The deep sea is a landscape unlike any other. Keith had known that even when he’d lived on the surface. He knows that fact all the more intimately now that he sleeps within its underbelly. Alien, foreign. Unwelcoming to strangers. It’s harsh. Oppressive. It’s not a place humans were ever meant to live. It’s a struggle , day in and day out.
Keith has accepted this as fact.
Shiro has, as well. They’d be stupid not to.
This is an intrusive place, this place beyond the reach of even the midnight zone. It is alien, isolated, and overbearing; it would swallow them whole were it just given the chance. But even in its darkness, its gloom, and all its heaviness, the two of them have always embraced the abyss with open arms.
It’s oppressive. But it’s their home.
The only home the two of them have ever truly known.
In the weeks that he and Shiro have spent together in the ocean’s depths, they have charged into its bleakness without hesitation. No longer alone, but side-by-side now, they face their artificial home and cling to whatever connection has bound them to each other. Whatever connection has bound them to this inhuman terrain.
Shiro has all but wriggled beneath Keith skin, burrowed his way beyond Keith’s walls the same the abyss has always longed to. And perhaps he has found himself burrowing into Shiro’s flesh as well, clinging to him, making a home for himself inside his warmth.
Facing the void together, Keith has learned, is far more comfortable than diving into the void alone.
Day after day after day, they tend to the rig, and in that time, they barely leave each other’s sides. They work together, dive together, train together, eat together, sleep together.
They kiss when the quiet allows them to. They make love when stillness has begun to settle over them.
Weeks of isolation and vacuity have never felt so intimate.
By the time their crewmates return to the rig - after thirteen long weeks spent on the surface - he and Shiro are all but constants at each other’s sides.
Keith has always been, more or less, a morning person. He has never been the type to sleep in or to linger in bed, no matter how exhausted he may be. It’s easy to wake up when you’ve spent your entire life waking up alone. There are duties to perform, missions to complete; his life as a diver has been punctual and ritualistic. He rises with his alarm, and sleeps when the day is done.
He’s never before had a reason to want to stay in bed.
Until Shiro, that is.
The chime of the rig’s PA system is just as shrill as Keith remembers it, and he awakes to it with a start. Its piercing ring is an annoyance he hasn’t had to endure in over three months now. While the rest of the crew was topside, he and Shiro had worked on their own schedule. He certainly hasn’t missed the alarm. But his crewmates are back, as is the alarm, and they have to get up. Keith squeezes his eyes shut as the PA system sounds off - a desperate but poor attempt to ignore the alarm’s demands. He only cracks one hesitant eyelid when Pidge’s voice flutters through the speaker.
“Good morning crew; briefing will be held in 30 minutes. We will rendevouz in Conference Room A at oh-five-hundred hours . Please acknowledge.”
Keith flings his hand towards the speaker. He fumbles across its face for a moment before he finds the call button, which he presses with a sigh.
“Keith and Shiro here - acknowledged. Be there soon.”
Pidge doesn’t respond. Keith can only assume it’s because she’s still trying to get a response from Hunk or Lance, both of whom are likely still crashed out. It’s been a long while since Keith has been up to the surface, but he remembers how hard it was to go from darkness to daylight and then back to darkness. Even with the medications the Garrison gives them, it takes days, sometimes weeks, for the body’s sleep schedule to properly recover and readjust. Keith is sure Pidge is struggling more than she’ll admit to, as well.
They’ll get used to it again eventually. The body adapts to change one way or another, come hell or high water.
Keith stretches out across the bed, slow and languid. The scar tissue across his body pulls taut as he moves. Keith rolls over and ignores the dull ache across his side and abdomen - discomfort seems to be par for the course for the modifications they live with.
Though if Shiro is bothered by his own, he never shows it.
He shakes the thought from his head. With one hand, he reaches out to touch Shiro’s back and drags his fingers along the scars that line his body. Shiro’s skin is warm; it’s flushed with slumberous heat, even in the chill of Keith’s bedroom. Keith doesn’t want to wake him, doesn’t want to disturb the unique and contented stillness that always settles over Shiro when he sleeps. But they have obligations and Keith knows they have to wake.
With a soft touch, Keith jiggles Shiro’s shoulder until he stirs. There’s a low grumble on Shiro’s lips as he turns over, and he stares at Keith with bleary, tired eyes.
“Shiro, we gotta get up,” Keith whispers in the darkness.
“Ugh,” Shiro grunts. Keith smiles - something he’s noticed himself doing more and more often over the last few weeks - at Shiro’s groan, because, yeah, he gets it.
They move with reluctance, but eventually pry themselves from the bed. They tend to their hygiene, don their diveskins, and head out to the conference room, but not before Shiro can steal a brief good morning kiss from Keith’s lips.
Only Pidge is in the conference room when Keith and Shiro arrive, but they barely have time to sit before Lance and Hunk are shuffling in, as well. As soon as they enter the room, Keith’s secondary eyelids slip closed - it’s a habit at this point, an unconscious, defensive gesture he does to wall himself off from them, to protect himself. Keith darts his eyes towards Pidge and catches her gaze. She looks away the minute her brown eyes meet his milky-white ones, and she makes a point not to say anything about it.
As she gets the projector up and running, Keith spares a glance at Shiro. He’s seated to Keith’s left, his chair a little closer to Keith’s than it probably needs to be, and his eyes are uncovered: alert and accessible to the rest of the crew. He’s been like that with them from day one - he was like that with Keith from day one. Keith wonders if things might be different for him now had he been more open with his teammates at the start of their tenure on the rig; but that’s the past and if Keith has learned anything from Shiro, it’s that the past can’t be changed. The power they have is only to move forward. Keith licks his lips and clears his throat, choking down the lump that has so suddenly formed there, and re-opens his secondary lids.
He blinks and looks around the room. Without the milky white haze, he’s naked. He’s comforted only by the confidence that Shiro exudes beside him. And yet his gesture receives no outward response from any of his crewmates - something for which Keith is grateful. If they notice his uncovered, open eyes, they make a point not to mention them. Opening his lids hadn’t even earned him a scoff of disgust from Lance.
It’s a start, he supposes.
“Okay, guys,” Pidge starts, “Hunk, Lance, and I spoke at length with the Garrison about our progress down here and how research has been moving along up top. They seem to really be going full steam up there, and they’re starting to understand more and more about some of the natural phenomena down here.”
Pidge pauses and adjusts her glasses. She flips over a few slides of some data, most of which means nothing to Keith. He assumes it means much more to Hunk and Lance - they’re the ones who are here for research. He and Shiro are the muscles - so to speak - the grunts who make this sort of work possible on a functional level.
“As such,” Pidge continues, “they’ve given us a new assignment for this run. They really want to start examining some of the genetic mutations we’re seeing down here in the trench. Which means we’re gunna have to start collecting more biological samples. Whole specimens, if possible.”
“I mean, that’s gunna be kinda tough,” Keith tells her, before shooting a glance to Shiro, “just over the last few months, Shiro and I have been seeing a lot more incidences of gigantism in the species… Not to mention their increased aggression.”
Pidge nods, “Yes, I remember you mentioning that in your reports. I mean, the Garrison would love to get an affected specimen, but I absolutely don’t want you two putting yourself at any unnecessary risk for it.”
“Yeah,” Lance chimes in, his affect surprisingly casual, even as he addresses Keith. He leans forward, resting his elbows on the conference table, “My understanding, from what Allura told me, is that the Garrison wants specimens if we can get them, but not if it’s going to put either of you in harm’s way. And I think that’s what we’d all prefer.”
Keith blinks, almost shocked with how easily Lance seems to express his concern for his and Shiro’s safety. It’s a welcomed change, but not one that Keith entirely knows how to respond to.
Shiro - always so attuned to Keith’s demeanor - gives Keith’s thigh a gentle squeeze beneath the table. He speaks up first, relieving Keith of having to come up with a reply.
“I think that’s a good plan. I mean, the research on the mutations could be invaluable, so we’ll definitely do our best. But we’ll make sure we’re safe about it.”
“Good,” Pidge says with a nod, “Other than that, we’re going to continue with our usual geological sampling, and smaller specimen collection. I also want to keep an eye on vent activity and any seismic activity that occurs.”
The group collectively nods.
No one replies, but they all shake their heads ‘no’.
“Good, well then, it’s the start of a new run. Let’s make it go well. Dismissed.”
The next few weeks go by in relative normality, or at least, as normal as life on the rig can be. They run their excursions, collect specimens, and maintain the rig, the same as they’ve always done. It’s the same life Keith has always had down here, except now, he has Shiro by his side.
He’s still not used to it, even after the months they’ve spent working together, living together, sleeping together, waking together. Shiro is always there - it feels almost as though he has always been here with Keith - and yet Keith still isn’t used to the warmth of the company.
He relishes in it anyway.
Shiro , who works in tandem with him. Shiro , who swims at his side. Shiro , who holds his hand every time the exit bay first fills with water because he knows the transition is traumatic for them both. Shiro , who tends to Keith’s wounds, who lets Keith tend to his wounds, as well. Shiro , who kisses his lips and reminds Keith that he doesn’t have to face the darkness alone anymore. Shiro , who falls asleep at his side, with mumbled affections ghosting across his lips.
Shiro. Always Shiro.
It’s odd to think about - this constancy - but Keith isn’t sure he could go back to the way things were before. The solitary runs, the isolated time spent out in the abyss, the time spent alone, adrift and aimless with nothing but the darkness, the pressure, and unseen creatures to keep him company. He’s… happier now with Shiro’s headlamp at his side. Happier now with Shiro’s voice - mechanized as it filters through his voicebox - reverberating through the water near him.
Keith doesn’t want to go back. He would rather dive into the trenches with Shiro’ than to have to face it on his own again.
He likes things better this way. He’s not used to it yet, but he certainly feels like he will get used to it. He welcomes the thought of it.
Plus, he has to admit, with the two of them working in tandem, the rig’s day-to-day operations are running far more smoothly than they ever have.
Everything runs smoothly now, it seems, and after a few weeks, they even set their eyes on a potential specimen for capture.
It’s a dragonfish: a massive one, and especially intriguing given how the species normally only grow to be six or so inches long. This one has to be five or six feet from tooth to tail - at least - and aggressively ravenous for whatever food it can get its mouth on. It’s developed a liking for the rig’s lighting system - it’s learned that smaller species are just as attracted to the lights as it is - and it never seems to go far from its newly found food source.
It’s the perfect candidate for research, and as soon as they’ve sent preliminary images of the animal to the Garrison, they’re given orders to obtain it.
They’ll never be able to bring it in alive, and Keith knows that. Its size, strength, and flexibility alone would be too much for just him and Shiro, and trying to sedate it would probably kill the damn thing anyway. If the struggle of capture didn’t kill it, then it would die the minute they brought it into the airlock. Like anything in the deep sea, the creature isn’t suited to handle the trauma of pressure fluctuation.
Keith knows that if they want to bring it in, it will have to die.
He almost feels bad for it. It’s a beautiful specimen, excessive in length and weight, with a mouth that could easily devour prey larger than its own robust figure if it chose to. It’s teeth are the length of Keith’s forearm, its eyes the size of tea saucers. It’s a black shimmer in the darkness, distinguishable from the pitch only when it arcs past the lights or darts in front of their cameras. It didn’t ask to be the way it is. It’s a creature of its environment, a sentiment that Keith more than understands. Colossal because its genes have dictated it to be so, ferocious and hungry because it yearns to survive, and solitary simply because that is what the abyss demands.
On some intangible level, Keith feels like he’s been that fish. Perhaps not anymore - but understands its life in ways he can’t fully describe.
Regardless, with the Garrison’s orders on the table, the next time he and Shiro go out, they’ll be bringing the animal back with them.
Their suit-up ritual is different this time. Rather than preparing for maintenance or passive collection, they prepare instead for an offensive. Instead of tools, they load a Rover up with projectile guns, spears, net, and rope. It looks a little gruesome, if Keith is honest, but he supposes that’s just how science has to look sometimes.
Death is a part of it sometimes and Keith has accepted that.
Shiro finishes strapping their gear onto the Rover and joins Keith in front of the bay doors. Beyond the bay doors is another small airlock, a tiny release bay made of multilayered, reinforced glass and plastics. Through the windows on the bay doors, through the glass of the exit bay, there is nothing but blackness, the same blackness that’s always there to greet them when the doors open wide. Keith stares at it with the same mix of awe and confrontation he gets before every mission.
From his right, he hears Shiro clear his throat.
Shiro’s hand reaches out and grips Keith’s, getting his attention. Turning his head, Keith meets Shiro’s gaze with a grin. Shiro’s secondary lids are already closed - as are Keith’s - but if he focuses, he can still see the tawny grey of Shiro’s irises through them. He wonders if Shiro can see the faint hints of purple in his own. He’s sure he can. Shiro grins at him and squeezes his hand.
“You ready for this?” Shiro asks.
Keith sucks in a long breath - one of the last gulps of air he’ll get to breathe for a while - and nods.
“Let’s ride, cowboy.”
Shiro nods, lets go of Keith’s hand, and slaps the release valve with determined confidence.
The airlocks hiss, the room depressurizes, and the water rushes in.
The deluge comes quickly, as it always does. The gigantic bay always seems to get so much smaller once the water begins to rise. And rise it does. By the time the water is up to their waists, Keith is already bracing himself for the transition his body will make in a couple moments.
Biological to mechanical.
The change is always the same, but Keith has yet to get used to it. He wonders if he ever will. Of course, on some level, he is used to it. He doesn’t flail or struggle when his lung shuts down and the water rushes into his body, not like he did the first few months after he had his implants installed. But there’s a part of his brain that will never adjust - and he’s not sure that he wants it to. It’s the part that reminds him he’s still human. That reminds him that no matter how many times he endures this, no matter how many times he feels this pain, this discomfort, it doesn’t necessarily get easier.
His fear response is a natural response. His calmness is a conditioned one. But part of him likes the human reaction - he clings to it. The fear, the panic that comes with the transition, it’s just his body refusing, if only for a moment, to drown. And no matter how many times he does this, Keith doubts he’ll ever shake that brief rush of dread that pools in his gut every time his port opens and the water seeps into his body.
The water encroaches on their chests now. To his right, he hears the tell-tale mechanical click and whir of Shiro’s port opening. Shiro’s startled gasp is quick to follow; an involuntary response to the seawater that’s now flooding through him and engulfing his organs.
Keith braces himself, like he always does, because the water is up to his ribcage now and he knows his own flood is coming.
Except it doesn’t come.
The sting of the salt, the surge of the water, the chill of the ocean invading his body to its core - none of it happens. Not like it’s supposed to.
Dread seeps into his stomach, more visceral now, and growing with each passing second.
In one split second, he’s never felt more human, or more fragile.
Keith fumbles both hands through the still-rising water to grapple at his side. His fingers grope across his ribcage and fondle at the port embedded into his flesh. It should be open right now - water should be rushing in. His mechanical lung should be kicking into gear and overriding his biological one, it should be filtering the seawater for oxygen. But it isn’t .
The port is sealed shut, and it doesn’t show any signs of opening. The machinery in his chest remains dormant.
Water splashes up along his shoulders and collarbone, threatening to lick at his throat with every passing second. In a moment it will be up to his chin. The dread that’s burning like bile in his stomach begins to creep and rise into his chest. Keith digs his fingers into his port again, trying to get some sort of grip on it, to wedge his nails into it, something , anything at all to pry the damn thing open. But it doesn’t budge.
“Shiro!” Keith exclaims over the rush of water flooding the room. His voice sputters around the saltwater that’s now lapping over his chin. Panic cracks his voice, “ Shiro !”
Shiro, now floating freely in the water to Keith’s right, turns to face Keith. The moment he sees the look of unbridled frenzy on Keith’s face, his expression shifts from curiosity to concern.
“What’s wrong??” Shiro shouts over the noise.
Keith attempts to tread water - his body suddenly feels very heavy as he forces himself to stay above the surface. The weight of the metal implants inside of him is overbearing. He’d never noticed it before; normally, the water flooding into him would have equalized everything and made him more neutrally buoyant. But not now… now they’re just deadweight. He’s never had to fight their heft, never had to fight their desire to drag him to the ocean floor.
“S-stop the fill!” Keith sputters again, water sloshing at his throat and chin.
“Stop the fill, my port won’t open!”
“Keith, I-I can’t, I think we’re past the override period. What do you mean it won’t open??”
Shiro doesn’t wait for Keith to reply. Instead, he dives beneath the surface and swims to Keith’s side to investigate the faulty hardware. Below the water, Shiro’s hands splay across Keith’s ribs, fingers trying to dig at the port and open it, just as Keith had done mere moments ago. But the vent’s hatch refuses to budge.
Keith doesn’t know how long Shiro is down there, all he can think about is keeping himself above the surface of the water. It’s still rising and it takes every ounce of energy he has just to keep himself afloat. He kicks his legs to tread, and bumps into Shiro with every other kick, but there’s no time to feel bad about it. If he doesn’t move, he’ll sink.
“S-stop the fill…” Keith stammers in a low voice. Shiro can’t hear him and Keith knows that, but he pleads nonetheless.
Shiro is still fumbling at his hardware, but his efforts do nothing to fix the issue. The water is rising so quickly; every time he blinks he’s another inch or two closer to the ceiling of the airlock bay. Before he knows it, there will be no space for him at all. No room to keep his head above the water, no air to breathe. Panic grips him even tighter at the thought.
Beside him, Shiro breaches the surface with a splash. Before he can speak, Pidge’s frantic voice radios over their comms.
“Guys, what the hell is going on in there? Both of your vitals are through the damn roof!”
Shiro puts a finger to his earpiece to reply, knowing that Keith couldn’t reply even if he wanted to. He’s grateful for it; he’s just lucky a drowning response hasn’t kicked in, but he’s in no shape to properly convey his predicament.
“Pidge we need a fill override now . Keith’s implants are malfunctioning.”
“An override?? Shiro, I’m already locked out! The system won’t allow an override this far into depressurization. The cycle has to finish before it can drain again.”
Shiro swims close and wraps his arm around Keith’s torso, helping keep him above the surface of the water. The harder he treads, the more energy and precious oxygen he’s depleting.
“What do you mean his implants are malfunctioning?” Pidge asks.
“His vent port won’t open - his lung isn’t active, Pidge, he’s not gunna be able to fucking breathe. We have to stop the fill!”
“I’m trying, Shiro, I’m trying! But it’s gunna have to finish before it can drain.” Pidge pauses. “Uh… Listen, Shiro, check along the walls. There… there might be an old O2 tank somewhere in there. I doubt it’s full but it’s a worth shot.”
Shiro doesn’t respond, but he dives immediately under the water. He’s gone for what feels like an eternity. In the back of Keith’s head, he knows that it’s probably only been a minute, but in Shiro’s absence, with the water steadily pushing him towards the top of the chamber, the seconds drag.
He resurfaces directly in front of Keith. Shiro doesn’t speak to him, but he wraps his arm around Keith’s waist again. Partly to support him and help him conserve energy, but partly just to remind him that he isn’t alone in here.
“I got nothin’, Pidge. There was an old tank, but it was completely zapped. Are you sure you can’t override?”
In his earpiece, Keith hears the steady clacking of her fingertips against her keyboard.
“No, I’m totally locked out.”
Keith begins to tremble - not from the cold that he is so viscerally beginning to feel - but rather from the anxiety and dread that is bearing down on him. No matter how hard he wants to pretend he hasn’t heard Pidge and Shiro’s communications, he’s heard every word with painful clarity. There’s no way to stop it - the flood will continue - and there’s only a about four feet left before they’ll reach the ceiling. Four feet until the air disappears, and that distance is dwindling with alarming swiftness.
“Who designed this, why the fuck can’t it be overridden?!” Shiro demands.
He sounds panicked, which only spurs Keith’s own panic.
“It’s a safety measure! To make sure the rig doesn’t depressurize along with the airlock...”
“What about our fuckin’ safety? Goddamnit, how long does the cycle take?”
The two of them have never actually paid attention to how long the process takes. Their focus in the bay has never been on the specific logistics; always far too wrapped up in their transformation to make note of exact times or procedure.
But they both have a conceptual idea of how long the cycle takes.
They both know it’s probably much longer than either one of them could reasonably hold their breath.
“Once it’s flooded?” Pidge asks. “Well, the bay doors have to disengage and then open fully to the secondary release bay. Normally, once the main doors open, the release bay doors open as well. But I think… I think I can stop the release bay’s doors from opening and initiate the Return Procedure immediately instead. If I can, then it’ll re-engage and close the inner bay doors. Once they’re closed, they have to lock, then the system runs a check of the seals, and then it starts the draining process…”
“Just… How long , Pidge?” Shiro demands again..
“Um… The airlock cycle only registers as complete once the entire room is flooded… You might run out of room at the top before the sensors even register that the room is filled. So that’s an extra… 30 seconds under water before the bay doors will even start the opening sequence. All in all, I’d say the process takes… 7 or 8 minutes?”
“Shiro?!” Keith sputters as soon as he hears the timeframe. His voice is fearful, looking to Shiro for some form of reassurance that Shiro knows he can’t give him.
“Fuck…” Shiro mumbles.
“Shiro, what about the pressure?” Pidge warbles in his ear.
Shiro shakes his head and tightens his arm around Keith’s middle.
“His diveskin should be enough for now… But Pidge, you,” Shiro pauses and throws a worried glance towards the bay doors, “Pidge, you have to make sure the release bay doors don’t open. If they equalize the pressure in here with the pressure out there the-the diveskin won’t be able to hold it off.”
Shiro’s fingers dig into his side as he holds him, and Keith tries to ignore the uneasy quiver in Shiro’s tone.
“I’ll… I’ll do my best. I’m 99% sure I can override there, there’s an opening in the exit procedure code that I can slip into and start an override.”
Shiro turns his focus back to Keith. He holds onto him and keeps him afloat, but turns Keith in his arms so they’re facing each other.
Their chests press together, Shiro’s body resting flush against his is the only comfort that Keith can cling to right now. His unwittingly eyes bounce between Shiro and the rapidly-approaching ceiling above him. There are a few pipes running across the length of the ceiling, and Keith’s first thought is that he’ll grab them as soon as he can reach them to keep himself afloat, to let himself conserve a little more energy and air.
Shiro’s free hand cups his jaw, a gentle touch amid the chaos. The rubbery texture of Shiro’s diveskin catches on Keith’s stubble, but he takes comfort in Shiro’s presence.
“Keith, look at me,” Shiro says, drawing Keith’s attention away from the ceiling and back onto him, “how long can you hold your breath?”
Keith shakes his head - nervous, unsure. He doesn’t know how long he can hold his breath - with his modifications, he hasn’t needed to hold his breath in water in god knows how long. Years? Whatever training his human lungs once had is well-diminished by now; a lack of practice, worsened too by the fact that only one of his lungs will even hold air anymore.
“I-I don’t know, not that long.” Keith pauses and shoots an uneasy glance back up at the ceiling. It’s closer now - only a couple feet remaining between the two of them and the unforgiving metal of the airlock.
7 or 8 minutes , Pidge had said.
Keith shakes his head again. The saltwater slashes around his chin and mouth.
“Shiro, I-I can’t hold it that long…”
“Keith, listen to me. You’re going to have to hold your breath.”
“I can’t .”
Shiro looks up and tightens his arm around Keith’s middle.
“You can and you will!l. When we get closer, I want you to grab onto that pipe - conserve your energy, okay? You need to be calm. Control your breathing; take slow, deep breaths, and oxygenate yourself as best you can.”
Keith doesn’t speak, but he gives Shiro a tense nod. He looks back up to the ceiling and tries to assess how long he has until he reaches the top. It can’t be long. A minute, maybe. Not long enough. Keith clenches his jaw; he tries not to shake as the ceiling draws nearer and nearer.
As soon as the ceiling is within reach, Keith jolts upwards. He kicks with his legs - hard and strong - and propels himself up towards the pipes with Shiro’s help. He misses the first time, his fingers just barely grazing the pipe before he splashes back down. But the water keeps rising and by the time he kicks again, he manages to grab one.
The rubbery grip of his diveskin helps him hold onto it. The metal creaks beneath his weight - the weight of his body plus the hefty weight of the titanium implants in his body - but it holds firm. Shiro supports him still, and Keith hangs on, and uses the moment to suck in as much oxygen as he can.
It doesn’t feel like enough.
The tightness in his chest, the panic in his gut; there’s not enough air in the world to quell it.
Shiro doesn’t let him go, even when he’s got a firm hold on the pipe above him. He keeps his prosthetic arm around Keith’s middle and leaves his human hand cupped against the curve of his jaw. It isn’t much, but it lets Keith check out. If only for a moment.
For a brief few seconds, Keith can imagine that they aren’t here. He can imagine that he’s back in his bed with Shiro at his side. He can imagine that Shiro is holding him close, hands touching his skin in the most intimate of ways, lips peppering kisses across his neck while he whispers softness into Keith’s ear.
The thought is comforting. Until it isn’t.
It’s comforting until Keith realizes that he might never get to feel those things again.
It’s comforting until Keith realizes this might be last time he ever feels Shiro’s arms around him, that he ever feels Shiro’s hand against his face.
He shakes his head - vigorous as the water sloshes them further and further up - and tries to forget those thoughts. But they’re almost to the ceiling and there’s nowhere left for those thoughts to go.
So they stay, and Keith looks back at Shiro and wonders if this is how he’s going to die.
“Sh-Shiro,” Keith sputters. He yanks his gaze back to the ceiling. It’s only a couple inches away now.
“I’m here, just breathe .” Shiro doesn’t say the implicit while you can , but Keith can hear it in his voice.
Keith slams his eyes shut, teeth clenched together as he forces himself to breath. But every breath is panicked-, every gasp isn’t enough. There isn’t enough air in this room to save him.
The top of Keith’s head bumps the ceiling, and he can’t stop the cry that leaves his lips.
“Shiro! I don’t- I don’t want-!”
“Breathe!” Shiro shouts above the discord.
Holding onto the pipe above him is worthless now, but Keith clings to it nonetheless. He clings to it as Shiro clings to him, using all of his might to support Keith and keep him as close to the ceiling as he can. But there’s no room anymore. There’s no space for him. The water is pushing him aside, filling all the empty crevices until there’s nothing left to breathe. Keith grapples for purchase along the ceiling, tilts his head back so his nose and mouth can find whatever pocket of breathable air is left.
“Sh-Shiro,” Keith mumbles against the harsh steel of the ceiling. He wants to scream his name, but he can’t. His voice echoes back at him off the metal, muted only once the sound bounces against the water encroaching upon him.
His eyes sting.
The space is dwindling, his voice is too.
There’s nowhere to go now but down.
“Shiro, god , Shiro , I’m sca-”
And then silence.
The ocean swallows him, cuts him off and engulfs him.
No space now, no air to breath. Just the saltwater and the lonely gasp of oxygen he houses in his biological lung.
Keith floats down a couple inches from the ceiling. He pries open his lids, and keeps his secondary lids closed. In front of him, he can see Shiro clearly. The concerned lines on Shiro’s face are evident even through the thin facial covering Shiro’s diveskin has produced. Keith wonders if his has engaged or not - it probably has. His ‘skin and his lids seem to be the only things that wanted to work.
He wants to speak but his voicebox won’t work without water in his body. So he keeps his mouth clenched shut and listens, hoping his auditory implants work, hoping he will hear Shiro speak.
Keith is terrified - and he doesn’t know how to conceal it.
Shiro is terrified - and Keith wishes to god Shiro were better at hiding his emotions.
But he isn’t, and here they are.
Both of Shiro’s hands cup Keith’s face now.
“I’m still here,” Shiro reassures. His voice is mechanical and toneless through his voicebox, but it’s Shiro’s voice, and that’s all Keith cares about.
Keith nods, happy that his hearing is working, at least. But his chest is beginning to ache in need.
“How’s it coming, Pidge?”
As if the bay itself wished to answer Shiro’s question, a loud, mechanical clank thunders through the water. Keith knows that sound - it’s the bay doors disengaging and starting to open. For a brief moment, Keith wonders if maybe he’ll be okay… If maybe he can do this.
“The inner bay doors are open, I’m overriding the release bay right now. We should be okay there… But the time frame I gave you is… still about the same.”
“Please, hurry,” Shiro tells her.
“I got it! I’m initiating the Return Procedure. God, Keith, just hang on.”
“You can do this…” Shiro tells Keith, nodding as he speaks. He’s trying to be resolute and confident, but he doesn’t look or sound sure. Even through his mechanized voicebox, even with the lack of tone, even with Shiro’s face covered, Keith can read him like a book. He knows when Shiro is worried - and Shiro is worried now.
Shiro draws Keith close to him through the water and winds his arms around Keith’s shoulders so that they’re chests are pressed flush together. The warmth of Shiro’s body is muted by his diveskin and the icy water around them, but his presence is good enough for Keith. Keith clings to him, digs his fingers into Shiro’s back and buries his face in Shiro’s neck. His body is pleading with him to breathe, panic in his gut mixing with the horrid, twisted pain in his chest. If his lung could shrivel up, he’s sure it would.
Shiro’s heartbeat pounds against his sternum, so rapid, so frenetic that Keith can feel its thunder in his own chest.
“You can do this,” Shiro reassures him again.
Keith nods against him - an agreement he’s making but somehow knows he can’t keep. He can do this - it’s what Shiro wants to believe - but he can’t . The yearning in his chest for air is too much to ignore and he’s suddenly very lightheaded.
“Guys, I have the Return Procedure running. It’s just starting the seal check.”
There’s so much time still, so much longer until the room will even start to drain. Keith’s head is getting hazy, his stomach a twisting, writhing mess, and that horrid tightness that has taken hold of him just won’t let go.
In a sudden burst of energy, Keith shoves Shiro away from him a few inches. He keeps his hands planted on Shiro’s shoulders and scans his eyes. He can just barely see Shiro’s irises, but he stares into them. He yearns to find an ounce of hope in them, desperate for even just a morsel of belief in Shiro’s eyes that Keith will be okay.
But hope isn’t there.
Instead, there’s fear.
There is outright terror hidden beneath the pearly sheen of Shiro’s lids and Keith’s stomach aches with nausea. A few bubbles slip out of Keith’s mouth, and he takes a moment to close his regular eyelids. Just for a moment, an extended blink, long and slow, so that the darkness can overtake his vision for one gentle second. But Shiro doesn’t let him linger. He shakes Keith’s shoulders, rattling his eyelids back open.
“Don’t give up, Keith, please . You can’t give up, goddamnit!”
Keith purses his lips together - afraid that if he opens them, he will only gasp for air - and stares back at Shiro. There is fear on his own face, and Keith knows that Shiro can see it well, so he tries his best to calm himself and to quiet his features. He softens his brow, tries to stop the tremble of his tightly-clenched mouth, even if he knows it’s futile.
He lifts his hands and cradles Shiro’s face - just as Shiro had with him - and forces a smile.
Shiro shakes his head as the sudden realization that Keith is fading hits him.
“No,” Shiro tells him. “Just a couple minutes longer.”
Keith shakes his head this time.
He can’t do this, no matter how much Shiro wants to believe he can. His vision is already getting dark, and there’s a sudden aura of acceptance settling over him.
He’s only human, after all. There’s some comfort in that, at least.
“Keith, goddamnit, don’t you fucking give up, no !”
He has to give in eventually. He can’t do this. He has to breathe, dear christ, he needs to breathe . His facial muscles twitch and tense, wincing as he tries his best to fight the urge to gulp down the water in lieu of air. But his vision is getting foggier, and Shiro’s shape in front of him is getting blurrier with every passing second. He’s desatting, he must be. At least he’s still cognizant enough to realize it.
But he’s scared, god is he fucking scared .
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Keith knew this was a possibility. Maybe not this specific situation, but the prospect of death itself. This isn’t some 9 to 5. Hardware failure, rig failure, wildlife attack, it’s all a risk in this profession. Hell, even something as minor as a diveskin malfunction could result in a diver getting liquidated by the trench’s pressure.
Every diver knows that death is a natural risk of the work they do. But no diver ever thinks it will happen to them.
No diver ever thinks they’ll go out like this.
Is that what Shiro thought before his rig collapsed? Did Shiro believe disaster wouldn’t befall him?
Did Shiro believe that the two of them - he and Keith - would somehow be safe down here together?
Keith had believed that. And yet, here they are.
Keith’s expression softens. He keeps his hand on Shiro’s face, drags his thumbs across Shiro’s cheek. He wishes to god he could actually feel Shiro’s skin.
Shiro’s hands lower to Keith’s hips. His fingers dig into the muscle, the bone, as Shiro yanks his head back and forth in desperate refusal.
“Keith, no , just a little longer, come on !”
Pidge says something, too. Her voice warbles through his earpiece but he can’t make out the words.
Keith forces a smile. It’s too small, too half-hearted, but it’s the best he can manage. His lips hold it for as long as he can, but it fades just as quickly as he’d put it on. His features quiver, and each blink of his eyelids gets heavier and heavier. Without thinking, he yanks Shiro to him, slamming their mouths together.
He can’t feel Shiro’s lips - they’re covered by the thin film of his facial diveskin - but it’s good enough. Keith sputters against Shiro’s mouth, bubbles of far-too-old carbon dioxide cascading against Shiro’s face as he does.
He doesn’t want to but the burning ache in his chest won’t let him be rational.
His hands clutch and grapple Shiro, fingers struggling for any purchase, any steadiness they can get.
And he gasps. He gasps for the air he knows he won’t find.
Saltwater fills his lung, and everything goes dark.
Shiro barely hears her, but he registers the tell-tale sounds of the water siphon in the bay. He holds onto Keith’s form - now limp in the water and heavy with the weight of his implants - and glances upwards. It should only take a few seconds before there’s enough space at the top. If he can get Keith up there as soon as it’s accessible, there might be a chance.
But Keith isn’t moving. His eyes are closed and the few bubbles that had been flitting out of his mouth a moment ago are gone. Panic grips Shiro around the throat.
He can get Keith to the top - no doubt about that - but there’s no way of knowing if Keith will breathe once he’s there.
“Pidge,” Shiro starts, “I’m gunna get him to the top as soon as there’s enough room, but I want you three fucking ready outside the bay with meds, the paddles, and some towels.”
“Right, yeah, okay, which meds and how much??”
Shiro clenches his eyes shut, trying to run the numbers in his head, figuring out the dosages he needs for Keith’s weight. Math was never his strong suit, but Keith’s life in his hands so he’s going to make it his strong suit, one way or another.
“Uh, get… get 50 cc’s of Olkarizine and another 50, no, 60 of Alteanal… Got that??”
“Copy that,” Pidge affirms. Through the comm, Shiro can hear her shouting, “Hunk, Lance, go to the med bay and get 60 cc’s of Alteanal and 50 cc’s of Olkarizine! And grab the fucking paddles.”
Shiro glances up to the ceiling, the water has to be down enough now. He thrusts himself and Keith upwards, kicking his legs as hard as he can to haul them both to the top. He breaches the water, slamming his head into one of the pipes that line the ceiling, but there’s plenty of breathing room now. At least a head’s length of space from the roof to the top of the water.
He hauls Keith close to him and pushes him up, one arm around his waist, and the other supporting his head to keep it above the water. As soon as their diveskins sense the air, the facial covering retracts.
“Come on, Keith, breathe…”
But he doesn’t.
“Keith, fucking breathe ,” He pleads.
Shiro shakes him. He issues his plea as if it were an order. He smacks Keith’s face and jostles his body. But Keith remains motionless, and what little color he has is fading with every passing second. Shiro touches Keith’s lips - they’re pale now and shifting towards blue - and if he could touch them without his diveskin, he knows they’d be frigid.
“Please…” Shiro whispers, his voice all but drowned out by the noise of the draining bay.
They sink away from the ceiling as the water continues to siphon out. His fingers tremble as he moves them to Keith’s throat. He has to check for a pulse, knowing that there probably won’t be one.
Keith doesn’t have one - at least, not that he can feel amidst the chaos of the drain. He has to start compressions the minute he gets on the ground, but the floor is still so far away and every moment they float there is another moment of lost life.
The seconds pass like agonizing hours, time diluted while Shiro all but begs Keith to live again, to breathe for him, to show him any sign that he’s still with him. But he never does. Shiro keeps him close. He clenches his jaw and continues to shake Keith’s body, as though it might somehow restore him. It’s an outright futile motion but Shiro can’t think of anything else to do. Eyes clenched shut, he pulls Keith closer and presses his forehead against cold temple.
“Keith, god damnit !”
Shiro knows damn well Keith won’t hear him or respond. His voice his hoarse now, aching from his screaming, from the painful lump that has developed in his throat, from the way he’s barely holding back an onslaught of despair.
It takes another minute before Shiro’s feet touch the floor, but once they do, the rest of the water seems to drain in an instant. Shiro eases Keith onto the ground and positions him so he’s flat on his back with his head tilted back so his airway is open. His fingers fumble for Keith’s neck again, desperate to feel a pulse he knows isn’t there.
He doesn’t bother waiting for his crewmates. The locks on the doors won’t disengage for another moment and there’s no time to spare right now. He starts compressions.
Learning CPR is a basic requirement for all Garrison cadets and employees, but it’s a skill that no one ever believes they’ll have to use. No one ever believes they might have to save someone’s life until the day they actually have to.
Shiro never thought he would have to use it. But here they are.
He tries to calm himself, tries to quell the frenetic energy in his gut as he hums the beat they’d taught him in his head - the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” - such a positive song for such a desperate action. He tries not to think about the fact that the rate of compressions also perfectly lines up to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” .
God, what was was the compression to breath ratio for adults? Thirty to two?
Yes, that’s it.
Shiro’s gone through two cycles by the time Pidge, Lance, and Hunk make it into the bay. The three of them fumble in as soon as the locks on the bay doors release. Shiro heaves two breaths into Keith’s mouth and returns to compressing his chest while shouting at his crewmates.
“One of you, dry the floor off - dry everything off around us and under us as best you can. Pidge, we gotta get the drugs in; he still doesn’t have a pulse. Can you start an IV?”
“I can,” Hunk says, fumbling to kneel at Keith’s side.
Lance and Pidge set to work drying the floor around them, clearing the area of water in case they need to use the paddles.
“Push all the Olkarizine when you get the IV,” Shiro tells Hunk, “But just do 45 of the Alteanal - I want the extra 15 on hand in case we need it…”
The Olkarizine will keep his cells in-tact for a while - a brief protective mechanism to prevent cellular and neuronal death. And the Alteanal should get the heart going again - the paddles are just a safety measure in case it jump starts him straight to dysrhythmia.
Hunk has the IV in before Shiro can even make it through another compression cycle. Expertly and swiftly placed, before Shiro knows it they’ve pushed the drugs into Keith’s system.
The medicine doesn’t work immediately. It takes time to get into the bloodstream, especially when Shiro’s chest compressions are the only things pumping blood through Keith’s body. The team knows that. Shiro knows that. This was all part of their medical training. And yet, there’s a part of Shiro that half-expected Keith to jolt up in a fit of life the moment Hunk pushed the medicine, to return from the dead in an instant like Lazarus.
But he doesn’t.
The drugs are in, Shiro continues compressions and breaths, and they wait for something , anything at all to happen.
For a few long and agonizing moments, there’s… nothing.
No movement, no coughing, no flinching, no sudden burst of life.
“Keith! Fucking god, give me something !” Shiro grunts, finishing the compressions and leaning back in to give two more breaths.
“Come on…” Lance mumbles from behind Shiro, nervousness plaguing his voice, just as it has the rest of them.
But Keith just lies there. His pallid face, his still body a truth that Shiro is beginning to fear more and more with every useless compression or breath he gives.
He swore he would do better this time around. He swore he would look out for his team. Swore he would look out for Keith, would keep him safe. He swore they would be there for each other.
And he failed.
He failed the man who’d stared down the abyss with him, who’d let him into his world when the ocean had created a protective void around him. He failed this man, this good and loving man, who’d come to trust him. Shiro failed.
For a split second, his motions falter, despair setting over him like a thick fog. But he shakes his head, refocuses his attention, and resumes his compressions. His shoulders are aching now, but he doesn’t slow down. A mixture of terror and foolhardy determination flares in his gut; he’ll give compressions, and push drugs, and give rescue breaths until Keith breathes or until Shiro himself wastes away.
But he won’t give up.
Shiro jerks his head up and shoots a curt nod at Hunk. Hunk nods back, understanding Shiro’s request without instruction. Hunk grabs the syringe of Alteanal and pushes the remaining 15 cc’s.
It takes a moment. Another long, dragging moment of absolutely nothing before Keith’s body suddenly flinches beneath Shiro’s hands. Shiro’s motions falter as Keith’s body jerks again - it’s a painful, wrenching twitch of a movement, but it’s life. Shiro stops compressions and shoves his fingers against Keith’s throat.
It’s faint but there’s a pulse there, the Alteanal finally doing it’s damn job. Keith’s body begins to convulse more drastically and it only takes another moment before Keith’s chest and stomach heave with a deep, clenching cough. His muscles tighten as he gags and a slew of sea water gushes from his mouth.
Relief floods over Shiro - from behind him, he hears his crewmates let out a mix of happy shouts and sighs - but Shiro doesn’t have time to bask in the joy. They aren’t out of the water yet.
On instinct, he rolls Keith to face the opposite wall, forcing him onto his side so he doesn’t choke. Keith heaves again - water and vomit and bile splatter onto the floor. Keith is shaking and Shiro scoots in close, and lifts Keith up a little, cradling him so he’s resting on Shiro’s thighs, Keith’s back haphazardly pressed against Shiro's chest. He holds him as close as he can while still keeping him turned to the side so that Keith can eject the foreign fluids from his body. Shiro wants to shout for joy, to yank Keith close to him, to cling to him and sob his relief, but he can't yet. Keith hasn't actually taken a breath yet.
The painful, horrid retching sounds echo in the empty bay, and fluid splashes across the floor with every convulsion. But there’s no breath.
It goes on for what feels like an eternity. At this point, all Shiro can do is support him, hold him through it, and hope for the best. But after a few more final, painful heaves, Shiro finally hears it.
It’s a deep and guttural gulp for oxygen, panicked and needy as Keith scrambles for breath. But he’s goddamn breathing. Still on his side, Keith’s fingers claw at the floor, fingernails scraping across the rough metal. He’s disoriented, confused, and in pain. But he’s breathing. Keith sucks in a few more sharp gasps before finally choking out another cough and sputtering a word.
“I’m here,” Shiro emphasizes as he gets an arm under Keith’s armpit and rolls him halfway onto his back. He pulls Keith back towards him in one gentle motion, positioning him across his lap. Keith is bleary-eyed, his secondary lids half-open, half-closed. He’s still so pale, but the color is gradually returning to his lips, and his breaths beginning to steady.
“I’m here, Keith. You’re okay. You’re okay...”
He keeps Keith cradled in one arm, his companion still slumped and shaking, pressed against his chest. His other other hand peels part of Keith’s diveskin off his head, revealing his hair, just so Shiro can drag his fingers through it. It’s a small act of comfort, one that might not mean anything amidst the chaos and confusion, but it’s something.
Whenever a dive was too rough, whenever one of them were injured, whenever they felt more than a little too consumed by the darkness, it was the smaller gestures that helped center them both. It was contact, it was comfort, it was a reminder that they weren’t alone.
So he strokes Keith hair as he shakes and tenses, as his body dry heaves when it has nothing left to give.
Moments tick on and Keith continues to suck in deep, uneven breaths, but his tremors have begun to ebb. Shiro stares down at him and pets his hair, making sure to keep it from falling over Keith’s face. He lets his fingers linger as they brush across Keith’s cheek - relieved to feel some warmth returning to his flesh.
Keith groans and turns his head. The motion is slow - laborious and uncomfortable, as though his head were the weight of the world - but he angles his up from Shiro’s chest to stare at him. Shiro meets his eyes - they’re still bleary and half-lidded, but he knows Keith can see him.
“S-Shiro?” Keith whimpers.
“Yeah, it’s me… You’re okay.”
Keith nods and relaxes his head again against Shiro’s chest, his eyes slipping shut as he does so.
“We need to get him up to the medbay, Shiro,” Lance tells him with a gentle squeeze of his shoulder.
“Yeah… Yeah, you’re right.”
He hooks his right arm underneath Keith’s knees and keeps his left wrapped around Keith’s torso and hoists him up. Without a word, he follows his crewmates to the medical bay.
It takes two days before they get a response from the Garrison about Keith’s condition and hardware. Keith spends the time asleep, hooked up to a myriad of lines in the medical bay. The unit is fairly well-equipped - as it needs to be, given the constant physical dangers the whole crew faces fives miles below the surface. They keep him on a regular regiment of medication, fluids, and oxygen to prevent any possible degradation of his health before the Garrison can treat him. And he seems to do well enough.
Shiro spends the time at Keith’s side.
There’s routine maintenance he should be doing. He’s sure the Garrison wouldn’t be pleased to know that his duties have been sidelined for the sake of staying at Keith’s bedside during his recovery. But even Pidge had told him that, unless a repair was absolutely dire, she didn’t want him on a dive until they heard back from the higher ups.
He appreciates the sentiment. Her understanding is comforting, but he wonders if she realizes that he wouldn’t leave Keith’s side even if she’d ordered him to do so.
Soon enough, a message from the Garrison will flit down to the depths, and they’ll tell him Keith has to go topside for treatment and hardware repair. Soon enough, Keith will leave, and will be gone for at least a few months to recover. And Shiro is fine with that - really - because he knows, for Keith’s sake, it has to be done. Keith’s health is far more important than whatever budding sense of separation anxiety he’s feeling. But the less rational part of him, the part of him that wishes only to hold onto Keith until he’s well, is dreading the moment when Keith will leave the station. Even if it’s just for a few months.
For now, he’ll spend what little time he can with Keith.
When Keith finally wakes, it’s after the Garrison sends down word of their pick-up schedule.
They plan to send a med-equipped shuttle down to the rig in the next day or two to obtain Keith and take him back topside.
Keith wakes late in the night - or at least that’s what the clock says. The rest of the crew has already retired to bed and the rig’s light system has shifted to ‘night’ mode. In the dim light, Shiro can barely make out Keith’s face, but he can see well enough to tell when his face begins to move.
When his eyes open, they fall to Shiro immediately, and he smiles .
Keith smiles and sighs, reaching a hand out to find Shiro’s.
“Shiro,” he mumbles. His voice is almost reverent, as though there were no one else he would’ve wanted to see when he woke.
Shiro scoots his chair an inch closer to the side of the stretcher and takes Keith’s outstretched hand. He brings it to his lips and kisses the top of Keith’s hand.
“Hey,” Shiro smiles at him and searches his face for any signs of discomfort, “how do you feel?”
Shiro tries not to cringe. Despite the attempted lightheartedness in Keith’s voice, his words fall between them like a stone.
“But overall, I feel okay,” Keith continues. Whether it’s the truth or whether he’d simply seen Shiro’s discomfort, Shiro can’t say for sure, but he accepts it nonetheless.
“Good. I’m… I’m so glad to see you awake.”
Keith lets out a low breath.
“How long was I out?”
“Couple days. Garrison’s gunna come in a day or so to take you topside, get you all… fixed up.”
“Oh god, I gotta go up there?”
“Heh,” Shiro forces out, “Unfortunate, isn’t it?” he clears his throat. “Yeah, they said you’ll be up there for probably two or three months.”
Keith’s face falls.
“Two or three months ? Wait… What about you?” Keith asks, his brow furrowed as he struggles to sit up a little more in the bed, “You’ll… you’ll be working alone?”
Shiro forces a smile and tries to hide the way his lips falter and tense beneath the facade. With a shrug, he darts his eyes down to their clasped hands. He strokes his thumb across the back of Keith’s hand.
“I know, but… I’ll be okay. I mean, we both dove alone before I came here…”
It’s true, he and Keith have more than enough experience facing their duties in the abyss on their own. But that sense of comfort in solitude has all but faded in the time they’ve spent together. At one point, yes, the bottom of a trench was a perfectly acceptable place for one person, but now they’ve both had a taste of human comfort, and staring down the abyss alone no longer feels as welcoming or as easy as it once had.
He’d rather hold Keith’s hand and swim at his side than leave this station alone.
But it is what it is. He’ll do what he must, even if he doesn’t like it. Especially if it’s what’s best for Keith.
“I’ll be okay,” Shiro assures him again, “And-and you’ll be back before you know it.”
Shiro squeezes Keith’s hand, his thumb beginning to stroke the skin there a little more erratically. It’s false reassurance - and whether Shiro intends that comfort for Keith or for himself, he isn’t entirely sure.
“You saved my life,” Keith whispers in the darkness.
Shiro nods and gives Keith’s hand a hard squeeze.
“Of course,” Shiro whispers back. He doesn’t bother to hide the tight roughness to his voice.
A beat passes before Keith takes a long, slow breath and sighs.
“You know,” Keith starts, “You never think shit like this will happen to you…”
Shiro’s jaw clenches and he shakes his head.
“I really thought I was going to die,” Keith continues, “it was horrible. I was, fuck, I was terrified. I’ve never felt anything like that. And yet, it was… okay. Because you were there. When I started fading, I remember seeing your face… And I felt okay. I guess if I have to die, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather see before I go.”
Shiro wants to reply, but he can’t find the right words. What can he even say to that?
Keith did die, at least for a moment. And Shiro was the last thing he’d seen.
Shiro lowers his head down and rests it against their clasped hands. His forehead presses against the back of Keith’s hand and he nuzzles the skin there, taking in the deep-seated warmth that lives within Keith’s flesh again. He’s alive, he’s breathing, and he’s going to be fine, but the ache of his death sits like a stone in Shiro’s gut.
He almost lost him.
Shiro shakes his head against Keith’s hand and whispers through his clenched teeth.
“Nothing is going to happen to you, not so long as I can help it.”
A soft hand rests atop his head, fingers caressing his short, cropped hair.
“You couldn’t have known, Shiro… There was no predicting this.”
“I know, but-”
“What if I’d noticed you were struggling just a few seconds earlier?” Shiro asks him, renching his head up from their hands to look into Keith’s eyes.
Keith’s hand falls from his head. Shiro stares at him with unsteady eyes, and try as he might, he can’t stop the tremble in his voice.
“Keith, what if I had noticed earlier? What if we could’ve stopped the fill then? What if-”
Keith stops him with a hand cradled against his cheek.
“Shiro, stop. It doesn’t matter, the ‘what ifs’ don’t matter… What happened, happened, and you still saved me.”
Shiro’s jaw quivers and he drops his eyes from Keith’s. He covers Keith’s hand with his own, pressing his face more deeply into the touch, but nods his agreement.
“Shiro?” Keith lowers his voice. “Hey, look at me.”
Shiro obliges - albeit uneasily - and meets Keith’s gaze again.
“I love you,” Keith tells him. His tone is a little raw, but straightforward as always, as though he’d wanted to say it for a while now but hadn’t found the moment.
It almost takes Shiro aback.
Shiro blinks a few times before shutting his eyes and pressing his lips against Keith’s palm.
“I love you, too.”
He means it. Because how could he not? What else could he feel for this man? For this man who has become a constant at his side, who has learned him, has supported him, who has slept at his side and touched his body, his mouth, his hands with care and tenderness? How could he not feel for the man who faces the ungodly void by his side without hesitation?
He loves Keith. Of course he does.
“Stay with me tonight?” Keith asks, already scooting over in his stretcher to give Shiro some room.
Shiro quirks his mouth in a soft smile.
“Of course,” he tells him.
Tomorrow, or the next day, the sub will come and take Keith to the surface. But for now, he crawls onto the too-small bed, and rests his head on Keith’s chest to listen to his heartbeat. For now, he’ll sleep, his arms wrapped around Keith’s waist, and remember that leaving Keith’s side was never even an option.