“I love you.”
The first time Shiro heard those words they rattled the world he had come to exist in. Shook him right out of his mind and back into his soul. It had been an all too brief moment, but it had existed. And it has taken him the better part of a year to understand why.
A desperate final attempt to reach him when nothing else had. Because the shock hadn’t. Nor had the frustration or the demonstration in the devastation that his life had started to become. All because of a dream that had bet on the last months of his life. The good ones he had left to him, at least. When Shiro had gone to Kerberos, he had done so knowing it would likely be the last great thing he did.
One life out. Another in. Only he had assumed it would be Keith rising into the role he would be leaving behind. Not another version of himself.
When he had felt the headaches, it was like digging up the uncertainty of his previous life all over again. And there was simply no way to gauge just how much time he would have left.
Weeks? Months? Another year?
Then it all went blank.
He ended with the vision of Keith before him. And when he returned, it was again to Keith.
But those words never resurfaced. They lingered as a dream at the back of his consciousness, floating there in the void, indistinct at times, at others as clear as a whisper against his ear. Those three words felt fresh at those moments, warm and heartfelt. Over the last few months, they had begun to lose that desperate edge that had made Keith’s voice so raw during their fight, and instead, began to sound more like a lover’s confession.
It had been a confession. Shiro is certain of that now, though neither of them had unpacked that particular bag of emotions since.
Not until now, at least.
Keith isn’t looking at him. Hadn’t been looking at him either when he had said those three words again. His gaze had been fixed on the stars, and their entire conversation before that moment had been focused on more recent events.
“Lance set out again.”
“I heard from Pidge. She said she and Hunk had picked up on some sort of frequency or. . resonance. They think it might be Allura.”
A pause. Keith licked his lips, glanced at Shiro quickly then returned to staring at his hands. Fingers knotted together, wrists resting against the railing of the castle balcony that overlooks the juniberry fields. The place that gave them the best view of the stars.
“He. . .really loves her.” Another pause, more fragile this time. Breathe, and it might shatter. Keith inhaled deeply. “You know, Shiro. . .”
Those three words hit him then just as hard as they had the first time, but rather than ricochet off the chaos that had consumed him during that battle, they now sink into him and open that door Shiro had spent the last few months debating whether or not he wanted to open. Those words were asking him to step into another part of his life. To leave behind what currently was and had been for years. He had been here before, once, a long time ago. Another lifetime, if he is honestly speaking.
Back then, though. . .it hadn’t felt right. More like trying to cram everything he could of the life he knew he wouldn’t have into what life he still had left. It had seemed right. The emotions had been there for a time, but it had been a firework sort of love - bright at the start, brilliant and loud, but in the end, leaving only smoke on the wind. Shiro had sifted through the memories, an inevitability when faced with love again, and he had found it easier to set them down and let them be.
Not quite forgotten. Forgiven, maybe.
Because when Keith called his name, Shiro wanted to respond. With all of him. The more he looked at his past, the more he realized how little hold it had over him now.
And perhaps that was the true absolution that came with his death — a final freedom. One Keith had called him into.
But Keith had always been open skies and endless dreams to him. He had always reminded Shiro of what he was capable of, even when the world around him relentlessly reminded him of all the things that would eventually catch up to him. His body would break down. His dreams would fade away. There could be no escape.
“Keith, I. . .” Shiro begins. He stops to exhale, then runs his tongue along his lower lip. When he looks over at Keith, he can see that he’s holding his breath, listening intently. Vulnerable yet again. “I remember you saying that to me before, and -”
He nods. “It came to me a few weeks after everything. And I kept thinking about it. . .dreaming about it honestly. . .Maybe that’s the only way my mind could recall it, considering it’s not really my memory.”
Keith’s cheeks flush scarlet. He pulls his fingers apart, curls them towards his palms, and seemingly dissatisfied with that, unfurls them into the open air like he was trying to launch his heart into outer space.
“And here I thought it was the first time you had heard them,” Keith laughs, tension woven through his words.
Shiro bumps his shoulder against him, then flashes a smile at Keith. “It technically is the first time I’m hearing them.”
“That’s not really fair. Not if you remember and all,” Keith mutters. He still smiles over at Shiro, cheeks red and uncertainty darkening his eyes.
Even like that, he’s beautiful, Shiro thinks. There’s something unashamedly gorgeous about Keith when he’s standing there, raw and honest before him.
Just like that moment a year ago.
Reaching out, Shiro brushes his fingers against the scar on Keith’s cheek. He runs his thumb over it several times, his smile softening when Keith finally relents and leans into his touch.
“You haven’t cut your hair since then,” he remarks.
Keith laughs again, the sound warm with embarrassment. “I’ve been waiting. . .”
He bobs his head, cheek rubbing against Shiro’s palm. “I love you, Shiro.”
Those words again. How is it that Keith is the first to say them? And yet, right then, it all makes sense. Why wouldn’t Keith be the first one?
Between them both, Keith has always been the more honest one. It existed in his anger, in his frustration, in the way he closed himself off, and in how he opened himself up to Shiro alone. All those years of faith and trust, and through them all, it was Shiro who had been the one to deny the most honest parts of himself.
But he had time now. And no more excuses.
Shiro leans over, absolute certainty defining the motion, but still slow, careful in that press forward. Keith watches him close the distance between them, breath held, lips parted. And Shiro can’t help but smile at it all, that moment of anticipation, with both of them hoping this ends in one way alone.
“I told you I’ve had dreams,” Shiro says softly, getting closer with every word. “And you were in them each time.” A breath taken as lips brush against Keith’s. “And I probably owed this to you much sooner, but you know how it’s been. The thing I’ve come to realize though. . .”
His fingers slip from Keith’s cheek into his hair. With his hand now cupping the side of Keith’s face, Shiro devours the last inch between them and kisses him.
Slow. Soft. Full of a lifetime's worth of promises.
When he eventually pulls back, heart hammering, eyes bright, and Keith still warm on his lips, he says with the start of a smile, “I love you too, Keith.”