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Ryou reminded himself he’d never been in this room before.

It didn’t help.  No matter how many often he said it, he couldn’t shake the intimate familiarity.  Because he knew this space.

He could remember how often he’d caught a fifteen minute nap on this couch, how many times he’d fished between the cushions for his missing ID, the number of occasions he’d caught Iverson here to pick his brain on career options.  How excited he’d been the first time he sat here as a peer; an officer of the Galaxy Garrison.

Except, of course, he didn’t.  Because the hands in the memory weren’t his own, and the ID he’d been searching for bore the name ‘Takashi Shirogane.’

Ryou put his hands on the back of the couch, surveying the room.  So little had changed since the day Shiro flew away that now it seemed unreal.  A hallucination or a dream.

Or, it would have, if it wasn’t for the orange sleeves.

Tugging on the cadet uniform, Ryou fought the urge to scowl.  The color had always been ugly. Honestly, he suspected it was on purpose as a quiet way to haze new recruits. Coran was maybe the only person who had ever been happy to wear this shade.  So Ryou was hardly alone in finding it obnoxious.

That didn’t explain the full depth of his irritation.  Ryou hated wearing this.  He hated the stiff way it fit at the back, designed for someone smaller than him at the shoulders.  He hated the way the saturated tone made his white hair and pale skin look washed out.

It made him look like a ghost.

Scowling at himself, Ryou shoved away from the couch and crossed his arms.  He stood instead in front of the bookshelves, reading over the titles. Some were older editions of textbooks, some were published books by former and current teachers, and some were generic novels.

Unfortunately, Ryou couldn’t walk away from the churning in his gut so easily.

Ryou snatched up the first memoir that looked interesting and flipped it over.  The cover was of an officer he didn’t recognize, wearing a flight suit and standing in front of a ship.  She stared heroically up and off into the distance and held her helmet at her hip. Long Gone and Back Again: the first feet on Titan.

Squinting, Ryou looked more carefully at the officer, then flipped through the book.  He was pretty sure he should know her name. That was exactly the sort of thing that would be on a cadet history test, for one.  For another, Shiro blew through first accounts of space pilots like this with the same ferocity he read classic fantasy. There was almost no way he hadn’t read a biography of the pilot to the Titan mission.

But he didn’t remember it at all.

Huh.  Odd feeling.

The door opened, then closed again.  Ryou heard it, but he didn’t look up.  The officer’s lounge was a high traffic area, so it didn’t register as anything worth noticing for someone to enter and leave.

Then someone cleared their throat.

Startling, Ryou snapped his head up.  His heart rate picked up as he remembered he wasn’t an officer anymore, and thus wasn’t allowed to freely wander this room.  

He’d forgotten that too.

In his distraction, he’d forgotten he wasn’t Shiro.

“Sorry,” Ryou said, holding the book to his chest. Automatically, his posture snapped to attention  as he swallowed hard. “I was just getting a feel for the layout again. Shouldn’t have made that left turn at Albuquerque.  Or whatever it is that Matt says. I-” He looked back.

Then Ryou froze.

Adam stood in front of him, back straight and shoulders set.

Oh.  Oh boy.

Swallowing hard, Ryou tightened his grip on the novel, completely robbed of his words.  Instead, his eyes traced up and down Adam’s face. At a distance, he looked identical to the last time Shiro saw him - same haircut, same rank, same build.  But up close, Ryou could see that his glasses were framed in dark silver rather than black, and he had the first faint hints of wrinkles at his forehead and between his brows.

Were those wrinkles from worry over Shiro?  Grief for his loss? Or just the everyday stress of teaching at the Galaxy Garrison, and the threat of an imminent alien attack?

The silence continued, hanging heavy between them.  It was Ryou who finally took a deep breath and opened his mouth.  “Don’t mind me if you were here to relax. I’m about to leave.”

“That’s a shame,” Adam replied, quiet and careful.  His voice was deeper than Ryou remembered - not because of the lack of memories, but because they had simply faded with time.  “I was looking for you.”

What?

Ryou clenched his jaw to keep his mouth from falling open.  Him? Had Adam gotten their new features confused? “Oh. You sure? I’m think Shiro is in the server room with Sa- Commander Holt and Pidge.”

Adam shook his head.  “Yes, I’m sure.” He glanced back, then inclined his head to the couch.  “Would you like to sit? I have some questions.”

Stomach churning, Ryou seriously considered turning his offer down and bolting.  This was weird.  This was Adam, Shiro’s ex, who had cleanly broken his heart and then not come to the Kerberos launch.  Intellectually, Ryou was annoyed by him, even if he understood what had gone wrong.

But that wasn’t how Ryou felt in his heart.  Despite everything, despite how far he’d come, he couldn’t cut out the memories of this man.  Ryou had been so good at reframing his relationships and experiences, drawing the line where Shiro ended and Ryou began.  But he couldn’t look at Adam and not think about their relationship, and the old, bruised love he still carried.

Adam had been Shiro’s first real, deep love.  His longest relationship by far. Part of Shiro would probably always love him at least a little, and therefore so did Ryou.

Staying here was a terrible idea.  But Ryou couldn’t deny the power of Adam’s hopeful stare. It had been so long since he’d looked at him that way, even before Kerberos.

...No, he’d never looked at Ryou that way.

Shit.

“Yes,” Ryou said belatedly, moving to the couch.  “I mean, yeah. For a bit, anyway. I’m guessing you have questions, huh?”

Adam cracked a bland smile.  “A few, yes. Well, a few hundred.”

“It doesn’t get less confusing.”  Ryou sat down hard, practically dropping himself onto the couch.  The old cushions squeaked loudly in protest.

One brow up, Adam walked around and sat more gently.  “Please don’t break anything. It took them two months to replace the coffee machine in here, and it only happened so quickly because the teachers nearly rioted.”

Ryou snorted and grinned.  “That long? They’re lucky there wasn’t an assassination in the dead of night.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of such plans.”

Snickering, Ryou eyed him out of the corner of his eyes.  Adam’s mischievous smile was familiar, but only on a younger face.  It was the expression he’d worn before they would team up to gang up on whatever bragging jackass was mutually annoying them.

...Him and Shiro.  Not Ryou.

Dammit.   What was wrong with him?

Shoving away the uncomfortable twist in his stomach, Ryou rolled his hand.  “Alright, anyway. What do you want to know?”

“Everything,” Adam admitted.  He settled back against the couch, hands folded in his lap, as he stared at Ryou.  “We were all informed of a very, ah, simplified version by Commander Holt. I have an understanding of what Voltron is, and what you all do.  And he explained what happened on... on the Kerberos mission.”

Ryou’s brows rose.  “The whole kidnapping by an evil alien empire thing?”

“And that the Garrison covered it up after, yes.”  Adam snorted, expression hardening. “‘Pilot error’ would have made sense if they didn’t know, but the fact that they knew about the outside interference is infuriating.”

Crossing his arms, Ryou leaned back as well.  “Yeah, agreed.” He suspected that Shiro didn’t particularly care.  After all, they had to give some kind of explanation to the public, and that excuse meant none of the blame landed on the engineers who had built the ship.  

But Ryou was annoyed on his behalf.  Pilot error may not be the ultimate mark of shame - even the best pilot in the universe could make a mistake under pressure - but he didn’t like his brother being made a scapegoat.  Sue him.

Adam nodded, eyes flashing behind his glasses.  “Exactly. I don’t know any of the specifics. And I know very little about you, in particular.  Commander Holt said you were a clone of Takashi that they rescued, and you’ve been part of the team.”

It was so unfair that, even after all this time, the name ‘Takashi’ cut straight through to Ryou’s heart.

“Yup.  Ryou Shirogane.  Unsuccessful beta version of Project Kuron.”  Ryou stuck out his hand, shoulders straight and chest puffed out.  “Nice to meet you.”

Startling, Adam took the hand and shook it.  “That’s right. We haven’t technically... I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself, shouldn’t I?”

“Honestly, that would have been super weird.”  Though, it might have helped Ryou not slip as much.  “I know you. It’d be a lie to pretend I don’t.” If Ryou couldn’t forget his memories of Adam, both intimate and domestic, he shouldn’t have to act like a complete stranger.

Dropping his hand, Adam looked over his face, then up to his hair.  “How does that work?” He finally asked. “And what does ‘unsuccessful beta version’ mean, exactly?”

Ah.  Ryou looked down at the memoir he was still holding, running his thumb through the corner like a flip book.  “There’s a lot it means. More than one conversation’s worth. But, it basically I didn’t end up being the spy Ha- the person who made me wanted.  So that’s pretty damn good. And it means my memories can be spotty. I remember everything Shiro experienced or remembered between getting the prosthetic and when I was made.  Then she let me ‘escape’ and monitored how far I would get trying to return home.”

There was a long pause.  “How far you’d get? That sounds...”

“I wasn’t supposed to manage,” Ryou confirmed, still not picking his head up.  “Biologically I’m kind of a mess. There’s some quirks, and the way she filled in my memories was probably just a test version, not what she’d planned long term. But I got to the team, and my weirdness made them realize something was wrong pretty quick.  From there, we found out what happened and got Shiro back. And I stayed and eventually became me.”

Another long silence held.  Then a hand gently settled on Ryou’s shoulder.  He jumped, heart pounding.

“Sorry,” Adam said, pulling his hand back away.  He curled it in his lap, stiff and regretful. “I shouldn’t have- that wasn’t appropriate.”

“Got confused by the face for a second?” Ryou drawled back, narrowing his eyes.  His whole body bristled defensively, as if he had fur to puff up to look bigger.

Adam winced at the tone.  “No, I didn’t,” he said, a bit sharp as well.  “But I imagine you like being touched by strangers as much as Takashi always did.”

Ryou leaned forward, eyes narrowed.  “Well, personally? I think if I know how you organize your damn boxers, we don’t count as strangers.”

At first, Adam leaned back, eyes wide.  Then he set his jaw and straightened. “How am I supposed to know what you remember?”  He took a deep breath in, nostrils flaring with familiar temper, before he slowly let it out.  “Did I say something wrong?” He finally asked, stiff but more polite.

Yes.

No.

Ryou deflated and leaned back.  He scrubbed over his face with his left hand.  “No. You didn’t. Sorry. It’s a weird situation.”

“It is.”  Adam stayed stiff, then slowly relaxed back down.  “I really wasn’t trying to offend you. Apparently I don’t have a good track record with Shiroganes.”

“Yeah, except with Shiro you were actually trying to push buttons.”  Ryou pushed his bangs out of his face. “I’m sorry for snapping. But can we just be honest, here?  What do you want to know, Adam? Is this intellectual curiosity about the clone of your ex? Are you trying to check in on Shiro without talking to him?  What is this?”

Adam opened his mouth.  Closed it. Leaned back against the couch.

Ryou watched him the whole time, firmly meeting his gaze.

“Yes,” Adam admitted.  “Both. But I’m also curious about you as a person.  You’re Takashi but different. I tracked you down to ask about you, personally.  And about- what you remembered. Of the Garrison, and... of me.”

Oh.  Ryou cocked his head, taking him in.  There was awkward strain to his jaw and the corner of his eyes, which could easily have been from being snapped at.  But-

“Did you know how my memories worked before you came here?”

Adam’s eyes slammed shut.  His fingers dug into his uniform pants.  “Yes.”

There it was.

Ryou tried to summon irritation or self-righteous anger.  He hated it when people asked him about Shiro’s thoughts, knowing full well he had them downloaded into his head.  There was no reason he should let Adam use him to figure out how much Shiro had thought about him in space.

But Ryou couldn’t manage.  This wasn’t self serving. It was self-flaggation.  If Adam really wanted to punish himself with Shiro’s wistful or angry thoughts in captivity, more fool him.

“I remember you,” Ryou confirmed, voice rough.  “I remember you better than anyone on Earth except for Keith.  I remember you better than anyone I would be related to.”

Adam flinched.  He didn’t open his eyes, and his shoulders sagged, like the knowledge that Shiro had dwelled on their relationship was a weight he had to live with.

Good.  He was the one who asked for it.

A bitter taste welled up in Ryou’s mouth.  He stared at Adam, chin held high. “I remember the fight.  I remember that you didn’t come to the launch. And I remember how often he wondered if you were right.”

Adam’s eyes flew open.  They weren’t red, but there was a shiver to his hands and a set to his jaw that hinted he was fighting back his emotions.  “I wasn’t. Not even close. If he hadn’t gone, the entire universe would be worse.” He let out a bark of a laugh and shook his head.  “It’s not often I get contradicted on that kind of level.”

“I’m not the one you need to tell that.”

“I know.  But I don’t know if he wants to hear it.”

Ryou shrugged.  “I don’t really care if he wants to.  He should hear it.” Tilting his head, he sighed and slumped back.  “You weren’t wrong. I don’t think there was a wrong in that conversation.  That ultimatum was shitty, but it’s not like you guys were the first to break up over long term missions.  It was right for you.”

Adam stayed silent, smoothing out the wrinkles he’d made in his uniform pants.

Pushing himself up, Ryou rolled his shoulders, then scowled when the too-tight fabric pulled ihm short.  “Alright. I should get going.”

“Wait.  Ryou.” Adam turned to face him better, eyes wide behind his glasses.  “I really do want to talk to you and get to know you better.”

Ryou tilted his head, considering him.  “Why? Because if you’re hoping for ‘Shiro but a mechanic instead of a pilot’, you’re about to be really disappointed.”

“You’re not a-?”  Adam paused, then shook his head.  “No! I’m just curious about you.”

“I am pretty classic sci-fi, I admit it.  I’m right up your alley.”

Adam shrugged awkwardly.  “Yes, you are. It’s fascinating.  I don’t mean to treat you like an experiment, but... I’d be interested in learning about you as your own person.  I’m curious to find how you’re different. If that’s unacceptable to you, I understand. But I’d like to know you.”

Looking down at him, Ryou took a deep breath.

Adam looked back, brown eyes hopeful behind the new glasses and his pale hair.  Even after everything, Ryou couldn’t deny that he was an attractive man. He couldn’t deny how good he and Shiro had been, for the years before Kerberos.  He couldn’t cut away the intimate memories he still had, or how it felt with Adam smiled into his kiss.

Shiro’s kiss.  Shiro’s memories.

The uniform pulled his shoulders, trying to force Ryou into a shape he didn’t fit.

He wanted to do this.  He wanted to see that smile again, hear his laugh.

But this wasn’t his ex.  These weren’t his memories.  

“I can’t,” Ryou said.  “I’m sorry. Maybe someday.”

Adam swallowed hard, pain flashing behind his eyes.  But he nodded. “I understand. Maybe that’s healthier for both of us.”  He gave a quiet, awkward laugh and pulled off his glasses to clean them. “It’s easy to fall into old habits with you.”

The words hit like a punch in the gut.

He reminded Adam of Shiro.  Because Ryou sounded like him.  He was acting like him.  Standing here, with this man, holding the memoir of a pilot, wearing a uniform that didn’t fit.  

Ryou felt like Shiro too.

“I-”  He stepped back away.  A chill ran through him, as if the room had gone suddenly cold.  “I didn’t- I’m not...”

Adam’s brows pulled together.  He stood slowly, reaching out to Ryou.  “Are you okay? You went pale. Maybe you should sit down.”

“No.  No, I-”  Ryou looked down at the hand, then at the memoir held in his white-knuckled grip.

He’d picked the first book that looked interesting, and he’d found the story of a pilot.  One that Shiro would enjoy. May have in the past, even.

Whirling, Ryou reeled back and threw the book at the wall at full force.  It hit hard, making the paperback flutter. A painting jolted and nearly fell off the nail from the impact.

“Woah!”  Adam stared at the probably ruined book, then gaped at Ryou.  “What- why did you do that?”

“I have to go.” Ryou took a slow step back, then another.  Finally, he turned on his heel and bolted for the door. His fingers scrambled at the uniform buttons, tearing the orange fabric away.

“Wait!  Is there something I can do to hel-?”

Adam’s voice cut off as Ryou slammed the door behind him.

Then he ran.

***

There was nothing quite like a complex puzzle to clear his mind.

Ryou had taken the time to change, tossing the hateful uniform into the corner of his room and pulling on a pair of sweatpants and a tank top instead.  It was, essentially, what he sometimes wore as pajamas, but nobody needed to know that.

And also, if they did know, what did Ryou care?  He wasn’t an officer. They’d made that clear. Like the Black Paladin mantle before it, if Ryou couldn’t claim the title, he saw no reason to hold himself to the behavioral standards.

Biting down on his wrench, Ryou ignored the faint taste of motor oil and reached for the flashlight.  As he leaned over the front of the jet, he could feel the vibrations of his painfully loud music run through the metal.  The hangar was large enough that there was an echo, adding to the sheer cacophony around him. The sheer volume made his ears ache.

That was good.  When Ryou’s head was full of a pop singer was crooning about partying with friends, then he couldn’t hear any doubts or worries.

Scooting farther up, Ryou pushed off until his feet were off the ground, and he was totally supported by the fuselage.  He tried to fit his entire torso in with the thankfully cool engine, so he could see underneath.

Altean design often wasn’t manufactured with silly things like gravity in mind, so this hybrid of a machine had a lot of important elements facing toward the ground.  The faint lights on the side let him get a peek, but he needed to get his flashlight under there to really see what Sam had designed...

The music turned off.  The resulting silence felt louder than the song.

Ryou pulled back, startled, and smacked his head against the raised metal cover.  The wrench fell from his mouth and hit the metal casing, before clattering to the ground.  

Cursing loudly, Ryou scrambled not to immediately fall out onto the concrete floor.  He kicked his feet until his toes scraped it instead, and he could gently lower himself down.  “Fucking ow.”

“The neighbors were starting to make noise complains.”

Still rubbing his head, and probably smearing grease into his white hair, Ryou huffed at Shiro. “Who could possibly be bitching?  This room is for testing jet engines, so I think they can take a little music.”

Shiro arched a brow.  “It was a joke, Ryou.”

“Have you tried actually being funny?”

All that earned him was a withering stare.  Then Shiro stepped in closer and motioned for him to turn around.  “Did you give yourself a concussion?”

Ryou snorted.  “From that little bump?  No way.” Despite that, he turned around and obligingly let Shiro poke at the back of his skull to be sure.

Humming, Shiro stepped back.  “Just a goose egg. That’s what you get for playing your music that loud.”

“I feel the love.”  Ryou stuck out his bottom lip.  He crossed his arms and leaned back against the jet.  “Looking for me?”

Shiro’s jaw worked, and then he moved to lean against the craft as well, so they were arm to arm.  “Yes. It sounded like you might need to vent.” He sighed at Ryou’s curious gaze. “Adam spoke with me.”

Ah.

Ryou turned away, instead bending down to pick up his fallen wrench.  He examined it, then wiped it off on his tank top. “You guys have a good chat?”

“Better than the last time we talked,” Shiro said dryly.  “But it’s not a very high bar, is it?”

It really wasn’t.  But it shouldn’t have been Ryou’s business, either.  It wasn’t his business, he just couldn’t manage to fully extract his heart.  “Cool. That’s partly my fault. I kinda told him he should tell you stuff instead of me.”

Shiro’s silence got colder.  “I really don’t need you to do that for me.”

“Yeah, well, I did it anyway.”  Ryou turned the wrench over and over in his hand, inspecting it as if it had the secrets to defeating the Galra engraved on the edges.  “Might as well get it over with. Closure, at least.”

There was a long sigh.  “You’re trying to distract me.”

Ryou’s brows rose.  “Am I? Huh.”

Arms crossed, Shiro arched his brow.  “He told me about your abrupt exit.”

Apparently Adam had turned into a goddamn snitch in the past few years.

Ryou put the wrench aside with more force than was necessary, then grabbed for a rag to wipe his hands clean of grease.  Unfortunately, the dirty cloth really only pushed the grime around in a more even layer. “Yeah, not exactly my most graceful moment.”  A thought hit, and he let out a strangled sounding laugh. “I made a bad first impression.”

Shiro’s eyes darted over Ryou’s face, clearly hearing the bitter irony but not sure the source of it.  “Not that bad, if he came to ask after you. Do you walk to talk about it?”

“Remember when we used to punch each other rather than talk?  Can we go back to that?” Ryou tilted his head back up, staring at the ceiling.  One of the huge lights on the ceiling was out, but clearly no one had bothered to get a fifty foot ladder to try and change it.  

“Do you want to?  I’m not against it.”

Ryou turned his head to Shiro, lazily sizing him up.  It was tempting, if only because a good spar was just as good of a distraction as a complex engine.  But their strength difference was still obvious, and Ryou wasn’t really a fan of losing.

That, and he could still remember his hands around Shiro’s throat.  It was a distant and hazed, like a weirdly vivid dream. But it never faded away.  It definitely soured any desire to try and throw a punch at his brother.

“No,” he finally groaned out, downright sulky.  “I don’t.”

There was a longer, more awkward pause.  “You know,” Shiro finally said, drawn out and reluctant.  “If you were... interested in continuing something. With Adam.  Then that would be between you two, and you wouldn’t need to feel like you were taking something of mine.”

Ryou froze.  Turned to stare at Shiro.  Blinked. “Wh- no. No! That’s not- no.”

“It would really be okay.”

“First of all, no it wouldn’t. It’d be entirely based on your memories and relationship, which is just... eugh.  No thanks.” Ryou wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “Second of all, that was a shitty break up.  Even if we were normal brothers, he’d be off the table, right? Like, bro code or whatever.”

Shiro slowly raised an eyebrow.  “Bro code?”

Sheepish, Ryou shrugged.  “Yeah, you know. Lance said- you know what, nevermind.  He broke your heart, and I wouldn’t date him after that.”

Tilting his head, Shiro considered.  His fingers drummed thoughtfully against the casing, metal clanging against metal.  “Both of those are rules set for you, not because your own feelings in the matter.”

“For the love of-”  Ryou smacked a hand over his face.  “I don’t want to date Adam! What you two had was good, but it was over way before I was even a theoretical project.”  He paused, then dropped the hand and sighed. “And in a way, I’m kinda glad it ended the way it did. It was over, and I never had to think I had someone waiting for me back home, only to realize it wasn’t me.”

Shiro’s expression stiffened, his lips pressed tightly.  He looked down at his boots rather than Ryou’s face. “Well, that’s one benefit.”  To anyone else, his tone was even, aside from the sarcasm.

But Ryou could hear the wobble of hurt through it.  Or, rather, he remembered the hurt all too well, so he didn’t need to see it.

Leaning over, he knocked their shoulders together.  “See? This is what I mean. He hurt you, and you’re my twin.  I’d sooner punch his stupid glasses in then date him, okay?”

There was a pause, then Shiro finally cracked a smile.  It was shaky and more than a little bitter, but a smile nonetheless.  “Alright, I can accept that.” He leaned into the touch, then nudged Ryou back with his elbow.  “I was supposed to be comforting you. I still don’t know what’s wrong.”

Dammit.  He’d been so close to getting away with it, too, if not for his meddling brother.

...He was definitely spending too much time with the Holts.

“It was just a weird conversation,” Ryou said flatly.  But when Shiro only stared, he sighed. “It was awkward, but mostly fine until the end.  Adam asked if I wanted to talk more - the whole clone thing piqued his interest, the dork.  But I said it was probably a bad idea. He said he understood, because talking to me was like falling into old habits.”

Shiro’s eyes went wide.  He considered that, lips pressed thin.  “Well, then. I certainly understand your temper, now.  One would have thought after years of friendship and dating he’d know me better than that.”

Stomach falling, Ryou shook his head.  “No, it’s not- he was right. Shiro, he was right.”

Slowly, Shiro’s brows drew together.  He leaned his side on the jet so he could look at Ryou more closely.  “I don’t understand.”

“Adam was right.”  Ryou swallowed hard, choking back the lump of clothing frustration.  His muscles tensed, and his fingers clenched and loosened rhythmically at his side.  “It was like old times. Because of me. All the memories here were...” His eyes slammed shut.  “I slipped. I acted like you. I felt like you. I kept forgetting...”

Hands gently settled on Ryou’s shoulders.  He jumped, but didn’t otherwise fight the sensation.

When Shiro spoke, it was quiet, even gentle.  “Ryou, has this happened before? Do you feel different?”

Ryou cracked his eyes open again, taking in Shiro’s face.  His eyes shone with dawning horror, but there was a determined set to his jaw and shoulders, like he was going to fix this.

“In the beginning.  It’s not- nothing’s changed.  Except where we are.” Ryou slumped, feeling weighed down.  Earth’s gravity was nearly identical to the conditions on the Castle of Lions, but it felt like so much more.

Maybe Ryou just wasn’t made for the conditions of this planet.

“I keep getting lost in memories,” Ryou continued, looking at their feet.  “All the little things. You spent so much more time here than the Castle. I think it’s just the volume.  I hope. But I keep thinking about lessons, or friendships, or relationships, or all the years you were here.  I was standing around like you, and talking like you, and working off your memories of these people, and that stupid fucking biography-”

Shiro took a deep breath and let it go.  He squeezed Ryou’s shoulders. “I’m sorry.  I should have been around to notice, but I’ve been so busy.”

“That’s a good thing.”  Ryou cracked a bland smile.  “They want to promote you, right?  The actual officer. You’ve been on duty in dangerous situations for years now.  You’ve more than earned your hours. Gunna be a Commander?”

There was a pause, just a second too long.  “That’s no excuse. That’s a terrible reason not to be around.”

“It’s been like, two days.  I can handle myself alone that long.”

And it had been alone.  All the other humans had scattered, enjoying being home and with their families - even Keith had taken Krolia back to the desert shack.  Ryou didn’t begrudge any of them the chance to reconnect and relax after their years-long accidental conscription into the war with the Galra.  

The Alteans, on the other hand, were busy frantically helping the humans get ready for the inevitable confrontation with the rest of the universe.  Sam had gotten the planet started, but the rest of humanity had barely even been told about aliens. All these technology was in its infancy, and not nearly ready to take on the average space-faring civilization, much less the Galra.

Ryou should be focusing on that too.  It was important.

Instead he was moping over this.

Sighing, Shiro gently rocked Ryou, using the firm grip on his shoulders.  “You can. But you don’t have to. You can come to me, even if it’s just to complain.  We’re family. That’s the point.”

Ryou finally looked up again.  “I didn’t want to ruin this. The Garrison and your career has always been important to you.  This is a good thing, and I didn’t want to drag it down over something this petty.”

“Your feelings aren’t petty.  Your sense of self definitely isn’t petty.  Please, Ryou. Talk to me.”

“About what?”  Ryou yanked himself away, shaking his head like a spooked horse.  Frustration boiled up in him, as sudden as powerfully as it had in the officer’s lounge.  “You want to know how I feel? I hate it here!  I hate being mistaken for you, but I hate when they treat me like a stranger or a cadet.  I hate that everything is so familiar, and but I don’t know any of it. I hate the stupid rules and the stupid walls and that awful fucking uniform.  I hate that it feels like home, but I don’t belong!”

By the end of it, Ryou was panting.  His head felt too light with the force of his sudden anger, so much he was dizzy from it.  One hand smacked the air until he found the jet. He leaned against it, taking long breaths.

Only then did he dare to look at Shiro again.

There was no disappointment in his face.  No judgement, no shock.

Only empathy.

“Me too.”

Ryou blinked rapidly, trying and failing to process those words.  “What?”

Rather than answer right away, Shiro tilted his head up and looked at the ceiling, as if he could see through the metal and up to the night sky.  “Do you remember what y ūgen means?”

It was such an odd question that Ryou could only stare.  “No,” he finally replied, drawing out the word. “We’re too far from the translators, sorry.”

“It’s... well.  It’s a concept. A feeling.  The awareness and awe of something much bigger than you, like the ocean or the sky.  Or the universe.” Shiro’s eyes fell closed and his hands relaxed at his side. “It got picked up by early space explorers to describe how it felt to look down at the Earth and see a small blue dot.  It put life in perspective. How small it was. And how much smaller the politics and petty conflicts of the world were. Many astronauts said they felt profoundly changed by the sight. It’s called the Overview Effect.”

Ryou didn’t remember any of that.  But he could feel it, deep in his bones.  “I understand.”

Nodding, Shiro continued to look up, eyes still closed.  It would be easy to mistake him for peaceful, in that moment.  “Yes, they want to promote me. I should be proud. Elated, even.  I wanted that so badly when I left. But now? I don’t care. I don’t care at all.  My title doesn’t matter. None of it matters, excepting making sure humanity is ready to step into the cosmic ocean.  Not just wade, but swim.”

This time, Ryou’s lips curled up with familiarity.  “Carl Sagan.”

Shiro nodded.  He finally dropped his head and looked at Ryou.  His posture was more settled. “So I understand. Or, at least, I sympathize.  Titles and uniforms and egos - none of those matter. But it does matter that you don’t lose yourself.  That’s worth more than all the badges they want to belatedly throw at me. What can I do to help?”

Slowly, almost despite himself, Ryou’s smile grew.

He was proud of his brother.

“Mostly, I need to stop wandering around this place like a ghost.  I want to make myself useful, in ways I can. I’ll work with Coran and the Holts more, staring tomorrow.  That’ll help a lot.” Ryou hesitated, then stepped forward and loosely wrapped his fingers around Shiro’s wrist.  “It helps when you’re around, too. It’s a visual reminder that I’m different, for one. And for another... you help just by being around.”

Shiro blinked once, then smiled, bright and warm.  “I can do that.” Then he tilted his head. “Do you have plans for the next little while?”

Looking at the still opened jet and the utter mess of tools and greasy rags he’d left around, Ryou raised a brow, then turned to Shiro again.  “Nah, I’m good. You have an idea?”

“Yes.”  With that, Shiro turned on his heel and started for the door, letting Ryou’s grip on his arm act as a sort of leash.

Ryou trotted after to keep up.  “Woah, where are we going?”

“To Yellow.”

It only took Ryou a moment to puzzle that one out, and then he grinned.  “Takashi Shirogane, are you suggesting we take a lion on a joy ride?”

A chuckle was Shiro’s only response.

Pumping his fist, Ryou tightened his grip and set off at a jog, dragging a laughing Shiro along.  “Then let’s go!”

***

Earth was so small.

This wasn’t the first time Ryou had seen the planet from above, even as himself.  Just a couple of days ago, he’d been in the Castle’s control room alongside everyone else as Earth finally came into view.  

But then the sight had been overwhelmed with what the planet represented.  Home, their families, the Galra conflict finally coming to their own shores.

This time, Ryou let himself just look.

On the inky backdrop of the void, their home planet seemed to glow.  Ryou knew that was the sun’s light reflecting off the surface, but that didn’t detract from the beauty.  Clouds lazily swirled over the surface, twisting over oceans and tangling on mountains. Shadow draped over maybe a third of the globe, and twinkling lights appeared out of the gloom, visible only in clusters.

The home Ryou had never been to until now.

It was nice, to remember at the Garrison wasn’t the sum total of the planet.  The little frustrations and problems didn’t make Earth less beautiful. There was so much more, and the unimaginable scope of the geography, cultures, and people was beautiful.

“Yūgen,” Ryou murmured softly.

Shiro hummed.  He leaned against the back of Ryou’s seat, watching the view over his head.  “Do you remember the Kerberos launch?”

“Yeah.”

Ryou did.  He remembered the moment Shiro finally started to breathe again, after the tension of launch.  How he’d blinked and stopped seeing the view and controls from the narrow perspective of the mission, and instead saw what was below them.  His breath had caught, and his heart had pounded, and he’d been overwhelmed by realizing that little globe below was everything he’d ever known and experienced.

But it was different.  The memory was Shiro’s, and this moment was Ryou’s.  The impression of Shiro’s experiences couldn’t possibly compare to the current, living moment.

Ryou’s problems would pass.  He would gain his own experience, his own life.  It might take time to change the attitudes around him, but those too would fade and change.  That was inevitable.

But the planet below was vast and old.  Ryou would change or the Garrison would change, and it would keep on turning, serene as ever.

Kind of like you, Ryou thought to Yellow.  He got a found, warm chuckle in response, and the faint impression of a purr.  But otherwise, Yellow let them just experience.

“We’re going to protect it,” Shiro murmured, quiet but firm.  “We won’t let the Galra hurt this.”

“We’ll keep our home safe,” Ryou agreed, his tone identical.  But for once, that didn’t bother him. Then he tilted his head up and smiled.  “In the meantime, we’ve got a couple of hours, right?”

“What do you have in mind?”

Ryou grinned.  “I know about the planetary protection guidelines and all, but.... I really want to dive through Saturn’s rings.”

There was a pause, and then Shiro barked out a laugh.  “You know what? Me too. Let’s do it.”

Ryou let out a whoop and turned Yellow around.  They took off like a shot, and within minutes he was able to skim the metal paws through the ice and debris that circled the planet.  The lion’s claws dipped down, knocking through the rings. Dust sprayed behind them in a wake, glimmering in the distant light of their sun.  Below them, gas churned, golds and browns mixing like smokey quartz.

Learning forward, Shiro beamed.  One arm draped casually over Ryou’s shoulder, thoughtless and comfortable intimacy in his excitement.  In Ryou’s mind, Yellow rumbled fondly, amused at them like an adult might smile at a child splashing through puddles.

Maybe it wasn’t just Earth that was theirs.  It was this entire solar system. The one they’d just barely brushed the edges of when they’d first encountered the Galra.

Here, in this moment, Ryou certainly felt like he was home.

Or, more accurately, home was where his family was.  Which meant it was on Earth, yes, and it was right here with him.

Ryou could work with that.