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Tabula Rasa

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Autumn again.

The trees shed leaves in vibrant reds and golds that somehow remind him of Keith. Flame-bright, wild, easily whipped into a furor by the wind. At home among the maples and larches and aspens. Pretty to look at, too.

Under the golden cast of sunset, whole mountainsides paint themselves the color of crimson flame and verdant pine. Shiro admires them on the winding drive down from the observatory atop Black Lion Mountain.

He’s gotten to the point where he can do that again. Admire them. The sprawling forest doesn’t quite make his skin crawl like it used to, although there are moments when the shadows stretch long and the night grows deep that a too-knowing shiver runs up Shiro’s spine. 

But these woods are home now, whatever Shiro’s history within their darkest corners. His career is here with Allura. His home is here with Keith. And Keith’s job with the forestry department is everything to him, so protective over every ranger and guest that walks his park’s trails.

And that’s what kept them here, ultimately. A sense of responsibility. A duty to prevent what had befallen Shiro here from happening to anyone else. Even with Haggar temporarily cast out of their world and the rift in Daibazaal Canyon sealed, the park far from safe. Haggar’s meddling has stretched the veil between worlds thin here, easy to tear. Rift creatures regularly slip through, gorge themselves on Earth’s quintessence, and take hideous, mimicrying forms of the local wildlife and park visitors.

And Shiro— along with Keith and their friends and sometimes Kuro— kills them.

The hunts are as frightening as they are cathartic. There’s terror in confronting otherworldly monstrosities with gaping mouths and too many spindly limbs, hobbling them with shotgun rounds so that Keith can go in for the kill, but the relief that comes after is clean. Sharp. Purifying. Better than the vague, unsolvable anxieties that usually plague him, anyway.

Shiro’s Jeep rolls down the road at a smooth forty-five miles per hour, pushing the speed limit in his rush to get home before darkness falls in full. The fall air whipping through the cab leaves his nose and ears chilly; his gloved hands clutch the wheel tighter. He rolls up the gravel drive to their little plot of land just as the last rays of daylight blink out and the lavender skies deepen to cool mauves and blues, the first stars winking through the treetops.

And as soon as the cabin comes into sight, he stops short.

With a twist of the key, Shiro cuts the engine’s low rumble down to nothing. The headlights, too. He stares at the home he shares with his husband— their cabin in the woods, all dark wood and natural stone— and wonders why there’s already a flicker of light and movement within.

From the driveway, Shiro can’t quite tell if Keith’s truck is parked under the carport. He can’t remember his husband mentioning that he’d be home early tonight, either.

Shiro draws his phone from his jacket pocket, eyes still fixed on the light glowing within the cabin, brighter with every passing second of deepening night. A gravelly soft voice answers, warm and welcome to hear.

“Hey, Shiro.”

“Keith, are you home?”

“No, I’ll be here a little while longer. A guest went off trail, slid down an embankment, and broke her ankle. I’m still filling out paperwork,” he sighs, sounding weary. In the background, Shiro can hear Pidge’s mechanical keyboard clacking. “Why?”

A blurry shadow moves behind their dining room curtains and the blood in Shiro’s veins suddenly feels more like sleet. His whisper is brittle thin. “I think there’s something in the cabin.”

A sharp inhale fills his ear, followed by a flurry of movement. “Shiro, get out of there. Head up to the park and I’ll meet you on my way home. We’ll kill it together.”

Against the black leather of his Jeep’s front seat, Shiro feels cold. Eyes on the cabin and the phone still held to his ear, he grasps behind him for the shotgun lying in an open case on the floorboards of the backseat. “It could be anywhere by then, Keith. It could hide and come back later.”

While they’re sleeping, maybe. In the last three years, Shiro can count the number of times rift abominations have wandered onto their property on one hand— watching them from the treeline, their eyes reflecting like deers’, or hiding in the furthest woodshed and imitating the cries of a wounded fox. But none have ever slipped inside before. None have ever even set foot on their porch, as far as Shiro and his game cam can tell.

“Shiro! Shiro, fuck— wait for me,” Keith growls, as frantic as the faint sputtering of his pickup truck’s engine as it struggles to turn over.

“If I don’t act quickly, it could wander out and see me first, Keith. It’s better if I get the jump on it.” Shiro waits, but Keith’s only answer is angry, shuddering breaths. “Sorry, baby. Love you.”

The end of the call feels final.

Shiro crosses the leaf-strewn yard with slow, softly crunching steps, his Jeep left in the driveway with its door ajar. The shotgun in his arms is cold and heavy as solid lead, his one bare hand clammy where it grips the forestock. Keith’s luxite dagger may be their best weapon against the rift-creatures invading their dimension, but dozens of hunts have proven silver-coated bullets useful, too. With a few shots, Shiro can at least keep it pinned down until Keith shows up to finish it off.

He steps lightly up the wooden stairs, nervous of any bump or creak tipping off the inhuman thing lurking within. 

The front door is still open a crack, warm light spilling out onto the darkened slats of the porch. Shiro nudges it wider with the nose of his shotgun barrel, a metal finger curled light over the trigger as he edges inside. His breaths fade into shallow panting as he scans the room, wary and afraid in the one place he’d always clung to as somehow safe. And with a trembling shudder, he’s rooted to the floor as he turns and finds a dark figure lurking near the kitchen island— 

A shape, a human shape, tall and broad, and Shiro’s finger twitches against the trigger as a face like his own stares back at him in muted surprise, entirely unconcerned with the gun leveled at his chest.

“Kuro,” Shiro sighs, his heart thudding in his chest hard enough to make him dizzy. 

Kuro. His shadow. An eldritch being from some distant, dead reality who’d ripped through the veil between worlds and stolen Shiro’s looks, his memories, his life with Keith. The other him.

No. Something else. Kuro is copycat who wears his skin even better than Shiro does. No discolored scars across his face or creased stress-lines around his eyes. No missing arm. No hair blanched silvery-white from shock and trauma. He looks like a younger, brighter version of Shiro, his hair still pitch-black and cut the way Shiro’d worn it in college.

Shiro finally drops the nose of the shotgun to the floor, his arms aching from the sudden release of tension. The strangled sensation of an oncoming panic attack subsides, a trickle of relief taking its place.

“Shiro,” Kuro answers, markedly less bothered. “It’s just me. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” It’s Shiro’s reflexive, go-to answer. But as he huffs and tries to shake the jittering, residual fear, he reconsiders. “Actually, I need a fucking drink. What are you doing here? What happened to waiting to be invited in?” Shiro mutters as he shuts the door and props his gun beside it, glaring sideways at Kuro as he makes his way to the cabinet where they keep the whiskey and vodka.

“I waited for over an hour,” Kuro says, shrugging a shoulder, “but I got hungry. Sorry. ”

Sure enough, the kitchen counter is littered with the fixings for a sandwich, along with several empty candy wrappers. Shiro’s annoyance deepens another sour note.

“What about calling and giving us a heads up?” Shiro questions as he pulls down a tumbler for his drink, still unnerved by the sight of seeing himself— or a version of him, anyway— across the room. 

Kuro’s mannerisms mimic his own, right down to the way they both square their shoulders when they’re upset. Hearing Kuro speak is like listening to a recording of his own voice, slightly alien as it falls on his ears from another’s mouth. It’s an out-of-body experience just looking at him.

Shiro blinks and tries to shake it off, pouring himself a small measure of Keith’s whiskey with a shaking hand.

“My phone stopped working,” Kuro says, and Shiro interprets that as meaning it was lost or carelessly broken. Again. “I was more interested in getting here than stopping to pick up another.”

“I need to call Keith,” Shiro huffs, phone already in hand. He storms outside, mood dithering somewhere between irritated and fuming, to talk to Keith while he moves his Jeep from the driveway.

Keith’s voice is brittle on the other end of the line, a tremble in his words even after Shiro assures him that all is well at home and their intruder is only Kuro. 

“And what if it hadn’t been Kuro?” Keith asks, still smarting from Shiro’s choosing to act without him. “I can’t lose you again, Shiro— you know that, right? You know what it would do to me, don’t you?”

It takes a full five minutes to calm Keith; his words weigh heavy on Shiro as he lays his shotgun back in its case, locks the Jeep, and slowly treads back inside. 

Kuro waits for him, watching with curiosity and apprehension. The kitchen counter behind him is clean, all evidence of his snacking out of their fridge wiped away. “Is he upset?”

“More with me than you,” Shiro mutters, eyeing his likeness up and down, given more reason than usual to be frustrated with Kuro. “What brings you this time?”

And after sundown, he wants to add. After the sun’s set behind the mountains and the shadows have bloomed deep, skulking in the dark like one of the ravenous monsters they’ve grown used to hunting down and slaying in these very woods.

Not that a silver bullet or two would kill Kuro. Shiro doubts if they’d even be enough to slow him.

“Keith’s birthday is next week.” Kuro taps his blunt nails against the dining room table as he gauges Shiro’s reaction. “I wanted to be here for him. I brought a gift.”

“A gift?” Shiro questions, chin lifted, trying to keep his head above the jealous surge that rolls through him at the thought of Kuro plying Keith with gifts and courting his favor. “What’d you get him?”

“I’ll show you,” Kuro says, smiling as he languidly closes the gap between them, a hand already stuffed into his jacket pocket, “but first, you have to open yours.”

A pair of uncannily familiar hands offers Shiro a neat, rectangular box. The wrapping paper is matte black with silver stars and moons that catch the firelight from the hearth. Kuro apparently shares the skills that Shiro picked up in that gift-wrapping class that he took with his aunt back in high school, the present’s corners all professionally crisp and the ribbons spiraled with a scissor.

“Oh. Why did you get something for me?” Shiro questions as he turns the carefully wrapped gift over in his hands. It’s thoughtful. More thoughtful than he’d expect from Kuro— toward him, anyway.

“I saw it and thought of you,” Kuro replies, already shrugging out of his leather jacket and draping it over the back of a dining room chair.

Within, upon a bed of dark silk, lays a watch. A nice watch. Shiro drags a thumbnail over precise silver joints that remind him faintly of his newest prosthetic and traces the curve of its round face. Underneath smooth, water-clear crystal, the watch’s hands are already ticking away. Behind them lays an onyx background studded with starlike diamonds and a platinum crescent moon. It nearly takes Shiro’s breath away. 

“I… how did you get this?”

“Easy,” Kuro says, winking, and Shiro’s lips thin as he imagines Kuro stealing the appearance of same hapless jeweler and plucking whatever he wanted from their cases.

But it’s such a beautiful, tempting gift. Nicer than anything he and Keith could afford on their own, certainly. And Shiro’s developed a fondness for watches ever since… ever since he got back from wherever the fuck he was for a year and a half, trapped as Haggar’s prisoner. There’s reassurance in their soft ticking, something steadying to ground him when he’s all alone in the quiet and time feels like it’s slipping away again, like he’s being watched, like the shadows around him are coming alive— 

“Thank you.” Shiro grounds himself in the present, concentrating on the cool weight of the watch in his hand and the uneasy familiarity of Kuro’s presence. He grasps onto the gratitude he feels now, nevermind what twinges of resentment he still holds for the part Kuro once played in his suffering, and clasps the watch around his left wrist. It feels good. Looks good. It even matches the star-etched silver of his wedding band. “Did you get something like it for Keith?”

“Not quite, but...” Kuro produces another box, smaller and finer and not yet wrapped. Inside sits a single cabochon ruby that must be at least ten carats, plump and gleaming and begging to be marveled over.

Kuro plucks it out and sets the gem in Shiro’s outstretched palm, letting him study it up close. The ruby is unlike any Shiro’s ever seen— not that he’s terribly familiar with fine gems or jewelry, admittedly. Its deep, wine-red color is interrupted by six pale lines that intersect to form something like a star at its center, clear and crisp.

At a glance, and with zero expert knowledge, Shiro can tell it must be worth a substantial sum. More than the watch around his wrist, even. Perhaps more than their cabin, two vehicles, and hoverbike all totaled together. Shiro supposes he ought to be thankful that this shapeshifting lookalike from the cold void beyond their world is more preoccupied with upper crust theft than terrorizing the human populace. That’s always the silver lining when it comes to Kuro— his interests skew toward the mundane and the harmless, more carelessly disruptive than maliciously so. If an eldritch, interdimensional being like him wanted to do harm, he could. Devastatingly.

Instead, he stands in Shiro’s kitchen and doles out stolen gifts.

“It’s a star ruby,” Kuro explains as he boxes up the gem and tucks it back into his pocket. “An extra rare one. I figured Keith could decide whether to mount it and wear it. Or maybe just keep it loose.”

“He’s not one to wear much jewelry,” Shiro murmurs. Aside from his gold-toned wedding ring with the wooden inlay, simple and sturdy and ever-affixed to his finger, that is. 

But that might change, he thinks, when Keith sees what Kuro’s brought him.

“Did you already pick out a present for him?” Kuro asks, drifting closer. It’s habitual, the way he does that, like he’s always hungry to be close to something warm and living. Like he doesn’t have an inkling of how unnerving he can be, the chill of his breath and body casting shivers down Shiro’s spine.

“Yeah,” Shiro says, although now it seems underwhelming by comparison. “I got him a new saw bench and a circular saw to go with it. He wants to make a wrap-around porch and all his old power tools are kinda iffy.”

Kuro’s smile is disarmingly soft. “He’s going to love that.”

“Hopefully,” Shiro sighs, less certain.

Silence blooms and grows thick between them, the cabin’s walls and crossbeams gently creaking as the wind outside picks up. Shiro never knows what to say or do when Keith isn’t here to help dissipate the friction that inevitably builds the longer he and Kuro share breathing space. There are no self-help books out there for reconciling with the interdimensional shapeshifting doppelganger that moved in with your boyfriend while you were trapped in a void space between worlds and tortured by an inhuman witch, unfortunately.

So Shiro’s been figuring it out as he goes.

His stomach growls, pettily reminding him that he’d skipped his afternoon snack. While Kuro looks on, curious, he starts pulling out pancake mix and thick-cut bacon and a cardboard container of eggs.

“I can help,” Kuro offers, hungrily eyeing the makings of breakfast for dinner.

“No, it’s fine,” Shiro bites out, reflexive. He’s forever uneasy in Kuro’s company, and the thought of cooking side-by-side is more stressful than useful. “I’ve got it. Besides, don’t eggs turn funny around you?”

Cold and gooey black, according to Keith’s past experiences. Unfit to touch, let alone eat.

“Not that quickly,” Kuro sulks as he shrinks against the nearby counter, eerily golden eyes tracking Shiro’s every move. “Not since I’ve been feeding better.”

Kuro goes stock still and unblinking as he watches Shiro clumsily flip pancakes and let the scrambled eggs brown too long, moody from the rejection. And Shiro pointedly refuses to acknowledge him, the same way a child might pull their covers overhead and ignore the worrisome shadows within their closet.

It doesn’t keep his skin from turning clammy or his spine tingling under the weight of that cool stare, though. It’s a mistrust that lingers no matter how many times Kuro’s stepped in to save him from some other, lesser monster; it’s a dormant fear that reawakens every time Kuro streaks back into their lives like a passing comet, like dark silt billowing up from the bottom of a cold, crisp lake.

Memories resurface in the back of Shiro’s mind, painful even through the haze: barely conscious as a figure made of smoke and shadow and lightning swallows him whole, picks through his mind, and walks away wearing his body; emerging from what felt like an eternity as Haggar’s prisoner to learn he’d been replaced, forgotten, and all because Kuro wanted everything Shiro had. Including Keith. 

Especially Keith.

There’s a thudding of heavy bootsoles against the porch steps outside just before the door swings open and Keith surges over the threshold. He’s still roiling from his earlier worry, movements sharp with agitation as he throws his coat onto the back of the couch. But the deep furrow between his brows smooths as he turns to find Kuro already beside him, overeager as some feral, hellish puppy.

“Kuro, you shouldn’t worry us like that,” Keith chastises even as he raises an arm and lets Kuro sweep him into a hug that lasts about four seconds too long for Shiro’s liking. “It’s good to see you again, though.”

Kuro grins, baring sharply pointed canines, and leans shamelessly into Keith’s touch. Crowded into Keith’s space, he murmurs all about how much he’d missed Keith and the cabin and the woods he’d first crossed over in.

Shiro keeps cooking, perhaps using a little more force than necessary as he scrapes the burned bits off of the bottom of the pan. He’d long considered himself the forgiving type, but that mantle seems far better suited to Keith— so much quicker to be kind to Kuro, to point out the ways he’s been good, to set their rocky past behind him and mend things where he can. 

Keith gravitates toward the table as Shiro sets out three plates of lightly scorched pancakes and thoroughly overcooked eggs, the promise of food wiping away any lingering traces of displeasure. “You guys made breakfast for dinner?”

“Shiro did,” Kuro corrects, still moping over it.

“It looks great,” Keith compliments as he takes a seat to Shiro’s left. “Thanks for cooking.”

Kuro drops into the chair at Shiro’s right and uses half the bottle of the good maple syrup on his pancakes. Typical.

As they eat, silence eventually gives way to talk about the turning weather, Keith’s upcoming birthday party, and whether Kuro had noticed anything worrisome as he crossed through their woods.

“The veil here is still thin, but it’s quiet,” Kuro rumbles, glancing out the nearby window and into the dark. “I don’t think anything is slipping in that you and your little scooby gang can’t handle.”

The scooby gang— Lance’s moniker for their ragtag group of monster hunters. At least, they were ragtag. Over the last three years, Pidge and Hunk have become quintessence experts with a flair for devising traps. Lance is something of a marksman with a silver bullet now, able to snipe rift creatures well before they close in. With the unearthly luxite dagger that his mother passed down to him, Keith is viciously effective at dispatching anything that makes it within arm’s reach.

And Shiro… Shiro’s grown adept at picking out narrow, limbering legs along the nighttime treeline before anyone else does. He listens for unfathomable, alien whispers that carry on the wind, unheard by any of the others— not even Keith, who also spent time in the rift and still dreams of it, too. He pinpoints the quintessence-gold eyes gleaming down at them from the canopy first and notices spindly-fingered hands that itch to pluck them up and pierce them on the highest branches like a shrike.

Shiro’s vigilance continues even into his sleep, where he sees the same monsters in his dreams. And Kuro, too.

After dinner, Keith makes up the couch with blankets and a spare pillow. Though Kuro basks in the attention while Keith gives it, it soon sinks in that once again, he’s relegated to the living room while the two humans retreat down the hall to the master suite. Half-shrouded in a darkness that he seems to blend into, Kuro pouts and stares after them, vividly amber eyes chasing their steps with blatant hunger and longing.

It lifts the fine, baby hairs along Shiro’s nape, same as ever. For all the good it does, he locks the bedroom door behind them.

Keith’s eyes dart to him at the sound of the quiet click, assessing. “You’re still worried about him.”

Shiro could laugh, but all he lets out is a tired, bitter little snort. “You aren’t?”

They haven’t had this conversation in a while.

Even if they’re now allies against Haggar and the encroach of other, less discerning monstrosities from the interdimensional void, it doesn’t undo all the ways Kuro toyed with their lives. It doesn’t overwrite the insidious fear of being imitated, the sting of being replaced. And it certainly doesn’t vanish the thought of how Kuro had loved Keith in his place— held him, kissed him, slept soundly by his side while Shiro withered away in some bright, alien abyss. Forgotten.

It’s not as though a locked doorknob means anything to Kuro anyway, easy enough to twist until it breaks or the wood itself shears. It’s a hollow reassurance, but one Shiro still needs. It’s a thin, physical division between him and the creature that still wears his body— and better than Shiro himself does, seamlessly perfect in all the places where he is battered and scarred.

“You know I’d do anything to protect you, Shiro. In a heartbeat. But I don’t think Kuro means any harm to either of us. If he did, he’d have already done it,” Keith reasons, voice as gentle as the hand that inches up Shiro’s bicep and kneads at his tense shoulder. “He sacrificed himself for us, once. And he’s saved us since then, too. He’s stood beside us and helped fight off his own kind, and some of those fights we wouldn’t have survived without him. Especially…”

Haggar. It goes without saying. She and her druids are in a class all their own, far more formidable than the creeping, crawling monsters their scooby gang usually encounters.

“I’m aware,” Shiro says, feeling immeasurably spent. He sighs and removes his prosthetic for the night, leaving it to rest on his bedside table.

“Do you want me to ask him to leave?” Keith murmurs as they draw down the plush comforter and clamber into bed. “If there isn’t any immediate threat, it’s not like we need him here. And it’s your home, Shiro. You deserve to be comfortable in it. To feel safe.”

Shiro smiles softly as he settles in beside his husband, comforted. “Nah, it’s fine. He’s here for your birthday. And if we kick him out, he’ll just wander in the woods nearby and scare me shitless on my next jog instead.”

Keith grunts in halfway agreement, expression still colored with uncertainty. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Shiro sighs. “I know that rationally, everything you’ve said makes sense. If he wanted me dead, he could’ve just refused to help you find me. Or killed me in the rift. He could’ve let that moose-centaur monster eat me in the woods that one time,” he adds, shuddering against the mattress. “I guess I just wish I could forgive him as easily as you have.”

“It wasn’t easy for me either,” Keith reminds him, a hand stroking back and forth along Shiro’s side under the covers. “At the same time, it’s hard for me to resent him. I-It’s complicated. You know that, Shiro,” he whispers.

Shiro does. How can the relationship between the three of them be anything but complicated?

“I see shades of you in him,” Keith continues, half talking into his pillow. His long, pretty lashes flutter before his eyes slip shut, eyebrows pinching inward. “I can’t… I don’t have it in me to hate someone who looks so much like you. Sounds like you. Acts like you.”

“He’s not me, though,” Shiro says, voice brittle in the moonlit dark. 

“I know. I know he isn’t,” Keith assures, pressing himself to Shiro and slipping a strong arm around him. “And you can forgive him on your own terms, Shiro, whenever you’re ready,” he murmurs. “Or not at all. I’d understand either way.” 

Minutes drift by. In the dark, Keith adds, “I think he would, too.”

When Shiro pads out of the bedroom in his slippers the next morning, Kuro is already up. He sits at the dining room table in the same clothes as yesterday, a small pile of chocolate wrappers and fruit peels piled on a plate in front of him, staring out the window and into the woods.

“Morning,” Shiro greets, if only to snap his lookalike out of whatever reverie he’s lost in.

“Good morning,” Kuro answers, gaze drifting past Shiro and down the hall, searching for Keith. When there’s no following set of footsteps, his stare centers again on Shiro.

“Are you planning on staying here all day?”

“I suppose that’s up to you,” Kuro answers, looking at Shiro expectantly.

“It’s fine if you want to stick around,” Shiro allows, making an effort to be hospitable. Better than having him out roaming or stalking Keith from afar, anyway. “Take care of the laundry and dishes and we’ll call it even. Sound good?”

Kuro brightens. While Shiro starts a pot of coffee and cobbles together a breakfast for two out of leftovers, Kuro talks about all the places he’s traveled in his latest jaunt far from home— Swiss valleys filled with greenery and silky chocolate; the depths of the freezing Arctic, skimming along the undersides of the ice to spook a team of researchers; the wooded mountainsides that serve as the ancestral home of the Shirogane family, drawn there by the fond but faded childhood memories he carries around. Shiro’s memories.

“It’s beautiful there,” Kuro sighs, as if he too spent a third of his life calling Nara home. Like it’s his family nestled there in its foothills, his childhood nostalgia feeding his wistfulness. “Lots of cute cafes, too.”

It rankles, even if Shiro knows that Kuro doesn’t mean anything ill. He hasn’t been able to visit his parents since the wedding, and the thought of Kuro drifting into his hometown in his stead, wearing his face, is… 

It’s yet another part of his life that Kuro’s sunken his fingers into and claimed for his own, no facet of Shiro left to himself.

“I know,” Shiro says, curt and final as he gathers a plate with breakfast for him and Keith and heads back down the hall to the bedroom.

Two days pass, stilted as ever. At least between himself and Kuro.

Kuro is different around Keith, and Shiro pays close attention— overbearingly affectionate, borderline flirtatious, protective as he looms around like a guardian shadow. Just as curiously, he watches how Keith takes it all in stride. 

It cuts the simmering in Shiro’s blood with something cool and uncertain. Fear, maybe. He trusts Keith with his life, now and always. He loves him more than anyone or anything else in the universe. Or any universe. Or any haunting, empty places in between. But Shiro’s been replaced once before and Kuro is so like him that a repeat feels like an inevitability. He’s Shiro without all the ugly scars and anxiety and night tremors. He’s a younger Shiro, a more carefree Shiro, a Shiro just as thoroughly in love with Keith but without all the emotional mess that came with a year of terrifying captivity and slow torment.

So Shiro does his best to avoid him, opting to sit outside under the floodlights and clean his Jeep rather than linger alone in the cabin with Kuro. Weaker rift-creatures won’t even venture close to their land with him around, too fearful of the eldritch horror currently crashing on their couch, and Shiro is grateful for that much. For once, he feels relatively safe lingering near the treeline after sundown, even in Keith’s absence. Even with the sensation of eyes on him, watching attentively from some window.

And even once Keith comes home and they settle together in the living room, Shiro can’t help but quietly compare himself to his imitation. And wonder. And worry.

It keeps him up that night, long after Keith has dozed off to the hum of Shiro’s white noise machine. Long enough to see the darkened shadow that blots out the moonlight as it passes outside of their bedroom window, tall and ghostly silent.

Keith has to get up for work too early for Shiro to justify waking him now, well past two in the morning. So he fits his prosthetic back into place, tugs on a pair of rubber-soled slippers, and grabs a hunting rifle from the corner of the bedroom before quietly slipping outside and down the hall.

The couch sits empty, its blankets still neatly arranged and the pillow untouched. Kuro isn’t soaking in their tub or stealing a midnight snack from the freezer, either. The locks on the front door are still bolted, chained, twisted tight— but Shiro knows that means nothing where Kuro is involved.

Hesitantly, he undoes every latch, winds his hoodie tighter around his shoulders, and steps outside.

It’s icy cold. Frost stains every beam and bannister, the rich wood sparkling under fragments of moonlight. Nothing creeps in the deepest shadows along the treeline; nothing skitters under his Jeep or Keith’s truck.

But there is a telltale little sigh somewhere off to his right, eerie in its familiarity.

“Shiro.” Kuro is as surprised as he is weary. His steps over the leaves and gravel in the front yard are soundless. “What are you doing out here? Aren’t you cold?”

“No,” Shiro denies, impulsive. His pajama bottoms and hoodie are no match for the knifing fingers of the nighttime breeze, and the cold wood of the porch leaches heat even through his fluffy, boot-like slippers. He can’t stop his body shivering, though, no matter what his lips might say. “I saw something outside our window. And then I saw that you weren’t on the couch.”

Kuro holds his stare for a few drawn moments before glancing away, his wide shoulders rolling in a shrug. All he’s wearing is a taut undershirt and a pair of fleece bottoms straight out of Shiro’s pajama drawer. “No point to it. I figured I might as well stand guard.”

“Against what?” Shiro asks. “Haggar’s still stuck on another plane. Her druids, too. And your presence scares away everything else. Even the mice, I think,” he says, half-joking.

Kuro doesn’t offer an answer.

Shiro takes a step toward him, the porch floorboards creaking underfoot. His brow knits. His bare fingers already feel numb. “Kuro… have you been out here doing this every night?”

The cold doesn’t bother Kuro, he knows, but still. It’s dark out here. Lonely. Shiro can’t imagine willingly wandering it alone.

Kuro nods. “Figured I might as well spend some time leaving my mark nice and strong all around your cabin and through the woods. Make sure things give you a wide berth even after I’m gone. And I thought you might sleep easier with me out of the house.”

It’s said with sympathy and wariness and a note of bitterness, too, Kuro shrinking in on himself as he stares up at Shiro from the yard.

“No such luck,” Shiro tonelessly jokes, stating the obvious.

Kuro flashes a quick, mirthless smile back.

“So I see,” he says as he trudges up the steps. Intentionally or no, where he stops to stand makes him serve as something of a windbreak for a shivering Shiro. “You should head back inside. Or at least put on a heavier jacket.”

Shiro sighs, his breath a billowing puff of warm air that seems to mesmerize Kuro. “I’m okay. As okay as I ever am.”

Kuro hums and looks him over, piercingly unconvinced, and Shiro hates anew that Kuro knows him inside and out. “I noticed things have been tense. You’ve been tense. More than usual.”

“Whenever you’ve come back before, there was always a rift to close or a big fucker to deal with or Haggar scheming,” Shiro reasons, lifting a shoulder. “Now things are quieting down. This is the first time it’s just been… us.”

There’s a whistling of wind in the trees, a rush of firs and bare branches as the breeze kicks up and somewhere, miles off, heavy clouds begin to roll over the mountaintops.

“I tried giving you time and space. Keith said you needed it.” Kuro props his elbows on the porch railing and leans his weight forward, hands clasped before him. 

This close, Shiro can pick out intricate little details of the tattoo sleeve that covers Kuro’s right arm. There are coordinates and alien symbols and a blackened deer skull. Stars. A wiry sketch of an elk that looks like it came out of one of Keith’s sketchbooks. But any time Shiro isn’t staring directly at them, the ink seems to shift under Kuro’s skin, lines growing loose and amorphous.

“But I don’t think I have your patience, Shiro,” Kuro continues, frustration creeping into his tone. “I don’t want there to be space between us. It’s killing me when I’m— I belong— no matter how far I travel or where I go, I’m always thinking of coming back here. To you.”

“To Keith,” Shiro corrects.

“To the both of you,” Kuro counters, softer.

Shiro’s quiet scoff gets lost in the rising breeze and the shivering trees around the cabin. Cold minutes pass. Kuro doesn’t move, the unnatural gold of his eyes eventually leaving Shiro to fix on some point a thousand yards distant, stony faced and resigned. 

Shiro doesn’t move either. The swirling mire of thoughts that sits boglike at the back of his mind bubbles to the forefront. Words rise to the tip of his tongue. 

“I see you and I think about how replaceable I am,” he admits to the dark, to the woods, to the man beside him. And it’s strange, voicing something aloud to Kuro that he hasn’t yet dared to tell Keith. Warm, unshed tears wet his lashline, worsening the sting of the frosty nighttime breeze. “I feel… disposable with you around. Like I might disappear again, but maybe this time no one would ever notice.”

Maybe Keith wouldn’t notice, and that’s the stubborn root of Shiro’s fear: being forgotten by the man he loves most of all, lost again, left behind.

“Shiro… pretending to be you wasn’t easy,” Kuro murmurs, his head hanging. “It was exhausting. And satisfying, obviously, but… Keith is perceptive. His instincts are sharp. If he weren’t so damn in love with you, he’d have realized I wasn’t you sooner. I slipped up so many times, Shiro, but he’d always let it slide,” he drawls out, “because he was so grateful to have you back.”

Shiro warms underneath his hoodie and pajamas, every heartbeat deepening the flush under his skin. 

“I’m not out to take him from you again,” Kuro adds, shooting Shiro a look from the corner of his eye. “We both want Keith to be happy. And he’s happiest with you.”

Kuro’s words sear warmly through Shiro, heartening in that they’re precisely what he wants to hear. But the afterburn is discomforting, his satisfaction waning faster than daylight does in the depths of the forest. “You’re not jealous?”

“Of course I’m jealous,” Kuro snorts, swallowing thickly as he stares out into the dark. “I’m a copy of you. Not a perfect facsimile, obviously, but I sure as hell got your insecurity. And your temper. And your need to bottle them both up.”

“Ouch.” But he’s not wrong. A thread of sympathy uncoils in Shiro; he can’t think of much worse than someone being saddled with all his own flaws. “He cares about you, too, you know,” he says, awkward and stilted as he tries to comfort his doppelganger.

Shiro has the impression that Keith downplays it a bit around him to spare his jealous feelings, but the fondness is unquestionably there. Enough of it to let Keith forgive Kuro for all the lies he’d blanketed him in. Enough for him to have mourned Kuro while he laid trapped within the rift; enough for him to accept Kuro’s inhuman fascination with them and their life together, always eager to worm in and be a part of it.

“Only because I remind him of you,” Kuro says, the soft, lukewarm bitterness in his tone striking a chord with Shiro. “That’s always been my saving grace. You.”

Shiro shifts in place, cold and growing colder. A month ago, a week ago, two hours ago, even, he’d have thought hearing those words from Kuro’s lips would give him nothing but reassurance. “Do you hate me for it?”

Kuro turns to him and blinks, almost comically surprised by the question. His mouth curls in the joyless mimicry of a smile, a harsh, incredulous snort slipping out after. “No, Shiro.”

“Not even a little?” Shiro pries, studying Kuro with the same razor-sharp eye he uses to pick out threats circling them in the dark.

“It’d be easier if I could,” Kuro mutters, tone dry and a bit self-pitying. He turns to face Shiro in full, the rings of his golden eyes eerie bright around the unfathomable dark of his pupils. “Do you hate me?”

“No more than I hate myself, I guess,” Shiro laughs. Kuro doesn’t laugh with him. So instead Shiro has to sit there and hunt for less deflective words, uncomfortable as he examines his knotted mess of feelings toward Kuro once more. “I… no, Kuro. It’s complicated, but no,” he decides, a helpless little sound trailing after. “I don’t hate you. I’d be dead without you. Keith, too.”

“But you dislike me. You can barely stand to be around me.” Kuro’s jaw works side to side, tongue poking along the inside of his cheek. His too-intense stare at last pulls away from Shiro and back out to the woods. “Even if I save you. Even if I protect you. Even if I try to show you how much I’ve changed. That I care about you, too.”

Kuro sighs and it’s such a human thing to do. A gesture he’s learned from Shiro— or memories of his, anyway— and folded into his own way of being. A deliberate expression of frustration, Kuro’s breaths serving no real purpose other than making his mortal appearance more convincing.

And he is believable. Kuro’s humanity seems less and less an act and more like self-expression. His words strike Shiro as less an act of manipulation and more a struggle to make sense of where he stands, to vent, to settle matters.

“When we first met, I wronged you. I didn’t care then. I do now. And I won’t hurt you like that again,” Kuro promises, a bare hand curling tight around a frost-laced wooden beam. His brow knits tight. “I’m sorry, Shiro. I wasn’t… me yet, if that’s any consolation to you.”

He’s certainly not the same Kuro that he first encountered within the rift, all inky smoke and menace and horror. “Glad you changed.”

Kuro hums, traces of affection lacing the sound. “It’s mostly thanks to you, Shiro. Your memories shaped me. Your thoughts are twined around my own like mistletoe. Part of me will forever be human because of you.”

Curiosity prods at Shiro again. “And that doesn’t bother you?”

“Why would it it?”

He shrugs, briefly at a loss. “Because you’re some powerful, shapeshifting entity from the great beyond. You’re probably used to doing stuff that’s more interesting than after-dinner dishes and sleeping on our couch.” 

More interesting. More devastating. Someone as ancient and powerful as Kuro could wreak havoc on their whole world, if only he had the inclination for it.

“I don’t mind doing the dishes,” Kuro says, as flat and plain as if they're just discussing chores. “I’m not sure if domestic life only appeals to me because it appealed to you first,” he adds, shaking his head, “but I enjoy it. I miss it, even. Here. With Keith. With you.”

“What,” Shiro questions, masking the heavy thumping of his heart with a tone of almost-playful incredulity, “you caught feelings for me, too?”

“Something like that, I guess,” Kuro muses, meeting Shiro’s shallow, wavering smile with one a little more certain. “Initially, I resented you. When I could remember we were separate people, anyway. Whenever I realized that Keith’s affection and warmth was never for me, not really, but for someone I could only struggle to imitate. And even then— even then, as much as I hated how you were always first in his thoughts— part of me admired you. How could I not, walking around with all your memories and stray thoughts? With your body? The longer I saw myself in the mirror, the more I understood why Keith was so eager to touch you and kiss you and keep you pleased. Who wouldn’t be?”

The heat under Shiro’s skin intensifies from a smolder to a blaze.

“And the way Keith looked at me when he thought I was you,” Kuro adds, wistful. “I knew you must be special. So special, for someone as good as him to love you from the bottom of his heart like that. Even now, Keith’s attachment to me is only through you,” Kuro says, ducking his head. “He loves you so much that a little overflow falls to me, too.”

“That’s not it, Kuro,” Shiro assures, brow furrowing.

It was so much easier to keep Kuro at arm’s length when he seemed less human, impervious to the same emotional hangups that plague Shiro’s thoughts. 

“Keith mourned you when you stayed behind in the rift to let us escape. He worried about you every day after and he was over the moon when you made it back,” he says, thinking of how Keith had shed tears of quiet relief just before he fell asleep that fateful night, soaking Shiro’s collar. “He’s always wondering where you are and what you’re doing and whether you’re safe, and then I have to remind him that you’re basically a demi-god among mere mortals—” Shiro pauses for Kuro’s low laughter, “—and you’re probably just clearing a patisserie out of sweets and engaging in a little grand larceny.”

“That’s pretty accurate,” Kuro murmurs, a bare, slightly self-deprecating smile crossing his lips.

“He cares about you,” Shiro tells him, both because it’s true and because he feels like Kuro needs to hear it. “He always has. And he’s proud of how far you’ve come. I am, too,” he adds, more gently than he means to.

“You?” Kuro’s tone mirrors the same one Shiro had used earlier, teasing out of disbelief.

“Yeah, me. You fucked me over to begin with, sure, but you also lead Keith back to me, and I… I owe you everything for that. Without you, I’d be dead a couple times over by now,”  Shiro admits, swallowing thickly. It’s never an easy thing, confronting how easily he’d come to dying alone at Haggar’s hands, and it’s no easier with Kuro staring at him, lips parted and gold eyes flashing in the dark.

“And without you, I’d still be drifting through the void, starving and alone,” Kuro says, something strangely vulnerable in the way he looks to Shiro. “I’d never have known any kind of peace like this. Or love. Or McDonald’s.”

Shiro can’t help the little quirk at the corner of his mouth. “The big three, huh?”

Kuro shrugs, a little sheepish, and Shiro’s laugh quickly gives way to teeth-chattering.

“I think you’ve earned a clean slate, Kuro,” he decides after a few quiet seconds trickle by. “A while ago, probably, but I wasn’t quite ready to try.”

“Not your fault,” Kuro rumbles, mirroring back Shiro’s look of sympathy. “I’ve outgrown a lot of my old nature…” Kuro trails off, thoughtful, “but quicker than you’ve been able to heal from the scars I left behind.”

“I’m getting there.” Shiro shudders against the cold, glad to have Kuro beside him to break the nighttime breeze. “Having Haggar gone helps. Talking to you helped,” he adds, the realization a surprise even to himself. “I’d like things to be easier between us, going forward.”

He’d like to quiet the thrum of anxiety that hangs at the back of his mind at all hours of the day. He’d like to unclench a little, to relax. He’d like to trust that face that looks so much like his own, and the man wearing it.

Kuro’s eyes crinkle at the corners as he grins broadly enough to show off the sharp-tipped canines he sports. “I’d like that, too.”

All talked-out and reasonably content, Shiro’s attention inevitably drifts up to the stars. It’s a clear night with a good view of Andromeda, though Perseus and Pegasus are mostly hidden by the surrounding trees. It’s been ages since Shiro’s simply stood outside and enjoyed the nighttime sky, eyes turned upward rather than worriedly scanning the trees and their deep shadows. The night is less unnerving with Kuro nearby, his presence frightening to beasts natural and supernatural alike; it’s the strange comfort of knowing that the monster under your bed is the scariest of all, and fondly possessive to boot.

“It’s cold,” Shiro says after a few minutes of lingering, the chill already settled deep into his bones. He slings the hunting rifle over his shoulder and heads to the door. “Come inside, Kuro. Let’s go to bed.”

Kuro turns at the waist, peeking past Shiro and through the open door. The living room couch still sits all made-up for slumber, fluffy pillow and blankets untouched.

“It’s all right. I don’t mind staying out here,” he says, giving one of the same flat smiles that Shiro is used to making when he’s being polite. “Goodnight, Shiro.”


“What?” At Shiro’s dry, weary look of expectation, he heaves out a heavy sigh and lets his patient facade slip. “Why? So I can stare at the ceiling for six hours while I wait for you two to wake up? I don’t need sleep in the first place, and if I’m not going to enjoy it, then why bother?”

Shiro lingers in the doorway, watching long after Kuro’s turned away to face into the empty quiet of the surrounding woodland. 

“You could read, if you want,” he suggests, shrugging the shoulder that isn’t currently holding the weight of a heavy rifle. “I have hundreds of books on my tablet. And movies. Or you could draw. I’m sure Keith has an extra sketchbook or two lying around.”

“I can do that while you’re away at work tomorrow,” Kuro mumbles, tone edging toward surly now, and Shiro isn’t sure which bothers him more— Kuro’s stubbornness or the unfortunate realization that this must be what he sounds like when he takes an attitude, too. “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time here by myself.”

Shiro sighs, still straddling the cabin’s threshold, and slumps against the sturdy wooden doorframe. How many times had he tried to push Kuro away, only to feel the blood-curdling chill of his presence as he forever hung close, trailing his steps like a shadow? And now, when Shiro’s finally trying to rope him in with an olive branch, Kuro decides to be difficult.


“You could—” Shiro hesitates, the words catching in his throat as he wonders whether he’ll regret this move come morning’s bright-eyed clarity. But now, cold and tired and determined to end tonight on a good, reconciliatory note, he commits. “You could stay with us. In our room. If you want. The new bed is big enough.”

The genuine, heartfelt surprise that paints itself across Kuro’s too-familiar features almost does away with the rest of Shiro’s lingering apprehension. He abandons his post, easily lured away by the promise of time spent in close proximity to Keith and Shiro both, and sweeps past Shiro as he hurries inside.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Shiro mutters to himself as he closes the door and locks it tight.

As they pad down the darkened hall single-file, he senses the palpable excitement radiating off of Kuro. Gold-eyes stay trained on the center of his back, so intent that Shiro can feel their stare, along with the goosebump-raising cold that Kuro carries around with him.

The bedroom is still a deep, velvety dark, but Shiro’s eyes are well-adjusted. He peels off his hoodie, removes his prosthetic, and then hurriedly slips under the covers, pointedly ignoring Kuro’s faint little whine when he realizes that he doesn’t get to be the one in the middle. Warmth greets his shivering body, and Shiro is endlessly grateful that Keith’s kept the bed so cozy while he slumbers.

He’s just getting comfortable on his side when the mattress dips behind him, a dense weight slowly settling down into place at his back. It presses close, a wall of cool, solid muscle meeting his spine as Kuro spoons loosely around him to fit; the bed is big but they’re both broadly set, and it doesn’t help that Keith likes to spread eagle while he sleeps. Under the covers, cold fingers brush over a stretch of Shiro’s bare waist before Kuro’s hand settles just above the waistband of his pajama sweats.

Shiro can’t help but shiver at the touch.

The hand withdraws just as quickly. “Oh. Whoops. I didn’t mean—”

“You’re just cold, Kuro,” Shiro tells him, trailing off into an exhausted yawn. “But you’ll warm up fast.”

Hesitantly, Kuro’s palm settles on his hip again. Shiro finds he doesn’t mind it, or even the shape of Kuro pressed close against him, really. If he closes his eyes, it even feels safe— furnace-warmth against his chest and a shield molded to his back, snug and protected as his eyelids droop and his body goes slack. 

There’s a whisper in his ear as he drifts, catching him so close to the cusp of sleep that he almost doubts if he really heard it at all.

“Thank you, Shiro.”

When Shiro blinks awake, the bedroom is a soft dark, filled with comforting shapes and warmth. He rubs his cheek into the cover of his pillowcase and moans out low as he stretches down to the tips of his toes. Belatedly, he realizes there’s a leg slotted between his own, their crossed ankles rubbing. And an arm draped heavy over his waist. And a bent knee pushed between his thighs, paired with a warm hand cupping his chest under his shirt.

“Keith,” he murmurs while still half-asleep, voice raspy.

“Good morning,” Keith croaks back as he rouses. After giving Shiro a squeeze, he withdraws his poky knee and grasping hands and sits up in bed, stretching. His dark hair is wild, waves of it jutting in all directions, and he’s so cute when he yawns and rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms like that.

“Mm. Good morning,” Shiro answers, already missing the comfortable cling of Keith to his front. Blearily, he realizes that the weight around his middle and the brush of a muscular calf against his own remains.

“Good morning,” Shiro’s own voice greets from somewhere behind him. He stills where he lays as the memory of the night before floods back all at once— the better part of an hour spent alone with Kuro, surprised at all the familiar insecurities he carries, and then beckoning him back in with an invitation to their bed.

He shoots a worried look up at Keith, expecting to find him surprised or confused at the very least. Perhaps even upset that Shiro— Shiro, of all people, so long mistrustful of his doppelganger— had let Kuro sleep in their room without asking him first. 

Instead, Shiro finds Keith staring down at them with pink cheeks and heavy, half-lowered lids, gnawing his bottom lip until it’s deepened to a slick red. His dark eyes travel from Shiro to Kuro and back again, taking everything in with a subtle quickening of his breath.

“So… I feel like I missed something here,” Keith comments after as the seconds tick by without an explanation presenting itself. He speaks with a gravelly hiss that sends a pleased shiver rolling down Shiro’s spine. Kuro must feel the way he shudders, close as he is; the nervous, heated flush under Shiro’s skin must be delightful to him, too, ripe for basking in.

“We… had a talk last night,” Shiro explains, blinking apologetically up at his husband. “Sorry. I should’ve woken you up to check if it was okay.”

“No, no. It’s fine. It’s, uh— no complaints here,” Keith says, brusque and pitched high. He clears his throat after, tears his gaze from where Kuro is spooned around Shiro, and mumbles something about needing to shower.

Shiro stares, a little bit dumbfounded, as Keith scurries to the bathroom without his slippers and locks the door after it’s closed. 

It’s… unusual, even if Keith is an early riser who rarely wastes time, but he doesn’t seem angry or hurt. Perhaps he just needed a few minutes alone to process everything, Shiro reasons. Strange as their lives are, it must be stranger still to wake up beside two versions of your husband.

“Why are you so close to me?” Shiro mumbles as the knee pushed between his thighs bends and hooks around one of his legs, twining them together.

“You’re so warm,” Kuro answers while pushing his luck and snuggling closer, cheek pillowed against Shiro’s nape. “Not as warm as Keith, but mmm, comfortable. I could lay here all day.”

Shiro sighs. “Well. Some of us have to work, so…”

Kuro does not take the hint, instead whining softly and pushing his face fully into the back of Shiro’s neck and the slightly grown-out white of his hair. Shiro stares blankly forward at the far wall and the changing light outside its window, already resigned to Kuro’s overly affectionate clinginess.

“Come help me make breakfast,” he suggests as the shower kicks on behind the bathroom door, its distant drone matching the white noise Shiro sleeps to. At the reluctant grumble issued against his back, he adds, “If we hurry, we could have something good ready for when Keith comes out.”

The prospect of doing something nice for Keith is all the motivation Kuro needs to finally push himself out of bed, and Shiro can relate to that. Deeply.

Once they’re in the kitchen, Shiro decides to throw together a simple soup out of leftover odds and ends— half a block of tofu, a lone potato, some greens, and scallions, along with some salted salmon he’d forgotten in the crisper drawer. And this time, when Kuro tentatively offers to help, Shiro takes him up on it.

For a sliver of a second, he still goes clammy cold while offering Kuro a kitchen cleaver, heart thumping sharp in his chest as a pale hand curls around its sleek handle. But Kuro only smiles and sets to work, chopping whatever vegetables Shiro sets on his cutting board into small, uniform pieces.

“You used to cook like this with your grandfather,” Kuro remarks as Shiro brings heavy-bottomed pot filled with instant dashi to a rolling simmer. “When you could barely reach the counter.”

Shiro nearly drops the long-handled spoon he’s holding. Even after three years, it still throws him for a loop to be reminded that Kuro shares nearly all his memories, no matter how old or how intimate. 

“Yeah. He never took shortcuts, though,” Shiro answers once he’s recovered from the jolt of surprise, soft with nostalgia and that haze of childhood memory. Riding his grandfather’s shoulders on the way to the grocery store. Helping him stir the eggs. Buzzing with excitement as delicious smells filled the kitchen. “He loved to cook. Wish I’d inherited his ability for it.”

Kuro hums some soft, absent agreement, his dark brows pinching. He dumps the vegetables into the pot and then starts washing the rice, unasked. And then, while Shiro rummages in the fridge for any fresh fruit that hasn’t yet spoiled, he clears his throat. “Does it bother you when I bring up the past like that?”

Shiro’s spine straightens taut as he stands, caught off-guard. His bottom lip juts out as he considers it, hands busily peeling the stickers off of shiny-skinned apples and separating red grapes from the withered vine.

“No. Not like that,” he decides, giving Kuro a small, reassuring smile. There’s something a tiny bit endearing about having an otherworldly monster trying so hard to be in his good graces, and Shiro is ready to meet him halfway. “It’s… kind of nice, actually, having someone around to reminisce with. I just forget how much you know about me. My life.”

“Like I was there.” Kuro shrugs, a little hopeless. “I know they’re your memories. I know that. But… they still feel like a part of me.”

“I can see how that’d be,” Shiro says. “And I can get used to it, I think. Just don’t be weird about it, okay?”

“Me? Weird?” Kuro teases, and it’s so strange for Shiro to hear the timbre of his voice played back against his own ears, bright and playful. He bumps against Shiro’s shoulder with his own, unable to pass up any excuse to touch. “I’ll be good, Shiro. I promise.”

Shiro casts a look back over his shoulder as he stirs the pot on the stove, lids and long lashes half lowered. 

“You’re pushing it,” he warns as Kuro’s hands fold over his right shoulder, chin resting atop them. But it isn’t as uncomfortable as Shiro would have thought, really, having him so close. After a few moments, he even relaxes and allows himself to teeter back, matching the way Kuro’s leaned into him.

“The soup looks good,” Kuro comments, his breath puffing cool against the side of Shiro’s neck, hunger heavy in the little moan that follows. “Smells good, too.”

“It does,” Shiro agrees, more than a little proud of how well the slapdash breakfast came together. A taste test confirms that yes, it is good, and Shiro happily chalks the meal up as a kitchen victory. Satisfied, he holds the stirring spoon up to Kuro’s lips for him to try the rest. “And Hunk says I can’t cook!”

“To be fair…” Kuro trails off as he sips up the steaming broth over Shiro’s shoulder, a pleased hum rumbling in his chest at the first taste.

Shiro rolls his eyes, still feeling vindicated. And perhaps the tiniest bit grateful that Kuro was here to help.

“Hey, I— whoa. Uh, good morning.” Keith stands across the kitchen, near the hall to the bedroom, still freshly damp from the shower. “Am I… interrupting?”

“Keith,” Shiro says, surprised to hear Kuro’s voice— his voice— echoing in unison. He rolls his shoulder, encouraging Kuro to stop leaning all over him, and flashes his husband a smile. “We made breakfast! I hope you’re hungry.”

“Definitely,” Keith answers, still toweling his hair dry as he curiously pads closer. His skin is flushed pink from the heat of the shower; he stares at them with dark eyes opened wide, bright with interest, and fumbles to pull out a chair at the kitchen table. 

Though Keith devours his breakfast with appreciative slurps and plenty of praise, he still seems distracted. He pointedly avoids looking either of them in the eye for more than a millisecond; he squirms in his chair when he thinks Shiro isn’t looking. And soon enough, the persistent blush along Keith’s cheeks hardly seems like it came from the heat of the shower at all.

Shiro chokes a little on his orange juice as he realizes that Keith is flustered.

He hasn’t seen his husband so red and fumbling since their dating days, back before Keith got comfortable touching him whenever and however he pleased. When did he get all shy? He certainly isn’t about trailing kisses down Shiro’s chest while he still sleeps, waking him with the heat of a warm mouth around his soft cock. Or asking to be bound up, patient as Shiro puts hours of careful research into tying perfect knots all down his back. Or any of the dozens of other things they’ve tried with each other.

And Shiro wonders why Keith would be so worked up over absolutely nothing— until he feels Kuro’s hand skim up the back of his neck and playfully ruffle his hair on the way back to the stove for seconds, and suddenly Keith’s spoon clatters into his bowl.


Shiro ponders that as Keith clears his throat, thanks them for breakfast, and mumbles something about needing to head to work. They kiss goodbye right there at the table, Keith bent over to meet Shiro where he sits; the skin under Shiro’s fingertips feels feverish.

Too-familiar feelings return in the wake of Keith’s hasty departure— brittle-edged jealousy, cool resentment, a pang of worry that Keith might favor Kuro over him— but new emotions crowd in alongside, too. Confusion. Curiosity. A glimmer of appeal. Something warm and uncertain that brings a blush to his cheeks.

Shiro pokes at his fruit until Kuro settles back down beside him, noticing the forlorn look that his doppelganger shoots at Keith’s empty seat.

“He rushed out. I don’t think he even stopped to lace up his boots,” Shiro explains before Kuro can be too disappointed. “Hey, um, did you notice how Keith was…”

He’s answered with a sly, knowing look. An amber-gold eye winks back at him, Kuro’s smile carrying all kinds of self-satisfaction. “Acting all shy and bothered? Yeah. I noticed that.”

“Because of…” Shiro can’t say the rest. It hangs in the air like the flying elephant in the room, too bizarre for words. Because of them. Because Keith had awoken to find them tangled together in his bed and then stuck together in the kitchen. Because he was clearly thinking something about the two of them, which in turn leaves Shiro looking at Kuro and wondering—

No. No. Definitely not.

“It’s not so surprising, is it?” Kuro asks, voice syrupy smooth and entirely unfazed. His sharp-eyed gaze trails down over Shiro’s flexing throat and the taut stretch of his faded sleep shirt, stopped only by the table blocking the rest of the view. Then he gestures to himself in turn. “I mean…”

Shiro rolls his eyes as he lifts his coffee mug to his lips, refusing to even look at Kuro right now. 

“You can’t blame him,” Kuro adds, softer. And then the light clinking of his spoon resumes, the rest of their breakfast shared in silence.

Shiro doesn’t. Blame Keith, that is.

He thinks about it all the way to work, his Jeep climbing slowly up the switchbacks that lead to the top of Black Lion Mountain and its lonesome little observatory. What was Keith thinking? Feeling? Picturing? Is it something new, freshly awoken, or the realization of thoughts he’d long kept private?

Kuro’s carefree words come bouncing back, too. Why wouldn’t Keith be flustered at the sight of them suddenly cozying up together? From a purely objective standpoint, knowing the things about him that make Keith woozy in the knees, doesn’t it almost make sense? Wouldn’t Shiro feel the same if Kuro instead wore Keith’s form, all lithe strength and sharp, pretty features?

Keith and a Keith-lookalike. Maybe they’d be night-and-day variants of each other like Shiro and Kuro— one dark haired and golden eyed, the other gone ethereally pale from exposure in the rift. Maybe Shiro would’ve found it considerably harder to resent someone who looked just like the man he loves, so much easier to forgive any version of Keith than it is to make peace with himself. Maybe Shiro would’ve been just as hopelessly undone if he woke to find two Keiths in bed with him, curled tight together as they stared at him with sleep-lidded eyes and lazily curled smiles.

In the observatory’s cramped parking lot, he throws the Jeep into park with a little more force than necessary and then slumps back in his seat. A soft glaze falls over his eyes as he thinks of what it what it would do to him to see Keith and a lookalike Kuro draped over each other. Or kissing, lean limbs and legs tangled together. With a flicker of shame, Shiro imagines being pressed between two Keiths, pinned by hot, hungry mouths and held fast in a cage of sinewy arms and grasping hands.

“Are you struggling today, Shiro?” Allura’s bright voice is slightly muffled by the dividing layer of glass, her face hovering just an inch from the driver’s side window. “Do you need a few more minutes out here?”

“Yes and yes,” Shiro groans, covering his face with his hands and reclining his seat until he dips out of her sight.

Allura takes his wavering focus throughout the workday in stride. More than once she finds him vacant-eyed in front of his computer screen, metal finger still resting on a key, or zoned out mid-bite of his lunch.

Allura snaps a few times to draw his attention back to the here and now. “Shiro? Earth to Shiro. Are you frazzled from planning Keith’s birthday party? I told you that I could’ve hired someone to handle that.”

“No, no. That’s all taken care of. It’s… I kind of mended things with Kuro last night, if you can believe it. Now some dynamics around the house are changing,” he muses, chewing down the last of his protein bowl.

“Oh. Sounds ominous,” Allura comments, her delicate brows briefly furrowing. And then they shoot high, her concern traded for optimism. “Or exciting!”

“Uh, exciting, hopefully. Or more likely somewhere in the middle,” Shiro says, smiling behind the water bottle lifted to his lips. “I’ll let you know.”

Dinner is already made by the time Shiro and Keith arrive home, warmth and the aromatic smell of spices greeting them at the door.

Kuro waves from the kitchen, smiling bright and sharp-fanged. He’s wearing Shiro’s apron. And his NASA sweatpants. And one of his henleys, too.

Shiro rolls his eyes as he hangs his coat and steps out of his boots. Between Kuro and Keith constantly raiding his closet, he’s going to be left with sparse pickings.

His petty annoyance spikes as Kuro makes a beeline to Keith and wraps him in a hug, murmuring something about being lonely all day. But it’s assuaged just as quickly when Kuro turns to him next, an arm reached tentatively out. Shiro sighs and steps in to meet him, greeting Kuro in an awkward half-hug that leaves his doppelganger with a toothy, utterly satisfied grin. The welcome is nice, though, as is the promise of a hot dinner that smells of cumin and chilies. Kuro is warm from hovering over the stove, which makes the hand resting at the small of Shiro’s back not entirely unpleasant.

They sit to eat and Shiro grudgingly admits that Kuro’s done a great job with the meal. Keith agrees, complimenting Kuro each time he gets up to serve himself another bowlful of fragrant, spicy chickpea stew. The dinner table talk is maybe the most relaxed it’s ever been, aside from Keith’s occasional ferretiness when he catches himself looking at either of them too long.

Kuro insists on wandering outdoors for a quick hunt after dinner, taking to heart his self-imposed charge to protect Keith and Shiro and the woods they call home. And far be it from either of them to oppose him, Shiro figures; he’s seen enough of Kuro in action to know that it’s the monsters skittering in the dark that ought to be worried.

Kuro pauses with his hand on the doorknob, glancing back at the living room couch and the blankets neatly folded on its arm. “Am I sleeping out here when I get back? Or can I stay with you?”

Vividly amber eyes turn on Shiro first, then Keith, hand tightening around the brass doorknob while he waits for an answer. There’s a rigid, steeling tension in him that Shiro can read too well— if Kuro can’t stay with them, he’ll just stay away. He’d rather roam the dead of night alone than lie awake in the same house as them, too close to stomach being cut off by a single locked door.

Keith’s fingers brush against the underside of Shiro’s wrist before sliding down to his palm, a comforting little touch before he takes his hand and whispers, “It’s your call.”

For a moment, Shiro simply holds Kuro’s stare. It’s remarkable how much such a small act of human intimacy means to a creature not from their world, to whom every concept of physical affection had been foreign. Until he came here, that is, and let Shiro’s memories and emotions turn him into something unrecognizable. And in the wake of releasing himself from some of the resentment he’d long held onto, Shiro finds he has a little more room inside of himself for sympathy, even if it’s for a devil.

“You’re not going in the middle,” Shiro says, getting that out of the way first. He’s not about to be split from Keith’s side, even for a night. “But sure. You can sleep with us, so long as you behave yourself.”

“I— yeah, I can do that,” Kuro rattles off, whatever disappointment he feels at not being the one to get sandwiched outdone by his relief at spending another night in their close company. He grins as he jaunts outside and down the stairs, a bounce in his long strides.

“Be careful!” Keith cautions, as if Kuro isn’t the scariest thing stalking these woods.

“And when you get back, hang out in front of the heater for a little bit before you come climbing into bed. It’s too cold out,” Shiro shouts after him, already shuddering at the thought of Kuro sliding up against his back, as cozy as snuggling with a block of ice.

Kuro raises an arm in an acknowledging little half-wave, the stark slash of his smile gleaming bright in the dark.

They watch from the doorway until he hits the treeline, undaunted by the nighttime wilderness and everything it holds. For a moment— just a moment, there and gone when Shiro blinks— he thinks he sees Kuro’s shape begin to change, to grow into something decidedly inhuman, darker and deeper than the shadows he soon blends into.

They close the door and lock up. Kuro knows how to undo them from outside anyway.

“You’re really fine with him sleeping with us?” Shiro double checks as they tread down the hall and into their bedroom. “I wish I’d asked you in the first place. Sorry,” he apologizes as he peels off his clothing layer by layer and dons a pair of flannel pajama bottoms instead. 

“I’m fine with it. I’m more surprised that you are,” Keith mutters as he peels down the covers and starts punching his pillow into shape. “Here I was just hoping we’d be able to make it through a game of Settlers of Catan together by Christmas, and then I wake up to you two being all…”

He reddens, waves his hand through the air, and seems to hope that suffices. But Shiro just stares at him, eyebrows pushed high, and waits for something more definitive than that.

“Buddy-buddy,” Keith finally huffs out. He clambers into bed and immediately draws the comforter up over his face, leaving just the little sprouted tuft of dark hair along his cowlick exposed. “Or whatever,” he adds, voice muffled.

The Keith-shaped lump under the covers moves only with the faint rise and fall of a chest. Like maybe if he lies still enough, Shiro will forget him and this conversation.

“You don’t have to be shy about it, you know,” Shiro chances, settling a hand somewhere over Keith’s heart. Or so he hopes, given that the down-filled blanket disguises Keith’s slight form fairly well. “I can tell when you’re, uh, excited, Keith. Kuro can too, apparently, which I suppose makes sense. He knows you about as well as I do.”

The corner of Shiro’s mouth gives a little tug, more a grimace than a smile. But Keith is more important than his own strange and shifting entanglement with Kuro— especially now, all vulnerable and uncertain where he lay. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to hide anything around me. I don’t want you to worry.”

Keith clears his throat and draws the covers down just enough to reveal a set of dark, doe-like eyes. “I didn't want to hide anything from you, Shiro, I just… I wasn’t sure how you’d take it,” he murmurs, tentatively holding Shiro’s gaze. “Kuro being involved and all. Or me thinking about a-anyone else like that. I didn’t want you to stress about it meaning anything. I didn’t want you to worry, either.”

“Makes sense,” Shiro whispers, throat suddenly gone tight. Even a week ago the reminder that Keith feels any attraction to Kuro at all would’ve spun him, whittled deeper at the misgivings that already riddle his scarred body. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have his doubts still, or that there’s no sticky bubbling of jealousy at the thought. It burns smaller within him now, though, an ember rather than a full-bodied flame, more easily smothered by his trust in Keith and consideration for Kuro.

“I know you were thinking of me. Protecting me, as usual,” Shiro says, heart especially tender as he smiles down at Keith. “But I did some thinking today at work and… I get it. Or I think I do, anyway. If our situations were reversed— if Kuro looked like you instead of me— I’d be just as fucked. Maybe more so.”

Keith laughs, the sound muffled under the blanket. His pretty eyes squint halfway closed, lashes silky fine and irrationally tempting to touch, and there’s relief in the sigh that comes after. There’s still a sheepish blush across his cheeks and the tips of his ears as he admits, “It’s been… challenging.”

“Mm?” Shiro gently inquires.

“You’re always going to be the center of my universe, Shiro,” Keith says before anything else. “You know how much I love you, right?”

Shiro softens like moss-covered wood gone mealy, mushy enough for a bare hand to crumble apart at will. For all the moments that he’s doubted in himself and whether he’s enough for Keith, Shiro can’t look into his eyes and believe in anything less than eternal love and unflinching devotion.

“Enough to cross into another world to find me,” Shiro murmurs, forever grateful. Keith had spent months hunting for him across hundreds of miles of unforgiving mountainsides and daunting forests. He’d confronted Kuro, an ancient and inhuman trespasser with the power to utterly erase either of them, and demanded to be taken to Shiro. Then Keith had stepped into a rift without knowing what lay on the other side, all to bring him safely home.

It still gives Shiro indigestion to think about— Keith taking on so much horror and danger for his sake— but he can’t deny that it’s nice to be reminded that he’s wanted, loved, protected. And so fiercely, too. “And you know how much I love you?”

Keith nods, the corners of his mouth curling up as Shiro slips a hand under the covers. Metal fingers brush Keith’s jaw first, angling into his hairline as they travel higher. He rests the weight of his skull against the synthetic material of the palm cupped over his cheek, eyes briefly fluttering shut. “You’re really not upset?”

“No, baby,” Shiro reassures, thumb stroking fondly over Keith’s skin before he draws his hand back to his side. “I know you. And everything concerning Kuro is… a big, grey area blob. For both of us. No one else on earth is dealing with how a shadowy, fell entity that imprinted on them is supposed to fit into their lives. I think we both deserve some leeway.”

“Yeah,” Keith agrees, blowing out a sigh as he smooths a hand back through his hair and then lazily leaves his arm bent across the pillow. “Yeah, that’s a good policy.”

A minute or so ticks by, their silence broken only by the sound of the white noise machine softly burbling from Shiro’s nightstand.

“So… what is it like?” Shiro questions, head propped in one hand while the other idly picks at lint balled up along the comforter’s starry grey fabric. “For you. Seeing us together.”

“Uh.” Keith makes a sound that dithers between a laugh and a groan, uncertain how to answer. “Confusing. And appealing. And overwhelming, too? You’re the most beautiful man in the world, Shiro. And Kuro takes after you, obviously. It’s a lot for one man to handle.”

Shiro hums softly as he pictures Keith’s dilemma, inwardly smitten at the matter-of-factly stated most beautiful man in the world comment. “Does it excite you, seeing us touch? Him pressing up against me?”

“Y-Yeah,” Keith admits, shifting under the covers. “It’s surreal enough just having you both in the same room, but draped all over each other, curling together in bed, makes me feel like I’m dreaming.”

“Sounds like you’ve given it some thought before,” Shiro says in a whisper that nearly gets eaten up by the white noise that carries from his nightstand.

Keith’s breath hitches. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t,” he admits with a nervous swallow, voice low and shaky. “But that’s all it is, Shiro. Thoughts. What-ifs.”

Fantasies, Shiro’s inner voice supplies. Daydreams and nightdreams where Keith can safely picture his husband and his unnatural twin twined close, his usual temptations doubled.

“But you’d like it,” he supposes, slipping his prosthetic arm under the covers, “if it were more than that?”

Cool metal fingers travel across flannel sheets, under the hem of the ragged tee that once belonged to him, and settle over the sunken, gently shivering stretch of Keith’s belly. With his left arm bent and his head propped in his hand, Shiro toys with the waistband of Keith’s pajama bottoms and watches the way his husband’s ears go cherry-bright, his bottom lip plump from being worried between his teeth.

“Shiro…” One of his hands finds Shiro under the covers, blindly, needily grasping down the front of his chest.

“Keith,” he answers, voice sunken low and rough-husked. “Do you think about Kuro and I kissing?”

“Sometimes,” Keith says, eyelashes fluttering as Shiro’s thumb traces around his navel, the wide span of his hand covering most of his lower abdomen. “You both look so — it would be...”

“What would it be, Keith?” Shiro pries, his fingers teasing lower.

“Hot,” Keith says, chest sinking as he releases a long-held breath. “Really hot. Like watching you make yourself feel good. Like having two of you to— to feel at the same time.”

“Two of us all to yourself,” Shiro purrs in his ear, understanding the appeal of that, at least. With a curious little squint, he searches Keith’s expression and presses on. “Do you imagine us stripping each other down? Feeling each other up while you watch?”

The words are for Keith, mostly. To make him burn and squirm with pleasure. To tease him, gently. To understand what he wants but won’t ever ask for. As textured synthetics and burnished metal skim smoothly over Keith’s sweat-damp, precum-slicked skin, though, Shiro can’t help but also think of himself.

The things he says paint pictures in his own mind, too. Kuro’s lips on him, a sharp-toothed mouth flush with his chest, a pair of wickedly golden eyes turned up to drink him in. Two sets of hands roaming his scarred skin like it’s fresh territory to be claimed. The press of a body as thick as his own against his back and Keith hard against his front, wrapped tight in strong, protective limbs.

“Or is it that you want to be between us, Keith?”

Keith’s mouth parts, the pink of his tongue just barely visible. The way he squirms under Shiro’s patient, questioning look is answer enough.

“Sandwiched nice and tight,” Shiro whispers, unsurprised when the hips under his hand buck upward and Keith’s dick twitches against the sensitive pressure plates along his palm. “Mm. Touching you everywhere at once. Kissing you nonstop. Taking turns with you. Or maybe fucking you at the same time?”

Fuck, yes,” Keith sighs out as Shiro at last wraps his hand around his length, thumb teasing at the dripping head of his cock. Frantic and insistent, his hips roll up to meet Shiro’s grip, eager to slide himself through the metal coil of his fist.

Keith pants hard and shallow under Shiro’s touch, sweat beading along his brow and dampening the strands of dark hair that cling to his skin. Whines slip past the fresh-bitten red of his lips, Shiro’s name whispered as thinly as the cold mountain air outside. He writhes anew with every dirty little thing murmured in his ear, eyes squeezed shut as he gives himself over to thoughts of what Shiro and Kuro could do to him.

“Is that what you want, Keith?” Shiro whispers, ignoring the throbbing ache of his own cock in favor of watching his husband come undone. “My cock down your throat while he takes you from behind?”

Keith groans before biting into the heel of his palm, choked little breaths escaping him as Shiro squeezes gently up and down the length of his cock, purposeful and slow despite the desperate snaking of Keith’s hips. And Shiro isn’t entirely sure which is making him harder— Keith’s pleased little whimpers or the pretty mental pictures of him wrecked and spitroasted and stuffed impossibly full.

Keith comes with a sharp cry that cuts off into nothing, his body bowing up into Shiro’s touch as he chases the pleasure in every last pulsing spurt; and then he sinks down into the mattress and tries to worm out of Shiro’s grasp, oversensitive to the point of near tears.

“You okay, baby?” Shiro asks as his hand withdraws, the joints of his sleek prosthetic a sticky, gooey mess that’ll be a bitch to clean if he doesn’t get to it before it dries.

Keith drags a forearm along his sweat-dampened brow and sweeps the messy, pretty fringe of his damp hair back. Warm, rosy pink lingers on his cheeks. His lip is swollen and bruised from biting, and his eyelids sit heavily over pleasure-glossed eyes.

“Uh, holy shit. Yeah.” He groans and wriggles down into the mattress, getting comfortable as he relaxes. There’s a faint, contented smile on his lips as he murmurs, “I… wow. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“But you liked it.” Shiro raises an eyebrow and tries not to smile.

“Yeah. Yes. I mean, obviously...” Keith gestures down at himself, no doubt sticky and disheveled underneath the comforter. The fading blush across his cheeks flares back up as he quietly asks, “Did you like it?”

Shiro thinks about it for a few moments, then leans over to press a kiss to Keith’s feverish cheek. “Yeah, baby. Hard not to enjoy anything that gets you so worked up.”

He smiles into Keith’s hair and waits out his husband’s soft little snort of amusement.

“You sounded pretty into everything you were saying yourself,” Keith suggests, eyeing Shiro up.

“Did I?” Shiro rolls onto his back and slips come-coated fingers down under his own waistband, ready to take care of himself. He pulls his cock free of damp-spotted boxers and gives it a few slow strokes, thoughts straying back to all the threesome ideas he’d thrown at Keith. His cheeks warm, flustered to find they’re enough to stir excitement in him even without Keith twisting and panting under his touch.

Keith props himself up on an elbow, slides a slim hand down to Shiro’s hips, and wrests the thick, woefully neglected cock out of his hand. Under the downy thick comforter, everything is warm— but Keith most of all, his touch igniting a wave of tingly, electric heat that threatens to unravel Shiro then and there. “Here, let me.”

Shiro hums as his back arches and his toes point, every fiber of him responding enthusiastically to the feel of Keith’s callused fingers around him. “Mm. Please and thank you.”

“So,” Keith says as he palms between Shiro’s legs, over his balls, and then strokes all the way up his length again. “Anything you’d like me to talk about?”

“Hearing your voice is always nice.” Shiro grins, eyes closed, as Keith slithers in closer and warm breath billows over the shell of his ear.

“Is that what you want, Shiro?” he asks, a timid note somewhere under the deep, honeyed rasp of his voice. “To watch me getting fucked while you fuck me, too?”

Caught off guard, Shiro’s breath hitches. His eyes fly open and fix on the slats of the darkened ceiling, head cradled in the cloudy softness of his pillow while Keith keeps whispering in his ear. The hand around his length gives a slick twist on the next stroke, drawing him into a spine-bending little arch.

“Or maybe you’d like to be in the middle,” Keith softly suggests, pumping his cock quicker, with less control. “Buried all the way inside me while Kuro is—”

Shiro finishes before Keith does, letting out a shuddering, overwrought cry that surprises even himself. Wet spots of warmth splatter up his belly, over his chest. Some gets on the underside of the sheets, too, cooling quick and leaving sticky little damp spots that’ll bother him til they go dry.

But he’s too bonelessly content to even think about changing the linens at this hour, happily a mess as he snuggles Keith close and lets himself enjoy the satisfaction that blankets him as heavily as their down-stuffed comforter.

And now that his curiosity and horniness are both sated, Shiro tries not to dwell anymore on the rather unfortunately alluring thought of a threesome with Kuro.


Who will be returning at any moment.

Here. Eager to share their bed, as promised.

As if summoned by nothing more than a thought, Shiro can hear the clinking of heavy locks coming undone, one-by-one, followed by the closing of the weighty front door.

“Shit!” Keith whispers through his teeth, gesturing to himself and Shiro and the fresh mess they’ve made between them.

Panicked, Shiro leans over to grab a fistful of tissues from the box on his nightstand, handing off half to Keith so they can desperately try to clean up. There are no telltale steps down the hall to give them any warning, though. No creaking of wooden floorboards. 

Their bedroom door swings open and Kuro emerges from the hallway’s darkness like a ghost from fog, eerily silent. Though he wears a smile, he lingers at the threshold with shifting, skulking uncertainty, as if waiting for an invitation.

Shiro sighs, tosses a wad of soiled tissues at the trash bin on the other side of the bed, and says, “You can come in, if you’re not cold as ice.”

“Don’t worry, I fed while I was out,” Kuro says, beaming as he glides in.

His bright smile twists slightly at the corners as he draws closer, taking everything in with a brief flicker of puzzlement. His gaze slides from Shiro to Keith— visibly flushed and undoubtedly sticky under the covers, who chokes out a quick goodnight and rolls over facedown into his pillow— and then back again, one eyebrow arching slightly.

The look he lays on Shiro is knowing, the yearning and envy in those amber eyes barely veiled. On any other night, it would’ve given Shiro nothing but possessive satisfaction— and it still does, to a softened degree, but it’s hard to be smug when Kuro is half the reason they’re both in the state they’re in.

“Did I interrupt?” Kuro asks in quiet tones, still smiling even as his manner turns uncertain again.

Shiro can’t help the heat that rises up to his ears every time he looks up at Kuro now, too much of him still fresh in mind. “No. No, we’d just finished. Uh… sorry. About. This,” he awkwardly stumbles out, well aware that Keith is desperately pretending to be unconscious beside him. “We can take the sheets off and just sleep under the comforter.”

Kuro looks up and down the bed before leveling his stare back at Shiro, faintly bemused. “I don’t mind it as-is.”

“You…” Shiro opens his mouth, closes it, and grunts an acknowledgement. “Of course you don’t. I’m not sure why I was worried.”

“Just a little jealous is all,” Kuro admits as he pulls off Shiro’s clothes and leaves them in a careless pile on the floor. “But what’s new?”

Shiro hums and scoots further into the middle of the bed, making enough room for Kuro to fit in beside him. It’s less awkward than he’d have imagined, really— Keith seems to be feeling the brunt of that, currently self-cocooned and willfully pretending Kuro didn’t just walk in on them post-threesome fantasy talk.

Kuro is warm, this time. Freshly drained quintessence always makes him feel more alive, and over the years he’s learned how to take it from earth’s flora and fauna without leaving crumbling, lifeless destruction in his wake.

“I could’ve leant a hand, you know,” Kuro idly whispers as he stretches out beside him, head lolling to the side to study Shiro’s profile. A teasing, testing offer by the sound of it.

Shiro smiles, face blushing bright in the merciful dark, and exhales through his nose. “Thanks, but I had it all taken care of. Oh, but speaking of hands,” he adds, human fingers skimming along the seam of his prosthetic as he detaches it, “would you mind setting this on the nightstand?”

Kuro huffs but does it anyway, gently positioning the limb where he lays it.

“Thanks for going on patrol tonight,” Shiro murmurs, angling his head the slightest bit toward Kuro. In the dark, the rings of his irises gleam like perfect bands of gold, eerie and inhuman. “For keeping the woods safe. For keeping us safe. I appreciate it.”

That garners a genuine smile, Kuro openly flattered as he nuzzles deeper into Shiro’s soft pillow. “Anytime, Shiro.” He sighs, eyelashes fluttering, and gives a sleepy yawn. “I wanted to make sure there were no unwelcome surprises for Keith tomorrow. No little ankle-biters grabbing some hiker in the woods and making trouble for him.”

“I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to have a ghoul-free birthday,” Shiro murmurs, stifling a yawn of his own behind his remaining hand. He drops off quick, relaxed by the radiant warmth of the two bodies on either side of him, two sets of even breaths, two watchful amber eyes that won’t let harm even wander close. “Night, Kuro.”

He’s half asleep when his own voice hits his ears, barely a whisper. “Goodnight, Shiro.”

Chapter Text

Keith’s birthday starts slow, sleepy, and warm. The window curtains lighten by one soft, slight shade as the first cold rays of sun brighten the sky outside. Shiro rolls over and presses his lips to Keith’s brow and kiss him awake, but it’s a fight; Kuro’s hold on him is possessive and vine-like, strong arms bound tight around Shiro’s waist and his face buried against the slope of his shoulder.

“Hey, birthday boy,” Shiro whispers as Keith’s eyes flutter open and his expression turns from sleepy confusion to a delighted smile. “Time to wake up. I wanna give you your present before you leave for work.”

And this time, when Keith drowsily pushes himself up and takes in the tangle of Shiro and Kuro beside him, it’s with less furtiveness and embarrassment. There’s an unthinking swipe of his tongue across his bottom lip while he openly stares, liking what he sees.

The look makes something electric crackle in Shiro’s veins, heart jolting more firmly awake. Maybe the tickle of cool breath on his nape feeds the feeling, too. Or perhaps the thick, muscled thigh nudging against the backs of his own.

“Happy birthday,” Kuro says over Shiro’s shoulder, rousing last. One of the arms looped around Shiro’s waist stretches out to pat Keith’s knee where it sits under the lumpy comforter. “Congrats on surviving another year.”

“Thanks,” Keith snorts, his smile softening as he turns introspective. “Couldn’t have done it without the both of you. Truthfully.”

Shiro and Keith pull on warm sweaters and bundle up in heavy coats before stepping foot outside. Kuro trails behind them in just a henley and pajama pants, unbothered by the frigidness of dawn and the wind whistling through the trees.

Shiro leads them across the frost-blanketed yard, shivering. Within their largest shed, he dramatically pulls away a dusty tarp and reveals the new workbench underneath, complete with a mounted circular saw, its polished steel gleaming. It’s topped with a hand-tied red bow and curled ribbons, as festive as Shiro could make a three hundred-plus pound piece of hardware.

Keith brightens at the unveiling of his present. His dark eyes are wide as he bounces over, the cold briefly forgotten; his bare hands smooth appreciatively over the surface of the workbench and gingerly test the saw’s blade. Excitement getting the better of him, Keith starts rambling nonstop about all the carpentry projects he’ll be able to finish— the porch he’d promised, a cedar chest and new shelves for the laundry room, and maybe even an addition to the cabin itself.

“A sunroom would be nice,” Keith murmurs as he skims the owner’s manual, mostly to himself. “Or a mudroom to start…”

Shiro smiles, gratified and relieved to have done so well by his husband. The moment is marred only by Kuro, whose shadow stretches long from where he looms in the doorway. Shiro half expects him to pull out his neatly boxed star ruby and one-up him then and there, flooring Keith with a gift rarer and richer than anything Shiro has ever been able to give him.

But Kuro only returns his faintly worried look with a smile and a little shake of his head, his shoulder resting easy against the frame as he goes back to watching Keith delight over the new saw.

Once Keith is done taking pictures, he pulls Shiro in for a kiss so sudden that it takes him aback. He stumbles forward, right into Keith’s arms, and giggles softly as soft lips smush messily against his own. Kuro watches that, too, the weight of his stare heavy enough to bring a flush to Shiro’s skin.

“Thank you, Shiro. I love it,” Keith tells him just before he hustles back to the cabin to get ready for work, turning to look back over his shoulder more than once as he crosses the yard.

With no work scheduled for the day, Shiro lingers outside to appreciate the pink and gold skies, already running through a mental list of everything he needs to make ready for Keith’s party tonight. His breaths form cloudy little puffs in the crisp air. The cold slips in around his legs, where he’s least protected. But the high of Keith’s happiness with his gift keeps him warm for a while, relief bathing him like the radiant heat of a bonfire.

Kuro dawdles with him, barely making a sound as he comes to stand at Shiro’s back and rest a chin on his shoulder.

Months back, Shiro would’ve found it irritating at best and potentially sinister at worst. Now, it only reads as a craving for contact and comfort, a tactile necessity that Shiro can relate to all too well. He’s probably the reason Kuro is like this to begin with, as hungry for touch and affection as he is for quintessence.

Shiro draws a deep breath and eases back on his heels just an inch. Maybe less. His back meets Kuro’s front, cool and solid and supportive against his gentle lean while they watch the sun peek over the ridges of tree-blanketed mountains.

Shiro even closes his eyes while he soaks in those first rays, unworried about anything unnatural creeping out from their shed or woodpile to scrabble at his ankles or lunge in for a bite. Kuro is good for that, driving away even the internalized fear of the creatures from the void— like a well-meaning wolf guarding a flock, more keen on bedding down with his sheep than eating them.

“When are you going to give him your present?” Shiro asks after a few more minutes pass, the chill finally forcing him to shuffle toward the cabin with Kuro close in tow.

“Later. When the time feels right.”

Shiro hums under his breath. “It’s a real stunner, you know. Keith and fine jewelry usually don’t mix,” he says, thinking of his husband’s fondness for all things durable, practical, and easy to wear on long hikes. “But I can see him in that. On a necklace, maybe. With a gold chain.”

Kuro smiles toothily as he opens the door and lets Shiro pass through first, one sharp canine glinting. “I can picture that, too.”

- - - ☾ - - -

They throw the party after-hours at the park’s central office. Shiro decorates while Keith is out on the trails, glad for a second pair of helping hands as Kuro helps hang paper stars and set up the snack table.

Rangers that Shiro mostly knows by name or face show up early and mill around, pecking at the spread of snacks long before Keith’s even due to arrive. And when they ask if he and Kuro are twins, Shiro is at a loss for what to say.

“Cousins, actually,” Kuro smoothly answers for him, his smile charming and disarming to anyone without a clue as to what he really is. “I’ve been visiting for the week. Kuro Shirogane.”

Kuro shakes hands and distracts the growing band of hungry rangers, much to Shiro’s quiet gratitude. Inwardly, though, he’s mildly annoyed at himself for not planning an explanation sooner— their similarities are undeniable, and many of the older park staff have known Shiro long enough to question a brother they’d never heard tell of.

‘Cousins’ works, though. And Kuro seems mightily pleased with the little deception, shooting Shiro proud, smug-mouthed grins whenever no one else is looking.

By the time Hunk arrives with the cake and Allura breezes in with a hefty case of champagne and liquor, the office is buzzing with Keith’s coworkers, employees, and their mutual friends. Lance is the last to show up, having faithfully carried out his assigned task of keeping Keith away and preoccupied until party time.

Keith walks though the glass doors to applause, whistles, and boisterous cheers of happy birthday! It’s not much of a surprise, but early on, Shiro had made the executive decision to avoid anything that involves their unwitting acquaintances leaping out at Keith from the dark. His reflexes are honed as sharp as the knife at his hip, which is great for hunting monsters but terrible for late-night surprise parties stationed up in the woods.

Not that they need the shock-factor, anyway. Keith is overwhelmed enough by the outpouring of affection from the rest of the staff and all his friends, hugging each of them in turn. He lingers the longest with Hunk, Shiro, and Kuro, his face cherry red from the focused attention of two dozen people.

It’s a bigger event than what Keith would naturally choose, swarming with people outside of their tight-knit group of friends. It’s too big for Shiro’s liking, too, if he’s honest. But Keith’s rangers and the work he does here are a cornerstone of his life, part of the purpose that drives him to fight so hard to keep these woods safe, and Shiro can scarcely imagine leaving them out of the celebration.

 Lance steers Keith over to the small pile of presents stacked neatly beside the cake. “The sooner you open these, the sooner we can swarm all over Hunk’s amazing cake.”

So Keith does, still blushing as he fumblingly unwraps a new set of walkie-talkies from his staff, a gag gift from Pidge and Lance, an expensive-looking rain jacket from Allura and Coran, and a homemade coupon-book from Hunk.

Shiro peruses it while Keith cuts the cake and gets his first drink in, smiling at pages labeled one gourmet meal for two and date night cooking lessons and PICK A DESSERT and one instant-forgiveness for oversharing about your and Shiro’s sex life.

“Things with Kuro must be going well,” Allura mutters under her breath as she slinks up to his side, a half-drunk flute of champagne in hand. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen you two together in public.”

“We went to the grocery store in town together this morning,” Shiro tells her, miming her little shrug of surprise right back. “It was like shopping with a kid. I think he went through the six stages of grief every time I told him he had to put something back.”

Not that it was all bad. They got the shopping done in record time, and Kuro knew exactly how Shiro liked to order the groceries on the conveyor belt at checkout and how to bag them, too.

“It was a little bit fun, though,” he admits a moment later, accepting a small sip from Allura’s offered glass. “We talked about stuff from when I was in high school. College. It was… weird, but kind of nice, having someone who I can talk to who was— there, in a sense? Oh, and we’re telling people we’re cousins.”

“Cousins,” Allura says, her perfect eyebrows lifting. She finishes off her glass in one last swig. “Got it. And he certainly seems to be enjoying himself, doesn’t he?”

“He does,” Shiro observes, equal parts amused and unsettled by how easily Kuro can blend in when he wants to.

A gaggle of rangers and park staff stand arrayed around him, all of them starry eyed at his model-good looks and intricate tattoos and stories of traveling the world far and wide. Kuro certainly doesn’t look bothered by all the attention, but he’s smilingly amiable at best, his gaze reliably drifting to either Shiro or Keith a few times every minute. Checking on them or checking them out.

Both, more likely. The thought makes Shiro warm up to his ears.

He cools down with a red solo cup of spiked punch, careful to pace himself through it. He’s in no mood to make a drunken ass of himself and repeat the mortification of Allura’s Halloween party five years back. Or her New Year’s one before that.

In the middle of thanking Hunk for whipping up such a beautiful and delicious cake, Shiro spies Kuro across the room, beckoning Keith halfway down a dim hallway.

To give him his gift, Shiro safely assumes. He can’t see Keith’s expression from this angle, but he’s sure the ruby stuns him— as it should, unusual and beautiful as it is. Kuro’s fanged smile gleams broad and white like sun-bleached bone, eyes dark and sparkling at the sight of Keith’s awe; and when Keith thanks him with a one-armed hug, Kuro’s expression shifts to something hungrier, needier, tightly but barely restrained.

Shiro watches, but that’s all. Keith is better at handling Kuro than anyone else on earth, and Kuro is… Kuro is trying.

Shiro is trying, too.

He smiles when Keith comes back to him, Kuro trailing at his side like a direwolf brought to heel.

“Did Kuro already show you what he got me?” Keith asks, fighting hard to keep his grin to a minimum. The black giftbox is in his hand, safe in the clutch of strong, pale fingers.

“He did.” Shiro puts a hand on Keith’s waist and pulls him in to press a kiss to his forehead. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Clearly stolen,” he adds, shooting Kuro a look, “but beautiful. It suits you.”

Keith hums and opens the box just a sliver, peering inside at the ruby nestled on dark satin. His cheeks are bright, though it’s hard to tell how much of it is from the extravagant gift, the drinks, or the building warmth in the room. “I’m not sure how to wear it.”

“Shiro and I were thinking... a necklace,” Kuro suggest, a fingernail trailing delicately across Keith’s nape. “Gold chain. But I could find a jeweler to do whatever you want with it.”

Keith hums low, considering it. “A necklace sounds good,” he decides, glancing to each of them in turn. “It’d be pretty.”

It would. Shiro can already imagine it on Keith’s bare skin, ribbon-thin metal catching the light and the teardrop cabochon ruby resting just under the dip of his clavicle.

“It’ll go nicely with your ring,” Kuro adds, gaze dropping to the band around Keith’s finger.

Shiro does one better and takes Keith’s hand, thumbing over the polished gold. “It really will.”

Keith smiles, not quite looking either of them in the eye as he presses the boxed gem back into Kuro’s hand and curls his fingers around it. “Necklace it is, then. I don’t know how long that takes, but you can bring it back whenever it’s finished. And thank you again, Kuro. I love it. I’m looking forward to wearing it.”

If it’s possible, Kuro’s grin grows more pleased. He slips the delicate box back into his pocket, glad for a ready excuse to return to them again in the near future.

Keith is swept away by Pidge and Hunk shortly after, plied with another drink as they drag him over to the snack buffet to make sure he samples everything. Lance makes sweaty, nervous smalltalk with Kuro, his laughter skewing high-pitched whenever Kuro says anything halfway amusing. And once Allura’s favorite song starts up, she strongarms Shiro out onto the makeshift dancefloor in the middle of the lobby and refuses to take no for an answer.

She’s graceful even half-drunk, deftly managing not to spill the rest of her pastel pink cocktail as they wheel around the floor together. Keith cuts in not long after, pulling Shiro in to a slow shuffle despite the quick rhythm of whatever music Lance has playing.

“Thank you, Shiro,” he murmurs close, his breath smelling of apples, cinnamon, and sharp liquor. He’s always been better about holding his alcohol, and now is no different— he moves with a looser, easier air, steadier on his feet after three or four drinks than Shiro would be after two. “For the party. I love it. And I’m normally not into parties, you know.”

“I know,” Shiro whispers back, playing like they’re at something conspiratorial. “Did you like the cake? It’s extra special red velvet. Hunk made me drive two hours to a local dairy to get the buttermilk and cream cheese. Very artisanal.”

“I loved the cake. I love Hunk. And you most of all,” he says, expression softening as he cups Shiro’s cheeks between his palms and stares up through a fringe of long, silky lashes, stars in his eyes. “And—”

“Can I…” Kuro trails off as Keith and Shiro both turn toward him in unison, surprised at the abrupt interruption. Whatever confidence he’d had as he approached bleeds away in an instant. “Oh. Never mind. I’ll wait—”

“Kuro,” Shiro sighs, snagging the front of his sweater before he can slink away. “It’s fine, you can have a dance with Keith. Right?” he adds, looking to Keith for confirmation.

“Yeah. If you don’t mind,” Keith says, mirroring the same look back at Shiro. He laughs softly as Shiro leans in and kisses his cheek in answer.

“Behave yourself,” Shiro mutters to Kuro as he goes, poking a metal knuckle into his doppelganger’s side. Over Keith’s shoulder, he makes a little gesture to let Kuro know he’ll be watching.

With a sappy grin, Kuro loops an arm around Keith’s waist and starts them slowly rocking side to side, a curl at the corners of his mouth as he and Keith talk beneath the beat of the slowing music.

Lance’s drunken crooning to the lyrics is as good a sign as any that the party is dead on its feet, and so Shiro starts busying himself with cleanup duty while keeping a cursory eye on Kuro. He’s in the middle of stuffing paper plates smeared with frosting and biodegradable cups that reek of cinnamon liquor and blood red fruit punch into a trash bag when Allura rounds on him like he’s a thieving raccoon getting into her bins again.

“Stand down, Shirogane,” she orders, very commanding despite the little smears of pink frosting along her upper cheeks. “You took care of the planning and prep and you’ve worked hard enough tonight. Lance and I can handle the cleanup.”

Doubtful, Shiro casts a sideways look at Lance, currently draped over an amp as he whines out the lyrics to the mushy love song playing. “You don’t have to worry about me, Allura. It’s not a problem.”

“It’s not about you, Shiro,” Allura says, though not unkindly. She waggles her eyebrows— a move picked up from Lance, unfortunately— and gives his ribs an elbow. “I imagine there are places and ways that Keith would much rather spend the last hours of his birthday than here, while you pick up rubbish. Now go. Go to him!”

The trash bag is wrested from his hands and he’s herded to the edge of the dancefloor, where he waits for the song to finish before interrupting. It takes a few deep breaths, but he ignores the flickering little twists of jealousy in his gut— the kind he imagines Kuro must feel whenever he sees them together, caught on the outside and looking in.

He checks his pretty new watch for the time, surprised to see the minute-hand ticking close to midnight. Most of the rangers are still drinking and boisterously singing along to the music as they sway, happy for the excuse to let loose amid the coming of fall and winter and colder, longer nights. Shiro weaves through them, a little bit tipsy himself, eager to reach Kuro and Keith where they still linger in each other’s arms.

“Hey, baby,” he greets, crowding in close and dropping his voice so only Keith and Kuro can hear. The dark, gentle waves of Keith’s grown-out hair are irresistible, especially under the glow of the tinted lights, and Shiro impulsively curls his fingers through the slightly coarse strands. He’s gentle as he brings his hand around to cup Keith’s jaw, a thumb skimming dangerously close to his pretty little mouth. “Ready to go home?”

“Almost,” Keith says, his head tipping forward just enough to bring the pad of Shiro’s thumb to his lips and gently pinch its tip between his teeth. He lets go just as easily, smiling mischievously.

Allura was right. Shiro can think of a thousand things he’d rather be doing with Keith right now than waiting around as the party fizzles out. And judging by the quick little nibble of his bottom lip and a flash of dark bedroom eyes, Keith is similarly inclined.

“One more dance,” Kuro chimes in, his amber-gold eyes turning on Shiro in a look of honeyed pleading. “Please, Shiro?”

Shiro sighs, in no mood to argue if Keith wants to keep dancing. “Fine, but then we ought to head home. Allura might chase me out if we hang around too long.”

A hand clutches his before he can turn away, the cool breadth of a palm meeting his own and grasping firm. With an easy tug, Shiro finds himself drawn in front of Kuro, toe-to-toe. He blinks before a pair of unflinchingly inhuman eyes, at a loss, and is started by a tender pat of his shoulder as Keith peels off alone.

Kuro settles his other hand at Shiro’s waist and starts them moving, maneuvering a lead-footed Shiro around the drunken partygoers still ambling around the dancefloor. More or less instinctively, Shiro’s right hand goes to Kuro’s shoulder. Even as he finds the step and keeps it— it feels like a dance he and Allura learned together in graduate school— he can’t help but wonder what’s happening.

“What are you…?”

“Dancing,” Kuro says, his teeth bright even under the dim lighting. His voice is lower as he leans in, rumbling deep in a pitch Shiro recognizes as his own. “With my other favorite human.”

“Oh.” There’s nothing suggestive in how Kuro holds him, his touch gentlemanly and plenty of space left between them, and yet… 

Shiro feels a flush creeping up the back of his neck, the heat under his cashmere sweater building with every passing second. It doesn’t help that Kuro eyes him like that, sharp gaze dipping down Shiro’s front more than once, nearly as overtly desirous as the way he stares after Keith.

Shiro nearly laughs as he’s thrown into an abrupt spin, a firm hand keeping him steady when he wobbles on his feet from the slight haze of that thoroughly spiked punch. And this time, when Kuro pulls him back in, there’s not much space between them at all.

“Thank you, Shiro,” Kuro says, voice dipping under the notes of the music playing in the background and a chorus of off-tune voices.

“For what?”

“For giving me another chance. Letting me in. Trusting me with Keith,” he says as their practiced steps slow into something more like aimless highschool shuffling. “You didn’t have to. And I know none of it was easy.”

Shiro gives a soft snort, more reluctantly affectionate than anything else. “What can I say? You’ve grown on me, I guess.”

Kuro hums and dons a pleased, catlike smile for the rest of their aimless, traipsing dance. While they turn, Shiro catches a fleeting glimpse of Keith where he stands by the table littered with empty bottles of champagne and whiskey and fruity vodka.

He’s half-shrouded in blue-tinted shadow, cutting a handsome silhouette. Lean. Intense. The fingers of one hand absently toy with his lower lip as his gaze trails longingly after them, like it’s a treat just to see them sharing a good time.

“Better not keep him waiting too long,” Kuro sighs in Shiro’s ear, giving his shoulder a squeeze just before he breaks away and the music runs dry. “We still have the ride home.”

Shiro has no argument with that. They say their goodbyes and exchange hugs with friends so close they’re like family, leaving with arms laden full of gifts and leftover food.

There’s just a touch of fog in Shiro’s head as they brave the cold clarity of the nighttime mountain air, Keith tucked against his side as he steers him toward the Jeep. Kuro follows behind with the keys clinking in his hand, sputtering out poorly masked laughs every time one or the other of them teeters.

If Shiro is just the tiniest bit tipsy, then Keith is pleasantly buzzed. It makes him clingier, needier, prone to soft giggles over nothing at all. He and Shiro topple into the backseat of his Jeep and fumble with their seatbelts while Kuro settles in behind the wheel, the designated driver by virtue of his inability to become inebriated.

His organs don’t function the way human ones do, if he has any at all. For all his idle, passing curiosity when Kuro’s eccentricities show, Shiro’s never asked.

They hurtle down wooded roads in the full, deep dark of night, Kuro’s foot like lead on the pedal. The radio crackles with static when it ought to be playing turn-of-the-decade pop. Leftover cake and a small mound of presents sit in the front passenger seat, safe from harm. And the heat takes far, far too long to filter its way to the chilly backseat.

Shiro is welcome for the warm hand that finds his shoulder in the dark and runs its way down to his wrist, drawing his hand up to be kissed by a set of loving lips. He’s m welcome still when Keith’s other hand travels up the swell of his thigh, squeezing fondly, and then dips between his jean-clad legs. 

Kissing Keith in the backseat makes Shiro feel like he’s in high school or college again, hips rocking slow against the hand cupped over the front of his jeans. Keith still tastes faintly of that awful, fiery cinnamon whiskey he likes but his mouth is wonderfully warm and inviting. Enough to get lost in, Shiro’s eyes slipping half shut as Keith undoes his zipper an inch at a time and their kisses turn messy and half-met. And it’s only when Shiro hears a soft exhale that doesn’t belong to either of them that he remembers they aren’t alone. 

Piercingly golden eyes hang in the rearview mirror, watching them rather than the road. Shiro holds Kuro’s gaze even as Keith keeps mouthing at him, oblivious and imploring; their eyes stay locked even as he blinks slow and blindly resumes kissing Keith back, catching his bottom lip between his teeth before lazily letting it slip away.

By the time they pull up the drive and Kuro lurches the Jeep into an abrupt park, Shiro is sweltering under the nice cable knit of his sweater and the tight confines of his briefs.

“Time to head in, kids,” Kuro says as the engine goes quiet and the headlights are all that pierce through the dark ahead. “You don’t want any monsters catching you fucking in a car in the woods.”

Shiro halfway smiles. Keith is giggling all over again.

They stagger to the cabin, less from a night of drinking and more from the way Keith insistently clings and paws at Shiro’s clothes. As soon as the door is open, their coats are off and on the floor, and Kuro—

He still stands outside, at the bottom of the porch stairs.

“Kuro?” Shiro peers out at him, shivering from the cold and the crawl of Keith’s fingers under his shirt.

“I’ll take a lap around the woods. Or three,” Kuro calls back, his hands buried deep in his pockets and his shoulders drawn square. His gaze lingers on the two of them a second longer and then suddenly it’s as though he can’t bear to look at them at all. “That ought to give you an hour or two alone.”

“Oh.” Shiro’s mouth thins.

In his arms, Keith sobers at the mention of Kuro spending the deepest hours of night cold and lonely; his fist knots in the fabric of Shiro’s sweater, wrenching him closer even as he stares out at Kuro. Shiro feels a pang of something just like it, illogically worried about Kuro wandering the woods by himself— and more than that, too.

Kuro’s presence feels almost natural now, and some part of Shiro had assumed he’d stay doggedly by their sides. That he’d insist on it, maybe. Or beg for it.

But it’s more like him to bottle it up as best he can and distance himself, even while hoping someone who cares will chase after him anyway. Shiro knows that inclination better than he’d like to.

“You don’t have to go, Kuro,” he says, head tilting. He draws Keith a little closer, a hand smoothing down the length of his side, and turns his gaze down to meet violet-blue eyes. “Not if you want him to stay, too.”


“For whatever you want, Keith. Anything you want. It’s your birthday,” Shiro reminds him, though he shoots a slow, sidelong look out to Kuro, too. “And I’m sure Kuro’d be happy to oblige us.”

Keith is shocked under his blush, stammering for words until he settles on, “Shiro, I’d never ask you to do this—”

“I’m offering.” Shiro smiles as he cups his husband’s cherry-red face and touches a kiss to his lips. “If you want it. Us.”

Keith’s nod starts slow, dazed, half in disbelief. His eyes skim to the side, wide pupils slowly tracking upward; silent as a nightowl, Kuro already stands in the doorway, eagerly poised to take them up on the offer.

In a breathy, subdued whisper, Keith says, “I do.”

And just like that, they have an understanding.

All at once, quick enough to leave Shiro’s thoughts spinning, two pairs of hands are urging him forward, down the hallway. Behind him, distantly, he can hear the clinking of the locks being thrown into place long after they’re gone, Kuro’s eerie powers at work.

Shiro is already breathing heavy by the time they reach the bedroom, wondering if he’ll regret offering up himself and Kuro to their otherworldly interloper. If he’ll spend the night vying for Keith’s affection and attention. If Kuro will let things go back to normal tomorrow morning, minding their boundaries again, or if the rich taste of everything he’s been yearning for will only make him crave it more fiercely.

Shiro doesn’t even know what to do with himself, really, standing stiltedly in the dark with his pulse hammering away in his veins.

Keith seems to know what he’s doing, though, or at the very least his gut instincts are strong enough for him to take the lead. He rises up on his tiptoes and catches Shiro in a needy kiss, whole body leaning into his broader, heavier frame. Insistent and amorous, Keith gradually forces him back a few inches, and then a few more, until the backs of Shiro’s calves hit the sturdy wooden slats along the base of the bed.

Shiro’s eyes fall closed, briefly lost in how good it is to have Keith pressed against him, deft hands helping to undo his clothes, with a wet mouth firmly planted against his own. Keith is all lean, supple muscle, his skin as heated as fresh embers; his touch trails warmth like a comet’s tail, tingles and goosebumps left in its wake.

His eyes fly open again at the strange and familiar sensation of another touch. Cooler. Lighter. Fingertips blunter than Keith’s ghost up his flanks, feeling him out.

Behind Keith, barely glanced by the warm light spilling in from the hallway, Kuro looms like a shadow given form. With permission freely handed to him, he’s wasted no time in wrapping himself around Keith and sinking his teeth in; his mouth is already planted on a stretch of bare shoulder, kissing a path up to the crook of a strong, slender neck. Their dark hair blends together as he noses closer and closer, losing himself in Keith just as quickly as Shiro does.

With a little push— either from Keith or the combined weight of him and Kuro leaning forward— Shiro falls back onto the bed. The bedroom’s air stings coolly as his clothes are pushed off and his bare, scarred skin exposed. And through it all, he has Keith’s lips on his, hungry with affection, and the weight of slim hips bearing down right between the slight splay of his legs.

Above, Kuro folds over them like a beast protecting his prey from scavengers and unwanted eyes. His knee nudges Shiro’s legs open wider, making room for himself. While one tattooed arm braces against the mattress, the other curls around Keith, a broad hand stroking down his slim chest all the way down to the low-slung band of his boxers. Fingers slip under, working the elastic further down Keith’s hips, and— 

And for all Shiro’s willingness, his desire to please Keith and forge something new with Kuro, the thought of someone else’s hands on his husband still needles, still dredges up worries that he’ll lose him for good one day.

With a surging swell of possessiveness, Shiro slips a hand between Keith’s back and Kuro’s front to wrench him closer. His tongue drags over the sweat-salted skin of Keith’s cheek and across his jaw, laying claim an inch at a time; metal fingers curl into pretty locks of dark hair, drawing its curtain aside and baring a healthy strip of unmarred neck for him to brace his teeth against and leave a bruising lovebite.

Keith moans through it, pushing his hips down into Shiro and practically pinning him to the bed. Over his shoulder, gold eyes gleam bright amid deep shadows, piercing where they fix on Shiro. Kuro rumbles as he leans down to mark Keith’s other shoulder, his heaviness grinding them both down; the coils of the mattress squeak under Shiro’s back as he’s flattened into its pillowtop, Keith crushed against him.

And then the pressure abruptly lessens, Kuro kissing into Keith’s hair before rolling off of him and to the side. He bounces onto the bed maybe a foot from Shiro, stretched out by his side. Kuro grunts as he slips out of his black jeans, hips rising off the bed, and Shiro can’t help but be distracted by the cock that springs loose as soon as the waistband is tugged down.

It’s familiar. Awfully familiar. The same slight curve, the same heavy hang to it, the same generous girth and length. Identical right down to the shape of the crown and the faint color of the veins under deeply flushed skin.

Keith’s taken notice, too, his bottom lip sucked in between his teeth as he lays atop Shiro and takes in all of Kuro stretched out beside them.

And in the brief, heavy-breathed pause, Shiro has to ask. “You changed so many other little things about yourself. Why not that, too?”

“Why would I change your cock? It’s perfect,” Kuro says, giving himself a few languid strokes. “I have yet to see one better.”

Keith makes a soft, choked sound of agreement and mutters, “Can’t argue with that logic,” while absently stroking Shiro’s hair.

And it is flattering. And probably the least odd thing about Kuro and the many points of connection they have. “Uh, thanks. I’m glad you like it?”

Kuro only smiles, eyes on Shiro as he runs a hand down Keith’s bare back and over his ass, palming firm enough that Shiro can feel the jut of Keith’s hips press into him as a direct effect. 

Shiro lifts his chin above another rolling wave of possessive jealousy— this one with a new flavor, animalistically urging him to take Keith right in front of Kuro, showing who he rightfully belongs to— and instead smiles up at Keith. “What do you want to do first, baby?”

Kiss-marked and wild-haired, Keith already looks like he’s been through the wringer. His mouth opens, silently works, and closes again. He looks from Shiro to Kuro in turn, eyebrows drawing up uncertainly. “I don’t know. There’s so much, and I never— I didn’t think anything like this would ever happen, so I…”

“We have all night,” Shiro soothes as he clasps his hands around Keith’s hips and then slides them up to bracket his narrow middle.

“You could leave it up to us,” Kuro suggests, watching the movement of Shiro’s hands with gold-glazed eyes. “We’ll take care of you.”

“Yeah,” Keith says, leaning into Shiro’s touch. The corner of his mouth curls in excitement, already a little breathless. “Yeah, do that. Please.”

Gently, Shiro rolls Keith off of him and onto the empty sliver of mattress between him and Kuro. Keith shudders the second his back hits the cool bedcovers, dark nipples standing pert as his back arches in anticipation.

Shiro closes his mouth over the nearest one, tongue working circles around the raised bud. His hand slowly slides down, down, down the length of Keith, rubbing over his soft inner thigh before drawing back up to wrap around his pretty, blushing cock.

He gives it a loving little squeeze and thinks back to the night before, stroking Keith off to thoughts of exactly what they’re doing now. Keith’s length is heavy and hot in the coil of his fingers, already slick and twitching. Shiro thumbs around its head slow and teasing, toying with the precum that just keeps spilling out.

And while Keith flexes and softly sighs under him, Kuro sits up and goes straight for the drawer with the lube, tossing the closed bottle onto the middle of the bed as soon as he’s finished with it. He follows Shiro’s suit, smiling devilishly as he drags his tongue across Keith’s other nipple, tracing the same path until Keith cries out. His gleaming, oily-coated fingers vanish down between the spread of Keith’s thighs; Shiro can tell right when the first one slips inside, Keith’s whole body giving a squirm.

With one last, tender kiss over Keith’s bite-ringed nipple, Shiro tracks lower, leaving a wet trail of them all down his ribs and slightly ticklish belly. He colors pale, slender hips with rosy lovebites, until his lips touch the base of Keith’s cock and he mouths his way up its length. His lips pillow against its crown in a sticky, salty kiss, and then Shiro swallows him down in a single smooth motion.

From where his head bobs up and down on Keith’s cock, Shiro can watch as Kuro leans up and catches his husband’s mouth in a dominating kiss, swallowing up Keith’s growing whimpers and moans. A slim hand digs into his hair, fisting tight and encouraging within pale, silvery-white strands. The hips under Shiro’s jaw buck upward— once, twice, pushing himself down Shiro’s throat as the curl of Kuro’s strong, thick fingers inside of him forces him to an abrupt orgasm.

It hits the back of Shiro’s throat and fills his mouth, the taste strong and familiar. The hand clasped at the back of Shiro’s head relaxes, trembling, and instead comes around to cup along his cheek and over his ear.

Keith shivers as his spent cock is licked clean, writhing down into the mattress in a weak effort to escape the intensity of the sensation. While Kuro moves on to nuzzling against his neck, Keith makes soft little murmurs, his slim, kiss-marked chest heaving.

“Good start?” Shiro asks as he sits up, wiping the corner of his mouth with the back of his wrist.

Keith pushes his hair back and laughs softly, staring up at the ceiling. “Try amazing. I can’t believe there’s going to be more like that.”

“Better than that, even,” Kuro says, a hand on Keith’s hip as he encourages him to roll over and onto his knees.

Once seated atop folded legs, with Shiro and Kuro both bared and naked and hard just for him, Keith seems to lose himself for a moment. His hands curl against his thighs, nails digging into the heels of his palms; his bottom lip blanches where he bites down onto it. And then, as if remembering that he’s allowed to want and to touch— and to do anything at all, really— Keith reaches out to feel both of them.

One hand slides its way up Shiro’s thigh, kneading at thickly set muscle. The backs of his knuckles brush over Shiro’s balls, light enough to be teasing, before he wraps his fingers as far as they’ll go around the base of his cock. His other hand traces the sharp planes of Kuro’s hips, admiring the stark set of his adonis belt, before slim fingers grasp him, too.

Shiro’s breaths quicken under Keith’s touch, grateful for any contact to help sate the need building inside him. Kuro looks just as relieved, his head lolling to the side to watch Shiro as they’re stroked in time. And Keith…

Keith is thoroughly enjoying himself. He marvels at the weighty cock in each hand, feeling them up from root to tip; the barest pink of his tongue peeks out as his expression turns preoccupied, contemplating everything he could do with two of them. This close to each other, it’s easier to admire how Kuro’s dick is a spitting image of Shiro’s own. It has the same heft, the same swing, the same breadth that Keith’s fingers can’t quite fit around.

And as Keith bends over and puts his mouth around Kuro, swallowing down as much of him that will fit, Shiro notices that the stretch of Keith’s lips around his girth is the same, too.

The hand wrapped around Shiro doesn’t stop moving, even while Keith is mouthing and licking and sucking at Kuro’s cock. They’re angled close enough that Keith can twist a little and bring Shiro’s dick just as close, letting its slick, shiny head and the twitching heat of his length rub against his cheek, his jaw, the side of his spit-wetted mouth. And then, without missing a beat, he pulls off of Kuro and sinks onto Shiro instead, dark eyes lifting to watch his expression melt with every hungrily taken inch.

Shiro’s head drops back of its own accord, eyes closed as he drinks in the feel of a hot, soft mouth around him and a firm tongue pressed to the sensitive underside of his dick. His metal fingers clench into the bedspread, wringing it tight; his other hand finds the thick tangle of Keith’s midnight hair and makes it messier, digging in deep as he helps guide Keith’s mouth further down his length. 

If the bed jostles, he pays it no mind. In the moment, Shiro has no eyes or ears or senses for anyone but Keith, blissfully distracted by everything his silky mouth does. And when he opens his eyes again, his peace of mind lapsing while Keith catches his breath, Shiro is met with an unblinking, faintly glowing stare.

From the opposite end of Keith, it turns out. Kuro rests one knee on the edge of the mattress, positioned right behind Keith’s tucked legs. And while Keith picks up where he left off, attentively sliding up and down Shiro’s cock, Kuro takes him by the hips and guides him up, forward, onto his elbows and knees with his face buried in Shiro’s lap. 

“Good boy,” Kuro purrs, running a hand appreciatively up the curve of Keith’s ass. His forearm flexes as he slips his fingers in again, steady despite the eager pushback he receives as Keith impetuously seeks more. It shows a remarkable amount of restraint— for Kuro, anyway.

At least until he’s lining up his cock with Keith and Shiro can see the control that Kuro’s endeavored so hard to foster in himself beginning to fray at the edges, to give way to shines of his old selfish impulse. Impulses they share. Ones that Shiro sometimes gives in to just as readily, especially when it comes to Keith.

Kuro manages to ease himself in slow, though it obviously pains him to prolong the wait for what he’s been missing for years. His fingers bruise where they dig hard into Keith’s hips, but Keith’s always had a liking for that— for being marked, whether by hand or mouth or teeth, and surely Kuro remembers.

By the time he’s halfway inside Keith, Kuro’s strong frame trembles with rapt desire. His upper lip curls in a faint snarl as temptation gets the better of him, grip tightening around Keith’s hips as he’s overwhelmed. One greedy, vigorous thrust sends Kuro sliding the rest of the way home, and all of Keith jerks forward with it.

The cock in Keith’s mouth suddenly rams the back of his throat, catching him at just the wrong angle. He sputters as he pulls off in one desperate motion and gasps for air, thin trails of saliva still connecting his mouth to the bobbing weight of Shiro’s dick.

“Fuck,” Shiro growls, eyeing Kuro as he cradles Keith’s head and waits for him to catch his breath again. “Be careful, Kuro.”

“Sorry, Keith,” is Kuro’s immediate apology, his husky tone tinged with genuine concern. Buried in Keith to the hilt, he’s content to hold still long enough to let him grow comfortable; his hands knead soothing little circles above the dimples in Keith’s lower back, trying to appease him.

“‘S fine,” Keith mumbles out, voice hoarse. He nuzzles into Shiro’s touch, his swollen lips brushing against the side of his cock. “Feels good. Just… took me by surprise. First time doing both at once.”

Shiro’s dick jumps at that raspy timber, so long associated with a thoroughly throat-fucked Keith. “If you need a break, just say so,” he says, smoothing back Keith’s hair. They should’ve braided it beforehand to keep it out of the way, or at least swept it back in a quick ponytail.

Keith flashes him a look that promises he’ll push himself to the brink before backing down… which is par for the course where Keith is concerned.

Dark eyes glinting with resolve, Keith lays a wet kiss at the tip of Shiro’s dick before sheathing it within his mouth. Long lashes fan over his cheeks as his eyes go half-lidded, then fall closed. Muffled moans reverberate along Shiro’s delicate, spit-slicked skin as Kuro starts moving again, slow and even while Keith adjusts to the fresh sensation of being speared at both ends.

And the quicker Kuro fucks into him, the harder he snaps his hips forward, the more Keith enjoys it. He bows his back into it, a natural at finding that perfect angle and so accustomed to the fit of Shiro’s cock— or Kuro’s, in this case. And every rock forward gives him a little leverage to work Shiro deeper down his throat, determined to swallow him down to the root.

It stirs a peculiar sort of pride in Shiro, watching Keith take him like a champion. And Kuro, too. He’s always beautiful, but there’s something special in this— a sheen on his skin, his hair knotted around curled fingers, his pretty ass red from hard fucking, his face a plain picture of breathtaking pleasure. It excites Shiro. Thrills him. It makes his knees weaken and all his strength flee, perpetually awed and amazed that he alone gets to have Keith like this.

Well. He and Kuro.

Sharing Keith is as arousing as it is intrusive, flustering, awkward to adapt to. And Shiro can’t imagine attempting it with anyone but Kuro, strange as the thought is to reckon with. Anyone else’s hands on Keith like this would be a violation, a boundary crossed and unforgiven, but with Kuro, it’s… it’s different. Incomparable. Kuro isn’t him, no, but they’re alike enough that Shiro can grasp why Keith is drawn to him. Hell, he’s felt it, too.

And when Shiro isn’t looking at the shapely lines of Keith’s sweaty back or the slick glide of his lips, his eye is drawn to upward, beyond Keith, to his doppelganger instead.

Furtively, at first, sneaking glances while Kuro is more focused on holding Keith’s hips steady or spreading his cheeks to better watch the length of his cock sink inside him. He eyes the way Kuro’s body rolls into every thrust, smooth and confident and hinting at the power he tries not to lord over them. He traces the sinews of two strong arms and wonders how those pointed teeth must feel as they gently sink into flesh, tender when they could be rending.

And for the briefest flickers, when Shiro’s attention drifts back to Keith and he forgets himself, he glances up and almost mistakes Kuro for his own reflection— younger and dark-haired, better fitting the image of himself he holds in his mind than the scarred, aging body he actually possesses.

As he stares longer, more openly, Kuro eventually catches him. The unnaturally bright amber of his irises is almost hypnotizing in the dark, too entrancing to quickly, abashedly tear away from. Shiro burns under his skin as Kuro holds his stare, smirking, and withdraws almost completely from Keith before swiftly driving back in.

Keith’s eyes water as he lurches forward and chokes on Shiro’s dick, nose nearly pressed into the coarse hair that dusts up to his navel. He makes no move to give up an inch this time, though, happily overwhelmed by everything he’s being given.

“You like this, baby?” Shiro quietly asks, stroking along Keith’s perfect cheekbone and into the unruly, swirling strands of hair plastered to his rose-tinged skin. A guttural, wracked noise slips out of Keith in place of words, but he nods into Shiro’s touch and sobs something that sounds like yes. “It’s just like we talked about, hm?”

Kuro’s head tilts, curiosity tearing the slightest fraction of his attention away from fucking Keith. “Talked about?”

“Keith’s been imagining this for some time. It’s what we were, uh, discussing just before you came back last night.” When Kuro had come home to find them both freshly spent, their sheets dirtied, and Keith too embarrassed to even speak to him.

The memory returns to Kuro with a knowing little curl of his lips, a bit smug as he pieces it together. He coos softly as he runs a gentle palm down Keith’s spine, hand splaying out where it comes to rest at the small of his back; then he rolls his hips with a little more force, wringing a muffled yelp out of Keith.

His throat flexes around Shiro’s cock, hot and wonderfully tight. And as Kuro folds over his back and starts rutting into him with abandon, Keith comes with a violent shudder that shakes the mattress under them, his nails sinking deep into Shiro’s thighs.

The intensity of it sparks like flint in Shiro’s veins, arousal cresting glass-sharp in the pit of his belly, under his sweat-beaded skin and taut muscle. Seconds later, his come spills down Keith’s throat, drips from his mouth as he sputters around all that he can’t swallow, and leaves a glossy, viscous streak down the side of Keith’s right cheek.

Keith slumps forward and collapses into Shiro’s lap, his breaths labored and his sides heaving. He pillows his cheek on one well-muscled thigh and angles his hips up a little higher, riding out the rest of Kuro’s rutting. He doesn’t even seem to mind that Shiro’s softening dick is smearing come into his hair, leaving it sticky, filthy.

Kuro climaxes with a harsh, breathy noise that barely sounds human— guttural, with the edge of a snarl creeping in. Draped over Keith, he buries his face against his back and sighs, unmistakably gratified in its wake.

“Happy, birthday boy?” Shiro asks as Kuro withdraws and Keith immediately rolls onto the disheveled bed, atop the stretch of comforter streaked with ropes of his own come.

“That was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced,” Keith murmurs, his eyes closed and his tongue briefly swiping along his lips. One violet-indigo eye peeps open to add, “And yes, I’m including the whole rift-walking experience. That was bullshit. This is like… fuck, I wanna go again.”

“Now?” Kuro asks from where he lounges on Keith’s other side, eager to serve.

“Yeah,” Keith breathes, rolling listlessly. “While I still have you, I want… I want to try taking you both. Like, together. Like this,” he further tries to explain, blushing as he lines up his two index fingers parallel and presses them together.

Shiro’s cautious, “Are you sure, Keith?” overlaps Kuro’s enthusiastic, “Absolutely!” Their heads swivel toward each other, equally exasperated, until Keith sits up and lays a hand on both of them.

“I’m sure,” Keith says, mostly to Shiro. His smile is thoroughly contented and a little bit sly, and it’s a good look. “I figure if we’re doing this, we might as well go all the way.”

Shiro hums in good humor, incapable of resisting Keith’s charms. “That does sound like you. The type to go down swinging. Or dicking, in this instance.”

“Oh, we’ll make it work,” Kuro says, vastly more confident than Shiro is. His hand settles on Keith’s knee before encroaching inward and upward, already teasing him back to hardness. 

Keith does the same for Shiro, coaxing him heavy and full with a few slick, gently wringing strokes and one winning smile.

Butterflies billow low in the pit of Shiro’s stomach as he lays back, exhaling slow as Keith clambers on top of him. Fine shoulderblades press into his ribs as Keith’s weight settles, more comforting than inconvenient. With a soft, short laugh, Shiro’s hands come together to ring Keith’s slim waist, holding him steady as he wriggles to get comfortable.

Out of sight, Keith’s deft fingers find Shiro’s cock and presses its head into his entrance. With a little shift of his hips, its length slides in smooth and easy, filling up the slight stretch Kuro had left behind. He’s warm, slick, welcoming— and Shiro bites back a groan at how good it is to be buried in Keith, always.

His hands stroke up and down Keith’s sides, soothing as he luxuriates in the feel of the man he loves; Kuro rises up over them, on his knees between two sets of splayed legs, admiring the display. Shiro whispers little encouragements into Keith’s hair while Kuro glides one lubed finger around the rim of his stuffed hole and then worms it inside, loosening Keith up a little more.

And even Shiro’s voice goes uneven as Kuro wedges a second finger in, his knuckles cool where they rub against the underside of his dick. Keith quakes above him as Kuro pushes them deep and spreads them wide, his mouth thrown open but only the faintest sounds pouring out; Shiro’s hips move of their own accord more than once, too, cock jumping as Kuro works up more friction.

And then Kuro’s hand withdraws, satisfied. Shiro blinks a few times and takes a measured breath, trying to clear his head. Keith sighs for want, despondent at the loss, and tosses his head, casting strands of hair up to tickle at Shiro’s jaw.

“Kuro, please,” Keith whispers while writhing on the dick already inside him, desperate for more. His hands fly down to his waist, covering Shiro’s where they grip him tight. “Please. Don’t make me wait.”

Kuro can’t resist those pleas any better than Shiro could.

With grace that belies his size, he draws himself up between their thighs, pressing close. His hand hooks around Keith’s hip, ready to hold him fast, and then Kuro’s golden-eyed gaze turns downward, riveted on the place where Keith and Shiro already meet. With raspy-breathed excitement and a hungry swipe of his lips, the crown of his cock kisses the loosened muscle around Keith’s entrance.

Shiro feels it just as vividly— cool, slick flesh pressing insistently along the base of his cock before it slips aside, again and again, hindered by too much resistance. He can feel Kuro’s mounting frustration, too, the whole bed shifting as he tries to change his angle, to gain enough leverage to push his way in. And he feels every bit of the moment that Kuro finally, finally makes headway, the tip of his cock slipping inside of Keith with a suddenness that takes all the air out of the room.

The change in pressure is sharp, exquisite, almost painful. Shiro can’t imagine what Keith must be going through as Kuro manages to nudge another inch in, grunting with exertion.

Keith’s hands scrabble to take Kuro by the shoulders as he leans over them, braced on the two powerful arms that make a cage around his favorite humans. He clings to him through every fresh tremor, nails digging deep into unnatural flesh; one of his long legs slings over Kuro’s back as he edges in deeper, hooking tight around him.

Shiro feels every tremble that runs through Keith, every little jolt that pushes him down into his chest, every wracked breath that moves through him. He knows every arch of Keith’s back; he mirrors them, even, bucking upward as Kuro’s cock slides hard against his own, the both of them squeezed so tightly together that Shiro can barely extend a thought to anything else. 

By the time Kuro is lodged as deep as he can go, Shiro is already at the brink of exhaustion, soaked with his own sweat and everything dripping down off of Keith. Even at a fraction of what Keith must be experiencing, it’s so much. His body lies tensed in anticipation of more, achingly taut and desperate for release. His dick won’t stop twitching against Kuro’s, overwhelmed by the tight heat wrapped around him and the unbudging firmness of its twin. And his ears rattle with the sound of his own panting, and Keith’s, and the low, possessive rumble of Kuro around them.

Which is how he almost misses Kuro’s soft, astonished, “Oh. Keith already came.”

“Wha- what?” Shiro huffs out, more dazed and feverish by the half-second. He and Kuro are almost nose-to-nose, each of them almost half a foot taller than Keith, and all he can do is stare dumbly into enthralling, gold-backed eyes.

“He came. Before I was even all the way in, I think.”

Weakly, somewhere down in between them, Shiro hears the faintest, “K-Keep... going. I want— again.”

Shiro only manages half of a broken laugh, winded as he is. More or less pinned in place under Keith and Kuro’s weight, all he can manage is a slight roll of his hips; it still makes Keith toss his head back and moan. “You heard him, Kuro.”

While Kuro has the leeway to pull out almost halfway before sinking himself back in, Shiro’s cock remains mostly rooted in place, a constant pressure against Keith’s walls. His palms slip and slide down the sweat-slicked skin along Keith’s trim waist, only finding purchase against the wider spread of his hips; Shiro straightens his arms and pushes Keith down into Kuro’s thrusts, pleasure gripping him tight as the soft, breathless moans above him turn into wanton cries for more.

They eventually settle into a steady rhythm that shakes the bed and leaves Keith squirming, begging, screaming. Shiro’s not immune to it, either, groaning low into Keith’s ear more than once as Kuro’s dick drags perfectly over his.

And Shiro can’t deny the intimacy of it, all three of them wound tight around each other— and Keith absolutely melting between them, overindulged to the brink of excess. His eyes meet Kuro’s more than once, lingering on him and the dark silhouette of broad shoulders, and even with Keith moaning in between them, it almost feels like Kuro is trying to lay claim to him, too.

Keith comes again, somehow, and this time they both take notice. He screams, the loudest Shiro’s ever heard him outside of hacking some wretched monster into pieces, and thrashes wildly in between them. His thighs clench around Kuro’s middle, refusing to let him pull out even an inch, and his nails rake into his back hard enough to make even a rift-born entity wince.

It’s all Shiro needs to follow him right over the edge, his hips bucking up as he pours everything he has into Keith, come no doubt spilling into every little space left between his cock and Kuro’s. 

Kuro starts moving as soon as the legs wrapped around him loosen, bonelessly enfeebled in the wake of such a powerful orgasm, and it isn’t long before his thrusts turn uneven, desperate, filthy with the slick sounds of Shiro’s come as it’s worked into a froth. One hand sinks into the mattress, claw-like as it digs in for purchase; the other digs between Shiro and the mattress, hooking under the small of his back, and hoists his hips up and off the mattress along with Keith’s.

The last moments are a frenzy for Kuro, a race to plough deep into Keith before his cool, sticky release suddenly runs down over Shiro’s softening length, mingling with the come already drenching Keith’s insides. He drops them both back onto the mattress and lists forward, the weariest Shiro’s ever witnessed him.

Shiro groans as Kuro’s weight settles on them in full, smushing him down into the mattress. It’s nothing he can’t handle, even if it makes breathing more of a challenge than he’s used to; Keith seems fine with it, too, given all the broken, well-pleased moans he’s still making. It almost sounds as if his own climax is still fluttering through him, prolonged by how tightly he’s stuffed.

The bedroom suddenly seems stiflingly quiet without the creaking of the bed and the thumps of the headboard and three sets of groans. It’s certainly less chilly than when they started.

“Wait,” Shiro mumbles from the bottom of the pile. He peeks an eye open and looks up at Kuro, who’s still caught in close-eyed bliss. “How did you come? I felt it. I still do, actually. But I thought you didn’t have, like, specific people parts and organs and fluids—”

“Unless I want to,” Kuro interrupts, eyes opening just a sliver. Lazy and slow, he tries to wink one and only manages to look heavily drugged. “It takes more effort on my part, and energy, but this was worth it. It always is with you two.”

“Oh.” Curiosity sated, Shiro tips his chin down and runs a hand down Keith’s side, til he finds a free hand to hold. “So, good birthday present or best birthday present?”


“Keith?” he questions, tone rising in concern, his mind immediately blaring oh god we crushed him in the background.

“Best,” Keith croaks back, sleepy and muffled under Kuro’s chest. “Happy. Tired. Won’t walk tomorrow.”

“We’ll do breakfast in bed for you,” Shiro says, patting Keith’s hip as Kuro finally sits up, pulls out, and rolls aside.

Keith lets out a mournful little cry as he’s left empty. A mix of viscous white come and something gooey pearlescent drips out of him, coating the cleft of his ass and the insides of his thighs before spilling onto the bed. Aside from running a finger through it and examining the shiny mix of materials between his fingers, Keith pays it no mind.

Shiro pays it considerably more mind. The sight of Keith’s chest slick and shiny with his own come, sticky with his and Kuro’s between his legs… it’s one he’ll be revisiting. Often. Along with everything else they did tonight.

And at little more than a passing thought of the noises Keith had made while pinned between them and another look at him now, his hair a mess and his skin littered with lovebites and lurid bruises, Shiro is half-hard again.

He sighs and flops back onto the bed, in the middle again. And for once there’s an utter absence of tension as Kuro slides close, propped on an elbow and flush against Shiro.

Two fingers touch to Shiro’s jaw, gently turning his head to the side. Again, Shiro finds himself face-to-face with Kuro, confronted with features just like his own— the same nose, the same full lips, the same high cheeks and handsomely shaped eyes.

“Keith is understandably worn out,” he murmurs, the shine of his irises especially vivid in the dark. They dart down and to the side, to where Shiro is nursing a half-hard cock. “But I can take care of you, Shiro.”

Shiro’s breath never passes his lips. He holds it close, in his chest, while his mouth shapes words that he doesn’t have.

“I’m sure he’d like to watch, though,” he whispers, so close that Shiro can feel the slight chill on his breath and see his own reflection in the wells of his eyes. “Wouldn’t you, Keith?”

There’s an affirmative hum from the other side of the bed, where Keith is already comfortably sprawled with his head on a pillow. “I could watch you two do just about anything,” he says, his hand settling comfortingly on Shiro’s nearest shoulder.

Kuro looks back to Shiro, waiting. Watching. As if he wants him as badly as he’s ever wanted Keith. As if he is just as eager to take his chances while this window is still open.

“Okay,” Shiro decides, something needy still roiling away low in his belly, leaping at the opportunity to be sated rather than slept off.

He blinks at the slow spread of Kuro’s smile, toothy and faintly wondering, like he hadn’t quite expected Shiro to agree.

“Okay,” he echoes back, the fingers on Shiro’s jaw trailing down the column of his throat, between his rounded pecs, over a flat belly that flexes at the slightest touch, and settling around the base of his cock.

Kuro’s touch is surprisingly gentle, despite the firm hand he uses; it’s like Shiro’s, working its way up and down his length the same way he would. He thumbs at the underside of Shiro’s crown, prompting Shiro to lick his lips and sigh, and effortlessly coaxes him to another full and aching erection.

While he teases Shiro’s hips up and off the bed, Kuro leans in by slow half-movements, until their noses brush together and their breaths mingle. And then, when Shiro makes no move to push or pull away, he closes the gap between them and seals it with their lips.

Keith’s hand gives his shoulder a gentle squeeze and with glacial slowness, Shiro relaxes into the kiss. Kuro’s lips are unnaturally cool, but it isn’t unexpected; his tongue is deft, insistent, strangely alien in how it feels out Shiro’s teeth and laps into his mouth. Kuro moves against him with an unrelenting neediness, a yearning that can’t be understated— but he’s gotten used to that, too.

Kuro’s never been good at hiding how deeply he wants; Shiro just hadn’t noticed, hadn’t believed.

And for all he’s spent the last three years rallying against every whisper of Kuro being him, it feels like kissing a facet of himself— a piece of him that isn’t evil, as he’d once feared, or an embodiment of all his worst traits on display for the world to see. Something different. Some one different, even if their roots are one in the same. A splinter of him that’s grafted and grown, new in so many ways and recognizable in so many more.

“This feels really narcissistic,” Shiro murmurs as they part, his lips still brushing over Kuro’s. His lashes feel unduly heavy, his breath too hot, his whole body a trap for heat and lethargy and a languid lust begging to be catered to.

Kuro leaves another kiss at the corner of Shiro’s reluctant smile, expression full of mischief and affection. “With a face like this? I think it’s forgivable.”

“He’s right,” Keith chimes in, breath warm against his ear. He presses himself into Shiro’s side, nuzzles into his shoulder, and rubs slow, sleepy circles over his pecs. “Just enjoy yourself, Shiro. You deserve it.”

A strange thought. 

He lets Kuro kiss him again, slow and lingering, and this time, Shiro closes his eyes and gives himself over to everything. The cool tongue dragging over his bottom lip. The pointed teeth that graze his skin so delicately, so carefully. The hand squeezed around his cock. The nimble, teasing fingers circling around his nipple. Keith’s soft voice whispering how much he loves him.

He runs his prosthetic hand across Kuro’s shoulders and up his nape, feeling out the curves and plains of muscle that mirror his own. Shiro’s steely fingers rake through dark, feather-soft hair; his thumb traces the shell of Kuro’s ear as he draws him in closer.

A nervous thrill spears through Shiro as Kuro mounts him, nudges his thighs open, and fits their bodies together like a perfect match. Pressed flush together and pinned down under a strikingly intense stare, all he can do is let his hands roam over Kuro and openly marvel at all the things he’d spent years endeavoring not to think of.

Like how easy it must’ve been for Keith to see him in Kuro. Shiro sees it, too, right down to every lash. Every touch. Every low rumble that starts deep in his chest and ends somewhere near Shiro’s ear, purring out praise as he leaves almost-worshipful kisses down the side of his neck.

“Go on and fuck me,” Shiro breathes when it all gets to be too much— Kuro and Keith’s undivided attention; the want that sings louder and louder in his veins; the ache for another, fuller release. “Please.”

Kuro does so with a smile that bares his sharp canines, but not without making Shiro wait for it, first.

Maybe it’s a little bit of payback for keeping him out in the cold so long. Or maybe he just wants to take his time with Shiro, exploring every inch of him, fascinated in seeing his likeness laid out underneath him. Or perhaps burning off the lion’s share of his long-restrained horniness with Keith has helped mellow him into something approaching a gentle lover.

Kuro glides his hands up the insides of Shiro’s thighs, thumbs sweeping down to make teasing passes at the dip of his ass, over the ring of muscle waiting to be stretched and filled. He’s merciless, there— once his slicked fingers work their way into Shiro, he knows just where to touch to make his toes curl and his powers of speech fail him.

It’s more power than Kuro ought to have, knowing him inside and out. Shiro had never before considered that Kuro’s shared memories include every fumbling moment of self-exploration, every private thought while being railed. But least Kuro is using it for good.

… he thinks.

“Good?” Kuro asks as he pushes inside Shiro, calmer and gentler than he’d managed with Keith.

Good,” Shiro manages to breathe back, one hand stretched overhead to grip the headboard behind him. The spread is more than he’s used to; Kuro’s cock is thicker than Keith’s and a touch longer, too.

Keith keeps rolling Shiro’s nipple between his fingers while he watches Kuro disappear into him one shallow thrust at a time, his bottom lip tightly pinched between his teeth. 

“You’re doing so good, baby,” he praises, his other hand sifting into Shiro’s hair. “You’re beautiful. So beautiful, Shiro.”

And as Kuro bottoms out with a heated groan, Shiro takes it to heart. The drag of Kuro’s cock leaves a trail of sparks inside him, burning up any last, lingering reservations like dry kindling. The surreality of staring up into his own face, feeling the shape and breadth of his own cock spearing him open, morphs into something strangely and fittingly arousing instead.

Between Kuro striking against his prostate with every other stroke and Keith leaving a set of kissing-bruises to match the ones he’s sporting, it’s intoxicating. A lavishment of attention and affection that maybe Shiro had been craving more deeply than he’d realized; a balm to sleepless thoughts of being replaced, forgotten, unloved. Because it’s hard to feel anything less than adored with Kuro calling his name like a litany, buckwild just for the chance to finally have him. With Keith holding him tight through it, taking care of him as always, his love like a beacon in any time or place. With the two people who know him best determined to make him feel safe and cared for and good, so good— 

“You could change your dick if you wanted to, though, right?” Keith asks in a hush; Shiro’s eyes flutter open, taking a moment to find Keith in the haze of it all. He’s looking up at Kuro with a faintly admiring half-smile, eyes alight. “Like, to make it bigger. Thicker. Give it added features. Whatever.”

“I can, yeah,” Kuro answers, more than a little smug about it. He looks to Shiro after, still rocking forward with every thrust. “Any requests?”

The mere suggestion of it sends Shiro’s pleasure-addled mind reeling at the possibilities, a heavier flush spreading over his cheeks. He can scarcely imagine being more full than he already is, but…

“Thicker,” he breathes out as he’s nudged across the mattress by another particularly eager thrust. “Just a little more. Enough to— to make me feel it.”

Above him, Kuro hums with excitement. Gradually, noticeably, the dick pumping in and out of Shiro thickens, stretching him a little more with every stroke. It takes a firmer roll of Kuro’s hips to keep driving himself in deep, every fresh stroke making Shiro gasp anew; its fat girth catches on his rim more than once, struggling to squeeze back in until Kuro throws his weight into it.

With his own cock slapping against his belly, Shiro comes undone.

It’s instantaneous relief, all the pressure mounted inside him drawing to an acute, fevered point and pouring out in a rush of release. He moans under Kuro, biting into the cushion of his lip as he’s fucked through it, the pace turning rough, desperate, stuttering.

Kuro’s hips snap into him one final time, stout cock jamming deep, his whole body heaving. Shiro shudders as one strong pulse after another moves within him, pumping him full of that same sticky, pearly come that had mingled with his own inside of Keith.

And then, true to form, Kuro flops down onto him for immediate post-coital cuddling, happiest when he’s flush with a warm body.

“Wow,” Keith whispers beside them, eyes wide and a smarting blush turning his cheeks cherry red. “That was… something special.”

“Very special,” Shiro agrees, utterly exhausted but deeply, resonantly satiated, too.

He works a hand between them, over his belly and the mess smeared on his stomach, and wonders at how deep Kuro is, at how much of himself he’s leaving behind. It feels like there’s so much shimmery, unnatural seed pooling within him that he’ll never be empty of it.

With bonelessly weary limbs and a deep, well-fucked desire to doze for the next ten hours, Shiro waits for Kuro to lift himself up and pull out.

And waits. And waits. 

Kuro seems content to lie atop Shiro like a sunning dragon, his face buried into the crook of Shiro’s neck and his dick still buried in his ass. Keith is already half-dozing, all the night’s alcohol and exertion having taken their toll. And when Shiro wiggles his hips and tries to pull himself off of Kuro, he finds he can’t.

“You made your dick so thick it’s stuck inside of me?” he asks, faintly incredulous. With a grunt, he shifts around underneath Kuro’s bulk, prodding him to move. “Kuro… Kuro, c’mon. You know I can’t sleep like this.”

“I’m still— okay, fine,” Kuro says, very nearly pouting as he sits up and slowly works his cock free, softened and closer to its usual size.

In its wake comes a syrupy flood of his copious come, no longer held at bay. Shiro spreads his legs as it spills out, sighing as he thinks of how many cycles he’s going to have to run the bedlinens through before they feel clean again.

Kuro spends a few moments watching Shiro futilely deal with the mess, clearly proud of his handiwork, before he moves to take his familiar place at Shiro’s side.

“No, wait,” Shiro says, stopping him short. At Kuro’s wounded, deer-in-lights expression, he hurries to add, “Keith ought to be in the middle tonight. Right?”

Kuro’s lips split into a grin, relieved and just slightly crooked. “Definitely.”

- - - ☾ - - -

Shiro wakes once, vision swimming until he finds two eyes the color of molten-gold watching him in the dark, inlaid into a silhouette of solid shadow like round-cut gems. He recognizes Kuro even through blurry eyes and full darkness and half-sleep, mumbling his name as he starts to rouse.

“Sleep, Shiro,” Kuro hushes, fondness seeping into each syllable.

A hand brushes through Shiro’s hair, soothing until his eyes droop. Shiro sighs and sinks down deeper into his pillows, contented. He takes one last glimpse of Kuro— a dark figure keeping vigil over them, a sentinel watching through the night— and sleeps again.

- - - ☾ - - -

When Shiro next comes to, it’s well after dawn. Sunlight filters in through gaps in the curtains; birds chirp noisily outside. His whole body carries a faint soreness, but it’s more a pleasant reminder than anything else.

They informally extend the birthday celebration when their unhurried morning kisses get out of hand, Shiro making out with Keith while Kuro sinks down between his lean thighs to voraciously eat him out. And that’s it, Shiro thinks, the absolute last of it, all of them too drained to even attempt anything more— until noon rolls around and Keith murmurs something about wanting to try what Shiro had the night before.

So Kuro lays Keith out on his side, spoons around him, and starts out slow, the base of his cock growing a tiny bit thicker with every passing moment. Keith buries his slack-jawed face into Shiro’s chest, cheek rubbing into his pecs as every slap of Kuro’s hips jolts him forward; he drools as the width of the shaft inside him swells, doubles, expands to a bulge that can barely fit back in.

And this time, when Kuro knots Keith to him, he gets to enjoy it for the better part of half an hour.

By late afternoon, Shiro takes it upon himself to be the responsible one.

He leaves Keith and Kuro snoozing in bed while he drags himself into the shower, sloughs sixteen hours’ worth of debauchery off of his skin, and does his morning routine. At four-twenty-seven p.m.

He fixes breakfast-slash-lunch-slash-dinner— which is just frozen pasta, fried eggs, and leftover cake— and carries it back to the bedroom, which currently smells something akin to a day-old orgy. Or so he imagines.

“Eat first,” he says, plying them both with food as soon as they sit up and rub the sleep from their eyes. “Then I’ll draw you a bath and start washing… everything. Just… everything,” he says, eyeing the drool stains on every pillow.

“It’s probably not drool,” Kuro says, following Shiro’s gaze.

He sighs.

Two hours later, the cabin and everyone in it are mostly back to order. Keith is freshly washed and scrubbed, pink-skinned and damp-haired where he lays sprawled out on the living room rug in Shiro’s nicest robe. Kuro, too, is fresh out of the bath, glowing where he sits in Shiro’s second nicest robe and his favorite pair of slippers, legs kicking back and forth where they dangle over the arm of the sofa.

Shiro rolls his eyes and takes another swig from his mug of tea.

It's not quite normal— not the normal he and Keith had before Kuro or the new normal they'd made after him— but something Shiro thinks he could awfully used to awfully fast.

For a while, he actually manages to concentrate on his work, which is more than he can say for the last few days. The fireplace crackles in the background, warmth and dancing light cascading through the living room as the evening fades into another night. The clicking of his keyboard doesn’t seem to bother Keith, who’s already dreaming again.

And Shiro isn’t even slightly surprised when Kuro suddenly and silently drops onto the cushion behind him, chin settling on his shoulder while he winds his arms around Shiro’s middle.

“What are you doing?” His breath is almost warm against Shiro’s ear, voice honeyed with sleepiness and rich contentment.

“Work,” Shiro answers without turning his head from the glow of the laptop screen. He types out another line, clicks back to a paper for reference, and then sighs. “Trying to scientifically rationalize the rift. The void. What they mean for the fabric of reality and space-time and everything else we thought we knew about the universe,” he mutters, pulling off his glasses to rub at his drying eyes.

“I spent six months trapped in there,” Shiro bites out, three years of frustration welling up fresh. “I know it’s real. I know what that place feels like, tastes like, how it almost… almost sings. I see it when I dream, still. I hear it...” 

“I hear it, too,” Kuro tells him, squeezing tighter. “I think you have a little bit of it inside you, like I do. And that’s okay, Shiro. It’s okay.”

The comfort means something. Shiro leans into Kuro, breathing deep and trying to wonder about what that means— having a little of the void inside of him, part of his being as much as his memories are part of Kuro’s— and how the worry that’s clawed at the back of his mind for years feels so much less terrifying when Kuro voices it like that, holding him close.

“I know I’m not the first person it’s ever happened to,” Shiro continues, his hand settling over Kuro’s clasped ones. “But I want to be the last. It’s just hard to warn people without having an explanation. Evidence. Something irrefutable. A proof that’s reproducible, verifiable.” 

Kuro grunts, soft and thoughtful. “Am I not proof enough?”

Shiro does turn his head this time, Kuro’s nose bumping into his cheek. “I don’t think I want to submit you for evidence,” he says, snorting out a soft, tired laugh. “Convincing as you are.”

Kuro grins and presses his nose and mouth into the side of Shiro’s neck, nuzzling. “You don’t have to worry for me, Shiro, but it’s sweet of you to care.”

“I’d be more worried for whatever poor saps the government’s shadowy science division would send to collect you,” Shiro jokes, grimacing at the very thought. “But yeah,” he adds, patting Kuro’s thigh, “I worry about you. I care about you. And I love you just enough to forgive you for constantly taking all of my shit.”

Kuro’s laugh sends a little shiver racing down his spine, the sound dark and feather-soft. “Maybe if yours weren’t always so comfortable. And they smell so nice,” he adds, turning to sniff the collar of his peach-patterned robe.

“You know what? I’ll just buy you some clothes of your own so you can stop stealing mine,” Shiro decides, dropping his research in favor of opening a dozen bookmarks of his favorite clothing sites. “The same exact sweaters, same flannel, same slippers and everything.”

“They’re better when they’re yours, though,” Kuro borderline pouts, unmoved by the offer. “Keith agrees.”

“Whatever. I’ll get them for myself, then,” Shiro mutters, six pairs of his favorite pajama pants already in the cart, “so maybe I’ll actually have some clothes to wear while you’re staying here and living out of my closet.”

It’s not that he minds the borrowing terribly, to be honest. Life with Keith has well-prepared Shiro for having every conceivable article of clothing pilfered, but with Kuro doing it, too… his wardrobe just isn’t big enough to support two hoodie-thieves raiding his drawers for all his coziest pieces.

“How long do you see me staying with you?” Kuro asks, expression guarded as he tries to feign nonchalance about the question and all that hinges on Shiro’s answer.

“Well,” Shiro muses as he picks up another plush robe and a few more long-sleeved tops before clicking through to the checkout, “you still need to get Keith’s necklace made and you’re not going to find a jeweler of that caliber anywhere around here. Actually, I’d actually prefer you find someone pretty damn far from us. One who won’t immediately recognize and report you for whatever international jewel heist you committed to get that exceptionally valuable ruby, ideally.”

Kuro’s forehead thumps into Shiro’s shoulder.

“But if you hurry,” Shiro says, twisting around on the seat cushion until he can look Kuro in the eye, “you could be back here by Halloween. We usually binge candy and play Monsters and Mana. I think you’d enjoy it. I think Keith would love it if you spent more time here, too.”

“And you?” Kuro’s eyes flicker side-to-side as he studies Shiro, hopeful.

“Yeah. I would, too,” Shiro says, giving him a smile, a half-hug, a clumsy peck on the cheek. “So don’t be a stranger.”