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Tabula Rasa

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Autumn again.

The trees shed leaves in vibrant reds and golds that somehow remind him of Keith. Flame-bright, wild, easily whipped into a furor by the wind. At home among the maples and larches and aspens. Pretty to look at, too.

Under the golden cast of sunset, whole mountainsides paint themselves the color of crimson flame and verdant pine. Shiro admires them on the winding drive down from the observatory atop Black Lion Mountain.

He’s gotten to the point where he can do that again. Admire them. The sprawling forest doesn’t quite make his skin crawl like it used to, although there are moments when the shadows stretch long and the night grows deep that a too-knowing shiver runs up Shiro’s spine. 

But these woods are home now, whatever Shiro’s history within their darkest corners. His career is here with Allura. His home is here with Keith. And Keith’s job with the forestry department is everything to him, so protective over every ranger and guest that walks his park’s trails.

And that’s what kept them here, ultimately. A sense of responsibility. A duty to prevent what had befallen Shiro here from happening to anyone else. Even with Haggar temporarily cast out of their world and the rift in Daibazaal Canyon sealed, the park far from safe. Haggar’s meddling has stretched the veil between worlds thin here, easy to tear. Rift creatures regularly slip through, gorge themselves on Earth’s quintessence, and take hideous, mimicrying forms of the local wildlife and park visitors.

And Shiro— along with Keith and their friends and sometimes Kuro— kills them.

The hunts are as frightening as they are cathartic. There’s terror in confronting otherworldly monstrosities with gaping mouths and too many spindly limbs, hobbling them with shotgun rounds so that Keith can go in for the kill, but the relief that comes after is clean. Sharp. Purifying. Better than the vague, unsolvable anxieties that usually plague him, anyway.

Shiro’s Jeep rolls down the road at a smooth forty-five miles per hour, pushing the speed limit in his rush to get home before darkness falls in full. The fall air whipping through the cab leaves his nose and ears chilly; his gloved hands clutch the wheel tighter. He rolls up the gravel drive to their little plot of land just as the last rays of daylight blink out and the lavender skies deepen to cool mauves and blues, the first stars winking through the treetops.

And as soon as the cabin comes into sight, he stops short.

With a twist of the key, Shiro cuts the engine’s low rumble down to nothing. The headlights, too. He stares at the home he shares with his husband— their cabin in the woods, all dark wood and natural stone— and wonders why there’s already a flicker of light and movement within.

From the driveway, Shiro can’t quite tell if Keith’s truck is parked under the carport. He can’t remember his husband mentioning that he’d be home early tonight, either.

Shiro draws his phone from his jacket pocket, eyes still fixed on the light glowing within the cabin, brighter with every passing second of deepening night. A gravelly soft voice answers, warm and welcome to hear.

“Hey, Shiro.”

“Keith, are you home?”

“No, I’ll be here a little while longer. A guest went off trail, slid down an embankment, and broke her ankle. I’m still filling out paperwork,” he sighs, sounding weary. In the background, Shiro can hear Pidge’s mechanical keyboard clacking. “Why?”

A blurry shadow moves behind their dining room curtains and the blood in Shiro’s veins suddenly feels more like sleet. His whisper is brittle thin. “I think there’s something in the cabin.”

A sharp inhale fills his ear, followed by a flurry of movement. “Shiro, get out of there. Head up to the park and I’ll meet you on my way home. We’ll kill it together.”

Against the black leather of his Jeep’s front seat, Shiro feels cold. Eyes on the cabin and the phone still held to his ear, he grasps behind him for the shotgun lying in an open case on the floorboards of the backseat. “It could be anywhere by then, Keith. It could hide and come back later.”

While they’re sleeping, maybe. In the last three years, Shiro can count the number of times rift abominations have wandered onto their property on one hand— watching them from the treeline, their eyes reflecting like deers’, or hiding in the furthest woodshed and imitating the cries of a wounded fox. But none have ever slipped inside before. None have ever even set foot on their porch, as far as Shiro and his game cam can tell.

“Shiro! Shiro, fuck— wait for me,” Keith growls, as frantic as the faint sputtering of his pickup truck’s engine as it struggles to turn over.

“If I don’t act quickly, it could wander out and see me first, Keith. It’s better if I get the jump on it.” Shiro waits, but Keith’s only answer is angry, shuddering breaths. “Sorry, baby. Love you.”

The end of the call feels final.

Shiro crosses the leaf-strewn yard with slow, softly crunching steps, his Jeep left in the driveway with its door ajar. The shotgun in his arms is cold and heavy as solid lead, his one bare hand clammy where it grips the forestock. Keith’s luxite dagger may be their best weapon against the rift-creatures invading their dimension, but dozens of hunts have proven silver-coated bullets useful, too. With a few shots, Shiro can at least keep it pinned down until Keith shows up to finish it off.

He steps lightly up the wooden stairs, nervous of any bump or creak tipping off the inhuman thing lurking within. 

The front door is still open a crack, warm light spilling out onto the darkened slats of the porch. Shiro nudges it wider with the nose of his shotgun barrel, a metal finger curled light over the trigger as he edges inside. His breaths fade into shallow panting as he scans the room, wary and afraid in the one place he’d always clung to as somehow safe. And with a trembling shudder, he’s rooted to the floor as he turns and finds a dark figure lurking near the kitchen island— 

A shape, a human shape, tall and broad, and Shiro’s finger twitches against the trigger as a face like his own stares back at him in muted surprise, entirely unconcerned with the gun leveled at his chest.

“Kuro,” Shiro sighs, his heart thudding in his chest hard enough to make him dizzy. 

Kuro. His shadow. An eldritch being from some distant, dead reality who’d ripped through the veil between worlds and stolen Shiro’s looks, his memories, his life with Keith. The other him.

No. Something else. Kuro is copycat who wears his skin even better than Shiro does. No discolored scars across his face or creased stress-lines around his eyes. No missing arm. No hair blanched silvery-white from shock and trauma. He looks like a younger, brighter version of Shiro, his hair still pitch-black and cut the way Shiro’d worn it in college.

Shiro finally drops the nose of the shotgun to the floor, his arms aching from the sudden release of tension. The strangled sensation of an oncoming panic attack subsides, a trickle of relief taking its place.

“Shiro,” Kuro answers, markedly less bothered. “It’s just me. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” It’s Shiro’s reflexive, go-to answer. But as he huffs and tries to shake the jittering, residual fear, he reconsiders. “Actually, I need a fucking drink. What are you doing here? What happened to waiting to be invited in?” Shiro mutters as he shuts the door and props his gun beside it, glaring sideways at Kuro as he makes his way to the cabinet where they keep the whiskey and vodka.

“I waited for over an hour,” Kuro says, shrugging a shoulder, “but I got hungry. Sorry. ”

Sure enough, the kitchen counter is littered with the fixings for a sandwich, along with several empty candy wrappers. Shiro’s annoyance deepens another sour note.

“What about calling and giving us a heads up?” Shiro questions as he pulls down a tumbler for his drink, still unnerved by the sight of seeing himself— or a version of him, anyway— across the room. 

Kuro’s mannerisms mimic his own, right down to the way they both square their shoulders when they’re upset. Hearing Kuro speak is like listening to a recording of his own voice, slightly alien as it falls on his ears from another’s mouth. It’s an out-of-body experience just looking at him.

Shiro blinks and tries to shake it off, pouring himself a small measure of Keith’s whiskey with a shaking hand.

“My phone stopped working,” Kuro says, and Shiro interprets that as meaning it was lost or carelessly broken. Again. “I was more interested in getting here than stopping to pick up another.”

“I need to call Keith,” Shiro huffs, phone already in hand. He storms outside, mood dithering somewhere between irritated and fuming, to talk to Keith while he moves his Jeep from the driveway.

Keith’s voice is brittle on the other end of the line, a tremble in his words even after Shiro assures him that all is well at home and their intruder is only Kuro. 

“And what if it hadn’t been Kuro?” Keith asks, still smarting from Shiro’s choosing to act without him. “I can’t lose you again, Shiro— you know that, right? You know what it would do to me, don’t you?”

It takes a full five minutes to calm Keith; his words weigh heavy on Shiro as he lays his shotgun back in its case, locks the Jeep, and slowly treads back inside. 

Kuro waits for him, watching with curiosity and apprehension. The kitchen counter behind him is clean, all evidence of his snacking out of their fridge wiped away. “Is he upset?”

“More with me than you,” Shiro mutters, eyeing his likeness up and down, given more reason than usual to be frustrated with Kuro. “What brings you this time?”

And after sundown, he wants to add. After the sun’s set behind the mountains and the shadows have bloomed deep, skulking in the dark like one of the ravenous monsters they’ve grown used to hunting down and slaying in these very woods.

Not that a silver bullet or two would kill Kuro. Shiro doubts if they’d even be enough to slow him.

“Keith’s birthday is next week.” Kuro taps his blunt nails against the dining room table as he gauges Shiro’s reaction. “I wanted to be here for him. I brought a gift.”

“A gift?” Shiro questions, chin lifted, trying to keep his head above the jealous surge that rolls through him at the thought of Kuro plying Keith with gifts and courting his favor. “What’d you get him?”

“I’ll show you,” Kuro says, smiling as he languidly closes the gap between them, a hand already stuffed into his jacket pocket, “but first, you have to open yours.”

A pair of uncannily familiar hands offers Shiro a neat, rectangular box. The wrapping paper is matte black with silver stars and moons that catch the firelight from the hearth. Kuro apparently shares the skills that Shiro picked up in that gift-wrapping class that he took with his aunt back in high school, the present’s corners all professionally crisp and the ribbons spiraled with a scissor.

“Oh. Why did you get something for me?” Shiro questions as he turns the carefully wrapped gift over in his hands. It’s thoughtful. More thoughtful than he’d expect from Kuro— toward him, anyway.

“I saw it and thought of you,” Kuro replies, already shrugging out of his leather jacket and draping it over the back of a dining room chair.

Within, upon a bed of dark silk, lays a watch. A nice watch. Shiro drags a thumbnail over precise silver joints that remind him faintly of his newest prosthetic and traces the curve of its round face. Underneath smooth, water-clear crystal, the watch’s hands are already ticking away. Behind them lays an onyx background studded with starlike diamonds and a platinum crescent moon. It nearly takes Shiro’s breath away. 

“I… how did you get this?”

“Easy,” Kuro says, winking, and Shiro’s lips thin as he imagines Kuro stealing the appearance of same hapless jeweler and plucking whatever he wanted from their cases.

But it’s such a beautiful, tempting gift. Nicer than anything he and Keith could afford on their own, certainly. And Shiro’s developed a fondness for watches ever since… ever since he got back from wherever the fuck he was for a year and a half, trapped as Haggar’s prisoner. There’s reassurance in their soft ticking, something steadying to ground him when he’s all alone in the quiet and time feels like it’s slipping away again, like he’s being watched, like the shadows around him are coming alive— 

“Thank you.” Shiro grounds himself in the present, concentrating on the cool weight of the watch in his hand and the uneasy familiarity of Kuro’s presence. He grasps onto the gratitude he feels now, nevermind what twinges of resentment he still holds for the part Kuro once played in his suffering, and clasps the watch around his left wrist. It feels good. Looks good. It even matches the star-etched silver of his wedding band. “Did you get something like it for Keith?”

“Not quite, but...” Kuro produces another box, smaller and finer and not yet wrapped. Inside sits a single cabochon ruby that must be at least ten carats, plump and gleaming and begging to be marveled over.

Kuro plucks it out and sets the gem in Shiro’s outstretched palm, letting him study it up close. The ruby is unlike any Shiro’s ever seen— not that he’s terribly familiar with fine gems or jewelry, admittedly. Its deep, wine-red color is interrupted by six pale lines that intersect to form something like a star at its center, clear and crisp.

At a glance, and with zero expert knowledge, Shiro can tell it must be worth a substantial sum. More than the watch around his wrist, even. Perhaps more than their cabin, two vehicles, and hoverbike all totaled together. Shiro supposes he ought to be thankful that this shapeshifting lookalike from the cold void beyond their world is more preoccupied with upper crust theft than terrorizing the human populace. That’s always the silver lining when it comes to Kuro— his interests skew toward the mundane and the harmless, more carelessly disruptive than maliciously so. If an eldritch, interdimensional being like him wanted to do harm, he could. Devastatingly.

Instead, he stands in Shiro’s kitchen and doles out stolen gifts.

“It’s a star ruby,” Kuro explains as he boxes up the gem and tucks it back into his pocket. “An extra rare one. I figured Keith could decide whether to mount it and wear it. Or maybe just keep it loose.”

“He’s not one to wear much jewelry,” Shiro murmurs. Aside from his gold-toned wedding ring with the wooden inlay, simple and sturdy and ever-affixed to his finger, that is. 

But that might change, he thinks, when Keith sees what Kuro’s brought him.

“Did you already pick out a present for him?” Kuro asks, drifting closer. It’s habitual, the way he does that, like he’s always hungry to be close to something warm and living. Like he doesn’t have an inkling of how unnerving he can be, the chill of his breath and body casting shivers down Shiro’s spine.

“Yeah,” Shiro says, although now it seems underwhelming by comparison. “I got him a new saw bench and a circular saw to go with it. He wants to make a wrap-around porch and all his old power tools are kinda iffy.”

Kuro’s smile is disarmingly soft. “He’s going to love that.”

“Hopefully,” Shiro sighs, less certain.

Silence blooms and grows thick between them, the cabin’s walls and crossbeams gently creaking as the wind outside picks up. Shiro never knows what to say or do when Keith isn’t here to help dissipate the friction that inevitably builds the longer he and Kuro share breathing space. There are no self-help books out there for reconciling with the interdimensional shapeshifting doppelganger that moved in with your boyfriend while you were trapped in a void space between worlds and tortured by an inhuman witch, unfortunately.

So Shiro’s been figuring it out as he goes.

His stomach growls, pettily reminding him that he’d skipped his afternoon snack. While Kuro looks on, curious, he starts pulling out pancake mix and thick-cut bacon and a cardboard container of eggs.

“I can help,” Kuro offers, hungrily eyeing the makings of breakfast for dinner.

“No, it’s fine,” Shiro bites out, reflexive. He’s forever uneasy in Kuro’s company, and the thought of cooking side-by-side is more stressful than useful. “I’ve got it. Besides, don’t eggs turn funny around you?”

Cold and gooey black, according to Keith’s past experiences. Unfit to touch, let alone eat.

“Not that quickly,” Kuro sulks as he shrinks against the nearby counter, eerily golden eyes tracking Shiro’s every move. “Not since I’ve been feeding better.”

Kuro goes stock still and unblinking as he watches Shiro clumsily flip pancakes and let the scrambled eggs brown too long, moody from the rejection. And Shiro pointedly refuses to acknowledge him, the same way a child might pull their covers overhead and ignore the worrisome shadows within their closet.

It doesn’t keep his skin from turning clammy or his spine tingling under the weight of that cool stare, though. It’s a mistrust that lingers no matter how many times Kuro’s stepped in to save him from some other, lesser monster; it’s a dormant fear that reawakens every time Kuro streaks back into their lives like a passing comet, like dark silt billowing up from the bottom of a cold, crisp lake.

Memories resurface in the back of Shiro’s mind, painful even through the haze: barely conscious as a figure made of smoke and shadow and lightning swallows him whole, picks through his mind, and walks away wearing his body; emerging from what felt like an eternity as Haggar’s prisoner to learn he’d been replaced, forgotten, and all because Kuro wanted everything Shiro had. Including Keith. 

Especially Keith.

There’s a thudding of heavy bootsoles against the porch steps outside just before the door swings open and Keith surges over the threshold. He’s still roiling from his earlier worry, movements sharp with agitation as he throws his coat onto the back of the couch. But the deep furrow between his brows smooths as he turns to find Kuro already beside him, overeager as some feral, hellish puppy.

“Kuro, you shouldn’t worry us like that,” Keith chastises even as he raises an arm and lets Kuro sweep him into a hug that lasts about four seconds too long for Shiro’s liking. “It’s good to see you again, though.”

Kuro grins, baring sharply pointed canines, and leans shamelessly into Keith’s touch. Crowded into Keith’s space, he murmurs all about how much he’d missed Keith and the cabin and the woods he’d first crossed over in.

Shiro keeps cooking, perhaps using a little more force than necessary as he scrapes the burned bits off of the bottom of the pan. He’d long considered himself the forgiving type, but that mantle seems far better suited to Keith— so much quicker to be kind to Kuro, to point out the ways he’s been good, to set their rocky past behind him and mend things where he can. 

Keith gravitates toward the table as Shiro sets out three plates of lightly scorched pancakes and thoroughly overcooked eggs, the promise of food wiping away any lingering traces of displeasure. “You guys made breakfast for dinner?”

“Shiro did,” Kuro corrects, still moping over it.

“It looks great,” Keith compliments as he takes a seat to Shiro’s left. “Thanks for cooking.”

Kuro drops into the chair at Shiro’s right and uses half the bottle of the good maple syrup on his pancakes. Typical.

As they eat, silence eventually gives way to talk about the turning weather, Keith’s upcoming birthday party, and whether Kuro had noticed anything worrisome as he crossed through their woods.

“The veil here is still thin, but it’s quiet,” Kuro rumbles, glancing out the nearby window and into the dark. “I don’t think anything is slipping in that you and your little scooby gang can’t handle.”

The scooby gang— Lance’s moniker for their ragtag group of monster hunters. At least, they were ragtag. Over the last three years, Pidge and Hunk have become quintessence experts with a flair for devising traps. Lance is something of a marksman with a silver bullet now, able to snipe rift creatures well before they close in. With the unearthly luxite dagger that his mother passed down to him, Keith is viciously effective at dispatching anything that makes it within arm’s reach.

And Shiro… Shiro’s grown adept at picking out narrow, limbering legs along the nighttime treeline before anyone else does. He listens for unfathomable, alien whispers that carry on the wind, unheard by any of the others— not even Keith, who also spent time in the rift and still dreams of it, too. He pinpoints the quintessence-gold eyes gleaming down at them from the canopy first and notices spindly-fingered hands that itch to pluck them up and pierce them on the highest branches like a shrike.

Shiro’s vigilance continues even into his sleep, where he sees the same monsters in his dreams. And Kuro, too.

After dinner, Keith makes up the couch with blankets and a spare pillow. Though Kuro basks in the attention while Keith gives it, it soon sinks in that once again, he’s relegated to the living room while the two humans retreat down the hall to the master suite. Half-shrouded in a darkness that he seems to blend into, Kuro pouts and stares after them, vividly amber eyes chasing their steps with blatant hunger and longing.

It lifts the fine, baby hairs along Shiro’s nape, same as ever. For all the good it does, he locks the bedroom door behind them.

Keith’s eyes dart to him at the sound of the quiet click, assessing. “You’re still worried about him.”

Shiro could laugh, but all he lets out is a tired, bitter little snort. “You aren’t?”

They haven’t had this conversation in a while.

Even if they’re now allies against Haggar and the encroach of other, less discerning monstrosities from the interdimensional void, it doesn’t undo all the ways Kuro toyed with their lives. It doesn’t overwrite the insidious fear of being imitated, the sting of being replaced. And it certainly doesn’t vanish the thought of how Kuro had loved Keith in his place— held him, kissed him, slept soundly by his side while Shiro withered away in some bright, alien abyss. Forgotten.

It’s not as though a locked doorknob means anything to Kuro anyway, easy enough to twist until it breaks or the wood itself shears. It’s a hollow reassurance, but one Shiro still needs. It’s a thin, physical division between him and the creature that still wears his body— and better than Shiro himself does, seamlessly perfect in all the places where he is battered and scarred.

“You know I’d do anything to protect you, Shiro. In a heartbeat. But I don’t think Kuro means any harm to either of us. If he did, he’d have already done it,” Keith reasons, voice as gentle as the hand that inches up Shiro’s bicep and kneads at his tense shoulder. “He sacrificed himself for us, once. And he’s saved us since then, too. He’s stood beside us and helped fight off his own kind, and some of those fights we wouldn’t have survived without him. Especially…”

Haggar. It goes without saying. She and her druids are in a class all their own, far more formidable than the creeping, crawling monsters their scooby gang usually encounters.

“I’m aware,” Shiro says, feeling immeasurably spent. He sighs and removes his prosthetic for the night, leaving it to rest on his bedside table.

“Do you want me to ask him to leave?” Keith murmurs as they draw down the plush comforter and clamber into bed. “If there isn’t any immediate threat, it’s not like we need him here. And it’s your home, Shiro. You deserve to be comfortable in it. To feel safe.”

Shiro smiles softly as he settles in beside his husband, comforted. “Nah, it’s fine. He’s here for your birthday. And if we kick him out, he’ll just wander in the woods nearby and scare me shitless on my next jog instead.”

Keith grunts in halfway agreement, expression still colored with uncertainty. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Shiro sighs. “I know that rationally, everything you’ve said makes sense. If he wanted me dead, he could’ve just refused to help you find me. Or killed me in the rift. He could’ve let that moose-centaur monster eat me in the woods that one time,” he adds, shuddering against the mattress. “I guess I just wish I could forgive him as easily as you have.”

“It wasn’t easy for me either,” Keith reminds him, a hand stroking back and forth along Shiro’s side under the covers. “At the same time, it’s hard for me to resent him. I-It’s complicated. You know that, Shiro,” he whispers.

Shiro does. How can the relationship between the three of them be anything but complicated?

“I see shades of you in him,” Keith continues, half talking into his pillow. His long, pretty lashes flutter before his eyes slip shut, eyebrows pinching inward. “I can’t… I don’t have it in me to hate someone who looks so much like you. Sounds like you. Acts like you.”

“He’s not me, though,” Shiro says, voice brittle in the moonlit dark. 

“I know. I know he isn’t,” Keith assures, pressing himself to Shiro and slipping a strong arm around him. “And you can forgive him on your own terms, Shiro, whenever you’re ready,” he murmurs. “Or not at all. I’d understand either way.” 

Minutes drift by. In the dark, Keith adds, “I think he would, too.”

When Shiro pads out of the bedroom in his slippers the next morning, Kuro is already up. He sits at the dining room table in the same clothes as yesterday, a small pile of chocolate wrappers and fruit peels piled on a plate in front of him, staring out the window and into the woods.

“Morning,” Shiro greets, if only to snap his lookalike out of whatever reverie he’s lost in.

“Good morning,” Kuro answers, gaze drifting past Shiro and down the hall, searching for Keith. When there’s no following set of footsteps, his stare centers again on Shiro.

“Are you planning on staying here all day?”

“I suppose that’s up to you,” Kuro answers, looking at Shiro expectantly.

“It’s fine if you want to stick around,” Shiro allows, making an effort to be hospitable. Better than having him out roaming or stalking Keith from afar, anyway. “Take care of the laundry and dishes and we’ll call it even. Sound good?”

Kuro brightens. While Shiro starts a pot of coffee and cobbles together a breakfast for two out of leftovers, Kuro talks about all the places he’s traveled in his latest jaunt far from home— Swiss valleys filled with greenery and silky chocolate; the depths of the freezing Arctic, skimming along the undersides of the ice to spook a team of researchers; the wooded mountainsides that serve as the ancestral home of the Shirogane family, drawn there by the fond but faded childhood memories he carries around. Shiro’s memories.

“It’s beautiful there,” Kuro sighs, as if he too spent a third of his life calling Nara home. Like it’s his family nestled there in its foothills, his childhood nostalgia feeding his wistfulness. “Lots of cute cafes, too.”

It rankles, even if Shiro knows that Kuro doesn’t mean anything ill. He hasn’t been able to visit his parents since the wedding, and the thought of Kuro drifting into his hometown in his stead, wearing his face, is… 

It’s yet another part of his life that Kuro’s sunken his fingers into and claimed for his own, no facet of Shiro left to himself.

“I know,” Shiro says, curt and final as he gathers a plate with breakfast for him and Keith and heads back down the hall to the bedroom.

Two days pass, stilted as ever. At least between himself and Kuro.

Kuro is different around Keith, and Shiro pays close attention— overbearingly affectionate, borderline flirtatious, protective as he looms around like a guardian shadow. Just as curiously, he watches how Keith takes it all in stride. 

It cuts the simmering in Shiro’s blood with something cool and uncertain. Fear, maybe. He trusts Keith with his life, now and always. He loves him more than anyone or anything else in the universe. Or any universe. Or any haunting, empty places in between. But Shiro’s been replaced once before and Kuro is so like him that a repeat feels like an inevitability. He’s Shiro without all the ugly scars and anxiety and night tremors. He’s a younger Shiro, a more carefree Shiro, a Shiro just as thoroughly in love with Keith but without all the emotional mess that came with a year of terrifying captivity and slow torment.

So Shiro does his best to avoid him, opting to sit outside under the floodlights and clean his Jeep rather than linger alone in the cabin with Kuro. Weaker rift-creatures won’t even venture close to their land with him around, too fearful of the eldritch horror currently crashing on their couch, and Shiro is grateful for that much. For once, he feels relatively safe lingering near the treeline after sundown, even in Keith’s absence. Even with the sensation of eyes on him, watching attentively from some window.

And even once Keith comes home and they settle together in the living room, Shiro can’t help but quietly compare himself to his imitation. And wonder. And worry.

It keeps him up that night, long after Keith has dozed off to the hum of Shiro’s white noise machine. Long enough to see the darkened shadow that blots out the moonlight as it passes outside of their bedroom window, tall and ghostly silent.

Keith has to get up for work too early for Shiro to justify waking him now, well past two in the morning. So he fits his prosthetic back into place, tugs on a pair of rubber-soled slippers, and grabs a hunting rifle from the corner of the bedroom before quietly slipping outside and down the hall.

The couch sits empty, its blankets still neatly arranged and the pillow untouched. Kuro isn’t soaking in their tub or stealing a midnight snack from the freezer, either. The locks on the front door are still bolted, chained, twisted tight— but Shiro knows that means nothing where Kuro is involved.

Hesitantly, he undoes every latch, winds his hoodie tighter around his shoulders, and steps outside.

It’s icy cold. Frost stains every beam and bannister, the rich wood sparkling under fragments of moonlight. Nothing creeps in the deepest shadows along the treeline; nothing skitters under his Jeep or Keith’s truck.

But there is a telltale little sigh somewhere off to his right, eerie in its familiarity.

“Shiro.” Kuro is as surprised as he is weary. His steps over the leaves and gravel in the front yard are soundless. “What are you doing out here? Aren’t you cold?”

“No,” Shiro denies, impulsive. His pajama bottoms and hoodie are no match for the knifing fingers of the nighttime breeze, and the cold wood of the porch leaches heat even through his fluffy, boot-like slippers. He can’t stop his body shivering, though, no matter what his lips might say. “I saw something outside our window. And then I saw that you weren’t on the couch.”

Kuro holds his stare for a few drawn moments before glancing away, his wide shoulders rolling in a shrug. All he’s wearing is a taut undershirt and a pair of fleece bottoms straight out of Shiro’s pajama drawer. “No point to it. I figured I might as well stand guard.”

“Against what?” Shiro asks. “Haggar’s still stuck on another plane. Her druids, too. And your presence scares away everything else. Even the mice, I think,” he says, half-joking.

Kuro doesn’t offer an answer.

Shiro takes a step toward him, the porch floorboards creaking underfoot. His brow knits. His bare fingers already feel numb. “Kuro… have you been out here doing this every night?”

The cold doesn’t bother Kuro, he knows, but still. It’s dark out here. Lonely. Shiro can’t imagine willingly wandering it alone.

Kuro nods. “Figured I might as well spend some time leaving my mark nice and strong all around your cabin and through the woods. Make sure things give you a wide berth even after I’m gone. And I thought you might sleep easier with me out of the house.”

It’s said with sympathy and wariness and a note of bitterness, too, Kuro shrinking in on himself as he stares up at Shiro from the yard.

“No such luck,” Shiro tonelessly jokes, stating the obvious.

Kuro flashes a quick, mirthless smile back.

“So I see,” he says as he trudges up the steps. Intentionally or no, where he stops to stand makes him serve as something of a windbreak for a shivering Shiro. “You should head back inside. Or at least put on a heavier jacket.”

Shiro sighs, his breath a billowing puff of warm air that seems to mesmerize Kuro. “I’m okay. As okay as I ever am.”

Kuro hums and looks him over, piercingly unconvinced, and Shiro hates anew that Kuro knows him inside and out. “I noticed things have been tense. You’ve been tense. More than usual.”

“Whenever you’ve come back before, there was always a rift to close or a big fucker to deal with or Haggar scheming,” Shiro reasons, lifting a shoulder. “Now things are quieting down. This is the first time it’s just been… us.”

There’s a whistling of wind in the trees, a rush of firs and bare branches as the breeze kicks up and somewhere, miles off, heavy clouds begin to roll over the mountaintops.

“I tried giving you time and space. Keith said you needed it.” Kuro props his elbows on the porch railing and leans his weight forward, hands clasped before him. 

This close, Shiro can pick out intricate little details of the tattoo sleeve that covers Kuro’s right arm. There are coordinates and alien symbols and a blackened deer skull. Stars. A wiry sketch of an elk that looks like it came out of one of Keith’s sketchbooks. But any time Shiro isn’t staring directly at them, the ink seems to shift under Kuro’s skin, lines growing loose and amorphous.

“But I don’t think I have your patience, Shiro,” Kuro continues, frustration creeping into his tone. “I don’t want there to be space between us. It’s killing me when I’m— I belong— no matter how far I travel or where I go, I’m always thinking of coming back here. To you.”

“To Keith,” Shiro corrects.

“To the both of you,” Kuro counters, softer.

Shiro’s quiet scoff gets lost in the rising breeze and the shivering trees around the cabin. Cold minutes pass. Kuro doesn’t move, the unnatural gold of his eyes eventually leaving Shiro to fix on some point a thousand yards distant, stony faced and resigned. 

Shiro doesn’t move either. The swirling mire of thoughts that sits boglike at the back of his mind bubbles to the forefront. Words rise to the tip of his tongue. 

“I see you and I think about how replaceable I am,” he admits to the dark, to the woods, to the man beside him. And it’s strange, voicing something aloud to Kuro that he hasn’t yet dared to tell Keith. Warm, unshed tears wet his lashline, worsening the sting of the frosty nighttime breeze. “I feel… disposable with you around. Like I might disappear again, but maybe this time no one would ever notice.”

Maybe Keith wouldn’t notice, and that’s the stubborn root of Shiro’s fear: being forgotten by the man he loves most of all, lost again, left behind.

“Shiro… pretending to be you wasn’t easy,” Kuro murmurs, his head hanging. “It was exhausting. And satisfying, obviously, but… Keith is perceptive. His instincts are sharp. If he weren’t so damn in love with you, he’d have realized I wasn’t you sooner. I slipped up so many times, Shiro, but he’d always let it slide,” he drawls out, “because he was so grateful to have you back.”

Shiro warms underneath his hoodie and pajamas, every heartbeat deepening the flush under his skin. 

“I’m not out to take him from you again,” Kuro adds, shooting Shiro a look from the corner of his eye. “We both want Keith to be happy. And he’s happiest with you.”

Kuro’s words sear warmly through Shiro, heartening in that they’re precisely what he wants to hear. But the afterburn is discomforting, his satisfaction waning faster than daylight does in the depths of the forest. “You’re not jealous?”

“Of course I’m jealous,” Kuro snorts, swallowing thickly as he stares out into the dark. “I’m a copy of you. Not a perfect facsimile, obviously, but I sure as hell got your insecurity. And your temper. And your need to bottle them both up.”

“Ouch.” But he’s not wrong. A thread of sympathy uncoils in Shiro; he can’t think of much worse than someone being saddled with all his own flaws. “He cares about you, too, you know,” he says, awkward and stilted as he tries to comfort his doppelganger.

Shiro has the impression that Keith downplays it a bit around him to spare his jealous feelings, but the fondness is unquestionably there. Enough of it to let Keith forgive Kuro for all the lies he’d blanketed him in. Enough for him to have mourned Kuro while he laid trapped within the rift; enough for him to accept Kuro’s inhuman fascination with them and their life together, always eager to worm in and be a part of it.

“Only because I remind him of you,” Kuro says, the soft, lukewarm bitterness in his tone striking a chord with Shiro. “That’s always been my saving grace. You.”

Shiro shifts in place, cold and growing colder. A month ago, a week ago, two hours ago, even, he’d have thought hearing those words from Kuro’s lips would give him nothing but reassurance. “Do you hate me for it?”

Kuro turns to him and blinks, almost comically surprised by the question. His mouth curls in the joyless mimicry of a smile, a harsh, incredulous snort slipping out after. “No, Shiro.”

“Not even a little?” Shiro pries, studying Kuro with the same razor-sharp eye he uses to pick out threats circling them in the dark.

“It’d be easier if I could,” Kuro mutters, tone dry and a bit self-pitying. He turns to face Shiro in full, the rings of his golden eyes eerie bright around the unfathomable dark of his pupils. “Do you hate me?”

“No more than I hate myself, I guess,” Shiro laughs. Kuro doesn’t laugh with him. So instead Shiro has to sit there and hunt for less deflective words, uncomfortable as he examines his knotted mess of feelings toward Kuro once more. “I… no, Kuro. It’s complicated, but no,” he decides, a helpless little sound trailing after. “I don’t hate you. I’d be dead without you. Keith, too.”

“But you dislike me. You can barely stand to be around me.” Kuro’s jaw works side to side, tongue poking along the inside of his cheek. His too-intense stare at last pulls away from Shiro and back out to the woods. “Even if I save you. Even if I protect you. Even if I try to show you how much I’ve changed. That I care about you, too.”

Kuro sighs and it’s such a human thing to do. A gesture he’s learned from Shiro— or memories of his, anyway— and folded into his own way of being. A deliberate expression of frustration, Kuro’s breaths serving no real purpose other than making his mortal appearance more convincing.

And he is believable. Kuro’s humanity seems less and less an act and more like self-expression. His words strike Shiro as less an act of manipulation and more a struggle to make sense of where he stands, to vent, to settle matters.

“When we first met, I wronged you. I didn’t care then. I do now. And I won’t hurt you like that again,” Kuro promises, a bare hand curling tight around a frost-laced wooden beam. His brow knits tight. “I’m sorry, Shiro. I wasn’t… me yet, if that’s any consolation to you.”

He’s certainly not the same Kuro that he first encountered within the rift, all inky smoke and menace and horror. “Glad you changed.”

Kuro hums, traces of affection lacing the sound. “It’s mostly thanks to you, Shiro. Your memories shaped me. Your thoughts are twined around my own like mistletoe. Part of me will forever be human because of you.”

Curiosity prods at Shiro again. “And that doesn’t bother you?”

“Why would it it?”

He shrugs, briefly at a loss. “Because you’re some powerful, shapeshifting entity from the great beyond. You’re probably used to doing stuff that’s more interesting than after-dinner dishes and sleeping on our couch.” 

More interesting. More devastating. Someone as ancient and powerful as Kuro could wreak havoc on their whole world, if only he had the inclination for it.

“I don’t mind doing the dishes,” Kuro says, as flat and plain as if they're just discussing chores. “I’m not sure if domestic life only appeals to me because it appealed to you first,” he adds, shaking his head, “but I enjoy it. I miss it, even. Here. With Keith. With you.”

“What,” Shiro questions, masking the heavy thumping of his heart with a tone of almost-playful incredulity, “you caught feelings for me, too?”

“Something like that, I guess,” Kuro muses, meeting Shiro’s shallow, wavering smile with one a little more certain. “Initially, I resented you. When I could remember we were separate people, anyway. Whenever I realized that Keith’s affection and warmth was never for me, not really, but for someone I could only struggle to imitate. And even then— even then, as much as I hated how you were always first in his thoughts— part of me admired you. How could I not, walking around with all your memories and stray thoughts? With your body? The longer I saw myself in the mirror, the more I understood why Keith was so eager to touch you and kiss you and keep you pleased. Who wouldn’t be?”

The heat under Shiro’s skin intensifies from a smolder to a blaze.

“And the way Keith looked at me when he thought I was you,” Kuro adds, wistful. “I knew you must be special. So special, for someone as good as him to love you from the bottom of his heart like that. Even now, Keith’s attachment to me is only through you,” Kuro says, ducking his head. “He loves you so much that a little overflow falls to me, too.”

“That’s not it, Kuro,” Shiro assures, brow furrowing.

It was so much easier to keep Kuro at arm’s length when he seemed less human, impervious to the same emotional hangups that plague Shiro’s thoughts. 

“Keith mourned you when you stayed behind in the rift to let us escape. He worried about you every day after and he was over the moon when you made it back,” he says, thinking of how Keith had shed tears of quiet relief just before he fell asleep that fateful night, soaking Shiro’s collar. “He’s always wondering where you are and what you’re doing and whether you’re safe, and then I have to remind him that you’re basically a demi-god among mere mortals—” Shiro pauses for Kuro’s low laughter, “—and you’re probably just clearing a patisserie out of sweets and engaging in a little grand larceny.”

“That’s pretty accurate,” Kuro murmurs, a bare, slightly self-deprecating smile crossing his lips.

“He cares about you,” Shiro tells him, both because it’s true and because he feels like Kuro needs to hear it. “He always has. And he’s proud of how far you’ve come. I am, too,” he adds, more gently than he means to.

“You?” Kuro’s tone mirrors the same one Shiro had used earlier, teasing out of disbelief.

“Yeah, me. You fucked me over to begin with, sure, but you also lead Keith back to me, and I… I owe you everything for that. Without you, I’d be dead a couple times over by now,”  Shiro admits, swallowing thickly. It’s never an easy thing, confronting how easily he’d come to dying alone at Haggar’s hands, and it’s no easier with Kuro staring at him, lips parted and gold eyes flashing in the dark.

“And without you, I’d still be drifting through the void, starving and alone,” Kuro says, something strangely vulnerable in the way he looks to Shiro. “I’d never have known any kind of peace like this. Or love. Or McDonald’s.”

Shiro can’t help the little quirk at the corner of his mouth. “The big three, huh?”

Kuro shrugs, a little sheepish, and Shiro’s laugh quickly gives way to teeth-chattering.

“I think you’ve earned a clean slate, Kuro,” he decides after a few quiet seconds trickle by. “A while ago, probably, but I wasn’t quite ready to try.”

“Not your fault,” Kuro rumbles, mirroring back Shiro’s look of sympathy. “I’ve outgrown a lot of my old nature…” Kuro trails off, thoughtful, “but quicker than you’ve been able to heal from the scars I left behind.”

“I’m getting there.” Shiro shudders against the cold, glad to have Kuro beside him to break the nighttime breeze. “Having Haggar gone helps. Talking to you helped,” he adds, the realization a surprise even to himself. “I’d like things to be easier between us, going forward.”

He’d like to quiet the thrum of anxiety that hangs at the back of his mind at all hours of the day. He’d like to unclench a little, to relax. He’d like to trust that face that looks so much like his own, and the man wearing it.

Kuro’s eyes crinkle at the corners as he grins broadly enough to show off the sharp-tipped canines he sports. “I’d like that, too.”

All talked-out and reasonably content, Shiro’s attention inevitably drifts up to the stars. It’s a clear night with a good view of Andromeda, though Perseus and Pegasus are mostly hidden by the surrounding trees. It’s been ages since Shiro’s simply stood outside and enjoyed the nighttime sky, eyes turned upward rather than worriedly scanning the trees and their deep shadows. The night is less unnerving with Kuro nearby, his presence frightening to beasts natural and supernatural alike; it’s the strange comfort of knowing that the monster under your bed is the scariest of all, and fondly possessive to boot.

“It’s cold,” Shiro says after a few minutes of lingering, the chill already settled deep into his bones. He slings the hunting rifle over his shoulder and heads to the door. “Come inside, Kuro. Let’s go to bed.”

Kuro turns at the waist, peeking past Shiro and through the open door. The living room couch still sits all made-up for slumber, fluffy pillow and blankets untouched.

“It’s all right. I don’t mind staying out here,” he says, giving one of the same flat smiles that Shiro is used to making when he’s being polite. “Goodnight, Shiro.”


“What?” At Shiro’s dry, weary look of expectation, he heaves out a heavy sigh and lets his patient facade slip. “Why? So I can stare at the ceiling for six hours while I wait for you two to wake up? I don’t need sleep in the first place, and if I’m not going to enjoy it, then why bother?”

Shiro lingers in the doorway, watching long after Kuro’s turned away to face into the empty quiet of the surrounding woodland. 

“You could read, if you want,” he suggests, shrugging the shoulder that isn’t currently holding the weight of a heavy rifle. “I have hundreds of books on my tablet. And movies. Or you could draw. I’m sure Keith has an extra sketchbook or two lying around.”

“I can do that while you’re away at work tomorrow,” Kuro mumbles, tone edging toward surly now, and Shiro isn’t sure which bothers him more— Kuro’s stubbornness or the unfortunate realization that this must be what he sounds like when he takes an attitude, too. “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time here by myself.”

Shiro sighs, still straddling the cabin’s threshold, and slumps against the sturdy wooden doorframe. How many times had he tried to push Kuro away, only to feel the blood-curdling chill of his presence as he forever hung close, trailing his steps like a shadow? And now, when Shiro’s finally trying to rope him in with an olive branch, Kuro decides to be difficult.


“You could—” Shiro hesitates, the words catching in his throat as he wonders whether he’ll regret this move come morning’s bright-eyed clarity. But now, cold and tired and determined to end tonight on a good, reconciliatory note, he commits. “You could stay with us. In our room. If you want. The new bed is big enough.”

The genuine, heartfelt surprise that paints itself across Kuro’s too-familiar features almost does away with the rest of Shiro’s lingering apprehension. He abandons his post, easily lured away by the promise of time spent in close proximity to Keith and Shiro both, and sweeps past Shiro as he hurries inside.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Shiro mutters to himself as he closes the door and locks it tight.

As they pad down the darkened hall single-file, he senses the palpable excitement radiating off of Kuro. Gold-eyes stay trained on the center of his back, so intent that Shiro can feel their stare, along with the goosebump-raising cold that Kuro carries around with him.

The bedroom is still a deep, velvety dark, but Shiro’s eyes are well-adjusted. He peels off his hoodie, removes his prosthetic, and then hurriedly slips under the covers, pointedly ignoring Kuro’s faint little whine when he realizes that he doesn’t get to be the one in the middle. Warmth greets his shivering body, and Shiro is endlessly grateful that Keith’s kept the bed so cozy while he slumbers.

He’s just getting comfortable on his side when the mattress dips behind him, a dense weight slowly settling down into place at his back. It presses close, a wall of cool, solid muscle meeting his spine as Kuro spoons loosely around him to fit; the bed is big but they’re both broadly set, and it doesn’t help that Keith likes to spread eagle while he sleeps. Under the covers, cold fingers brush over a stretch of Shiro’s bare waist before Kuro’s hand settles just above the waistband of his pajama sweats.

Shiro can’t help but shiver at the touch.

The hand withdraws just as quickly. “Oh. Whoops. I didn’t mean—”

“You’re just cold, Kuro,” Shiro tells him, trailing off into an exhausted yawn. “But you’ll warm up fast.”

Hesitantly, Kuro’s palm settles on his hip again. Shiro finds he doesn’t mind it, or even the shape of Kuro pressed close against him, really. If he closes his eyes, it even feels safe— furnace-warmth against his chest and a shield molded to his back, snug and protected as his eyelids droop and his body goes slack. 

There’s a whisper in his ear as he drifts, catching him so close to the cusp of sleep that he almost doubts if he really heard it at all.

“Thank you, Shiro.”

When Shiro blinks awake, the bedroom is a soft dark, filled with comforting shapes and warmth. He rubs his cheek into the cover of his pillowcase and moans out low as he stretches down to the tips of his toes. Belatedly, he realizes there’s a leg slotted between his own, their crossed ankles rubbing. And an arm draped heavy over his waist. And a bent knee pushed between his thighs, paired with a warm hand cupping his chest under his shirt.

“Keith,” he murmurs while still half-asleep, voice raspy.

“Good morning,” Keith croaks back as he rouses. After giving Shiro a squeeze, he withdraws his poky knee and grasping hands and sits up in bed, stretching. His dark hair is wild, waves of it jutting in all directions, and he’s so cute when he yawns and rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms like that.

“Mm. Good morning,” Shiro answers, already missing the comfortable cling of Keith to his front. Blearily, he realizes that the weight around his middle and the brush of a muscular calf against his own remains.

“Good morning,” Shiro’s own voice greets from somewhere behind him. He stills where he lays as the memory of the night before floods back all at once— the better part of an hour spent alone with Kuro, surprised at all the familiar insecurities he carries, and then beckoning him back in with an invitation to their bed.

He shoots a worried look up at Keith, expecting to find him surprised or confused at the very least. Perhaps even upset that Shiro— Shiro, of all people, so long mistrustful of his doppelganger— had let Kuro sleep in their room without asking him first. 

Instead, Shiro finds Keith staring down at them with pink cheeks and heavy, half-lowered lids, gnawing his bottom lip until it’s deepened to a slick red. His dark eyes travel from Shiro to Kuro and back again, taking everything in with a subtle quickening of his breath.

“So… I feel like I missed something here,” Keith comments after as the seconds tick by without an explanation presenting itself. He speaks with a gravelly hiss that sends a pleased shiver rolling down Shiro’s spine. Kuro must feel the way he shudders, close as he is; the nervous, heated flush under Shiro’s skin must be delightful to him, too, ripe for basking in.

“We… had a talk last night,” Shiro explains, blinking apologetically up at his husband. “Sorry. I should’ve woken you up to check if it was okay.”

“No, no. It’s fine. It’s, uh— no complaints here,” Keith says, brusque and pitched high. He clears his throat after, tears his gaze from where Kuro is spooned around Shiro, and mumbles something about needing to shower.

Shiro stares, a little bit dumbfounded, as Keith scurries to the bathroom without his slippers and locks the door after it’s closed. 

It’s… unusual, even if Keith is an early riser who rarely wastes time, but he doesn’t seem angry or hurt. Perhaps he just needed a few minutes alone to process everything, Shiro reasons. Strange as their lives are, it must be stranger still to wake up beside two versions of your husband.

“Why are you so close to me?” Shiro mumbles as the knee pushed between his thighs bends and hooks around one of his legs, twining them together.

“You’re so warm,” Kuro answers while pushing his luck and snuggling closer, cheek pillowed against Shiro’s nape. “Not as warm as Keith, but mmm, comfortable. I could lay here all day.”

Shiro sighs. “Well. Some of us have to work, so…”

Kuro does not take the hint, instead whining softly and pushing his face fully into the back of Shiro’s neck and the slightly grown-out white of his hair. Shiro stares blankly forward at the far wall and the changing light outside its window, already resigned to Kuro’s overly affectionate clinginess.

“Come help me make breakfast,” he suggests as the shower kicks on behind the bathroom door, its distant drone matching the white noise Shiro sleeps to. At the reluctant grumble issued against his back, he adds, “If we hurry, we could have something good ready for when Keith comes out.”

The prospect of doing something nice for Keith is all the motivation Kuro needs to finally push himself out of bed, and Shiro can relate to that. Deeply.

Once they’re in the kitchen, Shiro decides to throw together a simple soup out of leftover odds and ends— half a block of tofu, a lone potato, some greens, and scallions, along with some salted salmon he’d forgotten in the crisper drawer. And this time, when Kuro tentatively offers to help, Shiro takes him up on it.

For a sliver of a second, he still goes clammy cold while offering Kuro a kitchen cleaver, heart thumping sharp in his chest as a pale hand curls around its sleek handle. But Kuro only smiles and sets to work, chopping whatever vegetables Shiro sets on his cutting board into small, uniform pieces.

“You used to cook like this with your grandfather,” Kuro remarks as Shiro brings heavy-bottomed pot filled with instant dashi to a rolling simmer. “When you could barely reach the counter.”

Shiro nearly drops the long-handled spoon he’s holding. Even after three years, it still throws him for a loop to be reminded that Kuro shares nearly all his memories, no matter how old or how intimate. 

“Yeah. He never took shortcuts, though,” Shiro answers once he’s recovered from the jolt of surprise, soft with nostalgia and that haze of childhood memory. Riding his grandfather’s shoulders on the way to the grocery store. Helping him stir the eggs. Buzzing with excitement as delicious smells filled the kitchen. “He loved to cook. Wish I’d inherited his ability for it.”

Kuro hums some soft, absent agreement, his dark brows pinching. He dumps the vegetables into the pot and then starts washing the rice, unasked. And then, while Shiro rummages in the fridge for any fresh fruit that hasn’t yet spoiled, he clears his throat. “Does it bother you when I bring up the past like that?”

Shiro’s spine straightens taut as he stands, caught off-guard. His bottom lip juts out as he considers it, hands busily peeling the stickers off of shiny-skinned apples and separating red grapes from the withered vine.

“No. Not like that,” he decides, giving Kuro a small, reassuring smile. There’s something a tiny bit endearing about having an otherworldly monster trying so hard to be in his good graces, and Shiro is ready to meet him halfway. “It’s… kind of nice, actually, having someone around to reminisce with. I just forget how much you know about me. My life.”

“Like I was there.” Kuro shrugs, a little hopeless. “I know they’re your memories. I know that. But… they still feel like a part of me.”

“I can see how that’d be,” Shiro says. “And I can get used to it, I think. Just don’t be weird about it, okay?”

“Me? Weird?” Kuro teases, and it’s so strange for Shiro to hear the timbre of his voice played back against his own ears, bright and playful. He bumps against Shiro’s shoulder with his own, unable to pass up any excuse to touch. “I’ll be good, Shiro. I promise.”

Shiro casts a look back over his shoulder as he stirs the pot on the stove, lids and long lashes half lowered. 

“You’re pushing it,” he warns as Kuro’s hands fold over his right shoulder, chin resting atop them. But it isn’t as uncomfortable as Shiro would have thought, really, having him so close. After a few moments, he even relaxes and allows himself to teeter back, matching the way Kuro’s leaned into him.

“The soup looks good,” Kuro comments, his breath puffing cool against the side of Shiro’s neck, hunger heavy in the little moan that follows. “Smells good, too.”

“It does,” Shiro agrees, more than a little proud of how well the slapdash breakfast came together. A taste test confirms that yes, it is good, and Shiro happily chalks the meal up as a kitchen victory. Satisfied, he holds the stirring spoon up to Kuro’s lips for him to try the rest. “And Hunk says I can’t cook!”

“To be fair…” Kuro trails off as he sips up the steaming broth over Shiro’s shoulder, a pleased hum rumbling in his chest at the first taste.

Shiro rolls his eyes, still feeling vindicated. And perhaps the tiniest bit grateful that Kuro was here to help.

“Hey, I— whoa. Uh, good morning.” Keith stands across the kitchen, near the hall to the bedroom, still freshly damp from the shower. “Am I… interrupting?”

“Keith,” Shiro says, surprised to hear Kuro’s voice— his voice— echoing in unison. He rolls his shoulder, encouraging Kuro to stop leaning all over him, and flashes his husband a smile. “We made breakfast! I hope you’re hungry.”

“Definitely,” Keith answers, still toweling his hair dry as he curiously pads closer. His skin is flushed pink from the heat of the shower; he stares at them with dark eyes opened wide, bright with interest, and fumbles to pull out a chair at the kitchen table. 

Though Keith devours his breakfast with appreciative slurps and plenty of praise, he still seems distracted. He pointedly avoids looking either of them in the eye for more than a millisecond; he squirms in his chair when he thinks Shiro isn’t looking. And soon enough, the persistent blush along Keith’s cheeks hardly seems like it came from the heat of the shower at all.

Shiro chokes a little on his orange juice as he realizes that Keith is flustered.

He hasn’t seen his husband so red and fumbling since their dating days, back before Keith got comfortable touching him whenever and however he pleased. When did he get all shy? He certainly isn’t about trailing kisses down Shiro’s chest while he still sleeps, waking him with the heat of a warm mouth around his soft cock. Or asking to be bound up, patient as Shiro puts hours of careful research into tying perfect knots all down his back. Or any of the dozens of other things they’ve tried with each other.

And Shiro wonders why Keith would be so worked up over absolutely nothing— until he feels Kuro’s hand skim up the back of his neck and playfully ruffle his hair on the way back to the stove for seconds, and suddenly Keith’s spoon clatters into his bowl.


Shiro ponders that as Keith clears his throat, thanks them for breakfast, and mumbles something about needing to head to work. They kiss goodbye right there at the table, Keith bent over to meet Shiro where he sits; the skin under Shiro’s fingertips feels feverish.

Too-familiar feelings return in the wake of Keith’s hasty departure— brittle-edged jealousy, cool resentment, a pang of worry that Keith might favor Kuro over him— but new emotions crowd in alongside, too. Confusion. Curiosity. A glimmer of appeal. Something warm and uncertain that brings a blush to his cheeks.

Shiro pokes at his fruit until Kuro settles back down beside him, noticing the forlorn look that his doppelganger shoots at Keith’s empty seat.

“He rushed out. I don’t think he even stopped to lace up his boots,” Shiro explains before Kuro can be too disappointed. “Hey, um, did you notice how Keith was…”

He’s answered with a sly, knowing look. An amber-gold eye winks back at him, Kuro’s smile carrying all kinds of self-satisfaction. “Acting all shy and bothered? Yeah. I noticed that.”

“Because of…” Shiro can’t say the rest. It hangs in the air like the flying elephant in the room, too bizarre for words. Because of them. Because Keith had awoken to find them tangled together in his bed and then stuck together in the kitchen. Because he was clearly thinking something about the two of them, which in turn leaves Shiro looking at Kuro and wondering—

No. No. Definitely not.

“It’s not so surprising, is it?” Kuro asks, voice syrupy smooth and entirely unfazed. His sharp-eyed gaze trails down over Shiro’s flexing throat and the taut stretch of his faded sleep shirt, stopped only by the table blocking the rest of the view. Then he gestures to himself in turn. “I mean…”

Shiro rolls his eyes as he lifts his coffee mug to his lips, refusing to even look at Kuro right now. 

“You can’t blame him,” Kuro adds, softer. And then the light clinking of his spoon resumes, the rest of their breakfast shared in silence.

Shiro doesn’t. Blame Keith, that is.

He thinks about it all the way to work, his Jeep climbing slowly up the switchbacks that lead to the top of Black Lion Mountain and its lonesome little observatory. What was Keith thinking? Feeling? Picturing? Is it something new, freshly awoken, or the realization of thoughts he’d long kept private?

Kuro’s carefree words come bouncing back, too. Why wouldn’t Keith be flustered at the sight of them suddenly cozying up together? From a purely objective standpoint, knowing the things about him that make Keith woozy in the knees, doesn’t it almost make sense? Wouldn’t Shiro feel the same if Kuro instead wore Keith’s form, all lithe strength and sharp, pretty features?

Keith and a Keith-lookalike. Maybe they’d be night-and-day variants of each other like Shiro and Kuro— one dark haired and golden eyed, the other gone ethereally pale from exposure in the rift. Maybe Shiro would’ve found it considerably harder to resent someone who looked just like the man he loves, so much easier to forgive any version of Keith than it is to make peace with himself. Maybe Shiro would’ve been just as hopelessly undone if he woke to find two Keiths in bed with him, curled tight together as they stared at him with sleep-lidded eyes and lazily curled smiles.

In the observatory’s cramped parking lot, he throws the Jeep into park with a little more force than necessary and then slumps back in his seat. A soft glaze falls over his eyes as he thinks of what it what it would do to him to see Keith and a lookalike Kuro draped over each other. Or kissing, lean limbs and legs tangled together. With a flicker of shame, Shiro imagines being pressed between two Keiths, pinned by hot, hungry mouths and held fast in a cage of sinewy arms and grasping hands.

“Are you struggling today, Shiro?” Allura’s bright voice is slightly muffled by the dividing layer of glass, her face hovering just an inch from the driver’s side window. “Do you need a few more minutes out here?”

“Yes and yes,” Shiro groans, covering his face with his hands and reclining his seat until he dips out of her sight.

Allura takes his wavering focus throughout the workday in stride. More than once she finds him vacant-eyed in front of his computer screen, metal finger still resting on a key, or zoned out mid-bite of his lunch.

Allura snaps a few times to draw his attention back to the here and now. “Shiro? Earth to Shiro. Are you frazzled from planning Keith’s birthday party? I told you that I could’ve hired someone to handle that.”

“No, no. That’s all taken care of. It’s… I kind of mended things with Kuro last night, if you can believe it. Now some dynamics around the house are changing,” he muses, chewing down the last of his protein bowl.

“Oh. Sounds ominous,” Allura comments, her delicate brows briefly furrowing. And then they shoot high, her concern traded for optimism. “Or exciting!”

“Uh, exciting, hopefully. Or more likely somewhere in the middle,” Shiro says, smiling behind the water bottle lifted to his lips. “I’ll let you know.”

Dinner is already made by the time Shiro and Keith arrive home, warmth and the aromatic smell of spices greeting them at the door.

Kuro waves from the kitchen, smiling bright and sharp-fanged. He’s wearing Shiro’s apron. And his NASA sweatpants. And one of his henleys, too.

Shiro rolls his eyes as he hangs his coat and steps out of his boots. Between Kuro and Keith constantly raiding his closet, he’s going to be left with sparse pickings.

His petty annoyance spikes as Kuro makes a beeline to Keith and wraps him in a hug, murmuring something about being lonely all day. But it’s assuaged just as quickly when Kuro turns to him next, an arm reached tentatively out. Shiro sighs and steps in to meet him, greeting Kuro in an awkward half-hug that leaves his doppelganger with a toothy, utterly satisfied grin. The welcome is nice, though, as is the promise of a hot dinner that smells of cumin and chilies. Kuro is warm from hovering over the stove, which makes the hand resting at the small of Shiro’s back not entirely unpleasant.

They sit to eat and Shiro grudgingly admits that Kuro’s done a great job with the meal. Keith agrees, complimenting Kuro each time he gets up to serve himself another bowlful of fragrant, spicy chickpea stew. The dinner table talk is maybe the most relaxed it’s ever been, aside from Keith’s occasional ferretiness when he catches himself looking at either of them too long.

Kuro insists on wandering outdoors for a quick hunt after dinner, taking to heart his self-imposed charge to protect Keith and Shiro and the woods they call home. And far be it from either of them to oppose him, Shiro figures; he’s seen enough of Kuro in action to know that it’s the monsters skittering in the dark that ought to be worried.

Kuro pauses with his hand on the doorknob, glancing back at the living room couch and the blankets neatly folded on its arm. “Am I sleeping out here when I get back? Or can I stay with you?”

Vividly amber eyes turn on Shiro first, then Keith, hand tightening around the brass doorknob while he waits for an answer. There’s a rigid, steeling tension in him that Shiro can read too well— if Kuro can’t stay with them, he’ll just stay away. He’d rather roam the dead of night alone than lie awake in the same house as them, too close to stomach being cut off by a single locked door.

Keith’s fingers brush against the underside of Shiro’s wrist before sliding down to his palm, a comforting little touch before he takes his hand and whispers, “It’s your call.”

For a moment, Shiro simply holds Kuro’s stare. It’s remarkable how much such a small act of human intimacy means to a creature not from their world, to whom every concept of physical affection had been foreign. Until he came here, that is, and let Shiro’s memories and emotions turn him into something unrecognizable. And in the wake of releasing himself from some of the resentment he’d long held onto, Shiro finds he has a little more room inside of himself for sympathy, even if it’s for a devil.

“You’re not going in the middle,” Shiro says, getting that out of the way first. He’s not about to be split from Keith’s side, even for a night. “But sure. You can sleep with us, so long as you behave yourself.”

“I— yeah, I can do that,” Kuro rattles off, whatever disappointment he feels at not being the one to get sandwiched outdone by his relief at spending another night in their close company. He grins as he jaunts outside and down the stairs, a bounce in his long strides.

“Be careful!” Keith cautions, as if Kuro isn’t the scariest thing stalking these woods.

“And when you get back, hang out in front of the heater for a little bit before you come climbing into bed. It’s too cold out,” Shiro shouts after him, already shuddering at the thought of Kuro sliding up against his back, as cozy as snuggling with a block of ice.

Kuro raises an arm in an acknowledging little half-wave, the stark slash of his smile gleaming bright in the dark.

They watch from the doorway until he hits the treeline, undaunted by the nighttime wilderness and everything it holds. For a moment— just a moment, there and gone when Shiro blinks— he thinks he sees Kuro’s shape begin to change, to grow into something decidedly inhuman, darker and deeper than the shadows he soon blends into.

They close the door and lock up. Kuro knows how to undo them from outside anyway.

“You’re really fine with him sleeping with us?” Shiro double checks as they tread down the hall and into their bedroom. “I wish I’d asked you in the first place. Sorry,” he apologizes as he peels off his clothing layer by layer and dons a pair of flannel pajama bottoms instead. 

“I’m fine with it. I’m more surprised that you are,” Keith mutters as he peels down the covers and starts punching his pillow into shape. “Here I was just hoping we’d be able to make it through a game of Settlers of Catan together by Christmas, and then I wake up to you two being all…”

He reddens, waves his hand through the air, and seems to hope that suffices. But Shiro just stares at him, eyebrows pushed high, and waits for something more definitive than that.

“Buddy-buddy,” Keith finally huffs out. He clambers into bed and immediately draws the comforter up over his face, leaving just the little sprouted tuft of dark hair along his cowlick exposed. “Or whatever,” he adds, voice muffled.

The Keith-shaped lump under the covers moves only with the faint rise and fall of a chest. Like maybe if he lies still enough, Shiro will forget him and this conversation.

“You don’t have to be shy about it, you know,” Shiro chances, settling a hand somewhere over Keith’s heart. Or so he hopes, given that the down-filled blanket disguises Keith’s slight form fairly well. “I can tell when you’re, uh, excited, Keith. Kuro can too, apparently, which I suppose makes sense. He knows you about as well as I do.”

The corner of Shiro’s mouth gives a little tug, more a grimace than a smile. But Keith is more important than his own strange and shifting entanglement with Kuro— especially now, all vulnerable and uncertain where he lay. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to hide anything around me. I don’t want you to worry.”

Keith clears his throat and draws the covers down just enough to reveal a set of dark, doe-like eyes. “I didn't want to hide anything from you, Shiro, I just… I wasn’t sure how you’d take it,” he murmurs, tentatively holding Shiro’s gaze. “Kuro being involved and all. Or me thinking about a-anyone else like that. I didn’t want you to stress about it meaning anything. I didn’t want you to worry, either.”

“Makes sense,” Shiro whispers, throat suddenly gone tight. Even a week ago the reminder that Keith feels any attraction to Kuro at all would’ve spun him, whittled deeper at the misgivings that already riddle his scarred body. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have his doubts still, or that there’s no sticky bubbling of jealousy at the thought. It burns smaller within him now, though, an ember rather than a full-bodied flame, more easily smothered by his trust in Keith and consideration for Kuro.

“I know you were thinking of me. Protecting me, as usual,” Shiro says, heart especially tender as he smiles down at Keith. “But I did some thinking today at work and… I get it. Or I think I do, anyway. If our situations were reversed— if Kuro looked like you instead of me— I’d be just as fucked. Maybe more so.”

Keith laughs, the sound muffled under the blanket. His pretty eyes squint halfway closed, lashes silky fine and irrationally tempting to touch, and there’s relief in the sigh that comes after. There’s still a sheepish blush across his cheeks and the tips of his ears as he admits, “It’s been… challenging.”

“Mm?” Shiro gently inquires.

“You’re always going to be the center of my universe, Shiro,” Keith says before anything else. “You know how much I love you, right?”

Shiro softens like moss-covered wood gone mealy, mushy enough for a bare hand to crumble apart at will. For all the moments that he’s doubted in himself and whether he’s enough for Keith, Shiro can’t look into his eyes and believe in anything less than eternal love and unflinching devotion.

“Enough to cross into another world to find me,” Shiro murmurs, forever grateful. Keith had spent months hunting for him across hundreds of miles of unforgiving mountainsides and daunting forests. He’d confronted Kuro, an ancient and inhuman trespasser with the power to utterly erase either of them, and demanded to be taken to Shiro. Then Keith had stepped into a rift without knowing what lay on the other side, all to bring him safely home.

It still gives Shiro indigestion to think about— Keith taking on so much horror and danger for his sake— but he can’t deny that it’s nice to be reminded that he’s wanted, loved, protected. And so fiercely, too. “And you know how much I love you?”

Keith nods, the corners of his mouth curling up as Shiro slips a hand under the covers. Metal fingers brush Keith’s jaw first, angling into his hairline as they travel higher. He rests the weight of his skull against the synthetic material of the palm cupped over his cheek, eyes briefly fluttering shut. “You’re really not upset?”

“No, baby,” Shiro reassures, thumb stroking fondly over Keith’s skin before he draws his hand back to his side. “I know you. And everything concerning Kuro is… a big, grey area blob. For both of us. No one else on earth is dealing with how a shadowy, fell entity that imprinted on them is supposed to fit into their lives. I think we both deserve some leeway.”

“Yeah,” Keith agrees, blowing out a sigh as he smooths a hand back through his hair and then lazily leaves his arm bent across the pillow. “Yeah, that’s a good policy.”

A minute or so ticks by, their silence broken only by the sound of the white noise machine softly burbling from Shiro’s nightstand.

“So… what is it like?” Shiro questions, head propped in one hand while the other idly picks at lint balled up along the comforter’s starry grey fabric. “For you. Seeing us together.”

“Uh.” Keith makes a sound that dithers between a laugh and a groan, uncertain how to answer. “Confusing. And appealing. And overwhelming, too? You’re the most beautiful man in the world, Shiro. And Kuro takes after you, obviously. It’s a lot for one man to handle.”

Shiro hums softly as he pictures Keith’s dilemma, inwardly smitten at the matter-of-factly stated most beautiful man in the world comment. “Does it excite you, seeing us touch? Him pressing up against me?”

“Y-Yeah,” Keith admits, shifting under the covers. “It’s surreal enough just having you both in the same room, but draped all over each other, curling together in bed, makes me feel like I’m dreaming.”

“Sounds like you’ve given it some thought before,” Shiro says in a whisper that nearly gets eaten up by the white noise that carries from his nightstand.

Keith’s breath hitches. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t,” he admits with a nervous swallow, voice low and shaky. “But that’s all it is, Shiro. Thoughts. What-ifs.”

Fantasies, Shiro’s inner voice supplies. Daydreams and nightdreams where Keith can safely picture his husband and his unnatural twin twined close, his usual temptations doubled.

“But you’d like it,” he supposes, slipping his prosthetic arm under the covers, “if it were more than that?”

Cool metal fingers travel across flannel sheets, under the hem of the ragged tee that once belonged to him, and settle over the sunken, gently shivering stretch of Keith’s belly. With his left arm bent and his head propped in his hand, Shiro toys with the waistband of Keith’s pajama bottoms and watches the way his husband’s ears go cherry-bright, his bottom lip plump from being worried between his teeth.

“Shiro…” One of his hands finds Shiro under the covers, blindly, needily grasping down the front of his chest.

“Keith,” he answers, voice sunken low and rough-husked. “Do you think about Kuro and I kissing?”

“Sometimes,” Keith says, eyelashes fluttering as Shiro’s thumb traces around his navel, the wide span of his hand covering most of his lower abdomen. “You both look so — it would be...”

“What would it be, Keith?” Shiro pries, his fingers teasing lower.

“Hot,” Keith says, chest sinking as he releases a long-held breath. “Really hot. Like watching you make yourself feel good. Like having two of you to— to feel at the same time.”

“Two of us all to yourself,” Shiro purrs in his ear, understanding the appeal of that, at least. With a curious little squint, he searches Keith’s expression and presses on. “Do you imagine us stripping each other down? Feeling each other up while you watch?”

The words are for Keith, mostly. To make him burn and squirm with pleasure. To tease him, gently. To understand what he wants but won’t ever ask for. As textured synthetics and burnished metal skim smoothly over Keith’s sweat-damp, precum-slicked skin, though, Shiro can’t help but also think of himself.

The things he says paint pictures in his own mind, too. Kuro’s lips on him, a sharp-toothed mouth flush with his chest, a pair of wickedly golden eyes turned up to drink him in. Two sets of hands roaming his scarred skin like it’s fresh territory to be claimed. The press of a body as thick as his own against his back and Keith hard against his front, wrapped tight in strong, protective limbs.

“Or is it that you want to be between us, Keith?”

Keith’s mouth parts, the pink of his tongue just barely visible. The way he squirms under Shiro’s patient, questioning look is answer enough.

“Sandwiched nice and tight,” Shiro whispers, unsurprised when the hips under his hand buck upward and Keith’s dick twitches against the sensitive pressure plates along his palm. “Mm. Touching you everywhere at once. Kissing you nonstop. Taking turns with you. Or maybe fucking you at the same time?”

Fuck, yes,” Keith sighs out as Shiro at last wraps his hand around his length, thumb teasing at the dripping head of his cock. Frantic and insistent, his hips roll up to meet Shiro’s grip, eager to slide himself through the metal coil of his fist.

Keith pants hard and shallow under Shiro’s touch, sweat beading along his brow and dampening the strands of dark hair that cling to his skin. Whines slip past the fresh-bitten red of his lips, Shiro’s name whispered as thinly as the cold mountain air outside. He writhes anew with every dirty little thing murmured in his ear, eyes squeezed shut as he gives himself over to thoughts of what Shiro and Kuro could do to him.

“Is that what you want, Keith?” Shiro whispers, ignoring the throbbing ache of his own cock in favor of watching his husband come undone. “My cock down your throat while he takes you from behind?”

Keith groans before biting into the heel of his palm, choked little breaths escaping him as Shiro squeezes gently up and down the length of his cock, purposeful and slow despite the desperate snaking of Keith’s hips. And Shiro isn’t entirely sure which is making him harder— Keith’s pleased little whimpers or the pretty mental pictures of him wrecked and spitroasted and stuffed impossibly full.

Keith comes with a sharp cry that cuts off into nothing, his body bowing up into Shiro’s touch as he chases the pleasure in every last pulsing spurt; and then he sinks down into the mattress and tries to worm out of Shiro’s grasp, oversensitive to the point of near tears.

“You okay, baby?” Shiro asks as his hand withdraws, the joints of his sleek prosthetic a sticky, gooey mess that’ll be a bitch to clean if he doesn’t get to it before it dries.

Keith drags a forearm along his sweat-dampened brow and sweeps the messy, pretty fringe of his damp hair back. Warm, rosy pink lingers on his cheeks. His lip is swollen and bruised from biting, and his eyelids sit heavily over pleasure-glossed eyes.

“Uh, holy shit. Yeah.” He groans and wriggles down into the mattress, getting comfortable as he relaxes. There’s a faint, contented smile on his lips as he murmurs, “I… wow. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“But you liked it.” Shiro raises an eyebrow and tries not to smile.

“Yeah. Yes. I mean, obviously...” Keith gestures down at himself, no doubt sticky and disheveled underneath the comforter. The fading blush across his cheeks flares back up as he quietly asks, “Did you like it?”

Shiro thinks about it for a few moments, then leans over to press a kiss to Keith’s feverish cheek. “Yeah, baby. Hard not to enjoy anything that gets you so worked up.”

He smiles into Keith’s hair and waits out his husband’s soft little snort of amusement.

“You sounded pretty into everything you were saying yourself,” Keith suggests, eyeing Shiro up.

“Did I?” Shiro rolls onto his back and slips come-coated fingers down under his own waistband, ready to take care of himself. He pulls his cock free of damp-spotted boxers and gives it a few slow strokes, thoughts straying back to all the threesome ideas he’d thrown at Keith. His cheeks warm, flustered to find they’re enough to stir excitement in him even without Keith twisting and panting under his touch.

Keith props himself up on an elbow, slides a slim hand down to Shiro’s hips, and wrests the thick, woefully neglected cock out of his hand. Under the downy thick comforter, everything is warm— but Keith most of all, his touch igniting a wave of tingly, electric heat that threatens to unravel Shiro then and there. “Here, let me.”

Shiro hums as his back arches and his toes point, every fiber of him responding enthusiastically to the feel of Keith’s callused fingers around him. “Mm. Please and thank you.”

“So,” Keith says as he palms between Shiro’s legs, over his balls, and then strokes all the way up his length again. “Anything you’d like me to talk about?”

“Hearing your voice is always nice.” Shiro grins, eyes closed, as Keith slithers in closer and warm breath billows over the shell of his ear.

“Is that what you want, Shiro?” he asks, a timid note somewhere under the deep, honeyed rasp of his voice. “To watch me getting fucked while you fuck me, too?”

Caught off guard, Shiro’s breath hitches. His eyes fly open and fix on the slats of the darkened ceiling, head cradled in the cloudy softness of his pillow while Keith keeps whispering in his ear. The hand around his length gives a slick twist on the next stroke, drawing him into a spine-bending little arch.

“Or maybe you’d like to be in the middle,” Keith softly suggests, pumping his cock quicker, with less control. “Buried all the way inside me while Kuro is—”

Shiro finishes before Keith does, letting out a shuddering, overwrought cry that surprises even himself. Wet spots of warmth splatter up his belly, over his chest. Some gets on the underside of the sheets, too, cooling quick and leaving sticky little damp spots that’ll bother him til they go dry.

But he’s too bonelessly content to even think about changing the linens at this hour, happily a mess as he snuggles Keith close and lets himself enjoy the satisfaction that blankets him as heavily as their down-stuffed comforter.

And now that his curiosity and horniness are both sated, Shiro tries not to dwell anymore on the rather unfortunately alluring thought of a threesome with Kuro.


Who will be returning at any moment.

Here. Eager to share their bed, as promised.

As if summoned by nothing more than a thought, Shiro can hear the clinking of heavy locks coming undone, one-by-one, followed by the closing of the weighty front door.

“Shit!” Keith whispers through his teeth, gesturing to himself and Shiro and the fresh mess they’ve made between them.

Panicked, Shiro leans over to grab a fistful of tissues from the box on his nightstand, handing off half to Keith so they can desperately try to clean up. There are no telltale steps down the hall to give them any warning, though. No creaking of wooden floorboards. 

Their bedroom door swings open and Kuro emerges from the hallway’s darkness like a ghost from fog, eerily silent. Though he wears a smile, he lingers at the threshold with shifting, skulking uncertainty, as if waiting for an invitation.

Shiro sighs, tosses a wad of soiled tissues at the trash bin on the other side of the bed, and says, “You can come in, if you’re not cold as ice.”

“Don’t worry, I fed while I was out,” Kuro says, beaming as he glides in.

His bright smile twists slightly at the corners as he draws closer, taking everything in with a brief flicker of puzzlement. His gaze slides from Shiro to Keith— visibly flushed and undoubtedly sticky under the covers, who chokes out a quick goodnight and rolls over facedown into his pillow— and then back again, one eyebrow arching slightly.

The look he lays on Shiro is knowing, the yearning and envy in those amber eyes barely veiled. On any other night, it would’ve given Shiro nothing but possessive satisfaction— and it still does, to a softened degree, but it’s hard to be smug when Kuro is half the reason they’re both in the state they’re in.

“Did I interrupt?” Kuro asks in quiet tones, still smiling even as his manner turns uncertain again.

Shiro can’t help the heat that rises up to his ears every time he looks up at Kuro now, too much of him still fresh in mind. “No. No, we’d just finished. Uh… sorry. About. This,” he awkwardly stumbles out, well aware that Keith is desperately pretending to be unconscious beside him. “We can take the sheets off and just sleep under the comforter.”

Kuro looks up and down the bed before leveling his stare back at Shiro, faintly bemused. “I don’t mind it as-is.”

“You…” Shiro opens his mouth, closes it, and grunts an acknowledgement. “Of course you don’t. I’m not sure why I was worried.”

“Just a little jealous is all,” Kuro admits as he pulls off Shiro’s clothes and leaves them in a careless pile on the floor. “But what’s new?”

Shiro hums and scoots further into the middle of the bed, making enough room for Kuro to fit in beside him. It’s less awkward than he’d have imagined, really— Keith seems to be feeling the brunt of that, currently self-cocooned and willfully pretending Kuro didn’t just walk in on them post-threesome fantasy talk.

Kuro is warm, this time. Freshly drained quintessence always makes him feel more alive, and over the years he’s learned how to take it from earth’s flora and fauna without leaving crumbling, lifeless destruction in his wake.

“I could’ve leant a hand, you know,” Kuro idly whispers as he stretches out beside him, head lolling to the side to study Shiro’s profile. A teasing, testing offer by the sound of it.

Shiro smiles, face blushing bright in the merciful dark, and exhales through his nose. “Thanks, but I had it all taken care of. Oh, but speaking of hands,” he adds, human fingers skimming along the seam of his prosthetic as he detaches it, “would you mind setting this on the nightstand?”

Kuro huffs but does it anyway, gently positioning the limb where he lays it.

“Thanks for going on patrol tonight,” Shiro murmurs, angling his head the slightest bit toward Kuro. In the dark, the rings of his irises gleam like perfect bands of gold, eerie and inhuman. “For keeping the woods safe. For keeping us safe. I appreciate it.”

That garners a genuine smile, Kuro openly flattered as he nuzzles deeper into Shiro’s soft pillow. “Anytime, Shiro.” He sighs, eyelashes fluttering, and gives a sleepy yawn. “I wanted to make sure there were no unwelcome surprises for Keith tomorrow. No little ankle-biters grabbing some hiker in the woods and making trouble for him.”

“I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to have a ghoul-free birthday,” Shiro murmurs, stifling a yawn of his own behind his remaining hand. He drops off quick, relaxed by the radiant warmth of the two bodies on either side of him, two sets of even breaths, two watchful amber eyes that won’t let harm even wander close. “Night, Kuro.”

He’s half asleep when his own voice hits his ears, barely a whisper. “Goodnight, Shiro.”