keith looks so earnest and vulnerable, but how silly...  Of course he could ask that. “...I’ll tell you what,” Shiro says.  “I’ll do you one better: you can just grab it from my phone you’re holding hostage.  There’s no lock.”

“Oh, god,” Keith chokes, pressing a hand over his embarrassed face.  “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. I totally forgot.”

“I’m teasing you.  Of course you can have it.  As long as I can get yours.”

“Here,” Keith says.  He takes a pen out from the center console and grabs Shiro’s hand.  “My personal cell. Don’t give it away, alright? This is just for you.”

“Why would I give it away?”  Shiro tilts his head.

Keith presses his lips together in a private smile.  “It was really nice meeting you today, Shiro. Tell your friend I’ll pay for a new outfit for him.  And for you. I’m really sorry for ruining your day.”

“You didn’t ruin it,” Shiro says as he steps out.  He turns to watch Keith, who’s smiling calmly back at him.  “And really, I should be thanking you. If you hadn’t come, I’d still be waiting at the bus stop wondering why the bus wasn’t coming.  Being a popsicle isn’t my idea of an ideal night.”

Keith laughs.  It’s somehow both soft and rough at the same time; the sweet sound lights something in Shiro’s stomach.

Shiro admits lowly, “Also, I was kinda down...and you helped cheer me up.  So thank you. I totally blew that interview.”

“No, you didn’t,” Keith smiles gently.

“Worst interview in the whole world.”

“No,” Keith laughs.  “Trust me.”

“A button popped off my shirt and hit him on the face.  That sort of thing only happens in movies.  And not even good movies. Bad movies.”

Keith’s laughter just builds.  “An impressive shot. Hey, not everyone can burst a shirt just by wearing it.  That’s a gift.”

“Don’t even try to pretend that it wasn’t the most mortifying thing you’ve ever heard.  I think I could hear the explosions going off in the distance. If you had been listening closely enough, you would’ve definitely been able to make them out.”

They both laugh.  “Yeah. Yeah, okay, it was pretty bad.”

“The worst,” Shiro corrects.

“Absolutely dreadful.”

Horrifying.”

Shiro’s just hanging over the door, laughing with Keith.  He feels like he could stay here all night and time would go by as if it were nothing.  He sighs as he sees Matt still waiting by the door, as he thinks about how long he’s left Keith’s car idling.  He’s heard it’s not good for the engine.

“Maybe I’ll see you again sometime,” Shiro says on soft breath.

“I’ll deliver your phone,” Keith promises quickly.  “Call me tomorrow. I’ll have it back by then. I’ll get it first thing in the morning.”

“Nah, it’s not that important.  Just when you have time.”

Keith tosses him an amused crooked smile.  “First thing in the morning.”

They smile at each other.  He could stay here all night.  He really could. Shiro doesn’t want to pull away, but the night is getting late.  The sky is dark and splattered with stars. They stay there for another moment longer, letting it stretch, sitting in the other’s presence.

“Okay,” Shiro whispers.  He taps on the door for a second longer before facing reality.  He’s got to go. “...Thanks for the ride. See you, Keith. Soon.”

“Yeah.  Definitely.  ...See you, Shiro.”

Shiro closes the door and Keith pulls out of the driveway.  With one last wave, he drives off.

Shiro feels that tug, like he should follow him.  ...He hasn’t liked anyone like this in a long, long time.  Maybe ever. And he just met him.

He sighs.

He forgot to thank him for the hot chocolate.  What an ass...

The sounds of footfall approach and Matt gasps scandalously beside him.  “Who on earth was that?”

A smile builds on Shiro’s face.  He stares at the fading tail lights as they’re swallowed up by the darkness of night.  “Today has been concurrently both the worst and best day of my life,” he says. “Let’s go inside.  I’ll tell you all about it.”

Chapter Text

Lance is standing in front of the fireplace, both hands clutching to the seam of his shirt. “And it’s already turning out to be a disaster and it can’t get any worse, right?  When boom!”  With one exaggerated movement, he rips his shirt wide open.  “His shirt explodes off his chest in a mighty burst of torn stitches and the button shoots like a bullet across the room, hitting his beloved, dearest Akira right smack dab in the middle of his angelic little forehead.  He falls to the floor, clutching at his now-disfigured face.  Shiro’s ruined everything for legions of fans. A tragedy.”

Lance tries to talk around tears as he laughs so loudly the sound bounces off the walls.  Pidge and Hunk are sitting on the chairs across from him, howling and clutching at their stomachs.

“Did he really fall out of his chair?”  Hunk manages to sputter.

Shiro aims for a patient smile around his heated embarrassed cheeks.  “No.  ...His mom caught him.”

Pidge collapses on the side of the chair as she shrieks.  Tears are streaming down her face. She tries to force words out, but she can’t manage it around her choked laughter.

Lance continues.  “And Akira’s uncle, at the sight of such tragedy, is like, ‘oh, hell no! ’  And rips Shiro’s interview sheet up to ribbons, tossing it in Shiro’s face.”

“He did not.  All he did was put an ‘x’ across the page with a pen and that’s it.”

Somehow this makes it even funnier to them.  They’re laughing way too hard.

“It’s not that funny.”  Shiro huffs and grabs a sweater off the counter.  They can’t stop laughing long enough to give him a response.  “Matt, can I borrow your sweater? You have all the nicest clothes.”

“And somehow!”  Lance continues.  “Somehow, he manages to get a date out of it.  I can’t wait to get a load of this guy.”

“Yeah, go ahead, Shiro,” Matt calls around fixing his own suit.  “As long as you don’t burst out of this one too.”

Shiro groans.  “Not you too. Spare me, please.  That suit was a tight fit.  We should’ve known we were tempting fate.  This sweater is comfy and spacious and warm .”

“Another condition for borrowing my clothes from now on: stay away from coffee boy’s coffee,” Matt raises an amused eyebrow.

“Stop!”  Shiro agonizes as he struggles to get his head through the top of Matt’s sweater.  “You guys are killing me! And it’s not a date! Stop saying that! He’s literally just dropping off the jacket and my phone.  That’s it.  He might not even knock.  Maybe he’ll just dump it on the doorstep and run.”

Hunk says, “yeah, but I mean, you’re getting all dressed up for it.  What’s that about?”

Shiro frowns at him from his place tangled up in Matt's sweater.

And the number on your hand?  No one just writes their number on someone else’s hand in letters all loopy like that if they’re not already in love.”  Lance wiggles his eyebrows and leans in with intention.

“We don’t even know each other’s last name!”  Shiro gripes.

“Doesn’t it kind of look like Akira’s handwriting?”  Pidge says. “It does, doesn’t it?”

Matt looks over to do a proper assessment.  His face slowly builds into a grin. “It’s the curls.”

“The curls,” Hunk clasps his hands together.  “Oh, young love!”

They’re all tossing their arms over each other and singing offkey the worst love songs they know.  Shiro frowns as he looks down at Matt’s sweater. This one fits him, right?   Right?

Pidge is still laughing.  “Help me understand how this all worked out.  Was he like, ‘oh, man, I love disasters’ and just followed you out after the interview?”

“Maybe he’s a coffee addict,” Lance snaps his fingers.  “And he was turned on by the sight of coffee on clothes.  The whole thing was a setup. He pours coffee on people on purpose.”

“The fiend!”  Pidge laughs.

Shiro calls upon his patience.  “Guys, come on. He had more coffee on his shirt than me.”

Lance says, “So maybe you love disasters.  You know, I don’t get it.  I always try to hook you up with prime people.  I choose them with a lot of care, you know. And you look over all of them and choose coffee boy!   Coffee boy.  He can’t even hold two cups, Shiro!”

Matt says as he pulls his jacket over his shoulders, “You should’ve seen him.  It was kinda freaky. He looks like Akira. Except his hair’s different. And no piercings.”

“You guys are funny.  He is...absurdly beautiful,” Shiro nods to himself.  “But Keith has a scar. Across his face, right here,” he traces the line over his own.  "If he was Akira, you'd see it."

“Uh oh,” Lance snorts.  “He isn’t perfect like your beautiful Akira.”

“Don’t even start.  He is really really beautiful.  A special kind of beauty.  He could be a movie star too...”

The doorbell rings and their excitement spikes through the roof.  Everyone jumps to get it.

“No!”  Shiro holds them back, hands outstretched in front of him like they’re a herd of wild animals.  “Not this time! No more humiliating me this morning!”

“Oh, come on, Shiro!”  They agonize. Pidge tosses her head back and groans.  Lance is standing on top of the couch, trying to get a look outside.  Hunk even says, “I’ll make you dinner for the next two weeks if you let us get the door.  We promise not to humiliate you. We won’t even say anything, we’ll just stare.”

It’s tempting.  So tempting. Hunk’s cooking is to die for.  But Shiro shakes his head, points a stern finger at all of them and shushes them all.  Turning cautiously, he opens the door with slow care, trying to be cool, but nerves are settled in the base of his stomach and cool isn’t in his vocabulary right now.

And there he is.  Keith. The sun is rising in the open field behind him.  His face is bright and eyes are glittering like stars in the morning’s fresh chill.  A little puff of breath graces the air as he sees Shiro and breathes a sigh of relief.

Shiro swallows hard.  Keith's nose is red. Set against the pale of his face, it’s unbelievably cute.

Hey,” Shiro says.  “Good morning.”

Keith’ grin razes into Shiro's  heart like the sun. “Good morning yourself.  I was worried I got the wrong house. Everything looks different during the day and I actually wasn’t even sure if I had the right neighborhood.”

Shiro laughs brightly.  “It’s me.”

Keith smiles crookedly.  “It’s you. And look at you.  You clean up nicely. Your sweater’s not brown today.”

“As long as you don’t have any coffee to spill on me, you mean.”

Keith laughs and nods to his hands.  “Uh... Actually...”

Shiro had been so distracted by Keith’s face and smile that he hadn’t even noticed the two cups that are held secure between mittens.  He holds them both out to Shiro. “For you. I wasn’t sure what you wanted, so I got coffee in one hand and hot chocolate in the other.”

“One for my shirt and for my pants.”  Shiro laughs and takes them.  “Thanks, Keith.”

He can feel his friends pushing in on him from behind, but he’s big enough to hold them back and ignore them.  He elbows one in the eye and hears a small yelp, but he doesn’t even feel guilty.

“You look nice,” Keith says again.

“I’ve got to go back to my old job and beg them to take me back.  Probably should’ve done this differently now that I think about it.  I made this whole grand dramatic exit, slamming my papers to the desk and saying their job wasn’t worthy of me and that they didn’t deserve me.   I sure am going to be embarrassed when I’m groveling at their feet.”  He sighs and tries to pass it off as a laugh.

Keith watches him steadily, thoughts behind his eyes.  “Someone like you should never grovel. ...Maybe you won’t have to.  Maybe you got the job.”

“Mmm,” Shiro raises his eyebrows and laughs.  “Uh huh. I think I’d have to question their sanity if they did that.  I hope you get it instead. As long as you don’t trip and douse hot coffee on Akira.  Then they’d have to put a hit out on both of us.”

Keith just smiles.  Despite the cold, his face looks so so warm.  Shiro only now notices the bag that he’s holding over his arm as he shrugs it off and holds it out for Shiro.  “Delivery. For your friend and you, as an apology for yesterday. And your phone,” he says, fishing it out of his pocket and passing it over to Shiro.

“Oh, thanks,” Shiro hums happily as he shifts the coffee and hot chocolate into one arm and grabs the stuff with the other.  “Here, I’ll give it to Matt,” he says, turning to hand it off. Lance grabs it as he tries to use Shiro’s shoulder to jump up and over to see.

Keith arches an eyebrow.  “Uh...”

“Ah.  Ignore them.  They’re just -”

“I just want to meet him!”  Lance agonizes.

He pushes Lance’s face away.  “No. Get back.” He turns to Keith.  “I’m so sorry. My friends. They’re animals.  Rabid. Gotta be held back.”

Keith laughs softly.  “Well, I’ve got to get to work anyway, but call me later.”  His face begins to grow red as he shuffles his feet and clasps at his mittens.  “Or maybe I’ll call you or, um - whatever’s easiest.”

Yes,” Shiro breathes.  “Yeah, of course. Either way is good.  Either way is perfect.”

“I mean, we have each other’s number, so really...we could both text.  Or call. If you like calling.”

Shiro looks down at his hand to make sure the numbers are still there.  He washed around them and also wrote them down on the notepad beside his bed, but you can never be too careful.  “Okay, good. Yeah, either of us.”

“I already put my number in your phone,” Keith blushes and looks down at Shiro’s feet, obviously embarrassed.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

“N-no.  Why would I mind?”

Matt pats Shiro on the shoulder and nods his head to his car.  “I hate to break this up, but I’ve got to go to work pretty soon.”

“Ah, I’ll move,” Keith says.  But he stays there for a second longer, smiling at Shiro shyly.  “...Bye.”

“Thanks, Keith.  I owe you.”

“You owe me nothing.  Talk to you later.”

Keith walks off and slips into his car.  Lance, Hunk, and Pidge slide beneath Shiro’s arm to peer out.  “Wow. That was awkward,” Hunk says.

“It was sweet,” Pidge hums.  “He’s obviously as smitten as you,” she looks up to Shiro.

“Did you see that?  He gave my jacket and phone back.”  Shiro breathes, clutching his coffee to his chest as he continues to stare down the road where Keith drove off.  “He also got me coffee and hot chocolate.  He’s... He’s so nice.  ”

“And - holy shit,” Matt’s voice shakes as he digs through the bag.  “Holy shit.  Shiro.  Look at these suits he got us.”

Shiro turns and blinks.  He chokes. There’s a suit for Matt and then one for Shiro, slightly bigger than what he had been wearing.  They look nice. Even nicer than Mr. Family Friend’s yesterday. Nicer than anything he’s ever seen.

“Look at these babies,” Lance whistles lowly as he hops over to the suits and starts feeling them like they were crafted for kings.  “Can I borrow these?”

“No,” Matt says, snatching them away from him and ignoring his complaints.

Hunk marvels over them in wonder, “Someone’s got money.”

“As if the car we just saw pulling away didn’t already tell us that,” Pidge hums, but her face is shoved up to the stitching, looking as much in awe as the rest of them.  “How’d he get this in like...a night? It hasn’t even been twelve hours yet.”

“He’s so nice,” Shiro says quietly as he clings a bit tighter to the coffee.  A smile warms his face. He basically has hearts for eyes. “...I have to repay him somehow.”

“I think that’s sort of what this is,” Matt says.  “He’s trying to repay you.”  His old jacket is there too, looking ratty suddenly in comparison, but it’s freshly laundered and folded carefully.  “Okay. I’ve really got to go to work though so we’ll have to talk later. Don’t forget to thank him. From me too.”

“You’re right,” Shiro jumps at the chance, nearly dropping his phone as he slips it from his pocket.  There’s a few missed calls and one missed text. As his eyes skim over it quickly - his thoughts on more important things, like texting Keith - he stops.

He reads over the message on the screen once.  Twice. Again, more carefully. He blinks his eyes hard, gives them a practice roll and then looks back down.

It still says the same thing.

He gapes down at it in shock.

Matt’s slipping his shoes on as he sees Shiro freeze.  He frowns, looking back. “What? Did he get you a new phone too?”

“...I got the job,” Shiro says faintly.  His senses are in shock. He can barely manage to talk.

“What?”  Matt frowns, looking over his shoulder.  “What job?”

Everyone goes quiet with confusion.  They crowd around Shiro, looking over his shoulder.

“They want me to start tomorrow.”  Shiro tries to force breath through his lungs to speak.  “I got the job.”

Pidge asks in disbelief.  “Not...not the interview you just did?  For Akira?”

Hunk blinks, eyes wide.  “Are you kidding? You’re kidding, aren’t you?  You can’t be serious.”

“Holy shit...”  Lance whispers. “You did it...?  You did it!”

Disbelief is on all of their faces as they stare down at the phone in Shiro’s hand.  It sits there innocently, the message clear as day for them all to see.

“I got the job,” he says again.  Maybe if he says it enough, it’ll make sense.  “I got the job.”

 

The first week of working with Akira is a journey.

Shiro starts fast.  The very next day after the text, he’s pulling into the parking garage, trying to quell the nervous butterflies in his stomach.  He fumbles with the code and watches as the large metal door slides up for him to drive inside.

...High tech.

He was thinking, when Matt first pulled the fancy suits out from the bag Keith had given them, that he was probably never actually going to use something so nice.  But he wears it now and it fits perfectly.  Form fitting in all the places it’s meant to be form fitting, and the pants and arm length actually fits the length of his limbs.  And god, how is it so comfortable while still looking so damn good? Whoever Keith used to tailor this must've been some sort of magician.

Shiro feels like a whole new person, fresh and invigorated.  His grin feels brighter.

The receptionist is there like before, typing away.  She smiles up at him when she sees him. “Hello, Shiro.  Congratulations on the job. Are you excited for your first day?”

“Yes,” he breathes, looking around again now that he’s here, a part of this.  The day seems brighter.  He’s still buzzing. “Thank you.”

“I’m Allura,” she hums, offering her hand.  “Welcome to your first day on the job. They’re really the nicest family.  I know the media likes to paint Akira as a bit of a bad boy and he likes to have fun with that, but he’s really the sweetest person.  You’re going to love him.”

He goes red as he remembers his mess up just yesterday.  He’s already admitted he loves Akira. At least Allura’s kind enough to not bring it up.  Or the shirt thing. Thank god for that.

“Kolivan will be training you, I think,” she hums, looking into her computer screen.  “Yes, that’s correct. If you go to the fourth floor and follow the plants, his room is just marked with his name.  He should be in there.”

He takes the elevator and it’s event-free this time.  The carpet looks nice and clean, but Shiro laughs a little as he gets a whiff of the smell of coffee.  As the door dings open, he follows the plants and finds the room Allura mentioned where Kolivan sits at the end at a desk, his back turned as he runs through paperwork.

Shiro knocks on the door.  When Kolivan turns and sees Shiro, he pauses for a moment and then lets out a huge disgruntled sigh.  “I see Keith got his way,” he grumbles under his breath. “Don’t tell me. They hired you. What’s your name again?”

“Shiro.”

“Right.”  He gestures tiredly for the seat beside him at the desk.  “Take a seat.”

Shiro does so and Kolivan resumes writing furiously, a divot in his brow.  He seems in no hurry to address Shiro, so Shiro aims to be patient. ...But he takes his damn time.  When it’s clear he’s being ignored, Shiro says as pleasantly as he can, “Thank you for accepting me for the job.  I’m excited to start.”

Kolivan doesn’t look up.  His voice rolls as he murmurs, “Trust me, it wasn’t me who hired you.  You have no experience in the field, stumbled over all your answers, you were the least qualified, you could’ve killed Akira.  I didn’t think it was a good idea.”

“...Oh,” Shiro says quietly.

“Don’t take it personally,” Kolivan sighs, side-eying him.  “It’s just he’s my nephew and it’s my job to protect him. I need to make sure everything around him works as smoothly as it can.  Apparently he doesn’t care about that though... Typical.”

He shifts the papers out of the way and turns to confront Shiro.  Everything in his posture is a challenge. He crosses his arms and leans back, but the tilt of his head and the pull of his lip makes Shiro feel like he’s confronting a mafia boss.  Shiro guesses that’s why Kolivan is Akira’s bodyguard. He wouldn’t want to cross him.

“I want to make things clear,” Kolivan says.  “We are a business, that’s true, but we do things a little differently here than most.  We’re a family first and foremost. If I think you’re going to pull that apart in some way, intentional or not, you’re gone.  If I think you’ll pose a threat to Akira in any way or form, you’re gone and I don’t care how.  I don’t care how much Akira whines and complains about it.  I don't care if the methods I use are legal. I really don’t.  Akira is my priority.  So try something. I dare you.  I promise you I’ll crush you.”

Shiro lets out a small shaky breath.  He nods shortly. “I respect that. I wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt Akira or any of you.  I want to be a help, not a nuisance.”

Kolivan watches him for a few more heavy moments before nodding slowly in approval.  “Good. As I’m sure you know, this job is just temporary. We’ll be here for a few months and in that time, you’ll mostly be fetching things for us around town or running errands or answering fan mail.  It’ll most likely be boring, tedious work. Are you sure you’re alright with that?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Right, well...  Let’s settle your pay then.  How does eighty dollars an hour sound?  You okay with that?”

Shiro chokes.  “Uh-uh? Did you say eighteen?”

“Eighteen?”  Kolivan frowns.  “No. Eighty.”

Shiro’s eyebrows shoot into the sky.  “That’s too much. That’s way too much.  I can’t accept that.”

Kolivan raises an eyebrow at Shiro as he leans onto the desk and writes a note down for himself.  “This is just starting wage.  So, eighty dollars an hour... Some days might run to fourteen hours if we’re on set, but we'll pay you double then.  We’ll probably keep you around here though.”

“R-right.  Yes. Sure.”

“Another thing: Akira’s a busy man.  He doesn’t need you gushing over him.  Just be cool.”

“Yes.  Definitely.  Yesterday was...purely nerves.  I’ll have a better hold of myself from now on.”  Shiro hopes and prays.

Kolivan’s unimpressed flat expression exudes doubt, but he says, “I’m counting on that.  We get it’s overwhelming meeting him. We do. But just make sure to do your job and treat everyone with respect and you and I will be alright.  Congrats on the job, by the way.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Just ‘Kolivan’ is fine.  Let me finish this up and then I can take you around for a tour.  I think if we -”

There’s a soft knock on the door that startles Shiro and footsteps that stride in from behind..

“Hey, Kolivan,” a familiar voice is saying.  “I was thinking for the Christmas thing, can you call them and tell them I’m not going -”

His eyes fall on Shiro.  He pauses mid-step.

Keith,” Shiro breathes and the tension just dissolves right out of him.

Keith’s eyes blow wide.  He stares for a few stunned moments like he can hardly believe it.  A smile slowly builds on his face as he takes Shiro in. “You came.”

“Well, I got the job,” Shiro grins brightly and chuckles.  “Just like you said. Did you too?”

Kolivan raises an eyebrow at Keith and Keith quickly shoots him a look in obvious familiarity.  Watching the two of them, Shiro pieces together some things he didn’t know before.  Keith knows them. Keith’s been working here.

Keith asks Kolivan, “Were you about to show him around?  I can do that for you. I know you’re busy.”

Kolivan bites on the end of his pen and fixes Keith with a steady gaze.  “And you’re not?”

“Cleared my schedule,” he says, promptly placing his notepad on Kolivan’s desk and sliding it over with a hopeful grin.  “I can take him for you.”

Kolivan raises his eyebrows at Keith and taps his pen to the notepad pointedly.  “How generous of you.”

Keith grins brighter as he shifts his weight so he’s leaning into the edge of Kolivan’s desk casually.  “You hate socializing, I hate busy work...”

Shiro would’ve never thought he’d see the day, but, much to his surprise, as Kolivan watches Keith, his lip begins to twitch into something that looks like fondness.

Keith knows a win when he sees one.  He turns brightly to Shiro. “Would you look at that?  I can be your guide if you don’t mind.”

“Why would I mind?”

Keith laughs and shrugs.  “Come on. I’ll show you around.  Thank you, Kolivan.”

“Mmhm,” Kolivan hums in that voice that sounds like the biggest eye roll.  He swivels back toward the table and gets back to work.

“You work here?!”  Shiro says with excitement as they leave the room and go down the hall.  He can’t believe his luck. This month just keeps getting better and better.  “You should’ve told me! I had no idea.”

“The car in the garage didn’t tip you off?”

“Ah, I was a little distracted yesterday.  I didn’t even think about it. I was just going with the flow.”

Keith chuckles.  “Look at you. That suit looks great on you.”

“Thanks,” Shiro hums, looking down at it.  “You got the size just right. It sure beats the coffee stains.”

Keith smiles.  “I told you it’d be alright.  Congrats on the job, Shiro. I’m looking forward to working with you.  I mean it.”

Shiro grins right back.  “Thanks. Me too. I have a feeling you might’ve had a hand in their selection.”

“I didn’t do anything, it was all you.  Your interview was good .  You were kind and sincere and open.  That’s the sort of person we need to work with.  Those are the things that count,” Keith says, but there’s a pleased sparkle in his eye that says that he definitely had a hand in it.

He turns and leads Shiro around to each of the rooms.  “Let’s start our tour. So you’ll be my assistant basically, all of our assistants.  We're not really the most conventionally run.  We’ll just call on you when we need something done.  We’re thinking you’ll be at this building most of the time.  This floor has all our personal rooms. You can see our names on the doors.  Krolia, Allura, Kolivan, Akira...” He says, reading them all off.

Shiro tilts his head, looking into Akira’s room as they pass by it.  Besides some dressers and chests, it’s mostly empty. Not a lot of personalizations.  There’s a small photo frame by the mirror and that’s about it.

“I’m not sure what I was expecting,” Shiro says.  “It’s so clean. Looks the same as Kolivan’s.”

“Oh, you mean like, you expected skulls and crossbones or empty pizza boxes and soda cans everywhere?”

“Feather boas and glitter?  Maybe like crowns hanging off the walls.  Streamers? I dunno.”

Keith laughs.  “Streamers.  Mm, no.  Maybe when we all get more settled in.  If you ever need anything, we’ll be more than happy to help.  Krolia is especially good to go to; she always knows what’s going on.  I know people avoid her because they think she’ll kill them if they approach, but she’s really just a teddy bear.  All you have to do is ask. Realistically though, all you’ll probably be doing is running to Starbucks for me a few times a day.  Answering fan mail. Getting clothes from the dry cleaners and bringing it to our house. But coffee is the real deal here.”

“You’re kind of obsessed with coffee, aren’t you?”  Shiro smiles down at him.

Keith goes a little red as he chuckles and scratches at his head.  “Sue me. I’ve got to stay awake somehow.  Though everyone complains that it’s an addiction at this point.”  He taps his finger to his lip as he looks around and thinks.

“The upper levels are just for meetings and stuff, but we won’t bore you with those.  The second floor has all the exercise equipment, a recording studio, a movie room. That sort of stuff.”

“A movie room?”

“Well, yeah.  It’s part of the business, right?  We might force you to watch some of Akira’s movies.  Maybe others. You’ll still get paid though.”

“Paid to watch Akira’s movies?”  Shiro can’t help but laugh incredulously.  “...Where has this job been all my life?”

Keith just watches him with a quiet smile and one eyebrow raised.  “How about it? Start you off with the fanmail?”

“I get to see?”

“If you’ll have it, you get to handle it all.”  He walks him down to the second floor, forgoing the elevator, and pushing into a wide open room with multiple tables and piles and piles of bags everywhere .

“Looks like Santa’s elves were here,” Shiro murmurs.

“Yeah.  God. Only half of it is coal.  There’s as much hate mail as fan mail.  We’ve been uh...kinda letting it pile up lately.  It gets wearing reading all day long honestly and since we’ve moved and with the new movie and all it’s just been...a lot.  Gotta do it in segments. But we’ve got different piles here. You just open it, read it, if it’s hate mail, honestly, just toss it.  There’s only so much time in a day, why bother with them? Though if it’s funny, give it to me.” He laughs, reaching for a letter and opening it.  His eyes look over the page and he hums, eyes softening the further they travel down the page. “Sometimes they’re really sweet... If they want a signed image, we have them already done here.”  He opens a drawer full of Akira prints, several different selections, but all signed in gold familiar ink.

“Whoa,” Shiro blinks at them.  The opened drawer releases the sun with its light.  He wants ten. “He really signed these, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, he did.  The ones you think stand out go into this pile,” he taps the sectioned off table.  “He’ll get to them. Sometimes he’ll send personalized responses.” He points out another section.  “Business mail here. We take threats seriously too. Those go here. Let Krolia know when you get them.  We notify the police.”

“Has anyone ever gone through with a threat?”

“Oh, yeah.  It freaks Krolia out.  Don’t tell her I said this, but sometimes they’re kinda funny though.  Like...people will literally take the time to cut out letters from magazines and be like, ‘I hate you so much.  You’re the bane of my existence, the mold in my basement, the enemy of all mankind and I’m going to kill you, Akira.  Prepare yourself for the fight of your life. I know karate.’ Those are funny. How much time do you think it took them to make that?  They’re so dedicated in their hatred. They can’t just leave it alone; they’ve got to bathe in it. You think they’d be able to do something better with their time.”

“That doesn’t freak Akira out...?”  Shiro never realized the extent of it.

Keith shrugs as he rolls his jaw.  “Sometimes, but he’s gotten it his entire life.  What’s the job without hate mail? Anyway, you feel okay doing this?  I’d stay and help you too, but it’s been busy lately.”

“Hence the job offering,” Shiro says, picking up a few envelopes, all hand-written, and marveling that so many different people all took the time to express their love like this.  He’s written in before too, of course. But seeing it... It’s so inspiring. He’s a part of this now. These were made for Akira and Shiro gets to see them.

Keith laughs.  “Exactly. Feel free to watch the t.v.  The remote is...god, it’s somewhere. Probably in one of the drawers,” he mutters as he goes through them.  “Well. It’s somewhere.”

“It’s alright.  I don’t need the t.v.”

“Okay, cool, because I don’t think you’re going to get it,” Keith chuckles.  “Anyway, just use your own discretion. Any questions and I’ll be...” he waves his hands in the air, “somewhere in the building.  You good?”

“Perfect,” Shiro says.  “It sounds fun.”

Keith laughs and raises his eyebrows.  “We’ll see what you’ll be saying two hours from now.  Take breaks. There’s food in the break room right outside Kolivan’s room.  Have fun if you can.”

Shiro just smiles.  Keith hangs by the door for a few more seconds, like he wants to say something else but doesn’t know what.  He lets out another small laugh, pushes himself off the door and leaves.

And honestly, sorting through the fanmail is one of the most interesting things Shiro has ever done.  It feels like such a privilege to be here on the other side, reading letters meant for Akira. No one else gets to see this.

Half of it isn’t coal, like Keith said.  Most of it is resoundingly positive, as it should be, and the few that are grudging and spit venom, Shiro has no problems with just tossing away.  Their negativity is groundless, clearly they know nothing about Akira. And the day just flies by.

Shiro is still sorting through it, hours later, when Krolia comes in to introduce herself.

She has the same look on her face that Kolivan had, but she smiles as she approaches.  “Hello, Shiro. Keith told me he got you all set up down here. I’m Krolia,” she says, offering her hand.  He blinks away stardust at the sight of her. She’s so beautiful; she looks like a god. Shiro puts down the letter in his own hand and shakes hers.  He tries to keep his grip firm, but hers is firmer. “How’s your first day going?”

“Good,” he breathes, turning his eyes away from her light, a little flustered.  “Really good. You get so many letters; it’s so great to get the chance to read them all.”

“Yeah, that’s an understatement.  Just make sure you let me know if you see any threats and -”  She stops. “...Is this - Did you do all of these already?”

Shiro turns and looks at what he’s already sorted through.  “Yes?  I wasn’t sure what to do with this pile when it got too high, so I started stacking them next to it.”

She shakes her head slowly, looking over them all.  She grabs a few to check them. A small smile forms on her lips.  “...You’ve been working hard. Did you make sure to take breaks?”

“Oh, I...  I got so into them, I sort of forgot.”

“Hm.  You should remember to take breaks.  We’re not machines. Why don’t you take the rest of the day for yourself?”

“I can keep going.”

The light in her eyes looks pleased.  She claps a hand to his shoulder and nods him out.  “It’s better to pace yourself. You’ve done a good job today.  Well done.”

His chest fills with pride.  Akira’s mother is happy with the work he’s done.  This is the best day of his life. He was so sure today would just be a repeat of his interview and he was ready to accept full responsibility for all his mistakes.  He’s still not entirely sure if this is a dream or something, and then he’ll just wake up and realize he hasn’t even started his first day.

But wow.  What a nice dream.

The first week goes by stunningly well.  They’re thoughtful with how much they load onto Shiro’s shoulders, not letting him drown.  Keith is Akira’s assistant, and Shiro’s Keith’s assistant. And it all works out perfectly.  Akira’s not in the office often and, when he is, Shiro’s usually downstairs anyway. Shiro’s afraid for the day they’ll interact again.  He doesn’t get to see Keith as much as he’d like, but the pay is amazing and the feeling he had before in that office - like chains squeezing the life out of his lungs - it’s gone here.  Completely.

He almost dares to think he’s comfortable here.  That is, until Shiro’s coming back to Krolia’s room to hand her some papers she wanted and he hears her and Regris arguing.

I told you not to make additional plans.  I can’t take him.”

“Well, I can’t do it either.  I can’t just cancel this.”

“And Kolivan -?”

“He’s securing the diner.  It’s already flooded.”

“Well if neither of us can take him then -”

Shiro walks in and they both turn to him, assessing him.  He slows, placing the papers hesitantly on her desk. “...Everything alright?”  He asks cautiously.

Krolia leans her head into her hand and sighs.  “Akira’s been left stranded and no one can pick him up.”  She hesitates, moody look in her eyes as she asks, “Can you do it?”

“Uh.  A-Akira...?”  Shiro mutters, pressing his lips together tightly.  They all know what happened last time he saw him. “Maybe Keith can -”

“Look,” Krolia says lowly, grudging building up on her shoulders.  “I know you’re nervous around him. If you want to work here, you’re going to have to get over it.  I promise he doesn’t bite.”

Bite.  Shiro’s face goes red as he fights the thought away under Krolia’s intense gaze.  “R-Right...”

“No one else can do it,” Krolia repeats again, her confidence beginning to lower by the second.

Regris raises an eyebrow.  “Will that be a problem?”

“No!  No, not at all, I just...”  He already feels his insides tightening up.  He’s going to fuck this up somehow, he just knows it.  “It’s fine... Where is he?”

“I’ll send you the address,” Regris murmurs, messing with his phone.

“R-right.”

Krolia’s watching Shiro through sharp wary eyes.  “Just drive carefully with my son...”

“Of course.  Of course I will.”  But his face already feels warm with panic.

Shiro bites his lip the entire drive there, white knuckling the steering wheel.  Oh, this is bad. This is so so bad. He hasn’t even been able to meet up with Akira since he’s been hired.  He’s seen him once or twice down a hallway or hanging out in Krolia’s room and Shiro was quick to make a speedy u-turn.  It’s safer that way, but he knows it’s wrong. Did he even properly apologize after The Incident?

Now’s the time to change things.

Akira’s waiting on the curb of some tall building, hoodie pulled over his head and neck bowed.  No one seems to notice him, but he looks suspicious just standing there, hunched slightly, loitering.  He’s kicking rocks off the sidewalk in dead boredom.

Shiro pulls to the curb and Akira perks his head up.

“Hey,” Akira’s lips pull into a crooked grin as Shiro steps out of the car and looks over at him.  “They didn’t tell me they’d be sending you.”

“H-hi.  I, um. Hi.”  Shiro stops.  Does he run around the front and open the car door for Akira?  That’d be only right, wouldn’t it? How much does Akira like doing for himself though?  How much does he expect out of others? Which one has the highest opportunity to not insult Akira more?

Akira settles Shiro’s internal argument and opens the door himself, stepping in casually.  He just plops himself down on the seat like it’s something he’s always done. He holds his hands out to the heater.  Shiro slowly sits back onto his seat and stares at Akira in all his beauty.

He’s here.  Sitting in Shiro’s small cheap car that Lance has spilled soda on so many times.  Shiro just vacuumed up the crumbs in the cracks and scrubbed out the mysterious little black mark on the edge.  And here is Akira, leaning forward in the seat, warming himself on Shiro’s shitty heater that’s putting out as much cold air as hot.

Akira seems to sense Shiro’s stare and he tilts his head to grin back at him.

“Sorry about making you come all this way.  I know you were busy. I was going to just take the bus, but I tried that recently and got swarmed for two whole hours for a ten minute ride.  I promised myself to never do that again.”

“A-ah.  ... Yeah.”

Akira clears his throat and nods toward the road.  “Gonna close the door?”

Oh, yeah.  Shiro’s door is still gaping wide open, probably like his mouth as he stares.

He scrambles to close it and it slams so loudly that it shakes the vehicle.

Be cool, he tries to tell himself inside.  Akira’s just human. He’s just human and if Keith can handle him then Shiro sure can at least try. And -

Akira digs through his pockets and pulls out a crumpled piece of paper.  He leans in close to show Shiro. Dangerous. He smells so damn good. That same smell as earlier.  Coffee and sugar and oh, god, Shiro gets a big whiff of it and it’s just filling his lungs and his brain and his heart -  “Can you take me here?” he asks, turning his eyes up to Shiro. “It’s an old diner, we’re going to use it for filming and I need to sign some stuff.  I hear it’s pretty popular around here.”

Shiro nods quickly.  “Yeah, I-I recognize.”  He realizes delayed that he forgot a word.  “It.  I recognize it.”

Akira smiles slightly up at him, and then shifts back in his seat.  “Cool. Thanks.” He turns away to look out the window. Maybe give Shiro some space to breathe.

And Shiro needs it.  He definitely needs it.  He takes one deep breath to try to focus and then he slowly, carefully pulls into the road and out.

He tries to pretend it’s just him in the car.  Just him and maybe Keith or Matt or Pidge, but definitely not Akira.  He tries not to even think of Akira.

Beyond listening to Akira’s music, Shiro isn’t a huge music person and he forgets to turn on the radio like someone who is actually normal.  They sit in crisp bloated silence. It’s so awkward and Shiro is painfully aware of how it stabs at him he can hardly focus on the road. Akira keeps his elbow against the door, staring outside and Shiro keeps his hands plastered to the steering wheel, trying his best to focus on the road , focus on driving , focus on not killing the precious cargo here.

He’s sort of managing, getting through it, when Akira hums and stabs his finger to the window.  “Is that a Starbucks? Can we go? Do you mind?”

“N-nope.  No. We can go,” he says and forgets that slowing down is a thing as he makes a sudden sharp turn into the parking lot.

Whoa,” Akira breathes and grabs onto the side of the seat to keep himself from jerking into the door.  He bites at his lip to hold in his laughter. It only half works. “Cars usually have brakes.”

Right.  Yeah, they totally do.  I swear I have my license.”

“Oh, god,” Akira laughs into his hand.  “I didn’t think you didn’t, but now that you mention that, I have this impending sense of doom.”

Oh, god.  Shiro’s starting to feel that prickling in his fingers again.  The emptiness rising up and blotting out the sense of his brain.  He tries to press it all down - all that stupid useless anxiety he knows is just in his head but -

“I’m kidding, Shiro,” Akira hums lowly and then sighs, looking away again.

The barista is asking for his order.  He clears his throat, realizes he never asked Akira what he wanted, and then looks over with wide panicked eyes.

Akira is so fucking beautiful.  So majestic. It’s like seeing a unicorn appear out of a forest in a world where magic isn’t supposed to exist.  He gets lost in that face.

“Your order?”  Shiro croaks.

“Could I get a venti whole milk, quad shot, no foam latte with caramel drizzle?”

Shiro blinks and breathes.

Akira clears his throat.  “Uh...maybe just a caramel latte?”

Shiro can handle that.  As Shiro recites it, Akira hands him his phone.  Shiro stares down into it. “Do you... You want me to...call -?”

“For payment,” Akira says, gesturing toward the window.

“Oh.  Oh, right.”

Akira chuckles.  “You just download the app.  It’s easier.”

Shiro hums.  He’s buzzing.  This is a nightmare.  Why can’t he just be cool, dammit?  Why does he have to suck?

They hand Shiro the coffee and he hands it off to Akira.  That goes well. He doesn’t spill it. But then he forgets that he had given the barista Akira’s phone for payment and almost leaves without Akira’s damn cell phone.  He has to hit the brakes so hard that their heads jerk.

Akira seems to find all of these things far too amusing, but Shiro is horrified and it’s only getting worse and he really really can’t wait to get back to the office and just not be in this situation, but he still has to make it to the diner and he’s not even sure if he can.  He accidentally takes a turn too sharp again and Akira’s coffee slips from the top and gets on his jacket.

Dammit .

“Ah...”  Akira sighs in dismay, rubbing a hand over the spill.  “Do you have napkins anywhere?”

I’m so sorry.”

“No, really -”

And with the button the other day , and now I’ve ruined your shirt -”

“-Shiro, it’s fine.”

“I’m being annoying.  I know I’m being annoying.  I can’t stop. I’m sorry.”

“Shiro -”

“And I just -”

Okay.  Okay, watch the road -”

“I can’t breathe -”

“Okay, just -”  Akira grabs Shiro’s hand on the steering wheel and holds firm.  “The brake. The brake. Press gently. On the brake.”

Shiro does so.  He can’t think beyond the hand on his hand, skin touching skin.  But he can listen to commands. The car slows and Akira steers them to the side of the road.  He takes in a deep slow breath. Shiro sounds like he’s been racing the past few miles. His lungs are heaving.

“Just take deep breaths...”  Akira says lowly. Shiro’s head is leaning down, turned toward his legs, so he can’t see Akira and it actually kind of helps.  He pretends the voice he’s hearing is Keith’s and his anxiety slowly drifts away.

“Sorry,” Shiro whispers as he slowly gets a hold of himself.  “I’m wrong for this job. I’m all wrong; you should just fire me.  I do this.  I used to do this all the time and I thought it stopped, but apparently it didn’t.  I don’t have control over myself sometimes.”

“It’s my fault,” Akira says lowly.  “I shouldn’t have made you stop.”

“I think a coffee stop is a perfectly alright thing to ask for.”  His hands are shaking as he wipes them across his face. “I shouldn’t drive you.  I’m going to get us both killed.”

“...Okay,” Akira says and his voice sounds so sad.  “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. I understand.”

He sniffs and takes his phone out, desperate to reach the one person he feels he can trust here.  “Let me call Keith and I can -”

Akira’s hand goes tightly over Shiro’s, stopping his movement.  “No. Don't. I can drive, if that’s alright. If you don’t mind?”

Warm.  His hands are so warm.  Akira’s grip is firm. It’s strong.

Shiro shakes his head as Akira eases his hold over him.  “Why would I mind?” Shiro breathes out.

He’s brave enough to look up into Akira’s face and, honestly, he doesn’t feel quite as panicked as before.  Akira’s watching him carefully, but he looks sad, like he had failed somehow and not the other way around. “Okay,” Akira whispers.  “Let’s switch then.”

They trade places and Akira puts the car into gear and pulls out onto the road smoothly.  He drives the rest of the way. Shiro feels totally and completely lame as he sits there, having Akira do the job he’s supposed to do.

“I don’t think I should get paid for today,” Shiro says as he stares pointedly out the window.

Akira snorts.  “That’s too bad.  We’re using up your time; of course we’re still paying you.”

“It’s too much.  I’m not even being helpful, I’m being the opposite  -”

“Of course you’re being helpful.  Give it time,” Akira says softly. “If you think you’re the first person to get nervous around me, then you couldn't be more wrong.  ...Most people do.”

“I’m sorry,” Shiro whispers again.

Akira just takes a deep breath.  “You don't have to apologize to me.  Seriously. Where’s the turn off again?”

Shiro’s able to direct him, but he’s quiet beyond that.  When they get there, his nerves spike.

Shiro’s been here at the diner before, many times, but not like this.  Never like this. He hasn’t been checking the forums like usual, but apparently everyone else has because it looks as if the entire city is here.  There’s a border holding people back, but it’s like they’re bulging over the margin, a sea of too many people.

“Okay,” Akira whispers to himself as he looks over at the crowds.  He bites at his lip for a second and then turns his eyes over to Shiro’s.  They shine in the light like white flame. “You ready?”

Shiro nods.

He didn’t realize what he’d agreed to when he nodded though, not really.  When Akira pushes the door open and gets out of the car, everyone’s attention slams right over them, and everyone begins to scream.

And Shiro flinches back.  He’s seeing it again. Seeing what he’s tried so hard to push away.  Memories of people crowded around him, asking him what he did wrong, if he’s alright.  And he’s not. He’s not.

It’s so much energy.  So much.  Shiro’s not used to it, not from this viewpoint.  Usually, he’s on the other side. It’s all being poured out and directed at Akira.  They’re just screaming for him. They’re crying, tears streaming down their faces.

And Akira raises his hands, waving to them and grinning.  And Shiro just watches him.

How is Akira smiling through all of this?  How is he doing it? Shiro thinks Akira is even more amazing than he originally thought.

They’re pushing at each other, trying to reach over the line, shoving their posters at him, a pen jabbed at him with the other hand.  Screaming. A lot of screaming.

Shiro takes a step back.

...And Akira takes a step forward.  He grins, leaning into a fan and posing, taking photos with some.  Even though he’s swallowed by the crowd, he does not become apart of it.  He is very clearly a god in the middle of the torrential storm. He grabs a pen and signs a few things quickly, trying to get to as many as he can as he mingles with the crowd.

There are flashing lights.  There are people shouting at Shiro, asking for his name.  His shoulder aches. His stomach clenches. He has to close his eyes for a few moments to get ahold of himself.

When Shiro turns back to Akira, he sees his two purple eyes staring back, mid-signature.  Akira quickly finishes it and then turns from the crowd, walking over. He yells over the noise, leaning into Shiro’s space as the cameras began to flash madly, “Kolivan came ahead and tried to secure the place.  He's just inside; I’ll be okay from here on out.”  He looks across the crowd, eyes as cool and used to it as ever. He turns them back on Shiro, assessing him. “If it’s too much and you think you’re okay to drive, you’re free to leave.”

“I think I might wait a bit...”  Shiro says honestly. He can’t call Matt to bail him out and he doesn’t trust himself right now.

“Then follow me.  It’ll be quieter inside.”

And it is, a bit.  Shiro recognizes some of the diner’s normal crew, but there are a lot of other people here from Akira’s side and they’re all talking about things Shiro has no clue about.  Akira is briskly swept away so Shiro slips away into a safe corner by himself, sitting in a booth.

It feels like a small safe haven in the middle of hell honestly.  Shiro feels so drained. He doesn’t know how Akira does it. He doesn’t know how anyone does.  God, he’s getting a migraine.

He takes his phone out and goes to message Matt or one of the others, but then he thinks twice about it.  He’s not ready to be made fun of again right now. He knows they don’t mean it, but he’s still burning with embarrassment and today, he’s kind of down about it.  He doesn’t even want to think about it really.

He bites his lip and chooses a different contact.  He messages Keith instead.

Are you busy?  Shiro texts.

He doesn’t have to wait long before there’s a reply.  Nope.   What’s up?

I almost just killed Akira and I think I’m going to die from embarrassment So if I never see you again I just wanted you to know why.

Don’t tell me, Keith texts.  You flexed and had another button incident .

Shiro snorts and then sighs.  This is serious, Keith.  I’m probably going to be fired for real this time.

You worry too much.  Akira doesn't care and he's not going to say anything to anyone else.  Besides, I’ve heard Krolia saying good things about you. You’re already in the club.  That’s all it takes.

Shiro looks up as he hears Kolivan groaning, “Akira ”.

And Akira looks up, blinking, “wh-what?  I’m listening.”

Shiro looks back down into his phone where another text awaits.  Trust me.  You’re golden.  We want you here.  Everyone has a bad first week of work.  It gets better .

God, Keith is so damn nice to him.  Shiro feels a smile warming his face as he relaxes enough to rest his head into his hand.   Thanks, Keith.  Guess I won’t die of embarrassment today.  Maybe tomorrow.

Tomorrow, I’m at the office all day.  Maybe I’ll come pester you.

I’d like that.  As long as there are no more coffee or button or car accidents.

You got into an car accident with Akira?   Keith adds a laughing emoji.

“Akira,” Kolivan groans.

Sorry.”

Shiro goes to text back when a group of people walk over.  They look like part of the crew or something, Shiro doesn’t know.  He scoots over a bit so they won’t bump into his arm, which is sore and hurting right now.

“Do you see him?”  A man scoffs lowly under their voice.  “He lets everyone else do the work as he just lazes around on his phone like he’s too good for everyone else.  And he’s the one who gets all the credit.”

“He’s always like that,” a young woman sneers.  “I’ve worked with their family for years now. He’s just as stuck up as you’d expect.  God, it makes me want to vomit thinking about him...but the pay’s too damn good to quit.  Everyone just bows down to him and loves him like he’s not some asshole who’d sell you for another buck if you weren’t useful to him.  Fucking disgusting.” She leans back onto the table Shiro’s sitting on and starts when she accidentally bumps into him.  “Oh,” she laughs softly. “Sorry. I didn’t even see you there. You the new help?”

Shiro tries to smooth the frown out of his forehead that built up just listening to their stupid as shit conversation.  “Huh? Oh... Yeah. I’m Shiro. I’m Keith’s assistant.”

The two people exchange confused looks.  “Huh. You call him Keith?  So you’re close to him then?”

“To Keith?  Uh. I-I don’t know.”

“I’m surprised,” the woman says.  “Is he as insufferable off set as he is on?”

Shiro takes a deep breath in.  He knows they’re not talking about Keith.  He can see Akira look over, trying to be subtle about it, but there’s something set in his shoulders, something heavy, and Shiro just knows that he’s heard.

Shiro scowls.  He hates this. He doesn’t want Akira to hear this argument, so he lowers his voice and murmurs,  “Are you talking about Akira? Akira’s a good person. I don’t know what you think you know about him, but you’ve got it wrong.”

“Guess you don’t know him well,” they chuckle under their breath.

“He’s a real prick,” another person says.

Shiro frowns.  He’s heard that before.  He can’t believe anyone actually believes it.  “Is that what the tabloids tell you?”

“He’s just a little rich bitch.”

They laugh.  They laugh and Shiro can’t take it.  He’s had a pisspoor day and he’s done hearing this.  He won’t let them continue.

“Akira’s raised millions of dollars for those in need,” he says sharply.  “People, animals, the oil spills in the ocean, the wildfires in the forests, the dirty water in third world countries, those who can’t get immunized, those who get hit by a hurricane - their lives destroyed, anything he can do to help, he does .  Do you have any idea how many hours he’s poured into helping others?  All the good in this world? No! You don’t! There’s a reason he’s so beloved.  Yes, he’s talented. Yes , he’s gorgeous .  But he’s so much more than that.  He’s done more for this world than this entire room combined and you have the audacity to say such horrible things about him?  You’re wrong about him,” Shiro breathes fire. “You’re dead wrong.”

They all stare in stunned silence for two seconds.

Shiro sits back down in a puff and goes back to his phone moodily.

They all look at each other and snort laughter as they walk off.  “Wow.”  They whisper to each other in a voice that’s not even meant to be quiet.  “I bet Akira lets him suck his -”

Shiro slams his fist into the table and they startle.

Go,” Shiro says.  And they do.

God, his arm aches.  He rubs at his forehead and sighs.  Keith hasn’t messaged him since the last one.

“Akira,” someone’s saying in the distance.  “Akira!”

Shiro turns to see Akira whirling around to attention, looking up at Kolivan.  “H-huh?”

Kolivan rolls his eyes and sighs.  “Shiro,” he calls through the room, voice booming.  “Can you take Akira back for me?  He’ll be more use at the office.”

Akira sighs and walks over beside Shiro.  “Hey.” His tone is weary and worn. He rubs at his cheek.

“H-hey.”

“Kolivan says I have problems concentrating.  It’s getting late anyway. I just had to sign a few things.  You ready?”

Shiro tenses at his proximity.  He’s not sure if he’ll ever get used to being in his presence.  It may just take years. Akira takes a discreet careful step back, shoving his hands into his pockets and trying to casually play it off.  It kind of works.

Shiro nods vehemently, not trusting himself to speak, texts Keith one last time to tell him goodbye, and leaves.

Akira doesn’t stop for the fans this time.  He waves to them with his bright grin, looking as picture-perfect as ever, but he makes his way straight to the car and that’s it.  He drives back, as it should be. Shiro’s no longer spinning out of control - looking down at his hands and not taking in any glimpse of Akira helps - but he doesn’t trust himself not to.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” Akira says.  “About those crew members. They can’t seem to separate me from the characters I play.”  His breathy laugh is almost bitter. “It’s been a problem before, so I tend to keep to myself.  Just let them say what they will. I appreciate you sticking up for me, but I don’t want you to get dragged into it too.  Next time they say something, it’s okay. I don’t mind. Let them.”

“They’re judging you before they even know you.”  Shiro hates the injustice of it. For Akira to just take it...

But he just laughs softly.  “Isn’t that how it always is though?”

Shiro takes in a deep breath.  He’s been wanting to say something to Akira for so long now, but he’s been too nervous to.  He never thought he’d get this opportunity. So he tries. He closes his eyes.

“I just want to let you know, I’m...I’m so thankful for you.  Beyond your music, your acting, your modeling....your message has meant so much to me.  I went through a miserable, miserable time in my life where I had lost all hope on...almost everything and everyone.  I was having a hard time sleeping. I’d have these...these nightmares. I was getting panic attacks more days than not.  It was difficult even leaving the house. And one night, unable to sleep past the nightmares, I happened across one of your interviews online. I found you at just the right time.  And you saved me.  You really did...”  He waves his hand in his face.  “I won’t mention it again. I’m sure you hear it so much, but I...I never thought I’d even get the chance to meet you, let alone work for you and be...be right here, s-so it’s...it’s just the greatest honor.  I think of you in the highest respect.”

Akira’s quiet for awhile.  “I’m glad... Thank you for telling me.”

Shiro nods vigorously, picking at his fingers for a distraction.  He can't believe he just said all that.  And without stuttering all over the place.  His heart flutters.  “D-did you know ‘Akira’ means ‘the light coming from the sun’? Or ‘intelligent’ or, uh...‘bright’.’

Akira chuckles softly.  “...Yeah.”

“I like it.  I mean, it-it suits you.  It’s worthy of you. My name just means ‘white’.  I mean...what’s that, you know? Bland. Like porridge.  ...I guess that suits me too.”

Akira shifts a bit.  The amusement has fallen from his brow and just makes way for conflict.  “...You know, if you stay around long enough, you’ll come to find that, beneath the gold and the glitter, we’re all just...just people trying to do the best that we can. We’re not our names. We’re not our image.  We’re just...people.  All made up of the same cosmic dust.”

Shiro nods slowly.  It’s a very Akira thing to say.  It soothes the worry and stress out of Shiro’s heart.  “Yeah... Yeah, I believe that.”

“Me too.  I’m not going to pretend to know what you went through in a time when you needed help...but the honor was all mine.  I respect you too. For finding the strength to pick yourself up and keep going. Your struggle and road to improvement maybe wasn't met with trumpet horns and applause...but you still did it...and I see you.”

Shiro smiles softly into his lap.  Akira’s words burn like fire in the core of his chest.  He feels like he’s been kissed by the stars.

They make it to the parking garage and Akira kills the engine.  They sit there for a moment, just being, and then Akira finally sighs and takes the keys from the ignition.  “Thanks for coming to get me and letting me drive your car, Shiro.”

Shiro nods rapidly.  “It’s the least I could do.”

Akira just chuckles quietly.  He leans over in his seat and Shiro’s mind speeds up like crazy at the proximity.  What’s he doing?  Why’s he getting so close? What’s the meaning of this?? But Akira just places the car keys in Shiro’s lap before he opens the door and heads out.

“See you later, okay?”  Akira says, patting the car door.

“Y-yeah.  Definitely.  Sure.”

With one last crooked smile, Akira turns and leaves.

Shiro’s brain is fried.

It’s time to go home anyway.  Shiro crawls over the center console and collapses in the driver’s seat.

...It’s still warm.  Somehow, even though Shiro knows it’s true, he still can’t get his head around the fact that Akira sat here in Shiro’s dingy little car.  Breathed its air. Revved its engine.

Wow.  Wow, he just did that.  He had a semi-intelligible conversation with Akira.  ...God, he’d like to believe it’ll only get better from here, but he knows it’s just a fluke.  It almost makes him more nervous for the next meeting.

Shiro sighs and shrugs out his shoulders to relieve the tension that’s bundled up in his back.  He means to just sink softly into the steering wheel but, with his eyes closed, he misses his target and his face hits the horn.  It honks loudly in the garage, bursting through the area’s quiet.

He jumps, looking up, embarrassed, hoping no one heard.

Of course Akira is there, just through the parking garage’s railing.  He was right in front of the car when the horn blared and his eyes are wide in surprise.

But he laughs when he sees Shiro looking up at him.  He tosses a hand up to wave, crooked grin blazing like warmth in a snowstorm.

Shiro manages a small wave back.  His face burns red in embarrassment as he sinks low into his seat.

Ugh.  He knew it.  He can't last two seconds without being majorly uncool.  He feels like such a mess...but his heart is warm with Akira.

 

Chapter Text

The next day should be easier, he thinks, because he talked to Akira, right?  He talked to him and everything turned out mostly okay. But the more he thinks about it, the more he’s sure it was a fluke.  Just a stroke of luck and tomorrow, well, tomorrow is going to be so painful it’ll make up for any progress.

So Shiro manages to talk himself into being afraid to go.  What if Akira happens past? What if he’s halfway through drinking water and Akira waves and Shiro accidentally smiles, drizzling it everywhere?  Or, god, what if he accidentally gets toilet paper stuck in his pants and he walks around the office all day and everyone’s just too embarrassed for him to say anything?

It could happen.

He knows a person who knows a person.

And then Akira will know - he will know how uncool Shiro really is.

The only thing that’s keeping Shiro from dropping a brick on his foot and using a trip to the doctor as an excuse to wimp out is Keith’s promise that he’ll be there today.  Somehow, that brings him more comfort than it really should, like a breath of normalcy in a sea of the unknown.

He spends most of the morning sorting through new mail (after he gets their coffee, of course) but when he finishes his lunch break, he passes by the workout room and stops as he sees someone already in there, stretching out like a runner.

Yoga.  Keith’s doing yoga.  Krolia too, right beside him.  There’s a TV running on the wall, guiding them through it, but neither seem to really be paying attention.  In fact, they’re not even doing the same moves as the people on screen. Keith's following Krolia instead.

Shiro doesn’t even do it on purpose.  His footsteps slow and he stops to stare.

Keith moves so gracefully.  He’s clearly done this many times.  His muscle memory flows with these poses.  His feet are firmly planted into the ground and he leans back, his long elegant neck curving deep into the pose with a dancer’s elegance.  He’s so flexible. And strong .  He cuts through the air, reaching up and toward the sky like he can actually touch it.  His clothes are form fitting today, leaving nearly nothing to the imagination. And Shiro’s never noticed this before, not to this degree, but...Keith is toned.  Very, very toned.

“Remember to be careful of your shoulder,” Krolia hums softly.

Keith eases out of his posture a bit.  “Oh, yeah... It always starts to feel better and then I forget.”

“I’m glad it’s feeling better.  I was worried there for awhile.”

“Ugh.  No kidding.  Whenever it clicked, I thought I was going to throw up.”

He’s so absorbed in watching Keith that he doesn’t notice Krolia stop and turn, brushing her hair off from over her shoulder.

Keith follows her gaze and his eyes catch Shiro standing there.  A small smile grows on his lips as he straightens himself out. “Hey.  How long have you been there?”

“U-uh, not long.  I...” He snorts out a laugh and rubs the back of his head.  “Sorry. I was just surprised to see you doing yoga. That’s all.”

“Hello, Shiro,” Krolia says, watching him with quiet amusement.

“H-Hi.  I didn't mean to disturb you both.  Sorry. I’ll, uh, go.”

“Wait!”  Keith calls and Shiro stops in his tracks.  He looks to Krolia and she just rolls her eyes at him.

“Don’t forget to take care of today’s agenda,” she tells him with a small smile before rolling out her shoulders and leaving the mat.  As she walks past Shiro, she says, “You too, okay? I know how easy it is to get distracted. Especially when Keith’s egging you on.”

“I would do no such thing,” Keith laughs from behind her.

She tosses one last amused look at him, so much warmth and fondness in her eyes, before patting Shiro on the shoulder and walking out.

“Hmm.  She likes you,” Keith says and his tone is filled with relief as he chuckles.  “She’s not one to bail on her yoga sessions. I almost can’t believe it.”

“She’s your teacher?”

“In many ways, yeah.  Akira has a performance coming up, so we were just...  I tend to get wound up a lot. Yoga’s not just for middle aged women, I swear.”

“Hey,” Shiro laughs, holding up his hands in forfeit.  “I never said that.”

“Though,” Keith hums as he thinks and shakes out his foot.  “I won’t lie, it was Krolia who got me into it.  So maybe I am kind of a middle aged woman.  Just a little bit.”

“Pfft.  Well, then we both can be middle aged women together; I do it sometimes too.  My physical therapist said it’d help my arm.” He rolls his shoulder out and shrugs.

Keith stares at it for a second, curiosity budding in his eyes, but he just asks, “Does it help?”

“I think so?  Sometimes. The pain’s pretty much gone by now, most of the time anyway.”

Keith takes a step back and gestures to the mat on the ground.  “You any good?”

Shiro laughs.  “I’ve got work, Keith.”

“Yeah, so do I.  We’re in the office, right?”

Keith,” Shiro laughs again.

“Come on, come on,” Keith runs through the room and grabs Shiro by the hands.  It doesn’t take much for Shiro to be pulled along. It’s nice to see a warm friendly face after reading in a quiet room for five hours with a rushed lunch break and Keith’s smile is bright and inviting.  “You look strong. You can probably bench press - what? Five thousand pounds?”

Five thousand.  Wow.  You might be overestimating me a bit.  Just a bit though.”

Keith laughs that twinkling happy sound.  “We can start easy,” he says.

It’s tempting to just abandon his duties and join Keith.  So tempting. But it’s hardly more than the first week at work.  That’s just what he wants to do is be caught flirting with Keith during lunch break, especially after Kolivan’s shovel talk and Krolia’s reminder to not slack off.

He turns his eyes to the door, thinking.

“You don’t have to worry about Krolia,” Keith says as if he can read his mind.  “You’ve impressed her, I can tell. And she’s the hardest one to impress.”

“I’ve just been doing what she’s told me.”

“Yeah,” Keith chuckles under his breath, flashing that crooked grin that sends Shiro’s heart fluttering.  “That’s exactly it. She likes to purposely overload people in the beginning, just to see how they’ll react.  It’s...so her. And you’ve done it all without complaint. I’m impressed with you too honestly.”

Shiro smiles fondly at Keith, putting his hands to his hips.  “It just...doesn’t really feel like work. I mean, it does, but...it’s not like my last job.  My last one I think I almost wanted to be fired... I hated it. I was thinking of changing work anyway, and then this job showed up and...it just seemed like a sign.”

“Hmm,” Keith hums softly.  “You’re liking it here?”

“A lot,” Shiro nods.  He can say that easily in the moment because he’s with Keith, his nerves low and his heart full.  Especially as Keith smiles at his response.

“I’m glad,” Keith says.  “But hey. Let’s take a break.  I have a video we can try. Please, please, please?  My yoga partner ditched me.”

“Ugh,” Shiro says, but he’s laughing and smiling.  “You dismissed her.”

“I thought it’d be for the best.  You get all nervous around her.”

“H-hey, I’m better around her than with Akira.  But oh man, if they both don’t look like gods...”

Keith snorts, grabs the remote from the side of the room and starts clicking buttons.  The Coran Show blares and Shiro walks forward to stand beside Keith. He sees a flash of Akira on the TV being interviewed, grin on his face.

“Old episode,” Keith says when Shiro blinks at it.

“Yeah, two years ago, right?  Right after he released his fifth album, Lotus.”

“Right,” Keith snorts.  “Specific. I forgot you were a superfan.”

“I-I dunno if I’d call it that.”

Keith tries to copy the tone of Shiro’s voice.  “‘Two years ago after his fifth album, Lotus.’ I bet you could tell me what he was wearing and everything too.”

Shiro chuckles but doesn’t deny it.  He doesn’t like to lie.

Coran’s voice is a lot - rapid fire and loud - but Keith still smiles as he listens to it.  “Coran gives good interviews. I like him.”

“Me too.  Akira’s face whenever he’s being interviewed on Nyma’s show though...”  Shiro chuckles at the thought of Akira’s pinched expressions. “He always seems to laugh more with Coran.”

“Yeah...  There’s this Christmas event going on in a few months.  Ughhh, I really don’t want to go, but Coran’s the one hosting it this time and I know I should, but -”

“Oh!”  Shiro blinks in surprise.  “The Merry Merry Christmas Extravaganza!  I watch that every year! Akira was thinking of going?”

“Y-Yeah,” Keith blinks over at Shiro’s enthusiasm.  “...You like it?”

“Have you ever seen it?”

“Not really.  Vaguely. I’ve never really liked Christmas.”

“Really?  It’s a lot of fun.  They all get dressed up.  There are fireworks. There’s music.  There’s a fancy dinner party -”

“We should go,” Keith breathes, his eyes glittering as he watches Shiro’s enthusiasm.  “...Both of us,” his voice is all breath and softness, but then he seems to realize himself and he clears his throat roughly.  “All of us. I’ll, uh, I’ll convince Akira to go. We can bring you.”

“M-me?”  Shiro chokes.  “That’s for celebrities, Keith.”

“And their assistants.”

“And their assistant's assistants?”

Keith laughs.  “Mmhmm.” He thinks about it for a moment and his smile sharpens with twinkling amusement.  “Well, only the assistant’s assistants who help their own assistant with their yoga of course,” he says, gesturing down to the mat with a coy smile.  There is a tiny glimmer of hope beneath the amusement in his eyes.

Shiro rolls his own eyes.  “Of course.”  He knows he’s got to relent beneath that look.  His heart is just melted around Keith. He thinks he understands now, so soon into this job, how Keith can get his family to do what he wants with just one look.  They want to, just like Shiro finds himself wanting to.

Shiro steps forward, shrugging out of his jacket and tossing it to the side.  It’s impossible not to smile wider as he sees the obvious delight lighting up Keith’s face.

Keith turns on the video and they both sit side by side as they start, smiling shyly at the other.  And they do start slowly. Keith is sure to do that for Shiro. But the second he observes Shiro keeping up without any sign of strain, he grabs the remote with a smile and changes the video.  “You have done this before.”

Shiro shrugs.  “Like I said.”

A little twinkle begins to dance in Keith’s eyes as he gives Shiro a cocky once over, crossing his arms and popping his hip.  “You also said you could lift almost five-thousand pounds.” He bites at his lips for a moment, thinking hard, and then he says, “Do you think you could lift me?”

Shiro snorts.  “Definitely,” he says, “you’re like - what?  One-sixty?” But then, as he looks a bit closer, he realizes Keith looks small and lithe, but he’s probably pure muscle.

Keith’s grin is sharp.  “Huh. Such confidence. I’m actually pretty heavy.”

Ah, well, Shiro’s already in this game of teasing.  He goes all out, shrugging with playful casual indifference, raising his eyebrows and trying to look cool.  “I work out.”

Keith laughs into his hand.  And god, there’s that look of pure joy on his face that gets Shiro.  The soft happy sound that fills the air. The little warm blush on Keith’s cheeks.  He’s laughing at something Shiro said. Not just lightly, but from his core. His stomach contracts, he leans into it.  Shiro did that. He put that look on Keith’s face. Shiro’s heart soars.

“Get on the ground,” Keith says between laughter and Shiro does.  It’s not ten minutes later that they’re using the other to balance, Shiro on his back, lifting Keith just as he had wanted.

Shiro huffs with effort, clinging tightly to Keith’s hand with one arm as Keith slowly tries to lift himself into the air.

“Your arm’s okay?”  Keith checks.

Shiro just laughs and grips to Keith’s fingers tighter.

“It's okay.”  Shiro is confident.

“You're strong,” Keith breathes happily.  “I thought you would be, but... I’ve got to admit.  I’m impressed.”

“Right back at you.”  And it’s true. Shiro’s a little breathless from this point of view, looking up into a sight bestowed on him from the heavens.

Keith’s a natural gymnast.  He said yoga and he said ‘beginner’ but this has got to be something else.  Acroyoga. Advanced.  Something crazy and weird like that.  Shiro’s never done anything like this before, but Keith leads him through it slowly, directing him on where to grab.  He’s a good partner and, together, they’re an even better team. Warm hand clasping warm hand, weight balanced upon the other.  They fit together perfectly, like two pieces of a puzzle pressed in firm and snug side by side.

“This seems like a, uh, interesting pose to do with someone you just met,” Shiro chuckles.  “It’s strangely intimate.”

Keith laughs as he shifts a bit, reaching up with his other hand to grab onto his leg and pull it back like a string on a bow.  “Not really. It’s just yoga.”

“Yeah, but I mean...”  Shiro wrinkles his nose as some of Keith’s hair slips from his messy bun and tickles his face.  He can feel Keith’s laughter vibrating through his hand. “We’re...close.”

“Is that bad?”

“N-no.  Not at all.  I’m just -” His face is flaring red, he can feel it.  An embarrassed flush of warmth is slowly creepy down his neck and chest as he fights to keep ahold of himself.

“Well, honestly, not a lot of people can keep up with me and you looked strong.  Just seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.” He switches position, balancing his hip on Shiro’s foot.

Everything Keith does, Shiro can feel the power of it.  It’s slow and controlled, so much careful thought into each movement.  Somehow, it makes each stretch even more beautiful than it already is.

Shiro tries to politely look away before anything terrible and embarrassingly obvious presents itself in the moment.  Keith is so limber. So terribly, terribly, wonderfully limber. And close. God, he’s so close. Shiro’s heart can’t take much more.  ...He smells so good. He clears his throat roughly. “Krolia could probably keep up with you.”

“Well, yeah , but god, that’d just be weird .  It’s strangely intimate ,” Keith laughs.

Shiro chuckles and gurgles in his throat.

Yeah.  ...Yup.

Keith unravels himself out of his pretzel and reaches out for Shiro’s other hand with his other arm.  “There. Since it bothers you so much. Better?”

Shiro reaches back up and meets him halfway, smiling up at Keith.

“I feel like I’m three again,” Keith chuckles as he settles his knees onto Shiro’s shins.  “Airplane ride.”

“Oh, yeah?  I used to do this with my friend’s sister.  She’s too big now though.” Shiro looks up into his face.  It’s open and bright and smiling. Shiro can forget the pain of this world.  He feels light. He feels free. “And where are we going?”

“Mm.  Disneyland.  Before all this, we always used to go to Disneyland.  My mom, my dad, and me. That was fun. Though honestly, in terms of airplane rides, I think my dad was using the cheap model or something because somehow we always hit turbulence.”

Shiro laughs.  “Is that so?” He hums fondly.  And then he thinks about it. “How do you get down?”

“Just toss me off.  I’ll land.”

“You’re not a cat.”

“Try me.”

“No.  Your bones are precious,” Shiro laughs beneath him.  Their hands are both clasped together. Keith is looking up, ready to launch.  He blows his bangs out of the way and shifts like he really is maybe at least a little bit cat.

This close together, Shiro can see his face well.  And in this moment, he feels brave. He allows himself to look.  Really look. He doesn’t care if Keith catches him looking. He doesn’t even care if Krolia walks in and sees.  This chance is too precious, right here in his hands. He can’t let it jump away.

Because Keith is really something to look at.  Shiro can see the scar running up the side of his delicate jawline.  The slight wrinkle lines as he frowns deep into his forehead. Those beautiful purple eyes that glimmer with his excitement, the cute button nose that wrinkles and pinkens in the cold, the sharp point of his chin, the impossibly smooth milky skin.

All of these things that are Akira’s...Keith has them.

And the small red scar on his forehead, right where Shiro’s button had hit Akira.

Akira.  Not Keith.

Akira.

Shiro’s grip slips and Keith - weight completely shifted forward into Shiro’s hands, falls face first into Shiro’s chest with one big oomph , body spread out over body.

Keith groans as he untangles his arms from Shiro’s and crawls out from between his legs, rolling off to the side.  He presses his hand to his face. “ Ow ...  What are you doing ?”  He groans into his hand.

Shiro sits up stock straight, horrified.  He leans over Keith closely and brushes his bangs back so he can see.

“Th-th-the-the button.  The mark. It’s the mark from the button.”

Keith blinks at him in confusion, frowning as he pulls his hand away.  “What are you...?”

No.”  Shiro tries to breathe.  “You’re Akira. You’re Akira?  Are you Akira?  I thought your name was Keith!”

Keith freezes up much in the same way Shiro does.  His lips part. His big purple eyes grow wider - with fear.

“I - I always thought it from the first moment I saw you,” Shiro breathes.  “You looked so similar. The face. The expressions. The voice.  But I...”

“We -  that’s not -”

“You even smell the same!”

“But -!  But everyone here smells the same!”  Keith protests as he pushes himself up and shakes his head quickly.  “We drink coffee all the time! It’s basically our blood by now.”

“But it’s not just the coffee.  It’s...it’s something sweet. Like cotton candy or...or some sort of melted sugar.  I thought maybe they were just coincidences, but...but... The button.  You...  Are...are you him?  Are you Akira?!”  Shiro’s head is whirling.  Nothing makes sense. He feels betrayal in his heart again and this time, he doesn’t think he can take it.  Not from Akira. Not from him. Not when he was the one who saved him last time. “Why?  You were just - what?  Trying to make a fool out of me this entire time?”

“N- no -!”

“What is it - tease the new guy?  See how naive he can be about things?  Was it funny for you?”

“No...”  Keith whispers, staring openly at Shiro.  He touches his fingers to his forehead. “This isn’t...  It’s not...”

Shiro just stares, waiting.  They look too similar to be a coincidence.  And the scar now... He’s been so stupid. “Are you him...?”  Shiro breathes.

Keith hesitates.  His gaze shifts to the side and he grits at his teeth.  “...I’m just... me.  I’m just Keith.”

Shiro stares down at him.  “But the mark -”

Keith rubs his hand against his face.  “...I don’t know - it’s just a damn bump on my forehead.  You really think Hollywood would accept someone with a scar like this?”  He gestures to the one across his chin, angry and deep. It looks like it got down to the bone.

Shiro shakes his head.  “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“Of course there is.  It disfigured my face.”

“Dis-disfigured?  Keith, that’s not true.”

“Look, just...  Shiro. I’m not him, okay?  I’m not Akira.  I’m Keith, alright?  I’m just a normal person.  Just like you.  Just like your friends...”

Shiro tries to take that in as truth, tries to see the similarities between Keith and Akira’s faces as just a coincidence, but after having the thought once, it’s hard to push it away again.  The thought is active in him now after being selectively dormant for the past week. “But you look so... You could be twins...”

Keith bites at his lip hard and messes with his hands.  “There’s a reason for that.” His brow is so furrowed, dark divots in his skin.  “Um... It’s because...” He sighs. “Akira’s my cousin.”

Shiro blinks.  “Cousin?  I’ve never heard of you.”

“I never wanted to be in the limelight.  It’s way too much. Just because Akira is doesn’t mean we all have to be.  Akira’s a pretty private person. You’ve got to know that. They only just recently found out that Acxa and Akira are related.  And she’s his cousin.”

Shiro holds his gaze suspiciously.  “That’s...true.”

“Please...”  Keith whispers.

“...You’re not lying...?”

Keith stares up into Shiro’s eyes with the one desperate desire for Shiro to just believe him.  He shakes his head slowly.

Shiro sighs and rubs at his temple.  He shifts on the mat guiltily. “God, I...  I’m sorry, Keith. I...”

“It’s fine,” Keith says.  He clears his throat and rubs at his nose.  “Everyone thinks it. I know we look similar...I just can’t really get away from him, you know?”

They’re quiet for awhile longer.

“...Why were you so upset...?”  Keith murmurs lowly.

Shiro shakes his head.  “Sometimes it’s just...hard to trust people.  I’m sorry. It’s a reflex.”

“...I-” Keith says and his voice trembles with upset.

Shiro sighs.  Carefully, he reaches up and brushes his thumb against Keith’s scar.  “...You’re not disfigured, Keith.”

Keith turns his eyes down and presses his lips together tightly.  “...You have no idea how many people have already told me I am.”

“Are you serious?”  Shiro scoffs.

“...You tell yourself not to listen, but sometimes it doesn’t always work...”  Keith shifts. “But, well, my own damn fault. It’s a shitty business. Hang around people all about looks and...that’s what you get, I guess.”

“Keith,” Shiro says softly, hand still on his face.  “They’re crazy. They have no idea... I think you’re beautiful.”

Keith’s gaze flicks up.  He stares blankly for a few seconds, unable to compute.  In his eyes, Shiro can see the shock that questions: me? “You-you do?”

He nods.  “I do.”

Keith holds his gaze for a moment, his eyes filled with wonder, but then the look flickers and dies and he turns his face from Shiro, pulling away from his touch.  A bitter smile cuts through the vulnerability that was there, and he just shrugs. “Not as beautiful as Akira.”

Shiro frowns and opens his mouth but Keith points to the scar on his face.

“...Well,” Shiro murmurs, “if you’re disfigured, then I guess my face is just marred.  Two peas in a pod.”

“What are you talking about...?”  Keith murmurs. “You’ve got to be the most beautiful person I’ve ever met.”

Shiro just snorts.  “Hm... Yeah? You think so?  Even with the scar?”

“Yes,” Keith whispers.  He hesitates and then, carefully, he goes for it, daring to reach up to brush his fingers against Shiro’s scar.  “...Does it hurt?”

Shiro holds himself still for Keith, reveling in the feel of his touch - faint traces, filled with wonder and care, gentle at its heart.  “No. No, if anything, the arm’s the one that still gives problems, but just when I think about things. What about you?”

Keith shakes his head slightly.  “...Just when I think about things.”

They both sit on the floor quietly together.  “...Keith, I....I really like you,” Shiro hums lowly.  “I’m sorry if I flipped out, I was just... I really thought for a second that you were him.”

Keith is quiet.  “And if I had been...?  I mean, would that have really been so bad?  Maybe you and him could be easy friends too...”

Shiro lets out a long shaky breath.  “I mean... I - I dunno. I can’t really talk with him.  And I just mess up everything when I’m near him, so I mean...  But I’m comfortable around you. I like hanging out with you.”

“He’s just a person, Shiro,” Keith says.  “Just a normal, boring person with a life that makes him seem more glamorous than he really is.”

“I know that.  I do. I just...”  He sighs. “I’m sorry.”  He clings to his shoulder again and massages at the crease between his prosthetic.  He doesn’t understand why he keeps thinking about it. This turmoil in his head he wishes he didn’t have...it just stays with him.  He wants to be positive - he’s here, in the best place he can think of, sitting beside one of the kindest people he’s ever met. He’s so lucky.  But he still hurts.

Keith’s eyes follow the movement, but he’s quiet.  He says, “It’s okay. I get it. Everyone’s like that around him.  He’s gotten used to it...”

They both just sit on the ground quietly together.  It isn’t awkward. It’s just...quiet. Somber for some reason.

“Sorry,” Keith says quietly.  “Well, now you know. I’m related to him.  Both a curse and a blessing I suppose.” He clears his throat and aims for a lighter tone.  “Honestly though, I’m surprised it took you this long to ask. Do we really look that different?  Some might say we kind of look identical.”

Shiro thinks about it as he leans forward, resting his elbows on his legs and trying to forget about his arm.  “Well, you do look similar.  But...I dunno. You don't act like him.  And you don’t wear makeup.”

“Some people argue Akira doesn’t even wear makeup.”

Shiro chuckles.  “They do. I think he does though.  Though, people argue about the wig thing too.  I think it’s real.”

Do you?”  Keith laughs under his breath as he starts grinning again.  “What’s your supporting evidence for that?”

“Well, there are a few pictures when he was younger...he had white hair then.”

“Yeah, but that means nothing.  I know someone who was born blonde and has black hair now.”

“No way, that can’t be true.”

“I swear on my grave.”

“Huh...”  Shiro watches him suspiciously but then breaks into a laugh.  “I’ll trust you this time. But Akira’s hair is natural; I’m telling you.”

Keith just keeps smiling innocently, watching Shiro’s face.

“...Is it...is it not?”  Shiro tries to pick the answer out from his look and Keith just laughs and shrugs.

“I dunno.  Is it?”

“I don’t know...”  Shiro thought he knew, but Keith’s grin is throwing him off.  “You know all of his secrets, don’t you? How close are you two?”

Pretty damn close.  I know all his secrets, yeah.”

“Wow,” Shiro blinks, thinking how all the answers to the universe are in this person’s head sitting right beside him, smiling a shit eating grin right at him.  “Huh.”

Keith watches him for a few moments.  His grin looks full of trouble, but his eyes are so soft.  Shiro feels warm beneath his gaze.

Keith asks, “Have any questions for me?”

“Questions?”

“Yeah, like, something you’ve always been dying to know about Akira that you couldn’t find out otherwise.  Now’s your chance. I know all about him. Ask away. Anything’s game.”

“Oh, god,” Shiro laughs, “no.  No, I couldn’t possibly. It’s okay.  They’re his secrets to keep and he deserves his privacy.”

Keith’s face softens for two seconds.  “...God, Shiro. It’s okay to go for things you want sometimes, you know.  I’m here. Offering. So take your chance. It’s okay.”

Shir just shrugs.  “I wouldn’t even know what to ask.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything inappropriate.  He doesn’t normally give much away in his interviews though.  It pisses everyone off.”

“That’s true,” Shiro laughs again.  “It drives people nuts. Nyma pecks at him.”

“That’s all part of his charm though,” Keith hums as he swings his feet back and forth.  “They don’t have to think of him as human this way, just the dream. That’s what everyone wants, isn’t it?  If he gave too much away, what would be left of him?”

Shiro looks over in concern.  There’s something in Keith’s tone that’s bitter and sharp.  He opens his mouth to ask, but Keith just waves him away. “Ignore me.  Go for it. Ask. I’m curious what’s in that head of yours. One condition though,” Keith says, holding a finger up.  “You can’t tell anyone what I say here. It’s confidential. Just between you and me.”

“Okay.  Of course.”  He thinks for a little while, humming lowly.  “Okay, I’ve got one: what’s his favorite food?”

Keith groans and nudges Shiro with his foot playfully as he tosses his head back.  “You probably already know that one.”

Shiro shrugs.

“It’s coffee.  Of course it’s coffee.  Everyone loves coffee here.”  Keith laughs and rocks back. “Ask a better one.  You totally knew that one, didn’t you?”

Shiro just laughs.  “It feels weird.  It’s his business.  I don’t need to know it.”

“He wouldn’t mind, seriously.  If it’s a question I think is too much, I’ll tell you.”

“Well,” Shiro says leaning forward onto his knees.  “I mean, I guess there is one thing...”

Keith perks up in interest at the change in Shiro’s posture.  “Okay. Now we’re onto something.”

“I guess the first thing I’d want to ask him would be...well, it’s about one of the first songs I heard of his.  It was from ages ago, but it’s one of my favorite ones.  I’ve only managed to find one recording of it and it’s a horrible recording.  The worst. I’ve spent hours scouring the internet - maybe days, more realistically, but there’s nothing on it.  I would do anything for a good recording of it.”

“Huh.  Which song?”  Keith asks, brow furrowed in thought.

“Well, I...  I don’t even know the title.  That’s sort of the thing.” He bites his lip.

“Sing it.”

Sing it?  I’m not a singer.”

Keith laughs and rolls forward onto his stomach to lean into Shiro closer.  “Come on. I won’t tell anyone.”

Shiro shakes his head shyly.  He bets Keith has an amazing voice and that somehow makes it feel impossible to sing in front of him.

“Lyrics,” Keith says.  He laughs when Shiro doesn’t look up.  “Okay, fine. A word from the song.  One word.”  He holds his finger up and wiggles it in front of Shiro’s face, who laughs and pushes it away.

“Well, it...it starts off really soft.  It's just his voice and his guitar.  Simple and raw.  It’s about losing.  It’s about thinking you have everything, but really, you’re just in last place.  It’s kind of sad. It’s different from the rest of his stuff.”

Keith is quiet.

Shiro feels awkward in the midst of all this silence suddenly, like he did something wrong.  He clears his throat and shifts.  “Ah, yeah, that’s not much to go on.”

“‘Your Constellation Prize’,” Keith murmurs.

“What’s that?”

“The title of the song...  ‘Your Constellation Prize’.”  He brings his knees up to his chest and rubs at his cheeks that are flaring red.  He won’t look Shiro in his eyes. “I can’t believe you know that song. ...Where the hell did you find that?”

“I don’t remember.  Probably some weird corner of Youtube.”  He clears his throat and mutters, “I dunno if I really should be telling you this sort of thing, but honestly, I ripped it off Youtube and I have it on a USB for safe keeping.  I haven’t seen it online since. I swear I haven’t shared it with anyone. Well, besides Matt.”

“It was his first song,” Keith chuckles softly, still hiding part of his face behind his hand.  “He wrote it when he was like...thirteen.  I, uh... It’s embarrassing... I thought I’d incinerated it off the face of the planet.”

“Really?  Why? It’s my favorite song on the face of the planet and I don’t even normally like music.  ...There’s a lot of heart in it. It feels raw, like he’s pouring all of his soul into the words, like he knows exactly how it feels...  It’s part of what pulled me in.”

Keith grimaces like he’s in pain.  “It’s corny.  The lyrics are shit.  The only time he ever sang it ever was during his community talent show and he almost died.  He was going through puberty.  His voice cracked halfway through.  He probably had acne.”

Shiro laughs.  “He looked scared, yeah.  ...But he was so good. So pure.  ...God, I love it.”

Keith groans, but it’s hidden behind a laugh.  “Figures you’d know it.  That’s why I called you a superfan.  Digging up his dirty laundry I thought was totally eviscerated off the face of this planet.”

“A song is considered dirty laundry?”  Shiro snorts.

“Ugh.  His first performance.  Don’t remind me.”

Shiro just chuckles.  “You should be nice to your cousin.  He did great.”

Keith just grunts and hangs over his knees dramatically.

“Do I get another question?  Do you think he’ll ever sing it again?  Ever record it and put it on an album?”

Hell no.  No fucking way.  Not ever.”

“Wow.  You sound certain.”

“I am.  Just talking about it feels like I’m placing a curse on this family...”

“Maybe I can convince him.”  Shiro leans in and tilts his head to look up at Keith with big puppy dog eyes, like he’s the one who needs convincing.

Keith laughs more, pushing Shiro’s face away with his hand.  “Use all the charm you can muster, but you’ll never pry that song from him.”

Shiro just shrugs.  “I think maybe I can,” he teases, pointing his nose high into the air and grinning.  “I bet my car on it. ...Well, not that you’d want it,” he laughs.

“Right.  Good luck with that one.  He probably doesn't even remember the song.  Why would he?  If you can convince him, then I’ll give you my own car.”

“That feels like a challenge.”

“Only if you want to lose.”  Keith’s grin is so wide.

Shiro wrinkles his nose.  "I actually don't think I could afford your car.  The insurance alone would kill me, let alone if I ever crashed it."

"Yeah, the way you drive," Keith chuckles lowly, side-eyeing him with a raised eyebrow.

Shiro chokes in surprise.  "Hey!  Akira's still alive, isn't he?"

Keith just keeps laughing.  He gestures toward Shiro.  “Okay. Enough of that nightmare. More. Another question.  Lay it on me. I’m feeling generous. Something more fun. Something that’ll blow my mind from the boldness.”

Wow.  I’d better make it good.”  He puts his finger to his lips as he thinks.  ...And comes up with something.

Something bold.  Something fun.  Something he’s been wanting to ask, but not sure if he should.

It feels right, looking into Keith's warm twinkling eyes.  He feels ready.

Shiro asks, “It could be anything?”

Anything,” Keith promises.

Shiro’s face begins to burn as he tries to gather strength for this.  “Okay, uh...  I just want you to know it’s...it’s not what you’re thinking.”

“Cool.”

“Prepare to have your mind blown.”

Keith grins wide.  “I’m totally ready.”

“You won’t expect this.”

Try me.”

Keith,” he says.  “Would you, um...”  Shiro laughs, rubs the back of his head, and then tries again, looking up at Keith with a nervous flicker of his eyes.  “...Would you...want to go on a date with me...?”

Keith’s mischievous amusement slips right out of his face.  He blinks in shock. “Wh-what?” He stutters on a breathless gasp.

Shiro hums as he rubs the back of his neck.  “You and me. Um, maybe this weekend?”

“...A...a date?  Where?”

“Yeah, um...um...”  Hell. He didn’t think he’d get this far, he half-thought he'd have to play it off as a joke, but here Keith is, asking.  Wow. Wow.

Shiro scrambles.  What’s something fun?  What’s something to do nearby that he can manage?  Something big. Something everyone loves.  “Akira’s concert.  The one coming up. I have two tickets.  I - oh, well, maybe it wouldn’t be so fun for you since he’s your cousin and all.  Oh, god.  I just messed it up, didn’t I...?  Um...what else can we do...? What do you like? Where can we go?” Shiro bites at his lip.

Keith swallows hard as he stares into the mat.  “...Um,” Keith breathes. “Akira's concert...? You and me...?”

“Yes,” Shiro says, but he feels embarrassed to have even brought it up.  “Only if you want.”

Me?”  Keith asks again, pressing a hand to his lip.  He touches his fingers to the edge of his jawline, right over his scar.  He looks so confused.

Yes,” Shiro laughs.  “Of course you.”

“Ah, I...  Yeah,” Keith says, his eyes are vulnerable and big and sparkling as he finally looks up at Shiro and laughs, breathless.  “Yeah, I can try to make that work... If-if you’re sure you want to.”

“I do,” Shiro nods eagerly.  “I do very much.”

“Okay,” Keith breathes, hesitant smile building on his lips.  “It’s a date then. With you and me.”

“Okay,” Shiro’s face breaks into the brightest grin he’s had in years.  “Okay.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Shiro’s at his own apartment for once and he’s nervous.  But somehow, this time, it feels okay.  Forget the button incident, forget the car incident, this time, things will be alright.  Shiro couldn’t be more over the moon.

He and Keith are going on a date.

Keith is...amazing.  Keith is everything Shiro’s ever wanted in a person, bundled up into one shy sweet ball of beautiful.  Every time Shiro sees him walking the halls around the Marmora building, whenever Shiro pulls into the parking garage and can get a spot beside his vehicle, when Keith turns and sees Shiro and his face lights up like the sun - all these things and more, they make Shiro finally excited to wake up in the morning.

And Keith and him are going on a date.  A date.  In...an hour.

He hasn’t dated in years.  He’s had no interest in it - in fact, the thought kind of disgusted him for awhile there, and suddenly, like this, he’s burning with excitement. And nervousness.

Shiro tugs at his collar and purses his lips at himself in the mirror.  He has his phone set up and he’s got Matt on a video call. He can feel horror tickling the edges of his gut as he stares at his reflection.

“It says I’m trying too hard to be casual, doesn’t it?”

“I think it looks nice,” Matt shrugs through the screen.  He’s sitting in his living room with a bowl of snacks, munching away.

“You always say that...  You said that shirt looked nice before the button popped off and almost killed Akira.”

Matt is unapologetic as he chuckles.  “It did look nice.  Functional is another story...  I just can’t believe you’re ditching us for coffee boy.  I don’t think I’ve ever gone to an Akira concert without you.  It’s going to be weird.”

“I’m sorry .  I panicked.  He was looking right at me with his big purple eyes.  Purple, Matt.  I couldn’t remember my name let alone the current events.  It was the only thing I could think of.”

Matt snorts, but his voice softens as he hums, “Well...  It’s nice to see you getting out there again, Shiro.”

“Don’t say it like that.  I’m already nervous. Pidge!”  Shiro yells. “Pidge, help!”

Matt hands the phone over and Pidge appears.

“We need a more youthful opinion.  What do you think?” Shiro stands in front of the phone and lifts both arms.  He turns.

“Yeah...  You’re trying too hard.”  She narrows her eyes at him like he’s her test subject.  She fidgets with her glasses.  “Definitely get rid of the hat.  It’s not you.”

“No?”  Shiro takes it off and kneads it between nervous fingers.  “And the scarf?”

“Not you,” she shakes her head.  “I mean, it looks nice, everything you wear does.  But it’s just...it says ‘I want to be a young adult’ to me.”

“I am a young adult.”

“If only, old timer,” Pidge grins before Matt pushes her out of the way and takes the phone back.

“Go get ready, Katie.  We leave in an hour,” Matt rolls his eyes.  “She’s kidding, Shiro, but maybe without the hat and scarf.  Honestly, I don’t get why you’re so worried. You should’ve seen the way he looked at you just that one day weeks ago.  If he’s still anything like then, he’s not going to be paying attention to your clothes.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  Shiro mutters distractedly as he shifts to see the back of himself in the mirror.  “There’s a hole in my pants. There’s a hole in my pants, Matt.”

“Oh, is that what it was?”

“He’d love that, Shiro,” Pidge cackles from the background.  “That’s in these days. I’m telling you!”

Shiro groans and digs through his dresser again.  “You guys are no help at all.”

Matt snorts.  “Truthfully though, he’s probably just going to be looking at your biceps and chest anyway -”

Shiro tosses a tolerant raised eyebrow in Matt's direction.  “Keith's not just about that.”

“I’m surprised honestly.  You've loved Akira for so long and now he's right here in your hands.  So why choose Keith?”

“Akira's a god.”

Matt raises an eyebrow.  “He scares the shit out of you, you mean.”

“Yup.  ...But it's more than that,” Shiro hums.  “There's just something about Keith... I can’t put my finger on it.  It’s everything about him. Every single thing. He's so vulnerable and soft and...he wears his heart right on his sleeve.  I just want to protect him. ...I don’t want to mess up.”

Pidge’s laughter can be heard in the background.  “Oh god, I just thought of something. You know what would be funny?  If Akira confessed his undying love for you. ‘Shiro, I just love a man who can burst out of his shirt. Marry me.’  And then Keith comes in, dramatic betrayal on his face, ‘But Shiro!  I thought we were lovers. Marry me.’  Would you choose Akira over Keith?  I mean, he’s a star.”

“Pidge, that’s not nice,” Shiro frowns.

“Well, would you?”

“I don’t know Akira,” Shiro sighs.  “So that’s an unfair question.”

“I just can’t believe you’re already letting Keith see your own apartment.  You didn’t even let me see it until recently.”

“It’s embarrassing,” Shiro murmurs, turning nervous eyes back to his bedroom, otherwise known as his one and only Akira shrine.  He has the limited edition plushies, the blown up posters of Akira hung up on the walls and the ceiling, some framed, some signed, all carefully and meticulously placed and cherished.  The pins, the patches, the jackets, the shirts. Not that he wears them, no. That’s crazy talk. He keeps them safely tucked away. That’s not the point. They’re meant to be cherished.

He doesn’t want Keith to see them, it’s true.  He’ll just close the door. When Keith gets here, they’ll hop right out and drive away and it’ll be fine.

Just like a normal civilized not-crazy sort of person.

Perfect.

“It’s just going so fast,” Matt says.  “...I’m kinda worried for you. You’re not usually like this.  You’ve finally been getting better lately... Just...be careful with your heart there, buddy.”

“I’m careful, I’m careful.  Besides, I haven’t even known Keith for that long.”

“That’s actually exactly what makes this all so...surprising.”

Surprising,” Shiro tsks, shoving some hole-less pants on and then doing one more scan around his room.  He yelps as he sees his Akira body pillow slipping out of the closet. It’s way too big - full size and very good for cuddling - and his closet is too small.  Shiro darts over and stuffs it back in. He slams the door shut with a bam and presses his back to it to make sure it’ll stay. “...Maybe you’re right. Maybe this is a bad idea.”

“Well...if it’s true love, he’ll accept you as you are, crazy fanboy or not.”

“Do not say ‘love’.  And it’s different.  This is his cousin.” He plucks the Akira keychains off his dresser handles and shoves them in his underwear drawer.  “It sounds like they might have some sort of bad blood between them or something. He gets all mopey whenever Akira’s mentioned.  I have to be careful around him.”

“And yet, he works for him,” Pidge says dryly.  “That makes sense.”

“I’d work for you if you got famous,” Matt says to Pidge.  “Even if you became this intolerable diva.”

Pidge snorts.  “I’ll make you do coffee runs.  I’ll pay you minimum wage.”

“You’re way too kind.”

Oh,” Shiro breathes out in panic, running to the window and looking down at the street.  “I think I hear the rumbling of his car. Yeah.  Guys.  What do I do?  What do I do?”

“Just calm down,” Pidge tries to remain professional and consoling above her own amusement and laughter.  “Seriously, just be yourself. Who wouldn’t like you? You’re amazing.”

“Kolivan basically gave me the shovel talk the first day.”  Shiro breathes. “He was like, ‘do anything to pull my family apart and I’ll pull you apart.’  Or - or something like that.  I can’t remember right now. I can’t feel my toes or my fingers.”  He’s staring down through the window in horror. “I can’t believe I invited him here.  Why’d I do that? Now he’ll see how middle class I am.”

“Shiro.  You are middle class.”

“I don’t want him to know that!”

“Honestly, I think that ship sailed the second your button popped off my shirt you borrowed.  I got that at a second hand store.  There’s nothing wrong with that. Clearly, Keith was charmed.”

Shiro agonizes and shuffles his feet.  “Okay. Okay, I’m going.”

“Good luck,” Matt says.  “But seriously, you don’t need it.  Just have fun. Just be yourself.”

“Be myself...”  Shiro repeats breathlessly.  “Who is myself?”

“Oh, my god,” Pidge groans.  “Now he’s going through an existential crisis.”

Matt snorts.  “No, he’s not.  Just remember: he likes you for you, Shiro.  You've already won. What does Akira always say?  Go!  Be great.  You love hanging out with Keith.  You’ll do perfectly, buddy.”

There’s a knock at the door and Shiro turns, knocking his phone to the floor with his hand.  “Oh, boy.  Okay.  I’m leaving.” He hangs up.

His heart is hammering so hard that he can feel it in his throat.  And, god, his freaking Akira body pillow is popping out the closet again.  “Just a second!”  Shiro cries, voice pitching two octaves higher than normal.  He darts to the closet, wrestles him back in again, shoves a box against it, and then races to the door.

He swings it open, breathless still, taking in the sight of Keith.

Oh, wow.  Okay. Keith is dressed up today.  He’s so fucking sleek. A deep red jacket over dark grey and black pants.  He’s got sunglasses. It’s casual classy. Shiro knew he should’ve put on something better than black jeans.  Now he feels like a complete idiot.

But Keith grins with all the warmth in the world as he looks Shiro over like he’s the best sort of prize.  “Hey,” he says.

“Hey.”  Shiro swallows hard.  Stares.  Blinks to himself.  “Wow. You look really good. Um.  Really good.  Uh.  Um.  Wanna come in?  I’m almost ready.  I just need a jacket and some shoes, maybe an outfit change so I don’t embarrass you -”

Keith laughs.  “-You look good, Shiro -”

“-And then we’re good to go.”

“Sure,” Keith hums happily.  He has two cups in his hand and he holds one out to Shiro.  He takes a few steps inside, looking around at the little block of an apartment curiously.

“It’s small, I know,” Shiro says, embarrassed that he had decided to go for the more economical apartment instead of the nicer, classier two story.  He’s just one person, after all, and he grew up in a small house, so it felt more comfortable at the time. But Keith must be used to Akira-sized homes.  Mansions.  Luxury.  Money.

“No, I like it.  The way you decorated it reminds me of Japan.  We shot a few movies there and I loved the places we stayed at.  Minimalist.  Efficient.  It’s refreshing.”

“Yeah?  Some people would just call it cramped.  I mostly stay at Matt’s anyway. Thanks for the coffee, by the way.”

Keith’s smiling as he looks around.  There’s no judgement. No disappointed expression like Shiro feared.

...Of course there wouldn’t be.  This is Keith. There’s a reason they get along so well together.  The tension in Shiro’s chest begins to unwind. The buzzing nervousness starts to settle.

Shiro snags a jacket from his table and breathes.  “Ready?”

Keith nods as he steps out.  His space car looks out of place in front of Shiro’s plain apartment complex.  It’s too shiny.  Too richy.  Shiro can see his neighbors passing by and giving it long looks and then turning to blink in surprise at Shiro as he slips into the passenger’s seat.

Keith gets in after him and settles in.  His phone chimes and he sighs as he looks at the screen.

“Everything okay?”  Shiro asks.

“Oh, yeah...  Krolia’s just kinda pissy at me.  I should’ve warned you. I... I might have to slip away a few times...  I do Akira’s makeup and everything.  It’s, uh...”

“That’s okay,” Shiro says.  “I sort of figured when I had time to think about it.  Really, we can reschedule, Keith -”

“-No!  I...” He bites at his lip and hides his face from view a bit.  “...I really want to go with you...if you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t.”

Keith nods and starts the car.  “Okay,” he whispers. But it sounds like it’s more of a pep talk to himself than anything else.

Akira’s concerts are always sold out.  Always. If the scalpers aren’t selling the tickets for at least four times the price, then it’s just not an Akira concert.  The traffic begins miles away. Shiro’s used to it. He’s always sure to drag Matt and the gang with him and, as long as they’re patient, they have fun together, they really do.  The most fun Shiro ever has is always at an Akira concert.

Keith is irritated with the traffic though and his usual driving style - zipping through cars like he’s invincible and they’re all sitting ducks - just doesn’t fly when the cars are bumper to bumper.  He is in agony, biting at his nails and glaring into the red brake lights.

Shiro laughs softly and hums.  He’s used to this. “Never been to an Akira concert like a normal person?”

Keith chuckles and shakes his head, trying to unwind the tension built in his shoulders.  “No.  Nope.  Not like this.  You’d think there’d be a better way.”

“Oh man, this is nothing.  You should try waiting outside for a few days in the cold and snow for a signature.  That's where the real fun is.”

Keith gives him a quick side glance.  “You’d do that?”

“Oh, yeah, all the time.  I’d always drag Matt with me.  They’re some of my favorite times; we have so much fun - well, I have so much fun, at least.  We just went to that benefit concert the other month around here.  I saw Kolivan and Regris.”

“You did?”  Keith laughs under his breath as he rests his arm against the window and puts the car into park in the midst of thick static traffic.  “No button incidents?”

“Nope,” Shiro hums proudly.  “But I could barely speak. Matt had to relay everything.  But I did get his signature.”

“You waited days for just a two second signature?”

“Just fourteen hours that time,” Shiro shrugs.  “So it wasn’t that bad.”

Keith hums in sympathy.  “You know, you don’t have to do that anymore.  You can just ask. He’ll give you whatever.”

Shiro’s eyes go wide as he realizes that could be an option - to just ask.  “Really?”

“Yeah.  Really.  If you don’t want to ask him, ask me.  I’ll get it for you.”

“Thanks, Keith,” Shiro whispers, warmth fluttering in his chest just at the thought of it.  Any Akira merch signed ever... The possibilities.

Keith laughs as he watches Shiro’s face.  “He’d just prefer you not sell it on eBay.”

“Oh, trust me, it’s not going on eBay, it’s going under bulletproof glass, carefully placed and cherished.”

“Mm.  As it should be,” Keith says.  His tone is thick with sarcasm, but Shiro nods.

Keith snorts and the line begins to move again, so they make their way.

“I can’t believe all the people,” Keith huffs as they climb the stairs up to the stadium’s entrance.  His phone chimes a few times in quick succession and he slips it out of his pocket to frown at it.

“Krolia again?”

“Yeah...  She’s...” He waves it away as he drops his phone back into his pocket.  “It’s fine.”

Shiro watches the stress that Keith carefully tries to smooth out of his brow, but it’s still there, hanging in his eyes as he flicks them nervously at the line to the security check.  But he manages a bright smile up at Shiro as they make eye contact. “I’ve never been to a concert like this before. I’m always in the back and that can be fun, but...it’s not like this.  Thanks for taking me, Shiro.”

“Well, you drove,” Shiro laughs as they slowly wobble their way up the line.  It’s slow going, but the atmosphere is bright and chipper. Everyone’s buzzing with excitement, dressed their best in their concert gear.  The air is sharp and filled with the telltale dark clouds in the sky, but nothing can dampen the mood here. It’s booming.

Shiro shoves his hands in his pockets.  It’s freezing and he didn’t exactly think of warmth when he was trying to choose the best outfit to impress Keith.

Keith looks cold too.  Apparently he didn’t consider the temperature either.  Is it too early to reach out and grab his hand? Warm them between his own?  Could he put his arm around Keith’s shoulders and pull him close? Would that be too bold?  Keith seems delicate sometimes. Naive in some ways. And maybe Shiro is too.

“...I’m glad you said yes,” Shiro says lowly.

Keith lifts a shy smile and shifts his weight a bit, lacing a strand of his hair behind his ear and biting at his lip.

Shy Keith.  Awkward Keith.  Vulnerable and open.  Shiro can see his heart.

Is he wondering the same things Shiro is wondering?  Does he want to get closer as well? Shiro can see Keith take his hand out of his pocket.  The nervous twitch of his fingers as he opens his mouth, face flushed, to ask -

Shiro’s phone rings.

He jumps.  Keith shrinks away.  Shiro thinks it’s probably not Matt or the others because they know he’s on a date.  He blinks down when he sees the name.

“Wh-what’s wrong?”  Keith asks as he watches the surprise on Shiro’s face.  He leans in.

“It’s Krolia,” Shiro says.

Keith hisses and grits his teeth at the name flashing across the screen.  “Can I answer that?” And takes the phone and walks a few paces out of line so Shiro can hardly hear.  But he can hear enough. “What,” he says in a flat irritated tone. “Yes, I’m with him.  ...I’m not.  I won’t. I know what I’m risking.”  A long, stiff silence. Keith’s shoulders are tense with words he keeps in.  “Please,” he says. “Please...  I need this.  You’re the one who always tells me to go out and do normal things and this is one of those times.  I will be in time for the performance, but please...just give me this little bit.  ...You know I’m going to do it with your permission or not.” He’s quiet for a moment longer and then he says, voice soft.  “Okay. Okay, I will. ...Thank you.”

He comes back sighing and hands Shiro’s phone back over.  “Keith,” Shiro hesitates. “If this is a bad time, seriously, we can do something some other time -”

“-No.  No, stop saying that,” Keith mutters quietly, staring down at the floor.  “I want to be here with you,” he says and, as he looks up into Shiro’s eyes, fire blazing beneath the purple irises, he reaches out hesitantly...and takes Shiro’s hand in his own.

...So warm.  And his hand is so small and delicate, but the power there...the surety of the movement once he decided to go through with it.  He fits so well beside Shiro.

And even though they had just been in each other’s space in an almost intimate manner the other day, yoga-ing in the other’s face, it feels new and embarrassing somehow, Keith’s hand in his.  It means something different now. It says I want to be close to you.

The raw quiet admission of it makes Shiro’s heart feel vulnerable too.  He whispers quietly, “I want to be with you here too.”

They both can’t look at each other, too embarrassed, as Keith hums.  “Mn.”

When they make it to the front of the line, Regris frowns at them in bemusement.  He’s part of the security and apparently no one let him in on the memo about Keith and Shiro.  “...What are the two of you doing in this line?”

“We’re on a date,” Keith breathes happily, holding up Shiro and his hands clasped together to show him.  Shiro nearly chokes up at that. It's too public. He's not ready.

A small look of both horror and wonder builds on Regris’ face.  “How on earth -”

Keith shoots him a sharp glance and Regris hesitates beneath it.  “...You couldn’t go on a date through the back?” Regris sighs, nodding them through without any invasive pat downs. “Go ahead.  Krolia’s going to kill you though. Good luck with that one.”

“Not if Kolivan doesn’t first.  Have fun out here, Regris.”

“Yeah, in the two degree weather.  I’ll be out here while you and Acxa have fun in there.”

Keith snorts in amusement.

It’s warmer inside.  Too many people. There's a ton of Akira merch being sold - a ton - and the line wraps around the building like a snake.  Shiro eyes it like a dog after food, but he tries to be cool.  He clears his throat.

“Is Regris related to you?  He looks nothing like you.”

“Oh, yeah.  He’s Kolivan’s stepson.  So...distantly.”

“I forgot to ask.  Who’s Krolia to you?”

“My aunt.”

“So...you’re...Kolivan’s son?”

“No.  No, no.  It’s, uh, a different sibling.  You haven’t met them. I live with Krolia anyway.  She’s basically my mom. It’s not a big deal. Can I see the tickets?  Where are we sitting?”

“Oh, uh -”  Shiro shuffles through his pockets with his one hand - the other still clinging tightly to Keith’s.  “Looks like...B-10. But, um...” Shiro stares up at the shirts that are pinned in full display. “...I don’t have those shirts...”  He turns his wide hopeful star-filled eyes to Keith. “Would you mind waiting in line...?”

Keith tosses an eye up to them and then back to Shiro, deep with amusement.  “...You know we have a shit ton of those shirts just lying around the Marmora building, don’t you?  There’s a room that’s basically exploding with them.”

Shiro’s eyebrows shoot up.

“You can take whatever you want.  Seriously. Akira can sign the shit out of them too if you wanted.”

“R-Really?”

“Yeah.  Let’s...not go in this line.  I can’t believe anyone’s actually waiting this long.”

“It’s special edition, Keith.  And that’s the fun of it!”

“Waiting in line is fun?”

“Pfft,” Shiro rolls his eyes and laughs.  “I know he’s your cousin and all, but I think you’re severely underestimating how beloved he is.”

“Maybe so, maybe so,” Keith laughs as he watches Shiro's face. He can’t tear his eyes away from it.  ...They’re right there. They’ve absorbed the concert air here. They mean something.

“Okay, okay,” Keith chuckles, wheeling Shiro around and seeking out the end of the line.  “We'll wait for your damn shirts. But I get to pay for them.”

“But-”

“You already got the tickets.  I want to get this. Buy whatever you want, I mean it -”

And the employee working the booth yells over the sound of the crowd, “sorry, we're all sold out!” The line groans in outrage and disappointment.

“Oh, shit,” Keith murmurs, trying to look around the crowd at the booth, but he's too short and he can't manage it.  “Already??”

Shiro gurgles in mourning.  “People were probably waiting all night outside.”

“Jesus, and where were you?”

Shiro groans in agony as Keith laughs and pats him on the arm consolingly, dragging him away.

“Come on, I swear to you, there’s funner stuff back at the building and you can have all of it.”

“I'm in agony.  Limited edition.  All gone. I've failed.  I'm sorry, Mother. Your son's a failure.”

Keith snorts and rolls his eyes.  “You're so dramatic,” he laughs. “Let’s find our seats.  I’m tired of getting bumped into.” As he says it, he steps in a little closer to Shiro for a shield.  And it works. Shiro draws him in even closer to himself and people part for him. He’s pretty big and Keith fits tucked into his side perfectly.

“Acxa’s playing first,” Keith says as they sit in their small seats.  They’re close to the stage, so that’s cool, but everyone’s so crowded, they still feel like they’re sitting in the laps of strangers.  Keith leans up over them to look toward the stage for any doors. “I’ve got to run out for a bit after she’s done... I dunno how long...”

“Okay,” Shiro says easily.  “I don’t mind.” He got an aisle seat and someone elbows him and he looks over at them.  Of course they’re not paying attention.

Keith frowns at them until they leave.  “God, people are rude. How do you stand it?”

Shiro just smiles over at him.  “Never been to a concert? Not ever?”

“Well, a few times with my dad.”  There’s a kid sitting behind them and they both get showered with bits of popcorn.  Keith sits forward and tosses a perturbed look back. “...But I do not remember the seats being this close.”

Shiro laughs and reaches over to dust the popcorn out of Keith’s hair.  Keith’s eyes go all soft at that; he doesn’t flinch away or pull back. A small smile pulls at his lips as he reaches up to brush Shiro’s hair back.  He’s so gentle in everything he does. Shiro hums into it.

“There,” Keith says softly, pulling back when the job is done.  “All better.”

And then another wave of popcorn showers them.

Keith blinks, but this time, as he catches the laughter on Shiro’s face, he laughs.

“Butter-y,” Shiro says.

“Oh, god.  Well, you wear it well,” Keith chuckles again, reaching up to dust it anyway.  And it just seems like a really nice excuse to touch the other. When Keith finishes his job again, he doesn’t pull back this time.  He lets his arm slip down Shiro’s and they weave their arms through the other, smiling softly at each other.

“The popcorn king,” Shiro chuckles, leaning into Keith.

“Two popcorn kings,” he hums.  “Matt always seems to go to these things with you.  Does he like Akira too?”

“Oh, yeah.  He knew who Akira was before even I did.  He didn’t get totally obsessed with him, but he’d be a liar if he didn’t admit to all the signed stuff he ‘doesn’t have hung’.  He pretends he’s suffering when we camp out for Akira’s signings and stuff, but...well, actually I think he does kinda suffer a little bit.”

Keith snorts.  “That’s what best friends are for, I guess.”

“Yeah.  God. Matt’s the best.  He’s actually here, somewhere.  With the rest of the gang.”

“Oh, really?”  They both crane their heads to look around for them, even though Keith has only seen Matt briefly.  “I didn’t steal you away from them, did I?”

“Don’t worry about it.  I don’t need to be babysat all the time.”

Keith laughs.  “I’ll do the babysitting this time.”

He’s cut off as the lights dim down and the stage begins to light up.  It’s Acxa, walking out onto the stage like she owns it. The whole crowd screams, a deafening wave of sound washing over the stadium.

Shiro gets that tug in his gut.  One step closer to seeing Akira. He’s never been super into Acxa’s music, but she does well for herself and somehow, knowing that she and Akira are related makes her seem even better.

“I can’t believe Acxa is Akira’s cousin,” Shiro leans in to speak with Keith.  “And Regris, and you. You guys are quite the family.”

“Acxa wishes she weren’t related to us,” Keith snorts.  “She doesn’t like being the opening act for Akira.”

“Ah,” Shiro cringes.  “I guess I could see how there’d be some sort of rivalry.”

Someone trying to find their seats bumps into Shiro’s prosthetic and he jolts in surprise.  It jarred wrong. Keith squeezes his hand tighter and pulls him in closer. “...We can switch places,” Keith worries.  “Everyone keeps bumping into you.”

“I’m fine, Keith.  Don’t worry.”

He doesn’t want Keith to worry, even though he sees Keith’s long glance, because this is his family up there.  And even though he can go to a concert any day, he seems new at this. Shiro wants him to see the performances he loves from Shiro’s place because they are quite the performances to see.

The lights, the flames, the props.  If Acxa’s performances are stunning, Akira’s are heavenly.  And Shiro does get why Acxa wouldn’t be too keen to be Akira’s opening act.  Who would? Everyone’s waiting for Akira.

That’s what Shiro always does at concerts.  But he feels different this time... He’s with Keith this time.  And he finds he isn’t focusing on the bright lights or the rhythm of the music.  He isn’t trying to peek behind the curtains to get a glimpse of Akira. He’s focused on the warm arm laced through his, on the soft smile on the boy beside him, watching his family with the fondest look of admiration.

“Look at her,” Keith laughs a few times.  “She’s gotten so good... She’s right. She should have her own show.”

“She’s really talented,” Shiro agrees.

“Doesn’t really seem like your thing,” Keith lifts his glance to Shiro.

“Pop music?  Not usually.”

“More of a ‘Your Constellation’ kind of guy,” Keith laughs into his hand as he turns his gaze back out.  “God.”

“I would pay good money to see that.”

“I would pay good money to hire a private investigator to sniff out that secret USB you have and destroy it.”

“Well, I have it backed up like ten times for that exact reason.”

Keith laughs again, rolling his neck out.  “Oh, my god. You’re the worst.”

“That’s not what you said when you agreed to this date.”

Keith’s stomach heaves as he buries his bright happy face into his hands.  He peeks out from through his fingers and grins right into Shiro’s heart.

Acxa’s songs go by quickly, as does their time together.  Keith begins to draw up a little tighter and his eyes start flicking to the exit door a few staircases over.  He tries to be subtle about it as he reaches into his pocket to calm his phone that's going haywire, but the stress is pouring from him.

“Gotta go?”  Shiro asks. “It's okay.”

“I’ll...  I’ll be right back,” Keith bites at his lip as he rises from his seat.  He turns his eyes to Shiro, a little desperate, a little sad. Full of yearning.  “Is that okay?”

“Of course it is,” Shiro says.

Keith grips his hand for a second longer, ignoring the man behind them grumbling about him in the way.  “I’ll be back,” Keith says firmly.

Shiro smiles up at him.  “I have no doubt. I’ll be here.  Good luck, Keith.”

With one last smile, Keith darts out of there, running down the staircase and banging through the exit like there's something on fire backstage that he needs to put out..

Shiro feels the empty seat beside him like a thorn to his side.  He sniffs and rubs at his nose. He wishes he brought popcorn at least.

“You guys have been such a good crowd!”  Acxa is shouting into the microphone. “Thank you so much!  That’s it from me! See you all again!”

The curtains close and the lights all turn on while they change the stage.  Shiro watches the crowd. Everyone mingling with their friends and family.

He looks down into his phone.  He wants to text Keith, but he doesn’t want to pressure him into texting back when he's sure to be busy, so he just turns his phone back around and sets it on his thigh.

It buzzes.

It's Keith : I might be awhile.  I’m sorry.

Hey, don’t worry about it.  How’s everything going back there?

Shitty.  Krolia’s pissed at me.  I haven’t been yelled at this much since the time I shoved ten rolls of toilet paper down the drain.

Shiro stares at the last bit of the message and chuckles.  What the heck? Why on earth...?

Just to see if I could.  Science experiment. Krolia was not impressed though.

Shiro just snorts.   Akira’s not mad at you, is he?  Tell them it’s my fault.

Nah, he’s not mad.  I fucked up his makeup though.  I just hope no one notices.

Shiro laughs.   I’m sure it looks great.  Everything you do always is.

Keith sends him an eye roll but then, five seconds later, Thank you, Shiro .

The lights dim and as people turn their heads up to the curtain, the crowd quietens with it.  Silence. The curtains haven’t even pulled back, but everyone can feel it. It’s this sort of heavy energy that presses down on them.  Anticipation. ...Akira’s here.

He’s here, somewhere nearby.  In only a few moments, they’ll see him with their own eyes, they’ll hear him with their own ears.  They’ll be in his presence.

Akira.

Just darkness.  Just quiet. The sound of the curtains being pulled back cuts through the room.

And there he is, back turned to the crowd, standing atop a platform lit softly in lights, fog laid out and curling around his feet.

The contrast of all the darkness and the cut out of light around him is bold.  Everything he is is bold in all the right places, even if he’s soft.

He raises the microphone to his lips, Shiro can see, even from here, the way he takes a deep breath, his lungs filling with air.  He lets it out on a low note, his voice holding onto it, sending the sound among the crowd in waves.

Everyone goes crazy.  They know this song just by that much, of course they do.  And, somehow, his voice is even better live than it is recorded.  More like velvet. More real.

The excitement from the crowd becomes so much that it almost doesn’t seem like noise anymore.  It roars through the stadium, one collective scream that soars over them all.

And Akira turns, his face blazing with energy and excitement.  His grin wide. He jumps off the platform and to the stage running out to the crowd, singing to them, singing for them.

Shiro sits at the edge of his seat.  There’s always something about the way Akira comes out on stage that is breathtaking.  It’s the confidence. It’s the way the light catches that white hair, flowing behind him like silk.  The way the crowd’s excitement peaks. The way Shiro’s heart stops.

Because Akira is so unendingly lovely.  Everything about him. Their seats are decent today.  Shiro can see him quite well. And though he probably has more popcorn covering the back of his head than not, Shiro is totally enthralled.

The way Akira can dance is legendary.  It’s not overly showy, but it’s big when it needs to be big and subtle when it needs to be subtle.  He really throws his all into it. There’s a reason he’s so popular, singing and grinning and laughing on stage.

He’s having the time of his life.  Shiro can feel it too, just by watching him.  It brings him back to life.

Shiro has a brief thought at the back of his head that maybe it’s a good thing Keith isn’t here.  Acxa’s jealousy, Regris’ eyeroll, the cousinly rivalry. And Keith. Sweet sensitive Keith. He’d be able to pick out the love for Akira in Shiro’s eyes that Shiro can’t hide.  And what would Keith think of that?

The way Akira’s boots strike the stage.  The way he plants himself right in the center of the stage and yells mid-song, voice that warm rich tone it always is, “Good evening, Mountain Peaks!  How is everyone doing tonight?” And that deafening response that rises like a wave over them all and willingly douses them as a crowd, one in their excitement.

Shiro feels that shiver in the center of his soul.  That breathless wave rushing over him that nullifies all problems.  Because Akira’s here. And Akira is strength.

He knows how to rile up a crowd.  He knows how to play to their energy.  He can dance. He can sing. He can act.  He can do everything. He can do anything.

Shiro’s not even sure if he’s breathing as he sits and stares.  Akira’s amazing. He’s so amazing.

...But Keith hasn’t texted or messaged him.  Shiro pulls his gaze away from Akira and bites his lip down at his phone.  He looks back down at the exit Keith had left through, and across the path he had blazed down.

Is he still backstage?

Still there?  Shiro texts.

But it’s just met with silence.

Shiro bites at his lip and looks up again.  Akira glitters like gold. Fire shoots from the front of the stage, heating the stadium up.  The sound of Akira’s voice weaves through the air and pushes away all the bad. Shiro looks back down at his phone.

Nothing.

It isn’t until intermission, when Akira’s run off stage and the curtains are closed, that Keith comes running out through the exit, looking winded and tired.  Shiro can see his face light up when he sees Shiro and runs up the stairs.

“You’re still here,” Keith breathes.

Shiro smiles crookedly, reaching up for Keith’s hands.  Keith lets him drag him down to his seat. “Do all your dates run out on you?”

Keith groans and holds onto his side.  He’s panting.

Shiro leans in with concern.  “...You okay?”

“I’m pretty fit,” Keith insists.

“Mm...”  Shiro smiles patiently, but isn’t convinced.  He reaches up to brush some glitter off of Keith’s eyebrow.  “Got something on you.”

“Akira’s kind of a diva,” Keith coughs out.  “The more glitter the better. I wanted to text you or anything, but I didn’t have time back there.  I have to go back in like...two seconds. I’m so sorry -”

“Keith, it’s fine.  I can go backstage with you if you want.”

Keith waves the idea away quickly.  “No, I can’t keep you from your beloved Akira.  Stay here. You wouldn’t be able to see him at all backstage.  That’d be so boring.”

“Not if you’re there,” Shiro says earnestly.

Keith blinks at Shiro, lips parting in surprise.  “I -”

Someone brushes past Shiro again, bumping into him so that he stumbles into Keith a bit.

“Jeez,” Shiro shoots them a look.

Keith looks pissed for two seconds, coiling up like a spring ready to go at it, before his face lights up with an idea.  “Let me make it up to you. Come on. Come on!”

“Wha-?  Keith -”  But Keith doesn’t listen.  He grabs Shiro’s hands in his and drags him up the staircase.  He can slip through the crowd easily, but Shiro’s bigger. He plows through.

“Keith, where are you taking me?”

“Here,” Keith turns and brings him upstairs to an area he’s never been before.  He takes out a key and unlocks the door. “Krolia sometimes lets her friends stay here.  But they’re not here this time, so you can have it.”

It’s a suite.  There’s a TV, couches, and the best of all, a large glass window looking out over the stage in secluded privacy.  He can see perfectly up here.

“Cool, huh?”  Keith says hopefully, watching Shiro’s face closely.

Shiro looks out over the crowd for a second and over to the stage.  He turns his gaze back to Keith. “Keith, I -”

“I can’t stay.  I’m sorry. Matt’s here, right?  And your friends? Call them. They can all come up here and -”  Keith twists and grabs a pamphlet off the desk by the door. He hands it to Shiro.  “Here. Order whatever you want. Everything you want. Just call the number and they’ll bring it.  It’s all on me. For you and all your friends.”

“Keith...”  Shiro just stands there, holding the pamphlet.  “...You don’t have to buy me.”

“I-I’m not.  I just...” He twists at his hair and frowns, but behind his eyes, he’s frazzled.

He looks unsure. A little scared.  He's trying his best but doesn't know what else to do.

Shiro sighs and steps forward.  He places his hand on Keith’s shoulder.  “Thank you, Keith,” he says. “It’s lovely, it really is.  I’ve never been in a suite like this before. It’s cool.”

“Invite your friends,” Keith says.

Shiro nods.  “They’re going to love it.”

“I wish I could stay.”

“I’ll see you after.  Go. I’m alright. Take care of yourself though.  You look exhausted.”

“A little wound up,” Keith whispers, shaking his hands out and turning another distracted look toward the door.  “I -I gotta go. Don’t forget to order everything off that menu.”

“I can’t eat all this,” Shiro chuckles, tapping it.

“Better try!  I’m going to check when I come back,” Keith points to Shiro and Shiro just laughs.

“Yes, sir,”  Shiro salutes.

“Mmkay.”  Keith pauses at the door, that sad look of longing building in his eyes, but then he smiles wide and sparkles - and then he’s gone.

 

Matt, Pidge, Lance, and Hunk love the suite.  They dance all around it in amazed awe, ordering fancy drinks they don’t even like but they do it because they can.

“Shiro!  Shiro, buddy!”  Lance calls from his place on the glass divider.  “You’re missing out on the coolest experience ever!”

They’re high up, but they feel like they’re in with the crowd.  They’ve never been in this fancy of a place before. There’s strange richy-looking appetizers set up around them and even Hunk approves of the taste of them.  They gather around it with stars in their eyes and excitement in their readied fingers. But Shiro is busy.

“Hey, man,” Matt pats him on the back as he groans into his arms.  “This isn’t a time to mope. Try to enjoy the place. Keith would want you to.  I’m sure he’s forking out a ton for the appetizers alone.”

Lance is currently jamming his mouth full of everything he can as quickly as he can, his cheeks bulging.  Pidge and Hunk are cheering him on. When he swallows it all whole, he burps loud enough to send the whole place quaking.

“I messed up our first date,” Shiro despairs.  “I should’ve known. I should’ve thought.”

“There, there,” Matt hums.  “Clearly, he likes you. I mean.  Look at this place.”

“He had to run back and forth.  He looked exhausted. Popcorn kept getting in his hair.  Krolia called me and they argued a little bit.”

Matt shrugs.  “Clearly, he thinks you're worth it.”

Shiro just groans.

“Come on, man,” Matt says.  “Akira’s back on.”

“Yeah,” Shiro sniffs and looks up through the glass where Akira is shining.  He looks like a god. “Yeah...look at him. That’s Keith’s cousin.”

“He is.”

“He’s beautiful.”

“He is.”

“...Keith's beautiful.”

Matt just smiles at him and nods.  “He is.”

“You’ve got it bad, man,” Hunk says from behind him.  “I’m proud of you.”

“And me too!”  Lance crows, reaching for the phone and looking over the menu again.  “I’m loving this! Look at all the desserts on here.”

Pidge is snorting.  “Oh my god, how much can you eat?”

“Don’t doubt me; I’m going for it.  I’m going to show this whole menu who’s boss.  If I get sick, I get sick. And then I continue on.  This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m going to meet it head on.  Just watch me.”

“Unbelievable.”

There’s a soft knock on the door.  Shiro sits at attention, turning hopefully.

“Delivery,” Allura’s voice calls from around the corner as she cracks the door open.

“Allura,” Shiro blinks over.  “What are you doing here?”

“Keith asked me to bring something over for you.  He’s busy and couldn’t manage it, but he sends his deepest regrets.  I hope you don’t mind.” She has a big box in her hand that she sets down on the table near him.  “For you and your friends.”

Shiro slips off his seat and reaches into the box.  Inside are a bundle of the shirts he had been looking at earlier.  They’re all signed in gold ink, one for all of them. The ink is still fresh and smudges beneath his fingers.  There are several other versions of the special edition shirt in Shiro’s size - all signed. And -

Shiro digs his hand in as he sees something he thought he’d never get a chance to view behind glass, let alone touch with his own hands.  His eyes go wide and his jaw goes slack.

Matt sputters as he looks over his shoulder and takes in the sight.  “Is that - The limited edition platinum record released in 2013?! They only printed fifteen of these!  There are like ten of them being sold on eBay for like almost a hundred thousand each.”

Shiro chokes as he tries to confirm he’s seen the same.

“Oooh.  He signed this one too!”  Hunk says, gathering around.  “Does that up the price? You can basically almost buy a house with that.”

“Look at all these shirts,” Matt says as he grabs them and starts passing them out to Pidge, who jams it over her head with a grin.

“Wow.  He likes to spoil you,” Pidge says.

“Allura, I can’t accept this,” Shiro says, trying to hold the record up.  He sees, beneath the shirts Matt is digging up, that there’s so much more.  He’s afraid to even look. He pushes the box toward her.

She pushes it back.  “Keith told me you’d say that.  He also told me to tell you that for each item you accept, he’ll donate a thousand dollars to charity.  Any charity of your choice.”

“A - !”  Shiro sighs as he thinks about it.  He laughs softly in defeat.  “...Wow. Tell Keith he’s a demon.”

She smiles.  “He told me that’d win you over.  He’s your demon now. You know, Shiro, Akira would sign anything you wanted.  All you’d have to do is ask and he’d be more than happy.”

“Mm, yeah.  Keith told me that too.”  He still can’t believe the record in his hands.  He’s almost afraid to be holding it. He places it back in the box gently, staring down at it like it might just evaporate into thin air.

“I’m glad you like it all.  And with that, I’ll return where I’m needed,” she says happily as she turns.  “O-oh. Hello,” she blinks over at Lance, who is openly staring at her with his mouth hanging open.

“H-h-hi,” he breathes, holding a hand up.

She smiles brightly and then continues on her way.

“Did you guys just see what I saw?  Or was I having a delusion of the most beautiful woman on the planet?”

“Allura?”  Shiro asks.

“Is she Akira's cousin too?” Lance asks.  “Because she looks...she looks - Well, you guys saw her, didn’t you?  She was real, right?”

Shiro thinks about it.  “I have no idea if she’s a cousin.  Akira has a lot of cousins. It wouldn’t surprise me.”

Pidge laughs.  “When you guys all get married, you and Lance can be related too.”

“I’m down for that,” Lance says.  “I’d have the coolest big brother in the world.”

Shiro rolls his eyes.

Matt grabs a shirt and shoves it over Shiro’s head.

“He gave you a hat too,” Lance says, putting it on him.

“And a scarf,” Pidge reaches over to wrap it around Shiro’s neck.

“Agh!  Guys.  Don’t do that.  It’s too much! He’s going to be all weirded out.”

“Listen here,” Matt says, pointing a finger at Shiro as he repositions the hat on his head.  “He’s got to love all of you, got that? All of you. And this. Is. You.” He points to the stuff.

“Besides,” Pidge says, sorting through the box for more stuff.  “He’s the one who sent it to you. If he hated it, he wouldn’t have done that.”

“...That’s true, I guess,” Shiro frowns.  “I thought you said it made me look like I was trying too hard.”

They all giggle at the sight Shiro is now, completely decked out in Akira gear.  He almost hates how much he secretly loves it.

Pidge says, “It’s an Akira scarf though.”

“And some Akira glow sticks,” Hunk sticks some in Shiro’s scarf so they’re protruding out.

“What are these?”  Lance asks from behind him.  There’s a whirring noise.

Pidge says, “Oh, that’s for kids.  You like...press the button and it spins.  See?”

Rainbow lights wash over them as she spins it and Lance gasps in delight.

Shiro turns back down to the performance.  The things Akira can do with his voice... It’s enough to take Shiro away and to another world.  The way he can weave it through the world, bolden the meaning with emotion and passion. That’s the thing about Akira.  He’s not just spewing out some words he doesn’t mean. He writes these things. He acts on these things. He does his best every single day.  He teaches Shiro lessons he’s always longed to believe in, but never knew anyone else could support him on that.

He gives Shiro hope.

Akira closes his eyes and sings into the microphone little pieces of his soul, tiny bits that he shares with the crowd.  He spreads some of the stars out into the world, bit by bit. Shiro can feel it, like bits of stardust floating through the air and attaching itself to his heart.  Each word penetrates deep. He feels so light.

It’s the same feeling he gets when he’s around Keith and he wonders, as he closes his eyes and listens, what it means.  This feeling in his heart, like he’s safe, at long last. Safe from everything about the world he hates.

If he closes his eyes, why does his mind conjure up the image of Keith?  Why is it Keith he sees standing up on that stage, the crowd gone, the flashy lights tamed, singing just for Shiro?

Why...?

When Akira wraps up the last song, the crowd is tired and satiated, their arms holding up their phones to sway to the music.  He’s still bright through the entire thing. A star that shines and doesn’t go out. He’s breathless as he addresses the crowd, a bit of a rasp to his voice, but he still smiles as he says, “Remember, try to do one kind thing tomorrow.  If you plant a seed of kindness, it’ll bloom and spread ripples out to others. You never know how much of a difference you can make, but you are. We all are, together.” He raises his hand one last time. “Thank you all so much for coming; you guys have been such a great crowd.  I love you all! Give up another round of applause for Acxa!” The crowd roars and screams. They’re alive again. Alight. Some people are already screaming for an encore. But he’s already twirling the microphone on his hand as he steps out of the center light in a hurry. “I wish I could keep going, but I’ve got to go!  I’ll see you again!! Thank you very much! Goodni- Oof !”

And he falls.

Akira.  Graceful, powerful, always in control Akira, one of the most fit, most nimble celebrities of their time, falls on stage.

The lights are blaring right on him.  The cameras are all still rolling.

The microphone jets out of his hands and hits the stage loudly.  The feedback is horrendous. The crowd all gasps and groans, jamming their hands over their ears and cringing.

It happens so quickly that Akira is down before Shiro can even see, face planting right into the floor.  He goes to push himself up, doesn't realize that he's on the side of the stage and there is not floor to push himself up, and, before he manages to catch himself, slips to the ground and out of sight

Shiro leans forward, half standing, seriously concerned.

Krolia’s already jumping off the stage after him.  When she stands back up, she’s pulling him after her.  He dusts himself off.  Krolia’s checking his face.  ...He seems to pass the test.

They both climb up back on stage and Akira seeks out the microphone and picks it up.  “I’m fine!” He laughs and waves. “Just another one of these tricks I’ve been working on.  Goodnight, everyone!”

The crowd cheers and whistles like he really did just perform some sort of cool trick and he responds in kind by bowing before heading off the stage.

Pidge whistles lowly.

Hunk cringes as Lance laughs in glee, clapping a hand over his mouth, "Holy shit!"

Wow.  Shiro’s never seen Akira do anything like that.  Ever.  He’s usually so focused.  So cool and casual about everything.  He knows karate.

“Well,” Matt says.  “He is only human.  I’ve tripped enough for all of us.  What’d Keith say?”  Matt asks. “Is Akira alright?”

Right as he says that, Shiro’s phone chimes and Keith’s name flash across his screen.

Hey.  Still there?

Of course.  I wouldn’t just leave without you.  Want me to meet you?

No.  I’ll come to you.  Be there in a sec.

Lance and the others are fine with that, still ordering and eating what they want.  “Guys,” Shiro protests, looking up from his phone. “I know he said whatever you wanted, but within reason .”

“What?”  Lance tries to say around stuffed cheeks again.  How he fits all that food in his tiny rail thin body, Shiro will never know.

Keith’s taking awhile.  Shiro can’t stand watching Lance ordering more food, so he slips off his seat.  “I’m going to see if I can meet up with Keith.”

“We’ll leave you to it.  Have fun, bud.”

“Oooh,” Lance says suggestively.  “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Shiro rolls his eyes at him before leaving out the door.  He finds the exit that Keith went out of, but quickly realizes he has no idea where he’s going.  He’s hurrying through the hallways, looking for a sign of anyone he recognizes, when he turns a corner sharply and bumps right into someone.

They bounce off his chest, groaning in pain.

“Oh!  Keith!”

“Sh-Shiro?!”  Keith chokes, pressing a hand to his face and groaning again.  “Oh, god, that one hurt... What are you doing back here?”

“I was looking for you.”

“Ah.  Here I am.”

“Here you are.”

Keith lifts his eyes and they hold each other’s gaze.  A weariness washes over him. “...I fucked up our date.”

“No, you didn’t, Keith.”

Keith just shakes his head and sighs.

“I liked all the stuff you sent over,” Shiro tries.  “...Thank you.”

A small smile finds him as he reaches up and picks at Shiro’s shirt, right where the golden ink sits.  It’s a little smudged from being handled too soon after being written, but that’s all part of the charm.  “Thought you’d get a kick out of that... You look good.”

“Always flattering me,” Shiro chuckles.

“Especially the hat,” Keith laughs, plucking at that too.  “And the toy.   Wow.  Toys.  Plural.  Going all out, huh?”

“The what?”  Shiro tries to look behind him where Keith is reaching.

Rainbow lights flash around the room as Keith pulls out a spinning contraption as if by magic.  “I thought I’d send all the merch we had, but I didn’t actually think you’d wear it like clothes.  You really are a superfan.”  Keith chuckles softly.

“Agh, no,” Shiro groans and snatches it away, rolling his eyes.  “My rotten friends were decorating me but I didn’t even notice.”

“Too focused on the stage, hm?”  Keith teases in amusement as he plucks another toy from the hat this time.

“Oh, god,” Shiro grimaces and looks over the top of Keith’s head, down the empty hallway.  “Akira’s not coming, is he?  I don’t want him to see.  It’s embarrassing.”

Keith chuckles in amusement as he continues plucking out more glow sticks from Shiro’s scarf.  “You’re fine, don’t worry, don’t worry. So, how was it? Was Akira everything you dreamed and more?”

“Akira’s always wonderful,” Shiro nods dreamily.  “He just knows how to command an audience.  He looks like starlight.”

Keith hums.

“Is he okay though?  He fell pretty hard.”

Keith’s face blazes red and he rubs at his cheeks like that can help.  “Ugh...  I was hoping you hadn’t seen that... Yeah, he’s fine.  Just an idiot in a rush.  But all is well.”  Keith heaves a huge sigh again.

He looks so sad and tired.  Like he’d failed everything.  It’s not a big deal that they can’t spend all night together.  They can do this again. But, in Keith’s eyes, there’s this weary looking fear, like this small hiccup is actually the most unforgivable thing he could’ve done.

And when Shiro had felt like that, Keith had been the one to comfort him.

Shiro opens his arms wide for Keith.  “...Come here,” he says softly.

Keith blinks up in surprise.

Shiro nods him in.  “Come on.”

An amused smile grows on Keith’s face and he takes a step in, letting Shiro wrap his arms around him.  Keith leans his head against Shiro’s chest hesitantly and closes his eyes. It feels so comfortable, like they’ve always done it.  He nuzzles into Shiro's chest. “...I thought I could make tonight work,” Keith says lowly. “...I wanted this, Shiro. I really am sorry...”

“It’s my fault, Keith.  I should’ve used my head.  Of course you’d be busy during the concert.  That’s what assistants are for. It was just me being an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot.”

“Well, I don’t blame you for anything.  I had fun tonight still. I’ve never been in a suite before.  That was pretty cool. So, thank you.”

“It was nice texting you,” Keith allows, finding the small silver lining.

“It was nice driving with you.”

Keith chuckles.  “It was nice holding hands.”

Shiro sneaks his hand down Keith’s arm and weaves their fingers together, squeezing them.  Keith smiles up at him. Shiro says, “It was nice being showered in popcorn. ...You still kind of smell like it actually,” he chuckles.  And sweat. But it’s not bad. Of course it’s not, it’s Keith. It smells heady like exhaustion. His hair is a bit of a mess and sticking to his forehead, but Keith’s eyes are still warm as he watches Shiro.

“It was nice knowing you were here,” Keith says gently.  “Even if I couldn’t exactly see you or be with you...”

Shiro purses his lips and hums.  “That was nice. ...Well, the night doesn’t have to be over, does it?  How about I take you out to dinner?”

Keith goes still.  He takes one sharp step back and looks up into Shiro’s face in surprise, seeking out Shiro’s expression for the truth.  “...Really?”

Shiro shrugs.  “We can do it any weekend if you’d rather, but...I’m having fun with you now too.”

Keith’s face fills with happiness and light.  “In this city though? It’s past midnight. No place will be open, right?  The diner closes at like seven.”

Shiro snorts.  “Oh, yeah...” He thinks around for a place that might be open.  “There’s a Denny’s -”

Keith pulls a face.

“Pfft,” Shiro laughs.  “Yeah, it’s not my favorite either.  Okay. How about the little bar near my house?  We could stop by there. Only if you want to though.”

Keith nods slowly.  “...Yeah. Yeah, let’s do it.  Let’s keep this date going.”

 

There’s something in Keith as they drive back that wasn’t there before.  Now that they’re sitting and settled in the soft silence of Keith’s vehicle, the night sets over them.  He looks tired, for one. Shiro can see the shadows on his face, that pull and drag. The light that was in his eyes before is dim.  It’s almost so bad that it looks like he’s about to drift off and Shiro feels his heart tug at how hard Keith is trying.

“Keith, you can just drop me off -”

“No, I...  I want to stay with you.  ...We hardly even got to talk tonight.”  And the darkness pulls down at him more. “...Tonight was supposed to be our first date.  I wanted it to be better but I couldn’t manage it...”

“Keith, I had fun,” Shiro tries.

“Oh, me too,” Keith says, but he bites at his lip.  When he senses Shiro staring at him, he turns a smile to him and it looks convincing, it feels convincing.  But Shiro knows better...

At the bar, the first thing Keith does is drink.

And drink.

And drink...

It seems everyone else after the Akira concert had the same idea to come here because it’s a loud packed house.  And they can’t escape it. Even on the TV in the corner of the room, it’s just looped video of Akira, tripping and falling off the stage.  Keith glares at it until the alcohol kicks in and his eyes start to glaze over. Shiro watches on, his own glass of alcohol untouched in his hands.  He’s half amused, half worried for morning Keith when he wakes up hungover.

“It’s always like this,” Keith sniffs hard as he sets another shot glass down.  “They never just let me do what I want. She was bitching at me just the other month about how I need to go out and do normal things because if I just keep doing things how I’ve been doing, it’s going to destroy me!  She said that! And then now, when I want to go on a date with you, she’s like, ‘no, you can’t, what are you thinking?’  I’m thinking if I see someone I want to go on a date with and he asks me, then I better damn well go, right?”

Shiro leans on one arm as he watches the flush in Keith’s cheeks grow.

“I would’ve waited for you, Keith.”

“But it didn’t work out.  Of course it wouldn’t. I’m a fucking disaster.”  He downs another shot, wrinkling his face with disgust and leaning back on his seat.  “I just wanted one date,” Keith whispers. “Just one normal date.”

Shiro leans in closer and reaches one hand up to rub the frown out of Keith’s eyebrows.  He uses the other to hold onto Keith’s hand. “And we’ll get one. We have next weekend and the next and the next and the next...whenever you want.  I’ll be here.”

The animosity in Keith seems to soften at the edges as he watches Shiro’s face.  His eyes are a bit unfocused. They’ve lost that sharpness, the attention he usually gives.  “...I’m sure I’ll find a way to fuck that one up too somehow,” he mutters. “I’m such a fucking catch, right?”

“I see you’ve forgotten about the button incident.  I think we’re dangerously similar. The world better watch out though.  Together, we’re like a natural disaster.”

“Two wrongs make a right?”  Keith snorts.

“I think that sounds about right...”  Shiro laughs. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, Keith.  We’ll make it work, you’ll see. I’m very confident about this, I promise you.”  Shiro sees a fleck of popcorn in Keith’s hair and dusts it away.

“You’re so good,” Keith says softly.  “You’re so good... I wish I could be more like you.”

“Keith.  I think you’re amazing.”

“Ugh.  No. I’m the world’s biggest hypocrite.  Do you hear some of the shit I say? I wish I believed it,”  Keith slurs, gesturing the bartender over again. “Imagine if everyone knew.”  He laughs lowly. “Imagine how mad Krolia would be then.”

Shiro holds a hand up to the bartender.   “Ah.  Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

“I’ll pay for it.”

“That’s...not what I meant.”

When Keith sees the bartender step away, he grabs Shiro’s unused glass from the table and downs that too.

Shiro sighs and pushes the empty glass away from Keith’s hands like that’ll help.  “...You probably should drink some water with it at least.”

Water.  I haven’t even had a friend date,” Keith groans, shoving his face into his arms as he slumps over the table.  “I was home schooled my whole damn life. I never got out and did friend things. I’ve only seen it in movies.  It just made me so damn sad.”

“I’m your friend, aren’t I?”  Shiro asks softly.

“Yes,” Keith breathes as he peeks up to lean into Shiro’s space, eyes wide and desperate.  “Yes and it’s made me so happy. ...But you’ll leave. Everyone leaves.”

“Keith -”

“Everyone leaves,” he whispers again, sniffing and letting his head bang back into the table.

Shiro reaches over to gently place a hand on his back.  He rubs soothing circles over Keith, feeling as he breathes beneath Shiro’s palm slowly, in and out.  In and out.

“Everyone judges me before they know me...one way or another.  And I’m so stupidly shy...” When his phone rings, Keith grumbles, “I bet you it’s Krolia.  Tell her I’m not doing the damn interview.  She can do it herself.  I'm sick of this.”

“Akira has an interview coming up?  You said you did his makeup? Do they really need you to always go?  Maybe you can have some time off...it might be good for you...”

Keith grunts and then pops up suddenly.  “Did you hear that?”

“What?”  Shiro asks.

Keith turns around and looks out at a table.

There’s a man taking pictures of them.

“No,” Keith groans, standing sloppily to grab Shiro’s face and turn him from the camera.  Shiro lets him, looking up into the distress plastered all over Keith - in his face, his movements, his voice.  “No, they’re recognizing you. Shit.  I didn’t think this through.  From the goddamn diner...”

At seeing Keith flail, the person, sensing his chance trying to worm away, stands up and walks over.  The man leans against the table in their space, effectively boxing them in, “You’re Shiro, right? You’ve just started working with Akira, haven’t you?  Can I ask some questions?”

Shiro laughs nervously and shakes his head.  “Sorry, I’m not -”

“Who’s this?”  The man asks, leaning over the table over Shiro to look closer at Keith, whose glare could burn through metal.  “Are you related to Akira too? You kinda look like him.”

Keith grits out over a snarl, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.  Leave us the fuck alone.”

“Come on.  I just want to ask a few questions.  I’ll make it worth your time.” He holds up a twenty dollar bill.

“Did you not just hear me?”  Keith hisses, taking a swipe at the money.  It falls to the floor at the man’s feet. “Piss off.”

Keith goes to step around Shiro, but he’s unbalanced and definitely tipsy.  He trips.  Shiro’s already there, catching him and pulling him in closer to his chest to try to hold in his attack.

Keith’s look spits venom.  It surprises Shiro.  It’s a side of Keith he’s never seen.  There is no sweetness here, only slate dark anger and bitterness.  His hands dig into Shiro as if he’s in pain as he focuses on this intruder.

“Keith,” Shiro murmurs, trying to pull Keith’s attention to his face.  “Keith.  Hey.  Look at me.  Maybe we should just go...  It’s getting late anyway.”

The man keeps taking pictures like this is some sort of feast.  Keith’s aware of it. Rage boils beneath the surface of his eyes, but, with great effort, he pulls his attention from the man and to Shiro.

“Let me take you home, okay?”  Shiro murmurs, still holding him tightly.

Keith nods, a small tight resigned movement.

Shiro pulls the both of them up.  Keith needs the support. He tosses one last dirty look at the man taking photos.

“That’s really not cool,” Shiro mutters to the man as he tries to pull Keith back to his feet.  When the man aims the camera closer to Keith’s face, Shiro moves to push him away, but Keith grabs him.

“Don’t,” Keith mutters.  “I don’t want you to get in trouble.  They’ll do it, you know.”

Keith’s grip is so tight on Shiro’s hands.  With one last perturbed look at the man, Shiro and Keith leave.

“Ugh,” Keith is groaning, only half-walking on his own as he leans his weight into Shiro’s side.  He’s so warm, like a little ball of jittery anger. “I hate people. I hate all the fucking...cameras.  Everyone’s got a fucking camera now. Even the fucking two year olds with their phones .  What does a two year old need a phone for?  Shoving them in my goddamn face.  I’ve been hit in the eye so many times.  It hurts.  Everyone touching me.  Everyone grabbing at me.  Like I'm not even a person anymore.  I hate it.”

“I know, buddy,” Shiro hums lowly as he tows Keith along and rubs soft circles into his back.  “I know.”

“...Ugh, I can’t drive like this.  You’ll have to drive home.”

“Uh...we didn’t think this one through.  I have no idea how to drive that car, Keith.  The controls are like a jet.”

Keith huffs a laugh.  “Aren’t you an astronaut?”  He tosses his arms toward the sky and laughs.  “You could fly into the stars! Just you and outer space.  ...That sounds so nice, so peaceful. It suits you, you know.  Does that mean you can fly a shuttle? Wow...that’s so cool. You’re so cool.”

Shiro shifts, readjusting Keith in his grip.  “Not anymore, Keith,” he sighs. He looks down the road and toward his apartment.  “My place is right over there.  Within walking distance.  Would that -”

“I like your place,” Keith hums.  He pushes himself out of Shiro’s hold and teeters a bit, like a toddler, as he narrows his eyes into the distance.  “I’ll race you. First one there wins.”

“K-Keith!  You’ll hurt yourself,” Shiro yelps as Keith starts to run.  And really, for how little he can walk, his running isn’t all that bad.  He just trips a few feet away, but Shiro’s right there, and he catches Keith before he falls.

“I win,” Keith breathes as he smiles up at Shiro, his hands grabbing onto Shiro’s arms for balance.

Shiro laughs softly under his breath.  “You did not win.”  He nods his head to the tree on the sidewalk.  “Does that look like my house?  Kind of small for me, isn’t it?””

“Well, it’s wood.”  Keith snorts as he knocks on it.  “And your house is made of wood. That’s one for one.  Obviously.”

“Obviously,” Shiro snorts as he slips an arm underneath Keith’s and props him up again.  He looks down into Keith’s smiling face fondly. He laughs low in his throat. “I can’t believe this.  You’re a little cheater. I want a rematch sometime when you’re actually sober.”

Keith snorts.  “Good luck with that one.”

“Yeah.  Since you get drunk once and can never sober up again.  Since that’s definitely how it works.”

Definitely.”

Shiro laughs.  “Oh man. What do I get if I win?  What’s my prize?”

Keith grins, reaching up to grab Shiro’s scarf with his hands, dragging him in closer.  He lifts himself up on the tips of his toes and smiles cheekily, “Me.”

Shiro feels his cheeks going red as he tries to think of something else.  Butterflies. Rocks. The ocean. Anything beside Keith’s warm self assured grin, only inches from his own.

Shiro wants to kiss him.

He clears his throat instead.  “Ah... That’s a good prize.”

Keith chuckles and leans out of Shiro’s grip, knocking on the wood and gesturing toward it.  “If I win, we go to your place.”

“I mean, you’re free to stay here if you like it so much.  But that tree is not my house.” Shiro turns his eyes up to the sky.  “...Looks like it’ll snow though.  We might freeze.”

Keith holds his hand out like he can catch the future snowflakes in his palm.  Who knows? Maybe he can. He hums and closes his eyes, tilting his chin up and feeling the night sky.  “You’ll stay with me though, won’t you, Shiro?”

“I won’t leave you,” Shiro murmurs.

His apartment is in sight which is a relief.  Keith wasn’t kidding about being heavier than he looks and Shiro’s honestly a little relieved.

“I’m sorry,” Keith murmurs as he cozies up to Shiro’s chest and closes his eyes.  “I’m sorry. You don’t have to stay.”

“I want to, Keith.  I like hanging out with you.  I have fun.”

“Mm...  Me too. But it’ll always be like this.  I can’t run from it. People will always follow me.  They’ll get in your face. They’ll rob you of your privacy, of your dinners, of your dates.  As long as you stick around me...you’re doomed.”  Keith’s smile is gone.  He rubs his face into Shiro’s shirt and lets out a soft fluttering breath.  “I don’t want that... You’re too good to be tainted.”

“What are you saying?  I didn’t mind today. That guy was just excited.”

“But when they're not.  When they’re just paparazzi trying to sell your privacy for a buck.  They’ll do it. They’ll sell it for a penny and laugh about it. They don’t care how much it hurts.”

Shiro drags Keith up the stairs and fishes through his pockets for his key.  He pushes the door open and guides Keith to the couch, gently setting him down.

Keith sighs in relief as he takes up the couch casually, like he’s home.  He sprawls out over it and looks up into Shiro’s face, smiling brightly.

“Here,” Shiro hums.  “Let me get you some water.  Are you cold? I can get you a blanket.”

“No.  It’s warm.”

Shiro chuckles.  “Yeah, I bet. You’re probably not going to be feeling too great in the morning.”

“My stomach hurts.”

“Mmhm.  Here.” He sets the glass of water down on the table in front of Keith and then sits beside him, patting his legs.  “...You okay?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I’m good.  I just... I wanted today to work,” Keith sighs as he presses his hands over his face.  “I wanted it to work so badly.”

“Keith, who says it didn’t?  I had fun. Even when you were busy, that suite you let us stay in?  And that record?  Keith.  I can't thank you enough...  That was the coolest thing anyone’s done for me. You should’ve seen how excited Lance was.  He ate so much.”

Keith chuckles lowly.  “Good. I’m glad. Did you eat anything?”

“Uh...no?  I wasn’t hungry.”

“Shhhhiiiroooo,” Keith chastises as he struggles to prop himself up.  Shiro offers him a hand and Keith takes it, letting Shiro pull him into a sitting position.  He reaches forward and pokes Shiro on the nose, leaning into his space with a pout. “I told you to eat the whole menu.”

I actually have self restraint,” Shiro says, raising an amused eyebrow at Keith.  “Unlike someone I know.”

Keith just laughs, his eyes going warm as he looks over Shiro’s features.  He reaches his hands up to Shiro’s face and cups his cheeks between both hands.  With his thumbs, he gently strokes across Shiro’s face. He hums low in his throat as he watches him.  “...If I...weren’t me... If you were stuck with this,” he grudges, gesturing down to himself.  “...Would you care?”

Shiro frowns.  “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean,” Keith wrinkles his nose.  “You could do better. You could do so much better.  You could have Akira.”

“Keith, you’re drunk,” Shiro murmurs.  “Let’s not talk about this.”

Keith crawls up Shiro’s arm and presses his lips to his ear, murmuring lowly, “he would’ve slept with you, you know.”

“...Who?”  Shiro has a sinking suspicion in his gut.  He doesn’t like where this conversation is going.

Keith pulls back just slightly, still so close that Shiro can feel his warmth from his face.  He looks up through thick eyelashes, his eyes dark and pupils blown wide. He wraps his arms around Shiro’s neck and says lowly, “...Akira.  Akira would’ve...  If you had just asked...  He would let you fuck him...however you wanted.  He'd be yours.  All yours.  All you have to do...is say yes.”  He shifts forward, digging his hands into Shiro’s shirt.  He makes to crawl onto his lap, to push his warm lips to Shiro’s jawline.  “So just say it... Say yes.”

“K-Keith,” Shiro gently pushes him back and holds him steady.  His heart is thumping madly at Keith’s proximity. It’d be a lie to say he wasn’t affected by this.  Keith’s low burning voice. The warmth he can feel rolling from Keith’s body. The press of his knee in between Shiro’s legs.

Keith’s right here, in his lap, hands grabbing at him with want, with need.

And his gaze, like molten lava.  Shiro melts beneath it.

Keith knows how to get what he wants.  He always does, with everyone; Shiro is no exception.  He feels Keith pulling him in - it’s in the eyes, all that emotion there - and Shiro feels himself caving, wanting this, wanting to give in.

Because Keith is so beautiful...  Shiro’s always thought it.

But he can’t.  He can’t. “Keith, you’re drunk.  Stop.”

Keith says, “You love him, don’t you?  Akira. He wants you too. I know, he told me.  So take him. Take what you want from him. He's yours.”

Shiro can hardly think over the pounding his his ears.  “Keith.”

“Just say it.  Just say yes.”

“Keith, stop.  Please.  Stop.  I wanted today with you, Keith,” Shiro says with as much firmness and conviction as he can.  He shakes his head roughly.  “Not Akira.  With you.”

Keith sways a little, words slurred on his lax mouth.  “You could have both...”

Shiro shakes his head again and looks up into Keith’s eyes, willing him to understand.  He whispers to Keith, desperate, “I don’t want both.”

“I know,” Keith says, drooping into Shiro’s hold.  His face goes slack with hopelessness as he sinks.  “I know...  How can I ever...compare to him...?”

“K-Keith,” Shiro whispers, but Keith is gone, his whole weight collapsed into Shiro’s arms as he passes out.

Shiro sighs and closes his eyes tightly for a few moments.  He’s shaking. He pinches the bridge of his nose and tries to think of something else, to calm himself down, both his body and his mind.

Keith is sprawled out over him, his soft pliant body wrapped loosely over Shiro, his arms still holding onto him.  He can feel Keith’s chest pressed against his own. The slow relaxed heartbeat. The soft rise and fall of his chest.  Shiro allows himself his hand to Keith’s back. He’s so small.

He’s so delicate.

...This isn’t exactly how he wished for their first date to go, no.  But now he knows a bit more about Keith, something critical, and he’s both glad to know...and sad.

So the cousinly rivalry cuts deep, even for Keith.  For who could ever compare to someone as golden, as huge, as inspiring as Akira...?

Shiro sighs again and shifts to get up, carefully moving Keith.  With all the care Shiro has in his heart and his hands, he lays Keith out gently beside him on the couch, looking down at the soft fragile features.  The thick eyelashes, the soft plump lips. They were just pressed to Shiro’s skin, they just spoke quietly into his ear. A shiver runs up Shiro and he sighs.

God...he’s so beautiful.  Both inside and out. Shiro just wishes that Keith knew that...  He’s not in Akira’s shadow. Why would he be? He has a special place in Shiro’s heart completely separate from that.

He runs his fingers through Keith’s hair, brushing the stray strands away from his face.

Krolia’s probably worried...and it’s not right to keep Keith here, especially after all the things Keith had just said.  The way he’d looked at Shiro... It would just feel wrong. Shiro’s still shaking in his core. His breath is unsteady.

Shiro knows their address.  He pulls the directions up on his phone and lifts Keith in his arms, watching the way Keith’s head falls back gently against his shoulder.  The way he looks so peaceful and trusting in sleep. Shiro walks him out to his car and buckles him in carefully.

And Shiro drives him home.  They’ll have to come back for Keith’s space car later.  God knows he can’t learn to drive in in a day and the thought of the crash is even worse.

He hasn’t been in Keith’s neighborhood ever, but he’s heard of it.  Everyone has. It’s generally known for its beautiful big houses, secluded in the best parts of the land, strictly for rich people.  Shiro’s always wanted to explore the area, but he can’t see anything very well in the dark - thank god for Google Maps. He pulls up into a long driveway to a warm cozy looking two-story house.  The front porch light is on and waiting.

Shiro parks and walks to the passenger’s side, opening the door and unbuckling Keith.  Keith stirs slightly, his eyes blinking open blearily. He looks up into Shiro, confusion at first, and then relief.  “...You look like an angel,” he whispers, reaching up to touch his fingers to Shiro’s face. He’s so gentle as he stares up at Shiro in awe.  “You’re so...beautiful.”

Shiro chuckles around Keith’s touch.  “Thank you, Keith. But come on. Time to get you home.”

“You’re the nicest person I ever met,” Keith sighs as he snuggles back into Shiro’s shirt and Shiro laughs again.

The front door opens and Krolia’s there, frozen in fear as she sees Keith’s small passed out form.  “What happened?” Her voice cuts through the air. She runs over and looks down into Shiro’s arms at Keith’s face.

“Nothing, he’s fine.  He just...got really drunk.”

“Jesus,” she whispers, reaching out to brush a hand against Keith's face.  He scrunches his face up and turns his head into Shiro, seeking out his warmth.  “...I’m sorry about this, Shiro. Here, I can take him,” she says, trying to disentangle Keith from Shiro, but, for how blissfully passed out Keith was only a moment ago, he grumbles in his sleep and fights her, clinging tightly to Shiro.

“Nooo...” he groans lowly, but his eyes are still closed and his words are slurred.  He jams his face into Shiro’s neck and Shiro can feel electricity lighting up his spine and warmth blooming in his core.

Krolia allows herself one moment to look perturbed and then she sighs in defeat, taking a step back.  “Would you mind bringing him to his bed?  I could fight him, but it won’t end pretty.”

“He does this often?”  Shiro chuckles lowly.

“No.  But Keith’s not really the one to be told what to do, is he?  Come on.  I’ll show you to his room.”

His room.  Their house is big and beautiful, as expected, but cozy and warm too, full of love and personal touches.  It’s really not as big as Shiro might’ve expected, owned by such a powerhouse of a family.

Krolia leads him through the living room, where the fireplace is burning lowly, blaring warmth, and down a long hallway.  She nods her head into a room at the end. The ceiling is pushed up high and there are tall glass windows stretched up to meet it.  Snow falls softly through the air. There’s a loft and a ladder rising up to reach it, but beneath the loft is a cozy sectioned off corner where his bed resides.

Shiro walks him over and lays him out.

Keith groans as they separate, his arms clinging tightly to Shiro’s back so he can’t let go.

“Oof,” Shiro laughs as Keith shifts his weight so Shiro almost falls into him.  They both topple onto the bed together.

“Keith,” Shiro laughs.  “Keith, come on. I can’t sleep with you.”

“Please,” Keith mutters in his ear.  “I want you to stay.”

“I’ll see you in two days at least,” he chuckles.  “I’ll text you in the morning, okay?  Or we can talk on the phone.  Facetime.  Whatever you want.  You need rest now.”

“Mmf.”  Keith’s strength fails him and he falls back onto his pillows, letting out a big sigh.

“I had fun today with you,” Shiro says lowly into the quiet of his room as he settles on the edge of the bed and leans over him.

Keith chuckles a little warm laugh and nods.  “...Me too.  Next date will be ours...”

“Yeah,” Shiro whispers.  “I promise.”

“Mm.”  He stares up into Shiro’s face for a few dazed moments, and there’s wonder there and light, like he’s seeing the whole universe.  With a soft small smile, he falls back into dreams.

Shiro pulls himself up and sighs as he sits on the edge of his bed.  He stares down into Keith’s vulnerable face. So much light there. God, he wishes he could stay.  He wishes for it so badly. To just cuddle up together, bundled in each other’s warmth. He reaches out and rubs his thumb over Keith’s cheeks and Keith hums into the feeling softly.

...Maybe some other time.  He pulls himself away.

“He really likes you,” Krolia says from the doorway and Shiro jolts.  He completely forgot that she was even there.

She chuckles a little at the surprise on his face.  “...Today went okay?”

Shiro nods, blinking fast.  He can’t believe he was just touching Keith’s face like that with an audience.  He’s burning with embarrassment. “Uh-uh - I had fun, yeah.  ...He was a little upset we couldn’t hang out much though, hence the, uh, drinking.  It’s my fault.  I was...really stupid to think it’d work out when I knew about his job.  I’ll do better next time, so he won’t have to worry.”

There’s amusement in her eyes.  “I’m sure whatever you choose, he’ll love.”  She’s quiet for a long moment, watching the two of them.  There’s something distant in her eyes. Something sad.  “...Shiro, before you leave...can I ask you something?”

“Yeah.  Of course.”

“He...”  She hesitates and then sighs, leaning her head against the frame of the door.  The light is off in Keith’s room, but the hallway shines with warmth, lighting up one side of her and leaving the other cold.  “He’s dated once before,” she says.

Shiro looks up at the way she says it.  Heavily, like she wants to cringe away from it.

“...It was one of Akira’s groupies.”

“...Ah.”

“We all told him it was a bad idea.  But you know Keith...he wouldn’t listen.  I just worry.  It didn't end well and...he lost a bit of his confidence that he never got back.”  She looks Shiro in the eyes.  “I just wanted to ask of you...  If, for any reason, you have to leave, please...please let him down gently.  It’s different this time.  He’s different.  And I...”

Shiro presses his lips together tightly.

“...He likes you,” she says again, but this time, there’s fear in her voice.  “And I can’t protect him from that.  I just don’t want to see this happen again.  I don't want to see him that hurt again...”

Shiro looks down at Keith’s sleeping face.  Yes, there’s vulnerability there. There’s a softness Shiro has never seen before.  It makes way for his kindness that Shiro’s never felt. He wouldn’t want him to harden and forsake that in the face of this world.  It’s a part of him...

“I like him too.  Very much...” Shiro whispers.  “He’s been nothing but kind and supportive of me.  ...And I want to treat him the same way. I want to be his support too.”

Krolia nods her head gently.  She looks a bit more settled, but there’s still that unease, words on her lips that she holds back.  Like the whole truth is there that she can’t say.

Shiro turns to see her watching him.  He smiles crookedly. “You really love him, don’t you?”

Her eyes widen in surprise.  “...Of course I do.  Of course.”

Shiro hums happily under his breath.  “He’s so lucky.  I wish I had an aunt like you.”

She’s quiet for a moment but then laughter breaks through and her face warms.  “Flattery won’t get you anywhere, you know,” she says, despite her expression.

“I’m not trying to,” he chuckles back.  “I’m just thinking...it’s nice to have family, isn’t it?”

She hums, “Hm.  Yes.” She pushes off the frame and leaves down the hall.

With one last long look at Keith, Shiro rises from his place and follows her out.

Time to go.

Or not.  Krolia opens the door for him and, beyond the porch light’s reach, beneath white, his car waits sadly, buried.  It’s a snowstorm out there, in full torrential force, and Shiro’s little car isn’t made to fare well in these conditions.

“Uh...  It’s okay,” he says as he sees the expression on her face.  “I have chains in the trunk.  I can just attach them and -”

She shakes her head.  “Shiro, I cannot in good conscience send you out in that.  ...I didn’t realize it’d get this bad so quickly... We live in L.A.”

He chuckles.  “Yeah... Not much snow there, hm?”

She blows out a long breath and shakes her head.  “No. Not like this. You can’t go out in that.” She  puts a hand to her head as she thinks, turning to the living room and then looking back to Shiro as she closes the door, shutting out the cold.  “We have a guest room and you’re welcome to stay...but it’s...it’s right next to Keith’s room.”

Krolia hesitates.  Shiro gets it. If he were Keith’s keeper and some strange boy was in the house after their first date, he wouldn’t want them sleeping close together either.

She turns back to the living room and Shiro can see her thoughts there.

“The couch is more than enough, if you don’t mind,” Shiro says.

“...You really don’t mind?”

Shiro shrugs.  “It looks like a comfy couch.”

She hums under her breath, a small pleased smile gracing her face.  “...I think I know why Keith likes you so much.”

“It’s no problem, really.  I’m grateful to you guys.”

As Shiro looks around their living room, she returns from the cupboard, arms full of blankets and pillows.  On top are some pajamas. “Keith’s dad’s,” she says. “Only if you want to use them.  They’re clean.  We have drinks in the kitchen.  Food.  Please, help yourself.  This remote controls the fireplace.  This is for the TV.  The guest bathroom has all the supplies you’ll need, first drawer on the left.”

Shiro says, “Thank you, Krolia.  I appreciate it.  Um... Is Akira staying at the house?”  Nervousness bursts inside of him like a star just at the thought.

She watches his wired expression with interest as she sets the bundle down on the coffee table beside him.  “...No.  He’s staying somewhere else tonight.”

Shiro can’t help the sigh of relief.  “Oh, good.”

She watches him.  Not with disapproval.  Just watching.  And he nearly chokes as he remembers this is her son that he’s talking about.  He backtracks. “Nothing against him, seriously.  I just...I make a huge idiot out of myself every time I see him, as I’m sure you remember,” he laughs, rubbing at the back of his head.  “I was just wondering if I’d have to prepare myself for the inevitable.”

She chuckles.  “...You’re fine, Shiro.  Let me know if you need anything.  ...Thanks for bringing Keith home. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.  I was worried for him, but I see he was in good hands.”

Shiro smiles warmly back.  “Keith’s lucky to have you,” he says.

“...And you.  ...Goodnight, Shiro.”

Shiro changes into Keith’s dad’s pajamas.  They’re comfortable and it’s kind of funny - they smell like coffee.

Shiro lays the blankets out over the couch and climbs into them, snuggling into their softness.

Wow.  This feels like a dream.  A really nice, very far out there sort of dream.  He’s in the Kogane’s house. Keith is sleeping only a hallway down.  ...They’re close.

...Wow.

And Krolia seems to have accepted Shiro.  She let him in a bit.  It feels a lot like she's trusting Shiro with Keith.

He doesn't want to let her down.  Her or Keith.

Maybe Keith thought today was a bit of a disaster, but Shiro’s heart is so overwhelmingly full.  He wants to return the favor.

It’s been so long since he’s felt like this.  Like the good in the world outweighs the bad.

He’s so happy.  He feels so cared for, surrounded by a family full of love.  Everything feels so great.  He goes to sleep, smile on his face as big and genuine as the one Keith wears a few doors down.

In the middle of this snow storm, they're warm.

 

Chapter Text

Shiro wakes up feeling golden and warm.  It’s quiet in the Koganes’ house. The annoying high piercing noise that irritates him day in and day out at his apartment is absent here.  When he shifts out from beneath the blankets and turns to look out the window behind him, he can see, through the tiny peek of the curtain, that there are thick layers of snow outside.  Hushed and quiet. He settles comfortably back into his blankets and takes out his phone.

Soooo, how was the date?   Matt’s first text says.

And then the second, an hour later: Shiro, come on, I’m dying over here!  You’ve got to be home already! Your old man senses get you in bed by ten at the latest .

Pidge tries soon after: Matt’s driving me nuts, please text him back.  I can’t take it anymore .

Are you even alive?  Matt texted.  The timestamp says two in the morning.

And then, the final message, a half hour later: Oh my god.  Did you sleep with him?

Shiro snorts, tilting his head up to listen for sounds of noise - is Keith awake yet? - and then looks back down into his phone when he’s only met with silence.

Calm down.  We went to the bar last night afterward, Keith got drunk, I drove him home, then it started snowing pretty hard and Krolia let me spend the night.  I’m on the couch. That’s all .

There’s hardly even a two second pause before he gets a response.  YOU’RE STILL THERE?

Yes.  Keith’s still asleep, I think.  I don’t hear anything.

IS AKIRA THERE?

I don’t think so.  Krolia said he was staying somewhere else for the night.

Probably living it up with all his groupies.

Shiro snorts and looks up as he hears the soft dragging of slippers against floor.

It’s Keith.  He’s changed into something more comfortable - a soft loose tee that’s too short for him and doesn’t even bother covering his midriff and the smallest shorts Shiro thinks he’s ever seen.  Keith slouches through the hallway with fluffy slippers, rubbing at his eyes with a big grudging frown.

He doesn’t seem to notice Shiro as he sighs his way to the kitchen and grabs a glass from the cupboards.  He cringes as glass clinks against granite.

“God,” he mutters under his breath, holding his belly as he waits for the glass to fill beneath the faucet.  He yawns wide like a lion, totally completely uninhibited. He’s barely even opened his eyes. He looks more asleep than awake.

And then, without even noticing Shiro, Keith turns from the kitchen and begins his journey sludging back to where he came from, right past the couch Shiro is still laying across.

Shiro clears his throat and says as softly and gently as he can, “...Hey, Keith.”

Keith stops in his tracks, his whole body going rigid.  Shiro can hear, even from here, the sound of Keith’s breath wooshing out of him in one fell swoop.

He turns in one stiff dreaded moment, his eyes slowly taking in the sight of Shiro.  The glass slips from his hands, but Shiro’s ready this time. He pushes out of his blankets and dives through the room, catching the cup in his hands, water just barely sloshing out from the top.

“Oh, my god,” Keith whispers, slapping a hand over his mouth as he stares down at Shiro.  “Oh, my god.  Last night actually happened.

Shiro chuckles slightly as he shifts back onto his heels.  He looks up at Keith, whose face is still stiff in horror, taking a small step backward.

He still looks confused.  And judging from his outfit, he probably actually is.  It’s the middle of winter and Keith’s in shorts and a shirt, neither that look like they even actually fit him.  Shiro laughs a bit. “Nice pajamas,” he says.

Keith looks down at himself and Shiro can see the way his face grows red the moment he realizes just what he’s wearing.  “U-uh. I’ll... I...” He runs back down the hallway and two seconds later, Shiro can hear him throwing up in the bathroom.

Shiro hesitates for a moment, peering down the hallway, wondering where he’ll be most helpful.  He wanders after him hesitantly.

“Keith?”  He says gently at the door.  “You okay?”

“Ugh,” Keith groans.  He’s sitting in front of the toilet, head in the bowl, looking every bit as miserable as Shiro worried he might.  He sniffs and rests his head on his hand as he looks over at Shiro, giving him a weary thumbs up that doesn’t reach his eyes.  “I’m good.”

“You sure...?  Can I get you anything?”

“Coffee?”  He chuckles under his breath.  And there it is - a little bit of a smile in his weary eyes.  “...Water would actually be pretty nice,” he nods to Shiro’s hand that still is clasping the glass.  “Come here,” he whispers and gestures Shiro in.

Keith takes the glass and pushes off the toilet, leaning against the wall and wrinkling his nose.  “...Tell me last night didn’t actually happen.”

Shiro chuckles lowly as he squats beside Keith.  “Okay. Last night didn’t actually happen. ...Nice shorts.”

They’re way way way too small for him.

Keith grins, his sharp smile a little dulled, but he’s laughing.  “...You know, that’s rich coming from the one wearing my dad’s clothes...  He has the worst sense of style. Never thought I’d have to see it on you...”

Shiro snorts and looks down.  They fit almost perfectly. It’s kind of funny.  “Can’t beat comfort. I imagine I probably would’ve annihilated another shirt if Krolia had let me borrow one of yours.”

Keith laughs as he leans his head against the wall, a glint in his eye.  “I’ll lend you one if it means I get to see a shirt rip in two with my own eyes.”

“Ha.  No, thanks.  Maybe another time...”

Keith laughs again, but then he shudders and clutches to the toilet again, heaving into the bowl.

Shiro rubs his back gently as he groans, pulling his hair away from his face. Keith takes in a deep breath.

“You okay?”

“Ugh.  Yeah.” He shifts back against the wall again and rubs at his face.  “...I... About last night -”

“-Nothing happened, I swear.  I brought you straight home after you passed out.”

Keith blinks in surprise, his wide eyes meeting Shiro’s.  “O-oh. No. I didn’t mean... I know you wouldn’t do anything, Shiro.  I just meant... I didn’t... say anything, did I?  Anything... dumb?”

Shiro hesitates and he can tell Keith catches it by the way he stiffens a little, steeling himself.  He doesn’t want to embarrass Keith, that’s the last thing he wants, especially when he looks so tired and worn, but if Keith wants the truth, lying seems worse.  “You thought the tree outside the bar was my house. ...You talked about Akira for a bit.”

Keith watches Shiro carefully, his eyes wary and sharp with a smidgen of fear.  Needling, he says lowly, “Akira.”

“...Yeah,” Shiro sniffs and rubs at his nose.  “You mentioned the interview Krolia is trying to get you to help him with.  There was some asshole at the bar who was taking pictures of us. You got kinda mad.  Do you remember that?”

“Yeah?”  Keith hums as he runs his fingers over the rim of the glass and stares into the water as it swishes.  “V-vaguely... I didn’t...I didn’t say anything else, did I? Anything, uh, unforgivable...?”

Shiro laughs and reaches over to shake Keith’s knee comfortingly.  “No, Keith. You were fine. No murder confessions this time.”

Keith continues to stare like he knows Shiro is hiding things, so Shiro allows, hesitantly, “You do sort of become a bit of a seductress when you’re drunk apparently.”

“...Oh, god,” Keith groans, covering his face with his hand as it burns.  Red spreads over his neck and seeps down beneath his shirt. He lets himself slide down the wall in embarrassment and he sags to the floor, defeated, hands over his blushing face.  “Oh, no, I knew it. I’m so sorry.”

Shiro chuckles as he reaches for Keith to pull him back up.  “Off the floor, you. It’s dirty down there. Come on, let’s get you back to bed.”

Keith groans but helps Shiro lift him to his feet.  “I am so sorry about last night.  I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“It’s okay.  Really. I swear to you that it didn’t bother me.  It looks like you’ve been really busy lately. It’s good for you to take a break sometimes.”

Keith’s eyebrows are high on his forehead as he nods a little in disbelief.  “Yeah.  Sure.  A break.”

Shiro follows Keith to his room, where he falls to his bed and groans again.

“I’ll go get your water.  And some Advil.”

“Thanks, Shiro,” Keith mutters as Shiro comes back and hands them over.  He washes the pills down. “...Nice catch earlier, by the way. It’s like you knew.”

“Disasters seem to be many all around me lately.  I’m starting to anticipate it. Wouldn’t want you to hurt your feet on broken shards of glass.”

Keith laughs softly into his cup and hums.  “...Thanks.”

Shiro stays standing, staring around Keith’s room.  Now that it’s morning, bright light reflecting off the white of the snow from outside and brightening their home inside, everything looks so different.  The little pieces of Keith hung on the walls and spread across the room that Shiro hadn’t noticed before.

“Nice piano,” Shiro hums, nodding toward it.  It’s a small upright piano, the top part closed and the bench pushed in.  Keith turns.

“Yeah?  It does the job, I guess.  I wanted to bring my Steinway from home, but Krolia put her foot down on that one.  Said we’d break it and it wasn’t worth it, but this one’s all...” He waves in the air vaguely.  “Wonky. Doesn’t have the tone I want. Got my guitars though,” Keith hums happily, gesturing over at the wall of them all hung out carefully.  There are so many of them that it looks like a guitar store.  Shiro’s not sure why you’d even need that many of the same instrument, but Keith looks at them all fondly.  “Got my Strat here.  Want to play it?”

Shiro walks over and tilts his head, trying to see what Keith sees.  “Strat?”

“Stratocaster.  Fender?  No?  Well, it’s okay,” Keith chuckles softly at the look on Shiro’s face.  “Each guitar is so different from the next and there are so many, it’s not really worth getting into.  This is my favorite though,” he hums, gesturing toward one.  “The Les Paul.  It’s a 1960 reissue.  It’s almost like you can hear its soul through the strings.  Krolia told me not to bring this one too actually, but I couldn’t just leave it...  It’s like my child.  We have a connection.”

The light in Keith’s eyes and the way his voice picks up with excitement is unendingly charming.  Shiro watches as Keith smiles up at it on the wall, his eyes twinkling with fondness. Shiro can’t help but smile too as he walks back to Keith and Keith pats the spot beside him.  He sits.  “Wow.  I didn’t realize you were so into music.”

Keith finds that extremely funny.  His eyes twinkle even brighter. “Music sort of runs in the family.”

Shiro laughs and rolls his eyes at Keith’s teasing tone.  “Oh.  Right.  Duh.”

“Yeah,” Keith chuckles into his hand.  “Oh man.  I’m feeling inspired now though.  I want to play for you.  Would you like to hear?”

“Really?”  Shiro blinks.  “Of course I would.”

“If it’s you, I take requests, you know.”  Keith stands and grabs his Les Paul, bringing it back with him to the bed and shifting it onto his lap.  He rubs at his temple as he thinks. “I dunno any S. Carey, but...”

“Will that be okay for your head?  You looked like you were dying two seconds ago.”

Keith chuckles and starts plucking at the guitar, tuning it.  “Music heals the soul, right?  What do you say?”  He runs his fingers down the strings and turns his smile back up at Shiro.  “Name a song.  Any song.”

“Um...”  Shiro’s caught up in the light in Keith’s eyes, the happiness there.  He wants to see that light there forever.  “...Your favorite song.”

“My favorite song?  I want to play your favorite song.”

Shiro chuckles.  “You do, huh?  What if you don’t like it?”

“It’s okay.  I probably know it.”

“You probably do,” Shiro laughs, rubbing his hands together.  “Your Constella-”

“- No,” Keith cuts him off with a laugh, sagging over his guitar with a groan.  “Oh, man.  I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”

“You did say any song.”

“Yeah, with the assumption that the song was actually a legit song.”

“Pleeeease?”  Shiro tilts his head and tries to do the puppy dog thing that Keith does with his eyes, but it doesn’t work.

Keith just laughs, shoving Shiro’s face away.  “Anything else.”

“A snippet?”

“Never.”

“One word.”

Keith grins and shakes his head.  He leans in to whisper, “Not even a whisper.”

Shiro pokes Keith on the nose with his finger.  “You’re a tough one to break, Kogane.”

“There’s nothing to break.  I’d trade in my baby before I revisited that nightmare.”  He pats his guitar.  “Or Akira, for that matter.”

“You haven’t mentioned anything about it to him, have you?  I don’t want to embarrass him.”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Keith hums as he starts strumming idly, swaying gently to the melody he plays.  “I'm telling you: he probably doesn't even remember it.  This song is strictly between you and me.”

“Okay.  Because I’m seriously starting to feel a little guilty about the USB thing.  I’m not sure I should’ve told you.”

Keith laughs hard at that.  “I’m calling the police.”

“Oh, god, please don’t.  I need them to live.”

Keith chuckles, but he seems like he’s fading somewhere else as he plays quietly, his eyes distant, tilting his head back and watching Shiro’s face as he does so.  The music seems to carry him as much as he does it.  He plays so well, Shiro isn’t sure why he’s so surprised, but this level of skill is...  “I’m waiting for a real song request,” Keith murmurs.

Shiro thinks.  “...I don’t really know any...  What’s your favorite band?  Your favorite song?  I want to hear that.”

“You might not like it.”

“That’s okay.  I mean, you don’t like my one and only favorite song, but I mean, you can still appreciate it for how good it is, right?”

“No,” Keith laughs.  “Never.”  He bites at his lip for a second and then laughs, the sound short and awkward.  “I, uh...I didn’t think I’d get nervous...  Give me a second...”  He shifts a little in his seat and tosses a careful look at Shiro.

“Ready?”  He asks Shiro and Shiro nods.  It’s funny...looking at Keith like this.  At the way he inhales breath slowly, like he’s about to jump off the side of a cliff.  The way his eyes cling to Shiro’s, trying to gauge his reaction, opening his vulnerabilities to him and allowing himself to trust.

Shiro thinks of the way Akira had come out on stage only just yesterday.  The way he was confident and energetic and didn’t worry about reactions. The way he had fallen but picked himself right back up.

Keith is nothing like him.

Keith begins to sing.  He clings to the guitar, but doesn’t start with it.  It’s just his voice. It’s just Keith. Just him, voice dark and lyrical, as enchantingly captivating as every other part of him as he commands his voice to weave in and out through the air.  As his voice creates color, quietly, without forcing it. An organic lilt.

 

Moving in and out of the shadows

It's no easy mission, holding on to how I picture you

 

His hands moves against the strings gentle and unhurried.  They’re a part of the instrument. He’s not fighting it or even using it, he’s creating music side by side with it.  Maybe it was true what he said about feeling the soul, because Shiro, as musically challenged as he is, thinks he can hear the soul too.

He’s beautiful.  So beautiful.  Even with the circles under his eyes and the weary thick drag in his voice.  Shiro loves all of him.

 

Showing only bits and pieces

'Til the tide betrays you and your empty allocution

 

The way his eyes burn as he open them and lifts them to Shiro, dark and hypnotic.

 

Searching your eyes for a hint or a trace of humility

Searching your eyes for the saint is an act of futility

 

Searching your eyes for a hint or a trace of it

Searching your eyes for humility

Searching your eyes for a hint or a trace

I'm still searching, searching

 

It’s true that his voice is as sweet and beautiful as Akira’s, that much is as apparent, but there’s something beyond it.  The emotion in his voice...and the pain. Something that stretches into aching and longing. Something that makes Shiro even more breathless than any other voice has made him.  The softness that gives way to a vulnerability Akira could never achieve.

 

Showing only bits and pieces

‘Til the light betrays you and your empty allocution

Float the piper by and down the river

Carcass crippled underneath the pounding waves of adoration

 

Pied Piper, float on down the river

Bloated carcass crippled ‘neath the weight of adoration

Moving in and out of the shadows

It's no easy mission, holding on to how I picture you

 

His voice holds onto the note, squeezes the life out of its one last word as his guitar cries over the song.  Dark.  It’s so dark.  He could never be Akira.  Because he’s Keith.  This is all Keith.

The song slows and unwinds and Keith sighs, sinking into his place a bit.  He’s not smiling and shifting with nervous energy.  He just looks tired.

“Keith, that was...”  Words seem unworthy of how powerful and commanding Keith’s voice is.  Shiro feels like he has to blink back to his body, so far gone onto a plane where he forgot he existed, transfixed by the sound of his voice.  “...Amazing...” Shiro says quietly.  He almost hates to ask it, wonders whether he’s reading too much into it, but the weariness in Keith’s face is too much to just ignore.  “...Was that... Was that about Akira?”

Keith opens his eyes slowly, small smile on his lips.  He doesn’t answer.  “Wasn’t my song. Or Akira’s.  It’s called ‘By and Down’ by A Perfect Circle.  Not what you were expecting, huh?  Not really part of the family trade.”

“It was beautiful,”  Shiro murmurs. “...In a sad way.”

“Yeah...”  Keith hums.  He shifts the guitar off his lap and leans it against the bed.  “God.  Not that great on a headache actually.  You liked it though?”  Keith asks, turning his gaze up to Shiro hopefully.

Shiro’s honest.  “I loved it.  Your voice is so heartbreakingly beautiful...  You’ve never wanted to get into the business like Akira and Acxa?  You could, you know.”

Keith just laughs softly, waving his hand in front of his face and grimacing.  “No.  No, I wouldn’t be able to do it.  That’s...it’s private.  I’m glad you liked it though...”  He rubs at his arm, but he’s still dragging.  It’s that look again.  That one he had driving them back home from the concert.  Tired beyond superficial weariness.

Shiro elbows Keith and teases softly, “I mean...it was no ‘Your Constellation Prize’, but -”

Keith falls for the bait, groaning loudly and snatching up his pillow to jam it over Shiro’s face.  “Mention that song again and I swear to god -”

“Agh!”  Shiro laughs.  Keith is like a lion for all the power he has in his body.  He pushes Shiro flat out on his back and straddles him, shoving the pillow on his face.  “Have mercy!”  Shiro says around a faceful of softness.  It smells like concentrated Keith and it’s all he can do to not be a huge creeper and take a big whiff.  “I won’t mention it again, I swear!”

Keith laughs as he pulls the pillow back, looking down into Shiro’s face.  He holds it up like a weapon.  “You promise?”

Shiro grins from down below and crosses his heart.  “I promise.”

“Hmm...”  Keith raises an eyebrow and stares Shiro down.  “Why don’t I believe you?”

“I’ve changed my mind about the song.  I don’t want Akira to sing it anymore.”

“No?” Keith tilts his head, eyebrow still raised.

“I want you to sing it.”

“M-me?”  Keith chokes.  “Okay.  The pillow’s going back.”  He lifts it up and positions it above Shiro’s face.

Shiro laughs and snatches it away from him.  “Oh, my god!  You’re going to kill me over it?”

“Victory or death,” Keith says and Shiro snorts, shoving the pillow into Keith’s face instead, who squawks and nearly topples over backward, but he catches himself in time.  He crawls off Shiro and falls out beside him.

“Don’t even try it,” Shiro says.  “That’s not you. I know.”

Keith just laughs.  “So now your story changes.  You want to embarrass me instead of Akira.  Why me?  It’s his shitty song.”

Shiro shrugs.  “...Maybe I just want to hear it in your voice.  Two of my favorite things.  You have a sincerity to your voice like I’ve never heard.”

Keith is quiet for awhile as he sets the pillow away.  “...Maybe one day then.”

Shiro perks up.  “Yeah?”

A smirk lights up his eyes.  “In the next life.”

“So you do want to kill me?”  Shiro laughs.  “If that’s the price I have to pay...”  He grabs the pillow back and puts it to his face.

“Stop that,” Keith’s face appears from beyond the darkness as he tosses the pillow at the window.  “No dying on me.”  He lays back out and groans, pinching the bridge of his nose.  “No more funny business.”

“Headache?”

“Coffee withdrawal probably.”

Shiro snorts.  “That’s right.  I haven’t seen you with one in an hour.  You’ve got to be waning.”

“Pfft.  You know, I just thought of something.  Not that I mind, but why did you spend the night?  ...Did you help me to bed last night and Krolia just decided she wanted to keep you forever?”

“Well, Krolia tried to take you from my arms, but you clung to me tighter, like a little monkey.  We couldn’t get you off.”

Keith groans and hides his face with one hand.  “...God.  Tell me the truth: how much less do you think of me now?”

“None at all,” Shiro assures him.  “I love monkeys.”

Keith laughs as he picks at his fingers for a moment.  He watches the white snow outside with a small smile on his lips.  “...I’m glad then.  Thanks for taking me home, Shiro.  I’m sorry for putting you through so much.”

Shiro just smiles over at him.  “Anytime.”

Keith groans again.  “Ugh. That song was a bad idea.”

“Can I get you anything?  Maybe something to eat?  Coffee?”

Keith rubs at his forehead and peers outside with a glare.  “...Is it safe to drive out there?”

“It looks fine.  It seems like it’s stopped snowing.  I drive in it all the time; it’s really no problem.”

“...If you’re sure.  I really could use a coffee right now.”  He yawns and looks around the floor at the randomly tossed pieces of clothing that lie there.  “Let me find some pants.”

“I don’t think so,” Shiro says.  “You’re unwell.” He grabs the blanket from the bed and folds it over Keith, tucking him in with special attention.

“What are you doing?”  Keith laughs, but he goes with the flow.  “I don’t think being hungover deserves the same level of sympathy as having the flu.  I’ll be fine. You don’t have to go alone.”

Shiro collects the pillow from the windowsill and pats it right beside Keith.  “A headache’s no joke.  I still remember how you shrugged off those burns back in the elevator.  Those looked painful.”

“I was trying to be brave in the face of your beauty.”

Shiro snorts.  “Well, this face of beauty will be right back.  Wait here.  There’s a Starbucks only five minutes away.  You want the usual?”

“Yeah...  You’re the best,” Keith chuckles warmly as he watches Shiro from his blanket burrito.  “Drive safe.”

 

It’s not the drive that turns out to be the problem.  The snow is there on the roads, like it always is during this time of year.  That’s something Shiro is used to. What he is not used to is when he steps out of the car in front of Starbucks like he always does and people start turning to look...at him.

He looks behind himself.  Did Akira sneak in the passenger seat or something and they’re looking at him?  But no one is there. It’s him they’re looking at. They mutter to their friends, eyes still on Shiro.  Their eyes flicker back and forth, asking a question Shiro doesn’t know.

“Do we approach him?”  He hears someone ask. “Do we ask?”

...Okay.  Shiro suddenly has a bad feeling in his gut.  He thinks of the pictures that man took last night of Keith being held in his arms and he wonders...  But it’s not like it’s him and Akira.

He goes inside and orders the usual for Keith and Krolia.  And then he waits. He chooses a corner and crosses his arms, trying to close everyone else off, trying to pretend that it’s not what he thinks it is.

But then someone’s approaching him.  “Was that him?” They ask. “Was that Akira?”

“I don’t know what you’re saying,” Shiro murmurs, glancing up at the baristas in hopes that their drinks are ready.  He feels cornered. But they’re looking up too, just as interested.

“You’re the boyfriend, right?  How’d you meet? Why is Akira dressed like that?”

“Yeah,” another woman comes up to him, putting her hand on him.  “Was it really him? Who was the one with you?”

A man comes from the bathroom and stops as he sees Shiro.  “Hey! Sir!” He calls and pushes past a family, causing someone to fall, as he runs to get to Shiro.

Their order is up.  Shiro grabs the coffee, pushes through the people, and gets the hell out of there.

Shiro is still breathless when he gets back.

“Uh...  Keith?” Shiro calls through the house as he opens the door and then, on second thought, locks it behind him.  “Keith? Something weird was happening outside...”

Keith is in the living room.  He’s sitting on top of the blankets that Shiro had slept in last night, another glass of water in his hand as he downs more Advil.

“Hm?”  Keith asks.  “You okay? What’s wrong?”

“Uh...”  He sets the coffee down on the coffee table in front of Keith as he sits beside him.  “You know that guy I was telling you about last night? I think they know about the photos.  Everyone knew who I was. They were grabbing at me like...like I was Akira or something.  ...They were asking who you were.  It’s like everyone knew. Everyone.”

Keith goes very still.  Something strange like steel builds in his eyes.  “You okay...?” Keith asks cautiously.

Shiro nods.  “Yeah, I’m not hurt.  But what does this mean?”

“...Don’t worry.  ...It’ll all blow over, whatever it is.  It always does.”

Krolia comes downstairs, lifting her eyes up to look between the two of them.  “I thought I heard your guitar. I’m guessing you’re feeling alright?” she asks, eyes assessing him sharply.

Keith shakes his head, still looking a little dazed as he pulls himself to her conversation.  “Uh...sort of. I’m sorry about last night. I meant to text you.”

“But you got drunk,” Krolia says, crossing her arms tightly over her chest.  “At a bar. In public.”

Keith takes in a deep breath and rubs at his temple in irritation.  “Yeah.”

“Like we’ve talked about.  So many times.”

He nods sharply.  “Uh. Yes. I know...  I’m sorry.”

She holds his gaze for a moment longer and then walks to the table, grabbing the remote.  She turns it on.

It’s just as they thought.  Keith closes his eyes. “...Fuck.”

It’s the footage captured from last night.  The man in the bar apparently had connections; it’s already up on the news.  And, plastered beside the unflattering image of Keith’s disgruntled face, is a comparison image of Akira.

Akira in disguise?  The title reads.

But the news anchors are laughing about it, pointing out all of Keith’s imperfections.

Keith groans and rubs his hands over his face.  “...Turn it off.”

“I won’t turn it off,” Krolia says.  “Because there is no turning this off.  Keith, what you did last night...these are the consequences.”  She points to the TV again, and this time, they’re showing Shiro.  Shiro, pulling Keith close who slouches into his hold with trust. Shiro, about to push the man away before Keith grabs him.  Shiro stops his advance with just a gentle touch from Keith. It’s obvious what they are to the other. It’s so obvious.

Akira’s secret boyfriend?

“Is Akira gay?”  The newscaster starts to say, voice incredulous, like if that were actually true, the world wouldn’t just continue spinning, it’d actually probably just fall apart.

Keith groans louder so that the sound of his voice overrides the TV’s.  He reaches up for the remote when Krolia won’t to turn the TV off. He jams down the button angrily.   “I don’t want to think about it right now.  What everyone else believes is not my problem,” he says sharply to Krolia, fire in his eyes.

“Fine,” she says, not budging.  She nods to Shiro. “But they know him.  They know his face. You think if you just run from it, he’ll be free of it too?”

“No.  I don’t.  They already swarmed him at the Starbucks.”

Krolia goes very quiet.  The silence feels deadly.

Keith just shakes his head.  “I’ve got a headache... I don’t want to talk about this right now.”

“Keith, you need to fix this,” she says, her eyebrows raised.  She holds his gaze firmly.

“I will.  I’ll think of something.  Don’t worry. I won’t let it get out of hand.”

“It already is out of hand.  You need to fix this.”

Something in his face darkens.  “Oh,” Keith scoffs out a laugh as he grips Shiro’s hand tighter.  “Oh.  Is that how you’re going to play this?  I already told you.  Nyma - is - trouble.  She’s irritated with Akira.  She’s been irritated.  It’s going to be a nightmare.  If it were someone else, anyone else -”

“Nyma is the biggest name in talk shows right now.  I know Coran is the safe option, but we can’t always go with him -”  The phone in her pocket rings and she sighs, pulling it out. “...It’s your father,” she mutters lowly.  With one unhappy look at Keith, she answers it, sighing heavily. “Hey... Did you see what Keith did? Yeah.  Yeah, that’s him.  They’re dating now.  Yeah, I know.”

Keith turns his eyes up to Shiro.  “Don’t worry,” he murmurs softly. “She’s not mad at you, she’s mad at me.  It’s not your fault at all.”

Shiro worries at his lip.  “I’m so sorry... I shouldn’t have brought you to that bar.  If I had just thought -”

“...Hey.  How about you don’t apologize for this and I won’t apologize for destroying our first date?”

Shiro looks down into Keith’s face - at his crooked smile.  He’s not wounded by this. He’s alright. Shiro smiles slightly.  “...You’re still going on about that? You didn’t destroy our first date.”

Keith puts a finger to his mouth and then walks after Krolia, pulling the phone down so he can see his dad through facetime too.  Shiro leans back into the couch.

“Hey, Dad,” Keith says, a smile on his face.

“Hey, buddy.  Heard you went on a date last night during the concert...”  There’s a knowing hum of amusement in his voice, but he asks him anyway,  “How’d it go?”

“It was really nice.  I had a really good time.”

“Heard you had a bit of a hiccup at a bar...?”

“I’m legal, aren’t I?”

“...You know that’s not the problem.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine.  Don’t worry so much. I’m not worried.  The media’s always said whatever they’ve wanted.”

His dad’s sigh can be heard all the way from where Shiro sits.  “Keith...”

“I miss you,” Keith says.  “How’s work? How’s Kosmo?”

“Everything’s good here.  I’m worried about you, though...”

“We’re good too.  We nearly got snowed in,” Keith says, ignoring that last bit.  “It’s a lot more than we’ve ever gotten at home though... I think if it snowed anymore we might’ve had to have shoveled the snow off the driveway.  Can you believe that? Shovel snow , like in that one movie you like with the lights.”  Keith and his dad chuckle together. “I just hope it doesn’t get all stormy for Thanksgiving and we can’t fly out to see you.”

There’s a long awkward pause between them.  “...Keith, I... I thought we weren’t doing Thanksgiving this year.”

“...What?”  Keith blinks, looking up to Krolia.

“I haven’t told him yet,” Krolia says softly.

“...Oh, boy,” his father sighs.

“...What are you talking about?”

She doesn’t meet Keith’s eyes.

Sensing a storm, Shiro bites at his lip, excusing himself quietly to the bathroom.  He doesn’t want to intrude on their private conversation. He busies himself with looking at the portraits on the wall in the hallway.  There are a lot of them, framed with care. Akira as a baby, that fair head of hair. Akira at his first signing. And the ones of Keith, where he's smiling in them more often than not.  He finds a picture of Keith as a boy - maybe middle school - sitting in the center of both his father’s and Krolia’s laps. He’s smiling so brightly, holding onto the both of them with a tight grip.

...They look like a family.  Like a mother, a father, and their son.

Shiro stares a little longer.

He turns his eyes to the picture of Akira as a baby though.  His hair is so fair, there’s no doubt it’s him.

He looks back to the picture of Keith as a boy, hair black as night.

He can still hear them in the living room.

“You promised,” Keith is saying lowly, betrayal and hurt in his voice.

“I’m sorry, Keith, but it’s going to have to go on hold until next year.”

“You said that last year.  And the year before that.  And the year before that. And the year before that.”

“I meant it last year, Keith,” she says sharply.  “I had planned for it. But you had to go and do this.  It doesn’t just affect you, you know.  It affects us all. You have no idea how many calls I’ve been getting.  I had to unplug my phone last night. It’s been crazy. As you’ve been passed out drunk in bed, totally, blissfully unaware.”

“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” he groans.  “If I had known...”

She sighs.  “And now our sister company is hounding me.  ‘Who is that guy? Will Akira be able to focus on work?  Is this his downfall?’ Akira’s sponsors are getting nervous.  Some are already trying to pull out.  You can’t just drop a bomb like this on everyone and expect them to cooperate.  And you leave it to me to set the record straight.”

“Have them call me then...but I'm not going to stop seeing Shiro.  I know what they think. It's lowering Akira’s value or some shit...  It's none of their damn business what I do. This is my life.”

She’s quiet for awhile.  “...I know you deserve a taste of a normal life.  I get it.  But what you did last night was reckless.  And you knew it was reckless; that’s why you left to go to the bar without saying anything.  You didn’t even tell me where you were going.  You weren’t answering your phone.  I had no idea where you were, if you were even with Shiro.  What if you were kidnapped?  Do you have any idea how worried I was?”

His silence is stoney.

“...I know you like that boy, Keith, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t be with him.  But, with him, you're getting sloppy. And like I said, this doesn’t just affect you...it’ll affect him too.  I’m not saying this because I want to hurt you, but honestly? He doesn’t seem like the brightest boy.”

Keith hisses.  “You don’t know him.  He worked for NASA.  He’s the smartest person I’ve met.”

“You know what I mean.  He’s pushing away the fact that’s right in his face.  I’m just worried the emotional stress will be too much for him.  ...Like it is for you,” her voice softens. There’s sadness in the tone.  “Keith. I know you’re disappointed. I am too. But everything has been so much lately.  We already were overloaded as it was and then that stunt at the bar...we can’t just take a few days off.  It won’t work, not before a big movie. There are some things we knew would have to be sacrificed when you decided to take this route.  This is one of them...”

His voice tightens as he sees she’s not going to budge.  “You always do this.”

Keith,” she breathes out tiredly.  Her voice sounds so quiet. So sad.  “...I love you.  ...But we just can’t this year.  Next year.”

“One night.  Please. It’s one night,” he says in disbelief.  “It’s literally one night.”

“Keith,” his dad says through the screen gently.  “I’ll come visit over Christmas, okay, buddy?  They already have me scheduled for Thanksgiving.  I can’t back out now anyway.”

“...You promised me.”  There’s five heavy seconds of silence and then Keith explodes.  “This is bullshit!  So much for a normal life, am I right?  Because I’m stuck here, playing their fucking game just like they want - those sick sadistic bastards - and I can’t even have one night with the both of you!  One fucking night on Thanksgiving, with my family.  God forbid I get that for one fucking year.  What a thing to ask for.”

“...Keith...”

Shiro startles as Keith comes blazing down the hallway.  His face is splotched red with anger. He sees Shiro and the anger does not rub away, the darkness in his eyes does not dissipate.

Shiro goes to step back, away from the picture on the wall.  They’re smiling so brightly on the other side of glass, but not now.  “Keith...”

He shakes his head sharply.  “Let’s go to my room.”

“Keith,” Krolia calls, exasperated, from the end of the hall.  “Don’t just leave in the middle of a conversation.”

“Don’t,” Keith mutters tiredly as he stops beside Shiro and turns to face her.  “I’m mad right now. I’m really mad.”

She’s quiet as she watches him.  Resigned as she stands. “...Let’s try to work something out.”

Shiro bites at his lip.  He’s not sure if this is the right time or not, but he murmurs, “...I-I know it’s not the same, but, uh...my friends and I, we do a big Thanksgiving dinner together.  We each bring something. Hunk’s the best cook you’ll ever meet. ...You’re welcome to come, Keith. In fact, it’d be my pleasure to take you there.”

Keith stares at Shiro for a few stunned moments, like he never even dared to dream.  “...You...you would take me to your Thanksgiving dinner?  In-in your friend group?”

“Of course,” Shiro says.  “My friends have all been dying to meet you; they’d all be overjoyed if you could come.  I mean, it’s nothing fancy.  It’s really informal.  Pidge always brings her dog and Lance and Hunk sometimes do karaoke on the coffee table in the living room and it’s loud.  I usually burn something.  Matt sometimes undercooks the turkey, but...  I mean, that’s an option if you’d like.”

Keith’s eyes fly from Shiro’s to Krolia’s.  He opens his mouth to ask - “Can I?” - but stops as he sees her face.

She opens her mouth, but the cringe on her face is answer enough for Keith.

He battles with it for a moment that hangs in the air.  “...Fine,” he says lowly. “Fine.”

“Keith...”

“Forget it.  Forget everything.  It’s fine. You’re right.  I knew what I signed up for from the very beginning.  No time for regrets now,” he laughs and it sounds awful, like jagged glass.

She shifts and tries again to say something, but he cuts her off.

“Just stop,” he groans lowly.  “...Just stop.”

And he grabs Shiro tighter and pulls him into his room.

Keith shuts his bedroom door tightly behind the both of them, frowning into it for a long moment with his hands pressed against it.  Shiro stands behind him, giving Keith the time he needs to collect himself.

“...I’m sorry, Shiro,” Keith says after a while.  He sniffs and pulls himself up. A weary groan escapes him as he rubs at his face.  “I didn’t mean to yell and cause a scene. I was just...surprised. I thought... I mean, we don’t normally ever have holidays together like a normal family, so I thought, this year...  I dunno. Stupid, I guess. I hate the fucking holidays.”

“It’s not stupid to want to celebrate with the people you care about.  ...I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”

Keith sniffs again but points his finger up at Shiro’s nose.  “Hey.  What’d I say?”

“I know,” Shiro whispers.

“It’s okay.  Really,” Keith mutters as he wanders over to his bed and sits, leaning his elbows onto his legs.  He pats the space beside him and Shiro follows him over. “God, I have a headache though... The Advil’s kicked in, but then again, I think I might’ve burst a damn blood vessel from shouting.  Are my eyes red?”

Shiro chuckles lowly as he takes in the sight of Keith’s beautiful purple eyes.  “No.  No, you’re good.”

Keith is quiet for awhile.  “...Do you ever fight with your friends like that?”

“Matt and them?  Uh...” Shiro tries to think, but just chuckles softly.  “No...but I get it, Keith.  People argue with their families.  I understand.”

“Why do you say it like that...?”  Keith asks under his breath, leaning in with a frown.  “...Why do you say it like you’re detached from the thought?  ...You never mention your family.”

“Ah... I, uh -”

“Jesus,” Keith groans and rocks back.  “Jesus, I’m sorry.  That was so tactless.  Of course you don’t have to tell me.  What’s something else?  Something benign.  Uh...  Jesus... How about.... Favorite food?”

Shiro snorts.  “Oh, man... That’s supposed to be a benign question?  That’s a hard one. There’s so much food out there that’s good.  Pizza?  Ice cream?  Maybe...peach ice cream.  I’ve had it once at an amusement park...it was the best thing in my life.”

Keith laughs.  “That does sound good.”

“The best.”

“Let me bring you to Disneyland,” Keith hums, leaning into Shiro’s space and smiling up at him.  “Akira’s got a private jet. We can fly over there right now and be back in no time, before anyone even notices.  No one’s got to know.”

Shiro snorts.  “Are you serious?”

“Completely.  It sounds fun, doesn’t it?  Just you and me. Come on,” he whispers.

“...Keith...  We’ve both got work tomorrow, we can’t just abandon everyone.  I don’t want to take advantage of Akira, either. I’ve already made enough of a mess for you all.”

Keith doesn’t look surprised, but he does sigh.  “Akira wouldn’t mind. What are private jets for if not to bring deserving Shiros to Disneyland to get ice cream?”

“But is there peach?”

“There’s got to be, right?  It’s Disneyland, the happiest place on earth.  And who’s happy if they don’t have your favorite kind of ice cream?”

“Sounds like my kind of place.”

Keith chuckles a little and tilts his eyes up to the sky, shifting on his seat.  “...I feel like a cloud... Dark and like static and if irritability were a person, it’d be me.  Ugh, I get so mad at this situation and at my family sometimes...but then I have to remember...they do so much for me that I just take for granted.  They don’t have to be here, but they are...every time I turn around.” He takes in a deep breath. “...I just wish we could have a Thanksgiving together.  I haven’t had one in years. But I’ll get over it...”

Shiro sniffs and leans his head on his hand.  “Matt and the rest have sort of adopted me into their makeshift family, but...as for my born relatives, me neither.  I love my friends, but it’s somehow not the same, even then. ...I’m sorry, Keith. I hope you get your holiday one day.”

“...Yeah.  You too, Shiro.”

Shiro’s quiet for awhile.  He traces his finger across the designs in Keith’s bedding.  He doesn’t trust many, that’s true. But he trusts Keith. “My family’s dead, actually.”

Shiro doesn’t like to look because he doesn’t like the expression people get.  The way they freeze up. Their voices get all soft, filled with pity as they stammer out: “I-I’m so sorry, Shiro...  I didn’t mean -”

“No, it’s fine.  I know you didn’t know.  I don’t mention it a lot.”

“...You don’t have to tell me, Shiro.”

“I want to.  Because it’s you.  ...You let me into a piece of your heart yesterday...even if it might not have been totally willing -”

Keith laughs and hums.  “It’s okay if it’s you.”

“That’s how I feel too.  I’ve never been this comfortable with anyone else before.  ...I want to tell you my secrets.” Shiro says to Keith as they lay on the bed together, staring into the ceiling and recalling other things, “My parents died in a plane crash when I was very young, so my grandfather raised me.  The last Thanksgiving I had with family was just with him, but that was years ago, ” he whispers quietly.  Already, his nose begins to burn. His eyes start to prickle. The hospital visits and swift deterioration lasted through the span of an entire year - three-hundred and sixty five days - and yet, it still felt far too swift.  It hurts him even now to talk about it.

“Were you close with your grandparents?”  Shiro asks.

Keith shakes his head.  “I hardly knew them.”

“It was different with him somehow...  With my parents, it was hard, of course it was, but I knew I had my grandfather there to fall back on.  He was always there - when everyone else left me, there he was - until he wasn’t. My grandfather was the hardest loss to accept.  ...I miss him so much.  Still, to this day, when I think of him, I’ll sometimes forget he’s gone. And then it’ll hit me and the pain is new again.”

They’re quiet together for a long moment.  “I keep seeing you looking at my arm. You’ve been curious, haven’t you?”

“Sort of, yeah...  And your scar. It goes so deep.  It all looks so painful...”

“It was,” Shiro hums.  “But there are worse pains.”  He bites at his lip. “I know you’re probably not the happiest with her right now, but...Krolia loves you.”

“Yes.”

“The way she looked at you last night as I put you to bed, the way she hovers over you, spoils you, argues with you, looks after you...there’s so much love in everything she does where you’re involved.  I had that once too.  Watching it again is so...bittersweet.  She loves you.  ...My grandfather used to love me too.”

He raises his right arm into the air above them.  He watches Keith watch the movement. The curiosity always in his eyes that he never asks or pushes him about.

“The worst day of my life was when my grandfather died,” Shiro says.  “...But the day I lost my arm is a close second...and, god...what I wouldn’t do to take it back.  ...I’ve never had to tell this story before.  I’m kinda scared to.”  He licks at his lips nervously.  “You, uh, you said last night that I could fly space shuttles.”

“I did...?”  Keith groans as he grimaces.  “I’m sorry.  I was so drunk...  I just immediately associated NASA with going into space.  I know there are tons of other jobs, not just astronauts shooting off into the stars-”

“That was actually the plan,” Shiro says, smiling a bit at the shock that swallows Keith’s face.  “I was one of those astronauts for NASA.  Or...I was supposed to be.  It seems almost too big for me, doesn’t it?  An ill fit for someone so bland.”

“You’re not bland, not at all.  I just...honestly, it sounds like a dream job.  Some sort of fantasy.  Like Akira or something,” he chuckles.

“‘A science fiction novel that we’re living’ is what Matt used to say.  It was something I had dreamt of since before I could even remember.  My grandfather would wrap me up in a blanket and hold me in his arms each night and we’d pour over books about space, look up into the sky through our makeshift telescopes.  He was a space nerd, always looking out into the sky for my grandmother who had passed on before I was even born.  He was always searching, loving the hunt, so I searched too.  And as I grew older, I realized that my passion had equipped me with the knowledge to make it a very real reality for me.  My grandfather surprised me with the funding to go through college so I could go on and follow my dreams.  And I really thought I would then.  We both did.  It was all I could see in my future.  There were no other plans if this went awry.  Honestly, I...I flew through everything so easily there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t work out.  Their training, the schooling, the programs, it was like I was born for it.  And with Matt at my side, it was like...it felt like it was meant to be.  My grandfather loved it.  He loved seeing me succeed.  That was the best feeling in the world.

“And suddenly, one day, they selected me to go into space.  I was going to be the first pilot to get to Kerberos.  ...Did you hear about that?”

“...Who hasn’t...?”  Keith whispers softly, dread filling his face as he remembers the story.  “...Oh, my god.  That was you?”

Shiro sniffs.  “I used to always hang out with Matt and Pidge, but before the launch, my schedule was changed around so I could get to know the people I’d be working with back on the base.  It worked out really well actually. We all had common interests, obviously. They showed enthusiasm and were respectful and seemed kind. They were just like me - this was their dream job, they were so honored to be there, they were in love with the life they led.  They became good friends of mine.

“The day before launch, everyone was supposed to check the space shuttle for error.  We would be gone for so long. Billions of dollars were put into this rocket. A lot of time and money and energy went into this.  It had to go perfectly.  But when I went in to check it, I ran the diagnostics and found an error.  Protocol decreed I report it and whoever made the mistake would be fired. But...this was my friend.  He had all the same dreams I did. This was his dream job. I’d met his family, I’d gone to their house, eaten their food, and they couldn’t have been prouder of him.  ...I didn’t want to see him lose the job. He begged me not to say anything. He swore he knew the problem and that he’d fix it. He told me what it was and it seemed so simple, like so much of a waste to tattle over.  We were friends.  I didn’t want to ruin his life...and I trusted him.  Why wouldn’t I?  He knew my life was on the line.  ...We were friends.

“The day of the launch...  Well, I’m sure you saw it.  Everything went wrong.”

“I never heard about any of this.  They said it was pilot error.  I can’t believe that was you,” Keith whispers.  “I still remember seeing it on the news. The pieces that fell into the ocean, torn apart.  And you.  All the news trying to get to you.”

“It exploded.  I don’t even remember it honestly.  One second, we were getting ready to launch.  My whole future was in my hands.  My grandfather was watching.  He was so proud of me...  And the next second, I’m waking up on the cement, looking into the blue sky, hearing the ambulances approach, seeing the media trying to get to me over the police lines.  Trying to get their story.  My arm was gone.  People were grabbing at my face, trying to stop the bleeding in my arm.  I was in shock. The shuttle was gone. Everything was gone.”

“...God.  Shiro...”

“That was pretty bad.  But it was later, at the hospital...  The ‘friend’ wouldn’t admit it,” Shiro says lowly.  “They all banded together and said they’d warned me beforehand but I instructed them I could handle it.  They just...lied .  Flat out lied.  I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility.  In my attempt to try to protect my friend, I hadn’t logged the diagnostic test which would’ve saved my butt...and he knew it.  NASA deemed it pilot error.  They didn’t even blink.  Looking into all their faces as they blatantly lied after I’d tried to protect them...it just really made me see people's true colors.  You wouldn’t believe how mad the higher ups were.  Billions of dollars wasted because of my foolishness...and they were right, one way or another.  I had been such an idiot...

“They stripped me of my rank.  They tried to fire me completely, but Matt and Pidge stuck up for me.  They’re invaluable to the workplace.  They said if I had to leave, then so did they.  And they meant it...so NASA was forced to keep me.  They gave me that shitty desk job as some sort of sick consolation prize.  But that’s the thing about consolation prizes, isn’t it?  It wasn’t what I had wanted.  I hated it...  I hated it so much.  But it was still NASA.  It was what my friends fought for to get me, so...I kept it.

“It made me feel like some person I never knew I could be, someone dark and angry and bitter.  I had failed harder than I’d ever anticipated.  From an astronaut and my greatest dreams, to a desk job I’d never even considered.  I knew I’d made a mistake, but it wasn’t the one I was being punished for.  The mistake was trusting people.  The mistake was ever believing people could be true.

“And my grandfather, watching me fall and despair, became weak and sick...  It’s like...he fed off my mood.  He tried to console me, but I couldn’t listen and I just drug him deeper and deeper into my own sickness.  I couldn’t get out of it.  The more I tried, the more I fell apart.  And the more he got sick, the more I started hating everyone - I blamed them all for everything.  If only I’d been okay, my grandfather wouldn’t have gotten sick.  If only I’d reported them.  If only I hadn’t been so naive and stupid, like a child.  If only they hadn’t lied...  But they had.  We all had, and my grandfather was staring into all my failures, all my broken pieces.”

Shiro rubs at his face. “And then he just died. He died seeing me as some office worker, hardly able to use my arm, hardly able to go outside, more depressed than I knew I could ever be.  That’s the last bit of me he’ll ever know.  He just left me...  ...It messed with my head for a long time...  If Matt and Pidge hadn’t been there...”  Shiro goes quiet.  He whispers, “But they were.  They helped me through it.  And Akira,” he says lowly.  “It sounds stupid, but he gave me a reason to get out of bed again.  He painted a picture no one else dared to believe in.  Something I had needed to see to keep going.”

Keith is quiet as he picks at the pillow in his arms.  “...I'm so sorry, Shiro,” he says lowly.  “Your grandfather must've been a good man, raising someone like you."

Shiro smiles slightly.  "He really was."

"...It wasn't right of them.  You shouldn’t have had to settle.  Someone like you should never have to settle -”

“It all comes down to money.  And I blew it.  Literally.  All into little pieces in the sky.  ...I saw video of it.  The aftermath.  The debris fell from the sky like falling stars.  I don’t even know how I’m still alive honestly.”  He’s quiet for awhile.  “...I used to think it was some sort of sick joke that I was.  Like the universe gave me life again only so I could watch it all burn to the ground.”

Keith swallows hard.  “...Shiro.”

“I’m okay now,” Shiro says as he turns onto his side to look at Keith.  “Really.  I was getting better even before all this with Akira’s help.  And now, with your help...”  Shiro rubs at his nose and bites at his lip.  “...Well, I’ve started to feel lucky instead of cursed.”

Keith shifts in closer, placing his hand on Shiro’s for comfort.

“How did you keep going...?”  Keith whispers and he looks up into Shiro’s face with genuine wonder.  “How can you still afford to be kind and open and trusting when you were betrayed like that?  Who were they?  Do they still work there in their dream job after watching what happened to you?”

“...Yeah,” Shiro says lowly as he watches their hands weave together.  “But it’s okay.  It’s clear they needed the job more than I did.  We’re all just people trying to do our best -”

“- No,” Keith pushes himself up, horrified.  “No!  They lied and let your dreams go up in an inferno without blinking an eye.  They’re demons who should rot in hell.”

Shiro looks up at the anger and passion in Keith’s face and laughs.  He shifts a bit and reaches his hands up to Keith’s, dragging him back down into his hold.  “I’m okay with it now.”

“I’m not.  Those little bastards.  What are their names?  I swear to god, I’ll make their lives a living hell -”

“Keith.  Keith, it’s okay,” Shiro laughs.  “...Life is funny sometimes.  If I had gone on that mission, if it had all gone according to plan, I wouldn’t even be here right now.  I wouldn’t have gotten this job.  I wouldn’t have met you.  ...And somehow, you and me...this feels right.  I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.  Don’t you?”

Keith settles a little bit, staring at the softness in Shiro’s face and letting him melt beneath it.  “...Yeah,” he says lowly.  “Yeah, I feel the same exact way.  ...You’re not still mad at them?  They betrayed you.  You trusted them.  You believed in them.  ...And they hurt you in the cruelest way.”

“I should’ve done my job -”

“-Shiro, no.  Stop. They hurt you.  You were only being kind...  You didn’t deserve that.  Not any of that...”

Shiro reaches his hand up and runs his fingers across the bottom rim of Keith’s eye.  “...Are you crying?”

No.  I’m not crying.  I’m pissed for you.  Why aren’t you mad?  Where’s your sense of justice and vengeance?  I want to go out there and find these sons of bitches and fight the fuck out of them -”

“Don’t,” Shiro laughs again.  He hums and closes his eyes, a smile on his face.  “Hate begets hate.  Isn’t that what Akira says?”

Keith’s face pinches in like he just bit into a fresh lemon.

“...My grandfather would’ve loved you.  Your passion, your spirit, the way you stay true to yourself, the way you wear your heart on your sleeve.”

“...Shiro,” Keith murmurs lowly.  If Shiro had his eyes open, he’d see that Keith’s face isn’t happy.

“I know he’s somewhere, watching us.  And he can see I’m okay again...and he’s happy.  Thanks to Matt, thanks to Pidge, thanks to the whole gang.  Thanks to Akira.  ...And thanks to you.” Shiro blinks his eyes open softly, taking in Keith’s face.

Keith bites at his lip.  “...God, Shiro... I wish I could help in some way.”

“You do.  Everyday.  I thought I’d have to rot in that job...but I’m here now, and I’m so happy.”

“But your dream -”

“Hm...  Even if they accepted me back, I wouldn’t be able to do that.  Things are different now.  I’m not going to lie, sometimes getting in the car, I still get taken back to that moment.  I don’t...remember it, not exactly.  But it’s like I’m waiting for it to happen again.  Like, if I’m not paying enough attention, I’ll wake up on that cement again, staring up, people around me.  The sound of cameras.”

“...That time at the diner, with Akira...  Uh, he said you looked funny.”

“Kind of brought me back.  But I’m okay.  It’s not as bad now.  I swear I used to be a good driver.  But sometimes now I panic.”

Keith lets out a shaky breath and they lay out on the bed together, spent and sad.

“...Well, now I’ve made it dreary.  It’s your turn for a story now.  Tell me your happiest day,” Shiro says softly.

“My happiest day?”  Keith bites at his lip as he thinks.  “Umm...” He blows out a long breath. “Oh.  I got one.  It was one day, I was late to work and I was running all the way back.  I clipped my arm on the door and accidentally spilled my coffee on some guy.  I thought it was the worst day at first, but then he stopped to help me...  And god, he was the most gorgeous, selfless, kindest guy I’ve ever met.  I’ve never met anyone like him.  Didn’t know people like that existed.  I thought to myself, ‘what I wouldn’t give to get at least one date with him’.”

Shiro laughs.  “Oh, yeah?  Who’s this?  Do I have to fight him?”

Keith chuckles warmly and rolls onto his side, propping himself up on his elbow.  “There you were again, being kind, even though I could’ve been your competition.”

“...Ah,” Shiro hums lowly.  “...I guess that’s true.”

“...Your heart is so good,” Keith whispers.

Shiro looks up.  The moment is intimate.  If he were to reach up, he could press a kiss to Keith’s lips.  Keith is leaning over him, staring down with the same level of intensity that Shiro feels in his heart.

“Even if you could go back in time to fix things,” Keith says lowly, “I have a feeling you wouldn’t take that job from those assholes.  You wouldn’t file that report, even though everyone who knew the truth would be egging you on.”

“...Maybe not,” Shiro says.  “Maybe they needed it more than me.”

“...You are the epitome of kindness, Shiro,” Keith whispers to him.  “I want to protect you...  You are everything Akira’s songs are about.  You are the hope he always begs everyone to try to be.  You are every ounce of goodness in this world housed in your one beautiful body.”

Shiro snorts and hums happily.  “You flatter me.  ...You know something Akira once told me?  “We’re all just people trying to do our best.”  I truly believe that.  Me. You.  All of us.  Sometimes we make mistakes, but the world’s got our back.  Through all that tragedy, look where it led me.  Right here, with you.”

“...Some people do their best a little better than others,” Keith tilts his head to watch Shiro’s face closely.  He chuckles softly.  “And you do it the absolute best...”

He could kiss Keith.

Shiro could do it.

He should do it.

Keith’s mouth is inches from his, warm and soft looking.  He’s totally open for Shiro, looking down at him with trust, with admiration, with a warmth that makes Shiro feel loved.

...He should do it.

He goes to push himself up, to chase after the warmth on Keith’s face and press his lips against it, when there’s a soft knock on the door.

Keith blinks rapid fire up and away, a frown developing on his forehead.  “What?”  He grudges, pushing himself up.

Krolia opens the door slightly, peering inside.  Shiro swallows hard and pulls himself up, trying to look casual even though he doesn’t feel like it at all.

“I talked to Kolivan,” she says.

“Great,” Keith huffs out a sigh.  "Super great."

“The interview,” Krolia says.  “If you can convince Akira to do the interview with Nyma, then it’ll give you the chance to clear everything up with the press and that alone will help us all so much.  Just tell them how it is.  ...That’ll be enough damage control and then...if you do that, Kolivan and I are fine with you going to Shiro’s for Thanksgiving.”

Keith blinks.  “Y-you are? Even with all the work we have?”

“Yes,” she says quietly.  “We’ll take your workload off your hands that day and split it between the two of us.  ...I meant it when I said I wish we could’ve had it together, Keith. ...I don’t want to say ‘next year’ again in case something happens that we can’t predict, but...you have no idea how much I’d love to fly home to see your father with you... I miss us all together too.”

“I-I know,” Keith says lowly.  “...Of course I know that. ...I’m sorry about earlier.  I was mad.”

She smiles slightly, looking up to Shiro.  “If you need us to make anything for the dinner, let us know.”

Shiro shakes his head.  “Everything’s already taken care of.  All we’d need is Keith.”

Keith smiles up at him warmly and Shiro doesn’t even think about it as he reaches over and grabs Keith’s hand in his.  Keith squeezes his hand right back.

“Thanks, Krolia,” Keith whispers to her, smiling softly.

“You’re welcome, Keith.  I’m off to work, but if you need anything, you know you can text me.”

He nods and she leaves.  Keith swings his feet and hums happily.  There’s that little smile on his face as he looks out the window.

Shiro is smiling too.  He leans into Keith, squeezing his hand again.  “You know what? This feels like a victorious day.  Now, we can celebrate Thanksgiving together. One very important event down.  What’s next on the agenda?”

Keith grins back at him.  “Well, I’ve never made a snowman before.  You up for it?”

Shiro laughs and nods, leaning his forehead onto Keith’s shoulder.  “With you, I’m up for anything.”

 

They meet at the Marmora building the day they depart.  They have a few residual tasks left over to do, and Shiro has to bring the coffee.  He delivers it to everyone, finding Keith in Krolia’s room.

“Hi, Shiro,” Keith grins immediately when he sees him.

“Good morning, Keith.  Look at this,” he holds a cup out with a grin.  “They got your first order wrong - used chocolate instead of caramel - so they made the right order and gave us this one for free.  Cool, right?”

“Hell, yeah,” Keith hums, taking them from him with a grin.  “Thanks, Shiro.  Ready for liftoff?  You and I are taking our own private jet.  The rest will take the other.”

“The other?”  Shiro chokes. “You have two jets?”

“One for Disneyland, the other for the interview.”

Keith,” Krolia says from digging through her files.  She doesn’t even bother to look up.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Keith rolls his eyes as he links his arm through Shiro’s and drags him out.

The private jets are huge and luxurious.  Carpet, freshly cut flowers, seats that are more comfortable than clouds.  Shiro can’t believe he’s actually in a private jet.  It feels like some sort of movie.  He's fascinated by every little detail of it.  The stitching in the seat, the material of the ceiling, the strands in the carpet.  Even the bathroom smells like money.  “How much does something like this cost?”

“Uh.  I dunno, we’ve had it forever,” Keith hums, trying to look around with fresh eyes as Shiro marvels at everything.  He falls short, turning concerned eyes to Shiro.  “Are you going to be okay flying?”

“I think so,” Shiro says as he looks out the window and sees Krolia and Kolivan both talking together down below, gesturing up where they are.  Krolia looks exasperated.

Keith looks at Shiro’s empty hands.  He still has the two coffees in his own.  “Here,” he hums, shoving the extra coffee into Shiro’s hand.  “You never get one for yourself.”

“I’m not obsessed with it like you people.”  He takes it anyway and starts sipping it.  “...Have you spoken to Akira yet?  I haven’t seen him in awhile.  I was wondering what he thought of everything.  I wouldn’t blame him if he was mad for having to do all this when he’s already so busy.”

“Uhh,” Keith heaves in a huge breath as he stretches and thinks.  “He’s fine with it.  He gets money for the interviews, he strengthens his connections, it makes people happy, everyone wins.”

“Huh...”  Shiro shrugs.  “He’s not mad at you?  Now that everyone thinks he’s dating someone like me?”

Keith laughs at that.  The sun coming in from the window cuts across his face as he looks over at Shiro with an amused raised eyebrow.  “‘Someone like you’?  Why would he be mad about that?  Why would anyone?”

Shiro shrugs.  “I just... I don’t want to pry.  It’s just you guys don’t seem to like each other...  I’ve never seen you together in one room before.  I mean, that song you sang in your room.  And you kind of...  I don’t know.  You get this look sometimes when I mention him.  I feel like I shouldn’t.”

“Ugh.  No, Shiro, I’m sorry.  It’s not that.  If you want to talk about him, you’re welcome to.  And it's not that I hate him.  It’s just...well, I don’t know.”  He thinks about it for a long moment, brow furrowing.

“Like sibling rivalry...?”  Shiro tries.

“Sometimes the things Akira is and the things people thinks he stands for...it feels so fake.  It sort of gives me a bad feeling in my stomach.  I hate lying.  He reminds me that I’m the biggest liar there is.”

It sounds like they’re preparing for takeoff.  Shiro sits in the middle seat, away from the windows and turns his attention fully on Keith.  

“You...?”  Shiro murmurs.

Keith’s lips part as he leans his head against the rest.  There's a light right above his head that shines right on him as he stares straight into it without blinking.  “...I just don’t know if I believe in him anymore.  He’s a fake.”

Shiro shifts.  He doesn’t know what to say to that.  The way Keith says it, there’s so much loathing behind those simple words.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro says lowly.  Sorry for mentioning it.  Sorry that it hurts him.

Keith just shrugs.  “Woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, I guess,” he mumbles.  “It’s fine.  Hey.  We’re ready.  You good to go?”

Shiro nods, taking in a deep breath.  “Yeah. As ready as I’ll ever be.”

It’s not that bad.  There are distractions - Keith’s face, his voice, his laughter.  He still seems a little darker than usual, a little more weary, but his smiles are genuine.  His laughter is true.

And the trip isn’t that long at all.  It seems like they’ve only just started when they’re landing and Keith is twisting to look outside.  He turns his eyes back to Shiro, a warm smile on his face. It’s like the snow thawing out and there’s Keith’s enthusiasm beneath, like grass poking out at the beginning of spring.

Keith tucks his hair away into a cap, puts on some sunglasses and he's good to go.  He hands Shiro a hat too.  "A disguise?"  Shiro asks.

"You know it.  Welcome to my hometown.  Ever been to Hollywood?”  Keith grins as he and Shiro meet up with Krolia, who’s busy on her phone, leaning against her luggage.  She gestures Keith over and hands a bag over for him to hold.

"We've got to hurry," Krolia murmurs, face still in her phone.  "Everything thinks we've landed somewhere else.  We've got to go before they figure it out.  Kolivan's buying us time."

Keith is still waiting for Shiro's answer as they begin their walk.  “No, I haven’t been to California before," Shiro says, squinting into the distance.  "Is that a statue of Akira?”

“Yeah,” Keith laughs as he uses his hand as a sun visor and tilts up to look into the sky at it.  “But look at the palm trees. That's how you know you're home.”  They’re bathed in the sun’s golden light.  It’s every bit of excitement and gold sparkles that Shiro imagined it’d be - he can basically hear that overly excited song about Hollywood! playing in the distance - but maybe it’s just the way Keith is grinning again.  “Oh, man.  I wish I could show you around my house.  The pool is my favorite thing.  I think we spent more on that than the jets.  We have a cave.”

Shiro laughs and they go, wheeling their luggage out and away.  The statue of Akira is right dead center in the middle of the entryway outside and it blots out the light in all its gigantic majesty.  The detail is amazing.  God-like.  Fitting.  The sculpted Akira is sitting, leaning forward with his legs crossed and a crown cocked crookedly on his head, that cocky self assured smile on his face and in his eyes.  Somehow, despite the obvious skill of the sculptor, it doesn't really feel like him.

“I bet he loves that,” Shiro says but he takes his phone out to snag a selfie anyway.  "Keith, come here."  Keith has to stand on his tippy toes to get in the photo, but he's laughing in it.  Shiro takes the picture and, with a fond smile, sends it to Matt.

“That's all Regris’ doing,” Keith snorts, jerking his thumb at the sculpture.  “He thought it was funny.  Akira didn't even know until he was done.”

Shiro pokes his head up.  “Oh, yeah.  Where is Akira?  I haven’t seen him at all.”

“He’s probably gone ahead.  He gets nervous before interviews.”

“You never would’ve thought...”  Shiro mutters, thinking of how calm and self assured Akira always seems.  “Are we renting cars?” Shiro asks as they get to the sidewalk on the side of the road.

“Hell, no,” Keith snorts.  “We’re waiting for -” And he stops as he peers down the sidewalk at a man approaching.  There’s a huge wolf beside him that cries out in a garbled tone at the sight of them. He breaks free and darts after Keith.

“Oh,” Keith breathes, tossing his bag to the ground and kneeling, throwing his arms wide to catch the huge beast.  It’s so large that it looks like it swallows Keith whole in an explosion of fur.  His sunglasses and hat go flying.  Shiro’s a little nervous just looking at it as he approaches a bit closer to pick up Keith's fallen items, but it’s not paying attention to him, too busy crying and attacking Keith’s face with kisses.  And Keith’s never looked so young and happy in his life.

“Hey, boy!  Hey, Kosmo!  Hey, buddy,” he laughs and clings to him.  “Shiro!  Shiro, come here. He won’t bite. This is Kosmo.  My noble steed.”

Shiro takes a hesitant step forward and holds his hand out.  “He’s huge.”  Kosmo shoves his happy face into Shiro's hand and slobbers all over it.

“Yeah,” Keith laughs, delighted.  "He likes you!  We could probably ride him around and he’d do it.”  He pokes his head up out of the fur and looks up, seeking.

His eyes meet his target.  Krolia looks up from her phone.

Dad,” Keith whispers.  He lets go of Kosmo and races through the sidewalk over to the newcomer, tossing himself and throwing his arms around him.

“Hey,” his dad holds him, patting his back warmly.  “There you are.  How’ve you been?  How was the flight?”

“Good.  Really good.”  He pulls back and they both grin at each other.  “How’s work been?”

“Tiring, but rewarding.  I saved three cats out of a tree today alone."

Keith laughs.  "Lucky cats."

"Look at you.  I know you’ve only been gone for hardly a month, but you already look so much taller.”

“I haven’t grown,” Keith narrows his eyes at him suspiciously.

“Maybe it’s me who’s shrinking.”

They both laugh together as he turns to look at Shiro, smiling welcoming as he holds his hand out around Keith for him.  “And you must be Shiro.”

“A-ah,” Shiro breathes, clumsily shifting the bag on his shoulder and clasping onto Keith’s dad’s hand.  Firm.  Sturdy.  But kind and warm.  Keith's eyes are bright as he watches the two of them interacting.  “I-it’s nice to meet you, sir.”

“I’ve heard so many good things about you,” he says lowly, the tone reassuring.  “Thank you for taking care of my son.”

And then his attention drifts over to Krolia.  His face softens even more.  “Hey...” He says.  Forgetting all else, he closes the distance between them and bundles her in a hug.

She hums happily, looking into his face fondly as she wraps her arms around his neck.  They exchange quiet words only for the other. They’re so in love.

Shiro blinks.

Keith coughs loudly into his hand.  “A-anyway, Shiro, look at this,” he gestures over.  “Kosmo, go fetch a rock!”

Kosmo runs off into the grass, people on the road keeping their distance and watching him warily.  He comes back, big goofy grin on his face if a wolf can have a grin - rock in mouth.  He hands it over to Keith.

“Best wolf in the world,” Keith grins and rubs his head.  “Good boy.  Oh, man...  I wish I could show you my house...  We have a field that Kosmo likes to show off and do laps around.”  Keith says, turning toward the street.  “But we don’t have time.  We’re running behind in schedule and Nyma awaits,” he sighs.  “We’ll have to go straight to her...”

“We’re close to Disneyland, aren’t we?”

“Yeah.”  He glances sideways over at Shiro, a little devil-may-care smirk on his face.  “Wanna make a run for it?”

Shiro snorts and wheels Keith around by the shoulders so they can follow after Krolia and Keith's dad, who are walking into the parking lot, gesturing them over.  Kolivan has appeared too and is waiting for the both of them, calling them over, telling them to hurry.  “You’re very funny.  Maybe another time.”

“I’m going to hold you to that, you know.”

Shiro just laughs in his ear.  He moves his hands from Keith’s shoulder and slips his hold onto Keith’s hand.  They both lace their fingers together.  It’s getting easier to do it, more casual and less stressful, but it still feels new, the two of them connected like this.  New and exciting.  Just like this place they’re at, almost like a mini vacation between the two of them. Shiro clings to Keith tighter.

His dad drives them.  He actually drives like a normal person and not a nut like Keith, but they’re there in no time, passing through guarded gates that raise high into the sky.  A mini community beyond them where everyone, even the employees letting drivers through, look too beautiful to be real.

“This place looks fancy,” Shiro says.  “I’m getting nervous.”

Keith huffs a laugh beneath his breath.  “You’re not the one getting interviewed.”

“Yeah, but still.”

Keith leans in, fiddling with the buttons on Shiro’s shirt.  Shiro can see his dad look up in the rearview mirror, surprised arch of his eyebrow on his face.  The way he and Krolia exchange looks like it's some interesting scandal.  Shiro’s immediately embarrassed.

“Wh-what are you doing?”  He murmurs, “your dad’s right here.”

“I’m checking.  I know what happens when you get nervous.”

“Wha-?  You.  I’m fine,” Shiro laughs, pushing Keith away by the forehead, who laughs with him.

Krolia turns and gives Keith an expectant look as they park behind a huge studio.

Keith sees it and turns to Shiro.  “Do me a favor?”

“Hm?”

“I’ve got to help Akira with his junk before the interview.  Getting ready and shit.  It’s going to be really boring and take a long time.  If you can go with my dad to drop our luggage off at my house, that’d be really great.  It’s right around the corner.  Literally.”

“Of course, Keith.  Need me to bring back coffee?”

Keith laughs.  “God. It’s not worth it.  Unless you can get a disguise, you’re going to be swarmed.  I’ll just make Kolivan get me some here.  It’s fine. Thanks, though.”

Shiro salutes him.  “Good luck, Keith.”

“You too,” Keith says breathlessly.  “I’m glad you’re here.  I’ll see you in a bit.”  He looks a little frazzled. A little uncomfortable, but he pushes out the door anyway, blazing forward.

Like Akira might.

Shiro stares after him.  Krolia gets out too, putting her hand on his back protectively as she looks down into his face, says something to him.  The more comfortable Shiro is certain Keith is with him, the more he allows himself to look. And Keith.... Everything about him.  The shape of his eyes.  The plushness of his lips. The chord of muscles in his arms.

It’s not just that.

The fire.  The blazing fire that convinced Shiro it was okay to fail.  The burning certainty that there was more to life than one path.  Keith makes him feel the same way.

It’s...it’s Akira.  Everything about him is Akira.

But the softness...  It’s not.

But it is.

But it’s...it’s not.

Keith said he’s not Akira, so Shiro should trust him.  ...He can trust people again.  He can trust Keith.

But...

“You okay?”  Keith’s dad asks him, watching him still through the rear view mirror.

Shiro takes in a deep breath.  “...Yeah,” he mutters, turning away.

 

Keith's house truly is only a few minutes away and Shiro and Keith's dad don't get much of a chance to talk beyond how busy everyone is and the weather being nice here versus the snowy lands they just left.  He's pretty nice though for Shiro newly dating his son, and Shiro decides immediately that he really likes him.  He's like Keith, after all.

They quickly unload and drop off their luggage at a huge impressive mansion that Shiro blinks up in, unable to compute, and then they're off again.

Keith isn’t there when Shiro returns.  He looks for him everywhere. In the hallways backstage, the bathrooms, the closets.  He texts him but doesn’t receive an answer. There are so many people, all busy and looking like they know where they’re going, and Shiro bumbles through them, feeling out of place, looking for his anchor.  But he’s nowhere.

It’s almost time for Akira to go onstage and Shiro’s got to return to the sidelines, but where the heck is Keith?

“Shiro,” Krolia runs down the hallway and calls for him.  He turns.

“Come here,” she says, gesturing him behind her.  “It’s about to start.”

“I was looking for Keith -”

“Keith’s fine.  He’ll be back soon, just...come on.  We need you up here.”

He follows her through a door and meets pitch black.  She puts her hands on his shoulders and leads him through and up some steps, where concentrated light blazes.

Kolivan’s there already, leaning against a curtain, arms crossed, looking out.  He hands over a headset to Shiro when he notices him and Shiro slips it on curiously.  He can hear everyone talking through it.  Wow.  He feels so official.

Through the darkness of their backstage position, there’s light on the stage.  It’s warm and rich and -

Ah.

There he is.

Akira in the plush interviewee seat, long silver hair tied behind him, piercings in place and sunglasses on his head.  He’s chewing on his lip, complex expression tightening his brow as he crosses his legs and taps his foot.

When he looks up sharply into the sidelines, he and Shiro’s eyes meet.  He settles slightly, the tapping of his foot calming.

He holds up a hand and waves a little.  Shiro blinks. To him?  He looks behind himself and then lifts a hand, waving back.

 

At the same time, the music begins to blare loudly and Nyma, with her telltale long blond hair and peppy grin, brushes past them haughtily and goes to take her place across from Akira.

There’s so much going on.  All the cameras swiveling, the full heated power of the lights pouring down on them from above.  Shiro can feel the heat even from where he stands, totally hidden from the lights, behind the curtain.  Akira must be dying. But he appears cool and casual as he sits in the center of all the attention from the lights, the cameras, the people.

To Shiro, it just feels like chaos.

“And we’re live,” a man says from beyond the set.  “In three, two -”

The red light clicks on above them.

Nyma bounces and dives right in.  “Hello, hello, world!  You’re watching Nyma Talks and I’m Nyma.  I’m here with a very special guest today.  He’s the amazing winner of twenty-five Grammy's, the gifted owner of three Oscars, and, of course, the world’s highest paid model, all at the ripe young age of twenty-three.  We’ve received more requests for him than the rest of the population combined. You know who I'm talking about!  It’s the one, the only, Akira!”

The crowd goes crazy and Akira smiles, holding his hand up.  The small gesture is met with insanity.  They are just showered in cheers.  It’s mind blowingly crazy.  It doesn’t taper off, it doesn’t lessen. People are trying to hang over the railings as they scream and cry and hyperventilate and the security has to come out and try to correct them.

Shiro’s ears hurt.  He doesn’t know how Akira can continue to smile beneath the energy.  But he does.  He does and he’s golden.

He laughs in the face of it, his mouth pulled into his crooked grin as he just sits there and watched them, taking it all in.  As he speaks, everyone’s screams drop, eager to hear what he has to say.

“Thanks for having me, Nyma.  It’s always a pleasure to be here.”  The smooth low voice. The way that it rasps in the right spots.  Pulls in the right places.

But the way Akira says it.  It’s the way Keith would say it when he’s lying through his teeth.  Shiro can read his tells. Akira’s tells.

Nyma leans forward on her seat, her eyes bright and cheery.  “It’s been awhile since I’ve last seen you and I know you’re a busy man, so let me get straight to the point.  The world’s just dying to know.  There was an incident at a bar in the city you’re staying at.  Can you tell us more about that?”

Pictures appear on the screen behind her.  God.  It’s the same pictures from the bar.  It's not like it's a surprise but, sadly, they didn’t cut Shiro out of them.  They zoom in on Akira’s face and do a side-by-side comparison with Keith's image.  “He’s tall, dark, and handsome.  He’s got similar eyes, similar face shape, similar body type.  We’ve seen this man -” she raises her finger to point at Shiro “- with you once before already.  A new assistant perhaps?  And now he’s here, too, with this man who looks mysteriously like you.  All signs point to you.  So, tell us, is this how you’ve been sneaking around when you want?  Is this your disguise?  You know a woman loves a man of mystery.

“And who is this mystery man?  What can you tell us about him?  Are you two together?”  She laughs loudly.  “Forgive me for my enthusiasm, but you’re not one to give interviews and the world wants to know!  There’s got to be a reason you’re here, right?  What do you want to tell the world?”

Akira’s eyebrows are high on his forehead.  He lets out a small amused laugh.  “...That’s a lot of questions.”

“That’s not even half of the ones running amok in my mind right now!”  She claps her hands together and chuckles before leaning forward, chin to her hand in deep interest. “But I know we’re all hoping you have a lot of answers.”

Akira shifts.  “First and foremost, I stand by what I always say - I like to keep my private life private for the safety of my family and friends.  They’re people too and they deserve to be treated with respect.”

“Of course .  Of course  they should.  You are so right.  But don’t you think you also owe it to the fans?  Just this little bit of info. Oh, come now. Don’t pretend you don’t know if you started dating that you’d break the hearts of millions of fans.  I would know, I’m one of them.” She laughs.

She leans forward, placing her hand on his knee.  The touch is inappropriate and Shiro feels as he, Krolia and Kolivan all look down to the gesture.  Akira tenses. Slightly, but Shiro catches it.

Nyma purrs. “That’s you up there in that photo, isn’t it?  Do you have a boyfriend?”

Krolia’s biting at her lip as she watches him tensely.

“A girlfriend?”  Nyma presses.  “...Anyone?”

“No,” Akira says after a pause.  “There’s no one.  The media was quick to jump the gun.  That wasn’t me.  Who you’re seeing here is my cousin.  What he does is no one’s business.  He’s always wanted to stay out of the limelight, so please, respect his privacy.”

“Then who is this?”  Shiro’s face pops up on the screen again.  Twice over though. The image from the bar and the one before, with Akira, at the diner.  Shiro’s not sure what kind of face he’s making at the images on screen, but it can’t be good.  Krolia’s hand goes gently down on his shoulder.

Akira takes in a deep breath.  “He’s one of my assistants.  I apologize for being so vague, but for his sake, I won’t say more.”

“Family, hm?”  Nyma tilts her head and leans in even more.  Her hand is on his thigh now.  “It's sweet you're trying to protect him, but it's all going to get out eventually.  Wouldn't it be better for everyone to hear it from yourself?  What’s his name?”

Akira’s expression goes stony.  It’s clear he’s irritated. He glares back at her.

“Come on,” she says.  “A little bit of info?  Just a smidgen. Please?”  She reaches up to pinch his cheek as the other squeezes his leg.

“Does-does this not seem inappropriate?”  Shiro hisses over to Krolia.

“He’s going to lose it...”  Kolivan murmurs to Krolia.

“No, he’s not,” she says back, but she doesn’t sound sure.

“I’m not going to give up, you know,” Nyma giggles, her hand slipping closer in.  Akira shifts away in his seat, trying to move from her hands, but she follows him in.  “We can be here all day or you can tell me a bit of that secret of yours.  Come on.  Just a piece.  We're dying to know.”

Akita rears back.

Krolia takes in a sharp breath and clenches her teeth.  “This is ridiculous.”  She signals to the producer.

Nyma blinks over and irritation crosses her face as she sees she needs to wrap up for commercial.  She plasters a smile back on as she shifts back in her seat.  “We’ve got to go to commercial for now, but after the break, more with Akira.”

The red lights go off and Akira bodily shifts.  “Do not do that again,” he hisses at her, pushing himself out of the seat.

“All part of the business, babe,” she mutters, unaffected, as he storms past her and toward Shiro and them.

Krolia sighs as he shoots her a pointed look.  “You did well,” she says wearily.  “You’re halfway through.  It’s going to help.”

“Yeah, if she doesn’t kill me next round.”  He grabs a water bottle from her and takes a large angry swig of it.

Akira turns and sees Shiro.

“I-I’m sorry,” Shiro says lowly.  He wrings his hands out nervously.  “I, uh, I just want you to know.  This isn’t Keith’s fault, the blame is all on me.  I put you in this mess because of my carelessness. I can’t apologize enough for causing you all this trouble and forcing you to go through with something you didn’t want to do.  I’m so sorry.”

Akira considers him.  He puts the water bottle down as Krolia goes to raise hell with the producers.  “Hey,” he says lowly, putting a comforting hand on Shiro’s shoulder. “You’re part of our family now.  I’ll take care of you.”

Shiro blinks, staring after him as Akira grins brightly, the grudging anger burned away from his expression, and blazes to his seat.  He takes his place like he belongs there, tall and proud like a lion.

Nyma returns from a talk with the producers.  She brushes her hair back and positions her skirt.  Her nose is pinched in anger.

Akira says firmly, “I don’t want you touching me.  Next time it happens, I leave mid interview and don’t come back.  I don’t care what that would do for my image, but we both know that it would ruin yours.”

She glares at him, venom bubbling in her expression as her whole body tightens like a spring that wants to attack.

“Live again,” the producers say.  “In three, two...” The red light blinks on and Nyma blinks back to her chipper self, smiling brightly and Akira shifts in his seat into something more comfortable.

“And we’re back!  Akira’s still here with us and here I am, still trying to pry some secrets from his hands.  They don’t call him the reclusive celeb for nothing!”

Shiro can see the way Akira's eyes darken and shift moodily.  He reigns it back in, expression somehow still neutral.  “Actually,” Akira cuts in sharply.  “There is something I want to say. The person you're wondering about...his name is Shiro.  But that’s no one’s business here. What happens between Shiro and me, or my cousin, or anyone in my family at all is between him and me.  He’s no one else’s business.  He’s a good man with enough on his plate beyond this and he doesn’t deserve to be harassed like this.  I request the media and the fans and everyone else who thinks to approach him, just leave him alone.”

Shiro blinks, stunned.  Krolia and Kolivan are silent as they watch on.  There’s something resigned in their eyes.

“Hm.  So this Shiro - ?”  Nyma begins to press.

Akira waves her away, done.  “That’s all I’ll talk about him.  I’d rather talk about my upcoming movie.”

Any openness in his eyes is totally completely shut off.  Shiro’s never seen him like this before, even previous Nyma interviews have flowed nicer than this.  He’s irritated.  Shiro thinks of what Krolia said to Keith earlier: sloppy.

Krolia and Kolivan sigh to each other.

“I told you this was a bad idea,” Kolivan mutters.

“Well, he’s blunt, but he’s getting his point across,” Krolia says, but her voice is resigned and her eyes are wary.

“Alright, alright.  Touchy,” Nyma says, holding her hands up in forfeit.  “So nothing’s going on between you two.  You know, honestly, I’m relieved.  That’s great news, isn’t it, girls?”

She raises her hands and the whole crowd begins to scream and cheer again.  Akira!!  They roar.

“You know what I was thinking?”  She hums, tapping her finger to her cheek.  “How about we do something fun?  A game!  Come on, crowd?  What do you think?  You want to play a game with Akira?”

Who doesn’t love games?  Something new. Something fresh.  Excitement bubbles out of the crowd as they scream.  Anything with Akira is gold.

Nyma gasps like she was just struck by the most ingenious idea.  “I know!  Let’s get one of the audience to come up for a kiss, what do you say?”

Pandemonium.  The whole crowd goes rabid.  Akira freezes.

Nyma knows what she’s doing.  She knows he doesn’t want it. There’s a little glint in her eyes that she flicks over to Akira’s darkly, as if to say, ‘don’t fuck with me’.  Akira can deny Nyma, but the crowd is another thing.  His publicity is his career.  Lose the people, lose the job.

“Ah, no.  I couldn’t possibly,” he tries, waving it away.

“Nonsense!!  You just said there’s nothing going on with your Shiro friend, so prove it!  You’re still a bachelor. These ladies deserve it, am I right?”

Akira tries to speak but everyone’s screaming too loudly to hear it.

“Just choose one,” Nyma says.  “Just one.  It’ll be quick and you’ll make someone’s whole life.”

“No, I -”

“Come on!  I'll donate twenty thousand to charity for one kiss.  A kiss on the cheek.  Are your fans really that repulsive to you?  Come on.  What do you say?”  She stands to her feet and lifts her arms up, beckoning to the crowd.  “Kiss one!  Kiss one!  Kiss one!’

They all start chanting.  All of them. The crowd gets to their feet, jumping up and down and screaming and waving their arms.

“Choose me!”  They scream.  “I’ll pay you my life savings!  I’ll do whatever you want!”

Akira is clearly uncomfortable.  He shifts in his seat, trying to keep it cool, looking out at the sea of rabid fans all dying for him to just choose.

If he says no, he’ll let them down.  Repulsive - Nyma already planted the word into their heads.  His image will be tarnished a bit...just a bit...but when there’s one hole, suddenly there’s another, and another, and they tear bigger and deeper and -

He’s put on the spot.  He’s frazzled.

She played him.

So this is why everyone was so negative against Nyma.  Shiro gets it now.  It’s horrible to stand by and watch.

Akira looks up in the sidelines desperately for help - Krolia and Kolivan watch on, pained and hesitant - when he spots Shiro and stops.

And Shiro stops too because he’d love to help, he would, but what could he possibly do?

There’s a long stretched out moment between the two of them where everything else goes quiet.  Hushed. The crowd is screaming and the lights are blaring down on Akira, leaving Shiro in the shadows, but they’re connected.

And in that moment, Shiro can see Akira’s quiet panic and desperation melt away.  The fuck it in his eyes as he chooses.

“Him,” Akira says, pointing right at Shiro.  He pushes himself to his feet.

Shiro can hear, distantly, through his shock, Krolia growling out a low horrified curse.

Nyma stops.  She looks genuinely confused, the bouncy pep whooshing right out of her.  “I meant in the crowd -”

Akira strides across the room, grabs Shiro by the hands and pulls him into the light.

Shiro is just stunned stupid, staring down at Akira as he shines and glimmers up here on the stage.  Shiro knows what a mess he looks. His headset still on, casual clothes, bland, especially in comparison to Akira and Nyma, gods who both look like every teenager's wet dream.

The way Akira is staring at him.  The dark smoldering of his eyes bathed in gold and dreams and fantasy.  Shiro can’t even speak, he’s just caught up in his eyes.  The heavy look of them. The...the desire...?

The crowd’s eyes are all glued to them.  Nyma, who won't ever shut up, can’t even speak.

Akira grabs Shiro’s face in between his hands and pulls him forward, knocking him off balance into him, and kisses him.  Akira’s kiss is firm and deliberate.  His grip on Shiro’s face tightens.  It sends out one clear message: he’s mine.

Shiro’s too stunned to even feel it.  His whole body is numb with shock. He’s been electrocuted and he’s smoking on the spot, winded, the soul sucked right out of him.

Then, he feels the soft press of lips to his cheek as Akira kisses him once more, gentle, chaste, and the briefest hint of a smile against his skin.

Akira’s already pulling away.  He grins up at Shiro and then pats his chest, nodding him off the stage.  "Breathe," he says and then he turns away.

Shiro’s brain must be working at least a little because he manages to stumble off and back into the dark.

Krolia’s eyes are wide in horror, her hand pressed firmly over her mouth.  She's never looked so upset.

The crowd is shocked into silence.  They’re not celebrating, so it doesn’t feel like a victory, but somehow, from Akira’s returned pleased radiant smile onstage and the heat blazing across Shiro’s face as he presses his fingers to his lips, it doesn’t feel like a loss either.

The smell that lingered as Akira had pulled away...like coffee and sugar.

Chapter Text

There’s an uproar.  Questions being screamed from the crowd, upset, confusion.  Even Nyma can’t calm everyone down as she stands and stammers into the microphone.  “I think he’s just kidding, guys. He’s just joking!”

“Oh, my god,” Krolia whispers, still pressing her hand to her mouth.  She stares hard at Akira and then over to Kolivan, who looks done.  They share a long weary glance.

Keith’s dad had been watching from the audience.  He runs up to them now, concern and dread on his face as he tosses his attention between them and Akira onstage.  “He’s done it now, hasn’t he?”

“Yes,” Krolia whispers, nodding sharply.  “Yes, he has.”

“Well,” Nyma breathes into her microphone over the chaos.  “It seems like that’s all we have time for today, see you all tomorrow!  Next time, on Nyma Talks.”

The red button blinks off and she screams, “What the fuck!”  And Akira just hides his laughing face behind a hand as he pushes himself out of his seat and walks backstage.

Shiro still has his hand over his mouth, stunned still.  His mind can’t process this. It’s like a movie but he’s in it and he doesn’t know which way’s up.

He catches Krolia watching him.

“It’s fine,” Akira says as he approaches, looking at her face.  His eyebrows raise. “Don’t freak out. It’s nothing.”

“I can’t even talk with you right now...”  She unfolds her arms and puts a hand on Shiro’s shoulder.  “I want you to drive with me.  And Akira?"  She tsks when she sees he's not paying attention.  "Akira.

Akira’s turned, looking over at the crowd, frown on his face and eyes glossed over.  “...They’re upset.”

“Of course they’re upset.  You just -” She heaves a huge gritted sigh.  “We’ve got to hurry before we need a damn police escort to get you out of here.  Akira, you go with Kolivan and your father.  Shiro, you come with me.  Shiro?  Shiro!”

“Wh-what...?”  Shiro blinks up at her.

“Why are you taking Shiro?”  Akira’s attention snaps back to her.

“Come on.  Let’s go.”

Shiro stammers as she drags him along and out the back door.  “But... But - Keith.”

“He’s already gone ahead.  Come on.”

Krolia drives like Keith.  It could be her mood, the way she glares like cut glass out into the night, the muscles in her arm dark defined shadows from how tightly they clutch to the steering wheel.  It could just be in their genes. But Shiro, already confused and breathless, is starting to get dizzy.

Akira kissed him.  Akira. His idol, his dream, his savior.  Akira.  Akira’s lips touched Shiro’s.  His fingers are still numb.

This should be a dream.  Shiro should be ecstatic.  If this had happened only three months ago, he probably would’ve died and gone to heaven.  His friends would’ve never heard the end of it, not for as long as they lived.

But it’s not three months ago.  And all he can think about right now is Keith.  Did Keith see?  Is Keith upset?  Where is he?

It wasn’t a race, but Krolia leaves Keith’s dad in the dust.  They tear through the streets and get to the house first, but when she puts the car into park and turns the engine off, she doesn’t get out.  She just sits there, staring darkly at the dashboard, hands kneading the steering wheel like she’s slowly trying to tear it apart. There’s something sharp and bitter in the air.

When she finally speaks, Shiro jumps.  “...I want to prepare you for what’s going to happen next,” she murmurs lowly.  “Because this is not something that we all can just ignore and hope will blow over...like Akira always wishes.”

Shiro nods sharply.  “O-okay. Alright. What can I do?”

“What’s going to happen next...is everyone is going to tear Akira apart.  We won’t be able to stop it. We won’t be able to hide from it. It is going to hit him like a tidal wave and it is going to hurt him.  And Akira...he’s strong but he’s been at his breaking point...for a long time now.” She’s quiet for awhile. “...You asked what you can do...  ...Keith is going to need you. So please, god,” her hand clenches the steering wheel tightly as she closes her eyes even tighter, “if something happens...and you have to go...”  Keith’s dad pulls up behind them in his car and stops beside her. She doesn’t even bother to try to straighten herself out, her hands still clenched tightly.

Shiro bites at his lip.  The emotion in her voice burns him.  “...Why would I leave...?” He whispers.

“He respects you so much.  And he’s scared. He’s so scared.  He’s never lived a life like you lead.  He’s never even gotten close. And he wants it.  He’s become more and more unstable lately, tempted by the idea of it, tempted by you...  I could see it since day one.  I knew it was coming, but I...I couldn’t do anything...” She rubs at her nose and shakes her head.  She takes a deep breath and sighs it out. “...Shiro. The next few days will not be kind, not to either of you. If I can help you in any way, please let me know.  Please let any of us know. I suspected that there might be some sort of impending disaster, but I did not think it would include you to this degree... And, for that, I’m sorry.”

Akira leans forward outside and knocks on the passenger window.

Shiro looks up into the face of perfection.  God. How is he supposed to react?  Shiro was just the safe choice, obviously.  But it’s... But he... He never would’ve even dreamed.

“What are you doing to him in there?”  Akira frowns at Krolia.

She sighs again, darkly, and pushes the door open.  “I’m trying to prepare him for what you’ve brought down on his head.”

“He’ll be fine,” Akira says.  “I’ll protect him.”

“And who’s going to protect you...?”  Krolia mutters lowly, walking ahead, steps sharp and irritated.

Akira sighs as he looks after her.  “...I’m sorry,” he mutters lowly to Shiro, who takes in another shaky breath.  “I kissed you without your permission on national television. ...That was the lowest thing to do.  My panic is not an excuse.”

“...Uh - It’s fine,” Shiro looks down breathlessly at his fingers, trying to form tangent thoughts.  “I know she cornered you.”

“Yeah,” Akira sighs.  “I should’ve just walked off that stage or given in.  I’m so stupid sometimes. I’m sorry. I won’t let anyone hurt you, though.  I swear.”

Keith’s dad walks up to them.  “...Your mother and uncle are upset.”

Akira lets out a small groan.  “Yup.”

“...You going to go in there and talk with them or are you going to keep hiding?”

Akira stares into the house’s warm lights blankly.  Shiro hasn’t noticed it before through the makeup and the glitter, but there are dark circles beneath his eyes and his face seems heavy somehow.  Weighted. Tired, so tired. “...Yeah,” he says.

“I’ll show Shiro up to the guest room then.  I’ve already carried your things up there,” Keith’s dad says.

“O-oh.  Thank you.”

Keith’s dad leads him through the house.  They go up the staircase that loops around and, at the end of the hall, there’s a balcony banister that overlooks the living room.  He shows Shiro to the room right beside it. “The guest room. If you need anything, just ask. Keith will be up soon. I don’t mean to lock you away, I just...”  He raises his eyebrows and pulls a face. “I have a feeling it’s going to get fiery. Best not to be caught in the middle of that.”

“No, I completely understand.  Thank you. And good luck.”

Keith’s dad huffs a soft tired chuckle.  “Thanks. I think we’ll all need it.”

The guest room is bigger than Shiro’s entire house, a stunning bathroom included.  There are little fairy lights along the bottom of the cabinets that keep the floor lighted and heated stone flooring that warms up Shiro’s toes.  He washes up to try to add in some sense of normalcy to combat the cold in his fingers, and then he walks to the door to close it. To give them some privacy.

He can already hear Akira down below, grudging as Kolivan argues back.

The door creaks open and a happy face comes in.

“O-Oh.  Kosmo. Hey, boy...”  Kosmo looks even bigger indoors.  His fluff takes up so much space. He pushes the door open and nuzzles against Shiro’s leg in welcoming before looping around, placing himself right where the door needs to close, and staring out at the lights hanging from the ceiling into the living room.  He looks like he’s spying on their conversation in secret.

He can hear Akira biting out bitterly, “I did say that Nyma was going to be a bad idea.”

“...I think they’d rather me close this,” Shiro murmurs, trying to gently heft Kosmo’s huge body to the side a bit so he can give them privacy.  It’s no good. He’s got to weigh more than even Shiro. Kosmo tilts his head to give Shiro a curious glance and then he turns his attention back downstairs, totally unmoved both emotionally and physically.

Shiro sighs and sits on the bed.  Yeah. He can hear them all perfectly from down below.

“Well, it’s fine,” Akira says flippantly.  “It always is. People go nuts and then they calm down.”

Kolivan’s voice is grudging and heavy.  “I take it you haven’t been online.”

“No.  But I don’t need to.  Tomorrow, they’ll be talking about something else.”

“I don’t think you understand.  I don’t think you saw the crowd’s faces - the people who love you, the people who would kiss the ground you walk on, who think you do no harm...they weren’t happy.”

“I'm sure they'll get over it.”

Someone walks across the living room floor and then there’s the sound of the TV clicking on.

“What are you doing...?”  Akira mutters, dejected. “Turn it off.”

“If you want to keep this job, you need to understand that this requires immediate attention.  We can’t address it properly if we don’t know what they’re saying.”

“Just turn it off,” Akira repeats darkly to Kolivan, but the TV runs.

The people on the television are indignant: “Is Akira a homewrecker?  A cheater snagging away his own cousin’s boyfriend?”

“Imagine being related to someone with an ego like that, who just takes their boyfriend as they please.”

“Okay, but what if the one at the bar really is Akira in disguise?  The so-called cousin? And that really is his boyfriend?”

“Then he's a liar either way!  He flat-out told Nyma that he was not the one in the bar.  He said it was his cousin.  What’s the truth, Akira?  If that’s even your name.”

A young woman's voice tightens in distress.  “I can’t believe this. I used to look up to him.  I used to love him. He has the whole world in his hands and this is how he treats us all?  This is what you give to us?  What about your fans, Akira?  Did you once think of us?  I can't believe we ever trusted you.  I feel so betrayed.”

“He's supposed to be setting an example for today's youth!  This is what they have to look up to?  The innocent youth?  He's gay.

“A liar.”

“A cheat.”

“He broke my heart.”

“Greedy no-good attention seeker.  He’s just like the rest of them.”

Akira whispers, voice strained, “It was...it was just a kiss.  What the fuck are they all on?”

“How quickly the tide turns,” Kolivan mutters wearily.  Shiro can imagine him now, leaning against the columns in front of the kitchen, rubbing at his temples and praying for peace.  “...So now everyone knows you’re gay...”

“You really think that’s the biggest problem here?  You knew!  You didn't care!”

“So you finally admit we have a problem?  This is not about me.  It’s not about you.  This is about the media, the fans, the producers.  If you think hearing the news is hard, wait until we hear from the people who actually pay you.  It was in your contract to keep this sort of thing private, 100% completely quiet.  And now look, it’s blaring everywhere. This wasn’t some accident; you did it on national television.  Everyone is going to tear you apart, right where it hurts the most!”

“...It’s already done.   Let them.”

“And sit back and watch them destroy you?   You think I can just do that?  You think your mother wants to see that happen to you?  It is not just you who suffers through this!

Akira roars, “I am not going to let them control my life just because they don’t approve!  I’m sick of it!  I’m sick of all of this!”

And the TV keeps going, the news anchors spitting more and more venom, more and more hatred.

Akira growls, the sound strangled.  “Where’s the fucking remote?”

Kolivan says lowly, “We need to say something.  Krolia, what do you think?"

"...I don't know," she murmurs lowly.

“Well, I can tell you one thing: we are not lying again to hide who I am,” Akira spits with animosity.  “I’m not some dress up doll for everyone to push their own desires on, fucking with my hair, fucking with my makeup, telling me what the fuck to wear!  I’m a human being.  They can do all that other shit but they are not taking my soul too .  If they can’t accept me for who I really am then it’s their own damn fault.  I fucking hate them all anyway.”

“...If you hate it so much then why are you doing it?”

“I just -  I don’t -” He takes a deep inhale that sounds more like a gurgle.  “It’s fine. Everything’s fine.” But Akira’s voice is tight and frazzled, there’s a pant in his words, sweat no doubt beginning to bead at his brow.  “If we just continue how we were going -”

“Things aren’t fine,” Keith’s dad murmurs lowly.  “Just because you turn off the TV doesn’t mean everything’s gone quiet.”

“It does for me.  ...I want to donate.  What's that one Coran mentioned last time?  Whatever the largest donation they received is...I want you to double it.”

“You can’t just throw money at all your problems.  It doesn’t work that way.”

“People have to go through this shit everyday and maybe they don’t have the money to get help.  Just do it!”

The TV purrs on.  “So are we finally here?  The beginning of the fall of Akira.  He burned so bright to the top and fizzled just as quickly.  I didn’t like him much anyway.”

“Me neither.  He was fake.  Just another actor playing pretend.”

“And just this morning, they were acting like we were best friends!”  Akira hisses. “It was just...a fucking...kiss!!  Nyma kept pushing me.  They weren’t listening to me.  And all I could think was I wanted to protect Shiro and, maybe, if they thought he was mine, they’d leave him alone...  I panicked. I didn’t think it’d undo everything I’d ever done. I’ve been doing everything right for years.  And one little thing-?”

“Your ‘one little thing’ did this.”

“I didn’t want this!  I tried!  Just turn it off!  I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take them!”

Look.  We have to patch this up the best we can.  Here’s the first thing you need to do: write out some sort of explanation to your fans, some sort of apology and post it to your site.  Tonight.”

“...I won’t apologize,” Akira says lowly.

“You don’t have to mean it.”

“...So lie...?  Again?”  Akira laughs, high and awful.  “That’s your solution?”

The TV drones on: “He always spoke flowery words but that’s what liars do, isn’t it?  It’s sad. Was he just doing it for the money?”

“Always pushing his beliefs on others, pretending he was this optimistic worldly influencer.  But what did he do, really? He has not just one, but two private jets.  Is that going to help the environment?  Or that photoshoot with the sad adoptable dogs...he thinks that’s going to bring about world peace?  The world’s still in disarray. Children are still in poverty, dying.  Will his words heal that?  Should we thank him for that?”

“Turn.  it. Off,” Akira growls lowly.

“All that money he uses to buy himself his Porsches, his Teslas, his mansions, his jets...when there are still people with unclean water he’s always moaning about.  He thinks he’s some hero for telling his fans to donate while he uses the money he collects from them to live a life of luxury?”

“He’s just what we’ve always known but didn’t want to see: a brat sitting at the top of the world, crushing us all beneath his boot and acting all holier than thou.”

“A real piece of work.”

“An idiot hippie liberal youth.”

“A liar.  The biggest liar there is.”

“Akira is a fake.”

“Turn it off!”  Akira screams. “Turn that fucking thing -” There’s a loud crash and glass shattering “- Off!”

The TV goes quiet.  No one speaks. There’s just the wounded silence pressing its way through grit teeth.

God,” Akira bites through his teeth, trying to hold in a sob, but it escapes from him anyway.  “Everyone in the world just knows everything about me, don’t they?  Must be nice to be so damn smart.”

His breath is harsh and heavy.  Shiro can hear it from all the way upstairs.  He sits beside Kosmo and pets him gently, sadness sitting in his chest.

“Why aren’t you saying anything, Krolia?”  Akira cries suddenly, his voice breaking through the quiet.  It bounces all throughout their home. “You always have an opinion!  You always are quick to rub this shit in my face!  So why aren’t you now?  I fucked up, okay?  I admit it.  I wasn’t thinking.  It’s all my fault!  Tell me how it is!  Tell me!  They’re all right about me!  They’re right!  I deserve everything they’re saying and more!  I’m a fake !”

Krolia’s voice is quiet.  There’s no anger in it like Shiro thought there might be.  She just sounds sad. “No,” she murmurs gently. And it’s just simple raw fact.  Her voice doesn’t shake or strain. “They’re not right about you. ...But then, they’ve never been.  We’ve known that all along.” She’s quiet for a moment. “...You know, today, at the interview, I was surprised by your actions at first.  I didn’t understand why you were doing what you were doing, but I think I get it now. ...You’ve been drowning beneath all this pressure for a long time.  All this self sabotage recently...I think, whether you were conscious of your decisions or not, you’ve finally made your choice.”  Shiro can hear her getting up and walking across the room.  “...And is that such a bad thing...?”  She whispers.  “I’ll support you...in whatever you decide to do.  You know that, don’t you?  I love you. You .  Not what others think they want from you.”

Akira’s sobs become muffled.

“You don’t have to impress them.  You don’t have to be anyone you don’t want to be.  You’re wonderful just the way you are.  I love you.”

Mom,” he wheezes out, the words tight and tearing like a wounded animal.  “I hate it...  I hate it.”

“I know.  It’s okay, love...  It’s okay.  We’re all here for you.  All of us.”

“I don't know what to do...  I don't know anymore...”

“You don’t have to right now.  You're okay.  You're alright...”

It’s quiet after that.  No one speaks, it’s just the sound of Akira’s muted sobs and Krolia’s gentle murmurs.

Jesus.  Shiro had...no idea.  True, the news has never been so brutal toward him.  That alone is horrifying, but this is... It’s just like Krolia said.  He’s been at his breaking point for a long time now, Shiro can finally see that.  Looks like tonight, he just toed over it.

It hurts Shiro too, to hear this.  He’s still in some sort of overwhelmed state where he’s just...oddly calm.  Akira’s done so much for him, but all he can do is run his hands down Kosmo’s fur and sit here, helpless.

All the money in the world and Akira can still sob like this.  Feel pain like this, and it hurts Shiro so much to hear...

...It’s private.  Shiro feels like a bad person having intruded on this moment.  Kosmo still won’t move from his seat and Shiro can’t take the guilt anymore so he stands up and reaches into his bag as he remembers his phone and shitty earbuds he packed away as an afterthought.

Shiro puts his headphones on, chooses a song, and starts his music.  He turns it loud this time, something he doesn’t normally do. It drowns out his thoughts.

He lays out on his bed and closes his eyes gently, sprawled out and weary.  Lets the music soak in his bones.

He can see...blue skies.  Fluffy white clouds. Grass.  Gentle, flowing in the wind beside him.  A childhood he once had, peaceful, just for him.  A childhood Akira probably never did.

Everyone grabbing at you, wanting to force you into their idea of perfection, feeling like they own you, angry at you if you don’t give them what they want.  That constant level of apprehension that must be wedged beneath Akira’s sternum that gnaws and grows deeper in his chest cavity, hurting him. There are two sides of him: his heart and the people’s.  And he’s stretched too thin.

...Shiro feels responsible somehow.  He loves Akira too. The image that everyone loves.  The image that’s hurting him. He doesn’t even know the real Akira...

He lets the music run, following it like a leaf in the wind.

It must be so confusing, something that twists you up inside in knots upon clotted knots.  To have everything and nothing at the same time.

There’s a dip in the bed and Shiro blinks his eyes open.  Akira’s there - no. No. It’s Keith. The light is turned off inside the room, but it still streams in behind Keith from the hallway.  He sits above Shiro like an angel, still, watching his face through dark calm eyes.

“Keith -”  Shiro starts to say, but Keith puts his finger gently to his lips.

“Shh.”

Keith crawls up onto the bed and sinks down beside Shiro, sprawling out, body against body.  He lets out a long soul weary sigh. Their heads rest on the pillow only centimeters apart.

Shiro settles back in, offering a small smile at Keith to let him know he’s welcome.  He turns his music back on and holds an earbud up and out. Keith looks up at it for a moment like he’s never seen one before, but he takes it eventually.  He puts it in his ear and closes his eyes.

They listen like that for a long while.  Just them, together, and music. There’s no crowd.  No chanting. No arguing.  Just...music.

“What is this?”  Keith finally asks.

“Bach.  Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major.  BWV 1068 Air.”

“The fuck?”  Keith laughs softly.  Shiro can’t hear it, but the bed shakes beneath them.  “That title is so long.”

“I like Air on G string better.”

“Pfft.  Yeah.  I bet you would.   G string.”

Shiro snorts, nudging him.  “I have no idea what that is.”

“Liar.  You’re not that innocent.”

The air settles around them again, but it’s not unpleasant.  After awhile, Shiro asks quietly, “...You okay?  Were you down there, for...?”

Keith clears his throat and rubs at his face again.  It’s difficult to make out details, but his face looks a little more red than usual.  A bit puffy, like he’d been crying. But he seems newly showered too, hair still wet and skin soft and warm, so maybe it’s just that.  “...You heard?”

“Kosmo sort of propped the door open.”

“Oh, yeah,” Keith snorts with little energy.  “Yeah...he likes to do that.  I think he wants everyone together.  Thinks it'll help or something.”

Shiro bites at his lip.  “A-are you alright, Keith...?  Did you see the interview?”

“...I saw the interview.”

Shiro turns his gaze from Keith and back up to the ceiling.  “...I’m sorry about it. I didn’t know he would do that.  If I had known -”

“I’m not mad, Shiro...”

“You’re not?  Because if you were, I’d understand.  It...it didn’t mean anything.  I respect Akira, but what I feel for him is so different from what I feel for you.  I would have never -”

Keith chuckles silently, his chest heaving a bit as he puts on a small weary smile.  “...Yeah. Yeah, I know.”

“Good,” Shiro whispers.  “I’m glad. I sort of thought...you might be avoiding me.  I haven’t seen you since before the kiss.  ...So much has happened tonight.  Honestly, I’m still trying to get my head around it.”

“Mm.  I feel like I could sleep for the next two years.  Drown myself in a depression nap.”

Shiro watches him, rolling onto his side and propping his head up on his hand.  Keith has his eyes trained on the ceiling. And he’s just dark and dreary. Whatever smiles he mustered earlier are gone.  Whatever teasing or playfulness he forced onto himself wanes. The shadows pull at him and he just looks so small. So fragile and delicate, like glass.

Keith parts his lips to speak, but the words get tied up in his throat.  He presses his lips together in tight stubborn refrain.

“...You okay?”  Shiro whispers.

The pupils in his eyes shiver beneath that question.  The darkness swallows him whole and suddenly, he’s completely vulnerable in front of Shiro.  ...And he begins to cry.  It’s soft, more jagged breath than sobs, but it’s full of pain, full of exhaustion.  Shiro blinks in horror.

“K-Keith...?  What’s wrong?”

“Ugh,” Keith groans angrily, wiping at his tears and frowning into them, trying his best to blink them away.  “Ugh, I’m sorry.  I’m just tired.  I’m tired and weary and it’s easy to get upset.  But I’m fine. I’m totally fine. Don’t worry.”

“Keith, obviously you’re not fine...  What’s wrong?” Shiro whispers, grabbing one of Keith’s hands in his and holding his cheek gently in the other.

Keith bites at his lip harshly, trying to hold it in.  But he just can’t. “It’s everything,” he whispers, a guilty admission.  “It’s everything... All this stupid shit with Akira. All those terrible things they’re saying...it’s everything I’ve thought of, everything I feared they’d find out, would call him out on.  I always secretly hoped they wouldn’t, though. And now they have.  They always said...they always said this wasn’t going to be forever.  It’d fizzle out. It’d die and that’d be it, but I...I dunno if I’m ready.  I didn’t think it’d happen now .  I thought there’d be time...”  He pushes himself up, gripping a hand to his chest, his eyes wide.  “What do I do if not this?  What’s left for me?  What happens next?  What happens to all of us?  I-I don’t know...  That’s-That’s all on me...”  He presses a shaky hand to his mouth, his eyes wide and glassed over, distant in horror.  “...And then there’s you.”

“...Me?”  Shiro murmurs.  He rubs Keith’s back in slow soft circles, feeling helpless again.  Useless.

“Yeah.  You.  I just...”  He closes his eyes and takes in a deep shuddering breath.  “I’ve met so many people over the course of my life...and they all suck.  But not you.  I’ve never met anyone like you.  ...And I just...I feel like I’ve already blown it.  I’m just waiting for you to run...”

“Whoa,” Shiro says, following Keith up.  He sits out beside him and leans in, frowning in surprise into his face.  “Hey.  No.  Keith, I think you don’t see yourself very clearly.  From the first time I -”

“-No,” Keith says firmly, giving Shiro’s hand a little shake.  “No.  It’s you who doesn’t see me clearly.  It’s you...” He trails off into silence and then clears his throat.  “...And it’s only because of how good you are and that just makes me feel even worse...  I’ve just...I feel like I’m taking advantage of you every single day.  And I know I need to tell you.  I know I do, but god...”

“Keith.  Keith, look at me.”

“No,” Keith groans, shaking his head and trying to pull away.  “No, you don’t understand -”

“Keith -”

Listen,” Keith breathes.  He still can’t open his eyes.  “...Listen.  I...  You deserve the world, Shiro.  The whole world.  ...You deserve the whole truth.  And there’s...”  He swallows hard, his features melting into something like agony.  “There’s something I need to tell you...”

“...Okay,” Shiro nods, pressing his lips together tightly.  “Okay. I’m listening, Keith.  I’m right here.”

They hold each other’s hands, facing into the other.

Keith watches his face, his eyes hesitant, already hurting.  His breath starts to pick up. He begins to shake. Shiro feels it running through Keith’s hands like a current as his breath goes uneven and sharp.  He can feel Keith’s heartbeat fluttering through his fingers alone. ...It must feel horrible.

“I -I -”  Keith swallows hard and breathes out, “I don’t want to lose you...  I can’t take that right now... I can’t take it...”

“Hey,” Shiro whispers.  He scoots in closer and gently runs his fingers through Keith’s hair.  Some of the pain and apprehension that tightens Keith face seems to melt away just at that.  “...Whatever it is, Keith, it can wait. It’s okay. You and your family have had a stressful night tonight.  Beyond that, we can deal with all this stuff some other time. Right? Get some rest. Try to fit that two year depression nap into the night, hm?  I’ll be here to wake you in the morning.”

Keith laughs shakily, squeezing Shiro’s hands tighter.  He just sits there, still debating within himself. He looks right on the edge of it, like he’ll say it, but he’s stuck.  He’s tangled in fear. He can’t.

Shiro pats the bed next to him.  He means it for Keith, but, instead, Kosmo jumps up onto the bed between them, laying right where Shiro had gestured, looking up into Shiro’s surprised face with wide innocent eyes.

“Oof, Kosmo,” Keith groans, but he’s chuckling too, shoving his arms over Kosmo’s body to push his bushy mound of fur down so he can see Shiro’s face.  Keith rubs the remnants of his tears into Kosmos fur. “I’m sorry. He’s a friendly boy.”

“Yeah,” Shiro laughs, rubbing behind Kosmo’s ears.  “I can see that.”

Keith leans over Kosmo, just watching Shiro’s face, taking the sight of him in.  “...Shiro?” He asks gently.

“Hm?”

“...Can I stay in here tonight?  ...I don’t want to be alone. Being around you makes me feel like my problems are really small somehow.  And I just -  My head's all -”

Shiro murmurs, reaching over Kosmo to grab Keith’s arms, “Then stay.”   Kosmo tilts his head back and licks Shiro’s arm. They both laugh.

“You won't regret it.  Kosmo makes for a good pillow,” Keith assures.  “And a nice warm heater. Also, look at this,” Keith says, reaching over to grab Shiro’s phone and earbuds and set them on Kosmo’s back.  “A table, as well.” Kosmo closes his eyes peacefully and allows it.

Shiro snorts and shrugs back into the bed, getting comfortable.  “You must be tired. We can watch TV if you’d like?”

Keith shakes his head and looks over at the TV like it’ll come to life and eat him whole.  “No...and actually, I should warn you...going online and watching TV might be a bad idea for awhile...  I don’t know how people will respond about you, but...I know for Akira it, uh, it hasn’t really been the best, so...  Sometimes it’s better to just avoid it altogether.”

Shiro nods.  “I think that’s smart.”

“Okay,” Keith says, reaching over and grabbing an earbud for himself.  He starts the song. Shiro puts in his own earbud and they lay down on the pillows, Kosmo snuggled in between them.  Keith asks, “What’s this one called?”

Shiro shifts his phone screen up.  “It’s Beethoven. Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor.  ‘Quasi una fantasia’, Op. 27, No. 2.”

Keith snorts.  “Okay. In English, please?”

“Moonlight Sonata.”

“What a snob,” Keith laughs.  “‘Quasi una fantasia’...” He mutters and rolls his eyes.

“That’s what it says,” Shiro laughs too, leaning over to shove the phone screen in Keith’s face.  “See?”

“Okay, okay, I see it!  I see it.  Jeez...”

“This song’s too sad,” Shiro says.  “How about ‘Jesus Bleibet Meine Freude’?”  He turns it to the song and Keith listens for a moment before nodding slowly.

“Yeah,” he says.  “Yeah...this is better.  I like it.”

Shiro likes it too.  Like this, they don’t have to think about anything.  Shiro doesn’t have to wonder or worry. It’s just Keith beside him.  Keith and this soft piano weaving through their minds, bringing them somewhere else.  Somewhere peaceful. It feels nice to share.

“I want to forget about all of this...”  Keith murmurs softly. “Forget about stupid Akira.  Stupid Nyma. Stupid celebrities. It’s just you...and me.  Here in this space. ...Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Shiro whispers, tilting his head and looking over.  He reaches over to run his fingers through Keith’s hair gently.  “Just you and me. Two normal dumb people just trying to get by.”

“No cameras,” Keith whispers.

“No interviews.”

“No paparazzi.”

“No chaos.”

“Just you and me,” Keith says again, gently, like feathers.  “...Are we still on for Thanksgiving?” He says it casually, but Shiro can feel the way it quivers.

“Of course we are.  I’m looking forward to it.”

“Hmm,” Keith smiles.  “I get to meet your friends for Thanksgiving, kind of like when someone brings their new boyfriend to meet their family.  Something normal people might do.”

Is that a hint of hopefulness in Keith’s words?  Shiro hums happily. “Well, I mean, you are my boyfriend...”  Keith glows, turning charmed eyes to Shiro’s. “And they’re my family.  So it’s exactly like that. Expect them to be incredibly embarrassing. And if Hunk is taking a break from cooking this year, expect the food to be pretty bad.”

Keith laughs, sniffling a bit.  As he turns his head, Shiro can see the red rims of his eyes in the softness of the hallway’s light, but there’s light in them.  Hope. “Okay. I can happily expect all that. Will I have to pretend to enjoy it?”

“Nah.  They’ll know if it’s a disaster.  And honestly, the biggest disaster will probably be my cooking anyway.  I promise you don’t have to pretend for that.”

“Oh, good.  No white lies for Shiro.  I can help you, you know. My dad has a recipe he used to make me when I was a kid.  I can borrow it.”

Shiro chuckles under his breath.  “That sounds really nice.  I’d love that.”  He doesn’t know what possesses him to say such things, but as he watches Keith’s face, still puffy from tears, but warm with a smile - vulnerable, tough, fragile little conundrum of a heart, he says, lowly, “And Keith?  Expect them to love and want to protect you as much as you and your family have for me...”

Keith reaches his hand up and places it gently to Shiro’s cheek.  The way he watches Shiro does something to his heart. There’s so much emotion pouring from him.  So much warmth as he stares into Shiro’s face.

“I was thinking of something,”  Keith whispers.

“Hmm?”

“...You said your grandfather would’ve been disappointed with how you turned out.  ...But I know that’s not true.  He had to have known how good you were and how golden your heart was.  I'm sure of it.  He could see in you what I see.  ...Never once in your life have you been just an office worker.  You're Shiro.  The world doesn't deserve you.  We're just lucky to have you...”

“You...” Shiro hums fondly.  “I think that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

Keith hums lowly under his breath and smiles up at Shiro.  “...I’m really looking forward to Thanksgiving with you, Shiro.”

“And I’m looking forward to it with you,” Shiro hums, pulling him close.  As close as he can with Kosmo, the innocent cockblocker. It’s okay. It’s nice to hold Keith just like this, the both of their heads resting together, arms entwined.

“Goodnight, Keith,” Shiro whispers as he hears Keith yawn, feels the way his back expands.  “Sweet dreams.”

“...Sweet dreams, Shiro,” Keith mumbles,  “I’m so glad you’re here.” And then he’s asleep, tears dried and face at peace.

Thank god.

Thank god...  

 

Keith drools in his sleep.  The small spot on the sleeve of Shiro’s shirt is proof of that.  Shiro tried not to laugh when he woke up and saw it and he definitely hasn’t pointed it out.  It’s morning and Shiro managed to drag Keith out of bed and to the dining room table, but Keith is still yawning away, leaning his face into his wrists for support.

“So, we’re going to be extra careful from now on,” Krolia says from the kitchen.  “I want either Kolivan or me flying in the same jet as you. No arguing.”

“Mmf,” Keith grumbles, not bothering to open his eyes.

“And I want Kolivan to drive Shiro home, not you, Keith.  It’s not safe.”

Keith groans at that one.  “I can drive a fucking car better than Kolivan.”

“Language, please,” she hums into the pan that Keith’s dad is cooking on, looking peaceful and content as she leans against him.  “And that’s not the point. I just want to keep you out of the public eye as much as I can. Just for right now.”

He’s up at attention for that.  “I still want to go to Shiro’s for Thanksgiving.”

“I know,” she says patiently.  “But I want you back by eleven.”

Keith grumbles under his breath, but he settles down.  “...I’m twenty-three, not fifteen.”

She laughs softly but doesn’t say anymore, still leaning her head onto Keith’s dad’s shoulder.

Shiro watches them as Keith starts to load Shiro’s plate with oranges as he peels them.  Shiro grabs a orange piece from his plate and nibbles on it, but he still can’t get over how Krolia is touching Keith’s dad.  It’s intimate, even for an actual couple. “...Um. Your dad...and your aunt... They look pretty close.”

Keith laughs and keeps digging his finger into the orange’s rind to peel it.  He replenishes the stock on Shiro’s plate. “...There’s a reason for that.”

Shiro arches his eyebrow.  “...That reason being?"  He blinks down at his plate.  "Keith, I can’t eat all these oranges.”

Keith just laughs again, genuinely amused.  He starts filling his own plate. “Well, they miss each other.  They don’t get to see each other a lot anymore after we moved by you.”

That’s...not what Shiro meant, but he figures it’s completely possible it’s like some dirty family secret, so he looks away from it and back to Keith.  “Why doesn’t your dad follow you?  Seems like a family business.  I don’t get why he stays here alone with Kosmo.”

“Ah,” Keith keeps smiling as he stares at his hands, but it starts to dim.  “Well, he loves his job here. He loves helping people, rescuing cats,” Keith laughs.  “He’s a firefighter. It just...seemed wrong to ask him to come with me, so I told him to stay.  He would’ve come. He wanted to. But I think it’s important, this sort of work.  I dunno.  And I didn’t want him to be lonely, so I figured Kosmo would make for good company.  I do miss them though...everyday.” He sniffs and rubs at his nose.

Krolia turns around at the sound, inspecting his face.  “How are you doing today, Keith?” she asks as she comes by to deliver the pancakes.

“I’m good,” he hums.  “Slept well.”

She leans into his face to inspect him closer.  He passes the test. She smiles warmly and pats him on the shoulder.  “I’m glad...”

Shiro asks, looking around the room before settling his eyes on Krolia, “Um...how’s Akira doing?”

“You heard last night, hm?  ...He’s going to be okay,” she says firmly, rubbing a hand through Keith’s hair and pressing a kiss to the top of his head.  “He’s one of the strongest people I know.”

Keith hums beneath her coddling.  He looks like a cat purring beneath affection.  Shiro smiles and chuckles under his breath as he watches.

They don’t turn on the TV.  It remains off, the shattered bits of glass on the floor sectioned off and ignored.

 

When they fly home, it’s like they’ve been gone for weeks rather than days.  The holiday season is in the air suddenly, the outside street lights already decorated in red and gold ribbons, tied together at the corners with gold dipped pine cones.  Warm twinkling lights are wrapped around the poles and bridges outside and the snow that still clings to the trees and sides of roads lends to the holiday image. Keith is starting to get excited.

Shiro has just gotten out of bed and is rubbing at his eyes blearily as he crams a toothbrush into his mouth and tries to brush his teeth, when there’s a loud knock on the door that startles him more awake.  Oh, wow. Keith’s early.

“H-hold on just a second!”  He calls through a full mouth before quickly spitting and rinsing.

He runs past his closet and checks inside really quickly to make sure the laundry basket is pushed against it and his body pillow is secured and okay and everything’s going to be fine.  Fine, fine, fine.

Keith’s been a bit delicate lately.  He’s been acting normal, it isn’t that.  But maybe it’s that acting runs in the family.  It’s a vibe Shiro can feel, like when you hit a tuning fork against a corner of a cabinet and hold it in the air by your ear.  Keith’s vibrating at a different frequency than usual. And though he looks and talks and acts the same, Shiro still wants to be careful.

His Akira paraphernalia is not part of the careful strategy.  And not only that, he’s kind of embarrassed.

Yes, he’s almost thirty and has a body pillow of Akira.  What of it? Keith knows Shiro loves Akira, but maybe not to this degree and Shiro would rather keep it this way.  The kiss was probably pushing it enough.

He looks back at his room, the door closed tightly.  Okay.  Secret shrine hidden. He’s good.

He opens the door to Keith’s excited big eyes, grinning brightly, his arms to the brim with bags.  His hands are holding onto two cups of the usual. He peeks around the door and inspects everything.  “What were you doing?  Hiding the porn?”

Shiro laughs as he helps unload some of the weight from Keith.  “Sorry.  I got your text that Kolivan was dropping you off, but I was so tired, I just stayed in bed.  I just woke up again like a half second ago. Hence the pajamas and uh...face.” He gestures to his stubble. He yawns again.  “The dog show’s on though.”

Keith laughs as he looks back at the TV.  He sets Shiro’s coffee on the coffee table in front of him.  “And so it is. Aww, look at them all lining up. What good dogs.  You never realize how many dogs there are in the world until you watch this show and suddenly there’s a whole sub-breed of little funky gremlins.”

Shiro falls back into the couch and wraps himself around a pillow, still warm and sleepy.  “Mmm, that’s for sure.” He rolls onto his back and takes in the sight of Keith staring down at him with a smile.  “You a dog person? I took you for more of a wolf person.”

“I’m an anything person,” he leans down to boop Shiro on the nose.  “Animals are pure. Animals don’t judge.”

“I dunno.  I swear Pidge’s dog sometimes gives me these looks.  These ‘you’re being an idiot’ sort of looks.  And honestly, he’s usually right, that’s the scary part.”

Keith chuckles as he goes into the kitchen to inspect what they’re dealing with today.  “The crust takes awhile to refrigerate. I’ll make that while you’re trying to wake up.”

“Need help?”

“Nah.  It’s easy.  I’m just going to raid your cabinets and make a mess.”

Shiro wanders over to the kitchen anyway, setting his coffee down to help Keith.  He shoves his hands into his pockets and leans his face into Keith’s shoulder.

“You’re stubble is scratchy.”

“Are you excited to meet everyone?”  Shiro mumbles into his hair as Keith starts putting everything together.  He rubs his stubble into Keith’s skin who laughs and groans as he elbows Shiro gently in the ribs.  Shiro just clings to him, letting Keith lead him around as he re-settles his face into the cove of Keith’s neck.  “I noticed you came early.”

“I-Is it too early?”  Keith’s face burns red as he drops the top of the flour lid and it falls into the sink.  He scrambles to pick it up and dust it off. “I just...if we messed up the pie, I wanted to be sure we had time for another.  And Krolia kept pushing me to leave before the paparazzi set up. They’re lurking everywhere.”

“I’m always happy to see you, Keith.  There’s no problem.”

“I’m also kinda nervous...” Keith hums, casting his eyes down as he kneads the dough.  “I’ve never done anything like this before. I almost went to a girl’s house once for a birthday party when I was like...six.  One of Acxa's friends. But I actually didn’t even end up going. That’s about the closest to experience I have.”

Shiro snorts and, after a split second moment of deliberation, wraps his arms around Keith’s middle for comfort.  Is that too intimate? Keith doesn’t seem to mind and it feels nice somehow, the both of them close, the both of them content and easy going with contact like this.

“Honestly, you’re going to be the coolest one there, so there’s no need to worry.”

Keith snorts.  “Okay, that’s what you think.  But they’re your friends and they mean a lot to you, so...I want to make a good impression...  I’m not really sure how. I’ve never done this sort of thing before.”

Shiro hums into his ear.  “I promise you, there’s nothing you can do to ruin this.  They’ve been dying to meet you. I’m not kidding. It’s been awhile since I’ve brought anyone over...  They kinda thought I was a lost cause... So, pretty much just by showing up, you’re already going to dazzle them.  And the rest of you? They won’t be able to help being charmed.”

“Mmm...”  Keith presses his lips together tightly to hide the pleased smile on his face.  “Then it’ll be nice.”

“It really will.  I still have yet to meet your mom.  Where is she always hiding?”

Keith just nods, keeping his eyes on the dough.  “Yeah, I... Sometime. Yeah...” He starts biting at his lip and frowning into the dough.

Shiro reaches over gently to stop Keith’s hands.  “Think you might be kneading that too much.”

“O-oh.  You’re right.  Here. I need some lemon juice.  Can you -?”

“Yep.  I’m on it.”

Shiro digs through the drawers to find a citrus reamer and cuts the lemon in half.  “You know,” Shiro says. “It’s nice having you help me. I used to try to make stuff myself, but the last time I did, the apples sloshed out of the top of the pie and onto the bottom of the oven.  It smoked like crazy.  The fire sprinklers went off.  It ruined my t.v. Damaged my phone.  And that was the last time I ever tried to make something for Thanksgiving without supervision.”

Keith laughs and looks up at the ceiling.  A new sprinkler system is in place. “God...I didn’t know that.  Will we be safe?”

“Two grown adults should be able to figure out how to make a pie, right?  You brought your dad’s super secret pie instructions, we have almost fifty years of combined skill.  I mean, if kids can do it, then - ow!”  As if to prove him wrong, juice from the lemon shoots up right then and there and squirts right into his eye.  He claps his hand over his eye and hisses. Lemon juice hurts.

Keith snorts.  “Are you serious?”  He dusts his hands off and walks up to Shiro, placing his hands on his cheek.  “Let me see.”

“Ugh, it burns.  It burns.  What do I do ?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty red already...  Rinse it,” Keith says. “Sometimes I get glitter in my eye and have to hang my head under a faucet for like ten hours.”

Shiro laughs as he runs to the bathroom.  “Why do you get glitter in your eye?”

“Uh.  Well. You know how glitter is.  When I’m working with Akira, where doesn’t it get?”

Shiro is still laughing as he hangs over the bathroom sink and douses his eyes in water.  “Death by glitter.”

“Death by lemons.  Another Thanksgiving tragedy.”

His eye is starting to feel better.  He turns the water off and pushes it off his dripping face.  “Man,” he sighs as he walks out and grabs a clean towel from the laundry basket.  He trips on the corner of the basket as he rubs the towel over his entire face.  “Don’t tell Matt and the others.  They already make fun of my food preparations skills as it is.”

Keith chuckles.  “I’ll be your secret keeper.  Are you gonna go like that to dinner?”

Shiro looks down at his pajamas.  “You don’t think they’ll like it?”

“It’s cute,” Keith assures as Shiro wanders into the living room and snatches up his shaver.  “Go get ready. I’ve got this.”

Shiro figures Keith has got to have it better than he ever did, so he goes and changes, shaving and grooming his face to tip top shape.  He looks into the mirror for once, closely, like he hasn’t in a long time. He tries to see what Keith sees in him, why he sticks around.

...His eyes have been looking a little brighter lately, and when they do that - when they fill with energy, even Shiro has to admit that they take on an appearance like the moon.

The scar running across his face...the times he’d looked at it with loathing, shied away from the memories that came with it...he doesn’t anymore.  It reminds him now of the scar on Keith’s face, that they’re connected in so many different ways. That it’s like they were made for each other.

Keith’s excited face as he came into the door today - his first Thanksgiving with Shiro’s friends...maybe his first of so many more.  Excitement stirs in Shiro’s gut too. It feels different this time with Keith. So different. He can see this - Keith and him living together in easy companionship, he can see it for years down the road.  Decades... More...

He’s getting way ahead of himself...

He turns his head as he sees Keith walking out of the kitchen and taking a seat on the couch.

“It’s baking,” Keith explains as he looks up at Shiro walking out.  “Almost ready and we can go. ...Look at you. All sharp and pretty.”

Shiro snorts as he takes a seat beside him.  

“So, where’s the porn?”

Shiro chokes and gurgles, shaking his head.  “I wasn’t hiding the porn.  There is no porn.  I was just tidying up a bit.  I was literally halfway through brushing my teeth.”

“Uh-huh,” Keith grins, jerking a thumb toward his closed bedroom door.  “It’s in there, isn’t it?”

Keith, come on,” Shiro presses his face into his hands.  “Stop teasing me.”

“Okay, okay,” Keith chuckles under his breath, holding his hands up in forfeit.  “No more teasing Shiro.”

Thank you.  Besides, porn is not a wholesome Thanksgiving tradition.”  He clears his throat and dares to peek up at Keith’s impish smile.

“Damn, that’s a shame.”

Here’s the acting bit.  It’s camouflaged well beneath a genuine layer of laughter and happiness, but it’s the frequency.  The song that’s silent but still playing beneath the plane they're residing.

But he looks alive like this.  Alight with happiness and joy and laughter.

From the tears that fell down his cheeks the other night, to this...  To him laughing and pressing his lips together tightly. He’s so many things in one.  So complex and multi-faceted. God, he’s like starlight. His purple eyes catch the gold of the light and they look like molten lava.

Shiro's transfixed in that face of his.  Like he always is.  And in the privacy of this room, he can’t help but say, “...Your eyes are so beautiful, Keith.”

But Keith isn’t really paying attention.  His eyes catch on something behind Shiro and the casual amusement on his face suddenly becomes blazing.

Keith's energy buzzes as he leans forward.  He’s biting back laughter as he looks up into Shiro’s face.  When he realizes Shiro’s looking at him, he bites at the grin on his lip, “Thanks, Shiro.  My mother gave them to me.”

“...Yeah,” Shiro arches a brow, turning to look behind him at what has Keith so damn amused -

But Keith grabs him by the chin quickly, crooked grin irresistible as he lets his eyes flash back to what’s behind him.  As he watches it gleefully.

“Uh...why are you acting so weird...?”  He chuckles hesitantly along with Keith.

Keith starts laughing harder, cheeks growing red.  “No reason.”

“What are you...?”

When Keith finally can’t hold it in any longer and he busts up laughing, full out cracking up, hands having to go to his stomach to hold it in - Shiro takes the chance to turn behind him.  And he sees, reminded of his cursed side, the most unlucky sight he can think of.

It’s his damn body pillow.  The one of Akira, slipped out from the closet, poking out just enough to say hello.

What.

The Fuck.

Keith presses his face into the couch.  He’s laughing so hard he’s crying. “What is that?  Oh, my god.  Shiro.  Is that what you were hiding?”

N-No!”

Yeah.  Yup. This is happening.  His body pillow, the body pillow, is in plain sight in all its glory.  It’s scandalous, yeah. It’s promiscuous. The pose...  It was a present from Lance and Hunk on one of the few years Lance remembered to get presents for Christmas and though the quality leaves much to be desired, Shiro is secretly a little bit in love with it.

But not right now.  Right now, he wouldn’t mind tying it to a wooden stake, dousing it in gasoline, and lighting it on fire.  Maybe along with himself.

His secrets.  His hard kept secrets, they are literally peeking around a corner to stare at him despite his best efforts to keep them hidden away.

All Shiro can do is close his eyes and pray this is a dream.  “...If I told you that I’m keeping it for a friend, would you believe me?”

Keith wipes away at the tears still streaming down his face in full force.  “And is that friend’s name Shiro?”

“Uarrrgghh...  It’s Lance’s. Definitely Lance’s.”

“You are such a liar,” Keith tilts his head back, delighted.  “I mean, I knew you were a superfan and everything, but look how lewd this thing is.  I thought you were this pure little angel, but all along -”

“It was a gift!  A gift! I swear it!  I swear to god! I don’t even know where they got it!”

“How quickly your story changes!”

Shiro claws at his face in agony.  “There is no story!”

“Is that the G string you just said you liked the other night?”  Keith is cackling.  He starts coughing, choking on his laughter.  “Oh, god. Oh, man. I’m going to die.”

“Argh, Keith!”

Shiro leaps to his feet and rushes over to stuff it back inside, but the junk in the closet shifted in the pillow’s absence and it just won’t fit back in.  He struggles with it in his arms.

Keith is at his laughter’s mercy.  He gets to his feet and follows Shiro over, hanging onto his back as he heaves.  He steps around and grabs onto the pillow, pulling it from Shiro’s hands despite his groan of protest.

“Oh, come on,” Shiro lets his head bonk against the wall as he watches Keith’s laughing face.

“No, no, I like it,” Keith says pleasantly as he smooths the fabric over and stares into its face.  “Look at the detail on his, uh...is that an eight pack?  Damn. Must’ve been his younger years.”

“Yeah, since he’s so old.”

Keith chuckles, reaching up to clap Shiro on the cheek fondly.  “It’s fine.  Wipe that look off your face.  If this is your deepest darkest secret, then I’ve got to say, it’s kind of a cute one.  You snuggle with pillows. Do I get to see you holding it?” Keith holds it out for Shiro and grins hopefully.

Shiro takes one huge step back and holds his hands out in one big nope .  “I don’t even know where that came from.”

“Oh, come on,” Keith laughs, nudging it closer, bumping it against Shiro’s nose.  “Don’t change the story again. This is why you’ve been single this whole time, right?  Already in a relationship.”

Wrong.  Who even is that in the pillow?  I don’t know him.”

“It’s the G string, isn’t it?  What a little devil you are. Who knew?  A whole new side of you I’m just meeting now.  Scandalous Shiro.”

Keith!”  Shiro buries his face into his hands and burns in embarrassment.

“I’m kidding,” Keith laughs, tossing the pillow away into the laundry basket and reaching his arms out for Shiro.  He wraps his arms around him and hums happily. “Akira would be happy, you know.”

“Stop that,” Shiro says.  “I swear to god, this is the whole truth: Lance and Hunk gave it to me as a joke.  That’s it.”

“But you sleep with it.”  It’s a statement and not a question.

Shiro gurgles but before he can get the chance to defend himself, Keith laughs and pats at his chest.  “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.  Honestly, I’m loving this.  It’s my turn to see all your dirty laundry.  And it’s cute dirt laundry.  Where’s the rest of it?”  He raises his eyebrows and nods over to the bedroom closet.  “In there?”

Shiro groans and grabs Keith by the wrist.  He’s not sure what to do next at first - Keith's seen too much, Shiro's got to get rid of the evidence - but then he sighs.  “Fine.”  He leads him across the room.  “You’ve already seen the pillow.  Might as well rip the bandaid off all at once.”

“Really?”  Keith perks up in surprise.  “I didn’t actually mean it, Shiro.  If it’s private -”

“It is,” Shiro says, stopping right before the door.  He turns around and presses his back to the door, hand curling on the handle.  He looks into Keith’s face, sees the way Keith watches him curiously. “...It’s very private.  I... I mean, I know it’s not necessarily a normal room...but I...  It’s you.  And we’re kind of in it, aren’t we?”

Whatever Shiro really means by that, he doesn’t know.  “It”. They’re partners in crime now. They’re back to back comrades in arms.  They’re the other’s pillar of support.

Keith’s smile is so warm.  “We are,” he agrees.

“No laughing,” Shiro holds up a finger and wags it at Keith, but Keith laughs right away in the face of it and somehow, despite what Shiro just said, the reaction alone makes Shiro’s heart flutter.

And so Shiro opens the door.  It’s one of the hardest things to do anymore.  This is the wound cut deep in his chest after the accident, stuffed and filled with all things Akira.  This is the hurt he thought he couldn’t heal and the bandaid placed on top.

It’s Shiro at his most vulnerable.  The side that didn’t quite make it over to adulthood.  The side he allows himself, in secret, so he can keep on surviving.

He lets Keith in.  He trusts him. He trusts him.

Keith is quiet.  He doesn’t laugh as he takes a small step inside Shiro’s room.  He doesn’t arch an eyebrow or turn in disgust, like Shiro’s deepest fears whispered he might.

Keith just looks around curiously, taking in these bits of Shiro like they’re precious.  Like they’re him, all of him, and that’s alright.

There are the posters of Akira, covering every inch of the room.  There’s the curio cabinet displaying his more precious items: the record that Keith had given him during the concert in the dead center.  There’s the skilled fanart, the charms, the plushies, the stickers, the figures, the pinboard.

It’s Akira.  The thick books of his modeling career.  The magazines he was interviewed in. It’s everywhere.

Shiro waits at the door, tapping his knuckles to the wood and trying to turn away.  “...I know how it looks,” he murmurs lowly. “...And I don’t really have an explanation.  He gave me strength when I needed it. Each piece I collected made me feel safer and safer, so I just...kept going.”

“...You don’t have to explain, Shiro,” Keith murmurs, turning to look back at him.  And it’s true: there’s no judgement in his eyes. “I’m glad it’s helped you.”

Shiro laughs a little nervously.  “It’s uh, the room of a twelve year old girl, basically.”

Keith hums thoughtfully as he looks around, a small smile on his lips.  “Come on, give yourself some credit. Fourteen, at least.”

Shiro laughs.  A bit of his tension eases away.  “Right.  How silly of me.”

Keith wrinkles his nose and leans in.  “Oh god, is that the photoshoot from five years ago?  I thought those were super limited.”

“Yeah, they are.  Matt actually got that for me.”

Keith blinks up in surprise.  “Good friend.”

“...Yeah, he’d have to be.  To put up with this.”

Keith frowns at that.  He pulls himself up and walks back over to Shiro.  He wraps his arms around Shiro’s back and hums softly.  “Don’t be silly... There’s no need to be ashamed. This is how Akira makes his living, selling things like this.  If he didn’t want people to buy it, he wouldn’t be selling it.”

Shiro is quiet for awhile.  “...I heard...quite a bit of the conversation the other night between him and Kolivan.  ...And I’m a little ashamed of myself, honestly. After hearing it, I kind of want to hide this part of myself away.  The part of me who didn’t see him as a real person, just the one he was selling. I was foolish.”

Keith tilts his head to look up at Shiro.  His expression is complicated as he bites at his lip and thinks.  “...Don’t hide away,” he says eventually. “Someone like you? ...You should never hide.  ...There are darker secrets, Shiro. Worse secrets. ...I have secrets too. These are harmless.  They helped you. There’s no shame in that.”

“...Yeah.  I guess you’re right.”

Keith swallows hard as he places his head against Shiro’s chest.  Shiro can’t see his face, but he’s quiet for a long time. “...I just hope when you find out my secrets...we’ll be okay still.”

It seems ludicrous to Shiro now that Keith could ever do anything to hurt Shiro beyond the point of no return.

“Anything you do, Keith, is fine...because it’s you.”

“...That’s exactly how I feel about you.”  But he doesn't look so sure.

“...I’m going to take the posters down.”

Keith snorts and tilts his head back, looking up on the ceiling at the ones pinned there.  “They look nice. Why would you?”

“Well, I’ve got posters of your cousin plastering my walls.”

Keith laughs.  “Who doesn’t honestly?”

“He’s your cousin,” Shiro says again.  “It’s different. It was one thing before I knew you, but now that we’re together, it’s only right.  I want to. I won’t throw them out. They’ll just go into hibernation for awhile.”

Shiro.  They make you happy.  That makes me happy too.”

Shiro thinks.  “...Some of them then.  I’ll leave my favorite ones up.  Like this one,” he hums, pressing his hand against it.  It reminds him most of Keith, honestly. He’s stripped of his usual cocky persona.  He’s just smiling onstage, exhausted, but so content, his purple eyes shining into the camera.

Keith puts a hand over Shiro’s and laces their fingers together.  “Sounds like a plan.”

It’s funny...he’d been afraid of this moment, but now that it’s here, he feels at peace.  Keith accepts him as he is. That’s the greatest gift in the world to have.

“You know, it’s funny,” Shiro hums.  “I had no intention of ever finding anyone...and then you showed up...”

“You just sort of fell right into my lap.  Or my coffee fell into yours at least.” Keith’s quiet for awhile.  “...Hey, Shiro... If...if that were Akira in the elevator that one time...do you think...it would’ve turned out like us?  Do you think Akira would be here instead?”

“Doesn’t he have more important things to do?”

Shiro can feel Keith tracing out a pattern over his shirt.  “...I think he’s more human than you think.”

“I think you’re right,” Shiro murmurs.  He can still hear Akira’s sobs in his head and it hurts each time he thinks of it.  “But it wouldn’t matter,” Shiro decides. He holds Keith tighter in his arms. “Because you and I fit together so well...  We would've clicked together and that's that.  I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”

“...No?”  Keith whispers.  “...I wouldn’t want to trade you either.”

Shiro smiles into Keith’s hair.  “Even if I admit that the dakimakura is most comfortable damn pillow I own?”

Keith’s laughter is silent, but Shiro can feel it pressed against his chest.  “I knew it. I knew you slept with it.”

“Hey.  I never said anything about sleeping with it.”

“You don’t have to explicitly say it, I know.”

Shiro laughs and rocks them back and forth.

“I want one of you.”

“Maybe I want one of you.”

“Me?”  Keith deadpans, pulling away and back to the kitchen.  “What would you want one of those for?  Come on. The timer’s going off.  I don’t want it burnt or burning your apartment down or something.”

Shiro takes his place at Keith’s side, breathing in a deeply.  “...You’re really okay with it? With all these...weird things?”

“They’re not weird,” Keith says gently, grabbing onto Shiro’s hand and holding tightly for a moment before releasing it.  “It’s a poster, not a body.”

“It’s like...forty posters.  And two hundred key chains. That special edition fan last year...  A lot of pins. A lot of buttons...”

Keith snorts and raises an eyebrow.  “Well, if it helps you feel better, I might’ve written your name in my work notebook a few times.  Like a grade schooler. Krolia saw it and I wanted to die.”

Shiro snorts.  “You did not.”

“...I did,” Keith mutters, looking away, face red.  “Come on. Pie.”

“My name?  Like ‘Keith Shirogane’ or something like that?”

Keith just presses hips lips together tightly.  He clears his throat. “...How do you turn the timer off?”

Oh, shit.  Oh, shit, he really did it.  Keith Shirogane. Written in Keith’s hand in his own private notebook.

Shiro blinks at him for a few moments before Keith looks up at him shyly.  The blush is still there on Keith’s cheeks. Shiro feels something burning in his chest at that look.  Keith is so beautiful. “U-uh. The button to the right.”

Keith stops the timer and then kneels down to open the oven door.

“What are you doing?”  Shiro asks.

“Taking the pie out?”  Keith laughs. “What? Do you leave it in after the timer goes off?”

“Doesn’t it need a bit more time?  To golden up those edges.”

Keith hangs his head and laughs quietly into the floor.  “Huh. I think I’ve solved the mystery of why your pies keep burning.”

Shiro bends down beside him so they can both look through the glass at the pie.  He points out the very obvious problem here. “But the edges aren’t golden yet!”

“You don’t want them burnt.”

“But gold is the best!”

Keith raises an amused eyebrow.  “Trust me,” he says. “I want what’s best for you, okay?”

Shiro snorts and holds up his hands in defeat.  “Whatever you say.”

 

The pie turns out perfectly.  Keith holds it between both hands tightly as Shiro drives them to Matt’s place.  Keith’s eyes are wide as he presses his lips together in one tight line.

“You okay?”  Shiro asks, watching him from the corner of his eye.  He’s never seen Keith so wound up.

“...My stomach...  Maybe it’s my turn to be cursed.  If I throw up, save the pie.”

Shiro chuckles.  “There’s a place off Fifth Street that sells good emergency pies.  It’s what I had to use these past few years. They were pretty good honestly.  Not your-dad’s-secret-recipe good, but decent.”

“Good to know,” Keith breathes shakily.  “Good. To. Know.” Keith blinks over as he realizes what Shiro said.  “It’s not a secret recipe.”

Shiro chuckles at the blip of Keith's fire that returns, if only for a moment.  “They’re going to love you,” Shiro says softly, reaching one hand over to clasp onto Keith’s arm.  “I promise.”

Shiro can hear Keith swallowing hard.  “They’re practically your family.  It’s like I’m meeting your family. They’re going to be watching my every move to see if I’m good enough for you.  And how the hell can I amount up to that?”

“Well.  If it helps, when I met yours, it couldn’t have been any more disastrous, but no one killed me then.”

Keith chuckles, a bit of the tension soothing away.  “Almost.”

“‘Almost dead’ isn’t ‘for sure dead’.”

Keith laughs again, breathless.

“Come on,” Shiro murmurs, stepping out of the car and going around to open the door for Keith, who stares at him through a complicated expression, hands clenching the pie so tightly that his knuckles are white.  “You can hide behind me the entire time if it makes you feel better.”

“You think I can fit in your jacket instead?”

Shiro squeezes his arm again.  “You’ll be great.”

Keith fidgets as they approach the door.  He bites at his lip, shifts his clothes, turns his eyes this way and that.  And he looks nice. He really does. He's not in his usual casual outfits, he put on a button up shirt and actual nice pants.  He's ready.

Keith takes in a deep breath.

Shiro doesn’t knock - he hasn’t in years - and when he pushes the door open and the scent of food and warmth and loud chatter all pour over them at once, he watches Keith.

His eyes are wide.  Terrified. But they’re filled with wonder as he looks around.

“Hey!  It’s Shiro!”  Lance cries merrily, holding his beer bottle up and crowing.  He stops as his eyes fall on Keith. His face goes surprisingly blank.

“Is-is that -?”  Hunk murmurs under his breath.

Everyone’s turning to look at them.  Lance, Hunk, Pidge, and Matt. Matt’s in the kitchen over the stove and Pidge is sitting at the table carving a turkey.  But they all just stop.

It goes deathly quiet.

A turkey leg falls and thuds on the plate.  It echoes through the room.

“Hey, guys,” Shiro tries to say casually like he doesn’t notice the quiet.  He steps to the side so they can all see Keith and Keith sends a panicked look over at Shiro.  “Happy Thanksgiving! I, um, I brought someone this time. This is Keith.  ...My boyfriend.”

The silence grows even bigger, their eyes bulging out of their heads.

“Holy shit,” Hunk nudges Lance.  “Shiro brought a boyfriend.”

“Shiro?  Man?” Lance’s eyes are big as saucers.  “Is this it? Is this the one?”

Hunk jumps up, runs forward, and stops right in front of Keith.  Instead of offering his hand, he leans forward and takes a big whiff.  “And he doesn’t smell like cheese,” Hunk says in awed approval. Lance gasps, pleased.

“Hunk!”  Shiro protests.

“D-do I smell?”  Keith asks in confusion, turning wide eyes up to Shiro.

Shiro groans and slaps a hand to his forehead.  “No.  Lance set me up on some stupid blind date once-”

“-And yet, Shiro couldn’t stop complaining how this man he met one time smelled like cheese,” Pidge says, dusting her hands off of gizzards and walking over.  “He wouldn’t let it go for years.” She’s grinning at Keith, eyes bright. “Hey, Keith. I’m Pidge.”

He smiles gratefully at her.  “Nice to meet you,” he breathes out in relief.

Matt laughs.  “Shiro still talks about the poor sap’s cold clammy hands like it was life ruining.  Even though this was one date years ago.”

Shiro shrugs as he drops their bags to the floor and steps out of his shoes.  “Well, they were. Lance thought it was pathetic I was single -”

“- It was, man -”

“-So he’d sign me up for these dating services, but -”  Shiro shudders. “He thought it would help.”

“It would’ve, if you’d actually tried it,” Lance harps.

They all gather around Keith and Shiro, not getting too close, like Keith is something sacred they’re afraid they’ll trip and crush.

They just stare at him.  A mythical creature emerging from its secret hiding place.  And Keith bites at his lip, tense.

“This is Keith,” Shiro says again in an attempt to break up the silence.  “We, uh, work together.  Obviously.  Keith, this is Hunk, our masterful chef.  Matt, my best friend who graciously freezes in the cold for Akira stuff with me.  Pidge, the brains and also like a little sister to me. Aaaand Lance. He might inappropriately sign you up for services you don’t like if you’re not careful enough, but he definitely keeps things lively.”

“Ah,” Keith breathes as each of Shiro’s friends take turns leaning forward and grabbing at Keith’s hand to shake firmly.

“Damn straight!  It is so nice to meet you,” Lance says.  “I swear I thought Shiro was never going to let us see you ever.  The two of you would run away together to get married and that’s the last we’d see of him.”

“Ignore Lance,” Pidge says, bumping him out of the way and offering her turkey covered hand out that Keith stares at for a moment before hesitantly shaking.  “We know Shiro would never do that.”

“But it has been awhile,” Hunk says brightly as he clasps both hands around Keith’s and tugs him in closer.  “And just between you and me, I’m pretty sure Shiro was thinking of becoming a nun before you came along.”

“Shiro can’t become a nun, Hunk!”  Lance bonks him on the head.

“Well, yeah, not now, not when he has a boyfriend.”  He turns back to Keith with a repentant laugh.  “Not that you guys are doing anything un-nun-like.”  He winks at Keith.

Guys,” Shiro cuts in, sighing.  “Try to be normal for two seconds?  I’m begging you.”

Keith looks a little frazzled, he sounds a little winded, but he’s grinning at all of them and laughing.  “It’s uh, it’s nice to meet you all. I’ve heard a lot about you. Especially Matt.”

“Trust me,” Matt says and Shiro is glad he’s the one talking because he’s the only one who can manage to be normal most of the time.  “We’ve heard more about you .  I fell asleep during a four hour phone call with Shiro the other night starring only you.  I’ve never heard a man gushing over someone that hard.”

Never mind.

Shiro and Keith’s faces flame red.

“Matt,” Shiro grumbles.  “You traitor.”

“I’ve never seen Shiro this happy,” Matt continues to say, smiling at him with warmth and welcoming, “so we’re all really glad you could come.”  He nods to the pie that Keith is still clinging to, balancing in one hand. “That for dinner?”

“Yes,” Keith says, stumbling over himself to hold it out for Matt.  “Shiro and I made it together.”

As Matt takes the pie, he laughs, “I’m guessing you made it and Shiro watched.  It’s not burnt to a crisp like Shiro’s usual style.”

“Ahhh, so he let you into his secret lair, huh?”  Lance says as Matt walks the pie to the kitchen counter.

“Secret lair?”

“Yeah?  His apartment.  He won’t let anyone in.  I still haven’t seen it. I think only Pidge and Matt have made it in.  It’s the ultimate honor.”

Keith chuckles softly.  “I didn’t know that.”

Shiro sighs in agony and redirects the conversation.  “The pie is Keith’s dad’s famous recipe.”

Keith snorts and elbows him.  “I said it’s not famous.”

“Well, it’s famous to me,” Shiro hums into him fondly.

Lance and Hunk titter together and he stops his advance, backing off.

Shiro clears his throat, embarrassed now that his friends are watching.  He didn’t realize how close he and Keith had gotten until now, when they have an audience.  He scratches at his head and walks into the kitchen after Matt. Keith follows awkwardly, his eyes slipping around the room, checking everything out.  “Do you guys need help over there?”

“Actually, yeah, that’d be great.  Lance and Hunk are no help at all with their karaoke.”

Lance cackles in the background, sound echoing loudly as he holds the microphone to his face.

Their tree’s already set up in the corner, not yet decorated - that’s the tradition.  Keith’s eyes run up the length of it with the brightness of a child.

“Like decorating trees?”  Shiro nudges him gently with his elbow.

“...Haven’t in years,” he hums.

“Well, you can help us tonight.  We always spend Thanksgiving night hanging ornaments and stringing beads.”

“Yeah?” He asks, breathless.

“Keith!”  Lance and Hunk are in the living room, gesturing him over excitedly and holding out the microphone.  “Keith, come here, man! Join us. Shiro, you’re not invited.”

Shiro frowns at them.  “If you are bringing him over there to gossip about me -”

“We won’t do anything,” Lance says.  Hunk is there, so Shiro decides to trust them.

He arches an eyebrow at Keith, who shrugs a little stiffly, but he disengages from Shiro’s side and walks over.

He can hear Lance going, “So, who is this Allura and is she single?”

“God,” Shiro rolls his eyes, walking into the kitchen and washing his hands.  “This is going to be a disaster. How can I help you, Matt?”

“Uh...  Could you cut the bread and get out the butter?  Hunk made it.”

“I think I can handle that much.”  It’s still warm. He gets to cutting it into small contained slices, ignoring the pointed interested look Matt’s trying to pin him with.

Matt gives up when Shiro doesn’t take the bait and slides over to his side, leaning in.  “So,” he murmurs lowly, grinning ear to ear.  “This is something I wasn’t expecting. You’ve never brought anyone to Thanksgiving before, even that one guy you’d been dating for over a year.  You flat out told him ‘no’ when he wanted to come.”

“...That’s true.  This is my time with my family, it's special to me, and they didn't deserve you.”  Shiro tries to keep his tone even, but he fails. His cheeks are bright red. “...But Keith’s different...”

“Huh.  We all saw the news the other day.”

“Mmmmhmm,”  Shiro cuts a slice of bread and crams it in his mouth so he won’t have to respond.

Matt waits, leaning on his hand casually and watching Shiro.  As Shiro finishes up, he says in amusement, “You didn’t tell me about it last time you called.”

“Ahhh,” Shiro hums.

“Akira kissed you,” Matt says.  When Shiro doesn’t respond, Matt leans in more, hands waving.  “Akira. The Akira.  Akira of your dreams, Akira of everyone’s dreams.  You're like a celebrity now.  I was a little jealous.”

Shiro chokes on the huge piece of bread and slinks away from the counter and into the fridge.  He frowns when Matt’s behind the door as he closes it. “...What do you want me to say?”

Matt tosses a hand at him.  “Why aren’t you freaking out about it?  Why aren’t you foaming at the mouth?  Where’s my best friend and who are you?”

Pidge walks in, grinning.  “Are you having the kiss conversation?  I want to hear.”

Shiro groans as he hides back into cutting the bread.  “Look, it wasn’t like you’re both thinking... If it was, did you guys forget that Keith is my boyfriend?”  He sniffs. “Right after the talk show...well, you said you saw the news...all the things they were saying about him...  It wasn’t all fun and games. It really messed with their whole family. Akira snapped and he cried.  Akira.  Not just tearing up a little, but like...full out, full bodied sobs.  It was...it was horrible. I don’t like thinking about it. About any of it.”  Shiro looks over to Keith. “God, I forgot to tell Lance and Hunk - I’ll have to pull them aside later - but please, please, do not mention Akira to Keith.  Or any of this stuff. He’s been different lately.  They all have. Weary. ...I feel it too.”

Matt leans against the counter too.  “...Almost sounds like you’re already part of their family with the way you talk about them.”

“I sort of feel like it...  Akira is not the monster the news is suddenly saying he is.  He’s that person we looked up to since day one, but more...”

Pidge is back from washing her hands.  She leans in to murmur, looking over at Keith in the living room still.  “He wasn’t mad about the whole Akira kiss thing? I mean...have you seen it?  It's...a lot.”

“He’s not mad.  He says sometimes Akira has to do things for his job and he understands.”

“Damn.  Brave boy.”

“Keith’s a good person.  They all are. I don’t care what the news says.  The news and the media are all trash.”

Matt says, “All over social media, people are giving Akira and you death threats.  Like really descriptive. Pidge has been going around making sure all your info online is secure and your address is hidden.  And ours.”

“Me?”

“Yeah.  Some people think you corrupted Akira.  Made him gay and are trying to steal him away from everyone.”

Shiro snorts.  “Got my special gay contagion on him.  I guess I’m not surprised they’re saying that.  ...I just hope Akira’s okay. Thanks for looking out for me though, guys.”

“I never thought I’d see the day,” Pidge murmurs, tilting her head back to assess Shiro’s calm face.  “You talking about Akira without screaming your head off.”

Shiro chuckles.  “Okay. I admire Akira still, of course I do.  But I just... I dunno. My thoughts are filled with something else now.”

“I think you mean someone else,” Pidge says, looking over her shoulder.

They all do, over to Keith, who is sitting in between Lance and Hunk and laughing about something.  Shiro’s heart tugs at the sight. He feels so much relief seeing how genuine Keith’s laughter is. “You wouldn’t believe how nervous he was before coming here.  He hasn’t had a Thanksgiving dinner since he was four.”

Matt arches an eyebrow.  “...Yikes. Should’ve had Hunk make more things than this.  I told him he could have a break this year but I didn’t realize we were having like...actual company.”

Shiro laughs.  “Keith will love it.  It smells great.”

Matt drains boiling water down the sink.  “I can’t believe you had him over your house.”

“Yeah...  He saw the shrine.  And the body pillow.”

Pidge starts to laugh.  “How’d that go?”

“He said he doesn’t care.”

Matt and Pidge whistle, tossing each other looks.  “Guess you both have it bad.”

Shiro considers the thought: “...Or he’s lying.”

Almost as if called, Keith turns to look at Shiro, grinning sweetly up at him.  “Shiro,” he calls, waving him over. “Shiro, you have to come over here.”

Pidge says lowly so only they can hear, “...That face doesn’t look like it’s lying, Shiro.”

Shiro sets the bread and butter out on the table and then loops around to Keith.  He leans over the back of the couch and over Keith’s shoulder. “Hey, you.  What’re you laughing about over here?”

Keith holds up a photo album and Shiro groans.  Before he even sees what Lance and Hunk are laughing about, he tries to snatch it from Keith’s hands to close it.

“Stop, stop, stop,” Keith says, so Shiro does.  Keith’s eyes are bright and happy. “Lance and Hunk were showing me pictures of you growing up.”

“Ugh, don’t look at the ones with me and braces, I’m begging you.”

Keith laughs.  “I didn’t know you volunteered at hospitals, Shiro.  Look at you. With therapy dogs, helping people. ...That’s so sweet.”

Shiro hums.  “Yeah. They helped me through my time in rehab, so I wanted to help too.  We should go together sometime. It was really nice. I think it makes a big difference.”

“Yeah,” Keith tilts his head as he runs his hands over the photos, fingertips tracing over Shiro’s proud stance.  “Look at you...”

Lance and Hunk turn up to Shiro, excitement in their eyes as they give him a thumbs up.

Shiro sighs and relents.  They’re just trying to be helpful.  He sits on the other side of Keith, who grins up at him and, inconspicuously, grabs Shiro’s hand in his.

His hands are warm and soft.  They fit in Shiro’s perfectly, like they’re made for him.  They’re not even hot and sweaty, but honestly, even if they were, even if Keith smelled like cheese - which he most certainly does not - Shiro would love him all the same.

“What were you laughing about over here?”  Shiro asks, leaning into his space.

Keith smiles back at him, a little glint in his eye.  “That’s a secret.”

“Oh, yeah?”  Shiro says, leaning in even more and snatching the book away.

Shiro,” Lance moans.  “Your boyfriend needs to see that!”

“Shiro,” Keith laughs as Shiro jumps up and goes to the corner of the room by the tree, flipping through the pages they’d just been on.  “I’m warning you. Stop now to spare yourself. You’re not going to like it.”

And Keith’s right.  It’s a photo of his dark, dark past.  It’s of him dressed up as Akira.

Shiro slams the book shut with one definitive thud and tosses it behind him, hopefully into an abyss.  “Oh my god, Lance.  I’m going to kill you.”

Lance laughs and runs.  “Gotta use the restroom for the next few hours.”

“Run, Lance, run!”  Hunk cups his hands around his mouth and shouts.

It was at a con.  A few of his friends and him are all dressed up, but it’s no less humiliating.  He has none of the grace, none of the enchanting beauty that Akira has. Shiro reaches over and snatches Lance up by the scruff as he tries to weasel away.

“This deserves death,” Shiro promises.

“Hey, man, it’s Thanksgiving, a time to appreciate your family and friends!”

“You’re demoted to acquaintance for this.”

“Keith liked it, didn’t you, bud?”

Shiro turns to Keith.  There’s a soft smile and amused warmth in his eyes that says a very big yes .  “Maybe let your friend live for today,” Keith chuckles under his breath.

Shiro sighs and groans, letting Lance go.  He presses his forehead to Keith’s shoulder in defeat as Keith laughs and pats Shiro’s head.  “You looked great. I’m not kidding. The white hair suits you. You look just like an angel.”

“Kill me.”

“What’s this?”  Keith asks. He somehow has the book back in his hands and is flipping to the next picture of Shiro dressed up.

“Mm.  That’s from some game.  Pidge wanted to go to a convention but none of her friends from school could make it and Matt was ‘busy’.”

“Which game?”

“Oh, is that us as Joel and Ellie?”  Pidge calls from the table. “I want to see.”

She walks over, holding her dirtied hands away from her.  She laughs as she looks over their shoulder. “Shiro’s such a trooper.  You do make a great Joel though. You wouldn’t believe all the people hanging all over him and feeling his arms.  Look at that beard.”

“All the people, huh?”  Keith chuckles. “Well, I can't blame them...”

“You don’t recognize this game?”  Lance asks in disbelief. “Never played The Last of Us?”

“Uh.  No. I don’t get a lot of time to do things I want,” Keith hums, still flipping through the pages.  He laughs. “Shiro. You had your hair long? It looks good .”

“Ah.  ...Yeah.  After the accident.  I kinda just...let everything go for awhile.”

Keith looks up, hurt stabbing through his face as he realizes.  Shiro’s hair almost goes down to his waist in the pictures. “...Oh.”

Lance gets right in Keith’s face.  “Have you ever played any game?”

“Um...  I’m sure I have...”  He bites his lip as he thinks.

“Zelda?  Mario? Pacman?  Anything?  These are classics, man!!”

“I’m...sorry?”

“No, no, no, no.  This won’t do.” Lance jumps off the couch, ignoring Matt’s shriek of, “My furniture is not a jungle gym, Lance! ” and grabs a controller.  He tosses it to Keith.

“Mario Kart,” he says.

“Lance,” Shiro sighs.  “Keith’s never played before.  Give him a break.”

“Help him, then.  You're boyfriends, aren't you?  That’s what boyfriends do.”

Keith holds the controller upside down, staring at it curiously.

Shiro rotates it for him so it’s right side up.  “Lance takes his video games very seriously.”

“I can see that,” Keith murmurs, watching Lance stretching beside the couch.

“It’s helps me stay limber,” Lance explains.

Keith turns back to Shiro, eyebrow arched.

“Lance does this.  I don't think the stretching actually helps though,” Shiro says.

“Watch and learn, second place,” Lance says.

Shiro rolls his eyes.

“You’ll help me?”  Keith asks.

And of course he will.  But as it turns out, there’s no need for Shiro to help Keith because Keith is a natural.  Shiro points out the gas and the stick and that’s it.  Keith’s winning races.

Lance, who practices like it’s a sport and hoots and hollers like their house is a competition to be the loudest, is in agony by the end of it.  They can basically see the storm clouds over his head as he sags into the couch in defeat for the twentieth time.

But Keith.  Keith looks so warm.  His eyes are bright with stars as Hunk reaches over and offers his hand up for a high five.  “Alright, man!” Hunk shouts and Keith’s hand claps against his - a resoundingly bright sound that rings with victory.

He’s laughing.  He’s burning bright.

This is just what he wanted...and Shiro is so warm.

“...No way you’ve never played this before,” Lance grumbles before walking off to the dinner table as Pidge calls them up.

Shiro laughs, nuzzling his face into Keith’s hoodie.  “I can’t believe how good you are. You might even rival me.”

“Hm.  You that good, huh?”  Keith raises an eyebrow.

“Oh, look at you.  Getting all cocky.”

“Well, you saw the facts on the screen for yourself.  You must think you’re pretty hot stuff, that’s all.”

You,” Shiro jumps on top of him and tickles him and Keith squawks in surprise.

“Stop, stop!”  Keith begs. He’s laughing so hard he’s crying.  “I’m kidding.  Have mercy.”

“What a brat!  Win a few races -”  Shiro stops his assault, leaning forward onto Keith’s knees as Keith lays sprawled out on the couch beneath him, catching his breath.  His eyes are dancing with stars, his cheeks are red with warmth.

“I notice you haven’t played me yet.”  Keith shakes his controller over his head, taunting him.

Shiro snorts.  “I’d just hate to see you cry, that’s all.”

“It’d be you who’d be doing the crying, old timer.”

“Take that back, or the pain begins again,” he holds up a finger.

“Torture by tickle?  Tickled to death? For what?  For being good?”

Shiro leans in closer, pinning Keith to the couch.  He’s on top of him, knees at his sides. He murmurs lowly into Keith's ear, feels the way he shivers against him,  “You are being so -”

Hey,” Matt’s voice cracks through the air.  He reaches over and taps the back of Shiro’s head with a soft spatula.  “No funny business on my couch! I swear you guys are all hooligans. My couches get no rest.  They were expensive!”

Shiro blinks to himself.  He had forgotten the others were even here.  They’re all standing at the table, waiting for them, watching the two of them with a range starting at amusement and ending with a tinge of horror.

“Also,” Lance says, “no sex in public or in front of your friends.  That’s a household rule.”

Shiro and Keith both blush.

Pidge and Hunk laugh into their hands together, trying to keep their faces straight.

Lance,” they giggle.

Someone had to say it,” Lance mutters back.

“So much for the nun thing,” Pidge snorts.

Shiro backs off of Keith and pulls him up by the hand.  “Sorry,” Shiro breathes to Keith as he pushes his hair back.  “I...forgot they were here.”

Keith shyly pushes a strand of hair behind his ear.  “M-me too.”

“Dinner?”

Keith nods vehemently.  “Dinner.”

They all gather around the table, Shiro and Keith sitting side by side.  The scoot together a little closer than is necessary. But this way, they can hold each other’s hands tightly, out of sight beneath the table, snuggled warmly between the two of them.

“Okay,” Matt says as soon as they're all seated.  He spreads his arms wide and gestures toward the food.  “Everyone help yourselves. We have a lot and I don't want leftovers taking up space in my fridge so please, for the love of god, let's go for it.”

So they do.  There's ham and turkey on a long dish sitting in potatoes and green beans with soft boiled carrots.  There are deviled eggs and freshly baked bread that is still so fresh that it melts butter on contact.  There's the classic green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, the cranberry sauce with cinnamon sticks poking out, the golden butternut squash soup.  There’s so much and it’s all so good. It all tastes just like home.

“You forgot the ham,” Lance points out to Keith, stabbing his fork in Keith's direction.

“Oh, I don't eat meat.”

“You don't eat meat?!” Lance chokes.

“Nope. Haven't in over a decade.”

Lance's voice shoots higher.  “What?!”

Keith just laughs.  As Matt starts asking Keith about his diet, Shiro lets himself drift off and watch.

There’s something healing about being with the people you love.  And Keith is someone who fits in so easily with them all. It’s like he’s always been a part of their group.  And despite all the worry, his eyes are shining with joy and confidence now as he speaks with them all.

Shiro’s so glad he could give this to Keith.  He thinks of the argument Keith and Krolia had had the other day.  He had looked so lonely. So small. And now, he’s like a star.

Shiro’s so happy.

He’s thinking about this, about Keith, watching his face as Pidge wraps him up in talk about a new program Shiro’s never heard of, when he catches someone staring at him.

He turns to Matt, who has an expectant look to his eyes.

“What is it...?”  Shiro asks.

Matt just smiles and shakes his head.  “...I’m happy for you, Shiro.”

Shiro furrows his eyebrows in confusion.

“You look happy,” he says again.

Oh.

He is.  There’s no point in shyly denying it.  There’s no need. He feels warm and full and whole.  For the first time in...maybe ever.

“What do you think, Shiro?”  Keith says breathlessly. “Want to?”

“Hm?  Yeah. Sure.”

Cool,” Keith says.

Pidge is laughing so hard she looks like she’s going to fall out of her seat.  “He’d agree to anything if you ask, honestly. Did you even hear what he asked you, Shiro?”

“Huh?  What?”

Matt snorts and pats him on the back.  Everyone is smiling. Everyone is happy.  Shiro wants this forever.

Shiro wants Keith forever.

Keith chuckles at Shiro’s dazed face.  He reaches his hand up and dusts some casserole off Shiro’s nose.  “I think you make more of a mess than Kosmo does,” he hums fondly. Everyone sees them.  Everyone watches. But they don’t call them out this time. They just all smile at each other.

When Lance and Hunk are excitedly babbling about a new game that just came out, Pidge leans in and murmurs to Keith and Shiro, “...So, I won’t tell anyone, but how long have you known, Shiro?”

Shiro asks around a forkful of mashed potatoes,  “Known what?”

“Uh...”  She looks to Keith and then back to Shiro.  “About Akira,” she draws the word out, nodding to Keith.

Keith freezes, tensing up.  He starts to choke on his bite of food and he jerks his hand from Shiro’s, clinging to the side of the table with a death grip.

Everyone blinks over.  “Whoa,” Shiro says, patting Keith’s back hesitantly.  “Are you okay?”

He nods his head frantically.  “Mmhmm. Uh-huh. Yeah. I...” He coughs some more, pulling at his collar and leaning his elbows on the table.  “Good. I’m good.” He lifts his head and turns red desperate eyes up at Pidge.

The mischief falls out of Pidge’s eyes.  She looks between Keith and Shiro slowly, uncertainty in her face.

Shiro catches their exchange and looks between them.  “...What’s up?”

Keith clears his throat and shakes his head, trying to pull himself even taller.  “Nothing.”

Pidge’s eyebrows grow tall on her forehead.

“...Pidge?”  Shiro asks.

Slowly, she mutters, “...It’s nothing.”

“It’s because the bread is so good, right?”  Hunk says. “You inhaled it whole.”

“Y-yeah,” Keith chuckles, rubbing at his cheek, looking frazzled.

“...You okay?”  Shiro asks again, tilting his head as he watches his face, all the expressions spinning around behind his eyes.

Keith nods his head again, calming down.  “Totally. Yeah.” And he quickly shoves a huge spoonful of cranberries into his mouth.

“Yikes, careful there,” Shiro chuckles, rubbing his back as Keith struggles with this bite again.

“‘M good,” he mumbles around his food and laughs nervously.

Dinner goes well.  Too well. They clear most of the dishes, enough to make Matt happy.  There’ll be leftovers, but Hunk and Lance have already claimed their favorites to take home later.

“Urgghh.  I ate waaaay too much,” Lance complains, rubbing at his round swollen belly.  “I think I ate more than Hunk.”

“No way, man.  I had four servings.  You only had two.”

“Yeah, but my two were like three times bigger than yours.  So that’s like five whole servings.”

Keith looks up from fiddling with the napkin on Shiro’s lap, “Uh, I’m pretty sure that’s not how math works.”

Lance points at Keith’s nose from across the table.  “I said ‘like’. That means it’s not 100% accurate.”

Matt sighs and rolls his eyes.  “Christmas tree decorating time?  Then pie?”

“Hell, yeah,” Pidge says, getting to her feet and running over to the tree happily.  “I want to get to dessert time as soon as possible. The pie isn't burnt this time.”

“Hey,” Shiro protests.  “My pies were just lightly toasted.  You guys are just picky.”

Pidge laughs as Matt scoots the tubs of ornaments from the side of the room into the center.  Shiro gets up to help him and Keith takes a seat beside Pidge on the couch. “So, Keith, any ornaments you see in here that you think would fit, just put them on.  Nothing special to it. We don’t have a theme or anything. And then, at the end, the lucky one gets to put the star on top.”

“That’s a special honor,” Hunk says from the table, where he’s still sitting, incapable of moving after the feast.  “I got to do it last year. I felt like a king for the rest of the season.”

“Krolia would love this,” Keith murmurs as he looks at everyone gathered around the tree, sorting through their Christmas box.  “I’ve got to send her a picture.” He digs for his phone in his pocket and gestures for Shiro to stand in front of the tree as he goes to take a picture.  “Can I, uh...can I get all of you?”

Keith definitely doesn’t have to tell them twice.  Lance is born for it. He sprawls out on the floor like he’s model material, Santa hat between his teeth, and the others pile in happily together, all hanging on top of Shiro, who can take their weight, who grins and laughs beneath it as they hug him fiercely.

“And now you!”  Hunk says, popping up and making his way over to Keith to switch him positions.  He holds his hand out for Keith’s phone as he gestures him in.

Keith stares at him in confusion.  “Oh, I just wanted one of all of you.”

“You’re one of us now too,” he says encouragingly, snagging the phone from Keith’s hands and pushing him into the fray.  “Get in there! Actually me too. Here, I’ll set it on a timer.” He puts Keith’s phone down on the table and runs in.

“O-oh,” Keith breathes as Shiro grabs him by the shoulders and snatches him up into their group.  He looks down at Keith, who blinks in surprise up at him. Shiro can see the universe in his eyes, all the little constellations, filled with wonder.

“You fit in seamlessly,” Shiro breathes.

Keith’s responding grin is bright and breathless as the camera goes off.

“And now!”  Lance bellows halfway through decorating as they reach the bottom of the ornament box.  He pulls out the cherished sacred angel. “It’s our lady. The one, the only, Mrs. Christmas Angel.”

“Usually we have to fight over who places her,” Matt says as he wraps a string of popcorn around the tree.

Pidge snorts and laughs.  “Yeah. We used to do arm wrestling contests, but Shiro always won every year, so we had to start just taking turns.”

“Not as fun that way,” Shiro tells Keith, who laughs as he leans into the box and grabs one of the last ornaments.

Keith snorts.  “I bet I could take you.”

Shiro laughs.  “I bet you could.  Whose turn is it this year?”

“Mine,” Pidge says.  She grabs the angel from Lance, but instead of going for a step ladder and taking it for herself, she turns to Keith.  “...But, you know what? ...It’s not everyday that Shiro brings someone home. And it’s not everyday that we see him so happy.”

“Yeah,” Matt says as he finds a Santa hat and sets it on Pidge's head.  “It’s been years honestly. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see it again.”

“Seriously,” Hunk hums, wiping away at tears.

“Shiro’s our family,” Pidge says, grinning over at Shiro who rubs at his face.  “And what’s important to him is important to us. Plus, beyond that, I think I kinda like you.  You seem cool. ...Like a certain star we know.” She tilts her head as she looks down at him.

Keith stares back, something passing between them.  There’s a knowing glow in her eyes, but she says no more.  Keith smiles hesitantly. “...You too, Pidge.”

“Thank you for taking care of our Shiro.  And may you continue to bring him peace.”

“We owe you,” Matt hums, smiling back at Shiro as he chuckles at his reaction.

Guys,” Shiro mumbles behind his hand, but he’s smiling.  His heart is so warm and full. “Seriously...”

“So, here,” she says, holding the angel out to Keith, who jolts and blinks down at it in surprise.  “The Holt family honor is in your hands. I humbly bestow it upon you. Use it wisely.”

“M-me?”  Keith breathes, still not daring to take it.

...This is what he’s always wanted.  This is what he begged Krolia for. This is what he’d longed for as a child, growing up, home schooled, thinking of this, of how it could be...and never having it.

Here Pidge stands, holding it out to him with two hands, an angel that glitters in the soft Thanksgiving day light.  “Take it,” she laughs at the shock on his face. “I’m a computer person, not a weight builder. My arms are starting to shake.”

Keith laughs wetly.  He sniffs hard as he takes the angel from her hands.  “...Thanks,” he whispers and his voice trembles a bit, but he doesn’t cry.  He just holds the angel and looks down at it in his hands. “...Thank you.”

He’s been accepted.  Him. Keith. And Shiro can see the twinkling disbelief in his eyes.  The way he’s stunned, it’s the best feeling in the world.

Shiro bumps his shoulder into Keith’s gently.  “You going to hang it...?” Shiro says softly to him.

Keith chuckles a little and nods, standing as Matt grabs him the step ladder and shoves it into place.  Keith climbs up and, very carefully, places the angel atop the highest part of the tree. The whole time, Shiro has his phone out, recording the moment to send to Krolia later.  He feels how special the moment is in his heart.

He sees the way Pidge is watching Keith.  She looks happy. Shiro nudges her warmly and raises an eyebrow at her expectantly.

“I like him,” she says softly, so it’s just between the two of them.  “...He’s just right for you, Shiro.”

“I think so too.”

He puts his phone away and stands, walking over to Keith, holding his hand out to help him down.  Keith flashes a small shy smile at him and takes it. His soft warm little hand.

They take a step back to take in the sight of the tree in its entirety.  The warm lights, the tinsel, the ribbon and popcorn, the glittering ornaments - dogs in Santa hats, fluffy reindeer, tiny stuffed angels - and, of course, the tree topper, hanging brightly in gold.

The tree is a collection of all their happiness and love.  It’s a sight to behold, maybe not so much for others - with it's mismatched colors and styles, some ornaments congregating in one place and leaving other patches open and bare - but for them, all here in this moment, together, it's theirs.

Shiro wraps his arms around Keith’s shoulders and holds him closely.  “Perfect,” he whispers against his ear.

“Yeah?”  Keith breathes as he leans his head back against Shiro’s shoulder.  “I-I’ve never done that before...”

“Got it on video,” Shiro taps his phone.

“You did?  Oh man, Krolia’s going to freak out,” he laughs, his grin as bright as the angel that hangs on the top of the tree.

Hunk suggests a movie and, somehow, they manage to dodge an Akira one.  Lance tries to dig one up but when Shiro subtly suggests another, he doesn’t miss Keith's grateful look.  They snuggle up on the couch together, plates of pie in their hands - delicious and perfectly golden and sweet - warm bellies and happy thoughts.  The tree glows beside them. Shiro leans against Keith and that’s it. He drifts in and out of sleep, so content.

“Shiro?”  Keith is asking softly after awhile, through his drifting thoughts.  “Earth to Shiro.” He’s rubbing his thumb over the top of Shiro’s hand and Shiro’s caught in the sensation.  He’s thinking of the warmth he can feel from Keith’s body. He’s thinking of how nice it was to sleep side by side, how nice it’d be if they could do that again.  If Shiro could run his hands through his hair. If he could kiss his soft red lips. If Keith could be his.

“...Mm?”

“Tired?”  Keith chuckles, running his hand over the side of Shiro’s head.  “You ate so much pie.”

He blinks around blearily, up into Keith’s face.  “...God, yeah. Everyone outdid themselves this year.  You’re like the best pie maker in the world.”

“The trick is not burning it.”  Keith smiles. He holds his phone out and shakes it.  “Krolia texted. Apparently Akira got some nasty threat.  She’s sending a very disgruntled Kolivan and Regris over immediately.  It’s twelve anyway. Do you need a ride home or are you staying?”

“Staying,” Shiro mutters.  “Too tired to go home.” He yawns and then leans his head onto Keith’s, wrapping his arms around his center.  “Is everything alright?”

“We get threats all the time.  It’ll be fine.”

“Mm...  You’re warm.”

“Did you drink a little too much?”  Keith chuckles.

“Too much sparkling apple cider?”  He yawns again and sighs out, “Tired.”

“Me too,” Keith hums softly, running his hands through Shiro’s hair with special attention as Shiro tries to settle back into Keith’s lap to use him as a pillow.  A very soft, very comfortable pillow.

Everyone’s already asleep.  No one but Keith lasted through the movie.  They’re all passed out lumps on the ground.

“Wake up, sleepyhead.  Wanna wait outside with me?”  Keith asks.

“If you carry me, I’ll do whatever you want.”

Keith laughs, trying to pull Shiro up by the armpits.  “Okay, come on, big guy. I can’t do it all on my own.”

“I think I specifically remember you telling me you were strong enough to carry me.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Well, if you hadn’t, I know you’ve thought it.  It’s a very Keith thing to think. And you know what?  Next year, when we’re debating who’s gonna hang the angel, I’ll arm wrestle you for it.  I’m thinking you might win.”

Keith is laughing again as he drags Shiro off the couch and to the door.  “Better start upping my training regimen so I can impress you.”

Shiro rubs at his eyes, flicks the porch light on, and steps outside with him.  “Oh, man,” he shivers, immediately clasping his arms around himself and shoving his side into Keith’s even deeper.  “It’s cold.  You sure you want to be out here?”

“Yeah.  It’s already past midnight.  Kolivan’s pissed enough as it is.  Here. I’ll keep you warm.” They sit on the porch steps and Keith opens his arms, taking Shiro into a hug and keeping him close.

It is warmer like that.  Cozier. Keith’s arms are the nicest to be inside where Shiro is bundled up safe and soft.

“...I had a lot of fun tonight,” Keith whispers to Shiro, nuzzling his face into Shiro’s neck.  “...I always wondered what it’d be like.”

Shiro hums as his shivering tapers off.  “Yeah? And what’s the verdict?”

“...It’s wonderful.  I can’t even describe what it feels like.”  Keith looks up into the night sky, where the stars peak out in between fluffy clouds.  The moon lights them up gently. “A home. A center. No worrying about the world. No worrying about whether they’ll turn on you at your most vulnerable.  Friends who just like you for being you.”

Shiro smiles.  “...They’re all great.  And they all loved you. All of them.  I could see it on their faces. Even Pidge said something and her standards are high.  People at work used to make fun of her for being a recluse too.”

“...Yeah?”  Keith presses his lips together tightly and then laughs, one small vulnerable little sound.  “Same here. She actually gave me her number. She said to text her.”

“Are you serious?”  Shiro laughs in surprise.  “You’re kidding me, right?”

Keith tries to press his grin down as he shakes his head.  “I hope you don’t mind. I don’t want to encroach. ...You have such good friends.  And you deserve them, Shiro.”

“You’re always welcome, Keith,” Shiro whispers.  “With me, with them. Everything they said in there, they meant.  You can come for Christmas, Easter, summer barbecues... We can have so much fun together.”

“That sounds so nice,” Keith whispers, looking down at the grass along the driveway.  “...Do you do that every year?”

“Yeah.  For ages now.”

Keith is quiet.  He keeps his arms around Shiro, leaning his head against him.  And they just...are.  There’s no pressure to be anyone else.  Shiro doesn’t have to try to act cool. He doesn’t have to act at all.  He is entirely himself, held and content next to the most beautiful person he knows, both inside and out.  He feels like he could stay like this forever.

“Shiro...”  Keith starts to say and then stops.  He sniffs. Tries again. His voice is barely a murmur.  “...Shiro, what would you say if...if Akira quit?”

“...Akira?”

“...Yeah.  Shooting starts soon...  Really soon. And it always seems like time just starts spinning after that and then it’s over.  It’s done. But what if I didn’t have to leave? What if I just sidestepped all this stuff and stayed with you ?  What if I could come to the barbecues and holidays with you?  What if we could stay like this?”

Shiro blinks, leaning back as Keith shifts against him, eyes hesitant and guarded.

“...Of course I’d want to be together,” Shiro whispers.

Keith starts biting at his lip anxiously.

“Keith...  If you don’t want to stay with Akira, then you don’t have to...  Your family loves you, whatever you want to do, they won’t abandon you...  Akira doesn’t control your life.”

“Hm.  But what if he does...?  What if I’m bound to him?  What if...what if, by leaving Akira behind, I uproot every seed of kindness I ever tried to give roots?  Akira needs me... Without me, he can’t continue. What if I leave people like you, who needed Akira, who were alone, what if I just leave them to rot?  What would’ve happened to you...?” Keith takes a hand back and rubs it roughly against his face.  “I don’t know what to do. My head’s all in knots... I know what I want, but then I also know what’s right and don’t I want to do what’s right, too?  I know I’m living a dream and I should be grateful. In the position I’m in, I have the power to change so many things for good, but god...sometimes it feels like the dream’s a nightmare and I can’t escape it.  I just...” His breath shivers. “I don’t know what to do...”

Shiro shifts back a bit and sits up taller.  He places a gentle hand on Keith’s back. “You’re afraid, when you leave, that we won’t be able to be together anymore?”

Keith heaves a huge sigh and shoves his head into his knees.  “...I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”

“...Akira has done a lot of good and you’ve been there too, right beside him, making it possible.  Seeds of hope and kindness never die, Keith. Everything you’ve planted can always be revisited, especially with the way technology is these days.  His songs and messages will always be alive. And I know, being someone who Akira has helped...I’d want him and everyone else who’s helped him to have the best life they can.  I’d want them to have whatever they want - everything they want. Each and every one of you deserve to get back what you all try so hard to give.  Akira, Krolia, Kolivan, Regris... you.  It’s hard for me to say though...  I may be a little bit biased. But I think you deserve as long of a break as you want, Keith.  I’m not just saying that because I want to keep you...but there’s that too.”

Keith peeks out from the side of his cove, looking into Shiro’s face quietly.  “...Is it selfish of me to take what I want?”

Shiro shakes his head.  “You deserve to be happy...”

“Because I see it all,” Keith says, rubbing at his nose and sniffing.  His eyes start to shine as emotion cuts through his defenses. “I see everything I want in you.  ...And I don’t think I’m strong enough to let that go.”

“Keith,” Shiro whispers, reaching up to hold his face between his hands.  He whispers softly, “Even if Akira’s next movie was being shot on Mars, who says you’d have to let me go anyway?  I’ll follow you, if that’s what you want. No one’s made me happy like you...”

Keith inhales sharply.  He reaches his own hand up to hold onto Shiro’s, as if feeling if he’s really there, truly, reality.  “...Really?”

Really.  If you love this job, then I want to stand beside you with it.  If you hate it, we’ll find something else. You don’t have to factor me into the equation.  I’ll be here if you want me to be here. Follow your heart, follow what’s best for you ...and I’ll follow you from there.”

At those words, Keith finally can’t do it.  Tears that he’s held back grow and pour from his eyes.  “You’re -” Keith ‘s lungs jerk in air unsteadily. The moonlight pours down on their faces and Keith’s is so raw with emotion, so vulnerable.  “You’re the best damn person I’ve ever met,” he cries.

“And so are you,” Shiro whispers gently.

A small shiver runs through Keith and his eyes shudder.  And, suddenly, before Shiro even realizes what’s happened, he’s caught in a kiss.

It’s not like Akira’s.  It’s not like being jerked into it, his mind flying out of his head only to wake up on the other side, having missed it all.  With Keith, he’s still present. He can feel Keith here, beside him. Not on the other side of glass, back turned, looking out.  This is Keith turned to face him, hand outstretched, palm open, waiting for Shiro to catch up. Waiting for their hands to entwine and mesh.

Keith is pressed against him, his small delicate-looking fingers that cling with the strength of a lion.  The way he pours his heart into the kiss, open-mouthed against Shiro’s without hesitation because he knows, without a doubt, that Shiro will accept him...just for who he is.

It’s not hurried, it’s not shaky.  It’s breathless and winded, but so warm, so full.

Shiro is overwhelmed.  His heart tugs and pulls.  He’s kissing Keith back as hard as he can, pulling Keith into his lap.

It’s like feeling all that Keith is, all that Shiro loves about him, in one touch.  It’s everything about Keith, presented, right here. And it’s a beautiful, rare thing.  So so precious. So vibrant and colorful and Shiro has never felt so full in his life. So true.  So at peace with the world.

Words tumble out of his mouth he doesn’t even mean to say, but his heart admits for him anyway.  He breathes them into Keith’s mouth between a kiss, as soft and delicate as Keith’s touch. “I love you...”

And they both stop in surprise, blinking back at each other.  They look into the other’s eyes, Keith’s still laced in little bits of wet stars, catching the sky’s reflection from up above.

Keith looks incredulous and Shiro kind of is too...it’s funny the things that slip out sometimes.

Shiro clears his throat and tries to fight the embarrassment pooling in his cheeks.  “I’ve never felt for anyone the way I feel for you.  And I mean that. You’ve taken my hand and accepted every crazy thing about me.  You think of others more than you think of yourself.  You always do your best. ...I love that about you. All of that and so much more.  I could go on all night. You’re amazing, Keith. And even if you have to leave, I’ll always think it.  You have such a special heart and I still wake up every morning in shock and awe that you’ve been by my side for this long.”

Keith lets out a small trembling breath.  A fresh set of tears fall down his cheeks and he laughs shakily into the air around them, leaning forward to press his face into the side of Shiro’s head.  He sways them back and forth, small hand going against Shiro’s back against his shoulder blades, holding him tenderly there, like he’s someone very loved, someone very precious to him.  “...I want to take you on a date,” Keith whispers into Shiro’s ear, his voice wet. “Just you and me. My full, undivided attention will be all yours the entire time. I’ll buy you everything you want.”

“How about,” Shiro murmurs lowly, leaning back to look into Keith’s face, “you leave the money home and you just bring yourself?”

Keith laughs and nods quickly, pressing a kiss to Shiro’s cheek.  “Right, right. I don’t have to buy you.”

“I’m already yours.”

“Okay.  Okay, deal.  We’ll do something fun.  Something us.”

“What’ll we do?”  Shiro asks, smiling into the kisses that Keith peppers over his face between words.

“Uh...”  Keith hums breathlessly.  “...I’ll tell you later. Right now, I can’t feel my toes.  My heart’s fluttering too fast.”

Shiro sneaks his hand between them, placing it over Keith’s chest.  He chuckles.

Keith huffs as he presses his own hand against Shiro’s.  “Your heart’s so steady. How are you doing it?”

“I don’t know honestly,” Shiro laughs.  “Every other time, my heart’s always sprinting.  But this just...feels right...doesn’t it?”

Keith settles, warm smile on his face.  “...Yes. Yes, it does.” He leans in softly to kiss Shiro on the mouth again, tilting his head to deepen their kiss.

Shiro feels like a high schooler again.  He feels young and new, his heart filled with dreams and stars and hopes and love.  The scars wash away. The hurt and pain, the anxiety, the fears...they disintegrate beneath Keith’s touch.  Every weight that Shiro carries around with him, held on his back and pressing him to earth, Keith ties them all up with balloons and watches them float away.

Shiro could kiss Keith all night.  His hands slip across Keith’s firm toned back and he pulls Keith closer to him, body flush against body.  There’s a pull deep in his gut, greedy and hungry. He hadn’t realized he was so starved for touch like this and, like a light, suddenly, that part of him flickers on.  A flame. Keith’s flame.

But lights pull around the corner of the road and blares into the driveway, cutting through the tender softness of night.  Keith’s phone dings obnoxiously between the sounds of each other’s short clipped breath.

Shiro blinks back to himself and Keith slowly pulls away, a slight frown in his brow as they disconnect.  “...That’s Kolivan,” he sighs lowly. “I have to go.”

But he stays right where he is, despite the both of them bathed in Kolivan’s SUV’s headlights like two suspects under interrogation.

Shiro laughs in sympathy as he plays with Keith’s hands in his own.  “How much crap is he going to give you for catching us like this?”

Keith chuckles back, leaning his forehead against Shiro’s and humming words against the corner of his mouth.  “Not enough to make it not worth it.”

He presses a kiss to his mouth and then slips off Shiro’s lap, slowing scooping himself up into a stand.  “...You’ve given me everything I could’ve possibly ever asked for,” Keith whispers, looking down at him with such warm fondness.  “...I could never thank you enough.”

“Keith,” Shiro calls.  He clings to Keith’s hand as his fingers slip out of his grip.  He can’t take the distance. It’s cold suddenly where warmth was blazing, both against skin and his heart.

He stands and captures Keith in another kiss.  He can’t help himself. Audience be damned. He feels like gravity is absent today, he feels like he’s floating, like the world’s changed because of Keith.  He could kiss him all night.

He breaks off the kiss, watching Keith’s eyelids flutter open softly, the tender happy glow on his face.  Shiro breathes out, fingertips against the milky softness of his skin, “Having you here today at my side, surrounded by my old friends, and your new friends...it was one of the best moments of my life.  I’m so glad you came...”

Keith’s face softens as he steps toward Shiro gently again.  They're in their own little world.  “You’ve given me a place to feel comfortable,” he says as he leans down and kisses Shiro on the lips again.

Again...and again.

It’s so soft.  The sound of their kiss rings in Shiro’s ears and drowns him.  He wants to take Keith into himself and never let him go.

What must Kolivan and Regris be thinking in the car, waiting patiently?  Shiro doesn’t know. He’s sure he’ll hear about it later and be terribly embarrassed, but right now?  Neither of them care.

Keith breathes out a soft shivering sigh as he touches the tips of his fingers to Shiro’s cheek.  “...I want to see you again soon,” he whispers.

“Call me when you get home,” Shiro says.  “I worry about you.”

“Okay.”  Keith’s breathless.  “Okay...” He squeezes Shiro’s hand once more, giving him one more brilliant dazed smile before turning and heading to Kolivan’s SUV.

The door behind Shiro opens as the SUV pulls away into the distance.

“...He’s wonderful,” Matt says lowly.

“I love him,” Pidge whispers.

Shiro grins.  He’s so so happy.  It just floods him and he’s drowning in it.  Everything feels so right.

“...Me too,” Shiro whispers breathlessly.  He's never felt so warm inside.

Keith calls Shiro when he gets home.  Even though Shiro’s tired, even though they’d just spent the day together, they talk all night.

 

Chapter Text

 

To my dear fans,

What the media has been saying these past few days weighs heavily on my heart.  I apologize for the silence I’ve maintained until now.

There are a lot of rumors going on about me and I know that you probably have a lot of questions.  I hear you. I hear you all. But please, I request your patience. I wouldn’t ask this from you if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.  I’ve been in a negative headspace lately and I want to address this matter with the thought and grace I think it deserves, judgement unclouded, thoughts unmuddled.  I won’t apologize for who I am and everyone deserves the whole truth. When I am ready to give it, you will all be the first to know.

But there is one thing I do want to explain now.  What happened on Nyma’s show last friday was my mistake.  Shiro is an invaluable assistant of mine and a dear friend to the family and my thoughts that day were only of trying to protect him the best I could.  I did not mean to start questions of infidelity. At that moment, during the game, I became flustered. My thoughts were just of protecting him. I thought, foolishly, that, by owning the moment, it’d somehow smooth it over.  I was wrong and I can see that now. My judgement was clouded at the time.

I want to apologize to Shiro for the trouble I have caused.  He’s done nothing but support and lift our family up. I can understand everyone’s anger, but please, leave him out of it.  He is the good that I love about this world. He deserves the highest respect.

With love,

Akira

 

Shiro rubs his finger along his bottom lip as he looks into the screen of his phone, reading the message over again.

He can’t believe the words written out here.  He blinks tiredly and rubs at his eyes once more, making sure they’re working properly so he can look into the message again.

Wow.

Yeah.  It’s there.

The good that I love about this world.

Akira said that.  About him.  Shiro.  Holy shit.  He’s got to still be dreaming.

He rolls onto his side and texts Keith.

Hey did you see what Akira just posted

The text back is instantaneous: Oh my god how did you wake up right now and know.  Do you have Akira sense or something? You should be sleeping.

It’s a talent I developed over the years.  Just like the grumpy Keith sensor.

Ugh yeah I just got to bed I need to SLEEP

Shiro chuckles into the phone.   Okay okay sleep well goodnight

I can see the sun. I think you mean goodmorning

Shiro leaves Keith alone and rolls off the side of Matt’s couch, rubbing at his nose.  It’s freezing in the early morning. Keith said he could see the sun, but he was exaggerating.  It’s hardly five. He can hear Matt already up and about, so Shiro figures he can go to work early today too.  Besides, he’s already bright awake.

No matter what Shiro does, he can’t get Akira’s sobs cleansed from his mind.  He feels responsible. If Akira feels like everyone’s turned on him, he’s got to know the truth.  Shiro’s done some digging online and there was a lot of bad, that’s true, but there was a lot of good too.  Pure heartfelt goodness that made even Shiro a little emotional reading it.  Akira’s got to see.

So Shiro goes to work early, before Allura is even at her desk.  He goes in through the back and into the dark hallways, flicking the lights on.  He makes his way into the extra office and boots up the computer. He’s on the hunt.  Only the most supportive and kind messages will do. He braves the sludge-y swamps of internet negativity to pull out the gems.  And Akira’s fans don’t let him down; boy, does he find them. A simple screenshot, some basic cropping, and it’s printing out of the printer beside him where Shiro collects and stacks them on top of each other.

It’s a healthy thick pile.

More.

He goes back to hunting.

It’s hardly six in the morning.  He expected to be alone in the office for a little while longer, so when Krolia’s voice comes up from behind him, he jumps.  “...What are you doing here so early?”

“Agh.  You almost gave me a heart attack.”  He swivels around in his chair and smiles into her amused face.  “Hi, Krolia. Sorry. I should’ve texted you but I only decided just this morning and I wasn’t sure when you woke up.  I saw what Akira posted this morning and it felt...sad. I wanted him to know that he’s not alone. He has a lot of really positive responses, so I chose some of my favorites and thought I’d slip them on his desk.  Do you - uh, does that seem okay?” He hadn’t even thought to ask honestly.

She leans against the desk beside the printer and grabs the bundle of pages, shuffling through them.  “Shiro, that’s really nice of you,” she hums softly. “...I think that’s a really good idea.”

“Well, this is partially my fault after all.”

“It’s not your fault,” she says lowly.

“In any case, I think he should know.  It’s not just us who has his back.”

She sets the papers back down, a small smile on her face as she looks over his shoulder and inspects the other messages he’s scrolling through.  “...How are you holding up?  It’s a lot of energy flying around.  I know some of it’s good, but there will always be negative people trying to tear you down and they always seem to be the loudest.  Have they found your social media yet?”

Shiro chuckles and shrugs.  “I don’t really have social media.  None I check anyway. So I’m doing pretty well.”

She arches an eyebrow.  “No social media?”

“I used to, but the people I want to keep in contact with I text.  And the Akira fan sites I frequent don’t have our actual identities, so I’m safe there.”

Her smile grows.  “Akira actually does that too.”

“Does he really?”  The thought that maybe they conversed before and Shiro had no idea blows his mind.

“You know, I can’t lie, when you first came to us, coffee stain drowning half of your outfit, this huge unprofessional frazzled mess, I thought you’d be a horrible fit in this place.  But I was wrong. You were just what we needed. Keith’s really changed since you’ve been here. And you really do brighten up this family... I think it’s time for a raise.”

Shiro snorts as he keeps scrolling, choosing his favorites and printing them.  The printer chugs away merrily beside them. “I keep telling Keith you don’t have to buy me.  I’m the one loving this job the most I think. I’ll be here for as long as you guys need me.”

She hums with fondness again before pushing her hip off the side of the printer and making her way out.  “...I admire your optimism, Shiro, but there are downsides. Please be careful when you’re out in public. Take Regris or Kolivan with you.  We don’t want you getting hurt.”

“Okay,” he says in surprise.  He thinks he knows where Akira and Keith get their caring side from, which is funny since the first time he walked into this office, he was very afraid of her.  And now look. He almost feels like he has a mother again. “I’ll be careful. You too.”

She laughs, her eyebrows raised in amusement at that one.  “...Okay. I’ve got to get started on my day. I’m sure Keith will be in late.  I heard him plucking away at his guitar late into the night, talking on the phone.  Was that with you?”

Shiro chuckles, holding his hands up.  “Guilty as charged.”

She shakes her head with amusement again.  “You two need to get a better sleep schedule...”  She mutters as she leaves the room.

Keith is late.  Shiro stays in the extra office room he’s been beginning to inhabit more and more these days, swinging back and forth on the chair as he goes through the long list of numbers Krolia has him inputting.

He’s so in the zone going down the line of them that he doesn’t even hear Keith come in from behind him until it’s too late and there are hands over his eyes, blocking his vision.

“Guess who,” Keith murmurs lowly into his ear, so low that it sends a shiver up Shiro’s spine.

Shiro chuckles, a small smile warming up his face.  “Hm. Is it Kolivan?”

Keith leans his head forward against the back of Shiro’s, laughing softly under his breath.  “I dunno, maybe.”

“Is it Regris?”

“Hmm.  Is it?”

“Krolia.  It’s definitely Krolia.”  When Keith doesn't answer, Shiro says, “Akira?”

“Pfft.  If I said yes?” Keith snorts as he pulls his hands back and leans forward over Shiro’s shoulder, looking into the screen.  “What the hell’s all that?”

“I honestly don’t even know what I’m doing; Krolia just told me to input the numbers so I am.”

Keith snorts.  “Wow.”

Shiro looks up in time to see Keith poke his sunglasses off his face and on top of his head, but he frowns as he notes the cigarette hanging out of Keith’s mouth.  It’s casual, like he’s always done it. Shiro reaches up and plucks it from him, looking down to see if it’s real. “What’s this?”

“Never seen a cigarette before?”  Keith chuckles as he wiggles the box in his hand and shoves it in Shiro’s breast pocket.  “It’s for Akira’s next movie. What do you think? Makes me look cool, right? I was trying to get a vibe for it.”

“Pfft.  You don’t need a cigarette to make yourself look cool.”

“Tell that to the producers.  And it’s not just about that. Akira smokes sometimes.  It helps calm his nerves.”

“Huh.  Yeah, I’ve seen pictures, but I didn’t realize they were real.  I guess I just figured Krolia would kill him if she knew.”

“They were very real.  But yeah, when Krolia found out, she did, in fact, almost kill him.  But sometimes, he still sneaks it when he’s feeling particularly bad.  No one has to know.” He snickers but then straightens up. “Hey. I saw what you left on Akira’s desk.”  His voice lowers. “...That was you, wasn’t it...? It was the sweetest thing.”

Shiro swirls around in his seat so that he’s facing Keith, shoving the unused cigarette away on the desk.  He opens his arms for Keith, who carefully sits himself down in his lap. “I just thought...there’s a lot of bad in this world,” Shiro allows as he murmurs the words into Keith’s cheek as he kisses him.  “But then, there’s a lot of good too. I wanted him to know that people are rooting and supporting him, same as always.”

Keith nuzzles him back, wrapping his arms around his shoulders and sinking into his hold deeper.  Instead of replying, he tilts his head, opening Shiro’s mouth beneath his and kissing him deeply.

Shiro’s entire being alights with energy.  He loves it, he really does. The boldness of it, the sweetness of it, the newness, all of it shocks Shiro to his core that they have this now between them.  That he can kiss Keith.

Shiro can taste the sweet coffee from Keith’s mouth.  He pulls back. “Did you go to Starbucks already?”

“Mm,” Keith hums.  He leans back and grabs a cup, setting it out on the table in front of Shiro.  “Got yours.”

Keith , that’s my job.  I already got some for you.”

“How many hours ago was that?”

“I was going to go back, Sleeping Beauty.”  He looks back at the clock. “In like fifteen minutes.”

Keith chuckles lowly as he wraps his arms around Shiro’s neck tighter.  “Beat you to it.”

“You keep doing that,” Shiro says between kissing Keith’s face, “and Akira’s going to fire me.”

Keith’s like a sunflower to the sun, tilting his head back and absorbing the rays, small content smile on his face as he closes his eyes and basks in Shiro’s happiness.  “No, he won’t,” Keith breathes, fingertips grazing against Shiro’s chin.

But his happiness starts to change.

There are thoughts in Keith’s eyes as he opens them and stares into the ceiling.  The more he thinks, the more Shiro can sense it. Shiro hums against the softness of Keith’s neck but he can feel the way Keith swallows hard, the way the soft pliant happiness begins to tense with anxiety.  Shiro pulls away to give him his full attention. “...What’s up?” He asks in concern.

Keith pulls his lip in between his teeth, biting into it with the sharpness of his teeth.  The softness that made up his expression only moments before is now hardened and caked with worry.  He brings his hand up to his forehead and rubs at his temple. They sit like that for a long time.

Finally, he mutters lowly, “Uh...  It's nothing.  ...Do you...like cats?”

Shiro chuckles, eyes scoping out the tiredness of Keith’s face.  “Why? Did you have a run in with a cat this morning?” When Keith doesn’t respond, eyes a little lost and distant, Shiro hums into his space, “I like cats.”

Keith chuckles and takes in another deep breath as he shakes the expression off his face.  “Oh, good. Then we can keep hanging out. Also...here -” he twists and grabs his phone from his back pocket, taking it out into his hand as he navigates to the page he wants.  He turns it to show Shiro. “The local animal shelter just received some rescued kittens and they’re asking for help getting them cleaned up and presentable for adoption. Something easy, something we could do.  Plus, cats. I thought - well, it’s probably not the best for a date night, but -”

“-Yeah,” Shiro says quickly.

Keith blinks up, a small smile on his lips.  “Yeah?”

“I love cats.  It’s perfect. But are you sure you want to go?  I thought you were more of a wolf person.”

Keith laughs softly and leans in for another kiss.  “Everything person.”

They kiss again, soft lips against soft lips.

Is it okay to have this?  Is it alright to be this happy all the time?  There’s a bit of excitement tingling at the corners of Shiro’s stomach, wondering, with hope, that maybe he can always have this happiness.  Can he open his heart even more?  Does he even have the choice?

Keith is so warm and soft in his hands and Shiro feels like a meteor hurtling toward the surface of a planet, out of control, unable to stop before the inevitable contact.  His heart’s already set course. He’s done for.

There’s a knock on the door behind them and Shiro jolts, jerking back.  Keith just chuckles and leans back out of Shiro’s space a bit but doesn’t get up from his lap.  His hands are still set warmly on both of Shiro’s shoulders.

“Hey, Krolia,” Keith hums.

She fixes them with an amused tolerant look.  “I need to know if you were still wanting to do Coran’s Christmas show.  The Merry Merry Christmas Extravaganza? It’s coming up.”

Keith snorts.  “If he’ll still even have us after the Nyma shitshow.”

She taps her phone.  “He loves you, Keith.  He says you’re still on.”

“Brave man.”  Keith turns his eyes to Shiro.  “You want to go still? You’ll have to wear a tuxedo.”

Shiro’s eyes must be as bright as the excitement blaring in his chest because Keith laughs before Shiro even breathes out, “I-if you want to.”

“Well, I want to if you want to.”  He looks up to Krolia and nods. “Yeah.  Let them know we’re up for it. Coran’s been begging us to come for years now.”

“He’ll be happy,” she smiles softly into her phone.

“Shiro and I are going on a date this afternoon,” Keith says.  “To the shelter I was talking about earlier.”

Shiro can see the frown cut across her face that she tries to fight back.  But it just sinks back to hesitance. “Keith, I told you... It’s not a good idea right now.  You know how the paparazzi get on a normal day and right now they’re rabid for any sight of you and Shiro both.  And together? You’d be worth a fortune.”

“We’ve been waiting.  Days, at your request.  Akira issued his apology like you wanted -”

Krolia sighs.  “...Come out here.  There’s something I want to show you.”

“Shiro and I are busy.”

She fixes him with a sharp unamused glare that even Keith crumbles beneath.  He sighs and climbs off Shiro’s lap with a moody toss of the head.

At the end of the hall, out the glass walls, they can see the city.  They can see outside the front of the building, where the sun touches.

And the people.  People protesting with their shitty stupid signs trying to force their hateful close-minded opinions on them.  Holding up signs about ‘transparency’ and ‘lies’ and ‘hell’. When the crowd spots them up above, they rise like a wave, cresting and roaring, trying to pry answers from him.

“We want answers!”  They scream at him. “He belongs to us!  Not you!”

Shiro looks down at them all.  It feels so surreal. Are they talking about him?  Do they understand anything at all?

“God,” Keith huffs as he crosses his arms and stares down his nose at the lot of them, expression as moody as a stormy ocean.  “What an eyesore.” His eyes flicker over to Shiro. “...You okay?”

“I’m fine...”  But the negativity permeates the air and it’s choking.  He tries to loosen his collar but, of course, it does nothing.

Keith puts a gentle hand on his arm.  “Don’t pay them any mind. They have no idea what they’re talking about.  As usual.” Keith points again, arching an eyebrow at Krolia. “Isn’t that our property?  Can’t we get them to move?”

“Public property.  There’s nothing to be done.”

“So public means we have a right to be out there too.”

“If you want to be mauled, then sure.”  There’s no expression on her face as she stares at the mess below.  “But even Kolivan and Regris wouldn’t be stupid enough to follow you.”

“Fine with me.  We don’t want them with us on our date anyway.”

“Keith, you know how people get...  Is it really worth the risk to you?”  She reaches forward and touches the scar on his face.

He doesn’t pull away, but he sighs, disheartened.  “I’m an adult now -”

“And you’re still my -” her eye catches on Shiro and she huffs out a disgruntled sigh - “ nephew.  ...Keith, I’m sorry.  I know you're excited about -” she points to the both of  them. “But this is getting ridiculous. You both need to stay in.  Your date night can wait.”

Keith silence is thick with his stubbornness.  He doesn't say the no in his eyes out loud, but it's obvious.

“Fine,” she says lowly.  She walks away for a moment and then comes back with a bundle of letters.  “I didn’t want to show you this, but maybe it’ll help you understand the situation.”  She pushes them into Keith’s hands. “Read them.”

Krolia,” he groans.

Read them.”

They’re all death threats.  Letter upon letter upon letter.  Some are handwritten. Some are typed.  Some are even individual letters ripped from magazines and glued together like Keith had laughed about before.  But he’s not laughing now.

Shiro’s fingers are tingling at the sight of all of them, horrified to see them all up close.  “For Akira?”

“No, Shiro, for Keith.  It’s worse than it’s ever been,” she says quietly, hand on her hips as she leans forward into Keith’s space.  “...And this is just from the small handful that I happened to grab this morning from the top of piles and piles of more of them.”  She stares Keith down.  “...Don’t go out.”

There’s a darkness in Keith’s eyes that spreads and blooms at the sight of all of them.  This time his silence feels like defeat, so Krolia, with one last sigh, walks out.

Keith is holding his breath, face becoming red in his anger.  The anger is a superficial coverup; beneath it, Shiro can see the hurt and conflict.  The chains that are binding him the more he thinks about it. All the things that Keith wants but keep getting taken away.

“Hey,” Shiro tries to say soothingly, reaching over to unclench Keith’s arms that he holds tightly against his chest.  “Keith, it’s alright. It’s just for a few days. I’m not going anywhere.”

“It’s not just a few days,” Keith grits between clenched teeth.  “Wait until they hear the rest of it: several of our endorsements dropped us.  Fan sites are shutting down. The company funding the next shoot...they were trying to pull out.  It’s the juiciest gossip they could ask for. ...It’ll just fuel the fire.”

Shiro blinks in surprise.  “...From...from what Akira did in the interview?  Because people think he’s gay now?”

“Well, he is .  But I don’t really think it’s just that.  I think it’s more the whole ‘oh, god, if he has a boyfriend, he’s not a marketable sex god anymore’ sort of thing.  He wasn’t supposed to do that.  He knew.”

“But...I’m not his boyfriend.”

Keith keeps snarling.  “And now they’re pissed.  Every teenage girl and boy’s wet dream is tarnished.  How will they make money now? ...They actually asked him if he wanted to play up that angle a bit.  Be more of a ‘bad boy’. They'd have no problems keeping him then. If he fucks everyone it's not a problem anymore, it’ll liven up the dream then.  Everyone’s got a chance at that point.”

“...Poor Akira,” Shiro murmurs lowly, feeling sad about it all over again.  The printed out little notes he put on Akira’s desk seem so stupid and naive now.

Keith stays there, standing up in front of the glass, looking down at the crowds.  He presses his fingers to the glass as he breathes out in a low tone, “...I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of them. I don’t even think they really know what the problem is either, they just like holding the damn signs and yelling.  ...A monkey has more sense.” He’s quiet for a long while as he runs his finger over his bottom lip. A look in his eye morphs and changes and then that’s it.  He’s decided.

“No,” he says.  “No, they don’t get to dictate our day for us.  If Akira wants to be gay, then dammit, he’ll be gay.”

Shiro chuckles lowly.  “He sure will.”

“And he’ll do it on his own terms.”

“Yes.”

Whenever the hell he wants.”

Shiro just watches the fire in Keith’s eyes with amusement.  “Who will stop him?”

“Exactly.  Not them,” Keith jabs a finger at the people with their loud speakers and signs, trying to rally together against them.  “They’re wasting their time,” he smiles quietly, the irritation slipping from his eyes to be replaced with amusement. “Okay,” he says, turning bright excited eyes up to Shiro.  “Let’s go then.”

“Wait, what?”  Shiro says as Keith grabs him by the hand and pulls him into Akira’s room.  “Keith.”

“I’m going to steal you away.”

“Keith.  You heard what Krolia just said.  Keith.”

“I’ll protect you, you chicken,” he snickers.

Keith , I’ve got work.”  When Keith just chuckles under his breath like Shiro’s being cute or something, Shiro heaves a sigh.  “What if someone recognizes us?  Which they will because people are searching for us.”

Keith frowns and purses his lips as he brings Shiro in front of the mirror.  He flicks the light on, drawing himself up tall so he can run his hands through the sides of Shiro’s hair experimentally.  “We’ll get you a disguise.  Wigs.  We need wigs. You looked good with long hair. How would you feel about that again for a night?”

“Uh.  I think someone of my stature is kinda obvious, wig or not.”

“You’d be surprised what people would believe if you believe it yourself.  How many years did people not realize that I was -” He stops quickly, his breath jarring up in his lungs sharply.  He lets it hang there for a moment, lets it totally consume his face.

“...We’ll be careful.”  Keith takes the glasses off his head and puts them over Shiro’s.  “Some glasses. Oh. Try my jacket on.” He shrugs out of it.

Shiro laughs.  “Keith, that will not fit.”

“You won’t know until you try,” Keith huffs out a laugh, tugging the sleeves tightly over Shiro’s arms, but they don’t make it.  “Oh. Yeah. There’s no way.”

“See?”  Shiro says, lifting his arms, but he stops immediately when there’s a sad tearing sound.  “Oh, no. Keith. I’m sorry.”

Keith just laughs with a knowing look as he keeps digging through the dresser.  Shiro tugs the jacket off of himself. “Keith.  I do not want to get in trouble.  What if Akira comes back? I can’t just take his clothes.  He’s small like you anyway.”

“Hey.  Everything's relative.  Don’t worry so much.” He snaps a beanie over Shiro’s head and ears and pulls a scarf around his shoulders.  “You look great.” He breathes, looking over his handiwork with an impressed smile. “I do Akira’s makeup. Want me to do yours?”

“Not after your glitter story the other day, I don’t.  I don’t want to die.”

Keith laughs lightly, going back to dig through the chest on the ground.  “Here’s a wig that might work for you.”

Shiro blinks in surprise, leaning forward to get a glimpse of the treasures in the chest.  “He has wigs?  That’s like...one of the most debated topics for him.”

Keith snorts.  “Uh-huh. I know.  Here.” He pulls the beanie off for a second and tugs the hair over Shiro’s head.  “...I knew it. I love how this looks on you. You could wear anything and look like a god.”

Shiro humors him, smiling in tired amusement.  “That’s you, Keith.”

“That’s you,” Keith whispers, tugging the hat back over Shiro’s head and using the position to wrap his arms around Shiro’s neck and tug him down for a kiss.

The kiss is rough.  His lips are chapped.  Shiro couldn’t love it any more.  He leans in like he’s starving for it.

Keith laughs as he slinks back down to his feet and nods Shiro out.  “Okay. You look great. Perfectly disguised.”

Shiro’s eyes run over Keith.  “What about you?”

“Uh...”  Keith grabs one of Regris’ baseball caps he had left on the desk.  He tugs it over his head and shrugs. “Rah rah, go Lakers or whatever -”

“-Lakers are not baseball,” Shiro laughs and bops the top of the hat.  “Even I know that.”

“Well, an Akira hat would give it away, right?  Let’s go.”

“If Akira walks in and sees this -”

“- He’ll want to kiss you so hard you go breathless.”

Shiro blinks.

Keith turns a coy smile over his shoulder at Shiro.  “...At least, if I were him, that’s what I’d do.”

“...Wow,” Shiro mutters as he lets out a shaky breath, but he doesn’t mention how he’s already breathless just from the mention of it.

He follows Keith out, letting Keith hold his hand.

And, just at that moment, Krolia walks around the corner and looks up at them.

“Go,” Keith laughs, pulling Shiro along faster.  “Go.”

“K-Keith,” Shiro protests.  He’s never been one to rebel.

“I’m borrowing him for awhile!”  Keith yells down the hallway. The sound of their footsteps crack loudly all around the floor.  “We’re going on a date and you can’t stop us!”

“I’m sorry, Krolia!”  Shiro calls. “I promise I’ll look after him!”

“Keep your phone on -” She growls from down the hallway.

“Oh, man,” Keith laughs breathlessly as he drags Shiro into his car and starts the engine.  “We’re free! Thank god. I’ve been feeling claustrophobic just stuck in the office day in and day out.  Oh man.” He stretches his arms and legs out as he tilts his head to the side to look at Shiro. His laughter renews.  “Did you see Krolia’s face? I thought she’d chase after us and drag us back.”

Shiro rolls his eyes.  “Yeah, right. I’ve been here long enough to know she spoils you so rotten.  All you have to do is blink your pretty little eyes at her and you have her in the palm of your hand.  Kolivan too. I still remember my shock the first day I was working here, seeing how you have them wrapped around your little finger.”

Keith just laughs as he tilts his head back and starts the drive out of their parking garage.  He goes out the back way - it’s longer and awkward, but it effectively avoids the crowd. “I’ll give you that.  We have our fights, but...”

“They usually end up in you winning?”  Shiro chuckles.

“Sounds about right.”

“What a rebel,” Shiro laughs under his breath.  He pulls the visor down and pops the mirror open.  ...The hair feels weird. It doesn’t look bad, in fact, it really does remind him of his hair back then, but he doesn’t feel like himself anymore.  Younger, maybe? But there’s also that vulnerable hole in his chest he doesn’t like to think of. He sighs. “I’m honestly kind of concerned though.  I mean...we’ll be okay?”

“We’ll be okay,” Keith says firmly and his look is confident enough to infect Shiro with a bit of it.  “This sort of thing happens. Maybe not to this degree, but paparazzi will be paparazzi and we can just avoid them.  Who knows how long this will go on for... Once shooting begins, I... I just want to do this now, before we can’t anymore.”

Shiro hums lowly, trying not to think about the sad tone in Keith’s voice.

The animal shelter is downtown where the old victorian shops line the roads.  It’s usually not that busy, but for some reason, the roads are flooded and parking up ahead looks impossible.

“Jeez, what’s the holdup,” Keith groans.

“Akira sighting?”  Shiro pokes his head out the window and tries to see beyond the line of cars.

“Don’t even joke,” Keith mutters into his hand as he glares impatiently out into the traffic.  “Wouldn’t that just be the perfect day, Krolia being right all along?”

“Oh!”  Shiro breathes as he sees the golden soft glow of lights up ahead.  “I know what it is. The Christmas market! Must be the first of the year.”

“What?  Why are people here so early?  Does no one have work?”

Shiro just laughs as he settles back into his seat and rolls the window back up.  “It’s afternoon. You slept in too late. It’s going to make parking hard...”

Keith eyes the parking spaces beside them.  “Mind a walk?”

Shiro tugs the hat over his head.  “Not if it’s with you.”

So they walk.  Keith parallel parks like a pro and they go down the warmly lit sidewalks hand in hand, enjoying the excited buzz of festivities in the air.

Shiro’s eyes track the booths set up in the distance.  He always makes it a point to try to go each year, but he usually forgets until it’s January again.  It seems funny to be here in the middle of it by random, passing it by.

“We can go if you want,” Keith says as he watches Shiro’s face of longing and curiosity.

Shiro chuckles under his breath.  “Nah, I’m fine. They have them every week in December.  We can go another time.” But Keith keeps watching him.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the activity outside, the shelter exists nestled in a quiet looked over corner.  The silence is almost daunting, but Keith’s smile is so soft and sweet as he looks across the room and sees, through the glass doors, cats.  Lots and lots of cats.

There are so many, all dirtied and needing tender care.  And Keith is just the one to do it. They’re set up with a few of them in a washing room, some meowing for attention noisily, others avoiding them.

Keith holds them gently in the palm of his hands in turn, cuddling them to his chest and cooing to them all softly.  Somehow, even though Shiro knew Keith was an animal lover, he still finds himself glued to the sight. The tenderness in Keith’s eyes is almost too much.  His hair is pulled back into a messy bun, little strands of hair framing his face. So effortlessly beautiful inside and out... Shiro’s heart feels like it’ll burst like this, so close to such a sight.

Keith’s eyes flicker up as he realizes Shiro’s watching him.  He chuckles as he looks down at the cat Shiro is caring for.

“Here,” Keith murmurs as Shiro holds one in his hands awkwardly.  “Hold their bottom. Like this. You want to support their legs.” He chuckles as his eyes follow Shiro’s clumsy movement.  “Have you never held a cat before?”

“I’ve held dogs, but cats are...squishier.  I feel like I’m going to break it.” It stares up into his eyes and he takes a deep long breath.  So tiny. And he’s so itchy. He may have a bit of an allergy to some cats (apparently this one), but Keith doesn’t have to know.

Keith chuckles as he cuddles with the cat some more, bringing them into the bath in the corner.  “You’re not going to break it.”

As he tries to sit the cat down in the tub, she brings her claws out and yowls, desperately avoiding the water.

“That one sure likes you, doesn’t it?”  Shiro hums as he watches her dig into Keith’s shirt as he tries to pry her off him.

Keith cringes.  “Agh, a little too much.  It’s okay, it’s okay, little girl.  We’re just going to get you cleaned up.  Ow. Ow.”

Shiro walks over and leans in to help, but the cat just hisses at him and pushes herself deeper into Keith’s chest.

“It’s fine,” Keith forces a laugh out.  “I’ve got it.”

“You sure...?”

“Feisty little thing...”  Keith hums to her as she meows up at him.  “You’re going through a lot lately, aren’t you...?  Yeah... You’ll be okay. You’ll be alright.”

She soothes enough to allow Keith to move her into the tub.  As he runs his hands gently over her back, she settles beneath his touch even more, staring up at him with trust.

“That’s it...  I won’t hurt you.  Just a little bath.”

He has a way with cats, Shiro thinks as he watches Keith standing in front of the bath, working, content.  It’s not just the cats, though - he has a way with them all. Everything he does, he does with grace and care.  This enigmatic quality about him that, if you’re going too fast, you might miss. But if you aren’t...god, if you catch sight of him...that’s it.  You’re done for. You’re his. Those beneath his touch are grazed by a light as soft as feathers.

Shiro’s turn to wash his kitten is not so elegant, but that’s okay.  Keith sits in the corner with his kitten on his lap, chuckling fondly as Shiro struggles with the little guy.  It’s not for lack of trying, but god, he’s really not good at it.

“You’re doing great, Shiro,” Keith snickers.

“You made it looks so easy...”  He tosses a glance to Keith’s kitten who is now docile and cozy in his lap.

“Need help?”

“I think I can wash a cat,” Shiro huffs as soapy water flings across his shirt and over his face.  He blinks the soap out of his eyes. It’s fine. He’ll dry it later.

“Ah...this is nice,” Keith hums, still running his hands through his kitten’s fur.  “I've never been on a date like this.”

“You mean one where you're watching your boyfriend get soaked?”

Keith snorts.  “...Well, that’s always exciting too.  But no, I meant like...not spending a ton on extravagant restaurants or worrying if he wanted a limo to pull up and take us somewhere.  Having to anticipate the look of disappointment on his face when I’d just bring my regular car. It’s nice just the two of us, just sitting here.  Surrounded by cats.”

Shiro looks up from the angry cat in his hands to see Keith’s face.  “Your car is considered ‘regular’? Was this your last boyfriend? He sounds awful.”

“It was probably my fault,” Keith hums, turning his eyes back down.  “I think I have a problem. It's easy to toss money at things, it's true.  It makes me feel better usually. Knowing it's being used for something beyond myself.  Sometimes I think I get stuck in the habit of thinking it can solve anything...but it can’t.”

“Huh.  Well, you’re in good company it seems.  I saw Akira went on another donating spree last night too.”  

“...Hm.  How do you always know?”

Shiro shrugs.  “I have my ways.  Super fan, remember?”

Keith snorts.  “...Makes him feel better too, I guess...  All the guilt lately...has to alleviate it somehow, right?”  He sighs heavily, holding the kitten closer in his lap for comfort.

“Keith,” Shiro says, looking up as he dries the little fluff ball and sets it down in the pen.  It teeters away from him.  “Bad habit. No money tonight. We’re not going to think about it.”

“Right, right.  Don’t worry, I left my cash at the office, like you requested.”  He nods to the cats in the pen. “My turn for the next one?”

It is, but Shiro can see the way that Keith is holding onto this kitten like she’s already something precious to him and he thinks they may be in trouble.  “I’ve got this next one,” Shiro says, taking Keith’s second cat. “Gotta practice.”

“You’re already holding them better,” Keith says happily, bending over to nuzzle his face into his own.  “When was your last date? Not one Lance forced you on. One you wanted to go on.” Keith asks.

Shiro chokes.  “Uh... God, I can’t tell you.”  He busies himself with reaching for the soap and rubbing it gently into the fur, watching the sections spike and hold.  “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

“Come on.”

“It’s been a long time.  A long, long time. I just lost interest in things after the accident.  And some of my interests returned after a while, but some of them didn’t.”

“Huh.”

Shiro looks up from beneath his eyelashes.  “You?”

“...A long, long time,” Keith hums, pulling his legs to his chest and settling the kitten on his knees.  “But I don’t know if it really counts. He thought he was dating Akira. Not me.”

Shiro frowns.  “Like...you pretended to be Akira?”

“No, not like that.  He just thought...well, since I’m close with Akira, I should be like him, you know?  And I kinda felt like some imposter whenever he’d get this look on his face, like...by discovering more and more parts of me, he realized just how human I was...”  Keith drifts off, going quiet. “...Part of me knows he was just an asshole. But the other part...” He clears his throat. “Anyway. It didn’t work out well. I couldn’t ever compare to the one, the only, Akira.  I tried for awhile...it was pathetic.”

“Why should that ever be a thing?  You’re not Akira. You’re Keith.” The cat in his hands squawks as his attention drifts to Keith and he accidentally gets a bit of water in its face.  He readjusts his attention where it’s needed.

“...Sure,” he sighs.  “Sorry. This isn’t date talk.  I’m just tired.”

“Someone didn’t sleep last night.”

“No,” Keith laughs.  “Because someone kept me awake.”

Shiro smiles up at him.  “I didn’t hear any complaints.”

Shiro washes the third kitten too.  And the next. Keith lets him, watching fondly, hands still around his own cat.

And she is his cat.  Shiro can see that. He already can see it in the way Keith shifts around her.

When they finish washing and playing with them, it’s past evening and they’re tired and hungry.  Shiro’s also incredibly itchy, but a quick wash in the bathroom will probably be good enough to help that one.

“Ready to go?”  Shiro asks. As he returns his kittens back into their proper beds, Keith hesitates.  He still has his kitten in his hand. Her bed is across the room, empty. He just stares at her.

A woman walks past and stops in front of them, smiling brightly.  “All finished, huh? How were they?”

“They’re all great kittens.  Very cuddly.”

“Thank you for your help today.  Aww, little Red looks like she likes you.  That’s so funny. She won’t cooperate for anyone.  We were thinking she’d be hard to adopt out honestly.  She’s already scratched quite a few of us.”

Keith’s face grows even more conflicted.

She seems to notice that.  She gives Shiro a brief smile before murmuring, “I’ll give you guys a bit more time.  Let me know if you need anything.”

“Her name’s Red,” Keith murmurs.  “Red’s my favorite color.”

Shiro leans against the wall and waits.

“No one else will adopt her?  She’s been such a good girl though...  She’s just going through a hard time.”

Shiro nods.  “She has been good.”

“...Kosmo’s getting kind of lonely.”

Shiro’s smile grows slightly.

“...But we’re busy...  Once filming starts...”  A shadow crosses his face.  “...It’d be dumb. I can’t do that...  I can’t.” But he doesn’t let her go. He just stands there, biting at his lip, staring down at Red in his hands sadly as she tilts her head to look up at him.

God, they’re a match made in heaven somehow.

Shiro can’t help himself.  “You know, I’ve been thinking of adopting a cat lately.  Seems like the perfect time... Maybe I'll adopt her.”

Keith looks up, startled.

“I’m just kind of new when it comes to raising cats.  I don’t want to mess it up. Maybe you can come over sometime and help me?”

“...Shiro,” Keith whispers.  “Are you serious?”

“It’s been getting kind of quiet in my apartment.  And Matt loves cats.”

“You don’t have to -”

“It’s not just for you,” he says.  “I love Red too,” but as he goes out to pet her, she presses away from him, deeper into Keith’s hold.  “Our relationship is a work in progress,” he chuckles.

Red’s not ready to be adopted yet, so they can’t bring her back with them, but Shiro is able to start the process.  He has his wallet and as he slips his credit card over to the woman, Keith’s eyes catch it.

“I-I didn’t mean for you to -”

“Red’s not for you,” Shiro maintains.  “She’s for me.”

Keith snorts, but the worry and tension falls out of him as he shifts on his feet a bit.  He tries to hide the smile on his face like it's private. It's so very warm. “...Thank you, Shiro.”

Keith clings to Shiro’s hand tightly as they make their way out and back into the night's crisp air.  Shiro turns to go back to the car - it's getting late - but, with a small laugh, Keith tugs Shiro the other direction, toward the Christmas market.  His eyes shine with excitement as they catch the twinkling lights, wide with wonder. It’s so cold that his breath puffs out clouds into the air and his cheeks and nose are bright pink, but he’s grinning.  He shifts his hand from Shiro’s and instead, slips it around his back, holding him even closer.

They feel like a couple.  Not just the title, but the heart.  And Shiro realizes, with a start, that they are.

They are a couple.  Keith and him. Look how far he’s come...  He never thought he could be here, smiling, heart open to this grinning starlit boy.  Keith, and only Keith.

The day is fading behind tall rolling hills and clouds part way for the moon’s coming, but it hasn’t stopped the festivities on the road.  They glow even brighter than afternoon, warm golden lights strewn between buildings, hung over the road above them that is privately sectioned off from drivers.  There are booths set up, all selling their unique variety of items - their sheep wool figures, their flower pressed necklaces, the ornaments made from pine cones and dressed in stitched felt.

There are carriage rides up to the old house on top of the hill, the sound of live music with their cellos and violins and voices filled with cheer, people ringing bells and dressing up in their holiday dresses, their Santa hats, their candy cane canes.  There are kids riding on a carousel in the distance, arms and legs kicking in excitement as it rotates round and round. It’s warm light is the centerpiece of this market and the music can be heard from even here as the walk up the hill and toward it.

Keith clings close to Shiro, leaning his head onto the inside of Shiro’s shoulder, taking in everything like it’s the first time.  And maybe it is.

“I can buy you something,” Shiro murmurs into his ear and Keith looks up at him in amusement, shaking his head.

“Not this time,” he hums, turning his eyes back on the carousel.  “But maybe next time... Or the time after that...or the time after that...  Do you think we can come back sometime? Do your friends like this place?”

“Our friends?  They do. We used to try to go every year.  They’d be happy to start again.”

Keith is drawn into the carousel, looking up into the intricate design of it and the carefully painted animals.  Shiro follows him in, letting Keith pull him wherever he pleases.

They’re bathed in this golden light, the carousel’s music box song wrapping around their ears, but it feels like everything’s quiet around them as Keith stares.  Faraway. “I don’t want to go home,” Keith whispers. “I’ve missed so much. And if I go... If I go...  I’ll just keep missing things.  Maybe I am selfish,” Keith whispers.  “Maybe I am someone too afraid to be who I really am...  But maybe...maybe it doesn’t have to matter anymore.” He turns to Shiro, eyes bright and shining.  “Can we stay here...just like this?”

Keith looks so warm and content in his jacket and cap.  Shiro reaches forward for him, taking his cap off and leaning down to kiss him with as much tender gentleness he can offer.  He wants Keith to feel his answer, without a doubt, just like this.

“Hm...”  Keith smiles warmly as Shiro pulls back slightly.

Shiro nods to the carousel.  “...Ever been on one?”

Keith shakes his head.

Shiro digs into his wallet and pulls it out.  “One ride.  Just one. Come on. It’s not that much.”

Keith hesitates, but Shiro can see he’s right there, on the edge.  Shiro pulls him over. “I want to go too.”

“Okay,” Keith whispers.  He lets himself be pulled forward.

They walk up onto the platform and find the biggest animal, a black lion that can fit two.  Maybe not intentionally, but they make it work with a laugh as Keith crawls up onto Shiro’s lap and the person in charge of the ride just bypasses them without even caring.

“We had one of these at the mall where I grew up,” Keith says, running his hands over the lion's mane.  “I used to think I was hot shit and too old and mature for them. ...God, I was so stupid as a kid. And as I got older, I started seeing things differently.  It’s funny what you want when you can’t have it.”

“The grass is always greener on the other side, isn’t it?”

“...Not always,” he hums, leaning his head back on Shiro’s shoulder as the ride starts and the music plays around them.  He turns his soft purple eyes up to Shiro’s. “I feel like I’m on the other side now and it’s true what they all say: it is greener.”

Shiro smiles down at him, wrapping an arm tighter around Keith’s waist.  He clings to the bar to make sure that Keith is secured in tightly. Precious cargo.

“I don’t have to give up anything,” Keith says the words like he’s trying to convince himself it’s true.

“No.  You don’t.”

“Hmm...”

Warm.  Shiro can see their reflection in the center’s mirror and it’s surreal, like looking in on himself in a dream.  Keith is leaning back against Shiro in trust, everything he loves. Maybe they’re in disguise. Maybe Shiro’s wig is pulled back and Keith has some weird cap on with his hair in a messy bun, but Shiro can feel Keith’s heartbeat through his back pressed to Shiro’s chest.  And it feels so nice...

They go around and around, in each other’s space as the darkness of the night beyond them remains settled at bay.  It can’t reach them here. Here, they’re safe. Keith tilts his head back and just rests in Shiro’s hold, totally uninhibited, completely at peace, light dancing across the softness of his face.  There’s no tension, no stress, no conflict. It’s just the two of them.

But it’s over too soon and their ride stops.  They have to get out.

Shiro holds his hand out to Keith, who looks half asleep and dazed as he takes it.  He hums and smiles as he looks up into Shiro’s face. “That was nice. Too nice, I think.  I’m ready for bed.”

Shiro chuckles and nods.  “Let’s go back then. It’s late anyway.”

Coffee...”  Keith grumbles, looking over at a stand nearby where coffee steams.

Shiro snorts.  “You want some?  You won’t be able to sleep tonight then.”

“You underestimate me.  My body doesn’t respond to caffeine anymore.”

Shiro chuckles and is about to go over there to get some for Keith when Keith pulls him back to the sidewalk.  “No, you’re right, you’re right. I need to actually sleep tonight. It’s a bad idea.”

“If you’re sure,” Shiro grins down, jerking his thumb over.  “I can get some for you.”

“Tempting, but -” he yawns.  “Mm. I think I’ll sleep well tonight.”

They keep walking down the hill at a casual pace, peeking into the booths as they pass.  In a small one, there are cuckoo clocks littering the walls, ticking away.

“Look at those clocks,” Keith mumbles.  “Are those hand carved...? Wow. Each and every one, huh...?  They’re so well done.”

Shiro follows Keith’s gaze out.  “...My grandfather used to have one just like that.  He hung it up in our living room. I’d always look forward to hearing it chime.  It’d open up and these tiny children holding deer and dancing would come looping around, playing their little merry tune.  I loved it so much. My grandfather would always laugh when I sang along. ...I wonder where it went.”

“You didn’t keep it?”

“...I dunno.  Everything was kind of a blur after he died.  Matt helped me clear out my grandpa’s old house; we had one bin for trash, one to keep.  ...I don’t remember. Maybe Matt saw what I did with it.”

Keith is quiet for awhile.  “I couldn’t even imagine losing someone like Krolia, like my dad.  I’m sorry, Shiro. You...you know you have a family in us...right?”

Shiro smiles, rubbing at his nose quickly, a little embarrassed.  “...I was actually thinking that this morning. I was talking with Krolia a bit.  ...She’s really a wonderful woman.”

“She really is,” Keith hums.  “And your friends, of course, they’re very obviously your family too.  But I just...if you ever needed us, any of us, I know we’d drop everything to help you.”

Shiro leans down to press a kiss to Keith’s cheek.  “You too, Keith.”

Keith hums into it, arms pulling Shiro in closer to snuggle into his hold.  “Don’t forget that.”

“Look, it’s Akira!”  Someone breathes a few feet away and Keith jolts out of his skin, hands digging into Shiro’s as he presses closer into his side.

But they’re not looking at them.  They have their eyes on the building nearby, at the poster through glass.

They press their fingers into the glass, staring so intensely they’re basically shooting bullets.  “Oh, it’s his new album.”

“That was last year’s,” their friend frowns.  “You’re really still listening to him? After everything?”

They tsk, waving them away.  “I want to go inside.”

The bell chimes as they disappear through the door.

Keith stops at the window.  He purses his lips, looking into the image there.  “...Akira sucks.” His voice is dark. Low.

Shiro is quiet.

Keith reaches his hand out toward the glass, pressing his fingers there, to Akira’s face.  He’s grinning in the image. It’s black and white beside his eyes, doused in purple. He is the epitome of confidence, of happiness, of selling the dream.  He looks like every other star might. Charmed. So charmed. Perfect. Keith’s frown hangs in the reflection against him. He makes a fist and pounds it gently against the glass.  “He’s fake. A liar. He’s a fabricated dream that even he couldn’t amount too. He’d have to be some sort of asshole to sell these lies to innocent children. A no-good trickster, a cheat, a phony.  A monster.”  He keeps frowning into the image, pressing his fist to it as he clenches it tightly. “...God, I hate him. Look at him. Smiling like that. Acting like that. Does he have no shame?”

Shiro rubs at Keith’s arm gently.

Keith looks up at him.  “You’re not mad...? That I hate him?”

“...No.  I get it.  I get why you feel these things.  I think he’s hurt you in ways you don’t even know.  ...I don’t think he meant it, but I still think it happened.  And that’s okay you resent him for it. Family is strange sometimes.  When you get close to people, sometimes you don’t even realize you’re hurting the other.  Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re hurt.”

“...Yeah,” Keith whispers, turning his glance back to the image in front of them.  “...Yeah, I think you’re right. How long I wonder...?” Keith leans a little closer to the image.  “...How long has he been hurting me without me even realizing it...?” He blinks back to himself, head whipping around to Shiro in surprise.  “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean - I mean, we’re still on a date. And I’m sitting here having an existential crisis.”

Shiro chuckles.  “Standing, actually.”

A crooked smile claims Keith’s face and there’s real amusement there.  He punches at Shiro’s arm gently. “Okay, smartass. I changed my mind.  Wanna go to Starbucks? I really could use something sweet.”

“Yeah, sure,” Shiro says easily.  “We can’t use our usual though. It seems someone got a picture of me there and they’re flooding it.  We have to use the shitty one now.”

“Dammit.  Looks like I need to hire a new assistant to get us coffee.”

“Hey,” Shiro grumbles, but he’s laughing as he loops his arm around Keith’s shoulders and directs them back on their path to the car.  “They can be Akira’s assistant’s assistant’s assistant.”

Keith rolls his eyes.  “What a title...”

Akira,” someone says behind them.  Keith doesn’t jump this time. They look back discreetly, thinking that maybe it’s someone seeing the image on the store window.

It’s not.

It’s a man with a camera.  The light goes off in their faces, blindly bright.

“Oh, fuck,” Keith grimaces under his breath, raising a hand to cover his eyes.

Shiro tenses.  He knew. He knew they shouldn’t.  Krolia warned them, but they had just wanted one date...  Just one date.

“I knew you'd be in this city somewhere, I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I’m not Akira,” Keith denies wearily.  He tugs Shiro back around. “Look, you got your picture, now just leave us the fuck alone.”

If only it were that easy.

The camera keeps flashing.  “Hey, guys!  Guys!  Everyone!  It’s Akira!” He yells out toward the crowd that’s starting to turn, starting to investigate and crane their necks for a look.

Keith turns, glaring.  “Would you shut the fuck up?”

The man’s laughter is quiet.  “So are you really his cousin or are you Akira in disguise?  The likeness is uncanny.”

Keith grits his teeth and picks up his pace.  Shiro can feel his grip tightening. It’s almost painful around his arm.  They’re almost to their car, but Shiro wonders if that’s a bad idea. Could they follow?  If they find their houses, isn’t that bad? Where will they run then?

“Is that Akira...?”  People are starting to follow, like wolves after the scent of blood.  They’re stopping at their booths and turning, slowly closing in. It makes Shiro nervous.

“Keith, what do we do...?”  Shiro mutters. “Should we call Krolia?”

“No.  No, it’s fine.  Just ignore them.  Just -”

“You can’t ignore the media forever, Akira!”  The man says, stepping in front of Keith, the bright flash going off in his face.  Keith bumps into the man, grunting as the camera hits the side of his head.

“Fuck off.  I’m not kidding,” Keith spits, trying to push the camera out of his face gently, but his grip on Shiro keeps getting tighter and tighter.

“That’s Shiro,” someone says from behind.

“That’s him.  Shiro and Keith.”

“It’s Akira in disguise.”

“It’s the cousin.”

“They’re together.  Is this a date?”

“Does Akira know you’re out here together?  Is he jealous? Is he angry?”

“Which one do you like better, Shiro?  Which one do you choose?” Someone grabs at him, trying to tug him back.  They grab at his prosthetic. He doesn't like when people pull at it.  He draws a sharp breath in.

Don’t touch him,” Keith hisses, leaning around and pushing them back.

“Keith, it’s fine,” Shiro says urgently.  The cameras are going off - more of them now.  They’re surrounded, like mice cornered by a group of cats all zeroing in.  There are phones being held up above the crowd, all aimed toward them. All looking at them, all attention concentrated right here, like a magnifying glass on an ant.  Shiro can feel the sweat developing on his brow. The panic setting in inside his chest.

Keith’s chest heaves.  His eyes look feral. “It’s not fine.  Touch him again and I swear to god -”

Keith.”  Shiro pulls him along.  If they can just get out of this mess and into the car.  If they can close and lock the doors and call Krolia or Kolivan or the police.  Shiro doesn’t know.  All he can comprehend is that Keith is starting to get riled up, the rationality dimming behind the pent up frustration and anger at this lifestyle.  Shiro feels dread knotting up in the depths of his gut. He pulls Keith closer into his hold.

“You can’t have two boyfriends, Shiro!”  The man is yelling. “I don't know how things work here, but this isn't how things are done where Akira comes from.  Unless you’re a whore.”

“Are you cheating on Akira!”  A girl is screaming at him. She’s small, but god, the fire in her eyes as she leaps out of the crowd and pulls at his jacket.  “He deserves better! He deserves better than you!”

“Don’t touch him!”  Keith screams, grabbing at her.

Keith, no -”

“Akira’s ours, you slut!!  Stop jerking him around. You’re not special, like him!  You’re so plain you shouldn’t even be in the same room as him!  How dare you think you can cozy up to him! Who do you think you are?!”

“How does it feel to be so ugly even Akira takes pity on you?”

“You corrupted him!  You took him from us!  And who are you? You’re no one!  You mean nothing! Disappear!”

“You should die and no one would care!”

“Kill yourself!”

“Stop!”  Keith screams.  “Stop it! You’re the monsters!  How could you tell someone that? You don’t know anything!”

The cameraman just keeps clicking away, laughing, loving this, thriving off this.

Shiro’s overwhelmed.  It’s so much energy. His whole being just feels like it’s on fire with panic, but all he knows is that he’s got to get Keith out.  They’ve got to get away.  He keeps tugging at Keith, who’s fighting against him, trying to get to them, trying to rip the camera from the man’s hand.

And he grabs it.  He jerks it from the man’s hands and throws it into the wall, where it breaks.

Keith.”  Trouble.  He’ll get in trouble.  The legal battles. The media’s opposition.

“What the fuck!”  The man yells, flabbergasted, eyes blown wide with surprised offense.  “That was my camera!”

“You fucker,” Keith is spewing, words garbled with rage.  “You fuck.  Shiro.”

“Keith, come on.  Keith, stop,” Shiro begs, using his body to shove Keith away from the scene.

The man is mad too.  He grabs for them, wanting justice for his camera, his livelihood, and he happens to land on Shiro’s arm.  And he doesn’t know probably. He doesn’t realize that it hurts him, but it does. The stress is winding it up and up and the pain is so much that he blanches at the contact, being torn back.  His face cringes, he grits his teeth in pain and jerks away, body contracting.

Shiro stumbles and slips off the edge of the sidewalk, where he completely loses his balance and falls face-first into the corner of a metal mailbox.

Some people actually cheer, like the evil is defeated.  A few gasp.  But when Shiro pulls himself up and touches a hand to his face, when he pulls it away, his hand is coated in red.

And Keith.

Keith, already at the edges of his breaking point, snaps.

Before Shiro can recenter and grab at him, Keith is already off the sidewalk, fist cracking into the man’s face.

The man tumbles to the cold pavement and the crowd shrinks away, all gasps.  Someone screams.

For all their animosity toward the two of them, the crowd hadn’t expected it back.

Keith is on top of the man.  He grabs him by the collar and slams him back down the pavement and the man is all confusion and sputtering.  He manages to reach up and grab at Keith’s face, pushing him back against the mailbox that Keith uses as a brace to raise his foot up and kick him in the gut - hard.

God,” Shiro wheezes, grabbing at Keith and tugging him back.

“Let go!”  Keith barks, trying to push Shiro off of him.  His eyes are still glued to the man in the road.

Shiro holds on tighter.  “Don’t.  Please.  Please, Keith, don’t.  You’re going to get in so much trouble.”

“You shitty kids!”  The man is spewing. He’s not bleeding, but his face is already red as he picks himself up.  “I’m fucking suing. You’re going to regret this! I’m going to get the best lawyers. They’re going to hand Akira’s ass to him on a platter.”

But Keith doesn’t care.  He turns his eyes up to Shiro in an effort to push him off again, but when he takes sight of Shiro’s face, he stops.  “Oh, my god,” he breathes, fiery rage crumbling in distress. “Oh, my god.”

Shiro doesn’t know what Keith sees, but he just knows there’s a pause to their fight and he’s got to use it to his advantage.  While Keith is distracted, Shiro tugs him hard after him, dragging him along the sidewalk into a run.

Shiro,” Keith is calling, breath jagged and heaving.  “Shiro.”

“I’m fine!”  He calls back.  There are still people following.  “Your keys, Keith. Your keys.”

“I’m going to drive,” Keith says.  He only lets go when Shiro runs around to the side of the car and throws the door open.

Shiro’s hardly even closed the door before Keith has the car started and is peeling away before anyone approaches.

He’s breathing like a wounded animal.

Shiro rubs at his forehead.  It’s wet. It’s starting to hurt.  “...Keith, it’s fine. It’s just a little blood.”

“It’s not.  It’s not just a little blood.  Oh, god, what do I do?  Do we go to the hospital?  Are you dizzy? Do you think you have a concussion?  Should I stop? I don’t know what to do. I don’t know -”

Keith!  Calm down.  I’m okay,” Shiro tries to say as firmly and calmly as he can.  He holds his hands up, but then thinks better of it as he sees the darkness of the blood there, even in night.  “I’m not dizzy at all. It just stings a little, okay? I think it’s just a shallow cut. I’m fine. Seriously. Are you okay?”

“No,” Keith grits through bared teeth.  They’re speeding through the roads at double the speed limit.  “No! Are there people following us?” He gasping in air.

“...Keith.  It’s okay,” Shiro whispers, leaning across the center console and rubbing gently at Keith’s leg.  “Your heart’s beating so fast... I can see it through your neck.  Everything’s fine. No one is following us.  We’re alright.”

“They will though,” Keith’s eyes flick up to his rear view mirror as he watches the road behind them.  “If I don’t get out of here -”

“They’re gone, Keith...  That man probably had to go back and get his camera anyway.  And who knows where his vehicle even was. We’re fine. We’re okay.”

He’s shaking, short jerky breaths in and out.

“...Should I call Krolia...?”  Shiro looks down at his phone.

“No,” Keith shakes his head.  “No. Let me...let me clear my head.  I...” He looks sick. Face pale and mouth pressed into a tight thin line.

“...I thought this sort of thing happened all the time,” Shiro whispers.  “You follow Akira everywhere. I thought you’d be used to it.”

“Not like this!”  Keith shouts.  “Not when they’re grabbing at you and throwing you into a mailbox -”

“-I fell, Keith.  He just meant to get my attention.”

“But the shouting.  Telling you to kill yourself?  Jesus! Why? Why?  I hate it when it’s just for me, but you?  All this shit that follows me...! God!” He pounds his palm roughly against the steering wheel.

“Keith, it’s not your fault.”

“It is!  It is! Krolia warned me and I didn’t listen!  You were scared to go out and I forced you! And now you’re hurt because of me!  I’m so fucking stupid. I’m so fucking sorry, Shiro. I’m so sorry.” He’s full out sobbing, still speeding through the roads.

“...Keith, pull over.”

“No,” Keith chokes miserably, rubbing at his face even as the tears replenish.  “No, they’ll catch us.”

“They won’t, Keith.  If we see headlights, we can keep going, but you need a moment.”

He shakes his head stubbornly as a fresh set of tears pour over his eyes.  “Just one fucking date. I just wanted one. You kept saying how you were the one who’s cursed, but it’s not you, it’s me.  It’s me!  And if you keep hanging around me, it’s going to keep being this way because it is my fault.”

“It’s not -”

“You don’t understand!”  Keith keeps sobbing. “You don’t get it.”

“...What don’t I get, Keith?  Help me understand then.”

“Ugh...”  Keith groans.  His phone starts ringing.  “Fuck,” he whispers, throat tight.  “Can you get my phone and see who that is?”

Shiro reaches his hand into Keith’s pant pocket and takes it out.  “Krolia.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he hisses, eyes flicking up to his rear view mirror for a second before he looks back out, thinking quickly.  He slows the car down and pulls it to the side, off the road. The phone stops ringing, but he takes it back from Shiro and, with one more cautious look behind them, opens the car door and gets out.  “Stay in here for a second?” Keith murmurs.

Shiro nods and Keith shuts the door, walking around to the front of the car and leaning against the hood, putting the phone to his ear.  The headlights light him up in flames as he bites at his nails.

Shiro can still hear him.

“Did you see?  ...You were right,” Keith says lowly, tears in his voice.  “...They found us.” He starts to cry more, his body heaving with sobs as he curls forward.  Shiro wants to go out and try to comfort him, but he doesn’t know if it’s right to do after Keith just asked him to stay.  So he sits and watches Keith’s pain as he chokes into the phone, “They pushed Shiro into a fucking mailbox. They hurt his arm and fucked up his head.  He was bleeding all over the place. It was fucking gushing everywhere.  It’s all over his shirt.  God... God, no. He says he’s fine.  I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.  He doesn’t want to.”  He presses his other hand to his face, his whole body alight with tension.  “Yeah... Yeah, I’m fine. No, you don’t need to pick us up. I’m not hurt. No.”  He sniffs, rubbing at his face. “Tell Kolivan to stay there,” Keith commands.  “...I’m fine.  Don’t make this fucking harder than it already fucking is, I’m at my goddamn breaking point.  I swear to god!  Just stop. ...Just stop...”

Shiro can’t take seeing it anymore, the way Keith’s sagging so low.  He slips out of the car. Keith doesn’t protest; he turns his red-rimmed eyes up and reaches a hand out, sinking into Shiro’s open arms.  His whole body’s trembling.

“Ugh,” Keith groans into the phone as he clings to Shiro.  “What do I do? I knocked the man to the ground, punched him in the face, kicked him in the stomach, and broke his camera.  He said he was going to sue and ruin us. ...Police report...?” He sounds so weary. “...Right now?” He breathes. “...Okay.  Okay. We’re close to the office... I think once we stop there, I’ll do it. You’re at home?” Keith draws in a slow steady breath.  “...Okay. ...Yeah, yeah, we’re fine. Stop asking that. We’re okay.” He breathes out lowly. “I love you too. Yeah, I’ll leave my phone on.  ...Bye.” He sniffs and shoves his phone away.

He takes in a deep breath and lets himself lean against Shiro’s chest for a moment longer.  Shiro rubs his back gently without saying anything. No cars pass by. No one’s screaming at them, no one’s grabbing at them or shoving devices in their faces.  Here, it’s just a long dark stretch of road and the stars pinned to the sky. They stay like that for a long while, Shiro gently holding Keith. And then they get back in the car and drive.

When they make it to the office, the police come and Keith steps away for a moment to speak about the incident.  Shiro sits on a cement divider and watches them. He watches the distress on Keith’s face as he waves his hands around, explaining.  He sees the displeasure and sickness bloom when they ask him something and he hangs his head, reaching out for a pen in resignation and signing something for them.

Shiro lets them take pictures of his injury when they ask.  What’s another, honestly? It is more gruesome than he thought.  It’s definitely more gruesome than it feels, but Keith watches on as the police light it up and inspect it, his face drawn and pale.

“You should go to the ER,” they finally say.  “The gash looks deep.”

Shiro shakes his head.  “I’m okay, really. It just needs to be washed.  It’s fine.”

They exchange looks.  “Well, if you’re sure...  We won’t keep you both. It’s late.  I’m sure you’re busy.” They turn eyes to Keith and a bit of excitement blooms in their voices as they hold up paper.  “Thanks again.”

Keith just steps around to Shiro and sits beside him, placing a protective hand on his arm.  They watch the officers go, tail lights pulling away into the distance.

It’s so quiet here too, late at night.  They can hear the crickets chirping off in the field behind the building.  The wind pulling across the tops of grass.

“We have good lawyers,” Keith says into the night.  “So you don’t have to worry about that. ...The police said we shouldn’t have a problem anyway, seeing as he was the one harassing us first.”

“...That’s good,” Shiro murmurs.

“God, Shiro,” Keith whispers so harshly that it burns at his throat.  “I’m so sorry. I -”

“Don’t apologize,” Shiro says softly.  “Really. I’m not mad. It wasn’t your fault at all.  That man wanted a reaction like that. He called those people over.  ...Funny how they can become like a mob so easily.”

“...You’re okay, though...?  Those things they were saying, they were just saying them because they don’t understand a thing.  They think of us as objects, not people, not like them. If they knew you...”

“Keith, its - it’s alright.  ...I’m a little shaken up. That’s all.  I’m okay.”

“I don’t want to be alone tonight,” Keith whispers, biting at his lip and bouncing his knee.  “I don’t want to let you out of my sight. I have this bad feeling in my chest. Like...like I’ve brought some sort of curse on you.  Like they’ll find you and tear you apart.” With vulnerable sad eyes, he looks up into Shiro’s face. “...Can I stay with you tonight?”  He whispers.

He looks so desperate and scared.  Not that Shiro ever would reject him, but if he would, Keith surely would crumble.

Shiro leans forward and grabs Keith’s hands gently in his.  “Of course you can, Keith. Of course.”

Shiro gets his car from the parking garage and drives them to his apartment.  Keith doesn’t argue when Shiro asks to drive. Keith’s eyes are dull and tired and, honestly, his driving tonight has scared Shiro quite a bit.  He was starting to get that prickling onset of anxiety in his gut.

But they make it home just fine.

When Shiro unlocks and pushes the door open, inside is cold and dark.  Keith stands uncomfortably at the door, peering in like he’s not invited, like he created this darkness.

“Come on in,” Shiro hums, flicking the lights on and walking over to the oil heater to turn it on.  “Sorry it’s so cold. This little thing takes awhile to heat up, but it will eventually. You can take the shower first.”

“Your wound -” Keith protests.

“I’ll get to it in a second.  I need to call Matt first before he explodes.  Look at this,” he says, holding up the phone’s screen for all the missed messages.

Keith lets out a small puff of breath that almost sounds like a laugh.  “...Almost as bad as Krolia. Guess it’s already all over the news...”

Shiro bites at his lip as he scrolls through the messages and scans over them.  “Can it really be that quick?”

“...Yeah.  It’s all a race for them, who can get it first.  The faster they get it, the more money they dish out, so the guy probably sat on the pavement right then and there to send it out.  ...Wish I had chucked that piece of shit camera harder.” He heaves a sigh and rubs at his face.

“It’s fine.  All those other people with their phones recording...  It would’ve gotten out somehow.”

“...Yeah.  Thanks for letting me stay, Shiro.  It’s always difficult...the night of the fallout.”  He takes in another deep breath and shifts.

Shiro smiles over at him as he reaches into the clean laundry basket and takes out the smallest clothes he owns.  “...These probably won’t fit well, but if you’d like, you can borrow them.”

He watches Shiro’s face.  Vulnerable. Sharp. Scared.  Carefully, Keith walks forward and rolls up onto his toes to place a gentle kiss to Shiro’s cheek.  “Thank you,” Keith whispers. He takes the pajama set and holds them gently to his chest. “...I’ll go take a shower.  You call Matt. When I get out, you’ll let me patch you up.”

“Of course,” Shiro hums into the kiss.  “Warm up. You’re freezing.”

“‘Kay.”  Keith pulls away and disappears into the bathroom.

Shiro meant to call Matt, but as he sits down, the day sits down with him, falling over his head, and he suddenly realizes just how exhausted he really is.  A heavy weariness stirs in his chest like dark sludge. The panic from earlier frayed at his nerve endings and his core is scrubbed raw, fried. He feels a little sick and he knows Matt’s going to want to yell and poke, so Shiro sends him a quick text instead:

Don’t worry.  We’re okay. Today was crazy though...  Keith clocked some guy out. I fell into a mailbox.  Keith had to file a police report and they took pictures of my face.  Keith’s spending the night. I’m so tired it’s not even funny. I’ll call you tomorrow.

Shiro!  You can’t just leave it at that.  We’ve all been so worried. There was blood everywhere.  All those people after you... Katie has been crying since we saw the news.  They had to put a graphic warning before they showed it. Jesus, are you sure you’re alright?  Did you go to the hospital?

No, it’s really not that bad.  Foreheads just bleed a lot. I think Keith was hurt more than I was.  He freaked out. I’ve never seen anyone lose it like that before. Seriously, though, I’ve got to clean up and crash.  Don’t worry so much, guys. I’m good. I’ll call you first thing tomorrow. Goodnight.

Goodnight, Shiro.  Take care of yourself.

He yawns as he tosses his phone away and leans his head back, staring up at the ceiling.  He could fall asleep right now if Keith weren’t here. And just as he thinks it, Keith’s already coming out of the shower, cheeks red with warmth, hair wet.  “I...didn’t know where you wanted the towel. I put it on the rack.”

Shiro nods and peels himself off the couch.  “Ugh. Sounds good. I have some microwavable dinners if you want and uh, cheese?  Probably cheese. In the fridge. Just help yourself; anything that’s here is yours.  I’ve got to take a shower.”

“Thanks, Shiro,” Keith hums as he sits down.  “Think I’m going to call Krolia again. She was upset.”

Shiro pats Keith on the shoulder and presses a soft kiss to his head before heading into the shower.

He’s not really sure where Keith found the time to tidy the disorganization inside the bathroom - the crooked towels and shampoo bottles tossed to the bottom of the bathtub - but he did somehow and the gesture warms Shiro’s heart a bit.

His head does sting though, especially as warm water pours down it.  And honestly, he should probably go to the doctor’s soon and get it looked at...but he’s not going to tell Keith that.  It’s just nice to be shed of everything.

The warm water washes the day away.  He stands beneath the flow of it and lets it replenish his sore soul.

It’ll be okay.  Today was a hiccup and maybe he’s a little knocked off center, but tomorrow will be a fresh new day.  They’ll start over from there.

As Shiro makes his way back out of the shower, Keith no longer sounds upset over the phone with Krolia, just weary.  He leans on the side of the couch and sighs. “Yeah, he has a couch I can sleep on. I’m on it right now. I’m sure he has a pillow.  Yes, the door’s locked, I’m not going to put a chair under it.  He lives in a nice apartment complex.  I’m just going to go to bed; I’m exhausted.”  His eyes flick up to Shiro as he walks in. “Oh, he’s out.  I’ll call you in the morning. Yeah, I’ll take care of his head.  ...He looks okay. If he gets sick or something, I’ll call. Okay.  Love you too.” He turns his phone off and offers a small smile. “She’s worried about you,” Keith says.

“Yeah?  Did you tell her I was strong and she didn’t have to?”

Keith chuckles softly into his hand as he sets his phone away on the coffee table.  “Okay, where are your medical supplies? It’s time.”

Shiro holds out a bandaid.  “Will you do the honors?”

Shiro,” Keith huffs a sigh as he reaches up to tilt Shiro’s face to the side.  “A bandaid? ...Will this really be enough?”

“It’s got Neosporin infused into it.”

Keith snorts as he fixes Shiro with a tolerant look.  He snatches the bandaid from his hands anyway and carefully places it over the wound.  He’s still frowning as he sits back to inspect it as a whole.

“Do I pass your test?”  Shiro asks, eyebrow raised at first, but it tugs and hurts, so he stops.

“Yeah,” Keith murmurs and it’s with relief this time.  Some of the tension that was pulling at his face releases and he sinks back into the couch.  “Oh, boy. What a night,” he murmurs.

“What a night,” Shiro agrees.  He looks up at the TV and then over at the remote.  “Want to watch something?”

“Sure.  As long as it’s not the news.”

This late at night, there doesn’t seem to be much on.  It’s just the dreaded news (which they carefully avoid), infomercials, and one of Akira’s movies.

Shiro hesitates but Keith just chuckles.  “Just do it,” Keith says. “It’s his least offensive one.”

“Offensive?”  Shiro chuckles as he turns it on and tosses the remote away.  He scoots closer into Keith’s side and wraps his arm around his shoulders, pulling Keith into his chest.  Keith snuggles up, getting cozy. “This is one of my favorites, honestly. I love space. Not many actors can pull a space movie off and make it actually convincing, but somehow, Akira manages it.”

“They’re fun too,” Keith mumbles sleepily.

“I’m really looking forward to his next movie though.  The one you’re filming here. He’s a psychic, isn’t he?”

Keith chuckles under his breath.  “I’m legally bound. I can’t say. ...It’s going to be dark though.”

“Perfect.”

“You might even cry.”

“Those are my favorite kinds honestly.”

Keith laughs and then groans softly, stretching his back out.  He pulls in a long breath and sighs it out. “We should see it together,” Keith says.  “I’ll take you to the big premiere. ...There’ll be cameras though. And people.”

“Ugh.  People.”

Keith laughs again, and this time it feels even lighter than before.  The dull emptiness that pulled at his eyes earlier is rubbing away like this.  Shiro squeezes his arms encouragingly.

“What’s your favorite thing about Akira’s movies?”  Keith asks.

Shiro doesn’t even hesitate.  “How raw he is. How real his performances feel.  I think he understands in some ways, the pain that he portrays in his characters.  It cuts so deep.”

Keith leans in with a raised eyebrow.  “Maybe he’s acting.”

Shiro chuckles.  “Very impressive in any case.  I dunno though, it’s just...you feel it, you know?  You can feel what he’s feeling. When he cries, I cry.  When he’s happy, I’m happy. Not many performances can do that for me, but he does every time.  What about you? Do you have a favorite thing?”

Keith’s quiet for awhile.  “...Seeing people happy about them,” Keith says finally.  “Seeing them help people.”

“Hm...  That’s a nice thing to like.  Do you think he enjoys what he’s doing?”

“...Very much so,” Keith murmurs.  “I just think the major issue is all the shit that comes with it.  He can’t just act , he can’t just sing, he has to be all social too.  And then people start thinking they own all the little parts of him, each and every single one.  And then things turn bad. Like today.”

Shiro rubs his thumb in the center of Keith’s palm.  It’s so tiny and soft. Delicate. They both look down in their hands together, just feeling the other, drawing comfort from the other’s simple touch.  “He seems to enjoy it usually, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah.  He does.  But don’t forget he’s an actor.  He can seem however he wants to seem if he puts the effort in.  The way people grab at him, treat him like he’s some object. It’s hard sometimes...  Even harder when he has to see people calling him out like he’s some ungrateful brat. ...Though, maybe he is.”

“I don’t think that, Keith.”

“It’s funny, it looks to a lot of people like he’s on top of the world, but it never actually feels like enough.  Maybe it will never be. You meet one goal and then you think, ‘I can do better’ and you just keep chasing after your dream of happiness, like chasing your own tail around and around again. You just chase the dream until you die...” he says lowly.  “Only, the higher you go, the more alone you are.  And still, you just feel the same. Happiness always out of reach...  Is it worth it?” He asks to the room. “...Tonight, I don’t think it is.  ...But maybe that’s just the ungrateful bits of me. So here I am again, at the start of my thought...chasing my own tail...”

Keith turns his eyes down to the movie, watching Akira running through dark chambers, his white hair like starlight flickering behind him.

“But even if Akira were to stop everything now, the media would not.”

He snorts suddenly, startling Shiro out of the somber mood.  “God, though. Look how fit he was for this movie. I remember that.  He had to stop his frappuccinos for almost an entire year. He was pissed every day.  Krolia was at her wit’s end.”

Shiro snorts.  “Your life source.  The holy nectar. I don’t think you’d survive.”

“Hell, no.  Never again.  He learned his lesson.”

Shiro laughs and as he does, his chest buckles up and down and Keith’s head bounces.

“Stop,” Keith laughs, pressing his hand to Shiro’s chest in an attempt to calm it.  “My comfortable pillow is rebelling.”

But at Keith’s request, Shiro just finds it even funnier.

“Agh,” Keith despairs dramatically.

“Well, then you stop laughing!”

“I can’t!”  Keith grins as he gives up trying to contain Shiro and just sprawls out in defeat on top of him.

“I can’t either!”  Shiro tries to hold his breath, but it bursts out of him anyway and Keith just groans like he’s in agony.

Now how will I sleep?”  Keith chuckles, turning his face out of Shiro’s chest to look up.  “You’re the worst pillow ever.” He has a little mischievous smile on his face.  He looks tired, but no longer upset, and Shiro is filled with so much relief.

“Come here, you,” Shiro murmurs, shifting his own body so that Keith can climb higher.

Keith wraps his arms around the back of Shiro’s neck and climbs one leg over, so he can sit in Shiro’s lap.

He’s heavy, but it’s a nice firm weight over Shiro.  Sturdy, just right.

Keith smiles down at him like an angel in the middle of a storm, reprieve.  “Until the big disaster, I had a lot of fun on our date.”

“Me too, Keith,” Shiro says.  “I’m excited for my new daughter to come home.”

“Red?”  Keith laughs.  “You’ll let me come over, right?  I get visitation rights?”

“You’re always welcome, Keith.  ...In fact, maybe it’s about time to get you a key.”

Keith’s grin is so bright.  “Oh, yeah?” Keith whispers.

“...If you don't mind, of course."

He softens beneath Shiro's gaze.  "Why would I mind...?"

Keith eyes flicker down to Shiro’s mouth and he nuzzles in carefully, tilting his head to the side to ease into a kiss.

And it feels different this time.  There are the golden edges to it, the soft comfort, and that low kindling warmth, like a fireplace blazing in the middle of a snowstorm.  But tonight, it also feels like coming home. Like the day has worn too much of their souls away and they’re at their raw exposed cores. They need the other to recharge.

Maybe they’re also sleepy too, their defenses down.  Maybe the fear from earlier and finding comfort in clinging to the other has just followed them here, to this moment, and they’re still seeking that feeling in the other’s hold.  But Shiro wants to be nowhere else. He wants nothing more than to just have Keith here. He could let the whole world perish if he gets to keep Keith like this.

It’s such a nice feeling to bathe in.  It just reaches in and washes his soul.  A singular want, a concentrated love. No torrential storms prying at his mind.  No numbing fear cutting into his fingers. No stress and tension pulling him every which way.  It’s just the intoxicating scent of Keith - coffee and sugar - as Shiro rubs his face up the side of Keith’s neck , breathing him.  It’s Keith’s hands rubbing over Shiro’s shoulders and down his chest. The sound of his soft breath whenever Shiro touches him in a place he likes.  It’s just Keith knees pressed to either side of Shiro, boxing him in.

Shiro falls into that feeling.  Lets Keith take hold of the most vulnerable part of him.  He embraces Keith as gently in his arms as he can, slipping his hands beneath his baggy soft shirt Keith’s borrowing, pressing into the warmth of Keith’s skin like if he applies more pressure, he can reach the godliness inside.

They’ve never gotten this far before.  Not together. They’re comfortable kissing now, but as Shiro’s fingers brush against Keith’s waistband, or Keith leans forward to wrap his arms around Shiro’s shoulders and accidentally presses into Shiro’s crotch, it just feels different.  That buzzing elated lightness of excitement in their chests. Of trusting someone else and being trusted enough to get to this point both physically and emotionally.

Shiro runs his hands down Keith’s back and feels lower, where Keith gasps slightly with want - a sound that seems to have escaped him without his permission.  He breaks away from their kiss and presses his lips together tightly. His face is pink and his eyelashes flutter down.

Shiro clears his throat.  The pleased light in Keith’s eyes doesn’t look like rejection, but Shiro wants to be sure anyway.  “I can stop,” he says. “If you ever feel uncomfortable for any reason -”

Keith clears his throat roughly, nodding his head in quick sharp movements.  “Me too. Whenever you want.”

“O-okay,” Shiro breathes.  And god, he’s getting embarrassed too.  He feels like he’s in high school again, clueless and growing red in the face.  He’s never been with someone as beautiful as Keith, not even half as much. And no one, not ever, has had Shiro’s heart like Keith does.

He doesn’t even know if he can do this, after all.  In fact, he’s not sure how they were just kissing moments ago now that he really thinks about it.  Keith’s face is so dainty and soft and Shiro - how could he ever compare?

Keith swallows hard, the last bits of nervousness blinking away from his eyes as he leans carefully forward and presses a kiss to Shiro’s lips.

“Touch me...?”  Keith breathes against his mouth, shifting his hips backward a bit so that he brushes against Shiro’s hands.

Shiro hesitates for a moment.  It’s true that their closeness brings the both of them comfort.  There’s nothing wrong with that. Comfort is something the both of them deserve.  But still, he hesitates. He’s afraid to misstep and ruin this. “Is...is tonight really the best time...?”  He wonders.

“Shiro,” Keith whispers, pressing another kiss to his lips and tilting Shiro’s head back so they look into each other’s faces.  He runs his thumbs along Shiro’s jawline, massaging his cheeks. “Is this about tonight?”

“Well, yeah.  I just... You were so upset.”

Keith holds his gaze steady.  “It’s true: there’s a lot of bad in this world...but there’s a lot of good too.  ...Someone wise once told me that.”

Shiro chuckles softly, running his fingers down the soft skin of Keith’s thigh, looking into the way Keith’s eyes follow his own, totally clear in thought, just waiting.

“If we can, let’s not let the bad things hold us back,” Keith murmurs lowly, cupping Shiro’s chin in his hands.  “...If you don’t want to do it, that’s okay too, but...I think it’s okay to revel in the good instead of the bad, isn’t it?  They don’t have to be akin to the other.”

“I just don’t want to take advantage of you...”

Keith chuckles softly.  “I know,” he says before leaning closer and kissing him.

And it’s like the flag is lowered and the gates released.

Shiro doesn’t know how it happens.  One second, they’re just making out, but the next, Keith’s pants are around his ankles and his face is doused in red blush.

Shiro’s hands have wandered up in between Keith’s legs.  He keeps his eyes closed and face pressed into the warm refuge of Keith’s neck, his own shuddering breaths too loud in the quiet of his apartment.

And the way Keith responds to Shiro’s intimate touch, back arching the more confident Shiro becomes, seeking to deepen the feeling.  The small whimpers and moans that manage to make it past his defenses as he writhes and shivers into the movement, eyes pressed closed in desperation, lips parted as he pants.

Shiro wants to reach up and capture all of Keith’s tiny soft catches of breath and shaky gasps.

Yes, it’s been so long.  Shiro’s not exactly one to trust.  He thought he wouldn’t be able to enjoy this feeling again.  Two people together.

But god, he likes this.  Keith on top of him, legs spread for him.  The slick of his precum against Shiro’s arm.  The warmth of feeling around inside of Keith, deeper and more intimate than he’s ever been.  Maybe than anyone’s ever been.

He can’t believe he’s so lucky.

“Shiro,” Keith pants.  “Shiro. Is it okay...” Keith begins to ask, but then his expression shudders and his breath hitches high as Shiro slips his finger back inside of him.  He swallows hard and tries again. “Is it... Is it alright if we go in your room?”

Shiro pauses for a second.

“We don’t have to,” Keith continues to pant.  “If it bothers you. I know...I know it’s a hard thing to share and I get that.  But I -”

“-Yeah,” Shiro murmurs, slowly pulling his finger from Keith and placing his hands delicately on his hips.  “We can. If you want.”

It feels a lot like letting Keith do surgery on him.  Cutting his chest open and prying his heart out. Gently reaching inside his heart and placing a kiss there where he could do damage instead.

But he knows Keith won’t.

He gathers Keith into his arms and Keith clings to him like a koala, wrapping his legs around his waist and nuzzling into his neck, pressing wet careful kisses there.

Shiro walks them in and sets him gently on the bed.  Keith pushes himself up over the blankets, smiling up at him happily.

“Comfy bed,” he snuggles his head into Shiro’s pillows, making himself comfortable, strewn out casually.

“Mmhmm.” Shiro crawls on top of him and dips back into kissing his mouth.

“Where’s the Akira pillow?”  Keith chuckles breathlessly as Shiro travels down Keith’s neck, sucking tenderly on his pulse points.

“Stop that,” Shiro groans with a small chuckle, trying to kiss Keith’s laughter away.  “You’re the one I want beside me. Not him. Not anyone else. You.”  He lets out a shaky breath as he looks over Keith’s form, stopping at his face.  “...You’re so beautiful, Keith.”

“Mm, but I punched a guy today,” Keith says, like he can convince Shiro that he’s undesirable.

“And now you’re going to kiss a guy who slipped on the sidewalk and knocked his head on a mailbox,” Shiro whispers.  “Who did an interview for your family doused in coffee and almost killed Akira with a button and a car ride.”

And, there it is - Keith laughs, his eyes dancing.  “Guess I am. You’re so smooth.”

Shiro laughs softly as he leans back in.  He takes Keith into him, open mouthed and hungry.  All the times he held back before, he forgets. He’s going to allow himself this time to open his heart.  To not keep himself in check. He wants Keith. He wants Keith to feel that. To be assured.

“The coffee one wasn’t your fault though,” Keith pulls back to breath, a grin on his face.  His eyes are so warm, fire-filled. Molten lava and vibrant energy.

Their bodies are pressed together and Shiro allows himself to sink a bit of his weight against Keith’s body.  He can tell that Keith can feel the hardness in Shiro’s pants by the way he bites at his lip and looks around the room shyly.  His eyes are distracted. “Do you... I mean, do you have -”

“Here,” Shiro says, and he reaches into the drawer beside his bed, holding Keith to his chest as he roots around.  “It’s...it’s here somewhere.”

“Been awhile, huh?”

Shiro snorts.  “...Yeah, yeah.  ...You know it’s not the activity that interests me.”

“No?”  Keith whispers.

“No.  It’s you.”

Keith smiles at him.

Shiro sneaks his hands in beneath Keith’s shirt and runs them up his taut back.  He tries to soothe the tension from him, rubbing at the tense muscles and up the daintiness of his spine.  He skims around the shoulder blades, and then allows himself to travel further to the front, along the defined abs.  He feels the way Keith’s stomach pulls in against touch and he gasps a bit at the sensation.

Shiro looks up.  “Want me to -?”

“No,” Keith breathes.  “No, keep doing it.”

And he runs his fingers lower, down to the belly button and over soft trail of hair.  Lower. Over flesh that’s full and heavy. Shiro can feel the weight of Keith in his hand and he thinks he’s going to combust.  The wetness already beading there, like silk.

He moans low in his throat as Keith twitches in his hand.

“God, you’re so beautiful...”  Shiro breathes in wonder. Because he is and it’s almost not fair.  His spirit, his face, his entire body. All of him. From the parts people can see, to the parts only Shiro is allowed.

Shiro is breathless.

To be allowed this.  To feel this.

Shiro can’t help himself, but he must.  He just wants to rock forward into Keith, deeply.  Let himself feel the darkest parts of Keith. Let himself fill Keith more than he’s ever been filled.  Keith’s right here, beneath, legs open around Shiro’s waist, giving permission.

So Shiro swallows his nervousness down and, after checking Keith’s expression - also brimming at the edges with a tinge of anxiousness, but smiling that crooked smile of his - he slips out of his own pants, drawing the blankets over them.

He’s careful.  So careful as he enters, feeling his way into Keith slowly, trying to distract Keith’s wired look with soft kisses.  He feels the warmth and soft wetness of his mouth. Delves into the parts Keith allows him to take.

He forgets about everyone else.

It’s just him.  Just Shiro and this beautiful soft man on beneath him, tentatively taking what Shiro gives him, sliding deeper into the warmth that blooms between the both of them.

What begins hesitant, awkward, a little uncomfortable, starts to melt.  And Keith finds a comfort letting Shiro into him that is clear on his face.

Just a few slow shifts of his hips and Keith forgets himself.  He moans softly beneath Shiro when Shiro takes him in his arms and pulls them further up onto the pillows.

“Shiro...?”  Keith breathes in dazed confusion as Shiro pulls out.  He shivers and huffs, his body twisting on the sheets as sensation rolls through them both.  “Ah...” Keith breathes out in pleasure. His eyes are dim and unfocused with want.

Shiro sets him down, head on the pillows.  He pushes Keith’s shirt up with his hand, running his palm up Keith’s midsection.  Keith rolls up with it, back arching.

“What are you doing...?”  Keith asks.

“Wondering how I want you,” Shiro whispers, kneeling up over him and looking down.

Keith’s eyelids flutter as he brings a finger to his mouth, biting on it gently.  He’s just laid out in front of Shiro, hair sprawled over the pillows, chest bare, legs parted.  Shiro can lean down, kiss the head of Keith’s heated flesh. He can part his lips and swallow Keith down.  He can already imagine the sounds that Keith would make if Shiro were to do that. How Keith would writhe at the feeling of it, legs sliding through the sheets, trying to find purchase for this sensation, but he won’t until Shiro can bring him higher.  Until Shiro can draw him up to the edge and make him cry his name. Make him beg.

Shiro could be soft with him.  Be slow. He can just nestle between the warmth of Keith’s legs and do it simply.  Kissing him slowly as he rocks into him. Slowly building the both of them higher, maybe reaching down to thumb across the warm head of Keith, playing with the precum there, feeling its silky beading and spreading it out over the two of them.  That would be nice too.

Shiro could reach his slick finger to his mouth, kiss it off, get a taste of Keith.  Or he could push his fingers into Keith’s willing mouth. Let him lick himself off Shiro.

Shiro feels himself grow even heavier at the thought, his patience quickly running out.  He’s got to make a choice or he’s going to explode.

He could do so many things to Keith.

And he wants to.  He wants to do them all.  Later, maybe.

What he chooses to do is simply a whim.  He wants to see all of Keith.

He slips a hand beneath Keith’s back and gently turns him onto his front.  Watches as the hardness between Keith’s legs is pushed between his body and the bedding.  Keith groans at the friction.

Shiro runs his finger down the line of Keith’s spine and into the softness of his round cheeks, around the soft flesh that gives beneath pressure.

Keith lets him.  He has his head turned on the pillow, his arms out to his sides.  He breathes in hard and tries to breathe out slowly, but Shiro can hear the way it drags and forces.  The way Keith is trying to control it as it struggles to jump and run as it pleases.

Shiro presses into Keith with his fingers.  He gives easily this time. Keith presses his lips together tightly and arches - it looks more like a reflex than anything - his body seeking the sensation.  He pushes up into Shiro’s finger and groans out a low sound of want. “More,” he says. “More.”

Shiro carefully pushes another finger in, letting them drag against the tight insides.  He feels around inside of him, not afraid to dig into the walls this time, to seek out what he wants.

Keith hums and moans into the pillow - Shiro’s pillow, face plastered against it as his body rocks and sways, mouth opening wide in pleasure.  “Shiro,” he says hoarsely.  “Oh, Shiro.”

And that’s when Shiro adds the third finger.

Keith chokes on it, but instead of tensing or shying away, he jerks his hips up higher.

“Keith...”  Shiro breathes, a prayer of worship.

“More,”  Keith begs.  “Please. More.  I want you. All of you.  I’ve wanted this since I first met you.”

And when he slips his slicked up fingers from Keith’s, he doesn’t think he could stop even if he tried.  There’s desperation deep in Shiro’s gut and blazing across his chest. The way Keith’s presented for Shiro, just for him.  The way he moans and pleads and wishes for him to just touch.

This is Keith.  Shiro’s Keith. The fierce, shy, powerful, sweet person who has slowly been stealing Shiro’s heart bit by bit.  And Shiro couldn’t be happier.

He gives Keith what he wants.

He pushes inside of him, feels the way Keith takes him whole, hears the way Keith groans.  The sound is so lewd and private; Shiro has never felt more blessed. Never felt more totally and utterly razed through like Keith is a phoenix, a powerful burning phoenix, and Shiro is seeing its sacred light.

Keith is burning inside.  Shiro leans over him, burying himself deep into that warmth with each thrust.  He leans forward onto his hands. Sees how close Keith’s face is. He pushes his fingers into Keith’s mouth and closes his eyes to the sensation of heat and wetness.  Feels the way Keith sucks him hard with his soft tongue. The way he takes him in.

Later, Shiro wants Keith’s head between his legs.  Wants him to use his mouth like this on his own cock, sucking him like he’s working for it.  Wants it bobbing in and out of his mouth as Keith takes him all. As Keith buries his nose into the heady scent of Shiro’s pubic hair, taking the entirety of his length down his throat.

Shiro wants that...

He wants everything.  As his hips snap and jerk into Keith’s warmth, his own moans of need and sex filling their room, coupled with the desperate choked grunts of Keith around Shiro’s fingers, his weight pushing him down to the bed, his body taking Shiro - all of Shiro as he feels this ecstasy.  This bliss.

Shiro pushes in, harder, harder, faster, legs tangled, bodies locked together.  His fingers mimic the movement in Keith’s mouth, pushing in, in, in. Deeper. Feeling in that warmth, claiming it.  Fucking into it.

Shiro nuzzles into the back of Keith’s ear.  He licks down the side of his neck. Tastes the salt of sweat on his skin.  Wants more of it.

His hips snapping up and in, sliding in perfectly, sheathed in Keith’s body completely.  Feeling the way Keith’s legs tremble and shake with his want, with his own need.

Shiro’s so close.  His whole core is burning.

He shifts, his entire weight pressing Keith into the bed as he slips his hand under Keith’s hips and grabs him desperately, so wet with precum that Shiro thinks he may’ve already come.

“Oh, god,” Shiro’s breathing, pounding into him quickly.  More, more, more. He’s lost his logic. He’s lost his evolved brain.  He just wants this.

He jerks Keith off quickly.  He loves the feel of how slick and hard Keith is in his hand.  How easy it is to pump over his flesh, as hot, as thick and full as it.

God, he wants Keith in his mouth too.  Wants to taste it. He bites into Keith’s neck, kissing sloppily wherever he can reach.

His, Keith is his.  Shiro wants him and only him.

Shiro slaps his hips up into Keith and is overcome by his orgasm, pouring stream after stream of his cum into Keith’s insides, filling him up with this heat.  Keith chokes on his hand and they’re coming together loudly, Keith’s cry tearing up his core and muffled into the pillow as he writhes and curls into it.

Keith groans without shame as Shiro slips his fingers from his mouth.  Strings of saliva break away. Both of Shiro’s hands are soaked and dripping, Keith’s cum leaking down his arms.

He collapses onto Keith, letting out one last weak groan.  He goes to pull out, but Keith quickly grabs him by the hips, holding him inside.

“Stay,” he whispers, voice raw and rough.  He’s still panting, exhausted. “...I want you to stay inside me.”

“...We should -”

“-Stay,” Keith breathes.  “Oh,” he groans softly as Shiro shifts slightly.  “Oh...stay.”

Keith rolls onto his side so he can push back against Shiro’s front, curled up against him, in his arms.

“Was that -?  Was it -?”

Keith lets out another soft groan, but it’s full of pleasure; gold and warm and content to the brim.  Shiro presses his smile into the back of Keith’s neck. He smells so good. Natural and warm, the heady strong scent of sweat.  Keith’s sweat.

Shiro wraps his arms around Keith and holds him tightly.  He doesn’t let go of him all night.

Chapter Text

Shiro dreams.

In the dream, he’s in Keith’s home, wandering down the long hallways, looking at the pictures hanging on the walls again.  The ones of Akira are gone. Replacing them are images of Keith. He’s in the same poses Akira had been in - as a baby crawling for Krolia and the one of him at his first signing, excited and overwhelmed - but his dark hair is undeniable this time.

Shiro stops to stare.  It makes sense somehow.  But if Keith’s not Akira, how could Akira be Keith?

Someone whispers into his ear from behind, words he doesn’t catch, and as he turns to see who it is, the edges of the dream blur and twist.  The person’s gone before he can get a good look.

Shiro takes in a deep breath.  He swore he caught sight of a wisp of silver hair.

Akira.

He hears others suddenly, from behind.  And he looks over sharply, determined to catch sight of them.  They’re always out of reach. It’s just hallways upon hallways, voices whispering behind him, to the side, above - wherever he’s not looking yet.  Shiro’s feet tangle as he tries to follow, catching and spinning him round and round. He’s turning upside down.

Shiro,” they call and it sounds like Keith.  But no one’s there.

And then they all just stop.

Shiro takes a moment to try to breathe.  They sounded desperate. Urgency is stamped over his thumping heart as he thinks of their tone.

It’s so strange.

The loud low note of Keith’s guitar hooked up to an amplifier strikes through the air behind him - Shiro’s heard it before.  It’s the same song Keith just played him the other day, heavy and filled with yearning. And Shiro can hear Keith’s voice, sweet as he is, with that raw thick emotion that’s unique to him.

“Keith?”  Shiro breathes.  He doesn’t turn around.  He’s too afraid to look behind him, afraid that if he tries, Keith will disappear too.  “Keith.”

It has to be Keith.  Shiro would know that voice anywhere, right?  Keith is so gentle, so soft is his spirit that it’s even woven into the tone of his voice.

Shiro’s confident, and Keith wouldn’t run from him, so Shiro dares to turn.

They’re in Keith’s room, just like that day they spent together at their house.  There’s someone there, just as Shiro believed there’d be.

But it’s not Keith.

It’s that platinum hair again, tied up tightly and sparkling behind him.  Akira stops playing, the guitar notes falling flat as his attention catches on the sound of Shiro’s arrival.  He turns, looking over at Shiro with purple familiar eyes as he lifts his sunglasses off his face.

He’s like the sun.  Shiro gets that tug in his gut - the one he gets whenever he sees Keith.  That excited fondness flaring in his chest.

This is Keith’s room.  Shiro knows this. But Akira’s here, comfortable in this space, like it’s his.  Why would he -? Why is he -?

“Shiro,” Akira smiles crookedly.  He looks like Keith. He looks just like Keith.  But he’s not... The hair, the piercings, the makeup, the clothes, the -

Does he believe the facts presented in front of him?  Does he believe Keith? Does he believe himself? He doesn’t know.  He doesn’t know.

Everything about the two of them is blurred together.  And Shiro’s afraid to look too closely. Because it’s him.  Shiro knows it in his gut. It’s definitely Keith.

But -

“...Akira,” Shiro breathes.

And he wakes up.

Someone had been smoothing the hair across his forehead in gentle calming strokes.  The feeling was constant, Shiro realizes, running through his hair as he dreamt. The touch stops in its tracks.

His dream fades from him as he slowly stirs into consciousness.

Shiro groans groggily as he wrinkles his nose and inhales breath into his being, stretching his arms out.  He slept way too deeply last night. And despite the weird dream he just woke up from, his body feels so warm and golden.  Good. So good.

The bed beside him shifts with slight quiet movement and Shiro blinks his eyes open.

How many years has he been waking up each morning to the monotonous emptiness of nothing?  And now? Shiro sees the most glorious sight greeting him...

“Hey,” Keith whispers, a small hesitant smile curling the sides of his lips.

God.

...God, he’s beautiful.  His hair is messy in all the right ways, laying out across his forehead in his thick black locks, pushed back over his shoulders, over the love bite Shiro had made.  Somewhere along the way last night, he had lost his shirt. And it’s just his bare chest. His perfectly sculpted chest, down to the godly shape of his abs. His waist, sculpted from the stars, made into all the perfection that is Keith.  The afternoon’s light peeks through the curtains and he glows at the edges. A god.

“...Hey,” Shiro murmurs back, rolling onto his right side so that he can reach Keith.  He gathers him into his arms, pulling him up against his chest and Keith nuzzles into him, humming happily.

“How long have you been awake?”  Shiro asks.

“Awhile.”

“Sorry,” he grunts tiredly, rubbing at his eyes.  “I was out of it.”

“I could tell,” Keith chuckles low in his chest.  Shiro can feel it rumble, the vibrations of it. “I was tempted to start balancing things on you.  You know how people get those little goldfish crackers and set them out all over their pets?”

“I’m not your pet,” Shiro chuckles.

“I’m just kidding,” Keith leans up to kiss him on the nose.  But then he thinks better of it as he leans over Shiro, so close their warmth mixes into one.  He kisses him on the mouth.

They make out slowly, breathing in the other.  Shiro sneaks his hands under the covers and feels the curves of Keith’s body leaning over him.  It’s a release he didn’t know he needed.

Keith swallows hard as he pulls back.  A small smile flutters across his face.  “Besides, you didn’t have any goldfish crackers in the cabinets.”

Shiro laughs.  “I’ll make sure to stock them for next time.”

Keith reaches up and tilts Shiro’s head to the side, inspecting the wound on his face with an intensity of a cat.  Shiro had almost forgotten. “...How are you feeling? You were just dreaming. ...You talk in your sleep.”

“Mmf.  Don’t worry, it wasn’t a nightmare.  I feel pretty good honestly.”

Keith leans up even further so Shiro can’t see his face.  “...Hm. And your head?”

“Tender,” Shiro shrugs.  “But it’s not bad. How does it look?”

Keith shrugs too, but there’s no heart to it as he strokes around the edges gently.  “...Bruised.”

“You should see the other guy,” Shiro teases lowly.

Keith takes the bait, leaning his head back with a groan, eyes narrowing.  “You mean a hundred times richer now? Yeah, I bet he’s really in mourning.”

“That’s right.”  He tilts his head back with Keith too.  He sees what’s on the ceiling above them that Keith is staring at so intensely.

He realizes that he’s staring straight up into a movie poster of Akira.  Shiro did take a few of the posters down the other day, but he got distracted by a text from Keith and stopped mid-way.

“Ahh,” Shiro murmurs.  He had somehow forgotten.  “...We had someone watching us last night.”

Keith chuckles under his breath and rubs at his brow.  “Seems like it. It’s okay. I was the one who asked. I knew we’d have company.”

“Printed on recycled paper with vegetable based VOC free ink though.”

“Huh.  Well, then it’s okay, I guess.”

Keith is quiet for a long time.  His eyes are stuck on the poster plastered to the ceiling for awhile, then they fall back down around to the image on the wall of Akira leaning into a microphone dramatically, his hair and clothes skimming back in the wind.  Sweat flicks from his face like glitter and he’s blazing. Fire. He’s beautiful.

Shiro watches Keith’s expression as he runs his fingers over Keith’s.  The complex way it shifts. Keith said it was alright, but it doesn’t really look like it.  “Hey. What are you thinking about?”

Keith says, still looking at all the posters, “I’m thinking about...what if we were in the middle of a zombie apocalypse?  Akira’s been bitten, but so have I. You only have one bullet. We’re both begging you to shoot us. Who would you shoot?”

Shiro snorts.  “What are you saying?  What kind of question is that...?”

Keith shrugs and turns into Shiro’s hold, looking up at him curiously.  “There’s no wrong or right answer. I just want to hear your reasoning.”

Keith shapes his fingers into a gun and holds it out at Shiro.

Shiro grabs Keith’s hands in his and points the gun away.  “Neither of you.”

“We’d turn into a zombie.  We’d eat you.”

Neither of you.  Maybe you’re immune.  I forget you’ve never played The Last of Us.”

“Is there a cure?”

“There’s always a cure,” Shiro hums.  “But it’s not always simple.”

“Hmm...”  Keith hums, undoing his finger gun.  The way he looks at the posters - Shiro doesn’t like it.  It’s akin to hurt.

“...Was it good, Shiro?”

“Hm?”

Keith turns his face so Shiro can’t see it, but the tips of his ears grow pink.  “...Last night. How-how did I...do...?”

Shiro chokes, pushing himself up off his pillows to stare down at Keith.  He sputters. “Did-did I not-? Are you-? Do I-?”

Keith blinks over at his reaction, a small curious smile on his lips as he pushes himself up after Shiro, looking into his face.

“... Good,” Shiro breathes.  “Last night was... It was amazing.  Did you not...uh, did you not think so...?”

“No!”  Keith exclaims in surprise.  “No, it wasn’t that at all! I...  I think we’re kind of perfect for each other.”

“Me too,” Shiro nods quickly, scooping Keith in closer, so they’re basically sitting in the other’s lap.  “You...uh....you did well?  It was...it was really nice...”

Keith chuckles lowly, a small pleased smile on his face.  They both fall to silence and Shiro can see it there as Keith's many expressions shift again and he starts thinking carefully.  He doesn’t seem upset, just conflicted as he slides his hands down Shiro’s arms so that he can play with Shiro’s fingers. “...Sorry.  It’s stupid. I was just...thinking. So there’s this movie, right? Notting Hill. Krolia was watching it one year and I was bored, so I sat down with her.  And there was this line in it...and it’s just stuck with me since then and I can’t get it out of my head. I’ve been kind of afraid honestly, to face it. Do you know Rita Hayworth?”

Shiro shakes his head, watching as Keith avoids his eyes and keeps messing with Shiro’s hands.  Keith traces the love lines down them, the life lines. He worries at his lip. Shiro wishes he knew the words to wash all the uncertainty from Keith, but he doesn’t.

“She was a famous actress in the 40’s.  She said once, ‘Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda...and woke up with me.’  Gilda was a character she played. ...And my last boyfriend, he...that was exactly what it was like with him.  He thought I’d be like Akira. He expected it.  But in the morning, I’m just...just me.”  He gives a little shrug. “I mean...I’ve been in his shadow all my life and I had fooled myself into thinking I'd made my peace with it.  But for once, just once, I...  I need to know.  In the end, you weren’t...you’re not...disappointed...?”  He says meekly, the words pitching so lowly that Shiro almost can’t hear them.

Shiro blinks in horror as his stomach sinks.  This is the last thing he wants Keith to feel, like he’s some substitute for the better thing.  Reaching forward carefully to turn Keith’s face to him, Shiro murmurs with all the gentleness he can muster,  “Keith... No. No .  I swear I never even thought of him when we...  My thoughts were only of you. Keith, you never have to worry about Akira...  I don’t even know him. I would never get this close to just anyone, Akira included.”

Keith turns his eyes up to Shiro’s, holding his gaze there.  They’re full of a cold frightened desperation that slowly settles beneath Shiro’s words, but it’s still there, a fear engraved in him that can’t just be washed away so simply.

“Keith...”  Shiro whispers, cupping his hands at the base of his neck.  “Last night was... I’ve never thought anyone is as beautiful as I think you are.  Inside and out. I’ve never wanted anyone as much as I’ve wanted you. I’ve never felt the way I felt last night.  That includes every person in the entire world. Every single person.”

“Me too,” Keith whispers, leaning forward to clutch Shiro’s wrists tightly.  “I... Last night felt so good,” he breathes. “It’s never been that way for me before.  Never.”

“Me neither...”  Shiro turns back to the stuff he has hanging in his room.  It just keeps hurting Keith. It serves no purpose then. “Keith, I’m going to take everything down.”

“No.  No, really, it’s not about that.  I was just... It’s just been something on my mind.  I needed to ask it. And I’m glad I did.” He nods his head as he takes in a deep breath.  He pulls up a smile. “Tell me about them.”

“What?”  Shiro blinks.  He nods toward the posters.  “Those?”

“Yes.  Tell me about the things you love.  I want to hear them.”

Shiro hesitates.  “You were just asking me about Akira and now you want to hear more about him...?”

“No, not about him,” Keith hums, “about you.  About the Akira you love. These things that brought you joy.”

“Hmm...”  Shiro thinks, looking around at everything.  “Well, I still have the dakimakura in the closet.”

Keith chuckles, snuggling into his shoulder.  “Mmhmm. Go on.”

“Oh, wait.”  He points to the record behind glass.  “That one. I like that one. My super cool boyfriend got it for me during our first date together.  He’s the best.”

Keith laughs and rubs his face into Shiro’s arm.  “Stop that.”

“My favorite person in the whole world.”  Shiro rocks them gently back and forth as Keith keeps laughing.  He snuggles his nose behind Keith’s ear and whispers lowly, just for him, “If I had to choose between one night with you or having Akira for the rest of my days, I’d choose the one.”

Keith presses his lips together tightly to try to hide his pleased smile.  “...But who would you shoot?”

“Again with the zombie analogy?”  Shiro laughs. “Stop that, it’s too sad.”

“You’ve got to choose.”

“Fine.  I’d get a blow dart, split the cure in two, and shoot you both with it and we all live happily ever after.”

Keith laughs too, until his stomach growls.  Honestly, Shiro had meant to wake up early and do the whole presentation for Keith: waffles, fresh fruit, and, of course, coffee.  But he was too comfortable and his body overrode his manners and he slept in too late. The clock reads past noon. Shiro really slacked, and for the person it counts for most.

“Your poor stomach,” Shiro despairs.  He pats Keith’s legs and hums, “Breakfast time.  Do you like pancakes or waffles better?”

“Definitely waffles,” Keith smiles up at him.  “I should help though. I know how you like your ‘golden’ edges.”

“No, you relax.  I can do waffles .”

“Tell you what: I’ll let you do the batter as I call Krolia, but I can’t let you burn your apartment down - as a guest, that’d just be rude - so I’ll do the iron.”

“That’s fair,” Shiro hums.  In all honesty, he has had a few incidences with the waffle iron before and he doesn’t want to embarrass himself when Keith is so gracefully offering.

Keith stretches and yawns his way out of bed, slipping into some of Shiro’s sweatpants that he collects off of the floor.

Shiro laughs at the sight of him as he pulls a shirt over his own head.  “You look great in those.”

He snorts and bows.  “Just my size.”

Keith follows Shiro into the living room to hunt for his phone.  It’s on his pile of discarded clothes on the floor. He groans into the notifications and sinks onto the couch, nuzzling into Shiro’s arm as he reaches around Keith to turn the TV on for him before he gets started on breakfast.

“Oh my god, you’d think we’d run off and eloped together the way Krolia’s messaging.  Ridiculous.”

Shiro hums happily as he gets to mixing the batter and pulling out the iron.  “She loves you.”

“A little too much,” Keith mutters as he types furiously away on his phone.  “She’s asking about you. I’m telling her you’re a zombie now.”

“Oh, my god, Keith, don’t.”

Keith just laughs from the couch.  “She’s telling me not to be a little shit.  She’s mad now.”

Keith.”

“Agh,” Keith yawns again as he pops up from the couch and walks over to Shiro, face turned toward the TV.  “The shitty news is still talking about last night.”

“Why do you even have that on...?”  Shiro wrinkles his nose as he looks up to get a glimpse of it.

“I dunno.  Know thy enemy, I guess?  It’s a pretty shitty idea, but I do get curious.  Especially with how they’re reacting to you.”

“And how are they reacting?”  Shiro can’t hear the TV from here.

“Uh... It seems they’re more interested in my fist in the paparazzi’s face, so you’re safe for this segment.”

Shiro says quietly, “I never did thank you...”

“Thank me?”

“For protecting me when I got hurt.  Who knows if they would’ve stopped otherwise.  They were all on us so closely, like some sort of mob from a nightmare.  They didn’t stop until you took action. So...thank you.”

Keith doesn’t smile back.  He sighs a little puff of sad breath as he nudges up beside Shiro and watches him at work.  He stays like that for a long time and Shiro lets him. He would let him have all day if he thought it’d do Keith good, but, from Shiro’s peripheral, he can see the displeasure and unhappiness built on Keith’s brow.  Words pent up.

Shiro nudges him gently.  “Looks like you have something on your mind.”

Keith sniffs roughly.  “You, uh, you asked yesterday if I was used to stuff like this.  I’m not. People grabbing at you, treating you like you’re owed to them.  It always used to just make my blood boil, but sometimes it’s different...  Something like this has happened before. My shitty ex. I tried really hard to be what he wanted me to be, but you can only lie for so long.  When he decided I wasn’t Akira enough, he became so angry with me. I wasn’t what he had wanted. He was part of the entertainment business, so he had connections and he called all the paparazzi he could.  I had been so flustered and not thinking clearly and the crowd got insane and...I got hurt. He was there and he...he didn’t do anything. He just watched with this...sick self righteous look on his face. He thought it was some sort of justice for not fitting into the image he wanted.  Like they’d all see what a fake I was if they caught me vulnerable. And honestly, I’d...I’d never been so afraid. Or felt so alone.” He bites at his lip and then points to the scar on his face with a small laugh that feels grey and upset, despite how quiet he’s speaking. “I had to run like a rat just to get away from them; I hid in some disgusting alleyway and cowered.  Krolia was the one who came to get me and I’ll never forget her face. ...She wasn’t always this worried for me. And honestly, she’s loosened her hold quite a bit since you’ve come into the picture.”

“...Keith,” Shiro murmurs lowly.  He puts the batter to the side so he can place a gentle hand on Keith’s arm.  The support seems like far too little, but Keith smiles into it. “That’s horrible.  I can’t believe someone could do that...”

“I was young.  It was a growing experience and also, very nearly, a disaster.  We had to pay off so many people to keep it quiet. It scared Akira too.  He didn’t want to go out for months. And last night, well, it was the same frenetic crazed energy as with you.  The same thing, only... different because you never asked for this.  And I had. I knew from the beginning what I was risking by being in this business - Krolia and my dad had made it very clear - but I don’t think you did and I...”

“Keith, stop.  Stop right there.  If I wanted to avoid all this, I wouldn’t have come to the Marmora building that morning for an interview.  I knew even then, even before I met you, and I don’t regret it. Not at all. ...It’s just a little cut.”

“Don’t discount it.  It’s not little. You’ll have another scar on your face.  ...One I put there.”

“You didn’t put it there,” Shiro tries to say with as much firmness and softness as he can.  “...And besides, what’s another little scar?”

Keith reaches up and presses a hand to Shiro’s chest, right over his heart.  “...I’m responsible. And I’m afraid. The closer we become...the more we can hurt each other.  And it seems inevitable, doesn’t it? That it’ll just get worse... ...I can’t stand the thought of putting a scar on your heart...  And already, I...” He’s quiet for a long time.

“It was awful what your ex did to you...”  Shiro whispers, reaching up to brush his finger on Keith’s scar.  “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of living is that there are some awful awful people...but, like anything, I’d like to believe there’s a balance in the world.  ...Not everyone’s like that. For every horrible person out there, there’s one on the other end of the scale, balancing them out, creating peace and joy.  Someone like you.”

Keith laughs softly.  “...You know, this is actually true: in all of Akira’s songs, he writes about this ideal world beyond all the pain, a safe place with these people who are so morally just they’re more angel than human.  I’d always hoped I’d find someone who’d prove everyone else wrong. There are times when I gave up believing and started thinking it was a fantasy, not reality. ...And then you came along.” He smiles up at Shiro.  

Shiro snorts and rolls his eyes, but he knows Keith catches the pink blush across his face.  He murmurs lowly, embarrassed, “You are such a flatterer.”

“Hm,” Keith taps Shiro’s nose with his finger.  “I just tell the truth. Batter ready?”

Shiro holds it out and Keith takes it from him, nodding into it with impressed approval.  Shiro says, “I think you’re amazing, Keith. Pulling yourself back together like that and still being as positive about everything as you are.”

“I could say the same to you.  We all just do what we have to, don’t we?”

“Some people never find the strength to.  You’re inspiring.”

Shiro means it.  Keith snorts, but there’s that pleased glow in his eyes that Shiro follows up with a kiss.

Keith preens happily at the attention, but looks down at his pocket as his phone buzzes a few times in quick succession.  “You, uh, might want to text Krolia. She’s upset with me after the zombie bit.”

Shiro huffs out a laugh as he pulls himself from Keith’s side and goes into the living room to collect his phone.  “I can’t believe you...”

There’s a text from Krolia at the top, waiting for him, and many more from Matt again.

Matt’s are strangely short.  The unfamiliar length and bluntness of it catches Shiro’s eyes.

Call me as soon as you get this.

The tone of it, the blunt abruptness.  It’s very unlike him. A weight drops in Shiro’s stomach at the message.  What the hell...? What’s wrong? Did something happen with one of the gang?  Is someone sick?

His fingers scramble to call, but, before he can, he’s caught by someone calling his name.  And the words aren’t coming from Keith’s mouth, who’s humming innocently in the kitchen.

It’s the news.

“Takashi Shirogane?  Can you believe he was the pilot of the failed Kerberos mission years ago?”

The Kerberos mission?  The one that went up in flames?  The astronaut who they demoted in disgrace?”

No.

Kerberos.

No.

He feels as if he’s been gripped by the throat and tossed into a dream.  His hands tremble. His heart stutters.

“He was the one who wasted billions of our government’s money and then tried to pin the blame on his teammates by lying, hoping they could take the fall for his mistake!  And here’s the worst part: they had been friends for years .  They trusted him...and he just turned on them.  Is that not monstrous? That scar on his face? It came from his failed mission.  And his arm? It’s fake .  That’s karma for you.”

“We are live with one of these men.  They worked together at NASA for years.  Can you tell us more about this infamous Takashi Shirogane?”

The image flickers to a news anchor standing beside an unfortunate familiar face.

As if Shiro wasn’t already frozen by shock.  He drops his phone. It hits the ground with a loud clatter, but he doesn’t even hear it, doesn’t even comprehend.

It’s the engineer.  The one, the only. The small little man who looked into Shiro’s face and lied without remorse.  Shiro thought he wouldn’t have to ever see him again, and now, here he is, face cringing in hurt, like the emotional wounds are still too deep, too distressing to face.  He doesn’t even wear them on his body, like Shiro. Constant reminders stamped into flesh. And what does a liar have to despair over?

He shakes his head, playing up the agony in his tone.  “Takashi Shirogane...at first, he seemed like the classic nice popular guy.  He knew everyone and everyone loved him, everyone wanted to be his friend. He had that natural charisma that just draws you in.  And I’ll admit, I was fooled, at first. I even brought him to a few of my family’s dinners. He met my little sisters, he shook hands with my parents, we fed him.  But then, on the day of his supposed accident , I think he just couldn’t stand the thought of losing.  That’s when his true colors showed. I couldn’t believe it when he turned on us and blamed us with everything ; especially when all the diagnostic tests they had run the day before were logged as successful.  ...I’m so thankful for my real friends who defended me. I was just so shocked, and I’m thinking maybe that’s what’s happening now.  Shiro acted like he was kind in front of Akira, in the beginning. He pretended that he was into doing good and helping others, but he was just the best at playing the game.  An actor. I’m sickened that people like him can spread their lies and deceit through this world. And now at Akira’s side? What sort of malice will he try to spread now? On that big of a platform?  Whispering into Akira’s ear? I’m afraid for any of those who’d listen to them. Akira, please, if you’re listening to this, Shiro is not a good man. Please, separate yourself from him.”

The news anchor speaks into the mic, “Maybe Shiro got a taste of fame once and decided he wanted more?  He’s got to be the luckiest person alive. First somehow managing to land a job at NASA, and next, our world’s own superstar, Akira?  How is he even doing this?”

“A master conartist.”

Buzzing.  Shiro’s just...  He doesn’t know what he feels.  He bites at his lip and tries to get ahold of himself before his mind has time to catch up and think about it.  Before these thoughts dry and stick to him like glue that he can’t get off. Before the wound is torn open, fresh again.

He’s got to run from this.  He can’t let it get to him. He can’t file it away into his heart to keep.  Run, run, run.

“What’s up?”  Keith calls from the kitchen, the sound of batter sizzling against iron.

Shiro closes his eyes.  Braces himself. He feels it in his gut, like a hook tugging and pulling, burning away at him.  No. No, not again. Not this same wound again.

It has him.  It’s got him.  Panic bubbling up in his chest, making him feel faint and like he’s burning alive all at once.  Too much. Too much.

“...Shiro...?”  Keith walks over, putting a hand on his shoulder as he looks into his face with worry.  “Shiro, what’s wrong?”

Shiro can just shake his head and furrow his brow, trying to pull in breath.

“Is it your head?  Do I need to call an ambulance?  Shiro.”

No,” Shiro forces out.  “No... God.” He gestures weakly to the TV.  Keith’s head whips around.

An image of Shiro’s face is there now.  Younger, eyes full of hope, his hair still fully black and untouched, untainted by this world, excited for Kerberos, back when just the mere mention of the words didn’t yet make his stomach sink in dread.

“One thing’s for sure: Takashi Shirogane is a liar.  He ruined everything for this space mission.  It was going to change the future of humanity and he repays this honorary opportunity by lying and blaming his friends.  And now, suddenly, for the first time ever, Akira is attacking an innocent cameraman?  Beating him to the ground? Akira? Our Akira? The one who’s always promoting and pushing for peace?  Can the timing really be a coincidence?”

“That was Akira’s cousin.”

“Was it really?  We just don’t know!  We don’t know what to believe anymore.  Akira wrote out that message on his site basically saying this Takashi Shirogane is a saint.  Obviously that’s not true.” She tosses a hand at the picture behind her of the mission failing, of the flames, of the destruction, of all the little pieces exploding and raining down.  Cuts to the image from years ago, the ones that Shiro had buried deep down inside: PILOT ERROR. “Does he look like a saint now? Akira’s word is tainted. He’s been swayed by an infamous liar, swindled by a con artist.  Someone needs to save Akira! This Shiro has got him brainwashed!”

No,” Shiro grits his teeth and shakes his head.  “No!” No explanation seems good enough, but he’s desperate to deliver it.

“God,” Keith breathes, pressing a hand to his face tightly as he stares in horror.  “Oh, my god... Shiro.”  When he manages to force himself out of his shock, he seeks out the remote and the TV darkens off.  And they just stand there for a long while, horrified.

Keith turns guilt-ridden eyes to Shiro.

Shiro’s seeing it again.  The crash. The lights. The cameras.  Laying on the cement, staring into the sky, his dreams drowning in the ocean behind them.

He’s seeing his grandfather lying in his deathbed, his eyes full of sorrow as he watches Shiro’s wilting defeated face.  Helpless. Helpless. Everyone’s helpless.

The dark cloud that pulled and infected Shiro’s mind.  The years of feeling isolated. Alone.

And Keith.  Standing in front of him, eyes wide and blank, like he’s been overwhelmed and can’t even think of what to do next.  He presses his hands to his face and wheezes into them, like the pain is eating and pushing at him from the inside out.

“Oh, my god,” Keith says again, agony plain as day on his face.  Each word is weighted and drenched in horror.  “Shiro.  I am so so so so sorry.  I am so sorry. This is all my fault.  I didn’t even think. I should’ve known.  I’m sorry.”

Shiro’s disconnected again.  He feels like he’s been thrown back through the years.  He can hardly see Keith or where he is, he just hears that loud roaring.

His fault.  His fault. The crash was all his fault.

His grandfather, dying in despair.

His friends, lying.  Still lying, even now.  “Why...?” Shiro closes his eyes tightly and presses his hand to his forehead.  His voice shakes as he whispers. “...Why would they say that still? Why do they keep doing this...?”

Shiro,” Keith breathes, stepping forward and gently placing his hands on his arms.  “Don’t worry. I’ll fix this. I promise I can. I’ll make this all go away and no one else will have to see it.  You’ll never have to see it again; you’ll never have to think about it again.  Just hang in there.  I’ll do whatever it takes to make this right, I swear.  I swear it. I promise. I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.”

Later, Shiro will think back on this moment and wish he had said something else.  The truth that just needed to be said aloud, nipped in the bud before the thought blossomed: No, it’s not your fault.  Because it isn’t.  It just isn’t.

But Shiro can’t breathe.  It’s like he’s suffocating from the inside.  He gasps for breath, but his lungs are tightening around on themselves, rejecting the air, keeping him from calming down.  “How?” He wheezes, gripping his throat. “How did they find that...? What does it...what does it have to do with Akira? With you?  Why would they -”

“Shh, shh, shh,” Keith tries to calm Shiro.  He grabs both of Shiro’s arms and helps him sit on the couch.  “It’s okay, Shiro. You’re alright. You’re okay.” But he’s wired too.  It’s building in his eyes, but Shiro doesn’t see, so wrapped up in this pain Keith is trying to force himself to attend to.

“They think I’m trying to corrupt Akira,” Shiro despairs.  “I would never... That’s the last thing - Like I’m...like I’m the devil on his shoulder, whispering dark evil things.  ...Everyone thinks that about me now... Akira’s done so much for me, I couldn’t possibly -”

“I know, Shiro,” Keith leans in earnestly.  “I know.”

“And...and my old friend...the things he said.  Lying. Why do people have to lie ?  I can’t stand it.”

“He is not a friend,” Keith growls under his breath, the sound deep and tearing from his diaphragm.

Shiro just closes his eyes.  Tries to take in a long deep breath.  “...Sometimes I don’t understand this world,” he whispers.  “It just feels like it likes to give...only so it can laugh as it takes it away.  ...Why? Why does it keep doing this?”

Keith grits his teeth and shakes his head quickly.  A bit more of his strength slips from his defenses and he closes his eyes to pretend not to see.  “No, don’t do that,” Keith whispers. He draws in shaky breath, tears forming in his eyes that he cringes against.  “Don’t lose hope like that. Not you. It’s not the world’s fault, it’s not yours. Every single horrible thing that’s happened to you lately has been because of me.  I keep fucking up your life... If I hadn’t brought you into the limelight... If I hadn’t forced you out last night...you would’ve been fine.  You were doing fine.  You were healing, you were happy.  This isn’t the world’s fault, it’s mine.”

“...Keith,” Shiro holds his head and shakes his.  He looks up into Keith’s face. Thinks of their scars - both of theirs - both the ones plaguing their minds and the ones that had cut into flesh, always visible in the mirror.  “Maybe we’re both fools...to believe that there’s good to balance out the bad.”

No,” Keith whispers, his voice so constricted and high that it sounds like a wounded animal.  “No.  Dammit.” Keith leans forward and presses his face into his hands.  He grits his teeth so hard that even Shiro can hear the sound.  He practically growls in agony. “I knew it. I knew I shouldn’t have done this, but I just...I saw you and I...  I thought maybe, just this once, things could work out how I wanted.  I wanted to believe it could. I wanted to have hope.  I wanted to actually believe in something and not be such a fucking hypocrite all the time.  But oh, god, I’ve been so selfish.  I just got my curse on you. I tainted you.  And for what? What’s your reward through all this?  I knew I shouldn’t have gotten close, not me, not like this.  Why did I do that...? Why did I -?” His breath catches and he draws it up to a tight stop.  “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for bringing you into this.”

A simple you’re wrong doesn’t seem sufficient enough to combat all that.  Shiro’s said it so many times and Keith still can’t believe.  In a world where so many words are spewed and tossed around carelessly without meaning or thought, do either of them still really have the strength to keep believing them?

It’s quiet.  Quiet and sharp with hurt.  “It’s funny,” Shiro whispers.  “I never thought I’d have to see that engineer again...”

Keith says.  “...If I had just been some other normal person on the street, you probably wouldn’t have...  Or if I had been Akira? If you had just loved Akira, plain and simple, from the beginning... Maybe then he would've been enough to protect you.”

Shiro turns tired eyes up to Keith, ready to argue even though he’s tried to make it clear so many times.  He’ll try again, for Keith. But he stops as he looks up into Keith’s eyes. He’s surprised by the darkness he finds there.

“Fucking Akira,” Keith hisses, gripping his phone in his pocket so tightly that it cracks.  “Fucking Hollywood. Fucking people. Fucking videos. Fucking news. They’re a disease.  All of them! It’s like they take pleasure in hurting people. God, and I’m right in the middle of it.  I hate them all. I hate everything about this. The way it kills me and twists me up in knots and I just brought you right into the center of it and now this.  I’ve been so selfish.  ...I can’t keep doing this to you.”

“...Keith,” Shiro whispers.  “Keith, no. I don’t blame you.  It’s not your fault. It’s not like you call them here.”

“You have no idea...”  Keith says darkly, lowly.  “What if I do? What if I’m exactly the reason people are always coming after us?  ...What if, some stupid decision I made as some dumb as shit kid is following us all the way here...the both of us, to plague and curse and haunt us?  ...Fuck...” Keith whispers, pressing his hands over his face and groaning. He pushes himself off the couch and kicks his feet around the room as he paces in circles.  “Fuck.  It’s always going to be like this.”

The edges around him are sharp and bitter.  Pushed to the edge. Shiro sees it, feels the weight of this situation pressed down and suffocating the both of them.

He turns sharply and the manic light to his eyes draws Shiro up further.  “What if, just by being me, I... You’re not actually the one cursed after all.  What if it’s me? I’m the one who’s cursed? And if you stay with me, if you keep taking the hits for me -”

“Keith...”  Shiro’s head is spinning, but the uneasiness in his gut intensifies as he realizes the problem is only expanding, growing bigger, consuming them.  It’s out of control. Fear begins to bubble inside his gut. He can’t fix this. “Keith, we’re both upset right now. Let’s just sit down. This conversation isn’t headed anywhere good.  We’re both not thinking rationally.”

“And god, just wait...”  Keith laughs lowly, but it’s half a sob.  “Just wait until you find out about me... I have gotten under your skin and lied and lied and lied knowing that it’s your weakness.  So caught up in the lie that I can’t even dig myself out by now, I’ve just got to choke on it.  It makes me just like these dipshits on this fucking show, outing you, not caring that they’re breaking your fucking heart.  I know how it feels. How can I forgive myself? How could I be so selfish to ever expect you to...?” Keith cries into his hand.

Keith,” Shiro shakes his head and reaches out for him.  “Keith, stop... Whatever you’re talking about, we can work through it, okay?  Come sit. We’ll talk.”

No, I can’t.  I’ve tried!  Whenever I try to tell you, I can’t speak .  I’m just so so scared.  I’m so scared. I can’t stand it if you reject me.”  Keith draws in jagged breath. “Shiro, you’ve been nothing but good to me...  You’ve been nothing but good to whoever you come into contact with.  You’re...you’re so wonderful. You deserve someone who can give you something better.  Someone you love. Someone who’s worthy of you.”

“If you say ‘Akira’ one more time, I swear to god...  Stop. Stop it...” Shiro’s so weary. He can’t argue like this.  He can’t think. “Don’t you get it?  Keith... Whatever it is that’s got you so tangled up inside, it’s different.  It’s you.  You are not like these people.”  He jabs a hand to the TV. “You know how much I care about you.  I don’t understand why you’re doing this to yourself -”

“Because I’m lying to you!  I’m lying to you and you just -”

“Whatever you lied about, let’s talk it through.  We’ll be okay. We’re stronger than some lie. Keith, please.”

“No!  No! You don’t understand!”

“Keith,” Shiro says firmly, reaching out to grab Keith by the arm.  Keith tugs his arm out of his grip, crossing them over his chest and stepping back.  He paces like a caged animal, eyes darting to the door, to the window. Exits. “Keith, I love you.  I love you.  Whatever is going on, please, forgive yourself, because I’m already there.  Just...just sit down.”

“You don’t even know me.  How can you love me if I’ve only ever hidden from you?”

“Then tell me!”  Shiro pleads.  “I didn’t want to push you, but god, Keith, it’s killing you, can’t you see?  Wouldn’t just talking with me be better?  You can trust me, can’t you?  Just tell me.  Please, Keith.  For both of our sakes.”

“God...”  Keith cries, pressing his hands to his face.  “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You’re hurting me now!”

“I know!!  You think I don’t know that!   Shiro!”

They both stare at each other, chests heaving.  Shiro clings to his collar, tugging it away from his neck, hoping it’ll get rid of this choking feeling that’s making him ill.  ...God, his arm hurts so badly. He hasn’t felt this weary and low in years.

“...I’m so sorry,” Keith whispers around his tears.  “I’m sorry. I knew. I knew how kind you were and I wanted to be the one to protect you, but all along, I didn’t even think of who would protect you from me...  It’d be just like you to settle, wouldn’t it? For someone like me. Just like your shitty office job at NASA. You’re too nice. You’ve always been too nice and it’s your greatest fault.”

Shiro opens his mouth to speak, indignant, but Keith cuts him off, speaking louder.  “You could have whatever you want, don’t you get it? Akira would’ve been a better match for you.  I wish, that day in the elevator, it had been him, not me. Him. And then you wouldn’t have to feel guilt for going for what you actually want.”

“I don’t want Akira,” Shiro despairs.  “I want you.  God.  Keith.  Keith...”

“-You don’t understand.”

“No, you don’t understand!  You’re not listening!”  Shiro shouts, slapping his hands down on his legs.  The sound echoes loudly.

They both blink at his outburst.  Even Shiro’s surprised. He can’t even remember the last time he yelled like that.  And to Keith, no less.

Shiro mumbles softly.  “I...I’m sorry. I don’t mean to yell at you.  I just...why won’t you believe me? I’m telling you over and over and it’s like you don’t hear it.  Akira is not everything.  You have him so high on a pedestal, maybe more than most of us, that you’ve grown petrified of him.  The media isn’t everything either... We can’t let them control our lives like this. You are a person too.  Keith, you are what’s important to me. Not the trash the media spews, and not even Akira. What can I do to show you that?”

Keith swallows hard.  His nose is starting to get red again as he presses his lips together tightly.  He rubs the back of his hand against his nose as he sniffs. “...You’re in love with Akira too,” he says softly.

Shiro closes his eyes heavily.  God. He could scream all day and his words would never reach Keith, not like this.  Keith’s hiding so far away. “Keith, I’ve tried to tell you -”

“No.”  Keith says, turning and waving his hand.  “No. I’ve let this go on long enough -”

“-Keith, what are you talking about?”

“This is all bullshit.  I should’ve never done this.”

Shiro stands, walking around the coffee table to get to Keith.  “What are you saying? I -”

“Akira’s not real!”  Keith shouts, the words tearing up his throat as he turns to Shiro, pushing at his chest.  Shiro stumbles backwards, the back of his legs hitting the couch. “He’s not real! He’s never been real!  He’s the dream, don’t you get it?  How the fuck can I compare to that ?”

“You don’t have to,” Shiro says, trying to hold Keith from running out.  “You’re you.  He’s him.  That’s like comparing me to Akira.  Of course I can’t compare, we’re two different people.  Or comparing apples with oranges -”

No,” Keith agonizes.  He rubs at the tears running down his cheeks.  “No. Shiro... God. I...” He hangs his head and tries to breathe in, but the air just tangles in his throat.  “...Maybe I’m the one who’s not real...maybe I’m tired of me too... I’m exhausted...”

“Keith,” Shiro whispers.  “Hey, please don’t walk out like this.  I had such a good time with you last night.  Whatever this is, we can fix it. Stay with me.”

Keith despairs.  “They’re tearing you apart.  They’re hurting you. It’ll just get worse if you stay with me.”

Shiro shakes his head, confused and stunned.  How did it get this way so quickly? Just a little while ago, they were laughing and comfortable touching the other and now, Keith feels like he’s oceans away.  “...Don’t go.”

Keith just groans, rubbing at his face.  “No, I... I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.  I need space. I need space, I need -” He goes for the door.

Keith, wait.  You can’t just walk out there like that; you don’t even have a car.”

“I’ll walk home.”

“If the paparazzi get you?  After yesterday? You can’t do that.  Take my car,” Shiro says, shoving the keys into his hand and closing them.

“How will you drive -”

“Matt will do it.  He used to do it all the time anyway.  Please.”

“No, I can’t -”

Please, Keith .  ...Please.”  He keeps his hands tightly wrapped around Keith’s hands.  They both stare down at the contact. “...I want you safe,” Shiro whispers.  “Be careful out there. Please.”

“I just...”  He takes a shuddering breath as he watches Shiro’s face.  His own face is pale and streaked with emotion. “You’re right.  I-I’m not thinking clearly... I...” He swallows hard. “We’re both upset.  I’m not helping you here as I am. I just need some time. To think. I... I’ve made such a mess.  And I don’t want it to be at your expense...”

“Keith, I hope you know what they’ve dug up is bad, but losing you would be even worse.  There’s no comparison. All this stuff on TV ultimately means nothing. I don’t feel like I’m giving up anything.  I want to be with you.  I feel like my best self when I’m with you.”

“Me too,” Keith whispers, squeezing his hand.  “But I...I want to do the right thing. I want what’s best for you.”

Shiro doesn’t know why hearing that scares him so much.  “...I want to be with you,” he says again. He wants Keith to put this into consideration.  “It’s not Akira I want, Keith. It’s you. I wish I could tattoo that on your forehead.”

Keith bites at his lip again, a small breathless laugh leaving him on a shaky exhale, before pressing himself up on the tips of his toes and kissing Shiro softly on the mouth.  It tastes so bittersweet, salty and wet with his tears. “...Thank you,” he whispers. “Thank you for making me feel worth something. I’m sorry I fucked up your life in return.”

“You didn’t...”

“I wish I could believe you,” Keith whispers, turning and walking out the door.

Shiro’s just left there standing, alone.

The waffles burn.

 

“We made love,” Shiro says lowly, looking down at his hands, trying to ignore the low gnawing pit in his chest and gut.  “And he ran.”

Matt grabs a pillow from the other couch and sits beside Shiro, exhaling slowly.  “...He looked kind of fragile, Shiro. Even I saw that on Thanksgiving. Like he couldn’t believe any of it was happening...and it scared him.”

“No.  No, he was fine,” Shiro whispers between clenched teeth.  “He was fine and then I saw that Kerberos segment and I got upset and he thought it was all his fault and I didn’t say the right things.  I didn’t deny it fast enough -”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.  It's not your fault, okay?  It’ll all blow over. It always does.  The news goes nuts over one thing Akira does - or you, this time - and next week, no one will even remember what it’s about.  Maybe two weeks this time, but...”

“That’s not how Keith works...”

“He’ll cool down,” Matt says gently.  “If you think about it, the only reason he’s upset is because he’s worried about you.  And that’s sort of sweet.”

“It’s not the only reason.  He’s got this weird competition thing going on with Akira.  He’s always trying to compare himself to him. It’s nuts.”

“If you had a cousin like Akira, it’d be hard not to.”

“But they’re - they’re two different people!  Why can’t he see he’s just as special...maybe even more?”

Matt chuckles lowly, watching Shiro with resigned amusement.  “Maybe even more, hm...? You want to know something funny?”

“I guess,” Shiro sighs.

“Katie thinks Keith is Akira.  One in the same.”

Shiro groans, pressing his face into the side of Matt’s couch, letting himself slouch into it - all the weight and heaviness in his body.  “I know. I know.  I've thought it so many times, but I've already asked him ages ago.  And besides, Keith’s different. He’s so soft. He’s so receptive to energy and things thrown at him; I don’t even think he’d be able to do what Akira does.  It’d be too much for him.”

“Sounds like things were a little much for Akira the other day too...”

Shiro heaves a sigh.  He doesn’t deny it.

“She’s certain, Shiro.  I’m telling you. A Katie is rarely wrong.”

“A Katie is not all-knowing.”

“Pretty damn close though.”

“Pretty damn close,” Shiro sighs again and groans lowly.  It doesn’t even touch the pitiful dark hole in his chest. “I can’t believe this is all happening, all at once.  I can’t keep up with everything.”

“You’re taking it better than I thought honestly.”

Shiro bites at his lip.  Beyond the initial nasty shock, he’ll admit that most of his thoughts have been solely on Keith.  His old job and friends who turned out to be just some low level jerks...what do they matter in the scope of things, really?  He’s lived it before. But Keith. Keith... He doesn’t want to let go of him.

Shiro murmurs, “My perspective is different, I guess.  It’s just the same old lie.”

“We know the truth.  What they think doesn't matter.”

“I know,” he sighs.  “We just all need to cool down, I guess.  The news. Me. Keith... I held him in my arms all night...  It was so nice... I have never felt so complete.” He takes in a deep shaky breath.  “If he runs,” Shiro whispers. “What do I do...? If he rejects me...”

“He won’t, Shiro.  You should’ve seen the way he was looking at you at Thanksgiving.  I’ve never seen bigger puppy dog eyes following you around. It was kind of adorable.  Just give him time.”

Shiro just groans.  “...It was such great sex.  That has to mean something. We’re so compatible.  I don’t know how to explain it; I just got lost in him -”

Matt’s face sours.  “-Okay. I don’t need to hear that.”

“I’ve never felt this way for anyone before, Matt.  Ever.”

“I know, buddy, I know,” Matt pats Shiro on the knee encouragingly.  “It’ll work out. I promise you.”

 

With that promise in his heart, Shiro manages to scrape up the bravery to go to work the next day.  Krolia gave him a suspicious morning off, but he figures she probably knows everything that’s going on.  Maybe Keith asked for time to escape. He’s not sure what he’ll say to Keith or how to handle him, as hurt and sharp as broken glass as he was.  Will Keith even want to look at him? Will they have a talk? Or will Keith just avoid him...?

When he gets there, he doesn’t have to worry.  Keith isn’t even there. It’s just Krolia, Kolivan, and Regris.  At first, Shiro thinks they’re arguing. But then, he realizes they’re just talking about Keith.

“You know how he is!”  Krolia hisses. “I told him not to go this morning, and then, next thing I know, his office is empty and my car is gone.”

Kolivan looks annoyed, but not surprised.  “I knew we’d gotten too lucky with him in his teen years.  Remember when he used to sort of listen to us? Looks like he saved his rebellion until now.”

“It’s all fun and games until he gets himself killed.”

Kolivan turns to Regris.  “Think you could find him?”

“Yeah, if I want him to kill me when I do.”

“Not to stop him.  Just to tag along.”

That’s what I want to do...”  But he sighs as he takes his car keys from his pocket and spins them around his finger.

Shiro knocks on the door.  “Keith went where?”

Krolia blinks up in surprise.  “Oh... Shiro. You’re here early.”

“Sorry.  Matt had a lunch break at a certain time.  I thought it’d be okay.”

“No, of course it’s fine...”  She sighs. “Keith’s okay. Don’t worry about him.”

Regris’ smile stretches across his face widely at that as he raises his eyebrows in amusement and takes his coffee from the tray in Shiro’s hands.  “Thanks. Now off to go get your man,” he says as he passes Shiro and leaves down the hallway.

“How are you?”  Krolia hums, giving him a knowing eye as he turns his focus from the door.  “I saw the segment yesterday.”

Shiro just nods tiredly.  “Yeah... It’s been a bit overwhelming, but I survived before when I had less.  I’m okay. I’m more worried about Keith right now... He won’t answer my texts.  Is he alright? Can I help?”

“It’s like him,” she says.  “We just need to let his anger burn itself out and then he’ll be reasonable again sometime soon.  And when he does, he’ll come to you. Like a feral cat or something,” she chuckles softly, smiling even softer. “He’s always been like that.  But he really cares for you, Shiro. Everything will be fine.”

It doesn’t feel fine.  The office seems so cold and empty without Keith around, even though Krolia and Kolivan are right here.

With a sigh, he sets their coffees down, leaving Keith’s beside them.  “...You’re right. If I can help in any way, please let me know. Whenever, at any time.”

“I will, Shiro.  Thank you.”

Shiro gets to work, but his mood is dull.  If Keith needs time, then Shiro wants it too.  But it just feels so...

Whatever the problem is, whatever has Keith frightened to his core, it won’t heal if he keeps it in the dark corners of his heart, hidden.  They need to face it. They need to move on through this.

But maybe Shiro’s the same.

Shiro’s quiet as he sits at his desk.  There’s work to be done and he knows this, but he doesn’t start it.  He just stares at the wall and sighs. The office still feels static.  His body and soul just feel stripped down and cold.

And the day just passes.  Shiro tries to focus on work as much as he can, but honestly, his mind is so tangled, caught up in all that is Keith.  His absence feels like a statement.

Time.  He just needs...time.

In the afternoon, Shiro takes a break, stretching his tired weary bones out of his seat as he goes downstairs and scrounges around for food in their breakroom.  He usually hunts out Keith at this point and they eat together. He actually never even noticed the TV in the corner of the room because he’s never needed it, but he notices it now.

...Is he brave enough to check the news?  He’s been in an odd numb place lately. He’s not sure what he feels about the news of Kerberos.  Everything’s been so much and it’s like his brain has shut down. He’s afraid of when it’ll turn back on and he’ll be hit by everything.

No.  It’d be stupid to check the news.  He doesn’t want to tempt fate.

He brings out his phone instead, ready to bother Matt - flicking away some weird number that called him earlier - when he sees a notification that Red’s ready to be picked up.

...Oh.  They were supposed to pick her up together...

He sniffs, pulling up his messages app.  He hovers his finger over Keith’s name. ...Dammit, would it be needy and pushy to text him this?  He doesn’t want Keith to feel like Shiro’s manipulating him to hurry in any way. He doesn’t want Keith to feel like he’s excluding him either though.

He texts him.   I was going to pick up Red today, if you’d like to come.

Waits.  Hopes. No response.

He rubs at his nose as he starts to scroll through his old Akira forums, trying to find pleasure in the same things that he used to enjoy, pretending with himself that he’s not actually waiting for Keith’s response to pop up on the screen.  But it’s chaos in the forums. Half of the people are defending Akira to the death and the other are crying foul, hurt and agonized over the injustice of Shiro and Akira’s ‘lies’. Trash talking. Old friends shitting on each other. No peace here either.  Several of his internet friends have left him messages asking his opinions on this ‘demon Shiro’. They have a petition going around trying to see him fired from his position as Akira’s assistant and they’re encouraging him to sign it. ...Jesus. How would they respond if he told them who he was?  The thought is almost funny.

Well...  Tomorrow will be a better day.

Shiro sighs his tension out and checks the email about Red again.  They close early, so he’d need to leave soon to have enough time to make it there.

Shoving away from the table, Shiro travels upstairs again and seeks out Krolia.  He rounds the corner, words already on his lips, when he stops.

Akira stands behind Krolia, his long hair hanging off his shoulder and down his back.

Shiro blinks in surprise.  He doesn’t often see Akira hanging around casually.  He’s always off. Always busy.

He and Krolia are talking.

“Look at this.  Nyma wants another interview,” Krolia chuckles lowly, showing him an email on her screen.  “You and Shiro, together.”

“Yeah,” Akira sighs lowly, pushing through the mail she has on her desk.  He flicks some off the surface and into the trash. “Nyma can eat shit.”

“She says it’ll be her apology for last time.  That she’s sorry for how things went.”

“I bet she is.  Dear lord, a homosexual on her show.  God help us.”

“She’s not that bad.  She was just surprised.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Krolia chuckles under her breath.  “...You should, you know. Have a chance to clear everything up once and for all, rather than these backwards methods you always insist on using.”

“I know,” he mumbles, shuffling his feet.  “I need a bit of time... Right now, I’m just...”  He swallows hard. “...But soon. I will. I know you’re right.”

“I think...maybe you should take a break after this movie.  It doesn’t have to be permanent. Just for a little while, to recenter until you’re better again.  ...I’m worried about you.”

“Yeah,” he whispers.

She hums as she looks back to the screen and scrolls.  “Coran wants to know if we’re staying at his place or a hotel.  Your call.”

“Oh, god.  I don’t know.  What do you think?  He always likes to pop in when I’m trying to go to bed and he talks forever and then I’m dead on my feet the next day.”

“...Maybe hotel the first night,” she chuckles lowly.  “He’ll appreciate us staying over after the party though.  He’s giving you a time slot before the actual show to explain yourself if you want it.”

He groans and Krolia says, “You don’t have to decide now but I do think you should do it.”  She types away for a few moments before sending and looking back up. “And...what about Shiro?”

Shiro doesn’t want to hear this.  He shakes himself, clears his throat, and knocks gently on the door.  “Hey. Sorry. It’s me. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.”

Akira looks up and then down at his fingers, any bit of casual grace in his posture immediately tensing and tying off into tension.

Krolia turns over her shoulder and gives him a gentle smile.  “Hey, Shiro. Just the man we need.” She prints something quickly and grabs the paper, handing it to him as he approaches.  “Coran wants some details ironed out. We were thinking hotel the first night, then staying at his mansion the second night. Mind setting everything up?  Need help?”

“I’ve got it,” he says.  “Who all is going?”

“Akira, Kolivan, Regris, Allura, you, and me.  Oh, but actually, I think Allura is going ahead early.  She’s Coran’s niece so she usually does.”  She looks up to Akira.  “Did you ever text Acxa and see if she wanted to stay with us?”

“She said, ‘hell, no’.”

Krolia shakes her head and rolls her eyes.  “Lovely. Well, we’ll have room then. Shiro, why don’t you bring your friends?”

Akira inhales sharply and Shiro sees the look he sends Krolia’s way that she pointedly ignores.

“We’ll be there for awhile,” she explains.  “You might as well have fun while we’re doing it and they’ve probably never been to a big event like this before.  Tell them we’ll pay for every expense - clothes, food, get whatever you want. Rent a limo. The whole thing. I want everyone to have fun.  Akira, you should join them.”

Akira fidgets uncomfortably, his face dark and unhappy.  “I’m going to be busy...”

“I’ll take care of the stuff I can.  You’ll have some downtime. Sound good, Shiro?”

“Y-yeah.  Thanks, Krolia...”  Shiro licks his lips and clears his throat.  “Um...you didn’t mention Keith.”

She’s quiet for a moment, tapping her fingers on the table before saying lowly, “He said he’ll pass this time.”

“...Oh.”  Breath is snatched from his lungs like he’s been punched in the gut.  “He did? Wh-what were his exact words? I mean...we were both....we were supposed to go together.  He said -” He forces himself to shut up. This is the last thing he needs to do - lose Krolia’s respect too.  Not to mention looking like an idiot in front of Akira. He clears his throat roughly and nods his head, shoving his hands to his hips.  “Okay. I get it.”

“I'm sorry, Shiro,” she says lowly.  “But you both should still try to have fun.”  She looks between Shiro and Akira, who avoids her gaze.

“Did -  I mean...  Has he contacted you since he left this morning?  Did Regris find him? ...Is he okay?”

“He did and he’s fine.  A little upset,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest.  “Not with you. Just...upset. He gets like this sometimes. Likes to hide.  He just needs time to recharge. Isn’t that right, Akira?”

Shiro looks to Akira, whose face is pinched.  “Yeah.”

“Okay,” Shiro murmurs.  “If...if you see him, can you tell him, um...  I...I don’t know. I’m ready to talk whenever he is.”

“I’ll let him know,” Krolia says.

He takes a deep breath.  “When do you need this by?  I was wondering if it’d be okay if I took the rest of the day off?  I’m adopting a cat and she’s ready to be picked up, but they close in an hour so I was hoping to get to her before then.  I can come back afterward if that’s okay with you.”

“Tomorrow is fine to set up the trip.  Keith told me about the cat. She’s always welcome in the building here, you know.  We could set up a little base for her in your office. What do cats need? A cat tower?  A bed?”

“...My office?”  Shiro blinks in surprise.

She gives him a small smile that looks like he missed something obvious.  “Who else’s? I forgot to tell you that Keith left your car for you in the garage.  I’ll just drive him home after, so you can take it. Here.” She grabs his keys off her desk and tosses them to him.  “Thanks for letting him use it, Shiro. You don’t know what it means to me.”

“I was happy to.  I’ll see you guys tomorrow then.”

Krolia waves as she turns back to her computer but Akira doesn’t look up at all.

Shiro leaves.  It’s strange though.  He’s never seen Akira so withdrawn.  It hurts to watch.

 

The next day at work, Shiro stares up into his phone sprawled out on the floor, Red curled on her little bed beside him, asleep.  His messages are still.

Keith won’t text him back.  He won’t answer his calls. He won’t look at his messages.  In the face of it, Shiro’s mood begins to blacken. This doesn’t feel like “time”.  It feels a lot like Keith pulling away.

Shiro wants to be a positive person, but it’s hard.

He thought that they had something special.  He thought...especially after the other night...  He had given a part of himself to Keith. And Keith had given Shiro a part of himself...and it seemed good.  It felt right. And then he’d just left.

Time, Shiro tries to tell himself.  Tries to remember how Keith put it. He just needs some time.  It’s understandable. But Shiro’s heart keeps beating, alone, and it hurts.  So he lays on the floor with Red, who isn’t as fond of him as she is of Keith, but she seems to appreciate him for taking her in, so she tolerates him for now.

He sighs and presses his hands to his face, groaning softly as he rubs at his eyes.  He doesn’t know what to do. It hasn’t even been that long, but he truly misses Keith, so much so that his mind is even conjuring up the way Keith smells for him.  It’s warm...and soft...and -

Shiro opens his eyes and jolts.  Akira’s stepping over him.

“S-sorry.  I wasn’t trying to sneak,” Akira mutters lowly, avoiding Shiro’s eyes, most definitely trying to sneak.  He grabs a stapler from Shiro’s desk and walks around him this time. “...Sorry.”

“It’s okay...”  Shiro looks after him.  He looks tired. The proud set of his shoulders is arched and wilting.  Shiro sighs. Yeah. Him too. He hopes things get better for them all soon.

Red’s sleeping so soundly that Shiro thinks it’s probably alright to take a bathroom break, restless as he is.  But when he comes back, her bed is empty. She’s gone.

“Red?”  Shiro calls, sighing his way down the hallway.  “Red.”

He rounds the corner into Kolivan’s room, who’s on his way out.  “Have you seen Red?”

“Keith probably took her.  He loves cats. I’m surprised he didn’t do it sooner honestly.”

“Keith...?”  Shiro murmurs.  He hasn’t seen him in the office all day so that can’t be true.  He keeps looking. Krolia’s not in her room, but neither does Red seem to be after a quick check around the bottom of the desks.  Akira’s room is still and dark too.

He pokes his head into the Christmas tree they have set up in the corner of the break room.  He pulls the lights down and pushes away the ornaments. Nothing. She's not hiding in branches either.

Shiro turns, frowning.  There isn’t really anywhere else for her to hide.  As he exits the room, he sees Krolia coming out of the elevator.

“Have you seen Red?”

She nods.  “Akira has her.  I just passed him; he was sneaking through the halls.”

Shiro sighs.  “...I’ve been looking for her.  I thought she ran off by herself.”

“I’m sure he’ll deliver her back when he’s done playing with her.  He’s always had a soft spot for cats. And hey, Shiro?” She hesitates for the briefest of moments before saying, “You don’t have to, but...when he does come back...mind talking with him a bit?”

“Akira?”  Shiro blinks.

“He’s been a bit down on himself lately...  And, he’d kill me for saying this, but I think he’s been lonely.  He could use a friend right now and I don’t fit the bill; I know he respects you.  Just if you happen to see him, I think a few words would go a long way.”

“...I always mess everything up whenever I talk to him.”

She chuckles softly.  “No, you don’t. I know he’s my son and that makes me biased, but something tells me you’d both get along much better than you worry you do.  He’s a good boy who always means well. Confused, but good.”

Shiro nods.  “He doesn’t seem confused on the outside.”

“Trust me.  He saves it all for the inside.”

 

Shiro tries to distract himself at his desk, but he’s still not fully focused.  He checks his phone a few times (Matt’s text is at the front - have you checked the news?  They’re actually not criticizing you today - and that annoying unknown number that keeps calling.  Telemarketers these days...). He starts idly shifting through his drawers, snapping the stapler a few times to make sure it moves fluidly, tossing away bad pens.  He comes across the cigarette.

Shiro doesn’t smoke.  He never has, honestly, and was never tempted by the thought.  But this is a connection with Keith. A connection that has felt like it’s been waning lately.  And, just because of that, he’s overcome with this urge to smoke for the first time in his life.  Just to feel Keith a bit more than he does now. As much as he can. To cling to it greedily.

He wanders down the halls and out the building’s side exit, avoiding any stray protester who might still be holding out hope they can change anyone’s mind.  He pushes out the door but stops as he hears the tailend of a familiar song around him. Pretty... He wishes he could follow it, but sound bounces around the building like crazy sometimes.  It’s probably just Allura listening to music in the lobby. Shiro steps out onto the grass and bright light hits him, warming his cold aching bones.

He looks down at the cigarette.

Oh.

Right.

He got ahead of himself.  He needs a lighter.

Stupid...  That’s just how good he is at smoking, he guesses.

“Forget something?”

Shiro jumps.

It’s Akira.  He’s sitting on the grass, one hand around a cigarette, the other already fishing for a lighter.  He glitters in the sun, and though he’s not actually posing, he’s unbelievably nice to look at, photo-shoot ready.

He holds the lighter out to Shiro, who blinks down at it for a few moments before forcing himself to walk forward and grab it from him.  Red is laying out in the grass in front of Akira happily, eyes closed, belly open for the sun, perfectly content.

“I didn’t realize you smoked,” Akira says.

Shiro laughs nervously as he turns the lighter around a few times, trying to figure it out.  “...N-no. I don’t. I just...” He swallows hard. The last thing Akira needs to hear about are his relationship woes.  “...Thought I’d try it out,” he murmurs. He thinks he discovers out how to light it and passes the lighter back, frowning into the cigarette and struggling to hold it as artfully graceful as Akira.

He feels the ghost of Keith’s lips on his as he presses the cigarette to his own.  He blows out smoke and feels Keith’s breath. ...But his lungs rebel immediately, and the relief he wished to feel is interrupted by his ridiculous choking.  “Oh, my god,” he groans.

Akira laughs softly, looking down at his hands with contained amusement.  “...Yeah. You shouldn’t smoke, you know. It’s so bad for you.”

“Yeah,” Shiro wheezes and shakes his head, trying to swallow the feeling down.  “Yeah, well, Keith was doing it the other day, so I thought -”

“It wasn’t lighted.”

“Well,” Shiro sniffs and holds it out.  He doesn’t know what to do with it now. “He seemed comfortable with it.”

“Keith’s an idiot.”

Shiro looks over sharply.  “He’s not,” he says, but his tone comes out harsher than he meant it.  He clears his throat but doesn’t apologize.

Akira presses his lips together.  “...Sorry,” he says after a moment, leaning forward to rub his hand over Red’s head, who purrs happily.  “I forgot you two had a thing going on.”

Shiro sniffs and looks down at the grass.  It’s winter. The green lushness of it is stripped and absent now, but it’s still softer than cement.  He doesn’t sit down though. Not in Akira’s space. Shiro would be afraid to even touch him.

But the silence is a little awkward, so Shiro clears his throat and says, “Looks like being good with cats runs in the family.  Red loves you already.”

“Yeah,” Akira murmurs, rubbing behind her ears.  “She’s a sweet girl... How was picking her up yesterday?”

“Only a few minor scratches,” Shiro says victoriously, opening his arms up and pushing his sleeves higher to show Akira.

Akira hums sympathetically as he takes the sight in.  “...Wow. Don’t those hurt?”

“Not really.”

“Good.  Good, I’m glad.”  And the conversation stutters to a halt and dies.

Akira bites at his lip in the awkward silence.  As each second passes between them, the awkwardness bloats and expands.  Shiro can tell by the way Akira shifts in discomfort that he’s scrounging for something to say.  Akira clears his throat. “...Excited for Coran’s Christmas show?”

Shiro hesitates.  “...Yeah.”

“What was that?”  Akira turns to look up at Shiro’s face, real concern there.

“What was what?”

“That ‘yeah’.  Like you weren’t really that excited at all.”

“No, I am...  I just, uh...well, honestly, I thought I’d be going with Keith, but you heard Krolia - he’s decided not to go and I feel like...I won’t be able to convince him.”

Akira swallows hard and looks down into Red’s meowing face, seeking attention whenever Akira turns it to Shiro.  He resumes petting her. “He wishes he could go too...but this is probably for the best. You can still have fun though, right?  Will you invite your friends?”

“Oh, yeah, they’d kill me if I didn’t.  We usually make a big deal out of gathering on Matt’s couch and watching it on the TV.  They’ll freak when I tell them we’re all invited.”

Akira smiles.  “I’m glad then.”

Shiro bites at his lip.  He’s better at talking to Akira than he used to be, that’s for sure, but there’s still that nervous tension in his chest and buzzing around in his brain that makes him second guess everything he’s saying.  He doesn’t want to push into something private, but he asks, “You’ve always rejected the Christmas special, so I’m surprised you’re doing it this year.”

“Yeah, I’m not usually a huge fan of the holiday season,” Akira says, “but everyone else seems to really enjoy it, so I thought, ‘why not’?”

“I’ve always dreamt of going since I was a kid.  I think everyone has. Coran’s mansion looks like a castle from dreams.”

Akira hums.  “I’ve known him since I was little.  It really is. I used to think, if I could have enough money to buy a castle like that, I’d be the happiest person in the world.”

“And now you do,” Shiro laughs.

“And now I do...”  Akira says, but he doesn’t smile.

“...And are you the happiest person in the world?”  Shiro asks, but then immediately wishes he hadn’t. The way Akira tenses a bit.  Too personal.

“Well,” Akira says simply.  “I was just a kid then. I didn’t understand how the world worked.  Or people. But being able to choose your own house is pretty damn nice, yeah.  Even though sometimes it feels like I sold my soul to the devil for it.”

“O-oh...”

They fall into silence another time.  Krolia said Shiro wasn’t horrible at talking with Akira, but right now, he really feels like he is.

“Sorry,” Akira breathes out.  “That was...inappropriate.”

“No.  No, it’s fine.  ...I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Akira just shakes his head, shifting a bit, making himself smaller.  Hiding away.

Shiro looks around for something - anything - to mention and he sees the field across the way.  It’d be a good place to bring Kosmo. He’d be able to run for days without having to contain himself.  That’s a good thought, right? He tries it out. “Kosmo would love it here,” Shiro says. “You could tell him to go fetch a rock -”

That lights something in Akira’s eyes.  “Oh, god, and he’d never come back. There’d be too many rocks to collect.”

“Would he just keep bringing them?  As many as he sees?”

“Yep,” Akira chuckles.  “I’ve tried it once. I let him go on to see when he might finally stop and I gave up before he did.  It was almost night and we had started after lunch. He was having the time of his life.”

Shiro snorts.  “It’d be Christmas for him out here.  Hey, maybe that’s an idea for him. We could bring out chairs and food as we wait for him to tire.”

If he does,” Akira laughs.  “We might just be stuck out here forever.  Until we’re old and grey.”

“And he’d still be going.”

“Yeah!”  Akira laughs and then smiles over at Shiro suddenly.  “...Look at the both of us. Actually managing a proper conversation.”  His eyes warm over fondly. “You used to be so afraid to talk to me.”

“Ah, make no mistakes, I’m buzzing inside,” Shiro huffs a laugh, but it’s only partly delirious and the brunt of it is genuine.  “I mean, have you seen you?  And the media’s built you up so much, I’ve got to admit, I was caught up in their image of you.  But, god, your family is the best...and I’ve started to think that maybe you’re not so scary after all.”

Akira snorts, his nose crinkling as he chuckles to himself and leans back, rocking to look up into the sky.  It’s the most ungraceful sound Shiro’s heard come out of him, but it still sounds so endearingly him. “What’d I tell you?  It’d just take some time.”

The tension that Shiro feels around Akira loosens its hold even more and Shiro smiles back.  “Seems so.”

“I’m sorry about the media,” Akira says softly.  “I know how much it hurts.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it.  It’s no big deal. The ugly comments kind of suck though.”

Akira looks up at Shiro’s playful expression and chuckles a little.  “You’ve got to know you’re gorgeous.”

Shiro flares red.  “Y-yeah? I’m just kidding.”

Akira snorts and takes his phone from his pocket.  He messes with it for a second and then holds it out for Shiro to see.  “Look at this. I’ve found so many fanclubs for you.”

Whoa.  A-are they photoshopping us... together?  Uh, that’s pretty graphic...”

Akira starts and turns the phone back to himself and laughs, pressing a hand to his face.  “Oh my god, that is not the image I meant to show you... I’m sorry.”

“The people of the internet are...very talented.”

Oh yeah,” Akira snorts.  “You should see the fanart already.  I meant this one.” He hands the phone back over and Shiro looks into it.

It's not really him anymore it's so glamorized into oblivion.  He's not sure if he feels flattered or uncomfortable.  “Huh...  I don’t actually have a six pack,” he says eventually.

“You do here.”

Shiro laughs and hands the phone back over.  “I guess that’s pretty cool. That doesn’t actually look anything like me though.”

“It does, but I know what you mean."  Akira sighs.  "It’s just an image. Not really you.”

"Huh..."  Shiro murmurs again.  "I officially have a fanclub."  He can't even wrap his mind around it.  What would his grandfather think if he knew that?  He'd probably laugh, loving every second of it.  Shiro, with a fanclub.  God, wait until Lance hears about it.

"Your first official fanclubs.  It's about damn time."

Shiro laughs and rubs at his nose, grinning.  "...Yeah." 

The skies are beginning to cloud over and the chill that was hardly bearable earlier is growing even colder.  Red crawls up against Akira for warmth and he picks her up into his hands, snuggling her close.

A kind and compassionate soul.  Shiro’s so soft just watching.

“...Hey, Shiro?”  Akira asks as he runs his thumbs over Red’s little cheeks.  “About Coran’s Christmas event...I was thinking. These sort of parties...they usually expect you to bring someone.  Coran’s already asked who I’m bringing and says if I don’t choose for myself, he’ll choose for me and...I don’t want that.  I was just thinking, since Keith won’t be there...and I don’t have anyone... ....Would it be too bold to ask if we could both go together?”

Shiro chokes.  “Uh. What?  You?  With me?”

Akira’s shoulders sag slightly at the reaction.  He nods quietly.

“I-I-I mean, I’m flattered.  Beyond flattered,” Shiro wheezes, waving his hands around in panic at the thought.  Shiro, plain as he is, arm in arm with Akira as they enter Coran’s Merry Merry Christmas Extravaganza to hundreds of flashing cameras.  “But isn’t that sort of what started this whole media mess? And I think that would hurt Keith.”

Akira looks up, startled.  “It’d be just as friends.  I’ll make that as explicitly clear to the media as I can, but honestly....I’m kind of tired of the media dictating my life by now...  Their media frenzy can be their own, it doesn’t have to be my problem.”

There’s something in Akira’s voice.  Beneath the casual surface, something cutting lies.

Fragile, Matt had said, but about Keith.  And Shiro thinks he sees it now in Akira. The way he hangs his head as he plays with Red, his thoughts actually elsewhere, that he hides away.  He looks lonely. And Shiro thinks of what Krolia had said earlier: Akira needs a friend.

Akira has done so much for Shiro, the least he can be is that.

Shiro clears his throat and ignores the thudding of his heart and uneasiness in his gut.  ...How will Keith take this...?

“...Me too...”  Shiro says. “About the media.  It’s our lives, not theirs.”

“Yeah.”

“...I want to try to contact Keith a few more times, but if he’s really not going, then I don’t see why we can’t both go as friends.  I think that’d be nice. Media backlash be damned.”

Akira laughs and his eyes actually twinkle.  “Exactly. I mean, can’t get worse than it already is, right?  Might as well live how we want if we’re damned no matter what we do.”

Shiro snorts and rolls his eyes, but he’s genuinely amused.  “Right.”

The sun is so warm on his face.  A nice welcome change from the usual icy cold windchill.  A rare nice day. And honestly, this little talk with Akira has lessened some of the baggage that’s weighed on his heart.

He pushes himself off the wall and stretches out his arms overhead, groaning as his shirt pulls up and the tension in his shoulders loosens.  “I’ve got to get back to work to set up the trip then. I just needed a bit of a break. Never did figure out how to smoke this thing,” Shiro arches an eyebrow down at the cigarette still in his hand.  “How do you get rid of it?”

Akira laughs and reaches up, snatching it away from Shiro and snuffing it out on the cement behind him.  “No more cigarettes for you. I’ll bring Red up in a bit.”

“She’s so compliant in your hand,” Shiro laughs.  She’s more like the happiest ball of putty he’s ever seen.

“I’d like to believe it’s a natural gift, but, honestly, I’ve been cheating a bit by singing her lullabies.  She seems to respond well to them. Maybe you should try.”

Shiro just snorts.  “No way. Your voice makes sense.  Mine? Not so much.”

Akira smiles up at him and Shiro smiles down.

“...See you, Akira.”

“See you, Shiro.”

Shiro begins to walk to the door, but as he places his hand on the handle, he has a thought.  He hesitates for a moment and bites at his lip.

“...Hey...Akira?”

“Hm?”

“Did you...  When I first came out here, the song you were humming to Red...it was Your Constellation Prize, wasn’t it?”

Akira keeps his face carefully blank.  “...What’s that?”

Shiro keeps biting at his lip, holding Akira’s gaze.  “Oh... I just thought... Nothing. It’s - It’s just something between Keith and me.”

Akira shakes his head.  “...Huh. No, I was just humming whatever.”

Shiro forces out a short laugh and raises his hand in parting one last time.

Like Shiro wouldn’t know that song anywhere though.

 

Planning goes easily.  When money is no object, everything flows much smoother.  It’s all too soon that they’re packing their bags and heading off on their private jet.  They decided to take only one this time, so the jet is full. Lance, Hunk, and Pidge are having their minds blown as they run around with stars in their eyes.  They all have matching ugly Christmas sweaters in their own respectful favorites colors, like people do who have way too much fun on vacations together.  They even got one for Akira, but Shiro’s not brave enough to present something so bulky and ugly to him.

They got one for Keith too.  That one Shiro will have to give later.

“This is amazing!”  Lance gasps, face pressed against the window.  “I think I can see my house from here!”

“And we really don’t have to pay?”  Hunk asks for the tenth time. “How much does this thing cost to fly?”

“Akira’s got it,” Shiro assures him again before turning to listen to what Matt is saying, who’s nudging Shiro crazily.

Matt whispers in a scream.  “ Look at Katie!!”

Akira sat himself in a corner, clearly isolated from the rest of the group, even from Krolia, Kolivan, and Regris, though he did take Red for company, so there’s that.

But Pidge does what no one else can and boldly crosses the sea of isolation to stand right over him, ugly sweater tucked tightly under her arm.  She stops right beside Akira. Her shadow spreads out over him.

He pulls his earbuds from his ears and looks up in surprise.

They have a stare off.  Just the two of them, Pidge looking down and Akira blinking up in confusion.

Pidge finally says, a hint of amusement in her voice, “You’re shorter in person than I imagined.”

Matt’s eyes go wide and Lance chokes behind them.  “Pidge,” Hunk bites his nails in despair.

They all watch on the edge of their seats, waiting for him to destroy her, but Akira surprises them all.  He laughs. “You know, you’re not the first one to tell me that.”

“Well, I’m not surprised.  You’re almost as short as your cousin.”

Akira laughs harder.  “And yet, still taller than you.”

Pidge begins to laugh too.  It seems sudden; just like that, they’re best buddies.  She sits down on the seat beside him and he turns into her, comfortable.

“We got you a sweater,” she says, holding it out for him.  “I know it’s hideous, but that’s the fun of it and you’ve got to wear it.”

Shiro hadn’t expected it.  Akira is kind and tries his best to be sociable, yes, but there’s an aloofness about him that says don’t touch .  Shiro still feels his gut igniting with nervous light whenever he so much as sees Akira in his peripheral.

And Pidge, well, she doesn’t go out of the way to befriend others ever.  She’s never sold into the land of celebrities and big shots, so for her to approach him so easily...

“What do you think she’s showing him over there...?”  Matt is asking, half intrigued, half horrified by how easy it was for her.  He looks afraid of her power.

They all watch in awe.  Akira laughs hard at something she shows him on her phone.  Red is in his lap, poking her head up in protest every time he laughs from his belly.  He tries to settle her with gentle pets.

“God knows,” Lance mutters.  “I always knew Pidge was the best of us, but I didn’t realize by how much .”

“Celebrities.  She just...gets up and sits right next to him and starts talking.  Jesus.”

Shiro says, “Well...Akira’s always maintained he’s just another person.  I bet he’s happy to be treated like it. I didn’t actually think he’d wear the sweater though.”

Matt takes in a long breath.  “If I had the balls, with that in mind, I’d love to make friends too, but I don’t.  I definitely don’t. Not in this setting. It’s too casual. The contrast between the luxury and casualness of the situation is too much.  I’m confused.”

“He’s really a nice person,” Shiro chuckles into his hand.  Matt was always cool at the signatures and meet and greets, but it’s different like this, in Akira’s private jet, sitting behind him, his mom, uncle, and cousin seated just behind.

“Oh, I forgot to show you.”  Matt sniffs and looks back down to his phone, holding it up for Shiro to some news article.  “Look at this. Their most pressing story right now.”

It’s about elves fighting during a photo shoot with Santa.  They used oversized candy canes as weapons not even as a joke.

Shiro snorts.  “That’s funny.”

He snatches the phone away.  “No. No, it’s not. You’re missing the point.  It’s about elves .  The news is back to talking about mundane things!  They’re not even talking about Akira or you.  I’ve been saying this for days now.  There’s nothing about you guys.”

“Have you been watching the news, Shiro?”  Lance and Hunk pop their heads back over the back of Shiro’s seat.

Shiro forces out a dry laugh.  “I’m not that stupid.”

“Matt’s right, man,” Lance says.  “I haven’t seen anything on you.”

“Yeah, it’s been really weird,” Hunk says.  “No one is interested in you guys anymore?  Something fishy is going on.”

“There’s been nothing?  At all?” Shiro’s brow furrows.

Matt says, “I even had Pidge watching the other news station.”

Shiro looks over to Akira, who’s still curled over in laughter at Pidge.

“I swear to god,” she’s cackling.  “Shiro was the cutest tree in a play ever.  They cut out a circle too small for his face and his little cheeks squished just right.  He looked like an angel.”

Oh, god, she’s talking about him.  Shiro protests, “Pidge, ” and she and Akira start laughing harder.

“Matt’s making me go to high school so I can experience regular things.   So now I get to be a tree this year.  Want to come? You’re invited.  I’ll even sing.”

“Will you really?”  Akira snorts. “I’ve never been to a school play before.  And Pidge as a tree? How can I say no?”

Pidge is laughing.  “Exactly, it’s too good of an opportunity to pass up.  Honestly, I’m trying to imagine you in the audience. Will you have to wear a fake mustache to hide?”

“Yep.  And one of those suspicious bowler hats.  I don’t know why you’re laughing. I’m going to do it, you know.  Just wait and see.”

Lance is slapping Shiro on the shoulder and whispering loudly, “Look at her!  She’s doing it!  Pidge is officially friends with a celebrity!”

Hunk celebrates, “Pidge is making a friend at all!  Our little girl is growing up... I’m so proud.”

Everyone’s in high spirits.  It’s true. Christmas is around the corner, they’re in a private jet, sitting alongside the world’s biggest celebrity, on their way to a Christmas show they’ve watched all their lives.  They never thought they’d be here and it’s so nice. It’s so amazing.

But Shiro’s attention and cheer keeps slipping out of him.  He’s trying his best. He knows how much this trip means to the rest of them and he wants to make it as memorable as he can and moping doesn’t add into that equation, but he keeps checking his phone.

He misses Keith.

Time.  Space.

Where is Keith right now, Shiro wonders.  Sitting home, alone? Plucking away at his guitar, mood dark?  Hiding. Feeling low.

Shiro’s sick at the thought.

But he tries to hide it for the time being, for his friends.

If the gang’s excitement for the private jet was endearing, their pure elated joy upon seeing the hotel they’re staying at is camera-worthy.

HOLY SHIIIIIT,” Lance screams loudly out the limo’s sunroof as he pops his head out, dragging Pidge, Hunk, and Matt up with him.  They can’t help themselves. They all scream in excitement and wave their arms around like crazy at the people walking past outside.  The hotel waits at the end of a long clean pathway, palm trees lining the sides.

“We’re staying here?!”  Lance sounds like he’ll pass out.  “Holy shit! This is crazy!! I feel like a prince!”

Hunk leans forward just as much, his feet dangling.  “Is this a valet service? Tell me it is. Why are they all dressed the same?  Is this heaven?”

Matt has stars in his eyes as he absorbs the scenery.  “I could get used to this. Katie, get on it. Get famous.”

You do it,” she nudges him back but laughs.

Akira chuckles, looking past their dangling feet over to Shiro.  His smile widens when their eyes meet.

“Shiro,” Kolivan growls, watching all of them dangling and crawling over each other to push themselves out of the sunroof.  “If you don’t stop your friends from destroying this vehicle, then I will.”

“Guys,” Shiro hisses and tugs at all of them, trying to drag them back down into rational mindsets.  “You’re being a nuisance. Remember you’re representing Akira. You can’t act like animals.”

Akira, watching with quiet amusement in the corner, just snorts as the gang flies out the side door before the limo’s even properly stopped, screaming and running down the pathway to the front of the hotel.

“Oh, my god,” Shiro groans into his hand.  “I’m so sorry.” Matt is the only one who stays back, laughing and grimacing at the same time.

Matt takes a deep breath.  “Oh man, you have to admit - this is the best thing we’ve ever done.”

Krolia and Kolivan can’t help but laugh softly, even if they’re rolling their eyes.  “...It’s nice to see them excited. Just make sure they don’t get us kicked out. I actually like this hotel.”

Shiro goes running after them, in agony.

And yes, it’s the nicest hotel they’ve ever been in before, more than they’ve ever seen.  Shiro gets that spark of excitement in his chest despite everything that’s been going on lately.  He’s still not used to the life that Keith and his family live every day. This is like a dream.

Akira and them don’t look around in awe like Shiro’s group does, but they watch them instead, absorbing the excitement on their faces, enjoying the moment that way.

“You like it, huh?”  Akira asks as he tries to take in their surroundings with new eyes, but there’s almost disappointment in them as he pulls his attention away.

“It’s amazing,” Shiro hums.  “Did you ever used to go to...well, normal hotels?”

Akira laughs softly.  “Not really. While it’s true that I shot to fame in my teens, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t making a lot as a child.  A lot more modeling then.”

“Huh...”  Shiro didn’t realize that.

Akira gets his own room.  It’s how Shiro had organized the trip.  All the rooms are incredible, but Akira’s is the nicest, the biggest, the most expensive.

The room Shiro and his friends share is spacious too.  And Lance and Pidge are jumping on the bed in the master bedroom, hooting and hollering and Hunk is marveling at the kitchen, already asking Shiro where the nearest store is so he can buy ingredients and bake all night and day long.

When Akira automatically goes to retire to his room, Pidge catapults off the bed, grabs him by the arm, and tugs him along with their group, pretending she doesn’t see the startled surprise on his face.

“You’re used to these sort of rooms, aren’t you?”  She asks him as they lead the group out into the backyard where there’s a private pool, just for them.

“Yeah, pretty much.  This is nice, but they can get really interesting sometimes.  Like this one underwater hotel. Jesus. They had this dome overhead with sharks swimming over you all night.  That haunted my nightmares.”

“Yeah, but could you swim in it?”  She grins back at him, jerking her thumb at the pool.

He laughs.  “I’ll have to ask them next time.”

Lance elbows Shiro on the arm and drags him to the side to whisper lowly.  “Does he just do this? Just talk to peasants like this?”

Shiro snorts.  “Peasants?”

“Yeah!  Like us!”

Lance gestures out to them and it does look surreal.  It’s just them. Dorky familiar them. Pidge walks up behind Matt, who’s bending over beside the pool, looking into its deep blue depths and saying, “doesn’t smell like chlorine.  They must be using salt water”, when she pushes him from behind, sending him flying, water splashing everywhere.

“Katie!”  Matt howls and spits a mouthful of pool water at her.

She screeches.  “Don’t be gross, Matt!”

“I haven’t changed yet.”

And Akira, confident, cool Akira, almost looks earnestly awkward hanging beside the two of them, watching, unsure what to do.  He’s almost too beautiful in the scenery around him, like he was photoshopped in and doesn’t quite belong. But when he catches sight of Shiro watching him, the insecurity wipes itself from his face and he blinks down, distracted as Pidge turns back around to talk to him.

“Did you bring your swim trunks?”

“Uh, no.  I don’t usually have time.  In fact, I should probably get back...”

“Aw, come on,” she says lowly, elbowing him.  “It’s not everyday you get to let loose and have fun, right?”

Matt’s resigned himself to lounging in the water on his back in his day clothes.  He gestures Shiro over. “Come on, buddy!”

And why not?  The water is heated.  It steams in the cold air.  Shiro changes and gets in, groaning as he leans his head back against the side of the pool as Lance screams, gasping for breath as he breaks the surface of the water, “There’s underwater musiiiiiiccc!”  Hunk found the herbs growing on the side of the wall and he sits there, in the zone, collecting for dinner, telling Shiro to invite Krolia and the rest of them.

Akira doesn’t come into the water.  He sits on the side and watches, shining in that odd way he does even if he’s not doing anything, a diamond in the rough.

But sometimes he gets these looks like he’s tired.  Like his guard drops for two seconds and Shiro can see the weariness inside.

Lance and Hunk keep looking over at him.  They all do, honestly. He’s so big in this room of them.

“Ah, this pool is the best.  Must be so nice being rich,” Lance says flippantly, pulling himself out and going for the diving board.  “You can sail through life without any troubles, buying and getting anything and everything you want. Rich people are the luckiest.”

He doesn’t mean anything by it, it’s just a thought.  But Shiro can see as Akira bites at his lip.

Lance doesn’t notice and keeps talking, this time, directly addressing Akira.  “Do rich boys not like to get wet or something?”

Akira blinks in surprise, but then his face darkens.

“I really should go,” Akira hums after a few moments.  “Let you guys have your fun. Krolia still has Red and I don’t want to push my luck.”

“You can bring her over here,” Shiro says, swimming over to the side of the pool closest to Akira.  He hangs over the edge, watching the way Akira tenses a bit, looking away. “She’s my cat, after all.”

“It’s no problem,” Akira says lowly.  “I love her. But really, it’s getting late.  Thanks for letting me come over.”

“H-Hey, wait just a second,” Shiro says quickly before Akira can leave.

“What is it?”

“...I, um...  I’m sorry to mention it, but are you guys in contact with Keith? ...How’s he doing?  He won’t answer my texts or my calls. I haven’t talked to him in awhile.”

Akira takes in a deep breath.  “He’s fine,” he shrugs. “Keith is-  You don’t have to worry about him.”

“I do, though,” Shiro says gently.

“He wouldn’t want you to...”  He shifts onto his other leg and frowns into the setting sun.  “I’ll be off then... If you need anything, you can text Krolia.  See you guys later.”

“Bye,” Pidge waves as the others chime in.  She elbows Lance in the rib when the door inside shuts and Akira’s gone.  “Great going. You criticized his lifestyle and upset him.”

“Me?  I was giving it compliments.”

Pidge mimics his voice, pitching her voice lower than his and rolling her eyes, “‘Do rich boys not like getting wet?’  Who would like that? That’s like me saying, ‘do dumb boys ever ask the right questions?’”

“It’s a valid question!  And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Hunk says, “He looked kind of like he has some sort of bad blood between him and Keith, huh?”

Shiro sighs and sinks into the water for a moment before pulling himself out of the pool and going for a towel they have set out in little cubbies by the table.  “He must. Keith being upset over Akira, I understand. Akira over Keith? Not so much. But everyone’s got their problems.”

“Keith still hasn’t texted you back?”  Matt asks.

Shiro walks over to his phone and checks.  “...No. Nothing. But this annoying telemarketer keeps calling,” he grumbles, seriously starting to get annoyed.  “Three times today. Really?”

“Maybe it’s an important call?”  Pidge suggests.

“Who would it be?”

“Hope it’s not some crazy stalker having found out your number,” Matt says.

Pidge says, “Not possible.  I hid that baby so far down into the depths, even Shiro won’t be able to find it.”

“Thanks, Katie,” Shiro tosses a smile at her.  “...I think next time it calls, I’ll answer it.”

His phone buzzes in his hand and he blinks into it.

“Speak of the devil,” Lance says, getting out of the pool to run over and see.  “Is it them? Let me speak to them. I love messing with telemarketers.”

“Yeah, it’s them.”  But Shiro lets it ring.  “...Maybe next time,” he sighs as he rubs at his temple.  “Can you move, Lance, you’re getting me all wet.”

“Oh.  Sorry, man,” Lance says as he jumps back in.

“I don’t get why you don’t just answer it,” Hunk says.  “I’ve had Lance take care of like five of my telemarketer calls and I swear to you, they never call back.  It’s been so peaceful.”

Shiro snorts and rolls his eyes.  A voicemail flashes across his screen.  He purses his lips. Yeah, he’s curious.  “I’ll be right back,” he mutters as he steps away from the poolside.  Watch it be someone selling patio furniture.

He hides away in the bathroom, which is just as crazy nice and clean as everything else, and sits on the side of the tub, looking into his phone.

It’s probably nothing, he tells himself, but then why does his stomach feel so full of dread?  Just a reflex after these past few days... It’s not foolish to hope for something better.

Shiro starts the voicemail, holding the phone up to his ear.

The voice on the other end starts off hesitant.  Vaguely familiar. “Uh... Shiro...? It’s me. It’s -”

Shiro quickly cancels out of the call, his throat tightening and his heart beating uncomfortably.

It’s the engineer.

How’d he get this number?  Why is he calling? To try to take everything from him?  He’s already taken so much. He really wants more?

Shiro bites his lip.  ...No. He’s not going to listen to it.

He’s in paradise right now.  He’s going to enjoy it, dammit.

But before he knows what he’s even doing - his panic getting the best of him - he forgets his situation and blindly seeks his first choice of comfort.  His fingers dial in Keith’s number.

But his stomach and mood sinks even further as he remembers reality.  Keith doesn’t answer. When the answering machine picks up, he’s a little thrown off his game.

He just wants to talk to Keith.  Any response. Any.

He can be patient, he tells himself.  Patience yields focus, just as Akira has always said.  But honestly...really, he’s starting to feel a little sick.

This silence is too much.  It’s sitting in his gut and just keeps expanding.  He doesn’t want to feel like this.

He does something he hasn’t done yet.  Shiro leaves a message.

After the beep, Shiro clears his throat and says lowly, “...H-Hey Keith, it’s just me.”  He pauses. What does he do? What can he even say? “...I know it’s uh...it’s probably not the best time.  I know you asked for space and here I am calling you. I just...” He clears his throat and lowers his voice.  “Ugh, I’ve been getting this call lately and everything’s been so messy so I was just avoiding and avoiding it, but they finally left a voicemail and...it was the engineer.  The same one from the Kerberos mission and I...I don’t know what to feel. I didn’t listen to the message. I quit out of it right away, but I just...wanted to talk, I guess.  To hear your voice.”

He sniffs, rubbing at his cold nose and biting at his lip.  “...I wanted to call earlier too. It’s weird being here. We’re all here.  All of us, at this hotel, all our friends are celebrating together, only you’re missing.  I want to talk to you so badly, it’s kind of pathetic... Where are you? Are you just at home, by yourself?  If you want me to come back, I will in a heartbeat, just...” His throat ties up and he clears it, or tries too.  He clears it again. “...Krolia keeps telling me you’re okay, but I...I want to see you for myself. Please... please , I need you, Keith.  Just a text. Just anything.  This silence is killing me, Keith...”  He cringes. No. No, this isn’t space at all.  This isn’t what Keith needs, so he takes a deep breath.  “...I’m sorry. I’m okay. It’s just nice to sort of feel like I’m talking to you, you know?  I hope you’re alright. ...I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

By the time he comes out, Matt’s out of the pool and sitting on the chair.  Shiro knows he looks miserable; he couldn’t rub the frown from his face. Matt watches sympathetically as Shiro walks over and slouches into a seat beside him.  He’s still in his trunks and honestly, though the pool is heated, it’s freezing out here in the exposed air. He’s uncomfortable and unhappy and even though they’re in the nicest hotel he’s ever been in, he can’t enjoy it, so he just sits and just is .  “He’ll come around,” Matt says, patting him on the leg encouragingly.

Shiro sighs and nods, but he’s growing tired of doing that.

Lance and Hunk are snickering together.

Hunk says, “Oh man, we should tell Shiro.  Shiro, did you want to hear the gossip?”

“I guess.”

Lance raises an eyebrow and says with great amusement, “Akira has a secret lover.”

Shiro frowns.  “What? Did he tell Pidge that or something?”

Pidge snorts.  “No.  And it’s not a secret.”

“Then who is it?!”  Lance agonizes, splashing Pidge with water as she sits on the edge of the pool.  She protests and uses her foot to kick three times the amount of water right into his face.

“You guys are idiots,” she says.  “All of you.”

“Not all of us could be born geniuses, Katie,” Matt hums in amusement.

“Yeah, only two of us.  I’m not saying anymore about Akira.  You guys can all gossip amongst yourselves.”

“What did you mean?”  Shiro asks Lance, frowning.  “Why do you think he has a secret lover?”

“So I was trying to get him to go in the pool while you changed,” Lance says, voice dropping low in a conspiratorial murmur.  “And I tugged at his collar a bit and he had the biggest hickey right on his neck.  Like. The boldest damn thing I’d ever seen.  He might’ve saw that I saw. Did you notice how he kept tugging at his collar self consciously the whole time he was here?”

“A bruise?”

“A hickey.  It’s different.”

“How is a hickey different?  It’s literally a bruise.”

“The cause.  Oh, my god.  Shiro. Buddy.  You’re ruining my gossip.”

Shiro just heaves another sigh and leans his head back.  “I’m sorry. My thoughts are occupied.”

“Oh, young love,” Hunk sighs dreamily, clasping his hands together and fluttering his eyelashes.

“Unrequited love?”  Shiro murmurs lowly.

“It’s not unrequited,” Pidge says firmly, looking up at Shiro with that seriousness in her eye, like she knows .  It almost makes him feel better.

He means to ask more about how she’s so sure when there’s a knock on the door.

They all go to answer it.  Behind the door, twisting at his hands nervously, is Akira.

“H-hey,” he says.

“...Hey,” Shiro hums, looking him over.  “Are you alright? Did you forget something?”

“Um...no, I just got your message and so I -”

“-Message...?  What message? I didn’t send you anything...”

“No, I meant Krolia sent me a message saying I should uh...ask if you wanted to see Red before I put her to bed.  You, um, don’t have to if you don’t want to. It’s stupid, really...I dunno why I came.” He huffs out a laugh that almost sounds nervous and takes a quick step backward.  “Sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you guys.”

Pidge nudges Shiro gently in the back.  She nods toward Akira, eyebrow arched.

He’s retreating, but his face is red with blush and his lips are pressed together tightly.  It’s like he doesn’t actually want to leave, but he’s afraid.

Akira.  Afraid.

Shiro wants to help him.

Red is an excuse, but it makes it easy to take it.  “Well, Red is my daughter, after all,” Shiro says.

Akira blinks up in surprise.

Shiro takes a step out and looks back at Matt and them.  “I’ll be back in a bit, okay?”

 

Akira’s room is amazing, just as theirs is, only it feels way too huge, like the space swallows Akira whole and while the luxury in their room feels bursting with excitement and newness, here, it feels almost lonely in its luxury.  Cold.

Red is already curled up by the fire in a small bed fit just for her.  Akira takes a seat on the couch and nods beside him for Shiro to sit.

“Red looks comfy,” Shiro chuckles lowly.  “Keep this up and she’ll never come back to me.”

“...Yeah,” Akira hums lowly.  He clears his throat, shifting in his seat and biting at his lip.  “Um... You okay?”

“Me?  Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

“...I dunno.  I guess you just seemed kinda down on the plane.  And um, Keith told me about the message you just left him.  He wanted me to check on you.”

“...Ah.”  So that’s what this is about.  He didn’t want to spread the drama, but it’s here, staring him in the face.  “I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Akira insists, leaning forward in earnest.  “Like I’ve said before, you’re part of our family. Any of us - any of us - are here to talk with you if you need it.”

Anyone but Keith.  Hearing that they’re there for him should lift his spirits, but he just feels lower.  The one person he cares about the most gets his messages and doesn’t call back. “How’s Keith doing...?”

Akira sighs heavily.  “Shiro, stop worrying about him.”

“...I’m sorry, you know.  I’m sorry about the other day.  I’m sorry about the other week. ...The other month.  All the trouble I’ve caused you.  I’m just really sorry.”

Akira waves his hand in front of his face.

“No, really.  This is the last thing I would’ve wanted.  If it wasn’t for you, I would’ve given up long ago and it’s not fair,” Shiro says.  “All the things you’ve done for me and here you are again, trying to help me through my moping.  I’m okay. ...I just wish I could repay you somehow.”

Akira takes a long deep breath and tilts his head so he can look down at Red.  She hasn’t woken up at all, perfectly content with her new life so quickly. She’s so fragile, but in the right hands, she’s happy.  “It’s funny,” he says lowly. “How much you don’t see you already have. You’ve changed things around here so much. Just by being you.”

Shiro laughs softly.  “Yeah, right. No need to lie to try to make me feel better.”

“I’m not.  Seriously. I know it just seems like mundane stuff, but it really takes such a load off all our shoulders.  And hanging out with Keith... Well, it’s helped him so much. More than you know.”

“I’ve had a lot of fun with him.  He’s special to me.”

“And you’re special to him...  He was home schooled, you know. His whole life.  He was always horrible at making friends. He’d resigned himself to that fact.  But you show up, cheerful, charming, and confident, and it was so easy for him. He was happy.”

Shiro hums sadly.  “...So am I.”

“You say that, but look at that frown,” Akira chuckles, his eyebrows arching sympathetically.

“He won’t return my calls,” Shiro says.  He can feel bits of his defense unlocking beneath Akira’s understanding gaze and Shiro’s heart pours over.  “He won’t respond to my texts. It’s been a week and there’s just been...nothing. Nothing at all. It’s like he’s just gone.  Like he’s trying to delete himself from me.  I feel like I’ve done something critically wrong.”

“...It wasn’t you,” Akira says softly.  “It could never be you. He’s just...confused.  He’s trying his best to make things right again, how they should be.”

“By disappearing like I mean nothing to him?” Shiro whispers.

His words were spoken too sharply.  There’s too much hurt in them and Akira is speechless for a moment, at a loss for words.

Shiro forces out a chuckle.  It sounds and feels false. “Whoa.  That came out of nowhere... I’m fine.  I swear I’m not usually this down, I just...”  He swallows hard. “I thought he’d be here. I wish he was here with us having fun too.”

Akira frowns as he watches the misery on Shiro’s face.  He brings his fingers to his face and rubs his finger across his bottom lip in thought.  “...How about this? We got you something for Christmas. From us, as a family. I know I should wait, but...I want to give it to you early.”

He slips off the couch and goes through the doors behind them, into his room.  He digs through his suitcase for a moment. When he stands up, there’s a big box in his hands, wrapped in star paper with special care.

Shiro immediately feels guilty.  “I didn’t get you guys anything yet.”

Akira just chuckles lowly as he walks over, setting the present in between them.  “It’s not an exchange, it’s a gift. And it’s not even really a gift. Here. You’ll see.  Open it.”

“You really didn’t have to do this,” Shiro whispers, remembering that this is Akira who’s giving him a gift.  It’s not just anyone. This has such different meaning.  A year ago, he would’ve thought this a literal dream.

Akira hums and crosses his legs, leaning into the back of the couch as he watches Shiro unwrap the present.

Inside the box is a familiar sight.  As he takes it and holds it up in front of himself, he can almost breathe in the old scent of home with his grandpa.  And surely, the warmth he feels in his heart is their love.

It’s a cuckoo clock.  Shiro’s already getting emotional.  His voice is tight as he forces out, “...This looks just like the one my grandpa used to have...”

“It is,” Akira whispers.

Shiro turns his eyes up.  “What?”

“It’s the exact one your grandfather used to have.  Keith told me you couldn’t remember if it was tossed away or kept, so we got into contact with Pidge.  She asked Matt, who remembered you shoving it into the bag you sold at the pawn shop nearby. So I went there to ask if they remembered it and, as luck would have it, his friend is a cuckoo clock enthusiast and bought it from him.  So I got his info and bought it back.”

“You...you just...?”

“Don’t worry,” Akira chuckles into the shock in Shiro’s face.  “I made sure they were happy with the exchange.”

“You -?”  Shiro stammers, looking back down the clock.  “...Why would you-?”

“It was all of us,” Akira amends.

“Thank you,” Shiro whispers, frowning against the tears in his eyes.  “...Thank you. You have no idea how much this means to have this back.  I thought I’d lost it forever. It feels like I have a bit of my grandfather back.”

“I’m so glad...”

Shiro looks up at Akira, at the softness on his magnificent face.  Akira, in the evening. Like Keith had said: they go to bed with Akira and they wake up with me.  Akira’s different in this setting.

Here, Shiro’s heart is ringing.  Here, Shiro feels such unbelievable fondness for him.  Love.

He feels for Akira what he feels for Keith.

“Oh, I almost forgot.”  Akira leans forward and grabs a box off the table beside them.  “I have chocolate. You can’t be sad when you’re eating desserts, that’s sort of a rule.  We can watch a movie together if you’d like? The chocolate’s from Switzerland,” he sings, trying to make the offer even more enticing.  As if he really needs to.

“Switzerland, huh?”  Shiro says, sniffling and wiping at his nose.  Very gently, he sets the clock down on the coffee table.  He looks at it for a long moment more before turning a smile up to Akira.   “I’ve always heard it’s supposed to be the best.”

Akira shrugs.  “Honestly, I’ll eat any chocolate.  This stuff is pretty good though. Let me know what you think.  The hotel offers it to me and they gave me extras this time.”

Shiro laughs at the pleased smile on Akira’s face.  He wonders what Keith would be like if there were extra coffee.

“Yeah,” Shiro says.  He’s lonely and sad and somehow, looking into Akira’s face makes him feel better, like Keith never left.  And despite the casual shrug of his shoulders and loose hanging gait, there’s something about Akira that feels sharp at the edges, maybe even more lonely than Shiro.  “Yeah, let’s hang out. We never get to. I’m always with your family and I’m working for you, after all.”

Akira laughs.  “...Yeah. I’m kinda shy.”

“You?  Shy?”

“I’m an actor, right?  No one has to know. But yeah, I’m really not much better than Keith at making friends.  Maybe even less so if our track record is anything to go by.”

“Huh.”

It’s funny though.  Akira is as easy to get along with as Keith.  He’s not sure what’s changed in him, but somehow, he doesn't feel that nervousness around Akira he usually does.  They sit on the fancy couch together, eating chocolate together and laughing at some shitty movie that happens to be on.  Akira starts to tell Shiro stories of Keith and Shiro is so charmed.

“Did you know Keith used to model when he was younger?”

Keith?”

“Yeah,” Akira chuckles at the reaction.  “He and Krolia were at the mall together and she was walking around with him on her shoulders, when a talent scout just happened by and asked if he wanted to try it.  Krolia said no, but a few years later, it happened again, and everyone else was so excited so Keith thought, ‘why not?’ and he went with it.

“But he hadn’t realized that they’d have to put makeup on his face and dress him up like some doll.  He didn’t like being swept away from Krolia and handled like that and the makeup felt strange and itchy.  The whole situation spooked him, so he ran straight out the room, went into the field behind the building and just sprawled out into a pool of mud.  Pure, sludgy mud - everywhere.  In his hair, sludging into his clothes.  Everywhere.

“When Krolia came running after him, she was so mad at first.  He’d have to drive in her car like that.”

Shiro holds his stomach as he laughs.  “A puddle of mud?”

“He was like...six.  He just knew mud hadn’t let him down before, so why would it now?  And it did the trick. So he was the one laughing in the end, even when Krolia had to scrub him for an hour in the tub afterward.”

“Desperate measures.  Is makeup supposed to be itchy though?  Maybe he had an allergy.”

Akira snorts.  “Probably. And you know what...thinking back on this incident...hindsight sure is 20/20.”

Shiro frowns in curiosity.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Akira just smiles.  “Keith tells me you’re quite the fan.”

“Well,” Shiro says, leaning forward to grab more of the chocolate.  “I think you probably already knew that from every single interaction I’ve ever had with you.  But yeah, I really am. I wouldn’t be here today without your inspiration.” Shiro laughs softly.  “Honestly, I can’t believe I’m talking with you right now so calmly. That must get irritating, everyone always freaking out over you.  Can’t ever really converse.”

Akira looks down at the chocolate Shiro holds out for him and takes it, unwrapping it with careful fingers.  “It’s usually not so bad. Sometimes it’s sort of lonely, but I think it’s mostly about perspective... I have a blessed life.  A family who cares for me, a career I love that supports me. I know I bitch about it sometimes, but there’s no denying that I’m very lucky.  I know I am.”

“It’s okay to have wants too,” Shiro says.  “You’re human, after all.”

“Yeah...?  Even someone like me?”

“You think you don’t?”

He looks like Keith.  Vulnerable, like Keith.  Confused, like Keith.

“I already have everything,” Akira says.

“What Lance said?”  Shiro tsks and shakes his head.  “I love Lance like a brother. He has a good heart, but sometimes, he doesn’t understand the most simple of things.  And this is one of them. We’re all struggling through our own private battles in the dark. Each life has its own difficulties.  For the sake of others, we can try to understand that.”

Akira takes in a deep breath.  “...You think so?”

“I do,” Shiro says firmly.  Then, he smiles. “...I learned that from your latest album.”

Akira snorts.  “Oh, god. Yeah.  Sorry. Forgot my own song for a second there,” he chuckles under his breath wearily.

They’re quite for a long time, silence settling over them.

“Shiro,” Akira says after a while.  “...I think you deserve the world too.  And it’s okay for you to have wants as well.  It’s okay to shoot for your dreams. Someone like you should never have to settle.”

“Thank you, Akira,” he hums.  “I think it’s a lesson we’re all still trying to learn.”

“Right,” he whispers like he’s trying to psyche himself up.  “...Right.” He rubs at his nose roughly. “You’ve lived so long only ever getting second best...and still, you smile right through it.  You make the best of it. ...You really are the kind of person that songs are inspired by.”

Shiro blushes and chuckles nervously.  “...Thanks. But you really make it sound like more of a sacrifice than it actually is.  I’m happy. And I’m lucky too. I mean, look where I am. People would kill to be here in my spot.”

“Mm.  ...Can I ask you something weird?”

Shiro clears his throat and sits forward.  “Sure.”

“How many years did you keep your office job even though you hated it?  You hated it from the start, right?”

Shiro rubs a finger over his eyebrow, grimacing at the subject.  “Well...I tried to make it work at first. Tried to convince myself I could get used to it, but I never did. I stayed for a few years.  I might’ve stayed a few more years if this job opportunity hadn’t fallen into my lap. I would’ve figured it out eventually though.”

“Right...  You just needed a little push.”

Shiro shrugs.  “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Something to make you see?”

Shiro smiles crookedly.  “Why do you ask?”

Akira hesitates.  His gaze flickers down at the empty chocolate wrapper in his hand that he’s been kneading in nervousness.  And then, turning his big purple eyes up to Shiro’s, he asks on soft breath, “Do you think I’m beautiful?”

Shiro blinks.  That is not what he expected from Akira’s mouth.  Does he really have to ask? “U-uh. Yeah.  Yeah, of course I do.”

“...And I inspire you?”

Shiro’s mind begins to spin again, that nervousness reigniting.  But it’s the truth: “more than anyone.”

“...And you love me?”

“...What?”  Shiro breathes.

Akira says it again, to himself, lower.  “...You love me.”

It’s a weird parallel to the last conversation he and Keith had had, in Shiro’s apartment.  ‘Love’ can mean so many different things and yes, in some ways, Shiro does love Akira. But the way Akira says it, it’s like the way Keith had said it - with hurt.

And when Akira leans forward and grabs the back of Shiro’s head with his shaking hands, pulling Shiro into him and kissing him hard like he wants to prove it, Shiro’s mind blacks out and he just feels and he thinks, for one long moment, this is Keith.

Shiro kisses him back.  Because it feels right. It feels just like the other night, this connection between them, their hearts tangled as one.  That familiar smell of coffee and sugar wafts over him like a wave and he almost moans with relief. Home. ...Home. He’s wanted Keith back every second of every day that’s passed between the two of them since they last saw each other.  He’s longed for this feeling with every fiber of his being, with every bit of his soul.

The kiss is so good.  Just what he’s been craving.

But then Shiro remembers himself, remembers who this is, and he blinks back to himself and sees the truth.

Keith isn’t the one before him, with his eyelashes fluttered closed, the perfect skin, the ethereal hair, taking his arms from his sweater, leaning in closer.

It’s Akira he’s kissing.

“What are you doing? ”  Shiro shouts in surprise, pushing Akira back.  He scrambles to the end of the couch and claps a hand over his mouth.  The sound cracks through the room.

“What?”  Akira breathes, still leaning forward.  He looks genuinely confused, eyes round and wide with innocence.  “What do you mean?”

“I have a boyfriend -” Shiro sputters.

“Wh-Who?”

Keith !”

“Oh,” Akira breathes.  He’s winded, his brow divoted as he blinks a few times, trying to collect himself.  “No. No, Keith’s just - he’s not good for you.  You’re so good...you deserve as much as he can give you.  He and I both get it. He’s spoken with me about this and he wants this for us.  It’s okay.”

“No,” Shiro whispers.  “Keith isn’t - Keith wouldn’t -”

“I know what you think.  Everyone thinks it.  That I’m some untouchable doll on top of the world...but I’m not.  You know that. You see that.  Only you do...  Everyone else, they don’t understand.  And that’s why you don’t have to be afraid of me anymore.  I promise you, I’m yours. You don’t have to settle for Keith anymore.  It’s okay.”

“No,” Shiro says firmly, putting his hands up.  Oh, god, this is bad. This is so so bad. “What are you thinking?  It isn’t okay. Not at all. You’re doing the same thing to me that the media does to you.  You never even bothered to ask me what I wanted, you just assumed.  Keith and I are together.  I care about him more than anyone.  You know that.  How dare you?!”

“Why are you reacting this way?” Akira breathes out sharply, emotion and hurt bubbling to the surface.  “You were - you were kissing me back !”

“Because you felt like Keith.  And for a second, I just -”

“But -  But... Everything you do -  the posters in your room, the signatures, waiting out in the cold for days just for the chance to see me for two seconds.  That wasn’t for Keith, that was for me.  You can’t pretend it wasn’t.  What else would you have wanted if not me?  I saved you, not Keith.  What did he do for you?  We all know it’s my name you moan in your sleep, not - his.”

Shiro’s flabbergasted, sputtering, “What?  No! Where do you get off? How would you even know??”

“You have that fucking body pillow in your closet and you’re telling me you’ve never dreamt of me?  That you don’t want me? You never wished it could be me instead? Real. In your arms. I’m here now, Shiro.  I’m tearing my clothes off for you and you’re going to deny me ?”

“God,” Shiro whispers, staring up at the pain and disbelief that darkens Akira’s face.  He doesn’t look ethereal now, he looks like a storm. A storm that’s tearing himself apart.  Shiro’s in shock. This can’t be real. Not Akira. Not this being he’s looked up to for years now.  Not him.

Shiro shakes his head, closing his eyes heavily.  “How could you say these things...? How could you...?  I thought you were the only one who got it.  I looked up to you!”

“I thought you wanted me.”

“I’m - with - Keith.  Get it through your head!  It’s not for charity. It’s not to get to you.  I’m with him because I love him. Not for his image, not for what he can do for me.  For him .  God, he could live with a box over his head and be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and nothing would change how I feel for him.  I’m sorry you can’t understand that.”

“...Shiro,” Akira breathes, eyes stunned wide.

“I’ve got to go,” Shiro mutters lowly, gently pushing Akira away from him and getting to his feet.  “I can’t believe this is happening... He’s your cousin.  He’s your family.  It doesn’t matter the bad blood between the two of you, you can’t just do something like this to him.  He deserves so much better. I thought being family meant something to you...  But I thought so many things about you and I can’t believe how wrong I was...”

Akira’s blinking rapidly, tossing his eyes around at Red, at the ceiling, back to Shiro, holding his hair tightly between his hands in pure confusion.  He looks like he’s going to pop. “....I don’t understand,” Akira says lowly.  “You've already admitted you love me.  Everyone wants me.  Everyone.  So why don’t you?   Why?  Why him?  Why not me?  It’s never him.  I'm the better option.”

“You decided that on your own.  ...I love Keith,” Shiro whispers.  “Akira...you’ve done a lot for me and I wish you the best, I really do, but...I’m sorry.  I think you’re confused. There’s been a huge misunderstanding.”

He blinks at Shiro.  “...Wait,” he whispers.

“I can’t.  I just can’t -”

Akira’s voice tears.  “Shiro, wait!  Wait!  I need to tell you something!  Please, let me! Just ten seconds.  That’s all. Please !”  Akira grabs Shiro tightly by the wrist and clings to him.

Shiro rips his arm out from his hold.  He’s not gentle about it. It’s clear rejection and the action stabs through Akira like a slap across the face.  He flinches in the pain of rejection.

They just stare at each other, the sound of their jagged breath all that’s between them.

“I looked up to you,” Shiro whispers, words burning in his throat.  His eyes and nose sting. “You...you helped me have hope...  It’s kind of sad.  You’re just like everyone else...”

Tears pour over Akira’s cheeks, but he doesn’t deny it.  He sniffs. His voice is wet and thick. “...Are you going to tell everyone?”

“No,” Shiro says in disbelief.  “No.  Why would I want to hurt everyone else too?”

“Oh, Shiro,” Akira hangs his head, back shaking.  “Oh, god, no. I just thought... I thought you wanted...”

“You were wrong.”

Akira nods quickly, rubbing the back of his hand across his face roughly.  “I’m sorry,” he cries. “I’m so sorry.”

There’s this urge in Shiro’s chest at the sound of Akira’s cries.  He sees Keith’s pain in them and, despite everything, his heart tugs.

Akira is a mess.  His usual careful composure is swept right out of him.  The glow, the confidence, the crooked smile, and blazing glint in his eyes that could rival the power of the sun’s - it’s frozen over and drained empty.  His hair is slipping from its tie. His makeup is running down his face, black smudges against failing coverup, streams that glitter in upheaved clumps.

He does not look like a god now.  He looks stripped of his wings and position, cast down and mortal, not knowing what to do powerless and as unused to it as he is.

Shiro’s hand stays on the door and he hesitates for a moment.  He deliberates with himself. Akira’s sobbing behind him again, like those weeks before, twisted up and confused.  Clearly, these years haven’t been kind on him mentally. Everyone’s taken so much from him, Shiro included. And to just leave him like this, broken, by himself.  How many times has he already cried like this? How many more?

Shiro takes in a long deep breath and says softly, “Akira...I don’t actually think you’re a bad person.  And I don’t think you mean those things about Keith either. Let’s just...forget tonight ever happened, okay?  Tomorrow, we wake in the morning and we start over. Just...promise me you’ll never do this again.”

Akira just shakes his head, rubbing his face with his hands.  “Stop. Why would you forgive me?  Just go... Just go...”

With one last sad look, Shiro leaves, closing the door behind him, but he doesn’t have the strength to go back to his friends yet.  He leans against the door and closes his eyes.

God, he can’t believe this.  First, Kerberos. Then, Keith.  Now, Akira. Everything in his life is just turning upside down again.

What a fucking mess...

He hates this.  He hates it all so much.  He feels like he’s losing, always losing.  Even when he thinks he’s finally got things together, they just tumble down harder than before.

Is this his new low?  Is this just how life is doomed to go?  Bouncing from the highest highs to the lowest lows.  He can’t keep stretching this far.

“Shiro...?”  Krolia startles him out of his thoughts and he opens his eyes, blinking rapidly.  She’s in the hall only feet away, head tilted, watching his face in concern. “...Are you alright?”

He rubs at his eyes, trying to brush the tears away and muster up a smile.  “Uh...yeah.  Yeah, I’m completely fine.  I -” He tries to scramble for a lie but realizes it’s too late for that.  She can already see the expression on his face.

He allows himself to drop the facade.  Head bowed, he sniffs and rubs at his nose, "Akira and I got in a fight...  He probably could use someone to talk to right now..."

He goes to step out of the way, but Krolia catches him by the arm gently.  "...I'll get to him.  But what about you?"

What about him?  He thinks about it.  He's always felt sort of detached from the world.  From mothers and fathers and people who are older.  People who could teach and lead him.  He's been okay with it.  It's not like he's had any other choice, but things are different now.  Krolia is standing here, in front of him, found family. He doesn’t trust much and everything’s a huge mess, but it’s not because of bad intentions and he can see that in the concern on her face.

Shiro can have wants too.  Shiro is allowed to hurt as well.  He allows himself to whisper from his heart.  “...Everyone keeps saying it’ll be okay.  I keep waiting.  I feel like my whole life I’ve been waiting. So why does it feel like nothing ever changes?  Even still, everything's spinning like some whirlwind.  So many things keep happening and I don’t know where to turn to now.  Keith and I got so close and then he just left.  I don’t understand what I did wrong. If I don’t know, how can I fix it?”

She listens quietly, giving him her undivided attention.  It feels nice to be listened to by an adult.  Soothing, somehow.  Like maybe he's not being ridiculous after all.

After a long thoughtful moment, she sets the bag in her hand to the side and steps forward gently, wrapping her arms around Shiro and gently patting his back.

It’s a surprise, but a welcome one.  He hadn’t realized how cold and scared he had felt, but here, he feels safe.  He sinks into her touch. She’s soft and loving, but sturdy, just like a mother.  Though he’s always longed for it, he’s never had this sort of support, not as far as his memory goes.  He has it now. He cries more.

“You have to trust me,” she says in a low soft tone.  “Keith’s going through some stuff right now. But when he realizes himself, he’s going to find his way back to you.  I know it. And Shiro?” She steps back so she can see his face. She smiles gently as she brushes away his tears from his cheeks.  “...When he does, I know you’ll find your way back to him too.”

Shiro’s confused about that.  “But I’ve been here the whole time...”

“I know,” she whispers, patting him on the arm again.  “I know.”

When he gets back to their room, everyone’s already asleep, sprawled out all over the couches, bellies exposed and mouths open in abandon.  They sleep so unguarded. He’s glad to be met with the silence. He doesn’t think he has the strength to go through everything that just happened.

He gathers blankets for everyone and, so gently no one even stirs, Shiro carefully drapes them over each of their forms, making sure they’re tucked in and warm.  He turns off the TV, the fireplace, and then goes into a bedroom.

As he settles into his bed, he almost doesn’t bother checking his phone.  When he does, his heart sinks with disappoint. He tries to squash the little voice in the back of his head that’s back again, that mutters, why would he message you?

He tries to tell himself it’s not true, but there’s nothing waiting for him.

 

Chapter Text

 

Shiro drags himself out of bed the next day, feeling only like half a person and that’s being generous.  He has an emptiness sitting high and uncomfortable in his chest, but in his belly is a suspicious craving for coffee.

He never used to have this sort of craving before.  ...Funny how things change.

He also feels a leftover headache from last night’s situation, so there’s really no reason to say no to a little caffeine.  Shiro shuffles his way into the kitchen and peers over the counter. Despite the bright sun peeking through the cracks of curtain, everyone else is asleep still, so he attempts to be as quiet as he can while preparing everything, refusing to call some sort of room service to deliver.  He’s taken enough from Akira as it is.

Matt’s the first to wake up at the noise.  When he pushes off the couch and peers through squinted eyes over at Shiro, the corners of his lips lift in a hesitant smile, a little quirk of the eyebrow.

“Uh, hey,” he mutters quietly as he crosses his arms over the top of the couch’s cushions.  “You sure stayed over Akira’s late last night.”

There’s no judgement there as he tilts his head to see Shiro better.  Shiro bites at his lip. The wound sits uncomfortably high in his chest.  He’s not sure how to deal with it yet, this feeling spreading through his whole core like some sort of acidic indigestion.  A memory that he’d rather pass off as a bad dream, but he knows he can’t.

“Is that Shiro...?”  Lance blinks awake groggily, rubbing at his eyes.  “Hey, man, how’d last night go?”

“Yeah,” Matt says, walking over to the kitchen, dragging a blanket over his shoulders and trying to scope out Shiro’s face for details.  “A night with your idol in the fanciest place we’ve ever been to...what was that like?”

Shiro clears his throat and places his hands on the side of the counter as he worries away at his lip.  “Uh... Pretty bad actually. We got in a fight and um...” He runs a hand through his hair. “I sort of left to him crying.”

They all go quiet, varying levels of confusion on their faces.  “What’d you do?” Hunk asks, stopping next to Lance.

Shiro shakes his head as he sinks forward onto the counter.  He’s thoughtful with his words. “I don’t know. I don’t know what went wrong where...  I just think that Akira’s been twisted up by his career. The more I talk to him, the more it’s clear: the price of fame is steep, at least for him, and it’s hurt him in ways we may never fully understand.  That’s all.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Lance says, holding his hands up.  “You’re being so vague. What happened?  You’re like the nicest person alive, what could you two fight over?”

“Keith,” Pidge answers for Shiro as she finally arrives, hair a mess.  She leans sleepily into Matt and snuggles up beneath his blanket.

“Was it?”  Matt asks, worry in his brow.

Shiro takes in a deep breath.  Here it is. “...Akira kissed me.”

They all choke in surprise.  Matt leans forward onto the counter even deeper.  “What?”

Again?”  Hunk gasps.

“...Worse this time.  It was a disaster,” Shiro sighs into his hand as he rubs into his face roughly.  “I don’t know if it was something I said...or some way I reacted on accident... But it was fine, at first.  He was just asking me about how I was doing because he noticed I was upset about Keith and I told him.  I told him about how I worried about Keith, how I worried about what I’d done...  And then, suddenly, he was asking me if I thought he was beautiful. He is.  Of course I think it; who doesn’t?  ...And then he just...did it. Not just a peck on the cheek, but...a real kiss,” he whispers, pressing the tips of his fingers to his lips.

“He was under the misunderstanding that I wanted him.  He told me Keith was no good for me. That he would be the better match.  That everyone loved him; no one loved Keith.”  Shiro shakes his head again and heaves a huge sigh, looking away from everyone’s concerned faces gathered around him.  He turns to make more coffee for everyone. “...I couldn’t believe it, coming from his mouth, after everything he’s always said...  I almost still can’t.”

He can see all their faces.  Ones of disbelief, but with a tinge of scandal.   Maybe it’s true what they say, their looks read, and Shiro finds his stomach twisting at the sight.  Quickly, he says, “No, I - He didn’t mean it. Akira was just...confused.  Upset... That’s not how he really is. But I’m worried... Keith’s already still ignoring me...once he finds out this happened...”

“It’s not your fault, Shiro,” Matt says.  “It’s not like you’re the one who did it. You didn’t kiss him back.”

Shiro’s quiet for a moment, reaching for the mugs and setting them out in front of him.  He looks into the darkness inside and cringes. “...I did though,” he forces out lowly. “I did.  ...He reminded me of Keith.”

He can see, through his peripheral, Lance and Hunk exchange scandalized expressions.  Yikes, they mouth to each other.

“So -” Lance pushes.  “What happened next?”

“Nothing.  I pushed him off of me.  I told him I loved Keith.”

Lance whistles lowly, shoving his hands to his hips as he thinks about it.  “...Denying Akira. That’s one to tell the grandkids.”

“...It’s not funny.  I’m serious. He was so upset and he looked so lost.  Akira has some serious issues. The way he cries is just...”  He takes in another deep breath as he tries to block the sound out from his memories.  “I think maybe it’s just...beyond just the situation, all the accumulated years of this lifestyle finally have become too much for him and he’s just...collapsing beneath it.  And I...I kind of feel like I was the catalyst, like maybe my being with Keith changed his perspective. Like I’m responsible.” He sniffs roughly and heaves out a sigh. “...Last night, I didn’t know what to do.  I wanted to be clear and true to my own feelings and to Keith, but I also wish there was some way to help Akira. Words I could’ve said, someway to help him see .  I don’t know how.  There’s got to be something I can do...  Maybe all he needs is a friend. And I just pushed him away.”

Pidge is quiet, subdued, picking at her nails with a complicated look on her face.  “...Shiro, it’s not your job to fix him,” Pidge whispers.

“I know, I just...”  Shiro clears his throat and rubs at his nose.  “I could’ve said something to help him, like all the ways he helped me.  You guys knew what I was like after my accident, after my grandfather. He helped me so much and all I could do was just...leave.  I just feel horrible.  ...And on top of Keith...”  Shiro heaves a sigh and rubs his hands over his face again, groaning.  “What a past few days this has been, hm? I know we all probably already know this, but...you can’t tell anyone about this.  No one at all, not even a peep. This can’t get out.”

They know.  Shiro trusts them.

“...Shiro, I’m sorry,” Matt finally says into the silence, voice low and sad.  “I know how you love them both. Neither of these situations you’re going through right now are easy...”

“That’s messed up really, if you think about it,” Hunk murmurs.  “I mean, trying to cheat on his own cousin? Twice? Maybe the first wasn’t as much of an accident and more of a chance he jumped at.  It’s just like the news said...”

“...No, I...”  Shiro hesitates, feeling sad as he remembers the look on Akira’s face, a bird without wings.  He feels defensiveness well up inside of his heart that almost surprises him. “He’s not a bad person.  I don’t think he meant it.  He just seemed confused.  Desperate. Like he was trying anything to fill the hole in his heart...but it just tore deeper.  ...I’m worried for him.” When no one’s expressions change, Shiro insists, “He’s not bad.”

“Shiro,” Lance says, leaning forward on his elbows.  “He tried to kiss you when he knew you were dating his cousin.  What if you had said ‘yes’? What if you’d just gone with it?  Just...Keith be damned? ...I mean, I know it’s Akira , but...that’s low, man.  I don’t think you really should be worrying for him, you know?  He doesn’t seemed worried about anyone else, especially his family.  Worry for yourself.”

Shiro sighs heavily, rubbing out the tension that keeps manifesting in his neck.  “I know what it sounds like, I thought it too, at first. But you don’t get it, he - it wasn’t malicious.  It wasn’t seductive or manipulative, it just felt...desperate. The more I think about it, the more I’m certain.  If you saw how much pain he was in...” Shiro closes his eyes and sighs, leaning against the counter. He’s just repeating himself at this point.  It’s almost Christmas. They’re having a once in a lifetime experience here, in a place that’s so grand. He shouldn’t muddy it. They can moan and grudge about this later.

“...I’m sorry.”  He pats the granite, trying to stir up some positive energy.  “Let’s put this on the backburner for now. Today’s the big day.  Let’s make sure we have fun.”

Lance is already wandering off to turn on the TV.  “Well, last night sure didn’t sound fun for you. How about we make today double the fun to make up for that?  Good idea, right? Hey, Allura is going to be there.  Do you think I have a chance?  Tell me the honest truth.”

Shiro tries to smile encouragingly but love is literally the stickiest most tangled web he can think of right now and he’s not sure if he can fake enthusiasm for the black hole in his chest.

“Can’t believe we all slept past noon,” Hunk is laughing.  “Even Shiro.”

Pidge tsks and tosses an empty wrapper at Hunk’s head.  “He had a rough night.  Give him a break.”

“I know, I know.  Sorry, Shiro.”

Shiro just waves it away and tries to shrug the night out of his shoulders.

“Hey,” Matt says lowly, stepping out of Hunk’s way as he raids the kitchen and starts breakfast.  He pulls Shiro along with him, into the dining area. “You’re supposed to be Akira’s date today, right...?  Like, a friend date, but still. ...Are you thinking of still doing that?”

“Well,” Shiro hums thoughtfully.  “It’s just as friends. I’ve made it clear where I stand with Keith...even if Keith might not feel the same.”

“What’d he say to that when you told him you’re with Keith?”  Pidge pushes her glasses up her nose as she watches Shiro’s face closely.

“He just looked...confused.  So was I. I just... It’s like he doesn’t get it.”  He takes in a deep breath.  “Of course he’s always been human.  Of course.  But still, it was somehow a bit of a shock to see him like that.  I don’t know. My head’s still a huge mess. I’d rather not think about it anymore.  Just put the whole thing behind us. Keep moving forward.”

“There’s the Shiro I know,” Matt says, patting his back gently.  “But hey, don’t worry about us. If you want to talk about this, we’re here for you, okay?  You take priority over some event, alright?”

“Some Hollywood event?”  Shiro musters a smile and raises an eyebrow at him.

Matt’s returning smile is patient.  “Yes.  Even then.”

“Let’s just get started on our day,”  Shiro says. He checks the clock over the stove.  “Krolia said breakfast was until twelve, but we already missed that...  Lunch still goes on for another hour though. Everyone think they can make it?”

Everyone agrees that it’s no big deal and they’re perfectly able, so Shiro, taking his coffee with him, goes back into the bedroom and sits on the bed, taking another moment for himself.  He grabs his phone and starts running his thumb along the screen, scrolling through the forums. They’re starting to calm again, the excitement trumping the negativity. Most everyone’s talking about the Coran’s Merry Merry Christmas Extravaganza and how this is the first one Akira’s ever performed at.  What song will he sing? Will he wear a Santa hat? (No, he already told Krolia he most definitely will not .)

Shiro pretends he doesn’t notice the lack of messages on his phone, at least from the one person who counts the most.  The engineer though, he doesn’t count at all.

Shiro’s still biting his lip and diving deeper into the forums (“I believe in Akira!  He’s the best person in the entire world!” or “He’s human, guys, it’s okay he cheated with his cousin’s boyfriend.  We all make mistakes, have you never had a human moment??”) when there’s a knock on the door and Hunk is yelling through the place, “Shiro!  It’s for you.”

It’s Krolia.  She has a schedule written out and she waits to hand it over to him, quietly inspecting his face first.  She looks him over in that soft way Shiro sometimes catches her looking over Akira or Keith when they’re down.  He smiles beneath the look. “Good afternoon,” she says finally, when his checkup is done.

“Good afternoon,” he hums back, still smiling.

“...How are you doing?”  She asks softly. He looks down into the schedule as he takes it from her hands.  It’s doable. They need to pack up and move all their luggage to Coran’s castle, but that’s about it.  They’re going way too easy on him. They probably didn’t even really need him here honestly. Just brought him along so he and his friends could enjoy themselves.

Krolia’s waiting for an answer, so he says quietly, “I’m okay.  How’s Akira?”

“He’s doing okay.  I let him sleep in.  You were right last night...’upset’ would be putting it mildly.  We stayed up all night talking about a lot of things. He’s better.  He still wants to do today, but...hopefully he’ll be able to sleep in for a little while longer.”

Now that she’s mentioned it, she looks tired too.  A few more shadows on her face, a bit less radiant than usual.  And yet, here she is, blazing ahead through the day to ensure that Akira’s day runs smoothly.  What a super mom.

“I’m glad,” Shiro says gently.  “I was worried for him.”

“He’s very sorry for what he did,” she says.  “More than you know.”

“I know he is.  I know. I’m not mad.”

“You’re a good person, Shiro,” she says softly before clearing her throat and speaking normally.  “Excited for tonight? Everyone has their outfits ready? Their passes? Don’t forget we’ll be staying in the castle tonight.  Word of warning, it will be full of cameramen. There’s no way to get around it. Will you be okay with it? I know last time didn’t go well...”

“Akira's dealt with it for years, I’m sure I can take one more night.”

She smiles patiently.  “Well, they’ll all be excited to see you.  Coran likes to talk, but he’s a good man. He’s helped Akira on his way here for years now.”

“Really?”  Shiro says in surprise.  “I knew you were friendly with him, but I didn’t realize you were that close.”

“Who knows where Akira would be now without him?  Not that Akira didn’t work hard, but Coran was always there behind the scenes, supporting him, putting in a good word.  He’s been like an uncle in more ways than one. I’m glad Akira’s finally accepted Coran’s invitation to perform. He’s never felt comfortable enough to come to one of these alone.”

Shiro frowns, about to ask more, when he hears Matt sputter from the living room, tone shooting unusually high.  “Uhhh, Shiro?”

There’s a loud thump and a gasp.  “Holy shit...” Lance is saying. “Holy shit !  Shiro!”

And then all four of them are screaming Shiro’s name like a pack of animals.  They might as well all be banging pots and pans at full volume because Shiro’s blinking away from Krolia, leaving the door wide open as he stumbles through the room to get to them.

“What’s wrong?”  He breathes sharply, tossing his eyes around at all of them, adrenaline racing.  “Who’s hurt?”

“Look!”  Matt says, pointing at the TV.  “Look.”

Shiro looks.

His stomach sinks.  He’s not sure what he expected, but it’s somehow still not this.  It can’t get worse, Akira said.  But it can and it does.

It’s the engineer from NASA again.  Again.  Third time’s the charm.

“Oh, my god,” Shiro mutters, feeling his entire spirit just drain out through his toes.  They don’t let up and he’s tired.  He suddenly just wants to go back to bed.  “...I can’t keep watching this, guys. Ignorance really is bliss and I’m sorry, I’ve got to sit this one out.  I need to get an Advil...my head’s pounding.” He goes to turn, but stops immediately as he almost bumps into Krolia.  She followed him in and is standing beside him, placing her hand on his shoulder in support. There is a shining confidence in her eyes that makes Shiro’s scattered thoughts go quiet.

“No.  Wait a moment.  If it’s what I think it is, then you’ll want to see this,” she promises.

The engineer looks different this time.  No dramatic agony on his face or lying poker face. He looks...totally completely uncomfortable, like someone’s holding a gun on him from the sidelines even though there’s none to be found.

“Right...” The engineer nervous chuckles.  “I...about that... I wanted to officially say, the other news channel had offered me a lot of money to say those things, so I, uh...took it.  I just...um. Wanted to apologize. What I said for the whole public to hear? It was bad of me and totally, completely wrong.”

The anchor takes the mic back to say, “But the public has the right to know, don’t they?  Takashi Shirogane is a liar and to be the right hand to the world’s biggest celebrity influence is a danger to the people.  Do you not agree?”

“Uuuh...  Well, you see...it’s just that...the info might’ve been...” he mumbles so lowly that no one can hear.

The news anchor has to hold the microphone even closer to his mouth.  “I’m sorry, what was that?”

He takes a deep uncomfortable breath, looks behind him, down at his shoes, wrinkles his nose, and then heaves the largest sigh Shiro’s ever heard.  “A lie,” he says. “What I said was...not...true.”

There’s a shocked pause.  “...Can you elaborate on that?”

He cringes and shakes his head.  “I, uh, well, listen. It wasn’t my fault exactly.  I was paid to... But now, I’ve seen the error of my ways.  And I won’t ever accept money like that again.”

The news anchor smells blood.  She leans in, shoving the microphone so close into the guy’s face that it looks like she’s trying to force him to eat it.  “Let me clarify: if you lied, doesn’t this mean Shirogane did not cause the Kerberos incident?  That the accident being pilot error was untrue?  So that means...he was telling the truth all this time.  For years. Since before any of this.”

“Uh...  I mean. I...guess...that’s what it means...”

“If he was telling the truth, doesn’t this mean...you caused the accident?”

After years of disbelief, years of trying to cope with the lie, Shiro sees something he was certain he never would: short jerky movements of the head, barely there, but it’s certain.  He’s nodding. He admits it.

“Holy shit,” is all Shiro breathes.  He’s in shock.

The engineer has admitted his lie.

He never thought he’d see this...  Never... He’d resigned himself to it, accepted the shitty job, the shitty treatment, cast down from his place among the stars.  Everyone at NASA thinking him some low-life liar... Now they all know the truth. They all know. He’s free.

He has to be dreaming.  “...Holy shit.” It’s all he can think to say, eyes still wide on the screen.

“Ho-ly shit,” Matt agrees, stunned.

The engineer looks right at the screen, “I, uh...I want to say one thing, to one person only.  Shiro. I’m sorry for what I did. All of it. I’m sorry about wrecking your career. You didn’t deserve it.  And I’m sorry about your grandfather...I didn’t know. I was afraid of losing my job, but I shouldn’t have pinned the blame on you and turned a blind eye to all its consequences that made you suffer.  You only ever tried to raise all of us up and help us and I turned my back on you because...well, I suppose I wanted my job more than I wanted to do what was right. But I...it wasn’t personal, well...for me it wasn’t...  I didn’t realize just how personal it was for you...  I wish I hadn’t hurt you like that. I’m sorry.”

Shiro presses a hand to his face, transfixed to the screen.  There’s a soft pat on his shoulder, but Shiro stays where he is.

On the screen, the engineer starts to walk away but the anchor rushes forward, asking quickly, “Can you tell us why the change of heart?  You’ve maintained your version of the truth for years now. So why change now?”

He pushes the microphone out of his face and keeps going despite their pursuit.  “No comment.”

“There has to be something that changed.  Why admit to the truth now? Were you bribed by someone else?  Were you threatened?”

No.  Comment.”  He snarls as he keeps going.  It’s clear how shut off he is now.  The interview is over.

But he’s already said his piece.  Their hotel room is electric with their shock.

“He admitted it,” Lance whispers in a daze, turning bright amazed eyes up to Shiro.  “Holy shit. Shiro!  Now everyone knows.”  His eyes grow wider and his tone changes as he realizes.  “Shiro. Everyone knows.  Even the people at NASA.  You could get your job back.  You could pilot again.  All your dreams you grew up with!  They’re back.”

“This is crazy.”  Matt gets up and walks over to Shiro, eyes wide in awe.  “Why? Why now? Why after all these years? He wouldn’t have just randomly had a change of heart; he’s stuck by that lie for so long and now suddenly he’s sorry?  Something had to have changed.  Shiro.” Matt’s eyes turn up to his.

They have the same idea.  Shiro can see it written clearly across his face.

He takes a deep steadying breath.  Could it really be? He knows he’ll see the answer on Krolia’s expression, still standing beside him, but he’s afraid to look.  He’s already so confused, he’s not sure how much faster his brain can spin before it pops.

Shiro clears his throat and finds the courage to look up.  Their eyes meet. Shiro can see quite clearly the calm that’s in her expression, the total lack of surprise.  There’s a hint of amusement too. And happiness for him.

The breath leaves Shiro’s lungs all at once.  “...Oh,” he whispers. He stumbles back into the countertop behind him, pressing his fingers to his mouth.  “Oh.”

The news anchors at the studio are just as confused as he is.  They are all looking at each other uneasily. “So what do we believe?”  They wonder. “And who?”

“Could Akira have paid that man off to lie about this?”

“Well...I’m sure they’ll conduct an investigation after this.”

“They already have.  They said Shirogane was the one who made the mistake.”

“But if this is true - if this man really did lie this entire time about the accident...if they all did and if they all confess...  That means Shirogane would’ve been wrongly accused not once, but twice.  All these false allegations trying to tear his life down and apart...and he didn’t play dirty to try to get revenge.  He didn’t try to get a spot on the news to argue or trash this man, or attempt to get some well-deserved revenge. He just took it.  Why would anyone just take it like that?”

“Akira’s always maintained Shirogane was the best person he knew.”

“And if someone like Akira approves of a person...”

“He’d have to be some sort of saint.”

“He and Akira deserve each other...and I mean that in the best way.”

How their allegiances change, but they’re not what’s important.  Shiro has his arms crossed tightly over his chest as he stares blankly into the television.

“...It was him, wasn’t it?”  Shiro whispers quietly, emotion welling up and tightening at his throat.  “Just the other day. That morning he left, when Regris had to go find him.  You never did tell me where he went...”

Matt says, looking to Krolia, “I noticed recently that the news stopped trash talking Shiro before all this.  There’s just...nothing. Like someone made it all disappear. Like someone paid them off. Is...is that a coincidence, too?”

Shiro needs to know too.  He feels the tug deep in his gut that tells him he already does.  He steps in closer. “Krolia. ...Was it Keith...?”

She raises her hands up in forfeit.  “I plead the fifth,” she says. She takes in a deep breath and musters up a smile at him.  “I may’ve been sworn into secrecy by a certain fiery little someone...”

Shiro presses his fingers to his mouth again, not sure what he feels.  He whispers fiercely, “He didn’t have to do that... He paid off all the news stations, didn’t he?  ...God.  He didn’t have to waste his money like that for me...  And the engineer? Did he pay him off too?”

She shakes her head.  “He wouldn’t have done that.  He was mad, not wanting to toss money at him.”

Shiro opens his mouth to speak again, upset that Keith went through all that for him, but Krolia holds up a hand, cutting him off, “Shiro, it’s okay.  Keith didn’t want you to hurt because of him. I know he thought all of it was worth it.”

Shiro closes his eyes and puts his hands on his hips, trying to center himself.  There’s so much bouncing around in his head and his heart, it takes him a moment to realize the most predominant feeling blooming in his chest.

Relief.  It’s relief.  After so many years of being weighed down and burdened by the lie, by the failure, by the guilt .

Keith unlocked the chains from his back.  He doesn’t have to carry them anymore. Never again.  Never again...

He’s free.

“God,” Shiro breathes out, pressing his hand to his face, not sure if he wants to laugh or cry.  “Oh, my god. I can’t believe it.” He’s not sure if he’s ever felt so light...or felt so much fondness for a person before.

Even though Keith’s not here, he is.  He’s in Shiro’s heart.

“...Your name’s cleared now,” Krolia says softly, patting him on the back.  “Congratulations.”

“Because of Keith,” Shiro whispers again, looking at all of his friends’ expressions.  Matt’s smiling at Shiro with all the warmth and relief in his heart that Shiro’s ever seen.  They’ve all quietly hoped for this moment, but thought the wait would be futile. But it’s here.  It’s all here, because of one single person.

Shiro whirls to Krolia.  “Where can I find him?”

Krolia smiles at him crookedly, watching him with an amused expression on her face.  “Tell you what. We’re already running late.” She points to the clock. “But get through today and if Keith still hasn’t said anything to you by the end of tonight, find me.  I’ll tell you myself where you can find him.”

“You will?”  Shiro breathes, hope igniting in his chest.  Keith.

She nods, smiling, peaceful with the decision.  “I promise. Tonight. I wanted to let him find his own way, but I think it’s about time to intervene.  For now, I want you guys to have fun out there, okay? Enjoy yourselves. But also, be on time. That’s important.”  She nods her head toward the schedule that’s on the floor in front of him. He completely forgot about it. He’s also forgotten his name and where he was entirely, but that’s beside the point.

“Yes.  Got it,” Shiro nods quickly, picking the paper back up.

She leaves and Shiro has every intention of getting ready, but he’s met by his friends’ hugs instead.

“This is so great, Shiro,” Hunk squeezes the life out of him.  “Ooh, I’m so happy!  Now everyone’s going to know the truth and you’re free, man!  This is the best Christmas miracle!”

“The best gift we could’ve asked for!”  Lance hoots happily as he claps his hands on Shiro’s back.

And just like that, Shiro’s morning full of sighs and dragging his feet flips around.  He’s light again. He’s ready for the day again.

The problem with Akira seems solvable.  The whole world feels that way.

He can’t wait to tell Keith.  To thank him. To make it up to him somehow...any way he possibly can.

Keith gave him his life back.

 

Shiro, Matt, Pidge, Hunk, and Lance all stare up at the castle presented before them, just standing, stunned in the face of its magnificence.  It’s so tall it rivals the height of the sun. There are flags waving in the gentle breeze at the top, proud, beautiful, perfect. And below, more eye-level, are the Christmas decorations across sturdy majestic stone.  The giant candy canes that are double their height, the red carpet that’s golden trim, the gumdrops that they can sit on (which they do, of course, taking pictures all the way). The castle is dressed up like a gingerbread house, the guardsman are even gingerbread men, frosting and all.  The fountain in the courtyard is spewing out chocolate, the angel in the center wearing the gaudiest Santa hat. They feel more like they’re walking into a Christmas-themed Candyland board game than anything else.

It’s awesome.

And all dressed up as they are, in formal tuxedos provided by the Koganes, nicer than gold, it feels even more surreal.  The inside blows their minds even more. Lance, Hunk, and Pidge scream when they see it - a Christmas tree that makes them feel as small as mice, sprouting from the back of the stage and decorated with more lights than the night sky has stars.  There are tinsel and gold baubles. There are replicas of Akira’s albums that, hung up on a tree that gigantic, are probably large enough to crush them. Beneath the green of the tree are gigantic presents, wrapped and tied like it’s art. There’s the stage wrapped with wreaths and poinsettias, little red berries.  More candy canes, more deep warm red, more gold, more sparkles.

This is it: the ultimate Hollywood treatment.  They feel like they’re on the red carpet, and, technically, the carpet is red.  They don’t even have to dream it, they feel it .

Lance sheds a tear or two in the face of its beauty.

They can see Krolia in the distance, dressed in an elegant sleek ball gown that opens up in the back, revealing the tight muscles that only make her look more god-like.  She’s being grabbed by the arm and tugged in every which direction. Keith’s dad, looking equally as sharp and handsome scrambles to follow. There’s a bit of Keith in his face when he’s cleaned and dressed up.  The both of them look like the very definition of power couple. When he sees Shiro and the others, he waves and smiles, calling out, “Enjoy yourselves!”

They’re fish out of a water.  The Great Hall is indeed great, but also full.  Very full. And they are small fry in the faces of a sea of familiar celebrities.

“Holy shit,” Matt grunts in Shiro’s ear as he’s pushed to the side by some random person.  “There are a lot of people. Famous people .  This is chaos.  I’m scared. Is this what Nyma’s interview was like?”

“Worse.  Nyma’s place I was able to hide backstage.”

“Is that a celebrity?”  Hunk gasps, pointing across Shiro’s nose without shame, indiscretion not part of his vocabulary.  “Guys. I think that’s them. I think that’s an honest to god celebrity. And over there, is that another one?  Oh.  My. God.”  His voice shakes.  “And over there!”

“Keep an eye out for Allura,” Lance is saying.  “I want to say ‘hi’.”

“She’s not interested,” Pidge snorts.  “Ya poor sap.”

“I’m telling you, I feel lucky today.  It’s the perfect setup: Christmas is in the air.  I’m dressed to a tee.” He spins around for Pidge to see and she laughs.  She can’t deny he looks the best he ever has. He boops her nose. “We’re all in high spirits.  I mean, when will the odds be better?”

Pidge rolls her eyes.  “Okay, hot stuff. Maybe you’ll get your Christmas miracle after all.  We’ll be wishing you luck from here. ”

“I don’t need your luck; I have this.”  He gestures to himself and Pidge and Hunk lean into each other to groan.

“Let’s go celebrity hunting!”  Hunk redirects Lance, pointing to the second story balcony that overlooks the place.

They make a beeline for any open space they can, which is, surprisingly, at the banquet tables.  ‘Surprisingly’ because the desserts and fancy meats set out are open for all and they look so rich and carefully done they’re more of an art than anything else.

“I heard Wolfgang Puck caters here.  Is that true, Shiro?” Matt asks.

“Who’s Wolfgang Puck?”

Matt squawks.  “You don’t know who Wolfgang Puck is?  He catered for the Academy Awards. He sells soup.  He’s fancy.”

“I have no idea.  Keith never said.”

“Well, that’s good enough for me.  I call this half,” Lance says, gesturing to one of the tables.

“I call the other half.”  Hunk is already drooling.

They dive in.

Through the crowd, a familiar face appears, even though Shiro’s never met the man in his life.  His bright orange hair almost seems as festive as the large stuffed stocking he’s carrying and the Santa hat he’s wearing - an ironic complement to the bright red tuxedo he has on, tugging at it proudly as he approaches.

“Why, I would know that face anywhere,” the one and only Coran says, outstretching his hand for Shiro.  As he shakes Shiro’s hand firmly, the bell on his hat jingles merrily. “You must be Shiro. What an honor.  I’ve heard so many good things about you from my dear friends Krolia and Akira.  The name’s Coran Hieronymus Wimbleton Smythe. I’ve known your little Akira since he was a tiny innocent pea pod, in fact.  No smile is brighter. I knew he’d be special from the first moment I laid eyes on him, no matter if he entered the entertainment business or not.  You’ve got the same look about you. It’s all in the eyes. Have you ever considered modeling?”

Lance and Pidge bust up laughing in the background around their stuffed cheeks as Shiro shakes Coran’s hand and goes red.  He rubs at the back of his head in embarrassment. “Uh...no. I’m uh, not really fit for this sort of scene.”

“Nonsense!  Akira’s been singing your praises left and right.  He would know, wouldn’t he? The world’s biggest celebrity right at your side.  He would help you, I’m sure of it! Speaking of the little firecracker, where is he?  I already saw Krolia. He’s usually not too far behind.”

“He slept in a bit late today,” Shiro says.  “But he’ll be here in time, don’t worry.”

Coran’s eyebrows press together as he twirls his mustache in thought.  “...That’s not like him, is it? Is he feeling alright?”

Shiro just nods.  The last he saw of Akira, he was most certainly not alright, but that’s not his place to say.  “Didn’t get much sleep last night. I’m looking forward to the show though.  My friends and I -” Shiro gestures to them stuffing their faces behind him. They look up, caught, like deer in the headlights - “We’ve watched the Merry Merry Christmas Extravaganza since we were kids.  It’s beyond an honor to be here. We can’t thank you enough for having us.”

Coran shoves his hands in the burlap sack he has over his shoulder and takes out a sculpted candle stick for each of them, featuring himself in a reindeer outfit.  There’s a bell and everything, with a candy cane tied around it with twine and holly. “The honor is all mine,” he says as he passes them all out to each of them, grinning happily at their thank yous.  “It’s wonderful to have some excitement around the old castle! Oh. My grandfather would be so happy to see the place so lively...” He says wistfully. “I hope you all have fun and if you need anything, don’t hesitate to call me out.  I’m here for you all, alright?”

Shiro smiles down at the Coran candle; he thinks he gets why Akira is so fond of him.  “Thank you so much, Coran. We appreciate it.”

“Merry Christmas, everyone.”  Coran lifts his Santa hat and bows before turning.

Lance elbows Shiro hard in the arm.  “Shiro!”

“What?”  Shiro blinks down at him in confusion.

Lance groans and whines and, at first, Shiro doesn’t get it, until he remembers.  “Coran, actually...is Allura here?” He asks for Lance, who stops groaning and leans forward into Shiro’s arm.

“Ah, yes, she’s taking a card from Akira’s book and is a bit late, I’m afraid.  She loves getting dressed up for events like this., though I am surprised to see her taking this long.  I’m sure she’ll be down soon. I’ll let her know you all are looking for her; she’ll be happy!”

“Oh, thank god,” Lance whispers behind Shiro, squeezing excitedly to his arm.  “...She’s going to be here. She’s going to be here dressed up.  Oh, god.  I’m going to be struck down the moment I see her, but it’ll be so worth it.”

“You don’t even know her,” Hunk snorts.

“Call it fate!  Call it love at first sight!  I just know.”

“God.”

“Shiro, you’ve got to try this,” Matt says, holding out a small chocolate cookie.  “It’s crispy in just the right way on the outside, but it’s so soft and gooey on the inside.

Shiro checks the large clock hanging on the wall.  “No, thanks. I just had lunch; I don’t want to eat too much.  Looks like we have a bit longer before they start the announcements.  Hopefully Akira will get here in time, or maybe I can -” He stops as his eyes catch on something on the table.  “Is that peach ice cream?” He blinks, stepping closer. “It is. It is.”

Somehow, someway, there happens to be ice cream there.  Peach ice cream, sitting in the dead center of an iced box, like it’s calling for him.  Shiro tilts his head and observes it. ...Of all the ice creams to have, there’s just this one.

It’s like a sign.  He fills a bowl with it and takes a small bite.  Oh, god. God, yeah, it’s good. He hasn’t had it in so long.  He takes a bigger bite.

He’s still in a good mood from earlier, from his name being cleared.  It’s a day for celebration, the buttons on the front of his tuxedo be damned.  And, he doesn’t know if this is funny or insulting, but the tux was tailored a little loose in the front.  Maybe a smart idea.

“Good?”  Matt asks, nudging Pidge a bit so they can laugh at Shiro’s expression.

“Mmm,” he hums happily, tilting his head back and groaning.  “God, Matt, it’s been so long.  It tastes so good.  What are the odds they’d have this here?”

“What are the odds it wasn’t Keith who set it up?”  Matt snorts and though he’s joking, Pidge looks like something clicks into place for her.  “And peach ice cream is okay, but have you tried these chocolate cookies? Or these peppermint ones?  Or the cake!”

“The cake!”  Hunk groans loudly.

Shiro shrugs.  “More for me then.”  He’s happily eating away at his ice cream when a flicker of intuition sparks in his belly that he can’t explain.  He turns his eyes up, drawing his attention out and away, across the table, to the other side, by the stage.

His eyes meet purple.  Akira’s there, sitting on the edge of it, watching Shiro with a muted fondness on his face in a wine colored tux.  It’s overlaid with a subtle black velvet floral pattern that can only be seen from certain angles, as if he weren’t already visually appealing enough.  He looks amazing. It’s definitely him.

When their eyes meet, Akira startles suddenly, his eyes flying wide.  The small smile drops from his face.

He looks scared.

Shiro, a little surprised to see him, lowers his bowl and shifts it to one hand so he can lift the other, waving softly.

But Akira is already leaping off the stage, not catching the gesture.  He slips into the crowd and disappears.

Running from Shiro.

The guilt that had bloomed so suddenly across Akira’s face, the hurt...  Shiro sighs.

“What’s up?”  Matt asks, turning from his renewed supply of chocolate cookies to look where Shiro’s frowning.

“...Akira’s here.  He saw me and ran.”

“He’s probably embarrassed as shit,” Lance snorts as he steps beside them with a plate teetering with desserts.  “I mean, wouldn’t you be? He’s the biggest star in the world and still, he gets rejected by some average joe.  Not that you’re average, but you know what I mean.  You’re not a famous celebrity or singer or anything like that.  You’re Shiro.”

“It wasn’t -”  Shiro sighs heavily again, looking around them at the people here.  For Akira’s sake, this is not the place to have this conversation.

“I’m going to go to the restroom really quick,” he says.

“What about your ice cream?”  Matt pokes at it with his spoon.

“It’s yours,” Shiro says, shoving it at him.

Shiro.”  Matt groans in agony, but he takes it and balances it on his plate, looking after Shiro with a concerned frown.

Shiro sighs as he travels around, seeking a bathroom, but he realizes he has no idea where one would even be.  He parts the crowd and stands as tall as he can, looking out over everyone. He’d be a fool if he didn’t admit to himself what he’s really doing out here, trying to make out that glimmering platinum hair.  It should stick out, like it always does, like the starlight that he is, but there’s no trace of him. Shiro can’t find him. It’s like he’s chasing after a ghost. Akira really can hide well when he wants to.

He looks up to the stage where Krolia is fixing Acxa’s hair as they chat together, before Acxa runs off through the crowd.  He can even make out Kosmo behind the curtains, wagging his tail happily as Keith’s dad holds treats out for him whenever he does a trick. They’re not concerned, Shiro probably shouldn’t be either.  Akira is as slippery and absent as Keith.

Shiro sighs, going to turn back when he sees someone bulldozing through the crowd.

“Whoa, what are you still doing here?”  Regris says, clamping a hand down on his shoulder.

“H-Hey.  You look nice.”

Regris doesn’t even react.  “Why aren’t you with Akira?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did he not tell you they’re holding the introductions right now?  I thought you were both going together. Sometimes I feel like I have to babysit everyone...”  Regris wheels him around and yells through the crowd, pushing people out of the way as they trample up to the staircase.  “He said he was going to find you. What is he doing?”

Shiro exhales sharply, nose pinched as the crowd’s noise begins to grow louder and louder the further into the hall and closer to the stage they go.

Regris gives him a firm push.  “Go up these steps and past the curtain.  It loops around the wall so you’ll come out into the Great Hall with Akira.  It might be overwhelming. There’s a shit ton of cameras,” he warns. “Krolia told me to tell you that you don’t have to go.”

Shiro nods and takes a deep breath.  “I know. I told him I would.”

“Akira should be the last of the celebrities to be introduced, but you’ll have to push your way past the others.  Go! They’ve already started.”

And so they have.  Shiro can hear Coran’s jovial musical voice over the loudspeaker, announcing names of celebrities even Shiro knows of.  He can see from his peripheral as he runs up the steps on the side, as other celebrities and their dates walk hand in hand down the center staircase, met with applause and enthusiastic cheers as cameras go off.  It’s not a public event, not by a long shot, but the excitement in the air is palpable.

Shiro pushes his way through, racing up the steps.  At the top of the staircase they wait for an assistant to call them forward through the curtain, and then it’s their turn to be called down.  Shiro sees a flicker of silver there.

“Excuse me,” Shiro struggles as carefully and efficiently as he can, stepping around women in ball gowns holding their clutches and all the shiny leather shoes he tries to avoid all in his way.  People turn to watch him curiously or glare. “Akira!” He calls. “Akira.”

Akira’s next in line, just staring dully down the way.  While everyone else has their dates or their mothers or best friends at their side, Akira is alone.

Coran gestures Akira along and he takes the first few steps forward, waiting for his name to be called.  The crowd below sees who it is and the excitement multiplies.

Shiro won’t be in time.

Akira,” Shiro shouts above the roar of the crowd.  “Akira!”  He thinks he won’t be heard.

But it’s Akira.

He goes rigid at the sound of Shiro’s voice, turning in surprise, bafflement clear on his face as his eyes meet with Shiro’s.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” Shiro says, squeezing himself through the limited space.  “Please, I need to get by.”

“That’s Shiro,” someone whispers and a murmur shivers through the line as they all turn to stare.

“Shiro.”

“That’s Shiro...”  Tones of surprise and intrigue part way for him.

Finally, everyone steps out of the way to stare.

The announcements have stuttered to a stop as Akira stares after Shiro.  This event is being recorded and now there’s a long awkward gap. An attendant is trying to pull Akira along, but Akira shrugs her hold off of him, stepping away from the staircase and toward Shiro.

“Shiro, what’s wrong?”  Akira calls as Shiro pants his way over, rubbing away the sweat at his forehead.

Shiro sighs with relief.  “There you are... I thought I wouldn’t make it.”

“Uh, Akira,” Coran is saying from behind him.  “We’ve got to keep this moving. Everyone’s waiting.”

“I know,” Akira says.  “I know, but -”

Shiro gives Akira a pat on the shoulder and links his arm through his.  Akira blinks at him in surprise.

“Let’s go then,” Shiro breathes, trying to sound positive and upbeat.  He gestures down the staircase when Akira just stares at him, confused.

“I -  But after what I did last night -”

“Come on!”  An attendant reaches over and grabs Akira, pulling him along.

Coran smiles brightly at the both of them and calls out lowly, voice teasing the crowd with the excitement they all are feeling, “And finally, at long last, the one you’ve all been waiting for, attending with the Kogane’s family friend, Takashi Shirogane.  We finally bring to you, everyone’s favorite EGOT. The one, the only, Akira!”

Coran pats Akira on the back as he blinks into the cameras, thrown off his game, still looking to Shiro.

Shiro tugs him gently along, down the steps.

“What are you doing...?”  Akira breathes, dazed, eyes full of stars.

The cameras are so much, going off rapid-fire.  Krolia warned him about this. He knows it isn’t, but it feels like an attack they’re walking head in on.  Shiro struggles with the uncomfortable squirming in his gut. He tosses his eyes at the flashing lights, distracted.  “Uh...” His pulse is so high. He knew this was a bad idea. He tries to focus on the steps beneath his feet, but it doesn’t blot out the sickness churning in his gut.

“Hey.  Hey, Shiro.  It’s okay,” Akira says, voice firm and steady.  “Look at me. Not at them. They’re nothing, they’re just background chatter.”  He squeezes Shiro’s arm gently and Shiro follows the command, looking down into his face, at his concerned purple eyes that hold him steady.  “...You okay?” Akira whispers. “You didn’t have to come. I was fine on my own.”

Shiro nods curtly, still focusing on Akira.  Somehow, it helps. It’s awkward. He knows how it’ll look to the papers tomorrow, but right now, he’s got to get through this and he can still sense the cameras behind him, in his peripheral, all around, kept at bay, but for how long?  Akira’s confidence soothes him. Shiro clears his throat roughly. “I’ll be fine. It’s only a couple flights of stairs. I told you I’d come with you. You don’t have to do this alone.”

“After last night... What I did -”

“Let’s just forget it ever happened, Akira.”

“But I can’t.  I really thought that -”

“-Akira,” Shiro cuts him off and Akira stops mid sentence, looking up into Shiro’s face.  Shiro can see into the depths of his eyes, where he’s open and vulnerable. “I said we’d come as friends and we still are, aren’t we?  Nothing’s changed. We all do things we regret sometimes. I know you didn’t mean to hurt Keith or me. I know.  You’re a good person, but you’re just confused.  All the good you’ve done for the world, for everyone close to you...none of those things were on accident.  Last night’s mistake doesn’t undo everything you’ve already done and it doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends.  It means you’re human...and that we can use this as an opportunity to learn and then, we move on.”

Akira’s quiet for a long moment, staring up at Shiro, his whole being quivering.  Finally, he nods his head, a small, quiet, honest movement. “Thank you,” Akira whispers between the two of them.

“Akira!”  They’re calling on the sidelines as they both walk down the steps.  Shiro swallows hard, but they’re almost done and out into the Great Hall and then the attention will disperse.  Hopefully. He can make it.

Akira watches Shiro for a moment more and then finally lends them some of his attention to the crowd as he turns that confident smile of his onto them.  The people ignite at that. When he waves, they sizzle. Shiro enjoys that. He’s uncomfortable beneath the lights, but there’s good in it too. The one standing beside him, this one small fiery confused little being brings the world so much joy.  It’s a privilege to see up close.

“You give me too much credit,” Akira says eventually, softly, so Shiro can barely hear.  “But I’ll try my best to hold to that.”

By the end of their walk, Shiro’s heart has calmed and his nervousness has mostly burnt out.  They reach the bottom step and Coran calls over the speakers: “And now! The ceremonial First Dance begins!”

Everyone cheers and the Great Hall’s crowd parts in the center, making way for select celebrities.  Of course, Akira’s part of it.

“Oh, god,” Akira groans, turning back around with a frown as Coran marches down the steps excitedly.  “Coran. Come on. You said you wouldn’t. I trusted you!”

Coran takes a candle out of his bag and shoves it at Akira, like a parent might give a feisty baby a binky.  “That was just to get you here! Can’t help myself! Every fancy ball needs a First Dance.”

Akira stares at the Coran candle for one baffled second before turning and handing it off to a cameraman behind them.  “But it’s a Christmas show , not some fancy ball.”

“Being one thing doesn’t mean it can’t be the other,” Coran winks at Shiro, so much light and excitement on his face that it’s infectious.  “Come on. Shiro wants to go, don’t you?”

Akira lifts an eyebrow at Shiro in disbelief.

Shiro shrugs, chuckling down to the floor beneath their feet - the most sleek and buffered out black and white tile he’s ever seen.  He can see their reflections in it. He tries to hide his smile as Akira groans. “I mean. I’ve never been to a fancy ball before.”

“And there you have it,” Coran winks into Akira’s face, who groans even louder.  “And look at that. Mistletoe.” Coran points to the plant tied in red velvet above their head at the staircase’s frame.

Akira growls loudly, using Shiro’s shoulder as support to leap into the air and take an aggressive swipe at it.  It topples to the floor innocently. “Coran! Next time, I swear to god, I’m not coming no matter how much you beg.”

Coran’s laughter might as well be Santa on the rooftops overhead, echoing in the distance, delivering presents and joy.  He’s gone before Akira can protest more.

“Oh, god, I’m sorry.  He’s like an embarrassing uncle or something.  Seriously,” Akira says as he turns his pinched face to Shiro.  He ignores all the cameramen waiting anxiously on the sidelines for their next move, camera at the ready, rolled forward onto the tips of their toes, restless.  “Let’s just go. It’s not fair to you. I just told you it’d be a friend thing and this is toeing over a dangerous line. Coran’s word isn’t law and, despite how it looks, he won’t be upset with us if we sit out.  I’m serious. Let’s just go sit or get something to eat or find Pidge and the others -”

There is a space on the floor just for them, in the midst of a few other A-lister celebrities, who are looking over with interest, like it’s Shiro who’s the celebrity over them.  Akira looks uncomfortable for Shiro’s sake, but something tells Shiro that he doesn’t actually want to go back.  Shiro can see their friends in the audience, all varied expressions and opinions, but it’s Pidge his eyes stop on.  She has her two hands up and pointer fingers raised. She bounces each one and then presses her fingers together, nodding toward Akira and Shiro.  “ Go ,” she says with a small encouraging smile.

“Akira,” Shiro says, turning back to him.  “It’s not a big deal. I’m totally okay with it.”

“...You are...?”  Akira looks over Shiro cautiously and then over at the cameras on the sidelines.  “...But... What about Keith? What about what everyone’s already saying about us?”

“Keith knows I love him.”  He chuckles lowly as he shuffles his feet.  “...I think he does, at least... I’m not asking for your hand in marriage.  Just a dance between friends. I promised you and I don’t go back on my word.”

“Everything’s already such a mess...this won’t help a thing.  On top of it, I missed the time slot Coran had set aside for me earlier so I could explain everything.  They won’t understand. They’ll only cause more trouble for you.”

“Slept right through that earlier time slot,” Shiro chuckles.

“Yeah...”  Akira sighs.

When Akira doesn’t seem convinced, Shiro adds, “Matt and I dance sometimes.”

He looks up through his eyelashes.  “You do?”

“Well.  When we’re really drunk,” he laughs.  “So not that often.”

Akira chuckles into his hand as he nods.  “Ah. That’d do it, wouldn’t it?”

Shiro opens his hands and smiles crookedly.  “My grandfather taught me to dance.”

Underneath that thought, Akira’s apprehension melts a bit and he smiles softly, placing his hands gently into the space in Shiro’s.  They fit there perfectly, just like Keith’s, small in all the right ways.

“...My mother taught me,” Akira says gently as they take to the music and step out onto the floor.

Media be damned.  It’s an unspoken agreement.  They can only ever be who they are.  Slowly, carefully, they’re trying to learn to actually live that way.  Though the cameras begin to click madly, Shiro no longer feels fear about it.  Whether the media hates him, whether they love him, he’s still him and he feels a bit proud to find he’s comfortable believing that.

There’s space between them as they hold the other’s hands.  The small smiles on their face as they watch the other feels friendly and full of light.

“Thank you for doing this...”  Akira hums, watching Shiro’s face.  He gives Shiro’s hand a gentle squeeze and nods to their hold.  “I don’t deserve it.”

“You don’t need to think about last night.  Let’s just put it behind us.”

“O-okay, but...one thing.  Let me just say one thing: I really am sorry, Shiro.  I shouldn’t have presumed. I feel horrible.”

“It’s okay,” Shiro says, watching the anxiety bouncing around Akira’s face.  “Really.” It sounds too simple, but it feels that way for Shiro and he can see some of the tension fall out of Akira at the words.

“Okay,” Akira blows out air from his lungs in relief.  He musters up a smile. “Okay. Thank you.”

He turns back to look over at all the cameras going off.  These cameramen keep it professional and they have more respect than those out on the street, but the clicking and flashing is an incessant drone.  Akira asks, “The cameras aren’t bothering you still, are they?”

“I’m getting used to it.  Though I can’t tell if it’s all in my head, but doesn’t it seem like they’re only focused on us and no one else?”

“It’s not in your head.  We’re the hottest news right now, haven’t you heard?  And we keep adding fuel to the fire just by trying to live our goddamn lives.”

“...Why they’re interested is beyond me...  Two men dancing together at a fancy event, but you’d think we discovered alien life.”

Akira’s smile goes crooked.  “Well, friends or not, it’s not exactly traditional.  Media just loves to stir the pot.  Some people are saying this is all a publicity stunt.  But I know it’ll be sooner rather than later that we’ll hear everyone saying how we’re pissing on their peace of mind or something.  God knows. And they’ll think we’ll actually care to hear it.”

“I think they just like to hear themselves talking.  They enjoy the rabble of their own noise.”

Akira hums as he thinks about it.  “Well, for what it’s worth, I’m glad their opinions don’t bother you, and...and I’m glad you’re here...”  He laughs suddenly, eyes flashing up to Shiro in amusement.  “I would’ve looked like a really big fucking loser dancing by myself.”

Shiro snorts and shakes his head.  “I don’t think you could ever look like a loser.  I’m sure Coran would’ve found a match for you.”

“Yeah?  Like Nyma?  Have you seen her?”

“She’s here?”  Shiro asks in surprise, tilting his head around to look over the crowd, trying to get a glimpse of her.

“Yeah.  Over there.  Look, by that Noble Fir.  She’s in the bright yellow dress and that god awful hat.”

“Oh, wow.  So she is. I think the hat looks nice.  Summer-y.”

“It’s Christmas.”  Akira says, scandalized.

Shiro chuckles.  “...Coran wouldn’t have done that to you, would he have?  Set you up with Nyma? The tension between the two of you is infamous.”

“If not before the last interview, definitely by now.  But nah, not him. More like if I was just wandering around, I wouldn’t put it past her to snatch up the opportunity and take her chance for some free publicity.  Corner me somehow.  Use me like a tool for her ratings.  I’m too tired for that shit.”

It’s funny.  With all the eyes on them, Shiro should be self conscious, he should be uneasy, at least.  But he’s not. The event alone is insane enough, even if the castle wasn’t occupied. But, looking to his left and seeing, only a few feet from him, an actress from the last movie he saw in the theaters, laughing casually with her date.  Singing on the stage is a Disney star he sees in the tabloids more days than not. And, of course, the one in his hands... But, somehow, while the other celebrities around him make him feel uncomfortable, Akira makes him feel like he’s home.  Shiro stands tall in the midst of all the glitter and glam because of it.

The First Dance ends too soon and Akira and Shiro step away from each other, almost embarrassed.  It was a little too nice, a little too comfortable.

Akira clears his throat and rocks back on his heels, turning around.  “M-maybe we should go back -”

Just as he says that, someone bumps into them from behind and they both look over.  Akira immediately frowns but he softens as he sees who it is. It’s just Acxa. She’s holding two cups of hot cocoa in her hands as she grins.

“Hey,” Acxa smiles over at Akira.  “Never seen you talking this much before a gig.  Word of advice: don’t talk too much; you’ll hurt your precious voice.  And no Akira? What will the world do then?”

“Ha.  You dare lecture me while you’re holding hot chocolate.  Hot.  Chocolate.  Really?

Shiro asks, “What’s wrong with hot chocolate?”

“Dairy and singing don’t mix,” Akira says.  He rolls his eyes. “Trying to boss me around as she’s drinking milk.”

She makes a show of downing it.  “That’s a myth. You are such an old little man.”

“Says the one literally drinking milk at a party.  And it’s not a myth.  I swear to god.”

“Alright, alright.  I’ll see you out there.”  She gives Shiro one last blatant look of curiosity before slipping through the crowd and disappearing, returning to her date.

Shiro chuckles under his breath.  “She’s like an older sister.”

“Hey.  I’m older.  But yeah, cousins sometimes...  What can you do?”

Shiro hums.  “The Kogane family for you.  ...There’s your mom.”

Krolia and Keith’s dad wander onto the ballroom floor together, his hand falling carefully onto her waist as she clasps onto him warmly.  They stare into the other’s gaze, completely in bliss. It’s almost embarrassing watching them; the moment feels so private.

Akira smiles as he watches them.  “Yeah,” he whispers. “They’re always missing each other...”  He looks up to Shiro for another second, eyeing him with a furtive glance.  “Did you...want to dance to another song? O-only if you want to.”

Shiro thinks about it.  He’s lost sight of Pidge and the others as everyone’s swarmed into the center of the floor around them.  He doesn’t have anywhere else to be and Akira looks so hopeful. He holds open his hands. “I don’t see why not.  I might not get another chance at this.”

Akira steps forward happily, taking Shiro’s hands in his own.  “Me neither.”

They dance for a little while longer, comfortable and content together.  The live music is soft and soothing, the orchestra reading the atmosphere of the room.

The cameramen begin to tire of them and their numbers thin, leaving them in greater peace.  Time just slips away. And Shiro thinks about what he had just said, casually: he may never get a chance like this again.  Akira, the boy at the top of the world. Akira, with all of his wit, all of his charm, all of his beauty, right here in his hands, open to Shiro and anything he wants to say.  In a few years, he might not even remember Shiro’s name, on the road somewhere, going beyond a place Shiro can never touch. Shiro will just fade from his memory, back into the monotonous status of everyone else, all the grey faceless screaming fans that hurt him as much as they help him.

And the thought’s sort of sad.

“Hey.  Akira?”

Softly, as Akira turns his eyes up to listen, Shiro says, “I know we don’t have much time left together after filming, but I can’t thank you enough for this wild ride you’ve taken my life through.  ...From the first moment I met you, everything’s changed. I got to know Keith. I got to know you and your family. I was included and cared for in a way I haven’t felt in so long and it’s just been...more amazing than you know.  You all have given me so much. And did you see the news this morning?”

Akira shakes his head gently.  “Woke up so late... I barely had time to grab my socks.  They’re mismatched. See?” He pulls his pants up slightly and Shiro laughs at the long golden stars on one foot and the plain white ankle sock on the other.

“...No one would know,” Shiro chuckles.  “That tuxedo is amazing. You look as professional and presentable as always.”

Akira laughs.  “So do you, Shiro...  So do you.”

They smile at each other fondly.

“What about the news, then?”  Akira asks. “Something bad again?”

“See, that’s what I thought at first, but...surprisingly, no.  The engineer came on - the one who lied about my whole deal in Kerberos - and, get this: he apologized.  He told the truth about everything for everyone to hear. Everyone. Can you believe that?”

Akira stops swaying back and forth to the music and leans back, looking up into Shiro’s face, a bright light in his eyes and a proud smile on his lips.  “...He did, huh?”

Shiro nods his head with a small laugh, looking into the ceiling’s chandeliers and golden dividers, into the paintings hanging on the ceiling, filled with stars.  He feels blessed beneath their glimmering and he tilts his head back to bask in the feeling. “It’s amazing... I feel so free now. I’m still in disbelief honestly.  And then being here right after hasn’t helped,” Shiro laughs. “I feel like I hit my head a few months ago and am still in some coma, dreaming weird dreams, all my wishes and hopes coming true.  Oh man, am I going to be disappointed when I wake up to my awful desk job... I can’t believe that was only months ago.”

Akira snorts.  “You’re not dreaming, Shiro.  ...Congratulations. I mean it.  You’ve endured so much and you were the absolute definition of grace throughout it...  How it affected your life, your career... But not anymore. You’re free to do what you want. And you know what?  You're going to be in luck pretty soon.  I give out pretty good Christmas bonuses, if I do say so myself.”

Shiro snorts.

“And when filming ends and we leave...I’ll pay you another bonus.  I’ll make sure to make it worth it for you, so you can go after any dream you want.  Anything you want. Your name’s clear. Everything and anything you ever wanted - it’ll be yours now.”

Shiro frowns slightly at the tone.  It sounds happy, it does, but there’s something about the distance in Akira’s eyes, the bits of the brightness he puts forth.  Shiro’s not sure what he’s seeing - it’s the perfect expression of happiness by the perfect actor - but it’s something in Akira’s heart, a feeling that reveals itself as it beats in steady rhythm with Shiro’s own.

“...Maybe you’ll need a coffee boy for your next set, hm?”  Shiro murmurs softly, tilting his head.

There’s no laughter and teasing like Shiro thought there might be.  Akira’s expression goes stormy. “Shiro, don’t even joke. Nothing’s holding you back anymore.  You can follow your dreams now... Go back to NASA. You can fly off into the space you and your grandfather dreamed about...  Whatever you want... The world is yours now.”

Shiro watches the light in Akira’s eyes fade and grow hollow, his acting face washing away.  He’s so dim and tired.

Shiro hums thoughtfully and murmurs softly, “I could do that, but...space was the old dream.”

Akira looks up, going still.  He hesitates. “...And...what’s the new dream?”

He takes a step in, drawn to Shiro, and it’s in Shiro’s instincts to respond to this hold, to this soft sweet personality.  He finds himself leaning in too.

They’re close.  Over-the-line kind of close.

A camera goes off behind them and Shiro realizes it suddenly, all at once, and jerks back, overcompensating and stumbling into the person nearby.

“Oh, I-I’m sorry,” he says as the person steps away with a look.  They’re vaguely familiar from some movie and he should probably be embarrassed.  But he turns back to Akira.

It’s just so easy with him...

He’s realized the secret why.  It’s not the gold, the glitter, the platinum ethereal hair...  It’s what’s beneath that. What’s beyond. There’s something that pulls Shiro in, something about Akira’s soul he can’t dare look away from.  It’s too special.

But...he shouldn’t be having these sort of reactions.  Not when his heart belongs to Keith. It’s wrong. It’s so wrong; he’s so disappointed in himself.  A sticky bubbly feeling of guilt and discomfort pulls at his gut.

He pulls back, taking his hands for himself, smoothing out the front of his tux in a nervous gesture.  “God. I don’t know what’s wrong with me -”

“M-me neither...  I didn’t mean - I was just...into the conversation...  I’m sorry. That was...totally inappropriate.”

Shiro’s about to answer when they hear a noise from outside.  He turns and sees shimmering lights outside the tall grand windows, oceans of color washing over the gardens behind Coran’s castle.

“Ah,” Akira says.  “The fireworks.”

“Really?”  Shiro says excitedly.  “They don’t show it in the television special and I’ve always wanted to see since I was a boy.  My grandpa and I used to pretend we could see them and we’d make up the whole choreography. I hear they have shapes.”

“I hear that too.”

It’d be a dream to see them, but they aren’t the only ones with the idea.  People are starting to gather on the balcony outside, looking out over the ground’s gardens and into the darkened sky as it bursts with color.  Music floats through the castle that plays in sync with the firework show above, dazzling and inspiring. Everyone floods the area, bumping past them to look.  There is simply no space.

Shiro knows the stars in his eyes are ridiculously bright.  These fireworks bring him someplace safe, to a world untouched by bad, a place he can feel young and untainted.  Everything is right in the world.

“Aw man, too many people,” he murmurs, still craning his neck.  “Well, at least we can see a little bit from here.”  Behind the crowd.  “Can you see?  If you were a bit smaller, I could put you on my shoulders.  Honestly, Pidge probably still could.”

Akira smiles.  He holds his hand out for Shiro so they won’t get separated.  “I have a better idea.  Come on.  Coran has a balcony upstairs in a weird spot.  It’s hardly ever used,” he says.

They climb the staircase and Akira leads Shiro down a strangely hidden hall obscured by some gargoyle statues.  When they push against two thick doors, behind them reveals a balcony, yes, but also a couple, close, inches away from a kiss.  As they barge through the doors, the couple breaks apart quickly with a gasp, embarrassed by the intrusion.

“Oh,” Akira says in surprise.  “I’m sorry.” He goes to back out and then stops.  Blinks.

It’s Lance and Allura.

She's in her ballgown, done up carefully. Her necklace and earrings shine in the firework's light, capturing each color and dispersing it like starlight.  She looks absolutely heavenly. And Lance doesn't look too bad himself, except the expression on his face as he pulls away to see who's causing the disruption.

“L-Lance?”  Shiro can’t help but blink in surprise.

“Shiro?!”  Lance squawks.  He throws his head back in agony.  “This is supposed to be private out here!”  He walks over to push Shiro and Akira out the door.  “You’re ruining the moment! Come on, give a man a break!”  And the doors slam shut behind them as they’re exiled to the hall.

They both stand there for one stunned moment, side by side, the fireworks still going off in the distance.  They turn to each other, looking into the other’s nonplussed face. They both bust up laughing.

“Allura and Lance?”  Akira presses his face to his hands.  “Oh, man. No!  I did not see that one coming.”

Shiro laughs as he leans his head back against the door.  “Oh, god.  Good for him.  Lance has been talking about her from the first moment he saw her at the concert.  He couldn’t get her out of his head.  But wow, I can’t believe Allura would actually...well, agree.”

“Right?”  Akira laughs again.  “She has interesting tastes, that’s for sure.  She wanted to be our receptionist after all, and she could basically have any job she wanted in this industry.  Why anyone would want to sit and do such mundane work, god knows. But when Allura decides what she wants, who is anyone to say no?”

“Who indeed?”  Shiro smiles to himself.  “Lance is a good person. I think she’ll like him.  They’ll make a good couple.”

“Yeah?  I’m glad, then.”  Akira smiles softly into the ground.  He bites at his lip. “Well, looks like that idea’s a bust.  I’m sorry, Shiro.”

Shiro shrugs.  “It’s okay. They’ll be going all night, right?  Maybe people will get bored and we can sneak into a spot then.”

“Yeah...”  Akira trails off, eyes caught on Shiro’s face.  He watches him with so much fondness. After a beat, the softness in them becomes searching and Shiro starts to notice the awkward gap in their conversation.

“Uh...”  He clears his throat, rubbing at his nose self consciously.  “You okay?”

Akira blinks to himself, stammering out, “O-oh.  Yeah... I was just thinking maybe we can go find your friends.  I have to go perform my piece soon, but...I should probably say hi.  My manners on this trip have been...uh, lacking, to say the least. It hasn’t been any of you.  I just...I dunno. Moody diva lately.”

Shiro snorts.  “You’ve been fine. But yeah, let’s find them, they'd like that.  They’re probably still stuffing their faces honestly.  Always impressed by food first and foremost.  Did you see that peach ice cream there?  At an event like this?  It’s so random, but god, is it good.  Have you tried it yet?”

Akira laughs happily as he leads him to the food.  That’s the plan anyway, but since the event has begun and the First Dance has ended, everyone is free to go about as they please.  And everyone wants to take their chance to see Akira, leaning in, hands loose and personal space forgotten.

“Oh, aren’t you an absolute doll in person,” an older woman with a feather scarf and flower adorned hat leans in and pinches at his cheeks.  “And I thought you looked scrumptious on the television, but seeing you in person is an actual delectable treat.  Look at those eyes, like candied violets.”

Her friend corners Akira on the other side and they both start going in for the kill.  “Wow, feel that hair,” she purrs, rolling silver strands between her fingers.  “Softer than silk.  It’s definitely real.”

“And this tuxedo,” her friend presses a hand to his collar.  “Like velvet.”

“I always wondered, but it seems it’s true: your beauty truly is worthy of your talent.  How exquisite.”

“Divine.”

Akira plasters on a smile, subtly trying to pull away.  “Ah, thank you, ladies.  I really appreciate it.  But I need to -”

“Oh, dear.  No, not yet!  Please, stay a little while longer.  We’re having so much fun together!”

Akira’s face starts to pinch in involuntarily as they step forward even closer to pin him.

Shiro steps in and holds out his phone.  “Akira, it’s your manager.  We’ve got to get ready for the next set.”

Akira blinks up at Shiro from his place pinned in the corner.  “Oh.  Yeah?”

“She’s upset.”  He looks toward the women who are frowning at him with great dissatisfaction.  He shrugs with a bright friendly smile.  “We were supposed to meet her a half hour ago, but it’s easy to lose track of time when you’re having so much fun.”

Their excitement fizzles as they watch him curiously.  “And who are you?  Akira’s keeper?”

“I’m Takashi Shirogane, Akira’s assistant.  It’s nice to meet you, but it seems we have to be off.  Akira, come with me,” Shiro says, pulling him out of the corner and wheeling him around by the shoulders.

“Please excuse me.  It was lovely finally meeting you,” Akira waves to them as he lets Shiro handle him down the hallway.

Nicely done,” Akira laughs silently, shoulders shaking.  “You handled that like such a pro.  God, I didn’t want to be rude because those were some of our partners I’ve never personally met, so I’m sure glad you were there.  I’m not sure how much I could’ve taken of being handled like that without imploding.”

Shiro’s stomach lurches uncomfortably.  “Oh, no.  Partners?  Really?  Was I too rude?”

“You were perfect,” Akira breathes happily.  He rubs at his cheeks as he moans and chuckles.  “Just in time too.  I thought she was going to pinch my cheeks off.”

“She was looking at you like you were a meal,” Shiro snorts.

“God, yeah, it’s weird.  My makeup’s okay, isn’t it?”  He mutters as he turns his face to the side and inspects his cheek with worry.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Shiro hums as he chuckles a bit.

Akira runs a finger over his jawline before approving of it and turning back.  “Okay, now we can go find -”

They’re cornered again before he can complete his sentence.  A man stops before them, hand going down on Shiro’s shoulder to turn him; staring in his face.  “Is this Takashi Shirogane?  The Takashi Shirogane?  I heard the news this morning.  Best Christmas present a man can receive, right?  NASA will be kissing your feet soon, I’m sure.  Are you going back?  Will you get a segment on the news?”

Shiro vaguely recognizes him from some show or movie - he doesn’t remember that far - but all the rapid-fire questions remind him of the paparazzi and he’s dizzied, turned around.  “U-uh -”

“Look at that jawline.  If Akira doesn’t pay you well enough, you can have a place as my assistant.”

Shiro manages a choked, “Thanks, but I’m good where I am.”

Akira steps in, “Hey, really?  Trying to take my assistant.  Piss off.”

He raises his eyebrows.  “It was just a joke... I see Akira doesn’t have a sense of humor.”

“It’s not fucking funny.  Touch him again, asshole.”

“Well, Merry Christmas to you too,” he chews bitterly.

As he walks away, tsking angrily, feathers ruffled, Shiro says behind a smile, “Not a partner?”

Akira chuckles and shakes his head.  “Not a partner.” When he sees Shiro’s still looking curiously, he laughs, “You don’t recognize him?  Don’t worry about it.  Just some asshole actor.  I worked with him once before for some ad, but he was just a background character.  He hits on literally everyone.  I almost had to break his finger once when he got too close.”

Whoa.  Shiro never heard of that.

They think they’ve made it away this time and they’re about to go down the stairs to hunt for their friends finally when they see a group of people on the floor below spot them and wave in interest.  “Akira!” They shout.

And a second group passing by the stairs notices and stops.

Akira holds back the sigh Shiro can see building on his face.  He gathers his patience, stands tall, and extends his hand to shake each and every one of theirs.  The people notice Shiro and get excited to see him too. And he realizes he also has to shake their hands.

It’s a lot.  Akira’s the one who’s mainly dealing with them, and though Shiro loves to talk when it comes to the right people, his introversion is beginning to rear its whiney head.  His energy levels are depleted.

Akira manages to sneak them out of another conversation yet again, tossing a relieved smile up to Shiro, when he frowns a bit in concern.  “...You okay?  It’s a lot.  I know it is.”

Shiro rubs at his temple slowly, trying to ease the tense muscles on his face.  “Everyone treats us like we’re meat.”

“Yup.  In their defense, they probably actually regard us closer to meat than human, so...”

Shiro snorts wearily.  “God, how do you take it?  You wouldn’t happen to have an Advil, would you?  I meant to take one earlier this afternoon, but I got distracted and completely forgot.  I’m sure regretting it now.”

Akira hums in sympathy, watching the tension in Shiro’s face closely.  “No...but, tell you what: Coran’s study is right down here and he’ll have Advil.  He won’t mind if we sneak in.  Not if it’s us.”  Someone’s already locked onto Akira, coming over, but Akira sees it in time and quickly dodges.  He leads Shiro to a corridor that’s marked off, lifting a divider that says, ‘do not enter’, and they both make a run for it, leaving the poor man in confusion when he blinks and they’re gone.

These corridors are blissfully empty.  The loud rabble that had been filling the air like even static fades away into euphoric, wonderful silence.  Shiro hadn’t realized how much he missed it.  It hasn’t even been a full hour since this has started.

“Wow,” Shiro hums as he looks at all the paintings on the walls as they pass.  “This place is like a museum.  Who are these people?”

“Coran’s ancestor’s.”  He stops by a door and gestures to the painting parallel to it, the view coming right out of the entryway.  “His grandfather.  He’s very proud of where he’s come from.  But yeah, the place really does feel like a museum, doesn’t it?

“This is his study in here,” Akira says as he opens the door and shuts it tightly behind them.  He walks over to the hand-carved wooden desk, reaches for something, and the fireplace springs to life.  Shiro can almost feel the heat immediately, even though the room is as large as one might expect in a castle, with plush decorative rugs and oil paintings.

Akira casually sifts through Coran’s desk, chuckling at Shiro’s expression (“Seriously, he won’t care”, Akira assures), and then delivers a bottle of pills to him.  “Is a wine glass okay for water?”

Shiro snorts.  “Yeah, it’s perfectly fine,” he says as he takes it from him.  “Thanks, Akira.”

“No problem.  I seriously needed a break before my performance anyway.  We have...about five minutes.  God, I need more like fifty.  Hell will freeze over before I come back to another one of these events.  I swear.”  Akira goes to the window in the corner and unlatches it, pushing it open so the cool night’s air can pour in.  He sticks his head out, closing his eyes and absorbing the moon’s soft light.

He’s beautiful that way.  Even Shiro, halfway through downing his pill, has to stop to stare.  He’s the moon itself, absolutely endearingly enchanting.  Silver, as if his very being is made of pure starlight.  Shiro gets why the women pinch his cheeks and look at him like they wish he could be their prize.  He gets why people want just one handshake, one look, one touch, one word from him.  Just a piece, just a glimpse.  Each bit of him is precious.  So wonderfully human and precious.

Akira slowly opens his eyes and turns back to Shiro.  “Overwhelming, isn’t it?”

It takes Shiro a moment to realize Akira’s referring to the people.  He rubs at the back of his neck, trying to unknot the tension he hadn’t realized had built there.  “I don’t know how you do it honestly.  It feels like being in the middle of a storm.”

“Some people like it,” Akira says, pushing away from the window.  “Most of the people here thrive on the attention.  I say let them have it.”

Akira plops himself down on the chaise longue in the corner, sighing out long and low, tossing his silver hair over his shoulder.  It hangs off the end of the couch and he lies there, closing his eyes and absorbing the fireplace’s heat.

Shiro laughs at the sight.  “Ah, looks like one of those seats you see in those movies.  You know, where the psychiatrist is like, ‘so, tell me how you feel today’.”

Akira snorts and lifts an eyebrow.  “Are you my doctor?”

Shiro shrugs.  “If you don’t mind I don’t have my medical degree.”

Akira laughs wearily at that and Shiro remembers now, upon seeing the dark shadows on his face, just how tired he probably is.  Though he looks exhausted, he turns his eyes up to Shiro and asks him instead, “So, how are you feeling today?”

“Me?”

“Yeah.  You.  Not just this event, but...with everything.  The last few days have been harsh on you.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Shiro sighs, wiping at his forehead.  The cool night air from the window feels so good and refreshing.  “Honestly, my mind’s fully buzzing with this party.  Not much room for anything else.”

“It’s why I always try to dodge these sorts of events.  It’s how I got my name.”

“The ‘reclusive celeb’.  It’s always been like this for you?  For years now?”

He snorts wearily and hums, grabbing a throw pillow and hugging it to his core, fraying the ends between his fingers.  “...Yeah.  It’s weird.  You know, the more they act like they own me, the more I feel like they do.  I try not to show it, but I get so self conscious in front of all these hoity toity assholes.  It’s the strangest thing.  And, god, don’t tell anyone, but I always have this annoying impulse to impress them in some way.  Like I have to be careful not to do what they don’t want.  I hate that.  I spent so many hours already trying to decide which of my songs to sing for tonight.  Which ones are the most sophisticated?  Which would be taken the best?  My proudest work.  It’s embarrassing to care this much.”

“There's no shame in that.  Everyone wants to present their best.  Which songs did you choose?” Shiro asks, sitting on the rug in front of the fire.

“Hollow Bird, Skeletons, and Early Surface.  The least offensive, the most distant.”

“Those are good songs.”  They all are.  Akira couldn't go wrong with any of his.

“I don’t like it - being bare in front of all these people.  I guess I’m just kind of worn out.”

“Who can blame you?  You work harder than anyone I know.”

“Mmn.  It’s a family effort.”

Shiro lies out on the floor and stretches his feet out.  How are you?  Akira had asked him.  All he knows is it feels so nice in front of the fire on this cushy soft rug.  Coran’s study is impressive and well decorated, and most importantly, quiet.  How is he?  Everything’s right except for one thing.  He misses Keith.   Tonight, Krolia had promised, and Shiro can be patient, he can, but tonight just doesn’t seem soon enough.  He gets his phone out of his pocket and looks up into it, sending a small message to him.

I miss you, he types. I wish you were here.

He sends it and waits, but he didn’t expect a response anyway.

Akira takes the moment to check his own phone and when he puts it away, he sniffs, rubbing at his nose.  His voice is fragile and quiet.  “...Hey, Shiro?”

“Yeah?”

And though he was the one who started the conversation, Akira falls silent.

Shiro pulls himself to a seated posture and looks over.  Akira's frowning into the edges the pillow that he's messing with.  Shiro asks gently, “What’s up?”

Akira sits up too, setting the pillow beside him and looking away from Shiro, down at his feet.  “...Uh.”  He bites at his lip, tension twisting and tightening, and then he clears his throat and says, “I dunno.  I guess I just - This castle’s pretty cool, right...?  Everything you ever imagined?”

Shiro nods carefully, watching Akira closely.

Akira gets to this feet and begins walking around the room slowly, running his fingers over the paintings’ borders, over the little handmade ships in glass bottles Coran has on display, on the snow globes.  “...When I was younger, I used to come here a lot.  Coran was like an uncle to me.  He taught me a lot about the entertainment business and I looked up to him like no one else.  I saw all these cool things - the decorative swords, the hand carved pianos, the paintings, the vases, the plants from rare forests, the stuff - and I thought, ‘one day, I want that too’.  And they all told me I could have it, if I worked hard.  So I did.”

He lets his gaze go up to the ceiling where there are baby cherubs painted, locking hands and laughing as they fly through the soft clouds.  The artistry is breathtaking.  Shiro feels like he’s in a museum rather than a home.  ...But maybe that’s why Akira looks so sad.

“I have it now.  I have the knife collections, any I want.  The pianos.  The paintings, the gardens, the indoor pools - all of it.  I thought it’d be so cool to have all these things.  I honestly thought that collecting them all would make me feel whole...but I’ve realized something recently.”  He looks over to Shiro.  “...I realized how naive I’ve been.  I’m emptier than ever honestly,” he laughs on soft breath.  “I’ve missed everything in life that’s important.  Everything.  Holidays.  School.  College.  Friends.  ...Partners.  Everything.” He takes a step toward Shiro and sinks down to his feet, so they sit facing each other.  “I want a family,” he whispers the raw admission. “I want to be loved for who I am, not what I can give people.  I want...I want to go out wherever I please and not have to worry about some shitty stranger taking a picture of me and trying to ruin my life with it.  I want to go on a date and not have to run because I’m scared what they’ll do to the person I brought out into the world, out into this mess that I call a life.  I want to not be hated for being me.  I want to no longer be afraid of turning on the television and seeing what the news has to say about me and the people I love, wondering in which way they’re going to try to tear us apart next.  I’ve realized something only just recently...”  He presses his lips together tightly and hangs his head.  He closes his eyes as he whispers softly, words softer than the powder on his face.  “...I want to quit.”

It’s quiet in the space around them.  The fire crackles and the cuckoo clock on the wall ticks evenly.  Akira looks so small.  His face catches the fire’s warm light, but his skin is pale and bleached of color.  His hair that usually glitters just seems cold, seems drained.

Shiro leans forward and places his hand over Akira’s.  “...Then quit.”

Akira tenses at that, taking in a sharp unsteady breath as he shakes his head.  He looks up to Shiro through raw vulnerable eyes.  “...What if it’s the wrong decision?”

“Akira, it’s your life to do what you want with.  Not the media’s.  Not your fans’.  Not your parents’.  ...And certainly not mine.  Yours, Akira.  Purely, completely yours.  You’ve already given the world so much.  You owe us nothing.”

Akira’s quiet for a moment as he watches Shiro’s hand over his.  Shiro notices too.  God...it’s so easy to succumb to that pull.  He carefully pulls his hand back.  Akira shifts his own hands gently into his lap.

Shiro continues, “I’m not really sure if it’s my place to say, but, from what I’ve heard, today alone, it sounds like you’re curious about another side of life that’s an option for you.  So why not take it and see what it’s like?  You can always return to this lifestyle again, but when you’re ready next time.”

“...You’re right,” Akira says softly.  “I talked to Krolia about it too last night...  She thinks the same thing.”

“And what does your heart tell you?”  Shiro asks.

Akira looks up quickly, almost as if startled.  He holds Shiro’s gaze for a long moment before smiling softly.  “...I guess that makes things easier, doesn’t it?  ...Thanks, Shiro.”

“Hmm...”  Shiro hums happily, looking up as the cuckoo clock on the wall chimes and a bird pops out the top, chirping a merry tune.  More doors open and tiny statues of children come out like a parade, dancing around in a circle that loops.  It’s just like his grandfather’s, the one that he can hang on his wall now.  He feels so happy looking at it. It’s the little joys in life that count.

Shiro chuckles.  “Hey, Keith, would you look at that?  Looks like Coran collects cuckoo clocks too.”

There’s no response.

Sticky silence.  Shiro blinks in the face of it, turning.  “...What is it?” He asks.

Akira stares at him.  “You...” He breathes out, words fluttering.  “...You called me Keith.”

Shiro pushes himself up off his hands as he realizes.  His face bleeds red as he forces out a laugh.  “A-ah...” he mumbles, embarrassed, rubbing at the back of his head.  Great. Perfect.  Like this will help Akira with whatever complex he has.  “I guess I did....  You, uh - you remind me of him in so many ways.  It’s easy to get your names confused.”

“...Yeah...”  Akira mumbles, uncertainty alight in his posture as he shifts in discomfort, wrapping his arms around his core.

“W-well...  I mean, you both basically look like twins.  And your spirit is...very much the same.  I mean, right?”  He cringes a bit.  The look Akira is pinning him with makes him uneasy.  Intense.  “I apologize.  I didn’t mean to.  I know there’s a bit of tension between the two of you and the last thing I’d want is to make you feel even more uncomfortable about it.  I’m sorry.”  He tries to cut off his nervous chatter.  He’s not sure why he feels this much embarrassment over it, it’s not like they haven’t been getting this non-stop for the past few weeks whenever they turn on the news, but...

Shiro knows Keith.  He knows him, and it feels silly that he keeps mistaking Akira for him.  He keeps forgetting.  He keeps blurring them into one.  Maybe the one he’s really apologizing to isn’t Akira at all, but himself.

He’s uncomfortable again.  He only just now realizes how it looks: that they’ve both separated from the party, alone together, in a quiet private room.  He hadn’t even realized. It all felt so natural with Akira, to follow him anywhere.  Shiro looks away and down.  This has got to end.  He can see now it’s dangerous being around Akira.  It’s Shiro’s fault as much as it is Akira’s.  “...Ah, I think it’s about time we should head back.”

But Akira leans forward and grabs ahold of him by the arm.

“Wait,” he whispers, clinging to Shiro tightly.  “...Don’t go.”

“What will they do if you’re late?”  Shiro laughs nervously, gesturing to the door, trying to pull himself away from Akira’s intensity, reminiscent of last night.  His gut is beginning to fill with dread.  “The clock’s already struck midnight, so to speak.  I’m sure they’re waiting.  Coran and Krolia are probably starting to panic.”

“This is more important,” Akira says.

Shiro just stares, confused.  “...What could be more important...?”

Akira opens his mouth to say something.  Frustration and desperation build higher and higher in his eyes until he looks like he might cry.  He tries to speak.  But pain cuts through his face.  And then he stops.  And he tries again.  And stops again.

“...Shiro,” he whispers finally, closing his eyes again.  His hand is still clinging tightly to Shiro’s wrist and he tugs on him, trying to get him down beside him.  “Please sit. Please...just...”

He doesn’t sit.  It's uncomfortable.  Whatever this is, Shiro hates the feeling.  The tension, the look on Akira’s face like he’s about to set off a bomb and they’re both going to be caught in the explosion.

“...I...I think we should go back,” Shiro says.  “I think it’ll be best for both of us if we go back.  Get some air.”

Akira’s face sinks forward, the nape of his neck stretching out and susceptible, the fire’s light dousing him in orange and red.  He shakes his head in slow deliberate denial. “No.  No.  Not yet.”

“Akira,” Shiro breathes out.  “Akira, whatever this is...  If this is about last night, just try not to think about it, okay?  It’s clear it’s only hurting you...there are a lot of things hurting you.”  Akira doesn’t respond, he’s just sagged down, breathing.  “Maybe - uh...well, it’s probably not my place to say this, but I’ve been thinking about it...about my past and how low I had gotten and what helped me.  Maybe it might be worth it to think about seeing someone about this.  All these tangled thoughts, they’re strangling you... I used to go to a therapist for years.  They were very helpful, you can think of them as just a soundboard, someone to organize your thoughts.  The others and I - we’ll support you.  We can drive you, go with you if you’d like.  But I’m not a professional, Akira.  I want to help you, I do, but I don’t think this actually is doing any good.”

Shiro! ”  Akira’s voice cuts through the air like a knife.  “Shiro, no, I don’t need you to fix me.  Just listen.  Please.”  He takes in a deep ragged breath.  “There’s... There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.  For months now.  I keep waiting and waiting for the right moment, but...I don’t think it’ll ever feel right.  ...I have to be honest with you.  Afterward, you can...you can curse me all you want, but right now, please, I just need you to listen.  I know you don’t owe me that, but I beg of you.”  He pulls on Shiro’s arm once more, but the strength is gone.  It’s just dead weight he’s shifting, trying to use before he sinks.  “Please.  Just sit.”

At the tone, Shiro obeys.  He settles onto the floor and stares at the way Akira’s slouched beneath this weight.  At how he can ignore the clock ticking on the wall that’s chiming, ‘late, late, late’. Literally, almost the entire country is waiting for him and him alone, bundled on their couches with their families, ready to enjoy this event.  They’ve probably been waiting months, years, really, if you think how this is his first time performing for Christmas.  They’re waiting.  For him.

The event is live.  And Akira’s here, sitting, pressing a hand to his face, visibly shaking, in a panic that’s already affecting the evenness of his breath.  He’s a mess again. He’s being eaten away inside. These small moments of vulnerability that he hides from the world and shares in rare bouts of weakness.  He’s sharing it with only Shiro now.

“...I’m listening,” Shiro says quietly, scooting in a bit closer.  “Whatever’s scaring you, Akira, you don’t have to be afraid.  I’m here with you.”

Akira turns his eyes up to Shiro from beneath his eyelashes.  They’re already rimmed with red and shining in the fire’s warm light.  They sit before it, and by all other means, they should be comfortable in this space.  Only moments before, they were laughing and at ease together, moment warm.  And now, Shiro can only see broken glass in Akira’s gaze.  Though the air is heated with flame, it is cold with bitter apprehension.

“It’s about me...”  Akira whispers tightly, voice thick with loathing.  He tries to straighten up his posture, but even with the makeup and the perfect hair, he still manages to look sunken.  “It’s about...everyone thinking I’m someone great, someone strong and powerful, but...but I’m not,” he laughs bitterly, and it almost sounds like a sob.  “It’s about, how every time someone gets to know me, I pray to god they’re not disappointed, but the longer they stay around, the more they are until they can’t take the realities of me and they run.  I haven’t wanted to tell you. The other people were different.  They were assholes, and that almost worked out better because I knew, in the end, it was good to cut them out of my life.  But it’s different with you.  You are the furthest thing from them.  You’re so good.  I’ve never ever thought so highly for someone as I have you, never respected someone like I do you.  And if you run...”

“Akira,” Shiro whispers.  “From what I know of you, yes, you’re human, but that’s one of the things that makes you so great...  That, through everything, you still strive to be good...  We all make mistakes, Akira.  And last night doesn’t have to -”

Akira shakes his head, closing his eyes heavily, in regret.  “No. This isn’t about last night.  ...Listen to me,” he whispers.  “...From when I was very young, I’ve always known Akira was the persona people loved.  I spent so long in hiding, so long trying to stuff down the real me and my true weaknesses, the person behind the mask, that sometimes, now, it’s like I forget who I even really am anymore...  I became so afraid that no one would ever want to look at me.  Everyone would be disgusted by the real me...that’s what I truly thought.  But, completely by accident, we crossed paths and you didn’t even know it and...though I thought you’d just take one look at me and then look away, you didn’t.  Not you.  You fell in love with me,” Akira laughs in disbelief, tears falling over his cheeks.  “With me.  And I...I never would’ve even dared hope for that.  It was like my whole future was suddenly changing, filling with all these different possibilities.  I didn’t know what to do.”

Akira,” Shiro whispers lowly, pain hitching in his throat.  It’s so horrible to watch.  “Don’t do this.  Don’t do this.  ...I’m in love with Keith.  I belong to Keith.  I- What you’re saying...”

“No -”  Akira says, leaning forward and latching onto Shiro’s hands tighter.  “No, I’m not saying it right!  I don’t know how!  I’ve tried so many times but the words get all tangled in my throat.  At the office, on our date, at your home, last night -”

“I was with Keith those times -”

“I know!  I know!!  Don’t you see?  Because you were actually with me.  You were with me!”

Akira -

“Can’t you tell, Shiro?  Can’t you hear my voice? Can’t you see it in the way I walk, in the way I interact with people?  The way I look?  Can’t you see me ?”  He gestures wildly to himself.

Shiro stares, transfixed, as Akira melts down.  He shakes his head slowly.

“Look at me!”  Akira grits his teeth and pulls Shiro closer.  “Look at me!  Look at my eyes.  Look at my face.  You can feel what I feel between us, right?  It doesn’t just go away...our chemistry is just...”  He sobs out a laugh.  “I know you can see me...but you have yourself so fooled.  Look at me...  I’m begging you.  I need this.  I’m not Akira, Shiro...  You know that.”  He swallows hard and looks up into Shiro’s eyes desperately, pleading.  “I’m Keith.”  Akira squeezes onto Shiro’s for dear life, shaking so hard his voice quivers.  “I’ve always been Keith.  From that day in the elevator, to our first date, to the time in my room at my house that snowy morning, to your apartment that night that we made love...”

Shiro stares at Akira.  Sits and stares.

“I should’ve told you.  I should’ve told you on that second day, when you first accepted the job.  I was going to.  I meant to, Krolia kept telling me to...but it felt wrong.  And I was so scared...”

Akira bites at his lip.  The clock keeps ticking and Shiro can’t think around the buzzing in his head, so he says nothing.  There’s nothing to say.

The silence expands; it kills Akira.  He rocks forward.  “Shiro... Say something.  Shiro.  Talk to me.  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.  I lied to you.  I did.  I’ve just been so scared to tell you.  Everyone’s spent so long telling me that I can’t show these scars.  That I can’t be gay in public.  That I can’t wear this.  I can’t do that.  That all these little things that make up my own self...I can’t do all of them, and it’s made me so confused.  I’ve wanted to be normal, but I always felt like it’s not allowed.  And every time someone gets closer, every time someone sees, they run.  And you...  You’ve gotten closer to me than anyone ever has, you’ve known me for me, for every little thing they tell me is worthless, and you stayed.  You stayed.  I let time slip because I was having so much fun with you, because you made me feel safe.  You made me feel loved.  But this lie...”

He shakes his head, his tears falling from his face.  “If I had known about you from the beginning - about how sweet and kind and pure you are, how trusting - then I swear I would’ve never taken advantage of that.  I saw how afraid you were of me like this, as Akira,” he gestures down to himself.  “How you panicked.  I couldn’t reach you as Akira.  It was so frustrating.  It’s always been so frustrating.  I told myself it was for the best, that you would be more comfortable if you just saw me as a regular person, and I took that chance that maybe for once, just once, I wouldn’t be judged as Akira, that I could just be a normal boy and still be loved for that.  For being just who I really am.  But I lied to you.  I did.  And I’m so so sorry.”

Shiro just keeps staring.  Akira leans forward anxiously into Shiro’s space.  “What are you thinking?  Please tell me.”

“You...you’re joking...right?”  Shiro forces out breath. His voice trembles, “This is a bad joke...”

“No.”  Akira whispers desperately, shaking his head, wisps of his silver hair following him.  “No, I’m dead serious.”

Shiro presses his lips together tightly.   “...You...you said you’re...that you’re...Keith?”

Akira nods quickly.  “Yes.  Yeah, I’m - Let me -” He reaches up to pull his wig off.

Blind panic lances up Shiro’s core and he jerks to action by reflex, grabbing Akira’s hand and holding him still before he can pull the wig away.  “Stop,” Shiro commands shakily.  “Stop.  I...  I don’t...  I don’t want to see.”

Slowly, Akira lowers his hands, hopelessness starting to seep into his expression at Shiro’s reaction.  “I didn’t mean -” Akira whispers, blinking hard. “I didn’t want to hurt you... I couldn’t think of a good way to tell you -”  His lungs jerk in air choppily.  “I’m sorry...”

Shiro’s fingers are buzzing.  His mind can’t even wrap around this thought; whenever he tries, the idea is just rejected flat out.  Error, error.  He can’t process it.

Akira’s quiet for a long stretched moment.  The fire crackles beside them and he looks to it, helplessly.  The light flickers across his face.  It’s Akira.  It’s Keith.  It’s Akira.

Shiro blinks once.  Twice.  He takes in the glitter, the hair, the piercings.  He sees the skin on Akira’s face that’s scarless and soft.  “No...  No, you’re not,” Shiro forces out stiffly. He shrinks away.  All he knows is this is it: this is his limit.  He’s been stretched too far. “You look similar and you act similar, but...that’s all.  There are differences.  You’re Akira.”

Akira closes his eyes darkly.  “...A part of me.  Because Akira and Keith are one in the same.”  He reaches for Shiro’s hand, but Shiro quickly recoils, bringing it to his chest.  Akira catches the movement, carefully placing his own hand onto his knee.  “...Shiro.  Ask me something.  Anything that Keith would know that no one else would, something that can help you see.  I’ll do this however you want.”

But Shiro’s mind is still spinning.  “But... But I asked him,” he says in a daze.  “I asked him flat out, specifically, ‘are you Akira?’  He said ‘no’.”

“I was afraid,” Akira whispers, eyes full of distress.  “I didn’t want you to run from me...  That time when we were doing yoga together, I saw the look in your eyes as you realized - a look of total horror plastered to your face - and I just reacted to that emotion and spat out my lie in a panic.”  Akira presses his lips together tightly and hangs his head.  “You said it yourself.  You thought it yourself.  We could be twins.  ...You didn’t think it was weird the way Krolia treated me as Keith?  You didn’t think it was strange that Keith’s dad - my dad - and her were basically making out in front of us tonight?  You saw the pictures on the wall of all of us, together, as a family.  You saw the wigs in the chest in my room at the office.  You know I wear makeup.  You know we both play guitar, that we both sing, that we both are the same height, the same weight, the same size, the same everything, because you’ve known all along that we’re the same person...you’ve just been too afraid to see it.”

Shiro’s still shaking his head.  “No.  No!  He wouldn’t lie.  He wouldn’t lie to me.  He’s too good.”

“No!"  Akira clenches his hands into his hair.  “No, I’m human!  I’m a stupid, desperate, manipulative little human.  ...You believe the best in everyone and god, that’s something I admire about you so much, but please.  Please trust your instinct too.  I’m.  Keith.  But I’m Akira too!  You just didn’t want it to beme!  Because if it was me, if I were Akira too, you’d feel like you couldn’t be normal around me.  If it was me, I’d be untouchable.  ...Because I’m the dream.  The fabrication.  ...I’ve said it before: Akira isn’t real.  And I mean that.  Because Akira?  Truly, deep down inside?  Without the acting, without the bullshit Hollywood fuckery.  ...He’s Keith.  I’m Keith.  I’ve always been Keith, but no one is ever willing to accept that.  ...Do you get it...?”

Shiro pulls breath through his lungs, throat clenching painfully tight.  Patience yields focus, patience yields focus. He closes his eyes and presses his hands into the bridge of his nose.  “God.  What the hell is happening?  S-say I believed you.  You’re telling me, when Keith saw my room...when you saw my room...”  Shiro presses his hands over his mouth as he thinks, betrayed sickness stirring in his belly.  “The collected art, the posters, the blankets, the shirts, that - that fucking pillow!  Whenever he saw me geeking out over you...that was you...?  You would just...just let me make a fool out of myself the whole time?  You didn’t say anything; you just let me look like an idiot ogling over you like you were some doll?  Just like you hate!”

“No,” Akira shakes his head quickly, reaching out to calm Shiro.  “No, I swear...there was nothing foolish about it.  I thought it was sweet.”

“No!  Don’t touch me.”  Shiro points a firm finger at Akira as he rolls to his feet and stumbles back.  “No, Keith wouldn't have done that to me.  I know him.  And you...all I know about you is what I thought I did from your music and your acting, but...on a personal level?  You're...you’re fucked up...  You tried to cheat with me on your own cousin.  And now, here, you're lying about this with me too.  For what purpose?  Why?  What do you have to gain from this?  After last night, I was wary, but I thought I should believe in you.  I thought I should let myself have hope.  But you’re just twisting it again...!  You’re fucking with me again!”

“I'm not lying!”  Akira cries desperately.  “I swear to god!  I wouldn't!  Not to you!”

“Not to me?”  Shiro whispers harshly.  “Then if your story is true...if you really are Keith, like you say you are...then haven't you been lying all along...?”

Akira lets out a sob, shaking his head.  "Yes.  ...Yes.  But I wouldn't...not anymore...not after what I know now...  Not anymore...  I promise you.  I promise."

“And what’s your promise supposed to mean to me?”

Akira’s winded, posture sinking, eyes exhausted hollows.  He sags into both of his arms into the floor and sobs softly.  “No...  No.  I don’t know...  I don’t know.  ...When Akira’s stripped away, I’m nothing.  But even with him,” Akira laughs lowly through his sobs.  “Even with him, I’m just the same...”

Everything makes sense.  Perfect sense.  It’s not that the pieces are finally fitting together, it’s the fact that they have been, all this time, and Shiro’s just been turning a blind eye to it.

Because it’s true.  How would Shiro ever deserve someone like Akira?  Someone who shines and glimmers and looks like the stars and the sun and the universe combined?

...Keith is real.  Keith drinks himself silly and trips on the pavement.  Keith acts when people push at him and he pushes back.  He forgets when he’s in the presence of others and lies out on the couch with Shiro, too intimate.  He gets embarrassed.  He makes mistakes.  He’s volatile.  He’s sensitive.  He’s weak in ways, and others, he’s strong.

He’s Keith.

There are so many little imperfections about him that make him real.  Make him human.  Make him touchable.

But here’s Akira too, with all the little specks of imperfection beginning to come into view.  The him that he wore like a mask is wearing away and beneath it...beneath the perfection is the same hurt that Shiro is already familiar with, Shiro has already all seen...in Keith.

But it’s so much.  Their dates together, all their stupid jokes they understood, introducing Keith to his friends, his family.  ...Falling in love.  Shiro’s confession. Their first kiss where they could hardly pull away from the other even as Kolivan waited.  Their quiet laughter as they lean into the other, understanding each other like no one else before them.  The gentle touch of Keith’s hands against Shiro’s skin.  The tiny little gasps he’d make when they were intimate, when they were naked in bed, together, waking up next to the other in the most private room of Shiro’s life.  Keith knew...the whole time?  And he just said nothing?

It’s too much.  To feel betrayed like that by someone you love this deeply.  Someone who’s hurting you this deeply.

Shiro shakes his head abruptly and says the only thing he can to preserve any bit of his sanity and strength he has left in his heart.  “...I don’t believe you.  Keith is...  Keith wouldn’t...”

Akira’s face goes blank and hollow.  He sits there for a few moments, empty, at the end of his rope, no road left after this.  He gave his heart and this is it.  “...Shiro,” he whispers.  His voice breaks.  “Shiro, please...”

“...I need to find him.  I need to talk to him.”  He takes his phone from his pocket.

“Then call him!”  Akira pushes to his feet after Shiro, stepping in his way and holding his own phone up at Shiro.  “Call Keith.  This is my phone, right?  Call him.  ...Call him...”  He holds it out frantically, the display screen prone.  He looks down at the phone and then tosses his eyes up to Shiro’s, desperate.

Shiro hesitates.  He looks down at his phone.  At the number he knows by heart, that’s Keith’s.

Akira’s phone looks exactly like Keith’s...  But...but phones all just look similar these days.  It means nothing.

Akira holds Shiro’s gaze.  He can see the way Shiro hesitates.  Shiro swallows hard, on the edge of a moment, his thumb hovering over the call button.

What if?  What if Shiro dials in Keith’s number and it’s Akira’s phone that lights up?  If it’s Shiro’s name that flashes across Akira’s screen?

What does Shiro do then?

His finger begins to shake.  His breath goes uneven.

What if?  What if?

Akira’s certainty blazes, almost tinged in mania.

Shiro shakes his head slowly.  “...I don’t have time for this,” Shiro whispers, shoving his phone away into his pocket and turning sharply on his heel.

He has his hand on the door handle when Akira shouts, “You’re running then?  They all do...  You know I can call you too, right?  You know it can go both ways?  You think I won’t?”

Shiro turns back around.  Sees Akira with the phone in his hand, screen turned on.  “Don’t,” he says firmly, advancing across the room.  “Don’t.”

Akira quickly dials in the number by heart.  Before he can press send, Shiro lurches for it, trying to knock it out of Akira’s hand, but Akira’s faster and smaller and more agile and he dodges out of the way.

But Shiro’s bigger.  By a lot.  And speed is his ally too.  He reaches over him and grabs him by the arm, holding him in the crook of his own, effectively immobilizing him.

The phone slips from Akira’s grip and flies through the air, hitting the edge of the window.  It teeters for half a second, on the edge of a moment, and then slips out of sight, out of the window and down, down, down.

But it’s too late.  Akira’s already hit send.

And Shiro’s phone...his phone starts ringing in his pocket.

They’re both still, Akira held in Shiro’s grip, staring up into Shiro’s eyes as he freezes in blank horror.

No.  This can’t be real.

No.

“I’m sorry,” Akira whispers, voice tightening around his words that hover between the two of them.  Tears streak down his cheeks. “I’m so sorry...”

The phone rings but Shiro doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t look to see.  He can’t.  ...He can’t do it.  What will it say?

“You don’t have to forgive me, Shiro...”  Akira whispers lowly.  “I get it.  I get it all...I’ve lied to you.  I did the worst thing I could’ve done: I made you trust me and then I weaseled beneath your skin like a rat.  Even I think I'm unforgivable.  But please believe me.  I’ve needed to tell you the truth for so long now.  I need you to know I’m both Akira...and Keith.”

Shiro presses his lips together tightly and tilts his head back to the ceiling, trying to hold back the tears.  “...No...  God.  No...”

“Don’t run...”  Akira whispers.  His hands tremble on Shiro’s arms, trying to keep him there beside him.  They travel higher, reaching for his face.  “I promise I’ll find a way to make this up to you.  Whatever you want.  Just please don’t run...not like everyone else in my life once they know.  Please.  Let’s talk this through.  I’ll tell you anything you want to know.  Anything.”

But Shiro can’t fathom this world, not like it’s told.  Some feeling - terrified and all out of sorts, like a gear gone out of place even as the cogs keep running, rises up within him and everything clunks to a halt.  Wrong.  Everything feels so so wrong.

He does the only thing he can.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro breathes out shakily.

With one last desperate look at Akira’s fragile face, he turns from him.  He feels Akira’s warmth slip from his hands as he pulls away.

 

Shiro bursts out of the study and into the hall, running down the red carpet and over the ‘do not enter’ divider.

He scrambles with his phone in his hand, quickly swiping away the notification in the front before he can see it, and dialing in Keith’s number.  Or, at least, he tries. His hands are shaking so badly he has to retype several times before his phone even picks up his intentions.

It rings.  It just rings and rings and no one answers.

“Keith,” he whispers, desperate for this, to hear his voice again.  “Keith.”

He doesn’t want to think about how Akira’s phone fell down a few stories and is probably in the hedges or fountains below.  How, even if Akira wanted to answer it, he wouldn’t be able to.  Or maybe he would, maybe there’s a staircase leading down just a few doors down and then when he answers it, when he says who it is -

Shiro quickly cancels out of the call.

People are noticing Shiro.  Some reach forward, oblivious, and others keep their distance.  He brushes past them both and seeks out Krolia.

But there are so many people in the Great Hall, all laughing happily and cracking jokes and he’s desperate and scared and panicked inside and he can’t breathe and he can’t find her and he just needs Keith.  He needs Keith and -

A hand goes down on his shoulder.  “Shiro,” Krolia’s voice comes sharply.  “Where the hell is Akira?  Everyone’s saying they saw you with him last.  He’s beyond late!  Coran’s been having to stall for the past twenty minutes.  Kolivan went to check the hotel!  He was supposed to be here -”  She comes up short when she takes in Shiro’s face.  All the aggression and anger in her tone slips right from her voice and out of her features.  “...Oh,” she whispers.  “...He told you.”

Shiro rubs a hand over his face, taking in short breathy gasps.  “You told me you’d tell me where Keith is tonight.  Where is he?  Where, Krolia?  I need to talk to him now.   Right now.  It can’t wait.”

“Shiro...”  Her eyes sadden, expression falling into so much pity and hurt.  Her voice is soft, like she’s dealing with a wounded animal.  “...What did Akira tell you?”

At her tone, something in Shiro’s heart twists and bends.  Because, just like Keith, just like Akira, a lot of how they communicate is through their expressions and not just their words.  And he can read them all so well.

No.  No.  He turns from her.

“Shiro,” she calls again.  “Shiro, wait a minute -”

He can hear Coran announcing Acxa again in the background, apologizing for Akira and making confused excuses.  She’s back on stage again, to stall, to sing.

Everything’s dizzied and spinning.  He’s not sure where he’s running to.  He’s not even sure where his phone is.  He’s lost it along the way somewhere, but that’s the least of his problems.

Keith.  ...Where’s Keith?

Could he really have lied?  Was he laughing at Shiro the whole time?  Was Shiro’s love for him just a joke?  Why would someone like Akira want Shiro?  Someone so average, someone so bland.

Every time Shiro kissed him, wrapped his arms around his small little figure, every time he whispered ‘I love you’ and Keith smiled up at him warmly...and never said it back.

Laughing, from the top of his pedestal.

He feels like he’s lost something crucial, like when he’d first looked down at the empty space where his arm had been and realized he was never going to get it back.  Like when he was falling through the sky during the Kerberos mission, plummeting to earth, everyone eager to get a photo of his pain, eager to laugh about it when they heard it was his fault, not thinking of the consequences on his life he’d have to face everyday.

And Keith too?  This is worse somehow.  This is personal.  Shiro let him in.  He let Keith into the softest weakest parts of himself and Keith delved into that space and said nothing, only hid the same vulnerable parts of his own heart far from Shiro.

It feels like everything’s been a lie.  Everything.

Their love.  The joy Keith brought him.  The hope.

Akira can’t be Keith, because if he was, then Shiro can’t stand it.  He can’t stand knowing Keith was just in it to see Shiro burn.

He pushes past the people in the crowd, desperately seeking the door.  He doesn’t know where he’ll go beyond that.  Away.  That’s all that matters.

He’s almost out, almost broken free from this hell, when Acxa yelps mid-song, cut off abruptly, startled.  “H-hey!” She chokes in surprise.  The microphone falls from her hand and to the ground, but they can still hear her distinctly as she says,  “Akira?  Where have you been?”

“Is that Akira?”  People are murmuring around Shiro, craning their necks to see.  “What’s wrong?  Why does he look like that?”

“What happened to him?”

Shiro can’t ignore it.  He turns to look too.

Akira’s tripping over the stage, scrambling for the microphone that Acxa dropped on the floor.  “Shiro!”  He calls, his voice tears out from his core, booming through the great hall.  He’s winded from running; he pants, holding his side.  “Shiro, wait!  Please don’t leave.  Please come talk with me.  Don’t just go like this.”  His eyes scrape through the crowd, but they don’t find Shiro.  Everyone starts to look around curiously, scouring the faces around them for Shiro.  He steps back, behind a curtain, afraid to be seen.

Akira leans his hold onto the microphone stand, exhausted.  He closes his eyes and breathes into it.  “No...” He groans, gritting his teeth.  “No.”  He murmurs lowly, voice distant as he sniffs wetly.

“Akira, what are you doing ?”  Acxa tries to hold him up by the shoulders but he ignores her attempts.

He doesn’t budge.  “Get off of me.”

“You are going to regret this tomorrow when the media’s tearing you apart.  I can’t believe you’re doing this.  Krolia,” she calls over, looking desperately to the side of the stage and gesturing her on.  “Krolia, help.”

Krolia was already on her way, bypassing the dividers and hurrying onto the stage.  She slows beside Akira, gently holding her arms out to try to guide him off stage, murmuring support softly in his ear.

“Stop it,” he growls, trying to shrug her off.  “No.  Stop.  He hasn’t left.  He wouldn’t just go.  He wouldn’t just leave me...”  But his voice tightens into nothingness.

“Come on,” the microphones pick up Krolia’s voice, gentle and consoling.  “We can’t do this here.  We’ll find him later and you can speak with him then, in private.”

“No,”  Akira grits out, but, as he turns back to the crowd and looks over the velvet garlands and golden tassels, the smaller Christmas trees in the corners filled with cheer and baubles, he sees this drama has no place here.  He fights the despair on his face for a moment longer before he finds the strength to move, letting Krolia guide him away from the microphone, bringing him offstage.

“Well,” Acxa takes his spot and breathes into the microphone with fake cheer.  “We’ll let Akira take a break and then check in on him in a bit.  Just boy troubles, I’m sure.  You know Akira,” she forces out a laugh.  “I’m sure we’ll hear all about it later...”

The crowd is concerned.  Questions start to bubble and erupt to the surface; people begin to throw them at Acxa, who crinkles her nose and sighs.  She looks over to Coran, who’s coming on stage and she backs out, hands up in forfeit.

Akira’s almost fully out of view and off the stage, when he stops and looks over his shoulder at everyone.  They want to help.  They’re eager to.  Krolia shakes her head abruptly, holding her hands up to articulate a big ‘no’ that Shiro can see even from where he is.

But of course Akira doesn't listen.  When does he ever?

“Wait,” he sniffs, running over and taking the microphone from Coran.  “Wait.  Sorry.  No.  I have something I want to say.”  His voice is worn and beaten.  He rubs at his face in discomfort, peering out at everyone as he thinks.  “Uh... Hey, everyone.  Merry Christmas.  What a way to introduce myself, right?”  He shrugs and laughs lightly, despite the misery still clinging to his voice.  “...I’m sorry.  I know this is my first Christmas performance and people were looking forward to it - I was too - and I’m already off track.  I’ve never been one for the holidays.  I’ve never been able to do the things I wanted, or been able to be with the people I wanted to be with...  I'm not good at this sort of stuff...

“I was nervous coming here today.  I spent hours trying to decide the lineup I’d perform for everyone, hoping I could impress you all.  I don’t like to show it, but the pressure gets to me a lot.  Lately, with everything and I just...I wanted things to go perfectly.  I wanted this performance to be clean and neat, the best I could give.  My proudest work.”

He leans away from the microphone for a moment and rubs carefully at his eyes again, shaking out his hands.  “But there’s someone very special here tonight, especially to me...  I didn’t know him this time last year, but still, in this short amount of time, he’s already changed my life.  How can one person do that?  God knows...  Maybe you’ve heard of him.  There’s this song he’s been nagging me to sing for months now...and god, it’s such an abomination of a song, every time he’d mention it, I’d die a little on the inside.”  He laughs again.  “It’s so embarrassing I honest to god hired some tech person to wipe all traces of it off the internet.  But he was such a big fan he found it anyway,” he chuckles lowly.

The crowd just goes with Akira, enjoying the story he’s telling like it’s all part of the plan, attention hooked to his face, to his expressions.  He says, “I told him very firmly I’d never sing it again.  Not for anything, not even for him.  ...I wrote it when I was a boy, at the start of my journey to begin understanding myself.  If impressing anyone is my aim tonight, this song will surely do the opposite and embarrass the hell out of me...  But he loves it.  He really does.  And I know I said I’d never play it, but I...I changed my mind.  I want to do it.  For him.  Only for him.  Shiro,” he whispers, leaning into the microphone closer, peering earnestly out into the crowd, all glitter and gold.  “You mean more to me than anyone, more than the entire world.  More than the entire universe.  I’m not asking for your forgiveness; I know I don’t deserve that.  Think of it as a gift and not an exchange.”

He clears his throat and looks behind him.  “This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, so I apologize in advance if it’s a little rough.  I don’t have a track prepared, but...I have a guitar.”  Acxa grabs the one beside her and hands it out to him.  He ducks beneath the strap and cradles it in his arms carefully.  “And I have my voice.  So...I hope you hear this.  I hope, wherever you are, it reaches you.  And you know...”  He takes a deep steady breath, still looking out to the crowd, eyes searching.  “Shiro.  This is for you.  Your Constellation Prize.”

He sniffs again as he takes a step back and shifts on his feet, trying to loosen up.  He lets out a shaky breath as he kneels to plug his guitar in and picks his fingers over the strings experimentally, messing with the pegs for a few moments.  People whoop and clap.  He leans into the mic and murmurs into it.  “This song is about dreams you think are within your grasp, before you wake to reality.  It’s about stars you see, so close, but far enough away that the tips of your fingers can feel their warmth, but never touch.  It’s about losing, always losing, just because you’re the person you are and there’s nothing you can do about it.  This song is about me.  This song is about you.”  He laughs lowly, “But maybe mostly just about me.”

And with that, Akira gently closes his eyes and begins to sing, voice stretching through the room long and deep in that hypnotic way Keith mesmerized Shiro after their first date.  The great hall falls hushed, under that spell he casts over them so easily.

 

A golden speck of sand blown from his palm into night

It hangs high in the milky way, filled with fire and life

He thinks it’ll be there for an eternity

But when he looks again, it’s gone

 

His voice is warm.  It wraps around Shiro, so painfully emotive it cuts.  Akira’s guitar is soft and lulling, more peaceful and gentle than the recording from so long ago.

Akira’s changed.  Akira’s grown.  And with the years, his song and heart have aged too.

 

He reaches into the deep swirling blue and pulls the light from the sky

A cloak of stars on his shoulders to hide the weariness inside

He adorns his hair with flowers to distract from what’s beneath

And he hopes it will be enough

 

Though he clings, the skies melt through the cracks of his hands

The light won’t stick to him

He wants to step in the clouds and be healed from this darkness

 

The best he can be is all he is and it isn’t enough, so he hides

He’s your constellation prize, your constellation prize

He’s tried all his life, but some things were meant to fracture

He’s your constellation prize, your constellation prize

 

A shard of glass tossed into the ocean like an afterthought,

Turned about and worn until it can’t breathe

It emerges from the waning sea foam anew

Soft and smooth beneath

 

He thinks the stars under his feet are smeared

But as he kneels to pick the pieces up

For the first time, he sees just how brightly they burn

 

The best he can ever be is your constellation prize, your constellation prize

But a pearl was once a piece of sand, and a river was once a brook

Cradled and loved in the hands of one who sees him first

He’s your constellation prize, only your constellation prize

And that’s okay

 

The stars are broken glass, clinging to his hair and cutting his fingers

These pieces, these ugly pieces of a boy he clings to until he bleeds red

When will it be time to pin them back into the sky?

To let them return

For the ocean to wash us away

 

As the song fades, he steps back, letting his head lean loosely.  He’s breathing hard.  He returns to himself slowly, carefully wiping the sweat from his brow as he sniffs again.

The crowd is quiet, in stunned awe.  Different.  It felt so different.  Another side of Akira they never knew, that he never shared with them before.  A side Shiro has seen only once before, in Keith’s room.  When Keith sang.

Everyone stands there as if in a trance, the thoughts taken from their head, but then they burst to life.  Calling him.  Congratulating him.  Akira looks over at them with a small sparkle in his eyes, relieved.

“I’m glad you liked it,” he laughs lowly in the mic.  

But he’s not focused on them.  He’s distracted, still looking out into the crowd as he goes quiet.  He’s waiting for something.  For someone.

He stands there, alone, shifting his feet hopefully.  His usual persona is gone; he looks to the crowd with that expression on his face, like he’s still clinging to hope, even though the world has proved him wrong.  That, despite every disappointment that’s chipped and worn at his defenses, he still is trying to find the strength to believe.

But Shiro’s in too much torrential shock to prove him right.  He’s rooted to the spot.

He understands now.  He understands everything.

Keith’s been hiding, using stars in his hair as camouflage, too afraid to only be himself.

Shiro knows how that feels.

After his accident, Shiro would try to pretend for Matt, for the others, for himself, that he was okay.  He’d try to fool them all.  If he could’ve, he would’ve pretended for his grandfather.  The fact he couldn’t is what killed him.  Maybe, if he had been a good enough actor, it would’ve saved his grandfather’s life.

How could he blame Akira?  If Shiro had the chance, he would’ve plucked all the stars from the sky too, hidden behind them as well as he could.

Maybe he did, as he wore his false smiles and tried to gather his false cheer.  As Matt and Pidge would toss concerned looks to each other and Shiro would laugh lightly, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine!  Stop worrying!’  His laughter was his stars.  His smiles were his armor.

Over time, Matt and them gave Shiro the strength to be honest.  It was hard to let himself be that vulnerable, even without the cameras on him, even without the media following and ridiculing his every move.  But Shiro learned how to do it.

This is Akira’s moment.  He tore through the fear, through the embarrassment and shame, and he’s opening his chest and pulling out his heart for Shiro.  He’s offering it to him.

Akira did it in front of the world because he trusted so deeply, closing his eyes and praying Shiro would catch him.

Shiro gets it.

Akira isn’t a god.  Akira is just a boy.

He’s been begging people to know all this time, from when he was just thirteen, writing Your Constellation Prize alone in his room.  To live in that fear for so long...

Shiro’s all the way across the Great Hall, hiding from the weight of the crowd, like Keith has hidden.  Shiro can’t let him fall.  He needs to run.

As Akira waits without result, the hope begins to dim from his eyes.  He laughs lowly, nodding in short sharp confirmation.  “Well,” he murmurs, trying to hide the dark disappointment that’s blooming at the base of his tone.  The hopefulness seeps out and he's dark as a cloudy sky even as he tries to smile.  “...Looks like he’s not coming...  At least I tried, right?”  He rubs at his face and shifts away from the mic again, rocking back with a long tight sigh.  The tone of his voice changes as he whispers, voice closing off from the emotion welling up.  “...Shiro, I - I hope whatever you choose to do, that it gives you happiness.  I hope you follow that new dream of yours and don’t buckle, don’t bend on your way to getting it.  You don’t have to bow to anyone, you don’t have to settle for anything.  I know good things will come to you.  I know you can do it.  Whatever you set your mind to, it’ll be in your grasp.  I know it.  You’re the best person I know.  I truly wish you the best.”  He breathes out low and long and then finally steps away from the mic, setting his borrowed guitar to the side.  He takes a few steps away, looking out at everyone as they scream encouragement.

“He’ll come to you, Akira!  He’d be crazy not to!”

“Did you see how he looked at you?  There was trust between you!  Rare trust!”

“Don’t give up, Akira!  If you care for him, fight for him.”

And, on stage, alone in front of all these people, his eyes begin to well up with tears.  He stands there for a moment, putting his hands on his hips as he thinks.  And then, he turns back to center stage, grabbing the mic tightly in his fist and standing tall.  With renewed strength, he proclaims boldly, “You know?  You’re right.  God, thank you all for your support.  We all lift each other up, right?  You guys are the best.

“I’m not done here.  If I just leave now, I’m going to beat myself up for the next ten years, maybe my whole life.  I don’t care if this seems like some stupid cliche drama.  Who gives a shit if the media makes fun of this tomorrow - oh, sorry, Coran,” he laughs breathlessly, looking back.  “I forgot I’m not supposed to swear.  But I just...if I keep everything in like I did the first time, when I ruined everything, I won’t be able to forgive myself.

“Shiro.  You didn’t even know it was me but the very first thing you did was try to help me.  You thought I was just the fucking coffee boy and you were going to mop an elevator floor with me using bathroom paper towels.  And you expected absolutely nothing in return.  You stuck by my side when people made fun of us and ridiculed us, when they literally hurt you trying to get to me and still, you worried about me.  Shiro.  I’m never going to meet anyone as generous, as sweet, as caring as you.  As smart and brave, with such a rare child-like soul...  Before I met you, I was just another cynical monotone asshole, waiting for...god knows what.  Something to change.  For something to stop. Tangled in my own stupid fucking drama that meant nothing, nothing at all.  You’ve taught me so much and it’s been an honor.”  He closes his eyes and takes in a sharp breath, whispering fiercely.  “...Shiro, I don’t care who knows it.  I don’t care what follows tomorrow.  I love you.   I love you, Shiro.  I’m never going to love anyone the way I love you right now.  I can’t imagine a day I won’t...”  He’s breathing hard again.  He lets the mic stand out of his hands and it wobbles back away from his face.  He clears his throat roughly.  Lets out a small soft laugh that’s more sad than happy as he slowly unwinds.  “...That’s all.  And everything.  All at once.  ...I just needed you to know.”

“Akira!”  People are crying in the crowds for him.  “We love you!  We love you back!  He loves you too!  He has to!”

“It’s okay,” he whispers, smiling down at them bravely.  He waves to them and says, “I’m so lucky to have you all.  Merry Christmas, everyone.  I mean it.  If you can, spend it with those who you love.  Let them know how much you cherish them while they’re beside you...before the chance slips away.  And even if you can’t...even if you don’t have someone like that, know that there are people in this world who are wishing you warmth and love just the same.  I’m one of them.  ...Merry Christmas, to each and every one of you.  You are all stars,” he whispers.  “Goodnight.”

He steps away, going offstage.

And stops.

His eyes catch on something.  Or rather, someone.

Shiro’s finally made it.  He pushed his way through the crowd until he became winded and nauseous from overexertion.  He vaulted over the dividers, sprinted past Krolia and Keith’s dad and Coran...and now?

Now, he’s finally here.

They both stand on opposite ends of the stage, staring at each other.  The rest of the world melts away.  It feels like they need nothing else.

Shiro swallows hard, trying to catch his breath still.  His throat is dry and his palms are sweaty.  He chokes out the words and it’s the least bit cool.  “H-hey,” he says.

Akira’s eyes are wide as saucers.  He whispers.  “...Hey.”

“...Looks like you probably weren’t joking.  About the Keith thing,” Shiro adds at the last second.  “I mean, in case, uh, in case you forgot what I’m talking about, you know.  You just performed after all, so maybe your mind’s not on that anymore.”  He chuckles nervously.

Akira doesn’t laugh.  His eyes remain on Shiro’s face, brow furrowed with so much hurt in his eyes.  “Shiro... “

Shiro clears his throat.  “I heard your song.”

“I was hoping you would.”

“It was beautiful,” Shiro whispers.  “Thank you.  ...I couldn’t even move, I was completely transfixed.  I felt something pierce right through my soul in a way I’ve never felt before.  You went to a completely different place.  It was the best performance I’ve ever seen, from anyone, ever.  I’ll never forget it.”

“Thank you.”  He whispers back.  He gestures toward Shiro with the hands he was nervously picking at.  “I was thinking of you.  I wanted you to know how sorry I am.  I’m sorry about everything.  ...‘Sorry’ doesn’t feel like enough, but I am.  I’ll say it until it feels right.  I’m so sorry, Shiro.”

“I know,” Shiro whispers.

He looks so untouchable over there.  Scared and lost, like someone who can't swim cast out to sea.

But Shiro knows now.  Akira is no god.

Slowly, Shiro makes his way across the stage, avoiding the chords on the ground that Akira had tripped over earlier.  Ignoring the eyes on him.

It’s not about the people.  It’s not about the paparazzi.  It never has been.  It’s always been about the boy in front of him who’s grown all these years into this man.  This brave, scared, small, and bright, brilliant man.

Shiro comes to a stop in front of Akira, looking down into his vulnerable face.

At those purple eyes.  The sharp eyebrows.  The mouth that can spew words so sharp they harm, or mutter things so soft they heal.  His dainty pretty little face, inherited from his mother, whom he loves deeply.

Everything, he loves deeply.  Quietly.  With every bit of his heart, wearing it on his sleeve, despite knowing the possible consequences.

Shiro reaches forward carefully, hesitating, as he steps into Akira’s space.  He could stare down at him forever.  Here, inches away.

Shiro lifts his hand and cups Akira’s cheek gently.  In a subconscious movement, Akira leans into it.

Warm...  So soft and warm.

“It’s me,” Akira whispers, reaching for Shiro’s hand and guiding the tips of his fingers to his jawline on the right side of his face.  Shiro runs his fingertips over gently, and, as he touches, he feels the makeup come undone at his touch.

Still, it feels so unbelievable.  His mind is having a hard time grasping it.

Shiro closes his eyes as he reaches his other hand up.  He feels along Akira’s eyebrows, down to the soft skin of his eyelids that flutter closed beneath his touch, down the length of his nose, all the way to the sharp chin.  Gently, so gently, he feels the soft plushness of his lips against his finger.  There is no becoming acquainted with this face, only reacquainted, because Shiro knows without a doubt that he recognizes it.  Because he loves this face.

He recognizes it all, even the soft fluttering of Keith’s heartbeat as Shiro sinks his hand to the crevice of Keith’s neck, where it fits so perfectly, like it always has.

He’s holding the echoes of the times they were intimate, not long ago.  A touch and warmth he’s been craving and missing for too long now.  He’s here.  He’s been here all along.  Right beneath his hands, as they shake.

It’s him.

It’s him.

Shiro fights the crumpling of his face and the incoming tears, but he’s too weak to the moment.  He chokes out a soft surprised sound in the back of his throat that’s almost a chuckle.  “...It’s you.”

Keith grips Shiro’s wrist and gives it a squeeze.  “Yeah,” he whispers around tears.  “Yeah, it’s me.  It’s Keith.  It’s me.”

Shiro blinks his eyes open, sees the shining silver hair and the glitter and the makeup and the clothes.

He loves it all, he does, but especially the one staring up at him through it all, heart vulnerable and bleeding.

Watching Shiro, Keith reaches up and feels for the piercings in his ears, carefully undoing them and taking them out of his skin, from his eyebrow.  He shoves them away into his pockets, leaving only bare flesh.

“Okay?”  Keith whispers.

Shiro doesn’t even realize he’s holding his breath.  Both him and the people still out there, totally forgotten by them.

Keith reaches for his wig.  He pulls it from his head, tugging its grasp on him, and he tosses it away, across the stage.  It's silver locks gleam in the light, but it's distant.

Keith, with his coal black hair.  Keith, ears unadorned and makeup wearing from his scar.

He smiles up at Shiro shyly, hesitance in his eyes.

It feels like getting to know each other again.  It’s a little awkward, but not in a painful way.  It’s sweet and new and exciting.

The hair that shines like starlight is gone, but Keith’s eyes sparkle so brightly.

Shiro tilts his head, taking in all that’s in Keith’s face.  And his heart feels like it might burst from all that’s there.

It's been a lifetime since he’s last seen him.  With a small choked laugh, Shiro can’t help himself anymore.  The distance, these few inches, is too much.  He wraps his arms around Keith, pulling him into his chest as he yelps in surprise.  He holds Keith’s lithe familiar frame close.  “Keith.  Keith.  I’ve missed you so much,” Shiro whispers fiercely into his ear.  “All these days thinking you were alone...  Don’t do that to me again.”

“I won’t,” Keith clings to Shiro with a death grip.  He nestles his head into Shiro’s shoulder, pressing his face in hard into his skin.  “I was being so stupid.  I was such an idiot.  Right from the start.”

His eyes fill with tears but he doesn’t even try to stop them from falling over his cheeks.  “I get it now, Keith.  I do.  I know you’ve been in so much pain, alone.  But you don’t have to do these things alone, not anymore.  I’m here now.”

Distantly, so distantly, there’s the sound of cameras going off and video recorders pointed straight on them.  If he were paying attention, it’d feel like they were burning holes into them for all the attention they’re giving - razor focused.

But he’s not.  His attention is on the one person in front of him and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Keith pulls back, staring at Shiro almost in disbelief.  “You’re not mad?  You’re not upset I lied with you?  I did to you what everyone else did, what you hate most.”

Shiro brushes away the tears in Keith’s eyes.  “Keith.  Someone very wise taught me something about humanity once: sometimes in this life, we’re forced into corners we could not predict, could not prepare for, and we’re left having no idea what to do.  On accident, we make a mess of our life, feeling like we have no other options...but life works in funny ways.  Sometimes things end up better than you ever could want.

“These past few weeks, I‘ve been thinking about all the knots and ties that have been twisting Akira up, tighter and tighter.  I’ve been watching them strangle Akira...strangle you...  Fear makes us do funny things and it must’ve taken so much strength to make that leap.  I don’t blame you, Keith.  I’m proud of you.”

Keith snorts wearily.  “Akira said that.”

“Like I said.  Wise, in his way.  It’s funny.”

Keith looks raw before him, completely stripped and vulnerable.  Uncertain.  Shiro wants to soothe it away.  He murmurs lowly, “I thought that, facing you, I’d feel betrayal and hurt.  Maybe anger. I was worried I’d feel like I was losing you, that’s why I didn’t want to see.  Because then I couldn’t pretend anymore...” He rubs his thumb beneath the softness of Keith’s eye, down his supple cheeks that are full with his smile that’s sweeter than the sun.  “But now, here, looking at you, I don’t feel any of those things.  I only feel relief.  I’m telling you, I’m not just saying it: I get why you did what you did.  It was a surprise to hear it at first, but...our pasts have some similarities in a way...and I get it.  I get wanting to hide.  I’m not mad.”  He stops think about it, to do a little mental check to make sure it’s still true, that he’s still not upset.  It is.

“I was so confused...” Keith says.  “I thought, that by giving you Akira, I was giving you the better part of me, the one worthy.  I was scared, after my last shitty boyfriend, after everything the media makes me feel, that I wouldn’t be enough.  ...I wanted to be enough for you.  But now I realize I was this whole time...  It just took me wrapping you up in this mess to figure that out.”  Keith swallows hard, looking down, guilt still in his eyes.  “...Can you ever forgive me...?”

Shiro tilts Keith’s chin up slightly.  He sees the glitter on his eyes, the cover up over his scars.  Shiro gently runs a finger over it.  “...There’s nothing to forgive.”

They wrap the other in another fierce hug, breathing the other in.  Shiro lifts Keith right off his feet and Keith just hums into it, completely blissfully unbothered.

A gentle hand touches both of their shoulders, pulling them out of their warm bubble together.  They look up into Krolia’s amused face.  She would never admit to the red-rim in her eyes.  “...Why don’t we move this somewhere else, hm?  We can have the next performer entertain.  Maybe with a song this time.”

“Oh, shit,” Keith laughs into Shiro’s neck, turning his face into the crowd, as if he only just remembered they were there, watching.  “Oh, shit.”  But he can’t stop laughing.

Shiro laughs too as he sets Keith down to his feet.  Everyone’s just staring at them and it’s so weird.  He thinks he should be embarrassed, but isn’t this how Akira’s always lived his life?

Keith doesn’t let go of his hand.

All of Keith’s family is waiting backstage.  Keith’s dad has tears in his eyes as he claps them both silently on the shoulders and nods his approval.

Oh, congratulations, you too!  I knew everything would turn out alright in the end!” Coran is saying as he wraps them both in a ridiculously tight hug.

And Allura is smiling sweetly with Lance at their side, where he stands bursting with excitement, waiting for them.

“Shiro!”  Lance crows, tossing himself on top of him.  He slaps his back with way too much enthusiasm.  Shiro laughs.

“...I’m happy for you two,” Allura says.  “Lance and I are, erm, no longer using the the top balcony at the moment, as I’m sure you can see.  If you hurry, you might still make the fireworks.”

“‘At the moment’?”  Keith laughs, snickering.  He points above the both of them as he pulls Shiro down the steps and out to the balcony.  “Mistletoe.”

Lance squawks and Allura blinks over to him in surprise.

“Now you’ve got to kiss!  It’s tradition!” Coran crows before the curtain to backstage falls and Shiro and Keith are on their way.

 

They don’t miss the fireworks.

They’re still lighting up the night sky.  It’s almost midnight and they suddenly find they’re tired, so tired, but blissfully, comfortably content and warm inside as they sit together on the marble balcony overlooking Coran’s exquisite gardens.  Shiro can see the masterfully sculpted animal topiary, a proud collection of lions settled along the horizon. And the fireworks above, exploding into magnificence, as if they approved of the night too.

It’s beautiful.  Shiro’s so lucky surrounded by it all and he knows it.  But what he’s absolutely luckiest about, that he’d trade everything else for, is the one sitting beside him.

“So now the whole world knows,” Shiro murmurs, looking over at Keith’s expression, seeking out any tension.

Keith just smiles up into the fireworks, undisturbed.  “I don’t care.  ...You know what?  I feel lighter than I have in maybe...forever.”  He turns his smile over to Shiro and scoots in.  “...You?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not like you’re not affected by this.  We’re probably already all over the news.  I bet one half will be adored by it and the other will be spewing venom.  They’ll probably say it’s my next publicity stunt since my career’s fading.  A desperate grab for attention.”

Shiro snorts.  “Oh yeah, such a failing career...”

“They will drag your name.  People will make painful assumptions about you...they always will.  Even if I quit, they won’t stop.”

“Mm,” Shiro hums, wrapping his arm around Keith’s shoulders tighter.  “No.  I don’t care.  It’s nothing new.  At least, this time, it’s for something that’s worth it.”

Keith shifts in his seat, turning to look at Shiro.  “I want to tell you something.”

Shiro gives him his undivided attention, repositioning his arms around Keith’s shoulders so they can remain as close as possible.  “Okay.  I’m listening.”

“I know you are, Shiro.  I just want you to know, if you’re ever upset at all, about anything - about all of this, or maybe, down the line, about something else - I completely understand and I think we should talk about it.  Maybe not now.  When you’re ready.  But I want you to be able to confide in me.  I want to be someone you can rely on.  I want you to feel comfortable being honest with me...and I swear, I’ll be honest with you too.  I know it’ll take awhile to earn your trust back, but...when you’re ready, I’m here.  I know a song is only valid for one confession.”

Shiro snorts.  “Me too, Keith,” Shiro hums. “I want all of that too.”

Keith smiles quietly into his hands.  He leans his head back on Shiro’s shoulder as they stare up into the fireworks.  “I am going to quit, you know,” he hums lowly.  “For now, at least.  I need to get back to myself.  Relearn who I am...let my parents see each other again, let my mom have a life again.  I want to learn more about you.  We can both go traveling, see the world.  Us.  Together.  I’ll take you wherever you want to go.  We have all the time in the world.”

Spain,” Shiro says.

Keith laughs.  “Yes, okay.  But first: Disneyland.”

Shiro chuckles too, looking over.  “You’ve been wanting to go for so long.”

“It’ll be so fun.  It has your name written on it, I swear.  You’re going to love it.”

“Sounds good to me.  Can we dress up?”

“They don’t let you,” Keith says.

“They don’t let you?  What’s the point then?”

“Besides,” Keith hums, tracing patterns on Shiro’s shirt.  “...I think I’ve had enough with playing pretend for now.”

“Okay,” Shiro whispers.

“No more secrets,” Keith promises, cuddling into Shiro’s side closer.  “I want to be someone you can rely on.  I want us to be each other’s support.  There’s probably a lot we don’t know about the other.  I’m excited to learn all there is to know about you.”

Shiro snorts.  “Me too.  So let’s start now.”

“Mm?”

“Our secrets,” Shiro shrugs.  “Let’s hear them.  I’ll start: I love cabbage.”

“No, you don’t.  No one loves cabbage.”

“I swear to god,” Shiro says, holding up his right hand and trying to press back a laugh, but he’s cracking so easily.  “Kimchi is delicious.  I like brussel sprouts too.”

“Ugh,” Keith laughs.  “That stuff smells!  I bet you drink the juice out a pickle jar too, don’t you?”

“Do you not?  Don’t tell me you waste it.”

Keith tilts his head back as he laughs.  “It’s all yours next time.  Okay.  Well, my turn.  When I was little, I was obsessed with sucking on my big toe.”

“Oh.  Keith.  That’s so gross.”

Keith’s whole frame shakes with his laughter.  “I was like...two.  I dare you do admit a worse one.”

“You think that’s the worst secret I have?”  Shiro snorts.  “When I was little, I made out with your poster.”

Keith chokes.  “What?  Wait a minute, I thought you found me after your accident.”

“Well.  I might not have been all that little.”

Keith starts laughing again, deep from his belly.  “You’re lying.”

“This is a truth session, Keith.  Why would I do that?”

“Oh, man.  I don’t even want to know what you did with that pillow.”

“Keith, Keith, Keith.  Some things were sacred.”

“God.”  His laughter is contagious, unguarded and pure and genuine.  It catches Shiro and he’s laughing too.

And they’re warm and they’re soft and they’re cared for.  No walls between them.

It’s just Keith and Shiro.  Akira’s glitter is rubbed away.  His scars are showing.  His wounds.

It’s him.

Keith whispers, settling down from his laughter again.  He tightens his hold around Shiro’s waist. “...Thank you, Shiro.  ...Thank you for accepting me.  I’ve spent these past nights miserable.  And all I had to do was tell you.”

“Your mom believed in us.”

“Yes.  She did,” Keith smiles softly.  "You should've heard her last night, trying to convince me to tell you right then and there.  She had unshakeable faith in you... But then, she always knows best.”

Shiro wraps his arm around Keith tighter, bundling him closer into his side.  He can see their breath in soft puffy clouds, catching the color from the light above and it feels so magical.  So lucky.

“...Keith?”  He murmurs. “I need you to know: you’ve never been some consolation prize to me.  Never.  Not once since the first time I saw you, barreling through the elevator door with coffee in hand, have I thought you were anything but the most amazing, most wonderful human being on the entire planet.”

Keith laughs softly.  “...Yeah? Well, that’s a ‘no’ to consolation prizes, but what about ‘constellation prizes’?”

Shiro laughs wetly, rocking into Keith to bump his cheek on Keith’s head.  “Stop that. You know what I mean.”

“Yeah,” Keith whispers.  “Yeah, I do.”

Shiro runs his hands through the length of Keith’s hair.  It’s sweaty and sticking to his forehead, but Keith looks bright like this, worn to his core, bright and beautiful.  But he sees Akira in him too. In the eyeshadow still holding strong, in the silky smooth foundation coating the bits of his face that haven’t yet faded away.  And his clothes.  It will take awhile to get used to and he's thrilled to remember they'll have that time together.

Shiro leans in, gently gathering Keith’s hands into the space shared between them, rubbing at Keith’s knuckles.  “Hey. You said something in there. Something I’ve never heard you say. You said you loved me...” Shiro breathes.

“I did,” Keith whispers back.  “...I do.  I meant everything I said.  I wish I had just said it sooner.”

Shiro hums, rocking them gently back and forth, turning his eyes back up to the fireworks and smiling, so at peace, so content.  “And you mean everything to me.  And I love you more now than I ever have.  I told you before, didn't I?  We’re stronger than some stupid lie.”

Keith reaches up Shiro's arms, gripping to them, unable to speak.  He nods sharply, his eyes red, at the edge of tears.  "Good," he whispers.  “Good.”  He wipes roughly at his face and then laughs.  “I’m not going to cry anymore tonight. Tonight is reserved for happiness only.  I was hoping you'd say you wouldn’t run.  Because if you were going to, then I'd have to chase after you."

"I'm not that great at running," Shiro chuckles and shrugs.

“Good news for me,” Keith laughs wetly.  He presses his face into Shiro's chest and clings to him there, breathing him in.  Keeping him close.  “I love you,” he whispers.  “I love you.  ...I love you.”

“I love you too,” Shiro whispers into his ear.

Keith’s breath catches and he hides his face into Shiro’s shirt as his back jerks in and out choppily, most definitely crying.  Shiro chuckles softly and rubs at his back.  “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Mn,” Keith hums, nodding desperately.

“I won’t be running off anywhere.  I love you for you.  All of you.  Even when you’re cussing out people in bars.”

Keith laughs helplessly, sound still wet with tears.

“Or knocking out their teeth with your fists.”

“His teeth were fine.”

“Or when you’re pretending to be someone else.  ...When you’re hiding away.  Even then.  Maybe especially then.  ...Just let me in next time . You don’t have to hide from me anymore.  Not me.  Never again.”

Keith pulls away a few inches so he can look up into Shiro’s face and smile.  There’s so much love and warmth in his eyes.  “...Okay,” he agrees.  “Okay.  I will.  I promise.”

“Keith.  Akira.  You’re you.  I love you.”

Keith chuckles warmly.  There’s a blush high in his cheeks and a fluttering eagerness in his voice that is so utterly adorably Keith.  How could anyone resist that?

Shiro gently runs his thumb along Keith’s jawline.  “...Can I kiss you?  Would you mind?”

Keith laughs, free and open.  “Shiro.  Why would I mind?”

So, Shiro leans down, kissing Keith with all the love he has in his heart, pouring his soul into the kiss with this one little person in front of him, this fiery wonderful being.  The fireworks spread across the sky above them, little shapes of stars and hearts, wrapping them in glittering love.

If they were focused on anyone beyond themselves, they might’ve noticed the grand finale of the fireworks painting the sky rainbows of magnificent color.  They would’ve seen the ending of it as they settled down, as the party winded to an end and everyone went home.

But they don’t notice.  Why would they when they have the other still here, in their hands?

Keith’s still sobbing.  Shiro’s still crying as they hold each other.

“I love you,” Keith whispers.  His glitter makeup is the biggest mess, running down his face.  The scar he always has so carefully hidden is vibrant - a pitted gash in his face.

No, Keith doesn’t look like your typical god, not exactly, he looks like himself.  And isn’t there a bit of godliness in that?  He doesn’t need the glitter - his eyes shine with something better - like a reflection of the night sky and all its stars.  He doesn’t need the coverup - not to hide, because why would anyone with his beauty need to do something silly like that?

Yes, there are imperfections.

And in them lies the perfection.

Shiro loves every bit of him.

Shiro loves Keith.

He’s so very beautiful.

Shiro has to let him know, for the twentieth time that night.  He says it in the way he knows best, “I love you.”

Keith’s smile is like the sun.  “I love you, too.”

And they kiss again.

 

Chapter Text

Keith stands on the border between light and dark.  Pale. Agitated. He keeps fidgeting with the bottom hem of his blazer and tucking his coal black hair behind his ears again and again.  It just won’t cooperate to his will no matter how he tries.

The scar on his face knows no rest as he bites his lip, touching the tips of his fingers to the mangled divot there.  The rest of his perfect skin means nothing beside it. He has over ten years of people ingraining into his susceptible mind that looking like this, raw like this, is a travesty.

In the dark, still hidden behind the curtains, Keith murmurs lowly in face of the light, “...I don’t know if I can do this.  It feels wrong, like I forgot pants. And beneath where the pants should be I forgot underwear .”

Keith takes in a long shaky breath as he stares bullets into the podium center stage, spotlight screaming of persecution.  In only a few minutes, that’s where he’ll be, all he needs are the handcuffs.

His voice lowers even more, so quiet Shiro has to lean in.  “Everything’s going to blow up in our faces again. I don’t know if I can face tomorrow.”

“It’s all going to be fine, Keith,” Shiro hums lowly, resting his palm gently on the bottom of Keith’s jawline.  “They’re going to love you.”

Shiro tries to be a calm pillar of strength for Keith, but it’s true: the lights are bright and prickle at his focus.  The low toned anticipation buzzing through the crowd does the tension no favors. And though these are sworn professionals - journalists for the most respectable papers - when has any crowd involving Akira ever been calm ?

Even now, they hear it: Akira , they whisper.  Like a mantra, prying for the core of him.  Keith keeps fidgeting beneath that, fingers going to his scar, feeling out the natural strands of his hair, messing with the bareness of his face, raw, nothing covering him up.

“Damn,” he whispers, letting out a shaky laugh.  “I’ve never been this nervous before. Never. I knew I should’ve just posted an explanation to my site instead of all this.  Kolivan was right. Everything’s different now. I’m different now.  I’m going to shit myself.”

Shiro chuckles lowly.  “It would’ve sufficed. Your website has been getting an unreal amount of traffic lately.  I think everyone’s been thinking the same thing. But when have you ever done anything halfway?”

Keith groans.  “You’re asking that after all this?”  He gestures to himself and hangs his head, groaning.  “...Posting on the website would’ve been the easy way.  But I kept thinking to myself...what if that were you out there?  What if you and I had never met and you were confused and hurt and wanting some sort of explanation - not from the tabloids, but from me?  It hurts to think that there are people as kind as you out there who could be in pain because I'm too afraid. This is the least I wish I could do.”

“Okay,” Shiro whispers, leaning in to kiss Keith’s forehead.  “I’ll be right here the whole time if you need me. We can do an emergency on-stage kiss or something if you think you need it.  Distract them from the situation at hand.”

Keith laughs wearily as he runs his hands through his hair slowly.  “Yeah, since that worked out so well last time. ...I did love the look on your face though.  I won’t ever be forgetting that. And the crowd always went so wild.” He turns a smile up at Shiro.  “But this is different now. I’m just Keith this time.”

Shiro’s wounded-Keith senses go off.   “Wait a second. What do you mean, ‘just Keith’?”

Keith opens his mouth to speak, the self-grudging eye roll already in his eyes.

Shiro cuts him off, placing a hand over Keith’s mouth.  “Don’t you say that.”

Keith furrows his brow in confusion and asks beneath Shiro’s hand, voice muffled, “Say what?”

“Whatever it is you’re about to say.  I’ll fight you. I’ll do it, you know.  I’ll fight anyone who insults the Keith Kogane.”

Keith laughs.  “Even if it’s me?”

“Especially if it’s you.  Haven't you been down on yourself enough by now?”

“Okay, okay,” Keith snorts, pushing Shiro’s hand away from his mouth.  “...Like you’d stand a chance against me though.”

Shiro ignores him because he knows he’s right - for now .  After the karate lessons he’s starting to take from Krolia and Keith, maybe it’ll be another story.

He occupies himself with happily smoothing the wrinkles from Keith’s shirt.  A bit of his tension is already unwinding so Shiro tries to keep it going. “You look great.  I mean it. They’re lucky getting to see both sides of you. Double the you. I’m a little jealous they’re getting my side of you too.”

Keith chuckles beneath the love, letting it soothe his fears and stress.  “Shiro, every bit of me is yours and only yours." He softens even more, cheeks beginning to glow with warmth again.

Krolia walks up, patting the both of them on the shoulder.  There’s apprehension in her expression too, but she hides it before Keith looks up into her face, searching for her direction.  She smiles down at him with golden confidence. “How are you boys doing? You look nervous, Keith.”

“I don’t get nervous,” he breathes, but his eyes say the exact opposite.

She chuckles softly.  “You’ll be fine. Everyone already knows you’re Akira, Shiro included, thank god..." she mutters beneath her breath.  "The hardest part is over.  Come now, the press is waiting for you. Ready?”

Keith groans, shoving his entire face right into Shiro’s chest and tossing his arms around him for a big hug.  Shiro gathers him up securely, rubbing his back in soothing circles and humming comfortingly. “Just like you’ve practiced and then, in only a few minutes, we can get out of here and go out for Starbucks.  Get grande frappuccinos.”

“Venti.  And extra caramel,” Keith mumbles into his chest.

“Extra syrup and extra drizzle,” Shiro promises.

When Shiro and Keith part, Krolia pats him on the back in encouragement.  “Remember. This isn’t goodbye. It’s an intermission. You’ll be back and next time, it’ll be on your terms.”

“You’re right,” Keith whispers.  “I need this.”

She chuckles slightly, rubbing his shoulders.  “You deserve it, Keith. You’ve worked so hard.”

Kolivan is already out with Regris, guarding the front of the stage.  The press is beginning to heckle - what’s taking him so long? - and Kolivan is getting impatient.  He turns a sharp look sidestage to Keith.

Raw, normal, wide-eyed Keith.  Exposed and stripped down like he’s never been before. At least not purposely, not premeditated.  He clears his throat and takes one last look into Shiro’s eyes, a bit of desperation there that he’s trying his best to suppress.

Shiro whispers, leaning in to sneak a kiss to his soft warm cheek, “Pretend it’s me out there.  I love the both of you. They will too.”

Shiro can hear the sound of Keith swallowing hard as he lets out one last shaky breath.  “You were a pretty big fan.”

“I am.  Your biggest fan.”

“That’s all I need then,” Keith says, gathering that bit of courage into himself.  He takes a step back from Shiro, holding their hands out in between them. He flicks one last smile and then, steeling himself, turns and takes a step away, into the light.

Shiro watches his small back as he blazes forward, his black hair framing his shoulders.  Brave, like Akira. Real, like Keith.

Shiro’s heart swells with pride.  All that fear and Keith does it anyway.  As if Shiro could love him even more.

It’s immediately different.

Where Akira is always met with cheers and applause, wild hoots and crazed hollering, Keith is met with deathly silence.  Everyone goes quiet. Everyone. Is it awe? Is it horror? The hush that overwhelms the room is almost louder than the cheers that they’re used to.  Shiro can see in the tightness of Keith’s posture the way he notices, the way he has to push through and pretend nothing’s wrong.

Krolia clamps a hand down on Shiro’s shoulders for support, and they frown into the crowd together, trying to scope out their expressions.  Her grip is almost painful. The two of them buzz more than Keith, even though they’re safe behind the curtains. It’s not about that. Keith looks so vulnerable and small all by himself out there.  They have to quell their reflexes to follow him into the harsh lighting.

Keith stops at the podium.  He looks out toward everyone and their complete stillness, taking them all in, faltering in the stiff silence.  He takes one last look back in the sidelines where Shiro and Krolia are, standing and waiting for him. His comfort, his support.  They love him. It’s undoubtable. It’s enough.

His expression changes.  He nods slightly.

He’ll be okay.

Keith clears his throat and shifts the microphone a bit, leaning forward and placing his hands on the podium.  His voice rings loud and clear and he sounds brave, confident. “Hello, everyone. Thank you for coming out today.  This is different, isn’t it?” Feedback builds and Keith laughs awkwardly under his breath, rolling forward onto the tips of his toes.  “Uh. Sorry. You’d think I’ve never been out on stage before...”

Some laugh, but there’s always that one misinformed asshole in a crowd who calls out, tone snotty and full of anger, “This was a press conference for Akira .  So where is he ?”

Keith blinks slowly, biting at his lip.  He clears his throat. “Right. Akira .  You came out here to see him.  He promised you that he’d come out of hiding and explain a few things.  For anyone who hasn’t gone on the internet or walked past a newstand in the past few months, maybe you weren’t expecting me.  It’s time to make it official.

“It’s already been confirmed I’m not Akira’s cousin, so who am I?

“You’ve all probably noticed my similarities, but please note my differences as well.  My dark hair. The dark shadows under my eyes. This scar across my face that I’ll have for the rest of my life, no matter how good of a doctor I sought after. I’m exactly who you think I am.

"I’m twenty-three years old.  I’m gay. I was homeschooled all my life and never actually had time for college.  I have a wolf...and a cat. I love my family. I love my boyfriend. I love to sing, I love to act.  My birth name is Keith Akira Kogane.” He clears his throat roughly and says in firm words that ring across the room, “But you all know me as Akira.

“I am one in the same.  All those things that make up 'Keith', they make up 'Akira' too. I'm just a boy who's been lucky enough to live such an incredible life, transported right into the middle of a dream.  I want to start off by saying that I’m so so grateful for everything and all of you. I’ve been so lucky, experienced things I hadn’t even dreamed I could, felt the love of so many, been surprised by how good this world can be.  But Akira has become bigger than anyone could’ve ever imagined. I’ve spent almost my entire life trying to keep up with the demands of being him. Swept up in it all, I hadn’t realized, hadn’t seen, just how much everything had been drowning me beneath the pressure.

“I'm an introvert by nature and moments of peace are incredibly important to me.  I needed some solace in a world that can get crazy and hectic sometimes and just stripping myself of the wig and makeup, putting up my disguise wasn’t enough anymore.  The media, the trying to maintain appearances, trying not to show any weaknesses...it broke me. Something just snapped inside of me. My mental health plummeted all at once and I didn’t know how to handle it.  I hit my lowest point.

"But, surprisingly, it turned out to maybe be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.  Because of it, I discovered a lot about myself.

“In Japan, there’s an artform called Kintsugi.  When pottery breaks, rather than being discarded, the broken pieces are put back together with gold.  There’s no hiding its journey, there’s no denying it. Think of it like that.  To be broken means you can be reformed and you're not the same, no, but is that such a bad thing?

"I have scars across my flesh.  Wounds you can and can't see. I used to be ashamed of each and every one them, stark and ugly across my carefully cultivated appearance, until I realized they were parts of me worthy of love as well.  ...All thanks to the loved ones in my life, who have supported and loved me for me, giving me the strength and courage to learn to love myself as well..."

He takes a deep breath, looking out and centering himself.

“I wanted to gather you all here today for two reasons.  One was to officially show you the face beneath the mask, nothing impromptu about it.  I wanted for you to hear it from me this time, not some random news station. But my second reason is this: I need a bit more time.  After my next movie, I’ll be taking an indefinite hiatus. No more concerts for awhile, no more acting, no more interviews. Nothing.  After this movie releases, I request your respect. I need a break. It is absolutely necessary.”

Just as expected: the audience erupts into chaos.  Cameras start going off, questions start being shouted.  Hands are waving in the air frantically, demanding his answer.  Kolivan and Regris have their hands full keeping them at bay.

Respectable journalists.  Keith holds strong.

“Is it because of Shiro?”  The loudest question presses in on him.  “Are you abandoning your fans for love ?”

He keeps calm as he says firmly, “I will be spending this break with my loved ones, and yes, Shiro is a part of that.  My friends, my family: they are incredibly important to me. I’ve been neglecting that part of my life for far too long, repeatedly telling myself, 'one day'.  'One day' is today. I need this; we all do. I hope everyone can come to understand that.

“But I’m not abandoning anyone.  I never want to hear that.  Akira will always be there for you, even in my silence.  When you listen to my songs, that is my heart, and I’m with you.  When you hear my voice, that’s my soul trying to lift you up. You .  You all have done so much for me already and I know it.  You encouraged and supported me during my absolute lowest points; when I was having problems trying to figure out my own life, you guys were there for me.  It is wonderful to feel your love and be apart of it, it’s been my honor. But I’ve finally found what’s right for me and it’s too special to take for granted.  I have to follow that trail and see where it leads, another amazing adventure.

“This isn’t goodbye.  I’m going to recharge and make use of this time to do things I’ve always wanted to do.  I’m going to keep an open mind and continue absorbing things about this world that I love.  To learn even more about this place we live in and the people in it, to let creativity I’ve never had the chance to nurture build up again.  When I return, I want it to feel right, I want to feel whole again, like a phoenix rising from the flames. I won't accept less and neither should any of you.  We all deserve the best. Watch for me. I’m coming back, and when I do, I hope you’ll be there too, even stronger than before, with new experiences that have shaped us into something new, something reformed.  Let’s meet in the middle next time, you and me. And together, by then, we’ll have brought about a better world.

"Thank you all.  That's all."

He bows one last time, and when he straightens back up to the sound of cameras clicking and the thunderous applause and whistling, he smiles.  The paleness of his face is washed away with the shine of inspired color. There’s no anxiety around the edges of him, or tension in his shoulders like Krolia had to try to knead out earlier with her elbows as he grumbled in frustration.  He’s found new strength even these last few minutes. That confidence that was always with Akira is with Keith as well. Shiro can’t help but laugh in relief. Everything he does is amazing.

He stands there in the center of the light, no hiding.  Raw, beautiful Keith. Something’s beginning to grow in him, something even more special than before, if that’s at all possible.  It’s developed roots at his feet and it’s blossoming, more stunning than Shiro imagined a thing could exist. All he can do is watch on in awe over Keith.

The world loves him.  Shiro loves him. He has nothing to fear.

“A kiss!”  The crowd is cheering.  “Come on, with the one who started it!  One last kiss!”

Keith looks tiredly entertained.  He turns to smile crookedly at Shiro, amusement in his eyes.  He goes back to the mic to gently let them down, but Shiro’s feeling inspired after that speech.  Never would Shiro normally even consider something like this, but Keith does something funny to his heart.

It feels right somehow, doesn’t it?  Like things coming full circle. Keith’s always been the one to sweep Shiro off his feet with a sparkling kiss, coaxing him into this impossible journey with a laugh.  It’s been more amazing than Shiro could ever have dreamed. It’s Shiro’s turn.

Shiro takes to the stage, hears the crowd going wild with enthusiasm, hooting their full-hearted encouragement, sees the way Keith turns and blinks in stunned surprise.

“What are you -” Keith asks in wonder before Shiro grabs him and dips him low, kissing the question right off his mouth.

Keith's legs buckle from underneath him as he exclaims in surprise, but it's fine, Shiro's got him.  Keith melts right into his hold and the kiss like liquid gold.

It’s picture-perfect.  Literally. The cameras keep going off.  Krolia smiles warmly from backstage. The moment is so sweet.

Keith’s laughing by the time he lets go, eyes twinkling with all the brightness of the universe as he looks up into Shiro’s face.  “You are such a dork,” he whispers.  The emotion burns his throat as he goes back in for a tight hug, cupping his hand behind Shiro’s neck.

Shiro laughs too, tightening his hold around Keith’s waist.  He hums lowly, “I wanted to see your face this time.  I did warn you earlier, backstage.”

“You did ,” Keith laughs again.  He smiles up at Shiro and in his eyes is the most complete and full happiness Shiro’s ever seen; he feels it echoed in his own.

They both look out to the crowd.  His goodbye, indefinitely. All those eyes prying for the last time.  Officially, at least.

Keith slides his hand down to Shiro’s and holds him there as he turns back to the mic.

“Please welcome Shiro, everyone.  He’s an invaluable part of my life now and forevermore and I wouldn't trade him for the entire universe.

“So now you know, from my own mouth.  Like it or not. Protest it, try to change our minds, I’m not worried.  I’ve never been more sure about anything in my entire life.

"One last bit of advice before I go.  Learn from my mistakes. If your happiness comes knocking, don’t hesitate.  Don’t question it. Don’t listen to others if they tell you you’re wrong. You know your heart, so follow its call.  This is my happiness and I’m going to do the same. I hope you all find yours. I promise, down the road, good things are waiting for you.  I’ll be with you. Until next time, I’m quietly rooting for you.”

Keith breathes it all in one last time, eyes bright as he looks out over the room.  All the lovely people in front of him, all this hope, the world at their feet. His heart is so full.

It doesn’t feel like the end at all.  It’s a new beginning.

“I love you all.”

 

The months burn by like wildfire.

There’s the media, the filming, the moving in together, the media, the online shopping for furniture together, realizing it doesn’t work upon delivery, agonizing about having to reorder, the media, the sneaking around town to get some air , Keith carefully answering a few untied questions on Akira’s site, figuring out how to go for walks with Kosmo and Red without being noticed (they have a big backyard), the fucking media .  Even something as simple as coffee runs have become horrendous and impossible with the way the paparazzi and random fans are lurking, eager for a chance to jump ‘ one last time’ .  Everyone knows the both of them, disguise or not.  Everyone knows their faces. Everyone would kill to get a piece of either of them.  Even the smallest piece.

And the media.   They both knew the press conference was going to be like throwing gasoline on a lit building.  It turned out to be worse. So much for respecting Keith’s break. It’s as if they’re all desperate to get a piece of him before he closes shop, some people believe it was just his most recent publicity stunt in an attempt to rekindle a stagnant flame (not that any thing was stagnating, but it sure as hell worked).  Every crowd they get cornered by is impossible to appease. Even Shiro’s hand aches from signing autographs, though why him is way beyond his level of comprehension.  Even Keith is getting frazzled with the lot of it.  They’re exhausted.

They’ve had to buffen up security.  Regris has some friends that ‘know karate and parkour’ that they’ve had to hire for added protection.

“Is it really necessary?”  Shiro asks at first. It’s weird having a chaperone wherever he goes, like he’s a helpless child who can’t handle himself.  Security even follows him to the bathroom, which Shiro protested against at first, until crazy fans started popping their faces up over the sides of stalls to look in at Shiro.  That just wasn’t right. Not to mention when their fans wait outside of their home gates day in and day out, hands clenching the metal and faces shoved between the cracks. It’s extremely disconcerting to wake up to.  Shiro and Keith sighed and caved when Kolivan suggested maybe they get a guard gate and station security there 24/7.

And yeah, it’s their fans.  The amount of risqué fanart online of the both of them is both staggering and incredibly inspiring.  Keith’s found some masterpieces he may or may not have hung up in their room and paid the artists good money for.

But you know what?  There’s good in it too.  Of course there is. They’re happy.  They’re so happy and neither would give up a minute of it if it meant they couldn’t have the other.  They use moments amid the chaos to look over their shoulder and smile at the other and in those moments they know true peace.

Things will start to slow down sometime.  At least, that’s what Keith keeps breathing out, face pressed firmly into Shiro’s chest, exhausted and drained, clinging to the hope with tight hands.  But, for now, they hide.

One sunny afternoon, there’s a knock on their front door and Keith is still half asleep on the couch beneath Shiro, pliant and mumbling about how he can’t get it, how he’s still tired from their activities all morning, so Shiro carefully plucks Red from his side, heaves Kosmo from their feet, and slips off the couch.

“Did you order something?”  Shiro yawns as he stretches out his stomach and back, walking through the main hall to get to the door.  He has to speak louder to make sure Keith can hear and his voice echoes off the walls. “I thought we were having the security accept it.  I don’t know how many more autographs my poor wrist can take.”

He can hear Keith snort lazily and groan, probably rolling onto his back in this newfound spring heat.  “Your wrist seemed fine a little while ago. I still feel pretty good anyway.”

Stop .”

Keith laughs again.  “It’s not pizza. Though that’s a good idea, we haven’t had that in awhile.  Like three whole days.”

“Who is it then?”  Shiro hums.

He’s not really sure who he was expecting, but when he opens the door and the light blares in, he blinks in surprise.

It’s a group of people.  A group of warm friendly grinning people.  It’s them.

Shiro! ”  The gang cries, all trying to push the other out of the way to get to Shiro first, tossing their arms around him.  They all pile on and Shiro can take it. He laughs in surprise as he holds them all.

“Guys?!  Hey! What are you all doing here?”

“God, look at you ,” Pidge says, taking a step back with wide eyes.  “You’re huge .  Are you even Shiro anymore?”

“Has Keith been feeding you wheaties?”  Lance grabs hold of Shiro’s bicep to feel it.  “It’s only been like a month or two, what the heck?”

Shiro laughs, brushing him off playfully.  “Hands off. I’ve been working out more lately.  We have a nice gym upstairs."

“And you’re so tan .”  Lance whistles as they all nod in agreement.  “California’s really done a number on you.”

He rolls his bangs in between his fingers like that’ll help him feel the tan on his face.  “Am I really? We’ve started trying to get out a bit more. I want to say that people have calmed down a bit, but -”

Matt snorts.  “We saw the crowd in front of the house.  Don’t they have better things to do? It’s weird .”

Shiro rubs a resigned hand over his face.  “I think they go for walks and then decide to take a look?”

Hunk snorts.  “And then they just decide to stay for a few hours.”

“I guess?  I don’t know.”  He nods to Allura, who Lance steps back to put an arm around.  “Hi, Allura. I see they’ve roped you into their shenanigans. I'm so sorry.”

She laughs into her hand.  “Hello, Shiro. Don't worry about me; I'm strong and can handle them.  I miss seeing you back at the office. You seem comfortable in this lifestyle.”

Matt says, “It’s crazy.  Things are still nuts back where we live too.  Did you know that people are now asking me questions about you?  I feel like a celebrity myself.  Gonna start needing my own bodyguard.  Pidge, what do you say?”

“You couldn’t pay me enough,” Pidge says.  “I’ve seen it. They stop him to gush over how beautiful you and Keith are and if you’re getting married or have started the adoption process yet.  I’ve got to admit, I do like the weird ones though. Like when they ask for tickets to your wedding. Or recently, at Starbucks, one person asked if Matt’s ever felt your muscles.”

Shiro snorts.  “You have to get your own coffee now?”

Lance says, “Well, what’s he supposed to do?  His coffee boy got hitched and ran off.”

“We’re not married,” Shiro laughs.  He nudges them all into the entryway and closes and locks the door behind them.  “And do they really ask if you’ve felt my muscles, Matt? What a weird thing to ask.”

“People are horny, what can you do?  They really do ask and they’re actually completely serious about it.  I tell them they’re rock hard, by the way. You’re welcome.”

Hunk adds in, “You should see the way their eyes dazzle when he tells them about you.  And then when Matt sensationalizes the stories and their faces start to light up? Pure gold. I think we can get them to actually start glowing.  Like discover some sort of new human ability. We’ll credit you for the inspiration, of course.”

Shiro laughs harder.  “Oh, god. I missed you guys.  I really really did. I didn’t know you were coming.”  He looks back behind him as he hears the quick footsteps of Kosmo and the soft calculated ones of Keith.  He holds his hand out as Keith reaches for him and waves to the others who all greet him excitedly. Shiro fits Keith right under his arm as they grin over at their friends.

“I invited them,” Keith hums happily as he looks up into Shiro’s face.  “It’s been awhile. I didn’t want you to get lonely.”

“You little sneak,” Shiro chuckles, grinning down at him lopsidedly.  “How could I get lonely when you’re here?” He says, leaning down to press a kiss to Keith’s lips.  They were asking for it, red and plump from sleep. They part slightly beneath the pressure, but he only hums softly as Shiro pulls away.

Lance says.  “ Keith !  I saw your award speech on TV the other day.  The applause you got was almost ten times louder than anyone else’s.  It was almost as good as your Christmas reveal to Shiro. I know you guys weren’t exactly paying attention, but the applause that time?  It almost blew up the whole earth. My ears died .  But this was comparable, which is nuts .”

“You guys were so cute,” Pidge grins crookedly.  “Shiro, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you cry like that before.  It’s almost a shame we won’t be seeing that for awhile.”

“Oh, god,” Shiro grumbles into his hands, but he’s smiling.  “It’s one thing seeing it on TV, but being there... I was pretty emotional.”

“I remember how many times you dragged me to see that movie in theaters,” Matt laughs.  “And that was before you had known Keith.”

“Keith was so gushy at the awards,” Lance teases, placing a hand to his chest as he pretends to be Akira.  He holds his hand out to Allura who gives him an amused grin as he recites dramatically.  “‘Oh, my sun and stars, oh, my hero in shining armor. Shiro, love of my life, thank you for always lifting me up, like a tiny cherub angel baby into the light, without your beautiful shining face, I am wingless.”

“I’m going to kill you,” Keith warns mildly.

Lance continues.  “You are my lighted candle in the darkness.  The glint of sunshine off the skin of my apple.  The light beneath my beautiful wings. Marry me, marry me, marry me!

“I am going - to kill you -”  Keith grits his teeth, his cheeks starting to flame red in embarrassment.  He points a finger. “If you say one more word -”

Lance settles back down and closes his eyes.  They think he’s done until he starts whisper-singing under his breath, “And Iiiiiiiiiiiii will always love yooooou -”

Keith lunges and Shiro has to hold his feisty little body back.

“I was singing , not talking !”  Lance protests as he jumps back with a screech.

Keith jabs a violent finger.  “ Death .”

“Your speech wasn’t bad,” Pidge assures with a snort.

“I thought it was sweet,” Allura says, gently pushing Lance to the side so he can safely sing his Whitney Houston somewhere else.  “It was wonderful to see you so genuinely happy.”

Shiro chuckles, murmuring into his ear.  “And besides, I loved it.”

Keith grumbles like a disgruntled cat, letting himself be swayed back into place by Shiro’s gentle persuasion.

Shiro squeezes Keith closer one last time and then looks up at his friends.  “I see suitcases. You’re staying the night? Let me help you guys.”

"Lance doesn't get help," Keith says.

Lance pushes his sunglasses back.  “I’ve got my stuff. I’ll take your best room.  Also I was promised a tan, so let’s get started.  Come on, Allura, time to look our best,” Lance says, already walking through Keith and Shiro’s home like he owns the place, suitcase merrily rolling behind him.  He doesn’t make it far before he’s turning around sharply. “Uh. I’m lost. Where’s the pool?”

They can hear Allura sighing in amusement.

Keith and Shiro chuckle together.  Keith disengages from Shiro’s side and smiles up at him.  “God, I’ll show him. He's hopeless. Oh, also, I just ordered pizza, so if the doorbell rings...  I figured everyone would be hungry so I got one of everything.” He starts sorting through their entryway closet.  “I also may’ve ordered a ton of face masks especially for this day. Lance kept sending me pictures of himself in them and I thought...”  He hesitates for a moment, looking unsure as he turns back to Shiro. “Do you think...is that dumb? Will he like them? Or should I just leave it?”

Keith ,” Shiro sighs as he sees the gigantic box many different varieties of face masks.  It’s ridiculous. “You don’t have to buy them either.”

“I’m not,” he says quickly.  “I just thought it might be something fun to do.  Was I...wrong?”

So earnestly hopeful.  How could Shiro resist that face?  “Are you kidding? Lance is the face mask king.  He’s going to love it.”

“Good,” Keith breathes in relief.  With one last smile at Shiro, Keith runs off, catching up to Allura and Lance who are already at the end of the hallway.  They can hear Allura humming pleasantly, voice echoing through the hall, “Keith, I love this place. It’s so cozy; it suits you this time.”  And Lance squawking, “ Why’s this place so damn big?!  I’m going to get seriously lost.  You'll have to send a search party for me if I ever need to find a bathroom .   I'm just going to use your pool instead.”

"You better fucking not ," Keith grumbles.

"Don't worry.  I'll keep him on track, Keith," Allura promises.

“I’m going to go too actually,” Hunk says.  “Think I could snag a face mask from Keith?”

Shiro snorts.  “ Go .  Keith will love it.  He didn’t get that huge box full of them for nothing.”

Pidge pats Shiro on the back with one last smile before following Hunk down the hallway too.

Shiro turns his attention to Matt, who whistles as he cranes his neck back to look around the place.  “I know they’re all eager to see the pool outside, but look at this house... You told me it was huge, but I didn’t think it’d be this big.  Do I get the grand tour?"

Shiro laughs lowly.  “Of course you do. Follow me.  Can you believe this is the least grand one out of all the choices?  We had to compromise.”

Shiro starts showing him around the rooms as Kosmo follows them around curiously.  Red's no doubt by Keith's side, as always.

“God,” Matt keeps saying.  “ Whoa .  Must be hard to get used to seeing as your last apartment was fit for a mouse.  And this is fit for a king. Seriously.”

“Yeah, it’s a learning experience, for both of us really.  He’s always lived with his family. I told him I wouldn’t mind living with them if that’s what he wanted, but he figured it was time.  They’re still in the neighborhood,” Shiro smiles as he leans against the wall of their master bedroom. “It’s how I convinced Keith we didn’t need to go larger.  His parents could be close this way.”

Honestly, the room seems like a house all in itself.  A very grand, very wonderful house. They could live only in this one room easily.

Keith keeps his awards in another part of the house, but he does have his first platinum record here, Shiro’s favorite, that he keeps up on the wall, shining and glorious.  Most of the decorations are Shiro’s prized possessions. The room is basically a super-sized version of Shiro’s old shrine, just new and improved. Shiro is no longer ashamed.  He lets Matt look around, totally at ease.

“I see you kept the posters,” Matt laughs as he inspects them carefully hung on the wall.  He taps his finger against a signed one framed behind glass. Shiro still loves it as much as the day he got it.  “I got you this one. I remember. It was freezing that day.”

Shiro tries to hide the red on his cheeks.  “ Yeeeaaah , another compromise: he lets me keep them up if I let him hang pictures of me."

Matt seeks out said pictures, honing in with intense focus.  “Wow. It’s not fair he’s so talented. Think he’ll notice if it’s gone?  I bet I could sell it to your fanboys and girls for millions. I can be your manager."

"God, he really is talented.  Very picky with his poses.”

Matt laughs as he rights himself and holds out a hand.  “Stop there, I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“Not like that .  God.  You people.”

“Okay, you say that, but what’s this? ” Matt laughs again, poking the more-than-promiscuous fanart.

Shiro’s laughs too.  “That is all Keith .  He loves that sort of thing.  He checks the forums every day, going down the line, liking everyone’s art.  God, imagine if they knew it was him.”

Matt snorts as he goes into their bathroom, voice echoing as he turns on the shower.  “Why is the showerhead on the ceiling?”

“Cool, right?  It’s a rainfall shower head.  And the tub is an infinity tub. Keith again.”

Matt laughs.  “God. Rich people.  Look at you guys. So much money you don’t even know what to do with.  I saw your car in the driveway. What the heck even is that thing?”

“It’s a Lotus or something?  I don’t know. It’s a whole thing.  I told Keith I wanted to keep my old car, right?  He said he was fine with it, went to buy a new one ‘for himself’, and then switched our cars because of some bet we made when we first met.”

“What bet?”  Matt asks as he tinkers with the showerhead, feeling its raindrops.

“Something about getting him to sing ‘Your Constellation Prize’ and he gives up his car or something.  I don’t know, I barely remember it. But that little sneak. I told him he didn’t need to spend his money on me.  He’s got a serious problem. I’m kind of worried. He just keeps doing it.”

“Shiro.  He’s like the richest person in the world; I’m sure he can handle it.  And on top of it , your old car was like a hundred years old.  It had over two hundred thousand miles on that thing; the only reason it was still running was because Pidge had to go in and fix it up for you to make it work .  It was hardly a car anymore.”

“So is this,” Shiro groans.  “It’s a supercomputer, not a car .  It parks by itself, it brakes by itself, it turns by itself, it might as well drive by itself.  What happened to good old fashioned driving?  Just you and the road...” He sighs. “He said he’d buy me another one, but that’s kind of against the point, isn’t it?”

“Sell this one and get like ten old dumpy cars.”

“Oh,” Shiro hums thoughtfully.  “That’s actually not a bad idea.”

Matt walks out onto their balcony overlooking their backyard and Shiro follows him.  Down below, they have a lot of acreage and landscaped yard that they hire a gardener to care for, but the pool is the main attraction.  Keith says he wants to add on, but Shiro’s going to get lost in all the caves that are already there.

“Jesus, what a view,” Matt murmurs in awe as he steps out with Shiro, the sweet early spring breeze picking up around them as the warmth from the sun lays down upon them.  They step out into a landscape of mountains and blue sky embraced around them. Down on the lawn are the rest of the gang, all laughing and having fun in what looks like paradise, laid out on the outdoor chaise longues, face masks covering their faces.  It’s so damn dorky, especially seeing Keith in the middle of it, encouraging it, Shiro can’t help but laugh at the sight. He laughs even harder when he hears Keith belting out “I Will Always Love You” and the rest of them hoot and holler as he hits all the notes perfectly.

Shiro gets his phone out to record knowing full well Keith is going to kill him later if he sees.   If he sees.

Shiro looks up when Matt whispers, something delicate and serious in his tone.  “...Look at your life,” Matt says into the wind. He tries to keep it hidden by rubbing a hand over his nose, but Shiro can hear the catch in Matt’s voice.

“...You okay, buddy?”  Shiro tilts his head as he shoves his phone away.  “I know it’s overwhelming but you shouldn’t worry. I swear I’m not going to change or forget you guys.  And if I do change, you have my permission to come over here any time and kick my butt.”

He turns his eyes to Shiro, soft and laughing.  “Nah, I’m not worried about that. It’s just...I’m thinking, is all.  You’ve always been such a good guy. After everything that happened to you, the universe seemed so damn cruel.  Of all people, why you? We all worried for you so much. It wasn’t even that long ago that Lance had a few dating profiles all ready to go for you.”

Shiro runs a hand over his face.  “Oh, god, I knew it.  I knew you guys were up to something.”

“I told him you wouldn’t like it.  And it’s not like I thought we could just fix you by getting you a boyfriend, it wasn’t that.  But then, you were so miserable all the time, even when you were smiling.  I kept second guessing myself. I thought maybe it could be good for you.  That anything would be better for you than what you had.  And maybe we should just...force you to settle.”

“Matt...”

“I thought you’d be alone and miserable forever,” Matt’s brow furrows deeply and he tenses up.  “I was so worried for you.”

“Oh, Matt, come on.  Don’t cry. I was okay.”

“No.  No, that’s not it.  I’m so happy. It just feels like, finally, the universe has righted itself.  That's all.  It’s been a long time coming, but you deserve all this.  You really do.”

Shiro smiles down, trying to curb the grin on his face.  It hurts his cheeks. “You know, even before all this, there were many things to be grateful for.  I don’t want you to think I had nothing. I was happy. I had you guys.”

“And you always will,” Matt says, trying to hold the tears back in his eyes, but they’re red from the strain.  “Remember that. Even if this Hollywood thing sucks and you and Keith need a few months away from it all, come stay with us.  You’re always welcome. You’re our family. You’re our Shiro. And Keith’s ours too, whether he likes it or not.”

Shiro hums, bumping his elbow against Matt’s as he leans against the railing.  Matt leans forward next to him too. “You too, Matt. Keith takes this friendship thing very seriously, you know.  He’d now kill for you all. You think I’m joking.”

“Oh, no, I know you’re not,” Matt laughs.  “I remember the engineer’s face when he confessed.”

“I think if Keith hadn’t become a celebrity, he might’ve actually been a hoodlum.”

Matt laughs.  “Yeah, but he’d be your hoodlum and you’d love it.”

Shiro laughs as he looks down into his hands with warmth in his gaze.  Yeah. Of course he would. “You know what’s crazy? Not even a year ago I would've killed to be where I am now, but it's so different than I ever would've imagined.  The best part isn’t even the money or the mansion or the pool or Akira .  The best part is Keith.”

Matt laughs softly into his hands as he nods.  “...Mmhmm. So when’s the wedding?”

“Shut up,” Shiro laughs, nudging him playfully again.

Matt chokes on his laughter, leaning his head to the side as he looks down at them all.  Shiro watches them too. Keith’s integrated into their group so seamlessly. He’s just as much a part of the their tightly woven group as any of them.  And Allura too, on the edges of it, working in, but it feels right, all of them together like this. All because of one boy who spilled a bit of coffee.  Funny how things work out.

Shiro says softly,  “I love him.”

As if he’s heard, Keith stops what he’s doing down by the pool’s edge.  He pushes his sunglasses up and grins, waving up to Shiro. Shiro laughs and waves back.  

When he hears the exaggerated gagging beside him, he turns to Matt with a raised eyebrow.  They laugh.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Matt says.  “We all love him. We can’t even hide it.  He’s surprisingly easy to love, isn’t he?”

Yes.  Shiro’s heart is full.  The world feels so bright.

When they make it downstairs, Lance has his suitcase sprawled wide open in the middle of the living room floor and the PS4 is hooked up to the TV.  Lance is screaming. “The graphics look so damn good on this TV! What is this brand? Where can I get one?”

“I can get you one,” Keith says immediately.

Shiro sighs.  When Matt looks over in question, Shiro says lowly, “Keith has a problem with throwing his money at things to try to keep them.  His therapist is trying to work with him on it. It’s one thing giving people gifts, but the intention...”

“Ah,” Matt hums.

“I don’t want your blood money,” Lance scoffs, offended, and Keith snorts.  “Don’t tell me how much it is, I don’t want to know. Just direct me to your seller.”

“Your birthday’s coming up, isn’t it?”  Keith says innocently.

"A TV is too much!"

The pizza comes and they all set out in the living room, watching Keith play The Last of Us.  He’s a natural, even if they all are sniffling and pretending not to cry only fifteen minutes in.  Shiro snuggles Keith into his lap and rests his arms around Keith’s waist.

“Ha,” Lance says when they finally get to some zombies and Keith punches the hell out of them, “who would’ve thought Akira would be killing zombies in his spare time?  You’re actually surprisingly good at stealth.”

You’re the one who brought it,” Keith says, like he’s been forced to play this game for the past three hours non-stop.  He hasn’t even gotten up from his seat. “And they’re not ‘zombies’, they’re ‘infected’.”

“Yeah, yeah.  I’m just saying,” Lance shrugs around a bite of pizza, “I never would’ve guessed Mario Kart Keith could’ve ever been Akira."

“Is that my nickname now?”  Keith laughs. “ Mario Kart Keith .  Wow.”

“I knew at that point,” Pidge says.

Lance scoffs.  “No, you didn’t.”

“I did.  That was the day I figured it out.”

“That was the day we met him .  You didn’t know shit .”

“She did, actually,” Keith says offhand, not taking his eyes from the screen.  “Thanksgiving day she asked Shiro how long he had known; he was so confused. I thought for sure she'd tell him right then and there."

"I just assumed you'd have told Shiro at that point."

Keith groans, looking sick.  "I wasn't ready. Almost had to run to the bathroom to have a panic attack.”

Shiro blinks, looking up from playing with Keith’s hair.  "What? I remember that. That 's what you were asking about?"

“Yeah, so there,” Pidge sticks her tongue out at Lance, who looks shocked and appalled.

Hunk asks, “Uh, how’d you know?”

She laughs.  “Hmmm. Same size, same expressions, same face, same...everything.  How indeed?”

“What!”  It finally clicks with Lance and he’s on his feet.  “You knew the whole time and you didn’t tell us?  You kept such juicy info to yourself?   Selfish !”

“I did .  No one believed me.”

“You could’ve said something.  We could’ve all laughed at Shiro together.”

Shiro frowns.  “Hey.”

Pidge shrugs and crosses her ankles over the ottoman, stretched out like a casual cat. “Well, you know now, don’t you?”

“Honestly,” Hunk says.  “Sometimes I still don’t believe it.”

"Me.  Neither.  You’re just a regular ol’ person."  Lance says, tossing his hand at Keith like it’s confusing.

“Imagine that,” Keith hums.

“The news is still trying to wrap their heads around it too.  It isn’t getting to you, is it? Because I can deck them out.”

Keith shakes his head, sparing him a glance for a moment before turning back to the game.  The sounds of infected clicking and moaning and Keith sneaking around make for the best kind of casual background noise.  “No. I’m fine. It’s Shiro I’m worried about.”

“I’m fine ,” Shiro protests.  He looks to the others.  “Seriously. Tell him. I’m fine.”

“Shiro’s like a cockroach,” Pidge explains.  “You couldn’t kill him even if you tried. He’d just keep coming back.”

“I’m okay with that.”

Shiro nuzzles into Keith’s warm neck and stays there, content.

“So,” Lance says, “you never told us and you never answer my texts -”

“- Because your texts are fucking annoying,” Keith grumbles.

Lance ignores that.  “That was you who made the engineer confess, wasn’t it?  He was so adamant about being a shit for years , how’d you do it?”

Keith laughs lowly.  “I dunno, did I?”

Keith ,” Shiro murmurs lowly in his ear and Keith laughs again.

“Did you pull a knife on him?”  Lance asks. “Kidnap his children?  Run over his mailbox and kick his door down, baseball bat in hand?”

“I didn’t hurt him ,” Keith rolls his eyes, still hardly bothering to tear his focus from the screen.  “I just...threatened a little. And I mean, I’ve had years of practice as an actor. I made it pretty authentic.”

“Oh, god,” Shiro laughs.  “So the truth finally comes out.”  Keith looks to Shiro sheepishly and Shiro bops his finger gently to his nose.  “You don’t even know how scary you can be sometimes. He probably almost had a heart attack.”

“I think he actually blacked out for part of the time,” Keith sniggers.  He stops when he sees Shiro’s face pause. “I’m kidding,” he says quickly.  “He’s fine. I mean it.” He shifts a bit, his eyes darkening as he remembers.  “And besides, it’s not like he didn’t deserve worse for all those years he let you suffer.  You could’ve died because of him.”

“Keith -”

He heaves a sigh.  “I know, I know. I swear I didn’t touch a hair on his head.  He wasn’t harmed in any way.” He purses his lips as he seeks out the expression in Shiro’s eyes.  “...Are you mad? ...I didn't do it to manipulate or win you back, by the way,” Keith says lowly.  “I knew that was your choice. I did it because it's what you deserved. And I didn’t want you hurting because of me...”

Shiro shakes his head gently.  “I know, Keith. I was never mad.  I’m happy you cared so much. Just promise me you’ll be more careful next time.  You shouldn’t run off mad like that, you could get hurt.”

“Oh, I wasn’t just mad, I was furious.  But okay. Next time, nothing illegal, I promise.”

Shiro chokes.  “ Illegal?

“I’m kidding,” Keith laughs as he settles back into his game.  “But you should see your face.”

Shiro groans slightly, lifting his legs onto the couch’s arm as he repositions the both of them so he can settle into Keith’s lap.  Keith uses Shiro's chest as a table for his controller.

After the pizza is finished and the gaming begins to go on later into the night, everyone is soft and sleepy, strewn out over all the couches.  Even Keith is yawning as he stubbornly clings to his game, (“just a few more minutes...I want to know what happens next”).

Shiro finds it’s a perfect time to sneak away.  “I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” he breathes in, gently scooting Keith off his lap.  “Pidge, can you help me with something?”

Pidge shoots him a weird look at first, but then understanding crosses her features and she digs into her bag for a second before jumping to her feet and following him into the hall.

“So,” he murmurs lowly, eyes flicking up to the hallway again, just in case.  “Do you have it?”

She tilts her head and crosses her arms.  “How much you got?”

“How much do you want?”

She laughs villainously.  “Let’s see... Choices, choices.  I want you to distract Keith tomorrow morning so I can sneak off and play with Kosmo.  He's like the animal whisperer. They never let Keith out of their sight.”

“Distract Keith, hm?  Only if you give Kosmo extra treats when he’s a good boy.”

“Done.”

“Done.”

She grins.  “It’s been nice working with you.”  She tosses a look around and carefully slips something from her pocket.  She hands it over.

Someone clears their throat.  They look up to see Keith standing there at the doorway, eyebrow raised and arms crossed.  “Uh. What is this?”

“What is what?”  Shiro asks innocently, but it doesn’t work.

“What you just handed him,” Keith points, walking forward.  “A bag of something.”

“Uhhh,” Shiro says.

“Uhhhhhhhh,” Pidge bites at her lip.

Keith snatches it out of Shiro’s hand and raises his eyes.  It’s a USB. Keith turns his eyes up to Shiro in confusion.

“I can explain,” Shiro says quickly.

“A USB?”

“Pidge had the best seat in the house at the Christmas party.  She was able to record right where the speaker was when you played ‘Your Constellation Prize’.  The acoustics are amazing and it feels more real from her phone. ...I need it. It’s absolutely necessary.”

Keith holds Shiro’s gaze for one long drawn out moment, but then he laughs, handing it back.  “...I don’t hate it anymore.”

“Really?”  Shiro says in relief, coveting it, holding it close to his chest.

“How could I...?  It gave me back you.”

“Yeah, but it also gave you all the crazy stalkers too,” Pidge interjects with a snort.  “Have they always been this bad?”

Keith shakes his head as he reaches out to hold Shiro’s hand as he drags them back to the couches.  “They’ve been more fucking annoying than ever.”

"I don't know how you do it."

Hunk is still laid out on the couch as he asks, “If you could go back.  Redo all of this, never reveal yourself as Keith, just stay as Akira, keep the hype within safe boundaries, would you?”

Keith raises an eyebrow and just laughs for his response, leaning into Shiro’s nuzzling even more.  “What are you saying? You’re asking if I regret all this?” He takes a deep breath as he gives it a fair thought.  “I mean, there are days I wish I could just live in a hole far away from all this, sure. I’ve broken a few phones, disconnected the internet some days, abandoned the TV.  Some days I think I’m so exhausted from everything I can’t get out of bed, but...the opportunities I’ve had, the places I’ve seen...the people I’ve touched. It’s been so special.”  He’s quiet for awhile. “And the fact I get to keep Shiro...it’s not a fair question at all. I wouldn’t change it for the world. Never.”

“No?”  Shiro hums, tilting his head so he can see Keith’s face.

“No.”  Keith smiles back, cheek against cheek.

Shiro says lowly, “...I’m going to watch Pidge’s recording so many times tonight.”

“God, how embarrassing,” Keith purrs, crawling closer.

“Worth it though?”

“You know the answer to that,” Keith says, distractedly hands the controller off to anyone who will take it as he smiles into a kiss, cupping Shiro’s cheeks in his hands.

Lance wails.  “Allura, close your eyes!  Hunk didn’t ask to see a makeout session.   Jeez .”

They get one anyway.

And Keith used to wonder if quitting would be the wrong choice.

You know what?  Not that his movies are the most important thing to him anyway, but despite any negativity from the media, despite any protestors, despite any angry naysayers who thought they could ruin Keith’s image and upheave his Hollywood rule in the name of his sexuality and the reveal of himself, Keith’s last movie turns out to be a wild hit.  The reviews come flowing in. Krolia basically knocks their front door off the frame, holding her phone up, tears in her eyes. “Keith! You did it .”

‘The best movie yet’, they say.  ‘A stellar performance by Akira’.  ‘Already can’t wait for his return.’  ‘A talented gifted winner.’

And all ‘just’ as Keith.

Keith smiles with relief, but Shiro already knew that all along.

 

It’s been a long day.  Shiro spent it from morning to evening working with Matt and Pidge.  Keith’s funded a project for them to work on space travel. Shiro’s learned how to use a screwdriver.  Their ‘business’ has gotten so big and become so renowned that they have buyers in high places; it’s become international, but it somehow doesn’t feel like work.

Collaborating with two best friend geniuses is the best.  They can see so far into space some days that it seems like the real mystery is up there, not life, not here.  It’s amazing. He feels his grandfather beside him each day