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white orchids and silver lines

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Shiro’s grandfather passes away in late November, when the air is cold and biting, sharp in Shiro’s lungs. At eighty-six, his chronic heart condition wins out in the end - at least it was peaceful, people tell him. Sliding off the mortal coil in his sleep, not a bad way to go. Shiro has to conduct the appropriate ceremonies alone, as his grandfather’s only living relative. Closing and shrouding his grandfather’s butsudan; flowers (white orchids, his grandfather’s favourite), incense and a candle burning sedately by his grandfather’s bed.

He contacts the local temple and the wake held is small, a cluster of black suits and dresses, the occasional kimono. Adam is there, his black suit pressed and pleated, glasses glinting in the light from the candles; a silent and steadying presence. By the time the priest finishes chanting, there is a neat collection of black and silver envelopes by Shiro’s person, and the room smells strongly of incense, making Shiro’s eyes water just a little. His electrostimulator beeps its incessant warning in the middle of the ceremony and he almost crushes the metal casing trying to turn it off. The numb tingling in his right arm was at least a wake up call from the numbness in his chest.

He stays vigil overnight and the funeral the following day is so similar that Shiro has to shake off the deja vu.

Shirogane Tadayo is cremated and buried underneath the Shirogane family monument by the year’s first snowfall.

Shiro couldn’t help but wonder how many years it would be before his name was engraved in silver lines on that smooth black stone.

* * *

The cemetery is half-rubble. Shiro and Keith wander between chunks of chipped rock and cracked, scorched ground, metal flower vases long-melted and memorial flowers charred and lost to the wind. Kosmo bounds ahead of them, sniffing and mapping the new landscape, blue fur startling amongst the grey debris. Green weeds sprout up from ashy mud, the spring day blue-skyed, wispy cirrus clouds drifting lazily by. The noon sun is bright, almost welcoming as they pass through the desolate cemetery. It was one of the older ones remaining from before extreme funeral modernisation, actual carved stone and traditional burial.

It’s only been a handful of years since he was last here but it feels like a lifetime upon a lifetime. He used to come bi-annually, cut the time out of his busy Garrison schedule to be in Japan for the anniversaries, buy the right flowers from the local florist. Beside him, Keith carries a white orchid in a small black pot as if he’d plucked it straight from Shiro’s memories, though it had been specially grown by Colleen Holt for their trip. Muscle memory helps guide Shiro to the Shirogane family monument where it rests in the east side of the cemetery. This part of the cemetery is relatively intact, perhaps protected by the bank of trees that grow close by. Both him and Keith are quiet as they approach, Keith keeping an eye on Kosmo rummaging around as Shiro leads them to the plot.

SHIROGANE engraved in silver lines against smooth black stone catches Shiro’s eye and he’s brought to a stop. They were closer than he’d thought. A flower pot Shiro realises he’d bought is scattered in ceramic pieces across the base of the monument, the orchid once housed there long gone, and there’s a crack running through the once-polished mantle. But it’s still intact. It’s still here.

He kneels and quietly sweeps away the shards of ceramic with his prosthetic hand. Keith silently gives him the orchid to place carefully at the base of the monument; it is simply and singularly beautiful, the orchid, or at least that’s how his grandfather always described them. Shiro had never had the patience or time for plants when he was young. Engraved in silver lines of kanji, there was his great grandparents’, his grandparents’ names, his parents’ names. Shiro murmurs a brief prayer, half-remembered, and feels the gentle pressure of Keith’s warm hand on his shoulder.

It’s enough to dislodge the lump in Shiro’s throat.

“It’s been a long time,” Shiro speaks in Japanese, as he’s always done with his family, “I’m sorry I missed so many anniversaries. Fighting an intergalactic war sort of took top priority in my life for awhile. So much has happened since I was last here. I - I’m not sure if you’d recognise me if you saw me, if I’m honest. You always taught me to be honest. And nothing’s been easy, these past few years, and I’ve spent so many hours thinking about what you’d think of who I am now. If you’d feel sad, or proud, or maybe just - happy to see me. Anyway,” and Shiro smiles, helpless against the urge, “there is someone I want to introduce to you.”

He envelopes his human hand around Keith’s hand on his shoulder and tugs him down to sit beside him, their thighs pressing close together. Keeping hold of Keith’s hand, Shiro twines their fingers, unwilling to lose the comforting warmth and strength of Keith’s hold.

“Hello,” Keith greets quietly, practiced in the art of talking to a silent grave, “I’m Keith, I’m… I’m Shiro’s fiancé.”

It seems much too simple for Keith to describe himself that way, even if it was the heart-warming truth. Keith is his best friend, his brother in arms, his saviour, his lover. In a few months time, he’ll be Shiro’s husband. Keith is, to put it as simply as possible, Shiro’s everything. He feels the shape of Keith’s ring press against his own, the metal warm from Keith’s body heat. Kosmo approaches from his adventure and opts to sit on his hunches beside the Shirogane monument, a big, blue-furred sentinel.

“I know we never got the chance to meet properly, but I want you to know how much I love Shiro, that I’ll take care of him when he isn’t able to, that I’d never thought I’d be so lucky as to spend my life with a man like him,” Keith continues, voice so earnest Shiro’s heart bangs with affection against his ribcage.

“We’ve been through a lot together, me and Keith,” Shiro says softly, “and at every turn, he’s been there for me, protecting me, taking care of me. I - I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for him. The fact that I get to spend my future with him - I can’t put into words how much it means and I know you would have loved him had you had the chance to meet.”

Shiro and Keith fell into silence for a little while, the moment settling around them, gazing at the black stone that represented the entirety of Shiro’s blood family. He’d known his parents for only a short while before they were killed in a rail accident, and then he’d been raised by his grandparents, and then just his grandfather; the Shirogane family forever shrinking until he was the only one left, alone and in perpetual mourning.

Yet there is new family in his life now, not biological but forged through chance and battle-fire. A determination to look after one another as they fought to free the universe from tyranny. Not perfect, no, and not always easy to deal with but true and solid; an anchor in a storm-shook sea. And at the heart of it - Keith, fierce and beautiful and strong and never deterred from Shiro’s side, burning with devotion like a star being born, radiating light.

Shiro’s future, bathed in love and light. Who would have thought? Not him, that’s for sure. He’d fully expected to burn out before he was thirty, his body eternally working against him. Yet even that had been washed away, this cloned body eradicating disease. Shiro, against all odds, faces a long life that will be cluttered with loved ones, spinning around the axis of his most precious person. The prospect being overwhelming was an understatement.

Squeezing Keith’s hand, Shiro says, “Let’s go home.”

Keith’s eyes ask him if he’s sure and Shiro nods, briefly touching the petals of the orchid with his metal fingers, white on white. The loss of his family will never be easy, something Keith intimately understands himself, but together they can forge a future that honors them, that would make them proud. And hopefully, it will be a long, long time before Shiro’s name is engraved in silver lines.