Do You Remember Love? - psiten (2024)

Chapter 1: I Need A Hero

Chapter Text

Casting Call: "Voltron Legendary Defender"
Company: Lions' Gate Productions
Bii Boh-Bii, director; Bi-Boh Bii, casting director

Production Description: Eighth season and made for tv movie finale event for the award-winning Voltron Legendary Defender television series, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Princess Allura's sacrifice for the safety of the universe. For the first time ever, the true story of what happened in the Void will be broadcast, based on exclusive interviews with the real-life Paladins of Voltron and newly declassified pages from the sealed Galaxy Garrison records.

Roles: Galaxy Garrison soldiers, unnamed members of the Blade of Marmora. All races, all genders, ages from young adult to middle age. Stunt experience a plus.
Civilians on Earth, Clear Day festival participants, members of the former Galra empire. All races, all genders, all ages.
Altean refugees. Alteans only, all genders, all ages.

Category: Films, TV
Compensation: 25-50 GAC per 10 vargas depending on complexity of part.
Required media: headshot photo
Roles will be credited. Union position, SAG membership required. Non-Disclosure Agreement required. Production will primarily include studio and location shoots on Planet Catullus in Novi Antheli. Travel expenses outside of Novi Antheli will be provided by Lions' Gate Productions.

Shiro sat with his back to a wall in the loud but not too crowded coffeehouse, trying not to twiddle his thumbs, scanning the customers for the man they were meeting. Coran may have promised that this plan would be foolproof, and there was no denying that none of them had been able to come up with a better idea, but Shiro was still more than a little nervous about whether this asinine plan actually had a hope in hell of working. He and Iverson, and a lot more people besides, had struggled in vain to come up with another idea that would make his value to the tabloids drop low enough to let him move off-planet undetected, but it'd been for nothing. Every focus group test had come back saying, "Nope, the cameras will still love you."

Every plan, that is, except the one they were here to try. That was assuming they could find anyone Shiro could talk into this in the first place, which would be a struggle, but having Keith beside him made it feel a little easier. His partner clasped his hand and trapped Shiro's flesh-and-bone arm under his own, and immediately the table stopped shaking.

"It's gonna be fine," Keith said, with that tone that always conveyed a sense that, if anything wasn't fine, Keith would stab it until morale improved. One of the little things about Keith that always made Shiro smile.

"Thanks."

"No sweat. So, is that the guy?"

A tall, caucasian man with blond hair cut in what Shiro could only describe as a reverse mullet was strutting across the room, looking around like a lost dog with black coffee in hand, because Roy Focker couldn't walk without strutting even when he had no idea where he was going. "Yeah, that's him." Shiro yelled at his former squad mate, "Hey, Dwight! You forget what I look like?"

The man flashed a toothpaste-commercial smile and jogged the rest of the way. "I don't know, Rogaine! Maybe you shouldn't change so much! You look like a geezer with that white hair!"

Keith squinted, looking from the blond back to Shiro. "Dwight? I thought you said his name was Roy."

"Yeah, he prefers to be called that." Shiro laughed. Keith always made the cutest confused expressions when facts didn't line up, lips pursed and nose wrinkled. "But all of us who were on Vermilion Team when we were cadets got to witness the marshal calling his full name at 0500 every morning after he stayed out late doing something stupid, which was a lot of mornings -- Dwight Leroy Focker."

Roy shrugged. "Perils of being a Georgia boy. And you and Batman never let me live it down, did you, Rogaine?"

After almost a decade, Shiro didn't flinch at hearing Adam's old squad nickname, which Adam had hated, like they'd all hated their nicknames at first, but what was he supposed to do when his last name had been West? Shiro liked to think that if Adam was looking down at this mess he was in now, it would make him laugh. He'd liked a bad joke as much as anyone.

And he didn't have to worry about whether Adam would've approved of Keith. He would have.

Roy set down his coffee and dragged Shiro up into a hug without missing a beat. "How you been, you son of a bitch?!" After the usual shoulder punches, he turned his eyes to Keith. Shiro couldn't help feeling a little caveman pride at the way Roy's jaw dropped. "And holy sh*t, I saw the pictures, but damn! Is that really Keith?! You were so skinny back at the Garrison, I thought for sure the jets would blow you away. Now look at you! Are you sure you want to waste your golden years on a crusty, old, white-haired admiral like Shirogane here?"

"Dwight..." Shiro sighed. The white hair jokes were never going to end, he knew, which was hypocritical given that the particularly brilliant blond his friend was sporting into middle age had to be getting some help out of a bottle by now. "I'm 35, and Keith is 31. It's hardly a May-December romance."

"And you can't tell me there's a better catch than Shiro anywhere in the universe," Keith shot back, 100% serious and making another warm glow of pride swell in Shiro's chest. He'd gotten lucky, reconnecting with Keith as a Paladin, and he's never taken that for granted.

"Of course there's a better catch!" the blond said, pointing both thumbs at himself. "You're lookin' at him!"

"Claudia might have something to say about that," Shiro scoffed. Maybe he hadn't seen them in person in years, but Roy updated his social media on a daily basis. His on-again, off-again girlfriend since their first posting had long since become his wife in everything but name.

Roy shrugged. "I bet I could sell her on a man like Keith as a third." He held out a hand to stop a very confused Keith from objecting. "Don't say no until you've tried Claudia's pineapple salad. It's to die for."

"Dwight," Shiro groaned. He really needed his friend to not piss off his boyfriend right now, and sharing was something Shiro knew had never been Keith's strong point. Probably even Roy could tell that, but this was not the time. Keith's only stipulation when agreeing to this whole operation was, "But no sharing."

Luckily, all Keith said was, "I don't even like pineapple," and the whole table sat back down, chuckling.

Well, Roy and Shiro chuckled, and Keith said, "Oh! It's a joke," and rolled his eyes, followed by everyone taking a sip of their coffee.

Arching his hands like an overdramatic interrogator, Roy started in on the usual questions. "So, 35 and 31? You're saying all that time dilation bullsh*t from that hyped up TV show about you isn't... whatchamacallit... artistic license?"

"No," Keith answered. "Riding a space whale through a gravity well with my mom for two years was very real, just with less tug of war against neutron stars. We're not idiots."

"And did your undead soul really get transplanted into your evil clone?" the man asked, pointing at Shiro.

"Yes and no," Shiro said with a shrug. "The network wanted to go with something more believable than the real way my body got reconstructed, and if they didn't get their Shiro actor back on screen fast, they risked him getting another job and not being available when I came back to life. But if you want to be technical, yes, this body is basically a clone, and yes, its accelerated generation was caused by a brainwashed impostor Shiro--"

"Call him Jiro," Keith cut in. "Less confusing."

Roy signaled for them both to stop. "If it's more complicated than what happened in the fictional version, I will never understand."

Keith turned to him with a puzzled look. "Is it more complicated, Shiro? Or just more... random? With, you know, your atoms getting decoupled from your quintessence but then your soul suddenly--"

Trying to fight the smile off his face at the sight of Keith trying to explain Altean science-magic was even harder than not drowning in Keith's over-serious expression. "Everybody but you, Pidge, and Hunk thinks it's more complicated, baby. Let's not go there." Shiro laughed at the wide-eyed thumbs up Roy shot him and asked, "So clearly you know where we've been. How's life treating you?"

"Nothing that crazy," Roy answered. "I was on the Mars base when the Galra attack happened. They sailed right by us, and after the first wave attack on Earth went down in flames, Garrison Headquarters ordered all off-planet installations to maintain radio silence. I wish we'd been able to do more."

Shiro shook his head. "Staying alive and staying free was the best thing you could do for Earth, trust me."

"Yeah, we saw the broadcasts. Anyway, I'm back now, helping train the new cadets. Hikaru, that kid I took in... he stayed on Mars. Apparently, both of our protégés fell for their commanding officers," said Roy, punching Keith in the elbow.

"Ow."

"We didn't start sleeping together until after Keith was the Black Paladin," Shiro pointed out. "I wasn't in charge anymore."

"And I'd been in love with him since I was sixteen," Keith added. "Way before--"

Shiro shook his head. "Not helping, baby."

"So, your cradle-robbing aside--"

"Not cradle-robbing. Besides, you just hit on Keith, and you're older than me now, because of all that time dilation nonsense."

"Whatever, cradle-robber. You're the one with white hair. And you'll never guess who's on the training squad with me! Max and Miria, from Hikaru's cadet team? f*cking amazing pilots, both of them. Ran covert supply missions from the Europa base during the occupation, kept most of the deep space installations from starving to death when Earth couldn't send them supplies. They got in on the second generation of MFE fighters, and now they're training the next crop. Kids like them make you proud to be a pilot, I'll tell you! Make me feel old, too. They got hitched right out of the academy, pumped out two kids already with a third on the way. Me and Claudia don't even know if we want to make it legal, let alone start making babies!"

Shiro nodded slowly, pushing his coffee mug around on the table so the liquid spun. "Mm-hmm," he grunted. "Marriage..."

Keith muttered into his own coffee, barely loud enough to hear, "Mawwage is wot bwings us togevvah today..."

And Shiro couldn't help laughing, even with all the weirdness of what he was going to have to do. He could always count on Keith for that. Still, the table fell into awkward silence when Shiro couldn't look up to meet Roy's eye.

The blond man frowned. "Why do I get the feeling you didn't call me out just to catch up, Rogaine?"

If he was actually going to do this, and at this point it was the best plan anyone had, he might as well get to the point. "Roy," he said, setting jokes aside so hopefully his friend would know everything he was about to say was completely in earnest. "I need a fake husband."

Roy tapped his spoon on his coffee mug, turning a questioning squint on Shiro and Keith. "Isn't that the kind of bullsh*t you have Matt Holt for?"

"Matt can't do this one," Shiro said, shaking his head. "His poly thing with those three aliens--

"Five aliens," Keith corrected.

"--five aliens and the robot gets too much coverage in the tabloids. Fake marrying him won't hold up to a background check."

"So, you're talking serious fake marriage, not, like, fake wedding photos to keep in your wallet for a gag or some sh*t. Just... not a real husband, or I assume you'd be marrying Keith."

"The details are classified," Keith cut in, but Roy brushed it off.

"Relax, kiddo. I've been with the Garrison long enough to know a classified operation when I don't get to hear about it. I won't ask why." He pushed his coffee away, all business. "So, what kind of scope are you looking for here, Shirogane? Just filing papers for legal reasons? Arm candy for public appearances, political First Gentleman kind of nonsense? Draw me a picture."

Around the cafe, though, Shiro could start to hear the whisper of someone asking, "Are those the Paladins?" followed by someone else answering, "That's Keith and Admiral Shirogane, right? Should we ask for their autographs?" After that, there were too many whispers to make out individual words. The paparazzi wouldn't be far behind. Their private time was up.

"Why don't we go somewhere a little less public, and I'll fill you in."

~//~

Keith wasn't clear on why so much paper was necessary to understand, "I need a fake husband," but Shiro and Roy had the guts of at least three notepads strewn across the coffee table by the time they opened their second beers, with lists -- multiple versions of multiple lists -- all over the place. Qualities for an ideal fake husband, anticipated duties, media spin. It was all way too much to pay attention to. Keith planned to save his nitpicking for when they had an actual, actionable plan.

"So this sounds to me like you need a Happily Ever After," Roy mused, scratching his head. "That straight-up Disney sh*t."

Shiro nodded. "Exactly. Preferably boring enough that nobody has anything to say about it and the media loses interest in me. Which is why it really can't be Keith. He is, officially, too interesting to not make the news." That had been determined in one long meeting, where he had learned more than he'd ever wanted to know about media verticals, and how many times Veronica could use the term buzzword before Iverson started throwing coffee mugs.

"Man, boring is not something I'd believe was your style, Shirogane."

"It isn't his style," Keith reminded him. "This is all fake."

Very, very fake. Keith had promised Shiro multiple times that he knew, and was fine with, fake before Shiro had agreed. He was utterly indifferent to what anybody else thought of their relationship, as long as he had Shiro for real. Honestly, it was going to be kind of funny to watch.

"But I'm talking about believability! Something people won't question is the truth!" Roy gestured so wide, his beer sloshed onto the papers and made some of the ink run.

"Luckily, most people haven't actually met me," said Shiro.

"Also, most people are idiots," Keith added.

Shaking his head sadly, Roy sighed. "I wish that were not the case, but it's probably actually going to make this work. Okay. So, I'm assuming you're not going to stop f*cking Keith while this is all happening?"

Keith just shook his head and drank his beer. Shiro gave the real answer.

"Well, you know. The idea is that people won't be watching us to know that we're still... dating."

"f*cking," Keith clarified. "Dating implies going out in public, which we will not be doing. But we will definitely still be f*cking." No way would he have approved a plan where the f*cking stopped, unless they were under way more extreme duress.

"Right. They wouldn't be watching you, because they'd hit a wall with me, the fake husband. Which means I'd have to be 'faithful' the whole time, or risk causing drama." Roy squinted across the table, cold and calculating. "Exactly how long is this op gonna take?"

Shiro cleared his throat, making Roy's glare more serious by the second. "Hopefully no more than five years?" Shiro offered with a forced smile.

"Five years?!"

"Possibly ten or so, if timelines get slowed down, but we're hoping it doesn't come to that."

This time, when Roy shook his head, it was a clear no. "Anything mine is yours, Shirogane. You know that. All things being equal, I would be your fake husband in a snap. Sounds like a gas, kissing you on TV in front of God, Keith, and everybody. But if I actually married someone else, in the can't-date-or-f*ck-her-for-five-to-ten-years way, even if it was fake, Claudia would have my balls. She scares me more than any Galra war hero, including you."

Nodding, Shiro said, "That's fair. But I also don't have a lot of contacts outside the brass right now, and I figured if anybody would know a guy I could count on for an all-in fake wedding, it's Roy Focker. So... can you help?"

After pondering for a few seconds, Roy pulled out his phone and thumbed few a few screens. "Right. Okay. Who do I know who's both enough of an asshole to lie to the world for a decade, can keep a secret, and is also a goddamn saint?"

"And gay," Shiro added. "Or bi."

"The subtext was implied, Rogaine."

"And hot," Keith dropped in for good measure.

"Keith," said Shiro in his after school special, public service announcement voice, which Keith hated to admit was still sexy somehow. "We can't judge people by their external appearances. It doesn't matter what a man looks like."

"That's not what you said last night," Keith reminded him. And from the bright red painting Shiro's cheeks, Keith would say he remembered.

Across the table, Roy let out a hoot. "Nice! Man, I can't remember the last time I saw somebody make Shirogane blush like that! What'd he say last night, Keith?"

The red flush spread up through Shiro's forehead. "Keith..."

But wasn't staking a claim in front of their fake matchmaker his privilege and his duty? This Roy had to know how things stood with where Shiro's interests lay, or he might make a mistake. "Well, there was a lot. Like, the part about my mouth looking so pretty in the staff meeting yesterday, he couldn't stop thinking about it on his dick, or you know, he's got this thing for my ass, obviously--"

"He's always been an ass man," Roy said, nodding. "Cursed with a dick too big for most people to take, but boy did he show me there was more than one way to love an ass."

"The best things in life are worth some effort."

"Haha! Got yourself a keeper, Shirogane!"

"Keith, you're not going to... ah..." Shiro was starting to sweat. Good. Tonight was his turn.

Leaning in for a kiss, Keith murmured, "Of course not. That part's private." Like he was going to tell anyone about how much Shiro murmured against his skin that he was beautiful while licking his scars when he had Keith's wrists tied up over his head. He wanted that all for himself.

Shiro stammered, "S-so let's just agree," over Roy Focker's applause, "my fake husband doesn't have to meet any visual criteria, because I'm not actually going to have sex with him."

"Wrong," Keith shot back. "If he's hot, everyone will think they know why you married him. It'll make it a million times easier for people to ignore than if he's just some dude."

"Gonna go with your boy on this one," said Roy, paging through his phone again. "Gotta be hot, or no dice. Okay... married, married, fugly, dating, goodie-two-shoes, married, fugly and married, single but an asshole... Oh, and by the way, I will be your fake best man if I can't be your fake husband. I am gonna throw you the best fake bachelor party the world has ever seen." He started to punctuate screen flips on his phone with party ideas. "Booze. Planes. Hot jazz. Strippers. Dude strippers, obviously." The man looked up, phone forgotten. "I'm thinking, naked guy dances his way out of an eight-decker cake dressed like Tarzan, and we all eat lemon cream off his pecs, you know? Something classy!"

As long as the planes didn't come after the booze, Keith wasn't going to say anything.

Shiro pushed the phone back in front of his friend. "Why don't we make sure there's a groom before we plan the bachelor party."

"But so we're clear, I--"

"You will be the fake best man, Roy."

"Awesome. Because I may have your unicorn here, my friend. I can't believe I didn't think of Claudia's brother right away!"

"Edgar?" Shiro asked, disbelief even clearer in his voice than in his squint. "Straight Edgar? Married with ten kids Edgar?"

"God bless his wife," Roy said. "If humanity rebuilds, it's because that woman is working. But no, not Edgar. Claudia's younger brother, Curtis."

Eyes wide, Shiro gasped, "Not...?"

"One and the same. Curtis, who was an Atlas bridge bunny until six years ago. He was on your crew! Prior life connection for extra verisimilitude! He even used to have a crush on you, Shirogane. It's perfect."

Keith held out his hand. "Picture." And the photo on the profile page was honestly decent-looking, so he gave a nod of approval. Good nose, clear eyes, able to smile without looking like a jackass, knew how to dress and style his hair. A guy could do a lot worse. "Looks fine to me."

He held out the photo to Shiro, but he didn't even want to take a look. "I don't think it's fair for me to ask someone who used to have a crush on me to do this sort of thing. And yes, Roy, we fooled around as cadets, but that's different. No offense."

"None taken. I am a very proud town bicycle."

"Shiro," Keith sighed. "If you limit this to gay or bi guys who never had a crush on you, you will literally eliminate the entire human race."

"That's not true!" Shiro tried to object.

Keith wasn't having any of that. "As someone who remembers the entire Galaxy Garrison cadet barracks fantasizing about you, I am required to inform you that you're wrong. The reason the publicity office was always out of posters with you on them is because they were taped to a hell of a lot of ceilings over a hell of a lot of beds."

"Gonna give this one to your boy, too, Shirogane," Roy said with a nod. "He seems to be right a lot. I guess we know who's the brains and who's the beauty in this house."

Shiro clapped his hands over his face. "I am very uncomfortable with this."

Roy pulled down Shiro's hands to look him straight in the eye. "Relax. The reason Curtis is perfect is that he gave up dating, like, two years ago. He broke up with the guy he was seeing, and when I asked him why, he said relationships were too much trouble, and he'd realized he'd rather be at home with his fish, and he has actually been happier that way. I will never understand, but to each his own. Also, he's over you. Seeing how you're married to your job is actually a turn-off for most people, although apparently not Keith. Congratulations."

"I find Shiro's dedication arousing," Keith deadpanned, earning a soft smack on the knee from his boyfriend.

"He's got an Alpha Level security clearance," Roy added in a teasing sing-song. "You won't need to do a background check to make sure he's not a blackmail risk. That's a good year off your timeline..."

Not that they had a year to spare on background checks, Keith didn't mention. Roy didn't need to know that much.

With a sigh, Shiro relented. "Okay. Okay, let's set up a meeting and see if he'll do it."

Chapter 2: Let's Get Down to Business

Chapter Text

"... all around, an amazing job from the Blade of Marmora rebuilding houses in the aftermath of the worst groundquake Namurn has seen in in over a thousand deca-phoebs! But when we asked Keith how things were going with his hunky honey, Takashi Shirogane... well, let's just say you'll never believe the news.

'Shiro?' said Keith, right from his own mouth. 'I don't know how he is. We broke up, like, a month ago.' Of course we had to ask if we'd heard that right! But he swore it was true, adding, 'It happens. Not a big deal.'

We checked in with the heavenly heartthrob himself, just for suresies, and Shiro said it was all true. (I'm crying! Are you? If you don't know this A-list couple, check out our Sheith profile from last year.) 'There's no hard feelings,' the admiral told our reporters. 'It's just that Keith has to spend so much time off planet with the Blades, and my duties keep me here. It made sense for both of us right now, but Keith will always be one of my dearest friends.'

Yep. He used the F word. The romance of the decade looks like it might really be over, folks, but just remember: stars deserve their own private lives, too, so however broken up we are over the break-up (and we are!), now's the time to give Keith and Shiro some space to heal and move on, and not to tell them what we think is right for them."

(Teen Vogue, "The Blades of Marmora Just Made the Universe a Kinder, Gentler Place". Author: Atalbexa Rendstrop. 16 April 2281.)

Keith had hit ignore on the 7,912 messages that'd hit his phone as soon as he'd entered Earth's broadcast range, and was just pressing send on an note to Pidge telling her that, yes, he'd reconsidered, and he would accept her email filtering services after all. He'd thought people had asked for too many interviews before, and they had always deluged his officially required social media accounts with too much unsolicited commentary, but this was nuts. Even his mother had called to ask if it was true that he'd broken up with Shiro, and Krolia never asked him anything about their relationship. Two years of surround-sound, force-feedback memories of past and future while riding a space whale, a non-zero percent of which were him and Shiro enthusiastically consenting, had cured them both of all curiosity. He'd sure as hell tried to wipe his brain of the images of his parents screwing.

At least the landing bay at the Garrison was guarded, and he didn't have to walk through any public spaces. He was exhausted after the official rescue mission on Namurn and the unofficial covert intelligence gathering they'd done on a nearby base of Imperial drones that would need to be neutralized. A small contingent of the Blades had stayed there unnoticed to work on hacking the defense protocols, but he had to be here. At a meeting. The secure conference room for the working group the Garrison brass had scheduled for "as soon as practically possible" was just a few empty hallways away, which he certainly appreciated. He didn't want to think about walking around where some stranger might recognize his face and decide to talk to him.

The door hissed open, and halfway over the threshold, one oversized metal hand yanked him inside and shoved him up against the wall. Keith snapped out of his grumpy haze to Shiro's paradoxically tender and savage mouth demanding kisses, which was one of the best ways to wake up, bar none.

"That bad, huh?" he whispered, pulling Shiro closer by the belt. It didn't look like anyone else was here yet.

"You have no idea," his boyfriend said between pecks. Somebody was in a playful mood, and Keith had to say... he was into it. "Reporters everywhere, people on comment threads saying I don't deserve you--"

"Never read the comments. I can rec you a filter..."

Shiro cut him off with another kiss. Well, if he wanted it like that, Keith could talk about browser plug-ins some other time. "Everyone asks me if I miss you, and God, Keith, I have to tell them everything's fine, but I just want to say I miss you so much, every day. It's harder when they won't stop asking about you." The feel of whispers on Keith's neck under his ear was starting to get dangerous, sending shivers down his spine, but that didn't mean he wanted it to stop. "... I miss you making me sweat in the gym and then licking it off my stomach in the showers. I miss your fingers in my hair. I miss you telling me I'm microwaving popcorn wrong--"

"How you eat when I'm not around, I don't know." Although, to be fair, Keith had missed a lot, too. Like burnt toast, and eggs over hard with broken yolks because Shiro couldn't cook sunny side up. And blow j*bs. And terrible jokes. And had he mentioned kissing? The kissing was really nice to get back to, but for now he basked in the sound of Shiro's voice with a grin that just wouldn't go away. "Tell me what else you miss. Make me a list."

"I miss how you breathe when you're asleep, every time I look at your pillow. I left the dent in it from the last time you slept there."

"That's just sad, Shiro. It's only been a week. And I'll make you a new dent, since I'm gonna be sleeping there tonight, somehow. Or, well. I can't promise I'll be sleeping." He leaned in close to whisper against Shiro's lips, drinking in the feel of his boyfriend's spine going rigid. "You know how worked up I get when I've been commuting on a squad transport. I could use a good, hard f*ck, if you're up for wearing me out, sir."

He loved being able to make Shiro break into a little whine like helium escaping from a balloon. It sounded like a yes to him, and the twitch of Shiro's co*ck against his thigh definitely felt like a yes. "I asked President Holt and Lance to make us a point-to-point teludav machine," said Shiro, fast and direct like his brain was short-circuiting.

Good.

"And?" Keith asked.

Shiro pulled back, mouth curled in a comical grimace. "They said they'd need Slav's help. And it might take awhile. Plus another trip inside a weblum. I think they were just seeing how far I'd go to sneak you into our bedroom."

"And?" Keith said again, this time with a bigger grin.

"No weblum will stand in my way," he answered with a perfect poker face and the kind of fire in his eyes that always made Keith's mouth water. "Slav is a harder sell, but I'd do it. For you."

Shiro's smile a second later was infectious. "... I missed you, too, Shiro," Keith said. The door was hissing open again, but he ignored it. Shiro deserved a kiss with all his attention for being willing to risk Slav. He sucked Shiro's lip into his mouth, taking advantage of his lover's happy moan to press his tongue in for more.

Pidge cleared her throat expectantly.

"Can we help you?" Keith asked, flipping her a middle finger with one hand while he started on Shiro's list by knotting his other hand in the starlight silver hair that made his boyfriend look so distinguished. As far as he was concerned, if official business was going to get involved in their love life, then their love life got to be on the agenda during official business hours, and nobody was going to be able to convince him otherwise.

"I just want you to know, everyone was scared to walk in here because they were sure you two would be making out, and I am very disappointed that you're living down to their expectations." A mechanical pincer reached out of her left sleeve, grabbing Shiro by the collar and pulling him away from Keith as she walked toward the table. Shiro whined, but Pidge had no mercy. "Butts in seats, people. One seat per butt, no chair sharing. We all have to live with you."

"We'll behave," Shiro sighed.

"For now," Keith amended, and they both took seats at the table while Hunk and Lance peeked in and yelled back to Iverson that the coast was clear. He had to do some meditative breathing to bring his pulse back down to normal, given that Shiro was sitting next to him, still smelling like cedarwood soap with red marks from Keith's teeth on his neck not quite faded, but the sooner they got their business done, the sooner he could give recreation his undivided focus.

Pidge herself plopped cross-legged onto the table in front of Keith and Shiro, ignoring chairs completely. With a few taps, she made her wrist pad project a clustered bar graph. "Okay, so I finished scanning your email--"

"That was fast," said Keith, pulling out his phone to check for new messages. There were two, both from actual people he knew and cared about. About the ratio he'd expected.

"There's a training folder full of things that were too close to call as junk or important, so if you go through that later, you can help make my algorithm better. The junk has all been archived, except for threats of violence or stalker emails, which were packaged with routing data and forwarded to the proper authorities--"

"Thanks. That's awesome."

Shiro nodded. "Her filters have made my life a lot easier."

"You're welcome," Pidge said, scooting into a chair after her father tugged on the back of her shirt and sat himself down in the middle of everything. Veronica would probably be in momentarily with the Guests of Honor, once she'd finished checking them in. "Anyway, I went ahead and aggregated your messages with Shiro's, for sh*ts and giggles, and ran them against the data I spidered from the ten most popular social media hubs. Do you want to know what people think of your break-up?"

Keith squinted at the legend on Pidge's bar graphs, explaining which colors meant what. At first glance, he saw labels for, "Shiro's fault," "Keith's fault," "Never should have been dating," "Apocalypse," and, "Shape-shifting alien impostors," before he made himself stop reading.

"You know, I think I really don't want to know."

"Please don't tell us," Shiro confirmed.

With a shrug, Pidge put away her chart. "The only interesting part is that only 57% of the relevant commentariat are begging you to take Shiro back, Keith. About 36% think you're better off without him, and 7% have no opinion. Meanwhile, Shiro... 64% think you need to go crawling back on your knees to Keith, the same 36% think you did the right thing breaking up, and a statistically microscopic number of people have no opinion on your love life. It's wild! I can't wait to see how the new fake boyfriend blows up the metrics!"

Lance whipped his hands through the air over the table. "I'm sorry, you're saying no one is guessing that this is all a conspiracy and they're actually still dating?! Usually the internet is full of those!"

"It is full of those," said Pidge. "I just didn't include them in my population of people who were discussing whether they should get back together. Duh."

"Seriously, Lance," Hunk chuckled. "You've got to define a population before you can generate meaningful statistics! You wouldn't talk about percentages of flan that pour out cleanly, and then add in the crème brulée!"

Burying his face in his hands, Lance groaned, "Let's just get this show on the road so we can move our whole team without attracting suspicion, and start looking for the end of our theoretical Fraunhofer rainbow. We need to find out what's going on with that nebula, and if even Hunk and Pidge can't build a tracker without all five of us phasing in our quintessence--"

"Like I said," sighed Pidge, "it's pretty obvious the nebula we're looking for isn't even fully in this reality, or localized in space-time. The end of the rainbow analogy is about more than finding a treasure. This spot literally seems to shift any time we get close to tracking it down, and based on my analysis, the only reasonable hope we have of reaching it is to synchronize with the Lions' quintessence and pull the phased space to us while we head toward the trans-dimensional pocket that the Lions are causing through their contact with the nebula."

Hunk nodded from his corner of the table. "While keeping any random adventurers, thrill seekers, and video crews from hunting it down and potentially disrupting the reality link entirely. Because that would be the worst. Didn't you read Slav's report, Lance?"

"Of course I read Slav's report! I just didn't understand it! I still don't understand it! I just want to get this done because this particular metaphorical pot of gold is very important! So can we please just start the meeting?"

"I second the motion to get this nonsense over with, but no discussing the nebula while Focker and the LaSalles are in the room. They're only cleared for the Shiro operation," Iverson growled, and pressed a button on the table intercom. "Veronica, did everyone's paperwork check out?"

"About to bring them in now, sir," echoed around the room.

"Good. Let's get started. So much goddamn paperwork just to have one simple secret meeting. You'd think nobody in this place needs to get anything done!"

In the door came five people, with Coran leading the way, moustache bobbing proudly. After him was a dark-skinned man Keith recognized from the social media photo he'd vetted as Curtis. Apparently, Curtis didn't photoshop his profile pic, because he was just as acceptably hot in person as he was online. Good. Only the best was good enough for Shiro. That meant the black lady with the classy teeny weeny afro walking next to Roy was probably Claudia, and the one herding them all in was, of course, Veronica.

"Take a seat," said Iverson. "Does anybody here not know anybody else?"

Shiro stood up to greet Curtis, walking toward him with an outstretched hand and a glowing smile. "Hi, there. Commander Curtis LaSalle, I presume?" Keith stifled a grin at the man's deer-in-headlights expression. Shiro just had that way with people.

"Admiral Shirogane," he said, gathering his dignity up. "I'm surprised you remembered me."

"I try," Shiro laughed. "And you should get used to calling me Takashi, I expect."

"Yes, si-- Ah, okay. Takashi," Curtis said with a wince. He was going to need some practice, but that was okay. They'd have time for a tiny learning curve. Keith remembered it'd taken him a little while, too, and he still only used Shiro's given name when they were alone. It was an indulgence, like sneaking a bite of chocolate the night before Halloween.

At last, everyone was sitting, and President Holt stared down the intimidated-looking Curtis. "So, Mr. LaSalle. Before any of the Paladins or command staff says anything, why don't you tell us, in your own words, what you understand to be the objective here. I'd like to be sure we're all on the same page."

"Yes, Mr. President. As I understand it, Admiral Shirogane is... unable to engage in covert activity due to overwhelming media attention?"

That was an understatement. Shiro could barely walk out the door for a doughnut without five people tweeting the entire world about it and every news crew in town showing up to cover it. They'd had some fun trying to disguise him and move around in secret, but nothing had worked. His hair, his arm, and his gorgeous, perfect smile were too recognizable, and what was mildly annoying on a date was certain doom for any attempt to move a team in secret.

Under his breath, Iverson grumbled, "Goddamn threat to planetary security at this point, cameras popping up out of nowhere the minute he shows his face. Whose bright idea was freedom of the press, anyway?"

Everyone silently darted glances at each other. Keith assumed they were trying to decide how to respond to Rear Admiral Iverson's bitching. He planned to ignore it, personally, since Iverson didn't have unilateral control over freedom. Besides, he was just bitching. It was Sam Holt who must've decided, as President of Earth, it was his job to challenge tyranny in the name of civil liberties. "James Madison, I think?"

To Keith's left, Shiro piped up in a bright tone, "Only in America! One of the earliest and most influential Western arguments against censorship was written by England's John Milton in 1643... Oh, wait," he laughed while everyone gave him wide-eyed, slack-jawed stares. "That wasn't an actual question, was it?"

That was his Shiro, Keith thought with a smile. His Shiro, the nerd.

Curtis, the most wide-eyed of all, pointed at Shiro with a shrink to his shoulders like he was afraid he might get shot by lightning. "He just made me want to know more about censorship in 1643 England. Is this what you guys are talking about, when you say he's too charismatic and he needs to marry someone boring?!"

Coran preened and straightened his collar. "Well, it was my idea to marry him off, all that talk about him being Earth's most eligible bachelor being what it was, no better way to put a stop to that than a good wedd--"

"We know!" groaned every one of the Paladins, Keith included. He would have liked it if Roy Focker hadn't looked like he wanted to die laughing, but he couldn't really blame the guy. This was hilarious, and only got funnier the closer it came to being a reality.

Ignoring all that, Veronica pressed the man of the hour, "So do you think you're up to it, Curtis?"

"Heck, if the universe needs me to be fake married to Shirogane Takashi, who am I to refuse? I can be boring. I don't know if anybody can be boring enough, but I will do my best."

"Before you agree," said President Holt, "it is essential that you understand the scope of the task we're asking you to perform. This won't just be the occasional public appearance. You will run interference with reporters, creating an illusion that Admiral Shirogane is living a quiet life at home, even when he's on training detachments or off planet on covert missions. Because we can't risk you having regular contact with Garrison command, your sister, Commander Claudia LaSalle, and Captain Focker, who already work with the flag officers, will serve as your handlers. They will be bringing you updates and instructions as the situation evolves, and it will evolve because you will be committing to as much as a decade of creating this facade. You will be given the responsibility of posting details of a fake retirement on Admiral Shirogane's social media accounts without people realizing that you're doing it. Hopefully, you both can find something to do with his retirement that nobody will be interested in. And we realize this is a lot to ask of anyone, but you should have no expectation of privacy if you get involved in Admiral Shirogane's life, and you will not be able to pursue any romantic interests of your own."

"100% understood, Mr. President." Curtis nodded, breaking into a shy smile. "I'm honestly looking forward to that last part. Dating is way more work than it's worth, but this sounds... interesting. And it'll definitely stop my friends from trying to set me up."

"Thank you!" yelled Pidge. "Finally! Someone who understands! It's exhausting dealing with all you people's libidos, I swear."

"Hey Pidge," Keith said. This guy seemed like a decent person who didn't deserve the bullsh*t that went along with being famous, and who -- a critical factor -- would be cool about never getting to have sex with Shiro. The least they could do was make him welcome. "Can you get Curtis hooked up with your email filter?"

"Oh, absolutely. Good call. That sh*t's about to blow up. Curtis, see me when the meeting's over. I need to protect you from the wrath of the internet."

Curtis blinked, staring stunned at Keith instead of Pidge. "Thanks. Um. You must be... "

"Keith," he confirmed. Here it went. Make or break time. All eyes were silently focused on the two of them, Paladins and Garrison officers alike, waiting to see if this plan would go down in flames. Keith didn't know what they were so worried about. He was a very understanding man.

"The... actual boyfriend." For the first time today, Curtis was starting to look scared.

Keith nodded. A wise soul who he was now banging on a regular basis once said, start as you mean to continue, and this wasn't going to be any fun if their cover husband was terrified of him, so Keith made an executive decision to lighten the mood. "Yep, that's me. So get used to me sneaking into your house for dinner, staying for breakfast, and then pretending it didn't happen. Can you cook, by the way?"

"Enough, I guess. Why?"

Thank f*ck. "Because Shiro can't," Keith explained.

A hint of amusem*nt started to creep into the man's concern at the mention of Shiro's one major imperfection, and Shiro picked up seamlessly on what Keith was trying to do. "It's true. Remind me to tell you about the time I blew up the crockpot making instant curry. We had so much trouble getting the lid out from between the ceiling tiles. It's a gift, really."

"We can take turns cooking," Keith told Curtis. "It'll work out."

While Curtis was still processing that they were in this together, a team, and the fear was falling away completely, Iverson smacked his notes on the table. It pulled the room's attention back to the center of the table and back to business. "Work out your domestic bliss on your own time! Now, we've got five Paladins to finalize bulletproof cover stories for before we can orchestrate our primary objective. Keith, maybe your position with the Blades is going smoothly and maybe Shirogane's nonsense is the most complicated, but I'd like to get this retirement and marriage operation settled fast enough that we still have time to talk about Hunk's cooking show, Lance's book tour, and Little Holt's artificial intelligence research. So if there's nothing else--"

The sounds of trouble rang from the hallway outside, ending in the door hissing open and a guard yelling, "Senator Krolia, you can't go in there!"

None other than his mother strode through, battle face on hard and wearing armor as always, because Galra political formalwear was also armor. "I disagree. I clearly can. Now, where is my... ah, Keith. There you are."

He looked between Krolia and the collection of officers at the table, then back again. "Mom? We're having a secret meeting. This isn't a good time."

"Keith," she said, scowling so hard, her eyes turned into sharp, golden slits. He could swear it made her hair puff up, too. "Tell me the truth. Are you dying?"

"What?! No!"

She didn't look convinced. Crossing her arms, she stared at him even harder. "Hallucinations, maybe? Do you have a fever?"

"Why would I--?!"

Where was this even coming from?!

Shiro put a cool hand on his forehead with a look of concern. "You do feel a little warm, baby."

"That is pure confusion! I'm not..." Then he saw his mother, pointing silently at the two of them engaged in unmistakable tenderness from her position halfway to the door. "Oh. I see what this is about. We've just been played."

"I saw you bring that man back from the dead with the power of your love, Keith. Twice. Then you tell me you're somehow not pair-bonded anymore, and it's not a big deal? Of course I was worried about you! And when you're done with this secret meeting, the three of us will have a talk about lying, because you are terrible at it. I apologize for the interruption, President Holt."

"Always a pleasure, Senator Krolia," the President of Earth said while Keith and everybody else watched her walk back out the door like nothing had happened. He and Shiro were clearly going to have to get better at pretending to not be together, although maybe he should have known better than to think he could fool his mother.

"All in favor of me being allowed to explain this operation to Krolia so we don't get our cover blown by my mother's concern for my broken heart?" Keith asked the table.

Every hand at the table went up, and every voice said, "Aye."

"Okay," he said. "We are unanimously not idiots. Now where were we?"

Curtis kept his hand up after the vote, eyes wider than ever and starting to shine with amusem*nt. Good. "Could you explain the comment about you bringing Admiral Shirogane back to life twice with the power of your love? I thought the TV show made that up."

"It was really only once--" Keith started.

"Nope, nope," Lance cut in, shaking his head. "Allura told me all about the second time with the recovery pod. You're not getting out of this one, buddy. You and Shiro have some kind of soul destiny thing going on, and you might as well own up to it."

With a growl, Keith insisted, "That's the one I was talking about. Allura did the heavy lifting getting him to fully physically manifest from out of the Void."

Lance thumbed the non-existent goatee that one day he'd have to admit he couldn't grow. "Oh, I'm sorry, I seem to remember a certain someone saying a certain something to a certain Haggar-brainwashed clone, causing Shiro to start astral projecting back into our physical universe. What was it, again?"

"Ooh, ooh!" Pidge yelled, waving her hand in the air. "I know! Was it Keith, in the cloning laboratory, with the, 'I love you, Shiro!'?"

Going full gameshow host, Lance cheered into a fake microphone. "First round to Pidge! Now, can anyone tell me what fueled Keith's initial connection to the Black Lion, making all of this possible?"

"Necessity," Keith reminded them. "Shiro was dying and being chased by lizard monsters."

"Uh, wrong," scoffed the man who'd taken his place as Red Paladin. "Lions don't bond with Paladins just because we need them for something. I believe the correct answer is love." Which Keith was pretty sure wasn't how the Lions worked, either, but whatever. Lance was a romantic. "And I'll take, 'Things Shiro Held Onto in the Void,' for all the marbles..." Lance put an overdramatic hand to his ear, because everything had to be drama with him. "Oh quiznak, what was that, Hunk?"

"Ah, Lance, I believe you're looking for, 'What is Keith's love?' Did I get that right?"

Shiro made a vague head swivel before finally giving in with a shrug and nodding, "Yes".

Shooting his arms up in victory, Lance shouted, "Ding, ding, ding! All the marbles to Hunk!"

"Don't you guys ever stop?" Keith muttered, sinking into his chair. There was nothing that big a deal about really, really liking Shiro. Thinking Shiro was the best was the default state of all intelligent life, because Shiro was the best.

Shiro took his hand and kissed him on the cheek. "I think we're outnumbered, baby." He kind of hated that it just proved Lance's point, but it did make him feel better. A little. The warm glow it started at the base of his spine spiraled outward and softened his scowl.

From down the table, Curtis let out a stunned, "Wow. It's like I stepped into a movie."

"You did," Veronica told him. She could barely contain her smile as she pushed her glasses up on her nose. This was her favorite part. "The 'Where Are They Now?' documentary segment of the Voltron Legendary Defender finale will be filming in late summer/early fall. We plan to use it to solidify the fake marriage story with the media. Your first mission objective is to have the world's most cliché and boring whirlwind romance, such that when documentary filming happens, the directors have nothing to say about it except, 'And they lived happily ever after, we guess.' Any questions?"

~//~

Shiro shifted in the comfy but not too comfy chair he had to occupy on the stage while Sam Holt narrated his life story over a professionally edited filmstrip. Things like this were only supposed to happen when your career was over, and right now, he had to pretend that was exactly what was happening. He was looking forward to more unstructured time and running around the universe incognito with Keith's elite strikeforce, but ceremonies had always made him itchy. That seemed to go double for ceremonies he was way too young to be going through, for all that his hotshot youth and adventures in the far reaches of space had no trouble filling out a video clip. The first half seemed like memories out of someone else's life, and the parts that'd happened since his capture by the Galra were just... too close. But it wasn't any easier to distract himself with more day to day things.

A week after Krolia's lecture, Shiro's ears were still burning, enough that it would've been hard to concentrate on Sam's speech even if he were trying to pay full attention. Given that he didn't want to hear too much about his own past glories, her voice rang in his head all the stronger. Who knew that marriage, or pair-bonding as she translated the Galra term into Galactic Standard, was such a fundamental part of Galra social structure? Not him. It was apparently so fundamental that no one even had to mention it, much less discuss the difference between an ordinary pair-bond and a life-bond, which apparently he and Keith had accidentally fulfilled the ceremonial criteria for.

He was definitely going to need to get some more details from her on that when she was done banging her head against a wall and groaning about them being idiots. She and Keith had so much in common.

The holoprojector telling his life story clicked off, and Shiro refocused on the podium where Sam was being his dignified self.

"... and so, with heavy hearts, we say good luck and good voyage to one of the brightest stars in the Garrison. Admiral Takashi Shirogane," said President Holt, his one-time commander, pointing to the blue field and stars of the Galactic Alliance flag draped on a nearby table, "this flag has flown over South Sanda Base since the first days of reconstruction following the liberation of Earth. Today, we retire it and send it home with you to honor your years of service."

A six-person Garrison Honor Guard lifted the flag between them and folded it into a neat triangle while a nearby bugle corps played. It was odd, watching the ceremony from this angle when not much more than a decade ago, he'd been in an Honor Guard a lot like this one honoring the service of an admiral who'd gone gray the traditional way, by living to the age of eighty-five and being a hardass curmudgeon the entire time he'd known her. Knowing he wasn't "really" retiring, only evading attention to conduct at least one undercover mission (probably more), made it even stranger. Even so, it brought tears to his eyes that were hard to fight back. All the people, all the places he'd been, played in his memory, until finally it was his turn to stand up.

He silently shook hands with President Holt and accepted the flag, then marched down the aisle. The people gathered stood up, the soldiers from the Garrison saluted, the band played "Anchors Aweigh", and everything about the moment felt... odd. It was like his feet weren't touching the ground, so he was floating, but at the same time like the air around him was too thick to breathe.

This "retirement" situation probably wouldn't start feeling real until tomorrow, when he woke up and would have time to read the newspaper. Once again, the collar of his dress uniform felt a little itchy, and the double doors fell closed behind him with a loud bang that felt...

Final.

Outside the hall, two cadets met him, all bright eyes and excitement. He barely heard the young man and woman congratulate him and offer to store his flag for him somewhere safe during the reception, but he handed it over with a nod. He knew how this went. The important thing was to catch his breath before the crowds and the cameras inevitably showed up for the reception. In the two seconds he had to stabilize, he saw that the Garrison had managed to set up the party area with a very tasteful arrangement of flowers along the buffet and tied to the columns with streamers. The vases were full of white roses mixed with juniberries, Olkarian ferns that their scientists had regrown from genetic information, and cattails from Daibazaal. He was too jittery to think much about the food laid out next to the flowers, but for one clear moment, he had a single thought in his head.

Gosh, those sure look nice together.

It was a good feeling, thinking of the symbolic unity of so many planets they'd brought together -- a nice reminder that the universe they were working towards was so much bigger than him, or any other single person.

Then the floodgates opened. He hadn't moved that far from the door, so the exit turned into a kind of receiving line, which hadn't been part of the plan or the event planners would have put down a cushioned rug because standing on granite floors to shake hands was hell on the back. Oh well.

Shiro put on his best smile, shaking hands like a pro with people he barely knew, offering a hug to closer friends, like Matt Holt, who'd made good on his promise to sit in the back row specifically so he could get out the door first and give him a hard time. The cameras from all the news outlets found themselves a place to get a good angle. They tended to like him in semi-profile, so it was kind of amazing that they got their shots without getting in the way of the people milling around with plates of finger foods, but that was their job.

Hunk, Lance, and Pidge all promised to catch up with him afterwards, when they'd throw him a "real party" (Lance had promised him a piñata), which sounded like a blast. Other than that, the crowd was full of flag officers and dignitaries from every planet that'd joined the Alliance, plus a few who were only thinking about it. If Shiro had to guess, the Garrison publicity department was using him as a recruiting tool one last time. It was all so routine, he almost laughed at the absurd normalcy in the middle of what was supposed to be a life-changing moment... until the next person out of the door was Keith.

Apparently, the Blades of Marmora had a dress uniform, too. It came with a cape that billowed with every step, and a long, embroidered tunic belted over the body armor in shades of purple and red-toned blacks with gold details. It looked good. Really good, especially on Keith, especially when it looked like someone with cosmetology training had gotten Keith to sit still for some styling gel and a blow dry. But Shiro kept his cool, because if they couldn't do this, the fake marriage operation was going nowhere. Time to see if they could fool the cameras, he thought with an excited flutter in his stomach.

Offering what he hoped was the same smile he'd given everyone else, he shook Keith's hand and pulled him into a quick one-armed hug. Two back slaps, no more. No lingering hands on shoulders. Someone somewhere needed to be proud of him for resisting, because his boyfriend... or possibly husband... had amazing shoulders. "Keith! You made it!"

"Wouldn't miss it." Just like old times, Keith pulled up into a Garrison salute, which Shiro returned. "It's been an honor serving at your side, Shiro."

"Thanks, Keith. You, too. Enjoy the party."

Like that, it was over, and he was on to shaking a scowling, suspicious Senator Kolivan's hand while Keith moved on to the food. Shiro made himself work the line instead of staring, but he still noticed Keith picking up just one plate instead of the normal two -- one for himself, one for Shiro, because somehow he ended up on reception lines at every party he attended whether they were for him or not. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the frustration on the faces of a few reporters, who'd probably been hoping for some more drama between ex-lovers, or possibly some pining looks. Maybe he'd succeeded in playing it cool somehow?

He didn't feel cool. He felt like his boyfriend/husband was eating eggrolls and drinking champagne in a corner with his mother and a bunch of other Blades, and they weren't going to meet up in a few minutes or walk out with their arms around each other's waists and Keith's head nudging his shoulder playfully to ask for a kiss. He wanted a kiss.

Hopefully, the party Lance, Hunk, and Pidge were putting together would be in a secure area so he could give Keith a proper thank you for showing up. With the very important kissing. If not, though, his boyfriend/husband's stealth training had proved very useful for infiltrating Shiro's bed without the world at large being any the wiser, so he could probably count on a chance to laugh with him about fooling the press tonight. It was kind of like the old days, being a cadet at the Garrison with Roy and Adam and the others. He used to love the thrill of sneaking between barracks rooms to get laid without the guards catching you. Doing something like that with Keith made him feel like a kid again, for the first time since he'd come back from being a Galra prisoner after the Kerberos mission.

All of which made it even more damn odd that not a single person at this party seemed surprised that he was retiring, or had commented, "Aren't you only 35?" They all said something about so many years of service, and him deserving a rest. He wasn't old! Maybe the non-Earth people had no context for what was or was not human retirement age, but the humans in this assembly definitely had no excuse.

The line gave out eventually, thank goodness. Shiro took a look at the clock. 15:35, which gave him about ten minutes to grab something to eat -- and after all that polite smiling, he was definitely hungry -- before the appointed hour for his pretend meet-cute with Curtis. There were still two eggrolls left, for which he was pretty sure he had Matt to thank. His old teammate shot him a thumbs up when Shiro found them under a slightly skewed napkin. He sniped them both, and spooned some macaroni and cheese onto his plate (not normally a reception food, but Hunk had had his back), ignoring most of the other finger finger foods to go find a fork. It was important to be properly fortified before pretending to fall in love!

Juggling the fork, a napkin, the plate, and everyone coming up to congratulate him wasn't easy, but he did it. And as he had five different copies of the same boring conversation about finally having time to do something "fun" with his life (as if something could be more fun than exploring the universe) he worked his way over to the designated door. If he'd realized retirement receptions were this boring, he would have asked to stage the meet-cute outside the back door so he could sneak out, but doing it in front of all these people was probably going to work better.

Be natural, Shiro reminded himself, quelling the usual stomach butterflies that he got before any big talk. He didn't have any lines to remember this time, which was Coran's idea. He didn't agree with the assessment that he was too "stagey" with planned scenarios (as if it was fair to blame him for his clone being unable to deliver a line -- he'd played the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz in middle school!), but everyone else in the meeting had sided with Coran's opinion of his acting, so they'd all agreed to go with Lance's improv plan: "Just be there, and use the first excuse you can think of to ask for his phone number. You'll feel like an idiot, and probably look like one, but no one will care because everybody feels like an idiot when they ask somebody out."

Shiro did not remember that being a problem with anyone he'd ever asked out in his life. Then again, he'd only ever asked out people with whom he had a mutual connection, who he already knew were interested in him. This was different. Not in that he expected a negative answer -- since it was all pre-negotiated, he knew Curtis would play along. But it was still different.

He spotted Curtis and a few other people from the biology research department carrying some books through the hallway, about to cut through where the party in the front atrium had ballooned out into the walkway. Shiro picked up the nearest glass of champagne, took a deep breath, tried not to crack up because this wouldn't work unless they convinced people it was genuine, and proceeded to set himself on a collision course.

"Oh, watch out!" yelled one of Curtis's friends, just in time for Shiro to fake a stumble and spill the glass of champagne on Curtis's uniform.

"Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry," Shiro said, grabbing a napkin off the nearest table. "Let me clean that up for you." While he dabbed at the champagne stain, he took the opportunity to hold his hand there for a moment and look into Curtis's eyes. You know, really sell it. Everyone said that was embarrassingly saccharine when he did it with Keith. "Hi," he said.

"Hi." Curtis blinked, with the stunned stare of someone who'd forgotten his lines. But they didn't have lines, so that couldn't be the case. Half a second later, he noticed Shiro drying off his uniform. "Please, don't worry about it, sir. Oh..." after a panicked glance at Shiro's rank insignia, he gathered up his books in his left arm and drew his right into a salute. "Thank you, sir."

Shiro tipped back a casual salute. "At ease, Commander. I insist..." He tilted his head for another look at the man's face. "It's... Curtis, right? I remember you from the Atlas." Shiro held out his hand, "Shirogane Takashi."

"I remember you, Admiral," the man laughed. Now the scene was going smoothly.

Shiro put on a matching grin, and pointed his finger around the party. "Retired. As of today."

"Congratulations, sir. We'll keep the universe safe for you, then."

The rest of the scientists in the pack were all silent, with their jaws hanging open, which wasn't much help with acting natural, but Shiro was used to ignoring that kind of thing. Now how on earth was he going to find an excuse to ask for a phone number?

Looking down at the books Curtis was carrying, he noticed pictures of fish on the top one, and a long title about Algae Farming and Aquaculture in Terraforming. Hadn't Roy said that Curtis kept fish at home? It was better than nothing.

"Oh, hey. You must be in our aquabiology department. You've done some great work restoring the coral reef ecosystems along the coast lines," said Shiro. "It's going to be the cornerstone of repairing Earth's environment."

Curtis did a double-take between him and the books. "I... am honestly surprised you knew about that. You keep up on the coral reefs?"

"There's no part of Earth with more biodiversity, mystery, or critical importance to our past and our future than the oceans." Transition, Shiro thought to himself while Curtis nodded in a blinking stupor. Transition! Make it personal! "And you know, now that I'm retired, I was thinking I might get a fish."

"That's... that's great. Fish are great," said Curtis, still blinking in that way that Pidge liked to call someone's brain rebooting. "I love fish."

Shiro finished off the scene with another smile, a little smaller than the ones he used on propaganda speeches. "Do you think... I could get your number? It'd be great if you could tell me all about fish. You seem like you know what you're talking about. Over dinner, maybe?"

Lance was right about one thing. This felt absolutely idiotic, but the whispering crowds around them seemed to be buying it, and he was guaranteed a positive response. So far, Operation Fake Marriage was going... swimmingly. Hah! Thinking of the pun made his smile that much more real. He was going to have to tell Keith that one later.

"Phone number. Sure," Curtis said. "Sure, let me write it down."

After a little dance with a co*cktail napkin, a pen, and a wink, Shiro had a set of digits stowed in his pocket. Today's mission was complete: one meet-cute, achieved. And as he walked back into the party to face the rest of his retirement party, he could hear Curtis's coworkers gushing.

"Curtis! That was Admiral Shirogane! Oh my god, Shirogane Takashi just asked you out! You know, I'd heard he was single now, but I didn't believe it...!"

"He asked me to talk about fish, Darla." Curtis sounded like he was getting his composure back. They'd clearly snagged a good candidate. "He wants to get a fish."

"Don't even try that with me! He totally just asked you on a date. I know, I know, you said you swore off dating, but Shirogane Takashi?! He's a legend! If you were waiting for Mr. Right, he has just shown up and asked you out to dinner. You have to say yes, Curtis. For me. For all of us. At least go on one date with him."

"Okay, okay! If he asks me on a date, fine. I'll go on one date."

Wow. Shiro couldn't believe anyone would actually advise a friend to go out with someone who randomly asked for a phone number with an excuse about fish. But it looked like this was really happening. He caught himself looking to Keith to get his opinion, and stopped just before making direct eye contact. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he could see Keith smirking, though. That was a good sign. Now, he just had to somehow not spend every remaining minute of this reception checking to see where Keith was, or their cover would be totally blown.

Chapter 3: The Show Must Go On

Notes:

Whatever you may see here, I have nothing but respect for the staff and cast of the real-world Voltron: Legendary Defender.

Chapter Text

"It's been two weeks since that electric meeting at Takashi Shirogane's retirement party, right in front of the ex-boyfriend. Dare we say, rumors of a new man in this Garrison admiral's life may be for real? We'll have our ears to the ground to see if we can find out the identity of the handsome stranger who's been spotted at Shiro's side four times since they literally ran into each other. No one's caught a kiss yet, but the last time these two were out, they were spotted holding hands, so we don't think we're imagining things. Something's happening here!

We tried to get a comment from Keith when he gave his press conference on the next trip the Blades of Marmora are taking to Namurn (see our continuing coverage of the planet's groundquake recovery in our galactic events section), but all he'd say was, 'Holy crap, get a life! Next!' Do we detect jealousy? Should Sheith fans looking for a repeat of 2279's steamy cover shoot from Shiro and Keith's Sexiest Man tie hold out hope that the Blades' commander will try to take back his old flame from the new face in town?

We haven't been able to contact Shiro himself, and it's hard to tell from his instagram feeds where he stands. Recently, he's posted nothing but research on raising fish and making hydroponic gardens. We're sensing a new hobby to go with his new retired status. Fishing for more details? Our social media team is doing a deep dive on the fascinating world of aquaponics (that's aquaculture + hydroponics, tldr: fish and plants!) to help you follow along with our three-time Sexiest Man Alive's newest obsession."

(People, "Who's the Hottie, Shiro?! New Man Alert". Author: Fillipa Stronja, 01 May 2281.)

The hangar bay was full of Blade agents loading medicine, food, and sanitary supplies into the hold of their transport in front of all the false compartments where the munitions were stored. That meant enough activity under Keith's direction that, by all rights, he shouldn't have noticed Shiro and Curtis walking in, but he could count on one hand the number of times he'd failed to notice Shiro walk in and still have enough fingers to use a pair of chopsticks.

"We'll get back to this in a second," he told his lieutenant, and dragged a crate into the center of the action. As he stepped up onto it, he yelled, "Everyone, attention please! What you are about to see is classified and does not leave this room."

He waved Shiro over. Unsuspecting and obedient, like a good soldier, Shiro stepped up on the box, looking around the room at all the Galra-blooded soldiers who went from listening politely to so tense, half of them looked about ready to snap. His mother had not been kidding. They were pissed, and he still wasn't quite sure how to explain this to them with words, so without any particular ceremony, he grabbed Shiro's collar and pulled him down into a kiss. Maybe it would've been polite to warn Shiro, but he'd recently gotten to witness how f*cking amazing Shiro was at improv. After the first startled squeak his lover made, Shiro melted into a more natural -- if fairly chaste -- kiss, and even slipped Keith some tongue once the Blades started applauding.

Still gripping Shiro's back, with Shiro's arm firmly around his waist, Keith announced, "You're going to see a lot of press about us not being together, and about Shiro bonding with that man over there -- wave, Curtis -- but as my squad and the squad that Shiro will be embedded with for certain unannounced undercover missions in the near future, you will all be in the unique position of knowing this isn't true. Don't tell anybody. Weird Earth sh*t depends on it being a secret, but Shiro and I are still pair-bonded. No vengeance against Earth or the humans is necessary. Any questions?"

"Who did you think you were fooling?" Kolivan boomed from the back table. He was helping, in his way, by giving the other Blades an excuse to say they'd totally known what was happening the whole time.

"Not you," answered Keith. "You knew me when I was just a horny kid who thought this guy hung the stars." Although, to be fair, when Keith caught Shiro gazing down at him with a little smile like he had on now, he felt that same old craving he'd had forever to curl against Shiro's chest and make a home in his arms.

"You're still just a horny kid," his old commander scoffed.

Keith laughed it off with the rest of them. "Okay, if that's it, everybody get back to work!"

Krolia met him as he and Shiro jumped off the box, and one of the team loaded it into the carrier. "Thank you, Keith."

"So, will that neutralize the possibility of intergalactic war?" he asked.

"It's a start," his mother answered with a shrug. He still wasn't sure if she was making some of these dangers up to f*ck with him. Keith had seen her poker face, and it was impenetrable. Still, this was a lot further than his mother tended to take a joke. "Kolivan and I will complete the story we're working on for the Galra media apparatus so we can forestall any rogue agents or general grudges toward Earth without undermining your operation, to be safe. There are a number of people throughout the Republic who haven't given up on considering you the new Emperor, so to them a slight against you would be a slight against all Galra. However, the major risks are from people personally loyal to you."

"Un-f*cking-believable..." Keith sighed. "I can't believe no one told me this could be an issue."

His mother checked off piles of supplies on her data pad, directing people who needed new tasks with a point of her finger. "If you'd included me or Kolivan in your planning from the beginning, we would have. For obvious reasons, neither of us considered the possibility of you two ending your relationship."

Shiro shook his head in a haze. "I still don't know how we managed to get married without knowing about it."

With weary, skeptical stare, Krolia let out the universe's longest sigh. Keith was sure that if they'd timed it, there'd be a record book somewhere that would give her a prize. "Shiro," she asked, pulling him and his confusion to the side and out of the path of any rank and file Blades who might hear. Only Kolivan moved with her, keeping a uniform scowl on his face and his arms crossed like he was the guardian of some particularly impressive gate to hell. "Did you know what you were doing when you asked if I was all right with you and Keith being partners?"

Taking her cue, Keith pushed Curtis into the whisper circle, and kept watch over his shoulder to be sure no one got into eavesdropping distance while Shiro answered. "I mean, I did want to be sure our relationship was above board. You're important to Keith..."

"Then maybe you were unclear about the significance of the enemies you fought in defense of each others' lives and at the risk of your own?" Krolia asked.

"Mom," insisted Keith, "I went after Zarkon and Sendak because I wanted Shiro alive, not because I was trying to prove any--"

"And that's exactly why it does prove something, Keith." His mother's face said she wasn't taking any arguments, and yet Keith knew there had to be a way to explain that if Shiro didn't know that something they'd done meant they were married, then they weren't married. Sure, their bond was forever, which was what he wanted and Shiro seemed to feel the same, but there had to be distinctions. Right?

While he and his mother were staring each other down, Shiro added, "Saving each other is what we do for all our team members. We've all saved each other countless--"

"The Galra term, aha-vatatz," said Kolivan with a growl, "is central to cementing the bonds between lovers. The roots mean, 'love rescue', but it doesn't translate meaningfully into a common tongue. There are many terms for saving a comrade at the risk of your life. That one is different. It's a binding act, respected even if the family's acceptance is given posthumously, and you would be wise not to debate whether it applies. You tried to commit aha-vatatz on me personally when Keith was in danger during his Trials. Even if you cannot decipher the distinctions in Galra culture between forms of death and sacrifice, you cannot deny the depth of your bond to each other."

Shiro stared blankly at one of the longest speeches Keith had ever heard Kolivan make. "Well... No. I can't."

"Good. Then we can move on to some other topic, like how to prevent your murder at the hands of Galra who consider it betrayal bordering on treason for you to have cast aside someone who entered into a life-bond in good faith. Because I assure you, no one among the Galra will assume that Keith was the one who lied when you pledged your commitment to each other."

"That's the thing!" Shiro objected. "When did we make an official pledge? I mean, we promised each other, but that was personal. Doesn't someone have to officiate the oath?"

The look on Kolivan's face was some explosive combination of confused and insulted. At least his mother knew what she was doing. Krolia dropped her face into both her hands. "Keith. I'm signing your husband up for the Blade's Inter-species Socialization Training seminar. In fact, I'm signing you both up for it. Kolivan, I'll explain human weddings to you later. Shiro, the short version is that no one officiates a Galra marriage. Life for the Galra has historically been a life of war, where love has no time for papers, and no judges or priests. We have only each other."

Keith knew one thing for sure. He was recommending that Shiro add, "Love is a Battlefield," to his stupid booty playlist when this was over and they were far enough away from the threat of the entire Galra Republic coming for Shiro's head that this could be funny. That's what the personal notes folder in his data pad was for.

Waiting by the side with complete fascination, Curtis raised his hand. "Do Galra have divorce?"

"Setting casual relations aside," said Kolivan. "Life-bonds end only in death. Some partings of the mind are serious enough to warrant it, so as such, yes. We have 'divorce'." While he said that, he glowered in a way that made Curtis shrink just like Keith remembered him shrinking under Keith's regular expression. He made another note to himself to try smiling at the fake husband more in order to keep things civil. They were a team.

"O-okay," said Curtis. "Am... am I going to die? Because--"

"No." Krolia kept her eyes closed while she breathed slowly through what Keith recognized as her headache face. "Galra have no interest in your society's domestic contract papers. You aren't a threat, Curtis. But, to be safe, don't kill anyone for Shiro."

"Consider it... not done, ma'am." Keith assumed the salute was habit. Krolia had that effect.

Shiro frowned at Keith. "Okay. I may need your help to figure out which time I said I'd love you forever counts as our wedding, because I just found out that I may have missed about ten years of anniversary presents, and I don't want to do it again."

"Sounds fair," said Keith. He certainly didn't mind Shiro being his husband, but wedding ceremonies had never appealed to him. If this meant they didn't need one, ever, and he and Shiro could just adopt married status benefits later, he was fine with that. "So, Mom--"

"It was the one where you exchanged your tokens," Krolia answered, tapping at her chest below her throat.

Keith and Shiro reached for the chains around their necks, recognition in both of their eyes. That would've been the day they exchanged dog tags, after Shiro's regenerated body was stable enough to get out of the cryopod. Keith remembered it like it was yesterday, telling Shiro that if he ever got lost again, he wanted a way to make sure Shiro got returned to him, dead or alive. Shiro had said he'd want Keith to find his way back to him, too. As a bonus, they figured no one would know they'd traded, so if anybody tried to pass off a clone as the real thing again, it wouldn't work, but apparently that was out now.

"Mom! How did you know about that?" Keith gasped. "We were in the storage area on the Black Lion! No one was there!"

She gave him a very, very tired look, sparing a glance for the lieutenants who would need more directions soon for how to handle hiccups in regular procedure. These guys were still getting used to doing humanitarian aid instead of (or in addition to) military strikes. "You had your comms on, Keith. Everyone spent about five minutes trying not to talk or breathe because they could tell the moment was very important and they didn't want to interrupt you. Also, I've seen you with your shirt off, and I can read."

Wow, Keith hoped he wasn't blushing as hard as Shiro was right now, but it seemed unlikely.

"Was there anything else you didn't understand?" Krolia asked with the most weary of tones. "I would hate to think that any element of your own personal affection for each other was unclear to you, so if you have more questions, let me know now. I assume you are aware that you were engaging in sexual intercourse," she said in a tone that very clearly implied, because I was aware that you were having sex. "Maybe there's something you don't understand about cake. Personally, I find cake to be very simple. Even human courtship rituals include feeding each other dessert. However, I have clearly made too many assumptions already about your understanding of romantic relationships."

Kolivan sighed, "If they need to have sex explained to them, please excuse me. I will find somewhere else to be."

"Oh my god, stop it! We knew we were f*cking!" groaned Keith. "We knew we were dating! All we didn't know is that anyone would try to kill Shiro if we staged a break-up!"

Krolia put up a hand to silence everyone. "Kolivan, I can handle it from here. Go review the plans for how we can convince ordinary citizens that this isn't a reason for an assassination attempt, I'll join you in a moment." After he'd left, Krolia added, "Keith. I love you. Once this is over, never stage a break-up ever again. You will both find a scheduling notice in your calendars for the next Inter-species Socialization Training. Do not be surprised if tomorrow or the next day there's a news bulletin for the Galra Republic about how humans are a polyamorous species who are required to copulate regularly or die, such that your 'break-up' and introduction of a new partner does not constitute a dissolution of your life-bond but merely the two of you ensuring that Shiro survives your current work-related separation."

"Did I just become a concubine?" Curtis asked.

"Don't think about it too hard," Keith reassured him, certain that couldn't be right.

At the same instant, his mother dead-panned, "Only on Daibazaal." Their eyes met, faces set in mirrored scowls, over Curtis's growing nerves and the horror slowly settling over Shiro. Krolia, who had more practice being diplomatic by now, revised her statement. "We're still working out the details, but that's the direction we're headed in. People on the homeworld will no doubt find it easy to believe that Earth media misunderstood the situation, since we can say with great honesty that humans are not aware of the concept of Galra life-bonds."

Keith shook his head. They had to get out ahead of this, which meant that at some point, a joint human-Galra team would need to discuss this, and neither he nor Shiro were that good at cover stories. "Shiro, do you think we can offer them Matt as some kind of ... expert? On human polyamorous relationships?" Ones that didn't involve concubines, which he didn't say out loud. Shiro's relief said clearly enough that he understood.

"Great idea. Matt would love that," said Shiro, sharing a nod with Krolia. She seemed to appreciate the offer of help, since she had to be bullsh*tting this stuff just as much as the rest of them. "I'll give him a heads up to expect your call. Who's going to break the news to Iverson?"

"Let Kolivan and I do it," Krolia insisted. "We have diplomatic immunity. Also, Kolivan will enjoy it. He blames Iverson for being of a proper mind and position to put a stop to this before it happened, and clearly failing to do so. Meanwhile, you two..." she pointed at Shiro and Keith in turn. "I recognize that you weren't in a position to get the approval of Shiro's blood relative before you made an exchange of vows, but you have had ten years. Get it done before there's another scandal, or I will be forced to kill you myself, Shiro."

"Mother...!" Keith gripped Shiro's hand tighter. He didn't want to fight his mother about this, but at the same time, he wasn't going to let her kill Shiro for something neither of them had known they had to do!

The tired lines on her face broke into a smile for the first time since all of this had happened. "Of course I won't kill him. That part was a joke." The smile she aimed at Shiro, though, was just as scary as her glares. "Do it anyway," she said, and walked off to issue orders to some waiting lieutenants before following Kolivan to the planning table.

Shiro stared at the corner where the highest ranking members of the Galra Republic were scrabbling together their last-ditch attempt to stop an honor war over their brilliant media campaign to make Shiro a fake husband, then gave Keith an earnest nod. "Great Aunt Naoto is going to love you. We'll plan a trip to Japan as soon as you get back from this mission."

"And for what it's worth," Curtis broke in, "I am so sorry for... everything. This is nuts."

Squinting at the biologist, Keith tried to make any sense out of that. "You have nothing to apologize for. Literally nothing. We did this, and asked you to help."

"You're doing us a favor," Shiro insisted. "We really appreciate you going along with our operation despite the... issues. Not many people would, and we know it's a lot to ask."

"I just feel so bad..." said Curtis, and then his voice faded out to a squeak as Shiro put a hand on Curtis's shoulder that was probably meant to be comforting.

Keith watched the situation get even worse when Shiro's earnest, concerned expression settled in. Curtis's eyes were glazing over again, just like they had at the party two weeks ago (when it had been hilarious, to be fair), and it looked like his throat was probably halfway paralyzed. Could he even breathe? Meanwhile, Shiro was obliviously staring straight into the man's blank, wide-eyed gaze. "Curtis, please understand, if anything I'm doing is making you uncomfortable, I'd like you to let me know. I'll stop whatever it is. And if you're having second thoughts about being part of this plan, it's not too late to--"

"Shiro, wait." Keith tugged hard enough on Shiro's sleeve to get the hand off of Curtis's shoulder, and as soon as Shiro's eyes were on him instead of the biologist, he heard the unmistakable sound of a man remembering how to breathe. "Let me handle this. It's okay. Hey, Curtis. Walk with me for a second while I work."

He led Curtis with a push on the back far enough that Shiro couldn't hear them whisper. "Hi... Keith. Like I said, I'm so sorry..."

Keith went back to reviewing papers and manifests people handed him while they walked, trying to make this as normal-ish as possible. He didn't want to put the full weight of his resting asshole face on a man who was already panicked about getting killed for holding Shiro's hand. "So, you feel bad because you think my husband is hot?"

Curtis didn't have to say anything. He buried his face in his hands, and that was enough.

"Because you don't have to worry about that," Keith assured him. He signed off on the flight manifest and some last minute cargo substitutions. "Shiro's hot. End of story. Man, if you didn't blank out when he turns on the charm, I'd worry that you might be dead or something. If you're not cool with doing this, we won't make you. But if you just need to... I don't know, vent about how Shiro is unfairly hot, you can talk to me about that. I won't get upset."

Just at the moment he risked giving Curtis an earnest expression, something to make him know Keith meant it, Lance of all people came running over. "Keith, there are some weird fluctuations in the teludav. Coran wanted me to--"

"Not now, Lance. Really busy." Double checking weather forecasts and talking his husband's fake boyfriend out of a panic was about all he could do right now.

The current Red Paladin may have gotten more responsible with age, but his impatience and scrunchy duck-lip face hadn't gotten any less annoying. "Coran and I really need to speak with you before the transport leaves. It's important."

Keith gestured around the busy cargo bay. "The transport doesn't leave for three hours. I'll talk to you in one. Good?"

"Fine," Lance sighed. "One hour, teludav chamber."

"Now, where were we?" Keith asked Curtis as his fellow Paladin stalked off.

The words spilled out of Curtis's mouth like a dam breaking. "Admiral Shirogane is hot. Oh my god, he's really, really a very attractive man. I wasn't ready, not two weeks ago, not today," said Curtis. "I'm trying not to let it affect me. I promise, I don't want to interfere with your relationship, he's just... He's a lot."

Keith chuckled, patting Curtis on the back. "Yeah. Yeah, he is. You know, the first time he put his hand on my shoulder like that and just looked at me, I was sixteen, and he wasn't even trying to be charming or anything, but I think my heart stopped for a second. Shiro doesn't know his own power, I swear. You don't have to feel bad for that."

"Geez, sixteen? That must've been tough!" Curtis sounded like he meant that, no sarcasm.

With a shrug, Keith dismissed it. "It was Shiro. And he was in a serious relationship with someone else, something I didn't have a chance at getting in the middle of and I knew it -- because I was a kid, and because Shiro doesn't think about other people when he's in an exclusive relationship."

He laughed silently while he studied variances in the weather patterns that were going to cover their flyby from Namurn to the droid base they needed to neutralize. Man, what a memory -- being on the outside looking in on Shiro singing stupid songs to Adam, wishing Shiro were singing to him and not being able to comprehend how simultaneously ridiculous and wonderful it would be when the Paladins went to inaugurate the first new karaoke place to open after the occupation.

"Believe me, sixteen year old me absolutely would have tried to steal Shiro from Adam if I'd thought I had half a chance." Curtis seemed to be getting confused, so Keith tried to clarify. "Shiro doesn't notice when other people are hitting on him, just so you understand. I speak from experience. You won't interfere with our relationship."

"Oh God!" Curtis stammered, eyes going wide. "I-I would never, I swear! I'm not--"

"sh*t. That was supposed to be reassuring." He'd just about gotten Curtis to show signs of cognition again. Keith didn't want to blow this now. "The point is, I trust my husband, and not just because my mother would apparently kill him if he cheated on me. I trust Shiro completely, and you should, too. He won't take advantage of you. Now, you said you don't want to be in a relationship, period, right? How's that going?"

That brought the biologist right back to Earth. Curtis huffed out a laugh. "Yeah. Rearranging my schedule to do those staged dinner dates reminded me of everything I hate about dating. Even with Adm-- with Tak... Um. Even with Shiro, it's just a bother. I think we're safe."

No surprise that the Takashi thing was still hard, but wow. Someone who didn't like dating, even when it was Shiro? That was one thing Keith knew he'd never understand.

"Okay. That's, um. That's good. So don't worry about if he blows your mind sometimes. In a relationship, it's what comes between the times you get your mind blown that matters. Plus, scheduling'll get easier when you're married and move in together if you don't want to spend time with him," Keith promised, slapping Curtis on the back. "Most of my foster parents never went out. Some never talked. You can basically be roommates for the win."

"That's the least romantic thing I've ever heard," Curtis laughed. "Thanks. I mean it."

Flashing the first of many smiles that would, hopefully, convince Curtis that he wasn't scary, Keith answered, "No problem. So if anything is making you uncomfortable and you want it to stop, talk to Shiro. He'll make it stop. But if you just need to vent about how Shiro is f*cking hot and you can't take it, you call me. Next time I'm around, I'll bring over a six-pack of beer or... whatever you drink... and you can vent." The next report that needed his signature came up on his data pad. The admin work never ended. Why did he ever agree to lead an organization? "Sometimes, Shiro is so hot, it's a problem. Nobody understands that like me."

Curtis was looking at ease again, so Keith lead him to the water cooler for a drink. Getting the sh*t scared out of you required hydration. At last, Curtis stopped nodding in silence and spoke up. "I appreciate that, Keith. I think I'll be fine, but... I appreciate that you'd do that."

"Least I can do," said Keith with a shrug. "You're taking this on as a favor to us. And I can't ask you to ask Shiro to stop being hot or something. He'll think he's being a bad person. Neither of you are doing anything wrong, trust me. Okay?"

The nod he got from Curtis, he took at face value. The guy had been honest so far.

He lead Curtis back to where Shiro was waiting, making an anxious frown that Keith couldn't help kissing off his face. As far as he was concerned, the more he kissed Shiro in front of the Blades of Marmora, the less likely they were to kill him, which made PDA a mission-critical requirement. "We're good," he told Shiro, then turned to Curtis. "We're good, right?"

"We're good," he agreed.

"Okay," Shiro said. "There's nothing I need to do?"

"Just think about what you want your cover identity to be when you go on Blade missions. We can't put your real name on flight manifests. Now..." Keith kissed Shiro one last time, then pointed toward the hangar door. "Get back out there and be seen by some people with your fake boyfriend before Curtis's lunch break is up."

Shiro grabbed Curtis's hand, walking past with a salute. "Yes, sir."

Keith laughed to himself while he admired the retreat of that fine, tight ass, and his top lieutenant tossed him a high five with an admiring nod. Gamar was a nerd who thought human culture was "cool", but Keith didn't mind getting congratulated on having the best husband in the multiverse. Shiro was too f*cking gorgeous to live, and Shiro was all his. Hot damn, he loved that man.

~//~

Two more cadets walked past their lunch table, stepping a few yards out of their way to the exit to get a surreptitious look at Admiral Shirogane's face. Like the others, they skittered away quickly, murmurs of, "Oh my God, it's really him! Can you imagine being that lucky?" reaching Curtis's ears.

He forced himself not to look at them, although he was probably blushing. He wasn't used to being the center of attention. The Admiral handled it a lot better. He stayed intent on the very boring explanation Curtis was giving about filter brushes, looking for all the world like nobody was watching him like a tiger in a zoo.

"Um, ah..." Curtis tried to remember what he was saying before the cadets had walked by.

"So the rings on the filter brushes are that important?" Shiro prompted, then took a sip of ice water. Apparently orange juice was too sweet for him, and the cafeteria was out of grapefruit today.

He nodded, taking in a calming breath. "Yes, Admi--"

A brilliant smile cut him off, and the man it was attached to reminded him, "Takashi!" He sounded so natural saying it, it was alarming.

Granted, it was less alarming than witnessing the de-escalation of a war that most of humanity would probably never know they'd avoided. The rest of Curtis's lunch had been comparatively normal after that. He took a bite of his hummus, roast beef, and tomato sandwich (he didn't like to eat the tuna salad, or any fish, since he liked his fish alive and swimming and friendly), balled up all his audacity, and tried to ignore the crowds gawking at him sitting with Admiral Shiro...

"...Takashi," he said. "The rings are very important. You wouldn't want to try fishing out a brush you dropped without one. Those tanks can get deep."

"That makes sense!"

How many wars like that misunderstanding with the Galra got avoided behind closed doors, without the regular rank and file people like him ever finding out? That was plenty unsettling, and he hoped he never found out about more.

As comparatively normal as this was, though, he'd need some time to adjust to how how much having lunch with the Savior of Earth was like sharing lunch with any one of his other friends, once he got past the fact that Shirogane Takashi was someone charming as a prince without even trying, and attractive enough that magazine cover departments gushed about having no flaws to photoshop out. From up close, he had to agree with them. There really were no flaws, physically or in terms of behavior.

Like watching scenes from someone else's life, Curtis lived through Shiro being a perfect gentleman. Shiro even insisted on carrying their trash to the receptacle, and listened to Curtis explain the difference between kinds of pipe brushes for aquaponics systems like he cared. They didn't talk about much in the way of personal stories, but then again, there was no way his fake boyfriend would risk saying something personal when he was on guard. Curtis had seen the moment when they'd walked out of the Blades' transport hangar, when Shiro had closed his eyes and taken a deep breath. When he'd opened his eyes again, the careless, adoring smile he had from when he was looking at Keith was gone, replaced with the face of the respectable Admiral everyone knew from TV, who seemed casually perfect.

It wasn't casual, Curtis knew now. Casually perfect Shiro was more of a goofball, and only had eyes for Keith Kogane. Back on the Atlas, he hadn't realized that the casual Shiro... Takashi... existed, and had figured the Admiral and Keith spent their time alone being stoic and warrior-like. He suddenly doubted that all of the serious looking conversations on the side of the Atlas bridge were about battle plans. A non-zero number had probably been dirty jokes and innuendo, which made the two of them seem so much more real.

Now that he considered it, Curtis wasn't sure if he could have imagined either Takashi or Keith sitting down or eating or having fun ten years ago when he'd met them for the first time. Now that he'd seen them joking, smiling, kissing like the rest of the world didn't exist, his old image was shattered. They were really good together.

"Holy crap!" whispered yet another stranger in the hall who now knew his face. "That's Admiral Shirogane and... was it Curtis LaSalle? I guess it's for real! They're really cute together!"

"I thought you were a Sheith fan?"

Curtis kept his eyes straight ahead and tried to look as much like he couldn't hear the conversation as Shiro did. Did thinking Shiro and Keith were a good couple make him a 'Sheith fan'? Or was there more to it than that? He was allowed to think his friends -- he hoped they were friends now -- were a good couple, right? Hopefully that was okay, because they were a good couple, and he thought it.

He let out a tense breathe as the whispers got further away. He didn't look back. He didn't want to know who had opinions about him. "What, I can't be a multishipper? It's not a crime, Krall."

"Well, that's true."

It was too bad he couldn't avoid the internet entirely, since he'd have to run Shi... Takashi's... social media later. At least Pidge's email filters saved him somewhat. Curtis had made the mistake of being curious about a comment thread once, and seeing people's hot takes on his existence had probably been the scariest thing he'd ever experienced, including the threat of potential death by Galra vengeance.

He could ship Shiro and Keith, Curtis decided. It made him happy to see how they looked out for each other, and were affectionate with each other. If that was shipping, he could do it. He'd just... support them, and not be creepy or weird about it by threatening people on the internet. That had to be okay.

His reflections came to a sudden stop when Takashi stopped short at the corner of the Flag Officers' Lounge. The Admiral caught Curtis with an arm across the chest and pushed him against the wall, signalling for quiet with a finger to his lips.

"Bii boh boh!" yelled someone in the lounge, whose voice Shiro seemed to recognize. "Bii boh boh boh, bii bii boh boh boh! Bii bii boh!"

The person yelling back was unmistakably Coran. "Well, I don't have any say in your artistic integrity, now do I?! I'm not writing your show! You made that clear enough after Season Two, and just look at what happened with Seasons Three through Five, so I can't say I'm impressed with that writing staff of yours."

"Boh bii bii bii!"

"Oh, of course! Blame the network!" Shiro pulled a mirror out of his pocket to look around the corner. Coran had his back to the door, and was in a red-faced, spitting argument with a very tall noodle alien in a tiny noodle suit. The Altean shoved a stack of papers back at the noodle. "Look, I have to go deal with a teludav that's-- No, actually, I have a moment. That meeting was delayed. The point is, you're the director. It's your job to turn your vision into art no matter what life throws at you! No one ever said that was fair!"

Shiro handed the mirror to Curtis and pulled out his phone, so Curtis tried to keep the image of the noodle putting angry noodle arms on his non-existent hips pointed towards the Admiral. "Boh boh SHIRO boh KEITH bii boh boh boh! Bii boh boh bii bii!"

"Well, I don't see why they can't still be an endgame pairing in the show." Shiro was texting madly, a hint of a blush on his objectively perfect cheekbones. "They were quite the item. Loved your cinematography on the Sendak kill, by the way. Lovely. But the romance is historically accurate, so why cut it from the show?"

"Boh boh boh bii," growled the noodle, who by context was probably Bii Boh-Bii, the director of Voltron: Legendary Defender. How had he even gotten in there? This was supposed to be a secure compound. And did that mean that Shiro was... hiding him from the wrath of a noodle? "Boh bii bii bii. Boh. Bii! SHIRO boh KEITH bii boh bii boh boh boh, boh boh, boh SHIRO boh CURTIS, bii bii bii bii bii!"

Shiro was definitely hiding him from the wrath of a noodle. Of course, Shiro had needed to talk to this noodle about the show before. Maybe he had his reasons, especially since Bii Boh-Bii was definitely mad about the wrench Curtis's existence threw into his plot. Thank goodness nobody was in this hallway to see them playing hide and seek. He did not relish the idea of explaining to anyone why they were trying to sneak unseen past the director of Voltron: Legendary Defender.

"Boh boh boh? Bii bii bii!"

"Oh, well when you put it that way--" said Coran, breaking off to look at his beeping phone. He shot a quick look toward the door after he read the message he'd gotten from Shiro, then not-so-casually turned Bii Boh-Bii around with a hand across his microscopic shoulders.

The noodle piped up hopefully. "Boh bii bii bii bii? SHIRO boh KEITH bii bii bii boh boh bii?

"Well, obviously I can't change real life. Their circ*mstances are bigger than you or me, or them, or even a show..."

"Boh boh boh bii!"

Coran waved them past with a hand behind his back. Curtis followed Shiro's lead and tiptoed without making a sound. "Yes, I know! Art is life, no doubt! But you can shape art, and I promise you, you cannot control Paladins. I have tried on countless occasions. It's useless. Now, if you want another deathless romance to fill the gap from removing the Shiro and Keith plotlines, why not turn to what is really the heart of this season? You could make it all about Allura!"

"Boh bii boh."

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that." Checking that Shiro and Curtis were past the door with a wink, he swept an arm in front of Bii Boh-Bii. "Now, let me paint you a new vision. Like I said, we start with Allura..."

Once they were safely out of sight, Shiro let out a sigh, and smiled a model-perfect grin at Curtis, who was shaking his head more at the flutter in his chest than at the television director's tantrum. The more times he felt it, the more he realized it was just like going to a movie at getting fluttery over an action hero's smile. He really had basically walked into a movie.

"One more hurdle down," said Shiro.

Curtis shook his head, taking it all in. "I don't know how you put up with that many people thinking they can tell you and Keith how to live your lives. I'd go live in a hole."

With a shrug, Shiro started walking for the front door again. "You learn that none of it matters." Then a hint of his real smile flashed for a second. "Also, we're playing them all for fools with the biggest prank I've ever heard of. That takes some of the edge off."

"Well, that's for sure," Curtis laughed. It did make this easier to see the media going nuts over something he knew wasn't even real. He wasn't sure he could've dealt with this attention for a real relationship, but one that was all for show? Heck yeah. He liked a good prank as much as anybody, including apparently Shirogane Takashi and Keith Kogane. "Speaking of the media, it looks like there are still photographers outside the door. The crowds don't look smaller. Am I somehow not boring enough?"

"They're trying to figure out if we're actually dating," said Shiro, putting on his serious face again. "Questions always mean people trying to get answers. Is it all right if I kiss you before I walk outside, close enough for them to get a picture? If that makes you uncomfortable, I won't."

Curtis considered for a second, imagining Shiro actually kissing him on the lips and deciding if he was ready for that. No heart leaps, no butterflies in his stomach. He didn't feel like he was blushing, or like he might swoon. "Yeah. I can do that. No tongue."

Shiro took that so seriously, he couldn't tell if it was a joke or genuine. Probably genuine, since this was public-facing Shiro. "Obviously. We want people to be able to show this to their children. And I'm thinking when they ask what I was doing here, I can tell them what you told me over lunch about filter brushes."

"Perfect," Curtis said, nodding. "You are probably the first non-aquaponics enthusiast who's ever listened to me talk about filter brushes for that long without yawning."

"It's a plan." Walking to the glass doors hand in hand, they reached a spot not too far from the exit where they could still claim to have been aiming for privacy. Shiro slipped an arm around his waist, and the metal one behind his neck where it wouldn't block his face from the cameras, whispering, "Okay, here goes."

Shiro pressed his lips to Curtis's, and that was it. No lingering, no sparks, aside from the incredibly unsexy flashbulbs outside the Garrison doors. Thank goodness. He didn't want to get seduced by accident and have to let the Admiral and his husband down. That was the question in Shiro's eyes when he pulled back, and Curtis winked to say it was okay. Anybody watching Shiro's sigh of relief from outside probably thought it meant something very, very different.

From inside, waving Shiro out the door to start his interview on filter brushes, Curtis knew better. This whole ridiculous operation might work after all.

Chapter 4: Leaving On A Jetplane

Notes:

The second scene has a couple scattered phrases in Japanese. I kept them brief. The only reason they're not 'translated' (ie, presented in English like everything else) is because Keith doesn't understand what's being said. They're just noise, and you don't have to know what they mean to get the full content of the chapter. Thank you!

Chapter Text

"There's been a lot of hustle and bustle out on Novi Antheli, between rumors of last minute rewrites on Voltron: Legendary Defender and scenes coming up on shoot lists that were supposed to have been locked. Our ear to the ground tells us that these were retakes for episodes sent to post-production weeks ago. Something big must be happening on set, and we think we might just know what it is.

Latest production stills and promotional art show a new face featured in the cast -- someone who bears a striking resemblance to the man who's been the talk of the galaxy since he managed to replace the Black Paladin on Shirogane Takashi's arm. Is it true that Shiro's new man is the same Curtis who was part of the inaugural Atlas crew during the war? Did the Voltron staff decide to throw in some nods to the new romance that's heating up Shiro's life?

This seems like a lot of hullabaloo just to throw in a cameo, so is there more to it? We'll all find out soon, since the season premiere kicks off in a month, and our writers are on the edge of their seats to find out what's in store for the finale season of VLD.

Meanwhile, vote in our online poll! Takurtis: Is He the One? Everyone's talking about how much time Shiro is spending at his new beau's house. That much time behind closed doors usually means only one thing. Is this just the new relationship honeymoon, or is Curtis the man that Shiro's been waiting for? Tell us what you think!"

(Entertainment Weekly, "Last Minute Chaos on the Set of VLD". Author: Ruth G. McMillan, 14 May 2281.)

"I'm not in your way, am I?" Shiro asked, pushing his lap desk and notepad out of Curtis's path. He didn't want to block the biologist's path to his truly astounding fish tank setup. There was a clog in the aeration system, was what he'd said while putting on shoulder-length rubber gloves that looked like they belonged on a rescue barge. Somehow they fit the situation, though. He and Curtis scanned the house for surveillance equipment every day before he started working, but Shiro wasn't sure where anybody would even hide it. Fish tanks were practically the only permanent furniture, and they made enough ambient noise that, while pleasant, it would probably drown out conversations if any bugs were attached to them.

Curtis dropped the seaweed he'd liberated from the filter into his compost bucket and started cleaning the rest of the system with a wire pipe brush. "Please, you're fine, Takashi. I really appreciate you accommodating me. I missed spending quality time with my fish!"

Indeed, two entire walls of the living room had been converted into a self-contained freshwater ecosystem -- the only word Shiro could really offer for what he'd seen over the past few days -- where fish ate plants and bugs that grew in the, ah... fertilizer... provided by the fish, and more species than Shiro could keep track of all worked together with a waterflow pump to keep the tiny world clean and healthy. And that was just the living room! The saltwater habitats were in the dining room. He assumed there were also fish in the bedroom, but he hadn't asked to see that part of the house. Everyone deserved some privacy. It was nothing short of amazing. He wouldn't have found it as rewarding as Curtis did, but he was very happy for his fake boyfriend that he'd found something he liked so much, he could dedicate his life to it. Life was nothing without a passion.

Sipping his tea, Shiro told him, "It's really the least I can do. If this image isn't sustainable, then it's not going to work. I think we've created enough public buzz that it can last without us going out two or three times a week. Plus, I signed up to attend that little convention on aquaponics where you're running a panel next month. That should keep the media talking."

"Poor AquaCon!" Curtis laughed. "I hope whoever processed your registration warned the convention chair. It's always such a shoestring operation. I doubt their crowd control is ready for an actual celebrity to show up."

"I'd hardly call myself a celebrity."

"Uh-huh. Whatever."

They settled into companionable quiet again, and Shiro went back to his paperwork. His fake retirement meant he had to be a little more circuitous about everyday mission prep, but secure VPNs were at least enough to connect him to the Garrison computers and keep him up to date with new developments. Construction was proceeding on the outposts Pidge and Slav would be using to triangulate the location of the phased space pocket around the nebula where the Voltron Lions had lodged themselves. All the paperwork said the outposts were for locating space salvage, like the junk pile where Pidge had found herself marooned after their first big fight with Zarkon. No one would question that.

So far, it looked like they were on schedule, so now it was time to do their first test run of how well Curtis could cover up his absence for a short trip away. "Hey, Curtis? I'm sending you the sampler Pidge put together of 'characteristic social media posts' and a rough posting schedule. Do you want to run some tests before Keith gets back to make sure people think you sound like me when you're posting?"

"Sure thing. I might not need a style guide, though. I follow you already, so I've seen how you write." Finishing up with cleaning the filters, Curtis pulled off the enormous gloves and hung them on a drying rack, then settled into a chair on the other side of the living room and pulled out his laptop. "What's the cover story for your trip to Japan?"

Shiro added that briefing packet to the encrypted transmission, too. "The Garrison is rebuilding the old Yokosuka base as an MFE launch site. If the paparazzi catch me in the country, the story is that I'm there for the inaugural ceremony. Kinkade will be feeding you geotagged pictures to choose from."

"Okay, I got it." Curtis scanned the attachments, nodding thoughtfully. "Looks good. I'll clear some time while this is going on. And I'll watch your old lecture series on the MFE program, too, so I can focus on your points of interest. In the meantime, I'll put together some test posts on your new fish! You have so many more followers than me. I can't wait to see their replies."

Shiro glanced up from the briefings on preparations he had to undergo before attending training sessions with the Blade of Marmora -- not, Kolivan had been careful to specify, as a member, but as a Garrison liaison. "I have a fish?"

"I found a great Peaco*ck Cichlid who was a good fit for this tank! He's going to be yours," his fake boyfriend explained. "It'll be good for your Instagram. Do you want to name him?"

He unburdened himself of his laptop and snuck warily across the floor, not sure what he was about to see. But the fish was beautiful. Curtis was pointing to a new tank resident about three inches long with graceful, flowing fins and five black stripes running down his sides through a field of brilliant crimson scales. The fish flitted in and out of some holes in a rock formation that looked newly placed. The tiny guy already looked like he owned the place.

"African Cichlid species like the Peaco*ck can be aggressive, so I wouldn't recommend one to a new aquarist normally," said Curtis, "but I'm doing the primary tank maintenance already, and they're great fish, really gorgeous and really hardy. You just have to give them enough space, and a place they can call theirs."

"You got me a fish version of Keith," Shiro whispered. He had to force himself to stop being deeply (so deeply) moved to ask, "Do you think we can get away with that without people suspecting anything?"

Curtis shrugged. "As long as you don't name him Keith, or give him aquarium terrain shaped like a wolf. Most people who aren't in Voltron think of Keith as being the Black Paladin and the leader of the Blade of Marmora. You guys are the only ones who see him and think, 'Red'. So, what do you you want to call him?"

"Orion!" he blurted. "Or maybe Betelgeuse, since that's the red star? No. That's too long. He's so compact. He should be Orion, the hunter."

On the clone of Shiro's personal (unclassified) phone they'd created, Curtis carefully shot a photo of the fish looking smug and applied the one brightening filter Shiro always used. It wasn't his fault that it looked better than the others. Shiro watched over his shoulder as he typed the caption, "C got me an African Cichlid! I like this little guy's attitude. ;+) Going to call him Orion, like the constellation. #OrionPics #YouCanTakeTheAstronautOutOfSpace #ButYouCantTakeSpaceOutOfTheAstronaut Did you know the second brightest star in Orion is the red star, Betelgeuse, also known as Alpha Orionis? You can see it as Orion's right shoulder. Betelgeuse is also part of the Winter Triangle and the Winter Hexagon. Does anyone know the traditional name of Beta Orionis, the brightest star in Orion?"

Shiro hated to admit it, but the fun space facts were definitely something he'd include. Curtis had even gotten the text smiley variation Shiro liked to use because it looked like a scar across his nose, so he nodded. It looked good to go.

The instant Curtis hit send, the phone blew up with notifications for likes and reblogs, and a series of responses that varied from, "He's so pretty!" and, "IT'S RIGEL! I love Orion! Great name!" to, "i luv u pls follow back," and, "SHIRO LET ME HAVE YOUR BABY," when they weren't strings of emoji. The phone didn't stop vibrating for at least 20 seconds, and looked like bursts of responses would go on for awhile.

"At least some of them are talking about the fish," Curtis murmured.

Shiro nodded sadly. "You're going to want to turn off notifications on that phone. Trust me. Pidge's analysis will tell us if people are responding like they think it's me, and update you with suggested tweaks to your writing style. If you want, I bet she can build a filter to show fish comments only. Also," he said, turning a bright smile on Curtis who stopped looking concerned at the phone for long enough to smile back, "Thank you. For the Keith Fish. I really appreciate it. He's wonderful."

"You're welcome. I'll show you how to take care of him when you're done for the day."

"It's a deal." Checking his watch, he saw that there were ten minutes before his quantum-linked 'secure call to Keith's flagship' countdown clock hit zero. His husband's team would be out of the radio silence zone today, so they could finally talk again for the first time in a week. "I'll finish up some details on my paperwork before--"

The chime on his video call app started ringing on his computer. That was odd.

"Is he early?" Curtis asked, packing his laptop off to the dining room so he could give them some privacy.

"Keith wouldn't be calling on that line," Shiro answered. "It's the Garrison communication network, not the direct call app. Also, Hunk created that countdown timer specifically to keep calls synchronized to mutually convenient time points despite the time dilation effects of space travel. Keith wouldn't ignore that." As Shiro sat down, he saw the profile name. "It's Matt Holt. Do you want me to put on headphones?"

"You're fine. I can't hear anything from in here unless you raise your voices."

"It's Matt. You never know," he said, clicking accept on the call. "Hey, Matt. What's up?"

"Shiro!" Matt was wild-eyed with excitement, leaning in so close he was gripping the screen of his communicator pad. Shiro could barely see what looked like a lounge behind him. He could, however, see that Matt was definitely wearing glitter antennae on the headband he was wearing despite his hair being in its usual ponytail. "Shiro, my friend, my bosom companion, god among men!" He was way too excited, which could only mean that something dramatic had happened while he was explaining polyamory to the Galra, and Shiro was already cringing. "I meant to call you earlier, but we've done so much filming this week! There wasn't any time..."

"Matt, why are you wearing antennae?" Shiro asked, even though we was sure he wasn't ready for the answer.

He twanged one of the glitter balls bouncing on top of his head. "Oh, because I'm an alien. Travalek Varga of Comedy Tonight wants to play that up in the first skit we're filming. Did you know that antennae are one of the features that both humans and Galra associate with extra-planetary life forms? Even though the Galra have met so many kinds of aliens!"

There were clearly several things here to be confused about. "A comedy show? But--"

"You didn't think the Galra had comedy shows, right?! Neither did I!" An incandescent grin took over Matt's face. "It turns out the art form nearly died after Zarkon put all the best comedians in prison, along with, like, you know. Painters and sh*t. But then when Krolia and Kolivan took over, they let out all of the political prisoners, so right now the Galra are, like... in the middle of a cultural renaissance! It's a new golden age for comic variety shows! And, you know. Art and sh*t. But--"

"Wait, Matt," Shiro interrupted. "Why is this happening? I thought Krolia was getting Galra sociologists to interview you, for the news media! But... you're on comedy shows?"

Matt pushed his face up to the screen so fast, Shiro nearly jumped. "And I can never thank you enough. I have found the reason for my existence, Shiro. I was born for this."

"For... Galra comedy?"

"Here, I'll send you pictures..."

After Shiro pressed the accept transmission button, a tiny clip reel of photos saving to his computer ran across the bottom of his screen, including a picture of Matt and three Galra sentries covered in blood with their heads tilted at odd angles, one of Matt very solemnly holding up a plate of waffles while standing in the middle of a sea of decapitated bodies as the words "Or Waffles" blinked in glitter text on the bottom, and Matt's head sticking out of a broccoli costume under a guillotine, among many others.

"So yeah, Krolia started me on the sociology thing, but one of my old cellmates from the work camp saw the interview, and I always thought he was a funny guy, but it turns out he was one of the big time comedy hosts! So Rima reached out to me and said I should do my bit on his show, and then all the other comedy shows wanted their turn when that was a huge hit, and what was I gonna do? Say no?"

Clamping his mouth shut on his opinion that of course you say no to that when you're on a serious mission, Shiro tried to remind himself that his friend was trying to share excitement and happiness. It was the kind of thing he didn't want to stomp on, as terrified as he was that Matt had done something unfixable in the middle of a volatile situation that threatened his own personal life. Matt would be the wrong person to talk to about that, anyway, and if Krolia hadn't seen fit to rein him in, then probably everything would be okay?

After swallowing his first reaction, Shiro said, "That's... that's great, Matt. I'll have to see if I can find the videos."

"Really?! You'll watch them?! I knew I could count on you, buddy. I'll send you the links!" The chat filled up with video clip links so fast, Matt must have been keeping a bookmark file just for this. "Those are in chronological order, so you get all the context! I even included the sociology interview at the front, because some of the jokes riff on that."

Half of the linked page titles had the word waffles at least once, sometimes up to five times, usually in all caps. "Why are there so many waffles?" Shiro murmured.

Matt shrugged, a bemused look on his face like he hadn't considered that. "These Galra love their waffles, man. Anyway, I'm getting you some souvenirs." His former crew mate held up a towel printed with a picture of a purple human with white hair and antennae that said, "Vrepit Salieri," across the bottom, and a much more explicable bobblehead of the IGF-Atlas. "But I just had to call while I had five minutes to say thank you, now and forever, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, Shiro, for this amazing opportunity. I wish I could express how amazing this is."

"You seem very happy--"

"Happy?! Old people in the Galra Republic are denouncing me as the end of civilization! I have become the hot, charismatic alien playboy I always wanted to meet as a young man!" His eyes wibbled in a way that Shiro had only ever seen in fiction and on Matt, filled with sincerity that Shiro had never been able to bring himself to deflate. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think something like this could happen. But it did, Shiro. It happened, I'm here right now, doing kick lines with Galra actors dressed up as legion commanders in grass skirts while people fire lasers at us, and it's all thanks to you. How can I ever repay you, Shiro?"

Gosh. "Wow, Matt. I'm... just glad it's working out?" He was definitely going to have to check in with Krolia to make sure this was really okay. "I can't really stay. I have a call with--"

"No worries, I've got to go on stage in about two minutes, so real quick..." Suddenly serious, Matt's mouth narrowed and his eyebrow arched. "What is actually up with you and Keith and this other guy? Because I get that I'm here to convince the Galra not to kill you, which is cool, no worries, I will always do that... but there's no way Keith would allow even the insinuation that he was sharing you if something super serious weren't happening. Did you two actually break up? No one will tell me!"

"Matt," Shiro sighed, "thank you for your hard work and dedication in helping to keep me alive despite your abject confusion over the circ*mstances."

As he started reaching for the button to end the call, Matt leaped toward the screen again, crying, "No, Shiro! Don't hang up!"

Shiro hung up. He took a deep breath, and ran his hands down his face. "Curtis, I'm going to have to watch a lot of Galra comedy tonight," he called across the house.

"You're watching what?" the man asked from the dining room.

"Galra comedy. I have to know what Matt did so I can keep our command structure in the loop."

"Oh. sh*t."

"Yeah," he said, pulling up the take-out order page. "It's my turn for dinner, right? How do you feel about Thai?"

"Uh, Thai sounds good for a night of Galra comedy. Get me a cashew chicken? I'll set up the TV once you're done talking to Keith."

"Sure thing." Ordering a green curry for himself, Shiro threw in some tofu fresh rolls to meet the delivery minimum, and checked out just in time to see the call notification come through on his screen. Finally! He could tell Keith about everything that'd happened, and explain their travel plans to go to Japan! Shiro clicked the button to accept the call, barely able to contain his, "Hi baby!" until the window was fully open. "How are things--"

Then he saw the dead-eyed stare Keith was giving the camera. He usually only looked like that after he'd been left alone with Lance for at least forty-eight hours.

"Did something go wrong on your mission?" Shiro asked. Nothing seemed particularly wrong on the ship's bridge. Keith liked to have these conversations in front of his crew to cement the Blades' understanding that the two of them were still on intimate terms, so he could see a few of the officers working consoles in the background. One of them was whistling.

After a heavy pause where he seemed to be choosing his words carefully, Keith answered. "No. The mission is going fine."

"Was there a problem with the electromagnetic interference Lance and Coran found in wormholes to the sector around Namurn?" But as he asked that, he realized that the tune the Galra man was whistling was an old Earth song that not even most humans knew. Some did, just not a lot.

Some, like Matt Holt. It was one of the handful of oldies he'd play on his guitar and sing at the top of his lungs from the roof when he'd gotten drunk back at the Garrison.

"Lance opened the wormhole successfully," Keith assured him. "Just like he's opened all the wormholes in the last eight years. We took readings on the turbulence. Coran's gonna look at the data. Nothing we couldn't handle."

He could read between the lines of Keith, though. The strained quality to his voice said even more about his mood than the sharp-cut, terse sentences, and gave Shiro a sense that some members of of Keith's crew might get reassigned (or killed) soon if they didn't stop whistling. Or they would, if the particular crinkle around Keith's eyes didn't imply that this was probably a more widespread issue than one or two people. Then the whistling Galra man started absently singing, "... been through the cosmos on a wolf with no name... and for Shiro, I'd do it again..." before he went back to whistling.

Well. That tune did get stuck in a person's head.

He locked eyes with Keith's carefully controlled thousand-yard stare as Keith took a deep breath in and let it out. Shiro couldn't help wincing. "Yeah. I just got off a call with Matt. He told me he'd been doing... comedy shows. There was singing, huh?"

"Yeah." Keith kept his face so still, Shiro got the feeling he'd been keeping it frozen like that to stop himself from screaming at anybody. "As soon as we got out of the radio silence zone, my crew got access to viral internet content. They have now watched all the comedy shows Matt did. Repeatedly. Some with singing. The crew love them. Morale is very, very high."

"Oh, baby... you know, I was going to call Krolia before I briefed Iverson--"

Keith shook his head. "I already talked to her."

"And?" Shiro asked, but it couldn't be a good answer if Keith was this moody.

His husband took another deep, calming breath, monolithic face never wavering. "I value and appreciate everything Matt Holt is doing to prevent your death."

"Oh." Shiro could clearly hear the undertones of, but I would really like to strangle him right now, and I'm not allowed to, in Keith's tone. Apparently, whatever nonsense Matt had gotten himself into, Krolia had decided to allow it over Keith's objections. He wasn't sure Thai food would be enough to prepare him for what he was going to watch tonight. "Still, if this is upsetting you, I think we should make your sanity a priority, baby."

"It's not like that." Keith shook his head. "When I talked to her, we went over public opinion polls. The news shows weren't catching on. This is working. I f*cking hate it, it's irritating as f*ck, but it's working. We don't know anything that'll work better, and your life isn't something I want to gamble with. Matt making jokes didn't hurt my one and only feeling, don't worry. It was my call to keep going. You're worth this to me. So that's that."

"Okay. But remember, you can always change your mind." He wasn't happy letting anything go when Keith was this miserable, but he was allowed to set his own limits. Maybe, Shiro thought, he could lighten the mood at least. "Did she explain what was up with all the waffles?"

Behind Keith, the female Blade at the other console chuckled and whispered, "Or waffles," to her fellow crew member. The man said, "Or waffles," back in a deep, incredibly un-Matt-like voice as if it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard, and they both chuckled again.

The amount of calm Keith managed to enforce on his face should have been terrifying, but Shiro was just proud of the leader his husband had become. He'd always known Keith would be great at this. He could just wish it was less annoying for Keith right now. "Shiro. Please talk to me about anything but waffles. Anything. Anything at all that is not waffles."

"Anything, huh?"

"Not. Waffles."

"Ahhh, did you check my Instagram?" Shiro asked, reaching desperately for something that couldn't possibly have been on Galra comedy shows. "Curtis got me a fish that looks like you! He's practicing impersonating me."

The disbelieving smirk was the first crack Shiro had seen in Keith's bad mood since the call started, and after he pulled up the picture as a sidebar in their video chat, he started smiling for real. "I've gotta say, Shiro, he's got your voice down. And Orion, huh? Just a coincidence that Orion's my favorite constellation, right?" Shiro smiled back like an idiot, just happy to see Keith looking happy. Keith really did have a smile brighter than a supernova, and so few people believed him when he said so. "Thank Curtis for me. I look good as a fish."

"You look good, period," Shiro reminded him. "Fish, human, or Galra. It's great to see your face. I'm glad you made it through this leg of the mission all right."

"Please, Shiro." His husband gave him an eyeroll. "This's been routine. I haven't even had to fire up my bayard."

"There's no such thing as a military mission where I won't worry about your safety, baby. Even if it is a small bunch of sentries on a base that Pidge can probably write a virus to hack, things can still go wrong."

With a smirk, Keith said, "Yes, sir," which had always been and still remained far more of a turn on than Shiro would've ever expected before he'd started dating his fellow Paladin. "Anyway, it'll be good to be home sleeping in your bed, and to get back to dodging good old Earth paparazzi instead of Galra comedy routines. Are we all set for the Japan trip?"

"I'm transferring your itinerary over the subchannel." He attached the document to their conversation, including a map of the subway system. "We'll go separately, and meet up at Ueno Station on our way out to my great-aunt's house."

Keith paged through the information, nodding. "Got it. Any other details I should know?"

"I think that's it, unless you have questions. I'm trying to keep it simple."

"I miss you, Shiro," Keith said, eyes taking on a little of the shine they'd been missing when the call had started as he attached his own document, and Shiro clicked accept. "I wrote down some of the things I miss. Confidential, obviously."

Not quite sure what else he should have been expecting, Shiro nonetheless blushed at the ... explicitness ... of the first sentence, and shut the document again before he got hard. Keith was nothing if not direct. Not to mention, all of the various things Keith had missed pounding were things Shiro already stayed up at night thinking about. Right now, it didn't take much to make him desperate for Keith, and Keith's opinions on the matter were passionate to say the least. "Wow. I think I'll... save this to read when I'm... more alone."

Grin turning sly, Keith laughed. "You do that, and then write me a letter all about your reactions."

"Yes, sir," Shiro promised. "Now, do you want to hear all about Earth being ridiculous for the last week?"

Keith clicked a timer on his watch. "You have fifteen minutes. Go."

~//~

The house where the taxi dropped them off had probably been grand before the Galra occupation, Keith thought, and it'd been more nicely rebuilt than most of the surrounding area. He could see the remains of an entire wing that'd been destroyed at some point and cleared out for a pond with a couple benches amid artistically preserved rubble, and some of the house left standing was clearly rebuilt with newer materials, but it was good work. It looked like it belonged there. The lawn had grass and a garden, too, which even a brief stop through the country had taught him wasn't exactly standard in Japan, and a long driveway with a garage for two cars separate from the house.

Even less normal was the man in a black suit strolling down the front walk toward the gate where Shiro had been about to press the buzzer. The man unlatched the gate to let Keith, Shiro, and Krolia inside the estate -- because this was definitely an estate -- and bowed as they walked in.

"Ah, Takashi-sama. To, okyaku-sama imasu ne. Douzo," he said before Keith got lost in the stream of sounds. It was the first time he really missed the backup civvie translator unit that'd broken last year and that he'd never bothered to replace. Metropolitan areas were full of translated signs and helpers speaking any language you wanted. He hadn't wanted to take the risk of establishing a credit trail by buying a new one, and his main unit was part of his uniform. Wearing his Blades gear when they were trying not to get noticed would be stupid. Even in a worst case scenario, Shiro would tell him the important parts.

So, Keith nodded and followed along while Shiro took care of the conversation, marvelling at the landscaping leading up to the house itself. Somebody must've put a lot of effort into regrowing everything, and either they'd managed to save some trees from destruction here or had transplanted some surviving trees from somewhere else, because none of these looked less than twenty years old, let alone the dozen or so years since Sendak had invaded.

Once they got in the front door and the man in black disappeared, Keith copied Shiro by taking off his shoes and grabbing a pair of slippers.

"Gen-san said we should've called," Shiro whispered. "He would've picked us up in the car. He's checking on Great-Aunt Naoto now, and he'll take us back to see her in a second."

Keith narrowed his eyes at his husband. "I'm still stuck on how your family has a butler."

"That does seem unusual," Krolia agreed.

"A valet," Shiro corrected. Keith noticed the hard T on the end, but it didn't really answer his question. "My grandparents never had one, and neither did my parents, so I don't want you thinking this is normal for me, either. We only visited my Great-Aunt for New Years, and I haven't seen her since my parents died."

"I guess it's just not what I expected," said Keith, looking around at the grandfather clock in the hallway and the unused looking furniture he could see in a parlor off the main hall. It all looked so... European. And expensive.

"Expecting a little old lady in a kimono bent over a bonsai tree?" Shiro laughed.

"I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. Did Sendak's troops somehow miss her house?" Keith poked his nose around another corner into a library that'd seen more use than the parlor but was still perfectly maintained. It even had one of those old giant spinning globes despite the fact that there was a perfectly good holographic projector installed nearby. "This stuff looks like genuine heirloom material."

"No, they got looted, mostly of books and precious metals, but... Oh." When Keith turned around, Shiro was frozen with sudden realization on his face. "Oh, I didn't tell you, did I? My Great-Aunt's job was... investigation, I guess? Finding things, people, information, something like that. Great-Aunt Naoto didn't tell me much, but I definitely saw government officials -- from Japan, and a couple other governments, too. I didn't question it when she said she got most of her things back."

"Got them back?" asked Keith. He could feel his voice breaking like it hadn't done since puberty. "I mean, she's your grandfather's sister, so she has to be at least ninety, right?"

"Ninety-seven, I think? No, ninety-eight." Shiro tried to laugh off Keith's shock. "But don't worry, Keith. She very resilient, and licensed in the use of most kinds of firearms."

"What the f*ck, Shiro. Your great-aunt was, like, a secret agent," Keith marvelled. "No wonder you're a superhero."

"Are you sure she's not part Galra?" Krolia asked.

Shiro shook his head. "I've had enough genetic tests that someone should've caught that."

She finished stowing her combat boots with a shrug. "I expect I'll like her anyway."

The valet came back down the hall, bowing to Shiro while he said, "Goshujin-sama ga omachi-orimasu," which Keith assumed meant, "Follow me." At any rate, Shiro trailed after the man in black, and waved for Keith and Krolia to do likewise. Keith kept note in his head of the turns down different corridors in case they had to escape suddenly, but what he noticed most was that Shiro looked more nervous the further they walked. Under the circ*mstances, it was hard to know if he should take Shiro's hand to comfort him or not. The valet didn't qualify as "public" exactly, but he also wasn't cleared to know he and Shiro were still together.

Not being able to hold Shiro's hand was, without a doubt, the worst part of keeping secrets. When they were shown into a small office, his husband was clenching and unclenching his jaw, and couldn't quite set the nervous tic aside while he walked up to a short woman in a nicely tailored pant-suit with short gray hair watering ferns.

It was hard to miss the glass case full of guns behind her, looking like a museum exhibit of firearms through the ages except for the fact that Keith could tell all of them were in working condition. They were getting proper cleaning on a regular basis, not just dusting.

The woman turned, looking them over with alert eyes. She was tiny, but had the same presence that let Shiro own a room when he wanted to. That presence drained out of both of them while they tried to greet each other. First, she tried to hug him despite her tiny frame, but pulled back when he started bowing, then bowed while he made an awkward transition into a hug that mostly looked like her head running into his arm. It made Keith want to run up and rub Shiro's back until he smiled, but the awkwardness filled the entire room. At last, they managed a hug where Shiro nearly had to bend over double with his knees bent to manage it properly, but it happened. "Takashi-kun, ohisashiburi desu ne," the woman said, patting Shiro's arm.

Keith could follow that much. The next few words they exchanged had Keith rethinking his decision to do this without a personal translator. It'd be fine, he'd thought. It was still Earth, not some alien planet. People were people no matter what they spoke.

And it had been fine, right up until he was watching Shiro have an awkward reunion with his last living relative and clearly feeling as uncomfortable as f*ck. His only reunion with a long lost relative had been meeting a mother he didn't know was alive in the middle of a mission that turned into a firefight, and this was very different. How was he supposed to be supportive when he couldn't understand a word they were saying? Even though it was just a couple sentences and probably nothing more than saying, "Hi, how are you, how was your trip?" Keith still wished he'd been less ignorant of how families worked when he'd prepped for this.

To his left, Shiro was pointing him out to his great-aunt. "Ohba-sama, kono hito wa--"

If she was still feeling the attack of nerves that'd showed when they first walked in, this Naoto person was hiding it better than Shiro. She was giving him a hard eye-scrubbing, too, a lot like the sergeants when he'd first entered the Garrison. Keith knew when he was being judged, and he also knew being judged was one of his fastest temper triggers, so if he didn't want to make a scene, he had to keep calm. His fuse had been shorter than normal these last couple days, and he knew it, but he was the Commander in Chief of the universe's foremost civic aid-slash-covert operations tactical unit, for f*ck's sake.

Patience yields focus, Keith reminded himself, breathing in time with the deep breaths he could see Shiro taking. So he'd focus on Shiro.

When Shiro was done talking, the woman said, "Muko-san deshou ne," and Keith couldn't tell if he'd passed or failed judgment. From her tone, Keith didn't think she was impressed with him, but she also didn't seem disappointed. He tried to stay calm, and think rationally. This could be worse. She wasn't holding any of her many guns on him. As long as Shiro's great-aunt wasn't about to try shooting him, he could work with this situation.

Keith turned to Shiro to get some hint about what all that had meant, and where they were going from here. Shiro, however, had gone from slightly nervous to his forehead beading up in sweat. He was frozen, jaw hanging open as far as Shiro's ever did, which wasn't much but it still told Keith to upgrade the the situation from, "I can work with this," to, "This is not good."

He cleared his throat, shooting Shiro a desperate look. Somebody had to tell him what'd just happened here.

"Well, that's interesting," said his mother, who was rational enough to bring her translator everywhere. "This woman identified you as Shiro's husband, Keith." Probably the only person in the room acting natural, she held out her hand to the old woman. "Ma'am, I am Krolia, Senator of the Galra Republic, and Keith's mother. It's a pleasure to meet you. Ms. Shirogane Naoto, correct? Or did you have another title I should use?"

"Ah, English. Of course," the lady said, and Keith noticed a hint of an embarrassed blush on her cheeks. She clenched her jaw the same way Shiro did, too, while she recovered from what looked like a slip in her composure.

Speaking of Shiro, Keith had never seen him closer to looking like he was going to have a heart attack. f*ck it, he decided. If that was how this was going to be, he was going to hold Shiro's hand after all. So while the great-aunt shook the hand Krolia had offered, he clasped Shiro's hand in his own and felt at least a hint of stress melt out of his husband's frame.

"Ms. Shirogane is fine. You're not here to see me officially," the great-aunt told his mother, then turned to offer him a handshake as well. He took it with his right hand, not letting go his grip on Shiro. "I suppose we can do this in English, but if you intend to be a part of the family, Keith-san, you should consider learning some Japanese from Takashi-kun."

And just like that, all of his 'being judged' instincts kicked back into gear, sticking in his craw like he was choking on air. He had to keep calm, though. Nodding, Keith tried to keep his face blank. "I'll consider it, Ma'am. What did Shi-- What did Takashi tell you?"

Her look was all business, ignoring Shiro's nervous head shake as he tried to signal to Keith that he hadn't said anything about their secret. Honestly, Keith didn't much like her tone. "You mean, what did he tell me just now," the old woman asked, "Or what did he tell me with all the out-of-character things he's done in the last month? Retirement, Takashi-kun? I can't believe the world fell for something so transparent. I would've expected you to keep working until you die. It's what I'd expect of any Shirogane."

If it hadn't been for Shiro shifting his grip to his elbow instead of his hand, Keith might not have noticed that he was about to step into a ninety-eight year old woman's face and yell at her for daring to say that Shiro ought to be doing anything but what Shiro wanted to do. He managed to keep his growl down, though. For now.

Great-Aunt Naoto reminded him more of Iverson than anybody, despite the fact that she was five-foot nothing and probably only weighed as much as Pidge. This woman just had that air of thinking she knew what was best for everyone as she waved them over to a table and rang a bell, turning another unamused look on Keith. "Don't worry, young man. I haven't told anyone, and I don't intend to. I'm an investigator, not a gossip."

If there was one thing Keith liked less than not knowing what people were saying, it was not knowing what people knew about his secrets. He kept his mouth shut as he sat down, not quite sure where he wanted to go with this conversation, but fairly certain that punching an old lady was not the correct first course of action. She was clearly a fighter, though. You couldn't underestimate people just because they were old. For the moment, Keith figured he'd follow Shiro's lead. He'd at least met this woman before, which was one up on Keith.

And what Shiro did was put his innocent face back on. "But Ohba-sama, why would you say Keith is here to join the family?" So, trying to bluff until they figured out what she knew.

That seemed fine, until the great-aunt answered, "Mostly because of how you reacted when I called him your husband, Takashi-kun." That was a clear signal that this wasn't a bluffing situation. She didn't break eye-contact once, even while the valet walked in with a cake tray and a teapot to put on the table, although she did let the silence hang until the man was safely gone again. "Or do you want the long version, about the digging I did into Galra courtship after my internet search spiders pinged several Galra television programs about you and Keith-san?"

Keith flicked his eyes to his mother, who looked unconcerned despite the work she'd been doing non-stop with Kolivan and Veronica to control buzz on Earth. They'd prepared for this, saying that the Galra were 'harmlessly confused', just like they were telling the Galra that humans didn't understand life-bonds. They were doing a really good job, too. People on Earth seeing Matt Holt joke about polyamory and waffles were, from all the public opinion tests they'd done, convinced that everything Matt was saying was a bunch of crackpot nonsense, not anything to take seriously. And here this woman was saying she'd seen through all of it. He would've liked to see his mother shoot back instead of looking like this wasn't a problem.

Instead, she seemed amused. He wasn't sure if that was the spy in her, or the senator.

Krolia picked a tiny cake up off the tray. "Well, don't ask me," she told Keith, biting into the cake. "Ms. Shirogane seems like a very perceptive person, and since we were coming here to explain, it seems convenient that she's figured out most of it. This cake is delicious, by the way."

"Thank you, Krolia-san. Would you like some tea?"

It was surreal watching his mother at a tea party with a little old lady, them pouring each other tea. In fact, it was more than surreal. It was infuriating, like they were surrendering to this tiny person telling them that their whole operation was transparent. Maybe it would've been less infuriating if the plan hadn't been so ridiculous in the first place, and he hadn't recently endured ten different comedy shows about Galra trying to cut off Shiro's head, but Keith couldn't judge how pissed he'd be at an old lady, secret agent or not, being a know-it-all jackass when he'd been having a good week.

No. He needed to control himself.

He could see Shiro working hard to keep himself together, pouring tea for Keith like this was any random get-together, although at least he looked like he was nervous while he played along. Keith could take a cue, trying to breathe some calm into himself, and poured tea into Shiro's cup. He didn't know how to talk his way out of this mess, but his mother was a politician now. She had to have some subtle, diplomatic politician talk planned to make this better.

"So, Ms. Shirogane, is that a Galra rifle in your gun rack?" Krolia asked. If that was going to get them anywhere, Keith didn't know how. Times like this, he wished his mother were easier to read, but there was a reason she did long term missions being embedded with unfriendlies and he stayed with teams that wore masks and planted bombs. Her poker face was legendary.

"Something I picked up in the Resistance during the invasion," Shiro's great-aunt confirmed. Keith's foot started tapping at the chit-chat. He could barely keep still as Shiro seemed too on edge to swallow, let alone put a fork in his cake. "Everyone needed them. Earth weaponry was useless. There are blasters in the case as well, if you want to take a look after we eat."

"It appears to be in excellent repair. I'm impressed." But even his mother's ability to be natural wasn't taking down the tension in the room.

"Hi," interrupted Keith. He'd tried. He couldn't take this anymore. His patience had been shorting out for too long. "Sorry, but can we talk about how we have a major information leak that we have to contain? If one smart person can figure out that Shiro and I are still together, so can other smart people! We already had a problem with maintaining two completely inconsistent global disinformation operations, but we thought we had it wrapped up, and clearly we don't."

The rest of the room stopped dead, which was fine. Maybe now they'd get somewhere.

He pushed his teacup away, where he wouldn't spill it if he got pissed and hit something. Keith knew he wasn't being diplomatic, and he might get a lecture when this was over, but he was done. "Now if it's all right with everyone, we have a lot riding on this mission. f*cking it up once nearly got Shiro killed. Fixing the f*ck-up needs to not blow the whole operation, while simultaneously not getting Shiro killed."

"He's right," said Shiro, and Keith thought he could cry at the relief of having that backup, but he wouldn't. Not in front of Great-Aunt Naoto, not any more than he would've cried in front of teachers at the Garrison. "It'd help us keep our operation secure if you don't mind us debriefing you about your investigation later, Ohba-sama." Shiro gripped his hand under the table. "Keith, let's talk about this when we've all had a chance to cool down? I know I could use a breather."

Leave it to Shiro to know what to say, Keith thought, taking in a controlled breath to get his balance back.

"I know, Shiro. Patience yields focus. I'm trying. But we do have to actually discuss the issue when we talk about it."

A quiet clink of a teacup on a saucer sounded under the tension in the room. Shiro's great-aunt was looking uncomfortable again, and Keith felt a little bad about that, mostly because it made Shiro look like he thought he'd done something wrong when Keith was ready to take all the responsibility. He was an asshole, and he stood by that.

Then the old lady said, "First of all... a debriefing seems perfectly in order. But more importantly, I should've thanked you earlier for saving Takashi-kun's life. He's the last of my family, and I know he's still alive because of you, many times over."

"You're... welcome?" Keith answered. He wasn't sure how to respond to her being nice. Then he realized he'd been yelling about Shiro dying right in front of his great-aunt, which almost definitely made him a horrible person.

But before he could think about how to explain that he was sorry, Great-Aunt Naoto was already saying, "I apologize, also, for being cavalier about investigating your work. I'd meant to show you that I accepted your situation by explaining that I understood it, but instead I made you question the work you did to protect Takashi-kun. Information and analysis are far more comfortable for me than... socialization. Please forgive me, Keith-san."

"I..." Keith bit his lip, trying to choose his words carefully. He understood where she was coming from there, not being a people person either. "Well. Half the time, if I say the right thing, it's because I ask myself what Shiro... what Takashi would say, which I definitely did not do just now." Although he appreciated how Shiro squeezed his hand, and how that seemed to make his great-aunt happy. "So yeah. I understand. For the record, I'm still concerned about a security nightmare and will take you up on that debriefing, but I don't mind if... you want to start over. On the socialization part."

"Thank you." She smiled again, the same kind of tiny smile Shiro got when he was remembering something. "'Patience yields focus,' you said? That sounds like something my grandfather used to say to my brother and I. With or without my approval, your young man seems very much like a part of this family, Takashi-kun. And if it helps your anxiety, Keith-san, the reason I figured out what I did is that I knew you were coming to see me, and that this visit was secret. Before you asked to visit, even as a 'smart person', I had no idea what to think, and I still can't imagine why you want to hide your relationship. You seem like a good fit."

"That's classified," Keith answered, shifting in his seat. Being apologized to made him itchy. But hey, super-special agent Shirogane Naoto hadn't guessed anything about the nebula mission. That was actually the most important, and they'd go over the rest later.

Shiro's great-aunt picked up her tea again. "Then I won't think about it. And if you'd like something to call me other than, 'Ma'am,' you can call me 'Ohba' like Takashi-kun does."

That sounded more like a preference than an option to him. "Okay, Ohba."

"...san," Shiro whispered by his ear.

"Ohba-san," said Keith. Maybe he'd take her recommendation and ask Shiro for some Japanese lessons, because, yeah, he was out of his depth.

"Keith," his mother said, reaching out for the hand Shiro wasn't holding. "That's not all you're upset about, is it? I know you said you can handle this, but I want you to understand that you mean more to me than the universe, and I believe Shiro feels the same way. If you're under too much stress--"

He shook his head. They weren't going to scrap this now, not when they were so close to winding down the Galra viral media campaign, not when it was working and the worst consequence was that he wanted to punch things. When didn't he want to punch things? "I'll be fine once the plan is back on track," Keith said. "Once nobody is talking about us, and nobody's in danger. It's only that people wanted to hurt Shiro, and I couldn't show them they'd have to go through me. Somebody else had to fake them out while I just sat there," Keith hissed, clenching his hands into fists, one around his husband's grip and one around his mother's. Finally saying it out loud felt like spitting out poison. "I don't want to be mad about that. I don't, Mom. I'm sorry. You did so much to stop the entire Galra Republic from murdering him, and you did it without anyone dying, and I can't tell you how grateful I am for that, but--"

"But you would have fought them all with your bare hands, and you're frustrated that duty prevented you from doing that. I understand, Keith. The instinctive drive to defend your bond-partner is, well..." Looking at the sadness in her eyes when she glanced away for a second, he felt like she did understand.

And he thought he knew why. "Mom, were you and Dad...?"

"Life-bonded? Yes." She smirked fondly, with just a peek of fang as she smoothed his hair back. "I told you once, the hardest thing I ever did was leave you and your father, but even if I had intercepted every squadron sent to Earth, eventually it would've been more than I could handle. I had to choose to keep you safe by going back to dismantle Zarkon's empire, because that way would work. I still regret that I could never introduce him to the Blades. They were closest I had to family, until you."

"Is that why you wanted to make sure I--" Keith's mouth went dry, and he looked over at Great-Aunt Naoto, who was smiling down at her tea, probably because staring at two people having a moment was creepy and nobody wanted to be creepy. So maybe that was a personal conversation he and his mom could have later. He picked up his teacup again and raised it in a kind of toast. "So. Um. Thanks for having us, Ohba-san."

Keith had seen Shiro look happy plenty of times, and his face right now was a solid ten on the happiness scale. Not bad for a visit that'd started with him almost punching an old lady.

"I wouldn't ask most guests," Shiro's great-aunt asked, "But since you're all soldiers, maybe after tea you'll join me in the firing range? We can bond over something we have in common."

Krolia raised her half-eaten sponge cake. "I look forward to it. Cake and violence, the two most constant forces in the universe."

Yeah, he could drink to that.

Chapter 5: Going to the Chapel

Chapter Text

"Hero, space explorer, water ecology enthusiast, style icon, tastemaker, and now we can add one more word to the definition of Shirogane Takashi: engaged. Yesterday, a rare selfie showed up in Shiro's instagram among the colorful aquascapes that some experts credit with a surge of popular interest in aquaculture and conservation efforts around Earth's coral reefs. This selfie didn't just have the former Admiral's face, but also the face of another handsome man's man, Curtis LaSalle, Galaxy Garrison aqua-biologist and recent thief of Shiro's heart.

There's a heat in their eyes that makes Shiro kissing Curtis's cheek look like more, but it's Curtis's hand with a tell-tale band of gold and the three little words, "He said yes," in the caption that do most of the talking. Or should we say, they're setting the world talking?

Debates over why the long-time astronaut and war hero broke off his famous romance with Paladin of Voltron Keith Kogane had been cooling down, but some theories just caught fire again with this new relationship going at light speed. However, we don't expect to hear word one from either Shiro or Keith on whether their split happened because Shiro wanted to settle down, while Keith wasn't ready to give up the stars. Both have been tight-lipped with reporters, and were friendly the few times their paths have crossed since they called it quits.

Whatever you think of the break-up, from "right guy, wrong time" to the more far-flung idea that Keith is masterminding Shiro's new romance for reasons only Galra have claimed to know, it's safe to say that Shiro and Curtis have no doubts. They've already set a date, about a month away. No word on whether the break-up was friendly enough that Keith will be at the wedding, but we've got a question for Curtis: can we ask about your game? What bedroom secrets do you have that might help the rest of us keep our own Mr., Ms., or Mx. Right?"

(GQ, "There's Only One Fish in the Sea Now for the Hero of Earth, Shirogane Takashi". Author: Maputo Lokin. 25 May 2281.)

Now that Shiro could remember most of being a gladiator slave and experimentation subject as Zarkon and Haggar's prisoner, plus his time inside the Void watching his evil clone try to assassinate his team, he knew objectively that he'd been through worse than this. A wall-size picture of him kissing a man he didn't love was just a picture, not a reason to feel as sick as he did. At least Keith was here, and somehow knew how to comfort him, because if Keith hadn't reached for his hand and whispered, "You're still mine, and no one's going to forget it," Shiro might've had to leave the room. Once the other Paladins started wolf-whistling, with a very loud, "Get it, Shiro!" from Lance, the cognitive dissonance was too strong.

He could empathize with Iverson, who'd retreated into a trance where he could pretend this just wasn't happening. The one-eyed Admiral had long since declared that he didn't need to know anything about "this bullsh*t romance cover story" except that it was working. Sam Holt, meanwhile, was too good a man to ignore it all, but he'd turned the operation over to Veronica to manage, and hadn't added anything but a pained sigh in two weeks.

Sometimes, when they got into instagram posts and public reactions, Sam's eyes glazed over and an uncomfortable blush crept above his beard, and Shiro was pretty sure nothing anybody was saying penetrated the shell of embarrassment around the President's brain. The desire to not know things could be stronger than a particle barrier. At last, the report about media coverage numbers was over, and Veronica switched the slide to their strategy to keep attention low. Sam looked even happier than Shiro felt to have the kissing picture gone.

"Okay, everyone," Veronica asked once the usual reminders to act natural were done. "Any questions about where we stand?"

Across the table, Shiro's fake fiancé frowned at his datapad. He was still coming for monthly check-ins, at least as long as the groundwork was under construction. "Why are so many male lifestyle bloggers calling me a 'man's man'? Is that some weirdo way of saying I'm gay?"

The brass at the table checked firmly out of the conversation, having learned the hard way back when Keith was getting declared 'too interesting' that questions like that were, in fact, 100% on topic and had to get answered.

"Nah," laughed Keith, whom Shiro was happy to let explain. His husband reveled in the complaints magazine editors had thrown at him over the years. "They're saying you're tall and don't wear tight pants -- unlike me. I'm way too short, so I'll never be a man's man."

The most dubious look Shiro had seen outside of Coran looking at a milkshake menu crossed Curtis's face. The murmur, "I do not get fashion," could have been the end of it, except that Lance heard, and Shiro had a teensy suspicion that Sam Holt didn't.

If he'd heard, the President probably would've objected to Lance saying, "Okay, let me demonstrate," because the rest of them sure knew where this was going even if Sam didn't. Even Krolia was grinning while Lance waved Keith out of his seat -- and, Shiro noticed, Lance wanted him up as well. "Okay, you two, give me your best James Bond. Go!"

Well, that wasn't hard. Shiro crossed one foot in front of the other, propping a hand on one hip and holding his (safety locked) blaster by his head in one of the iconic poses most Bonds had done in the last three hundred years of 007 movies. Keith was looking over at him to be sure he got the stance right since he wasn't big on striking poses. Unlike the rest of them, he hadn't had to go through Coran's Power Rangers training. And even though he knew exactly what he was doing, Shiro checked Keith out, too, because what was the point of your husband standing around looking hot if you didn't appreciate it?

Oh boy, did he appreciate the way Keith co*cked his hip, among other things. Shiro could never pull off the hip thing. And Keith's jacket, cropped high to show off a tight shirt clinging as it trailed over the waistband of his pants? Well...

Lance cleared his throat, and Shiro snapped his eyes front. The time for watching Keith's ass was 'later', not in a meeting.

"Behold an iconic 'Man's Man' pose," said Lance. "It shows off the details that make Keith, while not fugly, despite the hair, fall outside their cookie cutter. Shiro is almost too buff, but I can still make the point. Look at these shoulder to hip ratios, okay? And torso length..." Lance zipped around them both, drawing diagonals in the air in front of Shiro and more vertical lines in front of Keith. "Now, both of Keith and Shiro wear tight pants if you let them pick their own clothes, and both of them have fantastic asses--"

"Hey!" Keith growled.

Shiro saw Sam Holt facepalm. Iverson was checking his email, not listening.

Clapping in front of Keith's face, Lance shot back, "Zip it, Keith. Take the compliment. Now, the thing about anybody who's running that kind of men's magazine is they don't believe in showing off your ass for some reason, so imagine the straight-leg trouser here..." He traced lines where the fabric would fall. "Shiro's a classic Dorito man, his proportions are indestructible, but even new, hot, shoulder-having Keith--"

"I have looked like this for ten years, Lance," groaned Keith, trying to break pose, but Lance caught his arm before it came down.

"And I still haven't forgiven you for getting hot. The point is, pants other than skin-tight hip-huggers f*ck up your proportions. And when you wear a full length jacket, not a crop?! Forget it! You look like a f*ckwad at his junior prom, unlike Shiro. He'd need a custom jacket because, like, muscles, hello... but he'd look like a boss. So would you, Curtis. That straight leg, tailored suit look is the foundation of 'man's man' style. You following me here?"

Curtis shook his head. "This is so confusing," he said. But he was making a smirk that Shiro had come to realize meant he was messing with someone. Keith was smirking, too. His real husband and his fake husband-to-be were both little sh*ts, and now they were bonding over giving Lance a hard time while Pidge, Hunk, and Veronica snickered at the table.

Lance was the only one who hadn't noticed he was getting played as he tore at his hair. "What is confusing? Give me something to work with!"

"Hang on," said Keith.

His husband stepped out of the Bond pose over Lance's indignant squeak and snuggled next to Shiro's chest, pulling Shiro's arm around his shoulder. He remembered this pose, although not as well as he remembered grumbles from the photographer who'd put them in it. The man had called in the website's editor to complain about his and Keith's height difference, and the editors had barely contained their tempers when Keith had offered to wear high heels if they needed him to be taller.

"Here we go," he went on, giving Curtis a nod. "Rejected from our last human men's lifestyle photoshoot. I'm too twinky for their target demographic to want to look like me. But you? You're 'manly', like Shiro. They'll like you."

"You're a twink who could break me like a twig," Curtis said with a skeptical look.

"So could my Mom," Keith answered with a shrug, Curtis and Krolia both nodding. "Dangerous is not the same as 'manly'. So, demonstration over?" he asked, lacing his fingers between Shiro's as he walked to the table.

Once again, he was offering Shiro a perfect view of his ass, and Keith's swagger didn't look sorry. Straight-leg pant styles were so overrated.

"I like your pants," Shiro said. Out loud, he realized a moment too late.

Still not sorry, the smirk Keith threw over his shoulder could've melted a volcano. "I know," he said, and Keith didn't even bother to whisper. He had a look in his eye, too -- the kind that said, "I dare you..." and made Shiro freeze and forget what he'd been doing, because what he wanted was to steal a kiss. He definitely was not supposed to right now, but...

Pidge let out a honking laugh, propping her feet on the table. "Haha! I think Shiro.EXE just crashed. Time to reboot!"

When he looked at the table full of grins, Shiro realized what he'd been doing before Keith looked at him with those eyes: sitting down. His quads weren't aching, since he'd only been standing with his legs slightly bent for a few seconds, but the withering look Sam Holt gave Veronica made him feel like it'd been an hour and he ought to have a cramp. Well, he was sitting now, and he gave Keith a dirty glare.

Fond, but dirty. Keith still wasn't sorry, and Shiro hoped he never was.

"Taking that to mean you have no more questions," said Veronica, "Let's talk marching orders. Curtis, we can't keep you away from interviews anymore, so be prepared. When they ask about Shiro, focus on descriptors like, 'unassuming', 'regular guy', and 'down to earth'. As soon as possible, pivot to aquaculture and hydroponics. Simple is better. Show them there's nothing to know. No matter what, do not make your relationship sound interesting."

"Stay boring. Check," Curtis answered with a thumbs up.

She turned Shiro's way next. "Admiral, when you get asked about Curtis, stay vague. Your message is, 'You know when something is right, and you go with it'. The one thing you cannot do is give a reason for liking Curtis. Avoid creating areas where people can compare with Keith. Get the conversation onto your new fish. Both of you, your honeymoon will be at a coral reef reconstruction in the Caribbean. You're looking forward to spending a lot of time underwater."

Curtis raised his hand. "But--"

"We'll give you a technician of your choice to maintain the aquarium tanks at your house," Veronica promised. "After the wedding, you will oversee final construction of the house where you'll be living. We'll get your input on the architecture later, and you will personally manage the transfer of your aquariums to the new house. You'll also go over the banking paperwork for your additional duty pay, which will--"

"I don't care about money," said Curtis. "As long as my fish are taken care of, I'm fine."

With a smirk, she checked off something on her list. "Compensation is non-optional, Commander LaSalle. The transfers will be funnelled through Admiral Shirogane's pension. Since you'll be married, there won't be much paperwork. Now, Keith, if anybody asks--"

"If anybody asks me anything, I think they're a great couple, and I don't know what the f*ck this has to do with me," Keith answered.

"Good enough," she said, then pointed her datapad stylus at Keith with a glare. "Avoid the words, 'Whatever makes Shiro happy'. Also, if you mention fish, I will see to it that you're my brother's bodyguard during his book tour. Do not make people think you care about what Shiro is doing."

Shiro was almost certain Veronica didn't have enough pull to get Keith assigned anywhere, let alone to bodyguard an Earth civil servant for an intergalactic book tour, but the threat made both Keith and Lance turn green. Of course, Veronica pulled off lots of tasks that he considered impossible, and Krolia wasn't signalling that she thought Veronica's joke was out of line. Never underestimate a competent administrator.

Keith untwisted his scowl. "I can handle that. Next?"

Veronica took her presentation off the screen. "Next, Coran. Updates on documentary filming?"

"Right you are!" Coran hopped to his feet, which wasn't necessary, but no one could stop him walking around while he made his points. Actually, it was probably good cardiovascular exercise. As Coran punched up a color-coded calendar (because what are we, animals? Shiro's mental voice chimed), he wondered if he should add choreography to his own presentations to at least get some exercise during briefings.

No. The mockery would be vicious. There was only one Coran.

The first days of the timeline were blue, since having assigned colors made color-coding easy. "We'll cover the opening of Lance's book tour first," said Coran. "Radio and television interviews start tomorrow, live appearances as soon as the book hits the streets next week. Bii Boh-Bii wants to film chapter readings on Earth and Altea before Lance heads out to more remote planets. I hope you've got some good sections picked out? We want the very best!"

The Red Paladin waved off all of it. "Please! My book is nothing but good sections! 'Memories of Allura' will have the audience laughing, crying, and sighing -- at the right times, obviously. There's something for everybody!"

"Dude," said Pidge, conjuring a holographic 'paper' airplane from her datapad to launch at Lance's head. "You got drunk, recorded yourself talking about Allura for nine hours in stream of consciousness -- I cherish my video of you repeating the word, 'ears,' for five minutes straight -- then you begged me for an algorithm to transcribe it, and then you got an editor to make it readable. This is not great literature."

"Whatever, hater. It's already a bestseller and it hasn't even been released yet."

Shiro saw Keith typing, "Paladin Lance drunk ears" into a video search, and confiscated his husband's datapad.

"Later, baby," he whispered.

Keith murmured back, "You're no fun."

"I'll make you eat those words."

"Oh, I'll eat something."

Times when Keith had been away and had to ship out again immediately were the worst. He'd rather be spending the precious hours they had together doing anything but having a status meeting, but Shiro reminded himself that when this was over, he'd fly out with Keith instead of settling for a handful of nights when his husband was in port. He just had to be patient a month or two longer. He also had to cool it with the flirting, because Hunk, on the other side of Keith, was blushing . The Yellow Paladin was too kind to call them out in front of the whole room, but they had to be considerate of Hunk's comfort.

Shiro refocused on Coran pirouetting around the calendar, saying, "Two weeks later, the crews'll follow Number 5 to your artificial intelligence exposition. Both the book tour and the AI tour will move off in different directions, and then give you breaks to visit Earth for Shiro and Curtis's wedding -- we'll get to that in a minute. When you re-launch after the nuptial extravaganza, the tours will be much quieter." The walking moustache crouched between Lance and Pidge, pulling them both in by the arms. "We want to avoid people noticing your proximity when your tours sync up in neighboring star systems, all right? Might draw traffic."

"Hey, just keep my scanning outposts clear," Pidge said, twirling a stylus around her fingers. "And, you know, whatever target areas we pick up for..." Her father giving her a stern look. "... Oh right. For stuff I can't discuss because for some reason we're giving Curtis access to Shiro's bank accounts and social media and telling him there's a big secret, but it's not okay to tell him what the secret is."

Curtis shot a thumbs up, all grins as he paged through a brochure on Pidge's work. "I'm actually okay with not knowing, because I don't want to accidentally say too much. You just do your thing, and -- apparently -- pay me to troll the media. Hashtag blessed."

Krolia slapped him on the back, friendly but hard. Based on how Curtis winced, Shiro thought he'd remind Krolia later that most humans weren't as durable as Keith. "Thank you, Curtis," she said. "In the event that you do get questions about the outposts, their purpose is to find junk fields with undetonated mines from Zarkon's operations. Also, send us word through your sister immediately, because no one should have a reason to ask you that, and one of us will be required to destroy any information leak. Don't worry. It won't be you."

The look on Curtis's face, hovering between terrified and aware that Krolia was a better ally than an enemy, was far more reliable than any promise, and Curtis had been reliable with promises. He wouldn't say anything he shouldn't.

"Back on topic!" said Coran, zooming over to the calendar so he could tap on the yellow and simultaneously shatter the ominous mood left in Krolia's wake. "Once Pidge rolls out, the film crews will do behind the scenes work on your Galactic Iron Chef season premiere, Hunk. Six weeks from today, they'll follow you to Namurn to pick up with the Blades of Marmora. Feeding refugees'll be your cover for going off planet later, but for now, you'll come back to Earth..." Coran circled a Tuesday where yellow gave way to red. "Wrap your next episode, prep catering for the wedding, and Bii Boh-Bii will film Keith. Got to love those Blades of Marmora!"

"Tell that to Bii Boh-Bii," Keith grunted. "I think he hates me."

"Now, that can't be true," Shiro assured him.

Pidge shook her head. "No, he hates you. I always hear him complaining about how your life is too fantastical to make good fiction. He has rewrite sh*t you do so it's more plausible. Whereas I think he should embrace absurdity. What, like, spirit lions in white holes is okay, but you draw the line at riding the Black Lion's head like it's a surfboard in a game of chicken with a pirate warship and somersaulting through their windshield to punch the captain?"

"What was I supposed to do?" asked Keith, throwing his hands in the air. "Not punch her?"

Hunk shook his head and patted Keith on the shoulder. "I don't think the punching was why Bii-Boh Bii objected. Also, he's most mad about how you killed his ship."

Eyes narrowed, Keith frowned at the very suggestion, and Shiro tried not to smile. Sometimes, he liked Keith's frowns too much, but they were so... Keith. "I never did anything to his ships," his husband said. "I don't shoot at civilians."

"Not his space ships," said Hunk, apparently ready to get payback for them flirting earlier. "His favorite not-actually-fictional romantic relationship. That would be you -- Keith and Shiro -- in case, you know... it still wasn't clear."

"Oh yeah, the 'Sheith isn't real' depression," Lance agreed with gleeful mockery. "Bii Boh-Bii totally blames you for the break-up. He also likes to drink at the Gold Saucer, so I see him around, and that noodle cannot hold his vodka. He thinks you chose the Blades over Shiro."

"Oh quite!" added Coran. Unlike Lance, his glee was unadulterated with any of mockery. "Goodness, did he complain that he's traveling with Keith's fleet back to Earth for Shiro's wedding! Almost as loud as a Grabblangian Urtlip! Although I must say, he was thrilled to have an event to film for Shiro. When I offered him the wedding, he told me, and I quote, 'Thank Bii I won't have to film a quiznacking fish tank'."

"Aquarium," Curtis corrected. It was true, 'fish tank' did not cover the setup Curtis had.

Coran zipped up to Curtis so quickly, his moustache was almost tickling Curtis's nose as he said, "Oh, that was the polite version. What he actually said would've made an Unilu blush."

"About aquariums?!"

Back at the calendar in a blink, Coran pointed to a block colored in purplish off-black. "So, the documentary crew will cover the wedding, coming back with Keith two days before. Once that's wrapped, we use the bait and switch of the honeymoon to get Shiro off planet. Then, we can move him with the Blades of Marmora, and bing bang boom! No more problems getting everyone to the scanning stations to search for 'Zarkon's trash mine fields'!" he said with air quotes and a wink. "Oh, that Zarkon. Gift that keeps on giving, he was -- and so good at shuffleboard! Such a shame, I never will get to challenge him to that rematch..."

The room filled with a silence that segues were made for, but as hard as Shiro wracked his brain, he couldn't think of one. Luckily, every datapad in the room pinged, and Pidge wasn't above checking notifications in a meeting. "On that hideously awkward note," said the Green Paladin, "Matt's coming in tonight! He is officially done with the great Galra Comedy Tour!"

In classic Matt Holt style, the note on Shiro's datapad started with a staged photo of his friend in thigh-high fishnets and a corset, bold eye makeup running down in tears. A stamp on the picture said, "I'm coming home!" That pretty much said it all. He'd read the letter later.

"Will you help me hide the body when I kill him?" Keith asked Pidge. His tone was pleasant enough that Shiro was certain he was joking. Mostly certain. Joking enough that murder was probably preventable.

"Normally, no," she said. "He's my brother. But considering the number of Galra who've propositioned me in the past week because they think humans are sex vampires, I'll give your offer some thought. Meanwhile, his partners are throwing a welcome party at their place, 7PM? Dad, he's stopping to see you and Mom first. He figures you wouldn't want to come."

"You kids have your fun," agreed Sam Holt, nodding his head. "Try to make sure the house doesn't burn down, okay, Katie?"

"Oh, I'll try." No one was going to argue that keeping Matt Holt from destroying property was a losing battle. "Also, who do I talk to about getting, 'Hey, baby, do you want to make some waffles?' added to the list of phrases that constitute sexual harassment?"

"Make an appointment with HR," President Holt answered. "I'll get that fast-tracked. And Katie? Don't let Keith kill your brother. The paperwork alone will be a nightmare."

~//~

Going to a Matt Holt party had, naturally, concerned Curtis at first blush. He'd heard the stories: the frequent explosions, the occasional orgies, that time the entire theoretical physics department saw visions of saddle-shaped spacial topology from the fifth dimension after drinking the punch, but no drug tests could identify the chemicals in said punch after Matt had 'accidentally' set the recipe on fire. Matt Holt was permanently banned from all working lunches at the Garrison. Every orientation for new recruits at South Sanda Base included the moment where some poor soul asked why there was a hole in one corner of the cafeteria ceiling phasing in and out of reality, and they got the story about why Matt Holt had a specific anti-clearance to approach the quantum bazookas in Research and Development.

The bazookas weren't even supposed to be able to do that.

However, much to Curtis's surprise, this particular party was just fun. That was possibly because Matt himself hadn't shown up yet, but he wasn't about to complain. The house Matt shared with his six lovers was spacious and full of comfy places to sit, both on chairs and on pillows on the floor. The holo-projector scattered shimmers through the well-lit sitting room like a rainbow disco ball without a ball, and bouncy, bubbly music was playing loud enough for Lance, Veronica, and Rizavi to dance on the trampoline without it being too loud to talk. Convenient, since the conversation around the Jenga tower was fascinating.

Matt's Olkari partner, Russ, was treating them to a lecture on the eight Olkari hypergenders (as opposed to the three non-complex sexes, all of which were agendered: non-bearing fertilizers, fertilizable young-bearers, and unfertilizable young-bearers, who had to receive both kinds of seed cells to get pregnant). Curtis wished he'd brought a notebook!

Curtis held his breath as he poked gently at a side piece halfway up the tower, trying not to get distracted by Russ's explanation of how "hyperfemme full germinators" like them could both perform and accept fertilization and self-germinate via parthenogenesis.

He always took out the parallel supports along one side for as long as he could. It made people focus on taking things out on the other side for "balance", which almost always led to complete disaster for his opponents -- in this case, Hunk, Russ, and a robot who was a combination of a toaster and a pet octopus. Probably, that wasn't the robot Matt was sleeping with. The robot who was in Matt's seven-way partnership was probably the one trading war stories with Roy and Claudia. Probably. He was pretty sure.

"So unfortunately Galactic Standard has to serve so many species with so many processes," said Russ, "debates over what to call different genders stalled without resolution, hence the lack of determinate gender designations."

The block he'd pushed fell to the ground, and the tower swayed while Curtis placed it on top, but it didn't fall. Breathing again, he said, "Your biology reminds me of an Earth shark female, actually, except for how you can fertilize other people."

"If it's easier for humans to think of me as shark gendered--"

"Oh no! Sharks are a fish, another Earth species, not a gender!" He wasn't sure if this could start an intergalactic war or not, but he wasn't about to take a chance on a misunderstanding, even if someone who got into bed with Matt Holt was probably good at not being offended.

"Yeah," said Hunk, starting a systematic examination of the tower from different angles. "Like, we can just use the Olkari terms. We can learn a little vocabulary."

Russ shook their head, making a purring sound that seemed to be their version of a giggle. "I have heard humans try. Your vocal cords and auditory perception ranges cannot differentiate between tohese, our word for a hyperfemme full germinator, and tohese, our word for carburetor." And Curtis had to agree, he couldn't hear a single difference in how they were pronounced. There was some variation in the vocal timbre, but nothing he could pinpoint. "Overtones in pitches you find inaudible are critical to the Olkari language, and since it's... shall we say, a grave vulgarity to refer to one such as myself as a 'carburetor', you would be far better off thinking of me as a shark."

God, he loved being a scientist!

"So, how do you handle gender misassignment?" asked Hunk, measuring the weight distribution of the Jenga tower against the vertical line of his finger before pushing on a center piece perpendicular to Curtis's pattern. This was a tough crowd. No one was falling for his psychological traps. "I mean, it's gotta happen."

Russ nodded, laser focused on how the tower shifted. "Of course. Differentiation occurs around fifteen years, and if someone disidentifies, temperature therapy can steer them toward a gender they identify with. For misassignment understood later, there are retrovirals, hormone thera--"

Curtis caught a whiff of ozone and held up a hand before they slid out the piece they'd selected. Russ paused just in time. Keith popped in with his wolf, startling everybody who didn't see that on a regular basis. He wanted to win this game because of winning, not because Keith and his wolf surprised them.

"Thank you, Curtis," they said, focusing on slotting out their Jenga piece, which made Russ the only person in the room not watching Keith strut his objectively fine ass to Shiro's chair and dump himself into Shiro's lap.

As much as he'd been enjoying that Jenga game, it was for the best that the toaster-octopus robot's strategy of knocking blocks out in a spiral from the bottom up toppled the tower. Curtis wasn't sure he would've been able to concentrate while Keith stuck his tongue down Shiro's throat. The surprised arch of Shiro's eyebrow as he let Keith in, the churn of muscle under whatever the Blade of Marmora uniforms were made of because Keith used his whole body to kiss, the shameless middle finger he popped up at the entire room catcalling... it was primal, and no jury would convict Shiro for how he held on and enjoyed the ride, or for the glassy, breathless expression he was wearing when Keith leaned back, territory claimed.

"Get a room!" Lance scoffed at the top of his lungs, above all the hooting and clapping.

Keith gestured at the four walls and ceiling, as if to say, "This is a room," and looked very proud of the blood rushing to Shiro's face. Some of the paparazzi must've found Keith on the street and asked him what he thought of the engagement. Normally, Shiro was more reserved when the two of them were in company, but today, Keith grumbled a few low words, and Shiro whispered, "I'm sorry, baby. That sounds awful. Here, I'll make it up to you," before leaning Keith's head against the opposite chair arm and peppering his face with small kisses.

Matt's Altean girlfriend, Fala, pushed a tray of hors-d'oeuvres out of the way of Keith's hair and mimed fanning her face at her husband (and Matt's boyfriend) Garrett (to whom she'd been married before Matt, his android lover N-7, and their canine girlfriend Olia had started dating both of them, if Curtis understood correctly, while Russ and the gender-at-will chameleon person whose name Curtis was told he should 'guess' had joined the family later). Meanwhile, Pidge smacked Shiro's and Keith's hands with a pillow before they could wander anywhere out of sight -- not that Curtis was worried about that. Shiro was picky about being alone with Keith before he took his clothes off. They'd been fake dating for over a month, and even with Keith making regular visits that included enthusiastic booty calls, Curtis had never seen Shiro's chest once.

That was probably good. Shirogane Takashi's pectoral muscles had to be a divine sight that would kill a mere mortal. He was hot enough in a tight t-shirt covered in gym sweat. Seeing him in his full-skinned glory wasn't worth turning into a pillar of salt and/or a puddle of hormones. Even the sliver of Keith's back under his t-shirt while he brushed his teeth before heading back to Shiro's room was criminally attractive. How were these people real?

The front door slammed like a shot, a triumphant laugh drowning out the music for two seconds. None other than Matt Holt stood in the doorway with his ponytail tangled in his duffel bag strap, a giant poster rolled under his arm, and a smile like a supernova. "Busted!" Matt yelled, pointing at Keith on Shiro's lap. "f*cking busted! I knew you two didn't break up!"

"Yeah, you're very smart," Keith shot back. "Now, appreciate that I have three hours liberty with Shiro, and if it weren't for your party, I would be f*cking him right now."

The android talking to Roy and Claudia -- N-7 was stencilled on their chest, so that had to be Matt's robot lover -- shouted, "Who's stopping you?!" over the laughs and wolf whistles. Pidge, standing at the ready with her pillow, raised her hand, then pelted the pair with more smacks when Keith pulled Shiro down for another kiss.

But that was that. After that kiss, Keith joined the crowd moving to greet Matt, although Shiro stayed seated, having stolen Pidge's pillow to drop over his lap. Curtis couldn't blame him. If he'd had someone like Keith gyrating in his personal space, he'd need a minute before he could stand up, too. He wasn't completely asexual, even if he wasn't into anyone as much as Shiro and Keith were into each other.

The whole room was a bustle, from Russ levitating the Jenga game onto the shelf before joining the group hug and smooch of various lovers greeting Matt, to Paladins bounding off of trampolines and over furniture, to a toaster-octopus running loops around people's feet. Curtis drifted over to his sister and Roy, watching Matt hanging a poster of himself in a white bodysuit, posed in front of a bank of televisions with a waffle iron, emblazoned with the words, "The Man Who Fell to Daibazaal." That had to be from a comedy skit that Curtis probably should've felt insulted over, but to be insulted, he would've had to understand what the skits were about. After watching hours of Galra comedy, all he knew was Galra comedy involved a whole heck of a lot of beheading with high-pressure blood sprays.

"Geez, Matt Holt," he whispered to Claudia. "On a scale of one to ten, how weird would it be to just say hi to him like we know each other?"

His sister shared one of her semi-telepathic looks with Roy, and whispered, "Probably a three, but Matt lives at a five on the weird scale, so I doubt he'd notice."

Curtis held back, though. The people who actually knew him should go first. Keith had muscled his way through after Pidge, giving Matt a quick backslap of a hug. "I appreciate what you did for us. It helped. I want you to know that, because I also have to punch you now."

"Hey, it was my pleasure!" said Matt, further words cut off by Keith, true to his word, hammering a punch to Matt's solar plexus that left the comedian doubled over and gasping.

Lance, Pidge, and Hunk were close enough to pull Keith back and standing on their toes in case they needed to, but the one punch was it. Keith held out a hand, and Matt took it with a groan as he straightened his spine. It was more dignity than Curtis would've managed, but he assumed all intergalactic space rebels knew how to take a punch.

The glee on Matt's face was something else entirely. "Keith punched me to defend Shiro's honor!" Matt shouted, throwing his hands over his head. "I can cross that off my bucket list!"

"I can't punch as hard as Keith," said Pidge. "But watch out for my vengeance in the coming weeks, Matt. People have been propositioning me because of you."

"What?!" Matt clasped Pidge's hands, horror on his face. "No, no! I specifically from the beginning said only some human genotypes had overwhelming sexual frenzies! I'd never sell you out like that, my dearest, sweetest, Pidgiest sister! I know you'd make me suffer!"

Pidge's eyes went almost as wide as her glasses while she groaned. "Yeah, you told the entire Galra Republic that Shiro goes into heat, only you actually f*cking called it Pon Farr -- and since some of the Galra have seen Star Trek, they drew a lot of wild conclusions, none mitigated by your 'not all humans', because do you know what, Matt? Do you know how many people, whether human, Galra, or otherwise, know what a genotype is?! Not many! And even fewer watched the sociological interviews you did, which were the only place where you mentioned the 'not all humans' part!"

Matt Holt pursed his mouth, looking from Keith's smirk to his sister's scowl to a blushing Shiro with a pillow in his lap who looked like the last thing he wanted was a debate over whether he went into heat. "I'll admit, I may have erred, and I probably deserve whatever punishment you have planned. But..."

"But?" Pidge asked.

He unzipped his duffel bag and presented Pidge with a waffle iron in the shape of his own face. "But I brought everyone presents!" Matt announced with a hopeful smile.

She yanked the waffle iron out of his hands. "I will enjoy covering your face with butter and syrup and cutting it up with a knife. But I will also have vengeance." As Keith whispered in her ear, she yelped, "Yes!" with a snap. "Thank you, Keith! I think I know exactly the thing."

Wheeling around the room with a smile, Matt put glittering antennae headbands in everyone's hands and left boxes of various shapes with his partners and friends. "Okay! Since I'm gonna die of embarrassment soon, everybody put on some antennae! I want a group selfie for my funeral! One for you, one for you... Lance, wow, how did I never notice before that pink is totally your color? I got you a volcano mud facial set. You're gonna love it."

"Dang! Thanks!"

Eventually, Whirlwind Matt stopped in front of Curtis with a squeak. "Oh! Hey, Curtis! Matt Holt, great to meet you! Put on these antennae... You get gold, because you are the real hero here, Mr. Shirogane-to-be. It cannot be easy dealing with those two." The box he dropped in Curtis's hands was nicely wrapped with a black silk ribbon. "Don't open that till you're alone, okay? But you deserve some relief." While the room cackled, Matt hugged him, concealing a whisper. "It's candy, since I don't know what you're into. I just want them all to think it's a weird sex thing."

"No worries, man," Curtis whispered back. "I'll pretend it's super freaky and very effective."

"Nice. You can stay." As he came out of the hug, handing Roy and Claudia antennae headbands, Matt asked them, "Hi, I'm Matt. Do I know you?"

"This guy..." Roy scoffed. "Good to see you're still an asshole, Holt."

Matt's face went into a deadpan that left Roy and Claudia looking for some sign that he was joking. "No, really. Have we met before?"

Roy Focker, who had probably never in his life had someone forget him, opened and closed his mouth like a fish, but Matt only left him hanging for a few seconds before he pulled Roy in for a hug. "Just screwing with you. How've you been, Focker? And Claudia LaSalle! Still keeping the Garrison running? If I'd known you guys'd be around, I'd have gotten you souvenirs, too!"

"Don't worry about us," said Claudia, slapping Matt's shoulder. "Just bring me double next time."

"Yes, ma'am!"

Roy held up a neon orange card. "And my present'll be your face when I give you this, Holt. I've been waiting till you got back to hand 'em out."

"I'm terrified," Matt huffed, flipping the card. Curtis's suspicions were confirmed when Matt yelped, "Shiro's bachelor party?! What?!" Curtis flashed the engagement ring for the first double take. The second was aimed at Shiro, now standing up for a hug, apparently no longer in need of a decency shield. "I'm not your best man?!"

"Sorry, Matt," Shiro answered with a shrug. "Roy did introduce me to my fiancé. You got to be the superstar comedian, he gets to be the best man."

Matt slid the orange card into his back pocket, scowling at Shiro and Roy's sh*t-eating grins. "I guess that's fair. I just want some assurance that we're all doing body shots off the groom-to-be, okay? This needs to be a real party."

"I'm not doing that," Shiro said, hand slipping like a magnet into Keith's iron grip.

Roy ignored him, telling Matt, "I've got you covered!" while handing out cards.

Never had Curtis been more glad that his brother Edgar was throwing him a bachelor party in the middle of the afternoon at a bowling alley, because he had to be home for dinner. The craziest thing was probably going to be the fish-shaped cake he'd caught Edgar trying to special-order from the grocery store. He couldn't imagine anything he wanted less than body shots and strippers like Roy was no doubt planning.

After Shiro studied his invitation for a second, passing one to Keith as he took a seat on the arm of Shiro's chair, he looked up again. "Wait, Dwight. I can't do this date. This is during AquaCon. I'm spending the weekend with Curtis."

"Are you sh*tting me, Rogaine?!"

"Ah, crap," Keith frowned. "And I was actually supposed to be on Earth this weekend. Honor guard for some intergalactic summit thing Mom needs to show up for. I could make this date. What's AquaCon, anyway?"

Curtis could see the struggle in every frown line in Shiro's forehead, deciding between his commitments and a chance to have some kind of crazy sex party where Keith could be there. Good idea or not, he spoke up. "It's this tiny, podunk aquaculture meetup. Honestly, Takashi, there's nothing worth attending after 1900 hours. Don't worry about me. Have fun."

"But when's your presentation?" Shiro asked.

"The next day, at noon," Curtis assured him. If there was one thing he hated more than adjusting his schedule to go out with other people, it was other people bowing out of things he'd hate doing just to stay with him. "You can make it."

Roy had his no-compromises face on, growling at Shiro. "Curtis says you can make it, Rogaine. Pre-gaming at Rough Rocket bar at 2100, pub crawl starts at 2200, then we escort you to the Magic Night Cabaret at 0030, and you will like it."

"If Keith can make it without blowing our cover," Shiro answered.

With a nod, Roy took some notes on his datapad. "I take that as a challenge, which means I take that as a yes. Holt, I expect your help."

"Oh, hell yeah," said Matt. "And now, back to everything being about me..." He produced a stack of books out of his almost-empty duffel bag, dropping them on the table in front of Keith and Shiro. "Keith, I hope you didn't think I wouldn't get you something to ease your suffering."

"Galra romance novels?" Keith picked one up with a dubious frown. Sneaking behind the chair, Curtis saw a slender Galra man on the cover, with long, flowing dark hair, spread-legged on a massive throne while a heavily muscled human man (mostly nude, except for the leather restraints) rested his head on the Galra man's knee. He could see where this was going. "Matt, why did you buy me the entire To Tame A Champion series?"

Matt was still pulling out books. "Is that what they're called? I don't read Galra. I just got everything that looked like it was poorly disguised smut about you and Shiro. There was a lot." The thin book he handed Shiro along with the Vrepit Salieri towel he'd promised before didn't look like it was from the same series, since the swooning human in the Galra's embrace was wearing clothes, however shredded they were.

In his most diplomatic voice, Shiro read the title. "The Half-Breed Warlord's Pregnant Rebel Consort, huh?" Flipping a few pages in, he made a wheezing noise and announced, "Yeah, that is... that's not how human anatomy works. Oh. Oh, hey, wow. Okay, and with teeth." Shiro slammed the book shut and pushed it as far away on the table as his arm could reach. "Matt, I understand that you could not have known what that said, but please, please, as your friend, never hand me a description of my penis branching into five tentacles and latching onto Keith's penis with barbed fangs."

"Ow," Keith muttered, reading the backs of various novels and sorting them into some kind of order. Curtis couldn't be sure what order, since he didn't read Galra either. Yet. Curiosity was, after all, the downfall of all scientists.

"No kink-shaming the monster-f*ckers," said Pidge, picking up the disturbing one to flip through it backwards. "And wow do you have to admire the creativity here. Although personally, I think this ass thing is derivative of old-school xenomorphs."

"How do you know it's derivative?" Olia asked, leaning in with N-7 and Rizavi to check the book for themselves. "This could be a parallel evolution of a primordial fear. It's not like the Galra had no pre-existing concerns about corrosive acid and ... ooh, that would hurt. Fascinating."

Lance shied away from the small swarm of onlookers over Pidge's shoulder. "Maybe we should still nuke it from orbit, though. Only way to be sure."

Burying his face in Keith's shoulder, Shiro sighed, "If you're going to keep talking about xenomorphs and my ass in the same context, can you please go to a room I'm not in?"

"Who said it was your ass?" chimed Rizavi. "Half-Breed Warlord, remember?"

No one saw Keith throw the knife, but they all heard the whistle of a blade flying through the air, and the handle showing where the book was now pinned to a wall with a three-inch gash through the pages was unmistakably Blade of Marmora issue. By the time they got eyes on him again, the Black Paladin was sorting the book pile again as if nothing had happened. "Oh hey," said Keith while the rest of the room sat in frozen silence. "In Empire of Ten Thousand Stars, I seduce him away from the Empire's greatest enemy... oh, wait. Seduce her. I bet this's actually about Zarkon and Honerva. The plot sounds sweet, though. I might not burn this one."

Matt clapped and pulled one last thing out of his bag -- a colorfully lettered sack with a picture of Vrepit Sal on the front. "Okay! Great talk, I regret nothing, but let's change topics. I brought back special limited edition Galra waffle mix. Who wants to sh*t purple for a week?!"

Which Curtis had to admit, sounded like exactly what he'd expect of a Matt Holt party.

Chapter 6: One Wild Night

Notes:

I appreciate your patience while the dreaded REAL LIFE took over my fic writing time for awhile. Please enjoy your handcrafted ridiculousness, now with added smut! <3

Additionally, there's a lot of scheduling in this chapter, which means there's a lot of military people talking in military time. In lieu of writing a huge note, I'll refer anyone with questions to this explainer: The Military Time Chart.

Thank you all for reading!

Chapter Text

Press Release: Rebuilding Planet Earth, from the Oceans to Your Table. For media dispersal on 6 June 2281.

Here at HIQ Foods, we know that as a planet and as a people, Earth has nothing if we don't have H2O. After the recent devastation of Sendak's invasion, we've seen more than ever that water is something we can't take for granted. Water isn't just the foundation of the drinks we bring to stores near you every day! It's also critical to the crops our farmers grow and the animals they raise on the way to making every single one of the fresh ingredients and frozen meals that make HIQ proud to join you for dinner every night. When you, the people of Earth, tell us that you want to know what we're doing to make sure there's clean, safe water not just for today but for tomorrow...

... We listen.

To show our commitment to restoring Earth's water supply, HIQ is partnering with the Miesbauer Water Research Center and the AQUAS Institute to make sure every drop of water that goes into the HIQ product family is a sustainably sourced drop. You can find out more about the water reclamation projects we're sponsoring in our neighborhoods and yours on our website at hiqfoods.com/water. But that's not all!

Like so many of you, we've been inspired by the example set by Galaxy Garrison Admiral Shirogane Takashi to take back our environment from the brink of destruction. He said it best when he wrote, "Looking at [...] a good aquarium is like seeing Earth the way it used to be." It may take longer to rebuild all the life and beauty we lost than it took Sendak and the Fire of Purification to trample it, but we can do it -- together. That's why we'll be donating 1,000,000 GAC to ocean reconstruction efforts in Earth's most endangered ecosystems, and creating an endowment to fund projects to restore aquatic ecosystems for years to come. Because until our waters can take care of themselves, we all need to do our part to help.

HIQ and you. Building a better tomorrow.

~//~

Status Update: @ShiroganeOfficial [Verified], 4 June 2281 11:36PM UTC -7

Time for another #OrionPic! I love looking at him lying in wait for prey in the seaweed. Real seaweed! C's right about how a good aquarium is like seeing Earth the way it used to be. :+D

Without a doubt, Curtis's non-descript minivan was the perfect vehicle for driving the ninety-ish miles to the hotel and convention center without attracting attention, and the way Curtis drove it was... well. It was the kind of driving that Shiro had always associated with minivans. He took a deep breath and tried not to think about the fact that, if he'd been driving, they'd probably already be at the hotel and checked in. Curtis, however, drove at the speed limit with the utmost respect for recommended braking distances between vehicles. If Shiro could have put on some kind of blinders so he couldn't see the other cars -- cars that were passing them, an experience Shiro found unexpectedly frustrating -- he would have. It would've made it easier to keep from drumming impatient fingers on the door, or reflexively trying to step on the gas pedal.

So much wide open road! And they were driving fifty-five miles an hour, in the slow lane.

"You know, I can see the face you're making, Takashi," Curtis said. "You look like you're about to cry. Or jump out the door and start running."

Shiro tried to laugh it off. "Hazards of being a pilot. I'm used to being the driver."

"And I bet cops don't write speeding tickets for famous admirals."

"Traffic laws are mostly optional when you have government plates and don't hit anything."

With a sigh, Curtis turned on his blinker and made the very responsible decision to slow down to the recommended safe speed for taking the turnabout on their exit. Shiro couldn't feel even a hint of centripetal force adding G's to the turn, or the thrill of keeping the car under control when it was fighting to spin out. The only word for this ride was, "tame". After what sounded like some very hard thought, his fake fiancé said, "I 100% believe you when you say you've never crashed. You're an excellent pilot. So if driving a minivan doesn't make you miserable when you go back for Roy's party, and you don't get a speeding ticket with my license plates, I'll let you drive when we leave the convention."

"I appreciate your sacrifice, Curtis." And he did. When someone offered their car for a trip because your only vehicle was a 2-seater jet and far too showy for your new, boring lifestyle, it was just rude to insist on driving. People deserved to expect to drive their own cars.

He could hear the concern in Curtis's voice, too, along with the willingness to compromise. "It seems only fair, me having to cover my eyes while you drive, since you've spent the whole trip trying not to cover yours while I drive. Although I admit, this is partially scientific curiosity about how a hot shot pilot's driving habits would translate to a minivan."

"Then I'll try not to disappoint you," Shiro said with a shrug.

"Please don't say that like you're planning something. Now I'm afraid again."

Hand over his heart, Shiro promised, "Word of honor, I will stay on the road, between the lines, driving forward, in the direction of traffic flow."

"Good. Hearing you say that makes me feel so much better. Now certainly nothing can go wrong..." As the highway around them turned to city and Shiro's ancient enemy (traffic lights) started to appear, a phone alert cut into the conversation. Another followed, then three more in a row. Curtis didn't take his eyes off the road until they hit a red light, but as soon as they did, he reached for both his phone and for the clone he used to impersonate Shiro online. "That was my actual phone? Not people replying to the tweet that we were heading to AquaCon? Who could--"

He handed Shiro the phones when the light turned green, quick to get both hands back on the wheel before they were moving again. Curtis's personal phone was still showing his utility icons in front of his favorite picture from the coral reef restoration his team had been doing. Well, at least that was comfortable to look at. For operation reasons, Curtis's lock screen was now a selfie of the two of them snuggling on a ferris wheel.

"Takashi, it's unlocked. Could you check the messages? If there's an issue with the fish sitter, I'll pull off somewhere so I can handle it. Registration is never crowded, so we should have time."

"Sure. No problem."

Shiro flipped to the email notifications. The most recent three were from the Programming department at AquaCon, and looked straightforward. "Let's see. They're moving your Saturday presentation on pH Maintenance of Contained Ecosystems to 1600--"

"Ooh, prime time!"

"-- in Main Events, which--"

Curtis nearly missed braking for the next red light, and skidded to a stop just in time. "Wait, what?! Main Events?! That's, like, a thousand person room! I don't even have a video component to my presentation!"

"Uh, I think it's going to be more than a thousand people, Curtis," said Shiro, skimming the rest of the email. "It says that Main Events has also been relocated to a nearby opera house. Do you think they had some kind of facilities problem? I hope the conference center isn't flooded..."

"I have a terrible feeling about this," Curtis wheezed. "What do the other emails say?"

"Umm, the other two programming emails are both asking you to join in on some 'Ask the Experts' panels for... it looks like Getting Started with Aquaculture for Beginners, and Integrated Coastal Zone Management. Both in Main Events. Aquaculture for Beginners is today at 1800, Zone Management is Sunday at 1100."

His fake fiancé's knuckles were starting to turn pale on the wheel, his breath deliberately slow. "I'll have to call the Ethics Office at the Garrison as soon as we get to the hotel and ask them if the Zone Management panel represents a conflict of interest. Don't let me forget. f*ck, what is going on?! At least that panel's on Sunday. That'll give my boss some time to tell me if there's anything I'm not allowed to say..."

Shiro found his way to the other two emails that'd come in. One was a bulk message to all the presenters at the convention to let them know that schedule changes were coming out because they'd had to "adapt to circ*mstances beyond anyone's control". The other one, from somebody named Karen who worked for AquaCon, was a bit more informative, for all that it was a vague request for Curtis to get Shiro in touch with the convention management. That was enough to infer some things. "Uh. Curtis, I think I figured out what's going on."

"Oh?!"

"Yeah. It looks like you were right. You know, about it causing a problem for the convention staff if I showed up? I am so sorry..."

Curtis redoubled his focus on the road, coming out of his initial shock. "Takashi. Less apologizing. More telling me what you're read-- Holy crap, are all of these people here for AquaCon?" he asked about the throngs of people outside walking from other hotels in the city toward the convention center. "People are cosplaying at AquaCon?!"

"Looks like it." At least three of them, Shiro noted, were definitely wearing versions of his character's costumes from the Voltron Legendary Defender series -- one brave soul walking with an equally brave Keith cosplayer in Paladin armor, and another in a fake Garrison uniform who looked like his boyfriend was trying for a Curtis cosplay. The detailing on the prop Altean arm was very impressive, at least from this distance. But did his bangs really look that... floofy?

The tension in Curtis's voice turned into tightly reined control. "Takashi, I can see the registration line. I can't even see the hotel yet, and I can see the registration line wrapping around the block. I've never seen their line get out of the reg room before. This is because you tweeted a month ago that you were coming here?!"

"I can't technically prove that," Shiro said, wincing.

Shaking his head, Curtis sighed, "And the Garrison gave me access to your social media accounts. This is too much power for any mere mortal. So, what, AquaCon emailed me because this is my fault by proxy, because I'm the reason you're here?"

"Someone named Karen was trying to contact me, but I haven't whitelisted their email addresses on my account so nothing got through?"

"Karen like Karen Hecataeus the Programming Director of the convention and leader of the AQUAS Institute? The woman with more Ph.D.'s than I have letters in my name?"

"Ah. Well, her name is Karen Hecataeus, so... Yes?"

Whatever tea kettle noise Curtis made, it couldn't really be called "words", but he could still stay in his lane on the road and use a turn signal, so Shiro took it as a sign to keep explaining.

"So, first she apologizes for contacting you like this, but based on public statements, etc, etc, basically everyone knows we're engaged... she thinks you're the best person to get a message to me that the convention needs to... I guess, draft me? It sounds like they want me to participate in programming, anyway, and she's going to meet us outside the hotel just in case this doesn't get through, or you're the wrong person, because... well, it sounds like it's urgent."

"Tell her we're turning in now?" Curtis said. Even in his high-strung state, he remembered to switch on the turn signal a responsible distance before the hotel driveway.

"Done," Shiro answered, hitting send on a quick note with the color, make, and model of the minivan, signed, "Curtis & Shiro."

The woman surrounded by a small crowd of lackeys in black t-shirts when they drove up was probably Karen. The valet waved at her as soon as he saw the two of them in the car, while a squad of bellhops loaded their two bags onto a bell cart and started into the hotel.

"Wait, what--" Curtis started to say.

Karen handed them each a room key and a badge as the people in black t-shirts made a human barrier between them and the attendees who'd started screaming when they'd stepped out. "Commander Curtis LaSalle, I presume? And Admiral Shirogane Takashi? Pleasure to meet you, I'm Karen Hecataeus. I've taken the liberty of providing you with one of the suites we reserved for guests of the convention. I'll send you confirmation codes so the hotel will refund your deposit, and your convention registration fee will be refunded as well. Please understand, I can't let you into the regular registration and check-in lines. Given the number of attendees, it would be a security hazard. Extending you both Guest of Honor status was our best option."

Shiro nodded. "I understand you wanted my help?"

"Yes, which is the other reason we're converting your registration to a Guest of Honor package. A number of our industry partners realized you'd be here, and..." She let out a heavy sigh, like she'd been trying to keep her temper from showing for days, if not weeks. "... It seems they've made some promises they'd like me to keep. They used the fact that you were going to be attending to convince a few dignitaries and experts to show up for their expo panels who wouldn't have bothered otherwise. We're actually a very small operation."

"Oh. I'm ... sorry?"

"Don't be," she said, waving them out of the path of other cars arriving. "I blame them, and by the time the scale-up spiralled completely out of control, it was far, far beyond being just about you, Admiral. The bottom line is, if you could participate in a few events I've outlined, you would make my life a lot easier. I won't coerce you, but--"

"Of course I'll help. Just let me know what you need, Dr. Hecataeus."

Her face broke from a hard frown into blissful relief. "Call me Karen, please. I've blocked out two autograph sessions and three question and answer panels, which I'll email to you if you can whitelist my address."

"Absolutely. And call me Shiro."

"Great. In that case, we should get to the opera house as soon as possible. We'll introduce you along with our other guests at the Opening Ceremonies, and..." she looked down at a notification pinging on her datapad. With the painfully forced cheer of a woman who'd been putting out fires non-stop, Karen said, "Oh dear. I don't suppose I can ask you to host the Opening Ceremonies? Apparently, our convention chair is having a panic attack backstage, and the gophers are having him breathe into a paper bag so he doesn't hyperventilate."

"Hey, I've played intergalactic stadium tours," Shiro joked. "I can do whatever you need."

She blinked at him, frozen in place. "I was kidding, but that would actually really help. Absolutely none of our management staff were prepared to handle an event this size on almost no notice. Okay, I'll see who's available to drive us over..."

Shiro checked the schedule for the Opening Ceremonies, and they were already cutting it closer than he liked when prepping for an event. Blocking, timing, mic tests, learning how to pronounce names... if they were doing makeup, too, they were already late. "If we're in a hurry, maybe we can find someone to lend us a hoverbike? I bet I can get us there in four minutes tops."

"A hoverbike?" Karen asked. Shiro wasn't quite sure what she looked so shocked about.

Curtis coughed into his hand. "Takashi, is that safe? Three people on one hoverbike?"

It was amazing how, after all the training and practice and constant reminders everywhere that he had to pretend he wasn't in love with Keith, he barely managed to bite his tongue on how Keith had hauled not just three, but five people on a hoverbike, including his own unconscious body, in a high speed chase over the open desert and off the edge of a cliff. He loved telling that story. Keith was amazing at driving anything with an engine, and quite a few things without engines. But even if he'd been allowed to talk about Keith in public, the image of him whipping up to an opera house like a rockstar with two scientists hanging on for dear life was exactly what he was supposed to avoid. If the media was going to decide it was more worthwhile to point their cameras elsewhere, he had to...

Not do that. Gosh, it was a pain in the neck being boring. No hoverbikes? No Keith was worse, but he'd accounted for that going in. He hadn't realized there'd be no hoverbikes. Publicly, he guessed he couldn't be that guy anymore, who flicked down his sunglasses and told someone riding behind him, "Hold on," before kicking off in a dust cloud.

Shiro faked an embarrassed smile, swallowing hard as this charade suddenly felt way too real. "Right. Wow, what was I thinking? Three people on a hoverbike! Ha ha ha. No, that would not be safe. A car is a much better idea."

He totally could have done it safely. Watching the twenty-year old support staffer who'd been drafted to drive them hesitate while changing lanes gave him indigestion along with making Shiro more nervous than balancing three people on a hoverbike ever had. He tried to distract himself by emailing Veronica about the change in AquaCon plans, since she'd rightfully throw a fit over him not telling her. By then, the notes about what the convention needed from him had come through, and he could study up for hosting the Opening Ceremonies. Karen and Curtis were getting along like a house on fire, of course, trading favorite coral reef facts. He only understood every fifth word they were using -- the ones like "and" or "the".

The ride took forever. Never again would he take for granted the chance to be his own driver.

Walking into the bustle backstage was more his speed. People in black t-shirts ran right and left, dodging around whoever was in the way. Shiro narrowly avoided a collision with girl yelling into a communicator headset, "No, that's ten rows for the VIP section! I'm coming with tape, okay? And remember, the boxes are for diplomatic guests..."

Three makeup artists worked their way through taking the shine off the guests faces so they wouldn't look pasty under the lights, looking like they'd set up in a hurry and were from three different spas in town based on the cards they had on the tables. A woman with an air of being in charge intercepted him on his way up to the front. "Admiral Shirogane, I presume?"

"That's me," he said, waving goodbye to Curtis, who was heading over to the makeup line with the other Guests of Honor, all of them eyeing him in a way Shiro found uncomfortably predatory.

"I'm Mike, stage manager. Thank you so much for doing this. Graham's doing better, but I don't think he can stand yet. His legs are kind of jelly," she said, pointing to a man at a table talking to Karen (who'd put up a sign that said, 'ONE AT A TIME, PLEASE,' to the man's relief). Shiro assumed that was the convention chair. "So, this is pretty simple. You're going to stay on that masking tape X right there when you're talking, sit there during other people's parts..."

She ran him through sound checks and light calibration, and gave him note cards to read over while he was in the makeup line. The artist he worked with was one of the good ones, who put extra shading on his scar instead of trying to hide it, finishing up just as places were called. Truth be told, everything moved too fast for him to have time to be nervous until the curtains were pulling open. And once the curtains were up, he had an audience, so his public relations smile clicked into place.

"Hi, everyone. I'm Shirogane Takashi," he said, making a circuit of the applauding crowd with his eyes while he waved, like a showman ought to do.

And his eyes landed right on Keith, sitting in a private box with Krolia and four other aliens. Hopefully, he kept the surprise off his face as well as Keith did. His husband's eyes widened a little, and his hands froze mid-clap, but he got it together before anyone but Krolia noticed. Shiro, meanwhile, wrenched his eyes away and focused on keeping the smile on his face while he looked at the orchestra seats. Thank goodness for the applause, or someone would have noticed how his throat had choked up.

He drew a calming breath into his lungs. This would be fine. They just had to not be seen together, right? He could do this. The applause quieted down at last. "Wow, what a crowd. Thank you for coming, and welcome to AquaCon."

He'd get a secret message to Keith and plan out how not to run into each other. Later.

~//~

Curtis blessed the quiet of the halls in the actual hotel after working their way out of the crowds at the opera house and through the throngs at the convention center after the Aquaculture for Beginners panel. It was hard to believe everyone telling him he'd done a great job answering the audience's questions when he was sitting next to the head of the Baltimore Aquarium and could barely remember a word he'd said. His smile was tired. His brain was fried. How Shiro managed to keep so calm while telling people he couldn't sign autographs right now, but he'd be in the autograph hall at 0900 tomorrow, Curtis had no idea.

Beyond that, he had to process the terrifyingly well credentialed guests who'd asked him to collaborate on papers and field projects. The list of potential conflicts of interest he had to discuss with the Ethics Office was getting longer by the minute.

"That was absolutely harrowing," he sighed as soon as it was clear he and Takashi were the only ones around. "The man who invented the coral regrowth lattice wants my input on fixing nitrates. What am I supposed to say that he didn't already write a book about?"

"You're just as good a scientist as all of them," Takashi assured him, pulling out their room key.

"You have no idea what you're talking about, but I appreciate the sentiment." Now that he could relax, Curtis was starting to feel every minute of how late it was, or maybe more. His watch said 1930, but his heart said it was zero dark f*ck me with a plunger.

Takashi admitted he was right with a small wince. "Let's just get inside, take a look at our new schedule, and see if we can get in touch with--"

The door next to theirs cracked open, and a very, very pretty man with dark hair, violet eyes, and a Blade of Marmora uniform stepped out, checking for witnesses.

"... Keith," Takashi squeaked. Curtis could hear his heart fluttering, just from the tone. Geez, they were cute. How did they live with themselves?

"Good, you're here," Keith said. "Stay in. Order room service. I'll collect you in fifteen minutes so we can talk strategy."

"What... a coincidence," Curtis stammered. "You, in the room right next to--"

Keith shook his head, with a smirk that could kill a man. "Coincidences aren't real. Covert intelligence organizations with leverage over hotels are." Which reminded Curtis, not for the first time, that Keith's smirk wasn't the only thing that could kill a man. "Hurry up. We can't be caught together. Also, don't order the burrito. Mom said the one she got for lunch sucked."

With that, he was gone, but the light on Takashi's face wasn't. A man who, just a couple minutes ago, looked like he'd been resigned to spending a weekend working crowds and pretending to care about aquaculture suddenly looked like a kid in a candy store. Love was a good look on him, not that Shirogane Takashi had ever had a bad look in his life, probably.

All Curtis could summon the energy for was flopping onto the bed, but Takashi practically bounced over to the room comms to page room service. "Hi, yes, I'd like to place an order? Water, a carafe if you can, the grilled chicken with steamed vegetables..." he said, sitting on a nearby chair.

That was when Curtis realized he was on the only bed, a single king size, and Takashi's exceedingly deadly love of his life was on the other side of the wall with his terrifying mother who took Takashi's fidelity very seriously. They'd all been far more understanding than Curtis could account for, and when he was this tired, he couldn't help wondering if having to share a bed would cause some new intergalactic misunderstanding that would tip them over the edge.

No. Takashi would sleep on the couch if Keith so much as growled, or Curtis mentioned being uncomfortable. Sleeping on the couch might not be a bad idea, honestly, although he would absolutely be the one who offered, because Takashi had so much trouble sleeping to begin with, not to mention he was huge. No couch was that big.

"...yes, the chia pudding on the side please. And are you still serving omelettes? ... Great! I'll take the Spinach Power Omelette. How about you, Curtis?" he asked, handing over the menu.

His eyes swam down to the dinner section, where he stopped at the first non-fish entree. "Pork chop? Mashed potatoes? The green beans, I guess. And can you ask if they have a Riesling?"

After a few words with the intercom while Curtis focused on looking at the inside of his eyelids, Takashi came back with, "Is Chardonnay okay?"

"Sounds awesome. Thank you."

"I'm not going to tell you to move," Takashi said once he'd hung up, and Curtis mentally prepared himself to drag a pillow and blanket to the couch so the other man could lay down. "... because you look like you could use the rest, but you wanted me to remind you to check in with the Ethics Office? Since we have a minute..."

"Oof, yeah. Thank you." He pulled out his datapad, staying sprawled on the bed since Takashi couldn't sit still. Loverboy was checking his hair and his collar in the mirror, finding things to fix despite the fact that people as hot as Takashi and Keith looked perfect no matter what. Amazingly, the Ethics Office had responded to his first request already.

Normal turnaround was at least two business days, so someone high up must've flagged his name for priority service. Maybe he could do something to thank the poor people who'd have to process all his paperwork from this debacle, since there was more to report now and someone would have to look at this over the weekend. He'd just have to read the guidelines for what government employees could accept as gifts without it counting as a bribe.

"The good news is, I'm cleared for the Sunday panel," Curtis said.

Takashi smiled, making eye contact and everything, somehow managing to be perfect enough to care about this at the same time that he was having pre-Keith jitters. "That's fantastic! But if there's good news, does that mean there's bad news?"

"Yeah. They're approving it via making me an official representative of the Garrison and telling the convention to bill the room to the government, so I have to fill out about five different funding transfer forms, get the convention administration to authorize it, and return the forms to the Garrison by the end of Saturday, and also I have to wear my uniform. Since I only packed one, I guess I better check in with the laundry service tomorrow."

"Well, that's not too bad."

"Nah, that's totally doable. I'll just flag Karen down before my presentation. Now, let's get our schedule sorted out, because--"

The poof of Keith and his wolf appearing nearly made him scream. He'd been too out of it to notice when the air changed pre-teleport, but at least he had enough wits to keep his startled nerves to himself. Curtis would've hated to interrupt Keith and Takashi rushing together like two love-struck magnets, kissing at the foot of the bed as if they were stocking up on body heat before a snow storm.

They clearly didn't mind that he could see, and he didn't want to deprive them when they got the chance to be together since they'd never abused the privilege, but he still averted his eyes. He wasn't a creep.

"Hi, you," Takashi said.

Keith murmured back, "Hi," in the fond tone he only had when he was talking to his husband.

And they'd need about five more seconds to kiss some more after that. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

Takashi let out a laugh. "Well, there'll be more where that came from later."

"There better be," Keith answered. Curtis looked back, and the coast was perfectly clear. They were attached at the hip and had stupid grins on their faces, but no one could blame either of them for that. "I'll go hide with the wolf in the bathroom when room service drops off your food, and then we'll teleport over to our room. Krolia and I were thinking family dinner, since we're all here, and we can talk weekend strategy while we eat."

"We should talk fast, though," Curtis reminded them. "Roy's expecting you at 2100, so you'll probably be late, but I'm sure he'll understand if you explain."

In all the short while he'd known Keith Kogane, he'd never seen the man look so confused as he did right then. After a few blinks, he said, "But... why? It's not even 2000 hours. An hour's more than enough time to eat and drive back."

Curtis couldn't manage words, just opened his mouth and closed it again. The math here didn't add up. He and Takashi had made that trip today, in good traffic. It was a solid two hours.

"What's wrong?" Keith asked. "What'd I say?"

Takashi coughed into his hand with a grin and squeezed Keith's hip. "Ah. Curtis's car doesn't go off-road, baby. It's a minivan"

Realization dawned on Keith's face. "Oh. Right. Roads."

It retrospect, he should've predicted that. Between this and Takashi's offhand comment about hauling ass on hover bikes earlier, he was more than a little terrified to be in a vehicle with either pilot driving. Technically speaking, he'd spent years in a vehicle that Takashi had been driving, but that'd been the IGF-Atlas, where he wasn't exactly worried about running into a tree. Spaceships capable of having fistfights with alien attack crafts without knocking him off his chair were less terrifying than hover bikes.

Room service knocked on the door, finally. It hadn't been that long since they'd ordered, but the day had been plenty long and he was hungry. Keith vanished into the bathroom with his wolf as fast as a shadow when you turned on the light, and twice as quiet. The bellhop seemed to be smirking when he glanced from Takashi accepting the tray to Curtis propped on his elbows on the bed, almost certainly getting a very wrong impression from Shiro's kiss-reddened mouth and now-mussed hair that they'd been making out when he'd knocked.

Because who would assume that his fake fiancé was hiding his secret ninja husband in the bathroom? That would be stupid!

The "Do Not Disturb" sign Takashi hung outside definitely didn't change the bellhop's mind, and also gave him a great idea. For sh*ts and giggles, Curtis snapped a photo of the wrinkled hotel bed and typed a caption for his own instagram where he'd been sharing highlights of the day. "End of day one at #AquaCon. In the room at last... #DoNotDisturb," he typed, and added an eyebrow emoji that'd give the entire internet the same wrong impression the bellhop had. He'd think of something in character for Shiro to post about later. Something less risqué.

"Ready?" Keith asked.

Curtis stowed his phone, buzzing off the hook with notifications since Takashi's fans had started following him, too. He was betting on the responses being approximately 75% keysmashes, 20% variations on, "OMG you're totally having sex," and 5% people offering innocent hopes that they'd had a good day and would sleep well. At least, those would be the percentages of people who didn't get auto-blocked or reported for harassment thanks to Pidge's computer magic. In a few hours, he'd check her response categorization algorithms and see how close his guesses had come. For now, the three of them were teleporting into the next room to finally eat some warm, delicious food.

He'd never realized how useful a teleporting wolf could be until he'd needed to be the public fake love interest of a secretly married pop culture icon.

Krolia had turned a largish coffee table, a desk chair, an armchair, and a loveseat into something like a dinner table, with Keith and Takashi sharing the loveseat for the obvious reason that they were living out of each other's pockets at the moment. Her datapad was hooked up to a projection unit as well, showing off the event schedule she and Keith had for the convention. It was like their regular status meetings, but more comfortable, and Curtis had a nice, steaming pork chop to eat.

So, better than their regular status meetings.

"Good to see you again, Curtis," said Krolia, shaking his hand and simultaneously leading him to the more comfortable of the two remaining seats. He didn't feel he could refuse and insist on taking the desk chair despite the fact that Krolia ran a planet. "I understand it's been an eventful day. You're holding up well."

"Thank you. It's been a learning experience. For example, I learned that your son is probably who I should call if I suddenly need a driver for an off-road drag race."

Curtis didn't think he'd ever seen a prouder mother's smile. "Quite so. Keith is an excellent pilot, though not for the faint of heart. But Shiro would also make a good showing in a drag race if you preferred fewer sharp turns."

"Oh please," Takashi laughed, pouring water for Keith. "Keith's driving is smoother than mine ever was! He was a better driver than me when he was, what, thirteen? Fourteen? How old were you when you stole my car, baby?"

Rolling his eyes, Keith answered, "Fourteen. And I wasn't that good. I got caught."

Takashi pecked Keith on the cheek in the cutest way. "Bad thief, great driver. That old Jeep was a stick shift!"

What. The f*ck.

There was way too much to unpack there, starting with how he thought that scene from Voltron Legendary Defender had been slightly more fictionalized than it seemed to be. Geez. How had Takashi managed to maintain his image as a lawful, rule-abiding citizen this long? Unscrewing the top on his single-serving wine bottle (thank goodness, room service had sent two of those), Curtis poured a bit into his cup. "There is no way you had a driver's license at fourteen," he said, as judgment free as he could.

"I'm not sure I have a driver's license now," Keith mused, the same considering look he'd had on his face earlier when they'd been discussing transit times. "Huh. Yeah, I don't think I do."

With a shake of his head, Curtis cut into his pork chop. "Don't see why you'd need one. I mean, those are for roads." He thought he saw Keith grinning at that.

"Besides," Krolia added, "everyone knows you're qualified. Honestly, who would consider themselves qualified to judge your driving? You're so much better than most people."

"Mom.... You know that's not how laws work." For once, Curtis agreed with Keith Kogane about something other than Shirogane Takashi being a prime cut of beef, but he wouldn't have been the one to say it to a woman who could kill him with her bare hands. Keith turned to Shiro, who was munching his omelet with a frown. "Shiro, back me up here."

Takashi was poking through his wallet. "Baby, I'm not sure I have a valid license, either..."

While he flipped through the cards he was carrying, Keith scoffed. "Don't be an idiot. Of course you do. You showed it to the cops when you picked me up. I remember, you didn't show your Garrison ID because you didn't want them to get notified and reject me."

"I had a license, yeah, but the Garrison had me declared dead after Kerberos. It got canceled." Takashi shook his head at the wallet, which clearly didn't have what he'd been looking for. "I don't think I bothered having it reinstated after I, um. Wasn't dead. The DMV wasn't on my list of priorities during Reconstruction."

Mashed potatoes were his only comfort in life, Curtis decided, looking his former commanding officer dead in the eye. "Takashi. If you don't have a driver's license, please understand, I have to withdraw my offer to let you drive the car back. I trust your abilities, but--"

"No, you're absolutely right," Takashi agreed. The world had never seen a more sincere face, with or without the forkful of steamed broccoli and carrots he'd been about to put in his mouth. "If I don't have a license, it would be a terrible idea for me to get caught driving. Think of the scandal! So I can't drive back on Sunday, and I definitely can't drive back tonight," he finished, making eyes at his husband.

"That would be illegal," answered Keith, with a seriousness that had to be a put-on. That'd be clear even if Keith wasn't, apparently, a car thief who regularly drove vehicles unlicensed.

Both of them were looking at each other with sparkling eyes and playful grins now. No question, he was about to get sexiled from the other bedroom, and neither pilot was going to warn Roy that they weren't going to his party. He could, he supposed, warn Roy himself, but why on earth should he be the only one who had to suffer? That wouldn't be fair, Curtis decided.

Across the table, Takashi was saying, "I mean, it's for the best. What if someone noticed that we both left at the same time? It could ruin the op. This is the best call."

"For the mission," Keith answered with a nod. "We have to stay. I packed lube, so you know."

"What a coincidence! So did I!"

Krolia leaned over and murmured by Curtis's ear, "I anticipated this as soon as I saw Shiro on stage at the Opening Ceremonies. You are free to use Keith's bed in this suite. I've stocked the freezer with ice cream, and determined which channels on the television broadcast shows about making baked goods. You will show me pictures of your fish, I will show you pictures of my son as an infant, and we will trade embarrassing stories about mutual acquaintances. These activities are negotiable, but I hope the general plan is acceptable."

No wonder the Galra had made her their diplomat. Wow. "Krolia, ma'am, I have never heard a better plan in my life. Do you think you'll have time to critique the presentation I put together for my talk tomorrow?"

"Be warned, I critique without mercy," she said, nodding. "It's the Galra way."

They clinked glasses, giving Takashi and Keith a minute to remember they had company and give the kissing a break, which they eventually did. Takashi even had the decency to blush. Keith not only didn't look ashamed, he may have had a leg crossed over one of his husband's knees. It was hard to tell with the table in the way, and Curtis wasn't getting up to check.

"So," Takashi said. His voice had jumped at least a fifth higher than its usual tone. "New topic. We should get our scheduling taken care of. My day, for one, starts bright and early, so the sooner we figure out how not to run into each other, the better. A full night's sleep--"

Curtis didn't catch what Keith whispered to Takashi, but it made him blush crimson from the arched-up peaks of his eyebrows to the tip of his nose, so he had some guesses.

"Right," Takashi sputtered, and cleared his throat. Eating another gigantic forkful of steamed vegetables from one of his five plates probably wasn't just buying time to get his composure back, but it wasn't just for the flavor, either. "So. Calendars. Krolia, please tell me we're not on any of the same panels."

Luckily, everything Karen had offered Takashi was a softball panel, little to no technical expertise required, and Krolia appeared to have been invited more to explain how Galra quintessence pumps and other tech affected planets like Earth. He didn't envy her position, standing up to say, "This is how the Galra, whom I now represent, f*cked up your planet," but if anyone could pull it off, she could.

"You can look less concerned for my well-being, Curtis," she told him, stabbing the last of her ravioli. "I've made regular visits to planetary reconstruction sites throughout the Republic and the rest of the Interstellar Alliance. I have a wealth of information about how to speed regrowth. People at these sorts of symposia tend to find my insights reassuring. Besides, if anyone decides they have a grudge against me, Keith will stop them from harming me before anyone else in the audience has noticed there's an issue."

"It's what I do," Keith added. His meal was long gone, so he'd abandoned his fork in favor of stowing his hands somewhere under the table, probably on Takashi's thigh.

Takashi flipped between a few appointment reminders. "So, our Future of Aquaculture panel tomorrow puts us back to back with your Quintessence Deficits and Reintegration symposium, since they're both in Main Events, but it'll be fine if Curtis and I book it out the back exit and have lunch in town. On Sunday, it looks like our only overlap is when I'm going to my second autograph session from... Instagram Ingenuity: Aquarium Photography for Amateurs... who comes up with these titles?"

"Half of academia is about making up titles," Curtis informed him, slicing up the last of his pork chop. "And none of the funny ones can be submitted to journals."

Keith brought a map of the convention center up on the display. "Okay, if you're coming through the main entrance, your security escort will get you into the staff-only corridors on the South end of the hall. Mom and I will detour to the North. It's a little less direct, but we'll still make our meet-and-greet, and we can tell them we were stopping for funnel cakes. Done."

"Nobody doesn't like funnel cakes," Takashi said with an ear to ear grin.

Tossing back the last of his water, Keith tidied up his dishes. Somebody was in a rush, and Curtis could hardly blame him. "So we're agreed?" asked Keith.

"Agreed," the rest of them chimed.

"Awesome. Shiro, finish that pudding. You need to keep your strength up." Keith hopped over the side of the loveseat while Takashi nearly choked on a strawberry, but with a little water looked like he was gonna be okay. "I'll get packed."

And by get packed, Keith meant grabbing his toothbrush, hairbrush, and a bottle of what had to be lube, and then whistling for his enormous wolf. Because where Keith was going, Curtis thought to himself, they didn't need clothes. Takashi had somehow managed to inhale the last of the food and had drunk all his water by the end of the few seconds Keith spent getting ready, and was halfway through standing when Keith grabbed his arm and they both poofed into the next room.

A soft thud of something hitting the wall could've been Takashi finishing his step with less space than he'd started it. Curtis could believe that, if he tried. Unfortunately, he'd also been in enough combat to know the difference between someone bouncing off a wall and someone staying up against the wall in loaded silence. He and Krolia traded grim nods. That was kissing silence if ever they'd heard it.

"So," Curtis said. "How about that ice cream?"

Krolia was already headed for the freezer, switching on the television on the way. Some contestant on Hunk's Galactic Iron Chef show was dishing candied cherries into sponge cake batter. Really, the only problem Curtis had now was how to get his toothbrush and pajamas out of the sex room next door, which he'd only begun to consider when the wolf appeared in another poof...

With his luggage. This was the most courteous sexile he'd ever been party to.

"Chocolate sauce or caramel?" Krolia asked, dishing coffee ice cream into two bowls.

"Both," Curtis decided. "Definitely both."

~//~

Keith rolled into the kisses burning on the back of his neck where Shiro had brushed his hair aside. And as if that didn't make it hard enough to concentrate, his husband was not at all shy about caressing Keith's hip under his waistband. Then again, if Shiro were shy after more than ten years of testing the tensile strength of bed frames, he wouldn't be the man Keith was in love with. Really, really f*cking in love with, because the music coming out of Shiro's data pad to conceal their voices (just in case someone was listening at the door) was the sh*ttiest, corniest slow pop about liking big butts that Keith had ever heard. It was a joke of a song, and he still loved this man.

The way he used his lips didn't hurt, which brought Keith to his main problem.

He held up the second toothbrush he'd loaded with toothpaste, spitting out a mouth of foam. "As much as I don't want you to stop, it was your idea to get ready for bed before we f*cked."

"Well, you said you wanted me to wear you out," said Shiro, taking his toothbrush. "So we definitely won't get to it later."

"Less talking, more brushing." Keith smacked his husband's rock hard ass on his way out of the bathroom and turned on the warmer for the coffee pot. He didn't plan to drink any, and didn't put any grounds in the filter, but the hot water was a decent way to warm up a bottle of lube.

Shiro always did his full two minutes and kept his dentist happy, so Keith threw all his clothes on a chair, then threw himself on the bed totally naked except for Shiro's dog tags. It felt good to stretch out on a nice mattress bigger than the tiny bunks on the Blade of Marmora's ships, and sometime between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty, Keith had found out that thread count on sheets really did make a difference. Not that he planned to drop 100 f*cking GAC on sheets, but a man could bask sometimes.

For example, right now, he was basking in the little wiggle dance Shiro was doing to his stupid music while he flossed and rinsed. Ten years, and he managed to find Shiro both cute and sexy while flossing. Everyone who told him he'd grow out of his crush when he was sixteen owed him an apology, Keith thought with a grin he couldn't wipe off.

"Baby," Shiro said, hanging the towel. "We forgot to arrange gym times for tomorrow..."

Keith rolled onto his side to give Shiro a prime view of his legs and abs as his husband stepped out of the bathroom. Watching Shiro's hungry eyes slide over his skin never got old, especially when he made that low whistle he was making now. "So what were you thinking?" Keith asked.

"I've got autographs at 0900, so I'd want to work out at 0600." Shiro pulled off his undershirt and folded it on top of his luggage, Keith's dog tags dancing over scar-covered pecs that'd long ago spoiled Keith for other men's chests. "Why is it that every time you disappear on a space adventure, you come back hotter?"

"I'm not hotter. You just missed me," Keith answered with a smirk.

"Yeah, I did."

Technically, he knew why Shiro folded his underwear. It packed better that way, his husband always said. It also took longer, but Keith wasn't complaining about the view of Shiro's naked ass bopping to the stupid booty song. He'd missed this, too. He missed it every time he'd had to take a mission off Earth even before this crazy op started. There was just more time they had to be separated at the moment, and he was going to take every second he could to refresh his memory of the dimples in Shiro's backside when he co*cked his hips to the beat.

"So, you hit the gym at 0600," Keith said. "I'll go at 0900. I can't run into you if you're signing autographs, right?"

"Sounds like a plan."

As the music changed to a hard, sharp drumbeat, the likes of which only went with bright synthesizers and tambourines, Shiro let out a laugh, and the dancing started. No more than five people had seen Shiro straight-up dancing, which was about the same number of people who knew how much Shiro liked disco.

"You're such a dork," Keith joked, although he loved watching Shiro's muscles ripple around every thrust of his hips, and the way he worked his fingers into his hair. If you took a photograph of any given instant, he'd look like a perfect marble statue fit for a museum, with one oversized artificial arm; but put all the moments together, and he was unquestionably a man shimmying to disco music whose saving grace was that he was f*cking gorgeous. You could get away with being a dork when you were built like a tank and your smile was superhero perfect. Keith had to laugh along with his ridiculous husband doing disco fever sidesteps into some of his ridiculous Voltron Show poses.

In his unfairly melodic voice, because nothing about Shiro wasn't perfect, he murmured along with the lyrics, "... but baby I'll burn you if you're dancing with me... "

"Not tonight, dancing queen. I'm comfortable." Stroking his inner thigh where he could feel his skin starting to beg for touch, Keith bit his lip, then brought his hand down to cup his balls. Dork or not, watching Shiro move never failed to get his blood pumping. "Although, if you're not gonna come over here, I might get started on my own."

And he would have. It was good to touch himself while Shiro was putting on a show. But it was just as good that Shiro stopped mid-sashay to crawl onto the bed between Keith's waiting legs. "I'd kind of like to do everything for you tonight," Shiro murmured, dipping his mouth in for a kiss Keith drank down like fresh water after a long run, their bodies crashing together. Big hands pressed into his back, helping Keith roll up onto Shiro's lap where he could grind into the kiss. "There's so many ways I've dreamed of touching you while you've been out there flying. Just tell me what you've been doing, and let me touch you."

"Well, first off, there are these caverns on Namurn," he said, breaking into an appreciative moan for the way Shiro's teeth scraped against his skin where his neck met his shoulder. "If you cut the rock at the right angle, it phosphoresces. The locals carved a planetarium, caves for each season, all that sh*t. We're putting it back together after the groundquake like a jigsaw puzzle."

Shiro's breath was hot on his ear. "Can't wait for you to show me..."

The way Shiro's chest shivered with excitement under Keith's hands hadn't changed, not that he'd expect it to. Kissing Shiro felt more like home than any place ever did. "If we get you off this planet fast enough, you can help rebuild it."

"Yes, please, and thank you..."

He could've spent the whole night making out and sharing stupid stories and been happy, and he wasn't gonna lie -- he liked the urgency that built up when he left his co*ck hard, untouched with precome glistening, no chance of relief from the glancing friction against Shiro's beautiful f*cking monolith of a dick. Nights like this, they played an unspoken game of seeing who would crack first and give in to the heat. Keith was pretty sure he was about to win when Shiro let out a growl and started kissing his way up Keith's thigh -- if the raw way he was using his mouth could be called kissing. He was so ready for the stroke of Shiro's tongue on his dick, it made his whole body shake. The moan was halfway out of his mouth when the music cut out and the incoming call alert sounded.

Shiro didn't cuss often, but when he said, "f*ck," he clearly meant every letter. "Hide," he said, and grumbled his way off the bed to put his shirt back on.

Rolling under the blankets so whoever was calling wouldn't see his face did the opposite of kill his boner. Keith waited, feeling his breath blowing back hot in his face, trying to keep from whimpering when the sheets rubbed against his co*ck. He definitely wasn't going to come until Shiro was there to appreciate it, even if it took all his focus to keep it in.

"This is Shiroga-- Dwight! Look, can I call you back tomorrow? I'm busy."

"What'dya mean, you're busy?! We had plans! Plans for you to be at the bachelor party I'm throwing for you right now! Do I have to come get you?!"

The laugh Shiro let out was the one he reserved for being an asshole. "Oh, but I said I could make it tonight on one condition..."

"Right, yes, if Keith could be there," Roy groaned as Shiro flopped down on the bed. Keith could feel his arm stretch out over the blanket, and he knew where this was going. "Look. Your boy is f*cking covert ops, he's got his phone off, I have no f*cking clue where he is."

When Shiro pulled the blanket back to let Keith see the screen (and vice versa), complete with Roy Focker in what looked like a private enough location for this kind of talk, Keith smirked and said, "Yeah. That's 'cause I'm busy."

"What the f*ck?!" screamed Roy, more surprised than mad.

Shiro laughed again. "Hey, look, Dwight, we tried. Honest. But leaving together was a threat to operation security. And you, know. Also apparently illegal."

"Illegal?! How?!"

"I promise you, I will be getting plenty of sex. Enjoy my bachelor party!"

Roy stuck a finger in the camera, trying to lay down the law while the two of them kept snickering. "No! Shiro, no! It is not your bachelor party until I can get you here to--"

"Later, Dwight!" Shiro said, and pressed end on the call. The music started up again to mask their voices from prying ears, and Keith's husband whispered into a kiss, "Now, where was I?"

Keith growled, "Sucking my dick," and tore off Shiro's shirt again. It was blocking the view. The way Shiro's breath caught when he got ordered around was something he loved to hear.

Throwing back the rest of the covers, Shiro planted a kiss on Keith's belly button, then looked up with a wink. "Shirogane Takashi, reporting for duty, sir."

And damn did the man know how to suck a dick. Toes and fingers curling into the mattress, Keith just tried to keep his moans in his indoor voice. It wasn't easy. His body wasn't listening to him as Shiro sucked the last bit of sense and and awareness out of his brain. Shiro had to pin his hips to keep him from bucking too hard into his mouth. "f*ck, Shiro... I'm gonna come. Can I--"

"You know I like it," Shiro whispered, his breath tingling on Keith's wet co*ck before Shiro's mouth slipped around him again. And f*ck, he was gone.

It took him a minute before he could open his eyes again, or make a sound more coherent than a long, sinking moan, or could tell where his body stopped and the bed started. Once he could make sense of the world, Keith saw Shiro wiping off his face with a towel and taking a swig of water from the glass on his bedside. "Oh, I'm gonna get you," Keith promised, even though his muscles wouldn't move yet.

Shiro pulled the bottle of lube out of the steaming coffee pot. "Not if I get you first."

A move that would've been a grapple if they'd been sparring looked a lot more like a pounce when there was a bed in the way, but Keith could still read Shiro's moves -- barely. Keith's edge in speed was just enough for him to dodge to the side and roll Shiro into a lock. From there, his position was perfect to nibble on Shiro's ear. "Too slow, old timer. You want this ass, you're gonna have to work for it," he whispered, sliding his free hand down Shiro's back. His husband's spine arched into his touch, giving Keith the space he needed to grab the bottle of lube away from Shiro's grip -- almost.

Not really unfortunately, Shiro had used the last few years to master the weird physics of a floating prosthetic. One twist, and Shiro was holding him down on his back with a wicked grin. "Watch out for silver foxes, Keith. We're tricky."

"Oh? You just gonna talk about it?" he teased.

Shiro's floating hand was big enough to trap both of Keith's hands above his head, and the sound of Shiro flicking the lube cap open with his other hand was f*cking Pavlovian. He heard it, and his legs spread wider, pushing for the touch he knew was coming. He was still playing with Shiro, though, and tilted his hips down. It made Shiro reach down near the sheets instead of having an easy time getting a slick finger in, then two. His skin was still sparking like a live wire from Shiro sucking him off, and the driving pushes filling him up inside were so close to short-circuiting his brain.

Two fingers wasn't enough, though. Keith moaned, rocking onto Shiro's hand, eyes shutting as he rolled his head into the pillow. He didn't have that much self control. He wasn't trying to beg, either. It wasn't his fault that his moan sounded a lot like the word, "More!"

With a grin, Shiro asked, "Did I ever tell you, you're pretty when you want my co*ck?"

He managed to pull his head back up and whipped his eyes back open, timing his words so it didn't sound too much like he was panting despite Shiro's fingers working inside him (which he was). "Once or twice... a night. Why?"

"No reason." As Shiro slipped a third finger in, Keith gasped, pulling up to give Shiro a better angle at last -- or to give himself a better angle to f*ck himself on Shiro's hand. Same difference. "But you know how hard it is for me to say no when you ask this nicely."

What words were coming out of his mouth, Keith couldn't say for sure, but, "Please," was one of them, and probably the most polite. When Shiro rolled him face down on the mattress, there was no more play-wrestling, just the fight to keep his legs steady enough to put his ass where it was easy for Shiro to handle. The stretch he was feeling now was tight, but he wanted more. Shiro fingering him inside was already getting him hard again, taking him apart in the best way, but Keith could feel Shiro's co*ck hard as stone and hot as lava on his thigh. Yeah, Shiro knew a lot of amazing things to do with his ass, but right now, he wanted something big inside him.

"When don't you?" Shiro laughed -- Keith's first hint that he was talking out loud.

"... Yeah." Keith strained against Shiro's touch, letting the feeling take him over. "You caught me. All I want is your enormous penis."

Halfway to a growl, Shiro murmured, "And you take it so well," while he bent to get Keith's ass lined up where he needed it. The sweat dripping off Shiro onto Keith's back put a tang in the air he could taste, and the caress of sex-touseled hair while Shiro licked the drops away made him shudder. Then a hot, slick co*ck pushed into Keith's ass like a fine-tuned piston, perfect and full and making his engine burn. Keith took a deep breath of Shiro, relaxing all his muscles so they could fall into the rhythm of driving his hands and knees into the mattress. "Hngh... Keith... You like that?"

"Oh, f*ck yes..." The way Shiro filled him up every time he bottomed out left him gasping, but he had to be careful. He couldn't lose too much control. When he got f*cked hard, sometimes his brain hit the event horizon, which wasn't too different from losing control in a fight. The fangs and claws he'd spent so long not knowing he had started to extend out of where they hid against his bone, and f*ck... as much as he just wanted to let it ride while he matched Shiro moan for moan, he couldn't leave the sheets shredded like a wild animal had attacked.

Just like that, Shiro snatched him upright, artificial arm braced on the headboard, flesh arm clutching Keith to his chest while he double-timed his thrusts. "I've got you, baby. Let it happen. I've got you. Are you gonna come for me again?"

The heat blooming all through his body and his flushed, swollen co*ck were foregone conclusions. Maybe saying, "Do it!" over and over with the odd profanity wasn't an answer, but Keith didn't have the brains to notice until he was shuddering out a scream muted by Shiro's hand between his teeth and his vision cleared to the sight of his load having been very much blown all over the dark wood above the pillows.

His husband was taking in a long, slow breath, and letting it out even more slowly, still hard and buried deep. Shiro's voice was rough and desperate. "Are you okay if I come inside you?"

Keith unlocked his jaw from around Shiro's hand, seeing mostly bite dents and barely any blood. It'd clean up fine. No one would notice. His breath was still shuddering as he tried to find words. "Yeah. Yeah... I want you to make me a mess, Takashi."

A needy groan that was as close to thank you as either of them needed ended in Shiro silencing himself with a bite on Keith's shoulder and finishing himself off with three or four strokes that still made Keith shiver even after he'd come down. He felt all of Shiro's body flex against him, satisfied co*ck slipping out and both of them falling to the mattress after.

He kissed the scratches his claws had left on Shiro's arm (nowhere sleeves wouldn't cover) and helped his husband wrap him up in an embrace. Nothing was better after a round of hard f*cking than a moment to lay his head on Shiro's shoulder and watch him breathe in the mellow silence of not needing words, at least until he had enough of his sense back that he could tell what song was playing again.

Round about then, Keith spread his hand over Shiro's chest, tracing the old scars and the lines of his muscles with a chuckle that had a lot in common with a possessive sigh. "Hey, there," Shiro said, recovering his words at last. He tilted his head toward Keith, eyes glimmering and mouth begging to have the smirk kissed off of it -- which, of course, Keith did.

"Hey." Then he pushed himself up, straddling Shiro's hips for a better angle to touch every bit of his unfairly gorgeous body. "You better not think twice is enough to wear me out, old timer."

Shiro's smile was full of promises, and more than a little mischief. "Oh, I hope it takes a lot more than that."

Like hell were they getting a full night's sleep.

Chapter 7: The First Cut

Chapter Text

You wish to join the Blade of Marmora? Be prepared to suffer and give your life to accomplish the good you seek: Knowledge or Death. The blood of ten thousand years of our kindred has made the path to today, just as our blood, sweat, and ats’etilk’volin will build tomorrow. Survive our trials, and you shall join us as we -- in the words of a legendary warlord among our human allies -- are the change we wish to see in the world.

Now seeking sustenance preparers for the partner initiative with Galactic Iron Chef to feed displaced citizens and civic aid volunteers on Namurn. Contact information below.

("Sustenance Preparer Recruitment". Blade of Marmora home page, 14 June 2281.)

Shiro had heard that the month or so before a wedding could be busy, with the work of arranging a so-called perfect day involving schedules with multiple vendors, picking menus, designing a meaningful decoration scheme, getting everyone matching suits, and all the rest. He'd never doubted it was true, either, so if he'd been planning a wedding on his own timeline, he wouldn't have double-booked most of that month with Blade of Marmora covert operations orientation -- extended a week beyond basic training for Krolia's promised Inter-species Socialization seminar. Getting everything decided, scheduled, and ordered before he shipped out tomorrow would've been impossible without the other Paladins helping.

Seriously. What would he have done without Lance to explain that he couldn't just pick a standard wedding package out of a book? At least, after insisting that the festivities had to be personalized, Lance had volunteered to provide flower arrangements out of his own home-grown acres of flowers -- although Shiro and Curtis had needed to specify the personalized colors of fuchsia and blue, and to pick a shade of off-white that called to them out of a book of fabric samples.

They'd then had to pick an entirely different favorite shade of off-white for the wedding party's suits -- the same shade would've been too "matchy-matchy" -- which everyone had to get custom fitted, and Shiro's own visit to the tailor had needed to happen today, or they'd be doing a last minute rush after he got back from his top secret training with the Blades. Best not to tempt fate. The tailor had seemed relieved to have the extra time for making the jacket fall right over his asymmetrical torso, and had nearly cried when he saw the difference in size between his bicep relaxed and his bicep flexed. Compared to that, hemming one sleeve at the shoulder so it could tuck under his the cap of his prosthetic didn't bother the man at all. Shiro wished he could have been so at ease. Even the viral video someone anonymous (obviously Pidge) had released of Matt Holt -- complete with glasses, bowl cut hair, and braces -- failing to juggle rubber chickens in his middle school talent show getting played on every news show in every waiting room couldn't distract him from the fake wedding stress.

Sighing along with the voice in his head repeating, "Just four more hours until you're back on a spaceship," Shiro unlocked the door of Curtis's house. Well, their house. He hadn't been attached to his old apartment, and living together made the charade easier, so he'd moved into Curtis's spare room with his two cubic feet of personal possessions.

"Anybody home?" he called.

Curtis answered from around some corners, "In the kitchen, but don't come back here yet! Working on a bon voyage dinner."

Fair enough. Sometimes, Shiro could swear food came out burned or underdone or sometimes an absurd mix of both just because he'd looked at it while it was cooking. "I'll stay safely in the living room," he said, taking a moment to see how Orion was doing. The beautifully surly little fish was glaring out of a nook in the big conch shell ornament Shiro had gotten him. "Hey, buddy," he whispered. "You gonna miss me while I'm gone?"

The fish peeked out as he approached, then flitted in the open to swim some loops that showed off his gliding fins. Still the prettiest fish Shiro had ever seen.

While he was framing up a picture for his instagram, he noticed the number of calls waiting on his phone. He'd only had it on silent for an hour and a half to get that fitting done, and six different people had left messages. They could wait thirty more seconds, Shiro decided, and tapped out a caption on the picture. So far, no one had noticed the difference between when Shiro made posts himself and when Curtis made them, so now was as good a time as any to find out if they could fool the world into thinking he was still on Earth when he was, in fact, very far from it. Veronica had briefed him on a spin story about a top secret diplomatic retreat in the event that anyone noticed he was missing during the next few weeks, but the paparazzi had thinned out quite a bit. Not a single flashbulb had followed them into Curtis's neighborhood in a week, so he might be able to escape undetected.

The first message was from the wedding venue. He forwarded it to Curtis's phone, along with the message from a news network that wanted an interview about their engagement. If they were lucky, it'd be a request for a text questionnaire type interview, but if it was for a live one, they could either schedule it for after Shiro got back or claim that they, "valued their privacy."

He was getting used to the ring on his finger, since Keith had insisted he keep it on like he would with a real engagement ring. Keith had been right. If he'd started taking it off when they were alone, it would've become a habit and he would've slipped up. Usually, he just pretended the ring represented his marriage to Keith. That made it easier.

He was married, after all, and he took a lot of comfort in that fact when things got weird. He just wasn't married to the man everyone on Earth thought he was marrying.

Shiro pushed play on the first message from a friend, and Hunk's face filled up the screen.

"Hey, Shiro! Thanks for coming to the cake tasting. I know you just wanted me to pick, but, I mean, it's your wedding, man! Aren't you excited?! I know I am. I couldn't just leave this to chance. So based on feedback from you and Curtis, we're going to go with the lemon chiffon cake for the main tiers, and the top tier is going to be the spice cake, since that'll freeze really well. I know red velvet is traditional, but, ah..." Their resident chef winced at the camera, and Shiro laughed. He knew what Hunk meant.

Red might make people think of Keith. All the Paladins had steered away from the color on everything they were doing for the wedding. The first time Shiro had mentioned that Japanese weddings tended to have red foods or decorations, everyone at the meeting had recoiled with the same look of fear in their eyes despite how no one in the general population had commented on Orion being red. Like Curtis had said, only the Paladins and Coran made that connection. But, oh boy, did they!

It made Shiro want to wear a red tie. He'd be good, though.

"Anyway!" Hunks video message went on, "I'm working on a subtly almond-ginger flavor palette for a buttercream icing base that I think will complement both cakes. If you have time to stop by for another taste test, we can get that right, and don't worry! I'll work with Lance on making sure the decorations match your flowers, I won't bother you guys with that." Smiling a glowing smile and clenching two fists, he declared, "This cake will be my masterpiece! Okay, call me back about the taste test. Oh! And once we've perfected the cake, I'll send you potential menus to match the flavor profile. We'll need to pick a beef, a chicken, and a vegetarian entree. Message received loud and clear on the 'No Eating Fish' thing. Okay! See you!"

He forwarded that message to Curtis, too, calling out, "I'm sending you a message from Hunk! He needs to set up at least two more taste tests."

"What?" Curtis shouted back from the kitchen. "Why? Everything he makes is amazing, it'll be fine!"

"I think Hunk's personal standards for weddings are higher than, 'fine'."

"Does no one else understand that this wedding is fake?" his fiancé asked.

"I'm not sure they care," Shiro sighed, seeing that the next message was from Lance, all the way from his book tour five galaxies away.

He pressed play.

Lance's face was pressed far too close to the screen for comfort, and his expression was downright manic. "Shiro! I got the delivery notification on the invitations coming back from the engravers! Since I'm not there right now, can you just, like, take them over to my place and make sure the gold foil accents match the ribbons for the floral arrangements? And I mean match them exactly. Because if they don't match, you cannot send those out. We'll need to return them and demand that the engravers make them right. Gotta go, but you've got this! Send me pics, okay? In natural light. I just need to know. Thanks, Shiro!"

Shiro scratched the back of his neck, trying to decide if there were really enough shades of gold in the world that Lance might get mad at him if he explained that he'd already sent out the invitations. He was on a deadline, after all. It was one more thing crossed off the list.

Given the number of shades of off-white in the book Lance had plopped in front of him during the flower stuff, he couldn't assume anything, so he tapped open a chat window with Veronica. "Your brother is being a pain in my ass again."

The dots at the bottom of the screen turned into, "What does Lancey-lance want now?"

Shiro dropped the video message about Lance's gold matching anxiety in the chat, adding, "I already sent the invites," to the text.

"God. Lance! Such a groom-zilla!" Veronica typed back after a minute. "And you know it's going to be ten times as bad when it's his turn to get married. Anyway, I've got the invite Curtis brought me. I'll send him a picture to calm him down, don't worry. I remember the ribbon he's using, and the gold foil is fine. You're good."

"Thanks, V."

"Np," she typed back, and Shiro went to his next message.

Thank goodness for Pidge, who started with, "Hey, Shiro. I grabbed your and Curtis's music streaming history and dumped it into an algorithm to DJ your reception, with a filter for your filthy booty music, you horndog, and you're lucky that weddings are the only remaining social occasion where people unironically listen to disco. I need no input from you. You're welcome."

At least one person here understood that he wasn't emotionally invested in this wedding.

He clicked on an embedded link Pidge pointed to on the video. He still had no idea how she made that happen -- and had dutifully promised to never click on any link that popped up like that unless it was from her. It started an app downloading and installing on his phone. "So I'm sending you this 3D scanner. I'm going to be working on your new arm while I'm doing this expo, and I need a current model of your shoulder socket. Allura and Dad straight up built that thing from old Altean reference files with alterations on the fly, and there are about five different conflicting pieces of documentation, and I am not f*cking around with that when I can just get you to scan the damn thing. So scan it." She leaned in ominously on the camera, pushing her glasses up on her nose. "Now. I am a very busy nerd."

Fair was fair, Shiro thought with a shrug, and powered down his floating arm. The suction holding the silicone sensors to his skin released, and he folded back the protective metal cuff, which did double duty keeping the sleeveless side of his shirts clamped in place. He checked Pidge's instructions to see if she needed a look at that, but apparently not, since the new arm she was designing was more of a stealth prosthetic.

Shiro would only wear the current prosthetic when he was on Earth, being seen for cover purposes. Whatever Pidge made him, it'd have to be programmed to respond to his nerve impulses anyway, so the design of the myoelectric sensors must've been something she could work around. According to the app, the titanium-alloy socket was the only part Pidge needed to know about. Shiro triggered the recessed latch to turn off the electromagnet's circuit, and the arm unlocked from the gyroscopic hinge Allura had adapted from Sam's spare part collection.

Interlocking metal eased apart as he gently pushed up and then back, tensing his shoulder in the opposite directions. While he had it off, he'd do his weekly cleaning and oiling routine, too, since he didn't know how fast things would go while he was with the Blades. Better early than late with machine maintenance. You couldn't undo metal fatigue or wear. First, though, he clicked the prompt on Pidge's app to scan the shoulder side of the hinge. Shiro lifted the phone up so the camera could shoot a moving green laser at the concave pit in the side of his chest where the metal was screwed into the shoulder blade and ribs. From the looks of it tracing the area, Pidge needed the whole assembly, not just the connection port anchored in the center.

He knew why Pidge would need that: to build the new shoulder so it didn't jam against the side of his existing socket. Imagining the metal scraping made his spine crawl, so he shook the thought out of his head as fast as possible by focusing on the amazing scanner thing. How Pidge had convinced the phone to do 3D laser scanning, he didn't want to know. His phone shouldn't have even had a laser. The time she had spent with the Olkari over the years had decimated his understanding of what tech could do.

The app beeped to say it was done after a minute or two. At least when he was scanning the detached arm, he could see the scanning app filling in lines in a digital schematic that rotated on the screen while the laser traced the edges. It hit 100% complete, and the image on screen turned into a tiny cartoon of Pidge making a salute, folding herself into an envelope that got picked up by the Green Lion, and flying away into space. Shiro chuckled for at least a minute at that before reaching for his hinge grease. Pidge was such a gift.

But there was one more message to watch. He set his phone on a side table and pressed play before he started to work the grease into his moving parts.

Roy Focker's face filled the screen, full of revenge. "All right, Rogaine. Here's the way it's going down. You are not skipping your own bachelor party again. Tonight, I am picking you up and escorting you to the strip club myself. I'm sorry we couldn't get your boy on planet, I really am, but you got your night! The rest of us still need to see you sh*tfaced on top-shelf booze while you try not to get a hard-on from a stripper shaking his junk in your face."

It would actually be very, very easy to not get hard from a stranger shaking their junk in his face in a chaotic bar with tons of alcohol and loud music, Shiro reflected, but this was Roy. Some things, Roy would never understand. And he'd give Roy the chance to throw the party he wanted -- eventually. Shiro knew all of this was just for appearances, and appearances demanded that his officer buddies expose him to some debauched silliness before his official wedding. That didn't mean he was going without protest.

Or that he was going at all, tonight. Roy didn't know it, but he had places to be.

"And I get it, Rogaine. It's not your thing." Pouting at the screen, Roy crossed his arms. "Trust me, though, will ya?! I know how to throw a party where even you can have fun, Golden Boy! You will show up because I will make you show up, you will have a good time, blow off some steam, and when it's all over, you'll say, 'Roy! I'm so sorry, I misjudged you! This is the best bachelor party ever!' Just watch, Shirogane. And put on something at least vaguely slu*tty before I come pick you up tonight. We're going to a gay club. Look the f*cking part."

Well, it wasn't his fault that his military uniform had always made him look and feel fabulously not straight, the last casual clothes he'd worn out before retiring were hand-me-downs from Keith's father, and since retiring, he hadn't had time to develop his casual style while being micromanaged to look boring. What was he supposed to do, go shopping at a department store for leather pants? With his thighs? He'd need to get them custom!

As the kitchen door opened, a voice that was definitely not Curtis said, "Let's roll up the sleeves on that white t-shirt that's too small and pull out your old jeans."

Somehow, like a miracle, his husband was standing in the hall that connected the front room to the dining room, and he was holding a casserole full of steaming, homemade mac and cheese between his oven-mitted hands. Shiro had never seen anything more beautiful, and the smell was absolute heaven.

"Keith!" he said, jumping up in all his greasy-fingered, one-armed glory. He couldn't catch him up in a crushing hug, given the hot casserole dish and him not having an encompassing grip at the moment, but he did his best. His fingers brushed Keith's cheek, leaving shimmering blackish streaks, and Shiro liberally salted Keith's grin with tiny kisses. "I thought I was meeting you in orbit. What happened?"

"We had the wind at our backs, figuratively," Keith answered, looking up into his eyes from three inches away. Shiro loved that view. He could see galaxies reflected in Keith's eyes when they went soft like that. "Since I was early, I figured I'd surprise you. But seriously, tight t-shirt and jeans. You'll look like a cross between James Dean and that old f*cking newscaster you had a crush on, especially if you slick the sides of your hair. It'll be hot."

"Seconded," Curtis said, sneaking around them with a mountain of spinach salad. "If I get a vote. Now, let's eat before dinner gets cold. Stare into each other's eyes for eternity later."

Shiro flashed him a smile. "I appreciate the advice, at least until I can raid a firemen's surplus store." Keith kicked his shin, but it was worth it. "Anyway, I won't be getting dressed up for a party tonight, no matter what Dwight thinks he's doing."

Eyes narrowed, Keith asked, "Did you not tell him you have Blades orientation?"

"That's a classified element of the operation," Shiro explained with his most innocently mischievous expression. Both his husband and his fake fiancé rolled their eyes, but Roy had known him long enough to know that if he didn't want to get played, he shouldn't have let Shiro realize he was fun to mess with. "Let me get cleaned up. Keith, wanna give me a hand?" he asked, gesturing to his empty arm socket.

"Oh my god, how do I love you?" his husband groaned, setting down the mac and cheese. "That pun is still the worst, you know." Still, Keith followed him over to the couch, and helped him line up all the parts of the newly greased hinge so his arm clicked into place. Keith had a better angle to align the back edges properly than Shiro could ever get, and a deft hand with smoothing the silicone sensors around his skin so they laid right. There was barely any need to reposition once the arm booted back up.

Once everything was in place and Shiro could control two hands again, he held Keith's face tight for one more kiss. But as soon as his hands started drifting lower -- not even in a dirty way, just to hold Keith tight and feel the push against his chest when he breathed -- his husband grabbed his wrist to stop him.

"Wash up, Shiro. I made you Texas beef barbecue ribs, because you're going to be stuck with Blade of Marmora rations for the next month, and if you start kissing me like that, we won't have time to eat them before I kidnap you."

"Geez," he sighed. "I miss your barbecue ribs, baby, but you can't make me choose between you and your barbecue. I'll starve."

Keith shoved his face, trying to hide a grin and failing while he walked toward the kitchen. Even better, he treated Shiro to the sight of his ass in tight pants framed by the apron ties around his waist. "You need to get a doctor to look at your dork levels, Shiro. I think they're terminal. Also, if you don't eat this dinner when we grated actual blocks of cheese to make that macaroni, Curtis will have legitimate grounds to divorce you."

By the dining room table, Curtis was nodding while he put plates out. "I think there's a law."

Shiro nodded along, heading toward the kitchen after Keith. Hinge grease wouldn't wash itself. "Fair," he agreed. "If that's not a law, it probably should be."

Once they all started eating, it was a minute or two before anyone spoke, because Keith's homemade barbecue sauce and melt-off-the-bone ribs were just that good. The first words out of Curtis's half-full mouth were, "Keith, please teach me this recipe. Wow."

"Sure. It's one of the first things Mom taught me once we both had down time on Earth. I'll write it down later. You've got to use local honey, though," Keith said. "It's just better than the processed stuff. And if you cut the vinegar with lemon juice, it gives it a brighter flavor."

"Mm-hmm," Curtis agreed, licking sauce off his fingers. "Give Krolia my compliments."

Keith dished himself a healthy serving of the mac and cheese, which tasted just as good as it smelled. "Watch out or you'll end up on her experimental recipe of the month mailing list."

Curtis's eyes lit up. "Really?!"

"You'll love it," said Shiro. "Sometimes she makes videos, although you should watch out for the one where she slaughters her own cow. That one's a lot."

The mac and cheese recipe was one of Krolia's, too. She'd put it together for one of his birthdays pretty soon after they'd saved the multiverse despite the fact that Galra basically couldn't digest wheat. He'd already eaten through two heaps of cheesy goodness, and was making himself have a responsible portion of salad before he went in on a third.

His fake fiancé narrowed his eyes at the bone and meat in his hands. "Yeah... yeah, that tracks. Krolia does not seem like a grocery store kind of person."

"Strictly homegrown vegetables and personally hunted meat, or direct delivery off a web page," Keith confirmed. "Anyway, what've you got planned for while I'm making sure Shiro can still assemble a rifle in under thirty seconds at the top of a hundred-foot rope climb?"

Oh, the things he did because Keith liked to see him show off, and not because anyone had any reasonable expectation of needing to do them. And also because he was constitutionally incapable of watching people do difficult and dangerous training exercises without asserting that he could do the same with one hand tied behind his back. Technically, Shiro knew that was a "bad" personality trait, but the Blades of Marmora (especially Keith) had never done anything but enable it. The day they wanted him to stop showing off, he'd stop. Probably.

Curtis did a double-take between him and Keith, then whispered, "Wait, is there a platform, or--"

Keith leaned over as if he was being secretive, but his "whisper" was regular volume. "Nah. He braces himself on the rope with his legs. You know his ass is that built for a reason."

"Holy sh*t, I need a moment," said Curtis, putting down a half-eaten rib and wiping his face with a napkin. "Why are you telling me these things while I'm trying to eat?"

"You asked," Keith answered with a shrug.

Shiro grabbed two extra ribs of his own. "I agree. New topic. Let's go back to how you're going to spend the next month."

"Besides thirty thousand appointments with wedding vendors, you mean?"

"I appreciate your sacrifice," Shiro assured him.

"I knew what I was getting into, Takashi," Curtis promised, poking a fork into the greenery on his plate. "I remember Edgar's wedding. That whole experience might be why Claudia hasn't wrung a ring out of Roy yet. I was less prepared for academics begging to get my name on papers because my celebrity gives them a leg up with publishers. You know the Australian government asked me to be a guest at a climate summit in Perth in two weeks? Perth! Australia! A guest of the state! Me!"

Trying to hide a laugh in a spare rib, Keith said, "I guess that's what happens when you try to make Shiro boring. Famous by osmosis."

"Oh, but Pidge made me a great new app..." Curtis pulled up his phone and took a selfie, then turned the screen for them to see. Next to Curtis in the picture was a CG image of Shiro's own face so well rendered, Shiro wasn't sure if he could have told it from an actual photo. "It generates a new outfit every day, or when I tell it to, and does vector mapping of highlights and shadows based on detected light sources, plus it has an expression and pose randomizer trained on all the pictures of you ever posted online so it doesn't duplicate! Neat, right?"

"Neat, and kind of terrifying," said Shiro. There was no way there'd been time to design that software from scratch with everything Pidge had been doing. "I'm worried that she's been using her free time developing technology to replace us all with digital replicas, though. How will we be able to trust that any picture we see of another person is genuine ever again?"

Keith answered, far more casually than Shiro had been ready for, "She builds those filter apps so the images have specific data hashes she can check in case she has to prove someone pirated her sh*t, or there's a question later if something's real or not," as if that were a normal thing to know. Making innocent eyes at both him and Curtis looking dumbfounded, he added, "What? Pidge gave the Blades tech to forge an operative's presence on a planet deca-phoebs ago. I never mentioned because it's top secret."

Inexplicably, that made Shiro feel a whole lot better, which was good. The rest of the macaroni and cheese and barbecue ribs weren't going to eat themselves, and he'd never be able to do his fair share if he was nursing a Pidge Special anxiety stomach ache.

Anyway, it looked like Curtis was ready for anything. Refilling his plate, Shiro said, "I can't wait to hear all about the boring adventures we get up to in Perth while I'm off being in space again."

"Yeah," Curtis laughed. "What I can't wait to see is how many people tell me they definitely saw you at one of the parties and are so sad you didn't have more time to talk before you were suddenly called away. It always happens. It's great. Oh, also you're going to buy me a plush orca at the aquarium -- one of the six footers. I'm going to name it Atlas, after where we met. The internet will love it."

The level of detail that Curtis had invested into creating a fake relationship out of whole cloth was kind of astounding. Shiro had always thought of running media interference as a burden, a sacrifice they'd be asking someone to make. But Curtis seemed to be...

Having fun?

"He sounds like you when you're talking about one of your Monsters and Mana games," Keith reflected, full of bewilderment. "Only hopefully this time, your character won't die."

Keith was right. It was like a real-time fantasy story! And that was so much better than just lying! He'd have to start taking notes about his double life on Earth, though, or he'd never be able to stay in character as Fake Shiro when he was here.

~//~

Curtis passed him another soapy dish, which Keith dipped in the rinse and dried. They had it down to an art by now.

"I still think I should do the clean up," Shiro objected. "You guys put so much work into cooking that dinner. If you cook, you don't clean."

Scrubbing off the sauce from a plate, Curtis said, "Don't you dare touch my crockery, Shirogane Takashi. You will curse the cookware, and I still have to eat food out of these for over a month before we get the new dishes from the wedding registry."

Keith had to laugh at Shiro's sad grunt, even though Shiro knew what happened when he touched kitchen stuff. He'd said it himself, a curse was the only explanation, and some kind of evil kitchen fairy must not have been invited to his baby shower. "Admit it, Curtis. You agreed to this whole fake wedding thing so you could get someone to buy you a standing mixer."

"That's what weddings are for!" Curtis insisted, shaking a soapy scrub brush at Keith. He'd come a long, long way from the guy who'd looked worried that he'd die if he said the wrong thing, thank goodness. Now, they could relax. "Standing mixers are literally the reason why people have weddings, Keith. They're expensive, but they're the best--"

"Yeah, I know. That's why I got Hunk's advice on which one to order for you." The silent shock on the biologist's face while a blob of soap dropped off the brush onto the plate he was washing said everything. "What?" Keith asked. "Did you think I was going to show up at your wedding without a present?"

"I'm marrying your husband," said Curtis. The man shook his head at the idea, like he'd never thought of it in those terms before even though it'd definitely come up a few times. As bemused as he seemed, he still washed the last dish with his usual dexterity. "It feels a little weird for you to be giving me a present after I theoretically stole your man. Like, you not being mad at me should be enough of a present. Then again, I guess none of this is normal."

"First, stop reading the comments on the internet. Shiro is allowed to fake date whoever he wants while we're fake broken up. You're fine."

"I know, I know," Curtis sighed.

"Second, me buying you a gift is mission critical, so get over it," Keith added. "Veronica cornered me to make sure I was buying you something expensive but practical, so I don't show up looking like a jealous ex or a homewrecker or something. But I wanted to anyway."

The way Shiro chuckled, Keith was certain what face he was making, but he looked back to check anyway. Sure enough, he had a tiny grin that made him look like he was glowing while he leaned against the wall. Locking eyes with Keith, Shiro told Curtis, "Don't let him fool you. As soon as the registry went up, Keith asked me what you really wanted the most."

Pointing at Curtis, Keith insisted, "The conversation with Veronica still happened," then turned to glare fondly at his husband. "That was supposed to be a secret, Shiro."

Heedless of Curtis wiping off his hands so he could hide his face as if he wanted to melt into the floor, Shiro joked, "I can't help it, baby. I thought it was sweet."

It was hard to tell if Curtis was blushing, but he couldn't meet either of their eyes when he gestured vaguely at the back door out of the kitchen. He was shaking his head at the ceiling the whole time. "You're both too cute. I'm sorry, no, this is not allowed. I can't take you two anymore, you have to leave my house and go be adorable somewhere else until I recover." He joined them in the laughter filling the kitchen, but still squawked. "Go, go! Get out of my house! I swear, this is worse than my coworkers congratulating themselves on 'convincing' me to date the hottest and sweetest man on planet Earth because they didn't know it was a set up!"

"But Keith is the hottest man on Earth!" Shiro gasped in mock scandal. "I thought you were fake dating me!"

Keith chucked a dishrag at Shiro's stupidly gorgeous face, while Curtis smacked a hand on the counter. "What did I say about too cute for my house?! Why are you still here?"

He looked back at Shiro and mouthed, "I love you," over the laughter.

Shiro, the asshole, mouthed back, "I know," as if he was the Han Solo in their relationship. They'd discussed this, repeatedly, and even if Shiro wouldn't admit it, he was definitely the valiant and beautiful interstellar senator-slash-general, while Keith had way more claim to scruffy nerf herder turned reluctant freedom fighter. One of these days, he'd get Shiro to agree. Right now, there was too much going on to get into it.

The doorbell chime followed by a loud-ass knock on the door was what they'd all been waiting for: Keith, Shiro, and Curtis -- the ally Roy Focker probably already regretted introducing them to. There was no point in being just a little bit of a jerk, after all. Not with friends. Keith nodded to Shiro and headed for the back door to make sure it was unlocked, Shiro grabbed his duffel, and Curtis jogged to the door.

"Just a second," their co-conspirator said, confirming who was on the other side before unlocking the deadbolt. "Hey, Roy. Come on in. Takashi's right--"

The rest happened just the way they rehearsed. Shiro, lounging in the kitchen door frame, tossed off a salute and ran back toward the exit Keith pulled open while Roy yelled, "Oh, not this time, Rogaine! Get the f*ck back here!"

Gauging the speed of Roy running by the approaching footsteps, Keith locked the handle while the door was still open, and paused just long enough to catch a glimpse of Roy rounding the corner. It wouldn't be any fun to mess with him and not let him know who was running off with Shiro. The blond's eyes flashed like he knew this was a race now. Keith threw him a wink, because the way Roy redoubled his sprint wouldn't help. He was already slamming the door.

The crash of Roy Focker body-slamming the locked door was amazing -- almost as beautiful as the roar of the engine in Shiro's personal jet. It didn't stop Roy for long, but it was long enough to give Keith a headstart for jumping into the plane behind Shiro, who looked as f*cking gorgeous as he always looked when he had his hands on the wheel. Keith never could get enough of the relaxed, confident way Shiro palmed the shift stick with one hand, ready to cowboy out on a hair-trigger, while he entered coordinates on the dash.

"Hey! Shirogane! Get out before I pull you out!"

"No can do, Dwight," Shiro laughed, pulling his flight helmet on and co*cking a thumb at Keith vaulting the side of the plane into the passenger seat. "My new CO gave me strict orders. You know how it is!"

The hatch closed before Roy got to the co*ckpit, but Keith could still hear him screaming, "f*ck you! You're retired!" through the polycarbonate plexiglass.

Shiro, of course, mimed not being able to hear a word, yelling, "What's that?" and when he turned on the lift-off sequence so Roy had to back up, the strings of profanities really were impossible to decipher. The intent was clear though. While he and Shiro laughed, Keith watched Roy sprint around the outside of the house all the way to the party limo decorated with green and purple streamers waiting in the driveway by Curtis's minivan. He was shaking his fists, and a few people, including Matt Holt and Veronica, came out to see what was going on. The way they were snickering, you'd think they were in on the joke. Since none of them had planned this until a couple hours ago, they couldn't have been, but for all Keith knew, Pidge's brother and Lance's sister (and hey, Axca got out of the car, too, looking for an explanation from her girlfriend) had guessed it would happen anyway.

Matt knowing Shiro was training with the Blade of Marmora was debatable. They hadn't told him, but that didn't mean anything. He sometimes figured out things he wasn't supposed to know. He was a Holt, and Holts were smart. Veronica, though, definitely knew since she'd coordinated the whole timeline. If she hadn't hinted to Roy that he ought to reschedule, then Shiro's fake best man clearly had as many problems with his allies as he did with the groom. This bachelor party was doomed.

Keith wasn't sorry.

While they spiraled into the atmosphere and Shiro took advantage of the cloaking technology Pidge had installed to do a triple barrel roll with an ecstatic yelp, Keith shot a picture of Shiro's thighs and ass cupped by the flight seat. That went on a self-destructing text to Roy that'd be gone from the digisphere without a trace five seconds after it opened on the man's phone.

"You're gonna have to be faster if you want a piece of this," Keith typed, and hit send.

He got a message back two seconds later, which he didn't think he could do justice to by reading it aloud. The runs of punctuation, keysmashes, and rushed spelling mistakes were too much of the charm. "Roy isn't sure if I'm a bad influence on you, or you're a bad influence on me," Keith announced to Shiro. "But he hates us, and he's going to make us pay for this."

"Hey, he knows all's fair in love and war," Shiro cackled. G-forces pushed Keith back into his seat, his husband pouring on the speed like only an adrenaline junkie could, and they would've made it into orbit in record time if he hadn't also been doing loops and banks... and if Keith could read the sky right, drawing two hearts and a smiley face with his contrails like a dork. Some conspiracy theorist somewhere taking video of those clouds appearing in a clear sky, with their cloaked ship invisible, was gonna have a field day.

The next message Keith got from Roy was a forward, sent with a middle finger emoji. "No, Shiro, I think he literally means he's going to make us pay for the limo. He sent me the bill."

Shiro glanced up to meet Keith's eyes in the main rear-view mirror. "Oh, baby. You don't have to do that. Although you do need to put on your helmet. It's under the seat. I'm not doing any more rolls until you put it on."

"Worth it," Keith declared, and did the pettiest thing he could think of. He immediately transferred Roy the entire price of the limo, down to the GAC, through an untraceable account Veronica had set up so it looked like a refund.

Then he put on his helmet, because he didn't want to miss any more trick flying. He loved how Shiro's barrel rolls shoved all his guts up into his throat. That was what living felt like.

The text, "You are an asshole, and you two deserve each other," came just a minute after the money transfer cleared. Definitely worth it.

Keith held onto the chair grips while Shiro banked across the open sky like a mogul skiier with jetpacks, heart fluttering just like it had when he was a sixteen year old kid getting to ride a hoverbike with the hot upperclassman. Last of all, a sharp nosedive at a stretch of empty desert ended with Shiro pulling up, using the raw acceleration from the gravity of the fall as thrust to power an ascent that nailed Keith to his seat. There was nothing like the feeling of Shiro putting on the speed and testing the resistance of the cushion under his back. Riding the edge of a blackout, adrenaline making his blood race and his senses tingle...

Okay, maybe there was one thing like it.

In the cresting moments of the zoom climb into what felt like a 3600-degree climbing spin, they broke through the atmosphere into a dark expanse dotted with shimmering stars. It was something they'd both seen a thousand times at least, but Keith never got tired of the awestruck sigh Shiro made when he got to be in space. "How're you feeling, Starman?" Keith murmured, catching his breath after the rush of breaking gravity at speeds that pushed the limits of human biology. It was almost a crime he had to stop looking into Shiro's hungry eyes to link his datapad with the on-board computer, but if he didn't set the jet's transponder codes to a Blade of Marmora ID, they'd get shot at, and that'd ruin the mood but good. Not to mention, his mother would tell him off.

"Keith, I've missed this so much," said Shiro, his voice getting deep with need. Then, clearing his throat as if he could sense how much the other Blades would snicker if they heard that voice, he put on a more professional tone. "Thank you. I mean it. This opportunity to work with your team means everything to me."

He rolled his eyes, glad for the flight helmet keeping the stars from seeing how Shiro could still make him feel like his heart was going to beat out of his chest even when they were flying on an even keel. "Oh no, my operatives get the benefit of an Earth liaison with fantastic piloting and hand-to-hand combat credentials, and I get the hottest man in the multiverse in my bed. This is so much of an imposition, whatever will I do..."

"Learn to cuddle," Shiro answered. They both knew how narrow Marmora beds were. One would think, the Galra being as big as many of them were, bunks would be a little more spacious, but no. They were just built at a remove from the walls. Seeing Kolivan sleep back in the day had been like watching a bear balance on a park bench. On the other hand, the plank beds also explained some of the weirder popular sex positions in Galra culture.

Keith planned to try most of them, but he wasn't going to warn Shiro about them now. "More like learn to sleep on a boulder-like pile of muscle," he said instead, and opened a hailing frequency to their ship. "I'm calling in. Don't talk on open comm in case anyone's doing vocal scanning."

Shiro saluted, not saying a word.

"Kralnax, this is Leonid Prime on approach. Keith in command, one guest on board. Over."

"Roger, Keith," said Gamar on the other end of the line. "Identify guest?"

"Just a tick." Keith pushed mute on the microphone. "Shiro, you picked a pseudonym, right?" With all the nonsense over Roy's bachelor party (which was important so he regretted nothing), Keith had forgotten to ask before they left Earth.

The way Shiro grinned when he announced, "Oh yeah. I want to be Hazama Kuroo!" meant absolutely nothing good, Keith was sure.

He swallowed, looking at the blinking light that represented Gamar waiting on the other end of the line. "Are you grinning because this is a stupid joke about 'Shiro' meaning 'white' in Japanese, and 'Kuro' meaning 'black'?"

"... Yes?" his husband said. But he sounded hopeful enough about Keith believing him that there was no chance in hell that was all that was happening here.

"Oh my god. Shiro, is your fake name some kind of nerd thing?"

"Black Jack a really good series. A classic! You'd love it, I promise!" The grin was just getting brighter, and Keith didn't have time to argue.

"I'm trusting you not to have picked a name that's going to blow your cover," he answered, taking the call off of mute. He wasn't too worried. If he hadn't recognized the name after ten years of hearing Shiro nerd out about stuff, it had to be pretty obscure. Also, it made Shiro smile. "Leonid Prime to Kralnax Command. Our guest identifies as Hazama Kuroo, Lieutenant Commander, liaison from the Galaxy Garrison."

"Hazama Kuroo entered into the log, Leonid Prime. Shall I have the honor guard assemble in the landing bay?"

Keith frowned, wishing he could be more certain that his crew wouldn't decide to greet Shiro with a brass band and a plate of waffles. They usually had good taste, so they might realize that was going too far, but Matt's comedy shows were still getting a lot of replay. "Negative, Kralnax. I'll be debriefing our guest in my quarters before introductions."

"Uh-huh," the officer responded. Keith could hear Gamar smirking. Obviously, yeah, he and Shiro were going to f*ck, but his lieutenant didn't have to sound so insubordinate about it.

Why had no one warned him about officers being assholes before he'd let himself get put in command of anything?

"Shut up, Gamar. Over and out."

Killing the comm line, Keith drank in the sight of Shiro basking in everything around them. He probably hadn't noticed that the conversation with the ship was over. He was too enthralled by the scene around him, sparing only the barest attention for the docking beacon while he sighed contentedly at the stars. Keith saw them enough that, although he loved being out here, it got to be normal; but when he could see Shiro's eyes sparkling like a kid seeing space for the first time, a little bit of the wonder woke up again.

They flew into the hangar bay and set down, and as soon as Shiro jumped out of the co*ckpit, he bounced up and down on the metal floor. "Artificial gravity just feels different. It's amazing. What do you have it set for, point 85 G?"

"Point 87," Keith said. "Daibazaal's gravity. It's kind of critical for the bigger-boned Galra not to develop nasty arthritis in their knees, although it does mean you'll want to scale up for your weight training. I've already got an adjusted cardio routine."

"Looking forward to it. And smell that recirculated air!" exclaimed Shiro, breathing in deep. His face was glowing, and Shiro stretched his arms over his head with a little shudder that was one of his tells. The chance to fly like that had done a number on Shiro, just like watching it had gotten Keith revved up. Next time they got the chance, it wouldn't take much to get Shiro turned on. Probably best to schedule a late start tomorrow morning. His husband was radiating that glow of, "I feel sexy," that reminded Keith of their Garrison days, before Shiro had the weight of the entire world on his shoulders.

If he'd been stuck planetside for as long as Shiro had, though, Keith figured he would've gone a little bit stir-crazy, too, and love that first taste of freedom. Not to mention, Gamar had followed orders. The landing bay was completely clear of people there to welcome them aboard. Matching Shiro's grin, Keith grabbed his husband by the waist and shoved him up against the side of the jet.

Oh yeah. Shiro gasped in a little breath, eyes dilated, and bit his lip, not in the shy way. This was happening before the thrill of the ride died down.

"Welcome home," Keith whispered against his lips. "It's good to have you back."

"It's good to be back."

Was there any more effective aphrodisiac in the universe than a fast plane, Keith wondered while he attacked Shiro's lips, and Shiro pulled him in harder with a titanium grip on his ass. They were both half hard in their pants from the get-go, and being vertical wasn't going to stop them now if it never had before. Shiro loved showing off the kind of stamina that let him rail Keith up against a wall -- and Keith loved letting him. The only real question was whether the plane could take the pressure without denting, and it was designed for planetary re-entry. Keith gave it decent odds of standing up to a f*cking from Shiro.

Although maybe he should've known better than to assume any place was really empty on a ship full of highly trained spies drilled halfway to death on how to make themselves disappear. Chalk one up to hormones making him stupid sometimes. Keith's claws were starting to sharpen and cutting tiny holes in Shiro's shirt, which he was forcing himself not to tear off despite how watching Shiro fly had turned off his brain. When he'd stopped remembering whose tongue was whose, and Shiro's grip had pulled one thigh up around his husband's waist with the other one not far behind, he wasn't thinking about who might hear the thud of his back against the plane. Alertness training drilled into his bones was the only reason Keith caught the sound of a hissed whisper from the other side of a fighter.

"No, we should go," said one voice Keith recognized as a new recruit. "They're coupling. We don't want to interrupt the ritual. It's too dangerous."

Shiro heard it, too, and nearly stopped what he was doing. Keith would've let him, too, if he hadn't known by now what nervous fear sounded like on a Galra soldier. Holding up a hand sign where Shiro could see it, he signaled his husband to act like they hadn't noticed. They kept their faces pressed together where Keith could admire the blush on Shiro's cheeks and tried not to laugh, or make any moves that'd startle the Blades.

A second voice, just as green, whispered as the two guards tip-toed away, "I've heard that humans can be truly terrifying when they go through pon farr and can't seek sexual release. So the stories about the Champion in the arena...?"

"Probably. Everyone knows you can't judge humans' capabilities by their... smallness and softness, and technical inferiority. They look weak." Not laughing was very hard, but at least the guards were approaching the door now so Shiro could bury his face in his hands without worrying about spooking them. "But a human in a sexual deprivation frenzy is different, so they say. One can slaughter an army if he isn't put down, and feels no pain while the rage is on him. You don't think--"

"He has Keith to satisfy his urges. We should be safe," the second one said. "Right?"

"Right," agreed the first one. "... Right. I hadn't realized the Commander was so brave, to put himself at the mercy of a creature like that without hesitation. Although I've heard he's half-human himself, and grew up among them."

"But should we post guards to warn people away?"

"Maybe just a sign. We don't want to risk a guard getting--"

The doors hissed shut, and both Keith and Shiro burst out laughing. Still sitting on his husband's dick through both their pants, he dropped he grinned at Shiro's sparkling eyes. "So, I think we've learned an important lesson about letting Galra recruits see you when you're horny."

"You're making a valuable sacrifice for the safety of your crew, Keith. I'm an untamed beast," Shiro said, voice full of sincerity and hands full of stripping open Keith's pants while he pinned Keith to the side of the plane with nothing but his pelvis.

Keith reached for the edge of the co*ckpit so he could give Shiro some space to get his ass uncovered. "Yeah, I like it that way." Rolling onto a finger while he shoved Shiro's pants down far enough to free the f*cking tree trunk standing at attention and dripping against his skin, he said, "Oh, and feel free to take your time. We wouldn't want to scare anybody by showing up in the hallways before you've had time to satisfy all your urges."

"Yes, sir," Shiro growled, which was the last thing he said for awhile. It was hard to talk when your tongue was in someone else's mouth.

Chapter 8: The Final Countdown

Notes:

I want to thank everyone who's reading this for their incredible patience while I've been taking care of about five different IRL issues. As of yesterday, the entire ending of this fic is now complete and is going through beta -- so never fear, when you hit the somewhat cliffhangery ending of this chapter, you don't have another multi-month hiatus coming. The resolution will be posting this weekend. I wasn't going to do that to you. A giant shoutout to sumeria, who does beta on basically everything I put down, and who is a lot of the reason why I'm writing this.

Chapter Text

Rory Washienko for TNN: Wow, Curtis, thank you so much for agreeing to sit down with me. I'm sure you and Shiro must be very busy prepping for your upcoming wedding.

Curtis LaSalle: It's my pleasure, Rory. And yeah, I guess it is busy? But it's hard to think of it as work under the circ*mstances. I already know I'll be walking down the aisle with Takashi, so no matter what happens with, you know... chairs, or the kitchen, or something someone forgot to do at the last minute -- for me it's going to be a perfect day no matter what.

RW: And there's always something that goes wrong.

CL: Always! (laughing)

RW: So that's great. I don't know if I could be so calm in your situation, with everything moving so fast; you got catapulted into the spotlight because you caught the eye of an intergalactic superstar. But you know, if you're scared, you're hiding it well. (Laughing.) Speaking of which, do we get to see your boo today? On your trip to Perth, you two looked practically inseparable -- it's almost strange to see you not together.

CL: If he gets back from the pet store in time, sure! We had to put in a special order for all the right supplies for the aquariums so the caretaker won't run out while we're on our honeymoon. You know, I don't think I could even lift it all!

RW: Good thing you're marrying a man who can do the heavy lifting!

CL: Right? Gotta love those muscles. So useful. (Winks.)

RW: And I hear that's not the only thing you've found useful...

CL: Oh no. Now I'm scared.

RW: Don't worry! I've just brought some quotes from your supporters on the internet -- reactions to what some people are calling a real-life Cinderella story.

CL: Terrified. Definitely terrified. (Grinning)

RW: So, user @BlushingHemingway tweets, "OMG WTF a Caribbean honeymoon? I saw the before and after from AquaCon. Man, we'll all know when Curtis gets Shiro into bed, for srs. TYPHOONS MY DUDE. Everybody pack up and get to higher ground." Of course, the infamous "bed pictures" from AquaCon were never confirmed...

CL: (laughing) Oh, no comment! No comment!

RW: Still dodging that question, huh?

CL: You can't really expect me to answer it, right? (Laughing.) Okay, I'll give you one comment. (Turns to the camera.) @BlushingHemingway, don't worry. The aquatic ecosystems of the islands are too precious to risk damaging. I promise, I won't be causing any typhoons during the honeymoon. I could never do that to the fish.

Takashi Shirogane: (Enters through back door with his arms full of packages). Hi, honey, I'm home! (Sets things down off camera and sits down on the couch) What'd I miss?

CL: (straightens Shiro's collar and hair) Nothing much. Just those persistent internet rumors that I'm a beast in the sack.

TS: (winks) No comment.

RW: Oh, I'm sure! A gentleman never tells. But before we get back to the internet comments, did I see that right out the window? You go out shopping in your personal jet? Your supplier isn't in space, is it?

TS: Me, just back from space? (Laughing) That's a good one. I definitely did not just now return from space in the middle of this interview. No, I haven't left the planet since I retired. But funny story... so for a while I was mistakenly listed as KIA, and the Garrison reissued my pilot's license when I came back, but it turns out I actually don't have a valid driver's license--

Transcribed excerpts from the pre-wedding interview with Takashi Shirogane and Curtis LaSalle. "Sixty Doboshes with Rory Washienko," Terran News Network. Recorded 12 July 2281, aired 18 July 2281.

"No, Shiro, when I say hold still, I need you to hold still!"

Pidge whipped an old-fashioned lug wrench down within a hair of Shiro's nose, and he froze on the spot. He was pretty sure she only kept that wrench around to threaten people, since he'd never seen her use a lug nut, or any kind of fixture he could identify. Casting her a sideways glance, he didn't breathe until she put it back on her workbench.

"Sorry, Pidge. I'm just excited. I mean--"

"Keith comes back today." The welding torch she lit up punctuated her unimpressed tone. "Even if you hadn't mentioned it eighteen times since you got here -- yes, I've been counting -- I also attended the timeline meetings and am capable of using a calendar. Now, if you don't hold still while I patch this, I will burn you, and it will be entirely your fault."

Shiro supposed he had been a little jittery. And may have been bouncing a little on his toes. Not only did Keith come back today, leading back the camera crews that would record the wedding (in his head it was always, "the wedding", not "his wedding"); but tomorrow, after he and Curtis exchanged fake vows, he got to head out to the stars for more than a training camp. They'd be out there on missions, having adventures in the unending vastness of space. No more desks. No more cameras. No more pretending.

He only had to last twenty-four more hours. Wait, no, twenty-four hours would be in the middle of the wedding, so more like thirty hours, maybe?

Some number of hours, officially down to the low tens, which he would figure out when he could focus well enough to do math. When those hours were over, it'd just be him, Keith, a giant squadron of mostly Galra allies and the Paladins of Voltron making fun of them, and the wide open frontier of space.

This was going to be so much fun.

Pidge's torch clicked off, and she shoved the welding facemask up over her hair. "Okay, patch job done. The socket should be 100% repaired now. You may jitter as much as you like while it cools enough for me to plug in the new arm. Then, we do neural receptor training."

He flashed a grin, the smallest one he could manage when he was this excited. She'd already complained once that he was going to "blind her with his pearly whites" if he kept smiling his natural smile. "Thanks, Pidge. You're the best."

"You only say that because it's true." She punched a few buttons on her wrist-mounted display, and a hologram of Curtis's house surrounded by security drones popped up. It was a lot more security drones than Shiro remembered seeing last time they discussed perimeters.

"That looks... safe," Shiro said, trying not to sound too skeptical. "I could have sworn people weren't following me anymore. I haven't seen anybody since I got back from Blades training."

"You're so oblivious to stealth drones, it's adorable," grumbled Pidge with a shake of her head. "Just because you've been downgraded from live photographers to passive surveillance doesn't mean we're 100% in the clear, which is why you have me. And with the wedding coming up, there's been a spike in media interest, hopefully temporary."

Shiro narrowed his eyes, a dubious frown saying everything Pidge needed to hear. He'd like to think he would have noticed even unmanned cameras taking his picture.

She mirrored him, not giving an inch. "I haven't mentioned it because everything you were doing was boring and worthless to tabloids, and Heisenberg is very clear about exposure to observation changing the systems being observed. But the risk of you doing something stupid because you knew you were being watched is now less than the risk of you doing something stupid because you don't know you're still being watched. You don't want to know how many camera sharks my stealth drones have located, detained, and wiped footage from."

Which, granted, was something they had to deal with. Still, he would've liked a bit more control over how Pidge managed his and Curtis's privacy. He frowned at her, but that seemed to have lost its power over Sam and Colleen's daughter over the years, so Shiro tried to cross his arms before he remembered he was currently down one. He had to settle for bracing the one he had left on his hip instead. "Pidge, you can't just erase the pictures those photographers took when they're on public property. Even paparazzi have rights."

Shrugging it off, Pidge scoffed, "Including the right to shield their equipment from data scrambling radiation if they don't want their data scrambled -- technology which is absolutely available to the savvy consumer. It's not my fault that they didn't equip countermeasures to the standard technological defense improvements I include on every drone I build, as stated in the public record at my first expo eight quiznacking years ago. I can't defend paparazzi from their own stupidity."

"Okay, that... that does seem fair. I guess." Although that kind of technology was a little expensive for an independent contractor in the gossip rag business, Shiro couldn't actually think of a reason why anything Pidge had done was illegal, but he kept a suspicious eye on her anyway. And speaking of Pidge's first maker's expo, he made a mental note to schedule a talk with Sam and Colleen later to hear how they were ensuring that everything Pidge did was within the bounds of the Drule Peace Accords, which they'd negotiated with all the non-coalition planets in the next hall over from that very show. He'd never really believed that she'd read them like she'd promised.

"Good. Now listen up," she said, rolling up her sleeves. "By my watch, we have four hours until Keith's wormhole trip to Earth happens, at which point your brain will shut off completely--"

Shiro rolled his eyes. "Hey!" He wasn't that bad.

"--So I'd better brief you on heightened security measures and transit protocols for the next two days while your shoulder seams are cooling, which will leave us with a good hour and a half to do myoelectric circuit training before I release you for your pre-wedding booty call."

"I can still think and pay attention when Keith is in the room, thank you very much," he insisted. He was a professional soldier, with an excellent sense of focus!

Pidge put a judgmental air of sass into the routine of packing up her tools. 'Uh-huh. Tell that to your nose after you ran into that kickboxing dummy that time Keith used his shirt to wipe off his sweat in the gym."

"That was not a mission critical dummy!"

"You're a mission critical dummy," Pidge scoffed. "Relax. Pay attention. Unless you have something invested in staying in my lab for two hours after Keith shows up looking for your hot, hot, masculine body so you can exchange various bodily fluids and overload each other's dopamine receptors."

She really had a talent for making sex sound unappetizing, Shiro thought with a wince. "Deal."

"Okay, so first, the new summon codes on the security drone network in case you run into trouble." Pidge punched up a key sequence for the app she'd installed on his data pad, which Shiro knew better than to ignore even though he didn't expect problems. It was the problems you didn't expect that were the worst. He nodded along, taking notes about planned routes to and from the rehearsal dinner and the wedding venue, memorizing details about the mid-transit swap from the 'Just Married' limousine to a shuttle off planet. Pidge had designed the transfer as tightly as some kind of magic trick. In fact, Shiro thought he remembered a Marvo the Magnificent television special from his high school years, the one with two elephants and a beautiful assistant on a rollercoaster, that this particular high-speed trapdoor choreography could have been based on.

Coran, naturally, was the beautiful assistant here, and Shiro was pretty sure he was both of the elephants somehow.

Thank goodness limousines had plenty of space for trapdoors, and hover platforms had more controls than a plain sheet of metal dropping him out the bottom of the car onto the road at over seventy miles an hour, not to mention the next generation energy shielding and cloaking technology they'd been developing with their Voltron Coalition allies. And thank goodness Pidge had booked time in the simulator rooms for them to practice this move, too. Winging it might be too risky, even for him.

"But don't worry," Pidge assured him. "Even if the magnetic homing beacons fail to guide you into the shuttle bay after you do the cliff jump, and the pilot -- who is Keith -- can't barrel roll to catch you in midair, and your parachute fails to deploy if-slash-when you activate it, we'll still have Leifsdottir on patrol in our latest MFE to catch you, and I'm deploying cloaked ground cover with inertial dampening force shielding over a kilometer radius centered on the target area. Even not knowing wind conditions, that's a massive margin of error. I told Dad there was no reason to risk discovery on something that big when I can accurately predict your landing point within fifteen centimeters given current--"

Shiro waved both hands in her face. "I believe you. And yet, I appreciate the extra large safety net. I've got enough gray hairs as it is."

"Wow, that is exactly what Dad said!" said Pidge, pushing the remarkably articulated, human-sized limb she'd attached to his shoulder back down onto the holographic table where his circuit training exercises were set up. The silicone bonding she used in the joints instead of interlocking plates even looked like skin, and moved like it, too. "Now, one last set of finger curls, and then I'm making you do a Disney Princess wave to test integrated motion."

While he watched the hologram's force projection curl his fingers one at a time, like scrunching a towel into his grip, he put all his focus into telling his brain, "This is what I'm doing." Even with all the space magic they'd found since their first run-in with a telepathic, sentient Voltron Lion, getting a prosthetic to recognize the signals the brain sent to the muscles was still the best way to do this -- that was, without reconfiguring parts of the brain or giving the prosthetic a mind of its own, both of which had proven to be very bad ideas.

After that training round, he had a 30% increase over the last test with this arm in ability to manipulate his fingers with precision on his own.

"Congratulations, Shiro! We're up to the same functionality you get from your Altean hand, but that's indistinguishable from typical human anatomy for your build on power, heat, and density scans! Up top!" He forgot to dampen his smile as he high-fived her with his new right hand, but Pidge didn't give him a hard time for it. Her own grin was brilliant enough to light up a baseball stadium. He could even feel the force of Pidge's hand meeting his and gripping as if there were natural sensory nerves through his whole arm. "Now do the wave!"

"Can't I just do some sparring kata this time?" Shiro groaned.

"The replacement sonar scope you still owe me says no. Elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist. Touch the pearls, blow a kiss! Let's see it."

"I told you, the funding transfer forms are in committee--"

"You're the one who didn't consider how submitting official requisitions for anything that isn't strictly military takes eight months, minimum, not me. I told you to go black market. Now wave."

He held up his arm with a sigh, rolling the joints through the larger motions and into the smaller ones, fluidly curling his fingers under his collar bone before he blew a kiss straight at Pidge's laugh-wrinkled nose. "Happy?"

"Yes. You are definitely my favorite Disney Princess," Pidge told him, the last of her session notes reflecting on her glasses as she typed at a fierce clip. "Now let's lock that new arm away and put the big one back on so you can make the rest of today's public appearances, and then I've got some more Fraunhofer lines to analyze before we go nebula hunting. A nerd's work is never done."

"As if you'd be happy any other way," said Shiro. He tried to shake off the chill that went up his spine somewhere between Pidge detaching the new prosthetic and her putting it in a locked case, but the odd feeling wasn't going anywhere. Nerves, maybe? Jitters happened before a big op no matter how many he'd been on.

Then the doors to the lab hissed open, and Shiro could tell something wasn't right. His senses went into overdrive, adrenaline spiking, the footsteps of two people walking in echoing louder in his head than they should've. Just from the sound, he knew it was Lance and Coran, and every boot scuff was like a scream in his skin. Shiro turned, meeting Coran's troubled face first, then Lance looking pinched and serious.

Pidge's voice seemed to be coming from another place, muffled by the rush of blood by Shiro's ears. "Oh, hey guys. All done wormholing?"

She stopped in her tracks when she turned around. Shiro could hear that, too. He didn't need to see. He could feel it, just like he could feel the shiver in his spine find its way to her voice.

"Where's Keith?"

~//~

Curtis knew the news was a lie. The announcer on the clip his coworker had played had said that a planned Blade of Marmora visit to Earth wasn't landing today because Blade leadership had discovered additional problems on Namurn that needed immediate attention, and there was no way that was true. Keith was supposed to be on that ship. "Wild horses couldn't tear them apart," wasn't an exaggeration when it came to Keith getting to where Shirogane Takashi was. Keith would have personally straddled a missile already in flight and piloted it through a wormhole with nothing but his spacesuit if that was the only way to make it to the wedding he and Takashi were staging.

The fact that news blogs were already tweeting headlines about it also meant that Takashi had to know, because none of the Paladins were stupid enough to let him find out that something might be wrong with Keith from a headline. Not that he wouldn't keep his sh*t together in public, but he'd be pissed not to get the information direct -- justifiably pissed. The math was pretty simple to do, under the circ*mstances. Keith was missing, so Takashi was probably out of his head trying to find a way to get himself on a rescue mission, and there were far more people in this building who could set up bacteria cultures from coral reef dead zones than there were people to whom Shirogane Takashi could say anything without pretending he was fine.

Curtis pushed his pipette back into the rack, since he hadn't gotten as far as actually starting to dish out the sample aliquots, and put on his best sheepish smile. "Hey, Darla?" he called out to the researcher doing paperwork at the other end of the bench. "I know I'm supposed to be making these cultures, but the closer I get to the end of shift, the more jittery I get. Look at this, I'm useless!"

It wasn't that hard to make it look like his hands were trembling. He'd been scared sh*tless by enough things these past several weeks.

"Oh, geez, of course you are, Curtis!" She rolled her eyes, flicking the sample prep list from his data pad to hers. "You're just getting married tomorrow to Shirogane Takashi, the freaking Hero of Earth. And I expect you to name your first kid after me for convincing you to go on that date!"

"I told you, we haven't talked about children!"

"Oh please. Like I've been wrong yet."

Not a conversation he planned to open up ever, let alone now. It took all his focus to keep acting casual when what he really wanted to do was run out of the room on a very important manhunt. "Yeah," Curtis sighed, doing his best impression of a high schooler having their first crush. "And if I'm gonna be honest, I'm having a little trouble keeping my attention on my work... do you think anyone would mind if I...?"

She snickered at him as he pointed at the door. "Of course not! If I were you, I wouldn't have come in today at all. Go, go! Maybe if you get all your wedding prep done, you can be one of the rare grooms that gets to sleep the night before."

"Oh, I really doubt I'll be sleeping," he said with a wink while he shrugged off his lab coat. Mimicking the tone he'd heard Keith use to broadcast, "I have lots of sex with Shirogane Takashi," with the vocal equivalent of bright, flashing lights had taken some work, but practice made perfect. Curtis could officially lay that lie down so everyone could pick it up.

"Save some of that for the honeymoon!" Darla hooted.

Curtis kept his breath calm and steady while he did all the necessary handwashing, pretending everything was normal. He absolutely couldn't let anyone think anything was wrong. "Why should I? It's not like I'm gonna run out."

It was a good thing he didn't intend to actually date anyone ever again. He'd never be able to live up to the reputation he'd accidentally gotten because Keith -- who had better still be alive -- had superhuman strength and stamina. But for now, Curtis was going to operate on the assumption that Keith was safe, and that he had a lot of years ahead of pretending to be responsible for whatever ridiculous wreckage the two Paladins left in their wake. If he didn't assume that, he'd never be able to keep his cool right now.

"Amazing. I think I like sex fiend Curtis. This is a whole new side of you I never thought existed."

"Takashi is extremely inspiring."

With a grin, she nodded him out the door. "Now you're just bragging. Go, get out of here! Send me pictures from your honeymoon if you ever step outside your bedroom!"

"You know it."

The door closed behind him. Stage one clear, Curtis thought, taking a deep breath and dialing Takashi on his phone. He didn't answer. Of course he didn't answer. His fake fiancé had to turn off his cell phone the same as everyone else when he was entering labs with sensitive electronics, and was probably too distracted to pick up even if he'd remembered to turn it back on. Still, he'd had to try. According to the schedule, Takashi should've just gotten out of Pidge's lab. If he was lucky, Takashi would still be there, but more likely not. Pidge would still be a lead on where he'd run off to when he'd decided he needed to do something to help Keith.

Now came the tricky part. Hopping a shuttle across South Sanda Base to the medical wing was one thing. Getting into the cybernetics department where Pidge had her lab required a properly keyed ID badge, or your name on security's pre-cleared list. He had neither.

Curtis could feel the annoyed expression the guard was making at his back as he dialed, but it wasn't like he could explain that he was worried his fiancé was having an emotional breakdown because his secret ninja husband couldn't make it to their wedding due to possible injury or (God forbid) death. That was classified, and also probably wouldn't help. At least Pidge picked up on the lab comm station.

"What do you mean he won't let you back to my lab?!" Pidge grumbled, loud enough that the guard could hear judging by the man's scoff. "Anyway, Shiro's still here somewhere, that's for certain. He took off in a tizzy after-- wait, is this an open line?"

"Unless you added them, my phone doesn't have any non-standard security features, and yes, the guard behind me can hear you talking," Curtis confirmed.

The man nodded. He seemed fairly accustomed to this kind of spectacle.

Pidge let out a frustrated groan, confirming everything Curtis had suspected about Keith being missing. If the Green Paladin wasn't confused about him showing up, he was right to have come over. "Details aside, Shiro left his arm and his phone in my lab, and he won't be able to fly away without at least one of them, so he's definitely still on site, so get the f*ck back here and I'll catch you up."

Throwing a bitter smile over his shoulder at the unimpressed security guard, Curtis asked with an intentional overabundance of sweetness, "I don't suppose you'd be willing to escort me?"

"I mean... willing, sure, but between the time it'd take to spin down this jury-rigged teludav model without the electromagnets blowing the-- look, can you just put me on speaker?"

"Sure thing."

He held up his phone toward the guard, making another pained smile as Pidge yelled, "I'm really up to my elbows in theoretical physics at the moment. Potentially explosive theoretical physics. Can you just buzz this guy in?! I have got to be authorized to vouch for him!"

"I'm sorry, Paladin Holt," the guard answered. He didn't sound that sorry. "Paperwork needs to be filed in advance for visitors to have all requisite clearance checks and training that will grant them free entry privileges for the approved time period. If he's not on the list, he needs an escort. There is no authorization level that supersedes that protocol, sir."

"But what if I really, really want him back here to help handle something, and there is literally a 75% chance what I'm doing could explode and take all my equipment with it if either Coran, Lance, or I... not that button, Lance! Just focus on the mini wormhole! And no, Coran, we have better ways to do that than a f*cking molotov co*cktail. How did you even get nunville back here?!"

A large metallic crash from the other end of the phone echoed through the lobby, which had just enough marble-faced walls and vaulted ceilings that it took a few seconds of uncomfortable staring between Curtis and the security guard before the air went silent again. "Maybe you could call someone to come get him?" the guard suggested. Then, silently, he mouthed, "Scientists..." at Curtis with an eyeroll.

Narrowing his eyes, Curtis held up his badge -- the same one the guard had examined earlier that said he worked in the aquatic biology department -- and whispered, "I'm a scientist."

The guard still wasn't sorry. Chances that Curtis would be willing to call someone who could call the President of Earth were rapidly increasing. Technically, he even had Sam Holt's cell phone number. Or maybe Claudia could actually get this done faster than President Holt, if she could process a rush order to verify his lab safety training and clearances? Calling the President would be satisfying, but not something that fit with their cover story...

"Okay, I'm back," Pidge said. "What was that last part?"

A familiar set of strutting footsteps came around the corner and broke into a jog. It was Roy, thank goodness, who called out, "Hey, there some kind of problem here?"

The security guard pointed a thumb at Curtis. "He's not on the list."

"Unexpected circ*mstances." Curtis put up jazz hands and shot Roy a fake smile. "Whoops."

"No sweat, my man. Your hero is here. Hey, Pidge," he said into the phone. "This is Roy Focker. You sit tight, I'll bring Curtis back."

"Thank you," Pidge sighed before the line went dead.

The guard read Roy's ID, and matched it to the list on his datapad. "Dwight Leroy Focker," he confirmed and snapped into a salute after he opened the door. "Proceed, sir. Enjoy your day."

"Keep up the good work, soldier."

They walked through the security doors, and Curtis let Roy be the judge of how clear the hallways had to be before either of them said anything. He kept silent until Roy hissed, "All right, first thing, what the hell are you doing here? You're not supposed to have regular Paladin contact. And second, did you have a plan for how to handle that if I hadn't happened to have a practice session for driving your fiancé's escape limo?"

Curtis rolled his eyes. "As far as plans go, I was leaning towards calling Claudia, thank you very much." Squinting at Roy's scoff, he added, "I've never seen you have a better idea in a pinch, Roy. And as for why I'm here, I'm guessing you haven't heard the news."

"Been working," Roy said. "What d'you mean, news?"

The intersection ahead was full of people, so Curtis pulled the article about the Marmora ship delay up on his datapad, trusting Roy to be smart enough to read between the lines. "Might impact scheduling for some of the guests at our wedding," he explained. "Takashi will want to discuss logistics, I'm sure."

Roy handed the datapad back with a groan. "Oh, f*ck. Are we sure Shirogane's still on the planet with this happening?"

"Pidge thinks he's here, and there's nothing breaking from TMZ or Galactic Enquirer about him leaving atmo, so yeah. Pretty sure."

The scene inside Pidge's lab was chaos, which despite her reputation as a mad genius engineer was nothing like how her lab usually looked. Every table she had that wasn't bolted down had been shoved to the center of the room, where she'd put together a series of elecromagnets out of scraps. At least one of the coils of copper wire was wrapped around a solid metal stand for raising a flask over a bunsen burner, and Curtis wasn't even sure where she'd found one of those, or why Coran was physically securing what looked like a rock tumbler to the inside of an autoclave. He definitely had no idea why any of that was hooked into some kind of labyrinthine circuit that terminated in Lance McClain holding a fork in each hand.

The one thing Curtis knew for sure was that he didn't see Takashi anywhere.

"Does anybody know where he is?" Roy bellowed.

Pidge held up her hand in the intergalactic sign for stop, at least for species that had hands. "If you're talking about Shiro, my drones are looking for where he ran off to. Now hush, this is important but unstable science. Coran, teludav levels?"

"Match to scale for the primary systems, Number Five!" said the orange haired man who did not look scared enough for someone with only some glorified oven mitts between him and a jury-rigged wormhole generator, assuming that's what was happening with the autoclave.

Roy growled at the absurdity in front of them. "How is this bigger than Shirogane running off half-co*cked and--"

Curtis pushed his sister's flyboy boyfriend away from the table. He'd heard enough half conversations in the last few weeks to put this together. "Shh. They're looking for Keith."

"Thank you, Curtis. Yes, we are." Pidge adjusted some dials until readouts on her holographic display matched some overlaid waveform references. "Okay... Setting up compensation for detected electromagnetic interference. Done. Inputting actual measured endpoints, refraction coefficients, best measurements for anomaly location range... Lance?"

The Blue and/or Red Paladin nodded, a rare serious expression on his face. "Ready. On your count, Pidge."

"Okay, open the wormhole and hold it steady for as long as you can. We want the simulation to run increasing iterations until the results stabilize."

Curtis held his breath as a tiny portal, no bigger than his fist on either end, appeared in the middle of the electromagnetic array on the table, resisting the temptation to peer inside the floating circles to see what the tunnel inside looked like. He had no way of knowing what variables Pidge had to control for. Her experiment was almost certainly robust enough to withstand breathing, but wormholes might as well have been magic to him, and he wasn't taking any chances that could jeopardize finding Keith if, apparently, the Black Paladin was so lost his friends needed to resort to whatever this was to track him.

"Measurements ramped," Pidge said, the holographic map fitting itself to the wormhole so one end started in the Namurn system and the other end was next to Earth. "Launching simulations with k-fold reiteration..."

A model fleet that had to be representing Bii Boh-Bii's film crew followed a miniature Blade of Marmora ship into the wormhole entry point, and while all the ships were hidden from normal space inside the jump, the forks Lance had a deathgrip on started glowing blue. More concerning, sparks flew out of both ends of the wormhole. That definitely hadn't been on any news report, not that Curtis could say he was surprised. It took an act of the Legislative Assembly to approve the release of wormhole pictures.

Pidge, at least, seemed relieved. "Okay. Confirmed, the addition of the larger fleet does explain the phenomenon. This is a near exact match for your sensor readings, and for Bii Boh-Bii's report. That'll minimize unknowns. So Bii Boh-Bii said Keith's ship did something to arc the electricity and stabilize the wormhole before comms went dark?"

"Yeah," Lance answered. "Before he jumped off to New Olkarion for the Comic Con promo event, all he did was bitch about how Keith never did anything reasonable, the sparks were too bright, and hyperspace interferes with cameras, so he couldn't get a shot to put in his freaking documentary. What it adds up to, is he has no idea what Keith did, and I have no idea what he could have done, because it's not supposed to be possible."

Typical Keith, Curtis didn't say out loud.

Pidge shook her head. "Doesn't matter. We know Keith's ship was in the center of the anomaly, or close to it, dead in space when the wormhole collapsed. That's all that matters. I'm adjusting the Kralnax's position according to the triangulated telemetry from Bii Boh-Bii's fleet, removing the additional ships to recreate conditions when the wormhole collapsed... Lance, I know this is gonna hurt, but I need you to hold on while simulations run."

"Hey, I survived a whole minute holding the full size one open before I fainted! I never let go!"

"Great. I'll buy you a cake," said the Green Paladin, not looking up from the lines of code she was tweaking on her console before hitting commit. "Quiznacking semicolons. Now will you run?!" After a few more button jabs, a yellow ellipsoid appeared in the starfield in the holograph around the wormhole. It was like a bubble around the Earth-side gate, which was better than some alternatives, but it was a comparatively huge bubble. "f*cking finally!"

"So have we narrowed this down to five galaxies or seven?" Roy asked, frowning at the size. "I mean, for real, that's way better than the entire universe, but--"

Pidge didn't bother looking up, watching code results scroll by on her monitor faster than Curtis could read. "Can everybody who doesn't know what a standard deviation is please shut the f*ck up? Lance, that was one set of calculations. It's working, so I'm about to task parallel processes out to an increasing number of cores, which will speed up our results but is going to multiply the pain for you. I'll ramp up slowly, so tell me when you hit your limit. Got it? Nobody's dying today!"

Lance gritted his teeth. "Hit it. I'm-- Ow, f*ck!"

"N equals five," Pidge intoned over the sound of Lance whimpering while the yellow ellipsoid of the target zone morphed and shrank. "N equals 25. N equals 100..."

Once it shrank to a zone so small, it looked like a dot on the intergalactic scale, a magnified projection appeared to the side, zooming in on the Milky Way galaxy. Curtis sighed, some of the panic starting to ease. The Milky Way had too few major powers for Keith to have landed near serious enemy threats, so that was one risk down. He didn't recognize the star maps where the calculations were pointing, though, so it must not have been one of the systems the Atlas had explored while he'd been on the bridge, before he'd stumbled into Colleen Holt's hydroponics lab and a brand new career.

"N equals 500. N equals 1000... Lance, you're starting to turn green. I'm not increasing calculation speed any more unless you confirm that you can still talk."

The particular kind of wheeze Lance made as he braced himself on the table was one that Curtis hadn't heard since he graduated from college and left frat boys hugging toilets at three in the morning firmly in his rear view mirror. "I'm fine," the Blue/Red Paladin lied. "Gonna have a major headache tomorrow, but... urf... I promise, I blame Keith, not you."

Pidge locked a slider on her display that Curtis was guessing had to do with the iteration load for the calculations her computers were doing. "Your sacrifice is noted. Shouldn't be too much longer, anyway. The predictive ranges are starting to stabilize. N equals 10,000. N equals 11,000... Okay, I'm gonna call it when it hits 15,000 simulations..."

The magnification had slowed to a crawl around the fringes of about three star systems, names popping into view as soon as it stopped completely. The one closest to the center of the yellow ellipsoid range was Strabo 347. Still using a scientific name, Curtis noted, dusting off his memories of watching pilots perform celestial navigation, so it had to be far enough off the beaten path that the Coalition hadn't set up a scanning relay.

"So, luckily he probably wasn't thrown that far off course," said Pidge, wiping some sweat off her forehead, "because with the data we have I could only get down to a 1.08% margin of error while using the 99.999% confidence interval--"

"Bottom line?" Roy asked. "When we go get Shirogane, can we tell him we found his boy?"

The Green Paladin scowled at Roy, pushing up her glasses in a way that was always intimidating when five foot nothing academics did it after bootstrapping a needle out of a haystack. "A) Keith is, like, thirty or something. He's clearly Shiro's man, not his boy, but we don't have time to unpack that entire nightmare of a societal Freudian black hole. B) Bottom line, I've calculated a target zone that's about 0.79 cubic light years in volume, which I call pretty dang good for having started with the entire universe, and it's about 21 light years away, in the Ankora Draconis sector. There's only a one in one hundred thousand chance that we're looking at an outlier situation, and Keith's ship isn't there somewhere. That's the good news."

Curtis bit the bullet. "And the bad news?"

With a grim shake of her head, Pidge said, "At that range, we should have picked up Keith's distress beacon. Given the severity of the shock his ship must've taken, we have to assume that shielding failed and all their systems are critically damaged, which includes temperature control and atmosphere reclamation. So go f*cking find Shiro and sit on him while we scramble a rescue team, and I will revolutionize cosmic theory for the second time today and find a way to differentiate his ship from cosmic debris before anyone freezes or suffocates."

No time to waste. Curtis downloaded the telemetry from Pidge's calculations while Lance peeled himself off the table with a dazed, "Wait, Keith is more than thirty?"

"Go drink some water, Lance," she ordered, typing a memo to the President with one hand and rummaging through code modules with the other. "I'm gonna need you to be magic again soon. And Coran, can you get on the horn and find out how long till Hunk's done briefing Iverson?! I need more brains on this!"

Roy scanned the various monitors around Pidge's station. "Your drones find Shirogane yet?"

Pidge flicked a holographic display panel off of her dashboard, showing the search patterns of a few dozen bots, with stationary locations and completed circuit percentages noted, plus a big, red, "Not Found," at the end of every line. The map component showed a large area where Takashi definitely wasn't at this exact moment, but only a few rough guesses about where he might be. "If there's one thing Shiro's good at, it's evading drone search patterns, even mine, but he can't leave without getting spotted or disabling a drone, which means he's here and physically safe, which means non-automated searching is your job until I can make sure Keith doesn't die. Prioritization is a bitch."

"Roger that," Roy answered, syncing the display on his datapad to Pidge's drone network. "Get your science done. I've got a plan."

They rushed passed Lance, who was slumping his way out the door. "Means I'm almost thirty. Tha's terr'fying..." murmured the man who, not five minutes ago, had been a conduit for the equivalent of 15,000 unstable micro wormholes. Curtis would've patted the Paladin on the back, but that might've knocked him over, and it looked like he really needed the water from the fountain down the hall.

He followed Roy around a corner toward the most probable zone where Takashi could be hiding, while Roy turned his phone back on and placed a call. "Hey, sweethea-- Yes, Geez, Commander LaSalle, I know you're at work! That's why I called..."

"Great plan," Curtis mouthed at Roy, who had, in a pinch, clearly called Claudia and was never allowed to criticize his plan making skills again.

"Shut up," Roy mouthed back, then said into the phone, "Yes, Commander. I promise, this is critical to-- ... Look, can you check the call logs tell me if there are any communications channels coming out of the cybernetics wing right now? ... Uh-huh, three calls. Okay. Any of 'em to the Galra Embassy? ... You bet. This is exactly about you-know-what. ... Senator Krolia's direct line, how 'bout that?! Where's the originating terminal? ... Perfect. Thanks, doll. Love you."

The room Claudia had indicated was about a fifteen second sprint away, with a locking panel that'd clearly been jimmied off and hacked, since the panel fell off the instant Roy touched it and the door slid open. That said just about everything Curtis needed to know about Takashi's frame of mind: dangerous enough to pick a Garrison lock while he was short a cybernetic arm, distracted enough to not secure the door behind him. The lights were off in the room as well, so the only illumination they had was Senator Krolia's picture on the viewscreen when a figure that had to be Takashi ducked behind a cabinet.

Curtis held up his hands as he took one step in. "Takashi, it's Curtis and Roy. Can we talk?"

"Thank goodness," Takashi sighed from the corner. He didn't sound like he was having an attack, at least, and he seemed agitated but under control when he stepped into view. "Can you close the door? If someone saw me discussing this, it could blow our cover..."

Roy handled locking the door while Curtis walked toward the viewscreen. He wasn't great at reading Galra facial expressions, but it was hardly a stretch to see that Krolia was just as agitated as Takashi. Keith was her son, after all. She was sitting down, though, and Takashi hadn't even pulled out a chair. He was pacing in front of the view screen, waiting for them to get there, drumming the fingers of his one arm against his thigh.

As Curtis approached, Takashi murmured an assurance. "I was very careful getting here. Krolia needed all the information we have, but I didn't compromise the mission. Keith wouldn't want me to. I trust Keith... He's alive out there. He'll be fine." Takashi wasn't meeting anyone's eyes, though. From up close, it was easy to see that he wasn't falling apart, but that it was taking all his focus to be here instead of wherever he wanted to be.

"That's great, Takashi. You're doing great." Curtis reached out slowly to hold onto the man's shoulder. To his credit, Takashi only jumped a little, and stopped pacing. "We're more worried about you right now. Pidge wasn't sure where you went. It kind of scared everybody."

Takashi winced. "Did I not say what I was doing? Sorry. I'm... really focused right now. Or distracted? One of those..."

"That's understandable. We're all just glad you're okay."

"And I'm glad to be reminded that my son chose a worthy bond partner," said Krolia. "One who will stop at nothing to ensure Keith's safety. Let me, in turn, assure you that the Galra Republic has readied every resource at our disposal, and the Earth government has reached out through official channels to coordinate our efforts." Her voice was even, but Curtis could see fire in her eyes. "Like you, I know my son. I know he's alive. Now, I've compiled your reports about observations on Earth with reports we've received from Blades on the ground and in other ships on the journey. What else can you tell me?"

Curtis plugged his datapad into the communications portal to start a transfer. "Pidge was--"

"Predicting the altered terminus point." Nodding, Krolia accepted the transmission. "It looks like her research into unstable wormholes since the war ended has been fruitful. Earth will be the best launch point for Ankora Draconis, but the Galra Republic will assist with sensor data and--"

"I need to be on that ship," Takashi said.

Roy tried to play it cool, putting on his best smile as he told Takashi, "Hey, we got this, buddy! I have people who know this sector. We'll take good care--"

"You don't understand, Roy. I need to help coordinate the search." The Paladin frowned at his friend, then turned back to Krolia. "Ma'am, I can feel that Keith is alive. I'm certain of it. This has to be me connecting to him through the Black Lion. Sam and the others probably won't understand, Earth isn't used to things working this way, but you can explain it to them. If I'm connected to Keith, maybe I can help find him. Please, let me do something."

"Takashi..." Curtis started, but he wasn't sure what to say. It didn't matter anyway. He could read the man's expression. Nothing he had to say could change the way that wind was blowing.

Krolia, for her part, didn't show anything like the ache Curtis felt when he wanted the things Takashi was saying to be true. Her manner and her voice had more confidence than Curtis thought he'd ever felt in his life. "All right, Shiro. Demonstrate. If you focus right now on seeing through the Black Lion's eyes, tell me... can you see Keith?"

In silence, Takashi closed his eyes. His lips curled in pain, clearly not wanting to admit that this wasn't going to work, but he shook his head slowly in an unspoken no. "I'll keep trying..."

"Maybe a sense of direction, if not a location," Krolia offered.

"I..." The way Takashi shrank, looking hollow, made Curtis want to cry. The man who had always seemed like a mountain looked like he was crumbling into dust as he clutched his fist over his shirt, right where Keith's dog tags were. "This is just wishful thinking, isn't it? This isn't real."

"Nobody said that," Curtis insisted as he pushed a chair around for Takashi to sit in.

"Indeed," said Krolia. "No one here doubts that you and Keith are both connected to the Black Lion. However, none of the Lions are currently in this universe in any concrete fashion. If you could reach Keith through the Black Lion, Shiro, it would stand to reason that the Black Lion would have already gone to Keith, and he would be here by now."

Curtis kept to himself that he had definitely not been thinking in those terms. Alien space magic was hard to get used to. What mattered was that Krolia's explanation made sense to Takashi.

Focusing a commanding officer's stare on Takashi, Krolia told him, "Waiting is harder than acting for people like you and I. I understand that. But as you said before, Shiro, Keith wouldn't want you to jeopardize your operation cover when the two intergalactic superpowers already looking for him have it under control. Now. We will use the considerable resources at our disposal to find my son, and he will remain alive -- with his crew -- until we do so, because that's the kind of man he is."

"Yes, he is," answered Takashi, breaking out a tiny smile and starting to look alive again. "Thank you, Krolia."

"And thank you, Shiro, for ensuring this information got to me promptly. If that's all, I'll go light several metaphorical fires under the asses of several civil servants who need to assign appropriate ships to the search." The line cut out without a goodbye. Curtis would not have wanted to be a keyboard jockey who Krolia thought wasn't doing his job fast enough.

Takashi, meanwhile, was running his one hand back and forth through his hair, focusing on nothing at all. "There's got to be something I can do. I can't just sit here..."

Curtis didn't know what to do besides sit down in the next chair over and pat Takashi firmly, slowly on the shoulder so he didn't startle. "We'll find something. There's got to be lots to do."

"Like prep for the mission," said Roy, dumping himself over the arm of another chair. "You, Rogaine, have one hell of a stunt to learn for tomorrow, and your boy's not gonna be too happy if he finds out your little secret identity space adventure honeymoon is canceled because you never logged the simulator hours we need to figure out how to launch your ass safely off a cliff in a glorified sled."

Most of his energy seemed drained, so Takashi didn't react beyond tilting his head at Roy to glare, but in the friendly way. A deep breath later, he said, "Yeah. Yeah, let's do that."

Roy pointed from his perch on the chair. "Curtis. You walk this guy back to Pidge to pick up his arm, and make sure he doesn't get lost in these damn hallways."

Which was a nice way of saying he was on emotional support and practical tasks detail, Curtis thought with a nod, since Takashi technically knew the hallways much better than he -- a person who had never been here before -- did. That was fine.

"I'll call the brass and get my two top pilots on this," Roy added. "They know that sector better than most people on Earth anyway. Then all three of us can meet up in the simulator. You don't need to be there, Curtis, but it might be good for you to know what the f*ck is gonna happen before I drive you away from the reception tomorrow."

"You're driving, Roy?" Curtis scoffed, giving Takashi another pat on the back as he pushed slowly, deliberately to his feet. "Man. I'll remember to pack my Dramamine."

"Hey!"

"And a helmet."

"Jackass."

Curtis, of course, had to pull up a map of the department on his datapad as soon as he hit the hallways, and a list of laboratory room assignments to figure out where they were supposed to go now that Roy wasn't leading him.

"It's BA-170," Takashi said.

Curtis looked up to find him staring quizzically from two steps ahead. "Thanks."

"You... showed up. You didn't have to." One more hand rake through his hair, and somehow, with the seeds of calm starting to take root, even with a touch of red rimming his eyes, Shirogane Takashi looked ridiculously perfect again. He never let anybody see him struggle for long, if he let them see at all. "I really appreciate that," he said.

"It's what friends do," Curtis answered. As silence stretched for a second or two, every bit of the ridiculousness of their little charade weighed on him at once. "And... Takashi. Right now, it's just you and me here."

The former admiral stopped in his tracks, looking back without a word.

Curtis sighed, and tried again. "I mean... If you decided you wanted to hop in your jet and fly off after Keith, I couldn't stop you. Heck, I... I wouldn't stop you, okay? Forget the wedding, forget the cover, if what you need is to go, you can go and I'll spin it."

Takashi's mouth curled on one side into a bemused smile. "That's a heck of a thing to spin."

"Absolutely," Curtis laughed. "Scandal of the year. Literally leaving for your old boyfriend the day before our wedding? That's drama for weeks. But I can do a great Hollywood ending. Say, right now, finding out there's a crisis... This can be the moment we both realize you're still in love with Keith, and I tell you to go get him. Giant orchestral crescendo, modulating from a minor to a major key while you run down the hallway..." He had to look away from Takashi while he said it, because those wide eyes shining with a touch of hope breaking through the panic were exactly what the heartthrob playing Shiro on TV would do. Curtis murmured, "Geez, that'd look great on film. Seriously, that's what I'll tell Bii Boh-Bii happened, with a big, crying goodbye forever kiss before you fly off into the sunset to save your man. He'll love it."

"Yeah, I bet he would," Takashi said. But he still wasn't leaving.

"And if you and Keith elope to Daibazaal, that can still get you off planet," Curtis went on. "That's what you guys needed, right? A way to move you off planet."

"Discreetly," added Takashi. "A way to move me off planet discreetly, which..."

Curtis nodded. "Yeah. My plan, not discreet."

"But it means a lot that you'd do that," his fake almost-husband insisted. "If the fate of the universe didn't depend on this, I would probably..." Takashi corrected himself with a wince. "...Definitely take you up on your offer. But Keith's going to be fine. The team's got this."

So it looked like they were still doing this. At least Takashi seemed actually relaxed now, and not just like he was acting for the crowds. "All right. Let's get you back to the lab, then. Pidge, Lance, and Coran will want to know you're okay. And just promise me one thing?"

"What's that?"

"Please never, ever tell me why you just said the fate of the universe depends on us being fake married? I don't think I can handle knowing that sh*t."

Takashi let out the most undignified snort Curtis had ever heard him make. "You've got a deal."

Chapter 9: Ain't No Mountain

Notes:

Some of the content in this chapter and the next chapter makes salty allegations about the production of the fictional VLD television series inside the fic. It's pretty lighthearted, but if you're worried that it may upset you because of parallels to real-world internet drama, be aware that passing references exist.

None of this is meant to be specific commentary on what actually happened with the creation of Season 8, because I have no freaking clue what the truth is, nor does any member of the fictional VLD cast and crew represent any real-world person or my opinion of them. I mention this specifically with reference to the fictional actor I have cast to play Lance in the fic, who is kind of a ditz, and I don't want anybody to think I'm throwing shade on Jeremy Shada or Lance. The fictional actors are distinct, separate people from the voice actors, and no OC in this fic should be taken as representative of my views on a real-world counterpart or an actual Voltron character.

Chapter Text

CUT TO:
Text titles over abstract spacescape. Vocal clips crossfade.

Text: ONE LAST CHANCE

Keith (V. O.): "Voltron is stronger now, more than ever."
Allura (V. O.): "We've done everything we can to prepare us for this moment."

Text: TO FULFILL

Pidge (V. O.): "We need to get closer."
Shiro (V. O.): "You've got to get out of there immediately!"
Keith (V. O.): "The only way we're getting out of here is if we work together."
Allura (V. O.): "This is our chance to promote a new era of peace."

Text: THEIR DESTINY

Keith (V. O.): "It brought us together as friends."
Pidge (V. O.): "They keep repeating one word: Voltron."
Lance (V. O.): "It feels like making a deal with the Devil."
b>Allura (V. O.): "It is time to end this war."

FADE TO:
Black screen.

Honerva (V. O.): "It is too late to stop what is coming."

(SFX: Honerva laughs. Lion roars.)

Logo Splash: VOLTRON: LEGENDARY DEFENDER
Text: THE FINAL SEASON

(Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 8 Teaser | Fandango Family. YouTube.)

Jawn for NOCC: "How's it going, Comic Con?! And a big hello to everyone listening on our quantum livestream to fans all across the universe! Was that trailer exciting or what? I'm more hyped for the eighth and final season of Voltron Legendary Defender than ever. And with that, welcome everyone, to New Olkarion, and to this year's Voltron Panel! My name is Jawn. I'll be your host tonight, but of course you're here to see our special guests. Starting on my right, your left, let's welcome series lead director for Lions' Gate Productions, Bii Boh-Bii!"

Boh-Bii: "Bii boh, bii bii VOLTRON, boh boh, boh boh-bii!"

Jawn: "Couldn't have said it better myself. Next, staff writer Rehm."

Rehm: "Greetings, Comic Con. It's good to be home here on New Olkarion."

Jawn: "Next up, she's new to the universe as Voltron's Honerva, but anyone here from the Altean colony will recognize her as life-long queen of the stage and screen, Emera! Let's give it up, folks."

Emera: (laughs) "If you'd told me twenty deca-phoebs ago that I'd make my intergalactic telecast debut as Zarkon's wife, and be sharing a stage with a Galra host, I never would have believed it."

Jawn: "And twenty deca-phoebs ago, I certainly never would have believed I'd meet a real living, breathing Altean. Or, you know, ever see the outside of a prison cell again. Life comes at you fast, and I am loving it. Bringing us to Ellery Ray Vesta, who you all might know better as Pidge Holt!"

Vesta: "Hey." (unintelligible screams from audience) "Haha! No, you're breathtaking! But thanks, seriously."

Jawn: "Next to them, the actor for Lance McClain and the male lead in this summer's much anticipated zombie plague rom com, 'The Head or the Heart...' -- oh wow, there are certainly some fans in the audience. Listen to those screams! Baylor DeAntonio, everyone!"

DeAntonio: (blows kiss and winks, followed by high-pitched screams)

Deep Voiced Audience Member: "I love you, Baylor!"

DeAntonio: "Thanks, bro."

Jawn: "All right, settle down everybody, we've only got a varga with these guys. Our next guest is Voltron's breakout star, who's been stealing our breath and our hearts as Princess Allura for the past eight seasons, and who you can catch at the Comic Con exclusive stop for her Electric Daisy concert tour tomorrow: Nasnil, everyone! A round of applause for New Altea's Princess of Pop!"

Nasnil: "You're too kind. Thank you all, it's lovely to be here. Team Voltron forever!"

Jawn: "And it's a real pleasure for me personally to introduce Gnaggad, who returns for Season 8 as Lotor's former general, Zethrid! So glad to have you, Gnaggad."

Gnaggad: "It's an honor to be here, Jawn, and to be part of the first show to reach out to the large, underrepresented half-Galra community to play fully realized half-Galra characters. Thank you, Voltron, and thank you, New Olkarion Comic Con!"

Jawn: "And last but not least, from the Lions' Gate Production staff, the one and only Bii-Boh Pearson, visiting all the way from Earth, where she and her wife, Jacqeline, just adopted a beautiful Pomeranian!"

Pearson: "Boh bii bii bii bii, NEW OLKARION COMIC CON!"

Jawn: "So let's get down to it... One movement, everyone! Or as the humans say... one week from now, give or take a day, the final season of Voltron Legendary Defender will hit the airwaves, and I hope you're as excited as I am. We've got one special announcement today, too. I'm sure everybody knows that tomorrow is the day the real Shirogane Takashi marries former IGF-Atlas crew member, Commander Curtis LaSalle, and can you believe it? The Voltron Legendary Defender team has exclusive rights to film the event. So next movement, you'll all get to see the wedding of the deca-phoeb!"

Vesta: "Wait, is that five or six quintants to do the editing on that? Seriously? I don't know if even Pidge could get it done that fast."

Rehm: "They'd be lucky to get that long. The schedule will be... tight, so I'd say the editors should expect no more than one quintant to work on the epilogue."

Vesta: "Yowch. Good luck with that."

Boh-Bii: "Bii boh boh, bii boh."

Rehm: "Oh, I'm not grumbling. Just stating the realities of telecast productions. Well. Some telecast productions..."

Jawn: "Now, Bii Boh-Bii, I understand you made the trip from Namurn, where you were filming the Blade of Marmora, to Earth just vargas ago, jumped straight out here for Comic Con, and after this panel you're headed back to Earth to film the wedding. What a trip!"

Boh-Bii: "Boh bii boh-boh bii boh."

Jawn: "I'll bet! Anybody would need a nap after that. But is there anything you can tell us about what's up with Black Paladin Keith and the Blades these days?"

Boh-Bii: "... Boh."

Jawn: "Oh! Classified! Uh. I... guess I should have seen that coming. Maybe you can tell us if there's a new man in Keith's life, now that Shiro is settling down with someone else? That can't be classified, right? The universe is dying to dish."

Boh-Bii: "... ... ..."

Jawn: "Can we get a mic check on--"

Gnaggad: "Ah, Jawn, he told us earlier, he won't discuss anything involving the K-word today. Or ever again, I think."

Jawn: "... what, 'Keith'? (Boh-Bii glares.) That must be difficult. For... Voltron... I mean. What happen--?"

All Guests: "Don't ask."

Jawn: "Haha, okay, although you're making it sound like there's a real story there. But maybe you all have some non-Keith-related production stories to tell. What have we got to look forward to in the upcoming season?"

All Guests: "... ... ..." (Guests trade nervous looks. Gnaggad begins to speak, but Pearson stops her.)

Jawn: "Guys?"

Pearson: "Bii bii-bii boh NDA boh bii."

Jawn: "I'm confused. So does that mean you can't talk about plot events, or that you can't talk about anything? What can you tell us? Is there an official press release?"

Rehm: "Well, we obviously can't give any details about our work on this season as that would violate the contract we signed, but I will say the crafting of an official press release generally involves a team of writers knowing sufficient content and context about a subject to describe it, and a team of publicists having time to do market review. Obviously, I am in no way implying that production on Season 8 of Voltron involved either an unreasonable time crunch or confusion on the part of the staff. That's just a random fact about press releases. Obviously."

Vesta: (snorts while attempting not to laugh)

Pearson: (off-mic comments)

Rehm: "I'm curious what you think you can actually do to me, Bii-Boh."

Emera: "Perhaps we should take some audience questions, Jawn. Those are generally safe enough."

Nasnil: "Yes, let's! That sounds quite fun."

Jawn: "Well, hey, we've got a line of people here with questions. Who's going first?"

Galra Audience Member: "Over the past seven seasons, there have been some incredible location shoots that have set the standard for visuals on telecasts for this generation. Can you tell us what were your favorite locations to shoot in for Season 8, and if we get to see the Space Mall again?"

Nasnil: (looks at Vesta) "Hmm. Well, how much can we say?"

Vesta: "That wasn't not a Space Mall, but I'm not sure it counts as the Space Mall..."

Emera: "Don't look at me. I spent the whole time in front of a green screen wearing a motion capture suit."

DeAntonio: "Come on, guys. It doesn't get better than Earth! For real."

Gnaggad: "I agree. We shot one episode in the ruins of the states of New Mexico and Utah. Amazing rocks, beautiful landscape. I loved that scene, although Bii Boh-Bii can't tell me if it survived the late edits. I hope you all get to see it. We filmed a real nailbiter with our Keith and Sh... Oh. Oh sh*t... That didn't make it, I bet..."

Jawn: "What was that, Gnaggad?"

Gnaggad: "Definitely nothing. What's the next question?"

Arusian Audience Member: "This is a question for Baylor!"

DeAntonio: "I love it! Let's go!"

Arusian Audience Member: "Hi, Baylor! I've been a huge fan of Paladin Lance since the Blue Lion first landed on our world. You're doing a great job..."

DeAntonio: "Ah haha! Thanks!"

Arusian Audience Member: "Anyway, with all the rumors that Curtis LaSalle will be introduced this season and shake up the established romance between Keith and Shiro, I was wondering if we'll finally get to see more of the hidden romance that's been hinted at between Lance and K--"

(Video background flashes off, replaced by face in extreme close-up.)

???: "Everybody stop talking!"

Jawn: "Is that... Slav? Everyone! It looks like we have an unexpected guest. Slav, where are you calling in from?"

Slav: "Nevermind where I am! The important question is whether the person asking for irrelevant and intrusive personal details has on multi-colored shoes! In any universe where a person with multi-colored shoes is asking questions from the audience, there is a 97.58% chance that we will all die in a terrible riot five years from now!"

(An usher signals from the audience microphone.)

Jawn: "Sorry about that, everyone, but as you all know, what Slav says, goes. Any audience member in the question line right now who has multicolored shoes, please step to the side and see the usher on the way back to your seat. He'll give you a choice between our limited edition 'Casualty of Slav' t-shirts and phone straps. You can't get these in stores, guys. They are a panel exclusive. Now, the next person up with monochrome shoes, what is your question?"

Balmeran Audience Member: Hello. It is an honor to meet you all. However, in the trailer screened prior, I witnessed little depiction of Paladin Hunk compared to his teammates. Will Season 8 provide the copious Yellow Paladin content my friends and I desire to see?"

Vesta: "Ooh, that is a fantastic question! I'd like to know that, too, honestly. Hey, Bii, how much Hunk are we getting this season? Is it gonna satisfy his adoring public?"

Slav: "Oh dear. I'm afraid you're on your own with that one, my friends." (Disappears)

Boh-Bii: "HUNK boh bii boh bii-bii bii."

DeAntonio: "That's not an answer! But I have one word for you, miss: 'Yeast. Rises.'"

Rehm: "That's... two words, Baylor."

Pearson: (facepalm)

~//~

The comm unit showing off the shenanigans of a bunch of media bigwigs in front of a technicolor "Voltron" banner made him want to test again whether it was possible stab someone through a video link, but Keith managed to compress his frustration into a strangled murmur. Meggon was doing her best to salvage what little equipment wasn't burnt to crust by the electrical storm. "You seriously can't pick up any other frequency?"

"No, sir, but we may be able to turn this broadcast into a near-field distress beacon if we can convert the ship itself into a kind of large speaker array."

"This had better work," Keith huffed, going back to sticking insulation to the walls of the rapidly cooling mess hall. "I'm not freezing to death surrounded by the sound of actors discussing the second television adaptation of my life."

"My money is on running out of air!" laughed Gamar.

"Breathe less, insulate more."

At least the f*cking Comic Con livestream told them how much time had passed.

~//~

"Well, you finally got me to my bachelor party," Shiro grumbled into his Bloody Mary (minus the vodka). He and Roy haunted a dark corner of the beefcake bar Roy had bought out while the whooping crowds of friends (who didn't know what was going on, but were happy to follow orders to party) shook small bills at a man on stage wearing mostly body glitter and muscles, but who was capable enough with his hips that the tassel of spangled fringe on the front of his g-string made a big impression. Most days, Shiro would've found it tacky but pleasant entertainment and been a good sport -- most days. "Thanks for not forcing me to have fun. You're a good friend, Dwight."

The blond stuck a finger in Shiro's face that came firmly attached to a whiskey neat. "Oh, I am gettin' a raincheck on seein' you drunk and with a buff, nekkid prettyboy grinding on your ass, Rogaine -- and I don't mean Keith! Next time you're planetside, that's happenin'. f*ck, man, you cain't call this a bachelor party when ya drinkin' f*ckin' tomato juice. What the hell!" Roy took a sip of his booze with a sigh. "But I get it, man. I do. I ain't that much of an asshole."

Most people wouldn't have noticed, but Roy wasn't as drunk as he was acting. He'd only finished half of his first drink so far, and was taking swigs from a glass of water when he thought Shiro wasn't looking, on top of eating plenty of potato skins. His friend was still on the clock, which wasn't the way Roy Focker usually liked to do a party. And, well, if Roy wasn't letting himself get drunk, that was one more reason for Shiro to play it straight tonight, too.

As if he needed a reason beyond how little a hangover would do to help anything going on at the moment. He wanted to be alert when they got news about Keith, and he definitely wanted to be in peak condition for tomorrow's operation. At least the two sober people in the corner at the strip club could keep each other company, and Roy had been right about one thing.

He didn't want to be alone right now, but he also didn't want to be anywhere where he had to pretend to be okay.

Although he did have to chuckle when five dancers in modified Galaxy Garrison uniforms took the stage to the opening beats of "In the Navy". The awful gray jackets lasted through about half a verse of acrobatics and shimmying before the men stripped down to the inevitable white undershirts and took their act to the laps of several cheering patrons. It looked like Acxa and Veronica were sharing one dancer, while Kinkade courteously directly the one who came at him towards an unsuspecting Griffin. Matt Holt was in the center of it all, along with all of his six lovers, helpfully pointing out where Olkari erogenous zones were for a man who was lifting the hem of his undershirt to show off his flexing abs as he gyrated in Russ's face. The real question was whether this was a song where they pulled the undershirts off or ripped them. These guys had to go through so many undershirts!

Shiro threw Roy half of a smirk. "I really appreciate that you got this place to play the complete works of the Village People for me. That takes dedication."

"Nah, just money," said Roy with a shrug. "The DJ didn't even blink. I think the guys like disco, so maybe you're not the only one with musical taste that belongs in an ancient history museum."

"In my opinion, 'liking disco' is one of the two signs of a true professional."

"What's the other one?" Roy asked, taking another sip of whiskey that wasn't as big as he was pretending it was.

He pointed out the double-time pelvic thrust one of the dancers was doing just a fraction of an inch above a furiously blushing James Griffin's leg -- close enough to look like he was grinding but not so close that friction got in the way. "That is extremely difficult to do, let alone make look good," Shiro said. "Look how he's braced his legs so he can keep his posture upright and his core steady, too. Solid 9.5 out of ten for technique. Best dancer here, in my opinion."

And, apparently, this choreography called for tearing off the undershirts. So many undershirts! He'd never make it as a stripper, having to shred piles of perfectly good undershirts, Shiro thought with a wistful smile. Most of his amateurish attempts had ended in Keith giving him sh*t for always folding his clothes before they had sex. And with Adam, well... Adam hadn't really liked music, or at least not his music. Anyway, taking proper care of your clothes vastly extended their lifespan and Shiro was never going to apologize for that.

"Okay, but straight-up physique?" Roy nodded at the five hard-bodied men doing backflips off the floor to land on a raised platform before they all did what one does with tear-away pants. "Which one's the hottest?"

Shiro looked from one ass framed in gold lamé string to the next and shook his head. "Ehh. I'd call them all basically eights. Nobody stands out."

"Let me guess... they're not Keith."

"I am being totally objective right now," Shiro insisted, swiping another potato skin. Just like he objectively thought that Keith was the most attractive man in the universe, which he was right about. "But help me settle something that's been bothering me? Stuffed or not stuffed?" he asked as the dancers turned back around to show off their gold-wrapped packages.

Roy squinted, taking a slow (but not deep) sip of his whiskey with a frown. He tilted his head to get a different perspective, and finally declared, "Not stuffed. That all moves like it's real."

"You sure? Because I think every guy who's been up there tonight has been exactly the same size. Like, look at that... they all match. And I get it if they're going for aesthetics. It's not a crime to stuff. But you're right that they look real. It's just hard to believe."

"They're not the f*ckin' Rockettes, man. An' it's dark in here. You cain't eyeball that sh*t."

"Wanna bet?" Shiro scoffed. He might've gotten fitted for glasses not too many years ago, but they were reading glasses. His distance vision was still 20/10, even in light like this.

Slamming his half-full whiskey glass on the bar, Roy shouted, "Hell yeah, I wanna bet! Where's that f*ckin' bartender, I'm gonna ask him for a f*ckin' ruler, you see if I don't... Hey, bartender...! f*ckin' sayin' you can eyeball a co*ck through a g-string. sh*t..."

"Captain?" said a slim, dark-haired man wearing painfully retro aviators as he walked in the door. "Ah, good. I see we found the right place." The man held the door open for a similarly slim and pretty woman, both of them wearing the uniforms of MFE unit commanders. They looked familiar, but Shiro couldn't quite place them.

Roy waved them over along with the bartender. "Max! Miria! Get the hell in here! Shiro, I told you about the kids from Hikaru's old squad, right? Guys, this is Shirogane Takashi, the real, live, big damn hero, an' tonight only, I'm showin' off photos of him deep-throatin' three hot dogs at the Academy. Wanna see?"

"It was a hot dog eating contest," Shiro clarified, shaking hands with the two pilots. "Nice to meet you, Max, Miria."

"An honor, sir," said the woman, Miria. "And congratulations on your upcoming wedding. We just needed to report to the Captain that our mission was a success."

Max smiled like he was born to go in front of a camera. "We didn't want to interrupt the festivities," he said, glancing in some confusion from Shiro and Roy to the party across the room. "Was I mistaken? This is your bachelor party, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is," Shiro laughed. "Not standard for me to sit it out, I know--"

Downing the rest of his whiskey in one swallow, Roy slapped him on the shoulder. "My little gift to this asshole. He went an' turned into a one-man man an' a borin'-ass homebody, so I threw him this shindig to celebrate his last f*ckin' night of freedom, and outta the goodness of my heart I ain't forcin' him to do a single damn thing he don't want t'do. Got Matt Holt over there playin' f*ckin' surrogate bridegroom an' everythin'."

"If you're off duty now, you should stay," said Shiro. "If you want. Have some fun, the more the merrier. Oh, but if you want to tip the dancers and you don't have old bills, it's polite to get the bartender to make change for you. Cash is pretty uncomfortable to have shoved in a g-string before it's broken in."

Miria nodded seriously. "So noted. I was unaware of the etiquette."

"Matt Holt, hmm?" mused Max, studying the party. He didn't seem sure whether he planned to stay or not. "I've... heard stories about what happens when he and alcohol mix."

"As have I," said Miria. She rifled through her wallet for her credit card and said to the bartender, "Sell me a pitcher of beer and the services of the man in the cowboy costume, to be delivered to the surrogate bridegroom."

Shiro and Roy both started chuckling at the wide-eyed terror on Max's face.

"Wait, Miria..."

"Also, 50 GAC in your most commonly used denomination of small bills."

She walked with clarity and purpose over to the cash register for her money, leaving the man slack-jawed by Shiro and Roy's corner. Only for a moment, though. Soon enough, he dashed after her in a panic. "Honey! Maybe we should talk about this?!" And Shiro had a feeling that was the last he was going to hear from them for a while.

But a few memories stitched themselves together as he watched the husband and wife pair greeting the other MFE pilots. "Hey, Dwight. Max and Miria... those are the two cadets you were talking about, right? From Hikaru's team, in Keith's old class?"

"Yeah, what about it?" said his friend, a little too nonchalant despite the new double whiskey he was taking from the bartender (along with an honest to goodness ruler, the asshole).

"You said they were amazing pilots. You don't say that often." Roy's eyes told him to get to the point, so Shiro called back some words he'd heard earlier today. As distracted as he'd been in the heights of his anxiety, he'd heard them. "Would you call them your 'two top pilots'?"

Roy took a long drink from his whiskey, tapping the ruler slowly on the bar. The lack of denial was as good as confirmation.

Shiro's heart started to speed as he asked, "And their mission was a success, they said? Does that mean what I think it means?"

"f*ck me, Rogaine. I was gonna surprise you! Just once in your life, cain't nothin' get past you?!" Roy sighed with a shake of his head. "Yeah, of course it means what you think it means. And if he made sense of the coded message I sent with my people, he must've snuck into one o' them private dance rooms by now..."

Right on cue, a curtain on one of the cubbies by the back wall closed even though nobody had walked in. A scrap of red fabric flipped over the top like a flag, and Shiro needed all his restraint not to sprint across the room. He gripped his best man's arm like that was going to hold him back. "Roy, I'm so sorry, I misjudged you. This is the best bachelor party ever."

"Yeah, yeah," said Roy, shooing him off. "Go on, git. You're no good to me now."

Tossing back the last of his Virgin Mary, Shiro trotted over to the curtain and double checked that no one was looking. Then, he couldn't get inside fast enough. And there, leaning against the back wall, tapping his foot and looking gorgeous with smudges of char on his face and stray black hairs sticking out at odd angles, was the best thing he'd seen all day. "Keith!" he said, channeling all of his heart flutters into a whisper.

The next fraction of a second was broken into one moment of seeing Keith's eyes dart up and shine like star-flecked black sapphires, the one moment it took Keith to murmur, "Shiro!", and then everything after some combination of him walking and Keith yanking ended with them pressed up against the wall and each other. A kiss melted slowly into Shiro hugging Keith tight while his husband chuckled, "Why do you taste like ketchup, Shiro?"

"Drinking my feelings, baby. You know I worry any time your missions go south."

"But hey, you survived my first near death experience since your retirement." Technically the bench in the private room was big enough for both of them to sit, but Shiro would never complain about Keith opting to straddle his lap instead. It made it easier to talk, and easier to hold on. "Congrats," Keith said in a throaty whisper through another kiss.

Shiro let his fingers get lost in the loose bits of Keith's hair, theoretically smoothing in the flyaways, but it made him feel so much better just to have Keith here where he could touch. It was like he was remembering how to breathe. "Barely. I had none of my usual ways to cope. No ordering people around, no asking for status reports, no monitoring scanner data... Just multiple governments telling me to let them handle it. Dwight and Curtis had to tie me down so I didn't do anything stupid."

Keith put on a grin that looked like the best kind of trouble. "Kinky. Got pictures?"

"You can see in person tomorrow, when your ship catches the hover platform I'll be strapped to. I'm just glad we'll never have to go through this again." Shiro traced the space dirt on Keith's face with his fingers, trailing his thumb over his husband's lips. "Next time you're in trouble, I'll be in the same trouble, right beside you."

"Sounds good to me."

Listening to that, Shiro would've said that the way Keith could make his words like a purr was his favorite sound in the universe, but he had to rethink that a few seconds later. It didn't take too much kissing before he got reminded how pretty Keith sounded when he moaned. Something about hearing Keith's needy voice after the day they'd both had tripped a primal switch in Shiro's brain, and his fingers knotted deep in Keith's hair, pulling his head back so Shiro could get his mouth on Keith's throat. Two seconds after that, between Keith having to bite back a groan of, "f*ck, Shiro!" when the song outside faded, and the electric jolt of Keith's erection grinding against his, both of them realized they were being less than smart.

Shiro peeled back, wincing. "We really shouldn't--"

"--have sex in the back of a strip club where strangers might hear us?" Keith finished.

"Yeah."

"... Yeah." The disappointed pout on his husband's face was no surprise. Celebratory 'neither of us died' sex was a tradition after about a decade of the lives they'd lived. "I guess I can wait to f*ck your brains out till we get back to your place. But, I mean..."

Keith looked around the dark, curtained booth they were in, and Shiro tried to decide how his husband was going to end that sentence. Maybe saying they could risk it if they were quiet? Or maybe he was offering one last kiss, a taste of what'd be waiting when they got to a bed somewhere private? Shiro was ready to tell him it was enough just to hold him for now, feeling Keith solid in his arms, real and here. He didn't need more than that.

"... As long as we're here, maybe I could give you a lap dance? That's what the private rooms are for, right?"

All of his thoughts vanished in a puff of steam, and Shiro could feel the silliest grin of pure joy on his face. "Baby! When did you learn to do lap dances?! You're so busy! I mean, yes, please, but wow... I had no idea! Was this going to be for my birthday?!" Ninety percent of the time, Keith couldn't keep a present secret from him for beans, but the other ten percent...

Was not what they were dealing with here, if the dawning look of panic on Keith's face was any way to judge. "sh*t. Is... is this not intuitive? I just thought, you taught me some dance moves, and, you know..." He gestured at Shiro's legs under his own. "... Lap."

Shiro felt his glee wrap up around his heart so tight, he was afraid it'd break his ribs open, and his stupid smile definitely wasn't going anywhere. He brushed the bangs out of Keith's face (as if they'd ever stay out) so he could see his baby blushing. It didn't happen often, and when it did, it was just for him. "Oh, sweetheart. You never did that thing where fellow officers pull you out to strip clubs, did you? Maybe the Galra don't have them..."

"They probably do, but no, my mom and Kolivan didn't take me to any."

"Erotic dancing is skilled labor, believe me, and a good stripper is a highly trained prof--"

"You can just say it's not easy," Keith said, trying not to laugh through a scowl.

A scowl that didn't last through Shiro leaving about a dozen kisses on Keith's lips in quick succession. Noses pressed together as Shiro caressed Keith's thighs, he whispered, "If anybody can do an amazing lap dance with no practice and zero points of reference, it's definitely you, baby. And I will happily volunteer for you to experiment on."

"Shut your mouth," Keith growled in that way that went straight to Shiro's co*ck. An A+ start, Shiro thought with a smile. He was, without question, the luckiest man on Earth.

The song that'd started playing was a sweet one, less campy than most songs that'd survived the last three hundred years since these recordings could have been considered 'modern', but still with a heavy disco beat. Keith counted out a bar or two silently, nodding his head as he stretched out his shoulders. After a few abbreviated sways, like he was trying to get the feel for how moving his legs would work when he was kneeling on a bench with nowhere to go, Keith struck the wall with both hands and framed Shiro's head with his arms, abandoning any attempt to sway for a left-right hip roll that simultaneously stopped Shiro's heart and then started it again. Maybe Keith was improvising everything, but he had fire in his eyes, and Shiro was halfway to heaven.

And there were a few things he didn't mind Keith not knowing, like the usual 'no touching' rules. It was his duty to run an admiring hand over Keith's ass, really -- lightly, so he didn't mess with the rhythm of Keith rising up and swiveling his way back down. If Keith didn't know that lap dances were look but don't touch, he might assume his efforts weren't appreciated without a grope here or there. Communication was too important to risk not touching.

Obviously.

By the time Keith was holding him by the jaw, fingers scratching into his hairline, thrusting hips against Shiro's pecs in time with the music, it was clear he'd realized sex was a more solid basis for a lap dance than dancing was. That, and there was more than a little combat muscle memory in the way Keith fell back on one arm so he was laid out sideways across Shiro's legs. Nothing else explained how he had the instinct (and god, the strength) to hold himself just clear of contact where most amateurs would've fallen in a heap.

"God, Keith..." Shiro murmured, fingers drawn like magnets to feel their way up the roll of his f*cking gorgeous husband's body, from his still half-hard co*ck to his open, panting mouth. No, he would not mind getting his fingers in that mouth at all, and a few other things, too...

Twisting his torso like a whip, Keith flung Shiro's hand off before he could get close. "Uh-uh, Shiro. Patience yields focus, remember?"

Shiro had never realized you could die of focus. But he was certain that if Keith's dark eyes clouded over with unspeakable promises didn't kill him, the soft, evil chuckle he made when Shiro whimpered would finish the work.

The leg sweep Keith used as a counterbalance to pull himself upright, fitting his back against Shiro's chest, was definitely something Shiro remembered from countless sparring sessions where Keith had gotten knocked to the ground. But instead of finding himself in a headlock, Shiro had Keith splayed against his shoulder, nipping at his ear, and his own hands were all over an ass that was -- objectively -- an absolute ten. Maybe it was nothing fancy, but Keith's body surging under his grip was intoxicating. It always was. And at some point while he'd lost himself to nuzzling his face into Keith's hair, the song finished, and the sound of both of them breathing, ragged and off-beat, made the whooping and hollering of the crowd outside feel a million miles away.

"Not bad for a first try?" Keith whispered.

Shiro laughed a silent, breathless laugh, stealing kisses off the back of Keith's neck and holding him as tight as he could. "I love you, baby."

"I'll take that as a yes."

"I hope you're not too tired, because when I get you home--"

"When have I ever been too tired to f*ck you, Shiro?" Keith shifted so they were sitting next to each other on the bench built into the wall, lost in kisses that now tasted more like sweat than burnt out ships or tomato juice.

But all too soon, voices from outside started saying, "Wait, where did Shiro go?"

One that sounded like Pidge said, "Oh, he better not have run off before we got here..." before Roy said something about checking the bathrooms and told everyone to watch the show.

He didn't want to let Keith go when he'd only just gotten him back from today's incarnation of the jaws of certain death, but the glimmer of understanding in Keith's eyes made it a little easier.

"So we should..." Shiro said.

Keith's lip twisted. "Yeah. Just a tick." Silently, Keith's fingers combed through his hair, putting Shiro's bangs back to rights, then his collar. Finally, he pulled a tube of ointment from his utility pouch and dabbed a light coat around Shiro's lips. "Give that a minute before you go out to take down the swelling. It's technically for muscle sprains and bruises and stuff, but it should make you look less like you've been making out back here. I don't see any hickies. How about me?"

Shiro spread some of the ointment on the spot where he'd bitten Keith's neck, even though it barely showed when the collar closed on his uniform, then got Keith's lips, too. They couldn't take any more risks than they already had. "There. Now you just look like your ship blew up, not like your ship blew up and then you hooked up with your handsome ex in the back of a club."

"I'll go out the back," said Keith, slipping into operation commander mode so smoothly, Shiro couldn't help grinning again. "Then I'll take a turn around the block and get spotted on some cameras walking here from the direction of the docks. You go out the front when you're sure nobody's looking. See if you can catch Roy in time to pretend you were in the bathroom. In two hours, we both find an excuse to leave, then rendezvous in your bedroom by 0030 hours, where I will proceed to bone you down so hard, you'll feel me through every step while you're walking down the aisle tomorrow. Clear?"

The corners of Shiro's mouth ached from how wide his smile went. Naturally, he saluted to acknowledge his orders. "Five by five. Sir, yes, sir!"

~//~

The tux that Lance had waiting for him, predictably, matched every single description of a suit that the Blue Paladin had said would make Keith look like an asshole at his junior prom. Boxy lines, jacket past his hips, tailored pants that made his ass look non-existent, even a bow tie. It figured. He'd assumed that his formal Blade of Marmora uniform would be acceptable for a wedding, or if it weren't, his Paladin armor should have sufficed; but apparently, when you were in the "bridal party", you had to match all the other groomsmen, so in the name of not making a stink over anything at Shiro's wedding, he was now wearing the dorkiest cream-colored tuxedo he had ever seen. He couldn't wait for the reception, where he could strip off the jacket and just wear his Paladin-coded fitted red vest.

If he was lucky, no one would recognize him until then.

"Perfect!" Lance declared as Keith stepped out of the park bathroom stall -- the price of not having arranged to get the tuxedo at the barracks. It was worth it, though. He may have had to change in a public bathroom, but he hadn't had to subject himself to any of his subordinates seeing him in this thing. He'd been the target of enough Galra comedy for a lifetime. "That tailor is a miracle worker. You actually look okay. Now, I've got some gel and my hair dryer over here to smooth out those flyaways and give you some proper--"

Keith held up a finger, not coincidentally showing a flash of the knife up his sleeve. "If you say 'Revenge Hair,' I will cut you."

"Dude!" squawked the fashion master of Voltron. He seemed totally serious, and that was somehow worse than if Keith could believe Lance was f*cking with him. "Just! Keith, bro, it is not okay for you to show up today without looking good. As far as the public knows, this is your ex-boyfriend's wedding! Revenge hair is a requirement! How do you not know this?!"

"I let you f*cking blowdry my hair for Shiro's retirement party, with all your sprays and tonics and gel sh*t because Veronica backed you up when you said I needed Revenge Hair for the first time I saw Shiro in public, and my hair was too smooth to stay in a braid for a week." Keith shuddered, remembering how impossible it was to pull it back after Lance did some magic with the blow dryer and a hairbrush to change the direction his hair thought it was supposed to go. "My bangs kept wanting to fall at the most annoying angles in my eyes. They poked me. It would not stay back for sh*t. No way I'm letting you do that to me again."

He wasn't going to wait for Lance's dropped jaw and offended squeak to turn into action. For f*ck's sake, he had to fly a plane later, and catch Shiro in mid-air at high velocity. He wanted to be able to see. Keith sidestepped Lance to head toward the bathroom door. Maybe the trick to avoiding Lance doing things to your hair was to keep moving.

"But Keith! You looked amazing! For once in your life, you had good hair!" called Lance, juggling a straightening wand onto something heat proof. You couldn't just drop these things, it turned out.

"Nope!"

"At least let me trim the burn damage from the electrical storm!"

"Go f*ck yourself!"

Whatever Lance tried to say after that, Keith couldn't hear. Bathroom door slamming, crowds milling in the lobby and the gardens outside. It was all very loud, and more importantly, Keith didn't care. He still needed to sneak into the room where Shiro was getting changed (grooms got special privileges) and the rest of the party was keeping him company before any reporters stopped him to ask how he felt about being at Shiro's wedding. He'd given that interview about five times already. Honestly, he wished that Veronica had okayed him carrying around answer cards he could hand off instead of talking, but according to her, he wasn't allowed to be that much of an asshole.

Stepping over a purple velvet rope, ducking down hallways where people were sparse, avoiding the camera crew, he finally found the door labeled, "Groom's Dressing Room", and knocked.

"Come in!" said a woman.

Looking back, he should have realized this wasn't Shiro's room when he didn't recognize her voice immediately, but Keith blamed last night's lack of sleep (worth it). He had to think fast when he saw Curtis sitting in the chair at the center of the room, with his sister, Claudia, lint-rolling his pristine suit and his brother, Edgar, jumping back six feet in absolute terror.

Edgar didn't know this was a fake wedding. Edgar probably didn't know they knew each other. He probably only knew that Curtis's fiance's "ex-boyfriend" was a half-Galra warrior who could stab a man through the heart while leaping from an airplane that was strafing a battlefield.

For some reason, people thought that was hard.

A clock ticked somewhere in the background. Keith coughed. "Ah... sorry, wrong groom. Do you know where Shiro's dressing room is?"

He'd thought that was perfectly non-threatening, but for some reason, Edgar's eyes got even wider and more worried. "Uh... Why are you... looking for..."

Sometimes, Keith wished his mom had classes for how to socialize with humans. Luckily for all of them, Claudia was on top of everything. She rolled her eyes at her older brother, waving him out of the corner. "Stop acting like a scared rabbit, Edgar. Keith isn't birddogging. He's one of Shirogane's groomsmen."

Keith blinked. "Oh. You thought... I was trying to break up the wedding?" He spun his brain, trying to think of a way to defuse the tension in the air, some kind of joke, and ended up pushing his bangs back. "W-with this hair?"

f*ck you, Lance, Keith thought to himself. Revenge hair had better be a real thing.

Edgar still looked confused as f*ck, but Claudia and Curtis, at least, laughed like that made sense. "Sweetie," joked the woman, "who told you that hair isn't good enough to steal any man you want? You're fine. I mean, everybody knows it's bad manners to look better than whoever's getting married, but we'll forgive you. We know you can't help it."

"Hey!" shot Curtis, narrowing his eyes at his sister, and they fake slapped at each other like Matt and Pidge did sometimes. Siblings were such a mystery. He'd only been able to joke like that with the other Paladins after they'd nearly died together at least a dozen times.

"One of these days, I swear I will kill Lance," Keith muttered.

Curtis took over clearing the air, saying, "Keith, this is my brother and Best Man, Edgar LaSalle. Edgar, this is Keith Kogane, aka the Black Paladin of Voltron--"

"Just Keith is fine."

"--and any friend of Takashi's is a friend of mine, so..."

A back door opened just when things were getting calm, and yet another person Keith had never met walked in and nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw Keith's face. "Is that-- Oh. Oh sh*t. It is. Is there going to be a fight? Oh f*ck..."

Edgar pushed the short-haired, pale man who looked vaguely concussed (probably another of Curtis's groomsmen) back through the door. "You know what, Shin? Curtis says it's fine. Let's just go get everybody some drinks and let them talk, okay? Okay..."

Keith supposed this was what he got for missing the rehearsal because he was stranded in barely charted space without power after a wormhole blew up around his ship. And since Shiro had all four available Paladins, plus Roy Focker and Matt Holt, in his party, that meant... three more people in Curtis's party that he had to avoid giving heart attacks to? Three sounded right.

"Hey, Claudia," he asked, "Can I be paired with you for the aisle walking part? I get jittery when I'm standing next to someone who thinks I'm going to stab them in the back."

"No problem, Keith. I'll get that sorted out with the ushers," she promised. "And Admiral Shirogane's changing room is down the next hall on your left, in 115. I don't know why no one gave you the number. We all got the room assignments at the--"

He nodded. "At the rehearsal. No problem. Lance was going to take me, but I ditched him. Thanks." As he was turning out of the room, Keith paused for a second and looked back at the groom. "And... Curtis. Shiro told me what you said. I just wanted to say..." Biting his lip, he tried to think of some kind of words to use. Probably, Claudia wouldn't turn her brother in for offering to blow up the entire op so Shiro could run off, especially since Shiro had stayed planetside, but he had to keep cover in case someone else walked in, or was listening behind a door.

It wasn't nearly enough, but Keith told him, "I wanted to say... you're all right," and Curtis seemed to understand. "Anyway, good luck out there."

"Thanks, Keith. And good luck to you with... everything else."

"Thanks," he laughed. "I'll try not to need it."

Somehow, Keith was able to walk the 25 feet of hallway to the other door labeled for a groom without anyone assuming he wanted Curtis dead. The sight waiting there was so much better, in so many ways, because Shiro -- looking good enough to eat, as always, in a sleeveless tank and perfectly tailored pants -- was facing off against Lance in what would've been a classic Old American West shoot-out if they'd had pistols instead of Lance holding a curling iron and a can of hairspray. Pidge and Hunk were backed against the wall, snickering.

"I can help you, Shiro!"

"Lance, I have been styling my own hair for 35 years. I brought my own product and tools, which I have used extensively, and I know work best for my hair type."

That was the truth. Keith had not only witnessed ten years of Shiro waking up in the morning and blowdrying his longer hair into precisely the same shape it'd had when he woke up, just with an inch more lift, he'd also seen the whimpers Shiro had made into mirrors on the Castle of Lions when he thought no one was looking, and seen him carefully resculpting his hair after sessions in the weight room at the Garrison. Of course, despite the sweat, his workouts never revealed how extremely weird the hair in the middle of his bangs could get because Shiro took the time to pin the offending strands into a twist hidden under his sweatband. Keith loved that man, and his hair, but he had always accepted how much work Shiro put into it, more than understanding it.

The Hair Paladin clearly did not accept it. "Shiro, you cannot run pomade over a cowlick like that one and act like that's good enough for your wedding day! Let me fix it!"

"I kept this cowlick under control in a Galra gladiator prison, Lance. An alien space prison. The last time I had a bad hair day, I was twelve, because good hair is a choice. My choice."

Keith stepped up with a sigh. "Okay, guys, let's calm down."

"Hi, baby!" said Shiro, happy but not off guard.

All the surprise in the room belonged to Lance. "Keith! There you are! I knew you'd come around. Okay, help me explain to Shiro that I can fix his bangs, and once he's done, I will be happy to sort your hair-- hey!"

For some reason, Lance hadn't expected Keith's slow walk forward with his arms up to end with a quick roll sideways and a headlock, but the important thing was that Lance was incapacitated so Shiro could relieve him of the curling iron and pick the hairspray up off the floor. "I really don't know why you thought I was gonna let you do my hair. Shiro, you got his stuff?"

"Packing it all up," the world's sexiest man answered, checking how hot the various things plugged into the wall were. He was hiding the sway in his walk just well enough that probably no one who wasn't looking for it would realize how hard Shiro had gotten f*cked last night, Keith thought with a smile. Mission accomplished. "Hey, Pidge, can you hide this bag somewhere and give it back to Lance after the reception?"

"On it." Pidge whistled, and one of her drones decloaked to take the bag from Shiro, which reminded Keith that he had to get the new codes for her cloaking protocols. His passive scanner hadn't picked up that there were drones in the room. There better have been a memo about the upgrades, or he was telling the President on her.

Everyone in the room turned toward the opening door, bickering dropped and ready to act. Thank goodness, it was Veronica, leading in Roy and Matt.

Roy, who looked like he had a hangover the size of Texas but was still grinning like a loon, and Matt, whose ponytail had disappeared, and who now had short hair. Short, normal hair cropped close, like he was late for a meeting in a boardroom at a company where style was illegal.

"Gentlemen," said Veronica, pursing her lips. "It's thirty minutes to showtime. Is there a reason why Shiro isn't dressed and you look like you're about to arrest my brother?"

"He wanted to straighten my bangs," Shiro answered.

"Well, excuse me for trying to be helpful..." Lance blinked at Matt trying to look non-chalant as he leaned against the walls. "And what happened to your hair? I swear it was a foot longer when I left the party last night."

Matt ruffled the ends and waved off the question. "Oh, this? Eh. I burned it off."

"... on purpose?"

Pidge snorted out a laugh. "Nope."

"Traitor," Matt grumbled.

Yeah, they'd made the right decision to cut out of the party after Matt had started taking bets about what he could build out of sh*t lying around the strip club. After this op was over, it might be a good idea to check that the building was still standing. Keith didn't know where else to go to get pointers on how to do the crazy spins and flips that appeared to be part of a professional lap dance, even if he could probably work out how to do a headstand between Shiro's thighs.

Veronica freed Lance's hair kit from Pidge's drone, handing it back to her brother. "Anyway, Lance, you have to give up on Shiro's bangs. It's his signature hairstyle. We can't send him to an event this public with a different silhouette. There will be too many questions, and it'd break visual continuity with the Voltron Legendary Defender television series. The Garrison worked very hard with the Lions' Gate production staff to give the fictional Shiro hair that would match the trademarked designs on Garrison recruiting posters featuring our Shiro. Let's not drive Bii Boh-Bii to a complete meltdown today."

Lance's voice went hollow with horror. "Shiro's hair is trademarked?"

"The Garrison never got my permission for that," Shiro said. The adorable flare of his nostrils over an angry lip curl and crossed arms told Keith that Shiro would absolutely find a new, completely different hairstyle within the week if that was true, no matter how much he liked the hair he'd honed so carefully over the course of his adult life. That, or file a lawsuit, but a lawsuit might cause too much press.

Undaunted, Veronica checked the tuxedo jacket hanging nearby to make sure there were no wrinkles. "No, his hair itself isn't trademarked, but the pose he did on the post-Reconstruction rebranding poster -- arms akimbo, eyes up and to the right? -- the graphics team rotoscoped that into the star banner logo for the Forward First campaign, and that logo, which depicts Shiro's hairstyle, is trademarked."

"Intellectual property is a bitch," sighed Hunk.

Pidge held up a fist for a bump. "Word."

"At least back me up on how Keith needs Revenge Hair," Lance begged. "He looked so good at the retirement party. And come on, ex-boyfriend's wedding hair..."

Keith cut in before Veronica could say anything, and before what looked like fond recollection in Shiro's eyes could turn into Shiro saying he'd liked the hair Lance had done to him, because Keith knew he could never say no to that. "Guys. I heard that it's... um. Rude to try to look too good at somebody else's wedding. Right?"

Checkmate. Lance deflated like he knew he was beaten, and Veronica nodded. "Keith wins this time, Lance. But you can play with my hair when you get out front if it'll keep you out of trouble. Now, people... for the love of f*ck, the ushers are seating the guests and the music is starting, so get Shiro dressed and meet in the antechamber in twenty minutes."

Hunk rubbed his hands together, face lighting up. "All right, here we go! Shiro, I was in charge of getting your Something Old, so here..." He produced a white belt from a bag at his side. "I reclaimed some of the lining and metal from the healing pod you were unconscious in when we left the original Castle of Lions, and you know, a little stitching, a little smelting. It should be the right size. I got your measurements from the tailor."

Shiro cradled it in his hands. "Wow..."

While he laced it through his belt loops, Pidge dangled a shiny chain from her fingers. "Something New. It's a vest chain. I'll hook it on in a second, and once you're dressed, I'll show you where the buttons are to control any nearby bots on my network or send a distress signal."

"Not gonna argue," said Shiro. Always the best choice with Pidge and her tendency to install gadgets on everything. Keith wouldn't be surprised if the chain somehow converted into Wolverine-style energy blades on a brass knuckle grip. Pidge believed in multifunction tools.

Which meant it was his turn. He didn't have that many possessions, and had been stuck for weeks trying to decide what he could loan Shiro that wouldn't get them all in trouble. The only thing Keith had been able to think of was saying Shiro could use his kerchief as a pocket square, and everyone managing the wedding had tossed that idea out faster than if it'd been a grenade. Apparently his kerchief was "too recognizable", and the grooms' pocket squares had to match, or... He didn't know. Everyone had been talking too fast. People might die or something.

The only other thing he had to loan that would fit on Shiro was his dagger, and that was even more recognizable than his kerchief. If he hadn't been held up yesterday, he would've gone through his belongings one last time, but luckily, something had come to him while he was huddling with his crew, listening to actors discuss the emotional journey that fictional Honerva makes after fictional Lotor theoretically "died" (Keith wasn't even going to start on that one).

"So, uh..." Keith tugged an old, familiar chain out from under Shiro's tank, tickling Shiro's collarbone with the edges of his dog tags. "Technically, you've already got Something Borrowed from me..."

Shiro closed his fist around them with a playful grin. "No way, baby. These are mine. I'm never giving these back."

"Thought you might say that."

Keith slipped his hands up to Shiro's chin and held his face still for a kiss. Their audience hooted at them, but Keith couldn't care less. This was about Shiro, and Shiro had wrapped him up tight in his arms to dip him so Keith had to cling. Getting lost in the press of Shiro's lips and the touch of Shiro's tongue was exactly what he'd needed right then. Or, you know. Whenever.

"I like that," Shiro hummed, then leaned back in for seconds.

Stopping him with a finger on his lips, Keith told him, "It's just a loan, so you'd better give it back after we wrap this up."

"Mmm! Well, I might forget, so if you can remind me..."

"Oh, I'll remind you all right..."

From the wall, Pidge, Matt, and Roy jeered, "Gross!" in chorus while Lance mimed choking.

"If you're done being disgusting," said Lance, hiding something behind his back, "I'm your man for... Something Blue! Ta-da!"

The thing he whipped out was a new tank tee that Keith remembered from one of the Voltron Legendary Defender Season 4 promotions, printed with the Blue Lion flying across the front and the actors for Lance and Allura riding on Blue's back. It was even autographed by both the actors for reasons passing Keith's comprehension. Lance sure did love weddings.

"I got it to fit you," Lance promised, "but Baylor totally thought it was for me anyway, so he kind of signed it, 'Allurance 5ever', which... I mean... Yes? But I know--"

Shiro tore off his plain tank, for which Keith allowed himself an admiring sigh because Shiro's abs and pecs were still as chiseled as the first day his tiny fifteen year old self had knocked on his mentor's barracks door and found him doing pull ups from a ceiling pipe. The Blue Lion tank went on in its place, clinging in just the right places when Shiro tucked it in. "It's great, Lance. Thank you."

Hunk rolled up the clothes rack with the tuxedo jacket, white shirt, and black vest, plus all the trimmings. "Now, let's get you dressed, buddy! It's time to rock and roll!"

It wasn't the private, personal moment they'd shared in the Black Lion's storage area. Nothing could be. Keith wouldn't have traded that moment for all the color matched flowers and streamers in the universe; but if Keith had ever imagined Shiro having a normal wedding -- and in all fairness, he'd pictured it once or twice, although at the time he'd assumed Adam would be the other groom and he'd be fighting people for the right to be best man -- it honestly would have looked just like this. Shiro's great aunt walking him down the aisle. Shiro's husband-to-be looking like he felt lucky to be alive. Simple, and bright, and full of friends. While the vows and the kiss were happening, he'd confess to staying out of view of the cameras, just in case he made some kind of face, but there was one detail Keith wasn't sure anyone else noticed: the justice didn't say a word about Shiro and Curtis, "Forsaking all others."

Damn right, Keith thought. Damn. Right.

That man was his.

Chapter 10: Band of Gold

Notes:

In loving memory of Weekly World News. Which still exists online, but is no longer available in grocery store checkout lines like other, inferior tabloids.

Chapter Text

Supertitle: Lotor Not Dead?! Former Galra Prince... now Space Mall Barista!

Sidebar 1: Alternate reality Altean appears, reveals thousand deca-phoeb prophecy of the endtimes. (Details on Pg. 5)

Cover Story: Perfidy in Paradise! It's Shiro and Curtis's honeymoon in the Caribbean... So where is Shiro?! The truth about this SHAM MARRIAGE that will SHOCK YOU! Exclusive photos of Keith's 'undercover man' with the Blade of Marmora.

Sidebar 2: Princess Malocoti turns back into dragon. "Wings for the win!"

(Cover page of "Quantum Quintant Quarterly: The Galaxy's Only Reliable News Source", Fall 2281 Edition.)

The last end card faded away, and the credits started to roll. Keith and the rest of the Blade leadership had promised Zethrid they'd wait until all their units were in port so they could watch together, which meant the show had been out for a week. They'd all heard the rumors that it was a trainwreck, but since Gamar -- who'd looked up spoilers -- had agreed to watch it with them, Keith had assumed it would be a normal trainwreck. Now, like everyone else left in the Blade of Marmora officer's lounge, he sat in stunned silence, taking a moment to absorb...

That.

Most of the officers hadn't made it to the end of the season, finding business elsewhere within four or five episodes, but he didn't have that option. He'd even have to watch the full-length documentary bonus feature when he could stomach the idea. People like him, who would get quizzed on it by magazines, had to know. Now, if only Keith could find the words--

"All right," spat Lotor. "What the hell was that?"

There they were. Those were the words. At least he had Shiro here, a heartbeat against his back and arms around his waist reminding him that fiction was fiction, and reality was real. Even if the hair dye currently setting on Shiro's hair smelled awful and he had his bangs pinned up to try making them curl a different direction so no more incriminating telephoto pictures of white-haired men in masks leaked to conspiracy theory tabloids, he was still Shiro.

Less stunned than the rest of them, Acxa collected the popcorn bowls before people could drop them or throw them. "I don't know why you're surprised. Keith, you and Veronica both told me the ending would be inaccurate. You were deliberately deceiving the production staff, correct?"

"We didn't deceive them about me having a left arm!" Shiro gasped. "Did you see that? When they panned across the close-up at the end, and my arm just disappeared?"

Gamar, who Keith was starting to think had only stayed to see all their faces while they watched, laughed as he swallowed a mouthful of waffles. "Perhaps they were all distracted by the way the Shiro actor appeared to teleport. The blogs suspect foul play on the part of the editors."

"That's not what foul play means," Ezor said, a disturbed softness in her voice. "Also, why did they keep saying I was dead?"

Lotor scoffed and tossed some balled up foil at an advertisem*nt for action figures. "Speaking as one who has been 'dead' since Season 6 because the director took it upon himself to decide that a rational change of heart didn't suit my character arc, let me just say... None of you are offering an explanation for what the hell I just watched with my own two eyes. I realize that Oriande's peculiar location prevents proper communication, but even with time dilation, I couldn't have been gone more than four phoebs! Someone tell me, who the hell is Curtis?!"

"My husband," Shiro answered -- helpfully, with his brightest smile, waving the hand with his wedding ring.

Gamar, equally helpful, projected a photo of Shiro and Curtis scuba diving in the Caribbean, posted 27 doboshes ago. "You can follow their honeymoon on Instagram."

"I'm sorry, your what?" Lotor had the same look on his face that he'd had the time Keith had introduced him to spray cheese.

In her most sincere tone, Zethrid leaned over next to Lotor's ear. "You see, when two humans love each other very much--"

He cut her off with a smack from the pillow he'd been leaning on, which naturally devolved into Ezor pelting everyone with pillows while Zethrid belly laughed and Lotor groaned. "I know what marriage is, you ass! And everyone is well aware that Shiro is already bonded to your fearless leader, with whom he is snuggling in this very room!"

"Our fearless leader," Acxa corrected him. "Or are you rescinding your oath?"

Lotor rolled his eyes so hard at the reminder, he missed Ezor swinging a pillow with her tail. It hit his diaphragm solidly enough to send all the air flying out of his lungs. Even Keith had to chuckle at that. Well, Lotor had been asking for it, letting down his guard around Ezor, and also by being Lotor. He just had a face that made you want to punch him.

Acxa was laughing, too, for all that she nominated herself to steal Ezor's pillows. "And you should be grateful your character kept your bond partner, Ezor. Half the universe thinks I have enough of a deathwish to make eyes at Keith because of this show."

Zethrid frowned seriously. "I was confused about why they showed my actor trying to kill Keith in order to hurt you. Setting aside how the audio sounded overdubbed, and the scene didn't contain enough explosions, I remember that battle. It had nothing to do with bond partners, even if you had been, which you weren't..." His general squinted, frowning quizzically at the television. "And if you were, why would it even come up?! Killing someone else's bond partner for spite is uncouth!"

"Uh..." Keith wasn't quite sure how to break this part to Zethrid, since she didn't seem to have noticed. "Well, they... cut the deep space salvage rights plot?"

"Why would they do that?!" his general bellowed. "It makes no sense! Nothing is more important to a pirate than deep space salvage rights!"

"Not even me?" Ezor asked, batting her eyes and curling up on Zethrid's side.

"Ah! But your value to me is in my capacity as a woman, not as a pirate! What's more, you'd slit my throat if I deprived you of your own vengeance!"

Ezor nuzzled under Zethrid's ear, all smiles and... legs. Oh boy, were there legs going on. And Keith decided not to wonder what was going on with the prehensile something or other wriggling under Zethrid's shirt, because knowing would not make him happy. "That's my girl! I know just the knife I'd use for it too..."

Well, he'd be hypocritical to call them out on cuddling, and they were just as wary of attack as he and Shiro were, so they'd find a room they could lock before they started f*cking. Whatever.

Speaking of Shiro, the Blade's new Earth liaison officer leaned down to kiss Keith on the forehead. "Hey, baby. It's time for me to wash this dye out. I'll be right back."

"Sure thing." Keith shifted to let him out, and somewhere, leaning over the other arm of the sofa, Lotor was coughing himself back to life.

His former nemesis groaned, stretching his absurdly long legs out until it looked like he was going to melt right off the sofa and land on the floor. "I take everything back. I'm glad they killed me off in Season 6, and that they cut out whatever idiocy they were planning to do with my character in that awful zombie make-up. There would have been nothing whatsoever gained by my presence except possibly making their treatment of Allura's eventual seduction of Lance more insipid. Being fictionally dead is infinitely better than being depicted in that trash heap of an excuse for entertainment."

"Aww, but I wanted to see you kiss Griffin!" Ezor teased.

It was hard to tell through the hands Lotor slapped over his face, but Keith was pretty sure he said, "It was one time!"

He would've mocked Lotor some more about that, because friends mock friends who make out with James Griffin -- even just one time -- but Gamar had started cracking up at the back of the room. He even had to put down his forkful of waffles, because his laughter had turned into wheezes, and no one could eat through that.

After everyone stared, then made sure no one else knew what was going on, Keith took responsibility, as Gamar's commander and the ranking officer. "Uh. Gamar? What's so funny?"

It took the man a moment to still his laughter and catch his breath, but once he did, he turned on the holoprojector again. The pictures were a series of stills from the show they'd just watched: the Keith actor watching the sunset with his wolf, Shiro's actor tumbling to the floor of the Atlas bridge after taking a punch, the Keith and Hunk actors stuck in the tunnel ride on Clear Day (when Keith knew damn well that hadn't been what happened), and a few other things.

"This fan said...!" Gamar held up a finger and breathed deep to stop one last laugh. "Oh, well, it started with someone else complaining that human taboos on seeing bond pairs coupling must have caused all footage of the Commander and his human to be censored, to explain why they didn't speak--"

"What taboos?" Lotor asked. "If I had a credit for every time I've caught Keith and Shiro f*cking in one of their offices, let alone talking about it--"

Ezor turned on her most innocent face, which was, of course, comically smutty. "That's a safety precaution, Lotor. Keith has to be certain his cute little studmuffin's primal urges are satisfied regularly, or all of our lives might be forfeit. Ask anybody!"

Keith had never seen Lotor look so confused. "What?!"

"That's the funny part!" Gamar insisted. "One of the replies insists he saw the Cha-- you know, saw Shiro in combat in the arena--"

Someday, Keith would get people to stop using that damn nickname. Shiro hated it.

"--and he wants to start a campaign to demand an apology from the production staff for 'the horrific libel that Shirogane Takashi would go down with one punch'... but then!" Everyone waited, not very patiently, while Gamar chuckled. "Then! Someone else replies, 'There it is! Confirmation that Shiro is inversely sex powered! The more booty he gets, the harder he falls!'" Gamar's laughing went on like he might never stop. "You know... Because he and Keith...?"

"We get it, Gamar," Acxa said, with the tiniest snicker. Keith chuckled, too, although not as hard as Ezor and Zethrid. It wasn't that good a joke.

"I don't get it," said Lotor, "I repeat, with all the sincerity in my withered, duplicitous heart... What?! Somebody needs to explain to me what you all find so amusing!"

Thank goodness, they were saved by Shiro showing up with a towel around his shoulders, hair dyed back to the black it'd been in the academy with white left only where it was shaved close to the skin. They'd thought about violet, but all the shades had looked wrong with Shiro's skin tone. His pinned wet hair made his bangs look like a ridiculous spit curl on his forehead, which Keith kind of thought made him look like Superman, especially with the superhero pose he fell into when he wasn't thinking too hard. He'd save the teasing until they were alone, though.

"How do I look, guys?"

"Ho~t!" Zethrid and Ezor cheered, while Acxa went with, "Like a new man."

Keith, on the other hand, cupped his hands around his cheeks, summoning his worst impression of a shocked voice as he walked a circle around his husband. "Oh no! Who is this unfamiliar man, and what did he do with Shiro?!"

Shiro nabbed him around the waist with his new arm, pulling him in easily, although Keith didn't fight too hard. "You got jokes, huh, punk?" he murmured. And in the Officer's Lounge, no enlisted in sight, there weren't any rules against sinking into Shiro's arms for a kiss.

"Well, you kiss like Shiro..."

"Maybe you should double check, just to be sure."

"Oh, I've got some things I can check."

"Please, not in public," said Acxa. "I don't need to see that."

Gamar pushed a plate across the table, contents steaming and fresh. "But I must insist you have a waffle, Shiro. You deserve it."

"Thank you, Gamar, I will take it," he answered, and plucked the waffle off the plate. "On the condition that you never tell me why."

The former Emperor of the Galra took to his feet with his mouth in a scowl. "Whereas I insist that you tell me why. You are all clearly enjoying your game of keeping secrets from Lotor, but I will have satisfaction or I will seal your doom!"

Classic Lotor. Keith sighed, "Okay, everyone. Lotor has some very serious questions that deserve serious, complete answers before any newspapers interview him." Then he grabbed Shiro by the belt loops, and dragged him toward the door. "From you guys. I've got business to attend to, questioning this handsome stranger on how and why he infiltrated our base."

The last thing Keith heard before the doors closed was Ezor shouting that she had a bookmark file for the whole Twitter side of the story and had saved Matt Holt's best telecast appearances to her data drive. "Ten GAC says Lotor has nothing but booze tomorrow for breakfast," Shiro laughed, weaving his fingers between Keith's while they walked. Like a gentleman, he also offered Keith half of his waffle.

Which he took. Never turn down free food.

"Twenty GAC and a blowj*b," Keith countered. "Lotor's stronger than he looks."

"You're on."

~//~

To be honest, even though they'd spent the seven years since this particular adventure had begun (now seventeen years since they'd last seen Voltron) working towards today, it didn't feel like a conclusion to Shiro. Charting streams of quintessence, with Pidge hooking them each up to her equipment like human dowsing rods, felt about as real as a dream now that he was looking through a wormhole into the heart of the nebula they'd been chasing. And yet, if anything, he felt the same sense of newness as when they'd first arrived on Arus, and Coran had sat them down in a circle on the training deck to visualize forming Voltron.

Five wormholes Lance was holding open from each of their designated quintessence hotspots (including one for himself) to the target location -- a place Pidge had triangulated and, now, had proven would let them access the heart of the mysterious phantom nebula -- was a different scale from holograms and juice boxes, but this was Voltron. Nothing about opening his mind to the Black Lion had ever been mundane, and nothing about summoning the Lions back from the fabric of reality between universes had -- quite frankly -- ever been something he understood beyond the intuitive parts of "reach out and pull".

For Hunk, Pidge, and Coran, it seemed to be the scientific version of all your birthdays coming at once. For his part, being here and being a team with everyone was all he could want.

"All right, people, look alive," called Pidge.

This morning, or what passed for morning this deep in space, over the intercoms between all of their different star systems, her voice betrayed none of the worries she'd called him with last night. Curled up around her data pad, she'd said she needed to admit to someone out loud that her predictive models all indicated they'd never pull this off because they didn't have a dedicated Paladin for the Blue Lion. That she'd told everyone they could make up the difference by using Lance's residual connection, he and Keith both doing double duty to connect with both Lions they'd flown, then bringing Shiro along to support Keith's pull on the Black Lion, but there was still a gap that she kept expecting someone to challenge in her calculations.

Shiro had provided the support she'd been asking for, explaining that they all knew the odds were slim, but that it wasn't a reason to never try. Trying to do the impossible was what Voltron was for -- what Paladins were for. And then Keith, as clear eyed and reasonable as always, said, "Besides, Blue is with her Paladin. Hunk mentioned the other day that you were accounting for six Paladins in your math. He said you knew what you were doing."

Pidge had also made good on her threat to hug Keith the next morning. There had been a lot of hugging, actually, from everyone, and now here they were. Ready to do the impossible.

"Our best shot at this any time in the foreseeable future is coming up in approximately 97 ticks," Pidge went on. "I've maximized the output of the harmonic generators at each of your locations to amplify the natural trans-dimensional permeability of the areas impacting the nebula, and the tidal flow measurements for the quintessence fields will reach a local maximum simultaneously. That's when we'll be able to phase transdimensional matter with minimal impact. Any damage to the fabric of reality should be well below the universe's self-healing threshold if we time this right, which will not happen again for another 41 deca-phoebs. So I guess what I'm saying is, pick a God and pray, all right?"

"Thanks, Pidge," said Keith, sitting next to Shiro in front of their wormhole. Together, they watched the heart of the nebula, and could just barely make out the faces of the rest of the team through the circles of the other wormholes. They were thousands of lightyears away, but the quintessence surges their sciency types had measured were no joke.

Not only could Shiro feel a whisper of the Black Lion in his heart, stronger and clearer than he'd felt her in years, he could feel the other Paladins as one through their bond with Voltron. Keith, of course, he felt most of all. His presence was like a reassuring solidity holding his hand within the mindspace of the Black Lion. They were in this together.

Shiro focused on keeping his bond steady, while Keith called out to the group. "Black Station checking in. We are go to proceed. Other stations, sound off. Red?"

"Red Station is go, ready and raring to get this show on the road!" answered Lance.

"Confirmed, Red. Check in, Green?"

"Green Station is set," said Pidge, "Unless you want me to whip up a last minute evil clone, since it did help with--"

As one with vivid memories of having an evil clone, Shiro couldn't say, "Nope! No way!" fast enough, and he heard Lance vetoing that plan, too, in terms that would've been too strong for network television.

"Relax, guys, I was joking. We have neither the facilities nor the IRB approval for that."

"Thanks for avoiding the Dark Side, Pidge," Keith answered. "Green Station is confirmed. How's it looking, Yellow?"

"Hunk here, and it is looking awesome. I've just got a feeling, guys! But I'm not going to say anything because I don't want to jinx it, and there is no wood to knock on in space. All right! Go team!"

"We appreciate it, Hunk. Yellow is confirmed. Talk to me, Blue Station?"

"Ah, yes, Keith! Coran here!" the old Altean warbled. "All systems look nominal, but, ah... Not that I'm objecting, mind, I'm happy to help! But I'm still not sure what I'm doing here, since I'm not actually a Paladin. You know, I can't talk to the Lions, and all of these readings have remote operation over where Pidge is. You're sure I'm not, well..." An afterburn of fear hung in the silence on the line. "We know the, er, nebula moves when anyone tries to approach it normally. Are we sure me being here won't... muck it all up?"

Pidge was the first one to pipe up. "Telemetry is holding steady, Coran. The wormhole plan is working. You are in the clear."

"And I've got a critical task that a non-Paladin needs to perform," Keith said. "We'll all need to secure our Lions and make sure they're anchored in this reality. That leaves someone to make sure the first thing Allura sees when she comes home is a friendly face. Can you handle that?"

"... I-It would be my honor, Black Paladin."

The comms made it hard to hear emotions sometimes, but Shiro could swear Coran was fighting back tears. He pointed a smirk at Keith, who mouthed back, "Shut up."

Someone was getting sentimental in their young middle adulthood.

Then, like sunlight breaking through the clouds, he could hear the Black Lion roaring in his mind, echoing down his spine. It sounded like home, and thunder, and like the world had just broken out of a dress rehearsal and had started to feel real. He could feel the universe. He hadn't felt everything like this in so long, now Shiro was the one fighting back tears.

Keith looked out the wormhole toward the nebula at the same time, clearly hearing it as well, a smile on his face like this was what he'd been born for. Shiro didn't plan to argue. Maybe they were both Black Paladins, but Keith was the Leader of Voltron.

"There they are," Keith whispered, and an instant later, Shiro could see the hazy forms of the Lions flickering into view at the vertex of the five wormholes. Louder, Keith said to the team, "Ten ticks to peak permeability. On my mark, Voltron... Five, four, three, two, one... pull!"

Do You Remember Love? - psiten (2024)
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