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ouroboros

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title card for ouroboros, showing an ouroboros with the blade of marmora symbol in the center

Keith doesn’t do casual flings.

There are many, many reasons why he shouldn’t—he’s a prince, and the chances of being taken advantage of or just taken hostage are unfortunately high—but the main reason he doesn’t do it is that he just isn’t interested.

People have directed that kind of attention at him before. He doesn’t notice unless they’re being really obvious about it, but it doesn’t matter if he notices or not since, either way, he refuses to acknowledge it. He knows it’s not an attitude that wins him friends, but he doesn’t see how outright rejection is any better.

At least rumors of his coldness stop potential suitors before they even begin.

Point being—Keith’s not the kind of person who would ever claim a moment of love at first sight. He’s not the kind of person who would ever tumble into bed with someone he just met. He’s not the kind of person who would ever feel the word love on the tip of his tongue after the first touch of skin on skin.

He’s not that kind of person. He isn’t.

But the past hour has turned him into one, and he’s too busy enjoying it to hate it.

He gasps as Shiro’s teeth scrape his collarbone. The shivers down his spine are so at odds with the heat tearing through his veins, but they both threaten to tear his consciousness from his body. He tightens his grip on Shiro’s shoulders, desperately trying to stay anchored to reality.

They’re joined together in a way that Keith has never welcomed from anyone—never even wanted from anyone. He feels possessed. He feels like he should be stopping or slowing down or at least taking a moment to figure out what the fuck is going on and what he’s doing here, but as soon as he thinks that, he knows:

He’s here because Shiro’s here.

He’s here because the moment he saw Shiro smile, he felt an instant, searing attraction that he’s never felt before in his life. He’s here because he’d been walking alone in the dying sunlight when he’d caught sight of a tall, handsome stranger, and he couldn’t turn away. He’s here because they’d been drawn to each other, stumbling together as if magnetized and barely managing to exchange a few breathless sentences before they were kissing in the corner of the park, Shiro’s lips a balm soothing a loneliness that Keith hadn’t even realized he’d felt.

He’s here because the moment he had his arms around Shiro, everything inside him was screaming to never let go.

He wraps his legs tighter around Shiro’s body, pulling him up and closer, and stifles a sob at the way the change in angle drives Shiro impossibly deeper.

“You okay?” Shiro’s lips brush Keith’s ear.

His voice is soothing and rich; it travels straight to Keith’s core and makes him shudder. “Fuck.”

“Good fuck?” Shiro says, and he sounds amused now. His movements are shallow and languid; nothing more than a slow, steady grind. Like he’s just as reluctant to pull too far from Keith, even if too far is only half an arm’s distance away.

“Hnnng.” Keith’s torn between telling him to move and telling him to sink in, to anchor himself inside Keith’s body and stay there forever.

Shiro kisses his cheek, then his lips, and even the briefest contact sends the most amazing sparks skittering across Keith’s skin.

It’s been like this since the first time they’d kissed. Keith doesn’t even know how they made it back to his hotel room. He knows that they’d walked—the park is only a short distance from his hotel, which is how Keith had ended up there in the first place—but he’s surprised that they’d managed enough steps between their rushed, desperate kisses to make it back.

Now Keith presses his lips against Shiro’s and thinks—he would be happy to stay here for the rest of his life, melting under Shiro’s firm but gentle touch.

Shiro curls his fingers, blunt nails scraping against one of Keith’s side and sleek metal sending chills down the other, and Keith moans and reaches for Shiro’s hair and pulls him down harder, harder, harder, grinding their bodies together as he gives Shiro all he has. It’s longing and desperation, and Keith has no idea why he feels this, only that he does, and it’s going to consume him whole.

Shiro breaks away to kiss at the tears leaking from the corners of Keith’s eyes. He pushes Keith’s thighs further up and stays pressed close as he starts moving, so close that Keith can feel the heat radiating off his body. Every slow thrust forces out a quiet, shocked gasp from Keith.

“You’re so beautiful,” Shiro murmurs against the skin of his neck. “Can’t believe you’re real.”

Keith feels like he should be the one saying that. Shiro is—everything. Physical attraction, Keith has felt, even if he’s never acted on it. This isn’t it. Every time Shiro kisses him, the feeling of the press of his lips is secondary to the mark Keith feels it leaving on his soul.

Soulmark.

The thought comes from nowhere and lingers in his mind—this unexplainable attraction could easily be the result of a soulmate bond. The winged serpent curled at the nape of his neck feels hot.

“Shiro,” he gasps. “Wait, I—“

Shiro freezes, hovering over him. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong,” Keith says, and struggles with how to ask the question. “I just—Your soulmate—”

“Oh.” Shiro relaxes, then shrugs, smiling wryly. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t have a soulmate.”

I think I could be your soulmate, is what Keith wanted to say, but now the words die in his throat, the same way his heart drops.

He wanted that chance.

He didn’t actually realize how much, not until Shiro said the words, and he feels a bit silly for it—he’d just had the thought less than a minute ago, what reason does he have to get so upset about the fact that it hadn’t worked out? It isn’t as though he’d built up a fantasy about it.

But maybe he had. Maybe in that split second, he’d built up an idea of what the future could hold for them.

It’s better, he thinks, for it to be impossible. He’s a prince of Daibazaal on a diplomatic mission. He’s only a few hours off of his sixteen-hour flight from the other side of the world, where the Galra have lived mostly in isolation. He can’t afford a human as his soulmate, let alone a human he hardly knows.

His life isn’t meant for that.

“Are you all right?” Shiro says softly. The backs of his fingers are curled against Keith’s cheek, and his face is so, so careful.

Keith nods. Fuck, he thinks he’s crying again. He hadn’t realized how much disappointment could hurt. How much rejection could hurt—not that this was even a real rejection.

Shiro starts moving—to draw back, Keith realizes, and he clamps down with all his limbs to keep Shiro pressed against him.

“Okay, okay, I’m right here,” Shiro murmurs, rocking against him. It’s perfect, and Keith shudders. “What do you need?”

“Kiss me,” Keith says.

He half-expects the electricity to be gone, but when Shiro kisses him, everything inside him still sparks to life. They’re not soulmates, and Keith doesn’t understand what else it could be, but he’s done trying to figure it out.

He wants this—wants Shiro—more than he’s ever wanted anything in his life, and he’s going to enjoy it while it lasts, with everything that he has.

He pulls Shiro deeper into him, rocking their bodies together, and Shiro moans into his mouth. Shiro’s noises are feeding a thirst in him. His low groans make Keith’s belly pool with molten heat, but when his sounds become high and needy—that’s what makes Keith desperate in return.

It’s clumsy.

Shiro’s rutting against him desperately, and Keith is trying to get him to move faster, deeper, but neither of them wants to stop kissing, and Keith has his hands on the back of Shiro’s head and neck to keep them in place, and Shiro’s hands can’t decide if they want to run all over Keith’s body or grab onto his hips to guide their fucking. Shiro slips out once, then twice, and both times he reaches down without breaking away and guides himself back in.

Keith doesn’t break away until he’s actually starting to feel light-headed, and Shiro takes the opportunity to turn his face down into Keith’s neck and bite down at the junction of Keith’s neck and shoulder.

“Oh fuck,” Keith gasps, and for one blissed-out moment he thinks he’s come just from that. He hasn’t, but in a way, he feels like he has—the friction of Shiro’s skin against his fills his mind, and he feels oversensitive from each thrust of Shiro inside him. “Shiro,” he says, “Shiro, Shiro, I need—“

Shiro licks at the spot he bit, then trails his tongue the rest of the way up Keith’s throat, making Keith shudder. “What do you need, baby?”

“I need—“ Too much. To come. For Shiro to come. For Shiro to kiss him again. For Shiro to hold him close and to never let go. “I can’t—“

“You can,” Shiro says, and it’s unfair how he can sound like that, firm and gentle and commanding and arousing all at once. He scrapes his teeth against Keith’s jaw, and Keith whines softly. “Tell me what you need, Keith.”

“Fuck me,” Keith says. “I need to feel you, please, fuck me—“

It doesn’t make any sense, as a request. Shiro’s already fucking him, after all. But Shiro doesn’t look confused, or ask him to clarify. “Okay, baby,” he murmurs against Keith’s skin, and then he throws Keith’s legs over his shoulders, uses his hands to tilt Keith’s hips back, and well and truly fucks him.

Keith doesn’t know what to do with his hands. They twist in the sheets as he cries out, but—he wants them on Shiro. He reaches out, fingers scrabbling at the sides of Shiro’s ribs, as everything inside him crumbles to pieces.

It’s a pleasure he can’t describe, one that robs all thoughts from his mind and pushes him beyond words.

“Keith,” Shiro breathes, “Fuck, Keith, I lo—”

Keith surges up, grabbing onto the back of Shiro’s head and kissing him desperately.

Don’t say it, he thinks. You’ve known me for one night and you’re not my soulmate, you don’t even have a soulmate, don’t you fucking dare say it.

Shiro makes a soft noise into the kiss, and then a frantic one as he begins to shake, but Keith curls his tongue against Shiro’s and swallows down his voice.

He doesn’t want to hear what Shiro will say as he comes.

Keith doesn’t let go until Shiro is sated and heavy against him. Shiro studies Keith’s face as he pulls back, but all he does is murmur, “Relax,” as he presses a hand against Keith’s hip to hold him down as he pulls out.

It almost feels bigger on the way out, and Keith’s breath escapes him in a stutter as Shiro pops free.

Shiro studies him for a moment, then, keeping his hand planted on Keith’s hip, bends down and takes Keith into his mouth.

Keith shouts and bucks up, and Shiro’s other hand comes up to keep Keith held firmly against the mattress as Shiro works him over slowly with lips and tongue. There’s a pressure building in Keith’s mind, the same way it’s building in the rest of his body. He thinks he might actually explode with it.

Shiro squeezes his hips, hard, and Keith screams.

Time passes strangely for a while.

It could’ve only been seconds—in fact, it probably was only seconds—but Keith feels like he’s coming for hours. He can’t think, he doesn’t even know if he’s breathing, and he thinks there’s a good chance he actually passed out for a bit, but when he comes to, Shiro is curled around him, hand still languidly stroking his cock, and Keith weakly rolls his hips away because he is going to die if Shiro keeps that up.

Shiro gets the hint quickly, and instead slides up to kiss Keith slow and deep. Keith accepts it for a moment before turning away and groaning. “You’re too…”

“What?”

“Alive,” Keith grunts. He’s halfway to sleep, and he thinks he could stay there for days.

But Shiro—he’s bright-eyed, with a soft smile on his face. It’s not normal, Keith thinks, for a man to have that kind of face when the rest of his body is… like that. Enormous and sculpted, with a tattoo of a rose over his heart—his body looks like he could snap Keith in half with barely a thought, but his face looks like his sole purpose in life is petting kittens.

“That was good sex,” Shiro says, in a tone that’s far too chipper.

Keith scowls at him. “Are you an incubus or something?” That would explain the body, and the ungodly energy.

Shiro blinks at him. “Are those real?”

“You tell me.”

“I’m a little too mortal to be one, I think,” Shiro says dryly. “How do I know you’re not the sex demon?”

“Because I’m dead,” Keith says. “You can’t kill a sex demon with sex. That’s against the demon rules, or whatever.”

“Of course.” Shiro pecks his cheek. “The demon rules. Can’t forget about those.”

Keith shifts uncomfortably, because—it’s too comfortable. Everything’s too comfortable. He’s not supposed to have casual sex, and he’s pretty sure he’s definitely not supposed to laze around bantering with his partner afterward. They’ve known each other for hours, but the weight of Shiro’s arm over his body has the easy familiarity of years. Keith’s chest tightens. It’s unfair.

“Hey, are you okay?” Shiro says, running his thumb across Keith’s cheekbone. It feels wet.

“M’fine.” Keith swipes at his eyes. “Just tired.”

“I’ll clean us up,” Shiro says, rolling away. “Can I use any of the towels in your bathroom?”

“Go for it.”

It’s when Shiro heads towards the bathroom that Keith sees it.

Nestled on the curve of Shiro’s lower back is a mark. He really only sees it for a few moments before Shiro disappears into the bathroom—not enough time for anyone to really capture the details, but Keith knows it intimately.

The ouroboros—a winged serpent, half-white and half-black, curled in a circle as it opens its mouth to devour its own tail. It’s a common enough symbol that Keith could pass it off as another tattoo, if not for the symbol of his mother’s family, the House of Marmora, nestled in the center.

It’s his soulmate mark. He’s sure of it.

But Shiro had said, easily, that he didn’t have a soulmate. There are reasons people lie—to protect themselves if they fear being taken advantage of, like Keith, or if they would prefer not to believe in the concept of soulmates in the first place. Either way, the fact that Shiro lied means that he doesn’t want his soulmate to be Keith.

If the disappointment he felt earlier was painful, the rejection that he feels now is devastating, crawling down his throat and squeezing his heart in a grip so tight he thinks it might shatter.

When Shiro returns with towels, all Keith can think is why did you lie? When Shiro discards them into the hamper and crawls back to bed, dropping a sleepy kiss on Keith’s forehead, all Keith can think is why did you lie? When Shiro wraps his arm around Keith and murmurs a quiet goodnight, all Keith can think is why the hell did you lie?

But rejection clogs his throat and keeps him from asking the question, because he’s already drained and he knows that hearing the answer will only break him more.

Tomorrow, Keith decides. He’ll put this out of his mind and just enjoy it for a night.

He curls closer to Shiro, turns his head up to press a kiss against the line of Shiro’s jaw, and settles in for sleep.

They’ll talk about it tomorrow.

It’s not as though he’s not keeping his own secrets. Keith looks human enough that Shiro probably hasn’t noticed he’s part Galra, and Keith knows that Galra aren't exactly well-loved by the humans.

When Keith wakes up in the morning, sunlight streaming through the shutters and across his face, he encounters exactly what he expected when he made the decision that he did.

The bed beside him is empty.

Shiro’s already gone.

Chapter Text

Keith’s not upset. If anything, this is for the best. He’s not in a position to be agonizing over a soulmate who doesn’t want him back. In fact, he’s not even in a position where he can comfortably have a soulmate.

He can’t give anyone that kind of power over him right now.

He can’t risk that kind of weakness.

That’s what Keith tells himself, at least, as he steps into the shower and washes away his memories of the night before.

He checks his phone after he’s finished braiding his hair and changing into his clothes for the day. There’s a message from his mom, checking in, and one from Kolivan, half checking in and half warning him to be careful not to end up getting all his quintessence harvested by the humans. He sends them each a generic I’m fine, don’t worry, I’ll call you later and deliberately does not say by the way, I found my soulmate, he’s a human and he doesn’t want me even if he desperately wants to scream about it.

He closes the message from his mom and sees there’s also another message, from Lotor.

Keith hesitates.

It’s not that he doesn’t like Lotor. They grew up together, after Keith was taken to Daibazaal, even though they’re not really related. Lotor’s the only heir to House Zarkon, waiting until he comes of age to take the throne officially from Kolivan, who’s acting as Regent. The next house with a claim to the throne of Daibazaal is House Marmora, which makes Keith the second prince. It sounds like a fancy title, but all it really means is that most of his life has existed in Lotor’s shadow—taking opportunities that Lotor doesn’t want to take, all the while being held to his standard.

But no one actually wants him to be better than Lotor.

The role of the first prince is to shine. The role of the second prince is to wait for a turn that may never come.

Keith doesn’t want the throne, but his life revolves around it all the same. He’s only in Terra because the kingdom of Daibazaal needed to send someone as a show of good faith, and Lotor was considered too important to risk. Keith thinks he should be bitter about that, but really he’s grateful. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get another opportunity to live in a place where they don’t know him from any other Galra.

Keith’s been staring at his phone long enough that the screen has gone dark. He’s still deciding what to do when it lights up again, with a message from the driver assigned to him by Shirogane Corp saying they’re outside the hotel.

Keith will leave Lotor for later.

He grabs his work bag—a slim, black messenger bag packed with a notepad and pens, bought specifically for this assignment—and makes his way down to the car. There’s no actual driver, but the car gives a friendly beep and pops open the driver side door as he approaches.

Keith stares at it. “Did you message me?” he says, before realizing that cars can’t talk.

His phone dings with a new message from his driver: :)

“Right,” Keith says.

He climbs into the car and shuts the door. A brief, cheerful melody fills the car, then they’re off. Even though Keith’s in the driver’s seat, there aren’t actually any driver controls, so he spends the trip looking out the window.

Terra’s very green, he decides, compared to Daibazaal, and intentionally so. Keith’s seen the desert on the outskirts of Garrison City, where Shirogane Corp is based, but in the middle of the concrete of the city, there are small trees and shrubs and flowerbeds. It can’t be natural for trees to grow in the middle of the street, much less when the surrounding area is desert. He wonders how much time and effort the Terrans have to put into nurturing something that’s inclined to die.

The car stops, and a different brief, cheerful melody plays before the door pops open again.

“Uh, thank you,” Keith says as he steps out. He hovers uncertainly for a moment, then shuts the door.

The car beeps then drives off, and Keith’s left standing in front of the headquarters of Shirogane Corp. There’s no way anyone can mistake it for anything else—it looks taller than is strictly required for any building, and very modern, all flat lines and sleek glass. It’s dizzying, to tilt his head up to look at it in its entirety. The morning sunlight shards from the glass at the top of the building, blinding him until he turns away.

Instead of a sign on the building, there’s a sleek, black block in the courtyard in front. The word SHIROGANE is carved into it in white block letters. Some humans are posing next to it as they take pictures of themselves. Judging from their clothes, compared to the clothes of the humans actually walking into the building, Keith doesn’t think the humans taking pictures actually work there.

Weird.

Very weird.

Keith tries not to feel self-conscious of his own clothing. It’s Galra formalwear, which seems very different from anything anyone else is wearing—his outer coat is black with dark blue-purple accents, high-collared, long-sleeved, and it falls to mid-thigh, though it’s clasped shut from neck-to-waist. The black pants he wears seems the same, at least, though his dress boots seem to be of a different shape.

Maybe he should have done more research, or came to Terra earlier to have time to buy human clothing—but as soon as he has the thought, he brushes it aside. He knows that looking mostly human thanks to his dad’s genes already makes it easier for him to fit in than if he were full Galra. But he’s not here to fit in or meet anyone’s expectations. He’s here to be himself, in a way that he can only be here—and he didn’t mean for that to mean he’d fuck a human the first night here, but he doesn’t regret it.

But he shouldn’t be thinking about this right now. He shouldn’t be thinking about any of this right now.

He pushes aside thoughts of expectations, and Lotor, and Shiro, and steps into the building.

Immediately he’s greeted by brightness, and white. The floor is white tile, with small black diamonds in a pattern interspersed throughout. The walls are white. The ceiling is white. The counters are light marble. The rugs and furniture are a light cream. And the sunlight streaming in through the glass walls make everything that much brighter.

Keith feels like he’s tarnishing it just by stepping foot in it, his very presence staining the floor in a way that they won’t be able to scrub out later. The weight of what he’s doing creeps into him from the shadows—he’s the first Galra to step foot into this building. If he fails, he might be the last.

He sweeps his gaze past the cream furniture and potted plants to the large desk by the wall, where two humans are standing behind computers. It looks like a reception desk?

He makes his way over, and one human turns to him and smiles pleasantly. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” he echoes. He knows Terran well enough, but it still feels clunky on his tongue after years of disuse, and he’s lucky he didn’t have to say much to Shiro the night before.

He pinches himself below the desk and reminds himself to stop thinking about Shiro.

The human is still smiling pleasantly, waiting for him to speak.

Keith pulls out his official identification and places it on top of the desk. He hates using his title, but—“I’m Second Prince Keith of Daibazaal—”

“Oh, of course!” the human says, blinking at him in surprise. “A pleasure to meet you, Your Highness.”

“Keith, please, while I’m here,” Keith says.

“Of course,” the human says again. They open a drawer of the desk and hand him a card attached to a lanyard. “You’re expected on Floor 16. The elevators are right over there.”

“Thanks,” Keith says, and awkwardly makes his way over to the elevators.

Between the sets of elevator doors is a round panel with no buttons. Keith tries pressing it, but nothing happens. He’s debating whether or not to admit defeat and go back to ask the receptionists when another human wearing black pants and a pale green turtleneck steps into the bank and taps their card to it, which causes it to glow a brief blue. Keith looks at his card—blank except for some kind of bar code in the middle—and does the same.

“First day?” the human says, pushing up their glasses as they glance between Keith’s face and his card. Their voice is in the higher range of human voices, Keith notes.

“Yeah,” he says.

“What department?” they say.

“Um,” Keith says. Whatever department is investigating the identification and treatment of quintessence poisoning, he guesses. “Science?”

“Sweet!” the human says. “Me too.”

A set of elevator doors open and the human walks through, Keith trailing behind.

“I’m Pidge, by the way,” the human says, glancing at a panel on the side of the elevator as the doors close. “Ooh, executive floor, huh? You a new director?”

“A what?” Keith says. “No?”

“Huh,” Pidge says, frowning. Then their eyes get wide. “Oh! Oh…”

The elevator opens on the third floor.

“I will definitely see you around,” Pidge says, waving cheerfully as they exit.

Keith waves back.

He thinks he just got recognized.

The elevator rises to the sixteenth floor without stopping, and opens up into another elevator bank. There are doors on either side of the bank. One is shut, but beyond the open one, Keith can see dark grey carpet and a white desk, with a human sitting behind it.

Keith heads that way, but he’s only halfway there when—

“You’re late,” a familiar voice says, and Keith’s heart leaps into his throat. “Do you have the project brief for the—“

The voice cuts off when Keith turns around. Tall and broad, unfairly handsome, metal arm, black hair with that awfully endearing tuft in the front, scar across the bridge of his nose—it’s definitely Shiro, even if he’s replaced his comfy sweater from the night before with a sharp suit and tie.

“Shiro,” Keith says before he can stop himself.

Shiro’s eyes widen in the universal sign of oh shit, and Keith cringes. Probably what Keith should have done is pretended not to recognize Shiro—pretended that Keith’s at least a little bit capable of being professional.

“Oh, sorry, I—I thought you were an intern,” Shiro says, looking skittish.

“It’s fine,” Keith says, even though it hurts that Shiro didn’t recognize him on sight, which he knows is a ridiculous and unfair expectation. He decides to start over, and holds out his hand in human greeting. “Second Prince Keith of Daibazaal. Please call me Keith.”

“Takashi Shirogane,” Shiro says, clasping his hand, “CEO. Call me Shiro.” His metal hand is cold in Keith’s, and Keith’s mind traitorously recalls how nice it felt, warmed against his hot skin.

Keith banishes the thought from his mind.

“CEO,” Keith echoes.

“That’s me,” Shiro says with a slight smile. It doesn’t meet his eyes. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Again?”

“You, too,” Keith says, while wondering what kind of cursed luck led to him having a one night stand with the CEO of Shirogane Corp his very first night in Terra.

A one night stand that the CEO shamelessly ran away from, and doesn’t even look guilty about. He looks more nervous than anything, which Keith relates to, but there’s a small, hurt part of him that wishes Shiro would at least show some remorse. At least Keith probably won’t have to spend much time with him—as the CEO, he’s sure Shiro has better things to do.

Shiro clears his throat, and gestures for Keith to follow him down the hallway back to the elevators. “I’m personally heading the quintessence research project, so… we’ll be working closely during your time with us.”

“Oh,” Keith says, and he really doesn’t mean for that to come out nearly as shocked as it sounds.

Shiro looks down and scratches the back of his neck. “If that’s uncomfortable for you, we can figure out other arrangements.”

“It’s fine,” Keith says, suddenly very aware of the fact that they’re having this conversation out in the open, where everyone can hear. He glances around, but there’s no one else near the elevator banks. He tries to change the subject to something more neutral anyway. “Do you personally work on a lot of projects here?”

“Not really,” Shiro says, pressing his keycard against the elevator pad. “My job is mainly keeping shareholders happy and in the loop. For the ones I do work on, I’m usually in more of an organizational capacity.” He’s put his hands in his pockets as he speaks, looking for all purposes like a put-together, successful CEO of an international organization, and not an asshole who literally just pulled off a fuck and run.

The more put-together he looks, the more the hurt in Keith builds. He almost wants it to turn to resentment, to anger—emotions he knows how to handle. He doesn’t know what to do with a pressure behind his eyes that feels like it’ll lead to tears.

“This one is actually the only one I’m hands-on with,” Shiro goes on. He’s studying the elevator doors, which means he’s not paying any attention to what’s going on with Keith’s face, which Keith is glad for. “I’ve got a bit of a personal stake in it.”

“Oh?”

Keith doesn’t actually have much of the background information. He knows that some Terrans are suffering adverse effects from quintessence-based weapons that Honerva and Zarkon used during their ill-fated attempt to start a war, effects that Shirogane Corp has termed quintessence poisoning. They’ve been the only ones to try to study it, since quintessence isn’t really a concept that exists for Terrans—they’re not nearly as sensitive to it as Galra are, or even Alteans.

Thanks to Honerva paving the way forward, Galra are the world leaders when it comes to understanding quintessence, while also remaining well aware of the dangers of it. What had become of Honerva and Zarkon was a constant reminder.

So it doesn’t surprise Keith that Shirogane Corp reached out to Daibazaal requesting assistance with their research. What he doesn’t know is why Shirogane Corp decided to work on it in the first place, though he thinks he has some idea, from Shiro’s personal stake.

Shiro opens his mouth to answer, but the elevator doors open right then, and he reshapes his mouth to say, “After you.”

Once they step in, Shiro taps his card again on the panel inside and selects the third floor.

The elevator doors slide shut, and Keith latches onto their temporary privacy. “About last night,” he says quietly.

Shiro glances at him, and his careful veneer has dropped into something resembling total panic. It’s only for a second, maybe less, but Keith’s been trained to look for these things, and he can see the way Shiro is breaking into a cold sweat at the thought of having this conversation.

The vindictive part of him thinks, good, but he can’t tamp down the hurt he feels at Shiro’s reaction. Shiro doesn’t want anything more to do with Keith. This all but proves it.

“I think it’s for the best if we pretended it didn’t happen,” Keith says, even though it’s the exact opposite of what he wants. The back of his neck feels hot again. He’s putting his soul in Shiro’s hands, and the expression of relief that flitters across Shiro’s face makes him dig his nails into his palms just to distract himself with a different kind of pain before he gets overwhelmed.

Shiro’s expression melts to concern as he studies Keith’s face. “I’m sorry,” is all he says, a bit helplessly.

“It’s fine,” Keith says. He wants to cross his arms, but that feels like conceding something. He keeps them firmly planted by his sides, and forces his fingers to uncurl. “Let’s stop talking about it. Please.”

Shiro hesitates, then says, “Sure.”

Past the elevator bank on this side is an open space full of tables and chairs and bean bags and whiteboards, with several humans talking or working. Shiro leads him past all the tables to a closed door labeled The Dungeon in thick black marker.

“Our scientists think they’re funny.” Shiro’s tone is exasperated as he uses his keycard to unlock the door.

“You don’t actually lock them up in here, do you?”

Shiro shoots him a look like he’s surprised Keith is cracking jokes, and Keith shifts uncomfortably. It’d been too easy to fall into the easy rapport he’d had with Shiro last night, but it’s probably inappropriate to take into their work.

But Shiro gives him a small smile, and it seems real this time. “I’ll let you find that out for yourself.”

The door opens up into a hallway, lined with many more doors, and this section of the floor looks more sterile. The walls are white again, and the carpets have been replaced with white speckled tiles.

“The labs we use for quintessence research are on this floor,” Shiro says as they walk down the hall. He seems friendly, and well-known, nodding at the scientists who smile and wave at him as they pass. “I’ll introduce you to the scientists you’ll be working closely with, but anyone here will be happy to talk to you if you have questions. Feel free to ask questions about what they’re working on, as well. We don’t have any secrets here.”

Keith just barely resists the urge to scoff.

Shiro unlocks another door of frosted glass and waves Keith through. Instantly, Keith thinks he’ll need to wear something warmer if this is going to be where he’s spending most of his time. This room is dimmer than the hallway, set up with dark counters and steel cabinets along the perimeter and clunky pieces of equipment scattered throughout. It feels quieter, just because the room blocks out the voices of the people chatting outside, but he wouldn’t call it quiet, not with the constant whirring of the machines in the background.

Shiro glances around the room, then pulls out his phone and checks the time. “I guess it’s a bit early for anyone to be in. This is the main lab we use to do analysis work. Dr. Holt or Dr. Garrett can explain it all a lot better than I can, so I’ll wait until I can introduce you to them. There’s a smaller lab focused on collection, and another one on experimental synthesis work, but we’re mainly looking for your help on the analysis portion.”

“What kind of help?” Keith says. “I know you guys said you wanted general advising, but even we haven’t tried this kind of lab approach to studying quintessence.”

“I think there’s a lot we don’t understand, mainly because we can’t really see the things we’re trying to measure,” Shiro says, leaning against a counter by the door. “But you can. Or, you can feel it, to a certain extent. That’ll really help us focus our analysis on what’s important.” He scratches his neck. “It’s actually a challenging project for us, just because of the fact that as humans we don’t know what we’re looking at.”

Keith realizes that Shiro never answered his half-question from earlier. “Why work on it, then, if it’s so difficult?”

“Right,” Shiro says. He looks away for a moment, and takes a deep breath. “My mother died when I was young. That part’s common knowledge—on Terra, at least.” His lip quirks humorlessly. “What a lot of people don’t know is that she was there when Haggar attacked the city with a quintessence bomb. This was about five years before I was born? They all thought she was fine, but whatever happened, it did something to her quintessence. Something was just fighting her from the inside, until eventually, she couldn’t fight back.”

Keith twists his hands together. He doesn’t know what to say. “I’m so sorry,” he says quietly.

Shiro’s fake smile widens a bit. “It’s all right. It was a long time ago. When my dad realized that quintessence was the key, he got obsessed. Once he started looking into it more, he found out that most of the people who survived the attack were experiencing strange symptoms that he thinks could be blamed on quintessence poisoning, but he had no way of proving it, or treating it. It’s taken a long time, but we’re finally getting a lot closer to having hope for some of these cases.”

“How many cases are there?”

Shiro huffs out a breath. “It’s hard to tell. We tried to find volunteers to give regular samples from people who lived within a certain radius of the impact point, and we have maybe a hundred or so who we think show signs of quintessence poisoning at various stages, if we’re even looking at the right thing. Which is, of course, where you come in.”

Shiro pushes himself off the counter and makes his way across the lab, Keith trailing after him. Shiro fiddles with a keyboard until one of the monitors wakes up. “This is more Dr. Garrett’s area,” he says, “but I just want to show you so we don’t have to talk completely in the abstract.” He’s typing as he talks, eyes flickering across the screen as he pulls up some graphs.

It’s a lot of curves that don’t make very much sense to Keith—everything seems to be labeled in shorthand. He can tell that EMF—mV and B—uG are very different things, but he has no clue what they are. Each set of graphs is marked with a date and time of collection, and at the top of the screen is a bold Volunteer ID: 605.

“Basically, we’ve been analyzing quintessence samples from anonymous research participants over time,” Shiro says. “Sounds simple, but it took almost two decades for us to even do this much. 605 is I think our most extreme case. Let me pull this up so you can see…”

Another window of graphs appears on the screen, this one stamped with Volunteer ID: 230. While each set of graphs from 605 shows different patterns, each of 230’s looks more or less the same—some are shifted, and some have a wider range, but the pattern’s consistent.

“The earlier samples from 605 matches up with the general pattern we see from a control,” Shiro says, gesturing to the graphs as he speaks, “but over time it gets more erratic, which we think is showing the progression of quintessence poisoning over time. The interesting thing is that it’s not linear. The earlier samples show a steady progression. Then here, two years ago, it spikes.”

Keith still isn’t sure exactly what of the volunteers’ quintessence they’re measuring, but seeing the progression laid out like that feels foreboding. “Are they still…”

“Alive?” Shiro says. “As of last month, yes. That’s about the frequency 605 comes in. But it’s not looking good for them. They’ll probably be the first volunteer we lose.”

It must be difficult for all the scientists here, Keith thinks, to work on this without the knowledge that their efforts will even be able to save anyone in the end. To see the people that they’re trying to save disappear, one by one. He shivers.

“That’s what we’re working on,” Shiro says, closing out of the graphs and shutting down the monitor. “I’ll make sure you meet Dr. Holt and Dr. Garrett this week. They’re excited to see how your understanding of quintessence can help their research.”

“I hope I’ll be able to help,” Keith says sincerely.

Shiro’s smile is wan when he says, “I’m sure you will.” He steps away from the counter and leads the way back out of the lab. “But before that, we have to make sure you have the right clearance to come in and out of the labs, so actually we have to go back upstairs to set you up with HR.”

“Got it,” Keith says.

“Also, uh,” Shiro winces a bit, “since we’re technically bringing you on as a contract employee, there are some formalities you’ll have to go through.”

Keith raises his eyebrows. “I’m used to formalities, but that sounds ominous.”

“It’s a fair amount of video training modules,” Shiro says as he taps his badge against the panel in the elevator banks. “Standard stuff. You know. Anti-sexual harassment, lab safety, anti-discrimination…”

“How many videos?” Keith says.

Shiro looks away. “Well, if you really go at them… you should finish by the end of the day. Probably.”

Keith stares at him, then pulls out his phone. It’s barely even nine in the morning.

Shiro coughs. “Like I said. Formalities.” The elevator door opens, and he waves Keith through. “After you.”

“Thanks,” Keith mumbles.

The doors shut, and the elevator begins its ascent back to the sixteenth floor. They stand in silence for a few floors, then Shiro rubs his hands on his pants and says, “Keith. About what you said earlier—“

“Please stop,” Keith says. He doesn’t think he can make it through this conversation with any of himself intact. “I’d just rather we not talk about it, all right?”

Shiro hesitates, which is unfair because he’d been the one to run away this morning and then completely panic at seeing Keith. He should be grateful Keith’s willing to break his own heart over this.

“All right,” Shiro says finally.

The silence stretches.

“I’m only here until we finish the project,” Keith says finally. “We can just pretend it never happened. Then I’ll be gone, and you can forget about me.”

It comes out more bitter than he’d meant it to, and his tone seems to catch Shiro off guard, judging by the way he flinches.

“Okay,” Shiro says. “If that’s what you want.”

It’s not what Keith wants, but it’s for the best.

They’re quiet after that, and Shiro does the bare minimum of introducing him to the HR manager before running away. Again.

“When the Boss Man’s gotta go, he’s gotta go,” the HR manager says with a shrug. They grin at Keith. “I’m Lance, by the way.”

“Keith,” Keith says, then realized that in his haste Shiro failed to share their genders. “I am male.”

“Uh, cool, yeah. I, too, am male,” Lance says as he starts walking down the hall. “So, Galra prince, huh? That’s cool. Are you allowed to talk about Daibazaal and stuff?”

“Yes?” Keith’s not sure why he wouldn’t be.

“You guys are just so secretive over there,” Lance says, and Keith supposes it’s true that while the humans and Alteans and Olkarion are all getting along, the Galra still largely prefer to keep to themselves. “Do you guys have, like, floating chariots and stuff?”

“Uh,” Keith says. “No? We have trains?”

Lance deflates. “Oh. Bo-ring. My soulmate’s from Altea, and they have floating chariots.”

Keith ignores the pang at the word soulmate. “Daibazaal isn’t Altea.”

“Yeah, but you both have magic, don’t you?”

Keith frowns. “I mean, you do, too.”

“Uh, no we don’t.”

“What about the car that picked me up this morning?”

“That is science,” Lance says, sweeping his arms grandly. “Not magic.”

“Then we have science,” Keith says. “It’s the same thing.” The magic self-driving car doesn’t seem all that different from Altea’s gliding chariots, or the light trains in Daibazaal.

“Sure,” Lance says, but it’s clear he doesn’t believe Keith, and Keith suppresses a growl of frustration. “Anyway, here’s your office. We’ve got a sweet setup for you.”

Lance pushes open a door and leads Keith through. Keith hasn’t been in a lot of offices, but it seems nice—it’s reasonably large, minimally furnished, and one wall is a glass pane that shows a view of the entire city. With all the people sitting and working out in the shared spaces, Keith has to imagine that an office like this is prime real estate. He’s not even sure why he has an office if he’s going to be spending most of his time in the lab, but he guesses it’s more of a formality than anything.

Lance is sitting behind the sleek black desk, clicking around on a laptop sitting on top. “Just need to set up some accounts for you real quick,” he says. “I keep telling them to do this before the new hires show up, but do they ever listen? No. And now I have to do it.”

“Have you been here for a while?” Keith says.

“Straight out of school,” Lance says. “And I was an intern before that. So in total, it’s been… five years, more or less? Yikes. Anyways. They’ve got good benefits, they pay well, they’re not trying to destroy the world or anything. I’d consider it a good place to work.”

“Can you tell me what Shiro’s like?” Keith says. “To work with, I mean. I didn’t expect the CEO to be on the project.”

“Ah, yeah, Shiro’s like that,” Lance says, tapping his chin. “His dad was a lot more hands-off, letting scientists do their thing. But when Shiro wants something done, he’s all about doing it himself. I mean, it’s not a bad thing! The guy is mad smart. But sometimes he can definitely get really intense. Don’t let him scare you though, he’s like… a fluffy bunny in the body of a black panther.”

That comparison should really make no sense whatsoever, but Keith finds himself nodding in agreement. He can see it. He can definitely see it.

“But he’s definitely got moods, not gonna lie,” Lance goes on. “Some days he’s totally bubbly and others he’s like stressed way the fuck out, and he doesn’t wanna talk to anybody. I swear he makes himself sick from stress, like, all the time. He’s more on the stressed-out end today, probably because you’re here. No offense. New people are hard, you know? Especially people you’re gonna work with every day. You seem cool, though.”

“Uh, thank you?” Keith can’t keep track of all this information, but he’s not even sure how much of the stuff coming out of Lance’s mouth is even useful for him to be keeping track of. “You seem to know him pretty well.”

Lance tilts his head. “As much as anyone can, I guess? I mean, I’ve worked here for a while, so I’ve worked with him more than a few times now on hiring and stuff. But he’s not really the touchy-feely-talky type, you know?”

“Right,” Keith says, even though Shiro had certainly seemed touchy-feely-talky last night. But it’s true that Shiro wasn’t as open today, probably because of the professional environment. What would it take to see Shiro like that again?

No—Keith shakes himself out of that train of thought. He’s forgetting it happened. They’re both forgetting it happened. Which means he shouldn’t be trying to get to know Shiro on a personal level. They’re work colleagues, and that’s it.

“Cool, so I’ve got you all set up here,” Lance says, spinning the laptop around. “This is the dashboard with all the trainings. Unfortunately, you have to finish all of them before we can give you access to any of our company materials. Policy blah blah blah,” Lance says, which is probably not what a manager should be saying. “Anyways, good luck! You can ping me if you have any questions, let me just do that for you—” He pulls up some kind of messaging application and sends himself a smiley face, which is apparently just a thing for humans. “All right, cool! I’ll come check in on you for lunch and all that jazz. Good luck!”

“Wait,” Keith says, and he feels a bit embarrassed about asking this, but not enough to stop himself. “Is Shiro going to come by later?”

Lance, thankfully, seems to take the question professionally. “I think he said something about meetings when he ran off, but I think he planned to be available for you this afternoon. Did you need to talk to him about something specific?”

“Not really,” Keith says, trying to tamp down his disappointment. “Just… still learning about everything.”

Lance nods. “Ah yeah, I got you. I’ll check his calendar for you and let you know.”

“Thanks.”

Keith is twelve minutes into his cumulative seven hours and twenty-two minutes worth of videos when he gets a message on his computer.

Lance
Yeah, looks like Shiro got all booked up today. :(
Weird I totally thought he had more time free
But it looks like he’s blocked off a bit of lab time with you tomorrow AM so you can chat then
Let me know if you need anything else before lunch!!

Shiro is definitely avoiding him.

Keith can imagine in another reality that they could’ve become fast friends—that Shiro would be right here with him, poking fun at the training videos and eating lunch with him instead of Lance. That they could recapture that easiness they’d somehow lost in the space of last night and this morning.

But in this reality, Keith’s alone, with seven hours and ten minutes left of trainings to watch in his too-large, too-quiet office.

It’s better this way, he tells himself. It would never have worked out between them anyways.

His soulmark burns on the back of his neck.

Keith settles in his chair and presses play.

Chapter Text

“He sounds like he’s sincere about me helping with the quintessence research,” Keith says to Kolivan at seven in the morning the next day.

They’ve been catching up since half an hour before. It’s already evening in Daibazaal. Behind Kolivan’s video, Keith can see the dusky purple-orange sky. His mom’s calling in from the home office; behind her, Keith can see their bookshelves and Kosmo, curled up on the rug like he always does after dinner.

“Don’t let your guard down,” Kolivan says. “Humans are no better than Galra when it comes to revenge.”

“He doesn’t want revenge,” Keith says, and he knows he sounds defensive. Kolivan frowns at him, but he refuses to back down. “He just wants to find a cure.”

“That is what they want you to think.”

“Kolivan,” Keith’s mom says with a here he goes again sigh that Keith’s extremely familiar with. “This is Keith’s mission. Trust his judgment. You always have before.”

“He’s never been so far from home before,” Kolivan says, but he deflates. “I do trust you to make the right decisions, Keith. I apologize if I made you think otherwise.”

“Thanks, Kolivan.” Keith feels—a little guilty. He knows he compromised his judgment, if inadvertently, but even still he’s convinced that if Kolivan met Shiro, he’d trust him too. “I’ll share whatever I can from the research, but it might take a while. I think I have to go through some process here to access the files. They have a lot of process here. I had to spend yesterday watching training videos before they’d let me go anywhere on my own.”

He’s on the precipice of whining, he knows, but he still can’t believe they actually make everyone sit through all of that. He doesn’t know how the training on electrostatic discharge applies to him, or the one on appropriate interactions with Galra, likely added in preparation for his visit. (At least that one was surprisingly tasteful, but still—isn’t it obvious it shouldn’t apply to him?)

“Have you spoken with Lotor yet?” Kolivan says, and Keith stiffens.

He hasn’t. He hasn’t even opened the message yet.

“Send him a message when you can,” Kolivan says. “He’s worried about you.”

“Sure he is,” Keith mutters.

His mom sighs. “I don’t understand where this animosity between the two of you has come from. You got along so well when you were younger.”

That was before Keith was old enough to know what was really going on.

What’s between them isn’t animosity, not exactly, but Keith doesn’t know how to explain it to her. He appreciates all the ways that Lotor’s helped him and looked out for him as they’d grown up. Loves him for it, even. But he can’t shake the feeling that Lotor only cares about him because it’s good for his princely image to be the doting older brother, and Keith doesn’t give a shit about helping him maintain it.

“Please just let him know you’re alright,” his mom says. “If you don’t have time to talk, he’ll understand.”

“I have to go,” Keith says. “The car’s here.”

His mom pauses for a moment, and he thinks she’s going to call him out, but she only sighs. “All right. Have a good day, Keith. We’ll talk to you soon.”

Kolivan echoes her goodbye, and the call disconnects.

They both know he’s lying, he’s sure. He’s still in his sleeping wear, and even if he wasn’t, he’s never been good at hiding things from them. It’s that lingering feeling of guilt that makes him open the message from Lotor. The contents are generic, and his eyes barely gloss over them before he’s typing out a response.

All’s well in Terra. See you in a few months.

Short and to the point. He hits send before he thinks too hard about it and tucks his phone away. His phone alerts him to a new message while he’s getting ready, and he checks it, expecting the car, but sees that it’s a reply from Lotor instead.

He dismisses it without reading what it says.

----

When Keith enters the building to Shirogane HQ, everyone who notices at him stops for a moment to give him a double-take. In most cases, it’d be disconcerting. In this case, it’s pleasing.

He may have been a little petty when choosing his outfit for the day. Despite being a bit of a stuffy environment, he’d noticed when getting the tour yesterday that the scientists at the company seemed more casual in their clothing. So he picked out one of his favorite shirts—a slim-fitting red and black one, belted at the waist with the front hanging to mid-thigh and the back hanging to his knees, in the Galra style—on top of slim black pants.

The press in Daibazaal always gave him extra attention when he wore it. Humans are no different.

Shiro sent a message earlier about which lab to meet him in, and it takes Keith two tries, but he finally finds the right door. The lab isn’t the one that they went into yesterday. Shiro’s already inside when Keith gets there, speaking with someone with floppy brown hair and glasses in. They look vaguely familiar.

Both humans glance up at Keith’s approach, Shiro with a clearly distracted gaze that turns into a double-take once has a good look at Keith. Keith tries not to let the satisfaction show on his face.

“Keith!” Shiro says, on a bit of a gratifying stammer. “You, uh—you look more well-rested today.”

“I didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before,” Keith says pointedly.

The following silence lasts for a beat too long.

“Right.” Then Shiro clears his throat and stands, the man next to him following suit. “Keith, this is Matt Holt. He’s one of our staff scientists. Matt, this is Second Prince Keith of Daibazaal. He’ll be helping us on the quintessence project for the next few months.”

“Heya,” Matt says as they shake hands.

Keith gives him a tentative nod in greeting.

Shiro picks up something from the chair beside him and thrusts it at Keith. “And this is for you, when you’re in the lab.”

It’s a bundle of fabric. Keith shakes it out, and it becomes a lab coat, the same kind that Shiro and Matt are wearing.

“Thanks,” Keith says, shrugging it on. He can feel Shiro’s eyes still on him, and he tries not to smirk, but his satisfaction is short-lived; when he looks up again after fastening the snap, Shiro’s back to his professional veneer.

“Matt was responsible for the design of our current quintessence collection system,” Shiro says. “I know this isn’t exactly the part of the problem that I said I wanted you to help with, but I thought getting you introduced to that would be a good starting point.”

“Sure,” Keith says, though inside he’s anything but sure. Are they already going to ask for a sample from him? Does he trust them enough to give it right now?

“I am so excited for you to meet my baby,” Matt says as he leads them to a row of machines on the side of the lab. “How to explain… So, you guys have, like, quintessence healers, right?”

“We do,” Keith says. The machines they’ve stopped in front of are made of various metal and plastic materials and look vaguely cobbled together. One machine has a giant sticker of a duck on it, and a wire with a piece of paper stuck to it trailing from one side. The paper says DO NOT UNPLUG FROM MACHINE, even though the other end is laying on the table and is clearly not plugged into anything else.

“Yeah, we don’t really know what’s going on with that one,” Matt says, following Keith’s gaze, “but it doesn’t work if we unplug it, so, for now, we’re kind of stuck with it hanging out there. Science!”

Keith frowns. “That doesn’t seem very scientific.”

“Half of science is faith,” Matt says. “As you will come to learn, Young Padawan.”

“Young what?”

Matt exchanges a glance with Shiro, who shrugs. Matt sighs. “Nevermind. Okay. Back to the machine. So. Your quintessence healers probably focus on certain points in your body where your quintessence gathers, right?”

Keith nods. He’s had training as a healer, but even if he hasn’t, this is basic knowledge—he gestures to the primary points so Matt will understand he doesn’t need to explain everything. Head, sternum, wrists, pelvis, knees, ankles. Matt nods as Keith gestures to each part.

“Yeah, cool,” Matt says. “So, we have like zero quintessence sensitivity as a species, and we didn’t exactly have this friendly relationship going on,” he says, gesturing between the two of them, “so it took us a while just to figure that much out. But eventually, we were able to make this baby.”

He pats the scrapped-together machine in front of them. “This is Soul Eater—“

“Please don’t call it that,” Shiro says, pained.

“I gave birth to it and so I shall name it, Shirogane,” Matt says.

Shiro rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t argue.

“Anyways,” Matt says. “Keith. Say hello to Soul Eater, version… you don’t want to know what version. Let’s see here…” He fiddles with some switches, and a monitor awakens next to the machine, showing a grid of empty graphs. Then he reaches into the machine and pulls out an opaque white ball that glows a soft yellow from where it’s resting in his hand.

“This is the Soul Bait—”

“I really hope this isn’t what you call them when the investors come by,” Shiro says. “Do I need to start supervising your tours?”

“Don’t worry, man,” Matt says. “When it’s all Official Business, I call it our Quacker. Get it? Quintessence Analyzer and Collector. Q-A-C. Quack quack.”

There’s a brief silence, then—

“I hate it,” Shiro says flatly.

“Well, Coran loves it, and Castleship Labs is our biggest investor, so I think you lose this one.”

Keith watches in mild fascination as Shiro lets out a quiet, pained groan. It’s his first time seeing Shiro have an extended interaction with anyone else. It’s clear that he and Matt are close, if Matt feels comfortable ribbing his CEO like this, but even their interactions don’t have the same natural warmth that Keith had felt with Shiro that first night, before the lie had crept in between them.

Keith’s starting to wonder if all of Shiro that night was a lie.

“So, Keith,” Matt says, drawing Keith’s attention back to the machine. “Basically, what happens here is that the Soul Bait draws quintessence into your hand while you’re holding it, which means it’ll pass through the energy center on your wrist and accumulate quintessence there. That’s what makes it possible for us to take our readings. We usually also take a blood draw at the same time, so we can see what’s going on at the cellular level, but we do that in an actual medical lab. But for now, I can show you this part. Go ahead and watch the graphs.”

Matt sticks his hand, wrist up, into the same hole in the machine that he pulled the ball out from. The machine starts to make a soft whirring noise, and, after a few seconds, the information on the monitor next to the machine begins to change. Keith steps closer to study it. On Daibazaal, they could feel quintessence and describe some of what they felt, but they’ve never tried to quantify it to this extent.

“What do they mean?” Keith says, watching as curves are drawn and numbers shift. Some of the numbers are relatively constant; some just keep changing. Some of the graphs are curves, and some are a flat line. Others, like the one that’s filled with dots, just seem all over the place.

“Unfortunately none of this is the super exciting stuff,” Matt says. “Our real analysis takes a few hours to a few days, depending on all the stuff we’re trying to get from it. This is just showing rate of draw, collected volume, heart rate to make sure I’m not dying, things like that. If you look here on the machine, you can see where the tube’s filling up.”

Keith walks around Matt to the other side of the machine. There is indeed a tube steadily filling with a familiar golden glow. It makes Keith a bit queasy to see—the connotations of extracting quintessence are usually negative. With all the ways Galra could feel and manipulate it, needing to extract and store it usually meant people were up to no good. He takes a few steps back.

Shiro’s giving him a look of concern, which unsettles Keith in a different way. Keith ignores him and walks back around to the other side of the machine and pretends to study the graphs.

“It’s kinda slow,” Matt says, seemingly oblivious, “so we’re gonna be stuck here for another few minutes or so. But that’s it! Once we have the tube, it’s ready to go into analysis. That’s where we try to understand the properties of it and keep track of how it’s changing over time.”

“So you’ve seen what your quintessence looks like in data?” Keith says.

“The samples are anonymized during the analyzation process,” Shiro says, stepping up beside Keith. “You’re probably already familiar with the concept, but we’ve been able to identify some signals that have made it possible to create a fingerprint that the analyzer can use to match up samples without us explicitly identifying them.”

Keith nods. Personal quintessence signatures are definitely real. It’s impressive that humans have been able to identify that without feeling it for themselves. “So are your samples somewhere in there, too?”

Shiro shrugs, and looks at where Matt has his arm inside the machine. “Somewhere.”

They watch the monitor in silence for a few more moments, until the machine emits a soft beep and the whirring noise stops.

“Here we go,” Matt says, pulling his arm out of the machine. He tugs out the vial of quintessence from the side of it. “Sweet, sweet data.”

Keith avoids looking directly at the glow. “Do you do the analysis too?”

Matt scratches his chin with the vial, which probably isn’t dangerous, but feels… wrong. “That’s more of Pidge’s area,” he says, and the name is familiar. “Uh, Katie.” That name is not familiar. “She’s another scientist, but she’s mainly focused on the analysis part. The whole collection aspect is my domain. Trying to make it faster and more accurate and get all the signals that Pidge will use for her analysis later. Lucky for you, collection time has improved so, so much. Otherwise we’d be standing around forever. The early versions took… Geez, how long did it take, Shiro?”

Shiro tilts his head in thought. “I think the first one took almost a day, for half the amount. This was before we figured out where the energy centers were.”

Matt cringes. “Yeah, it was bad. But, uh, it’s better now. Clearly. Actually, Shiro here was the one who made the discovery about the energy centers!”

Oh. That is—kind of amazing. Keith turns to Shiro. “You’re a scientist, too?”

“In my spare time,” Shiro says, and the smile on his face hints at a joke Keith isn’t privy too.

“So we just label it with the collection time real quick…” Matt says as he walks further down the counter to another machine and pushes some buttons on it. It spits out a label that he sticks onto the vial. “And now into the fridge!”

On each shelf of the fridge are containers with holes in them that are just the right size for Matt to slot a vial into. “The analysis team will come to pick it up before the end of the day,” Matt says.

“What happens to them after the analysis?” Keith says.

“As far as we can tell, the quintessence doesn’t seem especially volatile in its natural form,” Shiro says, “and it doesn’t seem to degrade, either, so we’ve been keeping it around in long-term storage.” He hesitates, then says, “You probably know better than us whether or not that’s a bad idea.”

Keith hesitates. “The only one who’s kept around quintessence like that was—you know. Her research has always said it’s stable and it doesn’t degrade. No one else has really tried, though.”

“Hm.” Shiro looks contemplative. “Well, we do all of our analysis as soon as we can, so at least our measurements should be accurate, even if the state of the sample changes over time. Maybe that’s something you could help with while you’re here—taking a look at our older samples.”

“I’ll ask Hunk if he has some time to take that on,” Matt says. He grins at Keith. “So, what do you think? Care for a spin? I am dying to know if Galra quintessence is different from humans. And if our stuff would work with you in the first place.”

Keith’s skin prickles at the thought of being prodded like an experiment, and the niggling fear that Kolivan implanted in his brain of the scientists here wanting him around for less-than-moral reasons takes a deeper root.

But Shiro clears his throat and looks pointedly at Matt. “He didn’t come here for that,” he says, his tone lightly scolding.

Matt looks appropriately chagrined. “Sorry, yeah, no, you should definitely only do it If you’re curious too. We can just do the analysis and give you the results without putting it into our system, and we can throw away the sample afterward. You’re not here to be our lab rat or anything.”

“Right,” Keith says quietly.

Shiro clears his throat again. “Matt, why don’t you show Keith what you had in mind for improvements?”

“Right, sure,” Matt says, turning away again. “So on the other side of the room we have—“

Keith glances over Shiro in gratitude, but Shiro’s already walking ahead with Matt and doesn’t notice.

Keith sighs quietly. He doesn’t understand Shiro at all.

----

As it gets near lunchtime, Matt announces that he has a lunch meeting to go to and takes off, leaving Keith alone with Shiro.

Keith hovers uncertainly. Lance had brought him food from somewhere yesterday for both lunch and dinner, and they’d talked and ate in Keith’s office. He has no idea where to go to get his own meal, and he doesn’t want to ask Shiro and give him the impression that Keith can’t let their night go.

He’s thinking about hunting down Lance when Shiro says, “Feel like getting lunch? My treat.”

Keith can’t help it—he stares. Yesterday, Shiro couldn’t wait to get rid of Keith. Now he wants to eat lunch with him?

Shiro winces. “Yeah, I deserve that. Listen, about yesterday. And the day before. I know you said you didn’t want to talk about it, but can I just say one thing?”

Keith can’t imagine that he’ll like anything that Shiro has to say, but he nods at him to go on anyways. It’ll hurt no matter what, so maybe it’s best to get it over with.

“Yesterday...” Shiro says. “I had no idea I’d run into you, and I think I went overboard trying to be professional and completely offended you. I’m really sorry.” The words sound rehearsed, but his tone is sincere. Keith can picture him standing in front of a mirror, trying and trying to make this come out right. “This project means a lot to me, like I told you, and I was just worried I’d ruined it all before it even took off. I’d still like to be friends, if that’s okay.”

Keith believes him, even if he doesn’t exactly forgive him. It’s not even really an apology, in Keith’s opinion. Shiro isn’t saying sorry for the fact that he ran off without a word. Shiro definitely isn’t saying sorry for lying about not having a soulmate, and that’s probably because he doesn’t have any reason to think Keith would know he’s lying about that.

You shouldn’t trust the words of someone who only tells the truth once they’ve been caught.

But Shiro looked sincere in his desire for them to be friends, and now, waiting in silence for Keith’s response, Shiro looks so tentative—like he’s so ready for Keith to say no, and like he’ll crumble the moment Keith says it.

Keith’s not sure why Shiro thinks he has the right to go looking like that, not when he’s the one who’s crushed Keith’s heart to pieces. But seeing that kind of fragile expression on Shiro’s face wipes away all the anger and resentment Keith feels. He’s upset at Shiro, sure, but he also cares for him, and trying to sort out how he should feel from what he actually feels just leaves him tired, and a bit sad.

“Okay,” Keith says. “Friends.”

Shiro’s fluttering, relieved smile makes Keith’s heart flutter too.

“Let me take you to lunch?” Shiro says again, and this time, Keith agrees.

Despite Shiro being the one to offer, he seems uncomfortable when they start heading out. He’s quiet in the elevator, hands shoved into his pockets. He keeps glancing at Keith like he wants to say something, then pressing his lips and turning away before he actually does it.

Keith may have accepted the offering of friendship, but everything that came before still stings, so he feels only a little guilty about letting Shiro suffer.

But then he thinks about the natural connection that they’d had, and how he misses it as much as he misses the sex. Shiro, he thinks, might be missing it too.

Eventually, Keith sighs. Shiro’s his soulmate for a reason, even if he won’t acknowledge it, and Keith should still try to get to know him better, at least for his own sake. “So how long have you been working for the company?”

“How long?” Shiro repeats. He sounds taken aback by the question. “Uh, my whole life, I guess. Even when I was young, I’d be in the office, helping my parents file paperwork. I mean, I was probably creating more of a mess than I was helping, but they didn’t really mind.”

“Your mom worked here too?”

“She was the CEO, actually,” Shiro says. The elevator door opens to the lobby, and Shiro keeps talking as he leads the way out of the building. “My grandpa, the one who was CEO before, was her dad. That’s part of the reason why I took the position so young. My dad was never meant to have it.”

“I’m sorry about your mom,” Keith says quietly.

Shiro shakes his head. He’s wearing one of his small smiles that don’t meet his eyes. “I already told you not to worry about it, didn’t I? Now, what kind of food do you like to eat?” He hesitates. “Actually, have you ever had Terran cuisine? I don’t mean to sound ignorant—”

“It’s fine,” Keith says, matching Shiro’s small smile with one of his own. “I actually spent a lot of my childhood in Terra, so I’m familiar. I’m not picky.”

“Oh,” Shiro says, and he looks like he wants to ask more, but all he says is, “Any allergies?”

“None that I know of,” Keith says. “I haven’t been back in a long time, so that may have changed.”

“Right.” Shiro glances behind them, where security guards have wordlessly followed them out the building. “Well, I guess we’ll have plenty of help in case anything goes wrong.”

Shiro ends up taking him to a place that specializes in noodles. Keith’s spent so long not eating Terran food that he can’t really decide whether or not anything sounds appetizing, so he caves and asks Shiro to order for him. He wonders if being soulmates means Shiro will have any instincts for his food preferences.

“So tell me about yourself,” Shiro says, a little awkwardly, after their server leaves. “You said you grew up on Terra?”

“With my dad,” Keith says. “He was human. After he died, I went to live with my mom on Daibazaal.” It’s the most abridged version of the story, but the full version isn’t something he enjoys revisiting.

“That must have been a big change,” Shiro says.

“It was.”

There’s a silence, and Shiro takes a drink from his glass in the stretch of it. Keith copies him.

“So is that when you found out that you were a prince?” Shiro says after a moment.

“Second prince,” Keith says. “Prince Lotor isn’t directly related to me. It would take a long time to explain everything, but basically, my mom’s, uh, family? Is the next family with a right to rule. Since I’m the heir, that makes me second prince. If something happens to Lotor, I’m next in line, but I’m not really interested in the throne, so I hope it doesn’t happen.”

“Oh?” Shiro says, tapping the pads of his fingers soundlessly against his glass. “I would’ve thought most people in your position would be more excited about that.”

Keith shrugs uncomfortably. He doesn’t know why he brought this up to Shiro. It’s not a position that he shares openly. “I don’t think it’s for me. There’s something about sitting on that throne that makes you lose sight of all the people sitting underneath you. I’d rather stay somewhere I can see the ground.”

“That’s noble of you,” Shiro says slowly, but there’s something in his tone that catches in Keith’s mind.

Keith frowns at him. “What, you disapprove?”

“I mean,” Shiro says. “How much of a difference can you make from the ground, really? Don’t all the decisions come from above?”

“Someone on top calls the shots, sure,” Keith says. “But there’s always a way to force their hand.”

“Hm,” is all Shiro says, and Keith can tell he disagrees.

Keith isn’t sure if this is an argument he wants to start, but before he can say anything, their server comes by and places a bowl and chopsticks in front of each of them. Shiro gestures for Keith to start eating, and the moment passes.

Keith’s dish looks different from the one Shiro ordered for himself, but it’s delicious all the same. He thinks his dad’s made something like this before. He’s a few bites in when Shiro says, “So what’s involved in the life of a second prince?”

Keith slows down his chewing so that his mouth has something to do as he thinks of something to say. Moonlighting as an intelligence operative because that’s what my mom’s entire family does is a bad answer, no matter how you cut it. The other answer feels like admitting too much about himself to someone he’s still not sure he can trust.

But there’s something about Shiro that makes Keith want to open up to him. His mark burns on the nape of his neck, a reminder. Keith’s mind says to be careful of trusting Shiro; his soul says that Shiro’s the only one he can trust with everything.

And Keith trusts his soul.

“For the most part, it’s doing things the first prince doesn’t want to do,” Keith says. “I’m as much of the representative of the royalty as he is, but as second prince I’m always second choice.”

“I see,” Shiro says, and Keith doesn’t think he’s judging, but his tone is unreadable in a way that makes Keith feel like he has to be careful. “How do you feel about that?”

“It’s impossible for Lotor to take on everything, so it’s not that I don’t have anything to do,” Keith says slowly. “I’m here because they didn’t think it was safe to send Lotor, so I guess I should be grateful for that. But it’d be nice to feel like I could control my own path, instead of having to follow the one Lotor’s set for me, if that makes sense.”

Shiro’s observing him, still with that unreadable expression that makes Keith feel like he’s being tested. In what way, he has no idea. “How do you feel about him? Prince Lotor, I mean.”

Keith fiddles with his chopsticks, and tries to answer honestly. “It’s kind of weird, I guess,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t like him. But we’re in this situation where his existence means that I don’t really mean anything. And it’s not like I’d prefer he didn’t exist, or anything like that. I just wish I could be myself, too, and not just his shadow.”

The more the words come out of Keith’s mouth, the less he feels like they make sense to anyone other than him. “Sorry, my answer’s kind of all over the place.” Keith stares down at his bowl and tries to summarize. “I should hate him, and I feel like a part of me knows that I should, but I don’t. He’s my brother, and I love him, however much that’s worth.” He glances up at Shiro. “I don’t know if anything I’m saying makes any sense.”

“No, I understand that feeling.” Shiro smiles.

Keith’s blindsided by it—it’s a small smile, no larger than the small smiles he’s been sharing all day, but it’s the most real one that he’s seen since their first night together, and Keith doesn’t know what he’s done to elicit it.

“Out of everyone,” Shiro says, “I think I understand that feeling the most.”

Keith waits for Shiro to elaborate, but he doesn’t, and Keith doesn’t feel comfortable enough to ask. So he sets it aside, and presses forward instead with the quiet connection they’ve somehow reformed.

There are a lot of uncomfortable questions he wants to ask, but they can wait. Keith’s starting to feel like he’s just getting Shiro back.

He doesn’t want to lose him again so soon.

Chapter Text

The next day, Shiro sends a message letting Keith know that he’s busy in meetings, but that Keith should go to the main analysis lab to meet with Pidge, who he’ll be working closely with.

Keith remembers Pidge now.

She looks like a miniature Matt, but she has twice the energy, and she greets him excitedly and drags him from machine to machine and monitor to monitor, showing off the different analysis techniques that they’ve been applying to the quintessence samples. He only really understands half of her explanations—less than half, if he’s being honest with himself—but it’s impressive that they’ve figured this all out while not having any quintessence sensitivity at all.

“You developed all of this?” Keith says.

“I worked off the efforts of a lot of people before me, and even then I had a lot of help,” Pidge says. “So much help. I mean, everyone else here aside, Allura—you know Allura, right?—she was a lifesaver, even if she can’t exactly feel quintessence the same way you guys do.”

Princess Allura of Altea, Keith thinks, is possibly the person who hates Galra most in the world. Honerva and Zarkon’s attack on Terra was stopped before much real damage could be done. Their attack on Altea was a different story.

“Does she—Is she—” He doesn’t even know what question he wants to ask.

“Oh, uh.” Pidge clicks her pen several times and frowns. “She comes here for a few weeks every year as a representative of Castleship Labs. And she and Shiro are pretty good friends. I think she’s supposed to come by in a few months.”

“Got it,” Keith says. Hopefully he’ll be gone by then.

“She’s really nice,” Pidge offers, but her voice is uncertain.

Keith’s sure she’s nice. He’s also sure she hates Galra. He’s not here to try to salvage a relationship that was doomed to fail from the start.

“It sounds like you’ve got a lot figured out here,” he says, nodding to the monitors. “What do you need my help with?”

Pidge studies him for a moment, but she doesn’t say anything about his obvious attempt to change the subject. “Well, you can actually feel some of these things in the quintessence that I’m talking about, right?” she says. “Since you’re Galra and all.”

“Maybe?” Keith says. “I mean, we can feel quintessence, even if we aren’t trained as healers. But I’m not sure if anything I can feel is the same as anything that you’re trying to measure.”

“I’m not sure either!” Pidge says. “Are you trained as a healer? What can you tell about me right now?”

“I am,” Keith says, “but I need to be touching you to feel anything. And I won’t read your quintessence without your permission. It’s considered…” He knows what he wants to say in Galran, but the human word is escaping him. He gives up trying to catch it. “That feeling you get when you realize someone knows something about you, that you haven't told them.”

Looking into the quintessence of a person is taking a peek into the state of their soul. It’s wrong to go digging around without their permission.

“Ooh,” Pidge says. She sticks her arm out to him. “You’ve got permission. Do you do it like this?”

“I can,” Keith says, lightly touching her arm over the same energy center near the wrist that their Soul Eater used. The pulse of her quintessence strikes him as strangely weak, but then he thinks that maybe that makes sense. Every living being has quintessence as a life force, but without regularly manipulating it as the Galra do, there’s no need for that force to be any stronger than necessary. This might just be what the thrum of a human quintessence feels like.

“So?” Pidge says.

“The first thing that anyone will pay attention to is the signature, since it’s…” Keith pauses for a moment, trying to decide how to explain it. “In music, sometimes you hear a note, and sometimes you hear other notes above or below it, but you recognize what the primary note is, right?”

“Yeah,” Pidge says. “You’re saying that’s what the signature feels like?”

“Yeah.” That was simpler to explain then he’d feared. “It’s the first thing you notice. Everything else is secondary. Matt mentioned that you all were using it to keep track of which sample is which?”

“Some part of it, at least,” Pidge says. “How does it feel?”

Keith frowns. “I’m not really sure how to describe it. It’s just a unique energy imprint. But it can feel similar to other people’s. Yours is probably really similar to Matt’s, for example.”

Pidge’s eyes light up. “There’s a genetic component?”

“Um.” Keith’s taken aback by the palpable spike of excitement he can feel from her. “Yes?”

“Sorry, not a trick question or anything,” Pidge says. “Since we’ve been anonymizing the samples we kind of lost our ability to even consider genetics as a variable. I wonder if we’ve been misidentifying samples from close relatives as the same person… I might have to get samples from my family again and check that out. I mean, this is really good to know! What else’ve you got?”

“Well, there’s a general sense of how strong or weak it is, and the… rhythm, I guess?” Keith says. “So I can tell that you’re pretty healthy, and I can kind of tell your age. I can also get a general sense of your emotions.”

Pidge has been nodding along, but at that, she stops and stares. “You can?”

“Yeah, when you got excited earlier, I felt a bit of a spike?” Keith says. “Strong emotions will do that. Neutral is… more like a steady pulse. Like how it feels when you’re sleeping. Everything will naturally fluctuate throughout the day, based on what you’re feeling.”

“That is sick,” Pidge says, then, at Keith’s expression, she adds, “Good kind of sick. So, say if someone was really nervous the first few times they gave samples. And then they weren’t after that. Would their samples look really different?”

“Uh, it depends,” Keith says, “on how nervous they were, and on what signals you’re actually reading from their samples.”.

“Hold on.” Pidge runs off to one of the fridges and digs around for a moment. She comes back with a sample vial of quintessence and shoves it at him. “Okay, can you get a read off this one?”

The vial is cold in his hand, but the quintessence is warm and full of life where it pulses against his fingers through the glass. The signature is very familiar. “This is yours, right?”

“Amazing,” Pidge says. There’s a fire in her eyes that Keith’s starting to feel a bit wary of. “What else?”

“Um, it feels nervous, but excited?” Keith says. “Also a little weaker than you are now, but it doesn’t really feel like you’re sick. Just kind of like you need more sleep or something.

The fire in Pidge turns up a notch, and Keith leans back slightly. “We are quantifying this before you leave,” Pidge says. “All of it.”

Keith… is now a little frightened, honestly.

He spends the rest of the morning with Pidge shoving various tubes at him and grilling him on every aspect of what he can feel from it so that she can add all that information to a database. At some point another scientist comes in, Dr. Garrett (who is male, and who everyone apparently just calls Hunk), and Pidge gives him a rapid-fire rundown of what they’re working on. Hunk just nods and pulls out his laptop and starts crunching numbers so that he can tell Pidge what other samples Keith should examine in order to fill in the gaps in their data.

It’s far past noon when Keith remembers that he should be hungry.

“Um,” he says, catching the attention of Hunk and Pidge who are bent over Hunk’s laptop. “Do you eat?”

There’s a pause.

“Aw, shit,” Pidge says. She digs her phone out from under a pile of vials and starts typing on it. “Should I try to get Lance to bring us sandwiches?”

“I dunno,” Hunk says. “Do you want to hear him wax poetic about Allura for the next hour?”

Pidge stares down at her phone. “It’s worth it,” she says, and presses a button.

It’s not worth it, Hunk mouths from behind her head.

“Are you good friends?” Keith says.

“With who, Lance?” Pidge says.

“All of you.”

“We went to college together,” Pidge says, gesturing between her and Hunk. “Lance, too, but we kept going for our doctorals and he just started working. Our spy on the inside to sneak us in once we graduated.”

“That sounds nice,” Keith says.

“Yeah,” Hunk says. “Having a job lined up is pretty sweet.”

“Oh.” Keith blinks at him. “I meant having friends.”

Pidge and Hunk stare at him for a moment, and Keith shifts awkwardly in his seat. Was that an unacceptable thing to say? “Sorry—”

“We are getting Mister Donut,” Hunk says. “Tell Lance to bring some Mister Donut. It’s the food of friendship,” Hunk tells Keith. “Once you eat it, you’ll officially be one of us.”

“There’s no escape, just so you know,” Pidge says seriously. “Once you’re in, you’re in for life.”

Keith has no idea what they’re talking about, but it sounds serious. “Um?“

Hunk reaches for him, then hesitates, his hand hovering halfway to Keith. “Uh, can I touch you? Is that cool?”

Keith is… not touched by a lot of people. It’s not that he actively dislikes it, but between his position and his demeanor most people are scared off the idea. Hunk, it seems, is not most people.

“Okay?” Keith says.

Hunk pats him on the shoulder, solid thuds that move his whole body. “We got you, man. Just eat the donut. It’s all you have to do.”

----

They gather in the break room a few doors over.

The Mister Donut donut is a bunch of dough circles joined together in a ring. Keith isn’t sure about the benefits of having little circles instead of just a smooth ring, but it does make it easy for Hunk to divide the donut into four pieces.

“With this donut,” Lance says, holding the donut aloft, “you join our sacred union.”

“Is this a cult?” Keith says. He thinks Kolivan warned him about this, though he'd imagined something a lot more sinister than donuts.

“N—” Lance starts, then hesitates, looking at Pidge and Hunk, who shrug in turn. “Hm. Maybe?”

“You’re already holding the donut,” Pidge says, nodding to the Mister Donut donut in Keith’s hands. “It’s too late to back out.”

“Now take a bite,” Lance says in a supremely creepy voice.

Keith hesitantly bites off a circle.

“With this,” Lance says, “we are joined. To share a Mister Donut is to intertwine your lives, forever.”

Everyone else takes a solemn bite of their donuts.

“Really, guys?” Shiro's fondly exasperated voice cuts in from behind them. “Don't scare him off in his first week.”

Lance chokes.

“It's a sacred pact of friendship!” Pidge says as Keith turns around.

Shiro’s standing at the door of the break room, hands in his pockets. He’s wearing the same sleek blazer and pants, but with a white dress shirt today instead of lavender, and an easy smile on his face. He’s carrying a large, black duffel bag. “Sorry, didn’t mean to surprise you.”

“You’re good,” Lance wheezes.

“You want a donut, Shiro?” Hunk says, pushing the box at him. “Lance got half a dozen. You like the cream ones, right?”

“Oh, thanks,” Shiro says, walking over to the table. “Not right now, though. Maybe I'll take it back with me?”

“Yeah, totally.” Hunk leans back in his chair and deftly opens a drawer and yanks a paper sleeve from it.

Shiro nods his thanks, but halfway to grabbing it from Hunk, he pulls back, hunching over and coughing wetly instead. Keith watches in alarm as it goes on for several long seconds.

Hunk stands immediately and hovers by Shiro’s side. He’s not touching Shiro, but he looks ready to grab him if he falls over. “You okay, man?”

Shiro waves him off. “Fine,” he says, but his throat is raspy. He clears it. “Just a bit busy the past few days. You know how it is.”

“Stress-sick Shiro strikes again,” Lance says, and his words feel light, but he sounds worried.

“You haven’t gotten sick in a while,” Pidge says, frowning. “I remember when it used to be, like, all the time.”

“It’s just not enough sleep,” Shiro says. “I’ll be fine by tomorrow, don’t worry. I swear I’m not contagious or anything.” He takes the donut from Hunk. “Are you all finished with Keith for the day? I was hoping I could chat with him before it got too late.”

“All yours,” Pidge says after a quick, worried glance at Hunk. “We’ve got a lot of data to crunch through.” She turns to Keith. “You down to do some more of the same tomorrow? Sorry, I know the data collection is super boring for you.”

“No, I’m glad I can be helpful,” Keith says. “And it's interesting to see how you use it. We've never tried doing anything like this.”

Shiro looks between all of them. “What’re you all working on?”

“I know we kinda knew this, but Keith can, like, actually seriously feel quintessence,” Pidge says. “Did you know that our samples contain all the signals at the exact moment we take it, which includes the emotions of the host? So we’re gonna look back and see if maybe we were misreading some things. Like, maybe 605’s not as bad as we thought, and they've just been getting angrier and angrier at coming in.”

“Huh,” Shiro says, unreadable. “That's an interesting—“

“And the signatures!” Pidge goes on. “They have a genetic component! Keith’s gonna help us take a look at the readings we’ve been capturing and see if he can help isolate the markers. Like, for one, I gotta make sure we haven't been matching me up with Matt this whole time. But also if we can eliminate emotional fluctuation, we’ll have way cleaner data, and if we can actually quantify quintessence similarity, maybe we’ll finally be able to work on the transfusion theory.”

“Transfusion theory?” Keith repeats.

Pidge groans and slaps her forehead. “Shoot, sorry, I got way too excited about the sample analysis, I didn’t even finish explaining everything to you yet.”

“Settle down, Pidge,” Shiro says, but he sounds amused. He coughs again, and clears his throat. “Keith’s gonna be here for a while. Why don’t you walk him through it tomorrow morning, before you get him started on more samples?”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Hunk says. “Hey, we should pull out the affected samples, too, so he can feel what we're talking about. Maybe there’s something else he can notice that we're missing.”

“Man, the Crypt hasn't seen this much action in years!” Pidge says.

“The Crypt?” Keith says.

“Ooh, I know this one!” Lance says. “The Soul Crypt—“

“—is the name for our long-term quintessence storage vault,” Shiro cuts in, over Lance’s aw man, I had that. “Come on, guys, what’d I tell you about the creepy names?”

“That we should totally use them in front of all the investors?” Pidge says.

Shiro shakes his head and gives Keith a little smile as he leans in like he's sharing a secret. “I knew hiring all these Holts was a mistake.”

Keith smiles tentatively back as Pidge says, “Well, it's too late to let us go! We already know all your secrets.”

“Yeah? Like what?” Shiro says, at the same time Keith says, “Doesn't that mean he'll have to kill you instead?”

A brief silence falls upon the group, then Pidge declares, “I like you. And for that, you get a secret. Did you know that this guy likes ketchup on his vanilla ice cream?”

Shiro sighs. “Here we go.”

“Aw dude, really?” Lance gives a full-body shudder. “That is so gross.”

“Think of the ice cream, man,” Hunk says despairingly. “Why would you do that to the ice cream?”

“It’s… definitely gross-sounding,” Shiro admits. “I can’t really explain it.”

“Now you know,” Pidge says solemnly to Keith. “Don’t leave him alone with the ice cream.”

“I will… keep an eye on him,” Keith says with an uncertain glance at Shiro, who smiles encouragingly back.

“That’s all we can ask,” Pidge says. “Also, if you ever want more secrets—”

“And that’s our cue to leave,” Shiro says, lightly touching Keith’s arm and jerking his head towards the door. “You’ll have plenty of time to gossip with Keith later.”

“Don’t stay out too late!” Lance calls after them.

“Have fun!” Hunk says. “And eat the donut, it’s not good the day after!”

Shiro waves genially to them and steps out into the hallway. Keith follows closely behind as Shiro leads the way out of the building.

“You seem like you’re in a better mood today,” Keith says slowly. Other than the coughing, Shiro seems all-around more… alive… than the days before. There’s almost a spring in his step.

Shiro smiles at him, sunny. “Hm? I guess so. I got some good news.”

“Yeah?” Keith says.

“Yeah,” Shiro says. “I’m sick, so all my meetings are cancelled, which means I get to spend all afternoon with you.” He winks, and Keith’s heart flutters.

He tells it to stop. Shiro’s just deflecting, he knows. Hiding the truth under flattery.

Keith’s not falling for it this time. Shiro doesn’t want him, not like that. Not long term. Lying about being his soulmate was more than enough proof. Barely acknowledging their night together aside from panicking over it was more than enough proof. That doesn’t change because Shiro’s all energetic now.

Shiro had asked to be friends, and not anything more, and Keith has to remind himself to make sure his feelings are also kept under wraps.

If he doesn’t let his feelings become anything more, it won’t hurt when he inevitably leaves.

Keith looks around for something to change the subject, and notices a distinct lack of human shadows following them around. “No guards today?”

“Figured where we’re going would be a lot less fun with them around,” Shiro says.

Keith raises his eyebrows. “Where are we going?”

“You said yesterday that you liked racing lightbikes, right?”

“I did,” Keith says slowly. He’d mentioned it briefly during their lunch conversation, when Shiro’d asked what he liked to do for fun when he had time. He’d also mentioned that everyone considered it too dangerous of a pastime for him.

Shiro just grins. As their path takes them towards the garage, Keith suspects that Shiro didn’t take that as the warning it was, and his heartbeat kicks up a notch.

“I’m not exactly sure what a lightbike is,” Shiro says, leading them past rows of cars, “but hopefully this is close enough.”

“Wow,” Keith says before he can help himself.

They’re stopped in front of something that definitely looks sort of like a bike, even if it doesn’t exactly have the build of a lightbike—it’s got a smaller frame, and it’s bright red, with black and white stripes. The seat is long enough to comfortably seat two, even with Shiro’s bulk, Keith notes.

Shiro’s grin gets wider. “Like it?”

“It’s beautiful,” Keith says, walking around to inspect it. It looks new, or at least newly washed and waxed. There’s not a single chip in the paint, and the tires look pristine. It’s not a bike that’s seen a lot of activity. “Yours?”

“Yeah,” Shiro says. He coughs a bit. “Used to ride her a lot, before… Well, before.” He tucks his hands in his pockets, the gleaming silver of his prosthetic glaring in the half-light of the garage. “I was hit by a car while I was riding,” Shiro says, and Keith looks away, guilty for getting caught looking. “It’s all right, it was a long time ago. I’m glad it wasn’t worse.”

Keith understands why Shiro hasn’t ridden the bike much since. He doesn’t know how to feel about the fact that Shiro will do it now, for him.

“I’m okay,” Shiro says. “Really. I’ve ridden a few times since then, it just hasn’t been the same. I’d like to go out with you, though.”

“Are you sure it’s a good idea?“ Keith says. And also, “You won’t get in trouble?” If he ever had an accident on a lightbike, he’s sure he’d be banned from so much as looking at one.

“Good idea, probably not,” Shiro says, scratching his head. “But you want to, right? There’s not really anything anyone can do to me about it if they don’t like it.”

“Must be nice,” Keith murmurs.

“Hm?”

“Being able to do whatever you want.”

Shiro shrugs, but his smile remains easy. “I mean, I’m not above the law or anything like that. But taking a cute boy on a ride isn’t illegal, as far as I know.”

Keith’s brain stutters. “A what?”

Shiro blinks at him for a moment, then coughs and looks away. “Sorry, that was inappropriate. Pretend I didn’t say that.” He busies himself with the lock on a storage container on the side of the garage.

“I don’t mind,” Keith says, feeling heated and bold. “That you said that, I mean.”

“Oh.” Shiro glances over to him with a small, pleased smile. “Okay.”

Then he turns away again, burying a coughing fit into his fist.

Keith frowns at him and steps closer, hands hovering uncertainly. “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re really coughing a lot.”

“I’m used to it,” Shiro says, waving him off. “It’s fine. Seriously. Here.” He pulls a helmet from the storage container and hands it to Keith. Then he swaps out his blazer for a windbreaker from his duffel bag, and hands another to Keith.

“You driving?” Keith says, studying Shiro uncertainly as they put on the gear.

Shiro smiles. “I thought you could have the pleasure. There’s an awesome route out into the desert, not a lot of people. And it’s a great spot to watch the sunset.”

“Okay.” Keith’s not sure a ride’s a great idea for Shiro right now, and especially not a long one, but he trusts Shiro to know his own limits. “Tell me if we should stop, okay?”

“Sure,” Shiro says. “I’ll tell you where we’re going, too.”

Keith realizes he may have made a mistake when he climbs onto the bike and Shiro slides in, all hot muscle behind him. He tries to restrain his body’s reaction, but when Shiro leans over to show him the controls, he shivers involuntarily anyways. If Shiro notices, he doesn’t say anything. But he does lean in closer.

Keith can’t tell if it’s on purpose or not.

The controls are actually really similar to those of a lightbike, and this hoverbike handles like a dream. It’s so responsive that it feels like it’s moving at the speed of his thoughts, and he lets out a delighted laugh as Shiro guides him out of the garage.

Shiro leads them in a couple circles in a large empty parking lot by the building, and Keith suspects he’s trying to figure out how well Keith can actually drive. After a few patient circles, Keith pulls the bike into a tight figure eight, startling a laugh out of Shiro that ends in a cough.

“All right, all right,” Shiro says, the remnants of laughter coating his words sweetly. “Go ahead and take the exit on the far side. Let’s set you on the streets.”

The beginning of the path is unfamiliar to Keith, but then he realizes they’re taking a wider loop and coming back around to the road that leads to his hotel. The wind whipping around his body and the feeling of Shiro’s arms wrapped tightly around his midsection send Keith’s head and heart pounding into exhilaration.

But it’s dampened by the way he can feel Shiro’s coughs wracking his body.

Keith knows where they are now. He pulls off to the side street that wraps around to the park where he’d first met Shiro and eases the bike to a stop against the curb. Shiro has his head turned to the side, coughing. Once Keith parks, Shiro slides off the bike, yanks off his helmet, and takes a deep breath that seems to only make his coughing fit worse.

Keith wishes he had water, or some other way to help. Something other than sitting around uselessly, helmet in his hands, waiting for Shiro’s coughs to die down. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” Shiro says, voice raspy. He’s pale, and a little sweaty, but he doesn’t look at risk of falling over. He clears his throat and smiles sheepishly at Keith. “Guess that really wasn’t a good idea after all.”

“Don’t push yourself for me,” Keith says, fingers tightening on his helmet. “I’m not worth it.”

“You definitely are,’ Shiro says without missing a beat, “but worrying you isn’t.” He glances at the bike sadly. “Ah, well. Rain check? I really think you’ll like it out there.”

“You want to wait for rain to try again?” Keith says, balking. “That sounds worse.”

“I—what?” Shiro blinks at him, then laughs. “Oh, no, that just means we can’t do it today, so we’ll do it another time.”

“Oh,” Keith says. What a counterintuitive way of saying that. “I’d like that.”

“Me too.” Shiro smiles at him again, that soft smile that’s so easy to misinterpret.

Keith looks away before he can think too hard about it.

“Want to go for a walk?” Shiro says. “This park has a pretty nice trail that… well, you know.” He smiles wryly, and Keith feels his cheeks flushing.

Right. The park. The park that they met in, and immediately made out in some dark corner of. That park.

Keith clears his throat. “Uh, it might be nice to see it in the daytime.”

Shiro’s grin widens. “Let’s do it.” He pulls a water bottle out of his bag and drinks as they head down to the park.

Keith takes the opportunity to study him out of the corner of his eye. It feels like the more time Keith spends with Shiro, the less he understands him. First they can’t get their hands off each other, then he’s acting like he’d rather stay as far away as possible, and now he’s acting like he wants to get close again.

And he’s Keith’s soulmate, who is pretending to not have a soulmate—can’t forget that.

Keith itches to ask about it. They’re alone—or, at least, away from the prying eyes of the company. It would be so easy, to lift up his hair and make Shiro face the truth, but he’s afraid of what he’ll hear. He’s just been rejected, if inadvertently. He doesn’t want to hear the rejection with its full intention.

So he keeps quiet.

The park is gorgeous in the daytime. The lake in the middle glistens with the evening light. Shiro leads them to a trail that walks around the edge of it, dirt and rocks crunching beneath their shoes. Shiro’s still wearing his dress shoes. They must be getting tarnished, but he barely pays them any attention.

“You have parks like this in Daibazaal?” Shiro says.

“Some,” Keith says. “It’s a lot more, hm. Industrial, I think is the right word? Near the capital where I am, at least. Not really a lot of dirt trails and trees.”

“It’s all concrete?” Shiro says.

“Mainly, yeah,” Keith says. He kicks at the pebbles underneath his feet. “Things don’t really grow in the city. It doesn’t seem like these types of plants should really be growing here either, though. Because of the desert.”

“What can I say?” Shiro says with a grin. “When humans want something, we go for it.”

“And you want green grass and trees?” Keith says.

Shiro hums. “Well, it’s what we had, once upon a time, when the land was better. But I agree with you. Sometimes it’s better to accept that it’s time to let things go.”

They walk in silence for a moment, interrupted periodically by Shiro’s coughs when he can’t suppress them. Others taking the trail in the other direction pass them by, couples and joggers with their dogs and families with their kids. Some of them seem to recognize Shiro, giving him a friendly nod as they pass.

“You come here a lot?” Keith says.

“Yeah,” Shiro says. “It’s nice to get fresh air every once in a while. And it’s close enough to walk from home.”

“You live around here too?”

Shiro stops and looks around, back in the direction of Shirogane HQ. Keith stops with him, and follows his gaze.

“You see over there, with the dinosaur shrubs?” Shiro points over to the back of a large house up the hill, where there are indeed dinosaur shrubs standing guard. “If you drive from here, I think it takes ten or fifteen minutes? You have to go all the way around. But it’s a quick stroll into the backyard.”

That doesn’t make any sense.

Shiro laughs, and Keith realizes he said that out loud. “Yeah, our streets are kind of a mess.”

“Do you live there by yourself?”

“With my family,” Shiro says. “My dad and my—well, used to be my mom and grandpa too. You know about my mom. Grandpa passed away a few years back, so it’s a bit of a quiet house now.”

Keith understands that. That stifling silence left by someone who was once there, and now isn’t. The shadows that they’ve left in each room. He steps closer to Shiro, brushing their arms together, and Shiro smiles softly at him.

“Whose idea were the dinosaur shrubs?” Keith says.

Shiro grins, lightening as Keith’d hoped he would. “Ah, those. They were—they were mine.”

“Big dinosaur fan?”

Shiro shrugs. “Well, when you just get a bunch of dinosaur books as a kid, what else do they expect to happen? Just goes to show that you can’t trust me with power.”

Keith grins. “If that’s the most that you abuse your power, I don’t think anyone has very much to worry about.”

Shiro sticks his tongue out at him and Keith laughs at the immaturity of it. It’s such a difference from the way they’d been interacting at the company. It’s almost like they’d never left the park, that first night. Being away from Daibazaal is giving Keith the space to be himself—maybe it’s the same for Shiro and the company.

He elbows Shiro a little. “So, you pick up a lot of people walking around the park?”

Shiro misses a step and chokes, but he recovers quickly. “No,” he says quietly. “No, you were the first.”

Keith takes a deep breath. “Do you regret it?” He keeps his eyes straight forward as he asks the question. He doesn’t want to see Shiro’s reaction. Doesn’t want to come to any conclusions, not until he can hear the words coming out of Shiro’s mouth.

“I don’t regret it,” Shiro says, and he sounds completely serious. “Not even a little bit.”

Keith stops and turns to look at him. Shiro stops too, and gazes back. Keith bites his lip and considered his expression. As far as Keith can tell, he looks completely sincere. And also unfairly beautiful, lit by the purple and orange of the evening. He looks like a vision, in the truest sense of the word.

Keith feels like if he blinks, the Shiro before him might disappear.

“Keith.” Shiro reaches out and takes hold of his hand. “I… I can’t make any promises to you. I don’t know what’s going to happen while you’re here, or after you leave. But I really like you. I’m not the best at showing it all the time, but I do. I want you to know that.”

“Oh.” Keith’s heart races. He isn’t sure what this means. He isn’t sure what Shiro knows. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Shiro repeats, but he’s smiling. “I’m not saying that to say we have to do anything about it or—“

Keith grabs his collar and hauls him down. It’s not the most comfortable or sweetest kiss—their lips meet with enough force to rattle his teeth, and Shiro falls in stiff against him, catching himself with hands on Keith’s waist. But then he melts, his arms curling up to wrap around Keith and hold him close.

Keith holds on tighter.

I’m your soulmate, he says with the press of his lips and body against Shiro’s. You’re my soulmate.

Shiro’s gaze, when they finally pull away, is pleased, but contemplative.

“What are you thinking?” Keith says quietly.

“That it’d be nice,” Shiro says, “if we could stay like this forever.”

Keith stiffens. This is starting to feel like a goodbye, and given Shiro’s track record, he thinks it’s fully justified when he says, “You’re not planning on running away again, are you?”

“Hey, I still owe you a rain check on the desert ride, remember?” Shiro says with a laugh. “I keep my promises.”

“If you say so.”

Shiro’s quiet for a bit. “I really am sorry about leaving like that. It wasn’t my best moment.”

Trust him to apologize only after Keith explicitly brings it up. Keith wants to feel more upset about that, but again, the sincerity in Shiro’s gaze softens his anger.

“For what it’s worth,” Shiro says, “I really am glad I ran into you again. Even if the circumstances were a bit awkward.”

“Me too,” Keith says. He twists his hands together. He doesn’t want to say this, feels like he’s cursing it, in a way, to say this but also—he feels like he has to, for his own sake. “If you feel like it isn’t working out, for whatever reason, can you promise to tell me? I don’t want to have to try to guess what you’re feeling.”

“I promise,” Shiro says.

Shiro keeps his promises, he’d said. Keith hopes he won’t have a reason to keep this one.

Chapter Text

The day after his ride with Shiro, Pidge and Hunk make good on their promise to walk Keith through the rest of what they’re trying to accomplish. They do it by presenting him with a series of vials of quintessence samples.

“We had you mainly looking at controls yesterday, so they probably felt pretty normal,” Pidge says. “These are all from 605. It’s probably the clearest case of suspected quintessence poisoning we have so far. The earliest sample is from five years ago.”

Keith picks up the first sample. He can already feel the turmoil in it, the vague unrest. It feels… itchy, almost. Like there’s something there he wants to scratch and pick away.

He puts the sample down and skips over to the most recent, marked from a few weeks ago. The moment his fingers touch the glass, he gags. It’s gone from feeling like a minor irritant to something violent. Something that shoots through his veins and threatens to tear him apart from the inside. Keith feels, with a startling certainty, that he’s going to die.

Then the feeling vanishes.

Pidge has yanked the vial away from him, he realizes, and Hunk is hovering close by.

“Are you okay?” Hunk says, frantically searching his face. “Sorry, even we knew this was bad, we totally should’ve figured it’d be really intense for you to feel. Do you need to hurl? You look like you need to hurl.” He shoves a water bottle at Keith, and Keith takes a grateful drink.

“I’m fine,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting it.” Now that he is, he thinks he can handle it better. He reaches for the vial again, and Pidge hesitates for a moment, but then she holds it out. She’s keeping a tight grip on it, he notes. She seems sincerely worried for him, but as him, not as—whatever he is.

He smiles a little as he touches the vial lightly. This time he focuses on feeling it only at the surface level. It’s wild, like a storm, struggling to break free from its prison of glass. All of someone’s quintessence is usually harmonious with their signature, but this one—it’s not harmonious with anything.

It’ll tear apart everything it touches. It wants to. It must be tearing apart its host as they speak.

Keith swallows as he draws his hand back. “You don’t know who it is?”

“Completely anonymous,” Pidge says with a grimace. “They have the option of getting a printout of their results, without their volunteer ID included, but we don’t keep any way of identifying them. How bad is it? We have our own guesses, just looking at the data, but… what can you tell us?”

“Whoever this is…” Keith says. “I’m surprised they’re even still alive. I don’t… I don’t think they have much longer.”

Pidge nods. “Yeah, that’s kind of what we figured too, because of… Well, do you want to feel the rest of the samples first?”

Keith starts from the first vial again. The first one feels practically normal now—he’s still reeling from the shock of the latest one. The progression from the first to the next is mild, as is the one after that. It’s not until he reaches a sample from three years ago that it begins picking up, and after that, it only gets worse.

He can barely stand touching the last one for more than a few seconds. He can’t imagine what it must feel like for someone to have that coursing inside of them, even if the human isn’t quintessence sensitive. It must be manifesting on a physical level by now.

“That bad, huh?” Hunk says grimly.

“So how long do you think they have?” Pidge says.

“From the rate of things…” Keith puts his head in his hands and tries to think. The rate at which the quintessence is… decaying… is accelerating over time. And trying to take into account what that means in terms of physical symptoms, as well as the fact that this person had already survived so long… “A couple months, at most,” he guesses. “Maybe a little more. That’s… you can’t survive something like that.”

“Yeah, that’s about the same as our estimate,” Pidge says on a sigh. She taps at the computer and brings up some graphs for 605. “We had it at three months, as of yesterday. Have you seen something like this before in Daibazaal?”

“I’ve seen something similar,” Keith says. “But not from quintessence poisoning. Sometimes grief can naturally affect quintessence balance, in a bad way. We see it with soulmates a lot. Their quintessence becomes attuned to each other’s over time, and when one of them dies, their grief leads to a quintessence imbalance like you have here. Their body can’t regulate it, and starts rejecting it.”

“Sounds like dying of a broken heart,” Pidge says.

“Oh man,” Hunk says. “I mean, we have that too, but I didn’t think that was quintessence related at all. And it’s really, really rare here.”

“Probably because humans aren’t as sensitive,” Keith says. “Your quintessence probably doesn’t attune to the same extent, except in abnormal cases.”

“Is that normal?” Pidge says. “Like, are a lot of people still dying from that?”

“It’s normal for that to happen, especially for soulmates who’ve been together for a long time, but we have ways to treat it,” Keith says. “For mild cases, we can help teach them exercises to regulate their quintessence again, but I don’t know how much that would help here, since humans probably aren’t sensitive enough. For more extreme cases, we basically try to re-attune the quintessence with someone else’s, usually a family member’s, since the signatures are close enough that it won’t become even more out of sync.”

“The transfusion theory!” Pidge and Hunk say at the same time.

“I knew it,” Pidge says. “Yes, this is going to be awesome! Okay—“

“What’s the transfusion theory?” Keith says.

“Basically what you described, of trying to introduce healthy quintessence to the host’s system,” Pidge says. “We got the idea from fecal transplants, where someone has an unhealthy gut ecosystem, so we transplant stool from a healthy person. By reintroducing what a healthy gut ecosystem looks like, the host’s can re-learn how to create a healthy ecosystem again.”

“So our idea,” Hunk says, “was that if we could somehow transfuse healthy quintessence into unhealthy quintessence, the healthy quintessence could figure out how to get back to a normal state. The only problem was, we don’t exactly know what a transfusion would look like. And we couldn’t exactly figure out what, like, a good measure of healthiness was.”

“Also,” Pidge says, “we weren’t sure if it was like blood transfusions, or an organ transplant, where certain qualities have to match otherwise the body would reject it. It sounds like it is?”

“Yeah,” Keith says. “Usually, your quintessence will naturally attune to itself. The problem here is that something’s happened to disrupt that attunement in a way that worsens over time, and when your quintessence is out of sync, it affects your entire body. To regulate it again, you have to attune back to quintessence that’s similar enough to the original. Otherwise, it’ll just get even more out of sync. How similar depends on the rate of decay.”

“What do you mean?” Hunk says.

Keith picks up the first tube. “For example, this one isn’t too bad. I can feel it being disrupted, but not a lot. So someone with as similar a signature as a second cousin might work. But this one—” he points to the latest tube, not wanting to touch it again, “—you would need a signature basically identical to the original.”

“Like a parent, or a sibling?” Hunk says.

“Sibling, probably,” Keith says. “A parent might still be too different.”

“Damn,” Pidge says, deflating. “So late-stage gets pretty close to being a lost cause.”

“Unless we can synthesize something,” Hunk points out. “That’s something else that we were thinking about. Like, I don’t know how attuning works, but if we don’t actually have to put it in anyone’s body, maybe we could just synthesize something close enough to attune to?”

“That’d be interesting to look into,” Keith says. He doesn’t even know where to start with it, though. “We’ve never done anything like that before. We’ve always had another person, and the process is amplified through touch since we’re quintessence sensitive. I guess I’m not sure how it’d work if you weren’t quintessence sensitive…”

“Huh,” Pidge says. “So wait, how does this all work, exactly?”

Keith considers how to explain it. “It’s like, a long meditation? Let’s say I was attuning to you. Your job would be to regulate your quintessence through the whole process—so stay neutral, or calming if you can. My job would be to focus on trying to—to become you, basically. If that makes sense.”

Pidge’s brow furrows. “I think so? So how long does it take?”

“Depends on how much you need to re-attune, and how focused everyone stays during the process.” Keith motions to the first sample. “For a Galra, maybe a few hours, for this one.” He motions to the last. “A few days, to a week for this one. The more discordant it is, the harder it is to stay focused. It’s tiring, mentally and emotionally.”

Pidge frowns. “So this wouldn’t work unless humans were quintessence sensitive too, right? Is that what we should be focusing on?”

“It’s not that humans need to be quintessence sensitive, per se,” Hunk says, rubbing his chin in thought. “We just need two people to be able to feel each other’s quintessence, and not even all the time, just in a controlled environment, right?”

Pidge’s eyes light up. “You’re right! Like, we were thinking this would need to be a hospital procedure anyways, so if all we needed was specialized equipment—“

“—yeah, that would be totally doable,” Hunk says. “I mean, ridiculously hard, but more feasible than trying to make some drug to let humans feel quintessence.”

“We need Matt over here,” Pidge says, texting frantically.

Hunk turns to Keith. “So if we have Matt work on something that can connect two people, what we need to do is figure out a way to analyze the rate of decay and quintessence signature similarity so that we can see who can attune with who. Does that sound about right?”

“Yeah,” Keith says. It sounds effortless, put like that. “Will that be easy?”

“Hellishly hard on Matt’s part,” Pidge says. “For us, I think we have a lot of the pieces, but we need your help cleaning it up and putting it all together, which I think is going to mainly take time.”

“Lots and lots of time,” Hunk agrees.

They get started right away.

While Pidge relays the information to Matt, Hunk grills him about 605’s samples—what exactly he’s feeling from each of them that he’s using to judge how similar the quintessence needs to be, and what qualities he’s using to determine how bad the decay is.

It is, Keith thinks, probably the hardest and most frustrating thing he’s ever done, trying to put into words something that he feels with his soul. And they make him do it again, and again, and again.

The laptop Keith got from the company turns out to be pretty much useless, because as a contractor he’s not actually allowed to access the data directly. Which is a problem, because all he’s doing is providing data.

“Can’t Shiro give me access?” Keith wonders.

Pidge looks at him solemnly. “Not even CEOs are above red tape.”

Shiro himself is conspicuously absent from the lab. Keith doesn’t give it too much thought until late in the afternoon the next day, when he realizes he hasn’t seen Shiro around, not even for lunch.

“Hey, Pidge,” Keith says during a break. “Is Shiro still out sick?”

“Shiro?” Pidge pushes up her glasses. “No, he’s all better. He always recovers pretty quick whenever he gets sick. I think he’s been over in the other lab, working with Matt on ideas for the Mind Melder.”

“Mind Melder,” Keith repeats.

“Yeah, the whole quintessence link-up thing,” Pidge says. “I guess it’s more of a… soul melder? But Mind Melder is a lot catchier.”

“Cool,” Keith says. Neither sound particularly catchy to him, but he admits to being out of touch with what sounds poetic in Terran.

He tries not to dwell on the subject of Shiro. He tries to tell himself that it’s fine, that Shiro’s busy, that Shiro’s definitely not running away just days after he’d apologized for doing it the first time.

Keith’s not doing great at convincing himself of any of it, but at least he can try to distract himself from it.

Shiro shows up in the evening, as they’re cleaning up the lab for the night. Hunk and Pidge have gone to take some vials down to the Crypt. Keith can’t get into there, either—thanks, contractor permissions—so he’s alone in the lab, putting the vials in the fridge back in order.

“Hey,” Shiro says, stepping into the lab. “Sorry I haven’t been around, it’s been busy the last couple days.”

Keith thinks for a moment about being upset, but Shiro gives him a small, nervous smile and that all melts away. He tucks the vials that he’s holding back into the fridge.

“I get it,” he says, and wishes that it could’ve come out sounding a little more understanding and a little less bitter. He turns towards Shiro, fixing his gaze on the dark purple collar of Shiro’s dress shirt to avoid looking at him directly.

Shiro shifts and crosses his arms. “I was thinking… I don’t know if you made any plans for the weekend, but if you’re free, maybe we could take that ride I promised you?”

Keith glances up at him. He still looks more nervous than anything, and Keith isn’t sure why—he’d thought they’d been clear enough about they wanted. Had Shiro been withdrawn because he thought Keith was having second thoughts?

“I’d like that,” Keith says softly. “Tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” Shiro says. He steps closer. “I—“

There’s a beep outside the door, the sound of someone badging in, and Shiro startles and jumps back.

“Oh, hey, Shiro!” Pidge says, oblivious as she and Hunk step into the room. “How’s it going over there with Matt?”

“You know,” Shiro says, voice casual. “The usual.”

“So, horribly?” Hunk says.

Shiro’s lip tilts up, a little half-smile of laughter. “Yeah, pretty horribly. We’ll spend a bit more time organizing our thoughts. We’ll probably have a brainstorm with everyone next week.”

Pidge turns to Keith. “Hope you’re ready to hear some wild ideas. These brainstorm sessions always go off the rails.”

‘In a good way,” Hunk assures him. “Can’t find the right idea without hearing all the ideas first.”

“Looking forward to it,” Keith says.

“Anywho, did you need something?” Pidge says to Shiro. “We were all just about to head out.”

“Just needed to talk to Keith,” Shiro says. “I’ll come by your hotel around six tomorrow?”

Keith agrees, and Shiro leaves after bidding Pidge and Hunk a good weekend.

“What else are you up to this weekend?” Hunk says. “First real weekend here, right?”

“I didn’t really have anything in mind?” Keith says. “I figured I would just be here?”

Pidge and Hunk stare at him again.

“Uh,” Pidge says. “No one really works in the labs on the weekend. I mean, you could if you wanted, but most people take the days off.”

“Do you not have days off on Daibazaal?” Hunk says, sounding horrified.

Keith doesn’t really know how to describe what his life is like as a dignitary, but set schedule doesn’t really apply to it. “I guess my work life is… non-traditional?”

“Call the crew, Hunk,” Pidge says with a serious look on her face. “It’s brunch time.”

----

Brunch, as far as Keith can tell, just meant late breakfast, and Pidge wasn’t joking about having a whole crew out. Aside from her, Hunk, and Lance, there’s also the Motherfucking Engineers.

(“We are Mechanical Engineers,” James Griffin, male, says, sounding very stressed about having to explain.

“MFEs,” Pidge says. “Motherfucking Engineers.”

“MEs!” James says. “M! Es! Where are you getting the F from?”

“I dunno,” Lance says. “I could’ve sworn there was an F…”)

Aside from James, there’s also Ryan (male), Ina (female), and Nadia (female). They’re part of the group responsible for helping bring to life the equipment that they use in the labs—while Matt came up with the theoretical design for the Soul Eater, the engineers made it a reality.

They’re a bit of an overwhelming group, but they’re nice. They assure Keith that no one judges all Galra on the basis of what Zarkon and Haggar did—“And if they do, they’re assholes, and you can tell them to come find me for an ass-kicking,” Nadia says—and that, for the most part, people are just curious since Daibazaal is such a secretive society.

They spend the morning at brunch and the afternoon walking through some kind of shopping district, all the while exchanging questions and answers about human and Galra culture. Keith learns that nicknames are common, James’s nickname is definitely not Teacher’s Pet, absolutely everyone takes ‘selfies’—

(“Including you, fellow pon de friend!” Lance says, pulling him in for a one-armed hug. “Now say cheese?”

Keith’s brow furrows. “Why cheese?”

Lance takes the picture. “Good enough.”)

—and a whole host of other things that are either vitally important for him to know, or completely unimportant, depending on who he asks. In exchange, Keith answers their questions about life on Daibazaal. He worries for a moment that this is some kind of elaborate information-gathering ruse, but the questions they ask are so mundane that he decides it can’t be the case—everything from food, to clothes, to pets, to hairstyles.

By the end of it, they’re asking when Daibazaal will start allowing humans to visit, and Keith doesn’t actually have the answer to that. He doesn’t think anyone ever thought humans would want to visit, just to see what it’s like there. He certainly didn’t.

But he promises to look into it, and that they’ll all be first on the list.

They’re out all morning and afternoon, and Keith’s entirely drained by the time he gets back to his hotel. He collapses with his ankles dangling off the bed and knocks out until his phone pings with a reminder that Shiro’s coming over in fifteen minutes. He takes the time to re-braid his hair and change into plain dark pants and a thicker jacket. It’s not a riding jacket, but it’s good enough.

He goes down to the street a few minutes before six. Shiro pulls up right on time, this time with just goggles in tow, and once again offers for Keith to drive.

“Let me know if you’re not feeling okay,” Keith says as he slides onto the seat. He doesn’t want to lecture Shiro, but— “You could’ve gotten really hurt, last time.”

Shiro looks almost angry for a moment, but it passes, and he looks away. “No, you’re right. I’m fine today, but I’ll let you know. Thanks. For looking out for me.”

Despite his words, Shiro still sounds somewhat annoyed. Keith can’t blame him, but he won’t apologize for being worried.

Keith turns towards the street. “Lead the way?”

Shiro guides them onto what feels like a random street, that quickly becomes an empty highway leading out of the city. Keith’s surprised by how fast the concrete and glass shifts into waves of endless sand—it’s like he’s just blinked, and he’s in another land.

They ride in mostly silence for what feels like hours among the dunes, and true to his word, Shiro hasn’t coughed a single time. His bulk is warm and steady and solid at Keith’s back, and Keith is keenly aware of it, but can’t decide if he should be trying to make himself less keenly aware of it, because he can’t decide what Shiro wants from him. He decides to take Shiro at his word—that he likes Keith enough to take long walks in the park and long rides out into the middle of nowhere with him, that he likes Keith enough to kiss and be kissed.

He’ll figure out the rest as he goes.

Eventually, Shiro calls them to a screeching stop at the edge of a cliff.

In the distance, the sun is already starting to set over the horizon, painting the sands a violent gold.

Keith pulls up his goggles to see better, squinting a little as the sunlight hits his eyes. “Wow.”

“It’s nice, huh?” Shiro says as he climbs off the bike. He’s pushed down his own googles, and they hang loosely around his neck.

“Yeah.” Keith slides off after him. “You come out here a lot?”

“Not a lot,” Shiro says, stepping closer to the edge of the cliff until his figure’s a dark silhouette against the sky. “Not anymore, anyways. I used to, when I was younger. I’d steal a hoverbike and ride way out here where no one could find me. I'd try to watch the sunset whenever I could.”

“By yourself?” Keith says.

There’s a pause, then Shiro says, “Usually, yeah.” He sounds like he didn’t prefer it that way. He walks back over to the bike and pulls a cooler out of one of the storage compartments. “It was kind of nice to have somewhere to call my own, though.”

“Sorry for intruding on your space.”

Shiro smiles at him. It’s small and unreadable. “Can’t be intruding if I brought you here.”

“Guess so,” Keith says slowly. Something about Shiro is feeling more closed off again. Keith isn’t sure if it’s because he’s having second thoughts, or because they’re here, alone, in Shiro’s private space, but he knows he doesn’t like it.

When Shiro sits down near the edge of the cliff, knees up, Keith sits down right next to him. When all Shiro does is lean forward to pull their dinner out of the cooler, Keith inches closer, until their sides are touching. Shiro just hands him a sandwich wrapped in paper and a bottle of juice. Keith counts that as a win.

“So,” Keith says, unwrapping the top of the sandwich. “What did you come out here to hide from?”

Shiro laughs, startled. “Wow, your questions don’t start easy, do they?”

“You’re the one who immediately grilled me about Lotor on our first lunch date,” Keith says, smiling to let Shiro know he’s not serious. “Just doesn’t seem like you want to talk about favorite colors or anything.”

“No, you’re right,” Shiro says. He looks out over the horizon, silent for a moment. “I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about that with you, though.”

“That’s fine too.” Keith takes another bite of his sandwich. It is fine. He wants Shiro to open up to him, if only to finally understand what’s constantly running through that mind of his, but he knows he can’t force him to. The only thing that he thinks he can do is open up about himself. “You wanna know what I’m hiding from?”

“You don’t seem like you’ve hidden from anything your entire life,” Shiro says dryly.

Keith laughs. “I wish.”

“Okay,” Shiro says, leaning back on an arm. “I’ll bite. What are you hiding from right now?”

“I’m hiding from… my text messages.”

“Oh,” Shiro says, lip quirking up. “The horror.”

“I’m serious,” Keith says, but he’s smiling too. “Every day I don’t reply to Lotor is another day of disappointed looks from my mom, and they get more and more disappointed every time.”

“Why don’t you want to talk to him?” Shiro says. “Is it because of all the things you said before, about being second to him?”

Keith takes a bite of his sandwich to avoid answering for a minute. He brought the topic up; he should be prepared to talk about it. It’s hard, when he’s never talked about this with anyone before. But if he wants Shiro to trust him enough to let him in, then he has to let Shiro in first.

“It’s sort of that,” Keith says. “But not really. I guess… He’s always been distant with me, unless we’re in public. I’ve never gotten the sense that he’s actually ever cared about me. Like, he’ll do enough for people to say he’s a good brother, or whatever, but that’s it.”

“But he’s messaging you?” Shiro says.

Keith blinks at him. “Yes?”

“What does he say?”

“Um.” Keith tries to remember the snatches of sentences he’d skimmed. “Generic stuff. Asking how I’m doing, if I’ve joined a cult yet.”

“Does anyone else see your messages?”

Keith shakes his head. “We have encrypted communications.”

“I mean, without knowing anything else,” Shiro says, “just that much seems to say that he really cares about you. It seems like it’d be pretty easy for him to just… not message you at all.”

“It’d be weird for him, though,” Keith says, “if someone asked him how I was doing and he didn’t know. It’d show that we’re not as close as he acts. But if he can say that he’s tried reaching out, but I’ve just been too busy to reply to him, that sounds better.”

Shiro hums and sits up, resting his arms on his knees. “Ever heard of Occam’s razor?” When Keith shakes his head, Shiro says, “Old human saying. Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate. Given two competing theories, the simplest explanation’s probably the right one. I’d say it’s easier to believe that Prince Lotor cares for you and maybe isn’t the best at showing it, over him having some kind of convoluted scheme to win the kingdom’s affection by pretending to have yours. It's hard to prove to someone that you care about them. Especially if circumstances make them predisposed to hate you.”

Keith stares down at his sandwich. “You don’t know Lotor like I do. He doesn’t like me. Never has.”

“It’s true I don’t know Lotor,” Shiro says after a moment. “But I know you. It hasn’t been that long, but I already know you’re easy to like.”

Keith turns to him at that. “Do you?”

Shiro frowns at him. “What?”

“Do you know that?” Keith says. “You’ve told me you like me, and that you want to be… closer. And sometimes I feel like we’re getting there, but then other times I feel like we’re not even friends.” His voice is pitching closer to frustration, and he grabs it and pulls it back. He’s not angry. He doesn’t want to sound angry. He just wants to understand. “What do you want from me, Shiro?” he says softly.

Shiro drops his head between his knees and lets out a slow exhale. He shakes his head without looking up. “Sorry. I’m really not good at this.”

“There’s nothing to be good at,” Keith says. “I just want to understand what you’re thinking.”

“What I’m thinking…” Shiro takes a deep breath. When he pulls his head up, it’s to look back over the horizon.

The sun’s been sinking as they’ve been talking, the colors of evening fading into night. They both watch silently for a moment. Then Shiro gets up, and Keith watches as he pulls a lantern out of the bike’s storage compartment. He flicks it on and sets it on the ground. When he sits down again, it’s in the same spot as before, pressed up against Keith.

Keith can’t decide what it means.

“I think you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Shiro says, staring into the lantern. It’s electric, but the light still has a steady pulse. “I think I’m sorry I didn’t meet you sooner.”

“What do you want from me?” Keith repeats, softly.

Shiro glances over at him, meets his eyes. “Selfish things.”

Keith can feel his pulse everywhere in his body. “That’s okay.”

Shiro studies his face. His tongue darts out to lick the dryness from his lips, and it makes Keith shiver. Shiro looks away again. “I wish it could be that simple.”

“Why can’t it? Shiro.” Some of the frustration is leaking back into Keith’s tone. This time, he lets it. “I like you, too. I want this to work, too. I can’t help if you don’t let me.”

“This isn’t something you can help with,” Shiro says, and it comes out sounding like a fact rather than an admonishment. He sighs again, and says softly, “Sorry, it’s just—my life is a bit of a mess right now. I feel bad that you’re caught in the middle of it.”

“I don’t,” Keith says, and at Shiro’s questioning look, clarifies, “I don’t feel bad about it. I want to be here for you. I don’t care that your life isn’t perfect. Mine definitely isn’t.”

Shiro smiles wryly. “We haven’t known each other that long, you know. The mess is only going to get worse from here. Haven’t you heard it’s better to quit while you’re ahead?”

You are my soulmate, you idiot, and I'm yours. I'm in this for life.

Is what Keith wants to say. Is what Keith would say, if he were braver and not so scared of frightening Shiro off for good.

But he’s not brave.

“I won’t give up on you, Shiro, even if you decide to give up on us,” he says, and Shiro looks surprised and uncertain to hear it. Keith gives him a tentative smile. “We didn’t eat the donut together, but it still counts, right? Pon de friends for life.”

Shiro stares for a moment, then his face melts into a smile that makes Keith’s smile widen to see. “Guess that donut cult is good for something after all.”

“So it is a cult,” Keith says, keeping his tone light.

“Oh, yeah,” Shiro says. “It is definitely a cult.”

When Keith asks, Shiro explains the origin story of the Mister Donut donut cult, which was apparently the accidental brainchild of Hunk. The conversation stays light as they finish their sandwiches, and the last of the evening light is consumed by nightfall. The only light left is the moon, stars, and the soft glow of the lantern between them.

Shiro turns his head in the middle of telling a story about how he accidentally set off the fire alarm at his junior prom to catch the trails of a shooting star. “Did you see that?” He turns to look at Keith with slightly widened eyes.

Keith grins. “Cool, huh? It’s not the time for a meteor shower, but we’ll probably see more if we keep watching. Maybe every fifteen minutes.”

“You stargaze a lot?” Shiro asks.

“I used to,” Keith says. “You?”

“Not really,” Shiro says. “You know how I told you I’d sneak out here when I was younger? I’d always head back before it was dark enough to see the stars. I don’t really come out here much anymore. I guess I could do it from my house, but… I never think of going out.”

This is, Keith thinks, the most that Shiro’s told him about himself so far.

“My dad loved the stars,” he says, and watches Shiro watch him. Watches Shiro understand that Keith is opening himself up to let him in.

“Yeah?” Shiro says quietly.

“He’d take me out to stargaze all the time,” Keith says. “Whenever I’d see a shooting star, he’d tell me to make a wish. That stars could make any kind of wish come true.”

“Did your wish come true?”

Keith fixes his gaze on the stars. “I wished and wished for my mom to come back to us. Then my dad found her by accident, while he was working to arrest an extremist human group. She was working on the same case, on Daibazaal’s side. He died saving her. But yeah. I guess it did come true.”

“Keith,” Shiro says quietly. His arm comes up, and hesitantly settles around Keith’s shoulders. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t worry.” Keith glances at him sideways, leaning a little into his arm. “It was a long time ago. I haven’t really made any wishes after that. But don’t let me stop you from making one. I have it on good authority that it works.”

Shiro’s arm squeezes tighter around Keith’s shoulders. “If that’s how wishes get granted, I think I’ve already made enough bad birthday wishes.”

Keith slowly tilts sideways, resting his head on Shiro’s shoulder, and Shiro shifts to help him settle more comfortably against him. “If you tell me what you wish for, it won’t come true anymore.”

“Is that how it works?” Shiro says, sounding amused. He’s quiet for a moment, and Keith is comfortable basking in the contrast between Shiro’s steady heat and the ever-cooling night air. “I wished for a chance to be myself.”

Keith turns his head to look up at Shiro, but Shiro’s head is tilted up at the sky. “That doesn’t sound like a bad wish to me,” Keith says.

“Maybe not on its own,” Shiro says, “but I’m starting to worry about what’s going to happen for it to come true.”

“Is it coming true?”

Shiro looks down at him, and Keith swallows.

Their faces are very close like this.

“I think it’s starting to,” Shiro says softly.

Keith’s eyes are drawn, inevitably, to Shiro’s lips, as Shiro’s are to his. They’re close enough to share breath. Keith’s heartbeat quickens as Shiro leans in, and he strains up to match, and then—

Shiro’s pulling away, packing up the remnants of their dinner in the cooler.

Keith slips off his shoulder, and scrambles to sit up. “Shiro?” he says uncertainly. They were about to kiss—he knows it. What he doesn’t know is what it means for Shiro to pull back now.

“We should head out,” Shiro says quietly.

“Please talk to me,” Keith says, and tries and fails to keep the pleading out of his tone. “What’s wrong? Did I do something?”

“It’s not you,” Shiro says, meeting his eyes. “I promise it’s not you.” He stands, and picks up the cooler and the lantern. “I’m sorry. I’m just… not really in a good mood tonight, I guess.”

It’s a lie. Keith knows it is. The same kind of lie as I don’t have a soulmate.

Shiro helps Keith up, then, briefly, kisses the top of his head. Keith wants to drown in his own confusion.

“It’s not you,” Shiro promises again. “Another night, okay?”

“Okay,” Keith says numbly.

He feels cold the entire ride back.

Chapter Text

The days pass.

Keith spends his mornings catching up with his mom, or Kolivan, or both, depending on who’s available. Occasionally, his mom will remind him, Lotor’s asked about you, and Keith will send him a few more sentences to appease him for a few more days. He thinks about what Shiro said, that Lotor might actually be making a sincere effort to get to know him, and hesitantly mentions some small details about what’s going on—the friends he’s maybe making, the cult he’s maybe joined.

The rest of his day is spent in the labs at Shirogane Corp. He usually works with Hunk and Pidge, though sometimes, when they’re too engrossed with their computers, he goes to the other lab to see if he can help Matt.

Shiro also shows up regularly, bouncing between the labs and helping wherever he’s needed when he’s not too busy being a CEO—whatever that entails.

Keith doesn’t want to say that Shiro’s avoiding him, because it’s not like Shiro’s hiding in whatever lab Keith isn’t in, but Shiro does seem to be avoiding situations where they’ll end up alone together—they go out to lunch as an entire group, and even weekend plans include other scientists and engineers.

But even then, Shiro always sits next to him, and hovers close to him, and talks and whispers to him, and his eyes when he looks at Keith are always so soft—and Keith has no idea what to do with any of this, because the second he tries to get closer, Shiro will always shy away.

Keith has never met a man more confusing than Shiro in his entire life.

At the company, the labs churn on in a tedium of data connection and analysis until it’s interrupted a few weeks later by some devices sent from their partners at Castleship Labs in Altea. Apparently, the Alteans have been developing similar quintessence link-up equipment, meant to help strengthen relationship bonds, and they’ve sent some prototypes over for Shirogane Corp to try.

The device is a pair of headsets, connected to each other wirelessly, and the second Matt gets his fingers on it, he’s dying to try it out.

Keith’s an obvious choice for a test subject since he knows what it is he’s meant to be feeling, and can compare it to the feedback he gets from the headset.

Matt hands the other one out to Shiro. “Now you.”

Shiro blinks at it from where he’s leaning, arms crossed, against the lab bench. “Me?”

“Yes, you,” Matt says, waving the device. “I can’t observe and participate at the same time.”

Keith can tell from the way Shiro’s looking at him that he really wants to turn Matt down, but he probably can’t think of a good excuse without making Matt suspicious about what’s going on between them. “Why don’t we have Pidge do it?” Keith says. “I already know what her quintessence feels like.”

“Orrrrrr, you could just feel Shiro’s and compare, right?” Matt says. “Pidge’s got her head buried so deep in her laptop I don’t think she’ll even hear me if I go try to pull her out.”

“Only if Shiro’s okay with it,” Keith says, watching him carefully. Shiro’s expression hasn’t changed. “It can be... uncomfortable.” It’s true, in a mental sense—it’s not comfortable for someone to know exactly how you’re feeling.

Matt turns to Shiro. “You cool with it, man?”

Shiro sighs, but he takes the headset from Matt and comes to sit down on the floor across from Keith. “When’s the last time you cleaned these floors?”

“Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to,” Matt says. “Now put that on, Shiro, and then put this one on your wrist.” He hands them each a thick black bracelet, connected to the same opaque glowing ball Keith remembers seeing in the Soul Eater. “This is just for monitoring, I swear we’re not saving it anywhere. And then when you’re done with that, Keith, you wanna get a baseline read on Shiro?”

Keith straps the bracelet around his wrist and glances up at Shiro, who’s slowly wrapping it around his own. “You sure this is okay?”

“Not the weirdest thing I’ve done for science,” Shiro says dryly as he holds his arm out.

Keith reaches out slowly, giving Shiro enough time to draw back if he changes his mind, but he doesn’t, and Keith’s left with his fingers resting lightly on the skin of Shiro’s wrist. He tries to get the shallowest read he can, just enough to compare with whatever he’ll feel from the headset.

Shiro’s quintessence is… odd.

It’s not that something’s wrong with it, exactly; something about it just feels weird. If Keith were explaining it to Pidge, he’d say that it’s like listening to a song transposed to a different key. All the elements of it are the same, but something about it just feels off. Even the signature—it’s both familiar, and not, and it gives Keith a headache to try to focus too hard on it.

It also doesn’t help that the most overwhelming thing Keith can feel is the undercurrent of nervousness thrumming through Shiro’s entire being.

He draws back, not wanting to do the quintessence equivalent of staring. They’ll be feeling more of each other soon enough.

Shiro’s giving him a searching look, and Keith smiles reassuringly. Shiro’s shoulders seem to relax, but only a little bit.

“Okay, I’m gonna turn it on,” Matt says, “and then you guys just focus on what you’re feeling. If it’s feeling good, then we can try to talk through it a bit, but I’ll be watching the monitors. If you need to stop at any point, just holler, and I’ll turn it off.”

Keith nods and holds his breath. A moment later, he feels it.

It’s a little weird; quintessence is usually something he feels with his entire being, but somehow he can tell that this is just signals sent straight to his brain. It’s not bad, a bit like viewing something through binoculars—you can see the detail, but you know you’re not exactly there. The strangeness of Shiro’s quintessence has also been flattened, in a sense. It’s not giving Keith a headache, but it all feels vaguely distorted. And, of course, Shiro’s overwhelming nervousness is taking center stage.

Keith focuses on keeping his own emotions tempered, concentrating on calm and quiet support.

“Oh,” Shiro says, blinking. There’s a spike in surprise from him.

Matt frowns over at him. “Should I stop it?”

“No,” Shiro says. “No, it’s fine. Wow. I think it’s actually working.”

“Keith?” Matt says.

“Yeah,” Keith says. “It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough, I think, for what we need.”

“You’re looking pretty good here,” Matt says, looking back at his screen. “Shiro, it’s saying your emotional fluctuation levels are high. You want to give your meditation thing a shot, Keith?”

“We can just do basic meditation,” Keith says. “Not attunement. People use this for general relaxation, too.”

“What do I have to do?” Shiro says.

“Close your eyes,” Keith says, keeping his voice quiet and steady. “Breathe in and out, slowly. Like that. Again.” Keith breathes with him. Already, he can feel the fraying nervous edges of Shiro’s presence start to mend. “Now focus on me. On how I’m feeling. Don’t try to do anything, just be aware of it.”

Shiro’s quintessence—reaches for Keith, almost immediately, and Keith blinks, startled. Maybe this was a bad idea. Since they’re soulmates, their quintessence is inclined to attune; going too far is going to hurt more than it’ll help, especially if Shiro’s still planning to not continue this.

But as soon as Keith thinks that, he feels Shiro’s nervousness drain away, like a bath that’s been unstopped. Underneath it is a soft affection, directed, Keith realizes, at him.

“Nice, Shiro! But Keith, it looks like you’re spiking a bit—wait, why are you turning red?” Matt says, suspiciously. “You guys better not be thinking of anything sketchy right in front of me.”

“Shut up, Matt,” Shiro says, and Keith expects to feel a wave of embarrassment next, but instead he just feels guilt.

Guilt so thick it threatens to choke him.

The feeling disappears abruptly. Shiro’s yanked the headset off, and he’s midway through pulling off his bracelet. “I’m late for a meeting,” he says without looking at either of them, and Keith doesn’t have to feel him to know he’s lying again. “But it seems like it works.”

“Uh, yeah,” Matt says, looking as lost as Keith feels. “Yeah, uh, we have to do a lot more tests to verify and make sure it doesn’t have any weird side effects, and then turn it over to manufacturing to figure out because the materials are ridiculously expensive but—yeah. It’s looking good. Tell Allura thanks for me? “

Shiro smiles slightly at that and stands. “You can tell her yourself. She’ll be here tomorrow.”

“I thought she wasn’t coming for a couple months?” Keith says. He definitely remembers feeling relieved that he wasn’t going to overlap with her.

“That was the plan,” Shiro says, “but she moved it up once she heard about the progress we were making. She’s excited to meet you.”

“Oh,” Keith says. He isn’t sure how to feel about that. That she wants to meet him. That she and Shiro have talked about him, apparently.

“I’ll see you later,” Shiro says, vaguely, and flees the room.

Matt stares after him. “Is he okay? I’m not trying to betray his privacy or anything, but, was it something you felt?”

“I’m not sure,” Keith says honestly.

He’s learned two things. One, that Shiro likes him—that kind of soul-deep affection is impossible to fake, and still makes him flush to think about. And two, that Shiro feels immensely, immensely guilty about it.

And Keith can’t think of a single reason why.

----

Shiro starts hiding from him.

Again.

It’s not unexpected, given what happened with the link-up, but it’s still frustrating. Keith’s even given him an out this time—the promise he extracted from Shiro, that if it wasn’t working out, to just say so. And he wants to hold Shiro to it.

It’s one of the most conflicting feelings he’s ever had in his life. It’s not that he wants Shiro to tell him to his face that he doesn’t want anything to do with him, but he’d rather that than this constant anxiety over what, exactly, is going on.

So when Lance makes a comment about needing to leave lunch early because he promised he’d bring Shiro an iced tea, Keith takes the opportunity to go himself, claiming that he needs to talk to Shiro about something anyways.

When he makes his way over to Shiro’s office, his assistant isn’t there, but when Keith peeks through the window of the door, he can see Shiro at his desk. He raps his knuckles lightly on the door.

“Come in,” Shiro says.

Keith pushes the door open, just enough to slide through. “Hey.”

“Keith.” Shiro’s expression doesn’t change, but his voice sounds like he clearly wasn’t expecting Keith to appear in front of him. His eyes flicker to the iced tea, and his expression turns slightly resigned. “What can I do for you?”

“Why are you avoiding me?”

Shiro sighs and runs his hand through his hair, and he looks around the office, at anything but Keith. “There’s been a lot to do.”

“You always have a lot to do,” Keith says, but gently.

Shiro stares down at his desk and doesn’t reply.

Keith bites his lip, then says, “You promised me that if it wasn’t working out, that you would tell me. So if you’re done with us, just say it. Don’t leave me waiting for something that isn’t going to happen.”

Shiro keeps looking down at the desk, frowning, for a long, silent moment. Then he says, “We’re done.”

Keith’s fingers clench around the cup of tea, the same way his heart squeezes in his chest. He’d asked Shiro to say it, sure, but—he hadn’t actually expected it to happen.

It takes a few tries before he can speak, but then all he can do is croak out, “What?”

“We’re done,” Shiro repeats, and this time he raises his head and meets Keith’s eyes with a steady, sure gaze that’s like a knife to his heart. “I’m sorry for making you wait for nothing.”

“Shiro,” Keith says weakly. “Can we talk about this?”

“You wanted me to say it,” Shiro says, “so I said it. Please don’t make it harder than it already is.” And there’s that, at least—it really does sound like this is hard for him. He seems sure, but he also doesn’t seem like he wants this, not entirely.

So Keith doesn’t understand why he’s saying it. “I’d still like a reason,” Keith says. He hates the way his voice trembles. “I think I deserve at least that much.”

“It’s not—“

“Don’t say that it’s not me,” Keith says.

“It isn’t, though,” Shiro says quietly. “If circumstances were different, I’d… it doesn’t matter. You’re over halfway through your time here. I hope you enjoy the rest of it.”

“Shiro—”

“Keith,” Shiro says, firmly. “It’s over.”

Keith’s squeezing the drink so hard he’s half-worried the cap will pop off. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get why Shiro’s been sending such mixed signals. Why every time they get closer, Shiro draws further away.

Why Shiro wants to end things now, without explaining a single damn thing to him.

“You like me,” Keith says quietly.

“I do,” Shiro says on a shaky exhale. “Too much.”

“Then—“

“It’s better this way,” Shiro says, “for us both.”

The assured finality to it makes tears spring to Keith’s eyes.

It also makes him very, very pissed off.

“It’s not up to you to decide what’s better for me,” Keith says. “And it’s not for you to decide what I can or can’t handle. People have been deciding that for me my entire life. I’m not putting up with it from you.”

“You won’t have to put up with anything from me anymore,” Shiro says, softly, and it sounds like it hurts him to say it. “I’m sorry, Keith. I do love you.”

It’s the present tense that does him in.

The drink is all over Shiro’s face and shirt before Keith’s even realized he’d moved.

“Fuck you,” Keith says clearly.

Then he turns and rushes out of the office.

He’s not going to give Shiro the satisfaction of seeing him cry.

----

Keith doesn’t want Shiro to see him cry, and he doesn’t want anyone in the lab to see him cry, so he plans to just leave and apologize to everyone later, but of course, when he stumbles to the open elevator, it isn’t empty.

Princess Allura is standing there, looking at his red-faced, tear-streaked mess.

“Oh my!” Princess Allura says. “Are you quite all right?”

Fuck. This is the last thing Keith needs right now. “I’m fine, thanks,” he says without looking at her. He doesn’t get in the elevator, either. With any luck, she’ll leave, and he’ll call another one.

“You’re Keith, aren’t you?” Princess Allura says. “Prince Keith, of Daibazaal? I’m Allura.”

“Good to meet you,” Keith mumbles. She’s holding the elevator open. Why is she holding the elevator open?

“Are you coming from Shiro’s office?” she says.

“I—why does it matter?” Keith says. He’s tired. He’s tired and his soulmark is burning and he just wants to go to bed and feel the ache of rejection in peace and quiet.

“Come with me for just a moment?” Princess Allura says. “There’s a garden on the roof I’d like to show you. It’s quite lovely in the afternoon.”

Giving in sounds easier right now. Keith can see what Princess Allura wants to show him, then go straight back to his hotel and go sleep—provided this isn’t some kind of scheme to push him off the roof.

Not that he thinks he’d mind that at this point, either.

He steps into the elevator, and they sit in silence as it rises to the top. In front of them, Keith can see that the roof has paneled wood flooring and glass railings along the sides. Evenly spaced throughout are concrete planters are overflowing with greenery, and concrete benches set against them. Princess Allura guides them to sit on one.

“Shiro’s spoken to me a lot about you,” she says.

“You probably know how he feels better than I do, then,” Keith says, and he’s proud of the fact that it comes out sounding only a little bitter. Just. A little.

“Shiro is… a complicated man,” Princess Allura says.

“Figured that much out,” Keith mumbles.

“Do you mind telling me what happened?”

“Not much to tell.” Keith tips his head back against the planter. “He broke up with me. Or maybe we weren’t even together. I don’t know. He’s done trying.”

“Oh, Shiro,” Princess Allura says on a sigh. She sounds almost as frustrated as Keith, and he looks up at her in surprise. “You have to understand, Keith, that I’ve known Shiro for years now, and never once have I heard him speak about someone the same way he speaks about you. He truly does care for you. Deeply so.”

“He’s got a strange way of showing it,” Keith says. He sits forward to look at her. “Sorry. This really wasn’t the best introduction.”

“No need to apologize,” Princess Allura says softly. “I was excited to meet you, just to see who it was that Shiro’s so enamored by. It was a stroke of fate that we ran into each other, I think.”

Keith frowns at her. “Why’s that?”

“Because I know just how much you mean to Shiro,” Princess Allura says. “I am, perhaps, the only one who knows. And I beg you to help him see reason. I don’t know why he’s chosen to push you away, but it isn’t from lack of affection on his part. I have no right to ask this of you, not when he’s the one who’s hurt you so, but you’ve brought joy to him that I didn’t think I’d see again. Please help fight him to keep it.”

“You’re right,” Keith says. “You don’t have a right to ask me for that.”

Princess Allura shrinks back. “Right. Of course.”

“But—I love him,” Keith says. “Maybe it’s too soon to say that, but I do. But it’ s—I just don’t know how to get through to him. Every time I try, I’ve made it worse.”

“Every time?” Princess Allura says.

Keith thinks back to the times they’ve actually gotten closer; the times they’ve been able to have conversations where Shiro didn’t immediately draw away. “I guess, sometimes… if we’re away from the office, and just by ourselves. It’s been easier.”

“That does line up with what I know of Shiro,” Princess Allura says slowly. “Oh! I have an idea.”

Keith hasn’t known her for long at all, but he already knows that the look on her face spells trouble.

For him.

----

This, Keith thinks, was definitely a mistake.

Allura proposed that he go back to his hotel to take some time to recover, and then, in the evening after hours, go to Shiro’s house to speak with him. There are guards at the front door that won’t let anyone in, she says, but his bedroom is on the third floor, between the apatosaurus and the brontosaurus (she draws him a quick sketch on her phone; all he can tell is that they have long necks).

She advised throwing rocks at the balcony window, which is apparently an Earth custom. Keith climbs up to Shiro’s backyard from the park and tries it, but after fifteen minutes, there’s no response. A sensible person might have given up, or just taken their chances with the front; Keith’s not sensible, he’s desperate, so he’s on Floor 2.5 of scaling the wall when he considers that this might be a bad idea.

He hesitates once he actually gets onto the balcony, but figures he can probably take Shiro in a fight if it comes down to it, and knocks.

There’s no response, but the door opens a bit—it seems like it was already ajar. Keith slips inside, past the curtain covering the door, and then he’s left standing in an empty bedroom.

He feels a bit silly now. Of course Shiro can’t answer if he’s not here. He probably hasn’t left the office yet. But Keith should probably leave before a guard comes in and catches him. They probably do regular rounds to check for intruders; it’s the only way Keith can fathom them leaving balcony doors open all day.

A toilet flushes from the adjacent bathroom, and a sink turns on.

Keith’s heart beats faster. He should leave. He should leave now. But his feet stay glued to the floor, and the bathroom door opens, and then Shiro is standing there, in a white shirt and dark grey sweatpants. His prosthetic, Keith realizes, is not attached, and is sitting on a table on one side of the room.

“Keith, what—“Shiro looks completely shocked to see him, which is fair. Keith feels like a stalker right now, and he’s suddenly worried that the next words out of Shiro’s mouth will be to call the guards. But instead, Shiro just steps closer, like he’s in a daze, and says, “What on Earth are you doing here?”

“I need to talk to you,” Keith says.

Shiro coughs lightly. He walks around to the side of the bed near Keith and picks up a cup. “This couldn’t have waited until tomorrow?”

“I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance to talk to you tomorrow,” Keith says. “Or ever again. Since you broke up with me.”

Shiro stares down at his cup, then takes a slow drink before putting it back down. He sits on the edge of the bed. “Right.”

“I was going to just let you do it, since I’m tired of trying to figure out if you want to kiss me or if you never want to see me again,” Keith says. He sees Shiro wince at his bluntness, but he’s not going to take it back. “But then I ran into Princess Allura.”

Shiro’s still contemplating his cup, tracing the rim with a finger. “And what did she say?”

“A lot of things,” Keith says, “but mainly that she thought that you were making a mistake and that I should stop you, even though I told her you wouldn’t listen to me.”

There’s a quiet clink clink clink as Shiro taps his nails against the cup. “She’s right,” he says. “I made a mistake.”

Keith waits for him to elaborate, but he doesn’t, and Keith lets out a frustrated huff. “Can you, for once, just talk to me, Shiro? Really talk to me? I know you’re thinking all these things, and making all these decisions, and you won’t talk to me about any of them, and I don’t understand any of them. I feel like you don’t want me to.”

“You’re not wrong,” Shiro says after a moment. “There’s a lot going on right now that I haven’t told you. But it’s all going to blow over soon. Since it won’t matter in a couple months, I thought it’d be easier if you didn’t have to worry about it at all.”

“If it’s stressing you out so badly that you’d shut me out for it,” Keith says, “then I think that I’d rather know.”

Shiro presses his lips together. “No, that’s fair. I think… I think I need a bit of time to think about what I want to say. Can you give me a day to figure it out?”

Keith’s already suffered for weeks. What’s one more stress-filled day?

But no—he came here for answers, and he’s not leaving without them.

“If I give you a day,” Keith says, “are you going to figure out how to tell me the truth, or are you going to figure out a more believable lie?”

“Keith—“

“Don’t try to tell me you’ve never lied to me, Shiro,” Keith says softly.

Shiro looks miserable. “I—“

On his nightstand, Shiro’s phone buzzes and lights up. Shiro glances over at it briefly before returning his gaze to Keith, then he seems to register what was on the screen, and his eyes widen as he turns to the phone again. “Oh shit, it’s already that late? Keith, can we talk about this later? Please. Now’s really not a good time.”

“Is there ever going to be a good time?”

“Yes, I swear,” Shiro says. “We’ll talk about all of it later, all right? You need to leave. Now.”

Keith frowns, an unsettling feeling sinking in his gut. He doesn’t really have a right to be in Shiro’s bedroom, but— “Why are you trying to kick me out so badly?”

Somehow it had never occurred to him that the reason Shiro was acting so strangely with him could be because he was also paying his romantic attention to someone else.

“It’s not—I can’t really explain it,” Shiro says, a bit desperately. “It isn’t anything bad. Please, Keith, trust me. We’ll talk tomorrow, all right? I swear.”

Keith stares at him for a long moment. “Fine. Tomorrow.

Shiro looks so, so relieved, and Keith hopes with everything he has that he’s not making a mistake.

“Thank you,” Shiro says.

Keith makes his way back towards the balcony.

“Wait,” Shiro says, and Keith looks back at him. He looks horrified. “You came in through the balcony?”

“Yeah?” Keith says. “How else would I have gotten in?”

Shiro gestures at his bedroom door, that’s sitting partly open. “I thought you just came in through the front! It’s a three-story sheer drop off the balcony. How’d you even get to it?”

“I—“

“Stop pretending to be sleeping and answer your phone!” someone yells from down the hallway. Keith frowns—someone with a voice that sounds a lot like Shiro’s. “Dad keeps texting me every five minutes to make sure you’re still alive!”

The voice is coming closer, accompanied by a familiar clack of footsteps, and as Keith gets more confused, Shiro gets paler.

“Now is really not a good time!” Shiro calls out, a bit desperately.

“I brought you miso soup and you’re going to eat it,” the voice says, just beyond the door. “And you’ve been stuck sick in bed all day, how could it not be a good—“

The man freezes halfway through shouldering the door open, and Keith’s brain stutters to a complete halt.

There, standing at the door, shirt stained yellow from the tea Keith had thrown at him in his office, is Shiro.

Chapter Text

Shiro is standing by the door.

Shiro is also sitting on the bed—or, at least, he was. Keith whips his head around to make sure. Yeah, Shiro’s still there, even if he looks like he’d really rather not be, eyes darting between Keith and the Shiro at the door with mounting panic.

The Shiro who’s just arrived is holding a paper bag and wearing an inscrutable expression. He shuffles sideways to the desk in silence and hastily clears a space. “I’ll just put this here for you,” he says, dropping the bag down.

Then he makes a break for it.

Keith gets there first, slamming himself bodily across the door. Shiro’s been doing enough running away, he thinks. “No one is leaving until someone explains exactly what is going on here,” he says with a calm that he completely does not feel.

Soup Shiro frowns at him for a moment, then turns his frown towards the bed. “If you were going to fuck him again,” he says with a shocking crudeness, “you shouldn’t have asked me to bring you dinner.”

“I wouldn’t do that!” Bed Shiro says. “And I didn’t know he was here!”

“You didn’t know he was here,” Soup Shiro says. “In your room.”

“He snuck in,” Bed Shiro says, and Soup Shiro turns to regard Keith.

“I snuck in,” Keith confirms, staring at Soup Shiro. “Because you broke up with me.”

“Oh yeah, what’s that about?” Bed Shiro says pleasantly.

“First tell me what’s going on,” Keith says.

Soup Shiro sighs and settles himself into the chair by the desk. “Your room, your fault, your explanation,” he says to Bed Shiro.

“It sounds like it’s your fault to me, but fine,” Bed Shiro says. He runs his hand over his hair. “All right, where to start... Um. So, we’re twins.”

“Kind of figured that part out,” Keith says, glancing between the two of them. They’re identical; identical enough that Keith still doesn’t think he can tell the difference, even knowing that they’re separate people. “Why are you pretending to be the same person?”

“It’s a… thing, in my family—our family,” Bed Shiro says. “Twins run in the family. This is going to sound so messed up.”

“It is kind of messed up,” Soup Shiro says.

“Basically, when twins are born to the family, the older twin assumes a permanent identity. The younger twin becomes the shadow.”

“The body double,” Soup Shiro adds. “The one who goes out when things get too dangerous.”

Bed Shiro’s lips twist. “Right. It’s a holdover from a long time ago, when our family was nobility, and we would be constant targets. The permanent identity is Takashi Shirogane. That’s me. And over there is my brother, Ryou.”

“You can call me Kuron if you want,” he says. He smiles, all teeth. “You know, like Shiro’s evil clone.”

Keith frowns. “That’s not funny.”

“That’s what I keep telling him,” Shiro—Takashi?—says, exasperated. “We picked Shiro in the beginning because it worked as a nickname for both of us, but...”

“It just got more and more associated with Takashi over time,” Ryou finishes for him. “It feels like his nickname now, not ours.”

“So Ryou’s been trying to come up with a new nickname for himself,” Takashi—Shiro?—says, “and they’re all horrible.”

“You mean you don’t like Number Two?” Ryou says.

“Stop,” Shiro says. “I mean it.”

Pretender?”

“Ryou, I’m serious,” Shiro says. “Stop it. The only okay one you’ve said so far is Kuro and even that’s pushing it.”

“Fine.” Ryou turns to Keith. “Call me Kuro, then.”

“What’s wrong with your actual name?” Shiro says. “Now that Keith knows you’re an actual person.”

“It’s not fair if you’re the only one with the cute nickname, Shi-ro,” Ryou—Kuro?—says.

“I don’t get it,” Keith breaks in. Actually, a lot is going on here that he doesn’t get, but the best way is probably to tackle them one at a time. “Why can’t you just live as your own people?” Ryou doesn’t exactly sound like he enjoys his position as Shiro’s shadow.

“It’s a bit complicated,” Shiro says, scratching his jaw. “But basically, Ryou—“

“Kuro,” Kuro cuts in.

Shiro frowns at him. “Kuro has a—I don’t know how to describe it. Like a curse mark? You’ve seen my half of it, here.” He puts his hand over his heart, and Keith remembers the rose tattoo there. “His mark is connected to mine, and to a ring that our grandfather used to have. Ryou—Kuro—has it now.”

“If I’m away from Shiro for longer than a month, I’ll die,” Kuro says bluntly. “If whoever has the ring wants me to die, I’ll die.”

“Our grandfather was strict about upholding the tradition,” Shiro says before Keith can ask, “but he’s the last of our family who was. Our parents tried to push back, but Mom was already sick, and they figured it was something they could deal with later. Obviously, that didn’t happen.”

Kuro snorts.

Shiro goes on as if nothing happened. “Our grandfather passed away a few years ago, so that isn’t a problem anymore, but there’ll be a lot of questions if Kuro shows up now, since he never legally existed in the first place. And there’s still the seal to deal with. Just, between me being sick and us trying to keep the company afloat, we haven’t had time to figure out how to handle any of it, and, well, we’re not sure how much it’s going to matter soon.”

“Your turn to stop,” Kuro says sharply. “How many times do I have to tell you? You’re going to be fine.”

Shiro makes a face, but he doesn’t respond, not directly. Instead, he looks at Keith and says, “I’ve been sick lately, as you’ve probably heard. I was always a little sickly, but it’s been getting worse over the past few years, and then a lot worse very recently. While I’ve been recovering, Kuro’s been taking my place more and more. But that means you’ve been seeing both of us around. I’m sorry if we confused you.”

Keith is definitely confused—and, he thinks, more than a little angry. But he tries to temper it— getting upset isn’t going to do him any use here. Shiro would probably just try to calm him down. Kuro might tell him to go get some space.

Keith thinks he’s beginning to see the difference in their personalities, at least, put directly against each other like this. Kuro must be who Lance refers to as stressed!Shiro, at least most of the time. He seems a little more on edge. A little snappier. A lot of it is probably his frustration at his position—a frustration they’ve bonded over, Keith realizes—but it also looks like there’s a good amount of it that’s worry over Shiro’s declining health.

Shiro feels softer. Gentler, in a way. Maybe because he’s secure in his identity in a way that Kuro isn’t, and he’s come to terms with his physical state in a way that Kuro refuses to.

Keith’s head feels like it’s still bursting with questions—there’s so much he still doesn’t know, and so much he’s not sure they’ll tell him.

“Were you ever going to tell me?” is what comes out first.

It’s the wrong question to ask.

Shiro opens his mouth to answer, and Kuro shoots him a glare that makes Shiro clamp his mouth shut. His jaw works for a moment, before he simply says, “I wasn’t planning on it, no. I’m sorry you found out about us.”

“I’m not,” Keith snaps.

Shiro raises his hands placatingly. “I didn’t mean it like that. I do feel bad that we kept such a big secret from you. I know this wasn’t what you signed up for. It’s just, after it already happened—I didn’t want to make you feel like you had to choose.”

“Choose,” Keith repeats, dumbly.

“You can’t exactly date both of us,” Kuro says. The words are bitter as they spill out of his mouth. Bitter and resigned.

“Why not?” Keith says.

“Why not what?” Kuro says, a bit incredulously.

Keith admits that he didn’t exactly think things through before opening his mouth; his need to reassure Kuro took over everything else. He remembers what they spoke of before—of Kuro understanding life as a shadow. He sees, now, that Kuro really hasn’t had a life of his own outside the confines of his house. His friends were Shiro’s first. His relationships were Shiro’s.

Keith lives in the shadow cast by Lotor. He isn’t literally Lotor’s shadow, not like Kuro is Shiro’s, so he can’t understand all that Kuro is going through, but he understands that it’s a lonely way to live.

He wants to help relieve it if he can, at least a little bit.

“Why not both?” Keith says, stubbornly. “Since I’m spending time with both of you anyways. It’d be weird to hang out with one of you and not the other, wouldn’t it?”

“That doesn’t mean you have to date us both,” Kuro says. “That’d just be doing what we were doing before.”

“Wasn’t what I was doing before dating you both?” He guesses Kuro was the one avoiding alone time with him, but even when they went out in a group, he’d certainly acted close.

“We didn’t kiss or anything,” Kuro says.

“That was your fault,” Keith says, at the same time Shiro says, “You never kissed him?”

“He’s your boyfriend!” Kuro says.

“He’s our boyfriend,” Shiro says softly, glancing over at Keith.

“That’s not how that works,” Kuro says.

Shiro scratches his jaw and smiles wryly at Keith. “Ah. I don’t think this’ll be something we can change his mind about in one night.”

“Who said anything about changing my mind?” Kuro says. “I’m not stealing your boyfriend.”

“No one is stealing me from anyone,” Keith says. “I’m offering.”

“You don’t have to spend time with me just because you feel bad for me,” Kuro says.

“That isn’t why I offered.”

“You fell in love with him at first sight,” Kuro says. “The two of you fucked at first sight. I’m just Shiro’s replacement until he’s better again to be with you permanently. Nothing that we had between us was real. You don’t have to pretend like it was anything more than it was.”

“And what was it?” Keith says, because it had certainly felt like a real romance to him. He can still feel the press of Kuro against his side, standing close whenever they went out. The puff of Kuro’s breath against his hair, or his cheek and ear when he’d whisper. Kuro’s smiles certainly felt real. His laughter. His happiness.

“It was a trick,” Kuro says simply. “So that you wouldn’t forget Shiro. That was it.”

“You said you liked me,” Keith says. “That was true, right?”

Kuro looks between Keith and Shiro for a moment. Then he says, “I went out with you because Takashi asked me to.”

Keith waits, but Kuro doesn’t say anything more. “That didn’t really answer the question,” he says.

“He likes you,” Shiro says. Kuro glares at him, but Shiro ignores him. “He felt bad about it, even though I told him not to.”

“You liked him first,” Kuro says.

“We’re not in grade school,” Shiro says. “And it’s not going to matter for long, anyway.”

“Shiro,” Kuro says. “Shut up.”

They glare at each other, looking for all the world like they’re going to actually get into a fight, right now, and Keith quickly tries to change the subject.

“Kuro, when you broke up with me—“

“Again, why?” Shiro says.

“—you said you love me,” Keith says. “And you love—or like, whatever it is—you like me too much. What did you mean?”

Kuro presses his lips together. The room falls into a cloying silence where Kuro doesn’t want to answer, but Keith and Shiro are both refusing to talk until he does. Finally, Kuro says, “I didn’t want to do something I’d regret.”

“Like what?” Keith says.

“I don’t know.” Kuro fiddles with the paper bag on the desk. “Get too attached, or something. Too late for that, I guess.”

“Kuro,” Shiro says quietly. “The reason I wanted you to spend time with Keith was that I thought you’d like him. I wouldn’t ask you to build a relationship with someone if I didn’t think it they were someone who would be really good for you.”

“He thought I was you,” Kuro says.

“He didn’t even know enough about me to know who I am,” Shiro argues back. “The one who’s gotten to know him is you. If he’s fallen in love with me, it’s because of you. You’re the one that matters.”

It’s not strictly untrue. It’s Kuro who Keith’s ended up spending the most time with—Kuro who’s been endearing himself to Keith all this time.

But Shiro’s his soulmate, even if he denies it. That rush of love that Keith felt the first time he saw him, and still feels now every time he sees Shiro’s gentle smile—that’s real too.

But he can’t deny the love he feels for Kuro, either.

His heart stops for a moment—is Shiro his soulmate, though? What if Shiro was telling the truth, that he doesn’t have a soulmate, and the mark he bears is a copy of Kuro’s? Is it possible that Kuro’s the one who has the original soulmark?

Keith doesn’t know what option he prefers—if there’s even an option he prefers. But he can tell from the tension in the room that it’s not the right time to ask.

“It sounds like there aren’t a lot of people who know the truth about the two of you,” Keith says quietly. “Even if you don’t want me to be anything else, I still want to be your friend, if you’ll let me. I feel like it’d be nice to talk to someone who understood what was going on. Everything that was going on.”

“Yeah,” Shiro says with a soft smile. “That would be nice. Right, Kuro?”

Kuro frowns at him, then sighs, running a hand through the fluff of his bangs. “Yeah, I guess. But it’s not something you have to commit yourself to right now. I know this is a lot, Keith. It’s probably better if you have some space to think about it for a while, before you decide if you want to keep things going with either of us. Or neither of us.”

Keith already knows his answer—he wants to be there for them. For both of them. He’s so sure of it, and he’s sure that that answer isn’t going to change. “I still want to spend time with you,” he says. “Both of you. If you want to spend time with me. And can you seriously just tell me if there’s a problem? Don’t avoid me because you feel like you have to.”

“I sense some resentment,” Shiro says, looking directly at Kuro.

“Fuck off,” Kuro says. “Like you didn’t start this whole mess by having a wild night out and then not telling me about it at all.”

“I said I was sorry!” Shiro says.

“Sure,” Kuro says. “But only after you got pissed at me for being mean to Keith that first day.”

“I didn’t get pissed,” Shiro says, eyes darting to Keith. His voice is almost a whine when he says, “Why are you attacking me like this?”

“I just want Keith to know what he’s getting into,” Kuro says. “You know, in case he wants to run away now.”

Keith rolls his eyes. “Did you forget I have a brother, too?” Sort of. “It’ll take a little more than some bickering to scare me off.” In fact, it’s having the opposite reaction—he’s feeling oddly fond instead, and a bit sad—he and Lotor aren’t even close enough to bicker.

Keith doesn’t know what expression is on his face, but Kuro and Shiro are both studying it intensely, and Keith shivers involuntarily. It’ s—a lot, to have both of them narrowing their focus down to him.

“We should let you get home,” Kuro says after a moment. “It’s late. And you’ve had a lot to deal with.”

“Wait,” Keith says. He’s gotten so sidetracked that he can’t even remember what’s been clarified and what hasn’t, but there’s one thing he knows that he still doesn’t have the answer to. “What are we doing now?”

Kuro frowns. “What do you mean?”

Keith looks between the both of them. “I mean, are we still—together? Or…?”

“I think that’s up to you,” Shiro says. “And Kuro, I guess. I like you, Keith. I’ll like you for the rest of my life.” His eyes twinkle as he says it, like he’s making a joke.

If it’s a joke, it’s a terrible one.

Kuro seems to agree. The paper bag crinkles as he pulls the container of soup out of it, and then he stalks over to the bed and shoves it at Shiro. “You’re not funny,” he says. “Drink your soup. It’s all cold now.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shiro says, setting the container on the nightstand.

“The sickness,” Keith says. A sickness whose physical symptoms come and go, that’s been getting worse and worse over time. “Did you check if it was quintessence poisoning?”

“The first thing I checked,” Shiro says softly.

“That would’ve really sucked, after Mom,” Kuro says, running a hand through his hair. “But it would've been nice to at least know what it is, even if we couldn't do anything about it. And now we’re even closer to a treatment, thanks to Keith.”

“Thanks, Keith,” Shiro echoes, smiling at him. “We really owe you a lot.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Keith says, though he’s sorry that it isn’t helping Shiro.

“Kuro, why don’t you be a gentleman and walk Keith home?” Shiro says. “Since he came all the way here for us?”

“I will,” Kuro says, “but only because I can’t stand your face right now.”

“I’ve got some really bad news for you, then,” Shiro says. “You might want to sit down for this.”

“You actually like this nerd?” Kuro says, turning to Keith.

Keith has a flippant answer that springs to mind, but he thinks it’s probably inappropriate to share.

“I’m a good fuck,” Shiro says brightly.

Keith points to him.

“Wow,” Kuro says. “You’re both the worst.” He walks over to the door. “Come on, Keith, let the old man get his rest.”

“I’m only five minutes older than you!”

Kuro tugs Keith into the hallway. “Well, my hair’s not all white.”

“How dare you,” Shiro says. “That is a secret.”

“I figure if you want to love Keith for the rest of your life, then he should get to know all of you,” Kuro says innocently. “Starting with everything I can tell him in this half-hour walk. Goodnight, Shiro!” He pulls the door shut and drags Keith down the hallway with a hand on his forearm before Shiro can respond.

“Is Shiro’s hair really white?” Keith says as Kuro leads them through a hallway.

“Yeah,” Kuro says. “We’re not sure exactly what happened, but his hair got all white after the accident. It’s probably something genetic, because I ended up with a little white too. Just right here, though.” He tugs at the tuft of hair over his forehead. “We figured it’d be easier to just dye everything black.”

“Were you in the accident, too?” Keith says.

Kuro’s hand drops from his hair. “No. But this arm didn’t grow itself, you know.” He shrugs his prosthetic shoulder with a wry smile.

“That’s—” Keith stops. He feels sick just thinking about it. The conclusion isn’t something that wants to fully form in his brain. “That’s horrible.”

“It happened, it’s over now.” Kuro puts his hand on Keith’s wrist and encourages him forward, down a flight of stairs. “It’s okay.”

Maybe it’s okay now, but Keith can’t imagine that it always was. He moves his hand up so that he can intertwine his fingers with Kuro’s and he squeezes his hand, briefly, before loosening enough that Kuro could easily break free.

He doesn’t.

They walk in silence through the house. It’s beautiful, Keith can see that much, and he wishes he had the mental capacity to take it all in, but his brain is distracted by everything else that’s happened in the past few hours.

Another time, he thinks.

Kuro leads them out of the house, through the back, heading for the trail that leads back to the park.

“I meant everything I said back there,” Keith says in the open air. “And everything I’ve said to you before. I won’t give up on you, even if you’ve given up on yourself.”

Kuro’s hand twitches in his, but Kuro stays looking straight ahead. “You’re going to have to choose at some point,” he says. “And you’d be making a mistake if you chose the guy who doesn’t even exist.”

“Are you going to make me choose?” Keith says.

“You know I’ve never had a problem sharing with Shiro,” Kuro says.

Oh.

Keith should have realized that would be part of it—that Kuro’s never had anyone to call his own before. That maybe that’s something he wants. That maybe that’s something he’d hoped Keith would want, too.

Some part of Keith thinks that if he could figure out which one his soulmate is, that would make his decision easier. He knows either one of them would take rejection with grace. But the rest of Keith revolts against the thought of having to decide at all.

“You’re thinking too hard,” Kuro says, and Keith looks up at him. He’s smiling, and it’s small, but it’s real, and a bit affectionate. “I meant that sincerely. We’ve shared everything our entire lives, what’s a boyfriend on top of that? Might be nice, even, to date someone who actually knows we’re different people for once.”

“But?” Keith says, because he knows there’s one coming.

Kuro shrugs and looks straight ahead again. “I’m selfish. I know it’s just a matter of time. If you keep spending time with both of us, it won’t take you long before you find out all the ways he’s better than me.”

“And I’ll find out all the ways you’re better than him,” Keith says. “He’s not perfect.”

“He doesn’t have to be,” Kuro says, and Keith hears the unspoken but I do.

Keith squeezes his hand again, and, after a moment, Kuro squeezes back.

“I can’t believe you’re not mad at us,” Kuro says.

“I’m mad,” Keith says, “but I’m tired, and I’m still processing a lot of it. Don’t worry, I’ll yell at you more tomorrow. Maybe I’ll even throw more tea on you.”

Kuro makes a face. “I think I deserved that one.”

“I think Shiro probably deserved it more.”

“I’m not arguing with you there,” Kuro says.

“If I bring you a cup of tea to throw at Shiro, would you do it for me?” Keith says.

Kuro laughs. “Maybe if he’s not feeling too sick. He was having a pretty good day today.”

Now that Kuro’s mentioned it, Keith doesn’t remember hearing him cough even once. He says as much to Kuro.

“Yeah, his symptoms are really off and on,” Kuro says. “He was hacking up a storm all morning, and he didn’t even feel like getting out of bed, but I think he started feeling fine a little after lunch. It was like that the day he tried to take you on a ride, except it was fine in the morning, then he started getting worse. I don’t know why he thought that was a good idea.”

Keith didn’t either—it seemed ridiculous to try so hard when Shiro clearly wasn’t feeling well. But maybe Shiro tried so hard because he knew he wasn’t feeling well—because he knew Keith would call it quits early, and he could apologetically promise to go another day. Even though it seems like it’d always be too much of a risk for Shiro to go.

Which means Shiro only ever intended for Kuro to go.

“He set us up,” Keith realizes.

“What?”

“Shiro,” Keith clarifies. “He wanted to take me to the desert, but if there’s no way he’d ever be able to do it—“

“Wait,” Kuro says. “He said that you were the one who wanted to see the desert.”

“Wow,” Keith says. “He definitely set us up.”

“That idiot,” Kuro says, but it’s without heat.

“Enough of a blessing for you?” Keith says.

“I don’t need his blessing,” Kuro says, but the expression on his face indicates that he kind of did. He’s a little softened, Keith thinks, with the proof from both Keith and Shiro that this is okay. This is something that’s okay to want. This is something that’s okay to have.

Keith stops, and tugs on Kuro’s hand to get him to stop too. They’re by an alcove of trees near the edge of the park, and Keith pulls him behind one. Kuro follows him, trusting though confused.

“Kuro,” Keith says, once they’re safely tucked away from prying eyes. “Can I kiss you?”

Kuro blinks, eyebrows raised in surprise, but Keith doesn’t miss the way that his pupils blow in response to the question. After a beat, Kuro’s brow lowers, and he steps closer. He puts his hands on Keith’s waist, lightly testing.

Keith, using him as a balance, tiptoes up in response.

Their lips meet with a timid uncertainty Keith’s never felt while kissing Shiro, but it melts away quickly, consumed by a deep desperation that has Kuro’s arms winding around him, crushing them together.

Keith throws his arms around Kuro’s neck, to pull Kuro down or to pull himself up, he’s not sure, but the end result is that they stagger back until Keith bumps against something solid. He startles and turns, hoping it’s not another person, but it’s just a tree.

Kuro laughs, quiet and surprised and wondrous, and says, “I guess I see why Shiro likes kissing you.”

“What a compliment,” Keith says dryly, and reaches up to kiss him again, slow and sweet.

They draw back from this one slowly, and Keith swallows at the heat in Kuro’s gaze. Kuro wants him, as much as Shiro does. He can tell. He wants Kuro, too.

But there will be time for that later.

“I want to get to know you,” Keith says, putting a hand to Kuro’s cheek. “As Kuro, or Ryou, or whoever it is you want to be. I want to start learning who you are. Is that okay?”

Kuro, for some reason, hesitates. “I don’t know,” he says quietly.

Keith doesn’t know what’s going through his mind, but he knows better than to push. This is new territory for them. For all of them. “Will you let me try?” he says.

Kuro blinks, looking surprised by the question. Then he softens. “Yeah. Of course.”

He leans down a little, like he’s angling for another kiss, and Keith tilts his head up in invitation. Kuro takes it, leaning down the rest of the way to kiss Keith again, soft and light this time, and something about it grabs onto Keith’s heart and squeezes tightly. Their kiss grows salty, and Kuro wrenches back, alarmed.

“Are you okay?” he says, frantically swiping at Keith’s cheek. “Was it something I did?”

“No, it’ s—I’m happy,” Keith says, sniffling. “I think.”

“You think,” Kuro says.

Keith swats him on the chest and sniffs again. “I’ve had an emotionally draining day. First, my boyfriend broke up with me, then I found out I had two boyfriends, and one implied he didn’t want to get back together with me, and—”

“Okay, okay, not so loud!” Kuro says, crushing Keith to his chest. “I’ve got a reputation, you know.”

“Yeah,” Keith says. “A reputation of making out with me in this park.”

Kuro lets go of Keith, looking shocked and crushed at the realization. “Damn, and I was having so much fun making fun of Shiro about this.”

Keith smiles at him. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

“Let’s tell him we made out in your hotel room,” Kuro says. “That’ll get him jealous.”

“I don’t know, my hotel room isn’t really that interesting,” Keith says. “What about your office?”

Kuro studies him, impressed. “You’re dirty.”

Keith blushes.

“No, I like it,” Kuro says, which only makes Keith blush harder. “I’ll tell you what he says. Or better yet, I’ll wait until we all get together again. I guess there’s nothing stopping you from coming over now, if you wanted. Dad’s in Altea until the end of the year, so it’s just us right now.”

“I’d like that,” Keith says. “If that’s okay with you.”

“Yeah, I think it’d be nice to have someone else around,” Kuro says. “Shiro’s seriously driving me crazy with all of his doom and gloom talk.”

Kuro’s tone is light, but there’s a real worry underneath it that makes Keith worry too. He touches Kuro’s arm lightly. “Is Shiro really going to be okay?”

Kuro takes a deep, shaky breath in and out. “I hope so,” he says. “I really do.”

Chapter Text

Keith hoped that his conversation with Kuro would change something between the two of them, but it doesn’t, not really. Kuro still doesn’t seem comfortable getting any closer, and when Keith goes home with him again a few days later, Kuro more or less throws him into Shiro’s room before saying he’s going to get dinner and running away.

Keith frowns at the door as it clicks shut.

Shiro sighs from the bed. “Give him time. He's always been stubborn.”

“Like you?” Keith says, turning to him.

Shiro's legs are under his covers this time, and he’s leaning against the headboard of the bed with his prosthetic attached so that he can comfortably type on his laptop and drink tea at the same time. He smiles at Keith’s question. “We're similar in all the worst ways, I think.”

He sets his laptop aside and scoots himself closer to the edge of the bed by his nightstand, leaving a wide empty space for Keith to join him.

Keith climbs onto the bed, but he doesn’t join Shiro under the covers. Instead, he sits on top of the blankets near the head of the bed, turned so that he can face Shiro.

“Similar in all the worst ways, huh?” Keith says. “So do both of you like ketchup on ice cream?”

Shiro makes a face. “No one likes ketchup on ice cream, Keith.”

Keith frowns. “Didn't you say you did?” It’s such a memorable thing that he doesn’t think he can misremember it.

“Not exactly,” Shiro says. “I just didn’t disagree when Pidge said I did.”

Keith doesn’t see why Shiro would let her just say something like that, unless—“So Kuro’s the one who likes ketchup on ice cream?”

“It’s not exactly that, either,” Shiro says, scratching his head. “Kuro was mad at me. I can’t even remember why, that time. I think maybe I overworked myself for a deadline and got sick? But anyways, there was an ice cream party for the lab scientists the next day and he just. Went to the kitchen, covered the whole thing in ketchup, and ate it all with a straight face. This was before I was really sick, so he knew I'd be the one to have to deal with the fallout of it.”

Keith stares at him. “And he… did not like eating that.”

Shiro smiles wryly. “He said it was one of the top three worst things he’s ever put in his mouth.”

“That’s a really convoluted way of messing with you,” Keith says, but he also thinks it makes sense, in a way. Kuro seems to actually really care about Shiro, which means he wouldn’t intentionally do anything that would actually hurt him.

Apparently, that means Kuro’s left releasing his frustrations through extreme pettiness instead.

“I swear he can just turn off his taste buds when he feels like it,” Shiro says. “We used to dare each other to eat spoonfuls of soy sauce and he’d always eat it up like it was nothing.”

“So he’s been training with you his entire life to eat gross foods in front of your friends, is what you’re saying,” Keith says.

Shiro grins. “Well, when you say it like that, it sounds like I brought it upon myself. I guess I kind of did.” Shiro shifts a little, so he’s more fully facing Keith. ”How’s everything been at the company? Everything still holding together?”

“Company still seems to be standing,” Keith says. “Kuro’s been doing really well, I think.”

“And how’ve you been doing?” Shiro says.

Keith’s heart aches at the familiar, soft expression on Shiro’s face. It’s strange to realize he’s only really interacted with Shiro a few times. It doesn’t feel like he only barely knows him, not after… well. He blushes a little thinking about how they met, and scowls to cover it up. “I’m still mad at you.”

“That’s fair,” Shiro says, and Keith looks at him.

“You’re not even going to ask why?”

Shiro scratches his jaw. “Well, there’s the running away that very first night. Asking Kuro to keep things going with you instead of letting everything end naturally. Not telling you about how sick I am.”

“How sick are you?” Keith says.

Shiro hesitates for a moment, studying Keith’s face, and Keith works to keep his expression carefully neutral.

“Pretty sick,” Shiro finally says. A wry smile blooms on his face. “I promise, I didn’t realize how bad it was when we met, otherwise I wouldn’t have started anything with you.”

“When were you going to tell me?” Keith says, even though he thinks he can guess.

Shiro, to his credit, doesn’t try to dodge the question. “You’re not going to like my answer.”

“So, never,” Keith says.

“I mean, if everything went according to my original plan, I wouldn’t have had to.” This time Shiro’s smile is brittle, and doesn’t meet his eyes.

“Because I wouldn't have known you existed in the first place,” Keith says.

“Yeah.”

It sends shivers down Keith’s spine, to think that one day Shiro would have vanished and Kuro would've taken his place for good. A loss felt by a few and completely hidden from everyone else, including Keith. It scares him to think that he might never have noticed. It scares him to think of what Kuro would have had to go through.

And Shiro doesn’t seem to care about that at all.

“That’s messed up,” Keith says bluntly.

“It probably seems that way to you,” Shiro says, and he sounds nowhere close to agreeing with Keith.

“It’s not that it seems like it,” Keith says, and he lets the heat into his voice. “It’s that it is. You just want to die and have everyone pretend you never existed in the first place?”

Shiro shrugs. “That’s basically Kuro’s life right now, isn’t it?”

“Kuro isn’t dying.”

“But he’s not really alive, either,” Shiro says. “It’ll be a lot better for him once I’m not around.”

It hurts, to hear Shiro talk about it so carelessly. Time spent believing in the inevitability of his passing may have drained away Shiro’s ability to feel anything about it, but it isn’t something that Keith’s had time to prepare himself for. He doesn’t think he’ll never have enough time.

He doesn’t think Kuro will, either.

“If Kuro heard you say that—” Keith says.

“Yeah, I know.” Shiro shakes his head. “I don’t know why he always argues with me so much about it.”

“Because he doesn’t want you to die,” Keith snaps. He can’t believe Shiro can be this dense. “I don’t want you to, either. So stop acting like you do.”

Shiro blinks at him, like he hadn’t expected that. “It’s not that I want to, but you can’t deny that it’d make a lot of things easier for him if he could just take over permanently.”

“He’d be losing a brother in the process,” Keith says softly. “That’s never going to be worth it for him.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do,” Keith says. “He told me that he loved you. And I can see it, whenever you guys talk. I’m kind of jealous, actually.”

Shiro grins and elbows him lightly. “Of who, me?”

Of their relationship, versus his own with Lotor, but it’s not something Keith wants to get into right now, so he rolls his eyes and says, “Yeah, sure, let’s go with that.”

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Shiro says. “Kuro likes you more than he likes me.”

“He does not,” Keith says.

“He has a huge crush on you,” Shiro says.

“What about you?” Keith says.

Shiro blinks. “What about me?”

“Do you have a huge crush on me, too?”

“I don’t think that’s a secret,” Shiro says, “considering where my dick’s been.”

Keith rolls his eyes and resists the urge to smack him with a pillow. “Well, with the way you both keep throwing me at each other, I’m starting to get the feeling that neither of you actually want me.”

“Hey, I want you plenty,” Shiro says, snaking his arm around Keith’s waist and tugging until Keith tumbles against his side. His fingers stroke along Keith’s hip. “I just thought it’d be easier if we didn’t get any closer than we already are.”

Keith elbows him, and Shiro yelps—Keith wasn’t very gentle about it. “Stop acting like you’re gonna die any second now.”

“I mean—“

“Shiro,” Keith says. “Kuro and I will never give up on you. But more importantly, you can’t give up on yourself.”

Shiro’s gaze softens. “Thanks, Keith. I appreciate it.”

Keith can’t help but notice that Shiro’s smile still doesn’t reach his eyes.

----

Not only does Kuro make himself scarce in his and Shiro’s home, but he also takes to dodging Keith at the office. There are many things Keith could feel about the situation, but mainly he feels really fucking frustrated that Kuro refuses to talk about anything.

Keith allows Kuro a week of awkwardly dodging him before he finally corners him in the lab.

“What did I say about avoiding me?” he says.

Kuro’s head jerks up from his laptop, and he blinks with wide eyes at Keith before turning to check on Pidge and Hunk, who have their heads bent together over a machine on the far side of the room.

“I’m not avoiding you,” Kuro says quietly when he turns back. “I’m giving you space.”

“Did I say I wanted space?” Keith says.

“No, but—“

“Then stop trying to decide what you think is best for me and just listen to what I’m saying for once.” If Keith thought Shiro was frustrating before, it’s nothing compared to dealing with the both of them now. “Do you care about me?”

“What?”

“Do you care about me?” Keith repeats.

Kuro’s eyes dart over to Hunk and Pidge again, and his voice noticeably drops in volume when he says, “Do we have to talk about this now?”

“I don’t know,” Keith says. “If we don’t talk about it now, will we ever talk about it?”

Kuro looks frustrated, and he opens his mouth to say something, but then Hunk interrupts.

“Hey guys, I think the model’s finally looking good, so we were thinking of going over to hook it up to the analysis pipeline and try out a few runs with the Soul Eater,” he says. “You guys wanna come?”

“Keith was helping me take a look at this,” Kuro says, turning to him. “Maybe we’ll join you later? Ping me if you need help.”

“You got it, Boss Man!” Pidge says.

Keith waits until the lab door falls shut behind them before he speaks again. “So?”

“So what?”

“Do you care about me?” Keith says again.

“You know I do,” Kuro says, and his tone is somehow equal parts soft and frustrated. “I’ve already told you.”

“Then let me care about you too,” Keith says, taking care to keep his own voice soft. “You’re going through a lot right now. You don’t have to go through it alone, not if you don’t want to.”

Kuro watches him for a long moment, and Keith slowly reaches over to take his hand, intertwining their fingers and squeezing lightly. Kuro looks down, curling and uncurling his fingers where they rest between Keith’s, and with every slow movement, his shoulders drop a bit more.

After a long silence, Kuro says, “Shiro isn’t getting better.”

Keith squeezes his hand again.

“I really thought he would,” Kuro says. He’s still looking down at their fingers. “He always does. But this time, it’s just worse and worse and worse. The doctors don’t have anything left they can try. I don’t know what to do. And Dad hasn’t been around much. I think… after Mom, I don’t think he can stand watching it happen to Shiro, too. I don’t blame him. But, it’s just… I don’t know. I’m scared, I guess.”

Keith rubs their fingers together. “What are you scared of?”

“That I won’t know how to live without him,” Kuro says. His voice is shaking, a little, as he speaks. “That I won’t want to. It definitely sucked, having to live like this. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. But at least I knew I wouldn’t ever be alone.”

“You won’t be alone,” Keith promises. “Even if something happens to Shiro, you still have your dad, and all your friends—yes, they’re your friends, too. You have me. I’m not going anywhere.”

“You’re leaving soon,” Kuro reminds him.

Keith hesitates. “I don’t have to,” he says. “Not permanently, anyways. Second prince, remember? They won’t miss me that much if I decided I wanted to come back.”

“I couldn’t take you away from your family like that,” Kuro says.

“What did I say about listening to me?” Keith says. “I’m offering. I’m not going to leave you, Kuro, not unless you want me to. Everything else, we can figure out.”

Kuro pulls his hand away from Keith’s, but only so he can curl it around the curve of Keith’s elbow instead. Everything about Kuro is so gentle in this moment, and Keith doesn’t think he’s misinterpreting when Kuro starts to lean in.

Keith’s phone chooses that moment to erupt in sound, and Keith sighs when Kuro instantly draws back. Keith leans over to look at the screen—and if it’s from Lotor, he’s going to refuse to reply to any more messages from him for the rest of this trip—but it’s not. “It’s Pidge.”

“What’d she say?”

“It took a lot less time than they thought to plug in the new compatibility metrics to the analysis pipeline for testing,” Keith says slowly as he reads through the message. “She wants to know if we want to go give samples to see if we come up with any matches.”

“Want to know a secret?” Kuro says.

Keith hums in question.

“I’ve never given a sample.”

That… makes sense, Keith thinks. “Because you were worried you and Shiro would get found out?”

“Basically,” Kuro says. “We just knew there were a lot of ways it could go wrong. We didn’t want to mess up any of the analysis if our samples were too similar, or to raise any flags about anomalies if our samples were too different. So whenever we need to give a sample, we make sure Shiro’s here.”

“That makes sense.” Keith studies Pidge’s message again. “Do you wanna try giving one now?”

Kuro frowns at him. “Didn’t you hear—”

“I know,” Keith says. “But since this is still a test run, Pidge says she isn’t keeping any of the data. She’ll just print the results for us, and we can decide what to tell her. Actually,” Keith says, remembering his own reticence at giving a quintessence sample, “I think a lot of these considerations might be for me. But you might as well take advantage of it. Who knows, maybe you’ll be able to help one of your volunteers.”

“I guess it’d be interesting to try once,” Kuro says. “Do you think I can trust Pidge not to look? It’d be a problem if Shiro comes back and does it again and she notices that the results are different.”

Keith smiles gently. “You’ve known her longer than I have. You’ve known all of your scientists longer then I have. What do you think?”

“I think,” Kuro says, “that I don’t deserve you.”

Keith reaches out and squeezes their hands together again. “That,” he says, “is probably the biggest lie you’ve ever told.”

----

The analysis will take time, so after they’re all done giving their samples, the team decides to take an early lunch instead of spending the time staring at the monitors, hoping that their combined powers of concentration will make it go faster. (According to Pidge, they’ve done that before. Multiple times.)

Kuro has to meet with some managers, so, as usual, Keith goes out with Matt, Pidge, and Hunk and whoever else they collect on their way from the lab to the lobby, which always turns out to be a surprisingly large group of people today.

Everyone seems to be in a rambunctious mood today, but after his conversation with Kuro, Keith definitely isn’t, so he huddles up next to Ryan, who he’s learned he can trust to keep calm even when literally everyone else is bouncing off the walls. Ryan studies him for a moment, then nods and pushes over his fries to share.

After lunch, Keith goes back to the analysis lab and gets back to work on the writeup of the meditation techniques that they’ve all been asking him to do. It’s taking longer than he expected to explain it in a way that makes any sense, and he tries to focus on it between Hunk and Pidge running in and out of the lab as they try to fix the issues coming up with their new analysis pipeline.

At some point, the lab door opens again, and Kuro’s finally back from his meeting.

“Hey, Kuro,” Keith says as Kuro drops a cup of something on the table and then drops a kiss on top of his head. Keith blinks at that. This isn’t Kuro. “Shiro!”

Shiro smiles at him, in that small, soft way of his that somehow manages to light up his entire face. “Hey, Keith.”

“Hey,” Keith says, grinning back. “Who let you out here?”

“Kuro came by after lunch to check on me, and when he noticed I was feeling better today he decided to kick me out of the house,” Shiro says. “Just for the afternoon, and he’s going to send a car to pick me up right after so I don’t stay out too late.” He really looks like he wants to roll his eyes at that last part.

“I mean,” Keith says. “It’s not like you don’t have a track record of it.”

“Really?” Shiro says. “You’re gonna gang up on me?”

Keith shrugs.

Shiro shakes his head. “It’s a good thing you’re cute.”

“Cute,” Keith says.

“Very cute,” Shiro affirms.

“You know you’re the only one who’s ever called me that in my entire life?” Keith says. “Not even my mom says that.”

“Huh,” Shiro says. “Did Kuro never tell you you were cute?”

“Does he think anything is cute?”

Shiro tilts his head in thought. “Hm… he thinks dinosaurs are cute.”

“Dinosaurs aren’t cute, they’re cool,” Keith says. “Is he the one who likes dinosaurs, then?”

“He thinks they’re the best things ever,” Shiro says. “I was always more into aliens than dinosaurs, but I pretended to like them when we were kids so that we’d get some dinosaur toys as birthday gifts. I think he still has a lot of them.”

“You’re a really good brother,” Keith says.

“I’m really not,” Shiro says, smiling wryly. “But thank you.”

Keith wants to argue. He can’t imagine what it was like for Shiro to grow up knowing that his brother would never have the chance to experience life the same way he did. But it sounds like Shiro always lived in full awareness of that fact, finding the spaces where he could give Kuro a chance to be seen—like with the nickname, chosen so that it could mean something to both of them.

“Kuro’s lucky to have you,” Keith says.

“You,” Shiro says, “are probably the only person who thinks that.” Before Keith can argue, Shiro nods his head towards Keith’s laptop, sitting open on the table in front of them. “What are you working on?”

Keith has half a mind not to put up with the obvious subject change, but judging from the stubborn set of Shiro’s jaw, Keith’s not sure this is a fight he can win. Given where they are, he decides to let Shiro have it for now.

“I’ve been working on writing up something to teach people how to do the quintessence attuning,” Keith says. “It’s been hard, because I can’t exactly explain it the same way we do in Daibazaal, where everyone knows what quintessence feels like. I feel like I’m writing a lot of things that don’t make sense.”

“Let me know if you want some human help,” Shiro says. “Maybe you just aren’t sure what would click with us?”

“Yeah, I’ll send you what I have… as soon as I have something,” Keith says. “It’s a little stressful, I guess. Princess Allura and Matt got the Mind Melder working and Pidge and Hunk just finished the compatibility analysis, so this is the last step that they need.”

“Things are really picking up, huh?” Shiro says with a small, wondrous smile. “We’ve been working on this for such a long time. I never thought I’d see it get finished.”

Keith smiles back. “It’s not perfect. Pidge and Hunk are still testing the compatibility model, and we have to figure out if this whole thing is even going to work with humans. But we’re close. We’re really close.”

“All thanks to you,” Shiro says, nudging him.

“Not even.” Keith rolls his eyes. “Everyone here is really amazing. I think there’s a lot they could teach us about the scientific analysis of quintessence, if they were ever willing to come to Daibazaal. And they said you did a lot of the early work on it?”

“I did,” Shiro says. “Kuro, too. He’s just as invested in this problem as I am. I think I actually used to scare people with how much I got done, because Kuro’d be working on stuff from home all day while I was working here.”

“Did anyone ever get suspicious?” Keith says. It can’t be normal for someone to have double the work output of an average human.

“If anything, it just made it easier for people to believe that I was getting sick all the time by being a workaholic,” Shiro says. “I actually believed that for a while, too. But then it got obvious it was something else.”

“When—“

“We have results!” Pidge announces as she bursts through the door. “And we also may have possibly bricked a server so I need to go help Matt with that, but just wanted to give these to you guys ASAP.” She hands a manila folder to Shiro, who does a good job of not looking confused, and one to Keith. “I’ll be back later if you wanna go over results. Keith, we actually have a couple scientists who matched, so if you could help us take a look and confirm that would be awesome. But after I help Matt fix the server. See you!”

She leaves as quickly as she came, and silence lingers in her wake.

“You and Kuro gave samples?” Shiro says, tone unreadable.

“Just to help test the new analysis,” Keith says. Shiro doesn’t seem upset, but he doesn’t seem happy either. “They weren’t put into the system, don’t worry.

“Oh,” Shiro says, but he doesn’t seem to relax. “That’s nice. I don’t think Kuro’s ever given one before.”

“Yeah, he told me about that,” Keith says. “We thought this would be a good chance, since the data won’t make it into the system at all. The only copy of it is that folder.”

“No, that’s a good idea,” Shiro says. “I’ll make sure he gets it.” He opens his bag and tucks the folder away without even a peek at the contents.

Keith briefly flips through his own packet of information, looking for the page with the compatibility analysis. As expected, he doesn’t match with anyone, meaning all of his compatibility scores, according to Hunk’s model, were under 50%. It’s not a surprise, but it’s still a bit disappointing.

“You okay?” Shiro says.

“Yeah.” Keith closes the folder. “No matches. Makes sense, I think, since I’m Galra, but I wish I could’ve helped someone.”

“Hey,” Shiro says, pressing closer to him. “You’re helping so many people, Keith. Every single person who makes it through this is going to be able to do it because of you. Just because you won’t be hands-on treating someone doesn’t make all the work that you’re doing meaningless. You should be proud.”

“Thanks, Shiro,” Keith says. “You, too. You’ve done so much work to make this all happen.”

“I still can’t believe it’s actually happening,” Shiro says on a little laugh of disbelief.

Shiro, Keith realizes, probably didn’t think he’d see the treatment come together in his lifetime. Keith’s known that it must be hard on all of them to work on this while knowing that every day more patients could die while waiting for the treatment to be brought to life. It must be just as hard to work on this while knowing that you might not live to see if it would ever succeed.

“We’re going to save someone,” Keith promises. “You’re going to see it happen.”

Shiro smiles softly. “I can’t wait to see it.”

----

“Hey,” Kuro says the next morning—or, at least, Keith thinks it's Kuro from the way he flops himself into the chair next to Keith. It seems like a Kuro kind of flop. But if that wasn’t enough of an indicator, there's also the way that he's maintaining a polite distance between them.

“Hey, Kuro,” Keith says, and he doesn't think he's imagining the way that Kuro looks pleased that he's gotten it right. “How was your afternoon off?”

“You know,” Kuro says. “Just sat in the hot tub all day. Benefits of the twin life.”

“Right,” Keith says. There’s something restless about Kuro’s nature, and it makes it impossible for Keith to picture him sitting still in a hot tub alone for more than a few minutes. “And now you’ve come to sit in the lab all day?”

“Unfortunately not,” Kuro says. “I have to give a status update to our directors in—“ he checks his phone, “—ten minutes.”

Between waiting for the elevators and walking, Keith thinks it’ll take at least five minutes to get to wherever the meeting room is. “What are you doing down here then?”

“I can’t come say hi?” Kuro says, and his tone is light, but there’s something about it that makes Keith lean closer.

“You can say hi whenever you want,” he says softly.

Kuro smiles back at him. “How were things here yesterday?” he says. “Shiro didn’t have all the details. But it looks like the compatibility model didn't work out?”

Keith frowns. “Did you end up getting a weird match? I didn't match with anyone, but some of the other scientists did. I haven't gotten a chance to validate any of them yet.”

“Oh.” Kuro blinks at him. “Nevermind, when I didn't see a section for it I thought that meant they couldn't get it to work. But I guess if I don’t see anything then that just means I didn’t match with anyone?”

“There should still be a page with all the data.” Keith reaches down and pulls his own results from the bag. He flips through the pages until he finds the one with the compatibility results and hands it to Kuro. There isn’t anything on it that he feels like he needs to hide.

Kuro frowns at it. “I didn’t see anything like this in mine.”

“Huh.” Keith’s mind is working overtime trying to understand what that could mean. The conclusions are not anything he wants to think about for long, and definitely not anything he wants to say to Kuro without confirming his suspicions.

“Pidge must have forgotten to include that page,” Keith says with forced casualness. He’s pretty that isn’t possible. “She’s in the Crypt, but when she gets back I’ll ask her if she still has the data. You’ll probably just have to give another sample after your meeting, though.”

Kuro frowns as he sets Keith’s paper on the table. “Doesn’t sound like her to miss something like that.”

“There was a lot going on yesterday,” Keith says. “I think they broke a server, or something?”

Kuro raises his eyebrows. “Broke how?”

“Someone threw a brick at it?”

Kuro stares at him for a moment, then he grins. “Yep, that would definitely break a server.” He checks the time on his phone again, then stretches in his seat. “All right, I’ll be back to check with Pidge after. Hopefully it’ll be short and sweet. Wish me luck.”

Keith leans over and pecks his cheek. “Good luck.”

When Kuro’s face flushes, it goes all the way to his roots. It’s mildly fascinating to watch.

Kuro coughs. “I’ll see you later,” he says, and beats a hasty retreat out of the lab.

Keith’s amused for just a moment, before he remembers the conversation that came before. He knows Pidge wouldn’t have somehow lost a page of the report in the time between printing it out and giving it to them. Which means that it went missing some time during the handoff between Shiro and Kuro.

The obvious conclusion is that Shiro took it. What’s less obvious is why.

That’s not right, either. It’s not that the why is less obvious—there’s actually a simple explanation. An explanation that Keith doesn’t want to think about, or believe, because it would mean that Shiro lied again.

And this was a lie that Shiro wouldn’t be able to come back from.

Pidge returns from the Crypt bearing a small container of vials, and she’s barely set it on the table when Keith says, “I need a favor.”

Pidge looks at him and frowns at whatever she sees on his face. “I’m not going to like this, am I.”

“Do you still have the data from Shiro’s sample from yesterday?”

“I deleted it all right away, like I said I would,” Pidge says.

“But could you get it back?” He’s seen the things that Pidge does on her computer, and he may not understand most of it, but he thinks he understands enough to know that just deleting a file isn’t enough to keep it away from her if she’s determined.

“It was just yesterday, so it wouldn’t take long to dig up,” Pidge says slowly. “But also, I already gave it all to Shiro. Why do you need it?”

“It’s a long story,” Keith says. “Can you get it back or not?”

“This is, like, the HIPAA violation to end all HIPAA violations,” Pidge says.

Keith stares at her. “I have no idea what that is.”

Pidge crosses her arms, “It means we are both in deep shit if anyone finds out about this.”

“I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t important,” Keith says. “Please.”

She studies him for a long moment, and Keith’s certain that she’s going to turn him down. But then she hauls her laptop out of her bag and says, “I’m only doing this because I’ve been watching you and Shiro make disgusting eyes at each other this entire time and I’m trusting that you wouldn’t hurt him.”

“Thank you,” Keith says, relieved beyond belief. “I know it doesn’t make any sense, but I’m doing this for him.”

“I’m trusting you,” Pidge says again. And then she gets to work.

Keith watches over her shoulder as she pulls up a black and green computer terminal window and types rapid-fire into it. He has no idea what’s going on, except at one point, an animation of a train slowly runs across the screen, and Pidge grumbles, “Damn it, Hunk,” while viciously stabbing at her keyboard. He has no idea why the train is there, but at least he knows what a train is. The rest of it is a mystery.

After two more trains and many more mysterious commands later, Pidge opens up a folder filled with files with cryptic names. “You did yours right before him, right?” she says. “Let me see the first page real quick.”

Keith hands it over, and Pidge’s eyes seem to barely glance over it before she turns back to her computer.

“Should be this one, then,” she says. “Do you need me to print it out again?”

“Just the compatibility analysis results,” Keith says.

Pidge’s fingers visibly stutter over the keyboard. “I hope you know that you’re really freaking me out here,” she says conversationally, but she taps another few keys, and the clunky lab printer whirs to life.

Keith grabs it as soon as it’s free of the printer, eyes scanning the paper for one specific section, hoping against hope that he’s not going to see what he expects to see.

But it’s there.

It’s there, and it’s so much worse than he thought.

Match Candidates (High Compatibility Score)
Volunteer ID: 605 — 99.98%

Chapter Text

These are the facts, as Keith understands them:

1. Shiro is dying from quintessence poisoning. He’s been giving his samples to his own research this entire time, which means he must have known this entire time.

2. Kuro has no idea. In fact, Kuro seems to believe that whatever Shiro has, it definitely isn’t quintessence poisoning. Whether it’s because Shiro outright lied to Kuro about it, or he just lied by omission as he did to Keith, Keith isn’t sure. Either way, the fact that Shiro actively hid the results from him shows that he doesn’t want Kuro to find out.

3. Shiro has a chance of making it—a very high chance of making it. Even though they’re far from doing all the trials to certify their diagnosis and treatment for use with the general public, they’re close to actually having something that will work. And even if Kuro hadn’t given a sample, Shiro must know that it’s highly likely that Kuro’s a match, given that their twins.

4. Which means that Shiro doesn’t have to die, if he asks Kuro to help him.

5. But Shiro hasn’t asked Kuro to help him. In fact, he’s actively preventing Kuro from finding out that he can help him.

6. Which means that, despite what Shiro said, there’s some part of him that wants to die.

That’s what lingers in Keith’s mind as he shoves the paper into his bag and scrambles out of the lab, leaving behind a very confused and worried Pidge. He’d assured her everything was fine before he left, but given how he could barely hear himself over the pounding of his own heart, he’s not sure how much she believed him.

To be honest, he’s not sure how much he believes himself.

He doesn’t know what he can even say or do, but he knows that he needs to talk to Shiro, and he needs to do it now.

He’s learned through observation what messages to send to call the car and direct it to take him to the Shiroganes’ house, and in less than half an hour he’s pulling up to the front. The security guards posted by the front door are already used to his coming in and out, and they let him through with barely a glance.

He barrels up the stairs and down the hallway to Shiro’s room, and he barely knocks before pushing the door open.

Shiro’s sitting at his desk with his laptop, sunlight and fresh air streaming through the open balcony door. His eyes are tired when he blinks over at Keith, who’s more or less barging into the room, but they come to life with surprise when he meets Keith’s eyes. “Keith. What are you doing here?”

Keith opens his bag and holds out the incriminating sheet of paper.

Shiro only briefly glances at it before he sighs and pushes his laptop shut. Keith is sure that even with that brief glance, Shiro knows exactly what Keith has in his hand.

Shiro turns away, coughing lightly, and picks up the Shirogane Corp mug sitting on a coaster by his laptop. Keith watches as he takes a long, slow drink.

“Well,” Shiro says as he lowers the mug back down. There’s a harsh clack as it hits the coaster. “That didn’t take you long.”

Keith has to remind himself that shaking Shiro until all his secrets spill out isn’t a technique that’s likely to work out in his favor. But he really, really wants to.

Instead, he starts from the beginning.

“You’re dying,” Keith says. “From quintessence poisoning.”

“I am,” Shiro says. His voice doesn’t carry any worry, or sadness, or even resignation. He just says it like it’s a fact. A chilling fact.

And of course it is. Shiro’s known all along that he’s been Volunteer 605, the clearest case of quintessence poisoning that anyone in his company has seen. The one that everyone’s been using in all their presentations and explanations. The one that everyone’s been preparing to one day never see another sample from ever again. For years he’s spoken about the progression of his own disease, the imminence of his own death, with a terrifying clinical detachment.

He won’t break in front of Keith.

“How did no one know?” Keith says.

“I was already over eighteen when my symptoms started getting bad.” Shiro stands from his chair and walks around Keith, and Keith traces his path with his eyes. “And we weren’t confident in the accuracy of our diagnoses until much later. So no one could see my test results, not if I didn’t want them to.”

“So you lied to everyone,” Keith says.

Shiro pushes at the door, and it shuts with a soft click.

“I lied,” Shiro says, lingering with his hands on the door. Then he coughs again, hiding it in his shirt, and he goes back to his desk to take another drink before he keeps speaking. “We weren’t even close to a cure then, and to lose both me and my mom to something Haggar did… I don’t think my family would’ve handled it well. I didn’t want them doing something they’d regret. Better not to even give them the motivation.”

That may have made sense once upon a time, but it doesn’t hold up now.

“What about now?” Keith says. “You know how close we are to having something that’s actually working. We could be ready to try something as early as next week.”

“I know,” Shiro says.

Keith waits, but Shiro doesn’t say anything else.

Instead, Shiro turns away and walks to the balcony door. He doesn’t go outside; just stands by the waving curtains and looks out over the yard. Keith slowly makes his way over. His steps feel loud and clunky in the humid silence. He steps up to Shiro’s side, and, after a brief pause, reaches out and hooks his arm around Shiro’s, pressing their sides together.

Shiro doesn’t say anything, but Keith thinks he sees Shiro’s shoulders relax a bit.

After a moment, Keith says, quietly, “You’re planning to die.”

The silence stretches, interrupted only by Shiro’s occasional coughs. Keith presses himself closer. It feels like the only thing he can do. He knows that pressuring Shiro to talk isn’t going to get him the answers he wants. Shiro is stubborn, and he’s been keeping his secrets his entire life—if he doesn’t want to say anything, then there’s no way Keith will be able to make him.

He wonders if Shiro would be more or less likely to talk to Kuro.

“You know I’m only five minutes older than Ryou?” Shiro says.

Keith does remember him saying that the other day, though off-handedly. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Shiro’s not looking at Keith, his eyes locked firmly onto the face of one of the botanical dinosaurs peeking over the balcony. “Just five minutes. And because of that, I have a life, and he doesn’t. Doesn’t really seem fair to me.”

Keith rubs his fingers together. He knows the ideas that he thinks he wants to get across, but he doesn’t know the right thing to say.

He doesn’t know if there’s even a right thing to say.

“He wouldn’t want you to die,” he says quietly, “just so he could live.”

Shiro glances down at Keith. “Why not? He’s been dead almost thirty years. I think it’s about time for me to take my turn.”

Keith frowns at Shiro’s blase phrasing. “That’s not the same and you know it. And it doesn’t have to be a case of one or the other. Weren’t you saying there were ways to make it work with both of you?”

“He doesn’t even have a birth certificate,” Shiro says, so viciously that he sends himself into a minor coughing fit, and he pulls away from Keith. After it clears, he says, softer, “There’s nothing to show that he ever existed. You can’t bring back someone that was never there in the first place. Even if we figured out a way to deactivate the seal, Ryou wouldn’t have any history as a person. It’d be like he was born as an adult. What kind of life could someone like that even have?”

“It would be complicated,” Keith says, because there’s no way around that. Logistically and socially, it won’t be easy to introduce the fact that there’s a second Shirogane son, hidden from the world for decades. “But it won’t be impossible. And you won’t be alone in trying to make things work. You know that, Shiro.”

Shiro hangs his head, the fluff of his bangs falling into his face. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “I do know.”

“What are you worried about?” Keith says, turning to face him. Keith reaches out to take Shiro’s hand and uses it to tug himself closer. “Is it the company?”

He’s sure it’d be a shock to them all, to find out that their newest CEO has been two people all along, but he doesn’t actually know how the corporations here work—would Shiro be at risk of losing everything?

“It’s not that,” Shiro says. “I mean, I’m sure that that’s a whole extra level of complication, but it isn’t anything that I—we—wouldn’t be able to deal with.”

“So then what?” Keith says.

Shiro coughs again, and clears his throat. It seems like a bid for time, because even after his throat’s clear, he stays silent for a moment. Then he sighs. “I never thought I’d actually have to talk about this.”

“Talk about what?”

“Anything, I guess.” Shiro looks down at their intertwined fingers and flexes them, the same way Keith’s seen Kuro do. “It’s been such a long time. I think—There were so many times I could’ve pushed, earlier, to try to help him. But I didn’t, because I was scared of what might happen. And after grandfather died, we started talking about what to do, how to figure out who the hell he got to put the curse marks on us. Usually, he’d pass the knowledge down, but none of us wanted to continue the tradition, so he never told us. It had to be Altean or Galra in nature, but we had no way of finding out.”

“Was that part of the reason you reached out to us?” Keith says.

“Kuro came up with the idea to invite someone from Daibazaal over a year ago,” Shiro says. “Maybe that was part of what he was thinking. I don’t know. I never planned to ask you anything about it.”

“And what was your plan?” Keith says. He thinks it’s clear at this point, but he wants to hear Shiro say it.

“I don’t know if it really counts as a plan,” Shiro says. “I thought it was clear that it was only a matter of time, and there wasn’t anything that we could do about it anyway, so why not just let it happen? Why make everyone worry for nothing?”

It’s not worrying for nothing. It will never be worrying for nothing. Keith hates seeing Shiro like this, talking about everything like he’s made completely logical decisions when, in Keith’s opinion, he’s made incredibly selfish and stupid decisions.

Keith hates that Shiro barely seems to acknowledge the fact that it’s his own life he’s discussing here. He’s giving it the same regard as he’d give to any object that it’s in the way—like he’s an inconvenience. Like no one will miss him when he’s gone.

Most of all, though, Keith hates that even when a solution is presenting itself, Shiro doesn’t seem like he’s willing to take it. Shiro doesn’t seem like he wants to take it, not even a little bit.

“Why do you hate yourself so much?”

Shiro startles. “I—” He cuts himself off, seeming to reconsider what he was going to say. This time, at least, Shiro seems like he’s actually honestly considering his answer.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” Shiro says. “And I’ve paid for them, but more importantly, so has Ryou. He shouldn’t have had to. He shouldn’t have had to deal with any of it.”

Keith’s hand tightens reflexively in Shiro’s. He understands Shiro’s feelings of guilt, but he doesn’t like the conclusions that Shiro’s drawing from it. He forces his fingers to relax their grip and fights to keep his voice even. “And you think dying is the right way to make up for that?”

Shiro shrugs.

“That isn’t the only way to make amends,” Keith says.

“Sometimes,” Shiro says, “it really feels like it is.”

“Shiro, there’s a guaranteed successful treatment sitting right in front of you,” Keith says. “Letting yourself die just because you feel guilty isn’t going to make anything better and you know it.”

Kuro’s voice rings out from behind them. “Is that true?”

Keith jumps and turns over his shoulder to see Kuro standing in the doorway, arms crossed and holding himself stiffly by the door. Keith’s heart pounds, and his gaze darts to Shiro to check his reaction. He’s seen Kuro annoyed at Shiro, and frustrated—but this time he actually seems angry, and Keith doesn’t know what to expect.

But Shiro doesn’t seem concerned. He seems guarded, and maybe a bit uncertain.

Keith’s uncertain too. He doesn’t know what Kuro knows. Keith had been in such a rush to leave that he can barely remember what happened in the time between seeing that sheet of paper and arriving in Shiro’s room. He thinks that before he left, he told Pidge not to tell “Shiro” anything, but he doesn’t know if she would have listened to him over Kuro.

In any case, Kuro’s here, so, at the very least, Pidge had told him that Keith had left. Either Kuro had just checked Keith’s rental to find out where he went, or Pidge had shown him the compatibility results and he’d come here for the same reason that Keith had.

Either way, it makes Keith nervous. This conversation, he thinks, has likely been a long time coming, but it’s not one that’s going to be pleasant to have. And he’s not sure that he should even be in the room for it.

But Kuro’s here now, standing directly in the doorway, and there’s no way Keith can leave without drawing attention to himself, which means he’s stuck.

“Shiro,” Kuro says, stepping closer. “Was Keith telling the truth? Do you have a treatment plan that you know will work?”

Shiro’s lips press together as he drops Keith’s hand and steps back, and Keith can see the internal debate raging behind his eyes. He looks at Keith, and Keith gazes back steadily. This is between Shiro and Kuro, he knows, and he’s not going to interrupt, but if it comes down to it, he’s also not going to sit quietly and let Shiro take his secrets to the grave.

“I don’t want to do it,” Shiro says. “So drop it, Kuro.”

Shiro’s still staring at Keith, and Keith stares stubbornly back.

“Shiro,” Kuro says again as he steps closer. “If there’s even a small chance that you think it could help you—”

Shiro snaps his head towards Kuro. “I said to drop it.”

Kuro’s jaw works through his frustration, and his arms drop from their position crossed across his chest, but his fists stay clenched where they hang at his sides. “What are you so worried about? Is it painful? Are you gonna go bald? How am I supposed to help you if you never tell me anything?”

Shiro sighs and looks out over the yard again. “Why do you care?”

There’s a chilling silence, then Kuro stalks over, gets right into Shiro’s face, and shoves him back, hard.

It’s hard enough to send Shiro stumbling back, the abrupt motion sending him into a coughing fit, and he hunches over and catches himself on the edge of the bed.

Keith springs in between them, and he pushes his hands against Kuro’s biceps. “Kuro, don’t.”

“Keith.” Kuro isn’t looking at him, but at Shiro. “Move.”

“This isn’t going to make you feel better,” Keith says.

“Probably not,” Kuro says, “but maybe this way Takashi will finally feel something.”

“It’s okay, Keith,” Shiro said. His cough attack has subsided, but his voice sounds wracked. “I’m okay.”

Keith steps to the side, clearing the way for Kuro to approach Shiro by the bed.

Kuro’s face softens with worry as he takes in Shiro’s state, and he doesn’t move to touch Shiro again, but his tone stays just as hard when he says, “What the hell is wrong with you? Is dying messing with your head or something?”

Shiro straightens a bit, but he doesn’t turn towards Kuro. He stays with his head bent, looking at his fingers where they press into the covers. “It’s okay if you hate me.”

“Where is this coming from?” Kuro sounds frustrated. “Why would I hate you?”

“Because I’m me,” Shiro says. “Because we’re both me.”

“That’s not your fault,” Kuro says. “That’s never been your fault. Is that all you’ve been worried about?”

But Shiro shakes his head. “It is my fault. I’ve been letting it happen. All these years, I’ve been letting it happen. That’s on me.”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Kuro says, “I’m a grown man, and I’m not stupid. I know where to start looking for people to help figure out how to handle the curse mark. I know where to start looking for people who could get me a new identity through the black market. It’s not that hard for someone to disappear nowadays. If I wanted to leave, I would’ve been gone the second our grandfather died.”

Shiro coughs, an arm wrapped around his midsection. “So why are you still here?”

Kuro sighs and walks to the other side of the room, fetching Shiro’s mug from his desk before going back over to the bed and handing it to him.

Shiro hesitates for a moment, but he takes it. He drops it on his nightstand after he’s finished drinking. “You haven’t answered my question,” he says, staring at the mug.

“I’m still here because I love you, you idiot,” Kuro says, “and I’m not going to let you get sick and die alone.”

“But why?” Shiro says.

Keith is really starting to feel like he shouldn’t be here for this conversation, but Shiro and Kuro are in between him and the door, and he thinks that if he moves, he’ll break the spell that’s finally letting them open their mouths and talk to each other.

So he hovers quietly and tries to make himself as small as possible.

“Why do you want me to hate you?” Kuro says.

“It’s not that I want you to,” Shiro says. “It’s that you should.”

There’s a moment of silence, then Kuro says, “How long have you been thinking like that?”

“Like what?” Shiro says.

“That I hate you,” Kuro says, sounding frustrated.

“Haven’t you always hated me, at least a little?” Shiro says. “I remember when we were kids, you were always mad at me.”

“I wasn’t always mad,” Kuro says, a stubborn set to his jaw. “And we’re not kids anymore. Maybe I didn’t understand everything then, but I realized eventually that you were doing the best you could in a shitty situation. I never hated you for it.”

“You’re being too nice,” Shiro says around a cough, and the way he says it, it sounds like an indictment.

Kuro doesn’t seem to let it affect him. “Sounds to me like you’re projecting.”

Shiro frowns at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just because you hate yourself,” Kuro says, “doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to pretend I hate you too. I have my own feelings, and you’d know exactly what they are if you’d pull your head out of your ass for one second and pay attention to me.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Shiro says bluntly. “I’ve never done anything for you to make me worth caring about.”

“You are intentionally being an ass about this,” Kuro says. “You want me to name everything? Fine. You’ve never acted like there was anything different between us. You always made sure that everyone treated me like I was my own person when we were at home—”

“That’s just common decency,” Shiro says.

“I’m not done talking yet,” Kuro says. “You asked for this, so be quiet and listen.”

Shiro snaps his jaw shut, and it works in frustration the same way that Kuro’s does.

“Even when we were little, before you got sick like this, you’d always pretend you were sick just so I could go out more often,” Kuro says. “I know you missed birthday parties for me. You even missed prom so that I could go, which was a huge mistake on your part because I tanked your relationship with Adam.”

“If he couldn’t even stand one night with you, I don’t think we would’ve lasted anyway,” Shiro mumbles.

“I’m glad you think that now, because you were pretty pissed when it happened.”

Shiro frowns at him. “Are we really about to argue about Adam right now?”

Kuro rolls his eyes. “No, we’re not. Look, Shiro, you have been looking out for me my entire life, so you shouldn’t be surprised that I want to look out for you, too.”

“I shouldn’t have had to do any of that,” Shiro says. “You should’ve been free to do whatever you wanted.”

“That’s not your fault, either,” Kuro says. “We were kids. You wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it, even if you wanted to.”

“We’re not kids anymore!”

Kuro doesn’t say anything as Shiro sends himself into another coughing fit, but he does go to the nightstand to pick up the mug and press it into Shiro’s hands again.

“No, we’re not kids anymore,” Kuro says. “But the fact that I’m still here is as much about me as it is about you. It’s not your fault, Shiro. Even if you feel like it is, it’s not your fault. You disappearing isn’t going to fix anything.”

“It would still be better,” Shiro says.

“Literally the only one who thinks that is you,” Kuro says. “Stop trying to decide what you think is best for me and actually listen to what I’m saying.”

Keith startles at the familiar words, and Kuro glances briefly at him, smiling softly before turning back to Shiro.

“Shiro,” Kuro says. “Do you care about me?”

Shiro’s brow furrows. “What?”

“Do you care about me?”

“Of course.” Shiro still sounds confused.

“You were my first friend.” Kuro’s voice is gentle, but it’s vibrating with suppressed emotion. “And you’re still my best friend. We’re tied together by more than just that mark. If you really do care about me, then for one second, can you just think about what I would feel if I were to wake up one day and find out that you’re not there anymore? Can you think about what it would be like for me to have to go through every single day for the rest of my life with everyone acting like nothing’s happened because they don’t know any better? How do you think I would feel, to know that the only person who’s ever really known me, the only person I could ever trust to talk to about anything, isn’t ever going to be there for me anymore? How do you think I would feel, to find out that it was because he decided that it would be better for me if he left me completely alone in the world?”

It’s awful to hear. Kuro’s voice shakes and shakes, but his volume doesn’t change, his voice still maintaining its gentle quietness even as it breaks with his tears, and Keith feels his own tears springing to his eyes. It’s worse, he thinks, than it would be if Kuro were to start shouting.

Shiro’s dropped back to sit on the bed, face buried in his hands. He doesn’t say anything, but his shoulders are shaking.

Kuro is shaking too. His face is red and his cheeks are wet with tears, but he doesn’t let it stop him from saying what he needs to say. “Fuck you, Shiro. Fuck you for pretending for one second that this was about me. Did you even think about what would happen to me if you died? I don’t know what you think of me if you think I’d actually be happy that you were gone—”

“I know you wouldn’t be happy!” Shiro says, looking up. His face is just as blotchy, and his voice cracks and shakes the same way Kuro’s does. “Not right away. I know that. But you’d get over it. You’d get over it, and—”

“Are you listening to me at all?” Kuro looks one sentence away from shoving Shiro again. “It’s not that easy! Do you even remember what it was like when Mom died? And you’re asking me to go through that again, but worse, just because you feel guilty about something you couldn’t control? You—”

“I could’ve made it better, or at least, I didn’t have to make things worse. I took everything from you—”

“You were already making it better in whatever way you could. I already told you that I—”

“I took your entire life from you. Your friends, your relationships—”

“None of that was your fault! How many times are you going to make me—”

“I took your arm from you, Kuro!”

Kuro flinches back, and he looks like he hadn’t expected to hear that at all. “Shiro—”

“Don’t try to tell me that one wasn’t my fault,” Shiro says. “It was me. I was the one who got upset. I was the one who snuck out. I was the one who got in the accident. I made all those stupid, stupid decisions and I—” he breaks off, coughing.

“It was an accident,” Kuro says softly, tremulously. “And we were young—”

“That can’t be my excuse for everything!” Shiro bends over, and coughs again, wetter now from all his crying. Afterward, he’s silent, his breathing deep and shaky.

Keith’s heart aches to listen to it. It’s a pain he knows they need to go through, to finally say all the things that they had never been able to tell each other. But they’re tearing open all their old wounds in the process, and Keith knows it’s going to take a long time to close again.

“Shiro,” Kuro says softly.

“I hurt you,” Shiro says. “Over and over and over. All my stupid mistakes always went back to you, even though I was always the only one who deserved it.”

“I never blamed you for it.” Kuro joins Shiro on the bed and reaches a hand over his back.

Shiro shies away, and Kuro hesitates.

“Don’t,” Shiro says. “I don’t—don’t be kind to me.”

“Why not?”

“I just—I just want you to be happy,” Shiro says, a bit desperately. “I don’t know how to do that if I don’t—”

“I love you,” Kuro says. “Whatever happened in the past, whatever will happen in the future, it’s not going to change how I feel. We’ll get through this, together, like we always have. Let me in, Shiro. Please.”

Shiro shakes his head again, but this time he lets Kuro put his arm around him and draw him into a hug. He coughs wetly through his tears, and Kuro pulls him closer. Eventually, Shiro wraps his arms around Kuro’s back and buries his face into his shoulder.

They sit together for a long time. Slowly, their breathing evens out in sync.

“I don’t deserve you,” Shiro whispers into the silence that follows.

“Too bad,” Kuro says. “You’re stuck with me anyway.”

Shiro makes a noise, like a soft huff, but he doesn’t say anything else.

“What’s the treatment, Shiro?” Kuro says quietly.

Shiro shakes his head.

“Keith,” Kuro says, looking at him over Shiro’s head. “What’s the treatment?”

Keith hesitates, looking to Shiro. Shiro doesn’t say anything, but Keith can see the way his arms tighten around Kuro, bracing himself—or bracing both of them. He isn’t sure.

Either way, it looks like Shiro’s prepared for the truth to be out.

“He’s Volunteer 605,” Keith says, knowing that that’s answer enough.

The raw anger flashes across Kuro’s face again, but it quickly settles into something mournful. “You idiot,” Kuro says, but it’s soft, and his arms tighten around Shiro’s back.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro whispers, quiet and shaky. “For everything. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Kuro murmurs back. “We’re okay. Everything’s going to be okay.”

Looking at them sitting on the bed and holding each other close for the first time since Keith’s met them, Keith thinks he can start to believe it.

Chapter Text

Keith wakes up.

There had been sunlight when he’d fallen asleep, he thinks, but now the light is the dim yellow of a lamp, and all he can hear is the steady whir of machinery. He’s face to face with the silver length of a forearm resting on turquoise sheets. Fingers are threading through his hair, and he thinks it’s the light tickling of it that’s woken him up.

He tilts his head up.

The fingers pause their ministrations, and Shiro smiles softly back at him. Keith had fallen asleep waiting for Shiro to wake up; now Shiro’s half-sitting against the headrest, and he looks like he’s been awake at least for a little while, eyes bright and alert. He looks a lot better than he had yesterday, after the last round of his quintessence attunement therapy.

It had been a stressful two weeks, primarily cooped up in this hospital room.

Keith and Kuro had told the bare minimum number of people about what was going—just enough to have the right amount of support to do the procedure. Princess Allura had helped spin up a tale of confidential testing to give them an excuse to monopolize the equipment, and they’d dragged it into the hospital room so they could use the medical equipment to monitor Shiro’s vitals at the same time. Then they’d let Matt, Hunk, and Pidge know so that the scientists could help monitor and generally observe, and they’d let Lance know so that he could help make excuses.

Everyone had definitely been surprised, Keith thinks, but everyone had also gotten over it fairly quickly.

(“Actually, you know, this makes a lot of sense if you think about it,” Hunk said.

“Right?” Lance said. “I always thought it was weird that he doesn’t always order the same thing for lunch. Like, who even does that?”)

It was a slow and draining process.

The equipment wasn’t good enough to give guidance on the meditation using the readings, so Keith did it the traditional way, with him in the middle, being immersed in both of them. And both of them had things they weren’t ready to share with Keith, with each other, with themselves. Half of it was just feeling safe enough to let go.

They couldn’t work for too long in the first few days without hitting a wall, but Keith would always be too tired to function afterward anyway, and he’d end up crashing on the couch before even thinking about it. He missed enough check-ins with Daibazaal for them to start worrying, and at the start of the second week, Lotor had shown up in person to make sure he was still alive.

Keith definitely was not expecting that.

Lotor wasn’t pleased to find Keith driving himself to exhaustion, and was even less pleased to learn that one of them was Keith’s soulmate, but he didn’t know which. When Lotor declared that he would help oversee, Keith couldn’t help but bristle, feeling like Lotor couldn’t trust him to finish this himself.

But Lotor only intervened to make them work for shorter periods of time, and to make sure they had enough breaks to rest and eat and drink. Lotor, Keith realized, was only there to watch Keith’s quintessence, because all the monitors were on Shiro and Kuro.

After the first day waking up not feeling like death warmed over, Keith could admit he was grateful.

They’d finished the attunement yesterday, and Shiro had completely knocked out from exhaustion afterward. He’s being kept a few more days for observation, but no one needs to be actively watching him anymore, so everyone else had cleared out.

Except for Keith.

“How are you feeling?” Keith says, putting his hand on top Shiro’s thigh. His voice is raspy with sleep, and feels too loud in the silence of the room.

“Tired,” Shiro says, fingers curling in Keith’s hair. “But better, I think.”

Keith leans over Shiro’s body, reaching so he can rest his fingers on top of Shiro’s other hand. “Can I?”

Shiro nods, and Keith slides his fingers up to circle Shiro’s wrist. He can’t help but sigh—after the turmoil he’d felt from them both the past two weeks, it’s so soothing to feel Shiro and Kuro’s quintessence when they’re calm.

“Good noise?” Shiro says.

“Good noise,” Keith says, letting go before he does something else he shouldn’t. “You feel good.”

“You feel good, too,” Shiro says, bumping Keith’s body with his hip.

Keith rolls his eyes, but he smiles. “You must be feeling good if you’re making bad jokes again.”

“Excuse me,” Shiro says. “I make the best jokes. Knock knock.”

Keith turns around, but there’s no one at the door. “Who’s knocking?”

“It’s a joke,” Shiro says. “A human joke. You’re supposed to say who’s there?”

“But I can see that it’s you,” Keith says innocently.

Shiro narrows his eyes at him. “You’re doing this on purpose.”

Keith grins.

“Knock knock,” Shiro says again.

“Who’s there?”

“You wanna hug,” Shiro says.

“This is a terrible joke,” Keith says. “Does this even count as a joke?”

“Keith.”

Keith sighs. “You wanna hug who?”

“I wanna hug you,” Shiro says, throwing his arms out exaggeratedly wide.

Keith perches himself on the edge of the bed and leans forward, wrapping his arms around Shiro’s back and resting his chin on Shiro’s shoulder. “You could just ask me for a hug, you know.”

“I know,” Shiro says, and hugs him back.

Keith curls himself closer. He’d forgotten what it’d felt like, to rest safe and warm in Shiro’s arms, pressed up against the broad expanse of his chest. Keith breathes with Shiro, steady and slow—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.

He feels the light press of Shiro’s lips against his forehead, and he looks up.

Shiro blinks down at him. “Sorry, I—“

Keith stretches up, silencing the apology with a press of his own lips. When he draws back, Shiro’s gaze is soft, and he closes his eyes and bends his head down to capture Keith’s lips again, his hand coming to cup the back of Keith’s neck where his soulmark rests.

Keith shudders, and exhales.

That’s something to worry about—later.

Their movements together are slow, gentle—a massive contrast to the way they’d come together before. Keith wonders how much of the desperation they’d felt before was from Shiro, from his own uncertainty at how many more moments he would have left in the world. Before was an adrenaline rush, a high-speed race. Now it’s just—comfortable. And not in a bad way.

Someone clears their throat from behind, and Keith pulls back and turns his head. Shiro’s hand slides from his neck back down to the bed, and Keith spends a second mourning the loss of contact before he refocuses on Kuro.

Kuro’s face is expressionless as he approaches them. “Just got off the phone with dad,” he says, eyes lingering on the monitors by Shiro’s bedside. “He’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Think I’ll be out of bed by then?”

Kuro rolls his eyes. “Don’t push it.”

Keith puts his hand on Kuro’s arm, and slides it higher with intent when Kuro shifts his focus to Keith.

Kuro looks at Keith’s hand, resting near his elbow, then at Keith’s face. He leans forward half an inch, then pauses. “You don’t have to do this anymore, you know.”

Keith thinks that spending the past two weeks basically immersed in all the best and worst of Kuro and Shiro has changed him. The most significant change, he thinks, is that his tolerance for Shirogane bullshit has dramatically diminished.

He raises his eyebrows in challenge. “What don’t I have to do?”

“Secret’s out.” Kuro’s eye flick to Shiro as he steps closer to the bed. “Or it will be, soon. For better or for worse, It’s just a matter of time until the world’s finally going to see us as two different people. But that means there’s no reason for you to try to make it work with both of us anymore.”

“If you want to break up with me, then just do it,” Keith says. “It might be easier, since you’ve already done it once.”

“I don’t want to break up,” Kuro says. “I just—“

“Good,” Keith cuts in, “because I don’t want to, either.”

They stare at each other for a moment. Kuro can stare all he wants, Keith decides. He’s not backing down.

Kuro breaks first, with a heavy sigh. “You are…”

“What?” Keith says.

“Words aren’t enough,” Kuro says, and his tone is dry, but fond.

Keith stretches forward, sliding his hand higher up to guide Kuro down. Kuro sighs a little, but he gives in, supporting himself with a hand on the bed next to Keith as he leans down and gives Keith the most chaste kiss he’s ever received.

“Wow,” Keith says once Kuro’s drawn back—which is almost immediately.

“You’re literally sitting on top of Shiro,” Kuro says. “Have some shame.”

“I don’t mind,” Shiro says.

Kuro rolls his eyes. “Of course you don’t, Mr. I’ll Just Die Now So You And Keith Can Live Happily Ever After.”

Keith winces, but Shiro seems to take it in stride. The words betray a bitterness, but Kuro’s expression is gentle as he looks at Shiro. “You feel okay? You knocked out hard after that last round.”

“Keith says I’m still all clear,” Shiro says with a small smile. “I might sleep for a week after this, but. It’s over.”

“Good,” Kuro says softly. For a moment, Keith thinks that Kuro looks like he wants to lean down and hug Shiro, but then he turns away, half-sitting on the cabinet beside Shiro’s bed, and the moment passes.

“We’re not going to have to go through this for Kuro next, are we?” Shiro says. “You were saying it was probably from exposure to our mom’s quintessence before we were born, right? Is his eventually going to trigger, too?”

Keith shakes his head. He’d been confused about that himself, but after spending so much time with Kuro’s quintessence, he thinks he’s figured it out. “It’s that curse mark,” he says. He turns to Kuro. “You said that under certain conditions, the mark could kill you, right? That means it has control over your life force, which means that your quintessence was forcibly attuned to it. Shiro’s mark doesn’t have that kind of control, so it doesn’t have the same effect.”

“So being attuned to that mark,” Kuro says, “is what kept me from getting out of sync?”

Shiro actually snorts on a laugh. “It’s a bit funny when you think about it.”

“It’s not,” Kuro says, glaring at him. “Go back to sleep.”

“I wasn’t even sleeping!”

“You can sleep now.”

“Stop trying to change the subject,” Shiro says. “Does this mean that if we remove the mark, it’ll trigger the quintessence poisoning in Kuro?”

“I’m not sure about that,” Keith admits. “It’s definitely something we should watch out for. But I wouldn’t be too worried. He has you.”

Shiro and Kuro share a look.

“I’m glad you came here when you did,” Kuro says. “If it wasn’t for you, I’m not sure he would’ve made it. It felt like it came out of nowhere, how bad it got so quickly.”

Keith has an answer for this, too, although for a second he’s not sure that he wants to share it. It’s going to reveal a secret—a secret that he and one of the Shirogane brothers share, and he doesn’t want to think about what revealing this secret will mean for the other.

But they’ve had enough secrets to last them a lifetime, and if Keith wants them to start being honest, he’s going to have to be honest, too.

“It was me,” he says.

Shiro blinks at him. “What was you?”

“The night we met, I think—I think our quintessence attuned, a bit,” Keith says. “Not a lot, but if you were already starting to get off sync, it might have been enough to speed things up.”

Shiro stares at him. “That doesn’t happen every time I have sex with someone, does it?”

“Um, it does, a little bit, if you’re… very compatible,” Keith says, for lack of better phrasing. “But not as much as it did with us, probably.”

Kuro looks mildly pained. “Is this going to be a weird sex thing? Should I leave the room for this?”

Shiro whacks him. “We didn’t do weird sex things!” He turns back to Keith. “We didn’t, right? Is it because you’re Galra?” he says to Keith.

“No,” Keith says, and he’s trying to study Kuro’s reaction from the corner of his eye and failing. “It’s… It’s what I was trying to tell you, that night. I think—I think you’re my soulmate.”

Shiro stares.

“I know you said you didn’t have one, but—“

“I do,” Shiro says. “Have a soulmate, I mean.”

“I’m his soulmate,” Kuro says.

“You—“Keith looks between the two of them. “You’re what?”

“Maybe it’s because we can’t feel quintessence, but humans have a mark, to tell us who our soulmates are,” Shiro says. “Kuro and I have the same one, it’ s—show him, Kuro.”

“What?” Kuro’s cheeks flame, and Keith can guess why, if their marks are in the same spot. “Why don’t you?”

“Because I’m in a hospital bed,” Shiro says.

“You don’t have to show me,” Keith says. “I saw it on you, Shiro. That’s how I knew you were lying about not having a soulmate.”

“Thanks for that, by the way,” Kuro says, though he doesn’t actually sound hurt. “Glad to know I mean so much to you.”

“It was easier to say than yeah, I have a platonic soulmate, it’s my twin brother who technically doesn’t exist, all right?” Shiro says. “I’m surprised you recognized it as a soulmark,” he says to Keith. “Most people think it’s just a tattoo.”

“I—” Keith looks between the two of them, and for the first time, he’s starting to have hope. Soulbonds between more than two individuals are rare, though not unheard of, but Keith hadn’t even considered it as a possibility until now.

Could it really be that easy?

“I recognized it,” he says, “because I have it too.”

“You what?” Kuro says, and glares at Shiro.

Shiro raises his hands defensively. “I didn’t see it, I swear!”

“He was completely naked!” Kuro says.

“To be fair, it’s not in an obvious spot,” Keith says. Even now, with the thick of his braid hanging over his neck, the mark is impossible to see. He reaches back, undoing his braid, twisting his hair up into a messy bun, and holding it there so that the back of his neck is exposed. Then he turns and lowers his head, giving both of them a clear view.

“Oh,” Shiro says, sounding like he’s had the breath punched out of him.

Kuro doesn’t speak for a long time, and when he does, all he says is, “Can I—“

“Yes,” Keith says, without asking what he wants.

Fingers graze over his mark, and a frisson of pleasure sparks through Keith. He sighs and shivers at the pleasant heat, and at the way the fingers linger over his skin.

“The symbol in the middle is my family’s mark,” Keith says once he has his breath back. “That’s how I knew it couldn’t have been a tattoo.”

Shiro hums. “We always knew the ouroboros was us. We just couldn’t figure out what we were revolving around. It makes sense that it’s you.”

Keith turns around again, dropping his hand and letting his hair cascade down his back.

“You knew the whole time?” Kuro says, tone unreadable.

“I thought I did,” Keith says. “Then after I found out about you, I wasn’t sure which of you had the real mark, until last week when I realized that it made sense if I was the one who made Shiro’s condition worse. I’m so sorry, Shiro.”

“It’s not your fault,” Shiro says gently. “If that hadn’t happened, who knows if the rest of this would have.”

Who knows if I would still be alive, is what Keith hears left unsaid, and he reaches out and squeezes Shiro’s hand.

“I didn’t want it to matter,” Keith says, turning to Kuro, “who my soulmate was. I didn’t think it’d be both of you. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you.”

Kuro frowns. “Didn’t you want to know for sure who your soulmate was?”

“Not if it meant hurting one of you,” Keith says. “I couldn’t do that to you. Either of you. Guess I know why, now.”

Kuro runs his hand through his hair. “I’m happy,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m really happy. But all of this is going to be such a mess when it gets out. Just thinking about it is giving me a headache.”

“Almost makes you want to—“

“Shut up, Shiro,” Kuro and Keith say together.

“I’m joking,” Shiro says.

“You’re banned from jokes,” Kuro says. “For the rest of your life.”

“Uh-huh,” Shiro says. “And how exactly are you going to enforce that?”

“Limited Keith rights,” Kuro says. “Keith, come over here.”

Keith rolls his eyes. “I have a better idea,” he says, grabbing hold of Kuro’s wrist and tugging him until he stumbles closer. Then he arranges the both of them, putting Kuro’s arms on Shiro’s shoulders and Shiro’s on Kuro’s while they look on, perplexed. “Now hug.”

“Who are you punishing right now, exactly?” Kuro says.

Keith stands up and plasters himself against Kuro’s back, pushing him forward until they’re both more or less sprawled against Shiro and Kuro is flailing. “I think both of you have punished yourselves enough,” he says. “Now hug and say I love you.”

Kuro turns and squints at him.

Shiro squeezes his arms around both Keith and Kuro and says, softly, “I love you, Kuro.”

Kuro deflates and drops his head against Shiro’s chest where Keith has him awkwardly pinned. “I love you too, you giant idiot.”

Kuro’s tone is still prickly, but Keith can see that he’s smiling softly. Shiro’s smiling, too, and when Keith catches his eye, he winks.

They’re going to be okay, Keith decides, squeezing his arms around them both with enough strength to make Kuro wheeze.

Nothing that’s going to come next is going to be easy, but life never is.

They all have each other. They’re going to be okay.