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I Always Wanted to Shine

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“Can you walk, Shiro?” Keith asks, his hand resting on Shiro’s thigh.

Every sensation is new, like Shiro’s experiencing it all for the first time: sound, sight, touch. And maybe, in a way, he is. He’s spent so long on the astral plane, thinking he would never feel anything ever again, and now the world is too bright, too loud, too heavy on his skin. Everything threatens to be too much.

And Keith’s hand is resting on his thigh.

Shiro stares at the hand for so long, perplexed by the sight of it, that he nearly misses Keith’s question. When he processes the words, they just sit there inside him, muddled. He isn’t sure how to answer, at first. His silence sends shame flooding through him, a quiet, quivering uselessness lodged in his stomach. He stares at Keith’s hand and then yanks his eyes away, lifting his head to look up at Keith, helplessly.

Keith smiles, taking Shiro’s non-answer in stride.

“Okay. Come on.”

Keith’s hand lifts away from Shiro’s leg in favor of curling his arm around Shiro’s waist, helping to ease him off the healing pod’s flat, metal surface. Shiro can do nothing but obey Keith, falling into his orbit and letting him guide. It’s only because it’s Keith that Shiro doesn’t shun the assistance. He knows he feels too wobbly, like a newborn fawn, ready to topple over.

“Where are we going?” Shiro asks.

“You need to rest,” Keith says, as if he isn’t in equal need of it, possibly more so. There’s a bone-deep exhaustion teeming in Keith’s eyes and Shiro wonders when the last time Keith slept was. “Mom set up a bed for you. Just a cot, but… better than metal.”

Keith’s mom. Shiro’s mind is fuzzy at the edges, a flurry of too many thoughts and memories— things that belong to him and don’t belong to him. But he remembers her face, her name— Krolia, Keith’s mother. She looked so much like Keith, Shiro remembers thinking. No, not Shiro. An impostor thinking it.

“No,” Shiro whispers his answer, letting it rasp out of him.

Keith stops immediately, holding Shiro’s weight with ease. He’s so much stronger now, wide-shouldered, his hold firm around Shiro’s waist. Keith tilts his head to look at Shiro and Shiro’s eyes stray to the burned line on his cheek before skittering away again.

Before Keith can question the protest, Shiro adds, “I— can we go outside instead?”

Keith’s answer is instant: “Whatever you need, Shiro.”

It’s too generous, too sweet of Keith to say, and Shiro can only close his eyes against it. He knows, realistically, that Keith should be afraid of him, shouldn’t be so kind. But he also knows that Keith could never be so, never with him. It’s both relieving and devastating at once. That feeling— relief, gratitude, despair together— washes over him.

Keith redirects their path. Shiro’s sluggishness makes their movements excruciatingly slow and his feet are lead weights, shuffling over the floor of the Black Lion. His body feels like a river’s stone, tumbled for too long by the water.

Black’s ramp descends as they approach the exit and Shiro feels her lowering down. As the doors slide open, the world outside is too bright— Shiro needs to squeeze his eyes shut against the onslaught. He trusts Keith to lead him even blind and Keith is exceptionally patient, leading him down the ramp and helping him to sit on one of Black’s massive paws.

“How’s this?” Keith asks. He hasn’t let go of Shiro, one hand on his chest, the other on his back. He hovers over Shiro, not sitting down himself.

“Perfect,” Shiro answers.

There’s a slight breeze pushing against his body and it might as well be a windstorm with how strong it feels. The sun shining on him is almost an assault, Keith’s casting shadow his only reprieve as he stands in front of Shiro, hunched over him.

He’s intimately aware of how Keith smells: like ozone and blood and fatigue, like grit and dirt and quintessence. He never realized all these things could have any scent, could combine like this. He never would have noticed this before— everything.

Keith hovers above him and then, tentatively, shifts away to sit beside him.

Shiro just tries to breathe. He just tries to exist.

Shiro is nothing if not stubborn. The longer he sets, the less the sun feels like an assault. He finally manages to squint his eyes open. He blinks a few times, clearing the spots from his vision, and tips his head back to find Keith hovering over him, eyes bright and beautiful and concerned. He’s flushed in the alien sunlight— more orange than it should be— hand on Shiro’s back. Shiro stares at him, meeting his eyes and not looking away.

Keith always was such a bright, burning sun. It’s almost painful to look at him now, to get lost in the deep color of his eyes.

“Keith,” Shiro whispers, unsure what else to say. So much has happened and language is inadequate.

Keith smiles, such a gentle, tender expression that Shiro doesn’t deserve. “Hey, Shiro.”

They sit together in silence. That isn’t so odd for them, Shiro thinks. Memories of being with Keith in the desert dance at the front of his mind, the little wisps of his dream still lingering. He and Keith used to race out in the desert, used to spend hours on the garrison roof just watching the sunset or the stars. They could sit for hours, just enjoying one another’s company, words unneeded between them.

“Is it stupid to ask how you’re feeling?” Keith asks once the silence lulls into Keith’s soft breath, his hand ghosting up Shiro’s back and touching his shoulder. It’s a simple touch but it nearly robs Shiro of his equilibrium. Even a simple touch like this borders on too much. Shiro only just manages to hold back a shudder.

“I don’t know,” Shiro confesses, both to the question and to the sentiment of it. “I don’t know if I have an answer yet.”

“That’s okay.”

Shiro nods and says nothing more. He’s sitting here, out in the sunshine, slowly adjusting to its brightness with Keith by his side. But this isn’t his body. Or, it’s a body but it isn’t quite his. He— it, him, someone else— tried to kill Keith in this body.

Shiro realizes too late, after some minutes of quiet, that he’s trembling despite the heat of the alien planet. He realizes only because Keith’s turning towards him— his eyes so deep and so beautiful and so concerned

And Shiro deserves none of it.

“Shiro?” Keith asks, a thread of worry coloring his voice.

Shiro doesn’t know what to say to Keith and can only manage a shake of his head.

“Does it hurt?” Keith asks in a quiet voice. It takes Shiro a moment to realize he means his arm, or the lack of one, can see how Keith’s other hand hovers just barely over the metal plating, as if afraid to touch. Quietly, Keith clarifies, “Your arm?”

Strange, to think that Keith’s fear stems from Shiro’s hurt, not the hurt Shiro’s dealt him.

Shiro’s arm hurt him every day, before. He never realized at the time— there was always too much happening, too much to focus on. It was easy to forget the ever-present ache deep in his bones. His pain was lost to him. It wasn’t until he was on the astral plane and feeling nothing that the absence of pain became proof of its existence. The arm weighed too heavy, pulsed in his blood, left him breathless and fatigued.

He never noticed its weight until it was gone, until Shiro thought he’d never feel anything again.

It’s different now. His shoulder aches, but not in the way it once did. It’s a dull ache, acknowledgement of something missing. “No,” he finally says, and something flickers in Keith’s eyes. “I’m glad it’s gone.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.” Keith breathes out. He looks to Shiro, as if expecting him to react to the words. When no response comes, Keith bites his lip. “I was afraid I…”

“No,” Shiro interrupts, hoping he sounds kind and not hollow. “I’m glad you did, Keith. You did the right thing.”

Keith’s quiet at that but, slowly, his hand touches the remains of Shiro’s right shoulder. Shiro half-expects him to flinch away, but of course he does no such thing. He just touches Shiro, offers him that comfort.

“You’re shaking,” Keith observes.

Shiro nods. There’s no reason to deny as much and Keith’s no fool.

“I’m alive,” Shiro whispers and can’t manage anything else. He hopes it’s enough.

 

-

 

All around Shiro, the Paladins start packing up for the long journey as the lions recharge. Shiro thinks— fears— that Keith will join them, leave Shiro alone on the Black Lion’s paw, leave him alone to his thoughts. But Keith is a fixture at his side, and no one dares approach him to try to draw him away from Shiro.

Shiro watches everyone give the two of them a wide berth and worries. He watches Pidge’s eyes flick towards him and away several times, watches the way Lance bites his lip and studiously avoids eye contact. Shiro hangs his head against the brightness of the sun, the heat of the day, the chasm opening between him and his friends, and isn’t sure what he’s feeling.

“They’re afraid of me now,” Shiro murmurs to Keith.

“No,” Keith answers, definitive and sure. “They’re giving you space.”

Shiro’s lip wobbles and he wants to believe him, wants to believe the surety in Keith’s words. He peeks up at him and finds Keith smiling down at him, his mouth curved up in unbearable sweetness.

“You’re not afraid of me,” Shiro says, observation and question at once.

Keith shakes his head. “Never, Shiro.”

“I— he— I tried to kill you,” Shiro whispers. He licks his lips, dry and chapped, and curls into himself. Keith startles next to him, his breath rushing out of him.

“You… You remember,” Keith says, quietly. There’s something tender in his next words, a confession: “I wasn’t sure— I didn’t know if you’d remember.”

Shiro considers this. It explains his reaction to talking about his arm— the way he looked up at Shiro, as if expecting anger. Shiro breathes.

“I remember. Everything’s in bits and pieces, but I… I remember,” Shiro says. He keeps his head bowed. “I know you’re not going to let me say sorry.”

“True,” Keith agrees. He reaches out and touches Shiro’s hand, tentatively. When Shiro turns his palm up, Keith threads their fingers together. It’s a simple gesture but it breaks Shiro’s heart.

“I— I almost—”

“But you didn’t.”

“But I could have—”

“But you didn’t.” Keith’s voice is firm, definitive as he dismisses Shiro’s awkward attempts at communication.

Shiro stares down at their hands, unsure what else to say. He’s never held Keith’s hand like this. He likes the way it looks, how easily he and Keith thread together. Despite how strong Keith’s hand looks against his palm, his fingers look so slender.

“I know you don’t want to hear it,” Shiro says, saying it in a rush, “but I’m sorry, Keith. I’m sorry for what he— what I did.”

Keith’s thumb swipes over Shiro’s knuckles. Shiro dares to glance up and finds Keith looking at their hands, expression thoughtful, the movement mindless. He must feel Shiro’s eyes on him, though, because his eyes flit up and lock onto Shiro’s, just observing him for a long moment.

The world stills, narrows in until it’s only Keith— his expression calm, understanding. His eyes that ethereal glow of a thousand stars. He blinks and seems to return to himself, studying Shiro’s face.

“I know,” Keith says quietly, squeezing his hand and never tearing his eyes away. “But you’re here. You’re alive. That’s— that’s everything, Shiro. That’s worth everything.”

 

-

 

Later, once Keith’s led him back onto Black, Shiro lets himself ease down onto the cot Krolia set up for him earlier. It feels too soft, although objectively Shiro knows he should find it uncomfortable, the canvas too scratchy and saggy at once.

Now that he’s been awake enough to notice it, the Black Lion is silent around him. He used to know every sound she made, could feel her humming in his bones, running through his blood like a pulse. She’s quiet now but Shiro wonders if Keith can hear her, what she sounds like in his mind.

His mind feels blissfully empty, at the moment. And he’s terrified it might not last. That Haggar is just waiting to dig her claws back in again. He’s afraid of being torn apart from the inside out, someone else’s thought and someone else’s will buried inside him.

He takes a steadying breath and it sounds so loud in the dark belly of the Black Lion. He focuses on the sound of Keith moving around, the click of the wolf’s claws as he follows Keith. It’s a soothing sound, endearing in its own way, as is watching a massive space wolf follow Keith around like a puppy. Warmth swirls in Shiro’s gut and he finds himself smiling before he can question the sensation.

Keith pauses in his journey around the lion’s cargo hold to pat the wolf on the head and the wolf gives a low whine. It’s almost mundane, watching Keith like this— Shiro feels like a space shaped like him has been filled once more, finding himself anchored at Keith’s side. Just as he was always meant to be.

Once satisfied he has what he needs, plucking one last thing from a supply cupboard, Keith makes his way back to Shiro, carrying a bundle of cloth and some bandages. He pauses when he catches sight of Shiro’s smile and something eases in Keith’s eyes— a certain tension dropping away. His eyes are soft as he sets his supplies down.

He reaches for Shiro, slow enough that Shiro could move back if he needed to, but Shiro finds himself leaning in towards Keith’s space. Keith touches his shoulder, closer to his neck than the metal casing. Helplessly, Shiro lifts his hand and covers Keith’s with his own. He’s unsure if he’s ever going to want to let go again.

They stay like that, perhaps for longer than is strictly necessary, and then Keith’s hand shifts.

“Can I…?” Keith asks, hands hovering over the clasps holding Shiro’s armor in place. Shiro isn’t sure what Keith’s asking for, but he also isn’t sure if he can say no to him, either.

When he nods his head, Keith starts stripping him down. Shiro holds his breath, his chest tight and his throat thick. He feels the swell of his lungs, the stilling of breath in his airways. A strange sensation, different from not breathing— an expectation, a brief moment between breath and no breath. It isn’t permanent.

He lets the air back out again. It wheezes out of him. His chest compresses as Keith draws back his chest plate.

“What are you doing?” Shiro asks.

Keith pauses, looking up at him. His cheeks are pink but otherwise his look is that same determined expression Keith always wears when he’s on a mission. “I need to clean you up. See if you need any bandages… I don’t know how well the healing pod took care of you.”

Keith unclasps Shiro’s smaller pieces of armor on his arm, then his legs. He removes Shiro’s boots and then his glove, plucking each finger free.

“Shouldn’t you worry about yourself first?” Shiro asks. Shiro hates to think of what might be hiding under Keith’s armor, the roadmap of every injustice Shiro’s felled upon him.

Keith shrugs and removes the last of Shiro’s armor. “I’m alright.”

Shiro wants to protest but Keith’s already peeling down Shiro’s undersuit. Shiro blinks down at this body in quiet wonderment as it’s exposed inch by inch. He recognizes the body, although it doesn’t feel like his own. He recognizes the scars but notes, with a quiet sort of revelation, that most of these would have been carved into his body to mimic a vaporized body. Proof that something happened, but a something that happened to someone else.

What’s more unnerving is the white down of his arm hair. His stomach, when Keith peels his suit low enough, reveals a slim trail of white hair. He stares at his belly button.

“It’s white,” Shiro says, quietly. He stares at his arm hair.

Keith looks up at him, surprised. His cheeks are a little pink, fingertips ghosting Shiro’s hips. “Oh. Um, Shiro…” He looks around, then makes a sound of frustration. “There are no mirrors on Black. But… All your hair is white. It happened after— after Allura pulled you out of Black.”

Shiro marvels at this, surprised but not stunned. He feels like a puffed-up dandelion gone to seed, all wispy white and no substance.

“Huh,” he says, quietly, and wishes he could run his fingers through his arm hair. It’s strange to think that even such a simple action is lost to him. “All of it?”

“Yeah,” Keith answers, studying Shiro. He leans in closer, his eyes so close and so pretty. “Now that I’m looking, even your eyelashes are white.”

He’s used to Keith’s scrutiny. He’s used to always being the center of Keith’s attention, all of Keith’s intensity directed towards him. This close, though, it nearly steals Shiro’s breath. It’d be so easy to lean in and kiss Keith, he realizes. The thought fizzes slow and unhurried in his mind and refuses to move. It’s a selfish desire.

I love you, Keith’d yelled to him, to a him that isn’t him.

Shiro could say it back.

He lets Keith strip him down the rest of the way. Even the little hairs on his big toes are white. It’s strange to notice these small aspects of his body— this body— to recognize it but catalogue the differences, as well.

Haggar was a perfectionist in recreating his body: she even got the tiny, near-faded scar on his ankle from a childhood accident slipping on a stone path. It sweeps across his ankle, so innocent and innocuous on this carved-up body.

Once Shiro’s naked, Keith pours some water from his canteen onto the cloth and wipes Shiro down. The cloth’s scratchy against his skin, the water cold. It’s no fancy shower or steaming bath, but it’s better than nothing. It gives Keith a chance, Shiro thinks, to affirm that Shiro is safe, that he isn’t injured. That he isn’t disappearing.

He watches Keith, silent, wishing he had the ability to even wrap bandages around Keith’s body if he needed it, to unclasp and strip him of his armor. He isn’t sure if his hand, sluggish and ill-fitting as it is, could even manage that much right now.

“What about you?” he finally manages to ask, only once Keith pauses in swiping the cloth over Shiro’s chest.

“I’m alright,” Keith says, easily.

He looks tired, though. He looks bruised and beaten and exhausted. And it’s because of Shiro.

“Keith,” Shiro says and hates that it sounds like he’s begging.

But it’s enough to make Keith pause. Keith looks at him, meeting his eyes. Then, with a breath, he pulls back. He sets the cloth down and pulls off his armor with meticulous care, peeling down his undersuit to his hips.

Keith’s chest and arms are bruised from their fight, from being beaten down again and again. Standing over Shiro like this, Shiro can see the spot under Keith’s chin where Shiro punched him in a sharp uppercut. But he kept going. Keith kept going.

Shiro makes a mournful sound before he can stop it and closes his eyes.

Keith breathes out and his hands touch Shiro’s chest, so gently. Far more gently than Shiro deserves.

“Hey,” Keith murmurs. “Help me clean up?”

He presses the cloth into Shiro’s hand and Shiro can only obey him, swiping the cloth down Keith’s chest, over his arms. He’s slower in his movements, jerky and awkward at angles, but he falls into the quiet zen of it, washing Keith’s body as best he can. He goes too light over the bruises a few times, and Keith nearly squirms away when it tickles, breathing out a huffing laugh through his nose.

“See?” Keith asks him as Shiro swipes the cloth down his chest. “No major injuries.”

Shiro’s grateful for that. But he also knows it’s not for lack of trying. He remembers the feeling inside him, goading him onward. He was trying to kill Keith. Everything inside his body screamed at him to do it, to follow orders. It was only Keith’s superior ability that kept him alive against such a monster.

And Shiro knows if he were to tell Keith that he’s a monster that Keith would protest. He knows exactly what Keith would say and he knows that Keith would believe it with everything he is.

But now Shiro wonders if maybe Sendak was right about him, after all. If the words Sendak hissed in his head— so long ago, just before Shiro ejected him from the Castle of Lions— were true: that Shiro has always been some kind of monster.

You are mine now, Haggar had hissed in his mind when plucking away every string of his self-control. He’d tried to resist, Shiro knows, and yet he’d still failed. How easy it might be for him to fail again and again.

Shiro knows, intimately, all the ways he’s broken.

“Keith,” Shiro asks, hesitating, and waits for Keith’s soft hum of acknowledgement. “Did you— did you tell anyone about what happened to me? About where I was?”

Keith’s breath lurches out of him and he shakes his head in a jerky little stutter. “No.”

Shiro watches his hand coil into a fist then uncurl, limp at his side, the cloth nearly slipping from his fingertips. Even just the movement of cleaning Keith off leaves him feeling fatigued.

Keith catches Shiro’s hand, gently, his thumb pressing into Shiro’s pulse point. His other hand draws the cloth away, setting it down on the cot. He doesn’t let go of Shiro’s wrist.

His eyes are so wide and so deep. Shiro worries he might fall into them and drown.

“Do you want to tell them?” Keith asks.

“I don’t know,” Shiro confesses. “I know what they’ll say if they learn I— that I—”

Keith makes a sound again and Shiro’s grateful to be cut off. He can’t manage the word died again and he thinks Keith might crumble if he does.

“You don’t need to decide anything right away,” Keith tells him and squeezes his wrist. “You’ve been through a lot, Shiro. You just need to focus on recovering. Everyone will be here when you’re ready. If you’re ready.”

Shiro smiles, but it’s a brittle thing. He blinks a few times and then looks up to meet Keith’s eyes. “Thanks, Keith.”

Keith smiles back. “Yeah.”

“You should rest,” Shiro says.

“I don’t…” Keith’s expression scrunches up, adorably and almost childlike. “I don’t want to leave you on your own right now.”

Something aches in Shiro’s chest. The last thing he wants is for Keith to leave, too. He’s shadowed Shiro since he woke up and Shiro isn’t sure what will happen if he’s suddenly left on his own.

“It’s just sleeping,” Shiro argues, voice threadbare. “When was the last time you slept, Keith?”

That overrides all else. Shiro can’t afford to be selfish.

Keith’s shoulders deflate, and he does look exhausted, no matter how he fights against it. “Are you going to be okay if I sleep?”

Shiro turns his hand so he can grip Keith’s wrist in turn, leaving them locked in a tight, knotted hold. “I’ll be fine, Keith.”

He hopes that much is true.

Keith sways from foot to foot, looking him over, clearly hesitating. Shiro doesn’t know what he can say to reassure him, to help Keith relax.

But finally, Keith sighs, his entire body sagging beneath the weight of his own exhaustion. His voice is quiet, hesitant and thready when he asks, “Will you stay with me?”

“Me?”

“I— I know it’s selfish,” Keith says in a quiet voice. “But, please… Shiro, let me stay.”

He stares at Shiro with wide, pleading eyes. It’s the most vulnerable he’s looked since that moment Shiro first woke up in the healing pod, Keith’s hand on his chest.

Shiro’s nodding before he’s even fully aware he’s doing it. “That’s not selfish, Keith.”

Laughable, to think Keith selfish in any of this. He wouldn’t blame Keith at all for wanting to be alone after everything that’s happened.

Keith’s smile is brittle. He lets go of Shiro’s wrist only to help Shiro back into his undersuit. Shiro needs to grip his shoulder to keep from falling over, balancing on his feet with difficulty.

Keith grabs another cot and drags it across the room to set it up beside Shiro’s. He’s haphazard in the preparation of it, not taking nearly enough care as he did for Shiro. He sprawls out on the cot with a grunt and turns onto his side, flinching— sitting down funny on a bruise, maybe, or just general fatigue— and looks at Shiro.

He hesitates and then reaches out his hand to Shiro. Shiro’s already reaching back. He holds Keith’s hand gently, cupped in his hand, and squeezes.

“Wake me up if the others start sniffing around,” Keith says and Shiro nods. “Will you sleep?”

Shiro knows if there was a way to do it, Keith would take away all of Shiro’s pain. He’d take it all on himself: he’d carry it on his shoulders, never flinching away. Keith has seen so much of Shiro’s darker side, has been at the blunt force end of a sword aimed to kill— and through it all, still Keith is gentle with him.

Shiro smiles but it feels ill-fitted for his face.

“I’ll be here when you wake up,” Shiro whispers and it seems it’s the right thing to say because Keith’s expression wavers only for a moment before he squeezes Shiro’s hand and closes his eyes.

 

-

 

Keith starts snoring in the cot beside Shiro but Shiro is wide-awake. He doesn’t know what time it is on this planet, doesn’t know what time it is in relation to his body.

Shiro is a quiet, endless void.

He can’t sleep. If he sleeps, he’ll fall into the Black Lion’s consciousness again. If he sleeps, he’ll be lost again. Nothing but stars.

The wolf noses at his side, propping his face on Shiro’s cot. Shiro would pet him if he didn’t have to let go of Keith’s hand to do so. He gives the wolf a sympathetic look but the wolf seems to understand, thumping his tail once and pressing his nose against Shiro’s side.

Krolia comes into the room as Keith sleeps, observing her son with a quiet sort of contentment. She smiles a little, a smile not meant for Shiro, and touches her son’s forehead. She glances at Shiro, sees him awake, and nods to him before she flits back out of the room.

Shiro can only watch her go and think that this woman should despise him for what he’s done to her son.

Keith’s hair clings to his forehead and Shiro wants to brush it back, but that would mean letting go of Keith’s hand. He traces the sharp, angry line of the cut on Keith’s cheek with his eyes, remembering in vivid detail what he’d done to put that there.

Keith’s face is smushed up against his pillow, cheek folding up. He’ll likely have pillow creases when he wakes and it’s an oddly endearing thought. Keith will wake up with pillow creases on his cheeks, sleep-mushed and disoriented. His voice will be craggy and deep, graveled out with sleep. Shiro’s heart will break for how sweet Keith will look, how sweet he looks now in sleep.

Shiro thinks: Roses.

Keith deserves roses.

Deserves unending, unerring love from someone better than whatever he is now.

 

-

 

Shiro feels Keith waking up when his hold on Shiro’s hand suddenly tightens before loosening. He never fully lets go.

Keith wakes up slowly, in waves. He doesn’t startle awake but seems to take stock of his body, where he is, how he’s breathing. Like a solider. It’s seamless, and so slow that the moment between sleep and wakefulness isn’t remotely clear to Shiro beyond that flex of his hand.

Shiro smiles, though, when Keith opens his eyes and finds him immediately. He watches Keith breathe out, looking relieved. Shiro’s heart thrums a steady pulse in his chest.

“Shiro,” Keith murmurs, quiet and raspy with sleep. He sits up slowly and Shiro shifts as if to help him before remembering there is no other arm there to help anymore, just his hand grasping Keith’s.

Keith studies Shiro’s face. His hand flexes against Shiro’s and then his free hand lifts, touching his shoulder.

“Are you alright?” Keith asks.

Shiro doesn’t have the words to reassure him. Words are a mess inside of him.

“Everything is so much,” Shiro confesses and knows it’s inadequate. Before waking up, he was never aware of his lungs contracting and expanding in his chest. Before waking up, the feel of his undersuit against his skin never made him want to cry.

Before waking up, he never had to wonder if he’d lose control of his body again. As if it is even his body to begin with rather than something stolen, something created for the sake of destruction.

“A lot’s happened,” Keith murmurs. His hand drags down Shiro’s shoulder and over his arm, then drops away. “It’s understandable.”

“Everything I’ve done…” Shiro begins and trails off. Everything he did. Everything someone with his face did.

He doesn’t have the words to describe how it combats inside him. He is both himself and someone else. He holds two sets of memories, all cobbled together. He remembers being on the Castle of Lions, laughing with the others, just as well as he remembers being inside of the Black Lion, watching an impostor trick his friends. He has the memories to know this assessment is unfair, too— that the only person who ever tricked them was Haggar herself, never Shiro.

“I just want to forget everything,” Shiro murmurs, miserable. He closes his eyes.

“Everything?” Keith asks and there’s something plucking his tone, thoughtful but resounding.

The fight flashes behind Shiro’s eyes in bursts. He sees Keith sprawled out on his back, desperate, pleading, yelling for someone who is Shiro and not Shiro. I love you, Keith had yelled and it’d reached him.

He doesn’t want to forget the words, no. But he doesn’t want to hold them knowing the context from which he yanked them. Keith, he thinks, deserves so much more than that.

So much more than him.

“If I think about it all at once, I’ll start crying,” Shiro confesses with a self-deprecating laugh that sounds wooden and hollow even to his own ears, scraped out of him with painful precision.

“Would it be a bad thing if you did?” Keith wonders aloud, his hand a steady weight in Shiro’s. “When was the last time you cried, Shiro?”

Weapons don’t cry, Shiro thinks and then immediately banishes the thought, burned by the fire of it. He’s not a weapon. He was a weapon. He’s not a weapon.

“I don’t know,” Shiro admits. He opens his eyes and finds Keith looking at him, gentle as always.

He can’t recall. His mind is a wellspring of memories overflowing, things that belong to him and belong to another him, things that feel like his and not his at once. It’s too jumbled together. He feels like a little body holding two souls. Probably because he is.

“I haven’t cried since—” he pauses, bowled over by the absence in his head.

He tries to remember but nothing comes. Then, slowly, as if unfurling, he remembers: stuck in a dank, dark cell with no escape, curled in on himself, a cut bleeding over his nose and down his cheeks, sobbing like a baby. It was early on in his captivity, during a time when he could still feel.

Shiro cracks a pained smile and says, “Well. A while, at least.”

Keith squeezes his hand.

Shiro doesn’t deserve the gentleness with which Keith touches him, but he isn’t about to withdraw from the gift, either. Through it all, he can’t imagine recoiling from Keith. Touch alone is nearly unbearable, but separation from Keith feels even more so. There have been too many times now when they’ve been separated, pulled apart.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro offers, quietly.

Keith’s mouth twitches and he shrugs, helplessly. “You were right before: I won’t let you apologize.”

“Sorry,” Shiro says again.

“Hm. I don’t forgive you,” Keith says, eyes on Shiro. Shiro nearly flinches. But Keith’s next words are smooth, gentle, when he asks, “Is that what you want me to say?”

Shiro shakes his head. “No.”

“It wasn’t you,” Keith assures him. His thumb sweeps a gentle wave across his knuckles.

“I… remember. I remember feeling it. I remember doing all that. I—”

“I meant,” Keith cuts in, gently, “it’s Haggar’s fault. And she’s the only one who needs to apologize. She’s the one who’ll pay for what she’s done. What she did to you.”

There’s a calm to Keith’s voice but it belies the anger that burns in his eyes. Strange to see it now, after such tenderness.

“Keith,” Shiro whispers, unsure what else to say.

“You should talk about it,” Keith says. He licks his lips. “We… We should talk about everything.”

“Now?”

“It doesn’t have to be with me, if you don’t want, but—”

Shiro laughs, disbelieving, but not cruelly. His heart aches, cracked open in his chest. “Oh, Keith,” he breathes, voice wispy and overly fond. “Who else would I talk to about it if not you?”

Keith’s frown deepens, though, something in Shiro’s tone motivating him to let go of Shiro’s hand only so both of his hands can reach out, touching Shiro with profound tenderness. They skate over his shoulders and up his neck, cupping his cheeks.

“Then talk to me, Shiro.”

Shiro’s next words are cut off by the door whooshing open and Krolia entering. She eyes them both and seems to realize that she’s interrupted, though. Her expression flickers, for just a moment, in the exact way he’s seen Keith look— awkward and aware of his awkwardness. It almost makes Shiro smile, to see how easily Keith is reflected in Krolia’s expressions.

Shiro mourns the loss of Keith’s hands, the way they flex at his cheeks and then drop away. It feels like a tide receding. They fall and settle on Shiro’s shoulders, though, unwilling to let go of him completely.

“Keith,” Krolia says, gently, her tone apologetic, “we’re nearly ready to head out. Are you ready?”

Keith smiles, squeezing Shiro’s shoulders and rising properly from the cot. He stoops, picking up his discarded armor and rebuilding himself from the ground up: The Black Paladin. The Leader.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll contact the others. Make sure we’re all set to go.” His voice gentles when he looks at Krolia. “Mom,” he says, kindly, “You should rest. When did you sleep last?”

Her mouth flickers with an almost smile and she inclines her head.

Keith clicks on the last of his armor and turns back to Shiro. There’s a question in his eyes, an unexpressed fear. His hand finds Shiro’s wrist and holds. “Shiro, I—”

“Can I stay with you?” Shiro asks before Keith can express the question. He doesn’t want to be away from him. He doesn’t want to be separated. He feels his cheeks heat up. “I don’t want to sleep yet.”

Keith’s relieved smile is a slow-blooming thing, ethereal and beautiful. He squeezes Shiro’s wrist and helps him to his feet, vacating the sleeping area for Krolia to lie down and rest. Keith’s pace is slow, guiding Shiro through the Black Lion towards the cockpit.

 

-

 

It’s about three vargas in, by Shiro’s count, that Keith breaks the comfortable stillness between them: “You’re quiet.”

Shiro watches Keith twist around to look at him over his shoulder, hands steady and sure on the controls. He sits in the pilot’s seat like he was always meant to be there, and a familiar warmth floods through Shiro’s chest as he watches him from where he’s sitting, back against the wall.

Keith’s words aren’t complaint or reprimand, it never is with Keith, but quietly offered: a sign, always, that Keith will listen if Shiro needs it. Sometimes it’s too much, Shiro thinks, to be the object of such devotion.

“Just thinking,” Shiro murmurs. “You won’t like it.”

That makes Keith frown. “Tell me anyway.”

Shiro takes a deep breath and lets it back out again, quietly. “I’m a liability. I’ve been controlled once already. It’s logical to assume that it can happen to me again.”

Keith startles, eyes widening, and then he’s on his feet. He’s moving towards Shiro so fast, so liquid and smooth, that Shiro’s nearly shocked to see him so close in just the blink of an eye. He looks frustrated, brow furrowed and cheeks flushed pink with anger.

Shiro,” he says, fiercely.

“We need to rule that out,” Shiro insists. “Until then, you shouldn’t trust me— none of you should trust me. I could be an unwilling spy, or worse.”

“Shiro, no—”

“Shiro’s got a point,” Pidge pipes up from the control panel. Keith must have left the comm line open between lions. She doesn’t sound particularly pleased to be agreeing with Shiro, though.

“No,” Keith says again.

“I still have this,” Shiro insists, gesturing to the remains of his arm. His fingers dig into the metal plating, eyes pleading as he looks up at Keith. His arm’s fully encased in metal now, still glowing an eerie quintessence purple from within. Nothing flesh left, it seems, or at least nothing that he can feel. “It could be enough for Haggar to get a foothold again.”

Keith’s shaking his head, fierce and determined and so beautiful, standing there before Shiro, refusing to hear his words. He’s so stubborn, Shiro can’t help but think, fondly. What a stubborn, miraculous man he is.

“I’m dangerous, Keith.”

“You are no such thing,” Keith says back.

“There’s… I’ve already been controlled once. I— I remember it. I can’t let it happen again.”

“Shiro,” Keith whispers.

“Keith,” Allura interrupts, her voice canting through the room across the communication line. “Shiro has a point. It’d be foolish to ignore this.”

“I can run scans on his arm, next time we land,” Pidge pipes up.

“And I could check his mind for any druid pathways,” Allura agrees.

Keith’s shoulders hitch up towards his ears. He looks miserable, ready to defend Shiro against them all, Shiro included. He crosses his arms, his eyes flashing so fierce in the dark of the Black Lion’s cockpit.

“If you were being used as a spy again,” Keith snaps, “You wouldn’t be suggesting this now.”

“Or maybe I would, knowing you’d refuse it,” Shiro points out. He sighs. “Keith… please.” He lets his voice drop low enough so only Keith will hear. “It would… help me feel better about this.”

Immediately, Keith deflates. He blinks a few times, turning his face away. He grips his arms tight and, with a grunt, turns back to the pilot’s seat.

“Fine,” he growls to the comm line. “We’ll check Shiro out next time we land.”

He grips the controls, goading Black onward. He doesn’t look at Shiro. He watches Keith punch the comm controls, muting the comm line. He hardly needs to— no one’s saying anything, cowed by Keith’s tone.

With some effort, Shiro rises from his seat, approaching Keith’s pilot’s chair. He feels pathetic that even a few simple footsteps leaves him feeling bowled over, shaky on his feet. He wonders if he’s always going to feel so useless. His hand touches the pilot’s chair.

He looks at Keith— this powerful, amazing, determined young man. Keith’s eyes flick to the side, catching Shiro out of the corner of his eye before he returns his gaze to the viewscreen before him. Even with his gloves on, Shiro can guess that Keith is white-knuckled on the controls. Shiro just looks at him for a moment, overwhelmed with the flood of affection that courses through him— seeing how fiercely Keith is always ready to defend him.

“You might think you’re a monster,” Keith says and Shiro wonders if Keith even realizes the extent of the truth in that statement, “but I’m never going to see you that way.”

“I know,” Shiro whispers and he does know that. Keith has always been far too kind. “That’s why I can’t take this risk.”

“Shiro,” Keith says. “You wouldn’t let anything happen.”

“I already have.”

“Shiro—”

Shiro breathes in sharply, eyes clenched tight enough to nearly spark another headache, and Shiro wonders if it’ll always be a thing for him now, if he’ll always fear headaches and what they could mean, if it’s really just overactivity of the structures in his head that are pain-sensitive, or if it’ll always be another force, another entity, tinkering inside of him. Not even this body is his own.

“I can’t, Keith,” Shiro whispers, ducking his head so he doesn’t have to look at him— doesn’t have to look at the person he nearly killed, the person he cares about the most in the universe, the one he nearly lost forever. “I can’t go through that again. I can’t… do that to you again.”

He hears more than sees Keith twist around in his chair. A moment later, he feels Keith’s hand touch his shoulder, ghosting along the metal plating before settling at the line between shoulder and neck, fingertips ghosting the column of his throat. He lets it rest there and waits until Shiro looks at him again.

Their eyes meet. Keith’s still frowning, but more thoughtful than angry now.

“I thought you were going to die,” Shiro admits. “I thought I was going to kill you.” He breathes in sharply. “I— I thought I was going to have to watch you die.”

He has two memories of it, combatting. He remembers fighting Keith, remembers trying with everything he was to kill Keith. He remembers watching from the Black Lion, helpless to stop any of it. He remembers goading the Black Lion onward to save Keith as he fell, thinking that they wouldn’t make it in time, that Keith would fall and fall and fall—

“Come here,” Keith says, standing abruptly from the pilot’s chair and getting his hands on Shiro.

He takes Shiro by the hand and nudges him forward until he coaxes Shiro to sit in the chair instead. And then Keith’s climbing after him, sitting in his lap. Shiro startles, eyes open wide. He half-expected Keith to try to assure him that he wasn’t going to die— not this.

Keith twists a little until he gets comfortable, his hands lifting to grip the controls once more.

He asks, “Is this okay?”

“I— yeah,” Shiro says, voice little.

“I need to keep piloting but I… I don’t want you so far away from me,” Keith says, ears pink as he stares straight ahead.

It’s not the most comfortable position. The seat’s cramped with both of them sitting in it, Keith half in Shiro’s lap and half on the seat itself.

“I accept that you want to make sure you’re not dangerous,” Keith continues, eyes on the viewscreen, “but I’m never going to think that you are, Shiro.”

“I know,” Shiro says, quietly.

That seems to settle Keith. His shoulders slump and he focuses on piloting. The stellar sky beyond the viewscreen is peaceful and their path is clear. Keith hardly needs to coax Black at all, his hands on her controls but more resting than anything else.

Still, seeing Keith piloting the Black Lion warms Shiro, even as he feels like an impostor sitting in the pilot’s seat with Keith. Perhaps Keith senses his thoughts— he’s always been absurdly empathetic when it comes to Shiro— because he turns his head after several doboshes of silence to look at Shiro.

“Does it bother you to see me like this?” Keith asks. Maybe he’s noted how stiffly Shiro’s sitting, painfully aware of his error in sitting here, painfully aware of every point of contact he has with Keith’s body.

“What? Piloting?” Shiro asks and shakes his head. “You know I’ve always loved the way you pilot, Keith.”

“I meant piloting Black,” Keith says. “Does it bother you?”

“Of course not,” Shiro murmurs without hesitation. “You know I always wanted you to lead if— if anything happened. She was always meant to be yours.”

“I’m not sure that’s true,” Keith says, faintly. “I mean, you could take her back if you wanted.”

“No,” Shiro says. “I can’t.”

Keith turns his head, frowning at him. “If you think I wouldn’t give this back to you in a heartbeat, then—”

“I can’t hear her, Keith,” Shiro interrupts.

“What?” Keith asks, startled. “What do you mean?”

“Ever since I woke up, I— I can’t hear her at all. She’s gone from my head,” Shiro answers. “I mean, when I— when he—” He fumbles, pausing. “When I piloted her before, after you left, it was hard to hear her a lot of the time, and when I was inside her consciousness, she was… ever-present, but…”

He doesn’t know how to put the emptiness into words. Keith looks concerned, though. “We could ask Allura about it. When she checks you over for Haggar.”

“Maybe,” Shiro says, faintly.

It’s a keen ache, to feel her absence. But, at the same time, it’s almost a relief to be alone in his own head. He thinks to himself that she can’t be gone forever— that he’ll find her again, when he’s ready. He thinks he can almost feel a whisper of her, just beyond him— waiting, patient.

“My point is… I don’t mind you piloting her, Keith. The opposite.” He smiles and it feels almost normal. He feels his expression soften as he looks at Keith. “I can’t think of anyone better.”

Keith ducks his head, blushing. “I feel ready now,” he admits. “I always heard her calling to me. I… even when I was with the Blade or in the quantum abyss, sometimes I could hear her in the back of my mind.”

“Yeah,” Shiro says.

“After you— when you left with Lotor,” Keith says, “I didn’t hesitate. I knew I was the one who had to pilot her. I think I just… I needed time.” Keith pauses, fingers gripping the controls and sighing. “She feels different now. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m different or because you’re here with me… it’s just her, not you and her.”

Shiro makes a soft sound, unsure how to respond to that.

“I’m sorry I left,” Keith says. “You couldn’t reach any of the others, but if—”

“Keith,” Shiro interrupts, gently. “Those first few months, I was too weak to do anything. I couldn’t…” He shakes his head. “It’s okay.”

He tried. He tried so much in those early days of his death— tried screaming, tearing apart the veil between living and gone, tried to reach Keith and the others any way he could. And he never could. And then, finally, Keith was gone and with him, any chance to connect with the Paladins.

Keith’s mouth is a thin, pained line, his eyes distant and sad. Shiro fumbles to reach for him, touching his hand and keeping it pressed against Keith’s knuckles.

Keith closes his eyes, sucks in a deep breath, and then turns his head, pressing it down against Shiro’s shoulder and then nosing up against his neck, seeking out his pulse point. Shiro’s heart stutters away and he swallows, thickly, before realizing that Keith would feel that. He feels the moist puff of Keith’s breath against his neck. It’s grounding in the same way that it’s soul-destroying. He must make a sound, something stilted and hitched, because he hears Keith mimic the sound back, something quiet and pleading.

“I’m glad you don’t hate me for it,” Keith whispers.

“I could never,” Shiro assures him. “I’m proud of you, Keith.” Keith makes a soft sound, almost protesting. But Shiro’s insistent: “You’ve really come into your own. I’m so proud of you.”

He watches Keith’s chest swell, watches his eyes light up as he draws away from Shiro’s neck to look at him. Shiro’s long known what Shiro’s praise does for Keith but he feels it viscerally now, watching those reactions, like observing it for the first time. He watches Keith’s eyelids dip, his eyelashes fanning across his pink cheeks for just a moment, the littlest smile on his face. He blinks once and then looks back up at Shiro.

“Shiro,” Keith murmurs. “If I’m anything, it’s because of you.”

The urge to shake his head is there, but he doesn’t want to dismiss Keith’s offerings. His head jerks, just a little, before he stills. He smiles, helpless and unsure. “You’d have gotten there on your own whether I was here or not. You’d be fine without me.”

It’s the wrong thing to say. For a moment, he watches Keith’s expression flicker into something heartbroken before he rights it again. He reaches his hand out and touches Shiro’s shoulder but Shiro thinks it’s not quite right, thinks that maybe Keith wanted to reach for his cheek instead. Keith twists around to get a better look at him and it can’t be comfortable in the pilot’s chair.

“Everything I am,” Keith says, slower this time and staring into Shiro’s eyes, “is because of you.”

Shiro can’t speak to why the weight of the words hits him, robs him of his breath for just a hitching, hiccupping moment. His eyes widen, he thinks, but it’s hard to say when his entire point of reference zeroes in on Keith.

“I never want to be without you again,” Keith says. His eyes darken, serious and determined— but shining so bright, always so brilliant and blazing, Shiro thinks. “And,” Keith vows, “I never will again.”

There’s comfort, somehow, in such a statement. Shiro can’t trust himself, this body, right now but he can trust Keith. He knows, inherently, that Keith will keep him safe. That Keith will always be there.

I’ll be here when you get back, Keith told him the night before the Kerberos launch, with such fire and intensity. Keith couldn’t know, exactly, how much those words meant at the time, still mean now. How desperately he clung to them in the time between then and now.

The planets might crash into their moons, suns might expand to dissipating giants, the stars might all fall planetside.

But Keith. Keith will always be there.

I love you, Keith doesn’t say now but he might as well be screaming it. Every action, every word, everything about Keith underscores the three words he shouted at the clone facility. Since waking up, it’s all Shiro can hear from him.

Shiro closes his eyes, his heart beating a scurrying tattoo in his chest. I’ll never be without you again. “I’m not sure even that’s a promise you can keep, Keith.”

“I promise it,” Keith answers without hesitation. “Never again, Shiro.”

Shiro smiles, wan and barely there. “If only I could stop making you jump through so many hoops, huh?”

Keith huffs a breath, squirming closer towards Shiro. His hand touches Shiro’s chest and rests there, just above Shiro’s pounding heart. “You have never been a burden, Shiro.”

“You’re kind,” Shiro dismisses.

But Keith scowls at him, twisting up his handsome face. “You remember everything,” Keith says. “So you’ll remember what I said.”

Shiro’s fairly certain that his heart stops, if only for a second. He wonders if Keith feels it beneath his palm or if his chest plate blocks what should be so obvious.

“… Yes,” Shiro says, quietly.

Keith studies him, fierce and piercing and all too knowing. He asks, “Does that bother you?”

“What? That— that you love me?” Shiro asks, stumbling over the words despite himself.

Keith is unflinching. “Yes.”

“How could it?” Shiro asks, voice brittle and shaky even to his own ears. It’s not enough. It’s not adequate. His throat burns with everything he doesn’t say. “Keith… anyone would be lucky to be—”

“I’m not talking about anyone,” Keith says, fiercely. His fingers curl, just a little, against Shiro’s chest. “I’m talking about you.” He asks again, quieter this time but determined: “Does it bother you?”

“Of course not,” Shiro answers without hesitation. “You’re my best friend, Keith.”

Keith smiles, something sweet and simple, his cheeks turning pink. He nods his head and looks away. “Okay.”

It’s inadequate. Everything inside of Shiro screams to tell Keith that he feels the same, that he’s loved him for so long, only realized once he thought it was too late. What feels like a million years stuck in an astral plane leaves one with a lot of time to think, to consider the life he’s led. It’s inconvenient to think himself dead and only then realize he’s in love with his best friend.

But the words don’t come.

What he does manage to say is quiet, gentle: “I was surprised, though.”

Keith’s mouth twists a bit, something happy and pained at once. “My words… I reached you.”

“Yeah,” Shiro agrees. “You did.”

Keith’s quiet for a moment and then twists around in his seat. It takes some adjusting and he nearly knees Shiro hard in the gut for it, but he manages to get his arms wrapped around Shiro’s neck, abandoning the controls entirely in favor of hugging Shiro. Shiro reaches out helplessly, instinctively, to touch Keith’s back, then to try to steady the controls. He gives up on that immediately, though, drawing his hand back to splay out over Keith’s back, holding him close. It’s probably one of their more awkward hugs, position-wise, but no less felt.

Keith buries his face against Shiro’s neck, silent and steady as he holds Shiro. All Shiro wants is to be held by Keith like this— never wants to let go.

“You’re not going to tell me I could do better, are you?” Keith asks after a long breath. “Or that I’m mistaken?”

“No,” Shiro says. He might think it, but he’d never insult Keith’s feelings in that way. Regardless of whether he feels himself worthy, he isn’t going to dismiss Keith’s feelings. He feels them, and that’s what matters.

Keith smiles. Shiro feels it against his neck. “I’ve felt this for a long time. But I think about trying to say that— to admit aloud that I love you, even just two years ago that’d have been too much for me to say.”

Shiro makes a small noise. He doesn’t want to admit how much he shivers just hearing Keith say I love you again, casual but intimate. He offers the words because they’re true. They’re no burden.

Keith takes a deep breath. “Mom and I, when we got stuck in the quantum abyss… Time was different there and we— we kept seeing each other’s memories. Sometimes futures, but those were so… formless. I never could see anything distinct from those. But the past? Clear as my memories. And in them… I mean. You were always there.” He sighs out, shoulders sagging. “It was just seeing it all laid out in front of me like that… made me realize how much I care about you. It made it feel… so obvious.”

“It wasn’t obvious,” Shiro says although he isn’t sure if that’s true. “I mean, not to me… I never guessed.”

Keith finally draws away from the hug to give Shiro a vaguely incredulous look, his mouth playing at a smile. “Really? Not even when I was an obvious lost puppy following after you all over the garrison?”

Shiro feels his face turn pink. He shakes his head. “No. I… I really had no idea. We were friends. I really had no idea you had a crush on me.”

Keith smiles at him and it’s a sweet thing, as gentle and unfurling as a flower blooming. His eyes are still so soft.

“Then… it’s okay? The way I feel for you? It doesn’t bother you?”

Shiro wonders if this will be what makes him cry, the thought of Keith believing it a burden. He shakes his head quickly, squeezing his arm around Keith.

“Never,” Shiro assures him. “Keith— nothing about you will ever bother me.”

“Shiro…” Keith whispers, smiling, and Shiro thinks that really what he’s saying is, I love you.

And God. Shiro wishes he could say it back.

 

-

 

When the Lions land next, vargas later so the Paladins can sleep, they find a wayward moon circling a massive gas giant. The planet swells the horizon as the Lions circle up, leaving the sky a burning swirl of colors.

The Paladins all crowd into the Black Lion’s cargo hold, Pidge lugging her equipment to hook up the remains of Shiro’s arm to run her tests. It’s quiet work, everyone resting or watching Pidge as she works through the code on her holopad, frowning as the lights glint off her glasses.

Keith watches Shiro like a hawk, arms crossed and leaning against the wall. His eyes don’t stray, and he only moves once to drop his hand down and scratch the wolf’s ears when he approaches Keith, nosing at his hip.

“Okay,” Pidge announces, nearly a varga into her datamining scans. “I’ve searched high and low, but I really don’t see any remaining Galra code, scientific or weird… spacey-magic.” She looks up at Shiro and smiles and it almost touches her eyes. “I think you’re in the clear, Shiro.”

Shiro smiles back, but it’s a fragile thing. He’s almost afraid to believe it, terrified that now that she’s said it, it’ll somehow backfire.

“Besides, if all else fails,” Lance pipes up, “Can’t Pidge just use the kill-switch from before? You know, the thing that kept the Castle from killing us?”

Shiro flinches and Keith’s off the wall in a second, approaching Shiro and touching his back. It’s a smooth touch, his hand a heavy imprint on his spine. Shiro closes his eyes and breathes.

“Well, yeah,” Pidge says, packing up her stuff. “But I’d prefer not to use that again.”

“I think we all would,” Allura says, smoothly.

“I wasn’t saying I wanted us to use it,” Lance protests, looking distressed. His eyes are big and round and apologetic when he looks at Shiro.

Shiro smiles and hopes it’s reassuring. “Lance is right. It’s a good thing to have as back up.”

Lance deflates, looking guilty, and Shiro wishes he knew what to say to reassure him. He thinks he used to be better at this. He’s tired of everyone tiptoeing around him, but he doesn’t know how to reassure them.

Keith’s hand ghosts up his back and rests, gently, on the back of his neck. Shiro ducks his head and turns a little, glancing up at Keith. Keith smiles at him and reaches out with his free hand, taking up Shiro’s and squeezing, a steady pulse of comfort.

“Allura?” Shiro asks.

Allura smiles at him. “Shouldn’t you rest first? I don’t want to press you.”

“We might as well get this all out of the way now,” Shiro says and lets Allura step in closer, her fingertips touching his temples. Her voice is gentle, soothing, when she asks Keith to step away a little.

Keith does, but begrudgingly. He doesn’t let go of Shiro’s hand.

Shiro feels Allura unfurl in his mind. He almost resists it, rears back, terrified of another presence. But Allura is kind and gentle and sweet, and with Keith so close and with Shiro mindful of his breathing, soon her infiltration into his mind is an open invitation.

Much like Pidge, Allura is meticulous, searching out every corner of Shiro’s mind, searching for any signs of a witch’s foothold or druid magic.

When she finally draws back, she sighs, looking peaceful but tired when she says, “I sense nothing, Shiro. I truly believe that whatever magic was binding you is gone now that your arm has been removed.”

Shiro feels relief flooding through him. He doesn’t have words and can only manage a nod. It’s so much at once— he’d been sure, so afraid, that he was still a danger, a ticking time bomb for his friends, for Keith.

He looks up at Keith and finds him looking satisfied but a little contrite. I told you so, his eyes seem to say, but even then it feels gentle. He stares at Shiro with such deep intensity. Shiro feels like he’s going to burn away until there’s nothing left. Keith’s hand is so warm in his.

He doesn’t need to be afraid anymore, he knows. And yet, somehow, he still is. He doesn’t know what’s next.

 

-

 

That night, once everyone has gone to sleep in the other lions, Keith gasps awake, startled from his sleep. It’s such a drastic change from the slow unfurling Shiro saw before.

Shiro doesn’t hesitate to stand and go to him, nearly tumbling over his feet. Keith’s breath is a shaky roar in Shiro’s ears, flooding the dark belly of the Black Lion with a pain Shiro will never be able to dispel. He knows what Keith’s been dreaming about.

“Nightmare?” he murmurs as he nears Keith’s side, kneeling to be eye-level with Keith. He regrets they didn’t set their cots up closer together, like before.

Keith reaches for him. His hands scramble through the dark, seeking him. They touch his shoulders, then his neck, then cup his jaw. It’s painful and Shiro almost feels the sting of tears prick the corners of his eyes. Too much sensation at once. Too much love, threatening to spill up and out of this body. His body.

Keith shakes his head, all heavy breathing and wobbly voice. “You fell.”

And that’s the thing with Keith, isn’t it? It’s foolish for Shiro to expect Keith to flinch away from him, to look at him in fear, to remember, if belatedly, that Shiro is dangerous. He knows he doesn’t have to feel this way about himself, with both Pidge and Allura’s reassurances still fresh, and yet he does— he can’t fight the feeling in his gut, that he’s somehow dangerous to Keith still.

That isn’t what the nightmares are about.

“I couldn’t reach you.”

The ultimate nightmare for Keith is losing his grip on Shiro— watching Shiro fall and fall and fall and never return again. The fear in Keith’s eyes is never because of Shiro, but for Shiro.

His hands, ever-reaching. His hands, ever-grasping.

Shiro doesn’t deserve it, but he accepts it, craves it more than he can ever express. He cups his hand over one of Keith’s and holds it there. Never wants Keith to let him go.

He thinks that if Keith could get away with it, he’d never let go of Shiro, either. They’d just spend the rest of their lives, always holding one another.

“You’ve had nightmares ever since you crashed back on Earth,” Keith murmurs. “How do you get through them?”

“I don’t,” Shiro confesses. “I’m sorry.”

Keith cracks a smile, something quiet but not bitter. He swipes one thumb over Shiro’s cheek and Shiro can’t help the deep inhale it sparks.

“Is that why you aren’t sleeping?” Keith asks.

Shiro wants to shake his head but that might jar Keith’s hands away from him. Selfishly, he never wants to fall from Keith’s hands.

So instead he says, “Kind of.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Keith asks, because of course he’d ask Shiro this when he’s in the wake of his own nightmares.

Stop loving me so much, Shiro wants to say. Stop putting me first. Stop trusting me. Stop blindly accepting that I’m done hurting you—

“You’re here,” Shiro murmurs. “That’s enough.”

“I know the feeling,” Keith agrees, biting his bottom lip. His thumb traces the cut of Shiro’s cheekbone. “Sometimes I feel like I’m… Like I’m about to break,” Keith admits. “I don’t— I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you again.”

It’s startling, sometimes, how gently Keith offers these words. There was a time, Shiro knows, when he’d never say what was on his mind. But he’s grown. He’s so strong. He’s so beautiful, shining like a beacon in the night.

Shiro wants to lay worship to him, wants to swear his eternal devotion.

Instead, quietly, he says, “I’m here. You found me. You brought me back.”

Sometimes he still can’t process just how much Keith’s done for him, just how completely he’ll never be able to pay him back for any of this.

“I found you,” Keith whispers back, eyes burning. “I will always find you, Shiro.”

Shiro believes it. He just wishes he would stop making Keith have to search in the first place. Shiro thinks he’s always waiting for something to go wrong, for them both to plunge into the darkness and disappear forever.

 

-

 

Shiro loses track of how long he and Keith hold each other. And maybe that’s okay. Sometimes it can be hard to track the passage of time in space, when the stellar sky is always a dark sky. What matters, though, is that Shiro won’t let go of Keith— not unless he has to.

Then, quietly, Keith asks, “Will you stay here? With me?”

And Shiro can only nod. He lets Keith take up his hand and pull, rolling onto his side and taking Shiro with him. Keith slots up against Shiro, spooning him, two bodies curving together. Keith doesn’t let go of Shiro’s hand, his arm hooked over Shiro’s body. It’s not a lot of space with the two cots pressed together, but it’s better than nothing. It’s better than being separated from him.

Shiro doesn’t sleep the rest of the night. Keith curls up at his side, seeking him even in sleep, his hand grasping Shiro’s so tightly. Shiro accepts it, craves it, that physical sensation of being alive and having Keith near. He lies down on the cot and lets Keith spoon up against him, nose against his neck, seeking his breath, his pulse, his body. He’ll give everything to Keith, if Keith lets him.

 

-

 

The next morning, they aren’t on a strict time table but Shiro watches, mesmerized, as Keith issues orders— a born leader, he’s always known that. The Paladins know who’s in charge of packing up supplies, who’s in charge of distributing supplies between the lions, who’s going where, who’s getting water, who’s getting food. Shiro exits the Black Lion with Keith to help collect food for their journey and by now he’s not even pretending to be surprised that Keith’s sticking so close to him. At first he thought, maybe, it was just because Keith could sense how much Shiro needed it— but now it’s clear that Keith needs it just as much.

They leave behind the lions, circled up in the hot orange sun, recharging their last dredges before they set out again.

Shiro trails Keith like a lost puppy, unable to fathom being anywhere else.

He remembers falling— and Keith never letting go of him. He’ll follow Keith wherever he might go. It’s painful, though, accepting that there’s someone out there willing to die with you.

Devotion. Too much devotion. Keith blazes in the sun, hair and eyes on fire, like a bundle of peonies never wilting. He thinks of all the nights in the early days after Shiro’s death— those nights when Keith snuck into the Black Lion just to sob, missing Shiro with unfathomable longing, and never realizing that Shiro was right there, aching to touch him.

He wants to give Keith fistfuls of flowers. He wants to rip the entire planet apart to give him every little gift of his dedication, his deep, consuming love. Keith deserves to know he is loved. Keith deserves to know that Shiro would worship him, if given the chance.

Keith’s already given him so much, boundless and depthless, never once asking for anything in return. And Shiro would do anything for him, if allowed.

But that’s the thing now, he thinks: his hands only bring destruction. He would rip flowers up from the ground to gift the man he loves but they would always be gifts plucked from death.

Even his love is cruelty now.

Shiro’s had to learn gentleness. As a child, the day after his diagnosis, he went down by the river where the pygmy hens nested and spent hours throwing rocks at the nesting mothers, just to see what they would do. He’d come down to the river every day for a week, throwing rocks, until finally he arrived and none of the pigmy hens were left. No sign of them or their nests.

Shiro still doesn’t know where they went or what became of them but knows they never did return to that bank of the river.

Keith touches his back and helps him sit up in the morning, his eyes always so gentle, and Shiro feels as if he is made of a thousand rocks, every little ground up bit of earth, destructive and ugly and meant only to hurt. He wonders how many stones must be thrown before Keith, too, disappears.

Shiro watches Keith’s back and wonders what he would look like in the Black Paladin’s armor— wonders if Keith would wear it if Shiro insisted.

They break through the alien trees into a little clearing. Keith kneels, brushing aside the flaky grass just like Hunk instructed him to do. His hands pass over the earth, gentle and precise. There are two flowers on this planet, apparently— one edible to humans and one not so much.

“How am I supposed to know what’s edible and what’s not?” Keith mutters to himself and it’s so quiet, so charming, and Shiro’s heart aches.

“Hunk said red flowers should taste like asparagus when cooked,” Shiro offers. “But the red-orange ones might make us sick?”

“Ugh,” Keith mutters, picking through the grass to find the little buds of red flowers hiding beneath the earthy green. They’re all twisted up, like they’re hiding, like a snake coiled up or a curled-up cat.

Keith’s cute when he’s frustrated. Shiro almost smiles watching him scrunch his face up and squint at the flowers.

Shiro kneels next to him, unsure what else to do. The world is so bright. He can barely fathom the difference between red and green. It’s all too much, burning into the body.

He must be silent for too long, though, because Keith pauses in picking through the grass to look at him. He makes a soft sound, almost mournful and almost inquisitive both, studying Shiro’s face. He lifts his hand to touch Shiro’s cheek. His hand is coated in flecks of grass and dirt and it’s, somehow, heartening to be grounded in such a way, to feel the earth against his cheek, to feel Keith’s touch.

“You look so tired,” Keith murmurs, distressed, his eyebrows pinching together. “Did you sleep at all last night?”

“No,” Shiro admits, because he knows better than to lie to Keith. He doesn’t want to lie to Keith, never again— he’s already put him through too much deception.

“You should go back to the lions and rest.”

“I’d rather be here,” Shiro confesses. “But if I’m in the way—”

“Never,” Keith interrupts, hand flexing at Shiro’s jaw. His hand is such a welcome touch but overwhelming all the same, that drag of Keith’s skin against his. Deliriously, Shiro envisions turning his head and pressing his mouth to Keith’s palm. Imagines what that would feel like.

“It’s okay,” Shiro murmurs, not quite leaning into Keith’s hand. “You can say I’m useless now. I’m—”

Shiro,” Keith snaps, sharp and quick, his eyes molten like quicksilver and angry.

Shiro flinches back, moving away from Keith’s touch and instantly missing it. It’s like an open wound, bleeding him dry. He makes a soft sound, pained and startled out of him.

“Fuck,” Keith whispers in response, watching Shiro draw away. He crawls to him until their knees bump. His hands hover in the air, like he wants to touch Shiro but isn’t sure. “Sorry, was I too loud? Are you okay?”

Shiro marvels that Keith would have noticed Shiro’s sensitivity, even without Shiro ever saying it. “Sorry,” Shiro offers. “I’m okay. I’m fine. I know I’m useless. I’m—”

“Shiro,” Keith snaps again, anger rising inside him like a tide— anger that can still be directed at Shiro, even if it’s on Shiro’s behalf rather than anything else. Keith shakes his head. “Stop. Please.”

“Keith—”

“I don’t want to hear that,” Keith begs. “I told you! I don’t— you don’t need to apologize to me.” Keith withdraws, frustrated, scrubbing the heel of his palm over his face, eyes clenched shut. “And you’re not useless. That isn’t…”

His voice goes quiet, covering his face. Shiro watches him breathe, trembling for only a moment.

“You’re not useless to me,” Keith finally murmurs, not looking at Shiro, his back rigid. “You’ve never been that to me. You know that.”

Shiro watches Keith try to flatten the upset inside him. He nearly flinches, watching Keith and fumbling for the right words to say. Sorry is on the tip of his tongue but he swallows it back.

Keith loves him. Keith’s run across the universe to protect him.

And all Shiro can do is keep apologizing, even when it’s not what Keith wants to hear.

Shiro flounders for a moment, unsure what to do. He wants to apologize again, but that’s wrong, that’s not the right thing to do. He aches to reach out and touch Keith, to draw him in and hold him. To whisper everything he’s holding inside himself. He doesn’t mean to be so self-pitying, but it’s difficult to lay himself out like this, to feel so exposed and so useless, when Keith is everything.

Helplessly, Shiro plucks up one of the flowers around them and holds it out to Keith, a silent offering. It’s almost instinctive; he doesn’t realize he’s doing it until the flower is there in his hand, pinched between his fingers and thumb.

The flower seems to bloom in his hand: the consequence of an alien planet. It unfurls, like so many of the paper peony flowers Shiro used to make in grade school, when he’d pull it open with pudgy little fingers. This alien peony burns such a deep red, held between his fingertips and tipped towards Keith.

“Keith,” Shiro whispers.

At the sound of his name, Keith drops his hand to look at him. His eyes fall on the flower then back up at Shiro, perplexed. His expression wobbles, something fragile flickering in his eyes.

Shiro bites back the sorry before he can form it. Instead, quietly, he says again, “Keith.”

He doesn’t know what Keith hears in the sound of his name, but something smooths out in his eyes. He looks less like the fearless leader he’s growing to be and more like a boy lost in a field of flowers, staring up at Shiro like he’s somehow the one who matters here.

Keith looks so small, for a moment, just like the boy from the desert that Shiro once knew, when Shiro was a boy in the desert, too. They’re so far from that time now. He recognizes the man in front of him but it’s startling to be reminded of when Keith was still so unsure.

Keith looks at the flower again and Shiro moves his hand closer, a quiet invitation.

Keith reaches out and takes the flower.

It’s on the tip of Shiro’s tongue. He almost says it. I love you. I love you more than I love myself. I love you more than the entire universe—

But he can’t quite summon it. Keith watches him, expression calming, and Shiro watches him twirl the flower in his fingertips and finally smile, his eyes brightening.

“These are pretty,” Keith offers, quietly, eyes darting away from Shiro and studying the flower instead. He presses it to his nose and inhales, pulling away with a laugh. “They really do smell like asparagus, actually.”

He offers it to Shiro and Shiro obediently leans forward to smell it. He laughs, too, the sound startling out of him.

“Strange.”

Keith laughs, softer still, twirling the flower. “I like strange.”

And Keith tucks the flower behind his ear. It’s a burning, bright red— perfect for the fire in Keith’s eyes, the deep fathomless dark of his hair. He looks beautiful, kneeling in a field with a flower in his hair.

Shiro wants to kiss him until neither of them can breathe.

“How do I look?” Keith asks, almost teasing.

Shiro smiles, studying him just for the sake of looking at him. Quietly, he says, “Beautiful.”

 

-

 

That night, when the lions stop again so everyone can sleep, when Keith cries out from another nightmare, Shiro is there at his side, rising so quickly that his head swims. His vision blacks out and he feels himself fall to his knees. When his eyes open again, Keith’s eyes are dark and beautiful and looking up at him, face pale.

Another nightmare. So many nightmares because of him.

Keith touches Shiro’s face when he leans in closer, just a skim of his fingertips against his cheek. They look at each other, still for so long, just holding each other’s gaze. Keith studies him, searching his face, and must find what he’s looking for— must see the longing in Shiro’s eyes— because his hand returns, cupping his cheek more firmly.

Helplessly, Shiro closes his eyes and leans into the touch.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro murmurs, his thumb lifting in turn and pressing to Keith’s cheek, the burned-over scar. “I’m sorry.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” Keith whispers, voice laced with sleep and fear and desire.

Shiro knows it isn’t I’m sorry that Keith wants to hear. He wants to give that to him. He wants nothing more than to make Keith happy, to even be a pinprick of light in such a dark, expansive universe.

But he’s a void. And Keith deserves more than hollowness.

Still, he lets Keith thread their fingers together and turn onto his side, pulling Shiro onto the cot with him so Shiro’s curled up around him, Keith’s back pressing to Shiro’s chest. And that, at least, is a little easier.

 

-

 

Keith wears the flower tucked behind his ear until it wilts, days later.

“I wanted to save it,” Keith murmurs to the curled up edges of the alien peony in his hand. “Dry it out or press it or something.”

“It’s just a flower,” Shiro offers, helplessly.

Keith runs his fingertip along one furled petal and shakes his head. His eyelashes fan across his cheeks, sooty and beautiful. Keith sets the flower down with unfathomable care, his dark eyes repentant.

“I’ll get you another,” Shiro offers, quietly. “Next time we land.”

Keith smiles and manages a little laugh, turning towards Shiro and cupping his face, so that Shiro looks up at him and doesn’t look away.

Shiro’s body is a cage, too compressed from the expansiveness of his soul. On the astral plane, when Keith found him, when he touched Keith’s shoulders, he felt a spark of Keith’s soul in turn, a whisper of thoughts and feelings never expressed. He poured all his power into helping Keith get back to their friends.

Now, it’s just skin on skin. Now, it’s just Keith, separated from him.

“And you think you’re unkind,” Keith whispers. “You’ll bring me flowers?”

“The flowers might not think it’s kind, admittedly.”

That makes Keith laugh. Maybe it’s selfish, to only want to see Keith smile. To be the source of that happiness. He’ll bring Keith flowers for the rest of his life.

Keith’s fingers skate up his jaw and pet through his hair, pushing it away from his face.

“Shiro,” Keith whispers.

Shiro sighs and tips his head forward. Keith is there to meet him, pressing his forehead to his. Keith is casual and open with his touches now and Shiro craves that physicality. Keith is always there, always ready to offer him this. It’s the most he’s ever been touched. It’s the most he’s ever touched Keith.

They’ve been friends for so long but it’s different now. Shiro can recognize it, recognize all the ways he might tell himself he doesn’t deserve this and yet seeks it out anyway. And for Keith, it doesn’t seem a hardship. Keith’s made that more than clear.

“I’m afraid I’m unkind,” Shiro confesses. The words unfurl quietly, tentatively. He can admit this much to Keith, and only Keith, but even that is a struggle. He feels himself start to tremble. “I’m afraid I’m not— real.”

“What do you mean?”

As soon as Keith’s body starts shaking, Keith’s hands are there, touching him— first his cheeks, then his shoulders, then resting against his chest. It settles Shiro, if only a little. He sucks in a sharp breath and forces himself to relax, to focus on Keith.

“What if I’m not the real Shiro?” Shiro asks, puts voice to the worry that’s nagged at him since he woke.

Keith stares, eyes wide. “What?”

Shiro takes a slow, steadying breath. He lets it back out again, taking his time to stay calm, knowing Keith will wait as long as it takes. “What if the real Shiro died on Kerberos? What if he died in the arena? What if I’m just some… combination of clones?” Shiro asks. “There’s so much in my memories that I can’t account for. It’s—”

Shiro,” Keith says, heartbroken, hands lifting to cup his face. Words jar inside of Shiro and plummet into his stomach, swirling.

“He… I wanted to bring you there,” Shiro says, faint and distant. “Our fight. To where the clones were.”

“Why there?” Keith asks, hushed.

“So you could see,” Shiro says. “What I was. What I am. So you could stop it, maybe. I didn’t… I didn’t have a lot of space then to think. I just had to get you somewhere. I had to play your— weakness against you.”

Keith frowns, his eyes swirling with that familiar anger at Haggar. His thumbs swipe over Shiro’s cheekbones, comforting.

“My weakness?”

Shiro swallows. “How you feel about me.”

Keith actually snorts. It’s quiet, something he silences quickly in favor of just touching Shiro. But it’s clear he finds the suggestion ridiculous— and it’s endearing to see it.

“The other clones—”

Shiro shakes his head, though not enough to dislodge Keith’s touch. “I destroyed them all, when my arm transformed… when we fell. They’re gone.”

Keith considers that and then asks, quietly, “And how do you feel about that?”

“They weren’t me,” Shiro answers, his voice sounding so hollow. “They were just shells.” His mouth thins into a pained line. “But… how much quintessence did it take to clone me? To transplant my memories? My feelings? What made me… me? How many people died so that she could make me?” He breathes out, his body sagging. “I think about it all the time. I’m terrified I’m not… real. Maybe the real Shiro’s long dead.”

Keith makes a sound, deep and primal, the same sound he always makes whenever Shiro acknowledges his mortality. It’s never far. At the end of the day, Shiro might have survived all of this— only to doom himself to die on Earth, his body broken in other ways. He can’t outrun his disease forever, he knows.

Keith pets his fingers over his cheeks, into his hair, down his neck. He’s touching him for the sake of touch.

“Do you feel like Shiro?” Keith asks, and Shiro’s glad that he doesn’t try to dismiss these words or try to reassure Shiro with platitudes.

“I think so,” Shiro confesses. He smiles, wan and unfelt. “I know I tend to overthink.”

“You’ve been in your head a lot lately,” Keith acknowledges. “Understandably. You’ve… I can’t imagine all you’ve been through, Shiro.” His eyes are so wide and so mournful. “You deserved none of this.”

Shiro smiles at him.

“Do you want to know what I think?” Keith asks.

“Sure,” Shiro says.

“Answer me this: do you want to hurt me now?” Keith asks.

“No. Never.”

“Then you’re Shiro in all the ways that matter,” Keith answers.

Shiro wants to laugh. He also wants to cry. He huffs a breath. It’s so simple when Keith says it that way, and as in all ways with Keith, Shiro just wants to believe him.

“How can you be so sure?”

“Shiro,” Keith murmurs and his fingertips touch the line of Shiro’s jaw. It’s such a gentle touch, profoundly sweet. His thumb touches his chin and Keith’s eyes bore into his. “You aren’t evil. You aren’t an impostor. You aren’t fake… You’re Shiro. You’re Shiro in all the ways that matter.”

He just keeps touching Shiro. Shiro really is about to start crying.

“And,” Keith says, quietly, “How I feel about you has never been my weakness, Shiro.”

This time, Shiro huffs a breath, an almost-laugh through his nose. “I know.”

He tips forward again, pressing their foreheads together again, gulping down air. Keith is there to meet him, cupping the back of his head, his fingers tangled in Shiro’s hair, giving him pinpricks of sensation. His fingers stroke through the softer, shorter bits of his hair, his stubby nails scrubbing along his scalp.

“I know you don’t want to hear it,” Keith says. “But I was ready to die. I was willing to die with you. Only for you, Shiro. You’re Shiro.” His voice drops to a quiet murmur, resounding and kind, “You’re Shiro.”

Keith’s right that Shiro doesn’t want to hear it. A punch in the gut would hurt less than hearing those words— the way it nearly robs him of everything. He goes breathless instantly, his heart hammering in his chest. The thought of Keith dying, of being lost forever— it’s too much.

“Keith,” he says, helplessly.

“I’m going to love you forever,” Keith vows, eyes steady and so, so bright. “You’re it for me.” He smiles, a little shy but unrelenting. “I can’t be in love with anyone but Shiro, okay? So… you must be Shiro.”

Shiro can’t help the smile that pulls at his lips, more heartfelt than heartbroken. Tentatively, he lifts his hand, touching Keith’s cheek in turn. Immediately, Keith tilts his head, pressing against Shiro’s palm. Keith is a burning sun and Shiro’s addicted to feeling the heat of his cheeks against his palm.

“Okay,” Shiro whispers, accepting.

He has memories of things experienced in another body. He has scars from another life-time. He has the memories of a Shiro who exists and does not exist. He is a conglomerate in so many ways, so different from the little boy who looked up at the stars and wanted to explore.

But Keith loves him. He never wants to shun that gift.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re incredibly stubborn?” Shiro asks. “And just a tad bit overwhelming?” His smile grows, tentative and helpless when he adds, “In a good way, though.”

Keith’s mouth twitches. He turns his head and does what Shiro’s wished he had done so many times before— he presses his mouth to the center of Shiro’s palm, kissing it. He doesn’t seem stunned by his own action, but he does pause, lingering a moment before he dares to flick his eyes up and look at Shiro, as if testing to see what Shiro’s reaction will be.

When Shiro doesn’t recoil, Keith smiles and says, “I think you’ve told me once or twice before, yeah.”

“You… you really would have died with me?” Shiro asks. “Even though I was—”

“You’re Shiro,” Keith whispers and cups his hand over Shiro’s, keeping it pressed up against his scar. “And you’re— you’re everything to me. Did you think I’d really just let you go?”

“No,” Shiro admits. He was unconscious when Keith held him by his wrist, holding on just by his blade. But he’d watched them fall from the Black Lion and felt only sorrow to think of Keith’s sacrifice. But he knew, never doubted, that Keith would keep holding on.

“I…” Keith’s voice goes fragile, threadbare and small. “I couldn’t… I don’t want to live in a universe without you, Shiro.”

“Oh, Keith,” Shiro whispers. Keith looks up at him, eyes wide and just a little glassy.

Hesitantly, Shiro drags his thumb down the line of Keith’s scar. He watches Keith’s mouth part, watches him huff the tiniest of breaths.

“And I think,” Keith whispers, so quiet, so breathless, eyes starry and beautiful, “I’m…” He pauses, his mouth teasing an almost smile, something tentative and shy. “Words are funny things, Shiro.”

Shiro makes an inquisitive sound. Keith sighs, leaning heavy against Shiro’s hand on his cheek.

“Actions… You know actions have always meant more to me than words.”

Shiro nods again. There’s a pit in his stomach, yawning open, threatening to consume his heart. He blinks at Keith. But Keith smiles at him, gentle and serene, and he isn’t the boy from the desert that Shiro once knew, lifetimes ago.

“Just because you haven’t said it to me, do you really think I don’t know?” Keith asks.

Shiro sucks in a sharp breath.

“I know why you haven’t said it,” Keith continues, voice quiet and damnably understanding. “I don’t blame you. You know I don’t agree, but I’m not going to hold it against you. It doesn’t change how I feel. You aren’t… going to push me away.”

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Shiro interrupts, pained.

“I know,” Keith answers. His eyes are so beautiful. “What I’m saying is, even if you were trying to, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t. I chose you, Shiro. A long time ago. I’ll never give up on you.”

“Keith.”

Keith closes his eyes, just leaning against Shiro’s palm for a breath, his hair falling in his eyes. He stills, and for the rest of his life, Shiro will remember the way he looks in this moment— so strong, so beautiful, but just as desperate to be near Shiro as Shiro is to be near Keith.

Shiro thinks he understands now, why this entire trip Keith’s wanted to be near him. Why he keeps touching him.

“We’re friends. Always. First and foremost,” Keith continues. “You could never tell me you love me, and it’d be okay.”

Shiro isn’t sure what to say to that. “I…”

“So if you’re going to reject me out of a sense of protectiveness, please don’t,” Keith says.

“I want you to be happy. You deserve that.”

“And you think I’ll be happy without you?”

“I don’t know,” Shiro admits. “It might be better.”

“How?”

“I think I’ve come back broken,” Shiro admits.

Keith’s mouth twists and he shakes his head. “I love you. All of you. Like nothing else in the universe.”

Shiro clenches his eyes shut. He feels a sting of tears. “Keith…”

“I want to be with you forever,” Keith says, bolder now. “You. Broken or not. Just you.”

“I— I want…” Shiro fumbles, fighting two dual desires: to protect Keith, to never let Keith go. He opens his eyes, his body trembling.

He thinks of Keith falling, never letting Shiro go. He thinks of Shiro curled up in the Black Lion, sobbing out his mourning and then goading her onward to keep looking. He thinks of hoverbike racing with Keith, out in the desert, kicking up dust and watching the sunset. He thinks of Keith, sprawled out on his back, telling Shiro that he is loved.

Shiro can imagine a world without Keith— it’s an endless, stretching void inside the Black Lion, nothing left to him but his thoughts. He never wants to live in that world again.

“Me too, Keith.”

Surprise touches Keith’s eyes. They widen, his mouth opening. He looks boyish in that moment, taken aback and so painfully young. Too young to tether himself to a monster.

But Keith’s never seen him as that, has he?

Shiro’s quiet for a long moment, unsure. But he’s already admitted it. He can’t deny it now. Too late, he worries that, maybe, his silence could be misunderstood as rejection— that somehow in his silence, Keith might feel himself unworthy, unloved.

Shiro touches Keith and draws him closer. “Keith.”

“Mm?” Keith prompts, pulling Shiro’s hand from his cheek only so he can tangle their fingers together. He looks at him, hopeful.

Shiro bites his lip and pushes past the walls he’s built around himself, swallowing down and finding, for once, some courage he can hold onto. He might be a broken weapon, but he was once a leader. He was once strong. He can be that again.

“I do… I do love you, Keith,” Shiro whispers, voice trembling. He takes a deep breath, watching Keith’s eyes widen. “I love you.”

Keith smiles at him, wobbly and sweet and so, so gentle. Then, slowly, he ducks his head. He holds Shiro’s hand so tight, refusing to let go, but says nothing.

A moment later, though, Shiro realizes that his shoulders are shaking. A moment after that, a sob slips out of Keith.

“Keith!”

“Sorry,” Keith says, hiccupping around a pained little laugh. “Sorry, I just— god. I didn’t— I really wasn’t sure if I’d ever hear you say that to me.” He looks up at Shiro, laughing, tears sliding down his cheeks. He’s beaming at him, glassy-eyed and so beautiful.

Shiro’s breathing’s coming faster now, hope and fear and too much sensation tumbled up inside him. Quietly, he asks, “Would you tell me again, Keith?”

Keith laughs, watery. He wipes at his face with his free hand and squeezes Shiro’s with the other. His voice doesn’t waver when he says, “Shiro… I love you.”

Shiro lets the words wash over him. He listens this time, properly, and thanks the universe that, this time, he can say it back. That this time, Keith doesn’t have to shout it but can offer it freely here.

Shiro can’t help the pained laugh that slips past his lips, too, and a moment later, Keith’s cupping his cheek, swiping his thumb. Shiro’s crying, too, he realizes, and he flashes back into his body, feeling the slide of the tears, the flooding of his vision.

“I love you, too,” Shiro says, wonders how he could have gone so long never saying it. It pours out of him now, as natural and beautiful as breathing. As natural and beautiful as living. He was born to love Keith, he thinks, and he’s never going to stop.

He tips Keith’s chin up and leans in, kissing him. He swallows the little breath Keith takes and pours every piece of love and devotion available to him. He touches Keith’s chin, his cheek, the line of his jaw. He cups the back of his head and lays worship to his mouth, pouring everything he has into Keith.

And Keith is there to hold him in turn. His hands cup Shiro’s face like he is unspeakably precious, wiping his tears away as he mouths at Shiro’s lips, licks into his mouth and sighs his name. Shiro’s name has never sounded more beautiful to his ears than when Keith is gasping it into his mouth.

He kisses Keith until he can’t breathe and even then hates to part, pressing their foreheads together, sharing the same breath as Keith. Keith pants a little before him, grasping at Shiro, biting his lip and looking flushed and so, so handsome.

“I love you,” he whispers, and something cracks open inside of him. Every tear he’s never cried comes rushing out of him.

Shiro doesn’t know what it means, to weep so openly in someone’s arms. He can’t recall ever having done so. Keith’s arms curl around him and pull him close and Shiro’s body shakes, the breath heaving out of him as he presses his face up against Keith’s neck. Keith holds true and steady, one hand cupping the back of his head and the other splayed out over his back.

It’s nearly suffocating, how alive his senses become, surrounded by Keith. Everything is all around him. The universe itself is all around him. Keith is all around him. Steady and sure, Keith never lets him go. Shiro cries against Keith’s neck, feels the thud of Keith’s heart and the pulse of his breath.

Shiro thinks that he should feel emptier than this. But instead, he’s overflowing. He trembles in Keith’s arms and imagines growing a garden with him when they get home— fields and fields of roses, of peonies, of any flower red enough to meet the fire of Keith’s love, anything he can possibly do to spell his devotion back to Keith.

“I’m—” sorry he starts and stops before the word can form. He blinks his eyes a few times, feeling tears spill down his cheeks. He draws away just enough so Keith can cup his face, his smile wobbly and true, his eyes just as glassy.

“Shiro?” Keith whispers.

We saved each other, Shiro reminds himself, cups Keith’s cheek, and leans in to kiss him— to vow his devotion to the man he loves more than the universe and anything beyond it.

“Thank you,” he says instead. What he should have been saying since the beginning. “I love you. Thank you, Keith.”