In the long hours of the night
When hope has abandoned me,
I will see the stars and know
Your Light remains.
Chant of Light, Canticle of Trials
These lands have a name, though Keith has found that few maps seem to agree on what it is.
They call it the Ariz Wastes on carefully charted royal maps that span wartables, penned following rigorous surveys of the kingdom. That’s what Keith calls it, too, whenever someone looks at him askew and asks where he hails from.
Less meticulous cartographers name it as the barrens, the borderlands, the fringes, the cusp. It varies from region to region, mouth to mouth, and no one seems to agree on much other than it being the arse-end of Arus, fit only for thieves’ hideaways and deserters’ shacks. The ragged strip of deprived, underpopulated land runs between Arus’ bountiful heartlands and the southern border that the kingdom shares with the ancient, blighted empire of the Galra.
The Ariz Wastes encompasses everything from reedy, yellowed grasslands to cracked, red earth and hazy, smoke-filled canyons, and every inch of the borderlands is a trial meant to test those who dare to tread here. And it was in a place just like this— not far, actually, from where Keith currently rides atop a black stallion that puts most draft horses to shame— that Keith had spent his early childhood learning the tricks of the trade from his father.
He’s home, in a sense. But the desolation feels emptier than he’s ever known it.
Ages past, lions roamed across these dry plains. The Shirogane clan still bears one of the creatures on their crest— winged and roaring— and emblazons it on everything from coins to barrels of beer and rice wine. The creatures flank university steps in statue form, recumbent and regal, and guard the entrance of the palace with barred fangs. Even the night sky is dominated by the lion constellation named for the first Shirogane king, Shishimaru.
But they’d been hunted to near extinction, just like the dragons, in the earliest days of the Galra Empire. Trophy-hunting humans had finished them off over the following centuries, leaving only the memory of their likeness.
And now Keith finds himself drawn to hidden places across the empty wastelands, where caves and outcroppings still retain carvings of lions, those creatures he knows only from legend and the sigil of Shiro’s house; where script in a language he can’t read still speaks to him; where he never finds answers, but more questions to spur him on toward the next site devoted to the ancient lion goddess and her servants.
“Shabrang,” Keith intones as the willful horse underneath him begins to turn, resisting the pressure of the bit across his tongue and Keith’s gentle tugs at the reins. “I know, I know... I’m not Shiro,” he consoles while stroking the side of his mount’s neck, over the thickly corded muscle and a pitch-black coat gone dull from the ever-present dust. “But you’ll keep being good for me, won’t you?”
A rattling snort answers Keith, and Shabrang falls back into an obedient step, his ears flicking back occasionally to listen whenever Keith muses aloud about some rock formation in the distance, or whistles the first notes of a half-remembered song, or notes how close they are to a watering spot.
His camp that night is lonesome, even with Shabrang’s company. Keith dutifully consults his map and notes the day’s progress in his battered journal, his script still blocky and uneven despite all of Shiro’s patient lessons and the (far less patient) threats of his tutor. A growing hole along the seam of his pants requires mending and Keith hurries to finish the task before the sun sinks completely beyond the western sea.
The last matter he sets himself to before bedding down against Shabrang for the night is the most important. It’s as much an act of comfort as one of necessity, and Keith carries it out with with reverence.
Cross-legged before the tiny fire he scraped together, Keith unsheathes his sword and lays the bare blade across his thighs. Its leather-wrapped grip is assurance against his fingers. Its weight offers stability, a piece of the past he can hold: a precious, dulled glimmer of everything that is now lost to him.
The sword he carries once belonged to Shiro— one of many that the prince had outgrown over the years— and though it is of surpassing quality, recent months have been hard on the blade. All of Keith’s careful maintenance has been outstripped by the frequency of his encounters with bandits and beasts, and there are at least a few worrying nicks in the forged steel that he can no longer smooth out with just a whetstone.
If he were still at the palace, he’d have replaced it by now. Or taken it to the forge, to be reworked anew. If he were still at the palace, Shiro would be there too, and the prince would have stepped in to offer Keith a new blade at the first sign of damage. A nicked sword is a death sentence with no defined date. That fact hovers at the back of Keith’s mind in every skirmish he risks, whispering that this might be the clash that catches the blade just right, shatters it just so. It’s compromised, and trusting it could get him killed.
Still… Keith trails his fingers down the hilt and crossguard with fondness; he pinches the red-dyed horsehair that dangles from the pommel and remembers better times. Which is worse, he wonders— to keep gambling on a flawed blade, or to retire the sword and continue to lug its considerable weight around for the rest of the journey? Either way, he can’t bear the thought of parting with it. He blames Shiro for that much. Keith had never been sentimental prior to his time at the palace.
In fairness, he had never had all that much to be attached to before. His few mementos of his father were stolen shortly after his arrival in the capital, and it was only by turning his mother’s dagger on would-be thieves that Keith had managed to keep possession of it. He’d grown accustomed to having little. Less to keep meant less to lose, after all, but Shiro’s frequent gift-giving had upended all of that.
The memory of Shiro’s smile as he had opened up his personal weapons chamber to Keith remains as clear and perfect as crystal— as warm and even as the forge fires that never go cold, white as the bone and ivory inlaid on the pommels and crossguards of the myriad weapons hanging on the walls. There had been something in that smile that had left Keith’s mind in a fuzzy heat and his palms too damp to handle a sword with his usual deftness.
Shiro had glowed as Keith wondered and marveled at the array of weapons, each one a masterwork— the daggers that the prince found too light, the claymores he considered too unwieldy, the bows he had grown too tall for. With a coy look that suggested he’d been waiting on this moment for some time, the prince had offered Keith his pick of the room. And Keith had chosen a narrow, single-edged sword in the style so favored by Shirogane warriors, its blade ribboned with dark streaks— which lasted all of a week before Keith broke the fine, narrow tip clean off during a training spar. He’d gone through several swords in the interim, experimenting with materials and weights and styles, but nothing had ever suited him as well as the blade he chose just before departing for the Garrison.
The same one he still carries with him now, battered and broken across his lap, its gleam worn away by battle and ever-present dust, good for little else than comfort.
Keith has a sneaking suspicion that this one hadn’t been just another of Shiro’s cast-offs, like the rest. He’d never seen the red-accented sword before that fateful day and it feels custom-made: perfect in his hand, the length and balance of the blade just right for him, the design and accents all far closer to Keith’s tastes than Shiro’s. The prince’s smug, self-satisfied smile as Keith had made a beeline for the sword is probably the most telling sign.
Keith stares past the fire as he makes long, careful strokes meant to recover some of the sword’s integrity. But the little chip from an encounter with several giant Khopesh scorpions is beyond salvageable, no matter how many times he tries to smooth the the edge, and Keith wonders if his mother’s dagger alone will be enough to see him through the rest of this journey, wherever it takes him.
Beyond his little campfire and the long shadows of dusk, the horizon grows dark and smudged along the border of the Galra Empire. It lies somewhere across wide canyons and treacherous ravines that mark Arus’ natural border— a continent-sprawling swath of land comprised of conquered territories, with the ancient kingdom of Daibazaal somewhere at its heart. In legend, it’s known that Daibazaal betrayed and savaged its sister kingdom, Altea. Over the millennia that followed the empire grew vast and bloated and then, for reasons unknown, silent. Only rumors— and hulking, vicious beasts of unnatural creation— emerge from the decaying empire these days, usually by way of travelers from the east.
And the rumors are grand. That the Galra emperor achieved immortality. That he has ruled for ten-thousand years, with a cadre of witches and druids at his side. That the blood magic used to secure the emperor’s longevity and aid them in battle taints the land itself, curses its people, and still hungers for more. That the Galra know only bloodlust and cruelty, and their empire is home to monsters of every make and kind.
That night, Keith sleeps facing the Devil’s Divide and the empire that looms beyond it, wary of turning his back on a place so damned.
At the rise of a new day, his journey continues as it has for weeks, with sun and dust and dry winds. A distant call hooks Keith between the ribs whenever he begins to feel like he’s doing little more than wandering aimlessly, drawing him onward in the hopes of satisfying the strange yearning it kindles. It’s a fleeting feeling, and more than a little desperate, but he has nothing and no one else to follow.
Into the morning, Keith spies a flurry in the distance— red dust kicked up by a speedy horse, a blur thundering across the plain with something lean and reptilian in pursuit.
Under him, Shabrang snorts and stomps uneasily.
“Relax,” Keith soothes, running a gloved hand down the side of his massive steed’s neck. “We’re not getting involved.”
But the plight of the wild horse tugs his eye again, pity gripping his heart as he watches its desperate flight from the slithering creatures nipping at its heels. Keith grabs his bow— while telling himself that it’s a matter of practicality, as the same desert monitors could turn their attention to him and Shabrang next anyway— and nudges Shiro’s mount toward the action.
The heavy warhorse was bred for intimidation and armored battle, and the thundering of his hoofbeats rattles the dry earth and keeps Keith bouncing in the worn saddle he salvaged off of a bleached skeleton. Shabrang is well-trained—and fiercely loyal, having borne only two riders in his life—and responds to Keith’s subtle, instinctual nudge immediately. His gait smoothes out as he turns to gallop parallel to the wild horse currently being run ragged.
Keith appreciates Shabrang’s patient assistance. The bow’s never been his strongest skill and it takes longer than Shiro’s old arms master would’ve tolerated for Keith to line up his first shot.
He strikes the first serpentine creature through the head, stopping it instantly. The other kills come sloppy, wasting arrows. As he lowers the bow and tucks his quiver away, Keith sees the red-coated horse still galloping into the distance, the dust stirred by her frantic gait picked up by the wind and carried into a cloud-studded sky.
It works out for the best, though. After a little skinning and cleaning, Keith has enough meat for his next six meals and glimmering, hard-scaled skins to trade later on for more sustainable rations.
As the sun rises higher, its glaringly pale light sears its way across the barren flats, forcing Keith to squint. The crimson cloth wrapped around the bottom half of his throat protects him from inhaling the worst of the dry plains’ red dust, but the arid wind still leaches at his skin and leaves his eyes irritated and dry. Red-rimmed, probably, judging by the sting of each and every blink.
More than a little miserable, he stops and settles down under a shady outcropping on top of a ridge that offers a view of the land ahead and carefully charts his progress. After a little back-and-forth between his map, the sun, and a few visible landmarks, Keith is pleased to realize he’s not terribly far from his father’s patch of land and the little shack house they had shared for the earliest years of Keith’s life. It’s ironic, almost, that he should end up back here.
Or maybe it’s just to be expected. He had entertained some grand notions while in Shiro’s company— a knighthood, a purpose worth living and dying for, a life beyond a scrappy existence in the borderlands— but it seems his fate is, as so many detractors told him, as unremarkable as any man of common birth’s. Another day’s ride, perhaps, and he might at least sleep under some semblance of a roof. The little shack he grew up in is likely dusty and derelict, but four walls would be welcome. If the well still has water and the pump still works, he might even be fortunate enough to bathe for the first time in a week and rinse off the layer of grit on his skin.
Keith is markedly less pleased, as the sun slowly shifts past noon, to see a column of soldiers appear on the horizon, dust whipping wildly behind their hurried mounts. Heavy wagons bring up the rear, and the riders appear of one mind as they race through the otherwise desolate barrens.
“Where are they headed?” Keith muses to Shabrang, a hand held up to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. The orange and white banner that furls from a standard carried by of the distant riders only deepens his misgivings. “Garrison. But that doesn’t look like a training run to me…”
With a quick inventory check of Shabrang’s saddlebags— paying special consideration to the pouch he’s been collecting saltpeter in during his periodic cave-crawls— Keith mounts up and trots his horse along at an easy, distant follow, keeping a keen eye on the Garrison soldiers. The sun is dipping low by the time the company reaches a camp comprised of several hastily erected tents. From a safe distance, Keith watches as none other than Knight-Commander Iverson swings off of his exhausted stallion and storms into the largest of the four main tents— one big enough to be fit for royalty on a war campaign.
The air here stirs something in Keith. His heart begins to sing the way it always does in battle and well-matched spars, and there’s that familiar feeling in his gut, pushing him to action before a picture of a plan is even fully formed in his head. He only knows that he needs to be in that tent too, and quickly.
He clambers down from Shabrang and bids the horse to stay put, safely away from danger. With a few tools— his dagger, his bow, flint, the saltpeter, and other necessities— he darts quickly across the open plains, relying on dusk and the occasional boulder to help keep his cover as he messily mixes up one of the first incendiaries his father taught him to make.
Hiding them strategically around the camp is simple enough. Most of the soldiers milling around the watchfires are making small talk to fill the silence of the nighttime wastes, clinging closer to the flames as the temperature quickly falls. It’s the handful of knights and officers positioned nearest the central tent that give him cause to worry— at grim attention, spears held at the ready. Tensions are highest at the center of the camp, as though they fear some attack from within, and the foot soldier patrols that ring the encampment are almost lax by comparison.
Keith uses it to his advantage. He gets close enough to tuck his makeshift flashbombs along the outer ring of the camp, behind the orderly row of tents where half the soldiers are already bedded down for the night, and under a heavy, iron-barred wagon. It’s the sort they cart criminals and prisoners-of-war around in, and Keith can only wonder at who it’s meant to house.
Timing his first shot is trickier business than planting the bombs. The guards don’t notice as Keith lights an arrow behind the cover of a natural, stony pillar, but they certainly take heed when it triggers the first set of explosions some two-hundred yards in the distance.
In the chaos that follows, half the Garrison knights and soldiers immediately scramble to mount up and hunt down their attacker; it’s then that Keith steps out and takes his second and third shots. Saltpeter flashbombs detonate closer to the camp proper, sending the horses into a dizzying panic and their riders tumbling to the earth. Keith hits the bomb under the nearby wagon last, and the quaking rattle and falling debris send the horses bolting through camp, around and over the tents, stampeding into the darkened wastes.
And that’s when Keith shoulders his bow and picks his way through the teeming wreckage of the camp, slipping silently into the royalty-sized tent at its heart. It’s far from empty, and Keith immediately assumes a fighting stance as he lays eyes on three men of meaner size.
Knight-Commander Iverson’s startled gape turns to fury in the blink of an eye. “What are you doing here?!”
Keith matches whatever outrage his old commander has mustered three-times over. It’s more instinct than anything else that directs his fist into Iverson’s face, his knuckles aching under the pressure as he splits a bone in the knight-commander’s cheek.
Hand-to-hand is Keith’s specialty. He remembers telling Iverson as much— back when he was up before a panel of knight-officers and Garrison instructors, making a case for admittance into the elite institution with Shiro standing resolutely behind him— and there is something viscerally pleasing about putting it into effect. A grunt heaves out of Keith as he takes Iverson by the arm and swings him into one of the other attending officers, knocking them both out cold.
The last man standing comes at Keith with a lean surgical knife and wild-eyed fear. It’s a cruel-looking apothecary’s tool, no doubt meant for the body lying on the table like a corpse on a mortuary slab. Keith effortlessly kicks it from the man’s outstretched hand and then slams his shin into the guard’s chest, sending him flying over a roughly hewn wooden table arrayed with saws and heavy needles.
There are shouts outside the heavy hide walls of the tent, but for a breathless eternity, Keith can’t hear them. Or anything, except for the nearly painful beating of his heart and a sound like rushing water that fills his ears, drowning out everything that could otherwise distract him from the man bound to the makeshift table at the tent’s center.
Keith’s legs weaken underneath him, his steps staggered as if he is walking with a gut-wound. He tugs at the red fabric shielding the lower half of his face— now tinted a burnt orange by the desert dust, the material stiff with dried sweat— and his chapped, cracked lips part in a silent gasp.
With care, Keith gently grips the man’s chin to angle his head toward the light of the oil-lamp hanging overhead. Dizzy with the impossibility that this could be real— not just a fantasy conjured by his mind as he wastes in the desert heat, nor a fevered dream to make him lie awake until dawn, consumed with fallen hopes— Keith draws in a shaking, broken breath that does nothing to ease the tightness in his chest.
Keith strokes up the side of Shiro’s face, brushing aside the flakes of dried blood that pepper the tangled strands of his hair. His thumb passes just under the prince’s split lip, and at Shiro’s soft groan, Keith feels the too-familiar sting of tears at the corners of his eyes.
It’s Shiro stretched before him in some cruel twist on a miracle. Scarred, bloodied, with a shock of white hair, his skin gone pale underneath the discolored cuts and green-tinted bruises and the desert’s red dust. Battered, unconscious Shiro, somehow a captive of his own people.
The familiar weight of his mother’s dagger finds its way to Keith’s palm, and in a heartbeat he slits the leather bindings that tie Shiro to the table. Once freed, it’s just a matter of dragging him back to Shabrang without being caught, and from there—
“Hey, I know you,” a voice says from behind him. It carries pinched irritation layered on top of suspicion, which is a tone Keith is familiar with— if not with this particular speaker. “You’re that commoner from the palace that slipped your way into the Garrison. Back to thieving already, huh?”
Keith turns back to the entrance, jaw already set as he hunts for a way to safety that doesn’t entail leaving Shiro vulnerable. The tent’s opening is blocked by three Garrison cadets— knights aspiring to high military service or interested in forging connections through the distinguished order of Garrison graduates, which happens to include every Shirogane ruler in the last two-hundred years.
“Oh, no, no, no, no,” the voice continues. It belongs to a man around Keith’s height and build, though a little lankier and less sure of his stance, with darker skin and a purse-lipped scowl that reads like personal vendetta. He waves the pointed tip of a standard-issue Garrison spear inches from Keith’s face. “Listen up, deserter. I don’t know what the hell you’re after, but you’re not making off with— holy shit! Is that Prince Takashi?!”
“I thought he was dead,” the big man to his left whispers, brown eyes round with worried surprise. “I mean, isn’t he? Wasn’t he? That whole expedition he led to the hinterlands was doomed—”
The whole line of questions slides under Keith’s skin like a flaying knife, lacing his nerves in fire. Few things can test his temper like insinuations about Shiro or reminders of his disappearance.
“Who the hell are you?” Keith snarls back, angling himself to better shield Shiro as all three of the Garrison knights try to leer at the unconscious prince.
“Uh, Lance Vela Rivera. Of the House of Rivera. My family owns most of the Varaderian Coast and half the royal fleet,” the vaguely familiar looking Garrison cadet continues, clearly vexed by Keith’s lack of recognition. His spear lowers by a degree. “We were neck-and-neck at the Garrison!”
Keith shuffles again when he hears a faint groan from the man he’s holding. As uncertain as he is of how to dispatch the trio of young nobility while Shiro’s limp body is wrapped in his arms, he knows even less about how to deal with Lance Vela Rivera’s claims.
The big man on Lance’s left flank shifts, his hands flexing nervously around the grip of a Stone Island warhammer that stands as tall as the small knight-cadet just behind him. “You, uh, knocked him on his ass during your first spar. And the second one. All of them, actually. I’m Hunk, by the way. And that’s Pidge.”
“Don’t recall it,” Keith admits, truthfully lost. Two years at the Garrison meant hundreds of sparring matches, armed and unarmed, and he had rarely been bested. After an appraising look at Lance’s wary stance, he adds, “You look like an archer, anyway.”
Lance’s cheeks flush dark as the assumption strikes true. “Yeah, well, I am. But after you deserted, I rose into the master swordsman class, too.”
“Congratulations,” Keith says dryly. Outside, the sounds of frightened horses and shouts prevail; the light dancing against the heavy fabric suggests a fire’s broken out, spreading from tent to tent. “Look, I don’t want to fight any of you. Let me pass. If you still care about your prince, you’ll let us go.”
“Of course we care about Prince Takashi,” Lance replies, his eyes narrowed. There is an uncertain tremble in his hands as he levels his spear at Keith again. It isn’t his weapon of choice, clearly, and the memories of one-sided sparring matches at the Garrison must be playing at the back of his mind. “That’s why we won’t be leaving him in your hands. We’re taking him back—”
“Back where?” Keith questions, bristling as he edges forward. His teeth snap on the words, even as his touch snakes possessively around the unconscious man in his arms. “To the Garrison? To the capital? Have you forgotten that there’s not a Shirogane on the throne anymore? Just a bunch of usurping generals—”
“His generals,” Lance interjects, his gaze falling to the sleeping prince.
“Maybe once,” Keith says, re-angling himself to hide his hand as he moves slowly for the dagger tucked into his belt. As distraction, he kicks at the wickedly-shaped surgical blades scattered under him, sending them sliding past Iverson and the unconscious Garrison officers to stop at Lance’s feet. “But not anymore. The Garrison was doing this on someone’s orders.”
“And trying to keep it quiet,” Pidge says, narrow golden brows pinching together.
Keith presses it, focusing on Lance. “Are you certain they would step aside for him? Freely relinquish the power they’ve gotten used to? Would you stake your prince’s life on it, Ser Lance?”
Lance falters, paling at the thought. Blue eyes dart down to where Shiro is slumped in Keith’s arms, scarred and likely drugged; reddened marks from the bindings remain around his wrists, and fresh blood runs freely from a small, precise incision along a bared portion of his shoulder.
Hunk looks to Keith and speaks up quietly, something mournful and reluctant in the tone of his words. “You really think they would kill their own prince?”
The answer seems clear enough to Lance. With a hitched, heavy sigh, he closes his eyes and lowers his spear. “Let’s go. We’ll cover you and Prince Takashi,” he decides as he turns back to the entrance, beckoning the others to follow. He glances back at Keith over his shoulder. “Do you have a horse?”
It only takes a whistle to summon Shabrang once they’re outside the tent. Hunk hovers protectively close, murmuring nervously as he watches Keith’s back. Lance keeps the handful of advancing soldiers at bay with non-lethal arrows while Pidge wards them away with broad sweeps of a whip.
Shiro’s horse arrives like thunder, nearly unseen in the full darkness of night, heralded only by the rolling beat of heavy hoof-falls. Keith heaves Shiro up and across Shabrang’s withers before clambering up into the saddle behind him, one hand on the reins and the other firm against the prince’s side. He barely waits for the others to call their horses and mount up before he digs his heels into Shabrang’s ribs and urges him into a full gallop that seems to quake the world around them.
The flight from the Garrison camp passes in a dark, wind-streaked blur that takes them through stony outcroppings and across salt flats, narrowly avoiding the pitfalls and treacheries of this region that Keith knows so well. The roundabout circuit helps them lose the handful of mounted Garrison knights in pursuit, either to felled horses or fear of the darkness and rough terrain. Perhaps the giant scorpion nests that dot the landscape serve as a deterrent, too.
The rush of desert wind drowns out most of Lance’s complaints and Hunk’s frantic worrying as Keith leads them over bluffs and through narrow trails. They follow him through the long swathes of shadow cast by looming, towering formations of risen stone that blot out the star-streaked skies; they falter at moments when Keith takes them down embankments along dry riverbeds and precipitous drops, but never for long. They journey into darkness for the sake of the prince, trusting Keith not to lead them astray.
And Keith is of a single purpose as he crosses the desert, following the stars toward his childhood home. He keeps one hand fixed to the spine-ridged span of Shiro’s back each step of the way, desperate to feel every breath he takes.
His father’s shack wasn’t made to suit five. It wasn’t made to house royalty, either.
Keith lays Shiro down on the lumpy, straw-filled bed, nose wrinkling with the sudden itch to sneeze as the layer of dust that accumulated over years suddenly spreads into the air. The bedding is threadbare and riddled with holes, and the mattress sags under their combined weight. Keith’s pack, stuffed with the few articles of clothing he possesses, serves as Shiro’s pillow; Shabrang’s dark saddle-blanket protects him from the worst of the desert night’s chill.
It is hardly fit for a prince. Or a king.
Keith cards his fingers through Shiro’s hair, hoping the gesture still comforts. Whatever title Shiro wears, it seems insignificant for the moment. Even now, the empty tomb erected for him in the Arusian capital is probably still buried under flowers and offerings for the beloved dead. The only people who know that Prince Takashi Shirogane still lives are the very same ones who want him out of contention for the throne— them and four wayward deserters from the Garrison, for whatever they’re worth.
A quiet rap on the doorframe draws Keith’s attention from the stark divide where Shiro’s snow-white hair meets his familiar ink-spun black. As he looks back, he continues to toy gently with the prince’s hair, idly picking through small tangles and spots matted with old blood.
Pidge— the shortest and smallest of them all, barely tall enough to clamber astride a horse— stands in the doorway to the modest bedroom, looking even smaller without their armor on. “Hey, Keith. Lance wants to, uh, talk. About what we’re doing with… him.”
“Is there really that much to be said?” Keith asks as he rises from the bed, careful not to jostle the sleeping prince. He dusts off his leathers and follows Pidge out to the common area to see the others, who are still unbuckling dusty armor and stripping down to sleep. “Obviously, we protect him. If you’re not up to the task, then leave it to me.”
Simply catching Lance’s eye is enough to draw his ire. While unlacing his fine boots, he fixes on Keith like he is as much an enemy to the prince as the Garrison soldiers they’d ditched back near the salt flats. “Like hell I’m leaving Prince Takashi in your hands. He needs actual knights at his side.”
“Then why are you here?” Keith asks, tongue pressing to the back of his teeth in an effort to keep from saying more. His chance at alleviating some of the royal court’s indignation might’ve been dependent on proving himself at the Garrison, but he hardly needs an official sanction from the aristocracy to know that he can defend Shiro better than any wellborn noble he’s ever met. He, of anyone in this room, has closer ties to Shiro and more right to be by his side, and Keith thinks he just might manage to tear someone asunder if they try to part him from Shiro again.
“To give him what you never could,” Lance says, proud and cutting as he shucks off his boots and throws them beside his light greaves. “The backing of a noble house. The sworn fealty of two-dozen lesser houses willing to provide whatever support the prince needs. The means to raise an army. And the safety of a fortified castle rather than a shack.”
The severity behind the clench of Keith’s jaw brings black and stars behind his eyes, if only for a moment. He watches as Lance flicks a clump of dust from the arm of the chair he slouches in, disdainful. “You can sleep outside, then. Or go home to your castle.”
Hunk hisses something at Lance before he can retort, the snap succeeding in quieting the archer into sullenness. Settled on a pallet in the corner with his yellow-and-orange saddle-blanket thrown over himself like a shroud, Hunk looks up at Keith and manages a fairly warm smile. “Sorry, Keith. The hospitality is appreciated, y’know, for what it is. It’s just… Lance is tired, and worried, and afraid. We all are.”
Keith swallows his lingering anger and nods along, looking at each of them in turn: Pidge, curled into a ball beside Hunk and already nodding off; Hunk, head drooped low as he goes over their meager Garrison-issued rations; Lance, eyes squeezed shut and worry-lines drawn between his brows. It isn’t hard to muster some pity. They aren’t companions by choice, but the rapid turns of circumstance. They’re younger and fresher from the Garrison, too, and have friends and family to miss and be missed by in return.
And Keith knows well what it’s like to handle loss and abrupt change poorly. He sighs as he leans back against the post of the doorway, arms loosely crossed as he watches Lance gradually deflate.
“I’m exhausted,” Lance mutters minutes later, dragging his hand down his face and slumping back even further in his chair.
“Then do us all a favor and go to bed,” Keith says, his eyebrows lifting even as the rest of his expression remains flat. “Please. I promise I won’t kill any of you in your sleep, okay?”
Lance’s lips quirk to one side. He crosses his arms, too, and stares up at Keith, shadows stark under his eyes. “What if you make off with Prince Takashi?”
“And go where?” Keith asks, his voice soft and brittle even to his own ears. “This is my home. Even if he were fit for travel— even if Shabrang wasn’t spent— I’d have nowhere else safe to take him. It’s like you said...”
That seems to reassure Lance, at least, even if it leaves Keith feeling woefully incapable of protecting Shiro as he’d always promised he would.
“Aren’t you tired, Keith?” Hunk questions, a yawn chasing his own words.
Keith shrugs. Stamina is one of his strong suits— one of the various attributes that Keith had never realized he held in spades until Shiro’s arms master and retainers pointed it out, baffled by his preternatural tenacity and endurance in the sparring ring. “A little, I guess.”
Lance grumbles as he curls into a ball on the sole upholstered chair, with his saddle blanket— all wave patterns in the characteristic blues of the Vela Rivera family— wrapped tightly around him.
“Don’t try anything sly, Keith,” he murmurs, fighting the droop of his eyelids just to keep glaring at their host. “Watching you…”
Keith rolls his eyes and bids Hunk goodnight instead. Though wary, the big Stone Islander at least seems amenable to the notion that Keith isn’t just a cutthroat ready to whisk Shiro away for some nefarious end.
Entering his father’s old bedroom still puts snares on Keith’s heart, prickling at the softest parts of him like nettles blooming in between the cords of his muscle. Wistfulness catches him twofold in this room he’s known from his earliest memories, always filled with the scent of oil and leather and desert herbs. He half-fears that he’ll round the corner and see the bed empty, that he’ll find Shiro’s been drawn up into the heavens like kings and heroes sometimes are in legend, made immortal in the shape of stars that Keith could never reach.
And so relief slakes through him at the sight of Shiro still stretched across the mattress, still mortal and earthbound, head tossed to one side and one foot jutting out from under the cover of Shabrang’s saddle-blanket. Keith settles in beside him for the remainder of the night, one hand softly splayed across the prince’s chest. It’s for peace of mind— that he might feel Shiro’s breaths and the solidity of him to reassure himself that all isn’t lost.
In the nighttime stillness, Keith loses track of the time. He listens, alert for the thud of approaching hoofbeats or human cries, but his mind’s eye wanders to old memories dredged up simply by being home again. The first hare he’d skinned, messily, with his father’s bloodied hands guiding his own. Nights spent hunting, the stars guiding them across the plains. The hours spent honing knife skills and playing games that consisted of hitting increasingly small and difficult targets.
Underneath his hand, something shifts.
“Keith?” Still half-dazed, still a little lost in whatever hazy dreamworld holds him in its grip, Shiro’s eyes blink open and fix on Keith like he’s a beacon in a fog. “Keith.”
The recognition— the relief— in Shiro’s demeanor turns Keith’s entire heart molten, like the steel in the royal forges Shiro used to lead him through as they talked weaponcraft. Keith hadn’t even known his heart had turned hard, but now the warmth of it runs down between his ribs, sinks into his blood, burns under his skin. It’s the feeling of coming alive again after a hard and lasting winter.
Shiro stares up at him with the same sense of troubled wonder. Of hope-fraught disbelief. Of desperate gratitude, barely contained. His bruised lips part and close, the cords along his throat flexing wordlessly, and Keith knows the tear-rimmed look in his eye too well— he’d felt it there in that Garrison tent upon laying eyes on his prince for the first time in a year, after resigning himself to a life where he would only ever again see Shiro in his dreams or carven stone. Shiro looks at Keith as if the sight of him is too perfect to be possible. As if it makes no sense, after how hard every moment and every mile of the last year has been, to be so freely given the one person he yearns for most. As if reaching out to touch him might cause the illusion to shatter into moondust and starlight, leaving him alone in the darkness again.
“I’m here, Shiro,” Keith answers through a swell of emotion that makes his throat pinch tight, immediately meeting Shiro’s searching grasp with something just as frantic. Their hands catch together, palm-to-palm, fingers curling and hooking to hold fast. Keith clenches tight, tempted to never let go again. “I’m right here with you.”
That they can do this again seems like a miracle out of legend, too chance to be anything but destiny or divine intervention: a last minute reprieve granted by the gods taking pity on a mortal’s broken heart. It’s the kind of thing that Keith once scoffed at during the tear-jerking plays Shiro used to drag him to, all dressed up in the heavy silks of formal attire and bored out of his mind as the prince sat enraptured by some sappy love story.
“How?” Shiro croaks, gaze still tracing over Keith’s face— down his jaw, up to his dry and windswept hair, lingering over his eyes.
“Just lucky, I guess.” Keith squeezes Shiro’s knuckles before working his hand free to reach for the small tin cup sitting on a crate beside the bed. “Here, drink this.”
“Water.” Keith nods as Shiro slowly sits up and sips a little at a time, until Keith is tipping the very last of it into his mouth. “Are you hungry?”
Still lying back on the makeshift pillow of Keith’s pack, Shiro shakes his head. Blindly, he hunts for Keith’s grasp again, his strong, callused fingers trembling as they trail over the suntanned skin across the back of Keith’s hand. “Where are we?”
Despite the comfort of Shiro’s warm hand wrapped around his, Keith grimaces. “This is where I grew up, actually. You’re in my dad’s bed.”
“Oh. Oh,” Shiro murmurs, glancing down at the rest of himself— stretched out long under Shabrang’s dusty saddle-blanket— before squinting around the rest of the small, darkened bedroom.
There is a section of missing roof near the far corner, between the sagging beams across the ceiling, where shafted moonlight falls, silvery and shimmering as it catches on drifting dust. Through the gap, a little piece of the night sky looks down upon them, curled together on the old straw mattress.
“We’re in the Ariz Wastes, then,” Shiro reasons out, still drowsy from whatever Iverson’s soldiers gave him to keep him docile. His brow knits tight as he sifts through Keith’s childhood stories to place their exact location. “Near the salt flats? Close to the border. And this place was home?”
“Yep. Home sweet home,” Keith says, thumping the bed for effect. It sends a plume of dust billowing up, causing the both of them to cough and blink away the fine grains. “Not much of a homecoming, though, is it? Nothing like the fanfare at the palace.”
Shiro’s hand slips from his to work its way up to Keith’s face, his touch featherlight over the younger man’s jaw and fine cheekbones. It’s testing, as if to reassure himself that Keith is no hopeful figment of his imagination.
“I couldn’t ask for better,” Shiro says, fingertips combing through Keith’s hair, tucking strands behind his ear. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to see you again, Keith.”
Keith covers Shiro’s hand with his own, pressing the prince’s palm firmer against his cheek. “Same here.”
In the lapse of silence that follows, Keith can distinctly hear two sets of snoring from the other room. Shiro hears it, too, and stills beside him. There is sharp apprehension in the young prince as he asks, “Who is that?”
“Three others who’ve deserted the Garrison, too. Can’t recall their names right now,” Keith answers, lodging himself closer to Shiro, “but I think they’re okay. You’ll meet them in the morning.”
“You left the Garrison?” Shiro asks, a thick eyebrow arching. Dried blood clings to its dark curve, and there are rust-colored flakes caught in the prince’s long lashes.
Keith closes his eyes for a moment, swallowing down the dry rasp in his throat before attempting to speak. “I’m so sorry, Shiro,” he says, leaning forward in an earnest plea. “I know how much you went through to get me admitted, and the last thing I wanted to do was throw that all away, but…”
An ugly bruise along Shiro’s jaw nearly masks the subtle quirk of his mouth, but it does nothing to disguise the fondness in the man’s dark eyes. “Keith, if you left, it was with good reason. And now you’re here,” Shiro adds, his smile a bright spot in the midst of their bleak predicament. “I’m not sure what would’ve become of me if you hadn’t shown up.”
They’ve shared close sleeping quarters before— in cramped inns during expeditions to the northern fortresses, huddled close for warmth in snowy war camps, on nights after near assassination attempts, when their adrenaline ran too high for sleep and it felt like death still lingered close, waiting, its rattling breaths almost audible. But those times never felt like this.
Taking comfort in being near Shiro isn’t new, but wanting to twine around him like the leather that wraps a hilt is. A side-effect of losing him, Keith supposes. He aches to curl around his prince and insulate him from the world at large, which has never seemed quite so large or dangerous or daunting as it does now. He swallows thickly as he turns on the mattress, better angling himself toward the man’s familiar shape, keeping as little distance between them as he dares. The knight runs his hand through Shiro’s shaggy, two-toned hair, smoothing his thumb up over the prince’s temple, along the dark of his hairline, down around the curved shell of his ear.
Shiro’s tired eyes flutter shut, the long, silky lashes that frame them spreading beautifully over the heights of his cheeks. The last thing Keith wants is to see them wet with tears, if by chance Shiro’s moved to that, but he can think of no way around the news he has to deliver.
“I have to tell you something, Shiro,” Keith whispers, the cords in his throat already tying themselves into knots. It won’t become any easier if he waits, though. “About your mother.”
“My mother?” Those dark eyes open again, already bleak. “I assumed… that is, no matter how I might’ve disappointed her, she’d never have sent the Garrison to receive me like this.”
“No,” Keith agrees, still working his fingers through the short spikes of the prince’s hair, his touch dipping down to help wick away the wet glimmer at the corners of Shiro’s eyes. “Not long after you went missing, she... she fell ill. I heard she passed within a week.”
Keith lets Shiro recover from the news, unsure of what else to say. Unsure of what he’s supposed to say at a time like this. He’d been so young when he lost his own mother that he couldn’t recall how his own father had consoled him; and after losing his father, there had been no one left to offer him any kind words or solace.
“I’m so sorry, Shiro,” he tries, stretching his arm over Shiro and pulling him closer. His hand finds the scarred swell of the prince’s bicep and gently squeezes there, his thumb working circles over the unusual fabric of his tattered, dirt-smeared sleeve.
Shiro nods, mostly to himself, eyes slipping shut again. “Thank you, Keith.”
Keith makes a soft sound of acknowledgement, his hands roving as he endeavors to pass along some comfort to Shiro. The prince’s delicate lids are soft as Keith lightly smooths the pad of his thumb across them; he traces the ridge of Shiro’s browbone, works over the tight furrow of his forehead. Keith draws his nails lightly across Shiro’s scalp, trailing all the way back to his nape, where he rubs gently along the column of his spine.
Keith isn’t privy to the true details of Queen Eboshi’s death, but gossips lamented that she’d died of a broken heart, devastated by the loss of her only child. It hardly sounds like her— the Iron Queen, that steely woman Keith had only glimpsed a handful of times during his years in the palace at Shiro’s side, as imposing and stiff as the statues that bear her likeness— but grief can work powerful horrors over people.
For Keith, the first long months without Shiro had been like missing a stair and never again finding his footing, as if the entire world had shifted and left him perpetually out-of-sync with everything and everyone else. More so than usual, at least. It had been disorienting. Sickening, at times. An abyss had been born somewhere behind his ribs, as deep and hungry as the ravines that stretched across the Devil’s Divide, swallowing up everything inside of him but his long-burning anger— and then, eventually, even that as well.
And maybe something similar had stricken Queen Eboshi. Maybe she had felt that same interior ache, that empty longing. Maybe she too had wept in frustration, wishing it were only a dagger to the heart, because that at least would either kill or heal in time. No half-measures that felt like undeath, no phantom pains without a cure.
“What happened?” Keith asks, finally, looking into the tiny specks of moonlight glimmering across the prince’s dark eyes. They had always been like that— nearly full-black in the dim of night, light catching in the dark of his irises like the stars fixed in the sky. “Where did you go, Shiro?”
A sigh ghosts across Keith’s skin, tickling at his nose and lips, a testament to how close they lay facing one another.
“I remember so little, Keith,” he admits, a crease forming between his thick eyebrows. “The Galra took me. They kept me for— I had no idea how long, until I got back here. It’s been a year, hasn’t it? Gods, I don’t even remember how I escaped,” Shiro says, a laugh with no humor slipping out afterward.
“The Galra?” Keith questions, his heart skipping. A half-forgotten thing, kept alive in cautionary tales; everyone knew that monsters roamed the Devil’s Divide, but the Galra hadn’t been sighted in this half of the world in millennia— not that he harbors a single doubt toward Shiro’s claim. “They gave you all these scars?”
“And this, too,” the prince continues, rolling back to reveal the arm he’d kept out of sight, worked under the covers to keep it hidden. It gleams silver and oily black in the night, maliciousness carved into the claw-tipped fingers and the runes that encircle the metal. “I know fuck-all about this. Same as everything else lately, it seems.”
Shiro rotates the Galra-made arm slowly and Keith finds himself entranced by the foreign material, the alien script imbued with a faint magenta glow, the wicked precision of every plate and joint connected by the seam of liquid darkness that lies just beneath. It’s evidence of their tampering with Shiro, an unmistakable work of dark and forbidden blood magic. So strange to look upon, strange to touch, and yet Keith can’t quite bring himself to stop doing either. The flesh and blood he’d felt a thousand times— in training, clasped as they pulled each other up to their feet, as Shiro helped him practice his handwriting, tending scraped knuckles after battle— is gone. Just… gone.
The prince had always had problems with his dominant sword arm, ever since Keith had known him. It was in some way tied to the intractable illness that sometimes left Shiro confined to his bed for spells— a closely guarded palace secret, known only to loyal retainers and a few trusted palace servants who would tend to the prince when he was unwell. It was why Shiro had stood with him in the training ring until sundown on his free days, determined to raise his proficiency with his left hand to something approximating Keith’s keen ambidextrousness. And over the years, Keith had developed a keen eye for Shiro’s miniscule winces and faltered swings, his sight razor-honed for any sign of the older boy’s strength failing him.
It extends even outside of combat. He charts the lines of worry writ across Shiro’s brow, the faint revulsion. It’s not his old illness plaguing him now, but something that Keith fears might run just as deep.
His prince is equally transfixed by his new and alien arm. The frustration and faint anger in his expression bleeds away, slow as blood flows in the frigid north, and leaves pale terror in its place. “They took my arm and gave me this, but I don’t know what it means, Keith. What it’s for. Why they did this to me.”
“Shiro…” Keith doesn’t have the words to string together to soothe him. It feels like he never does when the moment calls for it most.
“I’m afraid,” Shiro whispers to him, the tremble in his voice making Keith’s body shiver in kind. Even the near misses of would-be assassins never left him so shaken. “They’re going to come for me, Keith. They’ll find me here, and you as well. I can feel it—”
“And this time I’ll be at your side to protect you,” Keith answers, looping his arms around the prince’s neck and pressing himself flush against the larger man for lack of finer words to reassure him.
Keith can feel lips moving soft against the curve of his jaw, can hear his name being murmured, but his focus already lies a hundred leagues distant, at a point and a place he has never known. Over the slope of Shiro’s broad shoulder, through the dilapidated boards of his father’s desert shack, across the Ariz Wastes and the Devil’s Divide, Keith’s stare burns. In his mind’s eye, Keith imagines the squalid wilds of the rotting Galra empire, its decaying cities, its barbaric inhabitants.
His embrace tightens around Shiro— nearly crushing, although the man in his arms only buries his face deeper against the crook of Keith’s neck, his warm tears dripping their way down the bare slope of Keith’s clavicle— as he cobbles together a picture of the monsters responsible for his prince’s suffering, drawn from grim fairytales and legend and the decrepit historical texts his tutor once assigned him to copy. It transmutes the shivering of his limbs from empathetic fear to barely restrained fury; it leaves his mouth dry and acrid, his jaw clenched tight enough to make his ears ring.
And even as Shiro’s tears dry and exhaustion slowly pulls him back under, safe and secure in the arms of his most trusted friend, Keith’s chest smolders with a fury that threatens to eat him from the inside out.
Dawn hasn’t yet broken when Keith wakes Shiro and leads him outside to the bath.
He’d spent the better part of an hour pumping and warming the water, and then rummaging for soap in a cabinet that had long ago rusted shut from disuse. He’d gotten a few sets of clothing washed and hung to dry, too, feeling an acute sense of nostalgia as he restrung the clothesline and pinned the fresh laundry in place.
And now, with a small square of roughspun cloth in hand, Keith kneels beside the steaming tub as Shiro gingerly settles down, his legs bent and his knees crowning the water like mountain-topped islands amid a sea.
“Sorry it’s so small,” he apologizes as he runs the wet cloth across the span of the prince’s back, gentle as he works through layers of dirt and flaky, rust-colored blood, all sealed in dried sweat. Already the bathwater swirls dark and coppery, the pristine well-water turning cloudy opaque from the runoff.
Shiro gives him a grateful smile, tearing his attention away from the slow curling and uncurling of his metal fingers, the explorative twisting of his plated wrist. “Don’t,” he says, shaking his head. “This is the best thing to happen to me in forever, Keith. Thank you.”
Keith pours from a bucket at his side to wet the prince’s hair before he works soapy lather into the dark strands. They’ve lost their usual silky feel, and it takes minutes for Keith to work his fingers through the dense knots made by dried, matted blood.
Years ago, when they’d first met, Shiro had worn his hair long. When loosed, it had fallen to the middle of his back in a dark curtain, catching the light like spiders’ threads; it had nearly always been tied back, though, sleek and regal, accented with delicate combs of silver and mother-of-pearl. It was all a matter of tradition, Keith learned later, after Shiro had shorn off his locks in some defiant act of rebellion before he reluctantly led an army north to settle a military campaign that had grown protracted and costly.
Shiro had seemed happier without the extra burden, anyway— no need for servants to fuss over his hair, less distraction in combat, fewer headaches from the tension. But Keith can’t deny that he misses the luxurious length of it. At least a little.
The prince’s hair has grown out over the last year, but it’s obviously been trimmed some time recently, if with a less-than-caring hand. And then there’s the color: bleached white as bone or lifeless ash, bleeding into the midnight black of the rest of his locks. Keith wonders if it will remain this way forever or if it will spread, leaching the color out of Shiro until he is as pale as the ghost that most of his subjects currently consider him to be.
If Keith lingers on washing Shiro’s hair, it’s only to give the prince a little longer to enjoy it. Who’s to say when they’ll next have a chance to relax like this?
Even with the desert wind and the pre-dawn chill, even squeezed into a rusted tin tub and riddled with fresh bruises, Shiro’s pleasure is obvious. His head tips back as he shuts his eyes, leaving the long column of his throat stretched and bared; a satisfied rumble resonates in his chest, rising to something just shy of a purr as Keith finds the tender spot an inch behind his ears. Shiro is still endearingly weak for touch— that much is the same as ever.
What isn’t the same is traced up and down the prince’s body, wrapped around his limbs, burrowed into his flesh. Heavy scarring— clearly left untreated after battle, grown knotted and discolored for lack of care— winds its way around every piece of Shiro. Their cruel and unusual shapes tell a story, and it’s not one Keith savors reading as he carefully scrubs at messily healed skin.
He lines his fingertips up with a trail of evenly spaced punctures around Shiro’s shoulder, puzzling over the pattern until it suddenly clicks.
“Shiro, what has jaws this big?” Keith questions, voice shrunken as small as he feels.
Shiro turns his head to consider the evidence carved into his own body, eyeing the semi-circle of inch-long scars. “I’m not sure,” he says, a frown twisting his lips. “I can hardly remember…”
There is a moment of hesitation as Shiro opens his mouth to say more, only to promptly shut it, caging his words behind teeth and sealed lips. It nearly passes too quick to note— a moment of weakness schooled into submission before it can be turned against him, a defense drilled into the prince long before Keith had known him— but the telltale signs of his discomfort linger. Keith knows the tightness in Shiro’s jaw from the wee morning hours after royal balls and celebrations, the little strum of his fingers from long nights at the wartable, the tiny crease that usually forms between his eyebrows as he debates whether speaking freely will be worth its cost.
“You can say whatever’s bothering you,” Keith reminds him.
“I’m sorry for not giving you proper warning,” Shiro says after a moment, soft as the breeze that catches the clothes hanging on the line and skitters across the prince’s exposed skin. He stares down into the water, studying its surface. The wicked talons of his new right arm click against the metal of the tub as he taps out a worried beat. “All I was thinking about was getting those rags off of me.”
“This is the first time I’ve gotten a good look at myself,” Shiro continues, bleak as his current state. He angles his face at the rippling water, waiting for it to still again; his fingertips go to feel along the edges of the scar across his nose. “I can’t even imagine what my back looks like. Judging by your reaction, it must not be pretty.”
“No. It’s bad,” Keith admits, his gaze dropping to the brutal mess of lines carved across Shiro’s spine, the gouge in his shoulder, the wicked claw-marks left just below his ribs. “And I’d like to do worse to whoever’s responsible.”
That gets him a little snort and some laughter, weak as it is.
“I hate that they did this to you,” Keith huffs, his short-lived smile fading off as he runs his wet palm across uneven skin. It takes a long, slow exhale to relax the snarl that threatens to curl his lip. “But I’m glad you’re here and covered in scars, if the alternative is you being gone and dead.”
“Me too,” Shiro agrees, leaning back further in the tub and closing his eyes as he trusts himself to Keith’s care.
The rest of the bath is quiet, except for the occasional splash of water and the grainy stroke of Keith’s dagger across Shiro’s jaw as he shaves away coarse stubble. The prince dries off with Shabrang’s saddleblanket, wrapping the thick material around him like a cloak against the early morning chill. He then steps carefully into the worn pair of boots that Keith offers him, legs still dripping with water.
“How do they fit?” Keith asks as he drains the tub and sets about refilling it.
Shiro rocks back and forth on his heels, testing out the tough leather boots that belonged to Keith’s father more than a decade ago. They rise mid-calf to protect from snake bites, and the ugly, heavy hide could endure strenuous wear for years to come. “Close enough. Better than what I had.”
Keith’s brows lift, but he says nothing. The thin cloth boots Shiro had been wearing were clearly not made for rocky terrain, and the cuts and bruises across the soles of his sore feet are proof of that.
“You can head back in,” Keith says as he strips off his stained cotton shirt and begins unbuckling his belt. “Get a little more rest. It’ll just take me a few minutes to wash up.”
“You didn’t even warm it,” Shiro grouses, frowning down at the freshly pumped water as it sloshes away in the tin tub. “You’ll be cold.”
“It’ll be quick,” he replies as he kicks off his pants, trying not to smile at the prince’s pouty concern. Keith has no fondness for the cold— baths included, especially when the desert air is still brisk— but he sees no need to waste time or limited resources on heating bathwater for himself.
Shiro’s mouth twitches, somewhere between a smile and irritation at Keith’s brush-off. “At least let me help, then. Did you even shut your eyes last night? You must be exhausted.”
“It takes a lot to tire me out,” Keith deflects as he lowers himself into the tub, fighting the chatter that threatens to rattle his teeth. “You know that.”
Shiro’s laugh is short and small, but a victory Keith is pleased to have wrested out anyway. The prince crouches down and props his flesh and blood elbow on the rim of the tub before setting his chin in his palm, with a smile spread cheek to cheek. “I believe my retinue knows better. I think you once sparred with each of them in succession, bested them all, and afterward you still managed to throw me across the courtyard like I was a bag of flour.”
“I did it gently,” Keith reminds the prince, glancing at him from under dense, wet bangs that have grown unruly over his months in isolation.
“Gently,” Shiro echoes, chuckling good-naturedly. “Very gently, for you. I only rolled two or three times.”
Shiro reaches in to help clean Keith’s back and hair, working the soap across his skin and over his scalp with just his left hand. The right clutches at the rim of the tub, steely claws scraping over the rust-spotted tin.
And true to Keith’s word, it’s over quickly. He stands and squeezes his eyes shut as Shiro lifts a bucket above his head to give him one last, frigid rinse. At last he allows his teeth to knock and chatter as he yawns, and before Keith even opens his eyes he feels the sheltering warmth of fabric cast around him.
“Shiro,” Keith chides as he’s suddenly swallowed up in Shabrang’s blanket, with Shiro bare and naked and shivering in front of him.
“I’m already dry,” the prince counters, wrapping both arms around his middle in an effort to keep warm. He is adamant as he denies Keith’s repeated insistences to take the blanket back, that same willfulness that had so often vexed his tutors and handlers steeling Shiro against both cold and common sense.
And Keith knows it isn’t worth challenging him here and now, stubborn as he can be. He grips the blanket tighter around himself, fingers still numb from the bath. Inwardly, he’s grateful for the buffer between his wet skin and the desert morning chill. “Whatever, Your Highness. Let’s just get back inside.”
Keith follows Shiro up the steps and inside, eyes locked on the languid flex of muscle down the prince’s back and the movement of the scars that crisscross the expanse of once-smooth skin. He notes the thickened breadth of his powerful shoulders, bare and still slightly damp. It calls to mind workouts and sparring sessions spent under the summer sun, stripped down as they traded blows until they were too tired to do anything but lay beside each other on the banks of the palace’s garden pond. It makes Keith think of nights together in Shiro’s tent along the northern battlefronts, firelight glinting off of feverish skin as Keith cleaned his wounds and stitched them tight.
That indulgent reminiscence is why Keith nearly runs into Shiro’s back when the prince suddenly stops short only a few paces into the small house.
“Prince Takashi!” a tiny voice deeper within squeaks, followed by a rushed clatter of feet hitting the floorboards. “Y-you’re— you’re—”
A muddled chorus of stunned stammering follows, and Shiro balks at the three sets of eyes currently taking him in. He hunches forward, trying to conceal himself, and doesn’t even have a chance to open his mouth before Keith leans around his side to glare at the other three knights.
“Stop standing there and get him something to cover up with!”
Lance positions himself squarely in Keith’s view and gives him a dirty look. “Hey, you’re the one wearing a blanket while His Highness is stuck in the nude!” he accuses, the inarguable truth of it turning Keith’s cheeks scarlet.
“I’ve got you, Your Highness,” Hunk interjects, meek as he approaches the naked prince with his yellow saddleblanket held up like an offering. He helps drape it around Shiro’s broad shoulders, nervously rambling all the while. “And… there we go. You, uh, look very regal, Your Highness.”
“Thank you,” Shiro says, shifting under the heavy, coarse material. His lips quirk to the side, very much aware that he cuts anything but a dignified figure like this. “This isn’t really how I planned on making introductions, but… I suppose you’re already familiar with me, at least in passing. Prince Takashi Shirogane. It’s my honor to meet the three of you.”
Shiro stretches his hand out to Lance first, a hesitant twitch in his fingers as the young man flinches at the sight of the dark, blood magic-imbued metal. His expression softens considerably when Lance steps forward and clasps his hand anyway.
“Except you,” the prince says, the first beginnings of a teasing smile in place as Lance’s eyes go wide. “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”
Lance’s relief bubbles out in a stuttered sigh, which then becomes a nervous laugh, which ends in stammering nonsense.
“Yes, Your Highness!” he manages, many long seconds later and still holding fast to Shiro’s hand. “Ser Lance Vela Rivera, at your service. You came to my family’s castle twice, once during summer and once during fall, and on your first visit you saw me practicing with a bow on the ramparts and you told me I was a good shot, so I devoted myself to archery and started listening to my arms master and I wanted to show you a few trick shots during your last visit, but everyone else was all over you, so I barely even got a word in edgewise, and Luis was stuck to your side like a barnacle—”
“He is very talkative,” Shiro agrees, gaze flitting down to his hand, which would’ve been aching by this point if it weren’t made of metal and witchcraft.
“You have no idea, Your Highness,” Lance continues to steamroll, now clasping the prince’s hand vise-tight between both of his own. “He never knows when to shut up, and neither do Marco or Veronica, for that matter. Anyway, your encouragement is why I became the best shot in my class, and all I’ve ever wanted is to put my skills to use in your service. You know what they called me back at the Garrison?”
“Loverboy Lance,” Pidge snickers, parroting back the self-imposed nickname that had gotten away from Lance all too quickly.
“The Tailor, because I can shoot through the eye of a needle,” Lance says through a grit smile, his stare cutting to Hunk and Pidge’s laughing faces with all the intensity of a summer typhoon.
He’s still clasping Shiro’s hand. Keith can’t even look at anything else right now.
“I’m grateful for your assistance,” the prince says, genuine even as he slowly works his hand loose from Lance’s enthusiastic grip. Though it is far from flesh and blood, he still flexes his joints from the pressure. “And I’m sure I’ll see your skill with the bow in short time.”
Next is Hunk, drawn up to a height that matches the prince’s.
“Hunk Ma’a,” he introduces, bowing his head before taking Shiro’s offered hand. “It’s an honor, Your Highness.”
“Thank you for the blanket,” Shiro said, lifting one fringed, yellow corner appreciatively. “First you helped preserve my life, and now my modesty. You can’t imagine my gratitude.”
“Uh, of course, Prince Takashi. Oh!” Hunk exclaims, clapping his hands together before gesturing to a small spread arranged on the nearby table. “It’s not much, but I’ve put together a little something for your first meal since— uh, since you...”
The prince spares him further floundering with a smile and an affirmation. “Thank you, Ser Hunk. That sounds wonderful. I think I’ll try to get dressed first, though.”
“Great idea, Your Highness,” Hunk agrees with a skittish little laugh, his gaze dropping for a split second, taking in the ragged cover of the blanket and the dusty, weathered boots that peek out from under its hem.
Last is Pidge, diminutive beside the imposing figures of Hunk and Shiro.
“You also look familiar,” Shiro comments as he takes Pidge’s small hand in his own, his head tilting to the side as he squints down at the knight.
“We’ve met before, too, Your Highness,” Pidge says, “but it was only for a few minutes years ago. I’m Katie Holt, of the Holts of Silva. Sam Holt is my father. I’m Matt’s sister.”
Shiro and Lance both freeze at the reveal, but while the prince is briefly stunned into silence, Lance fills the air with immediate objections.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he says, waving outstretched arms. Without the padding of his armor, he’s even lankier than Keith initially took him for. “You’re Pidge. Pidge Gunderson.”
“No,” she says, emphatic as her brows lift high behind the burnished rims of oversized glasses. “That was a ruse so I could get into the Garrison without my mother knowing. Pidge is a nickname, and the Gundersons are a family of minor nobility I knew no one would inquire about.”
“But you— I didn’t realize— I undressed in front of you, Pidge!” Lance almost screeches, his hands going to cover himself despite being fully clothed.
“I can assure you, Lance, I was not paying it any mind.” Pidge sighs, giving up on Lance and directing her attention back to the prince. “My mother thinks I’m still attending university in the capital, but I had to— I have to look for my father and brother, and I needed to know what the Garrison knew, and I needed to know how to protect myself out here, so I…”
Pidge’s words slow from a torrent to a crawl. Faint apprehension makes itself known in her nervous shuffle and the way her gaze never quite meets Shiro’s for long. “I know that I broke the law by entering the Garrison under false pretenses.”
“Oh, you broke several laws,” Shiro corrects with neither fire nor animosity. The web of archaic rules surrounding admission into old institutions like the Garrison is a sticky tangle that the prince has never been fond of, even before his drawn-out fight just to get Keith’s foot in the door of the elite knight academy.
Pidge’s gaze slides to the side, to where Keith stands. “I figured you would understand, Your Highness.”
“I do,” Shiro assures her. “I do, and I’m hardly going to judge or sentence you for it. But in good conscience, I have to object. Lady Colleen would— gods, I can’t even imagine the loss she’s endured already. Did you plan on crossing the Devil’s Divide alone, or with these two? Because it would be a death march either way.”
Pidge’s first clenches in sync with her delicate jaw. “I am not going back home without Matt and my father. And my quest would be greatly expedited if you would tell me everything you can remember, Your Highness.”
Shiro isn’t used to people outside of his innermost circle snapping back with such intensity, and it shows in the little lean back onto his heels, the lift of his chin.
And though the moment is grim— and under other circumstances, Keith would be bristling at her attitude toward his prince— he has to smile. Pidge’s loss is too real. Her anger and defiance, all simmering in a form too small to contain it, is was raw and familiar, right down to the spread-stance and curled fists. She looks as ready to burst as Keith had felt at the Garrison in those first months after Shiro’s presumed death.
“You ought to listen to her,” Keith warns from the hall, voice carrying to Shiro’s ears. He tightens Shabrang’s blanket around himself as Shiro turns to look at him; the prince’s stare is heavy with troubled concern, his mouth settled into a flat line. “Or she might deck you like I did Iverson.”
There is a little twitch of surprise along Shiro’s brow, a slight part to his lips. His worried expression doesn’t vanish, but it does soften. When he turns back to Pidge— Katie— he settles into some sort of acceptance.
“I’m sorry. I suppose I’m hardly in any position to keep you from running headlong into the Galra Empire,” he relents. “And I’ll do my best to recall what I can for you, but I’d be more at ease if you continued to travel in our company. No stealing away in the night by your lonesome.”
Pidge nods, hesitant at first but then assured. “Agreed. As long as you don’t try to stop me when I decide to go.”
Shiro’s shoulders sink an inch, but he inclines his head. Another concession he’s not pleased to make. Newly tired, he asks, “How far along were the three of you at the Garrison?”
“Second year,” Pidge answers, all bright satisfaction now that the prince has given in and her position is more or less secured. “You can count on us, Your Highness. We can take care of ourselves— and you, too.”
Shiro’s smile is thin. “I don’t doubt your commitment or heart,” he says, after a stilted silence. He casts a look back at Keith— it’s one his knight recognizes from parties and unexpected encounters with flattering nobles and merchants, all social exhaustion and desperation to be saved.
“Let’s get you dressed, Shiro,” Keith says quickly, beckoning him down the hall and into the relative privacy of his father’s old room.
The clothes from the line are still a little damp, but they’ll do. The old shirt and breeches came from a chest of his father’s, and both at least seem a close fit for Shiro. Leagues better than the tattered garb the Galra put him in, at least.
“They’re awfully green, aren’t they?” Shiro murmurs as Keith helps slip the shirt onto his arms and over his shoulders. “I wonder if any of them have even seen combat outside of the training ring.”
“They stood to defend you when I took you from Iverson,” Keith answers, for what it’s worth. He notes how the breeches are a little loose around Shiro’s trim waist and makes a mental note to find a belt somewhere. “And against Garrison soldiers, no less.”
Shiro hums at that, unconvinced. His focus is aimed down, brows furrowed deep; he has trouble managing the row of small buttons with the claw-tipped fingers of his right hand.
“Let me,” Keith says as he steps forward and gently takes the front of the shirt. He starts from the bottom, his fingers nimble as he works the remaining buttons through frayed holes. He keeps his eyes on his hands and the worn fabric, but the latticework of scars down Shiro’s front catches his eye every other second.
“One light skirmish is hardly preparation for facing down the Galra,” Shiro says, a heavy sigh stirring Keith’s hair.
The knight lifts his gaze to find Shiro’s head turned aside, his brows scrunched tight above a distant, worried stare. “And you think they’re marching here? Now?”
Shiro’s eyes slip shut as he nods, his whole body wavering at the thought. As Keith finishes buttoning up his shirt, the fabric at last obscuring a particularly nasty scar across the prince’s breastbone, the prince swallows and says, “I think I need some fresh air.”
“Don’t stray too far,” Keith warns even as he steps aside for Shiro leave. The sound of his boots down the porch steps makes Keith want to follow, to keep vigil in case one of the many threats that trail after his prince rears its head, but Shiro is likely overdue for some much-needed solitude to settle his thoughts.
To distract himself, Keith drifts to the common room, hoping for a bite of Hunk’s promised breakfast. He figures he can grab extra to take to Shiro, too, once he’s had enough time to clear his head.
Lance sits in a chair by the hearth, half-draped over its backing, his cheeks still rosy and his eyes dreamily distant. “I can’t believe I saw the Prince Takashi,” he murmurs, already sounding wistful. “All of him. So close, I could’ve reached out and—”
“Careful,” Keith cuts in, all flat tones. His teeth click behind pursed lips, and his crossed arms flex as he curls his fingers.
Lance bends forward, steepling his hands in front of his face, and closes his eyes. After inhaling deeply through his nose, he exhales a prayer. He’s all false, exaggerated piety as he adds, “Praise the gods, for they do know how to lift the spirits of the weary. I’m ready to march a hundred miles in the prince’s name!”
“More like ready to whine for a hundred miles,” Hunk mutters as he laces his boots, swapping knowing grins with Pidge.
She finishes packing her bag, kneeling there on the floor of Keith’s home, and glances up at Keith with thoughtful concern. “He didn’t have all those scars before, did he?”
“No,” Keith tells them, his voice suddenly hoarse. He glances out the window, over the bare, low-sloped hills, and knows Shiro wanders somewhere near. “Not even half. Not even… there were only a handful worth noting before. Everything else is fresh.”
She looks crestfallen, and Keith knows that every horror inflicted on Shiro must be amplified in her mind, built-upon as she no doubt imagines even worse befalling her father and brother. He doesn’t know what to say, given that it’s a real and undeniable possibility. “So, uh… Pidge or Katie?” he asks instead. “From now on.”
She takes a moment to think on it. “Either works for me. But I think… I think I’d rather go by Pidge, for now. Just don’t start treating me any differently, okay? I’m only a couple of years younger than the rest of you.”
“Noted. Even though you’re about as tall as my eight-year-old niece,” Lance teases, smirking as Pidge’s face scrunches tight in irritation. His good humor slips away soon after, blue eyes turning sharp as eyes as he suddenly zeroes in on Keith. “Wait… where is Prince Takashi?”
Keith is quiet for a moment, chewing on his words. Everything with Lance feels like treading dangerously; he’d rather navigate a scorpion den than deal with snippy words and accusations. “He needed a moment alone.”
“Alone?” Lance asks, his chair rocking onto just two legs as he leans forward. “You let him go out there unprotected?”
“He can protect himself,” Keith rebuts, though Lance’s concerns echo in the back of his mind. “And he has a lot on his mind. He needs some time and peace to plan our next step.”
“I can advise him on that,” Lance says, brimming with eagerness. “Easy. We ride to the Varaderian Coast and inform everyone that Prince Takashi still lives. The people flock to support him, he leads us to victory, and once he’s back on the throne, we march on the Galra Empire to make them pay. And get your family back, Pidge,” he adds.
Pidge’s mouth quirks in a brief smile with no true joy. “Doubtful. And anyway, I don’t plan on sticking around for the duration of a war while my father and brother are captive. If everything goes according to plan, I could have them back home before His Highness is even coronated.”
In between bites of the dried duck and bread Hunk had set out for breakfast, Keith snorts. “I wouldn’t count on those plans. You’re better off staying by Shiro’s side until he consolidates power and has an army to send with you. It’s your sworn duty to the crown, anyway,” he reminds her as he uses his thumbnail to dig at a string of meat caught between his teeth. “But it’s just like nobility to only keep promises when it’s convenient.”
Pidge’s expression hardens, lips pressing to a thin line. “I thought you agreed with me.”
“Understanding doesn’t mean I think it’s a good decision. In your position, I’d—” Keith comes up short. He’d be gone already, caution to the wind, riding alone into the abyss in search of Shiro, if he only knew where to look. “I’d be just as tempted. But it won’t do your family any good to have you die to some monster in the Devil’s Divide.”
For a long moment, the only sound is of Keith’s chewing on tough meat.
Pidge shuts her large, golden eyes tight, mouth twisting for a moment. And then she is some measure of focused again— angry, but focused. “Do you really think Prince Takashi would mount a campaign against the Galra afterward? If they really did all of that to him…”
They might have no choice in the matter, Keith wants to say. Shiro seems to think war will find their doorstep, that the Galra behemoth has been riled out of sleepy legend and stands ready to consume Arus. But Keith is slower to choose and form his words than Lance.
“Of course he will,” Lance says, a hard look settling over his features. Confidence layered over incredulity, only just barely masking his personal insult at the suggestion Shiro would do anything less. “This is Prince Takashi Shirogane we’re talking about. The Lion of Arus? The Undefeated? He’s going to lead us to victory, just like he did up north. Like he’s led every army in his command. He’s never lost a battle!”
“He lost that day in the borderlands, when the Galra took him,” Hunk corrects, the reminder weighing grim and heavy in the air.
The truth of it forces Lance to work his jaw in displeasure, his frown pronounced. “Whatever,” he says, dismissive as he rises in one fluid motion and stalks off through the doorway by the hearth, outside to the pitted area where Keith and his father had once grilled skewered meat under the stars.
Pidge sighs, pushes herself to her feet, and goes out after him, yelling something about scorpion nests.
“I didn’t mean it badly,” Hunk says to Keith, his broad fingers tapping together in a worried gesture. “Just…”
“I get it,” Keith says. He crouches down on his heels beside Hunk, watching him organize and pack the last of his belongings. Hunk’s well-prepared, Keith notices, though he doubts the rations and medicine will stretch long for a party of five. “Shiro’s just as human as anyone else, and this has— it’s been hard on him. He’s barely had a moment to catch his breath.”
“Yeah,” Hunk agrees as he cinches his pack tight. When he looks at Keith, it’s without his usual furtive glancing and almost permanently worried expression. It’s a little more direct, a little more open to the idea that Keith might be more than an up-jumped cutthroat. “Y’know, it did surprise me... His Highness is actually very human, up close.”
“Almost entirely,” Keith adds dryly, a smile cracking his lips. “I hear he comes from a long line of humans, in fact.”
“You know what I mean,” Hunk scoffs, almost elbowing Keith’s side before stopping just short, apparently thinking twice about how it might be taken. “He’s… relaxed. Around you, at least.” A moment of hesitation. “People talked about you at the Garrison, you know.”
“Yeah, I picked up on that.” There were only so many times that whispers could fall silent upon his arrival and resume as he left before it clicked. His stint at the Garrison had mostly been lonely, barring occasional visits from Shiro as he made his rounds of the kingdom.
Hunk’s wide shoulders lift in a shrug. “But it turns out you’re not half bad. Intimidating, for sure, and I still don’t really get how you and His Highness are so close, but other than that—”
“Why do you say I’m intimidating?” Keith doesn’t look at him as he asks, but it’s a question that’s dogged him even since the palace. Only Shiro seems to have ever looked at him and seen something in need of championing, someone vulnerable despite his hard look and skills with a blade.
Hunk faces him with a flat, nonplussed look. He ticks a list off on his fingers, one by one. “Wastelander with no last name. Part of the royal court. You clearly have the ear of the prince. You walk around in blood-stained leathers. And according to Jenny Starweather’s cousin’s apothecary, you slew an assassin for the royal family. Oh, and I saw you send James Griffin through a wall during our very first sparring session.”
Keith shrugs and spares a glance at the pale, sun-bleached leather of his jacket. Or, rather, it’s pale where it isn’t dark with sunken-in blood. “That wall was pretty much just plaster anyway. As for my clothes, these stains won’t come out but it still fits, so it seems like it would be a waste to throw away. Besides, it’s comfortable.”
“See, I feel like the assassin part is what should’ve caught your ear,” Hunk says, head cocked so that his bangs flop to one side across his forehead. “Unless… you really did that.”
Keith nods. More than once, actually, but he figures Hunk doesn’t need to know that if the notion of cornering would-be assassins is so intimidating.
A small, high-pitched noise comes out of Hunk before he turns back to the fire. “You know what? Okay. That actually completely checks out,” he decides, waving a finger as he walks through that little revelation, “and it also helps explain you and Prince Takashi being so, uh, familiar.”
It’s another hang up that Keith doesn’t have time to puzzle through. Shiro is his friend— first and only, closer to him than any other living soul— and Keith can think of no other way to be around the man who spared his life and then did his best to lay the world at Keith’s feet.
“Oh, and I do have a surname,” Keith adds before heading outside to find Shiro, grabbing a handful of food for him along the way.
Dawn breaks slow across the wide plains, pale sunlight spilling down the sides of ravines and softening the foreboding red of the earth. The dirt rises around his boots with every step, coating the scuffed toes in a fresh layer of dusty earth.
Shiro stands some distance away from the shack, atop a tiny hill, lost in the pink and gold skies that herald the rising sun. His stare is far away, as if he’s there once more— whatever place he was held captive for over a year as his closest blood relative passed on, his kingdom fell sideways, and his chosen knight vanished into lonely obscurity.
Keith wonders if the prince even notices his presence. If Shiro is so mired in his thoughts that he doesn’t feel Keith’s hand upon his shoulder, his fingers gentle as they smooth down the wrinkled, thread-bare muslin of his father’s old shirt and light vest.
But after a few moments more, Shiro turns and gives Keith a soft, fragile smile. “It’s beautiful,” he murmurs. “Thought I’d die before I got to see an Arusian dawn again.”
Keith’s grip on Shiro tightens, his bare fingers pressing into the swell of Shiro’s shoulder. His thumb brushes back and forth over the fabric that covers skin mottled with scars.
Scars Keith now knows intimately. An elaborate, sickening sprawl of them. Cuts and slices and the raised lines of whip-marks; healed over burns that left behind skin gone tight and shiny; arcs where strong jaws had clasped around him; stab wounds sealed with puckered scar tissue. The worst of it rings Shiro’s upper arm, where the Galra replacement is fused to his flesh. The scar tissue is rough and ridged, as if reopened and healed a dozen or more times.
Keith’s own skin crawls in sympathy. It leaves his veins singing and his chest aching with a rage that can’t be sated— not here or now, and maybe not ever. The grind of his teeth resonates low in his inner ear, the force enough to send pain lancing through his jaw.
The name pulls Keith back to the present. He blinks and finds Shiro leaning down and in, heavy lashes framing his concerned gaze. The scar across the bridge of his nose seems even worse now— a deliberate defacement on a portion of his body otherwise left untouched.
“Are you well?” Shiro asks, touching the backs of his knuckles against Keith’s forehead and each of his temples in turn. “Let the record show that I objected to that cold bath.”
“I’m fine,” Keith snorts, catching Shiro’s arm by the wrist and tugging it away. “You don’t need to worry about me, Shiro. It’s supposed to be the other way around.”
“I have a responsibility to you,” Shiro says, almost stern. He doesn’t fight Keith’s easy grip, content to let his wrist be held. “I’m the reason you’re here in these circumstances, after all.”
“Don’t say it like it’s a hardship,” Keith tells him, warning in his tone. He slides his hand back up Shiro’s arm, finding a point between his elbow and below his shoulder to squeeze. “I’d rather be here by your side than anywhere else in the world.”
Keith lives for the way Shiro’s lashes look when he closes his eyes, dark against the hint of color sitting high on his cheeks.
“We should head out soon,” Keith continues, rolling his shoulders and rising up on his toes to stretch his legs. It would be another long day of riding, and it’s more paramount than ever that he be in peak condition to fight for Shiro. “Is there a place you have in mind? A stronghold? We could head north. Shuksan and Thunder Basin would stand and fight for you.”
“I’m sure,” Shiro agrees, nodding to himself. Distraction hangs over his expression like the gauzy touch of a burial shroud— it’s far from the quiet focus he wore back at the palace.
“Lance wants to head to the coast,” Keith says, hoping it might prompt more of a response. “Muster your forces there. Your generals might remember their oaths and step down when you make your bid for the throne, but I’d feel better asking for their sworn fealty with an army at our backs.”
It does get him a response, but it’s not one Keith was prepared for. “I… don’t know that I should, Keith.”
Keith swivels his head toward Shiro. “Don’t know that you should… what? Our two best options are Shuksan and— as much as it pains me to say it— the Varaderian Coast. Weak-willed nobles might waver, but the people love you. Common soldiers will support your claim—”
“It’s the suitability of my claim that I’m questioning.”
It dumbs Keith’s swirling concerns into momentary stillness. There is no question to be had, there. Shiro’s claim is stronger than any other living member of the Shirogane clan; he’s meant to rule and would do so nobly, and Keith would stake his life on that truth. Shiro would cultivate so much good as king, where others have sown war and let poverty fester.
Keith switches to a different track, hoping to kindle some of Shiro’s old confidence, his heavy sense of responsibility. His fingers dig into Shiro’s shoulder as Keith pulls him closer, desperate to wake him from whatever nightmare has clouded his thoughts. “You’re the crown prince, Shiro. It’s your duty to rule, and no one else in Arus is a better fit for that throne.”
“I no longer believe that to be true,” Shiro says, and each word seems to tax him terribly.
Keith’s eyebrows shoot skyward. “What? You used to—”
Talk incessantly of plans for his rule, propelled by a frantic urge to accomplish as much as he could in whatever time he was granted: overhauls to the tax system; the new university he wanted to fund; initiatives to broaden access to education; his intent to strip most class-based distinctions from the law and add new ones to protect the least advantaged. He’d already created ripples of change when he leveraged his position to send Keith, a young man of common blood and no reputable name, to the Garrison. He’d been the one to push Keith to aspire for more— an education, a knighthood, a role at the king’s side— and had dreamed as high as the stars for himself, too.
Shiro’s jaw is tight and his whole body rigid, down to the uncomfortable-looking spread of his clawed fingers. “Arus can’t afford to be in the midst of a civil war when the Galra come knocking—”
“All the more reason for us to act quickly,” Keith counters. He tries to tally the houses along the Varaderian Coast, which Shiroganes in the Vale of Narahir would support Shiro’s claim over advancing their own, how many northern villages and estates Shiro had personally defended. “We could have you back on the throne in as little as a season. Maybe less, even.”
“Only if we were lucky, and I’m not feeling much favored by the gods lately,” Shiro says, dry as the winds that curl around them, tugging at their clothes and hair. “And it’s more than that, even. It’s me, Keith.”
“Yes, it’s you,” Keith says, gripping onto it like a lifeline, following that thought like it’s a beacon in the dark. “You. People will rally behind you, Shiro. You can lead us against the Galra when they come.”
“I don’t know what they did to me,” Shiro says quietly, as if Keith’s words were carried away by the wind before he even heard them. Keith can’t tell whether the claw-tipped fingers are twitching of their own accord or by Shiro’s intent. “If I can’t answer for that to myself, what will I tell my people? My court?”
“When they ask where I disappeared to for a year, and I can’t remember? When I can’t account for my escape or my return?” His right hand curls into a tight fist, and the cords of darkness that slither under the metal seem to bulge. “When they see this arm and call me cursed and tainted, how will I argue? If I take the throne while corrupted, how much destruction could I bring?”
At a loss for what to say again, Keith tries to touch Shiro, to reassure and comfort in the best way he knows, but the prince flinches away like he’s avoiding the hiss of a near arrow.
“I don’t think I’m the same man I was before, Keith,” he tells the knight, and his voice is riddled with wavering cracks. Sweat beads along his brow when he looks down at that arm, woven of materials and magics they can’t even properly name. “And I’m not sure I can go back to how I was.”
“Don’t say that,” Keith protests, rallying hard against the worry that crawls in his belly. The deep magenta aura of the runes ringing Shiro’s arm disquiet him; the air of magic surrounding it is ominous and palpable. Worse than that, though, is how much pain it carries for Shiro— how much loss and doubt and fear.
Slow, careful, he touches his palm to Shiro’s left arm, settling on the broad swell of his shoulder. It’s a relief when Shiro doesn’t again shy away, but Keith wishes he could do more; more than offer his concern, more than simply soothe the ragged pieces of Shiro long after the damage has been done. Keith barely knows if his fury, currently caged behind his flimsy ribs, will be enough to avenge his prince. But for the man who made himself vulnerable for Keith, who trusted him when no one else would, he can try.
Shiro is larger than Keith remembers him, built up by scarring and muscle hard-won over a year in Galra captivity. He stands less at ease in his own skin. He is stiffer under Keith’s touch, as if there’s always a sliver of a second where he still expects pain.
So Keith embraces him slow, by degrees at a time.
Before Shiro, such touches had been foreign to Keith— it had been years since his father held him, and memory of his mother had come only from stories. He’s spent more of his life alone than surrounded by loved ones, and it still shows in the lingering awkwardness of his limbs as he pulls Shiro close, tucking the taller man’s head into the crook of his shoulder.
Shiro’s arms eventually knot around his waist, the prince curling in on him even as he squeezes Keith closer. It calms them both. Keith had forgotten how good it felt to be held like this.
“You’re still you, you know,” he murmurs, his lips nearly brushing Shiro’s ear. He keeps one arm snug around the prince’s back, while his other hand skirts up to stroke through his hair. “You’re still my prince, Shiro.”
Shiro’s considerable weight sags against him. “I missed you, Keith.”
Keith closes his eyes and focuses on the feel of Shiro safe in his arms, the smell of his clean skin under desert and dusty cotton. “I wish I had been there for you that day.”
“I’m grateful you weren’t.” And Keith can feel his wince.
Keith misses the lost warmth when Shiro eventually straightens up and pulls back a hair, even though they’re still tangled close. Shiro’s face is soft with wonder as he looks on Keith, dark eyes searching for something. “How did you find me, Keith?”
And it’s the combination of that expression and the memory of a year’s worth of loneliness and struggle that makes Keith break at last, spilling out closely held truth out for Shiro to hear.
He tells Shiro how the news had broken in the Garrison dining hall, in the middle of supper. How they’d said that a wild beast had crawled from the shadows of the empire and through the Devil’s Divide to slay the prince and his company down to a man, rending them apart or devouring them whole. How Keith had barely managed to stand and stagger to his room in the ensuing chaos— sick with grief, his vision swimming like a solid jar to the head from one of the arms instructors, breaths as shallow as the slice of a rapier.
It was only later that Keith learned there had been no body to recover, as an empty tomb made for the prince was sealed with only his sword inside. And it was that tiny shred of possibility that Keith had clung to as the weeks clawed away at him, as the queen followed her son into death and generals from the Garrison and beyond banded together to seize the throne before a lesser Shirogane could.
The last straw had been Shabrang. Keith wasn’t one to believe in signs or portents— before his sojourn in the desert, at least— but the sight of Shiro’s noble horse being led into the Garrison stables had shaken him like the touch of the gods themselves. For a beautiful, terrible moment, he had searched for Shiro astride the mount’s bare back, so used to tracing his prince’s armored silhouette from the windows of the tower where knight-cadets lodged. Shabrang was sleek and sullen in the firelight, and missing his rider, and the flicker of hope that Keith had briefly felt left his chest caved in disappointment when it vanished.
Keith had known, then, that neither of them belonged within Garrison walls. Outpost soldiers had found Shabrang wandering in the wastes, roaming loose for months before anyone could capture him. No doubt some pompous knight-commander had it in their head to usurp the prince’s renowned steed, too.
In an act of great faith and little forethought, Keith had stolen into the stables to make his escape that very night. And Shabrang, notoriously strong-willed and almost viciously loyal to Shiro, had heard his desperate pleas and allowed Keith to clamber astride him. Maybe Shabrang had sensed that Keith was seeking Shiro too, however impossible the quest might be; maybe he’d just accepted that Keith was the closest thing left to Shiro.
The first weeks after their flight from the Garrison were a blur of strong purpose and heady hope. Keith had set out determined to recover Arus’ missing prince, to succeed where entire cohorts of soldiers had failed. He’d chased any lead he thought might ease the deepening ache in his heart.
The disillusionment had taken months of fruitless searching to set in, leaving Keith bereft as he tried to imagine his place in this world without either family or friend. He’d wandered aimless, at times driven only by the need to care for Shabrang like Shiro would’ve wanted, until the first night that he felt that distant, interior call as he lay under the chasm of the night sky strung with stars named for so many Shirogane kings and queens, but not his Shiro.
“A call?” Shiro asks in the here and now, puzzled concern written into the seam between his brows.
Keith draws in a hitched and hesitant breath. He knows it sounds half-crazed, like maybe a small part of him went mad from the loss of Shiro or the heat or some brutal combination of the two.
“A feeling.” It had come as a whisper at first, so distant he could mistake it for the wind. Then it was a wordless voice that settled around him, under his skin, deep into his head. And then it was more a feeling than a sound— a pull toward a destination he couldn’t picture but longed for all the same, like a path so familiar you walk it without even meaning to. “A pull toward… something.”
Following the whispered call had led Keith to places he neither recognized nor understood: carven caves and ruined slabs of stone, etched in glyphs and pictographs; dry riverbeds with metal seals buried under their cracked earth; the half-buried pillars of ancient Altea, ringed in the dead language of a dead people.
It had led him to Shiro.
“I heard it while I was searching for you,” Keith says, unable to mend the crack in his voice. “And I followed because I had nothing and no one else, but... it led me to the very place you would be, Shiro. The one place in the whole world that I’d find you.”
Something in Shiro’s eyes softens. “Keith…”
“I can’t think of it as coincidence,” Keith murmurs after, his head shaking the barest bit. He can’t fathom how else it could be— that somehow, across this earth and under these stars, Shiro had been delivered to him once again.
Shiro’s smile is warm and touched with amusement. “What happened to the skeptic I knew? I thought you didn’t take the gods for meddlers.”
Keith shrugs. “Maybe they aren’t,” he hedges. He doesn’t have answers or truths, except for what he feels within his own heart. “But something is responsible.”
Shiro dwells heavily on that thought, sending a needling worry through Keith’s heart. His silence is drawn, contemplative.
“Do you think I’m crazy?” Keith’s heartbeat is high in his throat, quick with anxious anticipation.
The prince startles, then jumps to comfort him. “No, Keith. Of course not,” he assures, his hand settling on Keith’s shoulder, warm even through the layers of Keith’s leathers. “You know how much I trust your judgment.”
“As I trust you to lead.” He lifts his brows in expectation. Maybe Shiro’s in a better place already; maybe his spell of self-doubt is passed, or at least held at bay. “So… where will you be leading us, Your Highness?”
“Stop that,” Shiro huffs, poking his knuckle into the ticklish spot along Keith’s ribs as they double back toward the shack. “I have a thought in mind, but it would be unfair to foist it on our companions without fair warning.”
Once back in his childhood home, Keith dutifully stands by Shiro’s side as he addresses the three Garrison knights.
“Prince Takashi,” Lance is the first to greet, quickly pulling himself onto his feet. His chest puffs when Shiro’s gaze falls on him. “How can we serve you?”
“We help him retake the throne,” Keith cuts in from Shiro’s flank, settling his weight in his heels as he hopes for Shiro to agree.
“Keith,” the prince says in warning, his metal hand held up to beg his silence. He clears his throat before speaking again. “I don’t intend to make a run at the throne. Not now, certainly.”
Lance rises against the very idea instantly, his eyes bright with zeal and his cheeks more than a touch red. “The Vela Rivera family is loyal to the ruling branch of the Shirogane clan— o-or they will be, once they know there’s still a royal Shirogane to rally behind. My family will stand with you, Prince Takashi. I swear it. The whole of the Varaderian Coast will. We would be honored to host you again.”
Hunk makes a similar, less zealous profession, offering the relative protection of the distant Stone Isles; Pidge is silent, her reluctance to return north to her home in Silva precluding any offer of Holt hospitality.
“I appreciate your generous offers. Deeply. But I cannot ask it of you or the kingdom, given my… current state.”
“You don’t have to ask us,” Keith says, his eyes narrowing under resolutely lowered brows. “Everyone in this room took an oath to serve you—”
“Well, the royal throne and the clan of Shirogane,” Hunk leaps in to correct.
Keith’s lips draw thin at the distinction; while technically correct, he hates it. “Maybe at the Garrison. But I swore my oath well before then and it was to the man in front of me. To a man worthy of it, and worthy of ruling. Shiro, I would cut a swathe through any army to seat you on that throne—”
“I know, Keith,” Shiro says, resting his good hand on Keith’s shoulder in an effort to calm his riled emotions. “It’s not your loyalty or your ability I doubt. It’s myself, and what is best for the kingdom here and now.”
“Then what would you have us do?” Pidge asks. She still reads half-wary, as if on guard for any course that might hinder her progress toward her family.
Shiro’s smile is warm but careworn at the edges. “I would have you make your own choices, as I have made mine. I warned the Garrison of the Galra as well as I could, but if you would also send word to your families somehow, I would rest easier. For my own part, I… I need answers.”
Keith stiffens as a trickle of magenta light flickers through Shiro’s metal arm. He isn’t alone in the unsettled reaction.
“I can’t trust myself to lead— much less rule an entire kingdom— while I carry this curse. Corruption. Whatever it is,” he mutters, thoughtful as he clicks wicked metal talons together. “I intend to travel with Keith wherever his road leads, in the hopes that I will find my own answers along the way.”
Keith’s eyebrows shoot high. Elation at the thought of traveling together again is undercut by his deep-seated sense that something is amiss if Shiro isn’t leading Arus. “You’re really abandoning the throne?”
“Leaving it in better hands,” Shiro counters as he slowly curls the metal fingers of his right hand, watching the joints move. There is an eeriness to their animation, a sinister air to the faint, pink-tinged light that sometimes slips through the teeming darkness that knits the metal together. “Until I’m confident in my own again.”
It’s worry that prompts Keith to push it. “If we wait, Shiro, there might never be another opportunity. You could be in exile forever.”
“Your Highness,” Lance interjects, his disappointment plain, “you’re the Lion of Arus. A legend. I’ve never wanted anything more than the opportunity to prove myself to you. We can search for answers at my family’s castle. We can return you to the throne and then use the palace’s resources to search for a cure.”
For once, Keith finds he agrees with Lance. It’s... unpleasant. Rarely do he and Shiro ever disagree, much less on something fundamental. If there was an ever-constant on the horizon that Keith had never even thought to doubt, it was this: that Shiro would one day rule, and with Keith beside him until his reign ended.
That dream had been fractured and delayed, but a glimmer of its old splendor had returned with Shiro— only to again unwind before Keith’s very eyes.
“Then where do we go, exactly?” he asks, re-aligning himself to Shiro’s new purpose. He’s the rightful prince— and Keith will never let him forget it— but this cause is important, too.
The corner of Shiro’s mouth moves just a hair. Relief, in some small part. His stare lingers on Keith before moving to the others. “In the last months, Keith has been following a call from beyond. A sort of… guiding voice. It led him here, and to me… and I think I’d like to follow it with him.”
In the background, Lance groans and throws his arms into the air.
Shiro is somehow grim and fond all at once. His words ring with finality despite the quiet shock that runs through the room. “Lance, Hunk, if you choose to return to your families, I’d understand. It’d be just as well if you did. And Pidge,” he sighs, “I know where your heart’s set.”
She nods, short and brusque. “I’ll stick with you and Keith for a little bit,” she concedes, giving him a quick half-smile.
“And why exactly is Keith’s random feeling worth following?” Lance snaps, his arms crossing tight over his chest. After a beat, he pales and hurries to add, “U-um, Your Highness.”
Keith starts when Shiro’s attention returns to him, bright-eyed and expectant. The prince cocks his head the barest bit, and Keith pulls in a quick breath as he realizes Shiro wants him to explain.
So he pulls out his journal and the well-worn map from his breast-pocket and swallows down his harried nerves. Keith’s formal education didn’t begin until Shiro found him, and he prays to whatever god might be watching that he doesn’t embarrass himself in a room full of well-learned nobles. “It’s not random. Here, I’ve been trying to determine exactly where it’s coming from,” Keith says as he lays out his journal and unfolds the battered map he’d stolen from the Garrison.
“Without much luck, by the looks of it,” Lance mutters. Still, he peers down with interest, quiet as he makes sense of Keith’s less-than-practiced handwriting.
“It was leading me southwest, through places where the Alteans left their mark,” Keith explains as he traces a nail along the dots marked on the map. He marked off places he’d searched without success and circled a few others that felt promising, their spread forming a sparse path that weaves through the Ariz Wastes.
“Uh, I know this place,” Hunk says out of nowhere. He leans in between Keith and Lance and taps a thick finger at a spot directly adjacent to a point Keith had circled. “This whole area was an Altean research complex. There ought to be ruins around there somewhere.”
“Altean ruins? There?” Pidge asks, thin brows raised in a show of disbelief. “How could you possibly know that?”
“It was mentioned in this massive, ancient journal my tutor made me copy. It was my punishment for writing a limerick about how big his butt was,” Hunk says, pulling a face at the memory. “My hand cramped for weeks afterward. Anyway, it mentioned this area used to house a sort of… study for the Altean royal family. A sanctuary, maybe?”
“Surely someone would’ve noticed a royal Altean complex,” Pidge says skeptically, “in the course of ten millennia.”
Hunk shrugs. “All I’m saying is that Keith’s… feeling might be explained by some lingering Altean magic, if he’s sensitive to that sort of thing.” He glances at Keith, pointed in his concern. “Which would make pursuing it highly dangerous and inadvisable.”
Keith’s spine straightens at the warning, but he’s more absorbed in the notion that it could be old magic drawing him along, filling his thoughts with ideas of destiny. But it’s more than the raw forces of nature, Keith knows— he grew up here in the Ariz Wastes, knows the territory like the back of Shiro’s hand, and he’s never before felt this awakened energy.
“It could also contain secrets that might help Prince Takashi,” Pidge says, voice low as her fingers thoughtfully strum against her hip. “The Alteans mastered healing magics unlike anything we know today. They were also known for their means of breaking curses. If there’s a possibility of recovering the prince’s memory or dealing with his arm…”
Lance straightens up, too. “Then we ought to go! Hunk?”
“So, we’re all just ignoring what I said about the dangers of loose Altean magic, I guess?” Hunk asks, wilting slightly. He sighs at Lance’s gentle prodding and taps his fist to his chest, resigned. “Much as I’d love to go home, my place is at Lance’s side and yours, Prince Takashi.”
“I’m grateful to hear it,” Shiro says, soft as he takes in the four of them. “When can we be ready to ride?”
“An hour. Two, tops,” Lance supplies, shrugging. “Pidge, Hunk, get the horses so we can water them and refill our skins. I’m going to do a quick perimeter check and I’ll be back to help saddle up.”
As the others leave to make ready, Shiro leans in toward Keith, head tilted curiously.
Keith’s journal is still open for Shiro to see, splayed wide in Keith’s hands. It reveals more than just a log of his journey— the leather-bound book holds his spare thoughts, his bitter longing, and his reminiscing, too. All are scratched in around the margins of more diligent notes, fitted wherever the paper had space. He doubts Shiro can read his uneven and inconsistent lettering at a glance, but still.
The prince’s finger drags lightly over the handwritten page, following Keith’s detailed notes and sketches of a site he had come across back near the Arusian heartlands. He turns the page, and then another, skimming slowly through the span of Keith’s collected travels.
“And you found all of this because of a… a calling? A voice?” There’s puzzled awe in his words.
“A feeling,” Keith replies, nodding along. It’s many things, actually, and none of them simple to describe.
Shiro traces along a line of sloppy writing at the bottom of a page. He read the words slow, unwitting as his voice turns the blood in Keith’s veins to ice floes. “‘It’s killing me when you’re away’...?”
Keith snaps the journal shut, very nearly clipping the prince’s extended finger. He takes in a deep breath through his nose, mouth screwed up while he attempts to salvage words that will soften how exposed he feels.
“Well. It was,” is all Keith can say in his defense, shoving his journal back into its pocket and leading Shiro out the front door to find the others.
The heat along his neck and cheeks is outdone by the rising sun. “Let me get Shabrang,” he tells Shiro before letting out a whistle. Belatedly, he realizes that the prince is more than capable of summoning his own mount— and maybe would’ve liked to, after so long without him.
They hear the horse long before they see him, thundering back from a grazing spot well distant from where the other horses are tethered. At the sight of someone beside Keith, Shabrang draws up short on instinct.
But it doesn’t dissuade Shiro, who strides toward the massive, midnight black stallion with his arms outstretched, as if ready to hug.
Other than a hesitant sniff at his new right arm, Shabrang greets Shiro as warmly as ever, whinnying and stamping his wide hooves in excitement. He bows his head as Shiro palms up the strong cords of his neck, lipping and snuffling interestedly at his old master’s borrowed clothes.
Shiro grins as he runs his hand across Shabrang’s withers. “Keith… I can’t thank you enough for taking care of Shabrang. I was so worried about him.”
Keith grunts as he grabs the nearby saddle and slowly approaches the prince and his beloved warhorse. He throws the faded black blanket over the horse’s back first, and then sets about readying him for the ride. “A lot of knight-officers at the Garrison wanted him, you know. But there’s only one rider good enough for Shabrang.”
“Two, apparently,” Shiro corrects. He mulls that over for a moment. “We’ll definitely need to find you a horse of your own soon. In the meantime, Shabrang can seat us both.”
Shiro mounts up smooth and practiced, almost giddy as he sits atop his favorite horse for the first time in well over a year.
“I have one in mind, actually,” Keith says as he waits for Shiro to slip his foot free of the stirrup and slide forward in the saddle. His knee is practically against his chest as he fits his boot into the empty stirrup, careful of knocking against his prince’s leg, and heaves himself up to mount the eighteen-hand horse. Keith swings his free leg across Shabrang’s girth and settles comfortably behind Shiro, his arms going right around the man’s middle.
“Really?” the prince turns his head, whitened forelock catching in the breeze.
Keith grins as he feels something like certainty take root behind his ribs. “If we have any time left to spare.”
Shiro rides first to tell the others where they’re headed and what they hope to do. The idea isn’t much-loved— they’ve spent too much time in one place already, and splitting up even for an hour is risky— but bearing two riders for any considerable length of time is a lot to ask of even Shabrang. No one can deny that it would be best if Keith could locate a mount of his own.
They set off in a direction of Keith’s choosing, his hands firm on Shiro’s hips as the prince nudges Shabrang into a steady canter. It feels good to be at his back again, so close he can feel each of the prince’s inhaled breaths. There’s a soothing quality to the rhythm of Shabrang’s pace, and for a few moments— warm and content as he’s gently rocked by the horse’s strides— Keith thinks he could drift into a catnap.
“Did we pass a farm this way?” Shiro asks, voice rousing the knight pressed against his back.
“No. I’m looking for a wild one,” he says against the slope of Shiro’s broad shoulder. “Small, cherry bay, as fast as Shabrang is strong. I saw her a day ago, being chased to exhaustion by a pack of desert monitors. I think she’s still close.”
He can’t say how or why he knows it, but a year alone has taught Keith to trust his instincts.
Shiro makes a soft sound of understanding that blossoms into low, easy laughter. It catches in the wind and delights Keith’s ears. “Wild. Of course. It sounds like she’ll suit you well.”
It can’t be more than a quarter of an hour later when they stumble upon the lithe little mare beside a miniscule watering hole under a lonesome tree, her ears turning warily at Shabrang’s heavy approach.
Shiro clasps Keith’s hand to steady him as he dismounts. “I’ll stay back here with Shabrang. I’d hate to startle her away.”
Keith pockets a kneejerk objection. Shiro is right to hang back, and he won’t be too far to reach if needed.
He approaches the wild horse with slow, telegraphed moves, a soft whistle, and a fat apple he’d squirreled away in his pack the last time he passed an orchard. He crouches low to make himself small and unthreatening. It takes time for the bay to grow tolerant of his presence, and longer still for her to take the first wary steps toward him, her nose testing the air for the sweet scent of fruit.
By the time she finally ventures close, with her nostrils flared and her ears swiveling back and forth, Keith’s legs ache and sweat dots his brow. The red mare regards him for a few drawn, tense moments— and then she bends her neck to snap through the crisp skin of the apple, voraciously gobbling it down before lipping at his juice-covered palm for more.
“That’s all, girl,” Keith says, voice pitched low and soft. “Sorry.”
Red— it’s what he’s already thinking of her as— allows him to stroke up her nose and along her cheek while she sniffs him over for additional treats.
“If you come with me, there’s more where that came from,” he murmurs as warm, wet breaths ruffle his hair. “Do you remember me from the other day?”
The bay snorts, sending a wet spray across the back of Keith’s neck, and shuffles her feet impatiently.
Keith rises slow, the muscles in his thighs quivering after sitting crouched for so long, until he is nearly eye-to-eye with the small, wild beast. He waits while the mare dances around him, as fleet of foot as she’d been the last time he laid eyes on her, and then he takes a slow step backward. And another. More and more, until she begins to follow him at a distance.
Shiro is seated in the grass a ways behind him, under the shade of a scrubby shrub, rubbing a pale green stalk between his fingers while Shabrang grazes happily a few feet away.
“I think she likes me,” Keith says as he gets closer. A half-turn back shows that Red still follows, alert but eager, her ears directed inquisitively toward the unfamiliar man and horse before her.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised, at this point.” Shiro’s eyebrows are raised in amazement, but his easy, fond smile balances out the look. “The hawks took an instant liking to you, too. And the dogs.”
“You, too.” Under a sheen of sweat and a thin coat of windswept dust, Keith’s skin blushes bright for saying it.
Impressively, Shiro’s brows rise a smidge higher. The laugh that follows is warmed through with knowing affection. “And me, too. Something about you is just inherently likeable, I suppose.”
Keith grunts and settles down beside Shiro, eyes following the mare as she tentatively approaches Shabrang. She’s as nervous as she is curious, and the combination has her darting in and away from the larger horse like a dragonfly. “My life experience says otherwise,” he mutters, “but I’m glad I at least had that effect on you.”
Shiro’s amused, throaty hum is joined by a faraway smile, like he’s reminiscing over their first meeting.
The thought inflames Keith’s veins and crushes sweetly against the heart within his chest. It’s one of the great, defining moments of his life, even if Keith didn’t know it at the time— and how little he’d known, back then. How little he’d thought of Shiro at that first passing glance; how little regard he’d had for Shiro’s opinion of him; how little he’d known that one day, the very man he’d nearly slain would be his sun and stars.
“We ought to be getting back,” Shiro says after a minute more. He eyes the mare as he pushes himself to his feet, dark eyes keen as she grazes beside Shabrang. She’s still wary, her small ears flicking toward the two of them where they stand in the receding shade, but Red is markedly less agitated than she had been just five minutes earlier. “I’ll be damned.”
Keith smirks back, swiping blindly at Shiro as he mutters teasing comments about Keith’s ability to bewitch anyone and anything that sees him. “C’mere, Red,” he says to the small mare, whistling softly.
“Do you think you’ll be able to ride her?” Shiro asks. He seems to second-guess himself a moment after— of course Keith does. Even untamed horses bow before his determined will. Instead, he asks, “Bareback?”
“I’ve done it plenty of times,” Keith answers. His voice is tempered low, soft— purposefully, to keep Red calm as he closes the gap between them. “I didn’t have time to saddle Shabrang before I took off from the Garrison, and I got by without for weeks.”
He can hear Shiro’s distant sigh— almost exasperated, but fond, too— but he’s close enough to Red that his focus shifts. Her nose is soft against his palm as she searches for an apple that he doesn’t have, fuzzy lips brushing over the calluses born from years of heavy sword training. She allows him to stroke her cheek without more than a snort against his chest, and soon enough Keith is rubbing his hands along her flanks and spine to test the waters.
He’s murmuring a steady stream of sweet reassurances as he prepares to climb astride Red, and he can hear Shiro’s laughter when it takes a few tries to get enough leverage to heave himself across her back. But once Keith is up, it feels right.
Red skitters under him for a few moments, unused to a human’s weight, but Keith is able to soothe her with a hand down her long neck and a comforting murmur that has her ears flitting back to listen.
“By the gods’ breath,” Shiro says, looking at him atop Red with an expression that never fails to make Keith’s heart skip, no matter how many times Shiro wears it. He knows it from momentous occasions— like when Shiro first saw him cornered in that alley, sword hanging over his neck— and quiet moments alike. It’s the same soft look as the first time Keith helped Shiro sew shut a slice along his ribs, or showed Shiro how his father used to make rabbit stew, or when he managed to haltingly read through his first page of a book.
“It’s not a big deal,” Keith replies as Shiro mounts Shabrang and cautiously guides the larger animal over. He keeps a hand steady on Red to reassure her as the two horses exchange inquisitive sniffs, but it almost feels unneeded.
“Few people could do what you just managed,” Shiro snorts as he turns Shabrang and starts heading back toward the shack and their companions. “Even Shabrang threw me a few times before deciding I was worthy. Didn’t you?” he asks, all affection as he pats his horse with his human hand.
Keith follows just half a length behind, keeping his red-cheeked smile to himself.