It's by chance that he sees it at all. Keith isn't careless, and he's taken care to hide this. He must have, because it's months into their adventure before Lance sees it for the first time: he's wearing dog tags.
Keith is beat to shit, passed out in exhaustion and pain while they wait for an extraction and Lance wasn't there to watch, but whatever went down was bad enough that his black flight suit is ripped and glistening with fresh blood where it's visible, all the way up. The silver chain around his neck is hanging loose against the red and dirtied white of his paladin armor, a single silver tag hanging from it, smeared red.
It's weird, because the Garrison didn't hand out dog tags to cadets. It's weird because the last name isn't his.
She glances over, looking tired as he feels. "Is he ok?"
He nods. No, Keith's not ok, but he's not going to die—Keith’s stubborn like that. He beckons and Pidge stumbles over to where he’s lying prone on the pile of wreckage that's serving as a makeshift sickbed. It takes a moment for her to pick up on what he’s looking at, but she's sharper than Lance and quick in every way.
"Shirogane? But..." She frowns.
The familiar roar of a Lion interrupts them before they can talk. Shiro, finally—the Black Lion breaking through the low cloud cover, dwarfing every other threat on the planet. The engines blow their hair back as Shiro sets it down right on top of them, daring anything to come within range of its crushing power and fury. It's barely touched down before Shiro is jumping out of the hatch, beating a path toward them. He’s fast when he wants to be, and the moment he sees Keith, his whole demeanor changes.
"Keith?" Shiro asks when he gets to them, more gasp than question, kneeling next to him.
"He's ok," Lance assures him. "Just got tossed around a little."
Shiro shoots him a look—it's piercing and about as far from comforted as possible. He turns Keith's face, talking too low and fast to be heard. The words aren't meant for them, Lance realizes. The whole scene is too intimate, too familiar, like so much between them.
Keith comes awake under his hands. He seizes up, coughs wetly, and says something garbled and soft. Shiro nods and gets an arm around his back, pausing to tuck the ball chain back under Keith's armor with a glance before he gathers him up in his arms.
"I've got you," he says—to himself because Keith is passed out again or as good as. Pidge and Lance tail him back to the lion, too dulled by fatigue to process anything beyond the white lines of his armor, following him through the smoke and wreckage.
When they get to the lion, Shiro sits down with Keith on his lap, curled against his chest, like that’s normal and rote and he can actually pilot with a grown man sprawled across his arms.
He manages to get them off the ground somehow, and when Lance offers to hold on to Keith so maybe Shiro can have a chance in hell of piloting them off the planet and avoiding the fleet of Galra fighters that are winging toward them, Shiro shoots him a look and does it anyway. He takes out everything that gets in their way, with prejudice and a kind of anger Lance isn't used to seeing from him.
When they're safe in open space, beelining for the castle in a violet streak, Shiro doesn't move. He stays right there, holding Keith, and Lance can't see his face but the hunch of his shoulders is wrecked like he was on the mission with them instead of playing back up—like he's as tired as they feel. Lance and Pidge lean against the back wall of the cockpit, staring dully at the scene in front of them, not really processing it. Keith's dark head is barely visible past Shiro’s arm, but from what he can see, Keith’s out cold.
The white of Shiro’s armor is streaked dark where Keith’s hair dragged across it.
“How's he doing?”
Shiro doesn't answer, not for a long, nervous moment. When he does, his voice cuts.
“He's passed out," he almost snaps, and Lance isn't sure who the edge of it is meant to bleed. It's not an answer, not really, but there's no real accusation in it either—only anger.
“Sorry,” Shiro continues after a moment and an audible breath. “Can you tell me what happened?”
What else? Keith threw himself at something bigger. Almost everything is.
“He gave us time to get the info and get out,” Lance paraphrases. It's true in technical terms. The mission was fact-finding more than combat; Pidge on tech, Lance on point, Keith on—whatever Keith is always on. They weren’t supposed to encounter any Galra, but they’re never that lucky. Lance and Pidge caught the better part of Keith’s fight over the radio, but Keith wasn’t exactly forthcoming on specifics. By the time he found them, he was bloody-mouthed and wild-eyed, but they got the tech. Whatever he did, it worked.
It worked, at cost.
The part that doesn’t fit, Lance thinks past the fatigue, the part that’s never fit into this old equation is Shiro. Lance isn’t one for figures, but they’ve been tossing this ball back and forth for months in speculation. The two of them have been close from the start, attached at the hip, but—
That explains as much as it doesn't.
The week before Kerberos departs, looking down the barrel of a year in space and most of it spent more miles distant from Earth than any human has been before, Shiro comes to a decision.
"He's not gonna be able to get updates while we're out there," Matt says over dinner, matter of fact. There's no question who he means.
The person in question opted out of dinner for the second night in a row and that's the only reason Matt is bringing it up. They've both been thinking it for weeks.
Keith is seventeen, the best pilot the Garrison has ever seen, and the best thing that's ever happened to Shiro. He’s a kindred spirit in all things: family-less, a prodigy, apart from everything and everyone on skill alone. He looks at the stars and sees what Shiro sees. He flies like Shiro flies, and better. And more—he's an anchor. In a year, he's become the thing Shiro looks forward to at the end of a long day. They go out on Keith’s hoverbike and everything on his mind spills out on the road behind them.
Offhand mentions and little concerns turn into essays, and Keith listens and watches and drives.
It’s a bad habit with Keith. He makes it easy for Shiro to be something he can’t be with anyone else. He doesn't need to be the best around Keith—he only needs to be what he is. That's enough. It's addictive to be with someone that slots into all his edges just right.
And Shiro wants him.
It's a truth that dawns by degrees—one he tries to outrun for months, though it catches up to him with laughable ease. Shiro wants him the first time he catches a glimpse of Keith's corded muscle and lithe body in the showers. Shiro wants him the first time Keith pins him in a spar, the two of them breathless and hot and close. Shiro wants him later that night, when Keith asks offhand if he wants to go stargazing. That's the first time he takes Shiro out on hoverbike, into the night and the desert and the winter air. It was cold, but Keith was warm like a furnace in his arms, and his hair was soft against Shiro’s nose and mouth.
So he gives up denying it and settles into a life of keeping it low. He lets himself look and want and practices the art of subtle glances and shame. What he has with Keith isn't good—it's the best. It’s the best thing he has and the best he ever will. In moments when he lets himself imagine coming clean, the horrified look his mind draws across Keith's face is enough to convince him it's viable to say nothing for the rest of his life.
"I know," he tells Matt, not able to keep the worry out of his voice.
A year without Keith, without a picture or a word. It’s all he’s thought about. There's nothing they can do about it, not without breaking rules and protocol. If he had any sense he'd be putting some distance between them, softening the blow for both of them before it hits in earnest, but no. That was never an option. Not with Keith.
Matt forks some casserole around his plate, glum. The crowd in the cafeteria is dying down; they're almost alone with their nerves. If Matt's anything like Shiro—and he is—he's been stressed. Kerberos is a mass of concern they're both trying hard to be more excited about than worried. Keith is a separate, immediate thing; he's a worry they can do something about.
"I mean..." Matt starts and trails off and Shiro waits for him to gather his thoughts. They're desperate and beggars can't be choosers. "He can't get updates, but that's only because he doesn't have clearance. You could always just..."
He trails off and he's got a look on his face like the casserole was cursed. When he speaks again his voice is a whisper on the edge of a joke.
"You could always marry him."
The words are a slap. He wants Keith, but wanting and having are worlds apart, galaxies apart—at least as distant as Kerberos is from their table.
Matt picks up his plate before Shiro can pick up his jaw, not giving him time to argue.
"Just a thought," he mutters on his way out the door.
Shiro is only human.
When Keith offers to take him for out for a ride that evening, he doesn't hesitate. The launch is only a week away, so he shoves Matt's words in the box in the back of his mind where he's been shoving all the stress he pretends not to have and resolves to enjoy it. The bike is still the closest he can get to Keith with plausible deniability, anyway.
“You should get a helmet,” Shiro nags when Keith pulls up outside. It's teasing; Keith's never needed one. That's not how it works, but Keith's always seemed a little invincible.
Instead of responding, Keith rolls his eyes and kicks it into gear, waiting for Shiro to settle in behind him. “Hold on,” he says like Shiro isn’t already plastered to his back. He's got both arms wrapped so far around Keith that he could lift him up in the air if he held any tighter.
He loses track of time pressing his face against Keith’s hair, trying not to think about a year away from him, a year away from this. The bump as Keith parks the bike some indeterminate time later shakes him out of it.
"Where are we?" Shiro asks.
He feels more than sees Keith's shrug. "I'm not sure. But I like it out here. It's quiet." Keith steps off and holds out a hand—and that’s something else. It’s a small gesture, polite and unnecessary and unaffected. It would never occur to him not to offer.
The night around them is cool, but there's a full moon lighting up the cliffs. In the distance, the Garrison's lights send up a glow like a halo, but they're far enough away that he can't see the shuttle for once.
Maybe that's why Keith chose it—it's a chance for them both to escape for a while. Nothing but stars and rock and wind and Keith. He blooms in the quiet. All his scattered pieces come together to something solid and steady, and his hand is warm where it's still holding Shiro’s. He lets go while he finds them a spot to sit and watch the sky.
There's something off though. The way he’s carrying himself is unfamiliar, a version of Keith he hasn’t seen in months. He didn't notice while they were on the bike, but he's hesitant, like he’s thinking about every step and word before he makes it—like he’s scared he’s going to do something wrong. Shiro pauses by the bike, watching him, trying to figure out what the difference is.
“You’ll be fine while I’m gone, right?” Shiro asks without meaning to.
Keith doesn’t look at him. When he answers, the tone is wrong. “Yeah, of course.”
He’s always been a bad liar.
They settle on the ledge, more than close enough to touch. Even lying flat on the ground, he’s got his arms wrapped around himself. It's fall, but the rock is still warm from the sun—it's not that cold.
Of course he's worried. Keith has two friends in the world and they're both leaving him for a year at least. Not a word, not a single message. He'll be alone again like he was the first time they met.
This, all of this—asking if he can drag Shiro out into the desert for a night with an apology playing at the edge of his mouth like he doesn’t know there’s nowhere else Shiro would want to be more, and the cast of his eyes when he showed up at Shiro's door to ask. He looked cautious like he hasn't in months.
That’s the moment Shiro realizes what he's seeing—this is Keith before he runs. Maybe not in a week or a month, but if he leaves Keith he's going to lose him. Space doesn't scare him. Ten months in the cold and black, the claustrophobic tightness of a space suit, everything that can go wrong billions of miles distant—it’s nothing compared to the thought of coming back to find him gone.
Keith rolls his head and meets his stare. He hadn't realized he was staring. "You ok?"
There's moonlight in his bangs.
You could always marry him, Matt joked.
"I'm great," Shiro says, but it comes out breathless and wrong. He's going to lose this, and there won't be anything worth coming back to. Everything seems bigger in the dark, everything seems worse, and he's so used to Keith's presence in his space and mind. Being with Keith is like being home.
That's the moment. That's when he knows what he's going to do. It's selfishness and it's cowardice, and it's all he's got.
He swallows and says, "I need to ask you for something."
A favor, he frames it. Keith nods, ready to agree before he’s even heard what it is.
"I don't have anyone else," Shiro starts, and that at least is honest. "And we can only have family at the launch. We can only talk to family on the mission, and you—it would just be a technicality. We can dissolve it when I get back, but—“
It stops in his throat.
Keith is so open, and so unwitting. He’s got a blind spot for Shiro as wide as his heart. For a moment he thinks he won't be able to get the question out in the face of that trust, but then he has another waking nightmare of coming back to find him gone without a trace, irretrievably lost, and the question trips out of his mouth.
“Will you marry me?”
He expects Keith to reel back. It’s an overstepping of all the boundaries Shiro has spent their entire friendship picking his way around, respecting, helping him shore up and find his place in.
Keith’s eyes go wide and there’s a moment where Shiro braces himself for rejection, but then he grins, teeth visible even in the dark, taking the violation in stride. "Yeah. Of course."
“It's just a formality,” Shiro hears himself say, stuck somewhere between regret and desperation, between talking them both out of it and trying to convince Keith, as if Keith still needs convincing.
Keith swallows and looks away, back to the sky. “Yeah. Just a formality.” He bumps his knee against Shiro’s leg. “It'll be fun.”
Easy, again. Keith makes it too easy. They’re quiet for a moment, and Shiro takes the opportunity to wonder what he’s done, even as something giddy starts to kick its way through his chest, side by side with foreboding.
But Keith surprises him again with a laugh. It’s rough, almost a bark. He's got a good laugh. “Can you imagine the look on Iverson's face when he finds out?” he asks, and there’s nothing left in Shiro but joy.
That joy lasts only until he’s at the door to Iverson’s office.
Telling Iverson is easy in concept, but in practice, it occurs to Shiro the second after he's knocked on the door that Iverson is functionally Keith's legal guardian and this is as close as he's going to get to asking Keith’s parents for permission.
The speech he memorized evaporates the moment he steps through the door. A last burst of confidence carries him through the explanation, stumbling and stuttering in nerves—but there’s nothing to fear. Iverson can balk and bite, but in the end he'll give in. No one can take this from them.
Iverson weathers the news in silence, but his eyes go steel-hard. The lack of surprise in them is almost offensive. "Fine," he says almost before Shiro is finished, "but this can't get out."
"Of course, Sir." Shiro nods, taking the win and dismissal for what it is, but he only gets as far as the door before Iverson stops him with a preemptive sigh.
“I know this is closing the barn door after the horse, but it would put my mind at ease if you would keep to your own rooms while you’re on Garrison property, Shirogane."
Shiro winces at the full name and the implication, which isn't as far off the mark as it should be.
He can pretend to high motives all day long, but he's been gathering pieces of Keith’s appeal since the day they met. The shade of his eyes, the muscle over Keith's ribs under his hands when they're on his bike, and the length of his legs wrapped around Shiro's waist when Shiro finds him passed out in some quiet corner with his books and has to carry him back to his bunk. It's enough to patch up the gaps in his imagination. It's enough to be ashamed of.
But suddenly he isn't, and Iverson’s tone bites deep—the implication that he would see Keith as that and only that. There’s more between them. He turns back, enough to eye Iverson from under the brim of his hat and dark bangs.
“Is that any of your business? Sir.”
He says it just to hear it—just to be able to say it. They’ve suffered—Keith’s suffered every nasty word in the book for their friendship. Like you could fuck your way to the best scores in the fighter class—like Keith would. After this, it won't matter. They’ll still be the best two pilots at the Garrison, and they’ll be bound in legal terms. Even if it gets out, there’s nothing inappropriate about anyone can say about the two of them that will stick in the face of signed papers.
Iverson grimaces like he already regrets opening his mouth and asks, “How long?”
“From the start,” Shiro says, and dismisses himself.
Matt helps by organizing a bachelor's party for the two of them—joint, of course, on the theme of alcohol to the exclusion of anything else.
"I'm Keith's best man, of course," Matt declares, taking another swig right out of his pilfered whiskey before passing it to Keith. They're all lazing on Shiro’s bed. He's so flushed it's starting to fog his glasses and Keith—
Keith is rosy-cheeked and happy like he only ever is around them. And beautiful. They're all lazing on Shiro's bed and it's not big, but Keith is sitting closer than he has to by several feet.
Shiro grabs the bottle out of Keith's hand to distract himself from the shine of Keith's eyes and his messy hair and the desire still simmering in his gut, even after more shots than he remembered to count. "Why does he get you? I've been your friend longer. I lied to Montgomery for you," Shiro says. He'll lord that over Matt until his dying day.
Matt shrugs. "I know this and I love you, but—" He shrugs. "Keith is cuter."
Shiro rolls his eyes. There's no arguing with that.
"I'll be your best man," Keith offers to Shiro, a shade off coy, but just for show.
His voice is rough from the alcohol the way it usually is in emotion only, and that’s another one of those pieces he’s been gathering. Shiro has a moment where he isn't sure if he wants to drag Keith to the bathroom and make him drink three glasses of water or climb into his lap and see if he can taste the whiskey in his mouth.
Ridiculous. He takes another pull before Matt snatches the bottle back. "You can't be—fine. But I get to be your best man,” Shiro says to Keith, not sure if his words still make sense, privately marveling at the hand Keith's set on his thigh.
"You already are," Keith laughs. He's a giggly drunk, and what a revelation that is.
Matt tosses a pillow at Keith—misses, somehow, even at three feet—and huffs, "Then wait, what do I get to be?"
Keith falls over laughing, tipping into Shiro's thigh completely. "You can be the maid of honor."
That’s the last conscious thing he remembers about the night.
He wakes up in a pile, with Keith's head on his chest, his arms wrapped high around Shiro’s thigh like a koala. His hair under Shiro's hand is soft and warm with what's about to be the worst hangover of Keith's life. Shiro shifts and Keith wraps his arms tighter around his leg.
Affection floods him in a wave, sweeping away every apprehension. This is something to come home to, he thinks.
That confidence carries him all day. The realization of what he’s done doesn’t hit him until evening, and then it hits so hard it nearly bowls him over right there in the hallway. He expected nerves and cold-feet, but no—it's joy. He has to stop and lean against the wall, gather himself where he's gone scattered and giddy. It's not real, he reminds himself, but it feels like it might be.
It feels like belonging, and it feels like love.
The ceremony is three days later, short and sweet. Because it wasn't all a lie and because the Garrison has to believe it's real, they make like it is.
Keith turns out at his door in full uniform. Boots polished, gold on his shoulders, hair brushed. That's what pulls Shiro's eye first. He's always had an intensity about him, but that’s when he’s not trying, and this is him with effort put in. It makes him look older, more serious, and Shiro feels his stomach flip a little.
It’s the oddest thought, but once it’s there, he can’t shake it. Keith wasn’t too good for their friendship, but he might be for this. He would never say it or think it, but at seventeen he’s as good a pilot as Shiro ever was. He’ll be better one day, in more ways than that.
“You look good,” Shiro says, wondering if the lump in his throat is anxiety finally catching up with him, or maybe the same undeserved elation that’s been pounding through him since Keith agreed.
Keith smiles and looks to the side, not quite able to meet his eyes. “Thanks.”
He knows Keith would prefer it out in the sun and the desert, somewhere quiet and wild, even if it’s a farce, but Iverson's office is private—and everyone wants to keep it private. The last thing Keith needs is for this to get out. It might not be a scandal, but it's the next best thing. The Holts are already inundated with media and they’re used to it. Keith would wither under attention like that.
It’s selfish of him to ask this, selfish of him to risk it getting out, Shiro thinks with a pang as they make their way into Iverson’s office.
The mid-morning light casts the room in bright colors—Keith, most of all, decked out in his orange and gold. The uniforms have always been hideous, but not on him; somehow, nothing is.
The only two people in attendance are Iverson as witness and some mid-ranking officer Iverson rounded up who knew what to say and how to say it. It’s not exactly the company either of them want, but maybe that’s for the best because the thing in Shiro’s chest is thumping twice too fast. If Matt were there, he’d see through his cool in a second.
The rest is a haze. They sign the papers and then stand in front of each other before the desk and the nameless officer. No rings, but the Galaxy Garrison likes to pretend it's rooted in tradition and they still give out dog tags to anyone on active duty. It only took a moderate amount of cajoling to get a set for Keith with his new name on them.
He came prepared—for everything but Keith.
Shiro says the words first, barely hearing them the past the rush of blood in his ears. And then it’s Keith’s turn, and if he was intense before, it’s nothing compared to the way he looks when he’s about to swear his life away. Shiro trips over the words, and it’s good Keith is solid and knows what he’s doing because Shiro feels like he’s in a trance copying everything Keith does.
And he looks so happy. He looks—content.
The words don't really mean anything, not next to the signed paper, but the I do hits hard. Harder than the signature, harder than the chain he lays around Keith's neck.
It's heavy, like a promise. All that’s left is the kiss.
Keith steps forward and leans up and Shiro is ashamed later of how much he wanted it. His hands on Keith's cheek and in his hair, pulling him up for a kiss, the heat of his breath and the weight of his body pressed that close. It’s supposed to be a peck—something small and perfunctory, but Keith's mouth opens under his. The part of him he didn’t know he was holding back leans into it and he’s gone.
Iverson’s pointed cough is what breaks them out of it. When he pulls away, it’s a revelation. Keith’s lips are red and a little wet, his eyes still closed. When he opens them, the first strands of foreboding thread through Shiro's mind.
Keith like this—open and lovely and his—is more than he bargained for.
Against all logic and Iverson’s glare, he settles his hands against Keith's cheeks again and pulls him in for another kiss that's what the first was supposed to be, chaste and quick. If it's Keith playing along—and it is, of course it is—he's good.
Iverson clears his throat again, harder. They pull apart, but Shiro lets his hand linger on Keith’s cheek, sliding it to his shoulder and using it as a ground for the both of them. He fingers the chain around Keith's neck and Keith looks up at him with a smile.
It’s a heartstopper.
Shiro spends every day after until Kerberos reveling in the remnant memory of Keith's lips against his, and the feeling of belonging to someone. On launch day, Keith is there to see him off and it was worth it just for that—some part of him is still intimidated by a year in space. Keith’s presence is a balm.
Married life is late night messages and video calls and fake kisses pressed to pixelated cheeks—all said, it's the best decision of his life.
Three months in, visual communication goes off. It’s expected. They can still send messages, but he can’t see Keith’s face, and it’s a surprise how hard it is. He types out bored little missives to Keith and waits for the reply, longer and longer each time, and ignores the knowing looks Commander Holt shoots him.
It was worth it, he tells himself—worth it to have this, for as long as he can keep it. In the back of his mind, he starts to make plans for Earth and Keith and something more permanent, something that isn't half a lie.
But he never gets the chance.
Everything after their capture is a blur. They take his clothes and his dignity—and the tags. There’s a finality to that loss. Their chances of are escaping are slim and none, but survival nags at him. His terror-hazed mind catches on bright eyes and dark hair and settles into that memory like it’s the eye of a storm.
"Well," Matt says that first night in the cell, shaking with the chill and residual fear that clings to everyone and everything around them, "at least Keith gets to know."
He's right, in the worst way. The thought haunts him. It’ll take months for word to get back, and when it does, the Garrison won’t offer him any slack. Keith wouldn’t take it if they tried. Shiro doesn’t know what they’ll tell him, but it comes down to pinning the supposed failure of the mission on Commander Holt or Shiro, there’s really only one option. The scales between pushing more grief on a widow and her daughter or on one cadet married in secret and don’t balance out.
They’ll call it pilot error, and Keith will run.
In Shiro’s darkest moments he imagines Keith in the desert. Time is untrackable where they are, but he tries to imagine winter sliding into spring, snow crusting the cliffs around the Garrison, Keith a blaze of black and red on the white.
The Galra put him through hell. He learns how to fight and kill, when to hold his tongue and when to bite. His fears reorder themselves constantly in his mind; he loses hours trying to imagine what could scare him more than what he’s already been put through. And then they take his arm and give him one of their own and that blows through all his carefully constructed hierarchies and leaves them for ash.
But through it all, he holds on to Keith in his head like a mantra. Whatever else they take, they won't take that from him.
They don’t, but they try.
Keith finds out about Kerberos like everyone else does.
Love doesn’t afford him any courtesy. There’s no private place to mourn and no time to do it in, nothing but the cold of shock spreading through him and sliding down his spine, freezing him by degrees. He’s numb that first day, and every word and glance slides off him like oil—until they don’t.
The next morning finds him with bruised knuckles and an expulsion, and nothing but his bike and the clothes on his back.
His clothes, and Shiro’s.
The MPs stand by the door while Keith goes through Shiro’s room. They can’t legally stop him. Collect your things, they said, and everything that was Shiro’s is his now. Through the grief he tries to triage what he wants to take with him. Everything, of course. Everything, down to the little half-empty standard issue bottle of shampoo in the shower because it was Shiro’s and it smelled like him. His hand hovers over it for a moment, irrationally, while the sense memory of leaning over Shiro’s shoulder to look at some simulation playing on the screen and catching the scent of it almost overwhelms him.
In the end, he takes a set of his civilian clothes and his spare uniform. The MPs balk at it, but Shiro bought his greys with his own money and it’s all Keith’s, by right and responsibility.
That wasn’t in the vows they said, but maybe it was implied.
There’s nothing left for him at the Garrison, or, it seems for a bleak moment when he puts some miles between him and civilization, anywhere. There’s a storm on the horizon. He’ll get wet if he stays out in it and part of him wants to be, but the chain around his neck is suddenly conspicuous. He’s gotten used to its weight, but now it means something different. He has a duty to that, still. He owes Shiro, still.
The storm chases him down eventually, but his clothes dry fast in the wind. It’s morning by the time he gets to the nearest town—unaffiliated with the Garrison because there’s some centerless rage in the pit of his stomach that he can’t shake when he thinks about what he lost to them. He buys himself three months worth of canned food with the last of his stipend and a new set of plain clothes and drags it all back to the shack he inherited from his father the day he turned eighteen.
Shiro celebrated the birthday with him over the comms. He and Matt sang a song, and Commander Holt joined in, and even Iverson wasn’t too sour about it.
The shack isn’t a home—not close, but it fits his mood. Bare, worn, at the edge of life, but still useful. It's not a home, but then, nothing without Shiro really is.
For that first week, he throws himself into making it livable. At night he lies on the ratty old couch, trying to decide what to do the next day, making lists, trying not to think. When his mind settles on a thought that isn’t actionable, like the quirk of Shiro’s smile or the way he used to laugh, he tries to shake it off. Sometimes it works.
It’s too much, too soon. Months of quietly missing Shiro didn’t prepare him for all-out loss. Shiro is no more gone than he was the day he left for Kerberos, but now his absence feels like a physical thing. It feels inescapable.
If he lets himself fall in that pit, he knows he won’t be able to climb out.
He doesn't go to the funeral, but it finds him anyway.
A month and a day into the desert, he gets back to the shack to find he has company. There’s a silver sedan parked outside in what qualifies as a yard only because there’s part of an old fence still standing to one side of it. The car is coated in a fine layer of dust from the ten miles of dirt road it had to bump down to find him—and how is a mystery. It’s not a Garrison issue vehicle; that’s the only reason he doesn’t turn the bike around and resolve himself to a night in the desert.
That, and the woman standing on the porch. She’s dressed too fine for the sand and dust. Her dress is spotless blue, almost the same shade as the sky overhead. He doesn’t have to get close before he recognizes her—from the launch, and from a year spent sitting across the table from her son at every meal.
Colleen Holt is lovely and kind, but he doesn’t know how she’s survived what she's lost.
He dismounts and approaches, still cautious. The smile on her face is painfully sincere, but even so, it doesn’t reach her eyes.
Introductions are stilted, and his hand is too dirty from a day in the dust and sun for him to offer it to her. “Sorry,” he offers instead, glancing down at his own palm, hoping the why of it is self-evident.
Her eyes go soft at the gesture and he realizes he’s not ready for this, whatever it is.
"Do you want to come in?" He's not good at this but that seems like the right thing to say—until he remembers what it looks like inside. Old books and sheets for curtains, a stained couch for a bed, and a makeshift cinder block table. His whole life held together with spit and bailing wire.
To her credit, all she does is pause on the threshold, taking it in, before she steps inside and turns back to him. The only thing that belies her nervousness is the death grip she has on her purse.
"Sorry. I don't really have any—" What do you offer a guest? Coffee and snacks? There's no hiding the half-eaten can on the cracked table or the bare water bottle. There was a moment in town that first night where he considered getting something harder to drink, but the last time he had anything like that was their wedding night and there are some things you don't need to dwell on.
She shakes her head. “No, no—I just wanted to talk to you. I didn't get a chance at the funeral, and Matt used to talk about you…” she trails off.
Matt's loss is separate from Shiro's, but it doesn't hurt any less. He doesn't have words for either. None that will mean anything to her, at least. A friend lost is nothing compared to a son or a—
"We both lost him,” she says, “and we both lost a husband.”
She says it like an apology, but she's wrong.
Their marriage was a lie, and a lie in bad faith, because Keith wanted it for the wrong reasons. He wanted a family. Someone who belonged to him, more than he belonged to anyone else, and to have that written in clear lines. It was selfish, through and through.
"We weren't— It wasn't real. It was so I'd be able to talk to them. That's all.”
He can't meet her eyes.
There's a long pause, and he thinks he can feel her gaze on him, pitying. "Oh, sweetheart," she says.
When he looks up, she's not looking at him at all. She's staring at the beat-up couch and the ragged blanket—and the slate grey officer's jacket hanging over one arm.
"No, that's not..." That's not what they were. It's him being selfish, again, even with a memory.
When she pulls him into a hug, he doesn't protest, but he can’t make himself lean into it. Touch is unfamiliar after months of quiet. It’s more contact than he’s had with another living thing since Kerberos. The last person that touched him was Shiro.
In the end, she sits down on the couch without a flinch, despite the mess of it, and she talks. She talks about Matt and Commander Holt, and then in quiet, roundabout words, about Shiro. Her words are cyclical, but he reads the message: you can't dwell in mourning. He's not sure if she's saying it more for herself or for him, but it doesn't matter—she's right.
Shiro would be heartbroken at what he's become.
That doesn’t turn out to be the worst of it. When she’s run out of things to say, she reaches into her purse and pulls out a sheaf of papers two inches thick.
“This isn’t really my place,” she says, “but I don’t think the Garrison was going to try to find you—”
They wouldn’t—he made sure they couldn’t. It doesn’t make sense until he sees what’s written on them, and then it clicks into place with a thud he recognizes is his heart skipping a beat. It’s the second will he’s seen in his life, though the first one was short and perfunctory—a deed to the shack his Dad left him and the pink slip for the bike and not much else. Nothing, compared to this.
“I don’t want it,” he hears himself say.
He can’t make himself look at her this time, not for anything. This is his consolation prize: Shiro’s money, and Shiro’s name, and everything Shiro owned. It’s a mockery of what he’s lost.
She cups his face with one hand, trying to make him look up, and he can’t. He can’t—
“No, I don’t want it.” It comes out cracked, almost beyond recognition.
In the end, he buries his face in his hands and pushes the heels of his palms into his eyes until he sees stars, hoping he can stop himself from crying by will alone. It doesn't work. She stays close, a hand on his hair, petting, until he has himself under control. He wonders if she did that for Matt when he was a child, and loses himself again.
It’s sunset before he exhausts himself. She leaves him with the papers and a kiss to his forehead and then she’s gone.
For the first time, the shack seems as pathetic as it is.
Shiro left him enough money to make a life out of.
There's a house in the will, too. In some city far to the west, a house full of Shiro’s childhood and all his for the taking if he wants it. The wording of the will is specific and Keith realizes Shiro must have changed it before he left. Nothing was going to go wrong and Keith would have had it by law anyway, but Shiro was always cautious like that. He always took care where Keith was concerned.
He leaves the papers under a stack of worn books on mechanics and resolves to never look at them again.
The problem is that he can’t get the vows out of his head. A year after Kerberos, they still get stuck on loop in the back of his mind like an old song.
It meant something to have that—something concrete to live by where Shiro was concerned. It meant something to have a family, and some part of him can’t let go of what he barely had a glimpse of. It would have been nice.
It was, while it lasted.
But even without the signed papers and the chain around his neck and the vows running through his head on repeat, he realizes after the course of a month—he would still be there. Right there, sitting on the floor of a desert shack with Shiro’s jacket spread over his chest, devoted and lost to it.
The marriage didn't change anything but his name.
In the morning, he takes a ride, finds paintings on a canyon wall, and finds a new way to sate his grief, but it never gets easier. It never gets less heavy, and it never leaves him.
The night Shiro comes back there are clouds on the horizon—the kind that tower over the desert like a second range of mountains and always mean a storm is coming or going.
Shiro’s fall lights them up, casts long shadows over the valley. Keith feels it before it comes, excitement stirring up his spine for the first time in months. It's the same feeling he got the first time he saw lines in the rock and knew, and knew .
That whole night seems like a dream. He could never be so lucky; it's some minor tear in the fabric of the universe that gave him back the one thing he wanted. He resolves to never take it for granted. He couldn’t if he tried. Grief doesn’t let go of him that easy.
Shiro comes back to him changed. It takes time to comprehend the full breadth of it, but that first morning he lets himself revel in Shiro’s presence even as he tries to slough off the grief dragging at him.
Shiro’s memory might be shot, but he recognizes Keith. That’s enough, he tells himself in the predawn light of the shack, head resting against the arm of the beat-up couch where Shiro is sleeping. It’s bright enough to make out his edges, but the twilight washes him out. It runs all his colors together and the scar and the hair don’t look so different. For a moment Keith lets himself imagine it could be so easy.
But blood and color are the least of what the Galra took from him, it turns out.
Keith's been so wrapped up in memory for so long that Shiro’s new edges are what he catches on most. All through finding the Blue Lion and space—it’s not the arm or the hair, but the hunch to his shoulders that catches his eye. It’s Shiro’s hesitance, his seriousness, the way he looks into the distance with a little frown creasing his eyes like he’s trying to remember something—and the frustration that follows when he can’t.
And mourning still dogs Keith. The old mantra runs through his head again like it has been for a year, in sickness and in health . Keith wants to jam his head against the wall until the words fall out of him. That’s not his place, and it never was—not really. It was for show, for convenience, it doesn’t stand after a year apart and everything they've been through. Shiro doesn't owe him that lie.
Their second night in space, he finds Shiro’s room to have done with it. It’s not a marriage by any metric—not when they’re half a galaxy away from anyone who cared.
The speech is on the tip of his tongue, but what he sees when he steps through the door wipes it all away.
Shiro is sitting at the edge of his bed, holding his head in both hands, still dressed even though the lights have been off for hours. He looks like he’s locked in stasis, expression empty but for the crease in his brow that means nothing good. It’s foreign to the Shiro he knew before Kerberos, but the image is already painfully familiar.
“Headache?” Keith asks. He knocked, but only as a token gesture. He assumed he was welcome like he was back at the Garrison, and maybe that's not his place anymore—
Shiro looks up at him with—relief, like Keith is the best thing he's seen all day. It's a feeling Keith knows by heart.
“I keep trying to remember, but I can’t,” Shiro says quietly. “I don’t know what they did to me.”
He hasn’t spoken about his time with the Galra more than he had to in their chaotic two days. Short explanations, essentials—but he knew the ship they found the Red Lion on and Keith only had minutes to wander around it but Shiro had a year. A year on that ship, or somewhere like it, in torment. Keith has no idea the full extent of what they did to him, but it doesn’t take much to connect the new lines of pain written on his face, the hair, the arm—it follows that they would take more than what’s visible.
And Keith can’t fix it. His own grief at Shiro’s loss still hangs around his neck like the chain Shiro set there. There aren't words to fix this, he realizes. He was never that good with them anyway. His body feels frozen in place, but then Shiro continues, voice painfully sweet.
“I don’t remember much, but I remember you.”
There's nothing bitter or sad in it. He smiles and then closes his eyes, and says, voice tight, “I remember everything about you.”
That's more than Keith deserves—more than enough to have every other thought and intention fleeing his mind. After a year of mourning, that's all he needed to hear. Every part of him reorients, all the parts of him dedicated to mourning shift.
He hasn't got anything if he hasn't got this, and he can't do much, but he can keep this safe. It's selfish to dwell in the lie Shiro built for his convenience, but he can be selfish if it means protecting this. Shiro will never know the difference.
He throws himself into it body and soul.
Before they ever see the dog tags—before they have any concrete proof—they wonder. Of course, they wonder.
“Don’t they seem kind of—” Hunk shimmies his shoulders up and down, “—close?”
They do, but Lance has been putting a concerted effort toward not noticing. It’s like Shiro’s hand is surgically attached to Keith’s shoulder and it’s not fair, somehow.
They're fresh off a training run, cooling off in Pidge’s room because it has the majority of cool stuff and the only working computer they've seen since coming to space—at least, that has a keyboard they can actually touch and Altean tech is great but it's not what they're used to.
It only has two games, but beggars can't be choosers. Pidge still has the record in both. She cheated, somehow, Lance is sure.
But Lance doesn't have anything better to do. He's midway through another stirring game of exploding solitaire, trying not to remember and read into the way Shiro’s voice drops on Keith's name every single time.
“Yeah,” Pidge says offhand from where she's resting against the massive pillows she got god-knows-where. Coran gives her all the cool stuff. “Keith was at the launch, too."
“The—Keith was at the Kerberos launch?” Lance asks, squinting, because that’s the kind of thing he would have given a leg to see if it had even been an option, which it wasn’t. It’s unfair in the way everything is with Keith. He showed up midway through their second year, best in the class right out the door. And then he got Shiro, too.
Not his undivided attention—Shiro doesn't play favorites like that—but his respect. Shiro looks at him like an equal and it's infuriating.
Mostly it's the touching, though. No one needs to touch that much.
“Is that why he washed out?”
Hunk’s question brings the room to a standstill. Keith washed out because he punched Iverson in the face and Lance spent a full week picking up pieces of the full story from everyone he could. He never pieced together the whole story, but that was fine. The why and how of his explosive exit was secondary to the result: Lance's ticket into the fighter class and a Keith-free Garrison experience. The loss of Kerberos cast a pall over the whole thing, but he was sixteen and it was hard not to let the silver lining blind him.
It makes a horrifying kind of sense, in retrospect.
“Do you think they’re—” Hunk grimaces, fiddling with the new Rover prototype he's been trying to piece together, but he doesn't say anything else. It takes Lance a moment to catch up because no, no, no —
“No!” Lance has to resist the urge to steady himself against the bed. That's not even an option. Takashi Shirogane, adonis of the Garrison, and five and a half feet of bad hair and sweaty boy. No.
He banishes the image before it can form. Not today.
They are close though. Since they ran into that Garrison field post after Keith and found him carrying Shiro out over his shoulders like he didn't weigh an ounce.
It only gets worse. They're attached at the hip and if Keith isn't staring at Shiro, it's because Shiro isn't in the room. The ship gets demon possessed, they almost get killed by a robot and shot out an airlock, and Keith's first question is:
“Has anyone seen Shiro?”
Lance tries not to roll his eyes out the back of his head.
This is how it is with them. With Keith, specifically. Lance wants to call him a suck up, but suck-ups don’t spend a year in the desert when the object of their hero fantasy disappears in space. Lance knows that, intimately, but it doesn’t get them any closer to understanding what Keith’s deal is.
It's a pet project. Space is boring and when you're stuck with the same six people—two of which regularly sequester themselves in a bubble of shared glances and The Unspoken.
And then they get all get dumped out the side of a wormhole. The mermaids were nice, but evidently Keith and Shiro weren't so lucky.
When Shiro is nestled in the bosom of a healing pod, Keith left as his self-appointed guard, they try to figure out what happened. No one's sure why their Lions stopped working and the rest of the team are doing an analysis that begins with the visual feeds. Well—analysis, more or less.
Less, because Keith pilots the Black Lion. Less, because the feed is intimate, and a shock.
Allura makes a little sound of surprise at what Shiro’s fallen helmet picks up: the Black Lion, standing over Shiro like a god of wrath manifest. They don’t often have occasion to see the Lions in action from the ground.
Its roar is still echoing over the tinny audio feed when Keith jumps out of the hatch. He lifts Shiro to his feet with both arms around his waist, almost a full lift, and helps him into the Lion and off the feed’s range. He comes back after a moment, picking up the helmet like an afterthought. Up close his armor is coated in dirt. Mentally, Lance tries to put the scene together with Keith's glib description of we got separated.
“The Black Lion let him pilot,” Allura says faintly, sharing a look with Coran.
“What, like co-piloting?” Pidge asks. “Is that possible?”
Coran shakes his head—not a no, but like he's unsure. There's no precedent, it turns out. None of the original Paladins shared their lions. Once again, Keith and Shiro are the exception.
At the Garrison, rumor flew, but Lance never took is seriously. By the time they reach the Blade of Marmora’s base, he's sure that was a mistake.
This, Shiro realizes by degrees, is Keith after he runs.
That first morning back he wants to pull him outside in the quiet of the desert and ask him how long he’s been out there. Months? Years? Did you leave because of me? He knows it though, by the twist of Keith's lips when he says he felt lost and drawn. That's what happens when someone loses everything and that's the cruelest twist to it—that the one outcome Shiro was trying to avoid is the one he might have made inescapable.
His hair is longer, wilder. There are new marks on his arms when he pulls off his jacket, and new muscle. It’s Keith he remembers the clearest; it’s easy to pick out the changes in him. He’s got a new attitude and a new silence to him, too—and he used to laugh. Everything about him is evolved a step beyond what Shiro remembers. He’s become something grown and inscrutable.
His eyes have the capacity to hold an amount of emotion Shiro doesn’t feel equipped to deal with. It’s painful. Shiro catches his eye in front of the map board, covered in yarn and notes and photos, and all he can see is blue, and all he can hear is the way Keith’s voice sounds like a thread ready to snap.
There's no undoing that.
He’s still got the chain. He hides it under his clothes, but Shiro notices it that first morning and it’s crushing. The little glitter of it catches his eye and tears him down. It keeps drawing his attention after that—the line of it under Keith's plain shirt, riding the edge of his collarbone where he's lost all his softness.
For that night, he lets it go, but one night rolls into two and three and the chaos of everything they go through doesn't leave room for them to have the conversation they need to. It’s easier to keep letting it slide. His best friend, his lifeline, the one memory he held on to through violence and terror still has Shiro’s name around his neck—you don't question that kind of luck. It's a testament. Even if he loses himself, there’s someone out there who hasn’t.
Keith never asks about his tags and they never talk about that, either.
They don't talk about a lot, it turns out. He only tries to force it once, at the end of a long day, after weeks of Keith acting two shades off right. But Keith brushes him off again.
Just tired, like you said.
Shiro would have to be dumb and blind to believe it, but Keith's lies always have a deliberate falseness to them, like some small part of him knows he won't be believed and is banking on it, trying to sabotage the attempt. He doesn't like lying—and he doesn't like lying to Shiro. That was true even back at the Garrison.
It's in him to follow. The familiar part of him that he's gotten used to ignoring reminds him, for the hundredth time in half as many days, that Keith has his name around his neck and that it should count for something more than pain.
But he's impossible to pin down
What did you do out there? Shiro wants to know what it was like living alone in the desert for that long. He wants to know every step of it. If there's a way to follow Keith down that path, he wants to. In his head, he tries to retrace his steps, but the reality pulls Keith away from him every time.
Shiro is still in love with him. That's one piece of him the Galra never took. It's strange because it should feel worn in by now, he's been carrying it around so long—but it's a young love, still. It feels like a school crush sometimes the way it takes him by surprise—a curl up together and sleep love. The kind of love that's embarrassing in retrospect, except that this never is. He's too tired to be ashamed of it anymore, but it's not the place for him.
You've got grey hair, he reminds himself, and scars for days.
So he keeps to his own room and his own bed and his own thoughts—and in the morning, Keith is gone.
When he tells Coran to hail the pod, it comes out harsher than he means it to because worry is pounding through his gut in time with his heartbeat. Keith runs. He always runs. You knew this, he tells himself. More: you knew and ignored it.
In the aftermath, it hits him in full. Keith's plan was to go alone, to let Zarkon hunt him down at the edge of space and take him captive. The thought that he could pilot himself out of danger, out of range of a Galra fleet in a pod is laughable.
His own loss was viable to him. No, Shiro realizes his mistake—not viable, but necessary. There’s a knife’s edge of difference there and Keith has become expert at walking it in the time he was gone. Keith always had the capacity for sacrifice, but it's grown outsize in loneliness.
I would have written you letters if I could have, he thinks nonsensically. Anything to make it easier for you.
But he can't make himself bridge that gap, retread over all the boundaries he wrecked in Keith and abandoned him to.
By the time they find the Blade of Marmora’s base, Shiro has had more than his share of bad days. Leading a team of teenagers through a war none of them are prepared for, the day his team was captured, the day he first fought in the arena, the day they took his arm—
Keith’s trial blows them all away.
He’s like a raw nerve, like a part of Shiro, cut loose and sent off into the world, into a war. There’s no armor for that and Keith keeps giving little pieces of himself away. The knife is the least of it.
Or the last of it.
Giving up the knife was never on the table. He should have said so to Keith, before, in clear terms. Better if they’d fought it out at the start, the two of them back to back. Better if he'd had Keith’s back at all. One more in a collection of little failures he didn’t know he’d been keeping.
“He'll never quit,” he tells Kolivan, realizing it for himself with something like horror.
Kolivan doesn't look at him. “One way or another, this will end.”
He wonders how many of these fights Kolivan has witnessed—he wonders if anyone has ever died. He wonders if he could cut his way to Keith, through stone and metal and flesh, and if Keith would appreciate it if he did. In the most distant part of his mind, he resolves to. The alliance was a wash anyway—some things are worth more. This is worth more.
In the end, the Red Lion makes his decision for him, but that's not the end of it. Not by half.
Keith learns he’s Galra. It’s the punctuation to a day of agonies.
When they get back to the Castle, Keith tells the team flat-out, not even obfuscating, almost like he knew it all along deep down. Shiro has the knee-jerk urge to step in and make it clear that this is new information to Keith, that he wasn't hiding anything, but Shiro stops himself as soon as he realizes how it’ll sound to Keith: like Shiro is apologizing for what he is.
By that point, every fiber of him is worn to breaking. Keith is quiet, undefensive about it, holding the shoulder where he took the worst hit while arguments ebb and flow around him.
Allura doesn’t take it well—but no one does. There’s no way to take it well. Shiro is still reeling in some distant part of his mind, but there are introductions to make and a war to plan and the Blades are an asset, but they’re still at every disadvantage. Shiro doesn’t notice Keith’s stillness or the set of his shoulders until they part ways for bed.
The dark of the hallway casts him wrong. There’s an unfamiliar care to Keith’s movements. He's always had the step of a fighter, and he proved it today, but this is something else.
Shiro speaks without thinking. “Keith, wait.”
Keith turns enough to glance back, but his eyes are shadowed.
“Are you alright?” He doesn't mean it to sound so tired. Keith's not a burden; his well-being isn't a duty, but the right words never come to him around Keith anymore.
Keith doesn't hesitate though. “Yeah. Of course. “ As if he would ever be anything but. Maybe it’s Shiro’s own exhaustion playing tricks. There's too much to sort through from their day.
Worry dogs him to bed and chases away any hope of sleep. It's undefinable, except that Keith looked—broken. Except that Keith still has Shiro’s name hanging around his neck, and he's tired of watching and gathering his pain secondhand. Keith's a repository of little sacrifices and the greater part of him is tired of it, finally.
He heaves himself out of bed. So Keith is fine, so Keith turns him away, so he regrets it—Shiro doesn't have anything to lose but Keith. And he's going to lose him to this eventually if he doesn't try.
Keith doesn't turn him away, but he doesn't let him in either.
The myriad of undefinable worries in the back of his mind solidify when his knock is met with silence. The hallway is dead quiet, dark, his knock echoing over-loud in it. “Keith?” he tries after a moment.
He could be asleep, but Keith doesn't sleep that heavy—and that's when the alternative hits him. He could be gone, again. The team's reaction and Keith's quiet acceptance come back to him, reframed. The thought barely has time to take form in his mind before he's punching the hidden panel by Keith's door. It slides open and dread’s already formed the shape of what he finds before he can fully understand it.
The room is empty.
He can't make himself move from the doorway or breathe or still the shaking at the edges of his vision, but then he sees the armor on the floor and the knife on his bed. Keith wouldn't leave without it.
He's in the bathroom. Shiro's worry seems ridiculous in context, but he still needs visual confirmation. He's come this far.
"Keith?" The door doesn’t open for him, even when he knocks. There's a sound from the other side, muffled and foreign. It takes a moment to identify it as a sob. The panic stampeding through Shiro's chest kicks into double time.
He's never seen Keith cry. Not in all their time together, not out of frustration or hurt or sorrow.
He knocks again, harder. "Keith, I need you to let me in right now." He tries to put some authority into it, but instead he sounds terrified to his own ears. "Please."
Nothing, again. For a brief moment he thinks he's going to have to cut his way in, ship be damned. He gets as far as raising his arm to power it, but then there's the sound of what must be Keith slapping the control panel. The door slides open all at once, no slow reveal, so it takes a second for Shiro to understand what he's seeing.
Keith has his body suit unzipped around his waist, and he's ruined.
The cuts the Blades left on him aren't healed or bandaged—he put his body suit and armor on over them, left them to bleed and bruise. He's got one hand over his eyes, pressed in tight, the other braced on the counter against the way his body is shaking.
Shiro is silent in shock for too long. Keith pulls his hand down from his eyes, sees the look on Shiro’s face and turns away. His back is worse, somehow. The suit left circular welts in his neck, and there's a contusion under the dried blood over his ribs that looks like it's bruised down to the bone.
This is what's been under his armor since they left the base. Through everything, this—
"Keith..." His voice cracks. There aren't words for what this day has been, and he wants to pull Keith into a hug, but there's nowhere safe to touch. He does anyway—steps forward, sets his hand at the top of Keith's spine, right under his hair, over the chain that's impossibly still hanging around his neck, trying to be something solid.
Keith flinches away, gasping on a sob.
Everything in Shiro hinges on that sound. It's a moment he knows he's going to remember for the rest of his life: Keith hunched over the sink in pain and exhaustion, bereft, and Shiro, inches away and powerless to help. Inches away, at the edge of something.
He's spent so long mired in what he isn't, in what he can't be—but he's still something to Keith. Moreso than anyone else on the ship or on Earth, or anywhere. And Keith deserves one good thing. Shiro can be that much.
With deliberate care, Shiro lays his hand back against Keith's neck, but this time when Keith moves away, Shiro presses in, keeping his hand there until Keith's shudders subside. Keith is some wounded, wild thing, and he doesn't trust, but he trusts Shiro more than anyone else and that's an advantage Shiro can use.
They don't talk; Shiro strips the rest of his armor off of him in silence, except for the hiss he can't stifle when he sees the bruising on Keith's hip and the way his ankle is swollen. In his head, he starts trying to decide if the basic medical training the Garrison required him to learn will be enough for this. He doesn't talk. Keith makes enough noise for both of them, thready breaths and little hiccuping sobs tearing their way out of him like he's too tired to keep them at bay.
Shiro works the body suit down his legs, Keith stepping out of it without complaint despite the concerning swell to his ankle, and then he's bare. It's not a first between them, but it's been a while, and he's never looked like this.
You need a healing pod, Shiro thinks, but whatever is wrong goes deeper than skin and bone. Keith should look smaller out of his armor, but the way he's braced on the counter still makes the muscle in his back stand out. Strong, and solid, and a little broken.
And he's still crying. There aren't words to fix this.
Shiro soaks the blood off him with a damp, warm cloth, leaving the water running hot in the sink until it fogs the mirrors, because the last thing Keith needs is the cold. It takes so long he gets lost in it: the wet slide of the cloth over muscle and skin. Down his neck, soaking away sweat, and over his spine and the blades of his shoulders, where blood pooled in the suit. And lower, soothing the welts the circuits of the suit left over his hips.
Getting him to turn is a challenge. It's part stubbornness, part pain. In the end, Shiro has to pull his uninjured arm—less injured arm—off the counter and up to his own shoulder so he has something to hold on to.
It's clumsy, but it works. Shiro wipes the tears off his face, and the sweat out of his hair and moves down. His shoulder is the worst part; that's what bled the most.
The chain around his neck glitters beside the wound, a little mocking. You give the boy your name and take everything from him and you can't even keep him safe when you're right there watching. Shiro knew he was still wearing it, but when it's all he's wearing, it feels different. The way it lays against Keith's chest sends an unearned heat skittering up Shiro’s spine for the first time since before Kerberos, and shame close behind it.
As always, Keith is a surprise. Desire was something else he thought the Galra took from him. He buries it and turns Keith back to face the sink while he bandages the wound.
When Keith is warmed and clean and pink and there's no need at all to keep going, Shiro can't make himself stop, and doesn't try. There’s something needful in it. The motions skip past anything perfunctory and right into indulgence. Touching to touch, touching to comfort and soothe the both of them, for what it’s worth.
Through it all, Keith doesn't stop crying. Not sobs, but little, shuddering, watery breaths, and tears. He shouldn't have that many in him, Shiro thinks, but the terror of seeing it has worn off.
The day he found out he was half Galra, and fought until he dropped, and lost his team's trust, and saw his best friend walk away from you. Saw the man who hung his name around your neck walk away from you.
That hasn't counted for much. He thought it could, once, and maybe it's time he tried.
He dispenses with the cloth, and all pretense, tracing the edge of a bruise with the tips of his metal fingers. “Does it hurt?”
It’s not a real question, but there has to be something that can get him to talk. And he needs Keith to talk.
“No.” Keith’s voice cracks on the lie.
“I’m not human. How do you know if I feel pain the same way you do?” The question is a shock, but it shouldn't be. He's always been introspective to a fault, and of course this is where his mind would spin. He wipes his eyes and nose like he’s angry at his own tears and it pulls at something right down the middle of Shiro to see it.
Keith despises half-truths and coddling. There’s a way through this conversation, but it’s a maze of thorns and things that could break him—or break them, in worse and permanent ways.
He takes his time, testing the edges of Keith’s bruises, digging his fingers in where the pressure won’t hurt more than it’ll comfort, trying to think of what he can say that’s both honest and kind.
“I remember the first time we met. You were in the gym, and it was so late I couldn’t figure out if you’d gotten up early or stayed there all night—“
Keith bows at his words, the knobs of his spine sticking up at the base of his neck, right under Shiro’s hand, like he’s losing his ability to hold himself bit by bit. The chain clinks with the movement.
“I’ve known you longer than anyone here. Everything you have, you’ve earned.”
Keith takes a deep, shuddering breath, and when he speaks it's almost too soft to hear. “Not you,” he says.
It brings Shiro up short. “...You don’t get to earn people.”
You hope that you can be worthy of them, though. You hope that when they’re in this much pain, you’ll be able to do something about it. The only consolation is that he’s not still crying, but only because he’s too tired to, Shiro realizes. Tired in all the wrong ways, for all the wrong reasons.
“You've had me from the start. I would never leave you like that.”
Like the hologram, he means and that was the worst part of the entire ordeal. That’s what Keith thinks: that love is earned, that he’s too selfish to deserve Shiro’s, that Shiro would ever walk away from him in pain.
What else had it told him? We're all the family you need. That's what Keith gets out of this—something so small, something so mundane he shouldn’t have to trade something precious to keep it.
“Ok,” Shiro says, when he can’t let it go any longer and realizes he's out of options. “Come on. You’re sleeping with me.”
The audacity of it has the intended effect. Keith’s head rises against Shiro’s hand in surprise. “What?”
Shiro doesn’t answer but leads by following, pushing Keith ahead of him and back into the room. He rips the blanket off Keith's bed—that’s the only thing on it, the only thing in the room aside from his pillow and his armor and clothes—and wraps it around Keith. He holds it clasped without complaint, too tired to argue maybe.
The hallway is empty, but it doesn't matter; he’s had enough of this day, too, and the glare he's been nursing will send anyone scurrying before they have a chance to make it worse. Shiro’s room is close, and almost as empty as Keith's, but there's a possessive bent to it. Keith, in his space, somewhere he can be protected.
Shiro pushes him down on the bed. Keith is too tired to be timid about his nakedness—but he still curls into himself under the blanket like he has something to hide. It isn’t exhaustion or pain. It should be, by rights, but there’s something else.
He's ashamed, Shiro realizes. Not of his body, but—
He’s Galra, and he's ashamed, like Shiro will be able to see his mixed blood written in clear lines over his chest.
Like it would matter.
There has to be a way to fix this, but he’s still drawing blanks.
He pulls a shirt out of his drawer while he stalls for time. It’s one of three things he owns, he realizes. On Earth he had a bright future and a handsome salary, but here all he has are the clothes on his back. Keith deserves more, deserves better, but when Shiro holds it out, Keith’s eyes go sad.
"I can't. It's yours,” he says, nonsensical.
"What's mine is yours. And it’s all I’ve got. You’ll get cold.”
Before Keith can protest again, Shiro pulls the shirt over his head. It makes Keith's hair go messy—messier than it already was, after a day of fighting and the impromptu bath. He hasn’t been a boy in years, but between the disheveled hair and the oversize shirt, he looks young in a way that pulls at something behind Shiro's ribs. He wants to draw Keith in, bend around him, keep him close.
He kneels instead, right in Keith's space. With as much care as he can muster he takes Keith’s head in his hands and presses his lips to his forehead.
“You’re the best thing I have. And that’s never going to change,” he breathes against Keith’s damp hair.
They’re the right words, finally.
Keith sinks into him, wrapping his arms around Shiro’s back in a hold so tight he shakes with it. The face pressed against Shiro's neck is wet again, but it doesn't feel so bereft this time. Shiro traces a hand up and down his spine, around the bruises he memorized, and has to stop himself from smiling.
Somehow, in a day of alliances and progress, this feels like the greater victory. Being needed, being the right thing at the right time. It makes him feel whole—or closer to it than he has in a year.
When he wakes up hours under the covers, Keith’s hands are curled between them. Shiro can feel them against his chest, fingers brushing his skin in a way that feels more intimate than it is.
It's novel to share a bed, but Keith is quiet and warm and there's something nice about not being alone with his thoughts for once. Even in sleep, Keith’s presence bears away his worries.
It shouldn't be that simple.
It’s a feeling he chases.
They run drills that day to show off for the Blades and for once it works out. Lance even manages a solid kick without sending them all toppling over. When they get back to the hangar, Keith pulls off his helmet and he's still a bruise under the armor but there are no bags under his eyes. When he smiles at Shiro, it's a grin he hasn't seen in weeks.
That evening he finds Keith on the observation deck, still up by habit and accord, bathed in cool green. It’s their place to talk. Shiro doesn't want to ask him if he's okay again, but he doesn't have to. Keith smiles at him and shares a look and for an instant they're back in the desert with his bike gleaming somewhere behind them in the dark.
But last time they were in that position, he made a mistake.
“Sorry for last night,” Keith offers first. He's sorry for breaking down, but it's the first time since the mission left that Shiro’s felt useful to him. Keith needs him in a way the team doesn’t. It’s more basic, more human, and now that he’s had a taste of that grounding, it’s all he wants from this.
“Well,” Shiro feels his lips turn up in a wry smile, tries to make it a joke, “my room is your room.” My bed is your bed. “We're married, after all,” he tacks on because he can’t help it.
Keith goes red. He looks shocked. “But—”
“It's fine,” Shiro says, trying to soothe him and keep the tightness building in his throat at bay. It's embarrassment, maybe. Embarrassment, hopefully, because if it's not then it's something like heartbreak and they don't have time for that. Not over something so small and insignificant. “It was just an offer.”
Keith doesn't take him up on it.
Even after months, the ship doesn't feel like home—not more than the Garrison did, and space is cold in ways that get under his skin still. Everything seems bigger in the dark. Small thoughts grow and warp and he's almost resigned himself to a night without sleep when the door slides open.
Keith shuffles in, quiet as a whisper.
Shiro recognizes him by his steps and by his breath and by the clink of the chain around his neck when he slides under the covers. He does it without a word—as if Shiro won't notice.
He settles at the edge of the bed, facing away, but the ship bunks aren't that wide and Shiro can feel his heat. It's enough to dispel the cold that lingers in him; the solid metal of his new arm saps heat like it's carved from ice sometimes. Shiro reaches out, absent-minded, brushing the knuckles of his new hand over the thin cloth covering Keith's shoulder blade. Keith’s breath stops for a moment, but then he presses back against the touch. Shiro lulls them both to sleep with the motion.
It becomes routine over the course of a week.
That's how long it takes to form a habit, Shiro remembers some instructor telling him, but it doesn't feel like it takes that long. The muscle memory of opening his arms to something warm is instilled by the third night.
Keith is almost unnaturally hot, and he sleeps restless; Shiro gets used to waking up sweating, with a hand in his face or a leg curled around his hip. Or sometimes with the blankets half kicked off and Keith tucked under the weight of Shiro’s arm, Shiro holding him down where he won't be able to roll them both awake.
By the second week, he can't imagine waking up any other way. He forgets it isn't real, and it starts to bleed over. When they get up in the morning, they shuffle into the ship’s kitchen together.
There's nothing inherently intimate about it, but the first morning it happens, Lance’s eyes get wide.
The second, it's all of them. Even Allura is side-eyeing from her spot at the head of the table, and Shiro realizes he's got a hand on Keith’s shoulder, guiding him around.
He pulls away like he's been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Keith shoots him a confused look, and Shiro gets stuck between the little voice that's telling him there’s nothing wrong with a lingering shoulder pat between friends and the one whispering you're married, touch all you want.
Keith doesn’t mind. Touch is unique between them. From the first time Shiro pulled him into a hug and felt him melt into it, it’s been his one advantage.
That's a slippery slope, as it turns out.
All deniability is shot to hell a few days later when Keith hands him a bowl of the most tolerable Altean oatmeal alternative they've been able to rustle up. It's warm and smells familiar, almost like cinnamon, and Shiro presses a kiss to the soft hair at Keith’s temple in thanks without thinking about it. Keith leans into it, and there's nothing weird about that between friends—between married friends—until he turns to the table, just in time to see Lance’s spoon fall through his fingers, goo dribbling from his open mouth.
And yeah. Maybe out of context, that's a little much.
The first morning Shiro nudges him into waking and he whines like they're back at the Garrison and Shiro is trying to get him up for a training session he forgot he agreed to. He starts smiling again at small things. It seems like it works, but nothing is that easy.
Keith gets hurt, again, because their life is dangerous and Keith is the tip of their spear in almost every fight. He goe harder and faster and does what he can because he can. It's a reason to love him, but it's not the only reason. If Keith knows that, if it matters to him, Shiro can't tell.
Two hours after Pidge and Lance leave on mission, Hunk looks over at Shiro on the bridge and Shiro can already read the anxiety in the set of his shoulders. “I think we lost contact,” Hunk says. "I think something happened."
His instincts are impeccable. There's a chance it's a malfunction with the comms, but they're never that lucky, and infiltration isn't exactly a fine art when you're in Paladin armor and a Lion. Chances are something went wrong. Chances are, Keith was in the middle of it.
The thought takes him aback, even as he's settling into the Black Lion's cockpit. Keith isn't the only one that matters in this situation, but he's the only one Shiro was counting on waking up next to in the morning. It matters.
Comms are down the whole flight out, When he lands and sees what's waiting for him.
He has to hold himself back from biting out a curse. There's blood on Keith's neck and chest and the goddamn chain is coated in it, in full view. Shiro hides it, but only because he knows how Keith would feel if the team saw. It might already be too late.
"What happened?" Shiro asks, low by his ear, trying to ignore the tang of blood in the air. It's different, he realizes. It's different when you spend your nights with someone and have to see them like this.
Keith coughs, and it's more blood than air, but just from what's wetted his mouth. Nothing internal, hopefully. "Bad day," Keith mumbles, which makes as much sense as anything.
"Just bad, huh?" He doesn't waste time arguing it.
There's nothing he can do about this, he reminds himself. He can't stop Keith from being what he is. He can't get mad at him for being true to himself. Sometimes all you can do is pick up the pieces—literally, he thinks, resettling the weight in his arms as he walks back to the Lion through the smoke and dust.
But it’s a bad omen.
Keith is always first, always fastest—always protecting him. It’s like he thinks he’s only worth as much as he can give, and once Shiro notices the pattern, it’s everywhere.
He throws himself into duty, Shiro realizes, sopping the blood off him in the bathroom. It’s a mirror image to the last time they were there, except this time Keith isn’t crying. He’s passed out exhausted, no permanent damage, nothing that needs a healing pod. That's a sorry consolation. Only one bad cut, only a few bruises, only a little hurt—only a near brush with death. He’s making excuses for the inexcusable.
Shiro had to carry him into the bathroom and strip him, prop him on the counter. Keith can’t raise his head. There’s nothing alright about it.
“You don’t need to do this,” Shiro says, knowing Keith can’t hear him. Even as he says it, he realizes where the mistake is. In Keith’s mind, there’s no equation. There’s no list of pros and cons. He does what he thinks needs doing, because he has to, and it’s not a death wish. The Trial comes back to him, and the sounds Keith made in pain, and his tears afterward. He’s never been silent in pain or grief—but he doesn’t run from it either. He’s brave like that.
And Shiro is proud in the saddest way, exhausted in worry. They’ve been there before. How many times, he wonders. Keith won’t always scrape through. Eventually, they’re going to come up on the wrong side of this, and he won’t have a leg to stand on. It's like knowing Keith will run and letting him go. It's negligent, but there's no easy solution. He can't tie Keith down, and he wouldn't want to.
It frustrates him to no end. There's some crucial piece he's missing, some perfect sentence that will help Keith understand that living with honor and living aren't mutually exclusive.
He carries Keith back into their room—their room, now, past all pretense—and lays him in bed, climbing in after him and not bothering to keep some careful distance. He wraps his arms all the way around Keith, not minding the weight, so Keith is tucked against his torso and he can reach up to hold the chain loosely.
Of all his mistakes, that's the worst. He painted himself into a corner with that lie.
He framed it as a favor, knowing Keith would never object, and bound him up in it; he sees it now for what it was. Never leave me, come save me, comfort me, fight a war with me, stay by my side through all of it. Give up your life for mine.
Just a favor.
If he could do it over, he would do it in full faith, and maybe Keith would understand what he's worth. But it's already tainted. You can't build love on lies and rot. That's not how it works. He's younger than they give him credit for, but he knows that much.
Keith rolls and snorts into the pillow like it’s any night.
And he can’t possibly let this go, he realizes. He’s as selfish as he was the night he asked Keith to marry him—that hasn’t changed. Torture and war and captivity don’t make you less willing to hold on to the people you love, and Keith is first in his heart, still. Always.
You don’t earn people, but maybe you can try.
I think next chapter is like 200% action OTL
I'm still so overwhelmed by the response this has gotten. There is some incredible fanart for this chapter, and thank you seriously. I can't make words right:
this is for someone very kind and almost unbelievably patient and i thank them dearly for kicking me into gear to start finishing this fic <333
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Building alliances is the best part of the job. Though—it's not really a job, seeing as they aren't getting paid and never get to leave. Lance takes his wins where he can. Free food, new places, new faces. because they get to see places like this: a planet covered in flowers, the same color as red roses but minus the thorns. The sun isn’t the same as Earth’s; something about the shade of it is a little too red, but it’s as close as they can get to home-grown sunshine and Lance isn’t complaining.
Not about that, at least. An entire section of the field is dead to him because Shiro and Keith have occupied it for their own use, which seems to involve a lot of quiet glances and lingering touches. Shiro's hand may be permanently attached to his shoulder; hopefully they have a pry bar back on the ship, or maybe they'll have to scrap the suits entirely. As Lance watches, Shiro bends and plucks one flower, bringing it up for inspection. No—he's holding it to Keith's shoulder, comparing the shade to his armor. And then, like there's no one else there at all, Shiro tucks the flower behind Keith's ear, grinning like a loon. Keith’s too prickly for that, but not for Shiro. He touches the flower without dislodging it, and then laughs. Idiots. They're disgusting.
“What a pair,” Pidge mutters.
She's right, though. Decked out in armor, gleaming in the sun, they're striking. They might even be beautiful. They might even be in love. Lance picks at the flower in his hand, considering.
“Are you pouting?” Pidge asks.
“No,” Lance lies.
She waits for him to continue and he’s not going to give her the pleasure—
“They could be cousins,” Lance mutters before he can help it, and then hard corrects when he realizes how it sounds. “I mean, you know—adopted.”
Hunk sighs and says something under his breath that might be, “I can't do this anymore,” before he walks off to join Allura where she's wooing the delegation.
In the distance, Shiro tucks the hair back from Keith's face. He makes it look playful, as if that’s something friends do. Something like jealousy wriggles through Lance because he's the one who wants that—someone beautiful to sweep him off his feet and make sweet with him in a field of flowers on some beautiful planet.
But then Shiro pulls away and ruffles Keith's hair, and Lance realizes, maybe this is the kind of thing that only comes, like all good things, with experience, with years and years of this. Whatever this is.
Being really, really good friends.
It builds and grows and twists around them all until even Lance is hard pressed to not notice. There are a limited number of ways to interpret a hand at the small of a back. The door to Keith’s room gathers dust, a delicate fact they all try to ignore.
The undercurrent catches all of them by surprise.
And then, at the end of a long fight, with the ease and absurdity of a magician vanishing something behind a cloth, Shiro disappears.
It happens between moments and Lance likes to credit himself with a good eye, fast reflexes—he was killer at games like that. The faster the shooting, the more to keep his eye on, the better he was, scourge of the Garrison games room. Not so much with puzzles and that's what they're left with in the aftermath of that fight: radio silence, an empty cockpit, a whole lot of questions, and one Red Paladin ready to break the universe down into its constituent atoms to find the answer.
There was never a good way for Keith to take it, Lance realizes, but they don’t expect him to take it as bad as he does. It’s not a slow breakdown, not a gradual slide. No; his fall is immediate and explosive.
They never recover.
It starts the moment the Black Lion’s hatch slides open. Lance freezes when they see what's inside—or what's not. They all do, but for Keith it’s something deeper. There’s the initial shock, the ridiculous need to check around the cockpit like this is a shell game and they’ve tipped the cups and found them empty, and the bare controls room of the Black Lion could possibly hide a two hundred pound man in full armor, followed by the falling realization that if he's not there, he's out in the rubble of Zarkon’s ship. If he's not there, he's—
Keith cuts himself off before the word fully forms, and no one has time to respond or process before he’s back out the hatch, and that's it.
The phantom screech of the Red Lion taking off is what throws them into movement, but he's gone by the time they get out of the Lion and into the hangar bay, the Lion no more than a wink of light against the black of space.
They don’t see Keith for days.
They don't go after him, either. One lion might go unnoticed in the field wreckage, but four won't, and there's no one better suited to the task than Keith. That's what they tell themselves as the days and weeks spin out after.
The world doesn't stop for Keith, and later Lance wonders if that was their fault. There are only so many ways to tell someone the hard facts you're having trouble seeing the other side of yourself.
“I'm going to get him back,” Keith informs them, once, and then twice, and again, until it becomes his new catch phrase. I’m going to get him back. He beats it into all their heads. It’s the way he says it that pisses Lance off. I’m, like the rest of them aren’t there, trying to do this, too.
Pidge is—a lot of things. Small, but brave, and she's the only one of them that's successfully stood up to Keith, so it makes sense that she's the one that confronts him. Lance is certain it does, because he's not about to. Keith and he aren't that simpatico yet, and Shiro’s absence hasn't helped. This is the first mission Keith's joined them on in a month. Searching for Shiro is more important to him than the Coalition, more important than the team, and more important than his life if the hollows around his eyes are anything to go be. No one wants to be the one to tell him there's nothing left to find.
Keith knows. He must. Lance isn't sure if that makes it better or worse.
“We need you here, now,” Pidge tells him. It sounds like a plea. She loves her friends and Lance loves that about her, but she's talking to a brick wall.
Keith’s folded arms are starting to look less like a gesture of casual annoyance than his last defense. “I am here.”
“Okay,” Hunk offers, hands already up and placating. “Sure, but right now we need to make friends with these guys—” he gestures to the group of aliens standing nearby—but are they aliens if they're on their own planet? Food for thought, “—and you’re not being very friendly.”
He isn’t, but the fact he came out there with them at all is a bit of a world wonder. Universe wonder.
“I am being friendly. I’m just not doing this.”
The aliens watching them start tittering lowly. They're tall and universally pretty in a kind of lithe, ethereal way— the image is only shattered by their massive spears and the fact that they've decided the only way they're joining the Coalition is through a tangible alliance via said Coalition’s very own Red Paladin. No accounting for taste. Negotiations started hours ago by human time and Lance can feel what little is left of his life slipping away as he watches the others try to reason with their local brick wall.
“It's symbolic,” Allura urges him, a shade less gentle than she was at the start.
There are towering trees all around, almost like Olkarion, buildings hidden in the trees and a winsome breeze carrying little glittering things in the air that Pidge keeps frowning and poking at.
All told, it's not a bad place for a wedding.
“No.” Keith folds his arms, and then looks chagrined at his own childishness. He is acting like a child. “Why can't it be one of you?”
This was Lance’s point, as he’s more than available and would be happy to be showered in petals and attention or whatever is on offer, really, anything that isn’t watching Keith throw a fit.
Allura purses her lips and then says slowly, “Because they asked for you? Specifically?”
Why is beyond him. Keith is messy hair and attitude—more so without Shiro there to do whatever Shiro did for him. Put flowers in his hair, platonically.
Out of the corner of his eye, Lance sees Hunk's eyes narrow and then his eyebrows rise. No, no way, they discussed this—
“Is this about Shiro?” Hunk asks.
Whatever the intended reaction, it probably isn't Keith going stalk-still and bloodless. He puts a hand to his armored chest as if in tangible pain, as if opening his mouth and trying to talk is an impossibility in the face of it. It's physically disconcerting to see.
They all watch this transformation in mild horror. Allura looks like she's standing too close to a grenade and has just realized she’s holding the pin. It even distracts Pidge from her floaties. So far Keith has been stubborn, but stoic. No one—no one—wants to be the first one to make Keith cry over this. That's rule one.
“No,” he says finally, not meeting their eyes, and digs his fingers into his chest.
It’s an answer, for sure, if not the one he meant it to be.
In the end, the Coalition—composed of Hunk, Pidge, and a sour faced Keith—compromise by offering Allura and Lance both up. Lance agrees only because it's the unspoken desire of everyone present to not make Keith cry, and because he gets to wear a feathery getup for the whole thing and the job has to have perks sometimes, right?
It goes well, even if Keith disappears moments before the finale of the ceremony when Lance and Allura are supposed to stand in front of the altar—tree stump, it seems to Lance, but who's keeping track—and say their vows. A few, or maybe a majority of the aliens watch him go with looks that can best be described as pained, though it's hard to tell with the six eyes.
Lance doesn't see him for the rest of the ceremony. Night falls and there's music of the tonal variety that Lance was used to associating with his Mom and her occasional this house will be calm if I have to will peace into existence phases. It's not his type, but it's nice enough.
It's not until late, after the planet's second or third moon has risen that Lance picks him out in the crowd. The moon, which is literally blue, makes everything a little dimmer, a little darker. Keith is on the periphery. He's always on the edges and it's something Lance has felt residual guilt about since Shiro disappeared. Lance has Pidge and Hunk. Allura has Coran. Keith has his surly attitude and fancy knife.
The heat from whatever was in the drinks they kept shoving in Lance's hands goes out of him in a breath as he watches. Keith is seated, facing the night, hunched over a little. Allura is bent next to him, hand on his back, lips moving.
Keith is sad, Lance realizes like slipping into cold water. No—he’s bereft.
Allura drags her hand up and down, soothing. If he walked over, if he got close enough to hear, Keith might be crying, he realizes. He knows what it's like to miss someone. He knows what it's like to cry. There's not a day that goes by that he doesn't want his family back, doesn't want Earth back, but they’re waiting for him and he has friends out here. Keith had Shiro, and that seemed unfair. He had Shiro more than the rest of them had anything.
It was unfair, he realizes now. Only, not in the way he thought. It’s far too late to do anything about it now.
Loss should be easier the second time. It’s not, Keith learns. It turns out grief is a beast that hibernates and gains strength in absence, growing and congealing into something he can’t pull himself free of. He doesn’t try.
In a way, it feels inevitable. Nothing in his life has been so good or lasted so long.
Something between them was shifting a little more every day. Shiro's loss is worse the second time around because he told himself it would never happen again. Now, it's like a limb torn off, something essential to his function, gone. There's no space in his life where he can escape it and this time there's no desert to run to; this time there are people to care if he goes.
The first week he spends in the Lion. Not on purpose, but because the thought of losing time is impossible, and every moment he spends not looking is a loss. The suits have life support. There’s time. The Lion spit Shiro out before; it's just a matter of finding him. Those words beat beside his heart. A thousand little comforts to hold back a tide: the image of a body in space, a suit torn, the evidence that there was time, now lost. At the edge of the precipice in his mind is the secondary fear that Shiro has already been found, by something that’s been waiting to sink its claws into him.
Sleep is impossible, anyway. He catches the dregs of it in the Lion waiting on scanners with the Lion floating through space on active autopilot. The sheets back in his empty bed at the Castle aren’t familiar anyway; he tries one night, on the faint hope that real rest will get him somewhere, inspire some revelation, but the thin blankets scratch at him and pull the heat out of his skin. There's no warmth in his arms at night, and he doesn't know how to work his mind around that reality, so he doesn't try.
He'd wanted a family from Shiro. He'd wanted comfort and a home, but the way Shiro's hand dragged down his back at the edge of sleep—he'd wanted that, too.
Shiro would have given it. If Keith rolled and pulled him in, if he asked, if he begged, Shiro would give him anything he wanted. They were building to it in little ways every day. He loses sleep imagining the way Shiro would have touched him, the grounding, tactile way he had with Keith, multiplied across his entire body, a fantasy he barely knows enough to shape.
A week in, the walls start to close in around him.
The cockpit of the Lion, the rare forays into the Castle, even the helmet on his suit begins to feel like a prison. The team tries in gentlest terms to explain that the loss is acceptable, but it all rings hollow. Once the panic wears off, loss settles in deep. The edges and grooves of it are well worn—he’s turned it over a thousand times.
He stops Red in open space, taking off his helmet to make room for the thing trying to crawl up his throat. The unfairness of it hits him like an airlock slip, like he’s in the vacuum, floating armorless, powerless, without direction, He's had both eyes on Shiro from the moment he cut and carried him out of that Garrison outpost. In every fight and every quiet moment, fixated against this exact inevitability.
It's absurd, in the worst way. How do you lose the only thing you have? How do you lose it twice?
This, he realizes, is how Colleen Holt felt. This time, he understands.
It's ironic then that the one person who's seen that grief firsthand can't let it pass. Or maybe that's the heart of it. Maybe she can only watch it happen once.
"He's still out there." Keith sets his helmet down on the table in the Castle’s lounge, a place that feels more alien to him now than the myriad uncharted planets on his scanner, with a crack that almost makes his own ears ring. He doesn't mean to, but every part of him is tense. Three week going on a month of searching and searching, picking over every bone in the yard of wrecked Galra ships they left behind the fight, scraping through any scrap of information, any scattered static that sounds like it might be a familiar word in a familiar tone.
Pidge flinches back, glaring. She opens her mouth and Keith can't hear her say it all again. Put the search on hold, eat something, sleep, it’s time to consider he’s not coming back. He has considered it. He considers it every moment he’s awake and most moments he’s not.
“No, I know he's out there,” he interrupts her intake of breath with. Shiro is out there. He's out there somewhere. The words have a lilt to them even in his mind; he's repeated them to himself so many times they take form like a song.
Pidge raises her hands as if he’s hopeless. “How do you know?”
Because the alternative is unacceptable. It's not a universe he knows how to exist in, and he's tried before. Tried and stumbled; tried and fell.
"How did you know your brother is still out there?" he bites back.
It's a low blow, but not that low; it hits the mark dead on. She starts and looks down, and it's just like the last time they had this conversation, but this time he's on the other side of it. You're putting the lives of two people above the lives of everyone else in the entire universe, he told her then. It was fair, but the weight of a life lost is immeasurably heavy. There's no scale that can test it, nothing equivalent to lay beside it and measure and say enough is enough, you've done all you can and all you should. He thought he knew then, but maybe it's a thing that compounds.
She stares at the floor and he knows that this fight is different. The rest of the team are around the periphery, going in and out, pretending this conversation isn’t happening, pretending they didn’t put Pidge up to it. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe this is her, all on her own. Guilt wrings at him, not stronger than his determination. “People don't just disappear.”
She makes a small, frustrated sound. She’s young and angry and Keith can’t make her understand that his loss isn’t the same as hers. “I know. But we need to do this together.”
She’s right, and Keith knows it, and he can’t do this with them.
He’s tired. Fresh off a night spent two quadrants distant, scanning and scanning and finding nothing, he’s ready to snap. Allura made the wormhole for him, but she looked like she wanted to argue when he walked off the bridge and he knows they’re at the end of their patience with this. “We need to find him. There’s no Voltron without him,” he explains, reasons, insists.
“No. No, Keith—” Her face twists. “That's what you need.” The distinction bites. She's right. The world gave him one good thing, and he can’t stop losing it. “And that's not fair to either of you. You can't be…” She trails off, staring up at him, next best to a glare but with compassion. “He can’t be everything to you, and you can’t be everything to him.”
Weeks this argument has been brewing, and he thought he was ready, but those words are what level him. The room goes still around them, everyone dispensing with the polite fiction that they weren’t hanging on every word of this.
Yes, he wants to say. Yes, we can. He swore an oath to be that. More at that moment than at any other time he wants to come clean, to pull the chain out from under his shirt and hold it out. Look—this is what I’ve lost. This is what I keep losing. It was stupid to ever keep it a secret. Married. He wants to laugh because he can't remember why it mattered that no one else know.
In some ways, the secret is still the best thing he has. This one thing between them no one else gets to have, and Shiro can’t be dead because it takes two people to keep it. That’s what he thinks at night when he holds the tag in his hands until it’s hot from his own body and tries to remember what it was like to have that heat come from someone else.
He’s been silent too long. Pidge’s brows are pinching in worry. Allura has stopped pretending she’s getting food, and Lance has stopped pretending he’s only walking by. “You don't have to do this alone. We're a team, we're supposed to do these things together.”
She’s right, but this pain is private. This failure is his, not theirs, and it isn’t something he can let them see in full. They’ll hold him back, slow him down—they already are. “That's not what I am,” Keith says. “I’ve gotta—” He feels his voice start and stop, his throat threaten to close. When he speaks again, it’s too tight to put a shape to everything he needs to say, to everything he owes them. “I’ve gotta go,” he manages without looking at her, without looking at any of them, and hopes they understand the full breadth of his meaning.
That moment is the last time he sees them, for a time too long to count.
The only success in his searching was the intact Galra fighter he dragged back, initially for intel and then as something to tinker with when he was still trying to convince himself he needed to keep a regular schedule—and as a way out, he realizes now. Maybe he was always planning to leave. It runs like a dream, for a ship that found itself on the wrong end of a dogfight, and as he lifts off and punches in the coordinates of the Blade base, it’s the first time he feels like he’s taken a full breath in weeks.
That feeling lasts until he’s standing inside the base and sees Kolivan waiting for him in the hangar of the base that what he’s done hits him in full. If Kolivan blames him for leaving the team, he doesn't show it. But then, it's not as though the universe would be any less without Voltron if he'd stayed. Shiro was more than the fifth man. He was the piece that held it all together. Kolivan has no news for him, no gentle comfort, no tidings. Three weeks of Blade reports have yielded not a scrap of information from the Galra nor any mention of the Black Paladin. There's chatter about Voltron's conspicuous absence, but mostly it seems the Galra are trying to pick up the pieces of their empire in a power vacuum; Zarkon was the last of them who cared.
It took Keith days to realize Zarkon was really gone at all; it still hasn’t sunk in. They traded loss for loss, and he’d just as soon trade it back.
Little hope of that.
"I fear your friend is lost," Kolivan tells him in summation, with kindness, and with weight.
There's a heat building at the corners of Keith’s eyes, over the bridge of the nose—he can't have this conversation, he realizes. In a dozen months of haunting the desert, not with the dust and sky and quiet of his own mind could he have this conversation, and he can't have it now. Kolivan's eyes are wrinkled with concern and years beyond Keith's imagining. He sees Keith's thoughts before he can think them. "This is not your first loss, nor will it be your last."
Keith opens his mouth to say that he has nothing left to lose and closes it again without a word.
"We will pass along anything that comes in."
Nothing has come in before; they both know nothing will now.
People don’t disappear, but quintessence is barely understood. The druids can teleport—Keith has seen it firsthand. There’s no reason to think they couldn’t teleport Shiro out of his Lion. There’s no reason to think they couldn’t unmake him that way, either.
The amount of power in the fight was incredible. Enough to leave them all worn to bone. His fingers felt burnt afterward, even through the armor, and it took so much to light the blade that killed Zarkon. It took that much from him, and Shiro was already exhausted. More exhausted than any of them. He falls asleep to images of violet light and he dreams about dead planets. He dreams about what it took to pull the life out of them. He dreams about Shiro, and wakes up lost.
The heat behind his eyes grows; it's a mercy they're doing this in the hangar bay. There's no one to watch. Kolivan's gaze is heavy enough.
He’s trying to figure out what a graceful exit would look like when something tugs at the corner of Kolivan’s mouth.
“There was—something.” Kolivan looks like he regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth, but the damage is done, mad hope already beating behind Keith’s breast. “There’s a rebel base on a planet near Thayserix. A Galra prison ship has been in orbit for... some time. Twenty odd movements.” He sets down a chip on the bare table between them and pushes it toward Keith a few inches. Goosebumps rise up his arms. Keith realizes he’s not breathing.
It’s not like Kolivan to not know what to say. He plans everything, and he planned this, too, for all his hesitation. Keith picks up the chip before Kolivan can stop him, trying not to drop it, trying not to break it, trying not to hope. Kolivan’s eyes pinch at the way he takes it.
“Coordinates. All of our intel,” Kolivan says, watching him for another moment, his focus on Keith shifting from wary to something Keith can’t identify. “Take care. This war cannot afford to lose you.”
He’s tired of being admonished for this.
“I just want him back.”
Keith doesn’t know why he says it. The words slip out between breaths, childish in defiance. He needs to affirm to someone. He wants to get on the floor sometimes, press his head to the cool metal and beg the universe to give back what it took away. The team can’t understand, but Kolivan might.
“I have no answers for you,” Kolivan says after a pause, gentle. It’s not condemnation, not validation—more an apology, if anything. “The loss of a leader is always regrettable.” His voice gentles to a tone Keith is learning to dread—more so from Kolivan than anyone before. “Do you think I am the first to lead the Blades?”
Wrong. Wrong, again. “He’s not— That’s not who he was.” Keith needs him to understand. He needs someone to understand before he does something he can’t undo. He pulls the chain out from under his shirt and pulls it off his neck with a snap before he can change his mind, holding it out to Kolivan. “Can you hold onto this for me?” he begs roughly.
It’s too light. Kolivan takes it. The chain looks comically small in his hand, like a strand of silver slipping between his fingers. A pathetic offering. It reflects purple in the dark light of the hangar; Kolivan cradles it in both hands, staring down at one of the tags and the name printed there.
Keith doesn’t know if he can read the word on it, but maybe he doesn’t need to. “Ah,” says Kolivan after a time, but softly. “Not a leader. Not a brother.” He’s talking to himself.
All of that, Keith wants to say. He was all of that, and more.
The chip doesn't have anything new, but it has enough to distract him. Weeks and weeks of radio chatter to pore over and ease his mind. In the end, it's by pure chance—he gets a lucky break.
He gets captured.
It’s nothing like luck. Not at first.
Everything about the planet he finds at the coordinates Kolivan gave him is eerie. There are signs of life in the massive skeletons he finds, picked clean and scoured deep by something even more massive and sharp-toothed—or sharp-clawed, but no Shiro, and nothing else to give sign of his presence.
The two-man rebel base that tips him off doesn't have any more information for him. Just: a fleet-class Galra prison ship has been circling the planet for a month, quiet and disinterested. It's not the Galra style to cool their heels. Something is going on on the ship, but then, something always is. What he's searching for is less than a needle and this is less a haystack than a universe. His hunt is less promising than searching for unreadable scrawl on desert walls.
A peace settles over him at the thought, though. None of that matters, as long as he keeps looking. As long as he never stops.
This is only one more rock that needs to be flipped.
He hasn't got a team anymore, and he hasn't got a Lion. He has a Galra fighter with most of two engines still functional, a suit courtesy of the Blades, enough rations to feed and water himself for a week, and one knife. It isn't enough to take on a fleet ship. It's barely enough to take on the local wildlife.
He weaves his way around the cliffs in the pilfered Galra fighter and lands the fighter somewhere inconspicuous where it’s sheltered by part of an overhang of what's either rock, ice, or bone. A quick scan reveals nothing the rebels couldn't tell them: it's a relay planet, chosen by the rebels for its lack of resources. They reported the ship as soon as it came into orbit, but they're sure local comms are still secure, and would appreciate it if Keith's presence didn't change that for them.
A scan reveals nothing. By foot, he scouts, but finds little more than snow. No quintessence, no persistent pull on his senses this way or that.
After hours, he finds a set of tracks leading up into a crevasse. Not human, but not any kind of animal he’s known, and at least worth a look. It isn’t, in the end. The cave the tracks lead to reveal chitinous shards, scrapings on the wall, no sign of why the Galra are there, and no familiar form leaned against a wall in waiting for him—and really, what did he expect. An empty cave, nothing more, and with it an emptiness settles into him. His first, last, only lead is spinning out into nothing and it’s beginning to look like the only place he’ll be able to chase it to its end is on the ship itself.
Lucky, then, that the Galra meet him halfway.
He thought he was being sneaky, avoiding scanners, but Galra vessels have their own coding. Of course, they knew he was there. It all seems foolish in retrospect, the moment he hears the snarl and cock of a gun from behind him at the cave entrance. They’re on him before he can take a full breath.
It’s swift and brutal, violent in a new way.
Usually the Galra ask questions. These don’t. There are three he can see at a glance against the glare at the cave entrance, decked in slim armor. A kill or capture team. Not typical guards, not here to fight, not here for games. Three guns are trained on him. He holds up his hands in implicit surrender, but they’re not taking chances.
“Grab him.” Even through the translator, the voice has a certain tonality that makes the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
One takes his arms, both in one clawed hand, and searches Keith with the other. Finds the knife. Tosses it to the leader, who grins. If they thought he was a rebel before, they don’t now, because the Blade is unmistakable. It’s at least better than them knowing he’s a Paladin. Out of armor, he’s nothing less and nothing more—a rebel for one cause. Selfish. Always selfish. He’s fought before but he hasn’t been vulnerable and the panic that takes him when he realizes he’s powerless is its own terror. He tenses.
“Watch him,” someone says. His first kick connects with the one holding him, but the second misses, and then they’ve realized his legs are as dangerous as the rest of him and let go, shoving him toward the far wall of the cave. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to run. He backs up against it, cornered. There are only the four of them, but he’s weaponless and worn out and they know it. He can’t tell what their pause is for until the leader raises his weapon, a quick flash against the light—
A crack like lightning. Heat pierces through his chest.
All goes dark.
He wakes up with his feet dragging on cold metal. His limbs are dead weight and his lips are dry with a foreign soreness in the back of his throat like he’s been out for days. The silence of the guards is discordant, but when he tries to make his tongue form words, he can’t. Breathing is its own struggle with the weight on his chest. They hit him with a blaster, he realizes, and the borrowed Blade armor is the only reason he isn’t lying dead in a cave on a backwater planet. The guard dragging him along hasn’t noticed he’s awake; he tries to lash out, but his nerves can’t translate the signal to anything more substantial than a twitch.
This is how Shiro felt when he was first caught, he thinks, and hates himself for it. It’s not the place for that thought or that memory, but the moment it occurs to him it’s all he wants—Shiro’s comfort, once more. He’s terrified.
He tugs again, uselessly, and one of the guards takes the chance to reposition his grip. “He’s up.” The voice comes across as hollow through the residual buzz in Keith’s ears.
Another guard snorts, unimpressed. If Keith were at full strength, he might be able to put up a substantial fight, but as he is, he’s good as a ragdoll and no more. “We’ll throw him in with the other,” says the same voice.
The one dragging him pauses. “The other…”
“Who knows. Maybe the Witch can use him for parts.”
He can take in the conversation only in pieces. They toss him in the cell and for a moment he can only lie there, face down. A sense tells him he’s not alone, but he can’t muster the energy to be worried about that when blinking takes all he has.
After uncountable minutes, his eyes adjust, and he thinks he might be able to move, or at least crawl. He rolls to the side, and there against the far wall is another figure staring back. The dim light presents only the faintest outline, the suggestion of shadows that form hollow, high cheeks, a muscled neck, the gleam of half-lidded eyes.
He realizes in slow measures what he’s seeing. He realizes in slow measures his luck. This man is thinner than he once was, his hair longer, his stature worn down and diminutive, and still, Keith would know him anywhere. What strikes him before the shock is relief of the kind that rushes through him so fast and so hard it knocks his breath out and makes him feel like a child again.
Shiro. It is—it’s Shiro.
Words won’t come; he tries and manages a wheeze of sound, and that is enough to draw Shiro’s attention in full. Shiro looks up through his hair as Keith scrambles for his legs and stumbles as he gains them. There is no recognition on that face, but Keith doesn’t see that piece of it, not at first. It’s secondary to the fact of his existence, precious and strange. Keith half falls, half crouches before him in the dim light and sets a hand against Shiro’s cheek, brushing back the long hair with his knuckles, reveling in the cool slide of it over his bruised skin. It makes Shiro look younger, somehow, and the pathetic trace of a beard lines his face in a way Keith wishes he could joke about.
Shiro watches him do all of this in dull silence, eyes full of distrust—but he doesn’t flinch away. “Who are you?” he asks.
It hurts less than it should.
Keith still can’t speak, so he pulls Shiro’s head to his shoulder and stays right there, tracing a hand up and down his back until his knees get sore and his back is starting to twinge opposite the spot on his stomach where he took the blaster fire. Nights beyond counting, he wanted this. Any chance to fight his way back to it, any sign it was still out there to fight his way to at all. That thing deeper than relief stings his eyes and the rush and pulse of his blood protesting the awkward position makes it feel like some part of his body is going to collapse in on itself.
He's the first to pull back. Shiro chases him a little, unconsciously, falling toward him; Keith has to blink to see him properly again in the dim cell light. “I've been looking for you,” he croaks. “Everywhere.”
Shiro blinks at him, not in confusion, but with a mechanical slowness. The reflected light is almost chemical and Keith knows in that instant that he'll do anything to get him back in the sun. Off this ship, out of this war, anywhere.
I missed you. You scared me. I can’t do this again.
“Welcome back,” he says instead.
Recognition breaks slowly over Shiro’s face like a lapping wave. After a minute, the corners of his eyes pinch and the line of his mouth twists. “Keith?”
The knowing sends a thrill through him. Keith nods, barely a jerk of his head before he pulls Shiro back into his shoulder. Escape plans race through his mind, but none stick. He doesn't have the energy to contemplate risk. The Galra have kept Shiro this long; they won’t break him today and they won’t break him tomorrow. Keith can't spare a moment to wonder how they took his memories again because the thought makes his stomach sour and rise.
“Do you know your name?” Keith asks, pulling Shiro’s head in against his chest.
He feels it shake against him. That's the only answer Shiro gives, and it's enough. He wonders if it's selfish to be glad that of all the things Shiro could forget, he's always the last. They're in a cell on a Galra cruiser at the edge of space, and it's the best he's felt in months. He feels a smile spread across his face, so wide it pulls at his bruises and splits a cut in his lip he didn’t know he had. Shiro’s hair is so soft under his hands, and he keeps him close, both hands buried in it.
That night—though it's always night in space—he dreams of a place they saw once. The air on his face is cool, mist blows past branches, hanging flowers, beams of light. It is a perfect place, and there's a hand in his, bigger than his own.
Why not dream of the desert? he spares a thought to wonder, because he knows it’s a dream and the desert was his home longer than anywhere else. Why not dream of the lonely, desperate empty, filled at last. The hand in his is pulling him somewhere, tugging him on. He expects it to dissolve, in the way of dreams, into chaos. For the hand to disappear, for the forest to melt away into the empty vacuum of space, for the terrible end, but it doesn’t come.
He wakes after hours, with his head couched on a warm thigh, the sound of slow breaths above him, and to say it’s the best rest he’s had in months is wrong. It’s the only rest.
He can’t lose this again.
Eventually, someone brings food. Not enough for one man, let alone two, but they’re good at sharing. Keith nudges at him in the silence after they’ve eaten as much as they’ll get. “I have a plan.”
The cell is too dark to see Shiro, but he feels the shift of his body, hears the rustle of cloth as Shiro moves closer. He says nothing, but then, he doesn't say much now. It's not much of a plan, either, based on the faint hope that the Galra have turned suddenly and desperately stupid. Their best and only hope is to surprise and distract. Of course, the Galra haven’t, but it will get Keith where he needs to be. That’s enough. Low risk, high reward. In fact, the only risk is the hope that the Galra will prioritize keeping Shiro over stopping Keith. From there, he’s flexible. Even getting his hands on a communicator would be a boon, let alone his knife, or an actual escape pod.
He explains it to Shiro in short words, the two of them glued together against the wall of the cell shoulder to shoulder as Keith whispers in his ear.
It’s a relief when Shiro whispers back with his own suggestions about the guard rotation—a sign he hasn’t given up, a sign he still wants to get out. The plan itself goes off without a hitch. At the appointed time, at the shift of guard schedules, Shiro sags against him all at once, and then falls to the floor with an audible sound. Keith shakes him, shouts, and then screams at where he’s sure at least one observation camera is set up. As predicted, in the space it takes for him to go from checking on Shiro to standing and banging on the door, he can hear the running of footsteps outside.
He’s right. They care nothing for him. The pair who enter only have eyes for Shiro and the translator picks up Witch as he slips out the door with no more than the slide of his feet across the brushed metal floor and makes himself scarce. Galra ships are all of a kind and this one is no different: the same layout, one major hall with the branching offshoots. They always keep the weapons rooms beside the main hangar, but he aims elsewhere, banking on the easy find of a communicator in one of the spare admin level rooms. The team might not come for him, but they’ll come for Shiro.
He turns down one bare hallway and into another, and then slaps his hand against a door that, on any other Galra ship, would be a room with spare equipment. It’s the style of the door, the width of it—for carrying in pallets of excess width. His eyes take a moment to adjust to the dark and then it takes his mind another, longer breath to understand what he’s seeing.
The room is empty, but not merely empty. On the walls are bolt holes where hooks and shelves might have once sat. On the floor are empty tracks where shelves and dividers would have rested. And there, against the far wall, an empty recess denotes where spare communicators would have been stored. A few twists of wire courtesy of Pidge’s extensive training and he might have been able to rig one to communicate with the nearest Blade outpost, but it’s all gone. It’s all empty.
He spins, runs for the door in the hallway one over to the left, but the room behind that one is no less empty than the other.
This isn't a prison ship, he realizes. It was, once, but the inside has been stripped.
He steadies himself against the door. By now, guards should be chasing him, but the hall is silent, and eerily so. The guards who ran in—what was the insignia on their chest? He tries to remember, but it was too fast, too panicked. The next breath Keith takes is slow and careful and it carries with it the scent of something ozone and sweet, and he realizes the breadth of his mistake.
The air tastes like quintessence.
The lights in the hallway flicker. A shudder runs down Keith’s spine, but he has—nothing. Even on his best day, with all his equipment, he couldn’t take on what’s coming for him.
With not even a whisper of sound, a white-masked, robed figure appears at the end of the hall. Keith has time to jerk his head up, to scramble backward, to get his feet under him again, to start to run before it disappears with a low pop that makes his ears ring. It appears again right in front of him, the whisper of cloth loud in the hallway. He braces himself for what’s coming, for the crack of black lightning that will darken the room and blur his vision, take from him everything, but the druid doesn’t move. It watches him, and no more.
He’s not even being toyed with. They know he’s trapped here, and they have the only thing he wants—if they know he wants it.
“Far from home, Paladin,” the druid says, and that answers every question he might have hoped to have. The words hurt this close, like the druid’s throat was never meant to make human speech—and that’s what it is. The translator has no part in this. It knows his language, even if it is tinny with quintessence poisoning. There was the smallest edge of it to Shiro’s voice when he first got to the cell and now Keith wonders distantly if this is all for Shiro, after all. If this whole ship is a prison indeed but for one man only—and, perhaps, to trap another.
Every plan falls away. He misses that the druid has started talking again over the rush of blood in his ears. “We know of you,” it says in broken sounds. “We know of your friend. We have seen all.”
All. Keith steps back, hits the wall, and presses his palms to the cold metal.
“We have such plans for him.”
He knew this, but the reality of it still makes Keith bow his head. He has to force himself to look again, to meet the sickly, electric green bands on the mask that suggest too many eyes.
“Then you know,” he hears himself say. The druid cocks its head to one side and when it speaks again, it almost sounds like it’s smiling. “You know I’ll do anything,” Keith tells it.
The deal they offer him is spare and unbendable, in the way of the Galra. If he’d hoped they would leave him a loophole, both their freedom at once, he’s wrong. Shiro will go and he will stay and aid them. He doesn’t let himself imagine what that will entail, but a willing Paladin, part-Galra is something they couldn’t have dreamed of having in their possession. Haggar’s uses for him will be many.
In the distant part of his mind that’s better at planning than they usually give him credit for, he imagines he’ll be able to turn it around on them, make his compliance into poison and rot them from the outside, but it’s a pale hope.
They give him a day to decide.
Back in the cell, he marks minutes by the feel of Shiro's breath against his shoulder and then loses track entirely because it feels wrong to try and quantify something he wanted so much for so long. In the morning, he’ll make a choice. In the morning, he tells himself, and this is exactly what they wanted: a night for him to drown in what he has to choose to give up. But, of course, they’re missing a piece of it. There’s no choice. There never was.
“How long have I been here?” Shiro asks him. He took the failed escape with dull impartiality and hasn’t questioned why Keith isn’t in pieces for the audacity.
Keith levers himself up from the floor and drags himself to the wall beside Shiro, wincing at the twist in his back. Shiro doesn't move away. He really does look younger with his hair grown out.
Shiro flinches. “I don't remember.”
He’s so scattered. There’s shame in Keith that he’s let it happen twice. All he can do is gather pieces. “I know,” he says, voice cracking as he thumps his head against the wall. Again, again, again. This is his life. Chasing and trying to keep this one thing and losing it.
By some unexpressed need, Shiro shifts towards him. Keith reaches out and presses against his shoulder with one hand. His own knuckles are bruised and cracked, the same color as the ragged cloth draped around Shiro’s torso in a mockery of actual clothing. “You’ll feel better when we can see the sky again,” he offers. Bare hope, and Keith won’t be there to see it with him. It’s enough to know.
Shiro settles into the wall, and into his hand. “Yeah.” That single word, scraped out of him. He takes a breath and rolls his head toward Keith. His eyes gleam under the curtain of hair. “What—” he starts and stops and then sighs out, “What are we? I remember—something. I don’t know what it is.”
It’s Keith’s turn to flinch. “We're—" friends, he means to say, but the same selfishness that drove him from the team, the same thread of possessiveness takes him again. They don't talk about it, this one thing between them. It doesn't make it less true. It doesn't make it less valuable, “—married.”
“Oh. I do remember that.” Shiro says it with conviction, an implied of course, and a misplaced smile. He's still woozy, still missing pieces of his mind. The truth will come back to him later. Married, but not in love. Not for Shiro’s part, at least, but Shiro doesn't remember that. He's looking at Keith like he’s got stars in his hair. “I'm lucky,” he whispers. “You're a knockout.” He presses forward, tracing the outline of Keith's face with his eyes before they fall to his mouth.
If he were a better person, he would push Shiro away. He would explain that their relationship is built on convenience, to satisfy a bureaucracy billions of miles distant—so far away, it might as well not exist—but he's tired, and he can feel Shiro’s hand where it's braced on his thigh, and this Shiro thinks he's beautiful.
Without his memory, without knowing Keith beyond his name and the barest hint of perfunctory duty, he thinks Keith is beautiful.
It’s the last chance he’ll have with this, anyway.
He slides his hand to cup Shiro’s cheek and then card through Shiro’s hair. Keith moves his head enough to pull him into a kiss—only an inch. He lets himself imagine what it would be like if Shiro moved into it, or if he knew enough about how it worked to make him want to. Their first kiss at the Garrison on the morning of the wedding was good, but it was a show. Even so, he's lost hours and days dwelling on it. There's no one watching this time. Guilt hits him like a sledgehammer the moment he pulls Shiro in, but he doesn't have time to regret it. Shiro’s lips are soft for three months spent in a cell, and then Shiro makes a sound against him and brings his free hand to the back of Keith's neck and they’re something else entirely.
Keith isn't prepared for it. Shiro’s weight against him and the easy way he tips Keith's head back. He kisses like it's the last thing he'll ever get to do. He kisses like they've done it a hundred times. He kisses like he knows Keith needs it.
Maybe, he tells himself, Shiro won't remember the truth. Or, maybe, he’ll forget this kiss the way he’s forgotten everything else. Maybe he'll get to keep this one thing for himself—Shiro, wanting him like this.
Shiro changes the angle and puts heat into it, makes desire chase up Keith's spine. If they're going to be stuck in a cell, there's not a better way to pass time than learning this he decides. He makes himself memorize it: the feel of the muscle in Shiro’s back under his hands when he gives up trying to control the kiss and lets his hands fall there, and the way something so simple can make need burn through him.
In unspoken answer, Shiro spreads his legs wider, settling Keith into his lap fully. He’s heavy and hot and hard and when he fits Keith against his hips with intent, it almost ruins him.
“I missed this,” Shiro says, pulling away only as far as he has to.
The words are like cold water over his head. They've never had this, and they never will, and now that he's tasted it, he’ll always want it.
He resettles again, impossible closer, and makes no move to do anything but hold Shiro in his arms. “I missed you,” Keith hears himself say though it comes out on a low moan, a sound he didn't know he could make.
Which is, of course, the exact moment the cell door busts open behind him.
They don't leap apart—Shiro won’t let him. Keith jerks around in the cage of his arms and terror battles with relief and the warmth low in his gut as he realizes what he’s looking at. It isn’t the Galra come early or gone back on their deal—even obscured in the glare of the hallway, Keith would recognize the silhouette of Paladin armor anywhere.
“Hey guys…?” Hunk says, his voice going high at the end when he sees how they’re seated.
It’s made worse because Shiro doesn’t seem to recognize him. He goes tense, and then all at once and faster than Keith has ever seen him move, he twists so he’s hiding Keith from view, like he might protect him by will alone and no one can hurt what they can’t see. It is touching, and it is terrible.
Keith puts a hand on his chest. “No, Shiro—that's Hunk. He's here to help.” The saving grace is that he can't see Hunk’s expression then.
“Sorry to interrupt, but you know, uh,” Hunk jerks his head toward the door, “we might need to get going. I don’t know what’s up with this place but it’s freaking me the hell out and I haven’t seen Pidge or Lance since I got here.”
He babbles on, and Shiro relaxes imperceptibly, but not enough to suggest relief. He doesn’t remember Hunk. He really doesn't remember the team, or Voltron, or who he is, and Keith kissed him. Once more, guilt hits him, peals through him like a bell, driving away every other emotion and the heat in his gut with it. He’s made a thousand mistakes for this and he can’t stop making them, over and over. You’re supposed to get better at doing things—not worse. You’re supposed to learn, and he can’t.
His eyes sting at their corners, blur with frustration. “Sorry,” he says, more gasp than word. “I’m so sorry.”
Sorry for leaving, sorry for getting captured, sorry for the decision he was about to make—had already made, in his heart. Sorry for the spot of red from Keith’s split lip on Shiro’s mouth.
Shiro pulls away. They’re both staring at him, and now Pidge is at the door, leaning around Hunk, with a quiet, “What’s the—oh.”
“I’m sorry,” Keith says again, and he should be up and going already, but Shiro is still crouched over him.
He reaches out his metal hand to ghost his fingertips under Keith’s eyes. “Keith,” he says softly, the name so well-worn and familiar it almost doesn’t feel fair. He doesn’t deserve this.
“Let’s get you two out of here,” Hunk says, over-loud. “You can, uh, apologize for flying off with my best wrench later.”
It’s Shiro who tugs him up and out of the room, and Shiro who keeps him close for all the cramped flight back in the back of the Yellow Lion, and Shiro who murmurs in his ear that everything is going to be all right, in the end. Though Keith has made a study out of believing in Shiro, for the first time, he isn’t sure he knows how to.
He wants to, though. More than anything, he wants to try. And in their last quiet moment between the questions and the chaos, he makes himself the same promise he's made before, uncountable times: he's not losing this again.
The only difference between this promise and all the other thousands he's made in desperation is that now he knows the stakes. Now he knows the full breadth of that vow and all he's willing to give.
It's simple when the answer is everything.
shows up 1070181 minutes late without a starbucks. feel free to notify me about any errors! no beta was employed and i have not read the former parts since i wrote them so continuity is a prayer of mine and no more at this point.
and if you're reading this, as ever, thank you so, so very much.