Shiro is something else. Not himself.
The violet glow of Galra-touched quintessence highlights every cruel line etched into his expression. It makes the shapely angles of his face read severe, brutal. It gleams across his eyes and pools in his pupils, bright and malevolent.
The words he throws are as barbed as throwing knives, and just as carefully aimed. But they’re not Shiro’s. Not really, despite being drawn from his intimate knowledge of Keith’s past and his worst nightmares. That voice isn’t his, either. Not quite.
But it still does things to Keith.
“That’s the Keith I remember!” Shiro snarls as Keith presses him against a railing above a precipitous drop, their swords crossed and held in the same standoff they’d often wound up in during their sparring sessions.
His words sink into Keith’s skin and light it aflame, hotter than his boiling blood. It morphs his wild ferocity into something else, and even as Keith schools himself back into some semblance of control and focus, he can feel it stirring in his gut.
Lethal intent makes Shiro something else, too. As Keith skids and scrambles to meet his blows and match his acrobatic maneuvers, he wonders if this is the Champion as his enemies in the arena saw him— efficient, ruthless, a persistent force of precision and destruction. He’s fearsome like this, drawn into honed form, every merciful instinct stripped out of him.
Keith doesn’t cease trying to break through to him, though nothing seems to stay Shiro’s swordhand or lessen his fury. Snatches and snippets of memory from his time in the quantum abyss layer themselves over reality; the sense of deja vu is at times so potent that it lingers like a ghost passing through him. The air here is painfully thin, the artificially generated atmosphere growing weaker as the system throughout the facility begins to shutdown, and Keith feels it in the burn of his lungs.
Instinct takes over as his mind races for something, anything, to break through to Shiro. He parries, blocks, deftly dodges Shiro’s heavy blows as long as he can, trying to purchase time where there is none. And then that arm glows eerie bright, ominous with the color of poisoned quintessence. It unleashes humming beams of energy so destructive that they rend through metal and stone alike, sending rows upon rows of encapsulated clones sinking down to the planet below.
Keith’s steps skitter over the catwalks and platforms as he tries to outpace the worst of it. When he’s left with nowhere else to go, he jumps.
The freefall gives him a chance to breathe, at least, to swallow down icy air as it whistles past his face. All he can think of is making it to the platform below, of catching its edge in his hand and not letting go. Of heaving himself up and rolling over and then asking his flagging body to keep going, to fight until he can fight for Shiro no more.
The metal is space-frigid under his back, cold reaching up to seep in even through his armor. With a groan, Keith rolls and tries to crawl toward his dagger where it rests just a yard or two away. He’s cut short by an impact that shakes the metal structure underneath him, the hard gleam of Shiro’s boots appearing dead ahead. Distantly, Keith can hear the reverberating echo of collapse as the structure above them begins to fail, the moorings lodged in stone tearing free and metal groaning as it shifts it ways it was never meant to.
Shiro looms over him. The bleak white of his boots edges closer, a crackling hum returning as he reignites the wicked, quintessence fueled blade that extends from his Galra arm.
It takes a surge of strength that Keith didn’t know he had left to stop the snarling, overhanded slice meant to sear him into two. His ribcage thumps against the chestplate of his paladin armor as he strains to draw breath; his arms ache, muscle quivering as Keith pushes himself beyond even what he’d done in his trials for the Blade of Marmora.
Shiro bears down on him, using his considerable weight and bulk in ways he never had during their sparring matches. When Keith meets his gaze, he holds it— with eyes burning bright, his lip curled above elongated canines, murderousness etched into every furious line of his expression.
Keith’s lips part, dry from the chill air and exertion. Bruises already bloom along his chin and under his armor, felt with every shift and strain of muscle. He’d be shocked if nothing’s broken, if he isn’t concussed from the blow that took his helmet clean off. But the worst of the pain is seeing Shiro like this, bent and twisted into some heartless new version of the Galras’ Champion, made into the kind of monster he’d so long and so quietly feared he was. Manipulated again, used again, weaponized again. A prisoner within his own body, this time.
He’d fucking hate it. He’d anguish over it, suffer through it, rail against it with every fiber of his being— Keith knows he would. Knows he can’t leave Shiro like this.
Knows he can’t give up on him.
“Shiro, please. You’re my brother,” Keith grits out, fighting back tears just as fiercely as he is the humming blade of Shiro’s Galra arm. When the force bearing down on him only intensifies, Keith winces, chokes back a sob, and cries, “I love you!”
Shiro’s eyes go wide, a sharp inhale bringing him up short. He falters— only for a slivered second, only just barely relenting— and it provides some much-needed breathing room for Keith to work with. Shiro snaps back within another heartbeat, the glow behind his eyes more intense. There’s a deeper, rougher edge around his voice as he snarls, “Just give up, Keith. You don’t have to fight anymore. By now, the team’s already gone. I saw to it myself.”
The loss that slips through Keith is razor-edged, twisting as it slips through his gut. His mother. The other paladins. His wolf and everyone else.
And Shiro, all he has left, sits straddled over him as he works viciously to plunge his sword into Keith.
The edge of it kisses Keith’s skin, forcing a ragged scream out of him. The heat is whitehot, intense enough that it evaporates the sweat clinging to his skin; so bright that he sees the blade even through his eyelids. There’s the smell of his own flesh burning— surreal, in a way— followed by the punch of focused quintessence filling his nose and crackling like static across the inside of his mouth.
It matches the agony inside of him, deep in his heart, and Keith draws on the swell of emotion like it’s a secondwind. He can feel the awkward set of his longer canines against his bottom teeth as he clenches his jaw and pushes upward into Shiro’s hanging blow. It isn’t quite enough— not alone, not with Shiro propelled by the unseen hand of the witch that would think nothing of destroying them both.
“Shiro, I love you,” Keith tries again, just as desperate a plea.
The shock isn’t the same this time, but the scant inch of give behind the quintessence blade is. Shiro blinks down at him, the corner of his mouth drawing back in a blink-and-miss-it twitch. For once, he doesn’t press the attack.
“Like no one else,” Keith soldiers on, heartened by the little glimmer of Shiro and the hope that he might coax him free. His voice splinters and cracks, like the metal scaffolding of the complex around them. “Please, Shiro, listen to me. You’re my everything. You know that, don’t you?”
The open affection brings a snarl to Shiro’s lips, revealing gleaming fangs amid teeth clenched tight. With a jolt, he goes tense, body strung taut. Rigid. Trembling through the rigor of it. A sound hangs in the back of his throat, and Keith can’t tell whether it’s his Shiro trying to break through and answer or if he’s only holding Haggar’s cruel words at bay.
“I can’t imagine a life without you.” It’s not the way Keith anticipated telling Shiro any of this, but it might be the last chance— his only chance— and every word seems to chip away at Haggar’s control. “Please, Shiro. Come back to me. I need you.”
Shiro’s internal struggle continues to play out in the warring of his expression, pained and furious by turns. His eyebrows pull inward, furrowed above eyes squeezed shut tight. A whine slips through his clenched teeth, agonized, and suddenly that blade of focused quintessence flickers and fails, stuttering as it slowly retracts. The ominous hum slows, then ceases. And then it vanishes, that sickly magenta light no longer throwing haunting shadows across Shiro’s face.
Keith sighs out his relief, the pain in his cheek still a sharp reminder of what Shiro’s quintessence-formed blade could do. It’s too trusting, though.
With a grunt, Shiro instead presses his forearm into Keith’s throat, firm and unrelenting even as Keith grips his wrist and tries to wrest him away. His face dips in close, the light behind his eyes as mesmerizing as any distant and deadly star; his breaths are ragged, too, every exhalation ghosting warmth over Keith’s chilled skin. He holds Keith there, pinned down under him, one hard move from carrying out Haggar’s will and ending him.
Keith squints, grimacing as he lifts his chin and struggles to breathe, to think. Shiro must be fighting tooth and nail to wrest even this much agency from Haggar’s grip, and Keith wants to help. Has to help. He can’t give up on Shiro when he’s so close to breaking through, and if all of their brawling and his previous pleas weren’t enough to shatter the witch’s hold, then he’ll just have to try harder.
“I don’t want to fight you, Shiro. You have no idea how much you mean to me,” Keith rasps, licking his lips. His cheek stings when he speaks, raw skin tugged by even the smallest movement, and he labors to stay calm despite the obstruction of the already-thin air. “But maybe I can show you?”
It’s a risky leap of faith, dropping his defenses. It’s trust where there’s every reason to withhold it, submitting to the questionable mercy of this wild-eyed, snarling Shiro. Keith knows it even as he slowly uncurls his hand from Shiro’s wrist and lets his arm go slack, offering no contest to the pressure laid against his throat. He sucks in one last, quick breath in preparation, eyes squeezed shut as he waits for the crush against his windpipe—
That doesn’t come.
Keith slowly cracks an eye open, warily watching as Shiro watches him.
There’s a heaviness to Shiro’s movements as he eases the pressure on Keith’s neck and draws his arm aside. His Galra hand immediately resettles around Keith’s bruised throat instead, the same threat taking a new shape.
But this one is preferable, Keith thinks. Gentle, even, by comparison. Shiro merely cradles the column of his throat, holds him still, steely thumb stroking up and down over his Adam’s apple like he’s tempted to do worse. There’s still a war raging behind the glaze that colors his pupils a brilliant and unnatural violet, a hardwon thoughtfulness to every moment he isn’t actively trying to tear Keith apart.
Slowly, slowly, Keith’s hands move— not to his own throat, not to the delicate and deadly hold Shiro has him in, but to the smooth and unyielding surface of Shiro’s chestplate. It’s hard. Cold, even through Keith’s gloves. But under it, somewhere, beats Shiro’s vulnerable heart.
“Come back for me, Shiro,” Keith says as he slides his hands downward, palming over the curved chestplate and flexible underarmor along Shiro’s sides. The material protecting their midsections is thinner, more supple, and he can feel Shiro’s shudder as his shaking fingers trail their way to his waist. “You want this too, don’t you? You want me.”
Shiro grunts in response, his clutch around Keith’s throat briefly tightening to a pinch that threatens to darken Keith’s sight and draw stars across his vision. But it passes. Shiro’s grip eases just as suddenly, the hand cupped around his neck withdrawn. There’s a beat in which Shiro just breathes, and then metal fingers still warm from quintessence brush along Keith’s jaw in apology.
It must be a fearsome struggle playing out behind Shiro’s eyes, in the arena of his skull, battling for his life and Keith’s.
His Galra hand slams down beside Keith’s head, palm flush with the plated flooring. His fingers leave terrible gouges in the metal as Shiro draws them into a tight, closed fist, the piercing sound of it sending a shiver down Keith’s spine.
“You can have me, Shiro,” he comforts through it, running a hand up the side of his neck to cup along his jaw. His other hand slips further down, fumbling to undo Shiro’s belt one handed. He slides his fingers into Shiro’s undersuit and drags his knuckles along the underside of Shiro’s half-hard length, drawing a deep breath as the man bends and shudders above him. “She can’t, but you can.”
He coaxes more out of Shiro, tracing his gloved fingers over the straining shape of his cock until he can feel the heavy puffs of Shiro’s panting breaths, the tremble that runs him up and down, the grate of metal-on-metal as Shiro digs his fingers into the crumbling structure underneath them.
As Shiro lets loose a low growl, Keith hurriedly slips a hand under his waistband and takes him in hand. The effect is instantaneous: the noise dies in Shiro’s throat, cut short with a strangled whimper; dark lashes flutter over eyes still electrified with that bright color synonymous with the Galra; his back arches as he presses eagerly into Keith’s touch.
“That’s the reaction I was hoping for,” Keith whispers, low and encouraging. With shaking breath, he marvels at the feel of Shiro in his palm— hard, heavy, so thick that closing his hand around it is a near thing.
Shiro bucks down into his touch like he can’t help himself, Haggar’s phantasmal hand and an order to kill be damned. In the back of his throat, something builds. Hard, stuttering consonants, jaw working as he fights through the control she wields over him. “K-K— Kei… K- Keith.”
It sounds like Shiro. His Shiro, no witch’s poison on his lips.
“Shiro,” he answers back, choking even without the press of a hand on his throat. “Shiro? Stay with me.”
Keith pulls him closer, even as Shiro’s eyes go void-like and the violet sitting in his pupils brightens. He drags his thumb up to circle around the head of Shiro’s cock, winning a stinging hiss and a moment of sharp, conflicted clarity.
Shiro’s groans are half-pained, half-pleasured, milked by Keith as he drags his hand up and down the length of him. He can only manage a few words— Keith’s name, mostly, growled and panted into the frigid air as he’s torn between the pain of Haggar’s grip and the needy, desperate fondness of Keith’s.
“I’ve got you, Shiro. Focus on me. Focus on this,” he murmurs as he kisses at the edge of Shiro’s snarling mouth, heart skipping up into his throat as his eyes— bright with that uncanny glow— zero in on him with the intensity of a dying star. “Shiro?”
“You— hn, Haggar is—” There’s a sharp click as Shiro’s teeth snap tight, the cords of his neck straining with effort. Sweat sheens across his skin like stardust, a flushed red rising along the heights of his cheeks. “She— she’s in my head, K-Keith. Watching.”
“Then I hope she’s enjoying the show,” Keith hisses, a hand buried in Shiro’s hair as he draws him in close, staring defiantly through violet-tinged eyes. When he kisses Shiro, it’s with everything he has— lips, tongue, teeth, swallowing up the moans Shiro makes as Keith squeezes along his shaft.
Keith only draws back an inch once he’s more starved for air than he is for Shiro, and it’s still a close call. Panting and bruise-mouthed, he asks, “Are you?”
Shiro’s head hangs for a moment, the tips of his white fringe just brushing over Keith’s forehead, but then he nods. Over and over, as his Galra hand rakes through the flooring beside Keith’s head, corkscrew shavings of metal growing from the slashes he carves.
“You— got big,” Shiro breathes out, a huff of strangled laughter escaping him. “Look good.”
It’s a glimmer of him again, the most of Shiro that Keith’s witnessed in two long fucking years, his dreams and waking hours riddled with out of sequence snatches of their fight in the abandoned cloning facility. As always, Shiro’s praise triggers something chemical in his veins— a rush, heated and sweet, a thrill that makes him yearn to earn more.
“I’ve spent the last two years thinking of you,” Keith admits, “like this. When I needed to— when I had privacy. What I’d do to you. What I’d let you do to me.”
The groan that Shiro rumbles out lances straight down Keith’s spine, weakening him more than any battle or blow to the body ever could. It stirs something low and slithery in his gut, needier than he’s ever felt in the small hours of the morning, left alone with just his own touch and secretive, yearning thoughts of his closest friend.
Keith works his fist up and down Shiro’s cock with tender, almost-reverent strokes. It’s not how he ever pictured this, their first time— maybe their last, too, he thinks dimly through the haze of battle and ardor and lust— but he wants it to be good. He wants Shiro to know he loves him, and how much.
The most he’s ever loved someone, in so many ways that it feels all-encompassing. Enough to swallow the universe, and him with it.
“Fight her, Shiro. Stay with me. Right here, with me,” he almost cries, watching Shiro hunch and strain against whatever her voice is ordering him to do, “and tell Haggar to fuck off. You’re mine, Shiro! She can’t have you.”
“Yours,” Shiro agrees as he ruts helplessly into Keith, grinding him against the metal platform underneath them; his metal fingers are practically bored through, anchoring him as he writhes into Keith with increasing desperation. His head dips low, fangs clasping gentle around the arch of Keith’s throat before gliding higher— over the curve of his jaw, nuzzling into his hair. His voice is ragged, almost broken, as he whispers, “But I can’t— I can’t shake her, no matter what I do, Keith.”
When Keith blinks, he feels tears. He ignores them as he presses kisses against Shiro’s sweaty brow, eyeing his sleeping luxite blade where it lays just barely within reach.
And it’s dangerous, baring so much of himself to Shiro while Haggar still has her hooks in him, no doubt throwing her power against Shiro’s tenuous control in a bid to break them both against each other. But if he’s reckless, it’s only with longing left to build too long, like a riverrun unstoppable now that it’s breeched its dam. And if he trusts Shiro, even like this, it’s because he’s done it so long and so deeply that he knows no other way.
Keith can’t help but squirm under Shiro’s weight, bucking his hips up into unyielding armor and muscle. For just a moment, he gives himself over to it— Shiro sliding against him, his iron-rod arms caging him in, the smell of his sweat-sheened skin a comfort amid the sterile facility’s artificial air. There’s something about Shiro’s hunger for him, even if it comes like this; it smothers in a way Keith’s craved for longer than he’s been able to put a name to it. Within the crushing confines of his own paladin suit, he aches for Shiro keen enough to make himself dizzy.
Hot breath warms along his throat. Wet, hungry kisses draw his blood to the surface, bruising. And as a tongue laps its way up the fresh scar on his cheek, stinging even as it soothes, Keith extends his left arm and reaches as far as he can, fingernails scraping along the pommel of his blade.
Regret washes through Keith as he wraps his hand around the dagger’s grip, icy like the endless vacuum waiting under them.
He has to wonder why they didn’t remove Shiro’s arm sooner, why they hadn’t made him another, why they'd let it lie there and fester. It was a Galra weapon, a reminder of the arena, a trap in plain sight. There were intricacies in its code, yes, all directly linked to Shiro’s mind, but the reluctance went beyond that. It had been too useful to the war effort, serving as Shiro’s weapon in place of his missing bayard and providing them a key for Galra tech. They’d listened and placidly accepted Shiro’s smiles and insistence that it was fine, that he’d make the best of it, that they didn’t need to fret over him— and Keith feels the weight of it all now, guilt seeping into him the same way the metal arm had leached Haggar’s poison into Shiro.
I’ll fix it, though, he promises. Too late, probably, for so many better, brighter fates, but if they’re dying here, it won’t be with Shiro as a prisoner in his own body.
“It’s okay, Shiro. It’s going to be okay. I’ve got you.”
Keith catches Shiro’s mouth in a messy, uneven kiss. It’s as desperate as the way he strokes Shiro, rough and hurried, encouraged by the way his groans turn needier and breathier by the second. He rolls his wrist and runs his thumb under the crown of Shiro’s head, firm enough to draw out a sob as Shiro’s Galra hand rakes jagged lines through the metal flooring beside Keith’s head and his back arches stiff.
Wet, sticky warmth gathers in Keith’s fist and slips through his fingers. It drips down his wrist, sluggish as honey, and leaves a slick trail down Shiro’s considerable length. In his ears, there’s the click of teeth as Shiro’s jaw snaps tight, a weak moan trailing after.
And as Keith turns his head, he watches that eerie light in Shiro’s eyes finally flicker and die— almost. Almost.
It flares bright again even as Shiro’s still catching his breath, practically collapsed on top of Keith. The joints along his Galra arm seep with that same dark, purple-tinged quintessence, and it’s painfully clear that Haggar still isn’t letting go.
And now that there aren’t any other options left, here at the very end of their universe, Keith decides to do what they ought to have done back in the Castleship, or on Olkarion, or a hundred other times and places before.
And if he and Shiro die after, they die together.
With a crescendoing cry, Keith draws on every bit of strength he has left. It’s a secondwind from his own Galra blood, drawing his nails to sharp points and filling him with bloodlust that he takes and channels where he needs. His blade awakens in a heartbeat, before Shiro— still dazed and drawn from his release— can react, or Haggar through him. Keith swings it high, in an upward arc, the luxite slicing through metal plates and coiling and humming energy same as it might part flesh.
It severs the arm clean, energy crackling in its wake, and Shiro’s cry of pain is an agony that chills Keith to the quick.
But it works. Awful and brutal as it is, it works.
As Shiro lifts his head and meets his gaze, Keith can tell it’s him again. The way Shiro says his name— soft, terrified, choked with regret— is proof enough, but it’s the deep, familiar color of his eyes that allows Keith to finally exhale. No sickly light, no hard cruelty. Only Shiro, his Shiro, same as he ever was, stares back at him in horror of everything that’s come to pass.
Keith watches the witch’s veil lift, watches Shiro come back to him for good— just in time to feel the platform under them finally give out.
Cables snap overhead, joints groaning as they twist under tension they were never meant to hold. He and Shiro are both sent sliding as the structure tips to one side, practically held by a spider’s thread. In desperation, Keith drives his dagger into the metal plating and grabs hold of Shiro’s wrist as he tumbles by, already unconscious. The blade shrieks as it tears through sheets of reinforced flooring, slowing their descent just enough to keep them from falling to a cold, sinking death.
Dizzy for lack of air and stretched the thinnest and weakest he’s ever felt, Keith looks to Shiro.
A cast of bleached starlight falls over him, his eyes shut and lips parted, fate entirely in Keith’s hands. Keith holds him tighter even as the metal framework above them lurches and his dagger slips free, refusing to let go even as they fall toward a bright and uncertain abyss.
The edges of his vision go black as the air thins out, and in the gaps his mind paints its own visions— of him, of Shiro, of them together as they were years ago. He clings to Shiro in body and spirit, fighting the dreaded slip of his consciousness as they plummet together, lost amid the debris slowly crashing toward the small planet below.
His eyes open and for the last time, he sees Shiro— his bruises kissed away by a wash of starlight, younger by years, drifting in some painless slumber in a stark and breathtaking corner of the universe that’s just theirs, now.
And it’s enough.