It’s nearly two months since the battle against Sendak and the mysterious Altean mech before Earth is able to properly begin rebuilding itself and for the paladins to be properly discharged from the hospital, before Shiro finds himself seated behind Keith on a hoverbike they ‘borrowed’ from Atlas’ massive hangar. They’re currently riding through empty roads, beaten dirt paths and open desert and it’s perfect. After endless weeks of being cooped up and stuck in long, boring meetings and dealing with piles of endless paperwork it’s freeing to be out like this.
Shiro can’t even help the fond softness that slips into his eyes as he stares across the expansive desert, and he silently thanks Allura and the others for helping sneak away, even if it’s just for a single day. A day without having to play nice with rude and obnoxious bureaucrats was already enough to call the day good in Shiro’s mind. He only wishes they could have snagged another bike to have a proper race, but knows they had to opt out if they had wanted to make a clean getaway without running into Iverson or any other Garrison personnel, who would have frowned upon the two sneaking out like a couple of teenagers. Even if that is exactly what they were doing. Regardless, Shiro wasn’t going to complain about his current position. With the kind of bad luck he attracts Shiro’s learned when to never look a gift horse in the mouth and just roll with life’s punches, so to speak. So excuse him for relishing in the feeling of holding Keith’s lithe and firm waist in his arms. He at least has the decency to refrain from pressing himself closer or burying his face into dark, velvety-soft hair. Instead he keeps his focus resolutely to the scenery that rushes by.
Evidence of the war has left its mark on the land with familiar rock formations and other landmarks being decimated and the ground darkened and scorched and the distinct lack of desert fauna didn’t go amiss in Shiro’s mind. And yet, despite the heavy transformation that the desert had undertaken Keith was able to navigate her plateaus and mesas as easily as tracing the lines of his bare hands. The sight of Keith piloting, be it a giant, robot space cat to a stolen hoverbike, it always did things to Shiro: he would be left a little dizzy and just a touch breathless in the aftermath. He wonders if Keith’s ease in navigating the desert came as a side effect from living within the arid landscape, and nearly asks him as such, but stops himself.
A large portion of Keith’s life had been spent in this very same desert, long before Shiro had ever entered his life…. And long after when he’d been first reported lost and dead, and the Kerberos mission a failure. The thought makes Shiro’s heart lurch, and an old guilt begins to claw its way up his chest and settles painfully in his throat, and he wants to apologize. He wants to tell Keith to stop right where they were, here in the vast empty of the Arizona desert, so that Shiro could clamber off the bike and fall to his knees, begging the younger man for a forgiveness he knows he doesn’t truly deserve. He wants to apologize for this and many, many other things. He’d abandoned this beautiful man over and over again, leaving nothing but empty promises and a devastation so profound it had tarnished any potential future Keith had had at the Garrison. Keith should hate him, resent him, and yet, not once has he complained, nor forsaken him, or given up. He’s saved Shiro so many times it’s become all but law; Shiro is in danger, Keith will save him.
Gray eyes search and search past the glint of the sun and trace over the supple rise of Keith’s cheek, following the dusty pink of his scar as it cuts across lightly freckled skin to where it stops just below night sky eyes.
The need to tug Keith closer to him is there, and Shiro’s fingers twitch against Keith’s belly, and he has to fight off the indiscernible urge to cry. Somehow, Keith seems to sense his distress.
He doesn’t turn Shiro’s direction, eyes never leaving the sandy path ahead as he asks, “You okay?” It’s a gentle rasp that carries itself past the whipping winds and even harsher billows of sand, and it’s like Keith is talking to a scared animal rather than a grown man on the verge of a breakdown. It almost makes Shiro feel foolish. Almost.
He manages to find his voice and shouts back, “I’m fine,” and an even quieter, “just thinking.” It doesn’t sound as strangled as Shiro feels, and he mentally cheers himself for it. Even when he knows it’s not quite enough to appease Keith, can see the tension in his shoulders and knows that he wants to stop and turn around to ask Shiro more, but Keith doesn’t. He doesn’t say anything as one of his gloved hands releases its hold on the hoverbike’s handle and reaches down to squeeze Shiro’s hand— his prosthetic one— before it returns to its twin’s side.
They don’t say much for the remainder of their drive, but the heaviness clogging Shiro’s heart melts away and he allows himself to settle closer to Keith, even daring to press his face into the sun-warmed material of Keith’s leather jacket. Keith says nothing to the action, not even flinches, and Shiro is grateful. He misses the shy smile gracing Keith’s lips.
The drive doesn’t take long, but by the time they reach their destination the sun is beginning to sink past the highest points of distant mountains and lone rocky formations. The sky is bleached of its baby blue and instead stained by the warm hues of oranges, reds and yellows. They together at the edge of a rocky overhang and stare our far into the near endless desert land, the stolen hoverbike sits powered down behind them. In the distance Shiro thinks he can make out the bare bones of Keith’s old family shack, but it’s impossible to pick it out properly. He wonders if Keith would want to seek it out later, and what he would do if they did find it. Would he fix it up or leave it be to be buried in a sandy grave? They stand there for another moment longer, soaking up the dying sunlight, before deciding to turn their attention back towards the bike.
They pop open its trunk and storage units and begin pulling out the items packed inside each compartment. Keith tugs out a well-loved, burgundy blanket that he tucks under his arm before reaching back in to grab out an even older radio, the kind that still uses old double AA batteries. The blanket had been thrust into his hands by Lance, red-faced and unable to keep eye contact the entire time. A silent truce and an apology for being a major dick. Keith had readily taken the offered proverbial olive branch with a kind smile; one-sided rivalries weren’t fun, and pointless bullying even less so.
The radio, on the other hand, was a sort of gift from Pidge. It’d been found during the team’s first outing into the new market areas on Earth, and it had been her who had found the ancient device squirreled away at some alien merchant’s booth. She’d pawned off some old tech of hers, and immediately gifted it to Shiro when she hadn’t been able to find a better use for it. Knowing her she had just wanted an excuse to give Shiro the radio, and it ended up being something Shiro adored. It was ridiculously old, beaten up, and seemingly unable to play anything other than songs that were decades older than them. It was oddly perfect in its own way.
Opposite of him is Shiro holding up an ice box nearly bigger than his head on one shoulder, while holding several bags of disgustingly greasy fast-food in his other hand. The food came from a diner that used to be an old haunt of theirs during their Garrison days together, and Keith loved it and Shiro secretly did too but would never admit to anyone else. Alongside their barely edible dinner was a black forest cake that Hunk had been gracious enough to bake for them, however, if the other man ever found out what he and Keith were about to eat then he’d surely hunt the two down until they apologized for committing such horrible, culinary sins. He’d also stress cook for them and hand them chicken salad sandwiches, or three-cheese macaroni casserole, or some other product of his culinary genius. It’s such an amusing thought that it makes Shiro grin and stifle a small laugh.
Keith catches the sound and turns Shiro’s way, a brilliant glint shines in those lovely indigo eyes and there’s a tiny upturn of his pretty lips. The sight alone makes Shiro’s heart flutter and soar, and he nearly smacks the side of his head with the ice box, but tightens his hold on it before it does. Before Shiro can even sputter some half-assed excuse about the sunlight blinding him or specks of sand getting caught in his eyes Keith has already turned his back to him, snickering quietly. Face burning with embarrassment, Shiro makes his way over to Keith’s side, and together they start setting up their picnic. Keith is already dusting out the blanket and begins to carefully lay it out. The radio sits off to one side, its aged speakers already crooning out songs that neither he or Keith can readily identify but enjoy anyways.
Once he’s satisfied, Keith turns to Shiro and holds his hands out as if to take the bags of food, and Shiro doesn’t hesitate to hand them over. However, Shiro quickly realizes that Keith’s offer to help may have just been a ruse as Keith uses this as an opportunity to pilfer one of the several burgers inside. Shiro can’t help the sudden bark of laughter or his startled hey! As he tries to grab at the other man, but Keith is already dancing out of his reach. He even has the nerve to open their bag of fries and sneak in a few. They’re specifically Shiro’s fries, and he knows this because he’s always preferred them curly with extra cajun seasoning, and Keith has always ordered plain ones with just salt and pepper, despite the fact that he always ends up eating most of Shiro’s anyways.
The cheeky shit shoots Shiro a teasing grin and a little wink as he pops in another fry into his mouth, and Shiro has had enough of this terrible betrayal. He drops the ice box just beside the blanket and darts off after Keith. It’s only through the use of his prosthetic that Shiro’s able to snag the bags of food back, and ignores Keith’s exclamations of “Shiro that’s cheating-!”
They play an impromptu game of keep away that only ends when Keith threatens to tickle him and Shiro points out that their food is probably getting cold. With one last stolen fry they settle down on the blanket with their own food and nursing a cool bottle of beer each, and it’s so easy to pass the time like this. They talk and laugh in-between messy bites of greasy food and cool beer and bites of chocolate cake and shared memories of their past. It’s good. A change from the hardships they endured over the past several years, and for the first time Shiro feels like he can breath. He’s no longer weathering the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he’s only twenty-six, he loves the stars as much as he fears them, and he’s in love with his best friend.
They talk and talk until their food is gone, and they’re caught between their third or fourth beers, and there’s nothing but the radio filling the silence. Keith sinks back onto the blanket with a quiet sigh, and Shiro joins him. He stares the sharp features of Keith’s profile and memorizes every edge and curve of his, while Keith eyes the darkening sky above them. There’s tension in his furrowed brows, a deep scowl working its way onto his features. He wants to say something, but he seems to be debating whether or not he should, and it leaves Shiro at odds.
Just a moment ago Keith had no problems carrying himself with confidence and conviction, the kind that Shiro always knew was in him, but seeing it slip away like this has him concerned. But if Shiro is anything he’s patient, so he waits.
Eventually whatever it is that Keith wants to say fizzles away, and he huffs, clearly annoyed with himself. It’s amusing, and Shiro has to beat down the urge to grin, but he’s also curious now.
“I can hear you think over there. What’s wrong?”
Keith flicks his gaze over to him for a split second and then it’s gone. He stays quiet, lips thinned out, and Shiro is sure he won’t get an answer when Keith speaks up again, voice soft like a wisp of smoke between them, cautious and uncertain. “Do you still love him? Adam?”
Shiro is completely caught off-guard by the question that he isn’t able to immediately answer, but Keith takes his silence as his final answer.
“Oh. Oh, okay. Sorry I-” Keith starts to shift away from him, but it’s then that Shiro snaps out of his shocked stupor and he reaches for Keith’s wrist without really meaning to, and surprises them both. He instantly lets go and attempts to stutter out an embarrassed apology.
“No I should be the one-”
They both break off with small exasperated laughs. Shiro clears his throat as he sits up, and Keith follows and the mood sobers up. Keith is pencil-straight and rigid, eyes filled with anxiousness and worry that he’d crossed some invisible line, and more than anything Shiro wants to bury the disquiet there.
“I….No, I don’t love Adam. Haven’t for a very long time.”
Keith looks at Shiro, wide-eyed and speechless, and Shiro shrugs. He doesn’t look at Keith when he turns towards the skies, watching the last dip of light vanish into night. He smiles then, sad and honest as he says, “There’s a difference between caring for someone and loving them. I did love Adam, we meant something to each other, but things change. We changed. Our relationship was already falling apart before Kerberos was even announced. Choosing the mission was just the final straw; we both wanted different things, different plans for the future.”
He continues, “Going into space made us even more different, shaped us differently, and we were farther apart, literally and figuratively.” Shiro doesn’t hide his tiny grin and can see Keith trying hard not to roll his eyes. He chuckles, offers an apologetic smile they both know he doesn’t really mean, sobers and keeps going, “People like to say they’ll always love their first, but I don’t know if I can say that about Adam. At least not anymore. I cared, still care, about him, I do but…. He walked away so easily that letting him go didn’t hurt me as much as it probably should’ve.”
Keith doesn’t hesitate to reach over and grab Shiro’s hand, intertwining their fingers without much thought; the action so natural it sends Shiro’s veins thrumming and burning and his breathing hitches for a moment. He recovers, and plows on because Keith needs to know, to understand that his heart belongs to him, has belonged to him since the day he left for Kerberos all those years ago. “I loved him, but that was lifetimes ago. I never hated him for his choices- he deserved a better love and a better life. Even if it wouldn’t have been with me.”
“You deserve a good life, too.”
And there it was, Keith’s blazing conviction and eyes full of all-intense fire, cutting and burning anything in its path, and Shiro doesn’t flinch away from it, doesn’t want to . Instead he smiles, and he whispers back with the same flame-tempered assurance,
“I know, but I think I already found it.”
Shiro’s smile turns dazzling when he see the way the tips of Keith’s ears burn and his cheeks flush a bright red, nor does he miss his affectionate smile. Shiro knows he’s blushing too, can feel it in the way his face turns hot and his heart races, but he holds steady, ignoring the fluttery feeling that takes up the hollow of his chest. He rises to his feet, and feeling more bold than he’s ever felt before, looks back down at Keith’s stunning blue eyes, and extends his hand.
“Wanna dance with me?”
At first Keith looks so surprised that Shiro’s confidence does waver a bit, and he almost apologizes for coming off too strong and is ready to blame the third beer he finished off and is prepared to call the rest of their night off, but doesn’t get a chance to say any of this. Keith is grabbing his hand and pulling himself to his feet. His eyes are sparkling bright like firecrackers, and lips stretched in a devastating smirk that has Shiro’s belly swooping.
“Sure you won’t bust a hip, old timer ?”
Any other time, any other person the nickname would have left Shiro wounded, pride a touch wounded, but hearing it come Keith has Shiro weak in the knees and he has to stop himself from ducking his head to hide the embarrassed flush there. Instead he pulls Keith closer, a hand resting carefully on his waist, and shoots off his own playful jab.
“Sure you can keep up with me, punk ?”
Two minutes in and they both come to the realization that they’re both awful dancers, and they’re both on the side of tipsy. Their attempt at a box step waltz is all knocking knees and stepped feet and ridiculously exaggerated dips. The dance is abysmally bad and far from the usual grace and majesty, but neither of them seem to notice it all that much as they and try not to trip the other or themselves.
Shiro absolutely does not let out an indignant squawk— it was a startled shout— as Keith abruptly dips him as low as he can, and Shiro tries not to swoon at the display of strength and the flexing muscles of Keith’s arms. He also doesn’t pout when Keith giggles, honest to god giggles at whatever expression Shiro is making. Then Keith is pulling him back up to his feet without so much as a tremble in his arms and that nearly causes Shiro’s legs to give out on him. Bless Keith who doesn’t seem to notice the kind of effect he has on Shiro.
He snorts, slumping against Shiro’s chest, murmuring tiredly, “What kind of noise was that?”
“Thought I was gonna fall flat on my ass,” he huffs while Keith chuckles, the sound muffled into his pecs.
But then Keith falls quiet and looks up him, indigo eyes bright and soft as he whispers to him, voice terribly sincere, “I’d never let you go, Shiro.”
The way Keith says it, so unbelievably honest and matter-of-fact makes it sound like he were stating a simple truth, and he might as well have said ‘birds fly’ or ‘stars are bright.’ His words are doing things to Shiro’s heart once again, and Shiro tries desperately to not give it too much thought, too much meaning, and he tries not to wish they meant more than what they simply were.
He knows he’s failing.
The bouncy, upbeat tune that had been previously playing on the radio finally ends, and they pull away to assess the damage of their so-called dancing and it’s as bad as they both expected. Keith’s hair is wild and musses like a bird’s nest, and Shiro knows his fringe looks like the bird that made it. Their jackets are ruffled and half-opened and coated in fine layers of desert sand and they’re both disgustingly sweat-slicked, flecks of dirt and sand stuck to their skin. They get a good look at how rumpled and messy they are and collapse into a loud fit of laughter and embrace each other, tighter than before.
They only calm when they settle into gentle swaying as the next song starts to play. It’s noticeably slower than any of the others, less sharp, less energetic and it’s an anchor that pulls them back into their own bodies. Shiro sighs, soft and content as he places his chin on top of Keith’s head, and watches as he melts into him. His smaller, calloused hands slide up his biceps to rest on Shiro’s broad shoulders.
They continue to sway, even when the song ends.The earlier vigor of their laughter and clumsy, inelegant steps and swings has faded away long ago and is replaced by something more muted, something too subdued and intimate— too raw, too vulnerable— and they cling to each other so tight it’s bordering desperate. They cling to each other as if afraid they would be torn away, vanishing with the winds into grains of sand and specks of stardust, going where the other cannot follow.
Neither of them fuss over the cooling sweat on their chilling skin, or show concern over the biting Arizona desert air that makes a home for itself deep in their bones, the sleeves of their jackets doing little to keep out the cold. The beer they’d drunk hours before has warmed and sits low and pleasant in their bellies, and they’re content.
Nothing mattered besides the other. The entire universe could come crashing down in a fiery glory and it would have done nothing to pull them apart, because so long as they had their Universe cradled against them the world could implode into a dark nothingness, and they would be happy.
Shiro doesn’t care to find excuses, doesn’t bother to say that the alcohol must be buzzing him more than he thought it would as he buries his face deeper into inky strands, and he breathes in the scent. It’s ozone, desert, and sweat and it’s Keith . Keith who holds him in a grip that neither time, space, or even death itself can break. As if to further stake his claim on the man in his arms, Keith tucks his face into the hollow of Shiro’s collarbone, an ear pressed into the rapid pulse of Shiro’s heart and seeking for reassurance that he was truly here, alive. Shiro squeezes his hips, a yes, I’m here love , and rubs this thumbs into the bone there and they sway together like this, side-to-side in barely there increments. The radio’s old batteries have given out, its speakers voiceless and still.
Shiro hums, the ambience of the desert’s songs and the gentle timbre of Keith’s voice his only accompaniment. He shivers as Keith’s echoes into the air like a lone star in the dark. It’s beautiful as it is haunting, and Shiro holds Keith impossibly firm, impossibly closer.
“I am not the only traveler
Who has not repaid his debt
I've been searching for a trail to follow again
Take me back to the night we met …. ”
“And then I can tell myself
What the hell I'm supposed to do
And then I can tell myself
Not to ride along with you …. ”
“I had all and then most of you
Some and now none of you
Take me back to the night we met
I don't know what I'm supposed to do
Haunted by the ghost of you
Take me back to the night we met …. ”
Shiro nuzzles into his hair, breathing in deep once more before moving downwards and ghosting tender kisses on Keith’s forehead, his brow bone, and temple. He blinks back the tears that dot his pale lashes and threaten to spill over.
Keith pauses his singing to plant a kiss on Shiro’s sternum, his throat, and along the edges of his jaw, before he continues on, voice more hushed than before,
“....When the night was full of terrors
And your eyes were filled with tears
When you had not touched me yet
Oh, take me back to the night we met….”
Keith is trembling in his arms, and Shiro ignores the growing dampness on the spot where his jacket exposes the charcoal gray shirt underneath. A quiet sob slips past his lips, even when he tries to stifle it by biting his lips. Keith’s usually gruff voice is going hoarse as he finishes off the final verse,
“I had all and then most of you
Some and now none of you
Take me back to the night we met
I don't know what I'm supposed to do
Haunted by the ghost of you
Take me back to the night we met....”
The moment Keith stops singing Shiro can see how they’re both a wreck, shaking and wracked with an ache so deep it hurts . The pain is visceral, the kind born from the realization that a deep, horrible loss has occurred all that could be done was to mourn its happening. And they did mourn.
They mourn the loss of time, of life, or broken promises and never realized what ifs. They grieve over the things that had kept them apart for so long they nearly missed this precious, delicate, and unbreakable thing between them.
Keith grips the nape of Shiro’s neck, fingers playing with the fine, starlight hair as Keith’s other hand slides over the place of Shiro’s beating heart, tugging and bunching up the cloth there. The palm of Shiro’s prosthetic settles across the expanse of Keith’s shoulder blades, nearly enveloping his smaller frame as he gently presses Keith to him. His human hand rests snuggly against the dip of Keith’s back, and Shiro pulls him flush against his own until every point of their bodies is connecting and it becomes impossible to discern where either of them begins or ends.
Neither attempts to move or break away, and they stand there basking in the comfortable sense of togetherness. The trembling in their limbs ceases, and the rapid pitter-patter of their hearts calms.
Warm, careful hands slide across bare skin to cup Shiro’s still damp cheeks, and he feels his eyes flutter shut as Keith caresses his high cheekbones, soft and ever-reverent. Those gentle hand pull him down, down until foreheads press together, and it’s not enough. A whine builds in his throat, and Shiro’s flesh and blood hand finds its way into long, dark strands. He tugs the long hair until Keith’s lips meet his own, slotting together in a perfect slide of lips. The action is void of urgency and they kiss and kiss, slow and tender and sweet.
When they break away it’s Keith whose eyes open in a daze and there are fresh tears there; fat, slow and salt-warm tears that stick stubbornly to his long lashes. Shiro leans forward and kisses them away, as if each tear were a wordless apology or plead for forgiveness. Unnecessary when Keith never blamed him, never did anything but love him.
“I love you, I love you.” He whispers in a quiet chant.
“I know, Takashi, I know .” Keith murmurs back.