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The paladins spill into the loading hangar, all but Keith cheering raucously.

They had just successfully defeated a large fleet of enemy ships and conquered a loading port that had housed a large supply of Galran weapons. This victory is something that will give them headway for at least the next ten quintants. It was exciting, and well worth the celebration, so Keith doesn’t even pretend to be annoyed. He watches over the paladins fondly, his eyes flitting between them until they land on the black paladin.

Shiro’s eyes are bright, crinkled at the corners, and his lips are stretched wide in a grin. Keith watches him silently, a helpless smile tugging at his lips. The man shows so much emotion through his face; it is impossible to not mirror it even slightly.

Their eyes meet through the chaos, and Shiro’s smile morphs into something warm, tender. The man’s hands twitch forward, unconsciously it seems, before he settles them at his side. Keith cocks his head at the movement.

“Shiro?” he wonders. Before he can say any more, Hunk is calling his name in excitement.

Keith turns automatically, and he doesn’t expect Hunk to clamp his hands down on Keith’s shoulders. It startles him, his body locking.

His eyes dilate suddenly, then shrink in quick succession. The abruptness of his sharpened vision activates a fight response from his body. It slams into him with signals that he must resist, resist, disarm, attack. A snarl rips through Keith’s throat just as Hunk tries to tug him forward.

He throws himself under the outstretched arms and swings heavily onto the man’s back.

Hunk yells out in alarm, as do Pidge and Lance. “Keith!” he chokes, his arms waving wildly. “Ah! Friend—I’m a friend!”

Keith’s legs tighten around Hunk’s torso, his arms coming up to wrap around the man’s head.

“Whoa, easy, man!” Lance shouts, but his voice sounds far away, distant.

Hunk yelps at the feeling of claws, and then there are arms—one flesh and one metal—prying him off with a tight grip around his chest.

Keith lets himself be dragged away, if only for the fact that he doesn’t want to harm Shiro unintentionally. His chest heaves with quick breaths, and his veins throb with adrenaline. A thought occurs to him that maybe Shiro has aligned himself with Hunk, but Shiro only looks confused and frightened.

“Keith?” Pidge’s eyes are wide behind their glasses.

“What did you do, Hunk?” Shiro demands, his gaze snapping from Keith to Hunk. He keeps a hand pressed to Keith’s chest, but Keith is unsure if he is protecting him from Hunk or the other way around.

“Nothing!” Hunk cries from where he’s using Lance as a shield. “I was just—I was trying to give him a hug!”

Shiro stares at him for a long moment, uncomprehending. Then, he turns. “Keith?”

Keith snaps his teeth at Hunk again, someone he thought was a teammate, a friend. “A hug?” he snarls. “What is that? A strangulation method? If you want to attack me, you need to try harder!”

Everyone freezes.

It’s so abrupt and alarming that Keith finds himself stilling, too. It’s quiet in the hangar aside from Keith’s heavy breaths. His adrenaline is beginning to fade, but the silence continues on. Keith’s eyes flit to each of the paladins’ faces, all staring back at him in shock. He tenses in Shiro’s hold.

“Did he just say…” Pidge trails off. The air fills with something that feels melancholic. Keith doesn’t like it.

“Keith…” Shiro releases him, but he stays close. His mouth opens and closes a few times. “Do you know what a hug is?” His words are said carefully, but there is something behind them that makes Keith’s fists tighten at his sides.

“This is so sad,” Lance murmurs. For once his voice lacks its usual bite of sarcasm. That alone is enough to worry Keith.

They’re all staring at him with something that resembles pity, and Keith doesn’t understand. He shakes his head slowly, attempting to decipher the words lost in translation.

“Hug?” Keith echoes. The word tastes strange on his tongue.

“It’s what people do to show affection,” explains Hunk hesitantly. “You know? Hugs?”

Keith stares blankly.

“Did the Blades not… show affection?” Shiro asks, his eyebrows furrowing. He looks wounded, terribly so, but Keith had made sure that the black lion took no hits from their enemies. Yet…

Keith frowns. Affection? He was raised a fighter, a warrior. He knows reserved smiles for jobs well done, short words of appreciation. He knows handshakes of respect and silent nods of gratitude. But hugs?

His silence must be telling because Hunk suddenly looks like he wants to cry.

“Hugs,” Keith repeats, nearly inaudible.

Lance sniffs, breaking the silence. “What?” he squawks, hastily rubbing his eyes. “Don’t look at me.”

Even Pidge looks a little misty-eyed behind their glasses.

Keith frowns at the ground, feeling his ears prickle with embarrassment and shame. Being Galra, he fully expected differences between him and his teammates, but never like this. Not with something that sounds so trivial. It’s humiliating. He never wants to see the paladins look at him like that again.

Keith steels himself with a large breath, relaxing his hands where they had been fisted at his sides. Then he glances to Hunk. “Do it again.”

Hunk startles slightly. His gaze flickers to each paladin, like he’s unsure who Keith is addressing despite locking gazes.

“I will not attack you, Hunk.”

Hunk squints at him.

“I will try not to attack you,” Keith corrects with a sigh.

Hunk purses his lips, seeming to find that satisfactory to some degree. He holds his arms out slowly, telegraphing his movements. He walks over to Keith until they are nearly chest to chest. Then Hunk drops his arms and pulls him close. Keith fights it, his body tensing automatically. Hunk gives a reassuring squeeze.

“Oh,” says Keith into his shoulder. His own shoulders loosen with every breath. It’s warm, the pressure comforting. It feels like when he would take naps underneath the sun. “This is… nice.”

With a little more encouraging from Hunk, Keith drops his cheek against the man’s chest with a weary sigh. The stress of the battle slowly melts away. As Keith relaxes into the hug, the paladins shift around them. Their silence should have been telling enough.

“Group hug!” Lance shouts, and suddenly there are bodies barreling into him from all directions. Keith—well, Keith promptly blacks out.

When he blinks his eyes back open, he finds the paladins sprawled on the ground around him, groaning miserably and clutching at various body parts. Even Hunk is downed, looking full of regret as he rubs at his head.

Keith grins sheepishly. “Sorry?”

+++++

It becomes a thing, after that.

The team seems to accept Keith’s newfound appreciation for physical contact, often indulging him when he curls up beside them on the couch or request an embrace with a tap on the arm. Now that Keith has had a taste of it, he only craves more. It’s comforting, to say the least. These are people he would—and have—risked his life for and have received the same treatment in return. To show them appreciation in a way that surpasses words is mind-blowing to Keith. He’s going to take advantage of it while he can.

It’s brought something out that was apparently buried deep within Keith—something that makes him a little manic at times, if he’s being honest with himself.

Keith nearly leaps from his lion the second to gets into the hangar, the adrenaline from the battle leaving him wired.

He’s sprinting to the green lion without a second thought, using his strength to push his legs to move faster until he’s nearly a blur. The green lion’s settling down, hatch opening. Keith gives no warning.

Pidge squawks in alarm, their arms flying out in surprise as Keith barrels right into them. His arms wrap tight around their smaller frame, taking the brunt of the impact as they crash to the floor.

“Keith,” Pidge gasps, and then lets out an undignified squawk of laughter as his ears tickle their neck. “Hey, I’m okay. I’m not hurt.”

Keith growls in response, not believing the lie. He’d seen, heard, felt Pidge take the blast meant for the red lion. He presses his face harder into Pidge’s soft curls, rubbing his cheek in to soothe the impact of the skirmish.

Pidge laughs goodheartedly, blindly petting a hand over his hair and nearly taking his eyes out in the process.

“Uh, Keith?” It’s Hunk coming to collect them, which means he probably lost a coin toss with the others. Keith just lifts his head and snarls at him. Hunk winces, though he doesn’t look surprised. “You two should get checked out, yeah? Lance and I will update Allura.”

Keith huffs, disturbing the hair at the top of Pidge’s head. Pidge chuckles again, reaching a hand up to poke his face.

“All right, let’s go, you big sap,” Pidge says. Keith refuses to move until they add, “Don’t think I didn’t see you take out that bomb with Red’s shoulder. Shiro’s going to be mad if you don’t get checked out, too. We’re going.”

Keith sighs, caught. He pulls them both to their feet quickly, then swings Pidge so they have to hang off his back or fall back down. They rub at his head with a grin.

“Sap,” parrots Keith. “I’m not sweet.” He adjusts his grip, then he charges down the hallway to the infirmary, Pidge’s delighted shrieks of laughter echoing through the halls.

Shiro’s there waiting for them, looking worn, but not hurt. Keith made sure of that. By the look on the black paladin’s face, he knows it, too. Coran beckons them over, congratulating them on a job well done. Keith sets a still giggling Pidge on the seat beside Coran, unsurprised when Shiro steers him into a private corner of the room.

He mirrors Shiro’s frown when he sees it and tries to press it away from the man’s face. It doesn’t work; Shiro only takes his hand and tugs it away. Though, he keeps their fingers intertwined between them.

“Keith,” he starts, and Keith sighs. His eyes sweep over Keith’s form, causing his body to flare under the intense scrutiny. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” says Keith. He is no worse for wear than the others. “Are you?”

“Yes.” Shiro’s frown deepens. “But you know that. Because you put yourself at risk. Again.”

Keith’s gaze skitters away, but Shiro pulls it back with a gentle hand at his arm. He opens and closes his mouth a few times, unable to speak. “I don’t want you to get hurt,” he admits after a long moment. It feels far too intimate, so he adds, “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

“That doesn’t mean you throw yourself into the line of fire without thinking,” Shiro says. The words come out gentle, but Keith feels the reprimand like a physical blow. He ducks his head ruefully, properly cowed, though he knows he would do it again without a second thought. Shiro sighs, realizing this, too. “Keith…”

“Shiro,” Keith says. He tightens his hand, feeling him squeeze back automatically. “I’m always going to try to protect you.” Shiro looks like he wants to argue, but Keith shuts him down with a short jerk of his head. “ No. You’re too important to me.”

From the corner of his eye, he sees Coran and Pidge creep slowly out of the room, but he keeps his gaze fixed forward. Shiro’s jaw slackens, stunned. He stares at Keith for a long moment, long enough for Keith to grow uncomfortable at his declaration. But it’s true. Shiro is so incredibly important to him.

Keith had an undeniable soft spot for him from the beginning, barring the first few moments when he was trying to kill Shiro in a misunderstanding. When Red called to him, it was as if the stars aligned for the first time in ages. A chance to take back the universe. A chance to belong. While the others had initially been met with hesitation at his Galran heritage, Shiro merely extended his hand with a smile on his lips and regarded him warmly. He has such kind eyes.

Keith can’t handle his gaze any longer. He pushes forward, ducking under Shiro’s chin to press against his chest. Words fail him, but Shiro seems to understand him anyway. He always does.

Arms come up to wrap around him. Shiro lets out a breath, tickling the sensitive hair of Keith’s ears.

“No more heroics, okay?” he murmurs, and Keith’s hands come up to clutch at his back. He drops his head onto Keith’s, his lips inches from Keith’s sensitive ears. “You’re important to me, too,” he admits. So quiet that Keith isn’t sure he’s heard correctly.

His heart pounds against his chest. The tension drains from both of them with every synchronized breath.

+++++

Keith is nothing if not patient. It’s been over thirty minutes since he last moved, but he knows it will be worth it. As if on cue, a whistling starts up from just down the hall.

He crouches lower, hanging back from the top of the fridge as he waits for the whistling to get louder. When it reaches the entryway, Keith flings himself off the fridge and pounces on the assailant with a yell.

Lance screams and crashes back against the table, sending a chair skittering across the room. Keith covers his mouth to quiet his snickers as Lance gapes at him, utterly betrayed.

“In the kitchen?” Lance cries, pointing in accusation. “This is a sacred place, man! I feed myself in this room! The disrespect!”

Keith grins sharply before rising to his feet. “Then you’ll think twice about eating the treats that Hunk makes for me.”

“What, is he your personal chef now?” Lance crosses his arms with a snort. “Last I checked, it didn’t have your name on it. It was delicious, by the way.”

Keith snarls at him. Lance doesn’t look impressed.

“You know that doesn’t actually work on us anymore. You’re like an angry housecat.”

That stops Keith short. “What did you just call me?” he asks, eerily calm. He has no idea what a “housecat” is, but he can only assume it is something so horrendously offensive that it requires physical retribution.

“You seriously don’t know what a cat is?” Lance shakes his head, disappointed. “Galras…”

Keith holds up his hand, five claws gleaming in the light.

Lance laughs. “What are you going to do, poke me?”

Keith studies his nails, unbothered. “No. This the amount of ticks you have as a head start. I suggest you start running.”

The cocky smile falls from Lance’s lips. “You’re joking.”

Keith slips a finger down. Four.

“That’s not funny, Keith.”

Another finger. Three.

Keith.

Two.

Lance takes off sprinting.

Keith shuts his eyes, inhaling deeply. With the way Lance is screaming, he hardly needs to focus on his footsteps, but it's a habit by now. He smirks at Allura’s alarmed shouts for Lance to slow down. Feeling generous, Keith allows him an extra few ticks before he rolls his shoulders. Then he takes off.

“Get him, Keith!” Pidge cheers from somewhere in the cortex. Keith grins sharply and pushes harder.

Lance has the advantage of adrenaline, but Keith knows the layout of the castle better than anyone. He plays with Lance for the first few minutes, chasing him through the castle’s many corners until he has no choice but to retreat to the lower levels. Keith knows Lance will only get himself lost down in the maze-like halls, so he does the smart thing and waits just before the lounge room. There is a perfect view of the hall and its many doors. Lance will no doubt mistakenly come upwards in his panic.

He’s just about to slink into the shadows when someone calls his name. His head whips to Shiro, who’s holding up a hand in greeting.

“Keith? What are you—”

Keith tugs him into the shadows, slapping a hand over his mouth. “Sorry,” he murmurs into Shiro’s ear. He feels the man shiver against him, and Keith frowns up at the vent they’re under. He presses tighter to Shiro’s back, hoping to transfer some heat into the man. Shiro makes a choked sound, and that’s when Keith remembers to uncover his mouth. He apologizes once more before allowing the man to turn over.

“Why are we hiding?” wheezes Shiro, his face flushed.

Keith palms gently at the man’s face, which only worsens the problem. First, he was cold and now he is too hot? Humans are strange. He makes a note to ask Coran later.

“I am going to destroy Lance,” Keith replies.

Shiro doesn’t even bat a lash, though he does cock his head. “Did he eat your pie?”

The words remind Keith of the pain. He closes his eyes, wounded. “Yes. Penance is due.”

“Understandable.”

“He also called me a…” Keith breaks off to huff.

“A what?”

“A… housecat,” he whispers, his eyes turning shifty. “I can only assume it’s something foul.”

Shiro’s eyes go tight around the edges as his lips press together. He looks very much like he’s trying to keep a straight face. Keith narrows his eyes at him, once again feeling like he is being laughed at.

“Do you wish to be hunted as well?” asks Keith sweetly, dragging a claw down Shiro’s chest.

Shiro coughs—or chokes, more like. “Lance is a fool,” he says weakly. Keith pets at his chest, humming in approval, watching as Shiro’s eyes drop down to his lips.

“Good boy,” he murmurs. Shiro’s breath gets caught in his throat. It’s that small sound that has his ears perking up, just in time to catch the scuff of Lance’s shoes against the polished floors.

Keith grins wickedly. He takes a few steps back for momentum, then launches himself at Lance’s back as the man makes a mad dash to the lounge room.

Lance crashes to the carpet with a squawk. Keith takes great satisfaction in knocking the breath out of him as he stays perched on his back.

Lance wheezes under him. “You win,” he groans. “I surrender. Just leave me to die.”

Keith hums as he gets comfortable. He adjusts his elbows and knees, punching sharp yelps from the man under him. “No, I think I’ll stay right here,” he decides. He folds his arms at Lance’s upper back, then rests his head on them.

There’s a beat of silence. Then Lance demands, “Are you serious? You’re choosing to take your afternoon nap now ?”

“Shut up, pillow,” he murmurs, closing his eyes. Lance is pretty lean, but if Keith curls his legs up, he can comfortably rest along his back.

“Shiro!” gasps Lance happily. “Shiro, please get him off of me. He’s actually a lot heavier than he looks. He’s—wait. What are you doing?”

There’s a low rustle, then Keith feels a blanket being draped over him, followed by a hand running gently through his hair.

Another pause. “Really, Shiro?” asks Lance flatly.

“Quiet, pillow,” says Shiro, his words full of mirth.

Lance slumps to the ground in defeat, and Keith has to bite down his grin.

+++++

It’s a rare occasion that Keith is awake before the rest of the paladins. He would like to blame it on all the recent napping, but he knows that it’s due to his injuries from his last battle. A wince escapes him as he tightens the bandages around his arm. He knows he can’t possibly fall back asleep, so he allows himself to wander the castle halls.  

It’s quiet aside from the background hum of the engines. There’s a strange noise coming from the lower level, and his paranoia takes him there first. It sounds like clinking, scraping, and then cursing. Keith pokes his head in the room to see Coran shaking out his hand.

“Coran?” Keith calls. The lights are bare down here. Something looks broken, but Keith has no idea what.

Coran looks delighted to see him. “Keith! Just who I wanted to see,” he crows. He immediately pulls him towards the mess near the generator.

“Me?” Keith questions, glancing at the ominous tangle of wires.

“Well, I would’ve taken anyone with a knife,” Coran admits, “but how convenient of you to have these on your person!” He takes Keith’s palm and holds up his claws.

Keith cocks his head. “You require my assistance in cutting wires?”

“Precisely!” Coran claps his hands together. “Though, just know if you cut the wrong one, we will all perish in an unfathomable hellfire. So, I say again: precisely!”

Keith stares at him.

“But I trust you!” Coran insists, as if trust is the problem.

The next five minutes has proved itself more stressful and panic-inducing than anything Keith has ever faced before. And he once ate the last shoom fruit without telling Hunk. He still has night terrors about the resulting confrontation.

Coran is surprisingly adept at walking him through the layout and specifying which wires to cut. Though, Keith has a feeling it’s mostly bravado—probably due to the fact Coran braces himself every time Keith is about to slice a wire.

“Just one more,” Coran says encouragingly. There’s sweat at his temple, and his eyes are half-crazed. More-so than usual. “The blue one. No wait, the red one. Hm. Blue.”

“Which one is it, Coran?”

“Blue?”

“Are you asking me?” Keith asks incredulously.

Coran grimaces. “Blue. Final answer.”

Keith takes a deep breath. He slices the last wire.

Coran immediately ducks and covers his head. When nothing happens, he peeks through one eye. He releases a loud sigh of relief as he wipes the sweat from his forehead. “Well, I’m glad that was the right one after all.”

“Coran!”

Keith slumps back with a groan. He shivers thinking about what would have happened if Lance had come down instead of him. He doesn’t even want to imagine it.

“You did a magnificent job, Keith!” Coran coos. His hand finds the space behind Keith’s ear, petting at it affectionately.

Keith lets out a surprised moan, tipping his head into Coran’s hand. Coran looks utterly delighted, his eyes sparkling with glee.

“Oh, you’re like a little yupper, aren’t you?” Coran coos, his eyes going all big and fond. His fingers scratch in a spot that has Keith slumping against the man’s knees. “Yes, I remember when I first met one. Cutest little bugger I ever did see.”

Keith is only half-listening to Coran’s story at this point, his mind numb with satisfaction. He’s never really had anyone touch his ears before, aside from himself. But it’s different. Keith only touches the area when he’s cleansing himself, or to swat annoying bugs away, or to fix it when it gets caught in his paladin helmet.

He doesn’t realize he’s making sounds until something crashes near them and startles him upright. Keith’s eyes snap open to find Shiro gaping at him. Shiro, who is in his training gear when Keith specifically asked him to take it easy today.

“Well, good morning, number one!” Coran greets happily.

Keith’s lips part to ask Shiro what’s wrong, but they drop open in another moan when Coran resumes his scratching.

Shiro’s jaw snaps shut so hard it sounds painful. His face is absolutely red.

“Are you all right?” Coran asks, blinking at him. He pauses his fingers long enough for Keith to gain some sense back. “You look like you’ve swallowed a flan-bil-diplor.”

Keith has to agree. The man looks like something struck him upside the head. Perhaps the training simulation is out of sorts, too. “Good morning, Shiro,” he murmurs, offering a pleased smile. “You are up early.” His eyes drop to scan Shiro’s body for injuries by habit, hoping to find whatever has rendered him speechless.

Shiro stammers, and then doesn’t stop stammering. He slaps a hand over his face and flees the room after a stilted wave.

Keith’s smile slips from his lips. He touches his fang delicately, worried he must have frightened Shiro somehow. It hardly makes sense, though, because his teeth have made an appearance in nearly every fight he’s had with Lance, and Shiro had been there for most of them.

“I never know with that one,” muses Coran.

Keith frowns at the empty spot where Shiro was standing moments before. For once, he has to agree with Coran.

He finds Shiro in the kitchen, extremely focused on scrubbing out the conventional cooking device. Keith doesn’t think he’s ever once seen him clean something that isn’t armor.

He startles when Keith places a hand on his shoulder, making him drop the sponge.

“I thought I asked you to take it easy,” Keith accuses gently.

Shiro looks him over again, cheeks still pink, before his gaze slips away. “I am taking it easy.”

“You were training,” Keith reminds him. His eyes flicker to the sponge. “And now you are cleaning something that is programmed to clean itself.”

Shiro squints at the device. “Then why did Lance…” He sighs, pressing his fingers to his brow. “Damn it, Lance.”

Keith urges him to drop the sponge, then pushes him back until he’s leaning against the counter. “Something’s bothering you.”

Shiro shakes his head, but Keith sees the way his eyes catch onto the bandaging on his arm. He lifts it into Shiro’s line of sight, watching as his expression goes a little pained before it shutters off.

“Are you…” Keith pauses, unsure how to phrase his question correctly. He lowers his arm back down, but Shiro grabs it gently. His thumb skims over the bottom of the wrapping. “I don’t understand why you are distressed,” Keith states.

Shiro’s eyes are lowered. “If I was just a little faster…” His jaw clenches, and he allows Keith’s arm to return to his side. Keith doesn’t know much about humans, but he does know that they aren’t faster than the blast of a modified Galran ray.

“Shiro. I saw the risk and I took it. This—” He lifts his arm again. “This is hardly a scratch. It could have easily struck me in the chest instead.” Shiro makes a wounded sound. “But you were there to pull me away. You were there, Shiro.”

Shiro looks as if he wants to argue technicalities, but Keith doesn’t want to hear it. “You are an amazing fighter, Shiro,” he tells him. “I’m honored to fight alongside you.”

Whatever Shiro’s next words were going to be, they’re lost in the breath that escapes him. The tension bleeds from his shoulders until he’s slumping back against the counter. “Sorry. I—forget myself sometimes.” He clears his throat, looking embarrassed. Keith can’t have that. He presses forward to butt his head against Shiro’s chin, nudging until the man shakes with laughter.

He pulls back once he’s satisfied with the loosening of Shiro’s shoulders. There’s a streak of black across the man’s cheek, and Keith blinks at it. His hand comes up to feel around his own ears, pausing at the matted hair covered in grease from the engines.

“Coran,” sighs Keith. He first gathers a damp towel to wipe the smudge from Shiro’s cheek before unsuccessfully attempting to swipe at the mess behind his ears.

Shiro chuckles at him before taking the towel, motioning for Keith to turn around. The first swipe at his ear causes him to inhale sharply.

“Did I hurt you?” Shiro asks worriedly. Keith shakes his head, pushing closer. The hand resumes its slow swipes, and Keith is reduced to nothing but gentle moans and quiet grunts.

“Feels good,” Keith hums before he loses himself to the sensation. It seems like ages, yet not long enough when Shiro pulls away, claiming he’s all clean. Keith grumbles, his body yearning for more. He thinks he’s going to receive it, but Shiro goes for Keith’s arm instead. He looks up questioningly.

“Can I?” Shiro asks. His thumb swipes over the bandages again, and Keith nods. He sits Keith at the bench in the infirmary, pulling in close to unwrap his bandages with careful fingers. The gash sits angry and red, but Shiro doesn’t say a word. He cups the surrounding area with his large hands, soothing it gently before retrieving the fresh bandages.

Keith watches the divot form between Shiro’s eyebrows in concentration, the flutter of his eyelashes with every blink. He has always hated being coddled like this, often choosing to dress his wounds in private and to heal in silence. But, with Shiro touching him delicately, like he’s something treasured… he finds that he doesn’t mind all that much.

+++++

Keith’s tongue pokes out, deep in concentration. He slinks forward slowly on all fours, using the balls of his feet and his fingers as his eyes lock onto the tiny shadows.

“Keith!” Allura yelps, her voice echoing through the cortex. “What are you doing?”

Keith glances up from where he’s crouched on the floor, poised to pounce. “Playing,” he replies. He clicks his claws against the ground again, watching as the mice back up into the wall. Allura says his name again, though this time she sounds chastising.

The mice squeal and take their chance to make a break for it. Keith frowns, his shoulders drooping. He’d been trying to get close enough to pet them with no such luck. Perhaps mice were averse to touch? Was it rude of him to try? Keith slumps back on his heels, defeated.

Allura watches as the mice dart up the control panel to hide behind her. Her eyes flicker to Keith’s crestfallen face.

“I… think you may be scaring them,” says Allura gently.

“Sorry,” murmurs Keith. “I didn’t mean to. They are… cute.” His nose scrunches up at the word.

Allura chuckles, her eyes going soft. “They’re just a little timid of you,” she assures him.

Keith slumps, his ears flattening. “I won’t hurt them. They are small. And soft.” He looks to the mice again, their big eyes fixed on Keith in what he had thought was excitement, but what must be fear. Guilt floods his entire being.

“Come here,” coaxes Allura gently. She plops down on the ground as Keith slinks over. Keith hesitates, but after some encouraging gestures, he allows his head to rest against her lap. A content sigh escapes from his lips, and he shuts his eyes as she begins to card her fingers through his hair.

“See, he’s not so scary,” Allura murmurs behind her. Keith peeks through his eyelashes. He feels something plop onto his head, but he doesn’t move, afraid it will startle them. He holds his breath as the mice squeak quietly above him. Then, one of them burrows happily into his hair while the rest take residence on his face. He laughs as their fur tickles his cheeks.

“Very cute,” Keith murmurs with a smile. The fingers in his hair resume, and he lets his eyes drift shut again.

Shiro finds him some time later, still curled up on the ground. He must have had little success with the scouting mission, if the look on his face is any indication. Though, it softens at the sight of Keith. 

Keith blinks up at him sleepily. He looks to where Allura was sitting but finds one of the lounge room pillows thrown in her place. The mouse in his hair pulls unhappily at his strands when he shifts, and he winces. The rest of the mice have migrated to the warm area at the base of his neck.

“That can’t be comfortable.” Shiro grimaces at the angle of Keith’s neck propped against the pillow.

“But the mice are comfortable,” says Keith. “Can’t move, or they will hate me again.”

Shiro chuckles. “They’re not going to hate you, Keith,” he muses. “I highly doubt anyone can.”

“Yes, because I’m not moving ever again,” Keith declares. He pets at a mouse with a gentle finger, careful to keep his claws away. 

Shiro’s eyes turn soft. “Come on, let’s get you somewhere you both can be comfortable.”

“I can’t—” Keith starts, then yelps as Shiro scoops him up effortlessly in his arms. He may be small for a Galra, but he isn’t that small. Still, Shiro carries him like he weighs nothing, and Keith doesn’t quite know how he feels about that. (Pleased. He feels pleased.)

They make it to the lounge room with minimal jostling. Shiro deposits him carefully along the line of the couch, making sure his head rests comfortably against one of the pillows. Keith can’t quite help the way his ears twitch as heat floods his face.

“Join me?” Keith asks, before he can stop himself.

Shiro pauses, half-way risen. He rubs the back of his neck, smiling helplessly. “I… I think the mice have claimed all the spots,” he replies. It’s not a ‘no’. Shiro looks dead on his feet, no doubt exhausted after the fruitless scouting mission. Keith wants him to rest, and the only way he’s going to do that is if Keith holds him accountable.

“Right here,” Keith says, placing a hand at his stomach. Shiro’s mouth opens, but it closes again. He looks like he wants to refuse, but it’s a rare sort of quiet in the castle. He seems to realize there may not be another chance for an uninterrupted nap.

“If you’re sure,” he says hesitantly. Keith nods encouragingly.

Shiro nods to himself before climbing on the couch from the end at Keith’s feet. He crawls forward, careful not to disturb the mice. Then he drops his cheek onto Keith’s stomach with a heavy sigh. His arms slip underneath to hug around Keith’s hips, which has him gasping silently.

“This okay?” Shiro asks, his voice already slurred with weariness.

“Of course, Shiro,” Keith answers, and Shiro settles deeper into the couch between Keith’s knees. Keith tentatively cards his fingers through the soft white locks, growing more confident as Shiro melts underneath his hand.

Within seconds, his face goes slack with sleep. Keith watches him silently, his eyes scanning over the man’s peaceful face. The furrow of his brows are evened out, the tension around his eyes loosened. He’s beautiful like this. He always is. 

Keith's gaze wanders to Shiro’s mouth where his lips are parted slightly. They look so soft.

Something flutters deep within his chest. It’s a feeling unlike when he had rested on Allura. It’s… different. It comes straight from his core, makes the blood in his body run warmer, makes his heart pang against his chest. It makes him ache with longing.

Before he knows it, his hand is hovering a few inches from Shiro’s face. His breath is caught in his throat. He could close the space between them, could press his hand to his cheek and tug him closer. It would be so simple. But he returns his fingers to Shiro’s soft hair.

The mice eventually abandon Keith to migrate to Shiro’s shoulders, obviously the better cushion. He supposes he can’t blame them. Keith settles deeper into the couch.

With Shiro’s comforting weight pressed against him, he allows sleep to take him once more.

+++++

Keith hesitates at the doorway to the cortex.

Shiro is sitting at the control panel and swiping through the maps of the galaxies. His brow is furrowed, his mouth slightly downturned as his eyes scan over the projection. Keith originally wanted to see if Shiro would accept his request to “cuddle”, as Lance had called it the last time he found them both on the couch. Keith thought the cuddling was nice, but Shiro’s face had gotten so hot that Keith had forced Lance to take him to see Coran for a thorough examination.

Now that he sees Shiro is busy, he doesn’t want to disturb him for something so trivial. He wonders if the others will want to cuddle, but he already knows it will not have the same effect. Keith’s skin itches with the need to be close to Shiro. That alone is enough to keep him rooted to the spot. It’s a feeling different than what he feels with the others. It’s a pull deep in his gut that he is helpless not to follow.

Keith’s hands tighten on the doorframe.

It’s different with Shiro. His body always runs so hot whenever he thinks about being in the same room as him. It’s—embarrassing, to say the least. Shiro is so selfless that he doesn’t mind allowing Keith these small touches: a gentle hand at his broad shoulder, an arm slung around his toned torso, a cheek rubbing into his firm chest.

Keith’s stomach twists up whenever Shiro looks at him. His heart aches in his chest whenever he says Keith’s name. And Keith wants… more, but he fears that it’s selfish of him to ask. He thinks he can be content with what they have right now. It’s a possibility, however unlikely it is.

Still, he can’t help but think of the soft smiles that Shiro lets him see. Sometimes, it feels like they are wholly reserved for Keith and Keith alone. The knowledge makes his heart beat a little harder in his chest.

“Keith?”

Keith startles, nearly jumping five feet in the air.

Shiro lets out an amused little chuckle. “You okay?”

Keith swallows, offering a short nod. It must look as forced as it feels, because Shiro turns fully to him, the maps behind him forgotten. Keith only feels mildly guilty.

Shiro beckons him in with a hand, and Keith is helpless against it. He immediately scurries to Shiro and doesn’t stop until he’s bumping against his chest.

Shiro lets out a surprised yelp as his hip bangs against the console, but his hands automatically come up to wrap around him. The itch in his skin disappears instantly, and Keith lets out a relieved sigh as he burrows into the space underneath Shiro’s chin.

He feels safe here, like nothing can hurt him under the shield of Shiro’s arms. Shiro runs a gentle hand down his arm. Keith presses firmly into the man, wanting more.

“Keith,” he murmurs gently. Keith feels the rumble of his voice against his cheek. “Are you… purring?”

Keith freezes. He holds his breath, but he can feel the inside of his chest trembling, trying to rumble in contentment. He pulls away, but Shiro doesn’t let him go far.

“Sorry,” he mutters, his gaze—and ears—dropping in shame. A quiet chuckle has his eyes snapping back up, and he’s shocked to see the obvious delight on the other man’s face.

“Don’t apologize,” says Shiro, his face cracking in a grin. “I think it’s cute.”

“Cute,” Keith repeats sulkily, spatting out the word. “It’s embarrassing.”

“It’s cute,” Shiro insists, pulling Keith back in with a roll of his eyes. “Do the others know yet?”

Keith halfheartedly bites into Shiro’s collarbone, earning a yelp. He eventually relaxes back into his hold, allowing himself to enjoy the slow strokes up and down his back.

“It’s different,” Keith murmurs, sometime later.

“Hm?”

Keith’s cheeks burn where it rests against Shiro’s chest. “It’s different,” he murmurs, “with you. It’s always different with you.”

Shiro’s hand pauses. Keith makes a small sound, and he resumes.

“Good different?” Shiro asks quietly. His voice is closer to Keith’s ear, which means he’s probably trying to get a read on his face.

Keith ducks his head into Shiro’s neck, unwilling to let him see. But he nods.

“Oh,” breathes Shiro.

The word comes out so utterly soft and full of wonder. It envelops Keith like a separate embrace, sinks through his skin and wraps delicately around his heart, his soul. He hears Shiro’s quiet intake of breath as Keith’s lips brush his neck. It gives him the courage to do what he has been trying to do for ages now. He pulls back gently, keeping his hands braced against Shiro’s chest. Though, scared of what he will see, he keeps his gaze down.

“Shiro?” His voice is nearly inaudible, but Shiro hears him all the same, always listening for him. “Can I ask you something?”

“Anything,” he promises.

Keith’s hands tighten imperceptibly against the fabric of his shirt. “Is there…”

Shiro places a hand at his elbow, his thumb stroking encouragingly.

Keith inhales shakily. “Is there a way to show affection for… for someone who is not a friend… but more than a friend?”

Underneath his palms, he feels Shiro’s heart thud, thud, thud. His eyes rise enough to see his throat swallow around his next words.

“Someone who is more than a friend?” Shiro echoes.

“Yes.” Keith finally lifts his gaze. Here, in the quiet of the cortex and in the arms of someone he treasures so dearly, he feels invincible. “Someone like you.”

Pink blooms across Shiro’s cheeks, highlighting the scar across his nose. “Me?” he wonders aloud, his voice mostly air. It’s too late to take it back now, but Keith doesn’t want to.

“You,” Keith confesses. The simple word makes Shiro’s lips part open in wonder.

“Keith,” says Shiro, then nothing more. His heart hammers against Keith’s palms. He’s looking at Keith like there is nothing else in the world, despite the universe that sits just outside the castle. It makes Keith braver. He raises a hand to cup Shiro’s cheek, his fingers curling around the sharp line of his jaw.

“I want to press my lips against yours,” Keith admits, feeling vulnerable, like his soul is bared for Shiro to see. “What… what is that called?”

Shiro’s eyes are deep. Keith might fall in if he looks too closely. “A kiss,” he answers. There’s fondness written all over his face. Keith doesn’t know how he has missed it before.

“A kiss,” Keith repeats to himself. It sparks warmth in his heart. His thumb strokes at the angle of his cheekbones. “Shiro…”

He hasn’t taken his eyes off Keith. “Yes?”

“I would like to give you a kiss,” Keith says quietly, afraid that he will shatter the moment if he speaks any louder. “Will you accept it?”

Shiro looks at him as if he is the only thing that matters. He says, “As many as you will give me.”

Keith thinks he is dreaming. But the warmth underneath his hand is real. The way Shiro holds him is real. Their faces drift closer until they share the same breath. Shiro lets his eyes flutter shut, and Keith does the same.

The first touch of their lips is tentative, delicate. A slow and soft glide that makes Keith ache deep in his chest, all the way through his core. He gasps against Shiro’s lips, his hand tightening around his shirt and pulling him closer.

It ends far too soon. Keith’s lips are buzzing with the ghost of Shiro’s touch. They breathe together for a long moment, lashes lowered, hearts pounding. Keith presses forward again.

The second kiss alights something in his veins, like electricity thrumming through his entire being.

The third kiss sounds like thunder, like a hurricane roaring in his ears.

The fourth kiss erupts like a supernova in his chest.

Keith loses count very soon after that.

+++++

Keith stumbles into the dining hall with a yawn.

Everyone is seated in their usual spots, halfway through their breakfast. There’s a filled plate beside Shiro’s half-eaten one, and Keith smiles.

“Morning,” Pidge says around a spoonful of Hunk’s newest creation. Keith runs a hand through their hair affectionately, but gets his hand caught in the tangles for his troubles.

“I’m brushing that for you later,” says Keith with a frown, extracting his hand with immense effort. Pidge doesn’t even have the decency to look sheepish about it.

“We saved you a bunch,” says Hunk as Keith drops down to throw his arms around his neck. He makes a cooing sound when Keith gives him a thankful nudge of his cheek. He gets a gentle tweak on his ear in return.

“Well, well, well. Look who finally decided to show up,” Lance says, twirling his drink in its cup.

“Well, well, well,” echoes Keith, clicking his claws against the tabletop. “Look who thinks I won’t attempt anything with witnesses.”

Lance swallows audibly. He looks like he wants to flee when Keith crouches down, but he succumbs to the rough cheek-rubbing that leaves the whole left side of his head disheveled. Lance grumbles loudly, trying to flatten it back down with no luck.

Coran holds out a hand, and Keith dutifully bumps his head against it for a scratch. He gives an identical scratch behind Coran’s ear, but it only makes him squawk and pull away.

“Ah, it is a little different for us Alteans,” Coran explains as Keith cocks his head, but he figures he just hasn’t found the right spot yet. He’ll try again later.

Allura laughs at them, her eyes bright. Her hair is up in another perfect braid, so Keith presses a cheek to her temple to avoid disturbing her hard work. She tugs affectionately at the mess of locks at his nape. “I’ll teach you how to braid later,” she promises. The mice stack on top of each other to give Keith’s nose a small tap, and he laughs, delighted.

“Very cute,” he murmurs.

Saving the best for last, he finally turns to Shiro, who’s watching him fondly. Keith places a hand on his shoulder and uses it to help himself curl up in Shiro’s lap.

“Good morning,” he whispers to Shiro, who hums in return. He presses a short, sweet kiss to Shiro’s lips before turning to his breakfast.

The clink of utensils halt, and Keith looks up questioningly.

Shiro sighs behind him. “Guys, please don’t—”

The table erupts in chaos.

Chairs go flying, food goes down the wrong pipe, Pidge jumps up on the table, and there’s a high-pitched squealing somewhere in the background. It could be the mice, or it could be Hunk; both are plausible. Lance’s drink goes spraying across the table, earning scandalized looks from both Allura and Coran. There’s a lot of yelling. Keith can barely understand them.

He watches as his friends nearly set the castle on fire trying to determine how, why, and when this development happened. Apparently, bets were made that are contingent on timing. They argue like two sides of a raging monsoon, tearing up the entire dining hall in the process. 

Behind him, Shiro groans, dropping his face into his shoulder.

Keith eats his food with a smile on his face and doesn’t say a single word.