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In the Lonely Universe

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When Keith finally wakes in the hospital, unearthing himself from the depth of fatigue, his eyes seek and immediately land on Shiro. Because of course Shiro is here, sitting at the edge of his bed. He looks about as exhausted as Keith feels.

“Hey,” Keith sighs, once he’s sure he isn’t about to fall back asleep. His voice cracks around the simple word but he smiles all the same as he looks at Shiro.

“Hey,” Shiro answers, voice gentle. He scoots in closer to him and covers Keith’s hand with his. He hovers and asks, quietly, “How are you feeling?”

“Like I hit my head really, really hard,” Keith says and his voice is raspy with disuse, graveled out and maybe a little slurred, betraying that head injury. He means for the words to be more of a joke but it doesn’t quite land, although Shiro gives him a faint (probably pity) smile.

Keith's eyes glance down at Shiro’s hand over his. It looks comfortable. It looks normal.

Keith’s heart leaps in his chest and begins to thunder as soon as that thought connects. It looks normal. It looks like Shiro’s hand was always meant to fit there, against his.

He looks up at Shiro, his chin tipping a little, his eyes seeking Shiro’s. The sun is sinking down low and Keith has no idea what day it is, how long he’s been sleeping, how long Shiro’s been sitting here, waiting for him. And what an odd thought, in the end— the idea that Shiro could be the one waiting for Keith. As if Keith hasn’t spent so long waiting, too, or chasing.

“Shiro,” he says, quiet, prompting when Shiro doesn’t say anything. They’re still touching hands. Shiro looks startled and his smile tilts into something uncertain. Keith presses, “Tell me what’s on your mind.”

Shiro chuckles. His smile tilts up at one corner. “It’s that obvious, huh?”

“Maybe only to me,” Keith answers, voice soft, warm. He can’t look away from Shiro.

“Yeah,” Shiro laughs. He sobers after a moment, looking at him carefully. “Keith…”

There’s something in the sound of his name. Something settles over Keith, a kind of certainty, inescapable. Like everything in the universe has converged onto this point, inevitable and inescapable. Maybe Keith thought it’d be something larger than this. But maybe this was how it was always going to be, so much of the universe stretching out behind them, so many bridges they’ve already crossed. There’s so little left that they haven’t tackled. This is the first time Shiro has touched his hand like this, but it also feels like it’s been happening since the dawn of time, the birth of the universe. Everything rushing into this moment.

Keith isn’t so bold as to think the universe revolves around them, no matter how much his life revolves around Shiro. But he can’t explain that certainty that falls over him, that expectation. Shiro gives no indication of what he’s about to say, and yet Keith knows. Maybe it’s been this way for a long time, every moment since Shiro’s reawakened in his body— each glance, each word, each touch to his shoulder. Everything they didn’t say, every time they didn’t look, every time they were separated from one another.

“I’m sorry. I should have—” Shiro begins and then his brow furrows and he shakes his head. “… No, that’s not right. That’s not how I should start.”

Keith blinks at him, something like wonder likely on his face. He looks at Shiro but maybe this is the first time, in so long, where he’s let himself simply see Shiro.

Shiro bites his lip and squeezes Keith’s hand, their fingers folding together, holding tight. Never letting go. It’s odd, to watch the change fall over Shiro’s expression, the way he moves from uncertain to determined, tension pulling into every line of his muscles.

“Keith,” Shiro says, starting over. “I don’t want to leave… this unsaid anymore.”

He squeezes Keith’s hand to demonstrate what he means by this. Keith holds his breath, or maybe he’s been holding his breath this whole time. He looks at Shiro, drinks in everything about him— the glow of the light in his eyes, the slope of his nose, the purse of his lips as his teeth drag against the swell of his bottom lip, the clench of his jaw, the swallow that bobs his throat.

“Okay,” Shiro says with a long breath, shoulders hunching. Psyching himself up.

Keith’s mouth quirks into a small smile and he squeezes Shiro's hand. “Shiro,” he whispers and waits for Shiro to look at him again before saying, “Tell me. I’m listening. Always.”

Tension slides from Shiro’s shoulders and he laughs. His expression melts into something fond, something undeniably for Keith. Only for Keith.

“I… I love you,” Shiro says, quietly. He seems to be drinking in Keith just as deeply as Keith drinks him in.

“Shiro,” he murmurs in return, his voice sounding delirious to his own ears. “I— You know I love you, too. I’ve already told you that, right?”

Shiro lets out another shaky laugh and shakes his head. “Yeah. More times than you probably know. Sometimes not with the word at all.”

Keith squeezes his hand. “You too.” He looks down at their hands for a moment, unable to hold back his smile. When he looks up at Shiro again, he feels like he’ll burst. “Why now?”

Shiro smiles back at him. “Keith. I don’t want to ever lose you.”

Keith laughs at the ridiculousness of such a statement— absurd, to think Shiro could ever lose Keith, when Keith’s entire life hinges around Shiro.

In the moment, just like that, Keith feels something like peace. Shiro’s smile is gentle as he leans in and presses a small kiss to Keith’s mouth, and that too feels like the first time and yet something eternal. For once in his life, fully, Keith feels centered. Keith feels real.

If only such peace could last.

 

-

 

Dating Shiro, in the end, is much like being friends with Shiro. Few things change simply for the reality they live in: it is wartime. There’s never any time.

They’re busy— trying to dismantle the robeast and figure out what powered it, rebuilding a debilitated Earth, plotting their next move, ushering in new Coalition members daily, using the Lions to launch new global satellites.

This is what Keith tells himself, when most moments with Shiro are stolen— the occasional kiss in the hallway, the few times they hold hands under the table of debrief meetings.

Keith tells himself there will be more time, later. They can be together, more. Later.

He tells himself this as Shiro’s swept up as the Captain of the Atlas, and Keith as the Head of Voltron. Dignitaries, ambassadors, Coalition meetings. Keith tells himself it doesn’t matter, that he’ll have more time. He tells himself that as he watches handsome alien men and human men smile at Shiro, drift into his orbit, laugh and joke with him. He tells himself this when Shiro has to wake early in the morning and return late at night, when the only times he has off are when Keith’s training with the other Paladins.

He tells himself that, eventually, he can be a better boyfriend. He can be someone worthy of Shiro. Eventually. Later.

 

-

 

Keith watches his mother kneel down in front of his father’s grave. It isn’t the first time she’s seen it— the time on the space whale made sure of that, made sure she saw every single one of Keith’s visits, some with breakdowns, others with stony silence staring at the equally quiet tombstone— but it’s her first time seeing it face to face. She’s so quiet and so still that Keith recognizes his own type of agony, his own style of mourning.

They had such little time. During their time on the space whale, it wasn’t long before every memory flashing in the temporal disruptions became other missions, other moments, other people. Both his mother and Keith exhausted all memories of his father. His parents had so little time together and—

Krolia’s hand smoothes along the top of the tombstone. It’s at once a greeting as it is a goodbye.

Keith closes his eyes. He thinks of Shiro, all the times where Shiro was almost lost to him forever. How easily Shiro could be lost to him again.

 

-

 

Shiro leans in and kisses his temple, nuzzles into his hair. Every time, Keith hooks his hands up into Shiro’s hair and pulls him in, biting at his bottom lip and then pressing closer, kissing him deep— always, always with that edge of desperation. As if it is the last time. As if, somehow, he can push off the fear of the universe encroaching on them by keeping Shiro close. He feels selfish, every time, for the way he grabs onto Shiro, the way he refuses to let go. As if he’s daring the universe to do something about it, or anyone else to do something. Holding onto him as if expecting something will, always, try to rip him away. A desperation, a defense— not a celebration of the man in his arms, the sighs of his breath, the slide of his mouth.

Every time they part, Shiro smiles at him, his expression gentle.

 

-

 

There’s no easy way, Keith realizes, to admit to your boyfriend that it isn’t that you’re afraid of him leaving you, but that the universe will somehow conspire to tear him away again, or that you’ll do something to ruin your own happiness. That, no matter what you do, you’ll never be good enough to protect him fully, no matter how hard you try.

 

-

 

Keith wakes early, each night he spends with Shiro. He’s never been a deep sleeper, but somehow he always manages to wake before Shiro— curled up against his side, draped in Shiro’s many blankets (put there because, as Shiro likes to tease, Keith’s feet get very cold at night).

Keith figures he can never bring it up. He knows what Shiro will say. Shiro will be damnably forgiving and reassuring, telling Keith he has nothing to worry about, that Keith is perfect, that he loves him. Keith isn’t really sure how to put the thoughts to words, anyway, knows he’d utterly fail to express himself to Shiro, to speak words to the anxieties roiling inside of him.

Maybe Shiro would be better off with someone else. Someone who will keep him safe, someone who will take him away from all this, someone who will be good and kind and gentle and forgiving, someone who would be better than Keith.

An absurd thought. He dismisses it as soon as he thinks it, almost scoffing. He turns his head and presses his cheek against Shiro’s shoulder, watches the steady rise and fall of Shiro’s chest as he breathes in deeply. No nightmares today. Keith is grateful for that. His hand splays across Shiro’s chest, fingertips touching a scar.

Their first night together, Shiro had been nervous about the scars. Only for a moment. Keith had seen the way his eyes flickered down to his chest as he tugged his shirt off, glancing up at Keith and then down again. His smile was small, tight, the kind he wore only when nervous.

It’s strange to think of Shiro having insecurities, too, although of course Keith knows it’s true. All the more reason why he shouldn’t bring up his own— Shiro had enough to think on.

Shiro shifts beside him, mumbling sleepily, and drapes his arm over Keith’s stomach as he curls into him. Keith keeps his breathing deep and even.

He can remember himself from years ago, before the Kerberos launch, before losing Shiro the first time and everything that led to that day. He can remember himself and the way he felt then, that constant fear that everything good in his life would end. He remembers stealing Shiro’s car as both an act of rebellion and an act of sabotage— destroying things before they could be taken from him.

It isn’t the same now, but similar. That haunting feeling that something just around the corner will steal everything, will ruin everything. Keith doesn’t want it to be him who does it now, but it lingers in all his actions.

Keith’s jarred from his thoughts, though, when Shiro stirs beside him with a snore that cuts off into a soft grunt. He shifts, moves closer towards Keith. Keith smiles to himself, unbearably soft and fond as he watches Shiro. His fingertips graze along Shiro’s forearm, tracing patterns there, fingers grazing over the crosshatches of scars, the soft down of the hair on his arm.

“Hey,” Shiro whispers when he’s awake enough to realize that Keith is already awake, too. His eyes blink open.

“Hey,” Keith says back, just as low.

He watches Shiro stretch, hears the pop of his back as he arches. His smile softens when Shiro heaves himself up enough to press a kiss to Keith’s cheek and then hovers above him. Keith looks up at Shiro as he props his head up on his hand, elbow against the bed, just looking at Keith. Keith likes to think that not many people realize just how dark Shiro’s eyes can be, up close.

“You alright?” Shiro asks, studying his face in that careful way he always does. Keith can’t hide anything from him.

“Mmmhm,” Keith hums, thumb lifting to touch first at Shiro’s jaw, then to slide along the line of Shiro’s scar, more for the sake of touching him than anything else. Shiro’s lips quirk into a half-smile and he closes his eyes.

Keith thinks to himself— everything is supposed to be easy. Everything is easy with Shiro. Maybe that’s the most remarkable of all. And yet, somehow, all Keith can think is that something must be wrong. He’s spent so much time fighting, so much time running, so much time thinking the world is only going to rip out from under him and he’ll be left with nothing.

He thinks: how easily the universe tries to steal Shiro away from him.

“Did you sleep alright?” Shiro asks, still trying to puzzle Keith out.

Keith smiles, fingertips slipping down Shiro’s nose, over the bow of his mouth, pressing down his bottom lip before letting it plump back up again when his fingertips skirt over his chin. He tips Shiro’s face forward and lifts to kiss him. Shiro mumbles something like that’s not an answer but it’s low and affectionate and he’s quick to kiss Keith back.

“I always sleep well when you’re in my arms,” Keith says, pulling back, because that’s the truth. He never feels safer, more secure, than when he has Shiro there beside him.

“Dramatic,” Shiro teases, but his expression is open, the unspoken hovering between them— all those times Keith never let him go, figuratively and literally, the heavy weight of Shiro in his hands, always left grasping.

Keith tugs Shiro in and kisses him, presses his mouth close against Shiro’s, swallowing his words, his breath— affirming to himself that Shiro is there, that Shiro is alive. That he can kiss Shiro and banish away these thoughts, or Shiro’s clear and steady observation.

It works, at least for a little while. Shiro sighs out softly and sinks in against Keith, kissing him long and slow and practiced, teeth tugging at Keith’s bottom lip.

When they draw back, Shiro presses his forehead to his, dark eyes observing him. Keith’s breath is shallow, far more shallow than he’d like to admit.

“You can talk to me, you know,” Shiro tells him, not dragging it from him, not pressing, but being damnably patient. Likely, nobody knows better than Shiro what it’s like to keep something to himself. He studies Keith and says, quiet, “You can tell me anything, Keith. You know I’ll always listen.”

“I know,” Keith murmurs, because he does know, and he does know these thoughts are irrational, absurd— Shiro is right there in front of him, and Shiro isn’t going away. And yet, the thoughts simmer, the thoughts demand. And yet, he can’t help but fear it.

His thumb skims over Shiro’s jaw, touching lightly, feeling the barest whispered scrape of Shiro’s facial hair, hardly a shadow. Keith’s thumb drags.

“I’m here, Keith,” Shiro whispers and Keith clenches his eyes shut against the wave that recoils inside him, threatening to drag him down beneath the surface.

Maybe they were like stars, after all. Always distant, never connecting. Even binary stars, Keith reasons, have a shared point of gravity but never actually collide.

“Hey, Shiro? What do you think of binary stars?”

Shiro gives him a strange look, clearly bemused, because he’s a reasonable person and Keith knows he’s just asked a random question out of nowhere. He’s humoring him, though, clearly waiting for some sort of punchline that never comes.

“Babe,” Shiro says, slowly, and Keith’s brain short-circuits over the petname, “What are you talking about?”

“Um,” Keith says, eloquently. He can feel the way he’s starting to blush.

Shiro must notice it, too, because his smile turns a little sly, teasing and playful, the way he always looks just before dropping to his knees in front of Keith.

Babe,” he says again, around that almost-smug smile that always drives Keith insane in the best way. He leans in closer, eyes sparkling. “My pretty baby, talking about the stars. Want me to make a joke about making you feel like a supernova? Cause I’ll do it if you’re not careful.”

He chuckles to himself and then cups Keith’s chin to tip it up, pressing a series of soft, playful kisses to the curve of Keith’s mouth. Keith’s brain has absolutely, completely stopped functioning. He can only just manage to kiss Shiro back, but each kiss is too quick and too light for him to get much purchase. He could kiss Shiro forever and never tire of it.

But that was just it, in the end— forever never lasted.

“Shiro,” Keith whispers between Shiro’s onslaught of little kisses. His brain refuses to cooperate, which is probably why he pushes once at Shiro’s shoulder and says, “Maybe we should break up.”

“What?” Shiro asks, drawing back and giving him a vaguely alarmed look, torn between deciding Keith is joking or deciding Keith is going insane. He must settle for the first because he gives a nervous little chuckle and says, “Wow, Keith, you hate petnames that much, huh? Noted.”

“It’s— it’s not that,” Keith says, wanting to beg him to call him baby again but knowing that’ll get them too off track. He swallows down thickly, staring up at Shiro with no small edge of desperation. “Shiro, I… I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Mercifully, Shiro does not seize upon the vagueness of the statement to turn it into a joke, likely because Keith’s tone is so clearly distressed. He frowns now, concern pinching the corners of his eyes and he shifts so he’s sitting up, looking down at Keith.

“Hey,” he says softly, hand touching Keith’s chest, the fervent rise and fall of his chest, the quickening of his heart beneath Shiro’s palm. “What do you keep thinking about, Keith?”

There’s no running from it now. Keith takes a deep breath.

“I’m not good enough,” Keith tells him, as straight-faced as he can manage. “I can’t protect you.”

Shiro looks at him with alarm now. He gives a small, disbelieving laugh. “Keith. You’ve saved me more times than I can count.”

“That’s just it,” Keith says as he hoists himself up into a sitting position, staring at Shiro, wanting to really make Shiro see. “If I were actually good at protecting you, you wouldn’t need to be saved. You wouldn’t have been alone for months! You—” he chokes a little, throat constricting, “You wouldn’t have been hurt. You wouldn’t have been manipulated or used or injured or lonely, or—”

“Keith,” Shiro whispers, touching Keith’s arm. Keith nearly flinches away but can’t manage it, knows what pained look Shiro would give him if he were to do that. “You can’t hold yourself responsible for every little thing that happens to me.”

“None of that was little,” Keith protests, lifting his knees to his chest and curling his arms around himself, protective, defensive.

“Maybe not,” Shiro agrees, faintly.

“You need someone who can be the best for you, who’ll— who’ll take care of you,” Keith determines, and knows he sounds frenzied, absurd. Knows as soon as he says the words that Shiro won’t agree because beautiful, wonderful, kind Shiro doesn’t have enough self-preservation on top of all his many virtues.

Predictably, Shiro doesn’t agree with him. “Keith,” he says, softly. “You know I—”

“I don’t deserve you,” Keith affirms.

Keith,” Shiro says, sharply, alarming Keith enough to lift his eyes to stare, wide-eyed, at Shiro. Shiro frowns at him, eyebrows pinched and expression unhappy. He isn’t mad, but it’s close. “Who do I deserve, then?”

Keith flounders, taken aback by the question. “Someone… good. Like you. Kind. Strong. Someone who— who can make you happy.”

He knows Shiro’s expressions too well. He can tell that Shiro’s resisting the urge to roll his eyes, and instead his expression settles into something a little more miserable. Keith wants to wither away or at least beg forgiveness for ever making Shiro feel this way.

“And if I think that’s you?” Shiro asks.

Keith waffles. He doesn’t answer. He knows anything he says, Shiro will disagree with.

Shiro sighs, though, some of the frustration leeching from his eyes. He shakes his head and moves closer to Keith, placing his hand over Keith’s knee and squeezing, once.

“Maybe this wasn’t the life we chose, Keith, but we’re here anyway. We choose it now. And we saved each other— that’s what you said. We saved each other. We chose each other.” He looks at Keith, expression splintering when he asks, “Didn’t we?”

“Yes,” Keith says, with passion, without hesitation— because even in the depth of his insecurities, he can never stand to see that look on Shiro’s face.

Something eases in Shiro’s expression. “Keith,” he says. “I never feel safer than when you’re there with me. Why would I want you to go away? I— I don’t want to lose you.”

Keith frowns at him.

Shiro shakes his head. “You were asleep in the hospital for so long. I— when I saw the Lions fall from the sky, I really thought—” He bites his lip, and reaches out to cover both of Keith’s hands with his own, squeezing. His expression is perfectly earnest and, Keith realizes, just a touch desperate. “I don’t want to lose you, Keith. Ever. If I ever did, I’d—”

Shiro cuts himself off with a long breath. It’s strange, to think of Shiro with a similar fear, a similar desperation. A moment later, Shiro gives a soft, disbelieving laugh, motivated, perhaps, when Keith doesn’t pull away from him.

“Have you not realized how happy I am with you?” Shiro asks. “Why— How could I want anyone else when I’m with you?”

Tentatively, Keith’s mouth tilts up, helplessly. “Yeah?”

“Yes, Keith. God.” Shiro lifts a hand to cup Keith’s cheek, thumb brushing down over that familiar scar. Keith lurches forward and Shiro is quick to meet him, kissing him— long, slow, and deep. He draws out every thread of Keith’s breath with his kisses. Keith melts.

They look at each other for a long moment once they draw back, lingering close enough that their noses nearly brush. He can feel Shiro’s breath. Proof he’s alive.

“You’re everything to me, Shiro,” Keith says.

“Likewise,” Shiro answers, and this time he does smile at him.

Keith fights back against the urge to resist, to destroy— the back of his mind swirls with thoughts of a cruel universe, all those forces that would hurt Shiro, that would seek to prove that Keith could never be good enough for Shiro.

But then, Shiro is here. Alive. Smiling at him. Touching his cheek like he’s the most precious thing in all the universes. Keith closes his eyes and leans into the touch, sighing out.

“Call me baby again?” Keith asks, blushing. He hears Shiro laugh, relieved.

“I love you, baby,” Shiro tells him and then kisses him. Keith curls his arms around his neck and tugs him in close, determined to never let him go, the universe and any other forces be damned.