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Baring Our Souls

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Keith was two and a half years old when his soulmark first appeared on his skin, too young for him to ever remember not having it. It was on his back, a narrow mark stretching between his shoulders: a deep green double helix that looked as if it were made of two criss-crossing vine, with wisps of red flame bordering it, smooth and shiny and almost golden when they reflected the light.

He had spent a lot of time in his early years on a stepstool at the bathroom counter with his dad’s shaving mirror in hand so he could look at the mark’s reflection. It was pretty, he had decided. And it was cooler than his dad’s, that pale purple gem that gleamed on his forearm.

He told him so over breakfast on morning when he was five, happily digging into his oatmeal as he explained his reasoning to his father. “Mine’s got fire on it,” he said between bites. “That makes me go fast. Yours doesn’t.”

“Your soulmark makes you go fast?” his dad said, raising a brow.

“Yeah. Like those cars that have fire on the side of them. They go faster than normal cars. That’s why I run so fast, ‘cause I’ve got a fast soulmark.”

His dad chuckled. “Well, who am I to argue with science like that? Come here, your soulmark’s making you eat so fast, you’re spilling.” Keith squirmed as he picked up a washcloth to wipe away the oatmeal that had dribbled onto his chin. “Still,” he continued, “Your mother thinks my soulmark is very cool. And that’s all that matters to me.”

“What kind of soulmark did Mom have?” Keith asked as his dad went back to his own seat.

“Hm? Keith, she has the same soulmark as I do.”

“Whoa,” Keith said. He paused to think that over, then asked, “Did she copy yours?”

His dad laughed again. “Keith, do you understand what a soulmark is?”

“Yeah,” said Keith. “It’s like a tattoo.”

“Well, okay, but do you know what soulmarks mean?”

Keith wrinkled his brow to think, then slowly shook his head.

“Huh,” said his dad. “Could’ve swarn I had explained it to you at some point. Ah, well. You see, Keith, soulmarks are used to show people who their soulmate is. If someone is your soulmate, they’ll have the same soulmark as you do.”

“What’s a soulmate?” Keith asked.

“A soulmate is… well, sort of like the love of your life. Someone who is perfect for you to form a lifelong bond with, so perfect for you that the universe makes sure that the two of you can find each other. Someone who – who’s a match for your heart. Who feels like home…”

His dad’s gaze had drifted over to the window to look up at the sky, and Keith turned in his chair to see what he was looking at, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. He turned back around, thinking nothing further of it. After all, his dad tended to stare at the sky a lot. “So Mom was your soulmate?” he asked.

“Yes,” his dad said with a nod. “She was. I guess you could call it love at first sight for us. From the moment we first met, we fell for – ”

“Ew,” Keith groaned, digging his spoon back into his oatmeal. “Dad, you better not talk about you and Mom being all kissy and gross.”

“It’s not gross,” his dad said, putting a hand over his heart in mock offense. “It’s being in love.”

“It’s all mushy,” Keith said. “I don’t wanna be in love.”

His dad smirked. “I think a lot of kids feel that way at your age. Once you grow up and meet your soulmate, I think you’ll find yourself thinking a little differently.”

“Not me,” Keith said firmly. “I’m never falling in love.”

His dad stood to pick up their now empty bowls. “Whatever you say, bud,” he said, winking at Keith before ruffling his hair and heading into the kitchen.


 

That was the first that Keith had learned of the concept of soulmates as couples, and less than a year later, when he was enrolled in kindergarten and thus surrounded by a lot more people than he ever had been, he found it amazing that he hadn’t figured that out beforehand. He hadn’t paid much attention to soulmarks before, but when he actually focused on them, he could see them on couples everywhere, on parents who came together to pick up their kids, on pairs in the diner where his dad would take him to eat lunch on Fridays to celebrate a completed week, a matched set on the music teacher and one of the cafeteria workers.

And as he grew older, the soulmark pairs stopped being limited to the adults around him. When he was nine, a boy his own age was placed in the same group home as himself and discovered that the boy he was sharing a bunkbed with had the same lightning design on his hand as he did. The two of them immediately took to holding hands everywhere they went. ‘Puppy love’, the supervisor called it. And in fourth grade, a girl in his class showed up one morning squealing to her friends and anyone else who would listen about how she had met her penpal in person for the first time, and discovered that the pattern around her eye, the one that looked like a mosaic of a sun, was a perfect match for his.

The young matchups were rare, but it seemed that by middle school, pretty much everyone was clamoring to find their soulmates. His classmates were constantly imagining and discussing traits they wanted their soulmate to have, celebrities they hoped their soulmate would look like. People began pairing off into couples, dating each other as ‘practice’ for when they met their soulmate.

And through it all, Keith watched on, feeling more and more like a spectator of a strange sport. Perhaps it was just because he was too focused on other things, in life, he figured. Or maybe he just hadn’t had his romantic awakening yet. A good number of his classmates had only really taken an interest in dating once puberty hit, and sure, he had reached that stage too, but maybe there was just some sort of delay. Maybe the health teacher who had given them a crash course on sex was right, and one day he would start looking at the people around him in a brand new light, have feelings toward them that he’d never experienced before. Maybe he just had to wait it out.

So he waited. And waited. And waited.

The change didn’t come. And he became increasingly nervous, watching and listening to people pair up and fantasize about falling head over heels for their soulmate. He didn’t want that. He didn’t want the things that everyone else anticipated so eagerly. But it seemed like an inevitability, that once you meet your soulmate, you’re on the fast track to love and romance and marriage. That’s what people wanted. The dating they did in the meantime was just a temporary fix until they could get the real thing.

The first exception he could remember seeing was after he had become a student at the Galaxy Garrison. It was also the first time he saw Shiro’s fiance Adam in a short-sleeve shirt instead of his usual Garrison uniform, and noticed the lack of the cloud of purple and silver stars that spread across his right bicep.

“People don’t have to marry their soulmate,” Shiro explained when Keith asked about it, blurted out the question in a lull during a study session at the kitchen counter in Shiro’s apartment. “Soulmates don’t always have to be romantic.”

“They don’t?” Keith asked.

“Nah. Sometimes a soulmate is more like… like a best friend.”

“I’ve never seen that before.”

“Well… I guess people do tend to, ah, develop romantic feelings for their soulmate. It’s only natural, I suppose. If someone’s the one that you have a destined bond to be close to for your whole lives - it’s a pretty romantic concept, really.”

Keith chewed his lip, frowning as he thought it over. “... Shiro?” he said softly.

“Mm-hm?”

“I don’t want to marry my soulmate.”

Shiro let out a little chuckle. “Ah, I see. You’ve got your eye on someone else, huh? Is it that girl in your flight class you were working on that paper with last week, the one with the freckles? She seemed cute, I can see why - ”

“No!” Keith snapped, feeling his face heat up. “No, god, Shiro! That’s not it! I haven’t - it’s not like that, I don’t like someone else, I - it isn’t just that I don’t want to marry my soulmate. I don’t want to marry anyone.”

Again Shiro smiled. “Keith, you don’t need to feel like that. Just because you haven’t met someone so far who you’d want to marry doesn’t mean that you can’t still meet the right - ”

“That’s not the problem!” Keith all but yelled. Immediately Shiro’s smile fell, and Keith’s eyes widened. He leaned away from Shiro. “I - I’m - I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean to - didn’t mean to shout at you, I - I swear, I just - I just - I’m just frustrated and - and - I’m sorry, Shiro, I’m - ”

“Whoa, whoa, hey.” Shiro lifted his hand, and Keith flinched away, before realizing that all he was doing was laying the hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, kiddo, deep breaths.” Keith obediently took the deep breaths, trying to calm down, to relax, to rein in his temper like he was supposed to. “Can you explain why you’re frustrated? What is the problem?”

Keith took another deep breath. “It’s - it’s just - ” He fumbled for words, trying to find the right ones to explain, but that wasn’t easy when he still didn’t quite understand it himself. “I don’t - I don’t get it. The whole thing - the whole appeal behind all the - the dating and marriage and romance and stuff. You and Adam, and, and people in class who are dating each other, and just - just couples, couples as a whole, you all have this - these sort of rules that you follow, like, there’s a way you talk to each other and act around each other and look at each other, and, I mean, you know, things you do with each other that - that people say, you know, you want to be this way with the person you love. And it seems like it’s so natural to everyone, but - but it just seems - to me it just seems like - like it’d be so exhausting, and awkward, and - and contrived, and I feel like if I tried to be that way with someone, even if - even if they’re my soulmate… it would be like putting on a show. A really weird, intimate play where the dialogue’s all in a language I don’t speak.”

He cleared his throat and crossed his arms tightly over his chest, eyes on his feet as they dangled from the stool. “It - it all just feels weird,” he finished softly, weakly. “I don’t want it. I don’t… I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but… there it is.”

There was silence between them for a long moment before he felt a hand on Shiro’s shoulder, and he looked up to see the older boy’s expression serious and sympathetic. “There isn’t anything wrong with you, Keith,” he said.

“But – ”

“No, no, let me finish,” Shiro said, holding up his other hand. “I shouldn’t have started teasing you about this. It’s okay to not want this sort of thing, and it’s not something you have to worry about. Because your soulmate will understand.”

Keith was skeptical, and it must have shown on his face, because Shiro sighed. “Look, Keith, like I said, a soulmate doesn’t have to be romantic. I’m betting that my soulmate isn’t going to be a romantic one, and that’s okay. I want to marry Adam, even though we’re not soulmates. So maybe my soulmate is going to be someone who’s like a brother to me, or a really close friend, or, I dunno, a partner in crime.” He grinned at Keith, but when Keith didn’t return the grin, he became serious again. “This isn’t something you need to worry about, Keith. The universe – it knows what it’s doing. It wouldn’t match you with a soulmate who’s not perfectly okay with finding sex and romance elsewhere if they need it.”

“Yeah. I guess,” Keith said, although he wasn’t sure that this actually made him feel better. It was a bit of a relief to know that he wouldn’t have to marry his soulmate, but the thought of his hypothetical soulmate needing someone else to fill a gap that Keith left… well, it didn’t feel great.

And when Shiro and Adam’s relationship hit a snag it couldn’t overcome and they broke off their engagement, it just felt even worse. Because here was his proof that it wouldn’t work out. That people who weren’t soulmates just couldn’t make it work. That his soulmate was going to be stuck with him.

He felt guilty. He was keeping someone from getting to have these things that everyone seemed to find so special and vital. Some soulmate he was.


 

If there was one positive to all the tragedy that came out of the Kerberos disaster and his expulsion from the Garrison, it was that Keith finally got removed enough from people that unhappy thoughts about his soulmate didn’t weigh him down. He gave little thought to his soulmark during the year he spent in the desert. It was easier to forget about the whole soulmate problem when he was on his own, just him and the desert, no couples around and no soulmarks in his vision save for the few he’d see when he made his occasional supply runs to town.

It was a nice change of pace, on the one hand, getting away from all of that.

But, admittedly, it was a lonely life too.

Oh well. If his only two options were a life of loneliness and a life of romance, the former seemed the more tolerable of the two.

But after the whirlwind during which Shiro had crashed back to Earth and he’d gone on the lam with a group of barely-familiar Garrison students and gotten shot out into the far reaches of outer space by a giant blue robotic lion and they began their new lives as intergalactic warriors aboard an alien castle, the topic arrived in his life once again.

Thinking about it was pretty much unavoidable right from the moment they had entered the castle ship and met the Alteans, where they found that Allura, the princess, had a chain of tiny, pale blue flowers stretching over the bridge of her nose and across her cheeks, a precise match to the one on the face of Lance, one of the students who had become a paladin alongside him.

In the beginning, of course, they had been mostly focused on their own soulmark situation, Lance being utterly delighted at having found his soulmate and Allura being more or less mystified by the universe’s selection. After a few days on the castle, though, it was natural that there would be curiosity. Allura was the one who brought it up over dinner.

“Lance’s is the only soulmark I’ve seen out of the paladins so far,” she pointed out. “I know some people prefer to keep theirs private, of course, but I couldn’t help but wonder, if you don’t think it too forward of me…”

“It’s not too forward, don’t worry,” Shiro said with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “In my case, it’s not that I want to keep it hidden or anything. It’s just that, well - ” He sighed and gestured to his prosthetic arm with a wave of his human hand. “I don’t really have mine anymore.”

Allura stammered out a stunned apology over Shiro’s assurances that it was perfectly all right, and Keith kept his attention on his plate all the while. He couldn’t help but feel an inkling of guilt somewhere in his gut; here he was hating his own soulmark and dreading what it meant for him and hiding it away, while Shiro, who had always seemed rather proud of his own soulmark, didn’t even have one anymore thanks to the Galra. Old echoes from homes of the past - scolding him for being ungrateful and insensitive and selfish - wormed their way into his ears.

Hunk was the one to save the mood. “Well, mine’s still around. Just kind of in an inconvenient spot, I guess.” He hefted his right foot onto the chair next to him, removed his boot and rolled up his pant leg, and lifted his leg to show the gold and white that spiraled around the lower half of his ankle like a sandstorm. “Can’t see it when I’m wearing long pants or boots, but those are more comfortable, so, well.” He shrugged. “That’s mine, anyway.”

“I always liked yours, it suits you,” Lance remarked as Hunk lowered his leg and started putting his boot back on. “Never saw yours, though, Pidge. Is yours in a weird spot too?”

“Yep,” Pidge said flatly before scooping a sporkful of food goo into her mouth.

“Where is it?”

Pidge took a moment to chew and swallow before answering, “On my ass.”

“Oh, come on, no it’s not,” Lance said, rolling his eyes. “Seriously, where’s your soulmark?”

“Lance, if she doesn’t want to share, she doesn’t have to,” Keith said, finally joining in on the conversation. He had wanted to stay out of it, to make sure the focus of the conversation never shifted toward him, but he knew that having to share a soulmark could be uncomfortable, and Pidge’s expression did seem grateful after he spoke up.

“Well, what’s your soulmark, Mullet?” said Lance. “Notice you haven’t shared yet either.”

“It’s – um – ” he stammered.

“You can only see Keith’s in an x-ray,” Pidge said. “It’s carved into one of his ribs instead of his skin. It’s a picture of a giant lion taking a dump on Lance’s head.”

“You guys suck,” Lance groaned as Keith snorted.


 

“Hey, Pidge?” Keith said, knocking on the doorframe of Pidge’s open door. “Can, uh, can we… can we talk about – ?”

“Yeah,” Pidge interrupted him, not looking up from her laptop, the only light in her otherwise darkened room. “Come on in, don’t step on anything important.”

Keith nodded and entered, sidestepping the laundry and computer equipment scattered across the floor – it was amazing how Pidge had made her room so messy in such a short amount of time – to set down on the bed next to her. He hesitated, not sure how to start talking. This was… awkward. Things had been awkward for the last couple of days, ever since Keith had blown up at her when she was planning to leave Voltron in order to search for her family.

The guilt had been eating away at him. He hadn’t really gotten close yet to any of his teammates besides Shiro, but out of all of him, Pidge was probably the one he got along with the easiest. Hunk was sweet, but very talkative and somewhat boisterous and constantly tense, which made him tiring to spend a lot of time with, while Lance was… Lance. Pidge, though, was the more introverted of the lot, could be as reckless in battles or training as Keith was, and had a smart, dry sense of humor that Keith appreciated. He didn’t mind being around her, even kind of enjoyed it. And the last thing he wanted to do was let his hotheadedness ruin that.

“Listen, I, um,” he started. “I – I wanted to apologize. To say sorry for – for the things I – like, it wasn’t selfish for you to want to find your family, that was – ”

“Keith,” Pidge cut him off, finally turning away from her laptop screen to look at him. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay, I was totally – ”

“Yeah, you were totally being an ass about the whole thing, but, you know.” She shrugged. “I forgive you. Like, I get where you were coming from. I hadn’t thought it through as thoroughly as I pretended, and I guess – I guess I hadn’t thought that, well, we’re a team, and that’s supposed to be, like…”

She sighed and rested her chin on her hand. “Hey, Keith, you know, I’ve – I’ve talked to Shiro a lot, lately. Because he knows Matt and Dad real well. But we don’t always talk just about them. We talk about – we talk about lots of stuff, and, uh, he’s actually told me a bit about you.”

Keith’s brows shot up. “About me?”

“Yeah. Nothing bad, and nothing too personal,” she added. “Just, like, how you guys met, and why he took you under his wing.”

“…Oh.”

“And, um.” Pidge cleared her throat. “Anyway, I get why you were – it seemed that Shiro had really put a lot of effort into trying to teach you that it’s okay to get attached to people, and so for a teammate to up and try to leave, well… I can get why that kinda riled you up.”

Keith said nothing, just nodded dumbly, watching Pidge’s face. She seemed perfectly genuine, which came as a surprise. He was the one who had blown up, and he was trying to take responsibility for that. Pidge being so accomodating wasn’t in the plan. “Well, uh, still,” he said. “I really am – ”

“You’re sorry. I know.” Pidge gave him a small smile. “Tell you what. On the next chore rotation where I’m assigned bathroom duty, you swap with me, okay? We’ll call it even.”

Keith couldn’t help but let out a breath of laughter. “All right, deal.” He stretched out his arms. “Sorry if I interrupted anything. I can head out.”

“Nah, you’re fine,” Pidge said. “It’s compiling right now, so I’m just sitting around waiting. If you’ve got any way to keep me entertained, go for it.”

“Keep you entertained?”

“Yeah, sure. Go on, tell me a joke.”

“Um… Knock knock.”

“…On second thought, maybe you’re better as quiet company.”

“Sorry,” Keith said.

“’S’alright,” Pidge grunted. “Here, lemme – one sec – ” She scooted over so that she was in Keith’s lap, then sank down and nestled up against him. “Matt sometimes does this when I just… want someone around, but don’t wanna talk. He’s a pretty good pillow, and you’re pretty close to his size… This okay?”

“Yeah,” Keith said, resting his chin on top of Pidge’s head. “This is okay.”


 

Their introverted bonding time slowly became a regular thing. Neither of them was really conscious of it happening. They didn’t mean to go out of their way to spend time with each other. It was just easy, when they needed quiet company, to seek each other out, with a book or tablet or computer or snack, and be in the same space. Sometimes they chatted; they had a lot in common, it turned out, aside from having both lost their older brothers in Kerberos. They discovered that they both were dog people, they both liked card games, they both thought that Lance’s jokes were terrible, they both hated haircuts and clothes shopping, neither of them could roll their tongue. Keith couldn’t even remember how those topics came up.

Other times, they just sat in silence together, occasionally for hours at a time, only interrupted by the sounds of Keith adjusting his posture or Pidge’s fingers clacking against her keyboard. It was pleasant, peaceful, and Keith even found himself looking forward to those times.

And they kept them going until the day of the Trial of Marmora.

Keith had let Shiro be the one to explain the news of his heritage to the rest of the team, partly because he was just too exhausted and sore, partly because he didn’t think he would be able to find the right words even if he wasn’t. And as the team was gathered for a strategy meeting after the revelation, Keith was barely holding himself together, and looked it too, at least enough for Shiro to take notice.

“Keith?” Shiro said, giving him a gentle nudge with his elbow. “You holding up okay?”

Keith nodded with a soft, “Yeah,” right before his legs gave out under him and he collapsed against Shiro. Through a wave of dizziness Keith heard Shiro urgently call his name and hasten to grip him and hold him up. His human arm jostled the injured shoulder, causing Keith to grimace and let out an involuntary groan.

Allura stopped in the middle of whatever she was saying at the noise to shoot him a glare for interrupting. “What’s going on with him?”

Shiro cast Keith a worried look that was blurring in Keith’s vision before turning back to the princess. “I think we need to take Keith to the med bay,” he said.

“Can it not wait until we’re finished with our discussion?” Allura asked sharply. “He’s been holding up fine up until this moment.”

Shiro met her glare evenly. “No, it can’t wait. Really, we should’ve gotten him first aid the moment we got back to the castle. We’ve already waited long enough.”

Allura sighed. “Fine. Coran, get a pod set up for him. Shiro, go ahead and get him set up for the cryopod, but come right back here once he’s readied, got it?”

Coran hurried on ahead, and Shiro nodded as he adjusted his grip on Keith so that his arm went around his back to support him. “Can you walk okay?”

“I, uh…” Keith said. He tested with one wobbly step, and found himself immediately off-balance, leaning out away from Shiro so that the latter had to hastily grab him at his waist to keep him upright, agitating the bruises there.

“Here, I can help.” Suddenly he was being supported on that side to, Pidge’s much smaller figure having slipped around to help balance him. The height disparity between her and Shiro meant that Keith was distinctly lopsided, but it was serviceable for just walking to the med bay.

He let them lead him there, take his weight, and he was fine, he really was - right up until the point that they joined Coran, who instantly reached up to examine Keith's injured shoulder, where a narrow trail of blood had finally started to seep out of his armor.

“Wait,” Keith said, pulling away from Coran’s hand. “I really don’t - ”

“Don’t worry, Keith, you won’t be in there long,” Coran said. “Nasty looking cut you’ve got there, but we’ll make quick work of it. You’ll be in and out in a jiffy.”

“You don’t need to look at my shoulder, though. The pod will do all the work.”

Coran barked out a laugh, more out of surprise than humor. “I need to get a good look at the wound so I can input it into the cryopod. Fully autonomous artificial intelligence medical work is still just a bit beyond our reach, even for Alteans.” He snapped his fingers impatiently at Keith. “Come now, lad, now’s not the time to be stubborn.”

“Need me to hold him down while you strip him, Coran?” Pidge asked, and Keith lurched away from her, aghast.

“No one is stripping anybody,” Shiro said.

“Quite right,” Coran said with a nod. “We just need to examine the shoulder, Keith, then you can change into the cryosuit in privacy.”

“But - ”

“Keith,” Shiro cut him off, voice not angry, but stern.

Keith turned desperately toward him, brow raised as he flicked his eyes toward his back and then to Shiro again. Shiro in his turn let his face soften, apologetic, but still lifted his shoulders in resignation.

Keith bit back a sigh. Their silent conversations were clear enough to him. Yes, Shiro understood why Keith didn’t want his shoulderblade exposed, but he wasn’t letting Keith off the hook for this. He was going to have show it.

Slumping in defeat, he slowly reached his good arm to his back to pull down the zipper of his flight suit. He shrugged the material off so that the top half of his torso was exposed and glanced toward the shoulder now laid bare. He grimaced. The cut looked deeper than he had expected, and the sight of the dark red pooling in the cut and smudged across his shoulder had renewed the pain of the injury; he had to fight not to groan against the ache that flared up.

“You’re about the same size and weight as Lance,” Coran said, “So we can use his settings as a baseline, but of course I’ll have to make some adjustments; the pod shouldn’t be giving you precisely the same dosages and treatments, since you’re, ah - a different - a different, er - ”

“Right,” Keith cut off his stammering. The settings for him would be different because he was a different species. Because he was Galra. They didn’t have to say it out loud.

At least Coran’s reaction to the news was, as far as Keith could tell, merely awkwardness, rather than the cold hostility he had seen grow on Allura’s face as his experience in the Trials of Marmora was explained. And Shiro was still there, at his side, supporting him despite everything. As for the others, well, they had simply seemed stunned. He would probably have to wait for the news to sink in for everyone before he could gauge how they all felt about him.

He couldn’t help but glance toward Pidge, though. She had helped him down to the med room; surely she wasn’t too angry with him, right?

His heart and hopes sank when he really looked at her face for the first time since returning to the castle.

Pidge had backed away, and was staring at him, her eyes wide as scaultrite lenses, her face pale, and Keith knew it was too much to hope that Pidge would be okay with this. Coran bringing up how his Galra side would affect him in the pods must have somehow been what really made it sink in for Pidge: that Keith, the teammate she had come to call a friend, was part of the empire they were at war with, was a part of the people who had captured and imprisoned her brother and father.

Keith wasn’t the one who had taken Pidge’s family from her, but he still felt like he had a part in the responsibility. And Pidge must have felt the same.

Which is why he didn’t hold it against her when, without another word to Keith, she turned and fled from the med bay.


 

Keith missed spending time with Pidge, but he didn’t blame her. He liked to think that if the roles were reversed, if she were the one who was Galra, he wouldn’t have reacted this way. He wouldn’t have suddenly started keeping his distance from Pidge, wouldn’t have taken pains to avoid being alone in the same room with her, wouldn’t have constantly avoided eye contact with her. Wouldn’t have done the things that Pidge did in the following days.

But the roles were not reversed, so he supposed he couldn’t say for sure. In any case, there was nothing he could do but suck it up and move on. The way he always did.

The tension and silence between them stayed until the night they were expected to spend a formal dinner with the royal family from a planet that Voltron had recently saved from a Galra raid, and it was a rare occasion where their paladin armor wouldn’t cut it. Instead, they wound up decked out in Altean evening wear, Keith and the other male paladins in bizarre suits and capes that made Keith feel like he had been given the costumes for characters from three different films, all set in wildly different time periods and at least one which was being particularly experimental with color, all combined into a single outfit.

Allura was in one of her more elaborate dresses, puffy and featuring several layers of skirts, and had given Pidge an old dress of hers that she had since outgrown to wear. They were getting ready with plenty of time to spare before the dinner, so Coran could make adjustments to the outfits and fix everyone’s hair (or, almost everyone; Keith wouldn’t let him anywhere near his head with that smelly styling goop of his), so there was a lot of waiting around idly to do. And that’s what Keith was doing when Pidge emerged on the bridge in Allura’s dress, wobbling in her formal shoes and looking utterly miserable.

“Pidge, what is that you’re wearing?” Allura said, dropping Hunk’s cuff that she’d been helping to button in order to go to her.

“The dress you gave me.”

Allura huffed. “Yes, I know that. I meant the shawl.”

Pidge reached a hand up to the thick length of fabric she had wrapped over her shoulders. “Oh, that. Well, uh, you know. This dress is strapless, and I get chilly, so, wanted to have something to cover up. It was in your closet. A shawl can still be formal, right?”

“That’s not the problem. That color does not match the dress at all.”

“Oh.” Pidge frowned down at the shawl. “You sure? Looks fine to me.”

Allura sighed. “I’m sure. You can still wear a shawl, Pidge, but let me get one that actually matches. Here give that one back.”

“No, Allura, wait!” Pidge said, stepping back, but Allura was too quick, grabbing the end of the shawl and whipping it off of Pidge’s shoulders in a single swift motion. Pidge turned around hastily, turning her back away from Keith’s line of sight, but it was too late.

He had already seen it.

A glimpse of the back of her shoulder, where two green vines intertwined, bordered by ruby red flame.

Her soulmark.

His soulmark.

Any other chatter on the bridge became white noise, all turning to static in Keith’s head as he felt his blood race in his veins. His knees suddenly felt weak, like his body had become too heavy for them to support, and his vision was beginning to blur.

He needed to lie down. He needed to get a hold of himself.

Without another thought he hurried out of the bridge. He was pretty sure someone called his name and asked where he was going, but he ignored them and simply let his feet take him to his room on autopilot. Once there, he collapsed against the door that closed behind him, shaking.

He didn’t have much time to collect himself before a knock came at the door against his breath.

With a deep breath, he opened it, and just as expected, Pidge was the one standing outside it, fist raised and poised to knock again, looking as uncomfortable as he had ever seen her. For several seconds they just stared at each other, then they both spoke at once.

“Listen - ” he said at the same time that Pidge said, “We need to talk.”

Keith closed his mouth and nodded toward the bed, where Pidge took a seat. She was careful in the borrowed dress, and Keith found himself leaning forward, angling himself so he wouldn’t accidentally catch a glimpse of those shining red leaves or dark vines. Her soulmark. His soulmark.

“Look, Keith, I - ” Pidge started, then hesitated. Her mouth kept moving a bit for a moment, trying to form new words, but when none came out, she sighed and dropped her head.

So Keith started the conversation for her. “Is this why you’ve been avoiding me?” he asked. “Because of the mark?”

Pidge nodded slowly. “When your shoulder got injured after that Trial of Marmora thing. First time I saw it.”

Keith wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but he certainly didn’t feel great. On the one hand, of course, it meant that his initial assumption had been wrong. Pidge didn’t hate him for his blood. She hadn’t distanced herself from him because he was Galra, and she wasn’t upset with him about belonging to the same alien race that had taken her father and brother from her.

On the other hand, though, this was one of his worst fears realized. That someone would find out that they were stuck with him as a soulmate, and wouldn’t want him. That horrified look on Pidge’s face that day in the med bay, the way she had been distancing herself from him ever since seeing his soulmark.

He couldn’t blame her for it. He wasn’t exactly soulmate material, and Pidge didn’t even know yet about the things that Keith couldn’t give her. And now the bond they’d been growing - that comfort in Pidge’s presence, the feeling that she could practically be his sister - it was dashed to pieces.

All because of that stupid, stupid mark.

His stomach roiled as he looked down at his feet. “I – I get it,” he muttered. “I get why you’re upset. You deserve a soulmate who – who isn’t – who can – ”

Pidge cut him off, not with words, but by placing her hand on his knee, and he fell quiet as he stared down at it. “No, Keith, it’s not you,” she said. “There’s nothing – it’s not like – ” She sighed. “It’s not you, it’s me. And I know that’s, like, a total cliché sort of break-up line, but, um, see, it’s just – ”

She took a deep breath. “Suppose I’ll just come right out and say it. I’m aroace.”

Keith blinked up at her, baffled, so she went on. “I’m – it’s short for ‘aromantic asexual’, and it means that I don’t, um, I don’t experience attraction to other people. At least not romantic or sexual attraction. And for the most part, you know, that’s not a problem, but with the whole soulmark thing, I – I, um – I always knew that there would be someone out there who felt that way about me, and I knew that I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t be able to feel it back.

“And I know, I know I should have come to you when I saw your soulmark and explained, but – but that wouldn’t be – it isn’t fair to you.” Her voice crackled and her chin began to wobble. “And I liked the way we were, before. It was kind of like – like having a brother around again. And I didn’t want to ruin that. And if you found out that you and I had the same soulmark, it would be ruined, so – so I just kind of… I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I know that this means you kind of got a shitty deal when it comes to soulmates, and you, uh, you can do what you want with this information, but I can’t – I can’t feel that way toward you. I can’t see you that way. I’ve been trying, the last couple of days, to think things over, try to… try to think… but I… can’t. Like I said, it’s not you.” She let out a little hiccough and wiped at her eyes.

For several seconds that seemed to drag on for hours, Keith simply stared at her, dumbfounded. He could feel the cogs in his brain smoke from the friction as they worked overtime to fully comprehend what she had just told him.

Then, as much to his own surprise as it was to hers, he started to laugh.

It wasn’t his normal laugh, the somewhat throaty chuckle he broke out on special occasions. It was higher, wilder. Hysterical. All this time, all this time he had spent so worried about his soulmate, worried that he wouldn’t be enough, that they would be looking for different things, that fate had made a mistake with him or that he was broken or that his soulmate would resent him for how he felt and how he loved. And all this time, he needn’t have worried.

He had never been so happy to be so wrong.

“Keith?” Pidge said. “What are you – ?”

Before he could stop himself, he was pulling her into a hug, letting his tears of laughter fall onto her shoulder as she awkwardly returned it.

“Me too,” he said.

Perhaps the universe knew what it was doing after all.