Keith takes a step back, almost as if Shiro’s words had hit him like a physical blow. Considering how much Keith’s heart is hurting, he isn’t sure that they haven’t . It's like he can't breathe right. His vision becoming blurry at the edges.
Even more than his words, it’s the way he says them that hurt the most. Monotone and almost uncaring, like to him being alive or dead made no difference. Shiro who had always loved life, who had been vibrant and shining.
Keith wants to say something, wants to scream, but he doesn’t have any words. His mind is completely blank, his every thought clouded with a white fog that leaves him unable to reply. Is there really anything he could say to make this better? Anything he could say to make Shiro take back these terrible words?
He stands still, gaping at the other man, and the more the silence sketches, the more Shiro’s face morphs into something cold and uncaring. Maybe if Keith says something now, something like what Shiro used to say to him once, he could savage this.
Words. Always Keith’s shortcoming.
Still, Keith won’t leave this as it is. He takes a step forward, forcing himself to reach the other man even if any movement feels like agony. He kneels in front of Shiro, because his knees give up under him. He’s trembling, he knows, but he doesn’t care .
Shiro watches him with rapt attention, and Keith holds his gaze trying to find there something to catch on to. Some sign that the man he loves is still there.
Keith reaches forward towards Shiro’s black hand and he sees the other trying to reel back. Shiro has never let him touch it, he realizes, ashamed and scared of it. But Keith has created it, and he will not flinch away because of it.
He catches the other’s hand before he can completely remove it, and the coldness of it shocks him. It doesn’t feel like flesh, almost like a piece of armor that Shiro had forgotten to remove. It’s cold, lacking any natural warmth, and Keith understands what the other must feel. How can something like this be human? What has Keith created?
Keith helds it tighter when the other tries to pull the hand away. He clings to it with a desperation that has become familiar to him. What if he lets go and Shiro disappears from his life again?
“But you’re here ,” Keith repeats, hoping that physical contact might help Shiro believe him, “can you feel my hand? That’s why I did what I did.” Selfish, that’s what he had been, he knows that.
Shiro doesn’t answer, but he looks down at their hands and for a second he squeezes Keith’s hand. It feels like he’s trying to commit it to memory. After a moment he whispers, very quietly, “You’re very hot.”
Keith isn’t. It’s a cold night, and they only have a small fire to keep them company for the night—anything else would have been too risky with the entire kingdom probably on their eels— but he closes his eyes and nods, desperate. If Shiro’s hand is so cold to the touch, Keith’s skin must feel burning hot to Shiro.
Shiro doesn’t say much more, but he doesn’t let go of Keith’s hand. He holds it close the entire night, and Keith doesn’t try to take it away. Even when they go lie down for the night, Keith just guides Shiro by their hand and they sleep side by side.
Keith knows that it doesn’t mean it’s fixed; something is still broken between them and inside Shiro. Something Keith’s magic hadn’t been able to bring back and that could be lost to them forever.
The chilly air of the night makes their breath condense in front of their mouths, and Keith holds his own for a second. He watches the breath leave Shiro’s lungs and marvels at it. Even if something is lost, it doesn’t mean that they are, or that they can’t find a way to move forward from here.
He exhales and closes his eyes.
They ride to Orin in the morning. Unfortunately passing through the Forest without Shiro’s powers would be a really stupid idea.
It takes two days to reach the village by horse, and they decide to time it so that they can cross the border at night, where less guards will be keeping watch. It's the only precaution they can take, since they are almost one hundred percent sure that the voice will have spread even here by this point.
Sometimes Keith tries to imagine what Allura is doing at the castle, how much does she hate him? He knows she must be disappointed in him and his choice, after she had tried so hard to share her pain with him, but even in the terrible circumstances they are in, Keith doesn't regret it for a moment.
As Keith had planned they reach the village well into the night. Red is visibly getting tired, but after they have traversed into the Earth Kingdom they will have the time to rest and recuperate. If they manage to push it a little they might even rent a room and actually sleep in a bed, maybe one big enough for both of them.
They are not close to the village by any means—that would be a stupid plan—but in light of recent attacks the border is guarded at all times. Still, if they make it quick and they are as silent as they can be, they'll be able to cross without getting noticed.
Shiro hasn't said anything ever since they have gotten back on Red. Keith doesn't know how to react to it; the other doesn't flinch when he touches him, and answers Keith's question with a shake of his head. Still, he hasn't said anything at all.
Keith can only pray that this is a passing crisis. If they find another paladin where they are going, maybe they'll be able to see what's wrong with Shiro. Maybe this is something they can fix after all.
When they get close to the actual border they force Red to slow down, to her obvious relief, and start advancing slowly. A speeding horse would attract way more attention than a walking one, especially if they are looking for fugitives.
For ten minutes it looks like everything is working out fine, which is probably a sign that it's going to end in disaster.
"Just a couple of miles," Keith says, looking forward. Once they pass the border, they will be able to duck into the nearby forest and hopefully shake off any one that might start following them. In the Earth Kingdom no one would ever bat an eye at them.
What Keith knows of the Earth Kingdom he knows from tales and diplomatic missions. He wasn’t usually the one invited to participate, but Shiro and Allura were often part of them and sometimes Shiro brought Keith along. Still, they had never seen how the village actually lived, but it was common knowledge that magic of any kind run wid in the Kingdom. Hopefully even Shiro's arm wouldn't cause too many suspicion.
They keep going for a while before Keith, looking around, spots them: there are people coming towards them, rogues by the look of things, moving stealthily thanks to the favour of the dark. Keith, who had been trained to be an assassin, recognized the signs.
Why had he not noticed them before? He had been worried, of course, unfocused. He had been thinking about Shiro and not focusing enough on their surroundings.
"They are going to see us," he whispers to Shiro, agitated, and he sees Shiro look towards them too. Even if the other's eyes aren't used to fighting in pitch black like Keith, he spots them with ease. They are too close.
It takes a second for Keith to decide what to do, but it’s enough for the guard to notice them. Before the moment of recognition can flash on the guard's face, Keith tells Red to run and the horse starts sprinting.
If they make it to the forest, Keith repeats himself, then they are going to be fine. Shiro helds tighter to Keith, evidently taken by surprise by his sudden decision, and Keith really hopes that he won't fall down. They need to reach the forest as fast as they can, they need to make it . Keith has done too much, Shiro has lost too much. They deserve this.
An arrow flies beside Keith's head. Just an inch to the left and it would have caught him in the head. He pushes forward even more.
Red doesn't slow down and Keith is, once again, so grateful for her presence. "Just a little bit-" Keith whispers to the horse before Shiro's voice cuts him off.
"Keith! Watch out!" the other say and in that moment Keith notices the trap obviously lay down in front of them. He had been too scared, once again too focused in what was happening around him and inside him to pay enough attention. It's too late to stir Red, so he simply tries to stop the horse.
Red complies so suddenly that Keith is thrown off. He tries to land gracefully, but he knows it won't happen. Before he can actually touch the ground, however, he feels something wrap around him and cushion his fall.
When he opens his eyes he sees Shiro's black arm holding on to him, and he realizes he's laying on top of the other man. Shiro must have jumped after Keith to catch him.
If they had time, Keith would stay to make sure that Shiro and Red are alright, but he can hear the noise of their enemies’ arrows and he knows he has to act now.
His distractions have already caused them enough problems.
Keith jumps up and unsheathes his dagger. It's not the most powerful of weapons, he knows, but it has always served him well. He runs forward, zig-zagging to avoid the other's arrows and then tries to hit the closest soldier in the side.
He never wanted this, he can admit it. Fighting what had been his colleagues, the people who had trained with him. This soldiers that were doing nothing wrong if not just hunting a criminal. Keith meant them no ill will, but he won't hesitate to protect Shiro now that he has to.
Keith is more used to fight with two weapons, but his other blade—a little longer than this one—is with Shiro. They didn't have time to bring anything else, and they had to leave many things behind to make sure not to load too much on Red.
He regrets not having his second blade now, when the other guard avoids Keith's attack and retaliate. He's quick, and trained. Usually the better guards are posted on the border with the Galra Empire, but it's obvious that this one knows what he's doing. If the second guard shows up, Keith isn't sure if he can fight them off easily.
Before he can worry about it he sees someone run past him and he sees Shiro with Keith's blade in his hand fighting against the other guard. Good.
Keith concentrates on his fight and tries to focus for once. He might be worried about Shiro, who while not helpless will be severely at a disadvantage without his paladin powers, but he knows that if he manages to finish his fight first, then he will be able to run to save Shiro that quicker.
He avoids the other person's blow and then goes for a punch to the other's throat. The guard is thrown off, expecting another attack with the blade, and isn't fast enough to avoid it. After that it takes Keith only a second to hit the man in the head with the blunt part of the blade, hard enough to make him faint.
Keith watches as the man goes down immediately and he's glad that he didn't have to kill him. He looks up, searching for Shiro's form, and he finds it. Shiro is facing the guard as best as he can, but it's obvious that he's not having an easy time of it. His fighting stance is mostly difensive, where Shiro's style had always been a little more aggressive. Controlled, but aggressive.
Keith is ready to dash and help him, when he hears another arrow flying through the hair. He has enough reflexes to get on the ground before it passes right where Keith's head was seconds ago.
It seems like the guards had the time to call for reinforcement while Keith and Shiro where running away. Probably the one guard who hadn't been shooting at them.
"Shit," he curses under his breath, getting right back up. He needs to get to Shiro, and they need to go . They can't fight them all, and if reinforcement are arriving, they don't know how many there will be.
If they get swarmed it will be too late to do anything.
"Shiro!" he calls, but he realizes immediately what a mistake that was.
Shiro's concentration shatters and he looks back at Keith, surprised for the call, imagining maybe that Keith had been in danger. It's enough for the soldier in front of him to charge forward and slash Shiro's black arm. The man flinches and jumps back.
Keith sees red . He dashes forward, uncaring of the arrow he can hear coming to his direction, and he attacks the soldier forcing him to back away from Shiro.
This soldier is just as skilled as the one that Keith had just faces off, but he also seems more vicious, where it was obvious that the other was an honorable fighter. This one seems to be more focused in the results that the honor of the fight. Someone much more Keith's speed.
It also means that it's going to be an harder battle, and Keith doesn't have the time. He's almost ready to yell at Shiro to run, when it's Shiro who says, "Keith, get down".
Him and Shiro have fought many battles together in their life, enough that obeying Shiro's order has almost become second nature to him. He drops to the ground in a second, and the next moment something flies over his head, something that makes the air around them smell rancid and the light turn purple. When he looks back up the man he was facing is on the ground, his flesh it's morphing, purple veins coursing through him almost like vines.
He wheezes on the ground, a helpless and scared sound. It lasts for only a second, and the next he's dead. Keith knows he is, because he senses the pull of his magic.
He could bring him back for a few minutes and force him to fight the other soldiers. He doesn't care about preserving his soul, if he just needs a puppet, they are easier to make. But he won't.
This was never what he wanted, and he refuses to spiral even more.
Keith jumps back up and he turns, seeing Shiro with his black hand raised. He's panting and he looks scared. His arm is still bleeding, but it doesn't look like blood. Another arrow flyes near them, and Keith remembers that they don't have time .
"We have to go," he says, running towards Shiro. He goes to take Shiro's hand, but the other draws it back. There is no time to think about that because the next second they are running away.
Red is nowhere in sight, having run off after their trouble with the trap, and Keith can only hope that they will manage to find his tracks again once they are inside the forest.
After all, there's nothing else he can do.
The forest just outside the border of Orin is big, big enough that they run ten minutes inside it at full speed and the trees are still sparse, almost as if they haven't even reached the deepest part of the forest.
Still, there is no one following them still, and Keith stops running. Shiro notices it and stops as well a little further up.
Keith's breath doesn't come easily, and he thinks that he should be in better shape than this. Maybe raising someone from the dead wasn't exhausting only for the dead in question.
"Are you all right?" Keith asks, a little short of breath.
Shiro doesn't answer immediately and Keith raises his head, looking at the other. Shiro seems to be enthralled by his hand, his face is hard and there is something dark in it. Keith doesn't like it.
He takes a second more to rest before he walks towards the other and reaches for the black hand. For a moment it seems like Shiro might back away again, ask him not to touch him, but he just tenses up allowing Keith to take the hand in his.
It's still cold, but not as much as before, almost like there is warmth pulsing through it. The wound he had seen earlier is still there, and while it's still bleeding what comes out of it is certainly not blood.
It's purple and it looks to be unnatural, almost as if it was really rotten. They both look at it for a second, unsure.
"We shouldn't stay in the open," Shiro starts out of the blue, and Keith looks at him surprised. The other just shrugs, "we can figure this out somewhere safe."
"We have to close the cut before that," Keith protests, but Shiro doesn't seem particularly bothered by it. It makes Keith incredibly angry and he puts his hand over the cut and focuses . As much as Shiro is now a living being, his body will forever be tied to Keith's magic.
No one can come back to life without bearing some sort of lasting mark, and Shiro's body will forever be a dead body that clings to life. At least until Keith and his magic live.
In a moment he feels the cut close under his own palm and when he removes his hand it's like nothing ever happened.
"Never think that it doesn't matter," Keith hisses through clenched teeth. "Of course it matters."
For a moment he feels his throat closing up with emotions he has been bottling up deep inside, and he wonders if now will be the moment he finally breaks. Keith has tried, he really has, but he knows that one day it won't be enough, that something will just burst inside him and he will let everything go.
He tries to breathe and calm himself when he hears a hand on his cheek. It's warm and he doesn't need to open his eyes to know it's Shiro's normal hand. "I'm sorry," Shiro tells him, but Keith isn't sure if he's saying sorry for the right reasons.
His words seem empty. While not uncaring, he sounds like he's not sure he understands what Keith means. Keith just wants to shake him and make him see . Shiro had been so good at understanding Keith once, and now it seems like they are strangers.
Still, it's a reminder of what they are still facing and he checks himself. "We need to see if we can find Red," Keith says, "I think she run in this direction. And then we find a village."
Shiro nods, and they both know that while it would be better to white for sunlight before searching for the horse, Red could be on the other side of the Kingdom of Earth before that.
Keith wants to talk more, but there are more pressing concerns.
It takes them the better part of the rest of the night, but they finally find Red drinking at a nearby river. She's obviously exhausted and they decide to camp there for the night. It's not the safest of places, but they are too tired to care at this point.
For a moment after they set the fire Keith hesitates, but Shiro just pats the space beside him and Keith won't refuse an invitation so clear. They don't sleep at the same time, keeping watch, but Keith enjoys the physical connection all the same.
Shiro's sleeping form is peaceful, much more than Shiro has been while awake the past few days, and it's easier to pretend for a while that they are still good. That things are still good between them.
Keith wants to live in that fantasy for a little while longer.
They sleep a little later than usual, so that both of them can rest for a decent amount of time and so that Red can recuperate a little.
They don't have a clear idea of where they need to go now, there is a village just outside of the forest—of that they are certain—but they don't know exactly in what direction they need to walk.
They could talk, but no one starts the conversation. It's awkward and Keith begins to miss the moments of peace of the night before. It looks like they won't be able to have them again for a while.
In the end, they reach the end of the forest at dusk, but there is no village in their immediate vicinity. "Should we try and see if we can find it?" Shiro asks, but Keith knows that they are all tired. Would it really be worth it?
"Or we could camp..." Keith murmurs, but he wouldn't mind a bed and something to eat. They have been eating berries and fruits they found along the way, but Keith's stomach has been protesting since yesterday.
HIs distaste of the idea must be plain to see on this face because Shiro smirks, amused, and says, "so we keep walking."
Keith smiles back, more because Shiro seems to be actively enjoying this and isn't just acting like an emotionless pupper, and they keep walking. They dismount from Red, as to let her maybe rest a little and hope to find something soon.
Night is almost completely obscuring their vision and Keith is almost ready to give up and call it a day when Shiro exclaims: "There's a house there."
Keith blinks surprised and looks to where Shiro is pointing. There is a little house on the side of a mountain, and while it looks to be the only one in the vicinity, it might be worth to check it out.
There is a little bit of smoke coming from the chimney and when they get closer they can see the light of a lamp illuminating the inside.
They have no idea what time it is, having just a general idea of how much time has passed, but it looks like whoever lives here is still awake.
Still, before knocking they look at each other and try to see if there is something on them that screams I'm running from the law. They look like travelers, tired and a little dirty.
It's Shiro who gently knocks on the door and Keith is relieved. Even in the situation they are now he's sure Shiro is still better with stranger than he is.
It takes a moment for someone to open the door. It's a young man, dressed in a blue gown and looking a little annoyed.
"Yes?" the man says, and Shiro smiles, as friendly as usual. Looking at him now, no one would be able to guess the problems they've had to face and that he had been dead less than a week ago.
"Hello, we're sorry for disturbing you. We've been traveling for days, and we just want to know if you could point us in the direction of the nearest village," Shiro explains, cordial as ever. Someone appears behind the man and looks at them, a little suspiciously. They probably don't receive a lot of visitors in the middle of the night, and the ones that they do receive probably don't always have the best intentions.
It is actually surprising that they are so far from civilization and have so little security, if Keith is honest with himself. The Kingdom might not be at war like the Empire and Altea, but that doesn't mean that there haven't been casualties also in Kingdom territory.
"I'm sorry," the man says after a second, "But the nearest village is like two hours by horse," he shrugs, "I mean you could try going there now, but it's going to be dark soon."
Keith looks at Shiro, a little bit unsure. There is something strange here, but walking for another three hours sounds like torture.
"I understand," Shiro says, nodding. "I'm sorry to be bothering you, but we've been traveling so much and our horse is tired. We just need a night to recover without worrying about being attacked in the middle of the night. If you have any space to lend to us for the night, even a barn would be okay."
It's obvious that the man doesn't look excited at the idea, and he looks back at the other man. It seems like they live alone, and it also seems like they have a decent sense of self preservation at least.
"Look," the man says, in the end, "I won't let you into the house," he starts, "because I have no idea who you are. But you look like you're falling over and if you die somewhere I don't want to be responsible for it. So you can take the barn, it's empty anyway."
They are too grateful to argue, and the idea of sleeping under a roof is enough to make them excited. Before he closes the door in their face they can hear him mutter, "Can you believe? I was right!" and then the door closes in front of their faces.
They look at each other for a second, but they just shrug it off.
The barn isn't exactly warm, but it beats the harsh air of the forest. They also manage to finally make Red eat something she actually likes, and it's obvious that she's enjoying the moment of reprieve.
There is a question in the back of Keith's mind, because he's not sure why the two man even need a barn since it looks like no animals have been inside here for a while.
Still, it's not important.
They are lying down on the hard floor, but Shiro has insisted that Keith used his arm as a pillow and Keith hadn't been able to resist the idea of sleeping another night side by side.
Still, they both knew that they had put off this conversation for entirely too long.
"What happened?" Keith asks, looking the other in the eyes.
He hasn't been able to forget the guard, the look of horror and pain on his face. The purple vines that had wrapped around him. He knows it was Shiro who had done it, but he doesn't know how it was possible.
Whatever it had been, it looked nothing like paladin powers.
"I don't know," Shiro says. He's telling the truth, and his eyes gloss over almost as if he's haunted by the memory of it. Keith can't really blame him. "The moment he wounded me I felt... something rise inside me. It was like there was a new found strength. And I needed to push it outside ."
Keith listens to him and nods, a little confused. It sounds like nothing Keith had ever encountered in his researches of necromancy. At the same time, he had never studied the advanced tomes, unable to find them anywhere. It might have been the consequence of something he had done wrong, or only something that happened sometimes with severed limbs.
There was no way to know.
"And do you feel this force now?" Keith asks and Shiro just shakes his head.
"Not since you closed it off," the other explains. He seems to be thinking, his mind wandering a little. "Using it made it worse," he continues, like he's trying to remember, "the moment I attacked, my cut grew deeper, I could feel it."
Keith brow furrows at the explanation, feelings even more lost. It sounded like the wound had made Shiro stronger somehow, but how was it possible?
They fall silent after that, and it's obvious that they have no idea what to say, how any of this was even possible. Keith can't help but think it's his fault. He remembers Shiro's haunted expression, his harsh words. I'm still dead he had said, and Keith wonders if maybe he hadn't been right.
Shiro doesn't sound like himself most days, and while sometimes Keith catches glimpses of the man he loves, they are nothing more than breaches in the armor. Keith's magic can bring the body back to life and force the spirit back into it, but if the human doesn't want to live, then there is nothing he can do.
Shiro's voice breaks the silence. He sounds lost, filled with regret. "I killed him," he says, hollow, "I..."
Keith wants to tell him that if someone was to blame for this it was him and not Shiro, but shifting blames would bring them nowhere. Shiro doesn't need to know the burden Keith will carry. This was his decision, everything that will happen will be because of him.
And yet, it will be worth it.
"You didn't mean to," Keith reminds him, but Shiro looks sad all the same. It's still more emotion than Shiro has been showing lately and Keith, even in this dire circumstances, feels happy. "We'll discover what's happening to you," he promises. He doesn't say that they'll fix it, because he doesn't want to give Shiro hope when he's not even sure what this is.
Shiro nods, a little subdued, and Keith smiles at him.
"I'm sorry," Shiro says then, small, "what I said before. When we were arguing about..." Shiro stops, but Keith knows perfectly well what he's referring to. "I know why you did it, if the situation had been reversed..." Shiro stops, but Keith can see the anguish there, the realization of how much it would have hurt.
Keith doesn't need to imagine that pain for he still feels it, like a scar that doesn’t fade away. He will take a life on the run and Shiro's cutting words if it means being free of that agony.
"I know I was selfish," Keith tells him anyway, because it's not something he can ignore. Shiro might have been happier dead, at least he wouldn't have to suffer this way. It had been Keith who had forced him to come back.
"You had warned me," Shiro says, with a little smile, rethinking of their last conversation before Shiro had left for Kerberos and Keith can't help but laugh a little. "So I think it's my responsibility too."
"Even if it meant you hating me," Keith explains after a second, feeling like he owes Shiro the explanation, "I had to. It would still be a better alternative."
The silence that follows his statement is heavy and he regrets his admission the moment he says it. He knows what Shiro will reply to it, because it's Shiro and he's a kind man.
"I don't hate you Keith," Shiro lies—because there is no other possibility—"I could never." Shiro looks serious now and he moves forward, kissing Keith slowly. Sweetly. Keith closes his eyes and loses himself in the kiss.
He will take the lie, because he can have nothing else