Shiro arrives at work a few minutes early, as usual, and steps out onto an office floor dominated by glass and gleaming off-white, crisp and clean and utterly devoid of distraction.
Neutral grey tile clicks sharply under the soles of his dress shoes. Beige artwork lines the stark halls— soft pastoral scenes, subdued abstractions, muted florals. It’s been put there to break up the monotony, ostensibly, but each piece is so inoffensively bland that the eye glides right over them.
It’s a nice enough workplace, though. Shiro’s glad to have landed the job here, even if it isn’t exactly his childhood dream. It is dream-adjacent, at least— not piloting to the stars himself, no, but a cog-like piece of the process. He has his own office, a well-stocked break room right around the corner, and exactly one coworker-friend he likes enough to share lunch with, which is about as ideal as a nine-to-five desk job can be.
As Shiro rounds the corner, he spies Noor already sitting in her own office, tucked behind her messy desk within four glassy walls. Her brow is furrowed in concentration, her long, dark hair slung over her shoulder in a sleek braid. Shiro’s steps hitch.
She’s pretty, objectively, but that isn’t what sets his heart thumping. It’s the rattling thought of trying to steer their companionable working friendship into romantic territory. It’s the anxiety of trying to flirt, a skill he has miserably little experience in. The small paper bag clutched in Shiro’s hand crumples a little more as his nervous grip tightens, just shy of squishing the croissant inside; it’s the latest in a number of attempts to spark something romantic where there isn’t much kindling.
But he’s trying, and that’s what counts. He hopes.
Shiro shoulders through the awkwardness already coalescing around him and sinking into his clammy skin, spine stiff as he makes a beeline for Noor’s office. Gingerly, he taps a knuckle against the glass to get her attention.
“Morning, Noor. Love the braid today,” he greets, the honest compliment coming easy. It’s only when Shiro starts making an effort to be charming that his palm turns sweaty and his smile wavers. “Oh, and I stopped by the bakery this morning and they gave me an extra croissant. You want it?” he asks, holding up the bag so the bakery logo on the side shows.
“Oh! You know I never say no to baked goods,” she chirps, reaching out and wriggling her fingers as Shiro approaches her desk. Noor smiles as she peers into the bag, her cheeks dimpling and a faint blush rising under her fawn skin. Absently, her fingers trail down her braided hair. “Thanks, Shiro. I’ll pay you back at lunch.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he replies, waving as he backs out and makes a hasty retreat.
His smile fades to a thin shadow as he weaves down the halls toward his own office, mixed feelings swirling under his skin. He wipes his damp palm against his slacks, wondering how a tiny, half-hearted attempt at flirting with a girl he likes decently enough can leave him such a discomfited mess.
The work day rolls by slow. Shiro spends hours charting interstellar courses and calculating fuel usage and toying with designs for ship engines the size of whales, the maths and motions feeling rote by now. He visits the watercooler to refill his thermos and sneakily answers texts from Lotor. He takes calls. He submits reports.
And at lunch, he sits with Noor and nibbles from the order of fries she insisted on buying for him, the two of them chatting about their workloads and quietly commiserating over the three-hour meeting scheduled after lunch.
It’s moments like this that Shiro likes best with Noor, when he can forget that he ought to be trying for something more than the amiable workplace friendship they’ve forged over a year of coffee breaks and lackluster office parties. Moments when he can just relax for an hour and laugh as she animatedly recounts how she’d wound up with a mouthful of Galra fur when an abrupt stop sent her and the other passengers on her train tumbling on top of each other.
Shiro survives the afternoon meeting, though it’s a near thing. Judging by the glaze layered over the deep chestnut brown of Noor’s eyes, she nearly dozed off at the sixtieth bar graph, too.
As he starts his walk home, Shiro figures his day was still productive. No less than usual, anyway. And while the work might be a little monotonous, the job is steady and pays well. He really can’t complain.
Each evening, he comes home to an apartment in a nice high-rise in a neighborhood with rooftop gardens. His keys clink as he drops them in a metal dish atop the neat little shelf where he leaves his shoes. From his living room, he has a good view of the passenger aircraft launching into orbit from the nearby airport; it makes the hefty rent worthwhile.
On weeknights, Shiro works on his hoverbike down in the garage or throws himself into whatever classes the local community center is offering— sculpting, welding, book-binding, crocheting. He bird-watches, dog-watches, people-watches. And whenever Lotor and Allura aren’t busy with their own exciting lives, they make sure to whisk him out to restaurants and parties and spa events, all too aware that if left to his own devices Shiro might never leave the neat little loop of his routine.
Not that routine is bad. Not that Shiro is unhappy within its bounds, either. Even in the mundane crawl of each passing day, his life is rich in uncountable ways. He tries to keep that in mind.
Twenty years ago— and fifteen, and even ten— his future still hung with such uncertainty that imagining a life as normal as this was like wishing for the moon. Now he’s here, twenty-seven and finally settled into a comfortable, predictable existence without the lurking spectre of an early death hovering at his heels.
And Shiro really feels like he should be… happier about it.
He heats up a quick dinner and stares out the window while he eats, watching ships lift off and land from the airstrip outside the city limits. After, he waters his withering houseplants— eternally incapable of keeping anything as alive or green as it ought to be— and does a load of laundry. While it runs, he showers, slips on a clean shirt and boxers, and then flops facedown across his bed.
A soft, distinct chime sounds, heralding an incoming call from his mom. Of course.
Shiro briefly contemplates ignoring it and calling her back tomorrow morning instead. It’s late, he’s tired, and his face is already oh-so-comfortably planted into his pillow. The constant nudging about his lack of a romantic life doesn’t help, either.
A picture of his parents smiles down at him from atop his dresser. It’s a family photo from when he was still small enough to sit in his mom’s lap, bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked. Pre-diagnosis. Slow and heavy-lidded, Shiro blinks up at it. The first flutter of guilt starts snowballing and before he can stop himself, he’s rolling over to accept the call— voice only, though. No video.
It’s comforting to hear his mom’s voice, at least, even if the first thing out of her mouth is an overly concerned, “It took you so long to answer, Takashi, is everything all right?”
She asks about his day at work next, whether he’s eaten, if his doctor appointment earlier in the week went well, and then...
“So, do you have a date tonight?” she questions, her voice lilting upward hopefully.
Shiro looks down at himself where he lay in bed, clad in just his underwear and an old shirt, fully ready to fall asleep by nine-thirty. “Uh… no.”
“Oh. Well, tomorrow, maybe?” she tries again, ever the optimist. “How are things going with that girl at work? The one you took all those pictures with at your last office party? She seems nice. Very cute.”
“She is nice,” Shiro agrees, throwing an arm over his face to block out the light filtering in from the bathroom. “And it’s fine. We talk. And get lunch together.”
“Your father wants to know if you’ve asked her out yet. If you need some ideas, I’d suggest a nice picnic in the park. It’s low pressure and romantic. And what girl would say no to you?”
“I’ll think about it,” he hedges, yawning loud enough for his mom to hear over the line.
She bids him a good night and promises to call again over the weekend, leaving Shiro alone with his thoughts and a fresh conversation to stew over..
He groans and rolls over, facedown into his pillow, and lets its plushness muffle his sigh of frustration. I’ll think about it, he’d said. But every time he does, Shiro’s gut gives an anxious, uncertain squirm. He likes Noor. Really. She’s kind and pretty and went to space camp as a kid, too, and if there’s anyone he might click with well enough to realize his parents’ none-too-subtle wishes to see him married with kids before thirty, it might be her. But try as he might, Shiro can’t picture himself on dates in the park with her, or curling together to watch movies, or lying beside her in bed. He can’t see her moving into his apartment or taking wedding photos at his side or anything else that comes with a life spent together.
But he doesn’t have the heart to say that to his parents, who’ve sacrificed so much for him over the years: money, time, heartache. Shiro can’t even number the nights they slept beside him in hospital rooms or the hours spent helping him catch up with his schoolwork. Ortheir hushed, worried whispers whenever they thought he was asleep, his father comforting his mother whenever the prognosis dipped for the worse. Shiro remembers too well how she’d cried for all the things they feared he wouldn’t live long enough to experience— love and marriage and having kids of his own.
And now that he has, the least he can do is make an effort.
In the low-lit quiet, Shiro rubs his cheek into the pillow and allows himself to think of something that makes him happy for a while— his first and only boyfriend. Or almost-boyfriend, considering they’d always shied from using the word. Or being too obvious. Or being anything more than friendly in public.
The faintest tremble runs down his spine as he recalls the thrill of being touched, kissed, held through the night, even if he’d had to play it all close to the chest. Secret. That was all years ago, though, before he graduated and the extent of his family’s expectations began to settle around him like a weighted net being drawn tight; before the prodding questions about girlfriends grew pointed, insistent, increasingly difficult to shrug off once he was done with school and established in a good line of work.
Shiro cocoons himself into the covers on his bed and turns the lights from dim to total darkness. And as he lays there in the tranquil quiet of his apartment bedroom, something familiar slips under his ribs and fills his chest to the point it almost aches— a hollowness, vague and yearning for something he cannot place.
But he’s grown accustomed to it finding him in moments like this, when there’s nothing left in his daily routine to distract from the soft smother of his thoughts and the strange, formless feeling that something is missing from his otherwise content life.
That lonely ache is mostly subsided by the time Shiro rises, squinting and wrinkling his nose at the sound of the five a.m. alarm.
It’s pre-dawn. Quiet, still. As he laces up his running shoes and jogs his usual route through the neighborhood, Shiro takes stock of himself with clear, well-rested eyes.
He’s already ruled out depression, going by his past brushes with it and one curious, late-night google search just to double check. It’s not like he has any problem sticking to his daily routine or enjoying his hobbies. No aches or pains, other than the usual twinges from where his arm used to be and some thicker scarring around his shoulder. His vague loneliness isn’t crippling. And at the center of it all, when Shiro reflects on every struggle he’s pushed through so far, his outlook on life is still bright. Hopeful. Persistent.
Maybe he’s just in a little bit of a rut without something in front of him to overcome. Or maybe his parents are right after all. Maybe what he’s missing is a wife and a family— the next step expected of him— even if the thought leaves him a knot of uncertainty and discontent. Maybe he’s meant to tough that out, too, in the hopes that happiness will find him after.
Shiro’s steady footfalls blend with the sounds of the city slowly rousing around him, the first beams of daylight start to break over the nearby mountains. An hour at the gym helps to clear his head, like usual. There’s something about the repetition and ritual of it that works wonders on him— a hundred push-ups, twenty minutes rowing, lifting weights while listening to a workout playlist Allura uses, too. Sheened with fresh sweat and the tiniest bit sore, he leaves the gym for the bakery directly nextdoor.
“Hi Kaede,” Shiro greets, waving as soon as he walks in. “Morning Elle,” he calls a little louder, guessing Kaede’s wife must be tucked in the office around the corner.
A twin chorus of morning, Shiro chimes back. He smiles to himself as he walks the length of the glass case filled with breads and pastries, always torn for what to pick. There are cream-filled cornets tucked in alongside the croissants, and warabi mochi like he used to eat during summers with his grandparents, and anpan and petite tea cookies and fluffy, pillowy loaves of bread.
Shiro stops and points at a collection of peach confections. There are crumbly cookies shaped like perfectly round peaches, complete with tiny mint leaves. And doughy pink rice cakes that remind him of white peaches. And a peach mousse cake topped with whipped cream and mouthwatering chunks of fresh fruit.
“I think I want all of this,” he says, gesturing to the peachy spread. He justifies it with, “As a weekend treat. I worked out really hard.”
Kaede’s smile widens as she grabs a thin slip of pastry paper and starts plucking out peach cookies and rice cakes first. “I knew you’d go for these,” she says, clearly proud.
She rings Shiro up for the total and then adds in two more cookies. He makes sure to tip enough to cover them both with a little left over.
For lunch, he meets Lotor at an upscale Galran restaurant, a box of the peach mousse cake in hand to have for dessert. They used to do this often, dining their way across town and making weekend plans, but Lotor’s studies and charity events take him out of town more and more often. Now their meet-ups are a rare treat— one that Lotor apparently thinks deserving of lunch in a ritzy bistro.
The menu is mostly written in complex high-Galran— pretty but unreadable, at least to Shiro— with a scant few translations into English and the more universal low-Galran. However, he can read the prices listed beside each item.
Shiro whistles out a soft, sinking note as he flips it over to check the back. Nothing is under a hundred credits, and even on his comfortable salary that’s a bit much. “There’s no lunch menu?”
“This is the lunch menu,” Lotor whispers, blinking long and slow at Shiro. A clawed, lavender-hued hand reaches out expectantly for Shiro’s menu. “Here, let me order for you. It’s my treat anyway.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Shiro softly protests even as he hands it over, trusting his tastebuds to his best friend’s judgment.
“I want to,” is all Lotor says, shrugging, and it’s as simple as that. He smiles as their waiter approaches, baring a little bit of pointed canine, and casually orders seven or eight items off the menu.
Shiro blanches at the thought of the bill, even if he’s not the one footing it, and takes a deep swig from his sparkling water.
As they nibble on appetizers and small courses, Lotor dominates the conversation, pausing only to explain each new dish as it arrives on the table. There’s his father and his mother getting remarried (to each other) after decades of divorce, the both of them suddenly eager to rekindle their relationship with their estranged son. And then there’s his own work with the Galactic Preservation Society, the charity ball he and Allura are organizing for it, and the current health of his positively ancient— and kind of creepy, if Shiro’s honest— cat, Kova.
And for his part, Shiro has little to share.
“Things have been good. Same old, same old.” At Lotor’s intensely dry stare, he clears his throat and adds, “I was thinking about asking Noor to get coffee—”
“Oh, that poor girl,” Lotor says before taking a long swig from the Polluxian vintage in his wine glass. It’s his turn to deal with a borderline glare leveled at him, which he answers with a cocked head and a weary sigh. “Shiro, do you really intend to make a whole dating thing out of this? With her?”
“I could,” he says, the statement as flimsy as the cardboard box holding the peach cake. “She’s… nice.”
“She’s very nice. And pretty, too. I like her,” Lotor rattles off, poking at little shreds of tentacle on his plate with quick, staccato jabs. “But you and I both know your heart isn’t in it, Shiro, and one day she’ll pick up on that. You’re friends, aren’t you? Or coworker-lunch buddies, at least? It’s not kind to lead her into a relationship you don’t even really desire.”
Shiro drinks from his glass, gaze sliding sideways as he avoids Lotor’s stare. Looking the truth in the face only makes it seem harsher.
“Obviously I’m not an expert on living up to parental expectations,” Lotor adds, a slight knit to his brow, “but I know a good bit about the value of living for oneself. You’re self-sufficient, Shiro. You don’t need their approval. They can’t stop you from living however you’d like. Or loving whoever you’d like.”
“It’s not like that,” Shiro insists, though the thoughts behind it are too cumbersome to put into words. His parents are nothing like Lotor’s, who’d pitted their son against each other throughout every argument of their messy, protracted divorce; they’d fought for him and sacrificed for him and gave him every opportunity to succeed, and Shiro can’t bring himself to just shrug aside their wishes without a care.
“It’s not like I have anything else going on,” he mumbles as their plates are cleared away. He pulls out the box he’d brought from the bakery and gently pries it apart, revealing a beautiful and generous slice of peach mousse cake. “It’s been— it’s not like I’ve found anybody in a while, you know.”
Lotor eyes him even as he slices a wedge of peach-pink sponge and whipped cream and lifts it to his mouth. “Right. I’m sure it’s a terrible struggle to find men who’d be interested in you.”
Shiro rolls his eyes.
“I’d offer myself, of course, but I really don’t think you’d want my parents for in-laws,” Lotor snorts. “And there’s Allura,” he adds with feigned nonchalance, as if she hasn’t been on Lotor’s mind for years now.
“Right. Well, at least we have each other if it doesn’t work out for either of us, right?” Shiro sighs as he bats Lotor’s fork aside and takes the portion of cake with the biggest chunk of peach for himself. “We can be wrinkly bachelors together.”
“You might be wrinkly by then,” Lotor mutters, his smile teasing even as the corners of his eyes crease and soften, “but yes. We wouldn’t be alone, at least.”
Shiro goes through the same routine the next day, too— jog, gym, bakery, shower. He spends the morning finishing a model of the Calypso explorer he’d put together weeks ago, painting its delicate features with a steady hand, and once it’s dry he sets it on a shelf in the living room not far from the window, where real ships much like it blast upward and into orbit.
Shiro thinks he could probably be satisfied with a life that’s just this, if it came down to it. He’s always skewed toward introversion, anyway, and he has everything he needs, in truth— a couple of wonderful friends, financial security, and good health. Which would weigh on his parents worse, he wonders: their son rejecting all notions of having a family of his own, or happily finding one with another man?
As he grinds coffee beans and fixes himself a cup, Shiro figures it’s probably the latter, still. Even if avoided settling down for another decade or more, his parents could still cling to the hope that the right girl might come along to change his mind and give them grandkids. He’d always been a late bloomer, after all.
It’s only eleven-forty-five when he decides to take a walk and pick up some lunch, trotting down the hallway toward the elevator in his comfy running shorts and a softspun tee. Until an obstacle stops him short.
A hefty bookshelf blocks the elevator and renders the narrow hallway impassible. It stands taller than Shiro and wider, too, its frame and panels all composed of a gorgeous red-brown wood marbled through with thick bands of black. A muted ding signals the elevator doors closing on the other side, and suddenly Shiro wonders if it would be faster to turn around and take the twenty-three flights of stairs instead.
From the other side of the bookshelf, Shiro hears someone’s faint pants and labored grunts. The shelf trembles, wavers, and budges a scant few inches. Reflexively, Shiro braces his hands against its smooth, lacquered wood to make sure it doesn’t topple.
“Do you need some help?” he asks, wondering how the hell whoever’s on the other side even got the massive piece of furniture this far alone.
There’s a moment of startled silence. And then, wavering and out of breath, “Y-Yeah. Probably. Thanks.”
“Not a problem. Here, I’ll turn it a little bit,” Shiro says as he delicately takes hold, not wanting the metal of his prosthetic to damage the polished finish on the unusual and beautifully patterned wood. “Which apartment?”
“Twenty-three sixty-five,” the voice behind the shelf answers, still winded.
“Hey, that’s pretty close to mine,” Shiro says, guessing this is a new neighbor.
He strains to lift the heavy, unwieldy shelf, careful of letting the nice wood scrape along the hallway floor. A push from behind lurches it forward, the whole thing swaying unevenly as they try to get a firm handle on it. But they manage. Carefully walking backwards, Shiro guides the bookshelf around the corner and down the hall, setting it down only once he’s in front of the door to apartment 2365.
It’s even heavier than it looks, and Shiro’s surprised by how much a mere thirty feet of lifting took out of him. He puffs out a loud breath as he settles his hands on his hips and waits for his new neighbor to open the door.
A lean arm darts out from behind the bookshelf, slender fingers tapping out the entry code on the panel beside the door. Shiro’s eye lingers on the scrapes and bruises dusted over his knuckles, imagining how much he must’ve struggled to move the shelf down tight corridors and doorways alone.
With another straining heave, they maneuver the bookshelf inside and deposit it along the first clear stretch of wall Shiro sees. It’s a relief to drop its considerable weight to a rest, at last finished and free to go get lunch like he’d planned. Shiro shakes out his arms and then lifts the hem of his shirt to mop away the first breaking of sweat along his brow; as he lowers it, he finds the apartment’s new occupant staring at him.
The warmth and pinkish tinge of exertion on Shiro’s skin deepens a few shades. He starts and stares, still breathing heavy.
His new neighbor is close to a head shorter than Shiro and lean all over— lean but unquestionably strong, defined muscle showing along his collarbone and down his arms. Thanks to the flimsy red tank top he’s wearing, Shiro can see a generous amount of bare skin aglow with a heavy sweat no doubt worked up as he single-handedly got the bookshelf up to the twenty-third floor.
And he’s pretty, even under the sweat and the splotchy, plum-toned flush across his cheeks. Dark, shapely brows and lengthy lashes frame eyes that seem to shift between indigo and violet; fine, delicate features make even his flat, weary expression into something hard to look away from. Sections of damp, unruly hair hang around his slim, sharp face, slipped free of his failing ponytail.
“Thanks for helping me with this,” he says, nodding toward Shiro. “Um. Name’s Keith, by the way. I’d shake your hand, but…” he trails off there, pointedly looking down at his red-knuckled, dust-smeared hands.
“Oh, no worries. I’m Shiro,” he says, giving a little curl-fingered wave of his prosthetic hand. “Good to meet you. Glad I could help. I’m amazed you managed to get it as far as you did alone, to be honest.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Keith grumbles, long fingers deftly tucking his loosened hair back into its tie. “I was fine until the elevator ride and then it was like the exhaustion hit all at once,” he adds, like he’s compelled to explain himself. “I was worried I’d be stuck there all night trying to move it the last few feet down the hall.”
“It is a really nice piece of furniture,” Shiro says, arms crossed over his chest as he turns to study it, grateful for any excuse to look away from Keith and regain a little of his composure. “What kind of wood is this?”
“Desert ironwood. Some really nice cuts of it, too. My dad put a ton of effort into making it,” Keith says, running his hand along one glossy panel of the rich, black-ribboned wood, “but it’s not exactly easy to move in and out of high-rises.”
“I can imagine.” Shiro glances around at the bare walls and stacked boxes, the furniture haphazardly arrayed around the entrance. It’s a one-bedroom unit with a slightly cramped floor plan and a less than stellar view. Relatively cheap to rent, probably— especially compared to some of the neighboring apartments, like Shiro’s. “Wait. Did you move all of this in here by yourself?”
Keith turns and surveys the clutter in the living room: a small couch, a coffee table, a sturdy wooden bedframe stacked in dissembled pieces, a queen-sized mattress leaned against a wall, and at least a dozen cardboard boxes. “Yeah.”
It explains why he’s so battered and sweaty, lugging all of this around alone. Shiro shrugs. “Do you have more stuff that needs to come up?”
“Uh… yeah,” Keith says, looking faintly miserable at the prospect.
“Do you want an extra pair of hands?” Shiro asks, his lunch plans already swiftly ejected from mind. As Keith hems and haws and mumbles about not causing him any more trouble, he counters with, “I wouldn’t offer if I wasn’t willing. And it’ll go by a lot quicker with the both of us.”
With a heavy sigh, Keith agrees and leads him back downstairs, his repeated thank you’ s coming out soft and lightly stammering.
There aren’t that many big pieces of furniture left, thankfully. Shiro shoulders a small dining table and fits one of its matching chairs under his arm, then circles back for a solidly crafted wooden trunk, stacks of heavy boxes, and a few duffel bags filled with clothes. Keith carries at least as much as he does on each trip, despite already being worn out from a morning spent lugging furniture up from the rental truck on the curb.
And even while struggling with armfuls of awkwardly sized boxes, they manage to make small talk while the elevator lifts them to their floor. Shiro deals in the minutiae of aerospace travel and spacecraft construction from behind a desk. Keith is an illustrator and graphic designer who finally landed a decent job; he picked the neighborhood because it’s closer to his new office and the building allows pets of any and all sizes, though he doesn’t have one yet.
It’s a little bit arduous, especially while navigating the sidewalk traffic outside and the flow of other residents through the lobby, but together they manage to move in all of Keith’s stuff in just under an hour.
“Finally,” Keith sighs as they drop off the last load in the middle of the living room floor. He turns and flops back onto the oversized beanbag chair by the window, arms spread wide. His lithe frame is swallowed up in its squishy grasp, the pleathery material instantly sticking to his sweat-tacky skin. When he speaks, it almost sounds muffled. “I’m never moving again.”
Shiro smiles, unsure if Keith means he’s going to grow old and die in this very apartment or if he’s simply become fully adhered to the beanbag chair. “Too bad I didn’t run into you sooner, huh? Could’ve saved you some trouble.”
There’s a hiss of shifting beads as Keith fights to sit up. “I think it was perfect timing. Thanks again, Shiro. You kinda saved me back there.”
He’d have done the same for just about anyone, Shiro thinks, but he certainly doesn’t mind that it ended up being someone so easy on the eyes. With a little forced nonchalance, Shiro shrugs a shoulder. “Like I said, not a problem. Gotta use these muscles for something, right?” he jokes, curling an arm.
Keith stares up at him from the beanbag, still flushed from all the heavy lifting. “... Right.”
An awkward silence takes root and billows out between them. Shiro second-guesses his idle thoughts about offering to stay and help Keith move the furniture around, get settled; maybe Keith’s tired of having a stranger stomping around his home when all he wants to do is rest.
“Well… I live over in twenty-three seventy-one,” he says, jerking a metal thumb over his shoulder and taking an uncertain step backward. “If you have any questions or need any help, feel free to come by.”
Shiro’s already turning on his heel when Keith catches him with a, “Wait, do you know any good delivery places around here?”
He blinks, surprised by the suddenness of the question. “Uh, yeah. Sure. There are plenty of good places nearby. If I’m getting delivery, I usually order from The Spotted Yalmor, Mr. Chen’s, Purple Artichoke, or Vrepit Sal’s, if I feel like Galra. Really greasy Galra,” he amends, wanting to make sure Keith knows exactly what his stomach is in for.
Keith, meanwhile, has already pulled out his phone and started scrolling through a map of the neighborhood on his phone, checking out the restaurants as Shiro rattles them off.
“And they don’t deliver, but the bakery around the corner is amazing,” Shiro adds, always ready to sing its praises. “I stop by there literally every morning. Kaede— she’s the one who runs the kitchen— makes amazing buns and sandwiches. And the sweets are even better.
“Which one are you in the mood for?” Keith asks, still not looking up from his phone. “Lunch-wise?”
“Oh. Uh. I was on my way to pick up something from Nothing but Noodles, actually,” Shiro says, trailing off uncertainly. Put on the spot, he suddenly feels compelled to justify himself, even to a near stranger. “I just wanted mac and cheese…”
“Mac and cheese sounds good,” Keith agrees, nodding. For the first time in a while, he glances up at Shiro and meets him in the eye. “What do you want from there? I’m buying you lunch.”
All at once Shiro feels his cheeks warm and his stomach flutter with appreciation. “You don’t have to do that,” he says by reflex.
“I’m buying you lunch,” Keith repeats, his tone brooking no argument. “Pick whatever you’d like.”
“The deluxe mac special,” Shiro peeps out, a faint blush warming his cheeks.
He should be polite and say no. But the thought of lunch already has Shiro’s stomach gurgling, and the mention of sweets is like throwing kerosene on open flames. “They do make a really good tiramisu...”
Keith nods and taps his phone a few more times. Once the order is in, he heaves himself out of the beanbag chair and picks his way around the cluttered room toward the fridge. “I have water and beer, if you want any.”
“A beer would be nice.” He drifts toward the narrow kitchen, metal fingers gently strumming on its dark countertops. Keith twists open the bottle before offering it to him. “Thanks.”
“Sorry. I haven’t exactly been a great host,” Keith says as he clears a space around the small dining table and drags the matching chairs over. He grabs a sweeper and gives the cheap bamboo flooring a quick cleaning, gathering up all the dust and scattered flecks of grime from the move-in. “Help yourself to anything you need.”
Shiro toes off his sneakers and sets them neatly by the door, beside a pair of boots and a run-down pair of tennis shoes, both sets of shoes at least two sizes smaller than his own. “Don’t worry about it. Moving in is chaos.”
Keith looks around the living room at all its jumbled furniture and piled boxes. “It’s exhausting. And thanks again for doing all this. It really is easier with an extra set of hands.”
“Anytime,” Shiro says as he eases into one of the dining chairs, glad to sit down. “Especially if I get a free lunch out of it. And dessert.”
Keith smiles. “It’s the least I can do.”
“It’s a nice place,” Shiro compliments. “And I think you’ll like the neighborhood. There’s plenty to do around here, if you’re ever bored. The parks are nice. Great for people-watching. And the community center nearby teaches all kinds of weeknight classes.”
“What kind of classes?”
“Oh, everything. I’ve done welding and cast-iron and cooking classes. Knitting classes. Sculpting. Uh, windchimes? I made windchimes once, and then there was calligraphy...” Halfway though listing all his various projects, Shiro catches the look Keith’s giving him and turns self-conscious. “I guess I get bored a lot.”
“Everyone needs a hobby. Or ten,” Keith adds, his faint smile growing a little bolder. “Hang on a sec.”
Shiro watches with keen interest as Keith high-steps over random bags and boxes until he finds one that’s a little larger and flatter than the rest. There’s some rummaging before Keith awkwardly picks his way back with a canvas in his hands.
“This is what I do,” he says, his bare shoulders lifting in a helpless little shrug as he turns the painting around for Shiro to see.
“You made this? With your hands?” Shiro asks, awed as Keith lets him hold onto it. He’s afraid to touch the paint across its front, even if it’s long since dried.
It’s a pastoral nighttime scene, all deep greys and blacks and violet-blues highlighted with thin gleams of moonlight. Shiro finds shapes in the shadows— slim-trunked trees and sparse leaves, the silhouette of a farmhouse, mountains that bleed into the sky.
“Uh, yeah. Used ‘em both, even,” Keith says, the barest note of teasing in his low, soothing voice. “Everything I do for work is digital, obviously, but I like making pieces on canvas for myself. This is the orchard on my parents’ farm.”
“It’s beautiful. This is so good, Keith,” he says, still finding new little details hidden in the carefully laid layers of deep, dark hues. “It’s so moody, wow. I almost feel like I’m there.”
“Same.” Keith clears his throat as he takes the painting back and props it up on a nearby cabinet. “Um. Thanks, Shiro.”
The food arrives and Shiro is taken aback at his own ravenousness, his stomach whining noisily at the first whiff of gooey cheese. It’s only Keith’s presence that keeps him from chugging down his macaroni and then polishing off the tiramisu in three minutes flat. The little snips of conversation they make in between bites help, too.
Keith talks about the pains of packing up his old apartment and moving his stuff across town. “My last place was kind of a shithole,” he snorts while chewing down curried noodles. “The budget’s tight, but I wanted to upgrade to something nicer before my parents come visit.”
“Oh? That’s exciting,” Shiro says, thinking of the handful of times his own parents have flown in and let him tour them around the city. “Bet it’ll look amazing in here once you get all your art up.”
Keith’s plum-toned blush returns. “We’ll see.”
Before Shiro finally leaves, he borrows one of Keith’s sharpies and scrawls down his number on the takeout receipt. Just to be friendly. Neighborly. Nothing more.
“In case you need anything,” he tentatively offers, already expecting it’ll never get used.
Keith smiles as he takes the slip of paper in hand and sticks it to the fridge with a magnet in the shaped like the moon. “Thanks. Hopefully I won’t need to bother you again too soon.”
“You’re not a bother,” Shiro assures him, lingering in the open doorway. “And I’m just down the hall, so… feel free.”
And as he spends the rest of the evening in his comfortable corner apartment, Shiro finds it quieter and lonelier than ever.
The next morning, Shiro glances at Keith’s door on his way toward the elevator, heartbeat quickening with the hope it might open— that they might bump into each other again, giving him an excuse to linger and talk. It doesn’t, though.
Even without a glimpse or a whiff of Keith, Shiro’s thoughts drift back to him all afternoon. He’d had such pretty eyes. Such a nice voice, a nice face, a nice body, and an understanding friendliness about him once he relaxed a little. And there’d been a spark there, unless Shiro’d imagined it, small and warm. The most spark he’s felt in meeting anyone for an achingly long while.
Not that he can do anything with it.
Allura notices his lapses in attention, their conversation repeatedly trailing off into silence. More than once she has to snap her fingers in front of Shiro’s nose or toss balled up tissues at him just to draw his attention back to the fitting room and her newest dress.
“Are they all so boring?” she asks, lips quirked worriedly to one side as she twirls. A slow, tinkling piano song plays out over the boutique’s speakers, providing an elegant backdrop to her look.
“It’s not that,” Shiro reassures her, sitting forward in his seat and putting all further thoughts of Keith aside until they settle on a dress for her upcoming gala.
And by the day after, all the hoping and wondering and what-if-ing over Keith begins to fade. Shiro sighs out low as he brushes his teeth, chalking the whole encounter up as a pleasant, neighborly interaction and nothing more. And this time, when he passes Keith’s apartment on his way out for his morning jog, Shiro doesn’t glance longingly at its sleek wooden panels or strain to hear footsteps on the other side.
Muscle memory guides him through the rest of his morning routine, his thoughts reluctantly turning to the day ahead. Mondays are always a slog.
Shiro steps out of the shower in a billow of steam, towel wrapped around his waist as he throws together an outfit, and notices a blinking across the screen of his phone. He picks it up, squinting down at the unfamiliar number and the messages attached.
Keith, 7:10am: red line is running late today, if you use it
Keith, 7:10am: this is Keith by the way
Shiro, 7:16am: I don’t, but thanks for the heads up! :)
Shiro, 7:16am: I hope it’s not too much of an inconvenience for you though?
Keith, 7:17am: i was going to pick up some coffee but now i’m stuck waiting for the train to move
The text is followed by a suffocatingly close selfie of Keith in a densely packed car, a hand covering his nose and mouth while heavily lidded violet eyes stare through the screen in quiet desperation.
Keith, 7:18am: smells like someone’s eating a dozen boiled eggs in here
Shiro, 7:18am: Ugh, gross. I’m sorry your morning transit is ruined :(
Keith, 7:19am: it sucks lol. so do you just walk to work?
Shiro, 7:25am: Yeah, my office is only six blocks away.
Keith, 7:26am: lucky
And Shiro does feel a bit lucky as he crosses the building’s lobby and joins the bustling foot traffic outside. It’s bright and airy, though the rising sun promises to turn the afternoon sweltering. Glassy-sided skyscrapers tower along every street, occasionally interspersed with older, squatter buildings of only ten or so stories; a medley of earth languages and intergalactic scripts are plastered to the familiar storefronts and street signs.
At a crosswalk, Shiro snaps a quick selfie to send back to Keith, catching a decent shot of himself amid the press of the crowd impatiently gathered on the sidewalk. It’s a little cramped and uncomfortable, granted, but nothing compared to Keith’s current fate of being smushed sardine can-style into a packed transit car.
Keith, 7:28am: ah, what i wouldn’t give for fresh air rn… also, you look nice today
Shiro stares at his screen off and on for the rest of his trek to work, smiling goofily, in the elevator up to his office floor and all through the winding taupe-and-grey halls. The compliment brings a tinge of warmth to his cheeks as he catches his reflection in the glass walls of darkened office rooms, trying to picture himself through a stranger’s appraising eyes— tall and broad-shouldered with a tapered waist, his arm gleaming silver, his square jaw offset by strong brows and eyes fringed in noticeably long, full lashes.
Before jumping into emails and spreadsheets, Shiro spends a few minutes agonizing over a reply.
Shiro, 7:57am: Thanks! You do, too :)
It’s only after hitting send that Shiro remembers Keith’s selfie showed maybe two-thirds of his face, slightly blurry, looking absolutely miserable.
Shiro, 7:57am: All things considered.
Keith, 8:02am: thanks shiro. it’s been... a morning
They text throughout the day, the flickering of new messages across his phone’s screen interrupting his calculations and distracting him halfway through Noor’s lunchtime rant about her favorite hand lotion’s sudden discontinuation. Keith’s messages range from one-line updates about his workday— which is gratingly slow and entails endless questions from a client with no idea what they want— to pictures with captions like, saw a rat inside this vending machine once and my deskmate (Lance) spilled his smoothie and somehow it all ended up on my side.
On his walk home, Shiro swings by Kaede’s bakery and snaps up what few pastries she has left (at a generous discount, no less). There are berry macarons and chocolatey, custard-filled tarts and, pulled from the kitchen just for Shiro, a set of plump, jam-stuffed cakes shaped like bunnies. They’re pale with a dusting of rosy color, fluffy cream tails, and delicate heart-shaped noses.
Shiro loves them, instantly.
“I wanted to do something cute for the moon festival,” she explains, smiling proudly as Shiro snaps picture after picture of them, “and these are my first test batch. You get an exclusive first taste for being my best customer.”
“They’re perfect,” he says for maybe the sixth time, his wallet already out. Shiro happily exits the bakery with a small stack of sweets-filled boxes, already texting Keith one-handed.
He sends a picture of the bunny cakes to Keith, fingers flying across the keyboard before he can chicken out.
Shiro, 5:28pm: If you feel like a treat after such a rough day, I picked up some sweets!
There’s no reply for an hour or so. Shiro distracts from his own disappointment by throwing together a quick dinner with odds and ends from the fridge, standing and eating his motley stir-fry at the kitchen counter. By the time a knock sounds at the door, the hope of it being Keith has more or less faded from mind.
But the door slides open and there he is, dressed in a red and white track jacket and clingy black pants.
“I’m here for the sweets,” Keith says, a hopeful upward lilt to his voice. He holds up his phone, the picture Shiro’d taken earlier plastered across its screen. “Sorry for not responding sooner. My battery died and I just had a chance to look—”
“It’s not a problem,” Shiro grins. With a start, he steps aside and makes room. “Would you rather come in or just take a couple of things and go?”
Keith straightens up an inch taller as he draws a sharp breath in through his nose. “I wouldn’t mind coming in,” he murmurs, “if you don’t mind?”
“I’ve already been in your place,” Shiro shrugs. “Seems fair you get to check out mine.”
And he does. Keith steps over the threshold and openly stares, head whipping side to side as he takes in the stunning view, the roomy interior, the recently updated fixtures and kitchen counters. “How do we live in the same building? Or even on the same floor? This is incredible, Shiro.”
“Thanks. It’s probably one of the more expensive units on this floor,” he says, wincing slightly. Not that he can’t afford it, but the sticker shock had hit hard even after his bump in salary. “But I really loved the view.”
“It’s beautiful,” Keith agrees. They both go quiet as a fleet ship takes off in the distance, it’s silvery wings glinting bright as they catch on rays of sunset; a smoke trail of white-gold blooms behind it, lingering long after the ship itself disappears into orbit and beyond.
Shiro grabs the box from the bakery and offers Keith his pick of anything. “I sampled a little bit earlier,” he admits, blushing soft as he points to each of the remaining pastries. “You saw the bunnies already— they’re filled with raspberry jam. These ones are lychee, strawberry, and blackberry. And this thing is chocolate and custard.”
With a tentative look up at Shiro, Keith’s slim fingers pluck out a couple of macarons. He pops them into his mouth one at a time, chewing thoughtfully, and Shiro can’t help but hang on every little shift of his expression.
“Do you like it?”
Keith’s eyebrows shoot upward. “Of course I like it,” he answers, accepting an offered fork and joining Shiro in splitting one of the plump bunny-shaped deserts, all cream and soft, fluffy sponge cake. “This is the best thing that’s happened to me all day, Shiro. Thank you.”
“It wasn’t any trouble.” He smiles crooked and ridiculously pleased as Keith goes back for the chocolate custard, clearly enjoying all the desserts. He rummages for drinks and then helps Keith polish off the rest of the adorably rounded bunny cake.
While they snack, Keith looks all around the open kitchen and living room, taking in every inch of Shiro’s admittedly sparse decor. Minimal, he likes to call it. Depressing is Lotor’s preferred terminology for the sea of greys and bare walls, muttered under his breath whenever Shiro has him over.
What few personal touches warm his apartment are photos and the byproducts of the many hobbyist classes that Shiro’s taken over the years. The heavy bowl where he keeps his keys and loose change was made in a foundry class for working with molten iron. The lumpy vase on the coffee table? A pottery class. The uneven blanket thrown over his sleek, modern couch? Handknit for his final project.
Still holding his half-eaten custard tart, Keith tilts his head toward a photo hanging on the nearby wall. “That’s an interesting choice.”
Shiro half-turns, recognizes the picture, and promptly wishes he’d thought to give his apartment a once-over before inviting Keith in. “Oh. Uh, my best friend gave me that. Well, gave is pretty generous. He had it printed, mounted, and barged in here to hang it himself. I’m pretty sure he affixed it to the wall with something that’s going to cost me my deposit, actually.”
The picture in question is one taken not long after Allura first introduced them to each other. Shiro only recalls having a drink or two, which apparently got him inebriated enough to wade into a water fountain with a seven-and-a-half foot member of alien ex-royalty. The way they’re posed— with Lotor awkwardly stooped to fit into the frame beside Shiro— the only visible letters on the placard behind them spell out HOT AF.
“It’s cute,” Keith comments before taking a sip from a beer Shiro’d fished from the crisper drawer.
With a soft smile and a wondering look, Keith shuffles a few steps sideways to the next nearest picture, currently sitting propped up on a table by the holo TV’s projector. This one is older, its polished wooden frame filled with familiar faces.
“My family,” Shiro supplies as Keith studies it. “I must’ve been… nineteen, maybe? This is the last time I visited Nara. My grandmother died not long after,” he says, gently pointing her out. “And then my grandfather came stateside to live with my parents.”
“You look a lot like your parents,” Keith observes, glancing from the photo up to Shiro and back again.
Shiro can see the bits that match, too— his mother’s squared jaw and her full-fringe of lashes, his father’s high cheekbones and the same shape of his lips. The set of his nose. The breadth of his shoulders. Shiro even has a mole on the back of his hand at the base of his ring finger, same as his mom. “Thanks. Everyone always talks about what a handsome couple they are.”
“It explains a lot,” Keith says, shooting him a sideways look. Teasing. Appraising. Flicking up and down the length of him.
Shiro’s heart doesn’t know what to do with that. It lurches forward before stammering to a stop, his pulse racing erratically and the hair long his nape rising as a tingle courses down his spine.
“You think so?” Shiro asks, and all he gets from Keith is a disbelieving little snort-laugh.
“My dad’s Japanese, too,” Keith says, cheeks flushed with color as he pointedly changes track. “Well, a quarter. From his dad’s side. It’s where the Kogane comes from.”
“Keith Kogane?” Shiro perks at the thought of having a full name to add to the number listed in his contacts. At Keith’s nod, he offers his hand out the way he’d wishes he could’ve when they first met. “Takashi Shirogane. Shiro’s a nickname I picked up in school.”
“You prefer it?”
“I’m used to it,” he shrugs. “And yeah, I like it. Only my parents call me Takashi anymore and it’s… I don’t know. I hear it and I’m already braced for a guilt-trip.”
The corner of Keith’s mouth curls. “Yeah, my grandma’s like that. She had a lot of strong opinions about my parents helping me through art school. And about my going to art school period.”
Shiro winces sympathetically. “I can practically hear it,” he admits, thinking of his younger cousin and the family-wide ripple of disappointment he’d made in pursuing tattoo artistry as a career. “But your parents supported you, huh? That’s cool.”
“Yeah. They’re pretty good at that.” Keith wanders toward the floor-to-ceiling window along the far wall, his half-finished beer in hand. His reflection catches in the industrial-strength glass, ghostly muted and transparent, and the singing in Shiro’s veins trills at the sight of Keith standing here, in his living room, with his dark hair loose and his lounging clothes clinging to him just so.
With the swipe of a finger along the control panel set into the wall, Shiro drops the lighting in the living room and kitchen by eighty-percent. In the dimness, it’s easier to look out onto the city and into the deepening, darkening sky with its handful of bright stars; he stands by Keith and watches with him, their eyes following the trailing lights of ships as they launch and land.
“This is a lot better than the sliver of sky I can see from my bedroom,” Keith abruptly decides after a few minutes more, the dryness of his voice bringing a smile to Shiro’s lips. “I still miss the view I grew up with, though. My parents’ farm is in the middle of nowhere, off the grid. Far enough away from all the metropolises that you can still see a million stars.”
Shiro sighs and chances a glance over, letting his eye linger on the smooth glow of Keith’s skin and the jut of his fine lips.
“... Sounds beautiful. You know, about three hours west of here you can get up into the mountains and do some great stargazing. And a little closer to home, there’s an internationally recognized planetarium like… six miles away. If you ever wanted to go.”
He sees Keith’s smile in his faint reflection on the glass first, the glimmering lights of a thousand thousand streetlamps and windows and neon signs shining through him.
“I’d love to.”
Day-to-day, Shiro lives much the same as ever: gym, work, home, sleep. There’s a crush to the endless cycle of work and the miniscule crawl of living in a city so massive it dwarfs him, where he is anonymous to all but a handful of people. And there’s still that lonely hollowness that sits with him at the end of a long day, that not-quite-satisfaction that gnaws at the edges of what ought to be a perfectly content existence.
But it all lessens the more that Keith slips into the workings of his life.
After their night at the planetarium and a few more evenings spent eating desserts in Shiro’s living room, Keith admits he’s interested in attending some of the evening classes that Shiro’s been chain-taking, which is how they end up struggling through a beginner’s baking class side-by-side. For all their admirable efforts, they take home a rock-hard loaf of bread.
The evenings are already turning cool, the sun setting sooner, and Shiro’s happy for Keith’s company as they tread their way back to the apartment.
“I wish Kaede’s was still open,” Shiro complains as he gently tosses their freakishly dense bread into the air and catches it again. “Imagine her face if I plunked this down on her counter.”
“Hm. I think she’d suddenly feel very secure in your continued patronage.” Maybe by accident, the elbow of Keith’s bent arm gives Shiro a little nudge in the side. “Do you have any plans for it? The loaf?”
“Well, we can’t eat it.” That’s obvious enough from the unyielding crust. “I guess I could use it as counterbalance for my hoverbike? It’s pretty weighty.”
Keith stops in his tracks. His shadow stretches long under the diffuse glow of Altean-made streetlamps; the blue-tinted light sits soft on his skin and catches in the dark wells of his eyes. “Wait. You never mentioned that you had a hoverbike.”
Shiro slows, tucking the bread under his arm. “You never asked.”
Keith huffs and picks up the pace, long legs quickly closing the gap between them. “Wow. You think you know a guy…”
“Yeah?” Shiro answers, matching Keith’s teasing tone. The glass and stone rising all around them are bathed in nighttime blues and greys; the turning autumn breeze whistles down the street, tickles at Shiro’s collar, and sends dark wisps of Keith’s hair licking around his cheeks. Something low in Shiro’s gut squirms. “You want to see it?”
Keith brightens like the waxing moon above. Shiro’d expected no different.
In semi-permanent storage, his bike currently sits in the apartment’s garage in sub-level C. Shiro has to check his phone for the password to the keypad for his personal unit, apologizing to Keith for the wait as he finally types in the right code.
With a creak of protest, the door slides open. Light spills into the small garage unit, revealing a table covered in toolkits and spare parts, two helmets gathering dust, and the lovely, wind-skimming body of his hoverbike.
Keith darts in, all eagerness and awe. His hands run appreciatively over the glossy, cherry red finish, admiring all it’s elegant curves and sleek lines. “How long has it been since you’ve piloted this?”
“Too long,” Shiro knows as he brushes the first little threads of cobwebs from its tailfins. He drops the loaf of bread on the work table, pulling a face as the impact rattles the tools left scattered on its surface. “I come down every month or two to do maintenance, but that’s all.”
In truth, Shiro can’t remember the last time he rode out to the countryside to take his hoverbike offroad, though there was a time he’d sought escape from the city every other weekend. And there isn’t much point in puttering around city gridlock in a model like this, made for breakneck racing in vast, open spaces, so he’d settled for keeping it safely penned in his apartment’s garage, maintaining it in perfect working order without any aim to use it.
“I just got so bogged down in other things, I guess.” His new job. His other hobbies. Weekends spent as a plus one for either Lotor or Allura. And that needling sense of guilt that’s only grown more pointed as he’s gotten older.
Shiro’s footsteps are heavy as he circles around the bike, admiring it. And admiring Keith admiring it.
“This was the first big purchase I made on my own, you know. My parents were so upset with me after,” he adds, a soft, humorless laugh slipping out as he shakes his head. “It was the biggest fight we ever had, I think.”
And it’s not that Shiro doesn’t understand why. He’d known it even as he signed the papers, even before his parents’ expressions crumpled at the sight of the behemoth hoverbike still missing its state tags— a seizure in a midsize sedan had lost him his arm, after all, and a hoverbike has no restraints, no airbags, no steel cage to keep the engine from crushing him.
Their worry had eaten deep at Shiro. It still does, a low-laying shame nipping little bites around his heart as he relives the memory and pictures their wounded expressions anew. But as he lays a hand on the sleek fiberglass exterior of his hoverbike, the regret is replaced with an ache of fondness and no small amount of nostalgia. His parents could never understand why he’d want to drive again at all, much less pilot a class H craft with minimal safety features. And it was selfish, certainly, to give them yet another reason to fret over their one and only son.
But he’d done it all the same. Impulsively, maybe, but the need that had driven him ran deep— to enjoy his new lease on life, to regain a little of the control he’d felt slip away, to prove he could bounce back after the accident and everything else.
His flesh-and-bone fingers fingers trail down the length of the bike’s polished fuselage, thinking of the hours he’d poured into maintaining it long after he’d stopped taking it out for rides. Like he’d been waiting for the day the mood would strike again, reigniting that passion for speed and the whipping of the wind through his clothes, hands firm on the throttle as he steers his own course.
Keith hums softly, but he says nothing of Shiro’s parents or their disapproval. “Do you miss it?”
“Yeah. I do.”
With a swipe of his fingers over the control pad, the hoverbike wakes. Its tail lifts as it rises a foot off of the ground, blue light glowing faint from the vents and exhaust ports. Shiro swings a leg over and settles into the cushion of the black leather seat, fingers trailing lightly over the handlebars as he reacquaints himself with the gentle hum underneath of the bike under him.
With a smile, he half-turns and pats the empty sliver of seat behind him. “Keith? You wanna take it out for a spin?”
A flurry of limbs responds, Keith grabbing the paid of helmets and practically vaulting himself into place behind Shiro. There’s a flicker of hesitance as his hands settle on Shiro’s shoulders, holding him for stability. “I’ve only ever piloted the old rustbucket my dad uses to get around the farm and it’d shake like crazy if I ever took it over fifty. How fast can yours go?”
“Pretty damn fast,” Shiro grins, liking the feel of hands hooked over his shoulders and the gentle press of Keith’s thighs into his own. “I think I got it to two-twenty once on a straightaway. But we’re starting slow, alright? Just a ride out to the suburbs and back, maybe. I’m out of practice.”
There’s a soft huff behind him before Keith fits on his helmet. Skepticism, maybe. And then a kiss of friction as slender palms skim down Shiro’s back, their warmth passing through the soft fabric of his shirt; Keith’s touch settles on his hips, strong hands gripping tight to Shiro as he wriggles a little closer in the seat. Through the synced comms in their helmets, Keith gives him a chipper, “Ready when you are.”
Backing out of the small garage is a bit of a struggle, the bike listing to one side as Shiro tries to angle it so the tips of the wings don’t catch on the door. Keith helps by leaning hard the other way, balancing out their weight just right, and soon enough they’re wheeling up the winding floors of the subterranean parking deck. Once up top, they turn into the relatively calm flow of late evening traffic and head for the nearest interstate ramp.
And even after so long apart, it all still feels familiar.
Keith is easy to ride with, even if Shiro isn’t used to carrying an extra passenger— a natural at sensing what to do and when to do it. He leans into banking turns in perfect time with Shiro. He keeps an eye out for drivers edging uncomfortably close and checks behind them when Shiro’s changing lanes. He molds sleekly to Shiro’s back as they pick up speed on the interstate, streamlined. And as they slow to take an offramp toward a late night fast food joint that’s still open, his thumb kneads tender little circles where it rests just above Shiro’s hip.
Okay. Maybe the last one doesn’t really help Shiro pilot, but he appreciates it just as much anyway.
“When are your parents coming?”
Shiro can barely see around all the shopping bags stacked in his arms, but he trusts Keith to take the elevator to the right floor and keep him from bouncing into any walls.
“The last week of October, right after my birthday.” There’s a soft slide as the door to his apartment slides aside and he ushers Shiro in. “It was the only time my uncles could drive up to watch the farm for them. You can drop all that on the couch, Shiro. Thanks for carrying so much.”
Shiro makes a mental note that Keith’s birthday is soon. “Anytime, Keith.”
Keith smiles ruefully as Shiro dumps the new comforter, towels, dishes, and assorted bathroom accessories onto the sleeper couch. “I feel like every time you’re here, it’s because you’re hauling stuff for me.”
Shiro plants his hands on his hips, taking in the changed look of Keith’s small apartment. It’s true that he hasn’t really been inside since the move-in, Keith usually opting to come spread out in his apartment instead, and…
“You’ve done a lot with the space,” Shiro says, appreciating the colorful layout.
It’s still a little sparse in terms of furniture and creature comforts, but Keith is working on making it warm and homey before his parents come to visit. The paintings that had previously been stacked in cardboard boxes now line the walls, rich in color and texture. Shiro wanders slow around the living room, taking in each one— there are sunrise scenes over red-stone mesas and stylized lions and at least one boldly painted mecha, as well as canvases bathed in formless red and black pigment.
“They’re just for fun,” Keith reminds him, voice soft as the warm color cresting his ears, as if trying to jump ahead of some unrequested critique.
“They’re all beautiful, Keith.” Shiro walks back to one of the larger pieces, all rough strokes of red layered over black, and taps at the wall beside it. “But I really like this one. Is it weird that I want to touch it?”
“No,” Keith says, struggling against a splitting grin as he jams his hands into his pockets and wanders closer. “Go ahead. You could even have it, if you like.”
“What? No. I can’t just take your art.”
“You’re not taking it. I’m giving it to you, Shiro. You could use something with a little color on your walls.” Keith looks up at him from under long, straight lashes, his pleased smile melting down into a borderline pout. “Unless… you don’t really want it—”
“Of course I want it,” Shiro interrupts in a huff. It reminds him of Keith and his penchant for reds and dark leather. He already knows where he’d love to hang it, too. “But I don’t want to take something you’ll miss.”
Keith shrugs, staring pointedly at the painting in question— until his gaze cuts sideways, furtively checking out Shiro. “I can always come see it if I do, right?”
Any excuse for Keith to come over is a good one. Maybe not wise, not when Shiro is trying to keep a lid on the simmering feelings he’s cultivating for his friend, but good. “Yeah. Absolutely.”
He helps as Keith pulls the large canvas down from the wall and sets it by the door, directly next to Shiro’s new sneakers— as if he could possibly forget to grab it on his way out. While Keith starts ripping off the packaging of his new purchases, Shiro keeps working his way around the art-covered walls. Eventually, he gravitates to the lone photo set among all the paintings.
It looks like autumn, judging by the dulled leaves on the trees and the carved pumpkin sitting at Keith’s feet. A recent one, too, because Keith doesn’t look much different than he does now. Shorter hair. Slightly fuller cheeks. A stark tan line around his collar. The flannel shirt is familiar, though, right down to the paint-stained hem; Shiro smiles to think he’s seen Keith in the very same outfit.
In the picture, Keith is flanked on either side by a tall, broad-shouldered man and an even taller Galra. His parents, probably, but wedged between the two of them, Keith looks tiny.
“Uh… who’s this?” Shiro asks, curiosity getting the better of him.
Keith does a double-take halfway through peeling the stickers off of a new trash bin for his bathroom. A half-smile curls on his lips, his dark brows lifting as he feigns soft surprise. “Me and my parents. Can’t you tell?”
“I mean, I figured, but…”
“But I don’t look half-Galra?” Before Shiro can start fumbling for words, Keith snorts and adds, “Believe me, I know. My mom was apparently very concerned when I was born.”
Shiro gives the photo another look, this time tearing his focus away from Keith and his cute smile and the jack-o-lantern that he almost certainly carved himself. “You look a lot like your mom, actually,” he realizes upon closer inspection. “Like, almost identical in a lot of ways.”
Aside from the mauve skin and purple hair. And the yellow sclera. And the claws. They share the same sharp angles in the face, the same wide eyes bordered by impossibly long lashes, the same slightly upturned nose and quiet intensity. All Keith really seems to have taken from his father is his human appearance and thicker set eyebrows.
“Yeah. My dad always says that, too,” Keith says, his laugh fading into a sigh. “I do have some Galra traits, actually, but they only show up when I’m really excited or stressed the fuck out. Which was pretty often when I was in school. Every finals week, I had to adjust to holding my pen with claws.”
Shiro whistles low. “That’s like… a very selective super power. Kinda cool.”
Keith’s laugh is short and soft but still enough to make Shiro’s heart flip. His nose scrunches the slightest bit as he says, “Not really, but thanks. Glad you think so.”
Shiro does think so— Keith can trace half his origins back to the stars. Myriad little traits he’d noticed slip into place, suddenly given new explanation. Like how Keith managed to move a shocking number of heavy furniture pieces by himself. And why his blushes come in that deep plum tint, somewhere between the red of earthling blood and the cool blue of Galra. And how his eyes can be such a striking, shifting violet that sparkles in the right light.
Without being asked, Shiro steps in to help tear open cardboard packaging and sort the new linens for the wash. He’ll carry them back to his place when he leaves; it’s far easier for Keith to do his laundry in Shiro’s luxe washer and dryer set than it is to wait for an opening in the crowded basement laundromat.
While their hands work, Keith slowly opens up about his childhood and teenage years— the whispers that follow Galra and half-Galra, the looks his family often gets in their small town, the tension between his dad and his grandmother, who’d wanted him to settle with a nice Korean girl instead.
“That sounds familiar,” Shiro sighs as he tosses a wad of trash toward Keith’s garbage can and misses.
“From your grandparents?” Keith hazards, expression sympathetic. “Or your parents?”
“Uh, both? I think? But mostly my parents. They really started ramping it up after I hit twenty-five.”
There’s a long quiet before Keith asks, “Is that what you want?”
“I can’t picture myself doing it,” Shiro admits. “Even if it’s what they’ve always pictured for me. But it’s hard, you know. Not measuring up.”
Keith’s nod turns into a little shake of his head. “It is. But you definitely do, Shiro. Measure up, I mean. By any metric, honestly. You’re a good person. Y-You’re a good— friend.”
The little hitch in Keith’s breath makes the word land awkwardly. Shiro tries not to read into it. He smiles. “How can I be that great of a friend when I didn’t even know your birthday’s in a couple weeks?”
“I don’t know yours,” Keith counters, an eyebrow arching.
“February twenty-nine. A leap day baby. I’m only six or seven or whatever,” Shiro says, getting the usual jokes out of the way. “Pisces. What about you? I need to know how much time I have to plan.”
“October twenty-third. You… you don’t have to do anything, though, Shiro. I’ve never done much for my birthday anyway. I’m not one for parties—”
“Me either,” Shiro says. “Your birthday should be something you enjoy, right? We could go camping or something. See the stars. Take the hoverbike. Make a weekend of it, maybe?”
Shiro feels surer of it with every word, fed by the growing excitement brewing in the dark, sultry purple of Keith’s eyes.
“I’d like that,” Keith answers, the words followed by a sticky swallow and the agonizingly slow flex of his throat. “A lot.”
Shiro finds himself staring into the cupcake-filled shelves of Kaede’s bakery display case for the better part of twenty minutes, although it’s less out of indecision about which flavor to choose (all of them, one of everything) and more from a persistent and discordant worry over the direction he’s headed.
Regardless of his own desires, he’s always done his best to please his parents— hoverbike aside. He’s their only child. Their only son. His parents poured everything into him, healthy or sick, and he owes them everything back. He’s lived a lifetime of off-handed comments assuming he’d do just as his mother and father did, marrying well and settling down; he’s grown up steeped in the unspoken certainty that putting himself first would break their hearts. Trying to live up to their expectations has meant closing himself off from guys he liked too much, putting on charming smiles for girls he didn’t like enough, and keeping his one and only boyfriend a fastidiously guarded secret.
With Keith, though, he’s gone completely off the rails and into uncharted territory.
“Are you still deciding, Shiro?” Kaede questions. “Or just spacing out?”
“Uh, spacing out,” Shiro answers as he shuffles to the counter to pay, still distracted. “Sorry.”
“What’s the occasion?” she asks while tallying up the order. “This is a lot, even for you.”
“Hah. Thanks. It’s, uh, for a birthday. Keith’s.” Shiro fidgets in place, antsy with feelings for Keith and his thoughts abuzz at what to do with them. “We’re going stargazing for the weekend and I wanted his cake to be special.”
“Aw, it’s his birthday? Let me throw in something extra.” Kaede darts back into the pastry case and picks a few Halloween-themed treats, bat-shaped or molded like grinning pumpkins. “Stargazing sounds so romantic, Shiro. I’m glad you’re finally making a move. Just watching the two of you dance around each other whenever you come in makes me tired,” she laughs. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for you.”
Shiro’s smile falters, a reflexive tension tightening his whole posture— outside of Lotor and Allura, no one’s ever teased him about Keith. A split-second afterward, Kaede’s expression mirrors his own shocked dismay.
“Oh!” she exclaims, brow pinching with worry. “You aren’t— I just assumed— I’m sorry, Shiro. I hope I haven’t made this… awkward.”
It is. Awkward.
“It’s not your fault,” Shiro murmurs. And it really isn’t. Kaede’s only picked up on the obvious, and Shiro’s only upset at how obvious he apparently is. He glances behind him to make sure the bakery is still empty before admitting, “I do. Like Keith. A lot. And I did want tonight to be romantic. It’s just… difficult. With my parents being… traditional. Protective.”
“Oh.” Kaede hums, sympathetic. Absently, she pulls the tail of her ponytail forward, over her shoulder, and strokes long fingers through glossy dark hair. “Mine, too.”
“Really?” It’s hard for Shiro to reconcile his view of Kaede— as confident in her identity as a gay woman as she is in embracing the cultural heritage they share— with his own confliction. Shiro’s never not felt that twist and tug of values, of feeling like choosing one piece of himself forsakes the other; the love of his family and that sense of belonging on one side, and his personal happiness and freedom on the other.
“Really,” she sighs as she darts back into the pastry case. “Do you want a caramel-pumpkin brownie? On the house?”
“Yes,” Shiro chirps, automatic and eager. He breaks into an embarrassed smile immediately afterward, surprised by his own emotional one-eighty at the mention of sweets, and gratefully accepts the free brownie. “Thanks.”
The first bite is lush and sticky-sweet, caramel threads clinging to his lips. But delicious, as always, and more than worth all the time he spends in the gym to keep his enormous sweet tooth from showing.
“So how did you… y’know?” He pointedly looks past Kaede and toward the hallway office just around the corner, where he knows her wife stays to run the bakery’s finances and do her own freelance work. Despite facing the same pressure to satisfy her family, Kaede seems to have it all: a loving relationship she can live in the open, a thriving business following her passion, and a tangible joy that Shiro envies.
“Oh, I knew when I was young, as much as I tried to ignore it,” Kaede says, the words ringing true for Shiro, too. “And as I got older, I’d pretend it didn’t bother me. Or that one day, I’d be over it— which never happened, obviously. And when I found a girl I loved so much that I couldn’t let her go, no matter what my parents and their friends might think, I knew I couldn’t be happy with the life they wanted for me.”
She tilts her head toward the back office where Elle sits, her grin fond. And contagious. Shiro gives her a weak but genuine smile, glad for the two of them. He’d been fond of them as a couple from the first moment he first wandered in two-ish years ago, watched them struggling with fitting a new oven through the kitchen door, and offered to lend a hand; their grateful reward of cookies and sourdough was more than enough to hook him as a forever customer.
“Did they take it well when they found out?” He’s almost too afraid to ask. The mere thought of crushing his parents so thoroughly makes his stomach do an unsettling backflip. “Do they know?”
“They know,” she says, shaking her head and taking a big bite from her own brownie. “I told them because I didn’t want them finding out from someone who saw me with her. And at first, they just refused to acknowledge it. To believe it. And then after…”
She’s quiet for a moment, pinching her bottom lip as she recalls it. “They didn’t want to talk about it. Or to me. Radio silence for years. Which hurt, honestly, even more than I’d expected it to. But I had Elle to hold my hand through it, and good friends, and one or two aunties who still visited. And I’m happier now than I ever was when I tried to pretend otherwise. I’m still as Japanese as ever, still their daughter, but I’m myself, too.”
Kaede’s words and certainty steel Shiro with reassurance; it’s easier to walk down an uncertain path knowing someone who’s braved it before.
“You can’t control what your parents think of you, Shiro. Or what they do. But you can control your own life. You can choose the things— and the people— that make you happy. And it’s the most normal thing in the world to look for happiness.” Her mouth screws up in a tight smile, as if holding much more back, before adding a short, “I hope you find it.”
Shiro makes a soft sound of agreement until he trusts himself to form actual words. “That helps. Thank you,” he says, his voice still small. He rummages in his wallet, draws out the only bill he has, and drops the crisp twenty-credit note into the tip jar. “Uh, that’s all I have on me but I think I owe you way more…”
“You don’t owe me. You’re my favorite customer,” Kaede chides as she pushes Shiro’s loaded box of cupcakes toward him. “ Our favorite customer. And good luck with Keith.”
The ride out toward the mountains is chilly enough to justify leather gloves and down-filled jackets and Keith’s hands tucked into Shiro’s front pockets for warmth. Definitely.
They stop for dinner in a little cabin restaurant, the owners’ huskie laying down by their feet as Shiro treats Keith to steak and cherry cobbler. After a little hot cocoa and coffee to keep warm, they head deeper into the wilderness.
As the roads grow long and empty, Shiro takes the hoverbike up to a quick, easy clip that has Keith squeezing even tighter around his middle. They make it to the foothills of the mountain range without much time to spare, the bike gliding quietly over the ground as Shiro slowly guides it up a trail made for small craft.
Keith pats against his side and points toward a clearing through the thickening forest. It looks like the perfect place to make camp— private, a ways off the beaten trail, a huge swath of star-ribboned sky visible overhead.
It takes three tries to get the tent set up and properly staked to the ground. They don’t go in right away, though. Not with the show just about to start.
Trying to be a good birthday host, Shiro spreads out his sleeping bag to make a sitting place, guided by the very last light of sunset and the weak glow of an Altean crystal lantern. It’s plush and brand new— bought just for this occasion, actually— and holds the cold of the earth at bay. Shiro expects Keith to sit down across from him, on the other side of the flimsy white box from the bakery, mirroring his own cross-legged pose; instead, Keith chooses to settle right by his side, close enough for their outer thighs to meet.
“Happy birthday!” Shiro says as he flips the box open, revealing a dozen cupcakes of varying flavors and frostings. “I, uh, wasn’t sure what your favorite was, so I asked Kaede for a little of everything. A sampler of all her bakery’s greatest hits.”
“No banana,” Shiro jumps to assure him. He hands Keith a lone candle and nods toward the box. “Stick it in whichever one you want.”
He does, lips thinned in a broad smile as he carefully centers the candle in the middle of a small mountain of cream cheese frosting styled to look like a floppy-eared bunny, complete with a pink heart-shaped nose and chocolate eyes.
“I associate these with you,” Keith murmurs as he holds the cupcake out, “ever since that first time I came over.”
“Bunnies?” Shiro questions as he tilts the lighter toward the candlewick. “I mean, I do like them. And I guess I’ll really match once the rest of my hair turns white, huh?”
Keith hums an affirmative. The light of the one lone candle catches on the heights of his cheeks and the bridge of his nose, highlighting his sharp, elegant features; it shines in his dark eyes and lingers on the wetness of his bottom lip. Under the cold light of the stars and the blue-tinged glow of the Altean lantern, it’s brilliant and golden and warm.
“Are you going to make me sing?” Shiro asks.
Keith’s laugh is low and easy on the ear. “Absolutely.”
Shiro rolls his eyes and starts in, thought embarrassed by the sound of his voice alone in the empty quiet of their remote camp. It wavers, a little from the cold and a little from the intensity of Keith’s stare, but Shiro manages to finish the song with a smile.
One gentle puff blows out the candle.
“Make a wish,” Shiro reminds him. “Not that you won’t have plenty of other chances tonight.”
Keith grins as he bites deep into the cream cheese bunny cupcake, pulling away with frosting dotted along his cheeks and on the tip of his nose, too.
Without thinking, Shiro leans in, drawn to the sweet scent of frosted sugar and everything to do with Keith.
He stops short, his senses returning to him as he’s just inches away. Too close to shrug off. Too close to pretend he hadn’t been trying to steal a kiss. Shiro opens his mouth to apologize, already wondering how they’ll make it through a night alone together after he’s let himself make things uncomfortable—
And then Keith’s lips are on his own and a warm hand is braced against his cheek.
Shiro’s soft gasp is swallowed up. He shuts his eyes and closes his mouth against Keith’s, their lips dragging softly over each other’s. Sparks run down his spine. The breeze is ice against his furnace-hot skin. And as Keith’s slim fingers run up through his hair and brush along the curve of his overly sensitive ears, Shiro moans.
It’s been so long since he’s kissed someone without immediately immediately second-guessing himself. There’s no regret with Keith, no thread of tightly wound worry— only relief, as soothing as the cool autumn air and as warm as the palms cradling his head. And the welcome taste of sugar and spiced cake still fresh on his lips.
Shiro’s eyes open and all he sees is Keith, silky-lashed and even more beautiful up close. Keith and a sliver of the sky above them, all dusty lavender-to-deep grey and star-smattered with brilliant streaks of light piercing through.
Shiro breaks just a hair’s width from Keith, enough to whisper, “It’s started.”
With his lips shining and the white frosting now smeared over his skin— and Shiro’s too, probably— Keith follows his gaze upward. It’s lucky that the Orionids happen to peak on Keith’s birthday this year, overlapping perfectly with their celebratory skygazing trip.
Keith leans into him as they watch the meteors shoot by, one or two coming every minute. It’s the fullest shower Shiro’s ever seen, rife for wishing on. In the moment, though, he doesn’t want for anything. Keith is snuggled to his side, enjoying his birthday and evidently as interested in Shiro as Shiro is in him.
And Shiro is content— really, deeply, satisfyingly so, the fullness in his heart spreading to push out any anxiety left lingering within him.
A hand slips under the lapel of his motorcycle jacket, palming over his chest. Warm fingers inch under the collar of his faded t-shirt, the fabric stretching as Keith slips his whole hand in after; it comes to rest directly above Shiro’s heart, skin-to-skin, squeezing softly at pillowy muscle.
“Under any other circumstances, I could sit here and watch the meteor shower for hours,” Keith whispers, his thumb tracing along the line of Shiro’s clavicle. “But right now, I’d rather see you.”
Spectacular as the sky is tonight, Shiro has to agree.
It’s not exactly dignified, the way they scurry to drag the sleeping bags into the tent and hurriedly zipper the entrance shut. The heated cushion at its base makes a much more comfortable place to lay than the hard, cold earth outside and Shiro is deeply appreciative of it as Keith barrels him over and straddles his middle the moment they’re inside.
These kisses come hungrier, surer. His tongue glides against the seam of Keith’s sweet smile; he pecks at the corner of his mouth, over the apples of his cheeks, against the cut of his jaw.
Keith sits up to shrug out of his jacket and tug off his shirt, staring down at Shiro with ruffled hair and a lopsided smile. “You know how long I’ve been thinking about this?”
“This?” Shiro asks, running faintly trembling fingers up the expanse of Keith’s smooth, trim belly, over a fine dusting of dark hair and a plum, purpley blush.
“You.” Keith’s gaze slides uncertainly to the side as he says it, suddenly shy. He wriggles where he straddles Shiro’s hips, the tip of his tongue peeking out as he licks his lips wet again. “It’s not every day a guy who’s underwear model hot and boy scout sweet shows up at your door.”
“Not every day a cool, cute guy moves in down the hall,” Shiro counters, arching his back as Keith helps peel off his shirt. “And starts sending me pics of rats drinking out of soda cans on the subway.”
Keith laughs as he starts undoing his jeans, thumbs hooked around the waistband to yank them down to his knees. His hips grind slow against Shiro, the pressure soft and teasing through the taut, sturdy denim of his jeans. Deft fingers work Shiro’s fly open and let him loose, a relieved sigh falling from his lips as Keith’s hand curls around his cock and gives him a considerate squeeze.
And Shiro is immensely grateful when Keith pulls out a condom and rips it open with his teeth, given that the only one he has in his wallet has been withering there for more than a year.
“I was, uh, hoping I’d get to use these,” Keith admits, his cheeks aglow with a heavy blush. “If the whole birthday wish thing worked out.”
Shiro’s thrilled. Flattered. A little bit amazed, too, considering Keith seemed as wary of making a first move as he was. “I was your wish?”
Keith only leans down to kiss him again, grinning mischievously, one hand still steadily gliding up and down Shiro’s slick length. His loose hair tickles where it falls around Shiro like a curtain, thick and shaggy and perfect for tangling his fingers in. “You’re all I want, Shiro.”
His metal hand skims up one of Keith’s bare, slender thighs and around to squeeze appreciatively at one cheek; his fingertips brush tentatively down the cleft of his ass, over the sensitive little dip of his hole. One inches in slow, drawing stifled gasps and groans out of Keith as they kiss with aimless, eager abandon. Another slips in after, the sleek metal working easy into soft, yielding flesh.
Shiro barely has him stretched loose by the time Keith rises off of his fingers and lines himself up against the head of Shiro’s cock instead. It takes a firm hand to help Keith guide it in, but everything after that first inch is all him— thighs trembling as he haltingly eases himself down Shiro’s stout length, his own dick flushed a dark, pretty purple that makes for a lovely contrast with the silvery gleam of Shiro’s fingers.
Keith takes a moment while he sits impaled to the hilt, hips gently rocking as he lets out a little peal of delighted, breathless laughter. And then he lifts himself up slow, groaning to the languid strokes of the silicone-lined palm around his cock, and bites down on his bottom lip hard enough to make it blanche.
From the first fall of Keith’s hips, Shiro knows he’s soon done for. It’s been more than a year since he’s done this with anyone, and even then it was rushed and guilt-laden, an act of quiet desperation during the lonely morning hours at his old gym.
And this is nothing like that. It’s blissful, losing himself in the clench of Keith’s tight heat and the tenderness of his touch. His left hand sinks into Keith’s hip, helping him hit deep on every return and murmuring praise all the while— praise Keith preens under, something surprisingly cocksure blooming under the flustered blush he’d worn before.
Keith’s enjoyment awakens other things in him, too, judging by the subtle shifting of his features. His open, panting mouth reveals a set of Galra-sharp canines; those lovely eyes turn sharper, the sclera going yellow. The hands splayed over Shiro’s chest turn sharp-nailed, their tips pressing possessively into the plush curves of his pecs. And as Keith’s hips buck and he comes lavender-tinged ribbons between Shiro’s fingers and over his stomach, he lets out a rumble akin to a purr .
And he isn’t done there. After grinding himself down into Shiro and drawing him to a climax, too, Keith flops to his side and rolls Shiro over to lie on top of him, already pleading for more. This go around is a pleasant change of pace— all slow, messy kisses and lazy rutting, the chase toward climax taking twice as long.
Shiro can barely move or speak once they’re done, his limbs more or less becoming concrete jello. Keith’s not much better off, noodle-armed as he worms and wriggles until he’s nestled comfortably against Shiro’s side.
The tent around them rustles, the nighttime wind raking along its insulated surface. It’s like white noise, as soft and soothing to Shiro as the gentle puffs of Keith’s breath on his skin. Though contentedly worn to the point of exhaustion, his thoughts keep him awake a while longer.
For all he’s gone without it and tried bend himself into his parents’ way of thinking, he wants this. Keith. He wants him close. He wants him for more than a night, or a week, or a month. He wants what he’s always quietly accepted that he could never have.
But all the wanting in the world doesn’t make it any easier. It doesn’t undo the tangle of emotion choked tight around his heart, knotted thicker and more confusing with every passing year of his life; it doesn’t lessen the fear of his parents finding out and everything they’ve ever seen in him changing for the worse.
“Shiro,” Keith murmurs, surprising him; he’d looked half-asleep, his eyelids drooping heavily and his expression slack with drowsy satisfaction. A lightly clawed hand brushes over Shiro’s cheek and through his hair, mussing it further. “Hey. I like you. A lot.”
“I like you, too. A lot.” Shiro presses his lips to top of Keith’s head, accidentally getting a mouthful of hair as he yawns immediately after.
“Like you so much that I look forward to doing anything with you, y’know. Even baking. Even making felted crafts,” Keith rambles, blinking slow and heavy as he crashes down from the high of a couple of orgasms. “I wanna do things with you, Shiro. Together. Like we have been, but more… romantically.”
Shiro’s heart skips ahead a few beats. “I want to, too. I love spending time with you, Keith. And when I’m not with you, I’m thinking about you.”
Days with Keith in them feel more precious. Time itself does, since meeting him— the seconds, minutes, hours that Shiro never thought he’d have, only to let them slip by him in a sleepwalker’s haze while he worked and waited for happiness to stumble into him.
There’s a lengthy silence filled only with the sounds of the wind and wild outside and the rustle of sleeping bags within. Shiro thinks Keith might’ve even fallen asleep, until one eye with a yellow-tinged sclera squints open.
“You don’t have to say anything to your parents about me,” Keith whispers even as one of his legs twines around Shiro’s under the down-stuffed cover. “Just so you don’t feel like… like it’s something you have to worry about. I get it. And I don’t want to upset your family. Or you. It’s fine if they don’t know about us for now. Or ever, maybe.”
It’s the or ever that sticks with Shiro as Keith coils around him, sweaty and clingy and perfectly, protectively smothering.
The thought of meeting Keith’s parents so soon gives Shiro a mild case of the hives, but the timing is too perfect to pass up. They’re due in town Sunday evening, the same day he and Keith return to town after a weekend of camping and kissing— which is unfortunately nowhere near enough time for all the telltale hickeys lining Keith’s neck to fade.
As he drops Keith off at his apartment, Keith soothes him with a kiss and a gentle squeeze of his bicep. “We’ll do it later in the week, alright? My parents are going to love you, Shiro, just so you know. But they’re gonna give you a hard time, too. Especially about this,” he adds, casually gesturing to one of the lovebites marking his collar. “Y’know. The way parents like to do with boyfriends.”
“Boyfriends,” Shiro repeats in mild disbelief, halfway to a grin. “It’s been a really long time since I’ve heard that.”
And what he’d had in college really can’t compare to what he’s found in Keith, anyway. Back then, Shiro had been content to lay low, he and Adam each other’s secret-keepers as they kept up appearances for their respective families. But he’s increasingly certain that he can do that again. Not now. Not with Keith. Not when he’s felt happier in these last few months than he has in a stretch of dull years, closer to himself than ever before.
While Shiro’s nervous about expanding the tiny bubble of people who know about him being gay beyond just Lotor and Allura— and now Kaede, too— there’s something freeing in it. Or at least in knowing that Keith’s parents aren’t the type to judge him for it, and any raking-over-the-coals that happens is strictly because he’s dating their beloved son.
Wanting to make the best possible impression, he returns to the bakery with a nervous bounce in his step. After giving Kaede a blushing and very abbreviated account of his weekend with Keith, he flutters up and down the long pastry case, pointing out two dozen different items. Kaede sighs and patiently scoops up each one, indulging her favorite customer in his uncharacteristic pickiness.
“What’s the occasion this time?” she questions as she loads three cakes decorated like red maple leaves into Shiro’s second full box of pastries. “Follow up date? Are you just going to keep buying him more and more sweets?”
“They’re for his parents,” Shiro says with a little shrug. “They’re visiting this week.”
Kaede’s eyes go wide, and so does her smile. “That was fast! Well, with all of this I’m sure you’ll make a very sweet impression.”
Shiro certainly hopes so. He spends about an hour too long getting ready, making sure his button-down shirt is crisp and his hair is neat and he projects an aura of boyfriend material. The thirty-foot walk from his apartment to Keith’s feels endless, his palm sweaty and clammy no matter how often he wipes it against his black slacks; awkwardly, he balances the sweets in one hand while he checks his phone with the other.
Keith, 12:57pm: we’ll be in all afternoon so feel free to drop by whenever you want
The trust in it adds another flutter to the butterflies that Keith already gives him. Shiro takes a deep breath as the door slides open under his touch, holding it tight in his chest when he sees the entry, the kitchen, and the living room are all empty.
After poking his head in, the rest of Shiro’s body follows. He steps out of his nice dress shoes and scoots them aside, socked toes curling nervously against the flooring. There’s an empty stretch of counter nearby that looks like the perfect place to set the flimsy boxes packed with pastries and desserts, and as Shiro quietly pads over to drop them off, he hears the faint murmur of voices from Keith’s bedroom.
“— took at Star Peak— if I’d brought a better camera— the water was like a mirror— and this is us by the hoverbike—”
A low whistle. “Nice bike. Handsome fella,” and unintelligible murmurs that sound like agreement.
“— can see why you like him— and very cute— strong child-rearing shoulders, like your father.”
There’s a flurry of strained muttering in Galran, too soft and quick for Shiro to translate without Lotor around to help fill in the gaps. Then steps approach. Shiro startles up straight, drops the boxes onto the counter, and clears his throat.
“Hey, you made it,” Keith says, brightening as he rounds the corner from his bedroom. “And... you brought more sweets than we could possibly eat. Thanks, Shiro.”
His slim hand winds through Shiro’s to offer reassurance, nevermind his sweaty palm. Their fingers lace tight, Keith’s thumb gliding soothing circles over Shiro’s skin. He doesn’t let go for a second— not even when his parents emerge and greet Shiro with smiles, each of them shaking his metal hand before marveling at the bounty of beautiful pastries he’s brought with.
“Keith first told us about you a while back,” Krolia says, her voice warm against the cool, searching sharpness in her yellow-tinted eyes. “Thank you for helping him get settled here. And for moving the very handsome but impractically heavy furniture my husband made for him.”
“Oh, of course. That wasn’t a problem at all. And it’s beautiful craftsmanship. I’d never even seen wood like this before,” Shiro adds, earning him a beaming smile from Keith’s dad.
The evening wears on in surprising comfort. Keith’s parents— his mom especially— give him a cursory grilling, but their preference seems to be for gently teasing Keith. Krolia especially, prone to wearing sly smiles as she casually mentions how Keith had worked his ‘cool neighbor, Shiro’ into almost every conversation they’d had since July.
“It’s nice to have a face to go with the name,” she says, looking at Shiro with a surprising softness. “And thank you for giving him such a lovely birthday. We couldn’t come any sooner and I worried about him having to spend it alone, but—” Krolia smiles, the shape of it exactly like Keith’s. “But you came in and made him feel special.”
It’s late before Shiro stands to leave. Hours later than he’d planned to stay, even, but Keith’s parents were so welcoming and Keith so content nestled against him that it seemed a shame to go.
In the middle of saying goodnights and goodbyes, Heath beckons Shiro over to the fridge.
“We like to stock Keith up whenever we visit,” he says, looking back over one broad shoulder. “And we brought a little extra for you as thanks for being such a good friend to Keith. He’s been a little lonely, you know, but… not since he moved in here. Now, if we’d known you two were an item,” he adds, raising a finger, “we’d have brought you even more. But next time. Next time.”
What they’ve brought is still more than enough, though. Keith’s usually sparse fridge and freezer are now stuffed to the brim with home-grown food from the family farm— containers filled with what looks like kimbap and chili, bags of frozen chopped green onion and minced garlic, assorted fruits and veggies, filets of freshwater fish, and two gallon-sized jars of homemade water kimchi. In a nearby cabinet, Heath shows him jars of honey and spiced apples and pickled vegetables with brilliantly red peppers mixed in.
“I’m sure Keith won’t mind helping you carry your share over later on,” he adds, giving Shiro a look that’s a little more knowing than he’d like.
In the wake of finally taking an enormous step forward with Keith and then another in meeting his parents, Shiro’s surprised at how peaceful he feels. There’s a simple freedom in taking Keith out on dates to dinner and the movies and the park for ice cream, even if a whisper at the back of his mind worries him over the astronomical chances that somehow this will get back to his parents and start the gossip wheel turning.
And once he starts touching Keith, it’s almost impossible to stop. Tactile comfort isn’t something Shiro is used to, but he warms to it fast. Keith is clingy and snuggly in the best of ways, prone to possessively latching onto Shiro’s arm in public and draping a leg over him or working a hand under his shirt whenever they’re alone.
Every moment of it feels precious in a way Shiro’d forgotten. For having spent so much of his childhood worried he’d never get to have a future, Shiro’s let years of the adulthood he fought so hard for slip by like a fading dream. Steered into a rut by expectation. Waiting and watching and not living nearly as much as he could have.
Even the daily crawl of city life and his nine-to-five job feels more vivid with Keith in it. His apartment begins to bloom with color as touches of Keith appear, his art on the walls and his clothes in Shiro’s closet. And the passing days are fuller and richer and more satisfying, the view from his apartment far more enjoyable when it’s shared with someone he loves.
He grows so comfortable being out and open that each successive call home to his parents is stiffer and increasingly awkward. Their not-so-subtle questions about whether he’ll be bringing a girl home with him for New Year’s chafe at his resolve to keep them happily in the dark. Their subsequent attempts to set him up with their neighbor’s sister’s daughter, a dental hygienist, further whittle his patience.
It’s harder to bear than Shiro had thought it’d be. He’s more tired of hiding it than he’d realized. And one more off-handed comment during one of their usual video chats is all it takes to have Shiro speaking from the heart on impulse.
Telling his parents that he’s gay goes about as well as Shiro’d expected. His father can’t— or won’t— understand, brow pinched tight as he poses Shiro question after question; his mother simply up and leaves the room, refusing to talk about it. And after, Shiro retreats to his bedroom, where Keith still lay tangled in the covers and drooling with sleep.
He slips back into bed beside him, finds Keith’s hand under the covers, and buries his face into the pillow to muffle the emotion-wracked exhale that slips out of him in bursts, determined not to cry. He’d known it would be like this, just as he knows it’ll worry Keith to see him upset.
Even so, Shiro mourns. Misses them. Struggles against the thought that he’s being ungrateful. It’s hard to imagine a future where his family isn’t there for him— no calls to check in, no holidays together, no hope of going home at all— but already it’s taking shape. And Shiro can’t stop dwelling on it any more than he can’t stop the tears that slip past the tight squeeze of his screwed-shut eyes and wet the pillowcase.
But he doesn’t regret it, either. Especially as Keith’s hand tightens around his own and he wriggles closer, every inch of him ready to reassure Shiro before he’s even all the way awake.
“You look like you’ve been crying,” Keith murmurs, his other hand coming up to rest on Shiro’s cheek, thumb smudging over the drying tracks of tears. “Something happen?”
“I talked to my parents earlier. They’re fine,” he tacks on when Keith’s expression immediately turns worried. “I came out and told them… everything that I haven’t told them for a really long time. They’re, uh, not thrilled.”
“Probably not,” Keith reluctantly agrees, his voice even raspier than usual. His fingers run soothingly through Shiro’s hair, nails dragging delicately over his scalp. “It wasn’t because of me, was it?”
Shiro smiles. It is in part, in the sense that without Keith— and the encouragement of Kaede and his friends— he might never have found the strength, but it’s as much for his own peace and fulfillment as anything else.
“I wanted them to know. About me. About you.” He loosens his fingers from Keith’s tight, protective clasp and winds an arm around his slim waist instead, always feeling more relaxed with Keith cradled close. “I wanted them to know that there’s no point in trying to set me up with their neighbor’s sister’s daughter. I’m already happy with someone. The happiest I’ve ever been.”
“Same,” Keith says, stretching to leave a soft kiss on Shiro’s lips. He lays there and holds Shiro until the swell of heart-wrenching emotion subsides, all quiet comfort and reassurance.
As Shiro drowses under Keith’s warm embrace and the soft petting through his hair, he knows Kaede’s words for true. This isn’t the end of the world; he can weather it. For all he hates that his parents’ reaction was so predictably sour, it’s freeing, too. Like walking away from fresh rubble versus waiting anxiously in a crumbling house, trying to keep its walls standing.
The hurt will subside in time and in its place something new can grow— a deeper love for himself, for Keith, for life in general. And hopefully once his parents see that he’s happy and thriving, they’ll reconsider.
For now, though, Shiro stops hearing from them.
He keeps on the way he always has, anchored by his work and his friends and Keith’s almost constant presence in their off-hours. The bouts of worry and uncertainty shrink into occasional twinges, slipping into his waking hours less and less. He starts to settle into his new skin, growing comfortable with simply being himself. Tension he’d carried without ever noticing finally falls away, and apparently it’s noticeable.
“You seem happier lately,” Noor observes as they share lunch, dark eyes squinting with scrutiny as Shiro suddenly blushes. “Are you planning a vacation or something? Or did that model figure of the IGF-Atlas you’ve been lusting after finally come back into stock?”
“It’s not that,” Shiro snorts, though he’s suddenly wistful for the last ship missing from his collection of hand-built and painted models. “It’s, uh… that I’ve been seeing someone,” he admits, cheeks burning even brighter as Noor’s eyes blink open wide in surprise. “A guy who lives down the hall from me. We’ve been dating for a few weeks now. He’s— he made this chicken, actually.”
Just this morning, after sleeping in while Shiro did his morning run and hit the gym. He’d returned with apple-cinnamon bear claws and walnut mochi in hand to find Keith fixing both of their lunches. Every bite is still fresh and crispy, as are the sliced vegetables on the side.
Noor chews faster, racing to say something through the generous bite of fried chicken she’d just popped into her mouth. Shiro swallows thickly and braces himself for anything.
“I thought this tasted too good for it to be your cooking,” she rushes out as soon as the food’s down, lightly thumping the table in vindication. “Mystery solved! But like… seriously, Shiro, I’m glad you found someone. He sounds very considerate. And culinarily talented.”
Shiro smiles, snorts softly, and lets the first part of Noor’s comment slide. Equal parts relieved and embarrassed, he drags a hand across his face and grimaces while Noor tries to contain her quiet, bubbling laughter across the table. “Thanks you. And I’m sorry for being misleading or making things… awkward. You make this office a lot more enjoyable. And without our venting sessions, I’d definitely snap and end up suplexing Slav. I’m glad we’re lunch buddies.”
“I am, too.” Noor smiles, chipper, and plucks up another piece of fried chicken. She pops it into her mouth and chews thoughtfully, absently clicking her chopsticks together. “Like, I won’t lie, Shiro. There was a while there where I kind of hoped that’d be us? Dating? I mean…” She shrugs and gives him a quick once-over, as if that explains everything. “But it was kind of obvious that you weren’t into it.”
Shiro freezes mid-reach for another piece of food. “Was it really?”
“For a day or two I wondered if you were just terrible at flirting,” Noor says, flashing him a half-smile as she nudges aside his chopsticks to take the crispiest-looking morsel of chicken left, “but it’s okay, Shiro. I think I get it. And I’m happy to see you so happy lately. And being less weird around me overall.”
Shiro sighs, one last little puff of tensed up worry dissipating as she lets out another little laugh. “I appreciate it. Thanks, Noor.”
Lotor and Allura, both eager to try any and every human tradition they hear about, invite Shiro and Keith to join them for Thanksgiving. It’ll be Keith’s first time meeting either of them, although Shiro’s shared so many stories back and forth over the months that he nearly forgets they haven’t even been introduced.
They get a lift uptown to Lotor’s ritzy, upscale neighborhood, carrying two tinfoil-wrapped dishes in their laps. One is macaroni and cheese— made in painstaking accordance with Keith’s dad’s secret recipe— and the other holds Shiro’s best attempt at green bean casserole. It’s insurance, Shiro reasons, a guarantee that there will be at least two edible dishes on the table.
They let themselves into the penthouse suite, which is as elegant and handsomely appointed as ever— the furniture all dark and sleek and violet-hued under the light cast from Altean chandeliers, fine art and Galran tapestries lining the walls of the entry. And as soon as Shiro and Keith wander into the living room, they’re greeted by Lotor, stretched out on the chaise lounge with a wine glass already in hand, and Allura, sitting primly on the nearby loveseat in frilly-pink apron that’s splattered with red.
“Ah, Shiro! And Keith! It’s so good to see you both,” Allura exclaims, her hands clapping together. She rises up and dashes over, arms outstretched as she delicately hugs them both while taking care not to transfer any of the mess. “You’re arrived at a perfect time. I just put the turkey in the oven.”
“Did you… slaughter it yourself? Here?” Shiro asks, staring at the front of her apron.
Her beaming expression falters. “Is that not part of the earth tradition?”
In his peripheral vision, Shiro sees Keith’s lips curl inward as he tries to restrain either a laugh or a smile. Or both.
“We wanted to make everything from scratch,” Lotor interjects, suddenly hovering at Allura’s side with his empty wine glass. “And fresh, of course.”
“Doesn’t get fresher than that,” Shiro supposes, his lips pursed. He’s not sure why he expected any differently, honestly, given his past experiences with their earth-cooking. “Oh, and I know you all kind of know each other from pictures, but Keith, this is Allura and Lotor. Lotor, Allura— this is Keith.”
“We’ve heard so much about you,” Lotor says, clasping Keith’s tiny hand between both of his own as they shake. “It’s wonderful to finally meet the other half-Galra in Shiro’s life.”
“You’re just as handsome in person,” Allura adds, bypassing Keith’s offered hand to give him a delicate embrace and a regal kiss on his cheek instead. “Little wonder Shiro was so smitten from the get-go.”
Keith shoots him a wry, questioning little look, eyebrows not quite waggling but still arched enough to tease. Heat creeps up the back of Shiro’s neck in response, already picturing Keith cornering him later to ask more— what he really thought of Keith at first blush, how long before Shiro knew he wanted him, what kinds of things he told his friends about his neighbor down the hall.
“We brought side dishes,” Shiro says, knowing the easiest way to change the topic. “Keith got this recipe from his dad.”
Lotor and Allura ooh appropriately when Keith peels up the tinfoil to show them the uncooked mac and cheese; they’re decidedly less enthusiastic about Shiro’s lumpy green bean casserole. While Lotor carries both dishes into the kitchen, Allura takes off her apron and stuffs it into the trash, a few small feathers pufting out around it.
They drink white wine and snack on a fancy platter of cheese and fruits, the conversation almost wholly centered on Keith as Lotor and Allura both endeavor to know him better. They’re not too overbearing, at least— not until Lotor switches to Galran and a rapid back-and-forth between him and Keith begins.
An interrogation, by the looks of it. Shiro tenses in his seat as he tries to follow their words, worried that Lotor’s suspicious nature and protectiveness will drive Keith away before they’ve even finished the appetizers. He’s just about to butt in and come to Keith’s defenses when the pair break into laughter, short but sincere.
Lotor takes a deep swig from his glass before nodding, apparently satisfied. He looks to Shiro and inclines his head. “Alright. I approve.”
“We didn’t need your approval,” Shiro reminds him, leveling a witheringly dry stare at his friend.
“You have it nonetheless,” Lotor says, smiling magnanimously where he lies on the chaise, his arms spread wide. “I’m glad you found someone so thoughtful and upstanding, Shiro. And his mother sounds quite formidable. Kudos to you— I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to court the offspring of a former Blade of Marmora.”
Shiro’s slight smile grows slighter. He turns to Keith, all nestled against his side like it’s one of their movie nights. “Uh, should I be scared of your mom?”
“No, no. Never. She likes you,” he answers close to Shiro’s ear. With the barest movement, Keith angles himself to leave a featherlight kiss on his cheek.
But judging by the grin Lotor is doing a shitty job of hiding behind his wine glass, Shiro thinks he ought to do a little extra poking around on the topic later.
They migrate to the luxuriously spacious kitchen to start cooking the side dishes. Shiro smiles to himself as the conversation flows easy between Keith and his longtime friends, trading stories of how they met and what they like to do, even as he and Lotor argue about where to stick the thermometer into the nearly-done turkey.
The Thanksgiving spread they lay out on Lotor’s mahogany table could feed an even dozen. There’s a lightly scorched turkey, a few traditional Altean and Galra dishes, and a number of stereotypical sides, albeit with a few… tweaks.
“I substituted Olkarian myrphlauts for the mashed potatoes. I hope you don’t mind,” Allura says, beaming as she passes him a serving bowl brimming with green goop.
“Oh. Sure.” Shiro makes sure to take a little of everything, no matter how unfamiliar. He’s still struggling to get a good scoop of a somewhat slimy Altean salad when Keith leans over and starts spooning macaroni and cheese onto his plate, piling it high.
Shiro smiles down at the generous portion, happy for the food and the simple care of someone else serving him and Keith’s quiet, judgmentless understanding of the joy a small mountain of melted cheese brings him.
“Thank you. It looks just as good as when your dad was here. And I bet it tastes even better,” he says as he blows on a forkful and waits for it to cool.
Keith grins around a mouthful of crisp turkey. “Y’know, I only had him teach me the recipe because of you,” he mentions, giving Shiro a shy little sideways look. “And how much you enjoyed that mac and cheese when we first met.”
“You remembered that, huh?”
“Do I remember sitting across from the hottest guy I’ve ever seen while he stared at a bowl of macaroni like he wanted to inhale it?” Keith’s nose scrunches as he lets out a soft, disbelieving laugh. “Yeah. Pretty clearly, actually. It’s one of my formative memories of you.”
Shiro is simultaneously endeared and slightly embarrassed. Unseen under the table, his hand moves to Keith’s thigh and settles there, giving him a comfortable squeeze through his jeans. The corner of Keith’s mouth curls, barely noticeable.
Thye go round the table and give thanks for the food and the company, Shiro’s throat growing tight and his voice going strained as he thanks them for sticking by him. For choosing him, the same way he’s chosen them— as friends, as family, as the people he trusts to keep close. Keith keeps it taciturn, not quite ready to bare his soul in front of people he’s still new to.
Meanwhile, Allura practically vibrates in her seat until it’s her turn. She lists everything from her loving parents to her pet mice, rambling for minutes on end, her eyes shining with emotion.
“I’m so grateful to have found such good friends here— and to have made a new one tonight,” she finishes, sharing a smile with Keith. “It’s so nice to know Shiro has someone while we’re away. I don’t have to worry about him half as much with you around, Keith, so thank you. I do hope Shiro holds on to you for a good long time.”
“And vice versa,” Lotor agrees, lifting his glass toward the two of them. “The difference in you is night and day, Shiro. I appreciate that you have someone you’re truly happy with. Someone who indulges you with macaroni and cheese despite your lactose intolerance. Someone you apparently can’t keep your hands off of,” he adds, tilting his head as he gives the two of them a knowing look.
Shiro blushes and moves to withdraw the offending hand, laughing along with everyone else. Defiant, Keith stops him short, his hand laid over Shiro’s own to keep it pressed to his upper thigh.
It’s not subtle in the slightest. Lotor and Allura share an uncannily similar look, their smiles small and almost impish.
“I’m thankful for you,” Keith murmurs hours later when they finally leave, laden with bags of leftovers and an entire pumpkin pie. “And the giant bookshelf of fate that brought us together.”
Shiro hums, his breath puffing in the cold air. He has more to be grateful for than ever before, maybe. “Me, too.”
They pass the following weeks with long winter-morning jogs, lazy nights curled around each other on the couch, and an evening pottery class that produces two deformed but well-loved vases for the red dahlias and chrysanthemums that Shiro buys to brighten up his apartment. They even make plans to spend Christmas and New Year’s with Keith’s parents, and Shiro can think of few things better than seeing his boyfriend’s childhood home and stargazing from the cozy comfort of their farm.
It’s been so long that when he first sees a familiar name and picture pop up on his phone, he blinks in surprise and wonders if it’s only wishful thinking. But the voice that greets him when he answers is just who he’d longed to hear, his grandfather’s smiling face calling up a flood of fond childhood memories with just a few words.
“Grandpa! It’s so good to see you,” he replies in ever-rustier Japanese, equal parts thrilled and wary. It must show in his uncertain smile, the little dip of his head, as he waits and wonders what the call is for.
His grandfather hums low and says Shiro’s name, warm and fond as ever, a wizened hand waving as if to calm him. “I just wanted to see my grandson. And I suppose you won’t be coming to visit any time soon.”
“Probably not,” Shiro murmurs back, smiling ruefully.
Hi grandfather nods, unsurprised. His expression pinching with disappointment anyway. “I wanted you to know that I still care for you, Takashi. Your parents care for you. Please, be patient with them. In time, they’ll come around. And as for me,” he continues, sighing heavily, “I’m too old to risk not speaking with my grandson. I only care now whether you’re happy, Takashi.”
“I am now that I’ve gotten to hear from you again,” Shiro says, his smile spreading broad enough to match his grandfather’s. “But yes, I’m very happy with Keith. He’s kind and caring and the most fun to be around. He takes good care of me. Maybe I can introduce you to him next time?”
“Yes, next time,” his grandfather agrees before segueing into all the family news Shiro’s been missing out on for the last month, drawing him back into the loop.
It’s an unexpected little beacon of hope from the unlikeliest of places. Shiro’s grateful. He can be patient.
The days leading up to his and Keith’s shared vacation are a hectic scramble of hunting and packing. Dividing their time between his apartment and Keith’s has brought them close and made them comfortable in each other’s space; it’s also tangled their belongings together in such a way that finding anything takes forever.
Half of Keith’s wardrobe lives in Shiro’s closet now. Their clothes mix and mingle in the wash, socks perpetually jumbled and missing their mates. Shiro persistently forgets his favorite pair of boots at Keith’s apartment, and his slippers, too. Keith has a habit of wearing Shiro’s hoodies back to his place and never returning them.
It’s chaos. A fun, comforting kind of chaos, but chaos nonetheless. The distance between their apartments that had once felt so wonderfully, terribly close now seems too far. And with as much time as they spend together, it almost seems a waste.
“I know you said you didn’t want to move again,” Shiro says once they’re finally packed and ready to turn in for the night, the both of them sprawled out wearily on his couch. “But… how about one more time?”
Keith lolls his head back to look at Shiro, confused. “One more time?”
“Here,” Shiro says, his voice airy soft with hope. “With me.”
Keith’s weary uncertainty blooms into a beaming smile, his dark eyes sparkling under the moonlight pouring in through the windows.
“If you don’t mind helping me move again,” he says, laughing under his breath as he rolls over and presses a warm kiss to Shiro’s cheek. “I’d love to.”
Spending the holidays with Keith’s family is therapeutic.
The farm is remote, its surroundings beautiful and desolate. Snow caps the hills and jutting stone formations; the sparse highland forests sparkle with frost, glittering against earth gone pale with snow and withered grasses. At night, Shiro can see more stars with the naked eye than he’s seen in years within the bubble of the city, its ambient light masking all but the brightest features of the night sky. It’s easy to see why Keith’s missed this view, dwarfed under the span of the Milky Way and the sprawl of uninhabited land around them.
There’s a small, one-room cabin set a little ways from the main house where Shiro and Keith stay, affording them some privacy. It’s where Keith’s grandmother lives whenever she comes to visit, the modicum of separation absolutely vital to Krolia’s sanity and peace in the household.
It’s perfect, though. Cozy, comfortable, with a fireplace to help stave off the cold and a little kitchen area to keep late night snacks. They spend most of the day helping Keith’s parents around the farm or hiking along the river or being plied with home-cooked food until they simply can’t eat any more. And after dusk, supporting each other as they tread through a foot of snow and the haze of good liquor, Shiro and Keith retreat to the cabin and flop into bed, eager to wrap around each other and warm up.
A few days before Christmas, they make time for the peak of the Ursids. Though the shower isn’t as heavy as the Orionids they’d seen earlier this year, it’s still beautiful.
“You know what this makes me think of...” Shiro murmurs as he leans over, bumping his shoulder into Keith’s.
“My birthday,” Keith guesses, his smile all too knowing. “Camping.” His gaze cuts sideways, still looking sly. “Or… jumping into that tent and fucking for the first time.”
Shiro picks up his boyfriend’s contagious little laugh, still bubbling brightly with it as he turns and catches him in a kiss, same as they’d done back then. Something about kissing Keith under the stars always feels right, a warm flicker passing through them against the cold, vast backdrop of infinite space.
And it only feels more special as a bright, blue-tinged light suddenly bathes them both, intense enough to be seen even through closed eyelids. The flare of a meteorite’s streaking tail falls close enough for them to watch, awed, as it plunges behind the surrounding hills and rocky, red-stoned rises. And then the sky goes dark again, the lonely little farm again bathed in only shadow and moonlight. The bare branches of a nearby tree give a little shake at some distant impact, shedding ice and snow.
After a silent, shared look, Shiro and Keith both scramble for the hoverbike.
“I’ve never seen one actually land before,” Shiro breathes as he swings a leg over and slides up behind Keith, spooning close around his smaller form. “Especially so close! We might actually find a meteorite, Keith.”
Not that space rocks are rare at all in this day and age, but nothing quite compares to the thrill of chasing one down in person. Excitement thrums through Shiro, in part fed by the cold and the late hour and close proximity to Keith as the bike smoothly glides into motion.
“It’d be a cool souvenir, huh?” Keith calls over his shoulder before the rush of icy wind grows too loud.
The way he pilots shows how well Keith knows the lay of the land, even when it’s shrouded in a darkness that’s only broken up by the dull yellow of the headlight beam. He weaves effortlessly between the orchard’s trees and banks around stony outcroppings, kicking up fresh, powdery snow as they go. And by the time Shiro’s nose is numb and his arms shiver where they’re wound tight around Keith’s middle, the bike slows to a listing crawl.
Before them lays a crater the size of a swimming pool, fresh snowmelt all around its edges. Dark soil and bedrock sit exposed; stones and shredded pine lie scattered in the surrounding snow. And at its center, something still smoulders.
“Wow,” Shiro murmurs in Keith’s ear, holding him even tighter.
With trepidatious steps that softly crunch through the snow, he and Keith approach. At the crater’s edge, the terrain changes to soft, muddied soil and then frozen earth, less and less yielding with every step. Shiro squints through the dark, trying to better see the extraterrestrial rock they’ve just stumbled upon.
And then the smoldering meteorite moves.
“Keith,” he whispers, a note of serious apprehension worming into his voice. Keith’s gloved hand immediately finds his, holding fast as he takes a step forward and puts his own lithe frame between Shiro and the sentient space rock. “Kei— no, that’s not— don’t—”
“Wait a second.” Keith sounds so sure of himself, even as the dark blob at the center of the bowl-like crater begins to wriggle and make soft, squirming sounds not unlike—
“A puppy?” Shiro wonders out loud as Keith crouches low and offers a hand out to the small, furry pup and invites it to waddle closer.
It is a puppy. Or the space-equivalent of one, anyway, although Shiro could rack his mind for days without ever figuring out how the hell that’s possible. It squeaks softly as it sniffs Keith’s hand, fluffy tail giving a little wag that melts Shiro’s heart— and Keith’s too, judging by the choked sound he makes.
Shiro looks up at the yawning darkness of the Milky Way-streaked sky and then back down to the alien wolf-dog pup currently mouthing at one of Keith’s fingers and stumbling around as it tries to play. At a glance, it’s clear that it isn’t from earth— what fur isn’t deep, night sky-dark almost glows in a shade of pale, silvery blue. The pattern of color is strange, as is the too-keen gold of its eyes.
But it’s cute. Endearingly, cripplingly so.
“Well… you said you wanted to get a dog,” Shiro says after a few minutes, at a loss for what else to do but walk away from this semi-miraculous turn of events with a new pet. “And that’s… kind of a dog? Wolf. Space creature. Think he came from canis major? Canis minor?”
“I mean… maybe.” Keith grins as he scoops up the alien puppy and gently tucks him into the front of his own jacket, where it can curl against the radiator-like heat of Keith’s body.
“Keith. Keith,” Shiro says as they clamber through the snow and back toward the idling hoverbike. “Instead of the Ursids, we could tell everyone that we found him during the Pi Puppids.” There’s a beat of silence. “The Puppids, Keith.”
“Yeah, I heard it the first time,” Keith snorts, still wearing the same crooked grin while they slip astride the bike, the space pup held snug in the makeshift pouch of his zippered jacket.
Shiro climbs up behind him, wedged tight against his boyfriend’s back, and loops his arms around both Keith and the tiny space pup. His mittened hands fold carefully over the lump resting against Keith’s belly, protective as they return home at a slower, gentler pace that almost rocks Shiro to sleep.
While Keith rolls across the cabin’s rug-covered floor with the new puppy, Shiro trawls the internet for mentions of meteorite-wolves raining from the nighttime skies. He sends a dozen pictures to Lotor and Allura, too, both of them walking encyclopedias of trivial knowledge spanning one edge of the galaxy to the other.
“My best guess would be a starwolf,” Lotor says the next morning, yellowed eyes squinting as Shiro aims the video chat camera at the tiny creature snoozing in between him and Keith, its pudgy toes twitching while it dreams. “They’re said to be astronomically rare, though. Almost thought extinct. I’ll have to ask Allura’s father to access his private library because I don’t think much has been written on them in the last few millennia…”
However unusual and mysterious their newfound starwolf pup is, the bond is instantaneous. Shiro can’t help but be endeared as the pup squirms closer, nestling against his chest, and blinks up at him with sleepy golden eyes. And then it yawns, adorable in spite of the rows of tiny, pointed canines already grown-in.
Krolia is thrilled when they bring the starwolf over to the house later in the morning and recount their sighting of the late night shooting star, the crash, and the pup left in the crater.
“I didn’t think they still existed. In ancient ages, starwolves sometimes fought beside Galra warriors as their loyal companions,” she tells them, beaming with pride as she records a video of the puppy struggling to eat its dinner of finely minced steak without losing its balance and toppling headfirst into the bowl. “This one will be strong.”
And while Heath initially grumbles about the ribeye he’d grilled being fed to a dog, he’s also quick to melt as soon as the space pup is set on his lap, all sleepy yawns and stretches after such a full meal. But no one takes to the starwolf pup like Keith does. He hovers like an overprotective parent and takes to walking around with the puppy cradled in one arm or zippered into his hoodie.
By the time Allura sends them a translated page about starwolves from some ancient Altean tome, Shiro and Keith are too smitten with the pup to be dissuaded by things like prodigious size and rumored telepathy and capable of teleporting matter through the creation of isolated rifts in the fabric of space-time.
Their new addition— tentatively named Kosmo— gives them yet another reason to get Keith moved into Shiro’s more spacious apartment as soon as possible. And while it isn’t exactly surprising, Shiro is still warmly flattered when Keith’s parents express nothing but support and pragmatic appreciation when they mention that they’re planning on living together.
“At least you already know what you’re in for when it comes to moving Keith’s furniture,” Krolia says, shooting Heath a dry look.
“It’s only down the hall. They’ll be able to do it in an afternoon, easy,” he counters, his wide shoulders shrugging. And then on second thought, he looks to Keith and Shiro. “Unless you think you need help? We could always make arrangements and come up if you do.”
“I think we’ve got it,” Keith says while gently bouncing Kosmo on his knee, his pink tongue blepped out while Shiro scratches at his fur-tufted ears. “Shiro’s got to use those muscles for something."
“You’re still sure you want to do it?” Shiro asks later, once they’re back in the cabin and snuggled together under the warmth of the covers. Kosmo lies contentedly curled between them, his tail wagging periodically while he sleeps. “Move in?”
“I mean, I practically live there as it is,” Keith snorts, and it’s more or less true. If they’re together, then they’re probably sitting on Shiro’s living room floor or camped in his bed. Little signs of him litter every room of Shiro’s apartment, warming the space like candlelight.
“And I’ve already been thinking about how I want to rearrange the bedroom,” Keith admits, turning his face into the pillow to hide his slightly sheepish smile. “And how nice it’ll be to have all my clothes in one place again. And to use your shower every day. To come home to you,” he murmurs, his fingers winding through Shiro’s and his ankle sliding up one firm calf. “There’s no one I’d rather be around, Shiro, every moment of every day. I’m glad I found you.”
“Me, too,” Shiro says, nose scrunching as he fights back an inconveniently timed yawn that threatens to make his jaw pop. He lays a palm against Keith’s cheek and takes in the soft glow of his moonlit skin, the waves and wisps of midnight black hair, the violet eyes that always seem softer when they’re looking at him. With sleepy slowness, Shiro leans forward to give him a kiss goodnight.
Their mouths don’t quite line up, but that’s fine. It’s lazy kissing, a little haphazard given the darkness and the late hour and how comfortable they’ve gotten at doing this. Little spurts of drowsy laughter slip out as their noses bump or Kosmo kicks against them, sprinting through his dreams.
“I love you,” Shiro says, soft as an exhale, moved by the moment and Keith and a certainty that’s taken root deep in the recesses of his heart. It’s only by Keith’s fluttering little blink that Shiro realizes it’s the first time he’s strung those words together out loud, though it’s far from the first time he’s felt them.
And it feels amazing. Even better to hear it repeated back in a tone just as soft and sweet, whispered with promise.
“I love you too, Shiro.”