Keith wipes a hand across his sweaty brow for the second time in so many minutes, kneeling at the mouth of another Acuan-Vrito nest. This one reeks like wet hay and cinnamon, which, according to Coran, means it’s an active nest.
As far as Paladin missions go, documenting and tagging Vrito— a creature similar to a Terran mole— is hardly the stuff of legend. But the Vrito hive together and create a substance sticky like honey that the Acu people need to fuel most of their infrastructure and space vehicles.
And since the Acu are recent recruits to the Coalition, it’s Volron’s duty to assist, no matter how sticky-hot the air is and no matter how strange the nests smell. No task is too small in the wake of the war, or so Allura claims.
Speaking of honey.
Shiro’s smooth, sweet voice crackles in over their communicator and Keith can’t help the small smile that flicks his mouth up. It’s a welcome distraction as he unceremoniously shoves his hand into the Vrito hole and feels around for the not-honey.
“We’ve located and tagged about ten of these nests,” Keith answers. “Three seem viable so far. Coran marked their coordinates on the map.”
“Great!” Shiro says, far more cheerful and conversational than a one-word answer warrants between the Captain of the Atlas and the Leader of Voltron. Then again, Shiro gets to hang out on the Atlas as the Paladins brave the heat. Despite that, Keith can’t help that feeling in his chest, like his heart is squirming to get free, when Shiro adds, “You’re making great time, Keith.”
It’s hardly the greatest compliment or highest praise Shiro’s ever given him, but it still pulls a wider smile from Keith, fully bloomed.
“Thanks, Captain,” he answers. He knows his happiness is coloring his voice, making it go all low.
Behind him, Coran clears his throat, a little too pointedly to just be coincidence. Keith keeps forgetting he’s there. Every time Shiro calls Keith gets distracted— and Coran’s witness to all of it. Keith feels the flush climb up his cheeks.
He draws away from the Vrito hole as soon as he feels the warm slide of the not-honey and nods to Coran.
Keith prays his voice isn’t quite so deep this time when he tells Shiro, “We have a few more to get through. How are the others doing?”
“Similarly,” Shiro answers and he hasn’t quite gotten the memo to keep his tone professional, his voice smooth as silk and sliding into Keith’s ear, tender enough to make Keith shiver. Keith can picture Shiro’s smile even without a video screen. “Everyone should be finishing up around the same time at this rate.”
“That’s good,” Keith says neutrally, glancing again at Coran as he enters the newest nest coordinates into the datapad. Once entered, the PADD gives a bright chirp and the two of them move on to the next nest a few yards down.
The connection with Shiro’s still open, though. He can hear Shiro breathing in his ear, shockingly intimate given the mundane situation. Keith knows to wait. He knows that Shiro’s looking for something to say, some excuse to keep talking to Keith. It isn’t the first time they’ve done this, after all.
When Shiro is still silent, struggling, perhaps, to find the words, Keith kneels in front of the next nest and asks, “Have you ever seen a Vrito in person, Captain?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Shiro answers, sounding relieved, his voice gentle and intoxicating in Keith’s ear.
Keith’s smile softens and he decidedly does not look at Coran. “They’re kind of cute. Like giant hamsters with five eyes.”
“And that’s cute?” Shiro asks, laughing.
“Absolutely,” Keith declares. He ducks his arm into this next nest, feeling around.
“Well. Animals have always liked you. Maybe you’re biased, Keith,” Shiro teases— meant only for Keith and no one else to hear. Keith loves it when Shiro teases.
“Maybe I am.”
Keith withdraws his arm from this nest, shaking his head, and travels to the next, knowing that Coran will follow him. Coran is one hundred percent listening in, Keith knows, and he’s not even pretending to be subtle about it. But then again, Keith has a tendency to just converse with Shiro and forget about the audience they have— both down on the ground and in the Atlas, Shiro’s crew all around him.
That matters little to Keith, not when it’s more important to keep hearing that smile in Shiro’s voice, pulling out that quiet contentment and praise from Shiro. It means he gets teased a lot more than he’d like, but that doesn’t matter to Keith, either. He can handle teasing if Shiro’s happy.
“I know cute things when I see them,” Keith says, voice dropping into a conspiring whisper.
“Oh yeah?” Shiro prompts, his own voice going low to match. It’s completely stupid that it’d be enough to make Keith shiver, and yet here he is, looking for alien honey and turning gooey just from the timbre of Shiro’s voice.
Then again, he’s long since resigned himself to being someone who would do this; Shiro’s always had that power over him.
“Yeah,” Keith continues, conversational but secretive, knowing his smile must carry through his words, knowing that Shiro will be able to tell even without the visual. He lets the word hang in the air, not confirming anything, and then says, “I should keep focusing. Don’t want to get distracted by cute things, you know?”
He lets the words hover.
Once the silence hangs for just a beat too long, Keith takes in Shiro’s quiet intake of breath and then clarifies, “The Vrito.”
Shiro’s next breath is a laugh, deep and honeyed and surprised. “Oh,” he says, maybe a little hushed, and it makes Keith’s heart flip again. “Right. I should check in with the others, too.”
“Sounds good,” Keith says, smiling. “We’ll check back in once we’re finished, Captain.”
There’s a pause and, when Shiro answers, his voice is so much softer than before: “Talk to you soon, Black Paladin.”
The line between them goes quiet and Keith sighs, dusting his hands and standing again to move to the next nest, following that hay-cinnamon scent. He turns towards Coran and finds Coran studying him in that fastidious, vaguely disconcerting way he tends to study the Paladins when he has something to say but is holding back on expressing those thoughts.
Keith doesn’t feel embarrassed that Coran is often witness to this particular brand of flirting— and he knows it’s flirting— because what really matters is Shiro’s reaction to it. Still, though, he doesn’t like the vague sensation that he’s being judged. It isn’t anybody’s business, no matter how much he and Shiro just throw it out there for everyone else to see.
“Something to say, Coran?” Keith asks.
Coran hums thoughtfully, twisting the end of his mustache around one finger and tugging. He waits for a moment and then says, “There was a particular species of Vrito on Altea, not unlike the Acu’s.”
“Really,” Keith says, sighing as they approach the next nest. He knows this isn’t what Coran wants to say but he’s not sure if he wants to invite what Coran’s thinking. Possibly another long story about what his Pop-Pop got up to one time or another.
“They didn’t make the nectar, but otherwise they were very similar to these cuddly creatures,” Coran says, proud as he always is when talking about anything from Altea’s past. His smile is light, gentle in a way that belies the deep sadness Keith can only imagine Coran and Allura both feel, when thinking of their lost planet.
“And?” Keith asks. At the next nest, a Vrito’s poking its long snout towards the sun, sniffing the air.
It catches sight of Keith and instead of scurrying away, treads forward, it’s large five eyes blinking lazily in Keith’s direction, a sign of trust. Keith kneels as the creature approaches, holding out his hand. Shiro wasn’t wrong when he said that animals tend to like Keith. It seems Vrito are no exception.
Coran watches Keith scratch the underside of the Vrito’s chin. It lets out a tiny trill, its ears standing upright as Keith gives it some attention.
“The Altean Vrito had an interesting mating dance,” Coran says. “My Pop-Pop and I—”
There it is, Keith thinks.
“— used to watch them out in the garden. Very moving… always knew how to cut a rug, as it were,” Coran continues, either ignoring or not noticing Keith’s side-eye. “Yes, quite the mating dance.”
With no small sense of dread, Keith fears he knows what direction this conversation is about to go in. It’s one of two options, Keith figures. Either Coran’s setting up a metaphor or Keith’s about to learn way too much about fuzzy alien moles’ mating habits. He’s not sure which one is less ideal.
“Coran,” Keith says.
“On Altea, we used to paint the Vrito on walls in spiral patterns because of the unique footwork of the dance. Every Altean home had a mural of them. It meant continuance and guidance,” Coran says, ignoring Keith’s tone. He kicks his feet out, mimicking, Keith assumes, a Vrito mating dance. He claps his hands over his head and wriggles around and lets out a sound very much like crowing. He sways back and forth and starts spiraling around Keith.
The Vrito in front of Keith perks up, staring at Coran. Its ears flick back and forth before settling. Then, seeming to take displeasure in Coran’s display, it darts back into its nest. Keith sympathizes with the creature.
“Coran,” Keith says again, standing. “If you have something you want to say, can you just tell me? I’m not in the mood for dancing.”
“They’re foolish little creatures,” Coran says. “They dance and dance around each other. It takes so long for them to actually meet in the middle of their spiral dance. It can take phoebs! Poor things exhaust themselves.”
Keith feels color climbing his cheeks. He takes the datapad from Coran and inputs the next set of coordinates, walking and refusing to look at him. He hears Coran following behind him, chipper enough.
“Okay,” Keith mutters. “So you’re talking about me and Shiro, right?”
“Am I?” Coran asks.
Keith suddenly wishes, with deep longing, that he’d been partnered off with Hunk. Coran could have gone with Allura instead. He’d be spared from this conversation. Hunk, he knows, is always deeply embarrassed whenever he witnesses Shiro and Keith doing that thing you guys do (as he calls it) but he at least has the decency not to talk about it in front of Keith. Or, at the bare minimum, doesn’t compare Keith and his affairs to mating rodents.
“Shiro and I aren’t— aren’t dancing around each other,” Keith mutters, blushing. He shoves the PADD at Coran and kneels in front of another nest, shoving his hand inside without preamble. There’s a Vrito inside, though, shocked at the sudden invasion. Keith gets a bite on his finger for his troubles.
“I’d just like to lend some advice, if you’d take it,” Coran says, not unkindly as Keith yanks his hand out again and wipes the small bead of blood at the tip of his finger on the ground. “In regards to your feelings.”
Keith feels himself getting defensive. He’s been getting better at that in general, he thinks, but it still is enough to set him on edge. He feels his shoulders rise up towards his ears, his face red.
“Like you’d know anything about crushing on a guy who might not even like you back,” Keith mutters.
Flirting with Shiro is one thing— Shiro’s always been friendly, always been overly indulgent with Keith in general— but feelings are another thing entirely. Shiro is friendly with everyone. Flirting with Keith can just as easily mean nothing even if it means too much to Keith.
Keith knows, immediately, that he’s somehow managed to say the wrong thing, though. The mood changes as suddenly as a storm sweeping in. Coran goes quiet beside him but he doesn’t look distressed. Instead, he looks thoughtful, internalizing.
Keith really, truly does not want to think about Coran dating, or having feelings for another person. He’d never outright say that Coran is basically the team’s weird space dad (maybe uncle?), but it’s not an unfair comparison. And Keith might not know too much about family relations in the grand scheme, but he does know that he doesn’t want to be thinking about any adult in his life having romantic inclinations. If that makes him a child still, then so be it.
“Uh,” Keith says, fumbling. He doesn’t know how to read Coran’s expression but the guilt sparks in his gut anyway. Somehow, just apologizing feels insincere but he isn’t sure what else to do. “I’m— um. I’m sorry, Coran. I didn’t mean that.”
“It’s true I’m not quite the wooer I used to be,” Coran answers, twisting his mustache and smiling now, as if that brief flash of sadness never moved across his face. “But I know my fair share of romance.”
“Okay,” Keith mutters, feeling his ears turn pink.
The guilt simmers in his gut, unexpressed. He knows he needs to get better about talking to people. (You’re doing your best, Shiro would say if Keith confessed as much. He’d smile. He’d be kind, even if Keith didn’t deserve it.)
“Sorry,” he says again.
Coran waves his hand, dismissing it and smiling. He tugs on his mustache again, thoughtfully, studying Keith.
“What?” Keith asks.
“You believe your love is unreturned?” Coran asks, because of course that’s what he’d focus on.
Keith really wishes he had something to do with his hands, or something to take his focus. Hell, he’d settle for a sudden attack from raiders to distract him from having this conversation. He’d shove his hands into a million Vrito holes with Vrito in them if it meant not having to have this conversation.
It’s way too hot for this. The air is thick with cinnamon and hay. Keith hates it. He feels cornered, his heart kicking up a steady tattoo against his ribs.
“It’s not— I don’t know,” Keith confesses, quietly. He remembers cradling Shiro to his chest, holding him safe in his arms. So many nights on the journey back to Earth, he remembers when Shiro would blink his eyes open in the dark and stare up at Keith, seeking him out and knowing, somehow, that Keith would be there watching over him.
Keith’s sure he couldn’t have misunderstood the look in Shiro’s eyes then, the quiet sort of calm that settled over his features when his eyes locked with Keith’s. But Keith also knows, in the quieter corners of his heart, the parts of him that doubts, that he shouted three words at Shiro in desperation— something he knows Shiro can remember— and Shiro’s never indicated a desire to say it back to him.
“Coran…” Keith begins, sounding tired.
“I used to come out to forests like these with King Alfor,” Coran says, hands folded behind his back now as he starts walking. This time, Keith’s the one to follow him through the winding trees and low-hanging purple vines of the Acuan vegetation.
The way he says it now— it sounds far different from when he discussed watching with his Pop-Pop.
“Yeah?” Keith prompts. He never knows how to talk to Coran. That’s always been Allura and Shiro’s areas of expertise.
“It was always pleasant,” Coran says, reminiscing, voice so far away— thousands and thousands of decaphoebs away— as he looks up at the leafy canopy. “Young as I was, I always thought, moments like that were enough. I could stay like that and be content.”
“Sure,” Keith says quietly, thinking of the deep honey of Shiro’s voice in his ear, how his smile warmed his voice. Stay like that and be content.
Coran’s still looking at the leaves when he says, far too quietly, without a shred of that humor he so often carries in his voice: “I often wonder… if things would have been different if I hadn’t been so content with how things were.”
“What do you mean?” Keith asks, coming to a stop.
Coran pauses, stopping his slow pace and turning back towards Keith, too. “I wonder if things would have been different if I’d dared to ask for more.”
Keith feels his brow furrow, something twisting up harsh and rough in his belly. He folds his arms over his chest, holding himself still and almost protectively against the words.
He feels, quite suddenly, like he’s hearing something that no one else has before. He wonders if Shiro knows this, if he and Coran ever spoke of this. Shiro and Coran get along, after all. Keith wonders in what context Coran would ever offer these words to Shiro, too. He’s a little terrified to think of it.
“I am happy with how things are,” Keith answers. And he is. He is. He wouldn’t trade his friendship with Shiro for anything. “Shiro and I are friends. I don’t need that to change.”
“And I’ll forever treasure King Alfor’s friendship,” Coran says, smiling just a little. “Even if, sometimes, I wondered if I was even worthy of it.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Keith asks. He blushes. “I know Shiro and I can be— uh, you know. I don’t think I’m unworthy of him. I—”
He fumbles and falls quiet. But Coran doesn’t pick up the thread of conversation. He lets it hang, silent and still between them.
“Anyway,” Keith says quietly. “My feelings are clear. I made them clear.”
Coran looks briefly surprised by that. But as soon as the words leave Keith, he wonders. He knows Shiro remembers the fight, even if they only spoke about it briefly together, in the dark belly of the Black Lion, one night after the nightmares ripped screams from Shiro’s throat.
You’re my brother, he remembers saying. He’ll never forget saying it. I love you.
He remembers the way Shiro stared at him in that moment, broken from his mind control if only for a breath, his expression shredding apart at the seams, like it was taking every ounce of his strength to fight back against the witch in his mind.
He thinks of the way Shiro’s looked at him ever since then, softer than he ever did before, his mouth always hinting a smile. There’s been something so gentle in Shiro— his hands on Keith’s back, his smile, his words praising Keith’s abilities. A near-constant thing, ever since he’s known Shiro, but different now.
How sometimes he looks at him and, for one shining moment, Keith lets himself wonder if Shiro wants to kiss him.
How Shiro looks at him like he’s precious. Irreplaceable.
Keith’s grip on his arms loosens and he frowns down at his feet before looking back up at Coran. Coran’s studying him, eyebrows lifted in expectation.
“It’s not me wondering if I’m worthy,” Keith says in a quiet murmur. Coran doesn’t answer, but he looks satisfied— a message sent that Keith’s received.
Coran’s always been closer to Shiro than to Keith, after all.
In the wake of the realization, Keith isn’t sure how to act. He doesn’t quite tremble— his world isn’t, in the end, rocked to its core. Instead, if feels obvious— something he might have already known.
Keith’s hand strays up and touches his cheek, just for a moment, absent and circumstantial— his fingertips following the trail Shiro’s have taken so many times before, his eyes so deep and so grey as he looked at Keith, his mouth thinned into a silent line.
Keith wonders what else Shiro’s been silent about.
“Thanks, Coran,” Keith says helplessly.
Coran hums, smiling a bit and winking. “I’m just very invested in mating dances.”
Keith barks a surprised laugh. “Well. Come on. We have one nest left.”
They finish the work in silence. It seems Coran’s said what he wanted to say and is content to let Keith finish his work. For his part, Keith’s comfortable with quiet. It gives him space to think, to assess what he’s already known but is now since solidified.
Frowning, though, Keith glances up at Coran. “Were you really in love with Allura’s dad?”
Coran hums, so quiet it’s almost inaudible. Keith isn’t sure what answer he’s looking for, what it could possibly mean to receive that answer, but he doesn’t get one in the end: Shiro’s call comes through on their hailing frequency, cutting off Keith’s line of questioning.
“Atlas to Paladins,” Shiro’s voice falls through on the communicator. “Keith? How’s it going?”
“Fine,” Keith says, voice quiet, his fingertips coming up to touch the spot on his helmet where Shiro’s voice rings true, as if he might be able to cup his voice and keep it there, pressed against the shell of his ear like a secret. “Hey, Shiro?”
“Yeah?” Shiro asks.
Keith glances at Coran and then away, smiling to himself. “There’s something I need to tell you, when we get back to the Atlas. Remind me, okay?”