“Okay, I think our best bet will be to find an Olkari booth,” Shiro says, scanning through the list of ingredients on his PADD.
He looks perfectly at ease in the center of the alien farmers market, his hair glinting in the low-hanging double-suns of Truzol, hip jutted out, mouth hinting a smile as he double- and triple-checks their list. The thing is, Shiro’s excited and it’s so obvious. Keith can tell just by looking at him. Sometimes when it comes to inter-stellar travel, it’s the little things— the random impulses and cravings— that bring joy.
Like tofu. And it’s because of tofu that they’re even here.
The day started with their early-morning vargas-long stretch of routing out star-maps or coordinating Coalition ambassadors aboard the Atlas, because even with the war well and truly behind them, diplomacy never dies.
And then Shiro had turned to Keith and said, I’m really, really craving my dad’s tofu dish right now.
Keith remembers the tofu dish. Shiro made it for him once, long before Kerberos, during a late-night study session. It’d been the most delicious thing Keith had ever eaten and Shiro had looked so proud when Keith said as much. Keith still remembers the taste. He still remembers Shiro’s bright smile when Keith complimented him, the sprig of cilantro leaf stuck in his teeth.
Keith’s ready to recreate the dish now. Of course, Truzol and its neighboring moons have no idea what tofu is and despite Colleen Holt’s vast array of plants and hydroponics, there aren’t even soybeans on the Atlas. So Shiro can’t even wow Keith by making his own tofu. (Keith knows that Shiro knows how to do that. He demonstrated it once and Keith is a simple man— nothing turned him on more than watching Shiro press tofu. He still remembers thinking, God I wish that were me.)
Naturally, Keith will never speak such words aloud. Instead, he watches Shiro study their ingredients list. “Okay,” he says when Shiro looks up at him. “Let’s find that Olkari booth.”
They have some of the necessary ingredients back on the Atlas. The canteen, thanks to Hunk’s efforts, has a wide array of Terran culinary ingredients. But Keith also knows that Shiro just loves experiencing new alien planets— and has a great fondness for alien farmers markets. Keith can see that fondness in Shiro’s gentle smile as he walks the cobblestone avenue with him, the almost boyish delight sparkling in his eyes as he examines each booth they pass.
The produce and supplies on Truzol are just produce and supplies. There are round tubers that look like oranges, cabbage-like celery stalks and purple-red beets. There are legitimate pomegranates at the Terran booth, vibrant red with their hundred seeds. There are carrots and honey harvested from bees that sipped from Altean juniberry flowers. There are legumes that crack open like walnuts and at least thirteen varieties of apples. Somehow, what Keith finds most remarkable is that every planet has something like an apple— round, glossy, delicious, grainy skin or velvet-smooth flesh, red or orange or yellow or purple.
It all feels centering to Keith to be surrounded by the controlled chaos of the universe, all the different peoples gathered together, elbowing past with their baskets full of alien produce.
It feels natural to walk the street with Shiro, to feel Shiro there beside him. It feels natural to walk beside Shiro with Keith’s heart in his chest beating in time to their steps, a heart that’s mysterious and something that he’ll never hold in his hands, something he’ll never fully understand. Not like he understands Galran apricots and potatoes, the albino asparagus wrapped in a damp towel, their tips like the spark of a match or like Shiro’s hair glimmering in the sun.
Keith’s heart gallops into his throat when Shiro curls his fingers around his wrist and tugs, stopping them in front of a booth manned by an Unilu woman. She rewards them with a little nod but leaves them to their musings.
“They have Ororius!” Shiro says, gesturing to what looks to Keith like a daisy, more a weed than a flower. “Smell it.”
Keith squints and then obediently leans down to sniff. He wrinkles his nose and jerks back, his eyes watering. “Oh—”
It smells like the sting of sliced onion. He wipes at his face quickly as Shiro laughs.
Shiro pays the Unilu woman some GAC and places a hefty bundle into their tote bag. “This’ll be a good onion replacement,” Shiro says. “Even though I think we have enough onions on Atlas.”
Keith shrugs, eyeing the few not-daisies peeking out from the bag. “Might be fun to see what we can recreate with just alien ingredients, right?”
Shiro’s expression brightens. “Oh! That’s a great idea, Keith!”
Keith laughs, deep and honeyed, embarrassed by the praise even as he feels himself blush from it. Shiro’s cheeks also turn pink beneath the two suns and he grins at Keith.
It’s a fuzzy feeling, standing there with Shiro as they smile at one another. Sometimes it hurts to look at Shiro for how handsome he is. The thought simmers in his gut, warm and present, and Keith follows his impulse to reach forward and pluck one of the not-daisies. He twirls it between his fingers, hesitating before he steps forward and tucks it behind Shiro’s ear.
“Payback,” he says when Shiro blinks in surprise. “It’s kind of pretty even if it stinks.”
“Like me?” Shiro teases and laughs. He looks away, his cheeks that dusting pink, and Keith thinks, Yes, you’re pretty.
“You don’t stink,” Keith says. “As far as I know.”
“Well now I smell like Ororius.” Shiro laughs louder, a rich sound that twangs through Keith.
Keith still remembers the first time Shiro let him help to make the tofu dish. It’d been more complicated than Keith expected; making the tofu, pressing the tofu, mixing the marinade, adding the tofu, preparing the dredges, the frying, the dipping sauce. It’d felt satisfying in the end to bite into them and taste all that effort. He remembers Shiro saying as much, beaming at Keith as he ripped a piece of lettuce in half and said, If you can’t taste the love you put into a dish, then what’s the point?
That’d been the moment that Keith knew he loved Shiro. The moment he knew that maybe he could find a place where he felt at home. The memory returns to him like a gently cresting wave as they continue their walk through the market, ducking past hanging sausage links and poultry-like creatures left to dry in the Truzol suns.
Shiro doesn’t remove the flower from his ear even after several minutes, the white petals matching his hair. It wavers in the light breeze but doesn’t knock loose, although Keith catches Shiro’s fingers ghosting over it, as if to make sure it’s still there.
“What?” he asks when he catches Keith looking.
Keith blushes but shrugs. “Nothing,” he says casually. “Just thinking you look cute.”
The response seems to stun Shiro, although he doesn’t say anything in protest and just ducks his head to hide his smile. He touches the flower again.
They find a few other necessary ingredients— a plantain that tastes like arame, a Galran ginger root, sprigs of actual cilantro grown on Urud. It makes Keith feel both exceptionally human and exceptionally universal to know that every being on this planet houses their own random desires, their own complex series of yes and no, their own rights, their own hopes, their own dreams, and their own helpless fallings in love.
He looks at Shiro and can’t help his smile, watching Shiro chat with each alien that approaches them, wanting to know about Atlas’ progress, about Voltron, about his arm or his hair or his smile. Shiro is a magnet, always has been, and for all that Shiro insists that Keith is just as mysterious and attractive to others, Keith privately thinks that Shiro was always the one meant to shine.
They duck into one of the side-streets before any aliens try to ask for their autographs— a sad reality that Keith hates— but the quick escape is fun, too, just running and laughing, their tote bag heavy with ingredients swinging between them, Keith’s hand tucked so neatly in Shiro’s.
After a varga of browsing, Shiro and Keith’s bag is full of the onion-daisy, the arame-plantain, Galran ginger, cilantro, and Balmeran peppercorns. They don’t actually need the onion or the pepper, but there’s something exciting about the artisan alien ingredients even if the Terran equivalent is available on Atlas.
They find the Olkari booth, tucked away on a side-street, manned by a father and his two daughters who dart back and forth with flying streamers of silk scarves. The stall is the brightest burst of green in the entire aisle and Keith watches Shiro perk up, taking his hand again to tug him over.
Keith never wants to let go of Shiro’s hand. But he’s used to that desire.
“I knew they’d have lettuce,” Shiro says triumphantly, holding up a bushy head, the leaves a riot of green-purple, veiny and soft at the edges, rounded out like butter lettuce. “These are the perfect size.”
Keith turns his head, watching the Olkari children playing together, letting Shiro examine the other leafy greens spread out on the table. He knows how much Shiro loves Olkari cuisine— the closest in the universe to the traditional dishes his parents make— and knows he’ll delight in trying to find Olkari replacements for soy sauce, rice vinegar, red miso, and coconut milk. If all else fails, Colleen has a hefty collection of rice plants on the Atlas and he wouldn’t be surprised if Hunk has some homemade rice vinegar and rice flour squirreled away.
Sometimes, Keith gets overwhelmed by people, by being part of the world and surrounded by the world. He tries to focus on the way the market bustles around him as a centering meditation. The market feels like breathing, the way a volcano exhales through its magma chambers, the way a forest swells with the wind and looks like lungs. He focuses on the sounds lighting through the air—children laughing, people talking in varying volumes, the click of different feet on the cobblestones, the squeak of tables as hips bump them.
Beyond that, the smells— the pungent scent of box’i saltberries, roasting carolnuts, and the sunbursting scent of some citrus Keith can’t place. The sky is awash in the warm yellow of the double-suns, cloudless and opaque, the series of booths streamed with colorful canopies and flags dusting in the wind.
It's thriving, breathing and real, peaceful in the way that can only follow a war— everyone aggressively, almost belligerently, living their lives, finding what they need to live and live happily. It’s what makes Keith feel universal, cosmic in a way, that through all the differences of planets and cultures, they can all find themselves here, finding and sharing food.
“Keith?” Shiro asks gently, his hand falling heavy on Keith’s shoulder and nearly startling him back into his body. Shiro smiles when Keith turns to meet his eyes. “What do you think? Dried cabbage-flour or sugared carolnut?”
Keith turns to examine the two ingredients in question— replacement for rice flour and dried coconut, Keith thinks— and with the Olkari’s permission, tests samplings of each. The cabbage-flour tastes like nothing, adhering to his fingertip. The carolnut is lush, almost velvet-smooth when it sits on his tongue.
He nods his approval to Shiro and scoops each ingredient into their bag as Shiro hands over the GAC.
They stop at a few more stalls on their way back down the aisles, finding replacements for the remaining ingredients. They even find a booth manned by a human woman and an Altean man who sell actual, legitimate tofu. It’s not as firm as Shiro wants, but he’s still so delighted to find it that he doesn’t even hesitate to hand over money. They walk away with Shiro cradling the tofu in a little tub, beaming down at it.
He looks so happy that Keith feels himself answering the smile, his chest swelling with love and affection and all manner of fluffier feelings. That’s what Shiro always pulls from him— gentleness and tenderness. With Shiro, everything feels a little lighter. He takes the tote bag from Shiro and slings it over his shoulder, leaving Shiro to his tofu tub.
“Pretty good haul,” Keith says as they pass the last of the booths, heading towards the Atlas.
“This is either going to be an amazing culinary achievement or an utter disaster,” Shiro says but doesn’t seem worried.
“We can’t go wrong,” Keith says, patting the tote bag. “It’s about the love you put into your cooking.” He can hear the way his voice goes softer. “That’s what matters.”
Shiro looks at him, expression going soft at the edges. “You remember.”
“I never forget the things you tell me,” Keith says and then ducks his head because it feels too honest, too risky to put voice to what he’s always carried inside him: everything Shiro’s ever taught him, ever shared with him, is precious. He’s never wanted to squander it.
And especially not with food. Food has always been complicated for them both. Keith, with limited amounts growing up, always wolfed down whatever he could get his hands on. He wanted to go slow the first time Shiro ever gave him the tofu, took his time curling the leaves of lettuce around the cubes and popping it into his mouth. It’d taken so much effort not to just inhale it all instantly.
For Shiro, too, food has been complicated. It’s difficult to eat vegetarian in space— which is always Shiro’s preference— and harder still to find anything that can remind him of home, of his parents and his grandparents, of staying up too late at the Garrison with Keith, teaching him how to make the chili dipping sauce.
There’s something precious about being able to carry a family recipe into space and recreate it. Keith’s never going to take that for granted.
Shiro is beloved. And the food he creates is made with care and time. Keith only wishes he could return the favor.
When they make it back to the Atlas and the captain’s quarters with its modest kitchenette, the two of them set to work. They set out their ingredients in a row, standing as vanguards to their efforts. Shiro unwraps and presses the tofu— a wonderful flex of his muscles, Keith thinks— before joining Keith with peeling and cutting and shredding the ingredients.
It's a slow process, the two of them moving around one another in the small space, working with the unfamiliar ingredients. In the end, they create a soupy bowl of marinade and, after an hour of pressing the tofu, drop the cubes into it.
“Ideally we should leave this for a day, just so it’ll really get the flavor,” Shiro says, arms crossed. “But I really want to know how this turns out.” He flashes a grin at Keith. “Blah blah blah, patience, right?”
“Blah blah blah,” Keith agrees, leaning into Shiro’s side. He blushes when Shiro loops his arm around his shoulders, tugging him in close.
They stand like that in the little kitchen, just absorbing the silence. Keith closes his eyes, focusing on that, on the grounding touch of Shiro next to him, living and breathing, their hearts beating together, the two of them existing in peacetime and creating something together.
“… I’m really happy we’re here,” Shiro says quietly.
Keith opens his eyes, looking at the cutting board they haven’t cleaned off yet, flaked with Galran ginger root. He smiles and leans further into Shiro’s side, curling his arm around Shiro’s waist to anchor them together.
“Me too,” he says. It feels inadequate.
Keith looks up to find Shiro already looking at him. They hold one another’s gazes like that, and Keith feels the same way he did in the market— human and cosmic at once, universal and painfully Terran.
“Thanks for following this impulse with me,” Shiro says.
Keith shakes his head. “I… I still remember the first time you made this for me. I love this dish. I love… um. It’s really good.”
Shiro’s smile grows and he squeezes Keith’s shoulder. Somehow, Keith thinks he’s been understood.
“Want to help me make the dipping sauce?” Shiro asks and Keith nods.
They clean up the counter and make the sweet chili, prepare the dredges for the frying, and fill the pot with oil. In the end, they know they don’t let the tofu marinade long enough but they’re eager to finish.
Keith drags the tofu cubes through the three bowls, coating them liberally before letting Shiro drop them gently into the oil. Shiro’s quarters fill with a well-known scent despite the foreign ingredients and Keith thinks there’s something wonderous about that— that they could come to the recipe from a wildly different starting point and yet, somehow, still find that familiarity.
In the end, the tofu glistens crispy on the plate, not quite as golden as Keith remembers but still looking delicious. They rip up the leaves of the Olkari lettuce and pluck each cube between their fingers.
Neither moves to eat. Keith barks an amused laugh when he realizes that Shiro is waiting for him to eat first, just as Keith is waiting for Shiro. Shiro must realize the same because he ducks his head and giggles, too. He still has that little not-daisy tucked behind his ear and he looks unfairly handsome and young.
And Keith loves this most of all: the way Shiro laughs, his shoulders shaking, his hair falling into his eyes. He looks at peace, happy, and alive. They’ve gone through hell and back together, suffered through too much, and there’s something unbearably joyous about standing here with him.
Keith’s heart beats rapid-fire in his chest, fueling him onward. It feels natural to step into Shiro’s space and tilt his mouth up, catching Shiro’s smile with his.
He half-expects Shiro to gasp, to jerk back. But he’s not surprised, either, when instead Shiro melts into him with a soft breath, his arm curling around Keith’s waist to haul him in closer.
He kisses Keith like it’s breathing, comforting and like home, and maybe this is their home now: standing aboard the Atlas, surrounded by the scent of Shiro’s tofu dish created with alien ingredients. This is, in the end, their reality. Maybe this was always the way it was going to feel.
“Shiro,” Keith whispers, sliding a hand up the back of Shiro’s neck, feeling the pleasant buzz of his undercut against his fingertips, and cupping his head.
Shiro hums in response and kisses him deeper, sweet and open and leaving Keith feeling transcendent. He hears Shiro say his name back as he pulls him in closer. And Keith feels like he’s maybe, finally, found his way home.