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When Shiro gets the news that Keith is awake and lucid, he feels only a crushing guilt that he wasn’t there when he woke up.

But that’s just another little disappointment he can hold inside himself, he figures, and buries it down with everything else. He’s used to that by now.

Still, as soon as he’s able, as soon as he gets the news, he hurries towards the hospital. He’s visited Keith enough times, comatose and critical, to know the steps— sign-in, sign-off, head to the elevator, eleventh floor. He’s hovered at Keith’s bedside enough to know his way there in darkness, knows his way there blind.

In the elevator, he swallows thickly, hands fidgeting behind his back in an effort to stay steady. This time, he thinks. This time, he’ll finally say it. This time, he won’t leave Keith waiting.

I love you, too, he thinks.

I want to be with you always, he thinks. He’s rehearsed the words enough times in his head to have them tattooed to his heart. He’s ready, finally, he thinks.

Another little disappointment and guilt he tucks inside: he’s kept Keith waiting long enough and he almost lost him. He knows the reasons why he hasn’t said it back yet— but they all seemed so stupid, that moment on the Atlas, as he watched the five points of light, each Lion, fall from the sky and crash back down to earth.

He’s going to say it.

But when the door opens with a whoosh, revealing Keith’s hospital room, Shiro blinks in surprise. He’s sure for half a second that he’s somehow managed to enter the wrong room because it isn’t Keith lying there in the hospital bed— sickly pale, head wounds bandaged, hair in disarray, the cosmic wolf sleeping at his feet.

It takes only a half-second to know he’s mistaken, only a half-second before he recognizes Keith. It’s Keith, yes, but gone are the bandages and injuries. Keith looks fuller-bodied, harder angles in his face maybe, less pale, but his hair is longer, too— done back in a braid draping over his shoulder, and he’s not wearing a hospital gown.

Shiro enters the room and the hospital door snicks shut behind him. Shiro thinks at first that Keith’s sleeping. But just as the thought occurs to him, Keith shifts and lets out a low groan that makes Shiro blush. He watches as Keith blinks his eyes open. Keith looks around the room, disoriented and uncertain, not recognizing where he is.

For a moment, his expression flickers, turns almost animalistic— cornered, alone, and ready to fight.

Shiro steps forward before he’s fully aware he’s doing so, moving towards the bed— towards Keith. Anyone else might turn away from that primal fight in Keith’s eyes, but Shiro only finds himself tipping forward, reaching for him.

“K- Keith?”

At the sound of his name, Keith looks up at Shiro— and then does a double-take, body bowing in confusion as he takes Shiro in. Then, his expression eases. He looks less a cornered animal and more the Keith he’s always known.

“Keith,” Shiro says again, sinking onto the bedside and reaching for him. He half expects Keith to flinch away or to try to shove himself out of the bed.

Instead, Keith takes his hand with his, fingers lacing together— an instinctive move to comfort Shiro, he thinks, because that’s just what Keith does.

“Shiro,” Keith says, and his voice is that same rich, deep gravel that Shiro loves. The same face that he loves. The same man that he loves. It’s strange, to see what’s both familiar and unfamiliar— to know, instinctively, that it’s Keith touching his hand. He has no idea what’s happened to him.

“Are you okay? I can—” Shiro begins, unsure exactly what the end to that sentence is. He can call a doctor? He can leave? Laughable. “Keith—”

“What year is it? I…” Keith looks around, sweeping his eyes over Shiro. Meets his eyes first and then studies Shiro’s arm, their hands clasped together, Shiro’s uniform. He looks around the room and his mouth quirks down in a frown.

Then he closes his eyes and laughs, a soft, disbelieving chuckle. Shiro watches the tension ease from Keith’s shoulders.

“Right,” he whispers. “I remember this now.”

Shiro puzzles at that and nearly moves to call a doctor anyway, but Keith tightens his grip on his hand and keeps him in place, as if anticipating Shiro’s protests, his absence. Shiro stills, feeling pinned down— especially once Keith turns back to him, meeting his eyes.

“You look so young,” Keith marvels and then laughs again. It flows so easily from him, warms his eyes. “Can you believe I never actually realized that?”

And Shiro frowns and looks at Keith in turn, at what he suddenly understands is Keith but older. The long hair swept into a braid, the corners of his eyes hinting at laugh lines, the width of his shoulders and, most of all, most cherishing and exhilarating of all, the ease and confidence that rolls off him as he drags his eyes over Shiro.

It’s subtle, but Shiro knows Keith. He can see it in the lines of his shoulders, the tilt of his head. The small smile he cants in Shiro’s direction. That easy laugh. He doesn’t look ready to fight anymore, but perfectly at ease. His thumb swipes at Shiro’s knuckles, like that’s easy, like that’s normal, and Shiro feels like he’s been set on fire.

“What does— how are you even here?” Shiro asks, accepts that what he’s seeing, what he’s experiencing, is some sort of break in the time-space continuum (Pidge and Matt will go crazy once they learn about this, he thinks). He tries to swallow, tries to push past the burning in his chest at seeing Keith’s smile. He fumbles out a quiet, “Where’s, uh— Keith?”

Keith smiles and his eyes warm, something like liquid fire, something contained and powerful. Shiro feels it zip down his spine, feels himself shiver as Keith looks at him. It’s hardly the first time Keith’s ever looked at him. But it feels different now.

“Your Keith is fine,” Keith answers. “I remember. We’ve temporarily switched places— I’m here and he’s in the future. But it’ll right itself.”

“What—”

“In the future,” Keith says calmly, eyes lowering as he studies their hands, still clasped together. His eyelashes fan across his cheeks, his mouth hinting a smile. “Allura’s experimenting with wormholes. Trying to find a way to make them more stabilized and consistent using Altean tech. We hit a snag today. And now I’m here.”

Shiro frowns. “Sounds vague.”

Keith lets out a small, faint snort of amusement. “I can’t tell you everything, now can I? I’ll disrupt the timeline.”

Shiro accepts that. He’s read enough stories and seen enough movies with the concept to accept that timelines shouldn’t be messed with.

“… And you’re sure Keith’s okay?” He doesn’t mean to sound so worried, or like he distrusts what Keith’s telling him.

Keith chuckles anyway and tilts his head. “Well. He’ll find all his friends there waiting for him. He’ll find you right away. So yes, he’s fine.” He smiles more, and it lights up his entire face— Shiro marvels at it; it isn’t that Keith isn’t demonstrative, but there’s an openness that he isn’t used to seeing on Keith’s face. “And I found you pretty quickly, too, huh?”

“Don’t you always?” Shiro asks, his voice coming out in a low murmur.

Keith smiles at him. “Yes.”

He squeezes Shiro’s hand and then lets go, withdrawing. It’s in that moment that Shiro’s eyes catch on the ring around Keith’s finger, innocuous but there. The bottom of Shiro’s stomach drops away and he can’t look away as Keith tucks back a piece of hair behind his ear, seemingly unaware of the shock he’s just sent Shiro into.

The shock lowers down on Shiro, threatens to suffocate him. Keith being married isn’t shocking in itself, really, although he can’t recall Keith ever expressing interest in something so institutionalized. What shocks him, really, is the sincerity in which regret lances through him, fills squirming in his gut and closes tight around his throat. A resounding feeling of having missed his chance floods through him with no buoy to keep him from drowning in it.

“You’re married,” Shiro says, weakly.

Keith blinks and then glances at his hand, as if he could have forgotten there was even a ring there. Shiro’s heart hammers in his chest, everything he still hasn’t said bubbling inside his chest. He pictures his stupid decision from earlier— pictures what would have happened if he’d slammed into the room and shouted I love you, too! to an unconscious, time-traveling, married Keith.

“I am,” Keith hedges, and doesn’t elaborate. But he studies Shiro’s face and Shiro’s suddenly far too rattled to let that happen. He looks away.

He’s probably married to me, the thought skims at the surface of his mind but he doesn’t grab onto it, pushes it away as he does any other intrusive thought, seized suddenly with the surety that the universe has stepped in to somehow save Shiro from heartbreak— can’t confess feelings to someone who isn’t here, but here, have your married best friend instead.

Somewhere, in the darker parts of Shiro’s mind, he assures himself that it’s for the better— Keith deserves someone good, someone better than him. Keith deserves to be loved and cherished. Keith deserves to be happy with whoever he married.

A silence falls between them. Keith sits, waiting, not pressing Shiro. It’s kind, but it leaves Shiro feeling skittish, his skin crawling. He feels suddenly like the cornered one instead.

“I wonder where the wolf is. He’ll want to see you,” Shiro mutters to himself, shifting to move away.

He startles when Keith’s hand touches his chin and guides him back to meet Keith’s eyes. Keith’s hand lingers for just a moment before drawing away, leaving Shiro trembling.

“Shiro,” Keith says, quiet.

Shiro isn’t sure if he can stand to hear what Keith says next. Before Keith can continue the thought, he murmurs, “I’m happy for you, Keith.”

Keith gives him a puzzling look, studying his face. Shiro feels entirely too exposed and stands from the bed, approaching the side table to pick out a dead flower from the get well soon bouquet the hospital’s left there in a vase. It might need some water, too, he thinks, but he’s no expert on flowers.

He startles again when Keith just stands and swiftly leaves the hospital bed.

“Wha— wait, Keith—”

“I’m not injured,” Keith says with a dismissive shrug. He watches Shiro accidentally prick off the head of a flower with his fumbling hand. “So it’s alright.”

Worry squirms inside Shiro. “Then Keith—”

“He’s okay, too,” Keith assures. “Your Keith’s getting taken care of right now. I promise. I remember.” He smiles. “Everyone teased me about being the youngest for once and then they doted. It was annoying.”

He doesn’t sound annoyed, though, just desperately fond. Shiro thinks he should say something, say anything but his mind’s suck on the concept of my Keith. He blushes and tries to tuck the decapitated flower he’s destroyed back into the bouquet. He feels Keith lingering at his shoulder, like a shadow. It’s comforting and devastating at once.

The flower flops back down onto the side table.

 

-

 

Since Keith isn’t injured (anymore?), his release from the hospital moves forward. It’s quick enough, considering the situation and the explanations the doctors need in order to explain how their patient aged rapidly by years in the span of a few hours. It means more paperwork, which Shiro’s pretty sure would send him into a fit if he weren’t already freaking out a bit over an older Keith standing so dangerously close to him. He nearly drops the datapad with the release paperwork about fifty times, filling out the necessary information that Keith doesn’t remember or bother knowing (today’s date, date of his admission, state of his injuries, how he’s feeling on a scale 1 to 10, and so on).

When asked what they should do next, standing outside the hospital’s doors, Keith only smiles at him and decides, “I’d like to see our friends.”

Shiro smiles back, helpless against the easy way Keith calls them such and leads the way. It’s hard for him to pay attention to where he’s going as he keeps glancing at Keith. Keith walks beside him, easily keeping stride with him. He’s taller now, Shiro thinks, noticeable now that they’re walking side by side. Keith’s more muscled, too, but still that willowy lean he’s always been. His face might have aged, but it’s still recognizably Keith.

There’s something reassuring in that, Shiro thinks. Out of everything in his life that’s changed or been destroyed or been lost, Keith is an ever-present stability, the foundation beneath his feet. Keith grows and changes, but his core is the same— it’s still Keith. It’s always been Keith.

Shiro’s heart twists up, a certain kind of longing sinking through him like a lead weight. A surety, perhaps, of his misplaced feelings. Keith is married. This is a Keith, Shiro knows, who’s grown to that potential he always knew he could— confident, eased, and sure. There’s no heavy weight bowing his shoulders, there’s no prickliness that holds others at arms’ length. Our friends, he’d said, casually. Your Keith, he’d said, his smile sure.

The other paladins have no way to prepare for Keith’s arrival. But Hunk’s the first to squeeze Keith into a tight hug that Keith returns with a surprised laugh, his arms tight around Hunk’s shoulders. Pidge jumps up to tackle-hug them both, her arms hooking around Keith’s shoulders, too. Keith laughs as Pidge starts to absolutely bombard Keith with questions about time-space paradoxes and the cosmic-surplexity of hyperspace fluctuations.

Once they back away enough to let Keith breathe, Allura hugs Keith, too. His hug in return is still a little awkward, not as easy as with Hunk, but his smile is genuine when they draw away. Allura beams and Keith gives her a little nod.

“Congratulations, it seems,” she says gently, her eyes on Keith’s ring. Keith absolutely beams as he holds it up for her to look, and the other paladins peer over. They look first at the ring— and then all turn to stare at Shiro.

Shiro blushes, feeling cornered, but if Keith notices, he doesn’t say anything, just smiles and thanks Allura. She studies the ring with a definitive nod.

“Lance told me a little about your Earth customs,” she says and behind her Lance’s ears turn pink, “but it’s my understanding that this is a relatively simple ring?”

“It suits me,” Keith says, like he’s quoting someone else. His eyes are soft at the edges as he smiles down at his ring.

His husband, Shiro realizes as a distant, distressing thought. He’s thinking about his husband. Shiro’s stomach squirms again.

Instead of hugging Lance, Keith gives him a long, assessing look. “Huh,” Keith says, straight-faced and deadpan. “You still have all your hair.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Lance squawks. The pink in his ears from Allura’s comment earlier drains away entirely, leaving him pale.

Shiro’s pretty sure Keith’s teasing, but Lance lacks that surety. His distress mounts, especially once Keith turns his head and starts answering Pidge’s earlier questions about paradoxes instead of giving Lance any sort of attention or explanation.

“Nuh uh, no way!” Lance squeaks, hands flailing— first to grasp at his hair and then to gestate wildly. “What do you mean I still have my hair?”

“So what sort of technological advancements have you got in your time?” Pidge asks, tuning into the Tease Lance Mercilessly mission Keith’s on, interrupting Lance’s heightening distress to pull Keith’s attention away once more. “I bet your subharmonic engines are out of this world!”

“Somewhat literally,” Keith says around a smirk.

Lance squawks behind him and Keith makes a big show of brushing his braid over his shoulder, drawing attention to the long length of it, the way it swings and settles at his back. He’s teasing Lance. It shouldn’t leave Shiro’s heart hammering in his chest, and yet here he stands— mute and absurd.

Keith turns towards Lance again, expression serious, when he says, “Avoid tunnels and covered bridges. Trust me.”

What?

“I’ve already said too much,” Keith murmurs, with just the slightest edge of drama. He glances over at Shiro, meeting his eye, and there’s delight there as he takes in Shiro’s vaguely amused expression. Shiro shouldn’t be encouraging it, but it seems Keith sees only encouragement there, as he adopts a stoic, weighty expression when Lance grabs him by the shoulders and starts shaking him, demanding answers.

 

-

 

Hunk ends up pulling everyone back to his quarters so he can cook up a “Welcome Back to the Past, Keith!” dinner. It’s a rowdy affair but much needed after the fight the paladins went through, Shiro thinks— likes to see them relaxed and teasing and bonding. Shiro hangs back, gives them that space, gives them all that opportunity to talk with Keith. He leans against the wall, smiling to himself and nursing the same drink well into the evening.

He doesn’t feel out of place— far from it— but he doesn’t want to draw attention away, doesn’t want to arrest all of Keith’s time. He tries to help Hunk in the kitchen and is promptly shooed away, so he hovers at the periphery, talking mostly with Coran once he’s able to join them all halfway into the appetizers Hunk sets out. It’s something simple, Shiro thinks, and easy— feels warm all over seeing them bonding, and thinking, again, about Keith calling them our friends so easily.

Shiro’s eyes keep straying to Keith. He can’t help it. Everything about Keith demands attention, demands to be noticed. It doesn’t matter how loud the paladins get, Shiro can pick out Keith’s voice, his laugh, anywhere in the room. His eyes stray to Keith whenever he laughs, whenever he throws his head back and guffaws, when he brushes his hair out of his face, when he idly scratches at his neck for no reason. Every movement is almost too much and Shiro’s faced, once more, with that unhinged longing buried inside him.

Pidge absolutely bombards Keith with logistical questions. Keith answers them to the best of his ability, with only a few jokes about how it’d be better for Pidge if she’d just get to talk to her future self instead of him. Lance continues to bemoan his fate as a bald paladin, apparently, and not even Allura reassuring him can pull him from his mood.

Shiro feels Keith’s eyes on him. Keith doesn’t cross the room, doesn’t hover at Shiro’s side, but there’s never a point where Shiro feels that Keith isn’t fully and completely aware of where Shiro is and what he’s doing. There’s a comfort to that, too, somehow. He tells Coran more about zebras, since he asked, and it takes all his self-restraint not to just watch Keith openly, to pin his eyes to him and never look away.

“So what can you tell us about the future, Keith?” Allura asks, once the food is ready and spread out on the table and everyone’s clustered around, eating and talking and laughing. It feels almost like old times, gathered around the dinner table on the Castle of Lions.

Keith considers the question as he brushes his fingertips along the edge of his drink and then lifts it to take a long sip. Shiro watches him drink and then swallow, thumb brushing absently over his bottom lip in thought. It’s utterly distracting.

“I think smaller details are alright,” Keith finally decides. “I mean, the fact that I’m even here is already disruptive enough. In my time, you all remember me visiting. Makes it easier when the Keith from this time shows up.” He taps his thumb against his lip, thoughtfully. “But I think it’s probably better if I avoid the bigger things.”

“Well, the fact that you didn’t start sobbing when you saw us means we’re all alive, too,” Lance observes.

Keith’s smile softens. “True. But none of you should be reckless moving forward.”

“That’s rich coming from you,” Hunk teases and Keith laughs with a shrug.

Shiro’s heart does a strange little twist in his chest, processing Keith’s words. A moment later, as if sensing that weight Shiro feels in that admission (We all make it out alive—), Keith turns to meet his eyes. He holds his gaze, saying nothing. His expression doesn’t change, but Shiro knows Keith well enough to see that certainty, that assurance, in the way he looks at Shiro.

Keith turns his attention away but only so he can look at Lance and say, very seriously, “But, just to be safe, you need to avoid beef for the next three years.”

Lance, who was about to take a bite out of the beef stew Hunk made, freezes, eyes widening. “What? Why?”

“Trust me,” Keith says, blank-faced and stoic, “It’s for the greater good.”

“Stop doing that when I can’t tell if you’re joking or not!” Lance cries. Allura pats him gently on the shoulder as Lance gives a feeble little sniffle. He woefully sets his spoon back down into the bowl, muttering something about Kaltenecker and his grandma’s crushing disappointment.

Shiro can’t help the small laugh that bubbles up. He feels bad for Lance, just a bit, but he also can’t quite manage to look away from the causal way Keith teases him, the ease with which he rests his chin on his palm. His eyes flicker back to Shiro and hold, and his smile turns secretive. Shiro drops his knife as it fumbles from his hand. He covers the blunder by grasping his glass and taking a long drink as the conversation moves on.

There’s an ache deep in Shiro’s chest, something he can’t quite identify or push back. It grows with each smile Keith makes. Every glance, every lingering look. This Keith is someone he knows, but someone who feels so far away from him, someone who’s grown and become the man he was meant to be— and Shiro’s never felt prouder, never felt happier, but there’s longing there, some sort of whisper that he’s missed his chance. It’s a bit like realizing Keith spent two years on a space whale— so proud, so happy for all that Keith’s grown into, all that time with his mother, and a deep sadness that he missed it all. It’s like spending a year in captivity with the Galra, wondering what Keith is up to back on Earth, if he’s unhappy, if he's moved on, if he thinks about Shiro at all—

“So if you remember going to the future,” Pidge asks, “How long does this whole ‘trading places’ thing last?”

“Are you asking because you want to figure out how much I can tell you about future tech in as little time as possible or…?” Keith teases.

Pidge doesn’t even try to deny it, grinning. “I want to see if I can put modifications on accelerated propulsion technology. While I’ve got you.”

“I don’t know how much help I’ll be. You know I’m no engineer.”

“You’re a pilot. You’ll know if what I’m describing sounds wrong,” Pidge dismisses with a wave of her hand, then adjusts her glasses as she grins. “I’m going to blow Matt’s mind.”

“To answer your question… I should only be here a day or two, tops,” Keith says. “The wormhole will stabilize and I’ll be able to jump through again. Your Keith will return, too.”

“Man, imagine if one of you jumped sooner and then there were two Keiths in one place,” Hunk says.

“Do you think you two would fight to the death?” Lance asks, eyes wide.

Keith rolls his eyes, muttering, “Why would I try to kill another version of myself? I’ve had enough fights to the death to last a lifetime as it is.”

The bottom drops out of Shiro’s stomach. He stares down at his plate of food.

He startles when Keith’s hand touches his arm. It’s a barely-there touch. Something eased in it, centering. Shiro leans into the touch before he’s even aware he’s doing so, blinking as he looks up at Keith.

Keith says nothing. The others are talking around them, mostly teasing Lance or helping Hunk serve seconds on the food. Keith doesn’t draw his hand away and he doesn’t look away from Shiro.

 

-

 

“So,” Shiro begins, after the party dies down and the paladins disperse back to their rooms. Shiro thinks that Keith hardly needs the guide to get to his quarters, but Shiro goes anyway. Keith falls easily into step beside him, hands in his pockets, his mouth playing at a smile.

He hums in response when Shiro doesn’t continue, glancing up at him through his lashes. “Yes, Shiro?”

“You know you’re going to be here for a little while,” Shiro resumes, voice quiet— he isn’t sure why he’s feeling so cautious, so shy. “Is there anything you’d like to do in particular?”

“You mean besides answer all of Pidge’s questions?”

“Besides that, naturally.”

They turn the corner around a hallway and Keith laughs, soft, and Shiro stumbles and slams his shoulder hard into the corner with a deafening, betraying thud, completely sideswiped by the sound of Keith’s laugh, the crinkle of his eyes— just everything about him. The keycard he holds for Keith’s quarters goes flying from his hand and skidding across the floor.

Keith looks amused as he stoops, slowly, to pick up the keycard. Shiro tries not to look at the arch of his back as he moves, the graceful way he picks the keycard back up (it’s just a keycard; it shouldn’t be graceful!). He smiles at Shiro once he straightens, tucking a piece of hair behind his ear as he holds it out to him. Shiro feels entirely and painfully out of his depth.

“Are you alright?” Keith asks, worry lacing his amusement despite himself. It is Keith, after all, so Shiro can’t be surprised.

“Yeah. Just… Uh, depth perception,” Shiro decides. It’s not even an excuse, just an inane statement.

Keith touches his elbow and holds, easing Shiro away from where he’s leaning heavily against the wall. He places the keycard into Shiro’s palm, pressing it down there until Shiro curls his fingers to hold it. Shiro’s brain helpfully screams at him to start acting like a normal human instead of a malfunctioning robot.

Keith’s standing so close, one hip jutted out, arms crossing once Shiro gets his hand around the keycard. He leans against the wall, half-smiling as he looks up at him.

“You know,” Keith says quietly, as if only to himself and Shiro’s lucky enough to overhear, “My— the Shiro I know used to tell me he’d do this all the time. I never noticed at all and thought he was exaggerating.”

“Do what?” Shiro asks, blankly, because his mouth wants to betray him.

Keith smiles more, soft and warm and open as he looks at Shiro. His voice is dry when he answers, “Run into walls.”

“I— I don’t—”

“Not often, yes, I know,” Keith agrees with a nod. “Just in certain, very specific circumstances, right?”

Shiro does not squirm because he outright refuses, but once again he feels cornered in a way he can’t really describe. It isn’t a horrible kind of cornering, but more exposing than anything else. He tucks the keycard into his pocket with a fumbling hand, eyes flickering away from Keith’s knowing eyes.

“You know what I want to do while I’m here, Shiro?” Keith asks, after the pause when the previous thread is, mercifully, dropped. “I want to go out into the desert. I want to see my dad’s old place.”

“Oh,” Shiro says with a blink of surprise, trying to get himself onto surer footing again. He straightens up with a nod. “Yeah. If you want, I can let Krolia—”

“I want to go with you,” Keith interrupts with a laugh, and his hand lifts to touch at Shiro’s shoulder, lingers there for a moment before he gives him a little, playful shove. “Obviously.”

“Oh,” Shiro says again, because maybe it was supposed to be obvious, but he didn’t want to assume. “Okay. In the morning, we—”

“I want to go right now,” Keith says, stepping away from the wall. His hand on Shiro’s shoulder shifts and slides down, long and smooth, from shoulder down to wrist, then into his hand, curling their fingers together and then tugging. “Come on. Come with me.”

Shiro thinks that maybe he should protest, that maybe he should insist— their old hoverbikes are long gone, and they’d need to borrow something, get special permission, any number of any things, but then there’s something painfully familiar about sneaking out in the middle of the night to race out into the desert with his best friend. It doesn’t matter now that Keith isn’t crowing about kicking his old timer ass, that Keith is taller and wider, with a swaying braid down his back, a surer smile than Shiro’s ever seen. It doesn’t matter that Shiro is down one arm and up one mechanical arm, that his body is scarred and broken in so many ways he still doesn’t know, that he looks fundamentally different from the boy Keith first met all those years ago. None of that matters.

He lets Keith pull him and follows Keith willingly, slipping into his shadow.

 

-

 

In the end, they can only find one functional bike, which works just as well as anything— Keith swings himself up behind Shiro, pressing up to his back, his arms curling tight around his middle.

“You— you sure you don’t want to drive?” Shiro asks, faintly, and feels Keith shake his head against the back of his neck. His breath is a warm tattoo against his skin.

“You know the way,” Keith says and squeezes Shiro tight. “Go on.”

There’s that familiarity again as Shiro races off into the darkness, only instinct, memory, and a faint, flickering headlight to guide their way forward. But Shiro doesn’t worry, buoyed by Keith’s trust in him— Keith isn’t watching over his shoulder, but keeps his cheek pressed to Shiro’s back, watching the scenery whip by as Shiro revs the engine and pushes the hoverbike forward. There’s the roar of the wind in their ears, the piercing licks of cold night air punching against his cheeks, the whip of his hair across his forehead.

He lets out a laugh, doesn’t remember the last time he laughed like this, and he feels Keith tighten his hold on him and tremble at his back. He thinks he hears Keith laugh, too, or at least he feels Keith’s chest heave with a sudden breath, chest pressing into Shiro’s back.

It’s exhilarating. A little bit like that feeling he got when first connecting with the Atlas. Or, rather, commanding the Atlas is a bit like launching off a cliff with a hoverbike— trusting yourself despite all evidence to the contrary, because too many people have demanded responsibility, demanded protocol, and all he ever really wanted to be was a little bit rebellious— he hears Keith whoop behind his back as the hoverbike launches, floating through the air and diving down towards the ground. Keith’s grip on him is sure, not from fear, and Keith’s laughing as they slice through the air.

Shiro cuts corners tight, uses his body to tilt the hoverbike. Keith goes with him, moving like liquid, molded to him and moving with him, Shiro’s counterweight as they tip the hoverbike in the directions they need to go. Keith’s hands fist in the front of Shiro’s racing jacket and it’s exhilarating in its own way. Shiro glances down once, sees the gleam of Keith’s wedding band in the moonlight, and his heart lurches high into his throat.

Once Shiro cuts the last corner and pulls up on the familiar old shack, he silences the engine and takes a moment to breathe. Keith lingers, pressed up against him. He shifts and breathes out, his breath ghosting against the back of Shiro’s neck. Shiro feels the heat in his body rise and doesn’t move until, slowly, Keith peels himself away from Shiro and slides off the bike.

Keith looks around, eyes sweeping over the windblown, sandblasted shack, the little tree with its tire swing. He smiles, distant and nostalgic.

“It still shocks me it didn’t get destroyed in the battle,” Keith confesses. The shack’s a small little thing but has stood the test of time— and its location tucked away between the mountains leaves it protected, unlike the sweeping deserts beyond the hills.

Shiro touches Keith’s shoulder and Keith turns his head, leaning into that touch with a faint smile.

“Too bad we didn’t think of this earlier,” Shiro says, “We could have watched the sunset.”

Keith’s smile widens, softening at the corners. He looks back at the shack, taking it in, then looks out at the long expanse of sky, dotted with a thick layer of stars. Out here, so far from any source of light, the bowing arm of the Milky Way stretches across the sky like a river. Shiro looks as Keith does, too, pulling out Polaris easily, and some of the constellations. Mars hangs low on the horizon in the distance, red and inviting.

“Guess we’ll have to settle for the sunrise,” Keith tells him.

Shiro’s eyes flicker away from the stars, land on the little bump of an almost-hill just beyond the shack’s entrance, remembers standing there one tired morning when Keith came up behind him, touched his shoulder, and stayed there.

Almost as an echo to that, he feels Keith slide up to his side, seeking warmth or seeking to comfort, Shiro isn’t sure but can guess— and he leans into Keith’s side, knowing he’ll bear the weight.

“Come on,” Keith says, quietly, after a moment, and steps away. He catches Shiro’s hand again and leads him towards the shack. Instead of going inside, though, he tugs until Shiro sits down on the steps. “I’ll be right back.”

Keith disappears only for a moment, returning with a bottle of amber liquid that sloshes around the inside as he approaches. Shiro raises one eyebrow and Keith just shrugs, dropping down to sit beside him and nudging his shoulder against his.

“You could have just said if you wanted to get drunk stargazing,” Shiro teases and Keith laughs. “We didn’t have to drive all the way out here just for you to avoid the bars and save some money on the drink.”

“I’m a time-traveler. Left the wallet at home,” Keith returns easily and knocks his boot against Shiro’s with a laugh as he opens the bottle and takes a generous swig. He grins as he swallows, eyes sparkling with starlight.

“Oh, is that how it is?” Shiro laughs and takes the bottle when Keith holds it out to him, pulling a long drink from its mouth. He coughs on the tail end, the alcohol burning on its way down. It isn’t nearly enough to get him drunk, not even tipsy, but he feels looser in a way. A placebo effect, likely, or perhaps juts Keith’s unwavering presence.

Keith smiles at him, knowing and weighted.

Shiro sighs. “Why’d you really bring me out here, Keith?”

Keith hums, tilting his head. He swivels his gaze up towards the sky, tracing the long line of the Milky Way, the arc of it as it disappears beyond the horizon, behind the jagged lines of cliffs Keith once studied for months— over a year— while searching for Shiro, while searching for some sort of truth.

Keith’s fingers trace the mouth of the bottle, absently, his eyes distant for a moment as he seems to fully take in the surroundings, the memories hanging there even after all the years that have gone by for him.

“I know there are things you want to ask me,” Keith says, finally. “I thought maybe it’d be easier for you to ask them away from all your responsibilities. Focusing on the here and now, instead.”

Shiro frowns, thoughtful. Leave it to Keith to see him, even now, in all the things he never says or articulates.

“This is… the first time since we got home that I’ve been able to really stop and breathe, I guess,” Shiro confesses, although he has a feeling that Keith must already know, or at least guessed at it. “A lot’s— happened.”

“I know. I remember,” Keith says, gently, not silencing him but encouraging to continue. He leans against Shiro’s shoulder, cheek resting there. The wind licks across the surface of the desert around them, and little bits of Keith’s loose hair tickle at Shiro’s neck.

Shiro swallows. “I— I’m worried I’ve let it all go unsaid too long. There’s so much to unpack, to talk about, and I’m— I’ve always been one to just keep moving forward, you know? Why linger?” He hesitates. “But I can’t help but think it’s… not fair to you. To not talk about everything. But talking about it all at once feels like— too much.”

He thinks of all the things he has locked inside, every little thing he could have said, could have acknowledged, could have told Keith— only to crush it down, folded up in the darker parts of him, acknowledged only as intrusive thoughts and nightmares.

Keith hums. He touches Shiro’s shoulder, then the back of his neck, then slides his fingers up into his hair. It’s startlingly intimate and Shiro nearly jolts. He and Keith touch each other, casually, all the time— he knows this. There was that moment, too, after waking up in a new body, where Keith’s hand touched his thigh. They never talked about it. Never talked about Keith helping Shiro sit up after slaying Sendak, hand on his chest, the other centered at his back. They’ve never talked about the way Keith holds him.

Keith brushes his fingers through his hair. He’s never done that before. Shiro stares at him, wide-eyed, but Keith is thoroughly unembarrassed by the touch.

“I will always listen to you,” Keith tells him. “Whatever you want to tell me. Anything, Shiro. I’ll always be here to listen, no matter how long it takes.”

“I know,” Shiro whispers, pathetic.

“And you must know that I’ve never blamed you for your silence,” Keith presses. “You have to know that I understood. I always did.”

Shiro nods, throat closing pathetically at those words. He ducks his head and takes the bottle, pulling a tentative sip. Keith touches his cheek and it’s a searing heat there, lingering, fingers touching at the edge of his scar.

“And I’ll tell you anything, too,” Keith continues, voice dropping down low and gravely. Shiro shivers, closing his eyes. He leans pathetically into the touch of Keith’s hand. His thumb drags across his cheekbone.

Shiro shakes his head. “You’re always honest with me.”

Keith’s thumb keeps swiping slowly back and forth across his cheek, soothing, centering. “Yes,” he agrees, “But that doesn’t mean I haven’t held things back, too.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to say,” Shiro is quick to say.

Keith’s snort is faint, but there. He presses his thumb against the hollow of his cheek, his fingers curling against his jaw. “Shiro,” he says, and he doesn’t quite scold him, but it’s almost there. Odd, to think of Keith as older than him now, scolding him for a change. “I want to tell you everything.”

Shiro nods again, perhaps disbelieving. He swallows around the thickness in his throat. His entire body feels that same squirmy feeling he’s felt since Keith first showed up like this— thinks that wherever his husband is, he can’t approve of Keith sitting so close to him, fingers traced along his jawline. Wherever Keith’s husband is, he’d likely know exactly why Shiro feels so wayward— sitting close to Keith like this, and yet so far away. Looking, for all the world, like he knows what he’s doing, like he isn’t constantly torturing himself. Looking that way and knowing that Keith sees past it completely.

“Shiro,” Keith says, quietly, gently breaking through Shiro’s intrusive thoughts. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”

There’s any number of things that Shiro could say— any number of dark, unsettling, painful things he’s been holding onto. Keith said he’d want to know, but Shiro still fights against it, still certain that whatever he could say would be too much of a burden to plant inside Keith’s heart.

Instead, he settles for what nags at him, the answer he’s terrified and desperate to hear.

“Keith, I— can you tell me, please?”

“Tell you what?”

“Who you’re married to,” Shiro says, miserably. “I just— I need to know. Can you tell me? Without it disrupting the timeline?”

He opens his eyes and tips his head back, pulling away from Keith’s hand. He disguises the small sound he makes at his absence by taking a drink from the bottle and then handing it to Keith.

Keith looks at him, sympathetic. He tilts his head. Then he takes his own drink, eyes closed as he gathers himself.

The silence stretches and Shiro feels squirrely again. “I— I mean. I want to make sure you’re… happy. You deserve that, Keith. You deserve— so much.”

Keith deserves better than him. Better than this.

Shiro swallows thickly and waits. Keith continues to study him, and then his smile unfurls. He ducks his head and chuckles, and it sounds almost watery. It wavers at the edges, frayed paper curling inward.

“Shiro,” Keith says, and when he lifts his head, his eyes are a little glassy, shimmering, but he’s smiling. There’s laughter, disbelieving, when he says, “Who do you think I’d marry? Who could I possibly want to spend the rest of my life with?”

Shiro feels himself go cold from head to toe, feels the words slide through him. He swallows again, lets something like hope flicker in his squirming belly. He shifts a bit where he sits on the steps to the shack, the stars hanging heavy over them, Keith a burning fire beside him.

He licks his lips. “I…” He pauses.

His heart stampedes against the hope coiling in his chest. But then, he’s always been the one to dive off a cliff, wasn’t he?

He asks, quiet, “… Me?”

“Yes, you,” Keith says, a tease to his voice now, offset by a heartbreak wavering in his eyes as he looks at him. “God. Shiro. How could it be anyone but you? It was always going to be you.”

Shiro lets those words wash over him, feels them fuzz around the edges of his mind. Immediately he summons up protests as to why Keith could have chosen better, could have deserved better than him, someone broken and fragile like him, but—

Relief washes over him, too, builds high inside him and threatens to drown him with it.

“You love me,” Shiro marvels, when he finds his voice again. He’s heard the words before, from Keith himself, and yet it feels different now. To be the one to put voice to it. His entire body feels like it’s singing.

“Yes,” Keith answers without hesitation, shaking his head in disbelief. “Of course I do.”

“Oh,” Shiro whispers, and it feels both real and unreal— a Keith he knows and doesn’t know, sitting there beside him, looking at him like he is both cherished and ridiculous.

Calmly, Keith says, “You’re the only man I’ve ever loved, Shiro.”

“I thought—” Shiro starts and then cuts off. He doesn’t know what he thought, he realizes, in that moment. He doesn’t know any thought, any word, anything in the entire universe— there’s only Keith there beside him, smiling at him.

He doesn’t think as he reaches out and takes Keith’s hand in his. Keith lets him and lets Shiro tug his hand up to study the ring. The ring he gave Keith. He runs his thumb over it. It’s simple, because of course it is. Keith’s straightforward, unflinching— Shiro wouldn’t ever buy him something ostentatious.

There’s a strange feeling twisting up inside him— he realizes he’s studying the ring, memorizing it. So he can find it again, in the future. Find it for the first time, to give to Keith.

It feels like the world converged at this moment in time— Keith and Shiro, out here where everything started, together. He holds Keith’s hand gently in his, Keith’s fingers slightly curled against his palm. Shiro runs his thumb over the wedding band.

“Who asked— you or me?” Shiro asks.

Keith chuckles. “I’m not telling you that. You need to be surprised.”

Shiro goes breathless and then laughs. He should have expected such an answer.

“I…” Shiro pauses, hesitates. “I’m happy.”

He lets go of Keith’s hand and Keith returns it to his lap, smiling at him. Shiro takes up the bottle and takes a tentative sip.

He fiddles with the label on the bottle, peeling at the corner as Keith hums in question.

“We get married,” Shiro murmurs. The idea hasn’t really settled yet, hasn’t really solidified.

He and Keith are married. They’re together. In the future. Shiro blushes a little at the thought— coming home to Keith. He blushes more at the thought of kissing Keith. In the future, there’s a version of himself who’s kissed Keith, who’s held him close. Who’s seen him naked.

Shiro swivels his head around, knows he’s red-faced, and glances at Keith— studying him now, memorizing him. Shiro watches Keith brush his braid back over his shoulder and the thought comes to him unbidden— draping himself over Keith’s back, arm curled protectively around his waist, the other tugging hard on that braid to tip his head back, to press his lips against the crook of his jaw.

Shiro’s entire face turns red and he looks away. Shamefully, he hears Keith snort.

“I know that look.”

Shiro coughs, blushing. “So, anyway,” he says and his voice sounds tragically close to a whimper and it’s mortifying. “You’re… Uh.”

“Yes?” Keith prompts when Shiro trails off.

“You’re—” He looks at Keith again, finds that same sly smile. Shiro swallows thickly, feels his throat click. “You’re… Uh, Keith Shirogane?”

Keith muffles his laugh by pressing his hand to his mouth, elbow on a propped up knee. He looks at Shiro for a long moment, amusement and fondness evident.

“Yeah,” Keith says, his smile soft when he drops his hand away, arm draped over his knee. He tilts his head. “… You like to say we’re both ‘Shiro’ now.”

“Sounds like something I’d say,” Shiro answers, faintly, because he’s still processing the idea that he and Keith are married. He forces himself to look up at the stars so he doesn’t die looking at Keith’s expression and murmurs, quiet to himself, testing it out: “Mister and Mister Shirogane.”

“Admiral and Captain Shirogane, actually,” Keith corrects, and shrugs when Shiro looks at him. “Pretty sure I’m allowed to tell you that much.”

“You’re an admiral now, huh?” Shiro asks and laughs when Keith snorts and shoves at him. “I always knew you had it in you, Keith.”

“You’re right,” Keith returns easily, a certain slyness in his tone that makes Shiro’s brain absolutely short-circuit at his next words: “Turns out I like having an admiral in me.”

Shiro drops the bottle of whisky and it’s only because Keith’s able to grab it at the last second that it doesn’t shatter on the steps. Keith laughs to himself, not unkindly, and takes a long drag from the bottle.

“Mm,” Keith hums, mouth quirking into a smile once he pulls the bottle back, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth, observing Shiro. “I remember this part. You told me.”

Then he reaches out towards Shiro. His fingers trace Shiro’s mouth and Shiro’s eyes nearly bug out. His heart hammers.

“You might have underplayed how sweet you were. Are,” Keith decides, studying Shiro’s blushing, devastated expression. His fingers touch at Shiro’s bottom lip and linger there. Shiro swallows thickly. Keith smiles. “Do you want to kiss me, Shiro?”

“Keith—”

Keith touches his bottom lip with a thumb. “I was so jealous of my older self. Isn’t that a weird thought? Being jealous of yourself.”

“Jealous?” Shiro parrots, his mind a flurry just from Keith’s careful touch.

Keith smiles. “Thinking about you kissing me. An older me. It drove me crazy. When I showed up in the future, I found out pretty quickly that we were married. You didn’t want to lie to me. And all I could think about, realizing you were back home, liking me back, was that you’d be kissing someone who was technically me but not really me.”

“You,” Shiro begins and licks his lips— remembering too late, as he does that, that Keith’s thumb is right there. Keith doesn’t react but Shiro feels his entire face turn red. “You… liked me even now?”

Keith snorts and rolls his eyes. “Shiro,” he says, scolding again. “Do you remember, early on, when I got into that fight and you stood up for me?”

“Yeah,” Shiro says, cautious.

“You told me you’d never give up on me and I can’t give up on myself.” Keith pauses, hums, and then pinches Shiro’s cheek, tugging once and then smoothing his thumb over where Shiro gets a dimple, sometimes, when he’s grinning. “That was the moment for me.”

Silence follows this statement. Shiro isn’t sure what to say, his mouth parting a little but no words coming out.

Keith smiles, sympathetic. “I’ve wanted to be with you since that moment. I loved you.” He shrugs, like what he’s just said doesn’t shake Shiro to his very core. “So yes. I like you back. Even now.”

“Oh,” Shiro begins, thinks to try to say more, but then his heart is too busy lurching into his throat as Keith leans in and kisses the line of his jaw, the spot just below his ear.

Keith noses at his jaw and then sighs, a wisp of a breath. He’s so close. His breath ghosts across his skin. He can feel Keith’s heat, the line of his body, the smell of his hair and the sigh of his breath. Shiro can feel his smile. Keith touches his jaw, then cups his cheek, thumb swiping now across his cheekbone.

“I’ll save kissing you for him, though,” Keith says. He presses his lips to Shiro’s temple and then withdraws, winking at him. “Then he’ll have no reason to be jealous.”

Shiro’s not quite sure he’s recovered from Keith actually winking at him, though. He stares.

“I— I’m not…” Shiro begins. He fumbles and falls quiet. Keith waits patiently, though, eyebrows lifted expectantly. “I’m not your Shiro.”

Keith tilts his head.

Shiro stumbles more, trying to explain. “Why are you— you don’t—”

“Shiro,” Keith, mercifully, cuts him off. His voice is devastatingly gentle, and from anyone else it’d be almost condescending. Instead, it comforts him tremendously. Keith cups his shoulder, his hand lingering. “Do you think you’ve changed so fundamentally that I’d call you someone else? You’re Shiro. You’ve always been Shiro.”

Shiro looks up at him, tentative. Keith smiles.

“Have I changed so much that you don’t think I’m Keith?”

“Never,” Shiro says, immediately. But there’s a weight in his chest, a certainty that Keith must look at him and see something different— someone who, through it all, can’t be deserving. He knows, too, that Keith would never say that. Would never think it or be aware of it, no matter how true it might or might not be.

“… Honestly,” Keith confesses, his smile gentle and his eyes soft. “It’s not so much I’m worried about your Keith being jealous. I know me. I’ll get over it…”

“Then?” Shiro prompts, still flummoxed by Keith winking at him, Keith’s lips pressed to his jaw, Keith sitting there so close to him.

Keith smiles. “It’s mostly that I know my husband will be the jealous one.”

Shiro flushes, feeling his entire face turn heated. He fumbles, tripping over his words but Keith waits patiently, silent, damnably aware of how much hearing my husband has completely bowled him over.

“Your husband,” Shiro answers, faintly.

Keith studies him for a moment, and then the tease eases from his smile— turning into something softer, vulnerable, like even now he still can’t believe he gets to say it.

“My husband.” He touches Shiro’s chest, his thumbs stroking at the collarbones beneath his uniform jacket. “You’re going to be my husband, Shiro. Someday soon.”

“Yeah,” Shiro whispers, his throat closing up. He feels overwhelmed, suddenly. His eyes don’t exactly go misty, but there’s something fragile splintering across his face— he can see it reflected in the way Keith looks at him. “I didn’t— I never—”

“I know,” Keith soothes, cupping his jaw with one hand. He keeps touching him and Shiro’s never felt so overwhelmed by something so simple. “I never thought I’d get it, either.”

“We never… I mean. We haven’t really talked about everything that’s happened.” Shiro flounders, regret at his reluctance, at his silence, rising up again, twisting cruelly in his chest. “You deserved more than that, Keith.”

“It’s not about deserving,” Keith tells him, gently. “You know I’ll never think that.”

Shiro nods. He knows. “It’s… still a lot. To talk about.”

Keith nods in understanding. “Neither of you have had the time yet.”

Shiro glances at him, biting his lip. “Does that mean— we do talk? You and your Shiro?”

Keith nods again, his smile warming. “Your Keith— I come back from the future with a better understanding of things. And when I come home, you’re here waiting— with your own understanding, it seems.” He laughs. “We work it out. You were going to tell me, right? Your feelings. But then you got stuck with me, instead.”

“Yeah,” Shiro says, cheeks burning red.

Keith smiles. “So, make sure you tell me. When you see me again— your Keith, properly. Tell him.”

“I will,” Shiro vows.

“And Shiro?”

“Yeah?”

Keith meets his eyes, studying him as he always does. Shiro’s never felt so exposed and so pinned down than when this version of Keith is watching him.

“All those things you’re still thinking and feeling? Those things about yourself that you keep telling yourself you can’t burden me with?”

Keith pauses, not so much like he’s waiting for Shiro to respond, but to give Shiro a moment to start breathing again, his heart stampeding through his chest.

Keith’s expression flickers sympathetically when he continues, “Don’t be afraid to tell me. There’s nothing you could ever say or do that’d make me turn my back on you.”

“I—”

“You can trust me,” Keith says, gently. “You can trust me with every part of you.”

“It— it isn’t that I don’t trust you,” Shiro protests, face crumbling.

Keith scoots closer to him and pulls him into his arms, hugging him tight. Shiro lets out a shaky breath, unsure what to do. Keith rubs his hands down his back and, tentatively, Shiro mimics the gesture— wrapping Keith into his arms.

“I know,” Keith murmurs, mouth pressed to his ear. “You don’t trust yourself.”

Shiro nods, unsure if he can even summon words now. It’s overwhelming to consider laying it all out there for Keith— not just their fight, not just his cloned body, not just his time stuck within Black. It’s being dead. Remembering, feeling the act of dying. There’s his severance from the lions and his connection with Atlas. There’s losing and gaining an arm. There’s losing Adam, nearly losing Keith. There’s that lingering trauma, that opening, threatening maw that seethes out every little insecurity that still squirms inside him— that he was broken beyond repair, that he was only ever going to be a monster, a weapon. There’s the fact that sometimes, someone will touch him, innocuous enough, and it’ll feel like he’s about to shake apart, starved for any sort of touch. There’s Keith stretched out on the platform of a cloning facility, begging for Shiro to hear him, desperate to tell him that he’s loved, and still doing everything in his unyielding body to kill his best friend, the man he loves. There’s watching Keith plummet down towards Earth again, the Black Lion unresponsive. There’s a million different things, a million different ways, a million little mercies and disasters that he never actually spoke to Keith but assumed, hoped, that Keith would understand, too.

There’s the crippling, all-consuming fear that, despite all his best efforts, he will never be good enough for Keith— Keith who is strong, who is loyal, who is steadfast and focused. Keith, who has always protected him, has always cared for him. Keith, who has always been there, unwavering and unflinching. There’s the knowledge that Keith would never think Shiro unworthy, but that doesn’t somehow mean it isn’t true.

Keith— powerful, brilliant, beautiful Keith— this Keith in front of him, confident and kind, pulls back from the hug and smiles at Shiro. The starlight touches his eyes again and his face is gentle and familiar— a best friend, someone cherished and treasured. A future husband. Someone, who, shockingly, has never left his side.

“That,” Keith whispers. “Right there. What you’re thinking… You can trust me with it.”

Shiro’s vision swims and he doesn’t try to blink it back. Keith cups his face, ever gentle. Shiro leans forward into that, letting Keith hold him up, letting out a shaky breath.

He feels Keith guide him forward, feels the gentle press of Keith’s lips to his forehead, lingering.

“Things get better. Eventually, I’m less of a mess, too,” Keith says with a dismissive laugh.

Shiro puzzles over that for a moment. “What do you mean?”

Keith shrugs. “I know I wasn’t— I haven’t always been the easiest to know. To talk to. I get better. I’m less of a disaster.”

Shiro frowns.

“Keith, I— I love you,” Shiro says before he can stop himself and then blushes fully. “I mean! I mean, I love every version of you.” He pushes past his fumbling, gripping Keith’s elbows in a tight grip. He takes a deep breath and presses onward. “I’ve never thought that way about you. I’ve never thought you were a disaster or a mess. I’ve always…”

Keith, for once, looks startled and perhaps less confident than Shiro had been assuming. He blinks at him, eyes widening slightly, and he looks at Shiro with a quiet sort of vulnerability.

If anything, that’s what finally gets Shiro to stabilize, for his words to stop sounding so foreign and awkward on his tongue. This time, he’s the one to lift his hands and cup Keith’s face. His Altean hand is almost comically large, but Shiro doesn’t pull back and Keith doesn’t seem to mind— his expression fragile as he looks at Shiro.

“If you’re a disaster, then what does that make me?” Shiro asks, teasing.

Keith’s eyes shimmer for just a moment and then he clenches his eyes shut and lets out a breathless little laugh that breaks Shiro’s heart.

“I love you,” Shiro says, weighing the words. Keith’s smile warms, tentative and sweet. “You’ve never been a mess to me. You’ve only ever been Keith.”

Keith’s hand lifts, covering Shiro’s. He leans into that touch, keeping his hand pressed there to his cheek.

“How do you always know exactly what to say?” he asks, voice quiet.

“I mean it,” Shiro insists.

“I know you do,” Keith answers, his smile plucking at the corners of his mouth. “You’ve only ever been Shiro to me, too. You… are everything to me, Shiro.”

“I know,” Shiro says and he does know.

 

-

 

They spend the night out at the shack. In the morning, Shiro wakes to Keith already out of the house, watching the sunrise.

Shiro stands there for a moment, at the threshold to Keith’s old home, and watches him silhouetted against the rising sun, his hair a crown of flames, braid wavering in the wind, shoulders wide and strong.

He must sense Shiro, because he turns to look at him over his shoulder and his smile is faint, but there.

Shiro thinks, as he moves down the steps and walks out to meet Keith, to watch the sunrise with him, that he could do this a million times over and over and never tire of it— waking to find Keith there, always there, beautiful and brilliant in the sunlight.

Keith drives them back on the hoverbike and Shiro holds tight to him. As they park at the garrison, Keith lifts Shiro’s hand and kisses the backs of his knuckles before letting him go and turning away. Shiro can’t see his face but he can see the briefest touch of pink to Keith’s ears, and it warms Shiro inside out.

 

-

 

“Are you sure this is safe?” Shiro asks as the wormhole rips itself open right there in the middle of the paladins’ quarters. They’d had some warning for it, but still, it’s startling to see it. He hadn’t actually seen Keith’s arrival in the hospital, and he’s pretty sure if he had, he’d have fainted.

“I’m sure,” Keith laughs, his hand brushing over Shiro’s hip in another display of casual intimacy. “I promise. Don’t worry.”

Shiro presses his lips into a thin line, unconvinced. Keith laughs, softly, obviously endeared.

He turns towards the other paladins to say their goodbyes. He pulls Hunk into a tight bear hug that Hunk enthusiastically returns, picking him off the ground even to squeeze him tight. Keith lets out a soft little ‘oof’ and then laughs.

He hugs Allura much more gently, smiling almost shyly once he pulls back. He fist-bumps with Pidge, who’s unwilling to look away from her wormhole measurement device she rigged up that morning in order to measure the fluctuations.

He punches Lance’s shoulder and tells him, “Hey. Good to see you with all your hair and all your fingers. Try to hang onto those.”

Lance makes a scandalized noise and shoves at Keith, who turns and goes with a laugh. His eyes light on Shiro and his smile softens, the way it always does when he looks at him. Helplessly, Shiro smiles back.

“Going to miss me?” Keith asks, laughing.

“I’ll see you again,” Shiro says, which isn’t quite an answer— but Keith understands it anyway, standing on the tips of his toes to press a kiss to Shiro’s cheek, lingering with a soft breath.

“You will,” Keith agrees. He touches Shiro’s cheek, fingertips tracing the line of his jaw. “Remember what I said.”

“I will,” Shiro answers with a nod. “Remember what I said.”

Keith laughs, soft. “I will.”

Keith lingers a moment longer. Shiro’s about to ask if everything’s okay, if there’s something they’ve forgotten, but Keith just lets out a shaky little breath, studying Shiro’s face.

“God,” he murmurs. “You’re so young. I’m never going to get over that.”

“Shiro, young?” he hears Lance say behind them, but he doesn’t tear his eyes away from Keith.

“You’re starting to make me think that maybe I’m the bald one in the future, not Lance,” Shiro teases.

Keith laughs. He steps back, pulling his hand away and turning towards the wormhole. He cracks his knuckles and shakes his body loose.

“Alright,” he tells Pidge. “It’s going to close behind me but it should open almost immediately again once your Keith’s returning. Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen right away.”

“Sounds good,” Pidge answers. She holds up her measurement equipment. “There’re already more fluctuations. I think the other Keith is ready to return, too.”

Keith nods. He takes a deep breath, bracing himself in front of the wormhole. Shiro gets one last look of him— glancing over his shoulder, drinking Shiro in one last time— and then he’s gone, jumping through the wormhole. It closes behind him without a sound, silent and sudden. Absence settles inside Shiro and stays there.

They don’t have to wait long. Shiro’s movements are instinctual once the wormhole opens. Keith— the Keith he knows, his Keith— comes tumbling through and Shiro’s there to catch him. Keith’s hands brace in his own and Shiro guides him safely to stable ground, steady on his feet.

It occurs to him, in that split-second, that Keith’s just spent the last day with a future version of Shiro. He wonders what they talked about, what Keith saw, what he experienced, what a future version of Shiro could have clarified for him— he wonders if they’ll actually get to talk about it with one another. They must, for the future version of Keith to remember so much. And—

Shiro grips Keith’s hands tight, opens his mouth to say something, anything.

Shiro! I love you, too!” Keith shouts before Shiro can say anything and then he’s shoving forward to curl his arms tight around Shiro and hold on.

Shiro stumbles back one step and then wraps Keith up into his arms, holding him tight against him. He blushes, but feels an unfathomable happiness blooming in his chest. He holds Keith tight, flushed against him, and buries his face into his hair— shorter, still as thick and full— and breathes.

“I love you,” he whispers because it’s about to burst out of him. He feels Keith tremble. “I’ve loved you for so long, Keith.”

Keith makes a soft sound and pulls back, looking up at Shiro. Shiro smiles back, helpless and overfull, his hands tight at Keith’s back. Keith studies him— Shiro realizes in that moment that Keith’s always studied him, always looked at him so carefully, always known so much and yet somehow not this— and then smiles.

“Shiro,” Keith laughs and Shiro laughs with him and dips his head down. Keith rises to meet him, pressing his mouth to his in a gentle kiss. And that’s enough. That’s everything.