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It’s a cool spring day again.  And Shiro is nowhere to be found again.  Keith isn’t worried.

Work was wearing and all he had wanted to do upon leaving was get back home, curl up on Shiro - feel those sturdy hands combing through his hair - and go to bed, but even if he can’t have that just yet, he already feels some energy returning to his limbs.  He sets down his bag from work and kicks off his boots.

He can hear it.

There’s laughter outside, sweet as the soft grassy hill of their backyard.

He grabs a snack or two for his growling belly and makes his way through the french doors out back, feeling the perfect spring breeze against his face as he peers down the hill coated in sun.  It’s easy to know where to go; all he has to do is follow the sound of play and silliness and let his feet take him across the warmth of the dirt beneath his toes.

Their property borders that of their neighbors’ - not too close, but still close enough to run over after a long day of work.

Yeah.  Just like he thought.

Shiro’s watching Allura and Lance’s little ones again.

Again.

Keith knows Allura is probably reading in her living room by the window, comfortable and content, and Lance is either doting on her or sprawled out unceremoniously in the “man cave ” playing video games.  They don’t really need Shiro to watch their girls.  The girls don’t really need it either. But it doesn’t stop Shiro.

Keith watches as they bounce over to the stream, squealing happily and tossing water at him with their tiny open fingers.  Shiro holds his hands out like shields, pretending to despair, collapsing to the ground like he’s lost.  Kosmo jumps on his chest and licks wildly at his face.  Nothing is funnier to them.  At the sound of their laughter, Shiro shines like the sun.

They must’ve been playing for awhile now.  Keith can see from here that Shiro’s already the victim of two perfectly crafted flower crowns and a few flower bracelets and anklets.  His boots are kicked over and forgotten by a tree. Keith seeks its shade there, readjusting Shiro’s boots upright as he sits beside them.  He leans back against the trunk and unwraps the grapes from his napkin.

Kosmo's head perks up happily and everyone turns.  Keith gets no peace.

“It’s Uncle Keith!”  The twins squeal, jumping up and down and waving happily as Kosmo tears through the creek to get to him.

Keith raises a hand with a smile and mumbles whatever makes it out around his mouthful before he's attacked by the slobber monster.  They giggle merrily.

Keith,” Shiro says in that breathy soft voice that gets Keith every time.  He smiles over with soft stars in his eyes. Keith raises his hand again over Kosmo, different this time.  He always goes breathless and inarticulate at that, and he knows by the soft way Shiro waves back that he understands.

“Come play with us!”  The twins cry. But Keith is tired.  Keith is aching. Keith is hungry.

Shiro gathers them and leads them back into the sparkling creek.  “No, no, let’s leave him alone. He’s had a long day and he needs his rest.  The three of us can have fun together, right? You know what? Let’s have double the fun so Keith can feel it from there, what do you say?”

So their childish screams double in volume.

Shiro really is good with them.  And he loves them.  Yeah, Keith knew it’d be a mistake moving so close, when Allura happened to be pregnant with twins.  Not just because they’d be related to Lance and somehow living next door to that constant energy everyday just sounded wearing.

But Keith knew from the second they started helping Lance paint the nursery that they were in trouble.  The way Shiro would have that funny little intake of breath when he’d see the progress Keith made on the fields of flowers on the walls.  Or how he’d smile up at the little dancing baby mobiles. The way he was so damn good and eager at helping Lance put the crib together.

And the little looks he’d give Keith.  He’s never said it aloud, but Keith knows Shiro as well as Shiro knows Keith.  His eyes say something like, are you ready?  And the way Keith has to blink away under that look.  ...He doesn’t know.

How could Keith be a father?  He hardly knew his own... He wouldn’t know how.

He sees Shiro with Lance and Allura’s kids and Shiro’s ready.  Shiro’s good.  Shiro’s perfect.  But Keith...?

One of the twins gets tired of the creek and comes to sit beside Keith, plucking some flowers from the ground.  He knows the drill.  Before she can even ask, he takes out the band from his hair and undoes his braid, angling himself so she can sit on the branch behind him, right at the perfect height for her.  She begins to run her hands through his hair and separate them into three sections. Carefully, she weaves the flowers in, kicking her feet and smiling, humming to herself.

"You know, I think Kosmo wouldn't mind his hair being braided."

She laughs like he just told the most genius joke.  "Uncle Keith!  Kosmo can't sit still."

He chuckles under his breath.  Honestly, it feels nice.  A little head massage after a long day.

“And your hair is so pretty,” she says, leaning forward into his ear and smiling wide.  “It’s the softest.  Better than my dolls.”

Keith snorts.  “Yeah, I’ve seen how you treat your dolls.  I’m definitely never letting you cut my bangs.”

She laughs, delighted, as both twins always are.  They live a charmed happy life, raised by two loving parents and all loving paladins, surrounded by people who love them from every side.

There will always be someone to have their backs.  Always. They do well in school, they have sane friends, they love their parents.  There’s no more war.  There’s no strife.  All they know is the peace that’s settled after the storm Keith and the others weathered.  They know nothing of the terror, the heartbreak, the disaster. They’re raised just as anyone could hope, like a fairytale.

Picture perfect.

So when Shiro turns to smile at Keith, that look in his eyes that he tries to subdue, that he never asks, never pushes about...Keith doesn’t know why he hesitates so much.

He’s tired...

He lets himself doze beneath the tiny fingers working carefully through his hair.

He gets it sometimes.  He does.  Shiro has always wanted a family.  Keith has too.  And now that they have one, filled together with their friends, with Krolia, with so much love...wouldn’t it be sort of magical to keep expanding on that feeling?  On this golden luck?

His phone chimes and he blinks awake, opening his eyes to the gently swaying leaves dancing overhead, the soft tickle of the twin’s long silver hair dusting across his neck.  He rubs his eyes as he leans forward.

“Work again?”  The little one asks, leaning her chin down on his shoulder to see.

“Oh.  No, it’s Pidge,” he sniffs, holding the screen out for her to see as he rubs his nose.  “...She’s up at our house.  I think I’m going to go see what she wants, want to come up with me?”

“I think I’ll go back to Uncle Shiro.  He can’t handle my other half on his own.  Kosmo too, right, boy?”  Kosmo's ears prick up happily.

“Okay,” he snorts with a raised eyebrow as he gets to his feet and dusts his pants off, patting Kosmo on the head.  “Thanks for looking after him for me.”

“Mmhmm.”  She waits at his side patiently for a moment, but when his old bones don’t move fast enough for her, she tugs at his arm antsily, seeking something.  Chuckling softly, he leans down for her to jump up and kiss him on the cheek.  When she pulls back there is a pleased little smile on her face and that otherworldly sparkle in her eyes.  She looks so much like Allura; hardly five and already Keith feels she’s more mature than him most times.  “Love you, Uncle Keith.  Tell Auntie I said ‘hi’.”

He’d never think of saying no to them.

 

When he reaches the house, he sees Pidge has made herself at home like usual, strewn out over his and Shiro’s expensive couch, bowl of snacks in her lap and legs stretched on the arm rest as she glares into the TV.

Keith snorts wearily and tosses himself over the side of the couch into her side, groaning.

“Hey,” she mumbles, nudging him over a bit to free an arm.  She pats him on the head like he’s a friendly cat.  “Long day?”

“God.  Yeah.  It was Shiro’s half day today, so everyone was coming to me with their shit.  Does nobody listen to the debriefings?  Jesus, why do we even have them?”

Pidge chuckles lowly.  “Mm.  Imagine being in Shiro’s position all the time.  He answers all the questions with a smile.”

“He actually loves to help, you know.  He told me none of the questions bother him.  None of them.”

Wow.  Well, we always knew he was Superman.”

“I swear he’s a saint.”  He peers into the bowl she keeps diving into.  “...You’d better not eat all of those again without telling us.  When Shiro finds out there are no cheetos left he becomes a demon.”

She rolls her eyes and pushes at his face playfully.  “Ha.  Yeah, right.  Trying to pin the blame on your sweet husband when we all know it’s you.  Poor Shiro.  I swear.”

Keith laughs and dusts the powdered cheese from his cheek.

Pidge crams her face full of cheetos, which isn’t totally unusual, but she’s barely looked at Keith once, which is unusual, and she hasn’t even made fun of Keith for having flowers in his hair.

He rolls onto his belly and props his head up with his hands.  “...What’s up?”  He asks.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.  She keeps shoving her face full of more and more.  She doesn’t answer him. The bowl is starting to dwindle.

Keith rolls off the couch and into the kitchen to get more.

There’s a gleeful shriek outside and Shiro’s low laughter.  Kosmo keeps howling with enthusiasm.  The energy is contagious.

Pidge looks out the window, casting a long gaze out at them.  “...Shiro sure loves those twins, doesn’t he?”

“Well.  He is their godfather.”

“You mean you both are...”  She puts the bowl down and walks to the window, staring down at them.  She crosses her arms tightly and begins to bite on her nails.  “...You’re both so good with kids.”

“What are you talking about?”  Keith sighs, digging through the cabinets.  He swears they just bought another few bags of those Cheetos and they’re down to their last bag already.  “They flock to Shiro like he’s handing out candy.”

“I see your hair, Kogane.  They decorated you like Barbie.  Don’t be modest.”

“I’m not.”

But she’s still at the window, biting harder at her nails.  Her fingers go up to feel her hair, flowerless.  “I...I’m not like you.”

“Aw, Pidge, Shiro’s always been good with kids.  You know how he is; there’s just something about him.  He’s easy to trust.  He got me to trust him when I was little,” Keith laughs under his breath.  As his thoughts shift, he hums fondly.  “I imagine anyone after that would be easy for him.  And they know I just come with the package, that’s all.”

When he returns with a newly replenished snack bowl, Pidge’s shoulders are hunched in an odd uncomfortable way.  She’s standing by the window and nibbling on the edge of her nails, tapping her foot, watching them outside.

Keith stops beside her, looking down into the creek where Shiro and the twins are singing off-key together.  Nothing out of order there.  He turns carefully back to her. “...Pidge?”

She doesn’t say anything as she turns from the window to look at him, a tinge of fear in her eyes.  She walks over and takes the bowl from him, but instead of shoving her face full again like she normally would, she sets it aside so she can grab his hand in hers.  She squeezes them tightly, like they’re a lifeline. He loves Pidge, he does, but he’s not used to such bold contact from her and it makes him blink.

“Keith,” she says.  “...I have to tell you something.”

He stares.  “...O...kay...  I’m listening.”

She turns her eyes back out for a moment and Keith sees as something in them goes cold.  “...N-not here.”

She pulls Keith upstairs and into the guest room.  She sits him down beside her. Bites at her lip.

Keith watches her for a few moments.  Pidge is self-reliant. She doesn’t actually need anything from anyone.  She usually has no problems solving things by herself, as clever as she is.  There’s no trap that can catch her, no issue too big for her. But right now feels different.  Keith can see it on her face.  “What’s going on...?” He asks, frowning.  “You’re acting like you killed someone.”

“You can’t tell anyone.”

“...What’d you do...?”  He murmurs.

She presses her lips together tightly.  “Keith. You can’t tell anyone,” she says again, repositioning her glasses on her nose, eyes boring into his.  “I mean anyone.  Not even Matt.  You especially can’t tell Matt.”

“You know I won’t.”

“Not even Shiro,” she whispers.  “Not yet.”

He tells Shiro everything.  Shiro’s his other half.  But he nods slowly.  “Okay.”

She looks back at the door, making sure it’s closed.  Keith has to lean in to hear her as she wrings out her hands.  “...So...you know that new project I’ve been working on lately?  With that new crew? The people in Group B. I’ve been spending a lot of time with them, right?”

“Yeah, Shiro mentioned that the other day.  Even your lunches.”

“Well, it’s been fun hanging out with them.  We’re very like-minded.  I mean...it’s not like us.  Not like being paladins together, but it’s still fun and they feel like ‘my people’, you know?  Science geeks. They get all my lame jokes. That means something, right?”

He nods again beneath her look that pries, like she’s begging him to understand.  “Makes sense,” he says. “We’ve been missing you though. Your seat’s been so empty.”

“I know,” she says quietly.  “Well, I - I thought I needed some space.  Lately, I’ve...sort of been feeling left out.”

Keith immediately goes cold inside at that.  He opens his mouth to apologize, already going through his head of things they can do to include Pidge.  He never wants her to feel that way.  She’s his sister.  It’s been years since the war’s ended and they’ve all only grown closer.  He can’t believe he hasn’t noticed until now.

She shakes her head quickly.  “No, I knew you’d take it like that.  It’s not your fault, Keith.  You guys are great.  You practically let me live here.  I just mean...seeing you all, Lance and Allura, you and Shiro, Hunk and Shay, Matt and N-7, all of you, all happily married and going through life with someone, I just...  I’ve always been the baby of the group.  I thought it’d come with time and time has passed but...it’s not like I’ve found someone I like like that, you know?  And I sort of...watching all of you, wondering.  Well, I...I mean, I’m older now.  We’re all older now.  I’m not a little girl anymore and the years keep going by and I’m not finding what you guys all have.  I mean...you met Shiro when you were, what?  Like...twelve?”

“Pidge.  That’s not always typical.  And he was with Adam then.  I had no idea it’d end up like this.”

“But you loved him then.”

“Pidge...”

You loved him then.”

He’s quiet as he fiddles with his fingers.  Finally, he says, “If Shiro had stayed with Adam, I probably would’ve been alone too.”

“No, you wouldn’t have, Keith.  Because Shiro was never going to stay with Adam as long as you were around.  ...The way he looks at you... The way he’s always looked at you.  There's something special there. I saw it from day one, long before you ever did.”  She heaves a huge sigh. “It’s just been something weighing on me... N-7 keeps giving me these looks and lately she mentioned some dating app.  I know she’s just trying to help...but it seriously sent me into a hellhole of thoughts,” she says miserably.  “I mean, you two are so happily married. It completed you. Hunk and Shay have their restaurant together.  Allura and Lance’s twins are already basically smart enough to work alongside me. Everyone’s so happy.” She leans forward and groans into her hands.  “I’ve been having some mental crisis.  A quarter-life crisis.  I guess I started feeling like I’ve been failing on the homefront.  On like...social life, you know? On being normal.”

“You’re not failing, Pidge,” Keith leans down to level with her.

She stares back with grudging unhappy eyes.  “...That’s not what I wanted to talk to you about." She starts picking at her fingers. "So...I’m naturally a scientist, right?  When things bother me, I just mess with them until they fit back into place. I like to test different things out, try to find what works, it’s how my brain is wired.  So I thought...why not... experiment?  Find out what I like.  See what all the fuss is about.  I mean, when Mr. I-Hate-Everyone falls head over heels and sobs like a baby and has heart eyes at his wedding...I mean, I must be missing something, right?”

Keith drawls, unamused, “Am I Mr. I-Hate-Everyone?”

Her eyes are already distant, biting at her lip roughly.

He narrows his eyes at her as he tries to figure out her code.  “So...what do you mean, then?  You’re dating someone?”

“W-well... no.  Not that...”

His eyes widen as he thinks back to lunch the other day, when he and Shiro were watching Pidge from across the room.  It was Shiro who had first voiced Keith’s exact thought, ‘Pidge is sure getting along with that new guy really well, isn’t she?’

Keith leans forward and murmurs in shock.  He thinks he has it all figured out.  “...You have a crush on him, don’t you?  That one black-haired guy?”

“N-Not a crush,” Pidge sputters.

“But it is him, isn’t it?”

The look of horror says yes.

Keith lets out a short laugh at the blush in her cheeks.   Oh, no.  Pidge. That’s what this is about?  All of this talk about keeping a secret, I was seriously starting to think you’d killed someone.  Or knocked someone’s eye out at least.”

Keith,” Pidge despairs, completely leaning into her lap with a groan.  “It’s not that!” She mumbles from her hiding spot.

“Then what?” When she doesn’t respond, he continues hesitantly. “If you’re asking for relationship advice or something along those lines, I’m honestly not the best person to ask.  Shiro and I only ended up together because he’s a saint, not because I’m good at relationships.”

No.  You’re like the last person I’d ask advice for on that one.”

“Then what, Pidge?  I’m not getting it.”

“What other kind of experiment is there?”  Pidge gurgles, tossing her hand up in agony.  “If it’s not about a relationship with this guy...”  She trails off suggestively, leading him.

“I...”  He thinks about it, seriously confused.  Experiment. Relationships. He presses his lips together.  “...Uh. Do you mean...like...experimenting with girls? I-I’ve never -  Shiro’s the only one -”

“God, Keith, no.  I’m pregnant,” she chokes out and then just stops breathing.

Keith blinks.  Stares at her. Blinks again.

He opens his mouth to ask for clarification, realizes he doesn’t even know how to ask.  That is... not anywhere close to what he was thinking.

Pregnant.  Like...a baby.  Like Pidge having sex.

Pidge.

Having sex.

He runs his tongue over his lip as he tries to process that.

Pidge.

Pidge.

Fourteen year old Pidge.

Wait, no.  She's older now.  They’re all older now.  It shouldn't feel this weird, but she's always been like a little sister to him, and maybe not even that.  Just a little Pidge, a little gremlin. Her own unit. He hasn't even had the thought that she could...well, even get pregnant.  Not once.

Pidge.  Pregnant.

Her face is going red as she watches him, her eyes too.  She’s holding her breath, watching his reaction far too closely.

Say something, her expression begs, but Keith doesn’t know what.

“A-aren’t you...asexual...?”  He forces out.

There’s a knock on the door and Shiro swings it open, poking his head in curiously.  “Hey, you two. Lance collected the girls so I figured we could go out for dinner. What are you two doing up here?  What do you want?”

Keith turns stunned pleading eyes to Shiro.  He can feel the big help blaring across his own face.

Shiro blinks in confusion.  It gets worse when Pidge leaps up to her knees and tries to press her hands over Keith’s mouth, but she just presses them over his entire face instead.  He makes a muffled mmph! sound.

“He’s fine!”  She cries, twisting to look at Shiro without moving her hands.  “It’s fine. We’re all good. Anything you want for dinner - good.   Great, in fact.  I’ll send him down after we’re done.”

Shiro and Keith lock eyes.  Shiro slowly backs out. “Okay.  Tell me if you need anything...”

The door shuts.  It’s dead silent for two seconds more.  And then it hits Keith. What she’s trying to say.

Pregnant?  Pregnant!”  Keith whisper screams into Pidge’s face.  “How the fuck did you get pregnant?”

“Well, Keith,” she says, holding up both hands and forming her fingers into obvious shapes.  “I would’ve thought by now that Shiro would’ve given you the birds and the bees talk, but when a man and a woman love each other very much -”

He snatches her fingers up tightly.  “- Stop.  Do you even know his name?  You’ve know him for like...not even a month.”

“I know his name,” she tsks, offended.  Her fire fizzles into dejection.  “Uh. But turns out you don’t actually have to love each other to, you know...have the sperm work.”

Keith rears back.  “Don’t say sperm.”

“What do you want me to call it?  ‘Love juice’?”

Keith shudders.  She’s killing him.  She’s really killing him.  “Oh, god. Oh, god. Pidge.  Does he know?”

She shakes her head and even though the motion is small, her ponytail shakes sadly back and forth.  “I just took the test this morning. You’re the first person I’ve told.”

“Oh, god,” he whispers into his hands.  “Oh, god...”

“Stop saying that,” Pidge whispers back fiercely, poking him hard in the arm.  “You’re freaking me out.”

“Mmrgh,” Keith grunts into his hands to try to press it all back in.

Pidge.  Pregnant.  He peeks over his hands.  Looks at Pidge. Looks down at her stomach.  Back up at her red embarrassed squirming face.  They stare at each other for awhile. Down at her stomach again.

She gurgles in agony and shifts away defensively.  “Stop look at me like that!”

“S-sorry...” he breathes, feeling incredibly awkward around her suddenly.  He doesn’t know what to say or how to react. Her discomfort is apparent and freaking him out.

It’s so confusing.  There’s nothing there.  No bump. No anything. She’s the same old Pidge.

That’s right.  ...The same old Pidge.  Sex doesn’t have to mean anything.  It doesn’t have to be some sort of scandal.  It wasn’t strange at all when Allura announced she was pregnant...Keith doesn’t know why this feels so...so wrong.

He clears his throat.  Tries to be calm for Pidge who’s still buzzing despite the brave front she puts forth.  “...W-well, I mean. It’s not like we’re in high school. We’re adults.” He almost says it in surprise.  “You’re an adult. He’s an adult. This...this doesn’t have to be bad.”

“It doesn’t?”  She whispers.

“N-no.  I mean...  A lot of people, at our age, I mean...they like kids.  People want kids.  I was just surprised...  I never really thought of you with children honestly.  You never seemed totally interested in the twins and I mean, you’ve always been my little sister and it’s hard to see beyond that, I guess, but...maybe...maybe it’s something for...for you...”  He trails off as he sees her expression. The longer he talks, the more her face crumbles.

“Oh, Pidge,” he whispers.

“Oh, god, Keith,” she shakes her head and closes her eyes.  “No, you’re right. Me? With some kid?  For Allura and Lance it makes sense.  It makes total sense. They’re all set up for it.  They wanted a family like that. But for me?  Keith, I can’t care for this baby.  My life is my job. I love what I’m doing right now.  I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to slow down. I like it just as it is.  There are too many things to discover. There aren’t even enough hours in the day as it is.  I can’t raise it and love it like it deserves. I can’t.”

“Well...maybe the father would want to?”

Pidge shakes her head slowly.  “He just said the other day how he isn’t fond of kids.  And I just nodded and agreed.  Oh, god.”

“I don’t understand...  How did this happen? You didn’t wear protection?”

“We did but I don’t know how to put on a damn condom.  I must’ve done it wrong but I was too embarrassed to ask...a virgin in my twenties.”  She leans forward and sinks into Keith’s shoulder, groaning. He gently rubs her back in slow comforting circles, staring overwhelmed into the abyss.

“Pidge, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that...  You should’ve talked with me. I had no idea you thought any of this stuff...”

“I didn’t want to bother you...but I regret that now.  I can’t believe this is happening. I was ready to just forget the whole stupid thing, but then my damn period didn’t come and I didn’t even think at first, and I was like, ‘Oh, everything’s fine.  It’s just late. Don’t worry about it.’  And then I was thinking.  And then I got one of those pee sticks.  And I tried it. And it - And it said -” She wheezes.  “It’s like some horrible nightmare. Even if I didn’t love my job, I’m not ready for a child.  I’m not ready to impart knowledge.  But I don’t want to just...just get rid of it either,” she whispers, pressing her hands to the base of her stomach.  “It’s the most interesting sort of science there is, isn’t it?” She turns big scared eyes up to Keith. “But I... A baby isn’t me, Keith.  I know it isn’t.  Just like I knew the whole...couple thing wasn’t, but I thought, 'You can treat it like a science experiment!’ and I did and it just sucked.  I hated it.  He was all... close and pressed against me with his gross body and when he kissed me it felt slimy and cold and slippery like some flopping dying eel and ugh.  I just wanted it to be over.  Ugh, god, why did I ever doubt myself?  I’m such an idiot.” She presses her hand to her face and looks up to Keith, something resigned in her eyes.  “...It’s not like that for you, is it?  You don’t hate it?  Being intimate.”

Keith shakes his head slowly.

“But you love Shiro,” she says lowly, looking down at the ground.  “You love him and are attracted to him and I...I should’ve known. I wish I could go back and erase this whole thing, but sometimes I just feel like there’s something wrong with me...”

“Pidge,” Keith whispers, scooting closer toward her.  “Pidge, there’s nothing wrong with you. Sex isn’t everything.  Couples, marriage, romance, I mean...they’re all just small sides of humanity.  There are so many different things that can make us happy. That’s what’s important, right?  And if it doesn’t interest you or make you happy, why force yourself? You know what makes you happy, not anyone else.  I didn’t really care about people either, not until I met Shiro.  And who the hell cares? That’s my business.”

She sighs and sniffs.  “Logically, I know you’re right.  But...god, too late for it now.”

They both stare down at her stomach.  There’s nothing there. Keith wouldn’t know if she never said anything, but now it seems obvious.  Like it’s staring right at him.

He swallows hard and blinks away.  “...You’re going to keep it?”

She whispers, “...I don’t know what to do.  I guess we’ll...we’ll just see what happens.”  She worries at her lip. “Maybe it’s a false positive.  Maybe this is all just drama for no reason.”

A couple months later and Pidge is wearing very big, very thick sweaters in less-than-ideal temperatures.  She pretends like it’s not there, a bump poking out from her sweaters and the sweat building on her brow at all times.  But Pidge is Pidge and being pregnant is the last thing they’d assume.  Everyone just thinks she's gaining weight.

Keith goes with her to her appointments, remaining faithfully silent.  Shiro knows he knows what’s up, but he doesn’t pry because Shiro is Shiro. And Keith loves him for it all the more.

But it becomes too much, like most secrets do, and, in the middle of the blaring hot summer in the center of the desert, Pidge cannot hide it beneath baggy sweaters anymore.

To no one’s surprise, it is Matt who’s the most shocked.  At first, he’s upset, especially when he realizes it's 'that dick from Group B' but when Pidge begins to cry in shame beneath her cherished older brother’s opinion, he softens.

“I didn’t mean to yell,” he murmurs, rubbing her back with his hand in comfort.  “You just...surprised me.”

“You and me both,” she grunts as she blows her nose into her jacket moodily.  “What am I going to do with a child?

He bites at his lip as he thinks.  “Have you thought of adoption?  Plenty of people would want a child.”

“Yes,” Pidge murmurs.  “But can you imagine just giving it away to some random person and never seeing it again?  What if they don’t care for it?  What if they do a worse job at it than me?  What if they don’t love it?  Will I just never know one way or the other?  ...I don’t think I could handle that either.”

“Katie,” Matt whispers.  “...Why didn’t you tell anyone for this long?  Why did you keep it a secret?”

Pidge sniffs and gives a small shrug.  “I guess I was hoping that, if I gave it some time, everything would suddenly make sense and I’d know what to do.  That I’d want to keep it.  Or I’d want to give it up.  But as it is, I just...I’m more confused than ever.  It’s not that I hate the idea.  Allura, you and Lance are such great parents.  I know you love your girls and so do I, but I just...I don’t think it’s for me, you know?  I mean...do you know?   Did you know?  Were you this scared?”

Allura and Lance exchange hesitant looks.  “We were scared,” Allura says softly.  “But we wanted it more than anything.  We knew.”

Pidge nods and closes her eyes.  She knew that too.

“I can’t keep it,” Pidge whispers.  “Anyone else would make a better mother than me.  And that I know.”

After the day is over, Lance and their family walk back home with Keith and Shiro.  The afternoon sun is setting and the streets are a deep golden red. The air is stretched uncomfortably up the backs of their necks.

“So,” Allura murmurs.  “Pidge. Our Pidge.  What do you think she’ll do?”  She looks around Lance to ask Keith.

Keith takes in a long deep breath.  “She told me about this a few weeks ago.  Every time she talks about it, she just cries.  She keeps going around in circles. She pretends she isn’t, but she’s already attached to it.  I can tell.”

“Being with child is an unparalleled experience,” Allura hums, leaning down to pinch her daughters’ cheeks as they giggle.  “I imagine, being in her situation, how confusing it must be.”

“Her boyfriend didn’t want it?”  Lance asks.

Keith shakes his head slowly.  “No.  He reacted badly.  It didn’t help.”

“What a winner.”

“He’s not her boyfriend either.  After this, I don’t even think they’re friends.  He didn’t want a child. He blames her.”

Allura tsks.  “Of course he does.  What a class A asshole.”

“Look at you,” Lance hums fondly, elbowing her tenderly on the arm.  “Using Earth’s curse words so naturally.”

She rolls her eyes, but the crooked grin on her face shows her amusement.

Shiro murmurs lowly, “I wish there was something we could do.  Pidge is our family.”

“It’s fucked up,” Keith agrees.

Keith,” Lance groans.

“What?”  He gets prickly.  “Allura just swore and you congratulated her on it.”

“That’s different!  You said the ‘f’ word.”

“How is that -”  He closes his eyes.  “Whatever.  No ‘f’ word.  I got it.”

The girls giggle behind their hands, eyes shining with mischief.  Allura pats their heads and murmurs, “Swearing is bad, girls,” as they separate from them and migrate over to Shiro and Keith.

“Are you both still up for watching them tonight?”  Allura asks.  It’s Friday.  Date night.  Shiro and Keith always take them.

“If Shiro makes dinner.”  Keith yawns. “I’m exhausted.”

Shiro snorts.  “How’s takeout sound, girls?”

“Yes!  I want pepperoni pizza!”

“I want just cheese!  Cheese tastes better!”

“Can we get them personalized?”

Shiro looks up at Keith with a smile.  “The princesses have spoken.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Lance snorts as he presses a twenty dollar bill into Keith’s hands.  “Thank you.  We owe you.”

Keith and Allura exchange amused glances.  They both know how much Shiro enjoys hanging out with the girls.  He’d probably be the one most sad if Lance and Allura’s date night was canceled.

It’s in the night, when the lights are off in the living room and all that’s lighting them is the blue light from the TV as they lay sprawled out in sleeping bags on the floor.  Shiro leans against the couch on the floor beside them, watching the tail-end of Moana by himself. They’re already fast asleep.

Shiro has a small smile on his face.  He also has Crayola marker all over his cheeks and his hair tuft is in a ponytail decorated with beads.  But that he can take care of that later.

Keith lifts his toe and pokes Shiro’s cheek with it.  Shiro turns to him, such an endearing mess.

“Nice mustache,” Keith says.  He keeps his voice down low for the girls.  “She drew it in extra curly for you.”

“Did she really?”  Shiro chuckles softly, running his finger over his face like he can feel it.  He smiles back up at Keith. “Your hair is looking especially fancy too.”

Keith makes a gurgle that’s half a groan and half a laugh as he runs his hands through it, feeling the kinks.  “They braid it so tightly, my hair never had a chance.”

They laugh together under their breath, happily together.

“Look at how small they are now...”  Shiro murmurs, nodding down to their fragile tiny forms, snuggled up close together.  “I can remember the day they were born so clearly, like it was literally just yesterday.  I know everyone always says that,” he chuckles softly.  “...But now I get why.  Soon, they’ll be in middle school.  And then high school. Having kids of their own...  Jesus.  And where will we be?”

“We’re getting older too, Shiro,” Keith hums, watching him with amusement.  “I still feel exactly the same as our Voltron days though.”

“Your braid’s longer.”

“The circles under my eyes are getting darker.”

“It doesn’t look bad.  You want to know something bad?  The doctor told me the other day I no longer have 20/10 vision.”

“Jesus.  What do you have then?”

“20/15.”

Keith laughs into his hand.  “Oh.  Getting old.”

“I wouldn't laugh, hotshot.  You’re right behind me.”

“Mmm.  Well, I’m not worried.  You're aging pretty damn well if I do say so myself.  Like a fine wine, better as time goes on.”

Shiro smiles warmly, nuzzling the side of his face into Keith's leg.  “Thanks, Keith.  I think you grow more beautiful by the day.”

This is a scene.  This is a feeling, like Keith’s heart trying to expand to take in all the love that’s growing inside.  This strange little fluttering in his chest, the same feeling he gets before he’s about to dive into a tight asteroid belt out in space, or how he felt at the beginning of their relationship, right before one of their first kisses.

Keith leans over and crawls across the couch, snuggling up into Shiro’s shoulder and humming as Shiro brings his hand up to brush Keith’s hair back.

“I always used to think that as we got older, we’d change inside too.  Grow up.  ..But I don’t feel any different.  I still feel exactly the same,” Keith whispers into the cove of Shiro’s neck.  “Like that stupid scared little boy.  I don’t feel any older or wiser than when I was fifteen and angry at the world.  ...Though not at you.  Never at you.”

Shiro smiles crookedly, listening intently.

Keith rubs the ink mustache away from Shiro’s face with his thumb.  “I get why Pidge is so afraid.  Some days I feel like I can’t even guide myself properly, so how the hell could I possibly guide anyone else?  Especially an innocent open mind, soaking in every detail. ...It’d be a lot like the blind leading the blind...” - he tip-toes his fingers off Shiro’s arm - “right off a cliff.”

The warm amusement in Shiro’s eyes tells Keith he’s already known Keith thinks this way, but the confidence says he disagrees.  “Did you think Lance was ready for a child at twenty? More than you would be now?”

Keith grunts.  “...You’re killing me.  Lance has a certain charm about him,” he grudgingly admits.  “He’s good with kids.  Look at all the siblings he has.  He was born into family.  I wasn’t.”

“That’s right, you weren’t.  You’re thoughtful about each step you take forward.  You watch and make calculated guesses. Lance is good with kids.  But the girls love you, Keith.  You haven’t even noticed, have you?”  Shiro chuckles softly. “You’re a natural.”

Keith thinks about it.  They do all get along very well together.

“You have changed,” Shiro whispers.  “Even if you can’t see it, I can. That temper that used to flare in you, the way you’d flip emotions so quickly and let them consume you...you were so raw, so volatile.  And you’re still my Keith, the one I first met, everything I love about you is still right here. But you’ve really grown into yourself. You’re patient now in ways I envy.  You’re wonderful.

“And besides,” Shiro hums.  “I know 20/15 isn’t exactly 20/10, but it’s still better than 20/20 and that’s considered the golden standard in eyesight.  So no blind leading the blind around here.”

Keith laughs, louder than he intended, and Shiro laughs too, pressing his hand over Keith’s face.  Keith nibbles at his fingers until he lets go. “Hey,” Keith says. “I’m not that old yet. I still have 20/10.  One of the techs said it was 20/5 last time I went in.”

“Is that even possible?”

Keith shrugs.  “He also asked for my autograph afterward, so maybe he was trying to butter me up.”

Shiro snorts.  “20/5, huh? Well, see?  Then there’s no problem.”

He presses a kiss to Keith’s lips and Keith basks in this feeling of comfort and love.  He wonders to himself what it’d be like to expand that. He already knows what Shiro wants, what Shiro would never ask for until he thought Keith was ready.

Maybe Keith’s been ready all along, only afraid.  Maybe he just needs to take the leap.

Keith whispers, “...You would make a good father.”

Shiro hums warmly.  “...So would you, Keith.  You shouldn’t doubt yourself.  I have full confidence in you. You’re the leader of Voltron, defender of all universes.  Wars upon wars don’t scare you...you’ve saved countless children already. I know one more in your hands would be the right choice.”

Keith heaves a breath, nuzzling deeper into Shiro’s warmth as he thinks.  “...You make it sound so noble, like I hadn’t done it out of necessity, out of desperation.  I had luck. I had help. I had all of you.”

“And you still do.  I’m right here, right beside you.”

Keith swallows hard.  ...That’s right.  It’s true.  “You’ve always believed in me,” Keith murmurs.  “Always.  Even when I don’t believe in myself.”

“I see in you what you don’t.  Your heart that you wear on your sleeve that you can’t quite see, but I can.  And let me tell you, I’m impressed by you everyday, more and more. You are the bravest best person I know, Keith.  Trust me when I say that, I’ve never been more serious about anything in my whole life. You have nothing to worry about.  Just be you, just as you are. That’s always the right thing for you to be.” Shiro carefully takes Keith’s hand and begins pressing small kisses onto each of Keith’s individual fingers, pausing for a moment to rub his cheek against the wedding ring.

What would it be like...to expand on this feeling?  This love in his heart?

Shiro believed in him once...and, closing his eyes and trusting that judgement, together, they went on to save the universe.  It was the best decision Keith ever made.

Keith trusts Shiro with his whole heart...his hesitation makes no sense.

Keith murmurs lowly, "You know, we haven't gone off into space that much lately, not like we used to.  Maybe it's a sign.  Maybe it's time to stay grounded for awhile..."

Shiro freezes, lips still pressed to Keith’s hand.

He closes his eyes.  Whispers the words around his throat, already tight in fear, but in genuine excitement too, “What would you think of asking Pidge to adopt her baby?  You and me.  Us.  Together.”

Shiro takes in a breath so sharp and quick that it’s almost inaudible.  As he turns his eyes up to Keith, they catch the television’s blue light and Keith can see them clearly, already filling with tears, brimming over with love.  Keith smiles softly, his whole heart bursting.  He knows it’s what Shiro’s always wanted and he’s always wanted to give it to him. To feel comfortable with this.  And he does.

Shiro grabs Keith’s face between his two hands, pressing firm kisses all along his face.

“Yes,” Shiro whispers into the darkness.  “...Yes.  I love you so much.  Yes.”

Keith laughs into every kiss.  The twins are asleep nearby, dreaming happy little dreams, bellies warm, hearts soft.  Shiro helped bathe them.  Though it was Keith who made them popcorn and brought them hot chocolate, and the both of them who took turns reading a bedtime story to them, it was Shiro who sat with them and helped them pick out a movie for their slumber party, set out their beds on the softest part of the floor.  If nothing else, Keith has complete faith that Shiro will be the perfect father, and maybe, if all else fails, Keith can learn from that.

 

When Pidge comes in the next day, hunting for snacks in their cabinet, Shiro and Keith sit her down at their dining room table and mention their little thought.  She cries. She cries with relief. She cries with joy. She tosses her arms around their necks and says around her tears, “I couldn't ask for more perfect parents than the both of you.”

That word sinks into Keith’s bones.  He can’t tell if it numbs him or makes him burn.

Parents.  Him and Shiro.

They get ready.  It feels both too fast and too slow.  They go out and buy the crib together, the car seat, the diapers - all these things that make Keith’s breath go funny, almost worse than when they got married.

Shiro watches Keith.  He’s always watching him.  “...Are you sure you want to do this?” he asks.

Keith nods.  Shiro asked that before their wedding too, so many times that Keith’s response became a reflex.  Now it feels like a stiff jerk of the head.

For the twins, Keith had painted the softest fluffiest clouds he could manage over fields of juniberry flowers.  Allura had requested it; it felt right for them. But in their home, for their child, Keith knows he has to do the galaxy, the stars that brought the two of them together...the three of them.

He works on it for days.  Until he’s elbow deep in rainbow splattered paint, until it’s dried in his hair and flecked across his cheeks as he concentrates.

He’s excited, he is, not just because Shiro’s joy is infectious, but for his own reasons too.  It’s a good nervous, he just never thought he’d be here. Sometimes his breath catches as he paints, as fear grips his throat and he remembers that lost boy he had been for all those years, that lost boy he probably still is, and he’s overcome with this feeling like he’s teetering.  Like he can’t do this. That he’s a fool to think he can. He can’t cover his shitty inability to be around people with paint and nice cribs. They’re going to know. The baby. Shiro.

He never thought he’d be here.  Married, with children.  That sort of thing is for people who have it all together.  And Keith?  Keith is still a lost child beneath the stars.

Somehow, Shiro always knows.  He comes in, pressing his forehead to Keith’s waist.  Pressing a kiss to his arm.

“...This is looking wonderful, Keith,” he says on one such day.  His eyes look over the colors slowly, taking his time as Keith tries to center himself and focus on smoothing the anxious jerking from his lungs.  He clings to Shiro’s shoulders tightly with a white-knuckled grip.

"Don't say it," Keith whispers.  "Don't ask.  Because the answer is still 'yes'.  I just..." He takes deep slow breaths.

Softly, Shiro says, “Do you know how I know you’ll be a good father?”

Keith presses his lips together tightly.  He can’t feel that at all.  Not right now.  He knows so little despite all the parenting books he’s already collected from the library that litters their house.  Despite all the hours he’s spent caring for Lance and Allura’s little ones.  He’s ready, but he’s not.  But he is, but he isn’t.  “...How?”

Shiro nods to the painting.  “Because you put your whole heart into it.”  Keith looks down into Shiro’s eyes, so full of certainty.  “Keith.  You trusted me before when you wouldn’t trust yourself.  Trust me again.  I know,” he whispers.  “I know that everything will be okay.”

Keith bites on his lip, looking up into the painted stars, and he hopes.

 

“It’s so weird seeing you pregnant,” Keith snorts when they’re sitting on a bench together at the park.  Keith tosses popcorn into the air and Pidge shifts to catch it with her mouth. “Honestly, it makes me a little uncomfortable.”

“You?  You uncomfortable?  Try carrying a basketball in your stomach with you all the time.  I can use it as a table.  Look!” She places her drink on top of it where it sways only slightly.  “A table all the time.  Not that that makes it worth it.  I can’t sleep at night, it’s so uncomfortable.  And I keep getting these horrible charlie horses in my legs.  The muscles tense up like knots.  You can feel them!”

“Ugh, those are nasty.  Shiro used to get those sometimes too, back when he was first in his new body.  I think they told him he needed more potassium or something like that.  Try a banana.”

Pidge just groans.  “I hate bananas.  And I swear to god this child is a little demon, like you.  It’s most active at night when I’m trying to sleep.  I finally start drifting off after an exhausting day dealing with it and bam, right in the ribs.”

Keith snorts as he crinkles the empty bag up and tosses it into the trashcan nearby.  It swoops through the air and makes it with perfect precision.  “A love tap.”

“Yeah, sure.  I hear Shiro complaining you’re a night owl.  It’s suspicious.”  She rubs at her stomach for a long moment, trying to soothe the little beast inside.  After awhile, she looks up at Keith.  “What do you want it to be?  A boy or a girl?  Not that I have any control or anything, but I’m curious.”

“Uhh...”  Keith thinks, turning his eyes up into the sky.  “Either?  Either is...more than we could hope for.”

“Hm...”  Pidge thinks for a second.  “Everyone always says that.”  She messes with her voice, so it’s pinched.  “‘I just want it to be healthy’.  Isn’t that a given?  I’ll tell you what I want.  I want it to be an alien.  I want it to be so fuzzy that we can’t even tell the gender.  I mean, if you’re its father, it’s going to be part alien, right?  Do you think the baby senses that in the air?  Changes all fuzzy and kick-monster-y.”

Keith snorts and leans over to bump her shoulder and flick at her nose.

“Oh, my god, Keith,” she agonizes, shoving at him.  “You can’t mess with a pregnant lady.  Were you raised in a barn?”

“A shack, actually,” he laughs.  "And who says you're a lady?"

She raises an amused eyebrow at him, ready to tell him off, when, suddenly, her eyes brighten and she blinks.  “Oh!  Keith!  It’s moving now.  Right now.”  She gestures Keith closer and pats her belly excitedly.  “Want to feel?”

Keith looks down.  There’s that electricity striking across the tops of his shoulders, that uncertain energy.

She looks up, seeing the indecision plastered all over his face and posture.  She bites at her lip as she thinks.  “The date’s getting closer,” she murmurs.  “You only have so long left.”

“We’re ready,” he whispers back.

“Are you?” she chuckles softly.  She asks again, watching his face carefully, “...Wanna feel?”

He purses his lips together and gathers his courage.  He nods, short and brief.  She smiles slightly, reaching up to grab his hand.  She doesn’t force him, just guides his hand over to her stomach where she places it gently.

Carefully, he rubs his hand across.

It’s harder than he thought.  She had said basketball earlier and thought she’d been exaggerating, but now he realizes it’s the truth.  Wow.  It really does feel uncomfortable... And to think that there’s a tiny little person inside, a little baby curled up and warm, no care in the world, just trusting the space it’s in, trusting this warmth it has...  Keith was like that once. Pidge was like that once.  Shiro. All starting like a small little spark, nestled away, safe, carried by another.

His intake of breath is so shaky it’s ridiculous.  He’s never felt this way before.  A miracle.  A true miracle.  They’ve saved the universe together, they’ve weaved their own miracles, but this?  It almost feels like magic.  Unexplainable enchantment.

“...Wow,” he whispers shakily.

“Ah, it stopped,” Pidge grumbles.  “Try talking to it.  It likes that sometimes.  Or singing.  I know you sing; I’ve heard you in the red lion.”

But Keith is still shaking.  “...You really are pregnant, Pidge,” he laughs breathlessly.  It looks so weird on her.  It feels weird.  Inhuman.  Beyond his level of comprehension.

And Keith...he’s just one person.  One misguided person.  He feels so unready.

Pidge snorts at his response, vaguely amused at first, but as she turns her attention back on him, watches him, concern starts building on her brow.  “Jesus,” she whispers.  “Do I need to get Shiro over here?”

“N-no.  I’m...fine.”  He pulls away, taking his hand back into his lap and exhaling slowly.

She keeps her eyes on him for a few moments longer before she shifts and rubs her belly again.  “You didn’t get to feel it kick,” she sighs.  “Well.  Next time.”

They sit in silence for awhile as he stares out at Shiro, watching him.  Shiro’s Keith’s anchor.  Just watching him is grounding enough to calm the strange fluttering of Keith’s heart.

Keith knows Shiro has his struggles, of course he does.  But he doesn’t seem half as concerned about all of this as Keith and it’s disheartening somehow.  What’s wrong with Keith that he’s this petrified?  He watches Shiro and he’s not even interested in the game, his head’s just been stuck, worrying.

He bites at his lip in the afternoon silence.  “I’m scared,” he whispers finally.

“Keith.”  She reaches her hand out and rubs his shoulder, letting her head rest on his arm.  “If you don’t feel ready, you don’t have to do this, you know.  If you back out now, I won’t be mad and I won’t think any less of you.  You don’t have to do it for me.  I’ll be okay.  I’ll figure it out -”

He shakes his head sharply.  “No, I...It’s not that.  I know that.  That would be the absolute wrong reason to take it in and it's not that at all, I promise you.  We want a baby.  It's just...Shiro’s ready.  He’s ready.   And I’m...”

Shiro comes running up to them, wiping the sweat off his brow, his grin blazing.  “Keith, did you see that?  Almost a flawless victory.”

Keith laughs a little breathlessly, scrambling to recenter himself, to pull himself from the conversation.  He knows he doesn’t succeed. “...Show-off.”

Shiro quirks an eyebrow at Keith’s pale face, going to sit by him, but Pidge exclaims suddenly, grabbing Shiro by the arm and tugging him to a seat on her other side.  “It’s kicking!”  She whispers fiercely, like if the baby were to hear, it would stop.

She latches onto Keith’s hand and Shiro’s at the same time and shoves them to her belly.

Shiro’s face instantly lights up.  “W-whoa!” He gasps breathlessly. “That’s a strong kick!”

“Yeah, imagine how I feel,” Pidge snorts.  “If it kicks my bladder, it’s all over.  I’m going to pee everywhere.  Not on you, Shiro.  But Keith better watch out.”

Shiro laughs, lifting his eyes to Keith.

And Keith...  Keith holds his gaze but he can’t smile.  He feels emotions welling up inside of him as his brow crinkles and his lip trembles.  He presses them together tightly, keeping his hand on Pidge’s belly firmly.

It’s kicking inside.  It’s so close...it’s right here.  This tiny child, this little life...

Keith leans his head on Pidge’s belly and closes his eyes, listening for anything, but it’s just like the ocean bounced back at him.  He stays there anyway.

Warm.  Warm and safe and loved.  That is their child.  And Keith loves it already.

“Didn’t know the leader of Voltron could cry...”  Pidge hums in gentle amusement.

Keith just sniffs roughly, squeezing Shiro’s hand back as Shiro supports him warmly.

“...You can try talking to it,” Pidge suggests gently, patting his head.  “It likes it, I think.  Hearing voices. And yours is nice and soothing.”

Keith lets out a small wet laugh and shakes his head.  He wouldn’t even know what to say.  What could he that’d be worth this little life?

Shiro hums softly,  “Hey, little baby. You’re a feisty little one, aren’t you?  I don’t remember Allura’s kids kicking this much.”

“And she had two of them,” Pidge snorts.

“...We’re so excited to meet you,” Shiro says gently.  As Keith opens his eyes, he sees Shiro right there, watching him.  “You’re going to have a really awesome dad.  He’s a little shy right now, he’s not one to talk needlessly, but you’re going to love him.  You really will.”

“Shiro...”  Keith breathes.

“We’re having a baby,” he whispers, grabbing onto Keith’s hands and squeezing.

Keith breathes after him as Pidge pats his head encouragingly, “We’re having a baby.”

Shiro’s smile grows even brighter over his face, grin wide, eyes sparkling.  “We’re having a baby.

Keith laughs, he’s so overwhelmed.  He nods quickly, biting at his lip. “We’re having a baby.”

“You two saps,” Pidge chuckles softly, rubbing their heads of hair with her hands.  She hums for them, heads pressed against her belly, listening and feeling their tiny little munchkin inside.

It’s a spark of life in there.  It kicks again, like it knows they’re there and it’s sending a message.  Keith squeezes Shiro’s hand tighter and the fear fades right out of him.

 

Pidge calls one day when Keith’s in the middle of working out.  They have a home gym with all the works set up in their weight room.  Keith finally has a moment to himself; everything’s already ready: the walls are painted, the crib is set up, the blankets are in place, the toys are waiting.  All they need is the baby.  So Keith has some down time finally, for now. He gets to the weight room while he can and has at it.

When the phone rings and Keith picks up, wiping away sweat from his brow, it’s just Pidge, as Pidge-y as ever, rambling about someone at work.  She could talk to a wall, she really could, so Keith sets his phone on speaker, places it on the floor beside him, and continues his work out.  It’s fine.  Pidge can still hear him as he furrows his brows and pushes through weights that are testing his limits.

He’s breathing methodically.  Pushing air out of his lungs forcefully and dragging air back into his lungs like a battle.  Slow and steady.  Slow.  And steady.

He hears Pidge laugh on the other end.  “Sounds like you’re having a baby, Keith.”

Mmf.”

“Gotta keep those muscles up so Shiro can admire them everyday, right?  Got to keep your Shiro magnets primed.”

He snorts roughly, trying not to laugh and ruin his focus.  “Shut up.”

“It’s the truth, isn’t it?  You work out so damn hard.  A delivery is probably even quieter.  ...About that -” She stops.

He lifts another weight.  Deep methodical breath. When Pidge doesn’t say anything, he grunts out, “What?”

“I called for a reason.  But I’ve been kinda nervous to say what it is so I’ve just been rambling this whole time trying to get around to it but the topic never really came up naturally - I mean, why would it - so I just thought maybe I should just say something directly...to you...my best buddy in the whole world.  Whom I trust. Whom I love.”

Keith lets the weights smash down into position.  He rubs the sweat off his brow and clears his throat.  “Pidge, what are you talking about...?  Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m totally fine.  Totally cool.”

He raises an eyebrow but repositions himself on the weight set and starts working out his legs.  Deep smooth breaths.  Totally in control.  Totally focused.

And he should guess.  He really should because it’s right around the time the doctors said it would be, but the thought is still sort of surreal to him.  Nine months wasn’t enough time to wrap his head around it.  So he keeps lifting his weights, in his own little world, frowning down at the phone as Pidge makes little noises of indecision.

“It’s just...”  She says uneasily with a small nervous laugh, “In the mood for a drive?”

He lifts slowly, watching the way his legs tremble, but he’s fierce.  He wants this. “...Where?”

“The hospital?”

He blinks.  “The hospital?”

“My, uh...my water may’ve...um...”  She clears her throat and enunciates the words heavily, “broke.”

The weights crash to the ground so suddenly the windows rattle.

It’s the last day Keith and Shiro have the house to themselves.

They’re having a baby.

 

Chapter Text

Keith would never tell Shiro this.  He’d never tell anyone this.  But he’s been having a lot of bad dreams lately.  A lot. When Shiro wakes him and Keith jumps to a start, Keith blames it on their time in space.  It’s easy to do. Why wouldn’t anyone believe it?

“Just the usual nightmares”, he’ll breathe out, rubbing the back of his hand roughly against his forehead.

But they’re not.

He’s in the delivery room in his dreams.  Everyone’s celebrating, there’s a feeling of relief and joy and newness in the air, colorful flowers in vases brightening the room.  And Keith... Keith, being the person he is, no parents in adolescence, no family, no background in how to love, he’d look down into their child’s eyes and he’d feel...nothing.

Not even a pin drop of excitement.  No happiness. No love for this little shriveled up baby in his arms.  Looking down into his child’s face for the first time, he’d be reminded of how he seems to be the only one who thinks babies aren’t even that cute.  He’s the only one who doesn’t seem to understand.

And Shiro would be pressing a hand to his mouth, overwhelmed, filled with joy, and everyone would be celebrating, but all Keith would be able to feel is this wide gaping hole in his chest.  And he’d just know, too late, that this isn’t the life for him.

And, as time would go on, Shiro and him could either grow around this baby...or wilt.  They’d begin to notice all their differences. And Shiro would realize how shitty of a person Keith is.  How broken he is. How he hasn’t grown at all. He can’t even love a child. A pure untainted child. Selfish, he’d be so selfish and cold.

...Because what kind of monster couldn’t love a child...?

Keith would remember how to hate himself.  It’d be so easy too. And he and Shiro would start fighting.  And the rift between the two of them would appear and expand, gaping so wide that it’d swallow Keith whole.

And Shiro would take their child and leave.

Keith would be alone then.  Just like how he started off.  What he always feared he’d return to.

Alone, alone, alone, and -

He should’ve just stayed in his comfort zone.  They were happy, why change it?  He knew he shouldn’t have let himself hope things would be okay because that’s just foolish.  He really thought things would be okay. He wanted to be able to give this to Shiro, he wanted to believe he could love even more, but -

“Keith,” Shiro whispers, voice tight in his throat.  “Keith .”  He shifts his weight forward in his seat and shoves his face in one hand, seeking Keith’s with the other.  “...It’s been taking awhile, hasn’t it? What if something’s happened? What if something went wrong?”

Keith looks down at their hands clenched tightly together, and then up, into his husband’s pale face.  Keith’s own thoughts fade away as he realizes the situation. Shiro needs him.

Keith says softly, “Nothing is going to go wrong.  Labor and delivery on average lasts about eight hours, sometimes longer” - Keith’s read it about a million times during his research and he can recite it easily - “It’s hardly been four.  I’m sure it’s fine. People give birth all the time and the Garrison has the best doctors. She’s in the best place.”

Shiro’s incredibly stoic, sitting upright and staring bullets into the wall.  Look at that face, worry built into every divot. Shiro has always been one to hide his fears, but for Keith, he’s eased out into the open.

Keith shifts, undoing the tight grip he has on his pants and placing his other hand over theirs.  “Pidge is strong. She’s smart. Colleen’s there. She’ll be okay. So will the baby.”

Shiro closes his eyes and bites at his lip, allowing himself to sink a bit into Keith’s shoulder.  Keith presses against him, snuggling against his head. “I’m worried too,” he whispers, even if it’s for different reasons.  “But we’ll see soon. That’s not a normal baby in there.”

Shiro inhales tightly.  “No?”

Keith leans in closely, whispering around pressing a kiss to Shiro’s jawline.  “Nope. That’s a Voltron baby.  Defender of all universes.”

Shiro’s eyes turn up, looking into Keith’s hopefully.  “Mm...that changes things.  It’s going to be so strong.”

“Mmhmm.  Maybe with Pidge’s genius.”

Shiro chuckles softly, smiling a bit as he turns into Keith.  “Lance’s sense of humor.”

“Allura’s steadfastness.”

“Hunk’s cooking skills.”

“Oh, god, wouldn’t that be a dream though?  Gourmet meals everyday.  Hell, yeah.”

Shiro laughs.  “That would be the dream, yeah...”

“It’ll have your patience,” Keith whispers.

“And your stubbornness.”

Keith smiles as he tilts Shiro’s head to him so he can look in his eyes, fingers grazing the edge of his jaw, murmuring softly, “And even if it’s none of these things, that’ll be okay.  Because it’ll be ours and we’ll be a family together.  And a family - growing together, having support and love from all sides - it's all we've ever wanted...”

Shiro thinks about it for awhile.  The fear and buzzing anxiousness in his eyes begins to settle.  He takes a slow easy breath and then looks back up again. “...I love you, Keith.”

“I love you too.  Always. We can do this, Shiro,” Keith says firmly, squeezing Shiro’s hands.  “I’m scared too...but we can do the impossible together and I’m never leaving you.  You’re stuck with me.”

Shiro nods quickly and leans in, pressing his forehead to Keith’s.  “It’s you and me, Keith. No matter what. We’re a united front, okay?  All the way through the rest of our lives.”

“And even after that,” Keith whispers.  “You know I’d follow you anywhere. I'd do anything for you.”

Shiro tightens his hold and drags Keith even closer, clinging to him tightly, like a buoy out in sea.  He takes in another deep breath and holds it. When he breathes it out, his lungs tremble. He whispers fiercely, “Tell me we can do this.  Tell me we’ll be good parents. Tell me everything will be alright.”

“And here I was thinking I’d be the one to freak out here. Where’s this coming from?” Keith smiles against his cheek, peering up into his eyes.  And really, hearing this makes him feel better. Not so alone, not so imperfect.

“I’m getting it out now,” Shiro moans, but he smiles down at him, sheepish apology in his eyes.   “You know how I feel about hospitals.”

“We’ll be the best parents we can be,” Keith promises.  “He will be so loved. We have all the resources we need to keep him healthy and safe.  We’re in the best position we can be in. And of course you can do this, Shiro. You’ve already raised one runt, haven’t you?  I didn’t pull any punches.”

Shiro chuckles lowly, nuzzling his face in Keith’s hair as the nervous buzz makes way for a warm smile.  “You were a difficult one.”

“Had to get you the best practice possible, didn’t I?”

“Ah, so that’s what you were doing.”

"Uh-huh." 

"You're so considerate," Shiro tickles Keith gently.

Keith laughs beneath his breath, grabbing Shiro's hands and holding them firmly in place.  “I try my best.”

Shiro hums, pulling back a bit to tilt his head and stare Keith in the face.  He takes in Keith’s expression, the tone of his eyes, the curve of his lips, the way he’s holding himself.  He’s looking at him with so much warmth and love.  “Okay,” Shiro whispers, nodding. “Okay... From now on, you’ll be in charge of the pep talks.  Our child will be lucky.”

Keith arches an eyebrow and leans casually on the back of his seat.  “Just testing me, huh?”

“Mm.  Mmhmm,” Shiro laughs, leaning his head against the wall as he continues holding eye contact with Keith.  “Yeah.  I love you,” he says again.  “These are the last moments we’ll have to ourselves.  ...I’m kind of scared.”  He thinks about it. “But it’s a good scared.  Our next adventure together.”

“Our next adventure.”  Keith clings to his hands tighter, so hard it almost hurts.  “Don’t leave me this time,” he whispers tightly, eyes scanning over the scar on Shiro’s nose that’s faded over time, the white of his hair, the difference in his arm, in his body since Keith first met him to now.  “...Okay?”

Shiro leans in, smile gone.  His eyes are raw and open; in the depths of them he’s so honestly earnest as he whispers words that burn his throat with his sincerity.  “Not this time. I promise you.”

The door bursts open.  Keith and Shiro both jump.  They forgot they were in a public place with people beyond the walls around them.  Their little personal bubble is disturbed; it’s Matt, eyebrows lifted.

“Uh, sorry.  Did I interrupt something?”

Shiro clears his throat roughly and leans back; he keeps his hands weaved through Keith’s.  “It’s fine. What’s up?”

“What’s wrong?”  Keith leans forward.  “What happened?”

“Nothing, nothing.  Katie’s calling for you, Keith.  She says you can come too, Shiro.”

They both look at each other.  Their last moments alone together.

Keith hadn’t realized how anxious he was.  He’s already racing down the halls and through the door to her room.

“Pidge?”  He calls, eyes sweeping over all the people inside until they find their mark, laying on the bed in the center.  Colleen already has a gown in her hands that she shoves over Keith quickly.

Pidge looks...sweaty.  She’s sweatier than when Keith drags her over to the gym and she screams she’s going to die.  Dramatically, but still.

She’s frowning and biting at her lip.  The little hairs framing her face are curling into ringlets.  She reaches out and clings to Keith’s hand tightly and he yelps as she pulls him close to her face.

Keith .  There you are.  I had a thought,” she says roughly.  “As I was sitting here, in a lot of uncomfortable pain, I was thinking... ‘I’m never doing this again.  No way in hell ’,” she grits through her teeth, a fire lighting in her eyes as she grunts.  “Never again! And we never talked about it. You being here. And it’s your child.  It's literally a once in a lifetime event. And you guys are my best friends. I love you.  I trust you. You should be here, right? Right? Or is it weird? Is it uncomfortable?” She’s breathing fast, eyes frazzled, face red.  “...I just thought I’d ask before it’s all over and you won’t be able to see. Only if you want. No pressure. None at all. Just if you want.”

Keith kneels down beside her, repositioning his hand so she can crush it properly.  He looks up to Shiro behind him, scoping the answer out in his face before he turns back to Pidge.  “...If you don’t mind.”

“Ha.  Keith.  Do I mind?  I mean, I have like ten other people in this fucking room staring down there and I don’t have pants on.  And I don’t fucking care. Funny, isn’t it? What pain can do. I don’t care.” She groans as she lets her head fall back.

“She's moving along quickly,” Colleen explains softly, patting Pidge on the knee with gentle care.  “It’ll be soon.”

Pidge's face sours.

“I-isn’t that good ?  You’ll be over with faster?”

Colleen says with a small grimace, “Too quickly for an epidural.”

“No epidural?”  Keith blinks in surprise.  That was part of Pidge’s foolproof baby delivery plan though.  “But I thought -” he looks to Pidge, who pinches her face unhappily in response.  “What does that mean?”

“It means maybe you won’t want to be in the delivery room after all.  Hey, Shiro,” Pidge breathes as she cracks her eyes open and sniffs roughly again.  “You’re about to have your hands full. Two kids around the house.  You’ll have to get one of those people leashes.  Keith in one hand, baby in the other.”

Shiro puts a soft hand on Keith’s shoulder as he chuckles.  “Pidge.  Keith takes care of me more than I do him.”

“Ha. Right.  I know how Keith is.  All emo all the time.”  She lets out a laugh, but it’s high and strained.  She seems unable to stop her nervous chatter that’s flowing from her.  It’s throwing Keith off balance, creating a nervous tension in him.

Well, more than he already had stuffed in his chest.  He gives her a weary look.  “...Emo, Pidge?”

She huffs out a breath of laughter.  “One of us in the group has to be and you're the closest one.”

The door opens and the doctor walks in briskly beside Colleen at the end of the bed.  She looks up at them all. “Looks like it’s time.” When no one budges, she clears her throat.  “Is the mother okay with you both staying here for the delivery?”

Pidge huffs, squeezing Keith’s hand tighter, “Yeah, it’s totally fine.  They’re my best friends. And the parents. And I’m not the mother.”

“The delivery is up to you though.  Are you ready, Katie?”

“It’s Pidge ,” she gurgles and groans.  For all her animation, she still hesitates.  She tosses her eyes up to Keith, swallowing so hard that her throat bobs.  The bright golden of her eyes pierces into him, set in contrast to the cherry red color that her cheeks are already dyed in.  “Ready, Keith?” Pidge breathes softly. She gives his hand a little squeeze.

He’s not the one doing any of the work right now and still, he doesn’t know.  He could have all the time in the world and still, he wouldn’t know.

He looks up into Shiro’s eyes.  Sees the trepidation and fear there, but as their eyes meet, as they see into the other’s soul, they know that yes, together, they can do this.  Together, they can do anything.

But they’re still careening into the unknown at speeds too fast, even for Keith.

He squeezes back.  He probably won’t ever be ready ready, but his heart flutters.  As ready as he’ll ever be.

“Okay,” Pidge breathes.  “I just want this fucking baby out of me .  Come on .  Let’s do this thing.”

“Let's do this thing,” the doctor hums, slipping the gloves on with a smack.  “Pidge, it’s time. Push .”

Pidge tries to be quiet.  She bites at her lip and clamps down on Keith’s hand.  She tries so hard to hold it all back, but it doesn’t quite work.  It’s not even half a minute before she’s barking at the doctor and her mom in the face of their excited encouragement that she is most definitely not doing great .

Keith isn’t either.  This scares him. Being here.  Hearing this. He can’t quite figure out why.  But he clings for dear life too, knees on the ground, half of his face pressed to their hands held together.  Pidge has one, Shiro has his other. They bundle together and it feels like the middle of a battle again, like the very center of a storm gone out of their control, and this battle, he cannot fight.  This battle, he can only close his eyes and feel the pain of his comrade, praying, silently, that she’ll make it through alright. She sounds like she’s in so much pain, Keith’s heart aches.

“You’ve got this, Pidge,” Keith whispers on choppy breaths.  His hand is already numb. “You’ve got this.”

She grunts in exhaustion, heaving out between pushes,  “This sucks .  But I still don’t think I sound half as bad as you when you’re working out. That’s something right?”

He laughs into her hand as he nods quickly.  “God, Pidge.”

She tosses her head back into the pillow and just breathes.  

“Katie,” Colleen says, patting her leg encouragingly, “Come on.  You’ve got to push again.”

“Want to know a secret?” she pants.  She wipes at her forehead roughly with a groan and then lifts her neck again.  She swallows hard. “I hate this, Keith,” she whispers shakily.

He turns up to look at her and his stomach sinks as he sees there are tears of frustration in her eyes.  And fear. Brittle shaky fear. “I thought I had this, but I don’t want to do this anymore. I hate this.  All of this. I wish I’d never done any of it. It's not worth it.  It's not.”

His lips part.  He doesn’t know what to say.

“It’s alright.  You’re almost done, Pidge,” Shiro murmurs gently.  “You’re almost through. Soon, you’ll be home, drink in hand, book in the other and this will all be behind you.”

She moans softly and then tenses, gritting her teeth in pain as her small hands squeeze the life from Keith’s.

“You’re close, Katie,” Colleen soothes.  “Just a bit more. Come on. You’ve got this.”

Pidge chokes out a cry.

This baby was never part of the plan.  Nine months ago, Keith wasn’t thinking about babies, no.  Not in this year. Not in the next. Probably not the next either.  This wasn’t what he thought would happen. It wasn’t what Pidge thought would happen.

Sometimes life doesn’t work out how you thought it would.  Maybe you don’t think you want it. Maybe you realize suddenly that you do.

But no matter what you have planned out or not, life keeps going.  Time flows. And Keith and them are totally completely at its mercy.  That’s just how it is.

And Pidge lets out a sob of relief.  And the doctor’s murmuring, “Here we are.  You did it. You’re done, Pidge. You’re done.  It’s over. You did wonderfully.”

Pidge sniffs around sharp breaths.  “Oh... Oh, that sucked.”

Keith shakes, staying in his dark hiding place, holding on with sweaty nervous hands.

“...It’s a boy,” Colleen whispers, voice so soft and gentle in comparison to the distress from earlier.  The calm after the storm, settling over them like a gentle blanket. “Oh, look at him.  Katie, oh my god.  Katie... Boys, come look.  Come look at your new son.”

Fear spikes up through the ground and into Keith’s heart and mind.  This is how his dreams started. Everyone gathered around the baby, seeing into its light.  Everyone loving it, everyone cherishing it and Keith...Keith numb to it all, like he is now.  Filled with fear. Filled with nothingness.

This wasn’t the plan.  This wasn’t any one of their plans.  It’s all happened so quickly. He’s not ready.  He’s not ready. Why did he ever agree to this? He can’t do it.  He can’t.

“Keith,” Shiro whispers, hands sliding up Keith’s shoulders.  They’re trembling.

“...Oh, Katie,” Colleen whispers again.  “Oh, he’s so beautiful. He’s the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen.”

“Not my kid,” Pidge hums.  Keith can hear her head turning against the soft cotton of her pillow, feel the way she’s looking at him for attention.  When he stays hidden, unmoving, face pressed into the uncomfortable too-clean smelling hospital sheets, she bops him on the arm gently.  She waits until he looks up to murmur, “Tag, you’re it.”

She manages a shaky crooked grin.  She’s a wreck, but her eyes shine with sparkling golden relief.  A beautiful impish little wreck.

Keith just stares and she laughs slightly.  “Hey, space hero, welcome back. Did I scare you that much?  I'm okay. I swear.” Her brows furrow in concern as she lifts her head to observe him better.  “...Are you okay though?  You really do look green.”

A laugh bubbles out of him because it’s so backwards.  His eyes are already getting wet as he nods quickly. He’s so many things right now, even he doesn’t know.

“...How are you feeling?”  He whispers, watching the exhaustion in her eyes.

“God.”  She wipes at the sweat on her brow to look up and out where Colleen and the doctor are.  She lets her head fall back, her voice worn and low. “Remember those years in the Castle of Lions?  Lance would sing on the top of his lungs in the showers and we’d have to hear it through the fucking vents?  Well. It was almost that bad. God, it really was. ...Not quite, but you get it.

“So I guess that’s it for my part.  It’s up to you now.”

Keith looks to Shiro, whose hand is still on Keith’s shoulder but his attention is honed on what’s swaddled securely in the doctor’s arms.

Keith should follow, he knows he should.  His space is there, at Shiro’s side. But he’s petrified to the spot.  The baby is crying.  The baby is alive.  It’s there, breathing suddenly.  Breathing air for the first time.  It’s not a doll.  It’s not some movie.  This is real life. There are no take-backs.

It’s so surreal.

The doctor says, looking between Pidge and Keith and Shiro.  “Who would like to hold him?”

Keith’s reading kicks in and he stammers out, “I-I read somewhere that babies should lie on their mother’s chest first.  Something about good bacteria.”

Pidge lets out a small sigh and an eyeroll.  “Like a blessing, Keith? Come on...”

“It’s science, Pidge.”

She looks to Shiro for permission, who nods quickly, gesturing the baby toward her.  “By all means -”

The doctor sets the baby gently down on Pidge’s chest, who stares at him with gentle eyes.  There’s exhausted weight in her limbs as she touches his little cheeks and marvels at the softness.

“Aww,” she murmurs.  “He’s so brand new. He looks like you, Keith,” she jokes, eyes twinkling as she tosses a little smirk at him.  “How you look when you’re all crabby.  Isn’t that right, little baby?  You’re a beauty, aren’t you? Just like your papa. You know that?

“That’s your daddies,” she whispers, looking up to them.  “Aren’t they the best couple you’ve ever seen? They’re going to take care of you and love you very very much.  I’ll love you too, sweet baby, from a distance. I couldn’t give you the care that they’ll be able to... I’ll visit though, if they’ll let me.  I’ll be your auntie, if you’ll want me...”

Pidge looks to Keith for a moment, assessing him.  He’s biting his knuckles as he watches the bundle on her chest.  With a soft look of understanding, she nods to Shiro. “Take him,” she says.  “Germs are officially delivered. He’s yours. Congratulations, Shiro...”

Shiro carefully leans forward and, so carefully it looks like he’s handling glass, he holds the tiny life in his arms, cradling so gently, smiling down at him.  “Oh,” he whispers softly, biting at his lip fiercely as he looks down into his arms. “Keith.”  He lifts his eyes and looks to Keith.  “Keith, come here. Look at him.  Oh, god, look how beautiful he is...”

What if it’s like the dream?  What if removing himself from his hiding place here, he’ll come to his senses and see the truth?  That he wasn’t made for this...

But he can’t just leave Shiro alone in this.  They’re a united front. And right now, Shiro’s standing in the middle of a hospital room with his baby in his arms, alone, as his husband just cowers.

It's just a baby, but Keith feels like, right now, in this moment, he'd rather face off with Zarkon again.  Shiro deserves better. The baby deserves better. But he’s who Shiro chose...

So slowly, Keith forces himself to stand.  He takes a hesitant step closer. And another.  He’s so scared and stiff and he can hardly move.  He keeps his distance and he looks.

The first thing he notices is how small he is.  Hollywood babies are no indication of a true newborn at all.  His head and his limbs and body are disproportionate, reminiscent of a tiny dinosaur.

Just a baby right out of the womb and he’s feisty, even out in the world, little arms shifting antsily beneath his blankets and his feet seek freedom, still kicking swaddled as he is, like he’s ready to go.  It doesn’t matter where, just anywhere.

Keith doesn’t even realize as he takes another step closer, shaky hands pressing against Shiro’s arm as Keith leans in to see better.

...So small.  So so so small.  Even smaller than he thought, considering the size Pidge’s stomach grew.

The little pink fingers with even tinier nails, the tiny soft ears, the nose hardly bigger than the size of a pea.  In Shiro’s arms, he looks like a doll. Unreal. An animatronic.

Shiro has tears in his eyes as they brightly look Keith over.  “Look at all that hair,” he laughs wetly. “It’s so dark.”

Keith says, “The twins were bald.”  He doesn’t know why he says it.  They have a new baby and that's what he chooses.  He just doesn’t know what else to say.  His brain is locked up.

Shiro laughs.  “Yeah, yeah, they were.”

Pidge is tiredly watching the both of them, a small smile on her face.  “Keith,” Pidge says, laughing lowly.  “You look like you’re seriously going to pee yourself.  I wish I had my camera...”

“Everyone’s scared their first child,” Colleen says gently, placing her hand on their shoulders as she looks down at the baby.  “But he’s a lucky little boy having the two of you for parents. And he really does look like you, Keith.  Kind of funny, isn’t it?  It’s like it was meant to be.”

Shiro looks up to Keith, nose pink, totally enchanted.  “...Oh, god, he does...”

Does he?  Keith thinks he’s never looked this bright and delicate in his life.  Never this fragile. Never this much of a miracle.

But maybe once, a long time ago, he was - held in the arms of his mother and father, a day they loved him with their hearts full, as one, together.  Things were perfect then. Things were warm then.

Shiro shakes his head slowly, fixing the blanket on the baby’s chin.  Shiro hums, looking up at Keith with so much warmth and love in his eyes.  “You okay?”

Keith nods slowly, but it feels automatic.  Scared.

Shiro watches him for awhile longer.  “Want to hold him?” He hums softly.

“No,” Keith says sharply, blinking in surprise.  The baby is starting to fuss. That’s just an added reason how Keith might mess up.  “Oh, no. I think it’s better if you hold him, I don’t know how -”

Shiro keeps watching, small understanding smile growing on his face.  He doesn’t listen. “Here, Keith...” Before Keith is ready, that small little warmth is set in his arms.

With a small strangled noise in the back of his throat, Keith hunches over awkwardly, clinging with a death grip, afraid to drop him.  The size is strange and unfamiliar in his too-lanky limbs.  He’s not sure how to do this.  Hold the head?  Secure the back?  What if he trips?  What if his arms grab the blanket and not the baby?  What if -

“Look at you,” Shiro whispers.  “You’re a natural.”

Keith blinks up to Shiro, sees the look of pure happiness on his face...and then back down into the curious little eyes of the baby’s as he blinks up into Keith’s face.

In Keith’s arms, the baby has settled.  He's staring up at Keith, looking a little dazed, a little in awe.

They’re right.  His eyes are so clear and grey.  He’s never seen eyes like that before.  He’s never been so totally pulled in by something before.

He’s so small.  An actual life. Trusting him.  Depending on him.

And it happens.

Keith didn’t know if he’d feel anything, but it blooms in him suddenly with a ferocity that chokes him.

All this worry...  All this fear... It was all for nothing.

This is his child.  This is the start of something new, of something precious, of something of the likes he’s never done before.  Shiro's right beside him, their family has their backs. This is a chance to learn to love in a whole new way.

So much relief floods him that his nose and eyes burn painfully.  He chokes a bit at the emotion still building. Gratitude. Vulnerability.  Oh, god. He feels something .  He’s not the cold and heartless person he feared he’d be.  He’s looking down into this baby’s eyes and he’s just as excited, just as elated, just as touched as Shiro and the others.

Oh, god.  He’s so relieved.

He realizes suddenly that he can do anything for this little bean.  He will .  All his worry washes away because god , this is right.  This is everything he and Shiro have weaved into their household, everything they’ve built their hearts up for.  This is the start of their new family.

Keith’s voice quivers.  “H-Hey,” he whispers down to the baby.  The baby watches him, doesn’t just look, but watches .  There’s something behind those eyes.  Something that sees and understands. “Hey.”

Those tiny hands, reaching for Keith, warm in a way only babies can be, like a piece of a star.

Shiro takes a step in front of Keith and together, they look down at the sight before them.  “Not even five minutes in and look at the way he’s already looking at you.”

“He’s a Voltron baby,” Keith laughs under his breath, the sound wet with tears.

“Mhmm.  He’ll be a bit of each of us.  He’s perfect.”

“He is.  He really is.  Oh, god,” Keith breathes, overwhelmed.  “He’s ours?”

“Yeah, Keith,” Shiro murmurs, placing his hand beneath Keith’s.  “He’s ours.”

It’s the first day of the rest of their lives.

A baby.  Their baby.  Keith had started out alone, completely alone.  And look at what life has given him since then.

Their family grows and blooms.  Together, they thrive.

 

In the nursery at their home, Krolia leans over the bassinet curiously, eyeing the mobile of soft giraffes hanging above and then smiling down into the bassinet.  “Oh, boys, he’s gorgeous.”

“Isn’t he?  Look at those grey eyes,” Shiro smiles warmly.  “They remind me of Keith’s somehow.”

Krolia hums, reaching in to touch her hand against his sleeping little cheek.  All he’s been doing is sleeping. Makes it easy. “You know, Keith’s eyes were grey as a baby too.  I remember looking into them with his father right after he was born, so bright and inquisitive. I knew he’d be special then.  I loved holding him in my arms, looking into them. He was such a good baby...and he had the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen...”

“Mom, come on...” Keith sighs from the door, rubbing at his arm in an attempt to friction the embarrassment away.  “Babies eyes do that sometimes and they change later. It’s completely normal. They probably won't be grey in the long run.”

"Mine are," Shiro points.

Keith watches him fondly.  "Yeah. Yours are. But you’re you." 

“The twins’ eyes didn't do the grey thing,” Lance says.  “They were always this color.”

“Can I see?”  The twins whisper quietly, hair braided back and bright sapphire eyes filled to the brim with excited curiosity.  They’re polite, though. They wait on bouncing heels. “I want to see.”

“Come here,” Shiro hums, kneeling and opening his arms.  One jumps into his arms while the other latches onto Lance’s back.  They lean out of their arms and both stare in with awe.

“Were we that small once?”  They whisper.

Allura smiles as she waits by the door with Keith.  “Yes, you were. Not too long ago Uncle Keith and Uncle Shiro were looking into your cribs just like this.”

“Wow,” they breathe.  “Hi, baby. We’re your cousins.  We’ll be your best friend from now on.  Nice to meet you.”

Keith watches on.  Loved from all sides, that’s what their child will be.  He will never have to be like Keith. Cold and lost and scared.  Never. And that brings Keith so much more relief than he thought he could ever feel.

“How do you feel?”  Hunk asks with a tilt of his head, inspecting him.  Keith can see Shay hovering beside him, trying not to get too in the way.  The room is already a bit crowded, but Keith shifts, letting her in. She waves when Keith nods to her.  “You look kinda like when we first met you. Hiding in a corner, brooding away, not saying a word.”

“...Ah.  Sorry. I’m not brooding.”  Keith allows, “...But it’s a lot.  He’s...smaller than I thought. I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.  I don’t want to mess it up.”

Shiro looks back, offering him an encouraging smile.  “We have all the time we need to learn.”

“Yeah,” Keith whispers.  Shiro makes it sound easy, but the reality of it...?

Coran is there too, tilting his head to watch Keith, twirling at his mustache with a knowing glint in his eyes.  “I know that look. That’s the ‘new parent’ look. It’s a good thing. You’ll see. I remember King Alfor and Queen Melenor, holding baby Allura in their arms with that same exact look plastered over both their faces.  It’s universal. It means you care.”

Keith lets out a noncommittal puff of breath.

Allura says, placing a hand on his shoulder, “Keith, you worry too much.  It’s a bad habit of yours. You know if you need any help, any at all, you can count on us, any time, day or night.  We'll help you with anything, one of the perks of being next-door neighbors.  I told you there’d be pros for you too.”

“Do we really have to help at night too?”  Lance gripes.

The twin in his arms laughs and pinches his nose closed.  “Daddy.  What if they need our help?”

“Okay, fine,” Lance says through his nasal-y plugged nose.  “Night too.  But you girls will have to drag me over.  You know how grumpy I get without my beauty sleep.”

“I can’t carry you,” they laugh.

“Who will then?  I’m too weak,” he starts to sink to the ground and they laugh again.

“Mommy will carry you.  Mommy, Daddy’s sinking.  Help.

Allura rolls her eyes but continues saying to Keith, brushing her hair over her shoulder, “I was nervous at first too.  It seemed like no matter how many books I read, no matter how much I tried to prepare, it felt like I wasn’t even half as ready as I needed to be.  But I worried for nothing. It came more naturally than I could’ve hoped. It’s in our DNA, after all. And also because I remembered I had all of you...  It’s true what they say: it takes a village to raise a child. That’s what we all have.”

“...I just want him to be loved,” Keith whispers, looking through the crowd of family toward their tiny new member of the family.  Hunk and Shay take their turn by the crib to coo to him. “To have the security I never felt. I don’t just mean a roof over his head, but to never feel even half as lonely as I had growing up...  I hated this world so much. Some days, I felt like I didn't care what happened to it or the people on it. If Shiro hadn’t come along, I wouldn’t have pulled out of it, I know that. ...I’m scared.  So much can happen... I want him to be warm and happy. I want him to be loved.”

“He will be, Keith.  By so many. I promise you that.”

“And yes,” Lance says, turning to Keith with a thumb jerked to his own chest.  “I’d love to be his Fairy Godfather.”

“No one asked you,” Keith snorts, reaching for a stuffed rabbit on the dresser beside him and tossing it at Lance’s head.  It bounces off with a tiny squeak.

“Hey,” Lance retorts, “Violence is bad, Keith.  Girls, don’t listen to Keith. Even though he’s your Fairy Godfather.”

The girls giggle.  “Fairy Godfather, Daddy?”

“You heard correctly.  He looks like a fairy, doesn’t he?  Maybe one day, you’ll be a Fairy Godmother.  What do you think?”

“I want wings.”

“A flower crown!”

“We’ve got ‘em!  What do you think the paladins of Voltron were?  Pond scum?”

Loved, safe, and warm.  When the twins were born, everything felt like it’d be alright.  How could that feeling be emulated another time? And yet, it’s no different now.  They’re all gathered together, surrounding this new spark of life, this little life form that has no clue just how beloved he’ll be, how loved he already is.

“Can’t believe you haven’t named him yet,” Hunk says, still gripping onto the side railing to peer inside.  “When’s Pidge coming over tonight? She’s going to let you have it.”

Keith snorts.  “Yeah, well, Pidge suggested we name him ‘Rover’, so her opinion is officially revoked on this front.”

“We’ve narrowed it down to three though,” Shiro says.  “Souma, Souta, and Akihiro. I can’t decide. They all have different meaning for me.  And Keith likes anything I say basically. He’s no help at all.”

Keith nods.  It’s true. Shiro just has good taste.

“You know,” Krolia says, leaning against the wall.  “When you were born, Keith, I had wanted to name you Yorak.  It was your great grandfather’s name. I still think it would’ve suited you.  He was a great warrior.”

“Yorak?”  Keith thinks about it for a moment and then looks up.  “...I like that. Shiro,” he turns. “What about Yorak?”

“Uhh...”  He walks over and smiles into Keith’s shoulder, watching the two of them with warm amusement.  “That’s a nice name and a cool thought, but...maybe Akihiro?  It'd be kind of cool to have it similar to your middle name.  We could call him Aki.  I really like that name.”

“That’s true.  That’s a good name too.”

“I like that,” Krolia hums her approval.

“What a mouthful, though,” Lance groans.  “I’ll just call him ‘sport’ when I forget.”

Keith tosses a look up at him.  “Then I guess I’ll just magically forget not to say ‘fuck’ in front of your girls.”

Lance gasps in offense as he claps his hands over his twin’s ears.  “Cover your ears! You said the f-word in front of a baby! Think of the bad habits!”  He gasps to Keith.

“No ‘sport’.  I hate that.”

Shiro says, “We could call him ‘Aki’ for short.”

“Akihiro only for when we’re serious,” Keith laughs.

“Exactly.  Puts more weight to it, doesn’t it?  ‘Akihiro, you get over here, young man.’”

“You’ve already got it down,” Keith laughs again, pushing himself off the door and walking over to look into the crib.  He sleeps so peacefully, not even budging as Keith gently guides the hair on the baby’s forehead.  It’s so soft and dewy.  “Aki,” Keith whispers.  “...I like it.”

Akihiro wrinkles his nose in sleep.  Does he dream?  Does he recognize their voices?  Draw comfort from their presence yet?  Keith keeps brushing his hair gently, wondering, watching his sweet innocent face.

So untainted by this world.  So pure and new.

Krolia says gently, watching them with the softest look on her face, “Thank you for letting me share this moment with all of you...  I love you both very much. I’ve got your back. No matter what. And that goes for all three of you boys.” She looks out toward everyone.  “All of you.”

“Me too,” Hunk says, raising his hand in the air.  “Shay and I at your service any time you need us.”

“And me!”  Coran raises his hand in the air.

“Us as well,” Allura says and Lance nods beside her, but he’s got his arms full of the twins, who squirm, trying to get a better view.  Deep in Keith’s mind, he thinks he can imagine a low rumble of familiar purring. And, of course, he knows Pidge and Matt would be there if they were ever needed.  Even if they weren’t needed. Even then.

Keith turns his eyes up and out at all of these familial faces.  He remembers when he was just a child, alone. Whenever he looked around himself, desperate, seeking, no one was there for him.  That’s his greatest fear for Aki. To be alone, to hurt and ache like Keith had, always bleeding out and not a soul to care.

Aki will never be alone.  He’ll never see the war Keith had lived, he’ll never have Zarkon’s blade pressed against his neck, or crash down into earth until his skull breaks.

Aki will be loved.  Aki will be protected from the evils of this world.  And Keith will make sure of it.

 

Aki is a bright spark.  A bright, curious, fussy little spark.  Keith’s not sure if all babies are like this - everyone assures him that they are even though he doesn’t remember the twins being this fiery - but he’s tired.  He’s really - fucking - tired. Squeezing in work while carrying little Aki around in a Babybjörn seemed doable when he was dreaming about it, but bringing him into the Garrison is a bit of a nightmare.  If it weren’t for Shiro, Keith would probably be passed out in a closet somewhere.

It’s not that anyone else is complaining about a baby in a serious environment, not after the twins - who helped more than they impaired.  Even Iverson seems fond of Aki, stopping Keith and Shiro in the hallways to wag his finger at Aki, smiling with affection and saying each and every time, “I’m looking forward to having him at the Garrison.  The things he’ll be able to do...”

Everyone seems to be excited and accepting.  It’s just whenever Keith’s about to do something, Aki begins to fuss and Keith has to stop everything to figure out what he wants.  Whoever said babies needed a lot of sleep was a fucking liar.  Most days, it feels like Keith barely has time to feed himself.  It certainly gives him some quality time with Aki though, and Keith’s learning to get comfortable around him very quickly.  He’s not so much ‘just a baby’ anymore, but Aki, the little firecracker.  His personality is starting to become apparent.  Keith’s starting to relate to him a bit more.

But sometimes he’d like to pee in peace.

He’s just thankful mid-day when he can pass the baby off to Shiro.  Or, if they’re lucky, maybe Krolia will have time to watch him or one of the paladins will take pity on them.

But whether he’s a natural or not, he’s just plain tired.  He wants things to settle already.  Things settle, right?  Even when he has downtime, he can’t rest, because Aki’s fussing and rolling around.  At least they’re home right now and it’s Shiro’s turn for Aki duty, so Keith sprawls out tiredly onto the couch.

He’s still nose-deep in baby though.

“I found this chart,” Keith calls Shiro over from the kitchen, tossing a stuffed toy off the top of the couch and out of his way, flicking through his data pad to pull up the screen.  He rubs out the food mark Aki slapped on the glass earlier and turns it to Shiro.  “Look. Things parents often say in negative ways. I mean, not like we’ll need it right now, but it really affects them psychologically as they grow.  Just a change of wording with the same meaning still. Crazy, isn’t it? Like this: instead of saying, ‘calm down’, you can say, ‘how can I help you?’ Or if they’re yelling loudly, instead of telling them to be quiet, you say, ‘take a deep breath, then tell me what happened’.  Instead of ‘that’s enough’, ask, ‘do you need a hug?’” Keith looks up from the screen. “Cool, right? A little patience goes a long way, I think.”

Shiro’s smiling down at him crookedly as he bounces Aki in his arms.  He gurgles sleepily and slaps his tiny hands against Shiro’s bicep. “I think that’s a great idea.  I love the positive encouragement. Good find, Keith.”

“See?”  Keith laughs.  “You’re already doing it.  Agh, you’re so good at all this stuff.  I feel like I need to research a lot more.”  He flicks the page away and does just that, biting at the tip of his finger as he stares bullets down at the screen.

Shiro leans over to pluck the data pad right out of Keith’s hands.  “Keith, get some rest. Aki’s finally sleeping. You should too.”

Keith looks up.  Would you look at that?  Aki’s little angelic face is squished up against Shiro’s chest peacefully, cheeks bright red and precious.  Keith grins. “Finally some peace and quiet.  I’ve gotta go to bed before I jinx it.”  He hops to his feet and cringes as he feels the pull in his aching back.  “I need to squeeze in a yoga session first though. My shoulders have been so tight lately.  Join me?”

“I still need to eat dinner after I put him down, but maybe after that?”

“Mm, I forgot,” Keith leans up to kiss him on the mouth.  “I’m sorry. You should’ve said something. I would’ve taken him.”

“You had him all day.  It’s only fair.  Go. Get your yoga session.  He’s sleeping so soundly.”

“Mm...he really is,” Keith chuckles, leaning back from his kiss on Shiro’s mouth to place a small kiss onto Aki’s soft little nose.

Aki doesn’t even flinch.  He’s so unguarded, so completely trusting.  Keith must’ve been happy too when he was this little, back when his mom and dad were still together, still there to love him.

He keeps thinking about it lately, which is stupid.  It’s just that he trusted that readily once. He had been that naive once.  ...He knows it’s not like his father died and left Keith all alone on purpose and it’s not like his mother left him because she didn’t love him.  She does. And he knows it. And it’s wonderful. That part of his heart is full. It’s just the worry, he guesses. Almost two decades worth of heartache sewn into his soul that’s still very slowly being undone.  It’s engraved in him, telling him that parents aren’t to be trusted. Families aren’t forever. That something terrible might happen to Shiro and him, or maybe just one or the other...and then Aki could just be the same as him...

All the thoughts knot into tension right in the sensitive muscle of his shoulders and Keith kicks the mat out and starts his binds, working on clearing the thoughts out of his mind and it works.  Effort pays off.

The few moments to himself are heaven.  It’s not that it’s non-stop baby 24/7, though it sort of feels like it is.  How his father handled a child all on his own, on top of work? Keith’s not sure how he did it.  But his father had seemed so mature then and Keith? Keith still just feels like a kid.

Shiro comes walking through the doorway, leaning against the wall with a bowl of cut strawberries in his hand.  Kosmo doesn’t follow him, he dutifully stays at Aki’s side, where his official place has been lately.

Shiro stops when he sees Keith’s position.  “What is that?” He chuckles softly.

Keith snorts, pulling his feet back with his hands to further the stretch.  “Happy baby,” he laughs. “Nice timing. What a view, am I right?”

“‘Happy baby’,” Shiro laughs.  “How fitting. You know, I think Aki is in that position a lot.”

“Sure.  Where the name came from.  Only when he’s happy.”

Shiro keeps watching as he pops another strawberry into his mouth.  “A bit revealing, isn’t it?”

“Well.  I’m happy too,” Keith laughs.

“Oh, yeah?”  Shiro snorts, his shoulders shaking as he chuckles silently.  He looks down at his strawberries and then back to Keith. He shoves the bowl away onto the cabinet and sinks to the floor, pressing his weight down on Keith.

“You look pretty good at it.  Show me how it’s done,” Shiro whispers in his ear, rocking forward.

Keith’s already growing warm in the face as he breathes out heavily.

Shiro raises his arms up Keith’s sides and gathers Keith’s hands in his, pinning them above his head.

Feeling open and vulnerable like this is a lot.  It feels like ages since Shiro touched him this intimately and apparently Keith forgot to keep tabs on that himself.

A little bit of slow grinding and deep kissing and Keith has to break off, breath catching in his lungs, head pressing back into the mat, and eyes clenched closed tightly.  Has it even been five minutes?  He doesn't know if it’s even been one.

Shiro blinks in wonder.  “D-did you just come?”

He moans and laughs.  “...Uh. Sorry.”

“Holy shit,” Shiro laughs and Keith groans.  “....Been awhile, hasn’t it?” Shiro murmurs as he runs his fingers into Keith’s pants and through the cum just to make sure.  Keith squirms at how sensitive he is.

“A bit,” Keith sighs.  “Jesus, I’m almost embarrassed.  Came like a damn teenager. I feel like I’m in the Garrison showers again, jerking off to the image of you during practice.  Those shoulders.”

“Keith,” Shiro laughs softly in defeat.

Keith turns his head, pressing his lips to the side of Shiro’s face, which is currently planted into Keith’s shoulder.  He likes this. Flirting with Shiro again. He feels like himself again, not the tired Keith who is a slave to his little Aki.  “I had the biggest crush on you then. Who didn’t though, honestly?”

Shiro laughs.  “Stop.”

“Whenever I’d see you, I’d just...”

He trails off, but Shiro raises an eyebrow at him patiently, amused grin on his lips as he stares into Keith’s eyes, “Just furiously jerk off in the shower?”

“God.  Yeah,” Keith smiles back innocently, stretching out down to his toes.  “Morning and night.”

“Jesus,” Shiro laughs into Keith’s shirt.

“And sometimes mid-day, I’d have to sneak off to take a ‘bathroom break’.”  He pauses. “Not to mention the wet dreams.”

Shiro laughs harder.  “What?”

“That’s a teenager for you.”

“No.  No, it’s not.  How many times a day was that?  Did you focus on school at all?”

“What are you saying?”  Keith laughs as Shiro ruffs his hair up.  “I’m exceptionally horny or something? How dare you.”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.  How many towels did you burn through?”

Keith laughs harder.  “It was normal.  I was healthy.  Did you see you in the Garrison?” Keith says with a shrug, like it all was totally beyond his control.  “What else was I supposed to do around you? God, whenever you walked past and touched your hand to my shoulder, you smelled so damn good and your hand was always so warm...  No matter what I tried to think about, I couldn’t get you out of my head.” Keith leans in to press his face into Shiro’s neck, taking in a deep whiff. He lets out a soft groan.  “Oh, god. Yeah...just like that.”

“Oh, my god,” Shiro’s chuckles taper down as he snuggles into Keith’s nuzzling.  “You told me about your crush, but I didn’t realize it extended this far.”

“I wasn’t really that bad.  Completely normal.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m telling you.  I'm not some sex fiend.  I haven’t had sex in like two months.  Explain that.”

“Hmm...”  Shiro rolls back onto Keith, leaning in.  “You’re right. Someone needs to take care of you.  You’ve been deprived.”

“Very.  Where’s my husband?”

“I’m right here, Keith,” Shiro presses his lips against Keith’s, breath and spirit mixing as he nibbles on Keith’s bottom lip.  “Right beside you. We’ve been so busy lately...I’ve missed you. Let’s fix that, hm...?”

He doesn’t have to ask twice.  Keith, already in an iffy pose, spreads his legs wider, lets Shiro sink deeper on top of him as Shiro catches his mouth in his own, groaning lowly with hunger.

It has been awhile.  It’s funny how they can both just get so tired the days pass until it’s been weeks.  Keith didn’t think it could ever be like that between the two of them.

He’s missed this.  Shiro’s hands burning up his ribcage and into his shirt, rubbing the softness of Keith’s nipple between his fingers.  Keith gasps and breathes out shakily. He’s extra sensitive now, deprived of it for so long. He just came and already, he’s like this again, ready beneath Shiro’s touch.

“Shiro,” he whispers, kissing up Shiro’s long graceful neck, across his sturdy jawline.  He reaches his hands past Shiro’s waistband, seeking -

The baby starts to cry.

They both freeze.

Yeah.  Yup. It’s not just a bit of fussing - if that were the case, they might have a chance - it’s Aki’s signature impossible wailing.

Keith lets his head fall back onto the mat with a defeated thud.  “...It’s like he knows we’re having a good time,” Keith snorts, half with humor, half with frustration.

Shiro chuckles softly under his breath, gathering Keith’s face in his hands as he gives him one last slow, soft kiss.  It’s both a blessing and the biggest tease of a lifetime, to have the most beautiful husband willing in your hands and to have your body left aching like this.

“I’ll get him,” Shiro whispers as he presses another kiss to Keith’s cheek.  “We’ll continue this tonight, okay? I love you.”

“I love you,” Keith murmurs back, letting their hands cling together for a moment before Shiro has to pull away.  He sniffs in the empty room, hardness in his pants that’s now uncomfortable and pathetic. He could take care of it, but alone in their workout room somehow has lost most of the charm Keith was just bathed in.  He drags himself up with a sigh, sits there for one moment, and then tosses the mat to the side, following Shiro upstairs.

Aki’s calm in Shiro’s arm where Keith finds him, standing over the crib.  He just doesn’t want to be alone.

“Want a bedtime story?”  Shiro coos. “You like pictures, don’t you?  You have an eye for them. I think you’re going to be an artist, just like your daddy.”

Keith chuckles wearily from the doorway.

“And there he is,” Shiro turns so Aki can see him.  Aki’s eyes go to Keith and he wiggles his arms in the air excitedly and blows bubbles, watching.  Always watching.

“You’re an artist?” Keith hums to Shiro.

“The other daddy.”

“Mm.  We need to decide what he’ll call us...  I don’t really want to be ‘Papa’. There’s something about it.  It sounds old and stuffy. And it’s too close to ‘popcorn’.”

Shiro laughs.  “‘Popcorn’ and ‘papa’ sound nothing alike.  He’s just being dramatic, isn’t he, Aki?”

You can be ‘Papa’ then.”

“I’m not hugely fond of it either,” Shiro hums.  “...But I’m not sure what else is out there that works...”

“Well, we’ve still got time while he’s trying to sort out language, don’t we?”  Keith leans in, taking Aki from Shiro. Shiro takes the freedom to hunt through the basket of books as Keith picks up Aki’s arm and guides him into little cheerleading gestures.  “Papa,” Keith says slowly. “Can you say it? Papa.” He points to Shiro. “Papa.”

Aki looks between the two of them with those wide inquisitive eyes of his.  He grunts and kicks his feet around.

“Daddy,” Keith says, pointing to his chest.  “Papa,” he says, pointing to Shiro.

Shiro snorts as he takes his seat on the rocking chair, lifting one of Keith’s favorites in the air, one Krolia said she had read to Keith when he was a baby.  He doesn’t remember, but he likes imagining it. Shiro pats his lap.

Keith could go to bed.  Leave the storytelling to Shiro and catch up on some much needed sleep.  He knows Shiro wouldn’t mind. Shiro would encourage it even. But why would he ever want to leave this room with the both of them?  They all bundle up together on the chair meant for one as Shiro reads a bedtime story, Keith on one of Shiro’s thighs and Aki on the other.

Aki’s too little to understand, but his eyes are wide, absorbing everything in as he gazes into the images, little hands slapping at the pictures and cooing.  Sometimes it sounds like he’s asking, like he doesn’t understand, but he wants to.

Keith does understand, and hearing Shiro’s rich soothing voice telling of the soothing waves and hippos jumping over soft clouds of fluff is just what he needs to soothe his tired soul.  Nestled in Shiro’s warmth, Keith gazes over his chest at the way Aki’s face evolves from page to page.  He’s learning.  Actively.  It’s amazing to watch.  And it’s so beautiful the way Shiro’s voice guides them, builds them.

Despite Shiro’s promise that Keith was clinging to - that they could continue where they left off tonight - Keith falls into sleep before he can stop himself.  He’s just too comfortable, too content to resist.  And Shiro’s arms are really the best place to reside.  He doesn’t blame Aki at all.

When he wakes up the next morning, he’s well rested.  He breathes in sharply, rubbing at his eyes as he realizes he’s in bed somehow, and tucked in.

Shiro’s asleep beside him.  And god, does he glow in the early morning light.  Every morning Keith wakes up, he quietly realizes again and again that he is the luckiest person alive.

Aki’s starting to fuss in the next room over and Keith knows that’s his cue.

He scoots over to press a kiss to the back of Shiro’s neck before pushing the blankets off his own legs.  He has the best husband in the world. The best family. The best life. He wants for nothing.

 

Aki’s first word is ‘baba’.  It’s a nonsensical sort of word, sure, and they disregard it, at first.  But then Aki starts looking over Shiro’s shoulders curiously and wailing in Pidge’s hesitant hands and smacking Lance when he doesn’t get his way and he screams every time, “Baba!  Baba! Baba!”  Every time.  A call.

Baba means Keith.

Well, not really.  Baba actually means “Papa”, which is what Keith had been trying to teach Aki meant Shiro.  But it didn’t work out that way. Baba is now how Aki sees Keith. And Keith is secretly a little pleased whenever he hears it.  It’s a name Aki chose for him.

They grow up so fast.  Everyone always says it, but they really really do.  Time barrels forward and the older they get, the faster time becomes.

He’s crawling, taking his first steps, teetering to Keith with his tiny pinwheeling arms.  And it feels like, barely even a few weeks after, he’s walking around the living room, hurtling through empty space, tiny unevenly spaced pitter pattering across the floor and then there's a tiny monkey latching to their legs.

“Baba!”  He screams, those intense eyes of his boring into Keith’s as he raises his arms and bounces on his feet, that funny way children do, how they look like they’re always dancing to a beat that only they can hear.

“Hey, you.  My little adventurer,” Keith will hum, wiping the mess off his face with a wet towel.  “Where will you be off to next?”

He was afraid, at first, that he didn’t have a maternal or paternal bone in his body.  That he wouldn't be able to give Aki the care and love he needs. He doesn’t really have time to fear those things anymore.  You learn by doing, and Keith is now confident he will do what he can to clean up Aki’s messes because there is really no other option. 

Aki’s getting older now.  And so are Lance’s and Allura’s twins.  Now that Aki’s not so young and fragile, the twins love to peek their heads through the backdoor and call out, “Uncle Keith!  Uncle Shiro! Can we play with Aki?” And Aki squeals with delight as they put bows in his hair and dress them in their doll clothes.

“He’s the prettiest princess in the world ,” they giggle together and hug him tightly.  He loves their attention, looking up to them like they're goddesses of the universe.  And, in a way, they kind of are. 

Pidge and Matt like to visit too, just like normal.  “I’m going to be the best damn auntie you’ve ever known,” Pidge says, shoving away her snack bowl as he approaches her spot on the couch, holding her hand out to him like he’s a dog.  He leans his face in her hand, unsure what she wants with it and she laughs.

“Damn, I have good genes, don’t I?”  Pidge laughs. “He gets more adorable each day.  Though I’m not really sure it’s that, after all.”  She looks between the two of them. “You know how they say dogs start to look like their owners?”

Keith snorts and gives her a look .  “Are you seriously comparing my kid to a dog?”

“Okay, but seriously!  Look at him!” She whirls Aki around and pinches his cheeks, who looks up into Keith’s eyes.  “It’s a compliment .  You’re both gorgeous .  Besides, you love Kosmo and he’s a dog.”

“He’s not a fucking dog, for the hundredth time .”

It’s true though.  Aki is gorgeous.  Keith’s not super fond of the asshole who left Pidge pregnant and upset, but damn, did he and Pidge make the cutest fucking child ever.

Time barrels and barrels and Keith’s fears take a back seat, nearly forgotten, shoved into a dark corner of his mind that he doesn’t have time to check anymore.

He loves Aki.  He loves Shiro.  He loves his life.

 

It’s Aki’s birthday.  He’s turning five. He sits on Hunk’s lap outside on the backyard patio in his swim trunks, bouncing up and down excitedly as the twins laugh and blow party confetti out of cones into the air.

Aki swipes at it as it floats, laughing in that booming exuberance of his.  He grabs his squirt gun from the table and tries to shoot them out of the air.  He misses every single one.

Keith’s frowning into the oven in the kitchen, checking out the window every few moments to make sure Shiro’s alright at the BBQ, trying to hurry the oven along with his will.  It doesn’t exactly work.

“Hey, Keith.  Whatch’ya makin’?” Pidge says, helping herself inside.  Her arms are full of a giant present as she bends over beside him so she can look into the oven.  “Ooooh, fancy cake.”

“Hey, Pidge.  Well, Aki saw some damn baking show the other day and decided he didn’t want just regular cake, but ‘rainbow fusion’ cake.  It sounded doable earlier, but I’ve been working on it since this morning. So many layers,” Keith groans, but there’s still some laughter left in his eyes.

“Damn.  Looks cool though.”

“Let’s just say he’d better appreciate it this year because next year it’s going to be a fucking box cake.”

Pidge snorts as she tosses him a side glance, elbowing his side.  “Yeah, right. You and I both know you’ll do whatever Aki wants.”

“Shut up.”  Keith grabs the oven mitts and takes the cake from the oven.

Pidge whistles as she looks at it, rainbow explosions and all.  “Did Shiro help?”

Keith laughs.  “Listen to yourself.  ‘Did Shiro help?' You’re funny.  He’s barbecuing the hot dogs outside right now if that counts.”

“I think it sort of does?  Unless he’s burning them all.”

“You know he is.”

Pidge looks out the window and Aki catches sight of her, face lighting up.

Auntie Pidge !  You're here!  Hi!”  He waves his arms around like a crazy loon, jumps off Hunk's lap and shoves his face firmly onto the glass window, making funny faces at her.

Pidge laughs as she runs to her side of the glass and pulls down her eyelids with one hand, grinning in victory as Aki reacts in amused disgust. “Hey!  How’s my favorite birthday boy in the whole wide world?”

“Great!  Baba and Daddy got me a hover bike!  They’re gonna teach me to drive like them!”

“They did , did they?”  She side glances Keith, who coughs into his hand.  “Wow, what great dads.”

“I want to be the fastest rider ever ,” Aki says.  “Faster than Baba.”

“Gotta practice hard, but I know you can do it.  You have the best teachers in the universe. Literally.”

Yeah .  I’m going to practice with Daddy.  Daddy!” He calls through the yard.  “ Daddy !”

“Hmm?”  Shiro is fighting with barbecue flames for some reason and Keith sighs, hurriedly shoving the cake into the center of the counter, tossing his mittens off and rushing outside to help.

“How fast do I have to go to beat Baba’s score?”

“Infinity!”  Shiro calls back.

“I’m gonna go faster than infinity then,” Aki says, crossing his arms and nodding with pure confidence.  He looks back at Hunk. “Have you?”

“Beat your dad?  Uh, no. Keith’s unbeatable.  Except by maybe Shiro.”

“Nah,” Shiro comes back to the table after being relieved of his duties.  “Keith takes the cake on this one. For now” - Aki grins brightly, puffing his chest out at the confidence in him - “Speaking of cake.  Keith, come here. Sit with Aki. I want a picture.”

"But - hot dogs -" Keith huffs from the grill.

"Cake!" Aki tosses his hands in the air happily.

“The king has spoken.  I’ll retrieve the cake, young sir,” Pidge says, pushing the door and going back inside.

Aki cups his hands around his mouth and screams, “Thanks, Auntie Pidge!”

“I’ll get the picture,” Krolia says, tossing her head this way and that, looking for her data pad.  “Where are Lance and Allura? I want everyone in this one. Coran?”

“Right here, my good lady,” he salutes.  “Was just inspecting the garden. Those red things - the to-ma-toes?  They grow the best mini weblums I’ve ever seen! What’s the secret?”

Aki gasps. “Those are my pets!  Daddy lets me hold them if I’m gentle.  Do you like them?  I can go get you one.”

“I just want to know the secret.  That bright green sheen, the shape of their soft heads.  Will they one day produce scaultrite?”

Krolia says, “Uh...  You’d have to ask Keith.  I don’t know much about plants.  Get in the picture, Coran. N-7..."

“We’re right here,” Matt says, stepping around Pidge and positioning himself right behind her.

"Mom, I want you in this too," Keith says, taking her data pad from her hands and gesturing her in.  “Can you grab Kosmo?”

“I've got him!” Aki says, running across their back patio on his bare feet, grabbing Kosmo’s mane, and tossing himself up onto his back to ride him.  Kosmo dutifully brings Aki over to Keith, who points his fingers at the head of the table, where Pidge had set the cake. Keith positions the data pad while N-7 hurries beside Matt to pose, sets up the timer, and then runs in to join the group, sneaking in beside Shiro, who already has his arm open and waiting.

“Everyone say cheese!”  Aki cries, raising both hands in the air and roaring like a lion as Kosmo stands at full height, the perfect centered photo.  “And now cake!” He hops off and jumps up to belly flop on the table, scrambling wildly for the knife.

Shiro’s already there, scooping Aki up in one arm and carefully pulling the knife away with the other.  He sits at the head of the table, putting Aki on his lap. “Aki, what’d I tell you about touching knives?”

“Baba likes knives.”

“Baba is careful .  It’ll take a bit more patience before you’re ready.  Besides, you need to blow out the candles first. Don’t you want to do that?”

Yes !  I’m turning five!”

“Yes, you are.  Wow , look at this cake Baba made for you.  Beautiful, isn’t it? Keith, jeez, you really outdid yourself with this.  Amazing.”

“Wow, Keith,” Hunk says in pleasant surprise.  “Maybe I should hire you at my bakery.”

“Please don’t,” Keith groans, slipping his hands onto Shiro’s shoulders and sagging his face into Shiro’s hair.  “I’m not a baker. This almost killed me.”

“He’s a perfectionist,” Shiro chuckles, patting Keith on the hand.  “You should’ve seen the way he hovered over it all day. He would bark at anyone who so much as breathed in the direction of the kitchen.”

“I did not ,” Keith hums.

“He did, didn’t he, Aki?”  Shiro smiles at the little ball of energy on his lap.

Aki giggles into his hand.  “He wouldn’t even let Kosmo in the kitchen.  And Kosmo’s his baby .”

“Kosmo was trying to get the flour off the counter,” Keith defends.

Aki laughs and slaps his hands on the table.  “Come on, come on! I want to eat it!”

“Okay, okay,” Shiro hums, bouncing him on his knee.  “Keith, will you do the honors? I have the lighter...”  He shifts and pats his chef apron pockets for a moment before finding the lighter on the table.  “Here.”

Keith takes it from Shiro and steps around them.  There’s so many people here and it’s a bit chaotic, but they’re all family and Aki’s been nothing but all smiles all day, so Keith is happy too.

The lighter clicks a few times before it ignites, but when the soft flame finally catches, Keith holds it to the smaller candles on the cake to either side of the ridiculously huge sparkler candle that blares “ 5!” .  It’s warm and soft and beautiful.

“Ready for the sparkler candle?”  Keith asks Aki.

Aki always gets that funny crazed buzz in his eyes.  “Like stars?”

“Grandma brought it for you,” Shiro says.  “What do you say?”

“Thank you, Grandma!”  Aki bounces excitedly, leaning forward on the table like he’s ready to swallow the cake whole.

Keith clicks the lighter, holds the tip to the sparkler and -

The light flashes.

Too bright.

Too sudden.

Keith jerks back, dropping the lighter to the table with a loud clack.

He blinks.

“Whoa,” everyone says in surprise.  “What happened?”

Shiro has one hand on Keith’s back, steadying him, looking up into his face.  “You okay?”

“Uh...”  He blinks a few more times, scratching at his brow.  His heart’s beating fast for some reason. He takes a deep breath and looks down into Aki’s curious eyes.

“...You okay, Baba?”  Aki asks.

His head hurts suddenly.  He shakes it off.  “Yeah. Sorry.  I thought I, uh... It reflected in my eyes or something.  I don’t know. Reflexes sometimes. They do what they want.”

“You sure you’re okay, Keith?”  Krolia asks, tilting her head and watching him.

He blows out a perturbed breath.  “It’s cake .  Unless the cake’s about to attack me, then yeah.  Let’s light this thing,” he says, picking the lighter back up and igniting the sparkling candle.  It bursts to life like a dancing star. It’s totally fine.

Aki squeals in delight, roaring happily as he claps his hands and leans his face forward into the multi-colored lights.  “This is so cool! Thanks, Grandma! I love it! I love it! I love it !”

She laughs softly as she turns her attention back to him and snaps away some photos.  “You’re so welcome, Aki. Happy birthday, my little love.”

Aki reaches a hand out to grab a huge chunk of it and Shiro subtly shifts him over.  “We need to sing Happy Birthday first, Aki. Keith, start us off.”

Hell , no.”

Shiro grins brightly, waving his hand for everyone’s attention and calling off, “Three, two, one -”

Everyone sings.  Everyone. Even Keith, leaning his head on Shiro’s shoulder and looking down into that explosively colored cake, warmed with sparkling glittery light.  He lets his eyes seek upward, at his son. Aki looks around at all the friendly faces around him, eyes so pure and innocent, untouched by the bad in this world.  He grins as they all sing to him and he claps the loudest when they end.

“I loved it!  Encore!  Encore!”  He giggles and then turns his eyes up to them, gesturing to the candles.  “Daddy, Baba, help me.”

They take in deep breaths and blow out the shimmering lights together.

The cake is great, thank god, or Keith was going to have a meltdown.  Aki’s entire face is covered in rainbows within five minutes.  He eats like an animal.

After their swift dinner of cake, Aki runs down the hill and tosses a large blanket on the grass for everyone to sit, patting his hands to the open space enthusiastically.  “Come on!” He cries, speeding back up the hill to capture them when they don’t walk down fast enough. He hides behind a wooden column, waiting to surprise Lance, who’s walking too slowly for Aki's tastes.

As Lance passes by, Aki leaps out, hands up like a lion, yelling on the top of his lungs, “RAWR!”  Kosmo bounces behind him, roaring even louder, his guardian and partner in crime. Lance, wrapped up in conversation with N-7, screams at the surprise, his drink jerking in his hand as he shies away.  He spills it all over himself, bright red all over white.

Aki cracks up.  “Oh, man, got you, Uncle Lance!”

Oh ho ,” Lance raises his eyebrows and passes the remnants of the drink over to N-7.  He has a little evil glint in his eyes as he saunters forward slowly, like an animal after prey.  “You dare scare your Uncle Lance? You know what happens next.”

“No, I don’t,” Aki grins from ear to ear, hiding behind the column again and giggling.  He squirms as Lance slips around the column and they circle each other.

“Remember.  You asked for this,” Lance says, holding up his fingers with the malicious intent to tickle.

Aki just keeps laughing and shaking his head.  “Baba,” he calls. “Baba, help me, Uncle Lance is going to attack me!”

“Not on your birthday, he’s not,” Keith calls back.

“I’m immune!”  Aki shouts, holding his hands out in front of his face.  “You can’t attack the birthday boy.”

“Aw man!”  Lance gets out of his predatory posture and despairs.  “My one weakness! Birthday boys and red wine on my shirt.”

“I’m sure you deserved it,” Keith calls from across the property with a laugh and Lance gurgles dramatically.

“Sorry, Uncle Lance.  You’re easiest to scare.”

“It’s like you’re finally getting a taste of your own medicine,” Pidge snorts as she walks up with a plate full of burgers.  “That is a very Lance thing to do.”

Keith gurgles, “Oh, that’s all I need.  A mini Lance running around my house.”

Lance says, “Har har, don’t worry, bud, I’ll teach him all I know.”

Aki and the twins run off together and they roll down the grassy hill with laughter that bounces around their backyard.

Keith and Shiro grab the presents to transport them down the hill and grimace as Aki runs back up and tosses himself down again.  His clothes already have green grass stains.

They pile all the presents into the center of the blanket and Keith lays down on the corner, settling himself down in Shiro’s lap.  It's a good watching point from here and Keith is so so content.  He could almost purr.

The others all fall into place around them.  The warm string lights they hung up through the trees warm their backyard as the sun drops beneath the horizon.  The crickets start chirping jovially in the distance.

“Oh my god,” Pidge laughs as she plops down beside them, still chewing on her food.  “What did you put in that cake? He’s flying.”

“He loves having everyone over,” Keith rolls his eyes as Aki screams down the hill again.  Kosmo races down beside him, barking playfully.

“Race you!”  Aki huffs past the twins and then tosses his arms around Kosmo’s fluffy neck, having him teleport to the top.

“You’re cheating!”  They cry, waiting for him to roll past.  When he does, they grab onto him to stop him.

“It’s my birthday!  I’m immune!”

“Not to us!”

He laughs beneath their tickle fight, helpless.  He looks so happy. So uninhibited. Legs kicking in the air as he tries to close his arms from the tickle attack.

Keith smiles at the sight as he watches on, heart so content.

“How’s work been lately, Lance?”  Pidge asks. “They were talking about you today and I didn’t get to ask you earlier.”

“Boo.  No work talk after hours,” Hunk groans, tossing a bit of hot dog bread at them.

Lance picks it up off the blanket and eats it.  “It sucks, thank you very much. I don’t know how much I can do about it.  Can’t you guys use your special tech skills to trace them?”

“Yeah, if they left a trace.  Either they’re really fucking smart and can outrun us, or they don’t use technology.”

“No technology?”  Matt despairs. “What a life to live.”

“Even I have to agree,” Coran says as he inspects the hot dog on his plate with bright interest.  “There has to be a trace of them somewhere.”

“Who knows.  I’ll admit,” Pidge says, “I don’t have time to be chasing after their lame butts personally, but my partners are on it and they’re really smart, so I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“What are you talking about?”  Keith asks, tilting his head back to look into Shiro’s face to see if he knows.

Shiro looks down, reaching up to soothe Keith’s hair with one hand while mindlessly running his hands over Keith’s arm with the other.  “You know. The Galra Resistance.”

“Oh - jesus.  Guys, come on.  My mom’s here, for fuck’s sake.”

“It’s okay, Keith,” Krolia hums, shrugging.  “That’s the way of the universe. We knew it’d take years to integrate.  Maybe even centuries. We have to talk about it in the open to come up with solutions.”

“Yeah, well, the violence in the streets is getting really old,” Lance grumbles.  “We save the universe from evil. That’s simple enough. But saving the universe from itself?  Wouldn’t have expected it to be harder and yet, here we are.  Some days, I start thinking I’d like to go back to training pilots instead of this political mumbo jumbo.  No one wants to change. No one wants to listen.”

"We'll get it, guys," Shiro says. "Bit by bit we're making a difference.  I can feel it."

“I have a better idea: tell them all to go fuck themselves,” Keith grits grumpily through his teeth.  He feels very prickly about the whole thing, it really bothers him. Especially when he sees people giving his mom wary looks.  The dirty looks are even worse.

“Hey, guys, I think Keith just figured out the formula for world peace,” Lance snorts.  "Allura, did you hear that? We'll have to broadcast that all throughout the universe. Keith, you're a genius."

“Thanks.  That bit of info is for free.  Next one is gonna cost you.”

“In all seriousness ,” Shiro sighs, jostling Keith in his lap a bit as Keith laughs.  “Krolia, you really should be careful out there. If you get caught at the wrong place at the wrong time...  Prejudices run deep. People’s families have died at the hands of the Galra. They’re angry, they’re volatile, they want revenge.  They can’t sort enemy from friend, so they just lump all Galra together. I worry for Keith sometimes too.”

Keith holds his hand up in the air, shoving it up to Shiro’s face.  “Shiro, seriously, it’s fine. We can take care of ourselves.”

Krolia smiles crookedly.  “Thanks for the warning, Shiro.  You can never be too prepared.”

"That's what I keep telling Keith.  He’s not as quick to listen."

Keith shows Shiro his middle finger and Shiro protests with an amused hey ! capturing it in his hand and holding it to his heart.  “I’m a big boy, Shiro. I can take care of myself.”

“I know, I know.  I just...don’t like this.  Any of it. A different kind of enemy.”

Keith hums, trying to give Shiro the attention he wants on this topic, but he jumps up as his eyes catch on something down below.  “Is Aki playing in the creek? He’s going to catch pneumonia at this time of day. Kosmo !”

Kosmo flashes up to them, Aki at his side.

Aki’s mouth drops open in upset, arms already crossing tightly across his chest.  “Baba -” He starts his complaint.

“Time for presents,” Keith says quickly, grabbing one from the mound on the blanket and shoving it into Aki’s hands.

That gets Aki’s attention.  “ Presents !”  And the smile returns to his little face.  Keith takes the opportunity to shrug his jacket off and start drying Aki down.

Aki goes through all the presents like a savage, bright-eyed and giggling at everything.  He tosses the wrapping paper in the air; it floats down from the sky as soft and festive as confetti.

“I love it!”  He keeps crying.  It’s his new thing.  He’s always very vocal about what he loves.  “I love it!”

Aki jumps to the next present and rips it open.  “A drum set Cool.

“A drum set,” Keith murmurs to Shiro, eyebrows high.  “I bet we can guess which sadistic ‘friend’ got him that one.”

Shiro presses down a knowing smile.  “Be nice, Keith.”

“Nice.  Nice ?  We won’t know peace ever again.”

“I can hear you ,” Lance says.  “You know, it wasn’t actually out of spite.  Doesn’t he have a drummer look about him?”

Allura smiles over at Keith.  “All that energy needs to be vented out somehow, right?”

Aki’s already trying to set it up, pausing from opening his other presents.  “Thank you, Uncle Lance and Aunt Allura! I love it!”

He starts banging the fuck out of it.

It’s so loud .  Pidge presses her lips together in contained amusement, giving Keith a look from across their circle that reads like a, ‘good luck with that one’ as Aki bangs mercilessly with vigor.

“Fuck,” Keith whispers to the heavens.

“You can visit my place,” Pidge snorts.

The sugar rush fades eventually and, all presents officially unwrapped, wrapping paper tossed all over their backyard, Aki collapses to the floor, defeated.

Everyone says their goodbyes and leave out the front door, bellies full and happily exhausted.  Keith and Shiro will have to clean the party streamers and balloons later. They’re just as tired.

Keith collects Aki from the floor and carries him in his arms up the stairs and into his room.  He tugs his cake-smeared shirt off of him and Shiro hands over Aki’s pajamas.

“Wake up, little man,” Keith hums as he smooths the wrinkles from Aki’s shirt.  “We need to brush your teeth.”

“Mmrgh,” Aki frowns, trying to curl away from Keith and get back to sleep.

“We’ve got to do it.  Don’t want cavities, do you?”

“It’s my birthday ,” he grumbles.  “Can’t I have this one night?”

Keith snorts.  “Fine. But if you wake up in the morning with cavities in your teeth, don’t say I didn’t warn you -”

Aki gurgles and goes to brush his teeth.  Keith helps guide him as Shiro gets Aki’s bed ready, pulling the sheets down and fluffing the pillows.

By the time Keith and Aki have finished in the bathroom, Shiro’s waiting on the end of the bed, smiling at the both of them.

“Night, Aki,” Shiro says as Aki crawls into bed.  Shiro leans over and presses a kiss to his forehead.  “Happy birthday. You’re growing up so fast.”

“Did you have a good day?”  Keith asks, tucking the sheet up to Aki’s chin as he hums and smiles cozily.

“Yeah.  It was so good.  I loved it lots. Thank you, Baba.  Thank you, Daddy. I had a lot of fun.”

“We’re so glad.  ...Love you, Akihiro,” Keith whispers, taking his turn to kiss Aki’s little cheek.  “Sleep well.”

“Mm.  You too.  Love you.”  He takes a deep breath in and positions his head in the pillow and then he’s asleep.  Out, just like that.

Keith and Shiro laugh together quietly, looking down at their sweet little Aki.

The whole world is there, written across his face.  Aki loves this world. Aki cherishes the bonds he makes and the people in it.  In turn, Keith feels like he’s starting to love the world more too. Sure, there’s bad in it, bad that Aki doesn’t know about yet, but there’s so much more good .  Keith can see it vividly from where he sits now.

Keith looks back to Shiro and smiles up at him, seeing the glowing twinkle in his eye.  Keith can't even remember why he ever felt why this couldn't ever be anything other than right .  He can't imagine a world without little Aki.  He's part of their hearts.

They close the door quietly behind them, looking over at the other.

“He looked happy,” Keith says.

“All he did was scream all day,” Shiro chuckles.  “I don’t know how he hasn’t lost his voice.”

“Maybe in the morning,” Keith laughs, leaning his head against the back of the door and closing his eyes with a smile.  "God, I would've killed for a birthday like that when I was younger. ... I'm glad we could give that to him."

"Maybe a surprise party for you next year?" 

"Don't you dare," Keith laughs.  "I'll destroy you."

Shiro chuckles lowly, staring at their family photos hung along the wall.  He turns his eyes over to Keith. “...You okay?” Shiro asks. “What was up with that candle thing?”

“What candle thing?”  Keith looks up curiously.

“Earlier, when you were lighting the cake candles.  You jerked away so suddenly. You had a weird look on your face.”

Keith shrugs, trying to think about it.  He’s being honest when he says, “I don’t know.  I just reacted. The light surprised me for some reason.”

“Huh.  I’m glad you weren’t hurt.”

“Shiro.  I’ve fought a war, okay?  I think I can handle a little lighter.”

Shiro snorts, arching his eyebrow to the ceiling as he thinks about it.  “...It is kind of a funny thing to say, isn’t it? In the scope of things.”

“It is.”

Shiro laughs again.  “You’re right. Sorry.  I’ve got to worry about my Keith sometimes.  I’m always on the lookout.”

“Your Keith is fine,” he hums, rolling off the door and onto Shiro, holding him close.  “...Today was good. ...I think we did well today.”

“Me too.  He’s easy to please.  All he does is smile.”

“Yeah, that and scream, ‘ I love it ’.”

“Better that than scream profanity or something.”

Keith snickers into Shiro’s shirt.  “That’s true.”

“...Thanks for your help today, Keith.  I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without you.”

“No, not the way you burn things,” he chuckles.  “...And thanks for yours.” Keith smiles up at him.

Seeing Aki have a solid childhood feels a bit like healing Keith’s own cold one.  The trauma from then feels so distant, another lifetime. This time around, things are right.  The smiling little boy through the door is their proof of that.

 

Aki starts school soon.  They held back as long as they could.  Keith had started early and didn’t always seem to fit in the best.  They want the opposite for Aki.

He only has a few more days left until it begins and Keith won’t lie, he’s stressing out a bit.  He’s going to have a hard time letting Aki go. They’ve got the backpack, the lunchbox, the pencils, the paper.  He’s so smart and so ready. All they have to do is let go.

When Keith comes back home from work one day, he finds Aki in the living room with his helmet on.  Shiro’s making dinner in the kitchen.

Aki’s eyes light up as he hears Keith coming through the door.  He leaps up from his place on the couch and runs to him, squealing happily.

“Baba,” Aki breathes out in excitement, throwing his arms around Keith’s legs and hugging onto him tightly.

“Hey, Aki,” Keith hums happily, leaning down to rub Aki’s small delicate back.  “How was your day today?”

“Good!”  He tosses his head up and looks at Keith with stars in his eyes.  “Can we go out on the hoverbikes tonight?”

Keith groans internally.  He’s had a long day. He knows Shiro’s busy with making dinner and Shiro’s kind of uptight about everyone eating dinner together, so Keith takes a chance, patting Aki’s shoulders and saying, “Ask your dad.”

“He said to ask you.”

He presses his lips together tightly, looking to Shiro.

Shiro turns and smiles.  “Hey, Keith. We don’t have to go out if you had a busy day.  We can go tomorrow.”

Aki’s sweet little eyes are so big and filled with hope.  He already has his helmet on, buckled tightly, just how Keith taught him.  He’s basically standing on his tip toes in anticipation as he tugs with his tiny hands on Keith’s pants.  “Baba. Can we? Please? It’s not too hot outside.”

Keith is so so weak to that little cute face.  He tries to look away before he can no longer say no, but Aki’s twinkling smile is burned into his mind.  And it’s true, the weather’s been nice lately. “ Okay .  Fine.  But you have to make dinner tomorrow then.”

Baba !”  Aki laughs, hands clapping to his little belly.  “I can’t reach the stove!”

“Maybe next year then.”

Aki will laugh at basically anything until he’s red in the face.  “Baba!”

Keith laughs with him as he turns him around by the shoulders and guides him into the kitchen to Shiro.  “We can only go for a bit though. We still need to eat dinner and get ready for bed.”

“Mmkay!”  He says excitedly, running out the back door and to the side of the house where they keep the hover bikes.

“We haven’t been out together in awhile, huh?”  Shiro hums, leaning over to place a kiss on Keith’s cheek.

Keith nods sleepily into the kiss, rubbing at one of his eyes.  “God, I’ve been so tired lately. Is this what getting old is? Just your body becoming heavier and heavier until you’re dead weight six feet under?”

“Keith, don’t talk like that.  Honestly, the overtime probably hasn’t been helping.  You work too hard... Are you sure you’re good to go tonight?”

Yeah , it’ll be fine.  Aki was looking at me with those big puppy dog eyes of his.  Can’t say no now.”

“Oh, boy.  Do I know that one.”

“Sure do.”  Keith lets his forehead fall to Shiro’s back as he follows him out sluggishly.

Aki has all the bikes set up in a line already, hands patting the seats of his own, looking brightly over at them, the warm sunset light catching the side of his twinkling face.  He holds out their goggles.

Keith was resistant at first, convinced his energy was drained for the day, but once they’re out and skimming across the warm desert floors, Keith feels that old spark reignite in his chest.  The sky is wide and open and the whole world feels like their playground. The wind tickles at the hair on the nape of his neck and before he knows it, there’s a huge smile across his face.

He’s missed this.

“Go, Baba, go!”  Aki is screaming as Keith speeds around them and then loops, feeling the effortless way the bike drifts through the sand.  Ah, it’s so smooth, like cutting warm butter. But powerful, like taming a lion. They’d know about that one.

It’s not quite as breathtaking as piloting Voltron, but it’s reminiscent of that and Keith feels like he’s on the top of the world again.  He can’t get the grin off his face.

Shiro stays dutifully at Aki’s side, leaning casually over his handlebars and grinning at Keith’s infectious laughter.

“There he is,” Shiro laughs.  “That’s the Keith I first met.”

Keith tosses his gaze over at him, golden at this time of day.  He grins toothily. “Got anything else to teach me, sir?”

Shiro goes bright red.  “ Keith .  Not in front of Aki .”

Keith chuckles under his breath lowly and then looks back ahead.  It’s getting darker, their time is running out.

Keith loves this time of day.  He feels like he can race the light to the ends of the earth.  Who will get there first? The evening as it closes in or Keith?

He hasn’t lost yet.

“I’m going ahead for a bit!”  Keith turns his head and calls back to Shiro and Aki.  Shiro gives him the thumbs up.

“Be safe!”

Aki calls out, arms pumped up high in the air,  “Godspeed!”

So, with one last grin, he revs the engine and flies.

There’s nothing like zipping through a vast open area at top speed.  The sky is so big around him, he can see those familiar stars, the depths of space so close he feels like he can touch it.  God, Keith misses space. Earth is beautiful, Earth is home, but space...there’s nothing like it. They get to visit sometimes with Aki, but never too far and never for long enough.  One day again...

Maybe Aki will be able to fly in space with them, not as a passenger, but as an equal.  Maybe he’ll surpass them... The sky isn’t even the limit anymore, Shiro and Keith discovered that.  But what more can Aki discover? The thought makes Keith feel so light and limitless.

Racing at full speed is fun but Keith misses his family already.  With one last look into the setting sun, he loops around and returns to them.

“That was cool ,” Aki says, watching Keith closely.  His smile is soft and dream-like. He takes in a slow steady breath.  “I want to be like you one day, Baba.”

Keith chuckles softly, tilting his head and grinning.  He crosses his arms to lean them on the handlebars. “Oh, yeah?  Wish I could record you saying that.”

“I want to ride just like that.  I want to go into the Garrison and fly into space !”

“Mm.  You do, do you?”  Keith and Shiro smile at each other warmly.  “Work hard, Aki, and, one day, you could do whatever it is you want.  You'll be able to pilot just as fast, maybe even faster. You'll be able to shoot into the sky and visit space all on your own....  And what an amazing sight it'll be.”

“Really?” Aki breaths excitedly, turning his eyes up to the moon.

“Really.”

Aki nods firmly, determination building in his eyes the longer he thinks about it.  “That’s what I want. Can you and I go out together, Baba?”

“Without Daddy?”  Keith raises an eyebrow, looking to Shiro for his reaction.

Shiro smiles knowingly, giving a small shrug.  “I got a call while you were gone anyway. I should take it.  Go ahead. You both go out for a bit together. We should head back soon though.”

“Sure,” Keith says.  “Don’t get too lonely without us.”

Shiro snorts.  “I miss you already.  I’ve been teaching him the basics.  He’s pretty good. You’ll see.”

“Awesome.  Let’s go, Aki.”

They head off toward the sunset.  Keith putts around, watching how Aki controls the hover bike.  He’s fairly steady. Careful. Maybe not a natural necessarily, but that’s okay.  He listens. He learns. That’s what’s important.

And there’s that brightness in his eyes, that inspiration.  He wants this. He loves this. As long as he keeps that fire burning, Aki can learn however much he wants.  That enthusiasm is key. Keith loves seeing it there in his eyes. He’s so proud of him already, of all the things he can accomplish.  Keith can’t wait to see.

“Would you feel comfortable going a little faster?”  Keith wonders.

“Daddy won’t let me.”

“I’m not Daddy,” Keith says.

Aki grins, going a bit faster, looking to Keith with wide naive eyes for direction.

“Good,” Keith hums.  He has one hand on his handlebars and the other on his lap as he watches, analyzing.  “How are your turns?” He gently nudges his bike to the side and sees how Aki follows hesitantly.  It’s a bit unsure, a bit jerky, but he does it.

Good ,” Keith blinks.  “Maybe you’re a natural, after all.”

“You think so?”  Aki breathes excitedly.

Keith watches Aki, the way he glows at praise, the way he watches Keith with an open mind.  The young fresh excitement makes Keith a bit emotional. The things Keith is jaded about nowadays makes Aki burn with light.

He’s suddenly remembering things again: the first time he rode on his bike with Shiro.  The first time he jumped off that cliff. When he started feeling comfortable at this, at home with it.  All such good things.

He remembers it through Aki.  Keith watches him, falling even more in love with that bright passion of his.

“How am I doing?”  Aki breathes, eyes flashing up to Keith’s.  “Is this right?”

“...You’re wonderful, Aki,” Keith breathes, so enchanted.

Aki grins so widely it squishes his apple red cheeks.  “Thanks, Baba.” He slows to a stop and Keith follows suit.  He points out into the distance to a small slope. “Can you go on that?  All we’ve been doing is flat land.”

It’s easy enough.  Keith nods, slouching over his handlebars backward.  “Sure. I don’t know if you’re ready though.”

“No.  I know.  I just want to see you do it.”

Keith looks back to Aki.  He looks earnestly ahead, the red of sunset catching him and making him look alive and fiery.  “...Stay here, okay?  Don’t move.”

He bounces over his bike happily.  “Mmkay.”

Everyone knows Keith’s fast.  There’s no reason to hide it, even Aki knows the speed isn’t for him.  But Keith’s not about to show off when Aki’s watching. He goes over the slope at a decent speed, catches maybe a little air, and lands just as easily.  It’s not exhilarating at all, really, but Aki still claps excitedly as Keith loops back around and bows.

“Again!”  Aki cries.

“Again?”  Keith hums under his breath, frowning into the horizon as it provides one last ribbon of low sinking light.  “Don’t you think we should be heading back? Your poor dad. We left him all alone. Did you know he was the one who taught me how to fly?  He was my hero. Still is. He’s amazing. Better than I am.”

Aki doesn’t care, of course.  “But you piloted Red, the fastest of them all!”

“It’s not always just about who’s the fastest,” he hums.

“Can I see again?  Just one more time.  Pleeeeease .”  He clasps his little hands together and grins cheesily.  “Before we head back?”

Keith’s weak to that look.  Everyone knows. He sighs. “Fine.”  He kicks off the ground.

Aki cups his hands and calls, “ Faster this time, Baba!  Faster!”

Cheeky little brat.  Well, might as well put on a show.  He revs the engine, feels the ground start to pull faster and faster beneath him, leaving everything else in the dust.  He’s flying, zipping across desert floor. He hits that slope - he’s going to glide - when his stomach lurches.

His stomach never lurches.

Never.

He blanks out on the jump.  He lands fine. He keeps driving on automatic.  He stops in front of Aki and purses his lips.

What the fuck was that?

Aki’s celebrating.  “Baba, that was so cool .  I want to ride just like you!  Can I try it? Can I? Can I? Not fast.  Just slowly.”

Keith’s still uncomfortable, his mind firing quickly.  He knows how important it is to trust his gut; it’s what got him through a lot of things.

He’s confused right now and Aki keeps nagging.

He's tired.  That's it. Just that.  ...Right?

“We should head back,” he tries to say over Aki’s chatter.

But Aki is so loud.  He’s all Keith can hear.  “Just once !”  Aki holds his finger out.  “ Please .  Daddy never lets me whenever we come out here together.  I have a lot of practice. I’m ready .”

Keith had known too, when he was younger, when he was ready or not.  Even when people doubted him, maybe especially then. Doesn't Aki deserve a little loosening of the reigns?  How else will he learn?  But...

Keith bites at his lip.  Looks to Aki. Looks to the slope.

...He doesn’t want whatever this weird reaction is to get the best of him.  That slope is the wimpiest fucking slope he’s ever seen.  It won’t beat him like this. He’s got to face it.

If Aki goes slow, everything will be fine.  More than. Those are the facts.

“...Okay,” Keith says softly.  “But you have to be careful.  You can’t go over it quickly.  Just slowly, got it? No air.”

“Mmhmm.”  Aki tightens his helmet and leans forward into the handle bars, staring down the little slope with fire in his eyes.  “I’ve got this.”

“Now just remember to -”

Aki’s already ripping through the sand and Keith is left blinking after him.  Wow, so fast.

God.  Kids.

He takes a moment to rub the tension out of his brow.  “ Aki ,” he grumbles under his breath as he turns his bike around and follows.

Aki’s going faster than Keith thought he would.  Aki usually listens.

“Hey!”  He calls.  “Slow down .”

Aki speeds up, laughter flying past Keith on the wind.

Aki !”  He yells louder.  “Listen to me! Slow down !”

Aki takes the jump.  It’s too fast. He gets some height and that's all fine and dandy until he realizes he has to land.  But he doesn’t know how to land.

He crashes.

The bike slips to the side and Aki tumbles off onto his belly on the red desert floor.  He just stays there for a second. His face is red from the powdery dust.

“Shit,” Keith spits, tossing his bike away as he jumps off and runs up beside him.  “ Aki !  Aki, are you okay?”

Aki slowly pushes himself up with his arms and pulls his legs in tightly.  He looks at his knee and then up at Keith, eyes big and wet. He coughs out a sad little sound.

Hurts ,” he starts to cry, grabbing onto his knee.

“Okay.  Don’t move it,” Keith breathes, scooting in close to place his hand on Aki’s shoulder.  “Grandma lives nearby. We can get help if we need it. You’ll be fine.”

He tosses his eyes up as he hears Shiro’s hoverbike.  Shiro shoves his goggles up onto his head.

“What happened?”  He says urgently, rushing over and kneeling beside them.

Aki’s wailing by now, acting like it’s the end of the world.

“Keith!  What did he hurt?”

“I...  I don’t know.  I think just his leg.  I didn’t see him even hit it.  I don't think it’s serious -”

Shiro looks up sharply, baffled.  “- Did you let him jump off this hill?”

Keith looks back at it, flustered.  It seems like a worse idea now.

"Keith!  Did you?" 

“He-he asked...”

Shiro’s eyebrows raise.  He looks back down at Aki and gently puts his hand to his knee.  "...I can’t believe you let him do this.”

“Me?”  Keith blinks, surprised.  They never fight. “I thought you said you taught him the basics!”

“I did !  But you can’t just teach a five year old to jump off a cliff, Keith.”

“It’s a gentle slope .  If he knew the basics , then it would’ve been fine -  I could’ve done circles around this thing at half his age.”

“You were a prodigy .  Not everyone’s like you, Keith.  What were you thinking ?”

“You’re acting like I sent him flying off the Garrison’s rooftop!  It’s barely a fucking roll !  He’s five .”

"Exactly.  Five, Keith, not fifteen."

“He’s not a baby.”

“And he’s not an adult .  God, Keith, I can't believe you sometimes.  We can’t all be like you.”

“Don’t fight,” Aki says, looking between the two of them in confusion.  “I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I didn’t do it right. I’m sorry.”

They both look over at him.  Small, innocent little Aki. There's almost a spark of fear in his eyes as he looks between the two of them, confusion overpowering the discomfort of injury.

Keith bites at his lip, rubbing at his temple.  He never got to see his parents fight. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be in Aki’s place.  He just knows Aki looks afraid.

“...Aki,” Keith whispers.  “...No. It’s not your fault.  You don’t have to apologize, okay?  It’s my fault. I thought I had to prove something.  It was stupid.”

“Are you mad at Daddy?”  Aki whispers, brow furrowed in worry.

He sighs heavily.  “...No. Just...scared.  I don’t like to see you hurt.  I'm supposed to be your protector.  I took it too far today. I’m sorry.  I won’t again. I’m sorry...”

Keith hangs his head and bites his lip.  That feeling in his chest, that hesitation, hasn’t left him.  If anything, it feels barbed deeper into his lungs. He clears his throat to try to dislodge it, but this stupid gentle slope seems to have won something.  Keith doesn’t know what.

Shiro takes a deep breath.  “...Aki, are you okay? Can you stand?”

Aki sniffs and gently pulls the pant leg up.  It’s a little red, a little scratched, but no visible signs beyond that.

“Let me carry you.”

“I can ride back,” he says, testing his leg out cautiously.  “...It’s not that bad anymore. It just scared me, I think.”

“Us too,” Shiro says gently.  “I’m glad you’re okay. Follow me, then.”

Aki doesn’t move.  “Are you mad at Baba?  I was the one who wanted to go...  He told me no but I kept pushing.”

Shiro sighs, looking back to Keith.  Keith feels awkward beneath Shiro's gaze.  He knew he'd fuck up somewhere and this is it. Shiro's going to learn to hate him. 

But Shiro walks past Aki and grabs Keith’s hands gently, looking up into his face.  “No... I’m sorry for raising my voice. I’m just frustrated. I think Keith’s a little reckless sometimes.  It seems you’re okay now, but this could’ve ended up more serious.”

Keith nods, pressing his lips together tightly, feeling a sickness burning in his throat.  “...I’m sorry. I won’t do that again, Shiro.”

“I know.  I know you want the best for him.  Me too.” Shiro kneads Keith’s knuckles gently for a few more moments before letting his hand go softly and returning to his bike.  “Let’s all go home and eat, okay? I think we’re all just tired. I know I sure can use a nap.”

“It’s almost bedtime ,” Aki giggles around his red nose and tears.  He sniffs and wipes an arm across his face, rubbing away tears.

“I know, I know.  Your Dads never rest.”

Keith doesn’t want to get back on the bike.  He stares down at it for a long stretched out moment, something odd and off swirling around inside of him.

He's never felt this way before. 

“...Keith?”  Shiro calls, breaking through his thoughts.

He blinks up at Shiro, who’s watching him carefully, with that sharp concern of his.

“...You okay?”

Keith rubs at his nose, looking back to the bike for a moment before picking it up and swinging his leg over the top.  He nods quietly, starting it back up.

Everything feels fine physically.  He drives it fine. Everything’s in order.  He doesn’t know what was wrong with him.

When they get home that night and Aki goes to sleep, Keith sits on the side of the bed.  He feels something expanding and pressing against the confines of his chest, threatening to burst out.  He touches his fingers to his face, like that can keep his emotions in check.

Shiro takes a seat beside him.  He doesn't say anything. The silence isn't angry or bitter.  He just sits beside Keith patiently, like he's already figured out what Keith's so confused about himself.

Keith’s not sure what he feels right now.  He just knows he’s uneasy and agitated. He keeps thinking about how he let Aki down; it feels like the first domino in a chain and he’s afraid again suddenly.  He’s started the chain reaction.

Eventually, Shiro reaches for Keith’s hand and brings him in closer.  "I'm sorry for yelling," Shiro says. "I saw him lying there and it scared me.  But I shouldn't have taken it out on you."

"I didn't mean to," Keith whispers.  "If I had known... I didn’t want to hurt Aki.  I never want that." 

"I know, Keith.”

Keith shakes his head fiercely.  "He just wanted to go on that hill and I thought he could handle it.  But I forgot he's just a child looking to us for direction. He trusted me and I fucked up.  I fucked up. I'm sorry, Shiro. I'm so sorry. "

"Keith.  He's okay.  You're okay.  Everything's fine.  We know to be more careful next time. That's a good thing. "

Keith nods his head.  This time, when he touches his fingers to his face, they come back wet.

 

It was just a small hiccup.  Kids get hurt. It’s how they learn.  Aki has a scrape on his knee but it’s hardly swollen.  He’s gotten worse barreling through their backyard and tripping on the ground, barely stopping to pause.  He didn’t even need a bandaid.

Aki’s fine.  He doesn’t even think about it the day after, it totally goes over his head.  So Keith’s fine too. He only feels a little guilty, on the surface. They all go about their usual schedule.  Everything’s fine. Getting ready for school again. Aki’s excited. It’s all he’ll talk about with the other paladins.

So it seems funny when, in the middle of all this happiness, in all of this feeling right , he begins to have nightmares.

Maybe he’s just a bit overworked with everything.  Maybe, despite feeling like he’s got everything down, there’s still that fear, tucked away in the corner of his mind, buried deep down inside, and the moment Aki fell, something struck a match over its remains.  Did it ignite...?

Keith’s always had nightmares, it’s true.  Shiro’s are generally worse, but they manage.

Two nights before Aki starts school, Keith dreams.

He sees Pilot Error stamped right into the sensitive vulnerable part of his mind, right between his eyes.  He sees Shiro returning - thank god - but he stops when he sees vicious stark scars littering Shiro’s body and newfound fear in his eyes.  He sees the black lion, light dim, empty. Shiro gone. Gone. Shiro falling into the atmosphere, but this time, Keith can’t get a grip on him and Shiro's unconscious vulnerable body slips right out of Keith's too-weak fingers and he falls .  And Keith can’t catch him.  Too late. He's gone. And Keith’s alone.  That same little boy who would rub the fog off his window in foster care, staring out, waiting for his dad, who would never come.

The dream barrels forward.  The future, not the past, but just as real.  In the darkness, lies a boy. Aki, covered in blood, looking down at his hands, terrified.  “Daddy!” Aki screams, looking frantically around for help.

And Keith steps back in fear.

But Shiro's dead.  Keith couldn't save him.  There’s no one. No one to pick him up and help him and god, someone help him.  Aki just keeps screaming. Voice tearing and hands sweeping desperately through the darkness, seeking anyone.  But no one's there.

Keith doesn’t want anyone to feel that pain, but especially not Aki.  Sweet little innocent Aki. Not him. Anyone but him -

Why won't anyone help him? Why is he all alone like this?  They were a family. They were supposed to be a family.

Keith ruined it.  He fucked it all up.  It was supposed to go easily, all together, a united front, but now, they're torn apart.

“Keith, Keith , wake up .  You’re dreaming.  Keith .”

Fear drowns out his senses and he can’t breathe.  It’s all too much. With him, Aki will suffer.

This was a mistake.  He knew it'd be a mistake.

Keith !”

Keith startles awake.

He’s gasping for breath, pressing a hand to his chest, another gripping at his hair.  His muscles are all tight and hurt.

“...You’re dreaming,” Shiro whispers, brushing his hand across Keith’s cheek.  “You’re okay. You’re dreaming.”

“...You’re here,” Keith tries to say in a normal tone, but his voice breaks and it’s all over.  He cries, letting Shiro scoop him up into his arms as he sags bonelessly against him. “You’re here .  You’re here.  You’re okay.”

“I’m okay, Keith.  Everything’s fine. Everything’s over.”

“I dreamt you were dead,” Keith sobs.  “I couldn’t save you. And Aki was so young.  He was so little. He was all alone and blood was everywhere and he kept calling for you, but you weren't there.  No one was there. He was in so much pain. He hurt so much. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.”

“Keith, no, shh, calm down.  Everything’s okay. Nothing’s going to happen to us.  And hey,” he whispers, leaning back a bit to see into Keith’s eyes.  “Even if it did, we have a big family now, okay? He’ll be fine. He’ll be loved.  He’ll never be alone. He won’t hurt like you did. He’ll never have to, okay?”

Keith takes in shuddering breaths, clutching to his chest.  He feels so young again, like a child himself, alone. It cuts through him so deeply, like every bit of professionalism and adult manners he’d ever adapted had been such a shallow cuttable facade and here's the core of him: a child who hasn't grown at all.

“Okay, Keith?”

Keith presses his face harder into Shiro’s chest.  “...But it just feels like...” He groans, tugging down his collar roughly and holding it away from his throat.  “It felt so real.  I hate this... I thought I was over this.  I hate it so much...” He sobs quietly into Shiro’s shirt and Shiro gently runs his hands through Keith’s hair, holding his head gently. 

“...Baba.”  There’s a whisper at the door.

Keith’s heart freezes over in horror.  He sits up suddenly, pulling away from Shiro, looking into the eyes of fear and confusion.

“Aki...”  Keith whispers.

Aki already looks upset, tears forming in his eyes that catch moonlight as he draws himself up tightly, afraid.  “Are you going to die?”

Keith tenses up all over.  The dream still has its grip on him.  Yes , the feeling screams.  Yes, you’ll hurt and it’s all my fault and I’m guilty.  I’m sorry. I’m sorry .  The guilt burns itself into his chest and deep through his heart.  He fights so hard not to lose it again right now. He can’t talk. Another wave of tears builds in his eyes and pours down his face against his will and he chokes on it with effort to hold it back.  He tries so hard to fight it, but it’s throttling him.

“What’s wrong?”  Aki’s voice starts to pick up and his breathing quickens.  He tosses fearful eyes from Keith to Shiro. “ Daddy?  Daddy, what’s wrong?

Keith makes a helpless sound deep in his throat and Shiro gets it, like he always does.  Shiro to the rescue: he slips out of the bed to do damage control, using his body to block Aki’s view of Keith.  “No, no, don’t be silly. Baba’s okay. He just had a bad dream.” Shiro grabs Aki into his arms. “He’s alright.  Let me tuck you back into bed, okay? You need to sleep and I need to come back to sing Keith a lullaby to make him feel better.”

Aki fights Shiro, tiny hands grabbing at his shoulders to heft himself higher or around, trying to get a better view of Keith from any direction he can. “Baba gets bad dreams too?  Like me?”

“Just like you.”

“But why does he look like that...?”  Aki asks, head popping around Shiro as Shiro tries to shift.  “Why is he so sad...?”

“His dream was very bad.  But it was just make believe, okay?  Come on, Aki. Let’s go.”

Aki grips the side of the door and holds Shiro there, eyes staring into Keith, into all his fears and worst dark corners of himself.  “What’d he dream of?”

Keith groans softly, pressing a hand into his face and trying to sniff and clear his throat into some normal kind of voice.  “ Aki .  I’m fine.  The dream wasn’t real.  Please just go back to bed.”

Aki doesn’t understand.  “Why’d you have nightmares?”  Aki wonders. “Of monsters? I thought you said monsters aren’t real?”

Shiro says, “Different kinds of monsters, Aki.  Baba and I were both in the war. We saw our fair share of things, both good...and bad -”

Shiro ,” Keith spits sharply.

Shiro and Aki blink over.

He had lashed out too loudly.  Keith realizes himself and looks away guiltily.  He wipes a hand over his weary face, trying to get ahold of his emotions again.  “...Aki, stop stalling. It’s bedtime. You know it’s bedtime. You need your sleep.”

Shiro guides Aki off and Keith just sits there, shuddering, stewing in this horrid feeling of sickness, wishing it'd just leave him alone. This is his worst nightmare. His mom lived it and she's still standing. But she's a different kind of being, stronger than him, better than him.

Shiro comes back a few minutes later, sooner than it usually takes to settle Aki.

“He went down for you quickly...”  Keith murmurs, picking at his fingers.

Shiro nods as he gets into bed.  He inspects Keith’s face carefully.  “...Are you okay...?”

Keith shrugs unenthusiastically.

They lay in bed together, quiet, listening to the sounds of crickets in the field.  Keith says softly into the open space of their room, “...I don’t want to tell him everything about space.”

Shiro looks over.

“Some really fucked up things happened to us and it’s not like they didn’t leave damage...  I want him to feel safe around me. Around us .  We need to be his security, not another thing to worry about.”

“I get it, Keith,” Shiro says softly.  “But I think we should be open with him.  He’s going to have questions and we can’t just ignore and dance around them.  It’ll only confuse him.”

Keith rubs his hand roughly over his arm as he squirms under the thought.  “Shiro, I...I love the universe as much as you do, but some things in it...”  He cringes. “I want him to know the light. When he thinks of Voltron and our adventures across the stars, his eyes light up with so much hope, so much joy.  I don’t want it to be tainted for him. I can’t be the one to tell him how we’ve been tortured, locked away, prisoners of war... How we had to kill... How sometimes we weren’t fast enough to save people when we were their only hope, how we failed them.  How sometimes we were so scared, the fear choked and blinded us.

“We went into space with those same bright eyes he has now.  We were so young and naive and...untouched. The you I knew before all this was different.  And me too. I’d do anything - anything - to protect that in him.  The universe accepted us with open arms and we flew right to it...and then it chewed us up and spat us out.  ...We’re tainted,” Keith whispers, his energy so low, his voice is almost inaudible. He wants to protect Aki...from everything , even the dark parts of them. “We’re the taint.”

Keith knows how Shiro struggles with this too, even now.  Shiro licks his lips, watching Keith as he holds his hand up in front of him, watches the way it glows in the moonlight.  The moon seems so far away now, even though it isn’t really. “...He’ll find out eventually, Keith. You can’t protect him from everything, especially not our truth.  It’s stamped into every history book.”

“Not the depths of it.  Not what we know. ...Not what tortures us.  Isn’t what’s going on in the world right now bad enough?  Why add to it?”

It’s hard at night.  At night, there are no distractions from the chatter in his mind.  And he hears it. Everything that’s ever happened to him: the good, the bad .  ...Mostly the bad tonight.  This home, where their heart is, this darkness has no place here.

“...I’ll respect your wishes, Keith,” Shiro finally says.  “...But there is goodness in this universe too, don’t forget that.  There is that light and caring we believed in as kids, that Aki believes in now.  ...Sure, the universe chewed the both of us up - several times - but isn’t it good it spat us back out?  ...I know I’m happy where I am, beside you. Aren’t you?”

Keith turns his tired eyes up to Shiro’s.  He nods mutely. “Of course I am, Shiro. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else; some days I feel like the luckiest person in the world.  ...I just don’t want him to know about our pain. I don’t want him to know us in that way, he shouldn’t have to. When I think of my father, I...  Every part of him just seems so...strong and resilient. So perfect. Maybe it’s not realistic, but I want him to feel totally completely safe with us,” Keith whispers, wiping at his face.  “...I want to be like my father was to me. Steady. Aki’s support. ...I really fucked up tonight.”

“You’re human, Keith.  We all are. If you had gotten to know your father longer, I’m sure you would’ve seen he was just as human as you are.  This world’s not perfect. It never will be. No one can be.”

Keith stares dully up at the ceiling.  Some days he can tolerate that fact, tonight, it feels unbearable.

“I just mean...whatever you are, Keith, is wonderful.  Being human isn’t a bad thing. I love every side of you, Keith, every side.  You don’t need to be ashamed if Aki finds out you cry, that you hurt, that you've failed at some things.  We all will.”

Keith heaves a huge sigh.  “...Shiro.”

“Let him learn too, from you, that it’s okay to be human.”

“That ship’s already sailed.”  Keith crawls up onto Shiro’s chest and nestles his head into the cove of his neck, trying to seek comfort.  He runs his fingers along the veins in Shiro’s arm, biting at his lip. Some part of him knows Shiro is right, but the more dominant part is writhing in shamed agony.  This isn’t a part of him he’s comfortable letting Aki see. Shiro’s the only one. “...I’m sorry about tonight,” he murmurs. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Keith feels a bit better, a little less panicked, but he’s still upset.  Keith’s horror bled out and infected Aki... He starts biting at his lip again.  The worry must show on his face.

Shiro rolls onto his side and cups Keith’s cheeks between his fingers, squishing the worry out of his expression.  “I used to be afraid to show my panic in front of you, remember? I’d bite my fist until it bled rather than cry out so you could hear.  So many times I ran away from you, trying to protect you...until it just got worse and worse.”

“Every time I’d wake up, you’d be gone,” Keith whispers.  “I thought I did something wrong. That you couldn’t confide in me.”

“I didn’t want to burden you.”

“You never could, Shiro.  I wanted to help you. I always do.”

“...Exactly,” Shiro whispers and Keith looks over.  “...Turns out the second I started asking you for help was the second I started getting it.  Maybe one day, you’ll let Aki in,” he says. “Not today. I get it. He’s so young still, but...you don’t have to hide from us.  We’re family, Keith. We love you. We trust you. ...You can trust us too.”

Keith’s chest expands as he takes in a deep breath and thinks.  He turns his eyes to the ceiling.

Shiro says, “...I’m happy you and I are so open now.”

“Me too,” Keith whispers with a small smile.

“...I think we’re making a mistake.”

"...I’m not asking you to lie, I just...”

He’s too proud.  He’s too scared. He’s too confused.

He hasn’t grown up at all.

Chapter Text

“Come on!”  Aki cries through the house, light pouring in from the front door, which is being tossed wide open.  “Come on, come on, come on! I don’t want to be late!”

Keith grunts from upstairs, still in his room, shoving his shoes on.  “Aki, you don’t need to yell! We have a half hour left.”

“I’m going to be late,” Aki despairs.  Keith can hear the damn door squeaking back and forth as Aki swings on it like a wild monkey.

“I made breakfast, Keith!”  Shiro calls.

Keith hurries down the staircase and gives Shiro a good morning peck on the cheek as he snatches up the toast and downs his glass of orange juice in one go.  “Thank you,” he sighs.

Baba!”

“Goddammit,” Keith mutters under his breath, tense.  “I can’t stand him yelling like that this fucking early in the morning.  I’m going to have an aneurysm.”

“No, you’re not,” Shiro hums, running his hand through the parts of Keith’s hair he forgot to brush.  “I’ll drive so you can eat on the way.”

Keith crams the toast in his face as he sits in the passenger seat.  Aki laughs and reaches forward, tugging at the tag on Keith’s back. “Your shirt is inside out, Baba.”

Keith looks down, still trying to chew and swallow the last of his mouthful of toast.  “Ugh. I’ll fix it later. I was hurrying because someone was yelling in the house.”

“Wasn’t me,” Aki giggles, hands raised in the air in forfeit, but he has that impish twinkling in his eyes.

“I think it was.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Iiii think it was, though.”  He looks down at the bright red shirt Aki is wearing and almost chokes.  He pounds his fist to his chest.  “Why are you wearing that for your first day?”

Aki pulls at the bottom of his shirt to show Keith better.  He puffs his chest out proudly. It’s a photo of Keith himself, posed like a superhero.  Beneath it, it says Legendary Defender in bold lettering.  He says innocently, “It’s my favorite.”

Aki,” Keith laughs.  “Shiro, what the heck?  Did you approve this?”

Shiro shrugs, smiling merrily to himself as he keeps his focus on the road.  “You know, I heard he’s popular these days, that Keith Kogane. He’s pretty cute, I can see why.”

Shiro.  This means war.  I’m going out today and buying up all the Shiro shirts then.”

“Mmhmm.  You’re a little late.  I’ve already done that with the Keith ones.  Not as many as Aki, though.”

Aki laughs some more, watching the two of them with twinkling amusement.  “You look happy again, Baba. Did you have another nightmare last night?”

“Ah...you heard that, huh...?”

“Was it about the monsters in space again?”

Shiro glances sideways to Keith.  Keith pretends not to see and clears his throat.  “...Yeah, it was them. But they don’t exist anymore, so it’s fine.”

“What kind of monsters?  Were they scary?”

Keith shifts in his seat, tugging at his seat belt and trying to focus on something outside.  “Aki. It was just a dream. Everything’s fine.”

Aki’s already opening his mouth to ask more but Shiro’s faster and beats him to it, “Hey, Aki, look out the window.  I hope you’re ready for a fun day because we’re here.”

“Already?”  Aki’s grin is a mile wide as he zips to the window and squashes his face to it.

“And we are...a half hour early,” Shiro says, checking the clock.  He tosses an amused grin at Keith’ eye roll and claps a hand on Keith’s thigh.  “This is good. It’ll give us time to tour the school. You’ll be ahead of the game if you know where everything is.”

“Yeah!  Yeah, let’s go!”

“Hold your horses,” Shiro chuckles, unbuckling himself.  His eye catches sight of something out the windshield and he stops, staring.  He elbows Keith. “Would you look at that... A Garrison simulator. That sure brings back memories.”

Keith snorts.  “...Sure does. Looks like the same one.”

It’s where he met Shiro.  This very space. It doesn’t actually feel like that long ago that he was here, sitting alone.  He had never expected anyone to look at him. But Shiro had.

As he opens the car door and looks out at the Garrison’s simulator, he smiles, peering over the hood of the car to Shiro.  “Bet the instructor who's in charge now isn’t half as cool as the instructor I had.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Mmm. The instructor I had was kind.  He was tall and handsome and everyone loved him.  Everyone. He saw me when no one else did.” Keith shrugs, trying to hide his smile.  “I heard he sort of developed a thing for me after awhile there.”

“Who was it?”  Aki asks, bright-eyed with curiosity.

“Your Baba is just being funny.”  Shiro chuckles and grins as he leans on the hood of the car, small cat-like smirk built on his lips as he and Keith smile to the other.  “You don’t have to butter me up for anything, you know. I already love you. Just ask me and I’ll do whatever it is you want.”

“I don’t want anything.  I’m just stating the facts,” Keith laughs.  “What would’ve happened, do you think, if you’d never brought that here?  Say you got sick. Say I ditched school that day.”

“I would’ve found you,” Shiro says confidently.

“Oh, yeah?  How so?”

He shrugs, grabbing Aki’s hand and walking over beside Keith.  “I just know I would’ve.”

“What is it?”  Aki asks, looking up at them with wide-eyed curiosity.  “I don’t get it. Who was the instructor?”

Shiro looks down with a proud glint in his eyes that has Keith rubbing at his nose in embarrassment.  “When your baba was young, this is how we met. I had been with the Garrison for awhile at that point and came to this very school seeking out talented pilots.  Keith got on one and...well, the rest is history. He blew everyone away. He was a natural.”

Keith snorts, elbowing Shiro.  “That’s rich coming from the Garrison’s golden boy.  I remember all the records you broke.”

Shiro smiles over warmly.  “They’re still up there, you know.  Right beneath yours.”

“No way.  No one’s beat it?  After all this time?”

“Not yet, no.”

Aki watches them both, smile growing wider on his lips the more he hears and thinks about it.  “Me too. That’s going to be me too. I want to see.” Aki tugs on Shiro’s hand, toward the simulator.

Keith has his Garrison keycard hanging on the lanyard over his neck.  He glances over at Shiro who has the same look on his face. Keith’s grin widens.

“I’ll do you one better,” Keith says, jogging over to it and scanning his card over the pad.  He turns and opens the door wide. “Want to try it out?”

Aki’s eyes widen into stars.  “Yes!”

“This is familiar,” Shiro hums with amusement in his eyes and lips as he steps inside and rests against the wall.  “Keith, look at this,” he chuckles as the screen comes to life. “What’d I tell you? You still have high score.”

Keith’s brow wrinkles as he laughs.  “God. How long has it been? These new generations better step it up.  Only two have gotten in the top ten? Yikes. Aki, I’m counting on you.”

“I’m going to beat your score,” Aki blazes, racing past Shiro to crawl up into the seat.  He reaches for the sticks and snatches them up with a firm grip. “How do you start it?”

Shiro kneels beside him.  “It’s already starting. Keith, got any tips for Aki?”

Aki’s eyes are like bullets as they snap over to Keith’s, wide open and receptive.

Keith shrugs.  “Uh. Don’t crash.  I guess?”

Shiro rolls his eyes and explains to Aki, “Baba was a natural.  He doesn’t have to think about it.”

He sparkles.  “Cool.  Do you think I’ll be a natural?  I want to be a natural.”

“Only one way to find out.”

The game jingles to life, the rocky scene against space sets, and it begins.  But not even two seconds in, they’re taking off and...Aki falls.

“Ah man,” Shiro says, nudging Aki in the arm playfully.  “So close!”

“This is hard,” Aki frowns, shifting like the chair is uncomfortable for him.  He looks up to Keith. “How do you do this?”

“Um.  Here.”  Keith kneels beside him and places his hands over Aki’s.  “Try to get comfortable. Feel where you want to go through your whole body.  The game doesn’t tell you where to go, you tell the game where you want it to go.”

It makes sense to Keith, but Aki’s frown deepens.  He stares down at their hands for a moment, shining with the reflected light from the screen, and then slips off the seat.  “I want to see you do it.”

Keith and him switch.

Space is home for Keith, even simulated space.  It always has been, from the very first moment he sat in this seat and Shiro saw him at work, just as he watches now.

“As brilliant as ever, Keith,” Shiro hums, leaning over the back of his seat and watching with a fond look warming his face.

“Quite the compliment coming from you, Admiral,” Keith says, leaning his head back to smile cheekily up at Shiro, who leans down to kiss Keith on the mouth.

Shiro sighs against Keith’s cheek.  "I miss space." 

"Me too."

“That was so cool,” Aki breathes, leaning over the seat and into Keith’s lap.  “I want to go again! I loved it!"

Keith says, “We should probably head back before you miss your first day.  Don’t you want to go to school?”

“I want to do this.”

“Once more,” Keith says, slipping off and patting the seat.  “Don’t overthink it. It’s easy as breathing. Just go for it.”

“You think I’m a natural?”  Aki asks, looking up to Keith with that hope, with that inspiration.  He wants to touch the stars too.

“Want to know something I’ve learned over the years?  Sometimes it’s not just about being a natural. Sometimes it’s about trying your best and working hard.  That’s the secret, remember that. You can do anything. Natural or not, if this is what you want, you can have it.”

“Okay,” Aki says, turning his focus back to the screen.  “This is what I want.”

He’s focused this time, concentrated frown on his brow and focused pout on his lips.  His tiny fingers cling firmly onto the joysticks. He looks so confident, he can do it!  But he fails almost immediately.

He frowns into the screen, confused, hands tightening even more on the joysticks.

Keith smells trouble.  He already can feel the muscles in his back tense, anticipating Aki’s inevitable meltdown, but how Aki actually reacts is somehow worse.

The excitement slips out of Aki’s eyes.  The twinkle disappears. His shoulders sag and his head droops.

“I can't do it, ”  Aki says quietly. “What’s wrong with me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you, you just need a bit of practice,” Keith hums, patting him on the shoulder gently.  “The work part, remember? No one gets it their first try. I promise.”

The smile is gone from Aki’s face as he looks up into Keith’s eyes.  It almost looks like betrayal.  Sharp and unexpected and bitter.  For such a young boy, the depths of hurt in his eyes goes beyond what Keith would expect.  It's like he's looking into an unfamiliar face.

Aki slips off the seat and walks out, despondent.

Shiro murmurs between them.  “You got it your first try.”

“...Probably shouldn’t remind him of that.”

As they pop their heads out into the morning light again, seeking their grumpy little boy, they see he’s already taken it upon himself to walk ahead...back toward the car and away from school.

“Hey,” Keith calls, gesturing him back to where he and Shiro are.  Aki pouts back over. “Where are you going? School’s this way.”

“I don’t want to go anymore.  I want to stay with you. Can we go back to the Garrison?”

Keith and Shiro give each other a look.  His enthusiasm for school was too good to last.

Shiro’s the one brave enough to kneel down and say, “Aki, what has you worried?  I thought you were excited for school. There are so many amazing things you can learn there.  Baba and I loved school. It’s where we met.”

It’s like Aki can smell lies.  “...Baba loved school?”

Keith has to laugh.  Of course Aki would ask that.  “Uh. Well, if I had never gone, I wouldn’t have any of the things I love in this life.  I probably wouldn’t have found Grandma. Your father and I never would’ve met. I wouldn't have ever made it to space.  Who knows what would’ve happened...? None of these amazing things. I definitely don’t regret it. School is where your life happens.  You just have to make the best of it and see where it takes you.”

“You found Daddy here...?”  Aki murmurs, turning his eyes up to the school like he’s considering it, but then his look of curiosity shuts off.  “I already found Daddy,” Aki crosses his arms over his chest. “Let’s go.”

“Aki, no.  Your dad and I can’t watch you today.”

“Auntie Pidge will watch me.”

“You can’t, Aki, she’s busy too.  Don’t you want to make friends?”

“The twins are my best friends.”

“They’ll be there.”

“I’m not going.”

“Aki -”

He crosses his arms tightly to his chest and stomps his foot.  “I’m staying here.”

“Now, Aki -”  Shiro tries.

His face starts to turn red. Tears begin to build in the corners of his eyes.  Danger zone. The devil horns come out. “I’m not going! I won’t. I’m going to work too!”

Keith hates when he yells.  His blood pressure spikes. “Aki!”

“NO!”

“You have to go.  Everyone goes -”

“You’re not going!  I want to stay with you!  Don’t leave me here!”

The words draw Keith up short, momentarily befuddling him.  Don’t leave me here alone .  He used to cry it over his father’s grave.

Betrayal?  His mind wonders.

Akihiro,” Shiro say firmly, planting his hands on his hips as Aki blinks, frightened by the use of his full name.  Keith reigns himself back in, listening to Shiro’s soft voice, “...You’ll be fine. Everything’s going to be okay.  We would never leave you someplace we thought wouldn’t be safe for you. We are not taking no for an answer. When I count to three, we will walk you to your classroom where you will meet your teacher and you will stop this crying.  Do you understand?”

Aki can glare fire even through the tears.  “You’re poopy.”

“One,” Shiro counts, holding up a finger.  “Two...” Aki’s deep frown gets deeper as he stares bullets at Shiro’s hand.  “Three.”

Aki listens, but he stomps his way to the front of the school, making a whole entire show of it.  Some parents turn to look, grimacing in understanding, others laugh all high and mighty. Keith’s too tired to care.

“Well done,” Keith murmurs to Shiro, who offers him a weary smile back.

“Pfft.  Come on,” Shiro hums, putting his hand to Keith's back and guiding him across the parking lot.

Aki’s moping, a storm cloud over his head.  He’s whining, kicking rocks and tugging at his shirt sadly.  He tries to use his big puppy dog eyes on them. “But I want to go to the Garrison like you guys.”

Shiro says, “Then this is perfect.  This is the first step to get there.”

“Really?”  He looks to Keith.

Keith nods.  “If that’s what you want.”

Aki nods to himself tightly.  “That’s what I want. I want to be like you guys.  I want to fly Red and Black and travel through the stars, meeting new friends, finding new planets.  That’d be so cool.”

“It really was,” Keith hums.  God, he had hated school when he was going, but if he had known it would’ve led him here, he thinks he would’ve been alright with it.

He’s reminiscing, looking at the remodeled buildings that seem both familiar and new all at once, when someone approaches them, getting in the way of their path.

He doesn’t recognize them.  Just a random parent who happened past.

“I-I’m sorry,” they say, nervous edge to the intrigue in their eyes.  “This is probably the wrong place, but...are you Keith Kogane? The Leader of Voltron?”

“Uhh...”  He plasters on a smile.  “Yeah, that’s me.”

They grab at Keith’s hand with both of theirs and shake it with fervor.  “Thank you for your service.  It’s an honor to meet you up close like this.”

Someone else takes notice and steps toward them to join in.  “Amazing. It’s really you. In the flesh. I never thought I’d get to meet you.”

Keith chuckles uncomfortably, nodding, but trying to step around them.  “Thanks. It’s nice to meet all of you, but I’m just here with my kid -”

“This is your son?  What grade? Oh, he’s so small” - Keith twitches - “My child’s in kindergarten too!  They should be friends! We can carpool! How cool would it be to be friends with the leader of Voltron?”

Other people begin stepping around them. “That’s Keith Kogane?  Wow... In person.”

“What an honor.”

“He has a child?  I told you I heard he did.  They kept it so secret.”

“Oh -  Is that the Admiral? The Takashi Shirogane?”

“That’s really them?  Together? I mean, I'd heard of their wedding,  but to actually see them...”

It’s not that they keep their lives secret exactly, it’s that they don’t feel the need to broadcast every detail to everyone.  They’re private people. The interviews they did give out soon after Voltron disbanded felt like enough to last a lifetime, but everyone always wants more of course.

Shiro is a god when handling them.  All grace and easy smiles and firm handshakes that make the crowd swoon and palpitate. With just one winning grin, he can inspire them to do better for this planet and the next.

They’re just excited, Shiro always tells Keith afterward, when Keith grumbles and grudges.  You’re a hero in their eyes.   But Keith is still Keith and all the attention gets overwhelming and wearing so quickly.

And it’s different now.  They have a child now.

Aki’s grip grows tighter in Keith’s hand.  Keith looks down. Whereas Keith dislikes the attention, it seems Aki fears it.  His eyes are wide and confused, like a puppy lost in a subway. He’s just staring up, tension pulled tight, attention tossed between all the random newcomers who ignore his presence, stepping around and pushing him to get to Keith and Shiro.

Keith’s mood and graciousness dips further.

Keith ignores the people talking to him and draws Aki in closer, shielding him.  Shiro’s trying to distract the brunt of their attention, probably trying to give them an out.  Keith gets it. But he doesn’t want to just leave Shiro here alone. They should be together. Today is about Aki, not these people.

“...Baba,” Aki murmurs uneasily.  At the Garrison, people don’t react this way.  They know to have respect. The same rules don’t apply here and Aki isn’t used to it.  There’s fear in his eyes as he looks to Keith for help out of this situation, head turning this way and that, gripping tightly to Keith’s pants like they’re being attacked.

Sometimes it feels like it.  Keith hates being manhandled.

He feels his temper rising, but Keith tries to soften the gritting of his teeth as he reaches down and hefts Aki up into the safety of his arms.  Aki’s always watching him, always learning. He reigns in his temper and tries to channel patience. “It’s okay, Aki,” he says softly into his ear, pressing a kiss to his cheek in an attempt to distract him.  Aki’s expression is strained as he looks into Keith’s eyes. “Let’s get out of here, huh? Thank you, everyone, really. But with all due respect, we’re here for our child and he’s a bit nervous about today, so please, if you could let us both through...”  Keith steps forward and nudges Shiro with his elbow. “Shiro, come on...”

Some people seem to have grown deaf to requests, but a few parents are understanding and help push them through the parking lot sidewalk where they find a nice gap to break free.

“Ugh.  Sorry, Aki,” Keith murmurs, still clinging to him in his arms.  “You okay?”

The color is drained from Aki’s face.  He turns his head back to look at the crowd that hovers, pushing himself in closer to Keith.  “Why are they like that?” He asks lowly. “Why are they all coming at us like that?”

“Uh...”  Keith hesitates, not sure how much of their past Aki can understand.  “You know like this shirt?” He nods down to the picture of his face. “People get excited about it all, I guess...”  He doesn’t really get it either.

Shiro picks up where Keith trails off.  “Your dad and I flew around in Voltron for a long time, bud.  People are grateful and they were just trying to show their appreciation.  I know it can be overwhelming, but they mean well.”

“What your dad said,” Keith nods wisely.

Aki looks between the both of them like he’s seeing them for the first time.  There’s almost a bit of suspicion in his eyes. “You helped them?”

“Yes, we did.”

“These people?  They were in space?”

“Earth was one of the planets we helped.  With the Red and Black lion. Remember the stories we told you?”

The look on Aki’s face is a jumble of confusion.  “They know too?”

“Everyone knows, Aki,” Keith hums.  He sees a kid walking past with a Lance backpack and has to laugh.

They’re stopped in front of Aki’s classroom and he grows exponentially more uncomfortable as he seems to realize this.  Keith sets him down carefully, but Aki keeps hold of his hand.

This will be good for him...but it’s still hard to see the hesitance and fear in Aki’s eyes and send him off on his own in hopes he’ll understand why soon.  There are kids crying in the room already and it seems to set Aki’s nerves even more on edge.

“Welcome, welcome!”  Their teacher cries excitedly, walking out to greet them.  Her eyes have that light as she sees who they are, but she’s polite enough not to make a big deal out of it.  She looks down to Aki and says warmly, “Is this Akihiro? I’ve been so excited to meet you. We have so many fun projects and things to learn!  Would you like me to show you your seat?”

Aki takes one resolute step behind Keith and Shiro, clinging to their legs as he stares bullets at her.

Shiro chuckles softly.  “He’s a bit nervous about today.”

“Of course.  I understand.  It’s a big day, they often take awhile to get used to it.  We have several activities to break them in slowly... Let me tell you about their day I have planned.”

While Shiro listens, Keith looks down at Aki’s tight grip on his pants.  The way he trembles. It’s a big day.

Keith kneels down to Aki’s height, grabbing his tiny fingers between Keith’s own rough ones and rubbing friction into them.  “It’ll be okay, you know. I went through school and I’m not always the best at these sort of things either. If I could do it, you’ll make it through with golden colors, I promise.”

“I can fly if I do this...?”

“Mmhmm.  This is the first step.”

Aki’s voice goes very quiet as he leans in closely, staring at Keith’s eyes with his bright gold ones.  “Can you stay...?” He asks his secret.

Keith leans in too, murmuring lowly, “I wish I could, Aki...  You’re going to have so much fun though, you’d forget all about me if I stayed.  Coloring and learning the alphabet.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Mm, I wish I could color today.  Think you could draw a red lion for me in there?  I want to see an Aki-drawn lion.”

Aki nods quickly, but he looks so nervous he doesn’t even speak.

Keith smiles, chuckling softly as he soothes a wild strand of hair from Aki’s freckled face.  “It’s okay to be scared. You know what helps me? Knowing Shiro would come” - he snaps his fingers in the air - “just like that if I were to ask.  And guess what? If you need us, really need us, all you have to do is call us up and” - he snaps his fingers again “-poof.  We’ll come running. No matter where we are. No matter what we’re doing. We’ll always come for you.”

Aki nods a little, but he’s frowning at all the other children inside, eyes flicking up to the teacher.

“Hey,” Keith whispers, shaking his hand.  “...Maybe I can give you an assignment. Your first step to the Garrison, what do you think?”

Aki nods quickly, eyes at alert.

“Try to help one person today.  Whether it be saving a seat for someone who looks lost, or trying to soothe someone who’s missing their parents or scared.  Something that feels right. Something you could be proud of. Everyone in class probably feels this nervousness, if you shine brightly, you can soothe a bit of that anxiousness away, okay?  You can help them. That’s what being a true paladin of Voltron was about, being there for people. Your dad was the best at it.”

“Really?”  Aki whispers, leaning his head in closer to Keith’s.  “Would Red be happy if I saved a seat for someone?”

Keith rubs Aki’s soft little knuckles.  “Very. We represent her, right? I was like her tiny son, so that makes you her tiny grandson.  She’s expecting the best from us, watching from up above, in the stars.”

Aki flicks his eyes up to the sky, seeking her out.  He nods again, very seriously, taking notes down in his mind.

“Hey, look,” Keith says, leaning over to pluck a blade of grass that’d been shining in the sunlight.  “This school grows special whistle grass. Ever seen this before?”

Aki leans forward to inspect it between Keith’s fingers and frowns.  “Just looks like regular grass.”

“It’s not.  It’s special, like an instrument.  Look at this.” Keith brings the blade of grass to his lips and blows.  The blade of grass shrieks. Several people turn around to look. Shiro snorts from up above, pausing mid-conversation for a moment.

Aki laughs from his belly, poking it in Keith’s hands.  “What is that?”

“I told you it was special,” Keith chuckles lowly.  “I used to see kids doing it all the time when I was in school.”  He gestures toward the grass for Aki. “Go on. You try.”

Aki picks a piece and tries to cup it in between his thumbs like Keith.  It keeps slipping through the gap. “It’s hard.”

“Don’t give up,” Keith hums.  “If you want something, you have to work for it.”

Aki tries, face going red.  Finally, he gets some sort of noise, but it’s not quite there.  He pulls the grass away looking like he’s not sure whether to be proud or upset.  “Mine sounds like a duck.”

“A duck is cool.  What’s mine sound like?”  Keith blows and the sound pierces through the air again.

Aki laughs so hard his little pale face goes red.  “Sounds like Kosmo when he wants a treat.”

Keith laughs too.  “Kinda sounds like a bug to me.  Like a little mosquito coming for you,” Keith lifts the piece of grass to Aki’s ear and tickles the outside.

Augh,” Aki laughs, swatting Keith away.  “Bad bugs! Don’t drink my blood!”

“Hey!  That was my magical instrument!” Keith snorts, letting the broken blade of grass fall to the ground.

“Don’t you mean musical instrument?”

“Nope.  It was magical.  It’s broken now, so all the magic flew out of it.  See?” He tries to blow it through his thumbs again, but it’s sadly deflated and does nothing.

“Well, they sounded like bugs,” Aki shrugs.

He and Keith laugh together.  The tension and worry is off of Aki’s face finally and that unwinds the tension in Keith’s gut.  He’s so small. So defenseless. It’s hard to let him go, especially when his face has that unusual mask of uncertainty.

Keith leans up and wraps him up in a tight hug.  “You’re going to be great today. I’m so proud of you.  Look at that smile.”

Aki’s smile grows even wider as Keith pulls back and pokes his cheeks.

“Will you come pick me up?”

“Of course we will.  We’ll be the first ones here.”

Aki laughs.  “Okay. You don’t have to go to work.  You can just wait for me in the parking lot.”

“But Kosmo will be so sad by himself.”

Aki fixes him with a stare for a moment and then sighs.  “Fine. But bring him too when you come pick me up.”

“Okay,” Keith hums.  “That we can do.”

Shiro turns back to them with a sigh of relief, kneeling into their little group chat.  “Hey, guys, what are we talking about?”

“Baba was telling me that this school is magic.”

Keith snorts lowly, arching an eyebrow at him.  “Is that what I said?”

Aki grins and nods goofily, holding up his blade of grass.

Shiro grins between them warmly and ruffles their hair.  “Okay, you two silly heads, time to go. Aki, are you ready to pave the way?”  He smiles as he takes in Aki’s soothed over expression. Shiro’s eyes flick up in impressed appreciation at Keith.  “Looks like you are ready.”

Aki huffs animatedly and tosses his arms out.  “I guess.”

“Give me a hug,” Shiro murmurs, grabbing both Aki and Keith into his arms.  Keith hums happily, wrapping his arms around the two of them as well. Their little family.  “Good luck hug. Now you’re guaranteed a good day.”

“Okay, Dad,” Aki rolls his eyes with a big grin as he squirms away.  “Don’t forget to pick me up.”

“Who?  Us? Are we supposed to pick you up?”

Dad!”  Aki laughs from his gut.  “Don’t forget!”

“I won’t, I won’t.  Baba will keep me in line.  Love you, Aki.”

Keith says too, “Love you, Aki.  So much.”

“Love you!”  Aki calls and waves one last time with both hands, one for each of them, before turning and walking into his classroom for the very first time.

And he’s off.

Keith doesn’t miss how Aki pockets their grass pieces and holds onto them firmly in his pockets.  Keith does the same with his.

 

Three years pass.  Keith and Shiro haven’t forgotten to pick him up once, not that that was a thing they were ever worried about.

Aki grows.  He grows and grows and grows.  He doesn’t get Lance’s sense of humor (thank god), or Pidge’s genius.  Hunk’s cooking skills are out. (One time, Aki and Shiro conspired together in the early hours of the morning to make Keith a surprise birthday cake.  The surprise turned out to be the loud explosion at 5:30 in the morning that woke Keith from sleep in a stunned daze.  He ran down so quickly, he tripped on the bottom steps of the stairs, only to see Aki and Shiro both equally covered in colorful cake batter.  They laughed so hard that morning their ribs hurt into the next morning. Maybe Aki didn’t get the cooking skills, but getting to see him and Shiro standing side-by-side like that singing him happy birthday?  It was so worth it. Keith got to kiss the batter right off Shiro’s mouth and it tasted so sweet and good.) 

As Aki grows, he matures.  He doesn’t scream anymore, he’s not as vocal.  In fact, he’s not very vocal at all.

Keith’s waiting in the parking lot now, frowning into his data pad at the numbers Acxa’s been recording for him.  The world’s still a mess, but what’s new? Integration has felt slow-going, but Shiro insists it’s all about perspective.  Because things are moving in a positive direction, no matter how slow, it’s good news. It’s been a process, but the universe is healing, bit by bit, planet by planet.  Shiro’s right.

Keith used to join Acxa on more trips, speaking to the people, trying to inspire, trying to get them to understand, but now that Aki’s getting older, he hasn’t seen space like he used to.  He and Shiro keep saying how they miss it, but a trip through the stars with an eight year old is much harder than they had thought it’d be. If Red or Black were here, that’d be one thing, but he hasn’t seen them for awhile either.

He misses that too.

He’s been thinking about them lately, especially whenever Acxa or one of the coalition call down to Earth to tell Keith about the encouraging news around the universe.  It’s like he worked so many years to plant a seed he loved and tended to so carefully only to turn away when it’s finally beginning to bloom.

But watching Aki grow is a beautiful thing too, one Keith wouldn’t give up for anything, even the universe.

Aki’s a good boy.  No one calls him a prodigy or a natural or blinks in surprise at anything he does.  He has a good heart, but he is extraordinarily normal.

The first time Aki’s class tests out the simulator, everyone has high hopes.  Instructors take time off to come see what young Aki can do, sole child of the leader of Voltron and the Admiral.  Gold must run through the boy’s veins, right? A buzz goes through the entire school. It even reaches the Garrison.

So it’s difficult when everyone sees how quickly he fails.  Even with his practice, even with Shiro and Keith's tips, he isn't even the best in his one class.  Not by a long shot. Surprisingly, disappointingly, completely normal.

He crashes - game over - and Keith's top record flashes across the screen as it always does, staring down into Aki's distressed pale face.

“What happened?”  People murmur behind his seat lowly.  “Is he really their child...? Him?”

Aki doesn’t tell his parents that he heard that.

Keith and Shiro are totally fine with it.  Some of these things take time. They love their little Aki.

Aki is quiet about it.  He seems to slowly be realizing that everything Keith and Shiro can do, he can not...and won’t be doing any time soon.

There’s something growing in him that wasn’t there years ago.  Keith feels guilt tug at his heart the more he watches. He just wants Aki to be happy.  He hasn’t been lately. Keith misses his bright little smile.

After school, the passenger door opens and Keith looks up from his data pad, setting it in the center console.

“Hey, Aki.  How was your day?”

“Fine,” he mumbles, sitting down in his seat.

Keith arches an eyebrow as he takes his hands from the parking break and leans on the steering wheel instead.  “...You look upset.”

“Oh,” he sighs, looking down at his shoes with dejected moodiness.  The air about him rivals cloud cover. “Don’t be mad,” he says softly.  “...You’re probably going to get a call tonight.”

Keith blinks.  “What’d you do?”

“I said ‘fuck’," he mutters lowly.

Keith laughs before he can catch himself.  “Oh.  That’s all?”  He pauses. “I mean...  Don’t tell your dad I said that.  I just mean...I thought you maybe beat up a kid or something.  I was scared there for a second.”

Aki looks up, confused divot in his brow.  “I wouldn’t do that. Who would?”

Keith suppresses laughter, thinking of how that's exactly what he used to do as a kid.  He starts the car engine and puts it into gear. “Probably shouldn’t say ‘fuck’ in school though.”

You say it all the time.”

“I’m not in school anymore and I’m in charge so no one cares.”

Aki sighs, looking down at his hands sadly.  “...Will Dad be angry?”

“Don’t worry, you won’t be in trouble.  It’s my fault,” Keith says. “If he’ll be mad at anyone, it’s going to be me.”

As Keith drives through the parking lot, a dumb kid jumps out from the side and darts in front of his car.  Keith slams so hard on the brakes, Aki’s backpack flies out of his hands and to the floor.

“Jesus,” Keith spits as the kid slaps his hands on the hood of the car.  His friends are all clustered nearby and they follow him into the road.

Hi, Aki,” the kid waves, running around the side of the car and to Aki’s window, shoving his head in.  “I thought it was you! Mr. Kogane! Hi.

“Uh.  Hey,” Keith says, giving a short wave and looking in his rear view mirror to make sure no one’s behind him.  There isn’t, so he sighs, turning his attention back out. "Hey, you really shouldn't be running out into the street like that.  You're going to get yourself killed. Someone with worse reflexes would’ve plowed you right over.”

The boy just laughs.  “My friends and I were wondering if it’d be okay for us to come over and play with Aki today.  We’re in the same class together. I hear you have a river running through your backyard. It’d be so cool if we could see!  Can we?”

Keith looks to Aki, who looks up into Keith’s eyes.

He’s saying something in his expression.

Aki has become hard for Keith to read.  He used to be vocal about everything, so loud Keith couldn't not hear, but he's changing.  He's hidden in ways that Keith doesn’t understand.  Keith can’t quite read the look that's there.

“Uh.”

Please, Mr. Kogane?  We’ll be good.”  The kid clasps his hands together and grows a winning smile across his cheeks.  Keith’s bullshit detector has been honed and sharpened after many years of having to deal with it himself.  He’s particularly sensitive. He immediately isn’t hugely fond of the kid.

...But then again, Keith had relied on his bullshit detector all his life and ended up spending his whole childhood alone and miserable.  Aki’s been having the same trouble with friends lately, or rather, a complete lack of them. Why? Keith doesn’t know. Aki seemed to really try at first, he really did, but something’s happened.  He doesn’t bring anyone over, like the twins do, and whenever Keith or Shiro ask about who he’s hanging out with at school, he purses his lips and shrugs.

They try to encourage him to seek out others, but here’s an opportunity staring Aki right in the face and he doesn’t say anything at all.  Maybe he’s just nervous. Maybe Aki just needs a little push?

Keith debates for a moment longer before saying, “Uh...  Well, I don’t care. I have some work to do still so you can’t play in the house but outside’s fine.  That okay, Aki?”

About five different expressions cross Aki’s face but he doesn’t say any of them.  It falls on indifference before Keith can catch them.

“Yay!”  The boys start clapping their hands together in victory.  “Can we get a ride, Mr. Kogane?”

“Do your parents know you’re coming with me...?”  Keith arches an eyebrow and looks around the parking lot.

“They don’t care.  You can call them if you want.  I know the number.”

“I should hope so...”  Keith mutters, looking down at Aki’s impassive expression as the kids all pile in.  “Aki?” Keith murmurs softly. “Remember that conversation we all had the other day?  It’s good to make friends. You okay?”

“It’s fine,” Aki says.  He says it a lot though and Keith’s never sure exactly what it means.

So Keith drives a carful of kids to their house, chewing on the inside of his lip to try to distract himself from all the loud chatter.  He doesn’t know how bus drivers do it. God, he can’t take five minutes more of this shit.

“Mr. Kogane, what a nice car you have.  Do the front seats warm up?  I heard nice cars do that. And do the side mirrors light up?   Cool!”

“Mmhmm.”

“I just want to say what an honor it is to be sitting here beside you.  You saved the universe and all from like ten huge bad guys.  You must’ve been really smart in school.  I try my best so one day, I can be just like you.  Do you think the Black Lion would let me pilot him?”

Keith’s zoning out on the road, hating the drone of the kid’s voice.  “Mm,” he mutters just to reply when he sees Aki picking at the flesh of his thumb, a nervous tic they’re working on.  “Aki, stop that. You’ll get an infection.”

“Um, Mr. Kogane?”  That kid asks.

Keith sighs, looking at the kid through the rear view mirror.  “What is it?”

“I asked if the Black Lion would let me pilot him?  I think I would be a great leader too. I think he’d like me.”

“The Black Lion's a she,” Keith says curtly before pulling up in the driveway.  The drive has never felt so long. “Okay, this is it. The creek’s around back.  Be careful though. Make sure your parents know you’re here.”

They’re not listening as they all push their way out, bumping and shoving at each other, laughing.

“I can’t believe we’re here!”  They cry, twirling around and screaming like it’s an amusement park.

Aki stays in the car, watching them moodily, arms crossed and posture hunched.

“...They seem...friendly.  Who was that girl? She kept looking at you.”

Aki just shrugs.

Time stretches on and the kids are already gone.  Keith clears his throat. “You going to join them at the creek?  You should try to make friends. They seem interested in you.”

Aki takes in a deep breath and pushes his way out of the car without saying anything.  But he goes around back to join them at the creek, so that’s...something? Keith watches him go uncertainly.

Okay, maybe he totally misread Aki’s look and mistook a big fat no for nervousness.  Keith doesn’t know.  He's just desperate for Aki to have a good youth filled with friends he cherishes and who cherish him.  He deserves that sort of life. Shiro did and it made him into a beautiful human being. Keith didn’t and he’s still working on things.

Ugh.  Keith doesn’t know how to do this.  He’s trying his best and all he can do is hope his shot lands right.  He shakes himself off and heads inside to finish up work.

He sits at his desk in the upstairs office and tries to focus but he keeps finding himself peering out the window, down by the creek, looking after Aki.

It’s a sight familiar to Keith’s heart.  One large group of friends and then Aki, sitting alone, by the tree.

Shit.

He can't concentrate.  Keith shoves his work away and rubs at his temple, watching the scene below.  He doesn’t know how to help. A nosy parent trying to manipulate each and every situation isn’t helpful, just overbearing.  But watching this is painful. Keith’s heart bleeds for Aki.

It’s funny having a child.  Keith’s never hated kids, but he’s never been all googoo over them.  Kids are kids. But Aki... What Aki feels and experiences is like a direct line into Keith’s veins, pumping in all the emotions, all the strife, all the pain.

He sees Aki alone like this and Keith’s remembering a pain he thought he’d long forgotten.  He knows what it’s like being the odd one out. The unsolicited lone wolf. The one stuck behind the window, on the outside, looking in.  So fucking lonely.

He presses his hand to the window's glass, lips parted, staring after the ghost of himself, wishing he could help Aki somehow.

He never wanted this.  He didn't want Aki to be like him.  Second time around he should know how to help things, right?  But he doesn’t...and he feels even more frustrated and hurt by that fact.  What’s the point of getting older if you still can’t solve your old problems?

He’s so deep in his thoughts, feeling sludgy and miserable, that he doesn’t even hear Shiro come in.  There’s just a soft gentle hand cupping his neck from behind.

He blinks up into Shiro’s smiling face.  “...You’re focused on something.”

“I let Aki have friends over,” Keith sighs heavily.

“Friends?”  Shiro’s eyebrows go up in surprise as he follows Keith’s gaze out the window.

“Well...‘friends’ seems like an incorrect term.  They tossed themselves in front of my car as we were getting out of the parking lot.  They asked to come over and Aki didn’t say no, so I thought maybe it’d be a good opportunity.  ...You can see how well I gauged that one.”

“Did you ask all of their parents if they could come over?”

“Uh.  No. All of them?”

Shiro groans softly as he leans around Keith, taking in the sight down the creek.  “Probably should’ve asked, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know,” Keith shrugs.  “I almost ran them over two seconds before that so this seemed like an improvement.”

Shiro bites at his lip as he takes in the scene.  It’s so blaringly obvious what the situation is like down there.  They don’t even try to incorporate Aki and Aki doesn’t try to meld in.  He just sits against that tree, sinking in his own solitary.

Keith can’t look anymore.  It hurts too much, like a knife to his side.  He’d rather take a knife to his side.

He takes in a long steady breath as he closes his eyes and leans into the cove of Shiro’s neck.  “This is the absolute one thing I feared about having a child. ...I don’t want him to be like me, Shiro,” he whispers.  “How can we help him? I don’t know how these things work. Did you make friends young? Maybe it takes a while...”

“I was very social.  Aki seems to cling to us.  Maybe we’ve been too inviting.”

Keith snorts without humor, still running his finger over his lip in thought.

“Come on,” Shiro mutters, patting Keith's back with encouragement.  “Maybe we should get them snacks or something.”

“Aki seemed to really dislike them,” Keith groans as he follows Shiro downstairs.  “I think I really fucked this one up.”

“I’m sure he understands.”

He doesn’t understand.

They go downstairs as Aki’s trudging through the door unhappily.

“Hey...”  Keith says hesitantly.  “Don’t want to play with them?”

No,” Aki spits angrily, tossing a notebook in the middle of the floor.  It’s wrinkled and soaked. “They just took my backpack and threw it in the creek!”

“They what?”

“I was trying to tell you in the car!  I hate them! I can’t believe they’re here , at my home .  And you let them here!  They make fun of me at school all the time!”

“They do?”  Keith murmurs, feeling the blood drain out of his face, his heart sinking even more.

“That one who was talking with you calls me boring and talentless!  They all laugh at me. And you just invited them in!”

The phone rings.

Keith ignores it.  “Aki, I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell what that expression meant in the car.  I misread the situation. I thought they could be your friends.”

“Well, they’re not!  Why would you think that?  People like them?”

“Why the hell else would a group of kids want to hang out over here?  I assumed it was for you.”

“You assumed wrong!”

“Then why else?”  Keith is baffled.

Aki seethes quietly, shoulders raised and prickly.  There’s a darkness in his eyes that’s new. He’s so young.  He's not even a teenager yet. Keith doesn’t get why or how he's already been infected by this world so quickly.  He thought, under these circumstances, it'd take longer... They'd have more time...

“Nevermind,” Aki spits.  “Someone like you would never understand.”

Keith blinks.  “Someone like me?”  He looks to Shiro who shakes his head, just as confused.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You wouldn’t get it, okay!  This is just something I have to deal with on my own.”

“Aki...  You have us...  We’re on your side.  Your dad and I -”

The answering machine picks up and they have every intention of ignoring it until they hear the voice.  “Good evening, Mr. and Mr. Shirogane. I wanted to talk with either of you about some behavioral issues we’ve been having with your son, Akihiro. Call me back when you get a chance.”

Shiro looks to Keith in confusion who doesn’t even look up.

“He said, ‘fuck’,” Keith deadpans.

Shiro sighs.  “Aki...” He says, tone heavy and disappointed.

Shiro’s disappointment weighs heavier than most.  Aki crumbles beneath that.

It’s his fault!”  Aki bursts, pointing his finger at Keith.  Keith blinks down into it. This animosity is unfamiliar and...directed right at him.  “It’s all his fault! He cusses all the time! No one says anything when he does it but the second I do, they pull me outside the classroom in front of everyone and make me feel stupid!  People were laughing to each other about me, Dad! I felt so dumb. How should I have known? He does it all the time!”

Shiro says softly, holding his hand out with gentle care, “Aki, calm down.  You shouldn’t swear anymore, especially at your age, but you didn’t hurt anyone.  Take a deep breath. I’ll talk with your teacher about it, alright? You’re not in trouble.”

“I was though.  They made me sit in during recess.  Everyone saw and laughed at me through the window.  And then I come home and now these people are here too!  Today’s the worst day ever!”

“Aki...”  Keith murmurs.

Aki whirls on him, hands pressed to his chest,  “You never answered his question earlier. I want to know.  Would the Black Lion let him fly her?”

Keith opens his mouth.  Thinks about the question.  “What?”

“He asked you in the car.  Would she have let him? Would she have let me?

“Aki, what the hell does this have to do with what we’re talking about?  The Black Lion isn’t even here anymore.”

“I want to know.  What was she like?”

“You can look in literally any textbook and it’ll tell you!  It’s public information. I don’t understand why you’re asking.  Is this really what’s important?”

At Keith’s response, Aki’s eyes go oddly dull and vacant.  And Keith...he doesn’t know why.

Keith feels like being a parent to Aki is a test...a test he’s been failing lately.  They used to be buddies. They used to get each other. He doesn’t know when they went off the rails.

He doesn’t get a chance to figure it out.  Aki turns and goes up to his room, upset. Keith and Shiro stare up after him helplessly.

After all that yelling there’s just silence.  The walls of the room are still. It feels so sad somehow.

There’s a knock on the back door and that annoying kid from earlier pokes his head in.  “Mr. Kogane?” He asks sweetly, batting his thick eyelashes. “I know you said you had some work to finish up, but I’d love to see your house.  Can I come in?”

Keith walks over to the door.  “No,” he says bluntly. He shuts the door in the kid's stupefied face and tugs the blinds to a definitive close.

“Jesus, Keith,” Shiro murmurs, but he looks vaguely amused.

“What the fuck is wrong with that kid?”  He mutters lowly, jerking his thumb at the closed door.  “Why would he want to come in if he makes fun of Aki? To tease him more in his one safe place?  What a sadistic fuck.”

Shiro shakes his head and shrugs.  “Who knows?”

“Why do you think Aki was asking about the Black Lion?  Am I the only one confused here?”

“Maybe he’s jealous of the questions that boy was asking.  Maybe he wants to ride the Black Lion too. She is quite the symbol.”

Keith sighs heavily.  “I guess.  ...I’m sorry,” Keith says, shoving a hand to his forehead and rubbing at his eyes tiredly.  “You kept telling me to stop swearing in front of Aki. I didn’t think it’d get him in trouble.  And with these kids - I didn’t know -”

Shiro looks up into Keith’s face, soft understanding already there.  He grabs Keith’s hands in his. “It’s not the end of the world, Keith.  He’s just upset. He’ll calm down.”

Keith takes in a calm steady breath to center himself.  “...I’m trying,” Keith says. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but -”

“Hey.”  Shiro’s voice is firm.  Keith looks up into those kind caring eyes; he’s emanating genuine love and it’s always so healing, always a pleasant surprise, even now.  “Stop that. You’re the best partner in crime I could ask for. We’ve got this, Keith. No child has a perfect day every single day of their life.  That just doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean this one day is going to make his whole childhood bad, okay?”

Keith sighs.  All he can think of is Lance and Allura’s twins.  Their life seems that perfect.

“Well...guess I’ll go test my fishing skills,” Keith grunts, making his way to the door.  “Shitty kids...”

“I’ll help.  Maybe Lance has a fishing pole or something we could borrow.”

“Oh.  Maybe we could use that spear in the shed?  I knew that’d come in handy one of these days.”

He opens the door to come face to face with a small girl.  She already beat them to it. She has the backpack in her hand, lowering it to the ground.

She startles as Keith towers over her.  The backpack drops with a thud. “S-sorry,” she whispers fiercely.  “I... That was- They were- I’m sorry.” She darts off.

Keith blinks, looking down to the dripping wet backpack.  The girl was soaking wet.

“That was convenient,” Keith says.  “This is going to sound crazy but...did that look like a mini version of Griffin?

“...Like Griffin has a daughter?”  Shiro pokes his head out over Keith, balancing on his shoulder.

They both look to each other.

But she’s long gone.

 

After grabbing the bag, Keith knocks gently on Aki’s door, peeking his head in.  “Aki?” He murmurs softly. “You okay in here?”

Aki lets a huge sigh out.  “Yeah. I’m fine.”

“Delivery,” Keith hums, holding the backpack up for Aki to see and setting it down beside the front of the doorway.  “A girl dropped it off at the doorway.  Do you know her?”

“Yeah,” Aki sniffs, shifting on his bed and shoving his data pad away.  “She’s really good at everything. She’s nice too.”

“Maybe you could make friends with her.”

Aki just sighs heavily, neither shrugging nor agreeing.

“Can I sit?”  Keith asks.

Aki nods, so Keith crosses the room and takes a seat beside Aki, right on his bed.  He turns his eyes up and around to the images he had painted here, only a few years ago.  Somehow, it feels both like a very short and very long time ago that he was standing on that ladder, paintbrush in hand, afraid of failing his child.

He clears his throat softly.  “Aki, I’m sorry about earlier.  I hadn’t realized -”

“-I know,” Aki says.  “You were just trying to help.  I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” Keith says.  “But if you do, I’m right here for you, okay?  You can tell me anything. I mean, I’m no Shiro, but I’ll try my best.”

Aki turns his eyes up.  “What’s that supposed to mean?  Not like Dad?”

“He seems to have all the patience.”

“Does he?”

Keith shrugs.  “I always thought so.”

They’re quiet for awhile, just sitting together, neither really sure what to say.  Keith clears his throat. “You like the paintings still? Not too old for them?”

Aki frowns.  “When you get older you don’t like stars anymore?”

Keith laughs.  “Not in this family, obviously.  I think it’s more just the fact that I painted them for you.  I dunno. I’ve read teens like their space and stuff and you’re getting so old, I just thought maybe.  I’d help you if you wanted to get rid of it. Paint it over one nice color of your choosing, what do you think?”

“Oh.  ...No,” he chuckles under his breath.  “I think they’re cool. I don’t want to get rid of it.”

Keith’s heart swells with warmth and he smiles down at Aki, looking at those bright warm eyes, that sweet little smile.  It’s been rare lately and seeing it again feels like unveiling treasure. Keith wants him to have the world.

“Baba,” Aki whispers, scooting closer and leaning his head on Keith’s arm.  “I don’t like school... I wish I could just stay with you and Dad at the Garrison.  ...The kids at school...they’re always talking about you. I hate it.”

Keith has had all his childhood to have kids at school talk about him.  He’s somehow not surprised to hear that they’re still doing it, even now.

He gently rubs Aki’s back.  “They talk about me, hm? ...Sounds about right.  People do that, they always will. That’s just how it always is.  It doesn’t have to be a big deal, does it?.”

But Aki’s little face looks miserable as he stares down at his lap, small hands clenched into fists.  “I’ve been thinking lately. Was it easy, Baba...? Being the leader of Voltron? Everyone depended on you and you were just one person.”

Keith hesitates.  Easy? No. But worth it?  Yes. “We were a team. Together, it felt easy.  As natural as breathing.”

It’s the idealized version, but isn’t that what children need?  Ideals?  Dreams?  Hopes?  All Keith’s orphanages had told him when he was younger was he’d amount to nothing.  To be realistic. To shoot for your dreams only if they’re down in the mud, grounded.  He never thought he’d see the stars.

He wants to give Aki hope, give him a vision of strength, to make him feel right about the world and all that’s good in it.  Like Keith’s dad did for him.

Aki smiles at Keith’s response, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.  He lets his focus drop to his hands. Keith doesn’t notice how they clench together tightly in his lap, the whites of his knuckles stretching out young skin as they tremble.

 

The more Aki grows, the more his loud wild spirit begins to mute in color and shape and he’s quiet, always so quiet, keeping to himself.

Keith and Shiro worry.

He doesn’t get angry or get into fights like Keith did.  He doesn’t push kids or spit at their feet or cuss them out to their faces.  He does his homework when asked. That means something, doesn’t it?  Sure, he’s sort of a klutz; he dropped a weight on his foot in their work out room and screamed so loud even Lance ran over wondering what was going on.  And yeah, he got Matt’s bad eyesight and sometimes has to wear his huge glasses Pidge passed down to him, but that’s so shallow. Not everyone’s a huge enough asshole to think less of Aki because of glasses, right?  And besides, he can get that fixed.  So Keith doesn’t understand why Aki doesn’t seem to be making friends.  What else do the other students want?  What’s making them stay away?

They try.  Keith and Shiro make Aki join an after school activity.  It’s a battle - Aki informs them very emotionally that he does not want to do anything - but Keith and Shiro make him choose at least one.  All those hours he spent banging away on the drums Lance got him are finally put to use, because out of everything - piloting courses, after school tech, combat, engineering, even cooking - he chooses taiko.

Taiko.

Not the combat, not the simulator he always wanted, chasing after the stars, but taiko.

Why the hell...?

Not that there’s anything wrong with taiko.  Keith thinks it’s pretty cool from what he’s heard of it, but taiko is so...grounded.  It’s music, which is nice, of course it is. But it’s...not space. The adventure waits up above, in the sky.  That's where dreams are born and made. Aki has always loved space.

Keith is so confused.

"I thought... I thought you wanted to practice for the Garrison?”  Keith forces out, trying to sound like a rational cool-headed adult.  “It’s coming soon, really soon. The instructors in the piloting course can teach you.  They’re some of the best in all the neighboring solar systems so you’d be ahead of the game before you even start."

Aki just shakes his head, too involved in his data pad to look up and spare a glance for Keith.  "I want to do taiko."

Keith bites his lip and looks up to the clock, wishing Shiro were here too.  He always knows what to say. Keith struggles. “...I, I mean, yeah... Taiko.  Cool. If that’s what you want. I just...I guess your dad and I can teach you about piloting instead.  Could be easier to have private lessons. Maybe we can set a time for our own lessons."

Aki cuts him off.  "No. It's fine. You don’t have to do that.”

“I want to, Aki.  It’s something you’ve always wanted.  I don’t mind.”

“No."  Aki’s voice is oddly sharp and brittle, his brow furrowing deeply, still unable to look Keith in the eye.  “It’d just be a waste of your time.”

“Aki -”

“- Just...let it go.  I want to do taiko, okay?  I think it’s cool.”  For the first time that day, Aki finally looks Keith in the eye.

Keith doesn't get it.  He wants to convince him.  All Aki's life, he dreamt of the stars, like Keith and Shiro can give to him, like so few others would be able to reach.  It’s beautiful up there in ways Keith can’t properly explain, in ways Aki would have to see to believe.  He wants to give Aki the universe and he can, if only Aki would let him.

But...if Aki’s happy, that's what matters.  Is he...?  He doesn’t like to talk about school much so Keith doesn’t know.

Lately, he hasn’t been liking talking at all.

When Aki comes into Keith’s office after school every time, tossing his backpack to the ground and kicking his shoes up on the couch as he shoves his face into his data pad, Keith always asks, “How was your day?”

And Aki will reply, without fail, without much thought, “Fine.”  He doesn’t even look up.

Maybe it’s just pre-teen apathy.  Yeah. Surely, that’s it.

And Keith can trick himself into believing that...if it wasn’t for how Aki’s eyes will catch on Shiro happening past the doorway.  How he’ll jump to his feet and run out to say hi. He tells Shiro about his day.  He tells Shiro everything.

And whenever Keith looks over Aki’s shoulder and tries to help him with his homework, Aki gets so defensive, so aggressive about it.

“Oh, this one’s wrong,” Keith will say.

Aki's voice can cut steel.  “Of course you’d know, wouldn’t you?”

Keith used to blink in surprise at the animosity.  If Shiro says the exact same thing, Aki listens to him.  He thanks him.

It seems like just loving Aki isn’t enough.  Keith’s fucking up and doesn’t know in which way.  And Shiro has it down perfectly, but he can’t tell Keith how.  They’re both nonplussed.

It’s okay.  Everything’s still under control.  It’s still what Keith wanted: Aki’s still loved, Aki’s still in a safe place.  He has parents, that’s good. He has a future, any one he wants. The Garrison is still in sight.  They know Keith and Shiro there, they saved the universe.  Aki will be able to go there too and go on to live a happy full comfortable life.

Everything’s good.

Keith’s fine.

But he starts feeling oddly desperate inside.  He starts seeing himself like some pesky mosquito to his own son, following someone who doesn’t even want him around.  A lost puppy performing tricks for a crowd that doesn’t care, a crowd that used to love him.

He tries to think of Aki’s favorite things to do but maybe he’s out of touch.  Maybe that was years ago.  He keeps trying.  It’s exhausting, but god, if he can just find that one thing to connect them again...

He always tries to smile.  Tries to be pleasant. Tries to cover up his hurt each time there’s rejection.

“Hey, Aki, want to ride the hover bikes?”

“No.”

“You want to go down to the creek with Kosmo later?”

“No.”

“Want to go visit Grandma with me?  We can stop by that pond you used to like.  I saw that bakery nearby has rainbow cake.”

"No."

All those things that Aki couldn't wait to do, tossing his hands up in the air and crying happily, “I love it!”, he turns his nose at it all.

But Keith has to keep trying because it’s Aki.  Because he loves Aki.  Just...pre-teen apathy.  But Keith can still be his support, right?  He can still be his father.

One day, Keith thinks he’s found the answer.  A new movie releases in the theaters and Keith has heard Aki complaining that all the tickets being sold out.  Someone at the Garrison just happened to not need their tickets anymore and they ask Keith if he wants them.  He recognizes it because of Aki.  He feels so lucky.

So Keith goes home, knocks on Aki’s door, and pops into his room.  “Look what I’ve got.”

He holds them up.

Aki stares at the tickets between Keith's fingers, face going oddly blank.  “...How’d you get those?” He asks warily. “They’re sold out everywhere.  People are paying hundreds for those. I’ve looked for them for...for forever.”

Keith just shrugs.  “Someone at work gave them to me.  Want to go?”

Aki’s eyes click over like a switch.  Keith wasn’t sure what sort of reception he’d get, but he certainly doesn’t expect Aki to explode like he does, the fury in his eyes bursting straight at Keith almost desperately, like Keith said something horrible.  It’s so sudden, like a bomb going off.

“I don’t want those stupid tickets, okay?!  I don’t want to hang out with you!  Don’t you get it?  Just leave me alone.”

Keith just stands there, still, in the face of it, lost and confused.

Aki’s still loved.  Aki’s still safe.  He has parents who love him...

Keith bites his lip and nods, gathering every bit of his strength together to just...nod and act like everything was alright.  “Okay,” he whispers, closing his eyes before he can see the regret and sorrow on Aki’s face.

Keith’s an adult now.  He has to pretend now.  Pretend it doesn’t hurt him, pretend that he understands, even though he doesn’t.

“It’s okay,” Shiro whispers to him at night as Keith pours over parenting articles.  “It’s hormones.  He’s just going through puberty.  It's a tough time. Try not to take it personally.  He loves you.”

“Yeah,” Keith whispers.  He was like that once too, but it’s different from this side of it.  This side of it all, he’s clueless.  Powerless.  And even though Shiro’s right here beside him, Keith still feels alone in this.

Alone because Aki glows when Shiro’s around.  Aki talks to him.  He goes to Pidge’s house for sleepovers, follows her around like a damn puppy, laughing loudly at all her jokes with fond wistful eyes.  He talks to Lance and Krolia and Shay and everyone.  He loves going to the twins for advice.  Everyone else says he’s a pleasant, sweet, friendly boy.  It’s only Keith he ignores.

Why...?

Why?

“Sleep, Keith,” Shiro whispers, running his fingers up Keith’s spine.  He aims for comfort, but Keith’s in a mood.  He shifts, angling away from the touch, rubbing at his arm roughly.

“Not yet,” Keith whispers, biting his lip, frowning intensely into the screen.  “Not yet...”

It shouldn’t hurt him this much.

It’s just he’s trying.  He’s been trying.  But it’s just like he feared.  Shiro has it.  Shiro’s doing it.  And Keith’s the one left behind.

Aki...he’s loved.

He’s safe...

That’s good...  That’s so good...

He holds it together.  First, for months.  Then, for years, slowly crumbling, so so slowly he doesn’t even realize it’s happening.  He just knows he’s desperate to fix things.

He even goes as far as to convince Iverson to let them have one of their old simulators from the Garrison.  Maybe it’s just Aki’s passion that’s lost, right?  He used to love the thought of space.  That’s when he used to love Keith, too...

They never use this old thing at the Garrison; it’s not the new model, but it’s fully functional.  It’s still even connected to their records. They drive it over to the side of their house where it fits nicely.

Aki looks a bit shocked when he sees it there, tension built on the tops of his shoulders as he walks carefully around it, like it’s a tranquilized monster that’ll wake at any moment.  “H-how did you get this ...?”  He sounds almost insulted.

“Iverson,” Keith says, patting the side.  “I figured you could practice at your leisure, might be easier than doing it in front of everyone.  I used to hate how public it was and I know you’re kinda shy.  Don’t worry, we won’t hover and annoy you.  It’ll be here though, for whenever you feel like practicing.”

Aki just shakes his head, that same strained pained look on his face.  “...Of course the Garrison just gave it to you.  Of course they did.”  His voice is quiet and low as he stares up at it, eyes crinkled like the sun reflecting off the top is too bright for his eyes.  “...It won’t help,” he murmurs.  “You wasted your time.”

“Aki.  You can’t get discouraged.  It’ll come with time. I promise.  You just can’t give up.”

That look doesn’t leave Aki’s face as he nods, but the movement is so small the meaning feels like the opposite.

Aki does practice, at first, in private, but the only sound that they can ever hear from it is the loud blaring Failed.   Over and over and over.  And over...and over...and over...  It goes on late into the night until it finally stops and Aki doesn’t visit it ever again.  Keith is almost relieved.  He hadn’t realized how much the sound of the crashing drew him up with tension.

Aki seems even darker after that.

Failed, a voice on the wind whispers.

Keith is just...jitters inside.

But he doesn’t cry, he holds it all in.  He’s got to be strong.  He’s saved universes, dammit,something like this - something even the most clueless of parents have figured out - he still doesn’t understand.  But he’s got it.  He does.  So he won’t cry.  He won’t.

At least, not until one day, after coming home from long hours of work.  He sees Pidge and Aki down by the creek, in the spot where he and Aki used to sit and blow musical grass together.  He presses his hands to the cold window, staring down.

Aki’s smiling at her with so much warmth, so much obvious love.

He never looks at Keith that way.  Not anymore.

They both have their jeans rolled up to their knees as they wade in the water, reaching in, searching the depths.  Aki pulls something up from the surface and Pidge exclaims. They high five and dance goofily together in celebration.

He looks younger like this, more innocent, more child-like, that light in his eyes Keith so desperately wanted to protect is there still, revived.  The Aki Keith knew.

Aki would never show that side of himself to Keith.  Never.

It’s just Keith now, on the outside, looking in at his family, no longer a part of it.  Desperation rises in him like an alarm blaring in his head.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Shiro’s here still, beside Keith, supporting him.  They’re a team.  Why then, is Keith the one who’s so ostracized?

The tears come.  One, before he can stop it.  Then another. And another. And then he's choking and trying to hold the tears in, but all he can do is hurry to the bathroom before anyone can see.  And he hides. And he tells no one.

He cries over losing Aki for the first time that day.  Pidge would've been a better mother after all, one Aki loves and trusts. They made a mistake.  And now, Aki is stuck with him.

Keith starts having nightmares.  No, not like before - the occasional reminders of his past, poking and prodding at his brain - but insistent.  Chaotic. Torrential storms that are set on destroying his psyche. Every night, five times a night, and during the day too, he’s plagued by it.

You didn't win after all, Zarkon whispers.  Keith clutches to his chest with shaking hands.

He’s not a kid anymore.  He’s not in the war. All the problems that he used to have, used to deal with just fine...why do they feel so wrapped around his neck like this now...?

Zarkon is dead.  He's dead.  This is old news.  It's over.

He can’t sleep anymore because whenever he closes his eyes, his nightmares are there, waiting for him, gun in their hands and a knife strapped at the ready to their belts.

He’s tired all the time now.  Sullen and surly because of that.  Dragging constantly through everything.  Too tired for things he used to love. He starts upping his exercise regimens, trying to numb his mind with physical work.  Shiro keeps popping his head in, asking Keith if he wants to go out for dinner or rent a movie or go on a date or anything, anything at all.  But Keith just presses his lips together tightly and shakes his head. He can’t slow down or his thoughts will catch him. And if that happens...  If that happens...

He and Shiro are rarely intimate anymore.  Shiro asks, he used to groan in playful disappointment at first when Keith would shake his head, but now he’s quiet too, just watching with a grim worried look in his eyes.

And if he does actually fall asleep without problems, it's Shiro who startles awake with the nightmare, and Keith spends the hour comforting him despite Shiro’s protests.

He’s not bitter.  Never.  Not about Shiro.  He’s just tired.

He starts missing his old self.  Now he’s just...an old worn hub.

Keith doesn't even look to the stars anymore. Nothing seems to be able to bring him any comfort.

“Hey.  We should go on a vacation,” Shiro keeps saying, leaning over the back of his chair and wrapping his arms around Keith.  He tries to keep his voice light and cheerful. “You’ve been so stressed out lately.  We deserve time to unwind.  I think it’d be good for us.”

Keith snorts.  “Where to?”

“Where else?” he whispers into Keith’s ear.  He tosses his hand to the sky, smearing it over the stars up above.  “Space. We’ll travel the stars together again. Reignite that passion of yours again.  Maybe you can call Black down.”

Keith laughs without humor.  It almost sounds bitter. “Shiro, we’ve got so much to do...  And who says Black would even come...? I’m sure she’s forgotten us by now.”

“Black loves us, Keith.”

Does she?  It’s been years and none of us have seen any of them, haven’t felt any of them, even Red...  Let’s face it, they’re gone. We did for them what they needed us to do and now we’re used up and discarded.  That’s just how life goes, I guess.”

“...Keith.  That’s not -  That can’t be true.  You really think that...?”

Keith just grunts.  “I’ve got to get back to work.  We can’t leave, Shiro. There’s too much to do down here.”

“Keith.”  Shiro walks around him so he’s facing him.  He stares hard into Keith’s eyes as he grabs at his shoulders to brace him.  “You know I wouldn’t normally push it, but I’ve been really worried about you lately.  I’m not taking no for an answer.”

“Well, good luck with that one.”  Keith shifts his shoulders from Shiro’s hold, reaching through Shiro's arm for the next bit of work.  He ignores the incredulous look Shiro stares after him with. “Maybe next year. I can’t right now.”

He’s lost something.  He doesn’t know what or when or why it happened.  Just that it’s gone. So he keeps working harder and harder to try to cover up the feeling of unease and unrest and guilt and shame and sorrow.  Barreling forward. It's just getting worse and worse. He’s masking it. Shoving everything away into the dark corners of his mind. Deeper into the dark depths.  Stacking it all higher and higher but there's no room left, it’s finally full... 

He’s getting tunnel vision. He knows it.  There's hardly anything left of him to give.  He works, he goes to bed, he struggles all night with ghosts of his past - they killed people , they’ve lost people, they’re all so fragile, they’re not safe - and then he wakes up to grey grubby light, looking past Shiro, who's trying hard to break through to him, but he can't drag his focus back to what’s important.  Even though Shiro’s right beside him, trying to call Keith to him, Keith’s never felt so alone and isolated... Keith's got to drag himself out of bed to start the day so he can do it all over again. There's no time to stop, there's no time.

He and Aki don’t talk anymore.  Keith stops asking Aki questions.  He already knows the answers and they hurt too much. He feels it like this weight on his shoulders, this empty black hole tugging at the core of him and taking from him piece by piece.  It hurts.  So he shoves that away, far away, where he can't see it.  He bites at his lip and tries to hold it all together.

He had wanted a child.  Someone he could guide and love.  He had known all along how this would end. And now, even his child’s calling him out on his bullshit.

He’s tired...so so tired.  When will this hellhole end?  It’s just a cycle, spinning him round and round, wearing away more and more until he’s spent.  Is that when he dies? The end of the cycle? Is this what life is? Is this what happens to heroes after the war?  They rot. They waste. There’s no place for them here.

At least not Keith.

He’s sitting at his desk at home one afternoon, feet kicked up, idly digging the fleshy part of his thumb into the tip of his fang tooth, staring blankly into the TV.  He’s been working since before dawn. The sun is already setting and he means to keep going, but his mind is so weary, it’s sought out a break without him even realizing it.  He drifts.

The TV hasn’t been helping his mood lately.  It just makes him feel sick. He used to follow the news fairly closely.  It’s how they do their work, after all. Knowing the situation at hand on a global scale too, not just universal.  But it’s so fucking depressing. People are dying. Hurting. Suffering. They always are...it’s what the news is always highlighting, after all.  For what?

Just now, they’re talking of a Galra gone missing.  Just a teenager.  And the leader of the Galra resistance, some stupid shit in a rabbit mask, is claiming to have done it, asking for money for ransom.  They know the resistance will kill the teenager if they get their money, so they’re in a deadlock.

This is the world they fought for and it’s in shambles.  Discrimination, young children being bullied only for looking Galra, robberies for pennies, shootings, kidnappings, murders.  For what?  For what?  ...This can’t be it.  For so little. This just can’t be it.  The war doesn’t feel over at all.

We’re making progress, Shiro keeps saying.  And the rest of the paladins agree.  But one death is one too many. That’s still someone’s sibling, someone’s parent, someone’s child.  It doesn’t feel like enough. Nothing ever seems like enough.

He shouldn’t watch the news.  He knows it.  Shiro keeps telling him to stop, to leave it to the rest of them, that Keith’s stressed enough as it is and it’s getting to him.  They’re doing all they can.  More than, even.  Keith thought he’d never be involved in politics - god, he hates it - but he has to fight. He has to do this.  For the Galra who are dying. For the children who won’t get to live their lives because of someone else’s hatred. To try to brush away the darkness from this world as much as he can.

Keith pulls his attention from the screen and looks back down into the papers on his desk.  He shoves his head in his hands and sighs. Takes a moment. Keeps going.

He jumps when he hears a paper flutter in the wind behind him.  It’s Aki, holding out a pamphlet. Him. Aki himself.

He’s fourteen now.  Braces. Limbs stretched and awkward - too big for his body. He’s starting to get Pidge’s freckles beneath her glasses, and though Keith would never say it to Aki, it’s fucking adorable.  Keith and Shiro don’t have freckles and Keith finds it fascinating the way they warm up his face, spread across his honey gold eyes.

He’s beautiful, even if he holds himself awkwardly, like he thinks he’s not.  Keith loves the hell out of him every single day.  He just does it quietly.

He looks up into Aki’s awkward expression.

“Uh.  Still working, huh...?”

Keith doesn’t know what to say.  “Yes.”

There’s still a good few feet between them, so Aki shoves the pamphlet closer to Keith.  “Taiko performance this weekend,” Aki says, shifting from foot to foot, looking anywhere but at Keith.  “I invited Aunt Pidge, Grandma, the twins...you know. Everyone. They all said they were coming. Dad told me to ask you.  I mean...if you wanted to go. You don’t have to. It’s not a big deal. I know your work is important. You don’t have to come if you’re busy.  Really. It’s fine.”

Keith sets his work down and takes the pamphlet from Aki’s hands.  There’s a picture of Aki smiling brightly in front of his drum. He looks like he belongs there, completely at ease and comfortable.

“Wow,” Keith whispers.  He doesn’t think he’s seen Aki that happy in a long time.  “Of course I’ll go. This looks amazing, Aki.” There’s an awkward gap of silence.  He smiles up at him hesitantly. “You any good?”

Aki shifts, pressing his lips together tightly.  “I dunno. Probably not. It’s not like the stuff you do.  My instructor says I have a lot of fire though, so that’s...something, I guess?”

Keith nods eagerly.  “That counts.  Cool, Aki...”  He looks down at the image again, taking it all in.  Aki. Inviting him to a performance. Is this real life?  “This girl looks familiar.”

“Which one?”  Aki asks, leaning forward.

Keith points.  When Aki doesn’t say anything, Keith looks up in time to see Aki’s entire face going red as he leans away and rubs at his cheeks.

“O-oh,” Aki says, clearing his throat roughly.  “Yeah, she’s been over before. That’s Griffin.”

“Griffin?  Does she have a father named James?”

“Yeah.  I’ve met him a few times, actually.  He always says to tell you hi.”

This is the first time he’s ever mentioned it.  Keith looks back to the image of her, standing tall and proud beside Aki.  “Huh.  I didn’t know she was in taiko.”

“She started in kindergarten actually.  She’s...really good. She helps me a lot.”

Keith looks up again as Aki’s ears begin to glow red too.  A smile starts to grow on Keith’s face, an unfamiliar feeling.  “She sounds nice.  Griffin’s a good guy.  She was the one who grabbed your backpack out of the creek that one time, right?”

Every bit of openness and light in Aki’s face shuts down immediately.  It’s like a switch gets kicked off.  Aki rolls his jaw.  He looks almost angry.  “Yeah, that’s her.  Look, just...it’s on Saturday and Sunday, okay?  Everyone’s going on Saturday except Grandma. She’s a few solar systems away.  So make sure you have your day cleared, whichever day you choose, okay?” He stops.  “If you want to see it. Because you don’t have to if you don’t want to. I'm not very good.  It’s not going to hurt my feelings if you don’t go.”

And why would it?

“I do want to go,” Keith says quickly.  “I have a meeting to cancel, but that’ll be fine."  He's quiet for a moment, not sure what's right for a parent to say.  Aki stands there awkwardly in Keith’s office, biting at his lip like he’s waiting for something.

Keith feels a nervousness traveling up the back of his neck.  Moment of truth. He clears his throat. "...Thanks for inviting me, Aki.  I’m excited to finally see you in action. ...It was, um, it was nice talking to you...”  Would it be too much to say he’s missed him? Keith can’t get himself to do it.

Aki stares at him for a long while, something searching in his eyes.

A test.

Keith doesn’t know what he’s being tested on though...  He doesn’t know what to do. What would Shiro do?

Keith takes too long panicking internally.  Aki’s eyes drop. Failed. “Yeah,” Aki says softly.  “Dad ordered out. He told me to tell you it’s here.”

“O-oh.”  Keith looks to the calendar first, and then the clock.  “Today was my day to figure out dinner.”

“Yeah.  Well, you weren’t there.  Again.” He walks to the door, stopping right in the hallway.  He turns and looks at Keith again, watching. Absorbing. He hesitates before saying softly, “...Dad’s been upset lately.  Not that you’d notice. He thinks something’s wrong with you.”

Keith goes cold.  The pamphlet floats to the floor.

He dreams of Shiro dying over and over and over all night.

 

On the Saturday of Aki’s performance they all gather.  There’s the smell of summer in the air and the excitement from the students eager to show off what they learned over the year.  It just sucks that the day of the taiko performance is so fucking hot. There should be air conditioning in the theater, but alas, it breaks down the morning of and they haven’t gotten around to fixing it.

On top of that, Keith had to squeeze his meeting in this morning when there was really no room to squeeze, he was rushing about all morning without pause, he has a migraine the size of the Castle of Lions that pounds with every tiny noise (and there are a lot of damn people here at a fucking drum performance), and he hasn’t had sex in like four months.  Okay, he’s exaggerating, it’s only been weeks, but it feels like fourth months.  And his gut is aching.  And he’s uncomfortable and his breath feels fluttery and light and he just feels wrong.  Not the mention he turned on the news during lunch which he knew he shouldn’t do, but he did and now...?  It’s all the same tragedy. It’s all the same sickness.  Hammering deep into his weakening skull.

But he’s here.  He has a pamphlet that he uses to fan his face aggressively.  He goes out of his way to make little gestures toward Shiro, to touch Shiro’s arm with his hand, leaning his head against his shoulder, little things to let Shiro know he’s loved, he’s appreciated.  Shiro seems to enjoy it, falling into it as easily as if it never faded, humming happily into Keith’s warmth.

“How are you feeling?”  Shiro asks. “You looked tired during the meeting this morning.  I saw through the window.”

“Ugh.  Shitty.”

“Keith, I’m telling you,” Shiro murmurs, reaching up to brush Keith's sweaty hair from his face. “Stop working so hard.  You’re not a machine. Give some work to others. You need rest.”

“Mmf.”

“It’s not good on your health.  You only have one body.”

You didn’t only have one body.”

Shiro doesn’t think it’s very funny.  “...Aki’s been asking about you lately.”

“Aki has?  Damn, I must be really bad.”

“Keith, come on.  I need you to take me seriously.  He loves you. I love you.  I miss you...  I feel like we’ve hardly seen each other lately, even though we live in the same house and sleep in the same bed.  I don’t like this...”

Keith heaves a huge sigh.  “I know... I just can’t defer my work though.  Acxa just reported in about the coalition recently and I wanted to make sure everything is going perfectly.  There’s so much turmoil still and we have to be as sharp and vigilant as we can. People need us.”

“Acxa’s been doing this how long?”

“Yeah, but Kolivan’s just finally landed in the next solar system and I want to follow his reports to see how the situation is even that far -”

“-You can trust them, Keith, you know this.  Honestly, I think it’s pretty much only humanity having a hard time integrating with other aliens.  We’re so primitive in comparison. Most of the universe knew of other species living out there, we didn’t.  They’re fine, Keith, more fine than us, and even then, we’re doing okay. And Kolivan and Acxa are not amateurs.  They’re our friends.”

“I know,” Keith heaves another sigh.

The seats in the auditorium are filling up and Keith scoots in closer to Shiro’s side, weaving their hands together.  Shiro squeezes back.

Keith casts his eyes over everyone in the audience, thinking about what Shiro said.  Their world needs some healing. They could all be wolves in sheeps’ clothing. Is anyone here part of the resistance?

Keith murmurs, “...I know.  You’re right...about everything.  I guess I just haven’t been feeling that great recently and I just don’t want it all to catch up to me,” Keith admits, eyeing the five tiny kids that have taken a seat in front of them.  Perhaps not terrorists, but definitely loud little squealers. Bad seating choice; he feels more claustrophobic already. He brings his legs up to his chest. “I haven’t been sleeping at all lately.  You know when you reach a certain level of being tired and you feel kind of...paranoid? See these black circles under my eyes?”

Shiro gently presses his fingers to them, concern painting his brow the closer he looks.

“I feel like I’m made of cotton.  All my dreams wear me down. Every single fucking night and I wake up so irritated all the time and upset at nothing.”

“...Keith...that’s too much to take on your own.”

Keith closes his eyes wearily.  “I know what you’re going to say.”

“I think it’s time to see a doctor.”

Keith grunts, tossing a look down at the stage and shaking his foot impatiently.  “Did you see that pamphlet of Aki’s performance?”

“Changing the subject?”

“Yes.  Here. I have it with me.”  He takes it from his pocket.  “That’s Griffin’s daughter,” Keith says, looking up to Shiro to see his reaction.  “When I asked about her, Aki went bright red. I think he likes her.”

Shiro doesn’t react quite like Keith thinks he might.  He’s quiet as he watches the image. Thoughtful.

“Shiro?”

He shifts from his thoughts.  “It’s good Aki’s making friends now.  He’s always had such a hard time.”

Keith tilts his head, looking into Shiro’s face.  “Yeah?  What’s up...? Why are you looking like that?”

Shiro sighs.

“What?”  Keith presses.

“It’s nothing, Keith.  I don’t want to add another thing to your plate.  It can wait for another time.”

Keith stares for a moment longer.  “Hey. No. Don’t do that. We’re a team, right?  If this is about Aki, I want to know.”

Shiro raises his eyebrows at Keith.  “A team works both ways, Keith.”

“I-I know.  I...” He takes a deep breath and says lowly, “...I know.”

After pinning Keith with a long look, Shiro finally says, “Look.  Don’t say anything...he told me not to tell you, but...he and I have been talking lately.  He’s been a bit more open than he usually is. I’ve been confiding in him and he’s been confiding in me...  Things have been getting him really down and I think he’s finally more willing to share. He told me everyone at school is always talking about you...”

“Me?”  Keith leans back to look into Shiro’s face, that same uneasiness spreading through him.  Like he doesn’t belong here. Like someone’s pinned a target to his back and he should run.

“Yeah.  All the time, since the first day he started school all those years ago.  The Leader of Voltron who saved the universe. The Black Paladin who traversed the stars, who started here, who can do anything so easily.  All of his classmates and teachers have the action figures of you, the posters, they watch the show.  There are stickers of us in the locker rooms, drawn into the textbooks he rents out. Everywhere. Apparently even the teachers are always talking about you.”

“What about you?”

“I’m there too, but Voltron is the legend, and you’re the leader -”

Keith opens his mouth to protest but Shiro expected it and he gently puts a finger to Keith’s mouth.  “You fought the last battle. You mean a lot to everyone.”

Keith rubs his thumb over his bottom lip and sighs moodily.  “...That’s great and all, but you and I both know how they’re going about it.  God, it was almost nauseating after we came back. They way they paint pictures of us...it’s more of us as a symbol, not of the actual us.”

“Keith, you’re pretty damn cool.”

“It’s not me.”

“Well...  I just think...pretty big shoes to fill, don’t you think?” Shiro murmurs lowly.

Keith hums as he mulls it over, gazing over all the people in this theater, all with their kids, all with their own sets of invisible problems.  Just like them. “So... that’s what this is then...?  Why he hates me now? Because everyone talks about me at school?”  That dark sludge in Keith's gut bubbles and swells as it hits him, really hits him.  All these years. All this confusion, all these nightmares, because of this?  Rumors?  Middle school rabble?

What is he supposed to do?  Go to the school and demand they stop talking about him?  That’s going to fix things?

It feels like everyone’s finger is pointed at him.  Always. It’s always like this. Ever since he was younger, everyone fucked up his life for one reason or another.  He thought this was done .  He thought he could finally rest .  It’s a different day but the same fucking bullshit.

He tosses his hand in the air and spits sharply, “What do you want me to do then?  What does Aki want me to do?  It’d be like this anywhere, you know.  We could travel the whole universe and we’d never find peace.  Aki would never be happy, I’d still be just as I am. I guess he’ll just have to ignore me for the rest of our lives then since that’s how he’s decided to solve this.  Since all of this is definitely all my fault.  We can both just grow older and hate each other more and more until we both die and that’s the end of it.  That’s what our lives will be from now on. All because of some shitty kids at school who like a fucking action figure toy.  That’s great.  Fucking fantastic.  Shit kids win the day again.  Isn’t that how it always is? Glad to see that hasn’t changed since, oh, wait, nothing else has either since the world is still shit God.  I feel like I’m fucking suffocating.”

Shiro’s mouth has gone lax.  He blinks at Keith, taken aback.  His face has gone pale. “...K-Keith?”  He reaches out a shaky hand and places it over Keith’s.

Keith draws in a sharp painful breath, biting at his lip and forcing himself to stare ahead hollowly.  He feels the blood throbbing through his temples with each beat of his angry heart. He tosses guilty looks around them, but he had spoken under his breath lowly enough to not be heard.  At least, that’s what he hopes. He lets Shiro hold his hand, but uses his other to sink his face into. "I-I’m sorry... I dunno where that came from...”

Shiro leans in, tilting his head so he can see into Keith’s face.  “Are you okay...?”

Okay?  Okay ?  When was the last time he was okay?  Keith’s face crumbles. “I just... Aki loves you so damn much and he doesn’t tell me a thing and I -  I’ve been giving it all I have, I swear I have, but I’m never enough -  Not for anything.”  He presses his fingers into his temples and rubs harshly.

“Keith...no.  I don’t think it’s like that.  It’s just everyone constantly compares him to you and when he doesn’t meet their expectations...well, they’re disappointed in him before they even get the chance to know him.  Aki’s struggling. He knows he can’t compete against you. I don’t think he’s actually mad at you, he’s just upset when people look down on him. That one time those kids wanted to come over to play in our creek - remember that? - I think they wanted to come to see you, not Aki.  ...That must be hard to take as a kid, don’t you think?  When your peers make fun of you, but dote on your dad?”

Keith whispers.  “But...” So it’s his fault Aki’s miserable?  He takes in a deep breath and then turns his eyes up to look at Shiro.  “Why are kids like that...? Sometimes I want to go out and give them a taste of their own fucking medicine and smack the shit out of their stupid mindless little -”  He takes a deep breath as he catches sight of someone turning in their seat to give Keith a startled look. It becomes even more baffled when they recognize him.

This conversation isn't helping.  It's brewing the discomfort in his chest even more.  He settles back down, mumbling to Shiro, “Sorry. I’m...not feeling great today.  I have no fucking filter. I know they’re only ten or whatever.  I shouldn’t be saying these things.  I’ll stop.”

“Well, ten is one thing.  Fourteen is another where Aki’s concerned.”

Keith looks up in surprise and then feels a small smile grow on his lips.

“What’s that look for?”  Shiro chuckles, tilting his head slightly.

“...I just remembered why I married you.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah...  Aki’s so lucky,” Keith whispers as he snuggles up to Shiro again, “to have a father like you.”

Shiro presses a gentle kiss into Keith’s hair.  “Keith. I know things feel bumpy between you two right now and I know how disheartening it must be, but I know he loves you.  Okay? He’s lucky to have you.  He’ll get through this, he will.  When he finds himself, he’ll realize he’s been mad at the wrong person.  We just have to be here for him when he does.”

Keith cuddles up closer, closing his eyes.  Maybe... He hopes... But when will that be?  Years? ...Decades...?

But progress is progress, right?  That’s what Shiro always says.

...Keith is so tired.  The thought about progress?  Doesn’t actually help at all.

The performance hasn’t started yet and this conversation has only made him feel even dirtier than before.  His spirits have managed to dip even lower. It might be the migraine, it might be the heat, it might be something else, but he feels weak and shaky.  He just wants to go home.

But he’s got to tough this out.  He has - he checks his phone - two hours left.  He only has to survive the thrumming of the drums.  And this weird sharp prickling uneasiness in his gut.  And the way his skin feels too hot and too cold all at once.  How his heart’s beating hard against his ribcage for no obvious reason. And this strange jumpiness buzzing through his flesh...

The world has made him uneasy lately.

Anyone.  It could be anyone here, waiting to be the next news story.  Keith really regrets watching the news lately. He tries to shut his brain up, tell himself he’s just overreacting.

He pulls himself closer to Shiro and endures.

“Hey, guys!”  Someone yells close to them and Keith jumps out of his skin.

It’s Pidge squeezing through the seats to get to them, waving.  The gang is all here. Even Mr. and Mrs. Holt, trailing behind.

“Hey, Pidge!  Hey, everyone.  We saved you all seats.  Thanks for coming,” Shiro says as he grabs their jackets from the seats nearby and everyone finds their places.

Pidge takes Keith’s other side, nudging his arm.  “Good evening...or should I say ‘good night’? Are you sick or something?  Why do you look like that?”

“Like what?”

She grimaces the more she stares at his face.  “Uh, like a cross between a newly turned zombie and a ghoul?  What's up? Don’t sleep anymore?”

“Not really, no,” Keith grudges.  Shiro’s talking animatedly with Lance and Allura and his shoulder’s really not so great for a pillow, so Keith shifts and leans his head on Pidge’s shoulder instead.  “The news has been pissing me off, Aki hates me, I feel like shit, and I keep having nightmares.”

“Wow.”  Pidge pats his head comfortingly.  “There, there. He doesn’t hate you.  He just...hates being compared to you.  Wouldn’t anyone? You’re good at everything.  I mean everything.  It’s not fair.”

Keith sits up quickly.  “How do you know that?”

“Know what?”  She says as she takes out a granola bar and starts tearing into it with her teeth.  “That you’re good at everything? I’ve been looking at the back end of the Red Lion for how many years?”

“No.  About him being compared to me.  Shiro just told me that like two minutes ago.”

“Oh.  You know Aki comes over to my place sometimes after school.  He was complaining a bunch and eating all my food.  I’m going to start charging you, you know.  Just kidding.” She stops as she looks up. “Oh - Keith -  Don’t get that mopey face. It’s nothing, okay? Nothing. He just needs someone to vent to and I play a good therapist.  He holds the biggest candle to you, I’m serious. He’s just...bad at handling his emotions right now. He’ll get it. Soon.  He’s not an idiot, just...slow. And isn’t this good? You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s no reflection on your parenting.”

“Isn’t it though?  He obviously isn’t secure inside if he believes the comparisons.  I could’ve done something...”

Pidge pats his cheek.  “Keith, I’m telling you.  He’ll figure it out. He knows what a good person you are and then some.”

“And then some -” Keith grumbles, leaning his head back and trying to get comfortable in his seat.  He just wants to shove his head in a trash bag and puke his intestines up. “...God, I don’t feel good.  This heat’s fucking killing me. Is this old age? Am I dying?”

Pidge snorts.  “Need me to call an ambulance, old man?”

“Maybe,” he grunts, crossing his arms over his core tightly, hoping that’ll help that odd disjointed feeling in his chest.  It keeps fluttering beneath his lungs like electricity. “Today of all days,” he mutters grouchily.

Lance is waving.  “Hey, Keith.  Are you ignoring us?”

“No.  Sorry,” Keith peels himself from the seat.  “...Hey.  Thanks for coming, guys.”

“Yeah, of course.  Aki’s our boy.”

Shiro says, “Aki’s been talking about this performance for weeks now.  It’s all we’ve been hearing about.”

“That’s our little drummer boy,” Lance says.  “What’d I tell you? That drum set I got him when he was like three wasn’t just to torture you.”

“No?”  Shiro chuckles, raising an eyebrow.

“Okay, you got me, it was to torture Keith, but only a little.  It’s payback for all those times in the Castle of Lions.”

“What times?”  Keith mutters.

“You know.  All of them.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter now, does it?  Because it worked out in the end, didn’t it?  He loves it.”

The twins lean forward and wave, their silvery glowing hair cascading over their shoulders in soft waves.  They grow more beautiful by the year, they’re the spitting image of Allura. “Hi, Uncle Keith!” They say, but then their smiles falter a little.  “Are you sick?”

“Hey, girls.  Nah, just tired from work.  Early busy morning.  How’s school?”

“Really great.  We’ve been seeing Aki hanging out with that girl more recently. Finally.  It’s been nice to see.”

“Griffin?  What do you mean ‘finally’?”

“That’s the one.  He seems to really like her.  He’s had a thing for her for awhile now, I think.  We snooped around school a bit and everyone says she's really sweet, so we approve.”

“Yeah...”  He murmurs.

“A girlfriend?”  Lance says as Keith waves down the line to Allura, Hunk, and the rest of them.  Jesus, the whole family’s here besides Krolia. Keith wishes she were here. Maybe it'd soothe the uneasiness inside his chest.

“Not everything has to be about romance,” he rolls his eyes, settling back into his seat.

“It does sort of look like they have something going on,” the twins giggle together.  They share a glance between the two of them and then one flicks through her phone for a second and holds it out.  “Look. I took this the other day.”

Aki and Griffin are on a bench in school.  Aki looks happier than Keith thinks he’s ever seen him.  Eyes clear, face totally free. ...That’s the sort of happiness that he had wanted Aki to have.  The sparkle in his eyes. Uninhibited.

Keith’s heart aches.  Part of him is so happy.  This is what he’s wanted for Aki and he found it...  God, he hopes it sticks. Part of him is sad too. Keith’s never even seen that look before.  Where Keith has failed, Griffin succeeds.

It rolls wrong in his gut.  Failed, failed, failed.

“Aww, they’re so cute,” Pidge coos over his shoulder.

He shifts back in his seat as Shiro murmurs in awe, “Look at that smile.  God, he’s getting so old, growing up right before our eyes. Can you send this to me?”

“Of course, Uncle Shiro.  We thought you guys would like it.  Aki wasn’t even embarrassed when I took the photo.  He asked for it too.” They raise a knowing eyebrow.

Shiro chuckles.  “Whatever it is, I’m just glad he’s happy.  Right, Keith? What do you think?”

“Yes.  Absolutely.”  When Shiro turns from him, Keith goes back to glaring at his shoes, trying to focus on anything but the acidic feeling in his gut.

Pidge leans her elbow onto his arm rest.  “...Keith,” she says softly. “What’s been up with you lately...?  I think it’s Pidge therapy time for Keith now.”

“I just want this damn thing to start,” he whispers, rubbing antsily at his arm.  “We’ve been waiting forever. It’s so fucking hot.”

“Someone needs a nap.”

“Yeah.  Like a ten day one.  Jesus, what’s wrong with me?  I don’t feel well.”

“Are you sick?”

No.  Just burning.  It’s a thousand fucking degrees in here.  You don’t think so?”

She shrugs.

But the discomfort in his gut isn’t about that, he knows that.

He hates being this way.  He hates feeling like this.

Jesus.  His son’s happy and he feels so fucking churned up and bitter inside.  He feels this sickness rising up in his throat like he’s going to start fucking crying.

He’s been broken down from his lack of sleep.  He keeps talking to Acxa and Kolivan, out there in space, and he’s here, for what?  For what ?  His son hates him.  He’s tried so hard, given so much of his heart to Aki, and Aki doesn’t even want to look at him most of the time.

But Acxa and Kolivan don’t need him either.  Shiro’s right. They’ve got this. Everyone has got it.  The strife and goodness and everything in the world just keeps spinning no matter what Keith tries.  Keith’s just...dead weight.

He needs to be strong.  He’s an adult. He’s a parent.  Aki needs a strong parent.

Or does he?

He has Shiro.  He talks to Shiro.  He loves Shiro.

And Pidge.  He gets along so well with her.  He’d have them both.

A mother and a father and no place left for Keith.

He loves you, Keith, they say, but then he looks into Aki’s eyes.  Aki’s disappointed dull eyes, and Keith knows that he’s failed.

He’s not a good parent.  He knew this would be a mistake.  God, his head is pounding with so much pain.

He’s got to get through this.

Finally - thank god - the thick red curtains roll back and the lights dim.  An elderly man walks out to greet them, pulling the microphone close to his face.

Everything feels uncomfortable.  Keith can feel it through the tension in his shoulders all the way down to the tips of his toes, where they’re crammed tightly into his shoes.  His body feels like it’s swelling. His heart feels like it’s thumping too hard in his chest. He can’t concentrate on what the man is saying.

He’s got to make it through this.

Shiro reaches for Keith’s hand, grabbing for attention.  When Keith looks over, Shiro tilts his head to the side in question.  You okay?   He mouths.

Keith nods sharply, takes a deep breath, and glues his eyes to the stage.  Tells his thoughts to shut the fuck up.

He draws his attention to the sharpness of his fang tooth biting into the softness of his gums.  He tastes blood. It distracts him better.

“Our boys and girls have worked so hard on the performance we put together for you.  They practiced many hours with as much excited exuberance as any teacher could ask for.  You’re really in for a treat. Please give our wonderful students a round of applause. Without further ado, let’s begin the show!”

The lights in the audience dim low, switching to the deep red of the stage and there he is.  Aki.

He’s in the front, walking onto the stage proudly.  Griffin follows him. They’re center stage, right in the middle of the action, the focal point of the whole theater.

They look so confident together, giving the other looks of encouragement and grinning together, like they have their own silent secret language.

Keith never knew.

Everyone goes hushed.  The lighting and set up is dark and dramatic, and when they begin, they move slowly, deliberately, no movement or speed just random.  Everything is calculated and sharp. Not just movement, but a dance. Fluid. Sturdy. Their teacher was right, they love their craft.  They’re good at it.

But Keith, already worn to the end of his nub, already suffering from the heat, from the stress, from lack of sleep, from his migraine, is struck by each beat.  It’s as loud and painful as Keith suspected it’d be, piercing into his skull and barbing itself there, like fish caught and gaping on a hook.

Two hours, he thinks to himself.  An infinite cage. Two hours.  He can’t do two hours of this. He digs his fingers into the chair’s cushioning.

But Aki is smiling. It looks so right on him.  The strength it takes, the patience. It’s like they’re listening, not just playing.  Like they can hear a current and they’re channeling it. He’s so in his element.

Music, not space, not flying through the stars like he used to want.  He used to want to relate to Keith.

Rejection, rejection, rejection.

As the song picks up, Aki strikes with a sharpness, like he’s venting out all these pent up emotions.  And Keith almost feels like the drum, being struck over and over, the way his head tenses and aches with each hit.

Shit.  Shit, he’s in a bad way.  He feels poisoned and jumpy.

And the stupid kids in front of him are so distracting.  They’re peering behind them, through the cracks of the seat, directly into Keith.  Staring. Just staring. He can see the whites of her eyes catch the light from the stage.  She’s looking right into his soul.

He tries to ignore her.  Tries to shove down the paranoia that’s screaming and scratching up his throat, trying to get him to pay attention.  He tries to focus on Aki instead, the way he drives the stick down.

But she won’t fucking stop staring.

What’s the big deal?  His heart starts thumping faster.  What does she see?

“Galra,” her mouth forms around the words.  And she keeps staring.

Oh god.  Wolves in sheeps’ clothing.

No, no, no.  He closes his eyes.  He’s being fucking crazy.  She’s a girl.  A tiny girl.  Aki at that age was more concerned about the candy he was shoving in his face than learning to be some weird terrorist spy.

She’s a child.

But she’s got to stop staring.

It doesn’t help that Acxa just hummed in discouragement today when Keith asked how the Galra situation has been lately.  “Can’t be as bad as it is on Earth,” she had joked. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.” There’s so much tension in this universe.

How does this young girl know?  What does she see in him that tells her of his heritage?  Why does it matter? Keith’s head is zipping five hundred different ways and god , he wishes she would stop fucking staring.   It’s driving him insane.

The entryway’s curtain flutters and he tenses more.  He doesn’t know why he feels like he’s waiting for Galra guardsman to come through.  For chaos to break out.

It’s not like it was.  They’re not the enemy. He is not the enemy.

He shifts in his seat, crossing his arms over his chest, trying to focus.  Aki, he tells himself.  Aki is there, that’s what this is about.

“Mom,” the girl starts tugging at her mom’s sleeve.  She leans up in her ear, gaining her mom’s focus. She points to Keith.

Keith’s mind snaps back to her.  What if it’s the mom? The child is just the eyes of the operation, but it’s the mom who starts it.  She looks soft and unassuming, but don’t they all? Pidge is soft and unassuming too and she can fuck whatever shit up she wants.

This is how the next news story might start.  And Keith felt it and did nothing.

He's in the wrong place.  Keith could almost sob in relief that Krolia isn’t here too, more obviously a Galra than even him.  They would prosecute her. The enemies, all these enemies, lurking among the audience. It could be anyone here.

“Mom, I thought you said he was Galra?”  The girl whispers loudly. “Will he turn?”

The mother’s eyes flick up to Keith’s and then back down, in a fright.

“Shh!”  The mom says, jerking her daughter forward so she can’t see.  She reaches tensely into her pocket.

Keith’s whole body goes alight with tension.  What if it’s -

...But it’s just a piece of candy she takes out and shoves at her kid to shut her up.

Calm down, Keith, he closes his eyes and tries to tell himself.  He’s safe. Totally safe. Shiro’s the greatest fucking warrior of their time and he’s here, right beside Keith.  Keith has his knife in his belt. They’re just in a school, not a war, a school.

But everyone knows who he is.  Aki’s already said so. They won’t stop talking about him, all the time, why, why, why?

So word has to have had spread.  And people know he’s here. People know of him.  He’s about the only one they excuse for being Galran.  But he doubts the resistance does.

His heart’s fluttering oddly.  His breath feels too sharp. He’s got to get out of here.  His eyes swirl madly to all the exits. If something happens, he’ll go to the closest.  Unless someone blocks that pathway - what if some of Zarkon’s men are still alive, still loyal, still wanting revenge against Keith?  Why wouldn’t there be? Then what’ll be best? He could jump over this front seat and run to the exit in the East. Or he could duck behind the seats.  Would that be best? If they have their guns, if they have their weapons, if they have their spies. The dull ‘exit’ lights blaring brightly suck in all his attention.

But what about the innocent people here?  He can’t just run and leave them. What does he do?  Tell them all? Tell them what? That something bad might happen?  That he’s worried there might be?

He can’t.  And if he leaves, then he takes the Galra with him and they’d have no reason to attack.  Yeah. That makes sense. He needs to go. Now.  He can’t wait until after the disaster.  It’s coming. He feels it in his gut. He can always trust his gut.  Always. The universe exists because of his instincts.

It’s him.  He’s the taint.  He’s the reason this whole place would perish.  Everyone’s after him, the only one with a target on his back.

He’s got to go.

Pidge touches her finger to his thigh, leaning in.  He jumps a mile. Her touch sends his whole body alight with flames, like he’s going to turn to smoke and fall apart.  “Keith, you’re sweating,” she whispers, frowning. She turns his eyes to Shiro, who’s also shifting to get a better look at him.

Shiro’s face stills.  “Keith,” he reaches out carefully.  “...Keith...”

“I’m fine,” Keith gasps, trying to shrug off their stares.  But he’s not. He’s not. His fight or flight is going insane.  Each time they strike that drum it feels like an explosion going off.

And all these people.  He just knows there’s something not right.  Each seat is filled with a potential killer.  Their pockets can hold anything - guns, knives, grenades.  They all know who he is. They’re all watching him. None of them were patted down for weapons, they’re in a school, the perfect place to strike.  Everyone’s vulnerable, open.

They look like it - the same size and everything, the same way the Galra had looked those years ago, in the war.  Aren’t they in a war now too?

Any second now, they’ll take out their guns and shoot.  And he’ll be too late if he’s not paying attention. If he lets himself rest, they’re going to kill everyone.  Shiro's not safe.  His whole family isn't safe.  He feels like he’s going to scream.

Pedestrians, he screams to himself.  Innocents.  Children.   But they all feel like demons, turning their heads around to stare at him.  They know who he is. They know what he’s done. They’re going to test him. They’re after him.  There’s no peace after all. Why was he such a fool to believe in never ending peace?

He has his knife.  He always has his knife.  He suddenly doesn’t feel safe with it.

The drums bang loudly and Keith jumps, hands clenching tightly to the arm rest.

The child in the seat in front of him turns to stare again.  Those wide hypnotic eyes.

God, why?

Keith,” Shiro leans closer urgently, trying to say something, but Keith shoves him away roughly, stumbling out of his seat.

“Whoa,” Lance blinks.  Allura looks over. The rest of them.  Staring, everyone’s staring, they know something he doesn’t.

He feels crazy.

“Bathroom,” Keith breathes.  “Just the bathroom. Stay.”

He tries to walk out of there like a normal person.  He makes it past Pidge, who’s watching him with a weird look on her face.  He makes it out into the aisle where he counts his steps. One. Two. Three.  Four.

Everyone’s watching.  He sees their eyes, glowing slits in the darkness, reflecting the light from the stage, slits for eyes.  Like the druids. But the druids are dead, the druids are dead, how could there be so many here?

What if they were hiding?  They had a whole entire universe to hide in.

He can’t see their hands.  No one has their hands showing.  It could be any of them. He doesn’t know.  He’s not as sharp as he used to be. He’s not as prepared.  It could be any one of them.

Their slits for eyes, glowing in the light.  Watching him, waiting, they’re going to get him.

His whole entire being screams all at once: RUN.

He sprints the rest of the way to the bathroom, shoving the door, kicking the stall open and vomiting into the toilet so hard it feels like his brain’s going to rupture.

He feels the blood bursting from the depths of his sinuses, flooding down his face in a heated river.  He sees it gushing into the toilet, splashing over its pure white.

His bones ache too much to support him.  He slips to his knees and sinks against the cool porcelain.

It’s a fucking high school toilet.  God knows what’s on it or when it’s last been cleaned, but he can’t bring himself to care.

He presses his hands to his face tightly and breathes.  Tries to breathe.  But he can’t tell if it’s a sob or a wheeze each time he tries to inhale.

The door bangs open.  “Keith?  Keith!”

Keith lets out a strangled sob.  “Shiro.”

The stall squeaks as the door is pushed aside.  “Oh, Keith,” Shiro whispers, kneeling beside him, gently peeling him from the toilet.  “...Jesus, where’s the blood...- Oh...” He grabs a wad of toilet paper and presses it against Keith’s nose, holding it there firmly.  He looks into Keith’s face through spooked eyes.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Keith grits out.  “My head feels like it’s going to split. My heart feels like it’s going to explode!  Everyone was staring at me. Everyone. They knew I was Galra!”

“Keith...no one was staring at you.”

“No!  I had this feeling.  You know what I mean.  Like intuition, like something’s wrong.  Like that feeling you get in a quiet room when you know someone’s bad.  But it felt like that with everyone.  I think maybe the druids are back!  I saw some of their eyes; they’re different from other species.  There’s a feeling about them, you know?  A feeling.”

Shiro stares, shaking his head.  “No, Keith. No, I looked too. The druids are gone.  Zarkon’s reign is over. Honerva is gone. We’re okay now.”

No,” Keith moans, closing his eyes.  “No... I saw it."

"There was nothing.  I promise."

"Ugh, we’re in a fucking school, of course there isn't.  I feel like I’m going crazy!  What’s wrong with me?”

“It’s okay,” Shiro whispers.  “You’re okay. I’m here with you.  Calm down, Keith. You’re exhausted.  You haven’t been taking care of yourself.”

Keith let's out a frustrated sob and violently shakes his head.  “It’s not just that. I think I’m going crazy. I feel crazy.”

The bathroom door opens and someone else comes in and picks a stall nearby.  Keith leans his head against the cold bathroom tile and closes his eyes, trying to even out the jerking of his lungs.  Shiro changes out the toilet paper for a fresh wad, continuing to press it firmly.

When the person finishes their business and leaves, Keith can hear as the door opens, the high cracking sound of the sticks.  He cringes. The sharp sudden sounds of it is too bold, too strong.

“My stomach’s burning,” he groans again as he shifts to heave over the toilet.  He throws up into it again, feeling as the blood in his nose breaks free again. He spits.  “Those fucking drums and those fucking strobe lights.  Who thought that was a good idea?!”  He wheezes.

“I know,” Shiro murmurs softly, gently collecting Keith's chin in his hand to place fresh tissue paper to his nose.  “I know. Let’s get you home, Keith.  Come on.”

No,” Keith blinks in surprise, looking up to Shiro in horror.  “No way. What are you even saying? Aki would kill me. Kill me.  I can’t take you away from the show.  You said yourself, he wouldn’t stop talking about it all week.  I can’t do that to him.”

“Keith, look at yourself, you have blood all over your shirt and you were just collapsed over a public toilet.  Keith, there’s something in your eyes tonight that’s scaring me. You can’t go back into that room. We need to go.”

“No,” Keith clenches his eyes together tightly and shakes his head.  “No, please.  Don’t.  Aki needs this.  I can’t let him be parentless, not tonight, not on his night. Please, Shiro.  Don’t make me do this.  Don’t.”

Shiro leans in and grabs Keith’s chin in his hands.  “Keith. Aki will be okay. He will live. There’s a performance tomorrow.  I’ll come back then, okay? But for now, we’re going to take care of you.”

Keith feels his eyes well with tears.  “No. No.  He needs us -”

“Pidge and the rest are here.  They’ll take care of him.”

Keith pauses for a moment, trying to find a way to resist.  He comes up with nothing and sinks into his hands. He’s so beaten down he can’t take it anymore.  He cries. He’s failed Aki in so many ways and this is the worst one because he’s taking Shiro away too.

“Shh, shh...”  Shiro holds him in his arms, rocking the both of them gently.  “Calm down. We’ve got to get you home.”

“What’s wrong with me...?”  Keith keeps wondering, holding his hand out and watching how it shakes and shivers.

Shiro helps Keith to his feet and guides him out through the lobby, past the prying eyes.  Everyone staring, looking at him. He clings to Shiro tighter.

They leave out the front of the school and make it to the car.  Keith’s exhausted. It's like he's been pumped full of battery acid, running through his veins, fueling his cells, infecting his stomach. This shell he’s residing in feels like it’s uninhabitable, like it’s trying to push him out.

Keith shudders and tries to shove Shiro out of the way, throwing up in the bushes again as Shiro holds him up, keeping him from sinking.  When Keith wipes his mouth off with the back of his hand, Shiro helps him into the passenger seat.

“I’m texting Lance to see if he can drop Aki off after the performance,” Shiro says, looking down into his phone.  He waits two seconds and then hums, “He’ll do it. He says to feel better.”

“Oh, god,” Keith whispers around the burning in this throat.  He feels so fucking weak and useless. “All he’s been talking about is this performance...”  Keith fights the lump in his throat, rubbing at his face as he leans on the door. He can’t believe this is happening.  Leaving like this. “...I’m sorry, Shiro.”

Shiro’s as patient and forgiving as always.  “Don’t apologize. This isn’t your fault.”

How could it not be his fault?  His overactive mind, so ridiculous, it spun him out of control.  It doesn’t even make sense to him. Maybe he just has a cold. It’s probably just that.

He feels better in the quiet, in the cool familiarity of their car, driving these still streets he knows.  Night kisses his skin and soothes his eyes. None of that toxic color, none of the pounding drums.

When they get home, Shiro hurries around the car to help Keith.  He brings him up to the bathroom, starts the warm water, and grabs Keith a towel and a change of clothes.

Keith watches after him, in a strange bloated daze.  His skin hurts all over.

Shiro comes back wringing out a towel.  He sits beside the tub and suds the towel up, gently running it along Keith’s body in soothing circles, working to wipe everything away.  He gets his face well, washing off his mouth and his nose. Keith lets him. It almost hurts for how sensitive he is. He doesn’t want to be touched.  He doesn't want anyone to be around him, not even himself. But it’s Shiro. So he lets him.

“Talk to me, Keith,” Shiro says quietly, his movements sending the water gently trickling.  “Can you talk about what happened?  What are you feeling?”

Keith just shakes his head harshly.  “Jesus, I don’t know. Guilt?  All I can think of is how, when I was younger, whenever we had a stupid school choir performance, or a marathon, when everyone’s parents would be there, I knew mine wouldn’t be.  ...I used to peer over the tops of heads and hope, secretly, that my foster parents might care enough to come. But they never did. ...I never...ever wanted that for Aki.  To look out in the crowd for his parents and to not find what he’s looking for,” Keith takes in a sharp breath and feels as his eyes well with tears again.  He rubs roughly at his face. “He already doesn’t trust me like he does you. I wanted to be there for him no matter what today... This was my chance, Shiro.  The one time he decided to let me in and I fucking failed him. What the fuck is wrong with me...? God... Of all days, why...? Why this one day?  This one time he opened his heart to me.  He asked me to come, Shiro. This one time.  He asked me.  He never asks me anything.  And I let him down.”

“Aki’s a smart kid.  He will understand,” Shiro says firmly.

“He will?  Because I don’t.  I don’t understand a damn thing.  Am I sick? My heart just kept beating out of control.  All those people...it didn’t feel like it should, just sitting in a school.  My senses were going crazy.  I felt like they were bad people, Shiro.  I really did. I thought I really saw the druids there, the Galra soldiers...  My muscles were tensing like we were going into battle. I couldn’t calm my body down.  The more I tried, the more it got out of hand. I started imagining them pulling out weapons.  I couldn’t see their hands. I don’t think I should carry my knife around anymore... I wanted to use it.”  He swallows roughly, pushing back his hair from his forehead.  

“I keep having these dreams lately, of our time back when Voltron was around.  When we were out in space all the time... I... I know we had really great times together, but...lately, it’s like...all I can remember are the bad.  Do you get it?  When they kept clacking those fucking sticks I mean, I knew they were only sticks, but it’s like my mind couldn’t see beyond the battlefield for some reason and I -  It was so loud. There was so much energy in the air...” He sniffs roughly. “I’ve never felt so scared. Never.  ...This fear I’ve never even known before. It doesn’t make any sense.” He holds his hand out in the blue, watches it shake, even still.

“...Sounds almost familiar, doesn’t it...?”  Shiro murmurs.

Keith stares up at Shiro for a long time.  His understanding silver eyes, the way he looks so sad, like he knows from experience just what kind of shitpile Keith’s stepped into.  He closes his eyes. Swallows hard. “...But - But it’s been years .  It’s never bothered me.  Why would it bother me now?  Yours came immediately.”

“Keith, after everything we went through, I mean...it would be a miracle if it hadn’t affected us.  Everyone processes things differently. Sometimes warriors come back home after the war changed. I’ve seen great warriors come back from war and they won’t even talk anymore.  Their psyche’s been harmed. You and I...we started this so young.  Can you imagine Aki living the life you had to? We’re not those same kids we were before all this.  I know I’m not.”

“But...”  Keith trails off, biting at his lip.  “I... It never bothered me before,” he mutters lowly, looking back out.  “I think I just...ate something bad. I’m tired. Overworked.  It’s my fault. I just need some sleep and I’ll be better in the morning.”

Shiro’s quiet.  “...I think tomorrow I should call the doctor.”

“Shiro, I don’t need it.”

“I think you do.  I was here with you tonight, but what if this had happened and you were alone?  What then? Keith... What’s the worst that could happen at the doctors'? I’m honestly asking.  I’ll be right beside you if you want me to. They’re there to help you...”

Keith takes in a deep shaky breath.

“Think about it,” Shiro murmurs.  “But for now, you need rest. You look horrible, Keith.”

Shiro helps Keith out of the bath, even though he doesn’t really need it.  He’s feeling better. Shaky and disgusting, but...human again.

They dress him and go into their room.

“I’ll talk with Aki when he gets back.”

Keith’s head snaps up.  “No.  Don’t tell him!”

“Keith, he’s your son.  We can’t leave him in the dark, he’s part of this family.  We can trust each other. He’s not going to think less of you.”

“No?  Not that my head was in the fucking high school toilets puking my brains out because I couldn’t stand the sound of his drums, the very thing he loves?  How I could barely walk to the fucking car?  Shiro. Think of how that sounds.  Wouldn’t you be scared if you were a kid and your parent was in that state?  He doesn’t have to know. I’ll be fine in the morning. He doesn’t have to know.”

Shiro hesitates, biting at his lip.  “Keith...I think...”

“It’s my choice.”  Keith whispers, grabbing the collar of Shiro’s shirt and dragging him so close they’re in each other’s warmth, “I don’t want him to look into the darkest parts of me, twisted and ugly.  Whatever bits of respect he has left for me...I want those strands to hold. I don’t even know what this is. I can’t stand to look in his eyes and know he knows how weak I actually am.”  Shiro opens his mouth to speak and Keith cuts him off, “Don’t give me that ‘everyone is human’ crap. He doesn’t need to know about the fucking toilet. ” 

He grabs Keith’s hands and gently undoes their hold.  “Cool it. Okay? I’m on your side. I want to do what’s right, but don’t you think this might be the wrong choice?  You’re pushing Aki away. You’re the one who wants things to change. How can they if you treat him the same you always have?  Let him in, Keith.”

Keith’s quiet.  Even if he were to try to explain and Aki were to listen...what would Keith even say?  I thought everyone was out to kill me when we were sitting completely safe in a theater?  He can’t.  He just can’t.  He traversed the universe, he fought so many battles and saved so many people and conquered evil and now he can’t even watch a performance?  This isn’t him. He doesn’t know who this is.  He hates it.  He’s scared of it.  He can’t even look at it.

Shiro watches the conflict on Keith’s face and eases, gently leans up to kiss him on the forehead.  “I’ll handle Aki. I won’t mention the toilet...but you’re not weak, Keith. Get some rest. Whatever this is, we’re going to get through this, okay?  You and me, together. A united front. You were there for me when I struggled, every step of the way. I’m so grateful for you, Keith, and I’m so much better now...  It’ll get better for you too. I’m here for you.”

Keith nods slowly, looking up into Shiro’s warm genuine eyes.  He knows everything Shiro said is true. How’d he get so lucky?  “...Thanks, Shiro...for caring for me. We’ll figure it out, but it’s...it’s not what you’re thinking.  PTSD, it...” He can hardly even say the words. He swallows hard around them. “It usually comes soon after the event.  For you, it did. It’s been so many years. This is different. Maybe some alien disease or something.”

“If it’s PTSD?”  Shiro hums, holding a brush out for Keith.

He shifts under his blankets and rubs at his face.  He takes the brush from Shiro and starts combing it through his hair.  Shiro hovers, biting at his lip with worry. His eyes are distant though he tries to hide it.

“Go take a shower...” Keith hums.  “You look exhausted.”

He checks out the window.  “Aki’s going to be home soon...”

“All the more reason to change.”

Shiro looks over in question and Keith reaches up to press his hand to Shiro’s shirt.  “I got my blood on you. ...Probably my vomit too, honestly...”

Shiro looks down and smoothes his shirt out with a small sigh.  He hesitates.

“He doesn’t need to see that, Shiro.  Go. You take quick showers anyway. I dunno why you’re worrying.”

Shiro’s eyes slide up to Keith’s.  Ah. He doesn’t want to leave Keith alone.

“I’ll be right here,” Keith murmurs, shifting in his bed to get more comfortable.  He nestles his head into his pillow. “I feel much better.”

“Good,” Shiro whispers, undoing his neck tie with his thumb as he leans down to kiss Keith’s lips.  “I’ll leave the door unlocked. Come get me for anything.”

Shiro leaves the remote with Keith as he goes to shower.  Keith flips idly through the stations, carefully avoiding the news, but the only other shit that’s on is...well, shit.  He’s thirsty... And really, he does feel better. He doesn’t know what that was. A panic attack? Shiro used to get them.  It seems like that’s probably what it was. Do they really recede so suddenly like that?

Maybe it’s like the stomach flu and now he just...feels better?

He slips out of bed and takes care walking down the stairs, just in case, for Shiro’s sake.  Kosmo comes too, so he has his little babysitter.

Shiro had left the lights on dim for Aki and it warms the lower level sleepily.  He pitter patters his way into the kitchen and opens up the cupboard, seeking out a clean glass, listening to the soft clink and wondering why this doesn’t bother him too.  He’s at the kitchen sink, letting the water slowly fill the cup, watching out the window into the night’s dark blue, when he sees headlights blare through. Kosmo runs to the door happily, his tail wagging a million miles per second.

The door unlocks and Keith turns.

“Hey, boy,” Aki murmurs softly, running his hands through Kosmo’s soft fur with gentle attention as he shuts the door and leans against it.  “Nice to see you too. Wish you could’ve come...”

Keith must make some sort of noise because Aki’s eyes turn up suddenly, catching sight of him.  He tenses immediately and, before Keith can even say anything, Aki turns on his heel, opens the front door, and leaves.

“W-wait.  Aki!” Keith hurries after him, tearing the door open and rushing out.  “Where are you going?”

Lance, Allura, and the twins are getting out of their car in their driveway, heads poking up at attention.

“I’m going to sleep over Uncle Lance’s house tonight,” Aki says, stepping through their lawn and onto the sidewalk.  “Tell Dad not to wait up.”

Keith runs barefoot across the lawn, trying to catch up with him.  His heart starts fluttering oddly, but he pushes forward. “Aki, wait.  I’m sorry, okay?  I know how important this was to you, I swear to god I didn’t mean for this to happen.  I wanted to stay. I did.”

“Did you?  That’s funny,”  Aki says, turning around sharply and staring Keith down.  “They said you were sick, but you look fine. What was the problem?  You couldn’t take Dad looking away from you and at me for two fucking seconds?”

Aki.  What...what are you talking about?  I wanted him to be there for you. ...I wanted to be there for you too.”

Aki kicks at the grass and puts his hands on his head, shifting restlessly.

“I don’t know what happened,” Keith whispers.  “I just...got...sick. I didn’t want to leave, I promise.  I know how important it was to you.”

“Just a taiko performance,” Aki shrugs.  “It wasn’t flying off to Kerberos or saving the galaxy.  I mean, I wouldn’t blame you if you just got bored and wanted to go home.”

“...Aki...  No... You really think I’d think that?”

“Why wouldn’t you?  Perfect Keith Kogane.  Why wouldn’t you?”

Keith doesn’t even know what to say.

Allura hesitates, her and Lance murmuring under their breath to each other before she breaks from them and comes over.  She steps over the dirt that divides their property and walks across the grass.

Aki lets her near him, hanging his head dejectedly.

“Akihiro,” she says gently, placing her hand on his shoulder.  “You know we love you and you are always welcome at our place...but I think it would best if you went home tonight.  Your fathers need you.”

Aki presses his lips together tightly and looks up to the sky, expression tight.

“How about another night?  You and the girls can set up a fortress in the living room, just like old times.  How’s that sound? I won’t even complain about hanging sheets on the chandelier.”

“Okay,” he whispers, but he stays where he is.  The distance between them is tight with tension.

“Come here,” she murmurs, opening her arms and wrapping him in a big hug.  “You were amazing tonight. I’m so happy you’ve found something that makes you happy.”

“Thanks, Aunt Allura...”  His eyes soften as she smiles down at him.

She gives him one last pat on the shoulder before turning back to smile at Keith, sympathy in her eyes.  “And Keith, if there’s anything you need, anything at all, Lance and I and the girls are all here for you.  Day and night.”

“Thanks, Allura,” he whispers, hands on his hips.  It’s cold out here. The only light that shines comes from Allura’s porch across the way and the dim lights inside their own home.  Kosmo leans against Keith’s side, looking at the both of them curiously, but the wind still cuts through Keith’s thin pajamas.

Lance and the rest retire into their home and lock the doors, but they leave the porch light on for them.

It’s just Aki and Keith, at a strange sort of impasse, neither knowing how to make the next move.

“I really am sorry...”  Keith whispers.

“I get it,” Aki’s word cut, sharp and bitter.

He doesn’t get it, but Keith doesn’t want to tell him.  He looks down at Kosmo’s innocent little eyes, who tilts his head curiously, and then down to their surroundings, searching for...anything, really.  His eyes catch on a piece of grass. He kneels down and takes it in his hands.

“Hey, Aki.  Look. It’s here too.”  He holds it to his mouth and blows.  Quietly.

The noise is the same, but the times are different.  It sings through the air but the magic is lost and has no effect.

Aki sighs heavily, staring at Keith with a slight divot in his brow.  But he finally budges, walking from the sidewalk and onto grass. Kosmo’s tail begins wagging again.

“I’m not a kid anymore,” Aki says as he walks past.  Keith looks at the grass in his hand and lets it drop from between his fingers. Yeah. Not a kid.  That Keith already knew.  At least he got him back in the house, where Shiro waits, blinking in surprise out the door.

He only has a towel wrapped around his waist and his hair is dripping all over the wooden floors Shiro is always such a nitpick about.  He doesn’t seem to notice as he stares. “Keith, jesus, you scared me... What are you guys doing out here?”

Keith just sighs and shakes his head, shrugging.

Aki sniffs sharply.  “Hey, Dad,” he murmurs, shoving himself into Shiro’s arms for a hug.

“Hey, bud...”  Shiro’s still looking between the two of them with question in his eyes.  “You okay?”

“Yeah,” he sniffs.  “I just...I looked up once and you were there and then the next time, you were gone.”

Shiro looks to Keith and then back down to Aki.  “Here. Keith, get to bed. You told me you would earlier...you need rest.”

Keith rolls his eyes, but Shiro’s right.  He had been feeling better, but going out here has made him feel worse again.  Something’s strange inside of him. Something’s off. He walks past the both of them and shuts the door behind him.  “Bossy,” he says.

“I’ll be up in a few minutes.  Go to sleep.”

Keith climbs the stairs and thinks about going to bed, but he stops there in the hallway, leaning his head against the wall, listening.  Kosmo tilts his head and Keith runs his hands through his thick bushy fur, drawing comfort from him.

“Everything’s okay, Aki.  Your dad just got sick in there.  He’s been overworking himself and I think it just all came to a head tonight.”

“...What happened?”

“...He was just overwhelmed.  He thinks it might be exhaustion.  I want to bring him in to see a doctor though.”

“But you don’t think it’s exhaustion.  I can tell from your face.”

“I didn’t say that.  I think it could be a contributing factor.”

“A contributing factor to what?”

“We don’t know yet, Aki.”

“...Is it serious?”

“I think it might be.  But don’t worry, okay? He’ll get better.  We just have to be a bit more patient with him.  I know he’s been... distant lately and I know how hard it is for you too.  I just don’t think he sees how badly he’s hurting right now...  This might not be the worst of it. It might get worse before it gets better, but we have to be strong for him.  We have to be there for him, okay? He needs us. He needs you... He loves you, Aki.”

Aki’s quiet for a long moment.  “Must’ve been bad. Everyone seemed spooked after the performance.  Never seen Aunt Pidge so pale... But he looks fine now. I don’t get it.  Why just for me...?”

“He’s really upset he missed your performance.  He really wanted to see you. I literally had to drag him to the car he didn't want to go that badly.  He wanted to stay.”

“I have one tomorrow too.  Will you both go then? With Grandma?”

“I don’t know if he’ll be able to, Aki...”

“Oh...”  The disappointed tone in Aki’s voice pierces Keith’s heart.

“Come on.  Let’s watch one show before bed.  Your mind’s probably still buzzing, isn’t it?  Tonight was an exciting night for you.” He can hear them pulling away, distance stretching longer between them, strings pulling and breaking the further they get from Keith.  “How did your performance go? What I saw was amazing...”

Keith draws his arms around himself tightly, trying to hold himself together, but he feels so damn miserable.  He wishes he could be out there too, with his son, with his husband.

But that wedge in his heart weighs him down to this spot, a ship sunken in sea.  His heart thumps strangely in his chest, pressing against the inside of his throat.  He’s alone in their home, deep in one of the safest cities in the world, nestled by the Garrison, but somehow, he doesn’t feel safe.  Like there are eyes on him. He goes to their room and with clumsy hands, he seeks out his knife from the nightstand and clings to it tightly.

These hands that grip the handle of the blade...they don’t feel like his hands.  Shaky and weak and awkward. It’s like he’s not him at all.

He feels this odd prickling sensation in his chest, desperation welling up in him.  He wants to call out for Shiro, needs to not be alone anymore, but he bites his fist and trembles instead.

Quiet.  Alone, in his room.  Nothing around him. He’s different.  He doesn’t even know who he is anymore, but he feels like he’s the furthest person from Keith in the universe.

 

Light comes through the cracks of their window.  Tiny dust particles dance through tunnels of golden light lazily.  Keith watches them dully while he slowly swishes in and out of sleep.  Night was strangely empty - not relaxing or stressful - and his head feels a bit fried.  It’s nice to just sit and watch, totally lax.

He realizes Shiro isn’t beside him and he crinkles his face, shifting out of bed sluggishly.  His body is heavy. He feels like he came back from a mission that went wrong.

Shiro pops his head around the corner of the door and smiles as he sees Keith’s awake.  “Hey,” he murmurs in a soft voice, walking over to Keith and setting a glass of water beside him.  “Did you forget this last night? I’m sorry, I should’ve asked before I sent you off to bed. I got you a fresh glass.  Thirsty?”

Keith moves his jaw around, rubbing at his crazy bed head blearily.  “...Ugh,” is all he manages.

Shiro chuckles slightly, leaning his head on the doorway as he takes the sight of Keith in.  It’s funny. They’ve been married for years, but Shiro has a way of looking at Keith like it’s for the first time, like they’re newly in love, like he couldn’t be any fonder.  Keith scratches at his belly. Shiro says, “I was just coming to wake you. You were clinging to your knife last night like Aki with his stuffed animals. I put it on the dresser.  How are you feeling?”

“What time is it?”  Keith grumbles groggily, pressing a hand to his stomach.

“Almost three -”

Keith almost chokes.

“I wanted to let you rest, but we’re leaving soon.  Krolia’s already on her way here.”

“Shiro, what the hell?  You should’ve told me it was this late.  I can’t believe I slept in like this...” He tosses the blanket off of himself roughly as he gets to his feet.

He gets a strange wave of dizziness pulling over him.  He lurches. Holds himself steady. He stares at the light shining in, tries to let its rays center him.

If he were smart, he’d listen to his body.  But even his younger self wouldn’t have stopped at this.  There are more important things.

He turns to Shiro.  “I want to go too,” Keith says, pushing past Shiro and heading downstairs.

“Keith...”  Shiro mutters as he follows him down.  “Keith, wait.”

“I think yesterday was a fluke.  I feel fine.”

Aki’s sitting on the couch, watching TV and eating from a bowl.  He stops mid-bite and looks up at Keith as he comes down. He stares like Keith’s an animal in a zoo.

Shiro bites at his lip.  “...Keith... I know you want to go, but I really think it’d be best if you stayed home.  How about I record the performance for you?”

Keith tosses a sharp frown in Shiro’s direction.  “I want to go.”

Aki hesitates.  He’s keeps looking at him weird, like he’s infected.  It makes Keith’s skin crawl, he has to look away. “If you’re sick, I mean...”

Keith rubs at his forehead.  “I really want to. You don’t perform a lot.  I want to be there for you.”

“Grandma and Dad will already be there.  It’s fine.” Aki means it to console, but it stabs through Keith.  What he really hears is, I don’t need you there because I already have them.

Keith swallows his emotions down and says lowly for the last damn time, “I want to go.”  He starts making himself something for lunch as Shiro leans against the counter, watching him with his brow furrowed, in deep thought.

“Sit,” Shiro says softly after awhile, gently grabbing the knife from Keith’s hand.  “I’ll finish this up.”

Keith does as he’s told, watching from the counter as Shiro carefully cuts everything.

“You don’t have to baby me, you know.  I really do feel better today,” Keith says.

“I know.”

“I don’t think we need to call a doctor.”

Shiro takes in a long steady breath but doesn’t say anything.

“And if you say another thing about a vacation, I swear to god.  Today’s my vacation. I’ll be better for work tomorrow.”

“Keith, you know I admire your tenacity.  But you have to understand why sometimes I’m concerned about the way you treat yourself.  Try to imagine it from my point of view. If what happened to you yesterday had happened to me, you’d have me swaddled in a blanket all day, spoon feeding me chicken noodle soup and not allowing me to even leave the bed.  Right?”

Keith presses his mouth together tightly.

Shiro shoves the spoon in his direction.  “You know it’s true.”

“What happened yesterday?  Like, specifically.” Aki says, leaning over the back of the couch, watching through indecipherable eyes.

Keith turns to face him.  Hesitates.

“Last night you ran right after me.  You don’t look sick.”

Keith takes a long deep breath.  “Because I’m not. I’m fine.”

“Keith,” Shiro sighs heavily.

There’s a knock at the door and Aki, after another long look at Keith, mutters, “I’ll get it.”

Shiro takes the opportunity to lean forward into Keith’s space and whisper fiercely, “Keith, I need to be real here.  I’m worried. Really worried. Stop pretending it was nothing because it wasn’t.  It scared me.  And whether you’ll admit it to yourself or not, I know it scared you too.  I want you to see a doctor.”

Keith massages the bridge of his nose.  He wants to argue but he knows Shiro isn’t petty and thoughtless about things, that he can trust Shiro more than he can trust himself.  And Shiro’s right. He still feels a vibrating in his fingertips and an odd pulling at the air in his lungs. Keith flicks his gaze back to Shiro’s.  “Let me go to this without a fight and tonight, we can talk about it. I promise to listen as open-minded as I can. I will hear you out and I will think about it.  This is important to Aki tonight, so it’s important for me too.  I feel like he’s giving me a rare chance and I do not want to miss it.”

Shiro holds his gaze for a long while, his eyes searching Keith’s face with some sort of stretched out desperation.  “...Okay,” he whispers finally. “But please .  If you feel anything off at all , you have to tell me.  Promise me.”

“I promise,” Keith says, looking up into Shiro’s eyes, trying to be as transparent as he can be.  “I’ll tell you immediately.”

“...Okay.”  He clears his throat and pulls back as Krolia and Aki walk in.  "I need to text Pidge then. She was coming to hang out with you while we left."

Krolia looks as soothingly beautiful as always.  She puts her arm around Keith’s shoulders and snuggles him up for a kiss on his temple.  “Hi, Keith. How are you?”

“Good.  I’ve been good.  How about you?”

“Mm, good.  Coming today?”

“Yeah,” he says, grabbing the plate from Shiro and taking a big bite.

“...Are you still in your pajamas?”  Krolia arches an eyebrow.

She’s the only one not giving him an oddly soft and watchful look.  Shiro must not have told her yet. She only looks confused.

He waves it away.  “Late start. I’ll change really fast.”

He gets ready in a hurry, throwing some clothes on and tying his hair behind his back just as quickly.  He takes a quick look at himself in the mirror. He looks fine. Same as ever. He wishes Aki and Shiro would stop looking at him like that.

“Okay,” Keith says as he hurries down the stairs.  “Are we all good? Mom? Shiro? Aki?”

"We’re good," Aki says, hefting his bag over his back as Krolia pats his shoulders.

“I'll drive today,”  Shiro says.

“I don’t care,” Keith says, pulling the door open to step outside.

And he stops.

He’s never really noticed it before.  All the colors on this earth. But suddenly, they’re so so vivid.

The sun is shining so brightly in the sky, beating down on the pavement, heating them from every side, like an oven.  It’s hot today, unusually hot, suspiciously hot. Something feels wrong. The sun could supernova, swallowing them whole, and he thinks of that one time he almost crashed into Naxzela’s barrier.  It feels close again, like it’s here again. Like thinking of it has somehow opened up the possibility of it coming back. But this time no one can save him. Too late.

It makes no sense.  None of this makes any sense, he knows that part of his life is over , but he just feels it through his bones, running across the top of his flesh.  It feels the same.  The heat.  The sweat. The smell.  The look. 

The energy out here - it’s blaring.

Dangerous. Enemies in every corner.

He takes a reflexive shaky step backward.  It’s like something physical holding him back at his own doorstep, barring him.

What’s wrong with him?  What’s happening to him?

Everything’s so much.  Nothing’s changed, but nothing’s the same either.  He’s seeing it through new eyes.

It’s the same world he was in last night.  Last night when everything fell apart. He still doesn’t know what that was and it scares him.  What triggered it? He feels like he’s standing in front of the gates of it, recklessly about to jump into a pool filled with sea creatures intent on pulling him under and eating him to his bones.

“Keith?”  Krolia’s confused voice cuts through his rampant thoughts.  “Keith, honey, are you okay?”

He clears his throat roughly.  Tries to talk. Finds he can’t.  Grits his teeth and forces himself.  “Oh. Yeah. Fine.”

He forces himself to take a step out.  It’s just a foot against wood. And another.  The wind cuts across his skin. Was the patio always this rickety?  Did the sun always burn away at his skin like this? He goes down the steps.

Shiro and Krolia are exchanging looks behind his back.

“...Dad,” Aki mutters lowly to Shiro.  “Dad, I don’t think -”

“I know.  Keith,” Shiro says firmly, hurrying forward to support his hands to Keith’s back.  “Keith...”

Keith places his hands to the hood of the car even though it’s sweltering and burns his skin.  He’s shaking. His shoulders can barely hold him up. He takes in long slow deep breaths.

He feels like, out here, he’ll die.  Truly, actually die. The terror is so much inside of him he could scream.

“...I think I might stay,” he says finally, quietly.  He swallows hard, sniffing even harder. “Yeah, I...I think maybe that’d be best.”

Shiro looks down into Keith’s face for a moment and Keith holds his gaze.  Keith can already see it there, developing in Shiro’s eyes. He gets it, he feels it too, but they can’t always be partners in crime, stuck at the hip, because both of them can’t stay.  Aki needs them, both of them, but he has to at least have Shiro.

“Go,” he says to Shiro, gently nudging him toward the car as he disengages himself and walks up the porch steps.  Safer, but the sun is still too bright. It feels like it’s burning him. Like there are people waiting in the bushes, hiding, lurking behind the trees that border their property.  He feels like he’s in the middle of that old familiar battlefield and no one seems to notice it but him. But his mom, she’s more of a warrior than him. Shiro... He can trust these people, more than himself.  And they don’t fear the surroundings closing in on them.

Krolia’s giving him that strange look now too and it makes him crumble inside.  He swallows hard and turns his eyes from their looks. “I’m fine, Mom. Shiro will tell you about it at the theater.  Don’t be late. Go, I’ll just...watch TV. Aki, have fun. I’m really sorry I’m missing it...”

He hates , h a t e s  the way that Aki is looking at him.  Aki seems to realize this and he flicks his eyes down and swallows hard.  “Y-yeah. It’s fine.”

Shiro doesn’t move.  He’s looking down at the keys in his hand like he’s going to relinquish them and Keith feels his throat tightening.  No. No, not to Aki.

He points to the car.  “...It’s only two hours, Shiro.  Stop hesitating. Go.”

“...Okay,” he whispers, but he looks upset as he stares after Keith.  The skin of his face is pulled back and pale in worry. “Um. Pidge was already on her way.  I’ll text her again,” Shiro says softly, looking back down into his phone. He shakes his head as he tries to concentrate, but Keith can tell from the frazzled look in his eyes that his mind is far away.  “I uh, I went out this morning and got popcorn and chocolate for you guys in case you wanted it. I’ll leave my phone on. Call me. For anything.”

“I’m okay, just...don’t want to push it, you know?  It’s just...hot,” Keith whispers, tossing his hand to the sky, trying to act normal , but he knows Shiro knows him too well.  Knows when he’s faking. “Maybe it’s just heatstroke.  I just need another day. One more day to rest, like you said.  I’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” Shiro whispers right as Pidge pulls in, just on time.

She shoves her sunglasses up and grins winningly.  “Hey, guys, long time no see.” She reads the atmosphere immediately, looking between all their faces, but decides to ignore it.  “Hey, Keith. No warm welcome?”

“Hey...”  He murmurs lowly, looking down at his feet.

“...Still not feeling great?”

He shakes his head.

“Okay, well, I have a remedy for that,” she says as she pats her bag.  “ Movies .  It’s on my USB actually.  I dunno why I patted my bag because it’s actually in my pocket.  Anyway, you guys all go and have fun. Keith’s mine now, no take backs.  Rock it out there, Aki. I know you can. Yesterday was awesome.”

“Thanks, Aunt Pidge,” Aki grins for the first time that day.  “I’ll do my best.”

Shiro is still looking at Keith.  “I’ll record it,” Shiro finally says.

 “You’ll be okay...?”  Krolia asks, looking between all of them for clues.

“I’ll be fine,” Keith says, shushing them away.  “Go.  Aki...I’m sorry.”

He feels ridiculous and dirty, everyone’s attention on him instead of on Aki.  This should be a day of fun, a day of celebrating, a day for Aki to be proud. But everyone’s worried about Keith.  No one’s even looking at Aki. Keith knows how that feels and it hurts him.

“Don’t worry about it,” Aki says and his voice is even and his expression isn’t angry, but there isn’t that glow either, not like he just showed with Pidge only moments before.

With one last encouraging smile, Shiro gets in the car and and they take off and it’s just Keith and Pidge at the front door.

“Hey,” Pidge says, elbowing Keith.

He nudges her back softly.  “...Hey. Are you my babysitter?  ...I hope Shiro’s paying you well for the trouble.”  They go inside and Keith lets himself sink into the couch.  Kosmo happily joins them, snuggling up on Keith’s side. He runs his hands through his fur.

“What trouble, asshole?  I can’t visit you anymore?  You always have more snacks in stock than I do anyway.  And besides, I wanted to watch this movie with you. Legends of the Deep Sea Creature.  It’s supposed to be really bad.”

“Oh, good,” he sighs, watching as she sets the movie up.

The movie is bad, just like Pidge promised.  It’s almost not even an amusing kind of bad, that’s how bad it is.  Not that Keith can pay much attention anyway. He tries, he really does, but he can’t pull his focus like usual.

He feels weird.  Flitty and stretched wrong, like his bones have shifted in his body and he no longer fits.

Pidge chuckles softly at the TV, shifting onto his arm.  “Look at that guy. He’s the worst actor in the world.”

He looks up.

The man has a gun.  He’s pulling it from his back pants and aiming it into the water, trying to seek out the beast that destroyed his city.

Keith feels his insides tense up like springs.  Don’t shoot, he thinks, trying to ignore the desperate feeling in his chest.

Don’t shoot.  Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot.

He shoots.  The sound is splintering.  Crashing through Keith’s senses.  It’s like a tangible thing, stretched over his soul, broken.

The sea creature on the screen writhes and screeches and flails into the water, dying a slow painful death, the life squirming out of it as it struggles to keep hold.  Desperately. So desperately.

Vivid red blood oozes out of its body and into the water...  What’s left are just its empty, lifeless eyes.

His breath trembles.

“Bathroom,” he whispers, pulling himself up, patting Kosmo on the head as he looks to Keith curiously, and walks down the hall.

He closes and locks the door behind him and sits on the edge of the bathtub.

Oh, god, he wishes Shiro were here.  Shiro knows just what to say, just what to do to calm him down.

He closes his eyes and breathes deeply, pressing his hands to his face.  It’s stupid. Logically, it’s so so stupid. He knows it. How many bad movies has he seen with Pidge?  So many he can’t even count. He’s used to gore. He’s used to violence. He’d grown numb to it.

But if he’d grown numb and used to it...why this?  He sinks back into the bathtub wall and stares at the tile beneath his feet.

He’s a warrior.  He’s been grounded for quite a bit on Earth, it’s true, but in his heart, he’s strong.  ...At least, that’s what he thought.

He looks down at his pale hands, grown soft and slender through the years.  They’re shaking.

Over a movie.

Shaking.

And it’s a fucking B-rated movie too.

Who is he?  He thought he knew, once upon a time, but maybe he was wrong all along.  Everything’s he ever won feels lost in the face of this. He feels so incredibly silly.

He can’t take it anymore.  He grabs his phone from his pocket and texts Shiro.

Hey.  Has it started yet?  Wondering how it’s going.

Shiro’s reply is instantaneous.  Same as yesterday.  They fixed the AC though.  How are you?

I’ve been better.  I feel weird, but I’m okay.

Weird?  How so?

Not weird bad, but just...weird.  How about you?

I didn’t want to leave you.

I know, but I’m glad you did.  I think Aki really appreciates you being there.  It’s important to me that at least one of us is there for him.  So thank you.

Next year, you will be too.  Remind me to bring a pillow or something though.  These seats are killing my back.

Keith smiles down into his phone.  Getting old.

Okay.  These seats would’ve knocked out 25 year old Shiro too.  It’s not me, it’s the seats.

Keith laughs softly.  How’s my mom doing?  I always worry about her.

So you’re finally taking me seriously.  Keith, she could fight circles around us.  She’s fine.

You know, that’s an interesting thought actually.  I want to see a match between her and you.

She scares me.  She’d definitely kick my butt.

Keith checks the time.  It should be started already.  He wants to keep this connection going, Shiro keeps him calm and steady, but he knows he can’t keep him.  Pidge’s movie is ridiculous, but I should get back to it.  Just wanted to let you know I’m okay.

I’m glad.  I was worried.  I love you.

I love you.

He draws his hands to his lap and stays there for awhile, just staring at the gaps between the tile.

He used to be a great warrior.  Even people in Aki’s class talk about him like he was.  ...Suddenly, he just feels...so broken, so low. Like he is not the Keith they all think he is.  He’s some fake. Just the knock off version posing as the original. He hates himself for it. Feels guilty that people actually admire him.  That Aki suffers by being compared to him when he’s nothing.

Nothing.

There’s a soft knock on the door.  “Keith? You doing okay in there? It was the chocolate and popcorn, wasn’t it?  I told you your husband had some interesting taste sometimes.”

Keith laughs lowly, closing his eyes for his last moment of rest before he gets up.  “It oddly starts growing on you after awhile.”

He opens the door to her sunny little face.

“Who?  Shiro?”

“You’re funny.”

They sit back on the couch for awhile.  Keith doesn’t even pretend to watch the TV anymore, he just leans his head back in Kosmo’s fur and his legs over Pidge’s lap.  She turns it to some weird plant documentary and it’s benign and soft and the music is gentle, so Keith’s good with it.

“How are things between you and Aki?”  Pidge asks. “I know last time we talked you said it was strained.  And last night you seemed down...”

“Probably even worse now,” he hums.  “He internalizes everything. Whenever he says ‘fine’, that’s actually code for like...thirty other things and I can never figure out which one.  It’s exhausting.”

“Hm.  Sounds like another Kogane I know.”

“...I guess so.  It sounds strange to say, but sometimes I feel a little scared of him.  I want so badly to let him know I love him, but I don’t know how. I think I’m broken in that way.”

She sighs heavily, trying to suppress her eye roll.  Instead, she just throws a piece of popcorn at his forehead.  “Keith, jesus, you’re such a drama queen. You worry way too much.  I know I always say that, but...you do.  You put too much responsibility on your shoulders.”

“He’s such a good kid.  ...I want to be a good parent.”

“You are .  I’m not just saying it to make you feel better.  ...All these years and I stick by what I said: you’re the best parent for Aki I could’ve ever hoped for.  I don’t regret my decision.”

Keith just sighs.

She sighs louder, flicking his toe.  “Well...how are things with Shiro?”

“Mm,” Keith hums softly.  “He’s a fucking angel. You know that.”

“Just checking,” she laughs, patting his toes.  “You guys have got this, Keith. You are two of the absolute most extraordinary people in the entire universe.  Out of all the things there is to worry about, let this be the last one.”

"Sure." Keith lifts his eyes.  “So...how’s work?”

“Same old, same old.  Making history. Seeing into the future, that sort of thing.  I can show you next time you’re around.”

“That’s cool.  How’re your mom and dad?  I didn’t get to talk to them last night.”

“Really good, Keith.  Everyone’s doing really well.  You don’t have to worry about them, just focus on healing yourself, okay?”

Yeah, that sounds about right.  Everyone here went off to war. All of them in their group.  Look how Pidge still smiles, carefree. Matt was a prisoner of war for how long...?  Sam, Shiro, Shay... And they all smile.

This can’t be PTSD.  It’s something else. Is there an alien sickness that affects emotions...?  That has to be it.

He just feels so...weak... 

When headlights blare through the front window, it couldn’t be soon enough.  Keith slips off the couch and goes to the door, pushing it open and tossing himself on Shiro immediately.

Shiro catches him with open arms, holding him tightly to his chest.  They cling to the other. It feels like they’ve been separated for days, not two hours.

“Hey,” Keith whispers into his shirt.

Hey.”  Shiro tilts his head back to inspect Keith’s face, smiling with encouragement as Keith scours Shiro’s face for a reaction.

“How was the performance?”  Keith asks as he steps back, looking to Aki.

Aki drops his bag, turns, and stomps into the kitchen, banging around in the cabinets.

Shiro murmurs lowly as he goes in to massage Keith’s shoulders, “He dropped his bachi mid-performance.  He’s a little upset...”

Keith presses his lips together tightly.

“It’s these stupid glasses!”  Aki says from the kitchen. He jerks them off his face and jabs his finger at them.  “They almost fell and got in my way. If I didn’t have them...!”

Pidge raises her eyebrows at the outburst and says, “If it bothers you that much, there’s always that corrective surgery.  Matt did it. It was pain-free and the Garrison covered it. I’m sure they’d do the same for you. You could talk to him about it.”

“I think I should,” he sniffs sharply, face still red with his upset.  He tosses his glasses away onto the counter like they’re garbage. “I look stupid like this.”

Shiro says, “That’s not true.  You look great in them, Aki. And glasses are in now.  They’re an accessory.”

“Maybe if one of you wore it,” he grunts moodily, shoving his cup of milk away and leaving his glasses on the counter.  “But not me.”

He stomps up the stairs and slams his door shut.

“Is...he going to be okay without his glasses?”  Keith murmurs, biting at his lip. “His eyesight has gone downhill so quickly lately...”

"It's not like we can’t force them on his face.  When he starts banging into things again, maybe he’ll come back for them...  I’ll bring them up to him in a second. But he was great, just has high standards for himself.  I got some videos for you.”

"Didn't they say not to record the performance?" Pidge chuckles.

"I told Keith I would, so I did."

“You had fun, Mom?”  Keith asks Krolia. “Everything went okay?”

She smiles and nods.  “He’s a talented boy, just like his fathers.”

“We had fun too,” Pidge says, clapping Keith on the arm.  “But it’s late and I should be going. Thanks for the popcorn, Shiro.  It was...interesting. I don’t actually think popcorn goes with chocolate though.”

“And they call you the genius of our time,” Shiro chuckles, still working out the knots in Keith’s shoulders, rubbing his thumbs into the sensitive parts, but not too hard.  He always knows how much pressure to apply.  Keith could basically purr. “Thanks for coming, Pidge.  You have no idea how glad I am that you were here.”

“Mmhmm.  Anytime. See you, Keith.  Call me. My phone’s getting lonely.”

“I know, I know.”  He closes his eyes and lets himself float in the goodness that is Shiro’s touch.  When the door doesn’t open, he cracks an eye open.

Pidge smiles one last time as she steps out the door, watching the two of them with amusement.  “You’ll be okay,” she says before she’s out the door and gone.

And then it’s just Keith, Shiro, and Krolia, standing in the doorway.  Keith turns to his mom, not really sure if he wants to have the conversation he knows is brewing on the horizon.  She’s on the edge of saying something, so Keith beats her to it.

“I should go to bed early,” Keith mumbles, gently disengaging from Shiro and trying to escape without actually running away.  “It was nice seeing you, Mom. I’m glad you had a nice time. Be careful out there, will you? The world’s been crazy out there lately.  I don’t want you to get hurt too.”

Her eyebrows raise a fraction of an inch, almost in amusement if she didn’t look so weary.  “Crazy, Keith? Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?”

“Have you seen the news lately?”

“...Shiro told me about yesterday.  And I saw today. I want to speak with you.  Is outside alright?”

Keith knew this was coming and he dreaded it.  He turns out to the back window, where their patio furniture lays cloaked in night.  Feels his stomach turn uncomfortably.

“I don’t...  I don’t think tonight’s good,” he murmurs, looking down to Kosmo as he rubs against Keith’s leg, watching him with question in his eyes.  “I’m tired...you’re probably tired... I just...” He wanders to the staircase, shaking his head. “But I’ll see you later?”

She takes in a deep breath.  “Keith.”

“Seriously.”  The onset of panic begins to flutter at the base of his throat.  He starting to feel cornered. “I already know what you’re going to say.  You know I value your opinion, but I’m not in the mood tonight.”

“There’s no good time for it, Keith.  I know it’s hard, but it is important that I speak with you about this matter.”

He hesitates.  This is his mom.  She knows best and he knows she’ll speak the truth and only the truth.  But that’s the problem. He’s not ready to hear it. “...Later, okay?” He breaths out harshly, hand clenching to the banister.

She shoves her hands to her hips and knocks the tip of her toe to the floor.  Her eyes are searching as she keeps them on Keith. They’re not critical or judging, and not even really anxiously worried, like Shiro’s have been.  She watches him with the love of a mother. “...I just want you to know I’ve been in this business for a long time. I’ve seen hundreds of amazing warriors have a hard time coping after the war -”

“-Oh, Mom No.  No, no, no, that’s not it.  I’m just sick. I’m just tired.”

“Keith.  It’s not a cold.  It’s not something you’ll just magically bounce back from a few days later.  You’re not infected.”

“I am.”  He claps a hand to his chest and nods quickly.  “I am. I’ll be fine soon. I know it. Shiro’s right, I’ve been overworking myself, not giving myself time to rest.  I’m going to bed earlier tonight, okay? Happy?”

By her tight-lipped narrow-eyed expression, Keith takes that as a no .

“I’m going to be fine,” he says firmly.  “Yesterday and today were... weird, but tomorrow, I’ll be better.”

With one last defeated sigh, she walks toward Keith and places her hands on his shoulders.  “I love you,” she murmurs, imploring with her eyes, making sure he gets it. “All I wanted to say was that, whatever this is, it doesn’t make you any less of a hero in my eyes or anyone else’s.  You’re still you and we love you.”

“...Mom, thanks.  But why would it...?”

She places a kiss to his forehead and steps back toward the door.  “When you’re ready to talk, please call me. I have some things I want to say and I think it’ll be good for you to hear.  Shiro? You’ll keep me updated if Keith doesn’t?”

“I will, Mom,” Keith sighs.

Shiro smiles after her.  “Of course. I’ll keep an eye on him.”

Keith sighs dramatically.  “...Bye, Mom. Drive carefully.”

The door closes and then it’s just Keith and Shiro.  Keith goes to lock the door after Krolia and picks up Aki’s bag and moves it out of the way, beneath the entryway table.  Then, he turns to Shiro, crossing his arms over his chest.

The inevitable round two.  And he’s already so tired.

Shiro’s look is patient.  Gentle. “You look better tonight,” is what he says, opening his arms and hugging Keith warmly.  “I missed you. I couldn’t stop thinking of you the entire performance. I don’t want to argue or pressure you, not tonight.  Let’s get you some rest, hm? I can give you an entire back massage if you want it. As long as you want.”

“Mmm, feeling generous today, hm?”

Shiro kisses Keith on the cheek.  It’s not light, like their conversations.  He presses into Keith like he’s scared he’ll float away.  Like, by holding Keith tightly like this now, the flat of his hand pressed to Keith’s shoulder blades, the tips of his fingers digging into his clothes, then maybe, just maybe, he’ll get to keep Keith.

Keith can’t think about it just yet.  He just lets himself feel this safety in Shiro’s arms.  If nothing else, if this really isn’t some cold or something silly, then at least he’ll always have this.

Chapter Text

 

Keith and Shiro step off the plane and into bright sunny light.  There’s a joyful fragrance wafting through the air, sweetly floral and inviting.  It’s overpowering; it makes Keith’s stomach churn.

A lady waits for them at the end of the stairs with a brightly colored lei in her hand.  “Welcome to Paradise!” She smiles widely as she shoves it over Keith’s head, who’s half a second away from growling.  Shiro squeezes his hand and says a very pleasant, “Thank you very much!” before dragging him off.

Shiro looks at his watch and then up at the airport parking lot.  “Huh. Our flight came in early. Check in isn’t for another hour.  What do you think? Hungry?”

Keith sniffs, pulling himself closer to Shiro’s arm as he looks darkly around their new settings.

This was the deal.  Keith had even suggested it.  “Stop harassing me about a doctor and we can go on vacation - the one place we went to for our honeymoon.  Right now. Let’s go. I won’t think about work, I won’t even make any work calls.” And Shiro, with an uncertain look in his eyes, hesitantly agreed.

Keith feels mostly better.  Mostly.  He was a bit worried about the plane ride over (he hates not having control, especially to some everyday pilot), but Hunk gave him some pills he uses for flights to “get rid of the edge” and Keith felt just loopy and out of it enough to not care where the fuck they were going or how.  He’s stuck in some sort of pill hangover though and feels a bit feral seeing all the happy and enthusiastic faces around.  He presses into Shiro’s side like a weird possessive toddler, but Shiro doesn’t seem to mind it.

“What are you in the mood for?”  Shiro asks, pulling out his data pad and looking at their options.  “Nearest place looks like a burger diner. That sounds good. Or a fish place.  Could be fancy?”

“I don’t care,” Keith murmurs.  “Anywhere’s fine. I just want to get out of the sun.”

Shiro uses his hand as a visor.  “Burgers it is. Mind texting your mom we’re here?  I’ll lead us.”

Keith grabs for the distraction, slipping his phone out and texting her.  He hums as she messages back. “They’re playing bingo at Lance’s.  Why fucking bingo of all things?  Oh, god, she sent a picture.”

Shiro grins as he peeks into Keith’s phone.  “Looks like they’re having fun.”

“Are they letting Kosmo eat whipped cream off the top of a cupcake...?”  Keith grumbles dangerously. “If he shits all over their carpets, that’s their own damn fault.”

Shiro snorts.  “They’re careful with him, Keith.  They all love Kosmo.”

“So much so they cave to his every little whim apparently,” Keith grumbles, pocketing the phone as he realizes his blood pressure’s climbing higher again.  He tries to groan out his tension, leaning his head on Shiro’s shoulder. Vacation. He knows how to relax. He used to, at least. Didn’t he?

He keeps telling himself that they’re safe here, but he doesn’t want to tell himself too much, in case he psychs himself out.  It was difficult even making it to the car, making it this far is only because Shiro’s here. He can do it. Just...tensely.

“It’s nice going out together again,” Shiro hums happily, the tone of his voice changing.  He sounds younger, more vulnerable, happy. “Feels like it’s been awhile since we used to go on dates like this.”

“Yeah,” Keith hums, trying to look around at the place with the same eyes Shiro’s looking with.  “...It does.”

“I’ve missed this.”

“I hadn’t even realized how long it’s been,” Keith whispers.  “Without even noticing, we just sort of let things go, didn’t we?  ...Or I did. ...I’m sorry, Shiro. I’ve been a shit husband lately and I -”

“-Hey.  Stop that.  You haven’t been, Keith.  You’ve been going through a hard time; it’s different.”

It doesn’t feel like it’s different, but, for Shiro’s sake, Keith doesn’t argue.

The burger place is off the coast, overlooking the beach, where they can hear the waves flowing and pulling away methodically.  The seagulls laze in the afternoon air and children laugh and play on the golden soft sand. The sand feels different here. The people feel different here.  Happy. Relaxed.

Shiro leans in to murmur, “These are people we helped save too.  This world. This very beach, these very seagulls. I’d say this was worth fighting for.”

Keith looks around at them all.  ...Yeah. He supposes that’s true.  The taint of this world hasn’t infected everywhere, it hasn’t consumed everything.  It’s nice here. Peaceful.

They go into the diner where they are recognized and promptly seated wherever they’d like even though the place is busy out the ears.  Keith chooses the window seat. It’s old time-y and cute and it really does feel like they’re on a date and not some mental health retreat, trying to run away from problems.  Keith scoots in after Shiro instead of across from him, placing his hand in his lap and leaning to look out the window and at the ocean.

“Pretty,” he hums.  “Sometimes I forget.”

Shiro places his hand on Keith’s and they just sit there like that, staring out at the ocean together in this small cozy diner.  It’s one of the things Keith loves so much about their marriage. They don’t have to talk to enjoy the other.  They don’t have to do anything.  They’re just two pieces of a puzzle, cut out perfectly for the other.  They can just sit and watch together, nothing else. And somehow, even still, they know the other’s thinking the same thing.

The jukebox is playing some old time song from god knows which generation and there’s a good amount of energy in the room, but Keith likes their spot.  It feels open and secluded at the same time.

The waiter comes around, nervous and jittery and bright-eyed, asking for their order.

Shiro looks down at the menu in surprise like he forgot food was a thing they sell here.  Keith just watches.

“Uh, I’ll just have the Maverick with the fries, please.  Keith?”

Keith shakes his head.  “Nah.”

Shiro stops halfway from handing his menu to the waiter to frown at Keith.  “You have to eat. We haven’t eaten all day.”

Keith hesitates for a moment and then nods shortly, “Yeah, I’ll...yeah, whatever he’s having.”

The waiter grins happily, basically hopping on his heels as he bounces off, squealing to his coworkers before they even let the kitchen door swing shut behind them.

Shiro’s quiet for a moment and then says, “That has extra onions on it.”

“Oh.  Extra?”

“Yeah.  We can pluck them out though.  I just thought it doesn’t sound like your usual thing.”

“...Yeah.”

Shiro sniffs and leans forward, one elbow on the table as he twists to look at Keith.  “Remember our talk last night about honesty?”

Keith fixes him with a tired glare.  “I know, I just...we only just landed, I’m probably jet lagged and Hunk’s pills were a risk to begin with.  I think I’m kinda...I dunno, hungover or some stupid shit. My stomach feels kinda weird,” he admits.  “But just...tingly inside, you know? Not serious.”

“...You always play it off, though,” Shiro frowns.  “Don’t worry about me and this vacation. You come first, okay?  It’s just going to hurt me more if we go off and do something I had wanted to do and it fucks you up.  I’ll be happy just lying in bed at the hotel all day, I swear to you. The air smells nice, don’t you think?  A nice change of scenery. I’m happy.”

“I know,” Keith says.  “I’ll tell you. Promise.”

Shiro seems a little happier.  He takes his phone out and checks his messages.  “Aki won bingo,” he laughs. “Funny.”

“Mm.”  Keith leans his elbows on the table and crosses his hands at his mouth.  He takes the time to look around at the people inside this diner, to try to familiarize himself with people, to desensitize and separate himself from whatever the hell that night at Aki’s school was.

Just...normal people.  Some Galra. Some alien species Keith doesn’t remember the names of.  Everyone’s just enjoying their meals and socializing. Nothing menacing about it.  Keith’s heart remains steady and slow.

Keith mumbles around his hands, “What triggered your... whatever they were?  Panic attacks.  Your episodes.”

Shiro looks up and hums thoughtfully.  He taps on his lip. “Seeing them,” he nods slowly.  “Seeing Sendak in particular was... I don’t know what it was about him.  It always set my teeth on edge. The ears.” He gestures to his own and spreads his hand out to copy the size.

Definitely had big ears.”

Shiro snorts.  “Even now sometimes, seeing someone that looks like him will spark something in me, some sort of primal reaction not related to logic.  I know times are different now and there’s nothing to fear, but, like you said, it’s just...a feeling, malfunctioned.  And I just have to overcome it.”

Keith nods slowly into his hands.  “...I don’t ever - ?”

“-No,” Shiro says quickly.  “I’ve never been afraid of you.  Ever. I’ll admit, in the beginning, when Krolia started traveling with us, when I’d see her in my peripheral, sometimes my stomach would drop.  But not anymore. I know Krolia would never hurt any of us.”

“But knowing sometimes isn’t enough,” Keith says lowly, letting his eyes slip down to the table as he thinks about it.  “...A feeling,” he repeats. “Malfunctioned.”

“...Yeah.”

“I-I’m not admitting that’s what this is,” he murmurs.  “But I...”

“I know,” Shiro says gently.  “Ask me anything you want though.  No judgement.”

Keith chuckles lowly into his hands as he tosses a look up at Shiro.  The acceptance on his face, just wanting to help, no strings attached, no forcing his own opinion on Keith unhelpfully.  How could there ever be a better person? Keith’s smile warms over. “I love the hell out of you. You know that? Some of the things you say, I just...I feel like I don’t say that enough.”

“On the contrary,” Shiro laughs, leaning in to kiss Keith all over his face.  “I know you too well and I feel your love all the time, in each of your little mannerisms.  But I love to hear it too.”

“Mm, I love you,” Keith chuckles, placing his hands on each side of Shiro’s jaw and smiling at him.  “I love you, I love you, I love you. You’re my best friend. You’re my soulmate.”

Shiro’s face softens into something breathless, something raw and so so in love.  “...I love you more than the moon and the stars. I love you more than all the universes combined.  More than anything.”

“Hmm,” Keith hums, tugging Shiro forward slightly to press their foreheads together.  “I love you more.”

Shiro’s lips twitch up.  “Don’t start this. You know I’ll win.”

More,” Keith insists with a small smirk.

“More times infinity.”

Keith shakes his head, humor dancing in his eyes.  “I’m not good at math, so that doesn’t count.”

“I think that actually makes it count more.”

Keith laughs again, scooting back only slightly as their meal comes and is slid onto the table.

Any other day and it would look delicious, Shiro seems to think so at least as he dives right in, ketchup caught innocently on his cheek so fast Keith has to laugh.  He takes a picture to document as part of their long-awaited vacation and then looks back to his burger.

...Why it seems like such a mountain of a task, he doesn’t know, but he really...really doesn’t want to eat it.  His mouth feels dry and disapproving.  His stomach feels like the size of a shriveled bean.  He can’t eat this.

But he can’t not eat this with Shiro worrying right next to him, so he lifts the top of the bun and slowly plucks out the onions.

“They’re fried,” Shiro hums happily, “they don’t even taste like onions.”

“So disgusting,” Keith snorts.  His appetite is so lost. He goes for the fries instead.  Fries are safe. He nibbles on the edges.

The weird jukebox music is starting to get wearing.  The TV broadcasting the local surf competitions are too loud.

“I love the beach,” Shiro keeps looking out at the surfers on the waves.  “I’ve always wanted to try that. I wonder how quickly it’d take me to learn to stand.  Could be fun.”

Keith shrugs.  He’s always been more of a desert sand sort of guy.

“I bet you’d be one of those people who would just stand right up and surf away,” Shiro laughs.  “No formal training, no clue, just pure, raw, talent -”

He stops when he sees Keith’s face.  “...Shiro,” Keith says uncomfortably.  “I’m not... That’s not -”

“I didn’t mean it like...  I was just...” He takes a deep breath in, expression sobering.  “It’s okay to be good at things, Keith.”

“It’s just...a raw topic for me right now.  Like I don’t deserve any of the things I have.”

“Sorry.  And I said I wouldn’t remind you of it....”  Shiro pats his shoulder and goes back to looking out the window.  “We could get some beach towels and lay out and watch tonight. I hear they have light shows with torches, what do you say?  Do you think you’d be okay?”

Keith sees the excited little light in Shiro’s eyes and wants to say yes.  But he remembers Shiro’s insistence about honesty and clears his throat to say lowly, “Could we maybe do that tomorrow?  I’m tired and still kind of buzzing. I think maybe I should take some time to settle.”

Shiro looks over in impressed surprise.  He smiles. “...Okay. Good. Let’s do that then.  We can take the leftovers to go and check in, how’s that sound?”

He gestures for the waiter, who comes at lightning speed, clearly already listening in and waiting for the cue.  He has dessert in hand. Decadent and carefully crafted, especially for a casual place like this.

“Oh, we didn’t order that -”

“On the house for...you know, saving the universe.  You can save it for later. I’ll go get boxes right away.”

Shiro blinks in pleasant surprise.  “Oh. Thank you -”

“No,” Keith says quickly, pushing the plate away.  “No. I’m sorry. We have money.  I don’t want to slight you guys.  It’s not right and it’s not fair. We’ll pay.”

“Oh, no, please, we’re so honored you’re even here.  The whole meal is on us. It’d be the least we could do. And anything else you want to order is our pleasure.”

Keith opens his mouth to argue.  He doesn’t like this.  It doesn’t feel right.  But Shiro gives his thigh a little squeeze beneath the table and smiles up at the waiter.  “That’s really generous of you. We really appreciate it. The meal was delicious. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the guys breathes excitedly, eyes shining, and then he runs off.

“Keith,” Shiro reprimands lowly, taking the dessert closer to himself so Keith can’t jab a finger into it or something horrible.  “If I made you a cake with obvious love and care and offered it to you, would you push it back in my face?”

“No.  Not if it’s you.

“Keith.”

“I don’t like when people do that.  I don’t like when they treat us differently.  I don’t want to be who Aki fears I am.  And he keeps staring,” Keith jerks his thumb indiscreetly to the waiter.  “It’s weird. What if he poisoned it or something?”

Shiro tilts his head in exasperation, giving Keith a look.

“I don’t like him staring,” Keith says again, pushing back into the seat and away from the table.

“He’s just an excited kid...  You were like that once too, try to be understanding,”  Shiro sighs, smiling up at the waiter wearily as he comes around again with the promised boxes.

“I was never like that,” Keith grunts as they make their way out of the diner and into the sunlight.

Shiro chuckles lowly, nodding them onto the sidewalk and down the street.  “Those little stars in that guy’s eyes? I hate to be the one to tell you this, but in the Garrison, when you were younger and would see me -”

“-Oh, god.  So you knew about the crush.  Perfect.”

“Well, I just thought it was a silly crush-on-your-mentor sort of thing.  Not a jerk-off-to-you-every-second sort of thing.”

Keith should laugh, he almost does, but then he gets distracted suddenly.  He looks behind them, toward the diner, biting at his lip. He thought he caught sight of something in his peripheral.  It’s evening, but the streets don’t seem to wind down around here. It’s crowded. He can’t see through it easily.

“Keith?”

He blinks back up at him, pulled from his strayed focus.  “Huh?”

“...A feeling?”  Shiro asks with a raised eyebrow.

Keith nods slowly.  “Malfunctioned,” he continues.  “I think.”

“Come on,” Shiro tugs him into the hotel.  It seems like everyone here knows of them and, unfortunately, everyone gets giddy and giggly.  People stare.

Keith’s never liked when people stare, not even when he was totally ‘fine’.  He likes it even less now. He bites at the inside of his gums as he keeps his attention straight ahead, trying his best to focus on Shiro, on holding Shiro’s hand, on matching his strides to Shiro, on anything safe, anything familiar, anything...not having to relate to the people ogling all over them.  It feels disgusting and invasive.

He closes his eyes.  Grips tightly to the warmth of Shiro’s fingers.  Feels the way Shiro squeezes back.

They stop at the front desk and Shiro handles it.  Keith busies himself with realizing how massive the concierge in the back looks.  Like a giant, even taller than Shiro. He’s immediately uncomfortable.

Even Keith thinks there’s really no reason for this feeling.  There’s just something about him. He doesn’t know what. Big.  And tall. Like nothing can touch him but the clouds. And that deep voice.

The man turns around and takes the place of the current concierge.  “We have additional services. You can upgrade the room or the stations.  We have adult pay-per-view if you’d like?” The man asks.

Amusement crosses Shiro’s face, he opens his mouth to deny it, and then thinks to ask Keith.

Keith just shakes his head, eyes trained on the man.

“Uh...  Okay,” the man says, giving Keith a strange look the longer he stares.  “Here’s your room key, Mr...?”

“Shirogane,” Shiro says, taking the key and smiling at the shock in the one person’s face who didn’t recognize them immediately.  And they walk upstairs, nothing more to it.

Keith lets out a sigh of relief as they find their way to their room.  The hallways are quiet and clean. The carpets are lush and well taken care of.  Soft beneath his shoes. Small, simple things, but Keith revels in them happily, a good contrast to his more recent shitty moods.

“That guy bothered me,” Keith says as Shiro fiddles with the keycard in the door.

“I like how he asked right away if we wanted the adult channels.  Did we look like we did?”

Keith just shrugs.  That’s not the point.  “He didn’t bother you?”

“I thought it was kind of funny.  I mean, if you wanted them, I don’t care.  Don’t let me hold you back.”

Keith blows out a long breath of air as he makes sure to lock the door behind them and then turns around to take in their settings.

Yeah.  It’s good.  Clean. Orderly.  He can stay here. Money’s not the biggest concern with how much the Garrison pays, so they allow themselves to splurge on things like this.  It’s not like they do it often anyway.

“Look at this!”  Shiro goes to the window and opens the window wide, letting the sweet ocean breeze pour in around them.  He turns back to Keith, grinning, warm sunlight outlining him with gold. God, he looks so happy. Keith feels something like happiness fluttering in his own chest as he smiles back.

Shiro puts the leftovers in the mini fridge and then hops onto their bed, spread eagle and laughing.  He pats the bed beside him for Keith, who slips into place carefully.

They stare at the ceiling, heads pressed together.

Keith can tell from the tone of Shiro’s voice that his eyes are shining.  “What do you think? Better than our honeymoon suite?”

Keith hums.  “I like this room.  But I don’t know if anything could be better than that.”

Shiro laughs.  “True. God, that was the first time I discovered your true stamina capacity.  Half the things we had planned to do we didn't have time for because you wouldn’t let us leave that bed.”

Keith snorts as he thinks back to that time.  Feels like a different him. “I didn’t regret it.”

“Me neither,” Shiro laughs again, tilting his head to press their noses together.  He kisses Keith gently on the mouth. “I like it here too though. It’s a nice change.  It’s so beautiful here. The air feels healing.” Shiro yawns widely. “...Didn’t realize how tired I am until just now though.”

“Me too,” Keith says, but though he feels tired, he doesn’t feel like he can sleep.

Shiro can though.  He’s already snoring softly beside him before Keith can complain about having troubles sleeping.  Keith snorts, flicking an amused grin over at his sleeping face, before he peels himself off the bed and leans over to take Shiro’s shoes off.  Gently, so he doesn’t wake.

Keith sets them down and puts their phones on the table before walking over to the window.  The beach waits beyond the road, purple in the settling dusk. He lets his eyes go skyward, looking across the expanse of blossoming stars.  The entirety of his stress hasn’t seemed to have followed him here. He feels younger somehow, like back when they were freshly out of saving the universe, newly married, expecting things out of life that they didn’t realize weren’t going to happen.  They were hopeful then.

He feels more hopeful and fresh now than he has in a long time.  So he allows himself to wonder, for the first time in ages, where Voltron might be.  ...Does Red ever remember him, like he does her? Does Black think of Shiro? Do they ever want to check in on them...?  Or were they just tools for a bigger purpose?

They’re so small in this universe.  Just two bits of bacteria in a world much bigger than them.  Somehow, what they did those years ago created ripples upon ripples out across so many different worlds, more than they probably know.  Was it enough?

One small person.  He looks back to Shiro on the bed, so open and vulnerable as he snores lightly.  ...Two small people.

Shiro’s phone lights up and Keith looks over.  It’s Aki. His name flashes across the front screen, asking how they’re doing, sending pictures of him riding around on Kosmo’s back happily.  Keith sighs and looks back out.

Shiro used to suffer too.  So much. And he’s changed now, for the better.  There’s hope. Hopefully it starts here, with this vacation.

He wants this sickness to be over with quickly.  If he can’t help himself, how can he help the world?  How can he help Aki...?

That odd tingling that’s been around since the day of Aki’s performance hasn’t left him.  Like a warning almost, meant to be tickling over his scalp, but it’s gotten trapped beneath his flesh, barbed into bone.  A feeling, malfunctioned. It bothers him.

He’s not sure how long he stands there at the railing, feeling the cool breeze over his skin, staring into the ocean, at the sky.  But, suddenly, there’s something rubbing against his back.

“Keith,” Shiro murmurs sleepily, his loose pliant body fitting snug up against Keith’s.  He’s only half awake, really, driven more by his desires than anything else; Keith can feel it pressed against his tailbone, hard and wanting.

He smiles wryly, letting Shiro roam his hands up his core and dig wantingly into his chest.  “Thought you were sleeping.”

“Had a dream about you,” he pants into Keith’s neck, hot and heavy.

“Mm.  Wonder what that was about...?”  He says coyly.

Shiro rocks into Keith with a small groan.  “On our honeymoon... I was remembering how you would wake me up.  I’d look to your place on the bed, thinking you were gone, and then I’d suddenly feel you...  Your mouth...”

Keith lets Shiro grind slowly against him, but he looks out toward the ocean, letting a small sigh leave his lungs.  He hasn’t really been in the mood in a long time. He likes to complain about it, and he does miss it, he really does, but right now, presented to him, the whole act seems...disconnected from him somehow.  It’s not like he doesn’t love Shiro any more or think he’s the most amazing person in this universe. It’s definitely not that, nor will it ever be. And it’s not even that he doesn’t want this.  He’s just...he doesn’t know.  Just here. Existing. And that seems difficult enough.

But Shiro is always so giving and kind and he’d do anything for Keith, is doing anything for Keith.  They’re married. It’s such a small thing in comparison.  And it’s been so long and they’re in a new place, alone, together, where they won’t have to worry about Aki walking in on them and getting an eyeful of no, thanks or Kosmo trying to snuggle between them mid-act.

Shiro is so so warm and sweet and...he deserves the world, he really does.  The universe. Whatever he wants. All he wants is to touch and love his husband.  And Keith wants to give that to him.

Keith swallows hard and leans gently back against Shiro’s rocking, giving more weight to it, more friction.  Shiro’s reaction is instantaneous, bucking up harder as he groans lowly in his throat, the sound almost guttural from so little.

“It’s been so long,” Shiro breathes heavily, voice stretching like it’s been agony.  “Is this okay...? Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” Keith says, brushing his hair away from his neck and tilting his head slightly, enticing Shiro forward.  “Of course it is, Shiro. It’s you.”

“I’m glad.”  The relief in Shiro’s voice is both so sweet and so sad.  “...I thought you didn’t want me anymore.”

An accidental admission.  Shiro doesn’t even realize what he’s said, he lets himself go, diving in and kissing eagerly down Keith’s neck, sucking at the skin, letting his teeth graze without his filters.

Keith swallows hard, staring up into the moon as it cuts into his heart.  God. Shiro really thought that? He’s been letting everything go. Shiro doesn’t show his pain like others and Keith has known that since forever and he still somehow forgot to watch out for it.  This is his husband, the man Keith swore to care for. He feels horrible. “...Shiro, I love you,” he whispers as a protest.

“I know you do,” Shiro says,  “I know.”

Jesus.  Always so understanding.  Always so forgiving. Always so good.  No one deserves Shiro, but especially not Keith.  He loves him more than words can say. He presses his lips together tightly and waits for the feeling of his incoming tears to pass.

He wants to make it up to him.  Keith moves to twist around, hands seeking to cup the bulge at Shiro’s crotch.  He lets his fingers knead, running up the length of him. He leans up on the tips of his toes and whispers softly into Shiro’s ear, “Let me take care of you tonight.”  He can feel the shiver run up Shiro’s spine as he circles his thumb around the head of Shiro’s hardness through his pants. He can feel Shiro twitch, heavy and full in his hand.  “That dream about how I used to wake you up on our honeymoon? You don’t have to wait until morning. Let me do you right now.”

Shiro groans.  Keith thinks he’ll cave, but he says instead, voice breathy and strained, “No.  I need to feel you. I’ve been wanting you for so long now. I need to be inside of you.  Keith.”

Keith scopes out Shiro’s face, that raw molten desperation in his eyes.  The desire built into the firm set of his jaw that he’s holding back, even in this state.  Each of Shiro’s fingers burns into Keith’s flesh with want. He waits for Keith’s permission.

Keith nods slowly.  “Whatever you want,” he says and he prays that his body will hold for at least this.  If not for himself, then at least for Shiro.

“Are you sure...?”  Shiro whispers into his ear one last time.

Keith closes his eyes and nods.  “I’m still yours, Shiro. That part hasn’t changed and it never will.”

Keith...”

He lets Shiro turn him back around with his large gentle hands. Shiro tugs the back of Keith’s pants down, moaning as he brushes his fingers down his lower spine and then cups his cheek with his hand, kneading the flesh there like he’s been dreaming and wanting this for decades.

Shiro’s driven more by his desires tonight, which is rare, even in their early marriage days.  Less eloquent than most times, less patient, but it’s okay. Keith wants him to be honest. Keith wants Shiro to have his time to do as he pleases, to forget about being so selfless all the time.

They sink slowly to their knees right there on the patio.  It’s secluded, no one will see them except for the moon that bathes them in her soft cool light, and the ocean waves that hum in drifting lulls to them from the shore.

Shiro doesn’t see any of that.  He just sees Keith, as he presses his finger up and into him.  He’s still gentle as he probes the heat of Keith’s walls, his breaths loud and needy, almost as loud as the beating of Keith’s heart.  Shiro shifts and angles his arm so he can dive deeper, pick up the pace.

Keith grabs onto the railing to steady himself.  He feels warmth and life beginning to spread through his limbs.  He hadn’t realized how cold and unworked his body had felt until now.  He’s getting into it. Melting and going pliant at that liquid hot desire stirring in his thighs and the base of his belly.  He lets out a small sigh of relief. It’s been so long since he’s felt this way, so normal, so human.

Keith pants, scooting backward and arching his back a bit, trying to seek better purchase on the finger that Shiro keeps pressing needily into him.  Trying to get more of this feeling of familiarity, of being himself, being someone Shiro knows and loves and wants.

Shiro lifts Keith’s shirt and circles his finger around his nipple tenderly.  He presses his chest against Keith’s back, sucking harshly into his shoulder. It feels strange to be exposed like this to the outside, looking up into the sky, over the empty sleeping beach, such a contrast to the blood pumping with rabid urgency through his veins.

“Shiro,” he whispers.

“Mm?” He grunts, shoving another finger into Keith, deeper, drawing a groan from the depths of his aching core.

“It feels so good,” Keith breathes back, “I forgot what it was like.  Having you inside me.”

Shiro breathes out harshly in response, pushing into him with renewed fervor, licking up the length of Keith’s spine, making him shiver electric down to his toes.

His Altean prosthetic gets warmer than skin like this, whirring deep with its powerful magic inside, and Keith’s not sure if he’s just extra sensitive and unused to it or if Shiro’s just extra horny and lost in it, but he can’t remember the last time he felt this captured by the feeling, this torn apart and opened.  It vibrates through his sensitive flesh, alight and open with feeling.  He’s so receptive to each movement and this buzzing sensation is so tantalizing intense .  His eyes roll into the back of his head and he bites at his lip to keep from moaning, but it breaks loose anyway.

Shiro’s stirring up Keith’s insides, making him feel and warm and touched in a way that Keith’s forgotten he could feel.  He digs his nails into the rail supports and presses his face to it, feeling as Shiro’s movements push him so hard it rattles.  That pounding motion is so so good, driving his thoughts right out of him. Cleansing him with this raw feeling and nothing else.

“Come on,” Keith groans out in breathy desperate puffs, squirming and pressing deeper into the arch through his spine.  He curves his back more, pressing his hips up higher, trying to get what he needs. He grits his teeth. “Come on, come on, what are you waiting for?”

“Keith, jesus.”  Shiro pulls his fingers out and Keith can hear him undoing his pants.  Keith tries to pry his face from the damn bars. They’ve probably already left indentations.  He shifts back on his heels, slow going - his whole brain feels like he’s in heat - and before he can get his balance, Shiro’s pushing inside of him to the hilt, hips slapping to Keith’s glutes.

Keith chokes, mind shocked out of his head, hands grasping for anything to hold onto.  He’s definitely not used to this anymore, caught by surprise and overwhelming pleasure, tensed up and tight like a bow.  Shiro reaches around him and presses his hand to Keith’s chest, bending him backward, and tilting his chin up. He kisses him mercilessly as he quickens his pace, pounding into him even harder.

A lot.  It’s a lot.

It’s so so good.  So good that Keith can’t even think straight.  Whatever his name is, he wouldn’t know, because jesus, his whole body is alight with Shiro pushing deep inside of him.  He’s already sobbing into Shiro’s mouth, fingers digging at Shiro’s arm as he tries to match Shiro’s rhythm as desperately as he can.

“You good?”  Shiro keeps asking between sloppy kisses.  “Keith.”

“So good,” is all Keith can think.  “It’s so so good. So good. You’re so good.”

And it is.  It really is.  But something’s different this time.  He’s starting to notice it, pressing insistently at his chest.  The pleasure is sharp like a knife, digging into his core deeper and deeper and Keith’s at the brink of being able to take it.  It makes it something else, something more intense, more visceral. He’s not sure what’ll happen when he goes over that edge.

Shiro switches arms, grabbing onto Keith’s aching dripping hardness with his human hand and barring Keith with his Altean.  His hand rubs mercilessly, palm cupping over the head as he squeezes. God.  Keith squirms.

The Altean arm has never bothered Keith.  Not ever. But as he’s being ravaged like this, pushed into, and held still, something in his mind is twisting, winding up, tilting out of control.

That blue light pierces right into his skull.

It’s hurting him.  He only notices it vaguely, distantly, at first, past the moans and the intensity pummeling between his hips.  But it starts drawing more of his attention. It’s burning into his eyes. It reminds him of space, of every time they’d prepare to go into battle and shove their gear over their heads, that blaring light, like aqua, cutting through his vision, part of the alarm.

Now, it’s flooding him.

His core tightens in a different way.  A warning. Squeezing so hard, Keith cries out, half in ecstasy, half in fear.  He doesn’t want to stop this, he’s already so wound up, but he’s scared too. He can’t take anymore.

He’s too far gone to be able to articulate it.  All that comes from his core are melted long drawn moans.  From trembling lips, he forces a plea, barely intelligible, “Sh-Shiro.  Shiro.”

Shiro groans long and low, whole body shaking as he snaps his hips up into Keith’s.  He’s too far gone to pick up on the very minor changes and shifts in Keith’s behavior that he usually can, given into the pleasure of feeling his husband’s body for the first time in ages.  “Keith.  I love you. Keith.”

Keith just chokes.  So much. So so much.  Pain. Relief. Agony. Ecstasy. Fear.

Stop.  Don’t stop.  Stop. Keep going.  

Shiro slows, carefully pulling out.  And Keith is filled half with relief, half with agony.  He doesn’t know. His body wants , but his mind screams and he’s caught in the middle, unable to pick a side.  He knows now is his chance.

Shiro picks Keith up from the ground and carries him to the bed where he lays him out on his back of the side.  He slowly runs his hardness up Keith’s thigh, making Keith groan and open his legs wider just by pure desire.

Keith tries to tell him.  Places his hand to Shiro’s Altean arm, trying to block out the light with a whimper, but then Shiro’s pushing into him again and it cuts off into the lewdest most pleasure-filled moan he’s given so far, back arching.  Shiro grabs both of Keith’s hands and holds him still, biting rough hickeys into his neck as he pounds into him, sounds so wet and filthy in all the best ways.

“Please,” Keith pants.  “Please.”  But even he doesn’t know what he means.  Just that his soul is screaming for it, one of two, but which one?  Both? Neither?

He doesn’t know.

Shiro kisses him open mouthed and gasping and Keith kisses him back with just as much desperation.  His hips are thrusting up just as out of control as his mind and he’s just one ball of raw emotion. He closes his eyes shut harshly, trying to block out that light that hangs right over him, blocking out Shiro, blocking out what makes this so good.

And then Shiro’s coming before him, pulsing inside of him so hot and fast that it finally, finally, sends Keith over the edge, as he craved, as he feared.

He cries out as he bucks beneath Shiro, whole body tensing, and then, finally, letting go.

He lets out a sob.  Oh. Oh, god. It was so much.  It was too much. He lets his head press back into the bed, tries to get ahold of his out of control breathing, limbs pulling at the sheets as his body still burns from raw sensation.

Shiro groans, gently laying down on Keith’s shaking body, sweaty chest to sweaty chest, still trembling with the hold of his orgasm.  He kisses Keith’s cheek chastely and rubs his hand over Keith’s arm in consoling circles. “You okay?” Shiro asks.

Keith nods quickly.  He feels a sickness high in his belly but the golden warmth of his orgasm is there too, pushing away the discomfort and making his eyes droop, letting his muscles loosen.  He swallows hard, tries to clear his throat, but he’s hoarse. “Yeah... Yeah, it was...it was so good.”

They both lay there for awhile, chests heaving, limbs languid.  They take awhile to catch their breath.

“We haven’t done that in so long.”  Keith breathes. “It was...intense.”

“Mm,” Shiro hums, nuzzling his face into the back of Keith’s neck.  He breathes out in relief. “Yeah. It really was. God, I forgot how good you could feel.  I missed that so much. I missed you...”

Keith can see the way Shiro tries to stay awake despite his heavy eyelids.  He tries to push himself up to no doubt try to take care of Keith, but Keith turns, holding Shiro still.  “Let’s go to sleep,” he whispers. “I will too.”

Shiro smiles, looking into Keith’s face.  He gathers Keith up in his arms and scoots them into the center of the bed.  He pulls the sheets over them, running his hands over Keith’s belly, stopping at the little happy trail.  He runs his hands through it for a moment, eyes sparkling. He looks back up to Keith’s face, so much love and fondness in his eyes.  “That wasn’t too much...? I...I sort of lost myself for awhile there.”

Keith loves Shiro.  So much. There are so many things he’s let go lately, so many things that Shiro deserves, but still doesn’t gripe about in their absence.  Tonight was good, he’s missed this too. He doesn’t want his fucked up malfunctioning head to taint what’s so special and privately theirs. He leans forward to press a kiss to Shiro’s cheek so he can hide his expression.  “Intense, but...good.” That is not a lie.

The answer seems to soothe Shiro.  He hums beneath his breath. “I love you, Keith,” he whispers, brushing his hair away from his face tenderly.  “I want to give you whatever you want. I want to be what you need.”

Keith smiles back.  “You are, Shiro.  More than what I deserve.”

“Not true,” Shiro mumbles and Keith watches as Shiro’s eyelids flutter closed no matter how hard he fights.  He’s already drifting off, fingers settling onto Keith’s cheeks in slumber.

Keith takes a moment, just absorbing the peace and contentment on Shiro’s face.  It makes him feel strong being in this golden being’s presence.

Then he remembers: god, he didn’t wash his hands.

Keith gently moves Shiro’s hand and settles back into bed, staring up at the ceiling.

He takes a long deep breath.

He’s okay, he thinks.  Probably. Definitely. ...Well, maybe somewhere in between.  He’s a little jittery, a little off balance, but he thinks he’s happy too.  When he looks at Shiro’s face, he’s happy. He knows he is. And he’s glad to be able to make Shiro happy too.

This was good.  The sex. He doesn’t regret it.

But there’s still that weird pit in his gut.  He can see it from the corner of his eye - that damn light that’s drilled its way into Keith’s head tonight somehow.  It’s been there for years, literal years, but Keith is just noticing it now.

He sighs, letting the tips of his fingers skim across his skin.  Down his belly, into the sensitive parts of his thighs, following the traces that Shiro had made.  It’s like he needs to relearn himself, but he doesn’t know how. He feels his face. Runs his fingers through the length of his hair.  Frowns. It’s all...disconnected. He just doesn’t feel comfortable in this body anymore.

He turns to look over at Shiro, whose head is nestled securely in his pillow.  He struggled too, with his hair, with his scars. Keith had tried to provide support at the time, but now he’s second guessing himself.  How much did he actually help Shiro when he didn’t understand anything at all? This mind fuck... Everyone else seems so different than him, like they’re all off on some other island and Keith got pushed out to sea, floating, trying to find some other home...away from them all.  How can the people on the other island ever help him, no matter their intentions?

Keith pushes himself up and walks to the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind him and flicking on the light.  He turns to himself in the mirror, taking in his naked body.

He has the scars, but they’re familiar.  And his hair is the hair of his own choosing.  He’s not even half as bad as Shiro had been, forced into a completely foreign body, an arm just ripped right off of him.  The arm Keith had taken from him.

Keith places a hand on his own shoulder, feels the way it can swivel in its socket, the way it is still his.  He tries to imagine if the roles were reversed. If Shiro had cut his arm from him. If Keith were standing here, staring at his unfamiliar familiar self and just...feeling distant.  Feeling different. Looking at an empty space where an arm should be. How much did that dig into the fear Keith is already feeling? How much more did Shiro suffer?

And then he realizes...no.  Shiro never would’ve cut Keith’s arm from him.  Never. He’s too gentle, too loving, too much of a good person to do something so horrible.  And he would’ve been smart enough to come up with another solution. Keith had chosen to do it in a last ditch effort, his only option left, because he’d been too slow and stupid to think of another way.

He could’ve figured something else out.  He didn’t have to hurt him... Why was hurting him even an option back then...?

Shiro never complains.  He never mentions it, unless it’s something positive about it.  And that just makes Keith feel even more sick with himself. He’s probably hiding it all away.

Keith looks back up into his miserable face.  He presses his fingers to the mirror as he frowns into his reflection.  He almost feels angry and he doesn’t know why. ...Did he always look like this?  It’s funny, he’s lived with this face all his life and he can’t even really remember what he’d looked like before.  His hair is a ruffled mess so he brings his fingers up to try to soothe the tangles and bumps. He doesn’t like this version of himself anymore.  He just wants to be normal again. Things are bad enough in his life as it is. How can he possibly take on more?

It’s his hair, he decides.  It’s so long. He suddenly just really really hates it.  It was cool for awhile, but he’s not even really part of the Blades anymore, not actively, so what’s the point?

He reaches behind himself for his knife before realizing he’s fucking naked and, also, he had given his knife up to Shiro for safe keeping.  No knife around here.

He pushes the door open and tip toes over to their suitcase, digging through their swimming trunks and shirts for the familiar feel of his knife’s sheath.  He takes it back into the bathroom with himself, looks into the mirror for another long moment, at the irritated dark circles high on his cheeks, at the dead and dull flatness of his eyes, at the way his face just is , like putty or a rock, and he pulls his hair up in one hand and brings the knife through with the other.

The disconnected strands pull away and fall into his palm.

Keith watches as his hair settles back into place.

Oh no.

It sucks.

The blade is sharp enough that it’s a nice clean cut, but maybe a little too clean because now it looks like some weird bob and not like his hair used to be during their paladin years, which had sort of been the aim.  This didn’t help at all. He has half a mind to just cut more off, pulling the strands up from his head and hacking as short as he can, but he can see quite clearly that he’s already ruined enough for one day. So, with one last big sigh, he tosses the scraps onto the counter, pulls his remaining hair up into a low bun, and gets back into bed.

Oh well.

He snuggles back into the sheets, looking up at the ceiling and pursing his lips.  ...Well. He doesn’t feel any different.  That’s...kind of disappointing.

His mind is still on.  Even more disappointing.  He tries to turn on the TV to quietly watch with subtitles so Shiro can sleep, but the first thing he sees is a commercial about mental illness (“Mental illness that interferes with daily activities affects 1 in 25 people.  You are not alone. Together, we’ll get through this”). Keith turns it off immediately. Together. Like others would actually help if you were just a stranger, not already tied in. He knows they’d just run the other way. No one would ever choose to deal with this.

He rolls onto his side and tries to look out the window, enjoy the sights if nothing else, but his eyes fall onto Shiro instead.

Shiro’s the kind of person who ages freakishly well.  He barely changes and what little bits of him do only make him look even more handsome.  Though, maybe some might argue it’s just Keith, always holding a candle to him. Maybe so.

He reaches forward and runs his fingers through the tuft of Shiro’s hair, across the silver-y spindly strands, and thumbs across those thick eyebrows of his.  He hopes Shiro knows how much he loves him. How much he appreciates him. That Shiro’s strength is the only reason he’s gotten this far, the only reason for any of the good parts left alive inside of him.

He lets his fingers ghost over his skin lower, over the plush softness of his lips, so warm.  Keith pushes down a bit more on his lower lip. Only a little while earlier, Keith had been kissing those lips with his own lips.  The young teen in him still is in disbelief.

He travels lower, brushing his hands against his soft open neck, vulnerable and open to Keith with trust.  And then down over his arm.

His arm.

He puts his hand over it, trying to cover that light, but it’s too fucking bright and goes right through his hands.  He can see his dang bones through his skin.

He pulls the sheets up and gently tucks it around.  It hardly helps to mute it. Shiro inhales and mumbles so Keith stops trying to jam more layers over it.

Keith turns around the room to look for something else to help when he stops.  His heart stops beating in his chest.

Someone’s in the room with them.  A tall bulky figure, like that concierge downstairs.  He stands now in the corner, cloaked mostly in shadows, so Keith could miss him so easily.

But he sees those eyes.  The glowing slippery eyes.

“You hurt him.”  He hisses, familiar tone.

Keith knows immediately what the shadow is referring to, sleeping innocently beside him.

“N-no,” Keith breathes back quickly, too afraid to dart away or shake Shiro awake.  He’s caught in those eyes like a deer in the headlights.

“You hurt him.”

“I didn’t!  I wouldn’t hurt Shiro.”

“Well,” the dark voice rolls.  “Who then? Was it Haggar?”

“...No.”

“Lotor?  Sendak?”

“Y-yes.  Sendak had a thing for him.  They were enemies.”

“It wasn’t Sendak.”

Keith tries to swallow hard, but his throat is so dangerously dry.  He clings to the blankets, black fear eating away at the base of his skull.  He can’t look away even though the pit of his gut is screaming at him to.

There’s something about that voice, so controlling and sure.  Each word he says is the absolute, resolute truth. There is no denying, no questioning.  His words consume Keith’s senses and logic. They are law. They are all-powerful.

“Who...?”  Keith whispers.

The voice laughs low and slow, like he’s stretching it out, enjoying every moment of this.  “Well. If it wasn’t Haggar, or Lotor, or Sendak...and it certainly wasn’t me...then who else is left?”

Keith thinks about it.  Really thinks about it. Cold sweat develops on his brow, climbs down his back.

Who else?  Who?

The answer is so obvious, but he just doesn’t want to see.

The shadow laughs, but when Keith pulls his focus back to it, he’s gone .  Keith’s eyes dart about the room, desperately seeking him out.  He can still hear the laughter pounding in his ears.

He sits up, peering into the bathroom, around the TV cabinets, out on the patio, beneath the bed.  He’s gone.

“Who?”  Keith whispers, chest heaving.  “Who?”

He thinks it’s gone. Nothing answers. Everything’s quiet.  His defense lowers. He tries to settle down.

He’s safe, he reminds himself.  Just his head. All in his head.  Shiro’s right here, sleeping. They’re on vacation, away from that mess.

Keith crawls closer to Shiro, keeping a wary eye out.

...He’s safe.

He lets his head rest on the pillow, turning away from the darkness and into Shiro and his light.  He lets his eyes close, tries to focus his attention on his heart beating.

“IT WAS YOU.”

The voice blares, right in his ear, so loudly Keith has to clap his hands to his ears, digging his nails into his temples.

Keith darts awake with a small garbled cry, tangled up in sheets.

It’s early morning.  The darkness of the room is golden and soft.  The corner that was cloaked in shadow is now as boringly plain and empty as everywhere else.

But Keith’s heart still pounds.  He can’t stop seeking out the corners of the room as he leans forward onto his knees, pulling the collar of his shirt away from his neck.

A dream.

Just a dream...  It felt so real though, but that’s what Shiro always said.

He can still hear that low voice echoing in his ear, as if it had really been there.  It’s ringing with it. Keith sniffs, looking to the bathroom, wanting to be alone, but he also doesn’t want to leave the safety of Shiro’s side.  He lies back down and lifts one of Shiro’s arms, scooting beneath it so he can be flush against Shiro’s chest, safe in his arms.

He can’t get that thought out of his head.  He worries away at his lip.

It’s true.  It’s always bothered him, but he’d been able to put the thought in the back of his mind until now for some reason.  He cut Shiro’s arm. They’d discussed it a bit, but not at length. Shiro wasn’t bothered, so Keith figured he wouldn’t be either.

But now the thought seems so critical.  That whole moment at the clone facility.  All of it. That was the biggest moment of Keith’s life.  It felt like his whole childhood and years at the Garrison and flying through space had all come to a head there.  That was his make or break moment.  And they just barely made it.

But even then, things had to be sacrificed.  And Shiro was the one who had to pay the toll.

Where did the the other Shiro go...?  Where? It’s a question Keith has always been afraid to say out loud.

That was still Shiro in his heart, like an alternate universe kind of Shiro, but he was still Shiro.  Did he...die? Keith sees him in his memories, looking out into the sunset, watching the horizon, that confident look on his face, unaware of what’s to come.

Keith killed him...didn’t he?  He killed that Shiro. His dreams are hardly a lie.  He had to do it...he had to bring his Shiro back. But...isn’t every version of Shiro his Shiro?

He turns his head into Shiro’s arms, feeling as the sorrow rises up in him.  He just lets it take him. He doesn’t even fight it. Tears bud in his eyes and to his pillow and he lets it until he can feel Shiro stirring behind him, pulling Keith in tighter.  Keith quickly wipes at his eyes.

“Mmm...” Shiro grumbles into Keith’s hair.  He shifts and Keith can feel the slight prickliness of Shiro’s beard against his neck and the press of his soft lips.  “‘Morning,” he whispers. “You smell so good.” He shifts about lazily against the sheets, moving a leg over Keith to encompass him further.  “How’d you sleep?”

“Mm.  How about you?”

Shiro smiles against his skin.  “So good. I could smell you in my dreams.  All I dreamt about was making love to you. I’ve never felt so rested.”

Keith laughs softly.  So little makes Shiro so happy.  He’d love to let it continue, but he’s got to be honest too, like he promised.  Has to try.

Keith shifts a bit so he can look up into Shiro’s Altean arm.  He reaches a hand up and places it over the open dome. “...That light,” he murmurs.  “Doesn’t it kind of remind you of space?”

He means it like a warning, trying to convey what he felt last night, but Shiro looks down at it innocently.

“Is the light bothering you at night?”

“...A little, yeah.”

“I wonder if we could get a cover for it.  I’m sure Pidge could think of something. Tonight, I can wrap it with a shirt though.  I always thought it was kind of bright and you’re such a light sleeper.”

“That might help.”  It might. Keith keeps playing with the edges of it, running his fingers through it, hoping that, by feeling it, familiarizing himself with it, he can also desensitize himself from the stress it’s bringing.

Shiro purrs at the attention, letting Keith touch as he pleases.  “Last night was nice,” he says again, eyes twinkling over at Keith.

Keith looks up but lets his hand continue its work.  “Yeah. It was.”

“It’s been awhile since we slept like that.  I’ve missed it. A lot. Waking up to you curled into my side, pressed against me...”  He rocks his hips up into Keith’s, but it’s not with urgency or teasing.

“Me too,” Keith whispers.  “Closeness sometimes though...”

“I know.  I get it. I’m the same way sometimes, you know that.  It’s not personal, it’s just...”

“Just your mind screaming at you to run.”

“Yeah...”

Shiro gets it.  He understands. No one else in the entire universe could understand Keith like Shiro.  It’s a miracle they were lucky enough to find each other.

Keith is fonder of no one else.  He lifts his hands and touches the edges of Shiro’s jaw with his fingers.  The Shiro he gets to keep. “Takashi,” he whispers, pressing a kiss to his soft lips.  “Takashi.”

Shiro hums, completely content.  “Keith... Haven’t called me that in awhile.”

Keith buries his face into the crook of Shiro’s neck for a moment before pulling back.  “I haven’t? Got to start that up again, Takashi.”

Shiro beams, weaving Keith’s hair behind his ear.  “Maybe you should.”

“Okay, Takashi.  Whatever you want, Takashi.”  He purses his lips. “...It sounds so severe in normal-day talk though.  Like calling Aki ‘Akihiro’.”

“It’s different, but I get what you mean.  It’s okay. I like it when it’s special too, just between us.”

Keith smiles and Shiro traces his fingers across his face, gently feeling his lips.  Does he want a morning round too? Keith feels trepidation run through his chest. He feels shakier than even yesterday.  He might not hold up.

But he’ll try, for Shiro.  He leans forward and lets Shiro press his thumb into his mouth.  He sucks on it gently, arching his back to shift his chest into Shiro’s other hand so Shiro has prime access.  He moans softly for show, wiggling back on Shiro’s crotch, dragging his hips down against him slowly.

Shiro watches him for a moment longer, face going dazed as he swallows hard, thumb already slowly massaging Keith’s tongue, but then he cringes guiltily.  “I have to pee. Really quick. Just really quickly, I swear.”

“Nice.”  Keith snorts, tilting his head back away from Shiro’s thumb, giving it a little kiss as he pulls away.  Shiro cups the back of Keith’s neck and places wet open-mouthed kisses along his throat in apology. Keith says into the air, “I was trying to be sexy for you.”

“It was working, it was.  See?”  He presses his hardness into Keith’s thigh and Keith just snorts, grabbing it for a moment and giving it a squeeze - dragging a moan from Shiro’s core - before letting it go.

“Go,” he chuckles, humming into Shiro’s touch as he rolls over Keith and off the side of the bed.

He watches Shiro’s bare back, the muscles in it, the proud way he holds himself, just like the other him had too.

Keith’s still thinking of the clone, thinking of the way he said Keith’s name as he fell, the look in his eyes...  It makes him feel so cold.

Did the other Shiro dream of him?  Did he want things from Keith that he’ll never be able to feel?  The thought is so so sad.

He forgets all about what he left in the bathroom until Shiro makes a surprised little noise in the back of his throat.  “Uh, Keith?”

Keith sits up at the tone.  “What?”

“Did you...?  Is this yours?”  He stands at the door, holding long black hair up.

Keith almost laughs at the confusion on Shiro’s face.  “Oh. Right, I forgot. Yeah, it seemed like a good idea in my head at two in the morning.”

He reaches up to pull the bun out of his hair.  Shiro blinks in shock, like he’s not sure whether to laugh or squeak.  A slow smile grows on Keith’s face. Shiro sees that look and it's all over - he bursts into laughter.  “Oh no. Oh, Keith.”

Keith chuckles softly with him, tossing his hair around his shoulders like he’s modeling for Shiro.  He nods. “Yeah. I regretted it immediately.”

“It’s...not that bad.”  But Shiro’s face is red from trying to hold in the extent of his laughter.

“It’s a fucking bob.”

“It is most definitely a bob,” Shiro grins, hanging his head and giggling.

“I was going to fix it, but it was late and I got tired.”  Keith stands and passes Shiro, going into the bathroom and picking up the knife.  “Care to do the honors?”

“Really?  You trust me?”

Keith tosses him a look.  “Listen to yourself. ‘Do I trust you?’”

They get the chair from the room and sit him in front of the mirror, making sure to lay down some towels so the hair won’t get everywhere.  Shiro runs his hands through Keith’s hair and hums happily. He looks up to Keith in the mirror, jest in his eyes as he keeps playing with his hair.  “I dunno, it’s starting to grow on me. You look cute. Like a teenager again.”

“Like a ten year old.  Off. All of it.  Give me your haircut.  I want to look tough.”

“Didn’t bring a razor, bossy pants.”

“I’ll go buy one.”

“You’re going to go out with that haircut?”

“Oh, jesus, you’re right.  Maybe I can find a bag to put over my head.”

Shiro laughs under his breath.  “Keith, you’d look good with any haircut.  As demonstrated today.”

He laughs at Keith’s massive eye roll and then he goes to work.

He’s so focused and methodical about everything he does.  Maybe a knife isn’t the best haircutting tool by a longshot, but Shiro somehow makes it work, gently holding the hair in place and cutting.

Keith is quiet, closing his eyes and trusting himself to Shiro’s warm hands against his neck, letting him angle his head as he pleases.  There’s something very intimate about the way Shiro always touches him, even this feels so sensual and freeing at the same time, without even meaning it to be.

And both of Shiro’s hands really are warm.  His Galra arm had been cold to the touch most times, but the Altean arm is not.  There are pros and cons to each arm, but Keith is happy that, when Shiro runs his hands over Keith’s skin, it no longer feels like scrap metal sitting in the arctic.

He thinks of his dream last night.  Of how bright that light had seemed as Shiro laid over him.

“Shiro,” Keith says softly.  “...Can I ask you something? Something maybe unpleasant?”

“Of course you can.”

“What do you think happened to the other you?  The one that was in your body when you were stuck in the astral plane?”

Shiro goes still for a moment, but only for a moment.  He clears his throat and says lowly, “Hm. Yeah, I’ve thought about it a lot too.  What gives me the right to be in this body over him...? I died. My life was over, and I just...take from someone else because I lost at the game?

“But sometimes I...I think I feel him.  It’s so subtle, I think maybe I’m imagining it, but...what if...we merged together?  Him and me? And I’m not fully myself, but he’s not fully myself either...? What if that...?”

He clears his throat.  “I want to believe it’s that.”

Keith turns his head, looking up into Shiro’s eyes.  He tilts his head and smiles down at Keith reassuringly.  There’s peace in his eyes. Acceptance.

The clone was different from Shiro.  He felt different. Spoke differently.  But Keith doesn’t say that.

“I would like to believe that too,” Keith whispers.  He swallows hard, hands clenching. “Because otherwise, I killed him.  I killed the other you.”

Shiro looks up, understanding in his eyes.  “Did you have nightmares again last night?”

Keith rubs at his brow and nods slightly.  “Yeah. I did.”

“Perspective,” Shiro whispers, leaning in to place his chin on Keith’s shoulder.  They both stare at each other in the mirror. “So easily, we all could’ve died at that place.  No one would’ve even been able to find our remains. Maybe they would’ve never known what even happened to us.  Maybe the universe would’ve perished without us. But that didn’t happen. We’re alive, Keith. We’re together. And I’m so grateful, everyday, that I get to keep you.  That’s what I think.”

Keith nods slowly, trying to absorb that.  “That’s all true,” Keith says.

“I wasn’t lying about feeling him inside of me.  I know it sounds strange, but...I think we’re a part of each other.  I believe that.”

Belief.  What a flimsy word.  Keith bites at his lip.  “I don’t know, Shiro... You feel very... you .”

It doesn’t seem to bother Shiro.  “You know, it took awhile, but I do finally feel very me.”  He runs his hand over Keith’s hair, ruffling it, before soothing it back into place.  “Okay. I think I’m done. What do you think?”

Keith runs his hand through his hair.  So short. It feels fresh somehow. He plays with the ends of it between his fingers.  “I like it. Thanks, Shiro.”

“I like it too,” Shiro hums happily, kissing Keith on the cheek and grinning at him.  “You look really nice. Short hair suits you.”

It’s shorter than he thinks he’s ever had it, but Shiro’s right.  It doesn’t feel weird. It feels new. Maybe, with this, he can separate himself with who he’s been.  Stir the stagnant pot up a bit.

“What’s on the agenda for today?”  Keith asks, looking up into Shiro’s face.

“Anything.  There’s a good spot in the ocean where dolphins come to visit this time of year.  Apparently they like to mess with the people swimming around.”

“That sounds...possibly upsetting.”

Shiro laughs.  “Or we can hike in the mountains.  A lot of trees and hidden ponds. Very different from home.”

“Very.  Let’s do that.”

“Let’s do that,” Shiro says.  “Let me clean up a bit.”

“Shiro, it’s my hair. Let me -“

“No, no, no, my barber shop.  Meet you out there in a second.”

Keith rolls his eyes and wanders into their room to hunt his phone down, pressing it awake.  No messages.

He touches Shiro’s phone on and sees how Aki says Grandma and him are going to the zoo.  Keith didn’t even know Aki still liked things like that.

Keith decides to call Krolia anyway.

She answers quickly.  “Hi, Keith. How’s the vacation going?”

“Good.  Really good.  We were going to go hiking today in the mountains.  How’s Aki?”

“He won at bingo last night.  Hunk made him rainbow cupcakes as a prize.  I got some pictures I'll send you in a bit. He was like a little boy again.”

Keith runs his hand along the railing, looking out at the people beginning to gather on the beach. Families upon families enjoying each other's company. “I’m glad you’re all having fun.”

“And you?  How are you feeling?  And don’t tell me ‘fine’.  You know how I feel about that word.”

Keith sighs, kicking his toes into the ground.  “...Um. I’m okay?”

“Keith.”

“We’re on vacation.  The sun is shining, the beaches are perfect, the food is great, Shiro’s happier than...god knows.  And I...” he shrugs. “Vacation.”

“You have never been one for vacations...”

“No.  But...Shiro’s happy, so...that’s good.”

She sighs again.  “...You sound better,” she says finally.  “And I’m sure Shiro’s taking good care of you, but I still think, after all this, you should go to a doctor.”

He immediately regrets calling her.  “Mom.  What do you think I’m doing here?”

“That’s all I’m going to say for right now.  I want you to enjoy your time there. It sounds wonderful.  Your dad and I always wanted to do something like that when you got older.  He would’ve loved the beaches.”

“Yeah, we could’ve double-dated,” Keith chews.  He meant it as a sarcastic joke but then he thinks about how they really could’ve and they never will be able to and his stomach sinks.  They could’ve double-dated.

Krolia hums lowly, something sad but fond in her voice.

“Sorry,” Keith whispers.  “I don’t know why I said it like that.  I miss him too...”

“I know.  He would be proud of you, Keith.”

He swallows hard and picks at his fingers.

“I’ve got to go,” she says.  “Aki’s waiting impatiently. He wanted to go to the zoo today.  What’s Shiro doing? Why aren’t you with him?”

Cleaning,” he says, but when he turns around, Shiro’s sitting on the bed comfortably.

Krolia laughs under her breath.  “Tell him I said ‘hi’. I love you two.”

“We love you too, Mom.  Thanks for looking after Aki.”

He hangs up and looks back at Shiro, who’s flipping through the stations on TV.  “Maybe we should’ve rented the adult pay-per-view after all,” Shiro says. “There’s nothing on.”

“Ugh.”  Keith plops down beside him and leans his weight into him.  Shiro opens his arm to collect him tightly to his side. “I hate the fucking noises they always make.  Real people don’t scream like that. It's fucking disgusting.”

Shiro snorts.  “Really? I mean, you were pretty vocal last night...”

“Shut up.”  Keith elbows Shiro.  “Like you can talk.”

Shiro just laughs.  “What were you saying about a double-date?  Who are we going with?”

“Oh.  I guess my dad had wanted to come here for a vacation when I got older...  Guess he didn’t put running into a burning building into his calculations.”  He clears his throat roughly and tries to shake himself out. “...But they would’ve liked that.  Being here with us.”

“Mm.  That would’ve nice.  I would’ve liked to have met him.”

“Yeah...”  He clears his throat quickly again as he feels his mood starting to dip.  He sees his father’s face in his mind and, after his thoughts all morning about Shiro’s clone, he starts remembering just how many people they’ve lost.  And the feeling creeps up on him, unbearable. He says the first thing he can think of in an attempt to distract his negative thoughts. “My mom was pecking about the doctor thing again.  It’s so fucking annoying. Like I don’t already know what she wants me to do. She’s got to tell me fifty thousand times.”

Shiro’s quiet.

The bloated silence irritates Keith.  Shiro doesn’t speak, but Keith knows exactly what he’s thinking.  He lets out a sharp sigh, shifting out of Shiro’s hold. “And, of course, you’re still thinking the same thing as her too.”

“Hey.  Come on.”

Keith advances on him.  “Well, am I wrong?”

Shiro raises an eyebrow, gently shifting Keith from his face.  “My honest thoughts? I think this vacation is a nice break - a really nice break - but I don’t think it’s going to solve anything long term.  I think we do need a doctor for you. But there’s nothing bad about that - ”

“A doctor.”  Keith says sharply, nodding his head, feeling his anger starting to rise.  “You didn’t go see a doctor.”

“I should’ve.  I wish I had. We didn’t have a lot of time for what we needed in space.”

“And we don’t have a lot of time now.”

Shiro’s quiet for awhile, watching Keith’s face.  “...We don’t...?” He asks softly. “Keith. The war is over.”

Keith lets out an angry sharp breath, his shoulders drawing up as he crosses his arms tightly over his chest.  “Are we going to go for a hike or what?”

Shiro gets to his feet and sifts through his clothes, hunting for the right ones.  “...Yeah. Sure.”

Keith goes into the bathroom to shake his shirt off in the shower angrily, watching the tiny pieces of his hair fly.  He kicks the shower on to rinse it down. Ugh, he’s annoyed. Fucking doctors. What are they going to do? Prescribe him a new brain?  Crush out the one that’s there now? They can’t help him. Who is everyone kidding? It’s just him that’s the problem.  He shoves his clothes back on and, without even thinking about it, grabs his knife from the counter and shoves it into his belt.  It’s a habit since childhood.

“Ready?”  Keith asks.

Shiro looks up, still halfway through shoving his shirt over his head.  “Uh. Yeah. Just let me...get my wallet and my phone.” He shoves them in his pocket and jams his shoes on.  “Okay.”

“Okay.”  Keith pushes the door open and gets out of there.  Shiro takes long strides to keep up.

He is wisely silent, probably letting Keith’s anger burn off on its own.  Keith can already feel his anger meter slowly dropping. It’s hard to stay mad at Shiro, especially when Keith knows in his core that Shiro is right.  He’s almost at an apology when they go down the elevator and through the lobby, until Shiro says, “Ah. I forgot to use the restroom. Just a second.” And then his blood pressure skyrockets and he’s irritated all over for no real reason.  He can’t judge. He forgot to use the restroom too.

But, despite how nice it may look , the stupid lobby bathroom smells like pee and, in the early morning like this, Keith just can’t stomach it.  Shiro smells it too, making a face. “And this hotel cost almost a hundred more a night than the other...”

Keith grunts.  “I’m going to wait in the lobby.  I can’t take this.”

“Be right there.”

Keith pushes his way out the door, crosses his arms moodily, and stands there, not caring if he looks like a bitch.  You would think casual wear would lower a few red flags for people, but it seems like everyone in this damn hotel knows who they are now anyway. Everyone’s fucking looking.

Keith shifts away from them and toward the bathroom, making it as clear as he possibly can that he’s not in the mood and do not approach.

But who actually respects boundaries anymore?

Keith’s stomach freezes and his shoulders tense painfully when he sees who’s hurrying around the counter, locked on and eager to get to Keith.

It’s the tall bulky man from the day before.  The shadow? His mind blares. But no. No, the shadow had Zarkon’s voice.  Zarkon, who’s dead. A dream.

Mind...malfunctioning.

But this man still makes Keith so fucking uneasy.

“Look,” Keith says firmly, his voice bouncing loudly across the lobby.  He wants to stop the man in his tracks. “Whatever business you have, you’re going to have to take it up with my husband.  He’s not here right now.”

“Oh, no, I wanted to speak with both of you.  I apologize for my rudeness yesterday,” the man still comes forward.  “I didn’t realize who I was speaking to. I’m embarrassed. If only I had known...”

Stop!  Keith wants to scream, but the words get lodged in his throat.

It’s the way he moves, his mannerisms.  Some people just look the type.

Keith’s mind starts to mix the two together.  He starts forgetting, so easily, the era they’re in now, that he’s no longer a paladin, fighting a war.  That he’s no longer in danger. He feels like he’s in danger.

A kid again, shoved into armor that shouldn’t fit, told he has the universe’s fate on his small insignificant shoulders.

He stumbles backwards violently.

“D-don’t get any closer!”  Keith forces from his gut, one hand out and one clutching at his gut as it squirms.  “Don’t! I’m warning you.  I don’t want you near me!  Just back - away - !”

The man comes up short, mid-step, still a few feet between them.

People around the lobby turn to look over at Keith’s outburst, all stunned out of their relaxed vacation mindsets.  The people sitting on the plush couches, waiting with their small children and families. The people up on the second floor balconies, peering over the glass dividers, staring down at the crazed person yelling down below.  Who yells on a vacation? And then they see it’s Keith Kogane, legendary defender, and the sight suddenly becomes entertainment.

No one can just mind their damn business.  They’re all just staring at him, whispering behind their hands, pointing, like he’s some animal in a zoo misbehaving.  The way their eyes widen as they realize who he is.

He’s not usually like this.  He’s not crazy. He doesn’t know what this feeling is and it scares and frustrates him. He feels like he’s choking.

“M-Mr. Kogane?”  The man says, confused.  He looks to his coworker and then back to Keith.  “I think you have me confused. I’m the concierge from yesterday. I checked you and your husband in.”

“No!  I know who you are!”  Zarkon.

No.  No. Not Zarkon.

Keith looks up.  Sees Zarkon’s face.  Looks down. The yellow eyes, the red uniform.  He tries to tell himself it’s not real, but he sees him, he hears him, he smells him.  How can it not be real?

All these people here, surrounding him from above and all around - who’s to say they’re not the remaining Galra soldiers Keith fought?  He hurt some, killed others. Surely, they had families that want revenge. Surely, they’re lurking, waiting. Waiting for Zarkon’s cue.

Sure, there are laws now.  But you can get a weapon from anywhere.  Anywhere. When Keith was in elementary school, an eight year old got a taser from some idiot seller at the market. An eight year old.  Anyone can be armed. One second too late, and you’re swarmed and dead.

Keith knows this.  His senses tell him so.  His history in this universe reminds him.  It is possible.  He’s seen it.  He’s lived it.

Keith’s taking in deep steady breaths, hands still out.  He points sharply to the counter. Won’t let himself look.  Jesus, where is Shiro?  He’s cracking so quickly.  “Just go. ...Just go.  I don’t want to hurt you.”

The man is confused.  He holds his hands up, taking a hesitant step back.  “I don’t mean any harm. I only wanted to offer you this -”  He twists behind him, reaching into his back pocket.

This man who looks like Zarkon, who speaks like him, who moves like him, reaches behind him for his weapon.

“Don’t!”  Keith screams, feeling the last strands of his sanity unraveling from its spindle.  “Don’t grab thatDrop your weapon!  Drop it!

Too late.  The man’s already reaching into his pocket and Keith’s already reacting - his reflexes working for him, obliterating any sense, if there was any left.

Zarkon’s back.

Keith scrambles for his knife that he had subconsciously armed himself with this morning, in the bathroom.  He has to be faster. He has to be the one to hit first in this world where it’s kill or be killed.

Whatever it takes.

Keith!”  A voice cracks through the lobby.

A large hand snaps around Keith’s wrist, jerking him back so roughly his arm twinges.  His legs are kicked out from underneath him and he falls backward. Time slows. He remembers something from a time long ago.  That blue glowing light. It flashes across Keith’s vision, sharp and concentrated, a tell-tale sign of space and Keith’s brought there, sucked up into that light, brought back to when he had to fight, where he had to kill, where everything wanted to hurt him.

He fights to kill. His vision goes red.  He throws himself like a crazed animal at the attacker, the blue aqua taunting him, zipping through his field of vision.

He’s a jumbled mess, no longer thinking, just feeling, just feeling , just trying to make it out of this, just trying to survive.  Kicking, punching, scratching.

Arms go around him, trying to subdue him.  “Keith! Stop! Stop!

“Get away from me!”  He breathes fury. He thrashes, elbowing his opponent in the gut hard enough they let go.

He stumbles back and away, nearly tripping on his own feet.  He can’t believe how messy he is. How all over the place he feels.  This isn’t the kind of fighter he is - this manic. He tries to pull himself together, to gear up to fight properly.

His blood freezes as he sees his opponent.

It’s him.  After all this time...  He didn’t die. Shiro’s clone is right here.  He’s different than his Shiro. He’d know him anywhere.

...His eyes are wide in that purple mania from the clone facility, stance full of fight, advancing quickly, trying to grab Keith.  He wants to kill him again. Finish the job.

Keith doesn’t have the knife anymore.

He scrambles away frantically, hitting the wall with his back hard, knocking the air from his lungs.  His world blurs and pulls. He sees double. He screams again as he seeks desperately for some way to defend himself, “Stop!  Shiro, please!  Don’t touch me! Get away!  Get away!”

The clone stops dead in his tracks, face furrowed.  “Keith...?”

Keith shakes.  Those glowing eyes bore into him.  This time is different. He’s not strong enough to fight him again.  He’s broken. He stares up in fear, shaking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to kill you.  I’m so so sorry. I never wanted to hurt you.  Please believe me. Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me.  I know I deserve it, but Shiro needs me. I can’t leave him.  Please don’t do this. Please.”

The clone just stares.  Reprieve? Is he teasing Keith?  Wanting to see him squirm and suffer?

Keith grits his teeth as he feels tears burn his eyes.  He shakes his head. “I’m sorry,” he says. It’ll never be enough.  “I’m so sorry... I’m sorry.”

The clones voice is surprisingly gentle.  Shaky.  “Keith...  Hey. No one’s going to kill you,” the clone whispers, holding trembling hands up in surrender.  “It’s me. It’s me.”

“Don’t hurt me,” Keith whispers.  “I’m sorry.”

No one moves.

The world goes quiet.  It’s just Keith’s erratic breathing and this unbearable sharp silence.  In the fight’s absence, Keith’s heartbeat slows and his senses slowly dim back down to something resembling human.  He sees the man who looks like Zarkon still standing those feet away, the people all around them, watching in shock and horror.  It’s like he’s waking up from some strange haze, the only one who had been taken away by it.

“I-I was just offering to upgrade your room to a suite,” the man says, stunned.  What he takes out isn’t a weapon. It’s a keycard.

Keith looks to the clone, dread already in his stomach.  Those glowing eyes, the marred messed up arm...they’re not there.  It’s just Shiro, as gentle as the voice Keith realizes he’d been hearing.  He’s standing in front of Keith, totally, completely just him, hands up in absolute surrender.  He collapses to his knees, weight hitting the ground, still watching Keith through shocked strained eyes and his drained paper-white face.  He looks haunted.

Keith sits there, slowly realizing all along who it was he had been fighting.  Who he had been begging to. Horror pushes against Keith’s throat the more he understands.

“Sh...Shiro,” Keith tries to breath, but he can’t.  He’s shaking so hard, from his body, deep down to his soul.  What has he done? This is the worst betrayal, only he’s the one who betrayed.  “Shiro?”

“I-It’s okay,” Shiro whispers.  He seems just as shaken as Keith, eyes still blinking quickly over frazzled grey eyes.  “It’s okay,” Shiro sniffs roughly, trying to speak clearly even though his voice wobbles.  “Look at me. It’s just me. It’s your Shiro. You’re safe. I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.  I’d never ever hurt you. You’re safe.”

Keith sobs.  “Shiro.”

“Keith,” Shiro breathes again, hands still up.  Keith can see how his fingers shake from even here.  “Keith.  Can you see me?  Can you hear me? Do you know who I am?”

Keith presses a hands to his face, trying to hold back the sobs that are prying from his chest.  He nods his head but he cannot respond. “Oh, god. Oh, god.”

“Keith, it’s okay.  Come here. No one’s hurt.  No one wants to hurt you.  Everything’s okay.” He very carefully opens his arms to him and waits, like trying to coax over a rabid dog.

And Keith feels like he is.

Sick, so sick, trying to hurt the last people he’d ever want to hurt.  He had felt that bloodlust. He had felt that killer’s instinct pulled over him, frantic and out of control.  If Shiro had been a lesser person, he’d have been torn limb from limb. Keith would’ve killed him. He wouldn’t have ever realized what he was doing until it’d be over.

Keith crawls to Shiro, clutching onto his arms, to his shoulders, feeling at his face, staring at him, making sure he’s still alive.  That Keith hadn’t killed him. “Oh, god. Oh, god.  What’ve I done?  Oh, my god.”

“I’m fine.  I’m totally fine.  Calm down -”

“I was trying to kill you.  I was trying to kill you...”

“Focus, Keith.  Look at me. Look right here.  At my face. What do you see?” Shiro asks.

Keith’s eyes flicker all around, unable to focus.  “I thought - I just... For a second, the light. When he was controlled by Haggar, the look in his eyes, that purple manic light.  The light, I swear... I swear I saw it.”

Shiro shakes his head sharply.  “Keith. Calm down. Breathe. Look again.  My face. What do you see? Right in this moment.  Right now.”

Keith’s attention is everywhere.  Shiro gently touches the side of his jaw, steadying him.

“Look at me, Keith,” he whispers.

Keith turns his eyes up.  Holds his gaze. “...Grey,” Keith whispers, shakily reaching out to Shiro’s face.  “Grey eyes. Not purple.”

Shiro nods encouragingly.  “Yes.  What else?”

Keith shakes his head.  “I don’t... I...” He hangs his head for a moment and tries to breathe.  What does he see...? What’s different? What makes him his Shiro?

He whispers out, “You’re gentler.  Your voice has a softer edge to it...  Your eyes...they’re more open to me. ...There’s somehow less fear in them and more, all at the same time.”

“Yes.  That’s right.  You can see me now.”

“I can see you now,” Keith pants.  He’s exhausted. He feels like he’s been running all day long.

“It’s okay.  Everything’s going to be fine...”

How is it fine?!  I just tried to kill you!”

“Shh, shh.  There’s no need to panic.”

“No need to panic?”  Keith wheezes, fists gripping his knees tightly.  “What if I had...? What if I overpowered you...? What if you were dead?”

This isn’t him.  This craziness pulsing through his veins, latching onto his brain.  He knows it’s not him. He would never hurt Shiro. Never.

But he did.  He did.  If he had jabbed that knife into Shiro’s chest?  His neck? What then? What then?

Keith grips his neck tightly, wheezing hard into his knees.  He curls over himself, sobbing even harder.

Keith, with Shiro’s blood in his hands.  He can already see it playing out in his head.  See Shiro’s wide surprised eyes. Going limp. Lifeless.  The red all over. The blood on Keith’s hands. Shiro’s grave.  His Shiro. Because of him. Aki, completely fatherless, just like his dream those years ago.  Like a premonition.

“Shiro,” he sobs.  “Shiro.”

Shiro’s hands gather Keith up and holds him gently to his chest, as closely as he can.  “Shh, shh...it’s okay. Everything’s okay. No one is hurt. We’re all fine. We’re all okay.”

For now.  A hiccup in fate.

“He’s sick,” Shiro’s explaining wearily over his head.  “I’m so sorry. He would’ve never done this. We came here trying to get his mind off things.  Please don’t let this get out. We’ll pay off everyone here, but it will kill him if this gets out.  Please. He’s already struggling.”

“Do you need an ambulance...?”

“No.  No ambulance.  We just need your word.”

“We won’t say anything...”  The concierge murmurs lowly, almost in awe.  “...I had no clue. They always talk about you both like...like you’re gods.

Keith groans, clinging even tighter to Shiro.  “He sounds like him. He sounds like him.”

“I know.  We’ll get you out of here.”

“I told him to back away but he kept coming.  He wouldn’t listen.”

“I know.”

“Something’s wrong with me,” Keith shakes.  “Something’s really really wrong. I don’t have any control over myself.  It’s like I’m not the one making my own decisions. I’m scared, Shiro. I’m so scared.”

“I know...”  But Shiro’s voice is strained.  “I know.”

Tears fall on Keith’s arm and he freezes, startled.  Slowly, he looks up into Shiro’s face. He blinks up into the light, at the tears falling down from above, onto his own face.

Shiro’s crying.  They’re pouring from his soft sad grey eyes and curving around the edge of his jawline, catching the light before they fall.  There’s so much pain on Shiro’s face. So much agony, poured over. “Oh, Keith,” he whispers as he looks down into Keith’s stunned eyes.  “I can’t do this. I can’t do this on my own. I can’t. I’m so sorry. I’m not strong enough for you. I wish I could be, but I’m not. I’d do anything, you know that, but I can’t watch you suffer like this.  I need help. I need help.”

Keith can’t even remember the last time he ever saw Shiro cry, not out of sorrow like this.  And he’s sobbing. Shiro. Sobbing over Keith, sunken onto the ground, the both of them broken to the end of their worn nubs.  How tired and scared and hopeless he looks.

Keith did that to him.  Drained the life out of him until he’s like this.

“...Shiro,” Keith whispers, reaching shaky hands to Shiro’s face, hesitating, wondering if he’s even still accepted.  If Shiro still even trusts him. Shiro doesn’t even flinch. “I love you, Shiro.”

“I love you too.  More than anything.  I don’t want you in pain like this...”

“...I’ll get help, Shiro.  Whatever you want. I’ll do it.  I’ll get help.”

Shiro nods, holding Keith tightly, burying his face into his shoulder.  “It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”

Keith’s never heard so much agony in Shiro’s voice before.

“I’ll do it,” he says softly, looking down at the hotel lobby’s floor blankly, wondering how the hell it ever came to this.  “...I’ll go.”

 

Whatever this is...it’s draining.  It had drained Keith to a point where all he felt was fear and sorrow.  Now, he’s drained so that he doesn’t feel much at all.

It’s already taken Aki from him.  Isn’t that enough? His own son? It’s taken his confidence, his joy, his solace, his sanity.  And now? It wants to take Shiro from him too. Not Shiro.

He’s going to leave...isn’t he?  Isn’t he...?

Keith’s too afraid to ask.  He thinks he should just enjoy their final moments together, before he never sees Shiro again.  He’s quiet. He’s good. He lets Shiro drive him to the doctors’ appointments. He takes the pills they want him to.  Does the therapy they ask. He even completes their optional homework packets that they don’t even check. He does everything they say to do.  Most everything.

He even takes awhile off from work, even though the walls of his house feel like bars in a cage, holding him in, driving him slowly insane.  Well, more than before. He endures it for a long time, weeks, but there are no more incidents, no more mind bending delusions, so he finally puts his foot down.

“I’m ready.  I can’t stop my life.  I can’t sit in this house every day, that alone would make anyone crazy.”

Shiro nods slowly.  “...I want someone with you at all times.”

“Fine,” he whispers, trying not to let it show on his face that this distrust hurts him.  He gets it, he agrees. But it still hurts.

He goes to work, sits at his desk for the first time in a long time.  Wants things to just fall into a natural rhythm again. He wants to pretend this nightmare never happened.

Everyone’s taken much of the work from him though, afraid to overwhelm him, that there’s almost nothing to even do.  Everyone at the Garrison has heard the stories but has been sworn to secrecy. It’s supposed to help, but their looks sure as hell don’t.  He feels uneasy. He always feels uneasy.

There’s nothing to do.  He doesn’t want to follow Shiro around like a puppy dog which is what he would normally do with his down time.  So he stays at his desk most of the time, looking into his data pad, reading the news.

Now, he knows he shouldn’t.  Shiro tells him not to. He doesn’t really know or trust his therapist yet, but he probably knows some stuff, and he says not to as well.  But how else will he know what’s going on in the world when everyone’s tip-toeing around him?  He knows the world isn’t just fluffy bunnies and cotton candy.

So that’s what he does.  Everyday. Once he finishes his small amounts of work, he reads the news.

On one such day, Pidge sits on the couch in his office, sprawled out casually on her belly, flicking through her own data pad as she munches on veggie straws.  “Did you hear about that sea creature they just found in the Arctic? How cool is that? Dates back to prehistoric times and it survived all this time without us even knowing.  That’s a ninja.  Maybe it’s part of the Blades, huh?  Did you know any sea creatures?” She laughs at her own joke.

Keith keeps flipping through the stories, mood darkening the more he goes.  Disgusting. Disgusting. Disgusting. People are disgusting. It’s surreal going through these stories of real actual events...  He can’t imagine doing any of these awful things to someone.  For what...?

This world...he hates it.  It lets him down every day.  Why did they even save it...?

“Hey,” Pidge hums, getting up and walking beside him.

She leans her elbows on his desk and looks into his data pad with him.  He doesn’t bother looking up.

“Keith, let’s go out.”

“Can’t.  Shiro told me not to.”

“He did not.  He just said he wants people with you.  And I’m here, so...”

“I’m not a fucking child.  I don’t need babysitting.” He angrily flips to the next page.

She looks down at her hands, pressing her lips together tightly.  She tries again. “What are you reading? You look so serious.”

He puts the data pad down for a second.  “It's about a couple,” he says softly.  “They’d just gotten married and were on their honeymoon.  As they were leaving to go home, they got murdered right out of their hotel.  They weren’t even thirty yet.  Their family and friends say they were the kindest people they’ve ever known.  They did a lot of humanitarian work. Oh. And they were Galra.  This isn’t a coincidence.”  He rubs his finger against his eyebrow roughly, frowning into it.  “...They didn’t deserve this.”

Pidge parts her lips and takes a breath to say something.  She can’t think of what. “That’s not good for you. Reading that stuff.”

“Just because I don’t read it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.  I want to stay informed.”

“Keith, you’re driving yourself crazy.”

He finally looks up at her, sharp bitter smile on his face.  “Hm. The news did this to me? The news?  Since I’m the only one who reads the news.”

“Someone in your state of mind,” she says carefully.  “Is especially susceptible. I think you need to stop.”

He stares at her sharply for two more seconds before deliberately looking back down.

She tsks, forgoes the speech, and snatches it right out of his hands.

“Hey!”  He cries, jumping to his feet.

“You need a break, Keith, I’m serious!”

He lunges for it and she tries to back up but she runs into the back of the couch, going flying over the top.  She rolls onto the other side, onto the cushions with a small grunt.

Keith’s already there, reaching over to snatch it away.

“Stop it!”  She hisses, lifting her foot up as some sort of border, but she reacts on accident when he gets too close and kicks him square in the gut.

“Oof!”  The air is knocked right out of him.  He groans, bending over and grabbing onto the top of the couch for support.

Pidge’s eyes go wide with shock.  She claps a hand over her mouth. “Oh!  Keith-! I’m sorry! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it, I swear.  I just - Ow -”

He grabs the damn data pad from her and jerks it toward him with one rough tug.  He almost gets it, but she clings to it with her entire body.

Ow, Keith!  Let go!  My arms hurt!”

He clings to his gut with one hand and glares.  “Then you let go!  This is my data pad!  I can read the fucking news if I want.  You’re not my mom.”

“Think of your family, Keith!  You’re miserable! It’s making it all worse!”

“Mind your own fucking business!”

“It is my business!  Aki comes to my house crying after school and somehow it’s not my business?  What about yours?  He’s your son!”

Keith freezes for a second as his blood goes cold.  Pidge tries to use the moment to her advantage. She almost has it.  The data pad slips between his fingers, but he jumps before it’s out of reach and tugs it back, more aggressively than before.

She yelps and jams her foot into the side of the couch for more leverage.

“You’re right,” Keith pants, gritting his teeth.  “He’s my fucking son, not yours You gave him up, remember?  So stop trying to guilt me!  If you wanted him then you could’ve kept him!  But you didn’t!  So mind your own damn business.  I’m not saying it again!”

“You’re my family.  I don’t need a husband and a child like you did, I like things how I like them, just like you, and I’m not shaming you for it, so don’t give me that shit.  You’re my brother! You’re my business. I’m scared for you right now. For all of you. So back - off -!”

She tries to tug it away, but her grip slips and she topples over backwards, spread flat out on her back.  Keith looks down at the data pad in his hand. He steps forward, glaring down at her.

She shoves a finger at him from her place on the ground.  “Don’t you read that!”

“I don’t get you,” he pants.  “...When did you stop caring?  When?  Pidge, have you been reading it?  Have you been watching?  People are dying!  And it’s over nothing!  People will hurt and kill and rob others just because they can.  That’s how humanity is, Pidge.  That’s the world we saved.  These are the people we fought for and they just...tear everything down.  I can’t... I can’t stand it. Seeing it. When you were pregnant with Aki, we were such fools, believing that he’d grow up to live in a peaceful world that wouldn’t know strife.  I truly believed it then! That he’d be okay... But here we are. He’s miserable. I’m miserable.  Why? There’s no respect in this world, no one spares any kindness.  Everyone’s just...horrible assholes.  I’m tired of it.  I’m so tired. You don’t hate that?”

Pidge is still panting from the floor.  “Not everyone is like that.”

“Oh, yeah, like the five people in our circle are okay, but the billions out there...  Every time I go out, every time I see some shitty news story, it just makes me wonder why we’re even bothering...  We can never be fast enough.”

She’s firm as she pushes herself up.  “Not. Everyone. There’s still good in this world, things you’re not seeing.  The news doesn’t highlight that, Keith, so you’re only seeing one side - the bad side - but there is a balance.  It just goes unreported...  And the world has always been this way, Keith,” she says gently.  “Two sides. You can’t save everyone. It’s not possible.”

He bites at his lip as he stares down into his data pad.  He holds out his hand for Pidge, who takes it, letting him lift her up.  “What if that were my mom who was killed in this story,” he whispers. “If that were Shiro?  If that were Aki?  What then, Pidge?  You shrug your shoulders and go about your day because ‘it just happens’?  How can we live with ourselves if we just sit here and do nothing?  Just watch their suffering from a stupid window and ‘send a prayer’?  What the fuck is that going to do...?”

“Well, is this helping?  ...Keith...  I’ve never had PTSD.  I don’t know what it’s like. But Shiro’s...he’s a mess, Keith.  He’s hardly any more useful than you are at work. I haven’t heard him laugh in ages.  And don’t even get me started about Aki. I know it’s easier said than done, but I also know you love them.  We’re all here, willing to help you in whatever way we can, but you have to put in effort too.  You have to want to change.  It’s not going to work any other way.  We can pull your weight for the rest of your life, but you have to put a foot forward if you want to keep going.  We can not do it all for you.  I wish we could.”

He growls lowly.  “What do you propose?  I’m going to therapy.  I’m taking the medication.  I’m giving it all I have and nothing’s changing!  I’m still fucked up, my head’s still a fucking mess, I can’t stop thinking about everything, from now, to the past!  I’m seeing Zarkon. I’m seeing Shiro’s clone.  I see the fucking druids everywhere, in the halls, in the bushes, in my shower, I’m exhausted.  You think I want to be terrified of my own husband?!  You think I want to feel like he’s going to kill me? I love him!  I love him and I have to avoid him.  I’m doing the breathing exercises, I’m trying to change my thinking how they tell me to, but nothing’s helping!  I’m at the end of my rope. I don’t know what else to do! Tell me! I don’t know!  I’m trying! What more do you want from me?  I’ll do it!  I will! Just tell me!

Pidge just stands there.  Because she doesn’t know either.

He clings to his chest with a tight fist, cringing at the raging inside of him.  He says lowly, “You think...I’m not thinking of my family in all of this? There is so much going on.  At home. In our world.  I’m scared all the time.  You’re not terrified for Aki?  In the kind of world we’re living in?  He can’t fight.  He can’t even run away.  He’s soft and innocent and naive and there’s shit waiting to kill people in every corner.  What if he accidentally walks into one of those corners?  Who knows?  Maybe we have them hiding in the Garrison, watching our every move!  What if they’re waiting for us to all get together and they kill us? What if they seek us all out, plucking us all off one by one and then the twins, and then Aki.  What if they find Mom?  Me?  And kill Shiro for fornicating with the enemy?  What then?  Will I be crazy then?”

He stares hard at her.  His chest is heaving.  He clears his throat.  “...Sometimes I think you’re all the crazy ones.  Like you’ve muted all the parts of the world you’re scared of, so you can live in ignorance.  ...And I’m all alone in this.  The only one thinking about it.  And I don’t know what to do about it.”

There’s a knock on the door.  It’s Iverson, who comes in without permission, face carefully still.

“Kogane,” he greets.

“...Iverson,” Keith murmurs.  He rolls his neck out for a moment, pressing his hands to the desk and sighing.  “...God.  What is it?”

“Could hear you down the hall,” he jerks his thumb from where he came.  “...What’s the problem?”

Keith’s immediately pissed off by his tone.  He’s feeling prickly and daring. He shoves the data pad at Iverson.  “The problem is that people are dying and we’re doing nothing. Sir.”

“Ah.  The resistance is bothering you.”

“Yeah.  It’s fucking bothering me.”

Iverson’s eyes flick up to Keith’s.  He’s already taking a deep breath, preparing his lecture.

Keith beats him to it.  “I know there is something we can be doing, we’re the best of the goddamn military and if there’s nothing we personally can do, we have the connections to do it.”

“Do what, exactly?”

Find their ringleader and put an end to him and all of this shit that keeps happening.”

“And that will solve -” he gestures to the data pad “- all of this?”

“It will sure as hell be a good start.”

Iverson sighs.  He wears that same dismissive look Keith’s been getting from everyone lately and it drives him insane.

“You don’t get it,” Keith says lowly, pushing himself up on his toes to get in Iverson’s face.  “You don’t see it like I do.  Because if you don’t see it, then it’s not happening, and if it’s not happening, then you don’t have to do anything about it.  May I remind you that we are the only ones who can.  Turning a blind eye and wishing things disappear is not going to help anyone.”

Iverson is staring with that sharp heavy look of his.  He puts the data pad down.

Keith’s losing him.  He bulldozes ahead. “That kidnapped girl on the news recently.  It’s been weeks.  No one will pay her ransom?”

“We are in negotiations.  But if we start that...”

“There are no other ways to save her?  I will go in myself -  I will pay the whole damn thing -”

“I’ll look into it,” Iverson says wearily, but the look on his face says he’s just trying to shut Keith up.

Keith presses his lips together tightly.  

“But you have to get yourself together.  I feel like you’re that same goddamn cadet again that I first met, losing your head and your cool.  You’ll really go into a hostage situation for some random girl when you have a family to worry about?  My advice to you is that you stop worrying about every single other person on this earth and start worrying about someone else who’s in critical need of attention: you.  Shirogane has his hands full.”

“How fucking dare you,” Keith breathes fire.  “What I worry about and what my husband has to deal with at home are none of your business.”

Iverson just looks tired.  “I’ll look into it,” he says again before he turns and walks off.

Pidge is staring at Keith incredulously.

Keith tosses her an irritated look as he shoves his data pad away.  “What? Did you not just hear what he said? Saying Shiro has to deal with me as a crazy raging bitch.”

“Keith.  He never said that.  And you can’t talk to Iverson that way.  The only reason he didn’t knock your teeth in is because you’re you.  And honestly...?  Was he wrong?”

“I can talk to him however the hell I want.”

“Are you serious...?”

“What?  He’ll sit around and do nothing either way, so what’s the big deal?  Aren’t there worse things on the line? Like that hostage’s life that he doesn’t care about.”

Pidge just looks down as she presses her lips together tightly.

“Though,”  Keith says, looking down into reports that show the same thing - nothing.  “Looks like your department shows about the same amount of care as him too.”

“Excuse me?”

He looks up, eyes dark.  “You heard me.”

“What is wrong with you?  You really want to do this?  With me now? We are trying.”  She shakes.  “You have no idea what we do.”

“Well, this conversation is familiar.  I’m trying too. What did you say again about needing to put a foot forward?  We can’t all carry your dead weight.”

“Are you kidding me right now?”  She grits out between clenched teeth.  “And what do you suggest I do?  Hm?  Since you’re suddenly the genius.”

“Find them,” Keith says, slamming the flat of his palm on the table.  “Find them.  Find the people doing this.”

“They’ve tried!”

“No.  Not them - you You’re the genius, Pidge.  Not them. They weren’t the ones saving the universe at fucking fourteen years old.  That was all you.  And you haven’t even tried to find them, I don’t understand.  You leave it to others when you know they couldn’t possibly compare to your level!  I want you to look into it.  You. Not them! I don’t trust them.  I only trust you.”

She groans, tossing her head in the air.  “And say I find something? What are you going to do?  It’s not just one guy, it’s a worldwide organization.”

“If you cut off the head, the rest will scurry.  That’s how people are.”

“Ever heard of the hydra, Keith?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I have.  That’s how I feel every single fucking morning when I wake up.  No matter how much good we try to do, the next day more and more strife keeps popping up even worse than before.  Again. And again. And again. All these useless things we’re doing here, wasting our time... People keep dying, countries keep burning, we are sending children to their graves.  Our work here, it’s all hopeless, just like everything else in our lives until the day we all die. So yeah, I know about the fucking hydra. I see it every damn day.  What else do you want to school me with?  I’m right here, might as well throw another one at me. You’re the genius, after all, since everything’s already solved in this piece of shit for a world we’re living in.”

Her jaw is still dropped.  “...Who are you?”

He’s breathing heavily, feeling manic.  He runs his hand through his hair and shakes his head.  “...God.  I don’t know.  I don’t know anymore.” He slides his data pad across his table and sits back down in his seat.  He shakes his head again. “I have no fucking clue.” He swallows hard and goes back to idly flicking through his data pad, the most benign choice.  He can’t focus. There’s this buzzing in his face and his head.

Pidge just stands there and stares down at him, her face pinched like she stepped in rotted food.  “...I think you need to go home and take a nap. Seriously.”

“I am not going home.”

Pidge looks between him and the door with a frown on her face.  She crosses her arms. Looks out the window. Then caves. “Fine.  Fine.  Even though I’m mad how you said it, you’re right.  It’s important to you, so I’ll look up your case. But you’re being an asshole, I hope you know that.  And I don’t forgive you.  Not today.”  She goes into his drawers in the back wall and starts loudly rummaging around.

With a discreet flick of the eyes, he watches her over the top of his data pad.  Her upset sharp movements, the little frown on her pouting face.

Why does she stay around...?  He feels disgusting inside and he can see its reach spreading from him to her.  He’s infecting her too.

Just like he infected Shiro.

She needs to run before it pulls her under just like them.

Her eyes flick up to his as she notices him watching her.  She looks back. After a few moments, her face softens, nose wrinkling.  She almost looks like she’s going to cry. “...I know you’re suffering...but it’s temporary, okay?  You’ll get through this, Keith.”

He shouldn’t have yelled.  He opens his mouth to apologize.

There’s a soft hesitant knock at the door.  Keith’s immediate reflex is irritation, but no one knocks that softly at the Garrison.

Keith looks up.

Aki waits there hesitantly, peering at him through his glasses.  Keith forgets how old he’s gotten somewhere along the lines. He still thinks of Aki as a little boy, but he could almost mistake him for a cadet.  A young, gangly cadet, but still. Aki says, “Uh. Is this a bad time?”

Keith shifts in his seat and tries to purge the bad feelings that still feel immediate.  Or at least shove them away for a few minutes so he can pretend he’s a normal functioning being.  He doesn’t want to snap at Aki on accident.  He’s not as tough of an opponent as Pidge. “...Hi, Aki.  You can come in.  Did you...hear that?”

“Hear what?”  He says, but he clears his throat roughly and doesn’t look in Keith’s eyes.  Aki lifts a box in his hands. “I, uh - I brought something.”

“Okay.”  Keith looks back down into his data pad.  “Pidge. The door’s for you.”

Pidge looks over her shoulder.

“N-no, it’s not for her.  It’s...for you.” Aki approaches Keith’s desk and places the box in the center.  He leaves it for a second and then reaches forward quickly to pop open the lid.

Keith peers inside - and stops.

“There was no school today, so the twins and I had some time to kill.  We were trying out like...bento box sort of things, you know?  Ever seen them?  Dad knew what it was.”

Keith just stares, because inside this little box are rice balls shaped into the Red and Black Lion.  They’re smiling.  In between them, snuggling up close to them, is a small White Lion. They’re happy.

Keith looks up to Aki in confusion, but Aki doesn’t look back.  Instead, his ears are turning bright red as he scratches at his neck with nervousness.  “I-I know you’ve been going through a hard time lately and Dad’s worried about how much weight you’ve been losing.  Uncle Hunk said you haven’t even been eating any of the food he’s been sending over, so I...I thought rice...might be easy on your stomach...”  He trails off meekly.

Aki made this.  With his own hands, on purpose, for him.  Keith blinks down into it. After everything Keith’s put Aki through, despite this great divide between them, this disconnect, Aki’s carefully coming back, holding out these tiny cute animal shapes.

Keith has so many things he wants to say, but when he goes to say them, he finds he just feels like crying.  He can’t get the words around the lump in his throat, and he definitely, definitely doesn’t want to cry in front of Aki, so he just stands there like an idiot, battling himself.

Thank you, he wants to say.  You have no idea what this means to me, he wishes he could get out.  There’s something deep in his chest that feels truly moved, a piece of his soul, waking up, maybe.  And he suddenly feels so so blessed. Like the world’s shifted, changed, better.  And all the strife, all the pain he had only just been talking about with Pidge...it all just...melts away.

Keith is so choked up and he suddenly realizes how much hatred and anger he’s been clinging onto.  Why...?  It’s been consuming him so viciously that he’s losing sight of Aki and what’s important to him.  And it’s right here, sitting in this bento box. A family. Their family.  It’s suddenly so clear.

He wants to say all of this, but there’s so much to say, he doesn’t even know where to start and silence hangs over them as Aki waits on the other side of Keith’s desk, wringing his hands nervously.

Pidge looks between the two of them.  She clears her throat and says softly, “...That’s adorable, Aki.  Keith. Don’t you think?”

He never thought Aki would do this.  Not for him. He’s still in shock.

Aki wasn’t waiting for her approval.  He was waiting for Keith’s. When he seems to realize that it’s not coming, he closes off again, shoulders tightening, hands going still.  “...Nevermind. It was a stupid idea,” he whispers quickly, grabbing at the box and closing it with a rough snap.  “Of course you don’t want this.  I’m sorry for bothering you.” There’s no anger in his words, just humiliation. “You can have it.”  He shoves it at Pidge and runs out the door.

Runs.

“W-wait!” Keith calls, but Aki keeps going.

Keith blinks after him.  It all happened so quickly: the entry, the delivery, the exit.

Pidge looks after Aki for another moment longer and then sighs, carefully placing the box back down on his desk, sliding it into the center, right in front of him.  “...Here,” she says softly.

What he just did - or didn’t do - what he just lost, sinks in.  And he hates himself with a renewed passion.  It flares in his chest until it’s intolerable.  Aki was right there!  Right in his hands.  That could’ve been their turning point.  But now, it’s running away.  Keith smacks a plaque off his desk and it goes crashing into the wall.  He places his hands on his head, groaning lowly.

Everything he does, he fucks up.  

He breathes in heavily, gritting his teeth together until it feels like his head might explode.  It’s that feeling: too big for his body.  “...I think I’m going to go home.”

Pidge looks over at him and nods gently.  “...Okay,” she murmurs. “Want me to drive you?”

“I just want to be alone.”

“...I’ll let Shiro know.”

He grabs the bento box with careful hands, lets himself absorb what it is and all it actually means to him, and leaves.

 

He really does mean to go home.  He can do that much without fucking it up, right?  But he finds himself driving off the usual path. He doesn’t know why.  It wasn’t a conscious decision and he doesn’t want to worry Shiro, but he doesn’t go home.  He goes to the graveyard.  It just feels right.

He stops off to get flowers first because that wouldn’t feel right either, and soon enough, he’s pulling into the familiar parking lot, looking out into familiar quiet land.

He wanted to be alone and this is the place to do it.  He usually brings people with him or, at the very least, Kosmo.  Because coming here as a child by himself was only something he had to do when he had no one else.  Today feels like coming full circle in life, back when he was little, back when he had no one. Disconnected and far away as he is from everyone, coming alone just feels natural again, like the right choice.  He feels that thought tugging at the last bits of his strength.

He walks through the grass, passing these abandoned stones, only stopping for one.

He’s always been fond of the design.  He gently places the flowers down on his dad’s grave and sits, staring at his name carved into stone.

In some ways, it’s nice here.  Quiet and secluded. Not many people are ever around, a graveyard that’s mostly forgotten.  It has a very “him” feel but maybe that’s just because he spent a great deal of his time here growing up.

Quiet.  Peaceful.  He wishes that’s the way his mind would be lately.  He hates this. He hates being this way. Seeing the look on Pidge’s face, seeing Iverson’s tsk in his eyes, Aki’s hurt.  He wishes he didn’t have to be this way. It’s like he doesn’t even have any control anymore and he’s just watching someone else tear down everything he loves in his life.

He wishes his dad were here.  His dad had been so wise.  So kind.  He knew how to do anything and everything right.  And even if his dad had to suffer from PTSD, he would not have ended up in a mess like this.  If teenager Keith had handed him a bento box, he would’ve smiled and thanked him, no matter what.

He wishes he could cross this disconnect, reach through the space that separates him and his father, ask him if he’s too far gone to be saved.

He lifts his hand, touching the edges of his fingers to cold stone, feeling his father’s name, the last bits of him Keith gets to keep.

“Hey, Dad,” Keith whispers.  “I know I haven’t been here in awhile.  Life’s been...” He doesn’t know of a nice way to phrase it so he doesn’t even try.  He rubs a hand over his face.  “I’ve just been tired. Really, really tired...and worn.  Shiro and I went on a vacation recently to try to unwind.  We went to the beach and it started off good, but then I messed things up and we had to leave early.  Shiro said it didn’t bother him, but I know it kind of did.  I mean...he’s been wanting a vacation for so long and we don’t even stay for a full twenty-four hours.  It’s got to bother him...  We didn’t even go to space either, like he really wanted.  I guess I was just...scared. Me.  Scared of space.”  He laughs under his breath, letting his fingers trail down the name and over the dates that hurt him.  He settles his hand in his lap.  “Aki stayed with Mom. He didn’t want to go. I think if you had been here still, you two would’ve had a lot of fun watching Aki. She’s really good with him and I know you would’ve been the same way. Aki would’ve loved you, you wouldn’t have been able to pry him off of you,” Keith laughs softly, imagining it.  “Just like me, huh...? All I ever wanted to do was to ride up on your shoulders, to see what you were seeing... The world seemed so big then, sitting there with you.” He scoots back so he can lean against the gravestone and tilt his head back, looking into the sky. The sky is always a little strange here, like there’s a cloud that just sits above this place always, hung from a star.  He doesn’t hate it. It’s familiar.

Keith looks back down to the box in his hands and carefully peels the lid off where the three lions smile up at him.  “Look at this,” he whispers. “Aki actually made it for me, can you believe that? You know how I said tensions have been high between him and me?  Well, they’ve gotten even worse, so this is...it’s...a miracle to put it lightly.  He came to my office, walked to my desk, and placed it right in front of me...”  The small white lion in the center is unassuming. It’s half their size, squashed in between.  “And I just stared...” Keith mutters lowly. “I felt...so much looking down at it.  Like maybe there was hope between us after all.  I’ve spent so many years convincing myself I would still survive if Aki hated me that I had never considered the possibility that...maybe he wouldn’t always...”

He reaches out to touch the middle lion’s cheek gently.  “But I’m not like you. I don’t know how to make anyone love me.  I thought maybe it was just something that would happen if I tried, but I guess not...  I’m so fucked up and broken, all my fears are real, and they’re even worse in reality.  I don’t know what to do... I don’t know where to go but here, I’m just...ruining everything.  I hate everything now...”  He whispers, so confused.  “I didn’t always.  I used to be able to see the beauty in it, but now everything’s so grey...I don't even remember what that's like anymore.  And it just keeps getting worse...and I feel so lost.”

Keith bites his lip and sniffs.  “...Help me,” he whispers, voice trembling.  “...Help me.  I’m a mess.  Every time I try to take a step forward, I just unravel even more.  I’m tearing my family apart. They’re trying so hard to keep me afloat but my problems are too heavy and we’re all going to drown together if this goes on.  Everything I do, I hurt them, and that’s the last thing I ever want.  Aki’s still so young and the looks he gets sometimes, like he’s suffered years beyond his age.  I don’t know what to do.

“What would you have done?  How can I fix this? Please.  I’m begging you. Mom says you can still hear us, that our words still reach you.  If they do, please... please, I need to hear your voice.  I need your advice. I need your help.”  His breath cuts off as tears pour down his cheeks.  There’s a sharp pain in his head as he turns his eyes skyward, praying for a sign, praying for something, anything, to tell him he’s not alone.  That his dad’s still here, somehow, in some form.  “...Dad,” he whispers, hearing as the wind picks up his voice and carries it away.  “Dad...”

He’s never answered before.  Not really. Sometimes when Keith would beg, he’d do it long enough that a frog would pass by, and he’d look down at it and call it fate and somehow, that made him feel a little bit more alive for a while.  A little less alone. He’d take that now. Anything. A frog. Maybe even a bug. But there’s nothing here, only Keith, this cold gravestone, and the wind.

The crickets don’t even respond in the distance.  There’s nothing. Just this cold jarring emptiness and the forgotten ruins on the horizon.  He should’ve figured. He’s surprised the grass even grows here.

He slowly settles back into stone and brings his legs up to his chest, balancing the box on his knees.  He feels so goddamn stupid and naive. Of course no one answers, the dead are dead.

He sniffs roughly.  Stares at the little lions with dull dark eyes.  “...Maybe it’s better that you ran into that building.  So you wouldn’t have to see me now. You would’ve been so disappointed in me,” he whispers.  “Just like everyone else.”

He looks at the red lion.  He knows it’s supposed to be him.  Even though he’s also a symbol for Voltron, kids idolize him as the red paladin.  No one ever mentions Lance in his place.

Yeah.  It’s Keith who’s the red paladin and Shiro who’s the black and little Aki in the center.

He has a sudden awful urge that spikes through him, looking at the little rice ball of himself.  He roughly grabs the red and chucks it as hard as he can, as far across this graveyard it will grow.  He throws it so hard he yells and watches as it shoots over the headstones and into a tree, where the little red ball scatters.

There.

He looks back down into the box.  The black and white lion are together now.  It makes sense. Black and white always go together.  The red is too bright, too fiery, flaring brightly for one intense shining brilliant moment, and then fading into embers.

It’s getting late.  He knows he should head back before Shiro does, but he suddenly doesn’t have any energy.  He’s getting hungry.

He looks at the rice balls.  Reaches in.  Starts eating it.  Tears stream down his face.  He just eats it and cries.  He’s already doing the same to his family - consuming the life out of them - what does it matter if he does it to the rice ball versions too?  So he just stays there, eating and crying and sitting on his dead father’s grave.  He has a home waiting. A family.  But it just doesn’t feel right.  Not anymore.

This does, somehow.  Total, complete solitude.

The wind picks up and he thinks he hears something in the distance...the soft whisper of his name.

Keith.

Keith shoves his face into his arms and groans.  “No,” he tells himself. “No.  Not this time. You’re going to stay in control this time.  Not your head. You.”

Keith.

He eats the last of the rice ball, rubbing at his face roughly as he dares to peek over his arms.  The graveyard’s empty. Just him.

Keith, it whispers, and then other voices, many, the druids, his dad, Zarkon, everyone mixing together as one.  Keith presses shaky fingers to his ears, looking around him, begging he won’t see anything.

Footsteps crunch in the distance and Keith jumps, twisting to get a look.  He doesn’t have his knife on him anymore. He had Shiro hide it from him. He prays it’s not his head starting up again.  That it’s not Zarkon in the shadows or Lotor, clear as day. Because what then?

It’s not.  It’s his mom.  She stops in her tracks when she sees him, a strange dazed look on her face.

It makes his blood run cold.  He’s never seen that look on her.

“Mom?”  He whips out.  “Wh-what are you doing here?”  He’s still not entirely convinced she’s real.

But the dazed look on her face recedes as she blinks her eyes at him.  She clears her throat and gestures to the flowers in her hand, then to the grave he’s lying against.  “Same as you, I think.”

“I came out here to be alone.”

“Hm.  Bad timing then.”

Somehow, his mom does not feel like an intrusion.  Keith settles hesitantly. Too late to depuff his skin and get rid of the red in his eyes.  His mom is just going to have to know he’s been crying his stupid eyes out here.

He realizes with a start how he’s sitting.  “Ah. ...Sorry.  Lying all over his grave like it’s a damn seat.  I’m sorry.”  He makes to move away from it, but she shakes his head.

“It’s okay.  I do it too sometimes.  If you close your eyes, it feels like he’s sitting with you, back against back.”

Keith tries to keep the tremble out of face as he nods.  He sniffs.  “...Yeah.  I always thought so too.”  He moves his flowers from the empty space beside him for his mom to sit.

He asks, “Why were you looking at me like that?  When you first got here?”

She seats herself close, knees touching.  “I...  Just for a moment, I thought...” She clears her throat, weaving her hair behind her ear.  “I thought you were your father.  ...I guess I should’ve known it was you.  Only you would have that bright red car in the parking lot.  You have so many cars I can't keep track of them.”  The corners of her eyes wrinkle as she smiles and reaches for him, running her hand through his hair, feeling down to his neck.  Her eyes warm over with so much fondness.  “You cut your hair.  It looks good. You look more mature this way.”

Keith laughs beneath his breath.  “...Like Dad, you mean?  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.”  She pulls him in for a hug.  “I’m thankful everyday I get to see bits of him in you.  I’m glad to see you here.  It’s nice to see you out and doing things.”

Keith hums, holding her back gently.  “Sometimes it’s okay.  Sometimes I just...need to get away.”

“I understand.  We haven’t visited your dad’s grave together in awhile.  This is nice.”

“Yeah.  It is.” He looks up to the trees around him, that have grown as he has.  They used to be so small here.  So was he.  “Like a family reunion.  I used to dream you'd come back and we could do just this.  Now we’re here...

“I'd sit out here and pretend that this was like a two-way mirror, you know?  Like, a connection to him and he was just really far away, so the messages were delayed.  I’d wait up all night sometimes. Sleep in this very spot.”

“How old were you?”

“Little,” he whispers.  “Really little. I think a part of me actually believed then that...maybe if I spoke to him, he’d hear me.”

She rubs his knee tenderly.  “Hm. You’ve seen the entire universe and you still don’t believe in the afterlife?”

He shrugs.  “Not much to believe in lately.”  He doesn’t want to talk about it, so he shows her the bento box.  “Aki made this. I just ate the Black Lion but the White Lion, I think that’s Aki.”

She peers inside.  “He’s quite the artist.”

“...He is, isn’t he?  I bet you Hunk would hire him if he saw this.”

“I bet you he would.  Was this the red lion here?”  She points to the empty space.

He stares there.  At the tiny last remnants of red.  “...Yeah.”

Her voice goes gentler.  “How have you been?”

“...The truth?  ...I think this medication is making things worse.  The doctor said it might, to expect it the first month or so and then it might even itself out, but...I mean, how the fuck am I going to survive through two months of it being worse when I can hardly handle it as it is...?  I’ve been snapping at people like crazy. I can’t control my temper or my emotions. I was in the shower this morning and I just started sobbing out of control for no reason, so hard I was choking.  And by the time I stepped out, I felt completely fine again.  It’s like some strange detached force controlling me.  It’s...crazy.”

“How has Shiro’s been since you got back?”

Keith shrugs.  “I dunno.”

“What does that mean - you don’t know?”

“It means...I’ve sort of been...avoiding him.”

Krolia stares at him hard.  “...Don’t do that. Don’t do that to him.”

“I know...”  Keith whispers hard, clenching his hand on his pants.  “I know.  I just...I guess I’m just scared.  I don’t want to hurt him.  In so many ways.  The vacation just showed me I’m capable of hurting him in more ways than I even feared.  It terrifies me.  What if I’d killed him...?”  Keith’s voice drops lower.  “Who would’ve told Aki...?”

“Keith.  He needs you right now.  You’re not the only one suffering because of your condition.  It was you who told me Shiro’s the greatest warrior of all time.  That’s not something I take lightly. He can handle you.”

“It’s not just that.  I feel so guilty too.  He’s overexerting himself so hard just trying to keep up with my mood swings and, god...so am I...  I’ve been having to sleep with the lights on or my nightmares are so bad. But he can’t sleep with the lights on...and neither can I.  He wakes looking more tired than before. And when I suggest I sleep in the guest room, he won’t let me have any of that.

“Even with the lights, I still hear this whispering everywhere around me.  Woven in through regular sounds, on the edges of things.  But it sounds like they’re really there. I believe they’re there every time.”  He taps his fingers to his shoe.  “But the worst one is when I think Shiro’s not Shiro.  When I think his eyes have that purple glow and I...I try.  I try the hardest then to act like I don’t see it. But Shiro can tell.  He always can tell...”

Krolia is quiet.  For once, she has no advice for him.

He laughs, but the sound is sad.  “The war was almost easier. In the war, there were actual monsters to fight.  There was a chance to win.  Here, you’re on their playing field.  Your enemy is your own mind, but your mind already knows all your weaknesses and strengths.  And it just bobs and weaves around you. There’s no winning. You’re powerless.”

He shakes his head and waves the thoughts away.  “It’s nothing new. Just all the same bullshit but...it’s just getting worse, or maybe I’m just wearing down.  And then Aki...” His mouth starts pulling down without his permission and he feels that lump in his throat again, that deep pit in his belly.  “I’m supposed to be at home right now,” he whispers. “But I just wanted to come here. Ask for some help, I’m desperate. Dad was so strong.  He was so brave.  He would’ve known what to do.  I wish I could ask him.”

“What would you ask?”  She asks gently.

“Oh...”  He wipes at the tears as they bud in his eyes.  “How can I dig myself out of this mess when I already feel six feet under?  How can I turn things around when everyone’s already so far away from me? I’m not him.  You want to know something funny? I’m older than him when he died.  Older. And I still feel like the same stupid kid he knew, wiping snot off my dumb nose.”

He covers his face with his hands.  “I wanted to be like him,” he whispers, voice trembling almost so out of his control he can’t make out the words.  “I thought, so foolishly, when I was little, that when I got older I would have it all together. That I could have his strength, his wisdom, his patience, and then, I could pass it on to my child.  I have none of those things. I’m not passing on shit.  I’m more of a mess than I’ve ever been!  All I wanted...was to be like him. Especially for Aki.  And Aki hates me more than anyone. I’m the least stable presence in his life.  I’m nothing like him. I’m nothing like you.  I’m such a fuckup.  I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.  I feel horrible. I let you down in every possible way.  I’m sorry.”

Krolia leans in, grabbing him in her arms.  She’s so warm and soft, like he always imagined, as a child, that a mother would feel like, comforting him here, in front of his father’s grave.  She’s here now. “Keith,” she whispers. “...Keith, your father would’ve been so proud of you.”

“No,” Keith sobs, leaning his head into her to hide from the world.  “What is there to be proud of?  I yelled at Pidge today. She’s been my best friend since forever and she’s just been trying to help me.  I almost killed Shiro on our vacation.  I can’t even get through to Aki enough to speak to him.  I’m shit.  I’m shit.”

“Keith.  Honey...”  She reaches up to wipe the tears from his eyes.  “I’ve seen many many brave Blades go through this, some of the greatest warriors I’ve ever met.  This isn't you.  They’re just symptoms of something you can overcome.  I know you can.  I know it’s rough.  I know you’re hurting, but you’re fighting, you’re a warrior.  You’re being so brave.

“And trust me.  No one’s perfect.  Not me, not your father.  You think he never yelled at anyone?  Never did dumb things?  He was the silliest man I think I’d ever met and I loved him for those things.  He never showed that side of himself in front of you?”

Keith rubs at his face.  “Ugh.  I...I don’t know.  ...Sometimes I forget things about him.  Important things that make no sense to forget, like the sound of his voice or how he used to laugh.  I used to know.  But now it’s faded and that part of him is gone too.  It feels like abandoning him, but I just can't hold on.”

“The memory’s a funny thing,” she hums lowly, rubbing his back with gentle care.  “It’s the heart of him that’s important. And we won’t ever forget that.”

Keith shakes his head.  “...I want every last piece of him I can keep.  Already, we’re left with so little. I feel like I’m losing him, like I'm letting him be lost.”

She thinks for awhile, leaning her head on his.  “Want to know something?  When we first decided to have you, I thought it would be me bumbling around like the fool, trying to figure out your needs.  Trying to quickly catch up to what it takes to raise a human baby. I thought your father would’ve known everything, being a human and not a warrior.  And that I would learn everything from him.” She laughs softly and shakes her head. “It wasn’t like that. We both stumbled through it. He’d screw on the bottle tops wrong, took you out in the sun and gave you a sunburn when you were hardly weeks old - I was mad at him for that one.  Once, he put your diaper on completely backwards. It kept falling off and he couldn’t figure out why. When I got home from hunting, you were just peeing on the middle of the floor.”

Keith laughs wetly.  “Shiro did that with Aki.  Fell down to his knees and he tripped.”

“He didn’t read how to put it on, did he?”

“He’s more of an ‘intuition’ kind of guy.”

Krolia scoffs out a chuckle.  “Yeah, your father was too. As you were watching me, peeing on the floor, your father gave me the most innocent look, like it was the diaper with the problem.”

Keith laughs, curling his legs closer to his stomach.

“And then once, he was starting to paint the shack and he climbed this ladder, bringing the paint bucket with him.  I told him he shouldn’t just hold it with one hand and paint with the other.  And right as he told me it’d be fine, the can fell from his hands and splattered all over the garden.  You know the corner patch where nothing ever grows?”

Keith blinks and nods.  He does know of that spot.  “Yeah.”

“That’s thanks to your father.”

Keith laughs.  “...Our house wasn’t painted.”

“No.  But the garden was.”

The smile on Keith’s face hurts.  “Oh my god. He never told me that.”

“And he used to tell the worst jokes.”

“Dad did?”

“He did.  Oh, I wonder if I can remember some.  How about this one: what did the pilot say when he flew his ship in reverse?”

“What?”

“‘This takes me back’.”  She smiles crookedly.

“Oh no,” Keith groans, laughing lowly.  “No.  He did not say that.”

“You think I made that up?  Want another?”

“I don’t know, do I?”

“What does a house wear?”

Keith presses his lips together tightly, suppressing his smile as he raises his eyebrows at her expectantly.

“Address.”

Stop,” Keith laughs.  The way she delivers the jokes, so deadpan, it makes it even worse.

“One time, I was in the kitchen and I opened a bottle of ketchup, but it exploded all over my hand.  He looked over, grabbed my hand in his, and said, ‘caught you red-handed’. I didn’t get it at the time. It seemed quite obvious that he was right.  He had to explain to me how it was funny. He laughed so hard. I was just confused.”

Oh, god.  I can picture it now.  Dad jokes.”  He smiles, eyes going distant as he lets that sink in.  “Wish I could remember some...  But okay.  So he was a huge dork, but you loved that about him -” Keith can see it on the fondness dancing in her eyes “- so doesn’t that just make him incredibly smooth?”

She nods and chuckles.  “He made me laugh in a time I was so afraid.  I wanted nothing more than to stay...

“But you want to know the thing I loved most about him?  I trusted him completely.  I could leave you, my child, the one thing in the universe I love the most, with him without worry.  I knew he’d love you with his whole heart. And though it didn’t end up like I wish it had, he did, you know. I know he did because I knew him and I know you and I see his love there, in the corner of your eyes.  He loved you completely. ...Just like you love Aki.”

“I do,” Keith whispers softly.  “I really do... But I’ve been so bad at showing it.  I just don’t even feel worthy of talking to him. I’m such a coward lately.  Scared of everything.”

She shakes her head.  “Do you think your father wasn’t scared too?  Every day?”

“There’s being afraid and then there’s...this.  It’s so irrational. I felt fear as a paladin.  But it was a proper response.  This is... crazy.  One day, I was fine, the next?  It just came so suddenly, out of nowhere.”

“...I don’t think it did come so suddenly,” she whispers.  “Remember when Aki was turning five? That sparkling candle I got him?  You jerked away from the flame so violently. ...I saw it in your eyes then.  I wondered if it’d ever find roots in you.”

“I don’t remember that,” Keith mutters.

“It was a long time ago, but it worried me.  You’re no stranger to fire.”

He shrugs.  “I guess fire’s just in our blood...  I never had time to fear it properly.”

She shifts as she watches his face closely.  She says, “I've been thinking about it.  You care so much for everyone else and put your own needs on a shelf for later, but later never comes.  Shiro takes care of you as well as he can with what you put forth, but sometimes you’re not always so straightforward, even with yourself, maybe especially then.  I don’t think this is just a random event, I think your shelf is just finally full...”

“My analogy was with a closet, but.  Yeah.” Keith laughs without humor. “You know, it’s kind of funny.  Hindsight is 20/20 and all, but I used to have nightmares of flames. Just...buildings upon buildings going up, no one able to stop it.  Dad going in, but never coming out. Our home... This grave... And then suddenly everyone’s saying I’m the red paladin, guardian spirit of fire.  Fate seems cruel sometimes... It used to scare me so badly. And now, it’s given me Aki. A child whom I love and care for, but I...I guess he scares me most of all.”

“Keith, we don’t always get put into the positions we want, but it’s how we deal with them that makes it worthwhile.  How many times we get back up after being struck down, to dust ourselves off and get back in the game. You didn’t want the Black Lion either, when this all began.  Don’t you think it turned out alright?”

Keith mulls that over, nodding slowly.

“Shiro believed in you.”

“He did.  He makes everything seem so possible...”

“He still believes in you...”

Keith nods quietly.

“We’re with you, Keith.  Your dad and I. Shiro and Aki.  The rest of the paladins. Nothing’s changed.  We all love you, just as you are. Don’t run away from us.”

“Am I running away?”  He wonders.

She nods slowly.  “The rest of us haven’t gone anywhere.”

“I just...I just want to feel better.  I’m scared.  It comes in waves I can't predict and when it does, it’s like I’ve forgotten how to swim.  It’s terrifying... And if even the doctors can’t help me, I just... I feel so helpless.”  He bites his lip.  Thinks of what Pidge was telling him. Thinks of what his mom is saying now. He's still a warrior, only in a different way.  “...But I’m going to try, Mom,” he whispers.  “I promise you.  I’m...I’m going to stop watching the news like my therapist says.  I’m going to work out...a normal amount. Eat healthier. I want to get better.  For Aki.  For Shiro.”

She presses her smile into his shoulder, the warmest, proudest look in her eyes.  “For you.  I miss you.  I miss the fire in your eyes.  The passion in everything you do.”

“Trust me, I miss him more.”

She smiles so brightly as she presses her forehead to his, staring him right in the eyes with all her belief, all her hope.  “I have a feeling he’ll be back soon.”

Keith smiles beneath her gaze, shrugging.  He hopes so too.

He feels better, it’s true.  Maybe Krolia’s right. Maybe his dad can hear him.  Perhaps his dad sent an angel to speak with him after all, in the form of his mother.

They leave the flowers bundled together on the gravestone.  He’s gone, but he will forever be loved.

 

Keith opens the car door and lets himself fall into the seat, grabbing his phone from the center console.  His eyebrows shoot up.

Oh, shit.  Fifteen missed calls.  Shit.  He bites his lip and dials in Shiro before he even hears the messages.

“Where are you?!”  Shiro sounds guttural.  Not like himself.

Keith blinks in surprise.  Swallows hard. “I-I’m at the graveyard.  I’m sorry... I really am. I don’t know why I didn’t call.  I didn’t mean to stay long. I just needed to talk to my dad and then Mom happened to stop by and we got talking...  I’m sorry. I forgot I left my phone in the car.”

“Jesus, Keith!  You scared the shit out of me!  I called everyone we knew.  I’ve been everywhere in this goddamn town, asking people if they’d seen you.  I didn’t know what to think!  I was freaking out.”

“...I’m so sorry...”

“Pidge says you left hours ago, upset.  Hours.  Do you have any idea what kind of scenarios I was thinking up in my head?  The look in your eyes lately... I didn’t know what you would do. I didn’t know if I’d just find you somewhere in an alley, just...just...  Jesus... Jesus!”  He’s still breathing heavily, probably pacing, hand clinging to his hair.

Keith can hear him panting through their phone’s connection, that same deep sick sound in his tone, coming from the depths of his gut.  Like Keith can hear the fear shaking in his very soul.

“I should’ve called,” Keith whispers.  “I'm fine though. ...Where are you?”

“The park.”

“The park...?  What park?”

“I don’t know.  I was just going anywhere I could think of to find you.  I’ve been everywhere tonight. I’ve been terrified.”

“...I’m sorry,” Keith whispers again.  “I was upset. I wasn’t thinking. I meant to go home and I just...found I couldn’t.”

“...What?”  Shiro breathes, winded, hurt.

“I’m coming home right now.  Did you have dinner yet?  I was a shit to Pidge earlier...  I was thinking of getting her something and dropping it off as an apology.  I can pick up something for us too.  I’ll be quick.  Whatever you want.”

The phone rustles and Keith can hear Shiro start to walk.  His voice is still off, low and dark, dazed. “...Yeah.  Sure.  Whatever.”

“That pizza place has macaroni and cheese.  I can get you extra.”

Shiro doesn’t even respond to that.  “Aki’s with Pidge. They were looking for you around there.  If you do that, can you pick him up?  I need to take a shower.  I’m...I don’t know what I’m feeling right now. Keith, don’t do that again.  Don’t do that to me.  This is...this is just going too far.  I can’t do this again.  I can’t take it.”

Keith swallows hard and nods.

It’s getting dark.  He’d better hurry before the shadows start pulling away his senses again.  He drives to the pizza place, picks up the pizzas for Pidge and Aki, the macaroni for Shiro, and a salad for himself, and then drives over to Pidge’s.

She lives close to them, but it’s not great for a walk at night.  Keith parks on the sidewalk, grabs a pizza box and walks to the door.  The porch light is off, but the inside is warm with light.

The window is open.  The TV is on, blaring through.  Keith lifts his hand to knock...and freezes.  Because past the chatter of the TV, there’s the sound of someone crying.

“Tell me the truth,” Aki sniffs wearily.  His voice drags and lilts. “Do you ever regret having with me?”

It’s Pidge who says, “No.”

“...I know you do.  Otherwise you would’ve kept me.  You wouldn’t have given me away.”  Aki laughs under his breath bitterly.  “They don’t even want me. You know who Keith loves?  He loves Dad.  He loves Grandma. He loves Kosmo.  He loves you.  ...Beyond that, I don’t even think he sees.”

“That’s not true...  He loved the bento box, Aki.  He just froze up earlier.”

“Keith?  The invincible Keith?  Freeze up?”

“Aki, you know he’s human, just like everyone else.”

“Everyone’s always defending him.  I’m so tired of that.  Just be real with me. They were happy, before me.  Dad was happy...and now he’s just... Looking into his face sometimes just makes me think...if I hadn’t been born, maybe none of this would’ve happened.”

“Aki -”

“Can I stay here tonight?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea -”

“Why?  He’s home, right?  It’s fine.  Let me stay.  I don’t want to go home.  They don’t even need me.  They probably won’t even realize I’m gone.”

That’s not true, Keith could say, tossing the door open.  I love you.  But he’s said all that before and it just falls upon deaf ears.  Who says Aki would listen now?  He’d only get mad that Keith was eavesdropping.  Another argument.  Expended energy that Keith doesn't have to expend.

And Keith?  Keith’s not prepared for this conversation, not as he is.  He isn’t strong enough.

Aki's safe with Pidge.  Shiro's probably still panicking, alone, at home.

Keith walks back down the driveway, gets in his car, and goes home.

 

Shiro’s already wrapping Keith up in a tight hug before Keith can even set the food down.

“I’m fine,” Keith mumbles into his shoulder, patting his back.  “Are you?  Next time, just track my damn phone.  I don’t mind if it’s you.”

“We tried.  Even Pidge tried.  It wasn’t working.  I was scared,” Shiro breathes, pressing his face into Keith’s hair and inhaling sharply.  “I-I’m sorry,” he finally says, backing off. “I know you don’t like being touched right now, but I...” His eyes are so raw and worn.  “...It’s good to have you back.”

Keith smiles crookedly and murmurs, “Good to be back...  But seriously, I was never gone.  I was like half a mile away.”

Shiro just shakes his head, grabbing the bag from Keith and taking it over to the counter.

Keith kicks his shoes off and kneels down to say hi to Kosmo as Shiro gets into the meal.  Kosmo’s fur is always so soft. Keith nuzzles into it.

Shiro holds up the salad, frowning into the beans.  “Is this yours?”

“Yeah.  I promised my mom I’d eat healthier now.  I...don’t think the meds are helping, so I’m hoping other things might make a difference.”

“Good thinking,” Shiro nods gently.  “Let’s look up some recipes tonight. We’ll all start eating healthier.”

“I’m sure Aki will love that.”  Keith thinks to all the things he heard Aki and Pidge saying.  He should be upset, but his mind is too overloaded for anything else to actually process it, so he’s just...there.  He doesn’t tell Shiro what he heard. He can’t stand to see him any more upset.

Shiro holds up the extra pizza box.  “Didn’t deliver the pizza to them?”

“I’ll bring it to her for lunch tomorrow.  Didn’t feel like stopping. I figured Aki would rather spend the night there anyway.”

“Pidge said you were in a bad mood earlier.  Worse than usual.”

“Are those the words she used?”

He smiles slightly, but he looks weary.  “No. I cleaned up the language a bit. What was wrong?”

“Questioning every life decision I’ve made up until this point.  Read the news...and I...that's another thing I promised my mom I’d stop doing.  No more news. I’m just holding all that negativity in.”

Shiro smiles in encouragement.

Keith grabs some napkins for the both of them and walks to Shiro, putting a hand on his shoulder.  "...I realized something today. I’ve been holding on to a lot of anger, losing sight of the things that are important to me...  I’m just being consumed by it.”

“Mm.”

“It’s hard.  The world just feels...horrible.”

“It’s funny how easy it is to hold onto the negative and forget about the positive.  Try holding onto them. One good thing to warm you throughout the day.  Just one.  There’s hope, Keith.”

“...Sure.”

Shiro watches Keith for awhile after they sit, not even getting into his macaroni and cheese.  Shiro loves this restaurant, Keith knows it. It’s why he chose it specifically. But it’s like he doesn’t even see it.

Keith starts to get uncomfortable beneath his gaze and Shiro quickly blinks back to himself.  He clears his throat. “Iverson wanted me to pass along a message,” Shiro says hesitantly.  “...He says...they got the girl back.”

Keith blinks in surprise.  “What?  ...The one held for ransom?”

“Yes.  Her.”

“And he did it in one afternoon?  Did he pay it? Did he send someone in?”

“I’m not sure, Keith.  He didn’t mention the methods, just that she’s back and it’s done.”

“...Wow.  Is she okay?”

“She’s with her family now.”

“Wow.”  He sinks back in his seat, relief flooding him.  The first good news he’s heard in a long time. Iverson saved a girl.  One of those horrible news stories were turned around. Maybe things are looking up.  “...That’s good.”

“Mm.”

Keith looks over at the way Shiro’s shoulders are set funny.  How he doesn’t smile. “...Why do you look like that?”

Shiro shakes his head.  “Just tired, Keith. I left work early looking for you and haven’t stopped since.  Seriously, promise me you’ll never just leave like that again. Promise me.”

The desperation in Shiro’s eyes is so stark, it burns to look at.

“I swear to you, Shiro.”

But Shiro stares down at his meal dully, not seeing, his hand still on his fork.

“...Are you going to eat?”  Keith whispers.

The life stirs in Shiro’s eyes, but just barely.  “Y-yeah. Thanks, Keith. For picking it up.”

He eats on automatic.  Keith even asked for extra cheese too.  But there’s no reaction.

Keith looks down into the bright noxious green of his salad.  It feels like eating alone and he knows it’s just himself he has to blame.

 

In the morning, Keith blinks awake with a pit in his stomach, but that’s the usual.  He slips out from under his covers, flips the light switch off, and begins to get ready.

Shiro follows him soon after, leaning his head against the bathroom door and staring in through sleep-filled eyes.  Even still, there’s concern there. “...You’re going to work,” he says lowly.

Keith frowns through toothpaste.  “...Did I say I wasn’t?”

Shiro just shakes his head.  He crosses his arms and looks miserable.

“No more graveyard visits without you,” Keith promises.  When there’s no response, he takes a deep breath in. “How are you?”

“Me?”  Shiro rubs at his eyes roughly, walking around Keith to reach the other sink.  He goes about washing his face groggily, staring up into the mirror through tired eyes.  He rubs his fingers against his jaw. “Thinking of not shaving.”

“You?”  Keith blinks.  “Not shaving? You told me it was ‘unprofessional’.”

“You won’t consider taking a day off with me?”  Shiro murmurs so lowly it almost sounds like a plea.  He turns vulnerable eyes up to Keith.

“...Not today, Shiro.”  Seeing the way Shiro’s face drops fills the pit of Keith’s stomach with dread.  Pidge and his mom say he hasn’t been making much effort. He’s not sure what that means.  He scours for something to say. He says a little, “I love you though...”

“I love you too,” Shiro smiles weakly to Keith, yearning floods his eyes as he looks over the distance between them.  “You’re so strong, Keith,” he hums. “That’s something I’ve always admired about you. But you don’t always have to be...”

“It would take more strength to sit around at home all day doing nothing, honestly."

Shiro smiles crookedly.  “I guess that’s just how you are.  What time are you going in?”

“In twenty minutes.  Why?  You coming in with me early today?”

“Was thinking of it,” Shiro hums, still inspecting his face in the mirror.  “Think I’d look alright not shaving?”

“I think you could grow a full beard and let birds live in it and you'd still look like Adonis."

"Wow.  Adonis."

"Better than.  As long as you come home every night, I’m fine.”

“Someone’s got to feed the birds.”

Keith snorts.  “You’re not going to feed your own beard birds?  Wow.  Bird father of the year here.”

Shiro looks up to smile at Keith in the mirror and Keith smiles back.

They hold each other’s gaze for a moment, but then it falters, and they break it off, looking away.

There’s an awkward pause between them.

Keith taps his fingers on the counter.  “Uh.  Twenty minutes,” he says again.  “If you’re coming with me.”

Shiro runs his fingers over his jaw in thought for a moment longer and then steps away from the mirror.

Shiro decides not to shave.

Shiro.

Not shaving.

This is the first time.  Ever. Ever.  At least, when he has a choice.  Keith watches him from the side of his eye, but he says nothing.

Does he still look good?  Of course he does. But that’s not what Keith is worried about.

But they go to work.  Keith makes it out the door completely eventless.  The sky is normal. Boringly normal. The grass on their front lawn is...just grass.

It’s funny how it comes and goes.  Are the lulls reprieve?  Or are the waves torment?  He doesn’t know what his norm is anymore.

When they get to the Garrison, they walk through the halls quietly together.  And it’s funny how, just a few weeks ago, Keith had been thinking during their vacation that their silences together were peaceful and felt right.  Now, it’s the opposite. There’s some sort of tension between them that’s sticky.

It doesn’t feel like Shiro.  There’s none of that ease. The patient proud aura around him is faded, dormant.  He’s tired, but it’s something else.  Keith misstepped without even realizing it and now everything’s off balance.

They’ve reached his office.  Shiro goes to turn into it but Keith catches his arm.  His fingers tremble and he silently curses them, tries to get them to just be cool.

“Shiro,” he murmurs lowly, looking up into his eyes.  He doesn’t know what to say, but he tries to force out words before this gets as bad as things are between him and Aki.  But suddenly, as he has that thought, the words begin to tangle and disintegrate. And Keith has no idea what to say.

His gut drops.  He can’t go through this again.  How does he stop it?  How does he stop it?

Shiro’s face softens.  “...I know,” he says gently at the look in Keith’s face.  He cups Keith’s hands tenderly on either side, looking down at him, calming the fear in him.  “I’m sorry for being so quiet.  I’m still upset about yesterday.  Not at you, just...still a little jittery from running around town.  I’m not ignoring you, I’m just...trying to reorganize myself.”

So much relief floods Keith.  “...I wouldn’t blame you if you were mad.”

“I’m not.”  Shiro leans forward and presses a very soft, very gentle kiss to Keith’s hairline before letting go.  “Let’s have lunch together.  Your office?  We don’t have to talk.  I can just sit on the couch.”

Keith nods.  “Okay.”

“Okay,” Shiro whispers back, giving Keith one last pat on the shoulder before walking around the corner and going into his office.

Keith watches him and then realizes Aki is already in there, making himself at home in Shiro’s seat, doodling on a notebook on his desk.

“Hey, Aki,” Shiro hums with gathered pep.  “I missed you last night.  How was Pidge’s?”

“Fine.”

“I thought you had school today,” Keith frowns from the door.

Aki shrugs.  He seems to hesitate with something, still messing around in the notebook on his table, before he says lowly, “Decided to just run off wherever you pleased last night?  Didn’t even think that others might be worried for you, did you?”

Shiro’s half-assed facade drops right off his face.  “Aki, don’t,” Shiro mutters lowly, eyes going dark.  "That’s not going to help."

“Well, someone’s got to tell him or how will he know?  And I know you’re not going to do it.  We were worried about you,” he says firmly, anger flashing through his eyes as he pins Keith to his place.  “We were worried about you.  And you were just casually chatting with Grandma as Dad and us were driving all around town, scouring the place for you, letting us think you were possibly dead?  For hours?  Really?  And you didn’t think to call?  Not even send a text?” His eyes are wide with incredulity.  “You’re so selfish. If only everyone else knew. All you ever think about is yourself.”

Keith licks his lower lip.  “...Yeah. I guess you’re right.”

Aki,” Shiro scowls.  “This isn’t helping.  Keith, just... Have a good day, okay?  Aki clearly didn’t get enough sleep last night.  You’re not selfish.”

“There you go again,” Aki mutters under his breath as he rolls his eyes.  “Defending him. Babying him. Enabling.”

“Aki, stop,” Keith says wearily.  God, he sees one fucking psychology show and he thinks he knows everything.  “Your fight isn’t with your dad, it’s with me.  Leave him out of this.”

“One in the same, aren’t you?”  Aki pushes himself from Shiro’s desk and drops his notebook and pen down with raised eyebrows.  “Keith and Shiro, power couple of our world. Unless you go missing, then Dad’s just a goner. Oh well, that’s it, right?  As long as you’re taken care of.”

“Aki,” they both reprimand sharply.

“Just admit you don’t care about us!”  Aki growls. “You only care about you.”

“Stop,” Keith glares darkly, feeling that fury rise up inside of him.  “You have no idea what you’re talking about.  No clue.”

“You’re right,” Aki glares back.  His tone is soft and deadly.  “I’ve never understood you, so why would I think I could now?  I used to wonder why we felt so different, but I think I get it now: we’re not actually related.  You’re not my real dad.  I wish you never adopted me.”

Keith draws up tightly.  He can almost feel the crack of Aki’s hand across his face.  It hits him harder than one might think Aki’s quiet voice could.  He’s not sure why he never thought he’d hear Aki say that.

He swallows hard.  So Aki really believes it...

The fight falls right out of him.  Aki meant it to hurt and it does.  He holds onto the breath in his lungs as he feels the last bit of fire in his heart fading.

Aki!”  Shiro whispers in shock.  He turns to Keith, trying to think of a way to soften the blow, but there’s nothing he can say- you can't take back someone else's opinion.  They just stare at each other, sinking.

“I-it’s okay, Shiro,” Keith mutters quietly, stepping away.  “I’ve got to...work.  I’ll be at my office.”

“Keith,” Shiro calls, but he doesn’t think of anything to say fast enough.  Aki’s already looking away, angry red in his cheeks and tears in his eyes. He’s biting at his lip.  Familiar. Maybe Iverson was right. Shiro’s dealing with two cadet Keiths all over again. But Shiro’s tired this time, older.

“See you at lunch,” Keith murmurs and turns, trudging down the hallway.

“Keith, wait,” Shiro says again, but Keith can’t stomach being in that room anymore.

He still thinks the same thing as years ago: being a parent to Aki feels like a constant test.  A test he only knows how to fail. Maybe it’s because he was never meant to be Aki’s father all along.

After looking into the hurt apathy in Aki’s eyes, Keith feels so drained.  He’s ready to just go home. But no. To make matters worse, there’s Lance already sprawled out on his couch, legs up on the armrest.

Lance’s face brightens as Keith comes in.  “Hey, buddy!”

Keith grits his teeth.  He feels especially dark and nasty right now.  He’s not going to handle this well. “What are you doing here?  Babysitting?”

“Well, long time, no see to you too, little runaway.”

“I didn’t run away.  I literally was just at the cemetery.  I’m honestly not even sure why Shiro didn’t check there first.  He made such a big deal out of nothing...”

“Can’t blame him, can you?  ‘Cause he’s got worry-brain right now.  Like you.”

“Yeah,” Keith sighs, falling into his desk seat with extra weight.  He looks down at his desk, at the plaque from yesterday that he threw across the room.  Pidge must’ve taped it back together and placed it back in its spot. Somehow, the pizza doesn’t seem like a big enough apology.

Aki...

“Just a warning,” Keith mutters.  “I know you already think I’m an asshole, but apparently I’m worse lately and I’m feeling like shit today, so...don’t take it personally.”

Lance snorts.  “Never do, bud, never do, or I’d still be crying in a closet somewhere.”

“Funny,” Keith mumbles, logging on to his computer and waiting for it to load up.  His mind is stuck on the words Aki said. He tries to focus elsewhere, frowning down into a report sent in from Acxa.  Are these readings almost as close to Earth’s? Does that mean it’s good or bad? He can’t think. He puts them aside. Looks back up at Lance who’s snorting into an article.

Lance doesn’t mention it, but he’s taking an entire day off of his work just to babysit Keith.  It’s ridiculous, but...he didn’t have to agree to it. He doesn’t have to be so nice about it. Keith clears his throat as he looks back down to the next report.  “How are the girls?”

Lance immediately brightens even more, face like a fucking lightbulb.  “Oh!  Well, since you asked... They started their year as instructors which is exciting, right?  They’re honestly loving it. I think they’re doing a better job than me. You know how they are. Just like their mama.”

“Yeah, god.  They were already doing circles around us when they were just kids.”

Lance snorts.  “They went on that expedition to space, right?  It was their first one and their crew were thinking they’d have to be pulling their slack.  You know how it is with newbies. But they all came to tell me how the twins were so proficient that the crew didn’t have any work left.”

Keith laughs under his breath.  “Where were they during our Voltron years?”

“Seriously!  We could’ve defeated Zarkon in like an afternoon!  We could’ve been sipping piña coladas the rest of the time.”

Keith laughs some more.  What would it have been like then, he wonders?  If Voltron never really happened? Would he have been here, in this same spot?  Or would he have been alone, still, in his desert shack, Shiro off somewhere else, following other dreams, like he should’ve.

...Would Shiro have been happier then?  Would Aki?

“Hey,” Lance says.  “Kale’s disgusting.”

Keith looks up.  “What?”

“Yeah.  That message you sent me last night.”  Lance holds his data pad high in the air.  There’s a green blob on the screen.  “Kale stew or whatever?  Yeargh.”

“Oh.  No.  I didn’t mean to send that to you.  Kosmo’s nose hit the screen right as I was trying to send it to Shiro.”

Oh.  Okay.  I thought you were saying something about my weight and I was like, ‘Wow , Pidge isn't kidding.  You really did turn into an asshole’.”  He laughs into the air without inhibitions and it's kind of nice to hear a sound that isn’t a sigh or a groan.  “I haven’t gained that much.  I mean, have I?  Allura’s not upset about it.  Not that she says anyway...”

Keith snorts and shakes his head.  “She already puts up with all your bullshit, what’s a few extra pounds?”

“Right?  My thoughts exactly!  I knew you’d understand."  He keeps laughing to himself, not a care in the world.  What that must be like...

“You look fine, Lance.  Seriously. Weight aside though, kale is still good for you.”

Lance just shakes his head as he keeps laughing.  "Man, I missed you. We live next to each other - I can see your light from my room and still haven’t seen you in awhile."

"Probably for the best."

"Pfft.  Maybe.  I heard you blew up at Iverson the other day.  What was that about? You put him in such a foul mood he was yelling at the cadets.  They’d come into my classroom to shake and tremble.”

“Was he really?  Got results though, didn’t it?”

“Oh, so they decided to tell you about her?  That’s a relief. I’m bad at secret-keeping.  Well, don’t let it get to you too bad, buddy. You did a good thing.  She got to see her family before, which is more than she was going to get otherwise.  She’s one of the lucky ones.”

Keith looks up, frowning.  Lance just keeps flipping through his data pad casually.  “...What do you mean?” Keith asks.

“They said she finally passed on this afternoon,” Lance says.  “Surrounded by her loved ones.”

Keith stares.

Lance arches an eyebrow.  "...Why are you looking at me like that?"

“Passed on," Keith forces out on a croak.  "As in...dead?  But they got her home.  Shiro told me just last night, she was home.”

“...They...didn’t tell you...?”  Lance sounds so confused. And then his face pales.  He makes a small sound. “...Oh. Shit. Shit.  I’m-I'm sorry, man.  I... Me and my big mouth.”

Keith stands so fast, his chair falls backward.  “What are you talking about?”

“They were going to do the trade-off,” Lance says weakly, eyes darting away from Keith.  He shrinks. “And they did, but when they got her back, they found out they’d injected her with something.  She was dying by the time they got her. There was nothing they could do.”

Keith tries to force himself to breathe.  His world’s spinning. “No. No.  They saved her.  They brought her home .  We have the best doctors.  There’s got to be something we can do!”

“They can’t, man,” Lance whispers.  “She’s already dead.”

“She’s dead,” Keith says lowly, running his hand over his throat.  “Dead.”

Just a teen.  Only a little over Aki’s age.  She’d done nothing wrong, just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It’s been bothering Keith for a long time now, envisioning Aki in her place, how she looked in those videos, crying, terrified, begging for her mom and dad.

Keith thought it was over.  Keith thought they’d saved her.

“She was happy, Keith,” Lance keeps saying over the roaring in Keith’s ears.  “She was crying she was so happy, I swear. She thanked us. She just wanted to see her family one last time...and you guys made it happen.”

Keith runs a hand over his face, trying to wipe away the tears that bud over his eyes.  “That’s good,” he says, but his voice trembles.

“Keith.  Man. I didn’t know...”

“I know,” he whispers, nodding as he leans forward into the desk.  He feels that torrent inside of him, a storm right now, and he doesn’t know how to curb it.  It’s rising up and pressing into his nose so he can’t breathe. “I know you didn’t.”

“Need me to get Shiro...?”

Keith nods sharply and Lance is already out the door.

Ugh.  He feels sick with himself.  Sick for not being careful enough, sick for losing another little girl.  If they can’t save them, then who will?  They just let them go?

Who will save Aki?

Keith cries.  He cries for that little girl, for all the innocents like her who have suffered and who will in the future.  They don’t deserve it, god, they don’t. He doesn’t understand why he can’t be strong enough to help at least one of them.  And now this girl’s parents will mourn tonight, tomorrow, for the next month, for the next year, for the rest of their lives, sitting and begging on a cold grave that won’t be able to respond to them.  So lonely.  Them and so many others Keith doesn't even know about.

For what?

This is the world they saved.

Keith can’t take it in here anymore.  He rubs roughly at his face and goes down the hall, thinking of seeking Shiro out, but then he knows Lance and Aki are there too, and that’s too much.  He can’t do that.  So he turns and goes the other way, just hurrying, not sure where he’s going.

He hears people laughing down the hall and he turns into the first door he can find.

It’s a dark utility closet.

He stands there for a moment, rubbing at his face, closing his eyes, trying to find some sense of balance and sense in this darkness.

He’s flooded instead with this overwhelming feeling of homesickness.  And it doesn’t even make sense.  He could go see Shiro right now, run to their home and hug Kosmo tight, but, somehow, he feels restless at the thought.

He sits against the wall, not bothering to turn on the light.  He takes his phone out and it’s like yesterday, where he’s just...seeking things subconsciously.

Before he knows it, he’s scrolling through his old videos.  He has so many. He doesn’t even remember what most of these are.

He clicks one at random.  Little Aki’s face is right in the screen, his nose shoved up against it.

“Are you getting me?”  Aki breathes into the mic.

“I’m getting you, I’m getting you.”  The Keith in the recording is laughing lowly.  “In position?  And... action.”

Aki grins brightly, pulling back and lifting his arms up.  God, what’s he wearing? There’s chocolate all over his mouth and the front of his shirt and there’s a red cape tied around his shoulders.  He has a lion headdress hanging crookedly over his face and he rawrs, trying to sound impressive, but he still has the voice of a six year old baby boy.

Hi.  My name’s Akihiro, defender of the universe and lions and king of the jungle!  Today, we have the most powerful lion against a daring tiger, monster against domesticated foe, the brave paladin Aki against the evil Kosmo, who will win?  Only one way to find out.  Behold.”

“Remember not to hurt the tiger...”  You can hear the eye roll in Keith’s voice.

“I won’t, I won’t.”  He splays his hands out and smears them across space.  “This dastardly tiger has been going planet to planet eating the public and stealing their dinner spoons!  This can’t continue! Together, we must rise up and fight with Voltron! Defeat the Galra!”

Keith chokes.  “Aki. I told you.  That’s outdated. The Galra aren’t the enemy.  Things are different now.”

“Oh, yeah.  Defeat Zarkon!”

“That’s better.”

“Now, death!  Behold, Kosmo!  I have the Black Lion’s spirit with me!  All my might! For a better universe! Now, charge!”

The video pans over to Kosmo, who’s sleeping peacefully in the sun streaming in through the french doors.

Aki’s finger holds.  He waits. Then says loudly, “Kosmo!  I said, behold Kosmo !”

Kosmo’s fluffy tail swishes slightly.

Keith snickers and the camera shakes.  “Looks like he’s sleeping, bud.”

“Oh, forget this,” Aki grumbles, and then he turns around, runs at full speed, and shoots like a bullet through the living room, catapulting himself headfirst right into Keith’s gut.

There’s a loud startled, “OOF!”  And then the camera upturns, spinning through space and landing right in front of Kosmo’s nose, who blinks one bleary eye open, turning to see what the commotion is about.  Ah, business as usual. He settles back to sleep.

Aki!”  Keith curses, half in agony, half in laughter.  “Oh, god, that hurt like a - ugh.  What the hell, I wasn’t ready.”

Aki’s laugh is a high-pitched squeal.  “Got you, Baba!” He cries happily, bouncing on his toes and pointing.  There are incoming pitter patters and then the camera is lifted, right to Aki’s face.  He pumps a fist and roars. “The fearsome Black Lion wins again!   Long live Aki!  Long live the king!”  He turns the camera at Keith, who’s sitting hunched with his legs spread on the floor, eyebrows raised in tired amusement.  “There’s the defeated tiger.  Say ‘hi’, Baba.”

Hi.”  He gives the camera a look, but there’s amusement in his eyes.  “That was playing dirty.”

“Baba.  To infinity and beyond.”

“I question whether you even know what that means...”

Aki laughs into the air like a villain.  “Baba’s being a poor sport.”  The front door opens.  Aki turns the camera and there’s Shiro, smiling up at the both of them.  “Ah, the tiger’s mate enters.  Can the victorious lion win again?  Two against one!”

“Aki,” Keith warns.  “Do not do to him what you just did to me.”

Aki screams and runs through space, tearing up the entryway’s steps and throwing himself into Shiro’s arms.  He shoves the camera into his shirt. “Love tackle!”

“Ah!  You got me!”  Shiro crumples to the floor fully, laughing as the camera gets shoved uncomfortably close to his face.  He politely pushes it back an inch. “Wow. You’re a powerful lion, aren’t you?”

“Today, I’m the Black Lion, the most powerful lion in the world.”

“And your baba and I are the evil tigers again?”

“Tigers can’t change their stripes,” Aki says, poking Shiro on the nose.  “Kosmo too. But Kosmo’s sleeping.”

“And Baba’s already defeated, I see.”  Shiro smiles over at Keith and laughs.

Keith gives him the thumbs up, rolling his eyes as he sinks onto his back to the floor.  “Critical headbutt to the solar plexus.”

“Oh, man.  Aki, you gotta be careful.  Baba’s precious.”

Aki gasps in offense.  “I was.”

“Wasn’t,” Keith says from his place.

Was.”

Shiro raises his eyebrows.  “Now, Aki, what do we do when we hurt others?”

Aki runs over to Keith, tosses the camera down so only half the image is on the screen, and throws himself flat on top of Keith, curling his arms around him.  “Mm.  Love you, Baba.  I’m sorry I hurt you.  I didn’t mean it, but you were evil.  I had to do it to save you.”

Keith just laughs softly, patting Aki’s head with one hand and slinging his arm over Aki’s back with the other.  “Love you too, Aki. Are you going to carry me around everywhere now?”

Aki laughs.  “No.”

“But I can’t walk now.  Who will carry me? You’ve gotta, Aki.”

No!” Aki squeals.

“Guess I’ll just crawl, then...”

Baba!”

Video Keith is still laughing around Aki’s little hands pinching at his face as he grabs the camera, brings it over them and then the image cuts out and it’s just that dumb play button over the screen.  Dark and quiet and lonely.

Keith lets the lack of light wash over him again, the afterimage spreading color around strangely in its absence.

It’s only been years, but it seems like a lifetime ago.  Does Aki even remember these times? Does he think back fondly of his fathers, like Keith does of his?  Or does he only remember the bad as it is now? Does he just hate Keith and all his failures?

He swallows hard, sighing as he scrolls through some more videos.  Some of Kosmo and Aki playing ball together. One of Shiro trying to make dinner and Keith laughing his butt off.  Shiro’s lack of cooking skills will forever be entertaining.

Keith jumps when the closet door opens and he’s pulled out of this world.

It’s a silhouette he knows.

“There you are,” Shiro says lowly, and his voice is so different in comparison to the him from the video, which was bright and smooth and laughing.  The Shiro now sounds even more weary than Keith thought.

Shiro hesitates at the door.

Keith clears his throat.  “...How’d you find me?”

“Tracked your phone,” he hums, holding up his own.  “Worked this time.”

“...Ah.  Good.  I...  I don’t know where my head’s been lately.  I haven’t been thinking.  ...Selfish.”

“No, Keith.  Lance told me what happened.”

“I know, but I promised you.  And here I am again...”

“It’s okay.  You weren’t far.”

Keith nods, looking back down into his phone.

It’s quiet between them for awhile.  “It’s worse,” Keith finally mutters.  “It’s getting much worse.  I can feel it.  I can’t stay on this medication.”

“...The doctor said -”

“-I don’t care what the doctor said, I know my body.  It doesn’t feel right.  It’s been over a month and I’m angrier and worse off than before.  It’s not leveling out. I want to go to the doctor again. I want to change it.”

“Okay...”  Shiro murmurs.  “If that’s what you think is best.”

“I do.”

An uncomfortable silence settles over them again.  Shiro runs his hand along the door frame, staring at it without seeing.  “...Can I say something?  I know you need space, especially lately, and I want to give that to you so that you can heal.  But I don’t think it’s actually helping.  What happened at the hotel...Keith, I know it scared you, it scared the both of us.  But I don’t blame you.  I never could.  I went through this too.  Why do you think I was always running from you?  I just want you to know you’re not alone.  I understand what you’re going through, and I -”

“-You don’t,” Keith says sharply.  “You have no idea. You didn’t have to do this.  I know you suffered, Shiro, and I know it wasn’t easy, but you didn't have to do all this shit.  You didn’t have to do the doctor’s visits, the therapy sessions.  Do you even know what we talk about in there?  Nothing.  Absolutely fucking nothing.  It’s the biggest waste of time I’ve ever had to go through and I do it.  I still do it because I know it’s supposed to help, but each time I go there, it just feels like we’re wasting my patience and what’s left of my sanity.  But what’s worse is the medication. That you don’t get.  It’s like static in here,” Keith says, jabbing a finger to his temple.  “I’m not feeling the lows, I’m not feeling the highs, it’s like I’m in purgatory constantly, just looking around at blank empty wheat fields and there’s nothing else here except this frustration that keeps building.  This anger. I’m empty! The parts of me that make me me are gone.  You don’t get that.  You don’t.  No one gets it.  I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to keep thinking of this hell that I’m already sitting in.  Just leave me alone.”

Shiro stands there.  “...I-I didn’t know that.  It sounds horrible.”

“It is.”

“I’m sorry, Keith.”  Shiro whispers.  He taps the edge of the door.  Takes a deep breath.  He’s waiting for something to come to him, but it’s not easy anymore.  Nothing is. “I guess I’ll leave you alone then...”

Keith nods, rubbing at his face again.  It’s so irritated it hurts whenever he touches it.  He looks up at Shiro, at the way he’s already backing out and closing the door.  But then he stops and looks down the hallway, then back to Keith, stepping back in.

“I don’t know what to say,” Shiro admits softly, holding onto the door.  “So many things have changed in such a short amount of time. I want to be there for you, but I don’t want to suffocate you either.  I know you came here to be alone, so I’ll go, but I want you to know I meant what I said those years ago.  I’m never giving up on you.  Not then, and definitely not now.  I love you.  And no matter what changes, I want you to know that that never will.

“I’m glad you’re safe...”  he says as he turns. “I’ll leave you alone for now.”

Keith presses his lips together tightly, feeling his nose burn.  Those words saved him those years ago, and he feels them flare in his chest again, anew.  He’s touched.

Shiro means what he says, he always does.

Keith’s been such an ass.  He’s been causing Shiro to suffer in so many different ways and Shiro’s as worn as Keith, as hurt.  But he keeps trying.  He never gives up.

“W-wait,” Keith says.  He clears his throat and mumbles lowly,  “I...I did come here to be alone, but...you could...stay with me while I do it...?  If you want.”

Shiro turns back to him, hopefulness lighting the darkness of his eyes.  “Yeah?”

“Yeah...  If it’s you.”

Shiro’s form visibly relaxes.  Keith can hear the sigh of relief from where he sits.  Shiro nods and sniffs, crossing the distance and taking a careful seat beside him.  It’s snug, but it’s Shiro, and there’s no one else Keith would rather share this space with.

It's dark and they can barely see the other, but somehow, that makes it easier.

Keith gives Shiro a small smile, reaching over to squeeze his hand.  “...I’m sorry for being such an asshole.  I’d like to think it’s the meds but...I don’t know.  I’ve just been having really dark thoughts lately and I...realizing what I’ve done to that girl, the hostage, it just amplified all of them.”

“I’m sorry for not telling you.  I was trying to. But I can’t stand to see you so upset and to add more to your plate...I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

“I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you either.”  He runs his finger along the edge of his phone and sniffs.  “I know you want me to be honest with you about everything, but some things scare me so badly that it’s hard to even think about them, let alone admit they’re in my head.  Everything just feels so...” He shakes his head and clears his throat. “I don't know how to say it... You know how...in a video game, where you just level up and up and up and the leveling up feels like there’s meaning, at first, and it’s fun and you’re in love with the game for awhile.  But then...I don’t know what happens, it starts feeling like a different game. You suddenly realize there’s really no point. At the end of the day, nothing feels changed. So you sign off.”

Shiro just watches him.

“...Maybe that's sort of where I am in my life.  Only, it’s not a game. And it scares me. I don’t want to feel this way...  It’s no one else’s fault. It’s just me who’s changed. It’s me who can’t see.  ...I want to remember why I’m here again.” He presses his lips together in what he hopes looks at least sort of like a smile.  “So I was watching videos of Aki when he was younger.  Want to watch with me? I’d forgotten how small he was.”

“Yeah,” Shiro says, gently opening his palm when Keith offers up his phone.  “He sure was small. And loud.”

“Mm.  He’s so quiet now.  I remember I had to get ear plugs because he’d just squeal all the time.  And if the others would come visit...well, good luck with that.  You know, I don’t think I ever actually put them to use though.”

“I miss him this little,” Shiro hums, watching a preview of Aki washing Kosmo.  He has a soap mohawk.

“...Me too.  We were so happy then.  We didn’t even realize what we had.  How easy it had all been.”

Shiro watches Keith through those eyes that are so beyond his years.  He scoots a little closer, leaning his head against Keith’s, snuggling in for comfort.  They both turn their attention to Keith’s screen, scrolling through the videos, through the birthday parties, through his choir performances.  Maybe his childhood was soft and sweet and full of love after all. He was happy. They were happy.

Shiro squeezes Keith’s hand tighter, holding it in his lap and catering to it gently.

There are videos of their honeymoon, of their wedding - running down the altar together and smashing each other's faces with handfuls of cake, even of their days during Voltron.  Everything. Tucked away carefully into one small box.

The awkward tension settles around them and Keith can feel that comfortable ease slowly coming back.  Steady and sure. In the darkness of this closet together, they're breathing the same air, their scent mixing as one again.  It feels nice. It feels like home.

“He didn’t mean it, you know,” Shiro whispers, running his thumb along Keith’s knuckles.

Keith knows what he’s talking about.  “...I think he did. But it’s okay.”

“No,” Shiro murmurs.  “He’s upset. And confused.  ... I was upset yesterday and I usually try to keep it together in front of him, but I couldn’t.  I think it scared him. If you think about it, we’ve had decades more experience than him handling things and it scares us.  ...I’m not saying it’s an excuse for his behavior, but I think he’s just trying to cover his fear with anger.  That’s all that was. And the reason he’s so scared is because he loves you.”

Keith sniffs and nods.  “...You really thought about that one, didn’t you?”

“No.  I already knew all of it.”

“I’m not actually surprised he was thinking it, just...shocked to hear him say it, I guess.  I dunno. That was a fear of mine too, when we first adopted him.”

“He didn’t mean it,” Shiro says firmly.  “But he’s grounded.”

Keith raises his eyebrows.  “Grounded? ...You didn't have to do that.  Not for me."

Shiro says again, with even more weight to his words.  "Grounded."

Keith leans back to think about it.  "...Wow.  We’ve never grounded him before.  What is he grounded from?”

“Griffin.  For a month.  No going to her house and she's not coming over here.”

Keith whistles lowly.  He almost laughs.  “...That’s a bold move.  He loves his Griffin.”

“What he said was wrong."  He clears his throat though, scratching at the back of his head.  "Uh...do you think that was too much?  I didn’t know. I’ve never been grounded before. Have you?”

Keith chuckles.  “My dad never did, but everyone else pretty much had me grounded constantly.  I still wouldn’t know what it was like though. Never really listened.”

“How am I not surprised...?”

Shiro and him both lean their heads back against the wall, staring up at the ceiling like it’s a night sky.

“He’s really sorry...”  Shiro whispers eventually.

Keith heaves a sigh.  “Because you told him to be after grounding him?”

“No.  Not because of me.”

“It’s okay, Shiro,” Keith mutters.  “I’ve said worse to better foster parents.  I guess it’s karma. And he was right. I’ve been having a really difficult time seeing beyond myself lately.  I have been selfish. I haven’t been fair to either of you.”

Shiro shakes his head again.

“...Shiro?”  Keith asks. “Does he still tell you he loves you...?”

Shiro is quiet.  Keith translates.

He licks his lip in yearning.  “I can’t remember the last time he told me.  I had forgotten he ever had. Looking back in these videos...I thought it might be sad, and it is, all I’ve lost over the years without even really realizing.  But it’s also reminded me that there’s hope. There’s a life I love that’s worth fighting for. So close and in reach that we lived it once. And it includes you, and Aki, and all of our friends, who are so good to me even when I don’t deserve it.  This world is so cold and harsh, but you’re all here still, waiting for me to turn around and see you.” He rubs at his eyes and laughs. “I just need to learn to see again. ...That's the problem.”

Even though they’re in close quarters, Shiro’s head leaning against Keith’s shoulder, Keith barely catches the next plea.  “Don’t leave me,” Shiro whispers quietly. “I need you.”

Keith shifts into Shiro, reaching up to grab his face between his hands.  The scruffy beard, the weariness and age showing on his face from all this, and that vulnerability he shows only in front of Keith, that shines childish in his eyes.

“Why would you think I’d leave you...?”

“You’ve been suffering from this for a long time now.  And I’ve seen the changes in you, ones that maybe you can’t see.  It’s like watching the life drain right out of you. Lately, it seems so much worse.  I...I feel like you’re fading. I feel like I’m losing you. You used to trust me completely, you could find solace in me.  We were a team. I could read the thoughts in your eyes without you even having to come to me, ever since you were that small boy.  But lately, I’ve been trying to find it, the bits of you I can understand, and they’re just...gone. I can’t read you anymore. It’s like you’re pulling away from me and I have this feeling in my gut that you’re doing it on purpose.  You said the other day you felt like you didn’t want to come home. What if that feeling gets worse? What if you just decide one day not to come back to me? ...You no longer come to me when things get tough. You don’t talk to me. You hardly even look at me anymore.”

Keith struggles with the emotion on his face as he keeps running his fingers against Shiro's stubble.  “I'm sorry. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you,” Keith whispers. “If anything, it’s just because I love you too much.  I feel like this disease, so contagious, I destroy everything in my path. I want to protect you from myself. I want to keep myself quarantined until I’m better, until I won’t hurt you anymore.”

“We’re a team,” Shiro says firmly, leaning into Keith’s hand.  In his eyes is desperation. “In sickness and in health, I’m here for you.  But I can’t do anything if you close yourself off to me. I’m terrified of this.  Not of being hurt by you, but of you going through this alone. I know how badly you’re hurting...let me shoulder the weight too.  Let me share your pain. The two of us together...we can do anything, right? We’re stronger together. I’ll bear your burdens for you too.”

Keith feels the whisper of their past, more than fifteen years ago, when they were at the hospital room, waiting for Pidge to deliver Aki.  Shiro said similar words then, but the feeling had been so different. It had felt like a comfort then, not a deathwish.

Keith is still holding Shiro.  He lets his arms go around Shiro’s neck as he lays his head on his chest.  He can hear the slow steady beating of his heart and he feels himself relax by instinct.  He almost feels guilty though, like he’s the last one to deserve it.  “I can’t.  We can’t both be bleeding out...”

“Keith.  We already are, but right now, we’re just doing it alone.”

Keith lets the thought sink in as he slowly realizes it’s true.

“You don’t have to be alone anymore,” Shiro says.  “But if that’s how you need to do things, then let’s be alone together.  I love you. You’re my life, you always have been and I’ll fight with you.  Just don’t leave me behind. That’s all I ask of you.”

To drag Shiro to hell with him...  To damn him, the one person who's always been there for Keith.  How could Keith ask that of him? But Shiro's not asking that. He's asking for Keith to reach out his hand, so, together in hell, they can find their way out.

To even know how far Shiro's willing to go for Keith...it's unbelievable.  To hell and back. Keith whispers, his throat burning for all the emotion he feels bursting in his heart.  He smiles up at him and tries to convey all he’s feeling in his heart into just one word: “Takashi.”

Tears, already budding in Shiro’s eyes, finally plip down his cheeks as he smiles.  “Keith.  My Keith.”

Keith tenderly kisses away his tears.  He moves with the softest reverence he can, tenderly, with as much love as Shiro's given him these past decades together.  Shiro tilts his head slightly, up to Keith's gentle kisses, like it's healing his soul. Keith whispers, “...You have supported and loved and cared for me since before I ever even thought to love myself...  You guided me through my darkest times, leading me into a light I hadn’t known existed. I’ve lost sight of things lately, but I know if there’s any hope for me, for us, then it lies in trusting you."

Keith sits up, staring Shiro in his moonlit eyes.  “I’m not going to run away anymore. Not from you, not from my fear.  I will do whatever it takes to stay with you until my last breath.  Let's fight this.  Together.  Something's going to win in this: my condition or us.  And it’s going to be us.  Alone, together.  You and me.  Partners in crime.”  His eyes glitter.  "...What do you say?"

Shiro kisses Keith on the face. He pulls back and grins, tears still glistening in his eyes, but there's light now, there's hope, there's love.  “Now that’s the Keith I know.”  For the first time this entire conversation, Shiro sounds like the him from the video.  Laughter sprinkles the tone of his voice.

And the tension in Keith unwinds a little bit more.

 

Chapter Text

They go to the doctor again.  And again. And again. They take Keith off one med and put him on another.  Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.

Rinse.

Repeat.

He tries to curb it: the dull empty thoughts, the hours that bloat into confused days, into weeks, hardly able to know what’s going on in his own life, much less his friends’, much less his family’s.  Hating himself for it with the last shreds of his energy, until all that’s left is the shell of him.

But Shiro doesn’t give up on him.  No one does. Krolia still comes to visit.  Pidge won’t let a weekend go by without some popcorn (and chocolate for Shiro) and her handy dandy USB for movie night.  Hunk comes to deliver home-cooked meals more days than not. Lance and Allura drive Aki to school if the twins can’t. They all ask Keith if there’s anything they can do, anything at all.  And some days he’s quiet, doesn’t know how to thank them, but they are patient with him and are content with the days that he can.

A couple of months pass.  And then some more. Slow and steady , Shiro keeps telling him.  Some days that advice makes him so mad; he feels so hopeless.  Other days, he thinks Shiro’s definitely right.

The meds don’t work, the meds don’t work, the meds definitely don’t work, until they do.  Talking about it hurts and hurts and hurts and then it also starts feeling cathartic.  And Keith’s a little more tired. A little more worn.  But also a little more balanced. He thinks of some of the elderly he’s known, who are quiet in their eyes and their face, who move with a certain reverence - he always wondered where they got their wisdom from.  He thinks he gets it now - some people go through journeys, sometimes very much against their will, and if they fight with it, if they learn from it, if they win...

Keith’s not quite there yet, but he thinks he’s starting to understand the playing field now.  He’s no longer fighting it, eyes shut, in denial. He sees it. He has to start somewhere. It’s the only way forward.

And he starts realizing that he’s thankful there’s a forward at all.

Things start shifting, things start changing.

It seems both too fast and too slow all at the same time. Keith’s anxious. He’s excited. He’s dreading it. He’s scared of it. But he works for it. One foot in front of the other. One day at a time. It’s not as easy as they say, it’s not as easy as people think. If he has to hear one more person contributing his slow-going recovery to just one thing, he’s going to...well, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but it has been an accumulation of so many good things coming from a variety of good places that’s gotten him this far.

His friends. His mom. His husband. ...His family.

He feels lucky. Some people aren’t so lucky...

So he counts his blessings each morning before he gets out of bed. He takes the things he has and he makes sure to appreciate them. It’s a process. It’s reshaping his mind, unlearning its habits and relearning.

Going backward and forward and backward and forward. It’s seeing a news clip for a measly five seconds and undoing three weeks worth of work. It’s feeling hopeless one day and hopeful the next. It’s a fight. It’s a battle. It’s a war within himself that only he can fight. But he takes Shiro’s hand and feels the lended strength.

It’s a funny thing to think and an even funnier thing to say, but he’s a little scared when he starts feeling like his old self - his old old self - before this fallout.  He’s not sure if he can handle all of what past Keith could.  He’s a different person now. It’s easy to hide beneath the dark blanket he’s been fighting to survive under, seeking refuge in, it’s horrifying to even think of letting it go.

But as he does, he’s met with warm sunlight after a freezing storm.

Shiro’s been smiling so much more lately.  He has a spring in his step again. He kisses Keith spontaneously, on the mouth, hard, instead of gentle like he’s been doing, like Keith might break.

“Oh, I’ve missed you,” Shiro will say, totally enchanted by Keith, before locking their bedroom door and dipping Keith into their bed, tugging his shirt over Keith’s arms in record time.

Things are better.  Much, much better. Keith hesitates at the door still.  He gets flickers of ‘intuition’ that are still wrong, totally wrong, but he’s handling it.  It’s lessening. It’s ebbing. He’s working on it, he’s finding an air pocket in what he was sure was a sinking ship.  And though progress is slow , it’s still progress.  That’s what Shiro says anyway.

Thank god, thank god.

 

It’s another day again and Keith is home again.  He hasn’t returned to work since he and Shiro hid in the utility closet together.  It’s been a little over a year. He still receives the reports he wants to receive and he’s in contact with the Garrison most every day.  Call it working at home, if you will. Shiro joined him in it for a while too. And yes, things are better, but everything is relative. He just...needs more time.

Right now, he’s down by the creek, sprawled out on the sweet summer-y grass, breathing in the smell of flowers and blue skies.  Kosmo, his trusty steed, is ever at his side, enjoying the fresh air just as Keith is. Keith keeps his eyes closed and lets himself sway with the wind, hands lazing through Kosmo’s fur and legs spread carelessly wide.  Maybe he looks a bit like a child, uninhibited and free, but isn’t that the best sort of mindset?

He’s been doing this thing lately: thinking up three good things in this world each morning and again at night.  Three things he loves and appreciates and can be thankful for. Today, his three things include: Shiro, soft grass, and warm sunlight.

“Keith,” he hears and a shadow falls over him.  He startles, blinking his eyes open to look up into gold irises and freckles.  Aki has his glasses on today that he holds to his nose with one finger. The blue sky spreads out all around above him.  He looks like a painting.

Keith takes a moment to acclimate to the brightness of the day.  He's still captured by the peace of this place, he wonders if he's dreaming.  When did Aki get to look so old? So mature? He’s really grown into himself...he has his own style, his own sharp thoughts behind his eyes.  He’s not a kid anymore. Could it really be him?

“You alive?”  Oh, yeah. It’s Aki alright.

“I think so.”

“What are you doing...?”  Aki asks.

“Enjoying the sun.”

Aki just watches as he slips his hands into his pockets and rolls back on his heels.  “...You’ve been out here since Dad left.” When Keith says nothing, Aki continues, firmer.  “That was hours ago.” And then, with frustrated exasperation in his tone, “You’re burning .”

That may be true and he’ll get up soon, but right now, Keith’s comfortable, so he closes his eyes to stay a little longer.  He huffs out on airy breath, “It’s fine.”

“Keith.”

This golden sunshine beats staying inside the house.  The warmth feels nice against his skin, like how Shiro makes him feel sometimes.  Comfortable. Accepted.

Keith .”

It’s his new practice.  He tries to hold onto that feeling.  One good feeling. Not everything’s bad.  A lot is good. A lot is healing. A lot is staring him right in his face.  He just has to see.

“Oh, my god.  Dad !”

Keith blinks his eyes open, pulled from his thoughts by reflex.  He looks back up into Aki’s frustrated frown. “Sorry,” Keith mumbles, pushing himself up to a seat.  He takes a deep breath. Lets it out. Real world time.

Aki’s frown grows the more he looks at Keith.  “Look... I don’t want to argue and I normally wouldn’t care if you’re hibernating by the creek, but Dad will kill me if I just leave you out here.  You’ll get second degree burns before you know it and that’ll be on my head .”

Keith sighs.  Aki’s right. He doesn’t want to be lathered up in aloe gel anyway, so he nods in defeat.  “You’re right, you’re right. It’s just such a nice day...”

“You wouldn’t think that if you saw your face.”

With another sigh, Keith reaches for his shoes and shoves them on.  He never used to have a parental figure, but it feels like he does now.  It’s not worth the battle. He frowns down into his phone, where several of Shiro’s bored texts are waiting for him, and sees what time it is.  “Wait a second,” he mutters as it comes to him, slowly but surely. He turns to Aki, using his hand as a visor. “Why aren’t you at school? Are you...ditching?”

Guilty.  Aki closes his eyes tightly like he was afraid Keith would realize that.  “...The teacher said I could.”

Keith raises his eyebrows and deadpans, “She said you could ditch?”

“Uh.  Yeah.”

“Really?  When you’re almost failing all your classes?  Why’s that?”

Aki rolls his neck out and purses his lips.  He crosses his arms tightly to his chest, clearly in discomfort.  “It’s...well, it’s... I don’t see why you care. It’s just one day.”

“Aki.”

He basically growls in discontentment, tossing his arms in the air.  “Dad’s already left. I’d need a ride.”

“Oh.”  He goes to sit up and moves too fast.  A wave of dizziness washes over him, hot and sour in his head.  Yeah, Aki was definitely right. Keith’s been in the sun for way too long without even realizing it.  He sits back down for a second, hand gripping Kosmo, waiting for the sickness in his stomach to settle.

Aki mutters uneasily, “...You okay?”

Keith waves him away, clearing his throat.  “I thought you had your license.”

“No.  I have my permit , but I’d still need you to drive in the car with me.  That’s how permits work.”

“God.  Permit, license, same thing.  No one actually cares about that,” Keith sighs into his hands and pinches at the bridge of his nose.  Aki can ditch school, but he can’t drive three minutes away without a licensed driver for his permit. Of course.

Aki closes his eyes tightly, praying for patience.  “It’s different for me than it was for you. I’m not the leader of Voltron ,” he mutters lowly, wiggling his fingers in mock confetti bits.

Keith looks at Aki’s fingers through a sharp frown.  “Excuse me?”

He shifts to his other foot.  “So? Will you? I don’t mind staying home either, if you can’t.  It’s not like I miss that much school.”

Keith looks back up to the house, like maybe Shiro will magically appear to solve this problem like he always seems to.  But he’s at work. And it’s a few more hours until his lunch break and Aki really should be at school. Keith overheard Shiro’s talk on the phone with Aki’s teacher, how he’s supposed to be staying in after school even later for tutoring.

Aki needs to go, but Keith’s feeling kind of...hazy.  Like he’s not really sure which direction is up or down.  It goes beyond just the heat sickness. What’s better: killing them both or a few hours of missed school?  He looks back at his hands. “...I don’t think driving would be the best idea right now. I have an appointment that your dad’s picking me up for in...”  He can’t remember the time. “Sometime before lunch. He’ll just have to drive you then. You really shouldn’t get into the habit of ditching though. With the way your grades are...you just can’t afford it.  Iverson’s easier on you than most, but if he decides you can’t stay, your dad and I won’t be able to help you, no matter how much we wish we could.”

Aki grits his teeth and clenches his eyes shut for one very tight tense moment.  Keith sees the way that Aki’s face glows red, like he’s about to blow, but then, with great visible effort, he lets it go.  He stretches his fingers out like a cat trying to control it's urge to knead into flesh. “I’m not going to be a pilot,” he says tightly.  “So it doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters, Aki.  Pilot or not, you have to graduate.”

“Why?  You never did.”

Touché.  Keith has nothing to say to that.

Though it’s the perfect opportunity, Aki doesn’t twist the knife.  He just sighs as he tosses his eyes up to Lance’s house. “...I won’t ditch again, okay?  I promise. Today was just...whatever. I’ll go see if the twins are still there. Maybe they can take me.”

“Okay...  Have a good day...”  Keith mutters, feeling utterly useless sitting in a patch of soft grass while Aki goes around the neighborhood begging for rides.

He looks down at the creek, watching the way it flows.  It’s been here for years, before Aki was even born. It’s just funny how some things last like this, a staple in Keith’s memory.  Some things never seem to change. The thought’s kind of calming, especially when the water trickles so gently.

“Ummm...  You not coming up?”

Keith jumps out of his skin, and Aki raises an eyebrow at his reaction.  He hadn’t left yet.

Keith clears his throat and scratches the back of his head with an awkward laugh.  “...Uh. Thought you went up already.”

“...Are you on a new med or something?”  Aki asks lowly.

Keith’s stomach sinks.  He can feel his mood slip down with it.  “...Why would you ask that?”

“You just...”  Aki tosses a hand at him, like that explains everything.

Keith is quiet.  He’s always hoped it wasn’t obvious, especially where Aki’s concerned.  Of all the parts Keith hates about himself, this is up there. He wanted to be a good father, but honestly, right now, he’d just settle for ‘normal’ and he's failing at even that.

He clears his throat, hoping some sort of wisdom will come to him, but no.  Aki’s eyes pierce into him and scatter whatever flimsy defense his mind might have.

Aki mutters lowly, “...Nevermind.  Do you need help back inside? You don’t look so great.”

Keith sighs, allowing himself three seconds to mourn many different things in his life, but he knows Aki is just trying to be helpful, so he saves the complaints and peels himself from the grass and stands.  “I’m fine. I can walk. Thanks, though.”

Aki watches Keith closely anyway.  He’s been doing this lately and it’s been driving Keith crazy.  He’s not a baby Aki is his child and Keith hates the idea of Aki taking care of him.  It’s supposed to be the other way around.

But as Shiro’s lessened his watch on Keith and gone back to work, Aki’s been peeking around the corners and giving long side glances.  Aki’s usually quieter than Shiro about it, less invasive, but Keith knows Shiro must’ve put him up to it.  Aki hasn’t argued with Keith in awhile and Shiro hasn’t had to come to their rescue to diffuse the tension and fights between them in some time.

For awhile, after Aki’s comment back at the Garrison, the house was as stressed as a tightened bow.  It was all the loud clacking of dishes and low roar of a TV sticking to awful bloated silence.  But thank god for Shiro. Only he could diffuse the atmosphere to livable standards, orchestrating a smoothly running family atmosphere and bringing peace where it would otherwise have no place being.  And now, Keith doesn’t know when, or how Shiro did it quietly without him realizing it, but a lot of things have changed for...he guesses ‘the better’. There hasn’t been a fight in a few weeks. Aki doesn’t storm past Keith, or slam the door loudly when he’s in the room anymore.  That’s been nice. But it’s Shiro orchestrating it all behind the scenes, and Keith can see it starting to run him ragged. This peace feels brittle, like it’ll unravel at any moment, it’s all just depending on Shiro. Something about it makes Keith feel uncomfortable.

Because it was Shiro’s idea and not Aki’s, that much is apparent.  Aki is grudging, like he’s only tolerating Keith and trying to start conversations because he knows Shiro’s watching and expecting it from him and somehow, it feels like a very hollow disingenuous victory.  Keith almost feels like he’d rather just have the silence. At least that’d be honest.

Even with Shiro’s tired help, the air between them is still tense, sometimes more than others, their conversations usually polite and shallow.  It beats angry and upset though, right? So Keith goes with it. If nothing else, they can agree on one thing: they both love Shiro and see the stress their fights cause him, so they behave for him.  And it’s okay. Not great, but...okay.

That tension is there now, as they walk back up the grass and to their home.  Together, but guarded, with all their walls up. A battle, but...not.

Aki clears his throat, hands still in his pockets as he looks down at their feet.  “You have your appointment this morning?”

Keith hums under his breath.

A butterfly flits through the air across his vision and his eyes follow after it.  The color on its wings glimmers like melted metallic liquid as it catches the sunlight.  It’s so beautiful. Keith watches it float past and up into the sea of blue around them. It feels like a new sight.  He’s seeing again.

Aki clears his throat and asks, “What do you talk about?  In these sort of appointments?”

“In therapy?”  Keith rubs at his eyebrow and clears his throat.  “Uh. I dunno. The war, mostly. Stupid shit, too,” he laughs.  “Last time, I just complained about how much laundry there is.”

“Mm,” Aki nods in polite interest.  He doesn’t normally ask about it and he doesn’t continue with the conversation.  He’s spent so many months just watching uncomfortably from the sidelines that asking at all is a surprise to Keith.

Curiosity?  Digging deeper in the bitterness?  Keith doesn’t know and he certainly doesn’t want to get his hopes up, so he doesn’t let himself think about it.

They make it inside and Keith closes the door behind him.  He looks at the clock. ...Yeah, he doesn’t really remember what time the appointment is.  Soon, probably?

“Your appointment’s at ten?”  Aki asks.

Sounds right?  He’d know better than Keith.  Probably. Keith bobs his head to the sound of it.

“Cool.  Well, bye.”

“...Bye.”

Aki leaves out the door.  He doesn’t even say goodbye to Kosmo anymore, who follows him to the door and watches out the front window until Aki’s out of sight.

Keith stares for a moment and then looks around their living room.  Kosmo is no fun, already crawling back up to his little sun spot on the window and falling back asleep.  Keith supposes he could do that too, but he’s awake now. The house seems so big and quiet staying alone in here and it makes him restless, so he seeks out his lifeline and calls Shiro.

He must be at his desk.  He answers quickly and calmly.  “Admiral Shirogane speaking.”

Keith says, “Hey, Admiral, what time was that appointment?  Ten?”

His voice instantly warms over.  “Hey, Keith. I’ve missed you.”

“It’s been like three hours.”  Keith smiles down at his toes. “I’ve missed you too.”

“Uh...let’s see, your appointment?  You mean your three o’clock one?”

“Oh.  Three.  Right. I thought so.”

Shiro snorts.  “You did, did you?  Why do you ask?”

“Aki was wondering.  I accidentally told him ten.”

“Why was he wondering?”

“Who knows?  He didn’t go to school today.  He was ditching .”

“Ditching?”  Shiro murmurs, switching the phone to his other ear, voice lowering.  “...Like...rebelling sort of ditching? He told me he didn’t have school today.  Said it was some sort of teacher conference thing.”

“He told me that his teacher said he could ditch.”

Shiro groans softly.  Keith can hear him shifting things around on his desk.  “Things were so much easier when he was a boy.”

“I was hoping we’d get lucky since he has Pidge’s genes.  She loves learning.”

“Yeah, but she hates school,” Shiro laughs.  “She went through how many years of it?  Less than any of us.”

Keith laughs too.  “I guess that’s true...”  He hums and goes to sit on the couch.  He knows he should probably let Shiro go, but he’s feeling needy and lonely, so he gets comfortable in his seat and asks, “What are you doing right now?”

Shiro laughs under his breath.  The sound is so pleasant and comforting.  “Someone bored?”

“You have no idea...  I miss you here.”

“I miss you here.  Everyone does.”

Though Shiro hadn’t meant it, the unasked question hangs in the air.  Keith thinks of it: walking through the hallways, sitting at that desk, in a place of power, like he used to, before all this, and he just...

Is he ready?  He’s safe here.  Things are getting better here.  He doesn’t think he can travel this journey again if he regresses back to how bad it was before.  He’s scared of that.

“...Tell me the most interesting thing about your day.”  Keith tries to redirect his thoughts.

Shiro doesn’t hesitate.  “Waking up and kissing you good morning.”

Keith smiles.  God. He grabs a pillow to cling to with one arm.  “At work .  And don’t say your current call.”

Shiro laughs, low and rich.  Uninhibited. It’s so nice to hear.  “How did you know that’s what I was going to say?”

“We might’ve been married for a few years or so.”

“Hmm.  Well, Iverson came into my office today.  I guess they’re going to Charon to set up some sort of perimeter beacon for a weekend trip.  It’s coming up. He’s trying to get a crew together.”

“Charon.  One of Pluto’s moons again.  Think you’d find alien life there this time?”

“You want to know something crazy?”  Shiro mutters lowly into the phone, his voice turning serious.  His voice gets louder, like he’s holding his phone closer in secret.  “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I think aliens might live among us.”

Keith laughs, tossing his head back.  “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah.  I think I’ve seen one before.”

“Hmm.  I hate to tell you this, but I think you might’ve actually fucked one before too. Just half of one though.”

Shiro laughs warmly, humming beneath his breath.  “That sounds like top secret information.”

“Oh, it is.  But I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”

Shiro chuckles again and then sighs.  “...I’ve got to go. I have someone here.”

Keith blinks, taken from his world of comfort.  He’s reminded there’s a world beyond himself and Shiro and he doesn’t think he likes it.  He pulls himself out of his head and sees where he really is - alone, in this big room. “Oh.  Right. Okay. I love you. Have a good day.”

He doesn’t want to hang up.  Apparently, Shiro doesn’t either.  He stays on the phone for a moment longer before saying, “You know what I was thinking?  You should practice on the simulator again. You’ve been getting so much better, maybe we can vacation to space sometime in the future.  Might as well get used to it again.”

“...The simulator,” Keith repeats, peering through the kitchen and toward the window, where he knows it waits.

“I know it’s been awhile.  But you’ve always been a natural at it, it’s in your blood.  And it’s just a game.”

“Yeah.  Sure...”

“We’re just around the corner,” Shiro hums.  “Call me and I’ll be right over.”

“I know you will.”

The simulator.  It has been awhile.  Since he started having dreams of crashing in space, of hitting the stray rocks through his dashboard instead of weaving through them like he used to be able to.  He’s been shoving it all out of his head. If he doesn’t think about it, then it doesn’t exist.

Because he’s scared.  Space is him.  And if he can’t navigate through space...who is he anymore?

But this house is so big and quiet and he’s so tired of living here like this too, while the world passes him by.  He doesn’t know the exact path to full recovery, but he knows this isn’t it. Steps. Little steps.

He gets off the couch and goes around back.

The last time this was used, Aki crashed it over and over.  He probably cried in here and the thought doesn’t help.

He settles into the simulator chair, hearing the low purr of the sim's engine as it slowly powers to life.  If he closes his eyes, he can almost imagine himself in space, sitting in the cockpit of the red lion, on top of his game, on top of his shit, Shiro at his side, their friends at their backs, the rest of the open universe before them, ready to be traversed and discovered.

Yeah.  He misses that.  The feel of that.  Of that energy buzzing through him, that excitement lifting him up, telling him this is it, this is him , this is home.

Come on, Keith.   He holds the sim's joysticks tightly, feels the cool comfortable familiar weight in his hands.  It feels good. It feels right.

Here goes nothing.  He begins the game. The landscape pulls up like it always does, the same scene, like it always is.  There shouldn’t be anything to it: it’s all familiar. This should be as easy as breathing for someone like Keith.  At least, for the Keith everyone says he is. And he’s still him, isn’t he? Through all this, a bit of the Keith he knew is still here in his heart.  He has to believe that.

He can do this.  He can do this .

He doesn’t fall as fast as Aki had.  He actually doesn’t fall at all, but as he picks up speed through the landscapes and pulls up into the expanse of stars that used to be home, there’s a clumsiness to his movements that wasn’t there before, not ever, not even the first time he was in this seat, a child, unused to this.

It’s suddenly not as familiar as he thought it’d be.  His mind is working overtime for something that’s so basic.  The stars are brighter than he remembers them being. The controls seem smaller, more complicated than he knows they are.  There are just so many .  He’s never noticed how many...

He's paying too much attention.

He presses his lips together tightly, sweat beading at his brow as he looks down at the way his hands begin to shake.

Oh, god.  This is so basic.  It’s so simple. Get it together, get it together .

There’s a loud crash and a jolt.  He hit an ally ship and suddenly, he’s down, down, down.

Game over.

...Game over.

Him.  Keith Kogane, leader of Voltron, defender of all universes.  The best pilot of their time, of all time.  The fastest, most agile hero out there.  He crashed in a child’s simulator.

He feels it spreading through his chest and sinking roots into his lungs.  He loosens his tight sweaty grip from the sticks and wipes his arm against his brow, using his other hand to turn down the volume.

It wasn’t unexpected, but somehow still difficult to see unravel.  His mind’s been so clouded, so marred and broken and reformed that he really should be surprised to even get this far.  It’s okay, he tells himself, as his score flashes across the screen and drops off the record board.  He didn’t even make it in the top fifty.

But he swallows hard, inhaling deeply, trying to detach the sticky feeling in his chest, trying to see the positive side of this, like what Shiro might see.  He’s here. He’s fighting. He’s trying. This isn’t the worst he could do. At least he’s still in the top hundred. Those are victories.

With a gentle carefulness, he sets his hands on the joysticks for a moment, breathing in and out, slowly, focusing.

Patience yields focus .  It just pops into his head in that familiar rich voice Keith knows so well, his favorite voice in the world.  He's here even now. Keith has to smile. Shiro hasn’t said it in awhile, but it used to sort of be his thing, and it’s never been more true.  Some phrases just stick with you.

He waits until he feels right...and goes again.

He doesn’t make it into the top fifty that day, but it’s okay.  Shiro will be proud of him and that’s good enough for him. He turns the sim off, watching as the stars on the screen dim down.  He thinks of Red and of Black and of their friends and he remembers how limitless he used to feel. How whole.

He’s grateful.  He is. Even if he may never skim through the stars like that again.  Flit and fly and feel that invincibility run through his limbs. He had that.  He’s lucky.

He walks through their backyard and goes to their french doors.  He supposes he can do laundry again. He’s been meaning to wash the grout on their countertops for weeks now, but...he's starting to feel a little down again.  Maybe a nap beside Kosmo would’ve been the better answer...

He goes to push open the door but runs right into it instead.  The door’s locked. He shakes the door handle, trying to jiggle it open, but it won’t budge.  What the hell? Did Kosmo lock it on accident trying to follow Keith out? But why wouldn’t he just teleport?

Keith shakes himself.  It’s not a big deal. Nothing’s off, nothing’s wrong.  If something was wrong, Kosmo would’ve sought him out and Keith can see his furry tail in his spot through the window.

“Kosmo,” he calls, tapping the window.  “ Kosmo .”

Kosmo perks his head up and looks to Keith, leaning closer toward the window in curiosity.

“Come here, boy,” Keith pats his leg.  “I got locked out.”

But Kosmo’s attention is caught elsewhere, and he gets off the window seat to follow it away.  Jeez. Keith can really feel the love.

With a groan, he drags himself to the front and digs through their flower bed, trying to find where they left the key.  It is not an easy find. They didn’t want it to be, but damn , if this isn’t annoying as fuck.  Especially when he has a goddamn teleporting wolf who won’t answer his calls.

Finally, he retrieves it from the dirt and worms and, fingernails darkened, opens the front door.

And he sees immediately why the door was locked.  He has a front seat view to it.

Aki’s home.  He’s on the couch and he’s not alone.  He’s on top of someone - Griffin - face smashed into face, making out heavily, hands up her shirt.  Hers are down his pants. Soft moans, panted breath, the whole entire horrible thing, right on display for Keith’s poor innocent eyes.

“Oh, god Aki !”  Keith chokes in horror, clapping a hand over his face.  Oh, god. Oh, no. It’s burned right into his mind forever.  He needs to bleach his brain.

Aki squawks .  The sound is inhuman.  He and Griffin become a tangled ball of confused limbs and then he’s off of her, blinking in shock and fright right into Keith’s face.  He zips up his pants in one frantic tug. Keith has seen far too much. “What are you doing here ?”  Aki wheezes in panic.

“Uh.  I live here .”

Aki practically wails.  “But you said you had an appointment right now!”

Keith presses his lips tightly together.  He still can’t look Aki in the eye. He’s seen way too much.  Way too much and he’s still in shock.  He didn’t even realize they were together .  “Oh, jesus.  So that’s why you were asking earlier...  I got the time wrong.”

“...It's not what it looks like,” Aki breathes, right as Griffin checks to make sure nothing visually sensitive is hanging out of her shirt.  “We were just - it’s not - "

Keith groans and grimaces, waving it away.  “Aki. I wish it wasn’t true, but I literally saw everything.  I know it’s exactly what it looks like.”

They reposition their clothes and both sit back down on the couch, a good two feet apart, face blaring.

Griffin cringes so much her face pinches in like she’s sucking on a sour lemon.  “Mr. Kogane, I’m really really sorry...  I didn’t mean disrespect.”

Keith shakes his head, forcing out a small strained, “none taken,” before getting the hell out of there.  He needs to wash the dirt from his hands and the agony from his eyes.

“Are you going to tell Dad?”  Aki grimaces, peeking over the couch, eyes following Keith around the room in desperation.

“I tell your dad everything.”  He can see the apprehension on Aki’s face, like he just killed a man.  He takes pity on him. “...God. But if you’re worried you’re going to get in trouble, don’t be.  Your dad might seem like an angel now but he had his fair share of fun at the Garrison.  ...And I had to see that as well...”

“What?” Aki exclaims, scandalized.  "Dad did? Oh, I did not need to know that."

“Yeah, well, I didn’t need to see... this .  I’m just saying, he’ll understand.  It’s fine, okay? Just...wear protection.  It’s important.”

Aki wheezes.  “ Stop No .  We were just -  It’s not that we - I don’t need -”

Something dawns on Keith.  “Wait a second. Are you ditching again ?  Twice in the same day?”

Aki’s an odd shade of pale bright red.

Keith shakes his head again as he hunts through the fridge for lunch.  He doesn’t have the energy for this. “Oh, my god. Aki...seriously... You promised me earlier.”

Aki actually sounds upset.  “I know .  I just -”

Keith leans on the fridge door, peering over it.  “- Promised.   Your grades are already barely keeping you in the Garrison...  You can’t afford to slip any more. You want to stay there, don't you?  I don’t know what other alternatives we have around here.”

Aki lets out a breath that sounds like he’s been punched.  He hangs his head and suddenly invests all his attention to his fingernails as he picks at them.  “I...” He breathes. “Of course I do...”

“What else are you going to do, Aki?”

He’s silent.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Kogane,” Griffin says.  Her face is still red as she speaks up, looking ten times more uncomfortable than Keith’s ever been, but she keeps going.  “It was my fault. He did go to school, but we were in class and he got sick, so I forced him here. I didn’t want him tired for Saturday.  I thought it’d be best. I’m sorry.”

Keith looks up.  “You weren't feeling well?"

Aki crinkles his nose and shifts in discomfort.  He’d ordinarily squirm away to hide in his room at this point, but he can’t abandon Griffin.  "We just...watched a gross video. Made me sick.”

“What was it about?”

Aki shakes his head.

“...Okay.  What’s Saturday?”  Keith asks as he unwraps an interestingly shaped sandwich that Shiro had cut out by hand for him and wrapped away for today.  He tilts it on the plate. Is that a hippo? That's adorable.

“Field Day,” Griffin says when Aki doesn’t answer.  “...Didn’t Aki tell you?”

Keith turns his eyes up to look at the sour expression Aki’s tossing Griffin’s way.  “What’s Field Day?”

She gives him the strangest look, like he just grew an antenna.  She says slowly, “ You know ...  The parent/student relay race.  They always have it at the Garrison, every year.  It’s been a tradition for decades now.”

Keith smiles ruefully.  “Ah. Parents .  No, I never went.  I must’ve ditched,” he snorts as he bites into his sandwich, sitting at the counter.  “ Not that I think it’s okay.  Today’s one thing, but Aki, let this be the last time.  I’m serious. You need to graduate; there’s only so much your dad and I can do for you if you start ditching .  Jesus...”

Aki keeps his eyes down.  He doesn’t say anything, but his hands clench tightly.

Griffin is staring bullets at Aki.  “Huh. That’s funny you didn’t hear about Field Day.  Especially since Aki said he’d asked you two to go .  Like he said he did every year .”  Definitely glaring.

Aki sighs and leans in, grumbling lowly to her in a voice he probably thinks Keith can’t hear, “I hate track and field.  It’s not like he can go anyway.  He’d freak out with all those people.  They use the little” - he mimics a gun shooting into the air.

She frowns at him before turning to look at Keith, eyeing him over, who just takes it all in stride.  This new medication kinda mellows him out, so his lack of reaction isn’t exactly Shiro’s patience at work.  He wishes.

She blinks over at him and smiles hesitantly.

“...You look a lot better, Mr. Kogane,” Griffin says softly.  “I-I don’t know if it’s appropriate to say. Aki’s told me a little and my dad was talking about it over dinner the other day.  He says not to talk about it publicly and I haven’t. But he’s been worried for you. He says the Garrison’s been keeping you in their prayers.”

Keith looks down at his sandwich.  It’s just the hippo’s head now. He pops the rest into his mouth.  “That’s really nice. Thank you, Griffin.”

He looks up to see her elbowing Aki and Aki elbowing her back, arguing lowly under their breaths like two little hyenas.

I don’t - want to -” Aki whispers furiously at her.  “You don’t understand how it is! Stop trying to butt into my life!  We can’t all have a perfect family like you!”

Just do it !”  She pinches him by the ear as he gurgles.  “I’m trying to help you people!”

Keith watches for a moment, amused by how close they are, and hops off the seat, going to the window.  He’s encroaching on this space and, with Griffin, Aki seems to thrive. He doesn’t want to split them apart.

He looks down the hill, toward the creek.  Everything is calm and bright and nothing crazy seems to be going on in the horizon.  He's been feeling better lately. Maybe he can handle a ride out in the desert. He wouldn't go too far, home is his base, after all, but working bit by bit, day by day, is what's gotten him this far.  He can probably do it. Progress.

“I’m going out for a bit,” he tells Aki.  “Please just...don’t do anything that might result in childbirth before you’re ready.  You’re both so young...”

Aki wails and Griffin yells out, “Aki wants to talk to you about the movie he watched today!  He cried in class!”

“Griffin!”  He gasps in betrayal, trying to shove a hand over her mouth as he looks desperately up at Keith, but the damage is done.

Keith goes cold.  “...What? Why? What happened?”

“Nothing happened,” Aki says, closing his eyes in agony.  “Oh, my god .  Griffin’s being dumb.”

She glares at him with raised eyebrows and he tries to look away, but he’s sweating.

He caves first.  “Okay. Okay , fine.  Her lies aside - hey ” - he squawks as she gives him a playful punch on the arm - “I was thinking...I dunno, Field Day will probably be too much for you, and if they were to find out you’d be going, they’d probably freak out and make a big deal out of it and...and I dunno if it’s really the best idea, but...I mean...maybe we can go.  Us. You know.”

Griffin grins winningly.

Keith nods automatically.  “Yeah. You and Griffin? You should.  I think that’d be fun. Is there a form I need to sign?  How much money do you need?"

“No.”  Aki closes his eyes and battles with himself.  He shakes his head. “No, you .  You and Dad.  Us .  It’s parent and student day.  Not Griffin and student day.”

“Though that’d be pretty funny,” Griffin snorts.

Aki smiles gently over at her, bopping her shoulder, which just makes her snort louder.  Aki looks back to Keith, whose brain isn’t comprehending. He points at Keith. “You. And me.  And Dad.”

Keith blinks in shock.  He doesn’t even think of the possible consequences, he’s just blown away that Aki’s giving him another chance.  “Really...? M-me? You don’t mind?”

Aki turns to him, shaking his head gently.  There are conflicting emotions on his face, but, for the most part, he’s neutral.  Those are the best odds Keith has had in ages.

“...Cool,” Keith whispers.  “I mean, yeah. Yeah, totally.  I...I won’t embarrass you?”

Aki snorts and raises an eyebrow.  “I think you need to worry about it the other way around honestly.  It’s not for a few more days, so...just something to think about. I don’t actually want to like... race , and I know some things are difficult for you, so maybe we could all just sit on the bleachers together?  Just hang out? I dunno. You don’t have to decide now. Talk with Dad about it. Sleep on it. Whatever.”

Keith’s mind is buzzing.  “Yeah, sure. Definitely. I’m excited.  Seriously.”

Aki watches Keith’s face, something intense in his eyes.  It’s not quite like yearning, not quite like sorrow. It’s somewhere in between.  “...Cool.”

“...Yeah.  Cool.”

They both hang there awkwardly in the moment, both in their hesitant way, unsure how to end or continue the conversation.

It feels almost like they’ve taken a small step toward each other, like assessing an opponent’s movements before the actual fight.  But, in this case, the fight is a meeting between father and son.

A test.  Keith tries to forget about the previous tests.  Today’s a new day. The game feels slightly shifted.

Griffin is sparkling .

Aki finally clears his throat, sinking back onto the seat next to Griffin.  They smile at each other, something passing between them, like this secret language.  They don’t need words, but they look victorious.

...They look happy.  And Keith is reminded of that gentle ease he feels with Shiro.  Comfortable just being themselves with the other.

Keith watches on, excitement taking a backseat as his heart slowly melts.  Aki’s happy. Truly happy. He’s softening. Keith’s so glad.

Aki flicks his eyes up to Keith and says lowly, “Um, so...is it okay if we hang out in my room and...go over homework?  We’ll leave the door open.”

“Homework.”  Keith closes his eyes, trying to hide his smile.  That was the worst attempt at a lie in the world, but it almost soothes Keith’s worry instead of exacerbating it.  Keith had been a good liar. And then Keith had gone out and done whatever the hell he had wanted and gotten away with it.  “Go ahead, Aki. But seriously Protection .  I’m not kidding.”

Aki’s face flares red.  “We’re not -! That’s not -!  Okay !”  He wheels Griffin around and pulls her upstairs as she laughs.

God, he hopes they’re not that far along.  Aki’s still so young. A teen? Sure. But god.  Imagine another kid to care for... Keith runs a hand over his face.  He wouldn’t have the energy.

But Griffin’s a good girl.  And Aki’s a good boy.

And, that aside, Keith just got an invite.  Sure, maybe it was because of Griffin’s influence, but it came from Aki’s mouth.  Mostly willingly. And, in his eyes, it felt genuine and not forced.

Keith’s feeling happy and a little nostalgic.  He thinks of what Pidge had said about taking a step forward on his own and so he thinks for a moment.  What’s something he can do to show Aki he cares? That he’s grateful for this chance?

He remembers the bento box that Aki had made for him and somehow, that just seems right.  He turns to the kitchen, going through his data pad on the counter, reading recipes, hunting for one that screams ‘Aki’, and texting Shiro happily in between.  He settles for rainbow cookies. He knows that Aki hasn’t outgrown it. He saw only a few months ago, the image Krolia had sent him of Aki after the bingo game, rainbow frosting on his nose.  And besides, Shiro approved the recipe too. If Aki doesn’t eat it, Shiro will be happy at least.

They don’t even take that long.  Not even an hour later and Keith’s taking them warm out of the oven.  He grabs two plates and sets one on each, staring down at them. Two, innocent, unassuming cookies.

He looks up the stairs, toward Aki’s room, then over at Kosmo, who tilts his head curiously, thinking maybe they’re some dog biscuits for him.

He used to do this for Aki years ago, when this all began, and Aki would just turn away...  But, there was a time before that, a time that somehow seems both so long ago and not that long at all, when Aki would smile excitedly.  When he would scream and grin and dive across the counter for a bite of some treat. “I love it!” He’d cry. That was Aki too. It feels almost like two different Akis.

“What do you think, boy?”  Keith murmurs to Kosmo. “Think I’m welcome up there?”

Kosmo stares and wags his tail.  It probably means ‘yes’.

Ugh, that hesitance is getting to him.  He has to try. He has to be strong.

Keith purposely makes a lot of noise as he goes upstairs, letting Kosmo follow behind with his cheerful bouncy walk, who makes even more noise seeing as he barely even fits through the hallway anymore without banging against both walls.  He’s gotten so massive.

This time, there is no surprise viewing.  Both are sitting innocently on the side of Aki’s bed, hunched over his data pad, laughing at some stupid video.

Why were they holding a firework that way?”  Aki’s cracking up.

“Well, do you know how to hold a firework?  There are so many different types.”

“Oh, god, never handle a firework near me, please .”

They laugh harder, in their own little world, bumping shoulders and leaning into each other comfortably.

Keith bites his lip, debating whether to just turn around and leave, but Kosmo sneezes and they both look up.

Griffin grins, eyes and face open.  Aki’s eyes cloud over as he bites his lip hesitantly.

At that look, Keith gets that reflex in his chest.  He knows what’s going to happen next. Aki’s going to do what he always does: shy away.  Aki’s going to deny him, turn away from him, tell him to leave. And it’s going to hurt. It’s going to bruise.  And the high Keith feels now is going to crash and the waves are going to pull him down and under and he’s going to regress.  And these little pieces of himself that he’s painstakingly collected over the past months will scatter out of his hands.

He wants to turn.

But he’s got to put a foot forward.  ...He can’t force his family and friends to always carry his weight.  He just can’t do that.

He clears his throat and holds the plates out, blinking quickly.  “Uh. Hey. Um... In the mood for cookies? I made some. If you want some.  Rainbow swirl. But you don’t have to. They’re just cookies. It’s not a big deal.”  

Oh, for the love of god , why can’t he just be normal ?  Keith’s given speeches to a crowd of thousands and though he wasn’t thrilled about it, he still spoke like a normal human being.  Aki’s just a teen, just a boy still really, and Keith’s words are all tied up and awkward.

It’s just he wants this so badly.  And he fucked it up. He cringes as Aki shifts.  Prepares for the rejection. Tenses for the sting.  Aki clears his throat and says softly, “...Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good.”

Keith stares.  Did he hear that properly?  “It-it does?”

Aki nods, looking down at his hands.  “I really like rainbows...” He hums lowly.

“I know...”  Keith mutters, still dazed.

He just stands there, still holding that damn plates of cookies, staring blankly at them.  He really hadn’t expected Aki to accept now that he’s here.

Griffin watches the both of them looking as still as a deer caught in the headlights.  She clears her throat gently, startling Keith from his place. “Here,” Keith says, crossing the distance and handing them out.

Griffin jams one in her face immediately and is already humming happily into it.  “Mmm. This is good, Mr. Kogane!” She says through a mouthful.

Aki just laughs as he watches her.  “Chew with your mouth closed! Dang!”

She laughs and crumbs fling on her lap.

Aki snorts and gives her his own napkin before focusing on his own cookie.  As he bites into it, his eyes light up and he looks for a moment like he doesn’t know whether to admit it or deny it.  “These are really good,” Aki says lowly, small tentative smile growing on his face.

“Right?”  Griffin clinks their two cookies together like celebratory glasses.

“Right.”  Aki’s eyes flick over to Keith’s.  “...Um. Thanks.”

Be cool, Keith , he breathes to himself.  Cool, cool, cool, as cool as Shiro.  Totally normal .  “Yeah.  Yeah, of course.  There are more downstairs if you want them.”  Keith takes a step back, remembers to smile, and then leaves.

He claps his hands on his glowing face as he basically skips downstairs.  Holy shit. Holy shit .  He can’t believe it.  He leans against the kitchen counter, staring blankly out into the backyard’s light, stars twinkling in his eyes.

He did it.  He did it .  It went okay and Aki actually thanked him.

He wants to call Shiro, to share this victory with him.  He wants to tell him every little detail of what just happened, but he wants to see Shiro’s face too, the twinkle in his eyes.  So he settles for a text: You will never believe what just happened between Aki and me .

What??   Shiro’s text is instantaneous.

You won’t be able to guess.  You’ll have to wait until you come home.

Come on.  Don’t leave me hanging like that.

I want to see your face.

Good or bad?  At least give me that.

Keith laughs .  Good.  Really good.

I’m excited to hear!  Be there soon. Have a bit more paperwork.

Kosmo nudges Keith’s arm curiously, trying to get him back to reality.  He grins down at Kosmo and leans over, tossing his arms around Kosmo’s soft body and clinging to him happily.  He’s floating in the clouds. He presses his hands to his face and lets out a small laugh.

Aki liked them.  He accepted them.  He didn’t toss them out.

...Keith actually did something right for once.  A test. A test he passed .  For once in his dreary life, he actually passed.  He’s over the moon.

He hears footsteps coming down the stairs and he immediately gathers himself and stands upright, trying to shake the stupid giddy smile off his face.  Griffin comes trotting down. “I’m leaving,” she says with a smile, tossing her brown hair over her shoulder. “Thanks again for the cookies, Mr. Kogane.”

“Of course.  And thanks for...well, talking with Aki for me.  It’s...” He doesn’t know what it is, but he just nods, pressing his fingers to his lips.  “We don’t always get along well. Lack of communication or...I don’t know, but...he seems more open when you’re around.  And I really appreciate it.”

She smiles knowingly, pulling on the straps of her backpack as she grins.  “He just needs a little push. It’s healthy for him.”

He snorts and nods.  “Yeah. Thank you, Griffin.”

“Well.  Figured you saw more than you bargained for today, so...least I could do.  Sorry about that, by the way...” Though she speaks clearly, her cheeks go red and she rubs at her neck.  “My dad’s super fond of you. He has all these grand stories about the ol’ glory days , fighting neck and neck and all that fun stuff.  He’s embarrassing...”

Keith chuckles as he crosses his arms over his chest, watching this girl, one of few people that Aki has accepted in his life.  Keith’s thought it before and he thinks it even still: she looks a jarring amount like the Griffin he knew, only a bit brighter, a bit more carefree.  She smiles all the time. Maybe James would’ve been like this in different times. It’s interesting to think about.

“But hey,” she says, pointing to Keith.  “Don’t let Aki squirm away from you. I know there’s a lot he wants to say but he’s so emotionally constipated...  Maybe, if you ask it right, he’ll answer.” She shrugs lightly, like it’s so easy.

Keith nods slowly.  Maybe it really is that easy.  “Did you need a ride home? Shiro will be back soon.  He could drive you.”

“Nah, I have my license.  I parked my car a street down so you wouldn’t see.”

Keith closes his eyes in exasperation and snorts.  “...Just use the driveway next time.”

“Will do.  And hey. About that question to ask: might I suggest that movie he saw today?”

She gives him one last smile and then goes out the door.

Aki seems to really trust Griffin and Keith’s bullshit detector didn’t go off once in her presence; she seems to genuinely want to help them.  Keith thinks for a brief moment of riding on this luck that’s been following him today and going up to Aki’s room to ask. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to push it, to ruin a day that’s already given him so many gifts.

Well, Keith had better get at least some work done before Shiro comes home lest he feel utterly useless.  He’s got therapy later, but he hadn’t realized how late, so now his whole day is shifted around.

He goes upstairs, past Aki’s room, and is taking his first step into his office when he hears something strange.

He freezes.  It’s Aki calling his name.

Him?  He takes a few steps back.  Looks into Aki’s room. Resists pointing to himself in question.  He clears his throat and says, “Uh. Yeah?”

Aki gives him a hesitant smile, shoulders tense as he takes in a deep breath.  “Um... I just...wanted to say thanks. For the cookies. I know you’re not a huge cookie fan.”

“Oh.  Okay.”  Keith bobs his head up and down in a nod.  “Yeah, no problem. I’m glad you liked them.”

He goes to leave and Aki says quickly, before Keith can leave, “ Um !  ...Listen, also...thanks for being so cool about Griffin and me...  When you came through that door, I thought we’d be in serious trouble.  You won’t tell Griffin’s dad, will you?”

Keith snorts as he leans against the doorframe.  “...He and I never really talk, so...”

Relief floods Aki’s features.  “Cool. That’s what I told her.  If Dad had caught us...I dunno. Not that I think he’d ground me or...maybe he would, but I just don’t think he would’ve been as cool about it.  So...I’m glad it was you.”

Keith smiles softly, looking around Aki’s room.  He doesn’t get a chance to do it often, not totally comfortable encroaching too far into Aki’s space.  It’s pretty barren and plain for a teen really. Almost like he’s afraid to display the things he loves, or maybe he just doesn’t have any.  All neutral.

Keith crosses his arms and turns an amused look to Aki, who’s watching him back carefully, like he’s afraid Keith will find something to attack him with.  Keith says, nodding to the walls, “You painted it. It looks nice.”

“Oh.  You think so?”  Guilt floods Aki’s eyes.  “Thought it kind of cleaned up the room...”

“It does,” Keith hums, running his hands over it.  Simple and clean.

“I, uh...I still did like your painting.  I just...I thought this was more...mature.”

“Oh, no, I get it.  It is. I like it, Aki.  It suits you.”

“Grey?”  Aki laughs softly under his breath, face falling to his hands.  “I guess so.”

“-No.  I just meant...you know, sleek.  Clean. Older. I didn’t mean -”

“It’s okay.  I get it. It’s why I chose it.”

Keith sniffs, reeling himself back into the topic.  He lets his hand fall from the wall. “Your dad wouldn’t have punished you.  Like I said, he did some shit at the Garrison, so he couldn't judge.”

“What?  Okay. Okay, stop there,” Aki starts to laugh, holding his hands up firmly.  “Dad was a player? Dad Dad?  The Dad I know?”

Keith snorts.  “Are you really that surprised?  Have you seen him? Everyone had a crush on him.  And I wouldn’t say player , he just...loved people.”

Loved people ,” Aki groans.

“Not like that.  But things were different before the war.  A lot of the silences he has now...the weight behind his words...he never had them before.  He was more carefree. Less wary.” He runs his hand on the doorframe, thinking back. He can still see it clearly, that bright-eyed, energetic, excitable Shiro.  Shiro is still his Shiro and he loves him deeper than words can say. It’s just interesting watching people grow, especially the ones who grow alongside you.

Aki asks tentatively, “He had a boyfriend before?”

“Oh.  Yeah. Adam.”

“...Adam,” Aki says the name like he’s trying to envision him through sound.  “How serious were they?"

"Pretty serious."

"Huh.  What was he like?  I’ve always wanted to ask Dad, but...kinda scared to.  He gets kinda funny when I mention it.”

“Oh.  Um...”  He swallows hard.  Doesn’t like how Aki’s asking, almost like he wishes it were Adam here, in his place.  Keith’s battled his own demons about that one and he thinks he’s won them, but he’s not eager to test it out.  “He and I didn’t really get along. I’m probably not the best person to ask for an unbiased opinion. Ask Matt.  Or Sam.”

“What would’ve happened do you think, if Adam was still alive?”

Keith goes quiet.  He knows what would’ve happened because he knows Shiro.  Nothing would’ve changed. Because Shiro fell in love with Keith long before they returned to Earth the second time and Keith has never been a replacement or fill-in.  He’s always been Shiro’s Keith, Shiro’s love has been written in all of his actions. In that, Keith is firm.

But what would’ve happened if Adam was still around?  Would Aki have found solace in him somehow, in some cruel twist of fate?  Would it have gotten tangled and twisted and confusing? Maybe.

“How angry do you think Dad would’ve been if I had punched him?”

Keith blinks, face going blank.  “What?”

“Right in the nose.  He was a jerk! We talked about it in class and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Trying to dissuade Dad from a mission to space like that, even though it had been his dream!  He worked toward it all his life. And his boyfriend just wants him to stay home? Like some sexist husband who wants his wife to only be a housewife.  I mean, who does that? The universe would’ve been royally screwed if Dad had actually listened to him.”

Keith bites at his lip.  “...Look...I wanted to hate him back then too, trust me, but it wasn't so simple.  It was a different time back then. We didn't even know if life existed beyond our planet.  Diving right into the unknown, it was an exciting time, but...it was a huge risk. Each of us knew if we went out there, we might never come back.  Adam was just worried for Shiro. Scared that what happened would happen. ...I was too.”

“But it was what Dad wanted and who’s life was it?  Not his boyfriend’s. You supported Dad.”

“I did, but you can’t imagine the regret I felt when we all got the news that he supposedly died...  Knowing Adam had been right all along, that I had encouraged him to his death...that was all on me.”

“...But he was okay in the end.  And still, like you said, he knew the risks and he wanted to keep going.  You had his back.”

Keith stays there in the quiet for awhile.  “...It was what he wanted, so I wanted him to have it.”

The way Aki watches Keith changes.  He looks surprised for a moment, like something clicks into place for him, then, he smiles gently.  “I have a feeling you’d give him whatever he wanted, let him do whatever he wanted.”

“Ha.  Yeah, maybe.  I loved him then too.  A lot of things have changed in life, but that never has.”

Aki presses his lips together tightly as he watches Keith.  He asks hesitantly, “Hey...um, mind if I ask you one more thing?  About your therapy?”

Keith scratches at the back of his head.  “Yeah. Go for it.”

“I just noticed that Dad goes in too, but he won’t tell me anything about it to like...’protect your privacy’ or something.  Does he ever...?” He trails off, looking away.

“Does he ever what?”

“Well.  You know.  Like...do you have heart-to-hearts and stuff or...talk about your problems...in marriage ?”

Keith is so startled by the direction he almost laughs.  “No, nothing like that. Your dad’s just there for support, so I don’t crawl out the window and escape.”

He laughs.  Aki doesn’t.

“Oh.  Well, that’s good.”  He wrings his hands.

Keith watches, a little confused.

When Aki sees his glance, he clears his throat and mutters, “ Oh .  It’s just...in class, we were talking about stuff and...some people were saying you were getting a divorce, so... I was wondering if you were doing couples therapy or something and just didn’t want to tell me.”

Keith snorts.  Surprise lights his features. “Your dad and I?”

Aki’s watching him closely.  “A lot of people have said that.  Like...a lot.”

“That’s like...the last thing we’d need to discuss there.  A divorce? The shit people come up with.” Keith laughs. It actually amuses him.  “You think they know us better than you do? You live here.”

Aki goes red as he grows flustered.  “Well, I know , I just...maybe one of you told another person at the Garrison and they told their kid and...I dunno.”

But heavy relief floods Aki’s features the more he assesses Keith’s face and comes to the realization that a divorce is not happening.

“What are you even talking about in class...?”  Keith asks.

“This chapter is all about the personal life of the Voltron paladins,” he chuckles nervously.  “Exciting stuff...”

“Oh...  No. God.”  He laughs lightly.  “Look. All you have to know is that I don’t believe in a lot of things, but my faith in Shiro is the only unshakeable thing in this universe.  We're fine, Aki. We’re not getting a divorce. Of all things to worry about...that's the last one.”

“Good.  I thought so, but I...just wanted to make sure.  But I know it. I know you really love him,” Aki whispers.

“Mm.”

He clears his throat.  “I was also thinking...must’ve been hard then...seeing him with Adam.  I was just thinking as they talked about it in class. If that were Griffin...I think I would’ve been really sad about it.”

Keith takes in a huge breath.  “Well, it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world to see...  But, like I said, back then, it was different. I was more like a dumb lost puppy who didn’t think I stood a chance.  But Shiro always treated me kindly,” Keith hums. “And that was enough for me.”

“A dumb lost puppy? The way he looks at you?  He and Adam couldn’t have been all that serious.”

“Um...”  Keith rubs at his nose.  He likes this, Aki asking him questions, but do they really have to be these questions?  These are hard.  These are personal.

Let him in , Shiro always advises Keith.  Keith knows he’s right. He takes a deep breath.  “Adam and him were going to get engaged soon... So...  They were serious enough.”

The awkwardness bloats the room.  Aki seems to realize Keith is in fact not joking and that it is indeed an uncomfortable topic.  "Oh... I-I hadn't heard that."

“It’s okay,” Keith says.  “Old memories and times change.  Shiro doesn't regret that part of his life and neither do I; it led us here.  Anyway...”

Silence falls between them again but it isn’t angry or bitter.  Just a whisper of sad. It still feels okay being here. There’s no reflex to run or flinch away from this conversation.  It feels just like two people having a normal healthy talk.

Keith tries.  “...So... Griffin told me to ask about ‘the movie’.  She didn’t say anything about what it was though. ...Want to talk about it?”

“Oh, god ,” Aki mutters grudgingly, rubbing at his arms in irritation.  “She is so pushy about some things... She wants us to talk about our feelings or something, I dunno.”

“Well...is it bad to?”

Aki looks up, surprise in his eyes.  He inspects Keith’s face like he expects him to laugh at him like he’s pulling a prank.  Keith watches him back steadily.

“I guess not,” Aki murmurs slowly.  “But I...I don’t know if you’ll want to talk about it.”

“Aki, I do want to talk with you.  I just never know how to do it...”

Aki nods again, quickly this time, like he gets it and he doesn’t want the moment to pass.  He keeps watching Keith, this yearning building in his eyes that he always used to try to suppress, that he doesn’t now.  Keith thinks maybe they’ll do it. Maybe they’ll go over this impossible wall that’s been built between them these past few years.  Maybe they’ll connect again. But the moment flickers from Aki’s eyes and he’s looking down, pressing his lips together tightly before Keith can stop it.  “It’s stupid,” he says again, like that makes it impossible.

“Well, I’m the king of that, so...”

Aki laughs without humor. “No.  No, you’re not. I, uh, just, thank you for the cookies and Griffin and all that.  It was cool of you.”

Keith recognizes the dismissal.  It doesn’t feel like failure, but he’s still slightly disappointed.  They had toed that border.

...They’re getting closer.

Keith clears his throat.  “Next time, maybe don’t use the couch in the living room as your makeout spot.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to survive it a second time.”

Aki goes red and nods painfully.

“And seriously, I know we haven’t had the whole ‘birds and bees’ talk and I really didn’t want to have it in front of Griffin, but if you get to that stage, I really need to know you’re going to use protection.  You know what I’m talking about, right?” Does he have to say it?  He doesn’t know if he has to say it. God, better safe than sorry. “Um.  Condoms... Do you know how to use them? You’re both so young, I just...”

Aki’s face couldn’t get any redder.  He forces out stiffly, “Yep. Yeah. We talked about it in school.  The whole banana demonstration thing.”

“Oh, god, they did?”  Keith laughs as he rubs away the hair on his forehead.  He doesn’t remember having to do that.

Aki laughs breathlessly too.  “So we’re covered.”

“Thank god.  I just...”

“I know.  I get it. Trust me, I do.  You don’t want another accident.”  He hesitates and then says quietly, under his breath, “...That’s how you ended up with me, after all...”  His voice fades.

Keith stares.  “...Aki.”

“No, I -”  He clears his throat.  “...I’m glad to talk with you today and not...lose my temper, so just...”  He nods. “Let’s just end it at that.”

“Okay,” Keith whispers hesitantly.

“And really, I meant what I said about Field Day.  If you and Dad want to go, I think that’d be cool.”

Keith hums happily.  Cool? Him and Shiro going with Aki to a family event?  They haven’t done that since Aki was just a little boy. “...I think that’d be really fun.  You don’t mind I’m not really in shape? I don’t know if I could actually win any races...”

“It’s okay,” Aki says, nodding.  “We don’t have to actually race. Might be kinda cool, you know?  Just having you normal.”

Oh.  Keith feels the wind knocked out of him but he tries to hold steady.  “...As opposed to the one out of his mind?” Keith hums.

“No, I...I didn’t mean it like that.  I meant like...instead of this super hero, you know?”

Is Aki mocking him?  Keith decides to ignore it.  Gotta quit while he's ahead. "...Thanks for inviting me, Aki.”

“Yeah.  Gotta tell Griffin then,” he mutters, already getting his phone out to text away.  “She says her dad wants to know if you’re going or not.”

Aki disappears into phone land, so Keith takes their empty plates and goes downstairs.  He doesn’t actually feel like work anymore and they don’t actually need him. It’s all just busy work, which feels pointless and meaningless and he doesn’t want to get into that.

He’ll wash the dishes.

It doesn’t seem like more of an achievement than looking through reports, but it somehow is. There was a time those months ago he couldn’t even do this.  The dishes just piled up and up until Shiro could get to them on top of work, on top of caring for Keith, on top of caring for Aki and it wasn’t fair to him, not to Shiro, and Keith had felt so wretched and guilty.  Something as simple as washing the dishes feels so much like an accomplishment that he almost likes doing it now.

He goes around the house collecting abandoned cups.  He even starts doing the laundry - the non-essentials this time - stripping the couch of the blankets and going out onto the patio to grab the pillows on the outdoor furniture.

This house is going to smell so damn clean.  He’s inspired, looking forward to Shiro’s look of surprise when he comes home today, to hear that not only did Keith and Aki have a normal conversation, but the house is also looking better than it has in ages.

He tosses the french doors wide.  He washes the windows. He finally gets to the damn grout and scrubs the hell out of it.

He’s halfway through mopping the floors when Aki comes down hesitantly.  He stops at the bottom of the staircase, looking down at the wet floors.

“What are you doing?”  He watches with a small dazed look on his face, like Keith’s gone crazy.

“Mopping?  Just a second,” Keith says, backing up to grab a towel from the counter.  He tosses it to Aki, who fumbles and drops it. “Maybe if you scoot across.”

Aki raises his eyebrows and, with one last long look at Keith, kicks the towel into position to scoot to the fridge.  He starts rooting around for food while Keith gets back to mopping.

He’s traveling to the other room, into the entryway, wondering when the last time they even cleaned this area.  The mop is coming up brown. The floors are looking like a different color. Kosmo is staying carefully on the carpet, watching from a distance, like he’s never seen this happen before.  Maybe it’s been years. Keith laughs. “Is this interesting? Is it, boy?”

Kosmo tilts his head.  Definitely interesting.

Keith realizes that the fridge door has been closed for quite some time and he can see, from his peripheral, that Aki is just standing there.  He turns. And yes, there is Aki, completely absolutely still, watching him with a weird look on his face. It’s charged. Heavy.

Keith slows.

“...You look better,” Aki whispers, nodding his head quickly.  “A lot better.”

Keith pauses for a moment and licks his lips.  He nods slowly. He tries to keep it casual, forcing himself to lean on the end of the mop.  “Yeah, I’m starting to feel different. Maybe this medication’s finally the one. Knock on wood.”

“I’m glad,” Aki says.  There’s another stiff silence, both of them just standing in the quiet of their living room.  Aki says, voice oddly brittle, “I kinda want to tell you what Griffin keeps pushing about... But I...  I don’t know if you’d want to talk about it. I don’t want to upset you.”

“It’s okay, Aki.  What was it about?”

“You.”

“Oh, god...”  Yeah, Keith’s seen the videos alright.  “I’m sorry for what I said. I had no filter then.  Not that I ever really developed one.”

Aki doesn’t laugh.  Keith’s used to it. He looks down for two seconds and then stops as he hears a small little sniffle.

He looks up to tears in golden eyes, cut up like broken glass.  Aki’s crying.

Keith freezes up.  His son is crying .  He knows what Shiro would do.  He’d step forward, arms out, using that soft comforting voice of his to weave their miracles.

Keith is not Shiro.  He cannot pretend he has the gift because he knows he doesn’t.  He can only ever be himself, but what if it's not enough?

He takes a hesitant step forward.  Should he put a hand on Aki's shoulder?  Would that be at all helpful?

Before Keith can decide, Aki growls , running a hand quickly over his face, angrily brushing away the tears that just keep coming. “Oh, god, I’m sorry, I’m sorry .  I told you it was so stupid!  I knew I'd cry... I didn’t want to.  Not in front of you. I knew I would.”

“Aki, what...?”

“It was that stupid video,” he says shakily, trying to get his breathing on track again.  He clutches his hand to his chest. “It’s why I wanted to ditch today. My teacher really did say I could stay home because it would be ‘potentially upsetting and graphic’.  I wasn’t lying about that. I know if I had just told you the details, you would’ve let me stay home, but I didn’t want to tell you... It was embarrassing. And then Dad told me not to upset you and I’ve been trying and this just felt like a landmine somehow.”  His voice gets very small. “Can you tell I’ve been trying?”

Keith nods his head.

“I’ve been so angry about...a lot of things.  I decided years ago that I didn’t want to learn about the war you and Dad fought.  No matter what. I was so mad. If there was ever an assignment revolving around it, I just wouldn’t even bother, even if it meant I failed.  And it was like every single year, every class, every teacher always wanted to talk about you.  It felt constantly like they were mocking me, trying to force me to see how different we were all the time, I dunno.  I started to get sick whenever anyone would mention it. I honest-to-god thought the war was ninety-eight percent just you with your hands on your hips, posing for your fans .  That’s what they made it sound like.  Like you were some lucky god or something.  I thought it’d be all victory, some fighting, but you always come out on top.  I mean, you guys won in the end.

“When my teacher said the video would be ‘graphic’, I thought she meant the people you fought against would be beat to a bloody pulp.  And I was scared to see that. But...it wasn’t. It was so much worse. It was you .  I was totally blindsided.  I didn’t know .  You always told me the war was tame, that things were easy.  And even though they called it a war, I...I don’t know why it never clicked.  Easy is not almost dying .”

“...Ah,” Keith whispers, feeling that prickly cold discomfort creep into his veins.   “There wasn’t a reason for you to know... That sort of thing would only hurt.”

He doesn’t want to talk about this.  Whenever they mention this, everything goes to shit.  He just wants to take this good day and run, but the war is seeping and staining it again, in a different way.  Always here. Always a part of him.

“I came in late, but they were showing it,” Aki’s voice breaks.  “The footage from your battle on Earth - the end of it. You just looked like stars in the sky at first, but the energy from the crowd as they waited, staring upward, and the screams from them when you came into view as you fell, all of you...Aunt Pidge, Aunt Allura, Uncle Lance, Uncle Hunk... You.  You were really prepared to die...weren’t you?  You would’ve given your life in that fight if that’s what it took...wouldn’t you have?”

Keith doesn’t know why it feels like being reprimanded.  “...We thought we might.”

Aki breathes harshly, divot in his brow, eyes glistening with emotion.  “...How can you say it so casually? How can you just stand there, like you are, not afraid?”

“Because it wasn’t about our lives, it was about something much larger than any of us.  We would’ve been grateful just to save Earth. Earth was our home. Beyond that was just...” He shrugs with the weariness that comes with this topic.

“Dad would’ve been all alone then.  I wouldn’t have been born. He would’ve truly been the only one left.  You would've been okay with that?”

“You think I haven’t thought of that...?  But it was different back then, Aki. We all knew we might not survive what we were doing, your dad included.  That was the risk. We all knew .  You know that.”

But Aki can’t seem to grasp that.  “You could’ve died .  It would’ve just been Dad left...”

“I know,” Keith whispers.  It burns. “That’s the price we all would’ve had to pay.  All of us. Your dad included.”

It’s like Aki can’t hear it.  He keeps plowing on: “Did you know someone got footage?  Dad tearing through the field to get to you. When you fell in the Black Lion, it was like all he could see.  The terror on his face and the way he ran...like one second more would be too late. He was the first one there.  He was pounding on the Black Lion before she even opened for him. And you were inside, slumped over in your seat, totally limp and broken, like some worn out rag doll.  All the blood... And Dad...he held you so tightly, crying over you like he thought you wouldn’t make it...” Aki’s eyes go dull. “...You really were okay with that?”

“God,” Keith hisses through clenched teeth.  “Aki. Of course I wasn’t. We had to .  It was us or the world, there was no one else!  It wasn’t a choice .  I can’t believe they’re showing this sort of thing at school.  To everyone ?”

“My teacher said it was on the public news when it happened and everyone saw it.  She says it’s a massive part of history. She was in middle school at the time, just a girl.  It was weird...watching it. Everyone stopped. Everyone mourned. It’s like they lost their best friend or something.

“You didn’t wake for so long...  They gathered outside the hospital window each night, praying for you.  Dad was such a wreck. They even called Grandma from deep space. They were scared it’d be her last chance to say goodbye to you.”  His voice drops low to a whisper. “Why didn’t either of you ever tell me about this sort of thing?”

Keith shakes his head, heart torn open, too vulnerable.  He never wanted Aki to know.

“Why don’t you ever tell me anything ...?”  Aki sniffs, rubbing away the tears budding over his cheeks again, but the words are without anger.

He walks in front of Keith, those bright golden irises looking into Keith’s face with new eyes.  “You keep so many secrets from me. Why?”

“Aki...”  Keith murmurs lowly.  He just feels tired.

There's something in Aki's eyes, vulnerable and open, searching for something...  “...How was it...being the leader of Voltron? How was it saving the universe? Saving Dad?”  He looks right into Keith’s face. “What was it like piloting Black? Piloting Red? Visiting planets?  Fighting for them? ...Sacrificing your life for them...? What was it like?”

Here it is again.  It keeps coming back.

A test.

Always a test.

Keith bites his lip.

He knows the answer to the test.  Maybe he’s always known it. Shiro, Pidge, Krolia, everyone’s been telling him from day one.

But he closes his eyes.

He can’t do it.  He’s already given away too many pieces of himself today.  He’s bleeding. He needs to retreat before it’s too late and he won’t be able to leave this battlefield.

“...Aki,” he breathes, clenching his fists tightly.  “I don’t want to hurt you. I never have... I just want to protect you from the things that kill me...  You’re right. You’re right .  I wasn’t okay with those things, but there wasn’t a choice and I still had to do them.  There’s a reason I’m fucked up over it now and it wasn’t because I was out there having a great time worried about things like fans .  There were good times, there were, but...  But I... It was war, Aki. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to talk about it, not like you want.  I just don’t know. I don’t know if it’s something that needs to be heard, not by anyone. Maybe especially not you.”

“If you think it’s because I’m not old enough -”

“-No.  It’s not that.  Maybe we won the war, but there were many battles we lost...and they left scars.”

Aki bites at his lip as he tries to process that.  “Did you tell Dad not to tell me?”

Keith nods.  “You saw the video today...that was how many minutes of years we were out there.  ...But is that what matters?  Despite it all, we’re still here, we’re all still alive, we’ve found happiness within each other.  Isn’t that what should matter? I think so...”

Aki sighs, the openness in his eyes closing off, bobbing his head up and down like he expected Keith to say that.  “Of course I’m glad for that...” But Keith can see him pulling away.

“Wait,” Keith whispers quickly, grabbing Aki by the wrist.  It’s his chance. He has to take it. “I love you, Aki. I do.  I really do. I wish things didn’t have to be like this between us.  I know I haven’t been the best father to you and I’ve been doing an awful job at dealing with my own shit and letting it spew all over your life, but I’m trying ...”

Aki's eyes well with tears as he stares back into Keith’s.  They shiver. He clears his throat roughly. “I know you are.  I’m not mad about that. I know you have stuff to deal with. I just wish...”  He takes a deep breath and looks guiltily out.

“...What is it?”

“I just want to know you,” Aki breathes out quietly.

Keith’s throat tightens.  Emotion wraps around him like a vice.

The sound of a car pulling into the driveway startles the both of them.  Kosmo pushes past to wag his tail and wait patiently at the door. Aki clears his throat loudly and takes a step back.  And another.

The connection is broken.  “Dad’s home...” The world comes back into focus around them.  “Um...” He jerks his thumb upstairs. “Sorry. I’m going to go before you tell him about me and Griffin...”  He groans, but when he looks back up, his smile is in jest.

Keith huffs out a laugh, trying to shake the seriousness off of him, rubbing at his face.  “...Hm. Right. You two really get along well, huh?”

“Well, we’re no Shiro and Keith, power couple of the universe, but...yeah, I really like her.”

Keith snorts.  “Power couple of the universe, huh?”

“Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”  Aki shrugs. He smiles wetly. There's no malice.  Keith feels cleansed somehow.

The low thumping of Shiro making his way up their porch sends Aki skittering up the stairs.  The door opens and Keith looks back, smiling softly.

“Tell me,” is the first thing Shiro says, grinning brightly as he comes through the door.  His eyes catch the brightness of Keith’s face, the change in him and then the change of the space around them.  Shiro’s eyes widen.

Keith grins.

 

The twins catch wind that Aki is actually going to the family track and field event, so, naturally, they decide to drop their desperate excuses for all the reasons they can’t go, like they usually do.  But then they tell Lance, who tells Coran, who tells Hunk, who tells Pidge and Matt.  And suddenly, the whole gang is going.

Keith’s not sure how he ended up here, squashed between Pidge and Shiro in the backseat like little sardines, but, somewhere along the way, he had agreed with Lance that it’d probably be fun (“like old times!”) to all go together.

In one single cramped van.

And that’s all fine and dandy, seeing as the drive is hardly five minutes, but the parking happens to be horrendous (high school-aged drivers will do that to a parking lot) so Lance is taking the long way around the Garrison, to the back entrance, through rocks and unpaved road that is bumpy and not intended for everyday vehicles.

Aki was smart and went with Griffin.  The twins decided to take their own car too.  Shiro is probably regretting agreeing with everything Keith says.

Pidge is wailing as they hit another bump and Keith slips in his seat and right onto her, “Keith!  Get your bony elbow out of my soft tender side!”

“I - ow .  Your knee is in my thigh .”

“Sit - more - that way .  I’m being crushed!”

“You two are squashing me as it is.  You’re squeezing me out!”

“Guys, come on, we’re all adults here.  We’re the paladins of Voltron. Please don’t fight,” Shiro sighs, cringing as Keith squirms between the two of them in a space that really should only fit him alone.

Pidge pushes Keith’s face.  “Sit on your husband! Not on me !  I’m small and delicate .”

“Argh!  Small and delicate .  I’m quoting you on that one.  Don’t forget you’re the one who said it.”  Keith unbuckles his damn seatbelt and crawls onto Shiro’s lap, who holds him around the waist warmly, smiling into the back of his shoulder happily at the resolution.

Keith relaxes back into Shiro’s hold.  They should’ve done this from the start.

Pidge inhales a large gulp of air.  “Oh, finally , I can breathe .”

“Hey!”  Lance calls from the front as he drives.  “Seatbelts on!”

“Eyes on the road!”  Keith calls back, watching with dread in his stomach as Lance jerks the steering wheel back to center and they hit a pothole in the road.  God. This is rough. He has to remind himself that somehow Lance managed to handle Red, after all.  He grumbles anyway, “This was a horrible idea.  Your stupid van doesn’t fit all of us.”

Lance gasps scandalously as he pats the hood.  “This van has lived with our family since we first bought our home.  It is special .  Where’s your loyalty?”

“Oh, I remember the Castle of Lions,” Coran starts reminiscing.  “Running through our generations like it did, never failing us, not even in its last moment.  Maybe this van can be your Castle of Lions, Lance.”

“Yeah!”  Lance says, ignoring Allura’s look.

Keith grunts, “It still doesn’t fit all of us.”

“Looks to me like we’re all inside.”

“Great.  I’ll switch you spots.”

“Yeah, sure, I’d love to sit on Shiro’s thick thighs.  Ooh, baby.”

Oh, no ,” Hunk laughs.  “Lance, stop. That’s not right, man.”

Allura’s giving him a look .  “‘Ooh, baby’?”

“That’s what Keith says, not me.”

“Fuck you, Lance,” Keith spits, crossing his arms tightly over his chest and leaning into Shiro’s arms.  Pouting, essentially.

Shiro just watches them all in resigned amusement.  This is his crazy family.

Keith thinks he’s finally comfortable.

And then Coran begins to sing.  He vocalizes the Voltron show’s theme song as enthusiastically as possible.  And, well, this is Coran and everyone knows he manages to have more enthusiasm than most.

Shiro rubs his hand comfortingly over Keith’s back, loosening the tension that was beginning to kink up.  Dissolving softly beneath Shiro's touch, despite how crazy this little van is with the lot of them.

As they met earlier at Lance’s house, everyone smiled at him in that way they do when they know you’ve been sick and you’re trying.  Like you’re a shriveled raisin parading around as a grape.  He wishes they wouldn’t, but if anyone has to, he’s glad it’s them.  So he’d just smiled back and crammed into this death trap of a vehicle for their “super quick” drive over.

Today will be Keith’s next test.  His next big step. He has his family at his side.  He’ll be okay. And, if not...Shiro’s here. So he’s okay as he can be.

His meds help him, giving him an edge, but it's not completely fail-free.  It just provides a layer of cushioning if he falls. At least, he hopes.

It’s just the Garrison, and really, that’s basically like a second home for Keith anyway. He needs this.  He needs to break back into normalcy and having a motivator like this is almost too good to be true. Only for a few hours.  The sun is shining but there’s a decent breeze. The crowd can be heard from here, but half are familiar faces, so it shouldn’t be bad.  The setting is mild.

“Wish Mom could’ve come,” Keith murmurs as he looks out the window at all the families getting out of their vehicles.

“She’s always busy,” Shiro hums.  “We’ll make sure to take some photos for her.”

“Yeah, she is definitely a sucker for photos...”

There’s Aki, getting out of the back seat of Griffin’s car.  James and his wife get out from the front. And it just feels right being here, Shiro against his back - literally.  A day for families, just like he wants to be.

Aki looks around and spots them.  After a few words with Griffin, he turns and heads over to their car, where Keith is trying to crawl out.

Lance’s fucking tiny van.  There’s not enough leg space to do anything.  Keith has to reach inside to pull Shiro out, both of them laughing as they go.  Shiro’s way too big for this.

“Hey,” Aki hums behind them.  “Need help?”

“Got it - oof -” Keith chokes as Shiro plops into his arms, laughing like a kid.  Keith snorts and readjusts himself to pull the both of them up. “Went around too, hm?  I can’t believe how many people are here.”

“Ugh.  Yeah...  I didn’t think the whole school would be here honestly...  Griffin’s tried to make me go previous years, but I’ve never actually seen it myself.”

“It was always like this,” Shiro says, looking brightly out toward the stadium in the distance.  His eyes sparkle with youthful excitement. “What better time for the Garrison’s students to show off not just their piloting ability, but their strength and agility too?  I’m glad you invited us, Aki. I didn’t think you’d want to go.”

“Yeah...”  Aki sighs. “Strength and agility aren’t really my thing...  And I mean,” his eyes flick over to Keith’s. “...I didn’t really think you guys would be interested either.”

“Keith used to love to run.  He was fast ,” Shiro says as they hear Lance calling them in the distance.  They start following the gang out to the stadiums. “Remember when you used to pole vault?  You’d just shoot up into the air like a piece of popcorn.”

Keith laughs at the visual.  “Hell, yeah. I loved sneaking out after class and racing down the hallways to find you before someone else could snatch you away.  That’s how I learned to be fast.”

Shiro snorts.  “I would’ve waited for you if I had known.”

“But pole vaulting and training together,  it was just between you and me, not an audience, and we were just messing around.  It was different than this.”

Shiro shrugs.  “You still did it.  You ran right into it.”

“I was trying to impress you.  Looks like it worked, though,” Keith snorts at the twinkling in Shiro’s eyes.  He nudges him with his elbow, almost embarrassed. Shiro nudges back.

Aki snorts, watching both of them with amusement and a hint of exasperated grudging.

Keith smiles back at him.  “Surprised you’re not with Griffin.  How long have you two been dating anyway?”

“Who says we’re dating?”

“Well, you’re always together.  You have your own secret language and everything.”

“Secret language?  No, we don’t.”

“Yeah, you do.  How you can understand each other’s looks without words.  Like a language of...” He trails off as he thinks.

Shiro snorts.  “You were going to say ‘language of love’, weren’t you?”

Keith laughs and groans.  “No! Well, maybe?”

Aki frowns at the both of them.  “Okay. No, no, no, no, no. Griffin and I keep silent discussion to a normal level.  It’s the both of you who communicate more through glances than actual dialogue.”

Keith and Shiro arch an eyebrow at each other in confusion.

Aki chokes, holding his hands out at both of them.  “Like right now !  Literally right now!”

“Oh.”  They laugh, twinkle in their eyes, weaving their hands together and pulling each other close to give the other a soft kiss.

“Ugh,” Aki sighs as he rolls his eyes, he turns his vision from them to frown ahead.  They’re out of the parking lot and into the field now, where the track stretches long and wide.  Everyone’s so serious, stretching and warming up. Aki’s in slip-on sandals. “Everyone got the memo that we’re not going to be doing anything, right?  Just enjoying the festivities in the air and stuff? Because I don’t think you really understand, the first time I tried to pole vault, I almost died .  Even the teachers stop me when it’s my turn.  They’re scared I’ll hurt myself.”

Shiro chuckles.  “Good thing we’re not pole vaulting then.”

“Or running, right?  I’m not any better at it than I am pole vaulting.  You remember a few years back when you thought I was being bullied because I came back home with my nose all bloody and swollen?  That was me tripping during P.E. I never intended on coming to one of these god awful events, but...Griffin thinks this is important family time that we can ‘never get back’ or whatever, so...” He pats his hands to his pants.  “Her dad’s really excited you’re coming though. Griffin said when she told him, his face lit up. Has a bit of a crush on you or something,” he laughs, looking to Keith.

Shiro frowns a little.  “I’m sure it’s not that.”

Keith snorts.  “God. He’s kidding , Shiro.  You know how he and I were at the Garrison.”

Aki asks curiously, “How?”

Shiro grumbles, “Yeah, but you saw the way he was always watching you after we got back to Earth.  It was weird...”

Keith keeps laughing.  “I swear to you it’s just an old rivalry thing.  Sort of like when we were first in the simulator and we were both dying for your attention.  I thought he was going to kill me when you started showing interest in me over him.”

“Wait, what?”  Aki asks.

Shiro rolls his eyes.  “You didn’t seem that interested back then.”

“No?  Ending up in juvenile hall was because I was completely uninterested in getting your attention?”

Juvenile hall?”   Aki chokes.  “What? You? What happened?  What did Griffin’s dad do ?”

“Oh.  No. It wasn’t James,” Keith says in surprise.  Aki really doesn’t know this story? “Your school hasn’t told you?”

No .  Not that I’ve heard at least.  They’re too busy kissing your feet and talking about your golden mullet.”

“Okay, Lance .  Well, when I stole Shiro’s vehicle -”

“You what ?”

Shiro laughs lowly under his breath as Aki looks between the both of them through suspicious narrowed eyes, like they might be playing a prank on him.

“Are you being serious?  I can’t tell.”

Keith rubs at the back of his scalp.  “Uh. Well, when I first met your dad, I -”

“-Guys!”  Hunk calls from up ahead, slapping the bleacher seats in the front.  They’re crowded already. One of the few last seats left and they got here a half hour early too.  “Hurry! People keep eyeing the seats. I can’t hold them anymore.”

Keith looks over at where Hunk is madly gesturing his arms.  He is pulled out of his safe little family bubble and into the real world.

...Ugh, right, there are so many people.  So many rowdy people.  Maybe this wasn’t the best idea.  He looks to his left, where the track is and the nice rich green field in between.  He wishes he could just lie there instead, but that’s not where all the families are.  He looks back to the bleachers. ...So many loud screaming people.

Lance is looking over.  He pats the space beside him, gesturing them forward.  Pidge starts hollering his name and it draws his spine up tightly.

Keith’s been here before, looking at this crowd of people in Aki’s school...and it didn’t work out.  It was the start of this. But he survived it all. He knows the depths of himself better now. ...Let this be the end of it.

This is the world they’re diving back into.  He’s got to get used to it somehow.

Shiro’s hand is back on Keith’s back, not pushing, just providing support, waiting for Keith’s cue.  It’s got to be now, before he gives himself too long to think about it.

Now.

They climb the bleachers, Keith steadies his breath as he tries to remind himself this is normal , that he’s normal and that none of these people bother him.  That this doesn’t remind him of Aki’s taiko performance, breathing the same school air, the warm sunlit scenery.  He tries not to think about how there was not a metal detector for everyone coming through.  That anyone can be armed with anything. He squishes that thought out before it can form roots, but he feels it at the corner of his mind, squirming to find life.

Keith scoots in beside Lance and Shiro takes the seat beside him.  They’re fairly close to the stairs, so if he needs to run, he can. He quietly assesses their surroundings...just in case, to make it easier if something were to happen.  All the trash bins that could be holding something.  All the exits. The best defense positions. The routes people would probably take, the areas that might get clogged and populated first.

Normal, normal, he’s totally normal.

“Hey, if it isn’t my favorite power family,”  Pidge hums, sliding across the bleachers behind them and leaning on Keith’s head with her elbows.  “What a perfect place for me to sit. There’s a huge guy in my way over there. You’re nice and short.”

“Oh, yeah?  Not delicate and small though,” Keith snorts, raising an eyebrow at her.

She flicks his nose.

Aki leans forward, looking around Shiro to Keith.  “Wait. What’d you mean earlier? Juvie? Like...legit jail?”

Keith mutters, distracted, “Um.  Is juvie legit jail?”

“Did someone say jail?”  Lance leans into Keith’s side, using Keith’s shoulder as his arm rest.  “I went to jail once. It was for a field trip though. I bet Keith’s gone to jaaaaiiilll,”  he sings to Keith. He points to Keith’s face. “You can see it in his eyes .”

“We never saw Keith go to jail in the Garrison, though,” Pidge says.

“Hm.  True. It would’ve had to have been when you were like...two because I knew you at the Garrison and I don’t remember anyone coming to pick you up.  What’d you do as a two-year-old?”

“Fuck off,” Keith shrugs him off in irritation.  “Two-year-olds don’t go to jail .  It’s juvie .  It’s different .”

“What sort of thing can a two-year-old do to go to juvie , grammar police?”

“That is not grammar.  Open a textbook.”

“Open your brain .”

“Keith.  Lance. Come on,” Shiro grumbles through exasperation.  “Do I have to separate you two?”

Yes ,” Keith says.

Lance snorts and rolls his eyes.  “ Oh, Keith.   You just wouldn’t be you without your snark.”

Keith crawls over Shiro’s lap and sits between him and Aki.

Lance groans, “ Keith , buddy, come on, it’s a compliment .”

“Cool.  I’m still sitting over here.”

Pidge scoots to follow him over, repositioning herself on Keith’s head like a hat.

Aki watches on in amusement.  “Were they always like this?” He asks Shiro, jerking a thumb to Keith.  “How did they get along in Voltron?”

“How indeed?”  Shiro laughs, giving both Keith and Lance an amused look.  “If you’d believe it, Lance actually takes things seriously if the situation calls for it and Keith knows when to prioritize and be patient.  They make a surprisingly good team.”

Pidge snorts, pulling out a bag of candy and propping it on Keith’s head as she pops them into her mouth.  “You mean you were there to separate them.”  She accidentally drops a few pieces, but Keith catches them, so she lets them go.

Keith snorts as he munches on the stray pieces.  “Ha. Anyway, as I was saying,” Keith turns back to Aki.  He thinks twice and offers up a piece of his found treasure.  Aki chuckles and takes one.  He asked Keith a question and Keith’s determined to make today count, to change things, to open up a bit more.  He’s going to answer this question dammit, he’s going to listen to Shiro’s advice. “Things were different when I was younger.  On the day your dad and I met -”

The mic clicks on and the announcer’s voice blares through the stadium.

Keith groans.  The world is testing him.  He mouths to Aki’s curious face, “ Tell you later .”

Aki nods, trying to settle into listening to the announcer, but it’s just a kid, probably someone Aki knows, and he starts droning on and on.  Bored, Aki twists around, eyes scanning over the stadium. When he spots his target, he brightens, waving high into the air, and she screams over the stadium.  “ Akihiro !”

Keith doesn’t miss how several students turn to give Aki peeved looks at that, but Aki seems used to it, totally honed in on her and nothing else.

“I’m going to go talk with her for a second,” Aki says.  “That okay?”

“Yeah, sure, go for it.”

They begin the races, bits of the crowd disengaging from the bleachers and lining up on the track below, but it’s for the younger classes and Keith recognizes very few people, so he doesn’t bother feigning attention.

Someone bumps him from behind as they get up to slip through the small aisles.  Keith jolts, repeating that mantra in his head: it’s okay, everything’s fine, everything’s normal, you’re okay.

Pidge leans forward onto his shoulder and says, “So, I heard you found a little surprise the other day?”

“Oh, god,” Keith laughs softly, turning his attention back on her.  “I already told you all of this. You just like rubbing salt in the wound, don’t you?  You’re evil, pure evil.”

She shrugs, no remorse.  “I like to see the haunted look in your eyes, and also, I wanted Lance to hear the drama.”

“Not Lance,” Keith groans.  “Keep your voice down.”

Lance slides beside Pidge, gathering as if summoned.  “Did someone say drama ?”

Pidge grins impishly, “Guess who caught you-know-who doing you-know-what on their couch?”

Oh-ho .”  Lance giggles into his hand, knees coming up to cross them.  He turns back to look at Griffin and Aki chatting away, completely, blissfully unaware of this horrible conversation.  “Wow. So our little Aki becomes a man .  You okay, buddy?”

“Okay,” Keith grunts.  “Pidge said it wrong. You’re making it sound like...like they were...going at it or something.”  Keith leans his face into his hands. “Oh, god. Imagine if he got her pregnant at this age... He’s still basically just a baby himself.”

“Keith, sixteen isn’t that young,” Shiro reminds him gently as he keeps patting him on the thigh.  “Lots of teens at that age begin to experiment. It’s completely natural. He’s a smart boy, we don’t have to worry.”

“Yeah, Keith,” Lance says.  “Can’t you remember being that age?  I’m sure you were off doing way worse things.”

Keith tosses him a dirty dark grudging look and grumbles between his hands, “I didn’t have my first kiss until I was like...twenty-four.”

Lance chokes, grabbing at his chest.  “ What ?”

“Leave it,” Keith grumbles, scooting further from Lance and closer into Shiro’s side.

“You didn’t have your first kiss until you were how old? ”  Lance has grown in many ways, but in this way, he has not.  He tosses his head back, grabs at his stomach tightly, and scream-laughs.

Hunk and Allura, deep in conversation, both break off mid-sentence to arch over curious eyebrows.  People nearby who are not close friends by a longshot are starting to get curious.

Keith flares red as he cringes in agony.  “ Shut up .  Tell the whole world, why don’t you?  I didn’t want anyone else beside Shiro.  You know that! There was no point getting close to anyone else.  Disgusting. Shut up. Stop laughing.”

“Aki’s almost eight years younger.”

“What does that matter!  Shiro never minded! He’s fine with it!”

“Come on, guys,” Shiro hums, trying to reel Keith back in.  “Stop teasing him.”

Pidge snorts, watching Keith take a swat at Lance.  “You’re so innocent, Keith. I still remember your face when I told you I was pregnant.  Like you never considered the thought.”

“I hadn’t .  And like you’re one to talk!”

She laughs again.  “Shh. Wish I could’ve seen your face when you walked in on them.  ‘Kissing? Wow, what’s that?’”

Keith groans, leaning back and fanning himself.  “You guys suck .  Every single one of you.  Besides Shiro.’”

Shiro smiles wearily, rubbing Keith’s thigh comfortingly.

Keith ignores Pidge and Lance’s false laughter-laced apologies and looks up the bleachers toward Griffin, but it’s just her and her family.  Aki’s no longer there. He turns to Shiro who nods toward the school.

“I think he went to the bathroom,” Shiro says.  “I thought I saw him run past really quickly, probably before his class starts their races.”

“Or maybe to hide from it since it’s starting,” Keith laughs softly.

“I honestly wouldn’t be totally surprised.”

“No, me neither,” Keith snorts.  He looks back over to the bathrooms, pursing his lips.  Aki’s safe. This is a school - his school - and going to the bathroom is completely normal.  But he bounces his leg, unable to mesh with Shiro and Pidge’s conversation.

“Are you mad at me?”  Pidge asks, clasping her hands together in a prayer pose.  “I wasn’t serious. You know I’m like the last person to judge.”

“Nah, but I think I’m going to use the bathroom really quickly.”

“Want me to come with you?”  Shiro searches Keith’s face for discomfort.

“I know where it is,” he gives Shiro a cheeky little smile, who snorts and gives Keith’s hand a squeeze before letting go.

Okay.  It’s only a few feet away, but let this be as a test: Keith’s first (?) time on his own, in a public place, pretending to be normal for the first time since his breakdown.  Detached from the safety of Shiro’s side, Keith slips into unknown waters cautiously, carefully going around people who turn as they recognize him, who look like they’ll approach.

And even if Keith knows they probably aren’t enemies, the way they lock on when they see him still sends his spine tightening.

That’s the worst part.  It’s already hard enough navigating through a crowd, but the flickers of recognition, the way attention pulls at him.

Shiro would make this better.  He’d make this easier, as he does all things.  But Keith can’t keep depending on him for everything.  Keith inhales deeply through his nose, holds his breath for a moment, and then slowly lets it out through his mouth.

He’s safe.  He’s happy. He’s with friends and family.

...He needs to stay focused on what’s important.

Three things he appreciates.  Shiro. Aki. The Garrison.

His thoughts calm.  He takes in another deep breath, feels as it settles him back to earth.

Shiro.  Aki. The Garrison.

...Good.  He’s good.

Keith knows Aki well enough to know he probably didn’t use the bathroom near the field.  There’s one nearby, in the quad, so Keith makes his way there. Keith’s been here a million times when he used this section of the Garrison as a boy - through these halls, across these cement pavements - but he slows as he takes in the sight of the new structure.  He somehow hadn’t expected it. It towers in the center of the quad, surrounded by carefully planted flowers, trees, and shrubbery.

It’s him.

Well, a carefully depicted stone carving of him, standing tall and proud in the dead center of this open quiet space.  Light shines in right on the figure of him and this Keith looks confident. This Keith looks powerful.

He swallows hard, taking a few steps closer to look.

Is that marble?  It's so smooth, like milk.  The statue is surprisingly clean of graffiti.  That open blank surface is just begging to be spray painted.  No one has, though. And somehow, it's just like the Keith he was in his youth.  That quiet daring spark in his eyes, the small telling smile on his lips. His hands are planted firmly onto his hips as he steps up toward a new day.  They really captured the feel of who everyone thought he was back at that age.

But he’s not anymore.

What if they all knew?  The him he really is, now, right in this moment.  Would the white of this marble be covered in angry hate speech?  Would people laugh at the hypocrisy of it all, of this shining being immortalizing Keith , who, in actuality, is just another lost soul, just like the rest of them.

This statue isn’t him.  Maybe, once upon a time, he had been closer to someone like this, someone who was so steady and certain that the future could be as calm and serene as a glass lake.  But it isn’t really. The waters are choppy and rough. There’s a current beneath the depths that will pull anyone under who gets close. The future is dark. But it’s all relative, he supposes.  Darker than a reign beneath Zarkon’s heel? ...Maybe not. But it could be better. It always could be better.

All these little pressures in Keith’s mind that this statue-Keith would never think about.  Keith misses being him. And he thinks he gets it, being Aki and having to walk past this statue that just oozes of lies, knowing how weak Keith is in reality, how people worship someone who doesn’t even exist.  No wonder why he’s been angry. Thinking back to Aki’s bright pink little cheeks and bright eyes, how he had worn a shirt of Keith the first day of school and held it out proudly...the disappointment when he realized the truth.

The disappointment people would feel if they all realized...

Keith lets a sigh whisper from his lips as he stares up at that youthful face.  It’s true what they say: youth really is wasted on the young. If he had known back then what he’d be now...he probably wouldn’t have believed it.

Who is he anymore...?  A husband. A friend. ...A father...if Aki would give him that chance and Keith would actually succeed .

But beyond all that, deep in his core...who is he ?  He doesn’t know the answer.  He’s not even sure if he understands the question in its whole.  If he looks in the mirror, who is it he sees? Did he ever used to know?  Will he ever again?

...Shiro will start to worry if he takes too long.  He can think of all of this any time of the day or night, and though the quiet of this quad, away from the crowd, is nice, he really should be getting back.

But first, the bathroom.

He pulls himself away from the statue and pushes open the bathroom door.  Everything’s smaller than he remembers - the quad, the benches, even the door - which is kind of funny.  He hasn’t actually grown that much, has he? Or maybe he has. At least something’s changed for the better since then.

Aki’s inside, leaning against the wall and looking down into his phone.  He flicks his gaze up uninterestedly and then does a double take as he sees who it is.

“Oh.  Hi,” he murmurs, lowering his phone from his face.

“Hi.  What are you doing in here?”  There’s no line, there’s no one else in here, just the two of them standing awkwardly in a bathroom together.

Aki clears his throat and shrugs.  “Kinda loud out there. Just taking a moment for myself.  You too?”

“Ah... Yeah.”  Keith would know all about that one.  “I was sort of looking for you, wondering where you went.  I saw Griffin up there but not you, so...”

“Sorry.  I should’ve said something, I guess.”

He can’t criticize.  It’s not like Keith never disappears without a word.

Aki licks his lips.  “Um... Are you doing okay here?  You look okay, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.  Looks like it takes you suddenly.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, it’s fine.  It’s a little uncomfortable, but I can handle it.”

“Good,” Aki murmurs.

They both stand there for an uncomfortable moment, Keith bobbing his head, listening to the sound of the leaking urinal, before he steps around Aki to use the bathroom.  The urinals are all out of order - this bathroom is off in the middle of nowhere, so no one cares about them apparently - but the stall is fine.

“I think I’m going to head back,” Aki says as Keith closes the stall door.

“See you out there.”

The bathroom door opens and Keith assumes that it’s Aki until he hears the sound of a stumble.  Keith’s about to ask if he’s alright when he hears a voice.

“Oh.  It’s you .”

Keith stills.  The tone of the newcomer’s voice is a familiar sound: some teen filled with loathing, biting and slippery.  Red flags immediately go up in Keith’s head. The voice is too dark and bitter to be anything but trouble. But, for once within these walls of the Garrison, the voice isn’t directed at him.

The voice is aimed at Aki.

“I knew you’d do this eventually.  Disgusting. Couldn’t wait to have your daddies come so you could show them off to everyone.  ‘Oooh, look who I’m related to’. Because you can’t get anyone else to look at you unless you’re dangling that in front of everyone’s faces, isn’t that it?  You’re pathetic.”

The boy waits, laughing softly under his breath.

There’s no response though.  No rebuttal.

The nasty kid keeps going, advancing on Aki, who shrinks away until he hits the stall door that Keith occupies.  Keith can hardly see through the crack.

The boy sneers in his nasty tone, “Is that how you got Griffin?  Daddies set it all up for you, little itty baby Aki-kins? You know they’re the only reason she would even think to look at you, right?  And the only reason you’re in the Garrison, too. Like you’d be able to actually make it in here on your own.  They’re the only reason for everything you have. The way you pilot - or don’t - and with your brains - or utter lack of them?”

Keith’s blood is boiling.  He doesn’t know how Aki can just stand there and take this, but he’s two seconds from pushing the door open and giving this little shit a piece of his mind.  ...But Aki’s hand holds firm through the crack, intention clear. Aki’s telling Keith no. And how embarrassing would it be to have the very person you’re being mocked about swoop in to come to your aid?  It feels wrong though, so wrong, just standing here and doing nothing. But Keith grits his teeth, hands clenched, the angry woosh of blood in his ears almost overpowering all other sound. It takes all he has to stay put and listen.

“You don’t belong here.  Just because your dads walked these halls doesn’t mean you deserve to, you’re public school trash.  And now you think you can win out there in the relay races? You think you deserve a trophy from the Garrison ?  You must be joking.  Even with the leader of Voltron and the Admiral on your side, you’d mess it all up for them, embarrass them.  You should just get out of here. You should just leave .  They’re better off without you, just like everyone else.  I doubt either of your dads have even noticed you’re gone.  They don’t need you -”

Keith can’t take it anymore.  He takes a step forward. He’ll push Aki’s whole body off this door if he has to, when Aki whispers, soft and gentle - just the opposite of what Keith’s feeling - “Don’t”.

Is Aki talking to him?

What did you just say to me?”  The boy asks lowly.

Keith can hear Aki’s breath from here, labored and quick.  He’s panicking. His hand clenches and his feet pull together like he’s trying to back further into the door.

“I’m not worried about you winning that race,” the boy whispers, leaning over Aki, getting into his face.  “Because I know you’re not capable of it, even with your dads pretending to be on your side...just because they pity you.”

He slams the palm of his hand on the door and then Keith hears footsteps recede as he walks away.

The bathroom door closes.  Keith presses his lips together tightly for a moment as he tries to put himself in Aki’s shoes.  What would he be feeling right now? How should Keith proceed? He’s just angry right now.  Angry to the tips of his fingers and the soles of his feet.  He used to hate bullies like that, was disgusted at the confrontation of it all, for what , but he would take them going after him over Aki any day.  This hurts so much worse.

“Aki,” Keith whispers and Aki finally pulls himself away from the stall door and takes a few steps into the center of the room.

Keith quietly slips out.   “Are you okay?” He asks.

Aki rubs at his arm harshly and sniffs even harsher.  His eyes are full of conflict and his cheeks are splotched with red as he blinks his eyes down.  “I didn’t need your help...” He says lowly. “I had it all under control.”

Keith sighs, patting at his pockets as he scrounges around for something to say.  “Who was he?”

Aki’s mouth remains tightly sealed.

“Does he always do this...?”  Keith asks, trying to be as gentle as he can be.  He looks at Aki’s face, at the way Aki looks away and down, like he’s ashamed.  Like he was the one who was being horrible, and not that boy.

“For how long...?” Keith asks.

He squirms more than he had with that little shit for a kid and Keith suddenly feels like he’s the bully cornering Aki.  Tears start to form in Aki’s eyes beneath Keith’s gaze. A small roll of the shoulders that is possibly a shrug. He sniffs again.

“Why haven’t you said anything?” Keith murmurs.

Aki rocks slightly, turning his eyes to his shoes as he rubs his hand across his face.

“Have you asked someone for help?  Does he ever hurt you?”

“I’m not a snitch .”

“Look, Aki, if someone is treating you that way, it’s not being a snitch.  It’s cleaning this place up from pieces of shit like them. I know it’s hard, but the best thing to do is to go get help.   Just like lately, with all these hostage situations on the news; what’s the first thing Dad told you to do?”

“This is a little different.”

“Aki, I’m just saying...  You don’t have to handle this burden all on your own; there’s power in numbers.  You go get help. You don’t deserve to be treated this way, and he shouldn’t be getting away with it.  It’s okay to ask for help.”

“No.  You don’t get it.  I don’t need help ,” Aki hisses.  He grits at his teeth so hard that Keith can hear it from here.

“It’s okay to need help, Aki...”

“No, it’s not ,” he growls.  He pushes at Keith hard.  “I’m fine !  I had it under control.”

Keith barely budges.  He’s getting more confused by the second.  “...Then why didn’t you defend yourself?”

God .”  Aki’s eyes shoot up to his viciously as he chews out through harsh words. “I guess it’s because I’m a coward , Keith.  Something you wouldn’t be able to understand.”

“Don’t,” Keith says wearily, grabbing Aki’s hand as he goes to push at Keith again.  “I’ve been there. I’ve done my time in the Garrison as a cadet, I get it.”

“No.  You don’t.  You don’t get it .  You never get it...  You’ve been here, in my place, but the game was different for you than it is for me.  Okay? People don’t like me here.  They hate me .  Everyone hates me .”

“Aki, that can’t be true...  Griffin likes you. I know she does.”

“She’s the only one...”  He grudges out lowly, still looking at his feet.

He shouldn’t have told Shiro to stay, if Shiro were here, he could help Aki .  What does Shiro always say?  Let him in .  So Keith tries.  “Look, people didn’t like me either.  I had my fair share of fights -”

“Yeah, right ,” Aki sighs heavily.  He crosses his arms tightly to his chest and Keith’s reminded of when he was a toddler, closing himself off, pouting in a corner, not open to a thing anyone had to say.

Keith sighs.  He knows it’s over.

“Can I go?”  Aki asks, eyebrows raised as he rubs at his face again.  “Or are you going to tell me another lie to try to pretend I’m not as big of a loser as I am?”

“...You’re not a loser.  All those things he said -”

Can I go, Keith?

Keith's stomach sinks like an anchor.  Failed.

Aki tosses one more peeved look at Keith before taking the matter into his own hands and dodging around him to make his way out.

In the midst of the bathroom door swinging shut, Keith takes a moment to gather himself.  It still stings hearing Aki call him by his name like that. It’s a refusal of his role to Aki.  It’s detaching himself from him. It’s rejection.

He feels that dark sticky familiar feeling creeping up in his gut and his head.

No, no, no, no.  Not this time. Not again.

He quickly uses the bathroom, washes his hands, and gets out of there, walking faster than his thoughts.

He does a self-assessment on the way back, hearing the growing roar of the stadium as he gets closer.

He watches the distance warily.  He’s jittery again. A little knocked off balance again.  He sort of guessed Aki had problems like this...it’s harder to see than he thought it’d be, like watching Aki sitting alone by a tree while others played without him those years ago, only escalated.

Keith went through it.  Keith hated it. He drowned in it.  But Aki has something Keith never did: he has parents.  That’s got to mean something...right? Maybe? How can Keith make this better for Aki than it had been for him?

As Keith reaches the stadium and walks up the grey bleachers, he sees two additions next to Shiro.  One’s Aki, arms crossed tightly around his stomach like he’s going to be sick, grudging eyes snapping up to Keith’s and then away just as quickly.  And then there’s Iverson, talking with his hands, like he’s trying to drive a point in. When he notices Keith approaching, Shiro smiles warmly and says something to Iverson, who frowns unhappily.

“Iverson, what are you doing here?”  Keith asks as they exchange places.

“I basically live here, Kogane, or have you forgotten?  Nice to see you out and enjoying the festivities. Win a race or two.”

“Mm,” Keith nods as he takes his seat beside Shiro.  He watches Iverson walk off.

“Took you awhile,” Shiro hums.  “You okay?”

Keith heaves a sigh, looking over at Aki, who shrugs away.  “I guess.”

“You guess?”

“We’ll talk about it later.  I’m fine. It’s not me.”

Aki’s back tenses even more.

Keith asks, “What did Iverson want?”

“Oh, just work stuff.  Nothing interesting.”

Keith watches Shiro’s face, the way he’s carefully holding his expression.  “Huh.”

“Yeah.  Yup.”

What a bad liar.  Keith sighs. Sitting between one very upset angry boy and a husband who’s afraid to tell him the truth.  Nice.

“Aki!”  Griffin yells through the crowd, jumping up and down on the bleachers.  “Aki, hey !  Check your phone!”

Aki tosses a frown at her and goes back to sulking.

But Keith sees what he knows Aki’s picking up on.  A group of boys to the side, glowering at him, snickering under their breaths as they lean in to shit talk him.  What the hell?

Is this what Aki has to go through at school?  Aki, the sweet boy who used to laugh and grin and scream, innocent until he’s tossed around harshly enough that he hardens.

Something sick and protective triggers in Keith’s gut.  He hears them jeering. His temper isn’t going to make it but he needs to get it together before it pops.

What would his father have done?  What would his mom do? ...He’s not sure.  They’re far more level-headed than he is.

What would Keith do...?  The Keith he was?  Maybe he’s not so sure of that either...  Maybe he would’ve just gone up and beat the shit out of them.

But he knows what he wants to do, whoever he is.  It’s blaring red in his mind.

He can’t get those shits' voices out of his head.  Can’t stop seeing the way Aki’s fists are clenching, how he willfully pretends not to hear it.  It’s too much, echoing like a tunnel in Keith’s head.

Aki’s hurting and Keith will be damned if he sits here and does nothing.

“That’s it,” Keith says sharply.  “We’re racing.”

Shiro and Aki both blink over at him.

What ?”  Shiro says in surprise and Aki chokes in dismay.

“Did we really just come here to watch?  We could have fun. And wouldn’t it be cool to win?”  He asks, looking to Aki meaningfully.

Aki stares up at him, so many different emotions on his face.  “What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t get a chance to see his face in the bathroom, but he’s one of those up there, isn’t he?  You don’t have to sit there and take it,” Keith says lowly, trying to keep his words firm. He stares into Aki’s eyes, into that molten gold that stares back in incredulity.  “We’ve got your back.”

“Who?”  Shiro asks.

“Just some jerk,” Aki says lowly as he thinks hard.  He settles on, “I’m not good. We won’t win.”

“We don’t need to.”

“No.  No, no, this isn’t like a ‘oh, we probably won’t win’, and then suddenly we will and like, have some weird celebratory party with confetti and everything.  This isn’t going to end up some sort of success story. I mean it .  I suck .  But if it’s just you two, it’s different.  You guys win .  It’s what you do .  I’m not going out there humiliating the both of you.  Do you know how much worse that’ll actually make things?”

“ -You won’t humiliate us, Aki,” Keith says.

“If we lose -”

Keith waves a hand.  “Then it’s just a silly game.  You can’t keep focusing on that.  Nothing important will be lost if we lose, but we will have an experience gained.  Okay?”

“Ugh, god.”  Aki rolls his head forward and rubs at the back of his neck.  “That’s so...generic. You really believe that?” Aki grudges.  “Your therapist told you that, didn’t they?”

“Yeah, actually.  And maybe it’s generic, but it can be true if we let it.”

Aki groans softly as he bites at his lip.  “Your therapist said that too, didn’t they?”

Keith laughs softly under his breath.  “Yeah. You and I both actually kind of had the same sort of reaction to it.  But I thought about it and realized maybe they were right.”

Aki looks to Shiro and then to Keith.  Hesitates some more. “What if he wins...?  What if we lose ?  Won’t that be embarrassing?”

“The only way he wins is if he stops us from doing something we want to do.  We don’t need some dust collector trophy. But I know I’d like to run with the both of you...  It could be fun. What do you say?”

Shiro’s smiling quietly, excitement behind his eyes that he’s trying to contain.  Keith sees the ‘yes’ that’s already there.

It’s just Aki with a speck of apprehension as he scans over the track below.

“...Well,” he says softly, looking back to both parents.  “Griffin and her dad did want to race against us.  He was practicing and everything.  So...okay,” he grumbles and there’s a tiny spark in his eyes, a small little flame.  “And in the meantime, we won’t let that jerk get to us. Win or lose.”

“Hell yeah.”  Keith grins back, sparkling.  He can’t believe Aki agreed. The sun is bright and victorious out here, the colors are saturated in all the right ways.  Color bleeds back into his life for a moment, in the way things had been years ago, before all this. Keith takes in a deep breath of it, feeling magical.  Maybe it’s just for a moment before the clouds cover over their heads again, but it’s a moment he’d love to bottle up and keep. “Cool...”

Shiro’s smiling happily at the both of them.  He loves this sort of thing. “Let’s do this.”

“I’ll go tell Griffin and sign us up,” Aki says and there’s excitement there in his eyes but he hesitates suddenly, remembering himself.  “...You sure you’ll be alright?” He asks Keith. “You know when they announce it’s you going down there, everyone’s going to go crazy...”

Keith can’t think about that.  His doctor told him that a person can only have one thought in their head at a time, so he chooses to let it be this one: the feeling here, with his family.  Today is important. It was hanging on a balance and he’s trying so hard to turn it around. He nods firmly. “I can do this.”

Aki watches him for another moment, like he’s trying to scour out some secret truth.  He nods and runs up to Griffin, who runs up to the announcer box, who shouts through the mic, “Breaking news!  Breaking news! We have some exciting competitors joining us today. I bet never in your lifetime did you think you’d be seeing this: Team Voltron will be running the relay!  That’s right! Team Voltron! Can you believe it, everyone? They’ve agreed to a race! And the relay, no less!”

The roar in the stadium is sudden.  And deafening. Very, very deafening.

And that’s when Keith feels his first real rush of anxiety creep up his stomach.  The first in awhile, at least.

He swallows hard, grabs Shiro’s hand, who smiles back at him.  “You can do this,” Shiro says firmly and Keith can see the total and complete faith for him that Shiro has in his eyes.  “ We can do this.  Us. Together. I think it’ll really be good for both you and Aki...for all of us.”

“Me too,” Keith breathes.

“Hey, uh, Keith?”  Lance calls. “What the fuck?”

“Yeah, what the actual fuck, Keith,” Pidge says in panic over Lance’s head.  “ Team Voltron ?  They just mean you guys, right?  I don’t have a cadet going here. Well, not really, I mean.”

“You’re not part of Voltron anymore?”  Shiro asks.

Everyone in the crowd is screaming and cheering.  “VOLTRON! VOLTRON! VOLTRON! VOLTRON!”

Keith doesn’t try to respond to them; he focuses on breathing, slow and steady.

Aki appears beside him, making him jump.  “Holy cow,” Aki murmurs, looking up at everyone from Keith’s perspective.  “It’s a lot.”

“It’s a lot,” Keith agrees distantly, but he doesn’t think anyone can hear him over the roar of the people pounding into his skull.

He thought he could do this, but that was a few seconds ago, when things were different, things were calmer.  He knew that the energy would change and he had hoped he could endure it. He hopes he can endure it.

“Hey, Aki!”  Lance cups his hands around his mouth and shouts.  “Did you do this?”

Aki leans around Keith and Shiro.  “What, afraid of a little race, Uncle Lance?  Are you really getting that old?” Aki snorts, grinning wide.

“Who?  Me? Afraid?  I’m younger than your dads, you know!  Prepare to taste my pain!”

Keith thinks for a moment that thunder is starting to pound through the sky, but it isn’t.  It seems like the entire school is pounding through feet into the metal bleachers, rumbling the entire field with the vibrations of heavy metallic sound.  It sounds angry. He’s got to get some distance between them. He uses Aki as support to get himself off his seat and out of there. He keeps his hand on Aki’s shoulder, who must sense his tension because he actually allows it, leading them out and down the stadium’s steps.  When their feet touch dirt, it’s somehow easier.

The rumbling begins to match to a beat.  Their cheering for Voltron changes: “Keith Kogane!  Keith Kogane! Keith Kogane! Keith Kogane!”

And the announcer is building it up.  “It’s him, guys! The fastest man in our world - no ! In the universe!  The one, the only, Keith Kogane!”

The crowd goes wild with his name shouted from their cores.

He flicks his eyes up toward the crowd nervously.

And though god knows he’s tried to suppress it, he starts thinking about it.

Who.  The hell.  Is he.

He is not the “one and only” Keith Kogane.  The Keith who saved the universe, the statue Keith who glimmers in the glittering sunlight.  That Keith is gone. The pressure that they’re putting on his shoulders belongs to someone who doesn’t even exist anymore.  The Keith he is now can’t bear the burden of this weight.

The fastest...

“I-I don’t run like I used to,” he babbles to Shiro.  He realizes, way too late for it now, “I don’t even remember the last time I ran.  I probably can’t do it.”

“Last week, Keith.  We went together, remember?  You’ll be fine. It’s just for fun, like you told Aki.”

“R-right.”

Aki says, “And don’t worry.  I haven’t ran since...ever. So you’re ahead of me.”

Keith swallows hard and looks around.  There’s Pidge, Matt, and Sam gearing for battle and stretching (though Pidge is giving Aki the stink eye as she does it, who laughs in the face of it).  Lance, Allura, and one twin are on another team, while Hunk and Shay share the other. They giggle as they separate, as rare of a phenomenon as it is. Griffin gears up with her parents (James gives a quick wave).  There are a few other families too, but Keith doesn’t recognize them. The track is full.

“Is he here?”  Is what Keith asks.

Aki looks over.  “...Yeah... His dad looks just as awful as him, honestly.  I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

One of the instructors approaches them to the side and holds out a handful of headbands on display.  “Choose a color?” They ask.

“Go ahead, Aki,” Shiro nods him forward.

“Wow, this is nice,” he murmurs between them.  “I don’t usually get to choose first.”

“What do you usually choose?”

“Uh.  The bench,” he laughs beneath his breath.  He purses his lips as he looks over the variety of colors, carefully choosing the red and passing Keith and Shiro’s over.

“Fitting,” the instructor says and Aki lets out a resigned sigh.  The instructor gestures them at the starting lines. “We need everyone to settle their order and get into position and then we can start.”

“Come on, team,” Shiro grins brightly, gesturing them into his arms after he secures his headband on tightly.  Keith snorts as he takes Shiro’s enthusiasm in. God, it reminds him of their Garrison and Voltron days, Shiro at the helm of their tight knit team, breathing easily, enjoying the camaraderie.  Keith gives in in the face of it. They huddle.

“How are you doing, Keith?”

Keith bites at his lip.  “...Don’t want to think about it.  Tell us the order.”

“Okay,” Shiro murmurs lowly as he looks back and forth between them slyly, like he’s dishing out intense family secrets.  “How’s this sound: I’ll go first. Then...Keith, you go second, and Aki, you go third.”

“Wait, wait, wait, why do I have to go last?  Everyone’s going to depend on me then.”

“Because we are depending on you,” Shiro gives him a gentle bump with his head.  He’s loving this. “You can do it. I believe in you. I feel it in my bones.”

Aki narrows his eyes at him suspiciously, but the smile he tries to hide is pleased.

Shiro looks to Keith.  “How do you feel about running second?  We’ll be your bumpers.”

Keith forces out a small laugh.  “Actually, it’s cozy just like this, in here.  Think we can just stay in this formation? Hiding away forever?”

Shiro does a half-shrug.  “I like it.”

Aki snorts and rolls his eyes.  “I can smell your sweat .”

“It’s hot out here,” Keith defends on a grumble.

“It is,” Shiro hums with sympathy.  “...You okay, Keith?”

He clears his throat and thinks about it.  People are congregating to the front of the bleachers, pushing and leaning over the front just to get a better look at all of them, like some funky specimen stuck to a petri dish, expected to look a certain rare way.  “It’s...intensifying.”

“It is.”

He clears his throat and ignores the tightness pulling in his gut.  “I think...for this one race, it’ll be okay. ...I want to do this.”

“Me too,” Aki says and they both blink over in pleasant surprise.  The sunlight is sneaking through their huddle and shining on Aki’s face.  Keith can see those warm freckles from where he is, close, like they trust each other.

“Me too,” Shiro agrees happily.  He spreads his hand out in between the three of them.  “Okay, everyone, hands in.”

“Shiro...”  Keith laughs softly.  “You’ve missed this, haven’t you?”

“Haven’t you? ”  Shiro asks with a cocked eyebrow and a glittering smile.  He nods toward his hand, looking over the two expectantly.

“This is the cringiest corniest thing I’ve ever done,” Aki complains, but he still joins them as they put their hands on top of the other in a star formation, all meeting in the center, all halfway, all together.

“Alright,” Shiro says.  “On the count of three: one, two -”

“Go, team!”  They shout in unison, tossing their hands up into the air, sunlight running off the length of their arms through the broken up shadows.

“You guys are dorks !”  Pidge shouts over at them.

“It was Dad’s idea!” Aki protests.

“How am I not surprised?”

“It boosts morale, Pidge.  You should try it sometime.  See you guys out there,” Shiro pats Keith on the back in encouragement one last time before he and Aki move to their positions.  Keith catches Shiro’s wrist quickly.

He takes a deep breath, looking over at the stadium as Shiro waits beside him.  He swallows hard. “How disappointed would they be, do you think...if they found out who I really was?”

Shiro watches him for a moment before he leans in, slipping an arm over his shoulders and pulling him in close. He always smells so good and comforting and today, without the stiffness of their Garrison uniforms and in their casual wear, he looks especially soft.  He whispers into Keith’s ear, “To the people who matter? Not at all.”

As he pulls away, Shiro smiles down at him with that spark of pride in his eyes.  “Okay?”

Keith nods quickly.  “Okay.”

Okay.  Yeah. They can do this.  They can definitely do this.  Old memories are stirring in the sleeping parts of his memory, how, when he was younger, before all this, he hadn’t even liked these sort of events even then.  Even stronger, as he was. More stable, as he was.

Well, now’s the time for change.

The announcer is booming through the field over the energetic hype of the crowd.  “Ladies and gentlemen, the moment is here! We have the Paladins of Voltron geared up for our final race of the evening, the one and only relay race, family against family, trusting their own kin to pass on the baton to the other without fail.  Can our paladins do it here, on their home soil where they were born and raised?

“Starting off, they don’t have a cadet currently, but can’t have a Voltron race without them, we have the Holts, people!  That includes our legendary tech genius, the brightest tech guru of our time, the green paladin, Pidge Gunderson !”  Everyone cheers and Pidge jumps up and down, getting wrapped up in the excitement, waving and sparkling.

They go through everyone’s names, introducing each of them like this is some sort of show - which, he supposes, it kind of is - as Keith fidgets.

Damn.  He closes his eyes and tries to shake himself loose.  He wishes they could just get to it. Just do the damn race.  Making a big deal like this... He sees Aki waiting on the other side of the track, picking at his fingernails as he waits antsily.  When their eyes meet, they seem to realize the other’s distress. Somehow, sharing that allows them to settle.

But Keith still worries at his lip.

“And last, but certainly not least, the family who led a revolution.  My friends, we have the very man in charge of the ATLAS, who was responsible for leading us all in the great war, the former Black Paladin, the Admiral Takashi Shirogane!”

People scream.  In the face of it, Shiro does not waver.  He is sturdy, like a boulder. Keith watches his back as he lifts his arm and waves, how proudly he can stand in the face of this energy and weight.  Amazing.

Keith tenses because he knows what’s next.  He thinks he’s going to puke. In contrast to Shiro, Keith is huddled protectively over his core, crossing his arms over his stomach tightly.

“And now, the one you’ve all been waiting for, it is the hero of our time, the very one who bridged the divide between humanity and Galra, he crossed the universe to defeat evil and restore peace.  He even saved his own husband from death several times over in the process. Can you think of a more well-known hero? It’s our beloved former red paladin, the fastest man in the universe, the head of Voltron, the light who led the way, it’s the one, the only, Keith Kogane !”

It sounds like a fucking bomb goes off.  It makes nature’s thunderous power feel weak.  The field shakes .

He used to be used to this sort of thing, but now, he shakes down to his core, and he can’t tell if it’s him or the crowd pounding on the bleachers that sends his teeth chattering.

But no one else has to see that.  He lifts his hand and waves. Maybe he’s not strong like Shiro, but he does his best, strong in the best way he can be, trying to breathe out the energy.

And thank god that’s it.  Everyone settles and focuses into their spots.  The man with the starting gun comes out, shifts as he readies himself.

They’re still chanting Keith’s name, pounding their feet into the bleachers with each rumble of it.  Keith, Keith, Keith, Keith!

He grits his teeth and focuses.

Their running order is a little weird, but Shiro chose it this way for a reason, Keith knows it.  The anchor leg is usually given to the fastest runner in a relay and by giving it to Aki, they put their full trust in him.  The second fastest should be going first, and that might’ve been a good choice for Keith, but probably not anymore.  That’s not the point. People expect Keith to be the fastest.  For him to be in the center will appear odd.

But Keith is in the middle for a reason.  A little Keith sandwich, support on both ends.  Maybe he looks bad... Maybe Shiro picked up on something.  It doesn’t matter. Keith knows what he said about winning not being the point, and what Aki said about there being no ‘miraculous win’ on the horizon for them.  But imagine if they actually did win.  Aki running the anchor leg.  That shit kid seeing Aki can do it.  And doing something together, as a family, victorious.

Griffin stands beside him, bouncing on her heels and grinning over at him.

“Hi, Mr. Kogane,” she says.  “You’re not the slowest.”

“Hey.  I might be.”

She laughs.  “I’ve seen Aki ‘run’.  I’m not the slowest either, but I thought Aki would be here, so.”

“Oh.  Sorry.”

“Nope.  No. It’s good.  I think he needs this, feeling needed.  It’ll make him happy.”

Keith gives her a long gaze.  What she knows...

Aki needs this.  Keith wants this win, he really does.  They’re already handing Shiro the baton.  Keith tugs on his headband again as he watches Shiro get into position.

The gun is lifted into the air, Keith braces himself against the sound, and the shot cracks through the sound of the crowd.

Shiro sprints forward like the shot fired, as elegant and powerful as always, feet pounding into the track, red headband flitting through the wind.  He’s so steady and firm, already pulling away from the rest of the group, little by little. That is Keith’s Shiro. Indeed, the one, the only. He’s never wavered.

Keith can hear Lance screaming Allura’s name from behind him, hooting and hollering from the final position, jumping in the air.  “That’s my girl! Look at her, look at her, that’s my wife .”  He can hear the twin on Hunk’s team groaning, “Shay, the butterfly is not important, focus on the race!”

And then Shiro’s approaching and time is slipping and sound distorts.

Keith, Keith, Keith, Keith.

They’re cheering for a ghost.

Keith bites his lip, trying to force his breath to steady, but it’s getting thinner, growing shorter.  He wipes away the sweat and gets into position, touching his fingers to dirt. He clenches his eyes shut and tries to heave in a large breath, heave it out.  Come on, Keith, come on, Keith.

He takes off.  It’s just running.  All he has to do is stay in the lines, reach Aki, hand the baton over.  Three simple things. Run. Lines. Aki.

Run.  Lines.  Aki.

He knows Shiro’s close.  He spreads his palm, feels that baton pressed into his hand, and starts chanting in his head again.

Simple.

Run.  Lines.  Aki.

He really gives it his all.  He can’t hear the roar of his name or the expectations screeched into the air.  He can’t feel the vibration of the stadium pounding through the earth, reaching him, even from this distance.

Keith, they cheer for.

But Keith’s gone.  All that’s left is the great mystery that haunts him, the little hairs sticking up on the back of his neck: who is Keith Kogane?

Who is he?  The fastest human on the planet...?  In the universe...? No. That’s not him.  It’s not. These people have all been fooled, cheering for him and it feels like a lie.  They cry his name and he wants to apologize.

I’m not who you wish I was .  He’s letting everyone down.

He’s letting Aki down.  This race isn’t going to solve anything.  The kids at the Garrison still hate Aki because they think having parents like Keith and Shiro means his life can’t have struggle.  But Keith is not perfect.  Keith is air.  He is water. He is malleable and changeable into so many different things, but they just can’t see it...

He can’t breathe...  The air pierces into his lungs and it burns down into his gut and his legs begin to pull, heavy.  It’s too heavy.

Shit, shit, shit.

His throat is closing up.  His gasps for breath get him nothing.

He can’t do it.  He can’t do it. He can’t.

His footsteps slow and the track reaches up for him.  He shoves his hands on his hips and then they slip down to his thighs as he leans over, trying to get air in his lungs.  The race is a distant thought.

No.  They’ve lost.  Keith knows it.  It wasn’t about winning .  Only, it kind of was.  He wanted to win a bit of Aki’s heart back, help him get back more of that confidence he used to exude.  He wanted Aki to be able to smile about something with him like he does with Griffin, for him to feel more right about living in this family, to feel like he has a place with them, that he’s not a mistake, that they’re all in this together.

Keith heaves, coughing harshly.  So many things he wanted...but he just gave them all up.  Now they’re forfeited, scattered to the wind. Just so he can stand here rooted to the spot like an idiot.

One step forward...for several stumbles back.  He’s stuck in the mud.

Shit, this is bad.  He feels it like the ocean swelling at his feet again, reaching up to pull him under.  Not again. He can’t do this again.

Three things.  He needs his three things.  He needs to find his balance, his good in this world.  Shiro, sunlight...

His mind slows, stuck in the mud.

Shit.  Three things.  Simple. Three.  Just three. He can do this.

One: Shiro.

Two: Uh...  Sun...?

Three: ...Three...three....

There’s Shiro.  There’s sunlight.  There’s...Shiro.

There’s...

Shiro .

Just Shiro.

Shiro.

There’s movement behind him.  A hand touches his. His mind quiets.

It’s warm and comforting, wrapping around Keith’s as they shake.  They gently slip the baton from his hold, relinquishing its weight from him.

Keith softens to it.  He knew he’d come, like he always does.  This comforting presence that smells soft and comforting like home.  His breath bucks in his chest.

“Breathe,” they says softly.

Keith freezes, his eyes fluttering open.  The voice doesn’t belong to who Keith thought it would.

The voice belongs to Aki.

Aki leans forward, propping Keith up by the shoulder.  They lock eyes. “It’s okay,” Aki says firmly. “Don’t make that face.  I told you we wouldn’t win anyway, not with me racing, so you don’t have to worry about that.  ...Are you okay?”

Keith clears his throat and tries to nod, but he’s still breathless and his throat is suddenly impossibly dry.  He pushes his weight off his knees and struggles to stand tall.

“I ruined it -” Keith whispers into his palm.

“There wasn’t anything to ruin.”

He feels his stomach clench when he notices movement around them: the others have stopped for him too.  All of the paladins, the twins, even the Griffins are hesitating, all watching with concern on their faces.  They have the batons in their hands but they’re walking the wrong way, toward Keith.

He presses his lips together tightly against the emotion that wells in him.  The feeling in his gut is sticky and uncomfortable, he’s stopped everyone for nothing.  “No. Guys,” he says, shushing them away with his arms. “Go. Race. I’m fine. What are you doing?”

“Waiting for you, jerk, what do you think?”  Lance says, bopping him gently on the head with the baton as he gets there.

“You okay?”  Pidge asks, eyes full of concern.

Keith nods quickly, continuing to gesture them away.  “It’s a race! A race .  You’ve all lost.”

“Told you we would,” Aki hums.

Keith sees Shiro running up to them from his peripheral.

“Go,” he pushes the rest of them and steps toward Shiro.

Pidge shrugs.  “I didn’t even want to race.  I was just doing it because you guys were all doing it.”

“We don’t need a trophy, Keith,” Allura hums.  “We’re a family. All of us.”

“No.  I’m fine .  Don’t let me ruin this.”

“Nuh-uh, buddy,” Hunk says, “We’re all making it through this finish line.”

“That is not how this race works!”  Keith protests. “It’s a relay!”  His eyes flick over to the crowd’s reaction, who are all craning their necks, looking for injury, and murmuring with a low uneasy buzz.  Some of the instructors are already coming over, gesturing the medical staff over.

This is embarrassing...  Later, when his thoughts settle, maybe even humiliating.  He knows the whole damn Garrison is going to be talking about it.  He groans internally. This is so bad...

He puts his hand on Shiro’s arm and turns him.  “Let’s go back...” But Lance stops him.

“Not taking ‘no’ for an answer, buddy,” Hunk steps forward, hands out for Keith like he’s going to lift him.

Keith backs up, hands up, but he bumps into Matt.  “Hey. Whoa. What are you doing?”

Lance points threateningly.  “Either all of us cross that finish line or none of us.  Isn’t that what you used to say?”

No , I never used to say that.  This is a relay! It’s a relay !  This doesn’t make any sense!”

Even Allura is grinning.  “Come on, Keith.  It’s symbolic. All of us as a team again.”

“I’m fine, guys!  We don’t need to -  Oof!” Hunk tosses Keith up into the air and everyone holds him up together, bearing all his weight.  “You guys ,” he wails in confusion, not exactly sure where he stands or not.  He’s being tossed up into the air like a rag doll by his friends. Keith blinks around for help, but all he sees is Shiro and Aki down below, grinning and laughing.

“You traitor,” Keith points.

Shiro shines like the sun, grabbing onto his pointed finger and massaging his hand.

Keith laughs and it’s a little winded and unhinged, but he’s somehow okay like this.  And some might think being tossed up into the arms and dragged across a finish line in broad daylight in front of a stadium full of local families would be... a lot .  And it is.  His whole being is full - his heart, his mind, his soul.  But the brunt of it is light.

Where he failed and stumbled, his friends lifted him up.  And isn’t that how these past few years have been...?

He loves them.  He does.

Every night, before bed, Keith usually lies awake for awhile, struggling to pull his thoughts together to think of three solid things he’s grateful for.

Tonight, it’ll be easy.  Shiro, Aki, and his friends.

 

“Did you see the look on his face?”  Aki asks. They’re walking home. Everyone’s sweaty and dirty and Keith doesn’t want to be crammed in a car with all of them again.  Griffin lives the other way, so Lance’s little van would have to include Aki this time too and... No. Just. No.

And Keith has a bounce in his step and a twinkle in his eye and home isn’t too far away, so they take to the sidewalks and slowly make their way home, enjoying the scenery.

“Whose face?”  Shiro asks. “Keith’s?”

“No, no.  That jerk from school.  The one from the bathroom.”  Keith had told Shiro earlier what had happened.  “His parents and him didn’t stop when everyone else did, they went straight for that finish line.  When they turned around and saw everyone else had stopped, they threw their baton to the floor in anger.”  Aki laughs.

Shiro tsks.  “Wow. They sound nice.”

“Always have been.  ...He’s the same one from years ago, who tossed my backpack in the creek that one time.”

Keith is quiet.  “...From that long ago?  He’s been bullying you for that long?”

“...I’m an easy target, I guess.”

Keith and Shiro share a long look as Aki walks ahead.  He hops onto a wall divider and unsteadily tries his way across.

Before either of them come up with something to say to him, Aki says gently, “I had fun today though.  I didn’t think it would be. Griffin always goes on and on about how she loves them and I didn’t believe her.  But...I’m happy we went. Are you guys?”  When he turns, he looks at Keith.

Keith smiles softly and nods.  “I had a good time too.”

“So we kind of did win, if we go by what your therapist said.  So...that’s cool.”

“Yeah.  It is.”

“Today was a big step,” Shiro says, bumping his shoulder into Keith’s.  “But you handled it like a pro. ...I’m proud of you. Of both of you. You both really went out of your comfort zones today...and you won.  Today’s a special day.”

“Today is a special day,” Keith echoes, looking up to the sky.  Afternoon is stretching into evening and the warm rich hues of the sky are spilling out over the trees around them and the heated pavement beneath their feet.  They should walk more often, Keith thinks. Take Kosmo out with them together, as a family.

They truly feel like a family today.  For the first time in so long. And Keith wants to hold onto this moment.  He knows what a gift it is.

Shiro gently brushes Keith’s hair away from his face as they lose Aki to cell phone land.  He leans in to press a kiss to his cheek. “I’m so impressed by you. More and more each day.”

Keith allows himself a moment to glow victoriously, basking in this feeling that’s become unfamiliar and new.  “I was a little worried for awhile, but...I’m really happy it worked out. For all of us. I think it’s a really good thing.”

“You’re glowing,” Shiro hums, eyes softening as he gently runs the backs of his fingers against Keith’s cheeks.  His eyes are filled with so much warmth and fondness.

Keith hasn’t felt his secure in a long time and he thinks it means something.  He’s ready to take another big step. It’s something he’s been thinking about, but now, he’s sure.  He cracks his mouth open and licks his lips. “...Shiro?”

“Hm?”

“...Take the job.”

Shiro freezes, blinking.  “Wh-what...? What job?”

“Shiro, you’re a horrible liar.  I could see right through you the entire time.  ...Did you want it?”

“The job?  To Charon?” He says it in a tone like he thinks Keith’s crazy, but Keith knows he’s not.

“...Yeah.”

Shiro doesn’t reply at first.  He seems to seriously consider it, looking out toward the open plains.  “I...”

Keith can hear the tightness in his voice, the hesitance that will make him say no. Keith beats him to it, “...Take it.  I know you. I know how much you miss space.  Do you know how I know? Because I miss it too.  And the way you stare out the window at night when you think I’m asleep.  The look on your face... I...I’m not ready to go yet, but soon .  Go.  I’ll stay with Aki.  Everything will be fine.  Go for the both of us...”

Shiro hesitates.  They turn onto their street that's quiet and sleepy.  Their house isn't too far away, nestled at the end of the court.  “...You’ve been doing so well. There’s no reason to push it.  There are so many other missions I can take when you’re ready, it doesn’t have to be this one.”

“I am ready.  I feel ready.  Shiro. I’m so incredibly grateful to you.  You saved my life again this time, I know it.  I wouldn’t have been able to get through this if you hadn’t been at my side, here for me in everything.

“But...something’s been bothering me lately.  And tonight, when they were all out there, cheering my name...  I’m not that Keith anymore, the one they all think they know. I’m not fucking PTSD Keith either.  I’m...just me. But...who is ‘me’? Who am I ?”  He swallows hard, looking up into the sky, at the stars that are starting to pierce through red.  “You’re always there for me, guiding me, helping me, but...I need to know I can stand on my own two feet too.  I can’t always use you as a crutch or as a buffer.”

“I don’t mind -”

“I know you don’t.  But it’s not about that.  I want to stand beside you , not cling to your shins while you keep the both of us afloat.

“One weekend,” Keith holds up a finger.  “You can see space again, I can get to know me again.  Our family will be here if I need help and you’ll still be in the galaxy.  It takes minutes to fly back from Charon.  It’s the perfect situation to test the waters.”

Shiro still hesitates as he continues running his thumb over the soft skin of Keith’s hand.  He draws in a shaky breath as he thinks. "It only takes minutes with the Lions."

"Our technology isn't so bad...not with Pidge and Matt at the helm."

“...I-I know, I just...we’re never apart. I never go anywhere without you.”

Keith chuckles softly.  “Have we really grown that dependent on each other?  ...I think this is my next step.”

“You did a great job this time, Keith,” Shiro hums.

“...Thanks, Shiro.”

“You know I trust you.  Your intuition has always been second to none and if you feel right about this, then it is right.  I have faith in you, Keith.”  He nods again, to himself. “...Okay.  Alright. Tomorrow, I’ll tell Iverson that I’m taking the mission.  But I want something in return.” Shiro points to Keith’s nose, eyes serious.

“Anything.”

“When I get back, I want extra cuddle time.”

Keith laughs, squeezing Shiro’s hand tightly.  “Deal.”

“I mean not just in bed, but a movie night with extra cuddles.  I mean extra .”

“Mm.  Getting greedy?”

“Maybe a little,” Shiro chuckles under his breath as he scoots closer to Keith, holding him to his chest tightly.  “But I get that way with my Keith. ...I can’t wait to see what you do next.”

Keith leans up and hums into Shiro’s warmth, cheek against cheek.  “You too, Shiro. I don’t want to hold you back from doing all the amazing things I know you can.  I don’t want to force you to be earthbound.”

“You’re not forcing me.  I want to be beside you.”

“I know that, Shiro.  Me too. I love you.”

“I love you .”

“I bet that I love you more.”

“Don’t play this game with me, mister.  Because I think we both know -”

“Oh, my god ,” Aki interjects loudly.  “I’m still right here.  This is too much!  For the love of god .”

Keith rocks back down to his heels and they laugh softly under their breath, leaning their heads into the other.  They’re home.

He had been a little nervous, he had been taking a risk when he left this house earlier, but today, it paid off.  And Keith feels on top of the world.

 

So Keith goes to work for the first time the next week.  He rubs at his eyes as Shiro slips out of bed and he assesses himself.  His stomach is settled. His mind is clear. There’s no strange fluttering of his heart, just a slow even rhythm.  He feels so golden and steady and secure and good and...wow, he would be a fool to pass the opportunity up.  Maybe going to work will steady him even more, give him the boost to let go of any fear still holding deep in his muscles.

It’s exciting.  He’s just getting reacclimated to the place and there isn’t exactly much work for him yet, but still.  He stops by Pidge’s sector, hums happily into all the computer mumbo jumbo she shows him. “See this? This means something !”  She says, bright eyed with excitement as she jabs her finger into text Keith doesn’t understand.  He snorts with fondness as he leans comfortably onto his hand and, as she catches that look, her face softens too.  “Welcome back...”

He even stops by Lance’s classroom for lunch.  He and Shiro sit around his desk as Lance complains about all his shitty students and the few good ones.  The twins and Allura come in soon after, also in their instructor gear. They blink in surprise at the sight of Keith back so soon.  They make a party out of it.

But it’s in Shiro’s office later that they have the most fun; they lock the door and shut the blinds, taking a private moment for themselves.

After, Shiro laughs with a small groan as he shifts his pants lazily up his hips.  They don’t quite make it back to where they’re supposed to be, but that’s okay. Keith crawls from the floor and lays out over his lap, cuddling onto Shiro’s chest.

“So, tomorrow, I leave,” Shiro hums, running his hand through Keith’s hair.

Keith purrs beneath the feeling.  “Does that mean you want to continue what we were just doing?”

Shiro snorts.  “You’ll have to give me a moment.  I’m not that young anymore.”

“Okay, old timer,” Keith laughs softly under his breath, patting his chest.  "Wanna make a bet."

Shiro keeps playing with Keith’s hair, wrapping it around his finger for an impromptu curl.  “Will you be alright?” Shiro murmurs. He furrows his brow as he repositions his neck and stares up at the ceiling.  “I feel good about it, but anything I can do to make it easier?”

“Kiss me again,” Keith commands, rolling onto his belly so he can seek out Shiro’s mouth.

Shiro complies, humming into the kiss with his soft grace, putting his sturdy hands on Keith’s hips.  “...I haven’t gotten any work done.”

Keith laughs against his mouth.  He sees Shiro’s already getting stirred up again, so Keith buttons his pants back up and buckles his belt before either get tempted.  “Okay, okay. I guess I’ll share you with your work. For now. But tonight, you’re mine.”

Shiro groans lowly.  “...Good.”

Keith pulls himself up onto the desk, swinging his legs off of it and looking down at the mess spread across Shiro’s desk.  He spots the family portrait Shiro has of all of them, front and center. It feels like they just took that photo, but already, it’s a few years old.  “We really need to get a new one of these,” Keith says, nodding toward it.

Shiro laughs.  “Aki cringes every time he sees it.  Look at those braces.”

Keith chuckles as he leans toward it.  “He looks cute.”

“He doesn’t seem to appreciate it.  Okay, get off. I need to work.” He says that, but he wraps his arm around Keith’s waist and rests his head on his side.

Keith twists and looks down at all the paperwork.  “Let me help. What can I do?”

“It’s your first day back.  You don’t need to do anything.”

“I want to.  Let me make up for distracting you.”

“Mm...”  Shiro reaches for a folder that has confidential stamped over the front of it.  “In the mood for a walk to the Iverson’s?  I was supposed to hand these over after lunch, but...well, as you can see, never got around to it.”

Keith snorts and takes the folder off of Shiro’s hands, hopping off the desk.  “Done. I think I’m going to head home after this. I already finished what I was supposed to for the day.”

“I don’t have much left either.  I’ll be home soon.”

Keith leans down to kiss his cheek.  “Love you.” And then he’s on his way to Iverson’s.

The Garrison is a big place and Iverson’s office happens to be on the other end of the building.  He passes a lot of people on the way there, which is something he hadn’t wanted. But Keith plays nice and nods and thanks people as they welcome him back or mention how great it is to see him returning.  He tries to think of each interaction as a small amount of added experience gained. But he gets tired of it really quickly. He starts taking weird round-about ways to get to Iverson’s to avoid the main population.  He should’ve worn a disguise.

When he finally gets there, Iverson’s not even there.  It’s just some assistant who tells Keith that Iverson’s with an instructor.  Keith sighs. Of course he is right in the heart of the academic section of the Garrison.

That means cadets in the halls then.  Cadets who probably saw the relay race.  Great. He wishes Kosmo were here. Teleporting would get him there really quick.

But if Aki can deal with it, then so can he.  He still takes the less conspicuous routes though.

He’s thinking of maybe stopping by that restaurant Shiro likes for dinner - do they do extra extra cheese? - when he hears the sound of a commotion.  Keith knows what the sounds of a fight are, the heavy thud of flesh against bone, the bang of a wobbling locker.

He sighs.  Seriously...?  On his first day back...  He’s had to break up a few fights in the past and he’s hated it every single time.  He feels so hypocritical, seeing as he was the fire once himself.

But he can’t let a person get hurt so he hurries down the hallways, getting his angry face ready...when he sees something that makes him stop.

It is not just a little fight.

He’s not entirely surprised to find that boy in the relay race from the day before, face pinched.  And he’s not even totally surprised to see Aki there too, even though his stomach sinks with dread.

What he is surprised about is that the blood pooling on the ground isn’t coming from Aki.  Aki’s fist are red though. They’re already purpling around the knuckles with bruises.  Keith draws in a sharp breath.

“Say it again!”  Aki’s screaming, sprawled out on top of the boy.  “You ignorant asshole! Say one more bad thing about him again and I’ll -”  He lifts his fist.

Aki !”  Keith cries, jumping forward and grabbing onto his fist before he can send it crashing down.  He pulls Aki away.

Aki squawks, slipping in the blood on the ground immediately losing his balance.

He chokes in horror as his head whips up.  His eyes go wide as saucers. “... Dad ?”

“What are you doing?”  Keith whispers. “What are you doing ?”

“He-!  I-!”

“Are you hurt?”  He asks Aki.

“I...”

Are you hurt ?”

“No.”

“Oh, shit,”  Keith breathes as he goes around Aki to kneel beside the boy, making sure he’s still fucking conscious.  The boy’s nose is already swollen like a balloon and he has two black eyes. God, this is bad. “Stay still.  We’ll get you a medic.”

Aki sputters, tossing his hands at the bloodied pulp on the ground.  “But-but he started it!

“Well, you sure as hell finished it .  What were you thinking ?  Aki!”  Keith cries in distress.  Aki really did this? The same Aki who used to laugh and make soapy mohawks in the bathroom.  The Aki who used to cling to Keith’s legs as a baby and laugh and squeal. “How the hell did you do this?  I thought you didn’t fight .”

“...Aunt Pidge has been teaching me self defense recently...”  Now he’s shouting, tossing his hand angrily at Keith. “Why are you mad?  You’re the one who told me to stand up for myself!  To not just sit here and take it!”

“I told you to get help !  Not bash their face into a bloody pulp!  Aki, what the fuck !  What the fuck are we going to do?  Oh, god. Go .  Go get help.”

But the boy grabs Keith’s wrist before Aki can leave.  “No! Wait! You don’t have to say anything,” the boy mumbles around a mouthful of blood as he tries and fails to drag himself into a sitting position.  He spits a mouthful of red on the ground so he can speak. “I’ll just go home. I’ll tell my parents I got mugged. You don’t have to tell anyone.”

“I can’t do that,” Keith grits through between his teeth.

Aki says, “He wants you to -”

“Stop -”

“-I’ll get in trouble!”

“Akihiro ,” Keith cuts him off.  He puts his head in his hand, shaking his head heavily.  He knows what will happen to Aki if he does this. He knows .  But...  “God... Listen to me.  I’d get an instructor myself, but I can’t trust you with this boy right now.  I need you to go .”

The look in Aki’s eyes...  It’s a live wire, burning with betrayal and hatred.  With one sharp shake of his head, Aki turns on his heel and runs, feet striking through the halls.

Keith lets out a soft sigh, letting his eyes fall to the damage.  Whatever Pidge had taught him had worked. Aki can apparently hit hard .  Well, that’s one thing Aki inherited from Keith: his unbridled anger and rage.

The thing is though, the fights Keith got into with the other cadets had been minor, not like this.  The one time Keith drew this much blood, he was expelled and banned off the premises.

Keith knows what he has to do next and his gut sinks with premonition.  Why...? Why did it have to be him to find Aki like this...?

An instructor comes back and takes over, but Aki does not.

With a sigh, Keith hurries down the halls.  He sees him rounding a corner.

“Aki,” Keith calls.  “ Aki .”  He has to run to catch up.

Aki goes stiff.  He knows he can’t outrun Keith.  When Keith loops around him, he crosses his arms tightly over his chest and looks away.

Keith doesn’t even know what to say.  He struggles for words, but he pulls empty.

He starts at the beginning.  “What happened?”

Aki slides his jaw over and shrugs.

“Aki.”

“You don’t get it,” Aki whispers.  “I had to... He was being an asshole.  I couldn’t take it anymore.”

“I told you to get help , Aki...  Why would you...?”  Keith clears his throat as he feels it tightening.  He shoves his hands on his hips, slapping the folder Shiro had given him to his thigh.  “Shit. Shit .  You know we have to report this.  You don’t just get to go home.”

At that, Aki's face pales with shock.  He looks so lost suddenly.  So hurt and baffled.  “...You'd...turn me in?  But I... You know he’s been picking on me...  I just told you the other day. He started it. He always starts it.  I just want to go in peace.” His eyes start to rim with tears. “I would’ve never done this otherwise.  You know me.”

Keith’s heart tugs.  “Aki...I know.  But you can’t solve things this way.”

“I tried .  I tried to get him to leave me alone...  I tried to reason with him with words-!”

“I know you did...but then you hurt him, Aki.  Come on.  Let's go,” Keith says, nodding back from where they came.

Dad!   Please,” Aki whispers, brushing away the tears in his eyes.  He pulls on Keith’s sleeve before he can go. “...Please. What will happen?  Are they going to expel me?  Are they going to kick me out? Where will I go?! What will I do?! I’ve just finally started being okay with it here!  Griffin’s here!  My whole life is here!  I don’t want to go!”

The buzz in Keith’s skull is too much.  He hears Aki’s pleas piercing through his heart and he can’t take much more of it.  It feels like kicking a puppy.  “ Aki !”  Keith says sharply.  His voice rings through the hall.  “...Stop.  ...Just stop.  What you did was wrong.  I know why you did it and I don't blame you, Aki, I just...  We can't pretend and lie about this.  We have to tell Iverson.”

“But...  But you said...”  Betrayal is tying itself in knots in Aki’s face as hopelessness rises up in his expression.  “You said you’d have my back.”

Keith closes his eyes.  “This was not...” Keith whispers.  His throat closes up and he has to clear it.  His nose burns. “You were supposed to go to Iverson.”

And that’s exactly what they do, only in a different way.  A harder way.

When Keith knocks on the door, Iverson opens it in surprise.  “Kogane... What do you need?” His eyes stray to Aki. “What’s wrong?”

Keith shakes his head wearily.  “I bet people are coming to tell you right as we speak.  There’s a boy wounded in the hall, across from the Teacher’s Lounge.  I have an instructor dealing with it. It’s bad. We’ve called a medic.”

Iverson looks to Aki.  “Were you involved? Are you alright?”

Aki’s eyes drop.

Keith shifts and says lowly.  “...I caught Aki on top of him.”

A tight silence follows where they all just stand and let it sink in.  Even Iverson knew that Aki was as harmless as a lamb.  But that was maybe a long time ago.

Iverson nods his head slowly.  “I see.” He goes back into his office and grabs a chair from the side so there’s one for both Keith and Aki.  He pats the back.  “...Sit down.”

They do.  Aki won’t look at Keith.

“Well,” Iverson sighs as he takes a seat.  “Somehow, this is familiar scene, isn’t it, Kogane?”

Keith nods slightly.  It is. He feels fourteen again, when they sat him down and told him his world was crashing in and nothing would be the same.  He’s leading his son to this very spot, right off the edge of the cliff. Why? For justice? Is this the right thing to do? ...But he couldn’t just drive Aki home and pretend to forget about it.  He just couldn’t.

Iverson keeps his voice low and steady.  “So what happened?”

Aki shrugs, sniffing.

“I’m sure the other boy will have a lot to say about it...  Now’s your chance to defend yourself.”

When Aki says nothing, Iverson takes in a deep breath.  “Okay. Kogane. We take fighting very seriously in the Garrison, as you know.”

Keith shifts in his seat.  “Yes.”

“You know I’m fond of you both, but we need to keep things fair or else the Garrison just won’t work.”

“Yes...”

“What are the extent of the boy’s injuries?”

Keith takes in a deep breath.  He closes his eyes, feeling like he and Aki are on a pirate ship, far, far into the ocean.  Aki’s standing on the edge of the plank and Keith has his hand on his back, about to push him off.  He clears his throat. “I’m almost certain his nose is broken. It’s swollen to hell. I wouldn’t be surprised if his eye socket is fractured.  Maybe both. There’s a gash on his forehead. There’s blood everywhere. It’s bad...”

“I didn’t mean it,” Aki whispers.  “I didn’t know it’d be that bad...”

Iverson looks to Aki.  Assesses the way he is unharmed everywhere besides his fist that he used to punch with.  “Why?”

“...Does it matter why?  I’ve already done it.  I'm already going to get in trouble.”

“If he threatened you or tried to hurt you -”

“No.  He didn’t.”

“I see.”  Iverson sighs as he looks between the both of them heavily.  “...Kogane, you know that the Garrison and the world appreciates what you and Shirogane have done for the universe.  We always want to do what we can to repay you and because of this, we have been extremely lenient on your family.  But his grades aren’t good, Kogane. He sits out during training. He doesn’t try to integrate with the other cadets. He has no leadership qualities at all.  No ambition.”

Keith can see Aki tensing in his peripheral.

“If any other students were to attack another, especially to this degree...  Kogane, you, personally, know what would happen.”

Keith's voice is low as he nods slowly.  “Yes, sir.”

“I know you and your family has been going through some hard times lately.  It’s not easy, it affects everyone. But even with that, I just think...given everything that’s happened here since he began attending the Garrison years ago, he might just not be cut out for this place.”

Keith closes his eyes, nodding slowly, the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He thinks of how Griffin is here, the only person Aki can open up to. How Aki had wanted to be here when he was little, how it’s all he knows.

Keith was supposed to help him see it through.  That was his job as Aki's parent.  And here he is, in this spot, giving up Aki's future.

“This doesn’t have to be a bad thing...  Think of it as an opportunity. Akihiro, you’re not a bad kid, not by a long shot, and I know there’s a place out there just for you.  But I don’t think this is your niche. Your niche is out there, somewhere. Just not here. You hurt a fellow cadet today. Badly. We don’t accept violence like this, not even from someone like you.”  He takes a deep breath as he reaches into his cabinet and takes out a file. “I have to expel you. I’m sorry.”

Keith swallows hard.

Expelled.

Iverson’s eye is on Keith though.  He still has his eyepatch. The pain feels fresh again.  The day Keith was kicked out of the Garrison seems both so long ago and so recent.

This time, Keith nods.

Aki’s jaw clicks to a shut.  “My whole life’s here,” he says flatly.  “Everything I’ve done since now...it’s led here .”

“I know, son.”

“...I know I’m not a natural, but I’ve worked so hard.  You can’t just get rid of me after all the years I’ve put into this.”  He looks wildly to Keith for help and then back to Iverson. “It was one fight.  One fight .  It took maybe less than three minutes!  To derail ten years ?  Dad.  Please.  You know what that kid’s like!  You know how he treats me, you heard it just the other day!  You know why I did it!”

“...Aki,” Keith whispers.  He can’t feel his fingertips.

“This isn’t fair...”  Aki whispers. “He should be in trouble, not me.  This isn’t fair .  He’s made me miserable my whole life...and now he wins ?”

“Let’s face it, kid...  Him aside, there’s no reason for you to be in the Garrison.  You won’t ever be a pilot like either of your dads and that’s what the Garrison is for.  Find your passion out there in the world...and follow it.”

“I don’t have a passion,” Aki breathes wildly.  “This is it! This is supposed to be it!”

“You’ll find it.”

Aki’s harsh breaths cut through the silence of the office.  “There’s nothing I can do?” Aki looks between the both of them as he stands.  “This is it?”

Weight.  Immeasurable weight on Keith’s shoulders.  He’s never felt so guilty.

“Fine...” Aki whispers.  “ Fine .”

Aki runs out of the room and Keith’s shitty mind remembers the first time they came to the Garrison, how Aki’s eyes had lit up like stars as he saw the simulator.  How he wanted to be a natural, like Keith. How he wanted his place to be here, with his family. A perfect little Garrison family, like Lance and Allura and their twins.  Picture perfect. That’s never going to happen.

“Kogane,” Iverson calls as Keith numbly goes to follow.  Keith turns. Iverson’s face is gentle. “Remember how you left this office a few decades ago, expelled, just like Aki, feeling like the world was crashing around you.  You looked terrified. You said you had nothing left to lose. ...Look at how much you’ve built up in your life since then. This isn’t the end for him. Just the beginning.  Remember that.”

Keith drives him back home in silence.  He doesn’t know what to do or what to say.  Aki just fucking beat up a kid. But he’s also losing his future.  Keith’s been there, in both places, and he remembers how lost and ripped apart he had felt.  It hurts him to think Aki feels that too.

When they get home, Aki jerks the car door open and slams it so hard that the whole car shakes.

Keith waits inside in the car.  His fingertips are buzzing. He doesn’t know if he can even walk right now.  He hangs onto the steering wheel and watches as Aki goes up the porch steps and slams the front door too.

He feels that awful dread creeping back up on him.  He just waits in the driver’s seat, face in his hands, trying to breathe steadily, trying to pull himself together before the fallout.  Or is it already happening?

He doesn’t even remember to think of the three things he’s most grateful for.

He just sits there, miserable, not ready to progress in his thoughts with this.  He just...can't believe this is happening.  He lets himself sit for awhile longer to pull himself together until he finds the scraps of strength to get his achy bones into the house.  He expects Aki to be upstairs in his room, but he hasn’t made it there yet. He’s kneeling on the floor in the entryway, arms around Kosmo, petting his fur sadly as Kosmo laps up the tears on his face.

Keith softly closes the door and slowly undoes his shoes, taking his time.

Aki says lowly, “...What am I going to do now...?”  His voice is scratchy and rough with tears, but there's a tremor of fear there too, from seeing into the gaping wide unknown.  He's just a kid.  To see it and know it at such a young age...  It's cruel.  He's not equipped for this.

Carefully, Keith sets his shoes in even lines beneath the entryway side table.  He swallows hard.  “...Let’s talk with your dad when he gets home. We’ll have time to figure something out.  Everything will be fine.”

“...I know what I did was wrong,” Aki whispers, sniffing wetly.  He turns to look Keith over.  “...But you could’ve had my back! I thought, after the other day, that we were on the same team.”

Keith closes his eyes tightly.  He had a feeling this was coming and here it is.  “We are .”

“How so?  You brought me straight to Iverson!  You didn’t defend me at all when he said I was stupid and a loner and could never pilot like you.  He basically called me talentless!”

“He never said those things.”

“You agreed with him, didn’t you?  You think I’m all of those things. You think I’m worthless!”  Tears well up in Aki’s eyes.

“I would never think that.”

“Then tell me!  One thing! What’s my talent?”

Keith blinks, stomach twisting on the spot like this.  “Y-you...you’re kind. You’re honest -”

Aki tilts his head back and laughs bitterly.  He pushes himself to his feet so he can face Keith.  “‘Kind’? ‘Honest’? That’s just what people say then they have nothing else to say.”

“Do you think that boy who bullies you is kind or honest?”

“He doesn’t need to be.  He got into the top twenty on the sim the other day.  Everyone loves him, the instructors, the other cadets. His father thinks he’s the perfect son.  Bet you wish he were yours, don’t you?”

Keith’s face pulls tight.  The thought disgusts him.  “He treats you like shit.”

“Yeah?  No one cares about that.  Not even you. Just admit it.  I'm a mistake.  It was Dad who wanted a child in the beginning, not you.  And we both know you'd give Dad anything. You even supported him into space when you were scared of the unknown.  Isn't that the same with me?  He wanted a child, didn't he? So you gave him one...but it wasn’t the right one and you didn’t know it until now.  And now you're just stuck with me.”

Keith presses his lips together tightly.  His whole body shakes as he pushes words out.  “No. No .  I’ve never thought that.  Not any of that!”

Liar.   I see you staring at little kids sometimes and I know you think it...too bad you couldn’t have had a real baby.”

“What are you talking about?  You were a real baby.”

“You know what I mean!  A biological son!”

“Aki, stop!  That is not true!  You think you have me all figured out, but you don't.  Stop putting words in my mouth. You have no idea how I felt then or now.”

“I wonder why that is ?!  I ask!  I always have asked, but you just redirect me or flat out ignore it! You say it's to protect me, protect me from what? The fact you've never wanted me?!  Why else don’t you ever tell me anything? Because I’m not your son! You feel no connection to me! You don’t love me!”

“Listen to me, Aki!  Listen to what I’m saying.  Of course I love you!  I’m not lying to you! I never have!  Not about that!”

“Bullshit!  You're always so closed off from me and only me! You can talk to anyone else, but you can’t talk to me .  Why?”  He sobs.  “What did I do wrong?  I’ve tried to be what you want!  I’ve tried so fucking hard, but nothing ever changes.  You don’t ever look at me! I’m sorry! I’m sorry I’m not what you wanted!  I swear to god I tried. I swear.” He wipes at his face, his shoulders still shaking with his quiet sobs.

“That’s not...true...” Here he goes again, shouting into the abyss, words unheard.  He sees the despair eating Aki alive, and he knows that what Aki wants is just love and acceptance and Keith has it right here for him, but he can't reach him.  "Why can't you just believe me...?"

“You know," Aki says lowly, his voice breaking.  "I know I could never be the son that you want, and that kills me.  But maybe, sometimes, you're not the dad I want either...  All these years together and I feel like I don't even know you.”

Keith doesn’t even feel the tears rolling down his face.  All he can see is Aki and his pain, so big that it’s filling this entire room, pressing against the walls of this entire home.  “I’m sorry...”

“You love Dad.  I know it.  I see it everyday.  And you love Aunt Pidge too.  So I figured it out: you just took me from my real mom because you wanted to help her.  Not because you loved me. I always knew it, in a way. I always felt it .  It's like you've never known what to do with me since I'm just here.  Just taking up space in your home that was never meant for me.”  Aki’s cheeks are beginning to grow red, but instead of with anger, his eyes bloom with fresh tears.

“Hey,” Keith whispers.  “Aki...  I know how you feel...” He tries to step forward to put a hand on Aki’s shoulder, but he shrugs Keith away.

Through dark bitter eyes, he looks into Keith’s.  “No.  You don't.  Do you have any idea what it’s like having to live in your shadow constantly? You two are heroes.  You saved the galaxy. I see your fucking records set everywhere , plastered over everything!  I have to avoid your damn sections in the textbooks because it drives me insane .  Did you ever have to deal with that?

“As a child, everyone told me I’d be that good one day - everyone! - they told me that I could have everything if I set my mind to it, but it’s not true .  Everyone lied to me .  Did you have to deal with that?  No!  You didn't!  Because you got what you wanted in the end.

"Do you know what it’s like to slowly realize that everything people said of you is a lie ?  I’m shit at everything .  What do I have to offer?  What good qualities do I have?  I couldn’t have Aunt Pidge’s genius or Dad’s patience.  I couldn’t get Uncle Matt’s resourcefulness or Uncle Lance’s easy-going personality or Aunt Allura’s grace or Uncle Hunk’s kindness.  I had to be like you .  Angry and bitter and fucked up, like you.  I hate everything.  I'm scared of my own fucking shadow like you, I don't know how to get close to people like you, and I’m shit at socializing like you.  I’m fucked up!  Just. Like.  You.   All these fucking awful things I got from you!”  He presses a hand to his face and groans out his anger.  “God!” He sobs. His face is a watery mess, his nose running out of control.  “I couldn’t even get the good parts of you.  How can I compare to someone of your caliber?  I can’t fly, I can’t fight, I can’t study, I can’t focus.  People don’t like me like they like you. People don’t look at me like I’m a god like they do you.  No. I had to get all the bad parts of you."

He sniffs, running both hands over his face as he groans, the sound gritty and deep from the depths of his soul.  “God...  What does it matter?  None of this matters. Nothing.  I was flunking out of school anyway...  The teachers told me to give up. They'd look at me like I was privileged pond scum.  Yeah, I didn’t have the nerve to tell you and neither did they...  And it’s not because I didn’t fucking try, because I did .  I wanted it so fucking badly, to be like the both of you but I just...I just couldn’t fucking be good enough for that.  You don’t have to worry about my future after all. Won’t matter. ...Not that you should care. I’m not your real son, I’m just someone else’s regret.  Why would you love me?  Why would anyone?  I don't belong anywhere.”

“Aki...”  Holy shit.  Keith’s in shock.  This is everything he ever feared, right here, in front of his face, wilting.  In all of his own suffering he had no idea that Aki’s had grown to be this bad, this twisted and far from reality.  He’s staring at a mountain of it completely unprepared to scale it. He has no idea how to fix this. “I do...” He whispers around his tears, his voice breaking.  “I do love you.  You’re our son.  You're my son.”

“Don’t lie to me,” Aki spits.  “That’s how we got into this mess.  You and everyone else just won’t stop lying.  You have no idea how much it hurts.”

Keith shakes his head, trying to dislodge this feeling inside him.  How much he’s failed as a father. How each failure he’s ever made has only accumulated and accumulated and now it’s this .

“You know...you never asked.”

“...What?”  Keith breathes, eyes snapping up.

“What the fight was about.  You just assumed it was about nothing, right?”  Aki stares right through him.  He takes his glasses off and rubs at the lens. “He said you were an attention whore.  That he and his dad thought you were faking your injury at the race because you were too big of a coward to actually race against them. That you were just a phony and a fake who wanted the attention because you’re fading out of the public eye and feeling your mid-life crisis.  That you weren’t important anymore and the world could just throw you out like trash and no one would care. And I just...I got so fucking mad I couldn’t stand it. After all the work you’ve put in just to leave the house and how thoughtlessly people judge...  I thought you were doing it - at least partly- for me. Trying to be there for me...  That everything he said about you in the bathroom the other day was wrong... But I don’t know now. I don’t know. Remembering everything else about you...how you've never even tried to let me in once...how you close yourself off to me...no matter how hard I'd tried...  I think you’re just a coward after all. You can’t face me.  You don’t tell me anything. You’ve never loved me. You’ve never wanted me. And you have no idea how it feels to be this alone...this hated, every single day. I wish you had just let Aunt Pidge put me up for adoption so some random other family could wreck my life in some other way.  Not you.  I hate you.  I hate you.

Keith stops breathing.  He just stands there.  He has nothing else to say back.  Anything he tries to get into Aki’s head falls away.  It’s too late. His words are genuine.

Aki takes one last look at Keith, the ruthlessness in his eyes is so filled with hatred beyond his years.  Keith has failed him in so many ways. Aki turns and goes upstairs and Keith thinks, too late, to grab the banister and yell up to the second floor: “Wait!  Aki, wait !”

“GO FUCK YOURSELF,” Aki screams back.

And it feels like he can’t catch his breath for the rest of the night.

 

Keith has had a day.  He changes into his comfiest pajamas, gathers his pillow and blankets, pours himself some vodka, and cuddles into the corner of the couch as he turns on the TV.

He’s going to get his mind off of things.  He can’t take the way everything’s tumbling around inside of him, like coins in the dryer.  They’re so fucking loud in there. He doesn’t even have the strength to dredge up some positivity.  He’s too tired for thinking.

A movie maybe.  So he can zone out.  Or some show. He used to enjoy shows.  He used to laugh at them.

He turns on the TV...and sees the news.

He knows he shouldn’t, but he watches it.  In the time he spent on himself, healing, feeling like things were getting better...things in the world were just getting worse.

...More people are dying.  More Galra. The resistance is at an all-time high.  The world’s becoming more corrupt. Countries are growing further apart, everyone’s learning to hate the other, drawing assumptions they don’t investigate, hardening, hating, wilting, stereotyping.  And now, it’s on a universal scale. So the hatred can just grow and grow...and grow...and grow. Like some disease that people can’t see they’re infected with.  The world is so sick.  Its people are wilting.

It’s hitting Keith way too hard tonight.  Tears keep budding in his eyes and rolling down his cheeks.  He tilts his head back and rubs them away but they just come back with a vengeance. The world just seems like an inherently awful place.  He lies his head down on his pillow and cries, bringing the blanket to his chest as he dunks his head back for another drink.

Fuck.  Fuck .  He can’t stand feeling this way.  Things were getting better .  All this work he’s been doing was supposed to mean something, not crumble apart like dust and bring him back to square one.  And the world like this...always like this. He can’t do this work again. He can’t.  He doesn’t have the strength left, he expended it all on this one chance.

He sniffs, eyes tearing up again as he watches the horror that is the news.  He can’t take it anymore. He turns it. He finds some shitty documentary about their lives.  And, since that’ll definitely help, he watches that instead.

He used to be...cool.  He used to be loved. He used to see something...and he could get it.  They used to do good .  And now?

The door opens and Keith vaguely understands what that means, but he doesn’t think about it until Shiro’s standing in front of him, blocking the TV, looking down at the mess of pillow, blanket, tears, and alcohol that Keith is.  “What are you doing...?” Shiro asks, mystified.

Keith chews out, lips still pressed to the rim of his cup, “ Exposure therapy.  I don’t want to think about this anymore.  I want to be numb to it. So...numb. So I’m watching it until that happens.”

“Are you drinking ?”

“What does it look like?”  Keith says, tilting the cup again and guzzling it down.

“Stop it,” Shiro says, striding over and reaching out.

Keith grunts, trying to shove him off, but Shiro snatches it away.

Stop .”  Shiro says incredulously.  “...You can’t drink on your meds.  You know this. What are you doing?”

Keith snorts under his breath.  “I guess we’ll see how the two interact.”

“...What happened?”

Keith just looks down at Shiro’s feet.

Keith .”

Keith swallows hard, rubbing at his face.  “You haven’t heard? Figured it’d be all over the Garrison by now.”

What happened?”

“Aki got in a fight,” he whispers.  “...He’s been expelled.”

Shiro blinks a few times in surprise.  Hesitates.  Blinks a few times more.  “F-for the year?”

Expelled , Shiro.  For forever Expelled .”

“Aki...?”  Shiro breathes.  He takes in a deep shaky breath, putting his hands to his hips as he tries to understand.  “ But why ?”

“That shitty kid from the relay race was talking shit about me and Aki decided to unleash ten years of pent up rage on him.  You should’ve seen the kid. It was a fucking bloodbath. I never thought Aki could do something like that...” Keith shoves his head in his hands and heaves in a breath.  “I was the one who found them. I had to turn Aki in. He’s pissed .  He thinks it’s all my fault.  He thinks I don’t love him.”

Shiro takes a seat beside Keith, putting his hand on his hip.  “Keith, he doesn’t think that.”

“He said it .  Those exact words.  Several times .  He thinks you were the one who wanted a child and I just went along with it to make you happy.  He says I never talk to him because I’m a coward. Because I don’t love him.” All those years ago, when Aki was just a toddler, Shiro had told Keith this would happen if he kept things to himself.  He had warned him and Keith hadn’t listened and now look.

Shiro rubs Keith’s arm gently.  “He’s upset. We’ll get a chance to talk to him when he’s calmed down.  We’ll let him know how you really feel, okay? It’s good he’s being honest.  It means we have a chance to heal it. Okay?”

Keith presses his hands into his face harder.  His voice breaks. “I fucked up... I fucked up so badly...”

“Keith,” Shiro whispers, leaning over him to cuddle into his side.  He wraps his arms around him and nuzzles his face into Keith’s neck.

“What are we going to do?”  Keith breathes. “The public school around here is shit .  We can’t watch him there!  Who knows?  Maybe he'll start getting into fights there.  He's definitely angry enough.”

Shiro murmurs wearily.  “God...he’s so much like you were.”

Keith groans and leans his head back as he despairs.  “God, don’t say that.  I thought things would be different for him.  He has so many people who love him. I’m trying to remember the reasons I acted out.  I was scared... I was alone. I hated everyone. There was just this hole in the center of my chest that ate me alive .  Does he feel like that?  Did we fail him that much?”

“...Keith,” Shiro whispers.

“I wanted to give him everything we didn’t have.  And I thought...I mean, I know we’re not perfect, but I thought we were doing okay...  Now he’s beating the shit out of people in the Garrison?  He thinks I hate him and don’t want him as a son?”  Keith shakes his head, so perplexed.  "This world was supposed to be better.  Things were supposed to be better."

“...I’m going to call Iverson.  I’m staying this weekend. I can’t go to Charon like this.”

Keith looks up, watching as Shiro reaches for the phone on the coffee table.  He begins to dial in the number.

But why?  So they both can sit and stew in misery?  All of them?  Keith reaches out, closing his hand around the phone.  No.  He cancels out of the call.

They look up at each other.

“...You can’t stop your life,” Keith whispers.

“Keith, it’s fine, I’m serious,” Shiro says wearily.  “My heart’s not set on Charon. I’ll go sometime soon.”

“This is my mess.”

“Keith.  You both are my life.  He’s our son.”

“It’s my mess .  This is all my fault.  I was the one who told Aki to stick up for himself when he’s being bullied, I was the one who chose not to tell him everything about our life when you told me not to...but I didn’t listen.  That’s not just it,” he says quickly when Shiro opens his mouth to protest. “...We already know he loves you. He knows you love him. ...But it’s me. It’s me and him that aren’t fitting together in this puzzle.  ...I’m not saying we don’t need you. I just...” He doesn’t know what he’s saying. He bites at his lip.

Shiro nods slowly.  “I think I get it. ...You know, I’ve always wondered what Earth would look like from Charon.”

Keith snorts, a smile slowly warming on his face.  “...Like you don’t already know.”

“I’ll send you guys a postcard.”

“You’ll be gone basically a day .”

“Mm,” Shiro chuckles into his neck.  He leans his head on Keith’s. “...I’m not worried.  You love Aki. He’s going through something right now and it’s distorting his vision, but...when he looks, he’ll see too.  He will. Because your love is true, Keith. Don’t doubt that. You’re a good father. You’re enough for him.”

Keith sighs.  “I’m glad he has you.”

“Well, I’m glad he has you .  And I stand by what I’ve always said: there’s no one I’d rather share my life with than you.”

He always says that.  All of that.  And it’s funny how, when Keith tells Aki he loves him, he can’t get why Aki doesn’t believe him.  But when Shiro tells Keith he’s a good father, that he’s enough, it’s so hard to absorb that into his own head.  Even knowing, logically...

Families are a funny thing.

So it happens.  The next morning, bright and early, Keith and Aki stand a few feet away from each other on their porch, staring into the driveway as Shiro pulls out, waving out the window at them.

“Take care of each other!”  Shiro calls, poking his head out. “I want you both to get along, okay?  I love you both .”

“Love you, Shiro,”  Keith calls back.  “Be careful. Enjoy yourself.”

“Love you, Dad,” Aki mutters sadly.  "Be safe."

The back of their car disappears into the distance and the wind blows, cold and sharp this early in the morning.

It’s just Keith and Aki.  For a weekend. Together. Alone.

Aki’s eyes flick up to Keith’s darkly and then he turns from him, going back inside.

Keith stays on the porch for awhile longer, leaning against the railing, looking out at the sun rising slowly in the sky.  The colors that flare up and away from the sunlight are magnificent.  Fiery.

It’s just a weekend.  Hardly two days.

He’s saved the universe before with his friends, so he can certainly do this - survive a teenager.  But it's not just that, is it...?

He’s strong enough.  He always has been. He just needs to see it.  And Aki too.

Maybe they can have their talk, Keith wonders.  Or maybe they’ll just stew in silence until Shiro comes back.  That’s more probable.

But when this sun that rises will finally set, Keith will be missing something important.  He doesn’t know it yet. Or maybe he kind of does, maybe he has for years now and he’s just been the least crazy one of all.

He doesn’t know.

But, for now, he’s safe, as he turns to go back inside.  For now, he’s still just trying to figure out his great new mystery:

Who is Keith Kogane?

Chapter Text

Their home always seems far too quiet whenever Shiro’s gone, whether it just be to work, or away for a weekend.  Keith was hoping maybe he could turn something around or learn something special about himself in the midst of the silence, but that was yesterday, this is now.  Looking out over the quiet living room, he just feels empty and sad without Shiro.

He’s tired today.  He doesn’t think he has the strength.

Well.  So much for that one.  At least Shiro gets to get out for awhile, travel the stars again, like they were meant to, have a nice weekend to himself.  That’s good.

But as for Keith?  He’s just going to take the rest of the day to sleep in bed and cuddle with his fluff monster, Kosmo.

Only, Kosmo prefers the living room at this time of day seeing as the sun shines warmly down on that cozy window spot.  The bed feels so cold and the dim lighting of this room so dark that Keith can’t get back to sleep. So he looks to their nightstand for something to write with and comes up with one of Shiro’s notebooks.  Keith takes it for himself and slips it on the bed in front of him, pressing his bottom lip in with the end of the pen.

He can get some work done at least, trying to organize his thoughts.  He thinks for a moment as he tries to conjure what’s been bothering him most lately.  He writes down two things:

‘Who is “Keith” now?’ and ‘How do I let Aki know I love him?’

He stares at the questions.  He doesn’t have any answers right now, not yet, but it’s almost freeing looking at these ghostly haunts out on paper and not stuffed inside of his brain.  He just hopes that, one day, he’ll know the answer.

There’s a soft knock on the doorframe and Keith’s stomach jolts.  He rolls onto his side and looks up, carefully closing the notebook.

Aki stands in the doorway, holding up two boxes.  “These are expired.” His voice is somehow both flat and sharp all at once.

Keith sniffs, pushing himself wearily up from his bed.  He wipes a hand over his face. “...Okay? What are they?”

“Cake mix,” Aki growls like Keith was supposed to know or something.  “This is all we have and they’re bad .”

“...Alright?”

“I’m going to need more.”

God.  Fucking box cake.  Is that what their next fight’s going to be about?  The most fucking benign thing. Keith checks the clock.  1 PM. Even still, it’s way too early for this shit. Keith huffs out a breath and tosses himself back into the comfort of his bed.  He pulls the sheets over himself again, cuddling with the notebook. “Box cake tastes like shit anyway.”

“Well, thanks for your opinion, but I really need more.  It can’t wait for tomorrow.”

“Hmmm.”  Suddenly, Keith feels like he is comfortable enough to sleep.  For ten long peaceful years. Lucky him.

Aki heaves a huge sigh.  There’s a long silence and then he says lowly, “Look...  Um... Is this about yesterday?”

“Is what about yesterday?”

“Why you’re mad at me?”

Keith laughs lowly under his breath.  “Well, I mean, being told to go fuck myself is the highlight of any day.”

“I-I know.  ...I just...”  Aki heaves a huge sigh.  He stays at the door quietly.  Keith can hear him thinking from here.

Jesus.  Keith rubs at the tension in his brow.  He knows he’s being a bit of a brat, but sometimes he’s just... so tired of trying to be the adult.  It doesn’t even matter what he does anyway .  Earlier, with Shiro, he thought he could wake up this morning fresh and feisty and fight to fix things, but some mornings you just wake up done and today just happens to be one of those days.  He’ll save the grand fight and miraculous healing for another day when he has some damn energy.

Keith rolls onto his side and rubs at his face roughly, groaning.  He tries to soften as much as he can. “Aki. I just...don’t even know what to say.  I don’t know how to fix things between us. I don’t know how to get through to you. I don’t know what you want from me...”

“...Um.  Box cake?” Aki says, leaning on the door frame and holding up one of the old ones hopefully.  “Just one.”

Keith tosses him a very tired look.

“Please,” Aki says lowly.  “I know we have... a lot of things to discuss, but it’s Griffin’s birthday today...  I haven’t told her I’ve been expelled yet. I don’t want to just go over there with nothing but bad news.  She’s done so much for me, she’s believed in me...it will crush her.”

Keith raises an eyebrow.  “You really think a cake’s going to help that much?”

“No.  But it’s something at least.”

“Why can’t you just make a cake from scratch?”

“You forget I have Dad’s cooking skills or else I would.”  He sighs again, scratching the back of his head. “Look, I’d call Grandma to drive me, but Dad made it very clear I’m not allowed to leave you alone.  You know how he is...but if you come with me ...” 

Keith bites back a soul-weary groan.

“It’s for Griffin, okay?  Not for me. For her.”

Is that so...?

He sighs, looking back up at the ceiling blearily.  Today’s a lie-in-bed-and-hate-yourself kind of day. He wants to get out that vodka from last night that he didn’t get a chance to finish.  He wants to hit his head on the wall or shove it beneath a pillow and just scream until his body goes loose. He doesn’t want to go with Aki to the fucking store for fucking boxed cake after Aki just told Keith to go fucking fuck himself.

Fuck.

But he takes a deep breath in.  Thinks of how Shiro would probably have a sad little concerned look on his face if Keith tells him he just stayed in bed all day again, like he used to when things were bad.  Or how Shiro might light up with interest if Keith were to say, ‘oh yeah, Aki and I went to the market on our own without you as a chaperone.  Bought fucking box cake’. Yeah. ...Shiro would be impressed. He would.

Shiro took a chance on him with this.  Keith needs to deliver.

“Fine,” Keith says, tossing his hand into the air.  “The market. But you’re driving. You need to practice so you can get your license.”

Aki says, his tone baffled like Keith just suggested he fly a ship out to Mars, “I’m not good at driving though.”

“Then you’ll fit right in.  Like eighty-five percent of this fucking population can’t drive for shit.”  Keith shoves his drawer open and pulls out any shirt to tear over his head. When he notices Aki still standing there uncomfortably, looking like he wants to argue, Keith tries a different approach,  “You’ll never learn to get better if you don’t try.”

“Yeah, but, is this like punishment for yesterday?  I don’t think that’s a great idea -”

“No.  Aki. It’s not.”

“Because I think -”

“-Aki.  Look. I’m not feeling great today.  Probably wouldn’t be the best idea for me to drive, so it's you.  Or we could just stay home; I’d rather just stay home. Your choice.”

“...Fine.  I’ll drive...” Aki says quietly, pulling away from the door and going down the hallway.

Keith stops in front of the mirror.  Inhales slowly. And out. Yeah, he looks pretty bad.  Is this what Shiro’s been having to see lately? Jesus.  He doesn’t even look like himself anymore, it’s disheartening.  He’s surprised Aki didn’t say anything, honestly. His hair’s a mess and there’s an agitated frown that’s here to stay for the day.  He slaps at his cheeks, hoping to pull some color into them and then he runs his hands through his hair, trying to tame it. It doesn’t do much.  He uses his last resort: a messy low bun. Shiro likes his messy bun so he guesses it makes him feel a little better but he still just feels...unsettled.

Maybe telling Shiro to leave like this was a bad idea after all.  God, he’s always so stupid.

He makes his way downstairs and eyes the mess Aki’s already made on the counter tearing apart the kitchen to find cake mix.  It's an explosion. “I hope you plan to clean that up before you leave tonight...”

“Yes, yes,” Aki sighs from the doorway, carefully tying his laces.  “Um...she’s actually...coming over here for a bit. Is that okay?”

Keith steps onto the entryway and jams his shoes on.  “Yeah, whatever.”

“Okay.”

Keith looks up and Aki just stands there, waiting.

Keith waits.

Aki waits.

Keith waits some more.

Aki eyebrows slowly pull together as he shifts forward on his toes.

Keith points.  “The keys are right there.  Do you have your permit with you?”

Aki clumsily fumbles them from the key rack.  He drops them. Picks them back up. “Y-yeah.”

He is even less together in the car.  Keith waits as Aki looks over the dashboard in confusion, hand hovering uncertainly over the wheel.  “...Did Dad not show you the basics...?”

“W-well, Griffin had already shown me.  But her car’s more...basic.”

“This is an automatic.”

“Uh...  Aren’t...all cars...automatic?”

Keith closes his eyes for a moment as he furrows his brow, trying to deal with the dread in his stomach.  He really just wants to go back to bed. He doesn’t have energy for this day. Patience. He needs...patience.

He leans his elbow against the window and rests his head against his knuckles.  With his other hand, he starts pointing out everything for Aki. “Okay. Key goes in here.  Parking brake you have to get with your foot down there. Change the gears right here, hold down the button and slide it in place.”

“O-oh.  Okay. Right.  Yeah, I remember that.”

“Before you do that though, check to make sure the mirrors are in a good position so you can see out the back and in your blind spots, which are...right here and right here.”

Aki bites at his lip as he slowly goes through the motions.  His eyebrows jut down. He slowly puts his hands on the steering wheel, stammering, “Wh-what if I crash?”

“You won’t crash.”

“What if I do though?  Isn’t this expensive? I don’t want to be responsible.  I don’t think you get it. I’m not good at anything.”

“Aki.  The drive to the store is easy and the roads hardly have people on them, you’ll be fine.  Okay? You’ve gotta just...do it.”

“But you can just go out and do things.  I’m different. You don’t understand.”

“Aki.  Seriously.  All this time we’ve been spending arguing and we could’ve already been there.  Do you want the box cake or not?”

“I’ll go, I’ll go!”  Aki grudges sharply, jamming it clumsily into gear and backing out.

He doesn’t even look behind him.  Keith jolts upright in his seat, twisting behind him to make sure no one’s there, “You have to look over your shoulder as you back out.  So you can see .  With your eyes.”

Aki tsks as he looks out the side window.

“And we have kids in the court.  And people and cars, so...you need to check your mirrors.  Always. Always check them.”

“That’s too many things!”  Aki grumbles. “You can’t do all those things at once.”

“You cannot undo running a person over.  You have to pay attention.”

“I am !”  He runs over their curb.

They're fucking doomed.  “Stop. Take a breath...”  They jerk to a stop and both sit there, car tilted at an odd angle.  After the shock and fear passes, Keith clears his throat and asks, “Is Griffin a good driver?”

“Best pilot of our year,” Aki murmurs as he reattempts backing up.  He concentrates on the mirror and very very slowly backs out the driveway still.

When they’re out and clear, Aki stops.  A sturdy, still full-stop. “...Good so far?”

Keith nods.  Nothing’s been wrong for the last two seconds at least.

Aki clears his throat.  “Griffin actually thought...well, before we got to know each other...she thought we’d be neck-and-neck.  Like...each other’s competition. Sort of like you and her dad.”

“We weren’t neck-and-neck,” Keith mutters behind his fingers.

“Well, rivals.  You know what I mean.”  Aki puts both hands on the wheel carefully and then begins to press on the gas.

They go backwards.  Aki blinks. He doesn’t slam on the brakes so they continue to gently careen backwards.

“Brakes,” Keith says.  “ Brakes.”

They jerk to a rocky stop.

“What happened?”  Aki panics.

“You didn’t shift gears.  If you want to go into reverse, you put the gear in reverse.  If you want to go forward, it has to be in drive.”

“O-oh...”  Aki does so.  He blinks up through the windshield, lost.

Keith sighs.  Wow. He knew Aki wasn’t exactly a so-called ‘natural’, but he didn’t realize that he also had zero common sense when it came to vehicles.  Absolutely zero. Keith thought this would be easier, but then again, the only experience he can base it off of is when he learned. Maybe this isn’t the right time for a lesson.  “...Look. Did you need me to drive there? I can show you how to do it this one time and then you can try on the way back if you feel ready.”

Aki bites at his lip and kneads the wheel for a moment as he thinks about it.  “Griffin just learned on her own. She didn’t need a lesson.”

“It’s okay to need lessons.”

“No, I -”  He swallows hard.  “I want to do this.”  He carefully starts his way down the road.  Slowly. Not even half the speed limit, but maybe that’s best.  He swallows hard. “...But it's not easy for me.”

“Aki, none of these things are.  Everyone has to start somewhere. It’s about building muscle memory.  Getting used to it. You’re not born out of the womb knowing these things.  They can be taught, I promise.”

“...You came out of the womb knowing these things.”

“Wow, a baby piloting right out of the womb?  That’s impressive.” Aki’s body language is too honest.  The tension spikes as he grits his teeth. Keith softens his voice.  “...It’s not the norm.”

“But Dad also -”

“-Your dad had to work for it.  He worked really hard and he got there.  A lot of the things people admire about him is completely 100% practiced.  And that’s what I admire about him. It didn’t always come easy for him but he just kept pushing and pushing...he never gave up.”  Keith watches a child playing outside in the sprinklers. They look happy, they look free. “...But not everything comes easily to me either..."

As Aki slowly turns the car onto the next street, sunlight streams through the window and Keith catches sight of Aki’s knuckles wrapped tightly over the steering wheel.  They’re purple. They’re swollen.

Keith shifts uncomfortably in his seat.  After everything going on, he forgot to care for Aki’s wounds.  Ice would’ve been the right thing to offer, but he hadn’t. It was something he could’ve done so easily, something he should’ve done, no matter how upset and angry he had been.

It’s something he’d always longed for from his parents, who had been absent after any of his fights.  And here he was, here , but absent even still.  And Aki doesn’t flinch, like he’s used to it.

“...How’s your hand?”  Keith asks softly.

“Oh.  ...I dunno.” He says that, but Keith can see the way he's hiding.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?  Punching people. Everyone thinks of the impact on the other guy, but they forget that when you hit a wall, the wall hits back.”

“...A lot more than I thought, honestly.  It always looks so cool in movies. Aunt Pidge didn’t tell me about this side of it.”

Keith hums lowly.  “Reality isn’t always as fun...”

Aki bites at his lip as he concentrates on the road.  The drive is easy, but it seems long today. There’s still tension, no matter how much they both are trying to keep it swept beneath the rug.  Keith doesn’t want to just hide from it for the rest of their years, never directly addressing the other, but he just doesn’t know what to say that isn’t generic and weightless at this point.  He wants his words to mean something, like Shiro’s always did for him, to give him hope. He believed everything Shiro said because he had faith in him...

But Aki...

“We’ll figure out the school thing, Aki,” Keith says softly.  “You don’t have to worry about that. And Griffin lives so close.  When you get your license, you can take one of the cars and go drive to her place or she can come over here.  It’ll be fine.”

Aki flexes his hands on the wheel.  “I don’t want to talk about it,” he says lowly.  As tension settles, Aki clears his throat and says, “I’m just...trying not to think about it.”

“I get it.”

Aki seems to be fine driving in a straight slow line, so Keith lets his attention drop to his phone.  Shiro left him a message since he left and a way to contact him if Keith needs it. Of course he did.

Keith’s not feeling a hundred percent today, but he’s doing it.  He and Aki are managing and morning’s becoming afternoon and soon, it’ll be tomorrow and Shiro will be headed back.  And Keith will have done this. Been on his own, with Aki. Survived. That’s a victory if Keith’s ever heard of one.

Aki clears his throat.  “Hey, um, what’s the speed limit here?”

“Hm?”  Keith looks up at the speedometer.  “Oh. It’s twenty-five, but don’t worry.  No one’s behind us. You can go as slow as you feel comfortable.”

“I can’t see the speedometer.”

“There’s a little lever beneath the wheel.  You can pull it and lower it.” Keith bites at his nail as he hovers his thumb over the news section...and clicks.  He just hates not knowing what’s going on in the world. Just a little peek will be fine. Probably.

Wow.  Wow...he’s missed so much.  The news on the TV last night didn’t mention this , only focused on the bad.  It seems like the Galra Resistance has been slowly breaking down.  Did Pidge find something out? Has she been doing something about it without telling him?

He thinks, belatedly, of how he has no problem lowering or lifting the steering wheel, but Aki most definitely should not attempt it.

But, of course, he does.  Because Aki likes to do things by the book and he seems to think that seeing the speedometer and knowing the exact mph he’s going is far more important than driving straight with the steering wheel.

Before Keith can blink up and say anything, it’s too late.

Aki loses control of the car.

There are no people around, thank god , but there is a mailbox and a tree and, with a sudden bang , they are jolted in their seats, plowing straight into sturdy bark.

Aki’s seatbelt works to hold him back.  Keith’s does not. His nose slams into his knee that he’d had propped up on the seat and his head hits hard.  And that’s all it takes: he gets a flash of before. Of fighting in the Lions. The jolts of enemy fire hitting against metal.  The plunge of losing control. He thinks he can hear it, the roar of desperate voices over the intercom, the adrenaline that floods him as his mind screams, “ everyone’s in danger ”.

It disorientates him, sends his safe moment scattering.

“Oh, no!  Oh, shit. Oh, shit!”  Aki wheezes, hands trembling on the wheel as he stares out.  “I didn’t mean to! I told you I couldn’t do it!”

Keith stays hunched over for a moment, trying to gather his bearings.  Sickness begins to flood the bottom of his stomach. He grabs shakily to the car door for support and focuses on his breath, nails digging into plastic.

He has to remember himself.  He’s not in the war anymore. Times have changed.  Aki’s beside him. He’s in his car. He’s safe.

Aki’s here.  He’s not alone.  There is no war. It’s over.

Over.  Safe.

“Keith!  Keith !”  Aki panics, shaking his arm roughly.

“...Mmf.  Yeah,” Keith sniffs roughly, rubbing at his face tenderly with his fingers.  No blood comes back but he tastes that weird hurt-nose sort flavor in the back of his throat.  He slowly sits back up.

“I crashed!  I crashed!”

“Shh.  Calm down,” Keith groans, reaching over to put the car into park, shove the parking brake on, and turn the engine off.  Aki’s face is white and overwhelmed. Keith waits for a moment and then finds the energy to ask, “Are you okay?”

“I crashed your car.”

“But you’re okay?”

Aki nods sharply.  “Are you?”

Keith bobs his head a bit for a moment, which he supposes is a yes.  He doesn’t know what else to say, so he opens the door and slips out.

...Yeah.  It’s seen better days.  The mailbox has been completely ripped from the ground and dragged, dirt and the base of the wood still attached haphazardly to a sad spot a few feet away.  The tree is uninjured. They were only going twenty, so it’s not like the car is totalled. It just...got a huge fucking ugly dent in the front.

Great...

Keith’s never crashed his car before.  He’s not really sure what the protocol is.  Do they need to call someone? He stands there in the sun, rubbing at the back of his head, at a loss.  He takes in a deep breath.

Aki walks around the back to peek his head around carefully.  His eyes bug out of his skull as he assesses the damage. “Oh no!   Oh, shit !  I told you I was bad at it!  I knew this was going to happen!  I told you!”

Keith rubs a hand over his face wearily.  “Calm. Down .  No one got hurt.  That’s what matters.”

“We could’ve been hurt!  We could’ve been killed!”

“We couldn’t have been killed going twenty miles per hour...”

Aki keeps staring at it, eyes glued.  “...What are we going to do?”

“Call your dad?”  He snorts when Aki tosses a perplexed look at him.  “Just kidding. I dunno.” Keith takes one last sad look at the front of his car and sighs, holding his hand out.  “I guess I’ll drive.”

“What about the mailbox?”  Aki says, flabbergasted as he reliquishes the keys.  "I killed the grass."

“Completely murdered it.”  Keith taps the mailbox with his foot on the way around the car to the front.  “I know the guy. We’ll replace it.”

Keith hops into the driver’s seat and turns the key.  But nothing happens. “Shit,” Keith mutters, leaning into it as he tries again, to no avail.

Aki pokes his head in through the passenger side.  “We can call Aunt Pidge. She’ll come pick us up.”

“No, she’s working today.  We don’t need to bother her...”  Keith looks out over the sidewalk.  The long dusty road. “Do you really still need that box cake?”

Aki raises his eyebrows.  “Well, it’s still Griffin’s birthday...”

Keith tries to start the car again, but it’s dead.  What luck.

Keith sinks onto the wheel for a moment, letting his weary bones sag.  He knew he should’ve just stayed in bed today. He had felt it.

“I-I’m sorry,” Aki mutters.  “The wheel just slipped out of my hands -”

Keith pulls himself back up.  “It’s fine. It happens. ...I don’t want to walk all the way to the market we usually go to, but there’s that one a street over.  Let’s just go to that one.”

Aki makes a face.  “That one’s always busy...”

“I know , but I’m not walking twenty blocks just because it’s not as busy.  We’ve already crashed a car over it. Let me talk to this guy and let him know we’ll get it towed off his front yard and pay for everything,” Keith mutters, walking up the driveway grudgingly.  This sucks. This whole thing sucks. He just wants to go home.

He talks to the man who he vaguely knows from work.  He’s a friendly guy but he gives Keith a concerned look and asks him if he really should be out, much to Keith's irritation, and offers to give Keith a ride, like he can’t manage on his own .  He kindly declines, but really .

Then they’re on their way, walking through the neighborhood sidewalks, somehow even more awkward than before.

Aki’s just staring at the cracks in between the pavement like he’s going through some sort of mental crisis.  He keeps stepping wide over the cracks, like it’s incredibly important he do so.

“This better be some amazing cake today, hm?”  Keith says, looking over, trying to diffuse the tension.

Aki looks up to him, unhappy little pout on his face that he probably doesn’t even realize he has on.  “...I told you I wasn’t any good.”

“Aki.  It’s fine,” Keith sighs.  Apparently he can’t take a joke.  “Just...trying to lighten the mood.  We’ll try out a parking lot next time or maybe take the hover bikes out again.  It’s been awhile.”

“I’ll crash that too.”

“You were pretty good when you were a kid.”

“No, I wasn’t.  I crashed almost immediately, remember?  I still remember you and Dad fighting.  One of the few times you ever did.  Because of me.”

“It wasn’t because of you...  We were just...trying to learn how to be parents together.”

Aki grunts, unenthused.

The supermarket doesn’t come into view a moment too soon.  Keith hasn’t come here in years, mostly just because their stuff is too expensive and there are always fifty billion people in here, leaving their carts in the way like they own the place.  He’s never been fond of the kind of people here. Snooty, usually. Elitist. Downright awful.

This place isn’t familiar anymore.  The smells in the parking lot are different than he remembers everything being.  The area. Keith still feels the tension from the car accident rooted deep in his shoulders and altogether, with these little discomforts piling up, it starts becoming too much.  He lets out a shaky breath. He’s so tired of this.

Something feels wrong.  He doesn’t know what, he just feels it.  Like when your back is about to pop out of place and you’re not sure yet which direction to avoid moving.  He slows to a stop. He stares at the store, at the plaque of its name. It’s the same as it’s always been.  Those same bird nests stuck inside the letters. The same colored paint plastering the walls.

But...something feels wrong .  Like everything’s backwards or something.

“...Keith?”  Aki slows ahead of him, turning around to look at his face.  “...You okay...?”

Keith bites at his lip.

A feeling, malfunctioned.  He and Shiro agreed that’s what this reaction is and it’s okay to trust that he is wrong and the surroundings are right .

But he turns his eyes to the trees that border this place, at all the cars in all of these parking spots, the vans where they could be hiding things - bodies.  People. The old women who look inconspicuous, but god knows what they’re up to.  Definitely not shopping. Everyone has their phones out.  Why? What for? Who are they contacting?

He clears his throat.  Can’t focus. “...Uh.”

Aki draws himself up taller the more he looks into Keith’s agitated face.  Keith can see the nervousness building in Aki’s eyes. “...What do I do?”

“Nothing.  Nothing .  Let’s just -”  His cell phone rings and he lets out a garbled strangled yell in surprise.

God.  That’s embarrassing.  His fingers prickle. His lips are tingling.  He reaches into his pocket and takes the phone out.

“Hey, Keith, it’s me,” Pidge says as he picks up before he can even get a word in.  “I know Shiro’s away today. I was wondering how you’re managing.”

He gestures Aki off the pavement and onto the grass, where he sits on the side of the curb and shoves his face into his knees.  “...I’m at the start of something,” he mumbles lowly. “I’m trying to get ahold of it.”

“...Ah.  Um. Okay, let me...”  He hears her shuffling around.  There’s something in her voice. Distracted.  “What’s up? What’s happening? Is Aki there with you?”

He takes a long slow breath in.  “Aki’s here. I just, uh...” He keeps trying to breathe.  He’s right on the edge. Right there. It can go either way, but that means it can go the right way too, so he holds on.  Hopes. Prays.

“You’re at home?  I can call Hunk for you -”

“That seems...like an odd choice since Hunk’s restaurant is on the other side of town.”

“Well, Lance and Allura are here right now.”

Keith shifts to pull his head from his knees.  He crosses his arms on them instead, leaning his chin on his arm.  “Why are Lance and Allura there? It’s the weekend.”

“Special meeting.  Um-”

“-‘Special meeting’?”  His gut clenches. What does that mean ?  His mind kindly provides him several extremely reasonable disastrous scenarios where everything - everything - goes up in smoke.  Death. Apocalypse.  The universe imploding.  “Is it about Shiro -?”

“-No, of course not,” she says so firmly that he believes her.  “He’s fine. He lives and breathes space, he’s like a fish going back out to sea - a shark going back out to sea.  But look. I can’t talk. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay, which it seems like you’re kind of not, so...I’ll call Hunk, okay?  He’ll be over there as soon as he can. Here’s what I want you to do. Doctor’s orders. Go start a bath. Get some epsom salt in there, like three whole cups.  And just soak. Okay? Just relax.”

“I’m not at home,” Keith groans into his palm.  “We’re at the fucking marketplace.” He looks over to check on Aki, who’s looking better, just bored.  He has his hands in his pockets and he’s rocking back and forth between heel and toe.

“Wait.  What?”

“Aki wanted box cake for Griffin’s birthday.”

“Uh...  You go to that one off Creedence, right?”

“I wish.  We crashed the car.  But Aki needs his box cake, so we had to walk to that crazy busy one.  We’re there right now.”

“I, um...”  She mutters lowly to someone in the background, her voice irritated and sharp.  He thinks he hears her spitting something out before she returns to the phone. “...Keith, I think you should go home.  Just wait a few days...”

“Wait a few days?”  Keith chews out. “...What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, I just mean...  I can send Hunk over with one of his cake creations.  I want you to go home and rest , okay?  You shouldn’t be out.”

He presses his lips together tightly.  “Why? Because I can’t handle the store?  It’s just a fucking store, Pidge.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of since you’re not feeling well it’d be best to rest.  But if you want to go there, I mean, are you handling it?”

“You know, we just got into an accident , like I said.  Maybe that didn’t help.”

“An accident?  What are you -?”  She cuts herself off, voice going firmer.  “Keith, I’m busy. I can’t argue with you. Just go home.”

He’s already irritated and unhappy and being bossed around is the last thing to help.  “Yeah, you’re not my doctor. We’ve been over this. I can go in and get fucking box cake.”

“I’m just trying to help.”

“You’re making it worse.  I can’t feel my fingers.”

“Give Aki the phone.  Give him the -”

Keith hangs up in irritation, muting his phone and shoving it into his pocket.  He feels it vibrate almost immediately as he pulls himself back up.

He knows she’s right.  He wants to go home too.  But he can’t stand the thought of having to tell Shiro how much he’d failed after asking him to trust in him.  He wants to accomplish something, even if it’s something boringly normal that will only take two minutes.

Besides, he feels partly responsible for Aki’s expulsion.  If a box cake is going to soothe a bit of Aki’s worries away, then that’s good and they should do it.

“Let’s just get the cake and go,” Keith mutters, not looking at Aki who’s still standing there, waiting.

“...You were kind of rude to her, don’t you think?”

Keith laughs lowly, raising an eyebrow at Aki.  “Well, not that I’m claiming to be a saint, but I didn’t tell her to go fuck herself , so...”

Aki tenses, fixing Keith with a wary look.

Keith clears his throat.  He feels guilty immediately.  “...Sorry. I...that was uncalled for.  I shouldn't have said that.”

Aki murmurs lowly as he fiddles with his hands, “Well...I guess you weren’t wrong.  I...said some things I shouldn't have. And that - that's what was wrong, so, um...”

Keith watches Aki fidget.  He can't deny he's impressed hearing that.  Even double Aki’s age, it's hard to not be petty sometimes, hard to step up and admit wrongdoing.  “Let’s just...go. We’ll talk about it at home tonight. How’s that sound?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I think that’d be good...”

Keith’s still not feeling well.  It’s got him again and it sucks. He knew this weekend was a risk.  Sometimes risks pay off and sometimes they don't. Today is apparently a 'don't' day.  He just hopes he can hold out until they get back home.

Inside, the aisles seem never ending and the lights are fluorescent and too-bright.  Keith grits his teeth and follows behind Aki, who follows the signs until he makes his way to the baking section.

They always put the air on too cold, too sharp.  It’s hot outside, but Keith rubs at his arms in discomfort in here.

Aki slowly looks through them, taking his time and reading the back of each box meticulously.  He slowly traces his fingers over each of the ingredients, mutters in disapproval, and then chooses another.

Again and again.

“Just...pick one,” Keith grunts antsily as Aki puts down his fourth option and reaches for another.

“Their ingredients are gross.”

“It’s box cake .  Of course they’re gross.  Aki, please. I feel like shit.  I don’t want to be here all day.”

“Okay, okay,” Aki mutters as he grabs a black galaxy cake and turns around.  “This one.”

“Finally,” Keith sighs in relief, glancing over to check the price.  He expects something around five dollars, maybe ten or so for a gourmet cake at absolute most , but what he sees is a big thirty.

Thirty.  They might as well have Hunk rush order a customized cake for that much.

Keith chokes.  There’s no justice in this world.  “Is that -? Does that say thirty ?”

Aki looks to the price tag and then back at Keith in confusion.  “Well, yeah... It’s made with ingredients from three galaxies over.  See the fluorescent glow? This is cheap .  It’s on sale.”

Oh, boy.  Keith pinches the bridge of his nose.  “Aki. That’s way too expensive. I’m just going to tell you right now, space food isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Space food is space food for a reason.”

“You wanted me to choose one, so I did .”

“We can make one at home for way less than that.”

“I’m not a good baker.  I don’t know how.”

“Well, I do .  I’ll help you.  I’m not paying thirty dollars for some fucking box cake.  Jesus.”

“It’s special!”

“Aki,” Keith grits out.  He has to take a moment, stepping back and rubbing at the migraine building between his eyebrows before he can speak again.  He speaks softly, with a cold edge. “If you want it so badly, buy it yourself. I don’t care. But I am not paying that much.”

“But -”

“-That is final .”

“Fine,” Aki grumbles lowly, shoving the box back onto the shelf with all his discontentment.  The shelving shakes. “I’ll get ingredients for a whole cake then.”

“Okay.  Fine,” Keith mutters tiredly, following a few paces behind Aki as he storms around the place, shoving everything angrily into a little basket over his arm.  

God.  This is hell.  Keith starts feeling even more jittery and even more sick in this benign little marketplace, looking at all the old ladies shopping casually with their carts.

And Aki’s a storm, running between everyone, slipping in and out of the people being as thin and unassuming as he is.  Keith keeps getting recognized. He has to hide and dodge. He’s old .  He’s exhausted.

When he finally catches up to Aki, someone happens carelessly past with their cart and jolts the corner of it into the sensitive part of Keith’s back.  He stops in his tracks and clutches at his chest with one hand onto the nearest thing with his other - Aki’s arm. Keith holds on for dear life. Fingers digging into warm cotton.  Something familiar, something steady. His breath is uneven and choppy as he shakes.

Three things:  Shiro... Kosmo...  Uh...

“Whoa,” Aki whispers as he watches.  His hand comes to Keith’s shoulder and his eyes start to go from concerned to frightened puppy dog.  “...Are you alright...?”

Keith shakes his head quickly.

Aki’s voice goes higher, softer, and he sounds like the child Keith always assumes he is.  “I-I never know what to do... What do I do...? How do I help?”

“I think I’m going to throw up,” Keith mutters, hand pressed tightly to his gut.  Yeah. Yeah, he definitely is going to. Bile’s already burning up his esophagus. He jams his hand into his pocket and shoves his wallet at Aki’s chest quickly.  “I don’t care which one you choose, just pay for it quickly and let’s go. ...I’ll be right back. Bathroom.”

He leaves Aki’s stunned little face and sprints to the bathroom.

The bathroom is small and has suspicious liquids and random squares of toilet paper splattered all over the ground and Keith can’t fall here lest he get some bathroom disease, so he trembles weakly, holding onto the side of the stall, hoping with all hope that his knees won’t give out on him now.

Keith tilts his head back and breathes in through his nose slowly, trying to quell the rebellion inside of his stomach and nerves.  Lets the air fill his whole being. Lets it pull all the stress and negative feelings from him on the way out.

He presses his temple to the stall, letting it's cool sturdiness soothe him.  He hasn’t thrown up yet, but he wonders if it’d be better to just get it over with.  His throat’s already burning from the acid clawing up his throat. Is this battle really worth fighting?  He just feels...weird. He doesn’t want to feel this way anymore.

Wrong.   It’s just sitting in his gut like melted gum.  It’s so persistent today. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

But he feels the nausea stymie and slowly disperse.

He’s on the edge of conquering it completely when his phone rings in his pocket again, startling him, and Keith’s had it - his anxieties shooting high into the sky again - so he snatches it up and lets his voice rip through his gravel-y razed throat, “ What ?”

It’s Pidge, of course.  Her voice is oddly gentle and contained.  “Hey, I was just thinking...I have like forty different box cakes at my place.  Come over and I’ll skip work and we can make some together. Stay the night. Get your mind off things.”

Keith’s anger fizzles.  She says it in such a nice way it’s hard to retaliate with fire.  “Pidge. Honestly. I want to say thanks, I guess, for your dedication to Aki’s box cake and my rest, but seriously, I ran out of my patience for the day this morning .  I’m in the bathroom trying not to get covered in my own puke, so kindly just...fuck off for awhile, okay?”

“Keith.  I’m serious.”

Keith swallows hard.  He doesn’t like how she’s saying it.  Her words are heavier than they should be.  Is his mind just making it up? “Pidge. ...Stop calling for now.  You’re acting weird.”

“I’m not acting weird.  Just come home. Or to work?  I just don’t think you should be alone.  I know Aki’s there, but...another person too.”

“...You’re freaking me out.”  He takes a deep breath through his nose as he wipes his arm across his forehead.  He thinks his stomach’s under control for now, so he pushes his way out of the stall and shoves his phone between his shoulder and ear as he washes his hands.  “Why are you acting like this...?”

“Like what ?”

He bites at his lip, looking at his tired reflection for a moment, before turning from the bathroom.  He exits out the back. “Look, I already sent Aki to go buy his shit and then we’re just going home. You’re welcome to join us.”

“Good, just...do that.  Do that and then I’ll see you later tonight, okay?”

Keith walks down the baking aisle, seeking out Aki.  It’s weird, though, the aisles are oddly empty. Not just lightly populated, but empty .  Zero people.

What the fuck?

He hears it chanting in his head, quietly, but righteously, as he tries to shake the thought away: wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

His body suddenly feels very very distant as every shred of his attention hones in on this.  Keith looks behind him, eyes sharp and on the lookout. No one. He looks in front of him. Nothing.  Not a whisper. This place is always so busy. Always.

His stomach sinks lower and lower, down to his feet as they flood and pull at him with heavy dread.  Where is everyone? He feels like he’s entered the Twilight Zone. He went into the bathroom and got spit out into another dimension.  No one’s here. It’s just him back here.

“Keith?”  Pidge asks.  “Okay?”

“...Everyone’s gone...”

“What?”

His voice is faint as he shifts the phone and swallows hard, eyes flicking down the aisles.  “Everyone’s...gone.” He quickens his pace. There’s just one thing blaring through his mind suddenly and insistently - it’s poking holes in any bit of calm he might’ve been able to grasp onto:  Aki .

He can feel the blood draining out of his face and pooling in his core.  He feels wrong like he’s never felt before.

“Keith.  Keith , are you there?”

He’s panicking.

He runs along the back of the aisles, looking through all of them, praying, hoping.  Each one he blasts past without sight of anyone, the fear grabs hold of his throat tighter.  Aki’s not here .  “Oh, god.  Oh, fuck. Where the fuck -  Pidge. Pidge, I’ve got to call you back.  I need to call and find Aki. I hope I’m going fucking crazy.  Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong .”

“Oh, shit.  No, no, no, no, Keith.  Keith, no, don’t hang up.  Listen to me. Go out the back.  Aki will be fine. Go out the back -”

What the fuck .  He hangs up and goes to call Aki, but it skips straight to voicemail.  As he starts running, he stops just as fast. Because, through the end of the aisle, at the front of the store, he finally sees something, something he had not expected: a woman kneeling on the floor, hands bound, with a person standing over her.  Someone in a mask. With a gun. Shoving the woman down roughly with his foot.

Keith immediately flattens himself to the side of the aisle, mind locking.

No.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

This cannot be.

He swallows hard as he stares blankly ahead.  His visions swims with a rainbow of noxious colors as his mind buckles in on itself.

Not here.  Not their hometown.  Not with Aki. Not to him.  No.

Out of all times, out of all random coincidences, this cannot be happening.

Is this a fucking hostage situation?  Are they going to be the next horrific news story?  Maybe he’s going crazy. It’s been building all day and hallucinations aren’t uncommon for him.  He feels bad, but...this bad...? Something’s different this time.

He closes his eyes tightly and prays that it’s all just in his head, that he’s tumbling out of control.  That Aki will grab by his arm any second now, shaking him gently, looking up into his face and murmuring with that awkward hesitance of his, “...Are you alright?”

Yeah.  That’s all this is.  Just another episode.  He’ll be fine. Totally fine.

Keith counts to three.  He keeps his eyes closed, afraid for the moment he has to open them and face reality.  One. Two. Three.

He opens them.

It’s not what he wants to see.  There’s no Aki. The aisle is cold and eerily empty.  And over his shoulder, down the way, to the right is...

Oh, god.  The woman is still bound, head bent down in complete submission.

Keith just knows.

It’s them, isn’t it?  They’ve been in the news so often lately, but Keith hasn’t been paying attention.  He realized it was happening in the world, but never thought it’d actually come here.  Ignorance is bliss until it dumps its built up shit right on your doorstep.

It doesn’t matter if this is in his head or real, because if there is one smidgen of a chance for this to all be real, if it is , then Keith has to act.  Keith has to get his head in this.

Real.  He lets it sink in.  ... Real .

Him.  The Rabbit Keith’s been seeing, poisoning this world with his hatred and inspiring others to hurt.  Planting an evil seed that’s growing in this Earth, rotting away whatever good Keith sees trying to bloom.

All the news stories, all those families torn apart, all the anger, all the rage, all the sorrow.

Keith’s wanted so long for the chance to stop him.  Now, he’s here. So what now?

He goes over what he knows: there are people here holding them hostage.  He is presumably the only person not bound. He still hasn’t been spotted.

He could go to the left, leave out the back way, get help.  That is what he would advise anyone else in this situation.

But it’s different for Keith.  Five years ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated at all.  He’d be confident, blazing, strong.

...This is his worst nightmare come to fruition.  Because Aki is missing and the stakes are far far too high.  Keith can’t go in there, not as he is, because if he makes a mistake, if he loses this gamble with himself, Aki is on the table.

But he can’t leave.  He just can’t.

But what can someone like him do in this situation?  His body knew how to handle it once, sure, but his mind always fights him now.  Years ago, he may’ve seen this as an opportunity. Now, it’s just a nightmare.

First, he needs to find where Aki is.

Quietly, he sneaks to the left, going down the aisles as he quickly calls Shiro’s phone.  He won’t answer, not now, but his voicemail picks up, pouring Shiro’s calm soothing voice through the speaker.  Keith allows himself a moment to close his eyes and absorb the comfort it brings him. “Hey, it’s Shiro. Leave a message after the tone.”

Keith takes a long shaky breath, creeping around a corner and making sure it’s clear.  “...It’s me,” he whispers into his phone. “I think I see something. I hope I’m wrong, but if I’m not...”  His voice lowers on his name, deeply intimate. “Takashi. I love you, I love you, I love you .  And I promise you with everything that I have that I’m going to do everything I can to get the both of us out of here.”

And if not...

He licks his lips as the message keeps recording.  He doesn’t know what else he can say... If this were the last thing Shiro were to ever hear...he hates that thought.

He hangs up.  Calls Pidge at the Garrison.  He turns it on mute and shoves the phone in the aisle beside him, closest to the front of the store as he dares put it.  At least then there’ll be some record of it at the Garrison if this goes wrong.

Okay.  Okay...  He wipes at the sweat prickling at his hairline, tries to shake the building buzzing in his chest and his hands and his toes.  He has to ignore himself right now. He has to pull his focus.

Keith sneaks down the aisle closest to the door, hiding behind a kiosk as he peeks around and assesses the scene.  This space has the widest vantage point and he can see where all the hostages have been collected, in a line throughout the front of the store, all on their knees with their hands tied in their fronts.

Keith’s heart sinks with dread. 

Aki.

He’s there, among them.  Keith knew he would be, but...seeing it, actually having to witness this sick situation...

This is his worst nightmares coming true.  This is his every fear that’s tormented him in his nightmares, in his twisted daydreams manifested and attacking him real time.

Like an ultimate test, so cruel he still can’t believe it’s real.

Aki is on his knees on the ground, staring with wide fearful eyes up at one of the men dressed all in black, covering all of their skin, holding their guns.  There are five of them, each wearing a mask of an animal.

Yes.

Keith knows them well.

He was always glued to his tablet, watching their faces with hatred and sickness hooked in his gut.  They’re only seen when they want to be, in videos of hostage situations, like the one with that girl who they killed .

Keith bites hard at his lip, so many emotions coming back.  So much time he’s spent hating them, wanting to get his hands on them to bring justice down on their sickening heads...only to be caught like a bug in their spiderweb.

He had never imagined any sort of meeting to be like this, where he’s the one at the disadvantage, without his fellow paladins at his back.

Without Shiro.

And Aki, of all people, in danger’s grip.

He sees their ringleader, the man in the rabbit mask, the way he stands in the center of it all with a slow confidence about him only a seasoned leader would have.  He sets the timer on his watch and hums lowly in approval.

“We have five minutes.  Time to go hunting.”

A lady in a cat mask projects her voice as she taps her gun to her shoulder, “Alright, listen up, people.  Today’s your unlucky day. I’m sure you’ve seen all about us on the news. If you belong here, you’ll have nothing to fear.  Just be good and, tonight, you’ll be sleeping peacefully at home. Just don’t be a hero. We’re only looking for those who don’t belong, not humans.”

A bird mask this time.  “But move and we’ll shoot.  Human or not.”

Aki closes his eyes.  He’s so pale. He’s shivering like he’s in the snow.

But he’s human.  Everything about him is painfully so.  By this organization’s laws, he should be okay...

Maybe Keith won’t have to do anything.  Maybe they’ll just...look over everyone and go.  Maybe everyone will be fine and the police will get here and -

“I think we have one,” one of them says.

If the whole entire room wasn’t deathly silent before, it is now.  A pin could drop and everyone would hear it.

Aki’s eyes snap open and over in primal fear.  A rush of prickly heat runs up Keith’s spine and floods his face.

“N-no,” a man panics.  He looks out to the other hostages for help he does not find and then back up into the face of the creatures.  “I’m not. I swear. I was born on Earth. Both of my parents are human.”

“Full human?”  The Bird leans forward and inspects his ears.  “...Looks a little inhuman to me.”

“I swear!  I swear I’m human!  I am.”

The Rabbit steps around the man, assessing him.  He kneels before the man. “They have a certain smell, did you know that?”

The man shakes his head quickly.

“Something about their blood.  I dunno, it always makes my stomach churn.  Not everyone can smell it, but...I can.”

He leans in slowly, tilting his head as he sniffs along the man’s neck.  “...And you? You smell...disappointingly human.”

The Bird sighs, the tone of his voice dipping in disappointment.  As he steps back, the rest of the line of hostages shifts and trembles with fear.  They look so vulnerable and at Fate’s mercy. Waiting, shivering, as he continues his way down the line casually, feet striking with each slow click of his heel against linoleum.  The way they walk, like they’ve become familiar with this scene, makes Keith’s skin crawl in all the wrong ways.

Sitting here, watching them like this...it feels so wrong.  But...jumping out now would be foolish. Like a kitten trying to interrupt a mountain lion fight.

Maybe if he were to just...remove the other kitten.  Come back with help.

Aki’s feet aren’t tied together.  He could easily run over here if he gets the timing right and sneaks properly.  They’re not even paying attention to Aki right now. If the other people around him don’t say anything, Keith could get him out .

But could he really run?  Leave these people here like a coward...?

But Aki.  Aki takes priority.  Times are different now.  Everything’s different.

He looks behind him for something on the shelves to use.  No knives, which would’ve been the ideal, but there is a spatula, a can opener, some paper plates...  He grabs the paper plates carefully and undoes the tie, slipping one out and tearing a piece of it off.  He rolls it into a ball, peers over at the Animals to make sure they’re still looking the other way, and throws the piece of paper.  It hits Aki square on the head and he jolts, eyes flying wide.

He jerks his head over and their eyes lock.

Horror warps his entire expression.

“Come here ,” Keith mouths, gesturing him toward the aisle as he watches the other’s movement.  “ Here .”

Aki shakes his head madly, face scrunching in on itself in distress.  “ Run ,” he mouths back in painful urgency.  “ Run!  Galra. ”  He nods his head toward Keith.  “ Galra You .  They want you .  Not me.”

Keith shakes his head slowly.  “Not without you.”

Go! ”  Aki mouths desperately, so desperately that it builds into a strangled whisper.  “ Go Please !”

He’s too loud.  In the quiet this fear has built, The Rabbit turns.

His dirty eyes fall on Aki.

“What do we have here?”  He murmurs and, slowly, he begins to saunter over.

Aki draws up tightly, eyes bugging out of his skull as he carefully keeps his focus far from Keith, anywhere but Keith, who sinks behind the kiosk in front of him.

“He’s scared,” the woman beside him says, who’d been watching them this entire time, “He’s just a boy.  Won’t you let him go? He’s clearly human.”

“‘Clearly’?  How is he clearly human?”  He bends down in front of Aki, taking in his face.  “...What an unusual looking face. Did you know that gold is extremely rare for a human’s eyes...?”

Aki’s breath goes faint as he stills.  Keith feels himself tightening like a spring, hands crushing the kiosk in front of him as he tries to hold, tries not to blow his cover.  But his heart feels like it’s stopped in his chest as his consciousness stretches and melds in odd ways. “M-my mother had them...” Aki whispers.

“And was she human?”

“I - yes .  Human.”

“And your father?”

Aki’s breath thins.  He is , but it’s not like they ever asked for confirmation or a look at his birth certificate.  He is...right?

“And that jet black hair...  Strange looking... Otherworldly...”  With his long spindly fingers, he reaches for Aki’s face, holding his chin in place.  He slows as he inspects him. “...Have you ever smelled a Galra before?”

Aki presses his lips together tightly.

“It’s usually when they bleed...it’s overwhelming.  You know how some people smell like the earth, or others like herbs?  Well, Galra smell like the stars .”

He leans in even closer, taking a long whiff.  He lets his breath out so it fills and expands through the entire room.  He says, lowly, “Guess what?”

Aki stares back at his face.  He whispers back on trembling breath, “Wh-what...?”

“You smell like one.”

Aki flinches back violently.

The Rabbit stands and nods the others over, who have turned, attention peaked.  “We’ve got one.”

No ,” Aki chokes, struggling desperately in his binds to get The Rabbit to understand.  “No, it’s not me! My father’s human! I have...it’s a friend.”

“Do you really?”  The Rabbit hums in boredom, inspecting his gloves.  “Tell me more.”

Cut me and smell my blood.  It’s not me .  I swear.  I know who my biological parents are and they can’t be more human, I promise .”

“What’s your friend’s name?  The Galra?”

Aki hesitates, eyes falling to the floor as he tries to think of a name.  He’s not fast enough. He’s not a good enough liar. He whispers weakly, “I-It’s just not me...”

It’s Keith.  He knows it’s him.  He had grabbed at Aki earlier, they had been in the same car together, they wash their clothes together, they live together.  It’s Keith written all over Aki, damning him.

Aki could sell Keith out.  Keith wouldn’t be mad, not at all, if they can switch places then let them , but he doesn’t do it.  He doesn’t. Despite his blind fear, he takes Keith onto him.

Keith closes his eyes tightly and grits at his teeth.  This isn’t going to go smoothly, like he’d hoped. This isn’t going to go well at all.  Because Aki is panicking, blubbering in fear as they grab him by the collar to drag him out of the line and forward.

And Keith can’t stand that.

No one’s fucking touching his child.  That’s that.

Keith grabs the can opener before he can think.  Everything in Keith’s being is alight with a flame he thought had long gone out.  He forgets himself. All he can feel is his rage, howling inside of himself with fury.  He throws that can opener as hard as he can; he puts every bit of his power into it. It spins like a dagger through the air and, with the loudest fucking clunking thud Keith’s ever heard, it hits The Rabbit straight across the head.

And The Rabbit, despite his casual affected cool, stumbles forward like a clumsy oaf, grunting in pain.

Everyone goes still in shock.  Aki’s mouth drops as he whips his eyes wildly to Keith’s.  “ No .”  He says.  “ Why ?”

All the Creatures turn back to look at him, zeroed in and congregating right to the spot where Keith stands.

But all Keith can think of is how their hands are on Aki, how they’re so close to him, intent to harm.  How dare they?  How dare they?

Don’t touch him! ” Keith foams at the mouth, feral anger boiling through his veins.  In a room that felt cold earlier, Keith is a flame, a fire burning out of control.

And then there’s chaos.

Keith’s not as fast, not as trained, not as agile.  But he’s still pretty fucking good. There are some things you just don’t forget.

But they’re pretty good too.  Trained. Practiced. Fast and agile.  It’s too obvious. And Keith, already shaking and weak from...well, months of being worn down, can’t take on five to his weakened one.  It would’ve been difficult even at his prime.

Before he knows it, they pin him down kicking and spitting and punching and cursing them.  They force his hands behind him and bind them painfully tight. They’re knotted well. Keith can feel it.  And then he’s tossed onto the floor like a sack of potatoes right beside Aki, who just stares in blank horror.

They have their damages.  One’s holding his gut and groaning.  Another’s rubbing at the mask breathing hard.  “He fucked up my eye,” they wheeze. “Oh, shit...  He fucked up my eye.”

“You missed one.”  The Rabbit says lowly, but his voice is overfilled with acid as he points to Keith.  “You said you scoured the place.”

“I-I did .”

“Really?  Well, where did you come from, little cockroach?  From the wood grain in the floor? From the shelving, hidden behind the boxes?”  The Rabbit asks, turning his bug-eyed rabbit mask to Keith.

“Fucking bathroom , you fucking idiots.”  Keith spits out blood at their feet.

“Ha.  A mistake.  One mistake can cost us this entire organization.  Not just you, not just us, but all of us .  And now, we’re behind.  Two minutes left. What do you have to say for yourself?”

The man heaves a small grunt.  “Won’t happen again.”

“You’re right.  It won’t.” He points the gun and, without a blip, without a spot of hesitation, aims the gun to his ally’s eye and pulls the trigger.

And there’s a loud sharp explosion through the silence.  And the man who was standing one moment, hits the ground the next.  And he’s dead. And that’s that.

Hostages are just everyday citizens.  They have not been numbed to the horror of war and death.  It’s louder in person, close-range and still in a state of shock.  Despondence makes way for their terror and hysteria and people begin to scream.

“Don’t look,” Keith whispers to Aki quickly, focusing on Aki’s face and nothing else.  Not on the blood pooling against sparkling white floor. Not on the still body a few feet away.  Not at the way his heart’s fluttering a million miles per hour, like wings against his throat. How he feels sick and scared and in disbelief over this, he can’t afford that.  He focuses on Aki.

“Look at me, Aki.  Look at me.” Aki turns his eyes to Keith, pupils blown so wide and dazed that the flecks of gold are almost pushed out of sight.  “They only have a limited amount of time before help comes. Okay? And they know it and their time is running out, that’s why he’s upset.  Pidge knows what’s happening, I left the phone on in the aisle. She will get us help. And we’ll be home soon. Both of us, making that cake, okay?  Just breathe in. You are safe. Hear me? Just be calm. Just don’t fight them and everything will be okay. You cannot panic. That is where the trouble lies.”

“What if they find you,” Aki whispers on tightened high breath.  “What if they do -”

“Don’t worry about me right now,” he says to Aki lowly, watching the fear tumbling and stretching behind his eyes.  “I’ll worry about that. You worry about you. Don’t call me ‘Dad’. ...We can’t let them know we’re related or they will target you.  And whatever I do, if I fight, if they hurt me, whatever they do , you stay put .  Do you understand me?  Try to run if you can, run and get help.  Do not fight them.”

You threw a fucking can opener at him -!”

“Shut up!”  The Rabbit snarls at everyone’s spiked panic.  “Or you’re next. Next person to cry out, gets it.  We don’t have time.” He turns to the rest of his men.  “This is the Galra capital of the world. This will hit them hardest.”

“I thought you said there’d be tons of Galra here,” The Cat grumbles.  “That boy doesn’t look Galra.”

“It’s like somehow they knew .”

“You said they couldn’t track us.”

“They can’t .”

“We have to leave!”  The Bird interrupts their squabbling sharply.  “We’re almost out of time. I’m not getting caught.  If we get caught, we won’t be finding any Galra in jail.”

The others are fidgeting, ready to get out of here, on the tips of their toes with anxiousness.

But The Rabbit stays in his spot, feet away from Keith.  “...The Galaxy Garrison is ten minutes away from here. The Garrison .  Those filthy Galra love that shit they spew about unity and peace.  They actually feel like they’re brethren.”

“Look at them,” The Bird tosses his hand at Aki.  “Whatever you think you smell, he’s human. They all look human.  Let’s go .”

“His stench isn’t as strong, it’s true.  Full Galra are a bit easier to recognize.  But half breeds are more difficult and, at the core, they’re maybe even more of a threat than a full Galra.  How many, do you think, lie about who they are, hiding it, not letting others know? Doesn’t that scare you? Knowing your spouse could be one of them?  That they could be hiding within your own family and you don’t even know it...? Having sex with them?  Like having sex with a dog .  And that’s somehow okay?  We can’t leave here empty handed.”

“There’s no time .”

Just go , Keith pleads quietly in his head.  The others are already starting to take a few nervous steps to the door.  Just leave .  They’re so close.

Until The Rabbit takes a step back toward them, slowly looking over to Aki, pressing the barrel of the gun to the masks’ lips in thought.  His eyes slide over to Keith’s.

Keith’s heart stops, but his body floods with relief.  Look at him. Not Aki. At him.

The Rabbit is trying to work out something he already knows intuitively.

“...Something about him is rubbing me the wrong way,” he murmurs thoughtfully.  “...What’s your name, soldier? You fight like you’ve fought before. Your style...almost familiar but...animalistic too.  I almost thought you had us for a second there. I was surprised and impressed.” He angles himself forward, getting a closer look at Keith.  For all his talk about needing to hurry, he takes his time, tilting his head as he presses closer. Keith can feel Aki’s tension spiking the closer The Rabbit gets and he wishes he could just undo these binds to hold his hand out to Aki.  To tell him, no , don’t do anything .

The Rabbit sniffs him.  Keith can smell the soap he uses he’s so close.

“Do I know you?”  The Rabbit murmurs in a tone that almost sounds like wonder.

Keith just stares back, but there’s nothing to read.

“What’s your name, soldier?”

It’s funny how Keith can be afraid of his own shadow some days.  How someone can accidentally knick him with a cart and he’s sent sprinting to the bathroom in a panic.  But this, staring up into this nightmare come to life...he feels absolutely nothing. His body is numb to this right now.  He’s kicked into some strange state of survival mode. If he survives this, he knows it’ll all hit him like he’s never been hit before.  Right now, he’s just holding steady for as long as he can.

He stares back into this demented mask, into this being who has killed so many so thoughtlessly, who has spread his hatred and malice and despair out through this world like a plague.  He’s right here, inches from Keith, but they’re in the wrong places.

“You have a scar just like our Lord and Savior, the head of Voltron.  Lucky you. And look at those eyes... Violet. How strange,” The Rabbit whispers, bringing his hand up to grab Keith gently by the chin.  And it’s wrong, the way he touches Keith. Softly, intimately, like Shiro might. With a care to his movements that shouldn't fit the act he’s committing.  “Almost feral... The way you stare back with such defiance. I know those kind of eyes... I’ve smelled this kind of smell...”

Keith can almost see a glimmer of light against his actual eyes behind the darkness the mask brings.  He does not break his gaze from Keith’s or move his hand from Keith’s chin as he says lowly, “I found one.”  His voice is filled with absolute certainty.

The Bird tsks.  “Even if he is, it doesn’t matter, we have to go .”

Just go , Keith wills in his head as he stares back into this rabbit face.  Just go, just leave, just run .

This late, the Garrison are probably out there, waiting, a net ready to catch them.  If there can be no casualties, if they can just get out of here physically unharmed...

“I’m not leaving with a Galra in our midst.”

“No,” Aki breathes, looking to The Rabbit and then to The Bird, head turning desperately.  “No. Look at him, he’s human Look at him .”

The woman from beside Aki stammers, “My aunt - she had a funny sharp chin.  Everyone thought she was Galra, but she wasn’t. She smelled strange too. Like the earth.”

Keith looks to her.  He doesn’t even know her and she speaks for him.  Risks herself for him.

The Rabbit looks over for a moment and chuckles lowly.  “You two are acting very suspiciously, you know that? People are funny...

“Tell me, soldier.  Are you Galra?”

“Whatever I am,” Keith breathes, “Earth is my home, just as it can be for both humans and Galra alike.  You’re not the judge of that.”

The Rabbit sighs loudly.  “You’re an idiot, aren’t you?  You shouldn’t have said that to me.”  With a quickness that surprises Keith, he stands and kicks him hard in the jaw.  The pain is immediate. But Keith does not bow. He brings his dark gaze right back, holding himself tall.  So then, The Rabbit sends his knee right into Keith’s nose. Blood gushes down his face. A lot of it. It goes down his throat and chokes him for a moment, and The Rabbit takes that moment to jam his foot on top of Keith’s back, sending his face crashing into the floor.

It stuns him momentarily.  He can hear Aki crying out distantly through the static spewing in his mind.

“No, no , please stop!  Please .”

“Good boy,” The Rabbit murmurs.  “Stay down.”

Keith can see, head twisted on the ground, looking up at this man crushing him to the ground.

Through the static running through his body, through the heated sweat cloaking his chest and neck, he finds he’s not afraid of what will happen to him, not of the pain, not of the confrontation.  He’s afraid of Aki having to watch. Of him being slaughtered in front of his son like an animal. Of Aki having to fear living like Keith has grown to because of a past burned into their mind.

Or, even worse, of Aki losing it and dying too.

Both of them, dying here.  Shiro leaving for space in the morning with his family waiting and coming back home the next day to the both of them gone.

Keith not getting to grow old with his husband.  Not get to see his child bloom and find himself and thrive.

“Someone shut that little boy up before I do .”

The woman is on it with an urgency like Aki is one of her own.

“Well, at least we got one,” The Rabbit laughs softly under his breath.  He heaves Keith over onto his back as he looks down into his face. He presses the edge of his shoe to Keith’s cheek, forcing his head to the side.  “There’s something wild in your eyes. You don’t see that on anyone else. Look at you... So much a half-breed that you almost appear just like us...blending right in, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Amazing. Was it your mother or your father who stole their way onto our planet and thought to populate our home with their dirty kin? Who was it?”

Keith just stares back.

Who ?”  The Rabbit demands, leaning down onto his knees and blotting out Keith’s vision with only him.  His grip on Keith’s hair tightens.

The Rabbit stares back harder, jerking Keith’s head back roughly.  “...There’s just something about you...” He breathes, tilting Keith’s face with the tip of his shoe.  “Do I know you...?” He asks again, lowly, in a trance. “That face... That scar... Just like his... So much so that...-”  He stops. “But it couldn’t be.”

Keith can see Aki in his peripheral.  The way he’s hunched over, leaning toward Keith like he wants to get to him.

Dad , he keeps mouthing through his grimace.  Dad .  The woman crawls over to Aki and murmurs softly in his ear, using her shoulder to nudge Aki gently back.

“Is that...?”  The Rabbit breathes, gesturing The Cat over.

They both stare down.

She’s quiet.  “Oh, god...”

“It’s him.”

“Are you sure?  Could we have really gotten that lucky?”

“It’s him .  I’d know that face anywhere.  Isn’t it him?”

“Keith Kogane.”

“Keith.  ...Keith Kogane,” Even The Rabbit seems caught off guard as he whispers.  “...It can’t be.”

“...He looks different, but...that scar.”

“He’s a recluse.  I heard he doesn’t leave the house.”

“I heard he was dead.”

“I heard he lives on another planet.”

“He’s right here.”

“So he is...”

The hostages begin to alight, all buzzing and lifting their heads - in hope.  Keith swallows hard. He can’t look. He’s sprawled out on the floor, the pressure from the damage in his nose and jaw already getting to him.  But that’s not the worst feeling of the moment. If they’re expecting a savior, forgive him... He can’t be that hope. He can’t bear that burden anymore, not as broken down as he’s become.  And the thought fills him with so much sorrow.

“We know all about you.  Who doesn’t? It was your mother who was Galra,” The Rabbit says softly.  “I’ve seen her. Krolia .  She’s beautiful, you know.  It’s such a shame what she is...”  He begins walking around Keith slowly, sauntering like a panther, inspecting him from all angles.  “...Keith Kogane,” he repeats, mystified. “Wow. Wow .  What are the odds...?  You look...different. What happened to our golden knight in shining armor?  Invincible, incredible beyond words. Not as sparkly and heroic in person, are you?  Not by a long shot.” He laughs lowly. “Forgive me for not noticing you, but... you look just like us .  I thought you were supposed to be a god .  Are you sick?”  He pauses, giving Keith a chance to answer and, when he doesn’t, he laughs again.  “There were rumors that you died and the government was trying to cover it up. And...based on how you look, maybe they were right.  I thought you were supposed to be the light. The people’s hope in the darkness. An untouchable warrior. It’s so sad. Everything’s so sensationalized these days...  I don’t know why I’m so surprised.”

The Rabbit’s watch goes off and he silences it.

The Cat murmurs, “Let’s bring him with us and go.”

“...I think that would be unwise.”

“Why?  If we stay -”

“They’re already out there.”

“Already here?”  A soft gasp runs through the line of hostages.  Everyone looks back and out the windows, craning necks, eyes finally tipping the balance from fear to hope.

And yes, the authorities are starting to arrive.  But The Rabbit doesn’t flinch.

“It’s okay,” he says calmly.  “They think this means something, but do you realize what just fell into our hands?  The universe’s biggest bargaining chip. I thought coming here would be fruitful, sure, but to get this lucky...  The universe really is on our side.” He looks down. “Keith Kogane, the leader of Voltron, the Black and the Red paladin, our universe’s inspiration, the Galras’ hope. They will not be willing to get him hurt as long as he is in our hands.  They won’t be able to move. We have absolute power now.

“You’re not leaving, Keith Kogane.  There are some causes that are worth dying for, and I think this might just be one of them.  If you think your friends coming here means you’re safe, you can check that thought. You’re ours.  If they come through those doors, we’ll kill everyone in here. I promise. You don’t want that, do you?  Call your precious friends and tell them that if they take a step closer then you’re all dead.” He takes a hostage’s phone and asks for the number.

“No,” Keith whispers.

The Rabbit slows.  “What?”

No .”

They grab the gun and they shoot it.  And it happens so quickly, Keith can’t even think about it.  There’s the force of it. Keith feels himself hit, but his body doesn’t register the pain at first.

The shoulder.  A warning shot in his shoulder.  He slouches forward and looks at the blood pouring down his shirt, how he suddenly feels the clock starts ticking on his life.  How now he doesn’t have an advantage or time on his side.

The pain slowly trickles in and he grunts as he tries to remember how to focus it away.

The Rabbit gets his gun and points it right at Aki’s head.  “What did you just say again? Look how young he is. How innocent...  He seems to really worry for your wellbeing. Wouldn’t it be a shame if my finger - just - slipped -”

Keith grits out the number.

“Iverson.  It’s Keith,” Keith says lowly as Iverson picks up.

“Kogane?  Holt just said -”

“I’m inside the fucking market.  Look, I tried, I couldn’t take them.  They wanted me to call you to let you know that if the people outside come any closer, they’ll kill us all.  They already shot me in the shoulder.” His voice shakes. “I...I, since Shiro’s gone, today I... Pidge knows.  I -” Brought Aki , he wants to say, but cannot.  Not with listening ears.

Iverson is quiet for a moment.  “I hear you.”

“It’s them.”

“...Godspeed, Kogane.”

The Rabbit cancels the call.  “I knew you could do it. And now, we have something for you.”

He leaves Keith’s side, reaching for a bag that The Cat gives him.  He slowly takes items from it, one by one.

Camera equipment.

He begins setting it up in the center of their space, calmly, methodically, like he has all the time in the world.  He walks across the room and into the cafe on the side of the building to drag a chair over. He takes a seat on it, crossing his legs and threading his fingers together as he tilts his head and stares.

“Keith Kogane.  They call you a savior.  Soon before you saved the universe, Galra began to flood our planet.  I remember it well. I used to be in the Garrison too. I was just a cadet then, a good little boy.  But I had my doubts then, just like any of us. How could we fight alongside one enemy just because we have another common enemy?  Two wrongs doesn’t make a right. How can you trust them?

“I was so wary, but I listened to you.  I did. Just like everyone else because why not trust the savior of our world?  He’s seen so much of the universe, he’s ought to know. But then, the Galra showed their true colors one day and stormed into our camp and killed my family.  They burned my face. It was cruel. It was animalistic. There was no humanity in what they’d done to us. And as I was recovering in the hospital, completely alone and maimed...you and that husband of yours were in the news, making a speech about how, if we all come together, if we all live in harmony...  With these animals ...”

He gets up and begins fiddling with the equipment again.  It’s almost done being set up, attached to a tripod. Keith doesn’t want to think about it, his thoughts are starting to draw to the aching fire throbbing in his shoulder.  He feels sweat building on the back of his neck, dripping down his back. The pain is slowly churning higher and higher.

“I was told I was supposed to make peace with ones who kill innocents.  Your ideals mean nothing to me.”

Keith whispers through gritted teeth.  “Allura lost her family and her people to the Galra too.  She hated me when she found out what I was. But then she realized I was the same person I ever was, even when she thought I was only human...  You can’t lump everyone into one. My mother is full Galra and fought against Zarkon’s empire.  The Blade of Marmora are Galra and, without them, we would’ve never been able to succeed.  Humans would be either slaves to Zarkon or extinct. That was because of them. It’s true, some can be cruel and do awful things.  ...But so can some humans. So can anyone, that has nothing to do with race. Look at you. Look at what you’ve done to innocent children .  You think that’s justice?  You think you’re better than them?  These people you’re killing are not bad people.  You’re just spreading more of the pain you felt.  You’re encouraging the very cycle that hurt you..”

“When you see a fly, do you differentiate between one to the other?”

“...People are not flies.”

“Maybe not to you,” he says, standing.  “But then again, you’re just a half breed, confused, with no real place in either world, so you try to mix them into one because of your own selfish desires.

“I want to show you something.  Here is our friend, The Turtle. She’s the best tech genius of our time.  Not even your Pidge Gunderson could find us.  We’re going to broadcast live to the entire world and then send this out to the universe soon after.  See? It doesn’t matter if we die here. We’re going to get what we want anyway. You’re going to say some things for us here.  Or we’ll kill you. Easy, right?”

“And if I don’t, you’ll kill me anyway.”

“Well, here’s the thing about heroes.  They’re so easily manipulated. All you have to do is -”  He points his gun at a hostage and shoots.

Keith closes his eyes.

He forgot how it was.  How fast things could happen.  How entire lives can be snuffed or changed in a split second.

He dragged this bit on for too long when he knew it was dangerous.  Aki’s just as vulnerable, just as susceptible as whoever The Rabbit just shot.

And now another family will have to mourn for the rest of their lives.  And it will be another horrible news story in the papers, on some news article that will be discarded and copied, week after week, year after year.

People are screaming and sobbing.  The Rabbit kneels beside Keith, placing a hand onto his hurt shoulder and pressing his thumb into the wound, forcing him to cry out.  “You lost one. If you don’t do as I say, I will slowly kill each and every innocent soul here. And that’ll be on you. How sad... Their whole lives gone in an instant because you wouldn’t say some simple lines from us.  Or, you can say what I want and I will spare these humans and only dispose of you. Got it?”

Breathe...  Breathe. Keith bites at his lip and nods sharply.

“Good.  Now, get in the seat.  We’re starting. Turtle, got it?”

“Yes.  Starting now.”

Keith looks to Aki as he pulls himself up.  There’s blood on the floor where he sat, right beside Aki.  He gives him a small smile. “I love you,” he mouths and Aki’s tears build over his eyes and pour down his cheeks.

No , Aki mouths back.  No, don’t go.  Don’t.

But what can he do?  The woman attempts to soothe Aki as Keith walks to his seat and sits before the camera, feeling its weight bore into him.  He stares at the lens, so innocently static there, relaying a dangerous image to the world.

Horrific what people can do to others.  Not just to Keith, but to the world. Showing this...stripping them of their protection, no matter how false it might be.  Hurting. Always hurting.

Pidge says there’s a balance in this world.  ...Keith feels so tired trying to believe that.  Because he’s here. They were just coming to the store for something so inconsequential.  Box cake. They could’ve just made a fucking cake at home and it would’ve been better anyway, but they didn’t.  If Keith had said yes to the thirty dollar cake. If Keith had driven himself from the get go, if Aki hadn’t adjusted the wheel to the car, if Pidge hadn’t called, trying to warn him, if they hadn’t stopped to talk to her for those few minutes...maybe they’d be out of here.  Maybe they’d already be home making their fucking box cake for Griffin, safe, and this would just be another disconnected news story.

This world is so random.  You can’t protect yourself, no matter how desperately you scramble to.  Where’s the balance? Where’s the justice? Where’s the hope?

He should’ve just let go from his fear from the beginning, it all led him here anyway.

“Keith Kogane.  Our light, our savior,” The Rabbit laughs lowly.  He reaches his hand for Keith’s chin and tilts his head.  “Look at the red recording light, how it glows. You’re live.  Try anything funny and you know what happens.” He taps his gun to his shoulder and steps back behind the camera, holding up a notepad with written text.  “This is what you’re going to say.”

Keith scans over the words quietly.

Today, I have been captured by The Galra Resistance.  Being half Galra myself, I have been spreading misinformation and candied words of peace and unity.  I was lying all along. In reality, Galra are killers. They are a disease that are taking over our planet.  For as long as they stay here, they must be exterminated.

What to do?  He struggles with the binds on his wrists.  They’re so tight. He can’t slip loose. He doesn’t want anyone else to die.  Especially when Aki’s on that conveyor belt of hostages, waiting and vulnerable.

What to do?

He can’t say those words.  He won’t be the reason for millions of others losing hope and having that seed of fear planted in their hearts.

The Rabbit taps the board patiently.  “I know you’re going to do the right thing,” he murmurs.  “Because people will die otherwise and I know you don’t want that.  They’re your people to protect, aren’t they? Who are you really if you can’t even protect these few?”

What can he do?  They have guns, holding them casually at their sides.  The Turtle looks slow, but Keith knows the three others are not.  The Rabbit, The Cat, and The Bird were enough all alone to hold him down.

It wouldn’t be enough.

“Any day now,” The Rabbit growls.  “I’m getting impatient.”

Keith takes in a shaky breath.  They’re going to kill him regardless.  Everyone having to see that.

Shiro having to see that.

Aki having to live it.

“Today,” Keith swallows hard.  “Today...” He takes a long deep breath, locking eyes with the camera before him.  And he can’t help but imagine all the thousands, maybe millions of others out there, watching in horror and fear.  And he just...can’t do it. He’s not a liar either.

He says, voice low and as sincere as he can make it,  “Whatever they do, don’t let this let you lose hope. Don’t let this scare you.  I am not the bridge between Galra and humanity.  Or of loving and protecting this universe.  You are .”

“Are you kidding me...? The Rabbit hisses angrily.  “ Shut him up.  Shut.  Him. Up.”

“I believe in the unity of our people,” Keith says over him.  “Galra and humans and everyone else. There’s no limit. You’re all wonderful.  I believe in this world and all of us in it. Don’t lose hope. Especially not in yourself.”

They knock him over the head and he only sees black for a moment.  He grits through the pain and presses on, projecting his voice louder, from his core, “We were all just children once, each and every one of us, born of this  same universe. Galra, human, whatever .  We are all made of the same cosmic dust, different fragments of the same stars.  I am your family. If I’ve ever had strength, then we all share it. Don’t let anyone else - especially these terrorists - let you think any differently.”

They grab him by the hair and he leans back, kicking them as hard as he can in the gut, only for another to grab him from behind, try to subdue him.  He bites one in the fucking neck as they beat him down. He tastes blood. He spits it in their eyes.

And they just keep pushing him down.

He’s only one person.  Keith Kogane, but age has weathered him.  He’s worn and tired and scared. He’s only a shadow of the Keith he’d been.  And it shows.

He can’t win like this, bound and chained and fighting on his own.

He is losing and he will die.

Dad!”   Aki screams, getting to his feet.  “Dad!”

“Aki, no!” Keith bellows, but it’s too late.

The Rabbit turns as he hears the words.  And they all go still, staring into Aki’s pale terrified face.

The Rabbit laughs breathlessly under his breath.  His voice lights like a child on Christmas morning.  “...I forgot. You have a child. On a little father/son shopping trip, hm?”

“Don’t touch him,” Keith growls, lurching forward so violently his arm painfully threatens to pop from its socket.  “ Don’t touch him!’

But it’s just...too late.  They know now. They know about Aki and now he’s a target more than even Keith.

They’re all looking at him, leaving Keith on the floor, attention distracted, on the wrong person.

No .

There is no time to ease his wrists from his binds.  He feels as it gives way and breaks. But he doesn’t care.  He doesn’t even think about it. They’re going after Aki and Keith finds something inside of himself.  He feels something snap and he goes berserk with strength he forgot he had.

He doesn’t even think about it.  He doesn’t give the others time to realize before he’s jumping on The Rabbit’s back and choking him from behind with one arm.  The Bird turns, eyes wide. He goes to drag Keith off, but Keith already sees him, grabbing him with all the ferocity in his body and shoving him into the aisles, where a pyramid of cans dumps on top of him.  The Turtle slips on a can, gun scattering. Keith jerks The Rabbit to the floor and scoops it up as it flings right into his path.

“Drop your weapon!”  Keith roars to The Cat and The Bird, shooting the light above them so that it shatters loudly, covering them with broken glass.  The light flickers on and off. He jams the barrel to The Rabbit’s temple. “Drop it or I’ll shoot, I swear to god!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” The Cat breathes and they both immediately drop their guns and hold their hands in the air.  “Easy. We hear you...”

“Kick them away from you,” he grits between his teeth as he grabs the gun from The Rabbits belt and tosses it away.

They do so, sending the guns skittering into the aisles.

“Aki, get back,” Keith breathes roughly as he keeps his sights trained on the others.  He doesn’t peel his eyes away from them. They’re too slippery, too trained, too good. “Aki, go.  Go, go, go, go. Be careful as you exit. Slow, with your hands up. Iverson will help you.”

“No,” Aki cries, tears flooding down his cheeks.  “No, I’m scared. Not without you.”

“Go.  Go .  I’ve got this.  This is right where we want them.  Everything will be okay. I just want you out .”

“No!  No!   Don’t do that!  Don’t say that! I’m not leaving you here alone!”  He stomps his foot. It reminds Keith of how Aki used to do that as a child whenever he didn’t get his way.  At the store, over less dire things. Wanting a pony figurine instead of a dragon.

“God.  Aki, don’t argue with me now!  Any other time but now, I can not let you get hurt.  Go !  I can’t keep them here forever.”

The woman beside Aki tries to soothe him.  “Listen to your father, child. It’ll be okay.  He’ll be okay. It’ll be easier for him to get this situation under control if you’re out of the scene.”

“Take him,” Keith breathes.  “ Please .  And the others too, slowly.”

“Dad,” Aki weeps, as the woman carefully ushers him away.  “Dad, no... I didn’t mean for this...”

“I know.  It’s okay, Aki, everything will be okay.  I’ll meet you out there.”

Aki lets the woman bring him through the store’s front.  The automatic doors open to pure light. And he’s out. And he’s safe.  And Keith can finally breathe easy.

He’s saved.  Aki’s saved. That’s all that mattered.

Keith starts feeling the tremble of his hand, the relief prickling through his veins as his fear high starts to come down.  He had been so scared it had burned the humanity out of him. And he feels himself returning, like the flickering of the lights overhead.  He’s got to hurry before everything returns, every little unwanted bit of him.

All he has to do is keep his gun trained on them.  Get them to Iverson. Get these hostages out and safe.

But his time is running out.  He’s starting to feel dizzy from the blood loss.

The Rabbit stays still, but he’s stiff, tense, neck down and low, like a panther waiting before his next move.

“A child, huh?”  The Rabbit laughs under his breath.  “You’ve always been so careful about him.  There are never any pictures of him out there.  ...He looks like you. Adopted or did you create him like some science experiment, shaped in your image?  So you can worship yourself every day?”

Keith tightens his sweaty hold on the gun, nodding his head curtly to the door on the other side of the building, away from the hostages as they slowly file out.  “The door. Behind you. I want you three to back up slowly, keeping your hands up. If I see any sudden movements, rest assured, I do know how to use a gun,” he bites out icily.  “You’re all well-versed in all of this. I’ve seen how many people you’ve killed in cold blood and it has sickened me to my core. I’ve been wanting a chance to confront you like this.  ...I’m sure I don’t need to tell you I’m not afraid to pull the trigger if I need to. Your lives aren’t worth the lives of others.”

The Rabbit is still, even with his hands up.

“Go,” Keith whispers lowly.

But still, that fucking mask that Keith cannot see through, he doesn’t move.  All Keith can see is the way the figure’s chest rises and falls. How The Cat, The Bird, and The Turtle wait for The Rabbit’s command, not Keith’s.

Keith elbows him forward roughly in the sensitive part of his back.  “ Go !”

They finally do.  Moving slowly, like he’s stalling, even as Keith pushes him forward.  But they’re doing it. The three turn back to The Rabbit before exiting, like they’re praying he has a solution, but he says nothing.  The three are out, hands up, the authorities roaring commands at them over a megaphone.

At the door wide open, bursting with light, inches from freedom, The Rabbit stops.

He murmurs lowly, so low it’s almost a whisper.   “...You’re right. I do know how to spot someone unafraid of killing.  You can see it in their faces and the way they hold themselves...whether they’ll actually do it or not.  ...I know you’ve killed, Keith Kogane, but...look at how you tremble now...”

Sweat slips down the sensitive skin of Keith’s neck.

“I’ve been thinking.  We all know you’ve just...disappeared mysteriously from the public eye.  You’re missing from the Garrison. Some people think you’re dead .  You know what I think?  I think you are sick.  I think something happened to you, something big.  Look at the dark circles under your eyes. That pale sallow little face...”  His voice lowers in dark amusement. “Look at how you shake. You’re unsteady.  You’re slipping. Something’s changed in you. The stories I’ve heard...

“Years ago, I would’ve been afraid of the incredible Keith Kogane .  He was something to be feared.  But whoever you were, it’s obvious he’s gone.”

Keith tries to keep focus on him.  He knows all The Rabbit has right now are mind games and if Keith can just be stable for once lately, then he will win.  Those are the facts.

He’s sweating bullets though.  There’s a sharp sick overheated feeling boiling over in his core and spreading out to each nerve ending in his body and he’s shaking , shaking so hard that he thinks he might be able to hear the gun rattling...

Go ,” Keith whispers thickly, pushing him.  “Or I’ll shoot.”

“Maybe those rumors about you saving people were just that - rumors.  So I guess the question is this: would the Keith Kogane of now actually shoot?”  He stretches the words out like dark roasted caramel. “Or is he bluffing...?”

Keith struggles.  He’s drowning. “...I have the gun,” Keith reminds him stiffly.  “One more word from you and it will be your last. I’m sure everyone here just wants to go home and not listen to your rabble .  I have enough on you to kill you a hundred times over without remorse.  No one will mourn you. This is your last warning. Get moving or I pull this trigger.”

Keith thinks he has it.  Not even a minute now, they’ll be safe.

Keith can barely hear around the buzzing rambling inside his head, that too-stuffed feeling that bloats out the sharpness of his senses, but still, he doesn’t expect it when he feels something sharp pierce into his back.

It’s not The Bird, nor is it The Cat or The Turtle.  Keith’s kept a careful eye on them all and he sees they’re secured outside.

“Put the gun down,” someone breathes.

It’s one of the hostages.  One of the ones Keith was trying to save.  Lured into a false sense of security and the assumption that they were wanting this help, Keith had turned his back to them to hone his focus on the enemy.

But Keith should know by now...sometimes things aren’t as black and white as they seem.  Sometimes enemies come from where you least expect it: your own people...your own mind...

With every breath Keith takes, he feels the broken glass jammed into his side.  Adrenaline covers him, but for how long? He tries to breathe shallowly as he says lowly, “...Think about what you’re doing.  All these people could die in here. They’ve killed so many already. They’re going to jail, but you don’t have to if you just put the weapon down and step away...”

But the point digs deeper into Keith’s flesh as he grits against the pain.  The man spits, “I’ve always thought it, ever since you brought that purple alien you call mother here beside you.  Why would you do that?  It’s our Earth, not theirs.  They have other planets?  What gives them the right?  What gives you the right?  Just because you supposedly saved the universe means you get to call all the shots now?  You’re not god.”

“...So you call them instead?”

“Things were fine as they were.  Why change when things were okay?”

“If you would just give them a chance, you’d see we’re not so different.”

“You were the chance.  And you just brought more of them with you.  ...Drop the gun. These people are doing the right thing.  Whether you can see it or not, they’re trying to save our planet.”

“All these misconceptions -”  Keith tries again, but the man twists the glass and Keith jerks forward, hand spasming and dropping the gun.  He falls to the floor.

The Rabbit just watches calmly, like this were the plan all along, as he takes one careful step away and looks down.

“You idiot,” Keith breathes and he doesn’t know if he’s talking to the man or himself.

“I believe this is yours,” the man says, picking up and holding the gun out to The Rabbit.

And it’s the worst feeling in the world, being so close to being home free, only to see the demons flooding back out from their gates.  The automatic doors close.

They were so close.  They were right there.  Keith thought he had it, it was right in his hands, but...

“...Thank you,” The Rabbit hums lowly as he grabs the gun and inspects it like it’s an old friend.  “I was almost about to be surprised by the Keith Kogane.  Maybe he’s more human than I thought.  We all make mistakes, don’t we?”

Keith swallows hard.

“You almost made it out with your son.  Did you taste it? Freedom? Sit back in the seat.  It was made for you.”

He drags him back to the recorder.

Time, time , Keith just needs some moment of distraction, another scuffle, some sort of blip in this to turn the tide.  But the tide was just turned, only it’s going the wrong way.

The Rabbit shoves Keith roughly toward the chair, but he overthrew him and Keith is dizzier than he thought.  He can’t catch himself and he topples over the side of it and over, hitting his head on the ground as his torso slides over the seat.

God.  It hurts.  His back, his shoulders, his head, his heart.  The Rabbit looms over him, looking down. “...You are a disease and a curse.  Even the people you’re trying to save sense it too and they turn on their own savior.”

Keith laughs lowly through the pain.  “There’s always that one asshole in a group, isn’t there?”

The Rabbit kicks his foot down into Keith’s face, cramming him there as Keith spits stark red blood on the ground.

The tide of a battle can change so quickly, wooshing forward and back, forward and back.

“I would say you just have bad luck, soldier.  Or should I say, savior? Won’t you tell me before you die, the great big mystery of your disappearance?  Is it some Galra sickness? Some parasite only you people get? Feline toxoplasmosis maybe? Do you think your husband’s infected by it?  I mean, your son smelled of you , didn’t he?  So how deeply was your husband infected?

“It’s just something that’s always fascinated me so much.  How there are so many people in this world, billions, but there’s only one, just one , in all of us, who became acknowledged as the savior of our people.  And he was half-human, half-Galra. And I almost was able to swallow it, almost , until this moment, right now.  Look at you .  If I kill you, I kill the shining star of hope for the Galra.  Then they’ll have nothing.”

He grabs ahold of the glass shard in Keith’s back and pulls.

Keith groans in guttural pain.  The Rabbit uses the glinting glass shard to adjust Keith’s face back to the camera, in the process cutting it sharply across his cheek.  Keith can feel the warmth of his own blood seeping down his cheek.

“You still bleed like everyone else.”  He carves slowly through Keith’s cheek, following the lines of the scar that's already there.   “Dirty blood. Filthy blood. The blood of only half a human, the other a monster. And people actually thought to worship you...?  But now, they know. Look into the camera, Keith Kogane. They’re all watching you now. They’re all seeing you. You couldn’t defeat the Galra Resistance, the poor Galra’s last hope.  Because you’re only mortal, after all. You're only a fable. Where’s your Voltron now? I won. I.  Won .  What do you think of that ?”

He feels sick. It’s all catching up to him, the fear, the crushing weight of his anxiety.  He's shaking so bad he’s seeing double.

 "...I think...your mask looks stupid," he whispers lowly.

He gets kicked again, to the floor, but he keeps laughing.

The Rabbit pulls his head back so roughly that Keith wheezes.  “Want to know something sick?” He leans forward to whisper into Keith’s ear, breath hot and sharp against his skin.  “The day everyone in my family died, I almost did too. But someone saved my life. And the one who saved me...who pulled me from the rubble, who told me to keep on living because there were things I still needed to do...it was you .

“If you hadn’t been there, I would’ve succumbed to my injuries and your Galra Utopia may’ve come together so seamlessly.  I used to hate it .  Hate that it was you who spared my life.  ...But I bet you regret it even more now, don’t you?  Saving everyone , thinking we’re all special little snowflakes.  Thinking we’re all made of the same fairy dust and sprinkles .  You are so naive that you saved your own killer and the one who stopped you from stopped me.”  He laughs lowly as he traces the shard down Keith’s neck. “It was me who went after and killed your people...  I did it as slowly and painfully as I could so they could feel all the wrongness that they are. And where were you?  Powerless against me, just like you are now. So thank you. And they can thank you as well...because, without you, none of this would’ve been possible...”

All this pain.  All these deaths.  All these kidnappings.

This world...is so random.  So cruel in some ways, so just in others.  But not now, they’re so far from justice right now.

The rabbit mask hangs over Keith, looming, spinning in Keith’s dizziness.  “You fought so hard for your own destruction in the end... Let this be the most important lesson of both your life and your death: not everyone deserves saving.  It’s better to let your enemies die. And now, everyone knows it.”

Keith swallows hard, feeling as the backs of his eyes sting, feeling the pain of each parent who’s helplessly lost a child, each person who’s lost a loved one.  It twists and writhes inside, sometimes warping in different forms of hatred.

It was war.  And everyone suffered.  He thinks of the eyes of every person he’s ever saved, pulled from rubble after thinking they’d be crushed, dragged from an ocean they thought they’d drown in.  So many people needed help and he could give it to them. He regrets none of it. “...You’re wrong. I saved a boy who could’ve chosen to help the world, it was you who made the choice to hurt it instead.  We all have choices, and you chose the wrong one.”

The Rabbit laughs in amusement, placing his hand on Keith’s neck and jamming it back.  Those fucking LED lights overhead, so overly painfully bright that they pierce into Keith’s skull.  That blazing white swallows him whole. Is this really the last thing he’ll see...? Just this white that blares, this harshness in a world Keith wishes could just...soften.

The warm lights at home look nothing like this.  Those fairy lights in the backyard, the ones he and Shiro strung together.  Was that really almost twenty years ago? The small twinkling of stars in the universe, beyond his and Red’s nose as they looked out and around, side-by-side with Shiro and the others, their found family.

The warmth that’s part of this universe, just hiding somewhere, far from where it’s blotted out in Keith’s vision right now.

Wrong.  This is all wrong.  Keith’s body is just...blank static.  All of it. He just stares up at those lights.

There’s got to be something he can do.  Anything. There’s always something.  How many dire situations have they gotten into during their adventures in space and how many times have they managed to slip through with their lives?  Countless times.

But that was different.  Not only was he different, but he had the other paladins at his side.  Maybe Pidge would be hiding with her bayard, just out of view, ready to strike.  Maybe Shiro would be blazing in, just as golden and heroic as always. Maybe Lance with his sharp-shooting , or Hunk with his canon, or Allura with her whip.

As a team, they could do anything, conquer anything.

No one is here though.

How did it come to this?  He woke up only hours ago - only hours - warm in bed with Shiro, never even imagining for one moment he would be here, in this hard ricket-y seat, bleeding in front of a broadcast of millions, maybe billions, this broken shard of glass pressed to his exposed neck, defeated.

They were just going to get fucking box cake...

No one expects it, he guesses.  Not any of the people who were kidnapped, any of them who died.  Even though this world is in such scattered disarray. Keith watched the news, was dying slowly over it, fearful and consumed by it for so long...but still, this managed to blindsight him completely.

All his worrying and fear did nothing.

He’s still here.  Tied up. Bleeding.

There was nothing good that came of it.

People always think Keith’s this stand-alone hero, that he can save the universe with one hand tied behind his back balancing the world on the tip of his pinky finger, but they never realized his strength comes from having his family’s support, from so many different things...

What will Shiro do when he sees this footage?  What will Aki do as he watches from outside, safe, waiting for Keith to join him, just like Keith promised?

Who is Keith Kogane?

He didn’t think he knew, but maybe it’s been so simple all along.

He’s a liar. Maybe he's too naive, too desperate to believe there’s a world he can stand somewhere on the horizon, terrified of the world they're living in.

He’s a friend to the best most supportive buddies he could’ve ever hoped for.

He’s a son to a mom who chose him over a universe.

Who is he...?  How could he have ever struggled over the thought when suddenly, it seems so clear.  He’s finally seeing his reflection in the same mirror that had once seemed so muddied.

He sees himself.

He’s human.  So painfully, vulnerably human.

He’s Galra too.  With his beloved mother’s blood running through his veins, a blood that used to hurt him in his loneliest times, but now is one of the few things that gives him strength.

Keith is not unlucky.  He is the luckiest being in the universe.

Because he is a husband to the greatest man he’s ever known, would ever know, even if he traveled the universe for millenia seeking for proof on the contrary.

Because Keith had nothing once, but now he is a father to a boy...one he might not get along with everyday...hell, who is he kidding?  They never get along. But he almost laughs as he realizes why: they’re so similar, so alike, that, even though they fight, that’s just who they are.  Two fighters, two kindred spirits stuck in a house together.

Maybe, one day, Aki will think back and realize how much he had been too afraid to see as a teen.  And maybe he’ll get Keith’s fears and understand his mistakes. Maybe he’ll even forgive him.

Keith’s just Keith.  He tried his best. He really did.  ...And he finds he’s actually proud of himself, of who he is.

He’s naive, sure, and despite how much his mind has fucked him up, somehow, he’s still hopeful.

Keith has been biting his nails over who would be able to protect Aki in this harsh world.  He was so scared he wouldn’t be enough. ...But even in this situation that shoved itself in their faces so violently and abruptly...his worst nightmares realized, Keith realizes there is someone who will protect Aki.  It’s him. He did it. Him.

Aki has a future.  ...And Shiro will still have family.  And so will Krolia.

He protected what mattered most to him and he can’t feel any luckier.

And this is it.  His final moments played out in front of the camera, like some sort of sick modern day execution.  And all he can think of is how much he loves this world.

“Any final words?”  The Rabbit asks above him.  Keith’s eyes are wet and his vision blurs.  This is it, he feels death cold and sharp against his neck.  “I suppose, if anyone should get final words, it should be you.”

Neck tilted back, open for the killing blow, Keith breathes.  He lets his eyes flutter closed, feels the energy in the air, the spirit in this moment, and he whispers:

“Every night...before I fall asleep, I think of three things I’m most grateful for.  Three stars I hang up in my own dark night sky to brighten my way.

“The first is Shiro.” Keith feels the breath from his belly falling from his lips.  Feels how the words form on his mouth, how they disperse through the light in the air.  “It will always be Shiro.”

He swallows hard, feels how it hurts around the lump in his throat.  How his head aches and his wrist burns, how he can feel his heartbeat in the wounds across his cheek, his shoulder, his back.  “The second is my son.

“...And the third is my son.

“And the rest is my son.

“It’s Aki.  Aki, Aki, Aki,” he trails off into whispers.

He stares up into the fluorescent lights, so bright, flooding his vision.  Maybe they all were right. This world isn’t all darkness after all.

“I love this universe,” Keith whispers quietly, tears building in his eyes.  “But we have to love each other too...or else we’re doomed.”

“That’s impossible.”

“I used to think that too, but there is good in this world.  I know there is...” There has to be.  Keith’s lived such a good life, hasn’t he?

“Naive until the end.  All supposed heroes are.  Goodbye, then, Keith Kogane.  Thank you for saving my life so I can take yours.”

And Keith feels the pressure sharpen to a point.

A test.

This time, the question is this: in this world, where people can be so harsh, so cold, so filled with hatred that they'd kill for almost nothing...who will protect someone so sweet, so soft as Akihiro?

He’s always known why the girl being held hostage bothered him so much these past weeks.

Because who will save Aki if it happened to him?

Keith's figured out the answer. And it's so funny, he knew it all along.

Who will protect Aki?

Who?

The answer is Keith.  Keith will, with all he has. His heart, his mind, his life.

This is the price.  So he will pay it.

Who is he?

Keith isn't just a husband. He is a companion, a lover, a savior, a friend. He's not just a father. He's a fighter, an idiot sometimes, god forgive him, but he's Aki's, just Aki's.

His Baba. His family.

A blessed life.  Who could regret having a life like this...?  Not him. No. Not anymore.

There is the small rattle of a gun and Keith closes his eyes.

But death doesn’t come.

The glass stays right where it is, the pressure not becoming any harder or lighter.

Keith opens his eyes to Aki, standing there with a gun in his shaking hands, pressed against The Rabbit’s mask.

“My dad does that,” Aki whispers.  His nose is bright red from tears. His face is pale and he looks like hell, but he doesn’t budge.  He clears his throat. “He wants to save the universe no matter what it takes, but he always forgets about himself...”

Keith exhales like he’s been punched as his stomach knots.  “ No .  What are you doing here ?  You should’ve listened to me and left!  You’re going to get yourself killed!”

Aki sniffs wetly.  “...I have him right where I want them, right?  Now,” Aki snarls in a low threatening voice, “Let my dad go.  Or I’ll shoot.”

“...Kid,” The Rabbit chuckles.  “You’re as soft and naive as your father.”  He stares into the face of the gun and stands slowly.  “You forgot the safety.”

And then he’s on top of Aki, dropping the glass shard to grab at the gun, shoving it up toward the ceiling.

It goes off.  Debris from the ceiling scatters over them as The Rabbit knocks Aki off of his feet and straight to the ground, where Aki hits hard.  Keith can hear the small stunned oof forced out of him as the wind is knocked from his lungs.

“Aki!”  Keith cries as he pushes himself up.

Aki twists in a practiced move, trying to squirm away.

The Rabbit is strong.  Keith already knows that.  Aki won’t last against him.

But neither will Keith.  He’s at the end of his strength, broken wrist and shoulder impeding too much.  He’s only got one chance, this split second, to make this count.

He sees the guns that had been kicked away into the aisle earlier.  He looks to the gun, looks to Aki, tangled on the ground with this man who’s much bigger.  Should he fight? Should he reach for the gun? The choice is so critical. What would be best?  What would be best ?

He dives for the gun.

The Rabbit incapacitates Aki’s hold and twists the aim of the gun back.  Back on Aki.

It’s too close.  Keith doesn’t even give himself a moment to breathe.  He can’t watch this. His mind blanks.

He shoots.

And The Rabbit gets tossed to the ground from the force of it, hitting the ground on his side.

Keith runs forward, gun still trained on him.  The Rabbit clings to a bullet wound right beneath the clavicle.

“Aiming for the heart?”  The Rabbit chokes out a pained laugh.  “You missed.”

“No.”  Keith jams his foot against his chest, shoving him to the floor, still aiming the gun.  The pain in his swelling wrist is screaming, it’s barely usable, but he feels that finish line approaching again so he bears through it.  He just wants to go home. They’re so close again. “Your choice whether or not to be a cold-blooded murderer is yours, just like it’s mine.

“This time, you don’t get away,” Keith whispers.

“And next time, don’t trust your people, Keith Kogane,” he breathes harshly, coughing in pained rasps.  “Not everyone can be a saint like you. Not Galra. Not humans.”

“Not everyone can be as cruel as you either.”

“Cruelty?  That’s you.  Choking the planet with your scum...  Don’t you see? I’m saving our planet...and you’re just destroying it. You’ll see soon enough how wrong you are...  You filthy dirty scum. I should’ve killed you when I had the chance, but now, that’ll just have to be the next person’s job...”

Before Keith can think, someone’s foot comes to joyfully knock the man out.

Keith stares in a state of blank shock for a moment.

Aki stares back, a weak smile twitching shakily on his lips.

Holy shit.

“Aki...”  Keith whispers.  “ Aki .”

“Hey,” Aki whispers back, pressing his lips together tightly in an attempt to bar the emotion bubbling up.

He clumsily pockets the gun.  “ What were you thinking?  You could’ve been killed!  I told you to go out with Iverson where it was safe .”

“You were still inside.”

“Who cares about me?  Aki .  Aki, oh my god...  Oh my god,” Keith breathes, taking Aki’s face between both of his hands and pushing his hair away from his face, desperate to make sure he’s okay.

It’s him.  His son. Safe and warm and his face is pale and his eyes glow in a new kind of light, but he’s safe .  He’s okay.  No wounds. No damage.  Safe.

Aki lets Keith run his hands all over his face.  He clears his throat roughly and nods. “I’m okay, Dad.  I’m okay.”

Aki ,” Keith whispers again, staring into his face.  He doesn’t know how to express himself or what he’s even trying to say.  He’s just so relieved .  “I was so terrified.”

“I know, Dad.  I know. Me too.  Everything’s alright.”

“That’s what I should be telling you...”  Keith chokes, rubbing at his own face roughly, trying to get ahold of himself.  There’s movement all around them and Keith knows the professional thing would be to pay attention, to be in that, but he doesn’t care about his job or his image right now.

Aki gently grabs Keith’s injured wrist and stabilizes it.  He looks to the gunshot wound at a loss. “Dad...” He says carefully.  “We need to get you to a doctor.”

“You’re hurt?”

“No, not me.”

“And everyone else?”  Keith looks around. “Are they alright?”

Most everyone is already out.  There’s only the damage left behind, the shards from the light, the debris from the ceiling, spread out around them, dusting them with bits of the building.

The authorities have broken through to the building, already handcuffing The Rabbit and dragging him limply out.

The man who had stabbed Keith is also apprehended, bound just as tightly as they had been at the start.  “I just panicked,” he keeps blubbering. “You should’ve heard what they were saying. I just didn’t want them to hurt me.”

Could this really be it?  Is he dreaming?

Keith starts as he feels Aki pressing a scarf to his shoulder gently, applying firm pressure.  It hurts and Keith hisses. “What is that?”

“A scarf.  That woman who helped me, she gave it for me to help you stop the blood.  She was worried about you.”

“She did?”  Keith whispers and he’s touched that she cared.  A stranger offering up her own clothing to help stop the bleeding...  He sniffs roughly, pressing his hand to Aki’s, holding him closer.

Aki turns his eyes up to Keith, inspecting his face closely.  “...Why didn’t you shoot the rebellion leader...?” Aki asks in a low voice.  “He’s the one in the news, isn’t he? The one you used to watch. You were basically obsessed, always getting so upset about.  He’s killed so many, tortured even more. Wouldn’t killing him be fair...? No one would’ve blamed you.”

Keith shakes his head slowly.  He murmurs lowly, “Isn’t that exactly what he would do?  Maybe in his idea of a world, it’s okay for him, but not in the world I know.”

“After what he said, how you saved him...isn’t it naive?”  Aki seriously wonders, leaning in with sincerity.  

“...I don’t think so. We stopped him, didn’t we?  To kill was his choice and this...this is mine.”

Aki thinks on it, looking to the floor covered in Keith’s blood.  He glances over at the tarps covering those who were lost. And then back up at Keith.  He nods slowly.

“Come on,” Aki says again, helping Keith to his feet slowly.  “You're bleeding so much.  You're sure you're alright?”

“A little sick,” Keith breathes out, pained.  “A little dizzy. But I’ll be fine.”

They step over the debris and out the door to freedom.

Twice, Keith was denied this door.  Looks like the third time is the charm.  And it couldn't feel better.

Aki and him step outside and into the light, and after all that, outside really is bright. It’s a mess of police and ambulances and the Garrison.  The energy is so chaotic and quick. Keith can’t keep up with it all whizzing past him.

The hostages that survived are being cared for.  A whole bunch of them. They turn when they notice Keith’s appeared.

“There he is.”  A low excited murmur runs through all of them.

“Keith Kogane.”

“He saved us.”

They begin to slip out of their places, dragging their awaiting families to grab Keith’s good hand and bow respectfully, tears in their eyes and gratefulness on their faces.  “Thank you,” they whisper. “You saved our lives. We thought we’d die. We’re so lucky. Thank you .”

Lucky.  After that ordeal, they're not cursing their fate, but reveling in it.  Perspective.  It's all about perspective.

Keith immediately recognizes the woman who helped Aki that entire time and tried to help him, despite herself.  She's smiling too, tears in her eyes.  But she doesn't stop at Keith, she stops beside him.

“And you,” the woman from earlier whispers, placing a hand on Aki’s cheek.  “Thank you, as well. You were so brave. So very brave. You’re a hero too.”

Aki smiles brightly, relief covering his face.

Keith just stares.  It’s true. It’s all true.  When did Aki become so strong...?  So grown? He was just a baby the other day, screaming and running through the house, latching onto Keith’s legs so he couldn’t walk.  He didn’t know the evils of this world.

Keith had been so afraid to show him, afraid of what it could do to him.  Aki’s standing right beside Keith, shaken and white, but...he’s getting so tall.  Soon, he’ll be taller than Keith.

But emotionally, Keith could not shelter him from the day’s horror.  Keith looks down at his clothes. There’s blood splattered everywhere, dripping from his face, going down his arm and staining his pants.  He groans softly, trying to shake it off.

Aki, bright little Aki, will know this pain: the pain that Keith’s tried so hard to shelter him from.  Maybe he’ll have dreams like Keith - nightmares - maybe he’ll have trauma buried deep in his bones that he won’t be able to shake.

But, for right now, in this moment, Keith finds he isn’t flooded with dread, or of anxiety for what’s to come.  It finally hits him. He’s so taken with relief, so much in elated disbelief that they made it, outside, in the light, safe , he sinks to his knees bonelessly.  Aki squawks in surprise.

“What’s wrong?”  Aki asks sharply as he follows him to the ground, hands still holding Keith up by the shoulders to keep him from becoming a puddle on the floor.  “Is it your back? Your shoulder? Can we get a medic? We need a medic!” He shouts out behind him. Iverson jumps to it.

“No, it’s not that.”  Keith shakes his head slowly, rubbing the back of his arms against his eyes as he tries to keep his throat clear.  His voice breaks. “I’m just so happy... You’re safe.”

He thought he could save it all for home, but he can’t.  He can hear Iverson’s footsteps slowing nearby.

“You’re safe,” Keith cries, letting his face sink into Aki’s shoulder.  He whispers through a sob. “You’re here. You’re okay. Aki .  Aki.”

Aki shifts, trying to sit up beneath Keith’s weight.  He puts both hands gently to Keith’s shoulders and pushes him carefully up.  “I’m okay...” Aki breathes, winded. “...I’m alright. We need to get you help though.  You’re losing so much blood...  It can't be good, even for you.”

Keith can’t talk through his sobs that grip him and pull tight at his throat.  He lets it all out, heart completely stripped and bare in front of Aki. All the fear tightened up from this.  All the relief. He had seen Aki being held up at gunpoint. He thought he’d be too late.

All this fighting lately, all this tension, it seems like nothing in comparison.

Aki’s alive.  Everything else can stay the same, but they’re both here.  It’s over. That’s good enough.

“Aki,” he keeps whispering between sobs.  “ Aki.”  Keith tightens his hold on Aki, grabbing onto his jacket and pulling him in closer.

“I was so scared,” Keith sobs.  “I was so scared I was going to lose you.”

Aki’s breath leaves him and he goes still for a moment.  He seems to realize something as Keith sobs into his shoulder, bloodied and hurt.

He realizes Keith is human.  He bleeds like Aki. He gets scared like Aki.  He hurts just like Aki.

Aki gives up trying to get him to move for Iverson and relaxes back into his spot, holding Keith back carefully, rubbing his back in soft soothing circles.  “Baba.” He whispers softly into Keith’s ear, sniffing roughly as Keith feels his tears warm the top of Keith’s shirt. “Baba... You won’t ever lose me. I’m right here.  Thank you for coming for me... Thank you for not leaving me.”

Keith holds him back tighter.  Can’t tell if it’s his heartbeat he feels or Aki’s for how tightly they hold each other.

Keith murmurs, “You saved me.  You were so brave. You were so so brave.  I love you. I love you .”

Aki holds him back gently.  “I love you too...”

And it’s like Keith finally understands everything all at once.  All of the universe’s secrets and questions are answered. All the tension and fear slips from him, and everything falls into place.

If they can make it through this, they can make it through anything.  Of that, Keith is certain.

As Keith and Aki stay there on the ground, hurt and weary, the random strangers, despite their own fear and hurt, gather around to help.  Selflessly. They could be going home, but they don’t. They press gauze to Keith’s wounds. They clean and care and thank him.

Keith thinks he’s been such a fool all along.

There is good in the world, despite the evil that does undoubtedly exist, there is a balance.  There is hope.

A test.  A really big fucking test this time.  And Keith’s so beyond fucking grateful that this is the one he passed.  It’s another step forward, together.

 

Chapter Text

Keith wakes up blearily.  His body feels strangely heavy, like there’s lead in his bones.  He blinks his eyes a few times but has a hard time rousing himself, flickers of reality quickly being snuffed for his tumbled mix of dreamland.  He hears the sound of someone’s soft fond chuckle.

“Shiro...”  He mumbles groggily, reaching out for that familiar being to drag him closer so he can kiss the laugh right off his mouth.  Keith doesn’t quite have the energy though.

He blinks his eyes open sluggishly, looking round to Shiro’s warm face as he watches him.

“Hey,” Shiro murmurs gently as he runs his fingers over Keith’s eyebrows.

“...Hey,”  Keith turns to the window.  They’re in their room, on their bed, and the curtains are closed.  It looks like sunlight is trying to stream through. Harsh - afternoon, not evening, the time Shiro was supposed to return.  Keith frowns in confusion at the clock and then over at Shiro. “Did your mission end early...? I thought you wouldn’t be back until night.”  He looks around the room again, confused. “Is today Sunday or Monday?”

“Sunday,” Shiro murmurs softly, still brushing Keith’s face with tender fingers as he lies beside him, snuggled up close in a way that almost feels protective.  “But I got back last night. You don’t remember?”

Keith thinks about it.  “No?” He had a dream, a terrible nightmare, but isn’t that just the usual...

Today’s just another day and last night was just another night.  Just another miserable nightmare behind him. Just has to shake it off.

“Tell me what you remember about Saturday.”

“Well...you left in the morning,” Keith murmurs.  He thinks about it. “I went back to bed... I was thinking of just staying there all day...”  Keith turns his eyes to Shiro to check if he’s right so far. But he sees the way that Shiro’s looking at him and he rethinks it.  “...Did...Did Aki come into my room and...he asked to go to the store?”

“Yes.”

“He needed box cake.  So we drove to the store to get it...”

That’s when the nightmare takes over.  Keith licks his lips as he actively diverts his thoughts away from that.  That thought just isn’t healthy.

“Do you remember anything after that?”

“...I had a dream of something bad,” Keith whispers, staring dazed at the ceiling.  “But I can’t...remember what really happened.” He scratches at his head in irritation.  “...It’s like it’s not there.”

“Mmm.  They had to do a bit of surgery on you last night to clean out your wounds.  The anesthesia made you pretty loopy. It’s not quite like the stuff we had in space, that’s for sure.”

Keith blinks.  “Anesthesia?”

“Mhm.  You woke up afterward so drugged up.  I was waiting for you with Aki. When you saw us, you wouldn’t stop telling us how much you loved us...  Over and over and over and over... You kept touching my face. You kinda shoved your finger up my nose a few times.”  Shiro chuckles, the skin wrinkling around the corners of his eyes, but in the depths of them, they almost look sad.  “I couldn’t get your monkey grip off of me. You clung to me all night and all morning. I only just recently got free.”

Keith laughs softly.  “And you didn’t run away first chance you got.  You’re still here.”

“Yes.  Of course I am.”  It sounds heavy, like a promise.

And though Keith started this out laughing, it becomes something else the longer he thinks, the more he sees the truth.  His eyes begin to well up with tears, plagued by this strange awful feeling in his chest that’s pressing up more and more incessantly.

Ugh.  A feeling, malfunctioned, he tries to tell himself.  But the way Shiro’s looking at him...the pain in his body that’s sharper than usual, not just an echo of a dream.  The mysterious way he can’t move his wrist that’s beneath the sheets.

Shiro continues to gently run his hands through Keith’s hair as he waits.

“...It wasn’t a dream, was it?”  Keith’s breath trembles.

“No.  It wasn’t a dream.”

Keith grabs tightly at his hair with his one hand that’s not bandaged up as he thinks back on everything, dread weighing on him heavier and heavier.  It can’t be. “That means... No. No .”  He starts breathing hard.  Starts feeling this calm tranquility pulling and stretching in all the wrong ways.  Dead bodies, broken glass, the sharp crack of a gun going off, the thick heady smell of blood. “The Galra Resistance?  Aki being held hostage?  Aki Our Aki?”

Shiro’s face darkens grimly.  “Yes. It really happened.”

Aki.  The entirety of the storm inside of Keith freezes as he hones in on that one thought.  Aki’s golden eyes laced with fear.

“How is he?”  Keith asks urgently, pushing himself up and grimacing as his body protests.  “Where is Aki?”

“Keith, don’t hurt yourself.  He’s fine. He’s asleep in his room.  Kosmo’s with him.”

“I want to see him.”

“I know.  You will, but we shouldn’t wake him.  He’s exhausted. He stayed up all throughout your surgery.  He’s okay, though, I promise.”

Keith pushes his sheets back and tries to slink away, but Shiro grabs him around the waist.

“Iverson got us special clearance to get you released early,” Shiro says sternly, “but that does not mean I’m going to let you open your wounds.  You lost a lot of blood and you need to make sure your stitches don’t tear. You need rest.”

Keith opens his mouth to protest - Aki’s his son and he needs to see him - when Shiro opens his arms.

“So let me carry you.”

And Keith settles down.

Shiro’s arms are so gentle and warm and safe .  He is extra careful of Keith’s shoulder and back as he carefully makes his way down the hallway.  He nudges Aki’s door open a crack and Keith tilts his neck, taking a peek inside.

Aki.  There he is in his grey-walled room, a little lump on his bed, still, with his arms around Kosmo, who sleeps beside him.

Keith feels every bit of tension slip right out of him as he watches Aki’s chest softly expand and contract.  He’s half in relief, but the rest of him is in wonder as he remembers the previous day. They had been shocked into the middle of hell, a situation that could drown anyone, but Aki had held so strong.  What that little form can do, the courage there beneath all his hesitancies, all his awkwardness.

Keith whispers, “...He was so brave.  I always knew it, but I think he had to learn himself...  It was like seeing him transform into a butterfly. I wish you could’ve seen it...  He was so awesome, Shiro. He was so damn awesome...”

Tears begin to well up in his eyes again, thinking of every awful thing that Aki had to see...but that he triumphed over, every frightening moment, and every moment of relief after that.  All the things Keith couldn’t protect him from, and the things he could, as well.

And the things Aki could protect Keith from too.  Aki, who’s still basically just a boy. What will even more years bring if, already, he’s this amazing?

Shiro brings Keith back to bed, fluffing his pillow and pulling the sheets over him.  Keith watches him closely, tries to find answers without having to ask. The darkness in Shiro’s face that he’s holding back, the sorrow.  Keith worries. “Tell me you didn’t see that broadcast...”

Shiro shakes his head, licking at his lips as he lets out a pained exhale.  His eyes are so dark. “No... Jesus. They told me about it...but I... I don’t know if I’m ready to see that.”  Shiro puts his hand over Keith’s shoulder wound and looks up into Keith’s eyes, vulnerability and desperation there.  “How are you...?” He asks softly as he takes his place beside Keith. “I’ve been so worried. What are you feeling?”

Keith sniffs, rubbing at his eyes and looking back to Shiro.  “I don’t know... I...” He shrugs, at a loss. “I still can’t really believe it happened...  It’ll take me awhile to process everything, I think.”

“Yeah...”

“But you’re here,” he says.  “So that’s good. I don’t know what I would’ve done otherwise.”

Shiro squeezes his hand in encouragement.

“How’d you know to come early?”

“It was Pidge.  She got in contact with me before anything had even happened.  She’s been following their case for you, did you know that? For awhile now.  They’re good, like nothing she’s ever seen, she said. But she’s been gaining the upper hand recently, subtly confusing them, irritating them into more desperate measures.  But she didn’t want to tell you anything until they had anything solid. Apparently, one of the Resistance members were a part of the Garrison and they were covering their tracks as soon as they’d left any.  But Pidge was able to locate them yesterday...to what looked like the very location you and Aki were headed. She didn’t want to send you into a full-blown panic attack when you were already there but she also didn’t know the exact time.  She didn’t know what that would do, but she didn’t think it’d happen so soon either...”

Keith lets it sink in.  “For fucking box cake,” is all he can think to say.  He’s still a little stunned if he lets himself think about it for too long.  He still has it firmly filed away into his head as just another nightmare. It mirrors them so well.

“Yeah.  Box cake.”

“Something so small...so inconsequential...  And it could’ve torn us all apart. Fate can be funny, can’t it?”

“I don’t know if I’d call it ‘funny’...but yeah, it can be something.”

“I’m sorry.”

Shiro wraps his hand around Keith’s wrist gently.  “I don’t know how the hell you managed to wield that gun in your state, adrenaline rush or not.  How did you do it like that, all on your own?”

“I wasn’t alone.  Aki was there."

Shiro's face softens.  "So he was," he whispers, voice burning with emotion.  He leans his head against Keith’s and repeats even softer, “So he was...”

"So...that message I left you...  I didn’t know if we’d make it and I...I thought it’d be better to say something than nothing at all.  But now I kind of wish I hadn't... Did you already listen to it? Otherwise you should probably delete it.”

Shiro’s quiet for a moment as he fiddles with Keith’s fingers, running his own fingers over Keith’s nail, across the knuckles.  “We were almost all the way to Charon. I came straight back when Pidge called, hoping to be in time to help, but you were already in surgery by then.  ...I got your message on my phone. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever heard...” He presses his lips together for a moment as his face crumbles. “By that time, I knew you were okay, but just...  The fear in your voice. Knowing I had left you. The one time I leave.  I knew I shouldn’t have.  You could’ve died. I should’ve been there...  If we had been together...”

“No,” Keith hums, clutching his chest with his hand.  “I... It’s okay. I told you to go. How could you have known?  And we’re both okay. I... I feel okay right now.  I think I’m kind of still in shock, but...I’ve been so afraid for so long of something like this happening...of terror coming to our own doorstep and busting its way in.  And us just...crumbling beneath its weight. But we didn’t. He didn’t.  I found out something so important.”  Tears well up in his eyes again and Keith laughs wetly.  “I’ve been so worried that I wouldn’t be enough to protect him from anything bad in this world.  That, if you weren’t here then that was it and I wouldn’t be enough, but I’ve realized it’s been my mistake for not having faith in him...  In both of us. You should’ve seen him. Aki. He didn’t even hesitate. ...He saved my life. He really did.”

Shiro nods, pressing his lips together tightly as he struggles with the beginning of his own tears.  He rubs his own forehead tenderly with Keith’s. “Like father, like son, I guess. I’m so glad you’re both safe.  So so glad. I love you. I love you so much.”

“I love you too...  I kept thinking of you while it was happening.  I just wanted to see you.”

“You have no idea how scared I was...  Aki said I looked like a ghost coming into the hospital.  He said you had better color passed out.”

Keith laughs, using his free arm to pull Shiro closer to him.  “That’s weird since Lance always says I have the complexion of a ‘pasty pea bean’.”

“Well, you usually do,” Shiro hums, nuzzling into Keith’s cheek.  “But I love pea beans.”

Keith chuckles softly.  “...It’s so nice to be home.  ...God, it’s not as easy fighting alone without all of you.  We made the best team. I didn’t realize how good until you were all gone.”

“We really do, don’t we?”

“Mm.  Team made in heaven.  And Aki...god, he would’ve fit right in with us during our Voltron times.  He was amazing. He was so amazing.” He’s still over the moon.

“Yeah.  He is.” Shiro smiles, continuing to pet Keith’s hair back, when Keith’s stomach makes the loudest gurgle.  They laugh together and Shiro shifts off the bed, patting Keith on the belly. “When was the last time you ate?”

“Uh...  God. Dinner when you were here.  I think that was Friday, wasn’t it?”

“Are you serious?  Keith. Jeez. What should I make?  Anything you want. I’ll make anything.”

Keith smiles up at him.  “Whatever you want. I’ll eat anything.”

“Burnt pancakes?”  Shiro leans down to kiss Keith on the mouth.

Keith laughs softly against his scruff.  “Sounds amazing. I’m not even kidding. Burn them all you want.”

They nuzzle each other for a moment longer, caught in the feeling and familiarity of the other.  Home. Safe. It’s the best feeling in the world. “I love you,” Keith purrs happily, weaving their fingers together, feeling the warmth between their skin.

“I love you.”

“I love you more.  Maybe next time, we’ll go into space together.”

“Space, Earth, wherever you are is where I want to be.  There’s no rush with you by my side.”

“Could you get any cornier?”  Keith laughs softly against him, but his heart is so full.

“Probably.  But you think I’m bad?  You should hear yourself sometimes.  You’re the true champion.”

Keith and Shiro smile warmly at the other before Shiro pulls back.  But he stays there for a moment, taking in Keith’s face with the warmest glow in his eyes.

“Welcome back, Keith.”

“Welcome back, Shiro.”

Shiro leaves out the door to wreak havoc on the kitchen and Keith wouldn’t have it any other way.

Keith leans back against the pillow, shrugging his shoulder out a bit, trying to feel the extent of the damage.  He’s had worse, in both reality and nightmares. He’ll heal. He always does.

But wow...was yesterday really real?  Truly? They really did it?  Can’t be, can it?

It was just yesterday that he was moping in bed, right in this spot, thinking of sleeping the day away.  He looks to the nightstand, where Shiro’s journal is that Keith had been using yesterday. He slips it onto his lap and opens it, gazing down into the two questions that haunted him down to his very vulnerable sore soul.

“Who is ‘Keith’ now?” and “How do I let Aki know I love him?”

Keith runs his hands over his own script.  It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours since he’s written it, and already, the ink feels so old.  Today’s a new day. The words don’t feel as far away as they had when he had put them to paper. Keith feels lighter.

A voice from the door startles Keith out of his thoughts.  “...Did you really think that?”

Keith blinks in surprise, pulling himself up as he sees who it is.  “...Aki.”

It's time.

Aki’s leaning against the doorway, small shy smile on his face.  He rocks back onto his heel awkwardly. “...Hi.”

“...Hey.”

Keith just stares.  He’s been doing that a lot lately, always so surprised by what he sees.  Today, he sees a little boy he hasn’t seen in awhile. Years, it’s felt like.  God. Dorky too-big glasses on his pale shy face. The way he twists his hands on the doorframe, looking in.  How Keith missed him, away on the longest saddest trip of his life. Keith did the best he could and, just like Shiro always said: when the time was right, Aki would find way back to him.

Here he is.  Shy nervous little Aki, who’s not so little anymore.  He’s patting his leg awkwardly at their door. Keith’s missed him so much.  That sweet little boy... his sweet little boy.

That little boy is waiting for a response.  Keith blinks himself out of his thoughts, closing the journal softly and shifting it out of the way.  “D-did I really think what?”

Aki jerks his finger back to his room, face blushing red.  “Uh...I can hear you guys whispering all the way in my room, you know.  I always could, ever since I was a kid. You’re loud.”

Keith blinks.  “Oh. Really?”

“Really.”

“...I, yeah.  Earlier, what I said...  Of course I meant it... We make a good family, Aki.  All of us.”

Aki looks to the ground, pressing his expression down to try to hide it, but Keith can see the smile pushing its way onto his face.  “Cool,” Aki breathes, his voice sounds so light. “I-I’m glad you think so. I didn’t do it for that, though. It wasn’t to look cool or to impress you.  It wasn’t that.”

Keith laughs softly under his breath.  “...I know.”

“Honestly, I was worried I’d just make a bigger mess of things if I stayed, that I’d like...trip on the cans or accidentally provide an extra gun for him or something and we’d both be in trouble.  I mean, so many things could’ve gone wrong. But...I’m glad I came back.”

“Me too, even though I told you to run.  ...I guess I shouldn’t be surprised though, when have you ever listened?  Tell me you at least got that fucking box cake after all of that.”

Aki bites at his lip, slowly shaking his head as he smiles crookedly.  “Mmm...no.”

No?”

“No, I dropped it somewhere.  I don’t even remember where or when.  Honestly, I don’t think I ever want to look at another box cake ever again.  Griffin doesn’t need cake that badly anyway, does she? Her parents already gave her one.  How many cakes does she need?”

Keith laughs.  If only Aki had thought that yesterday , so hellbent on retrieving it as he was.  Such is life.

“Besides, I...  Maybe you and I can make one sometime...a belated birthday cake.  What do you think? Both of us?”

Keith really must be dreaming.  Is this real life?  Aki asking him to make something together?  Something in Keith’s heart melts at the suggestion.  He feels the prickling behind his eyes and the burn in his nose and he feels so silly for tearing up at this, but he can’t help it.  It’s like he’s finally been accepted. Aki’s letting him into his life.

Keith nods his head and clears his throat.  “Yeah. Of course. I’ll bake, you can decorate.”

“Just a warning though: I’m not very good at it.”

“Yes, you are.  I saw those lion rice balls.  I know how good you are.”

Aki laughs softly.  “Thanks... I’m glad you liked them.”

“They were amazing, Aki.  Sorry it took me so long to tell you...”

Aki starts biting his lip as he thinks harder.  He shifts at the door, looking almost uncomfortable.  “...I got a lot of calls this morning from people at the Garrison, congratulating me.  Is it always like that? After something big?”

Keith nods.  “Yeah.”

“It’s...weird.  Iverson even called again.  He said I was a hero. That I had a part in saving those people’s lives.  That I was brave.”

“You did help save them, Aki.  And you are brave.”

“It...feels weird to hear that.  It wasn’t like, in that moment, I was trying to be heroic or anything, I was just...doing what I felt I needed to do.  Nothing more. I wasn’t trying anything.  I just wanted us all to live.”

Keith nods in understanding and he sees the way Aki watches him, the little click of understanding in his eyes.

“Guess you kinda already told me that, but...I didn’t really understand what you were saying until now.  N-not that I’m pretending to understand everything about what you went through. I just mean...well...I guess I had thought you did it for different reasons.  I didn’t know what it really felt like. It was different than I thought.”

He lifts his eyes in worry again, crossing his arms tightly over his chest, still those feet away, hovering by the door, not daring to enter closer.  “How are you feeling? Not just...your wounds, but um...you know. You were kind of panicking before it all, I thought for sure this would only make it impossible to deal with.  You sort of surprised me. I wouldn’t have been upset if you had ran.”

“No...  I couldn’t have.”  Keith bites at his lip as he thinks about it.  “I don’t know honestly. I was afraid, definitely.  But...I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around it.”

“Me neither.  Surreal.”

“...Yeah.  How are you feeling?”  Keith whispers.  “That was a lot...”

“Mm.  Something to tell the therapist,” Aki hums.

“Seriously...  I know I’ll have a whole entire decades worth of content for them to deal with.  I’ll fund their entire income...”

They chuckle tiredly together a bit, but both fall to silence quickly as they think about it.  The weight of the situation is still dancing around them. Maybe it’s best for now.

The distance between them is driving Keith a little insane, so he shifts, pulling himself up to a seat.  He pats the space beside him on his bed. “Hey. Wanna have that talk? We did say we would and we’re both here and conscious, so...”  He waits hopefully.

Aki hesitates for a moment.  He always hovers at the door, just out of reach, so close, but so frustratingly far.  But he looks up this time. Smiles a little.

He takes his first step inside.  His first in a long time. He carefully crosses the distance that separates them and crawls onto the bed, scooting in beside Keith.

Keith smiles over at him and Aki smiles awkwardly back, shifting to get comfortable.

Aki says, “I was thinking.  Maybe...maybe for your therapy if all of us go together, it’d make things easier.  I can go with you. Dad and me. All of us. And we can sort things out together...”

Keith softens.  “Yeah,” he says.  “I think that would be really nice.”

Aki looks to Keith, something vulnerable in his eyes.  He breathes in a deep sharp breath. “So... I guess we have a lot to talk about.”

Keith nods quietly.  “We do.”

“I’ll, um -  I’ll go first,” Aki says, sitting up taller and pressing his fingertips together, flexing them in nervousness.  “I’ve been meaning to go first... What needs to be said first, is, um... Well, shit, I kind of ruined it now. I started it off like that.  I dunno why I did that. I should’ve just, uh...said it. I’m bad with words.”

He turns to look Keith in the eyes, a bit of discomfort there, a bit of fear, but one-hundred percent, total genuine truth.  He takes a deep breath.  “I’m sorry,” he breathes shakily.  “Is what I’ve been meaning to say.  It’s long overdue, but...I’m really really sorry.  For everything.  For what I said the other day, all those things...for telling you to go fuck yourself.  For saying I hated you...  I didn’t mean it. I was just mad and upset and it all poured over and I just wanted to make you hurt as much as I was hurting.  It felt like justice at the time, but it was so...so wrong. I’m sorry for...for the other years, for what I didn’t understand when I thought I did.  For that one time,” he says, voice going very small.  “For telling you that you weren’t my real father...even though I knew you were going through a really hard time.  That...I didn’t mean that. And for yesterday. For almost getting you killed over something so stupid. I didn’t know that that would happen if we went, but if I had, I would’ve never dragged you there.  I promise.”

“Aki, I know.  It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”

“It kind of was though.  Those months ago, I was so mad and upset about a whole bunch of things, and even though I knew you weren’t feeling well, I...I said horrible things.  I still remember the look on your face when I told you that you weren’t my real father...  I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. I’ve been so selfish. And even yesterday, I dragged you to the store when you had just told me in the morning how you weren’t feeling well.  I didn’t really need the box cake,” he sniffs, rubbing at the tears flowing from his eyes.  “I was just being a brat.  I could’ve just used a recipe for a cake from scratch, I could’ve, but I didn’t,” he cries.  "I didn't do it."

Keith presses his lips together tightly.  Aki’s pain is his pain, even older as he is.  Keith wishes he could soothe it all away. “...It’s okay,” Keith whispers.  “My mental health isn’t your responsibility. You’re my child, I’m not yours.  You should be enjoying your teen years just like other teenagers, not worrying and taking care of me.  That’s not your responsibility.”

“No,” Aki groans.  “Isn’t it everyone’s responsibility to care and help each other?  I know you’ve been suffering.  I’ve known it all along.  And now, all the progress you’ve made with your PTSD...how hard you’ve been working and how much happier you and Dad have been and I brought you out knowing it could push it and it was even worse than I thought and you’re already so tired.  How much more are you going to suffer?  That is definitely my fault.”

“Hey.  You didn’t know. I don’t really remember the whole thing right now, anyway...it feels like a dream right now.  Distant. Detached. It’s all kind of a blur. Like how I got to the hospital... I can’t remember a single thing about that.”

Aki wipes his arm across his face.  “You passed out on my shoulder.”

“O-oh,” Keith raises his eyebrows.  “I’m sorry. I didn’t really think I felt that bad.”

“You downplay everything.  It’s okay to be real with me!  Did you see your shirt and pants?  They shot you .  They stabbed you!  They punched you in the face and tackled you to the ground so many times.  I saw you fall out of that chair like you had nothing left in you. I’m not sure how you’re so okay right now, honestly.  I freaked out yesterday when you passed out on me, I thought you were dead.  But Iverson was right there...and he knew you weren’t, and then Dad wasn’t too far behind after that...but it scared me.  You were so hurt.”

“Ah, jeez...” Keith sniffs.  “The adrenaline rush probably faded and that was it for me.  I’m sorry...I shouldn’t have done that. I should’ve known you’d freak out...”

Aki lets out a small incredulous sad laugh.  “You’re apologizing for passing out?”

“I...I guess I am.”

They sit there in silence for a moment.  It’s almost that familiar awkwardness, but not quite.  The energy is changed. It’s softened between them with an understanding that couldn’t just be fabricated.

They both tilt their heads back and stare up at the ceiling.  It’s blank. There’s nothing on it, but the silence between them isn’t stiff with tension for once or electric with anger like just two days ago.

Keith clears his throat awkwardly.  He’s not so great at displaying his emotions properly, that’s true, and even if Aki already heard it indirectly, Keith figures Aki should hear it from him too.  “There are...a lot of things I need to say too, but, first, before I say anything else, I just want you to know: yesterday, um... You were amazing out there, Aki...  That doesn’t even cover it. You were truly incredible. If you hadn’t stepped in when you had, if you hadn’t found that courage, I would’ve been dead. You haven’t exactly been trained for this sort of situation.  But still, you saved me, you saved those people. ...Thank you.”

Aki bites hard at his lip as he looks down at his hands.  “Being out there, seeing you facing off with that terrorist, even though you’ve been so haunted and scared lately, I...  I don’t even know how to put into words how it made me feel. I never knew anyone could have the strength. Seeing it was...”  He lets out a shaky breath. “It was scary, but...so incredible too. It was like looking into a shooting star. It made me feel like I could do anything.  It inspired me to try.  Now I get why people admire you so much...  How’d you find the strength?”

“You needed me.  And that was that.”

Aki bites at his lip hard.  He laughs a bit, but it’s wet and shaky.  “Oh...” He breathes out.

Keith reaches over to squeeze his hand as he watches the emotion swirling around on Aki’s face.  “My turn?”

Aki nods his head quickly, rushing to brush his tears away.

“I’ve...been wanting to talk with you for a long time now.  Years, really, but... I’ve never been the best with words. Not ever...you know that by now.  But I’m sorry too. For so many things... I had so many ideas of how a father should be and I tried so hard, but I think I overdid it and just ended up failing each time...

“I know we’ve been at odds lately, Aki...and a lot of it is my fault.  And I’m so so sorry.  I pulled away from you in ways I never should have and, because of that, I became someone you couldn’t feel comfortable trusting.  But I want you to know: every time I told you I loved you, every time I said I was proud of you, every little thing I’ve said to you that you couldn’t believe...I meant it, Aki.  Even before all this, I meant it.  I’ve always loved you.  I’ve been proud of who you are.  I just...I’m bad with people.”  He shrugs, eyes burning up.  “And I’ve never been more upset about that fact than I have where you’re involved.”

Aki’s watches Keith, scanning his face for his sincerity.

Keith is so scared beneath that look.  No one can frighten him like Aki can. Not any sort of killer, not the universe about to explode, just Aki and his little careful looks.  Keith tightens his grip as he clears his throat roughly. “Want to know something? The honest truth, all of it: you were right the other night...  Shiro was the one who wanted to have a child. I was hesitant at first. But it’s not for the reasons you think,” he says quickly, watching the way Aki’s eyes quiver.  “You know I grew up without my parents for most of my life. I was so scared that I wouldn’t know what you needed because I had never seen it myself. I was scared shitless.

“Before you were even born, your dad and I talked a lot about it.  Prepared a lot because I wanted everything to be easy for you. My dad was...everything to me when I was a child.  What I remember of him was just...gold. Golden and soft and steady and sure. Always so sure about everything. I felt like, as long as he was around, everything else was solved.  I was so young when he died, it was before I could really get to know all of him. I never saw that he had fears. I never saw him fall apart, even though Grandma was gone and you knew he had to have been suffering...  The only image I have of him is...unrealistic, but it’s all I have. But I wanted to be like him anyway. I wanted to be that strong for you.”

“When I was younger,” Aki says.  “I really thought you were.”

“...Yeah...  That’s what I wanted.  And it might’ve worked, for little while.  But then you grew up and started seeing through all the bullshit.  You started calling me out on my lies and I was still so desperate to uphold that image of my father, I just didn’t know what to do so I just...tried harder, more of the same coverup.  That was completely my fault.  I wasn’t being honest to you or to myself and...everything just sort of caved in on me.  And you haven’t heard what I’ve really thought in a long time, huh?”

Aki shrugs.  “I don’t think so.”

Keith lets out a shaky breath.  “You mentioned the other day that you think you’re not what I wanted.  Here’s something I’ve wanted to say for a long time. When your dad and I planned for you, we gave it so much thought.  More than anything, I wanted to create a strong base, something solid and trustworthy for you to fall back on in case you ever did fall.  Which we all do, and some people fall harder than others, you’ve seen it all firsthand,” Keith says gently, placing a hand to his own chest.  “We both agreed that, as we raised you, that base, that main most important thing we wanted to teach you was kindness, of being brave in a situation you feel helpless because you knew what was right, of fighting your heart out even when you’re scared.”  He sniffs and nods curtly. “And you listened to our teachings and you took them to heart and nurtured the idea and made it your own.  Not just at the market, but in everything else you’ve done as you’ve grown. And lately, every single time you’ve said that you’re not good at things, or that you don’t have talent, or that there are no reasons to be proud of you...it kills me to hear you say that, Aki.  Of course I’m proud of you. In this world that can be so bad, that can kick and push you down, that can tease you from when you were just an innocent child minding his own business...somehow, you’ve managed to keep your kind heart. And that’s so much more important than winning races or being so-called good at some sim in the Garrison.  And so much harder to do too...

“I do not think you are talentless.  I think there are so many good things about you left to discover.  You don’t have to worry about any of that.  As long as you keep just being you...everything else will just fall into place, okay?  I am so proud of the you you are.

“It’s okay with me if you don’t want to be a pilot or don’t like the same things your dad and I do.  I don’t want you to change; it doesn’t mean you’re any less a part of this family.

“Think of our family, as it is now, everyone’s got their own different thing.  Pidge her computers, Hunk his cooking, all these differences is what makes our family whole.  No, you’re not our exact copy, but that’s what makes all of us people. I’m not an exact copy of my mom, or of the person who basically raised me, which was Shiro,” he and Aki laugh at that thought.  “I love you, just as you are. You. And I’ll protect you whether it be from some crazy grocery store trip or even your hobbies. If you like taiko, then I want you to follow that. You don’t want to pilot?  That’s okay. You’re still my son and I just want you to be happy. That’s it. Everything else is just...little details that are irrelevant in the main scope of things.”

Keith takes in Aki’s eyes, which are shining brightly with emotion.  He swallows hard.

Keith whispers, “I have always felt this way.  I just...struggled with the words trying to get them to match what was in my head.”

Aki laughs softly, rubbing at his eyes.  “I have that problem too.”

“Oof.  I know it.  Passed on the Kogane curse.”

Aki’s eyes go even more wobby at that.  “Really...? You think I have a Kogane curse too?”  He says it like there isn’t anything better than that.

“I know you do.”

“Thank you,” Aki says softly.  He bites at his lip as he’s quiet for a moment, thinking deeply.  “...Everyone always thought I’d be like you. I felt like I was letting you down every time they realized I wasn’t...”

I couldn’t even compare to the image of me that other people have.”

“...I guess that’s true.  Dad too...everyone else...  That one show of you guys is kinda ridiculous.  Like cartoon caricatures. Weird exaggerated personalities.”

Keith snorts as he nods.  “Exactly. That’s a good example.  I don’t even think I’d want to be those people.”

“I guess I just...I knew I didn’t have to be exactly like you, but I felt like...I should at least be good at something.  And even if I wasn’t good at anything, to like...have some sort of redeeming quality that felt like you guys.  But I’ve always just felt...I don’t know.  Sometimes I feel like you and dad can do anything and that you would’ve had better luck trying to create a child or something.”  He clears his throat and tugs at the bottom of his shirt, watching it idly. “I... I have to know. Have you ever had regrets about adopting me?  It’s okay if you do. I just...I’ve always wondered. Do you look into my face and see Aunt Pidge and think she should’ve kept me or-or sent me somewhere else?”

“I was the first person Pidge told when she got pregnant.  I knew the same day she did, did you know that?”

Aki shakes his head.

“I’ve known about you just as long as any other biological parent would know their child.  I felt you in her stomach. I was there in the delivery room when you were born. And even if I hadn’t experienced any of those things, even if I had just found you, just like me, alone, in some god forsaken orphanage as some lost teen...I still would love you just the same.  I can’t explain it, but...maybe one day, if you decide to have children, you’ll understand too. You’re my son, Aki. You’re my son in my heart. Some biological families can’t say that much. It doesn’t have to do with blood.”

Aki bites his lip as he thinks about it.  “So...you didn’t just...take me to alleviate the stress from Aunt Pidge?  You didn’t lie about that?”

Keith shakes his head slowly.  He makes sure Aki’s eyes are on him, that they’re understanding each other.  “I love Pidge, you know that, but there’s no way I’d do something like that even for her if I didn’t want it myself.”

Aki takes another moment to digest and then nods to himself, satisfied.  “Good...” Aki leans up and grabs a tissue from the bedside table, blowing his nose and trying to toss the tissue across the room into the trash.  He misses. He lies back down and keeps rubbing at his eyes. “...Because you could have any child you want, you know, being who you are and everything.  They’d give you anyone.”

“Yeah.  They would’ve.  And we chose you.”

“You did...”  Aki whispers. He bites at the inside of his gums.  Keith can see his jaw working from where he lies beside him, inches away.  “It’s sort of a funny,” Aki says, “As I was there yesterday, in the market, I kept thinking about Friday, when I was expelled.  I was so mad at you, at Iverson, at everyone having to do with it.  That whole thing seemed like the end of the world, the end of my life, like there were no options left.  But then I was standing there, staring at that man with his hands on you, pressing a piece of glass to your neck and...I realized how foolish and petty and stupid I had been.  It was all just...shallow details, tiny minutes out of decades of my life.”

“Perspective,” Keith murmurs.  His therapist is always mentioning that to him.

“Yeah.  Exactly.  I realized how caught up in little things I had become...  Like that fucking box cake.” He laughs but the sound is bitter and wet.  “I thought, in that moment...I thought I’d give everything else up, every single other thing up, if you could just come home with me...  If we could just go back together.” He sniffs roughly, but tears keep coming, growing in number. His voice breaks. “Everything else is fine as it is.  I’m okay with it all. I just want us all to be together. You, me, Dad, Kosmo. I want the rest of our family to be okay. I want Grandma to come visit us every week.  I want to see Uncle Kolivan on holidays. ...And I want you to be there, no matter what.” His nose pinches as the emotion becomes too much.

Keith shifts, ignoring the pain in his shoulder so he can carefully place his hand on Aki’s shoulders, drawing him in.  “I’ll be there, I promise. We’re all home now.”

Aki leans his forehead gently onto Keith.  “I was scared. I was so scared.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want to do stuff like that.  I don’t want to be the red paladin or anything, I don’t want to go to the Garrison.  It’s too much for me and I hate it.”

“You don’t have to.  We’ll figure it out.”

Aki looks up into Keith’s eyes, nodding shakily.  “I know now. That things will be okay. I feel so lucky.  You’re home now. Dad’s here, safe. And me too. We’re so lucky.”

Keith nods and whispers, “We really are.”

Aki shifts back and rubs at his forehead.  “While we’re being honest with each other, can you tell me one thing?  Something I still don’t get. ...Sometimes it felt you hid from me. Things I never understood why.  Like Voltron. Like piloting Black or Red, public things I could just read about.  Even your humanitarian relief efforts...you shied away from each and every one of those conversations.  I never understood it. ...Why wouldn’t you tell me those things?”

Keith looks down at Aki’s hands beside his own.  Aki’s are so young and new. “Do you remember when you were younger and you used to write out lists of all the people you wanted to help?  You wanted to build homes for the homeless. You wanted to join me on my trips with the coalition to help anyone and everyone out there in need, before you could hardly walk.  You said that all on your own. You were brightness itself, the hope for this universe that I love and admire. And...as the years went on, I became more and more complacent to it all, lost my passion for others the more I saw, but I always always remembered your passion.  ...And it killed me knowing that this world you believed in, where no one else was in pain, would inevitably fall apart right before your eyes... That you'd have to realize it: that the world could be a bad place...  I knew firsthand how much it hurt to lose that belief. I wanted to do everything I could to save you from as much as I could. I didn't want you hurt.  I was afraid you would lose your light.  Because sometimes, through all this therapy and panic attacks and medication, it feels like I lost every single bit of mine...

“I know, even beyond my pessimistic goggles...I know some parts of me are fucked up, they’re tainted.  And when you share a part of yourself with someone, they become exposed.  So I hid the dark parts of me from you, from all that hurt I had come to know, all the sadness and fear.  And, like I said earlier, I wanted you to only know the parts of me that were strongest, that felt like what I thought a father should seem like.

“But that was purely my fault.  I thought I was doing the right thing, but I projected all of my fears onto you and by the time I realized what I had done, it’d already happened.  And there was this impossible divide between us and I could no longer get through to you... I should’ve believed in you. In your strength and your fire.  In that heart of yours, that’s big enough to save people’s lives... I made a mistake by thinking you would just become as hurt and damaged as me. That you wouldn’t be able to differentiate between my mistakes and what was right.  But I won’t ever underestimate you like that again. I promise. I know better now. You are strong in ways I could never be.”

Aki’s brow furrows curiously.  “Who says you’re not strong...?”

Keith smiles crookedly, through the sadness he feels.  “We were all just kids when we were forced into the war.  We weren’t ready for it either, but still, it came. I thought I was handling it at the time, but you’ve seen how it affects me now.  I have to desperately scramble for any strength I can find, which isn’t usually much lately.”

“What are you talking about?” Aki whispers, eyebrows furrowing as he presses himself closer.. “You’re attacked from the inside out. And you fight...and you win against it everyday. That's not strength??”  Aki stares him right in the eyes.  “I think you’re the strongest person I know.  I’ve always admired you, maybe a little bitterly at times, but always .  And after seeing you in action?  Those things you said to the public even though you thought you’d die?  You never stopped caring about everyone else.  When you were so scared your hands shook...you still stood up and protected us the best you could.  I just admire you even more...” Aki sits up, eyes imploring and sparkling. He blushes suddenly, but keeps his eyes locked onto Keith’s through pure determination.  “I’m kind of embarrassed to say this, but, uh... After everything, I just... I think I understand you now. Well, as much as I can,” he chuckles softly. “And I’m so proud to call you my dad.”  

Keith starts to cry.  “Ugh,” he whispers roughly, wiping away at the tears on his face.  “God. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to cry in front of you. Again.”

Aki laughs softly, watching Keith with warmth and acceptance.  He doesn’t turn in disgust and his face doesn’t fall in disappointment.  His look is almost relief. He murmurs, tearing up himself, looking at Keith like he’s his entire universe.  “Why not? Something bad about crying?”

“No,” Keith mouths, snorting.  “No, not at all. It’s okay to cry.  That’s what Shiro always tries to tell me anyway.”

“He can be very wise.”

“He really can.”

“...And so can you.”

Keith smiles over at him.  At this little boy who’s not quite so little at all, but so familiar, so like that crazy toddler, warm and loving and open.  That brightness in his eyes, the sweet red blush on his cheeks, those golden freckles on his nose that picks up and highlights the color of his irises.  “...Ask me. Anything you want. Whenever you want. I’m going to change. I’m going to be more open with you. I’ll tell you what you want to know. Some things are...difficult for me to talk about, but I swear, if it’s you, I’ll try my best to answer as fully as I can, I promise.”

Aki turns his eyes up to the ceiling.  “Oh, yeah? Hmmmm... Like what?”

“Anything.”

A small smile curves Aki’s lips and he looks devilish, like back when he was five and he was tearing up the house, screaming and laughing on the top of his lungs.  “...Anything?”

“Uh.  Yes?”

“Prison then!”  He exclaims suddenly, stars in his eyes as he thinks it.  “You told me you went to prison but you never got to finish your story.  I’ve been dying to know ever since. How did you end up in prison?”

Prison?”  Keith chokes.  “No. No, it wasn’t prison.”  Keith laughs, thinking how this story sounds, but it felt different as it happened.  “Okay. Well, you know I was a little rougher when I was younger. Before I met Shiro, I was kinda out of control.  He came to the school with his Garrison simulator and freaking James Griffin with his shiny perfect everything was trying to bewitch his way into Shiro’s heart.  I was pissed that snotty little rich boys always got what they wanted and I didn’t really have anything else to lose so...I stole his vehicle.”  He shrugs.

“Griffin’s dad’s vehicle?  Holy shit!”

Keith snorts.  “Uh. No. Your dad’s.  I took right off. It took them awhile to even catch up.  It was an awesome vehicle.”

“You stole Dad’s vehicle?!”

“That was how we met.”

Aki squawks.  “That was how you met ?!  I thought you met him at the Garrison?”

“Your dad was the one who got me into the Garrison.  After he got me out of juvie for stealing his vehicle.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true.  I swear. Why would I start off answering your questions with fake answers?”

Aki stares in a daze for a moment as he thinks back on all the info.  Keith just laughs. Aki says, “...Dad’s crazy.”

“He is, isn’t he?  I thought so too back then.  I thought it was some sort of trick.  But no, turns out your dad is really just that genuine.”

“Wow...”  Aki murmurs, still staring into the ceiling with stars in his eyes.  “Wow.”

“He just kept believing in me despite all the times I messed up.  Each time I messed up, he’d just keep believing in me, and keep believing in me, and keep believing in me...  And I’ll never forget that.”

Aki watches Keith’s face with a small warm smile on his face.  “...You’ve always been so hard to read, but that was the one thing I was sure of: your love for Dad.  You can’t hide that at all.”

Keith laughs.  “...Yeah. That’s true.”

“What else?”  Aki asks, rolling onto his belly and leaning his chin on his hands, watching Keith closely.  “What other thing don’t I know?”

“Um...  Well, let’s see...  I punched Griffin in the face once.”

“Oh my god, what?  But he loves you!”

Keith flicks his finger into the air with a small popping noise.  “Right in the face.”

“You’re teasing me, aren’t you?  You didn’t really do that, did you?”  Keith crosses his heart.  “Okay.  How did you stay in the Garrison after a fight?  Did Dad bail you out of that one too?”

“Yep.  He did.”  Keith shrugs as Aki continues to watch in perplexed disbelief.  “Don’t believe me? Ask him.”

“I believe you, I believe you.  I just...need a few weeks to wrap my head around it.”

Keith snorts.  He snaps his fingers as he remembers a good bit of info.  “Oh, I have a good one for you, you know Iverson’s eyepatch?”

No way,” Aki breathes, so scandalized that he sits on his knees and bounces on the bed.  His eyes are brighter than diamonds for how revved up he is. “How do you know the story you know isn’t a rumor?  Everyone at the Garrison has a different story for it. I don’t think anyone actually knows.”

“Because I was there.  Remember Dad’s Kerberos mission?  After he and the Holts got fucking abducted, the Garrison had the shitty idea to blame it all on Shiro as pilot error.”

Aki nods.  “I know this.”

“Well, I knew there was no way in hell it could’ve been Shiro’s fault.  That, on top of the grief of thinking I had lost him... I couldn’t stand it.  I marched to Iverson’s office and demanded answers. I was a kid basically and Iverson and I already didn’t have the best relationship at that point.  Shiro was really the only reason I was there, so...we may’ve exchanged some choice words and I may’ve lost it and clocked him as hard as I could in his eye.”

“And you popped it out?”

“You know, I don’t know the exact damage.  I ran out of there as quickly as I could. Didn’t see him again for another few years, after Voltron.  He hasn’t mentioned it.”

“Oh, my god.  Who are you?  How are you not in prison?”  He laughs, shoving his head in his arms.  He pops his head back out suddenly. “Wait, what am I saying?  If you were, Dad would just bail you out. Iverson would just turn the other eye.”

“What eye?”

Dad!”  Aki gasps, clapping a hand over his mouth.  “I cannot believe you’re joking about that.”

Keith snorts.  “I’m remembering that pilot error bullshit...  They never apologized to Shiro either... Though, this is not for you to think it’s okay to do these things.”

Aki laughs.  “But you did them!”

“I was wrong, okay?”  Keith keeps laughing, ruffling Aki’s hair up.  “No punching out people’s eyes. I learned, so you can learn from my mistakes too.”

“Oh, my god.  Thank goodness I had you to show me not to punch people’s eyes out.  How else would I have learned that?  And all along I thought you were this perfect golden angel.  Everyone talks about you like you are! Iverson and Griffin’s dad never mentioned anything about either of those things!  Did Griffin’s dad lose a kidney or something? Now I’m wondering.”

No, he’s fine.  Shiro was still around then.”

“He’s your only impulse control?”

Keith laughs.  “Yes? I meant it when I said I could relate to you, Aki.  People teased me at school too. Everyone hated me. Well, everyone but Shiro.  It’s why James got a taste of this -” Keith snorts, shoving his fist in the air.

Aki laughs, raising an eyebrow.  “Is that how I should solve things, Dad?”

Not that I condone that.  God. This conversation is getting out of hand so quickly.”

“Oh my god,” Aki chokes on his laughter.  His eyes dance as he looks to Keith.  “Can I get another question? I just thought of one.”

“As many as you want,” Keith promises.

“Okay.  Why the skin tight outfits?”

“Huh?”

“During your paladin days.  That spandex. You and Dad. I mean...was it a style choice, or...?  It was so embarrassing Spandex, of all things!  Uncle Lance decided that one, didn’t he?”

Keith laughs.  “Okay. No, it was just what was there.  The idea was it’d act as a second skin.  It didn’t inhibit agility or movement, which was necessary in a tight pinch, alright?”

Aki chokes.  “A ‘tight pinch’?  Did you really just say that?”

Keith groans, pressing his hand over his face to hide his laughter.  “Well...your dad didn’t mind, so...”

Aki howls.  “No.  Don’t say that.”

Keith laughs from his belly.  “You started it, mister.”

Aki just keeps laughing, free and amused and light.

Keith feels so lucky.  Lucky to be alive, lucky to be here, beside his son, sharing what’s in his heart and not getting rejected by the people he loves most.  Aki accepting him for who he is, believing him when he holds out what’s in his heart in vulnerability, silently pleading.

It doesn’t matter if the rest of the world falls around them, at least he has this.  Maybe Keith’s head will turn on him soon enough - who’s he kidding? It’ll probably happen sooner than later.  Struggle and reprieve on either side of a pendulum, but he’ll have his family beside him. He’s the luckiest person in the world.  He knows it.

Aki settles back down, sighing out the remnants of his laughter.  He clears his throat, leaning his head back on Shiro’s pillow. His voice gets serious.

“Dad...one more question for now,” Aki whispers.  “A serious one.”

“Okay.”

He blinks his golden eyes up at Keith’s, widely innocent and naive.  “The leader of the resistance is gone now. I know they had a large network of people, but they seemed to really follow him and only him.  The one bad seed. Do you think the Galra Resistance will end after this? If the seed is gone, there’s nothing left to grow, right?”

Keith hums as he thinks about it.  “...No, I don’t think it’s fully over.  Not yet. Not for awhile. They have their roots into this world and where there’s hope, there’s also darkness.  Not everyone sees the same ways that we do, but I think we’ve made a very good positive step in the right direction.  I think this will change things for the better. One step at a time we’re getting there.”

“Hm.  You and Dad with your steps.”

“That’s how you survive.  Slowly, but surely. One day at a time.”

“One day at a time,” Aki hums and they both lie there quietly together, thinking of the vast difference between yesterday and today.  The bad and the good.

There’s a soft knock on the door and Keith looks up to Shiro’s beautiful smiling face.  There’s flour on his nose. Keith chuckles and points it out and Shiro dusts it off with a laugh.  “Hey, you two.  How’s it going?”

“Good,” Keith smiles back.  “Really good.”

Shiro's eyes crinkle at the corners, joyous relief flooding his features.  "Yeah?"

Aki nods, grinning, scooting in so he makes space.  "Is that burnt pancakes I smell?"

"Maybe?  Your dad doesn't mind.  He likes them," Shiro shrugs innocently.

Keith snorts and gestures Shiro forward.  "Come here.  Come sit with us."

"Dad was just telling me stories of your youth," Aki says.  "You have a thing for carjackers, huh?"

"Carjackers?" Shiro smiles crookedly in confusion, looking back and forth between them.  "Keith, what are you telling him?"

Keith and Aki laugh.  "I'm just kidding," Aki says.  But then he can't help himself: "We were actually talking about your spandex."

"What?"  Shiro laughs, crossing the distance between them and crawling up.  He opens his arms wide, gathering the both of them in a big bear hug.  "Come here, you two," he breathes.  "You're both crazy.  ...And I wouldn't have it any other way."

Keith laughs with him, wrapping his arm around Shiro's back and bringing him in closer.  He holds him tight.

"Everything's okay now," Keith whispers into his ear.  He can't see Shiro's expression, but he knows how much it means to him.

"Good," Shiro whispers, pressing his face into Keith's shoulder as he snuggles them close and rocks the both of them from side to side, still clinging tightly.  "Good."

Aki holds the back of them too, chuckling under his breath as he hums into it.

It really is a family hug.  All three of them - four when Kosmo pokes his head beneath, into their circle.  Keith laughs wetly and makes room, helping him up on the bed with them.

God, it's been forever since they last were this close, this in-tune with each other.  It feels so right, like after a long horrible freezing cold day, drenched through and miserable, seeing the fireplace crackling happily away, a warm cozy blanket waiting on a chair with hot chocolate topped with small marshmallows waiting.  Family.  A place of comfort and unconditional warmth.  That's what Keith is wrapped up in right now and he could not be happier.  Not ever.  He wants everyone in this universe to feel such joy. 

Shiro pulls back, keeping his hands on both of their shoulders, looking down at them with so much pride and warmth in his eyes.  "I love you both.  I knew you'd finally get this talk.  I just knew it.  ...It's been a long time coming."

Keith reaches up for another right hug, which Shiro gratefully takes.  "Thank you for being so patient with us," he whispers, resting his cheek on Shiro's shoulder.  "You're the best partner anyone could ask for.  You held us together when we were falling apart.  Thank you, Shiro..."

Aki dives in too, wrapping his arms around them.  "Love you, Daddy.  Love you both.  I'm so happy."  Keith shifts his bad shoulder to wrap around Aki too.  It's only right.  He smiles over at Aki and Aki smiles back.  Shiro pats both of their backs tenderly.

They stay there for a long unhurried moment.  It's so quiet and soft, but the silence feels right.  It's their moment and only theirs.  Their togetherness feels so cohesive, so unbreakable that it's crazy to think they were ever lost souls, tossed to separate sides of the ocean from the other.  They're home.  They're finally home.

Shiro finally gently pulls back, eyes a bit red from his tears, but he smiles as he rubs them away.  “Keith.  Someone’s here to see you.  And Aki...they’d like to meet you.”

Keith and Aki give each other confused looks.  Shiro’s smile is secretive, but his eyes betray him: so so warm.

Aki and Shiro both help Keith on either side, avoiding his plethora of wounds.  They make it down slowly, but, when they get into the living room, no one’s there.

“Is it Grandma with a Galran friend?”  Aki asks. She always likes to hang out in their backyard.  “I thought she was coming over again later tonight?”

They head that way, but Shiro says, “No.  It’s not Grandma.”

Keith arches an eyebrow.  “Why are you acting so suspiciously?  You’re having way too much fun. Who is it?”

Shiro presses his smile down, kissing Keith's head.  “Someone special.”

“‘Someone special’?”  Keith wonders, pushing through the back doors.  The wind meets him, swirling all around him, fresh and free, reminding him he’s alive.

He steps out into the light...and sees an old familiar face.

He stops.  He goes breathless at the sight, smile dropped clean off his face in shock.  His legs go a little weak.

“Oh,” he whispers on a tremble as his throat tightens.

Holy shit ,” Aki mumbles loosely.

It's Red.  She's fucking huge, blotting out the sun and the sky.  Keith almost forgot she was this big. She looked so small in the illustrated books Keith used to read to Aki.  Small and cute.

She’s so fucking beautiful.

"She came into our solar system yesterday," Shiro says as he looks up to her, red and fiery in the afternoon sun. "She must've felt you were in trouble...she always came for you."

Keith presses a hand over his mouth, looking up into her face.  It’s been so long, it feels almost like she’s from another lifetime.  A legend, rather than reality. His loyal companion, almost like a mother to him, always watching over him.  They said goodbye decades ago. He never thought he’d be able to see her again.

So much emotion floods Keith.  Before Aki and Shiro can stop him, his feet are leaving their patio and he’s running down the hill to her at full speed, flitting through the grass.  He feels like a child for all the excitement and wonder flaring inside of him like fire, new and fresh.

“Red,” he breathes through the wind.  “ Red .”

He can feel her communicate to him in that way she does, a familiar presence in his mind.  Comfortable. Missed. She shows him the stars through her eyes that she’s been traversing, the love she still has and has always had for him.

It’s so special.

She leans down and he leaps through the air, letting himself grab ahold of her face, arms wide.

I missed you , he can feel her think.

After all these long years, Keith had truly begun to fear that Red and Black had just used and abandoned them.  It had started to hurt. The absence of her warmth in his head contributing to even deeper loneliness, the loss of one of his first friends, one of his oldest friends.

But she’s here now.  He hears her familiar warm purring in his head and it’s like she hasn’t left at all.  He’s a sniffling emotional mess. She still loves them.

"Good kitty," Keith whispers as he slips down from her nose and reaches his hand out to touch her muzzle, hand clasping as he shakes. He leans his face into her, nuzzling gently back.  She came for him. She always did, but even now, especially now , it grabs him by the heart so much harder than it used to.  It means so much. “I’ve missed you too.”

Keith hears footsteps behind him and he looks back into Aki’s eyes, filled with wonder.  “Incredible...” Aki whispers in awe. His jaw drops as he scans the height of her. “She’s...so much bigger in person...”

“She’s wondering if we want to go for a ride,” Keith translates for her, looking up as she opens her mouth for them.

“You should go,” Aki says excitedly, eyes flicking to Keith’s.  “Go! It’s been so long!”

He’d never think of telling Red no.  But before Keith steps up, he holds out his hand.

Aki blinks at it, smile shocked right off of his face as his eyelashes flutter.  He just stares.

“Coming?”  Keith asks.

“M-me?”  Aki breathes in a gasp.

“Well, Kosmo’s already on board,” he laughs, looking at the bushy tail disappear into the cockpit.  “And don’t worry, I won’t force you to drive this time. Red pretty much drives herself anyway.”

“I-I don’t think I’m allowed .”

Keith looks up into Shiro’s eyes and they chuckle together.  “Are you kidding? She’s like a proud grandma. You should hear her right now.  She’s asking all about you. She wants to know everything. Everything.”

Me ?”

Keith smiles crookedly.  “Yes, you .  She’s part of our family too.  Roadtrip.”

Aki laughs a little, looking up to Shiro, who nods encouragingly, smiling, and then back to Keith.

Aki reaches forward and grabs Keith’s hand, letting himself be pulled up.  Keith and Shiro make eye contact as Aki walks forward,, gasping and fanboying in awe.

They hang back, just watching, grinning so widely at the other, hearts full.

“Told you they still loved us,” Keith says innocently.

Shiro gives him a patient little look as he wraps an arm around Keith’s shoulders and pulls him in.  He’s laughing.  “Mhmm.  You sure did.”

"And I love you."

Shiro tilts his head down to Keith's, smiling with all the warmth in his heart.  "I love you more."

Keith laughs, opening his mouth to argue, when they're interrupted.

“Guys, come on!”  Aki pokes his head around and waves them up.  “Let’s go! This is amazing!  I love this!”

Aki calls, so they go.  And Red leaps off the grass from their backyard and shoots them off into space, where they run through the stars, together.

 

 


15 years later


 

 

The summer breeze brings traces of cool into the wide-open space that is their sun-ridden backyard.  Even through all these years, the stream still chugs merrily along, winding around the trees’ shade. It is one of few reliable constants that Keith will always appreciate.

Keith and Pidge sit on the swing together on the patio, munching on popcorn that Keith wolfs down today.

Pidge watches him in a combination of horror and awe.  “Can’t believe you got here so early. How many solar systems away were you?  I wasn’t expecting you for another few hours.”

“God, don’t tell Shiro.  I told him it was ten solar systems.  It was fifteen. Even he looked green by the time we landed, but I didn’t want to be late...”

“Is that why he quickly diverted to the shower?”

“He didn’t exactly puke, but...”

“Wow,” Pidge snorts in amusement.  “Well. You’ve still got it, I guess.”

Keith laughs.  “Fifteen minutes.”

Pidge cringes.  “Holy shit .  Traversing fifteen solar systems in fifteen minutes.  That’s so wrong. How are you still alive ?  I’m telling Shiro.”

“I’m stealing this popcorn bowl back.”

I’m the one who brought it!”

“Now I’m taking it.”

Keith tries to grab the bowl from her and they battle for it for awhile until she huddles over it like an angry gargoyle, successfully locking it in place.  He snorts, elbowing her and she laughs as she elbows him back, tossing more popcorn at him.

Keith stretches his legs out with a soft happy groan.  “It’s nice to be back home. Shiro and I love space, we really do, but...there’s no place like Earth.”

“Mm.  No. There really isn’t.  Home is where the heart is, after all.”

“It really is.”

It’s beautiful here, in this little place they call home.  The grass has only grown greener, the sky spreading out with a deeper richer blue.  Lance and Allura still live next door and they’ll be here any second now - the twins and them basically run the Garrison by now.  Hunk is still living his dream job with Shay at his side, but he has an additional helper in his restaurant now, not to mention a few children of his own.  Pidge is still Pidge, genius of their time, just creating beyond what anyone else can understand, saving the universe still with her tech business, no big deal.  They all stay busy. But not too busy for each other.

They always meet here.  It’s easy and casual, even if two of them are fifteen solar systems away and have to race through the stars to get here in time.  Or early. Keith can’t help he’s fast.

 And though some things change, the laughter down by the creek remains another constant.  It’s Keith’s favorite kind of music.

Keith can hear Aki’s deep voice from here.  He turns his eyes down the hill to see just as the wind picks up.

“Look at this,” Aki says, bending down and plucking a blade of grass from the ground.  He holds it out for his little one to see. A familiar sight. Keith smiles softly. “I call it...my most magical instrument.  Behold.” And he blows into the blade of grass, making it squeak and sing.

“Daddy!”  She screams in laughter, bouncing around Aki’s demonstration, tilting her head to get a better look.  “It’s called a musical instrument.”

“Not this one,” he says, holding it out in his palm to show her.  “This one has magic in it.  See?”

She quiets down for a moment as she leans in closer.  Aki bops her nose and she laughs.

“Daddy!”  She crows in betrayal.

“Look at that.”  Pidge hums warmly, nudging Keith with her shoulder before leaning her head on him instead.  They watch Aki and his sweet little girl playing down below. She’s chasing him now, two hands out to grab him and he tumbles down into the grass, rolling.

“Oh no , you got me ,” he chuckles as she dive bombs him in the stomach.  “ Ow .  A little rough there...”

Pidge murmurs as she keeps the swing rocking, “...Remember when I was still trying to figure myself out and I accidentally got pregnant?”

Keith snorts at the way she puts it.  “Oh, yeah.”

“Can you believe that was almost thirty years ago?”

“Ugh.  Don’t say that.  It’s going to make me feel old.”

“Yeah, okay , like you can talk, you vampire .  I hate you and Shiro and sometimes.  You age like freaking gods.”

He chuckles under his breath.  “Shhh. No, you don’t.”

“Pfft.  You’re right.  I don’t. Anyway, what’d I tell you?  ...Things would end up alright.”

“Is that what you told me?  Because I vividly remember when you said you wished it’d never happened with that guy.”

She rolls her eyes, already knowing where Keith’s taking it.  “I can be wrong sometimes , Kogane.”

“Ah, there it is.  You finally admit it.  I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Shut up.”  She laughs. “Well, it seemed bad at the time, but...I can’t regret it now.  I’m happy. Really fucking happy.” She smiles up at Keith. “I was right about one thing though.  You and Shiro were the best choice for Aki. I knew it then and I know it now. I’m so glad all of you exist...”

The air is warm and smells sweet, like honey.  Keith takes a deep breath. Lets it out.

“...Love you, Pidge.”

“Love you, Keith.”  She boops his nose.

They’ve gone through so much.  The years seem to have gone by both far too quickly and spread out painfully long and slow at the same time.  It’s taken him awhile to get here, a lot of ups, a lot of downs, a lot of wrong turns, a lot of apprehension, but he’s made it here, safe, in a place he’s comfortable and happy and warm.

And things aren’t always perfect.  Sometimes he feels it: that feeling, malfunctioned.  But life is undeniably better. The feeling has shrunken.  Keith has freedom now. He can go into space again, and though sometimes he shakes and trembles, other times he flits and flies and he feels like that boy again, that self he had thought was long lost.

He still counts his three things both morning and night.  He still has those lie-in-bed-and-hate-yourself days. But he also still has his family at his back, lifting him up the days he needs it.  Life is so incredibly, undeniably better.

The only warning Keith gets is a cut off shriek and a familiar poof ! before he has a tiny grandchild in his hands.  Kosmo wags his tail happily at the delivery.

“Welcome back!”  She shrieks, small chubby arms coming around Keith’s neck in that uninhibited way only a child can pull off.  “You were gone for so long! Daddy and I missed you!”

He smiles so wide it almost hurts.  “If it isn’t my little princess. I hear it’s someone’s birthday today...”

She sits back on his lap and grins, her wide toothy grin.  “Yes! It’s my birthday!  I’m turning five today!”

“What?  Five? No, that can’t be true.  Are you lying to me?”

“No!”  She giggles.  “It’s true!”

“Five?  Are you that old already?  Are you sure you don’t mean three?”  Keith raises an eyebrow. “I think you’re trying to trick me.  It seems like you were just two yesterday.”

No .  This many!”  She flashes her hand and presses it up close to Keith’s face.  “See?”

“Hmmm...  You’re one hand old?”

“What?!  No! My fingers !  I have five fingers!  You’re crazy, Grandpappy.”

Keith chokes.  Pidge snorts into her popcorn bowl.  “‘ Grandpappy’?  Why the hell do I always get the weird names?”

“Hey!”  Aki pants as he finally makes it to the top of the hill.  He puts both hands to his hips as he shakes his head, trying to catch his breath.  “Don’t say ‘hell’ in front of my daughter.”

“Ah.  Sorry, Aki.  I forgot. Heck .  I meant heck .”

She giggles.  “Heck, Grandpappy.”

“Oh, jesus.  ‘Grandpappy’,” Keith groans, but he can’t help but laugh too.

Aki sighs, giving Keith a crooked smile.  “...Hey, Dad. You made it here quickly. Did you two have a nice trip?  Help some people? Save some lives?”

Keith looks over Aki fondly.  He’s doing well, Keith can tell by the glimmer in his eyes.  Happy. He and Griffin have been married for a few years now and they really do bring out the best in the other.  Keith couldn’t be happier for him.

“Space was really nice,” Keith hums, bouncing Aki’s daughter on his knee to distract her from pulling at his braid.  “Grandma and Kolivan met up with us for part of it, which was fun. Even got to see some space whales again. Kosmo found a little friend.”

“Wow, you were busy.  Weren’t you still in space when I called you this morning?  Wasn’t that like...not even a half hour ago?”

“Mhmm.  It’s fine.”

“Uhh...”

“Aki, I think your grandma’s here,” Griffin pokes her head in from inside.  “Oh. Hi, Keith. You made it here quickly. Your mom just said you left after her.”

“Hey, Griffin.”

“Come on,” she calls to the little bouncing bean on Keith’s lap as Aki moves to take her from Keith’s lap.  “We need to go greet our guests.”

“I don’t wanna leave,” she grumbles, struggling with Aki to try to cling to Keith, clinging with a death grip to his braid.  “Tell me more stories, Grandad,” she says, looking desperately into his eyes. “I want to hear stories.”

“Later tonight, I’ll tell you any story you want, but right now, I think we should listen to your mom.  It’s your birthday after all, isn’t it? I bet they have presents for you.”

Really?   How many?”

“After dinner, we can count together.  But you have to listen to your mom and dad, okay?”

“Okay, I’ll go,” she says as she crawls off his lap.  She pauses before she takes off, giving Keith a look through her big inquisitive eyes.  “ As many stories as I want?  How about the one with the Red Kitty?”

“You won’t be able to stop me.”

She laughs, uses his knees to jump up and kiss him on the cheek, murmurs a soft little, “Love you, Grandaddy,” and then runs off to follow Griffin in.

As the back door opens, Keith can hear the flood of activity inside, the familiar sounds of Krolia’s voice, Lance’s laughter, the twins’ squealing over how cute their little princess has become.  Keith looks over his shoulder through the glass window to see Shiro freshly showered and cleaned up to a tee. He’s graciously inviting James Griffin and his wife inside, no doubt talking about their space adventures with how excited and enthusiastic he’s waving his hands around.

Keith’s heart is so warm.  So many people already inside, talking with one another.  It’s another birthday. Another five year old. He has the sparkling candle in his bag, safely secured from space.  It’s tradition.

“Want to go in there and say hi?”  Pidge asks as she watches him. Her introverted butt wouldn’t normally recommend it, but it’s different.  It’s family in there.

So they do.

The night passes as time usually does, far too quickly, as all happy birthday nights do.  Before they know it, afternoon turns to evening and their bellies are full of the best tasting and best decorated cakes in the entire galaxy.  Presents are torn asunder by tiny excited hands (almost twenty-two presents in all) and their celebrated little five-year-old is passed out on the blankets spread out over soft sweet grass before no time.

Aki and Griffin lean into each other, exhausted but happy, as if they’re still new parents, which, Keith thinks, they sort of still are.  But they have help. They’ll be okay.

The evening’s light is warm and rich with deep reds and pulled oranges and yellows.  The stars will come, sooner rather than later. But right now, they’re all just enjoying the scenery as it is.

There is no war.  The news is absolutely bland and slow.  Their children know nothing but peace.

Keith lies out comfortably in Shiro’s arms, just like they did those fifteen years ago when Aki was turning five, passed out on a sugar high just like his own daughter is now.  It’s funny how time is. It still feels like Keith was just five, alone in this world, and now look.  He still feels the same, he really does, only, he’s learned so much along the way, and he’s found so many more things to be grateful for.

In their backyard, spread out over the green grass, Keith is surrounded by a family he could’ve never even dreamed of, never even hoped for.  Life’s crazy and chaotic and unpredictable, but through all of that, he’s absolutely sure of this: through thick and thin, any of them will be there for him...and he for them.  And that same love and warmth will be extended to Aki and Griffin and their child. And that feels like nothing short of a miracle.

Shiro weaves his fingers lightly through Keith’s hair.  It feels so good he could purr, but he’ll spare his poor mom and friends.

“Your hair’s getting so long again,” Shiro hums happily as he leans down to get closer to Keith, playing with the silky strands.  He presses a soft kiss to his cheek. “I always love it when it gets like this.”

Keith reaches up to play with Shiro’s silver hair.  “And I love your hair too.”

“It’s the same as always,” Shiro laughs beneath his breath.

“Mmhmm.  I love it same as always.”

“Look at him,” Shiro nudges Keith gently on the arm and nods toward Aki, who’s fast asleep, snuggled in close to his little sleeping angel.  “Looks like birthdays still tire him out, even now.”

Keith laughs, following Shiro’s gaze..  “...Me too, though.”

“Yeah.  Same.” They chuckle together as Shiro reaches for Keith’s hand and holds it on his chest.  “Ahh, I love birthdays though. Everyone together again. No matter how busy we are, we all get to catch up and hang out.  Feels just like it was meant to be.”

“Aww, stop, buddy, you’re making me blush,” Lance coos from across the blanket.

“But it’s true,” Allura hums, bumping into Lance as he leans back.  “You just said so yourself the other night. He thinks ‘Family Fridays’ should be a thing.  Game night for us all.”

“Allura, shhh, you’re not supposed to tell everyone I have feelings ."

Allura rolls her eyes and shakes her head.  "But seriously, game night, all of us, our house, what do you say?”

“I’m up for it,” Krolia hums, looking up to Keith.

“Hell, yeah,” Keith says.

“James, you guys should come too,” Shiro says.  “You’re part of our family now.”

“Y-yeah,” he blinks in surprise.  “Sure.”

“Ah, you guys,” Hunk sniffles, grabbing a handkerchief from his pocket.  “If I had known when we were just little pea pods in the Garrison that we’d end up like this, I would’ve hugged us all into friends long before we first met.  Friends forever, okay?”

Pidge snorts.  “What are you, twelve?”

“Friends forever, Pidge!”  Lance repeats, leaning in. And then he and Hunk start chanting, “friends, friends, friends, friends!”

“Okay, okay!  Sheesh. Friends forever.  As long as it gets you guys to stop that.”