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Between the Shadow and the Soul

Chapter Text

 

The desert is filled with terrifying things – of this, there can be no doubt.

The calls of the cougars sound like agonized women screaming in the night. The jaguars hunt in perfect silence, snarling only when they make their kill. Vultures and hawks wait overhead for the blood to spill, curved beaks and beady eyes at the ready.

The tiny translucent bodies of bark scorpions conceal themselves under brushwood and pebbles, invisible until they sting. The hairy tarantulas make burrows lined with sticky silk, watching with their rows of black eyes. The wasps lay their eggs in the tarantulas who don’t watch close enough.

The javelinas raid unattended campsites and flash the yellow tusks they were named for, as long and sharp as Bowie knives. The coyotes and wolves roam in mangy packs, mournful howls echoing, always sounding closer and more numerous than they really are.

The mustangs paw at the barren earth and watch with guarded eyes and flattened ears from afar, warning – they can kick even harder than the burros if you get too close. They’ve killed men who mistook them for tame beasts before. They’ll do it again.

The rattlesnakes coil in the shadows, waiting, diamondback scales hidden in the sand and black tongues flickering, tasting heat. The Gila monsters do not hide, their bold orange and black patterns warn others away from venom and pain – their bite makes grown men cry.

Keith hadn’t been a grown man when a Gila monster bit him. But he hadn’t cried, because he knew he’d get beaten for it.

The most terrifying things in the desert were the men. Of this, Keith had no doubt.

Until Keith found him.

*

“Whoa, Strawberry, easy,” Keith murmured, stroking the chestnut mare’s neck as she stomped grumpily and fought the bit. She was having a mood, and normally Keith would respect that, but he was dangerously low on supplies and the closest watering hole was too far to reach on foot. “It’s just a half hour’s ride, girl, c’mon.”

Strawberry tugged at the reins and flicked her ears in obvious irritation, but reluctantly started forward when Keith dug his heels firmly into her sides again. The night was cool, and though some said there were no seasons except summer in the desert, Keith would have to disagree. It was spring now, and the slight chill that winter had offered was fading during the day, but the nights still held enough coolness to warrant a leather jacket and bandana tucked close around his neck. The air grew cooler as he urged Strawberry into a trot, and then a canter, and then a gallop, thundering across the rocky terrain of the Sonoran.

The sunset was brilliant at Keith’s back, streaking the turquoise sky with gold and rose pink. Keith liked the desert best at night. All the creatures came out at night, but all the people went to sleep. Most of them, anyway. Keith had become a creature of the night, these days – or maybe he just didn’t sleep all that often. He figured it was probably fine. Strawberry didn’t seem to sleep much, either, and she was as fast and strong as ever.

He’d found her three years ago on the verge of death, tangled in barbed wire at the edge of a sprawling ranch. She’d been barely more than a filly then, a spirited yearling who screamed at him when he came near with a pair of wire cutters Lance had lent him. She’d quieted when he started cutting the wire away carefully – cut the wrong strand, and she could’ve lost a leg. Keith thought animals had a way of telling the bad people from the good ones. He wasn’t sure he was a good person, but nevertheless, Strawberry had let him cut her free, and then lead her back to his shack to fix her up.

Now, her legs still bore the ugly scars the wire had inflicted upon her, and her left front hoof was a little unsteady in the colder months, but she was the best horse Keith could ever ask for. He didn’t know where she’d come from – whether from a negligent cowboy or a wild herd or elsewhere – and he didn’t much care. She was his now, and she was happy and healthy, and that was all that mattered.

Keith had very few things that were his own, but what he did have, he did his best to take care of.

Strawberry knew the route to the watering hole by heart, so Keith barely had to guide her, and kept his grip loose on the reins and one hand on the saddle horn as her gallop eased into a canter. She preferred a slower pace up the ridge, and he let her because he could watch the starry sky pass by.

He’d memorized all the constellations as best he could – he wasn’t educated like Allura, but she’d taught him and Lance their letters and helped Keith to puzzle through her astronomy books. He was a Scorpio, according to Allura, though he didn’t much understand that. Scorpions were nuisances more than anything else – though he did name the ones he found in his boots before tossing them out to scurry away over the sand. Spike III, Billie, Goldilocks, and Toast had been this morning’s.

Lance was a Leo and hadn’t shut up about it for months afterwards. Then Pidge had pointed out that Keith had more of a lion’s mane than Lance, and Lance had made a point of trying to grow his hair out. It hadn’t gotten very far before he’d started complaining and cut it all off again. He still had all the messy stubble, though, and Keith had a hunch it was because Pidge not-so-secretly liked it.

Pidge was an Aries, a ram. Keith saw bighorn rams on this ridge sometimes, way up where the mountain paths turned too steep for horses. They didn’t remind him very much of Pidge – except maybe in their toughness. Pidge was the toughest person Keith knew. He remembered vividly, even now, when he and Lance had accidentally discovered the truth about her six years ago. Her.

Pidge had always been the smallest of them, but she’d pulled her weight – she’d never once let the disguise slip. But Keith had known – he’d always known there was something a little different about ‘Pidge Gunderson.’ He’d always been inclined to protect that feisty little farmhand. Pidge could take care of herself, of course, but…Keith didn’t even want to think about what the Galra would have done if they’d learned Pidge’s secret.

There were very few women in the West. That was their excuse, anyway.

Pidge had frozen when a curiously oblivious Lance had asked about the blood on the seat of her pants. She’d cursed, and then she’d cried, and then Keith realized and Lance continued to be oblivious until Keith told him to shut your goddamn mouth, Espinosa, you idiot.

Keith remembered how much it had hurt when he’d reached out towards Pidge only for her to flinch away, eyes wide and scared in a way they’d never been before. Lance had been speechless for perhaps the only time in his life. Pidge had said, “You – you can’t tell – I won’t let you –” and Keith had hugged her firmly before she could finish that awful sentence. She’d beaten his chest with small fists and cried harder and Keith had just continued to hug her until she’d finally slumped into him and whispered, “Shit.”

He’d said, “It’s gonna be alright,” even if he had no way of guaranteeing his own safety, much less Pidge’s. They’d been thirteen and terrified, surrounded by bad men who hired children to rope their cattle because they were cheap labor, and cheap…other things. Keith had vowed a long time ago that he’d kill any Galra who laid a finger on his friends. Sitting in the hayloft with Lance and Pidge as Pidge told them the story of Katie Holt between choked sobs, that resolve had only strengthened.

But in the end, it wasn’t Lance or Pidge who the Galra touched.

Coyotes howled miles off, and Strawberry’s ears pricked, but she kept her pace – they were just another part of the desert, and she was not afraid of the desert. Keith felt sure she was from wild stock. He hoped she was. He hoped she’d experienced true freedom, galloping through the canyons and scrubland with her mustang herd, tossing her unbridled head to the sun, back unbent by a saddle.

Keith felt freer now than he’d ever been before. And he was a wanted man now. He’d been a wanted man for five years – sometimes it was easy to forget he still had a bounty on his head.

Like right now, now when the world was plunged into night and the desert transformed in the absence of the sun; saguaro blossoms opening to the moonlight, bats fluttering frantically above to catch moths and clouds of gnats, golden-eyed owls perching upon cliffs and tall mesquite trees, small creatures emerging from their burrows with the hesitance of hungry, hunted things.

Keith was a hungry, hunted thing, too. He made a mental note to check the traps near the waterhole and in Turtle Gorge…and if those were empty, then he might have to pay Allura’s brothel a visit. She had the best javelina jerky for miles around.

Strawberry stopped short, her startled snort quickly dispelling Keith’s ravenous thoughts. He dug his heels in, but she shook her head and stomped, practically vibrating with nervous energy. Keith was on guard when she was on guard, and sat up straighter in the saddle, peering into the darkness. The moon was half-full, so there was some illumination, and he was able to make out a shadowy, crumpled shape lying still at the base of a towering saguaro.

Strawberry backed up a few paces and pranced anxiously in place. Keith could recognize when he was about to be bucked off and shushed her, hastily dismounting and looping her reins over a nearby palo verde. He unsheathed the knife he kept on his belt at all times as he approached the unmoving figure. As he got closer, he saw it was a person, their body covered in a heavy velvet cloak embroidered with ornate silver patterns, their long black hair hiding their face from view. There was a wide streak of white through the black, shining as brightly as the saguaro blossoms. Keith tilted his head. A woman? A rich woman, from the looks of it – that cloak was finer than anything even Allura owned. What was a noblewoman doing out here…?

Keith carefully pushed the cloak away from the body – and stumbled back in shock. It was a man, shirtless with loose black breeches, built broad and tall, the shadow of stubble visible on his strong jaw. But Keith could hardly look at the man’s face when his right arm was gone.

It looked as if it had been ripped off by…some animal, but Keith didn’t think any mountain lion could do such a thing. A pack of wolves, maybe, but…the wolves hereabouts were well-fed, and didn’t prey upon humans. Especially not large adult men. Whatever the cause, the arm was gone, and the ground around the man was soaked through with blood. No wonder Strawberry had baulked. Keith stared at the maimed man. How long had he been here? He must have been dead.

Must have…but then Keith leaned down to brush the hair out of his face and the man’s eyes cracked open. Keith paused. The man blinked at him, bleary and confused, and his dry lips parted in a word that was not a word. It looked like, please.

Then his eyes fell shut and he went limp again.

Keith stood there for what felt like a long time, and then he threw up his hands, swore a little because that always made him feel better, and hefted the man up and over Strawberry’s saddle.

*

Strawberry was not happy with him. He’d have to buy some sugar cubes in town for her tomorrow.

But the more pressing issue was that he had a man with one arm bleeding out on his floor. Keith figured he should probably get him onto the bed, but he only had one bed, and he didn’t want to get blood all over it again.

His medical knowledge was very limited. He’d have to ask Shay about this tomorrow…if the man was still alive by then. Shaking himself, Keith marched over to the makeshift wardrobe and grabbed the linens he cared about the least, ripping them into strips and kneeling down with them beside the man. The arm was severed several inches above the elbow, and it was messy and ragged, soaking clean through the cloth when Keith experimentally pressed one to it.

Damn. Keith only knew of one other way to go about stopping bleeding, and it wasn’t pleasant.

He eyed the still-smoldering fire pit outside, and then the fire poker next to his beat-up stove. He didn’t know this man, but he felt the need to warn him anyway. “This is going to hurt,” he informed the unconscious man grimly, and grabbed the poker in a gloved hand.

When he returned with the poker glowing red-hot, he could’ve sworn the man’s breath hitched, but his eyes stayed closed and he made no move to get away when Keith pressed the searing iron to the bloodied stump of his arm.

He did react when Keith cauterized the wound, though.

His eyes flew open and his strangled shout echoed through the tiny shack – Keith heard Strawberry’s frightened whinny outside. The smell of burned flesh filled the air and Keith wrinkled his nose, taking a step back as the man writhed and then went still again, head lolling to the side. Was he dead now? Some men died from the pain, but Keith had hoped this one wouldn’t…

Hoped? Hmph. No, he just didn’t want to dig a stranger’s grave in the hard desert earth; that was all.

But the man wasn’t dead. His chest rose and fell unevenly, and as Keith watched, the bleeding seemed to cease. The wound was uglier than before, and would have to be bandaged up for the night, but at least it was stable for now. The man did not move when Keith half-dragged him over to the bed, and Keith felt a little foolish tucking the sheets around him as if he were a child.

He was most assuredly not. By the warm glow of the candlelight, Keith had a better view of him – he was…well, not old, which made his white hair puzzling. He was heavily muscled, and scarred all across his torso and arms – some were old and faded, others were bright new pink. His skin was tanned and smooth, a shade lighter than Keith’s. Keith puzzled over this, and over the man’s face – he was not from these parts. He looked more Indian than white, but…he wasn’t Navajo, or Apache, or Zuni, or any tribe Keith had ever seen before.

From the Far East, maybe? Huh. Not many of them in Arizona Territory, as far as Keith knew.
Keith peered closer, and resisted the urge to touch the faded scar sweeping over the bridge of the man’s nose. It was a handsome nose, on a handsome face, but Keith wondered uneasily what sort of trouble this man had gotten himself into to have so many scars. Keith didn’t know of anyone so marked up, except maybe a few of the more careless Galra. Sendak the Brute had his nickname for a reason. He’d lost his hand years ago, and made up for it with a metal hook. Keith doubted an entire arm could be replaced the same way. Maybe with a whip. Now that was a thought.

The man’s lashes fluttered and Keith startled away, realizing he’d been ogling for too long. He stood up stiffly, brushing off his leathers, and headed to the lumpy, overstuffed, sad excuse for a sofa in the corner.

He’d given his bed to a dead man, he mused as he settled down atop the musty cushions and tugged a rough piece of burlap over himself. But if he were in the man’s place, Keith would want to die in a soft bed instead of the middle of the desert. So maybe it wasn’t a waste after all.

*

The man was alive the next morning. And the morning after that, and the morning after that.

Keith rode into town to get some advice from Shay, who was the best healer he knew. As soon as he gave her the strange details, she insisted on riding out to his shack along with Hunk, the town deputy and her loyal husband. And then, because Hunk knew about it, Lance knew about it, and then because Lance knew about it, Pidge knew about it.

Keith’s shack was not big enough for that many people. But they crammed their way inside nonetheless, staring down at the strange man in Keith’s bed.

“Well, he’s sure not Hopi,” Shay declared, hands on her hips, braids shaking as she shook her head.

“He’s not Cubano either,” Lance offered, unhelpfully.

Keith rolled his head and folded his arms. “You’re probably the only Cubano in America for miles, genius. They’re all in New Orleans and Florida.”

“Not true, I met two at that bridge over Rio Verde a couple weeks ago!” Lance protested.

“Trying to get as close to the beach as they could, huh? They’re gonna be disappointed.”

Lance elbowed him hard. Keith made a rude hand gesture.

“Guys, shut up,” Pidge grumbled. “He’s obviously not Indian or Cuban.”

“So then where’d he come from?” Hunk demanded. “Coran and I haven’t received any immigration papers lately, and the Chinese always give him their papers – not that we’ve had any recently, what with the Exclusion Act and all, but still.”

“Does it really matter where he’s from?” Keith muttered.

“Um, yeah?” Lance said. “I mean, he just showed up in the middle of the desert and you’re not even questioning it?”

“I didn’t say that,” Keith said defensively. “But I didn’t exactly try to interrogate him while he was bleeding out on my floor.”

“Wonder if he has ties to the Galra,” Hunk mused. Keith, Lance, and Pidge all stiffened and he shot them apologetic looks. “Sorry. Maybe not. Best not to make assumptions, anyway.”

“He doesn’t have the brand,” Keith snapped. “I checked.”

“Right. Of course, you would have,” Hunk said. “Still…something fishy about all this.”

“So then maybe the Galra did this to him?” Shay suggested. She was kneeling down to examine the wound, not even flinching when she pulled back the soaked bandages. “You cauterized the area, good. He’d likely be dead otherwise.”

“The Galra gang has plenty of enemies, but mostly organized groups,” Pidge said, ticking off the names on her dusty fingers. “There are the Balmerans, the Olkari, the Arusians, the Unilu, and of course the Alteans.”

“He’s not with the Alteans,” Hunk said with certainty. “They’ve all visited the Pink Lion at least once, and I’ve never seen this man in town.”

“Not that you’d be frequenting the Pink Lion Brothel,” Shay said dryly.

Hunk flushed. “What – I, no, no, of course not –!”

She patted his hand as she pulled a needle and thread from her beaded medicine pouch. “Don’t worry, I know you haven’t been. If you had, Allura would refuse you service and give you a smack for good measure, dear.”

“Allura hits hard,” Lance confirmed.

“Why ain’t I surprised she’s hit you before?” Keith said.

“Alright, it looks like the wound isn’t infected yet, so I’ll stitch it up and apply a poultice – I can give you bandages and the poultice if you don’t mind reapplying both every couple of days, Keith.” Shay glanced up at him. “Don’t have a weak stomach, do you?”

Lance snorted. “You kiddin’ me? Keith got his arm sliced up by a rusty rake when he was like fifteen and didn’t bat a damn eyelash.”

“It was disgusting,” Pidge said.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Keith said with a shrug.

“You were in shock,” Pidge retorted.

“I wasn’t, and I threw up,” Lance informed everyone. “Everywhere. Beans and corn, not good.”

“Thank you for sharing,” Hunk groaned.

“I can change the poultice and bandages,” Keith told Shay, who was looking very irritated with them all. He doubted annoyance and a threaded needle were a good combination, and thankfully the others quieted as Shay tended to the man’s wound. Keith watched his face for any sign of a reaction, but he was out cold, his skin pale and grayish – so he watched the shallow rise and fall of his chest instead. He was still shirtless, and Keith had a strange urge to cover his scarred torso so the others couldn’t see it.

But he did no such thing, and sure enough, it was only a matter of time before one of them commented on it, and of course it was Lance.

“He looks like he had a couple bad run-ins with javelinas,” Lance said. “Or maybe fell into a cholla patch. Don’t think I’ve ever seen so many scars on one person, Christ.”

“He’s had a bad time, that’s for sure,” Hunk agreed. “Maybe he’s not part of a gang at all. Maybe he works alone.”

“Maybe this has something to do with the Desert Devil,” Pidge said.

Lance groaned. “Not this again, Katie, c’mon!”

“The Devil’s out there, I’m tellin’ you!” Pidge insisted. “Old Man Slav saw him just last week –”

“Slav is crazy,” Keith said. “Batshit crazy.”

“So are you, arguably,” Pidge retorted. “You went almost a month without contacting any of us, and when we finally found you, you were making a detailed map of the entire canyon system and marking all the petroglyph spots in it.”

“I was trying to translate them, too,” Keith said. “Not just making the map…”

“You’re not makin’ a great case for your sanity, Keith,” Lance snorted.

Keith scowled at them both. “Slav tried to convince the entire town that cow shit is going to bring about the apocalypse, and then went on for hours on a street corner ranting about metal tubes with wings in the sky.”

“It does smell something awful,” Hunk said. “Cow shit, I mean. Dunno what he meant by metal winged tubes.”

“Anyway,” Pidge cut in, “Slav saw the Desert Devil up on the ridge last week in the middle of the night. Just staring out at the town. Said he grinned when Slav saw him – big sharp white teeth, bright as the moon. Then he winked with his glowing yellow eyes and disappeared into dust.”

“Slav needs to lay off the whiskey,” Lance said.

Pidge folded her arms huffily. “You don’t even think there’s a possibility that this man was attacked by the Devil? Remember last year, when those three cattle rustlers were found mauled to all hell? And the year before, when that Apache witch woman had scratches all up her arms and wouldn’t stop rambling about yellow eyes until she died of shock? And the year before that, when Lotor’s man Haxus was found strung up on a saguaro like a damn crucifix?”

Everyone shifted uneasily. “Dunno,” Lance admitted after a moment. “Guess it’s possible. I don’t buy the whole Devil thing, but maybe it’s just…a dangerous person, out there, you know…”

“Ripping people’s arms off and crucifying them?” Keith finished.

Lance shuddered. “Carajo, I’m not sleepin’ tonight.”

“If it is a person, Coran and I will track him down,” Hunk assured them. Keith didn’t feel all that assured. It was a big desert, and if he’d managed to hide in it from the Galra all these years, Keith didn’t think Sheriff Coran and Deputy Hunk’s chances at finding a mysterious murderer were all that great.

“You oughta be careful, Keith,” Shay said, tying off the last of the bandages and standing up. “If this ‘Devil’ exists, and finds out one of his victims survived, he might come looking to finish the job.”

“I ain’t scared of no Devil,” Keith said.

“Aren’t, any,” Hunk corrected automatically. Keith rolled his eyes.

“Right, well, just be vigilant,” Shay sighed. “And don’t hesitate to ride on over if there’s any trouble, you hear me?”

“Got it, thanks for the stitches and advice,” Keith said. “Now, can y’all get out of my house?”

“Sure thing,” Shay laughed, handing him the bottle of poultice and the roll of bandages before heading out with Hunk. Lance and Pidge lingered – Pidge was staring at the injured man like she could divine the exact location of the Desert Devil by his scars or something.

Lance pouted. “Sure you don’t wanna chat and catch up like old times, Keithy Keith?”

Keith wrinkled his nose. “No.”

“Alright, have fun being a grumpy hermit,” Lance declared. “Guess I won’t give Strawberry those sugar cubes after all.”

“Ugh, fine,” Keith said. “What d’you want, a goddamn hug?”

Lance looked at him uncertainly.

“Jesus Christ,” Keith hissed. “I’m joking.”

Lance was still looking at him, a little strangely, and then his gaze darted to the man on the bed. Keith’s eyes narrowed. “Whatever you’re about to say, don’t say it,” he warned.

“Me, about to say somethin’?” Lance held up his hands in surrender. “I’d never. It’s just that –”

“Shut. Your. Mouth.”

Pidge glared at them. “How is it that you two are just as insufferable now as you’ve always been, huh?” She looked at Keith. “Well? Are you or aren’t you?”

“You know I’m not,” Keith gritted out. “I helped him because it was the right thing to do; you really think I’m that shallow?”

“No,” Lance and Pidge said in unison, which was…surprising.

Lance bit his lip. “Just be careful, yeah? This man, whoever he is…I’d bet anything he’s up to his knees in some real trouble. You don’t need to get yourself tangled in all that.”

“What’re you saying, speak plain, Lance.”

“I’m sayin’, you heal him up, and you kick him out,” Lance said. “Don’t let him hang around you, Keith.”

“I wasn’t plannin’ on it,” Keith said. “I’m not attached, I just…found him.”

“Right, well,” Lance said, clearing his throat awkwardly. “You keep on with that state of mind, alright? Neither of us wants you gettin’ hurt.”

The again was implied.

Keith tensed. “Yeah. Right. Thanks.”

Lance withdrew the satchel of sugar cubes from his pocket. “If she bites me again, I’ll eat these myself,” he said, and waltzed outside with Pidge before the awkward tension in the small room could escalate further.

Pidge cast a glance over her shoulder at him, and met his eyes for a brief moment. But Keith knew what it meant. Be careful.

He would be.

He’d meant to be, anyway. That had to count for something.

Chapter Text

It took about a week, a week of changing stained bandages and putrid-smelling poultice, before the man finally opened his eyes one late afternoon while Keith was sharpening his favorite knife.

He was watching Keith. Keith ignored him, and drew the whetstone over the blade with more force, the dull screech piercing the oppressive silence. And still the man watched him, his gaze heavy. It was a minute or two before he spoke.

"Hello," the man said. His voice was low, raspy from disuse, but very pleasant. Men with overly pleasant voices were dangerous, in Keith's experience. He eyed the man from where he sat sharpening his knife, and did not let go of the knife.

"May I ask your name?" the man asked politely. Polite men were even worse. Never saying what they really meant.

Keith slowly lifted his gaze to the bed. The man gave him a faint smile - he was still lying down, and Keith would wager he was still too weak to move. Keith wet his lips. Gray eyes watched him and waited patiently for an answer.

"Keith," he said after a long, long pause.

"Keith," the man repeated, bemused. "Keith....?"

"Just Keith," Keith said shortly.

"Ah," the man said. "You are Diné, yes?"

Keith stiffened. "No," he snapped. How in the hell…?

The man blinked. "Not Diné? You have Diné blood, I can tell."

"I'm not -" Keith broke off and narrowed his eyes. "Just 'cause I have Navajo blood doesn't mean I am one of them."

"Doesn't mean you aren't," the man said lightly. "But have it your way. You've picked your half, that's fair."

Keith glowered at him. "You're one to talk. You from a tribe, or what?"

"Of a sort," the man said.

"Which one?"

His lips quirked. "You haven't heard of it."

Keith disliked being talked down to. "Fine."

The man's face fell. He kept watching Keith, though. "You saved my life," he murmured.

Keith admired the sharp shining edge of his blade. "Guess so."

"Thank you."

"Uh-huh."

The man clicked his tongue. Keith looked up, irritated, half wishing the man would pass out again. "Aren't you going to ask my name?"

"I don't care," Keith retorted.

The man tilted his head. "If you didn't care, you would've left me to rot."

Keith swallowed. Touché, asshole. "Still could."

But the man shook his head. "No. No, I don't think you could."

Keith scowled. "What do you want."

"To talk?"

"Well, I don't want to," Keith said.

"I see that," the man said. "I respect that."

"Yet here you are, continuing to jabber on like a cactus wren."

"Don't you want to know my name?"

Keith heaved a sigh. "Will it make you be quiet?"

"If you wish me to be, yes."

Keith waved a hand. "Go on, then."

"Shiro," the man said.

Keith raised an eyebrow. "Just Shiro?"

"Just Shiro."

"Hmm," Keith said. He’d never heard that name before, but he liked it…though he’d never admit it. "Be quiet, Just Shiro."

Shiro chuckled and obediently closed his eyes. "Very well, Just Keith."

By the time Keith's knife was sharpened, Shiro was fast asleep again. Keith watched the rise and fall of his chest and tried not to remember the bright steely gray of his eyes, glinting like blades in their own right.

*

“His name is Shiro.”

Lance looked at him blankly. They were riding the perimeter of the town together, searching for the prickly pear fruits Allura’s girls made into jam and syrup and juice every year. Keith sighed and looked intently at Strawberry’s reins. “The man with one arm. He told me his name was Shiro.”

“He woke up?!” Lance’s horse snorted as he accidentally jerked on the reins. “Oops, sorry, Blue. But – what the hell, Keith? He woke up and you didn’t think to tell me?!”

Keith shrugged defensively. “He’s still in and out, y’know, hardly fit to do much more than lay there and watch me –”

Lance made a sound that was either outrage or surprise or both. “Watch you?!”

“Blue is gonna buck you into the cacti,” Keith said under his breath. “It ain’t like that, anyway.”

“Hmph,” Lance said. “I don’t trust him.”

“You think I do?”

“I think you left him alone in your precious shack,” Lance pointed out. “And I think you have piss-poor judgement about people sometimes.”

“What –” Keith shook his head. “I do not.”

“You think Allura is a nice lady.”

“She is a nice lady,” Keith said. “She’s always been nice to me.”

“She runs one of the biggest brothels in the West and she’s wealthy enough to buy Altea Creek ten times over,” Lance said flatly. “She’s killed at least ten men.”

“She has a kind heart,” Keith argued.

“And you have sawdust for brains,” Lance sighed. “Shee-roh. What kinda name is Sheeroh anyhow?”

“Shiro,” Keith corrected. “I dunno. Didn’t tell me where he was from. But…” Lance raised an eyebrow. Keith frowned. “He knew I’m half Navajo.”

Lance’s eyes widened. “The hell? How’d he figure that?”

“I don’t look that white,” Keith muttered.

“Well – no, but…how’d he know the tribe? At least six other ones hereabouts, ‘spose he just made a lucky guess?”

“Maybe so,” Keith said. But he knew that wasn’t it. “Must’ve been that.”

“Huh,” Lance said. “Well, maybe I should pay ya a visit sometime; see if he guesses me, too. Now that would be somethin’ else.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “That would be one lucky guess, alright,” he said, and nudged Strawberry into a trot before Lance could smack him.

*

Shiro did seem to watch him a lot, though. Keith ignored it. He got really good at ignoring it, mostly because Shiro’s presence was…strangely unobtrusive. He said little, once he realized Keith wasn’t a talker, and the things he did say were…genuinely intriguing.

“Is that a map?”

Keith looked up from the large piece of vellum rolled out on the floor, covered in his scribbly handwriting. He didn’t have nice artsy script like Allura or Coran, but it got the job done. He was better at drawing the actual map. “Yes,” he said, resolutely looking back down at his map instead of Shiro’s curious face.

“Of what?”

“The canyon system nearby,” Keith muttered, and then, because he did actually enjoy talking about this, “all the petroglyph sites in the canyon.”

Shiro made a thoughtful sound. “How interesting. Have you found many of them so far?”

“I found them all,” Keith said, with a hint of pride, because it had taken long enough. “Twelve in total.”

“Thirteen.”

Keith looked up again, startled. “What?”

Shiro blinked at him impassively. “There are thirteen sites in the canyon, not twelve.”

Keith shook his head. “No, that can’t be. I checked. There’s only –”

“The thirteenth is quite hidden,” Shiro said. “I’m not surprised you didn’t find it.” Keith bristled. “But you could,” he added.

Keith put down his pen. “You know where this site is, then?”

“Of course,” Shiro said, smiling slightly. “But where would be the fun in telling you?”

“You’re lying,” Keith said, returning to his work. “You don’t know nothing about it.”

Shiro chuckled, low and delighted, and Keith tried not to shiver.

*

And Shiro was lying, he had to be, but Keith couldn’t stop thinking about that thirteenth site.

*

“Why are you mapping the canyon sites anyway?” Shiro asked several nights later. He was strong enough to sit up in bed now. Keith hoped that meant he could leave soon.

“None of your damn business,” Keith snapped.

“Alright,” Shiro said easily. “I was just wondering. It seems to be an important project for you.” He tilted his head. “Could it be that it has something to do with your people?”

Keith smeared the ink and swore loudly.

“Ah,” Shiro said. “It does.”

Keith glared at him. “They are not,” he hissed, “my people.”

“Who are, then?” Shiro asked. “The white settlers who stole this land?”

Keith flinched. “You don’t know me.”

“No, but I know of you,” Shiro murmured. “It was your mother, wasn’t it? Yes. You are a child caught between worlds, conceived through terrible violence and thus abandoned at birth –”

Keith stood up abruptly, hands curled into fists. “You shut up, right now.”

Shiro blinked at him. “It is nothing to be ashamed of, Keith. You had no say in what he did to her.”

“I will drag you outta this house if you don’t stop talking,” Keith warned, his voice wavering pathetically.

Shiro stopped. His once-impassive eyes were sad. “I did not mean to upset you.”

Keith barked out a bitter laugh. “Coulda fooled me.”

Shiro sighed, lowered his head, and went slowly back to sleep.

Keith thought of his mother, of a face he’d never seen but could imagine clearly in his mind’s eye, staring down at him in disgust, fear, utter loathing; remembering what had been done to her by an evil, strange man with her unwanted son’s pale skin.

He wondered if it would ease her mind to know that he understood, in a way, how that felt.

He knew it would not, and imagined her crying for him, for them both.

*

“I’ll give you a hint.”

Keith paused halfway through tugging on his boots. “What?”

“I’ll give you a hint,” Shiro repeated. “About where the thirteenth site is.”

Keith resisted the urge to snap at him, and took a deep breath like Allura had always counseled him to before managing to say, "Well? What is it?"

Shiro seemed pleased by his controlled temper. "It's in a cave," he offered. "Where the snakes gather and the sun shines the brightest."
"How can the sun shine brightest in a cave?" Keith demanded.

Shiro shook his head. "It's a riddle; I cannot just give you the answer."

"I don't like your riddle," Keith muttered, tugging on his other boot.

"I'll give you one more hint," he said as Keith headed for the door. "The blood never comes out of the rocks."

Keith paused. "There was a massacre?"

"No," Shiro said, his eyes glinting oddly for a moment, so quick Keith thought he must have imagined it. "A sacrifice. Many, many sacrifices."

Keith stared at him, brow furrowing. "Blood sacrifices? None of the tribes here practiced those –"

"You forget this land had other people even before them. The Toltec Empire. They took great pains to appease their gods.” Shiro sighed, leaning back against the single worn pillow and gazing off into the distance. “Until they didn’t.”

Keith raised an eyebrow. “And then? What happened to them?”

“The gods summoned a terrible earthquake that ravaged their cities to ruins,” Shiro said, his voice as distant as his gaze. “The king sacrificed his daughter in a fit of desperation. But it wasn’t a princess’s blood that the gods wanted. It was the king’s. So they crushed him to death in his own palace while his daughter bled out uselessly on the altar for her doomed people.”

Keith didn’t know what to say. “That’s a pretty shit story,” he finally managed.

Shiro’s mouth quirked. “Quite,” he agreed. “Go on, then, don’t let me keep you. But, do remember…sometimes old ghosts never really leave.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Keith muttered, shaking his head and wondering if Shiro knew Slav. They’d make quite a pair of lunatics.

*

It had all led up to this.

Keith had spent years trying to decipher the petroglyphs, and finally, here was the answer – the missing piece. The petroglyphs told stories – of hunting, and war, and marriage, and families, and dynasties – but they all shared one common theme. A blurry, shadowy figure off to the side, small enough that the casual passerby would miss it, but not Keith.

It had taken hours of searching, but he’d found the cave with red rocks, two snakes carved into the entry, and a natural skylight which allowed the sun to illuminate it fully. He’d found the thirteenth site, just as Shiro had said.

And the shadowy figure was not small here.

It was the central figure on the smooth cave wall, towering high above Keith in greater detail than he’d ever seen it before. It was horned, masculine and muscular in shape, with clawed hands, slitted eyes, and a wide open mouth lined with sharp teeth. But that wasn’t what left Keith frozen in horrified realization as he stared up at it.

No, it was the familiar slash of a scar over the figure’s nose, unmistakable and stark against its charcoal-dark skin.

Shiro’s scar.

It had to be a coincidence. It just didn’t make sense, otherwise.

At the figure’s feet were the glyphs of the dead, skulls and skeletons and the red stains of blood. And there was a real skeleton there, too, ancient and half-decayed away but still unmistakably a pile of bones. Keith stumbled back, the empty eye sockets staring at him, and thought of the princess in the story.

A cold wind swept through the narrow cave and Keith drew his jacket tighter around his body, unease prickling through him. He didn’t believe in magic. He didn’t believe in Desert Devils or devils of any kind except human. He didn’t. But the dust around him began to stir, lifting into the air in long, swirling red tendrils, and fear crept under his skin as the dust swirled around him.

He had to leave. He had to get the hell out of this place. Shay had always said there were cursed places tainted by dark forces, and right then, Keith believed her. The very air felt wrong, too thick and stifling and hot, and Keith turned on his heel – and found himself face to face with Shiro.

Shiro, but not Shiro. He was shadows where there had once been flesh, and his gray eyes were replaced by glowing yellow slits, and his mouth was filled with white needles as he grinned down at Keith. “I did warn you,” he said, voice soft and low and faintly mocking.

Keith drew in shallow breaths, and shook his head. “It’s not real,” he said. “You’re not real.”

Shiro reached out to him, and before Keith could move away a sharp claw drew across his cheek, the barest whisper of a sting, and he felt the heat of blood beading up. “I’m real,” Shiro said, bringing the stained claw to his blackened lips, long forked tongue flicking out to lick it off daintily. “Mmm. Have you figured it out yet, Keith?”

“I – I don’t –”

“Your friend was right,” Shiro murmured, circling him like a hungry wolf, eyes blazing brighter with every step. “There’s a devil in this desert. There’s always been a devil in this desert. And there always will be a devil in this desert…thanks to you, Keith.”

Keith swallowed hard and found he couldn’t move when a claw hooked lightly under his chin, tipping his head up to meet Shiro’s golden gaze. He was going to die here, alone with this…this thing, and no one would find him, and he would crumble away into dust just like the dead princess –

“I owe you my life,” Shiro told him, gaze steady and somber. “I will not forget this debt, and I will repay it when it is due. Know this.”

“You’re…not going to kill me?” Keith whispered, heart pounding out of his chest.

The question amused Shiro greatly, his chuckle shaking the cave to its core. “Now why would I do a silly thing like that?” he replied, and before Keith could even blink, or look in disbelief to the skulls carved into the stone; the pressure against his throat was gone, Shiro dissipated into nothingness, and the cave was quiet once more, darkening as the sun set below the horizon and stained it red.

Chapter Text

Keith banged on the front door a third time, his fist shaking. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” he chanted desperately under his breath.

Pidge flung the door open, standing in a faded green nightgown with a loaded rifle in her hands. She looked almost disappointed that it wasn’t a bandit at the door. “Oh. Keith.” She blinked at him and lowered the rifle slowly. “You see a ghost or somethin’?”

“Or somethin’,” Keith replied unsteadily. “Lance there?”

“Asleep, snoring like a freight train,” Pidge said, raising an eyebrow. “You gonna come in, or just stand there?”

“Pidge,” Keith said. “You were...you were right.”

“Well, damn.” Pidge cocked out a hip. “Can I get that in writing?”

“No, no, listen to me, it’s – the Desert Devil,” Keith stammered. “He – it’s real.”

Pidge opened her mouth, then closed it. “Hold up,” she said, squinting at him suspiciously. “You drunk?”

“Stone cold sober, Pidge, you gotta believe me.”

Pidge leaned in closer. “Your face is bleeding.”

“He – it – scratched me,” Keith hissed. “It’s Shiro, Pidge. Shiro is the Desert Devil.”

Pidge squinted harder. “And you know this how?”

“The petroglyphs,” Keith explained. “There was another site, a hidden one, and Shiro told me where it was and I found it and – you don’t believe me, but I’ll show it to you, right now, and –”

“Whoa, whoa, hold your horses,” Pidge cautioned, eying him worriedly. “Shiro’s still in your shack?”

“He’s gone,” Keith said. “Vanished, into smoke, nothing, just like you said –”

There was a groan from the dark room behind Pidge. “Querida, who’s knockin’ – oh, it’s just Keith. What the blazes, Keith?”

“Keith says he just had a run-in with the Desert Devil,” Pidge called over her shoulder.

Lance groaned louder. “Not you too, Keith. Goddamnit. You plumb lost your mind?”

“Just let me show you the cave,” Keith pleaded.

“It ain’t even dawn yet,” Lance whined, slumping against the doorframe (and Pidge, who was too small to support his weight, and promptly elbowed him in the gut before he could knock her clean over). “What’s this ‘bout the Devil and a cave?”

“Shiro is the Desert Devil,” Keith repeated. Lance’s eyes bugged out of his head.

“He got ahold of that rot-gut moonshine again, huh?” Lance mumbled to Pidge. “Loco son of a bitch…”

“Dunno,” Pidge said. “Alright, lead the way to this here cave, Keith. But there’s gonna be hell to pay if it turns out you woke me up for nothin.’”

“I’m goin’ back to sleep,” Lance said after a moment of deliberation. “Don’t let the Devil getcha.” He snorted, winked, and stumbled back to bed. Considering the loud thump that followed, he hadn’t quite made it, but he continued to snore nonetheless.

Pidge tugged on a coat and hurried over to the lean-to stable where the horses shifted uneasily. Keith picked at the loose threads of his shirt and prayed that the cold prickly feeling of being watched was nothing more than his imagination.

*

“Keith…”

“It was here!” Keith cried, gesturing wildly to the blank stone. “It was – it was all here, and the dead princess, I swear, I ain’t makin’ this up –”

Pidge looked at him for a long while, lower lip caught between her teeth. Keith hated that look, hated the pity in her eyes. Lord knows he’d seen that look before, on her face, on Lance’s face, on Allura’s face as she’d helped him clean the blood off his trembling hands and body.

“I wanna believe you,” Pidge finally said. “You gotta know that, Keith. But…”

“No,” Keith said, small and defeated and angry. “It was right here…”

“Get some sleep, yeah?” Pidge suggested. “You can...you can ride back with me if you want, stay the night, might do you some good to not be –”

“To not be what,” Keith spit out. “Alone? Been alone for five years, suits me just fine.”

“It doesn’t,” Pidge said. “You know damn well it doesn’t.”

“Ride on back to your sweetheart, Katie,” Keith retorted. “I’m sure he’s missin’ you already.”

“We miss you,” Pidge said. “We’re scared to death for you, Keith.”

“Don’t be,” Keith said, and left.

*

Yellow eyes watched him ride home, watched him rip the saddle from his horse’s back and swear to the stars, watched him drive his fist into the wall until the yellow eyes could watch him hurt himself no longer and let the wall splinter from the next hit, watched him stare at his bruised and bloodied knuckles and curse one last time before falling into his cold bed and crumpling into sleep.

*

Keith wondered if it was strange that one of his favorite places in the world was a brothel.

Not just any brothel, to be fair – he’d only visited the one, the Pink Lion, situated smack dab in the middle of Altea Creek, because without the Pink Lion and its infamous mistress, there’d be no Altea Creek in the first place. It was a proud building, with its pink-painted awning hung with red lanterns, crowned by the the iconic sign of a rearing pink lion pawing at the air. The sign swung in the hot desert wind as the door moved – and it was always moving, never staying shut for long.

Keith often marveled at how weak men were, when it came down to it. They could show off as many guns and knives and whips as they wanted, drive their spurs into as many broncos as they could find, rope as many cattle as they could catch, but in the end they all moped and pined after the absent touch of a woman until they wasted away.

Keith would never understand that weakness, which Allura found very amusing. She often talked to him about weak men. His talks with Allura were always good ones.

Well, not always. Their first talk hadn’t been a good one. But Keith rarely thought of that one. He barely remembered it, actually, and supposed that was for the best.

The girl at the door recognized him immediately. “Well, if it ain’t Allura’s favorite outlaw,” Nyma crowed, smiling wide. The girls latched onto all the men who walked inside, hanging off their arms or slyly sneaking hands where they shouldn’t be, but they always gave Keith a wide berth.

Keith didn’t know what Allura had said to her girls to make them keep their hands off, but he had a suspicion she’d been pretty clear about it. All her girls knew him, and smiled at him from across the room, a few inclined their heads as he headed upstairs unimpeded. The miasma of booze and sweat was unpleasant to most but comforting in a strange, familiar way to Keith.

He spared only a few glances for the drunk men stumbling about the large parlor, and the game room and dance hall beyond, speaking in slurred sentences and smiling dopily, faces flushed red. Keith wondered, vaguely, what it must be like to let oneself get so drunk. To allow it, to welcome it even, that feeling of uniquely dizzying helplessness found only at the bottom of a bottle. They were willingly, willfully vulnerable.

Keith thought it was stupid. But it couldn’t be all stupid, because a part of him was jealous of them all, drunk and stupid and free as they were.

Some of the girls drank. Some of them were never sober. Keith could understand that more. And he hoped it was that empathy, a kind of silent recognition that they saw in his face when he looked at them, not pity. Because it wasn’t pity that he felt for them, nor for himself.

Allura didn’t pity him or her girls either. She hadn’t pitied him when she’d lathered soap onto his clammy, bruised skin as he told her what had happened in fragmented sentences, and she didn’t pity him now when she opened her door to him and ushered him in.

There was a difference, Keith had learned, between pity and compassion.

Allura was the smartest person Keith knew. Anyone with as many books as she had was bound to be smart, but the thing about Allura was that she shared her smart instead of hoarding it all to herself like most smart people. Even kind old Doctor Samuel, Pidge’s father who’d returned to the city years ago, kept all his books and manuscripts tucked away and out of reach.

Allura had given Keith a book on his first day with her.

It had looked like the Bible upon first inspection. Then, when he opened it, the letters had been strange, squiggly, swirling in his bewildered vision. “It isn’t English,” she’d told him, sitting beside him on the bed she’d given him. “But it is beautiful, no?”

“It is beautiful,” Keith had agreed, staring at the curling ink lines and dots and wondering. “What does it say?”

“This book is called the Quran,” Allura had replied. “It is a holy book from a place far away, yet not so far at all. Many of the people who read and follow this book live in a desert not unlike our own, and their religion is not so different from ours, either.”

“I am not religious,” Keith had said, because it was the truth. It was still the truth.

“Perhaps not,” she had sighed. “But you are human, and you have a soul, in here.” She’d held her hand to her chest lightly, and Keith had found himself touching where his own heart beat quietly. “And souls need healing, Keith. Yours needs healing.”

“I thought you said I didn’t need to be fixed.”

“You don’t,” Allura had said. “Healing and fixing are not the same.” And she had shown him another book, a little leather-bound dictionary written in another language. Keith had marveled at the new words and tried to imagine how many other languages and how many other words there must be in the world. “This is Latin,” she had explained. “Many of our words, the ones we speak now, come from this language. The word ‘fix’ comes from a root simply meaning ‘to repair.’ But the word ‘heal’ comes from the Germanic word ‘hælan,’ which means ‘to make whole and well, to cure.’”

“I don’t want to be cured,” Keith had snapped, misinterpreting, fearing and flinching away from her.

“Not like that,” she had murmured, shaking her head, her thick silver hair shining in the moonlight that streamed in through the open window. “There is nothing wrong with you.”

Keith had not believed her then, but he had wanted to, so badly. He still wanted to.

The word ‘pity’ came from a root meaning ‘duty.’ The word ‘compassion’ came from a root meaning ‘to suffer with.’

“I only wish to ease your pain in any way I can,” she had promised. “I can read this holy book to you, if you will let me. You may find comfort in the passages as I do.”

Keith had not looked at her, but he had nodded, and she had begun to read in her cool, clear voice.

Your Lord has neither left you, nor has he detested you…

“Keith,” she greeted as he stood in her parlor, uncertain and feeling like a terrified fourteen year old again. “What troubles you?”

“May I sit?” Keith asked. He cared little for manners most of the time, but in Allura’s presence he was always respectful and as courteous as he knew how to be. She nodded, he sat. He wrung his hands uncertainly in his lap. “I’m afraid you won’t believe me,” he admitted.

Allura frowned, and took the seat opposite to him. “I will,” she said. “What happened?”

“You know of the Desert Devil. All the stories...the legends.” Allura nodded, a line appearing between her thin brows. “I never paid them any mind. Thought it was all pretend. But now…” He raised his gaze to meet hers. “The man who lost an arm, the one Coran told you about, the one I...saved.” He swallowed. “He’s the Desert Devil.”

Allura sat back heavily in her chair. “Explain, please.”

“He told me his name was Shiro,” Keith rambled, “and he seemed human, he did, he bled like a human and he got hurt like a human but he isn’t human, he’s just – darkness, with yellow eyes, just like the shadow man on the petroglyphs in the canyon. It’s him, Allura, and he told me there was a thirteenth petroglyph site, and it was in a cave, and I found the cave and he was there, and I thought he was going to kill me, but then he just – he just disappeared like a phantom, and when I brought Pidge to see the cave there was nothing there and now Pidge and Lance think I’ve lost it but it was there, that thing is real!”

“Not human?” Allura questioned, folding her hands and looking at him seriously. “This being, this Shiro, what did it look like?”

“Like a man, but made of shadows,” Keith said. “His hands were clawed, and his ears were...pointed at the tips, sharp like his teeth...and his eyes were yellow, glowing like a cat’s, but empty, no pupils.”

Allura tilted her head. “And what did he do; why did you think he was going to kill you?”

“I said he wasn’t real,” Keith said. “And he scratched my face with a claw. It bled. He was real.”

Her eyes widened. “He drew blood?”

“Yes,” Keith said. “He…” She waited, and he ducked his head, shuddering in disgust. “He licked it off his claw. With a tongue like a snake.”

“Oh, dear,” Allura murmured, her expression unreadable. “You must have been scared.”

“I was, but then he left,” Keith muttered. “He said...because I’d saved his life, he owed me a debt. A life debt, he said.”

Allura’s lips parted. “How intriguing…”

“Do you believe me?” Keith asked. “I’m tellin’ the truth, I swear it.”

“I believe you,” Allura said, and he heaved a sigh of relief. “But I am uncertain as to what this Devil is, exactly. He sounds like an infernal being indeed. Yet he spared you. So...I think it is safe to assume he has some semblance of a moral compass, skewed though it might be.”

“There’s somethin’ else,” Keith hedged. “Shiro...told me a story. Before I knew...when he was still human. He told me there were people native to these lands before the Navajo or the Hopi or any of the rest. He called them Toltecs, said they practiced human sacrifices.”

Allura’s lips pressed together in a thin, pale line. “I have heard whispers of such things,” she admitted. “They are unpleasant, and I do not dwell on them.”

“There was a king who sacrificed his daughter, a princess, to their gods during a mighty big earthquake,” Keith continued. “And in that cave, the one where I met the Devil, there was a skeleton. I reckon it was hers. But it was gone when I brought Pidge to see. Poof, just like that.”

“The Toltecs were an ancient people,” Allura said. “The skeleton would be dreadfully old.”

“It looked near to crumbling,” Keith agreed.

“Maybe it did just that,” Allura said quietly. “Crumbled away into dust.”

“I don’t know,” Keith said, “that seems awful convenient.”

“Or maybe it was never there in the first place,” Allura suggested. Keith opened his mouth to protest. “I’m not saying you’re wrong about what you saw,” she assured. “I’m simply saying this Desert Devil may have the power to make you see what he wants you to see.”

“Like magic?” Keith demanded.

“Does it seem so far-fetched to believe in magic after what you saw?” Allura asked. “Magic comes in many forms – Shay’s medicinal skills are considered magical by many. Why, then, could it not also take the form of illusions?”

Keith shook his head, his thoughts tangling. “I didn’t come here to talk about magic, anyhow.”

“Then what, Keith?”

“I want books,” Keith declared. Her lips quirked. “I want to know more about the Desert Devil, the Toltecs, the whole kit and caboodle. Do you know where I can find all that?”

Allura tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Well...I do have an acquaintance a few towns over, in Betarez, who might know a thing or two about it. You may know of him...name of Slav.”

“You’ve gotta be joking.”

But Allura did not, unfortunately, joke.

*

“You’re from the Old States, then?” Keith muttered as Slav prattled on and on about how much more dangerous Arizona Territory was than his city back East. It was either Boston or New York, Keith didn’t know, and didn’t much care. He cared more about the books he was sifting through, trying to focus on the titles stamped across their thick spines despite Slav’s endless bellyaching.

“Yes, yes!” Slav exclaimed, his rocking chair moving so fast that Keith wondered how it didn’t snap in two. “Much more orderly there, nice straight streets and safe shops, none of these dirt roads and frightening saloons!”

Keith raised an eyebrow. “Frightening saloons? Thought you were friends with Allura.”

“Friends, oh no,” Slav stammered. “She’s a – a mighty fine businesswoman, mark my words, wouldn’t dream of saying an unkind word about such an enterprising young woman!”

“I don’t think she’s that young,” Keith said. In truth, he didn’t know how old Allura was, and he wasn’t about to ask. Her silver hair and regal face gave her a timeless appearance; she could have been thirty or nearly fifty, there was no telling. She carried herself with the wisdom and grace of a much older woman.

Slav looked nervous, eyes darting back and forth. Then again, he always looked nervous. “N-no? Oh dear, my mistake! She ages well, quite well, quite a bit better than little old me! Going gray already!”

“I wonder why,” Keith said under his breath. “I thought you said you had another volume on Toltecs?”

“Is it not on that shelf? Oh, dear, I may have misplaced it, er...oh, no, I remember now! I moved it to the bottom shelf because it fell the last time I unshelved it, I could have been crushed, it was all very traumatic –”

Keith rolled his eyes and knelt down to rifle through the volumes on the bottom shelf. “Anything else you can recall ‘bout the Toltecs or the Desert Devil in the meantime?”

Slav continued to rock anxiously. “Shhh, not so loud, or he’ll hear you!”

Keith paused. “The Devil, you mean?”

Slav pressed a finger hastily to his lips. “He’s watching, always watching, always listening – this desert is his domain, you know! We’re trespassers, intruders, all of us – if he wanted us gone he could make it so in half a second, faster than you could bat an eyelash!”

Keith frowned. “What is he, do you know? Some kind of ghost?”

“A ghost, no, much more than that,” Slav whispered. “He is ancient, a primordial being the likes of which you have never seen before! To him we are like ants, tiny and weak and meaningless!”

Keith sighed. “Helpful, aren’t ya?” He squinted at the books and finally found one that looked promising. “‘The Toltec Empire – Tales of Blood and Woe.’”

“Ah, yes, that’s the one,” Slav mumbled. “It’s a sordid read, but you did ask…”

Keith thumbed through it and peered at the table of contents. “A-ha...here’s something about gods. Is the Desert Devil a god?”

Slav nibbled his half-eaten piece of frybread and shrugged helplessly. “The Toltecs certainly thought so! They feared him, and dedicated many supplications to him, but by my reckoning, he seems like more of a terrible demon than a god, the name of ‘Devil’ is not unfounded –”

“Or perhaps I simply do not fit into your foolish Christian ideology; did that ever occur to you?”

Slav froze. Keith dropped the book. Shiro was leaning against the wall, studying his claws, one eyebrow raised. “Oh, no,” Slav whimpered, “forgive me, forgive us, please –”

Shiro moved in the blink of an eye, one moment casually standing and the next crouched in front of Slav’s rocking chairs, long black claws poised as if to slice his throat. Slav made a piteous sound and Shiro smiled, thin and cold. “Must everything always be so black and white? I swear, you mortals never change, I almost feel sorry for you.”

“He was only helping me, get away from him,” Keith snapped, barely managing to keep the tremble out of his voice.

Shiro turned to look at him, eyebrow still lifted. “You know, Keith, if you wish to know more about me, you need only ask. There’s no need for this sneaking about.” He looked back down at Slav with irritation. “You didn’t need to bring him into it. I do hate cleaning up messes.” Slav was shaking like a leaf.

Keith took a furious step forward. “Don’t you dare.”

Shiro seemed surprised by his boldness. Slav’s eyes darted to Keith, terrified. Shiro’s claws curled slowly away from his neck. “What do you think I mean to do to him?”

“You are a cruel being,” Keith retorted. “That is what I think.”

“Cruel?” Shiro frowned. “But I have not been cruel to you.”

“No?” Keith scoffed. “My friends think I’m crazy as a loon because of your tricks.”

“Ah, I do apologize,” Shiro chuckled, “but we can’t have them knowing what you know about me. We can’t have this one knowing, either.” He tapped Slav’s chin lightly with a claw. “No, this is our little secret, Keith.”

“Don’t –!” Keith cried as Shiro leaned closer to Slav, his eyes widening as Shiro waved a hand and sent the old man crumpling back in his chair, eyes fluttering shut and body going limp. Keith swallowed back the lump in his throat.

Shiro stood and gazed at him, brow furrowing. “Did you truly think I would kill him?” he murmured.

Keith stared at him, heart pounding. “What did you do to him?”

“Erased his memory of this little encounter,” Shiro said. “No lasting damage. Amnesia is quite a useful tool at times.” He wiggled his fingers, almost playfully.

Keith took a step away. “Don’t touch me.”

Shiro sighed. “I see you’re still suspicious. Fair enough. I can take a hint. But...I can guarantee those books aren’t going to tell you half as much as I could.”

“I don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

“Very well,” Shiro replied mildly. His voice never rose in volume, never spiked with annoyance or anger, which made him all the more infuriating. “Then might I suggest a far more complete and informative text for you to consider?” He plucked a small gray book out of thin air and held it out to Keith, who made no move to take it. Shiro shrugged and set it down carefully on a nearby table. “There are few accurate surviving texts regarding the Toltecs and their religion, but I have kept this one over the years. Do take care of it for me...it holds a great deal of sentimental value.”

Keith folded his arms. “How do you know I ain’t inclined to toss it over the nearest cliff?”

Shiro pursed his lips. “I would be quite sad if you did, Keith. Please don’t.”

“That’s it?”

“Of course I cannot stop you from tossing it over the nearest cliff if you really wish to do so,” Shiro said. “But I think you have a great curiosity within you, and I would like to help you satisfy that curiosity. It is just a book – no curses, no magic, no tricks.”

“Just a book,” Keith repeated.

“Yes,” Shiro said with a disarmingly bright smile. “A very good book. I may have left a scribble or two in it...reading it makes me quite nostalgic, you see. I do hope you’ll enjoy it.” He nodded to Slav. “He’ll wake up shortly, a bit confused. A good cup of coffee usually clears it up.”

Then Shiro vanished, and Slav’s eyes blinked open slowly. “Hmm...what was I saying…? Dear me, I seem to have forgotten my train of thought entirely!” He shook his head in utter bewilderment. “And suddenly I’m rather tired...oh, I have some coffee around here somewhere…”

“I’ll make you a cup,” Keith said hastily, and before he could decide against it, tucked the little gray book into his pocket as he headed to the kitchen.

*

Keith didn’t know what he had expected upon opening the book. Perhaps pages covered in scrawled incantations, cryptic symbols, and a few blood splatters. But he certainly hadn’t expected it to be exactly what Shiro had said it was – just a book.

The inside of the front cover had a name written on it in faded black ink. Takashi Shirogane. Keith tilted his head at it. Shiro was a nickname, then? He felt a little bitter that a primordial being had a more complete name than he did. He really was Just Keith. But Shiro was Takashi.

He was more intrigued than bitter, if he was being honest with himself.

The book itself was...wordy, as books tended to be. Keith had to take frequent breaks, the tiny scrawled text hurt his eyes after a while, but he had to admit the content he did understand was more than a little fascinating.

The Toltecs had been more advanced as a civilization than he’d expected – they’d had grand palaces and waterways and a society wealthier than London’s, if the book was to believed. He admired the tiny yet intricate illustrations in the corners of the pages – proud feathered headdresses rendered in vivid red and blue ink, stern faces of kings and queens detailed with a finely pointed black pen, tall adobe houses painted in beige and brown upon rocky cliff faces.

The margins were filled with faded graphite notes in places, and Keith could not help but trace his fingertips over them, feeling the slight indentations in the paper. The notes were simple - on a page about an ancient Toltec festival of the sun, Shiro had written: the maize was sweetest then. On a map of the empire, Shiro had marked neat little dots here and there – meaningful places to him, Keith supposed. On another page, just under a section about various Toltec rulers, Shiro had written little anecdotes about each.

The Tlatoani of the Toltec Empire

Huemec I: respectful, stern. never smiled.

Chalchiuhtlanetzin: a fair leader, a devout man, never seen without his golden earrings.

Ixtlilcuechahauac: fonder of feasts than of offerings, it caught up to him in the end.

Tecpancaltzin Iztaccaltzin: bit of a prick, often forgot offerings, good riddance.

Xochitl: the empress had a warrior's heart and gave it to me gladly.

Topiltzin: gave us animal blood instead of the blood of his people. nice sentiment, but sentiments do not win civil wars.

Keith took to reading the book before sleeping. Rather than tossing it off a cliff, he kept it tucked carefully under his pillow. He didn’t know why he took such care in turning each page and always made sure to mark his place with a scrap of cloth instead of dog-earing the corners, but he did. Maybe it was because Allura had always taught him to treat books well. They were sacred, in a way, because they preserved stories so much longer than any human could. Ink and paper always outlived flesh and blood.

Well...it almost always did, if Shiro was flesh and blood as he had seemed to be when Keith had first found him. Slav had claimed he was more than a ghost, and Keith believed it – ghosts didn’t lose limbs and nearly die of blood loss. Keith assumed it would be difficult to kill Shiro, but someone – or something – had certainly tried to. Could it be that Shiro wasn’t the only one of his kind, whatever that kind was? Could it be that the Toltecs’ other gods were more than myths?

They had so many gods; Keith couldn’t fathom how they kept track of them all. He wished Shiro had written notes beside their names as he had with the Tlatoani, but the margins were curiously blank for the most part. The gods’ names were long and they had strange roles – there was a god of corn, a god of the morning star, a god of revenge, and a god of rain.

The god of rain made sense, actually. According to the book, his name was Tlaloc. There was a small annotation beside his section: there is a reason this land has fallen to drought. only a sliver of his power remains. I can feel it when the monsoons fall. I wonder when they will be lost, too.

From what Keith could discern, there were two main gods – Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. Shiro had written nothing beside their sections, though they took up quite a bit of space in the book, and had their own illustrations. Quetzalcoatl was a “feathered serpent” drawn in bright red, green, and yellow…with what looked like half a person in his fanged mouth. And Tezcatlipoca was a vaguely humanoid collection of yellow and black abstract shapes, with one leg replaced by a yellow snake. They were brothers who had created the world together, and although Quetzalcoatl was the one eating a person, Tezcatlipoca was supposedly the crueler of the two. His name meant “the Smoking Mirror.” Keith hadn’t the slightest idea what that meant, but he didn’t like the sound of it.

One name stood out to him – Xochiquetzal. She was a goddess, one of the few the book named, and not only had she created humankind, she also represented youth, love, and beauty. Apparently she could turn humans into scorpions, which Keith reckoned would come in handy for a beautiful goddess who had to make dealings with all matter of men, mortal or otherwise. But the name stood out because it was so similar to the female Tlatoani, Xochitl. Shiro had written quite a bit next to Xochiquetzal’s section: a dear friend and a powerful spirit who fought until the very end. I will not break the promise I made to her so long as there is life in me…I do not care what happens to myself in the process. the aztecs worship an empty shell, but at least she is remembered.

So…she had been real, at one point, or at least Shiro thought she had been. Keith didn’t know what to make of that. Ancient gods were real. Huh.

The next chapter was the one that made Keith stop reading the book.

Whoever the illustrator had been, they were as morbid as a Revivalist preacher. They hadn’t bothered to give all the gods drawings of their own, but the pages detailing Toltec ritual sacrifice were awful detailed. Keith had heard of Aztec sacrifices, blood runnin’ down pyramids like floodwaters, skulls mounted on javelins, et cetera. But the Toltecs, apparently, had been the inspiration for all that.

He skimmed the pages with horrified fascination, unwilling to read the lengthy paragraphs detailing the step by step process in its entirety. The victims had often been captured enemies of war or slaves, but not always – sometimes they were dishonored warriors, or virgin women; or worse, in times of desperation, pregnant women or children. Keith swallowed back bile as he saw the illustrations of skull racks displaying severed heads and chac-mool statues in which sacrifices’ hearts were kept. Their hearts were cut from their chests still-beating.

Keith did not keep the book under his pillow once he reached that chapter. He resisted the powerful urge to toss it off a cliff and shoved it into a corner of the shack instead with the faint hope that the mice might discover it.

It had been a week since he’d seen Shiro, so when Keith came home from a supply run with Strawberry only to find a shadowy man with glowing yellow eyes and one arm sprawled out on his bed, he may or may not have shrieked and drawn his six shooter from its holster.

“Apologies,” Shiro drawled. “Please don’t shoot me. That would hurt.”

“Damn right it would,” Keith hissed, stomping across the room, pistol still in his hands. “What’re you doing in my house?!”

Shiro raised an eyebrow. “Now, calling it a ‘house’ is a little grand, don’t you think?”

Keith glared at him. “Answer the question or I will shoot you, don’t try me.”

Shiro sighed. “I wanted to ask if you’ve finished the book I lent you yet.”

“No, I haven’t,” Keith snapped, grabbing it from its corner and throwing it in Shiro’s general direction. “I don’t want it anymore, take it.”

Shiro caught the book hastily and looked down at it, then back up at Keith, his brow furrowing. “Why not?”

“Reading about ripping hearts out of children’s chests isn’t my idea of fun,” Keith retorted. “Is it yours?”

Shiro blinked. “Ah,” he said. “I forgot about that bit.”

“Forgot,” Keith repeated flatly. “And how many hearts did they sacrifice to you?”

Shiro held the book close to his chest in a way that was almost protective, and stood. Keith tried his best not to flinch when Shiro towered over him as before, but his hands shook minutely where they gripped the pistol tightly. “I cannot help that I am the way I am,” Shiro murmured. “But I did not ask them to kill for me.”

“You didn’t stop them, either,” Keith said. “Did you?”

“No,” Shiro said after a pause. “But it is difficult to refuse power so freely given. We grew greedy for it. The people complied easily with our demands. And it was not one-sided – we gave them rain, and good crops, and strong livestock, and fertility, and long lives and good health. All for the sacrifices of a comparative and generally willing few. ” His gaze slid away and he sighed heavily. “I know you do not understand. Perhaps it was foolish to expect you to. But I hoped…”

“I understand,” Keith muttered. “You used them. You’re not really a god, are you? Were any of the others?”

Shiro bristled – the shack alit with a sudden brightness, a flare of orange brilliance as flames sparked to life across his back and shoulders. Keith leapt back, eyes wide, the fire dancing in his eyes as he stared in disbelief.

“There are no gods,” Shiro said, his voice as flat as his eyes. “No ‘real’ gods, as you say. In all my days, I have never found any, and I have lived many, many days. But mortals are desperate to find beings to worship. Whether they worship them in blood or in hymns, what is the difference? They are false either way.”

“That’s blasphemy,” Keith whispered. “Say the Lord’s a sham out here, and someone’d shoot you dead. The Lord’s all they got.”

“Not you, though,” Shiro whispered back. “You turned your back on that Lord a long time ago, didn’t you?”

Keith recoiled, dropping the pistol with a clatter. “What,” he gritted out, “is that supposed to mean?”

Shiro blinked, the flames flickering out abruptly. “I…did not mean to offend?” He took a hesitant step forward and Keith’s back hit the wall hard. Shiro stopped. “Oh,” he said. “Keith…I am sorry –”

Keith shook his head firmly. “Take your book and go. Don’t…don’t ever come back here, y’hear?!”

Shiro’s shoulders slumped. “I did not mean to cause you distress,” he sighed, and swirled away into smoke, curling out the open window and away into the night, taking the gray book with him.

Keith slumped against the wall and pressed the palms of his hands to his eyes, sliding down to the floor and curling his knees close to his chest, trying to remember how to breathe.

*

Keith had been pointedly avoiding Pidge and Lance, so it was only a matter of time before they sought him out. It was a sort of game they played, an endless cycle of the last five years – they got into a fight, Keith (or Lance) pitched a fit, and they took their time to cool off (or as Pidge called it, “sulk”) until one party gave in and tried to make amends.

It was usually Lance and Pidge. Keith was stubborn, always would be.

“Keith! You bastard, slow down!”

Keith nudged Strawberry a little harder. She huffed at him, outright ignored the press of his heels, and slowed to a jaunty trot. Pidge’s gelding and Lance’s mare caught up to them easily and Keith fumed silently in the saddle. Strawberry nosed hopefully at Lance’s pocket when they got close enough, and snorted in displeasure when she found it empty.

“You sold me out for sugar cubes?” Keith grumbled. “Traitor.”

Lance stuck out his tongue. “Nah, she’s lookin’ out for you. Unlike you are. Serious, Keith, ya can’t just up and vanish for a week.”

“You know where to find me,” Keith muttered.

Pidge folded her arms. “Yeah, but you were gone every time we stopped by.”

“Still think I’m crazy, huh?” Keith said. “Even though you were the first one who made a fuss ‘bout the damn Desert Devil. Smells like hypocrisy to me.”

“Listen, Keith, I’m sorry,” Pidge said, earnest as she always was. He never could stay mad at her, or even Lance, though Lance did his darnedest to make it difficult.

“I know,” Keith said. “But you still don’t believe me.”

Pidge and Lance exchanged looks. “Didn’t say that,” Pidge hedged. Keith raised an eyebrow. “Allura may have, uh…paid us a little visit.”

Keith’s eyebrows lifted to his hairline. Allura rarely left town, and when she did…it was usually only on important business. “Hell did she say to you?!”

Lance shuddered. “She was hoppin’ mad. Told us we better apologize to you quick, because you knew what you were talkin’ about. Said the Desert Devil’s no leyenda, and we better watch our tongues about it. So here we are; lo siento, you ain’t a loco son of a bitch after all.”

“Dang,” Keith mumbled. “Guess I owe her a thank you.”

“That’s the other thing,” Pidge added. “Allura’s throwing a big fandango at the Pink Lion next week. And before you roll your eyes at me, mister, listen up – Prince Lotor’s like to be there. So Allura was pretty darn clear that none of us are allowed within a mile of her place –”

“What business does Lotor have in Altea Creek?” Keith hissed. “Allura would never let him even step foot inside the Pink Lion.”

Lance shook his head. “She invited him.”

Keith’s spine went rigid and Strawberry shifted anxiously under him. “You gonna tell me why the hell she’d do somethin’ like that?!”

“She didn’t say,” Pidge admitted. “But she’s got a plan, she always does. She didn’t get to be the leader of the Altean syndicate from being a half-wit, Keith.”

Keith forced himself to relax his grip on the reins. “Fine. So who else is attending?”

“Allura’s gonna have your hide if you try to sneak in,” Lance warned.

“He’s going to be here,” Keith said. “Right here. And you expect me to sit back and let him walk free?”

“I think Allura’s fixing to make a deal with him,” Pidge sighed. “Y’know, negotiate? Use diplomacy instead of murder?”

“It’s too late for diplomacy,” Keith muttered. “Not with the Galra. They’re beyond redemption.”

“She ain’t trying to redeem the Galra,” Lance explained. “She’s trying to stop the bloodshed. Three Alteans and two Galra turned up dead as doornails a day ago, which you woulda known if you hadn’t been avoiding us like the plague.”

Pidge nodded. “There was some kind of row over in Agua Caliente. Besides, you know most of the Galra are trapped under Zarkon’s thumb. The Emperor’s got enough stolen gold to hire as many cheap grunts as he wants. Some of ‘em are kids just like we were.”

“So put ‘em out of their misery,” Keith said under his breath.

Lance folded his arms and shook his head in disbelief. “And here I thought you couldn’t get any more cynical.”

“Allura wants to save lives and you want to get your sweet revenge,” Pidge snapped. “We get it. But she’ll chase you out of town if she so much as catches a whiff of you when Lotor’s there. Lance and I aren’t allowed nearby either – it’s for our own safety.”

Keith snorted. “Uh-huh.” He flicked the reins and Strawberry started off, sidestepping Blue neatly. “To blazes with safety.”

“What the hell are you gonna do?” Pidge exclaimed, hurrying to keep up with him. “Waltz in and hold him at gunpoint? Have a good ol’ fashioned showdown and die in the dirt like a hero? That what you want?”

“If Lotor bites the bullet too, then yes,” Keith said over his shoulder.

“Ay, por Dios,” Lance groaned. “Always a martyr. You won’t do anyone any good if you’re six feet under!”

“I ain’t doing anyone any good now,” Keith retorted.

He knew as soon as he’d said it that he shouldn’t have. Pidge and Lance flinched in unison. “What happened to the three of us being in this together, huh?” Pidge snapped. “You even remember that? The promise we made mean nothin’ to you now?”

Keith remembered it, of course he did, remembered them pricking their fingertips and pressing them together, vowing that they would never betray each other, never let each other down, never leave each other behind. And he never intended to break that promise. But this…this score he had to settle was something else. Maybe it was revenge, maybe it was a fool’s errand, but he couldn’t let it slip away without at least trying to set things right.

“That’s not what I meant,” Keith muttered. “I mean, I ain’t doing anyone any good if I do nothing. I gotta make the Galra pay – I ain’t askin’ you to help.”

“Well, too bad,” Lance declared.

Keith blinked. “What?”

Lance rolled his eyes. “You thought we were gonna let you do somethin’ this stupid all by yourself? Think again, chucklehead.”

“But I thought you said Allura –”

“Yeah, she’ll have a conniption fit,” Pidge said. “But that’s only if she finds out.”

Keith looked from Pidge to Lance and then back again. “You two have something particular in mind?”

Their smirks mirrored each other perfectly.

*

“Absolutely not!” Hunk said. “Do you have any idea how dangerous – how reckless – how downright stupid –”

“It could work,” Nyma mused. She was leaning awfully close to Lance, and Pidge had been giving her the stink eye for the last five minutes. “But we can’t sneak all three of you in, that’s too conspicuous. Allura’s smart. You have to be smarter.”

“We’re doomed,” Lance said.

“Wait, wait,” Pidge cut in. “What if just one of us went in?”

Keith didn’t like the glint in her eye. “No, Katie,” he said. “It’s not gonna be you.”

“Keith, don’t presume to make my choices for me, I’m a grown woman and you’d do well to remember –”

“No, Keith is correct.” Everyone looked to the corner, where Thace had been standing in attentive silence since they’d convened in his small but neat parlor. He was a tall, well-built man of middle age, with a steely streak of gray through his dark brown hair and a keen sharpness in his hazel eyes. He dressed like a gentleman, tie and all, but it didn’t fool anyone present.

Thace had been one of Zarkon’s top men, once upon a time. But he’d also been a double agent for one of the more covert gangs – the Blade of Marmora. And if not for him…well, Keith knew things would have turned out very differently for him if not for Thace. It had been Thace who got the three of them out and sent them to Allura. They owed him a great deal…but he had refused to acknowledge any debt even existed.

“Explain,” Pidge demanded.

“It should not be you, Pidge – you would be recognized at once. You visit the town too often – they all know you.” Thace’s gaze slid to Keith and he raised an eyebrow. “You, however…you keep to yourself.”

“Keith visits the Pink Lion, though,” Lance pointed out. “Allura’s girls would recognize him in a heartbeat.”

Nyma shook her head. “He hardly interacts with us – he’s not a patron. We recognize patrons, but even if we ‘know’ what Keith looks like, we wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a crowd.” She smirked. “Especially not if he was wearing a disguise.”

“I wonder if you and I are thinking of the same sort of disguise,” Thace said.

“Oh, I hope we are,” Nyma giggled.

“Please tell me you ain’t saying what I think you’re saying,” Lance said.

“What do you think they’re saying?” Keith asked, very lost.

Pidge frowned. “You want to dress Keith up as a prostitute?” Nyma scowled. “Sorry, I mean, as a scarlet lady? Calico queen? Soiled dove? To be frank – you want Keith to wear a dress.”

“Oh,” Keith said. He considered it. There was a certain appeal to dresses. “I’m not opposed.”

Lance put his head in his hands. He was cackling with laughter. “This is a terrible idea,” he guffawed. “Keith? A lady? C’mon, now.”

But nobody else was laughing. Nyma was grinning and looking Keith up and down speculatively. Thace looked thoughtful. Pidge looked intrigued. Hunk said, “I highly doubted y’all could come up with a worse plan, but this…this is pretty darn bad.”

“It ain’t that bad,” Keith said defensively. “I bet I could be a pretty lady.” Hunk looked at him despairingly.

“But whose pretty lady?” Pidge asked. “The other girls are gonna know you’re not one of ‘em, even if they don’t recognize you as Keith. So it’d make the most sense if you went as an escort of sorts for another guest.”

Thace cleared his throat. “I was planning on attending, myself. Lotor never met me, he wouldn’t recognize me…and I have changed a bit since I left anyway.”

“Allura would be suspicious if she saw you; she’d figure out who I was if I was with you,” Keith pointed out.

Thace shrugged. “So I don’t let Allura see me with you. I’ll set up fort in a shadowy corner somewhere with a drink and you can go off and do…whatever it is you plan to do.”

“Kill Lotor,” Keith said. Thace inclined his head.

“Lord almighty, I’ll just start diggin’ the graves, shall I?” Hunk wailed. “Kill Lotor?! As in, “Prince” Lotor, as in, the only son and the heir of “Emperor” Zarkon, the richest man in the West and the ruler of the Galra Gang, the largest and most terrifying pack of bandits ever to roam these godforsaken lands?! Not to mention his mother is none other than Honerva, the most terrifying Apache witch woman alive!”

“Keith made up his mind a long time ago,” Pidge told Hunk. “Nothin’ you can say to sway him now.”

“Alright, fine, so we’re killing Lotor,” Lance said impatiently. “How the hell are we gonna do that?”

Nyma raised a finger. “If I may…the brothel itself is chock-full of poison.”

Lance’s eyes bugged out. Pidge nodded thoughtfully and said, “Right, you’re referring to the abortifacients?”

“The…the what?” Lance ventured to ask.

Nyma pursed her lips. “The worst thing a working girl could do is to get pregnant,” she said. “So we don’t ever let it come to that – we do what we must. There are certain herbs that can induce miscarriage – abortifacients. We mostly use tansy oil. In small doses, they do what they need to do and sometimes make us women sick, but we recover. But make the dose too high…” Nyma sighed. “Many a woman too desperate to rid herself of child has taken too much, and died as a result.”

“Lotor’s not pregnant,” Keith said after a pause. Lance gawked at him and Hunk sank into the nearest armchair. Thace patted Hunk’s shoulder lightly.

“Brilliant deduction,” Pidge muttered. “It’s still poison, Keith. Woman or not, pregnant or not; too much and tansy is fatal.”

“So we poison him with tansy oil,” Keith said. “And it’ll work, you’re sure of it?”

“Not only will it work, none of the Galra will know what poison was used,” Nyma said. “Tansy is a well-kept brothel secret, it ain’t common knowledge.”

Thace was nodding. “You could slip some into his drink, Keith. But that means you’d have to get close.”

“I can get close,” Keith said, sounding braver than he felt. “But this disguise needs to be convincing.”

“Oh, it will be,” Nyma promised.

*

“You look very nice,” Thace offered.

Keith stared at himself in the dusty mirror. ‘Nice’ was not the word most folk would’ve used for his appearance. Nice girls did not wear off the shoulder dresses the color of cabernet complete with ruffles, sequins, a tightly cinched waist, a stuffed bodice, and tasseled kid boots.

He’d drawn the line at stockings, but…he still looked like a whore.

The red rouge on his lips and cheeks and the pale powder Nyma had dusted all over him transformed his appearance – she’d lined his eyes with something black and smudgy like charcoal, too, and she’d curled his hair with a hot iron that had made him want to flinch away every time a warm new curl fell against his neck. He hoped the curls would come out soon – he hardly recognized himself. Which was, he supposed, rather the point.

Keith turned to Thace, who offered his arm. Keith ignored it and marched on determinedly to the door, the heels of his boots clicking loudly. “Time’s a wastin’,” he said.

*

They arrived by stagecoach, which garnered some notice from the guests already there. And there were many of them – the party was in full swing, as they had planned to slip in amongst the crowd when everyone was well on their way to being drunk.

Right before the coach doors opened, Thace put a hand upon Keith’s bare shoulder and said, “Are you still sure about this, Keith?”

Keith nodded firmly. “No backin’ out now.”

Thace frowned. “If ever you feel unsafe, tell me, and I will get you out of there,” he said. “Do you understand?”

Keith frowned right back. “Unsafe? Thace, this whole damn thing is unsafe, just look at me!”

“I’m trying not to,” Thace muttered. “Listen, Keith. You…you are like a son to me, and –”

“Nothing is gonna happen,” Keith interrupted, swallowing back the forming lump in his throat. “So you stop right there.”

“Keith, I’m serious.” His eyes were sad. “I do not want to see you hurt again. You must be careful. Promise me that much.”

Keith knew Thace wouldn’t let him leave the coach if he refused to reply, so he nodded and said, “I promise.” But tonight wasn’t about being careful. Tonight was about an eye for an eye.

Mollified, Thace let him out, and this time when he offered his arm, Keith had no choice but to take it and let himself be led into the lion’s den.

Chapter Text

The Pink Lion normally had a boisterous and crowded atmosphere, but tonight something was different. There was a hint of danger, a sharp edge to the place that Keith had never felt before. It might have been a brothel but the entertainment was light and tasteful, all things considered. The Pink Lion had a reputation for excellent service and was hardly a seedy establishment, but it felt seedier than ever that night.

As Nyma had said, none of the prostitutes looked at Keith with any sort of recognition. If they looked at him at all (most were otherwise engaged), it was with open curiosity and something like jealousy. Keith supposed that was due to Thace, guiding Keith around in his fine suit and tie, a far cry from the poorer types Allura's girls were servicing.

He saw Nyma just beyond the front parlor, in the game hall. She was laughing and leaning on a man playing pool – a Galra man, by the looks of it. Her gaze met Keith's only briefly, but it was enough to sneak in a tiny nod, her eyes saying, Go get 'em.

Thace was scanning the crowd with narrowed eyes, and Keith saw Allura the same time Thace did – she was lounging on a chaise sofa on the far side of the dance hall, sipping a drink and talking distractedly to one of her girls and two men who could have been Galra, but were grunts nonetheless. Lotor was not among them. Thace steered them away from the dance hall, and continued to search for their target. After a few more fruitless minutes, Thace resorted to asking one of the Galra in attendance.

"Excuse me, sir," Thace said politely, tapping on a short, fat man's shoulder. The man turned with irritation, and the girl he had been speaking with made a face of pure relief and hastily snuck off. "I was wondering if you knew where I might find Prince Lotor?"

The man furrowed his brow. "Who's askin'?"

"Thaddeus Wolf, I'm an old friend," Thace replied smoothly.

The man squinted suspiciously at him, and then looked at Keith, his suspicion abruptly falling away. "And who's your lady friend, hmm?"

"Not for sale," Thace said sharply. If Keith pressed closer to his side, well, he didn't like the way the man was leering. Although he supposed that was one of the things men were best at.

The man scowled. "Fine, fine, Thaddeus. The Prince is upstairs in a private room, but he ain't exactly receiving guests at the moment."

"I see," Thace said. "Will he be there all night?"

"Before the audience with Madam Allura, yes, I 'spect he'll spend as much time in there as possible." He snorted. "He's a busy man."

"We'll see about that," Thace said, and led Keith away, his grip tighter than before.

When they reached the main bar area, Thace released his hold on Keith. "Alright," he murmured, words covered by the loud band, "what do you want to do?"

Keith looked at him like he was crazy. "There's only one thing to do. Go upstairs."

"Keith..."

Keith folded his arms, and then immediately decided against it because...there was too much going on against his chest already, to be frank. "I can handle myself. There's a dagger in my boot just in case."

"Don't stab him," Thace warned. "You know men don't go quietly when they're stabbed, and you'd get caught in a second. You wouldn't even get a trial."

"You think I wanna do that again?" Keith shook his head. "I'll use the oil, as planned, unless I got no other choice."

"And what about Lotor himself? Only way you're getting in that room is if –"

"If you loan me out to him," Keith finished. "I know. So do it."

"Keith, it's too dangerous –"

"Set the terms and he might follow them and he might not; if he doesn't I'll cut his throat," Keith said. "Simple as that."

"This isn't simple. I'm beginning to think Hunk was right all along."

"Take me upstairs, Thace," Keith said. It was not a question.

Thace set his jaw, and did.

*

The room wasn't quite private, as it turned out.

It was a room often called "The Jungle" by the patrons and sometimes Allura herself, though she disliked the nickname because, as she'd once lamented to Keith, "Lions do not live in the jungle, they live on the savannah, but ‘The Savannah Room’ is far too boring of a name and that room is never boring, so I suppose we must endure it."

The Jungle's door was more of an archway draped with beads and green curtains, and it was flanked by guards tonight. They took one look at Keith and Thace and raised their eyebrows high.

"Got a proposition for the Prince, eh?" one of them guessed.

"Yes, that's right," Thace said.

"He's preoccupied at the moment," the other guard muttered.

Keith bet he was. The sounds issuing from beyond the thin walls left little to the imagination. He dug his nails into his palms, and then let his fists loosen, and settle demurely at his sides. "Please, sir, I reckon he'd be sorry if you turned me down." He hated his fake falsetto, and thought it sounded silly, but the guards blinked and exchanged looks.

"Might as well ask," one of them conceded, and slipped past the curtain. The sounds receded in volume for a few moments, and there was a muffled exchange of words. He returned shortly, looking a little red in the face. "The Prince wants to know your terms."

"I would prefer to tell him the terms directly," Thace said. "Precious goods, you see."

"Can't do it. Tell me, or not at all."

Thace's jaw twitched. Keith squeezed his waist lightly. It's okay.

Thace exhaled, a long measured breath. "Very well. Here are the terms: clothes stay on, no kissing, no touching. Return him to me in a half hour's time or less."

The guards gaped at him, then Keith. "Hell kinda whore is that?" one of them exclaimed.

"Tell him."

Shaking his head, the first guard did.

He returned looking stunned. "Prince says yes."

Thace squeezed Keith's shoulder. "Go on," he said, nudging him forward. Keith kept his head down and went through the curtains, and felt Thace's apology hanging over him like a cloud. This was a kind of deja vu for them both, but Keith could not afford to think of that. Not now, when he could feel the tiny vial of oil in the sewn-in pocket of his skirts bounce against his leg with every step, not now when he saw Lotor mere feet away, half-naked on a velvet couch with three women in various stages of undress.

"Here she is, my Prince," the guard said, pushing Keith forward. Keith resented the shove, but did not let it show, just batted his eyelashes in a way that felt idiotic but was hopefully appealing in some absurd way. Weak, he repeated in his head, a mantra. He is as weak as the rest of them.

Lotor looked up, and his thin lips curled into a grin. His teeth were sharp and small and white, gleaming in the dim light just like his long blond hair. He had let it down, and it flowed over his lean shoulders in smooth waves.

Lotor's mother Honerva was full blooded Apache. It was strange to think that Lotor could have been a bastard just like Keith; could have been, if Lotor’s father wasn't so powerful and apparently loved Honerva enough to marry her legally, despite the tales of her madness and witchery. His blond hair was an unexplained rarity, and if not for that, Keith doubted he would be so respected.

Indians didn't have blond hair. Keith's was black as soot.

Lotor's skin had the same faint undertones as Keith's, brown like the earth, not pink. But he had, as Shiro had said, chosen his half.

"Hello," Lotor said, eying Keith and smiling wider. "And what's your name?"

Oh, Christ. A name. How had he forgotten a damn name?! Keith blinked, saw the sleeve of his dress, and blurted, "Red!" His stupid high pitched voice echoed through the room. The other whores stared at him.

Lotor looked amused. "Red? Is that all?" He sat up fully. "You look Indian. Got an Indian name?"

Keith did not have an Indian name. He was an unwanted bastard, but he didn't know how to say that in the Diné language. Keith swallowed and shook his head. "Just Red."

Lotor chuckled. "Suits you, I suppose. Come here, Red." He nodded to the guard. "Leave us."

Keith carefully cleared his head, swept it clean of all the cobwebs that threatened to overrun his thoughts, and stepped closer.

"What do you think, Acxa?"

Keith started – they were not alone in the room. There were several others scattered about the Jungle, though the center was reserved for Lotor there were plenty of other men – and, Keith realized, a woman – enjoying their own entertainment off to the sides. Lotor had addressed the woman, who was sipping a tall drink and writing something. She looked up coolly, her bobbed hair framing a sharp, pale face.

One thin eyebrow lifted as she looked at Keith. "Not a common lady of the night. Not a lady at all," she declared, and went back to her writing.

Keith froze. Lotor said, "Yes, as I thought." He turned back to Keith. "You have a lot of nerve, hmm? Thought you'd fool me?"

Keith didn't know what he was saying, but in that moment his mind decided the best course of action was to say, "I hoped I wouldn't, actually." He didn’t bother to alter his voice this time.

Lotor's lips parted. "Is that so?"

"It is." Keith's gloved hands were shaking. The cobwebs were gathering again, he set them aside. Not now.

The three women looked uncertain. Everyone else in the room was too busy to have heard what had just transpired. Even if they had heard...legality did not matter for the son of a gang leader.

"I'm being quite a rude host," Lotor said, breaking the silence. "Do sit, won't you, Red?"

Keith nodded and sat. Lotor wouldn't stop staring at him. “No touching, no kissing, no clothes removed,” Lotor said, leaning back against the sofa. “Seems to me there’s little left for you and I to do, Red.”

“We could talk,” Keith offered.

Lotor laughed, short and derisive. “Talk? Very well, Red, talk to me.” Keith’s eyes widened. “Or is that not what you meant?”

“Sir, this one’s clearly an amateur,” one of the ladies murmured, trying to crawl back towards him, but Lotor stopped her with a single look.

Keith wet his dry lips. Think, think. His gaze strayed to an open bottle of chardonnay on a nearby table. Lotor followed his gaze. “Oh, I see,” Lotor chuckled, “you’d like a drink?”

“I was thinking a toast, actually,” Keith said. “To you. To your family.”

“My family?” Lotor tilted his head, eyes betraying real interest. “And what do you know of my family?”

“They are powerful,” Keith replied, quiet but firm. “Few would dare defy them, and those who dare are quickly dealt with. I’m proud to have finally met you.”

Lotor’s ego was rumored to be enormous, and it seemed the rumors held some truth, because he smiled with all the satisfaction of a cat who had gotten the cream, and reached out, brushing a single long finger across Keith’s jaw. “No touching,” Keith whispered, his voice paper-thin. Lotor chuckled and shook his head, lifting his finger away slowly, mockingly.

“But you can touch me, can’t you?” Lotor countered. “That isn’t against your silly rules.”

Keith’s mind was tangled with spider silk; not the neat webs of orb weavers shining brightly in the dawn, but the untidy snarls trapped in high rafters and dark corners, filled with tiny mummified husks of hollowed-out bugs and starving spiders who had lost their purpose long ago.

When he opened his mouth, he thought hollow husks might spill past his lips. Instead, he said, “A touch for a toast, then.”

Lotor’s eyebrow arched. “Not in much of a position to be bargaining, are you?” Keith held his breath. “But…hm, not a bad bargain. Pour us two glasses, Red.”

Keith nodded and rose from the sofa, the vial heavy in his pocket. He uncorked the bottle with some difficulty, and felt Lotor’s eyes on him, even heavier than the vial. This wasn’t going to work if Lotor was staring at him the whole time.

As if reading his mind, one of the three women resumed her efforts to thoroughly distract him. Lotor huffed and turned to her, tugging her down harshly, and she went, and Keith poured the contents of the vial into one of the two glasses before Lotor could see. He carried the glasses back and averted his eyes from the sight of the woman in Lotor’s lap, legs spread wide, barely covered by her remaining petticoats, her chest fully bare.

Lotor looked at Keith from over the woman’s shoulder. “Have you got the glasses?”

Keith handed him the poisoned one. His hands shook. Lotor noticed, and tilted his head. “Why so nervous?”

“This…this wine is fancy,” Keith mumbled. “Not used to it, sir.”

Lotor laughed and raised the glass. “A toast, then, to fancy wine.” He clinked his glass against Keith’s and tipped it back, drinking half in one go. Keith could have cried in relief…but then Lotor held the rest of his drink out to Keith. “Go on, then, you can have the rest of my fancy wine. I haven’t got much of a taste for this vintage…it’s rather bitter.”

Keith froze. Damn. If he refused the drink, Lotor would know something was wrong with it. But if he drank it…

Keith swallowed and took a sip from his own drink. “You’re right,” he tried, “it tastes awful.”

Lotor nodded to the glass again, his eyes narrowing. “Finish it. You wanted a drink, you’ll have a drink.”

What had he said? If Lotor bites the bullet too.

Keith took Lotor’s glass, told himself it was worth it, and downed the rest of it. It was bitter, and his throat constricted knowing what made it so, knowing that it would kill him slow and painful. And then, as if that weren’t bad enough, Lotor said, “Now touch me.”

“I think that’s enough.”

Keith’s breath caught. How in the blazes…? That was Shiro’s voice. He was afraid to turn around, and saw Lotor’s eyes widen in confusion, his mouth twisting into a scowl. “Who the hell are you?” Lotor snapped.

“You broke the rules,” Shiro said, sing-song, and Keith held perfectly still as a cool, firm hand fell upon his bare shoulder. “We can’t have that. I’ll be taking Red, now.”

Lotor’s face purpled. “How dare you –”

“It’s been half an hour,” Shiro continued, and tugged Keith to his feet, away from Lotor and the women. “And you’ve overstayed your welcome. Enjoy the rest of the night.”

And he led Keith out just like that, with Lotor sputtering curses behind them, cut off when the door slammed shut. The guards blinked at Shiro. “When’d you come in?” one of them demanded.

“I didn’t,” Shiro said, voice sharp and clipped though his grip on Keith was gentle. Keith’s stomach hurt, burned, almost; and he didn’t know if the pain was real or imagined. “Goodnight, now.” The guards gaped like fish but did not stop them from leaving.

They passed Thace on the landing and he looked ready to take a swing at Shiro, but Keith stopped him. “It’s alright,” he whispered. “I’m alright. It’s done.”

Thace looked helplessly from Keith to Shiro and back again. “You’re certain?”

“Yes,” Keith said. He could say nothing else, he felt dizzy and so scared he could taste it, acrid in the back of his throat.

“We must go,” Shiro said, and they continued down the stairs.

And then, suddenly, they weren’t in the Pink Lion anymore. They were in a quiet, narrow canyon, and Shiro’s hand was steady on his back, and he said, “This will not be pleasant,” and then Keith was doubling over and vomiting onto the dusty ground, heaving until there was nothing left but spit and bile. Shiro’s hand did not leave his back, and when Keith swayed on his feet unsteadily Shiro was there to keep him standing. Keith did not look at him; kept his eyes fixed on the ground and then closed them tight, struggling to breathe normally. It didn’t work.

Shiro said, You are safe, but Keith heard his voice within his own head, not aloud. It was then that he realized Shiro’s hand had left his shoulder, his warmth had left his side, and his eyes flashed open in a panic.

He was in a cave, standing before a deep, clear pool of water, dark save for the moonlight streaming in through a sliver in the rocks above. He was alone.

Then a cool breeze brushed across his cheek. Calm. I am here.

Keith flinched away, his eyes wide. Slowly, shadows solidified at his feet, but not in the shape of a man – it was a snake, coiled amongst the red pebbles, eyes glowing steady yellow. There was a patch of silver-white scales atop its head.

“Where am I?” Keith whispered.

A quiet place, the snake said in Shiro’s voice. It was once said that this spring had healing properties.

Keith squinted at the water suspiciously. “What’s in it?”

It’s just water. But you may find comfort in it. Humans were born of water, after all.

Keith’s hands still shook and his throat still hurt, but he found Shiro’s pleasant voice comforting in a way he hadn’t before. It wasn’t like Lotor’s voice. Not at all. “And what were you born of?”

Fire, Shiro hissed. Smokeless flame of fire.

“What…what does that mean?”

Whatever you wish it to, Shiro said. I can hear your heart pounding like a war drum. I will return when it has quieted.

“Return –?” Keith shook his head and started forward. “Wait, don’t leave, I –”

Hush, Shiro said, the snake dissipating into nothing. Safe.

Keith knew he was truly alone now. Slowly, he sank to his knees, and held his head in his hands. He felt the curls against his palms and grimaced, raking his hands violently through his hair, and then over his face – his face which was not his face, visible in the smooth reflection of the pool, pale skin and overdrawn eyes and flushed cheeks and red lips smeared with vomit and suddenly Keith hated it, hated all of it, never wanted to see it again. He yanked at the red dress until it tore loudly away from his body, and fumbled with the petticoats and boots and bodice until it was all ripped off, scattered around him like the aftermath of a battle, red strips of silk and white linen destroyed.

He was crying, and he hated that too, hated that whenever he closed his eyes he could feel unwanted hands on his skin again, cutting him to the bone like blades instead of fingertips, such soft skin, just like a girl’s, wonder how easily you bruise, boy.

“Fuck!” Keith cried into the cavern, the word echoing, loud, deafening, and then fading into nothing at all. He crossed his arms over his bare chest, looked down at his bare body, and said it again, softer. The rogue and kohl and powder ran off his face with his tears, coloring them white and red and black as they fell. He scrubbed at his face with the back of his hand and the kohl stung his eyes, which made him cry harder. He was not a child, he was not; only children cried.

Or could it be that he was doomed never to escape that, too? Forever Keith, the dirty, rude, lonely, terrified orphan boy who never wanted to get blood on his hands in the first place. But they were stained now, twice over, and no holy water could wash them – or him – clean.

He half-fell into the pool, with little sense of direction, his tears nearly blinding him. His splash echoed, and then settled again into soft silence, and when Keith tilted his head back he could see the water dance over the rocks above in an iridescent web of light. It was beautiful. He felt like a small and ugly thing, floating in the middle of that pure pool of water as if he had any claim to it at all.

“I’m sorry,” Keith whispered, to no one in particular, except maybe to himself. “I’m so…so sorry.”

The water did not reply, just lapped at the edges of the rocks and washed coolly over his skin, and somehow, that was enough.

*

Keith stayed in the pool until his face was cleaned and his curls were gone. His eyes were dry, red and itchy from crying, and as he looked to the shore he realized he couldn’t exactly put that dress back on again, torn up as it was. He would never put that dress back on again, anyway. But then, what was the alternative? He did not like the alternative.

The moment the thought crossed his mind, a small pile of neatly folded clothes shimmered into existence on a nearby rock. Keith startled back. How…was Shiro watching him?! But no, he was still alone, he knew it somehow, and so he cautiously waded out of the pool and approached the clothes.

They were thin but soft; fine material that felt lovely when he unfolded them. It was a simple pair of loose black pants and a long white shirt. When Keith put them on, they fit perfectly, and were warmer than anything else he owned. He rubbed the ends of the sleeves between his thumbs and forefingers, the smooth rasp of the fabric comforting him in some strange way.

Then the cave…opened. Quite literally, a passageway that had certainly not been there before just…appeared, and Keith followed it because there was nowhere else to go, his bare feet carefully finding their way in the dimness. There was a light at the end, faint but certain, and as Keith neared it he saw there was something waiting for him outside. A…a horse?

It was a horse. A tall black horse with a white star on its forehead, a white front right foreleg, and glowing yellow eyes. Hello, the horse said.

“You’re a horse?” Keith said, because Shiro was a horse.

When it is convenient, yes, Shiro replied. I will take you home now.

“Home?”

You are tired. You must rest. Get on my back.

Keith did, with minor difficulty; his legs still weren’t feeling quite up to the task of walking just yet. “Your arm…grew back?” he asked. Shiro may have been made of shadows, or smokeless flame of fire, whatever that was, but he felt solid. Solid, and warm, and Keith felt sleepy when he leaned forward against the horse’s proud neck.

Not exactly, Shiro said. It is more of an illusion.

“Like magic?” Keith whispered. He carefully touched the horse’s mane. It was softer than the dress had been.

Like magic.

*

The horse ran like wind incarnate, and in a way Keith supposed it was. There was no sound as its hooves touched the earth; maybe they never really did. The air sparked with something metallic, the sharp electric taste just before a storm. The night was bright with stars. Keith watched them, and Shiro noticed.

Do you study the heavens?

“Study, no,” Keith murmured, giving in to the urge to lean into his neck. “I just. Enjoy them.”

They are one of the things I enjoy most about your world.

Keith blinked. “You have your own world?”

But of course. There are many worlds. You are looking at them now.

“The stars?”

The beyond.

“You live up there?” Keith asked, wondering.

Not quite so far as that, Shiro said. Closer than you think.

“Could I ever see your world?”

Shiro was quiet. Then he said, The last human who visited my world did so under dire circumstances. Besides…

The horse stopped, and lowered its body enough for Keith to slip off. They had reached his shack. Keith looked up at Shiro as the shadows rearranged themselves into a man, or something very like a man. This time he didn’t fear for his life when a single claw touched his face, light enough not to draw blood. If he shivered, it was not because he was afraid.

“Besides what?” Keith asked.

“I have repaid the life debt I owed you,” Shiro told him. “Our business together is done.”

“Oh,” Keith said. He knew better than to be disappointed, but he felt it settle cold and painful in his chest anyway. But what had he expected? He should never have expected anything.

“I thank you again, Keith,” Shiro said, turning away. “May you live well.”

“You’re leaving,” Keith said.

“I was never here,” Shiro said, and when he turned back towards Keith, Keith knew what he meant to do and jolted away.

“No, don’t!” Keith exclaimed. “Don’t take my memories. I…I don’t want to forget.”

Shiro regarded him with puzzled eyes. “And why not?”

“Because…” Keith frowned. “Because you were kind to me.”

Shiro raised an eyebrow. “If I am kind, then you must have known little more than cruelty in your life.”

Keith’s silence was all the answer needed.

Shiro’s brow furrowed, and he lowered his lifted hand. “I see,” he said.

“Do you?”

Shiro shook his head. “Goodbye, Keith.”

Keith swallowed. “Will I ever see you again?”

“You’ve seen me far more than most ever do.”

“That’s no answer.”

Shiro blinked, a quick solar flare, and then it sputtered out as he returned to the shadows, losing his shape before Keith could reach out one last time.

It is all I can give you.

Keith stood alone once more. The clothes grew cold against his skin, their magic leaving with Shiro. He rubbed his fingers over the sleeves and told himself to be grateful that at least their softness remained.

*

The next day, Keith was awoken by a banging on his door, and when he opened it cautiously, found himself with an armful of Pidge and Lance, shortly followed by Hunk.

“Thank the Lord, you're alright,” Hunk sobbed. “We thought that Devil had spirited you away!”

Thace stood off to the side, composed as usual. “It is good to see you safe and sound. That man who took you away from the Pink Lion, that was Shiro? The Desert Devil?”

“Yes,” Keith said, nudging his friends away. “Is Lotor dead?”

“Deathly ill, or so the rumors say,” Lance replied. “All thanks to you.”

“He isn’t dead?” Keith’s hands curled into fists. “Damn.”

“He’s on death’s door,” Pidge assured. “He had to leave the talks with Allura early after a fainting spell.”

Keith bit his lip, and tried to be content with that. “And does Allura know why?”

“Goodness, no,” Hunk said, shuddering. “And you’d best hope she doesn’t find out, or it’ll be the end of you!”

“She was mad enough about Lotor having to leave prematurely,” Pidge added. “Best steer clear of her for a while.”

“I plan to,” Keith said. “Rather not go within a mile of that place anytime soon, if I can help it.”

Pidge and Lance exchanged worried looks, and Pidge said, “What happened, Keith? Thace told us you had to go upstairs, in the Jungle Room with Lotor –”

“Nothing happened,” Keith said. “I poisoned him, and that was that.”

Lance wasn’t satisfied with this answer. “And where did the Devil take you? Why’d he even come in the first place?”

Keith folded his arms. “How should I know? The Devil’s intentions ain’t my business. Probably I’ll never see him again anyway, so.”

Pidge’s brow furrowed. “Why not?”

“He owed me a debt, the debt’s been paid, is all,” Keith retorted. “The Devil’s a busy man, got other places to be, other dealings to make.”

“Yeah, sure, but you saved his life,” Lance said. “Don’t ya think he might stick around?”

“No,” Keith said. “Why would he?”

*

“You’re pining.”

Keith did not justify that with an answer.

Lance urged Blue faster and fell into step alongside him. “Keith, talk to me. It’s been a damn month since the Devil marched you outta the Pink Lion and you haven’t been the same since. Don’t think Katie and I don’t notice that far-off misty-eyed look you get all the time.”

“I dunno what you’re talking about,” Keith said, and resolutely did not tell Lance about all his dreams of glowing yellow eyes and sharp clawtips and white flashes of even sharper teeth. “I just…oughta get more sleep.”

“You seen the Devil since that night?” Lance pressed. “He been botherin’ you or somethin’?”

Keith frowned. “What? No. No, he…” Keith swallowed. “I…Lotor was going to…you know. Before…look, Lance, if Shiro hadn’t gotten me outta there when he did, somethin’ bad would’ve happened. I was in bad shape, and…Shiro took me away from it all.”

Lance stared, his eyes huge and concerned. “Where the hell’d he take you, then?”

“A cave,” Keith said. “With a…a pool. Water. It was nice. Quiet. Calmed me down.”

“The Devil did all that?” Lance shook his head. “Doesn’t sound like just repayin’ a debt to me.”

“He ain’t a Devil,” Keith said, looking away. “He ain’t human, either, but he’s…he’s not bad.”

“But don’t you think it’s him who killed those people? The crucifixions, and all that?”

“Maybe he has to,” Keith said. “To survive. Maybe that’s just…how he’s gotta do it. It don’t make him bad.”

Lance whistled, long and low. “You are pining. Christ, Keith…”

Keith scowled. “Am not. Shuddup. Anyway, none of that matters now, Shiro’s gone. Lotor’s gone, too. That’s the important thing.”

Lotor had finally died a week ago. According to the rumors, his mother Honerva had gone mad with grief. Keith had been under the impression she was mad already, witch woman that she was.

“Yeah,” Lance said, giving up. “Guess so.” He shot Keith a grin. “I’ll race ya to the depot – unless you’re too chicken?”

“You wish,” Keith retorted, and nudged Strawberry into a gallop across the dusty plain.

*

Keith had been riding longer than usual, watching the stars as Strawberry plodded at an easy pace through the creosote and cholla. She was plumb tired out from the day’s run with Lance and Blue, and Keith figured they weren’t in a rush to check his traps – and it was a beautiful night. So he was content to let her continue on as she pleased, meandering along and occasionally stopping to steal a nibble of sagebrush here and there. It was a peaceful night, and Keith was glad for the silence and easy motion in the saddle.

They were up on the ridge when he heard it – the pounding of approaching hooves. Strawberry lifted her head, ears pricking. Keith’s grip tightened on the reins – it was more than two horses, so it couldn’t be Pidge and Lance. The back of his neck prickled and then he heard a man’s yell, loud and unfamiliar, and pressed his heels hard into Strawberry’s sides at once.

She was confused, though, and used to the easy pace, so she was slow on starting into a gallop; too slow to avoid the shots fired as the men rode down the top of the ridge towards them.

Strawberry screamed in pain, high-pitched and horrible, and Keith felt her body buckle underneath him as she fell to the earth heavily, landing hard on her fragile knees. He screamed for her and scrambled out of the saddle, his boots tangling, rushing to hold up her head and trying to staunch the flow of blood from her heaving hindquarters where the bullet had caught her. The strange men surrounded them, circling on their horses like vultures.

Keith leapt to his feet and stood his ground, staring them down and knowing with frightening certainty that the men were Galra, and worse, they knew what he’d done.

“Well, well, we finally got him,” said the biggest of them, dismounting and standing with his arms crossed and his hook hand raised. Sendak the Brute. Damn, Zarkon hadn’t taken any chances – Sendak’s cruelty was notorious. Strawberry struggled to stand and neighed in terror and agony, blood staining the sand, her head falling to the side and foam falling from the bit as she chewed frantically at it.

Keith’s heart hurt; he longed to free her from the bridle, to give her that small comfort at least. “What the hell d’you want,” he snapped. “I don’t have nothin.’”

Two others dismounted – there were five in all, and closed in on him from all sides. “Now, that’s where you’re wrong, boy,” Sendak growled. “You thought we wouldn’t figure out what you did, huh?” Sendak nodded to one of the other Galra, and Keith recognized him at once – he’d been one of the guards at the Pink Lion. Oh, damn it all to Hell.

“This the one?” Sendak barked.

The guard nodded, his face hard. “Yeah, sure is. He looked more like a whore last time I saw him, though.”

Keith flinched, and Sendak sneered. “That so? Thought it’d be a fun little game to waltz in wearin’ a dress and rouge and poison our Prince?” He took a step closer, smile falling off his face. “Not just a whore, a murderous whore. You made a mistake, boy. And now you’ve gotta pay.”

Keith took a step back, his panic spiking, but there was a Galra behind him and then there were hands on him, shoving him down onto the ground beside Strawberry, his face scraping against the sand and rocks as more hands forced him to stay down. Keith bucked violently, shouting and fumbling to get at his knife, but then it was ripped away from his waist, and his jacket with it, and suddenly he felt vulnerable and exposed and so scared he thought he might be sick. The hands settled heavy and purposeful on his belt and Sendak laughed and Strawberry screamed again, weaker this time.

No, no, no, not again, not this, please, please just kill me, he thought desperately.

His belt was yanked off and away. “Stop,” Keith said, voice barely a whisper, eyes watering and heart stuttering, “stop, stop, I’ll kill you, I’ll –”

Sendak grabbed his chin and forced it up, forced him to look. Keith spit in his face. Sendak slapped him so hard he was momentarily dazed, his cheek stinging. “No, you won’t,” Sendak retorted. “You might’ve killed the first one, Keith, but you ain’t gonna do a damn thing now. Naw, you’re just gonna take it.”

“Go to hell,” Keith panted, and only got the curl of Sendak’s lip as warning before a knife slid between his ribs.

Keith’s breath left his lungs in a pained whine and he slumped, feeling the hot dribble of blood past his lips when Sendak withdrew the knife. It wasn’t a mortal wound – but it hurt something awful, as it was meant to. Keith felt dizzy watching the front of his shirt darken.

Nostrils flaring as she smelled the blood, Strawberry whinnied and tried to stand again, uselessly. Sendak’s gaze slid to her with obvious irritation. Keith’s gut clenched. “No –”

“Shoot it,” Sendak said dismissively.

“NO!” With the last of his strength, Keith surged up against the hands, crying out as one of the Galra cocked their pistol and aimed between Strawberry’s scared eyes, and then his face was shoved back down into the sand and a shot rang out, loud and final.

Keith went limp, sobbing silently, the fight leaving him. Pain bloomed anew in his gut as a boot pressed down on his back and hands tugged at his pants.

Then the hands lifted away from his body, suddenly, and at once the night was filled with screams and shouts and there was a horrific crunching sound, the tear of flesh and a hot splatter against Keith’s bare arm. He didn’t know what was happening, and a part of him didn’t care – he just lay there, paralyzed in shock, tears streaking his face. A loud roar echoed in his ears and Keith shivered, curling in on himself, praying for it to just be over. This was his fault, all his fault – he’d killed Lotor, and now the Galra had found him and Strawberry was dead. Why couldn’t he have just listened to Pidge and Lance? Revenge wasn’t worth this price.

Keith didn’t want to be the martyr. He just wanted to survive.

Something touched him. Keith jerked violently away from the sharpness, thinking it must be another blade, but then there were more, and when he cracked his eyes open he saw the blades were long and black and dripping with blood as they curled around him. Keith squeezed his eyes shut and willed them to either go away or finish the job already.

They did neither. They lifted him up, and Keith gasped when he was pressed to a warm, solid surface. It took a moment for him to realize it was a person, a man, and he jolted at the realization, adrenaline coursing through him. “Stop,” he said, squirming in their grasp, “stop, augh –”

“Shhh, shh, you’ll hurt yourself further,” a low voice whispered. Keith knew that voice. Knew…but it wasn’t possible. Couldn’t be…

He blinked blearily up at the face peering down at him. Glowing yellow eyes stared back, framed by flickering flames and huge ram horns. “Shiro,” he croaked, another trickle of blood sliding down his chin. A claw brushed it away – no, not a claw, just fingers, large and calloused but gentle where they touched him. A tear slipped down Keith’s face and Shiro brushed that away, too, making another soft shushing sound.

“They killed her,” he whispered, hollow. “They killed my horse and it’s…it’s all my fault –”

Shiro shook his head, and put his palm upon Keith’s head, warm and heavy. “Sleep, Keith,” he murmured. “You are safe now.”

“No…” Keith mumbled stubbornly, blinking harder. “My fault…I have to…”

“Sleep,” Shiro said again, firmer, and Keith succumbed.

Chapter Text

Keith awoke dizzy and disoriented in an unfamiliar bed. At least, he thought it was a bed, until he opened his eyes and realized it was just a large, circular sort of…nest. Not a nest like a bird’s, though; it was filled with blankets and pillows which were very warm and soft, so much so that he almost drifted off again just lying there.

Then a claw slid slowly through his hair and he tensed up, pain shooting through him. The claw paused and Shiro clicked his tongue. “Relax,” he murmured. “You’re safe, remember?”

“Hurts,” Keith whispered, and sucked in a breath when cold claws slipped under his shirt – no, not his shirt, Shiro must have changed his clothes because Keith was wearing a strange, silky black tunic and loose tan breeches, and under the tunic his stomach was bandaged. Shiro’s claws weren’t bloodied anymore.

Blood. Keith’s stomach burned as it roiled with nausea. “Strawberry,” he slurred, eyelids heavy and head lolling to the side again. “Sendak…”

“Is dead,” Shiro finished. “Sendak is dead, and will never harm you again. As for your horse –”

Tears prickled at Keith’s eyes. “They shot her in the head,” he said, voice breaking. “They crippled her and they shot her in the head and she was mine, she was…she was the only thing I could call mine…I never should’ve kept her…”

“Keith,” Shiro said. “She is still yours.”

“What…what’m I gonna do with a dead horse,” Keith mumbled.

“She isn’t dead,” Shiro said. “They didn’t shoot her. I wouldn’t have let them.” A claw traced over Keith’s jaw. “Just as I wouldn’t have let them…hurt you.”

Keith snorted, relaxing more into the nest, still exhausted, barely processing what Shiro said. “You’re ‘bout five years too late from stoppin’ that,” he sighed.

Shiro’s claw paused. “Excuse me?”

“The Galra recruited me as a kid from Saint Joseph’s; Indian orphans make cheap labor,” Keith mumbled, yawning. “Guess they figured there was no sense in goin’ to a brothel when they could have us and not waste a penny. I wasn’t the only one they did it to. I was just…one of lucky ones.”

The word ‘lucky’ felt wrong in his mouth. Maybe Shiro agreed, because he growled. Loud.

“I’ll kill them all,” Shiro said.

Keith snorted. “You do that. Give Zarkon my regards. Spit on Lotor’s damn coffin for me, yeah?”

But Shiro wasn’t laughing. “I am serious,” he rumbled. “Tell me who did this to you, and I will rip out their spleen and shove it down their throat before burning them alive.”

Keith shivered. “Five years too late there, too. I slit his throat.” He swallowed. “Only after, though.”

“They hurt you,” Shiro said, the fire gone from his voice. Only sadness remained. His claws left Keith’s skin.

“It’s what they do,” Keith replied, bitter, eyes shut tight. “I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last.”

“They are evil men,” Shiro said. “Evil, cruel, selfish men who are a stain upon this earth.”

“A powerful stain,” Keith said sleepily. “Not much to be done about it.”

“That’s not true,” Shiro whispered. “I…I could have stopped it. If I’d have known. I could have…”

But Keith was already asleep, and maybe that was for the best.

*
Keith had been dreaming. It had been a very good dream – he’d been somewhere warm and sunny with many trees, tall evergreens that pointed towards the turquoise blue sky like a hundred sentinels, surrounding him where he lay upon a bed of moss and wildflowers, watching a bright yellow butterfly flit from flower to flower. He’d never seen so much green in his life.

There had been someone beside him – a woman with long black hair and sad gray eyes, and she had been singing. Ahala ahalago naashá ghą. Shí naashá ghą, shí naashá ghą, shí naasha lágo hózhǫ́ la.

He felt as if the meaning of her words was just out of his reach, just beyond the treetops – and he strained to recall it, to know the language that had been denied to him. His vision blurred with tiny printed words in Catholic hymnals, English words, foreign words. Yet those alien words were the only ones he could remember now.

Maybe not such a good dream after all.

He was tugged from the strange land of many trees and singing women by something soft nudging at his face. Keith grumbled and turned his head away from it, and whoever it was resumed their efforts to wake him in earnest, nosing at his ear and cheek and nibbling – wait, nibbling?

Keith opened his eyes in bewilderment. “What the –” His breath died in his throat. “Strawberry?!”

Strawberry nuzzled at his forehead and snorted in greeting, her ears flicking forward and eyes bright. She was standing – yes, standing, she could stand – beside him alongside the nest, and when Keith craned his neck to see where the first bullet had buried itself in her haunches, it was bandaged just like his ribs. He slowly lifted a palm to her forehead, where the gun had been pointed just before Sendak’s men had shoved Keith’s face into the dirt. The white star under her scruffy forelock remained unbroken, a little dusty but not bloodied at all.

Strawberry pushed her head into his hand and nickered softly, a sound of relief that Keith echoed, a disbelieving laugh bubbling up past his lips. She was alive. They were both alive.

“I’m afraid your horse doesn’t like me very much.”

Strawberry startled back, tossing her head with a snort, and Keith sat up fully, turning to see Shiro leaning against the black stone walls that surrounded the nest. Keith supposed it must be some kind of cave, but it wasn’t like any cave he’d seen before.

Every surface was black stone, the space illuminated by evenly-spaced wall sconces which glowed silver-white, like moonlight. The ceiling and walls were smooth and shiny in places and dark and bumpy in others, and the cave soared high above Keith’s head, higher even than the church steeple in town. It was a large, closed space with no sign of an exit or entry, no windows, not even a hint of sunlight. Keith’s skin prickled with uneasiness when he looked back at Shiro, a thousand questions on his tongue.

“She was afraid of my true form, but it seems this one isn’t much better,” Shiro continued, eyebrows raised. He looked as human as he had the night Keith had first found him, though the arm he had lost had returned in the form of woven shadow, gleaming faintly silver like the lights whenever he moved. There was a yellow gleam to his eyes, too, Keith thought. “Animals always were better at sensing that sort of thing than humans. Better survival instincts.” He looked at Keith pointedly. Keith narrowed his eyes. “Anyway,” Shiro said, “it’s good you’re awake. You slept for quite some time – it makes me wonder how much time you allot for sleep normally.”

Not enough. “None of your business,” Keith muttered, though with chagrin he realized his traitorous tongue had already told Shiro more than enough of his business, and even if it hadn’t...well. Shiro had been there, had seen what Sendak and his men had aimed to do. Keith felt terribly vulnerable under his gaze right then, and grabbed the nearest blanket, drawing it hastily around his shoulders and ignoring the slight twinge of pain under his bandages. It was a Navajo blanket, he noted with irritation, because of course it was.

Shiro noticed the change in his posture and frowned. “Are you feeling alright? I can give you more tea, if you wish.”

Keith pulled the blanket tighter. “Tea?”

Shiro nodded. “Made of hazéíyiltsee’í leaves and flowers, yes. It helps to prevent infection and stop bleeding. I gave you tea earlier, but perhaps you were not quite conscious.”

“Hazeyil...what?”

Shiro tilted his head. “The plant is also called yarrow. I could not very well give your horse tea, so she has a poultice of it under the bandages. It is good for her that the bullet found muscle, not bone. Horses who cannot run do not live long. And your horse has already almost lost her legs once before.”

He must have seen the scars. Keith nodded jerkily. “Barbed wire,” he said. “I cut her free.”

“And took her for your own,” Shiro said. “How very human of you.”

Keith bristled. “You did the same damn thing to me! Where am I? What is this place?”

“My home,” Shiro replied. “I suppose you could call it that.”

“It’s a cave,” Keith said. “You live in a cave?”

“A lava tube,” Shiro corrected mildly.

Keith stared at him. “Lava? There ain’t no volcanoes hereabouts.”

“Ah, but there are,” Shiro said, lips curling. “The desert is full of fire, Keith. Even if you can’t see it, it’s there. But none are due to erupt anytime soon, so, don’t fret. And besides, this place is in a different dimension.”

“Uh,” Keith said. “Come again?”

“It’s a pocket dimension,” Shiro explained, which still didn’t make a lick of sense. He saw Keith’s blank face and sighed. “Alright. You remember when you asked if you could visit my world? Well, congratulations. Here you are.”

Keith’s eyes flew wide in panic. “Another world?! How – but I – why the hell’d you take me here?”

“You were in danger,” Shiro said calmly. “I took you to the one place where I knew you would be safe.”

“And my horse,” Keith said, dazed.

“And your horse, yes,” Shiro agreed. “Ungrateful though she may be. Would you believe she bit me earlier?”

“Of course she bit you, she doesn’t know you,” Keith retorted. “And you’re awful scary when you want to be.”

“Scary,” Shiro repeated. “Hm, yes, well, I would hope those men thought I was scary before I ripped them to shreds. They were scared enough to shoot me.” He scowled. “I dislike being shot, Keith. It’s a nuisance to remove bullets, even if they cannot kill me.”

“Wait,” Keith said with dawning realization, “that shot I heard...that was you, not Strawberry?”

“Mm,” Shiro muttered. “Taking a bullet for a horse, now, that’s something I don’t do every day.”

“Why?” Keith whispered. “I...I don’t understand.”

Shiro’s eyebrows lifted higher.

“You repaid the life debt,” Keith snapped, looking away. “You said that was that, and you left.” He looked back up, brow furrowing. “But you came back. Why did you come back?”

Shiro folded his arms. “You really must think I’m cruel, to ask such a thing.”

“Answer the question.”

“This is my desert, now,” Shiro told him. “More or less. I am aware, to some extent, of all that happens within it. And lately I have been quite aware of you, Keith. Our debt was repaid, but that does not mean I do not remember what you did for me. And I have no tolerance for certain...acts of violence. I did not tolerate those men in my desert, attacking my…” Shiro cleared his throat. “Attacking you. That was unacceptable. So I intervened. Would you have had it otherwise?”

“I thought you were gone,” Keith said.

Shiro blinked. “Is that disappointment I detect?”

“No,” Keith muttered. “I don’t know.” He exhaled hard and touched his bandages lightly, wincing as he did so. “I...I think I will take you up on that tea offer.”

Shiro smiled; it was a disarmingly pleasant expression. “Alright. I will return shortly.”

He vanished into the shadows without a trace, and Keith wondered when he had started just accepting that particular phenomenon. There goes Shiro again. Disappearing into thin air. But where did he go? How did he go?

Keith turned to Strawberry, who was searching in vain for grass. “Have we been kidnapped?” he asked her conversationally. “It sorta feels like we’ve been kidnapped.” He considered it, worrying at the frayed edges of the blanket with his fingers. “So...why ain’t I madder about it?”

Strawberry lifted her head and flicked her ears. Keith imagined that, if she could speak, she would say something like, Because you’re a damn fool with no sense of self-preservation and an inclination to makin’ bad decisions.

“You ain't wrong there,” Keith said, flopping back down into the nest and immediately groaning in pain. “Damn. Getting stabbed hurts like the Devil.”

“You called?”

Keith swore colorfully as Shiro reappeared, a steaming teapot and a mug in his hands. “Christ, don't do that!” Keith hissed.

“Apologies. The tea is done,” Shiro said, pouring it into the mug and approaching Keith. Keith watched him warily, and took the mug as Shiro held it out to him. Their hands brushed and Keith almost dropped it, the warm pottery slipping in his fingers.

Shiro’s hand steadied Keith’s, and he pulled away before Keith could snap at him. Keith held the mug close to his chest, smelling the steam that wafted up and savoring the heat. He didn't drink it, just peered at Shiro over the rim, curious despite himself.

Shiro was waiting for him to drink the tea. “It’s too hot,” Keith muttered when Shiro continued to look at him intently.

Shiro blinked, and flushed a little, glancing away and clearing his throat. “Ah. I forget, humans can be burned by such things as tea. Well, do not burn your mouth then. You are injured enough as it is.”

“And you're my nurse, is that it?” Keith asked.

Shiro pursed his lips. “My knowledge of healing herbs and techniques is comparatively limited, unfortunately, but yes. I intend to nurse you – and your horse – back to health.”

“Her name is Strawberry,” Keith informed him.

“That is a very strange name for a horse.”

“Shiro is a strange name,” Keith retorted. “Or should I say Takashi Shirogane?”

Shiro looked genuinely surprised. “How did you...oh, the book. Hm. It is a foreign name, yes. Does that make it strange?”

“Why do you have a foreign name? Where are you from?”

“I think your tea is cool enough to drink now,” Shiro said.

Keith didn't drink it. “Are you really a Devil? Or a demon?”

Shiro huffed and rolled his eyes. “No.”

“That's it? That's all you're gonna give me?”

“Drink your tea, and I will answer one question,” Shiro said.

Keith thought about it. “Promise? Any question?”

“Yes,” Shiro said, after a beat. “Now drink, and heal.”

Keith drank. The tea was rather good, bitter but palatable and not half as bad as he'd expected. And drinking it was soothing, even if he was doubtful about its healing properties. When he’d downed the whole mug, he handed it back to Shiro.

Shiro looked into the empty mug and nodded, satisfied. “Ask.”

“What are you?” Keith held up a finger. “And don't be tricky with it, you promised, remember.”

“I remember.” Shiro turned slightly, pressing his left palm to the cave wall. It shifted, nails lengthening to claws, pale skin mottling with shadow like a spreading bruise. “I have been called many things, but what I truly am has not, in essence, changed. I am born of smokeless flame of fire – a spirit. A djinni. Have you heard of such a thing?”

Keith opened his mouth to say he had not, then faltered, because for once he actually did know. “Yes, the – the holy book, the one Allura read to me – it spoke of djinn!”

Shiro smiled. “The Quran, yes.” His smile fell. “Then you know what an ifrit is.”

Keith could remember it vaguely. “Dangerous djinn,” he said slowly. “They're fiery beings of death, or somethin’ like that. Right?”

“Close enough. I am an ifrit,” Shiro said. “Or at least I was, in the beginning – long before the Quran was written, we existed as worshipped beings in Arabia, much like deities. The lines between worlds were less defined, then, and my brethren and I were all quite different, hardly definable. But humans like to define things, and so they gave us names. And my first name was ifrit. So that is what I am.”

“But...but after that, didn't the Toltecs –”

“One question, Keith.”

Keith scowled at him. “So you are a demon, more or less.”

“Less,” Shiro said firmly. “Demons serve a master, according to your Bible. I serve no one but myself.”

“Ifrit,” Keith repeated. “Huh. You did burst into flames that one time.”

“I did. I could do it again.”

“Please don't.”

“I won't,” Shiro assured, and for some reason Keith believed him. “Are you feeling any better?”

Keith actually was. “Yes,” he said. “Guess so.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Thank you for the tea.”

“Of course.”

Keith licked his chapped lips. “When can I ask another question?”

“Tomorrow,” Shiro said, stepping away from the wall. “For now, get some sleep. You need it.”

“I do not!” Keith argued, and glared at the wall when Shiro vanished again.

But he was asleep within the hour, so maybe the ifrit did know a few things after all.

*

Keith awoke, and Shiro was there.

“Is it the next day?” Keith asked groggily, hair sticking up every which way.

In reply, Shiro gave him another mug of tea. “Drink, and I will answer.”

Keith woke right up, and considered carefully what to ask while he sipped the tea. He noticed that it was not as hot as last time – he didn't have to wait for it to cool down, and it didn't burn his mouth. So he drank it quickly – slower when Shiro told him to – and handed over the empty mug with a sense of triumph. His ribs hurt less, too.

“Why is your name Takashi Shirogane?”

Shiro seemed pleased by the question. “I thought it was ironic,” he said. “In Japanese, Takashi means ‘noble and prosperous.’ Shirogane means ‘silver,’ and Shiro means ‘white.’”

“But you are made of dark shadows,” Keith mused.

“Yes. Thus, the irony.” Shiro sighed. “As for the noble and prosperous bit, that was less ironic once. I was considered royalty, and I had a great deal of wealth. But as the years passed, I became disillusioned with such things.” He frowned. “I first came upon the name Takashi Shirogane in a sacrifice, if you must know. The Arabs captured him – he was a trader from the East. I admired his spirit, and took it for myself.”

“You killed him?”

“Not quite.” Shiro tilted his head, brow furrowing in thought. “I suppose you could say I melded his soul to my own. So his body died, yes, but I kept his humanity alive.”

“But you are not human…”

“No, but we djinn must use human souls if we wish to take the form of humans,” Shiro explained. “So this form, this human form, is really Takashi Shirogane’s form.”

Keith recoiled, eyes narrowing. “So you wear the skin of a dead man.”

“Not very appealing, when you put it like that,” Shiro said dryly. “He has been dead for thousands of years, and any remnant of its original owner has long since vanished – the soul is indistinguishable from mine.” Shiro lifted his shadowy arm and made a face. “I haven't taken very good care of it, sadly.”

“Have you stolen other souls?” Keith pressed.

Shiro gave him a look. “You have asked enough for today.”

Keith opened his mouth to protest, and then, in looking around, realized something else. His eyes widened. “Where’s Strawberry?! Is she alright, is she hurt bad –”

Shiro shook his head, faintly amused. “She is just fine, Keith. But horses do not like caves – or ifrits – very much. So she is elsewhere.”

“Well, can I see her?” Keith demanded.

Shiro huffed out a laugh. “Can you walk?”

Keith defiantly stood. Or tried to – his knees were weak and wobbly and he would have toppled over if Shiro hadn’t appeared beside him and caught him in his arms like some swooning maiden. Keith stared at him. “I will take that as a solid no,” Shiro snorted. Keith spluttered and took a swing at him, Shiro let go, and Keith fell with a squawk into the pillows. Shiro looked down at him. “You need a bath. And a change of bandages. And then I will bring you to your horse.”

“Oh, like Hell you’re gonna bathe me –”

The cave shimmered away, replaced by a small glen of trees and a round, blue pool of water with steam rising from it. It smelled of sulfur. Keith wished he still had his blanket. He scrambled to his feet, ignoring the hand Shiro offered to him and folding his arms. “I can bathe myself,” he snapped.

Shiro blinked, nonplussed. “Did I ever say you could not? Here.” He plucked a towel, a fresh change of clothes, and some kind of soap from the air. “I will leave you to it.”

Keith opened his mouth and closed it, snatching the offered items and looking away, ears hot. “...Thank you.”

“You are quite welcome. When you’re done, simply walk through that cave, and I will help you change the bandages.” Shiro pointed to a shadowy passage between a low tumble of boulders among the shady trees, and when Keith looked back at Shiro, the ifrit was gone. Keith let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, slumping in unspoken relief against the nearest tree. It was perfectly solid, the bark rough through his thin shirt. Keith hadn’t the slightest idea how this place existed – but it was a beautiful little grove, the sky blue and bright, the sun seeming entirely different than the one in the desert. Softer, somehow.

Was any of this real, he wondered? He decided that would be his next question for Shiro as he gingerly stripped the unfamiliar clothes from his body and waded into the pool.

Shiro, Shiro, Shiro. Keith did not know what to make of him. He was afraid of him, he decided, because fear was always the safest course of action. Keith would not let his guard down, no matter how kindly Shiro treated him – he would not let himself be lulled into a false sense of security, because it would be false, Keith was sure. If Shiro was kind to him, it meant he had intentions, and not good ones.

But he has saved you twice, a little voice in his head said, quiet but insistent. He has already had you helpless and desperate, and he has done nothing but help. Maybe he is not so bad. Maybe he really does just want to help.

Keith splashed the warm water angrily, hating his mind and hating that the soap smelled so wonderful – not so heady as to be overpowering, more like wildflowers after the rain, light and sweet. “Why would he?” Keith muttered to himself. “Why would he just help me, if there’s nothing in it for him? No. He wouldn’t. People ain’t like that.”

Allura is like that.

“Allura’s not…” A man? Neither is Shiro, technically.

Keith didn’t like baths. They gave him too much time to think. He hurriedly finished, dried himself off (carefully avoiding the bandages), and got dressed – the clothes were black breeches and a soft brown tunic, this time. It laced up at the throat and Keith tied it tight, wishing he had a jacket, more layers, something that would make him feel less exposed. Maybe he could ask Shiro –

No. Keith could not think of Shiro as someone he could just ask favors of, because there would be a price. Wouldn’t there?

Keith’s head hurt and his wound stung faintly too, which was not a good combination. His hands curled into fists as he walked into the cave, his jaw hardening. He didn't know what Shiro was playing at, keeping him in this world of lava and illusion and playing nurse, but Keith did not like being kept.

He missed his shack and his horse and his friends – oh, God, Pidge and Lance had no idea what had happened! They probably thought he was dead – Keith had to get out of here, he had to tell them. Even if it meant he would have to face Allura’s wrath, he had to return somehow. Keith dreaded how Shiro’s perfectly pleasant demeanor would surely change when he demanded to leave. Because even if it had remained unspoken, Keith got the feeling he wasn't allowed to leave.

It was not a good feeling.

The cave opened up into a new cave with tall black walls. It was smaller than the first, and there was a series of shelves and cabinets built into the stone walls – various herbs and jars were organized upon the stone shelves, each labeled with a parchment tag. It looked like Shay’s medicine pueblo, but with far more medicine. The room was sparsely furnished, there was a raised cot against one wall, a long table against the other, and a few wooden chairs.

Shiro was working on the tabletop, grinding some whitish flowers with a stone pestle and humming to himself. He paused as soon as Keith stepped into the room and turned slightly, inclining his head. “How was your bath? I should have asked what kind of soap you prefer.”

“Whatever kind you gave me was fine,” Keith muttered. He nodded to the ground-up herbs. “What is that?”

“This is a fresh poultice for your wound,” Shiro said. “If you’ll just sit over there, then I can get you some new –”

Keith steeled himself and blurted out, “I need to leave, Shiro.”

Shiro frowned. “Ah,” he said. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

Keith felt cold. He knew it. “Let me out. You can’t – you can’t hold me captive here, I won’t let you!”

Shiro looked troubled. “Oh, dear. It’s not like that, Keith.”

“No? Then send me back to my own damn world!”

Shiro sighed and shook his head. “Keith...you’re in danger there. This is for your own safety –”

Keith took a step away, trembling. “Don’t you lie to me. I’m not safe here; I’m not safe with you.”

Shiro looked down, and exhaled forcefully. “I am sorry you think that,” he murmured. “But I speak the truth. The Galra want revenge for what happened to Sendak and his men – they think you are to blame, and that is my fault. I did not want you to suffer for what I did. They…” Shiro bit his lip. “They ransacked your home, Keith. They know where you are, or rather where you were. You wouldn’t be safe if you returned – they will kill you. And it would not be an easy death...vengeful men are not merciful. As I think you well know.”

Keith was frozen, thoughts racing through his head, heart pounding with them. “My...my home? They...but what about Pidge and Lance, and the others, did the Galra find them too?!”

“No,” Shiro assured him. “They are safe with a friend of yours – Thace. The sheriff and his deputy have been vigilant, as has the brothel Madam...Allura, yes? And I have shielded them as best I could, with what protection I can offer – mostly misdirection and good luck charms, which is better than nothing.”

Keith swallowed. “So...so I got no choice? Couldn’t I stay with Thace, too? Or Allura, she’s cared for me before –”

Shiro looked rather crestfallen. “Oh...well, I do not wish for you to stay here against your will, Keith,” he said. “Thace’s household is quite full at the moment, and the Galra have eyes on the Pink Lion, but if you do not want to be here...I will do my best to make arrangements elsewhere for you, I –”

“Wait,” Keith said, bewildered. “You...really?”

“Yes, really. I thought…” Shiro hunched his shoulders and somehow managed to look small, an impressive feat. “I thought I was helping. But if that is not the case, then I am sorry, and I will not keep you here a moment longer.”

Keith was speechless. “Um,” he said. “You’re not...angry at me?”

“Why would I be angry at you?” Shiro asked. “Are you angry at me? I would not blame you...oh, I have made a mess of things, haven’t I?”

“I’m...I’m not angry at you either,” Keith said uncertainly. “But…is there any way I could talk to my friends? Tell them what happened?”

Shiro brightened up. “Oh! Yes, of course, that is easily done. I will bring you to them, a few minutes shouldn’t hurt – please take my hand.” He extended his shadow hand towards Keith, who eyed it as if it were a venomous snake. Shiro paused. “Or, if you would prefer the other hand, that is...understandable.”

Keith didn’t think he was imagining the hurt in Shiro’s tone. “No, that’s...just bring me to them, please.” He set his palm atop Shiro’s, the ifrit’s fingers intertwined with Keith’s, and the cave fell away, the ground falling with it. Keith cried out in surprise, and lurched against Shiro’s side, clutching at his shirt in mild terror. The world whirled in a blur of color and a sound like rushing wind or running water all around them, and then the ground was solid once more, the smell of freshly-made coffee strong in the air.

Keith was still clinging to Shiro, who patted his shoulder and said, “We’re here.” Keith hastily straightened up and ceased his clinging.

Someone had shrieked upon their arrival and fallen off the sofa. Unsurprisingly, it was Lance. “Keith!” he shrieked again, louder. “¡Ay, Dios mío! You tough cabroncito, you’re alive!” Then he saw Shiro and his face contorted in rage as he reached for the nearest object, which happened to be a lamp. He raised it like a sword, the lampshade teetering precariously. Shiro blinked at it. “I will use this!” Lance warned. “Let go of him!”

“Lance, don’t hit Shiro with a lamp,” Keith said. “Thace has very expensive lamps. If you’re going to hit him with anything, use your shoe or somethin.’” Shiro rolled his eyes – his golden eyes. He’d shifted back, so it was no wonder Lance was so keen to hit him. Although Lance probably would’ve tried to hit Shiro either way.

Thace, Pidge, and Hunk hurried into the parlor and stopped dead in their tracks when they saw Shiro and Keith. “Lord Almighty,” Hunk whispered, putting a hand over his heart and swaying like he was about to faint. “I always knew ghosts were real…”

“It’s not a ghost, it’s Keith!” Pidge exclaimed, running towards him. Keith stepped away from Shiro to catch her in a hug, and only remembered his injury when he winced at Pidge’s squeezing and Shiro growled softly.

“Ow – Katie, gentle,” Keith gritted out. She let go and eyed him with concern. “I kinda...got stabbed?” he told her.

“Stabbed?!” Pidge looked accusingly at Shiro, and only blanched a little. “This your fault, Devil? Huh?”

“How is she so casual ‘bout this,” Hunk wheezed, slumping against the doorframe in disbelief. “It has horns.”

“It’s not Shiro’s fault,” Keith said quickly. Shiro’s gaze was warm on him, and Keith resolutely did not look in his direction. “He’s the one who saved my life, actually.”

“So it was the Devil who murdered all those men!” Lance gawked at Shiro and whistled low. “Jee-zus, it was a damn massacre. Never seen so much blood...and I’ve seen some things.”

“Believe me, they deserved it,” Shiro said darkly. The back of Keith’s neck prickled, though not in a bad way, exactly.

Pidge didn’t miss the implication, and took Keith’s hands firmly between her own. “You alright? When we heard that Sendak’s men had been killed, and that they’d been sent to find you...God, Keith, we were so worried. I’m so – we’re so glad you’re okay.” Her voice was thick, and Keith knew Pidge hated to cry.

“I’m alright,” he replied, giving her a small smile. He wouldn’t tell her or Lance the whole story – they didn’t need that guilt. He didn’t want them to worry. “Strawberry’s okay, too – Shiro saved us both. He took a bullet for Strawberry, even.”

“I’d take a bullet for Strawberry anyday,” Lance declared.

“Oh, shuddup, you stepped on a cholla ball the other day and almost cried, tough guy,” Pidge retorted, her eyes misty. “Give Strawberry a kiss for me, yeah? That mangy mustang can survive anything. Just like you.”

“Hey, c’mere,” Keith whispered, and hugged her again, more carefully this time. She hid the few tears she couldn’t hold back in his shoulder. For a second, it felt like they were thirteen again – but only a second. Any longer, and Keith might’ve cried, too.

Pidge stepped away, and Shiro’s hand fell upon his shoulder in her absence. Keith’s first instinct was to brush him off, but then...there was no pressure in his grip, no bruising squeeze or heavy intent. It was just comfort...and Keith could accept that much. Besides, his legs were feeling unsteady again, and his wound throbbed under the bandages.

“You look pale,” Thace noted, his voice even but his raised brows betraying his shock at having an ifrit in his parlor. “Do you need to lie down? We can give you a place to rest here; the bedrooms are all taken but we could make up a cot. And I don’t know where your mare is, but we can make space in the barn for her.”

Keith hesitated. Shiro’s hand on his shoulder did not tighten, and Shiro said nothing, just waited. It felt like a choice. A real choice. Keith glanced at Shiro, who gazed back calmly and gave him a small nod. But there was a line between his brows, and a strange sadness in his eyes, and...and Keith found that the choice was not as easy as he’d anticipated.

Pidge and Lance were waiting expectantly. Hunk couldn’t stop goggling at Shiro. Thace just looked thoughtful.

“That’s alright,” Keith said finally. “I...I think I’ll just stay with Shiro for now.”

Lance gaped in astonishment. “Who are you and what’ve you done with Keith?” he demanded.

Keith huffed. “Shiro has medicine. He’s a healer...er, sort of.”

“Shay’s a healer too,” Hunk pointed out.

“Shay has a whole tribe to take care of,” Keith said. “I don’t want to get in the way.”

“If you’re sure, Keith,” Pidge said, eying Shiro. “Where would you be staying, anyway?”

“A...pocket dimension?” Keith said. Shiro nodded.

Hunk whispered, “Do I even wanna know?”

“Probably not,” Shiro said. “Unfortunately it’s inaccessible to mortals, but –”

“Oh, no, there’s no way in Hell we’re letting a demon take Keith into its lair!” Lance said, wagging a finger and reaching for the lamp again.

Thace glared at him. “Don’t you dare touch my lamp, Espinosa,” he warned. “That is a Tiffany!” Chagrined, Lance scowled and folded his arms.

Shiro leveled him with a cool stare. “As I was saying, it’s inaccessible to mortals, but I will give Keith a means to contact you all whenever he wishes.”

“And how do you aim to do that?” Pidge asked suspiciously.

“With this.” Shiro held out his shadow hand, and a red polished stone appeared in his palm. It was vaguely triangular in shape, with a hole bored through the center of it. “It is called an adder stone,” he explained, handing it to Keith. As he did, a thin gold chain appeared, turning the stone into a pendant. Keith slowly put the necklace over his head, the stone settling just below his collarbones.

“How does it work?” Keith asked, intrigued. The stone was smooth and cool against his fingers, soothing.

“You simply look through it, and it will show you what, or who, you wish to see...if they wish to see you, too. To communicate, you just speak to it, and it will show you what you wish to see as a projection. Here, I will give you one as well, if you would like to contact Keith first.” Shiro gave another adder stone to Pidge, this one green and squarish.

“Thanks,” she said, turning it over in her hands. “Hm. Guess you ain’t the worst...Shiro, is that it?”

“Yes,” Shiro said, bowing his head. “I appreciate that, Katie Holt.”

Pidge didn’t question it, just shook her head and tucked the stone into her dress pocket. “You stay safe now, y’hear?” she said to Keith. “Don’t be afraid to call...and ‘pocket dimension’ nonsense or not, we will search the ends of the damn Earth to find you if you’re in trouble, got it?”

“Crystal clear,” Keith chuckled, a bit choked. “Same goes for you, Katie.”

“Don’t let those Galra bastards get you,” Lance added, his tone serious for once. “They already got Nyma. She’s the one who told ‘em where you lived and all. They...they hurt her pretty bad.”

Keith sucked in a breath. “Where is she now?”

“At Allura’s,” Lance muttered, “but not in good shape. They took an eye, marked her up. She ain’t pretty enough to be a lady of the night no more.”

“Allura will take care of her,” Keith said with certainty. “She won’t just turn her out.”

“Reckon you’re right,” Lance agreed. “Allura does have a kind heart. Still terrifying, but...she’s real worried ‘bout you, Keith. We told her what happened...and she was mad, sure, but then just as scared as the rest of us. We all care an awful lot ‘bout you, y’know? So don’t do nothin’ like that again, Keith. Or I’ll hit you over the head with a lamp.”

 

Keith’s lips quirked. “Uh-huh. I’m more scared of what Thace is gonna do to you if you break his Tiffany glass.”

Thace chuckled and Lance stuck out his tongue. “You just haven’t seen my lamp fencing skills yet.”

Keith opened his mouth to reply and was overcome by a wave of dizziness – his vision tilted alarmingly and Shiro’s hand did tighten, then. “Whoa, easy!” Lance exclaimed, but Shiro was already there, steadying Keith with a hand on his back – minimal contact, but enough to keep him standing.

“I think we ought to go now,” Shiro said.

“Yeah…” Keith mumbled. “Goodbye. Don’t let those Galra bastards get y’all, either. Promise?”

“Promise,” his friends said.

Pidge looked at Shiro and added firmly, “Take care of him. And if you hurt him, you’ll have worse than a lamp to deal with.” She lowered her voice, and Keith was slipping out of consciousness so he didn’t hear her say, “He’s been hurt enough already.”

Shiro said, “I know,” and whisked them away.

*

Keith drifted in and out of consciousness as Shiro laid him down on what felt like the cot and lifted up the hem of his shirt. He made a low sound of protest and shook his head, and Shiro sighed. “I must change your bandages, Keith – fever is setting in, which means it may be getting infected. Infection leads to blood poisoning, which leads to death. Do you want to die?”

“No,” Keith muttered. “But I don’t want you to touch me.”

“Why not?”

Keith closed his eyes. “I don’t have to answer you.”

“No,” Shiro conceded, “but if you don’t want to die, I’m afraid I will have to touch you briefly.”

“Ugh,” Keith grumbled. “That ain’t fair.”

“Life ain’t fair,” Shiro countered. “But you’re right. It isn’t.” He thought for a moment. “Hm...would it help if I took a different form? The form of someone you wouldn’t mind touching you briefly?”

Keith’s brow furrowed. “You can do that? Thought you needed their soul…”

“No, just the one,” Shiro said. “So? Shall we try it?”

“Yes,” Keith whispered. “Can you...do you know what Shay looks like?”

“The Hopi medicine woman?” Shiro nodded, and as he did he shifted, shadowy body and glowing eyes replaced by Shay’s stout, strong frame and her warm hazel eyes. “Yes?” Shiro said, in Shay’s voice, but not quite. Something off in the tone of it.

“That is very odd,” Keith breathed. “But...yes. This is...better.”

“Good,” Shiro said simply, and went about peeling the bandages away. Keith didn’t look at the wound, but Shiro clicked his tongue and muttered something under his breath, so Keith figured it was bad.

The poultice was cool against his skin, and as Shiro spread it across the wound he hummed softly. Although it was in Shay’s voice, it was the same song from earlier. It sounded familiar, and it took Keith a minute or two to realize it was the song the woman had been singing in his dream.

“What is that song?” Keith asked, closing his eyes again.

Shiro’s humming paused. “A Diné lullaby,” he said. “It is called Shí Naashá. The Diné sang it when they were released from Fort Sumner after three years of internment.” He began wrapping the wound in new bandages slowly. “I wonder if your mother was among them.”

Keith wondered, too. “I think I dreamed of her two nights ago,” he admitted. “She was singing that song. We were in a forest. She seemed sad.”

“Do you ever think that maybe your mother did not abandon you?” Shiro asked.

Keith opened his eyes. “What?”

“Maybe you were taken from her,” Shiro murmured, smoothing down the ends of the bandage and stepping away. He shifted back, and regarded Keith soberly. “You told me you grew up in Saint Joseph’s – the boarding school. Children were not just sent there – they were often taken. Stolen in the night.”

“But...but I would have been just an infant –”

“Do you think that mattered to them?” Shiro’s tone was sad, not sharp, but Keith flinched nonetheless. “I believe your mother wanted you. Maybe she wants you still.”

“She would not, if she saw me now,” Keith said, overcome with a second wave of dizziness. “I don’t even know the language.”

“That isn’t your fault,” Shiro said.

“Sure feels like it,” Keith retorted.

He heard Shiro inhale, as if he was about to reply, but in the end he was silent, and Keith drifted off as the fever took over.

Chapter Text

Keith did not know what was real and what was in his head, so blurred was the line between his dreams and waking. He was soaked in sweat, hair plastered to his scalp and curling damply at the back of his neck, and he was afraid because he knew the nuns wouldn't allow that. Long hair was not allowed. Long hair was for savages.

“I’m sorry, I'm sorry,” Keith told Sister Mary Catherine as she pointed a long white finger at him in accusation. “I am wrong. I am wrong, please forgive me.”

“Keith, shhh.” A new voice, male, coupled by a cool cloth on his burning forehead. Keith went rigid with fear, turning his face away, water dripping into his eyes. Something sharp and cold touched his cheek.

Scissors, he thought, and felt phantom hands tug his hair back, snip snip snip, thick black locks falling onto dusty white linoleum floors. White, white, white. He had grown to hate the color.

“Keith, open your eyes. Can you drink this tea?”

Keith could not open his eyes, they were gummy and itchy and the most he could manage was slits – there was a monster standing over his bed, with black skin and horns and sharp teeth and glowing eyes, and he cried out hoarsely and struck out blindly.

He heard a teacup shatter and whimpered, sinking deeper into hazy terror. He would be punished for breaking that.

“Why have you done this, my son?”

“You're not my father,” Keith said, his voice higher, younger, smaller. “I'm not your son.”

“I'm the only father you've got, boy,” the priest snarled, his mouth too wide and his teeth too white, bleached like his clerical collar.

Keith opened his mouth to protest but then he was drowning, screaming into freezing water as two nuns shoved him into a bathtub, their voices harsh and piercing. Keith’s futile splashing amused them. They watched as he finally gave up, shivering violently in the tub, his hands and feet slowly turning blue.

I’m sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry.

A million apologies, and yet they were never enough to make it stop. They always seemed to make it worse.

“Keith, don't cry. Shhh. It isn't real. None of it is real, they can't hurt you anymore.”

Keith could not stop crying. His throat was dry, and this time when the warm edge of a mug was pressed to his lips, he drank the tea with a sense of dull surrender. It was good, and calming, and quieted his dreams if only for a little while.

Then he was back to the long white halls filled with starving Indian children. Keith counted his ribs in front of a cracked mirror with a girl who the nuns called Lucy. That wasn't her name. She had another name, a real name – but Keith could not remember it.

“I'm sorry,” he said to her. “I can't remember your name, Lucy.”

She looked at him with eyes as dull as the black buttons on their dusty uniforms. “What do you mean?” she said. “Lucy is my name.” Then she fell forwards, crumpling to the floor, blood spilling from her lips. Her hair was cut so short that her scalp had been grazed in places.

A nun gripped the back of Keith’s neck with sharp nails. “She wasn't good enough,” the nun said. “Indians, they die too easy – this tuberculosis killed twenty just this week.” Her nails tapped his skin. “But you – you're special. A special little halfbreed. Not so easy to kill.” She pinched his cheek and his eyes filled with tears. “Pretty, too.”

Keith, breathe. Slowly, that's it, hey, I'm right here. I won't touch you, okay? I'll just put these blankets around you – you're shivering terribly, but you're burning up.

Keith felt at once warmer, soft layers surrounding him one by one – blankets, heavy fleece and wool and cotton and silk. He succumbed to their embrace gratefully, teeth chattering. How long had he been in the bathtub? Too long, too long.

He peeked over the edge of the blankets, no, they were a doorway and he was looking around the corner, and he saw Lucy crying while a priest wrapped his arm around her tiny shaking shoulders. “You are a special girl,” he told her, and she cried harder. “The Lord loves those who are obedient servants of His will.”

“Stop,” Lucy said, but it was barely a whisper, a last sliver of defiance lost to the priest’s hand covering her bloodstained mouth.

Keith did not whisper. He yelled for help, screamed at the top of his lungs, and the closet widened into a room full of nuns and priests and children, and all the children were crying and whispering stop, please, no.

Through the open window, Keith saw a creosote bush burst into flames. He pointed and cried, “The Lord is here, he's watching you!”

But the nuns and priests laughed. “We do not serve the Lord,” they said as the children crumpled one by one, like dominos, their faces still and blank as dolls.

Keith felt himself being rocked back and forth, still surrounded in blankets, and blinked blearily. The monster was there again, bigger now with a face too sharp to be human, eyes burning yellow, a pink scar slicing over the bridge of its nose and a white forelock falling over its brow between the two massive ram horns curling from either side of the monster’s head. It was holding Keith and his blankets close with its large clawed hands and humming a song.

Keith began to cry in earnest. “I don't want to die,” he croaked, burying his face in the blankets, trying to hide. “I don't want to go to Hell.”

“You will not,” the monster told him in a soft voice, too soft for a monster. “You have done nothing wrong.”

“I killed him,” Keith sobbed, squeezing his eyes shut. “Murderers go to Hell.”

On the backs of his eyelids, he saw Saint Joseph’s growing smaller and smaller in the distance as he watched from the back of a wagon filled with loud, rough men. One of them clasped his wrist and said, “You’ll fit right in here, boy.”

Another snorted and said, “Saint Joseph’s always gives us the yellow bellies. How long d’you think he’ll last? A week?”

“Month or two, I wager,” another man said, smoking a pipe and side-eying Keith through a puff of smoke.

The first man glared at the other two and leaned in close, conspiratorial. “Don’t listen to them. Long as you do what you’re told, everythin’ll be just fine. Can you do that, boy?”

Keith’s mouth was dry as the desert around them, but he swallowed and whispered, “Yes, sir.”

But the man had lied, they had all lied, nothing was fine – Keith’s blood was on fire, his body ached, and his side throbbed. He wondered if this was what dying felt like. He was almost relieved by the thought of death – of an end. His life had been a series of ragged loose ends, torn and messy and ugly, and it might be best to tie them all up and be done with it already.

There was a hand in his hair, stroking sweaty strands away from his clammy face, and Keith moaned in quiet pain. Someone shushed him – it was the monster’s voice, but its hands were so gentle. Keith’s brow furrowed. That wasn’t right. Hell was supposed to hurt. He was supposed to be punished. But the monster touched him so tenderly that he felt like crying. A thumb brushed slowly over his cheek, moving in small, calming circles, and Keith leaned into it, starving for the contact.

The monster faltered and said, “You were dreaming. Nightmares, I think. You spoke in your sleep. I would like to help, but I’m not sure how.”

Keith sniffled, lashes fluttering and body curling under his many blankets towards the monster. “They ain’t dreams,” he mumbled. “Memories.”

The monster touched his brow, and Keith felt its claws, his breath catching sharp and fast in his throat. “I would gladly take them from you, but...you once told me not to do so. You once told me you didn’t want to forget.” Breath feathered across his cheek, and it smelled like campfire smoke. “I don’t want to do anything you don’t want, Keith.”

At the utterance of his own name, something clicked into place in Keith’s mind. The monster had a name. “Shiro,” he whispered, weakly lifting a hand from under the blankets and curling his fingers around Shiro’s wrist. The monster – no, not a monster – blinked at him in surprise. “Shiro, am I dying?”

The ifrit’s brow creased, and he shook his head. “You have a very high fever. For nearly three days, now. Here, drink this, now that you’re awake.” He lifted a cool cup of water to Keith’s cracked lips, and Keith drank greedily, at once aware of how hot his skin was in contrast to the cup. Shiro held Keith’s head up with one hand on the back of his skull, his claws points of heat, careful not to scrape or cut.

Keith’s stomach rumbled after he'd finished drinking and Shiro smiled, rising to his feet. Keith panicked at his apparent leaving, grabbing frantically for his hand. “Don't go!” Keith gasped.

Shiro squeezed his hand, expression unreadable. “I'm just going to make you some soup. I'll be on the other side of the room...get some rest, and I'll wake you when it's ready –”

Keith shook his head. “I don't want to fall asleep again,” he whispered, a plea. “Not...not yet.”

“Ah.” Shiro frowned thoughtfully. “Hm...would it help if I told you a story?”

“A story?”

“Yes,” Shiro said, gently extricating himself from Keith’s grasp. “Once upon a time, there was nothing.”

Intrigued, Keith kept his eyes open, watching as Shiro crossed the room and began to toss various herbs and vegetables into a large ceramic pot. “For a long time, the nothing was everything,” Shiro continued, “but eventually, the nothing grew bored of being nothing, and so it became water. The world was water and sky, and in that sky there were four directions – North, South, East, and West. The four of them did not get along, but they were siblings of a sort, and together they created companions – other beings to live in their world of water and sky.”

Keith blinked sleepily, transfixed by the sound of Shiro’s voice and the motion of him stirring the pot of boiling water. “What kinda companions?” he mumbled.

Shiro glanced back at him. “They would come to be called gods. Most of them, anyway. The East, you see, was too bold in his creation. He endeavored to create the most dangerous and terrifying creature in the entire world. So he made this creature, and she was called Cipactli, and she began to devour everything, and everyone, that she could find.”

Keith hummed and tried to imagine it. “And what did she look like?”

“She was like a giant crocodile,” Shiro replied, “a reptilian sea monster with an insatiable appetite, every limb adorned with teeth and a fanged mouth. So, no matter how many things the North and South and East and West tried to create, Cipactli ate them, and they realized that if she was allowed to continue existing, soon everything would be nothing once more.”

Keith imagined a Gila monster as tall as a saguaro and as long as Main Street and shivered. “So...so what did they do?”

“Well, the four directions decided they would have to destroy Cipactli. The East entreated his brother the North to kill Cipactli, for he could not bear to do so to his own creation. The North agreed to try to trap the beast, but when he lured it in, Cipactli attacked him and devoured his leg. To avenge this loss, the East, West, and South helped the North to rip Cipactli apart in four directions, thus freeing the universe from her body. And so the earth was born.”

Keith considered it. “Just like that?”

“Just like that.” Shiro poured soup into a bowl and returned to the bed, stirring the bowl with a wooden spoon. It smelled heavenly, but Keith had no strength in his limbs to even lift his head. “Here,” Shiro murmured, and tapped Keith’s lips lightly with the spoon. “I’ve got you.”

Keith’s face colored. “I hate bein’ sick,” he mumbled, but opened his mouth to the spoon and swallowed the soup. It tasted rich and delicious, with a slight zest of flavor Keith could not name. “Mmm,” he said, and Shiro beamed at him. “It’s good.”

“There’s magic in it, so it better be,” Shiro chuckled.

Keith’s eyes widened and he choked on the magic soup. “Wh – augh – at?”

Shiro patted his back until he stopped coughing. “Just a little. Nothing too potent. I don’t have much healing magic myself, but...I thought perhaps you could use some sleep.” Keith froze, mouth still full of soup. “Now, now,” Shiro cautioned, “I know you said you didn’t want to sleep, but this will be dreamless sleep, and – really, Keith?” Shiro sighed heavily.

Keith had spit the soup at him, staining Shiro’s white shirt. “You drugged me?!” He started coughing again, then wheezing, and slumped back against the pillows in defeat, staring at the ifrit with tired accusation.

“Keith, come now, your body needs rest to heal.” Shiro bit his lip. “Besides, I hate seeing you thrash about and cry out in your sleep – this way, there will be none of that. Just quiet. Peace.” Keith didn’t believe him, but accepted the next spoonful of soup reluctantly, his eyelids already heavy. “I’ll be here while you sleep, if that makes you feel better,” Shiro added.

Keith looked at him, his face blurring in and out of his vision. “Yeah? You promise?”

Shiro nodded, drawing the blankets up to Keith’s chin. “Yes. I promise. Now sleep.”

And Keith did.

*

An indeterminate and remarkably dreamless while later, Keith awoke to purring.

Allura had a cat when he first met her, a fluffy white Persian with blue eyes that seemed perpetually angry. Not unlike Allura herself, actually. But Keith had occasionally caught it in a good mood, and had giggled as it hopped up into his lap and purred contentedly – at least until his tentative pets irritated it to the point of biting and it jumped away.

This was not a fluffy white Persian.

No, it definitely wasn’t, because when Keith’s eyes blinked open slowly, the first thing he saw was a giant black paw resting against his chest.

Keith went completely still, hardly daring to breathe. The cat’s pelt was black, silvery spotted pattern barely visible, but Keith knew what a damn jaguar looked like. And this one was huge, bigger than a Hereford, and it was snuggled up against Keith with one heavy front leg thrown over his waist, purring at full volume.

Keith was going to die horribly, infection or not, because he was being spooned by a gigantic goddamn jaguar.

He was back in Shiro’s nest room, he realized, and as he frantically scanned the area for any sign of Shiro, his gaze fell upon a large, shadowy shape about ten feet away. Keith swallowed hard and hissed, “Shiro. Shiro, wake up. There’s – there’s a – ohhh my God, no, please no.” The jaguar had shifted, its purring pausing to make way for a big yawn which Keith felt as hot breath against the back of his neck. He squeezed his eyes shut and trembled, wishing he was laying in a pile of something a little more lethal than blankets and pillows. He doubted that smothering a jaguar would work.

Keith hadn’t prayed in a long time, but he found himself mentally pleading to whoever was listening, because he’d seen jaguar kills, and he didn’t want to end up like that, and oh no, what if it had already gotten Strawberry?! Keith let out a whimper and immediately cursed himself for it.

The jaguar’s body rumbled and its paw patted at his chest. Did you sleep well?

Keith made a strangled noise. The shadowy shape was just a bunch of blankets. Which meant –

Your heart is beating so fast. That’s not good for you. Shhh.

Keith yelped and twisted in the jaguar’s grasp, it let go of him with an indignant little huff. Keith scrambled away, ribs aching but not stinging, still unable to stand and only really managing to wiggle a few feet before another large paw on his shoulder stopped him. “Shiro! What in the absolute Hell – !”

The jaguar blinked innocently down at him with glowing yellow eyes. There was a white patch of fur on its forehead, and a pink slashed scar across its muzzle. Any dreams?

“Why,” Keith moaned, still recovering from his heart nearly stopping, “why did you turn into a jaguar and – and cuddle with me, I thought you were going to eat me!”

Nonplussed, Jaguar Shiro said, I was once informed that purring occurs at a frequency which facilitates tissue regeneration.

“It does what now?!” Keith spluttered.

Purring encourages faster healing, Shiro sighed. I simply wanted to help. Would it make you more comfortable if I turned into a smaller cat?

Keith threw a hand over his face, because being nose to nose with a jaguar was terrifying. “I don’t – you can do that? Sure. Fine. Is there any damn animal you can’t turn into?”

A much tinier paw batted at his arm in reply. Keith peered over his elbow to see a black housecat with a white patch staring down at him. Quite a few, actually. My specialty is cats, though.

“And horses?”

No, they’re just faster than cats. And I took Takashi Shirogane’s horse’s soul, too. So there’s that.

Keith eyed Cat Shiro. “You do realize I could smother you with a pillow or something in this form, right?”

Cat Shiro licked a paw daintily and said, Oh, I’d like to see you try.

Keith scowled and lay back down. “Not that I would.”

Of course not. Shiro patted his forehead and flicked his tail. Your fever’s gone, more or less.

“Really? ‘Cause it feels like I’m still hallucinating.”

“Hmph, is this better?”

Keith flinched hard as the cat shifted into a man, looming over him with one clawed hand on his head. Their faces were mere inches apart, and distantly, Keith felt his body lock up in cold, instinctive fear.

Shiro looked at him, a long serious searching look, the kind of look a detective might give to a crime scene. Keith felt like a crime scene, like one of Samuel Holt’s bugs pinned under thin sheets of glass, and he wondered if Shiro could see the handprints on his skin as clearly as Keith felt them. He wondered how they mottled his skin, dirtied his body with bruises and threats both empty and acted upon. He wondered how much Shiro could see, how much he knew, and with dread he wondered what Shiro must think of him.

Fragile mortal. Used goods. Stupid, special boy.

He wondered all of this in the span of a few seconds, and then Shiro stood up gracefully and declared, “You need more soup.”

Keith felt as if he’d aged a decade, and his ribs hurt again. He snorted weakly. “You aim to drug me again, huh?”

Shiro glanced over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow. “Do you want me to?”

Keith thought about it, worrying his lower lip between his teeth. “Maybe later,” he mumbled. “Right now, I wanna see Strawberry. You said I could, before…”

“Before you decided to fall deathly ill?” Shiro’s voice was edged, partly covered by the sounds of pots clinking together. “Yes, I remember. Very well, I will take you to see her after soup.”

“After soup,” Keith agreed. “Can I ask a question after soup, too?”

“Now you’re pushing it,” Shiro warned, but he was laughing, and Keith found himself smiling helplessly at the sound of it, ducking his head so Shiro wouldn't see.

*

Bowl of soup successfully eaten, Keith handed Shiro the bowl and asked, “Is this place real? Or is everything I see just an illusion that you made?”

Shiro hummed. “Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters!” Keith exclaimed, pushing himself up with an elbow and frowning. “I want to know if you're just tricking my mind into seeing caves full of pillows and trees and water.”

“No, it's not a trick,” Shiro said, washing the bowl in a sink that hadn't been there before and flicking his wrist, the bowl vanishing without a trace.

“Well, where did that go?”

Shiro pursed his lips, but instead of reproaching Keith for asking another question, he replied, “Another, smaller pocket dimension. Everything must go somewhere. And when I travel between dimensions, that space is a smaller and more malleable dimension, too. Anyway, the trees and pillows are all quite real. I brought them here myself, and I have tended to this place for centuries. Does that answer your question?”

Keith nodded. “Now take me to my horse.”

“My, aren’t you bossy,” Shiro said, but he didn’t sound mad about it.

Keith didn’t expect the ifrit to scoop him up into his arms, and flailed with a sound like a dying turkey. “Augh! I can walk, you know!”

“Can you?” Shiro didn’t wait for an answer before their surroundings faded away, replaced by a huge expanse of green grass and rolling hills dotted with trees. There was a lake in the distance, and the sky was pale blue, the sun low in the sky. Shiro set him down, and Keith was able to stand with minor difficulty, allowing the steadying hand on his back for the first few steps. “Go on, call your mare,” Shiro said.

Keith’s eyes widened. “She’s here? But this is…”

“A horse’s paradise? Yes, precisely. She’s somewhere around here, it looks large but it’s only about one hundred acres.” Shiro chuckled at Keith’s bug-eyed expression. “And yes, before you ask, I did create this dimension. It’s all real. More or less.” He knelt down and plucked a dandelion from the grass, handing it delicately to Keith. “Make a wish.”

Keith stared at the puff, rolling the stem between his fingers. It sure felt real, and smelled real too, a sharp grassy tang where the stem had broken, oozing bitter white onto Keith’s fingertips. “Huh,” he said, and blew the seeds away, watched them float off on the wind over the hill. Keith didn’t know what to wish for. He didn’t think his issues could be solved by dandelion seeds. But hey, Keith could appreciate the simple, childish hope in it. A kind of hope he’d never had.

I wish I were whole.

As the last of the dandelion seeds drifted out of sight, Keith cupped a hand to his mouth and called, “Strawberry!”

There was a moment of quiet, the only sound that of the wind rushing through the tall grass...and then Keith heard a distant whinny and a silhouette appeared on the nearest hill, a stocky chestnut horse with ears pricked and head held high. “Strawberry!” Keith called again, and she neighed louder than a braying burro, galloping down the hill towards him at top speed. Her hooves kicked up high as she neared him, prancing merrily and tossing her head. Her haunches were still bandaged, but her legs worked just fine.

Keith laughed as she butted into his outstretched palms with her muzzle, nibbling playfully at his fingers. “Hey, girl,” he murmured, stepping into her space and hugging her neck. She hugged him back in her own way, bowing her head over his back and snorting softly. Keith inhaled, eyes shut tight, and thought that she smelled like home – like the desert; dust and heat and sweat and wildness. He wondered if she could smell home on him, too.

Keith stroked her bristly coat and scruffy mane and told her she was the prettiest pony in the whole wide world, and she nuzzled his shoulder fondly. Damn right I am, Keith imagined her saying.

He would have hugged her forever, but his ribs had begun to ache in warning and he reluctantly stepped away, still keeping one hand on her neck. She stared at him with dark, shining eyes, and sneezed in his face. Keith wrinkled his nose and wiped his cheek with the back of his hand. She was disgusting and he loved her. Besides, he figured he was plenty disgusting at times, too. That was what love was, Keith thought sardonically. Mutually accepting each other’s disgusting.

“You know,” Shiro said, ruining the moment, “I’m sorry for what I said about you taking Strawberry for your own like a typical human. She cares for you very much. She missed you these past few days – I heard her calling out for you when I visited to check on her. She knew you were in trouble; she was mourning.”

Keith bit his lip. Strawberry was a bit of a loner by nature and rarely got along with other horses or humans, but thinking of her in this strange, perfect place all by herself made him sad. “Do...do you speak horse?” Keith asked, feeling silly.

Shiro shrugged. “Their language is different from ours. They don't speak, not in words. It’s more about showing and touching, with sounds to fill in the blanks. I think you speak horse better than I.” He gave Keith a pointed look.

Strawberry was nuzzling at his shirt, intrigued by the odd fabric, and watching Shiro warily. When Keith scratched lightly behind her ears she snorted and pawed at the ground happily. “I like horses,” Keith said. “They're not as confusing as humans. Or ifrits.”

“Humans are confusing,” Shiro agreed. “Djinn...we are in many ways simple, I think. We may hide behind facades of mystique, claim our immortality makes us wiser and greater, seek out magic to surround ourselves in tangled webs of power; but in the end we are what we are.”

“And what is that?”

Shiro’s eyes glittered with mischief. “You've used up your questions for the day.”

Keith huffed at him in disbelief. “I hate you.”

“No, you don't,” Shiro said. “I've seen you hate, and it is a force to be reckoned with. I would be afraid if you really hated me. And you would not be here.”

Keith didn't know what to say to that, though he knew it was true. He didn't hate Shiro. He was beginning to feel something that was frighteningly like grudging fondness for Shiro, actually. But he wouldn't tell Shiro that, never in a million years. So he just said, “Where’s that adder rock thingy you gave me before I went under, huh? I better tell my friends I'm alive.”

Shiro wordlessly plucked the red stone out of the air and handed it to him. “Shall I leave?”

“You, uh...you don't have to,” Keith offered. In truth, part of him wanted Shiro to stay, because if Shiro stayed then Lance and Pidge wouldn't barrage him with prying questions about Shiro.

But Keith must have sounded reluctant, because Shiro shook his head and said, “Call when you're done,” and vanished.

Keith stood in the wide field with Strawberry and the stone. It was small and unimpressive in his palm, but when he focused on it and said, “I want to speak to Katie Holt and Lance Espinosa,” the stone began to glow, and to Keith’s fascination an image shimmered into being a few feet away, a projection of Thace’s guest bedroom.

Keith furrowed his brow, trying to make sense of the image...and then squawked in disgust, because Pidge was in Lance’s lap trying to suck his soul outta his mouth, and Keith did not need to see that, thank you very much. Lance yelped and jumped to his feet and Pidge fell onto the floor with a disgruntled sound, and Keith just thanked his lucky stars they were both fully clothed. Unfazed by the magic rock or Keith’s gross friends, Strawberry began to graze nearby. Keith envied her obliviousness.

“Keith!” Lance shrieked. He'd been shrieking Keith’s name a lot, lately.

Pidge lifted her head from the floor and grumbled, “I wish I could say I'm happy you're alive, but right now, not so much. Would it have killed ya to call not during the only alone time we've had for a week?”

“Oh, a whole week, my heart bleeds for you,” Keith snorted. “And I would have called sooner, but I had a fever hotter than noon in July. This is the first day I could say anythin’ that made a lick of sense.”

Pidge sat up and Lance’s brows drew together. They looked very different, yet somehow managed to have the same Worried Expression they'd directed at Keith for years. Pidge frowned deeply. “You had a fever? Is the wound infected?”

“Yeah, but Shiro took care of it –”

“YEAH?!” Lance exclaimed. “That all you got to say? You coulda died!” He turned to Pidge. “Right? He coulda died?!”

“Right,” Pidge said grimly. “Damn it, Keith, if we knew it was that bad we wouldn't have let you stay with the Devil!”

“Shiro,” Keith corrected. “His name is Shiro.”

Shee-roh,” Lance mocked, throwing up his hands. “How long have you known him, a few weeks? Couple months, at most? And you trust him?”

Keith faltered at the question. A moment too long, because Pidge groaned, “Lordy, you do. Well, ain't this just peachy.”

“He hasn't given me any reasons not to!” Keith retorted, defensive. “So far…” Minus sneaking a sleeping draft into his soup, Keith didn’t say. He couldn’t find it in himself to be mad about that, because...it had helped. He hadn’t dreamed, just like Shiro had promised.

Lance sighed. “Listen, I don't wanna say that the shadow man with horns and glowing eyes and sharp teeth and claws and scars and a goddamn tail is gonna turn out to be bad, but Keith, he's probably gonna turn out to be bad.

“Why?” Keith snapped. “Just because he looks like a monster?”

Pidge folded her arms. “You ask him about those cacti crucifixions yet? How ‘bout sacrifices? Ever considered you might be next?”

Keith scowled, though a cold trickle of fear crept through his mind at the thought. “No, but I will. Anyway, if he wanted to do that, why go to all the trouble of keeping me alive, huh? He made me soup, y’know.”

“Soup,” Lance repeated. “Ay, caramba. If you weren’t pining before, you sure are now.”

“It was good soup,” Keith said under his breath, “and he saved my horse. But I ain't pining, Espinosa. I don't pine.”

“You voluntarily stayed with him,” Pidge said flatly. “You're defending him. You tolerate him at the very least, which is more than you do with most folks.”

“Yes, fine, I tolerate him,” Keith snapped. “He saved my life twice! I ain't ungrateful.”

“You don't owe him shit, Keith,” Lance said.

Keith flushed. “You think I’m here because I owe it to him? Our debt was repaid, he said so himself. He just helped me –”

“Out of the goodness of his heart?” Pidge rolled her eyes. “Keith, c’mon.”

“I think he’s lonely,” Keith said.

Lance and Pidge exchanged looks. “That supposed to make us feel better? Because it don’t. At all,” Lance muttered.

Keith glared and ran a hand through his hair. “Not – not that kinda lonely, don’t twist my words! If I didn’t know better, I’d think you wanted Shiro to turn out bad! He’s kind to me, is that so damn hard to believe?”

His friends blinked, taken aback. “No, ‘course not,” Lance sighed. “You may be prickly as a prickly pear patch sometimes, but there ain't nothing wrong with you. We're just worried, Keith – you know we all got reason enough to be suspicious of friendly strangers.” Keith opened his mouth and Lance held up a finger. “Before you say he ain't a stranger, think again. You don't know him, not really. He don't know you. Me and Pidge, we've known you for years. So maybe listen to us, yeah?”

“We just want you to be careful, Keith,” Pidge urged. “That's all. Be careful, and don't let him get too close to you. Not until you know his true intentions, anyway.”

“Close to me?” Keith exclaimed. “What makes you think I want him close to me in the first place?”

“That's our Keith,” Lance snorted, looking relieved.

“Look, Shiro’s just helpin’ me get back on my feet, which shouldn’t take too long,” Keith said. “After that...well, I'm sure we'll go our separate ways.”

“You said you already went your separate ways, and then he swooped in to save the damn day,” Pidge pointed out. “He doesn't seem too keen to separate from you.”

“Like I said,” Keith sighed, “lonely.”

“Pot callin’ the kettle black, much?” Lance said under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothin’,” Lance said. “Glad you got Strawberry back. She looks happy. Where the hell are you two, by the way? Looks greener than Eden over there.”

“It's the horse paradise dimension,” Keith said. His friends looked at him blankly. “Bottom line, it's nice here and we're both fine and dandy. Satisfied?”

“Guess so.” Lance squinted. “Wonder if there’s an ocean dimension…?”

“Where’s Shiro at?” Pidge asked.

“He gave me some privacy while I called y’all. It ain't like he's breathing down my neck constantly.” Keith winced at his wording, because he had woken up to jaguar breath on his neck, but whatever, Pidge and Lance didn’t need to know that detail. “I’ll call again tomorrow, yeah?”

Pidge and Lance nodded. “No fever allowed, okay?” Pidge said. “Heal up quick.”

“I will.” Keith tilted his head. “How’re things in the real world?”

Lance made a face. “Tense,” he admitted. “Allura killed two Galra spies right outside the Pink Lion yesterday – thought there was gonna be a total Mexican standoff, then she offed one with a damn throwing knife and shot the other one before he could even draw. She’s in a foul mood. Not even Coran could calm her down – poor man had to deal with the bodies before she hacked ‘em to pieces or somethin.’”

“She’s sure glad you’re alive, though,” Pidge added.

“Did you tell her I was with Shiro?”

“Yeah,” Lance said, scratching his head with a puzzled frown. “She...was okay with it, matter of fact. Just nodded like it made perfect sense and said you were one lucky son of a gun. I expected her to be more upset that we let a strange monster man take you to another world…but she hardly batted an eyelash.”

“She’s got plenty of other things to be upset about,” Pidge sighed. “Nyma is still shaken up, and Zarkon’s gangs have been acting out and trespassing into Altean territory more and more lately. Honerva’s concocting some kinda witchy ritual, according to Thace’s contact. But you wouldn’t believe some of the crazy rumors these days – my favorite is that you’re an Indian death witch and you cursed all of Sendak’s men to a terrible death. Did you summon a herd of javelinas? A pack of wolves? A Thunderbird? The world will never know.”

Keith heaved a sigh. “I don’t get the obsession with Indian magic,” he grumbled. “We ain’t mystical beings, far as I know. And if we are, then I’ve got a bone to pick, ‘cause I think I drew the short straw.”

Lance snorted. “At least you get ‘mystical being.’ Everyone thinks I’m Mexican.”

“Maybe the Indian magic stuff isn’t all horseshit, though?” Pidge offered. “I mean, Shiro’s magical, right?”

“Shiro’s from Arabia,” Keith said.

“Oh.” Pidge furrowed her brow. “Wait, what?”

“He’s a djinn,” Keith said.

Pidge’s eyes widened. “A djinn?! What, like in Arabian Nights? Like Aladdin and the magic lamp? With Dinarzade and Sheherazade and Badroulbadour?”

Lance rubbed his temple. “Are you actually not speaking English, or do I need more damn coffee?”

“I have no idea what she just said, either,” Keith assured him.

“It’s a book, c’mon, Allura read some stories from it to you, I’m sure!” Pidge exclaimed. “A djinn, whoa. So, do you get three wishes?”

“Uh,” Keith said, thinking of the dandelion, “he hasn’t mentioned that bit.”

“Well, if you do get three wishes, you better wish carefully, because djinn are tricky,” Pidge warned. “I read one story where a man wished for immortality, and the djinn made him immortal, but the man forgot to wish for eternal youth, so he still aged physically, he just couldn’t ever die. He ended up losing his mind and shriveling up to the size of a baby.”

“I don’t think I want three wishes,” Keith said, horrified.

Pidge nodded sagely. “Probably for the best. Say, it could be worse, he could be an ifrit. Now, those are some nasty pieces of work.”

Keith forced himself to appear calm yet intrigued instead of panicking. “Oh?”

“Mhm, you don’t want to mess with ifrits. There was one story in the book about an ifrit who kidnapped a princess and brought her to his underground lair. A prince found the princess and the two of them slept with each other because I guess they just couldn’t wait. The ifrit flew into a jealous rage when he found them and turned the prince into an ape. The princess ended up restoring the prince and killing the ifrit herself. It was a good story.”

“I see,” Keith managed. “But...the ifrit didn’t hurt the princess?”

“Well, ‘course not, the ifrit was madly in love with her. But she chose the lusty prince.” Pidge laughed. “Can’t say I blame her. The story said the ifrit was pretty ugly. Maybe even uglier than the ape-prince.”

Keith frowned. “If the princess was that shallow, then I feel sorry for the ifrit,” he muttered.

Pidge blinked. “Huh? Is your fever coming back?”

“No.” Keith wasn’t sure why he was so irritated by the story, but he was. “I...should go, though. Still feelin’ under the weather, and all.”

“Oh, right, of course, you oughtta rest,” Pidge said, still confused.

“Tell the others I said hello.”

“Can do,” Lance promised. “Adiós.”

The projection fizzled away and the stone dulled. Keith’s fingers curled into a fist around it. “Ugly,” he muttered indignantly, “Shiro ain’t ugly.”

Shiro appeared beside him. “Done with your talk?”

Keith almost fell into the grass, his face bright red. “Shiro! How…?!”

Shiro tilted his head, perfectly nonchalant. “You ended the call and said my name,” he said. “And here I am. And here you are, in need of a bath again.”

Keith couldn’t argue with that. He took a few moments to steady his breathing and his wobbly knees, said a quick goodbye to Strawberry with a vow to return soon, and then took Shiro’s offered hand.

As the last of the green grass faded in the world with the forested pool, Shiro raised an eyebrow and murmured, “I do appreciate that you don’t think I’m ugly, Keith.”

Then he vanished, leaving a very flustered Keith knee-deep in the hot water, a clean towel and clothes folded neatly nearby.

Chapter Text

Thankfully, Shiro did not bring up his frustrating lack of ugliness again, and neither did Keith. Keith tried his best to forget it altogether, though he knew deep down that a seed had been planted in his head, and try as he might, Keith could not seem to unplant it.

So it was that his days in Shiro’s world fell into a sort of rhythm, and Keith’s fondness for the ifrit grew a little less grudging with each day. From the moment Keith had found him, halfway to carrion status in the middle of nowhere, he’d been forced to admit that Shiro was handsome. He had looked more human then, though, whereas nowadays he rarely shifted into that form – mostly he only did so when changing Keith’s bandages, so as not to scratch or intimidate, Keith supposed.

But the strangest thing was this: Keith wasn’t intimidated by Shiro, in any form.

He’d grown used to Shiro’s sharp-toothed smiles and steadily glowing eyes, and he had even stopped flinching away from the black jaguar that occasionally joined him in the nest of blankets and pillows, always staying at a distance. Keith didn’t know how to ask Jaguar Shiro to sleep beside him again without sounding odd, so he didn’t, but a few times he did wake up to a huge, purring presence close behind him, its spotted pelt like velvet against his skin.

Shiro made good on his promise to let Keith contact his friends as often as he wished. Keith only ever spoke to Pidge, Lance, Hunk, and Thace – he almost contacted Allura twice, but in the end just couldn’t go through with it. Realistically, Keith knew she would be more disappointed than mad, and that scared him more than her anger. She would be disappointed that he’d gone after Lotor for his own selfish revenge; disappointed that he’d risked his own skin to do so in spectacularly stupid style; disappointed that he’d gotten Allura’s people killed in the fallout. Keith knew he’d messed up real bad. But...but maybe he wasn’t quite ready to confront that mess-up just yet.

Besides, he thought it was punishment enough when Shiro took out his stitches on the fifth day. Stitches Keith hadn’t even known he had in the first place, to which Shiro retorted, “You would be falling apart otherwise. Humans require additional support to heal properly.”

“Still,” Keith gritted out as Shiro cut the stiff thread away carefully, “you could’ve mentioned it before…ow!”

Shiro tugged the thread free and the two of them looked at the red-pink raised line of flesh on the left side of Keith’s midsection. “It isn't finished healing, you’ll need to recuperate for a week or so more, by my reckoning – I won't risk you reopening it. And it’s going to scar badly,” Shiro informed him.

Keith raised an eyebrow. “You’re one to talk.” He nodded to Shiro’s skin, human now, visibly marred with scars all over.

Shiro shrugged, though his brow furrowed and there was a downwards tilt to his mouth. “I have lived a long time, and made many enemies; some of them have caught up with me. It happens.”

Keith hadn't wanted to upset him, though he feared he had. “Scars ain't all bad,” he offered, and Shiro glanced up at him. “They're like reminders of everything that didn't kill you. Y’know? Reminders that you're still alive and kickin’ and that whichever bastards gave you those scars, they failed.”

“Hm,” Shiro said, lips curling up again, “I do like your perspective.”

 

Later that day, after Keith finished his usual tea, he asked, “Shiro, when I found you in the desert, with your arm gone...who, or what, did that to you?”

Shiro’s hands tightened around the cup. “Veto,” he said.

Keith blinked. “Huh? What's a vee-toe?”

“It's what the President does to stop bills from passing, when he says no. Veto means I'm not answering that question,” Shiro said.

“You ain't the President,” Keith pointed out.

Shiro gave him a look and tossed the cup into the air; it vanished just before it could hit the ground. “Just ask another question, please.”

Keith frowned; Shiro had never turned down a question before and it rubbed him the wrong way. Keith snapped, “Fine. Then are you the one who’s been stringin’ folks up on saguaros and killin’ cattle rustlers and scarin’ Apache witches?”

Shiro eyed him warily. “Keith…”

“Don't vee-toe it, don't you dare. I just want an answer.”

“Who else?” Shiro said, and he sounded tired. “It’s my desert now, all the ones who once ruled beside me are long gone, or worse.”

“So...why do you do it?”

Shiro shook his head. “Save that for tomorrow.”

“I'll drink more tea, c’mon.”

But Shiro’s body sagged with a sudden exhaustion, and when he shook his head again, Keith didn't press further.

 

Until the next day, anyway.

“Tell me why, Shiro.”

“Demanding as ever,” Shiro sighed, leaning back against the cave walls. He was in what Keith had begun to think of as his true form, at least three times bigger than a human man with his shadow skin, claws, teeth, fiery eyes, pointed ears, long curling tail, and the off-white ram horns curling from his skull. He only wore a nearly knee-length cloth at his waist in this form, which covered what it was meant to but still shocked Keith a little. Though, sometimes Shiro draped larger blankets over his massive shoulders like little capes, and while it did nothing to hide the impressive musculature of his torso, it made him seem somehow smaller. And it made Keith laugh, especially when Shiro made little hoods out of the blankets and peered at Keith from under them, his white forelock poking out at a rakish angle.

Keith didn't deny Shiro’s lighthearted accusation. “Tomorrow, you said. It's tomorrow now, I think; I can't see the sun but that ain't my fault. So, spill.”

Shiro hesitated, then exhaled and said, “You may recall when I lent you that book, and you accused me of using the people who sacrificed others in my name. And I told you I cannot help that I am the way that I am. This is true, and what I am is a being that requires power.”

“Power,” Keith repeated. “So you kill people?”

“Blood holds power,” Shiro said. “And it is easy to accrue here, in this land of death and lawlessness. I kill those who deserve death. The cattle rustlers, yes, as well as train robbers, and other such thieves and criminals. The Galra, too, though their deaths garner more notice. I do not see it as you do, Keith – I do not murder. Do you call it murder when a wolf kills a sheep? No. It is survival. Some of us must kill to survive. You do it, too.”

“But...but you don't eat them, do you?” Keith exclaimed, disgusted at the mere thought.

Shiro made a face mirroring Keith’s disgust. “No, I certainly do not eat them. I do not require sustenance in the same way as humans. The power in their blood, or rather in their souls, is what I subsist upon. It is invisible to you, but it is what keeps the flame within me bright. I would not die without it, at least not for quite some time, but I would become very weak, powerless. No magic. No shifting. No illusions. No interdimensional travel.”

“So you would be human, more or less,” Keith surmised.

Shiro’s gaze was distant and somber. “No, I will never be human,” he said. “More like a shell. A ghost. So you see, I have little choice in the matter, Keith. Either I continue to hunt souls, or I waste away into the shadows.”

“Is that what happened to the other djinn, or whatever they are – the other beings like you?”

Shiro closed his eyes, and looked as if he was in pain. “More or less,” he murmured. It wasn't really an answer, but Keith knew he'd used up his questions, so it was the only answer he'd get.

Keith bit his lip. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I...shouldn't have pressed.”

Shiro opened his eyes and looked at Keith for a long moment. Then he said, “Do you or your friends fear that I plan to do the same to you? That I am after your soul?”

Keith swallowed, his stomach twisting into knots. “Well, I sure hope you ain't.”

“I never was,” Shiro replied, and Keith felt instantly lighter at the admission. “I never will be. I do not take the souls of friends.”

“Friends,” Keith repeated, eyebrows lifting to his hairline. “You call this,” he gestured to the awfully strange situation around them, “friendship?”

“What would you call it?” Shiro asked curiously.

Keith flushed and was not sure why. “Friends, I ‘spose,” he relented. “I don't have many friends, y’know.”

Shiro laughed. “Birds of a feather,” he said. He propped up his chin in his palm and added, “Do you prefer to be alone, Keith?”

Keith blinked; he wasn't used to the questions being directed his way. “Uh,” he stammered, “I dunno. Guess so. People are…” He waved a hand. “People don't like me.”

“People don't often like me either,” Shiro told him wryly. “Can't imagine why.”

“Could be the soul stealin,’” Keith suggested, chuckling. “Or the horns. Other than that, I got no clue.”

“I like my horns,” Shiro said, tapping them with his claws. They made a hollow sound. “Centuries worth of growth, here.”

“Yeah?” Keith grinned. “You sayin’ you had stubby baby horns once upon a time?”

Shiro put a hand to his chest in mock outrage. “Stubby baby horns! The nerve! They were lovely little things when I was young. Stubby, hmph. Still sharp as any sword, I'll have you know.”

“What are those things even for?” Keith questioned. “I mean, rams got horns to smash into each other on the mountain ridges, but djinn don't do that...do they?!”

Shiro smiled and shook his head. “No, no. They're for show, mostly, I suppose. My kind are show-offs. Ugh, I'm embarrassed even to think of it – we flaunted our wealth and status shamelessly, Keith, it was depressing. Superficial and vain, that's what we were. Granted, we were encouraged to be so by those who showered us in gifts and worship, but…” He sighed. “That was another time, obviously.”

Keith wanted to know more about this other time. “What did they worship you for?”

Shiro blinked, and considered it. “Many things; few of us were worshipped for just one. But as for me...hmm, let's see; in this land I was associated with the night, and divination, and warriors, and volcanoes and fire, and lightning as well. Those are what I can remember.”

“And they made sacrifices in your name?”

“Yes,” Shiro replied after a beat. “I doubt you want to hear about all that, though.”

“I do, if you're alright with tellin’ me,” Keith said, finding that he was more intrigued than horrified now. And Shiro looked so uncertain, hunched over against the wall with his brows drawn together and eyes wide, and it made Keith’s chest feel funny.

Shiro’s claw traced over the thin layer of sand upon the ground, drawing mindless esoteric patterns, and both of them watched their progression as he spoke. “There were not so many sacrifices to me, comparatively. When it comes to such things, it is quality over quantity – one sacrifice imbued with great purpose and free will behind it can be more powerful than a hundred killed against their will.”

“Free will? People wanted to be sacrificed?” Keith was bewildered by the idea.

“Yes, well, my main sacrificial rite was of a particular sort, appealing to many,” Shiro said, scratching his head with his other hand. The circles in the sand spiraled smaller and smaller. “You see, the priest would choose a young, handsome prisoner of war, and for a year, he would live in the lap of luxury. Have everything his heart desired, just like a prince, no matter what his status before he was chosen. He would have four beautiful women to be his companions for this year, each dressed as a goddess. It would be the best year of his life, and the last, for at the end, on my feast day, he would climb the steps of my temple, lay down upon my altar, and offer his heart to me.” Shiro’s claw dug into the sand and hit stone. “And then the priests cut it out, and he died, and I was satisfied.”

After a long pause, Keith made a thoughtful sound. “Sounds awful complicated, when all you needed was his heart. Soul. Whatever.”

Shiro shrugged a shoulder. “The intent behind it matters too. The more intent the sacrifice had to give me his soul, the more powerful the sacrifice.” He smiled humorlessly. “As you might expect, such willing sacrifices are harder to come by nowadays. Thus, I must take more souls, more often. Though those Galra souls will last me quite a while, I expect.”

Keith had a sudden, troubled thought. “Wait,” he muttered, “did you only kill Sendak and his men for that? For their souls?”

Shiro looked down at him sharply and shifted so quick Keith barely had time to blink. He appeared before Keith in his shadow form; not human, not ifrit, just a smoky phantom that touched Keith without really touching him, a shock of cold, or heat, he wasn't sure which. Keith sat up straight in the pillows and held his breath when a tendril of black that could have been a finger danced over his cheek.

You know why I killed them, Shiro whispered, almost a plea. Don’t ever think I didn't do it for you.

Keith blinked, and opened his mouth, and Shiro was gone, so after a confused interlude, Keith lay down and drifted off. There was nothing else to do, after all. And Shiro was there when Keith awoke from his uneasy sleep, and when he served him soup and a roll of warm buttered bread, he acted as if it had never happened.

Keith was glad he didn't bring it up, but that didn't change the fact that it had happened, and that when it had, Keith had wanted to fall forward and embrace Shiro, hold him tightly and keep him there.

But Keith knew Shiro was untouchable, unreachable; shadow or not.

He had denied himself for years, anyway.

He told himself this time would be no different, and took the funny feeling in his chest, and locked it away tight, where no one would ever find it, especially not Shiro.

*

But Keith stopped asking questions each day after his soup and tea, and Shiro noticed.

“I realize humans can eat more than soup,” Shiro said timidly as Keith handed him another empty bowl and snatched his hands away as quickly as possible so as not to risk brushing fingers again. “Would...would you like more than soup?”

Keith glanced up at him. “Soup is fine,” he said, but then, because Shiro’s soup was honestly some of the best food he’d ever gotten, he added, “...what else can you make?”

Shiro perked up. “Oh, anything!” he exclaimed. “Within reason, of course, but I’d be happy to hear what you'd prefer and see what I can do.”

Keith squirmed. He hated asking for favors, but hunger was a damn good motivator. “Um...can you do steak and mashed potatoes? And maybe a biscuit?”

It appeared on a plate in Shiro’s hand. Keith could smell it from where he sat. Shiro laughed at the expression on his face and handed it to him with a flourish. “Is this acceptable?”

“Yes,” Keith whispered, holding the plate close to his chest and feeling stupid because he felt like crying over a hot meal.

Shiro cocked his head, eyes wide. “Are you quite alright?”

“It smells real good,” Keith mumbled. “Tha’sall.”

“Keith?” Shiro tended to dither when he was uncertain. He looked pretty darn uncertain now, peering down at Keith with his arms half-outstretched, brow all furrowed up and eyes glowing brighter than usual.

Keith said, “I need a fork.”

“Oh.” Said fork appeared right on the plate, stuck in the middle of the mashed potatoes, and Keith almost dropped it. Shiro winced. “Apologies –”

“Don’t apologize, Christ,” Keith muttered, grabbing the fork and wasting no time in digging in. “S’like the best thing I’ve eaten in years. Or ever, maybe.”

Shiro folded his arms. “What do you usually eat?”

Keith thought about it, his mouth full of mashed potato that had the consistency of a cloud. A really buttery, beautiful cloud. “What I can find,” he said after he’d swallowed. “Rabbits, snakes, quail, sometimes javelinas, the like. Fish if I can find ‘em in the river. Prickly pear fruits’re good...uh...yucca roots and mesquite flour too, Shay tried to teach me all the edible plants, but, y’know, I eat what I can get.”

“A forager, I see,” Shiro noted, and nodded. “And before that, before you were on your own?”

Keith shoved a piece of steak into his mouth and chewed as slowly as possible. Shiro’s gaze flared steadily brighter. “Did they even feed you?” he demanded.

Keith set down the fork and shook his head. “Not well. ‘Specially not at Saint Joseph’s, but...with the Galra it was bad too, there was a peckin’ order and all. Like wolves.”

Shiro sniffed. “Wolves are far more civilized than them. Well, you shall have whatever you want to eat from me. How’s the steak?”

Keith nodded, mouth full again. When he’d finished, he asked, “Can you make coffee?”

In reply, Shiro handed him a warm mug. It was the best coffee he’d ever tasted.

He still didn’t ask more questions. He still snatched the food and drink away quickly, still avoided contact, kept his replies short and to the point. He figured that Shiro would decide he was an ungrateful, greedy guest sooner or later, and that would be that, and maybe that would be for the best, because with every sip of rich coffee and every bite of warm food and every glance of golden eyes, Keith felt like he was headed straight towards a cliff with some very sharp rocks at the bottom.

*

And apparently Shiro had decided so, because one morning Keith woke up and he wasn’t in the cave anymore. Just like that.

He sat up in a disoriented panic in bed – a small, soft raised cot, not Shiro’s nest of pillows – and found himself in some kind of small building...a strangely familiar building. He blinked at the roughly-hewn structure, which was draped with canvas that fluttered in the wind, and began to notice things here and there – the support beams were charred slightly, the single window’s frame was cracked and splintered as if it had been struck with great force, and the entire room was bare of furniture save for a pile of burnt wood and blackened fabric in the corner.

Then Keith saw the large, neat roll of vellum paper beside the pile, and bolted upright. Was that…? He hurried across the cool, packed earth floor, and unrolled the vellum hastily. It was his map, the map of the canyons, singed at the edges but intact. Keith stared at his surroundings, his gut twisting – this was his shack, his home...or at least what was left of it.

The Galra hadn’t just ransacked the place; they’d tried to burn it to the ground.

Keith sank to his knees slowly, holding the soft vellum in his shaky hands. This place...it hadn’t been much, but it had been enough, and he had been so proud when he’d fixed the final board in place and slept under the lean-to roof for the first time. And now...he looked up, and saw the roof was gone, more loose canvas flapping forlornly in the breeze. The sky was lightening in between the many gaps, and Keith had thought he would feel relief at being back in his own world, but this...this was not relief. This was painful.

Equally painful was the realization that Shiro had just left him here. Even if Keith had wanted, no, needed to get out of Shiro’s cave before his heart got any stupid ideas, he hadn’t expected to just be...thrown out. In his sleep, no less. Silently, Keith cursed himself – what was he supposed to do now? He was mostly healed-up, maybe a little weaker than usual, but he couldn’t stay here. Shiro himself had said Keith wasn’t safe here, because the Galra would find him easily...so then why…?

There was a whinny outside and Keith scrambled back to his feet again, dashing out the strip of canvas that had replaced the door. He was stunned for a second by the vastness of the desert which he had somehow forgotten after so long spent enclosed...and then stunned again by the sight of Shiro cheerfully piling hay into Strawberry’s feed basket.

Shiro was in human form, his shadowy right arm the only giveaway of his true self, hair shorn short as it had been in his true form, scars wreathing his skin like smoke. His clothes weren’t out of place – a plain gray striped shirt, a sun-bleached leather vest, brown canvas trousers, a black neckerchief, and a black slouch hat pulled low over his face. He looked up, and it was somehow startling to see him with human eyes again, the same vaguely unsettling yet softly calming shade of gray that Keith remembered. He gave Keith a little wave while Strawberry began chomping away at the hay. “You’re up, good! I made Strawberry some breakfast in the meantime. What would you like? Not hay, I’d assume.”

Slightly choked, Keith said, “Shiro, what the hell.”

“Ah, you’re confused.” Shiro shrugged. “You looked so content, I didn’t want to wake you. But yes, you’re back. Home sweet home. Or what’s left of it – which is actually a remarkable amount. A skeleton is better than nothing.”

“Isn’t it dangerous for us to be here?” Keith asked. His gaze kept darting nervously to the horizon, every muscle in his body poised to run from incoming hoofbeats and shouts.

But Shiro laughed, his lips curling wryly. “That’s the fun part. This place is invisible to the Galra now. Your friends, anyone who wishes you no ill will, they’ll still be able to see it. But the Galra? Not a chance. It’s like your own little pocket dimension, in a way.”

“You. Made my house...into a pocket dimension?!”

“Mhm.” Shiro arched one perfect (stupid, stupid, stupid) eyebrow. “I thought about making you a new house, too, but ultimately realized that might be a bit excessive. And that you’d probably never accept it. You’re quite a proud human, you know.”

“And you’re a ridiculous ifrit!” Keith retorted, flailing his arms about for emphasis. “You can’t just – what do you mean you were going to make me a new house – I never heard of somethin’ so ridiculous!”

“Proud is not an insult,” Shiro said lightly. “Anyway, yes, it may be ridiculous but I still intend to help you build your new house in any way you’ll allow me to.”

“And what if I won't?” Keith demanded.

Shiro blinked. “Pardon?”

“What if I won't ‘allow you’ to help me, huh? What then?” Keith put his hands on his hips and drew himself up, aiming for intimidating but still barely reaching Shiro’s chin. “You've done enough, alright? More...more than enough. I dunno what you aim to accomplish by helpin’ me now, but – but you said it yourself, we're even, more than even, and that's that.”

Shiro patted Strawberry’s neck thoughtfully and to Keith’s mild infuriation, she didn't even snap at him. “So you would prefer that I left?” Shiro asked.

Keith wanted nothing less, but he couldn't say that. “You got better things to do, dontcha? Makes no sense to waste time fixing this mess with me.”

“It makes sense to me,” Shiro said, the rising sun catching the white in his hair, illuminating it like a halo, or perhaps a crown. He looked somehow unreal in the daytime, Keith thought, like an owl flying at noon or a saguaro blossom that had failed to close upon sunrise. “And no, I don't particularly have anything better to do. You're the most interesting thing that's happened to me in years.”

“Besides gettin’ your arm chopped off?” Keith retorted.

Shiro’s jaw clenched. “Interesting is not the word I would use for that experience.”

Keith knew that if he wanted Shiro to leave, he should continue to needle him about his arm, but...that seemed cruel, and Keith wasn't keen on being cruel, especially not to Shiro. So he took a deep breath, steeled himself and declared, “You're not going to rebuild my entire house. I built the first one, I'm more than capable of rebuilding this one.”

Shiro’s brow furrowed. “I never doubted your capability, Keith –”

Keith held up a finger. “Shush. Second, don't whisk me places without me knowin’ anymore. I don't like it.”

Shiro nodded, lowering his head in slight chagrin. “I apologize.”

“Uh-huh. Third, tell me why the hell you're doin’ all this. I don't wanna owe you for even more, Shiro. You saved me when you didn't have to, nursed me back to health when you really didn't have to, and now you wanna help me build my house and I...listen, I ain't sure what your aim is, here. Am I just ‘sposed to believe that you and I are buddies now, and that even though you're a powerful tricky old ifrit, you're just helpin’ me ‘cause you want to, not ‘cause of any...any ulterior motive?”

Shiro tilted his head. “Do you think I have an ulterior motive?”

Keith lifted his chin. “I think, in my experience, men got ulterior motives nine times outta ten.”

“Men,” Shiro repeated. “Yes. I believe you are correct there.”

“Don't say you ain't a man,” Keith warned. “That ain't an answer.”

Shiro held up his hands in surrender. “Very well. I do have an ulterior motive, I suppose. It is to see you well and happy. That is all.”

Keith said, “Bullshit. Why.”

“Because you deserve to be well and happy?”

“It ain't your job to make me so!”

Shiro gave him a cool look. “Perhaps not, but you've been doing an awful job of it, lately.”

Keith swallowed, unable to counter that when Shiro had found him dressed as a whore, about to be assaulted, moments after he'd drunk wine that he poisoned himself. And if not for Shiro, he'd be rotting in a shallow grave now. And if not for him, Shiro might be dead too.

Shiro sighed. “Keith, I wish to be your friend. I wish to keep you from harm as best I can, not just because I appreciate what you did for me when we first met, but because I enjoy spending time with you.”

Keith snorted derisively. “Me? Nobody likes spendin’ time with me.”

“I do,” Shiro said.

“Yeah? Why? What makes me appealin’ in the slightest?”

“I like the way you think,” Shiro told him with a little shrug. “I enjoy talking with you. You make me think of things I never considered before, though perhaps I should have. And you are terribly smart. You understand more than most humans do about the world, the way it works. And there is something both admirable and tragic in that.” He blinked at Keith. “And, well, you seem to seek me out. At least, more than any other human has in a long time.”

“Smart,” Keith repeated dumbly. “You think I’m smart?”

“Mhm. If you weren’t, do you think you would have lasted this long? I don’t think so.”

Keith shuffled his feet in the dust. “If I hadn’t met you, I wouldn’t have lasted this long,” he mumbled.

“In that case, I’m glad we met each other,” Shiro declared. “The world would be a dimmer place without you in it.” Then, before Keith could even process that, Shiro tossed a shovel at him from mid-air. Keith caught it with a yelp and held it uncertainly. “Anyway, you’ve got a house to build now! Shall I just stay for moral support, or would you like another set of hands?”

Keith held up the shovel. “Hell am I supposed to do with this?”

“Extra set of hands, then,” Shiro chuckled, and summoned a shovel of his own.

Chapter Text

SUMMER

“How’s that roof coming along?”

Keith peered over the edge of the slowly-forming eaves and glared at Shiro while mopping sweat from his brow, his hair already tied back as tight as it could be. “You here to help, or gloat?” Keith retorted.

“Gloat?” Shiro grinned. “I suppose it’s a rather hot day, if that’s what you’re referring to…? My, you’re red as Strawberry today.”

Strawberry snorted at him with displeasure that Keith echoed. “You would be too, if you even felt the heat, ya damn Devil! How ain't you sweatin’ right now?”

Shiro wrinkled his nose and swept his white hair away from his brow with enviable grace. “I am sweating in this dreadful human form, though not half as much as you. I can smell you from here, are you quite alright?”

“Dreadful human form!? Oh, I’ll show you dreadful human form!” Keith exclaimed, and leapt from the half-finished roof. Shiro knew better than to move to catch him – Keith landed easily on his feet in a billow of dust from the parched earth, the same red dust that had taken to coating his skin. Keith supposed it was an extra layer against the sun’s unrelenting fury, though he knew he was already burned beyond repair for the day.

Shiro had brought him aloe juice to help ease the healing, and tossed him a bottle as Keith approached, along with ice cold water. Keith thanked the universe for bringing him a djinn with so many talents before tucking the aloe in his pocket and guzzling the water greedily in one go, shivering in slight relief when the last of it splashed over his half-bared chest.

“More where that came from,” Shiro promised, and the water refilled itself, just as cold as before. He clicked his tongue. “You must keep your body hydrated, Keith, it’s too hot to stay out all day.”

“That’s why I work more at night,” Keith said in between gulps of water.

“It isn’t night now,” Shiro retorted. “Rest. That’s non-negotiable.”

“You ain’t the boss of me,” Keith said, but sat in the shaded half of the house with a sigh, leaning back against the newly-finished wooden paneling and wincing when the grain rubbed against the burnt back of his neck.

Shiro saw, and reached out, giving Keith time to move away (he did not) before settling his hand upon the burn. Upon contact, there was instant relief – a soothing coolness spreading outwards where Shiro touched him. The ifrit could heal wounds caused by fire in its many forms, including sunburns, and although it had taken Keith long enough to accept his help, he was glad he eventually had. Now, Keith sighed and leaned into it, his eyes fluttering shut, and Shiro smiled. “Better?”

“Always is,” Keith replied, glancing up at him. Shiro quickly lifted his hand away and the two of them sat together in the shadows, looking at Keith’s progress. A month’s worth, so far, and now well into June the house was nearing the halfway mark. Keith aimed to finish it by the end of June, because it'd be too damn hot to work in July, and he had a sneaking suspicion that Shiro was doing a little here and there to make the going easier. Keith couldn't say he didn't appreciate it.

Shiro was frowning at his face. “Keith, really, you're burnt to a crisp.”

“I've had worse,” Keith muttered, and held very still when Shiro reached out and touched his cheek with a careful thumb. “And why do I have to worry when I got you, huh?”

Shiro pursed his lips even as his thumb swept blessed coolness across Keith’s skin. “Skin is fragile,” he murmured. “You should be more careful with yours.”

Keith opened his mouth to reply, but his breath caught when he looked up at Shiro, and the ifrit’s thumb was still resting upon his cheek, hand framing his jaw, and they were awful close, and –

The distinct rumble of hooves and the rattle of wheels startled them both out of it.

Keith leapt to his feet and Shiro followed, flames flickering at his shoulders and eyes flashing dangerously as the stagecoach rattled over the rise and towards them. Keith reached for his knife...and then paused, because he recognized the pink lion emblazoned on the coach doors. “Shit,” he muttered to Shiro, who looked about five seconds away from shifting full ifrit, “it’s Allura.”

Shiro blinked and deflated slowly, cocking his head like a confused puppy. “Allura?”

“Yeah, the brothel Madam. Damn, she ain’t gonna be happy with me. Or you. Maybe you oughtta go.”

The stagecoach rolled to an ominous halt. “No,” Shiro murmured, “it’s alright.”

Bewildered by Shiro’s abrupt change in demeanor, Keith shook his head and turned back towards the coach, and the woman in a full bustled dress who stepped from it. She’d unpinned her hair, letting it flow down in devastating silvery waves to her waist, which was always a sure sign that she was mad. Keith swallowed hard and tried to stand his ground as she approached, her gaze hard and mouth set in a thin line...which fell away into shock as she saw Shiro standing beside him.

Shiro inclined his head. “Hello, Allura. You’re looking well.”

Keith faltered. They knew each other?

Allura seemed to shake herself, and nodded to him. “Thank you. As are you. Do I have you to thank for keeping Keith away from me for so long?”

“That was entirely his choice,” Shiro replied. Keith glared at him. “Well, he was injured for some time, as you know. But he’s healed now, and I’m helping him rebuild.”

“I see that,” Allura said, looking at the shack and then at Keith.

“You know Shiro?” Keith exclaimed.

“I have known him for a long time,” Allura replied. “But don’t try to change the subject – you’ve been avoiding me.”

“I’m sorry for breaking into your brothel dressed as a whore and poisoning Lotor,” Keith said impatiently. “How do you know Shiro?”

Allura folded her arms. “It's a long story. Why haven't you come to visit me? Were you afraid?”

“Of course I was afraid!” Keith exclaimed. “Tell me the story.”

“I already told it to you,” Shiro said quietly, his gaze distant. “Do you remember? The story of the princess and the earthquake.”

Allura blanched. “Shiro, I thought we agreed to tell no mortals of this!”

“Mortals,” Keith repeated, and stared at her. “You ain't a mortal?!” Then he remembered the story, and hissed, “Are – are you a god like Shiro?”

“A god, my, what lofty tales have you been spinning him?” Allura asked Shiro. But she looked uncomfortable, and would not meet Keith’s gaze. “This is not a discussion to be having out in the open, I’m afraid. And besides – you owe me a visit, Keith. I will see you soon.”

“You ain't mortal,” Keith repeated. “Fine, you wanna talk, let's talk. I'll go back with you. Shiro can come too, and explain himself.”

“Keith, this was not my story to tell,” Shiro started, but Allura held up a hand.

“Very well, Keith, return to the Pink Lion with me. But Shiro need not be present. Shiro ought to remain in his own realm, and perhaps meddle less in the affairs of humans.” She gave Shiro a sharp look and he visibly wilted. “Not that I am ungrateful for what you did to help Keith – I thank you greatly for that.”

“If he hadn't meddled, I'd be dead!” Keith snapped. Allura's eyes widened. “I – I mean –”

“You are going to get into the coach and explain precisely what you mean,” Allura ordered, her tone leaving no room for disagreement.

Keith did, but not before Shiro caught his hand and squeezed once, reassuring. Keith looked at him desperately, questioning with his eyes, but Shiro just sighed and let him go, vanishing into mist through Keith’s fingertips.

*

The brothel felt less welcoming this time.

Keith sat uncomfortably in the chair opposite Allura’s desk, as if they were business associates instead of friends. She folded her hands neatly in her lap and waited.

“Lotor made me drink the rest of the wine,” Keith muttered, gazing out the window at the dusty street and the townsfolk going to and fro. “After I had poisoned it – I think he suspected somethin’ was wrong, so, he made me drink the rest.”

“You drank the poison,” Allura whispered.

“Yeah, and then Shiro came to the rescue. He's good at that.” Keith sighed. “I threw it all up. I survived. That's all there is to say.”

“You were willing to die to get your revenge on the Galra,” Allura snapped. “That is all there is to say.”

“Yes, I was,” Keith said. He was tired, and his sunburnt skin hurt. “It was important to me. And it ain't your place to say if it was wrong or not.”

“But it is Shiro’s?”

“Shiro was repaying a debt.”

Allura nails tapped over the wood. “And is that what he's doing now? Still repaying that debt?”

“He's my friend,” Keith said. “Unless you think there's some other reason he's helping me.”

“Shiro has a penchant for beautiful things,” Allura said thoughtfully. Keith recoiled, so violently that he nearly upended the chair, and her eyes widened. “Oh, Keith, no – not like that, not at all like that. What I mean is...he comes from an ugly and cruel world, and so he is drawn to things, and people, who do not remind him of that world and the beings in it. Beings who are pure of heart and soul, and beautiful in that way.”

“Pure,” Keith repeated, the word tasting terrible on his tongue. Terrible, and false. “He’s gonna be disappointed, there.”

“I doubt he could ever be disappointed when it comes to you,” Allura told him, her eyes soft. “He took you into his home, and gave you his care and friendship – those are gifts rarely given to humans by beings such as Shiro. Though, as those beings go, he is one of the better ones. Time has been kind to him, unlike with the rest of his brethren. They have twisted over the years – he has simply grown used to shadows and vestiges of glory. He has accepted it, I think. He spends far more time in the mortal realm than he once did.”

“You seem to know an awful lot about him,” Keith said warily.

“Yes,” Allura said. “He was what you might call my family’s patron god.” She bit her lip. “He was also the god who gave my life back to me.”

Keith said, “Pardon?”

Allura hesitated for a long moment, then began unbuttoning the front of her dress. Keith gawked at her, utterly confused, and then horrified – as more of her brown skin was revealed, he saw the jagged silvery edges of a scar, a series of scars in a rough, misshapen circle between her breasts, over her heart. “I was the princess,” she said.

Keith’s breath caught. “The...the princess from the story?” He swallowed, and shook his head. “But she was killed. Sacrificed, on an altar, they cut out her heart –”

“And I died a needless death, yes,” Allura finished. “The gods wanted my father, and they took his life, but only after I had breathed my last. The other gods did not care for my life – they’re not really gods at all, you see, more like powerful, fickle spirits who do as they wish – but Shiro did care. I had been pious in life, and had prayed to him often. He also has a sense of justice and mercy that many of his brethren lack. And so with the power from my father’s death and the deaths of my people from the earthquake, he revived me.”

“His magic can do that?” Keith whispered, awed. “Bring the dead back?”

“It is more complicated than that, but yes, I suppose,” Allura admitted, buttoning up her dress again. “He used the soul of a fallen goddess to revive me – Xochiquetzal, of youth, love, and beauty. Her power lives on within me, and thus...I am no longer mortal. And my hair changed color, too, a strange side effect.”

“You were a Toltec princess,” Keith said.

“I would like to think I am, still,” Allura sighed. “Even if my people are long gone. But, yes, I was born a princess all those centuries ago. Doomed to die from birth.”

“A princess,” Keith repeated. He fidgeted in his chair and cleared his throat. “Should I – d’you want me to call you ‘Your Highness?’”

Allura laughed, startled, and shook her head. “No! No, that's hardly necessary, Keith. I think you and I are long past formalities.”

“Is your name really Allura?” Keith asked.

Allura shrugged. “It's close enough. My old name has been forgotten by all, and perhaps it should be that way.”

“And what about Shiro’s old name? Surely the god who saved you wasn't just called ‘Shiro.’”

Allura’s lips quirked. “No, he was not. But that name, too, is one that Shiro has chosen to cast aside. If he wishes to tell you it, he will. But those times are long past. Now I am Allura, and he is Shiro, or the Desert Devil, depending on who you ask.”

“You told Pidge and Lance that the Devil was real,” Keith mused. “You knew about him all along.”

Allura bit her lip. “Yes...but I was particularly relieved when I heard of the man with one arm whom you saved in the desert. He had been missing for some time, you see, and escaped on the verge of death.”

Keith leaned forward. “Who did he escape from?”

Allura looked surprised. “You don't know? The Galra, of course.”

Slow fury bubbled up in Keith’s chest. “What did those bastards want with him?!”

“Oh, his power, I suspect,” Allura sighed. “It's usually that.”

“But – but how did they even know in the first place – ?”

“Zarkon is not human, either,” Allura said quietly. “No human would be able to amass and control the vast empire of crime he rules over.”

“Is he like Shiro?”

“An old god? Yes. He and Shiro are old enemies, and you would likely recognize Zarkon’s true name if you heard it.” She frowned. “His wife, Honerva, is less certain. I know only that she has powerful, dangerous magic, and a connection to Zarkon’s world. As for what, or who, she truly is...that, I do not know.”

“So they captured Shiro...did they aim to kill him?”

“Once they had sapped all his power, yes, I suspect so,” Allura said pensively. “The removal of his arm was purposeful – it gives them a link to his power that is not easily severed. Still, I think it is safe to say that they've had difficulty connecting to that power, because Zarkon has not made any major move against me since Lotor’s death.” She looked pointedly at Keith.

“Sorry,” Keith muttered.

“That boy was an absolute prick, but he still would have been more useful alive,” Allura said. “But...I cannot fault you for what you did. I know you suffered, and you have every right to be angry.”

“I guess the others told you about Sendak?” Keith said, not meeting her eyes.

She reached across the desk and took one of his hands in between her own. Her skin was cool and soft and Keith found comfort in it. “They told me,” she said. “They told me he and his men tried to hurt you.”

“Yes,” Keith said. “But I didn't tell them the half of it.”

“I see,” Allura murmured. “I do know that Shiro ripped them apart. And I had an idea of what would prompt him to react so violently, though I had hoped they didn't…”

“They didn't hurt me, Allura,” Keith assured her. “Well. Minus the stabbing.”

“But they meant to,” Allura said. “Oh, Keith. I only wish I had known about Lotor so that I could have protected you from them. I'm very glad Shiro was there when I could not be.”

“Me too,” Keith said. “I'm lucky to have him on my side.”

“You are,” Allura agreed. “And he's lucky that you saved his life. Though I think at this point, it's safe to say that his attachment to you is about more than repaying that debt.”

“He told me the debt was repaid a long time ago,” Keith said, trying to ignore the way Allura said ‘attachment.’

“So it was. And yet, there he is, helping you rebuild.” She smiled. “The house looks quite good so far, you know.”

“I know,” Keith said. “Shiro's mostly just there for moral support. I'm buildin’ my own house.”

“You mustn't always do everything on your own, you know,” Allura said lightly.

“I know, but I want to,” Keith replied. “That's all.”

“Mm.” Allura regarded him with a tilted head for a long moment. “I'll be having another party at the Pink Lion in a couple weeks’ time. I wanted to extend a formal invitation to you...no disguises required. Though Nyma tells me you looked quite striking.”

Keith flushed. “Nyma doin’ alright?”

Allura nodded. “Her eye is healing up nicely, though the vision is gone in it. She knew the risks of the business, but in any case, she'll continue to work here at the bar. Anyway, the party – will you go?”

“Any Galra gonna be there?”

“Hardly,” Allura sniffed. “I don't invite Galra if I want to have a good time.”

Keith nodded sagely. “Good rule to live by.” He frowned. “I dunno, Allura. Parties ain’t really fun for me. I’m bad at...people things.”

“Then bring someone with you!” Allura pressed. “That always makes it more fun.”

Keith eyed her doubtfully. “You want me to bring a guest? Who d’you think I have to bring, Strawberry?”

She shrugged. “How about Shiro?”

Keith stared at her. “You want me to bring Shiro to your brothel party.”

“If you don’t invite him, I will,” Allura said. It was a threat. Keith scowled at her and she waved a hand. “Oh, come now, it’ll be fun. And I’ll feel better about your safety if he’s here, to be quite honest.”

Keith folded his arms. “So he’s my damn keeper now, is that it?”

“Think of him as more of a guardian angel,” Allura said pleasantly. “With very sharp teeth and claws.”

“And horns,” Keith added. “Can’t forget those.”

She snorted. “No, of course not. So, you agree? You’ll ask him?” Before Keith could reply, she clapped her hands and exclaimed, “Wonderful! Here you are,” and handed him two silvery embossed invitations from her desk drawer.

Keith held them up gingerly between thumb and forefinger and said, “No.”

Allura said, “It will be fun.”

“I hate fun,” Keith retorted.

“You’re going,” Allura said. “You need to get out more.”

“Bad things happen when I get out,” Keith muttered.

“Because you assassinate sons of gang leaders, yes,” Allura snapped. “Don’t do that this time.”

“I think Zarkon ran out of sons, so...” Keith said under his breath.

Allura swatted at him. “Keith! Ugh, must you be so difficult? This will be a much smaller party, with guests you all know, and no danger. Please just consider it...and consider asking Shiro. He needs to get out more, too.”

“I thought you told him to stay in his own realm.”

Allura rubbed her temple. “I’m getting too old for this,” she sighed. “Just take the invitations, or so help me God.”

Keith took the invitations.

*

Shiro was not at Keith’s home when he returned, nor the day after that, nor the day after that. Keith told himself that it was normal for the ifrit to be gone a few days at a time, and continued work on the house. He finished the roof and the walls by the end of the week, and it was nice to sleep in a fully enclosed space for the first time in ages without the canvas flapping around in the night.

This house was more of a house than a shack, with proper divisions between rooms, and it was more than twice the size of the original. Shiro had insisted upon that, for some reason, and Keith suspected it was because he was used to living in giant caves. Personally, Keith didn't mind small houses, but he had to admit he liked having more room for trinkets and supplies and such. He'd found an intact steer skull the other day, which was a real find, and Shiro hadn't even batted an eyelash when Keith cleaned it and mounted it proudly on the “parlor” wall.

“It looks nice,” he'd said, and he sounded like he meant it, really meant it.

“I know!” Keith had exclaimed. Since then he'd decorated it with little wildflowers, the tough yellowish ones that could survive the summer heat. Shiro even brought some beads to string around the horns. Keith thought it was very pretty. He named the skull Kaltenecker.

“What does that mean?” Shiro had inquired when Keith told him.

Keith had shrugged. “Just a name I heard somewhere once. Thought it fit, somehow.”

“Hm,” Shiro said, and accepted it.

That was one of the (many…many) things Keith liked about Shiro. He didn't question Keith. He didn't think he was strange for doing any of the strange things he did, or if he did think so, he kept it to himself. He was always just nodding and “hm”ing as if everything Keith did was quite normal, as if Keith was normal, which was not something most people thought.

Even Pidge and Lance thought Keith had his quirks; even Keith knew it. But Shiro didn't seem to mind quirks. Every time Keith thought he might never come back...he always turned up again. And this time was no different.

Three nights after Allura had forcibly given Keith the invitations, he was out riding Strawberry through the mountains when a lone horse approached, riderless with no tack. It was tall and strong, black with a white star and forelock.

Hello, Shiro said, falling into step alongside Strawberry, who ignored him. How are you?

“Alright,” Keith grunted, digging his heels into Strawberry’s sides. “You're a horse again.”

Yes, I like to run at night. I thought I might run with you, if you don't mind.

“Why do I feel like you're guarding me?” Keith said. “Scared another one of Zarkon’s patrols will find me?”

Maybe, Shiro said, ears flicking. He has many men, and there is only one of you.

“Guess so,” Keith said.

They continued in companionable silence until the mountains gave way to the lowlands of the watering hole, a shallow pool at the end of the narrow creek surrounded by palo verde, mesquite, coyote willows, and a big old cottonwood tree. There was a jackrabbit drinking on the bank when they arrived, and his head shot up in a panic, eyes flaring briefly before he bounded off into the night long, loping strides.

Keith let Strawberry drink while he checked the traps farther down the creek, which ran through a narrow gorge that connected to the petroglyph canyons. Keith knew this area like the back of his hand, or at least he’d thought he had, before Shiro. Ever since he’d found Shiro’s thirteenth site, he couldn’t help but wonder what other secrets lay hidden in the desert.

Shiro followed him, but the sound of hoofbeats was replaced by soft, thumping footfalls, and when Keith looked back his heart only stuttered a little when he saw a huge jaguar standing there. “Really?” he said, flicking some creek water at Shiro.

Shiro sniffed and licked it off his paw primly. It’s dangerous to be alone near water sources in the desert at night.

Keith snorted, crouching amongst the reeds and trying to figure out where he’d put his frog trap. “And it’s less dangerous to be with a jaguar, huh?”

Less dangerous to be with me, Shiro corrected, tail brushing over Keith’s bare forearm as he passed behind him. Catch anything?

“Not over here,” Keith sighed, continuing down the creek.

I could help. Shiro’s canines glinted in the darkness like a promise. Are you in the mood for jackrabbit?

“No need, think I got something in this one...shit!” Keith scrambled away from the hole he’d dug on the bank, the opening surrounded by sharp sticks so that whatever fell in couldn’t get out easily. It was meant for frogs and small animals, but there was a rattler coiled in it this time, hissing and puffing up as Keith approached. Its eyes were blue and clouding over – it was shedding and therefore nearly blind, no wonder it had fallen into a frog trap.

Keith, be careful, Shiro started, but Keith just gave him a look and unsheathed his knife while grabbing a long stick that had gotten lodged between two creek boulders. Keith liked snakes, but he also liked not going to bed hungry, so he made it quick. The poor thing struck out in the complete wrong direction, and Keith slammed the end of the stick into the back of its neck, holding it in place so he could cut off its head without getting bitten. The snake body writhed around for a few seconds after. Keith idly wondered how it could do that while he carefully lifted it out of the trap, papery scales rustling against his fingertips.

Shiro blinked at him slowly. Impressive, he said.

“Oh, shuddup,” Keith muttered, ducking his head to hide his pink face and stomping back to the watering hole to build a fire. Thankfully, Shiro didn’t return as a jaguar, or he would’ve terrified Strawberry into an early grave. Unthankfully, he returned as a man, which meant that Keith kept getting distracted by his stupid face while he was starting the fire under the cottonwood.

He ended up burning his finger on the flint just as he struck sparks, and hissed louder than the rattler as the fire climbed up the brush pile and crackled into flames. He was about to suck his finger when Shiro took his wrist and enclosed Keith’s hand in his own, the burn healing with a cool tingling sensation. Keith made a strange sound high in his throat and snatched his hand back.

“It was barely a scratch,” he snapped, not looking at Shiro as he picked up the snake and started skinning it. He took the shed off first, and set it aside to bring back home later.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro said, the fire reflected in his gray eyes.

“Don’t be,” Keith said gruffly, his hands covered in snake blood. “Whatever. S’fine.”

Shiro’s gaze fell upon the snake skin. “Do you collect those?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Keith said, tugging the spine out. “Might keep the skull, too.”

Shiro hummed thoughtfully. “As a trophy?”

Keith frowned. “Nah. Just think they’re interesting.”

“They are,” Shiro agreed quietly. Keith felt warm, and felt sure it wasn’t just because of the fire. They lapsed into silence as Keith finished skinning the snake, and then skewered it over the fire.

“Are you alright?” Shiro added as Keith waited impatiently for it to cook.

Keith almost dropped his skewer into the flames. “Me? Hell gives you the idea I ain’t alright?”

“You’re fidgety,” Shiro said. “And you keep looking away from me. Would you like to be alone? I can leave…”

“No,” Keith muttered. “Unless you wanna leave.”

“I don’t,” Shiro said. “You don’t have to talk about it.”

“There ain’t nothin’ to talk about,” Keith retorted, and then sighed, accepting defeat. “It’s stupid, really. Allura’s having another party.”

Shiro’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me you’re sneaking in again.”

Keith shook his head adamantly. “No, no, I ain’t ever doing that again. Anyway, it’s a real party, not a Galra party, and she gave me actual invitations this time.”

“Invitations, plural?”

Keith mentally cursed himself. “...Uh-huh,” he said. He focused very hard on the blackening rattlesnake meat. “Allura wanted me to invite you, too.”

Shiro smiled, bemused. “To go with you?”

Keith hated that he’d brought this up now, of all times, with just the two of them sitting in front of a fire at night with the stars twinkling innocently above and Shiro’s human eyes looking at him earnestly. “Sure,” Keith gritted out.

“Alright,” Shiro said.

Keith’s head jerked up like the jackrabbit’s. “What?”

“Alright, I’ll go with you to Allura’s party,” Shiro told him, smiling wider, brighter. Keith’s heart burst and oozed out through the cracks of his ribcage. “I’m excited to see what Allura’s done with the place these past few years…”

“Hmph,” Keith said, tearing a piece of rattler meat off the stick and burning his fingers again. He didn’t hiss this time, though, so Shiro didn’t notice. “You’re excited to go to a brothel, you mean.”

“Well,” Shiro drawled, “maybe a little. Aren’t you?”

Keith shrugged noncommittally. “I like the Pink Lion more than most,” he said. In truth, he’d never been to another. Not another official brothel, anyway...the Galra had their own, more clandestine, more illegal ways of doing things. And Keith definitely preferred the Pink Lion to that.

Shiro’s brow furrowed. “Do you know Allura well?” he asked.

Keith eyed him over his rattler skewer. “What’re you askin’, exactly?”

Shiro didn’t break his gaze. “Are you intimate with Allura?”

Keith choked on a piece of snake. “Wha – no! Christ. Allura? I would never – it ain’t like that.”

“Good,” Shiro said pleasantly. “Because if you were, I would have to have some words with you.”

Keith gulped. “Some...words?”

“Yes, yes, the whole spiel about ‘don’t hurt her or you’ll be sorry.’” Shiro waved a hand. “I don’t know that she considers me to be like a father, but in many ways I am the closest thing to a father she has now.”

“The god who brought her back to life is the closest thing she has to a father?” Keith said.

“Ah,” Shiro said. “So she told you. Yes. That happened.”

“Is that all you’re gonna say?” Keith demanded.

“Yes,” Shiro said. “It was a long time ago. My power was much greater then.”

“Because everybody was cutting out hearts in your name?”

Shiro rolled his eyes. “Eat your snake, Keith.”

“I am,” Keith said, mouth full of snake.

Shiro sighed, but didn’t criticize his terrible table manners, considering there was no table. “So, you and Allura are friends, then?”

“You could say so,” Keith said. “She was more like our guardian. Me, Pidge, and Lance, I mean. Thace brought us to her way back when, to get away from the Galra. We were fourteen then, so, she kept us alive and kickin’ for three years, give or take. Then we found work, or at least Lance did, and Pidge found her folks in the city, and I…” He gestured vaguely around. “I did my own thing.”

“I’m glad you still keep in touch with Allura,” Shiro said. “She cares about you and your friends very much.”

“Yeah, beats me as to why,” Keith chuckled. “We were awful kids. Lance was always breaking shit for attention, Pidge was always running away, and I was always ignoring Allura, sulking, y’know. I’d shut my trap for days and scowl whenever she came close, but she never stopped trying. And eventually...I dunno. Guess we finally realized she cared.” He shook his head. “She deserved better than us. She’d be a good Mama. Minus the brothel business.”

“Hmm,” Shiro said. “She was never very maternal when I knew her, before the earthquake, but maybe time has changed that. However, even if she wanted children now, she could not have them. Something about dying and coming back makes that a little impossible.”

“Oh,” Keith said. He frowned. “She has a cat.”

“People make do,” Shiro said. “And, in a way, she probably considers the girls at the Pink Lion to be daughters, of a sort.”

“Yeah,” Keith agreed. “If her girls ever get hurt, you’d best believe Allura’ll have that man’s head on a pike.”

“That sounds more like her,” Shiro said with a note of pride. “I’m glad she’s doing well. I look forward to the party. When is it?”

“Couple weeks,” Keith said. A couple weeks for him to regret his life choices, a couple weeks for him to figure out how the hell he was supposed to survive this goddamn party with Shiro, in a whorehouse.

A classy whorehouse, but still.

“Lovely,” Shiro said. “I’ll have to assemble some appropriate attire in the meantime. What are you wearing?”

“Shiro, you’ve seen all the clothes I own.”

He folded his arms. “Well, that won’t do. We ought to at least look presentable, Keith.”

“Are you implyin’ I don’t look presentable now?”

Shiro gave him a long look. Keith had dust smudged on his face and forearms and his hands were still mostly covered with drying snake blood. His hair rather resembled a tumbleweed. “Nevermind,” Keith said.

“Don’t worry,” Shiro assured him, “I’ll get everything in order, and we will have a grand time. And look very good while doing so.”

“Uh-huh,” Keith said. “You do that.”

“I will,” Shiro said with a frightening spark of determination in his eyes. “Just you wait.”

*

Despite Keith begging the powers that be to make the two weeks last forever, they came and went, and before he knew it, it was the night of Allura’s party and he was standing in front of the Pink Lion in finer clothes than even Thace owned.

“So,” Keith said out of the corner of his mouth, “does all this turn into rags at midnight, Fairy Godmother?”

“You’d better hope not, Cinderella,” Shiro retorted. “It’ll be midnight before you know it.”

Keith made a face. He rather doubted that. He fully expected the night to drag on, but at least he was suitably well-dressed. He’d always thought fancy clothes would be uncomfortable, but Shiro had made his red Carlson vest out of goddamn silk or something. It was very soft, and Keith kept smoothing his hands over it. Gloved hands, also probably silk. It was easier to focus on his clothes than on Shiro standing beside him, also dressed to the nines, in black and white from head to toe with a splash of purple at his throat. He’d smoothed his hair back, so that the white section lay flat with the black hair, and somehow only served to make him look even more striking, calling attention to the slash of his scar and his handsome profile. It was infuriating. Keith was infuriated.

He was also very nervous, and felt slightly sick to his stomach. There were guests streaming in and out of the flung-open front doors, and music swelled from inside, spilling out onto the street. Keith clutched his invitation with white knuckles. “This was a bad idea,” he said.

Shiro turned towards him. “Why do you say that? The night hasn’t even begun yet.”

“You don’t understand,” Keith muttered. “You’ve probably been to lots of parties.”

“Not in a long, long time, no,” Shiro said. He offered Keith a small smile. “So, we’re in the same boat, you and I.”

Keith wanted to yell, No, no we’re not, because you’re you and all eyes will be on you as soon as you walk into the goddamn room no matter what, while I try to hide in the nearest corner and become one with the wallpaper. But instead he said, “Let’s just get this over with.”

No sooner had he said it, a whirlwind of Lance smacked into his side. Lance was already drunk, and honestly, Keith wasn’t surprised. “Keeeith,” Lance slurred, squinting at him and pursing his lips in a way that resembled a duck. “Aren’t you lookin’ dapper tonight! Where the hell’d you steal this get-up from, huh?”

“He didn’t steal it,” Shiro said. “I made it for him.”

Lance gawked at Shiro, mouth hanging open. “What’s he doin’ here?”

Shiro held up his invitation. “Keith invited me.”

Keith curled in on himself. “Did not. Blame Allura for that.” Shiro frowned at him and Keith ignored it.

Lance guffawed. “Figures! Allura would fancy Shiro.”

“I don’t think that’s what he means,” Pidge said, stomping over to Lance’s side. She was sober and cross, but she looked awful pretty in her green gingham dress.

“It ain’t,” Keith said, glaring at Lance.

Lance shrugged. “O-kay, if you say so. Surprised you’re even here. You hate parties, dontcha?”

“Keith is trying to turn over a new leaf,” Shiro said firmly.

“Sure he is,” Lance laughed, slapping Keith’s shoulder and narrowly avoiding his weak retaliatory punch. “Aw, c’mon, don’t gimme that face!” Lance pointed at Shiro and said, “Keith starts lookin’ too sour, you send him to the bar, y’hear me? Drink or two would do him a world of good.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Pidge said over her shoulder as Lance tugged her to the door. “He’ll be passed out on the floor before long, I’d bet on it.”

The two of them disappeared into the swirl of the crowd.

“Does Lance often drink?” Shiro asked.

“Who doesn’t?” Keith retorted.

“You don’t,” Shiro said, head tilted.

Keith huffed. “You don’t know that,” he muttered, and marched to the door. Shiro followed after a moment of hesitation, and Keith wondered how it was possible that he felt as vulnerable now as he had in a dress and rouge.

*

The party passed in a miserable blur for Keith, alleviated only by Shiro’s presence, though pretty soon even that became a source of misery as other guests took notice of the newcomer. Altea Creek was a small town; everybody knew everybody, more or less, and nobody quite knew Shiro. A couple men swore that they’d seen Shiro before but couldn’t put their finger on where or when, and a few women pressed him eagerly for his mysterious origins while Keith leaned against the wall and brooded. Nobody talked to him, of course, and when they did it was with a kind of cautious condescension that made his skin crawl.

A few actual friends approached now and then, which was pleasant while it lasted, but they all only said hello in passing or left after a brief chat. Thace greeted Keith with his usual politeness and spared a nod and a mildly suspicious glance for Shiro, but he was there with his associate Ulaz, who was eager to play pool and wanted Thace to join him.

Shay and Hunk stayed for a little longer, both of them tipsy and giggling, but their all-too-obvious affection for each other made Keith’s chest hurt too much for him to really enjoy their company. It made him hyper-aware of Shiro beside him, and of how badly he wished he could understand how it felt for someone to look at him the way Hunk and Shay looked at each other. He longed for their easy displays of fondness, yet knew he would never be allowed the same, nor would he allow himself it.

Pidge and Lance were similarly sappy fools, but at least they weren’t as public about it. They bickered in public more than they embraced, but even their bickering had a sort of exasperated endearment about it. It was never serious bickering; in all his years of knowing them, Keith had never known Pidge and Lance to have a real falling out. Whereas he’d certainly had real falling outs with them. Keith was prone to arguments and ruining relationships. When he’d been real angry, Lance had once said Keith was brusco. Pidge said he was abrasive, like sandpaper. Keith figured it meant the same thing – he was bad at making people like him, and even worse at keeping them around.

But Shiro was still around. At least, for a little while. Then Allura found him.

“Shiro!” The crowd parted to make way for their hostess, her pearly skirts flowing far behind her as she walked, neckline plunging far too deep for polite society, with a clever bit of lace to hide the scar Keith now knew resided upon her chest. She was radiant as ever, and in hindsight Keith wondered how he had never questioned her mortality before. She always had a bit of an otherworldly air to her, from her sky blue eyes to her clouds of white hair to the way she carried herself, regal as a queen. A princess with a dead father was, Keith supposed, a queen.

“Allura,” Shiro greeted, inclining his head to her and taking her hand when she offered it. Keith watched him kiss her knuckles and thought they made quite the pair – Shiro all pale scarred skin and black attire, Allura all smooth dark skin and white gown. She smiled up at Shiro with a warmth Keith had rarely seen in her, and he could only manage to smile stiffly when she turned to him.

“I’m glad you’re here, Keith,” Allura said. “You and Shiro. You both look quite handsome, I appreciate the effort. How in the world did you manage to get him to wear all this, Shiro?”

“I asked nicely,” Shiro replied, lips quirking. The ridiculous thing was, he was telling the truth. And Keith had been unable to refuse Shiro saying ‘please’ and eagerly offering him a perfectly Keith-sized outfit. It didn’t hurt that it was in all his favorite colors.

Allura laughed lightly. Keith flushed and continued to avoid looking at Shiro. There was a moment of awkward silence, and then Allura exclaimed, “The two of you ought to come to the dance hall, it’s far more fun there! This parlor is too stuffy; too much talking, don’t you think?”

Keith wasn’t against escaping smalltalk, so he followed Allura with Shiro, through the smoky game room to the loud dance hall. The band was in full swing, and various pairs whirled about the room, mostly Allura’s girls charming hapless men, but a few actual couples including Hunk and Shay, and Pidge and Lance, although Lance’s idea of dancing was hardly considered appropriate even in this setting. He was still making a valiant effort, though. Pidge was honking like a damn goose, laughing so hard she could barely stand, Lance’s lanky arms the only thing supporting her.

Keith’s throat was tight. Allura nudged him. “Care to dance?” she asked.

Keith knew she was throwing him a bone, and it just made him more upset. “No,” he said, staying stubbornly near the wall. “Why don’t you ask Shiro?”

“I’m right here,” Shiro pointed out.

“Yeah, I ain’t blind,” Keith retorted. Shiro looked startled by the sharpness of his tone. “Just dance with her.”

Allura frowned and so did Shiro; Keith just stood with folded arms until Allura finally relented and asked Shiro. Shiro cast a last worried glance over his shoulder as Allura led him off to the heart of the dance floor. Keith just stared back, flat and bored, and raised an eyebrow when the two of them passed on the next rotation, dancing in perfect synchronization. Both of them beautiful, immortal, and so far out of reach of everyone around them that it was almost laughable. Almost.

And then the dance ended, and immediately Shiro was swarmed by several of Allura’s girls. Allura didn’t dissuade them, and Keith’s hands curled into fists at his sides as two of them giggled and whispered something into Shiro’s ears. Shiro chuckled at whatever they said, his expression one of intrigued indulgence when they ushered him away from the crowd, to the corner of sofas and settees which was already occupied by various men and prostitutes.

Keith didn’t stay to see what happened next. For once, he took Lance’s advice, and went straight to the bar.

*

Shiro had been right. Keith didn’t drink. But God, he drank that night, drank so much that he nearly fell off his stool by the end of it, and was fairly certain he’d spilled at least two drinks on his fine silk vest. Keith stumbled out of the bar and back to the dance hall, and somehow managed to make it to the corner in one piece. Shiro was still there, his tie undone and hair ruffled, with three whores lazily fighting over him; two practically in his lap and one draped over his back. He appeared to be talking to them, but that was absurd; men did lots of things with whores, but they didn’t talk.

Shiro’s eyes were clear; he wasn’t drunk at all. He looked up when Keith stomped over, his eyes widening slightly. “Keith? Are...you’re terribly drunk.”

You’re terrible,” Keith retorted, his voice slurring and dipping like his vision.

Shiro blinked. “Keith…?”

“Terrible,” Keith repeated, stabbing a shaking finger at him. “The worst. I wish I’d never met you.”

Shiro flinched, Keith was just too drunk to see it. “I...did I do something?” Shiro asked uncertainly. “If so, I apologize –”

Keith sneered. “Of course you do. Stop it. You’re – you’re killin’ me, Shiro.”

Shiro started to rise but the whores shushed him and eased him back down, and he didn’t fight it. “Keith...you should rest, sit down,” Shiro said quietly. “You’ve had too much to drink.”

“Don’t you tell me what to do,” Keith snapped, swaying and nearly knocking over a nearby end table. “You got no right.”

Shiro looked like he was in pain. “That was never my intention, Keith.”

“Don’t say my name like that,” Keith snarled. “Don’t say it like you care.”

“I do care,” Shiro whispered.

“Oh, clearly,” Keith said, gesturing to the prostitutes. Shiro just looked more confused. To be fair, Keith’s wild drunk gesturing was not very specific. In the end, he just threw up his hands and stomped off to the nearest door, seeking escape from Shiro’s searching gaze.

He tripped over a fallen bottle and caught himself heavily on the doorframe, just in time to hear Shiro say, “Perhaps one of you ought to bring him back over here before he does something he’s going to regret.”

Keith could just imagine the whores’ incredulous expressions. “Who, Keith?!” one of them exclaimed. “Oh, no, no, sir, Madam Allura’d give us what for if we so much as breathed on him! Keith, er, Keith’s off-limits, sir.”

“Off-limits? Why?”

There was a soft mumbling. Then one of them said in a stage whisper, “Ah, well, something’s wrong with him, sir.”

“Wrong?” His voice was edged. Almost angry.

The next whore spoke more carefully. “Yes, sir...that is to say, Keith don’t fancy us.”

“Women, you mean?”

Keith was breathing hard, his knuckles white where they clutched the doorframe.

“No, sir,” the first whore said. “Keith don’t fancy anyone. Men or women. Nobody.”

“Oh,” Shiro said. There was a pause, during which Keith hardly breathed at all.

“Something bad happened to him,” the second one added. “When he was a kid. ‘Spose it broke him up inside, turned him cold. But you didn’t hear it from us.”

“No, I certainly didn’t, because it isn’t any of your business,” Shiro retorted. “And I doubt Madam Allura would appreciate it if she heard you were spreading rumors about Keith.”

“They ain’t rumors, sir,” one of the whores protested. “It’s fact!”

“I don’t care,” Shiro said. “Stop.”

“Let’s talk about something else,” the third whore suggested, her voice lowering. “Or better yet, stop talking and do something else…”

Keith turned on his heel and stormed back over to them. The whores stared at him, and Shiro stared at him, and Keith said, far too loudly, “Shiro is too damn good for all of you!”

And then he fell over.

Shiro moved so quickly Keith didn't even see it until he was in Shiro’s arms, and the dismayed whores found themselves on an empty sofa.

Keith slumped against Shiro and said. “You're so warm.”

Shiro said, “Oh, dear, Keith.”

“I had too much whiskey,” Keith moaned. He was rubbing his face against Shiro’s shirt and it felt very nice. Shiro’s hand was steadying him on his lower back, and that felt nice, too.

“Yes, I see that,” Shiro said. “You wanted to leave this party a long time ago, didn't you?”

“Yeah,” Keith hiccuped, “but you were. Busy.”

“No,” Shiro said. “I wasn't, Keith. Nothing happened. I shouldn't have left you.”

“If you apologize again, I'll smack you,” Keith warned, and broke off with a giggle.

“What's so funny?” Shiro asked.

“Your hair,” Keith snorted, “it's all tufty. Here, lemme…” And he went up on his tiptoes to smooth Shiro’s hair down. Shiro bowed his head and let him. Keith’s smoothing turned into stroking. A few people were staring. “Let them stare,” Keith said to no one in particular.

“Let me take you home,” Shiro murmured, patting his back.

“Mmm,” Keith sighed, staring up at him. “To bed?”

“Yes, to sleep,” Shiro said, his face slightly flushed, but nothing compared to Keith’s ruddy cheeks. “Just sleep.”

“What else would I be doing,” Keith mumbled.

“Nothing,” Shiro assured, steering him out of the dance hall.

They encountered unexpected resistance in the form of Lance punching Shiro in the face.

“Hey, now,” Shiro said, mildly affronted but not even flinching at the blow. Lance lunged for him again.

“Don't hit him, I like him,” Keith protested weakly.

“You're drunk,” Lance panted, his knuckles bruised.

“So are you,” Keith grumbled, clinging tighter to Shiro and petting his face where Lance had hit him. Shiro gently stilled his hand. Keith wanted to hold Shiro’s hand forever.

“Where are you going with him?” Pidge demanded, hands on her hips, Shiro towering above her at least twice her height.

“I'm bringing him home,” Shiro said.

“To bed!” Keith added happily.

Lance let out a sound of outrage. Pidge grabbed him before he could try to punch Shiro again. “We're going with you,” Pidge said.

“What's going on over here?” Hunk and Shay had joined the scene. Keith pouted. He just wanted to be with Shiro. He thought he could probably fall asleep, just leaning against Shiro like this. “Keith? Oh, Lord, what happened to him?”

“He's been drinking,” Shay said flatly, her eyes widening when she recognized Shiro. “Your arm grew back?!”

“Not exactly,” Shiro said. “Thank you for your help with that, by the way. Would you like to join us in bringing Keith home?”

“Nooo,” Keith whined, “I just want youuu…”

“He's been drinking a lot,” Hunk noted worriedly. “Yes, well, let’s get him home.”

They somehow made it out of the Pink Lion; at one point Keith heard Allura’s concerned voice, and then felt Shiro hefting him up off the ground, holding him like a bride. Keith couldn't even be mad about it. He just slumped into it and let Shiro carry him outside, the cool night air a relief on his skin. Then there was a carriage, and a long bumpy journey, and more loud voices, and then, at last, it was just him and Shiro again. Keith was tucked into bed and Shiro was sitting next to the bed, holding his hand.

“I didn't mean it,” Keith mumbled, fighting to keep his eyes open. “I'm so glad I met you. You make me so happy, so happy I don't know what to do with myself.”

“You make me happy, too,” Shiro replied, his eyes glowing softly in the darkness. “I'll be here in the morning for you.”

“I know you will,” Keith sighed, closing his eyes. “You always are.” He lay there for a few moments longer, then asked, “Can you sing me that song? That lullaby...the sad one?”

“Yes,” Shiro promised, and he did, and Keith fell asleep to the lilting tones of his voice singing words in the language that had been stolen from him.

*

There were many ways to wake up, but vomiting was one of the worst by far.

Vomiting into a bucket held by Shiro was a little better, but also a little worse, because Keith knew he looked like death warmed over. Then again, Shiro had already seen him vomit once, so Keith figured he was already well acquainted with Keith at his worst.

Shiro even held his hair back. It was sweet, or it would have been if Keith’s mouth didn't taste like bitter stomach bile and booze. His head pounded something fierce, and even the low timbre of Shiro’s voice was mildly grating.

Then the events of that night hit him like a freight train, and he recoiled from Shiro and the bucket, huddling in his bed and wishing he could sink into the blankets for the next week, at least.

“How are you feeling?” Shiro asked again, his brow all crinkled and concerned. The vomit bucket disappeared; a handy trick.

Keith picked at the loose threads in his sheets. “Been better,” he mumbled. Shiro had been sober. Shiro definitely remembered what Keith had done last night, what he had said. But Shiro was still just sitting there patiently, looking more ifrit than human, head tilted and expression soft. He handed Keith a glass of water out of thin air. Keith drank it gratefully, steadfastly avoiding eye contact.

“How’s your memory?” Shiro asked, casually enough. Keith still flinched violently and almost spilled the water everywhere. Shiro offered him a sympathetic smile. “You don’t drink much, do you?”

“No,” Keith grumbled, hair hanging in his face. “Uh...listen, if I said. Or did. Anything. Can we maybe...just forget it?”

Shiro blinked innocently. “You mean last night? You know, it’s funny...I can’t seem to recall last night too well. Oops.”

Keith snorted, and gave him a small, grateful smile. Then his smile fell and he groaned, “I’m sorry Lance punched you in the face.”

“It’s alright,” Shiro said. “He was looking out for you, that’s all. You have good friends.”

“You’re a good friend,” Keith blurted.

“Thank you. I certainly try to be,” Shiro replied. “Allura may drop by later...she feels rather guilty about it all. I told her she wasn’t the one who got you drunk, but...it’ll ease her mind to apologize, I think.”

“I just ain’t cut out for parties,” Keith sighed. “Or brothels.”

“I have to agree,” Shiro said. “I didn’t have as much fun as I thought I might – and not through any fault of yours, either.”

Keith ran a hand through his hair. “You could’ve,” he mumbled. “Allura’s girls wanted to have fun. With you.”

Shiro exhaled. “I suppose so. Then again, that is their job.”

“You ain’t a job to them,” Keith retorted. “You looked in a mirror, lately? Half the dance hall was fawning over you.”

Shiro shrugged, slightly flushed. “I didn’t notice. As I said, I haven’t been to many parties lately.”

“I can’t believe you just chit-chatted with Allura’s girls,” Keith said, shaking his head and instantly regretting it when his skull throbbed with pain. “A real proper gentleman you are, courting the whores instead of fucking them.”

Shiro’s ifrit form didn’t flush pink, but his face darkened obviously in embarrassment, shadows flickering across his cheeks. “I wasn’t courting them. Just talking.”

Keith raised an eyebrow. “They say anything interesting?”

Shiro opened his mouth, then closed it. He lowered his head and admitted, “Yes, actually. They were talking about you.”

Keith tensed, and tried to keep his expression neutral. “Me? What do they have to say about me?”

“They shouldn’t have said anything about you,” Shiro sighed. “But I asked. They said Allura doesn’t let them near you, because you don’t...they claimed you don’t fancy them, or anyone else. That’s all.”

“Do you believe them?” Keith asked.

“I believe that I can understand where they got such an idea,” Shiro countered. “But I believe you, Keith, not rumors about you.”

“They’re not rumors,” Keith said, leaning back against the newly-finished wall and staring at the ceiling. “I don’t fancy anyone. Never have.”

Until you, anyway, he didn’t say.

“Keith,” Shiro said, laying his hand on the edge of the bed. “There’s nothing wrong with that, you know.”

“Everybody else seems to think there is,” Keith said. He glanced fiercely at Shiro. “I don’t need to be fixed.”

“You don’t,” Shiro agreed. “But…”

“But?”

“Just because you don’t fancy anyone and never have, doesn’t mean you should push everyone who cares about you away,” Shiro told him. “There are other ways to care for others, Keith. And I think you care about others, very much. You aren’t cold. You’re afraid, and justifiably so, but you don’t always have to be. Especially not when it comes to your friends. We’re not going to abandon you. We’re not going to cast you aside because of something we heard at a brothel, or because of something you did after too many whiskeys. I know that it’s easier to fear others than to let them in, but Keith, you deserve more than fear.”

Keith stared at him, speechless. Then he whispered, “I don’t fear you, Shiro.”

“Then that’s a start,” Shiro said with a smile. “That’s more than most people could say about me.”

“Most people don’t know you like I do,” Keith retorted.

“No,” Shiro murmured, “they don’t.”

Chapter Text

AUTUMN

The house was finished in its entirety by the end of August.

Shiro had helped most with the furnishings, and Keith didn’t know where he’d gotten half the things he brought – beautiful shiny windows with real fine glass, an entire chimney and a good iron stove to go with it, a new sofa much better than its predecessor, a small dining table and several solid chairs, and a small army’s worth of blankets and pillows for the new and improved bed (“Not everyone needs a cave nest, Shiro,” Keith had protested, but he didn’t refuse any of the bedding).

Lance and Pidge had helped plenty; they dug out the fireplace and helped Keith pat down the earth to lay down the wood floors – again, Keith had no clue where Shiro got cedar planks from, but he didn’t question it. They also helped him insulate the thin wood walls with adobe, and painted it the same rusty red as the nearby canyon once it was all dried. Hunk helped Keith with the locks on the door – which was a new concept in itself – and fixed up Strawberry’s lean-to stable into a sturdy box stall with an overhanging roof to keep the last of the monsoon rain out.

Shay blessed the house with sage and songs, and made Strawberry a celebratory apple mash. Keith wasn't quite sure what the celebration was, and when Allura, Thace, and Coran showed up with more decor – a beautiful oil painting of the sunset over the canyon from Thace, a big woven rug from Coran, and a few bookshelves filled with books from Allura – Keith exclaimed, “It ain't my birthday ‘til October, y’know! Really, this is...too much. Y'all didn't have to.”

“We know,” Lance said, grinning and tossing him something wrapped in parchment. “Consider it an early birthday present.”

“I didn't know your birthday was in October,” Shiro said. He was leaning against the far wall, a bit away from the others, as he often was.

“Yep, the 23rd,” Keith said absently, unwrapping the parchment and beaming at Lance when the carved horse figurine fell into his palm. It was made of red brushwood, with a little white dot of paint on its forehead. “You made Strawberry?”

“Yessir,” Lance chuckled. “Pidge’s idea, my carving knife.”

Pidge rolled her eyes and handed Keith another parchment package. “Lance’s idea, my coin.”

Keith unwrapped it. It was a dagger, gracefully curved with a leather wrapped hilt and an iridescent gleam to it. “Ain't it pretty?” Lance cooed. “It's inlaid with uh...what was it called, Katie?”

“Obsidian,” Pidge said. Shiro leaned closer. “Also known as volcanic glass. Thought you might like it, plus it's useful.”

“I do like it,” Keith said, turning the sharp little blade over in his hands. “Huh, Shiro, reminds me of your caves. It's as shiny and black as the walls.”

“It's the same volcanic rock,” Shiro murmured. “It's a fine knife.”

Keith nodded in firm agreement, and replaced his battered old knife with the obsidian one for now, though he was almost reluctant to actually use it. It looked more like something that belonged all polished up in a glass case.

“Thank you all,” Keith said, standing in the middle of his finished house. “I do appreciate all your help.”

“Yes, of course,” Hunk said. “It wasn't right, what the Galra did to your old shack. But I'm glad you got this place now! It's much cozier.”

“I'll have to go about getting you some curtains, too,” Shay noted, eying the windows critically. “Nice woven ones. What colors do you like?”

“Red,” Keith said. “Maybe yellow,” he relented when she waited for another answer.

“We should have a birthday bash for you now,” Lance declared. “Might as well, huh?”

Pidge elbowed him. “It ain't gonna be like yours, don't get too excited.”

Lance’s birthday was in July, and they'd all gone down to the watering hole at night to escape the heat, and some of them got drunk while others (Keith, Shiro, and Allura), told scary stories and tried to make sure nobody fell into the water. It had ended with a very loud and soaked Lance half-yelling about his abuela’s ghost being after him.

“Let's hope not,” Hunk said with feeling. He'd gotten drunk and scared of the scary stories.

“We could go to town,” Pidge suggested.

“Keith don't like town,” Lance protested.

“We don't need to go anywhere,” Keith said. “I like it here.”

“Or we could have a picnic up north, in the woods near Camp Verde,” Allura mused. “Didn't you once tell me you wanted to go there?”

Keith bit his lip. “Well...yes, but how would we get there?”

“We could ride up, it's only a day’s travel. Maybe less.”

“Or I could take you there much faster,” Shiro said.

“I dunno if I trust your djinn voodoo,” Lance muttered. “I do trust Blue, though. She'll get me there.”

Shiro frowned. “Alright.”

“You're still welcome to come,” Keith told him.

“Thank you, but I dislike leaving my desert,” Shiro admitted. “I'll stay here.”

“So, when are we gonna have this shindig?” Lance pressed. Keith tried hard to be excited about it despite knowing Shiro wouldn't be there.

“Coran and I are busy on the 23rd, we have a meeting in the city with the sheriff there,” Hunk said apologetically.

“That's alright, it don't have to be the exact day,” Keith assured.

“Maybe a couple days before? How does the 21st sound to y'all?” Pidge asked. “That way, Keith can get back home in time for his birthday proper.”

Everyone nodded, except Shiro, who had vanished into the shadows when no one except Keith was looking.

*

It was a windy mid-September night, the air hot and electric, promising a storm. Dust storm, if Keith had to guess. He secured Strawberry’s stall and was tying a bandana around his mouth when he saw a flash of movement in the darkness. His hand flew to his dagger, but a moment later the movement solidified into the tall silhouette of a man with glowing yellow eyes.

“Shiro!” Keith called over the howling wind, voice muffled by the bandana. “What're you doing? Come inside!”

But Shiro shook his head, and shifted into a horse, trotting over and looking down at Keith impassively. I must visit the caves tonight. It is my festival night...or it was, once.

“The caves?” Keith questioned. “In this world?”

Yes. There are many, below the canyons. They are a sacred place.

Keith had never seen such caves. “Can I go with you?”

Shiro hesitated, then inclined his head and offered his back. I will be there all night. You must be certain that you wish to stay, for there is no leaving once we arrive.

“I'm certain,” Keith said, and hoisted himself up into the horse’s back, holding onto its short dark mane. “What are you doing in the caves?”

You will see, Shiro said. Nothing too unorthodox, I assure you.

“I ain't afraid of you,” Keith reminded him. Shiro snorted, kicked up his hooves, and galloped off into the night.

Keith held on tight, the wind whipping past him, grains of dust stinging his cheek. He pulled the bandana up higher, squinting into the distance and wondering what Shiro did on festival nights. Images he’d seen in some of Allura’s stranger books came to mind – naked witches standing in circles with their hands raised to the night sky, crying out incantations while winged figures flitted through the air. Or maybe...no, Shiro wouldn’t invite him to a blood sacrifice. Or would he? Was Keith about to watch Shiro kill another hapless criminal and take the power of their soul?

He was not nearly as repulsed by the thought as he should have been.

It took far less time to reach the canyons than it would have taken with Strawberry. Shiro picked his way through the tumbled boulders and narrow ravines carefully, until eventually it was too narrow for him to pass through. Shiro let Keith off before shifting back, his expression grave as he motioned for Keith to follow him through a ragged crevasse in the rocks. It was dark, and Keith stumbled briefly, relieved by the flare of light as flames danced to life over Shiro’s skin. They had no heat to them, and Keith bet that they would not have burnt his hands if he had dared to reach out and touch. He did not, of course, do such a thing.

The crevasse widened only slightly, and as they progressed Keith saw the markings on the walls – petroglyphs unlike any he had ever seen before, more intricate and painted in places, blue and yellow and red and white, shockingly vibrant against the dull umber stone.

“They’re ancient,” Shiro murmured in reply to his unspoken question. “They are more preserved here, underground, where the elements cannot reach them.”

“Underground?” Keith said, glancing around and feeling the closeness of the walls more acutely than before.

“Yes, but don’t worry,” Shiro said. “These caves have remained for thousands of years, they are sound. I would not bring you here if it was unsafe, Keith.”

“Didn’t think you would,” Keith muttered. The caves suddenly widened, the walls smoother, perhaps carved out by a river at one point in time. They stood in one of what looked like many circular spaces, each one with walls covered in symbols and pictographs, and one central wall depicting...something. A god, Keith supposed, because there was a shallow indentation in the earth before each central wall, like a very large...bowl. The rock seemed darker there.

Keith swallowed nervously and followed Shiro closely through the circular chambers. One, two, three, four...at the fifth, Shiro paused, his ears flicking and head tilting, eyes wide. Keith peered at him, confused and on-edge. “Shiro, what are you doing?”

Shiro’s lips peeled back from his teeth and he seized Keith’s shoulder unexpectedly, claws digging in through his shirt. Keith froze at the contact. “We’re not alone,” Shiro hissed.

Keith opened his mouth, and then heard it – footsteps, echoing unmistakably from the opposite direction, fast approaching. “Who –” was all he managed to say before Shiro yanked him back the way they’d come, panic clear on every line of his face. Keith let himself be dragged, although to be honest he doubted he’d be able to break free of Shiro’s bruising grip if he’d wanted to. He was more focused on the fear in Shiro’s eyes – and if Shiro was afraid, then Keith figured he better be afraid, too.

Shiro all but shoved him into a passage branching off from the main one, much narrower, forked so that a small part of it was hidden from the view of anyone walking down the main tunnel. Keith’s breath left him in a shocked, gasping rush – the alcove was so tiny that he and Shiro were unavoidably pressed chest to chest, front to front, so close that Keith was sure Shiro could feel his thudding heartbeat.

Shiro’s hand covered his mouth hastily, muffling Keith’s sound of surprise, and Keith stared up at him with huge eyes, fighting the urge to bite his palm and trying to quell the adrenaline singing danger, danger, danger! through his veins. Keith had said he wasn't afraid of Shiro, but a part of him was now, a deep dark half-buried monster that reared its ugly head at the sensation of a male body pressed against his own.

Shiro lifted a clawed finger to his lips – quiet. It was a terribly familiar gesture. Keith nodded, and he was trembling, and he knew Shiro could feel it; he could probably feel everything.

Slowly, Shiro lifted his hand away from Keith’s mouth, and then it settled on Keith’s shoulder, and Keith didn't know if that was better or worse. Better, because he could breathe and felt less smothered; worse, because Shiro’s hand felt so good and somehow right on his shoulder, cupped protectively over it, pulling him ever so slightly closer.

Keith was shaking violently now, and Shiro’s eyes dimmed, and Keith saw the apology and concern in them just before Shiro’s flames went out, plunging them into darkness. Keith shook his head, and counted his breaths in his head rather than focusing on how he was trapped, immobile, between the cave wall and Shiro. He closed his eyes, and found solace in the darkness.

The footsteps were loud. There were two pairs of them, Keith thought – no, three. Voices echoed through the caves as they approached.

“Mistress, is this the one?” The voice was low, raspy, and of indiscernible sex. Keith shivered. It...didn't even sound human. Then what…?

Shiro’s hand tightened on his shoulder. It was dark but they were close enough for Keith to see his lips were parted, teeth bared and jaw clenched, every shadowy muscle tensed. Hesitantly, Keith touched his side with the hand that wasn't immobile against the rocks, a brief, awkward brush of his palm meant to soothe. Shiro jolted a little and blinked down at him, relaxing if only for a moment. Keith offered him an uncertain smile, and Shiro returned it, though it slipped right off his face upon hearing the next voice.

“Yes,” a woman said, her voice strange and lilting unpleasantly, as if it had a creak to it – she sounded old, impossibly so. “It must be done here. Quickly, make haste.”

“Yes, Mistress.” This was followed by an awful screeching sound; a blade on stone, maybe – Keith didn't want to consider the other possibilities. He shuffled unconsciously closer to Shiro and felt claws prick through his shirt. Shiro looked even more scared. Keith wished he could comfort him, but he couldn't even comfort himself at the best of times, and this was definitely not the best of times.

“Bring the boy forward,” the old woman said. There was a muffled cry and Keith and Shiro stared at each other in horror – another set of footsteps scrabbled against stone, and then there was a curse and a loud, dull thump, followed by a weak sob. “Keep him still. Hush, child. Your life will not be wasted.”

Keith was clutching at Shiro’s thin black tunic unconsciously, simultaneously straining to hear and wishing he could shut it all out. Shiro’s hand on his shoulder moved to his back, thumb rubbing small calming circles between his shoulderblades. The boy’s gag must have been removed, because he was sobbing and begging loudly now, mostly incoherent.

“P-please, ma’am, I did – did my job, I listened to everything the boss said, I did – I don’t understand w-why – no! Please, please no –”

“Lift up his head,” the old woman said. “Put his neck over the altar.”

Shiro sucked in a sharp breath of realization, and Keith gave in to the urge to huddle against Shiro’s chest, squeezing his eyes shut as the boy continued to cry and the old woman continued to give orders to her rasping lackey. Shiro kept rubbing Keith’s back, although now both of them were shaking, because they knew what was coming.

The old woman began to chant, strange guttural words that Keith did not understand but that Shiro clearly did, rising and falling in volume rhythmically. Shiro’s expression became progressively more alarmed as she spoke, so whatever she was saying, Keith figured it was bad. This was confirmed when she gave one last shout, fell silent, and the boy’s gasp was cut off by a wet gurgling and a loud sort of splashing trickle which tapered off quickly, fading to a drip, drip, drip.

They’d killed him. Keith imagined blood filling the shallow bowl at the altar and swallowed back bile.

The old woman continued her chanting. Shiro bowed his head over Keith protectively, chin resting atop his head, and Keith didn’t push him away. He didn’t know how long they stood like that before flickering torchlight filled the chamber nearest to them, the footsteps approaching again, and both of them tensed, holding their breath.

“Mistress, he should be here by now.”

He?

“I know. It is his festival night, and if he misses it, he will be weakened for the coming year,” the old woman muttered. Shiro’s eyes flared bright, and Keith felt the ifrit shifting against him, body broadening, growing until he had to hunch over to avoid hitting his horned head on the ceiling. He was still holding Keith, but now his hand covered Keith’s entire upper back and Keith’s head barely came up to the middle of Shiro’s chest, even hunched over as he was. Shiro was poised for a fight, his stance defensive, blocking Keith from view of the main tunnel. His tail lashed around, resting against Keith’s hip as if to enclose him further. Keith felt small and scared and helpless.

“Should we wait for him to arrive?” the voice hissed.

“No,” the old woman snapped after a moment, “we cannot afford to remain in this place. We must return home. Besides, we have sapped enough power that there will be less left for him. He does not have time to make another blood sacrifice tonight.”

“He will be weakened, then, Mistress?”

“Yes,” the old woman said, and passed by them with a rustle of fabric – skirts? A cloak? Her footsteps stopped. “Wait.”

Shiro’s chest was heaving, his eyes wild and his whole body angled to shield Keith from view. Keith feared that the old woman was far more than just that, and that if she were to find them, and there were to be a fight, Shiro would be in great danger. Keith was struck with the sudden mental image of Shiro’s throat slashing open by some invisible blade, blood pouring out across earth, the golden light fading from his eyes and leaving them dull as stone. Keith held onto Shiro tighter, as if he could somehow stop him from meeting such a fate.

“Nevermind,” the old woman said after an achingly long beat. “I thought I sensed a familiar force...but he is not here. Hm. He has grown more clever since we captured him.”

“He was not clever; he was lucky, Mistress,” the lackey retorted. “One of our own helped him escape.”

“That may be so, but do not underestimate him. He has survived what his brethren did not, and until Zarkon destroys him and takes his power, we will never control this desert or defeat the Alteans. He is the last bastion between us and our intended empire.” The old woman muttered something under her breath, and then added, “But that is hardly an ideal position for him. We have the upper hand now...and both he and that murderous mortal brat will be dealt with soon enough.”

Well, shit. Keith was pretty sure he knew who the “murderous mortal brat” was, and then realized, with a cold sinking sensation, who this old woman must be. Shadows swirled from Shiro’s skin in cool tendrils, and though he was not looking at Keith and seemed entirely focused on the old woman’s voice, the smoky tendrils coiled around Keith in a kind of web, binding him to Shiro and shifting restlessly, stroking over his skin like mist.

“The murderer should not be difficult to capture, Mistress,” the lackey mused. “He is fully mortal and was nearly dispatched by Sendak’s patrol –”

The old woman cursed loudly. “Yes, nearly, but because Sendak preferred to toy with his prey, he and his entire patrol were slaughtered! Don’t you see? The murderer is under the Jaguar’s protection. That is why he is hidden from us – and anyway, the murderer resides in the very heart of his territory.”

“Is this not near the heart, too, Mistress?” the lackey whispered respectfully.

“It is too near,” the old woman said, “which is why we must leave.”

“But is he not a lesser threat to us, Mistress?”

“He is a threat,” the old woman retorted. “For now.”

Then their voices faded, and when at last their footsteps were gone, Keith and Shiro slumped in relief. Keith inhaled a huge lungful of air and Shiro stepped out of the alcove and away from him, tendrils of shadow still trailing from his body. Keith slid down the wall numbly, taking several moments to breathe. Shiro waited, alert and still guarding Keith from view.

When Keith felt able to stand again, he rose shakily to his feet and said, “That was Honerva, the Apache witch woman. Zarkon’s wife...and Lotor’s mother. Wasn’t it?”

Shiro looked at him warily and nodded once, curt. “Yes. Though her servants call her Haggar nowadays.”

“She killed that boy. She...she was making a sacrifice. To who?”

Shiro exhaled. “Names have great power, Keith. To say his name here, now, where he has just been resurrected, is dangerous.”

“Resurrected?” Keith exclaimed. “Honerva – Haggar, whoever she is – resurrected a god?!”

“She certainly tried to,” Shiro muttered. “She has grown more powerful in her grief.”

“She wants both of us dead,” Keith said.

“No,” Shiro said. “She wants you dead, slowly and painfully; and she wants me captive and controlled, to leach my power from me until I am the hollow shell I once described to you.”

“Oh,” Keith said.

“But I will not let that happen,” Shiro growled, continuing on through the tunnel, walking faster past the altar that Haggar had used. To Keith’s confusion, the body was gone, and the stone was dark, but no actual blood remained. He looked at the god on the wall – it vaguely resembled a wolf, standing upright, grinning jaw filled with sharp teeth and eyes bulging grotesquely. Keith hurried past it and followed Shiro back to the fifth altar.

From what Keith could see in the dim light, the god on its wall was a strange amalgamation of abstract shapes with a vaguely human, vaguely masculine face, a black stripe across its nose, feathers for hair, and the tail and spots of a jaguar. It was pointing one finger, as if in admonition. Shiro stood before it, and Keith thought they looked very little alike, yet...the black stripe was like a scar, the feathers were clearly his forelock, the shapes could be his shifting, and the jaguar spots rather resembled the shadows flickering over Shiro’s skin.

Keith looked at Shiro carefully. “She – the Galra – already captured you once. Allura told me. And when I found you –”

“Stop.”

It was barely a word, more of a snarl, and Keith startled back. Shiro’s back was turned to him, and when he glanced back at Keith his face was barely recognizable, twisted and feral, teeth bared and longer, sharper. His shadows swirled up, rushing across the stones like fleeing snakes, or searching fingers. He did not look human in the slightest, and his claws carved furrows into the rock where he crouched.

Keith drew in a long breath, and took a step forward. Shiro glared at him, and said, “Stay back, Keith. This does not concern you.”

“No,” Keith said. “Listen to me.” Shiro’s eyes narrowed, but he listened. “Haggar said you would be weaker, because she took some of this place’s power, and you don’t have time to make a blood sacrifice.”

Shiro closed his eyes briefly. “Yes. She speaks true. This is still not your concern –”

“How much blood do you need?”

Shiro’s eyes flew open, wide, so bright they could be twin suns in his strange, horned skull. “Keith, no,” he started.

“You are protecting me,” Keith retorted, “you are risking your life for me, you are doing far too much for me and you know it; so let me do something for you. Answer the damn question: how much blood. Do. You. Need?”

Shiro looked agonized, his ears pinned flat and tail curled close to his legs as if in chagrin. After what felt like a long time, he hung his head and whispered, so quiet Keith could barely hear it, “You will not be able to take this back.”

“You take me for a fool? I know whatever I bleed out isn’t comin’ back to me, Shiro, it never has before.”

Shiro laughed weakly, and shook his head. “That’s not what I mean. There is power in blood, Keith. I would be taking that power – your power.”

Keith licked his dry lips and raised an eyebrow. “Yes, and?”

“I could use it against you.”

“But you won’t.” Keith stared him down. “You won’t, Shiro.”

“How can you be so certain?” Shiro asked. He sounded like he was pleading.

“Because you’re you,” Keith said. “And I trust you.” It was not a shocking epiphany, because in all honesty, Keith had realized it a long time ago, just hadn’t been able to articulate it until now; now, when Shiro needed it, and in a way, so did Keith.

Shiro’s shadows stilled. “You do?”

Keith tilted his head. “It’s been months, and you ain’t given me a reason not to. Shiro, please. Let me help you. I hate feelin’ like I can’t reciprocate the good you’ve done for me.”

“The debt –”

“Fuck the debt, that ain’t what I’m referrin’ to,” Keith said. “I’m talking about us. Friendship, and all. Friends give to each other, they don’t just take, or sit by while the other one does it all. I know that much.”

“You don’t take,” Shiro insisted. “You give me a great deal, Keith.”

“So I’m asking to give you more. How much, Shiro?”

Shiro looked at him, incredulous, as if trying to discern whether Keith was trying to pull his leg or not. Finally he said, barely audible, “However much you are willing to give. Safely,” he added, sharply.

“How do I do it?” Keith asked, rolling up his sleeve and unsheathing his knife, the sharp gleaming obsidian one.

Shiro’s lips quirked weakly. “Do what, bleed?”

Keith rolled his eyes. “Smart-ass,” he muttered, and touched the blade to his wrist.

Shiro started towards him at once, hands raised, panicky. “Don’t! Not – not there. You could lose too much.”

“Here?” Keith touched it to his left palm instead, and Shiro still looked unhappy but he nodded jerkily.

“Over the altar,” Shiro murmured, head bowed again. “You just...make the cut, and have the intent. That is all.” Keith approached the altar. “Oh, Keith,” Shiro whispered, low and hurt. He was about to apologize, and Keith was not having it.

“No,” Keith said, before the words could leave his mouth. “Don’t be sorry. Be strong, stronger than them. Don’t waste the power I’m giving you.”

Shiro slowly lifted his gaze to Keith’s. “I will not waste it,” he promised.

Keith sliced open his palm, and thought, For him, for him, for Shiro, and squeezed his hand into a fist so that the blood dripped between his clenched fingers and into the shallow bowl.

The effect was immediate. Keith’s blood pooled on the stone, and it wasn’t much, hardly enough to be called a sacrifice at all, but Shiro arched, hot breath rushing through the cave and turning the air thick and electric, oppressive, crackling with energy that prickled at Keith’s skin. Keith smeared his bloodied palm across the rock, trying to get all of it off, to give all he could, and froze at the sudden feeling of a looming presence at his back.

Keith was kneeling, hand still bleeding sluggishly, and all at once he was surrounded by darkness, opaque and absolute, blinding him and stealing his breath, and he realized it was Shiro, formless and whispering unknown words all around him, chanting as Haggar had – yet different.

Different, because while Keith had been tense and horrified during Haggar’s incantations, Shiro’s were firmly calming; as soothing as his fingers on Keith’s burnt skin, as soft as his eyes when he looked at Keith from across the room, quietly knowing, and accepting. And it was this softness that Keith had always been drawn to in Shiro, and so he was not at all surprised to find that even like this, even as a swirling shadow with no body, no face, nothing but nothingness, Shiro retained that aspect of his being – because as far as Keith was concerned, it was what made Shiro, Shiro.

So Keith closed his eyes and let the blood drip, and felt the shadows slither across his bare arm, around his wrist like ropes of mist, and over the wound, encircling it, surrounding it in pulsing, living shadow that eased the sting of the blade like ice wrapped in cloth. The rest of the shadow hissed when it touched the puddled blood, turning, it seemed, to steam, and if Keith had opened his eyes he would have seen the very stones glowing, flickering with sparks of impossible fire, greedily consumed by the darkness.

And then as quickly as it had come, the darkness receded. Keith looked down at his palm, and saw the wound was scabbed over already, all the excess blood gone from his skin...and the stone. As if it had never existed.

“Thank you.”

Keith stood up slowly, and turned to face Shiro. The ifrit was in his true form, huge and fiery, but the sharp, twisted look had gone from his face, and the glow of his eyes was subdued; embers, not suns. He was beautiful and powerful and terrible and wonderful and all Keith could say was, “Of course.” Because of course he would get himself tangled up with Shiro. Keith recalled Lance’s initial warning with wry despair. He had not let Shiro go. He had clung on tightly, with the desperation of someone whose heart was starved for the fondness Shiro so freely gave to him.

And perhaps, yes, there was an ulterior motive to that fondness. But Keith did not actually care if there was, because he had such a motive, too. In fact, Keith hoped there was, hoped that Shiro wanted more than his well-being and happiness. It felt foolish to hope, and Keith had long ago told himself that hope always ended in disappointment, but it felt like there was something here, now. Something when Shiro gazed at Keith with such wordless, remorseful sorrow, such self-loathing evident in his face, loathing for what he could not control, loathing for what he was, for what he had to do to survive.

And Keith knew all about that feeling, and he had decided it was bullshit. And in that cave, before the altar, Keith told Shiro so.

“It ain't your fault,” Keith said. “If you could get power from – from the sand, from the trees, from the damn cacti – you would. I know you would, you would choose that over...this.” Keith shook his head and took a step closer, and Shiro stared down at him helplessly, but Keith thought he saw hope there, too. “But you can't, Shiro. You can't. You are what you are, and no matter what you shift into, you can't change that. So you gotta live with it. And maybe it ain't pretty to live with – but you're stuck with it. And it ain't gonna do you no good to keep hating yourself for it.”

“You make it easier,” Shiro whispered, his voice so small for a being so large. “You do, Keith.”

“You make it easier, too,” Keith said, and didn't know if Shiro would understand what he meant, but Shiro smiled, and extended a hand to him, and Keith knew that he did.

“Let's go home,” Shiro said, and Keith took his hand even though it was dwarfed against Shiro’s.

Shiro held it gently, like fine china, and Keith smiled back. “Yes,” Keith said.

*

Soon after the horse and rider vanished over the horizon, something stirred in the caves, something ancient and terrible and born of blood. The witch’s words and pain echoed through the stones, and the ancient power replied with vengeance on its mind, clawing its way up and out of the earth where it had once been laid to rest. The other altars, the other graves, stood still and silent and dead – save for the fifth altar, which hummed with a quiet kind of warning.

The being paused as it passed this fifth altar, glaring at the god on the stone with the same hatred and grief it was raised upon. It started forward, intent on destroying the visage of the enemy, but recoiled with a hiss at the flames that ignited on the altar, blocking its path. This was no common fire.

This was magic, magic of protection and strength, and the being had never seen anything like it before. It sniffed the air and stiffened – the murderer had been here, worse; the murderer had made that fire for the Jaguar. It was far worse than they had thought if the murderer had given his blood already. They could not risk attacking the Jaguar, not when he had a sacrifice readied at his side. It was a cruel trick, for the Jaguar to use a human as a shield in such a way, for the Jaguar was desperate and weakening and selfish to the end.

But, the being thought uneasily, this fire was powerful and pure, and such fire could not be formed from an unwilling sacrifice. Which meant the murderer and the Jaguar had somehow forged an alliance, and the murderer might give again if the Jaguar was threatened. And again, and again, and again. The being turned away, infuriated. This suicidal human might be standing in their way for now, but they would find a way around...or perhaps through. They always did.

The quiet night was split by a lone howl as a white wolf bounded from the caves, its blue eyes gleaming in the darkness. Black lips peeled back from sharp white teeth as it spat out the taste of blood and wine from its tongue, and then ran off into the desert, following the footprints of its mother.

*

Keith was walking out of the mess hall. It was a cold night, but it was desert cold, which was a unique, dry kind of cold, the kind that stung skin and chapped lips and sucked the life out of all it touched like the Angel of Death.

Keith thought about that story often, about lamb blood smeared across doors and first born children murdered in the night in a desert far away and long ago. He thought the real world worked the other way ‘round – it was the poor children who got stolen away, not the Pharaoh's son. The real world wasn't so just, and sometimes, Keith wondered if there was any justice in it at all.

A footstep crunched on gravel behind him. Keith didn't look, he didn't stop, he just kept walking. He could see the barn up ahead, a warm spill of light, safety. Pidge and Lance would be waiting there, and Keith was already late; he'd been kept late at dinner by Sendak and a few other higher-ups who kept talkin’ about promotion nonsense. Keith didn't want a promotion, he wanted out. Out of this place, out of this town, out of Galra Territory –

“You better stop walkin’, boy.”

A gun cocked, a loud click that Keith felt like a punch to the gut. He didn't have to look to know it was aimed at him. He hated guns. He hated that spineless men could kill because of them, and do it without guilt or empathy. To shoot a gun was cold, impersonal, easy. Too easy. Killing should not be easy.

Keith preferred knives. To fight with a knife was uglier, and messier, and far more intimate. You had to feel their blood on your hands, with knives. It was hard not to feel something for one’s enemy with their blood on your hands.

But this man did not threaten him with a knife, and so Keith at once knew that he was a coward. But he was a coward with a gun, and Keith did not want to get shot. So he stopped walking.

The footsteps approached. “That's it, boy, stay right there if you know what's good for you, and don't you dare make a sound.”

Keith tensed. “Hell do you want,” he bit out, and then the breath was knocked out of him as he was shoved, hard, to the ground, rocks cutting his cheek, eyes wide as the barrel pressed icily to the back of his neck.

“I said,” the man warned, “don't you dare make a sound.”

Keith woke up screaming. Or maybe it was just a single cry, enough to vault him into consciousness, but either way he bolted upright in bed, soaked in sweat, gasping silently for air he could not seem to find. He still felt the sensation of falling, with such certainty that he thought his knees must be bruised.

In the darkness, an even darker shadow fell over the bed. “Keith?”

Keith cried out again, pure sheer panic welling up, scrambling away with an aborted movement and getting caught in the sheets; stuck, trapped, tangled, writhing and lashing out blindly and faltering at the glowing golden eyes peering down at him. The light confused him, then grounded him, and reality crashed back down upon him all at once – he was home, in his house he had built with a locked door, in his bed, and Shiro was staying the night because the Galra wanted Keith dead, moreso than before, and Shiro wanted him alive, apparently.

Keith went limp and let out a strangled sound that could have been a laugh or a sob, and curled up on his side, drawing his knees to his chest and closing his eyes, struggling to breathe.

“Keith? Are you...may I touch you?”

Flinching inwards, Keith shook his head adamantly no, and heard Shiro exhale, not exasperated but measured, thoughtful.

“Would you like a blanket?”

Keith lifted his head ever so slightly. “Huh?” he croaked.

“A blanket,” Shiro repeated. “A soft blanket.” And such a blanket appeared in his hands, red and fluffy fleece, and Keith reached out without thinking. Shiro handed it to him, and Keith could have cried when he wrapped himself up in it – the fabric was warm and as soft as clouds looked, and it smelled like campfires and leather and books and horses and the desert and Keith inhaled, tucking his face into it, and crying not in fear but in relief.

“Shiro,” he choked out, and Shiro was there, sitting gingerly on the side of his bed, and when Keith mumbled through his tears, “Can you stay with me?” and lifted the sheets for Shiro to join him under them, Shiro just lay down beside him, and waited until Keith whispered, “Can you hold me?” and then he did, held Keith through the barrier of the perfect blanket and drew the sheets back over them.

“You're safe,” Shiro whispered, promised, his arms a heavy, wanted weight around Keith, an anchor. “It isn't your fault. It was never your fault.”

“I know,” Keith whispered back. “But keep telling me.”

“It wasn't, it wasn't,” Shiro murmured, and his warm palm touched where the gun had, and Keith thought that Shiro was brave, far braver than that man, and that Shiro would have gutted that man alive with his bare hands and left him to bleed in the dirt.

“You make it easier,” Keith repeated, his eyes falling shut again, his body seeking Shiro’s, and almost wishing that the blanket was not between them.

Shiro's lips pressed against his forehead, brief yet branding, a touch that Keith felt in his very bones, and vowed never to forget.

*

Birthdays, Keith thought, were strange things.

Birthday parties? Even stranger. They felt like a reward for making it another year without dying, which was, Keith reckoned, difficult to do these days in the West. Still. It was surreal to sit in a circle of friends, all singing to him and gathered in celebration in front of a big plate of cherry pie (pie, not cake, because no matter how passionately Lance argued for the case of cake, Keith could not bear to consume that much damn sugar in one sitting). Keith liked sweet cherries, though. Allura had gotten them special from California, just for this pie; and Hunk had made the pie because he was not only the best deputy for miles, he was the best baker in Arizona Territory as far as Keith was concerned.

It was damn good pie. And sitting with his friends under the ponderosa pines, eating pie and talking aimlessly, was good, too. Keith missed the desert, and yet he relished the short escapes away from it – he liked the dry forests of the north, liked laying down in the cool shadows among the leaves and pine needles, watching birds that could never survive in the desert flit about overhead – bluejays and cardinals and even, once, a V-shaped flock of Canadian geese.

Keith wondered why they flew so, so far to come here; here to this place that so many in the East reviled as a lawless Hell. They weren’t too far-off, but Keith didn’t think the East really had any moral high ground to speak of, either. The States weren’t the place to go looking for that.

Coo, coo.

Keith blinked, and turned his head to look at a small Inca dove perched in some nearby brush, ruffling its wings nervously as it cocked its head at him. “Hello,” he said. “I recognize you.”

Beside him, Lance elbowed Keith’s side lightly. “Talkin’ to the birds now, huh?”

“It’s one of our birds,” Keith retorted, still watching the dove. “Inca doves. They’re from the desert, like us.”

“Not me,” Lance said.

Keith huffed. “Might as well be,” he said. “The desert adopted you a long time ago, or you wouldn’t still be there.”

“You got me there,” Lance sighed. He was watching the dove now, too. “Y’know,” he said, as the dove cooed again, “Hunk once told me those birds sound like they’re sayin’ ‘no hope.’”

Keith listened, and frowned. “I don’t hear it.”

“No hope,” Lance cooed with the bird, imitating its tone. “No hope. Like that.”

The bird, perhaps intimidated by the confusing potential rival call, fluttered away with a loud rustle of wings, flapping off into the trees. Keith sighed and closed his eyes. “The bird don’t like your pessimism either.”

Lance flicked his shoulder. The two of them watched Allura and Pidge laughing together nearby, drawing and writing on the sandstone boulders strewn about the forest with bits of burnt wood they’d found from an unfortunate lightning-struck tree, occasionally jabbing at each other’s arms with the black sticks and leaving dusty smudge marks behind. They’d rolled up their sleeves and both wore their riding skirts, Allura’s burgundy and Pidge’s tan, like the dove’s feathers.

Keith was surprised, somehow, by how similar they looked. Similar, in that he was not the only one who had aged, and while Pidge had always been a scrawny, flat-chested, knobby-kneed kid in Keith’s mind, she sure wasn’t anymore. She’d be twenty in April. There was a lump in his throat, suddenly, when he thought of holding that skinny, sobbing girl in that hayloft years ago, and saw the laughing young woman glowing with health and happiness before him now.

Lance nudged him. “Never known you to weep over a pretty lady, Keith.”

Keith laughed weakly, wiping hastily at his eyes. “She is a pretty lady, though. Pidge. Katie. She’s all grown up.”

“Uh-huh...” Lance said, peering at him curiously. “She’s been grown for awhile now. We all have.”

“Sometimes I forget,” Keith said. “How much time has passed. Sometimes…” He swallowed, gaze sliding away. “Sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday.”

“You’re really startin’ to sound like an old geezer now,” Lance chuckled. “But...I know what you mean.”

“Sometimes I wonder if it’ll ever stop feelin’ that way,” Keith admitted.

Lance propped himself up on an elbow and looked at Keith steadily. “It never did anyone good to stay stuck in the past, Keith. ‘Specially not your past. You had a real shit past.”

“Thanks for that,” Keith snorted.

“De nada.” Lance shot him a lopsided smile, which faded after a few moments into a serious little frown. “Hey,” he added, “you good?”

Keith looked up at him. “Think so,” he said.

Lance raised an eyebrow.

“I think so,” Keith repeated, more firmly. “For once.” He thought of Shiro’s arms around him, and waking up to Shiro’s sleeping face inches from his own, soft and peaceful. “Yeah.”

Lance’s eyebrow stayed raised. “You been spendin’ a lot of time with Shiro?”

“Maybe,” Keith said. Lance was a damn psychic.

“He better know that I’d punch him again in a heartbeat,” Lance warned.

“You’d have better luck punching a cactus,” Keith pointed out.

“That just ain’t fair,” Lance complained. “Damn Desert Devil, stealin’ my thunder.”

“You really don’t like him?” Keith mumbled, wilting a little.

Lance blinked. “Huh?”

“Because I like him,” Keith said, giddy at the admission. “I really, really like him.”

Lance stared at him for a few seconds. “You ain’t kiddin.’”

“Nope,” Keith said, grinning. “I ain’t.”

“Well, ain’t that just…” Lance flopped back down next to him. “Coño carajo. You really didn’t listen to my advice at all.”

“I tried, at first,” Keith said. “But…”

“Figures,” Lance said, smirking slightly.

“What does?”

“He ain’t even human,” Lance giggled. “He can turn into a horse.” Lance shook his head, still snickering. “Your standards are too damn high, that was the problem all along.”

“You think ‘can turn into a horse’ is a high standard?!” Keith squawked. “Hell’s wrong with you?”

“I think you are and always will be one loco son-of-a-bitch,” Lance cackled, “that’s what I think.” Keith squawked and tackled him, and in between their half-hearted wrestling, Lance added, “And I think I’m damn proud to know you, loco or no, so, there’s that.” Keith paused mid-grab, and peered down at Lance where he had him half-pinned on the ground. Lance looked up at him and said, “You be careful, ya hear?”

Keith nodded, throat tight. “I hear.”

Lance tugged him down, close, until their foreheads rested together and Keith almost went cross-eyed looking at him. “You get hurt, you come to us. Okay?” Lance whispered. “Even if you think it ain’t nothin’ to throw a fit about – you come to us. Don’t be alone.”

“Okay,” Keith whispered back. “Thanks, Lance.”

“No need,” Lance said. “Now get the hell offa me, cabrón.”

Keith snorted and rolled off, but not before getting one last shove in.

Lance stood up when he was freed and ambled over to Pidge, and this time when he drew upon her hand and she stepped easily into the circle of his arms with a smile, Keith didn’t feel bitter at all. He sat up, and watched them, and smiled with them. They were happy, despite all the odds being against their happiness.

Allura was watching them too, and Keith thought she understood exactly how he felt, and then some. She had watched them grow up, after all, and it was partly due to her help that they’d grown up in one piece (more or less) in the first place. And she would continue to watch them grow up...and grow old, while she remained as she was. Keith didn’t like that train of thought, and immediately derailed it.

Allura turned her head and caught him staring, and Keith flushed, but she just smiled slightly, and inclined her head in a kind of silent recognition. Allura had always been able to say a lot without saying a word.

“Keith!” Hunk called from the meadow just beyond the trees, a wide alpine meadow in the valley they’d traveled to, where the horses were grazing not far off and Hunk sat with Shay in the tall grass, weaving chains for each other out of wildflowers. A little further off, Thace, Coran, and Thace’s associate Ulaz were tending to the fire and chatting animatedly as they roasted the deer Thace had shot mere hours ago for lunch.

Keith walked over to Hunk and Shay, intrigued, trying to ignore the tempting smell of cooking venison. “Hunk, what is it?”

“The pie was my present, but this is for you, too,” Hunk said, and placed a chain of bright purple flowers around Keith’s neck. “Happy birthday, Keith.”

Keith laughed, startled, and gave one of the flowers a sniff. It was sweet, but sweet like cherries, not cake. “Thank you, Hunk. What kind are these?”

“Four o’clocks,” Hunk replied, “on account of them, er...blooming at four o'clock.” He frowned at Shay. “That right?”

Shay was wearing a necklace of orange blooms, and Hunk had yellow ones. She touched her necklace thoughtfully, nodded, and gestured for Keith to sit with her. Confused, he did. He’d always liked talking with Shay – she had a quiet, calming, yet strong presence, like a mountain. He thought her full name had something to do with mountains, maybe. She only used that name in ceremonies, and had only told it to Keith once, a long time ago.

“I’m still working on your curtains,” she told him with a big smile. “They’re yellow and red.”

Keith smiled back. “I ‘preciate it, Shay.”

“But I, too, have another gift, of sorts.” Shay pointed to the purple flowers. “Hunk is right, the English name is four o’clock. But the name that the Diné gave to this flower is ‘Tsédídééh.’ Literally, ‘it falls on a rock,’ because as you see, these flowers grow on rocks. It is also the Diné word for ‘purple.’”

Keith blinked at her. “...Alright.”

“Keith, there is someone you must meet, when we return to the desert,” Shay murmured. “Her name is Asdzá̜á̜ Tsédídééh, or Purple Woman.”

“Ah,” Keith said, and stopped, furrowing his brow. “Why is she purple?”

Shay laughed lightly. “She is not purple, no, no. Her eyes, Keith. They are like yours – do you remember, once, when I told you they seemed to have a purple sort of light in them, when the sun hit in just the right way?”

Keith said, “She...has eyes like mine.” He swallowed. “Is...is she…”

“She is your mother’s sister,” Shay finished gently. “Your aunt. Your amáyázhí, I believe is what your people say.”

“How?” Keith whispered, almost afraid to ask. “How – where did you find her? Is my mother…”

“I know little,” Shay admitted. “She sought me out first, saying she knew that I went to town often, and asking after you.” Shay took Keith’s hand and squeezed softly. “She looks like you, Keith. Very much like you.”

“What is her name, again?”

“Asdzá̜á̜ Tsédídééh.”

Keith repeated it, clumsily but reverently, and said, “She knew my mother.”

“She grew up with your mother,” Shay added. “Oh, Keith. She wants to meet you badly.”

“She wants to meet me,” Keith echoed, dumbfounded.

“Yes.” Shay beamed at him. “Will you meet with her? I can arrange the meeting, and whenever you would like –”

“Yes,” Keith blurted, “yes, I want to meet her, I want to meet my aunt, I…” He let out a long, steadying breath. “Yes, Shay,” he said.

“Then you will meet her, Keith,” Shay replied, and smiled brighter than her flowers.

*

Keith kept his flowers the whole ride home, and he was still wearing them when he set up Strawberry for the night, making sure she had plenty of water and feed, and giving her a handful of sugar cubes for all her hard work. She snuffled at his palm contentedly and drifted off while he brushed the sweat from her coat, humming absently to himself as he groomed her. He only realized he’d been humming the Navajo lullaby by the time he’d gotten to Strawberry’s mane, his fingers stilling mid-braid.

“Asdzá̜á̜ Tsédídééh,” Keith whispered, smiling helplessly even as he said it. Strawberry’s eyes cracked open. “You hear that, Strawberry? I have an aunt. I have an aunt, and she wants to meet me. And I’m going to meet her. I’m going to meet her.

Strawberry snorted and closed her eyes again. Keith chose to take it as a sign of support and encouragement, and tied off the braid, giving her a last neck rub before heading inside the house and humming the whole song over again.

His house was empty, as it often was, but it didn’t feel empty. Keith wasn’t sure his old shack had ever really felt like home, but this place...this place did. Maybe because it, like Keith, was an odd, motley patchwork of things; the structure his own but everything else made, brought, borrowed, bought, by others.

Not just any others – friends. Family, really. Keith had never grown up with blood relatives – he’d had to find his own family. And right then, Keith thought he hadn’t done so bad for himself on that count. Not bad at all. The family he'd found was kinda incredibly wonderful, actually.

He took the little Strawberry that Lance had carved for him off the end table beside the sofa, and turned it over in his hands, running his fingertips over the engraved grooves of Lance’s initials on the bottom. LEA. Leandro Alejandro Espinosa. Lance was a nickname, or camouflage, depending on how you looked at it.

And Pidge, well, Keith had never really been certain as to how Katie became Pidge, but he knew it was what her brother had called her, and he knew that Pidge loved her brother a great deal. It was funny how that worked, how sometimes someone you loved gave you a name, and sometimes it just stuck, and nobody else would ever really know how that name came to be, but that was what everyone would call you anyhow.

And then there was Shiro. Shiro, who had stolen his name from a dead man’s soul and taken it for his own; Shiro, who Haggar had called the Jaguar; Shiro, who had a name from times long past which Keith did not know, which Allura would not tell him, which Shiro had never mentioned and perhaps never would. Names, as Shiro had said, had power.

Keith thought about names. He thought about what his name would have been, could have been. He wondered if, perhaps, he would be offered a new name. And he wondered if he would, could, should take it.

There was a knock on the door.

Keith froze, and then a familiar voice called, “Keith? It’s me.”

Keith set down Strawberry and opened the door to Shiro. “Hello,” Keith said, and knew he was still smiling, and knew it startled Shiro.

“Hello,” Shiro replied, tilting his head and smiling in bemusement as he walked inside, somewhere between human and ifrit form. His gaze lingered on Keith’s flower chain. “You’re in a good mood. The party went well?”

“It wasn’t a party, let’s make that clear,” Keith chuckled. “We both know my thoughts on parties, Shiro.”

“Gathering, then, would you prefer that? Get-together, bash, jamboree –”

“Pff, stop,” Keith snorted, sitting back down on the sofa. Shiro hovered awkwardly. Keith rolled his eyes and pointed to the sofa. “You’re nervous,” he observed when Shiro did sit, fiddling with his clawed hands in his lap. “Why?”

“I'm not…” Shiro sighed. “I'm glad you enjoyed celebrating your birthday, Keith. And I wish I could have been there.”

Keith turned towards him, brow furrowed. “You're here now, Shiro. And anyway, I don't mind. I know you can't leave.”

“I can,” Shiro said. “But...I felt I shouldn't, ah, intrude, as it were.”

“Intrude?”

“You needed to spend time with your friends,” Shiro said. “Away from me. That is important. And at times I wonder if I should stay away more than I do.”

Keith’s good mood fizzled out like a popping spark. “Did you really come here to tell me you oughtta stay away from me?” he demanded.

Shiro lifted his gaze to Keith’s. “No,” he murmured. “I came here to wish you a happy birthday.”

“Well, thanks, though you ain't very festive,” Keith muttered. “Reckon you save that for your festival day anyways.”

Shiro winced. “How is your hand?”

Keith showed him; his palm had healed weeks ago, though the thin pink line of scar tissue remained. “Fine,” he said. “How's your blood magic?”

“Fine,” Shiro said, clearly unhappy now, broad shoulders hunched inwardly. “Listen, I...I did not mean to dim your happy mood. I just wanted to acknowledge your two decades, and give you this.” He reached not from thin air, but into his coat pocket, and withdrew a smallish glass bottle which he held out to Keith.

Keith took it, and saw the substance within was black and syrupy, slightly thicker than water, and the label read…

Keith’s eyes widened. The label read, “For Bad Dreams. 1 drop a night.”

Shiro was quiet. Keith held it up with shaking hands and exclaimed with an equally shaky voice, “How – how much of your precious ifrit juju did you use for this?”

Shiro shook his head. “It doesn't matter.”

“Shiro, tell me; this – this is that magic you put in my soup, it's pure magic, and I know you have less power than usual and you can't just be bottling your magic up and –”

“Yes, I can,” Shiro interrupted, looking up. “I can, and I will, for you.”

“Why!” Keith snapped. “Why are you wasting it on me?!”

Shiro stared back at him fiercely. “It isn't wasted on you. You need it. And I don't care how much I would have to give, even if it was the last drop of power that I had left – I would give it to you if it meant you would never scream and sob and relive terrible things like that in the night again. It would be worth it, because you are worth it.”

Keith fell silent, stunned, clutching the bottle to his chest. “Shiro,” he whispered. “Shiro.

“Keith,” Shiro said, wearily, and hung his head. Then he rose to go, and Keith panicked; panicked because he had an image in his head of Shiro walking out that door and never coming back, and Keith knew that if that happened, he would be throwing away the best thing that life had ever, and probably would ever, give to him. And Keith knew, in that moment, that he had to take it if he wanted to keep it, because Shiro wasn't going to, because he was Shiro.

So Keith said, “Don't you dare leave,” and grabbed Shiro’s wrist, and yanked him back down onto the sofa as hard as he could, which was pretty damn hard.

Shiro stumbled, caught off-guard, and landed heavily back on the sofa, sort of sprawled and stunned. Keith leaned across the cushions and over Shiro. Shiro’s eyes widened. “I won't leave,” he stammered, confused and definitely nervous now. Keith realized Shiro thought he was angry.

But Keith set the bottle down on the end table, Shiro’s eyes tracking his movements uncertainly, and cupped Shiro’s jaw with his scarred hand. And that was not an angry gesture, and Keith’s expression was not an angry expression. What it was, was soft, and open, and inviting.

Keith was not good at being any of those things. But somehow, with Shiro staring at him in a mixture of bewilderment, disbelief, fear, and a painfully bright sliver of what Keith thought was hope, it felt natural.

“Don't go,” Keith whispered, no, pleaded. “You're worth it, too. I don't have any magic to give you, Shiro, but I do have this.”

And he leaned in and kissed Shiro softly, carefully, keeping his eyes shut so he would not have to see the hope revealed as anger and disgust.

But instead he got Shiro kissing him back. And Shiro was a much better kisser than Keith, which was a relief because Keith had no idea what he was doing beyond making Shiro stay.

Shiro’s hand touched Keith’s jaw, and he shivered at the cool brush of claws, and the kiss broke for a moment. Their eyes fluttered open. Shiro’s were glowing. Keith’s were dazed.

And Shiro said, “Keith,” as if Keith were a god, too; as if he had an altar which people prayed and bled upon, as if he were more than an angry little half-breed orphan boy with too many hurts to name. And with Shiro, Keith felt like more.

Keith didn't say anything, couldn't say anything to that; could only press his mouth warmly to Shiro’s again and sigh against Shiro’s lips when Shiro guided them both back against the pillows, sitting on the sofa side by side and kissing, falling into each other as if they had lost all sense of balance. When Keith broke away, breathless, their legs were entangled and their chests were touching and his arms were looped around Shiro’s neck and Shiro’s hands rested on his cheek and waist and Keith didn't know when or how any of that had happened, only that he was quite glad it had.

He leaned his head forward onto Shiro’s shoulder and breathed, lifting one of his hands to his lips and touching them, thinking they felt different somehow. Shiro’s hand stroked over his cheek and through his hair; slowly, tenderly. “You kissed me,” he said.

Keith lifted his head. “I kissed you,” he agreed, and smiled.

“I'm going to kiss you, now,” Shiro told him, and he did, and Keith had never seen anyone with more hope in their eyes than Shiro’s.

Chapter Text

Honestly, Keith had half-expected the heavens to shift and the earth to crumble under his feet after he kissed Shiro. In the very least, Keith expected things to change. But things did not change very much at all, and with some chagrin Keith realized that he and Shiro had been acting an awful lot like a couple for months, now. So when it had finally happened – when Keith had finally pulled Shiro down onto that sofa and kissed him – everything just felt natural already.

Keith was already used to Shiro coming over and chatting over coffee or lunch, he was already used to Shiro’s fond gaze (though, it could be said that his fond gazes had increased in number and duration), and though he doubted he would ever grow used to Shiro’s tender touches, he was comfortable with them. Kissing was a new kind of tender touching, but Keith enjoyed it, far more than he'd expected to.

The first time he and Shiro kissed in front of Keith’s friends was a bit of an accident. They were all at Allura’s having lunch in the parlor since the brothel was rather dead at noon, and Keith and Shay were telling everyone about Keith’s aunt who he was going to meet in a week. Keith was so excited about the prospect of seeing her, and everyone was so excited for him, and Shiro had clasped his hand and said, “I'm so happy for you, Keith,” and without thinking Keith had beamed up at him and pecked his lips as if to share the joy.

The table had fallen silent.

Lance’s hand had been tight around his fork. “When did this happen?” he asked, or rather demanded.

Shiro looked about ready to dissipate into smoke. Keith held his hand firmly in full view of the table and retorted, “Around a week ago. What's it to you?”

Pidge pried the fork out of Lance’s hands. “It's about time,” she said. “Glad you two finally stopped making doe eyes at each other and did somethin’ about it.”

“Hmm,” Thace said, narrowing his eyes at Shiro.

“Hmmm,” Coran echoed.

“Hmmmm,” Hunk and Shay said in unison, brows furrowed.

Allura said nothing at all, just smiled and continued eating her meal.

“Shiro’s one of us at this point and y’all better treat him like it,” Keith said. Shiro glanced at him in surprise and a flicker of complicated gratitude.

“He's a shadow spirit god thing,” Lance countered.

“Then he's our shadow spirit god thing,” Keith snapped. “And I like him. And I'm not drunk this time, so you can be awful sure I mean it.”

“Well,” Allura said, “I, for one, am happy for you both. Cheers.” And she reached across the table and clinked her glass against Keith’s, then Shiro’s. “Although, Keith, it may be wise to refrain from public displays of affection around other folks.”

“Hmph, I know, Allura, I ain't that much of a fool,” Keith muttered.

“Or I could simply shift into a woman,” Shiro mused.

“What?!” Lance spluttered. “You can do that?”

“Why, yes,” Shiro said, in a higher and softer voice, batting his eyelashes at Lance and grinning in a way that was still very distinctly Shiro despite his much altered figure.

“You're breaking Lance’s mind,” Keith told him, rolling his eyes and trying very hard not to stare at Shiro’s curved pink lips, or lower. Lance was making no such attempt.

“It's an option,” Shiro chuckled, and shifted back effortlessly. “Just so you're aware.”

“I like this you just fine,” Keith said, quietly.

Shiro blinked and then smiled, squeezing his hand. Lance huffed and looked away, but he looked less likely to stab Shiro with the nearest utensil.

After lunch, when Shiro was chatting amicably with Thace and Allura, Pidge clasped Keith’s arm briefly and said, “You and the Desert Devil, huh? I'm proud.”

Keith gave her a sideways glance. “Thanks, pigeon.”

“I mean it,” Pidge added. “I gotta say, I feel better knowing that he's plenty capable of defending you. I know you got knives and grit, but…”

“He’s eight feet tall, got claws and sharp teeth, and ancient djinn magic,” Keith chuckled. “Yeah, I get it.”

“Eight feet? More than that,” Pidge said, eying Shiro. “When he first appeared in Thace’s parlor, he had to hunch over – I’d say ten feet in the djinn form, easy.”

“Ten feet?” Keith blinked. “Whoa.”

In his human form now, Shiro was about as tall as Thace, though broader, but was still almost a full head higher than Keith. He didn't know how it was that Shiro’s size didn't intimidate him, until Shiro caught him staring and shot him a soft smile, charmingly crooked and achingly genuine, and Keith smiled helplessly back.

Pidge laughed, her eyes crinkling up at the corners. “Wow, you really are head over heels,” she said.

“Lookit the pot callin’ the kettle black,” Keith said, glancing pointedly at Lance. Pidge’s cheeks colored. “How long’s it been – a year, now?”

“Year and a half,” Pidge mumbled. “Don't you dare ask when we're tying the knot.”

“You said it, not me,” Keith said. “Would they even let Lance into a church?”

Pidge’s lips quirked. “We’d have to sneak in, quietlike. Coran’s ordained, he could do the ceremony, make it official.”

“You've thought about it,” Keith said, a little surprised. He hadn't thought Pidge and Lance were the marrying type, but...Pidge did come from proper city roots, and Lance’s family was strict and traditional Catholic from what Keith had heard of them.

“Talked about it a couple times after a couple, er...scares,” Pidge admitted. “I mean...you and Shiro don't have to worry about babies; we do.”

Keith blinked. “Babies? I – oh.” He swallowed. “Shiro and I don't do. That.”

Pidge said, “Huh? Oh, I didn't expect you did. Anyway, who knows, one of these days we might drag you off to the nearest chapel to be the best man. Strawberry can be the maid of honor.”

Keith snorted at the thought of trying to get Strawberry into a fancy gown and seized the change of subject eagerly. “Not Shay or Allura?”

“Maybe Allura,” Pidge said. “Yeah. Reckon she'd steal the show, though.”

“She would never,” Keith said. “She'd dress in damn rags if you asked her to, Katie.”

Pidge grinned. “You think? Aw. Let's be honest, though, me in a frilly white wedding dress? When pigs fly.”

“Really?” Keith frowned. “I dunno, I can picture it.”

“Maybe yellow,” Pidge said. “I like yellow dresses.”

“Yellow would be pretty,” Keith agreed.

He imagined his friends getting married, and something he could not name twisted in his gut at the thought, longing and visceral. Shiro watched him from across the room, a line between his brows.

*

That night, Keith lay tense and awake with Shiro curled against his back, as close as Keith had ever allowed him, arm heavy and secure over Keith’s waist. He was breathing evenly, and had been still and silent for a while, so Keith thought he might be asleep.

Then Shiro shifted slightly, fingers brushing soft over Keith’s clothed hip, and murmured, “What's wrong?”

Keith’s eyes snapped open. He shook his head. “Nothing,” he mumbled. “Go to sleep.”

Shiro’s nose, cold compared to the rest of him, nudged at the nape of Keith’s neck and Keith flinched hard, remembering the gun. Shiro lifted his head at once, concerned. “Keith.”

Keith gulped, his hands twisting in the sheets. “Fine,” he admitted, “there's somethin’ you ought to know.”

Shiro settled back down and hummed, encouraging. The vibration was a comforting sensation that Keith leaned unconsciously back into.

Keith licked his chapped lips. “I do fancy you, Shiro, but Allura’s girls were half-right...I don't want to do any of the things they wanted to do with you. I – I like you, I do, and it ain't like I'm disgusted by you, and I like kissin’ you well enough, but I've never felt – that way, my body hasn't, I mean, towards anyone.”

“You don't have to explain yourself to me,” Shiro said quietly after a brief pause. “It's alright, Keith.”

“It's – it's alright that I don't want to…?”

“Of course,” Shiro assured. “Did you think I would be angry? That's not what I want from you, Keith; never anything you're unwilling or unable to give. If it doesn't appeal to you, it doesn't appeal to me.”

“Oh,” Keith said, near overwhelmed with relief. “It sounds so simple, when you put it like that.”

“Mm,” Shiro agreed, nuzzling his shoulder. “Thank you for telling me, Keith.”

Keith nodded, and Shiro smiled against his skin, and Keith fell asleep easily after that.

*

Keith sat anxiously in Shay’s medicine pueblo, wringing his hands in his lap. He'd been sitting on the floor for what felt like a small eternity, and he was convinced that his aunt was never going to show. According to Shay, he needed to be more patient.

But Keith couldn't be patient here, in the middle of the Hopi village of Walpi atop the First Mesa, many miles from town and surrounded by high desert and strange territory and people. He was all too aware of sticking out like a sore thumb, skin blindingly white compared to everyone around him including Shay; his hair too short and scruffy to to be braided or tied up in any even vaguely similar style; his clothes dusty and worn and lacking all the Sun clan’s colors, styles, and patterns. Still, Shay’s clan had always been hospitable to him, even if they weren't the tribe of his mother. Keith doubted his mother’s tribe would ever welcome him back.

“There she is,” Shay said with a note of relief in her voice.

Keith leapt to his feet, eager and unsure all at once. There was a figure approaching on horseback, riding through the Sun clan’s cluster of pueblos carefully and approaching Shay’s dwelling. Keith was too afraid to leave the safety of the adobe walls, and darted back inside the pueblo, heart in his throat. Shay patted him on the back as she passed and went out to welcome their visitor.

There were muffled sounds of conversation, and then the door flap parted and Shay walked in with Asdzá̜á̜ Tsédídééh.

“We welcome you, Asdzá̜á̜ Tsédídééh,” Shay said.

“Ahéhee', Shay,” she said. Her gaze fell upon Keith. “Hello, Keith. Please, call me Acxa.”

Keith stared at her. She was not what he'd expected; tall, with shining black hair that barely fell past her shoulders, shorter than any Indian woman’s hair he'd ever seen. She...he froze. He'd met her before. Months ago, in the private room of Allura’s brothel, there had been a woman writing. Her face had been paler – powder, Keith thought distantly, it must have been, because her skin was only a shade or two lighter than Shay’s, certainly not white. But it was the same woman, and her violet eyes widened as she came to the same shocked realization.

The last time Keith had seen her, she had been white; but the last time she had seen Keith, he had been a murderous whore.

Keith took a step in front of Shay and grabbed for his knife. “Keith!” Shay exclaimed in dismay. “There will be no violence here!”

“You don’t understand, she’s not – she was with Lotor, she’s one of them, she lied,” Keith snapped, his voice shaking. She’d lied, of course she had, because Keith had no family, and if he did, they didn’t want to meet him.

But the woman named Acxa shook her head, holding up her hands in placation. “No! I’m not one of them. They paid me for my tracking skills and knowledge of the Diné several times, but we have long since gone our separate ways.”

“You worked for them,” Keith bit out.

“So did you,” she retorted. Keith flinched and Shay laid a protective hand on his shoulder.

“Keith had no choice in that,” Shay said firmly. “He was sent to work for the Galra as a child from Saint Joseph’s Indian Boarding School. We do not speak of those times, Asdzá̜á̜ Tsédídééh.”

She looked stricken. “The boarding school?” she whispered, eyes widening in slow, dawning horror. “That was where they took you?”

Keith’s hand slipped away from his knife and he folded his arms. “Yes,” he said warily. “You didn’t know?”

“Know?” she repeated in disbelief. “Of course not! They took you from us in the night; we thought they had killed you!”

Keith swallowed. Could it be? Had Shiro been right – had Keith been wanted after all? “Who is ‘they?’” Keith demanded.

“The same men who killed your father,” Acxa said. “White army men. I do not know their names, nor their faces; only their guns.”

Keith’s brow creased in confusion. “White army men killed my father? But. My father was…”

“A white army man,” she finished. “Yes. He was.”

Keith looked away. “And...and he hurt my mother. And then I was born.”

Acxa’s lips parted. “Oh,” she murmured, “oh, no. Is this what they told you, the priests and nuns in that awful place?” Keith looked up. “Your father loved your mother very much,” she told him. “And she loved him more than anything, except you.”

Keith felt like the earth did crumble under him, then. “What?” he said, his voice sounding warped and distant.

“Your father did not hurt your mother. Though many of our women have been hurt by white men – she was not one of them, Keith. She would want you to know this. I am sorry you did not, before.”

Keith opened his mouth, closed it. “My parents were in love,” he whispered.

“Yes,” Acxa said. She sighed. “But your father was killed before you were born. He had deserted the army to stay with your mother and you, you see. And the other army men were angry. So your father went out to tend to the sheep one morning, and he never came back. The white army men slaughtered our sheep and your father. It is not in our People’s customs to grieve openly or to linger among the dead, but your mother, very pregnant with you, left our hogan the night after his burial and prayed on the mountaintop for hours. She returned home very ill, hardly able to walk, and gave birth to you that morning. I had never seen her weep before, but she wept then, holding you in her arms. She named you Keith, a name your father had once suggested, and she also named you Hashké Tsela, meaning Warrior of Stars Lying Down. I called you Tsela, but she always called you Keith.”

“Hashké Tsela,” Keith repeated. “Warrior of Stars...Lying Down?”

“Your mother watched the stars that night as she prayed for you and grieved for your father,” she explained. “Stargazing, I think is the closest translation. Stargazing, and daybreak, for you were born early as the sun rose.”

“She prayed for me?” Keith whispered. Acxa nodded. Keith swallowed and closed his eyes for a moment, struggling to ground himself. “What were their names?” Keith finally asked. “My parents.”

“Your father’s name was Alexander,” Acxa said. “Your mother called him Kai, which means Willow, for she met him under a willow tree and they spent many days under the willows beside the river.” She smiled, every line of her face etched with a kind of nostalgic sorrow. “I believe that is why she named you Keith, too. It is not so far off from Kai.” Acxa sighed. “And your mother, her name was Łí̜í̜' Niyiishó̜o̜hii. It means Breaker of Horses. She was very good at that. Your father often called her Lia.”

Keith repeated their names as if it would somehow bring them back to him. “My mother tamed horses?” he asked, awed at the thought.

Acxa nodded. “No one in our clan, the Tódích’íi’nii, or Bitter Water Clan, could rival her skill with horses. That was how she met your father, in fact – his horse ran away, and your mother found it, and your father found your mother.”

“And he was...kind to her?” Keith pressed, utterly disbelieving.

“Oh, yes, quite kind,” Acxa said, chuckling a little. “Your mother held him at knifepoint and marched him back to our village, tied up on his own horse. She was bold, though not foolish – she expected far worse from him. He was the foolish one, falling for her.” She smiled ruefully. “Your father did not want to go back to his people. They had recently massacred another Tódích’íi’nii village to the north, and he wanted no part in it. We were, of course, skeptical. But your father proved himself a kind man. There was peace in his heart – he was better suited to shepherding than fighting. When we found him, dead, he had a new lamb in his arms, shielded by his corpse. It was alive and unhurt, bleating loudly under him. That was the kind of person your father was.”

Keith took a long moment to process this. “Do you know much else about my...my father?”

She considered it. “He was Scottish, I think; thus, your Scottish name. I know his family had a difficult time finding work in the city – I do not know which city. But I do know they lived in Texas. Your father had to find work with the Army to support his family...but his heart was never in it. Some of those army men embrace the cruelty. But he was deeply damaged by it, your father. He had seen terrible things, as we had. And we found much common ground in that.”

“Were he and my mother ever married?” Keith ventured to ask.

“Not exactly,” Acxa admitted. “Well, they were married by a priest, in the Christian way. But not by our clan. The marriage requires the participation of the groom’s family, and your father wished to wait to make it official.” She bit her lip. “He thought he had time. All of us...we have learned that time is fleeting and precious. But he was hopeful. Too hopeful. And your mother was drawn to that hope, I think; that naivety of his. She and I lost all innocence long ago. This world demanded it of us.”

“Is...is my mother…?”

Acxa shook her head, eyes downcast. “I’m sorry, Keith. I cut my hair in mourning for her long ago. I will never grow it long again, for she was my sister, and the last of our direct family – your grandparents died on the Long Walk many years ago, and our clan seems to grow smaller and smaller by the day.”

“How did she die?” Keith asked.

Acxa looked away. “You were taken from us three years after your birth. We were out riding along the river near dusk, and you were in the cradle basket on your mother’s back, and a company of soldiers happened upon us. Normally, your mother would have stayed to fight them, but she feared for your safety and tried to ride away. I followed; she was my elder sister and I always followed her lead. But…”

Acxa closed her eyes briefly, pained, and Shay covered her mouth with a hand, brows drawing together. “But the soldiers shot her horse, her beautiful horse she had broken so well, and the horse fell hard, and so did your mother, and so did you. You were crying, and if you had not cried, the soldiers might have shot your mother in the back and killed you accidentally. Instead...instead, they took you from us. Your mother stabbed two of the men as they cut your basket from her back, and they shot her for it. I was shot in the side for trying to intercede. We could do nothing, Keith; nothing as we watched those men ride away with you, crying. I held your mother as she bled out in the sand. She asked the Creator to keep you safe, and died.”

Keith’s throat was tight. “So I am an orphan,” he mumbled.

Acxa shook her head. “That does not matter; we are family, you and I.” Her face broke into a smile, one of relief. “And your mother’s prayer was heard – you are not dead, as we feared. Our Creator kept you safe.”

Keith would not tell her, even as he saw Shay’s uncertain gaze – he had not been safe at the boarding school, where he had been subjected to starvation and punishment and long hours of labor and had witnessed so many terrible things before even turning thirteen. And he had certainly never been safe among the Galra, with their leers and cattle prods and guns and criminal codes of honor and penchant for boys whose voices had not yet broken.

But Keith could not tell his aunt this. He could only say, “Yeah, seems that way.”

Acxa smiled wider. “Oh, Keith. I cannot believe I did not recognize you when I first saw you – you look very much like your mother.”

Keith blinked. “I. I do?”

“Yes,” she said. “I see her face in yours – you have more your father’s nose and pale skin, but her lips, her eyes, her brow, her high cheeks and sharp chin. And her hair, too – your father’s hair was sand-brown. Your hair is longer than I imagined it would be, and darker.” She sounded pleased.

Keith touched his hair self-consciously. It was now just long enough to tie up messily. “They cut it at St. Joseph’s, and so did the Galra,” he told her. “I don’t like cutting my hair much, now.”

Acxa’s smile faded into a worried frown. “Did...did they treat you well, at the school, and with the Galra?”

“What do you think?” Keith retorted tiredly.

Acxa peered at him. “They hurt you?”

“The Galra didn’t hurt you?”

“No,” Acxa said after an uncomfortable pause. “I...I was angry, after your mother died and you were taken. Our clan is one of the more warlike ones, and so I led many attacks on enemy settlements, camps, even army companies…and that was how the Galra found me. They admired my tactical skill.”

“They admired your strength and bloodlust,” Keith corrected. “That is all the Galra value.”

“It is more complicated than that,” Acxa started.

“Don’t you dare defend them,” Keith warned. “They don’t deserve that.”

Her eyes widened. “They did hurt you. Keith, what –”

“No,” Keith said. “You may be my mother’s sister, but you got no claim to know what I endured all those years. Did you never even search for me? I thought I was a halfbreed born of rape with no living kin who wanted me! And you were with the enemy all along.”

“And I am sorry for that,” Acxa said. “I did search, the whole clan did, but you were out of our reach, you were gone.” She swallowed hard. “We held a funeral for you.”

“I ain’t dead,” Keith snapped. “No thanks to you.”

“Keith,” Acxa said, shaking her head, “I do not know what you wish me to say. There was not a day that passed where I did not miss you and your mother, and I prayed every night, even when I felt sure the Creator had deserted us. But you are here, now, alive and whole, and even if you are upset with me for not finding you sooner...I am glad to see you.”

Keith regarded her warily, but slowly relaxed his defensive stance and said, “How did you find me, anyway?”

Acxa frowned. “Yes. Well, that is…the Galra wanted me to find you. But as soon as they described you to me, I knew I could not take that mission, and feigned business elsewhere before cutting ties soon after Prince Lotor’s death. Or rather, assassination.” She raised an eyebrow at Keith. “It’s no small wonder I did not recognize you...that was quite the disguise.”

“I won’t apologize,” Keith said.

“I did not expect you to,” Acxa said. “Lotor had many enemies, it was only a matter of time. But you only cut off one head, Keith. And there is a powerful storm brewing among the Galra – I knew you would be in great danger from them. So I sought after you, and here we are.”

“I already know the Galra want me dead,” Keith said. “Zarkon sent Sendak and his men after me several months ago.”

“And you survived?!” Acxa exclaimed.

“Keith has...a powerful friend,” Shay murmured.

“Sendak and his men are dead,” Keith added.

Acxa gaped. “A powerful friend indeed!” Then she paused. “Wait. Was this the same friend who took you away from Lotor that night? The tall man with the white streak of hair and scarred nose?”

“Yes,” Keith said, surprised she had seen him when most everyone in the Jungle Room had seemed completely oblivious to his appearance. “His name is Shiro.”

Acxa hesitated. “He was a Galra prisoner.”

Keith froze. “You saw him then?”

Acxa nodded slowly. “Only glimpses; most were not permitted in Honerva’s laboratory. But that was where they kept him. He...he was in terrible pain, I think. They must have tortured him. I heard him more than I saw him. They cut off his arm, and...kept it in a strange glass case filled with fluid. Soon after that, he escaped. I don’t know how, but all the guards on patrol were killed that night.”

“They tortured him?” Keith whispered. He thought of Shiro’s scars, and he thought of finding Shiro that first night, barely conscious and dying. And suddenly Shiro’s gratitude made a lot more sense. “How long?” he asked.

“Six months, at least,” Acxa said. “Perhaps as long as a year. He was...in bad shape, when I first saw him.”

“How could you work for the Galra, knowing what they did?”

“The Galra may be bad men, but they are not the only ones,” Acxa said. “And out of all the bad men, they offered me the most, and took the least. They needed my skills. But I swear, I will never contact them again, Keith. Not if they aim to hurt you.”

“They do,” Keith said. “They aim to kill me.”

“Honerva is beset with a mother’s enraged grief and a certain eccentricity turned insanity,” Acxa agreed. “She seeks vengeance for what you did. But I will not stand for losing you so soon after finding you after seventeen years.”

“And I won’t stand for dying,” Keith said, “so we’re in agreement.”

“We are.” Acxa hesitated, and then took a piece of parchment from her pocket, handing it quickly over to him. “If ever you wish to see me again – and I hope with all my heart that you do – you may find me here.” Keith looked at the parchment – there was a map in ink on it, and he recognized the canyons and the mesas and the river at once. Acxa had marked a small ‘x’ about ten miles downriver, in a small box canyon. “I will be here nearly every night, and I welcome your company, and if there is anything more you wish to know...I would be happy to share my knowledge with you.”

Keith tucked the parchment carefully in his jacket, touched and surprised by the invitation. It was more than he had ever expected. “Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate that...amáyázhí.”

She smiled, relief clear on her face. “Of course, Tsela,” she murmured, and when she offered him an embrace, he accepted it.

*

Keith returned home conflicted. When he saw Shiro feeding Strawberry some sugar cubes in her stall, he stopped. Shiro turned. “Hello,” he said, his bright smile falling when he saw Keith’s expression. “Keith? What's wrong? Did the meeting go well?”

Keith approached him slowly. “When you were still healing, when we first met...you told me I was born out of violence and abandoned at birth.”

Shiro bit his lip. “I was quite an ass, I realize now.”

“You were also wrong,” Keith said. “Aunt Acxa said my parents loved each other. And I was taken. When I was three. My mother died protecting me.”

Shiro’s face crumpled. “Oh,” he whispered. “Oh, Keith.”

“So why did you lie?” Keith pressed. “Why did you tell me my father raped my mother?”

Shiro sighed. “I cannot see the truth of things, not in the way you're thinking. I could only sense what you felt, what you believed – and that was that you were unwanted. I never meant to reinforce a falsehood. I never should have said it in the first place.”

“So it is false?” Keith whispered. “Oh, thank the Lord.” Then his face crumpled, and when Shiro gently pulled him into an embrace, he returned it gratefully. “They loved me,” he mumbled.

“Of course they did,” Shiro murmured back, and Keith didn't know what to make of that.

*

At Keith’s not-so-subtle hinting, Shiro had begun to bring Keith back to his cave in his pocket dimension; more specifically he brought him back to the nest of pillows and blankets. Keith liked that nest, and he liked it even more with Shiro snuggled up next to him.

The nest was Shiro’s version of a bed, and though the ifrit had explained he didn’t exactly need sleep as humans did, he still needed occasional rest. Keith had never taken many naps in the past; he’d always been too wary of closing his eyes for too long during the day, but it was much easier to let his guard down and sleep in cozy intervals in the late afternoon when Shiro was there.

However, Keith had noticed that Shiro seemed more...possessive, almost, when Keith was in his nest. Keith never felt threatened by it, just intrigued – at Keith’s house, Shiro was more timid and careful in any advances; but here he held himself back less, and often kissed Keith breathless, sometimes with even a slight sting of teeth if Keith responded enthusiastically enough. And when they snuggled up to each other, Shiro preferred to enfold Keith in his arms while in his larger ifrit form, emanating heat like a living furnace and nuzzling into Keith’s hair as he drifted off against Shiro’s broad chest.

It was during one of these times that Shiro had a nightmare.

Keith was awakened by a sharp jab of claws against his hip, and blinked his eyes open in confusion, only to see Shiro still asleep, breathing hard and grimacing, his hand flexing on Keith’s waist. He was twitching as if being shocked again and again, his ears flattened against his skull and small, pained noises whining deep in his throat. Then Shiro groaned loud and pained and gasped out a wordless plea. Concerned, Keith reached out to shake him awake, but the ifrit awoke with a loud snarl at his touch, rolling Keith over onto his back in an instant and pinning him, looming huge and dark over him, eyes blazing furious gold and teeth bared.

Keith stared up at him, claws biting into his wrists, shocked and terrified. “Shiro!” he managed, “Shiro, it’s me, it’s just me, it’s Keith –”

The light in his eyes dimmed and he released Keith’s wrists at once, flinching back. There was a dazed, frightened look in his eyes, and when Keith sat up and tried to touch him, he curled away. “I’m sorry,” he said, barely a whisper. “I’m so sorry. I...I’ll take you home, you –”

“Hey, wait, no,” Keith said, brows drawing together. “Shiro, what...are you alright?”

Shiro glanced at him, shoulders hunched. “No,” he admitted, lowering his head.

“Shiro,” Keith murmured, crawling back over to him through the pillows and carefully laying a hand on his arm, the silvery one he had lost. Shiro jolted but did not pull away. “I ain’t going nowhere, unless you want me to.”

“I don’t want you to leave,” Shiro mumbled. “Please don’t leave.”

“I won’t, I won’t,” Keith promised, leaning fully against his side. “Do...do you want to talk about it?”

Shiro swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Keith said easily. “Does it help if I touch you?”

Shiro nodded, and balked when Keith shuffled into his lap, hugging Shiro as best he could in this form, arms tight around his middle. Shiro made a soft sound and a heavy hand settled on Keith’s back, keeping him close. Keith hummed, reassuring, and Shiro bowed his head to rest atop Keith’s.

Shiro’s breathing evened out slowly, though Keith could still feel his heart pounding in a frantic rhythm. “It’s okay,” Keith kept saying. “You're okay.”

“Thank you,” Shiro whispered. “For staying.”

“You stayed with me,” Keith whispered back. “And I don't like seein’ you hurtin’.”

Shiro closed his eyes. “Don't worry about me,” he said weakly.

“I’ll worry ‘bout you as much as I like,” Keith retorted. “Hush.”

Shiro fell silent, and then shifted, shrinking in Keith’s grasp until he was in human form, slumped against Keith, letting his head fall forward onto Keith’s shoulder. Keith rubbed his bare back and thought that Shiro seemed much more fragile like this. His right arm hung limply at his side, and when Keith kissed his cheek gently, the silvery replacement fizzled away altogether, leaving only the stump behind. Shiro flinched when Keith touched the scars there and Keith looked at him, questioning.

“Does it hurt?” he murmured.

Shiro shook his head. “Not exactly. It's...a phantom pain. I keep remembering when they took it from me. That...that hurt a great deal.”

Keith said nothing, just let Shiro talk, because he knew that sometimes it was better to ramble and let out all the thoughts scraping against one’s skull. He cradled the back of Shiro’s head, smoothing his fingers through the hair shorn short at the nape of his neck.

Shiro sighed, and continued, “They kept me in a cage. Not even a cell – a cage, like an animal. And it was so cold, all the time; I couldn't even use my fire. They had me chained, immobile, in enchanted bonds so that I was cut off from my magic.” Shiro shuddered. “It was a terrible feeling, Keith. As if someone reached inside you and tore out your innards – hollowed you out. It felt like an open wound, a constant vulnerability. And I felt always on the verge of losing control.”

“How so?” Keith murmured.

“They wanted me to become a monster, their monster,” Shiro said. “That was why they poked and prodded me as they did, and slashed my skin with knives and whips and hot irons, and tied me with ropes and chains and gags, and subjected me to every humiliation they could think of. And if they had succeeded in that, if they had forced me to give in to sheer survival instinct and primordial rage, I would have been handing my power to them on a silver platter. Monsters are much easier to control than beings of heart and reason. Monsters make mistakes when they are angry and desperate.”

“Speaking from experience?”

Shiro winced. “Do you think I am monstrous?” he said in a small voice.

Keith raised his head and tilted Shiro’s face towards his own. “No,” he assured him. “But I know what it is to be trapped by monsters and feel like there is no other choice but to do something monstrous to them.”

Shiro searched his gaze. “You killed that man. And then Lotor. Is that what you mean?”

Keith nodded. “Killing Lotor...that was more revenge, from anger built up over the years. But killing that man…” He swallowed. “I was frightened, first, and then ashamed...but then I was angry. Numb, and angry. And when he at last stepped away from me, leaving me in the dirt, and I thought of him going back to his bunk and laughing with his friends and sleeping guiltlessly, I was blinded by my anger.” Shiro’s thumb stroked soothingly against his clothed hip, and Keith was glad for the small touch, the little reassurance.

Keith exhaled. “I slit his throat with his belt buckle where he'd left it beside me. Slowly. And I made sure he saw it was me; me killing him for what he'd done to me. And he fought back, and struck me and scratched me and cussed but I didn't care. And I didn't stop. Not until his throat was ripped open by the rusted metal edge and he was dead. I don't know how I did it. He certainly didn’t expect me to be able to even stand, after – I was a scrawny fourteen year old.” Shiro’s arm tightened around his waist. “Allura said I was in shock, that it was, uh...adrenaline, and that's how I managed to kill him even though I was shaking and bleeding and...and hollow inside. Like you said. It was like that. But in that moment, all I could think of was killing him. And I did.”

“That wasn't monstrous,” Shiro said after a beat. “He deserved it.”

“Murder is monstrous,” Keith said. “So is rape.”

“You're not a monster for killing him,” Shiro said firmly.

“And you're not a monster for killing all those guards when you escaped,” Keith said. Shiro’s eyes widened. “Acxa told me. She saw you, briefly, in Honerva’s lab. She didn't tell me details. Did you really kill them?”

“Yes,” Shiro admitted. “Every last one of them.”

“Why?” Keith asked, not pleading, not pressing, just curious.

“They were in my way,” Shiro replied, his knuckles flexing.

Keith shivered, though not in a bad way. “How did you escape?”

“There was a man,” Shiro murmured. “You know him – Thace’s friend, Ulaz. He was at that disastrous party.” His lips twitched up at the memory, and then sobered again. “He didn’t know what I am. He just knew I was captive, and had been for a year –”

Keith sucked in a sharp breath. “They kept you for a year?!”

“Mm,” Shiro said, and left it at that. “He stole keys, made a copy, I don’t know; but he unlocked my cage and my bonds. He would have ushered me out himself, I think, and tried for a stealthier approach; but I was tired of waiting for my freedom. So I erased his memory, sent him back to safety, and burned my way out. Killing all the guards was a bit petty, but then again, cutting off my arm was quite petty, too.”

“So...so Ulaz doesn’t remember you?” Keith whispered. “At all?”

“Oh, he might remember fragments of me before the escape,” Shiro sighed. “I wasn’t very thorough in my haste to leave that infernal place.”

“Shiro,” Keith said, “please promise me something.”

Shiro peered at him with concern, brushing Keith’s hair out of his face. “Anything.”

“Don't ever take my memories away,” Keith said. “That's a terrible power to have, Shiro. Messin’ with folks’ heads like that...it scares me.”

“I won't,” Shiro promised. “Not with your head, or your friends’ heads.”

“Why did you erase Old Man Slav’s memory way back when?” Keith asked quietly. “He wasn't doing any harm.”

Shiro’s gaze slid away guiltily. “My kind are often more cruel than kind, Keith. Especially when it comes to dealing with humans – we find humans far too easy to toy with, for it is far too easy to believe that immortality equates to superiority. A false notion; we are all still fools in our own ways after all this time. Anyway, that is why I was...brusque, at first. No, that's too forgiving of a word. Arrogant and rude might be more apt.”

“Toy with,” Keith repeated. “Is that what you were doing; appearing in my house and Slav’s library and the cave and all that?”

Shiro hunched his shoulders. “...I did not wish to never see you again.”

“And why not?” Keith pressed, slightly teasing, for he knew Shiro was still vulnerable and needed comfort, not criticism. “Why couldn't you resist me?”

Shiro caught his joking tone and smiled. “You saved my life – the life of a strange and potentially dangerous man in the middle of nowhere – so I knew you had guts and a good heart, even if you hid that heart as best you could.”

“You sound like one of Lance’s damn romance novels,” Keith grumbled, his face hot.

Shiro cupped his warm cheek and brushed his lips against the pink skin. “But you weren't always good at hiding it. You always let your heart show with Strawberry, for example. I've never seen any human who so clearly loved a creature that much, and the creature loved them back. How did that come to be?”

“I told you I cut her free of barbed wire,” Keith mumbled. “She was a yearling mustang, terrified of me. I was sixteen and bitterly alone. But...I dunno. There's somethin’ about seeing an animal, or a person, whatever, completely at your mercy like that. I think either you feel driven to hurt them, or save them. And I knew I needed to save Strawberry.” He leaned into Shiro’s touch. “Her herd was long gone; she didn't have a mama no more, so she kinda let me step in. And boy, did I baby that horse. Lance never let me hear the end of it. But…” Keith swallowed. “It was good for me, I think, to care for another living thing like that. Helped me start caring more for myself. Healing, and all. Strawberry helped with that. She still does.”

“Easier to hug a horse than seek human touch?” Shiro guessed.

Keith nodded. “Horses don't have ulterior motives.”

“Hmm,” Shiro said. “I suppose we both lied about that, by the way.”

Keith chuckled. “Oops.”

“But, truly, if you still want to know why I couldn't – and still cannot – resist you, it was because you are...you have thick skin, Keith, but it is made of scar tissue. It wasn’t always that way. And I kept catching you in moments of vulnerability, where I got a glimpse at what lay beneath – in the Jungle Room, and when you were stabbed, and when you thought Strawberry had been shot, and when you dreamed. And I am hurt by your pain in a way I've rarely experienced. Empathy; it is a rather foreign idea to many of my kind. But despite my apparent nature, I have never wished to harm you, only help; help you to feel joy and peace and healing.”

“Shiro,” Keith whispered, stroking his jaw. “I want you to feel that, too. How long has it been since you've felt those things?” Shiro’s gaze lowered; Keith tilted his chin back up. “Hey. Just because you think your golden era is long-gone, doesn't mean you don't deserve to be happy now. I have friends and a horse and now an aunt; you have your memories and your scars and your caves. I don't care what Allura said; you can't stay in this world if there's no happiness here for you.”

Shiro smiled wryly, his eyes sad. “Why do you think I bring you here?” he murmured.

“Surely I can't be all you got,” Keith said uncertainly. “What about Allura? Or…or any of the others?”

Shiro shook his head. “Allura was part of the human world first, not mine. And all the others who I called friends have either been destroyed or turned enemies.”

“So, so what, you plan to continue living like this, alone and scarred, for the rest of eternity?” Keith scowled. “No. I won't allow it.”

Shiro laughed softly, and tugged them back down into the pillows, finally relaxing again. “You? You, personally, won't allow it?”

“I'll call the damn Grim Reaper myself if I got to,” Keith promised. “Tell him if you don't allow yourself some light and goodness soon, he’s gotta come collectin’ what you owe.”

“I’d like to see that.” Shiro grinned. “And anyway, I'm allowing myself you, so I think I'm alright.”

Keith turned bright red this time. “I ain't light and goodness, stupid.”

“You sure feel like it,” Shiro said, kissing him sweetly. “The brightest goodness I've ever felt is with you.”

Keith squawked and whacked him with a pillow. “You can't just say things like that!” he exclaimed.

“No?” Shiro smirked. “But it's true. You're blindingly lovely.”

“I will use this,” Keith warned, holding up a much bigger pillow, and dissolved into helpless laughter when Shiro gasped in mock-distress and tackled him into the pillows to tickle him relentlessly, shifting back into half-ifrit form and regaining his right arm as he did so, presumably for maximum tickle power.

By the time the tickle fight had ended, they were both sleepy again, but when Shiro moved to take Keith into his arms as usual, Keith shook his head. Shiro blinked in confusion.

“Let me,” Keith mumbled, and curled up against the line of Shiro’s back, holding him securely. Shiro was still for a few moments, perhaps stunned, then hummed and relaxed back into it, his tail flicking over Keith’s hip briefly as he drifted off.

Keith had never prayed to the Creator before, but holding Shiro in his arms and feeling him breathe slow and steady, and seeing the scars marring his body like a slashed canvas, he felt he had to tell someone to keep Shiro safe.

And then, because his mother’s prayer of safety had not been enough, because Keith had been safe from bandits in the boarding school but never safe from his own teachers, because Keith had been safe from the law with the Galra but never safe from the Galra themselves; Keith also prayed for happiness, and as Shiro had said, peace. Keith prayed that Shiro might know peace; not the angry, empty, bitter loneliness that took away his softness.

I know this world kills every scrap of soft that it finds, but please, please don't let it kill his.

*

The next evening, Keith rode to Acxa’s place down by the river. Strawberry was not so sure how she felt about the running water, so it took awhile to find a stretch to cross, but other than that the ride was pleasant and uneventful.

Acxa was out front of the small hogan, painting. Keith pulled Strawberry up along the bank, watching her paint for some time – she was rendering the setting sun in brilliant oranges and pinks, contrasted by the cool bluish tinge of the water and the pale green of the cottonwoods. It was very beautiful.

“You’re skilled with that brush,” Keith said, and Acxa jumped so badly she nearly knocked over the pallette.

“Keith!” she exclaimed. “You snuck up on me, and on a horse no less…” Her voice trailed off, and she paled as if seeing a ghost.

Keith frowned. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Everythin’ alright?”

“Oh,” she said. “You looked very like your mother, just then. Sitting so proud atop a horse, the river at your back…” Acxa shook her head. “Forgive me. Just a passing memory.” She offered him a small smile. “It’s good to see you. And your horse – what’s its name?”

“Her name is Strawberry,” Keith said, the mare’s ears pricking up.

Acxa put her hands on her hips. “Huh. She sure knows her name. It’s fitting – she’s red as the canyon rocks. How’d you come about her?”

“Found her trapped in barbed wire as a mustang yearling three years back,” Keith said, stroking Strawberry’s neck. “Raised her since then.”

“A mustang?” Acxa whistled. “You do have your mother’s horse sense. She’d be proud.”

Keith dismounted and tied Strawberry near the river so she could drink and graze among the reeds. She nibbled his hair affectionately before lowering her head to the water. “Yeah? You mentioned my Mama had a horse, right?” The one that was killed with her, he didn’t say.

Acxa nodded. “Pretty gray mare, dappled and blue-eyed. Named Doli, which means bluebird. But she was a nasty little thing to anyone except Łí̜í̜' Niyiishó̜o̜hii. Mustang blood in her, too. Your mother adored her.”

“Sounds like Strawberry,” Keith said. “Although it took her awhile to warm up to me, too.”

Acxa laughed, and returned to her canvas. “Then she’s smart. Trust takes time.” She glanced over her shoulder at Keith. “Any particular reason for the visit, or did you just want to say hello?”

Keith bit his lip. “I did want to say hello, but...well, it’s about my friend. The powerful one. Shiro. He’s having nightmares about...what happened with the Galra.”

“Bad dreams, huh?” Acxa raised an eyebrow. “Are you hoping I have some Indian magic to fix it all up? I’m no shaman, Keith.”

“No, I…” He sighed. “I know you ain’t a shaman. But I was hoping you’d maybe know of something, anything, to help. I didn’t know who else to go to – few people know about what happened to Shiro, and I wanna keep it as hush-hush as possible, for his sake.”

She looked at him more closely. “You care a lot about this Shiro?” Keith nodded warily. “Hmm,” she said. “Well, I don’t claim to know any magical remedies, but I do know something that might help. And if it doesn’t help...your friend will appreciate the effort anyway.”

“Alright,” Keith said, folding his arms. “Let’s hear it.”

*

It had taken weeks.

Weeks of weaving and tanning hide and finding the perfect willow frame and then finding the perfect feathers and polishing the turquoise and quartz beads – and then, because Keith wanted it to be perfect, because he wanted so badly for this to help Shiro the way Shiro’s bottle for bad dreams had helped him, he had begged Acxa to teach him how to carve stone fetishes to hang with the feathers. That had been the most difficult and time-consuming part, especially when Acxa explained that the stone chose its shape, not the carver.

He had ended up with two carvings, a sort of prowling cat in black stone and a horse in pale quartz. Both were roughly-hewn and rather abstract, but Keith had done his best, and he felt a certain sense of pride when he dotted the eyes with turquoise paint and speckled the cat’s body with shiny white spots, being sure to streak its head with white, too.

The feathers were the final touch, and he had ridden miles before he found the right ones – a barn owl’s primary, creamy white and russet and silky-smooth to the touch; several thin red feathers from a desert cardinal; and the long, elegant tail feathers of a raven, shining blue-black in the sun.

Keith had spent so many evenings on the gift that he’d been spending less time with Shiro at night as a result. The ifrit was good at hiding his feelings, but Keith swore he was a little less lively when Keith saw him, and so when they did spend time together, Keith tried to make the most of it.

He’d tried his best to kiss away the weary set to Shiro’s brow, and as a result, things had been...escalating. They often kissed on Keith’s sofa where it had first happened, and more than once Keith found himself practically in Shiro’s lap, the ifrit’s breathing uneven and his face flushed when Keith pulled away – always, always pulled away, and a part of him hated that he couldn’t do more, hated that he wasn’t affected by it the way Shiro so clearly was.

Not that Shiro ever complained, or gave Keith any grief about it – he was forever accommodating and aware of boundaries, but Keith still felt awful bad about it. And it wasn’t that he didn’t find Shiro attractive, and it wasn’t that he didn’t sometimes get a strange, tingly feeling when Shiro’s lips got red and swollen from their teeth and tongues and...well. Keith was a bit bewildered by it all; he certainly didn’t like to dwell on that tingly feeling or what it might mean. He certainly didn’t tell Shiro about it, and Shiro never seemed to notice anyway.

Shiro accepted him the way he was, he’d said as much plenty of times, and Keith tried to be assured by that. Still, it was perhaps partly out of his guilt for having to stop their kissing so often that he poured so much time and energy into Shiro’s gift. Keith couldn’t give him everything expected from a lover, but he could give him this.

Keith met Shiro at the door for the first night in those three long weeks, and Shiro blinked, as if unsure whether Keith was real or some apparition. “I told you I’d be here,” Keith said, drawing on his hand and leading him inside. “Sit down, I got somethin’ for you.”

Shiro sat obediently on the sofa, head tilted curiously. “For me? My interest is piqued.”

Keith rolled his eyes, and tried to disguise the shaking of his hands by rifling hastily through the nightstand drawer where he’d hidden Shiro’s gift. He lifted the cloth-wrapped parcel carefully, carrying it over to the sofa like a precious offering, and held it out to Shiro. “Yes. For you.”

Eyebrows raised, Shiro took it, his eyebrows rising higher when he felt the strange shape of it through the cloth. Keith held his breath as Shiro unwrapped it, and when the cloth fell away, Shiro fell silent.

Keith squirmed with uncertainty as he stared. “Um,” Keith said, “I know it’s not, uh, the most useful or pretty thing, but I thought maybe, maybe it’d help with – mmph!”

Shiro pulled him in for a kiss, Keith’s eyes wide when their lips connected. He half-fell onto the sofa next to Shiro, who immediately gathered him up into a hug. “I love it, Keith,” Shiro murmured against his ear, voice so warm that Keith’s blood turned molten at the sound. “It’s beautiful.” He pulled away and held the dreamcatcher in his hands, eyes tracing over it slowly.

“Oh,” Keith stammered, scratching the back of his neck, “you, uh, you really think so?”

“Yes,” Shiro said firmly. “You made all this?”

Keith nodded shakily. “Aunt Acxa taught me how, but yeah, I made it. It’s why I’ve been gone at night. Sorry ‘bout that, by the way…”

Shiro shook his head. “It’s quite alright, Keith. More than alright.”

Keith bit his lip. “I’m glad you like it. Er...Aunt Acxa told me even if it don’t take away all the bad dreams, if the maker of a dreamcatcher makes it with enough passion, then it’s like they’re puttin’ a piece of their soul into it. So. This way, I can be with you when you have nightmares even if I’m not really there, see?”

“I do see,” Shiro murmured, running his fingertips over the feathers and the carvings. “I think your Aunt Acxa was right. There’s a power in this gift; your power. As warm and glowing as you.”

Keith shuffled closer, peering at the dreamcatcher. “You can really feel that?”

“I must be able to sense souls in order to find them,” Shiro pointed out. “So yes. I feel it. And I will treasure this, and keep it safe for you, Keith.”

“Aw, well,” Keith said, waving a hand, “it’s yours now, ain’t like I want it back.”

Shiro studied his face, gaze steady. “You may, someday. But in the meantime...I accept it with the utmost gratitude.”

“I got another gift for you,” Keith said, after Shiro had carefully tucked the dreamcatcher into his coat. Shiro smiled bemusedly and Keith sidled up to him, sliding his arms around Shiro’s waist. “I’m stayin’ with you, tonight. My place or yours?”

In reply, the walls of Keith’s house shimmered away, replaced by the obsidian cavern. “Hmph,” Keith said, shaking his head at Shiro, “it never ceases to amaze me how easy you do that.”

“I’ve grown used to traveling from your home to mine,” Shiro replied, and as Keith watched, he created a stone hook to hang the dreamcatcher upon, right beside the nest of pillows. “There we are. Hm...perhaps I should add some more decor to this place. Lighten things up a little?”

Keith raised an eyebrow, flopping down into the nest lazily. “Oh, suddenly you don’t like the gloomy, spooky cave locale? I think it’s very you.”

Shiro gasped at him. “Did you just call me gloomy and spooky, mister?”

“You’re a shadow man with horns,” Keith laughed. “I’d say you fit the bill.”

Shiro flopped down petulantly beside him. “I like more than just caves,” he said.

Keith rolled onto his side, propping his head up with a hand and shifting closer to the ifrit. “Uh-huh? Like what?”

“I like you,” Shiro said.

“Oh, pshh, you sap,” Keith snorted, but he surrendered to Shiro’s waiting arms. “I like you, too,” he mumbled. Shiro smiled against his cheek. “Honest, though – what else do you like, Shiro?”

Shiro paused, mulling it over. “Flowers,” he said.

Keith pulled away to look at him incredulously. “No kiddin?”

“You had flowers around your neck when you first kissed me,” Shiro said dreamily. “But I liked them before that, don’t give me that look. Blooming flowers are enchanting things, especially in the desert.”

“You askin’ me to give you a bouquet?” Keith said.

“Would you?” Shiro looked far too excited.

Keith giggled and said, “Sure, sure. Who am I to deny a man his flowers? What else?”

“Fire,” Shiro said. “For obvious reasons. Stars, but I already told you that one –”

“Favorite constellation?”

Shiro tapped his chin with a claw. “Andromeda, I think.”

Keith snorted. “You would choose that one.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Shiro demanded.

“Oh, c’mon, ain’t the irony obvious? Andromeda; beautiful maiden chained to a rock to be devoured by a sea monster?”

Shiro pursed his lips. “Is the irony that I am most like Cetus, the sea monster?”

“Sacrifice,” Keith corrected. “The irony is that she was a sacrifice.”

“She was saved,” Shiro reminded him, “by Perseus. Andromeda lived. Cetus was slain, turned to stone. And anyway, the peoples here had different stories for the stars. The Diné, for example, call it Tiníléí, the Gila monster, and believe it brings healing energy.”

“What did the Toltecs call it?” Keith wondered.

Shiro faltered, his gaze growing distant, and frowned. “I don’t remember,” he said. He shook himself slightly, and turned back to Keith. “What is your favorite constellation?”

“Orion’s Belt,” Keith said at once. “It’s easy to find, and it’s so...I dunno. What are the chances that three stars would be all lined up like that, and bright enough to find on any night? I always thought it was mighty fascinating.”

“It is,” Shiro agreed. “One wonders how things like that just...fall into place.”

“Mmm.” Keith laid his head down against Shiro’s chest. “I will bring you a bouquet, Shiro,” he promised. “The prettiest darn bouquet you ever did see.”

“I don’t doubt it, my dear one,” Shiro murmured, and Keith fell asleep with a flushed face and fluttering heart, because no one had ever called him dear before, and nobody had ever called him theirs.

Chapter Text

Keith was possibly maybe definitely absolutely having a crisis.

It started with the flowers. The damn flowers, of all things. Keith had gathered a bouquet of wildflowers for Shiro by the canyon creek, just like he'd promised, and when he'd presented them to the ifrit one evening Keith had found himself swept off his feet with Shiro beaming down at him.

“You are wonderful,” Shiro said with feeling.

“Did you just pick me up?” Keith spluttered. Sure enough, his feet weren't touching the ground, and this time he wasn't unconscious or drunk, so it was rather more startling.

“Like a feather,” Shiro said cheekily, laying him down on the sofa and moving smoothly over him on all fours.

He leaned in for a kiss and Keith gasped, “But, the flowers, where – !”

“The flower dimension,” Shiro mumbled into his neck.

“That ain't real,” Keith protested.

“It is now,” Shiro said, his eyes dark and fond. “Thank you for giving me flowers, Keith.”

“Uh-huh,” Keith said, his voice odd and unsteady with Shiro’s weight over him and gaze upon him. “‘Course, don't mention it.”

Shiro noticed, and frowned, sitting up and tilting his head uncertainly at Keith. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Keith said. “Fine.” His head felt hot and sluggish and he didn't like it.

Unconvinced, Shiro lifted a hand to feel his forehead. “You're warm,” he noted. “Could be a fever coming on…”

Keith batted his hand away and sat up hastily, shaking his head. “Naw, Shiro, I'm okay, really.” He'd offered him a weak smile. “Glad you liked the flowers – I'll pick you more next week.”

So that had been the flowers. And then there was the soup. Shiro’s ridiculously delicious soup, which he'd made for Keith after a nightmare – Keith had forgotten to take his nightly drop from the bottle, and as soon as he'd started apologizing to Shiro for forgetting, Shiro frowned and practically shoved a plate with soup and warm buttered bread into Keith’s trembling hands.

“Shiro?” Keith had whispered, bewildered.

“You didn't eat dinner,” Shiro said. “Food will help you sleep soundly.”

“Oh...” Keith set the plate down on his nightstand and picked up the spoon, but his hands were still shaking so badly that he almost dropped it. Shiro’s hand covered and steadied his own at once, Shiro’s body pressing up firmly against his back in a strong, warm line. Keith felt surrounded, shielded, small in the best way possible. Keith froze, his breath hitching, body flushing hotter than the steaming soup.

Shiro had misunderstood his stillness, and moved away. “Apologies. A blanket might be better, yes?”

Keith had been hopelessly confused. His mind was still reeling and his heart still pounding from the nightmare, yet Shiro’s touch was...it caused his body to respond very differently, without panic, but if he wasn't feeling panic then why was it so hard to breathe and focus and –

“Keith, hey, look at me,” Shiro murmured. “Can you do that?”

Keith did look at him, and knew his eyes must have been wide and wild in the darkness. “I – thank you for the soup but I need – I think I need to be alone right now?”

Shiro blinked, slow and considering. Then he inclined his head. “Alright, Keith. Let me at least leave you with this.” And he covered Keith with that same red blanket before vanishing, his fingertips brushing once across Keith’s clenched fist, cool and immaterial, before he vanished entirely.

Keith hadn't slept at all for the rest of the night, unable to stop feeling the echo of Shiro’s hands on him, and he'd felt echoes before but not like this, never like this – those had been echoes of pain, like bruises that never went away, but these – Keith had no idea what these were like, but they didn't hurt, not exactly. It was...it was more like an ache.

And then there were the scars. Keith doubted anyone had the same response as him in relation to scars. But there they'd been, kissing sleepily after a nap at Shiro’s, and Keith had cupped Shiro’s face and Shiro had caught his hand and kissed his scarred palm slowly. Keith had stared up at him.

“It's fading,” Shiro murmured, low and pleased. His tone made Keith run hot all over again and he tried his best not to squirm.

“That one is, anyway,” Keith had said, aiming to change the subject. “The one where Sendak stabbed me is still clear as day.”

Keith’s shirt was slightly rucked up from their spirited kissing, so it didn't take much for Shiro to push up the hem enough to see the old scar. Keith went utterly still, his eyes huge as Shiro bowed his head and lightly kissed the raised, knotted line on his abdomen. Keith made a strangled sound.

Shiro lifted his head. “It's a bit too late to kiss it better, I suppose.” He shot Keith a lopsided smile. “No harm in trying, though.”

“Um,” Keith said, and he did squirm away then. “Right. Yes. That.”

Shiro looked almost as confused as Keith felt. Then his face fell. “Oh, was that...that was too much, wasn't it?”

Keith hurried to say, “No, no, it's – I just wasn't – expecting that, is all.” He swallowed, eyes darting away.

Shiro raised an eyebrow, something curious in his expression. But all he said was, “Hm. I'll be sure to warn you next time, then.”

“Next time?” Keith squeaked.

“Or not,” Shiro said easily. “Your choice, as always.”

“My choice,” Keith mumbled faintly as Shiro nuzzled into his neck. “What, um, what about your choice?”

Shiro chuckled against Keith’s collarbone as if tickled by the thought. “Oh, I'm not picky,” he said. “I simply aim to please.”

Keith felt like he was on fire.

*

It had been awhile since Keith had stepped foot in a church.

Altea Creek’s chapel was small but well-made, with a proud white steeple and a bell that somehow worked right as rain after years of wear and tear by the harsh desert elements. Like most churches in the West, it was simple, roughly hewn of wood with a stone foundation, the pews faded and worn, creaking when Keith sat gingerly. It was a Tuesday, so the pulpit was as empty as the rest of the church. For a long while, Keith just sat there, hands folded loosely in his lap, listening to the wind rush through the open windows.

Then the doors opened.

Keith flinched at the sound, turning hastily. “Keith?” Hunk squinted at him, ambling over to Keith’s pew with eyebrows raised. “Never seen you in here, before.”

Keith cleared his throat and shrugged. “Churches scare me, a little. The preacher’s always so loud.”

“Preacher’s not here now,” Hunk pointed out. He nodded to the pew. “Mind if I sit?”

Keith shook his head, and Hunk sat next to him. “You, uh, you come here often?” Keith asked.

Hunk nodded slowly. “Often enough. Most Sundays, anyway, if I’m in town. It’s a peaceful place in all the chaos, for me.”

“Yeah?” Keith smiled. “Guess there ain’t much crime inside churches.”

“Oh, you might be surprised,” Hunk said. “But here, no, here is alright.”

Keith studied a bird that had landed on a nearby windowsill, a scruffy cactus wren. “Shay ever go to church?”

“Shay has her own church,” Hunk said. “Her own beliefs. We share our churches with each other, sometimes, but I’d never presume to make her attend with me.”

“Hm,” Keith said. “Wish more people thought like you. Be less Indian boarding schools in the world.”

Hunk frowned. “People always ought to have a choice in what they believe. You can’t force someone to believe in something, it doesn’t work that way.”

“No?” Keith sighed, and leaned back in the pew. “Maybe you’re right. Those teachers tried their darnedest to force me to believe in God, but…”

Hunk eyed him inquisitively. “You don’t?”

“Hard to say,” Keith admitted. “I think there’s lots of things to believe in, and maybe they all got at least some truth to ‘em.”

“People believed in Shiro,” Hunk said thoughtfully. “Right?”

Keith nodded. “From my understandin’, he was a Toltec god. Maybe Aztec, too. But he told me, once, that there’re no real gods. And Shiro may have magic, but he ain’t a god.”

“He’s not mortal, either,” Hunk said. “And he looks more devilish than anyone else I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lotta devils, Keith.”

“I’ve seen just as many, and he ain’t one,” Keith said automatically. “Shiro’s just as much devil as you or me.”

Hunk pursed his lips. “Sure the horns don’t give him a slight advantage?” Keith snorted and shook his head. “Hmph, you know I’m kidding. I’m glad you two are still getting on well. What’s it been – two months, now?”

Keith nodded. “Think so.”

Hunk kept on looking at him, searching. “Is he why you’re here, Keith?”

“Kissing ain’t a sin,” Keith retorted, looking away.

“That wasn’t a no.”

Keith gave up, putting his head in his hands. “Yes,” he said, muffled. “Shiro’s why I’m here. I think I’m losin’ my mind, Hunk.”

Hunk peered at him cautiously. “What do you mean?”

“I dunno,” Keith groaned despairingly. “Does Shay ever make you feel like you’re running a fever?”

Hunk coughed awkwardly, blinking at Keith. “Uh – er...a fever?”

“Like, she touches you or says something, and you just. Melt inside. Everything is sort of tingly, and dizzy, and –”

Hunk gaped at him. “Keith, are you serious?”

Keith folded his arms. “Yes, I’m serious; awful serious! Hunk, I think somethin’s wrong with me!”

Hunk looked like he was struggling to keep a straight face. “Keith,” he said, patting his shoulder, “nothing is wrong with you. Have you, uh...talked to Shiro about this at all?”

Keith stared at him in disbelief. “No! I...should I?”

“I would say so,” Hunk said, brow furrowed. “You don’t want to talk to him about it?”

“No,” Keith mumbled. “What if he thinks I’m losing it, too?”

“I really don’t think he will,” Hunk said firmly. “Honest.”

Keith wrung his hands. “Maybe...maybe it’ll just. Go away. Eventually?” He sighed, shoulders hunched. “I just...I really don’t want to mess this up, Hunk. He – we – are good. Real good. I don’t want to ruin that.”

“Keith, you’re not going to ruin anything,” Hunk told him, squeezing his shoulder lightly.

“How do you know?” Keith pleaded.

“I know it’s always better to just talk about it,” Hunk said. “Just try, Keith, alright? Shiro’s been nothin’ but understanding so far, right?”

“Right,” Keith said, relaxing a little. “Thanks, Hunk.”

“Of course.” Hunk smiled. “I’m gonna pray for awhile, care to join me?”

“Pray? ‘Bout what?” Keith asked.

Hunk shrugged. “Anything I can think of. Lot to pray about, these days.”

“Huh,” Keith said. “Reckon the Lord would be put out if I prayed to the Creator instead?”

Hunk laughed softly, the sound echoing all the way up over the high, steepled ceiling. “Reckon you won’t know unless you try,” he countered.

Keith tried.

*

But he didn’t tell Shiro about it. He just kept coming back to the church.

He was sitting there late one afternoon, marveling at how the chapel filled with golden light as the sun sank lower in the sky, when a cool curl of shadow vaguely resembling a hand swept across his shoulder.

Forgive me, Father, Shiro chuckled, vaguely mocking, for I have sinned.

Keith rolled his eyes. “Wrong kinda church, silly.”

Shiro’s laugh was hot against his ear, his form still shadowy, immaterial. So you’re not here confessing your sins to He who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name?

“No,” Keith said. “What’re you doing here? Didn’t even think you could be here.”

In a church? Shiro scoffed. I am more sacred than this place. You are even more so. His claw felt like a line of flame down Keith’s neck.

“I ain’t sacred,” Keith snorted, brushing him off, his gut churning.

You are to me.

And just like that, there it was again, an ignition in Keith’s chest, spreading downwards. He ducked his head and muttered, “Quit your blasphemin’, we’re in the Lord’s house.”

Am I blaspheming? Shiro hummed, settling onto the pew. I think I’m simply telling the truth. Thou shalt not lie, after all.

“Ugh,” Keith grumbled. “Where’d you even learn the Commandments, anyhow?”

I know things, Shiro said. For example, I know you’ve been coming here quite a lot, lately...is everything alright, Keith?

Keith swallowed. “Nothin’ wrong with goin’ to church.”

Did I say it was wrong? Shiro cupped his face and Keith turned reluctantly to look at him, Shiro’s yellow eyes glowing intently. Keith, I’m not blind. Something is troubling you.

Keith opened his mouth to tell him, but he was stopped by a sharp stab of fear, because Keith knew what was happening, had known deep down all along, but couldn’t come to terms with it – and absolutely couldn’t tell Shiro. Keith shook his head and slipped out of Shiro’s grasp, scowling. “No. No, I’m alright. Nothing’s wrong.”

Shiro looked sad. Keith, he murmured. I only wish to help you, why won’t you let me?

Keith knew his words were innocent, but their meaning twisted in his mind, and he recoiled, a bitter taste in his mouth. “If you wanna help, then leave me be,” he snapped. “I just...I just want time alone, here, please.”

You need not be alone –

“Yes, I do!” Keith retorted, with more venom than he meant, and without another word, the shadows swirled away, out the window and into the dawning night.

*

Keith returned home that night with a heavy heart, hating his sharp tongue. Shiro didn’t deserve his anger. And Keith believed him, believed that Shiro only wanted to help, but he was afraid – terrified, even – of what that “help” might entail. He was not surprised when his home was empty and dark upon arrival, though his heart just hurt more thinking of Shiro alone in his cave, wondering what he had possibly done to provoke Keith this time.

Keith stripped off his dusty clothes and threw on an old, faded nightshirt, the fabric hanging just above his knees. It had been longer, once, but he’d gotten taller over the years. Not much taller, though. Sighing and stretching, he rolled into bed, and then paused – it was already warm, and...already occupied?

Hastily, Keith bolted upright and blinked uncomprehendingly at Shiro, who was curled up in his bed, hugging Keith’s pillow to his chest, fast asleep. How...how long had he been there? The ifrit looked startlingly exhausted, and he didn’t react when Keith whispered his name and nudged him lightly.

He, did, however, react when Keith tried to tug the pillow out of his arms. Shiro mumbled in discontent and hugged it tighter, burying his nose in the fabric. “No,” Keith sighed, “Shiro, I need that.” Shiro grumbled, claws digging into it stubbornly. “Shiro!” Keith yanked the pillow as hard as he could, and it went flying out of Shiro’s arms and onto the floor. Keith leaned over to snatch the pillow back up, and yelped – he’d made the mistake of turning his back to Shiro, and the sleepy ifrit had apparently mistaken him for a new pillow, because he’d grabbed Keith and was nestling up to him happily, pulling Keith’s back flush against his body, even going so far as to throw a leg over Keith’s hip.

“Shiro!” Keith hissed in exasperation, but the ifrit was slumbering deeply again, nuzzling the back of Keith’s neck and squeezing his waist securely. There was no escape, and after a few moments, Keith went limp and resigned himself to his fate. At least he had a pillow.

*

Keith was sweating, warm in a way not even the summer sun had made him feel, tangled in sheets and dizzy with want, pulsing through him like a second heartbeat. There was an even greater warmth at his back, a solid heat wrapping tightly around him, holding him fast. Keith squirmed back into it dazedly, and a low growl sounded in his ear.

Keith shuddered and arched at the sound, needy, hyper-aware of the hard ache between his thighs, chafing against the sheets which suddenly seemed far too rough, pushing up under his nightshirt. And at his back, too, there was a similar crux of hard heat, and when Keith rubbed thoughtlessly against it, the strong arms holding him tightened, nearly bruising. Encouraged, Keith continued to squirm, panting shallowly, his hips grinding back and then forwards against the bed, searching desperately for friction. His mind was blurry, his eyes still shut, and though he was in a sense uneasy, so much so that it bordered on nausea; he was aware distantly of some need, some end that he had to achieve.

The hardness rubbing at the small of his back felt familiar in some awful, unnamable way, yet Keith could not stop himself from moving against it, whining low in his throat in equal parts distress and desire. He did not know if he was dreaming – thought he must be, and yet it felt too real; especially when the body behind him moved slightly, roused into waking by his wriggling.

A large hand stroked low on his belly, meant to be soothing but too low, too close to his aching, trapped cock to be anything but a tease. Keith’s hips squirmed upward, frantic for contact.

“K...eith? What…”

By chance, the hand shifted an inch lower, accidentally cupping the tented fabric, and Keith gasped and thrust into Shiro’s loose grip, shaking as he climaxed, dampening the fabric and Shiro’s palm while his hips worked shallowly through it.

Shiro inhaled sharply, snatching his hand away. “Keith?!”

Keith’s eyes flew wide open, vaulted into alertness, and he scrambled away and off the bed, cum dripping down his thighs and over his slowly softening cock, clearly visible through the stained fabric. Shiro gawked at him from the bed, and Keith saw the obvious bulge of his cock, still hard in his pants, and thought faintly that it had been pressed up so close against him, and he’d – he’d – Keith covered his mouth, horrified.

Shiro lifted his hands in a placatory gesture, but Keith stumbled backwards, nearly knocking over a chair, his heart pounding, screaming for him to flee. “I – Shiro, I swear, I, you have to believe me, I wasn’t – I wasn’t lying when I told you I don’t – this has never happened before – I’m sorry, I –”

“Keith, shh,” Shiro said, shaking his head and rising slowly from the bed, palms still held out. “I believe you, of course I believe you; I never thought you were lying.”

Keith stared at him, clutching the edges of the chair behind him with white knuckles. “I didn’t mean to – I don’t know why I – I...”

“Keith, you need to breathe,” Shiro whispered, advancing steadily. “Look at me; I’m not angry, I’m not upset, you did nothing wrong.”

Keith held himself completely still, trembling and not daring to look lower than Shiro’s face. “Please,” he whispered, his voice cracking, “I want to make you happy, I do, but not – not right now, not like this, please don’t make me.”

Shiro stopped. “Keith?” He sounded devastated. Keith flinched away further, miserable. “I would never ask that of you,” Shiro whispered, shaking his head. “Keith, this doesn’t – this doesn’t change anything between us. Whether you feel any sexual attraction or not – Keith, it doesn’t matter, I still won’t ever ask those things of you if you don’t want them.”

Keith gulped, his grip on the chair easing. “You...you won’t? Even though I...” He couldn’t even finish the sentence, and flushed with shame.

“You were asleep,” Shiro said. “You weren’t consciously aware, Keith, you can hardly be blamed for that. I don’t blame you at all.”

“But. But you’re also…” Keith’s terrified gaze flicked down, and he faltered. Shiro was entirely unaffected.

Shiro shook his head. “My body’s reaction was as unconscious as yours. Now, conscious as I am, your distress brings me no such pleasure. And even if I was still aroused, you are under no obligation to take care of that. None.”

“I was afraid to tell you,” Keith whispered, hanging his head. “For...for weeks now, I’ve begun to realize that I...I want you, Shiro, I know that now, but...the very idea frightens me. It’s...it’s a very new feeling. I've never felt it for anyone else. But I know you want me too, and I did not want to...disappoint you.”

“Keith, you could not possibly disappoint me, especially in this. There is no obligation or expectation to fulfill. There is no need to rush. There is no need to be frightened, but I understand and accept your fear. I will never ask more of you than you are willing to give.” Shiro reached out, and Keith braced himself for the ifrit’s touch but instead Shiro drew the red blanket around his shoulders out of thin air. “Alright?”

Keith nodded, clutching the blanket and staring up at him with a kind of shaken awe. “Yes,” he breathed. “Shiro, I...thank you.”

Shiro shook his head. “Never thank others for treating you with the human decency you deserve, Keith.”

“It’s more than decency,” Keith argued. He lifted up a corner of the blanket. “This is more than decency. You are more than decent. You are kind, and thoughtful, and good.”

“Good,” Shiro murmured, “is a rather subjective term.”

“You’re good to me,” Keith declared. “And my idea of good ain’t subjective in the slightest.”

“Thank you,” Shiro said, smiling slightly. “I’m glad.”

“Never thank others for simply telling the truth, Shiro,” Keith countered, and smiled back.

*

True to Shiro’s word, things didn’t change between them, or if they did, it was for the better. Shiro was always attentive to boundaries and never batted an eyelash when Keith needed to stop or have some space. Keith slowly got used to the idea that he didn’t need to apologize for pausing to collect himself, and the more that idea solidified, the more comfortable he was with doing more with Shiro. He was still uncertain, but Shiro hadn’t done anything that Keith found awful or repulsive in the slightest so far, which was encouraging, and quite startling.

Keith had never honestly seen the appeal of fucking. It seemed messy, painful, and pointless, obvious reproduction aspect aside. But all of the people Keith knew who did it certainly didn’t do so with children in mind, or they would have had dozens of babies already. So it was, as Keith understood, done with pleasure in mind. Which was just...bewildering.

Keith expressed this to Shiro. “I don’t get it,” Keith complained, frowning up at the stars. He and Shiro were sitting on the mesa’s edge, waiting for a meteor shower Shiro swore was happening soon. “There’re so many other things to get pleasure from, much simpler things! Like, a long gallop at dawn, or eating a real good meal, or hearing a real nice song, or reading a real interesting book – none of which involve gettin’ all sweaty and naked with somebody else.” He wrinkled his nose.

“Well, yes, it doesn’t sound very appealing when you put it like that,” Shiro conceded. “But I suppose sexual pleasure is different from all the other forms you described. It’s not necessarily better or worse than they are, just different. And not everyone can find pleasure in it, and that’s alright.”

Keith frowned, frustrated. “But how does anyone find pleasure in it? It just sounds downright uncomfortable and awkward.”

“Some are just very drawn to the physical gratification of it,” Shiro mused. “And some find great emotional gratification in it. And some find both.”

“Emotional gratification?” Keith repeated. “Where the blazes do they find that in bed?”

“In intimacy,” Shiro corrected gently. “Sexual intimacy can make the heart grow quite fond. Of course, that’s different than just fucking – there has to be a foundation beforehand, a preexisting affection.” He sighed. “It doesn’t do it justice to explain in words, I’m afraid.”

Keith peered at him. “So...you know what it feels like, then?”

Shiro half-shrugged, almost reluctant. “I suppose.”

Dissatisfied with that answer, Keith pressed, “With a human?”

Shiro glanced at him, brows raised. “Did I ever feel intimacy with a human? No, I don’t think so. That was usually more physical, and I rarely laid with humans, considering my, hmm...position of authority.”

“Considering they thought you were a god,” Keith said bluntly.

Shiro clutched his chest, eyes wide. “Thought I was a god? Keith, you wound me.”

Keith raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. “Well, you ain’t.”

“Perhaps not anymore, but I played the part quite convincingly, once upon a time,” Shiro said.

“So you fucked humans,” Keith said, unsure as to how that made him feel. “Does that mean you were intimate with other gods?”

Shiro shifted, frowning slightly. “A few. Yes.”

Keith tilted his head, seeing the sudden heaviness to Shiro’s frame and the grim set of his mouth. “Hey,” he murmured, squeezing Shiro’s arm lightly, “I didn’t intend to pry. You don’t need to talk about that if it hurts you.”

Shiro sighed, and opened his mouth, but was saved from answering by the first few meteors streaking down through the sky. Keith gasped and curled close to him to watch, and Shiro watched the stars reflecting in his eyes, silver streaks through violet-blue like the night sky itself.

After a few long minutes, Keith caught him staring, and furrowed his brow. “You look sad,” he murmured. “Don’t be sad.”

“I had a wife,” Shiro said, and Keith reeled – whatever he’d been expecting Shiro to say, it hadn’t been that.

What?

“I had a wife,” Shiro repeated, quiet, looking back up at the stars. “A long time ago.”

Keith, whose brain was struggling to catch up to his mouth, blurted, “Did you fuck her?” Shiro blinked at him incredulously. Keith smacked a hand over his own mouth. “Oh, Christ, I am so sorry, that wasn’t –”

But Shiro just snorted, mildly amused, and nodded. “Yes, we were intimate. She was my wife for several centuries, after all.”

Keith frowned, unsettled by Shiro’s overly calm, nearly cool, demeanor. “What...what happened to her?”

“She died,” Shiro said, just as calmly. “Hm. No. She was murdered.”

Keith’s eyes widened. “Murdered? But...wasn’t she a god, too?”

“Yes,” Shiro said. “Killing gods is difficult...but not impossible.” He sighed, gaze distant, claws tracing through the dust. “Especially if it’s another god doing the killing.”

Keith swallowed. “Who?”

Shiro shook his head. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. He looked at Keith, forcing a smile. “You know, you remind me of her, sometimes.”

Keith didn’t know whether to be be disturbed or flattered at being compared to Shiro’s murdered god wife. He settled on disturbingly flattered. “Yeah? How so?”

“Well, she was obviously quite a bit older than you, but you’re both…” Shiro’s lips quirked. “Small.”

“Small,” Keith repeated. “Says you.”

“I like small,” Shiro chuckled.

Keith’s eyebrows went up. “Alright, so we’re both tiny in comparison to your ridiculously large self. Anything else?”

“Yes, right there, your humor.” Shiro grinned. “Sarcasm. She loved sarcasm. And she was quite clever, always talking about things I’d never even considered – you do that too. For example, I’ve never actually thought of how intimacy could be repulsive before.”

Keith opened his mouth, then closed it. “I don't think intimacy would be repulsive,” he mumbled. “It...it sounds nice.” He scratched his head. “I just don't think it's for me.”

“Why not?” Shiro questioned, not demanding, just intrigued.

“You know why,” Keith mumbled.

“But do you want intimacy?” Shiro asked.

Keith frowned. “Shiro, that ain't the point, the point is that everything that goes along with it, the act itself – I don't want that.”

“But you want me?” Shiro tilted his head. “So, is it the idea of fucking in general that you're averse to, or is it the idea of doing that with me?”

“The general idea, I guess,” Keith said warily.

“And you've never done anything in that vein with anyone else?”

Keith shook his head. “No. I mean...even before what happened with the Galra, I didn't...well, Lance and Pidge had crushes and I didn't. Lance ogled the girls in the brothels we passed and Pidge fell madly in love with a Mexican horse thief – who I guess was decent lookin’ enough – for a week. But I never felt that way.”

“I'm not suggesting that what happened is the reason for the way you feel, or don't feel, Keith,” Shiro assured. “But I certainly don't think that it gave you any positive association whatsoever with physical intimacy.”

“That's an understatement,” Keith said.

“So…” Shiro exhaled. “I suppose what I'm suggesting is that having a good experience might help to wash away that negative association in your mind.”

Keith narrowed his eyes. “You mean a good fuck?”

“Please don't think I'm pressuring you in any way,” Shiro added. “But...if you do think that you want intimacy, and you think you're willing to try, we can try. I'm willing to try with you.”

Keith swallowed. “Try,” he repeated. “People don't try to fuck, Shiro, they just do it.”

“You think it always goes that smoothly?” Shiro laughed. “People certainly try, Keith. And sometimes fail. It doesn’t always go without a hitch. Especially if someone is…”

“Damaged goods?” Keith finished, curt.

“You know I don’t think of you like that at all,” Shiro murmured. “And neither should you, because it isn’t true.”

“You didn’t see me, after,” Keith retorted.

Shiro was quiet. Then he said, “I did see you after you were stabbed and in a great deal of shock,” he pointed out. “And when you were deliriously feverish. And after you had just poisoned yourself.”

Keith huffed, the corner of his mouth twitching. “You gotta stop catching me at my worst, Shiro.”

“You caught me at one of my worst moments, too,” Shiro countered. “One-armed, bleeding out and half-naked in the middle of the desert in my weakest form after a year of imprisonment and a huge expenditure of my power.”

“Your weakest form is your human form?” Keith eyed him. “Most folks wouldn’t call that weak.”

“Maybe weak is the wrong word,” Shiro relented. “But I felt awfully weak then. You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you – why did you take me in that night? You had no reason to. You could have left me to the vultures, easily.”

“You think I’d do that?” Keith frowned. “I don’t know. It was like what happened with Strawberry, I ‘spose. I felt obliged to help you, not hurt you further. And...well, I was curious. Never seen anyone quite like you before – even as a human, you’re, uh...striking.”

Shiro smiled, all teeth. “Curiosity killed the cat.”

“Saved this cat’s life,” Keith retorted. He flushed and looked down. “In more ways than one.”

“Yeah?” Shiro’s smile was soft this time. He wrapped an arm around Keith’s shoulders, and Keith leaned into his side. “I’m happy you feel that way. And I feel the same.”

Keith closed his eyes for a while, and when he opened them, he said, “I think...I want to give the intimacy thing a try. But. Slowly? I. I don’t know what I’m ready for. I want you, I do, and I ain’t opposed to the idea of...of letting you do, um, some things to me, but...”

Shiro looked down at him, brows raised. “Letting me?” He clicked his tongue. “Oh no, no, if we’re doing this, it’s a mutual effort. No passivity. There will be no ‘letting.’ Only wanting, and doing, together. Agreed?”

Keith stared back at him with wide eyes, genuinely confused. “How...ain’t I just supposed to lay there?”

Shiro made a sound of mild outrage. “Keith! No! Oh, dear...alright. Do you trust me?”

Keith blinked owlishly. “Uh. Yes. But what – eep!”

Shiro had lifted him up into his lap. Keith squeaked again when Shiro shuffled so that Keith was straddling his thighs, with some effort considering that even in mostly-human form, Shiro was still large.

“Shiro?!”

Shiro raised a finger. “Relax. Trust. Yes?”

Jerkily, Keith nodded. Shiro pulled him closer, his arms wrapped around Keith, their bodies fitting snugly together with Keith’s face smushed against Shiro’s chest. Keith didn’t know what to do, so he just sort of flopped into it like a ragdoll until Shiro snorted and said, “You can put your arms around me, too. I don’t bite. Well, not unless you want me to.”

Keith swallowed, his throat dry. “Okay,” he mumbled, and awkwardly hugged Shiro back. It was strange at first, and then… “Hmm,” Keith said into Shiro’s chest. “This is...nice.” He hesitated. “Are you suggestin’ we can fuck like this?”

Shiro made a strangled sound. “What – I am giving you a hug!” he exclaimed. “An intimate hug, that’s…” Shiro sighed, hot breath ruffling Keith’s hair. “Keith,” he managed, “we’re not going right to fucking. There are other things we can do, you realize? Hands, mouths, just plain old friction – there is no need to skip to the ‘main event,’ so to speak. As I said – no rush. It’s better when there’s less of a rush anyway.”

Keith furrowed his brow. “Oh.” He hadn't realized that.

“Although we could, like this,” Shiro added. Keith tensed, and Shiro patted his back gently. “Eventually. Or never. Either is fine by me.”

Keith nodded and slowly relaxed against him, listening to the sound of their tandem breathing, letting out a quiet sigh when Shiro’s fingers carded through his hair. He could get used to this, he thought.

“Oops,” Shiro said, “you can’t see the stars like this.” His hands settled on Keith’s waist to lift him away and Keith grumbled in protest, hands fisting tight in Shiro’s shirt. “Keith?”

“You’re warm,” Keith said stubbornly.

“You don’t want to see the stars?” Keith could hear the smile in his voice.

Keith shook his head, hugging Shiro tighter and nuzzling into his chest. “I’d rather fall asleep on you,” he said.

Shiro chuckled fondly. “I think I'm turning you quite lazy. All this napping and sleepy snuggling...if you don't watch out, you'll lose your figure.”

“Hmph,” Keith said. “That heavenly soup and bread of yours sure don't help either.”

Shiro snorted. “You'll be on strict rations, then, effective immediately.”

Keith looked up at him with a pout. “Rations?”

Shiro tapped his head with a claw, expression mock-solemn. “Yes. Only vegetable soup and bread with olive oil from here on out for you.”

“But I love your vegetable soup,” Keith told him. “And what does olive oil taste like, anyway?”

“Like this,” Shiro said, and a single gleaming drop of green-gold appeared on the tip of his claw. He touched the claw carefully to Keith’s lips, and Keith, hesitantly, licked it off.

“Oh!” Keith licked his lips, momentarily entranced. “It's good. Thank you.”

“It is good!” Shiro agreed, pleased. “You're quite welcome.”

“Bread with olive oil sounds good, then,” Keith yawned, and slumped forward again. “Rations accepted.”

“Or maybe I'll just keep giving you whatever you'd like to eat,” Shiro mused. “Can't have you beheading rattlesnakes every day.”

“Thoughtful of you,” Keith mumbled, his eyelids drooping. Maybe Shiro was turning him lazy, but he hadn't been allowed lazy moments for most of his life, so he wasn't too upset about it.

Shiro tapped his shoulder lightly. “You can make a wish on one of the shooting stars before you sleep.”

“Hmm, what is it with you and wishes?” Keith wondered. “First the dandelion and now this...I don't get three wishes, do I?”

You get far more than three wishes from me,” Shiro said. Keith flushed. “Go on, make a wish. Can't hurt.”

“Pidge said djinn twist wishes,” Keith mumbled. “But I think maybe she was wrong. I think my first wish is comin’ true.”

“What was your first wish?” Shiro asked.

Keith shook his head. “It don't matter,” he whispered. “Just know that you're makin’ it come true more and more every day, Shiro. Every day.”

Smiling, Shiro hid a kiss in his hair. “Goodnight, dear one,” he said.

“Goodnight,” Keith murmured back.

Silently, under the falling stars, Keith wished for the happy ending he had never thought possible before Shiro.

*

Irony was a cruel thing, Keith thought as Pidge and Lance barged into his house the next morning and sent him tumbling in surprise from Shiro’s lap mid-kiss. Thankfully, Shiro’s reflexes were significantly faster than Lance’s, so unlike Pidge, Keith was stopped from hitting the floor by a firm arm around his waist.

“Thanks,” Keith wheezed.

Shiro patted his hip and hauled him back up onto the sofa.

“Well, well, well,” Lance drawled. “How the tables have turned.”

Pidge shrieked and threw a hand over her eyes. Keith blinked at her, still partly upside-down. “Keith! I thought you said you and Shiro didn’t do – baby-causing activities!”

“We are fully clothed,” Keith said, smoothing his hair down and uncurling a leg from Shiro’s waist. “Also, knocking – ever heard of it?”

Eye twitching, Lance said, “Baby-causing activities?

“Keith is incapable of bearing children,” Shiro said, confused. “...Right?”

“Can djinn and humans even have kids?” Pidge asked, briefly distracted by science.

“That ain’t even relevant,” Keith protested.

“It’s highly inadvisable,” Shiro said. “Probably...I can’t imagine a human with semi-dormant shapeshifting and or elemental powers would turn out well –”

“Why are you two here?” Keith interrupted, folding his arms.

“Well,” Lance drawled, “you two are clearly busy as is, so…” He turned on his heel, grinning.

“Oh, no you don’t, mister,” Keith warned, wagging a finger at him.

“Fine,” Lance said, sighing dramatically. “Turns out, the circus is comin’ to town.” He paused. “Well, not our town, Pidge’s. Los Angeles.”

Keith raised an eyebrow. “And? That’s miles away, it’d take days to ride.”

“We ain’t riding there,” Pidge said, reaching into her jacket and handing over two shiny slips of paper. “We got ourselves two extra tickets for the Sante Fe Railway with your names on ‘em.”

Keith stared at them with wide eyes, then at Pidge and Lance suspiciously. “Who’d you steal those from?”

Lance rolled his eyes. “Aw, c’mon. We didn’t steal nothin’. Allura owed me some money, I bought ‘em, you’re welcome.”

“Why did Allura owe you money?”

Lance waved his hand. “Long story. Anyway, you want the tickets, or naw?”

Keith dithered. “You didn’t ask Hunk and Shay?”

“Busy,” Pidge said. “They always are. Besides, Shay’s not too keen about goin’ to the city, and I don’t blame her.”

Keith kept staring at the tickets. Shiro offered, “It sounds exciting. A circus, you say?”

“Yeah, Barnum & Bailey, or Ringling, or maybe neither, dunno – but they’ll have elephants, lions, tigers, bears, the whole shebang!” Lance exclaimed. “So? You two in?”

“I am,” Shiro said, looking to Keith, who looked back in surprise.

“You are?” Keith frowned. “I thought you didn’t wanna leave your desert?”

“Maybe a change of scenery would be good,” Shiro countered. “I’m curious to see what Los Angeles looks like, these days. And I like trains. But if you’d rather not…”

“No, no, I wanna go!” Keith said hastily. Shiro smiled at him, encouraging. “I do.” He took the tickets from Pidge. “Thank you...I owe you.”

“Buy us a round in the city and we’ll call it even,” Lance said. “Now, y’all better get packed! Coran’s bringin’ us up to the station tomorrow at noon sharp, meet in front of the Pink Lion!”

“Tomorrow?!” Keith yelped.

“That’s perfect,” Shiro said, squeezing Keith’s shoulder calmingly. “We’ll be there.”

“Glad to hear it.” Pidge beamed.

*

“I’ve never been on a train before,” Keith mumbled nervously for the third time as they stepped onto the platform.

Shiro touched his hand, a brief tangle of fingers, and leaned in to murmur, “It’ll be alright, Keith.”

“Trains are incredible!” Pidge told him, waving her arms about and causing several other waiting passengers to look at her askance. Lance glared at them and they quickly averted their eyes. “They’re modern marvels of engineering, truly, the epitome of steam power! Besides steamboats, which are works of art, even if I’ve never been on one – someday, you mark my words. Oh, look, here it is now! Whoa, what a beaut.”

Keith went rigid and held Shiro’s hand in a vice grip as the roaring hunk of metal sped down the track towards them, chugging out black smoke that stained the pale blue sky. It pulled up in front of the station with a terrific screeching of metal, and Keith hardly breathed until it had stopped and the conductor opened the doors.

“I may faint from excitement,” Pidge informed them as they handed their tickets over, and that made Keith laugh and relax a little, because Pidge was not known for fainting, not even over technological wonders.

The steps to the train rattled alarmingly, but once inside, Keith was surprised at how steady the car felt under his boots. “See, not so bad,” Shiro said as they took their seats, which were soft, if a bit dusty. Lance and Keith got the window seats, with Pidge next to Lance and Shiro next to Keith. Pidge immediately took out a book. Lance wiggled his eyebrows at Keith.

“What,” Keith said.

“You and I oughtta catch up,” Lance said, leaning back in his seat. “Seems you’ve been up to more than a few things – you and Shiro, that is.”

“Oh, let him be,” Pidge said, not looking up from her book.

“Naw, I’m intrigued,” Lance said. “You been spendin’ an awful lot of time with Shee-ro lately.”

Keith raised an eyebrow. “Jealous?”

Lance laughed, short and sharp, and turned his glower on Shiro, sitting up and leaning over the table that separated them. “You listen to me good,” he said, low and dangerous, “I don’t care if you’re El Diablo himself, ya hear? You hurt him, and I’ll kill you, Shee-ro.”

“Good,” Shiro said, unfazed. “I’d expect nothing less.”

Lance squinted at him suspiciously. “I knew you was gonna be trouble from the start, but I didn’t think Keith’d give in to your charms so easy.”

“Who said he was the one who gave in?” Shiro countered, voice level and lips quirked. “Maybe we both had intentions.”

Keith snorted and elbowed him. “Stoppit, or he’ll punch you again.”

Shiro’s mouth twitched. “Oh, no, we wouldn’t want that.” Pidge smirked over the edge of her book.

“I hate you and your Devil novio,” Lance informed Keith. “En serio.”

“Sure ya do,” Keith chuckled. “That’s why you gave us train tickets, ain’t it?” He sighed. “How long is this train ride, anyways?”

“Novio?” Shiro murmured thoughtfully.

Pidge shrugged. “Day or two, maybe less. Settle in.”

“Okay,” Keith said, and laid his head down on Shiro’s shoulder in full view of all the other passengers.

“Keith,” Lance hissed. “No.

“What?” Keith said. “I’m drunk, obviously. Oops. I can barely sit upright.” He slumped further into Shiro’s side, his hand falling upon Shiro’s thigh under the table. Shiro faltered, and then covered Keith’s hand with his own. Keith shivered.

“Naw, if you was drunk, you’d have your tongue halfway down his throat already,” Lance retorted.

Keith’s jaw dropped. “You ain’t one to talk!”

Pidge glared at them all. “I am trying. To read. My book.

“Sorry, pigeon,” Lance and Keith said in unison.

“Just look out the window,” Shiro suggested as the train began to roll into motion. Keith’s nails dug hard into Shiro’s thigh at the jolt forwards, and when it gained speed Keith hid his face in Shiro’s jacket. “Or not,” Shiro chuckled, fingers curling in between Keith’s to hold his hand under the table.

“Ugh,” Lance said. “Look at ‘em, Pidge. ¡Es ridículo!”

“I think you’re just jealous because I don’t let you coddle me in public,” Pidge said. “Now, unless you want me to read every single page of this damn book aloud to you, be quiet, cariño.”

Lance gasped and clutched his heart. “Por supuesto, mi princesa.” He darted in to peck her on the cheek and her nose wrinkled up but she didn’t push him away. Lance grinned, mollified, and pushed his hat down over his eyes, settling in for a nap.

The train’s speed was still terrifying when Keith looked out the window, but he was distracted from that by the landscape blurring past – the wide expanse of desert that looked so barren unless you knew where to find the life in it. Keith pressed his hand to the glass, watching the distant mountains whoosh through his fingers.

“Strange, isn’t it?” Shiro mused. “To see the world passing by so quickly. As if we’re just onlookers, running away from it all.”

“I used to want to run away,” Keith admitted in a whisper. “Leave everything behind, change my name, join a prospectin’ crew or find work in a city.” He shook his head. “But I’m bound to this place, I think, whether I want to be or not. The desert tangles you up in all its barbed wire and cactus spines and it don’t let go.”

“Do you want to be?” Shiro asked. “Bound, that is.”

“I love the desert,” Keith replied honestly. “I do. It’s home. Even if I did try to run away, it wouldn’t feel quite right. So many folks don’t see nothin’ out here, y’know? But the desert’s given me everythin’ I have – and taken things away, too. It’s made its mark on me either way. And I ain’t ungrateful to belong someplace, even if it’s just among the sand and saguaros. Ain’t that what everyone wants? To belong; to somewhere, to something, to someone?”

“You may be onto something, there,” Shiro said.

“Do you feel like you belong?” Keith asked, looking up at him.

“I don’t know, Keith,” Shiro admitted. “But I think I’m trying to feel that way.”

“‘Course you’re trying,” Keith said, looking out the window once more. “Else you wouldn’t be here, now, with me. You’re right – you need a change of scenery. You been in that desert too damn long.”

“Longer than you know,” Shiro murmured, and watched the desert pass with him.

*

When Keith blinked his eyes open, his face was squished against the window and it was nighttime. “Oh,” Keith whispered, peering out at the endless starry sky with awe. Lance, who was already awake, with Pidge asleep against his side, whistled softly in agreement. “Never seen the stars like this,” Keith said.

“It’s real pretty,” Lance agreed. Then his brow furrowed, and he said, “¿Qué carajo...? Keith, look, am I dreamin’ or is that a wolf runnin’ next to our train?”

Keith followed his gaze and gawked. Yup, that was a wolf, alright, bounding alongside the tracks, white fur gleaming in the moonlight. “The hell…?”

Shiro cracked an eye open. “A wolf?” Keith pointed, and Shiro looked...and blanched. “Keith, get down,” Shiro warned, but it was too late – the wolf, head raised and eyes scanning the train windows, had seen him. And all Keith saw was the quick glint of blue and the pale flash of teeth but it was enough; enough to be sure that he’d seen that gaze before. But it wasn’t possible – he was dead. He was –

The screech of brakes cut off all further thought. Pidge stirred awake, confused. Lance’s hand flew to his pistol. “Why’re we stoppin’? No stations out here – could be a robbery.”

“It’s not a train robbery,” Shiro said with grim certainty, just before the entire car lurched to the side and careened off the tracks in a cacophony of screams and crumpling metal. Keith was thrown against the window and Shiro grabbed him just before his head could smack into the glass, holding Keith close to his chest and yanking a stunned Lance and Pidge into his arms while he was at it. The other passengers were groaning, crawling and stumbling and searching blindly for an exit. There was none.

There was a loud howl – it was far too close. “They found us,” Shiro growled, shifting as he spoke. The other passengers screamed anew as his towering, shadowy figure loomed into existence, but Keith knew Shiro wasn’t the one they should be scared of.

“They?” Lance gasped.

“Lotor,” Keith whispered. “He’s back.”

Chapter Text

“He’s dead,” Lance hissed, craning his neck to see out the window. “Dead men don’t come back, Keith.”

“But Lotor wasn’t a man,” Shiro muttered. “He was half-god, djinn, spirit, whatever you would call it.” His lip curled. “Thus making him an ideal host for Xolotl.” He looked at Keith grimly. “The God of Death.”

“Host?” Pidge whispered. “So...it’s not really Lotor anymore?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure.” Shiro’s eyes narrowed. “He still shares Lotor’s motive of revenge.”

Keith tried to steady his breathing. “So he still wants me dead.”

“And I still won’t let that happen,” Shiro said firmly.

One of the passengers shrieked and pointed out the window frantically. “Wolves!” she cried. “We’re – we’re surrounded!”

Her male companion peered over her shoulder and shook his head. “Those ain’t wolves. Mangy dogs, that’s all – ” He was cut off by a scream as the dogs began lunging at the windows, trying to break the glass. Keith and his friends huddled closer to Shiro as the train car echoed with shouts and curses, and then fell utterly silent as an eerie, sibilant voice filled the air.

Jaguar, I know you’re in there, harboring that murderer. It’s always been your way to side with criminals, but I know you also have a soft spot for mortals, so...I present you with a choice. Either you hand over the murderer to me now, or you selfishly continue to protect him while my dogs rip apart everyone else aboard this train. I’ll give you five minutes to mull it over, shall I?

Keith looked at Shiro with wide eyes, dismayed. Shiro’s tail flicked in agitation. Lance said, “Well, shit.”

Slowly, the passengers turned to look at Shiro, realizing the terrifying being outside was most likely speaking to the terrifying being inside. Then one of the passengers, a tall bearded man with a gun, got to his feet and pointed the gun at Shiro. “You heard ‘im,” the man snapped, his hand shaking as he nodded to Keith, Pidge, and Lance. “Which one of ‘em is it? Hand ‘em over!”

Shiro glared at the man, tilted his head to the side, and sent the gun flying out of his hands. The man stumbled back in shock as the pistol hit the wall so hard the metal dented, rendering it useless. A woman covered her mouth with a strangled gasp. “What in tarnation?” the man breathed. “It’s the damn Devil!”

“Death is comin’ for us all,” a thin old man whispered, clutching his trembling wife close to him.

“Shiro,” Keith said, shaking his head, “you heard him, you have to –”

“No,” Shiro rumbled. “I don’t have to, and I won’t.”

Jaguar, your time is running out…

“You’re gonna let everyone on this train die?” Keith whispered. “Shiro, I ain’t worth...”

Shiro said to the train car, “Listen to me well. If you wish to say alive, cover your face, and do not look at him. Do not acknowledge him. Do not respond to him. Do not let him scare you. If you do this, he will be unable to harm you all.”

“You crazy?” the first man exclaimed. “Those dogs’ll rip us to shreds!”

“No, they won’t,” Shiro retorted. “They aren’t real. They’re illusions of danger; that’s what he’s best at. They only become real if you believe them to be. Ignore them, and wait until he leaves.” The passengers looked at each other uncertainly.

“What about all the other train cars?” Pidge whispered.

“They heard me,” Shiro said simply, and Keith saw tendrils of shadow rushing across the floor, reforming to Shiro’s shadowy skin. “Now, we must go.”

“But how –” Lance started, only to yelp and clutch at Shiro as the train car rushed away from them, replaced by cool night air and swirling dust.

When the dust cleared, Keith cautiously opened his eyes. They were in what appeared to be a long box canyon, red rocks rising up high on either side and the dry riverbed scattered with huge cracked boulders. “Where are we?” Pidge ventured to ask, stepping away from Shiro and looking up at the narrow strip of night sky above.

“Away,” Shiro said simply. He was slightly hunched over, head bowed, and Keith saw the nearly-imperceptible tremble of his body. Transporting the four of them off the train must have taken a toll on him.

“Away?” Lance exclaimed. “How are we supposed to get to Los Angeles now if we don’t even know where we are?”

There was a distant explosion and all of them flinched, except Shiro. “Ah,” he said. “That would be the train.”

Keith stared at him in horror. “You told those people he couldn’t hurt them.”

“Yes,” Shiro said. “He could still set the train on fire.”

Keith swallowed hard. “So...so they’re all dead?”

“I don’t know,” Shiro said. He sounded and looked very tired. “If they listened to me, they would be alive, but humans are not particularly good at listening, especially under duress.”

“Damn,” Lance muttered. “Burnin’ to death on a train? That ain’t a good way to go.”

Keith looked helplessly towards the direction of the explosion. Shiro didn’t look at him at all.

“I think we’re pretty far west,” Pidge mused, peering up at the stars. “Maybe near the border…?”

“Well, good thing we’ve got the Desert Devil with us, can’t you just zap us to the city?” Lance said impatiently.

Keith bristled. “No, he can’t.” Shiro lifted his head and opened his mouth. “No,” Keith repeated. “That would take too much of his power. We’ll go there on foot or not at all.”

Shiro frowned. “I’m not weak –”

“Shuddup,” Keith snapped. “Are you or are you not in a good enough state to be sendin’ us all to Los Angeles, Shiro?”

Shiro hesitated, and then sighed. “I’m not,” he admitted reluctantly. “And I don’t wish to risk something going wrong along the way. It...would be best to continue on foot.”

“You can’t even summon us some horses or somethin’?” Lance needled.

“No,” Shiro said, looking thoughtful, “but I can find us some horses.”

“Horse thieving is a federal crime,” Pidge reminded him.

“Stay right here,” Shiro said, and shifted into the black stallion, immediately galloping off down the canyon, hoofbeats fading into the distance.

Lance gaped at Keith. “He really can turn into a horse.”

“Yeah,” Keith said, sitting down on the ground numbly.

Pidge sat down next to him. “You alright?” she asked.

“He just sacrificed a whole train full of people for me,” Keith whispered. “That ain’t...well, there’s somethin’ wrong with that, ain’t there?”

“He also strung people up on saguaros,” Pidge pointed out. “There’s somethin’ wrong with that, too, even if they were Galra.” She bit her lip. “And, anyway, it wasn’t like he had much of a choice. He did as much as he could for those unfortunate people given the circumstances, Keith.”

“He could’ve handed me over,” Keith argued.

Lance shook his head incredulously. “Really? Look, I may not know as much as I’d like to about Shee-ro, but I do know that he’d probably rather scoop his own eyes out with a rusty spoon than hand you back over to reborn-god-Lotor, Keith.”

“Do you think Lotor would make him do that?!” Keith gasped.

Lance wrinkled his nose. “What? No, that was just an example, por ejemplo, y’know...ugh. Shee-ro wouldn’t hand you over, is what I’m sayin’.”

“Maybe he should have,” Keith mumbled.

Pidge elbowed him. “No, he shouldn’t have, Keith. And Lotor shouldn’t have threatened to kill all those people – he’s in the wrong here, not Shiro. I mean, if I’d been in Shiro’s place, and it had been you or Lance or Hunk or Allura – to hell with handing you over! I would never.”

“Agreed,” Lance said. There was an awkward silence as he eyed Keith. “Wait...would you hand us over?”

“I...I don’t know,” Keith mumbled, shoulders hunched. “Is. Is that wrong of me? To not want all those people to die for one person?”

“He would have killed them even if I had given you to him.”

Keith started violently. Shiro strode towards them coolly with two horses in tow, held by reins of shadow that solidified as he reached them. “Mustangs,” he said in reply to Lance and Pidge’s confused expressions. “I tamed them, they’ll ride well.”

“What about Keith?” Lance asked. Shiro shifted back into a horse. “Oh,” Lance said. “Huh.”

They mounted their horses, a scruffy bay for Pidge and a tall buckskin for Lance. As Shiro had said, they were perfectly calm and responsive.

Wordlessly, Keith mounted the black stallion. When Shiro said, I’m sorry, Keith was the only one who could hear him. Keith did not reply, just threaded his fingers into Shiro’s mane, dug his heels in, and held on tight.

*

They made camp around dawn, when the horses had begun to tire and they came across a shallow creek meandering through the canyon. Shiro was confident that they were headed in the right direction, and Keith hoped he was right, because they didn’t have any other recourse. They were closer to Los Angeles than home, that much was certain – this desert was strange and unfamiliar, with different plants and rocks and animals that made Keith feel uncertain and unanchored. It didn’t help that he didn’t know what to say to Shiro about the train. He wasn’t...mad, exactly. More like shocked.

Lance built up a fire while Pidge went downstream to see if she could find some grub for breakfast. Keith pretended to sharpen his knife. Shiro saw through it and sat down next to him. “Keith,” he started. “I didn’t want any of those people to die. But I also didn’t want you to die. Can...can you understand that?”

“I’m not angry,” Keith said, voice carefully even. He looked up. “You said Lotor was the host for Xolotl. Is that the god Haggar resurrected in the caves?”

Shiro nodded. “Yes. Xolotl was the Aztec god of death, monsters, and sickness. He’s a psychopomp – like the Egyptians’ Anubis, he was said to guide the souls of the dead to the underworld. Whether or not he actually did so is up to debate.”

Keith frowned. “And the dogs?”

“His nahual is a dog,” Shiro said. “Or, in Lotor’s case, a wolf. I suppose he likes to have a veneer of regality about him.”

“Nahual?” Keith repeated.

“Our animal form. My nahual is a jaguar, as you know.”

“And who are you?” Keith looked at him thoughtfully. “The Jaguar; that was what both Lotor and Haggar called you. But you have another name, don’t you?”

“My name is Shiro,” Shiro said quietly.

“Not to them, it isn’t,” Keith retorted. “Not to the other ‘gods.’”

“But I’m speaking to you,” Shiro said. “And to you, I am Shiro, and I would like to continue to be Shiro.”

Keith sheathed his knife and shook his head slowly. “You really ain’t gonna tell me, huh?”

“There is power in names,” Shiro murmured. “And not always good power. The name you seek has many strings attached to it, many memories and mistakes and regrets and a great deal of pain. I have no doubt that, with the way things are going for us, you will likely find out my name soon enough. But in the meantime, I ask that you remain blissfully unaware. I do not want you to know me as what I was, but rather as I am.”

“You’ve done bad things; so have I,” Keith said.

But Shiro winced and said, “I did more than bad things, Keith. You once called me a cruel being, and I once told you that my kind are often more cruel than kind, especially towards humans. I was a cruel being, Keith, in many ways. I am ashamed of it now, and I do not wish for you to see those parts of me; you deserve better. I have been trying to be better, and I think you have helped me to do so.”

“You’re afraid your past will cloud the present,” Keith realized. He cupped Shiro’s face lightly and the ifrit leaned into it with a soft sigh. “Shiro...if anyone understands what that feels like, it’s me. I doubted my past would allow me to ever be...close to someone, the way I am with you. I still doubt it, if I’m bein’ honest. And...and I understand if you don’t wanna tell me about that past you. There’s sure as Hell some things I don’t think I could ever tell you about my past me. And I think that’s okay. I don’t think we need to bare our whole souls to each other, necessarily. But we do need to be honest.”

Shiro gave a small nod. “Yes. We do.”

“So...how are you?” Keith asked. “You were exhausted earlier, don’t lie.”

“I was,” Shiro admitted. “I’m...not as powerful as I once was. It happens to us all, in time.”

Keith pursed his lips. “Would more blood help?”

Shiro gawked at him, and then shook his head. “Don’t feel as if you must offer that. It may help, but I do not wish to give you another scar.”

“I have plenty of scars, what’s one more?”

“Keith.” Shiro gave him a small, fond smile. “I appreciate it, but no. Blood sacrifices are no simple thing, and I still have power from yours. It will be enough. It will have to be.”

“I’m tryin’ to help,” Keith grumbled.

Shiro made a soft sound and smoothed Keith’s hair out of his face. “And you are. You are, believe me.”

Keith said, “I better be. You ever get tired from using too much magic again, you tell me, okay?”

“Okay,” Shiro agreed. “I suppose I can set aside my pride for you.”

“Pride won’t do you no good if you drain all your power,” Keith said. “So let’s not let it get to that point.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Shiro said.

Pidge hurried back to the fire with a rabbit and a big gophersnake. Shiro and Keith exchanged looks. “Yum,” Keith said, and Shiro grinned, dissolving into giggles when Keith pulled his knife out and declared he was the resident expert snake chef.

*

They continued on after breakfast – all of them were exhausted from the sleepless night, and so spoke little as they rode through the canyon. It seemed to go on forever, the horses’ hoofbeats thudding dully with every step, the dry wind rustling through the few scraggly mesquites and palo verdes clinging to the rocky dirt. The creek had long since dried up, leaving them to ride through the pebbly wash. Keith recalled finding what Pidge called fossils in a wash like this, closer to home. Strange little treasures of the past buried in the silty sand, distinctly different from all the rocks around them...Keith wondered if there were more fossils here, perhaps of a new kind, and voiced this thought to Pidge.

Pidge was delighted by the possibility, and when they stopped to make camp at sunset, she started sifting through the rocks and dirt with determination. Keith made the fire with Lance, and Shiro made soup.

“Really?” Pidge exclaimed when Shiro handed her a steaming bowl and a slice of buttered bread. “You made me eat snake for breakfast when you had this up your sleeve the whole time?”

“Snake is good,” Keith said around a mouthful of soup.

That night, Pidge and Lance bundled up near the fire in the blanket Pidge had brought in her pack, and Keith and Shiro retreated to a slight alcove in the canyon walls. Shiro seemed awkward and uncertain as he draped the red blanket around Keith’s shoulders, and eventually Keith asked, “What is it, Shiro?”

“Would it...be alright if I held you in my arms tonight?” Shiro asked hesitantly.

Keith glanced towards the fire, where Lance and Pidge were already snuggled together, chuckling quietly, probably from a ridiculous Lance joke. He looked back at Shiro, whose shoulders were hunched and gaze averted. “Yes,” Keith said, taking Shiro’s hand in his own and squeezing, reassuring. “More than alright.”

Shiro lifted his gaze and smiled, clearly relieved. Keith lay down on the blanket, and Shiro curled close behind him, sighing when their bodies fit easily together; Keith’s smaller form tucked securely to Shiro’s chest. Shiro pressed his face into Keith’s hair and whispered, “I’ll never let them have you, Keith. Never.”

Keith shivered and held Shiro’s arm more securely around his waist. “I know,” he whispered back. “Only you can have me.”

Shiro’s body rumbled with a growl and he said, “Yes,” low and overwhelmed, and Keith fell asleep to painless flames licking at his skin, whispering promises in a language Keith did not need to know in order to hear the tenderness in Shiro’s voice.

*

Their journey had no discernible end in sight. Even Shiro seemed uncertain as to how far they were from the city – three days had passed, and Lance was getting antsy about missing the circus even though it was in town for an entire month.

Keith hoped the journey wouldn’t take that long...but he had been enjoying himself so far, thanks to Shiro. There was something thrilling about sneaking just out of sight from Pidge and Lance to kiss Shiro up against the sandstone cliffs. Keith had initiated it the first time, and Shiro quickly caught on – kissing Shiro was calming, and Keith needed all the calm he could get considering that Lotor was on their trail after coming back from the dead, after Keith had made him dead in the first place.

Keith was calm. Keith was so calm.

He was especially calm when Shiro shifted so that he was big enough for Keith to settle in his lap, surrounded by the bulk of the ifrit’s arms, heavy hands resting delicately on Keith’s back. Keith felt safe like that, hidden from prying eyes and guarded by sharp claws and teeth – although Shiro always kept his teeth away while they kissed, careful never to draw blood. Shiro’s forked tongue also made kissing a whole lot more exciting, even if he was careful with that, too.

He was very careful with Keith, Keith recognized. A part of him wanted to be irritated by it, but he never could be; not when Shiro looked at him with such soft eyes and Keith knew full well that it was better to err on the side of caution with such things as this. This, which Keith supposed was intimacy, more and more every day...he liked it. He truly did, even if it was still mildly terrifying when his body ran hot as Shiro’s mouth brushed his own in just the right way, and even more terrifying when his body sometimes responded.

It was a rare occurrence, comparatively, but Shiro never even seemed to acknowledge it, and eventually Keith stopped tensing up and feeling the urge to shy away when his pants tightened. And besides...Shiro’s body never seemed to respond, anyway, which was puzzling – Keith was pretty damn sure it would be difficult to miss. And yet...nothing, not even when Keith was more forward than usual, which he knew Shiro appreciated.

Keith certainly didn’t allow himself to think about it too much while it was happening; how could he think when Shiro’s tongue was making him lose his mind? But afterwards...well, he was only human, and he was curious. And the mystery was driving him mad. So, on what could have been the fifth night or the tenth (there was no telling), in between breathless kisses, Keith pulled back and folded his arms with a frustrated huff.

Shiro tilted his head and said, “Everything alright?”

Keith had never been good at subtle. “Do you have a cock?” he asked.

Shiro blinked, bewildered, and then a slow understanding spread across his features. He scratched the back of his neck, sheepish. “Not...currently, no.”

“...not currently?” Keith eked out.

“I...hm.” Shiro sighed. “I do, most of the time, I suppose. But...I’m unsure of the extent to which I can control my body’s reactions to all...this.” He gestured vaguely to Keith, who flushed. “And I don’t want to make you uncomfortable or feel obligated to...do anything about it. So. It’s temporarily…”

“Gone?” Keith said in disbelief. “Just like that?”

“Yes.” Shiro shrugged. “I just thought it would be easier.”

“You magicked your cock away,” Keith said, and once he started giggling he couldn’t stop, snorting in a most undignified manner and slumping forward against Shiro’s shoulder, shaking his head. “How are you real? That’s...Lord.” He patted Shiro’s chest, exhaled, and looked up at him. “You know...you don’t need to do that. I appreciate it...but I don’t think I’d feel. Obligated.”

Shiro worried his bottom lip between his teeth. “Keith…”

“I get it,” Keith mumbled, resting his chin on Shiro’s shoulder. “You’re big.” Shiro winced and chuckled at the same time, strained. “But I don’t want you to feel like you have to withhold parts of yourself for my sake, Shiro. You don’t. I trust you; I trust you to stop if I tell you to and I trust you not to...to take advantage. I do.”

“Alright,” Shiro conceded after a few moments of thought. “Next time, then. But...I’m not sure we can be...like this.” He looked pointedly at Keith in his lap and Keith turned pink. “We’d have to find some...elevation for you.”

“So I’m not sitting on your –” Shiro coughed, cutting him off right there. Keith grinned lopsidedly. “Something I said?”

“I’m beginning to think the real Devil is you,” Shiro said, shaking his head warmly and smoothing Keith’s hair out of his face.

Keith didn’t deny it, just laughed delightedly and kissed him sweet and long.

*

“This is elevation,” Keith said, swinging his legs off the edge of the cave ledge and wiggling his eyebrows at Shiro, who was regarding him with fond exasperation. They’d found the cave a little ways from camp, and Pidge and Lance definitely knew they were up to something, and Keith couldn’t even find it in himself to care about it. Not when Shiro was closing the distance between them and tilting his head up to kiss Keith from where he sat on the narrow rock ledge he’d scrambled up onto. It was just high enough that Keith was made a little taller than Shiro, and allowed Keith to wrap his legs around Shiro’s waist if he wanted to while keeping...certain other bits away.

“This works,” Shiro murmured, lips brushing across Keith’s cheek and then further down, Keith’s body locking up in surprise when the ifrit mouthed lightly at his neck. Shiro paused. “Okay?”

“Y-yeah,” Keith stammered, belatedly tipping his head to the side, one of Shiro’s hands cupping his right hip, the other curving around to his upper back, shielding it from hitting the sharp stones. “What are you…?”

“Just kissing, if that’s all you want me to do,” Shiro replied, making good on his promise by trailing soft kisses down the column of Keith’s throat, chaste and close-mouthed. Keith trembled, his lips parting in a barely-audible sigh, and he felt Shiro’s smile against his skin. “You like this,” the ifrit noted.

Keith nodded jerkily. “It’s...you can do more than just kiss, there, if you want.”

“Mmm, alright,” Shiro said easily, and licked. Keith made a soft sound and clutched at him, his arms looping around Shiro’s neck, holding him in place as his kisses turned wet and sloppy.

It should have felt strange and a bit repulsive, Keith thought, but instead he just wanted more, more of Shiro’s mouth on him; and he didn’t even know why he said it when he gasped, “I want – Shiro, I want you to leave marks on me.”

Shiro lifted his head, eyes half-lidded. He didn’t deny the request, just murmured, “Where?”

Keith swallowed and touched where the side of his neck met his collarbone just above his shirt collar, a soft hollow of skin that Shiro’s lips quickly covered, and then he sucked hard, teeth digging in just so, and Keith genuinely groaned, eyes falling shut and head falling back to the mercy of Shiro’s mouth. It hurt, almost, his neck throbbing when Shiro pulled away, a darkening bruise blooming upon his pale skin. Keith pressed his fingertips to it and shuddered, gasping when his fingertips fell away and Shiro’s tongue dragged over the mark tenderly.

“Why does that feel so good,” Keith grumbled, almost annoyed by the unexpected pleasure. Almost.

Shiro nuzzled at his shoulder and hummed. “Everyone has places that are more sensitive than others.”

Keith frowned. “Even you?” Shiro inclined his head, lips quirked. “Where?” Keith demanded.

Shiro blinked slowly, then took Keith’s hands gently in his own and pressed them to his chest. “Here, for a start.”

Keith made a quizzical sound. “Your chest? Why…” He narrowed his eyes at Shiro’s nipples, a shade darker than his shadowy skin. He slid his hands down to cover them, and Shiro’s breath hitched audibly. “Or do you mean here?”

“Why don’t you find out,” Shiro suggested, a bit unsteady, and leaned back in to nip and lick at Keith’s neck. Sensing a challenge, Keith rubbed his thumbs over Shiro’s nipples, and got the tightening of Shiro’s grip on him in reply, the ifrit’s body rumbling with a growl or a groan or something in between as Keith rubbed harder. It was fascinating how the flesh peaked under his touch, and when there were definable nubs against his palms Keith had half a mind to be more gentle, circling his fingers around them instead, slower and more teasing, like the way Shiro nibbled at his neck.

Then Shiro tugged slightly at Keith’s shirt, easing the collar down, and Keith faltered, only to shiver pleasantly when Shiro sucked another mark into his shoulder, this one bigger and hidden by Keith’s shirt. In return, Keith lightly pinched Shiro’s nipples between thumb and forefinger, halting and uncertain, gaining confidence when Shiro leaned more heavily into him and bit gently at his shoulder over the mark – only blunt teeth, no threat of blood, but still a bit of a shock. A good shock, though.

Keith squirmed back against the rocks as Shiro’s hot breath feathered over his throat and Shiro’s chest heaved against his hands, so much broader and stronger than his own, yet made weak by only simple touches. When Shiro’s wandering mouth found Keith’s, Keith’s lips opened to his gladly, and this time Shiro was a little less careful with his tongue.

Keith realized he was hard. Also, dizzy. Also, Shiro had suddenly stopped.

Keith broke away from his slack mouth and was about to ask what was wrong when he saw the source of Shiro’s frozen state.

They were not alone in the cave.

Keith let out a strangled cry, nails digging hard into Shiro’s chest in sheer terror, because there was a dragon crouched in the shadows, prowling slowly but steadily towards them and glaring with slitted golden eyes. It did not look like a happy dragon, not that Keith thought such a thing existed – then again, he’d been pretty damn certain that dragons in general didn’t exist outside of Allura’s storybooks. But this was unmistakably a dragon, and unmistakably, horrifyingly, real.

Shiro’s grip on Keith was nearly bruising, body pressing closer to him, clearly trying to shield him from the fearsome creature. The dragon’s jaws parted, revealing rows of gleaming white teeth, each as long as Keith’s knife. Then it spoke, low yet somehow feminine voice growling, “So this is how you’ve been honoring Xilonen’s memory. I suppose I was a fool to expect any better from you.” The dragon’s lips curled and it – she? – sat back on her haunches, bringing herself to her full, impressive height, scales shining red and black in the wash of moonlight. She examined them as if they were ants that ought to be stepped on, but she was loathe to dirty her feet with them. “A human. Really? Couldn’t even find another one of your own kind to fuck for fun?” She cocked her head. “Or are the others all dead or defected, hm? I understand. If your options are so limited, it makes sense that you’d stoop so low –”

“I suggest you cease speaking of what you do not understand, Chantico,” Shiro interrupted sharply, shifting to his true form and illuminating the cave with flames as they flickered to life from his shoulders and arms. Keith held perfectly still, mortified and beyond frightened. Shiro apparently knew this she-dragon – another old god, maybe. Which...didn’t make Keith any less scared.

Chantico glowered at him. “What do I not understand? That she, Xilonen, your wife and my dearest friend, died saving you, and this is how you repay her? How many others have you laid with since the Emperor killed her, hm? How many times have you forgotten her sacrifice?”

“I have never forgotten her,” Shiro snarled, fangs long and sharp in his widened maw. “There have been no others. He is the first since her.”

Keith hadn’t known that. Chantico looked startled, then suspicious. “I do not believe it,” she said dismissively. “You were unfaithful even while she was alive –”

“Even after all these years, you still know nothing,” Shiro snapped, flames crackling higher, warming Keith’s skin further but never burning. “I loved her more than anything. Your jealousy blinds you.”

Chantico bristled, smoke swirling from her flared nostrils. “Jealousy! You think I am jealous, to want better for her, better than you…” She deflated slightly, and scowled. “But I suppose, in the end, it did not matter. She is gone now, and the rest of our world and reign with her.”

“Not according to the Emperor,” Shiro said warily. “He still believes he can bring it back.”

“He’s changed,” Chantico muttered, spiky tail swiping through the dust. “And to think that once, he was the one who was soft on humans, and you were the one who reveled in their bloodshed.” Keith stiffened and Chantico’s hard gaze fell upon him. “Oh, he doesn’t know, does he? Kind of you to hide the truth from him.”

“Shiro isn’t like that,” Keith whispered, managing to stop his voice from shaking despite the pounding rhythm of his heart. “He’d never hurt me.”

Chantico sneered, looking back to Shiro. “You really caught yourself a naive one, hm?” She bared her teeth. “He killed thousands, you foolish boy. Xilonen, too, for all her heart – she took her fair share of flayed bodies and decapitated heads in her time, when they were offered. Mere childsplay compared to your sacrifices though, Shiro. Shall I tell him? Or would you like to? At least most of us simply took what was offered to us – you demanded more. Greedy, power-hungry, endlessly ambitious monster – that’s what you were. Tossing aside human lives like rats. That’s what you saw them as, didn’t you? Go on, don’t be ashamed to admit it – you certainly weren’t back then!”

“Stop,” Shiro hissed, pained. Despite his flames, Keith felt cold all over. “That was – a long, long time ago.”

“Yes, it was,” Chantico said with a sniff. “Thus, explaining why you’re so much weaker than the last time I saw you. If you were smart, you would have slumbered as I did.”

“I woke up,” Shiro retorted. “As did you, evidently.”

Chantico’s tail lashed and she took a step closer, forepaw raised slightly. “Your arm,” she said. “The Emperor captured you...didn’t he? He and the Snake Woman, was it?”

Shiro angled his right arm away from her as best he could. “It does not matter. He did not succeed.”

Chantico’s scaled brow furrowed. “He wishes to take your power for his own...no. He needs to take your power for his own!” she exclaimed. “You are the last, then.”

“You still live,” Shiro said.

“But I am a far weaker being and we both know it,” Chantico said. “You are older, with darker and more powerful magic; the very energy he seeks. Without it...will he finally wither away?”

“I do not know for certain,” Shiro said. “I did not see him while captive, only his wife.”

Chantico scoffed. “Wife? His lackey, more like. The Snake Woman corrupted him and then he cast her aside, so I suppose it is nothing she does not deserve.”

“I am unsure she was the source of the corruption,” Shiro muttered. “Merely the carrier.”

“Then what?”

“A twisted magic she stumbled across in her experiments,” Shiro said simply. “A misstep, a power far older than even us. As you said – they are changed, him especially. Whatever it is, it wants ever greater power, and the Emperor believes it will restore power and rule to him and the others.”

Chantico blew a smoke ring, shaking her head. “Complicated,” she complained. “At least you’ve retained our original simplicity – you have a sacrifice close at hand if needed.” She nodded to Keith. “Clever.”

Keith’s stomach was in knots. Shiro didn’t look at him, just glared up at Chantico and gritted out, “You are mistaken. He is nothing of the sort.”

She waved a paw. “A waste, then. Humans die too fast. You would be wise to shorten it –”

Shiro moved so quickly that Keith was one moment pinned to the rocks and the next completely alone, as Shiro’s shadow form howled through the air and surrounded Chantico in darkness. Keith could see nothing of the dragon save for a rapidly shortening tail, and then there was a voice, low and furious and incomprehensible, and as fast as it had appeared, the shadows dissipated, leaving a short woman with brown skin, a stocky build, curly bobbed black hair, and a red dress in the dragon’s place. She wore what appeared to be a necklace of chili peppers and cactus spines, and Keith wasn’t even questioning it, at this point.

In the blink of an eye, Shiro reformed in front of Keith, who jumped, breathing shallowly and fearing for his poor heart as it skipped yet another beat. “Understood?” Shiro said to the woman, who got to her feet with a grunt, glaring at him with the same dragon eyes and tipping up her chin defiantly.

“I will never understand you,” Chantico snapped, folding her arms. “Though I understand just fine that you still love your displays of power as much as you always have. I wonder how many of those you have left before you wither away, too?”

“Do not forget we are both in danger of withering,” Shiro said. “Now, answer my question.”

“Understood, you idiot,” Chantico sighed. “I will not harm your human boy –” She faltered as Shiro glared, “...your Keith, ugh, I cannot believe you; nor will I speak ill of him or imply that you intend to use him as a sacrifice – despite that choice being a huge mistake on your part – or harm him in any way.” She raised a thick eyebrow, bored. “Is that all?”

“No. Apologize to him.”

“Sh-shiro, I don’t think –” Keith started.

“Apologize,” Shiro warned, tone unwavering.

Chantico spat out a curse in a strange language. “I apologize, Keith. May you live out the short remainder of your days with your sweet and delusive ‘Shiro’ in utter happiness.” She gave Shiro a flat look. “How was that?”

“Xilonen deserved better than you,” Shiro started hotly, and then both gods stilled. Shiro’s ears pricked and Chantico plucked a chili pepper from her necklace – it transformed into a spear in her hand. Keith felt faint. There was a shout from nearby, and he jerked out of his confused stupor.

“Lance and Pidge,” he gasped, and Shiro nodded grimly, helping Keith hastily off the ledge and towards the mouth of the cave.

“Do not go to them,” Chantico called after them, her grip on the spear white-knuckled. “There are dangerous forces here, best to let them run their course.”

“I cannot let them run this course,” Shiro said, and hurried with Keith back to camp.

Chantico watched them go with lowered brows, flames flickering in her golden eyes.

*

As they ran back to camp, the desert seemed to be undergoing an eerie and alarming transformation. The earth roiled, as if the very sand and rocks had come alive, and Keith did not know why until thousands of insects swarmed from it – ants and beetles and spiders from the ground and clouds of wasps and bees from the trees and cliffs. He scrambled back and Shiro swept Keith up into his arms before the biting and stinging creatures could reach him. They seemed to ignore Shiro, except for a huge rattlesnake coiled in the brush who struck out as the two of them passed, aiming for Shiro’s calf. Shiro shook it off with a grimace, and it hissed loudly, slithering away, following the other creatures, which were all headed in the same direction as Shiro and Keith – back towards camp.

Keith strained to see Pidge and Lance, the bitter taste of fear on his tongue as he imagined what they might find at the campsite. No, no, he could not think of that – his friends were tough, resourceful. They wouldn’t be dispatched by some centipedes and spiders.

But when they rounded the canyon corner and came upon the camp, Keith’s heart leapt into his throat at the sight before them.

There were two beings, vaguely feminine in shape, standing over Pidge and Lance where they writhed on the ground, gasping in incoherent distress, skin soaked with sweat and hair plastered to their brows as if they had come down with a terrible fever. The taller being was dark and skeletal, with clawed hands and a skull face as she turned slightly to face Shiro and Keith. She was grinning with her too-wide mouth and bleached, gumless teeth, and her eyes shone round and bright from her gaping eye sockets, glowing gold with turquoise irises. Her bony carapace was marked with bright yellow, purple, and blue geometric shapes, continuing in her long hair, tied up in a high ponytail. But her most startling feature were the huge butterfly wings fluttering at her back, their edges tipped with sharp black points.

When she saw Shiro, she grinned wider, eyes flashing. “I knew it! Narti, he is here, look!”

The other being turned, and Keith was overcome with an utter, unexplainable sense of dread as she did. She didn’t...she didn’t have a face. What little face was there was more snake than human, a slitted nose and a mouth lined with jagged teeth that opened in a wordless hiss. The figure was cloaked, with clawed hands and feet, dull bluish skin, and a long tail like a lizard’s which flicked behind her.

Shiro said, “There was no need to involve these humans, Ezor. Tell Narti to release them.”

Ezor put her hands on her hips, indignant. “That so? Then why have you got the very human we were looking for right there, Jaguar? Seems to me that they’re already involved.” She smiled at Keith and nudged Lance’s prone body with her foot. “Friends of yours, huh?”

“Let them go,” Keith snapped. “Shiro, put me down.”

Shiro’s grip just tightened. “Keith. That’s not a good idea –”

Ezor laughed. “Oh, no, by all means, go ahead! Or, better yet – why don’t we just take him off your hands for you?”

Shiro took a step back but it was too late – Ezor flapped her wings and Keith was tugged from Shiro’s grasp by an awful, invisible force, sending him careening through the air and landing hard on his stomach on the ground beside his incapacitated friends. Keith tried to push himself up on his elbows but found, with an icey stab of fear, that he could not move a single muscle. Distantly, he heard Shiro yelling, and he thought it was his name, but...Keith’s head felt strange, woozy, and when he lifted his gaze in a vain attempt to see Shiro, the faceless woman stared down at him instead.

Stared, even though she had no eyes – Keith felt her gaze cutting to his very core, worming its way into his mind like the wriggling creatures she had summoned from the earth around her, finding a weak spot.

As soon as Keith realized her intent, he jerked away, temporarily breaking whatever hold she had on him out of sheer panic. She hissed, lifting a hand and looming over him, and Keith’s vision filled with white, blinding and disorienting, and he was paralyzed once more. But this time, when his vision cleared, it was not the faceless woman standing over him. This monster had a face, a face that Keith had tried with every fiber of his being to forget, but which Narti had found anyway.

“No,” Keith whispered, but saying it didn’t do anything to stop him from doing what he wanted to anyway, just like the first time. Still, Keith kept saying it, screaming it, clawing at the dirt and coughing as dust filled his lungs and coated his constricting throat in dry grit and he just kept making sounds, because surely somebody would hear, somebody would care enough to make him stop.

But Keith had realized, somewhere in the awful middle of it, that nobody was coming to save him; there was no savior, no hero, no help on the way. He had realized that they had planned this – they had kept him late at supper for a reason, so that he would be forced to walk back to the barn alone, in the dark, vulnerable.

And a part of him had laughed at that, laughed hysterically in between sobs as the man shoved him down and grunted behind him. He had laughed because he had imagined them all sitting around a table, hands steepled under their chins like the most typical villains, planning how to ambush and violate him as if he were some complex and dangerous adversary rather than a skinny, scared boy.

The man hadn’t liked his laughter then, and he didn’t like it now, and Keith panicked when the man held his face down in the dust to smother his sounds; he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t –

Keith, wake up, this isn’t real, whatever she’s making you see –

But Keith couldn’t wake up. He had thought at first that it must be a dream, but it felt so real, so horrifically real, and when he closed his eyes and bit his lip so hard it bled and counted to ten, it didn’t stop. It just went on and on and on and Keith didn’t resist the numb blankness when it set in, didn’t resist the man’s hands and body on him because he was hollow, floating, far far away from here because if he stayed, he would shatter to pieces. He just had to wait until it was over, over...over…

Keith.

Suddenly, he wasn’t lying on his front anymore. He was in someone’s arms, staring dazedly at the pale blue sky. Blue? No. He blinked, and the sky was black, starry, and someone said his name again – no, three people, voices overlaid in a confusing cacophony of sound. Keith closed his eyes again. Keith, breathe. Slowly, that’s it. But the words didn’t quite register. He heard them as if from underwater, their meaning and source lost somewhere in the roar of blood in his ears.

He didn’t understand what was happening, because this time it was different – no belt buckle, no slit throat, no blood, no Thace, no frantic ride away from the barn in the dead of night. So then – was that man still here? Still alive? Someone, he realized suddenly, was touching him.

Keith tried to twist away, a desperate abortive movement, and the sounds around him pitched higher, alarmed. The person holding him let go and his cheek pressed to the dirt and it took him a moment to realize nobody was holding him down. There was only the wind, whispering over his bare arms and face and raising the hair on the back of his neck, but that was almost worse; it felt like fingertips, phantom pressure. Keith was shivering. He hated the cold. It had been cold that night, but it was desert cold, which was a unique, dry kind of cold, the kind that stung skin and chapped lips and sucked the life out of all it touched like the Angel of Death –

Something nudged gently at his shoulder, and the touch was warm. Keith flinched away, instinctive, but then he was on his back again, guided by the warm touch which lifted away carefully. Keith was staring up at the stars again, and he’d had tunnel vision on the ground but the sky widened it. There were so many stars. But they kept blurring, making it impossible to focus on any of them. The moon, though – it was big and bright, full, and that gave him pause.

There hadn’t been a moon that night.

Keith.” Keith blinked, and a hand moved into his vision, not touching him but pointing instead to the stars. “Can you see Orion?” Keith’s nod was more of a jolt. “Good...now, see, if you follow the Belt upwards, just over the bow...that’s Aldebaran, in Taurus, it’s the bull’s eye. And if you follow the Belt downwards, that’s Sirius, in Canis Major – see how bright it is? The brightest star in the sky. And then, up from Sirius to the left, that’s Canis Minor…”

Keith didn’t look away from the moon, but he listened to the voice – let it ground him, enough that when he did look again at the stars, he was able to pick out the constellations Shiro pointed out. The longer he listened and let his eyes follow the paths of the stars, the clearer Shiro’s voice became, and the quieter his blood roared.

“Do you know where you are?” Shiro asked somewhere between Ursa Major and the Pleiades.

“Yes,” Keith whispered, his voice as thin and insubstantial as the wind. But Shiro heard it. Keith knew he would.

“Would it help if I touched you?” Shiro murmured after Cassiopeia.

Breath leaving his lungs in a rush, Keith said yes again, eyes prickling with tears he hadn’t known he was holding back. Because with Shiro, yes and no meant what they should.

“Alright. Shh, Keith, it’s over; you’re here, now.” A large hand stroked through his hair and Keith felt the wet trail of a tear trace its way down his cheek. Still shivering, seeking warmth, Keith curled towards him this time, and Shiro lifted him out of the dust carefully, and Keith knew whose hands were on him when he closed his eyes, this time.

There was a new voice, one that he didn’t recognize at first, sharp and female. “Malinalxochi’s hallucinations sent your Keith into shock. You must leave this place, Jaguar, or she will do far worse harm. Humans are fragile, and she is all too adept at breaking them.”

A more familiar voice, soft and male from close above him. Shiro. “Thank you, Chantico...I owe you a great debt.”

“You owe me nothing,” Chantico retorted. “You have nothing to give, Jaguar – you are weaker than I previously judged. You were too weak to stop Itzpapalotl and Malinalxochi. You cannot even spirit yourself and your mortals away from here, can you?”

“No,” Shiro admitted. “We have been traveling to the City of Angels on foot. But I have no choice, now, I must try –”

“Shiro,” Keith whispered, reaching up blindly, “no.”

“Shhh,” Shiro murmured, his face swimming in Keith’s vision, twisted in worry. “I will keep you safe, Keith, no matter what.”

Chantico made a disgusted sound. “You are as dramatic as ever,” she grumbled. “I will send you to the city myself, Jaguar, as long as you promise to never return here and never disturb me again.”

“That is a more than fair agreement,” Shiro said.

Chantico huffed, filling the air with a cloud of sulphurous smoke. Keith saw her when he tipped his head to the side, standing again in her dragon form, wings half-spread and spiky head lifted imperiously, staring critically down at them – Lance and Pidge huddled together at Keith’s side with Shiro cradling Keith in his arms.

“I was wrong,” Chantico sighed, something sad and soft in her eyes. “You hold him just as you held her.”

Then she inclined her head and spread her wings wide, turning the world red and sending the desert whirling away, and Keith let his eyes fall shut, her words echoing in his head, banishing the shadows that threatened to overwhelm him.

Chapter Text

“I think you can let go of him now.” Lance’s voice.

They were in a carriage, rattling down a cobblestone street. Keith was being pulled from the solid warmth he’d been curled against, and he stirred, discontent.

“He’s waking up,” Pidge murmured, her hand smoothing over Keith’s brow and big hazel eyes blinking down at him. “Hey. Feeling better?”

“Shiro,” Keith whispered, “where…”

Lance leaned over from beside Pidge, frowning. “He’s right there. We’re almost to Pidge’s house, just a little while longer.”

Keith turned his head to his other side. Shiro was sitting there, human and hunched over in the small carriage, hands folded uncertainly in his lap. Relieved, Keith slumped against his shoulder. Pidge and Lance drew in sharp breaths and Shiro tensed. “Keith?” he ventured.

“Warm,” Keith said simply, turning his face into Shiro’s jacket and closing his eyes again.

*

When his eyes opened again, he was in a small bed in a small room. There was a slice of sunlight filtering in through the curtains, and the sounds of a busy city street muffled through the wall. A painting hung on the opposite wall – of a countryside, lush green rolling hills and a pleasant apple orchard bordering a small white house. It was a nice painting. Nice enough.

Then Keith became aware of the sound of breathing other than his own, and turned his head on the pillow. Shiro was sitting in a chair much too small for him at Keith’s bedside, a few feet away as if wanting to give him space even when he was bedridden. He had his head in his hands, fingers sunken into his hair. His pose reminded Keith of another painting he had seen in one of Allura’s books, a much better painting than the one on the wall. A Van Gogh, he thought.

“Hello,” Keith said, wondering if Shiro had drifted off.

He had not. He started violently, his breathing faltering when he lifted his head and met Keith’s gaze. There was a wildness in Shiro’s eyes, and Keith wondered at its origin. Then he remembered what had happened in the canyon and let out a shaky exhale, a new heaviness sinking into the room. Keith rolled onto his back again, staring at the ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Shiro made a sound like a wounded animal. “Why,” he whispered, “are you sorry?”

Keith swallowed. “You know why,” he said, and then realized it wasn’t fair to Shiro to leave it at that, and added, “You’ve been tryin’ to help me, and I appreciate it, I do, and for a while there I thought we were makin’ progress, but in the end I guess all that don’t matter much, because it came back to me as bad as always; worse, even.” He licked his chapped lips. “See, I thought I’d be able to do those things with you eventually, that intimacy thing. Because I want to, you know? I do. For the first time, I do. Because you make me feel so good, and I want you to feel good too, and being with you...it don’t make me feel dirty like I always thought it would. But then I remember what was done to me all over again, and...I just forget everything I have with you. I ain’t any less scared, or upset, or hurt. It’s the same as it’s always been – I’m the same as I’ve always been, and maybe I always will be, and...maybe we should stop trying.”

“No,” Shiro said.

Keith blinked, taken aback. “...No?”

“No,” Shiro repeated firmly. “If you want to stop trying sexual intimacy, then alright, but not intimacy itself, Keith – for as long as I’m around, for as long as you want me to be around, I’m not going to stop trying to help you heal. I’m not going to stop trying to help you find peace and live your life without that shadow hanging over you.”

Keith’s lower lip trembled. “But – did you not jus’ hear me, Shiro? I ain’t ever gonna heal, not in the way you want; I ain’t ever gonna be a clean slate. What happened is never gonna leave me, and I’m gonna have to live with it the way I been tryin’ to!”

“I don’t want a clean slate,” Shiro retorted. “I want you.” He shook his head. “And you are healing, Keith. If you’d kept on living the way you were when I met you – isolated, angry, bitter, ashamed – you’d be dead by now. That’s no way to live. Trust me, I know.”

“Shiro –”

Shiro held up a hand and Keith bit his lip. “You are healing,” he whispered, and Keith didn’t shy away when Shiro took his hands gently between his own. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And maybe you’re right – maybe it never will leave you completely. I know a thing or two about that, too. But the difference is how you cope with it. And Keith, I am here for you, to help you cope. I can’t make you heal, Keith. That’s up to you, in the end. But I will do everything I can to make it easier for you.”

Keith clutched at his hands clumsily, searching his eyes. “Why?” he whispered back urgently. “Why don’t you demand a clean slate; why don’t you demand more from me when you could take it in an instant?”

Shiro’s mouth twitched, pained, but he didn’t move away. “I am done with taking,” he said. “I have done far too much of that, Keith. I have lived a long time; a time longer than I can even say for certain. But I think my eternity is coming to a close. It began when Haggar stole the magic from our altars to revive Lotor and Xolotl, but perhaps it was inevitable – I am worshipped no longer, and I cannot live off of stolen sacrifices forever. And I think that is for the best.”

Keith’s eyes widened. “You’re – you’re dying?!”

“Not so, not yet, dear one,” Shiro murmured, lifting Keith’s hand to his lips and kissing his knuckles softly. “There is no need for distress. It will not be soon, nor anytime that would cause you grief. Even in our decline we will remain for decades to come, in some form. But I say this to you now because you are not in such a decline, Keith. You may be mortal but there is...a great deal of life in you.”

“In my blood?” Keith wondered, confused.

Shiro lifted a hand and cupped his face. “In your eyes,” he said. “In your soul. And I do not want that life, that spark of you, to be lost, Keith. That is why I do not take; if I wished I could erase the memories that plague you. It would be as if they never happened. But I know you do not want me to do that.”

He tilted his head. “And at first I did not understand why. Your order to never erase any of your memories mystified me. They cause you pain; why would you not want them gone? But as time went on I began to realize – me taking those memories would just be yet another form of violation. Awful as those memories are – they are still yours. Taking them away would not be healing.”

He regarded Keith with glowing golden eyes despite his human form; it was a strange juxtaposition. “I am a foolish being, Keith. I thought I knew everything, I let myself wallow in cynicism and arrogance because of that belief. But you have taught me that I know, in fact, far less than everything. Very little at all, if I’m being honest. And I believe we made a pact to always be honest to each other.”

Shiro exhaled, and said, “And so, in the spirit of honesty, and in light of recent developments, I will tell you my name – the name I ask you not to use, but which I realize now that you should know nonetheless. It does you no favor to be blissfully ignorant, not in these times. So from now on, I will not hide this aspect of myself, and my kind, from you. There will be no soup in exchange for answers anymore. I will simply tell you, because you deserve the truth, however ugly it may be.” He squeezed Keith’s hand and then mused, “Perhaps it will be easier to show you.”

“Show me?” Keith asked, and gasped when he somehow lifted up and out of the bed, landing lightly on his feet to stand beside Shiro, and gone was the small room and the sounds of the city – they stood in a magnificent golden palace; that was the only word that came to mind. Keith turned, staring in awe at the high vaulted ceilings and open archways leading out to splendid courtyards all around. The walls and ceilings were painted in bright geometric and esoteric patterns, swirling and sweeping over the stone unlike anything Keith had ever seen before.

And Shiro, when Keith looked back at him, had changed too – he towered above him in his true form, ram horns curling from his head and face painted in streaks of gold under his eyes and down his chin and the center of his lips, the scar on his nose emphasized with a black stripe over his nose and cheekbones.

His shadowy body was adorned with all manner of gold, silver, and jewels – a heavy golden mantle across his neck and shoulders, silver bracelets at his wrists and ankles embedded with obsidian fragments, head crowned by a headdress of heron feathers as silver as his hair, turquoise and fire opal pendants hanging from his ears, and knotted sandals strung with tiny tinker bells upon his feet. He wore the usual cloth at his hips but it shimmered with slight iridescence as he took a step forward, lending a certain unreality to it that mirrored the rest of this place – too beautiful to be real.

But when Keith took his offered hand, it felt warm and solid, and Keith narrowed his eyes. “How much of your magic are you wasting with this?” he demanded.

Shiro shot him a small smile. “None,” he assured him. “I am creating nothing – all of this already happened. It exists in my memories, in my head – I’m simply sharing it with you. It’s a dream world, of sorts. Now, come...there is much to see.”

Keith followed as Shiro led him through the palace, unable to stop staring at it all, and balking when he saw three jaguars sunning themselves in a passing courtyard, stretching and flicking their tails lazily. Shiro only nodded to them, and one of the jaguars rolled onto its back and replied with a huge yawn, revealing gleaming fangs. Keith said, strangled, “So you had pet jaguars. That’s...something.”

“Not pets,” Shiro said. “They are my sacred animal. They were often sacrificed to me, and I kept their souls here.”

“Those are dead jaguars?”

“Mm. What you see are their spirits, I suppose – though, here, they feel as real as you and I do.”

Keith considered that. “And the other sacrifices, are their souls here, too? The humans?”

“No,” Shiro said. “I consumed those souls, as I must. They are...long gone.” He led Keith down a narrower hall, cool and shielded from the sun with high slit windows along the walls. Under each window was mounted a human skull, many of them decorated in gold or obsidian. Keith eyed them nervously as they passed and Shiro kept a firm grip on him, keeping Keith close.

“What is this place?” Keith asked as the hall widened into a circular space, the ceiling coming to a point like...like a pyramid. The floor was a brilliant mosaic of tiles depicting a strange scene – it was circular like the room, centered around a black sun. There were jaguars and snakes and warriors with spears raised and volcanoes erupting and lightning and slaves and owls and swords and stars and somehow Keith knew it was all for Shiro, that this was all his.

Keith watched in astonished silence as, instead of answering immediately, Shiro strode across the room to the semicircle of stone steps which led up to a huge stone throne. He climbed the steps and sat upon the throne with slow, purposeful grace, and when he looked down upon Keith from his dais, Keith realized he had been wrong.

You ain’t a god, he had scoffed.

Perhaps not anymore, but I played the part quite convincingly, once upon a time.

This was more than convincing. Keith swallowed, his throat dry, and wondered dazedly if he should kneel. He didn’t; but the instinct to do so was there – so convincing was the sight of Shiro upon his throne in full regalia. A god or a king; Keith supposed that to Shiro’s worshippers the words had been one in the same.

“This was my home,” Shiro said quietly, voice echoing through the chamber. “This part, in particular, parallels the temple built for me in Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire.” He smiled slightly. “You didn’t think I lived in that lava tube forever, did you? That is more of a hiding place than a home. But this place is long gone.”

He’d had a temple. Keith felt very small, and his voice felt even smaller when he whispered, “Who are you, Shiro?”

Shiro regarded him silently for a few moments, then extended a hand to Keith. “Join me, dear one.” Hesitantly, Keith ascended the steps, hovering awkwardly beside the throne and sucking in a sharp breath when Shiro chuckled and tugged Keith down into his lap, perched on his thigh. “There, that’s better,” Shiro murmured, palm smoothing over Keith’s back. “Right?”

Keith nodded, slowly relaxing against his chest and running his fingertips over the carvings on the throne. “Yeah. You gonna answer the question, or just snuggle with me on your throne?”

Shiro snorted. “I pray you never lose that snark of yours, Keith.” Keith raised an eyebrow, waiting, and Shiro sighed, his expression sobering.

When he spoke, it was different than before, louder and somehow deeper, reverberating through the stones and Keith’s very bones. “I am The Jaguar, Maker of Himself, Lord of the North and the Near and Far, The Night Wind, The Smoking Mirror; but most knew me as Tezcatlipoca – god of the night sky, ancestral memory, time, wealth and royalty, war, shapeshifting, sorcery, temptation, conflict, and patron of the helpless.” His gaze was distant and glowing, shadows lifting from his skin like rising steam. “I was the darker counterpart, the foil, if you will, of the Aztecs’ central god – he who they called Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, but who now calls himself Emperor Zarkon. The Aztecs called us brothers, rivals who once worked together to create the world. But in truth we are not brothers, for my kind do not have kin of blood, only of spirit. He and I are equally ancient, and were once equally powerful. Together, we ruled in this realm and in the Empire.”

Keith’s chest was tight. “Zarkon?” he whispered. “You ruled with Zarkon?

“Ruled, and fought against,” Shiro replied. “We had many disagreements, and saw our worlds very differently. In hindsight, I do not know that either of us was right...or wrong, necessarily.” He wrapped an arm around Keith’s waist and said, “There is more you should see. Hold on tight.”

Keith did, and the temple swirled away – it was not like traveling in the real world; this was instantaneous and jarring. He and Shiro stood together on a battlefield, and it was a terrible sight...yet Keith could not look away. Soldiers smashed their shields together and threw their javelins in hails of obsidian death, blood spurting and spilling across the dry earth. But they were not real – they must have been, once, long ago, but now they were ghosts, their victory cries and dying moans carried away on the invisible wind, echoes.

“There he is,” Shiro murmured, and pointed to the sky. A great shadow fell over the battlefield, and Keith’s breath caught – it was a bird, he thought at first, with vibrant green, scarlet, and golden wings that covered the entire length of the field. But its body was long like a serpent’s, feathered like its wings, and huge obsidian horns curled from its reptilian head like a crown. The creature roared, and all at once the battle ceased, the soldiers crumpled, and everything was still.

“Quetzalcoatl,” Keith whispered. “What Zarkon was...before?”

Shiro nodded. The serpent landed, slithering through the corpses, staining its feathers with blood. Then it – he – paused, coiling up and lifting his proud head as if searching for something, or someone.

My Lord.

The words sounded like the battle had – fragments of times long past. As they watched, they saw a glittering purple snake winding its way across the field, towards the waiting serpent. And then, when it came near, the serpent shifted into a tall woman with long purple robes that glittered just like the snake’s scales. She threw back her hood, and her hair spilled over her shoulders, brown streaked with white. As she shifted, so did the serpent – and there was no mistaking the man standing there in a long cloak of feathers. Though his face was unlined and free of the cold fury it carried nowadays, Keith would know Zarkon’s face anywhere. He had seen it rarely, but he only needed to see the Emperor once to never forget him. Much like Shiro...although in a far more sinister way.

Zarkon extended a hand to the woman, and to Keith’s bewilderment she took his hand and he drew her close in a warm embrace. “Cihuacoatl,” Shiro murmured. “The Snake Woman, goddess of motherhood, midwives, and protector of women who die in childbirth. The Aztecs believed birthing a child was much like a battle, you know, and so the women who died in this way were honored as warriors.”

Keith thought his mother would have liked that way of thinking very much. He watched the two gods embrace for a few moments and then ventured to ask, “She was Zarkon’s lover?”

“Is, still,” Shiro corrected. “She became Honerva, and then, in her madness, Haggar – an Apache witch, they call her. But she will always truly be the Snake Woman. And in the end, I pity her, Keith – even after everything she did to me and countless others. The old tales say that she was the mother of Mixcoatl, the storm god, but he vanished long ago and was presumed dead. And yet the Snake Woman searches for him still, for her lost son, weeping and weaving curses in the night.”

“Is Lotor really the son of her and Zarkon, then?” Keith asked.

“I believe so,” Shiro said. “They could have taken mortal forms and conceived him in that way. Ironically, Quetzalcoatl and Cihuacoatl created humankind together – or so the Aztecs said. I have some doubts, seeing as they’re now intent on destroying any humans in their path to power, but I digress. I’m sure they planned for Lotor’s true form to be realized someday; unfortunately for him you cut that short.”

“So Haggar turned her own son into a host for the god of death?” Keith said in disbelief.

“Well, Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl have always been close, it is no wonder to me that Zarkon wished to bring an old friend back to his side, no matter if some of his son was missing as a result,” Shiro explained. He nodded, and a white dog with pointed, ragged ears trotted across the battlefield, nosing at the corpses, uncaring of how they stained its muzzle red. “The old stories said that Xolotl helped Quetzalcoatl to retrieve the bones from the underworld needed to create humankind.”

“Bones?” Keith repeated. “From...from what?”

“From the previous world,” Shiro said. Keith made a face. “Aztec stories are confusing, I apologize – I didn’t come up with them. Anyway, there is more to see – you know of Xochiquetzal, yes?”

“Allura’s goddess,” Keith replied. “A friend of yours?”

“More than a friend,” Shiro admitted. Keith gave him a sharp look. “Do you recall when Chantico accused me of disloyalty to Xilonen?”

“Yes…” Keith said warily.

Shiro sighed. “Well, that accusation was not entirely unfounded. I married Xochiquetzal.”

Keith gawked at him. “When you already had a wife?!”

Shiro bit his lip, and the battlefield dissolved into a small room with a high ceiling and wide, airy windows which let sunlight stream across the tiled floor. The room had a small bed and a wide array of beautiful, flourishing flowers growing along the walls, from which hummingbirds and butterflies flitted to and fro. There were two women in the room – one sitting on the bed, weeping, and the other standing before her, stroking her shoulder soothingly.

“Oh, Xochi,” the one standing murmured, her brow creased in concern. “You mustn’t be afraid.” She was full-figured and short, with wavy dark brown hair falling just past her shoulders, soulful brown eyes, and a strange yellow and green dress with beading that reminded Keith of multicolored maize along the neckline and sleeves.

He tilted his head and leaned closer – was this Xilonen, the mysterious dead god wife? Keith didn’t know what he had expected – a radiant beauty, perhaps, tall and svelte and dangerous-looking, but Xilonen was none of those things. She was, he realized, just as Shiro had described her – small, and clever. He could see it in her thoughtful gaze, and in the troubled tilt of her dark lips.

So the other woman, then, was Xochiquetzal. The resemblance to Allura was startling. She was slender, dark-skinned, and elegantly clad in a golden and mauve gown; her long silver hair billowed down around her back and shoulders in clouds, strung with glittering crystals and brightly colored feathers. Her face, strangely, seemed to be covered by a jewelled and feathered mask – or perhaps the mask was her face. At this point, Keith wouldn’t be too surprised. Her wide blue eyes were filled with tears when she looked up at Xilonen, her full lips trembling.

“How can you possibly tell me to be unafraid in this?” Xochiquetzal pleaded. “Your husband may be kind to you, but he is a cruel being! Everyone says so. My brother waxes poetic about his bloodlust and pettiness. Even your Chantico often disparages him, and she is the goddess of pain!”

“And pleasure,” Xilonen added. Xochiquetzal glared at her through her tears before putting her head in her hands despondently again. The flowers’ vines on the walls were spreading at an alarming rate, covering the stone in green and burrowing into the mortar, cracking it as Xochiquetzal continued to weep bitterly.

Xilonen sighed, and sat down on the bed beside the crying goddess. “Xochi, you and I both know that Chantico is rather prone to bouts of jealousy, and is hardly a trusted source when it comes to character. On the other hand...have I ever lied to you?”

Xochiquetzal sniffled, hesitated, and then slowly shook her head. “N-no...but, Xilonen, you don’t understand! The Jaguar may be as kind and gentle as a lamb with you, for you are his beloved, but me –! He sees me as little more than a prize, a stolen trophy, a testament to his superiority over Tlaloc. I have no illusions about that, and neither should you. You are his wife – I am his whore.”

“Xochi, no, that is not it at all!” Xilonen exclaimed, clasping her shoulder firmly. “Listen to me carefully, please. Tezcatlipoca has a good heart, and you know those are words not thrown around lightly with our kind, when hearts mean so much to us. He will not so much as lay a finger on you if you do not wish it. He does not want that from you; that is not why he took you from Tlaloc’s caves.”

Xochiquetzal frowned. “Then why would he take me away in the first place?” she whispered. “I was kidnapped – you cannot deny this. Dragged from my husband and my...my home, by force, in a most improper and clandestine style.”

Xilonen looked at her with determination. “Xochi, he took you from your husband because he – we – know how he treats you. How he has mistreated you for far too long.That is cruel.” Xochiquetzal flinched, her eyes flying wide and her tears ebbing. “Tlaloc is powerful, and Tezcatlipoca dislikes confrontation if it can be avoided. So he and I devised a plan – to steal you away from Tlaloc in the night, and marry you to my husband instead, so that Tlaloc could hurt you no longer. He is scared of the Jaguar, though he would never admit it.”

Xochiquetzal looked as if she desperately wanted to believe this was true. “Can it be so?” she murmured, wringing her hands in her lap. “Would he really do such a thing – and you, also, to allow your husband to marry another?”

“If it means your safety, then yes,” Xilonen assured her. “You will be free to do as you wish, and go where you wish, and be with who you wish – though I suggest you stay well away from Tlaloc.”

“I can abide by that,” Xochiquetzal said, laughing weakly and wiping at her eyes. “Oh, Xilonen...perhaps I have misjudged the Jaguar after all.” She swallowed, straightening up and taking a deep breath before looking to Xilonen. “You promise me that all you have said is true, and he will not touch me or harm me in any way, nor keep me captive here in his palace?”

“I promise, Xochi, all of that and more,” Xilonen replied earnestly. “Soon, you will know – the others are wrong about him.”

“I pray you are right,” Xochiquetzal murmured, the flowers blooming on the walls.

Keith looked up at Shiro as the scene faded away, leaving them in a strange, misty ether. “Tlaloc abused his wife?”

“Like the brute he was, yes,” Shiro said. “Even gods are not exempt from such base behavior. It was tragic, too, because Xochiquetzal was in many ways stronger than Tlaloc – he was the god of water and weather, but Xochiquetzal wielded far more power over humans than he, for while he could send droughts and floods and storms, she could grant wealth, love, pleasure, beauty, and fertility, and so the people loved her more, and Tlaloc was bitter. But she did not dare to stand up to him, so fully had he conditioned her to cower. Tlaloc’s older sister, Huixtocihuatl, goddess of the sea and salt, only added to Xochiquetzal’s suffering. Thankfully his servants, the Tlaloques, told Xilonen of the abuse – for they were the distributors of rain, and she the goddess of agriculture, so they often met each other. Xilonen was not close to Xochiquetzal, but she could not stand for any sort of injustice, and came to me demanding that we do something. The marriage was her idea, really, and I could never refuse her.”

“And how did it all turn out?” Keith asked. “Did Tlaloc leave her alone?”

“He did,” Shiro said. “And in time, we became quite good friends with Xochiquetzal. I see your expression, Keith, and yes – there were a few instances in which we were more than friends. Much can happen over the course of centuries, and much did happen.”

“But you and Allura…?”

“Keith.” Shiro cupped his face, smiling slightly. “Allura is a dear, old friend. But whatever happened in the past between us will not come between you and I – you are the only one. That, I promise you.”

“I’m not jealous,” Keith muttered, although he was. “Just wondering.”

“Mm.” Shiro ruffled his hair fondly. “Of course.”

Keith huffed and changed the subject. “Xochiquetzal mentioned she had a brother – who was he?”

“Ah, observant,” Shiro said, pleased. “Yes, Xochiquetzal’s twin brother was called Xochipilli, or the Prince of Flowers. He was...quite something.” Keith raised an eyebrow. “Flamboyant,” Shiro said. “At times insufferably so. He did throw the best parties by far, though.”

“And what was he god of?”

Shiro chuckled. “Oh, quite the variety of things – writing, painting, dance, song; all of the creative arts, as well as summertime, feasts, drunkenness, and pleasure, beauty and flowers like his sister. Oh, and he was the patron of male prostitutes. And the cuiloni – men who lie with other men.”

Keith blinked, surprised there was a word for it. “The Aztecs were, uh...alright with such things?”

Shiro made a face. “Ah...not exactly, no. The Aztecs were...well, if you think masculinity is overvalued in the United States, multiply that by ten, and you have the Aztecs. So it was not a matter of religious stigma, but considered a lessening of masculinity, and therefore seen in a generally negative light. But Xochipilli and Xochiquetzal were older gods, like myself and Quetzalcoatl – we were worshipped by the Toltecs first. And the Toltecs were quite alright with that sort of thing. And the Aztecs adored and admired the Toltecs, and frequently stole things from them, so Xochipilli remained.”

“Huh,” Keith said. “I reckon the Spanish weren’t too fond of him, them bein’ Catholics and all.”

“No, they were not,” Shiro said darkly. “Nor were we fond of the Spanish.”

“Why didn’t you just smite the Spanish?” Keith asked.

“Smite?” Shiro sighed and shook his head. “It is not our way to interfere with the fateful fall of societies and peoples, terrible though that fall might be. Which is why Zarkon’s quest to regain power is so troubling and out of character.”

“You think it would really mean the end of the West?” Keith couldn’t imagine it.

“It would be an end,” Shiro murmured. “An end to you and everyone you know, certainly. It would also be my end, and quite possibly Zarkon’s, too. The power he and Haggar have discovered is ancient and beyond any of our understanding – it would have been better to leave it well alone.”

“Is it another god? Or a djinni, maybe?”

Shiro shuddered. “No. I have never known of anything like it – Haggar called it quintessence, but I suspect that name is meaningless. She does not know what it is, only knows that it is brimming with greater power than we have ever known. But with power comes corruption, and the quintessence has corrupted all it has touched quite completely.”

“Did it touch you?” Keith whispered.

Shiro bowed his head. “It did more than touch me. Haggar performed many experiments on me with it. Injected, consumed, inhaled – she was determined to try everything to make me lose control and succumb. And the quintessence desired the same thing – I know your Bible refers to the Devil as an evil voice whispering in one’s head, telling them to sin and leading them to ruin, and that is the best way I can explain what it was like.”

“So how didn’t you give in, with something like the damn Devil in your ear for a year?” Keith demanded. “I ain’t doubtin’ that you have a will of iron, Shiro, but that sounds near impossible.”

“I had a reason to resist it,” Shiro said quietly.

Before Keith could ask what that reason was, the white mist wreathing them began to coalesce into another scene. And what a scene it was – Zarkon stood with Haggar at his side, wearing his great cloak of feathers and a crown to match, Haggar robed with snakes hissing at her feet. Lotor was nowhere in sight, so it must have been before his time, but Xolotl the white dog stood at Zarkon’s left side, growling with ears pinned back.

Behind the white dog was a huge man with blue skin covered in water droplets and tusks like a javelina, one of his eyes replaced by a large, round mirror – Tlaloc, Keith guessed. And his sister Huixtocihuatl loomed beside him, glaring with equally sharp tusks and slitted yellow eyes. On Zarkon’s other side stood two horribly familiar figures – the skeletal butterfly and the faceless sorceress from the canyon.

“Itzpapalotl and Malinalxochi,” Shiro murmured into Keith’s ear. “A deadly pair, always loyal to Quetzalcoatl. No wonder he enlisted them to hunt us down.”

“And that’s you,” Keith said as the scene formed fully, revealing Tezcatlipoca standing with bared teeth and clenched fists opposite Zarkon, tail lashing behind him and shadows swirling from his skin furiously. Shiro nodded, silent, waiting for the scene to unfold. Xilonen stood beside her husband, equally incensed, her eyes glowing gold, hair lifting on an invisible breeze.

Beside her stood Chantico, not as a dragon but as a woman, though her arms and face prickled with red scales like a warning. On Tezcatlipoca’s other side stood Xochiquetzal, her masked face flickering with changing colors, and beside her had to be Xochipilli – also apparently masked, handsome and willowy with dark braided hair and flowers growing on the ground where he stood.

“You are making a mistake, Jaguar,” Quetzalcoatl rumbled, his voice edged with a very real threat.

“No, it is you who are mistaken, Serpent,” Tezcatlipoca retorted. “The Empire is gone – it is time for us to move on. This unhealthy fixation of yours is not meant for our kind!”

“Why must we depend on the whims of mortals to form empires?” Quetzalcoatl said. “We are going to form an Empire of our own, Jaguar, and it will be unlike any the mortals have ever seen – we will never want for power, for we will have all the power we desire at our fingertips. You know that if we worked together, Jaguar, no invaders from across the sea, nor missionaries with silly books, could ever stop us. We were made not to simply be worshipped and appeased by these beasts called humans, but to rule and control them, brother.”

“I am not your brother,” Tezcatlipoca growled. “And what you are speaking of is monstrous – to enslave all mortals, even the ones who once served us so faithfully and only stopped after they had nearly all died of disease and despair? Have you gone mad?”

“No, but you have gone soft,” Quetzalcoatl said. “There are others like us, across this vast Earth – we could conquer them, too. Forget human sacrifices – they are weak and ephemeral. But to sacrifice another god – now, that would be true power.”

“You would not dare,” Tezcatlipoca snapped, flames flaring over his skin.

“If you will not join me, I have no use of you, only of your power,” Quetzalcoatl snarled, and raised his hand as if to strike a blow. Violet lightning burst to life in his palm, arching through the air towards the stunned Jaguar, and it happened in an instant – Xilonen let out a cry and leapt in front of the blast, catching the full brunt of it on her chest and crumpling to the ground, lifeless at Tezcatlipoca’s feet. The god fell to his knees as if he had been struck, too, yet Keith knew she had saved him from the deadly magic entirely.

The other gods on Tezcatlipoca’s side were horrified, reacting in shock and anger while Quetzalcoatl glared and lifted his hand again, though with less strength – the magic had taken a toll on him. The sounds of panic and dismay were muffled, and the other gods were beginning to blur, leaving only Tezcatlipoca and Xilonen in focus. He slid his huge, clawed hands under her small body, lifting her carefully and cradling her corpse in his arms, her head lolling against his chest, lips parted in an echo of her final cry and eyes wide and unseeing, gold fading to their original brown.

“What have you done,” he whispered, and when he looked up at Quetzalcoatl his furious golden eyes were brimming with tears. “What have you done?

Quetzalcoatl lifted his chin imperiously. “I warned you, Jaguar. Perhaps it would be better not to kill you, but rather all of your foolish friends.”

No,” Tezcatlipoca whispered, but it was hollow, and the Serpent grinned at the defeat in his voice. Tezcatlipoca just held his dead wife closer.

Chantico, face twisted in grief and streaming with tears, turned on her heel and ran as Quetzalcoatl moved towards her, and shifted into a dragon before the next blast could hit her, flying away in a stinging gust of wings and wind. Xochipilli and Xochiquetzal tried to flee, too, but Haggar spat a string of words in a strange language, binding them in place. The twins’ eyes widened in terror and Quetzalcoatl’s magic incinerated them where they stood, the flowers withering as the smoke cleared – all except one, a blooming marigold with singed petals in Xochiquetzal’s place.

Tezcatlipoca’s eyes darted to it, seemingly jolted out of his stupor by the second blast, and he snatched up the marigold, holding it close with Xilonen.

Quetzalcoatl’s lip curled. “How pathetic you are, Jaguar,” he mocked. “I wonder how long it will take for you to waste away, alone and friendless as you are? Or maybe in your loneliness you will come to your senses – I will welcome you back with open arms, brother. Until then, farewell.”

“I will never join you,” Tezcatlipoca whispered, head bowed and flames burning. “And you will destroy yourself, and I will rejoice at your smoldering ashes.”

Quetzalcoatl recoiled, and Keith realized – Zarkon was afraid of Shiro. He had been back then, and he still was now.

The Serpent glared at him, feathers bristling like spears, and hissed, “You are so full of wishful thinking for one who has just lost everything. The Spanish may have conquered this place now, but there is another empire coming – the American Empire. And they will be a motley collection of greedy, stupid, reckless creatures just begging to be shackled, and they will reach these lands eventually, and when they do – I will be waiting for them. And they will be the first to know our might.”

Tezcatlipoca said nothing, only vanished in the blink of an eye, and the scene with him.

Keith opened his eyes. He was back in the small bed in the Holts’ house.

“Tezcatlipoca,” he murmured to the ceiling. Shiro shivered, and looked away. Keith frowned, sat up, and pulled him into a tight hug.

Shiro stiffened, surprised, but quickly hugged him back, tucking his face into the crook of Keith’s neck and exhaling shakily, his nails turning half-claw where they dug into Keith’s back with blatant desperation.

“Do you see now?” he whispered urgently. “Do you see why I will never let them take you, Keith?” Keith nodded jerkily and Shiro slumped against him fully. “They took everything from me,” he breathed. “Everything, and for centuries I felt that nothing mattered anymore, and I slumbered in a hopeless daze, and I almost let myself waste away the way he wanted me too. But then there was a spark, a glimmer of hope, for it is very hard to kill my kind completely. And so in Allura, Xochiquetzal lives on. And Chantico escaped, and lives on, even if she blames me for letting Xilonen…” Shiro squeezed his eyes shut. “I sensed the Serpent’s powers rising and I awakened, and I did it because of her, Keith, because I could not let her sacrifice be wasted. She is – or was – my reason.”

“Was?” Keith whispered, his heart stuttering.

“I had nothing,” Shiro whispered back, stroking his hair and leaning his forehead against Keith’s. “And then I found you.”

“Shiro –” Keith stared at him, breathless.

“It was not wasted,” Shiro said, so soft it was barely audible. “It was not wasted if it allowed me to meet you, and to help you heal, and to hold you in my arms like the precious being you are. And I wonder if she knew, somehow, something of what would come to be between you and me.”

“I wish I could have met her,” Keith said, closing his eyes.

“She would have liked you,” Shiro said, more wistful than sad. Keith stroked his cheek, his jaw, his neck, his arm, until his fingers met Shiro’s palm and a warm hand curled around them securely.

They stayed like that for a long while, breathing each other in and thinking of those they had lost and those they refused to lose, until Pidge opened the door and brought them downstairs for dinner.

*

Dr. Samuel Holt was a man with a nervous sort of disposition, and so it made Keith nervous by proxy. He was always speaking quickly and often interrupted himself to go off on a new and entirely unrelated tangent, and because of this habit those who didn’t know him might suppose he was a dolt, but Keith knew him and therefore knew he was terribly bright. Keith had a certain distrust of educated men, because at least uneducated men did not attempt to conceal their nastiness, but the Holts had always been kind and good people in Keith’s book.

Ms. Colleen Holt was rather more calm and sensible than her husband and Keith supposed that was why they had married in the first place; it would do no good to have two anxious adults running about the house all the time. She was a good cook and an excellent seamstress, and at any given time there were at least three quilts draped about the parlor in various stages of completion. As soon as she’d heard of Keith’s shack burning down via Pidge’s frequent letters home, she had begun work on a quilt for the new house, and when she greeted Keith warmly before dinner she presented it to him.

Keith didn’t know much about quilts, but Ms. Holt told him the pattern was called Rose of Sharon, from the Bible verse, or a Mexican Rose, in these parts. “Thank you, ma’am,” Keith said politely, though he didn’t know what verse she was referring to. “This is awful nice.” The quilt was a creamy off-white with the roses and stems embroidered in red, yellow, and green thread.

“Of course, dear,” Ms. Holt said. She had long since given up telling Keith to just call her Colleen. “We’re so glad you’re feeling better than when you arrived; you don’t know how tempted I was to just lay it over you while you were resting upstairs earlier! I’ll wrap it up for you to take back home with you, so you can stay warm in those cold desert nights.”

“Ma, it doesn’t get that cold,” Matt Holt said from the doorway, amused. He raised an eyebrow at Keith, like he was letting him in on a secret, and Keith gave him a small smile back. Matthew Holt was four years older than Pidge, but while most young men his age would have houses and families of their own by now, Matt was a bit of a special case.

He had a sickly constitution, and was prone to long bouts of intense illness – a rattling cough, a high fever, confusion, and chest pains which could strike unexpectedly and leave him bedridden for weeks on end. Matt had the ailment since birth, and after a doctor had told them he had poor lungs and would die if he stayed in Boston another year, the Holts up and moved to the West with their young son and infant daughter without a second thought.

Samuel and Colleen loved their children a great deal, and Matt loved Katie more than anything, so it had been a terrible blow to the family when Katie left home and went to the Galra in Matt’s place.

Samuel Holt, for all his brilliance, was a man of humble means and had serious money troubles when his family arrived in the city after their long journey. He had received financial assistance from a mysterious Good Samaritan with a promise that he would repay the debt that was owed in ten years time.

Well, the ten years passed, and Samuel Holt established himself as a respected, albeit eccentric, doctor of science and medicine in the city. And he had almost forgotten the debt that was owed, and perhaps would have if he had not been ambushed one night by a group of men in dark cloaks with the symbol of the Galra branded into their skin.

The Galra demanded payment, not in monetary form but in the form of Samuel Holt’s firstborn and only son. His protests did no good, for they threatened to kill his entire family if he did not comply. Miserable, he’d returned home to give his wife the news. But his daughter, crouched in the shadows, a slight thirteen year old with more spunk than was advisable for young women, overheard him and decided to take matters into her own small hands.

Keith had heard this tale from Pidge in the Galra hayloft all those years ago. She had cut her hair, disguised herself in Matt’s clothes, left a short letter, and delivered herself to the enemy’s doorstep. When an incredulous Keith and Lance had asked her why she’d put herself into such danger willingly, she’d retorted, “Because I knew if they took Matt, he’d surely die; but if I went instead, I’d only maybe die. It’s simple arithmetic – the odds were in my favor more than his.”

Pidge was not Matt Holt; the Galra were quite aware of that, but she was a Holt child and they were satisfied with that knowledge. And besides, they did think she was a boy, and so she took on the name of Pidge Gunderson to protect her family’s reputation, and no one was any the wiser. Pidge was as clever as her father and brother, though Keith thought she was far more practical, and so could put her cleverness to better use than them. Keith may have been slightly biased.

Anyway, after Pidge escaped from the Galra with Keith and Lance, Galran control of Los Angeles’ underworld slipped, and the Alteans gave support to the Olkari and Arusian gangs, who had controlled the city for the past six years. Keith had always thought the timing was awfully coincidental – if the Galra had still controlled the city when Pidge had escaped, her family would have been in trouble. But Allura hadn’t owned up to orchestrating the takeover, and Keith supposed a lady must keep some secrets.

Matt looked healthier than the last time Keith had seen him, which had been about two years ago. Dr. Holt sometimes visited Altea Creek on trips to Santa Fe or Tucson, and on that trip Matt had been in good enough health to accompany him, though Ms. Holt had worried herself sick, no doubt.

“Dinner’s ready, Ma,” Matt added. “Save the gifting for after, alright?”

“Oh, alright,” Ms. Holt sighed, and gave Keith a last fond pat on the arm before neatly folding the quilt back up and heading to the dining room.

Matt greeted him with a quick hug, hazel eyes warm behind round spectacles. He and Pidge were spitting images once, and still shared more similarity in appearance than most siblings, but Pidge’s hair had long since grown out, and the illusion of androgyny was harder to achieve now that she was long past adolescence, and Matt well into adulthood.

Keith wondered what it would be like to have a sibling, sometimes.

“Feeling better?” Matt asked. “You could barely stand when you arrived, you know. But Katie said it was shock, not sickness.”

“Did she say what happened?” Keith asked carefully.

“Yes, said there was an ambush in the canyon a few miles out, and it gave you a bad fright,” Matt replied. “But I’ve never known you to get easily frightened.”

“It was no easy fright,” Keith said simply. “And I am alright now, anyhow, thank you.”

Matt pursed his lips and lowered his voice. “I don’t suppose you could tell me anything about the mysterious gentleman you spent the last several hours upstairs with?”

Keith hoped his flush could be blamed on the stuffiness of the room. “His name is Shiro, and he is a good friend.”

“And a handsome one,” Matt said, casually enough. He nodded to the folded quilt. “The Rose of Sharon pattern is often gifted to newlyweds, you know.”

“I did not know,” Keith said, stiff and uncertain.

Matt tilted his head. Then he laughed, clapping Keith on the shoulder. “But you and I will be old bachelors together, won’t we?”

Keith slowly relaxed. “Yes, I suppose so,” he said.

“Matt, Keith!” Pidge yelled from the dining room. “Dinner!”

“Katie, keep your voice down, that bellowing indoors is most improper!” Ms. Holt hissed loudly.

“I hope you like chili,” Matt said with a grin, and led him to the table.

*

Keith did like chili, but he liked interrogation over meals much less. The Holts wanted to know everything that had been going on, and of course Keith could not tell them everything, or much of anything at all, when it came down to it. Everything recently had been tangled in magic and gods and danger and Shiro, and though Keith disliked lying to good people, he had little choice in this.

The Holts were particularly curious about Shiro, unsurprisingly, and Shiro weathered their questions with his usual polite grace, though Keith could tell he was tired. Keith chewed slowly on his cornbread and mulled over all that Shiro had told and shown him – especially that he was losing his immortality, and that, apparently, Shiro felt as much affection for Keith as he had felt for his wife.

Keith turned that idea over and over again in his mind. He wondered how things might be different if he was a woman – would Shiro have wed him? How did gods wed each other – surely not in the Christian way, nor through courthouses and legal documents? Or did they elope, steal away in the night to some other realm like Hades had stolen Persephone – Keith was fascinated by the thought.

Shiro sat beside him at the table, and when at last the conversation moved to Pidge and Lance, he leaned subtly towards Keith and murmured, “You’ve been quiet. Penny for your thoughts?”

“Mm,” Keith said, stirring cream into his bowl of chili, a reddening swirl of white that the two of them watched for a few moments. “Are Hades and Persephone real, like you?”

Shiro blinked. “Are other gods real, you mean?”

“Yes.” Keith looked up at him. “The Serpent said there were other beings like you, like the djinn and the Aztec gods. Was he right?”

“I would not be surprised,” Shiro mused. “Ideas of gods do not come from nothing – why would people build pyramids and temples and give riches and sacrifices if none of that belief was grounded in reality? So yes, I think so. There are many dimensions, many realms within those dimensions, and many other beings which dwell in them – anything is possible.”

Dr. Holt, who had overheard a little, leaned forward from across the table with eager eyes. “You study ancient religions?” he asked Shiro.

Keith narrowly avoided choking on his chili in a barely contained fit of laughter, but it was a near thing. Oh, Lord, the irony of it all. Shiro poked Keith’s thigh under the table and replied, “I know a fair bit about a few of them, yes. Are you a historian, Doctor?”

“Only by hobby,” Dr. Holt said hastily, waving a hand. “I just enjoy books, and I think we can all learn a great deal from the past.”

“Quite true,” Shiro said. “But you must be careful not to dig too deeply, Doctor – you may not always like what you find.”

Dr. Holt nodded sagely. “Oh, of course. I imagine the first archaeologist who discovered a mummy had a fright!”

Shiro’s brow furrowed. He had not been speaking of mummies at all, but Dr. Holt was blissfully unaware of what he had really meant, and soon the conversation diverted to lighter subjects – namely, their visit to the circus tomorrow.

“It’s a rather rowdy place, from what I’ve heard,” Ms. Holt fretted. “I suppose it was your idea, Lance?”

The Holts had not been sure what to think of Lance when Pidge first announced their relationship a year and a half ago – the two of them had gone to the city together just to tell the Holts the news. Keith thought that was remarkably bold of them, because although the Holts were kind and well meaning folk, Lance was not the sort of man Pidge had been expected to end up with – and to hear that they were ‘engaged’ but not planning on marrying anytime soon must have been an additional shock.

The engagement was a bit of a ruse; there was no ring. But men and women who were not engaged did not do the things Lance and Pidge did, at least not in polite society. And the Holts were polite society. Thus, for all intents and purposes, they were engaged.

To his credit, Lance had done his best to be the gentleman the Holts wanted for their daughter. He’d had a bit of a reputation where women were involved, and Matt especially was prepared for his sister’s heartbreak, but Lance was perfectly faithful to her. Keith had never doubted he would be. They had been through too much together to betray each other in anything.

And so the Holts had warmed up to him, for any extended period of time spent around Pidge and Lance made it undeniably clear that they cared very much for each other. Keith thought the Holts were probably just relieved their daughter was not all alone in the wild, wild West, and even if her companion of choice was a rather roguish character, he had Pidge’s wellbeing in mind.

So Lance just grinned and waved a hand. “Now, Miss Colleen, why would you ever suggest I would knowingly bring your daughter to a ‘rowdy’ place?”

Matt rolled his eyes. “Oh, yes, that’s a completely unfounded accusation, Ma.”

Pidge snorted and ignored the look her mother gave her. “It wasn’t Lance’s idea, it was Allura’s, Mama.”

“The Madam?” Ms. Holt sighed. “Oh, I’m so proud.”

“Free tickets are free tickets,” Lance pointed out, mouth full of chili.

“Wise words, my boy,” Dr. Holt said. His wife sighed louder. Sometimes, Keith thought Colleen Holt was actually just an exasperated sigh personified in a woman’s body. Dr. Holt cleared his throat and added, “Do tell me how it is, Katie – I hear they have a real live elephant, and though I can’t imagine the poor beast is very happy so far away from its homeland, it must be a magnificent sight to see nonetheless.”

“The real magnificent sight is the tiger, I’d wager,” Lance countered. “Shere Khan in the flesh, can you imagine?”

“We won’t have to imagine, tomorrow!” Pidge said with excitement. “Oh, I’ve read so much about circuses and the creatures in them, but to think we’ll really get to see them –! I can hardly believe it.”

Keith smiled; it was good to see his friends happy. “And don’t forget the other entertainment,” he added. “Fortune tellers and sword swallowers and all manner of folk with strange talents.”

Ms. Holt frowned. “And I suspect they’ll have some of those so-called spiritualists there, too.”

Shiro raised an eyebrow. “Spiritualists, ma’am?”

“Oh, well, it’s what they call themselves,” she explained. “People who claim to be able to speak with the dead. Ghosts, I mean.” She shook her head. “It’s heretical witchcraft, and completely unfounded in truth. Right, dear?” She turned to her husband expectantly.

Dr. Holt nodded hastily. “Why, yes, yes, that medium business is preposterous. But people do love their curiosities, and it is a comfort for those who have lost loved ones.”

“But does it work?” Keith asked.

“Absolutely not,” Ms. Holt said. “Just parlor tricks, Keith, you mustn’t put any stock in it.”

Keith bit his lip, disappointed. Under the table, Shiro touched his knee, and Keith knew he understood – Keith had thought of his dead parents, and had hoped, however faintly, that they might not be so far away after all. “Surely there’s no harm in trying,” Shiro said, voice smooth and sweet as honey. “For comfort’s sake.”

The Holts blinked, and exchanged looks. “Perhaps not,” Ms. Holt admitted after a beat. “Folks need all the comfort they can get, in times like these…”

Pidge frowned. “What times do you mean, Mama?”

Ms. Holt dabbed at her mouth with her napkin and gave a small shake of her head. Dr. Holt said carefully, “There have been a few, er…alarming developments in the city, as of late.”

“The Galra are trying to retake their old territory,” Matt said. “And they’ve been succeeding.”

“Esos hijos de puta,” Lance hissed under his breath, hand tightening around his spoon. Pidge put her hand over his own, calming, but Keith saw her fingers were shaking.

“How long has this been going on?” Pidge asked quietly.

“A few months, but it’s difficult for us to tell,” Dr. Holt said, chuckling nervously. “Seeing as we’re not involved in crime syndicates and all. Yet.”

“Samuel!” Ms. Holt exclaimed.

He shrugged. “We may be forced to take a side sooner or later, or risk getting caught in the crossfire.” He reached across the table and squeezed Pidge’s hand. “To be honest, I’m glad you’re not living with us in the city, Katie. A sleepy town like Altea Creek is much safer.”

Pidge gave him a smile that looked more like a grimace, because Altea Creek was anything but safe. “I hope you stay safe too, Pa.” She furrowed her brow. “But I just don’t understand it – what changed? Why do the Galra have the upper hand all of a sudden?”

“Who knows?” Matt sighed. “But bodies have been turning up left and right – Olkari and Arusian. Guess the Galra found people who know how to kill.”

“Matthew, please,” Ms. Holt reproached. “Finish your chili.”

“What will you do if they do retake the city?” Keith asked.

Dr. Holt smiled tightly. “We will cross that bridge if we come to it, my boy.”

“Worst comes to worst, we go back to Boston,” Ms. Holt said. “My parents live comfortably there, outside the city and away from the smoke and smog.”

Pidge’s eyes widened. “Boston!” she exclaimed. “But that’s so far…”

“Trains are getting faster by the month these days, it seems,” Dr. Holt assured her. “It might not be so far after all.”

“And anyway, this is all hypothetical,” Matt added. “You won’t be rid of us just yet, little sister.”

She managed a grin, and conversation found a more comfortable topic again, though Keith barely heard what was said, because Shiro’s hand did not leave his knee, and Keith’s thoughts did not leave the subject of ghosts.

*

That night, Shiro gallantly offered to share the guest room with Keith (on a cot on the floor, of course), while Pidge slept in her childhood room and Lance shared Matt’s room. The Holts’ home was not considered large in the city, but it was the largest home Keith had ever stayed in, unless you counted Saint Joseph’s as a home, which he did not.

Shiro made up his cot while Keith lay on his back in the guest bed, his eyes tracing over a peculiar fissure on the ceiling which reminded him of the cracked walls from Xochiquetzal’s vines. After a time, Keith’s gaze slid to Shiro, and he said, “Are you really going to sleep there?”

Shiro faltered, and he smoothed the sheets down before looking up quizzically. “Is there a reason I should not?”

“Oh, yes,” Keith said, eyes wide with false innocence. “I thought I saw mouse droppings earlier – I’m afraid the floor is infested. You’ll have to sleep up here, where it’s safe.”

“Mouse droppings,” Shiro repeated dryly. He looked more tired than ever in the flickering lamplight, the dark circles under his eyes prominent and the set of his mouth distinctly worn.

Keith frowned. “You’re draining your magic again,” he accused. “Staying in human form is harder, right?”

Shiro sighed, closing his eyes briefly. “Perceptive as ever, aren’t you?”

“Shiro, stop using your magic,” Keith ordered. “You don’t need to, here.”

“Yes, I do,” Shiro protested. “If someone were to walk in –”

“They will not,” Keith said. “We are grown men and entitled to our privacy. And your true form does not frighten me, which you must know by now.”

“Keith,” Shiro sighed, but after a few moments he relented, and shifted into towering shadow, his horns nearly scraping the ceiling. He eyed the guest bed and said, “I will definitely break that.”

“Then we will have to brave the mice,” Keith retorted, and tugged the quilt off the bed – the Rose of Sharon quilt, for Ms. Holt had thought to give it to him tonight before wrapping it up.

“No, no, I will not have you sleeping on the floor,” Shiro said, and nudged Keith back down onto the bed and the quilt with him. “I will just have to be…a little less solid.”

“Huh…?” Keith blinked as Shiro put out the light and he was abruptly rolled onto his side, his back facing Shiro, and all his breath came out in a rush when Shiro curled around him. But…his arm over Keith’s waist was lighter than usual, and as Keith watched, tendrils of shadow swirled from Shiro’s skin across Keith’s, and in fact his chest where it should have pressed to Keith’s shoulder blades melded into them, a weird warm tingling sensation wherever Shiro’s half-there body overlapped Keith’s. Shiro’s hand clasped his, fingers dipping into Keith’s wrist, and Keith shivered, eyes wide.

“Just like a ghost,” he whispered, pulling the quilt more fully over them.

“Is it too strange?” Shiro wondered, his lips brushing the back of Keith’s neck, and those felt as solid and real as they always did.

Keith shook his head. “No. Not if it allows you rest.”

“It does,” Shiro murmured with obvious relief, and Keith’s chest felt lighter at the sound of it, and he fell asleep to shadow stroking his cheek like a kiss.

*

They took a rattling carriage to the circus after a tearful farewell from Ms. Holt, who was quite worried about any possible encounters with ruffians or thugs. Lance assured her that the most frightening thing they would encounter would be the tiger, and that would be in a cage, and even if it somehow escaped he would protect her daughter from its slavering jaws.

Keith wasn’t sure Ms. Holt was comforted by that, particularly, but she gave Lance a little smile and kissed his cheek anyway.

The circus was a sight to see from out the carriage window – the colors were what Keith first noticed, so vivid compared to the duller desert landscape, with dozens of patterned tents in every shade, and the Big Top was made of fluttering red and white striped canvas, festooned with flags fluttering in the wind at its peak. All manner of people were milling about when they disembarked from the carriage and gave their tickets to the man at the entry – there were two women in particular who caught Keith’s eye, wearing very little with their sequined leotards and glittery tights, hair done up in intricate tangles of pins and crowned with large ostrich plumes, like human feather dusters.

Lance elbowed him. “Suppose Allura’s girls could learn a lesson or two in the latest fashions, here,” he chuckled.

Keith elbowed him back. “Everybody’s got to make a living somehow.”

“Those aren’t whores, they’re trapeze artists,” Pidge said primly. “Stop staring, Lance.”

“Ah, look,” Shiro said, pointing to a nearby poster. “The infamous tiger. How thrilling.”

“Just because you could turn into a tiger at a moment’s notice don’t warrant that tone,” Keith laughed.

“What?!” Pidge exclaimed. “He can?”

“Raincheck on that,” Shiro said, looking up at a hastily erected signpost and furrowing his brow. “Well, what would you like to see? The ticket master said the Big Top show is at noon, and it’s only nine, so we have quite a bit of time.”

Keith craned his neck to peer at the signs. “The Gypsy Esmeralda?” he read.

“Oh, Victor Hugo,” Pidge remarked wryly. “How original.” Everyone looked at her blankly and she sighed. “Nevermind. Do you want to see the fake gypsy, Keith?”

“She might not be fake,” he argued. “And anyway, I’d rather see her than ‘Sitting Duck the Cherokee Brave,’ thanks very much.”

Lance made a face. “Sitting Duck? Really? Ay, caramba.”

“We could go to the gypsy and see some of the animals on the way,” Shiro suggested. “We’ll be passing right by the cages.” He pointed down the way, and sure enough Keith could see the animals’ wagons, with people crowding all around them, oohing and ahhing. The four of them agreed that was a good plan to pass the time, and strolled through the tents towards the wagons.

Many performers passed by – a slight woman with bobbed black hair and two Great Danes on jeweled leashes tipped her little hat to them and winked at Shiro. Keith resisted the strong urge to grab Shiro’s arm and glower at her.

Another performer, a clown in full makeup and costume who made Keith rather uneasy, offered Pidge a lollipop. She smiled and took it for a penny, though as soon as the clown left, she shuddered and admitted she did not much care for sweets or clowns, but wanted him to leave. She gave the lollipop to Lance, who liked sweets very much.

Shiro had been quiet, and Keith suspected he was tired again, but he did seem to be enjoying himself. Shiro was very observant, watching all the people going about their lives around them with an interested glint in his eye. “What do you think about all this?” Keith murmured.

“I think that humans do love their spectacle,” Shiro replied out of the corner of his mouth. “Not to say that my kind never indulge in the same.”

“At least the spectacles don’t involve murder, here,” Keith mused.

“Murder, perhaps not. But cruelty…I’m afraid so. Behind the scenes though it may be.” Keith gave Shiro a puzzled look and they came to a stop in front of the first of the wagons. Keith’s eyes widened at the beast within – the colorful sign on its wagon read: BLOOD SWEATING HIPPOPOTAMUS FROM THE RIVER NILE – GEORGE.

“It sweats blood?” a lady exclaimed, putting a hand to her mouth. “How utterly monstrous!”

The hippopotamus did not look monstrous to Keith. It looked sad, and the way its mouth was set made it look like it was perpetually frowning. Its small roundish ears were drooping, and it was lying on the cold floor of its wagon like a kicked puppy, short legs tucked awkwardly under its large body.

“The poor thing looks to be grieving,” Keith said, brow furrowing.

One of the performers standing next to the wagon and supposedly telling the guests all about George the Hippo overheard, and nodded somberly at Keith. “Indeed he is! Poor old George lost his lady hippo Martha during the journey from San Francisco. She was not suited to the circus life, unfortunately.”

Keith frowned. “What happened to her?”

The performer waved a hand. “Oh, she simply wasted away – such a shame.”

A young girl tapped Keith’s wrist and he looked down, confused. It was another one of the performers, her hair done up in pigtails, with a squirming puppy tucked under her arm. “Martha was going to have a baby hippo,” the little girl told him in a conspiratorial whisper. “But something went wrong, and there was blood everywhere! George gored one of his handlers with his fearsome tusks when they tried to put Martha out of her misery, and he hasn’t been the same since, so they had to give him laudanum to calm him.”

Keith stared at her. “That’s terrible,” he said. “What will happen to George?”

“Oh, I couldn’t rightly say,” she told him. “What happens to most animals who don’t perform well, I reckon.” She smiled at him and the puppy licked his hand. “Enjoy the show, mister!” And she skipped away.

Keith’s mood was significantly dimmed. Shiro squeezed his hand surreptitiously. “As I said,” he murmured, “there is cruelty here.”

“They’ll kill him if they keep giving him laudanum,” Pidge declared. “Opiates aren’t safe for animals.”

Keith suddenly felt on the verge of tears, just from looking at poor George slumped over in his cage with everyone gawking at him. He had always been of the mind that animals could feel emotion, at least to some extent – Strawberry certainly seemed to. Shiro looked at him with concern, then at George, and bit his lip. Then he closed his eyes, his grip on Keith’s hand loosening for a moment, his breath hitching.

As Keith watched, George the hippo’s ears perked up, and he heaved a great sigh, and closed his eyes. Keith’s lips parted and he glanced up at Shiro. “What did you do?!”

Shiro smoothed his hair back, looking tired but content. “I eased his pain and gave him sleep, much like I did for you. He is already dying of opium overdose, but he will pass peacefully now.”

Keith bit his lip hard. “Is there a hippo pocket dimension?” he whispered.

Shiro smiled and inclined his head. “I’m sure there is, somewhere. And maybe Martha and George will be there together.”

“I hope so,” Keith said, looking at the sleeping George one last time before continuing on.

The next few cages had a variety of creatures – African wild dogs which yowled and leapt at the bars of their cage, making several ladies shriek; a skinny cheetah which paced the length of its wagon with a distinctly irritated expression; a sleeping bear; a large array of chattering monkeys; a dour-faced camel; a huge crocodile which glared at the guests from slitted eyes; and lastly, the tiger.

It was a magnificent sight to see, indeed, with a gleaming orange and black coat, its cold green eyes watching the swarming guests with what Keith imagined was disdain, long tail flicking across the metal floor. He couldn’t help but think that Shiro’s jaguar was bigger.

Shiro had gone tense beside him and Keith gave him a sidelong glance. His eyes were narrowed, fixed on the tiger, and Lance and Pidge looked questioningly at Keith, who shrugged. He sure didn’t know why Shiro looked close to climbing into the wagon to smack the tiger upside the nose. Keith poked him. “I thought you liked cats,” he murmured.

Shiro shook himself, blinking. “I do,” he said, and frowned. “I’m sorry, I...hm.”

“What is it, what’s wrong?”

“Just...remembering,” Shiro sighed. “It’s nothing, Keith – shall we pay Esmeralda a visit?”

Keith nodded eagerly, wanting to get away from the animals in their cages. There was something unsettling about the tiger’s gaze; it was almost calculating, as if scheming, though Keith knew that could not be so. Pidge and Lance followed after a moment’s hesitation, and Keith wondered if they were as perturbed by the plotting cat.

Esmeralda’s wagon was a few tents down from the animals, painted in cheery bright green and yellow, with a stocky pinto pony grazing outside. Its harness was strung with brass bells which jingled as it lifted its head and snorted at them. The wagon door opened, and a woman with brown skin and the most beautiful hair Keith had ever seen leaned out, beckoning them close with a smile and a flick of her bangled wrist.

“Come in, weary travelers, and I will tell you your fortunes,” she said with a heavy accent that did not sound real. Pidge raised an eyebrow at Keith as if to say, I told you so, and Keith just rolled his eyes and accepted the fake gypsy’s invitation, the others following.

“Sit, sit,” she entreated, taking a seat at the small table in the wagon, the four of them cramming themselves onto the overstuffed sofa beside it. The table had a crystal ball on it, as well as a few candles, a deck of tarot cards, a velvet bag, and a cup of tea which Esmeralda sipped daintily. “Care for a cup?” she asked when she saw Keith looking. “I’ll read your tea leaves for a penny after.”

“No, that’s alright, thank you,” Keith mumbled, averting his gaze. Fake or not, she was attractive to the point of intimidating. He wondered if she had ever cut her hair, as it must have reached past her waist; thick black waves that flowed over the back of her chair while she settled into it.

“Do you do tarot readings?” Pidge asked, interested despite herself.

“Yes, a quarter each,” Esmeralda replied, tapping her long nails against the cup and looking at Keith with bright hazel eyes, green where the sunlight caught them. “A dime for you,” she said to him.

Out of sight, Shiro’s hand fell upon the small of his back. Keith cleared his throat and fished out a dime, handing it over as the others gave her their quarters. Esmeralda quickly pocketed the money and then made a big show of shuffling the cards, before drawing three for each of them, placing them face down on the table in front of them. Keith’s fingers itched to flip them over, but he waited as Esmeralda finished her incantation or charm or whatever it was, and flipped them over herself.

Pidge was first, on the far end of the sofa. Esmeralda read her cards to her as they were revealed. “Temperance, The World, and Justice,” she said, raising an eyebrow and tapping a finger against her temple. “All women, all positive – a lucky spread. You will experience great adventure made even greater by your intellectual curiosity – as long as you stop holding back. Seize the day, as they say, and discover the World around you with the initiative of Temperance and the vision of Justice. The world is your oyster, miss.”

Pidge pursed her lips, not looking entirely convinced, but also looking quite pleased about her apparent good fortune.

Next, Lance. “The Fool, the Judgement, and the Emperor,” Esmeralda said, nodding slowly. “Judgement and the Fool paired mean a big surprise is in store for you. The Emperor speaks of a realization, or a major change in your life...though I would think it will be a positive one, as you will exude joy and allure...so be open to this change.” She frowned slightly. “Or perhaps not. The Emperor is a hard card to interpret, for emperors, as with any ruler, are changeable as the wind. A benefactor or a tyrant – the choice may be up to you.”

Lance looked confused and slightly disappointed by the ambivalence of the reading, but shrugged and accepted it.

Then, Shiro. “The Sun, Strength, and the Tower,” Esmeralda read, her eyebrows lifting. “You have someone special in your heart, don’t you?” Shiro blinked, intrigued, and inclined his head. Keith watched Esmeralda’s face as she spoke, and she really did appear to be thinking deeply about the cards. “The Sun and Strength speak of a gain in passion and intensity of this relationship – and with this, a risk. You or your lover, or perhaps both, seek reassurance and comfort – do not neglect each other, and do not be too demanding. The Tower and Strength together can represent conflict, a hierarchical upset that you have in part caused. Perhaps you wish to gain control of a company or office from a boss you consider unfair?”

“It’s on a slightly bigger scale than that,” Shiro murmured, and she looked at him in surprise. He raised an eyebrow back. “The Sun and the Tower – what do they mean?”

“That you have been in a state of stagnancy for too long, I think,” Esmeralda mused. “The Tower shows a shattering of that state, of ridding yourself of old beliefs and behaviors that were ultimately detrimental to you. The Sun is the happiness and relief that comes after this is done.”

“Impressive,” Shiro said, his tone indecipherable.

And lastly, Keith. Esmeralda flipped his cards carefully, giving him a sly smile as she did so...and then froze. “The Hermit, the Hanged Man, and Death,” she read, biting her lip. “Oh, dear. I’m afraid you have troubles ahead of you.”

Shiro’s thumb rubbed his back soothingly as Keith leaned forward, frowning. “What do they mean? What kind of troubles?”

“The Hermit and the Hanged Man represent a bout of solitude,” she explained. “You will feel deeply alone, or perhaps experience a loss – of a loved one, maybe. It will be a frightening and trying time.” Keith swallowed. Had he not had enough of those already? “The Hanged Man is an obstacle in your way, preventing you from achieving what you truly want to – you must overcome your fears and misgivings if you are ever to reach this goal. The Hermit beside the Hanged Man also means you are different from your contemporaries – ahead of their time or behind, either way you have never quite felt you belonged.”

“And Death?”

“Well, Death with the Hermit speaks of an old soul in a young body, or a generational gap. The Hanged Man with Death represents a fear of change, which will only serve to make the Hanged Man more effective in hindering you. But it could also represent a change in your beliefs, or the way you see the world – and is that is the case, then your goal is within your reach. And Death by itself...it represents an end. But often a new beginning comes afterwards, so do not despair.”

Keith leaned back, considering all of that. He was a little surprised he hadn’t gotten the Devil, but maybe that would have been too obvious.

“You are an interesting group of people, I must say,” Esmeralda told them as she gathered the cards up. “An intelligent young woman, a Cuban, an Easterner, and an Indian – or part-Indian, but these days a little Indian blood goes a long way.”

“How’d you guess?” Lance asked, wide-eyed, because Keith didn’t think anyone had ever correctly identified his nationality before.

She smiled. “Cuba es mi país de origen, y Havana es mi ciudad. ¿De dónde es usted?”

“Varadero,” Lance replied excitedly. He folded his arms and narrowed his eyes at her. “Una gitanilla, huh?”

“We do what we must,” she said, shrugging and adjusting her bangles. “En cualquier caso, aquí soy considerado exótico.”

“Porque no eres una gringa,” Lance retorted, and they had a good laugh. Shiro’s lips were quirked, and Keith realized he must know Spanish, as well as a great many other languages.

Pidge, who had been glowering at Esmeralda in as dignified a way as possible, cut in. “Do you happen to dabble in spiritualism at all?” she asked. “Seances, mediums, the like?”

Esmeralda laughed, her gaze darting between Pidge and Lance and putting the pieces together. “Spiritualism? I have no ouija board, though I hear those are all the rage nowadays.”

“I don’t care for that sort of thing,” Pidge said impatiently. “But, could you contact a dead loved one, or connect to them in some way?”

Esmeralda hummed thoughtfully. “I have participated in such meetings in the past...very well, I will try, but for a dollar.”

“A dollar!” Pidge shook her head. “That’s practically robbery.”

Esmeralda sniffed, offended. “A half dollar, then, or nothing.”

Lance handed her a half dollar and Pidge pinched his arm under the table. Esmeralda tucked the coin into her pocket and then struck a match, lighting the candles on the table and lighting a bundle of sage with the candles, waving it about so that the smoke settled heavy in the air. Keith tried not to sneeze.

Esmeralda then extended her arms, motioning for them to all hold hands in a circle. Esmeralda closed her eyes. “We extend an invitation to any spirits who may be present or attached to any of the souls in this circle. If any of the people in this circle wishes to say any lost loved ones’ names, let them say these names now.”

“Kai and Lea,” Keith muttered, when nobody else said anything.

“We extend a special invitation to Kai and Lea, who are…?”

“My parents,” Keith said.

“Ah, how tragic,” Esmeralda murmured. “We beg these dearly departed souls to reach across the barrier between this world and the next, to give us a sign of their presence, or to tell us in some way that they –”

A vase of flowers fell off its shelf and shattered with a spectacular crash on the floor, scattering dirt and wilted flowers everywhere. All of them jumped, and Esmeralda shifted nervously in her chair. Lance tensed, wrapping an arm around Pidge’s waist and glancing around the small wagon. Shiro had gone very still, his expression unreadable. The smoke was swirling in the air around them, though there was no breeze. But Keith was not looking at his friends or the smoke – he was staring at the wilted flowers on the floor, whose dry brown petals were blooming anew.

“Hello?” Esmeralda whispered, fiddling with her necklace. “Is...is someone there?”

The next second her spine went ramrod-straight and when her eyes flew open they were bright glowing gold, and Shiro recoiled, clutching Keith to him with a clawed hand. Esmeralda spasmed as if having a fit, the sounds coming from her mouth strangled and incoherent, face contorted in pain. Lance swore and leapt up to help her, and Shiro was not fast enough to yank him back – the second Lance’s hand connected with Esmeralda’s shoulder, the gypsy crumpled to the floor with a gasp and Lance swayed on his feet, and then straightened up with a low groan, rolling his neck and turning to face Pidge, Shiro, and Keith on the sofa.

Lance’s eyes were glowing gold, and his grin was not his own, and Pidge cried out at the sight, a hand flying to her mouth. Lance cracked his knuckles and said, “Ooh, I do like this one.”

“Lance?” Pidge whispered, getting to her feet and trying to reach out to him. Shiro grabbed her wrist and pulled her back but she wriggled out of his grasp and stumbled to Lance. “Lance, are you in there?!”

Lance scoffed. “Now, really, he could do better than you. Plain little thing, aren’t you? And pale as the moon, hmph.”

Pidge’s mouth fell open in indignation and she exclaimed, “Whatever you are, get out of Lance this instant or I’ll make you sorry you ever crossed us!”

Lance eyed her coolly and backhanded her across the face. Pidge went sprawling onto the sofa, stunned, and Keith looked at Lance with horror as Shiro quickly gathered Pidge close to his side, her face blooming with a bruise. Lance would never strike a woman, especially not Pidge – this wasn’t Lance, but then...what was it?

“I thought I smelled a whiff of smoke and betrayal,” Lance said to Shiro, tilting his head and narrowing his eyes, “I must say, I didn’t expect you to last this long, old man.” He smirked. “I recall making a similar wager with you long, long ago...albeit under far better circumstances.”

Shiro’s lip curled. “Xochipilli,” he growled. “So you did survive.”

Keith’s eyes widened. The Prince of Flowers, Xochiquetzal’s twin brother, was standing here, in Lance’s body, in a gypsy wagon at the circus? How in the world...?

“Oh, yes, and no thanks to you,” Xochipilli snapped, cocking out a hip and pointing an accusing finger at Shiro. “My sister and I sided with you, we were quite willing to resist that madman Serpent’s plan, and then what happens – he zaps us both to kingdom come, and you fucked off to who knows where, I suppose one of your precious pocket dimensions, but not before stealing my dear sister’s soul to stick into the first mortal girl you fancied?!”

“She was the last Toltec princess,” Shiro said flatly.

“Does it look like I care?!” Xochipilli screeched. Esmeralda cowered in the corner, and Keith sincerely hoped she just remembered this as a bad mushroom trip later. “The fact remains – you took my sister away from me, left me to float alone about the world in this – this pathetic ghost of a form, only able to speak and move about like my old self when I find a suitable male host for the job, which is no fucking way to live, Jaguar! Humans are absolutely the worst –” He trailed off as he noticed the way Keith was holding Shiro’s hand in a death grip. “Oooh, speaking of humans,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. “I see you’ve adapted to having a dead wife very well – I always knew you’d see things my way, eventually.” He sidled closer, and Keith glared at him. “Perhaps I should’ve chosen this one, instead...he’s cute.”

“If you want me to castrate you, be my guest,” Shiro retorted.

Xochipilli giggled. “You’ve still got your old spark, how lovely.”

Pidge lifted her head from where she’d tucked it against Shiro’s jacket and snapped, “Did you just steal my fiance’s body to blather on, or do you actually have anything of interest to say?”

Xochipilli clicked his tongue. “Oh, my. Humans are feistier these days, aren’t they? I often think the Serpent might be right that someone ought to put them in their place...then again, it is a fine source of amusement.”

“Answer the question,” Pidge gritted out.

He huffed and waved a hand. “Oh, very well, plain little moon girl. I am here because I want my sister back, Jaguar.”

“Not possible,” Shiro said dismissively. “You may visit her, of course – quite a few male patrons visit her establishment, just hitch a ride.”

“You made my sister,” Xochipilli hissed, “into a common whore?

“According to you, I did that long before she took human form,” Shiro sighed. “Besides, you are the patron of whores, aren’t you?” Xochipilli curled Lance’s hands into fists. “She’s not a common whore, she’s the Madam, and she chose that life, not me. That is the truth.”

“The truth, from the god of lies,” Xochipilli muttered. “How poetic.”

“I am not technically –”

“Oh, shut up,” Xochipilli exclaimed, grabbing a wood carving knife from a nearby shelf, “or I’ll start giving you reasons to.”

Pidge’s eyes widened as he lifted the knife over Lance’s wrist. “No,” she breathed, “no, don’t hurt him, stop it; Shiro, make him stop!”

“Yes, Shiro,” Xochipilli mocked, touching the blade to Lance’s skin, “make me.”

“Xochipilli, there is no need for violence,” Shiro cautioned, rising to his feet slowly. The god glared at him, the hand holding the knife trembling minutely. “This human is not your enemy, nor am I.”

“No?!” he spat. “Then who, pray tell, is? The Serpent? He hasn’t bothered me in centuries, while you ensured my torment by taking away my only sister and companion –”

“You think you were the only one who was alone?!” Shiro snarled, and Keith had the pleasure of seeing Xochipilli drop the knife with a clatter as Shiro shoved him against the table. Poor Lance was going to have a few bruises, but it was better than a cut wrist – Keith knew Shiro wouldn’t let Xochipilli hurt him, and whispered this to Pidge as she clung to his side.

“J-Jaguar, really, I’m flattered but I don’t think this is the place,” Xochipilli stammered, and yelped when Shiro wrapped a hand around his neck. “Eep –!”

“The Serpent killed my wife,” Shiro growled into his face, baring sharp feline teeth and making Xochipilli squirm uselessly. “I languished alone for centuries, so don’t you dare presume that you were the only one who suffered, princeling. You are as petty and selfish as ever, threatening to hurt an innocent because you did not get your way – life is not fair, Xochipilli, and the sooner you get that through your thick skull the sooner you will be at peace!”

Xochipilli faltered. “So...so Xilonen is truly dead?” he whispered. “She did not come back, like Xochi or me?”

“No, she did not come back,” Shiro ground out. “She is gone, and has been gone since Quetzalcoatl murdered her. But please, go on about how difficult and lonely your life has been – at least you still live, even if it is not in the form you once enjoyed with such vanity!”

Xochipilli gulped. “I...am sorry,” he managed. “I did not know.”

“Leave this body and this place,” Shiro warned. “I do not wish to see you again if you continue to act like a spoiled child. Your sister is named Allura now, and she resides at the Pink Lion Brothel in Altea Creek, Arizona – and trust me, she will be as sympathetic to you as I am, which is to say not at all.”

Xochipilli was quiet, and Lance slumped fully onto the table, the gold leaving his eyes. He blinked dazedly, and then gawked when he realized Shiro had him pinned to a table. “Hey, what’re you – what’s – qué carajo, I feel sick,” and promptly vomited over the side of the table. Shiro released him at once, and Pidge hurried to catch him before he fell over.

Lance stumbled into her arms and lifted a hand to her cheek where Xochipilli had struck her, brows drawing together. “Katie, what...who did this to you?” She just shook her head at him, pulling him back to the sofa and hugging him tightly, trembling. When Lance hit the sofa he froze, and inhaled sharply as realization flooded his expression. “Oh – oh, Dios, I am so – Katie, I’m so sorry, I don’t – I didn’t – I hurt you –”

“Don’t be sorry, it wasn’t you,” Pidge whispered, cupping his face and giving him a weak smile. “All that matters is that you’re okay.”

Esmeralda was whimpering. Keith looked at her sharply. “What’s wrong?” he asked, though that was a broad question at this point.

She raised a shaking hand to the entrance of the wagon. “Th-there’s a...a…”

Keith and Shiro turned to look. There was water seeping in under the door, and it was full of...frogs. They were hopping up onto the table and the shelves, croaking loudly, and Keith glanced at Shiro in bewilderment. “We need to leave,” Shiro said grimly, nodding to Pidge and Lance, and then to Esmeralda. “I apologize,” he sighed, and placed his hand on her forehead. She swooned and passed out, memories wiped away, and Keith could hardly admonish Shiro for it this time.

The four of them hurried out of the wagon, and stopped in their tracks, because the tiger was standing there.

“You gotta be kidding me,” Lance wheezed, and Keith was in adamant agreement, especially when the tiger’s eyes flared gold and it spoke.

Tezcatlipoca, it has been a long time coming.

“Tlaloc,” Shiro said, and Keith thought, Oh, no. And then the tiger shifted into a man, and the man was Sendak, and Keith thought, OH, NO.

And then the crocodile crawled through the grass beside Tlaloc, as if to add insult to injury, because the only thing worse than resurrected god-Sendak was resurrected god-Sendak and a crocodile. Or so Keith thought, because then the crocodile shifted into a woman with a cruel grin and sharp tusks and Keith recognized her as Tlaloc’s sister, Huixtocihuatl, and that was much worse.

Sendak glowered at Shiro, and reserved an especially vitriolic look for Keith. “The last time we met, you ripped me to pieces,” Sendak said.

“I’d do it again,” Shiro retorted. “Right now, in fact.”

“Shiro, don’t,” Keith hissed, putting a hand on his arm, but Shiro shook him off, and it was too late – he was shifting into shadows and horns and Sendak smiled, cold and sharp, like he’d just gotten exactly what he wanted. Keith feared he had.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Sendak said conversationally, tipping his head to the side. He was missing an eye – one was glowing gold, and the other was like a large round monocle, but engraved with glowing patterns around its edges. More damn magic. “You murdered me and my men because we wanted to get a leg over him, but in the end, you just did the exact same thing.” He shook his head at Keith in false sympathy. “Men, they’re all the same. Although we aren’t men, are we, Tezcatlipoca?”

“You are not my kind,” Shiro retorted. “I have always been what I am, but you are a patchwork creature of death and experiments gone wrong. Tell me, did it hurt when Haggar sewed your limbs back on after I rent them from your body?”

“You would know all about that, wouldn’t you,” Sendak growled. “At least mine were returned to me, while you remain a cripple.”

“Do I look like a cripple to you?” Shiro demanded, flames igniting over his skin, and Keith knew what Sendak’s game was; he was trying to get a rise out of Shiro, trying to get him angry enough to make a mistake, because he knew Shiro was weak and outnumbered.

He was distantly aware that the unfortunate passerby were screaming and the pinto pony had freed itself from the wagon, galloping off in a blind panic into the crowd as the gods sized each other up. Huixtocihuatl waited off to the side with folded arms, watching, crocodilian tail lashing behind her, and Keith got the sense that she was there in part to make sure nobody got away.

“You look like you are about to be destroyed,” Sendak said smugly. “Lady Haggar is aware of your weakened state, Jaguar – even your little blood bag can’t compensate for the lost power from Lotor’s resurrection. You are at a disadvantage, and if you surrender peacefully now, we will take you to Lady Haggar and the Emperor unharmed, and I will just take dear Keith and his friends off your hands. I think that’s more than a fair trade.”

“You know I will kill you again if I must,” Shiro said. “And it seems that I must.”

Sendak shrugged. “Very well, have it your way – die.” He shifted into the tiger as he leapt towards Shiro, and Shiro shifted into his jaguar as Sendak crashed into him. Keith backed up Lance and Pidge against the wagon as he realized what exactly Tlaloc’s sister was there for – to deal with them. She advanced on them with a sneer as the two massive cats snarled and struck at each other in a blur of claws and fur and gleaming teeth and golden eyes, snapping at each others’ throats.

Keith knew Shiro, and he knew that if Huixtocihuatl got ahold of him or Pidge or Lance, Shiro would not put them in danger, and he would surrender, and he would lose. And Huixtocihuatl would probably kill them anyway – Keith did not like the gleam in her eye. It was not merciful.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked as she approached.

“Huixtocihuatl,” Keith said, surprising her. She paused, waiting to see if he knew more, which he did. “The goddess of salt and the sea. You helped Tlaloc abuse Xochiquetzal.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You are an insolent brat,” she hissed. “I suppose that’s what he told you, hm? Your dear Tezcatlipoca. Xochiquetzal was an unpleasant creature who deserved to be brought down a few pegs, that is the truth of it. But all Tezcatlipoca saw was her pretty face.” She considered him. “You are correct about who I am, though I go by Zethrid as of late. My brother wishes to ravish you and kill you as slowly as possible afterwards – and maybe ravish you a few times more in between – but Prince Lotor and I have loftier plans for you. I think you will prefer them.”

Keith swallowed back bile and lifted his chin. She wanted to talk; he would talk, if it bought Shiro time. “You work for Lotor?” he asked, struggling to keep his voice calm and level and trying not to think of Sendak’s supposed plans.

“Yes, as do Ezor and Narti, who found you in the canyon a couple days ago. They were meant to capture you and bring you back to the Prince...though as I understand, a certain dragon intervened.” Zethrid sniffed. “Chantico claims neutrality, but is only neutral when it suits her. Someday I will rip her wings from her shoulders, and that day will be a good day.”

“I doubt Lotor wishes me anything but ill will,” Keith said carefully. “Why would he not approve of Sendak’s plan to...do away with me?”

Zethrid grinned; it was not a pleasant expression. “Our Prince can be very forgiving. And he is grudgingly impressed with how you’ve managed to escape him so far – you are a worthy enough adversary. But your Tezcatlipoca...he is growing weaker, as I am sure you have noticed. His power is going wasted, Keith, and so Prince Lotor is willing to offer you a deal. Your life, and your friends’ lives, will all be spared; in exchange you will become the host to Tezcatlipoca, as Sendak has become my brother’s host, and Lotor has become Xolotl’s.”

Keith’s mouth went dry. “Host?” he whispered. “But – Shiro –?”

“Shiro’s days are numbered anyway,” Zethrid said impatiently. “Think of it – you will be made immortal and unimaginably strong by his power, and Lotor has offered you the position of Lieutenant in our new Empire, beside me and Ezor and Narti. No one would die, which is always a bore, but –”

“That’s not true,” Keith interrupted. “I would have to die.”

She scowled. “What?”

“Sendak died, Lotor died – they were both dead before they could be hosts,” Keith snapped. “I know how it works. And anyway, Shiro would be dying, too, and Shiro doesn’t want me to be his host, he wants –”

“Oh, you stupid boy!” Zethrid bellowed, and Keith shrank back. “You think he loves you, is that it? You think he wants to marry you, or in the very least warm his bed until the day you die? No, that is not what he wants, because for all of his mistakes, Tezcatlipoca is not a fool. You are his shield, Keith – he is using you as a last reserve of power, nothing more! And you have played right into it, giving him your blood as soon as he looked at you like a begging mongrel.”

“You’re wrong,” Keith whispered, though a trickle of doubt settled heavy in his chest. “What we have is more than that, more than you could ever understand.”

“Do you accept the deal or not, boy?!” Zethrid demanded, eyes blazing furiously.

“No, I do not,” Keith retorted hotly, and she lunged at them with open jaws.

A wave of invisible force slammed into her, and she was knocked backwards, to Keith’s utter bewilderment. “Ow, my head hurts again,” Lance groaned, and then squeaked when something that looked like a ghostly hand stroked his face. “Wha – you again?! No! Get out of my damn head!” He flailed ineffectually at the disgruntled god-ghost.

“Xochipilli,” Keith gasped, “you stayed?”

Yes, because evidently I am a suicidal idiot, a whispery voice grumbled, the faint outline of a figure blurring in front of them. Listen, pretty cornflower eyes, I’m trying to help you mortals here, for once, but I can’t do much in this form.

“Pretty cornflower eyes?!” Lance spluttered. “The name is Lance.”

“Okay, if Lance won’t do it, I will,” Keith said.

“Keith, no!” Pidge started, and Lance shook his head insistently, but Keith wasn’t going to just stand here and let Sendak attack Shiro – the tiger and jaguar were still locked in their vicious battle, and there was blood staining the grass and a deep gash on Shiro’s side already.

Oh, good, Xochipilli purred, I’m eager to see what has the Jaguar so hot under the collar…

“Just defend my friends and don’t let them kill Shiro,” Keith muttered.

Straight to the point, alright, I can appreciate that in a man, Xochipilli relented, and Keith was abruptly seized by the most singularly strange sensation he had ever experienced.

It was initially nauseating, and Keith understood why Lance had vomited, but then it was just overwhelming, and terrifying, because he could not move a single muscle and there was a pressure on his head like a pounding drum. Yet his body was moving, and words were leaving his mouth, but it took all the energy Keith had to focus on them, and then to hear his own thoughts and the voice in his head which was mostly smothering them to make way for itself.

He – or rather, Xochipilli – had just punched Zethrid in the face. Good, Keith thought as he saw the goddess go sprawling across the grass. Xochipilli did a celebratory dance. Stop that, she’s turning into a crocodile, Keith informed him, and Xochipilli said, “Oh, well isn’t that just fucking dandy!” and summoned a cloud of butterflies, which surrounded the angry crocodile.

Are you serious? Keith demanded. Butterflies?

“They’re toxic butterflies, fuck off,” Xochipilli said, and when Keith replied he could not fuck off, as this was his body, thank you very much, Xochipilli said something so vulgar about Shiro and his tongue that Keith’s face turned red despite Xochipilli mostly controlling it. So Keith stopped talking back. Mostly.

Look at Shiro, he urged, and reluctantly Xochipilli did. Keith’s gut twisted – the jaguar was pinned and bleeding, and the two gods were flickering in and out of their nahual forms, so that every slash of claws and ragged bite was coupled by a punch and a sharp kick, and it was difficult to watch, and Keith wondered how much of the blood on the ground was Shiro’s.

“You really are head over heels for him,” Xochipilli panted as he dodged the angry crocodile covered in toxic butterflies. “Literally, I hope, what with you being so small and him being –”

Keith wasn’t even mad that Zethrid’s tail had smacked Xochipilli several feet into the air, because it cut him off quite efficiently.

“You are a rude boy,” Xochipilli complained, which Keith thought was hilariously hypocritical.

Just then, Lance tossed them a sword. “Where in the fuck did you find this?!” Xochipilli exclaimed delightedly, which was, for once, exactly what Keith was thinking.

“I borrowed it from Esmeralda,” Lance said. “I don’t think the butterflies are doin’ it.”

“My butterflies are doing their best,” Xochipilli grumbled, but he hefted up the sword and gave it a swing, and it felt very satisfying. It was a longsword, Keith thought idly, like the knights in Allura’s fairytale books had.

“I don’t want to know why my sister read you fairytales,” Xochipilli said as he leapt into the cloud of butterflies and stabbed blindly at Zethrid. Spitefully, Keith thought of the most vulgar reason he could, and Xochipilli shrieked in rage, and the sword connected with scales. Zethrid howled in rage and pain as crocodile blood splattered over their skin, and a Xochipilli hacked away at the scales again, and the reptile’s head rolled to their feet.

Is she dead? Keith wondered.

“No, but she’s gone for now,” Xochipilli said, kicking the head cheerfully and cooing at a butterfly when it landed on Keith’s finger.

These aren’t toxic to humans, are they?

“Heh,” Xochipilli said, which was not comforting, but Keith didn’t feel poisoned so he hoped for the best.

But all feelings of relief went out the window when Xochipilli turned back to Shiro and Sendak.

They had shifted into their true forms, and Shiro was still pinned and struggling, Sendak’s huge right hand anchored around his throat and squeezing tightly. Haggar must have replaced it with some infernal device, because the fingers looked more like clockwork than flesh, and the whole thing made a mechanic whirring noise as Sendak tightened his grip.

Do something!

“Do I – or rather, you – look like I can fight Tlaloc and live to tell the tale?” Xochipilli demanded.

I don’t care, Keith thought desperately, just help him!

“Good grief, you two are ridiculous,” Xochipilli said under his breath, and redirected the toxic butterflies to land all over Sendak. He snarled and batted at them with the hand he was using to steady himself, allowing Shiro a chance to kick him hard in the gut and loosen Sendak’s grip around his neck. The god let go with a pained grunt, and Shiro wasted no time in regaining the upper hand and slamming Sendak onto the ground.

Shiro faltered briefly when he saw Keith with hands raised and butterflies everywhere, holding a sword, but at Keith’s behest Xochipilli tossed the sword to him, and Shiro caught it, and drove the blade into Sendak’s chest without hesitation. It was shocking how quickly it was over, after all that – Sendak grasped clumsily at the blade, and Shiro twisted it savagely deeper, and then his hands fell limply to his sides and he was still.

“Also not dead,” Xochipilli informed Keith as he sauntered over to Shiro. “Takes a lot more than that. He’ll be out for awhile, though.”

Shiro stood, but with difficulty, and then Keith saw the damage that had been done, and his heart felt as though it might break just from looking at him. He was more blood and torn flesh than not, it seemed, and blood dripped at an alarming rate from his many wounds, the worst of which was a gaping gash across his chest and several deep, ragged clawmarks over his ribs and stomach. It was then that Keith saw Shiro’s shadowy arm was flickering, and then it disappeared altogether, revealing the stump – he was too weak to even keep up that illusion anymore. And tendrils of shadow were lifting from his skin, as if he were disintegrating into nothingness; or at least that was what Keith feared would happen.

Xochipilli left Keith silently, and as soon as he was free to move again, Keith ran to Shiro, just before the ifrit collapsed in the bloodied dirt. Pidge and Lance ran up, too, and Xochipilli was hovering close by, but Keith could focus only on Shiro.

“Hey, hey, it’s over,” Keith whispered when Shiro groaned out what sounded like a plea, blood spilling from his mouth and sending a bolt of white-hot terror through Keith. Internal bleeding. Shiro was even more hurt than he looked.

“Keith,” Pidge whispered, shaking her head, “this is real bad.”

The horrified bystanders, beginning to realize the fight was over, were edging forward. Keith knew the police would be called if they were not already, and perhaps scientists and doctors too, and Keith imagined men in white lab coats poking and prodding at Shiro’s dissected corpse and shivered violently.

“We gotta go, c’mon, Keith, we have to try to move him,” Lance urged, trying to heave Shiro up and not getting very far.

“We can’t,” Keith whispered, stroking Shiro’s bruised face and shaking his head.

“Then what do we do?” Lance said desperately, and Keith only shook his head again, because he had no idea.

Shiro’s eyes cracked open, and his lips moved, but no sound came out. “Hush,” Keith murmured, because if nothing else he would stay here with Shiro, and soothe his pain the best he could.

Shiro’s lips moved again, and this time Keith heard him say, “Hold on,” and Lance and Pidge did not understand but Keith did, and pressed their hands to Shiro’s palm, and Shiro’s fingers closed around their three hands, and the world melted away around them, and they were standing in Keith’s house.

And Shiro was not moving, and Keith felt that his life was in fact just a cruel circle, because Shiro looked almost exactly like he had when Keith first found him, but worse. And this time, when they were as far from strangers as they could be and Keith’s heart clenched at the thought of a world without Shiro in it, Keith was not at all certain he could save him.

Chapter Text

A very shaken Pidge and Lance stared at Shiro in disbelief as Keith knelt beside him where he’d crumpled on the floor, trying not to panic at the way Shiro’s breath rattled in his chest.

“He just...he just whisked us over three hundred miles away in a single instant,” Pidge whispered. “How is that possible? How –”

“Katie, great question, really, but I think we got bigger problems right now,” Lance said, wide eyes fixed on Shiro, who was bleeding all over the floor. “Much bigger problems.”

“Shiro,” Keith whispered, cupping his face, “hey, hey, keep your eyes open for me, don’t you dare fall asleep on me, y’hear?” Shiro did not respond, another trickle of blood falling from his lips.

“We need to get Shay,” Pidge said.

“Take Strawberry,” Keith said hazily. When nobody moved, he glared up at them and said, “Now! C’mon, quickly!”

“She won’t let us ride her, Keith, you know that,” Lance started hesitantly.

Keith swallowed. “I can’t leave him,” he whispered. “Please, just – try, okay? Please.”

“Okay, okay,” Pidge said, and hurried out of the house.

“I’ll run to town and tell Allura, and Hunk and Coran, if they’re around,” Lance offered, and Keith nodded jerkily with a whispered thank you, and then Lance was gone too.

As soon as they were gone, Keith fumbled with his knife on his belt, unsheathing it and lifting it to his hand. Shiro’s eyes opened fully, and a clawed hand stilled Keith’s wrist weakly. “No,” Shiro rasped. “Don’t, Keith.”

“Shiro, I have to,” Keith snapped. “You’re – you’re dying, please let me help you.”

“Not like that,” Shiro pleaded.

“You’re being a fool,” Keith said, voice breaking on a sob. He jerked his wrist out of Shiro’s grasp.

“I won’t take your power,” Shiro retorted, eyes falling shut again. “You can’t make me. Cut your hand if you wish; it will be a wasted sacrifice.”

“Why are you doing this,” Keith whispered, cradling Shiro’s head in his lap.

“No use in pouring water into a leaky basket,” Shiro mumbled hazily. “You need it more than I do.”

“Do you hear yourself?” Keith demanded. “You’re bleeding out!”

“Apologies,” Shiro sighed. “It’s a mess, I know…”

“Do not apologize for bleeding, good Lord,” Keith hissed. “Apologize for being as stubborn as a mule.”

“No,” Shiro said, the corner of his bloodied lips lifting. “I won’t.”

“Damn you,” Keith whispered, and bowed his body over Shiro’s head, flinching as the ifrit coughed wetly. “If you die, I’ll kill you.”

“Heh,” Shiro said, lashes fluttering. “I will hold you to that.” There was a long pause, then he murmured, “Can you tell me a story, Keith?”

“A...a story?” Keith blinked, and peered down at him worriedly. “Did you hit your head?”

Shiro snorted. “No. I just. Enjoy stories. Anything, just...keep talking. I want to hear your voice, Keith.”

Keith’s gut twisted painfully. “Okay,” he whispered. “Once...once upon a time, there was a boy. And the boy had a mother and father who loved him very much, only they were dead, and the boy did not know they loved him, and so he was very sad. And thought that nobody in the entire world cared for him, or ever would.”

Shiro’s hand fell into Keith’s, and he squeezed weakly, and Keith squeezed back.

“And then one night something terrible happened to the boy, and it made him very angry and...and scared. And afterwards, there were people who cared for the boy and tried to help him but he did not know how to let them. So he thought it would just be better for everyone if he was alone. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t better to be alone.” He swallowed.

“And after a while the boy, who had become a man even if he still felt like a boy sometimes, found a dying stranger. And the man saw in that stranger someone helpless, someone who needed help – and he remembered he’d once needed help on a night not so different from that one, and he figured that it was only right to help the stranger, so he did. And the stranger was very grateful, and the man was sure he would leave eventually because he kept pushing the stranger away like he had pushed everyone else away, but the stranger did not leave. And the stranger became less and less of a stranger, and the man was frightened by this, especially when he began to care for the stranger. And the stranger cared for him, too, and this was even more frightening.”

Keith paused; he did not know how to continue. Shiro gazed up at him steadily. “What did the man do when he realized this?” he asked.

“He pushed the stranger away again,” Keith said ruefully, the words coming to him slowly. “He thought the stranger would surely realize he was not worth their time; and that they’d be better off seeking reciprocation elsewhere. But...but the stranger did not seem angry or upset as the man had thought he would be. The stranger seemed content to just be with the man, in any way the man would allow him to. And this was a great relief, and the even greater relief was finally admitting to himself and the once-stranger how he felt, and...and allowing himself to be cared for, and realizing he was not broken as he’d once thought, just...lonely. And the stranger was lonely, too, and they had both hurt and been hurt, and so it was very easy for them to understand and be there for each other.”

“It is easy,” Shiro whispered, his voice fainter, his grip slackening on Keith’s hand. “With you…”

Keith gripped his hand harder, frantic. “But, but then just as the man felt he had found something he never thought he would have, the stranger got hurt bad. And the stranger was dying again. And the man was terrified – more terrified than he had ever been, which was no small thing because he had felt awful terror before. But not like this, never like this, because the stranger had once told him the world would be a dimmer place without the man in it, and now the man understood exactly what the stranger had meant then, because he felt the same way about the stranger.”

“Keith,” Shiro sighed, eyes falling shut and body going limp.

“No! Wake up, I didn’t – I didn’t get to finish the story!” Keith exclaimed. “Shiro!”

The front door burst open, and Shay and Allura came running in, dusty from the road. Lance and Pidge were hot on their heels, and Hunk followed after them, arms laden with bandages and alcohol. Lance, who looked exhausted from running, collapsed into the armchair while Shay began ordering the others about. Allura was tasked with cleaning the wounds, and hurried to Shiro’s side with some cloth, a canteen of water, and a smaller bottle of rubbing alcohol.

“Oh, dear,” she murmured, brow creasing and eyes wide with worry. “Shiro, Shiro...what have you gotten yourself into this time?”

“It’s too late,” Keith whispered numbly, sitting back on his heels and shaking his head. “He’s…”

“No, there’s still a pulse, although by all rights he ought to be dead,” Shay declared, feeling at Shiro’s neck and somehow managing to keep her composure at the sight of Shiro’s true form. “Though I suppose human standards of healing do not apply to him. What caused these wounds?”

“A tiger,” Keith said, swallowing back the lump in his throat. “He’s alive?”

“A tiger!” Shay exclaimed. “You must tell me the story later. But for now…we must stop this bleeding.”

“Yes,” Allura agreed, pouring water over Shiro’s torn flesh and patting at it with the cloth soaked in alcohol. Shiro did not even stir, though it must have hurt. She glanced at Keith as she went about her work, and murmured, “Was it Tlaloc?”

Keith glanced at her, surprised, and nodded. Then he said, “Shiro...told me. About everything, about you and Tlaloc and Xilonen and...him.”

Allura smiled sadly. “Ah, yes. That was a long time ago...but he is still very dear to Xochiquetzal. I am not quite her, you know – there was very little of her left. Just enough to restore life to me. But she loved Shiro. It is not difficult to see why.” She bit her lip. “Tlaloc’s nahual is a tiger. But I thought he was long-gone, lost to the sands of time.”

“Sendak,” Keith mumbled, shoulders hunched. “Zarkon brought Sendak back with Tlaloc.”

Allura’s mouth tightened. “Oh, damn the whole lot of them,” she hissed. “Did Sendak try to hurt you three?”

“His sister did,” Keith explained, “but...Xochipilli intervened.”

Allura’s lips parted, and her eyes flickered, a brief glimmer of gold. “Xochipilli lives?”

“Er...sort of,” Keith hedged.

“He possessed me and called me ‘pretty cornflower eyes,’” Lance grumbled. “Then he possessed Keith and summoned a swarm of toxic butterflies while fighting crocodile lady with a sword.”

“That sounds like him,” Allura said wistfully. “I...or rather, Xochiquetzal, misses him.”

“Well, Shiro did give him your address,” Pidge said. “If he does turn up, punch him in the face for me, will you?”

“I won’t ask why; I’m sure he probably deserves it,” Allura mused.

“Um, sorry, but who’s Xochipilli?” Hunk ventured. He was looking rather green at the sight of all the blood.

“We don’t know, either,” Pidge assured him. “And Tlaloc, and...the crocodile lady?” Pidge looked to Keith, eyebrow raised. “You said Shiro explained it to you.”

Keith looked at Shiro, hesitant. “Go on,” Shay said. “Allura and and I can handle this.”

And they really could, because a long while later, after Keith had finished relaying all that Shiro had shown him in the dream world to Lance, Pidge, and Hunk, Shiro was cleaned up and in stable condition. Allura and Shay were covered in blood but Keith still hugged them and thanked them profusely, though they assured him no thanks was necessary.

“You saved his life,” Keith argued. “Thanks is definitely in order.”

“Don’t thank us yet,” Shay cautioned. “He’s still in a dangerous condition, and it will take a long time for him to recover, I think.” She looked to Allura for confirmation.

“Our kind heal faster, but it will still be awhile,” Allura added. “He is lucky to have you to watch over him, Keith. For the second time.”

“I’ll do all that I can,” Keith said.

So Shay told him everything he must do, from cleaning the wounds to changing bandages to replacing poultices to removing stitches, which she would likely do, but it was best to know just in case. There were so many instructions that Keith’s head hurt, but he determinedly remembered each one, because he would not let Shiro suffer from his own lack of memory.

When everyone finally left, the house was quiet, almost eerily so. Shiro’s breathing was quiet, and Keith lay beside him on his narrow bed for a while, listening to his heartbeat. He thought to finish the story, then realized he didn’t actually know how it ended yet. But he did know how he wanted it to end.

“The man would not let the stranger die,” Keith murmured, “and so he nursed him back to health, and the stranger was just fine in hardly any time at all. And the man, who had realized he did not want to push the stranger away or try to make him leave ever again, stayed with the stranger, and kissed him every day, and made him feel as whole and wanted as the stranger made him feel, and they lived happily ever after.”

Shiro did not reply, just slumbered on, and Keith brushed a kiss against his cheek before rising from the bed and going out to the stable.

Strawberry had not seen him in a long time, and she was still tired from the ride – she’d let Pidge ride her to Walpi, which was quite a ways, and Keith fed her a whole carrot and a handful of sugar cubes as a reward. But what she really wanted was for him to stay with her, and she nosed at him and snorted softly while he brushed her down, aware that he was visibly worried and carried the scent of blood on his clothing.

“It’s alright,” he told her, though he frowned as he said it. “Shiro will be alright.”

Her ears pricked, and Keith wondered if she’d grown to recognize Shiro’s name. He smiled. “Yes, Shiro,” he chuckled, “your favorite shadow man. Did Hunk tell you tall tales about him while I was away?” She huffed and stomped a hoof. “I’ll take that as a yes. Well, you needn’t be frightened of him, girl.” Keith sighed. “I’m more frightened for him than of him.”

He left Strawberry with a full water trough and a gleaming coat, and when he headed back inside, Shiro had not moved. Keith changed into his nightshirt and curled up to the ifrit’s side, drawing the covers over them, closing his eyes, and praying the morning would bring about a change for the better.

*

It did not. Shiro was still out, and Keith weathered Shay’s examination of him nervously while Allura wrapped a comforting arm around his shoulders. “It’s the strangest thing,” Shay noted as she poked and prodded at the unmoving ifrit, “he almost seems to have a fever, but...many of the usual fever symptoms are missing.”

“He could have fallen into stasis,” Allura suggested, and Shay and Keith looked at her in confusion. “It’s similar to a coma,” she explained.

“A coma?!” Keith said in dismay. “Will he ever wake?” Every coma case he’d heard of had not ended well – if they did not wake soon, they just wasted away.

But Allura nodded. “Our kind do not require the same physical sustenance that human bodies do, so I think he will wake, though it is impossible to say when,” she replied. “Shiro and I were in stasis for hundreds of years after the Aztecs fell; that is how we survived as long as we did with our magic at least partly intact.”

“Hundreds of years?” Keith whispered. “No, that’s – I can’t wait hundreds of years!”

Allura shrugged helplessly. “There is nothing we can do to bring him out of stasis, Keith, he went in and he is the only one who can bring himself out. Like coma in humans, it is a way for the body to try to heal itself after near-death.”

Keith frowned. “There has to be some way.”

“I know you do not wish to hear it, but there is no –”

“What is stasis, exactly?” Keith demanded. “I mean, where is he if he’s not here – unconscious, or sleeping?”

Allura paused. “I would say it is closer to sleeping,” she said cautiously. “Deep, deep sleep.”

“So he could be dreaming,” Keith said, an idea slowly forming.

She tilted her head. “What are you thinking, Keith?”

“Shiro didn’t just tell me about the Aztec gods, Allura, he showed me. He called it a dream world, and it – it felt real, and he was there with me. How can I go there again?”

“I don’t…” Allura chewed her lip thoughtfully. “If you were able to lucid dream, perhaps you could find that world again. To realize during your dreams that you were dreaming, and then take charge of your subconscious – it is no easy task. It will take time.”

“How do I do it?”

Allura blinked, and then chuckled with fond exasperation. “Keith, you have changed so much, yet in some ways, not at all. But...very well. This is no guarantee that it will work, but there are a few things that may make lucid dreaming easier. Firstly – do not stop thinking about it. The more you think about dreaming lucidly, the further and firmer the idea will lodge into your mind. Secondly – keep checking reality around you to make sure it is really real. In dreams, clocks and pages of books will be little more than blurs; as are hands and feet upon further examination. And thirdly, write down your dreams, as many as you can remember, each night. Learning the paths your own subconscious will make it more likely for you to actively change those paths...and perhaps find Shiro’s, somehow.”

“How long will this take?” Keith asked – it sounded like a long and complex process.

“It could take a week or more,” Allura admitted. “And as I said, there is no guarantee. But there is no harm in trying.”

“Respectfully, I disagree,” Shay said, arms folded and expression troubled. “Dreams can be dangerous. Our word for dream is ‘dimoki’ – it literally means ‘bundle.’ As in, something you bring back from the dream. Because you always bring something back, Keith – a thought, a word, an image, a message...a ghost, a fear, or worse.”

“All I want to bring back is Shiro,” Keith told her.

“Be careful,” she advised. “Do not search too deeply, Keith.”

“I’ll do what it takes,” Keith muttered. “He would do the same for me.”

“Yes, he would,” Allura sighed.

Shiro remained still as a corpse, the rise and fall of his chest imperceptible, and Keith had the feeling Shiro was already deeper than Shay thought it was safe to go.

*

That night, before he closed his eyes, Keith told himself he was going to find Shiro.

He did dream when he fell asleep then, but it was not in Shiro’s palace, and he did not know he was dreaming until he woke up.

Keith stood in a vast, fallow field covered in a thick, cold mist which whispered unintelligible words against his skin as he walked through it. It was a place neither inherently bad nor good; it just was, although the longer he walked, the more aware he became that he was not alone.

“Hello?” he called into the gently swirling mist, through which he swore he could see the shadowy outlines of people, others wandering in the field as he was. “Is anyone out there?”

Distantly, there was a call, a cry – it did not sound human. Unsettled, Keith hesitated before starting towards it. As he walked, something crunched under his boots. He looked down, and saw a fine white powder, like sand. But as he continued on, the crunching got louder, and so did the grains of powder, until Keith realized they were bones, breaking beneath him. He stopped walking, and the cry echoed through the mist again. The mist was colder.

Keith did not call out this time; the shadows in the mist were closing in on him steadily, and his only thought was to reach the source of the cry. He broke into a run, and the bones broke under his feet, which were suddenly bare, and bleeding from the splintered skulls and ribs and femurs they raced over. But they did not hurt, and Keith felt the cold no longer, and a dark shape arose out of the piles of bones, and the mist cleared, and Keith saw it was a black jaguar, asleep.

“Shiro!” he exclaimed, relieved, hurrying to his side. But the jaguar did not stir, and when Keith nudged at it gently, its velvety pelt felt to the ground, revealing the bleached skeleton it had been draped over. Keith stumbled back, horrified, and the skeleton began to crumble away into dust.

A figure stepped out of the mist – at first it looked like a woman, but when it emerged it was Strawberry. Her eyes were glowing gold. She said, You’re too late.

“No!” Keith said.

Too late, too late, Strawberry sighed, and when Keith looked down at his hands they were skeletal, and his hair turned white where it hung in his face, and his knees gave out from under him and he was falling, falling through the bones –

Keith awoke with a jolt, panting. The first thing he did was look to see if Shiro was awake – but he had not changed, except that some of the bandages had darkened with blood. Keith bit his lip, rolling out of bed to change them, and only remembered to write down the dream until afterwards. His memory of it was hazy at first – mist, bones, Strawberry – but the more he wrote, the more he remembered. Huh. Maybe Allura’s tricks really would work. He tucked the paper away in his nightstand and went out to give Strawberry her breakfast and a morning ride.

In the days that followed, Keith was reluctant to leave Shiro for any length of time. Pidge and Lance visited frequently, and so did Hunk, who was more helpful than either of them. He always brought supplies from Shay – fresh bandages, more poultices, and once a small leatherbound journal from Allura.

“What’s this, Hunk?” Keith asked curiously as he turned the pretty little book over in his hands.

“Madam Allura said it’s a dream journal, for you,” Hunk said brightly. “Open it, I think she left you a little note or something.”

She had indeed:

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

“Edgar Allan Poe,” Hunk noted. “Madam Allura does love her morbid poets.”

Keith blinked at him. He didn’t know Hunk read poetry. “Do you know what it means?”

“Oh, sure,” Hunk said, peering at the page. “Poe’s talking about the inevitability of aging and death. He’s pretty darn upset about it. That golden sand he’s talking about, that’s time, like sand through an hourglass. And the shore he’s standing on...well, it reminds me of the River Styx.” Keith looked at him blankly. “Like, in Greek mythology, the river in the underworld that the ferryman Charon carried the dead down. Not a fun place.”

“I had a dream about death,” Keith mused, tracing his fingertips over Allura’s elegant script.

Hunk frowned. “Are you alright?” His gaze fell upon Shiro, unmoving on the bed. “No change, huh?”

“No, but soon,” Keith said firmly, closing the dream journal and setting it down on his nightstand. He’d copy the last several nights’ dreams into it later. “I can find his dream world again, I know it.”

Hunk offered him a small smile. “If anyone can do it, you can.” He paused. “This might be a bad time, but, er...did you ever end up talkin’ to Shiro about that whole ‘fever’ thing you mentioned a while back?”

Keith flushed and looked down. “Ah, actually...yes.”

“Oh! Good! So, you two have it all, uh, resolved?” Hunk ventured.

Keith shuffled his feet. “Not exactly. We haven’t...there’s been no...but he’s very. Patient. And understanding.”

Hunk nodded sagely. “Communication is always key.”

Keith bit his lip. “How often do you and Shay, ah, y’know…”

Hunk’s eyes widened hugely. “Keith! I don’t – we – um –” He mumbled something unintelligible.

“What?” Keith said.

Hunk threw up his hands. “Once a week! Or so! But it was more than that when we first began seeing each other, if you really must know!” He was flushed and slightly sweaty.

“I ain’t intendin’ to pry,” Keith said apologetically.

Hunk sighed. “No, it’s...fine.”

“Thanks,” Keith said. “So, how ain’t she pregnant yet?”

Hunk gawked at him. “Is that rhetorical?!”

“No?”

Hunk put his head in his hands. “I. We...that is to say, when we do, er, things, they’re not always conducive to making babies. Does that make sense or do I have to elaborate – of course I do. Oh, dear.” He rubbed his temple. “Sometimes it’s just. Mouths. Fingers...oh, Lord, please don’t make me go on, Keith.”

“And those things feel good?” Keith asked, tilting his head.

Hunk squinted at him from between his thumbs. “I...honestly cannot tell if you’re pulling my leg or not, here, Keith.”

“It was an honest question.”

Hunk covered his face again. “Yes,” he said, muffled. “Yes, they feel good. Are you quite done?”

“No,” Keith said, intrigued. “Does she suck –”

Yes,” Hunk hissed. “Please stop right there.”

“Sorry,” Keith said. “But that feels good, then, for you?” Hunk nodded mutely. “But...not for her.”

Hunk made a face. “She would not do, er, that for me if she disliked it,” he mumbled.

Keith folded his arms. “You really think so? I do not see how it could be at all appealing.”

“We do not do anything for each other we don’t want to do,” Hunk said, faintly puzzled. “Nor should you, with Shiro. But...er, pleasure is sometimes found in rather strange and unexpected ways.”

Keith furrowed his brow. “Like what?”

“It varies from person to person,” Hunk said, waving a hand vaguely.

It was an evasion if Keith had ever heard one, but he’d interrogated poor Hunk enough. “I see,” he said, though he was not sure he really did. “Thank you for the dream journal.”

“I hope you stop dreaming about death,” Hunk said, patting him awkwardly on the shoulder.

Keith did not, unfortunately, stop dreaming about death.

There were varying dreams, some in forests, swamps, caves, and one in the desert; but all had the same mist, the same bones, and the same ominous voice at the end. The voice took different forms – one night Pidge, then Hunk, then Lance, then Allura, then Coran, then Thace – but never Shiro. Shiro was absent from every single dream, and Keith was getting frustrated. It had been nearly a week, and still, nothing. He’d been following all of Allura’s advice, but he was beginning to feel like a fool.

Lance brought tamales one day and suggested he get out more. Keith did not want to get out, not when Shiro was bedridden. Besides, he reasoned, it was safer to stay in his house, within the pocket dimension Shiro had created there. Lotor and the others might come looking, one of these days.

“You think so?” Lance eyed him worriedly, picking at his tamale. “About what Crocodile Lady said to you...being Shiro’s host and all...you really think that’s what Lotor’s after?”

“I think he wants me dead, and if he can make Tezcatlipoca’s spirit possess my corpse, then that’s two birds with one stone for him,” Keith said grimly.

“But...Tezcatlipoca doesn’t support Zarkon’s cause; never has,” Lance pointed out. “Why does Lotor think he would in your skin?”

“Because I’m more easily controlled than a god is,” Keith sighed. “I don’t rightly know; there’s plenty of ways Lotor could force Tezcatlipoca to do what he wants, either through threatening to hurt me or through Haggar’s magic.”

Lance whistled lowly. “And hear I thought those rumors about an Apache witch were all horsefeathers. Say, how many Aztec gods d’you think Zarkon’s got workin’ for him?”

“Not sure I wanna know,” Keith grumbled, shoveling the rest of his tamale into his mouth.

“Lots, I bet,” Lance continued. “No wonder he’s got the biggest crime syndicate this side of the Rockies. He’s cheating.”

“He’s a criminal; do you expect him to follow the rules?” Keith snorted.

“He’s not breaking the rules, he’s throwing out the whole damn book,” Lance muttered. “Immortals, pssh! Makes a man wonder what else is out there.”

Keith shivered. “Rather not wonder about that.”

Lance rolled his eyes. “Sure you’ve got plenty to wonder about with Shiro.” He wiggled his eyebrows.

“Don’t be vulgar,” Keith said. “I don’t wonder, and neither should you.”

“Ooh, jealous, are we?” Lance sipped his coffee and smirked. “Really, though – what has he got down there?”

“Is that you, Xochipilli?” Keith asked dryly. Lance squawked at him indignantly. Keith shrugged. “There’s a reason he chose you first. And I don’t know, anyway.”

“But...four months,” Lance said. “Five, almost, right?”

Keith sniffed. “We are not all as eager to bed as you, Espinosa.”

Lance regarded him with pursed lips. “So, all that sneaking off in the canyon…?” Keith shook his head.

“It is a complicated thing,” Keith said.

“Fucking? No,” Lance said. “But you ain’t talkin’ about that, are you.”

“No,” Keith agreed, and sighed. The tamales did not taste like much, anymore. “I feel like I’m branded, sometimes,” he admitted after a beat. “Like a damn cow. Like that night was a hot iron, seared into my skin for everyone to see, and know.”

“A mark of ownership,” Lance said quietly.

“Yes,” Keith said. “One that I never wanted.”

There was something else, and Lance saw it in his eyes. He arched an eyebrow. “But…?”

“But now I feel like I want Shiro to brand me,” Keith murmured.

“Hmm,” Lance said, tapping his chin. “I suspect some folks are into that.”

Keith chuckled and tossed his corn wrapper at Lance’s head. “You’re such an ass.”

Lance laughed, and didn’t deny it.

Shiro did not wake.

*

That night, Keith’s dream was different.

He was wandering through a city, or rather the ruins of one, and though the mist still wreathed the air there seemed to be more than usual, making it difficult for Keith to find his way through the cracked cobblestone streets. He could barely see ten feet in front of him, and the city presented itself little by little as a collection of high walls and towers looming up over him through the gray, the street lined with shadowy alleyways and empty doorways gaping like mouths as he passed.

As usual, he felt that he was not alone, but this time the feeling was distinctly bad. The back of his neck prickled, and he quickened his step, glancing about. He bit his tongue – he should not call out, not when he was being hunted.

Hunted. Yes, that was the right word for it. The mist whispered against his cheek, and it sounded scared. A warning. Run.

Keith brushed it off. There was nothing to run from – no footsteps, no shadow, no voice – only his own unsettled instinct. But he decided to leave the main road, and it was a good thing he did, for as soon as he stepped onto one of the narrower side streets, a dark shape rushed through the mist, down the cobblestones where he had just been standing. Keith froze, crouched against the cold wall.

Then he heard it. Keith, I know you’re here somewhere. I always did enjoy a game of hide and seek…come out, come out, wherever you are.

Lotor. Lotor was here. Keith held his breath...and then realized he was not breathing at all. Slowly, he looked down at his hands and feet. Blurry. He was dreaming. This wasn’t real. So then...why was his heart pounding like it was?

Shall I count to ten? That would make it more fair. I always did like a fair game, Keith, although I know that isn’t your preference. No, you prefer poison and deceit. But perhaps that is the only way you know how to win...I will have to teach you a better way.

Keith edged further along the side street, eyes darting about for an escape. Wake up, he thought desperately, but he could not. When he pinched himself, it did not hurt, but that was only a small comfort when Lotor started counting.

One, two, three, four, five…

Frantic, Keith wished for a horse.

Strawberry was suddenly standing in front of him, her eyes dark. He swung himself up onto her back and urged her to run and she galloped down the street, her hooves echoing too loud through the mist. Lotor stopped counting and Keith gritted his teeth.

Oh, I see, Lotor drawled, not sounding at all pleased, you think you can escape me. After all, it’s your dream, isn’t it? His mocking laughter ricocheted across the city walls and turned into a swarm of wasps. Strawberry kicked up her heels in fright and went careening around a sharp corner, and then they were back on the main street, and Lotor said, How wrong you are. I’ve been watching you for a while – you’re searching for something. No, someone. Is it the Jaguar?

“Shut up,” Keith gasped. The wasps were gaining on them, and he did not have to look back to see the man close behind them, grinning with sharp canine teeth and long hair as white as the mist.

Mm, tempting, but I’d rather not. I think it’s high time you and I had a little chat.

Strawberry’s legs gave out from under her, and as Keith tumbled from her back with a cry, she crumbled into a skeleton, then to dust, lost to the mist. The wasps surrounded Keith in a brief, stinging swarm, and then receded, and in their place stood a circle of growling white wolves, caging Keith in, parting only for Lotor as he strode towards Keith with slow purpose.

“What do you want,” Keith whispered, hands curling into fists.

“I seem to recall you promising me a kiss, last we spoke,” Lotor replied. Keith recoiled, and Lotor’s lip curled. “But I know the Jaguar does not like to share, and I do not have the same base proclivities as Tlaloc...though I have often entertained the idea of letting my hounds tear you from limb to limb.”

“Then do it,” Keith challenged, lifting his chin. “You cannot hurt me here.”

“I would not be so sure, if I were you,” Lotor retorted, taking a step closer. “Luckily, I am not. I would not want to be you, Hashké Tsela.”

Keith’s breath caught. “How do you…”

“Your parents are dead,” Lotor said. “I am the god of death; I’ve learned a few things from the dead. Simple, really.”

“You are not truly –”

Lotor scoffed. “You and your notions of ‘true’ gods. Of course I am not ‘truly’ the god of death, how could I be when there are so many others like me? Thanatos, Anubis, Morrigan, Azrael, Hel, Whiro, Yama – the list goes on, but we are all sides of the same dice. Any way you roll it, you die, and humans wish to believe that there is someone waiting for them. And who are we to deny you?”

“I don’t believe in that,” Keith retorted. “I don’t believe in you.”

“Would you like to see them?”

Keith faltered. “What?”

“Your parents,” Lotor said. “I can show them to you.”

“Your games ain’t gonna work on me,” Keith snapped, disbelieving.

Lotor lifted his hands, palms up. “I am playing no game.”

“You want me to be Tezcatlipoca’s host,” Keith said. “I won’t do it.”

“And why not?” Lotor asked gently.

Keith scowled. “You want me dead, first.”

Lotor’s smile was slow and soft. “And what is so wrong about death?” he murmured. “Today, tomorrow...by my hand or the Jaguar’s, it makes little difference in the end.”

“Shiro wouldn’t kill me,” Keith said. “I know what you think; Zethrid told me. But you’re wrong. I ain’t a shield and he don’t see me as such.”

Lotor clicked his tongue. His expression was sympathetic. “He is in stasis, is he not? That is a pity. Tlaloc’s rage got the better of him. He was to capture you, nothing more.” He tilted his head. “I wonder if you will get to witness the death of a god? It is spectacular, to be sure.”

“He ain’t gonna die,” Keith snapped. “You want him gone, because as long as he lives, Quetzalcoatl can’t have his empire. But you won’t be rid of him, or me, so easily.”

Lotor’s blue gaze grew cold, and the wolves bared their teeth. “Very well,” he said. “Have it your way, and know that I will find you and your slumbering Jaguar eventually, and when I do, you will wish you had accepted my kiss.”

The mist swallowed him up, and the wolves lunged, but their teeth never met Keith’s skin. Instead, two voices cried out in agony, and when Keith tentatively opened his eyes he saw a man and a woman on the ground before him.

The man was riddled with bullet holes and a slash across his neck, his blue eyes rolled back in his head; and when he shifted with a pained groan Keith saw a small white bundle squirming under him, a lamb bleating in fear as its fleece was drenched in blood. His lips moved, but no sound came out, unlike the woman beside him, who just kept rasping Keith’s name despite the blooming red stain across her chest, her hand reaching out weakly to him, violet eyes wide and beseeching. Keith, Keith, Tsela, come back to me, bring him back to me – !

Keith’s tears vaulted him into consciousness. Shiro was still asleep, and when Keith saw him, he cried harder, rubbing angrily at his eyes until they were sore. The pale light of dawn cast over the room, and Keith sat up in bed, taking a few shuddering breaths before reaching numbly for the dream journal to write the nightmare down.

It hadn’t felt quite like the other dreams, he thought. It had felt more real, more like the dream world. Maybe he was getting closer. Or maybe Lotor was getting closer to him. Keith bit his lip. Was he bluffing? Or was it possible that Lotor could find him, and hurt him, through dreams?

You always bring something back, Keith.

Keith looked around as if expecting Lotor to be lounging in a shadowy corner, watching him with those empty blue eyes. Of course, he was not there – just Shiro, who did not squeeze back when Keith grasped his hand, the only movement that of his eyelids. Keith got dressed, changed Shiro’s bandages, and went outside to Strawberry.

*

Keith had taken to making soup for Shiro as Shiro had for him. Granted, his soup wasn’t half as good, but Hunk had helped, and patted him on the back and told him it was the thought that really counted. Keith supposed Shiro couldn’t exactly appreciate it in his current state, and although Allura had told him Shiro didn’t really need ‘human sustenance,’ Keith liked the illusion of helping.

And he also had to get his blood to Shiro somehow.

Shiro had said he wouldn’t accept it, and therefore it would be wasted, but the way Keith figured it, Shiro couldn’t reject it if he didn’t know it was being given to him in the first place.

It was, Keith reasoned, just like Shiro slipping sleeping magic into his soup. Except this was a few drops of blood. Just a few, from a single pin prick in his fingertip. And Keith had no idea if it was doing anything, but over time, drop by drop, it might help Shiro recover, and that was all that mattered.

*

He was standing in the field of mist, and there was a rabbit staring at him.

“Hello?” Keith said, tilting his head. The rabbit cocked its head right back, ears flicking forward towards him, large brown eyes blinking slowly. “You aren’t the god of death, are you?”

The rabbit did not reply, just thumped its foot against the ground and hopped off into the mist. “Wait!” Keith exclaimed, hurrying after it. He knew he was dreaming, this time, yet he could not gain control of his surroundings as Allura had said he would. All he could do was chase the rabbit.

“Where are you going?” he called, panting, but the rabbit did not slow nor did it look back. It was a brownish sandy sort of color, with cream colored paws, black-tipped ears, and a white fluff of tail. Wherever it leapt, the fallow field burst into blooms of wildflowers and grass.

Then the rabbit stopped abruptly, and Keith skidded to a halt, gasping. “Damn you, cottontail,” he said breathlessly.

The rabbit thumped its foot again, and vanished. In its place a large patch of purple flowers grew, and a woman knelt among them. They were the flowers Asdzá̜á̜ Tsédídééh had been named for, but Keith knew as soon as she looked up at him that this woman was her sister, his mother. Her skin was as brown as the desert earth, jet black hair let down to flutter in a breeze only she could feel. Her eyes fixed upon Keith, the same color as the flowers, glowing from within, and she smiled.

He is not here, she said.

“Who?” Keith asked, though he thought he knew.

The pale wolf. The reaper who calls himself prince. He is not welcome in this place.

“In my dream?” Keith was puzzled.

She sighed, and motioned for him to sit beside her in the flowers. He did. You are a handsome boy, she told him, reaching up to touch his face gently, thumb stroking along his jaw. She felt the roughness of stubble there, and blinked, purple flickering. Or rather a handsome young man. It is an important distinction.

“You are not really my mother,” Keith said, though he did not push her away. She did not wish to hurt him; that much he knew.

Hmm, she said. A clever young man, too.

“Do you know where I can find Shiro?” he tried.

She paused at that. It is perilous to continue searching, she murmured. The Prince has caught your trail, and he is determined to follow it. The deeper you go, the less in control you will be. Certain realms belong to him, and you are but a visitor there...or an intruder.

“So these ain’t just dreams?” Keith wondered. “They’re actual realms, dimensions, whatever you call ‘em?”

She inclined her head. There are many different realms, and many different ways to reach them. These are realms accessible only in the subsconscious, for humans anyway. You seek the Jaguar’s own subconscious realm – it is a fine place, to be sure. It has a name, too, like most realms. Did you know that?

“No,” Keith admitted, intrigued. “What is it called, then?”

The Caravanserai, she said, plucking a flower from its stem and tucking it behind Keith’s ear. A safe and luxurious resting place for weary travelers. Are you weary, Keith? She chuckled.

Keith swallowed. “Does this place have a name?”

It does. It is called Asphodel. The between place.

“Between what,” Keith whispered.

Between you, she said, tapping his brow lightly, and me.

“The living and the dead.”

She nodded. Be careful, Keith. And because I know you will not be, I will be with you as you continue your search. You’re getting closer – to him and to harm.

Keith opened his eyes to the light of dawn and Shiro still beside him.

He sat up, and a purple flower tumbled from his hair, wet with mist.

*

The next night, he was back in the ruined city again, but this time the rabbit was with him.

“You could at least be a wolf or somethin,’” Keith sighed. “My protector is a bunny?”

The rabbit thumped its foot and hopped off down an alleyway. Keith threw up his hands and followed it, hoping that it wasn’t actually Lotor in disguise. He was fairly certain Lotor’s ego was too big to take the form of a rabbit, anyway.

But Lotor was there; his voice echoed through the city soon enough, and Keith began to notice the ruins were different. There was less mist and more detail. It felt...closer to reality.

It is certainly lucky for me that you never know when to leave well enough alone, Lotor mused. Stubborn to the end. Those ones are always the most fun.

The rabbit’s ears flicked back and its nose twitched in obvious distaste every time Lotor spoke. “You don’t like him either, huh?” Keith whispered. The rabbit sneezed, and kept hopping.

Lotor was getting frustrated, and Keith realized the rabbit was leading him through the maze of the city, away from the death god and his hounds. “What is this place?” he tried to ask the rabbit, and he was certain it glared at him before continuing on. “Can he hurt me here?”

As if on cue, a giant white dog lunged from a dark doorway, cutting Keith off from the rabbit. Keith cried out, and Lotor’s pleased laughter filled the air as the dog pinned him, snarling and snapping at his face as Keith kicked and struggled under it. It’s a dream, it’s a dream, he kept telling himself, but the spittle flying from the dog’s jaws felt horribly real, and the dull claws scrabbling at his chest left raised pink lines on his skin through his shirt.

There you are, Lotor said, and Keith saw him out of the corner of his eye, stalking towards Keith from down the street in a swirl of dark cloak and silver hair.

Then one of Keith’s frantic kicks caught the dog’s back leg, and it stumbled briefly, allowing Keith to twist out from under it, and the rabbit was there, showing him a way out, and Keith followed it at a sprint. Lotor and the dog howled in rage behind him, and the rabbit’s hops lengthened to bounds, and suddenly Keith could run just as quick as the rabbit; he felt weightless, fast and free.

But they were cut off on the next street by the pack of wolves, growling and blocking every door and alleyway, and the rabbit faltered, front paw lifted and nose twitching furiously. Lotor appeared like a ghost among the wolves, and his lips curled into a smirk when he saw the rabbit crouched in front of Keith. So that’s how you’ve managed to evade me, Lotor chuckled. Thank you for bringing my hounds such a plump little treat.

The rabbit thumped its foot angrily, but shrank back when the wolves started forward, their teeth bared and tongues lolling. Keith didn’t even think before darting forward and scooping the rabbit up into his arms, holding it protectively to his chest.

The rabbit squirmed indignantly but went still as Lotor’s face twisted with ugly rage. “You,” Lotor hissed, the word dripping with venom, “you dare to meddle in our affairs? You have no place here! Hand him over to me.”

Keith thought that made no sense, considering he was the one holding the rabbit, and it couldn’t very well hand Keith over to Lotor, but then the rabbit twisted in his arms, stared up at him with round brown eyes, and Keith heard a voice in his head say, Hold on.

Then the rabbit shifted in his arms into a huge, roaring red dragon, and Keith clung to its back for dear life as it leapt into the dark sky, far away from Lotor and his wolves. Lotor’s voice followed them, but eventually even that faded, until they were soaring through the air over the ruined city, which stood atop a tall mountain surrounded by dark, foreboding forest. The dragon circled the city a few times, then landed on a high cliff top, peering at Keith over its shoulder with glowing golden eyes.

“Chantico?” Keith whispered, and the dragon rumbled with a laugh.

No, but I am glad you met her, the dragon said. This realm is called Mictlan, and it is ruled by Xolotl. Do not return here. It blinked softly and exhaled warm, smoky steam into his face.

Keith awoke, his shirt torn by claws and his head spinning. Shiro’s fingers twitched, and as Keith wrote down the dream shakily, he knew he was very close.

*

The next night, Keith lay there in the dark imagining the Caravanserai, the jaguars and the throne and Shiro in full regalia, and he held Shiro’s hand as he fell asleep, and when he dreamed, at last, he was…

In the desert. He was in the desert, the one he had grown to know like the back of his hand, and Shiro was nowhere in sight.

“No!” Keith cried up to the glittering night sky. “I won’t stop looking, you know! I won’t stop trying to find Shiro and bring him back, no matter how long it takes –”

The rabbit kicked his leg. Keith looked down at it dumbly. Unimpressed, it thumped its foot and bounded off into the sagebrush. Exasperated, Keith followed, bracing himself for yet another chase, another threat from Lotor, another dead end.

But instead, the rabbit led him up and over a rocky hill, and when they reached the stop, Shiro was sitting there, looking up at the stars with Keith at his side. The rabbit nudged Keith towards them. Keith stared. That was...that was him, smiling up at Shiro, Shiro’s arm draped around his shoulders, and yet jealousy twisted hotly in his gut. Unsure for the first time in his search, Keith approached them from behind, and Shiro was so focused on Dream Keith that he did not notice the intruder until Keith touched Dream Keith’s shoulder, and the other him looked up with shock and fizzled away into nothingness.

Shiro leapt to his feet, eyes blazing gold and lips twisted in a snarl as he rounded on Keith. “So you’ve finally found me,” he growled. “I knew I sensed you creeping about in these realms, but I did not think you would stoop so low as to take his form!”

Keith opened his mouth to protest, but Shiro shoved him against the wall – yes, all at once there were walls, the desert replaced by the Caravanserai’s usual palace, and Keith gasped as the breath was knocked out of him. “Do you think I will show you mercy because you wear his face?” Shiro demanded. “Think again, you filthy mutt.”

“Shiro,” Keith managed, eyes wide, “it’s me!”

Shiro faltered. “You even sound like him,” he muttered. “A pretty act, Xolotl.”

“Please,” Keith whispered, voice breaking, “Shiro, I’ve been trying to find you for two weeks, I’m not Lotor, please believe me, please just wake up!”

Shiro’s brow furrowed, disbelieving, and then Keith’s patience ran out and he snapped, “Fine, you idiot, would Lotor do this?” and kissed him as hard as he could.

Keith’s eyes flew open as Shiro fell out of the bed and onto the floor with a pained yelp.

“Shiro!” he exclaimed.

“Keith?” Shiro whispered, taking in his surroundings and looking down at his bandaged body, then back up at Keith. “What – how did you –”

“You were in stasis,” Keith whispered, reaching out to help him to his feet. Shiro didn’t move; he seemed stunned. “I finally found you, in the Caravanserai.”

Shiro’s eyes widened, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly. For a huge ifrit, he looked awfully small and bewildered. “Who told you…?” He blanched, suddenly terrified. “Lotor. He...he found you, didn’t he? Because of me. This is my fault, this is all my fault, oh, Keith, I’m so sorry.”

And Keith recognized the wild, desperate look in his eyes, and he knew what Shiro was about to do, so he dove forward and grabbed Shiro’s arm just as the ifrit winked out of existence, and into the lava cave dimension. Keith grunted at the impact against the huge nest of pillows, and Shiro gawked at him in dismay, lifting his hand at once to send Keith back.

“No!” Keith cried, stilling his wrist. “Don’t, you’re still healing; if you send me back you could die here, Shiro!”

“Maybe that’s for the best,” Shiro whispered, and Keith realized he was delirious – feverish and paranoid and still so weak he could barely sit up.

“No,” Keith said firmly, easing him down to the pillows and shaking his head, “You are going to stay right here, and you are going to heal, and I am going to help, and –”

“Help,” Shiro repeated flatly, his eyes dull. “You mean, by sneaking your blood into my soup?”

Caught, Keith stammered, “I had to do something, you were just – laying there, and nobody knew when or if you’d ever wake!”

Shiro closed his eyes and Keith started forward, fearing he’d fallen back into stasis again. But then Shiro gritted out, “I told you I did not want – I could not take your blood, Keith.”

“And I could not let you die,” Keith whispered, shaking his head and laying his hand gently upon Shiro’s right shoulder, where his arm still remained a scarred stump.

Shiro flinched and let out an unsteady breath, cracking his eyes open. “You should not have done it,” he mumbled, defeated.

“It was given, not taken,” Keith told him. “I know you ain’t using me as a shield; as your last source of power. I never thought so. But I ain’t gonna let you die because you’re too stubborn to let me help you the only way I can. That’s why I did it. I’d do it again. I know you’d do the same for me, in my position.”

“Keith,” Shiro breathed, sounding helpless. His skin was clammy to the touch, brow damp with sweat, and he sighed gratefully when Keith rearranged the pillows and blankets to nestle him deeper into the nest, draping several large blankets over his shivering form. Yet Shiro still reached for him, brows knit together and face etched with concern.

“What is it?” Keith asked, stroking his face reassuringly.

“Lotor,” Shiro mumbled, eyelids falling. “He...he’s touched your mind, your soul, I can sense it –” Then he paused, lips parting. “And another…?”

“I can explain after you get some rest,” Keith said. “But know that I am alright – Lotor pursued me in his dream realm, but I escaped, and he has not found us, nor will he. Now rest, Shiro. I will be right here.”

“There was another,” Shiro whispered, and drifted off before Keith could ask what he meant.

Chapter Text

Shiro did not fall back into stasis, but he was badly injured still, and there was something deeply terrifying and unsettling about seeing him in such a weak state. It drove Keith into what could only be described as an overprotective frenzy – especially once he realized that it was up to him and only him to nurse Shiro back to health. Shiro was in no state to send them back to Keith’s house, and as far as Keith knew there was no way for himself to traverse between the dimensions, so they were stuck here.

Keith’s first order of business was to use the adder stone Shiro had given him to let his friends know where he was. Everyone was rather anxious about the new development, which didn’t help bring down Keith’s stress levels any, until finally an exasperated Shay and Allura sent panicky Hunk, demanding Lance, and inquisitive Pidge to another room. They were much calmer about the situation, and walked Keith through everything he must do again.

Shiro woke briefly, long enough to mumble about where Keith could find the cave full of herbs and bandages. Then he was fast asleep again, and when Keith ended the call, he spent a while just lying beside Shiro in the nest, stroking his hair and hoping, as hard as he could, that everything would be okay. It would not be fair, he thought stubbornly, for them to have come this far only for Shiro to be dispatched by a common fever.

Because it did seem like Shiro had a fever – Keith followed Shay’s advice and managed to find the right herbs in Shiro’s healing cave to make him a pot of tea which she said would bring his pain down. Allura agreed it would help, and that was all the confirmation Keith needed – he did not want Shiro to be suffering.

When Keith held the mug of tea to Shiro’s lips in a brief moment of consciousness, Shiro blinked at him hazily, and mumbled, “You didn’t bleed into it, did you?”

Keith snorted. “No,” he murmured, and listed off the herbs in the tea for him. “But would you like me to?”

“I would like you to keep your blood in your body,” Shiro sighed, eyes falling shut again as he sipped the tea. “Where it belongs.”

“And I would like you to stay alive, but you are being rather difficult on that front,” Keith retorted when Shiro had drank all the tea.

“I will not die,” Shiro said, slowly reaching out to brush a claw against Keith’s cheek. “Probably.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t exactly find that reassuring,” Keith muttered. “You would have spirited yourself off to this dimension without me, and then where would we be? You can hardly care for yourself in this state.”

Shiro blinked at him. “I have done it before,” he said. “I do not want you to feel that...you must care for me…”

Keith made a sound of outrage. “I will care for you because I want to, you idiot! Because I care about you! That is why I offer you my blood, why I would not let you send yourself here, why I searched through dream realms night after night for you! Is that concept really so impossible for you to grasp?”

Shiro flinched and attempted to hide in the pillows and blankets, which was a lost cause. “I...I did not mean to raise my voice,” Keith added, and Shiro shivered when Keith touched his hand gently, tangling their fingers. “I am not angry at you,” he assured. “I am simply scared. I thought I had lost you.”

Shiro hesitated, then lifted his head just enough to kiss Keith’s brow. “I’m here,” he rasped.

“So am I,” Keith told him, nestling up to his side and staring up at him with determination. “And I’m staying right here, and you are going to heal, and that is final.”

Shiro chuckled, a rattle in his chest, and nodded.

*

When Shiro was a bit more coherent, Keith explained his journey through the dream worlds, and Shiro told him what he knew about Asphodel and Mictlan. The ifrit seemed troubled by what Keith had seen, especially by the rabbit who had been able to appear as Keith’s mother and as Chantico’s dragon.

“That being was right when it told you Asphodel is a place between the living and the dead. It is...similar to the Catholic Purgatory...I think.” Shiro’s brow furrowed. “Catholicism confuses me.”

“I feel like I’ve heard the name before,” Keith mused, tucked under Shiro’s bandaged arm. The ifrit was still too weak to create his shadow arm, but he had assured Keith it would reform in time. “In a story, maybe?”

“The Asphodel Meadows, yes,” Shiro murmured. “Named after the flower...often a symbol of death in the West, as I understand. They were part of the Greek Underworld...a place for ordinary souls. Neither good nor bad...purely neutral.”

“So, so then that Underworld is real?” Keith exclaimed. “And Lotor was right, about all the other gods of death existing?”

Shiro hummed thoughtfully. “Real is subjective,” he said. “So is the idea of...existing. Asphodel and Mictlan, and my Caravanserai...they exist only here.” He tapped a claw against Keith’s head. “Yet that does not make them false, per se. The mind is full of truths...linked inextricably to the soul.”

“But the rabbit told me Mictlan was ruled by Xolotl, and the Caravanserai ruled by you – and they felt real.” Keith bit his lip. “And Lotor seemed to think he could hurt me, in Mictlan. His hounds certainly tried.”

“Mictlan is the Aztec Underworld,” Shiro mused. “A faded shadow, now...much like Asphodel. But Lotor...may have more influence there. It is good you left that place, Keith…” Shiro’s brow furrowed. “What did Xolotl want from you?”

Keith exhaled. “For me to be your host, as Lotor is his.”

Shiro froze, shocked and dismayed, and then his chest rumbled with a growl. “Oh, he is a conniving creature...you refused, yes?”

“Of course! I know I’d have to die for it to even be possible, and the only reason Lotor wants it to happen is because it would benefit him – and I have no desire to help him or Zarkon, or any of the Galra,” Keith said hotly.

“Yes,” Shiro sighed. “He would control us, likely through torturing you to subdue me. I would sooner kill us both than let that happen.”

“Could you do that?” Keith asked with some alarm. “Kill your host?”

“If Quetzalcoatl did not restrain me in some way, which I am sure he would, I would likely incinerate you from the inside out,” Shiro mumbled. “The only reason Xolotl was able to take Lotor’s body as a host was because he was a shadow of his former self.”

“And why was he?” Keith pressed. “Did he become so over time, or…?”

Shiro chuckled dryly. “Oh, you don’t think I just slept all those years after they went and murdered my wife and friends, do you? No. I did not possess the same awful magic Quetzalcoatl used against Xilonen, but I was hardly weak. I went after each and every one of them, as many as I could find. That is why they hate me so. Tlaloc, Huixtocihuatl, Xolotl, and many others...I did my best to obliterate them all. It was only recently that Zarkon discovered how to bring them back through human hosts. Even then, they will never be as powerful as they once were.” He broke off with a cough, and Keith shushed him, petting his hair until Shiro’s coughs turned into rusty purrs. “Unfortunately,” he mumbled, “neither will I.” He looked at Keith petulantly. “I have decided I do not like aging at all.”

Keith shook his head fondly and kissed his cheek. “You are quite dramatic. At least you still have your dashing good looks.”

Shiro’s lips quirked. “For now. Perhaps one day, unexpectedly, you will wake up and I will be hideously ugly. What would you do then, I wonder?”

Keith rolled his eyes. “I would stay right here and continue tending to my dramatic and ugly ifrit.”

“Even if I was covered in warts, with skin like a toad’s? Or maybe I will grow spikes everywhere, like Chantico, or a cactus.” Shiro’s eyes were glittering with amusement.

“Then I would just have to hold you more carefully,” Keith said.

“Maybe you will be unable to hold me at all, as I will be oozing slime,” Shiro countered seriously. “Like a slippery slug.”

“I would be irritated by the mess,” Keith said, “but stay with you, nonetheless.”

“Hmm,” Shiro said. “That is true devotion. Would you still kiss me?”

“Right on your slimy, disgusting mouth,” Keith giggled, and Shiro did too, until he remembered laughing was extremely painful and hissed instead. Keith glared at him until he stopped.

They were quiet for awhile, and then Shiro fell asleep, and the rabbit was forgotten until a few days later, when Shiro was awake enough to worry about it again.

“Is there a rabbit god?” Keith suggested, as Shiro stared at the ceiling, contemplating so hard there were beads of sweat on his brow. Or maybe that was the fever.

“There are four hundred,” Shiro mumbled.

“What?!”

“Mhm,” Shiro said, distracted, “The Centzon Totochtin, yes. They were four hundred divine rabbits whose only purpose, as far as I could ever discern, was to meet frequently and throw wild parties, and get very drunk on pulque.”

“I don’t think this rabbit was drunk,” Keith said after a long moment of imagining huge drunk rabbit parties. “Seemed very clear-headed, to me.”

Shiro frowned. “Yes, and I’ve...never heard of one of them guiding a mortal through realms, much less through Mictlan or Asphodel.”

“Then what…?”

Shiro shrugged helplessly, and winced at the movement. “I don’t know, Keith,” he admitted in a sigh. “There are the Lords of the Night, who may occasionally appear in dreams, which include myself, Tlaloc, and many others...but none take the form of a rabbit.” Shiro hesitated, then shook his head. “No...there are none that come to mind. I am sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Keith said. “I’m sorry, you should be resting.”

“Being an invalid is…” Shiro yawned. “Not very fun.”

“Neither is being dead, I’d imagine,” Keith shot back. Shiro huffed, mumbled something in defeat, and snuggled into the nest obediently.

*

With Shiro bedridden and usually asleep, Keith struggled to find ways to entertain himself.

When he wasn’t tending to Shiro, attempting to cook, or looking around, he was usually sleeping beside Shiro, and with sleep came dreams.

Very, very vivid dreams, unlike any Keith had ever experienced before.

*

He was in a huge golden palace, the ceilings towering higher than any manmade structure he’d ever seen. He didn’t think this place had been made by men at all – it didn’t seem real. And yet, he knew that his fate here was very real, and steeled himself as the shadow he had been warned of fell across his kneeling figure. Do not show fear, they had told him. He has no respect for sniveling cowards. Be brave, as you were in battle, and he will be merciful. He will make it quick.

But he highly doubted that. He knew this being, the one they called Tezcatlipoca – unlike most of the Aztecs’ gods, his people’s ancestors had worshipped – and feared – the Jaguar. And it was not a kind god.

So he would be brave, but he did not expect any mercy or quickness of death in return. Death would come as Tezcatlipoca wanted it to – he had no say in the matter. He was a prisoner of war turned sacrifice and autonomy did not factor into the equation.

Hello, little one.

His brow furrowed. The god’s voice was softer than he had expected. Another ruse, likely – he braced himself for sharp claws and teeth.

Instead, he got the slow brush of a large, smooth palm against his cheek, tipping his head up. Reluctantly, he lifted his gaze…and froze.

The god towered over him, skin made of the same shadows which wreathed him in a dark and shimmering mist like the night sky. Golden eyes stared from a face that was not human…but not terrifying and monstrous, either. It was a handsome male face, marred only by a scar slashed across the god’s nose, the thick twisted ram horns curling from either side of its head, and the strange white forelock of hair falling over its brow. Even these features were not exactly unappealing.

When the god smiled at him, though, Tezcatlipoca’s teeth were revealed to be as sharp as the stories said, and he flinched away despite his resolve, heart pounding. Oh, he had not wanted this fate – to die in a strange land for a strange and awful god, for the very people his clan had warred with for years.

Tezcatlipoca’s smile fell, and it tilted its head, leaning down to examine its prize.

You are not Aztec. A warrior from the northern clans? He nodded jerkily, irritated by the questioning. Why didn’t the monster just get it over with? A war prisoner? Nod. What is your name?

He bristled, and could not stop himself from snapping, “Do you really need my name to kill me, my Lord?”

As soon as he said it, he regretted it – he was truly a fool, and now he was certain Tezcatlipoca would draw it out with the utmost cruelty for his insolence –

Tezcatlipoca burst into laughter. He knelt there, tense and bewildered, and the god chuckled, eyes glittering with mirth. When the god stopped laughing, the silence settled heavy and thick, and he barely breathed. Then Tezcatlipoca said, Tell me your name, little one, and that was an order.

He swallowed. “Hashké Tsela,” he whispered.

The god seemed quite pleased by this. Warrior of Stars Lying Down, the god mused. May I call you Tsela?

“Yes?” he said, more confused than ever.

Good. You may call me Shiro, if you please. Tezcatlipoca is a bit of a mouthful.

“I don’t understand,” he pleaded. “Aren’t you just going to kill me?”

Tezcatlipoca – Shiro? – regarded him for a long moment. Then it said, Is that what you want, Stars Lying Down?

His eyes widened, panicky. He had never expected a choice. “Want? I –”

There is no need to answer. You are an unwilling sacrifice, and I have no need for your death. It would be…wasteful. There was no mistaking the god’s tone as its claws carded through his hair. He shivered…though not in disgust. Something about this felt wonderfully, impossibly familiar. You are very beautiful, Tsela.

He blinked, a flush spreading across his face. “Beautiful? My Lord, I don’t –”

Shiro. The god’s breath feathered across his cheek, and then his mouth, its face so close to his own that he could smell its strange scent – like smoke and spices, a heady aroma that settled hazily into his mind.

“Shiro,” he whispered, and then the god was kissing him, and he moaned into its mouth and clung to its broad shoulders and muscled chest, his fear fizzling away all at once into burning, desperate desire. Sharp teeth snagged at his lips and a forked tongue delved past his teeth and he didn’t care, just kept trying to get closer. The god chuckled at his enthusiasm and pressed him down to the floor, but he sank into soft cushions, not hard stone, and he was so warm, and it was a relief when his skin was bared to the air by the god’s careful claws.

He lay on the pillows, flushed and panting and exposed under the fiery looming god, but he was unafraid. “I know you,” he gasped, staring up into fond golden eyes.

Shiro smirked. You have not known me yet, Keith, he murmured, and covered him with his body.

Keith bolted upright in the nest, breathing hard, heart pounding. He pointedly ignored the tightness of his pants and scrambled over to where Shiro was slumbering a few feet away. He felt bad about waking the injured ifrit, but this was…kind of serious. “Shiro!” he exclaimed, nudging his arm. “Shiro, wake up!”

Shiro’s eyes blinked open blearily after nearly a minute of this – he was a heavy sleeper. “Keith?”

“What the blazes was that,” Keith hissed. When Shiro just stared at him blankly, Keith huffed and added, “Your damn dream world – the palace, the Caravanserai? You sent me there again.”

Shiro’s brow furrowed. “Huh?” he mumbled, and with dismay Keith realized Shiro hadn’t sent him anywhere, not in this state. “My…dream world?” He blinked, gaze sharpening slightly. “Oh. If you went to the Caravanserai again, it wasn’t my doing.”

“Then whose,” Keith pleaded.

The poor ifrit looked deeply perplexed. “Uh…yours, I mean…it’s your dream?”

Keith wrung his hands. “No! It wasn’t a normal dream, Shiro, it felt real, just like when you showed me all your memories at Pidge’s house, and when I found you in stasis.”

“Hmm,” Shiro mused, starting to sit up. Keith pushed him back down and he didn’t fight it. “Well…I suppose I could have opened some kind of…gate in your subconscious. Through that and your search for me, you may have open access to that realm now. It functions a bit differently than the others, so, it’s possible. But I doubt anyone else is interfering.” He frowned. “Keith, was it…did you have another nightmare?”

Keith shook his head hastily. “No. It wasn’t…no.”

Definitely not a nightmare, judging by the hardness poking against the seam of his pants.

“Alright…?” Shiro still looked concerned, and that just wouldn’t do. “Keith, are you sure? You look shaken –”

He reached out and Keith swatted his hand away, clicking his tongue in disapproval and throwing a blanket over Shiro before the ifrit could make another move. “I’m fine. Don’t worry, just rest.” Shiro yawned in easy agreement, closing his eyes again. He was out in seconds. Keith ran a hand through his hair, biting his lip and remembering the promise in the god’s glowing eyes above him.

*

The dreams...intensified.

Keith was chained to a stone altar, and yet he was not panicking – he tugged experimentally on his bonds and they rattled, not giving an inch. He was wearing only a thin white cloth tied at his hips, the edges of the fabric embroidered with little black suns. He was so busy admiring the careful needlework that he missed the soft sound of paws on stone, and it was only when he heard a low chuff that he looked up and saw the huge black jaguar padding towards the altar, eyes glowing gold and scarred muzzle lifted towards him in keen interest.

Hello, little one, it greeted, circling the altar with an expression of faint amusement. Comfortable?

“What do you think?” Keith asked, raising an eyebrow.

I think you are as mouthy as ever, the jaguar retorted, leaping up onto the altar without warning, his every muscle stilling instinctively as the great beast loomed over him, its daggerlike teeth mere inches from his face. But then the jaguar tilted its head, glaring eyes softening, and licked his forehead fondly. And as beautiful as ever.

“Hmph,” he mumbled, turning his head to the side and flinching at the press of a wet nose to his neck. “Why do you play these games, Jaguar? You know what I want.”

The jaguar paused, breath hot upon his collarbone. Yes, but do you know what you want?

He faltered, and frowned. “I want you, of course.”

You are so much bolder here, little one, the jaguar sighed. Why? We are the same, he and I. I may be in your head, and therefore incapable of ever doing you harm…but do you truly think the real him would ever do you harm?

“I don’t understand,” he said. “Who do you speak of?”

Who else, dear one?

The jaguar was gone, replaced by a heavy, dizzying weight atop Keith’s hips – the god was straddling them, fully bare, and Keith’s face flushed…though there was nothing at the join of his thighs, nothing that Keith had expected, anyway. There was something else, though, for as the god rocked slowly, rubbing its body over Keith’s, a strange kind of friction emerged.

A groan slipped past Keith’s lips and the god’s mouth curled smugly, and Keith felt himself rousing under the cloth, or perhaps he had been roused all along – either way, the god purred in satisfaction and teased at the growing bulge with sharp claws and deft fingers until Keith was panting and squirming on the altar, desperate for something more.

Tezcatlipoca – no, Shiro – spread his muscled thighs wider, lifting up on his knees and lifting the edge of the cloth slowly, drawing it back until Keith was practically begging, at which point the god shushed him gently and lowered its body onto him.

Keith whined, lashes fluttering with the pleasure of it, tight and hot and perfect and Shiro was moving, rolling his hips and sweeping his hands over Keith’s skin, leaving imprints of heat in their wake, a scorching warmth that made Keith frantic and dizzy; the altar softening under him, the palace crumbling, the god riding him leaning forward and brushing a kiss across his lips that Keith felt as a haunting echo when he jolted awake.

He was in the nest again, in Shiro’s cave, and Shiro was lying next to him, awake, eyebrow raised. Keith muffled his shriek in his palm and Shiro’s eyebrow lifted higher.

“Dreams, huh?” Shiro said, and he knew, and Keith turned bright red. “Were you going to tell me?”

“I ain’t required to, am I?” Keith snapped, painfully aware that he was still aching, still flushed with want and the memory of being inside of Shiro.

“No,” Shiro said, mild. “They’re your dreams, after all...albeit in my dream realm.”

Keith shuddered, gaze sliding away in embarrassment. “I…it won’t go away.”

“There are ways of making that happen,” Shiro remarked, still just lying there, watching him from half-lidded eyes, glowing just like the jaguar’s. “I’m sure you can think of something.”

“Oh, ha, ha,” Keith muttered, and then froze when Shiro nudged something toward him – a pillow. Shiro shrugged – it was a suggestion, nothing more. Keith hesitated, then tugged the pillow to his body, and shuddered at the hint of friction. He whispered, “Don’t look.”

Shiro closed his eyes dutifully.

We are the same, he and I.

Keith squirmed against the pillow, closing his own eyes and muffling his breathy moans in the fabric, rocking his hips unevenly and rubbing himself off as best he could. His cock throbbed, and Keith thought of actually touching it, of taking it in hand properly, squeezing and stroking in equal measure…and then he thought of Shiro touching his cock, thought of cool claws and a huge rough palm and a gentle tug and Keith came at the thought, and did not realize he had said Shiro’s name until Shiro cursed under his breath.

Keith’s eyes snapped open. Shiro was still closing his eyes, but his lips were parted, and his claws had shredded through the unfortunate pillow they’d been clutching. Keith swallowed, his softening cock twitching alarmingly at the sight. Thankfully, it did not follow through on that urge, and when Keith awkwardly cleared his throat, Shiro mumbled something about a change of clothes in the next room, and Keith practically ran out.

When he returned, clean and with new pants, Shiro was asleep again, but he was curled around the very same pillow Keith had, er, made use of.

Keith stared at him in disbelief, face hot all over again, and stalked to the opposite side of the nest, wrapping himself in the red blanket Shiro had given him and praying for mercy, because there was only so much of this he could take.

*

But the Jaguar was not merciful, and the dreams just got worse, or better; Keith really could not say. He only knew that he awoke sweaty and flustered and hopelessly aroused more often than not; and he knew Shiro must be at least somewhat aware of his continuing troubles, but the ifrit never made any advances upon him, either in sleep or upon waking. Keith was grateful for it, of course, but Shiro’s gentlemanly manners did not ease his (literal) mounting frustration in the slightest.

Keith tried to focus more wholly on tending to Shiro, for though the bandages were less numerous and would soon be all gone, the larger wound across his chest needed the stitches removed, and had to be cleaned frequently. Although Shiro protested that his kind did not need to be bathed so frequently as humans, Keith insisted on washing him (or most of him, anyway) with a damp, soapy cloth every other day. Shiro seemed to enjoy it, always relaxing into the nest and sighing softly, sometimes even drifting off.

And maybe it was indulgent and slightly unnecessary, and maybe it was an excuse for Keith to touch him and admire the way his wet skin gleamed, but regardless Keith was certain no ifrit had ever smelled as clean and fresh as his.

He thought perhaps he was going stir-crazy in the tight quarters, but Shiro’s caves were actually rather extensive and now that Keith was not the feverish invalid, he could explore them at length. He had never reached the end of them, as far as he knew – once he had wandered them for what must have been an hour or two, and when he found his way back to the main cave he found Shiro in a panic, sitting up with a scared and bewildered expression on his face.

“Keith!” he’d cried, voice breaking in his relief. “Where were you?”

“I was just exploring…lay back down, Shiro, you’ll hurt yourself, shh.” Keith hurried back to his side and saw real distress in the ifrit’s eyes, and let out a squeak of surprise when Shiro’s hand curled around his entire waist, pulling Keith towards him and nosing into his hair. Shiro inhaled deeply and shuddered, and Keith wondered dazedly what he smelled. “What has gotten into you?” Keith mumbled, gasping when Shiro nuzzled into his neck and licked, a long wet stripe of tongue that left Keith’s knees feeling close to the consistency of jelly.

“I didn’t know where you’d gone,” Shiro rumbled, licking again, and that time Keith’s knees did give out, and Shiro at once laid him down in the nest and nestled close to him. “I thought…I thought maybe they’d found us, and taken you, and I…” He made a sound like a whimper, low in his throat and painful to hear. “And I would be unable to save you, or even search for you; just stuck here, weak and helpless and useless –”

“Hush,” Keith said quickly, knowing that train of thought was a bad one for Shiro to be going down. “I will take care of you, we will not be found; we are safe here together. You said so yourself, remember?” Shiro nodded hesitantly, and Keith kissed him to seal the promise.

Shiro moaned gratefully into his mouth, and Keith knew he would not be sleeping soundly that night.

*

It was towards the very end of Shiro’s recovery that Keith reached his breaking point; though in truth Keith had been on the verge of snapping for days, but had not felt at all right about doing anything with Shiro in his injured and weak state. Shiro’s delirium was gone, and although he was still lazy and prone to sleeping, he could sit up and move about with minor difficulty and Keith fussing over him with every step.

This amused Shiro a great deal, and maybe it was this amusement over Keith’s continuing concern for his wellbeing that pushed Keith over the edge, because it irritated him. He had been caring for and watching over Shiro all this time, and now that he was nearly healed, the ifrit had the nerve to mock him for worrying?!

Keith told him this, and Shiro was taken aback.

“I would never mock you,” he replied earnestly, eyes wide and brows drawn together.

“And yet you find my concern to be silly,” Keith said flatly. “Because you think yourself a mighty and invincible godling who laughs in the face of death. Is that it?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued furiously. “But you did not laugh, Shiro, you nearly died. Must I remind you of that? Well, I will. Every single day, if I need to. Because if I do not, I’m not certain you won’t go and get yourself mortally wounded again!”

“It was not mortal if I did not die,” Shiro corrected timidly.

Keith threw up his hands. “Augh!” he exclaimed, because that was the only sound that could fully express the sum of his frustration.

Shiro tilted his head. “Keith, are you alright?”

“Don’t you dare ask me that when you were the one –”

“Keith. Answer the question.” Shiro folded his arms and raised an eyebrow and Keith glared at him with as much malice as he could muster, which was not very much with Shiro.

“I’m fine,” Keith gritted out.

“Have you been having more dreams?” Shiro inquired. Keith shot him a dark look. “I will take that as a yes…”

Keith huffed and sat down a fair distance away from him, though he could still feel Shiro’s eyes on his back.

“Forgive me for saying so,” Shiro murmured, “but I’m sensing a great deal of pent-up frustration.”

Keith glared at him over his shoulder. “Stop sensing it,” he grumbled.

“I don’t think that will help, Keith.”

“I don’t think I asked you!” Keith shouted, and flopped despondently onto his back.

Shiro was chuckling now. “I can tell you are conflicted about this. How many more pillows do you think you will require –”

“I hate you,” Keith muttered. “You and your pillows and your face and your muscles and your – your –”

“My?” Shiro prompted, smiling encouragingly.

“Damn you,” Keith said. “Straight to Hell.”

Shiro clicked his tongue, still smiling. “Rude. Is that any way to speak to your lover?”

“How can we even be lovers if we haven’t done…any of those things,” Keith mumbled.

Shiro’s gaze softened and he shook his head. “We are lovers,” he said firmly. “Truer lovers than many who may ‘do those things.’”

Keith bit his lip, and then sighed and went back to Shiro’s side. “Yes, alright,” he said, and Shiro hid a kiss in his hair, and told him more stories about palaces and jaguars and altars and at once Keith knew that his mind was taking all his words and saving them for later, when he was asleep and dreaming, and yet he also knew that despite this realization…he didn’t want Shiro to stop.

He fell asleep at Shiro’s feet, wrapped in the red blanket with a pillow at his back, which translated to something quite different in his dreams.

*

You came back.

“Of course I did,” Keith said, glancing over his shoulder at the god holding him gently to its body, curled close to his spine. Its hand covered his entire chest with ease, but Keith was unintimidated, for when a claw tilted his chin up, the god’s kiss was soft and tender, as Keith had known it would be. When the kiss broke, Keith frowned up at the god, whose golden eyes were full of some ancient, unnameable sorrow. “Is that...uncommon?”

Mm, Tezcatlipoca murmured, nuzzling into the back of Keith’s neck, smelling his hair and the salt of his skin. They do not ever come back. They are afraid of me.

Keith shivered, tilting his head obligingly and letting his cheek rub against the silken gold sheets of the bed they laid upon. Or perhaps it was not a bed, but a heap of cushions – it flickered like a mirage; Keith was unsure. The only thing he was sure of was the solid weight of Tezcatlipoca against him.

“They should not be,” Keith said. “I am not.”

Not what? the god asked, almost pleading, needing to hear it as much as Keith did.

“Afraid,” Keith whispered. “I am not afraid of you.”

And I am glad for it, Tezcatlipoca sighed, for you deserve more than fear, Keith.

And then, as often happens in dreams, Keith found himself in an abruptly different position, on his front upon the bed, hot flushed face pressed to the pillows and bare body flushed hotter, for the god was behind him, over him, atop him.

It was a position he’d found himself in throughout far too many dreams over the past five years...but this was a very different sort of dream. The air was not cold, but pleasantly warm like a patch of sunlight beside an open window. The ground was not hard and harsh – there was no ground, only plush pillows and smooth soft sheets. There was no terrifying press of a gun, just a gentle sweep of lips ghosting across his skin; no threat in his ear, just a sweet murmur of praise; no numbness but also no pain, instead Keith felt a sudden bloom of sensation that made him gasp, shocked by how good it felt.

But most striking of all, there was no fear. Only trust, and want; want so overwhelming that Keith was nearly blinded by it, a white-hot flare that seemed to fill his vision as Shiro filled him. And filled him, and filled him, and…

Keith didn’t know what Shiro’s cock looked like. Or felt like, for that matter.

So the dream could not settle on anything in particular, only something, and something large at that, because Keith knew his proportions well enough, thank you; and so as the god began to move, began to fuck him, Keith’s brain helpfully supplied, it was a constantly-changing shape inside of him, one moment wide and fat, the next long and slender, the next curling and ridged, the next soft and amorphous, and on and on and on until Keith was moaning and arching up into it desperately and Tezcatlipoca was holding him with sharp, smooth claws and biting bruises and promises into his back and Keith was breathless, fevered, going to come –

Keith woke up, and that was it.

He was done, he was not afraid, no, he was indescribably aroused and he did not want a pillow, not after that; he wanted Shiro. Badly.

However...there was one problem.

“Shiro,” Keith whispered, keeping his voice low with effort – he was on the verge of screaming in frustration.

Shiro didn’t reply; he was fast asleep although sitting up, slumped back against the wall and snoring softly. He must have fallen asleep in the middle of a story. His broad chest rose and fell evenly as Keith crawled closer over the pillows and blankets, uncertain, pausing as he reached the space between Shiro’s slightly spread legs.

Keith looked up at him, and wondered, not for the first time, at his sheer size. In this form, his true form, the ifrit was larger than any human Keith had ever seen, and when Keith slowly sat up and slung a leg over one of Shiro’s wide thighs, a sudden fissure of heat jolted through him. Shiro’s thighs were wide enough that Keith felt the strain in his own legs, but he also felt solid, strong muscle press against his hardening cock through his pants and that made it more than worth it.

Shiro remained deep in sleep, even when Keith carefully shifted up his thigh, until he could reach Shiro’s crotch. Keith’s cock ground against Shiro’s hipbone and he bit his lip hard, extending an arm to run his fingertips over the defined musculature of Shiro’s abdomen, carefully skirting the bandages, and then down when his fingers touched a hint of coarse hair, down down down under the thin white cloth.

Keith’s eyes widened and his hips pushed forward eagerly as his curious hand found Shiro’s cock. The ifrit slumbered on, oblivious. Keith thought he might be crossing a boundary, but…he had never felt heat and want of this intensity before, his body still thrumming from the dream. His hand mapped out the generous length and he felt it respond, slowly but surely hardening when his other hand joined the first. He could see it stirring under the cloth, see a dark head pushing up out of the foreskin and dampening the white fabric and Keith’s mouth watered; he didn’t understand it but he wanted more, so much more, all that Shiro would give him.

His hand squeezed at the head under the cloth and Shiro’s breathing stuttered, the muscles in his thighs flexing. Keith bit his lip to conceal his low moan at the sensation, his hips working in a small circular grind, helplessly seeking friction. It felt – it felt good. So good. Better than Keith had ever imagined it could.

He was working blindly, rubbing his thumbs over the wet tip and sliding his palms over the girth, so it was startling when the cloth fell away altogether and Shiro’s cock sprung free, standing up proudly over his taut stomach. Keith’s breath caught. It was dark as the rest of Shiro, slightly longer than Keith’s thigh and just as thick; Christ, he supposed it was proportionate but up close it…Keith swallowed, leaning forward involuntarily, lips parting.

He must be going mad.

He wanted to choke on Shiro’s cock until his voice was gone.

Keith’s tongue darted out to lap at the head, and the taste surprised him – Shiro’s skin tasted so clean, warm like a hot spring and burning the back of his throat just so, in the best way, like good liquor. Shiro’s cock twitched, an obvious movement that made Keith’s thighs tighten and his cock throb where it was still trapped in his pants, tenting them more and more with every wanton rub against the ifrit’s body. Keith opened his mouth wider and exhaled over Shiro’s cock, trying to cover the whole head with his tongue and lips and halfway succeeding.

Shiro’s chest rumbled with a groan and Keith whined at the vibrations, freezing when something long and thin slid over the small of his back. He glanced up at Shiro – still asleep. But Shiro’s tail was flicking absently, and it curled when Keith gently caught it. It was perhaps half as thick as Shiro’s cock at its widest point, and wriggled in Keith’s grasp, winding around his fingers, then around his waist. Keith realized the tail was binding him in place where he straddled Shiro’s thigh, but couldn’t find it in himself to be at all concerned about the impossibility of escape. It was a strange realization…he was exactly where he wanted to be.

Keith redoubled his efforts to lick messily at Shiro’s cock, drool dripping down his chin and down the now-swollen length, his mind a haze of determined arousal. With every sloppy suck he tugged on Shiro’s foreskin with his teeth, rough enough that Shiro’s tail tightened around him and his cock continued to twitch, dripping globs of thick, pearly precum that just made Keith desperate for more. In a moment of even greater boldness, he palmed at Shiro’s heavy balls, weighing them in his hands, and Shiro grunted, belly sucking in sharply and ears flicking, tail-tip fluttering under Keith’s shirt. Keith wanted him to come. He wanted Shiro to cover him, wanted the mess, wanted –

“Mmmm…Keith?!

Keith froze, body tensing and spine going rigid as Shiro’s eyes opened, shocked glowing gold as he took in the scene before him. Keith flushed hotly, his eyes as wide as Shiro’s, and made a piteous sound – he was not sure if it was mortification or desperation. Both, probably. Shiro’s jaw dropped, rows of sharp white teeth revealed, his forked tongue flickering out, tasting the air. A growl rumbled in Shiro’s throat.

Keith squirmed frantically, heart pounding, but that just intensified the friction and Shiro’s tail did not free him. Shiro’s gaze settled on the bulge in Keith’s pants and his horned head tilted. “Well,” he said, low and unmistakably delighted, “what a pleasant surprise to wake up to. More good dreams, hmm?”

Keith ducked his head, shoulders hunched. “I. I didn’t mean to wake you –”

Shiro chuckled. “No? You hoped to sneakily suck my cock and rut upon my thigh until you spilled?”

Keith winced and shook his head hastily. “Until…until you spilled.”

Shiro paused. Then, before Keith could embarrass himself any further, the slender, flexible tip of Shiro’s tail slithered intently into Keith’s pants.

Keith keened, shocked and loud, back arching in a way that made Shiro purr, tail looping tighter and stroking Keith's aching cock in a neat rhythm. Keith panted and writhed in Shiro's lap, utterly overwhelmed by the sudden touch, embarrassed by his response and ducking his head, ashamed by how much he wanted this –

"Shhh, Keith, none of that," Shiro chided softly, tail slowing in its inexorable twisting. Keith shivered when a large, warm, clawed hand cupped his jaw, reassuring.

Keith turned his face into Shiro's palm. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry I'm like this."

"There is nothing wrong with the way you are," Shiro told him firmly. "Do not be ashamed of your boldness in this now. Allow yourself to be bold, Keith, and know that I see only beauty in it, and in you."

Keith squeezed his eyes shut, body aflame, mind whirling like a sandstorm; gritty and blinding. "Shiro – please, stop, I –"

Shiro's tail uncurled at once and he made a low, soft sound that Keith felt in his bones. "Tell me, dear one. I do not wish to hurt you. Never that."

"You didn't," Keith promised, and slumped forward against Shiro's chest as evidence. “You never have.” The ifrit let out a pleased rumble and carded his claws through Keith's hair, careful and undemanding. Keith let his eyes fall shut and breathed in the scent of Shiro's skin – smoke and heat. It was calming, an anchor. So too was the way Shiro touched him hesitantly, rubbing his back with a leathery palm, taking care not to let his claws tear Keith's shirt.

Keith helped him by unbuttoning his shirt and shrugging it off, and then after a moment of hesitation, his pants followed. It felt nice to be skin to skin with Shiro, another unexpected pleasure. The ifrit agreed, if his throaty purr was any indication. He lowered his head to nuzzle into Keith’s hair and Keith let him, shivering in the best way at the hot exhale across the back of his neck. Keith shifted so that he was curled up in Shiro’s lap rather than straddling his thigh, and though both of them were still hard…there was no urgency. Shiro’s movements were lazy and almost curious, his claws tickling Keith’s spine and making him chuckle and wriggle away, steadying himself with his hands upon Shiro’s chest.

“You are very lovely,” Shiro told him quietly, like a secret. “Whoever assembled you did so quite well.”

Keith snorted and glanced up at him, his heart skipping a beat when he saw the deep, unmistakable fondness in Shiro’s eyes. “What sort of compliment is that?”

“Well,” Shiro said, “in the oldest stories, we used to say that humans were made of mud. Sculpted from it, and then life was breathed into them. So…whoever sculpted you was very gifted.”

“Mud,” Keith mused. “Not awful flattering, mud. Not like – what was it you said djinn were made of? Smokeless flame of fire?”

“You remembered,” Shiro murmured, smiling. “Yes, that. And I would argue there is a certain attractiveness to mud…where there is mud, there is water. And water brings life. Fire can bring life too…though in different ways.”

“I dunno know how you’d sculpt fire, but, whoever sculpted you was, um…very gifted, also,” Keith mumbled.

“Ah,” Shiro said, and smiled wider. “No, I was not sculpted. I was formless, in the beginning. That is why my shape is so easily changed, you see.”

Keith’s brow furrowed, and he touched Shiro’s chest as if to find a weak spot, a place where his solid being gave way to liquid shadow. “Then…this form, it’s not really your true form?”

“It was my first,” Shiro explained, covering Keith’s questing hand with his own and squeezing lightly. “I am most attached to it, and it is…hmm, more useful for…certain activities.” He looked down at his full cock and raised an eyebrow. “To be quite honest, I’m surprised you find this form appealing. It isn’t human.”

Keith huffed and said, “Maybe that’s why I like it.”

Shiro blinked, genuinely taken aback. “Oh.”

“I know it’s strange,” Keith sighed. “I know I’m strange.”

“Maybe that’s why I like you,” Shiro countered, playful. Keith flushed and hid his face against Shiro’s side while the ifrit ruffled his hair. Shiro’s tail curled cautiously back and Keith welcomed it, glad that it just pet his thigh and avoided the heat between his legs. “Keith…may I know why you asked me to stop earlier?” Keith looked up at him. “I would just like to avoid doing whatever I did to cause you distress in the future. If you wish to do this again in the future, which is, as always, not at all required.”

“I know it isn’t.” Keith curled closer to him and shook his head. “It wasn’t…it was just. Too much. Not enough. I don’t know. I thought I was going to…”

“Come?” Shiro finished. Keith nodded jerkily. “Hmm. Did you not want to come?”

“Not…not right then, no,” Keith said. “I wasn’t expecting it. It was too fast.”

“I see,” Shiro said, sounding like he really did see. Keith believed he did. “When did you want to come, then?”

Keith swallowed, gaze sliding back to Shiro’s cock. The ifrit noticed, his thumb pausing where it had been rubbing Keith’s shoulder slowly. “I wanted to suck your cock,” Keith admitted, barely audible, “and I wanted you to come all over me, and –”

Shiro’s gaze darkened, lips peeling back from his teeth. Keith faltered, and Shiro said in a strained voice, “Please go on.”

“I…well, I think I wanted you to take me; that’s what happened in the dream,” Keith whispered. “No, wait. Want, I still want…but I don’t know how…” He eyed Shiro’s cock with some apprehension. “I’m not sure we can.”

Shiro said, “I can change my shape, Keith.”

Keith’s eyes went wide. “You can…you...even…even, er, there?”

Shiro smirked. “Yes, there. I can shift into a female with voluptuous breasts, Keith, does it really shock you that I can change my cock at will as well?”

Keith was bright red, he just knew it. “I…guess not. Um. I mean, I like this,” he said, reaching out and patting Shiro’s cock awkwardly. “It’s just. Large. Not that I don’t like that! I do, I like it an alarming amount actually, I just –”

“Don’t want it to hurt?”

Keith didn’t answer.

Shiro wrapped an arm carefully around him and murmured, “It will not, Keith.” Keith closed his eyes. “Please do not feel as if you must do anything on my behalf,” Shiro added. “You owe me nothing. This, right now, is more than enough.”

Keith smiled faintly. “The debt has been repaid?”

“A long time ago, yes.”

“Yet here you are,” Keith pointed out.

“Here I am,” Shiro agreed, crooking a claw under Keith’s chin and leaning down. Keith kissed him sweetly, slowly, and Shiro responded in kind. Until, that is, Keith blindly grabbed for his horns and yanked.

Shiro spluttered and lifted his head hastily, but Keith was still holding his horns and found himself hoisted up with Shiro’s head, dangling from his horns and grinning at the ifrit with puckish glee. “Hello,” Keith said.

Shiro swung his head lightly back and forth and Keith swung with it, giggling and trying to knee Shiro in the face. Instead, it put his crotch level with Shiro’s mouth. There was a moment where neither of them did anything.

Then Shiro’s tongue flickered out.

It didn’t even make contact but Keith jolted like it had, his eyes huge at the implication. Shiro’s lips curled. “Yes?” he asked.

Keith gulped. His cock, which had softened slightly, bobbed back up into full hardness again and Shiro’s eyes traced the movement. “You’ll…you’ll stop if I tell you to?” he whispered.

“Always,” Shiro promised.

“Then yes,” Keith breathed, and Shiro smiled, and that was all the warning Keith got before Shiro’s tongue was lapping over his cock, oh Lord, Keith was going to die. He squirmed and squeezed his eyes shut so he wouldn’t have to see how it looked when his legs fell open and Shiro’s tongue dragged over his thighs teasingly. As if sensing his increasingly sore arms, Shiro’s hands pressed up against his back, holding him up securely to Shiro’s face.

Keith let go of his horns and slumped fully into Shiro’s hands, biting back his whimpers as his cock was enveloped in warm wet twisting heat, followed by the forked tip of Shiro’s tongue flickering over the leaking tip of his cock. It felt strange, stranger than anything Keith could have imagined or dreamed (and far, far filthier), but it was so wonderful it had Keith melting and letting his legs fall open. He felt wetness running down his thighs – spit, he realized, which was objectively disgusting but currently the hottest damn thing in the world. Shiro was the hottest damn thing in the world.

He must’ve said that aloud because Shiro chuckled, and the vibrations made Keith moan aloud, and when Keith ventured to open his eyes a little he saw Shiro gazing steadily down at him, black tongue wrapped around his flushed pink cock so that the head was barely visible. Keith stared back at Shiro desperately and Shiro brushed a claw over his hip, perhaps meant to soothe, but Keith jerked violently and came in a thick splatter across his own torso.

He’d expected Shiro to recoil, but Shiro’s tongue followed the path of white and Keith whined in disbelief as the ifrit licked him clean, returning to his softening cock and lavishing it in long, slow strokes. Keith thought that might get him hard again, and Shiro seemed to think so too, but he relented when Keith gasped out a wordless plea. It hadn’t been a no, but Shiro gave him space to recover, and for that Keith was grateful.

When he opened his eyes again, Shiro’s tongue was back in his mouth and his sharp teeth were on display. “You are even lovelier when you come to climax.”

Keith flailed weakly at him and covered his face. “Don’t say things like that,” he mumbled. “You obscene creature...”

“Ah, ah, ah,” Shiro said, “I wasn’t the one who was playing with your cock while you were asleep.”

Keith stuck his tongue out. “You liked it.”

“Yes, I did,” Shiro said, having no trouble admitting it. “You know what else I like?”

“What?” Keith asked, slightly wary.

“Giving you pleasure,” Shiro replied, and Keith covered his face again. “Hmph, why must you be so adorable?”

Keith peeked at him from between his fingers. “I am not adorable!”

“You are, quite,” Shiro countered. Keith grumbled at him and Shiro frowned. “But I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I’m not,” Keith said, uncovering his face fully and sitting up even if his limbs still felt like jelly. “You make me feel very comfortable.” He frowned back at Shiro. “But you still haven’t…” He glanced down. Shiro was still hard, perhaps even painfully so.

Shiro shifted, and his cock with him. “Keith…”

“I started touching you in the first place with the purpose of making you spill,” Keith said firmly. “You got me distracted.”

Shiro’s eyes glinted. “Is that so?”

“Yes. Let me down, Shiro.” Shiro relented, and deposited Keith gently back into the nest. Keith started stroking his cock again, and Shiro sighed, looking down at him with half-lidded eyes. “Does this…feel good?” he asked, feeling stupidly shy even as he leaned in to lick at the wide wet tip again.

“Yes,” Shiro murmured, his hair hanging in his face as he watched Keith and bit his lip hard, a thin trickle of black blood running down his chin. “Keith…”

“What,” Keith murmured, fitting his mouth to a protruding vein and tracing its raised length, feeling something that could have been Shiro’s pulse pounding just beneath the surface. “Tell me, Shiro.”

“It feels so good,” Shiro told him, voice low. “You feel so good. Ah, Keith…my Keith.”

Keith’s eyes fluttered shut as he kissed the crown of Shiro’s cock, lips purposefully lingering. “Yours,” he whispered back, and Shiro gritted out, “Keith, I’m going to –” and came with a low groan, cock spurting white across Keith’s face and chest.

Keith was stunned by how much he’d spilled. It was warm, and salty where it had fallen upon his tongue. He was fairly certain some had gotten in his hair. “Apologies,” Shiro grunted, tail wiping at the mess and only managing to make it worse.

“Hmm,” Keith said, dragging his finger through it and sucking it clean. “Hmmm.

Shiro growled, “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” and Keith found himself being quite thoroughly kissed. There was some tongue – and with Shiro, some tongue was a lot of tongue. Keith wondered if his cum had tasted the same as Shiro’s – because Shiro’s was almost good. Or maybe it was just because it was Shiro’s. Either way, he opened up to the kiss eagerly, and squawked with equal parts disgust and delight when Shiro licked at his face afterwards.

“What are you, a dog?!” Keith cackled, swatting at him. “More like a coyote, with those teeth.”

Shiro drew back indignantly. “A dog! I should hope not!”

Keith wiped his face with the back of his hand. “You don’t like dogs?”

“I prefer cats, as you know,” Shiro said primly. How he could manage to be prim at all in this state was a miracle. “They are far more elegant.”

“Elegant,” Keith repeated, giving him a onceover. “Uh-huh, sure y’are.”

“Are you implying I’m not elegant, Keith?!” Shiro exclaimed with mock-outrage, tackling him into the nest of pillows while taking care not to actually crush him at all or put pressure on his injuries. Keith giggled and squirmed under him, shoving at his face while Shiro tried to lick him again. “Take it back, you insolent human!”

“Never,” Keith gasped, laughing harder when Shiro blew a raspberry into his cheek. “Augh – alright, alright, have mercy; I surrender, you awful tickle monster!”

“Tickle monster?” Shiro grinned lopsidedly at him and nudged Keith’s nose with his own. “That’s a new one. I like it.”

“I like you,” Keith said, smiling helplessly.

“Good,” Shiro declared, “because I’m never going to let you go.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “So dramatic. I’ll be back, you know. I won’t just leave you here, even when you’re fully healed and no longer in need of my superb nurse skills.”

Shiro sighed, sitting up and rolling onto his back alongside Keith among the pillows. “I know,” he murmured. “I only wish…”

“Hush, hush.” Keith kissed his cheek and drew his hand along the smooth curve of Shiro’s jaw, his heart fluttering when the ifrit leaned into the touch and kissed his palm. “Thank you, Shiro.”

Shiro’s hand curled around the back of his neck. “There is no need to thank me.”

“But I want to,” Keith insisted, relaxing into the nest as Shiro’s mouth feathered over his neck and shoulders, warm puffs of breath and even warmer brushes of lips. “I want to, Shiro.”

Shiro lifted his head and said softly, “Then do not leave. That is all I ask, Keith…that I might see you again.”

“And again, and again, and again,” Keith promised. And he meant it.

Chapter Text

“I need a book about fucking.”

Allura sat up quite abruptly from where she’d been reclining on her chaise. She blinked owlishly at Keith, who stood in her doorway with determination, arms folded and chin lifted. “Fucking,” she repeated, sounding rather incredulous. “You want a book about…fucking.”

“Yes,” Keith said firmly.

“Since when,” Allura asked, her brows drawing together, “have you ever been particularly interested in that?!”

“How do you know I haven’t been?”

Allura gave him a flat look. “You once told me that you thought it was a complete waste of time and didn’t understand the appeal in the slightest. You thought Lance was making it up when he said it felt good. You thought Katie was drunk when she said the same!”

Keith had said that, and believed it. But, in his defense, that was before he met Shiro. Things were...different, with Shiro. “I – listen, do you have such a book or not?”

“Keith, we are in a whorehouse,” Allura exclaimed, “of course I have such a book. But, really, you must tell me what prompted this sudden interest. Is everything alright?”

“Yes, everything’s fine, it’s just that I…” Keith exhaled and ran a hand through his hair. “I would like to know what I’m doing, is all.”

Allura’s eyes narrowed, then she paused. “Wait,” she said. She covered her mouth. “You aren’t…with Shiro?”

“Lance told you, didn’t he,” Keith grumbled. “Lord in Heaven, I hate that kid.”

“He mentioned you seemed a bit starry-eyed – but I never truly supposed – oh, Keith! I’m so happy for you!” She stood, put her hands on her hips, and scrutinized him. “Has he been treating you well? Are you happy? Do I need to speak with him?”

Keith gawked at her. “What – no, Allura, don’t talk to him, you ain’t my mother! He treats me fine, better than fine, I swear.”

“I might as well be,” she said dryly, and he couldn’t argue with that. “But…I’m glad for it, Keith.”

“Glad that I finally saw the appeal?” Keith muttered.

She frowned, and shook her head. “No...there is no ‘finally’ about it. There was no expectation that you would or should, Keith. And, I mean, do you see appeal in it with anyone other than Shiro?”

“No,” Keith said immediately, and tilted his head. “Huh.”

“And you haven’t been ogling my girls behind my back as most men who come through here do?”

“Wha – no!” Keith exclaimed. “I don’t…I’ve never felt that way about them.”

“But if Shiro were to appear as a woman?” Allura pressed slyly.

Keith ducked his head. “...That wouldn’t change how I feel, not a bit.”

“Then perhaps, for you, the appeal is simply in Shiro.” Allura smiled, shaking her head, and crossed the room to run her fingertips over the spines of her many, many books. Keith stood there, stunned at how easily Allura always seemed to make sense of things. She never ceased to see him, at least, with a kind of perfect clarity and understanding that he could only ever dream of.

A few moments later, she made a small, thoughtful sound and plucked a book from its shelf, surveyed it briefly, clicked her tongue in apparent approval, and handed it out to Keith.

“It is quite explicit,” she said as if speaking about the weather, “but if you’re looking for educational, I think it will prove quite useful in...exploring the particular activities you’re wondering about.”

Keith blinked at the cover. It was a dark red with golden embossing along the spine and edges, and there appeared to be no title nor author. “Um,” he said, “where did you get this…?”

Allura cleared her throat, gaze sliding away coyly. “Let’s just say I had a special visitor recently, and he may have added a few volumes to my collection. We both have a love for literature and sexuality, after all…”

Keith almost dropped the book. “Xochipilli?!” he yelped.

“Perhaps,” Allura chuckled, sitting back down on her chaise and raising an eyebrow. “He may seem quite ditzy, but he’s knowledgeable about –”

“Absolutely not,” Keith said. “I’m absolutely not discussing this with Xochipilli, this is...it’s private!”

“Mhm,” Allura said, still amused. “Of course. You know, my brother was quite complimentary of you. He’s still hopelessly attracted to Shiro, though he’d never admit it. They did have plenty of fun together, once upon a time.”

Keith stiffened. “Oh?”

He was struggling to keep his tone neutral, and Allura saw right through it. “Well, yes...Shiro did get around, back in the day.” She frowned. “But, Keith, do not let that worry you – he is not unfaithful, never has been. He and Xilonen had agreements; she had her own fun. And I suppose relationships are viewed a bit differently among our kind...but Shiro would not do that to you, Keith, you may be sure of that.”

“I know he wouldn’t,” Keith muttered. “I just...ain’t fond of the thought.” He exhaled and offered Allura a small smile after tucking the book into his jacket. “Thank you kindly. I’ll return it shortly –”

“No, no,” Allura insisted, “keep it. I am already quite well-educated on the subject matter.” Her lips quirked. Keith knew he was red as a beet. She made a shooing motion. “Go on, then! Shock and scandalize our dear Shiro, I believe in you.”

Keith hurried out, vowing that he would never show the book to another living soul.

*

Objectively, Keith still did not see the appeal of fucking.

The illustrations in the book were, uh, explicit to say the least. Though they were surprisingly well done, Keith had to admit – the artist had rendered them lovingly in vibrant ink, and he could certainly appreciate the aesthetic aspect of it. But the specifics, the long paragraphs about all the technicalities and details so intimate that Keith had to frequently put down the book and take breaks, didn’t make Keith hot and bothered in the slightest. Mostly he just felt overwhelmed and apprehensive all over again.

But it was a bit different to read through the book and imagine everything it described in relation to Shiro. Because this, all of this, was abstract and complicated and nerve wracking; but Shiro was concrete, he was real, and when Keith thought of doing these rather numerous activities with him, he didn’t feel so overwhelmed anymore. He actually felt a little excited. Because he could try these new things with Shiro; Keith knew this with certainty, because he trusted Shiro, and with Shiro he had never felt that any of his fears or uncertainties or even outright refusals would be ignored or ridiculed. He knew Shiro would stop if Keith needed him to, or even if he simply wanted him to, and that in itself was a new and relieving concept for Keith.

With that in mind, the book became much easier to read, and Keith started retaining the information within it at what might be described as an alarmingly eager rate.

He had a favorite illustration in the book, and he may or may not have memorized it, as well as the very informative section underneath it.

Keith had always enjoyed riding.

*

Shiro had sent Keith from his cave dimension after Keith had determined he was more or less fully healed (and had fussed over him even a day after that, until Shiro finally put his foot down). He continued to visit Keith (and Strawberry) frequently, although Keith tried to make a case for him resting and not using his magic so often. Shiro was as stubborn as Keith, though, and Keith was easily assured via kisses and cuddles, so Keith’s case was never very firm for very long.

There was just something truly magical about waking up not alone, not vaguely unsettled by a half-forgotten dream or uneasy memory of sensation, but wrapped in warm blankets and Shiro. And even better was the time Shiro woke him up in an entirely unexpected way, though Keith had done it to him first so perhaps he should have anticipated it.

But Keith didn’t think he could have possibly anticipated how good Shiro’s mouth felt around his cock when his eyes blinked open blearily one sunny morning. “Gah?” he said, eloquently, and Shiro blinked up at him, the sheets draped over him like a tent. Keith had no clue how Shiro had managed to crawl under the blankets and between Keith’s legs without waking him, because even in human form he was big, but Keith wasn’t thinking about the logistics of that when he could feel Shiro’s tongue curling over and around his cock, unhurried but purposeful.

Keith could see the head of his cock pressing at the inside of Shiro’s cheek, and groaned in disbelief, throwing a hand over his face and grabbing a handful of blanket as Shiro started to hum and sank down further, further, until Keith was sure that was Shiro’s throat constricting around the tip. Shiro was sucking his entire cock effortlessly, despite the tight shiny pink stretch of his lips around it and the fact that by all rights, he should be choking.

“Oh, god,” Keith gasped to the ceiling, “Shiro, Shiro, what –”

Shiro pet his thigh soothingly and sucked harder, and Keith peered through his fingers to see Shiro’s lashes flutter as if in pleasure of his own as Keith’s cock twitched and then spilled in a rush of bliss. Shiro swallowed with a little hum that was definitely satisfied, and Keith shuddered, his heart pounding out of his chest and breaths shallow. Shiro licked delicately once, twice, smirking when it made Keith’s toes curl, and finally showed mercy, pulling off and pillowing his head on Keith’s hip.

“Good morning,” Shiro murmured when Keith said nothing, just stared at him in flustered shock. “I hope you don’t mind a bit of quid pro quo. Not to say that there need be an exchange of favors, here; I rather like doing this and it seems you enjoyed it, too…?”

“You are not real,” Keith retorted, shaking his head and slumping back onto his pillow. “Augh...my damn legs feel like jelly, thank you very much.”

“I will take that as a compliment,” Shiro chuckled, his fingers tiptoeing up Keith’s side, shifting into claws one by one. “But I am quite real. This isn’t one of your dreams.”

Keith flushed. “No, it isn’t,” he agreed. “You’re, er...different in my dreams.”

Shiro sat up and tilted his head. “Different?”

Keith cleared his throat. “You’re not really...Shiro. You’re…” He gestured vaguely. “Tezcatlipoca. I guess. And I’m different, too...in the first dream, see, I was like...a sacrifice? I think?”

Shiro’s gray eyes widened, flaring briefly gold. “But – did I...I didn’t hurt you, then...did I?”

Keith shook his head firmly. “No, not a bit, don’t worry. You – or, the god, whatever it is – was always very. Gentle. And, um, kind. To me.”

“Oh,” Shiro said, and smiled in clear relief. “Well, good. I’m glad for it.”

Keith hesitated, unsure of whether to tell Shiro the particulars, and then, figuring he had nothing to lose here, said, “You know, in the dream I had right before, uh, certain things happened...I told you that you, you fucked me, and...and I said then that I wanted that, and I...I meant that, I mean that still. A lot. Because in the dream, it was…” Keith trailed off.

Shiro was staring at him with huge, dark eyes, looking quite stunned, his face pink and well on its way to red. Emboldened by this reaction, Keith rattled on, leaving all sense of propriety by the wayside. “In the dream, it felt so good when you fucked me. You pressed me down against the pillows and everything was so warm and soft and I had never felt anything like it before, Shiro. And I didn’t know what your cock looked like, much less what it would feel like, so it was constantly shifting and I just wanted more, and I think you would have given it to me, and I would have come, and you would have come inside of me and filled me up, except then I woke up.”

“Keith,” Shiro said, faint and strangled, after a long beat of silence.

“I want you to,” Keith said, and Shiro sucked in a sharp breath. “We...we don’t have to rush anything, but I want you to know that. I want to try new things with you.”

“Yes,” Shiro stammered, “alright, we can...we can certainly do. That. Those things. Yes.”

Keith’s lips quirked and he sat up to lean close to Shiro, placing his hands lightly on Shiro’s bare chest. “Cat got your tongue?” Keith asked, sly. Shiro nodded dumbly, his lips parting when Keith’s hand slid down his stomach and settled heavily over the bulge in Shiro’s loose pants. “I think,” Keith said, “it will be much easier for me to suck your cock in this form.”

Shiro groaned, hips shifting up into Keith’s palm. “Please,” he whispered, and went down easily when Keith nudged him onto his back. The position was dizzying for Keith, and he had a sudden vivid and intoxicating image of straddling Shiro’s waist and sinking down fully on his cock, wringing pleasure out of him at his own leisure while Shiro writhed and moaned and begged under him. Keith’s cock twitched at the mere thought and Shiro’s eyes flickered with surprise. “Again, already…?”

“You’re very beautiful,” Keith told him, tracing Shiro’s taut muscles with a single finger, Shiro’s flush spreading helplessly. “You make me think very sinful thoughts, you know. Shame on you.”

“On me?” Shiro laughed breathlessly. “I think it is fair to say that neither of us have much shame anymore, at least with each other.”

“And all the better for it, I say,” Keith retorted. His touch lingered on Shiro’s new scars, and the ifrit let out a startled, soft sound when Keith moved over him to kiss each one, paying special attention to the largest and worst of them over his chest. He then recalled what Shiro had told him about sensitive places that night in Chantico’s cave, and licked speculatively at one of Shiro’s nipples. Shiro bit his lip.

Keith licked again, and then put his mouth over the peaking flesh and sucked, grinning and digging his teeth in when Shiro’s breath shortened and he shifted under him, cock hot through fabric, impossible to ignore against Keith’s bare thigh. But Keith did ignore it, and just kept teasing at Shiro’s nipples, biting and licking in equal measure until both looked swollen and Shiro’s teeth were gritted. He whined impatiently when Keith continued to play with them with his fingers, and idly Keith wondered if Shiro could come just from this.

Keith asked him and Shiro shuddered. “I thought you wanted to suck my cock,” he said, a bit petulantly.

“Maybe I just prefer watching you come undone from this,” Keith countered, blowing lightly over a reddened nipple. Shiro swore, arms flexing where he clutched at the sheets. “But if you ask nicely, I’ll consider it.”

“Nicely,” Shiro repeated.

“Mhm,” Keith said, teasing at the hem of his pants and resolutely not fixating on how big the bulge there had gotten. “Say please. Like you mean it.”

“I –” Shiro squeezed his eyes shut. “Please,” he whispered, “please suck my cock, Keith, I want you to, so much –”

Keith tugged his pants down and stopped. He glared up at Shiro, and then back down at Shiro’s cock. “Really?” he demanded. “Must you have a large cock in all forms?”

“I am large,” Shiro managed, “it’s just – proportions – would you like me to make it smaller –”

No,” Keith hissed, and sucked the head of Shiro’s cock into his mouth without warning. Shiro cried out, hips bucking, and Keith held them down with an arm braced over his stomach, eyes watering as he took more into his mouth. It was frankly ridiculous how riled up Keith got just from tasting Shiro’s cock and feeling the weight of it on his tongue. But then he rethought his approach and drew back despite Shiro’s dismayed gasp, letting Shiro’s cock fall from his lips and examining it more closely.

It was thick and long in Keith’s hand, with veins that should not have been as attractive as they were, nor as enticing – but when Keith lapped at them, Shiro squirmed and Keith felt his pulse throb. Shiro was aching, that much was clear, and he whimpered low in his throat when Keith tongued at the leaking head of his cock, suckling over it in between slow strokes of his hand. He whimpered louder when Keith touched his balls, and they were easier to hold now, and Shiro seemed to appreciate it as he did, even more so when Keith applied his mouth there.

“Keith,” Shiro was moaning, “Keith, please, I’m so close,” and Keith marveled at how easy it was for him to beg, and how truly shameless he was now, pleading for Keith to let him come.

At last Keith obliged, fitting his mouth over Shiro’s cock and taking in as much as he could and then some, jaw stretching and drool running down his chin, and hollowed his cheeks as he had seen Shiro do, and then Shiro was pawing at his head and coming hot and thick down Keith’s throat, and this time Keith swallowed all of it. Shiro made an incomprehensible noise and Keith backed off, licking his lips and taking his own cock in hand.

Shiro watched him from half-lidded eyes for a few moments, catching his breath, and then strong hands, one flesh and one shadow, tugged Keith down on top of him. Keith yelped at the sudden movement, landing with his hands braced on Shiro’s shoulders, and Shiro kissed him deeply, shadowy fingers sliding through Keith’s hair slowly. Keith couldn’t help but rub his cock against Shiro’s stomach, needing the friction, and after awhile Shiro broke the kiss and whispered, “You said you wanted to try new things. May I try something with you now?”

Keith swallowed hard, still tasting salty bitterness in the back of his throat and finding nothing foul about it. “What?” he asked, and Shiro pointed, and Keith saw his tail curling from the base of his spine, made of solid shadow like his arm. Keith blinked at it, then at Shiro, still uncomprehending.

“It is a bit strange,” Shiro admitted hesitantly. “But...I think it will feel good for you, if I put it inside of you.”

Keith stilled, the position taking on new meaning, his legs splayed on either side of Shiro’s hips and his ass well within the curiously curling tail’s reach. “You’re serious,” Keith whispered.

“If you don’t want –”

Keith held up a finger to shush him and caught the end of Shiro’s tail in his fist, scrutinizing it. It was tapered, very thin at the tip, so thin it could wrap around Keith’s finger like a little vine. “Will...will you feel any pleasure from it?” Keith ventured to ask.

“Not physically, no, but I’m more than satisfied by what you just did...and by watching you reach your climax, again,” Shiro murmured, his voice sending a tremor of anticipation through Keith. “Because I think you can, Keith, just from this,” his tail stroked softly over Keith’s lower back, “fucking you.”

Keith’s breath hitched and his cock throbbed, wanting. “Shit,” he hissed, and nodded jerkily, “yes, do it, just – let’s try it.”

Shiro smiled at him and squeezed his arm. “Then relax. You are not about to leap into a barfight, Keith.”

“Kinda feels like it,” Keith mumbled, letting his head drop to Shiro’s shoulder because it was easier not to meet his eyes, and easier to calm himself while breathing in the smell of Shiro’s skin. He relaxed marginally, only to tense up again when the cool tail tip traced teasingly along his inner thigh, ever upwards.

Shiro hummed and kissed his head. “Listen to the sound of my voice. That might help. And if it doesn’t, you’ll tell me, alright? And I’ll stop. And I will not expect anything more of you. There is no danger here.”

“Okay,” Keith whispered back, clumsily kissing his neck. “Go...go ahead, then.”

He managed to keep himself still and as relaxed as possible when Shiro’s tail circled slowly around its goal, yet could not stop himself from holding his breath when it gave an experimental prod and then carefully pushed in.

Keith blinked, and lifted his head. “Hmm?” Shiro questioned, watching Keith’s face, the tail pausing.

“That...doesn’t hurt,” Keith said, blinking again, bewildered. “It feels...I don’t know how it feels. But...it ain't a bad feeling. Keep, er, keep going?”

Shiro’s tail obliged, and Keith’s spine bowed as, slowly but surely, its girth and length increased. Keith didn’t know where it had come from, but there was at once an ease and slight slickness to the tail’s movements, and it made him moan, head dropping back down, mouth falling open. Shiro pet his hair and murmured, “More of that?”

Keith nodded wordlessly, and the tail twisted inside of him, the tip wriggling with more flexibility than fingers, Keith imagined. His nails dug into Shiro’s shoulders and the tail, perhaps the width of a thumb at this point, thickened further. Keith realized Shiro was not actually pushing more of inside, as it was far too long for that, but rather shifting the last several inches of it to bring Keith the most pleasure. He shuddered and pressed closer to Shiro, grinding unevenly against Shiro’s belly and squirming back into the friction as Shiro’s tail curled in and out of him with more confidence. The tip continued to curl and twist in a way that had Keith spreading his legs wider and arching, and though it did not hurt there was a building ache that made Keith’s thighs tighten and heart pound.

Then Shiro’s tail flicked deliberately over something, and Keith’s whole body seized at how good it felt; he had not known his body was capable of feeling such a thing. Shiro’s tail took note and repeated the action and Keith let out a very embarrassing whimper and Shiro nuzzled into his hair soothingly and did it a third time and Keith came in a thick splatter between them. Shiro’s tail took its time withdrawing, shrinking as it did so to ease the slide out.

Keith was having difficulty moving, but when Shiro nudged him questioningly and ran a warm palm down his side, Keith snuggled against his chest in obvious albeit nonverbal approval. Shiro sighed in what might have been relief and wrapped an arm around him. Likewise, Shiro’s tail wrapped around Keith’s leg in an absurdly affectionate sort of way, and Keith snickered, shaking his head. Shiro raised an eyebrow as Keith looked up at him, a smile playing at his lips.

“That was more than a bit strange,” Keith informed him, and Shiro’s face fell, an uncertain line appearing between his brows. Keith kissed it away. “But as we both know, I like strange things very much. Like you. My strange, wonderful, stupidly large Shiro.”

“Stupidly large?” Shiro shot him a dopey grin. “I don’t think you’re opposed to that aspect of me in the slightest, Keith. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that you – mmph!”

Keith covered Shiro’s mouth with both hands. “Don’t you finish that sentence, mister,” he warned. But he mouthed, It’s true, and Shiro rumbled with laughter under him.

Keith liked making Shiro laugh. And somehow, it seemed to happen quite often when they were in bed together. Keith had never considered that might be part of the whole ordeal...he had anticipated awkwardness, and uncomfortable new sensations, and uncertainty and miscommunication and humiliation, but instead he got laughter. Laughter without even a hint of mockery, because Shiro was many things but derisive was not one of them, and never towards Keith. Shiro was so genuine it hurt, sometimes. But Keith was becoming used to it, so much so that more often than not, he found himself laughing with Shiro.

Keith had associated fucking, in all its many incarnations, with a sense of gravity. It was a serious matter, despite it often happening in drunken hazes or supposed fits of passion – there was no giggling, no smiling, only bodies seeking an end, whether that end be onesided or mutual. But it was never like that with Shiro; there was never a pressure to behave in some preordained way with him, to fall into an expected role and no other, to act as if fucking himself on Shiro’s fingers was some great earth-shattering event meant to be unspoilt by fumbling and confusion and amusement (of which there was quite a lot).

Because it was not some great earth-shattering event; and realizing that was the truly earth-shattering thing, for Keith. It was realizing that doing these things with Shiro did not have to be incredibly important and serious if Keith did not want it to be. These new things were good, very good, but in truth, the feelings between Keith and Shiro had not truly changed at all, not at their core. This was a progression, not a sudden transformation.

That was not to say that nothing changed between them.

Keith discovered, for starters, that his new favorite place for Shiro’s tail was inside of him. He tried to explain his reasoning to Shiro, who was more than happy to help and listen, but that was a difficult task when the tail was looped around his cock while the tip fucked into him in the firm, deep way it had learned Keith liked best.

The root of it was that Keith had never enjoyed massages, as he disliked the sensation of another’s hands digging and kneading into his back and shoulders where he could not see them. But this...this was a far better alternative. It was utterly relaxing, baffling though the thought was, and Keith always ended up boneless and slumped contentedly over or under Shiro afterwards, and the sleep that followed was always deep and dreamless.

They took to making it a sort of nightly ritual, though of course not every night, and some nights it went on longer than others. Keith always initiated it, and when he was too tired afterwards to do anything for Shiro, Shiro would stroke himself to completion or thrust against the curve of Keith’s ass and thighs while Keith encouraged him with small sighs and praises.

The latter approach was another new thing to Keith, and he had initially balked when Shiro suggested it, thinking he meant to enter him. But Shiro had assured him no penetration was necessary, and Keith had been intrigued, so they tried it, and found they both enjoyed it immensely. Keith had usually finished by the time Shiro curled up to him, but a few times Shiro woke him with it, stroking Keith’s cock as he rolled his hips and mouthed at Keith’s neck, leaving bruises that would be barely hidden by his shirt collar.

They spent most of their time in Keith’s home, but sometimes Shiro would whisk him away to his own dimension, and those times Keith always knew to expect more. It was always an exciting and eager expectation, because Shiro was definitely more in his own domain. And Keith was not, as Shiro would say, opposed to that aspect of him in the slightest.

So perhaps it was unsurprising that when it finally happened, it was on one of those occasions.

*

Keith awoke to a claw tracing the corner of his mouth. Sleepily, Keith parted his lips in invitation, and the claw slipped in, cool and curved against his tongue. Keith closed his lips around it and sucked, and he heard Shiro groan somewhere above him. When his claw withdrew it brought a long string of saliva with it, dampening Keith’s chin as it broke.

He didn’t mind. He just blinked up at Shiro, intrigued by the intensity of his gaze. “Something you wanted?” Keith mumbled. “You can…” He rolled over onto his stomach and pillowed his head on his forearm, looking at Shiro through the mess of his hair and smiling. “Go on.”

Shiro hissed and Keith let out a soft gasp when the ifrit’s bulk covered his back, his eyes widening as he felt Shiro’s wet cock drag over his lower back, and then between his thighs. Shiro braced a hand on either side of Keith’s head and nuzzled at his shoulder blades, hips rolling and breath hot.

Keith relaxed into the pillows and moaned indulgently while Shiro began to rut, the wide head of his cock nudging at Keith’s ass and inner thighs, smearing slickness all around. Keith squeezed his thighs around Shiro’s cock, increasing the friction for him, and Shiro bit lightly at the back of his neck in reply. Keith arched into it, lifting his ass and making Shiro groan his name, dragging sharp claws over Keith’s ribs and leaving thread-thin lines of pink in their wake.

Keith hummed and let his head fall to the side, encouraging the path of Shiro’s mouth and the quickening rhythm of his hips as he thrust harder, cock dragging across Keith’s skin deliciously. It made him want more, and he told Shiro so, and Shiro moaned into his shoulder, hips stuttering. Keith was still sleepy and warm but the warmth was spreading through his chest and gut pleasantly – he was loose-limbed and pliant, sighing at Shiro’s touch.

Keith’s cock was beginning to stir, and he was half-hard when Shiro snarled and splattered his spending over Keith’s ass, hot and thick as always. Shiro’s tongue lapped at it, sliding between Keith’s thighs and then between his cheeks, Keith’s eyes flying wide when the forked tip wriggled intently over his hole.

“Oh –” Keith swallowed his sound, face burning, hands fisting in the blankets, and lifted his hips higher in silent assent. Shiro stroked his waist, held him in place gently, and licked inside him. Keith cried out, biting into fabric, and Shiro hummed in clear approval, tongue working him open. Keith didn’t know how to process what he was feeling; slippery penetration without the slightest pain, only an insistent slick pressure coupled by the heat in his face and the heat of his cock, heavy where it hung between his legs.

Shiro’s tongue withdrew when Keith’s thighs were soaked in spit, and he let out a soft, pathetic whine – he could hardly imagine what he must look like, on display with his hole loose, open, and dripping, wordlessly begging for more. Shiro squeezed his waist and murmured roughly, “Touch yourself, dear one.”

“Want you,” Keith whispered, the fabric under his mouth as soaked as his thighs. “Fuck me.”

“I will,” Shiro promised, low and dark, and Keith shivered and wrapped a hand around his swollen cock, his body bowing at his own touch. “There, like that, touch yourself and tell me what you want.”

Keith groaned, twisting his wrist and fucking clumsily into his fist, unable to stop moving his hips once he’d started, needy little thrusts. “I want your cock inside me,” he breathed, “not your tongue or your tail, your cock – and I want to ride you until you come inside me, and I want to fall asleep with your seed still in me, Shiro, Shiro, don’t make me beg you –”

“I won’t, dear one,” Shiro promised, and Keith nearly sobbed in relief when the ifrit lifted him up into his lap and Keith felt the heat of his cock, hard once again, nudge against him. Shiro shifted until Keith had a knee on each of Shiro’s thighs, balanced perfectly and braced over his cock with Shiro’s chest pressed close along his spine. “Slowly,” he murmured into Keith’s ear, and Keith nodded, leaning back into him as he guided Shiro’s cock to his hole.

The ifrit had changed his body slightly in anticipation, Keith realized – his cock was still large but not unmanageably so, and to Keith’s fascination the length had become more tapered and flexible while the base was thick and rounded, and the entire length was textured oddly, bumpier under Keith’s fingertips. “What is this?” Keith asked as the fat head nudged at his rim, already slippery with precum.

“It will feel good inside of you,” Shiro explained, watching hungrily as Keith widened his legs. “No pain, don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried,” Keith said honestly, but his mouth fell open when his hips bore down and the head popped in, stretching him wide and hot. His nails dug into Shiro’s thighs sharply, breath shallowing.

A clawed hand covered his chest and held him close. “Are you alright?” Shiro murmured, kissing the shell of his ear.

“Yes,” Keith managed, because he was, because it… “Fuck. Oh, fuck. Nngh…” He sank down further and his cock jumped against his belly, the bumps on Shiro’s cock rubbing inside of him, tingling warmth that he felt right behind his own cock, endless little sparks of pleasure up his spine. The sound of it was obscene, a wet squelching as Keith bottomed out, ignoring Shiro’s advice to take it slow and panting, squirming helplessly on his thick length until Shiro grunted and stilled him, breathing as hard as he was.

“Keith – oh, if you could see yourself – taking my cock so well, sweetheart,” Shiro growled. Keith whimpered and slumped into him, tilting his hips up and then back and gasping at the shock of pleasure, hardly able to believe how wide he was stretched open. A claw traced around their joining and Keith whined, louder when Shiro’s claw prodded lightly at his balls and then up his cock, circling slow and sharp around the leaking tip.

Keith watched the movement with dazed eyes, and was almost terrified when he thought of how much power he had given to Shiro; how much more power Shiro could take from him. Keith was used to taking, he was used to losing – but not with Shiro. And a part of him had feared that someday Shiro would take from him, too...but it was easy now to hope that would never happen. It was easy to trust Shiro, and that was the most terrifying thing of all.

“Keith,” Shiro whispered, claw sliding soothingly over his hip, “tell me what loud thoughts are swirling about in your head, I can almost hear them from here.”

Keith said, “Please keep touching me.”

Shiro kissed the nape of his neck and Keith felt a subtle shift, saw his claws retract. His hands looked so much more human without those sharp talons framing them, and Keith’s throat dried up. Shiro could hold him more fully like this, without fear of accidentally cutting him...but Keith couldn't stop staring at his hands. His human hands.

“I liked your claws better,” Keith whispered, and bowed his head to hide his watery eyes. “They felt less like his hands.”

Shiro froze; a long measured halt of all movement, all breath, all words. And Keith realized – Shiro didn't know what to do. The realization made him feel giddy somehow, relieved in a way he could not quite name. Shiro might have been ancient, a spirit of the desert, a god worshipped by crumbled empires, but he was just as bewildered as Keith was by all...this. They were both just trying their best.

Keith started laughing. Shiro, probably concerned that the human on his cock was quite deranged, leaned close and whispered, “Keith? Should I – are you –”

“It’d be a damn lie to say I'm fine,” Keith snorted, head thudding back onto Shiro’s chest as the ifrit peered down at him.

Shiro looked so sad and worried it hurt his heart. “I'm...I'm sorry –”

“Don't be sorry,” Keith said. “Don't be sorry for what he did to me.”

Shiro tilted his head, and brushed Keith’s hair carefully out of his face with one finger, and it wasn't so human after all, and it wasn't so much like his had been after all, because Shiro wasn't like him at all. And there was a sudden, incredible sense of relief in that realization, too.

“Can I be angry?” Shiro asked, quiet and sincere.

“You can be angry,” Keith said. “I'm angry. But I've been angry for a long time.” He sighed. “Maybe I'm tired of being angry.”

Shiro bit his lip and said, “What can I do?”

“You can hold me, like you were,” Keith said, taking one of Shiro’s hands in his own and slowly lifting it to his lips, kissing each knuckle – half to reassure Shiro that his touch was welcomed and half to reassure himself. “And you can kiss me. Please kiss me.”

Shiro nodded and turned Keith’s face towards his own, capturing his lips and cupping Keith’s jaw in his palm. Keith remembered the first time he had kissed Shiro, and found himself in awe of how it was just as wonderful now as it had been then.

Better, even. Better because he knew Shiro now, in ways he hadn't before – he knew all of Shiro’s most ticklish places, he knew Shiro’s favorite constellations, he knew that Shiro liked to shift into his horse to run across the high mesas with only the moon to keep him company, he knew that Shiro was a good listener and a good friend and a good lover, the best lover Keith could have ever asked for.

Shiro’s body was thrumming with power under Keith, a live wire that sparked via flexing muscle and heavy breath when Keith began to ride him, slow and deep. Keith tipped his head back and let himself savor it, savor the dull ache of Shiro filling him and the way he could feel every bump and curve and ridged vein, could feel Shiro’s desperate attempts to hold himself still as Keith took charge.

Keith lifted himself up with a hard shove to Shiro’s thighs, moaning at the drag of hot flesh, and sank back down slow with an arched back, purposefully leaning forward, trying to copy that illustration in the book. He wanted Shiro to see where he entered Keith, to see how eagerly Keith was allowing him in.

It must have worked, because Shiro’s hips jerked slightly and Keith hissed at the half-thrust, glancing back over his shoulder with a slight smile. Shiro’s teeth were gritted and Keith got a strange thrill out of knowing just how sharp they were, and wondering how much teasing it would take for Shiro to bite him. He raised an eyebrow coolly, though his face was flushed and he was sweating and well on his way to overwhelmed.

“Enjoying the view?” he asked. Keith was impressed by his steady voice, considering he felt like sobbing and pleading uncontrollably for Shiro to fuck him senseless at the moment. He didn't do that, though. Shiro hadn't earned that.

Shiro glowered at him, though there was no venom in it. “Enjoying yourself?” he retorted.

“A little,” Keith said, sighing as he lifted up again and sank down even slower. Shiro’s fingertips ran down his spine and he shivered, curving his body obligingly, biting his lip when Shiro’s palms swept over his ass and then felt at his hole. Keith wiggled his hips back into Shiro’s grip and Shiro swore, and Keith felt his cock move, and faltered. He...he was pretty damn sure it wasn't supposed to do that.

Shiro chuckled, slightly strained. “You just got tighter.”

“You just – how did you do that?” Keith gasped, and Shiro just grinned at him and did it again, yes, the tip of the ifrit’s cock curled, wriggled inside him and rubbed purposefully and Keith cried out at the contact. “What – Shiro – !”

“There,” Shiro said to himself, as if making a mental note, and the head of his cock twitched and Keith felt every movement, his eyes huge and his chest heaving. “Does that feel good?”

“Yes – but how – ”

“Shapeshifter,” Shiro said smugly. Keith squirmed, breathing hard, trying to feel more of him, and Shiro’s smugness fell away. His hands cupped Keith’s waist and he murmured, “May I see your face?”

Keith nodded jerkily, a ragged whine falling from his lips as Shiro manhandled him around, keeping the tip of his cock inside Keith and then easing him back down when they were face to face, chest to chest. Keith hiccuped out a moan and buried his face shamelessly in Shiro’s chest, hips still shifting restlessly. Shiro’s hand settled heavy on his back, guiding his movements, and Keith’s mouth found a dark nipple, his tongue dragging over the flesh as it peaked and Shiro’s hips bucked.

Keith whimpered at the movement, and Shiro repeated it, growling low praise and encouragement as Keith continued to lick and ride him in shallow, desperate rolls of his hips coupled by Shiro’s deeper thrusts up into him. His hard cock was trapped against Shiro’s taut stomach and his own lean body, on the constant verge of climax – Keith was stuck in limbo, his thighs burning and his heart pounding and his body aching and filled in an altogether new way. He didn’t want it to end, especially when Shiro’s hand smoothed over his jaw to kiss him again, hips hitching slow and sharp like Keith’s breath.

Shiro’s cock jolted in him and Keith moaned loud, felt the first spill of seed, and then Shiro was tugging him close and thrusting up hard, harder than he’d dared to before, and when Keith hissed again, again, he eagerly obeyed. Keith was all nerve endings, raw exposed filaments sparking with energy, danger, fire, light. Shiro’s eyes burned and Keith felt them on him, felt himself burning hotter under their gaze and moving with Shiro, fanning the flames higher. Shiro held him close, fucking him deeper, stretching him wider with the round base as Keith rocked down onto it, letting all of him inside and feeling Shiro’s cock swell and release.

Keith’s head fell back in wordless pleasure, his cock coaxed to spill by the tender crook of a claw against the sloppy, leaking tip and the gush of thick heat inside him. Somehow, Keith had expected it to feel violent, shocking, like a slap in the face. But instead it was warm and soft and good, and Keith only realized he was laughing when Shiro started chuckling too, nosing into Keith’s throat with a sigh of what sounded like relief. Keith was relieved, too, in a way he could not quite name.

Relieved, and full; full of Shiro’s cock and come, but suddenly Keith could find no shame in it, not when Shiro’s lips were tracing his neck, low voice cooing his name sweetly with a note of audible awe. Keith closed his eyes and leaned into the ifrit’s touch, and whispered, “I wish this could have been my first time.”

Shiro exhaled, and cupped Keith’s face in his hands, looking at him not with pity but with determination. “It was your first time,” he whispered back.

Keith’s throat tightened. Shiro smiled at him gently, and something in him sundered, just as it had when they’d first kissed. Another lock gave way, another web untangled, and that was an even bigger relief than his climax. Keith nodded jerkily and tucked his head into the curve of Shiro’s shoulder. “Okay,” he breathed. “It was. It was.”

“You are safe,” Shiro reminded him, and Keith squeezed his eyes shut and nodded again, focusing on breathing. It was easier, pressed against Shiro, to be aware of his own rapid pulse – the ifrit’s heart beat slower; a dull, constant thrum against Keith’s chest – and inside of him, he realized. Hm. He shifted speculatively.

“I can feel your pulse in your cock,” Keith informed Shiro, poking his chin.

“Uh-huh,” Shiro said, amused. “Understandable, since the circulation of blood is what makes it work in the first place.”

Keith wrinkled his nose. “Does it, though? Does that apply to interdimensional ifrit-gods?”

Shiro chortled at him and Keith shivered delightedly at the vibration. “Are you suggesting I don’t have a circulatory system, Keith?”

“Well, I mean, are there any beings like you who can’t fuck?” Keith pressed. “And doesn’t your shadow form’s cock also work? Does it even have a cock?”

Shiro raised an eyebrow. “One, I’m not particularly keen in asking all the other beings like me that question but I would assume they’re capable if they wish to be; two, you’ve seen my shadow form in the ‘nude,’ it’s a shadow, Keith; shadows don’t need genitalia.” Keith frowned. “Although, it isn’t impossible…” Shiro broke off with a snort. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Keith said. “Not that I’m dissatisfied with all...this.” He shot Shiro a lazy smile and kissed where Shiro’s pulse thudded in his chest. “Besides, you definitely have a heart. Right?”

Shiro pet his hair and rested his chin atop Keith’s head. “I suppose so. Hearts are complicated things. Don’t laugh, I mean that. Hearts are where the soul is kept, more or less. They’re the center, the core. And souls are very powerful things.”

“You have a soul, don’t you? The one you melded the original Takashi Shirogane’s to.”

“Yes, and no,” Shiro replied slowly. “It isn’t a soul like yours; like a human’s. I am my soul, in my entirety. Think of it like this.” He eased one of Keith’s hands into a fist, and covered the fist with his own hand, enclosing it entirely. “My hand is a human’s body, and your hand is a human’s soul. Your body is a vessel for your soul, see? Without your soul, your body would be lifeless, but without my soul, I would be nothing, not even a body left behind.”

Keith considered this for a long while. Then he said, “So, what you’re sayin’ is technically, we could also use the analogy that your cock inside of me is like a soul inside a human body –”

Shiro burst into incredulous laughter, and Keith grinned, all teeth. “The worst part is, you’re not wrong,” Shiro snorted, and then faltered when Keith reached up to trace his smile lines, savoring them while they existed, however briefly. Once Shiro stopped smiling, they were gone – immortal beings did not have wrinkles, Keith supposed. But sometimes he wished Shiro did.

“Keith?” Shiro murmured, maybe seeing the unspoken, unnameable longing in his eyes. “What is it?”

Keith did not say it, could not say it, for there was a wonderful, terrible warmth in his chest as he gazed up at Shiro, and there was a word for that warmth; but he was afraid to say it because he was afraid it might not be returned. He thought it must be, surely, because why else would Shiro treat him so tenderly and look at him with such concern and caring? But there was a sliver of uncertainty, and it was that sliver which stopped him. He had been stripped bare enough, for now. So it would just have to wait.

What he said instead was still the truth; he would not lie to Shiro in this moment, when Shiro was obviously trying to let Keith be as comfortable as possible. “We’re a mess,” Keith murmured, resting his head against Shiro’s chest, “as usual.”

“Ah,” Shiro said, and Keith wondered if he’d sensed the omission. He did not look any less fond, at least. “Hold on,” he added, and Keith was in the middle of a frank retort about being literally unable to separate from him when Shiro whisked them into the hot springs and Keith was overcome with the instant, soothing heat. He was glad for it when Shiro eased him off his softening cock, because there was discomfort then, made much better by Shiro’s gentle touches and the warm water.

“Shiro,” Keith mumbled as the ifrit was cleaning them both, causing him to freeze with nearly comical quickness. Keith patted Shiro’s face and said, “I know you didn’t mean to, but I think you granted my wish.”

Shiro blinked at him quizzically.

“The dandelion, way back when,” Keith sighed, waving a hand vaguely. “You told me to make a wish. And I did. I did, Shiro. A wish I never thought would ever come true. But it is...it is. I hope it is.”

Shiro cupped his face. “What was your wish, dear one?”

“To be whole,” Keith told him.

Shiro flinched back, eyes wide. “You...oh, Keith. You don’t need me for that. That’s not –”

“No, I know,” Keith assured him, because he really did know. “I know, because I don’t think I was ever really broken in the first place. I know that, now. And I think we both know you helped with that.” He smiled. “Y’know...just a little.”

Shiro’s expression softened, and he looked at Keith so warmly that Keith didn’t even feel the water anymore. “Just a little,” he agreed, and gathered Keith up in his arms, and brought him back home.

*

Keith had not had the nightmare in months, but he had it that night. Because of course he did, damn it all to Hell.

He was walking out of the mess hall. It was a cold night, but it was desert cold, which was a unique, dry kind of cold, the kind that stung skin and chapped lips and sucked the life out of all it touched like the Angel of Death.

A footstep crunched on gravel behind him. Keith didn't look, he didn't stop, he just kept walking. He could see the barn up ahead, a warm spill of light, safety. Pidge and Lance would be waiting there, and Keith was already late; he'd been kept late at dinner by Sendak and a few other higher-ups who kept talkin’ about promotion nonsense. Keith didn't want a promotion, he wanted out. Out of this place, out of this town, out of Galra Territory –

“You better stop walkin’, boy.”

A gun cocked, a loud click that Keith felt like a punch to the gut. He didn't have to look to know it was aimed at him.

He hated guns. Killing should not be easy.

Keith preferred knives.

But this man did not threaten him with a knife, and so Keith at once knew that he was a coward. But he was a coward with a gun, and Keith did not want to get shot. So he stopped walking.

The footsteps approached. “That's it, boy, stay right there if you know what's good for you, and don't you dare make a sound.”

Keith tensed. “Hell do you want,” he bit out, and then the breath was knocked out of him as he was shoved, hard, to the ground, rocks cutting his cheek, eyes wide as the barrel pressed icily to the back of his neck.

“I said,” the man warned, “don't you dare make a sound.”

And Keith didn’t, he didn’t make a single sound, but someone – or something – else did. It was a cry of absolute outrage, splitting through the night air not unlike a gunshot. Keith flinched hard, but his head was still intact, and the gun was at once gone from his skin, as was the weight from his back and the voice from his ear and that had never happened before, not in this dream.

The man was gone. Gone? Keith felt lighter at the notion, impossible though it was.

Then a hand appeared in his vision. It was small and brown and soft when Keith tentatively took it. The hand pulled him to his feet, and the desert faded away, and the rabbit was standing before him, brown eyes bright.

Keith, a voice whispered, and somehow he knew it was the same voice that had uttered the angry cry and driven the man away from him. He looked around with wide eyes, but there was only mist – mist that wrapped around him, warm as the water from the hot spring but far more solid.

And it kept saying his name, and not only his name but also dear one, and yet it was not Shiro’s voice, it was a woman’s. And it was a woman’s hand that caressed his cheek as she said, They will not hurt you again, and it was a woman’s hair that brushed against his skin as she leaned close and embraced him, in the soft and fleeting mist, and it was a woman’s face which appeared in his mind for a single second, and it was a woman’s name which appeared alongside it, and her name was Xilonen.

Chapter Text

Keith didn’t tell Shiro that he’d seen his dead wife in a dream, for fairly obvious reasons.

It had been more than just seeing Xilonen, anyway. She’d changed the course of his dream; she’d touched him, and he’d awoken with the echo of that touch on his skin. It had been more than a dream, of that Keith had no doubt. Xilonen wasn’t dead. Or, if she was, she wasn’t gone.

It is very hard to kill my kind completely. That was what Shiro had said. Yet he was entirely convinced his wife had been killed by Quetzalcoatl centuries ago...so why had she returned now, and not to her husband, but to Keith?

Keith did not want a goddess for an enemy. But...she hadn’t hurt him, in the dream. In fact, she’d prevented him from being hurt. She’d called him by the same endearment Shiro used. She hadn’t appeared to be upset with him – but how could she not be, if she knew who Keith was to Shiro? Keith did not know what to make of it.

He felt awful leaving Shiro after what had transpired the night previous, but as it turned out, when he tentatively told Shiro he was planning to visit Aunt Acxa for the day, Shiro bit his lip and mumbled, “I’m...not certain you should ride Strawberry anywhere today, Keith.” He looked guilty.

Keith said, “What?” And then, realizing, “Oh. Shoot. You’re right.”

“I’m sorry,” Shiro sighed, hunching his shoulders unhappily, and that just would not do, so Keith spent the day snuggling with him and playing with Strawberry instead. Shiro was quite curious about how one went about playing with a horse, so Keith showed him, and Strawberry had a marvelous time kicking about her hay ball and galloping after Keith as he raced her in circles around the house.

“How are you running?” Shiro asked, sitting cross legged on the porch with a tilted head and wide eyes.

Keith snorted, jogging to a halt and taking a moment to breathe while Strawberry nipped impatiently at his shirt. “Don’t flatter yourself,” he panted, smirking at Shiro over his shoulder and taking off at a sprint again while Strawberry neighed and tossed her head close behind.

“Wow,” Shiro said softly, resting his chin in his hand and watching the two of them run with a dazed, besotted expression.

A flicker of movement near the porch caught Shiro’s eye, and he peered at the curious cottontail rabbit staring at him through a dry patch of sagebrush. Ignoring the pang in his chest, he blinked at it and offered his hand to the shy rabbit. It would have bounded off if he were human, but as it was, it hopped tentatively towards his open palm and sniffed at it, tiny nose quivering. Apparently judging him to be alright, it hopped up onto the porch and sat next to him, always watching him with one large brown eye.

“He’s perfect, I think,” he informed the rabbit, which stared at him silently. “Yes. I agree. It absolutely isn’t fair. Just look at him.”

The rabbit eyed Keith frolicking wildly with Strawberry in the distance and yawned, unimpressed. Shiro huffed, folding his arms in his lap and continuing to gaze dreamily at Keith. “I suppose you wouldn’t understand. But he is perfect, believe me.”

The rabbit blinked at him, sneezed, and leapt off into the brush, out of sight. Shiro sighed, and told himself that it was foolish to keep hoping for anything but regular old rabbits.

*

Keith left early the next morning after kissing Shiro on the cheek and reassuring him he’d be alright, and back soon, although Keith did not truly know when “soon” would be. Shiro gave him a quick but sweet hug and vanished off to his dimension; Keith would never get used to Shiro disappearing right out of his arms.

Strawberry was eager for a thundering gallop, but Keith was admittedly rather sore and kept her at an easy canter to Aunt Acxa’s hogan beside the river. She was not outside painting this time, but there was a horse tied in front of the hogan, drinking from the shallow river. It raised its head as they approached, ears pricked – another mare, and a very pretty one, at that. Keith had only seen a palomino once, and it had been a pony, not a proper horse like this one. Her coat shone a glossy dark gold in the light of morning, pale mane and tail blowing gently in the breeze.

Strawberry snorted and stopped short. She was not pleased with the pretty palomino stranger.

The palomino whinnied, and the blanket covering the hogan’s entry lifted as Acxa peeked out, her face breaking into a smile when she saw Keith. “Long time, no see,” she greeted. The palomino turned to her with another, softer whinny. Strawberry stomped uneasily.

“Hello,” Keith said. “Sorry I couldn’t visit sooner...there were, uh. Lotsa things goin’ on.”

“Oh, things, yes, Shay’s filled me in on most of it. I don’t know how one person manages to get into as much trouble as you do, really.” Acxa chuckled and stroked the mare’s neck. “Anyway, I see you’ve met my Sháńdíín.” Keith repeated the name questioningly. “Ray of sunshine,” Acxa translated.

“The name fits, alright,” Keith agreed. “You train her?”

“Mhm.” Acxa nodded. “Her dam was my old girl Níyol, or Wind...too bad, Sháńdíín didn’t inherit her mother’s speed, she’s a rather lazy horse. Quite gentle, though.”

“Sounds like the opposite of Strawberry,” Keith mused. Strawberry flicked her tail just hard enough to catch his bare ankle with a slight sting.

“Yes,” Acxa laughed. “Your mother trained Níyol, actually...but she passed years back. Horses don’t live half as long as people, sadly.”

“Strawberry’s still young,” Keith replied, a bit defensive.

“Oh, of course, so is Sháńdíín,” Acxa said. “But enough about horses – you have a determined sort of gleam in your eye, and whenever your mother’s eyes got like that, it meant serious business. So?”

“It’s about dreams, again,” Keith said, “and, look, I know you’re no shaman...but I don’t know who else to go to about this.”

“Why not your Shiro?” Acxa asked, innocently enough. “You two are still close, yes?”

“Well – yes, but, it’s...complicated. I ain’t sure he’d be able to help, for one, and for two, it’d upset him.” Keith frowned. “I just thought maybe you’d have a suggestion, for me, for...for our People, y’know? Is there anywhere special, sacred, maybe, that I could go to try to figure this out?”

“What, precisely, are you trying to figure out?” Acxa pressed.

Keith bit his lip. “You believe in spirits?”

“Less than I once did, but enough, yes,” she replied slowly.

“I think one’s tryin’ to contact me,” he said. “Through my dreams. A...a woman. Who died, or, uh, was killed. Murdered.”

“You knew this woman?” Acxa demanded, alarmed.

“No, no, but Shiro...knew her.”

“Does she seek to harm you?” Acxa continued worriedly. “Did she display aggression, in your dream –”

“No, she didn’t,” Keith said. “She ain’t a bad spirit, I don’t think. But she’s sorta...it’s like she can’t really speak to me, but she wants to. I got that feeling. Like she wanted to say more, tell me something, and then I woke up.”

“You think she’s trying to communicate with you?” Acxa did pause at that. “I wager it’s something important…”

“Yeah,” Keith said. “That’s why I’m askin’ for help, now.”

Acxa regarded him for a long moment. Then she murmured, “There is a place, a sacred place, as you said, where many peoples, including ours, journeyed to in order to find guidance...or to become closer to another world. Perhaps the world your spirit woman inhabits will be more accessible to you there?”

“Where?” Keith asked eagerly.

“The Sacred Mountain of the West, Doko'oosliid,” Acxa told him. “In English, Abalone Shell Mountain; for it is always tipped in snow...and it is a treacherous climb, Keith, you must be careful. Many a traveler who took too much haste or did not heed the elders’ warnings has fallen upon Doko'oosliid. You must be patient, and let the mountain’s will guide you, rather than your own desires.”

“How can a mountain have a will?” Keith muttered.

She gave him a sharp look. “You just told me you are seeing a ghost woman in your dreams; do not question the wills of mountains.”

He winced; she had a point. “Sorry. So...do I just go to this mountain, or…?”

“You must try to reach the peak,” Acxa said. “It may help if you bring something of value with you...and by value, I do not mean physical wealth, but spiritual wealth; something close to your heart. Linked to your soul.”

Keith hated that his first thought was Shiro. “Uh…wait, what about that dreamcatcher? Would that work?”

Acxa brightened up. “Yes, that would be perfect! But then of course you will have to acquire it from Shiro, who will want to know why you are needing it…”

“He won’t question it too much,” Keith said, with a tinge of guilt. He’d tell Shiro...once he got to the bottom of all this. “I’ll tell him to bring it now.”

“Now?” Acxa folded her arms. “Why in such a hurry?”

“I don’t know; it feels urgent,” Keith sighed. “And I’d rather not keep this from Shiro any longer than I got to.”

“Well, I will be here, go on back to town,” Acxa started.

“I ain’t goin’ anywhere,” Keith said, and tugged the adder stone out from under his shirt. Acxa eyed it with confusion, and leapt back with a shriek when Keith said, “Shiro, can you hear me?” and the ifrit’s beaming face was projected onto the air before them.

“Keith! Yes. Hello. How are you?”

“What the blazes?” Acxa whispered faintly.

“I’m fine, Shiro, you saw me not three hours ago,” Keith chuckled. “Er, listen...I have a favor to ask.”

Shiro raised an eyebrow. “Yes?” Then he frowned and said, “Is that your aunt?”

“Yes, but, uh, listen…” Keith scratched the back of his neck. “You know that dreamcatcher I made you?” Shiro nodded. “Can I borrow it?”

“Borrow it…?” Shiro blinked. “Keith, what’s this about?”

Keith floundered. “It’s. It’s a surprise?” He cringed internally.

“A surprise,” Shiro repeated, flat, and then shrugged, and inclined his head. “Well, alright. You made it in the first place, so, go ahead. Hold out your hand.” Keith did, and to his surprise and delight, the dreamcatcher appeared at once in it. Keith held it up with a grin and Shiro grinned back while Acxa leaned heavily against her horse in utter disbelief.

“Thanks!” Keith said. “I’ll have it back to you before you know it.”

“I’ll hold you to that, dear one,” Shiro said, and flickered away.

“Dear one?” Acxa echoed.

Keith cleared his throat. “Nevermind. I have the dreamcatcher. Now...where’s this sacred mountain?”

*

“That,” Keith said faintly, “sure is a mountain.”

“Having second thoughts?” Acxa asked.

“No. No, of course not,” Keith retorted. “Alright...any final words of wisdom you have for me?”

She considered it. “According to the stories, Doko'oosliid itself, and all Diné who travel the mountain, are protected by Ma’íí Tsoh, the spirit wolf. If ever you are in danger on Doko'oosliid, you might try to call upon them.”

Keith nodded. “I will. Thank you, Aunt Acxa.” He hesitated, and added, “Amáyázhí.”

She smiled, and inclined her head. “Yá'át'ééh, Tsela. Good luck.”

And off he went.

*

Doko'oosliid was not a climb for the faint of heart.

Thankfully, Keith was hardly fainthearted, and neither was Strawberry. She was unused to the snow, but as it was not winter, it was not too deep for her to pick her way through as they headed up towards the summit. They’d managed to find a roughly-hewn path, worn perhaps by feet over the years, and as long as Keith avoided looking down at the valley below (far, far below), he was alright.

Strawberry was on alert, and had been since they began their ascent – her ears were pricked and she lifted her hooves high, tail flicking behind her and over her haunches like a switch. Her increasingly labored puffs of breath colored the air briefly white, and Keith could see a thin sheen of frost on her whiskers. He pulled his jacket closer around himself and loosened the reins for her while tucking a hand into his pocket, making sure the dreamcatcher was still there. The beads and carvings were warm against his fingertips, and he wondered if it really could bring Xilonen closer.

And if it did...well, what then? True, she had not seemed displeased with him, but he had only seen her for a moment or two. She was well within her rights to be angry, he thought; even if Shiro thought she was dead, she might see this as a betrayal, and Keith as the unwanted intruder into her husband’s bed.

Husband. Shiro had been married, perhaps technically was, still. What a strange thought. Keith was not fond of it.

Strawberry’s alertness crossed over into jumpiness, and Keith took notice. She snorted nervously, lifting her head high and quickening her pace. Keith scanned the snowy slopes for some sign of movement...and saw a flash of white fur and blue eyes. Strawberry saw it too, or smelled it, because she let out a startled whinny and broke into a full gallop.

Keith gritted his teeth, tightened his thighs around her sides despite his body’s very vehement protests, and let her run. Because, although he had no idea how he’d found them, Keith knew what the creature was, or rather, who.

Strawberry careened up the rocky path, sending pebbles bouncing down, down, down the sharply angled precipice. Keith hissed in a sharp, pained breath slash curse as he bounced in the saddle with every determined pound of Strawberry’s nimble hooves. Ma’íí Tsoh, he thought frantically, if you’re in the vicinity, now would be a swell time to show up. Ow, ow, ow.

Keith glanced over his shoulder and immediately wished he hadn’t. The white wolf was in hot pursuit, bounding effortlessly along the path and gaining on them even as Strawberry reached her full speed, neck straining and chest heaving. Keith could feel the sweat on her pelt, and mentally apologized for dragging her into all of this. Lotor met his eyes, and his lips curled back from his teeth as he lunged, snapping at the panicked mustang’s heels.

Then a blur of black fur leapt from the snowbank, crashing into the white wolf and sending them both toppling over the edge, down the rocky slope. Lotor yowled and thrashed, but Ma’íí Tsoh, Keith supposed, was a god, too, and thus their fight was evenly matched. Keith watched them tumble down alongside the pebbles, gave the snarling Ma’íí Tsoh a hasty salute, and clung to Strawberry in mild agony as she continued her hasty getaway.

By the time they’d reached the summit, Keith had some serious regrets about ignoring Shiro’s warnings to take it easy. Oh, Lord, if Shiro knew Keith had just ridden at a gallop up a damn mountain...Keith shuddered, and decided it wouldn’t kill Shiro to not know about this whole debacle.

He’d heard some distant howls, but somehow he was assured that none of them were Lotor, or Xolotl, or whoever. This was Ma’íí Tsoh’s mountain, and Keith was fairly confident that if they’d defended it for this long, they were good at their job.

At least, he hoped that was the case, because now he was supposed to dream, or something. He dismounted from Strawberry with a wince and tied her to a nearby snow-covered shrub, she huffed at him and began nosing about in the snow for some grass. He doubted she would find much, but at least she wouldn’t go thirsty.

Keith sighed and walked (limped, if he was being honest with himself, which he absolutely was not) over to a soft-looking snowbank. He sat down gingerly and immediately wanted to praise the heavens above for making snow cold and therefore numbing. Keith loved snow. Maybe it wouldn’t be as difficult to fall asleep here as he’d thought.

If he even had to fall asleep…? Keith was unclear on that bit. Was it more like meditation? Keith didn’t know how to meditate. He looked helplessly to Strawberry, who stomped her hoof and turned her rump towards him. Keith thought he probably deserved that.

“Okay,” he said to no one in particular, taking the dreamcatcher out of his pocket and laying it awkwardly over his thigh. “Um. I’m gonna...close my eyes, now, I guess…” He closed his eyes and bit his lip. “Xilonen, if you’re there, I, uh. Sorry? I should probably say sorry. For. Things.” Keith made a face. Why was he like this?

“Sorry,” he said again, and then fell silent, trying to concentrate. What should he concentrate on? Nothing? Keith didn’t think he could do that. He imagined the night sky instead. Stars. Constellations. Shiro whispering the names of the constellations – damn it. No Shiro. Bad. Focus. Stars, Keith, c’mon.

He thought of stars. He thought of lying on his back in warm sand, watching the sky shift above him, remembered the first time he’d noticed the clouds moving. He’d been so in awe of them; as a child he’d had no way of knowing they were only water vapor, collecting in a seemingly tangible form in the air. Back then, they had seemed like creatures to him, strange huge white birds without wings, changing with the winds, darkening with the seasons, bursting during the monsoons.

Then an odd thing happened. His mind wandered further, but he did not feel like he was the one guiding it anymore. He thought of the monsoons, of the desert opening to the floods as the rain cascaded from the black and rumbling sky; of every flower blooming to catch every raindrop possible, of all the toads and snakes and rabbits and lizards crawling from their burrows to soak up the water, the life; of cacti swelling as they collected the water in their very flesh, their pleated bodies expanding like accordions, guiding the rainwater to their roots.

He thought of people standing in open-mouthed awe at the storm’s power, lightning streaking and crackling across the sky; he thought of their fields, and their prayers for those fields – prayers of life, of abundance, of growth, of fertility. He thought of new corn, of tall stalks bowing under the weight of their plenty, of a hundred hands grinding kernels into flour, of laughter and hands caked with dirt and bright, brown eyes, watching through the cornfield, knowing…

“Hello, Keith.”

Keith was standing on the mountaintop, and Xilonen was standing before him. She wasn’t wearing any clothes. Keith squawked like a chicken and smacked a hand over his face.

She laughed at him. Keith said, strangled, “Are you still naked?”

“No,” she chuckled, and when he peeked through his fingers, she was clad in a long, thin white dress. It was better than nothing, he conceded meekly. She regarded him with a slight quirk of her lips, and raised an eyebrow. “I would have expected you to be more comfortable with nudity...though perhaps more of the male variety?”

Keith opened his mouth, then closed it. His face was very warm.

She waved a hand. “I’m teasing you. Mostly. Tell me, how have the years treated him, our Shiro?”

“Uh,” Keith said, struck by our. “He’s. Good. Real good.” Then he blurted, “Does he know? About you?”

Xilonen’s face shuttered. Her full lips twisted, and her gaze shifted away. “Of course not,” she sighed. “Do you think he would be with you if he knew?” She shook her head. “He is loyal to a fault. But he could not be happy with me as I am now. He...deserves more than this.”

“A ghost?” Keith guessed. “Like Xochipilli?”

She shook her head gently. “Even less than a ghost, I’m afraid. I am limited to the dimensions such as this one, where I can never truly exist among the living, not among humans nor my own kind, or rather what is left of them. I fade more and more with every passing day...I slumbered for centuries. Perhaps I was dead, as truly dead as I could be, then. But our souls are like embers. They can be brought back, if there is a spark.”

Keith blinked. “What was the spark?”

“You,” Xilonen said, and Keith held very still as she stepped forward and cupped his face with a warm, brown palm.

“Me?” Keith repeated, dumbly. “But...how? Why?”

“You saved his life,” Xilonen told him. “My husband’s life. I felt him then, you know, so close to the ether where I have been set adrift. I felt his soul slipping.”

“Didn’t you want him to be with you?” Keith asked, hesitant.

“No!” Xilonen exclaimed indignantly. “If I could have shoved his soul as far away from mine as possible, believe me, I would have done it. But I was helpless, helplessly watching – can you imagine, sleeping for so long, only to awaken and see your oldest and dearest love on the verge of death? I could not bear it.” She folded her arms. “So I pleaded for help. From something, someone, anyone at all...and I got you. You listened to my plea, Keith. This, I know.”

“Plea?” Keith repeated, nervous and confused. “But there was no...I didn’t hear anything, it was a quiet night, I just stumbled across him on my way to the watering hole –”

“You stumbled across a dying god,” Xilonen said flatly, “in a vast, uncharted desert, at night, when you weren’t even looking for one. Do you honestly think that is a coincidence? No, don’t answer that. It isn’t a coincidence, Keith. My plea was not meant to be heard, but to be felt by the threads of Fate. Destiny. Whatever you’d call it, that was what led you to him.”

“I’d call it a horse,” Keith muttered.

Xilonen huffed. “No wonder he fell for you,” she said, exasperated yet fond. “He always did like us feisty ones. Too clever for our own good.”

“So...you’ve been awake, since then?” Keith guessed. “Since I first found him?”

“Yes,” she said. “To varying degrees. I have been gaining strength as of late, it seems...I do not know why.” Her gaze darkened. “But I do know that there is a great danger on your horizon, Keith. That is why I appeared to you – I tried often to seek you out, but my forms were...limited.”

“You were the rabbit,” Keith whispered.

“Yes,” Xilonen said. “I thought that would be a nonthreatening form in which to appear to you. Didn’t want to scare you off with all my bare skin.”

Keith flushed. “That’s not – I’m not – you mentioned a great danger. What do you mean? I know about Lotor, I know he’s still on our trail –”

“This threat is not Lotor,” Xilonen interrupted. “This is a far greater danger, Keith. And it is not just you who is at risk. Shiro, too...and your friends. I fear they will be dragged into this tangled excuse for a war sooner rather than later.”

“My friends?” Keith blanched. “But they’re not – what could the Galra want with them?”

Xilonen shook her head. “I cannot see the future, nor into the Galra’s minds.” She made a face. “Even if I could, I would much rather not. Just heed my warning, Keith. Be alert.” She hesitated. “And be safe,” she added, softer. “You are a good one. This, I believe with all my heart.”

“Oh,” Keith stammered. “I, um, thank you?”

She smiled, a little sly. “You know, he has had so many lovers I am not even sure they would fit in a single book. If they did...it would be a very large volume.” Keith did not know what in the world he was supposed to say to that. There were a lot of words in a book. More words than Keith could count.
“I had many as well,” Xilonen added. “I was a fertility goddess, after all.”

Keith did not know how to ask this politely. “Did...did you and Shiro ever...have children?”

“Children!” Xilonen exclaimed. “Do I look like the goddess of children to you?”

“I – you said fertility, isn’t that –”

“Fertility of the earth,” Xilonen huffed, “of agriculture, of plants. Not children. Xochiquetzal was more fond of those. But no, Keith, not every woman, goddess or not, aspires to motherhood.”

Keith was confused. “So...you never laid with him?”

Xilonen threw back her head and laughed. Cackled, more like. “Have you seen him?” She snorted. “Of course I laid with him, oh, dear, you are a delight. Though it’s a fair question, fair enough. My kind do not bear anything if we don’t wish it. If I willed myself to have a child, I could have, without his seed or not,” Keith choked and she did not even pause, “but as it was, I was quite pleased with my lot in life.” She raised an eyebrow meaningfully. “Are you pleased?”

“Yes?” Keith said in a tiny voice. This felt like a test of some kind. He was bad at tests.

But she just beamed and said, “Good! He hasn’t lost his touch, then. He’s really such a sap, isn’t he? Jaguar, my ass. More like a giant kitten.” She tilted her head. “With a very large –”

Keith coughed loudly. “So you’ve been watching us, or what?”

“Observing,” she corrected. “And don’t fret, it’s not as if I’m spying on you.”

“You’re his wife,” Keith mumbled, looking away. “I ain’t in any position to object, if you were spying. Matter of fact, I sorta suspected you appeared to me to tell me to leave him.”

The smile fell from her face. “Leave him? No! Keith, no, not at all. If you left him…” She exhaled unsteadily. “I said you were a good one, and I meant it. You are good for him, and I think it’s fair to say he’s been good for you, too.”

“Yes,” Keith whispered, nodding. “Yes, I think so.”

“Keith, I want you to stay with him,” Xilonen insisted. Keith blinked at her. “He’s...he’s happy. You’re happy. And it brings me such joy, knowing that even after everything, he can still have that – both of you can.” She clasped his hands, and he saw she was fading away, little by little. “I’m on your side,” she murmured. “And I am glad you have been able to find love with him, and that he in turn has found love with you.”

Keith’s eyes widened. “Love? We – we don’t –”

She placed a finger over his lips, and said, “You do.”

Then she was gone, and Keith was sitting in the snow with the dreamcatcher on his lap, and Strawberry was chewing a miraculous mouthful of grass, eying him with a mixture of apathy and bewilderment.

“I don’t love him!” Keith yelped, scrambling to his feet and immediately remembering his soreness. “Augh, no, nope, I definitely don’t love him,” he grumbled, stalking over to Strawberry. “Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?”

Strawberry sneezed on him and Keith made a face at her. “Yes, yes, I hear you,” he said. “We’re going home, and you’re getting a nice warm blanket, and I ain’t gonna move for the next week.”

She snorted in agreement, and Keith swung himself up into the saddle with a grimace.

“Love,” he sneered. “What use have I got for love? I ain’t no swooning damsel. Ya hear, Strawberry?” She seemed to sigh at him. “Hmph. Even...even if I was – and I ain’t – it’s not like we’d get a happy fairytale ending. Marriage, ha! Now, that’s a good one. ‘Spose the Church would let me wed the Desert Devil, put a ring on his pretty clawed finger? Sure that’d go over real well.” He sniffed. “Not that I’d even want to marry him. I don’t!” Keith swallowed. “I don’t. And at any rate, what use’d he have with a human husband? Seems cruel, don’t you think, when I’m mortal and he ain’t? I could never do that to him. Never.”

Strawberry was not very good at counseling, Keith decided. Or maybe he was just not very good at admitting to his emotions.

*

Keith returned the dreamcatcher to Shiro that night. He did not tell him about Xilonen, nor about the revelation threatening to burst free of his chest. He told himself it was easier to keep quiet.

*

Keith also told himself he wasn’t jealous. He wasn’t. According to Xilonen, he had much more important things to worry about...yet, he couldn’t help but dwell on what she had said. He has had so many lovers I am not even sure they would fit in a single book. If they did...it would be a very large volume.

Keith’s lovers could fit on a single scrap of paper, so naturally, he had difficulty even imagining the scale of what Xilonen was suggesting. Yes, Shiro had lived for thousands of years, so it was certainly probable. And perhaps he had participated in more than a few, er, bacchanals, in which he could have had many partners at once – Keith could not imagine that, either. Well, not in his own experience...but he could, and did, imagine how it must have been for Shiro. Overwhelming, maybe, if Shiro had been partaking in such activities with others of his kind. But if it had been with humans, which Xilonen had heavily implied...that would be a different story.

Shiro was large; large enough to feasibly pleasure several humans at once – with tail, mouth, fingers, and cock, Keith at first supposed. But then he realized – Shiro was a shapeshifter. And as far as Keith knew, the possibilities of that were virtually endless.

Once the image of Shiro lying decadently and draped with countless humans in varying states of undress and arousal in some ancient golden temple made its way into Keith’s mind, he could not let go of it.

He didn’t know how it made him feel. Xilonen had said Keith was different than all of those past flames. But. But. Different or not, all of them had still touched Shiro before he had. And Shiro had touched them, too. Keith didn’t know why the idea of those other humans being with Shiro bothered him so much more than the idea of Xilonen being with him. That did not bother him in the slightest, somehow. Keith liked Xilonen, even if he was still a bit scared of her.

And it wasn’t that Keith thought any less of Shiro because of his many past lovers – no, it was more that whenever Keith imagined it, his gut churned with a sharp, heated sensation that he could only name as greedy, hungry possessiveness.

Not love. Surely not love.

Since meeting with Xilonen, Shiro had not fucked him again. Certainly not from lack of desire – they’d done other things, lapsing back into lazy mornings with Keith sprawled over Shiro’s chest as Shiro’s tail (or, a few times, tongue) worked him open. Keith had been temporarily banned from having anything more than that inside of him...needless to say, Shiro had not been happy when he found out Keith had ridden to the top of a mountain and all but incapacitated himself for the next couple of days.

Keith had been forcibly wrapped in heated blankets and had at least seven varieties of different pain-relieving teas poured down his throat. Shiro was not taking any chances. Keith weathered it for a full three days before he snuck out of bed to give Strawberry a birthday party.

Shiro reluctantly helped him make a warm oat mash for her, though his eye twitched whenever Keith stretched or exerted himself. He almost had a coronary when Keith bent over to clean Strawberry’s hooves. Keith glared at him when he tried to help, and told him he healed quickly, and anyway, it wasn’t anything serious to begin with.

Shiro made sure he was telling the truth that night. Keith had no objections to his very thorough examination. But as Shiro had deemed fucking him was not allowed for the time being, Keith developed a new pastime which would hopefully shorten his probation time – riling Shiro up.

He teased Shiro’s cock until the ifrit was squirming with unspoken frustration. He became quite good at it.

And Keith did enjoy doing it – denying Shiro climax again and again, until the ifrit had clearly reached his breaking point and Keith rewarded him with mouth or hand or thighs. He thought Shiro’s cock looked best when achingly hard, leaking with every touch and twitching when Keith so much as breathed on it. He told Shiro this, and Shiro had groaned and arched up helplessly into his tight grip around the base. Shiro liked it, too. He liked it when Keith controlled his pleasure. Keith found that very curious, but not bad by any means.

And then, of course, besides all of those thoughts, there were the thoughts concerning the other thing Xilonen had mentioned. And Keith was even less sure what to do with those thoughts. They felt like a rattler, coiled in the back of his mind, striking unexpectedly at any given moment, rendering him momentarily flustered and useless. Love. That was what she had said. But Keith didn’t know jack shit about love...at least, he didn’t think he did. But sometimes, he looked at Shiro, and wondered. If not love, then what could possibly name what he felt for Shiro? It was more than fondness. Keith was fond of several people, yet none of them had ever made him feel the way Shiro did.

Keith couldn’t think about it too much. It was, frankly, terrifying.

Anyway, they hadn’t “properly” fucked again, yet. But Shiro was apparently picking up on something in Keith’s behavior, because he confronted him about it one night in his cave, when they were lounging on the pillows together in companionable quiet. It had been several weeks since Xilonen.

“Are you alright?” Shiro asked, rolling onto his side and carding his claws gently through Keith’s hair.

“Me?” Keith coughed, and nodded too hastily. “Er. Yes. Of course. Why?”

Shiro furrowed his brow and shook his head. “No, you’re still doing it. Dodging. What’s bothering you?”

Keith huffed and rolled away from him.

Shiro sucked in a sharp, hurt breath. “Keith…if you don’t want to talk about it, we don’t have to. I’m just worried – ”

“How many people have you bedded?” Keith asked, point-blank.

Shiro sat up. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

Shiro’s eyes narrowed. “Would you like a rough estimate, or an exact list?”

“Would they even fit on a list?” Keith countered, rolling over to face him again. Shiro looked deeply confused.

“Are you upset with me?” he asked slowly.

“Do I look upset?” Keith countered. “No. I’m not upset. Just curious.”

“About...how many others I’ve fucked,” Shiro managed.

“Yes.”

“Uh,” Shiro said, shifting a bit uncomfortably. “Well, that’s...there’s quite a few, Keith.”

Keith batted his eyelashes pleasantly. “I am aware of that much, yes.”

Shiro rubbed his temple. “At least a thousand?” he mumbled.

“Only a thousand? Over thousands of years?”

Shiro wrung his hands nervously. “You’re really not upset with me?” Keith shook his head, sitting up and crawling into his lap to hopefully reassure him that there were no hard feelings. Well, a couple hard feelings, but there was no antipathy in those. Shiro eyed him uncertainly. “Alright then...I, ah, it’s honestly difficult to say, Keith. There were annual or semiannual festivals which I took part in, and those were…” He trailed off, averting his gaze.

Keith sat on his thigh and tilted Shiro’s face back towards his own with a single finger on his chin. “Tell me. I want to know. What happened?”

“Fucking,” Shiro said, struggling to keep a straight face. “You know.”

“Do I?” Keith raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think I do, Shiro.”

Shiro threw up his hands and flopped back into the nest, Keith falling forward onto his chest as he did so. “Are you trying to drive me mad?” Shiro demanded. “Because I think it’s working.”

“I’m trying to get an answer out of you,” Keith replied sweetly, fingers tiptoeing across his hip bone. Shiro’s eyes traced the movement. “Are you going to give me one, or do you need more persuasion.”

“My memory is a little foggy,” Shiro murmured. Devil, Keith thought, but his hand did not pause in its determined path towards Shiro’s cock. Shiro’s breath caught when Keith reconsidered his position and climbed up to straddle Shiro’s hips as best he could instead, grinding his ass back against the bulge of Shiro’s rousing cock.

“Clearer now?” Keith asked.

“Mm…” Shiro bit his lip. “I usually took multiple partners at once. Humans are...so much smaller. And, usually, more easily pleasured –”

“Oh?” Keith interrupted. The ifrit stared at him, shadowy flush spreading. “You thought it was easy?

“It was,” Shiro retorted, slightly breathless – Keith was rolling his hips with more determination, and palming lightly at his own cock through his underwear. “It was so easy to make them squirm, and come, and – oh, are you really certain you want to hear all of this –”

“Do I look uncertain to you?” Keith shucked off his underwear and took himself fully in hand, stroking and pushing back insistently, gratified when he felt the fabric of Shiro’s cloth dampening. “I know what I want from you.”

Shiro squeezed his eyes shut and swore. “F-fine. I would always take my time with them, draw it out much longer than needed, until they were begging for my cock, wrung out on climax after climax. They took turns, or, I would give them several to work with. There was always an element of...creativity.”

“You aren’t very creative with me,” Keith said, reaching blindly behind himself and shaping Shiro’s cock through the fabric, only to startle when he found the fabric was gone. Shiro’s eyes were bright, glowing, and his lips parted when Keith touched slick skin.

“You never asked me to be,” Shiro retorted. “Sometimes they’d fuck me, instead. I let them do as they wished – they liked that, about me. Often, I think one of the reasons the other ‘gods’ disliked me was because I was so popular at those events.”

“Popular, were you?” Keith muttered. “Because you gave them free rein?”

Shiro hummed in agreement. “The others, see, they thought mortals all secretly desired to be controlled, subdued, dominated, what have you.” He rolled his eyes. “But that’s not it at all. They – you – want the freedom to choose. I gave them what they chose.”

“And what about you?”

Shiro’s lips quirked. “Heh,” he chuckled, “funny enough, I discovered that if one is generous with one’s lovers, they will often be quite generous in return. I was plenty satisfied with their choices.”

“But what about your choices?” Keith pressed, shuffling back until the head of Shiro’s cock nudged against the small of his back, then lower.

Shiro shook his head, smile strained. “Keith, I find pleasure in your pleasure,” he replied, and Keith’s heart hurt.

“Would you find pleasure in me riding your cock for the remainder of the night?” Keith demanded. Shiro’s eyes flickered and Keith pointed a warning finger at him. “Don’t you dare tell me to be careful.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Shiro said, voice lower, rumbling, “I was just going to do this,” and he grabbed Keith effortlessly, lifting him up and holding him right over his face, so he could lick between Keith’s thighs. Keith yelped, squirming at the manhandling and then moaning when Shiro’s tongue breached him, and Shiro panted, “See, easy,” and Keith snarled, twisting in his grasp and arching when Shiro’s tongue shifted, wider and slippery as an eel, augh that thought should not have made him moan louder.

“You have,” Keith gasped, “an unfair – ah – advantage!”

“You don’t seem to mind,” Shiro retorted, licking his lips and spreading Keith’s legs with his clawed thumbs. “Do you want creativity? I can do creativity.” He leaned forward, still lying on his back, and slipped two fingers inside.

Keith jerked violently – but the claws were gone, and the pads of Shiro’s fingertips seemed somehow enhanced; every ridge and whorl rubbed inside of him, and they were slimy, oozing something warm and clear that dripped out along Keith’s thighs as they withdrew with excruciating slowness. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the digits rubbed in tandem at his cock, making a mess of it and encouraging it to harden fully while Keith’s legs splayed wider.

Keith gritted his teeth. How Shiro had managed to prepare him so effortlessly in mere minutes, he didn’t know. But Keith sure as Hell wasn’t going to beg for it. He was going to take it.

Shiro didn’t expect Keith to scramble away and make a beeline for his cock, and swore when Keith took it in hand and guided it to his hole. “Keith, wait –”

“Why, was there something else you were going to tell me?” Keith asked, letting the tip of his cock slide and catch on his rim, reveling in Shiro’s increasing lack of composure. “About how creative you are, or how easy fucking humans is, perhaps?”

Shiro opened his mouth, and Keith braced himself for more filth, but instead Shiro slumped back into the nest and whispered, “No, nothing,” and when Keith still wavered, he moaned, “Keith, please,” and that was all the invitation Keith needed to sink down onto his cock.

It was shockingly easy, this time. Keith’s mouth fell open and Shiro shuddered under him. Keith could see the question in the ifrit’s softly luminous eyes, and patted his chest reassuringly. “Good, feels good,” he gasped, jolting as he tilted his hips and more of Shiro’s cock slid into him. “Damn you for not letting me have this a second time, nngh!”

“Damn you for hurting yourself,” Shiro countered, though there was no bite to it; his face was awash with ecstasy.

“I ain’t fragile,” Keith grunted, rolling his hips in sharp, short movements, cock already leaking heavily over Shiro’s belly. “Don’t treat me as such.”

Shiro groaned in disbelief and gestured wildly at him. “No, you’re clearly not! I don’t treat you like you’re fragile, Keith, I treat you as someone I care deeply about.”

“Deeply,” Keith repeated, and snorted, throwing his head back and trembling with the realization of how wide Shiro’s cock stretched his body. “Yeah, I can feel that.”

“You’re awful,” Shiro panted, “absolutely –”

Keith bottomed out on his cock and Shiro’s words were lost in a long, hissed rendition of Keith’s name. Keith was close. It was going to be over too fast, but they’d both been worked up from the start, thinking about past lovers and creativity and such, so it was hardly surprising.

It was a little surprising, however, when Shiro came first, his belly taut and thighs trembling. He thrust up into Keith as he did so, giving him just enough sensation to climax soon after. Keith’s previous bravado faded once he’d come, and Shiro laughed when he collapsed dramatically atop the ifrit, shooting Shiro a small grin to assure him of his wellbeing.

Shiro didn’t pull out. Keith didn’t mind it. He actually liked this new form of closeness quite a lot – he could feel Shiro softening inside of him, but he was too large to just slip out, and it only allowed for a slight trickle of cum as Shiro sat up, keeping Keith in his lap.

Keith peered up at him hopefully. “Are you going to let me stay here as long as I’d like, to make up for our dry spell?”

Shiro gave him a look. “Dry spell? I think, on average, you climaxed at least once a night. Sometimes twice. I may have created a monster.”

Keith didn’t deny it, even if he didn’t quite understand it, himself. “Don’t see you complaining, though.”

“Hm, no,” Shiro admitted. “Complaining, I am not.”

Keith smiled and snuggled into his chest. Shiro made a soft, pleased sound, and wrapped his arms around him. Keith really did contemplate staying on Shiro’s cock forever, though that would seriously limit what he could do and achieve in life. Then again, in some ways he’d reached a certain pinnacle of achievement with Shiro. Keith was quite convinced he had the best and kindest lover in all the West.

Still, he would not want to scar Strawberry or his friends with such a sight. So, maybe only half the time on Shiro’s cock. That was more reasonable.

Keith tended to have some slightly delirious post-coital thoughts.

Shiro was just content to hold him and let them both breathe...for awhile.

Then Keith shifted again, unthinking, and realized Shiro’s cock was hardening again. He gawked at the ifrit. “You’re still…”

“Yes…” Shiro admitted, looking only a little bashful. “My body likes how yours feels very much.”

Keith swallowed, and rocked slightly in invitation, Shiro’s cum still hot inside him as Shiro’s cock filled out and stretched him anew. Shiro’s lips parted, hungry. There was something fiery in his eyes, and his claws felt sharper against Keith’s hip. “Keith…” There was a warning, there. Keith didn’t want to abide by it.

“Shiro,” Keith murmured back, and lifted up, biting his lip when white trickled down his inner thighs thickly, grinding against Shiro’s cock as it was bared to the air. “I want…don’t change your body, this time,” he said.

Shiro’s lips peeled back from his teeth. “You know that’s not going to work,” he managed, though he looked like he wished it would, very much.

“Make it work,” Keith replied fiercely, and Shiro shuddered, tugging Keith roughly closer, spreading his legs wide over his lap and then reconsidering. “What?” Keith asked, seeing the uncertainty in Shiro’s expression.

“Tell me if this is alright,” Shiro said, and lifted Keith off his lap, laying him down on his back among the blankets and pillows, and covering Keith’s body with his own, urging Keith to lift his legs up, folded nearly to his ears. Keith nodded, face hot, mouth dry as he watched Shiro loom over him with intent. Keith’s hole was still leaking cum, loosened and wanting to be filled again, and Shiro’s tongue dragged briefly over it, then up to Keith’s chest, teasing at his nipples. Keith squirmed and gasped, louder when claws played over the sensitive nubs, pinching them lightly. All the while, Shiro’s cock nudged at his hole, leaking and hardening further.

“Can you touch yourself again?” Shiro murmured, soft and undemanding as always, licking and nipping at Keith’s neck. Keith reached down to stroke his soft (but not entirely) cock at once, but Shiro said, “No, not that…inside.”

Keith’s face burned. “You want…” His fingers traced blindly down, and he sucked in a sharp breath when they touched his loosened hole and swollen rim, and slid inside with shocking ease. “Oh. Oh, Shiro – I – fuck, fuck me, ah!”

“You’re doing a fine job,” Shiro chuckled, watching Keith’s fingers twist desperately inside himself, purring when Keith found his prostate and writhed, eyes fluttering shut as he rubbed at it harder, faster, more more more. “I love seeing you like this,” he added, nuzzling Keith’s shoulder and gazing at him steadily, watching his overwhelmed expressions of bliss. “Making yourself feel so good. You deserve to feel good, Keith, always.”

Keith moaned, and shook his head. “Want you,” he hissed impatiently.

“I know, I know, and you will have me,” Shiro assured him. “Again.” His lips quirked. “But see, now that you know this, you can pleasure yourself when I am not there.”

Keith shuddered at the thought of doing this in his bed at home. It was almost too much, and his half-hard cock twitched longingly. “Do – do you do this to yourself, when you are alone?” Keith managed, his voice rough.

Shiro grinned. “Mmm, what do you think?”

“Tell me,” Keith bit out, demanded, still fucking himself on three fingers, legs spread unapologetically wide for Shiro’s perusal. “Tell me how you pleasure yourself, Shiro.”

“Better yet, why don’t I show you?” Shiro countered slyly.

Keith’s back arched in reply, and he watched greedily as Shiro took his cock in hand, stroking slowly, slower than Keith might have imagined, careful to keep his claws away except for at the head, where he tugged on the foreskin with the sharp curved points, quick little teases of pain.
As Shiro did this, his mouth fell open in a soft gasp, and Keith didn’t understand why until Shiro widened the stance of his legs slightly, and with utter disbelief, Keith saw Shiro’s tail curling back between his thighs, and there was a wet sound and Keith saw how the space behind Shiro’s heavy balls had changed, shifted into something more easily penetrated and dripping with arousal. Keith groaned, blinded by want which only increased as Shiro sheathed his claws on his other hand and his fingers joined his tail in opening himself up.

Shiro looked at Keith through his lashes, panting and rolling his hips, and Keith wanted, Christ, he wanted Shiro so badly. It was sometimes terrifying, how much he wanted Shiro.

“This is how,” Shiro said, and moaned beautifully as his fingers pushed deeper and his tail thickened, his back arching just like Keith’s had, his body surrendering so easily to pleasure. It was a sight to see. Then Shiro gasped, “Keith,” and Keith couldn’t possibly not touch him, and surged up, grabbing clumsily at Shiro and tugging him down into the nest, kissing him frantically and wrapping his legs around Shiro’s hips as best he could.

Shiro rocked down against him, his moans caught against Keith’s tongue, and Keith groaned, “Would you let me fuck you?”

Shiro purred encouragingly, and grinded down onto Keith’s thigh, and Keith felt how wet he was, open and aching. “Whenever you want,” he replied, and Keith’s nails dug into his back.

“No,” Keith corrected, “whenever you want.”

Shiro shuddered, and nodded. “Yes,” he whispered, and there was a moment of strange, close tenderness between them then, and Shiro turned his face into Keith’s palm and Keith felt all at once dizzily weak and unimaginably powerful. Keith rocked against him, and Shiro whined at the friction, both of them rolling about for a while, easy and hot.

Shiro’s hands slid up to Keith’s sides, holding him in place, thumbs digging in just below his ribs, and though he held Keith gently, Keith felt the strength in his hands and moaned at the thought of Shiro breaking him. Which was…concerning. But the thing was, he knew Shiro wouldn’t do that, and so he wasn’t afraid to gasp, “You don’t have to hold me so carefully, y’know.”

Shiro lifted his head from Keith’s neck, licking his lips with his forked tongue and tilting his head. “No?”

He tightened his grip, little by little, increasing pressure. Keith’s eyes rolled back in his head, panting shallowly and squirming under the ifrit’s huge body. Shiro rutted against him, between his legs, and then his eyes narrowed and he flipped Keith over onto his stomach. Keith suddenly panicked at the position, scrabbling at the pillows and kicking out blindly, and Shiro released him at once. “Keith, shhh, it’s alright – I should have warned you.”

Breathing hard, Keith slumped back down onto his stomach, covering his face. His mind was abuzz with frustration and his cock was softening steadily – he didn’t know what the trigger had been this time; didn’t know why he’d been fine with Shiro behind him the first time, and now it had sent him into a blind panic. Shiro’s lips touched his shoulder and Keith forced himself to relax, shivering at the accompanying tender brush of knuckles down his spine. “Do you want to turn over?” Shiro murmured.

Keith hesitated, then shook his head. “I…you can. Like this.” He swallowed. “I think it would be good, like this, with you. Maybe.”

Shiro made a low, hurt sound and rolled him over onto his back. “Keith.” His eyes were filled with painful realization. “I do not wish to open old wounds.”

“Then don’t,” Keith retorted, rolling back onto his stomach and glancing over his shoulder. “Just fuck me.”

Shiro frowned. Keith thought he might refuse, but then his hands drifted back to Keith’s hips and he said, “Then tell me.”

Keith faltered. “What?”

“If you want me to fuck you like this, tell me how. Everything.” Shiro wasn’t joking; his eyes were smoldering like live coals and Keith’s cock was hardening again just seeing the intensity in his face. “And I will do it. But you must tell me, Keith.”

Keith licked his dry lips, and nodded, flushed. “Okay,” he said. “I want your cock.”

Shiro didn’t move, just raised an eyebrow. “More specific,” he said.

Keith narrowed his eyes, accepting the challenge, lifting his ass and glaring at Shiro over his shoulder. “Put two fingers inside me.” Shiro hummed and did so, two fingers stretching Keith wide. He didn’t move them. Keith’s jaw worked. “Stretch me open with your fingers, quickly. I’m already – ah…” Shiro’s fingers curled and rubbed inside of him, and Keith moaned, arching his back, cum squelching loudly between Shiro’s fingers.

“Already what?” Shiro asked, low and dark and Keith had been wrong, Keith had been so, so wrong – Shiro was evil.

“Ready to be fucked,” Keith gritted out, and was rewarded with Shiro’s fingers crooking hard against his prostate. He gasped loud and squeezed his eyes shut, struggling to steady his breathing. “I – nngh, please, I want – I want you to hold me, and fuck me with your cock as big as you can make it, and I want you to mark me up with your mouth and teeth and claws and – and I don’t want you to be careful; I want you to take me the way you want to, Shiro, I want that so much –”

Shiro shoved him down against the pillows, one huge hand pressing down on the back of Keith’s head, and Keith groaned, louder when Shiro’s fingers slid out of him and the tip of his cock rubbed over his messy hole instead. “Yes,” Keith breathed, and Shiro’s cock breached him and he cried out, because it was definitely bigger, thick enough that the ifrit had to push Keith’s thighs farther apart to accommodate the extra girth, palming his ass and holding him open, but it was so, so good, heavy and wet and throbbing with arousal as Keith opened to it slowly but surely. Shiro himself was overwhelmingly big, surrounding Keith with his body and his heat, tugging his hips back, forcing his cock fully inside. Keith moaned and took it, his cock jerking back into hardness against his belly as if shocked.

Shiro’s chest rumbled with a pleased groan, his body pressed all along Keith’s back, hips shifting restlessly and making Keith whimper at the constant, teasing friction. “Like this?” Shiro purred, muscles sliding deliciously against Keith’s skin. “Or do you want more?”

Keith panted and clawed at the pillows until Shiro caught his hands in his own, squeezing reassuringly. “More,” Keith hissed, “fuck me, harder, and bite me –”

Shiro’s growl sounded right in his ear and Keith froze, shuddering and tipping his head eagerly to the side when sharp teeth traced over the soft skin of his neck. “Ask nicely,” Shiro said.

Keith bucked under him. “Bite me so hard that everyone knows I’m yours,” he demanded.

It wasn’t asking nicely at all, but it seemed to do it for Shiro, who snarled and drove his cock deep as he buried his teeth in Keith’s shoulder. Keith shouted at the hot sting and moaned when Shiro kept fucking him through it, fast brutal thrusts that made Keith’s cock leak frantically, white sparks of pleasure exploding behind his eyelids. Blood trickled across his shoulder and Shiro licked it away, growling, and Keith didn’t even consider that he’d just offered Shiro his blood again until shadows began winding around his arms and legs in cool, pulsing tendrils, stroking and tingling over his skin. One tendril wound around his neck and Keith absolutely did not think about how much it felt like he imagined a collar would, cold and heavy, with Shiro growling, mine, mine, mine, against the back of his neck.

Keith’s head lolled to side and Shiro’s face was right there, and he looked like he had in that cave after Keith had first cut his hand – so far from human, so far from anything Keith had ever seen before, with the fire of the cosmos in his eyes and a mouth open wide, perhaps unhinged, snake tongue flickering out, stained red like his jagged teeth.

But still, Keith was not afraid. And when Shiro’s cock dragged against his prostate and Keith let out a desperate, overwhelmed whine, Shiro ducked his head to nuzzle Keith’s face soothingly, murmuring sweet nothings coupled by his thorough fucking and the scratch of his claws on Keith’s body. Keith was beyond ecstasy. The shadows sweeping over him caressed the reddened scratches and tickled Keith’s mouth and throat and inner thighs and it was somehow too much and everything he needed all at once.

Then two searching tongues of shadow wrapped around his untouched cock and Keith keened, spine bowing and balls tightening. “Shiro,” he groaned, voice muffled in the pillows. “Ah – I’m gonna –”

“Come,” Shiro snarled, teeth grazing Keith’s ear, and Keith jolted and spilled, the shadows encircling his twitching cock hungrily, and Keith had expected relief but instead the need just ramped up higher, hotter – he was still hard, despite the cum cooling on his heated skin. The shadows flickered in surprise and Shiro’s grip on him tightened, bruising. “Did you just – Keith,” Shiro moaned, awed.

Keith just sobbed, pleading for more. Shiro’s thrusts slowed and he growled low against Keith’s torn shoulder, and then rolled Keith over onto his side, wrapping him up warmly in his arms from behind, fucking him shallowly, tenderly, kissing the bite marks and stroking Keith’s sides, squeezing at his ass and thighs appreciatively. Keith squirmed and arched back into him, eyes flying wide when shadows enfolded his cock completely, pulsing around it like a hand – no, more than a hand, tighter and stronger and softer. Keith fucked his cock up into the shadows and fucked his ass back onto Shiro’s cock and he came a second time like that, gasping and wrung out and dizzy with pleasure. Shiro sucked bruises into his skin and came seconds after, the warm spurt and swell of his cock deep inside making Keith shudder with an aftershock of climax, leaving him pleasantly fuller than before.

Shiro did not pull out immediately, and Keith just lay there, utterly limp and trying to remember how to breathe. Distantly, he felt Shiro nose over his shoulders and throat and into his hair, body rumbling with satisfied purrs, still holding Keith securely in his embrace. Keith felt like he was floating, though not in a numb and detached sort of way. He wanted to say something, to respond to Shiro’s fond post-coital nuzzles somehow and reassure Shiro he was alright, but all he could do was lay there. Shiro seemed to get the message anyway, tucking his head over Keith’s shoulder and breathing with him for a while, absently rubbing Keith’s belly.

It was good, Keith thought blurrily, to allow himself to be helpless sometimes. It was liberating, in a way – he did not worry at all in those moments, did not fear or remember or hurt one bit – he was just there. There, quiet and sated, with Shiro’s warmth surrounding him and keeping all the bad thoughts far, far away.

Then, some time later – Keith didn’t know if he’d drifted off or not – the nest was gone, and he really was floating, his body surrounded by Shiro’s and warm, steamy water. Keith sighed and slumped back into Shiro’s lap, Shiro’s hands moving slow and careful over his body, the smell of soap filling the air.

“Mmm,” Shiro murmured, gently turning Keith to face him and bumping his forehead against Keith’s. “There you are, at last.”

Keith huffed and slumped forward into him. Shiro chuckled. “Tired?” Keith nodded, eyelids heavy. “So am I,” Shiro admitted.

Keith furrowed his brow and tilted his head to the side, exposing the line of his neck and shoulders and the bite mark from earlier. “You can,” he mumbled. “If you need more power…”

Shiro froze, and then frowned, shaking his head. “No, no. You are too generous. I just need sleep, like you.”

Keith blinked up at him. “M’kay,” he yawned, and snuggled into Shiro’s chest, clinging to him contentedly. “Then sleep with me.”

“Again?” Shiro joked, Keith’s lips parting in a faint gasp when curved claws circled his loose hole slowly, sliding through the cum still oozing out between his thighs. “My, my, you are insatiable.”

Keith shoved at his chest lightly. “You know what I mean, you devil.”

“I do,” Shiro agreed with a laugh, his fingers tracing back up Keith’s spine, the water washing away the evidence of their coupling. “Hold on tight,” he murmured, and Keith closed his eyes and clung to him, and when he opened his eyes again they were both dry and snuggled up in his bed at home. Keith sighed and cupped Shiro’s face with a trembling hand, his body still singing with lingering sparks of pleasure. Shiro looked at him from half-lidded, human eyes, gray and kind. When Keith leaned in to kiss him, Shiro yielded easily, his jaw rough with stubble under Keith’s fingertips.

When they parted, Shiro’s mouth pink and shiny, he whispered, “You know, although there may have been many others...I truly mean it when I say that none of those others matter like you do, Keith.”

Keith nestled closer in his embrace. “I know,” he said. “But tell me again.”

“There is only you,” Shiro promised, stroking Keith’s hair and kissing his brow. “You are my dear one, the dearest I have known in a long, long time.”

“Only you,” Keith echoed, voice heavy with sleep, and closed his eyes. Except, he didn’t say that, exactly. His tired mind rearranged the sounds and syllables, and so what he said instead was, “I love you.”

And it was only in the morning, as Keith’s eyes opened blearily to the pound of frantic knocking, that he realized Shiro had not said it back.

*

Keith lay frozen in his bed for a few terrible moments upon waking.

I told him I loved him.

I told him I loved him...and he said nothing.

Shiro stirred behind him. “Mmm…? Do you want me to answer that, or –”

“No, I’ve got it,” Keith snapped, half-leaping out of bed, once again ignoring his body’s protests. His heart was already racing and his mood sour by the time he tugged on clothes for some semblance of decency and opened the door.

It was Hunk.

Keith blinked, irritation replaced chiefly by bewilderment. “Hunk,” he said. “What…” Then he saw Shay and Allura flanking him, their faces grim, but more alarmingly, frightened. Keith ushered them in without another word. Shiro sat up groggily in bed.

Hunk hastily averted his gaze, as did Shay. Allura snapped her fingers at him, and Shiro blinked the sleep away, hurrying to join them and thankfully not forgetting clothes in the process. They all stood together in Keith’s house. Hunk was wringing his hands, and looked to be on the verge of tears. Keith laid a hand on his shoulder. “What’s happened?” he whispered, fearing the answer as much as he needed to hear it. He faltered. “Where...where’s Pidge and Lance?”

Hunk shook his head, lower lip trembling. He took a deep breath. “Gone,” he said.

Keith took a step back, numb. “Gone?”

“Keith,” Allura said quietly, “the Galra took them.”

“No,” Keith whispered, “no, you’re wrong, you’ve got to be, the Galra can’t – why would they – where have they taken them?!”

The three exchanged looks. Then Shay withdrew a piece of parchment from her pouch, and handed it silently to Keith, fingers trembling. Keith took it with equally shaking hands, brushing off Shiro’s hand on his arm, and unfolded it quickly.

It read:

There once was a rude little boy,
Who thought he was more than a toy.
He stole something of ours,
So we took two of yours,
And they’re proving to be such a joy.

At the bottom of the paper was scrawled, Visit The Red Dragon Brothel.

Keith crumpled the paper in his hands, and punched the wall so hard his knuckles bled.

Chapter Text

“I’m going to need another dress,” Keith declared through gritted teeth, pacing the length of Thace’s parlor.

“Absolutely not!” Shiro and Thace said at the same time.

Keith glared at them and opened his mouth to protest, but Allura cut him off. “Keith, they’re right, it’s far too dangerous,” she cautioned. “This is clearly a trap; the Galra want you to rise to the bait.”

“What choice do I have?!” Keith exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “If they have Lance and Pidge, I need to go. I can’t let them…” He swallowed, bile rising in his throat.

“Nobody’s suggesting we abandon them, Keith,” Thace said gently. “But we cannot rush in blindly; that will help no one.”

“The note claims they’re being held at the Red Dragon Brothel,” Coran mused, sitting in the armchair and frowning thoughtfully. Keith realized the sheriff was used to dealing with crime, but he wished the man wouldn’t be so damn cool about it. Lance and Pidge had been kidnapped, and there he was twirling his mustache and calmly marking dots on the map they’d spread out over the coffee table.

“Yes, thank you, we’re aware of that,” Keith snapped. Hunk shot him an unhappy look and patted his arm. Keith had decided only Hunk could pat him for the time being – Shiro had noticed Keith’s earlier aversion to his touches, and remained at a slight distance with a worried expression.

Coran sighed. “Are you? Have you the slightest notion what goes on in that place? A bonafide den of sin, if there ever was one –”

“Coran, you are not helping,” Allura warned, and he blanched, hastily nodding and pointing to the map.

“Apologies, ma’am,” he muttered. “Here’s the long and short of it – the Red Dragon Brothel is situated in the town of Diablo Falls...you might also call it the Galra’s headquarters, because as far as we know, that’s exactly what it is.”

Shiro’s brow creased. “Yes,” he said slowly, “Diablo Falls is where Zarkon calls home.”

Keith glanced at him. That must have been where Shiro had been held captive and experimented upon...what if Lance and Pidge were being tortured as they spoke? Keith’s nails dug sharply into his palms. “How do we get there?” Keith asked.

“It’s about a day’s ride southwest, give or take,” Coran said. “But gettin’ there’s the easy part, my boy – it’s gettin’ in that’ll give you the most trouble, and gettin’ out, well, that’s nigh impossible.”

“I think we’ll manage,” Shiro said.

Coran regarded him doubtfully. “And how in tarnation do you plan to do that? Think the Galra’ll just let you waltz on in? You don’t exactly blend in, sorry to say.”

Shiro touched his white forelock and scar self-consciously. Keith said, “I don’t care how we get in, but we’re gettin’ in.”

Hunk shook his head miserably. “Keith, we need a plan; an actual plan. A good plan! Anyone have one of those? Please?!”

Shay had been quiet, and then suddenly turned to Shiro with wide eyes. “Are you still able to shift into a woman?” she demanded.

Shiro blinked, as taken aback as the rest of them. “Uh. Yes, quite able...why?”

Allura’s eyes had gone wide, too, and she stared at Shay, a wild look on her face. “Brilliant,” she whispered, “and mad, utterly mad, but it just might work.”

“I’m missing something, here,” Hunk said.

“I visited Diablo Falls briefly, years ago,” Shay explained. “Thace, perhaps you can confirm if things are still this way, but...the Red Dragon Brothel operates a bit...er, differently than most. You see, they don’t let just any fellow stroll in, not like the Pink Lion. It’s a, ah…”

“Exclusive joint,” Allura grumbled, folding her arms. “To put it lightly.”

“For the very rich,” Shay continued. “Men with power and money and seedy connections, you know, the Galra type. But they don’t often arrive alone, see...they bring a guest of their own. A young, beautiful, female guest wearing far too little clothing.”

“They call them pets, and their patrons are the pets’ masters,” Thace said in a low voice, eyes dark and mouth set in a thin line. “Yes, from what Ulaz has told me, its manner of operation has not changed. Unfortunately.”

“Oh, no,” Hunk breathed, “no, please tell me you’re not suggesting what I think you are. That is not a good plan. That is a terrible plan!”

Shiro’s lips parted in realization. “You want me to pose as one of these ‘pets,’” he said.

Keith froze. “No,” he tried to say, but no sound came out.

“We’re all going to die,” Hunk bemoaned.

“If we want the best chance at finding them, we’ll want to send in two couples, so we can split up to search,” Shay said, biting her lip and looking supremely uncomfortable. Hunk gawked at her, face red and horrified. “Of course, these would be Keith and Shiro, and Hunk and...myself.”

“You can’t!” Hunk yelped, shaking his head and clasping her hands beseechingly between his own, “Shay, it’s too dangerous, and you’d be...you’d be…” He couldn’t even finish the sentence.

She lifted her chin, face ashen. “If it will allow us to save Lance and Pidge, then I must.” Her voice trembled.

Allura put a hand over Shay and Hunk’s shaking ones. “Shay, we would not ask such a thing of you,” she assured. “I have been in plenty of similar enough situations, and will gladly volunteer to accompany Hunk in your stead.”

“But they’ll recognize you within seconds!” Shay protested. “They do not know me, and it would be safer if –”

“Not safer for you,” Allura replied, shaking her head. “Stay here, Shay. The Galra will not recognize me, nor Shiro...we have more than a few tricks up our sleeves.” She winked at Shiro, who smiled weakly back.

“Thank you, Allura,” Shay whispered, her eyes shiny. “I will not forget this. Do...do take care of him for me, won’t you? Keep him, and Keith, safe.”

“Shay, I’m a sheriff’s deputy, I can take care of myself,” Hunk started, but Allura interrupted and said, “Yes, dear, of course I will.”

“This is still a terrible plan,” Hunk sighed, though he looked more resigned now that Shay was out of harm’s way.

“Agreed,” Keith said with a scowl. “You really think the Galra will let Hunk and I in with the lady Desert Devil and the proprietor of the Pink Lion Brothel slash leader of the Alteans?”

“We will obviously look very different,” Shiro said. “I thought you said you didn’t care how we were getting in?”

Keith glowered at him. “This ain’t what I meant.”

“You have a better idea?” Hunk asked, hopefully.

In the end, Keith was forced to admit that he did not.

*

It was a long and uncomfortable ride to Diablo Falls.

Strawberry was too small to keep up a gallop with Keith and Shiro in the saddle, so they’d borrowed Coran’s bay gelding Rhys for the journey. Hunk kept his horse Daffodil, a large buckskin mare who adored Allura.

Allura had, true to her word, made herself near-unrecognizable. She’d cut her hair, for one thing, and Keith would have mourned the loss of her long, silvery locks if she hadn’t seemed so entirely delighted by the change. She’d dyed her now bobbed curls dark brown with a mixture Shay had helped her make, and somehow, her blue eyes had (temporarily, she assured) become a bright shade of hazel. Maybe there was more of Xochiquetzal in her than Keith had thought.

She, like Shiro, wore a simple white shift for a dress. It was a sad excuse for clothing, and while Allura was slight and slender enough for it to drape in a way that provided some semblance of decency...with Shiro, not so much.

Shiro was still, er, large. Keith had barely looked at him since they’d left Altea Creek, but what he had seen was equal parts infuriating and arousing. Infuriating, because Keith was still upset about what Shiro had said, or rather hadn’t said, and Shiro had been moping about like a kicked puppy the entire day before they left, as if he was the one who’d been wronged. And infuriatingly arousing, because Shiro was beautiful in any form, as far as Keith was concerned.

The white shift rode up far too high on Shiro’s thighs, and now, riding across the desert as they were, with Shiro behind Keith and clinging to his waist like some helpless maiden, legs spread to straddle the back of the saddle, Keith doubted it was covering much of anything at all. Even if it technically covered Shiro’s chest, Keith was very aware of his breasts pressing against his back through his evening coat. Those were impossible to ignore, and Keith would bet Shiro knew it, damn him.

But Keith did his best to, and so far his stubbornness was winning out. Shiro had stopped trying to talk to him, and they continued in relative silence while Hunk and Allura chatted amiably close behind. Keith knew he was driving Rhys too fast, but every time he closed his eyes, he just imagined Lance and Pidge, beaten and bound, cheeks streaked with tears and clothes dirtied and torn. The tension in his body was unmistakable, and Keith knew Shiro was trying to comfort him by leaning his head against Keith’s back and shoulder, his now-long black hair spilling over and tickling Keith’s neck. But the gesture just made Keith’s heart ache further. He had told Huixtocihuatl that he was certain Shiro was not and never would use him. Keith wanted badly to be certain of this, still, but the memory kept returning to his troubled mind. He had said it, and Shiro had heard him – Shiro had been awake, and listening, and he had heard, and yet he had been silent. What did that mean? Because Keith could think of only two possible explanations – one, Shiro did not love him yet, or two, Shiro would never love him.

It was nearly May; summer would return to the desert soon, marking six months since they had been together and a year since they had first met. How long did it take to fall in love with someone? It had taken Keith long enough, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had been slipping for months before, slowly but inevitably nearing that precipitous edge from which there was no return. And now he had reached it, and hurtled over it, and Shiro had not followed him over.

They tied the horses in a small stand of mesquite just outside the flickering lamplight of Diablo Falls. The town was nestled in a secluded little vale, surrounded on all sides by high rock formations carved away by the wind and by the thin ribbon of water cascading down the cliff face like a misplaced strand of spider silk. The falls flowed into a narrow river, which wound through the town like a snake, ending in a tree-lined oasis near the town limits.

The brothel was unmistakable; its red lantern light shone out through its many windows and illuminated the silhouettes moving within. The building itself was quite large, larger than the Pink Lion, standing at least three stories tall, with an expansive yard and a hitching post filled with horses. It was a busy night, Keith just prayed that would work in their favor.

He and Hunk were dressed as gentlemen, silk cravats and velvet coats and all, with their hair all slicked back away from their faces. This produced the effect of sharpened features, a stronger jawline and pronounced brows. Keith’s barely-contained rage, according to Shay, did wonders for his disguise, as did the fine clothing. But he would have to stay relatively calm if this was to work.

Hunk apologized repeatedly as he fumbled to buckle the leather collar around Allura’s neck. She smiled serenely and reassured him that she was alright, though that didn’t stop Hunk from fretting and sweating profusely.

Keith made no such apologies. Shiro watched him with the same soft gray eyes, holding perfectly still as Keith tugged the strap through and fastened it tightly, before pausing, rethinking, and adjusting it so that he could slip two fingers between the leather and Shiro’s throat. Shiro hummed quietly, and there was something aggravating in his complete compliance. He didn’t protest when Keith looped the leash to the collar and started marching off towards the Red Dragon, and caught up quickly with his long legs. Shiro was barefoot, and Keith tried his best to avoid any patches of thorns or sharp rocks, though he still did not meet Shiro’s eyes.

Shiro caught his elbow halfway to the brothel, in the covert shadow of a palo verde. Keith stood stiffly and looked up at him. “What,” he said.

“It will be alright,” Shiro told him, reaching out and cupping Keith’s face with a soft, warm palm. Keith was struck, suddenly, with the alarming urge to cry. Shiro’s long, wavy hair fell into his unscarred face, black without a hint of white, and Keith wondered dizzily how difficult it was for him to keep up this disguise. “Keith, breathe.”

“I am breathing,” Keith snapped breathlessly, jerking his head away. Shiro’s hand fell limply to his side, and he bowed his head. “The sooner we get this over with, the better.”

Shiro’s expression was troubled, but he nodded, and let Keith lead him towards the brothel again.

The entryway was arched and grandiose, strung with little red lanterns and framed by red velvet curtains, tied off with gold, tasseled rope. Keith had never felt the need to use the word ostentatious before, but it certainly fit the Red Dragon. Flamboyant seemed fitting, too, especially when he saw the red dragon emblem hanging above the door, golden flames spurting from its toothy jaws.

Two guards were posted at the door, both heavyset and imposing, dressed in black waistcoats. Keith braced himself as they approached, but the guards did not draw their pistols. Their eyebrows lifted in definite interest. Keith’s grip on the leash tightened, his knuckles turning ivory. Shiro stayed close to his side, and though he was about a head taller, Keith had never felt more protective over him.

Hunk and Allura stopped beside them, and one of the guards whistled. “Looks like we got some newcomers, tonight. What brings y’all to the Red Dragon?”

“Business,” Keith said shortly.

The guards exchanged looks. “With whom?”

Hunk shifted nervously. Thace had briefed them on this, and Keith prayed he’d remember. “Commander Throk…he invited us a while back.”

The guards blinked. “Throk?” Then one of them chuckled. “Yeah, sounds ‘bout right, he’s popular. His pet, too...though, you two got some of the prettiest pets I ever laid eyes on. Sure he didn’t invite you just for them?”

“It’s serious business,” Keith said. “We got no time for tradin’ women.”

The guards just laughed harder. “Well, you’re in the wrong place, then, buckaroo,” one told him, smirking. “Speakin’ of which, you oughta take those dusty shifts off your ladies.”

“Oughta, or gotta?” Hunk asked.

The guard on the right rolled his eyes. “Just take ‘em off. Don’t want that dirt gettin’ on the upholstery, now do we?” He smiled unpleasantly. “Besides, Throk’ll give y’all a better deal if he likes what he sees. That’s why people do business here in the first place...enough liquor and ladies is bound to loosen a man’s tongue.” It sounded like a threat, the way he said it.

The other guard called someone over from inside, and consulted what looked like a guest book. Ulaz must have followed through, because the guard nodded and turned to them. “Which one of you’s Alexander?”

Keith inclined his head, and silently apologized to his dearly departed father for borrowing his name in this awful place.

“And you’re Garrett?” Hunk nodded. “Well, seems to all check out. You can usually find Throk in the East Wing upstairs. Ugly purple wallpaper, hard to miss. Be prepared to put on a show – he does love a performer.” The guard winked at Shiro.

Keith’s gut clenched. Shiro kept his gaze demurely on the ground, but his hand twitched infinitesimally at his side. They couldn’t ask Hunk and Allura to do such a thing, so they’d be it. Keith’s mounting anxiety ratcheted up higher, and it didn’t help when Shiro and Allura shed their white shifts, prompting louder wolf whistles from the guards. They were beautiful, anyone with eyes could see that, but Keith didn’t want anyone else to look at Shiro. And the guards were leering.

“Best of luck, though I don’t think you’ll need it,” the guard on the left snorted, and they stepped aside to let them pass.

The one on the right, who had been eying Shiro since they arrived, reached out discreetly, daring to try to lay a single finger on him, and Keith smacked his hand away with a vicious glare. The guard balked, then scowled and turned away. Shiro’s bare hip brushed against Keith’s waist purposefully, and if he had looked he would have seen Shiro’s full lips tilted in a slight smile. But he did not look.

There was more than enough to ogle at inside the brothel. There were nude or near-nude women and fully clothed gentlemen everywhere, creating a strange contrast of lights and darks, black satin and skin in shades of beige and brown cast in the golden light of the dim wall sconces. Alcohol was not in short supply, either, though there were no discarded bottles or glasses to be seen. Servants flitted here and there in a constant state of tidying up, and some looked frighteningly young.

Keith’s gaze snagged on a short girl with curly black hair and dark skin who was fumbling to collect three empty wine bottles. She wore a frilly black and white maid’s uniform with a bustle gathered in a way that lifted the skirt well above her ankles. She could not have been older than fourteen. Keith’s eyes narrowed, and further still when a nearby bearded man caught her small wrist in his white gloved hand, leaning in far too close with an angry expression.

Keith had crossed the room before he could even consciously register it, and Shiro with him, as he was being held at the end of a leash. “Pardon, but what seems to be the matter here?” Keith inquired in the calmest tone he could muster.

The bearded man looked at Keith in pure confusion, but did not release the girl. The girl looked from Keith to the man to Shiro with terrified brown eyes. Keith would have sent her off in the saddle of the nearest horse if he could. But as it was, his options were rather limited.

“This damn painted kitten was tryin’ to take away half a bottle of perfectly good wine!” the man exclaimed, yanking the offending bottle from the girl’s hand and holding it out to Keith as evidence. “Takin’ a man’s liquor oughta be a federal crime, I say.”

“Well, it ain’t,” Keith retorted coolly, “and you’ve got your bottle now, don’t you? So I don’t see a problem, here.”

The bearded man squinted at him, then seemed to notice Shiro for the first time, his eyes widening. “Goddamn, now, that’s a woman. She for sale, mister?”

Drunk men had a very poor sense of danger, Keith thought irritably. “No, she ain’t,” he snapped. “Neither is she, I believe.” He nodded to the girl, who looked away, cheeks burning.

The man released her, but shook his head. “For the right price, sure she is,” he said, and Keith saw red. Shiro wrapped an arm around his waist, serving the dual purpose of physically holding him back and providing a soothing touch. Keith took a deep breath. The man, still oblivious to how close he’d been to getting himself killed, tilted his head and asked, “Why, you interested? Don’t get greedy, you got prize enough right there.” He winked and turned away with his reclaimed bottle.

The girl stared up at him, then Shiro, and trembled.

“I d-don’t want no trouble, s-sir,” the girl stammered, and Keith shook his head.

“Not looking for trouble,” he murmured, and she didn’t seem entirely reassured, but her stance relaxed somewhat. “Do you know where the East Wing is? I was told Commander Throk would be there tonight.”

The girl stiffened again. “Commander Throk?” she whispered. “Oh. You’re...you ain’t a regular, are you?”

“That obvious?” Keith said, smoothing his hair down self-consciously.

“No,” she mumbled. “Just...think I woulda remembered you two.” She shrugged, hunching her shoulders. “I can take you to ‘im, but you best be careful ‘round Commander Throk, sir.” Then she saw Hunk and Allura, who had just caught up, and her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh...you two are new, also.” She was gawking at Allura, who stood unclothed and unashamed, smiling at her brightly.

“We are, dear,” Allura said, bending down to her height and touching her face gently. The girl seemed stunned, and the air in front of her face shimmered briefly. Shiro made a low, surprised sound – Allura was using magic, she must have been. “I wonder if you could help us...you see, we’re looking for someone. Two someones, actually – friends of ours. We think they may be held captive here. Have you heard of anything like that?”

The girl blinked slowly, dazed. “Captives...why, yes, ma’am, there was some ruckus the other night, in the back...never saw ‘em, myself, but I heard it was a young woman and a vaquero.”

“Do you know if they’re alright?” Allura pressed, her fingertips firm on the girl’s cheek.

“They put up a helluva fight,” she mumbled. “Might’ve beat ‘em up a little...but they’s alive, last I heard.”

Keith slumped in unspoken relief. Shiro’s hand tightened around his waist.

“Do you know where we might find them, dear?”

But to their dismay, the girl shook her head. “Dunno, ma’am...never seen any of the captives, they take ‘em elsewhere.”

“Outside of the brothel?”

“No...not so, jus’...below,” the girl said, brow furrowing. “Below.”

There was a moment of silence, then Hunk asked, “Is there a cellar?”

She nodded haltingly. “Wine cellar...big, dark wine cellar...never liked it, down there. Servants ain’t often allowed…”

“Who is?” Allura asked.

“Miss Florona might help y’all…she’s in the North Wing, thataways.” The girl pointed down the hall, the opposite direction of the East Wing. Allura lifted her hand away and the girl blinked, the fog clearing from her face. “You’re awful pretty, ma’am,” the girl told Allura earnestly, and Allura beamed at her.

“So are you,” she told the girl, who blanched. “Too pretty for this place, I think,” she added, and the girl looked back up at her, something like hope in her eyes. “What’s your name, dear?”

“Addie,” the girl said, biting her lip. “Er, well, Adelaide, but…”

“Addie is a lovely name,” Allura said. “Do you know your letters, Addie?” Addie nodded hesitantly. “Numbers?” Addie nodded more firmly at this, and Allura brightened. “As it happens,” she said, voice lowered, “I’m in need of a girl with a knack for numbers. Finances, to be exact...I think you’d make a fine businesswoman.”

Addie ducked her head. “Ma’am, I think you’d be disappointed –”

“I think you should visit Altea Creek,” Allura said. “Day’s ride northeast, you can find me at the Pink Lion.”

Addie flushed. “I ain’t lookin’ to be a soiled dove, ma’am.”

“Then you’re in the wrong place,” Allura countered. “I want an accountant, not a prostitute. What do you think this place wants from you?”

Addie said unhappily, “I know, ma’am. But I got nowhere else to go, and no hoss to get me out anyways.”

“If you need a horse, there will be a horse,” Allura promised. “Two days time at sunset, just outside of town. Will you consider it?”

“I...I’ll consider it, ma’am,” Addie said, looking dazed all over again. “Th-thank you, ma’am.”

Allura stroked her cheek one last time and then murmured something to Hunk, who nodded hastily and turned to Keith. “We’re going to try our luck at finding this Miss Florona,” he muttered. “You alright going to Throk?”

“Yes,” Keith muttered back. “Stay safe.”

“You too,” Hunk said, and he and Allura disappeared into the crowd.

Addie led them upstairs to the East Wing. The wallpaper was horrendous, and the smell of cigar smoke lay heavy in the air. Keith supposed he should be grateful that it masked all the other smells. He didn’t know if it would be considered strange to wrap an arm around Shiro’s waist too, but he did so anyway as they reached the landing and continued down the hall, which contained a steady stream of gentlemen, all brushing far too closely against Shiro for comfort. Keith’s nails dug into Shiro’s hip and Shiro leaned close to his ear, lips brushing the lobe as he murmured, “Don’t worry about me, dear one.”

“Let me worry,” Keith retorted tersely.

“Not if it results in patrons losing hands,” Shiro replied, chuckling. No sooner had he said it, a passing man quite obviously attempted to paw at Shiro’s chest, and Keith swatted his hand away...however, he failed to realize this would end with his own hand resting quite fully on Shiro’s breast. Shiro raised an eyebrow in amusement as Keith snatched his hand away, face burning.

Addie had averted her eyes and stopped in front of a plain door with a gold knob. “Commander Throk should be just through there, sir. Do...do you require any further assistance, or, er…”

“No, thank you very much, Addie,” Keith said, dismissing her. She left with obvious relief.

“I have a feeling that, once beyond this door, you may have to do far more than fondle my breasts,” Shiro informed him in an undertone.

Keith glowered at him and looked away. “Yes, I am well aware,” he hissed.

Shiro’s brow creased. It would have been easier, Keith thought, if this form looked less like Shiro. But somehow, she was still...him. And Keith was still horribly, entirely in love. It was so very Shiro when she — he, whoever he was — whispered, “Keith, whatever happens in there, whatever you must do to me in order to persuade Throk that we are who we say we are...I want you to know that it will be alright, that I will be alright.”

“I should be saying that to you,” Keith whispered back fiercely, his voice breaking despite his best efforts. “I don’t...I don’t want to be like them, Shiro.”

Shiro’s face fell, and he shook his head. “You are not like them,” he murmured, touching Keith’s face, his jaw, his neck, his shoulder where he had bitten him not two nights previous. “You will never be like them. I am telling you, now, that I want it, and I trust you, and I will do my best to make this as easy as possible for us both.”

Keith leaned into his touch, a moment of weakness. “I don’t know if I can,” he admitted. “If...if they ask me to hurt you —”

“Then we will just have to give them something better to look at, won’t we?” Shiro countered, light and playful despite their grim situation.

Keith swallowed. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he whispered.

“You know quite a few things,” Shiro argued. “But I know very well what I’m doing, so, there is that.”

Keith hesitated, then blurted, “Show me?”

Shiro glanced at the hallway, then the door. “Here?”

“Better than in there,” Keith said.

“Fair point. Hmm...well, I suppose this might be useful for you to know,” Shiro said, and took Keith’s hand, guiding it down between his legs. Keith was having a slight dilemma about the obvious absence of a cock in the dark nest of curls there, and faltered when his fingers touched warm flesh, folds of it, and then —

“Mm, no, not there, although that is important as well,” Shiro chuckled, readjusting his grip closer to the front of his body. “There. Do you feel that?”

Keith felt something, though he had no idea what it was and was frankly a little scared to ask. It was a sort of...nub? The skin felt softer there, more delicate, and Keith had the odd urge to pinch the nub lightly between thumb and forefinger, so he did.

Shiro drew in a sharp breath, his stomach sucking in, and gasped, “I will take that as a yes.”

“Sorry,” Keith mumbled uncertainly, “was I not supposed to — ?”

“Ah...just. Gentle. It’s...rather sensitive.” Shiro’s smile was lopsided and his face flushed. “Congratulations, most men never manage to find that in their entire lifetimes.”

Keith blinked, confused. “They must not be looking very hard.” Shiro snorted and didn’t deny that. “What, um, what is it?”

“The clitoris.” Shiro wiggled his fingers like a magician revealing some secret. “Also known as the clit, the bean, the button, the pearl, the lovebud, and, for some reason, the sugar plum, though it doesn’t taste like —”

“I think clit is fine,” Keith said, strangled. “Can you, er…”

“Reach climax that way? Yes,” Shiro said, stepping close enough that his breasts pressed against Keith’s waistcoat. Keith’s eyes darted to the hallway; they were attracting some stares. “Come here,” Shiro murmured, and tipped Keith’s head up, leaning in to kiss him. Keith could not help but kiss him back, though his heart was thudding painfully in his chest, and when Shiro pulled away, his soft lips shiny, and nodded to the golden doorknob, dread curled like a waking beast in Keith’s belly.

But he opened the door.

The room beyond was larger than he’d expected, as dimly lit as the rest of the brothel, with around half a dozen gentlemen sitting on various sofas and chaises, each with a woman or two either in their lap, draped over their back, or at their feet. Every one of them was collared and leashed.

Commander Throk was unmistakably the gentleman sitting at the large mahogany desk at the opposite end of the room, with a long and grim sort of face, a sharply pointed chin and carefully manicured goatee. He looked up at their entrance, his attention momentarily leaving the blonde leaning into his chair, gaze raking over Shiro, and then Keith.

“And who might you be?” Throk asked, prompting a brief lull in the conversation as the other men looked up, too.

“Alexander,” Keith said curtly. “The, ah...railroad consultant.”

Throk inclined his head. “But of course. Ulaz and Antok gave you such high recommendations, I admit I could not resist...you are a former employee of the Union Pacific, correct?”

“Former boss,” Keith corrected. He felt bolder than before, perhaps because of the men’s all-too-obvious gawking at his pet. Shiro was pretending at meekness, head lowered and body tucked close to Keith’s side. Keith made sure all of them saw his hand curling around Shiro’s wide hips.

Throk frowned. “I see. Well, Alexander, I would be happy to discuss this important business with you, but here at the Red Dragon, pleasure always comes before business. I see you’ve brought a pet. What might her name be?”

“Kashi,” Keith said, thankfully remembering the name they’d decided on beforehand instead of saying something stupid like Red. Shiro lifted his gaze timidly to Throk and the other men before looking down again. “She’s...shy.”

This was perhaps the biggest lie of the century, but the gentlemen were quite pleased by it. Sick bastards. “Shy?” Throk chuckled. “Well then, this ought to be interesting. Why don’t you take a seat, Alexander?”

He gestured to a vacant armchair, and Keith reluctantly sat down. Seeing as there was nowhere else for Shiro to sit, he settled delicately in Keith’s lap, and Keith’s nails dug into the cushions. Throk looked expectant. Keith would have liked very much to punch him, especially when he added, “Now, now, I think your shy Kashi can do better than that,” and turned away, promptly ignoring him and starting up a conversation with a red haired man to his left.

The message could not be clearer. Pleasure before business. Be prepared to put on a show – he does love a performer.

Keith knew they were being watched; not by Throk but by the surrounding men. Shiro shifted in his lap, looking down at him through his lashes, hand creeping to the back of Keith’s neck, fingers scratching gently through his hair. The expression on his face was an invitation if Keith had ever seen one, but he was frozen, and barely able to cup Shiro’s jaw when he kissed him again, softer and longer with enough tongue to turn it sloppy.

“Push me down,” Shiro murmured into his ear as they parted, and Keith did, pushing firmly on Shiro’s shoulders. Shiro sank gracefully to his knees, kneeling upon the plush Turkish rug and easing Keith’s legs apart. Keith struggled to keep his gaze on Throk, his hands curling into fists when he felt Shiro’s hands sliding up his thighs.

One of the gentlemen chuckled. Keith no longer knew what they were saying – Shiro was mouthing over his crotch, and Keith’s disgust with the entire situation fell away with every wet press of his lips over the steadily growing bulge in Keith’s pants. He was soaking the fabric through, and Keith could hardly be upset about it.

By the time Shiro deigned to unbutton them with deft fingers, Keith was aching, and the gentleman stopped chuckling as Shiro began lavishing Keith’s cock with kisses and kittenish licks. He swirled his tongue around the head, suckling teasingly there before sliding his lips over the entire length, cheeks hollowing and hair falling into his face. Unthinking, Keith tucked the strands of hair behind his ears, and Shiro hummed, pleased, his fingers playing at Keith’s balls and circling the base where he could not quite reach.

The gentlemen might have still been talking, but Keith was under no illusions – their eyes were on Shiro, who was doing his best to put on a show, lashes fluttering as he swallowed around the head of Keith’s cock and shuffled closer to Keith on his knees, pink flush spreading down over his neck and chest. Indulgently, and because he supposed Shiro shouldn’t be the only one performing, Keith tugged his hair lightly, enough to make Shiro hum again and nuzzle at his clothed thigh.

“Alexander,” Throk said, and if his voice sounded unsteady, then, well, Keith’s smug smile was more than warranted.

“Yes?” Keith said in a bored tone, leaning back in his chair and raising an eyebrow, hand still anchored in Shiro’s hair.

“I was told you were knowledgeable about the schedules of certain trains with certain expensive cargos,” Throk continued, eyebrow twitching when Shiro pulled off of Keith’s cock with a loud sound of suction, licking his lips and gazing up at Keith. “Is this true? What can you tell me?”

“If you want more accurate information, I suggest you wait until we’re finished here,” Keith retorted. “Pleasure first, didn’t you say?”

Throk’s eyes narrowed, but then he smiled thinly and nodded. “Very well. But be quick about it.”

He was jealous, Keith realized. They all were; it lay thick and heavy in the room, though not as heavy as Shiro when he clambered up into Keith’s lap, face to face, rolling his hips in a shallow, greedy way, legs bracketing Keith’s thighs. Keith decided he would revel in their jealousy, and startled Shiro by cupping his satisfyingly large breasts and squeezing, eliciting a soft, eager moan from Shiro as he arched into it. Keith tweaked his nipples experimentally, and they must have been just as sensitive in this form, perhaps even moreso, because Shiro squirmed needily, grinding against Keith’s belt and then shuddering when Keith reached behind him and palmed at his ass, guiding him up until his cock nudged between Shiro’s legs.

Keith, not breaking eye contact, lifted his head and flicked his tongue over Shiro’s nipple, his breasts rising and falling as he panted and squirmed more insistently atop Keith. They were making a scene. The conversation continued, even increased in volume as if to cover Shiro’s desperate, gratuitous whimpers. But Shiro refused to shut up, and Keith wasn’t about to stop him, especially when Shiro’s cunt dragged over the head of Keith’s cock and Keith felt just how wet he was.

Keith did not swear aloud, but it was a near thing. Shiro braced his hands on Keith’s shoulders as Keith’s fingers dipped between his thighs, awed by the ease with which two slipped inside Shiro. His mouth fell open and he pushed back on the digits, hard, and Keith thought he must be exaggerating his pleasure. He was dripping all down Keith’s palm and wrist, staining Keith’s cuffed sleeves — surely this wasn’t usual among human women. If it was, Keith was amazed.

Shiro had said he would make this as easy as possible. But Keith liked to think that he was the cause of Shiro’s fluttering lashes and lips parting in bitten-off whines as Keith added a third finger and stretched him open, more wetness soaking his sleeve.

Then Keith remembered what Shiro had taught him, and wiggled his fingers around until his thumb could rub gently at Shiro’s clit. Shiro dropped his head to Keith’s neck and moaned unashamedly. Keith was fascinated – in his arousal, his clit had definitely swollen, making it easier to feel as Keith teased at it. There was some kind of sheath covering it, and Keith decided he very much wanted to explore it with his tongue sometime. This was all very interesting. Shiro, however, did not seem to be in the mood for exploration. Not that Keith could blame him, they had an audience.

Oh, dear. Keith did not want to think about that. Especially not when Shiro widened the stance of his legs, looking at Keith beseechingly as Keith curled his fingers deeper, again and again. He really wasn’t trying to be a tease...maybe it was foolish, but he didn’t want to risk hurting Shiro at all.

Perhaps Shiro caught on to this, because he leaned forward into Keith’s chest, exhaling over his jaw and tugging at Keith’s cravat with his teeth just enough to loosen it and expose the side of his neck. “Please,” he whispered, under the guise of kissing the soft spot below his ear, his breath hot where it feathered across Keith’s skin. “Please, now, I want it, I want you, Keith, baby,” and Keith slid his fingers out hastily. Maybe too hastily, because Shiro shuddered, and fumbled between them to grasp Keith’s cock, but Keith beat him to it.

He felt the head of his cock breach Shiro slowly, Shiro’s face crumpling in pleasure as he sank down onto the length of it, clinging to Keith’s shoulders and moaning again. Throk almost dropped his champagne. Keith barely noticed. His fingers were going to leave bruises on Shiro’s hips and ass where he was holding him, and he didn’t notice that, either – he was aware of nothing except Shiro’s body tight and warm and slick around his cock.

Keith had been missing out. Not that he didn’t love it when Shiro fucked him – his opinion on that certainly hadn’t changed and likely never would – but he quickly decided he loved fucking Shiro, too.

Shit. He was thinking about love again.

Shiro rolled his hips, trying to work Keith deeper and mewling when it worked, trembling happily when Keith littered kisses over his breasts and neck, digging his teeth in just below Shiro’s nipples until Shiro squirmed and pulsed around him. His whole body spasmed when Keith tilted his hips up and rubbed his fingers against Shiro’s clit, pushing it against where Keith’s cock entered him, encouraging the friction and Shiro’s resulting moans.

Throk cleared his throat. Keith held up a finger. He might get himself offed by the Galra’s top henchmen, but at least he’d die with Shiro falling to blissful pieces on his cock. It was a good trade-off, Keith thought blurrily, especially when Shiro bit down hard on Keith’s neck and yes, Keith was quite sure he’d just come, shaking and tightening and slumping bonelessly onto Keith.

The gentlemen looked shocked by this. Keith could care less; it wasn’t his fault if they couldn’t even make their whores reach climax. Shiro didn’t, surprisingly, move off – he stayed in Keith’s lap, mumbling encouragement and fucking down onto Keith’s cock, which was easily coaxed to spill inside of him. The gentlemen looked shocked by this, too. The benefits to having an ifrit-god as a lover, Keith thought, were innumerable.

This then presented the problem of an awful mess when Shiro moved away...but Shiro did not move away. He stayed right where he was, warming Keith’s softening cock. Throk said, through gritted teeth, “Are you quite done?”

“What does it look like?” Keith retorted. He was no longer in the mood for playing at politeness. Shiro stirred, lifting his head briefly to kiss Keith’s cheek before pillowing it against Keith’s shoulder again, sighing in contentment.

“It looks like you’re wasting my time,” Throk growled. “Do you know about the train schedules, or not?”

Keith sniffed, and wondered at how easy it was to be disdainful when there was a beautiful person in his lap. “I do. You want the Union Starlight train – over two thousand dollars worth of gold aboard that one, plus Mr. McDowell’s famous collection of jewelry. Here’s the schedule.” He fished the folded parchment out of his pocket, fondly petting Shiro’s thigh as he did so, and handed it out. He made no move to get up, and begrudgingly, Throk rose from his chair and stalked across the room to snatch it up.

He peered at the schedule with a critical eye. Keith did not know how counterfeit railroad schedules worked; Thace had given it to him with no explanation, and he was regretting not asking more questions now, especially when Throk eyed him and said, “Where did you acquire this?”

“I used to work for –”

“I think you’re lying,” Throk said, brandishing the paper and pointing to the official stamp which was one hundred percent fake. “The stamps use red ink nowadays, not blue. This here’s a forgery, gentlemen, which means this man here is a fraud.”

Shiro lifted his head. Keith’s hand went to his obsidian knife, sheathed upon his belt, but Throk moved too quickly, and yanked Shiro off of Keith by his collar, which was a most unpleasant sensation (although probably worse for Shiro). Keith snarled, tucking himself back into his pants and leaping to his feet as Shiro was dragged away, one of Throk’s hands grabbing at his hair and the other holding the collar so tightly it was cutting into his airway. The gentlemen were leaning forward in interest. Keith unsheathed his knife.

Throk clicked his tongue. “Now, now, I wouldn’t do anything stupid if I were you, ‘Alexander,’” he warned, brandishing a knife of his own and jabbing it far too close to the soft, exposed skin of Shiro’s stomach. “A single step, and I’ll gut your ‘shy’ pet open like a cow.”

Shiro’s eyes narrowed at cow, and then they flashed bright, blinding gold, his movements lightning fast as he whirled, knocking the knife out of Throk’s hand and striking him hard across the face, sending him sprawling backwards. One of the gentlemen leapt to his feet to intervene and Keith lunged at them, not hesitating for a second as he slashed his knife through the man’s stomach and upwards, gutting him just as Throk had threatened to do to Shiro. The man gagged on his own blood and fell to the floor, his petite pet gasping and flattening herself against the wall, eyes wide and terrified.

Keith did not see the two others headed towards him, one with a pistol and the other with a switchblade, but thankfully Shiro did, and turned on them with a snarl, his curvy, feminine body contorting grotesquely, black fur sprouting up from his pale skin, huge canines bursting through behind his full lips, vicious claws curling from his nails; the beautiful woman becoming a black jaguar in the blink of an eye.

I love him, Keith thought dazedly as Shiro raked his claws down Throk’s chest, red spurting and staining the Galran commander’s evening jacket, then bounded across the room and slashed two throats open with one swipe of his paw, silencing the cowering pets with a single look (and a bit of magic, because the next moment they fell to the floor in a dead faint). I will never love anyone as much as I love him.

Keith stabbed one more gentleman and Shiro broke the last one’s neck with a resounding snap.

The room was a mess. Throk was twitching spasmodically as he died. The pets were still unconscious.

“Will they be alright?” Keith panted, cleaning his blade on the upholstery and sheathing it.

Shiro, still a jaguar, rumbled affirmatively, standing over them with a tilted head. Then he patted each of the pets on their brow, one by one, and as he did, the women vanished, leaving not a trace behind. Shiro shifted back into Kashi, leaning against the wall and looking winded, hair hanging in his face. “I sent them to Thace’s,” he murmured. “They will be alright, and free of this place.”

Keith went to his side worriedly. “Shiro, do not use so much energy,” he scolded, steadying Shiro with a hand on his arm. “We still need to get Pidge and Lance out of here, and we need you to do it.”

“I know,” Shiro sighed, closing his eyes briefly. “But I could not leave them here…”

Keith drew his knife again, and cut his palm before Shiro could protest. He offered the hand to him, and Shiro’s expression was pained. “Just take it,” Keith said. You already have my heart, even if I do not have yours.

Shiro frowned, but cradled Keith’s hand gently in his own, focusing on the bleeding cut with quiet concentration. As he did, shadowy tendrils curled from his hair, wrapping around Keith’s hand, cool and soothing, Shiro’s eyes flaring again. There was a sharp tugging sensation, like a splinter being pulled from the center of his palm, and then the shadows receded and Keith’s hand scabbed over as before.

“You must stop doing that,” Shiro said, turning towards the door.

You must stop doing this,” Keith retorted, gesturing to their surroundings. Shiro huffed and reached for the doorknob. Keith said, “No,” attaching the leash to Shiro’s somehow still intact collar, and opening the door himself.

They almost ran into Hunk and Allura. The two only caught a glimpse of the room as the door clicked shut, but their eyes widened. “What,” Hunk whispered fearfully, “did you do?!”

“What we had to,” Keith said. “Did you find Miss Florona?”

Allura was looking at Shiro, her brows drawn together. “Yes, she is just downstairs...I believe I can persuade her to lead us into the cellar. Shiro, are you quite alright?”

Shiro shook himself. “Yes,” he said quietly, “fine, thank you. Let us go, quickly, before anyone notices what has become of Throk and his party.”

So they went.

*

Miss Florona never stood a chance against Allura’s (or, technically, Xochiquetzal’s) sweet talk.

She was a pretty redhead in a pink dress, and therefore not the most subtle guide, but they followed her from a distance through the teeming crowd until she reached the back hall which led to the cellar door. It was narrow and dark, and Keith was on high alert every second they spent descending the rickety stairs, guided only by Florona’s flickering candlelight.

She lit the gas lamps once they reached the cellar proper, and as they flared to life the space was revealed – countless casks of wine stacked in columns that stood taller than Shiro, arranged in shelves that made for a maze-like appearance.

“The captives,” Keith hissed urgently, “where are they?”

Florona blinked. “Captives?”

Allura sighed and flicked her wrist, and Miss Florona walked dutifully back upstairs. “She will be of no further use to us. We are on our own.”

The wine cellar made the back of Keith’s neck prickle unpleasantly. It was much bigger than seemed probable, or even possible, and he was beginning to suspect it went on forever when there was a faint sound in the distance. A muffled sob. Keith started forward, and Shiro caught his wrist. “Careful,” Shiro whispered, but Keith was done with careful, and sprinted through the shadowy cellars to the chamber the sound had issued from.

It was a separate room from the main cellar, lit dimly with the same wall sconces as upstairs. But Keith had eyes only for the iron cage in the center of the room, inside of which were Lance and Pidge, chained up and huddled together.

“Keith, wait!” Allura called from behind him, but Keith rushed forward, relief flooding through him.

“You’re alive,” he gasped, “you’re alive, oh, thank the Lord, I thought –”

Lance and Pidge lifted their heads in slow disbelief. Lance had a black eye, Pidge’s lip was split, and their clothes were torn, but more alarming was the horror in their faces. “Keith,” Lance whispered, “Keith, you have to leave, now, get the hell outta here, it’s a trap!”

Keith faltered. “What – no, you don’t understand, nobody saw us come in, we’re disguised –”

Pidge shook her head frantically, eyes brimming with tears. “Keith, he’s here,” she breathed, and a shadow stepped from the darkness just behind the cage. Keith looked up...and up, and up. It was not a man. Keith was not even sure ‘monster’ would do it justice.

No, this was a god if Keith had ever seen one.

It was Quetzalcoatl, to be exact.

“Finally,” Zarkon said, bared teeth gleaming as he smiled. He stared down at Keith from slitted eyes, not golden like Shiro’s but cold, piercing violet. He did not look like he had in the Caravanserai – his head was crowned with ragged feathers and twisting, dark horns, shortening to wickedly curved spikes along his neck and shoulders, smoothing to shining scales over his forearms. He was clothed not in finery but in armor, made up of shifting shadows glimmering with a faint yet unmistakable iridescence. He had lured them here prepared for a fight.

And Keith knew, for once, that if he tried to fight Zarkon, he would die.

That did not stop him from struggling furiously as the god plucked him from the ground, claws shredding through his coat as it lifted Keith up, up, up. Shiro ran into the room with a cry and Zarkon laughed at the sight of him, lip curling in mocking anger. “So this is what the mighty Tezcatlipoca has been doing since his escape?” Zarkon sneered. “Masquerading as a common whore in my brothel...it seems fitting, really. Especially since you brought your whore along.”

Keith spit in his face. He figured he was going to die anyway, might as well get a few insults in, first. Zarkon snarled at him, wiping it away in disgust, his grip turning bruising around Keith’s ribs. Well, crushed to death certainly wasn’t an ideal way to go…

“Let go of him,” Shiro said, and though he had shifted into his true form, he looked just as afraid as before. “Quetzalcoatl, it is not him you want.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Zarkon mused, crooking a claw just under Keith’s chin, the point digging in and drawing a bead of blood. His nostrils flared and Shiro’s shadows writhed in distress. “I think it would cause you a great deal of pain to watch him die.”

“You have caused me enough pain,” Shiro growled, “and anyway, my pain is not your goal. You seek my power, and he will not get you any closer to that.”

Zarkon glared, clearly angered by this undeniable logic, but Keith was unprepared to be flung across the room, hitting the wall with a dull thud and sliding down to the floor with a weak groan. His ribs ached something awful, but when Shiro started towards him, Keith shooed him away. Hunk, brave when it counted, crept forward and helped Keith to his feet, half-carrying him back to where Allura stood, her eyes flickering helplessly.

The two gods faced each other, teeth bared and eyes burning bright, Shiro in shadows and Zarkon in repledesent plumage and glittering scales. They were not evenly matched. Keith wished he had given Shiro more blood.

“We have to do something,” Keith rasped. “Zarkon will destroy him.”

“Do not underestimate Shiro,” Allura said, but she was not fully convinced of her own words.

“In the very least, we gotta get Katie and Lance out of there,” Hunk pleaded.

“Give me a moment,” Allura muttered, closing her eyes.

The gods were still glaring. Zarkon lunged; Shiro dodged, and they went on like this for some time, neither one able to even land a hit on the other.

Keith recognized the new presence in the room as soon as a ghostly hand crept across his sore ribs, patting them sympathetically. “Xochipilli,” he whispered. Allura’s eyes opened, glittering with triumph.

You poor thing, Xochipilli cooed. Quetzalcoatl is always so rough.

“Brother,” Allura said under her breath, “we need your help.”

My dear almost-sister, if you think I’m facing the Emperor, you are sorely mistaken. That’s a little out of my depth! Xochipilli draped an arm around Keith’s shoulders. Besides, this one is all banged up already…

“We don’t want you to fight Zarkon,” Hunk whispered, looking around with wide eyes for the unseen voice. “We want you to free our friends.”

Which...ahh. Pretty cornflower eyes is a damsel in distress, I see...and the plain little moon girl is still with him. Pity.

“Xochipilli, they’re in danger,” Keith hissed, and the ghost tapped his nose lightly.

Yes, yes, noted. Don’t worry, I’m here to save the day, as usual.

The air shimmered like a mirage, and then Lance’s eyes flared brightly gold within the cage. Pidge startled away from him with a panicked clatter of chains, but Lance just sighed, “Calm down, plain little moon girl,” and snapped free of the chains. Pidge gaped at him, and then her wrists and ankles were freed, too. Lance scooped her up in his arms despite her protests and the light faded from his eyes, the lock wiggling and vibrating until it popped open with a click, letting the two of them run out as best they could. They were both limping slightly.

Sensing Keith’s concern, Xochipilli brushed close to him and murmured, Just sprained ankles. No internal damage, nothing serious. It’s your Jaguar you should be worried about.

When Lance and Pidge reached them, Keith and Hunk hurried to steady their friends, who half-collapsed in relief. Keith gathered Pidge close to him, draping his slightly torn coat over her shivering shoulders. “I think Allura needs that more than me,” Pidge managed, gawking at the still very naked Allura. “What in the hell…Lance, don’t look.”

“Too late,” Lance said faintly. Hunk’s bear hug prevented him from staring any longer.

That, and the resounding roar as the two gods collided. Or rather, dissipated into each other. Keith didn’t know how to describe it, except that it was two mighty forces crashing into each other, swirling shadows and spectral silver and violet wraiths filling the room with their howling battle cries. Keith and the others stumbled back, and thorny fear rose in his throat as he watched the violet rip away at the black shadows, a gleam of golden eyes somewhere among the maelstrom flaring brighter in wordless agony.

Once again, Keith had been wrong – this was Shiro’s true form. Nothingness, he thought, because that was the first word that came to mind, but Keith had felt those shadows and they were solid, though they looked as immaterial as early morning mist rolling across the desert hills. They looked even more fragile now, to him, and now and again they coalesced into shapes — a man, a jaguar, a stallion, an eagle, a creature unknown to humankind — all torn to pieces by the advancing, ghostly form.

Zarkon was winning. That much was clear.

What would happen if Zarkon defeated Shiro? Keith did not know. Would Shiro be bound once more to him, tortured to near-madness, scarred further on flesh that was rapidly running out of room for anymore pain? Would he be killed, slaughtered like a cow in the end for the emperor’s satisfaction, his power stolen from his dying body, ensuring that he would die not as a god, not as his own kind, but as a hollow shell, as true nothingness, never to feel touch or kindness or love ever again –

“Keith,” Allura whispered, her eyes wide upon him, “what...how are you…?!”

Without any conscious thought, Keith’s hands had curled into fists, and as he stepped forward, the ground beneath his feet cracked. The sound was immense, and the gods faltered, their true forms briefly retreating as the fissure continued towards them, widening and splitting the cellar floor, fracturing it into chunks of stone and rock. Shiro’s shadows solidified briefly, glowing eyes huge and shocked, and Zarkon’s furious snarl echoed through the chamber as he turned on Shiro once more.

You’ve already done it, you liar! he accused. How much of your power have you imbued within this stupid mortal?!

“No!” Shiro cried, flinching away from his harsh blow, “I didn’t, I haven’t, Quetzalcoatl, he has none of my power, that isn’t mine –!”

Zarkon lunged for Keith, but Shiro was there first, a howling, black wind surrounding Keith and the others, sending rock up into the air with it, and the cellar was falling away and Keith was screaming, No, no! because Shiro was going to kill himself by expending this much energy, he knew it, and so did Xilonen, whose grief had split the cellar in half, flooding it with wine and fury.

Then they were all standing in Keith’s home once again, and he turned desperately to find Shiro, but found only a shadow, flickering miserably upon Keith’s bed, hanging his barely corporeal head.

Xochipilli made a soft, sad sound near Keith’s ear. Oh, dear, he said. He is even worse off than me, I’m afraid. It will not be long now before he joins his wife...wherever she may be, it is beyond any of our reach. And then he whisked away, and Keith ran to the bed, reaching out...but his hand passed right through Shiro’s skin, and he startled back, heart pounding.

The others watched in dismay. Allura laid a hand gently upon Keith’s shoulder as he backed away from Shiro, or what was left of him. “Keith,” she murmured, “there is nothing you could have done –”

“Stop,” Keith gasped, or choked, he wasn’t sure. “Go – go away, please, leave us, please,” and Allura nodded, her eyes full of sorrow, and guided the others out. They were safe. Pidge and Lance were safe, they were free – the plan had worked. But Shiro was...was…

Keith, Shiro said, so soft that Keith did not know if he was whispering or if that was simply what his voice had been reduced to. Keith, I am so sorry.

Keith fell down onto the bed helplessly, and Shiro’s shadow settled over him, around him, touching and comforting him as best he could. “Don’t be sorry,” he pleaded, “this is my fault, I’m the one who rushed in there, if I hadn’t, you’d still be –”

This would have happened eventually, Shiro sighed, tendrils of shadow caressing Keith’s cheek, almost like a hand, yet so undeniably not that Keith’s eyes prickled with tears. It was only a matter of time. And maybe it’s better this way –

“Better for who?!” Keith exclaimed, sitting up abruptly, Shiro’s shadow flinching away. “You were better, Shiro! Better than anyone, anything I ever dreamed –”

Don’t, Keith, don’t make this more painful than it has to be, Shiro begged.

“Of course it has to be painful,” Keith retorted, his voice breaking. “How could it not be painful, after everything we’ve been through?”

I wish it was not, Shiro whispered. I wish you never had to feel pain again, dear one.

“Stop wishing, Shiro,” Keith said, though there was no venom in it. “It doesn’t work.”

I have failed you, Shiro said, settling down upon the bed beside him, wrapping Keith in an intangible embrace, the edges of his shadows eroding by the second.

“No,” Keith said. “No, you have done many things to me, Shiro, but fail me is not one of them.”

You will find another, Shiro said, brushing a kiss that felt like the barest breeze against Keith’s brow. Another who will give you what I could not.

“I don’t want another,” Keith whispered brokenly, “I want you.”

All I can give you now is this, Shiro said, voice fading as he did. And you deserve so much more.

“No,” Keith gasped, clutching uselessly at him, “no, no, you’ll come back, you’ll be alright, tell me you will, you have to –”

I cannot, Shiro said, and a shadowy droplet, a tear, fell upon Keith’s grasping hand, staining it like ink for a moment before vanishing. I want nothing more than to stay with you. Know this, dear one. But what I want and what the universe wants have rarely aligned.

“Shiro, please,” Keith said, trembling and shaking his head as Shiro faded away, little by little, making one last desperate rush towards Keith before he disappeared altogether. “I love you,” Keith gasped, “I love you, I love you, Shiro…Shiro.

Shiro was gone. It was like being stabbed in the gut all over again.

The room felt empty. Keith felt hollow, so it was almost a surprise when he began to cry. He had not thought there was anything left inside of him, but there were tears then, in Shiro’s complete and utter absence, in the knowledge that Shiro would not come if Keith called, Shiro would not be there for him, and perhaps never could be again.

Keith had been alone before. He had been alone for most of his life.

But he had never been alone and in love.

“I failed you,” he said into his hands. “I failed you both.”

If he closed his eyes, he swore he could almost imagine a soft hand stroking his hair, singing a quiet lullaby in familiar yet foreign words, weaving the power of the earth and the harvest through his breaking heart.

Chapter Text

It was terrifyingly easy to lapse back into old habits without Shiro to anchor him.

Allura visited after Keith had sequestered himself away for three days, and she’d only had to look at his puffy, red-rimmed eyes and the old bottle of whiskey he’d been nursing to know.

“Not a word,” Keith warned, refusing to meet her eye.

“So he’s gone away,” she whispered, and leaned heavily against the wall. “Oh, Shiro…”

“Don’t,” Keith said, taking another swig. He hated being drunk, but right now, it was better than being sober.

“Keith, you cannot go on like this,” she sighed. “You’re only hurting yourself further – this is out of your control, now.”

“Was it ever in my damn control?” Keith retorted. “I ain’t sure it ever was anythin’ but doomed from the start.”

“You mean so much to him,” she started.

“It wasn’t enough,” Keith said. “Not for neither of us. In the end, it don’t matter how much I meant to him, or him to me.”

“You don’t believe that,” Allura said. “I know you don’t.”

“Easier if I do,” Keith said, and drank.

“Time passes differently in other dimensions,” Allura sighed. “He will try to return to you, wherever he is, but you may have to be patient, Keith. And don’t kill yourself from alcohol consumption in the meantime.”

Keith stopped drinking himself into a stupor, albeit sullenly.

She did not visit again, though Pidge and Lance tried to, and Hunk once (with biscuits and jam, which Keith gladly accepted), and lastly Thace, who sat with Keith on the front step in silence until Keith surrendered and slumped miserably against his side.

“You’re the toughest kid I ever met,” Thace told him.

“Bein’ tough only gets you so far, though, don’t it?” Keith mumbled.

“Got you pretty damn far,” Thace countered, wrapping an arm around him. “Don’t give up just yet, Keith.”

“I ain’t givin’ up,” Keith said. “Who said I’m givin’ up?”

But he knew, deep down, that was exactly what he was doing.

A week passed, and Shiro was still gone.

Keith’s home, made into a pocket dimension by Shiro, was slowly degrading. He first noticed it on an early morning ride to check his traps – a shimmer of magic in the air, dying magic, revealing his home to anyone who wanted to find it. Keith was glad he had always slept with his knife under his pillow, especially when he heard a too-close howl late one night, followed by the scream of a horse.

Keith had his dagger in hand and boots on his feet within seconds, sprinting out the door and towards Strawberry’s stall, fearing the worst. She screamed again, and there was a loud thud of hooves on solid wood, then a bitten-off yelp, and Keith burst into the stall with his dagger raised.

The wolf turned on him – yes, a wolf, not a mangy coyote; this was a snarling timber wolf with shining gray fur and unnaturally bright yellow eyes – and Keith lunged with a furious cry, startling the wolf backwards, away from Strawberry, who was striking out with her hooves in a panic.

His blade caught the wolf across its snarling muzzle, and it yowled and leapt at him, and Keith was ready for it – his vision was red with rage, and his next stab landed hard on the wolf’s shoulder. He didn’t even feel the dull claws rake across his bare forearm. The wounded wolf snapped at him and made the mistake of lunging for his throat. Keith drove his blade as hard as he could into its belly, and the wolf fell at his feet, blood spilling from its fanged jaws.

Keith kept stabbing it, again and again and again until its twitching body stilled completely, eyes empty and glazed over. Strawberry was huddled in the corner of her stall, watching him with flat, wary eyes, and shied away when Keith dropped the knife and staggered towards her.

“It’s me,” Keith said, voice cracking, holding his hands palms-up, beseeching, kicking the knife away as he approached. “It’s...it’s just me, girl.” Strawberry snorted nervously and tossed her head, but allowed him closer, close enough to slump forwards and drape his arms loosely around her neck. Strawberry nosed at his hair, whiskery muzzle resting on his back as he buried his face in her neck and tried to control his breathing.

“He knows where I am, now,” Keith whispered numbly. “And Shiro ain’t around to stop him.”

He pulled back and Strawberry gazed at him unblinkingly, ears pricked forward, trusting and listening as always.

“So I’m gonna have to do what I gotta do,” Keith declared. “No matter what, I can’t let the Galra get what they want.” His eyes narrowed. “Those bastards have gotten what they wanted one time too many.” He smiled, and it was a sharp and cold thing, like the bloodied obsidian dagger lying on the ground. “Not this time.”

Strawberry closed her eyes and nuzzled into his palm. Keith exhaled. Then he looked down at himself – he was covered in wolf blood; it had splattered over his pants and bare chest and he was fairly certain it was on his face, too. He sighed and turned to grab Strawberry’s tack, then thought better of it. Her ears pricked when he clicked his tongue and guided her out of the stall, then swung him up onto her bare back with a hand in her mane. She looked back at him, questioning, and he patted her withers.

“Sorry, girl, you can sleep afterwards,” Keith murmured. “Best we’re not here, right now. I think we both need baths.”

She snorted softly in reply. He dug his heels in, and they started off into the night.

*

The oasis was always a little eerie at night, and Keith was not exactly eager to strip down and wade into the murky water, but being in a desert left few other options as far as water sources went. He had been soaking in the pool and scrubbing at his bloodied skin with his nails for several minutes when Strawberry, on the other side of the pool, lifted her head in alarm, eyes glowing in the darkness.

Keith stayed low in the water, inwardly swearing when he saw the white, almost ghostly shape approaching through the mesquite and creosote. “Strawberry, run,” he hissed, but she did not, wavering stubbornly on the bank, anxiously prancing as the white wolf strode out from the trees.

His knife was with his pants and belt on the bank. Keith started towards it with determination, but froze when Lotor’s voice echoed across the water. “I’m afraid stabbing me will not be quite as effective as it was with my wolf.”

Keith turned to see a man, not a wolf, standing on the bank, his posture relaxed, insouciant, long pale hair tossed over his shoulders. He was wearing a slim purple waistcoat, and looked utterly human except for his glowing golden eyes. Keith steeled himself, naked and waist-deep in the water. “Your wolf was trespassing,” he retorted.

“Mm,” Lotor sighed, “yes, I did not count on it getting distracted by your...pony.” Keith opened his mouth but Lotor was already walking to Strawberry, who regarded him uneasily, ears flicking back.

“Don’t hurt her,” Keith started, but Lotor simply raised an eyebrow, and then his hand, lifting it to Strawberry’s nose for her to sniff. She did, hesitantly. Keith barely breathed.

Lotor rolled his eyes. “I am not in the business of animal abuse,” he said. Keith did not trust him in the slightest. Strawberry, skittish, took a few steps back.

“Then what are you in the business of?” Keith demanded.

Lotor turned to look at him, and Keith resolutely did not flinch when his eyes trailed slowly down Keith’s bare chest, and then finally back up to his face. “I heard about the stunt you pulled at my father’s whorehouse. Impressive. Though I was a little disappointed to hear you weren’t one of the whores, this time.” His lips quirked. “It is rather delightful that you persuaded the Jaguar to be your whore, instead. Throk’s pet told us the two of you put on quite the show before massacring Throk and his men. I can admire that. Killing in style.”

“We didn’t have much of a choice,” Keith muttered. “He threatened us, first.”

“Justified massacre, then,” Lotor snorted. He sobered. “That is my father’s plan, you know. He does not care how many mortals will have to die to secure our places as gods once more.”

“And you do care?” Keith asked incredulously.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Lotor said airily, “I was mostly mortal, once upon a time. I value human lives more than my father, which is not saying much...but it is, I think, saying something.”

“I won’t be a vessel,” Keith said.

Lotor sighed. “So quick to say no, hm? Shame. Your Shiro is still alive, you know. More or less.”

“I know he ain’t dead,” Keith muttered. “He just ain’t...here.”

“No, he isn’t,” Lotor said. “And I don’t think he will be anytime soon. Unless…”

“I won’t,” Keith snapped, hands curling into fists.

“No? Not even if it brought him back to this world, not even if it meant you could always be together?” Lotor pressed.

“Possession ain’t what either of us want,” Keith said. “And that’s final.”

Lotor frowned. “You’re certain? You won’t even consider it?”

“Why should I?”

“You won’t like the alternative,” Lotor warned. “If you won’t harness his power for us, we’ll have to take it, by any means necessary.”

“Then I’ll have to stop you,” Keith said. “By any means necessary.”

“Oh, so that’s how it is?” Lotor smiled. “I see. I respect that, Keith. Even if it will lead to your end.”

“You here to kill me?” Keith challenged, lifting his chin.

But Lotor shook his head, still smiling, serenely calm. “No,” he said, turning on his heel. “Not yet.” And he shifted back into the wolf, and trotted off into the desert.

Keith did not stay in the oasis for much longer after that.

*

Somehow, Keith wasn’t all that surprised when, three weeks after escaping the Red Dragon and losing Shiro, Lance showed up on his doorstep, sweaty and flustered, and told Keith that he and Pidge were getting married.

The two of them had been closer than Keith’d ever known them to be since the kidnapping. They hadn’t told anyone too many details, but Pidge had given Keith a rough summary of it. Stolen from their bed in the night, gagged and blindfolded, clinging to each other in blind terror in the back of a dusty wagon for miles and miles. Keith supposed something like that tended to put things in perspective, and they’d decided to tie the knot during their imprisonment; it was one of those frantic promises lovers make during risky near-death situations.

And Keith was happy for them, mighty happy. Proud, too, when he stood beside Hunk and Allura in the one fancy outfit he owned, the clothes Shiro had given him, and watched them exchange vows while Coran officiated.

Yet the entire event had an air of unease, of sand trickling through an hourglass, little by little, of time running out. When Lance and Pidge kissed it was hard and hurried and there was fear in everyone’s eyes, and sadness, too – sadness because they all knew someone was missing, during the ceremony and at the little reception afterwards. Hunk cut the cake and everyone ate their slices so fast the sugar made Keith feel dizzy; then they danced until their feet were numb. Allura popped a champagne bottle, an old one that popped and fizzed on their tongues, like nothing they’d ever tasted, but to Keith it might as well have been dust.

His gift to Pidge and Lance wasn’t much, and he knew they deserved better, but try as he might he hadn’t been able to do more. His sketching skills were rusty at best, and his grammar wasn’t the best, but Allura had given him a leatherbound book full of empty paper years ago, and he’d finally filled it up. Mostly he’d written stories; stories about all the good times he’d had with Lance and Pidge, and some of the bad times, too. Keith didn’t know if he was even a decent storyteller, but when he haltingly explained what it was to them, their eyes lit up and they pulled him into a tight hug.

“This is real good, Keith,” Lance said, peering at the first page and running his fingertips over the messy pencil sketch of him and Pidge. “How didn’t I know you could draw?”

“I can’t, really,” Keith mumbled. “Just...remember faces, I guess.”

“You sure do,” Pidge said, whistling lowly. “Looks just like us. You even got my mole right.”

“I’m glad y’all like it,” Keith said.

They looked at him then, and Keith hated the pity in their eyes just as much as he needed it.

“How you holdin’ up?” Lance asked, even though he really didn’t have to.

Keith shrugged. “I’m here, ain’t I?”

“Yeah, you are.” Pidge squeezed his arm. “You are.”

“I hope you two will be happy ‘til the end of your days,” Keith said, surprised by how earnestly he meant it. “You’re real good for each other.”

“I hope so too,” Lance said after a startled moment of silence. Pidge nodded, and bit her lip.

“You know we love you, right, Keith?” she said suddenly.

Keith blinked, and looked at her, really looked at her. She meant it. They both did. “Yeah,” he said, soft. “Yeah, I know you do. I love y’all, too.”

“Good,” Pidge said. “Don’t you forget it.”

“Don’t go doin’ anything stupid,” Lance added. “We can’t have your back every time.” And now, neither can Shiro, remained unspoken.

Keith nodded. “I know,” he said, but made no promises.

*

There was someone standing at Keith’s door when he returned from the town church.

Keith froze, heart leaping into his throat. No. It couldn’t be.

But there Shiro stood, after three weeks, in the flesh, looking as human as Keith had ever seen him. Keith thought, distantly, that he should have demanded answers, should have been angry, should have done something other than run to him, throwing his arms around Shiro with a sob before he could vanish again.

“Keith,” Shiro breathed, tucking his face into Keith’s neck and shuddering, and he was crying, Keith realized, tears dampening Keith’s hair and shirt. “I can’t – I don’t know how long I can stay here, like this, but I had to, I had to try.”

Keith pulled away slightly; Shiro was hugging back with only one arm, the other remained as a scarred stump, and Keith was struck with a dizzying sense of deja vu. Except for the length of his hair, Shiro looked almost exactly as he had when Keith had found him. Human, weak, and achingly beautiful. Keith cupped his face. “I missed you,” he whispered.

Shiro stumbled backwards at the touch, trembling, and with shock Keith realized Shiro was scared, scared he was going to vanish again, just as scared as Keith – maybe even moreso. Keith fumbled to open the door and they hurried inside, Shiro clutching at him, eyes still brimming with tears. “Keith,” he kept saying. Keith had never seen him like this before, so vulnerable and desperate. It felt like instinct when he laid Shiro out upon the bed, and Shiro did not stop him, just pleaded for him to be closer.

“What do you want?” Keith whispered, and that sounded like a plea, too. Shiro started unbuttoning Keith’s shirt, and Keith stilled his hand, troubled. “No,” he said, “Shiro, talk to me.”

Shiro’s lower lip trembled. “Keith,” he said, like a prayer. “Keith, I love you, you must know I love you, I had to come back to say it, to tell you, so you would know, even though it will just make this hurt all the more for the both of us.”

Keith said, “You love me.”

“Of course I love you,” Shiro half-sobbed, and Keith kissed him with near-violent intensity, and then they were both struggling to remove the clothing between them, shirts rumpled and tossed upon the floor, pants tangled around ankles and kicked to the end of the bed, unable to stop kissing each other everywhere they could reach. Nonsensically, Keith wished Shiro lips were truly a brand, so that the marks he left behind would never fade, and everyone could see how Shiro had both saved and ruined him entirely.

Shiro was already ruined under him, tears staining his face and expression crumpled as Keith kept saying it, I love you, I love you, I love you, against his neck, across his chest, hidden in the crook of his knee, in the crease of his thigh. “Keith, please,” Shiro begged, “we don’t have much time left,” and then cried out when Keith swallowed down his cock, sinking down until he choked and then further, uncaring of his own discomfort, wanting only to hear the breathless litany of curses and praises pouring from Shiro’s mouth.

But then Shiro was shoving at his head, gasping, “Wait, stop, I want,” and Keith stopped, confused, lifting his head from Shiro’s dripping cock and stilling when Shiro spread his legs, face flushed, and rolled over onto his front, presenting his back to Keith.

Shiro must have taken Keith’s startled silence as a refusal, because he curled inwards, wincing and mumbling, “I...I don’t have any magic left to give you, all I could manage was this form, a human form, nothing more, I’m sorry –”

Keith stroked the scarred skin of his back, leaning over him and shaking his head. “Don’t apologize,” he whispered. “I will love you no matter what. You are beautiful, no matter what, and I would gladly take you if that is what you want.”

“I do,” Shiro said, glancing back over his shoulder. “Keith, I do, I want you to.”

“But not like this,” Keith whispered, nudging at him to roll over, so they were face to face again. “Alright?”

“Alright,” Shiro murmured. He smiled, then, the expression so utterly disarming that Keith slumped down against him. Shiro stroked Keith’s hair away from his face, slow, sweet, and said, “Keith, please,” and Keith kissed him hard, unable to match his sweetness, unable to reconcile the tender way Shiro touched him with the roiling emotion gathering like storm clouds in his chest. He did not feel strong enough to contain it.

But Keith was gentle, as gentle as he knew how to be, when he took the bottle of olive oil from the countertop – a present Shiro had given so many weeks ago – and dipped his fingers inside it, and then inside Shiro, one after the other. Keith took his time, though Shiro had said they had little of it – Keith wanted to make Shiro squirm in pleasure, shudder and gasp as Keith opened him up, rubbing soothingly at Shiro’s inner thigh with his thumb as he worked. Small touches, Keith had learned from Shiro, went a long way.

Shiro was petting his hip, light and almost distracted, his unfocused eyes never leaving Keith, only falling shut as Keith lined up and pressed in, filling him inch by inch. Shiro made a sound like a sob, wrapping his muscled legs tight around Keith’s waist and pulling him in fully with a groan, and Keith said, “Wait,” and Shiro said, “We wasted too much time waiting, before; no more waiting, now, Keith, please,” and Keith said, “Are you sure? You have to be sure,” and Shiro said, “Yes, yes, I’m sure,” and Keith had to tuck his face into Shiro’s neck and breathe to stop himself from crying, too.

“I love you,” Shiro said, turning his head to kiss Keith’s cheek, to run his hand down Keith’s back, holding him securely where his spine dipped in a slow curve. “I love you and I want you, dear one.”

“I want you, too,” Keith whispered, still hiding his face as he began a halting rhythm, his breath shallowing at the sensation, at the reality of having Shiro like this, of being inside of him; Keith was overwhelmed by how much he felt for Shiro in those moments. An urge to protect, yes, but it was more than that – an urge to give Shiro all that he had given Keith, not to repay an owed debt but to bestow a gift, the gift of knowing what it was to be in love and to be loved.

Keith thrust into him with greater confidence and surety, and Shiro arched up into it, neither meek nor passive but responsive, receptive, demanding, and Keith basked in it, in knowing that it felt so good for the both of them. And of course he also knew by Shiro’s cock, heavy with arousal and trapped between them, Shiro’s body tightening gloriously when Keith took him in hand, rubbing his thumb in movements more torturous than soothing over the leaking slit, coaxing it to drip further as Shiro writhed, heels digging into Keith’s back. Keith fucked him not hard but firm, deep, and Shiro’s head lolled back against the pillow, lashes fluttering.

“Don’t go,” Keith panted, burying his cock as deep as he could while Shiro’s body flushed and trembled under him, more and more with every frantic thrust of Keith’s hips and the path of his mouth over Shiro’s skin. He was kissing Shiro’s scars, from the stump of his arm to the slices across his chest to the slash over his nose. “Don’t you dare go, Shiro, don’t.

“I – Keith, I can’t stay, you know I can’t –”

“Why not,” Keith snapped, biting a bruise into Shiro’s neck, hitching his hips faster, making Shiro keen, “I could go with you, I – I could stay with you, in your dimension –”

Shiro shook his head, grabbing at Keith’s hair and gasping, “No, ah, Keith, you belong here, in your own –”

“I belong with you,” Keith said, hot tears sliding down his cheeks despite his gritted teeth and set jaw and the heat coiling in his gut. “Neither...neither of us should have to be alone –”

“You won’t be,” Shiro whispered, his face blurring in Keith’s vision as the tears flowed freely, “I will always be here,” and he pressed his hand to Keith’s chest, over his heart, and Keith caught his hand and squeezed it, and wished he would never have to let go.

But he did, seconds later, and so did Shiro, coming apart together, Shiro’s lips brushing against his cheek, his ear, his neck, whispering words Keith did not know but which sounded like a farewell. Keith clung to him, stubborn, and only pulled away when Shiro shifted in apologetic discomfort.

Shiro lay there afterwards, very still, his expression distant, cum dripping out of him and drying on his stomach, cock softening. Keith nudged him, worried.

“My pocket,” Shiro murmured, half to himself, and then sat up slowly, leaning over to grab his pants from the end of the bed. He reached into the pocket and withdrew the dreamcatcher. Keith’s chest twinged painfully, storm clouds rumbling. Shiro held it out to him. “It’s yours,” he said quietly. “I will have no use for it, soon...where I am going, I do not think it can go. And neither can you.”

“I’m not taking it,” Keith said. “I made it for you.”

“Keith,” Shiro sighed, his shoulders slumping. But he put the dreamcatcher on the nightstand and said nothing more about it.

“So,” Keith said, wiping his eyes hastily, tucking his legs close in a posture he refused to label as defensive, “this is goodbye, then?”

“I don’t want it to be,” Shiro admitted, and Keith was stricken by the hollow sadness in his face, and reached out to him, swallowing back more tears when Shiro folded limply into his embrace. “I want nothing less.”

“It isn’t fair,” Keith said, acknowledging the terrible truth of it. “Can’t I...can’t I do anything to make you stay? You could find someone, another sacrifice, a criminal or –”

But Shiro shook his head. “It would be wrong to take more lives to sustain my own,” he said. “I have lived my life, Keith. Yours has hardly begun. Don’t anchor yourself to a fading relic like me.”

“Too late,” Keith retorted, more tired than angry.

Shiro was quiet. Then he said, tentatively, “I will stay as long as I can, with you. But when you wake…”

Keith cut him off with a finger over his lips. He didn’t want to hear him say it. “Just let me take care of you,” he whispered. As you have taken care of me.

Shiro bowed his head, and let him.

*

Keith dreamed that night.

He was standing on a high desert mesa with Shiro, the two of them watching the stars above, which seemed somehow alive, flickering and flashing in bright white sparks in the infinite blackness of space. Shiro was holding his hand, and then, slow but purposeful, pulled away. Keith looked at him, and Shiro looked back.

“I’m sorry, Keith,” he said. “It’s too late. I tried to stay.”

“I know you did,” Keith said. “You’ll be gone? When I wake up?”

“Yes,” Shiro said, frowning and glancing away.

“What is it?” Keith pressed, sensing there was more to say.

“We may be able to meet, one last time, in the cave where we first...truly met,” Shiro said, looking back at him. “Do you remember it?”

“I could never forget it,” Keith said honestly. Or you.

“Then you may find me there, at sunset tomorrow,” Shiro said with a soft smile, stepping away. “I love you.”

Keith awoke with a start.

Shiro was gone.

Keith was deeply uneasy and did not know why. That dream. Something had been...off, somehow. Or was he simply growing paranoid? He glanced about, the back of his neck prickling as if he was being watched. But there was no one there.

A sudden movement caught his eye.

Keith leapt to his feet, reaching for his dagger...and faltered. The movement had come from the floor, from the thin layer of dust in a nearby corner, in which was written the word, DANGER.

As he stared, the dust smoothed out again and then, as if traced by an invisible finger, spelled out, SHIRO. Keith went cold.

“Shiro is in danger?” he whispered.

GALRA, the dust spelled out.

Keith was having trouble breathing. “They – they got him?!”

YES.

“Is this – Xilonen?” he breathed, nails digging into his palms. The “yes” was underlined. Keith swore under his breath, distantly aware that he was shaking...and yet, he felt very calm. He exhaled unsteadily. “I have to help him,” he said.

She underlined the “yes” again, slower this time.

“No matter what it takes,” Keith said.

A third underline, and then the dust cleared, and a warm breeze swept through the house, ruffling Keith’s hair. I will be with you. The words were a faint impression on his mind, and he clung to them with both dread and determination.

That day passed strangely for Keith. No one visited. Lance and Pidge were likely enjoying their ‘honeymoon’ days, and Allura was busy training Addie, who had safely fled the Red Dragon. Hunk and Shay had ridden up north for one of Shay’s ceremonies. Coran was working on a case of horse thievery, miles off.

Keith wondered where Acxa was. Still painting beside the creek? Selling her knowledge of the Galra and the Diné to someone else? Or perhaps she was riding her beautiful sunshine horse over the mesas, chasing ghosts as Keith had?

Ghosts; Keith had never quite believed in ghosts. But now his life seemed full of them. Ghostly loved ones were far more real and frightening to Keith than the vengeful specters of campfire stories. He did not know if his mind was playing tricks on him or if there really was someone there – Xilonen, he thought, but even that he could not be sure of.

All that he was sure of was that Shiro was in danger, and Keith was going to save him.

Saddling up Strawberry was strange that afternoon, though he had done it countless times before. She snuffled at his shirt – he’d foregone his jacket – and he fed her the last apple, his thoughts distant. She nudged at him for more attention, and he relented with a sigh, running his fingers over her velvety nose and strong neck, her coarse mane and delicate brow.

“I love you too, you know?” he whispered. “Always have, always will. You’re a damn good horse. Better than any Thoroughbred out there. Better than any horse a kid like me ever could’ve hoped for.” Strawberry nickered. Keith nodded. “I know,” he said. “Sun’s almost down. Time to go.”

*

Keith tied Strawberry at a distance, and told her to be a good girl, and headed down the ravine. He was careful to be quiet, not to dislodge any loose rocks or trip on any dry branches or rambling cacti. He stayed close to the side of the canyon, listening carefully, and as he neared the cave and the two red snakes marking it, he heard them: voices. Familiar voices.

He won’t fall for this. Shiro. You’re fools to think he would ever –

Shut up. Haggar. He’ll be here soon enough, and then this will finally be over and done with.

Listen. Lotor. Ah, there he is, now. Let’s give him a warm welcome, shall we, Jaguar?

Keith stepped into the cave, knife already unsheathed. He almost dropped it at the scene before him.

Haggar and Lotor stood in forms that could hardly be called human – Haggar’s face looked more snake than woman, with scales framing her cheekbones and dress rasping like dry snakeskin. Lotor’s teeth gleamed too bright, too sharp, and his hands were clawed where they gripped Shiro’s jaw, forcing his head back. Shiro was on his knees, arm and legs bound, still human in appearance and weaker than before – they’d beaten him, Keith realized with mounting rage, blackened his eyes and split his lip and reopened wounds across his chest and where his arm had been severed.

Shiro’s puffy eyes widened when they fell upon Keith. “No,” he gasped, but rather than struggle he slumped in his bonds, “no, no.”

“Let go of him,” Keith snarled, brandishing his dagger.

Lotor laughed. “See, Mother? I told you, he has such spark in him.”

“All the more satisfying it will be to snuff it out,” Haggar said, unimpressed by Keith’s threats.

Shiro whimpered. “Please – please, don’t, don’t touch him –”

Keith looked at him askance. “Shiro, what have they done to you?” he whispered.

Lotor sneered. “Well, breaking him was the goal, but as it turns out, he needed a bit more...persuasion. And that’s where you come in.”

Lotor stepped towards Keith and that time, Shiro did struggle, letting out a cry which echoed painfully off the ancient stones. “Stop!” Shiro pleaded, “You don’t have to hurt him, I’ll do it, I’ll –”

“Shiro, you can’t!” Keith protested, knife still trained on the approaching Lotor. “Don’t give in.”

“Keith, they plan to torture you,” Shiro gasped, eyes wild and frantic. Haggar hissed as he struggled harder, but it was no use; he was weak and she was brimming with power, as was her son.

“Here’s the way I see it,” Lotor said conversationally, “the more emotion we rip out of your Jaguar, the more raw and therefore the more powerful his energy will be. He won’t be able to hold back even a single sliver of it. I hope you can understand.”

“Get away from me,” Keith said, taking a step back.

“Or what?” Lotor drawled, and was shoved back by a wall of invisible energy which sent him sprawling to the ground, several feet away, and kept him there. Haggar bristled; Shiro froze. Lotor hissed, “How did you do that?!”

Keith realized where he was; what this cave truly was.

An altar.

I will be with you.

No matter what it takes.

Keith understood. Or maybe he had known all along. He had, after all, brought only his knife, the obsidian knife, the same knife they’d used for sacrifices so many years ago. He had said his goodbyes, in his own way. So he did not panic. He did not cry. He simply slashed open his shirt and touched the tip of the blade to his bare chest, where his heart beat in a steady rhythm just under the skin.

Lotor and Haggar swore and lunged, but Xilonen’s barrier held firm. Shiro writhed and tore at the rock with his nails and cried, “No,” and then louder, “NO!” but Keith did not listen. Because this; this would save him. And right then, that was all that mattered.

You just...make the cut, and have the intent. That is all.

But Keith wanted to give Shiro more than just intent. He wanted to say it, to set it in stone, to tell the world why he would do such a thing, for Shiro, yes, but also to stop the Galra, to serve what had at first been revenge but now felt a whole lot more like justice. Purpose. Meaning. Fate.

It had all been leading up to this.

Keith took a deep breath, steadying himself and his hand, shutting out the shouts filling the cave. “I sacrifice myself in the name of Tezcatlipoca, The Jaguar, Maker of Himself, Lord of the North and the Near and Far, The Night Wind, The Smoking Mirror; but most of all I make it in the name of Shiro, my dear one, whom I love more than I have ever loved and ever will love any other.”

Keith,” Shiro breathed, a word so disfigured by horror that it was barely recognizable.

“I love you very much,” Keith said, and drove the dagger into his heart.

*

Shiro saw Keith fall as if in a dream.

But it was not a dream. It was not a dream when Keith’s body hit the stone, the dagger clattering down alongside him where he’d ripped it out in a messy spurt of red, now flowing freely from his chest, staining the rocks, staining Keith’s skin, staining his limp white hand where it lay, fingers twitching once, twice, never again.

And it was certainly not a dream when the power of Keith’s soul washed over him, radiant and overwhelming and more powerful than any sacrifice he had ever received before. Shiro did not want to take it. He had never, ever wanted to take anything from Keith, and certainly not this.

But he also knew he could not waste it.

Shiro took it.

Keith’s dead eyes stared, blank and unseeing, and Shiro broke free of his bonds with a roar.

Chapter Text

When it was over, everything was very quiet.

Shiro could not remember what had happened after Keith fell, precisely. Blinded by rage was an accurate description of the aftermath – Xolotl and Cihuacoatl were not dead, but their hosts’ bodies were, ripped to shreds by claws and teeth even sharper than Keith’s knife.

Their loss would destroy Zarkon, Shiro thought numbly as he approached Keith’s unmoving corpse. A killing blow, a checkmate – without Shiro’s power, the Galra would fall. Keith’s sacrifice had ensured Shiro would outlive Zarkon by a century, at least. Zarkon and the other gods would waste away, for they had been chasing illusions of grandeur that they would now never achieve, instead of simply accepting defeat. They had won.

No. He had won. Keith was dead. And maybe that was why winning felt so hollow.

Somehow, Shiro hadn’t anticipated this outcome. He’d anticipated himself dying, of course – he had thought that was inevitable. But he hadn’t counted on Keith valuing Shiro’s life – a life that should have ended centuries ago – over his own.

Shiro’s body was thrumming with grief and anger and power, so he was unable to shift out of his larger form, and took great care not to cut Keith with his bloodied claws as he slid a palm under his still body and lifted him up from the stained rocks. There was something truly awful about the reality of Keith’s silent heart, silenced by the blade Lance and Pidge had given to him as a birthday gift on what had been his last birthday. Two decades; only two. Shiro’s eyes blurred with tears. That was not enough; not nearly enough. Keith deserved centuries, not twenty paltry years, over half of which had been wrought with a great deal of pain and suffering.

Shiro held him close to his chest, and brushed the pad of his thumb gently over Keith’s glazed eyes, closing them as if in slumber. How could it be that he seemed so delicate now, eyelids marbled with tiny blue and violet veins, calloused hands pale and limp as Shiro gathered them gingerly to lay folded over Keith’s torn chest, slender neck lolling back without any resistance to hold it up? And yet Shiro knew he was anything but. He had always assured himself that Keith was not delicate, he was not breakable, he was not a porcelain doll but rather a whip-smart young man with whipcord strength and will.

But it had only taken one cut. One moment, and then he was gone. There was a great unfairness in that, Shiro thought. Keith had survived so much, only to end it all himself. Though Shiro supposed there was a kind of poetic justice there – in a life spent suffering again and again against his will, Keith had ended that life on his own terms, unflinchingly, with determination and something like victory shining bright in his eyes just before they went dark.

He’d known exactly what he was doing. And that just made it hurt all the more.

“Oh, Keith,” Shiro whispered, a lump forming in his throat when silence answered him – no snarky reply, no achingly soft assurance, no quiet, knowing laugh, no slight, crooked smile; nothing at all. “My dear one...I am so sorry.”

Shiro left the cave as it was – blood-soaked from Keith’s sacrifice and crumbling from his own rage. He picked up the small obsidian knife as he passed it, and was struck with the urge to snap it in two, but it had not been the blade’s fault. It had not been Keith’s fault, either. It had been Shiro’s; Shiro’s fault for dragging a mortal into his mess, for being unable to let Keith heal on his own, for being too weak for clever violet eyes and soft black hair.

He saw Strawberry outside where Keith had tied her, her head held high and ears pricked, whole body stiff and alert. She knew something was wrong. Shiro bowed his head and walked to her with Keith’s body. Strawberry startled back at the smell of blood, nostrils flaring, and she stomped in warning when Shiro came closer. Then she recognized Keith – she must have, because she relaxed infinitesimally, only to falter when she also smelled death. Her ears pinned back and she stared at Shiro with flat, disbelieving eyes.

“This is my doing,” Shiro told her quietly. “I do not expect your forgiveness, but I would ask that you allow me to bring the two of you home.”

Strawberry’s muzzle was trembling as she leaned forward, nosing at Keith’s hair and over his face with increasing distress. She nudged at his chin and his head fell to the side like a ragdoll. Strawberry shied away, whinnying and tossing her head in dismay. Shiro knew she would never forgive him for letting this happen. Horses’ emotions worked far differently than humans’, of course, but Strawberry loved Keith in her own way; that could not be denied.

And it was likely this love that drove her to let Shiro, once shifted into a more human form, sit in her saddle with Keith in his arms, and guide her gently with the reins out of the lonely canyon and back home. It felt like a funeral procession of three, or two, Shiro supposed. The sun had set fully, and the night settled across the desert like a blanket, casting the world in quiet, cool shadows. Shiro wished Keith could see the stars sparkling overhead – they seemed especially beautiful tonight. He told Keith every one of the constellations as Strawberry plodded on, and by the time Keith’s little house was visible in the distance, Shiro’s eyes stung from crying and the warmth from Keith’s skin was fading along with the flush of color in it.

But as they neared Keith’s house, Shiro began to notice something strange.

In the cave, an invisible force had stopped Lotor from reaching Keith. Shiro had been too panicked and afraid to consider what it could be at the time, but now, as his bewildered gaze fell upon the tall, softly swaying stalks of corn growing up around Keith’s home, he thought he knew.

Strawberry stopped short, as bewildered as Shiro. The night air was cool, but a warm breeze murmured through the cornstalks, rustling their unripe husks like skirts, their long yellow silk falling like hair. Slowly, Shiro dismounted with Keith held close, and Strawberry stayed put, frozen, though not in fear. It was not a fearful presence, but rather beckoning, like a desert oasis, a warm meal, a beautiful woman glowing with health and youth.

Shiro had felt this presence before. He tried so hard these days never to hope, because so often that hope was shattered in spectacular fashion, but he could not stop the hope from blooming in his chest right then, because now, hope was all he had left.

He brushed past the cornstalks on his way inside, and when he peered between them he saw there was a multitude of small cottontail rabbits huddling beneath the swaying corn, tiny noses twitching and bright brown eyes watching inquisitively as Shiro carried Keith over the threshold. Heart pounding, he brought Keith inside and laid him down upon the bed, sheets still tousled from their last night together. Shiro resisted the urge to draw the blankets over him; it would not make him any less cold.

Yet the warm breeze was curling into the room, stirring up the thin layer of dust on the ground, and as Shiro sat at Keith’s bedside with wide eyes, the dust formed the faint, wavering shape of a woman he knew very well.

Shiro’s throat was dry, and he thought, This is it, I have finally lost my mind. But the hallucination felt too real, and when the woman of dust stepped forward and pointed to the dreamcatcher on the nightstand, Shiro reached for it at once.

Words fell into his mind, unbidden.

If the maker of a dreamcatcher makes it with enough passion, then it’s like they’re puttin’ a piece of their soul into it. See?

I do see. There’s a power in this gift; your power. As warm and glowing as you.

Keith was cold and pale now, but when Shiro picked up the dreamcatcher, he felt the unmistakable echo of the soul Keith had given up for him – only a flicker, a weak flame upon a dying candle, but it was enough to make Shiro’s eyes flare in bright, hopeful reply, and the woman of dust stepped closer before dissolving into the wind, wrapping around the two of them, whispering in a voice just out of Shiro’s reach.

Shiro thought of that night months ago, when Keith had burnt his hand on the flint and Shiro had reached out to heal it by some deep, unnameable instinct. That instinct, that need to protect, to heal, to nurture, had risen within Shiro the very moment he had opened his eyes and seen Keith in clarity for the first time, sharpening his knife and scowling, haloed by the sunshine streaming in through the window behind him. He had not understood it then, nor during any of the months after, but he thought he finally did, now.

Keith’s purpose had been to sacrifice his soul to Shiro, and Shiro’s purpose was to bring Keith’s soul back to him.

But he had never heard of such a thing. And now, holding the dreamcatcher and the flickering remnant of Keith in his trembling palms, Shiro knew this single spark would not be enough to restore the life that had been lost. The woman in the wind knew this too, and Shiro lifted his head to her, beseeching, and let her breeze guide his hands to lay the dreamcatcher upon Keith’s chest where his punctured heart had once beat, unbroken.

“Xilonen,” Shiro whispered, closing his eyes briefly as a soft, unseen hand swept soothingly across his tear-stained cheek. “My dear one.” She wiped his tears away, as best she could. “Please,” he said, opening his eyes,