She shouldn’t stare. Pidge forced her gaze to the campfire and poked at her food. Hunk would be offended if she didn’t eat anything, but she wasn’t hungry. Hadn’t been for most of the last week. Her eyes drifted back up of their own accord. She shouldn’t stare, but it’s hard not to stare at a ghost.
He stood outside their circle, seeming to have lost his appetite as well, silent and still. He was staring too, but not at any one thing. His eyes wandered. First to the fire, watching the alien wood crackle and blacken and spit out sparks that turned from orange to blue. The rising sparks drew his gaze upward to the stars and the planet’s several small moons. Someone laughed at one of Lance’s jokes, breaking him out of his reverie for a moment. He didn’t seem to have heard what was said, but what could have been a smile ghosted his lips until he spotted Keith; specifically the thick red burn on Keith’s cheek. He stared at that for a long time, face unreadable, but was it just a trick of the fire or did his eyes seem to shimmer with unshed tears? She couldn’t tell. But the Black Lion held his gaze the longest, its massive form silhouetted against the starry sky, and somehow Shiro looked… apprehensive.
She thought herself observant, but she never caught on. None of them had. She never spotted the difference between the real Shiro and the clone. So she stared, hoping the sight of him now would stand in stark contrast to the clone and remind her how he’d been before, hoping she’d feel relief that things were finally as they should be. But if anything, he felt more a stranger now than he had when he was… well, a stranger.
Would she have felt that same strangeness before if she’d only paid attention? If she hadn’t been so caught up in her tech and coding and the fight with the Galra? If she hadn’t told herself when they found him to ‘give him some space’, ‘he’ll talk about it if he want’s to talk about it’, ‘Keith’s got it handled’, would she have picked up that something was off? Keith hadn’t. Why would she? But the guilt still gnawed at her.
So she rifles through her memories looking for clues all the while watching the man in question. She tries to remember Shiro as he was then, back when she’d met him. And the first thing she recalls–the strongest memory in her mind– is his smile. Calm, gentle, encouraging, it was the smile he wore when she found Green, every time he reassured her she’d find her family, when he promised to keep her secret, and when she decided to confide it to the others, before every mission when they went to their lions. It reminded her of Matt and her dad. It felt like a bit of home found her.
The clone… She couldn’t recall him offering that smile. But she hadn’t needed it then. Shiro had been missing so long, she’d stopped looking for that smile. And after he “returned” … she never bothered to look for it again.
The clone didn’t not smile, but most of the time his brows were furrowed in a near constant frown, sometimes pinching the bridge of his nose or rubbing his temple. He’d had headaches, she remembered. She’d never given it much thought. Lots of people got headaches. She assumed it was stress. Who had more reason to be stressed than Shiro? So she never questioned it, even when the pain got really bad. It was just stress. Just being overworked.
That’s why she invited him to play Monsters and Mana with them. He said he’d been working too hard, and yet he was still working on reports and mission plans when he should have been resting. She had to half drag him to the lounge… And he’d smiled then, not for her or anyone else’s benefit, but because he was having fun. It wasn’t the soft gentle smile she recalled of Shiro. It was unguarded, lopsided, almost childlike now that she thought about it, and her stomach twisted again.
He’d smiled when she brought Matt back too, and after they’d rescued her dad…
Dad… She’d been so determined to get him back, she was willing to offer an unarmed prisoner for him. Even if Lotor was a villain in the end, they hadn’t known that at the time. If they had just done what she wanted… If Shiro hadn’t armed Lotor… no, if the clone hadn’t armed Lotor…
She got up and dumped the remainder of her food back in the pot, feeling too sick to even pretend to eat anymore. Everyone else was finishing up as well, and started packing up for the night. As nice as it would be to camp out and sleep under the stars, it just wasn’t worth the risk when the lions were right there and so much safer.
Shiro started to help, but was quickly shoo’d off by Keith. “Just take it easy, Shiro. We can handle this,” she heard him say. Shiro merely smiled in reply–-that gentle smile for others’ benefits, not the childish lopsided grin–-and stepped back out of everyone’s way, looking only a little bit sad before staring once again at the Black Lion. He was so lost in thought, he didn’t notice Pidge sidle up next to him, didn’t hear her whisper his name, nearly jumped out of his skin when she tugged lightly at his hand.
“Sorry! Sorry!” Both her hands pulled back in placation. “Just… Trying to get your attention ‘s all.” She glowered at her feet, suddenly feeling this was a stupid idea.
Shiro shook his head and smiled, a gentle one, for her benefit. “No, I’m sorry, Pidge. Guess I was in my own little world there. Is something wrong?”
“What? No, of course not! I was just wondering…” She scratched her cheek, thinking how best to word this. “…If you wanted to stay in Green with me… for a little while…”
Shiro’s brows jumped up and she hastily added, “it’s just that–It gets kinda lonely sometimes and we haven’t really had the chance to catch up since you got back, but I totally get it if you’d rather stay with Keith and Black–”
“No!” Shiro cut her off. “I-I mean, that sounds great, Pidge. I’d love the chance to catch up. I’ll let Keith know and meet you there.”
Pidge beamed back at him, practically bouncing in relief. “I can tell him over the comms later. In the meantime, can you help me carry my stuff back to Green? It’s kinda heavy for me.”
For a moment, Shiro’s eyes grew wide and Pidge wondered if she should retract the offer. It wasn’t that heavy, but maybe he really wasn’t up for it. Before she could take it back, he smiled–-a gentle, lopsided grin. “I’d be happy to,” he said softly, and she grinned back.