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Shiro gets the call from his emergency comm, on a secure, confidential channel.

“An allied race’s exploration ship sent over something they found just recently. Their leaders only wanted to discuss it with the highest ranking officers of the Atlas.” Iverson says, face grim in the orange-hued projection from Shiro’s data-pad. “After their delivery, I can say I’m grateful for the discretion.”

In the corner of Shiro’s eye, catches a figure approaching and then stopping by the doorway of his home office. He risks a glance at Curtis, to the papers he holds in his hands. Not now, Takashi , he scolds himself.

Curtis takes initiative upon seeing who Shiro is talking to, stepping back and saying he can wait. Shiro only smiles in quiet thanks and turns back to his call with Iverson.

“Can you tell me what it is?”

“It’s a pod, Shiro.”

“A pod? What kind?”

“A life preservation pod.” Iverson looks wary, concerned. “With a passenger inside.”

That’s enough for Shiro to stand up and tell the man that he’ll be there as soon as he can. They hang up.

“I’ll be back.” he tells his husband as he slips on a worn button-up over his plain shirt and grabbed his jacket and keys.

Curtis didn’t ask him to explain. Curtis had been part of the Atlas crew. He understood the urgency and confidentiality that came with Shiro’s rank and title, even after retirement.

Out of habit, Shiro places his hand on the other man’s arm and leans forward. They both stop at the same moment - Curtis ducks his head in a quiet rejection, and Shiro draws back, catching himself.

Right. They don’t do that anymore.

But Shiro has no time to dwell on this. There are much more pressing matters at hand.

.


 

.

The Atlas greets him, her presence warm and welcoming in the back of his mind as he steps foot in the ship for the first time in… what? A year? For the annual memorial? He’d retired after the wedding and didn’t look back. Atlas has been grounded and serving more like a station than a ship. He feels her longing for the stars, sometimes, but ultimately she allows the distance, the separation. She cares about Shiro, and understands that it was better to be grounded in a peaceful Earth rather than risk the lives of her crew in battles up in space.

Besides, the Atlas is still an irreplaceable headquarters for the coalition and their allies, still a second home for the crew, the Paladins, when they visit-…

...and a common stop for Blade of Marmora agents who happen to find themselves in the quadrant.

A hoverbike's engine revs, effectively catching his attention. The vehicle settles down smoothly in the hangar floor and its driver removes his helmet.

“Keith?”

The name escapes him, involuntary. He says it breathless, like a punch to the gut.

That’s what it feels like, anyway.

Shiro wants to think that it’s only mere coincidence.

It’s rare enough that Keith is in the Atlas, or even in the same quadrant as Earth at all.

It’s even rarer that the Joint Coalition receives a report urgent enough to warrant a summons for former Admiral Takashi Shirogane.

Coincidence, he insists. That they both simply happen to be here. This was mere coincidence. He steels himself and tries to focus on the matter at hand.

Still. It's Keith .

Keith’s hearing is sharp - has always been - he turns and Shiro stops dead in his tracks when their eyes meet.

Keith is beautiful - has always been - it looks like he’s grown taller since the last time, his shoulders slightly broader. His hair is also longer, tied back in a long braid wrapped loosely around his shoulders.

The scar still sits angry in his cheek but it had never done anything to diminish Keith’s beauty. All it ever seemed to do is plague Shiro with guilt, everytime he sees it.

Then Keith smiles - he always does, for Shiro - fond and real, and Shiro remembers to breathe. It's easy to let his feet lead him to where Keith parked his hoverbike. It’s sleeker now, black and dark purple instead of his old white and red. Definitely faster, built for stealth.

“Shiro, hey.” Keith greets, voice soft. He hops off the bike just as Shiro reaches him and doesn't hesitate to pull his best and oldest friend into a hug.

Shiro melts into Keith's arms. He buries his nose in dark hair that smells of desert and sun, but he doesn't let himself linger.

Keith leans back and has a small, concerned smile when he speaks again. “Took you long enough, old-timer.”

“I came as soon as Iverson called.” Shiro says, smiling back. He glances at the bike, then looks back at Keith. “I didn't know you'd be here. How long have you been back?”

“Got here yesterday. Just me, Kosmo, some new recruits.” Keith answers as they head towards the hangar exit side-by-side. “Latest mission brought us to the quadrant. We needed fuel and supplies so we stopped by.”

Keith had left a week after delivering his best man speech, with a fierce hug and a strained “You know how to reach me” .

Shiro did. He still does - only he never tried to.

It’s been three years since, and Keith still sends his transmissions through the same comms line.

Keith barely returns to Earth anymore. He never settled anywhere long enough to establish roots, but he keeps in touch. He calls for birthdays and anniversaries. Sometimes, he’d send a bauble or two from his missions - once an alien fruit for Hunk, once something sparkly for Lance and the mice, an eccentric old relic for Coran, interesting pieces of tech for the Holts, always strange but colorful flowers for Romelle.

For Shiro, he sends photos, not of himself but of the different planets he’d been in, like postcards from an inter-galactic road trip.

‘Except they never said “Wish you were here”.’ he thinks with a humorless smile.

It's those times Shiro tells himself that the yearning he feels for the stars is the Atlas, restless from being grounded, and not him. He has a life on Earth now. He’s content, at peace.

Keith continues to answer his question as they walk, his tone light, casual.

“I was on the bridge this morning, just asking Veronica to send some data to the Blades HQ in Daibazaal, when they got the report about… you know.”

The strain of his voice from his first goodbye is gone, now. It makes something twist inside Shiro, something he clamps down because no - that’s not him - he’s not going to be selfish, not with Keith.

“I see.” Shiro nods. “Iverson didn’t tell me much, just that it was a pod, with someone in it. You think it’s…?”

“It is.” Keith says, voice low. He catches Shiro’s eyes for a moment before looking ahead again. “I saw. The pod’s all beat up. Almost busted, barely working. They said it’s a miracle it even lasted this long, just drifting off in space like that. But it- He’s inside, his vitals are stable, they just haven’t… woken him up.”

He looks forward and they see Veronica and Iverson at the end of the hallway. Shiro waves a hand in greeting and they speed up.

“He’s still in the pod?” he asks Keith.

“They didn’t know what to do. Besides, this is your call. I made that very clear to them, and we agreed we’d just do repairs on the pod to keep it running until you make a decision.”

Shiro envies his composure, and quietly marvels at how Keith had so easily stepped up and taken charge. Shiro knows he’ll sound like a broken record, but really - Keith has come so far. “You’ve been here all day?”

Keith shrugs. “Not all day. I knew you’d take a while to get here so I went out a bit. Just to tell my team to take today off and leave Kosmo with ‘Melle.”

“Admiral.” Iverson huffs in greeting, while Veronica gives Shiro the easy smile that always reminds him of her brother.

“Not anymore.” Shiro corrects without heat. He finds himself standing straighter, the authoritative leader-and-diplomat voice he’d left behind after his wedding and early retirement slowly coming back to him. “It’s nice to see you, Mitch. Veronica.”

Iverson spares a firm pat on his arm. “Good to see you doing well, Shirogane.” He eyes Keith. “You told him the details?”

Keith nods as he crosses his arms across his chest. “The pod?”

It’s Veronica who answers. “It’s holding up, but it’s too damaged, and it’s sensitive tech. We can’t maintain it for long.”

“Then let’s not waste any more time.” Shiro says.

Iverson and Veronica lead the way to the med bay. Shiro follows and Keith keeps in step with him.

There’s so much history there, Shiro thinks, to Keith standing and walking beside him, the two of them shoulder to shoulder. History that is all but lost through the past few years.

They’re still best friends, still the person the other trusted the most, still each other’s pick to have their back in a fight - but it’s different, now.

It’s been different for quite a while.

.


 

.

Keith is right - it was a miracle that the pod is intact at all. The Galra metal is dented, the compact display screen on the side faded and flickering, the glass surface cracked.

But the body inside is perfect.

There he is, one of the hundreds of copies of Takashi Shirogane, all-black hair, a pair of flesh arms, a face unblemished with scars, a body ideally-built and muscled under the tight-fitting body suit. A soldier. Another Champion, but this time without any of the damage it took for the original to be so.

Shiro counts himself lucky the Holts are currently on Olkarion. He doesn't know how he'd handle their prodding and poking if they were here, even if they'd do it only because they care about him.

He wonders what this copy would be like, when it - he - wakes up. Does he have memories? Until when? The clone - the one who had made his way back to the Paladins, all those years ago - he had memories when he woke up, had remembered the circumstances of his disappearance. Was that planted in that one copy for his intended purpose, or was the original body's memories transmitted to all existing copies by design? How much will this one remember, if he remembers anything at all? Will they be waking a blank slate? Someone who can start over fresh? Or will they be waking someone who carries all the guilt and trauma, all the feelings-

He glances to his side, to Keith. Unlike him, Keith hasn't drifted off to his thoughts, and instead he’s listening intently to the medical officer and the engineer who were explaining how the pod works.

Keith nods once they finish, then he turns to Shiro. "It looks like the pod really doesn't have long, Shiro."

Shiro looks to Iverson, then to Veronica. They hadn't asked the questions he expected them to ask: ‘ Why is there a clone of you? Did you know about this? How many others are there?’

A lot of the details of what happened in that facility were privy only to Team Voltron. Whatever shock Iverson and Veronica must be feeling right now, they're keeping to themselves. They’re respecting his privacy.

It's like Keith said - this is Shiro's call to make.

Shiro knew his choices. It was simple: wake the clone up and let him live, risking themselves to whatever programming Haggar had left in this body, or be safe, do nothing and let him die, in the quiet of the Atlas med bay.

After all, this... copy... wasn't supposed to exist in the first place. He's a twisted creation of a deranged witch corrupted with quintessence.

"Do we have any other information about-... him?"

"Nothing but his vitals and physical condition, Admiral." the medical officer answers. "The data we've been able to extract says it's a healthy body, the DNA is a match to yours, but there seems to be additions of something... Galra... that we wouldn't be able to confirm without opening the pod and administering tests directly."

Shiro nods, trying to keep his voice steady as he asks, "His mental condition?"

"Unfortunately, we have nothing."

"I see. Thank you anyway, officer."

The safest thing to do, perhaps, is to let the clone die. Destroy the pod, if possible. They can't be sure what they'll wake up.

But Keith is here. That changed everything.

Keith had cared about Shiro - well, who he thought was Shiro, even after. Keith had cared about the clone back then, even knowing what he was, even knowing what he tried to do to their team, their family. Keith had told that clone that he-

It’s doesn’t matter, right now.

Keith is here, and Shiro's not going to make Keith watch him die another time.

Keith is here , and if this clone remembers him, if this one is even a little bit like the original, Shiro thinks that maybe everything will be alright.

Shiro had the first clone's memories, he had felt like he lived what had been that clone's short life.

And he'd realized that it's a constant - it's something that not even spending a year in the arena, an intergalactic war, being mind-controlled by a space witch, death, or even marrying someone else can change: Shiro loves Keith.

So he says, "Wake him up."

.


 

.

The clone doesn't wake up right away. He stays unconscious as he's transferred into a private room in the Atlas. His vitals remain stable, and his cheeks slowly regain color as the hour passes, finally adapting to the heat of life in contrast to the cold, regulated temperature inside a pod.

Iverson and Veronica had to leave for an important meeting, but made the two promise to send them an update as soon as there is one.

They had all decided that it was for the best that the clone doesn't wake up to Shiro first thing, so Shiro waits on the hallway outside, watching from a one-way window. It's Keith who remains inside the room, sitting on the bedside, methodically going through messages in his datapad.

As if it's just any normal day, as if he's sitting in just another old friend's bedside. Leave it to Keith to take something like this in stride.

When the clone wakes, he wakes up slowly, then all at once. He opens his eyes and blinks, sleepy, before he bolts upright with a gasp. Keith sets his datapad aside in one swift motion, catching the clone's attention. He freezes, eyes wide, breathing heavily.

Shiro watches from outside, ready to intervene at any moment.

"Hey." He hears Keith say, voice soft and steady. They'd left the door ajar so Shiro would be able to hear from outside. "Hey... uh. Good morning. Well. Afternoon, I guess."

"K-Keith?" the clones breathes out, voice ragged in disbelief.

So. He remembers, then.

Keith nods. "Yeah? How are you feeling?" he asks, careful as he sits on the edge of the bed.

"You- I-" The clone blinks, at a loss before he surges forward, hands reaching out to touch but stopping at the last second. "Keith- I... Are you-...?" He shakes his head, dropping his hands and clenching the sheets instead. “I don’t- I don’t understand…”

"It’s okay. I need you to breathe, Shiro." Keith says slowly. He lays a hand on the other's shoulder. Shiro's own burns. He knows what that touch does, and he sees it happen - the man gradually calms down enough to steady his breathing. "Good. Good, just breathe, okay? What do you remember?"

Then the clone seems to come to a realization. His expression turns aghast and ashamed as he leans away, curling into himself. "No. No. That’s can’t be- We were fighting. Keith- I wasn't in control, it was Haggar, I- Keith, I'm sorry- I didn't want to fight you- If I had a choice- Any choice at all, I’d-"

"Hey, that's over now. I'm okay." Keith says, shifting closer, peering into his face. "Shiro? Shiro, look at me. Do you remember anything else?"

"I- It's all blurry. I was hurting you, Keith, I- Oh God." his voice breaks, and he looks up again, this time his eyes finds Keith's face and he sees the scar- He looks torn as his hand hovers over Keith’s cheek, trembling. "Keith. God, I- I'm so sorry-"

Shiro watches as Keith does the same thing he did years ago, when Shiro apologized for the scar that he gave Keith, one that Keith would have to carry with him for the rest of his life. Keith wordlessly shakes his head before his steady hand takes the clone's trembling one and presses it to his cheek.

And he says the same thing too - "I know. That wasn't you."

Then, Shiro watches as the clone moves to do the one thing Shiro wished he did back then.

The clone wraps his arms around Keith and holds him tight as he can…

"I never wanted to hurt you. Never, Keith.”

...and he starts laying his bleeding heart out there in the open.

Shiro finds himself wishing they closed the door instead.

Keith looks surprised, but rubs the clone’s back soothingly. "I know."

"God, I don't deserve you." The clone sobs and hugs Keith even tighter, and Shiro couldn't help but turn his back to the scene. Somehow, it's harder to see himself - a version of himself - so broken and vulnerable.

The version of Shiro who woke up in that pod in the Black Lion, who had died and was stranded in the astral plane, who had two sets of memories, two sets of guilt, would never have dared to say any of this.

"Don't say that." Keith tells the clone, all love and support, because that's how Keith just is.

"You're so important to me, Keith."

"I know." Keith assures, voice muffled now, nodding against a shaking shoulder.

Then, in a barely audible whisper, the clone says, "You're everything to me."

Shiro freezes. That’s-

That’s too much, and he knows what’s coming next. No, not-

"I love you."

Shiro whirls around, because that there is the truth, out in the open.

“I love you so much.”

That there is his secret, bared by a version of himself that was given a chance to breathe in the aftermath.

He watches the clone bury his nose in Keith's hair, eyes closed and brows furrowed not in confusion but in fear, waiting for the rejection, counting down the seconds until he's not allowed to hold Keith anymore.

Shiro knows this, and more. The man in that bed might as well be his own soul, open and vulnerable.

Then he sees Keith, and his heart stops. Keith's eyes were wide, uncertain. For the first time that day, for the first time over the past few years, Shiro sees them waver. Keith is shocked.

His fingers are shaking. Keith is scared.

Shiro catches him steal a glance at his direction. Keith knows he's watching.

But, Shiro thinks, out of the two of them, Keith's always been the stronger one.

He sees the moment Keith makes up his mind.

It's when Keith's hands stop rubbing soothing circles in the clone's back to instead curl into the fabric of the loose shirt the medics had changed him into. It's when Keith closes his eyes and lets out the breath he'd been holding, and when he opens them again, they're impossibly soft.

It's those eyes Shiro hasn't seen in years.

Gently but steadily, he says, "I love you too, Shiro."

The clone lets out a shaky laugh, followed by another sob. "Even after-?"

"Yes."

‘It's unfair.’ is Shiro's first thought. ‘ Who are you? How do you get to have this?’

He's never been a jealous person, not even with his lovers. It's ironic that the one time he feels jealous is with himself.

There's a whimper that sounds both pained and relieved, then the clone presses a kiss to Keith's hair. The sobs subside, but when he moves his hands to settle on Keith's waist, his sigh hitches into a gasp.

Shiro tries his damnedest to tamp down the feeling of sick satisfaction as he watches the clone stare at his two hands.

Flesh hands.

‘Now you know.’ Shiro thinks. ‘It’s not that easy. It never is.’

"Keith?"

He pulls away. Keith lets him.

"I'm-... I'm not your Shiro, am I?"

Keith looks down, and Shiro sees the pain written in his eyes. Pain for this man - this copy-

The clone is still staring at his hands, turning them over. "I'm one of them. The clones. Am I?"

Keith takes both of his hands and holds them tight. "I'm sorry."

"No. No, you- Why are you sorry? I'm sorry. I shouldn't be- I shouldn't have. I shouldn't have said all that, I'm just- I'm a copy. I'm no one ."

Keith shakes his head. "No. You’re someone . You’re a person . You have memories. You feel feelings. You're still my best friend. You're still Shiro. I still care about you. I still love you. Always have, always will, one way or another."

The honesty startles Shiro. But then again, Keith had never been one to shy away from the truth, from what he feels once he's felt it.

"What-... What happened?" the clone asks.

With his thumb, he traces a scar in Keith's hand he doesn't remember being there. When he looks up, he does it slowly, as he takes Keith in and realizes how different the younger man looks. He notes the broader shoulders, the firmer jaw. His hand slips from Keith's to stroke through the man's dark hair, to tuck stubborn strands behind an ear - it's pierced, Shiro notes with surprise. He hadn’t noticed it before - but there's a small ruby red stud earring there. The clone’s fingers linger on the braid, still draped around Keith's shoulders like a scarf, his brows shooting up at the length of it.

It doesn't take him long to figure it out.

"How long has it been?"

"Five years, give or take, since the fight." Keith answers. "Wait- Time dilation. Seven? But it's been four years since the war."

"The war. Zarkon- Haggar? The Empire?"

"Gone. Well, there's a few more rogue loyalists here and there, but we handle it. You're on Earth. It's the main hub for the Joint Galactic Coalition."

"H-How?"

"Some friends of ours found your pod drifting in space. They sent you home."

"Are there others? Like… like me?"

Keith only shakes his head. "None that we know of." With a rueful smile, he says, "You're a real lucky one."

The clone chuckles, gives Keith's hands in his an affectionate squeeze. "The others? Your friends?"

" Our friends." Keith corrects. "They're okay." Shiro catches him bite his lip, and the clone must have noticed it too.

"Keith?"

Keith answers like he's ticking off a list. "The Holts are in Olkarion, helping out with new restoration efforts. Hunk's a space chef, he's doing good work out there. Lance and Coran are in New Altea. Yeah, we... got it back. Somehow. And Daibazaal too. Mom's there, with Kolivan, working on a government that's not a dictatorship."

Shiro smiles, but his brows are furrowed, bemused, expectant. Waiting for more.

"We... We lost Allura." Keith whispers.

If the clone is anything like Shiro, he must feel devastated. And he is. His face twists in pain, losing a friend, a teammate - family . Then he looks at Keith and cups the man's cheek with his free hand. "Oh, Keith. I'm so sorry."

Keith lets out a short, trembling laugh. "It's okay." His smile is soft but shaky as he leans in to the touch. "Really. It's fine. It's been years. We all miss her, but she wouldn't want us to mope, yeah? She'd prefer we get things done. So."

"And... the Blue Lion...?"

"The lions are gone, too. They left. Voltron's not needed anymore."

"Oh."

"It's a good thing. Right? That means we're living in a time of peace."

They're quiet for a moment, just sitting in silence, in each other's space, hand in hand.

It looks easy, comfortable despite the air of grief in the room.

Shiro remembers when things between him and Keith were easy as breathing, comfortable like his own skin. They’re still easy, and comfortable with each other. But there's distance now. Distance from the years and of Shiro’s own making.

"Ah." The clone perks up. "How about you?" he notes the dagger still on Keith's hip. "Still running with the Blades?"

"Senior Member." Keith says with a self-satisfied grin. "Though nowadays, there's less spying and more humanitarian work involved."

Keith is proud of his work. Shiro is proud of Keith.

The clone smiles. Any version of Shiro will always be proud of Keith.

"I'm happy for you." he says, then he raises an eyebrow. "And... Shiro? Your Shiro?"

Keith smiles at that like it's a bad joke that he tries his best to humor. "My Shiro..." he says, tone light and airy, "...should have stopped eavesdropping and just introduced himself since like five minutes ago."

The clone startles, like Shiro does.

"He better come in here to meet his harmless, friendly clone, and not have me drag him by the ear to make him."

Shiro sighs, but he straightens up and finally enters the room.

The clone stares at him, eyes wide in surprise.

Shiro should have expected that. Back then, with the scar, the arm and the white forelock, he didn't expect anything more. It must be a shock to the clone to see the arm that was now a new, floating one, the all-silver hair, the amber eyes.

"Sorry." Shiro offers, more to Keith than to the clone. "I didn't want to intrude."

Keith only snorts at his answer. Meanwhile, the clone musters up a smile. "I think I should be the one saying that."

Shiro smiles back, crossing his arms in what he hopes is a casual way as he stands at the foot of the bed. "So... hi. I guess."

"Hi." the clone offers back, just as meek. It was awkward. He'd never have imagined he'd be talking to one of the clones like this. In his nightmares, he always simply fought them, before any of them can hurt Keith, hurt the rest of their friends.

"How, uh... How are you doing?"

"Fine, I guess." the clone answers. "Thank you, by the way."

Shiro blinks. "For what?"

"For... letting me live?"

Keith's brows furrow but he doesn't speak.

"The smart thing would've been to destroy the pod. You couldn't have known how I'd react when I woke up. Last time one of us was loose, he almost killed everyone."

Shiro takes a deep breath. "You're a living being. We couldn't just let you die."

"Yes, but-"

"I knew the risks. I would have taken responsibility." Shiro answers, looking at his copy's steel gray eyes, daring.

The clone backs down, if only because he had the same mindset as Shiro, and knew it was useless to argue on this. "I just... I hope I don't make you uncomfortable. I'm not quite sure what to do moving forward… it’s not like there’s a manual for how to live as someone’s long-lost clone, right? I don't want to get in the way or be a burden to anyone."

Shiro shakes his head, offering a friendlier smile. "This is all very weird, I get it. But you're your own person now. Don't feel like you owe me or anyone anything, or that you have to earn your right to be treated like a normal person. You're not a burden, and it's not your fault that you exist."

"Thank you." the clone says again. He looks earnest, and without the white hair and the scar, he looks so young.

Keith finally perks up, grinning. "Well-said, Captain."

Shiro groans. "Keith."

The clone blinks wide eyes at him. "Captain?"

"Oh, sorry." Keith mocks apology. " Admiral ."

The clone gapes. "Admiral?!"

Shiro coughs. "Former! Former Admiral." he corrects hastily with an awkward smile. "I retired."

"Retired." the clone raises an eyebrow, thoughtful. "At... thirty?"

Keith shakes his head. "Time dilation. Shiro is actually fifty . See the hair? He wears glasses now, you know-"

Now the poor clone looks lost.

Shiro doesn’t stop himself - he reaches out and flicks Keith's ear. "Brat."

"Old man." Keith swats at his hand, smile easy. He leans over as if to whisper to the clone. "He's gone boring, you know. Married with five kids."

"Cats." Shiro huffs. "And I only have three."

"Oh." the clone says, watching them, amused. His eyes soften when he catches the glint of the wedding band on Shiro's finger.

Then he looks at Keith's hands, one still gripped in his, one fiddling with the end of his braid. He finds nothing.

Shiro recognizes the look of confusion and disappointment on his copy's face.

He hopes he isn't that transparent whenever it's him who looks at his own hand and realizes the matching ring isn't in Keith's.

Keith's datapad chooses that moment to let its presence be known. He grabs it from the bedside table and reads the message. He groans as he mutters under his breath. "Ugh, 'Melle, what did you feed Kosmo now?" He stands up. "I gotta take this. Be right back. Go... bond, or whatever you guys do."

He stops by the door and looks at them both.

"Also, I'll call both of you 'Shiro' until one of you decides to change."

.


 

.

They're both quiet for a full minute before the clone speaks.

"So... where am I, exactly? I know we're on Earth, but..."

"Oh. We're in the Atlas." Shiro answers.

"Atlas?"

"This ship. We... lost the Castle of Lions. Long story. Atlas stepped up to the task. She's a mix of Earth and Altean tech, developed and designed by Sam Holt. I guess you could say it was Voltron's flagship during the war. Now it's the main HQ for the coalition here on Earth."

"That's... a lot. It sounds like everything’s going great. Congratulations."

"Thanks."

The clone shifts so his legs dangle from the side of the bed, so he can get a better view of the desert outside the window. "But... now you're retired?"

"Yeah. One year after the war. Right after the wedding."

"Who's the lucky man?" he asks, light and easy, but Shiro knows himself too well to believe that. "Do I know him?"

"Uh, it's... his name is Curtis." Shiro answers. "He was a part of my bridge crew, before."

"Oh." he nods, thoughtful. Shiro could hazard a guess on what he must be thinking of.

'This Curtis must be some guy.' - No, Curtis was a dose of the normalcy that Shiro craved after all the crazy shit that happened in the war. Curtis was funny, handsome, understanding. He was someone Shiro saw was easy to love, so he hoped that maybe he could learn, over time.

'What happened?' - Nothing happened, because Shiro let nothing happen.

'What went wrong?’ - What went wrong is that when Shiro finally apologized to Keith for the scar, and when Keith reassured him that there’s nothing to forgive, Shiro had done nothing but thank him, polite and withdrawn. Shiro didn’t take Keith in his arms and didn’t tell him he loves him. That version of Shiro, the one who had memories of both the clone and the astral plane, of both watching and fighting the fight, of death and dying - that Shiro got scared.

'Why?' - Why what?

'Why did you give up on Keith?' - Because Keith deserved better. Because Shiro didn't want things to change so fast. Because Keith is everything to him, and he didn’t want to hurt Keith any more than he had already done.

'Why did you let him go?' - Because Keith deserved to be happy .

'Is Keith happy?' - Yes.

Yes, Keith is happy, Shiro thinks.

Keith is happy helping people, restoring peace.

Keith is a hero, a beacon of hope, breaking stereotypes that all Galra are evil.

Keith is free, exploring the universe with Kosmo those he trusts to keep by his side.

Keith has Krolia, Kolivan and the Blades. He has quarters in the Atlas, because Atlas is always ready to welcome him home. He shares a small but homey apartment with Romelle on Earth. He has a home in Daibazaal, and in Lance's farm in New Altea. He has a family - in his own way he has settled, grown into his own, and had he needed Shiro for any of it? No.

He didn't need Shiro to be happy.

Now, Shiro waits. For a question. For judgment.

Finally, the clone asks, "Are you happy?"

Oh. There's that too, then.

Am I happy? Shiro asks himself. He looks at the ring on his finger and remembers what he had left at home.

(Curtis, sorting through the divorce papers.)

He thinks of the past month, when his husband sat down with him and said, "I met someone." and the conversation that followed that.

("We can get through this." Shiro had said, then. "I love you.")

(Curtis' smile had been understanding. "Of course you do. Just not quite in the way you want to." He had kept smiling, through the hurt. "Takashi, he looks at me the way I always hoped you eventually would. I can't spend the rest of my life wishing that you'd look at me the way you'd look at the stars, or those photos of sunsets from planets lightyears away.")

Shiro thinks of how he knew Curtis wasn't wrong.

Now, Shiro gives an honest answer. "I'm fine."

The clone looks at him, and with a minute shake of his head, he says. "Of course you are."

Shiro nods, a wry smile on his lips. "You know me well."

.


 

.

The clone had been wary of the idea of staying in the Atlas after the necessary tests, and Keith had offered to let him stay with him and Romelle. Shiro had offered too, but he's thankful that the clone chose Keith. He didn't know how he'd handle his clone seeing his failure of a marriage firsthand on his first day back to life.

To make up, Shiro had simply offered to drop by the next day with some clothes he could spare.

He had only been to Romelle's one time before. He had driven her home after an event Hunk threw in the Garrison, and he stopped by to have a cup of coffee before heading on to his own home.

Romelle's place had an overabundance of colorful mismatched potted plants cluttered in the floor and crowding the windowsills. The furniture looked like ten different people raided a second-hand store and pooled their choices together.

Shiro knows Keith and Romelle share the rent. They only called the flat Romelle's because she was around more often.

The last time he was in the place, Shiro had wondered if Keith stayed there at all, but eventually he had spotted traces of his best friend here and there. The leather jacket and the red beanie in the coat hanger, the hand-carved wolf figurines among the row of succulents, an obviously alien sword propped in display on the wall like a prized katana. Stuck in the fridge door using a shiny bright-colored butterfly magnet, there had been a handwritten list of engine parts, in Keith's familiar scrawl.

That is what Shiro expects to arrive to when he rings the doorbell that day.

Instead, the door opens and he's greeted by a tall Galra he has never seen before.

"Uh... Hi?" Shiro says, blinking. "I'm Shiro. I'm here for... Keith?"

The Galra perks up and twists around to call to the people inside. "Leader Keith! A Shiro is here for you!"

There's faint scuffling from inside the tiny apartment, and Shiro hears Keith's voice telling the Galra to let him in.

The apartment hasn't changed much since, Shiro notices as he looks around. Except perhaps for another sword on the wall, one of Pidge's puffy alien pets hovering around, and… about half a dozen Galra of different shapes and sizes just hanging out.

One was in the kitchen, cooking with Romelle, who greets him cheerfully and tells him to stay a bit to wait for her cookies. Another Galra is poking curiously at the succulents, another is in the corner flipping through Earth fashion magazines, their friend beside them polishing their Blade. There's a small crowd gathered in front of the entertainment system, occupied with a video game.

He finds Keith sitting on the floor with his back against the couch. The clone is in the couch right behind Keith, hunched over and busy braiding Keith's long hair, carefully following instructions being given to him by the petite Galra perched on the couch's armrest.

Shiro had expected an awkward and quiet few minutes of stilted conversation, had expected to drop the clothes off and then leave right away.

He didn't expect to walk into what looked like a bunch of teenagers just casually hanging out with their slightly older sibling-in-charge, except the teenagers are Blade members, and the older sibling is Black-Paladin-and-Blade-Leader Keith.

Then Kosmo teleports in and nearly bowls Shiro over to lick his face in welcome.

"Kosmo! Down! Don't attack the old man!" Keith scolds, but he sounds amused.

"Hey!" Shiro whines, but he laughs when Kosmo calms down and just butts his head against his hand, asking for scratches. Shiro indulges him easily. "Oh, wow. Have you gotten bigger again, boy?"

“I don't know when he'll stop growing, to be honest.” Keith says. “Anyway, just sit wherever. Romelle's making cookies. They'll probably turn out neon green or pink, or... moving… but I promise they're delicious. You should take some home to Curtis.”

Shiro humors the invitation. “Then I guess I'm hanging around for a while.” He looks around and decides to settle on a green fuzzy and round beanbag-looking thing that he hopes is indeed for sitting and not another of Romelle's weird plants. Keith doesn’t say anything, so he assumes he's fine. “So… you're all staying here?”

“Yeah. For now. It's a tight fit, but we’re comfortable.” Keith says. It's only now that Shiro notices that he's actually folding freshly-laundered clothes on the floor, a neat pile already building up beside him. “This is my team. Team, this is Shiro. Say hi.”

It's almost comical, how every Blade in the apartment took a second from their dedicated activity to turn to him and say, “Hi, Shiro.”

Shiro blinks. “Uh. Hi, team?”

The clone looks at him with an amused grin. “Hi, Shiro.”

Shiro, chuckles, then greets back. “Hi, Shiro.”

“Actually,” the clone starts, almost sheepishly, focused on braiding Keith's endless hair - Rapunzel, he can hear Pidge teasing - “I've decided to go by Kuro.”

Shiro raises an eyebrow. “ Kuro?

Kuro nods. “What do you think?”

Shiro smiles. “I think it's good.”

Keith leans back, butting his head against Kuro's fingers. “I thinks it's your very embarrassing love of horrible puns at work here, and Shiro only agrees with you because he knows very well where you got that from, but I won't complain.”

Kuro leans down to nuzzle the top of his head. “I'm touched.”

Keith only huffs, going back to folding clothes.

The Galra perched on the armrest yawns. “You’ll never finish braiding his hair if you stop to flirt every other dobosh.”

Kuro reddens, looking at her, indignant. “I-...! I’m not doing that!”

“Is he at least doing a good job?” Keith asks, not looking away from his task.

She squints at Kuro’s work, then huffs. “It’s sloppy, leader. You should fire this guy.”

Keith chuckles. “Be nice, Nezi.”

Kuro looks dismayed. “I’ve never braided- I’ve never even touched this much hair before...”

“But you should be honored!” Nezi says, poking the man’s arm as if to punctuate her point. “Galra only let very few people touch or braid their hair. And to have Leader Keith let you do it...”

“Really?” Kuro blinks.

“Yes! It’s part of our culture.” she continues, then her grin turns teasing. “It’s an intimate gesture of affection, you see, often shared between lovers only.”

Kuro freezes. Shiro does, too. But no one is paying attention to him. Kuro looks down at Keith’s hair in his hands, brows furrowed. “Then… yesterday...? Who-”

“Romelle. Because it’s not lovers only. Family and close friends do it too.” Keith says, rolling his eyes. “Nezi, I put you and Ezor in different teams for a reason. Stop bullying Kuro. He’s two days old.”

Ah. Ezor . Shiro chuckles. Of course her protege would be a handful too.

Kuro, of course, doesn’t know that bit yet. “Ezor? As in… Lotor’s Ezor? That Ezor?”

Nezi brightens up. “You know her?”

“Yes, Kuro. That Ezor.” Keith says with a small smile. “And that Zethrid. And that Acxa.”

“Oh. Wow.”

“Yeah. That happened.”

“Okay.” Kuro nods, looking like he’s still taking that in. “Uh… I’m really sorry if I suck at braiding?”

“It’s fine.” Keith sends him a small smile. “It’s nice of you to volunteer.”

“I never thought you’d grow your hair out this long, though.”

“Mom likes it.” Keith shrugs. “You think it’s too much?”

Kuro quickly shakes his head. “Not at all! It suits you. You look gorgeous with long hair.”

For that, he gets a shirt to his face and a beautiful blush in Keith’s cheeks.

And Nezi pokes his arm some more. “Flirting again! Less flirting, more braiding!”

Kuro leans away to avoid the alien’s offending finger. “Yes, ma’am.”

Romelle strides in from the kitchen then, tray in hand. “First batch of cookies are done!” She takes one in hand and shoves it into the nearest person’s face. “Taste it?”

Kuro blinks down apprehensively at the cookie, which is round and crumbly and a very bright green, with what looked like blue chocolate chips. It’s not moving , like Keith had warned them, but-

“Is it… supposed to be glowing like that?” Kuro asks.

Romelle frowns. “Of course it is! You should be worried if it’s not glowing.”

“If you don’t trust her, trust Hunk.” Keith says. “It’s his recipe. Right, ‘Melle?”

“It is! I just added bits of Sanfloon plant to add flavor.”

Kuro swallows. “Are those the blue things?”

“Yes. It tastes like your Earth chocolate.” Romelle brings the cookie closer, getting impatient.

“I’ll taste it.” Nezi chirps, already reaching for the treat.

Romelle holds it out of her reach. “No, I already know you like my cookies! This one is for Kuro. It’s one of his first meals and I want him to taste mine and Hunk’s cooking.”

Kuro looks touched, so he finally takes a deep breath before biting into the green, glowing, blue-spotted cookie.

His eyes widen as he chews, and he closes them as he swallows. “Oh, man. Romelle, it’s amazing.”

Romelle beams before stuffing the rest of the cookie in his mouth. Then she goes around the room to let everyone pick a piece, but not before leaving another for Kuro.

“I told you so.” Keith hums.

Kuro sighs as he bites into the second cookie. “I could live here.”

“Aren’t you already?”

“Oh. Right…” Kuro smiles, shy at first until he grins teasingly. “Thank you for taking in this poor homeless man. I’ll try my best to make myself useful.”

“Yeah? Well, if you don’t finish my hair soon, I’ll be tempted to kick you out.”

Kuro coughs, devours his remaining cookie and hurriedly goes back to braiding.

Shiro nibbles on his own glowing cookie as he watches. The scene is overly domestic, and he feels like an intruder.

Kuro reminds Shiro so much of his old self - easygoing and silly, overly fond of Keith, of how the younger indulges his stupid jokes and terrible puns no matter how prickly he might be about it.

The braid does look sloppy, even from afar, and Shiro gets a flash of memories from years back, before Kerberos - him teasing a young Cadet Kogane about his borderline non-regulation haircut, straightening the beret on Keith’s head while Keith insists that it looks stupid while Shiro thinks it’s impossibly cute. Him actually saying so, Keith pouting and ducking to hide his blush.

Kuro is brave, Shiro thinks - brave and unafraid, so open with his affections and bold in his gestures. He’d stroke Keith’s hair, caress Keith’s cheek, nuzzle the top of Keith’s head, link his fingers with Keith’s and just swing their hands back and forth playfully before letting go again.

It’s everything Shiro had stopped himself from doing.

It’s everything Shiro didn’t let himself have.

Shiro realizes that in the memories in Kuro’s head, before that blurry fight in the facility, Keith had been gone with the Blades for months, then came back with his mom, his wolf, an Altean, a whole new world of problems to solve and no room to breathe.

Kuro didn't have memories of the astral plane, of dying, of being found, and nearly dying again, only to be saved by nothing but Keith's pleas of “You can't do this to me again” .

Kuro didn't have those memories. Kuro's feelings were simpler, somehow. Purer.

Kuro only missed Keith. He had been missing Keith. He woke up with a desperate confession, with Keith saying he loves him back. It doesn’t matter how , it doesn’t matter if it’s not the same because he’s not the same Shiro - Keith loves him regardless. One way or another. Kuro woke up panicked but was quick to realize that there was no hurry to move, no enemies on their tail, no war to fight.

Of course he’d be brave.

And Keith… Keith allows it. Keith takes what he gives, always. He allows the easy affection, the silly jokes. He allows himself to be held and looked at with fondness and love.

What does Keith think, Shiro wonders, after that confession? Does Keith think that what Kuro feels now is what Shiro had felt back then but for some reason held back from saying? Does Keith think that Shiro still feels the same?

It's hard to tell. Keith hasn't given anything away to clue them in on things.. Or maybe he has, and Shiro only fails to see it. He hates that despite their continued friendship, he and Keith had drifted apart too much for him to read Keith as well as he used to.

To Shiro, Kuro and Keith are quite the sight, like some picture-perfect future in an alternate reality. And maybe Kuro is what Keith deserves - someone perfect, someone who hasn't let him down.

Someone who hadn’t been scared, someone who never gave up on him.

Shiro returns to reality when Romelle waves her hand in his face, offering cookies and asking how much Curtis likes cookies, so she can set aside some for him. She tells him that the cookies are cat-friendly, that maybe Shiro’s cats will like them, too. Keith argued that cats don't eat cookies but told her to ask Shiro anyway.

He thanks her, and tells her that he’s sure they’d love that. She beams.

They all think he's happy, still happy - with his perfect husband and his three cats - so he smiles.

He looks to Keith and Kuro again. Keith’s shoulders were shaking as he looks at Kuro, who had stuck the braid under his nose, pretending it was a long moustache as he tells a joke.

“I used to hate facial hair…” Kuro says, voice low and gruff. “...but then it grew on me!”

Keith giggles . “N-No. No. No, that’s so bad . Your jokes are bad.”

“Ah! But wait until you hear about the German sausages!”

Keith blinks, chuckling breathlessly. “What about them?”

Kuro beams. “They’re the wurst!”

Keith shoves him as he laughs .

It’s been years since Shiro heard his favorite sound in the universe.

Shiro is so distracted he doesn’t even notice when Romelle plops herself beside him. “You know, yesterday,” she says, quiet, like she was sharing a secret. “When Keith told me, about him? I was worried.”

Shiro nods. “I was, too.”

She drums her fingers soundlessly on the empty tray on her lap. “But he’s good, I think.”

He nods again. “I think so too.”

Romelle looks at him. “ You’re good.” she tells him. “If he’s like you, he must be good too. If he’s like you, he must love Keith.”

He goes quiet, but before he could come up with anything, she continues.

“Very much.” It sounds like a decision she thought through. “So I’m not worried anymore. Though… Keith and the others would have to leave for a new mission eventually. Do you think… What do you think he’ll do?”

Shiro thinks about it, and finds that he doesn’t actually have to try so hard.

It’s easy.

He knows himself well.

“I can’t tell, really. But what I know is, maybe he’s like me...” Shiro begins, then pauses to smile at her. “But he’s not me.”

When Romelle looks at him, he can almost see the strings upon strings of questions in her eyes. He’d never noticed before how they’re almost the same color as Keith’s, only a few shades lighter.

She straightens up to ask the first question, but they’re interrupted by the ding of the oven, and the Galra in the kitchen announcing that the next batch of cookies are ready.

.


 

.

The test results come in, and they’re just about what they had expected. Kuro has a perfectly healthy body, devoid of the original’s disease. He’s all flesh, blood and bone, no hidden cybernetic limbs or implants. His DNA is mostly human and the traces of Galra they found mostly only made him physically stronger than average, enhanced his senses and reflexes, improved his immune system, and sped up his physical recovery. Much like a Galra-Human hybrid.

Much like Keith.

“I guess we’re still both part-Galra.” Shiro hears Kuro joke.

Shiro remembers when he first said that. After Keith’s Blade trials, as Keith was coming down and apologizing to Shiro about not telling him about the knife, as Keith said he wouldn’t blame if Shiro hated him, because he’s part of the race who took so much from him.

( “Well, I guess we’re both part-Galra, then.” Shiro had said, looking pointedly at his arm.)

(Keith had stared at him for a full minute, then finally threw his arms around him and sobbed.)

(Shiro had held him until morning.)

Now, Keith only rolls his eyes at the old joke, but he also smiles. “You could say that again.”

Kuro reads through the results one more time, an expression of relief in his face.

When he looks up, he says, “I want to have Pidge check on me, too.”

Keith blinks. He looks at Shiro, but Shiro is surprised too.

“What do you mean? You want her to test you too?” Keith asks.

“Not that I don’t trust the Garrison medics...” Kuro says, careful. “I just… I just want to make sure there’s nothing else- No one else in my head. Pidge knows how it worked the last time, right? I want her to clear me, too.”

“Okay.” Shiro nods. “I really don’t think it’s necessary, though. Haggar’s gone, and she’s the only one working on that project, as far as we know. But… okay. If that will help you, give you peace of mind.”

“Thank you.” Kuro sighs. “I really just… I need to be absolutely sure. I don’t want to risk it, you know? I can’t.”

Keith settles a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. And I’m sure Pidge won’t mind doing us this favor.”

Us. The word echoes in Shiro’s head. It’s been four days, and they’re already an ‘us’ .

When did that stop being for Shiro?

Kuro covers Keith’s hand with his and squeezes. “I just can’t risk you again. I can’t. I won’t.”

“I know.” Keith says. His hand slides down Kuro’s arm to hold his hand.

Shiro looks away.

.


 

.

They tell the others. Not in person, not yet - they call.

Pidge is first. She gapes when Kuro’s head pops up in her display beside Keith’s. “W-What? What happened to Shiro? Time dilation? Backwards? Time travel? Did a new quantum abyss pop up on Earth or something?”

Shiro enters the frame from Keith's other side. “Actually, I’m right here.”

Behind Pidge, Matt drops a half-finished robot on the floor.

Pidge screeches. “ Keith, are you in another reality?!

In the end, the Holts calm down and tell Kuro to stop by on Olkarion soon. Pidge promises to test Kuro so thoroughly he won’t have any worries or existential crises after.

As for the others… Well.

They make Coran spit out his tea, as Lance babbles incoherently.

“But- But you- There’s two- Another Shiro-? Wha-??? Keith, what the quiznack did you do-?”

“Why is it somehow my fault?!”

“Well, it can’t be Shiro’s fault!”

“It’s not! It’s Haggar’s fault!”

“Oh. Ohhhhhh….!”

Keith throws up his hands in defeat.

“Well, you come visit New Altea soon!” Coran says, when he recovers.

From Hunk, they get rapid blinking, then laughter.

“Oh, man! Romelle said I have a new fan and that you’ll be surprising me soon! That was super cryptic.” he says, shaking his head. “ This is a surprise, yeah. Super weird, but. I’ve had weirder. Hope to meet you soon, buddy!”

Krolia and Kolivan look both shocked, then relieved, and then exasperated .

“So this is why you haven’t gone back.” Krolia sighs. “We knew there was something suspicious about you requesting for an extension.”

Keith frowns. “Suspicious how? I asked for two weeks off.”

“Precisely.” Kolivan nods. “You never ask for any time off. We thought you’d been intercepted, or worse.”

Keith gapes.

Then Krolia squints at him. “Keith? Did you get in a fight?”

“Uh. No, why?”

“What happened to your hair?”

Kuro groans in embarrassment and hides his face in his hands.

“Oh. That… Kuro’s been braiding my hair.”

Krolia and Kolivan both look appalled.

Then, ever honest, Kolivan declares, “It’s an abomination.”

“Ow.” Kuro flinches.

“He just needs practice.” Krolia is kinder. “A lot of practice.”

Kuro straightens. “Yes, ma’am.” he replies, bright-eyed and hopeful. Shiro wishes he had that composure when he first met Krolia.

Krolia spares a small smile for him. “I look forward to meeting you, Kuro.”

.


 

.

Iverson helps with the papers.

Between him and Shiro, they had enough influence to pull something like this off.

Within the week, Kuro is a new man with clean record and a literal new lease at life.

“Ryou Kurogane?”

The name is new, and it sounds foreign as Keith reads it off the shiny new ID.

“Ryou.” He looks at Shiro, at Kuro, and then back at the card. “That was your grandfather’s name, wasn’t it?”

“It was.” Kuro says. “I was created in a pod. My memories were implanted. I have no real blood connections. I want to have something… to honor the family I remember but never really had? If that makes sense? I asked Shiro, first, of course.”

“And I gave my blessing.” Shiro says with a reassuring smile. “I think it’s a nice way to honor and remember him.”

“That settles it, then.” Keith nods. He hands the card back. “You're good to go.”

Kuro voices the question that Shiro thinks of. “Good to go where?”

Keith shrugs. “Wherever you wanna go.”

Kuro looks at him and lets out a clipped, quiet laugh, like Keith had said something silly, and he found it endearing. “What if I wanna go wherever you wanna go?”

Keith startles at that. His lips pull into a line as he looks at Kuro with wide eyes. “You… you do?” he asks, voice weak, like he couldn't quite believe it, and he's too shocked to say anything else.

It stings, and Shiro couldn't help but wince. Even after all that - even after Kuro's bare-souled ‘I love you ', even with the soft gestures, the open affection, the naked look of love and admiration he'd been giving Keith since the minute he woke up… Even after all that, Keith never quite believed that Kuro would want to be with him.

That Kuro would want to stay with him.

Shiro looks away. How hard could he have hurt Keith for Keith to still expect nothing from him, even another version of him? Even this honest, earnest, open version of him?

Kuro's brows furrow. “Keith…?” he says, soft, sweet. Soothing. “Keith, of course I do.”

Keith chuckles, drawing into himself. “Yeah. Yeah, of course you do. Where else would you go, right?”

Kuro steps closer, leaning down to peer at Keith. “What? No. No, it’s not like that. Keith…” He reaches out, places his hands on Keith’s shoulders and then moves them to rub soothingly down Keith’s arm. “It’s not a matter of where . It’s who. Who else would I wanna be with?”

Keith’s breath hitches and he shakes his head. He looks up at Kuro. “You-...? You can’t mean that- No. I think we should talk.”

Kuro wouldn’t understand. How could he? But he tries his best, he keeps patient. “Okay. Okay, we’ll talk. Anything you need.”

Keith steps back, distancing himself, demanding space. When he looks around, he sees Shiro, and he freezes.

Shiro swallows, then looks away. “It’s fine, I’ll go.”

He hears Keith sigh just as he turns. “Shiro, you don’t have to-”

“No, I do.” Shiro says, looking back at him. He looks at Kuro and smiles. “Keith’s right. You should talk. And this one’s between the two of you. I don’t have to be here for this. I told you, Kuro - you’re your own person. Don’t think about what I would or wouldn’t do. This is your life. Just… think about yourself. And Keith.”

Kuro nods, quiet. He looks grateful.

Keith looks lost.

Shiro sends him a smile too. “Don’t worry about it, okay? Call me if you need anything. Anything at all.”

Keith nods too, and he doesn’t say anything else.

Shiro means what he said. There are things he doesn’t need to hear.

He doesn’t need to watch how this goes down. He doesn’t need to watch a play-by-play of what could have been- no. What he could have done.

He can’t. He can’t listen to Kuro ask to go with Keith. He already watched and listened to his clone bare his soul, tell Keith everything he felt. He can’t listen to this too.

He can’t watch a version of himself tell Keith that he wants to go, too. That he wants the stars, the universe. That when he imagines himself there, among the stars and the universe, there’s only one person he wants beside him, and it’s Keith.

He had missed his chance.

Now there’s Kuro, and this chance is his, and he’s brave enough to take it.

He has to, because damn if any sane version of Shiro wouldn’t give anything for just one.

.


 

.

That same day, Shiro gets a call from Kuro.

“Keith’s letting me go with him.”

“That’s good. Where to?”

“Daibazaal first, since it’s closer, and we’re dropping off the team. Then Olkarion, because Pidge is getting antsy. We’ll meet up with Hunk there since he’ll be in the quadrant, then we’re going to New Altea together.”

Shiro hums. “Sounds like quite a trip.”

He could hear Kuro’s relieved breath. “Yeah.”

“I’m happy you and Keith sorted this out.”

“Yeah.” A pause. “Me too.”

“You did sort it out, right?”

“Oh! We did. It’s just… I didn’t expect him to be so… unsure. About it. He’s… He’s grown, and changed. A lot. He’s been so… confident? Sure? He’s been holding himself together so well since I woke up. I was surprised when he… when we talked. He’s got… some doubts. I don’t think it’s my place to share.”

“I think that’s partly my fault.” Shiro admits. “I… I let him down, in some ways. So… maybe he finds it hard to expect different from you. And I’m sorry for that.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t hold it against you.”

“He wouldn’t. But… God, he should.”

“He wouldn’t want to hear you saying that.”

Shiro sighs. “I know. I know that.”

“Anyway, we’ve talked about it. We’re okay now. I just thought I’d let you know.”

“Thanks. For letting me know.” Shiro says. He hears scuffling from Kuro’s end. “Where are you, anyway?”

“In the apartment building’s rooftop. With Kosmo- oof.” Kuro groans. “C’mon, boy, I said your name, but I didn’t ask you to lie down on me. Buddy...”

Shiro chuckles. “He is a big boy. I don’t envy you right now.”

“Mm-hm. We’re waiting for Keith. He went to get some tea… drink… thing… I’m not sure. I don’t even understand how he pronounced it. It’s Galran tea, I think. One of the Blades had a stash.”

“Bedtime tea on the roof, huh? Brings back memories.”

“Heh. The Garrison roof. Stargazing past lights-out?”

“Adam was too good to sneak around, but Keith-”

-even beat us there. Like a little ninja.”

Shiro laughs. “His mom turning out to be a spy explained so much.”

Kuro laughs with him, and when he dies down, he says, “Will you see us off? Keith would appreciate it, I think.”

Shiro looks down, at the half-filled box of belongings at his feet.

During the past few days, as he ran and drove around to help Keith with everything Kuro would need, he’s been thankful that it was Curtis who was handling all the divorce business. Shiro had signed the papers, Curtis had gotten them processed, and now he’s packing up.

Curtis gets the house. Shiro had quietly gotten himself a nice enough flat. He didn’t need too much space. He’ll be fine as long as he has the cats.

Shiro sits, and leans down to take something from the box. A photo, of a sunset, from a planet lightyears away. He takes a deep breath as he puts it back, among dozens like it, pictures of sunsets, deserts, fields, valleys, city skylines and starry night skies. He’d print them out, always, the moment he gets them - a bit old-fashioned, but he liked getting to hold them in his hands.

They’re all from Keith.

Finally, he asks, “When?”

.


.

Shiro sees them off. He stands in the hangar of the Atlas and watches Keith do one last spot check of the Blade of Marmora ship and their supplies. He does a headcount of his team and waves them inside.

"Romelle isn't going with you?" Shiro asks.

"Actually, she went ahead. Hitched a ride going straight to New Altea." Kuro answers. He blinks when he feels something press against his side and then chuckles when he sees Kosmo pressing an insistent muzzle on his free hand. He scratches the space wolf's ears.

Keith walks up to them. "We're ready to go." He pats Kosmo and the wolf only huffs in slight annoyance before trotting off to the ship.

"Well." Shiro says, stepping back. "You guys take care out there. Say hi to the others for me."

"Of course." Keith nods. "You take care of yourself, too."

Shiro smiles. "I'll be sure not to make my cats too upset with me, yes."

Keith rolls his eyes, and groans. "Ugh. Just..." He visibly loses an internal battle as he gives up on words and just steps into Shiro's space and wraps him up in a hug.

"I'll miss you, old-timer."

Shiro chuckles, returning the embrace and sighing against him. "I'll miss you too, spitfire."

"You know to reach me." Keith says, muffled against his neck.

He always says that, everytime they say goodbye.

"I do." Shiro admits. "But I might annoy you with my needy old-timer demands."

Keith draws back to give him a bemused look. "How bad can those be?"

"I'll probably...  bother you with pictures of my cats? I'll send you videos of them doing weird things all day? Like... 'Keith, look at Clawdia, she keeps walking into the glass door!' Something like that."

Keith expression softens. "That's fine, you know. I love cats. Even cats you named."

"Even Mister Meowgi?"

It looks like it took something from Keith as a person to nod and say, "Even freakin' Mister Meowgi."

Shiro lets himself look at Keith. Fondly, softly. He raises a hand to brush Keith's bangs away and then leans down to press a short kiss to his forehead. "You're the best."

He had only kissed Keith like that one other time. It was before he left for Kerberos, with a promise to com back, and Keith's reassurance that he'll be waiting, and him telling Keith that he's the best. He meant it then. He means it now.

When he draws away, Keith is looking at him, bemused. "...Yeah? Okay. You're, uh. The best. Too."

Shiro brushes his hair back in place. "Keep sending those photos?"

"You know I will."

"That's all I ask." It takes all of his control to step back and say, "See you, Keith."

Keith nods, pulling away, eyes on his. "See ‘ya, Shiro."

He takes a couple of steps back, sharing a look with Kuro. He nods, then he grins at Shiro, doing a playful salute before he turns around and heads to the Blades ship where Kosmo had begun pacing, getting restless.

That left Shiro alone with his clone.

He takes initiative, offering his hand. "Good luck out there."

Kuro takes his hand and gives it a firm shake. "Thank you."

Shiro doesn't quite let go, yet. He thinks of what else to say, to this man - who is essentially just himself, an exact copy in many ways but different in so much more .

This version of himself, who he's seeing off with the most important person in his life.

He starts with, "Take care of yourself."

Kuro nods. "Of course-"

"So you can take care of Keith."

Kuro blinks, then he lets out a soft chuckle. "I understand."

Then, with a deep, steadying breath, he says, "Make him happy."

Kuro tilts his head to look towards where Keith and Kosmo were standing at the bottom of their ship, waiting patiently. Waiting for him. He smiles at them before he turns back to Shiro.

"It's all I want to do."

"I know." Shiro says, light, almost too easily.

Kuro's brows furrow, curious.

"You're me." is Shiro's only explanation. "I know me."

Kuro looks surprised for a moment. He seems to think about something for a few moments before looking up to Shiro again, gray eyes sharp, determined.

"Then... you too."

It's Shiro's turn to be confused this time. "I'm sorry?"

"You should be happy, too." Kuro says. Shiro tries to say something, but he raises a hand in a placating gesture. "You're me. I know me. You're going through something and keeping a mask up. You've kept yourself distant enough  so we wouldn't notice. But there's something. I won't ask, but whatever it is, I hope you get through it."

"I see." Shiro closes his eyes as he nods. "Thank you. And... I'll try to be happy, too."

Kuro grins. Satisfied, he steps back. He salutes like Keith did, casual and teasing. "Bye, Shiro."

Shiro only inclines his head as he would to dismiss an officer. "Goodbye, Kuro."

.


 .

He watches as Kuro walks away.

He watches as Kuro reaches out and takes Keith’s hand and Keith only smiles at him and lets himself be led inside.

He watches as they disappear inside the ship.

He watches as the ship takes off. Smooth and perfect, of course, as expected with two of the best pilots in the known universe at its helm.

After the ship is long gone, he thinks of what to do next.

He's still thinking as he goes home to his new single-person apartment and his three cats.

He looks around, eyes the boxes scattered around the flat, most of them still sealed. He has not finished cleaning up and unpacking yet, but he goes straight for one certain box.

He opens it to reveal the photos - Keith's photos of beautiful and curious planetside scenes.

He starts with that. He picks one photo and puts it up on the wall. Then he picks up another, and another. An uncanny valley here, a field of glowing, dancing flowers there… A cliff practically shimmering under the sun because the grass it’s covered in shines like gold... A desert where peculiar beasts have somehow managed to graze…

He puts up one of snow-covered mountains with three moons and a star-filled blue-and-purple sky, and when he’s done, his fingers trace the edges of the photograph, a familiar ache rising in his chest.

In the back of his head, Atlas hums, warm and careful and curious.

"Where do you want to go, Captain?" he hears her ask, in that way of hers.

Shiro looks at the pictures he'd put up on the wall. These weren't even half of it.

'Everywhere.' he tells Atlas, honest for the first time. He admits that the longing he feels in his chest now is his, and not hers. 'I want to see the universe, Atlas.'

“Why not?” Atlas asks.

He thinks on that for a while. ‘But where should I start?’

“You know where.” Atlas says, and Shiro knows her well enough to recognize her humming as amusement.

Atlas is right. Shiro does know where to start.

He takes out his datapad and looks down at the transmission code he had memorized, by heart, since three years ago.

Finally - finally - instead of holding back, he reaches out.

.

.

.

fin.