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baby's first juniberry

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Shiro had never been very interested in romance.

Growing up in the palace by the generosity of King Alfor, who had taken him in as his ward after his parents' untimely death, Shiro knew his place in Altean nobility.

He knows that he is being educated to be a fine member of the King's staff someday.

He'd be fortunate to end up as an aide to the King or his counsel. Perhaps because he has been showing aptitude in his lessons on physical combat, he'd be a soldier, a warrior... Maybe, if he was really good, he'd even be a general. Or... distant but not impossible, his extended stays in the royal library would bear fruit when the time finally came for him to study how to fly Altean spacecraft. He could be a pilot. An explorer. After all, he had always been most interested in King Alfor's stories about his adventures in different planets and galaxies.

Either way, as long as he would grow to be of use to the man and the people who had taken him in and treated him like family, it would be an honor. Shiro is determined to repay King Alfor's kindness. He is a diligent and hard worker, young as he was with only twelve deca-phoebs on him. He never let his disability hinder him in any way, either - Altean technology had provided him with a high caliber prosthetic arm in place of the one he had lost in the accident along with his parents.

For his part, King Alfor seems pleased with him. The man is not only generous with his knowledge and stories, but also with his praises.

Queen Melinor even tends to use him as a fine example of a young noble. "See, Allura?" she'd tell her daughter, who is only four deca-phoebs older than Shiro and treats the younger like a little brother. "Shiro does very well when guests visit because he doesn't run from his lessons."

Allura would pout at him, but he also knows she didn't think any ill of him. "It's just so boring, having to memorize all those different curtsies and bows and-"

"Alteans are diplomats. It is right that we study other species' customs."

"But there are so many~"

"Well, Shiro doesn't seem to have a problem with them."

.

When it's just the two of them, Allura would playfully pinch his cheeks and say, "Stop being such a good boy, Shiro. You make the rest of us look bad."

He knows she doesn't mean it.

After all, if they both skipped their courtesy lessons, Shiro wouldn't be able to bow properly to foreign guests, and Allura wouldn't have him to imitate when her turn comes.

"I just like... learning new things..."

"Well, if you hole yourself up in the library all day even outside your lessons, your friends will miss you."

He doesn't have many friends. His tutors were his friends. Some of the servants' children... Allura's friends, some of them, maybe?

Allura wags her fingers then, teasing, "And, before you know it, you're all grown up, and you'd also miss a beautiful or handsome prince or princess or lord or lady or... person... who could turn out to be your one true love!"

Shiro blushes, frowns, and goes back to his book about planets - Balmera, the text says, then there's something about crystals and rocks and energy - "I... I don't really... I'm not interested in that. I'll be busy being of help to King Alfor, or... or training to be a warrior, or pilot-"

Allura thinks about it. "Hm. You're right." she nods, then shrugs. "Anyway, I'm sure Father will find a suitable partner for you, someday. You're a member of the family, technically, so that's bound to be important."

"Important?"

"In many ways. Just to name one, a union with you can seal an alliance."

Despite her more carefree attitude, Shiro is reminded that Allura is still older than him, and is much more aware of the ways of their society.

"Like you and the prince of Daibazaal?" he asks. That has been common knowledge for a while now.

Her cheeks darken slightly. "Y-yes, I suppose so."

Shiro knows that Princess Allura has known Prince Lotor since childhood, and considers him a good friend. All things considered, she is quite amicable to the arrangement.

"Hmm..." he hums in thought, looking down at his book, just staring at the images of Balmeran crystals of different sizes.

"B-But I'm not saying that you'll have an arranged marriage too!" she says, perhaps assuming his silence meant discomfort or worry. "I'm sure... I'm sure if you find a person you'd fall in love with, Father will be accepting! We'll support you! We'll be happy if you're happy!"

This is the closest that Shiro had ever been interested in romance.

He had attended several union ceremonies, learned a number of local and foreign customs from his lessons, and of course, he had grown up on Altean fairy tales, some of which were love  stories.

For now, he simply thinks that he has more important things to do. He has lessons to study. He has his training to focus on.

So he just shrugs. "As long as I'll bring honor to Altea. I will do my duty."

Allura stares at him for a tick before groaning. She pinches his cheeks again, and this time he does pout.

"Whaaaat?" he complains, and this time he knows he sounds like a child.

"Stop. Being. So. Good!" she says, frustrated but hopelessly fond. "You're already Father's and Mother's favorite! Who does that leave me with?"

He shrugs. "Coran?"

She gasps, then nods fervently. "That's right. You'll never take Coran from me."

"Well... he's started to teach me about the Castle of Lions built by his Pop-pop-"

The princess' expression turns downright distraught. "Nooooooo!"

.


.

Shiro had never been interested in romance, but Allura and her small army of young ladies were very very much so.

It starts with a box. A simple one, elegantly wrapped, addressed to Princess Allura of Altea. It's from a friend, she says, another princess from one of the planets she and King Alfor had visited in the past. She says that she and the other princess had grown to be very close friends during her stay.

(It's one of the reasons Shiro can't wait to grow older - he wants to be able to accompany King Alfor in diplomatic trips too.)

Allura opens the present to reveal what looks like a little cube - its sides are translucent pink, sleek like glass with intricate carvings that flicker faintly. She turns it over in her hands a couple of times before reading the note that came with it.

Shiro watches her eyes sparkle, then she turns the cube over again, this time patting it like she's looking for something, until she finds what seems to be a little button and presses down., The cube glows slightly and the marks shift. Allura squints at it, and what she sees makes her gasp in surprise, eyes growing wide, cheeks turning dark.

Before Shiro could lean over and look closer, see what caused such a reaction from the princess, Allura pulls the cube to her chest, covering it with her hands.

"Don't look!" she squeaks, still blushing, still wide-eyed.

"What is it?" he asks, slightly alarmed.

"It's... I-It's... A secret!" she blurts out. "It's for young ladies only!"

Shiro blinks, but backs down easily. "...Um. Alright?"

"I... I have to... I... Go back to your book, Shiro. I have to find Luka and the others!"

"Okay." Shiro only nods. If he were to be honest, sometimes Allura and her young ladies baffle him with their constant huddling and whispering together.

She beams at him - a little too wide to be reassuring - and then rushes out the room.

.

.

Over the next few quintants, Shiro would always find Allura surrounded by her friends. They move together like a swarm. They take turns holding the little pink box. They giggle and laugh and tease each other.

Nothing new, he thinks. They've always been like this, except this time they have a box to pass around, apparently.

'Better it than me' , he thinks. Last time got their hands on him, he'd been squished and doted on because apparently he is an adorable baby. He was twelve!

He also thinks nothing of it even when he sees some of the servant girls mingling with Allura's royal clique, also being given a chance to poke and prod at the box. After all, they're all young ladies, royal or not. They can all enjoy the pink box. Whatever it is that it does.

.

He finds out several quintants later.

He had just finished his combat training, making his way through the halls of the palace, when he hears the tell-tale whispers of a group of young ladies.

“Shiro!” he hears Allura’s voice call, followed by greetings and calls of his name from the princess’ friends.

He stops walking and turns to them, bowing self-consciously. He knows he must look disheveled from training.

They all beam at him, and Allura’s smile should have been warning enough when she asked, “Are you in a hurry?”

Shiro looks back at them, then shakes his head tentatively, wondering why they had paid attention to him all of a sudden.

“Can you come over? We have something to show you!”

He feels like he should run.

But it’s Princess Allura. He doesn’t want to embarrass her in front of her friends. Slowly, he approaches them, and he hopes they don’t mind his less than graceful appearance as they lead him to the center of their huddle.

“Here, take a look at this.” Allura says, handing him something that he instinctively accepts.

It’s the pink box. 

"What... what is it?" he asks.

Someone calls him cute. Allura only smiles wider. "It's a present I got from a friend."

"Okay." he says. "What does it do?"

"Remember what I told you about the planet I visited with father? About the people there?"

It's not difficult to recall that. Shiro paid very close attention to King Alfor's stories about his trips. "The... um... fortune-tellers?"

Someone else coos and calls him smart in addition to being cute. He blushes.

Allura nods. "Yes! They are traditional and superstitious, and they observe their constellations and... do a lot of other things and magic... Amazing, right?! That is from my friend there! She said it's very popular with young people on their planet."

"Oh. Does it... tell the future?" he asks, now more curious about the cube. No wonder Allura and her friends are all over it. Fortunes from stars and crystals and sparkly rocks. They love that. It didn't sound very... scientific... but maybe that's part of the charm. It's mysterious. Magic.

Allura hums in thought. "Sort of. Press that button over there."

He presses the button. The ladies crowd closer. Like what he saw the first time, the cube's carvings glow and then they start moving. "What's it doing?" he asks, when he couldn't make sense of the dancing symbols.

"It's supposed to tell you about your true love." Allura says as he gets squeezed in the center of the huddle.

His head snaps up and he gapes at the princess. "W-What?!"

"Your true love." one of the girls say. "The one! Or... or two, or three, we never know-"

"B-But-! Wha- True- True l-love- But I don't- How-"

"Just watch!"

"No! I don't wanna-!" he splutters, helpless, as they start squealing in anticipation. "I don't have a true love-"

He gets shushed by the dozen girls flanking him and looking intently at the pink box in his hands.

"Yet!"

"Maybe it's gonna be about how you meet them!"

"Or what they look like!"

"It told me what kind of person mine is..."

"Well, I don't think mine is correct-"

"Oh, come off it, he's cute."

"You wouldn't be saying that if you grew up with him, he's a total weirdo!"

"I'm sure Shiro will get someone nice. He's a sweetheart!"

Allura shushes them all. "Everyone quiet, it's starting!"

Shiro whines as he gets squished, but despite himself, he quickly pays attention when the marks settle on the top side of the cube. They form a very fancy border filled with flowers and swirls, and then inside it, he reads the words as they appear in just as fancy Altean script.

There is a chorus of "Oooooohhhh~" among the girls as they all process the words.

"You will meet them in a garden! How romantic!"

"Favorite flower? Shiro, what's your favorite flower?"

"Charming, with the loveliest face and eyes like the starry night sky... Aww, that's a nice description...!"

"Shiro, they sound like a beauty!"

Shiro stares.

According to this fancy glowing pink box, he will meet his true love under blue skies in a garden surrounded by his favorite flowers. And this true love person is charming, lovely and has pretty eyes.

Nope. Nuh-uh.

He is not ready to think about this.

Slowly, Shiro hands the box back to Allura.

"I... Um. Thank you for sharing your present from your friend. But... a-according to my teachers, fortune-telling is not real. It's a nice trick, though."

Allura pouts. "Well, it's already got some predictions right..."

One of the others - Luka, he recognizes, lean closer. "Do you recognize who it's talking about? Do you know them?"

"No!" he steps back from them. "I mean- No. I don't know anyone with... eyes. I- I mean, I know people with eyes! But not like, the eyes. Sky... night... eyes. Whatever that thing said!"

Some of the girls giggle. "Aww, he's shy!"

A few of them were nicer. "Don't tease him!" one says, while another smiles, reassuring. "It's okay, Shiro..."

He knows his face is red. There’s nothing he can do about that. He just tries to stand straight and avoids looking at any of them. "I. Um. I'm gonna go clean up now! Good day to you all!”

.

.

Perhaps it’s a mix of fatigue from training and his own flustered state, but he had to stop and catch his breath before he could reach his room. Shiro pants, and looks back - neither Allura nor any of her friends followed him. Good.

To his side is an exit, and he looks out and realizes he’s reached one of his favorite places in the castle. This courtyard is spacious, but is smaller than the others around the castle so it’s seldom frequented by anyone. There is a beautiful fountain with a statue of a majestic white lion. On sunny days, he likes to take out his latest reading or study material and sit by the fountain.

Deciding to take a break, he trudges towards the fountain and slumps on the grass, back leaning against the cool Altean stone.

The sword is uncomfortable in his hip, so he unlatches it and places it between his legs, then he hugs his knees to his chest and sighs as he buries his head in his arms.

It is quiet, save for the chirping of birds and the sound of the water of the fountain. There’s not even chatter from the nearby hallways because this is a more isolated part of the palace.

Shiro finally feels at peace.

He really did love this little garden, specially on sunny days with clear skies-

Wait- clear skies- he looks up, yes, it is sunny - sunny and clear blue… and he is in a garden-

Isn’t that exactly what the box said?

Does that mean he’ll meet his-

“No.” he mumbles. “No. I like gardens. I’m always in this garden. I won’t meet my- I have no- That box is-... It’s a stupid box.”

‘It probably just shows you random things when you press the button.’ he thinks.

“And I don’t have time for those things!” he blurts out in a mumble, to no one in particular. “I have a lot of lessons to do! Lots of training! I’m gonna be a good fighter, or… or… an explorer. I’m gonna learn to fly my own ship and explore the universe and-”

“Heads up!”

Shiro stops abruptly because then three things happen.

A juniberry flower floats in the air in front of him. A small, pale hand reaches out for it and manages to grab the stem, inches from Shiro’s face.

The hand is followed by a person. This person loses their footing and Shiro unfurls from his little ball and raises his hands to support them, promptly forgetting that his practice sword is tangled between his legs, which causes him to lose his balance and topple over forward, crashing against the other person, who-

-was surprisingly small and fit snugly in his arms, he realizes as they both fall into an ungraceful tangle of limbs on the grass.

At least, Shiro thinks, they didn’t fall on the fountain water.

He rubs his head with a groan and squints to finally get a good look at his surprise guest.

It’s a boy. A boy who can’t be older than him, perhaps a deca-phoeb or two younger. Altean, with red marks beside his eyes, dressed in different shades of dark blue and deep purple. It’s a peculiar fashion, but obviously expensive. Shiro spots a brooch and sees an unfamiliar crest, but the presence of it is enough to indicate that the boy is royalty.

Shiro has never seen him before, and he tries to think - did they have guests in the palace today? Coran usually told him about those...

The boy apologizes as he untangles from Shiro and sits up, running a hand through his hair to brush the strands off his face. “I’m sorry- Are you hurt?”

Shiro makes sure to grab his sword this time and put it out of the way before he moves to sit back up. “I… probably bruised something, but I don’t think anything’s broken.”

“I’m sorry again! I was just… trying to get the flower-” the boy looks down, and his dark eyes widen when he sees the ruined juniberry in his hand. “Oh…”

Shiro takes in the boy’s disappointed expression and instinctively tries to comfort him. “Sorry about your flower. But… you can get another one? We’re in a garden full of them.”

Wait- juniberry is-

The boy’s head snaps up and Shiro finds himself staring back into big, shining, deep purple-blue eyes. His pupils dilate , like a cat’s.

The color’s like the-

“Really?” the boy asks, then looks around, and his lips curl into a little smile as he spots the pink flowers growing all around them. “Oh!”

He looks very-

“Lovely.” he finishes the thought, out loud.

“They are! My friend loves them. I’m gonna surprise her.” the boy says happily, and before Shiro can form a response, he stands up and runs toward the nearest cluster of juniberries.

Shiro stares at the boy's back as he hums and considers which of the pink flowers to pick. "These things don't grow in Marmora."

'Marmora?' Shiro thinks. 'One of the colonies...'

The boy finally decides, plucking one flower, and then another. Then another. After that, he returns to Shiro and wordlessly hands him the last flower.

Shiro accepts it, tongue-tied for some reason he couldn't name. 

He recalls one of the young ladies' questions earlier: 'Shiro, what's your favorite flower?'

Juniberry. He likes juniberry, because they were the flowers that grew around the White Lion fountain. In his favorite garden in the palace.

"Sorry again for... running into you." the boy says.

"Uh- It's... okay-"

Then Shiro freezes when the boy frowns and runs his fingers through Shiro's tuft of white hair that he's sure is a mess. "There's grass in your hair." The boy squints, his nose wrinkles and then his free hand moves to Shiro's face, thumb rubbing his cheek. "And in your face."

Meanwhile, Shiro couldn't seem to stop himself from staring. There's... so much... about the other boy. So many expressions in his face in as many ticks. And his eyes.

Shiro has never seen that color before. At least, not in someone's eyes. It's just like-

Wait.

He whips his head to look up- 'Blue skies.' Around- 'Garden. Surrounded by my favorite flowers.' At the boy's face- 'Charming, lovely face, and...' The boy's eyes - 'Starry night skies.'

The boy leans forward a bit, now gently poking at the side of his jaw. "There's a bruise here... Did I hit you there? Um... Hello? Are you really okay? Did you hit your head when we fell after all? Hey. Kid?"

Kid. Did he just call Shiro 'kid'?

'I'm older than you.' is what Shiro wants to say.

Of course, that's not what he says.

Shiro is tired, and terrified, and maybe in a little bit of shock.

What comes out is -

 

"Are you my true love?"

 

The boy stops poking.

His eyebrow raises. Higher than Shiro thinks an eyebrow could raise. "What." he deadpans.

And then Shiro realizes what he just said. "W-What?" he splutters out, more to himself than to his companion.

"What?"

Shiro feels his cheeks burn. "Wha- O-Oh-... Oh, no..."

The boy just stares at him as he buries his face in his hands and curls in on himself, groaning.

"Please forget I said that..."

"Did... did you just ask-"

Before he could finish, a voice rings out from the distance, somewhere inside the castle. "Prince Keith? Prince Keith! Your mother is looking for you!"

The boy straightens up, alert. "I gotta go."

Shiro opens his mouth to say something, but the boy is already patting down his rumpled robes and stepping backwards.

"I... um... See you around- Sorry again for- Yeah. Put some ice on that cheek! Bye!"

"B-Bye..." Shiro manages, faintly.

The boy disappears inside the castle halls, but Shiro could pick up bits of conversation when he meets the person calling for him.

The other voice is loud and high-pitched. A girl's. "There you are! What happened to your clothes?"

"Um. Accident- Nevermind that, look what I got."

A gasp. "Is that juniberry?!" Then it was followed by squeals, and then cheerful chatter between the two as their footsteps and voices faded.

Shiro finally stands, legs a bit wobbly from sitting so long (and being bowled over by a very beautiful boy). He picks up his training sword.

"Prince Keith of Mamora." he mumbles, staring at the single juniberry in his hand. He brings it up and takes a deep breath, inhaling the familiar flowery scent. His deep breath turns into a sigh.

He did very poorly there.

Prince Keith must have found him unpleasant. He didn't even thought it was worth it to introduce himself, or ask Shiro's name. And he couldn't leave any faster.

Shiro frowns. Did he make a fool of himself in front of his true love-

Wait.

No.

What is he talking about.

He grumbles and, making sure no one else is nearby, he allows himself to huff and stomp petulantly to his room.

"Stupid pink box."

.

.

He makes sure to put the juniberry on a glass of water by his study desk.

.


.

After a lengthy bath in which Shiro just sulked in the tub making shapes out of bubbles, one of the servants drop by to deliver a message from Queen Melinor. Apparently, they have guests for dinner, so Shiro should dress nicely (well, nicer than usual) and if possible, come to the dining hall earlier.

Shiro put on one of his nicer traditional Altean clothes. He puts a bit of powder in his bruised jaw - he had applied healing salve on it earlier and it's already feeling a lot less painful. As soon as he's done, he heads for the dining hall.

On his way, he is intercepted by a familiar but surprising guest.

"Shiro! It's good to see you." the young Altean-Galran says, as always sounding effortlessly regal even while being casual.

Shiro hurries to bow. "Prince Lotor. It's good to see you too." he smiles. "I... I didn't know you are visiting today."

"It's on very short notice." the prince says.

There's a quiet grunt, and it's only then that Shiro notices there's someone behind the prince.

"Ah. I want you to meet someone." Lotor says, then steps aside and gently leads the younger boy to stand in front of him. "This is my cousin, Keith."

Shiro takes a step backward before he could stop himself.

Prince Keith, now dressed in a neater and slightly fancier version of his earlier clothes, blinks at his reaction. Then he snorts, amused. "Don't worry, I'm not gonna tackle you again."

Shiro blushes, then in an effort to regain his composure and hide his red cheeks, he bows too. "I... It's an honor to meet you, Prince Keith!"

"Likewise." Keith replies, bowing more casually. Then he looks up at Lotor. "We've met."

Lotor raises an eyebrow. "Have you?"

"He's the weird kid I told you about. From the garden. A while ago."

Shiro hangs his head.

Weird.

Prince Keith thinks he's weird .

"Oh." Lotor says, also sounding amused. "Well... We won't call him that. His name is Shiro. He is King Alfor's ward."

"Ah..." Keith nods, taking that in, eyes looking directly at Shiro, looking him up and down and back up again.

Lotor continues the introductions. "And Shiro, Keith here is the son of Queen Krolia. I'm sure you've heard of Marmora, one of the Altean colonies. Keith is a cousin from my mother's side, but I believe he also has some Galra in him, don’t you, Keith?"

“A quarter.” Keith says. “From grandfather.”

That explains the eyes.

"Oh... I see..." Shiro answers weakly, trying to avoid Prince Keith's direct gaze. "W-Welcome to Altea, Prince Keith."

Instead of responding with the usual pleasantries, Prince Keith asks, "How's your jaw?"

"It's fine!" Shiro is quick to reassure. "Don't worry about it. This was... before the... what happened in the garden. I was in sword training. I took a hit from sparring."

"Oh. Okay. I thought it was me." Keith chuckled, then his eyes light up and Shiro is lost in them again. Is it just him or they look brighter this time? "You were sword training?"

"I... yes. I was."

"What else are you training in?"

"Uh... well... self-defense and... hand-to-hand..."

Shiro notices Lotor giving him a look, and it takes several confused ticks of the older prince pointing to Shiro's arm using his eyes before Shiro gets what he's trying to say. Shiro dutifully offers his arm to Prince Keith, who doesn't hesitate to latch on to it because he is listening too intently to what Shiro is saying.

"...physical combat."

"So it's all just fighting?"

"I'll... be starting on piloting basics soon."

"You're gonna be flying a ship?"

"Hopefully." he says. "Are you... interested in piloting too?"

Lotor only smiles at them and then makes his way towards the dining hall. Gesturing for the two to keep up, which they do, while talking.

"They haven't let me fly a real ship yet. But I've been doing a lot of simulations. Mom says I've already broken some records." then Keith sniggers. "I crashed Kolivan's hoverbike a couple quintants ago."

"W-What? Are- Are you okay?" - a pause, then - "Who is Kolivan?"

"Leader of our military- It's not like I stole it, though. I asked him and he let me use it to race with Regris, and I won the race. But I crashed. But I won!"

"They let you- You won... against...?"

"Regris. My bodyguard."

Shiro looks at the other boy, horrified. "You raced against your bodyguard?"

"He told me I couldn't beat him. So I did." Keith huffs. "Who's small and cute now?"

Shiro takes a couple of moments to process that, but is pulled out of it when Keith asks him about what he wants to do when he learns how to fly a ship.

"I..." he pauses, hesitant, glancing at Prince Lotor walking a few steps in front of them, surely within earshot.

He never told anyone what he wanted for his future before. It had always been safe answers: to repay King Alfor, to help his family, to serve Altea...

Somehow, with Keith, he thinks those answers wouldn't be enough.

He bites his lip, but manages to quietly answer, "I want to be an explorer."

Keith's face lights up again, and Shiro feels the boy squeeze his arm. "We can be co-pilots."

This time, there's no helping the smile that blooms across Shiro's face.

.

They manage to talk about swords, piloting, new ship models and a number of different planets and galaxies by the time they get to the dining hall.

Allura spots Lotor first, and greets her betrothed with a hug. Then she sees Shiro and the boy in his arm. "Oh..." she whispers, sneaking a glance at Lotor before smiling at the younger two. "Well... hello, you two." she says, sounding very endeared.

"Princess Allura." Keith bows slightly.

"Prince Keith." she replies, curtsying. "I see you've met my brother."

Keith nods. "I thought he was a lot older, turns out he’s just really tall. I like him, he's a lot of fun."

It was so blunt yet honest that Shiro couldn't help but blush. Allura lets out a surprise giggle, and is about to say something but Shiro beat her to it before she could tease him. "Prince Keith, why don't we greet King Alfor a good evening?"

"Oh. Yeah, we should do that. Mom is with him too. I'll introduce you!"

With that, he leads Keith away.

"I must say, Allura." he hears Lotor talking, just barely out of earshot. "I have never heard Shiro talk so much in all the time I've known him."

Allura laughs. "Maybe it just takes the right person."

.

.

Queen Krolia and Prince Keith stay in the castle for one movement.

Within that one movement, Shiro experiences a bunch of firsts.

For the first time, someone smaller than him manages to pin him down the training mat.

For the first time, he asks Coran to allow him to skip a lesson so he can take Keith on a tour of the city.

For the first time, he breaks a rule and sneaks into a flight simulator without permission and actually manages to break one of the top records in it. 

For the first time, he gets scolded by King Alfor, who stops midway when Keith points out Shiro's score and then after a long sigh, he says, "Just ask next time, alright?"

He thinks he catches King Alfor grinning as he left, but maybe he was just seeing things.

(Afterwards, Queen Krolia herself approaches him and gives him some tips so he doesn't crash on his next attempt.)

.

.

They part with a promise to keep in touch.

"So you can get me into more trouble?" Shiro teases.

Keith shoves him, playful. "So you remember to have fun."

.


.

And they do keep in touch, all the way between Altea and Marmora.

"Keith!"

"H-Hey..." - a yawn - "Someone looks happy..."

"I just got out from my first flight!"

"Really?! How was it!"

"Coran said I did good! Well... I snagged into a tree... but I landed okay!"

A laugh. "Not bad! Congratulations... But also... it's... umm... sleeping hours in here..."

"O-Oh. I forgot! I'm so sorry, Keith..."

"No, it's alright. I'm happy for you. Good day, co-pilot."

"Okay. Good night, co-pilot."

.


.

'Broke your record in the simulator, your highness.'

'WHAT'

'Check the data I sent.'

'oh'

'Oh? That's it?'

'FINE'

'Fine?'

'WAIT'

'For what?'

.

5 doboshes pass-

'Keith?'

.

One varga later-

'Keith, talk to me please...'

'Broke your record, old-timer.'

'I'm just one decaphoeb older than you!'

'OLD'

'I saw the data. Congratulations. Will you ever let me beat you?'

'Never'

.


.

Soon enough, their calls are part of each other's routines.

Until one morning when Shiro sends a message to ask Keith how he's doing, but he gets no reply.

Instead, there is suddenly a knock... on his balcony door, of all places. Shiro swings the door open and stops.

He blinks, then rubs his eyes, blinks again, squints and blinks again.

He contemplates slapping his face, or pinching his arm, because surely he must be dreaming.

But then the person sitting on the sleek black and purple hoverbike that is somehow parked in his bedroom's balcony speaks, clear as day.

"Um… Good morning. Happy sixteenth name day?"

"Keith." Shiro says, careful. "Are you a hologram? You must be a hologram."

Keith crosses his arms and pouts. "Really? I come all the way from another planet and you think I'm a- You know what, why don't you check?"

Slowly, tentatively, Shiro approaches him. He raises his hand, one finger up, and then pokes the cheek of what must simply be a crystal clear projection of Keith.

His finger touches warm skin.

Keith is real. He is not a hologram. Not a dream.

"Keith!" Shiro exclaims, then throws his arms around his best friend.

He nearly knocks Keith off his seat on the hoverbike, but Keith quickly hugs him back, wrapping his arms around Shiro's broad shoulders.

"You're really here!"

"Surprise!" Keith laughs, melting against the other. They hug for a long moment before Shiro lets go a bit to look at Keith. It's the first time in deca-phoebs that they've seen each other in the flesh.

"I-... How-... What are you doing here?"

"It's your name day." Keith shrugs. "I came to deliver your present."

"Present?"

"Sorry, I kinda rode it before you did."

Shiro gapes at him, before looking down disbelievingly at the hoverbike. It’s… simply put, it’s gorgeous . He had never even seen this model before.

"Is this-? Are you-...?" Shiro takes a deep breath. Keith feels the hands on his waist squeeze slightly. "Keith, I… I can't possibly accept this."

"Slow down, old-timer. It's not from me." Keith says, fingers combing through Shiro’s bed hair. "It's from King Alfor. He commissioned some of our finest engineers in Marmora for this special one-of-a-kind beauty. I'm kinda jealous, to be honest."

It takes Shiro another moment and a deep breath to calm down. When he looks at Keith, he lets out a teasing smile. "Is that why you decided to ride it before I could?"

Keith pretends to think about it, grin impish. "You could say that."

"And you really had to deliver it yourself? Prince Keith of Marmora?"

"Think of me as the bonus present."

Shiro couldn't help but grin back, then he pulls Keith into a hug again.

"Mmf. I don't remember you being this cuddly." Keith says, muffled against the other's shoulder. Despite his words, he snuggles closer.

Shiro only squeezes him tighter. "I think I like the bonus present more."

Keith had to pause at that. For a tick, his brain froze and he couldn't completely process what that meant. When Shiro just keeps hugging him, he chuckles. "You're crushing your bonus present, Shiro."

Shiro gingerly lets him go, and Keith finally hops off the hoverbike so Shiro can properly admire it. He latches on to Shiro's arm instead, like he did deca-phoebs ago, when they first met.

It doesn't escape him, how different they both are now.

Dammit, Shiro grew a lot taller and wider over the deca-phoebs. It’s the one thing Keith’s not certain he could catch up to.

"It looks... fast." Shiro says as he touches the cool metal.

"Oh, it is very fast." Keith assures him. “That’s how I overtook the others.”

Shiro marvels at the hoverbike for another long moment. It takes a while to sink in.

“Wait... Overtook?”

“I ran from my guards.” the prince shrugs. “They didn’t want me driving this ‘cause they think it’s dangerous. I'm gonna have to sweet-talk mom into giving me a red one.”

Shiro sighs. “Keith…”

Then he feels a tug on his sleeve, and Keith is pulling him forward. "Alright, less staring, more moving. Hop on! I'll ride behind you! Hurry, before they get here!"

"Keith-... Keith, at least let me change out of my sleeping robes!"

.

Keith is only able to stay for a quintant, but they make the most of it, riding into the beautiful landscapes in Altea in the new hoverbike.

Shiro walks Keith to the Marmoran ship and they share another long hug. "I'll miss you." he says against Keith's dark hair.

"We talk everyday." Keith points out as they part.

"It's... different. You know what I mean." Shiro says.

Keith looks thoughtful, then he gestures for Shiro to lean down. Shiro complies, and Keith drops a kiss to his cheek and whispers, "I'll miss you too."

His face and ears are pink when he turns around and dashes towards his ship.

.


.

Keith's name days, in comparison, are not like Shiro's quiet and private celebrations with only friends and family. They were the opposite.

They seem to get grander every deca-phoeb, but this one is special. The crown prince comes of age. All of Marmora celebrates. Shiro goes with the Altean royal family to attend.

Keith is a sight to behold in his traditional Marmoran suit.

Shiro had expected little during this celebration. Keith is bound to be the center of everyone’s attention that night, and he has many guests to entertain. Shiro only wishes he could have even a short moment with him so he can give Keith his present in person.

Of course, as with Keith, the unexpected is what happens.

He had been prepared to greet Keith with a bow, like all the other guests had done.

But no, when Keith sees him, the prince beams, calls his name and hugs him. Tight. Shiro hugs him back - of course he does - but he also doesn't miss the shocked looks and whispers from the other guests.

Queen Krolia clears her throat and Keith probably realizes that they have an audience, so he lets go and steps back.

"I'm glad you could make it."

Shiro finally does his proper greeting and as he bows before his best friend. "It's my honor to be here today, your highness. Happy name day, Prince Keith."

"Then humor me and don't go all 'Prince Keith' at me tonight." Keith says, then steps forward again and takes his arm. "Alright?"

"Alright." Shiro chuckles.

He dares a glance at the queen, worried that she had taken offense somehow, but she only looked slightly amused, and then calls on the next guest who wants to greet Keith.

Keith doesn't let go of his arm, so he stays.

Keith doesn't let go of his arm as he walks around greeting other guests, so Shiro dutifully walks right beside him. He turns to King Alfor for permission, and the man only smiles at him and shoos them away.

Keith doesn't let go of his arm the entire night, and more than once, Shiro hears someone call him "Prince Keith's sweetheart", and when Shiro looks to Allura and Lotor with red cheeks and wide eyes, the two only giggle together at his plight.

Keith only lets go when his voice cracks slightly from the constant use (he knows Keith is talkative only to a chosen few) and Shiro offers to fetch him a drink.

"Thank you, Shiro. Sorry for dragging you around all night."

Shiro smiles at him and gives his hand a reassuring squeeze. "Keith. I wouldn't wish to be anywhere else. You know that."

Keith blinks up at him before turning away, cheeks pink. "You're a sap."

"Only with you." Shiro says, and before the prince could retort, he pokes his nose and goes to fetch their drinks.

As soon as he reaches the table for refreshments, he gets flanked by Lotor and Allura.

"Oh, Master Shiro!" Allura chimes sweetly. "Long time no see!"

"It's been several vargas, yes, Princess." Shiro deadpans. "Keith... preferred... to have an escort. I suppose."

"And a wise preference it is." Lotor says, resting his hip casually against the table. "You see, before you arrived, our Prince has been dealing with propositions left and right. He looked about ready to explode. I was actually thinking of pulling him away myself before he snaps at someone."

Shiro's brows furrow in question. "What propositions?"

"You know, young lords and ladies thinking they might catch the future king's eye." Lotor shrugs. "But well, now we all know that our Keith only has eyes for you."

Shiro ducks his head, trying to focus on the refreshments instead. "I... I'm sure he only wants to ward off those people. You know how Keith is."

Allura clicks her tongue. "You do know his mother approves of you, don't you?"

"W-What? Queen Krolia?"

"Father consulted with her about what present we could bring for Keith and she said that Keith will be happy as long as we bring you with us. Of course, we were gonna bring you with us either way, but... I suppose that's why Mother had an entirely new outfit made for you."

Shiro pauses. Queen Melinor did give him a new outfit to wear for the night. But he had thought they all had new clothes made to attend this party in another colony, for the Crown Prince's special name day celebration.  Was he the only one who was dressed up more expensive than usual?

"Is... Is that why Coran had kept fussing over my hair?"

"Yes." Allura giggles. "You had to be perfect! You're our present for Keith!"

Shiro pouts, and he feels like a boy all over again. "You're teasing me."

"Shiro, please, realize. You look very dashing tonight."

"You and the Queen always say that..." he mumbles.

"We always mean it. But tonight, you are more dashing than ever!" she insists. "Also, I am joking. Of course Mother and Father prepared a proper present for Keith. We do hope he likes that Altean sword."

"I'm sure he will." Lotor interjects, grinning. "But I'm also sure he likes Shiro more."

"He better." Allura chides, ribbing her brother easily. "Mother and Coran went absolutely feral designing your suit!"

"Okay. No. I am leaving now." Shiro cuts them off before they could embarrass him further. "Prince Keith is waiting for his drink."

Lotor and Allura watch as he walks, tall and dignified, away from them.

"Invite me to the wedding!" Lotor calls.

Shiro stumbles, regains his balance and then turns to glare at the Prince. Allura waves at him happily and he only sighs and resumes walking.

.

.

Despite the seemingly endless amount of guests to meet, greet and exchange pleasantries with, Keith somehow manages to sneak them out of the grand hall and into a more private part of Marmora castle. They end up in an empty room, one with a spacious balcony with a nice view of the capital city.

They settle there, breathing in the fresh air. While it had been warm inside the castle, nights in Marmora are famously cold, and Keith shivers slightly. He clutches his cape to himself and grunts at disappointment.

"Stupid thin decorative cape." he grumbles. After a tick, he takes it back. "No, it's really pretty. Mom picked this fabric. It's just... thin."

"Fortunately for you, Your Highness, mine is thick and brand new." Shiro says, but before he could unlatch the cape from his suit, Keith turns to him with a concerned frown.

"No, you'll get cold too."

Shiro pauses to consider. True, it is already cold even with the cape. So instead, he holds one side open and raises his arm in offering. "Get in?"

Keith grins and tucks himself snugly to his best friend's side. Shiro drapes an arm across his shoulders, while Keith holds to the cape so it's wrapped around both of them.

Gradually, he feels the arm around his shoulders warm up beneath Shiro's sleeve.

Keith sighs as he snuggles closer. "I didn't know you could do that."

Shiro moves his arm, slowly rubbing the other's back to warm him up more. "It might be unsightly to some, but this arm is quite useful."

"It's not unsightly." Keith frowns. "It's part of you. No part of you is unsightly. Not in the least."

Shiro tilts his head and leans down, hiding his smile in his best friend's dark hair. "Thank you, Keith."

Keith shakes his head slightly. "No, thank you. For sticking with me tonight. I know it couldn't have been easy."

"You're telling me that? You're the one who has everyone’s attention."

"I know. It's so... It's a lot. There's a lot, and it's so... tiring."

Shiro had expected that. Over the course of their friendship, they had been each other's confidante. He knows that Keith is never always sure about how to deal with his status, with the role he was born to.

"Yet you made it through." Shiro says. "Congratulations, Crown Prince Keith of Marmora."

Keith slaps his chest, laughing, bashful. "Not you too. Stop it." Then he looks up, meeting his eyes. "Oh, the sword was really nice, by the way. Did you help pick it?"

"That was all King Alfor." he answers. He takes a deep breath before he speaks again. "Actually... I have something for you. From me. Just me."

Keith's expression softens. "You... didn't have to."

"Too late." Shiro says. With his free hand, he reaches into his pocket and then hands him a tiny dark purple box. "Happy name day, Keith."

Keith holds his breath as he looks at it, hand hovering over the box.  Shiro notes that his pupils are wide - he always found it cute, that Keith could never really hide his excitement or joy because his eyes just betray him like that.

Keith lifts the lid carefully and picks up the item inside.

It's a necklace. The cord is a dark-colored string, soft but sturdy. The pendant is deep purpe glass shaped like a small obelisk, and inside it is a small, vibrant pink flower.

His fingers trace the pendant's smooth surface and he whispers, "It's beautiful, Shiro."

Shiro looks down, shy all of a sudden. "I... I just thought... I remembered you saying that you like wearing jewelry, but you don't like them too shiny? And... you said your usual ones feel like they're too flimsy with the chains and... jewels. So... I hope you... like this one?"

"I love it." Keith smiles up at him, then looks closer at the pendant. "Is this juniberry?"

"Yes." Shiro answers. He braces himself before he says, "Do you recognize it?"

Keith chuckles at him. "Of course I do, it's in your flag, and I bring some for Romelle everytime I come home from Altea-"

"I mean, this one juniberry."

"What?" Keith blinks. "This one?"

Shiro clears his throat. "This one is the one you gave me when we first met."

Keith looks at him. "No way."

"It... It is."

"That was deca-phoebs ago!"

"I saved it."

"How. It's a flower."

"I put it in a mini-pod? The... ones... our researchers use to preserve plants and other species?"

"It's so small."

"We shrunk it to fit."

"We?"

"I asked Coran for help."

Keith seems to have run out of questions. He only looks at the pendant again, then at Shiro.

"You saved the flower some random kid gave you. Some random kid who tackled you, didn't even introduce himself before running off and then afterwards called you weird."

Shiro laughed. "Except it's not some random kid. It's you."

Keith just looks at him for another long moment. Just at him, not at the necklace, just into his eyes.

Shiro looks back.

When they were younger, Shiro always thought that Keith's eyes look exactly like the starry night skies.

Now, he sees more. They are more than his view of the stars when he looks up at them at night. Now they are darker and deeper, a vast galaxy of possibilities.

Keith breaks the contact first, handing Shiro the necklace. "Put it on me?" he asks, voice quiet, unreadable.

Shiro nods, putting the box away and taking the necklace. Keith turns with his braid set aside, and Shiro wraps the necklace around the other's slender neck. The clasp locks. He fixes the braid back in place.

Keith turns back around, and before Shiro could properly see how the necklace fits him, a hand grabs at his suit and another at his shoulder, and he's leaning down, and his lips are on Keith's.

They part quickly, Shiro with wide eyes, Keith with stormy ones. He looks ready to run. "T-Tell me I'm reading this right."

Shiro swallows, then smiles.

Gently, he pries Keith's hand from his suit, and for a second Keith flinches back, but Shiro brings his free arm around his waist to pull him close. He settles Keith's hand on his other shoulder, and leans forward again, their noses brushing. "You are."

Keith huffs, but the tension leaves his body as he brings his arms around Shiro's neck properly. "Gods. Don't pause so long like that."

"I had to get back at you for surprising me." Shiro teases.

Keith scowls at him, but faced with Shiro's affectionate smile, it doesn't last a tick and his expression melts easily.  "Do you want to keep kissing me or not?"

Oh, Shiro very much does.

.


.

Allura and Lotor were to hold two weddings. One in Altea and one in Daibazaal.

Altea goes first, based on some custom that Shiro tried to explain to Keith but otherwise went over Keith's head because the moment he realized he'd be able to go to Altea without escaping duties this time, his mind had already flown to how he could spend as much time with Shiro as possible during his short stay.

Keith arrives in Altea several quintants before the wedding day. Shiro welcomes him in the castle's landing pad with a sweeping hug and a sweet kiss, and it takes several pointed coughs from Regris and Coran to separate the two.

When they go to the throne room so Keith could greet his kind hosts, they find King Alfor and, surprisingly, Emperor Zarkon, who asks Keith about his mother.

"She'll be here soon, Uncle. I only went ahead of her, to... uh... prepare..."

"No need to make up some elaborate reason, kit." Zarkon says. "I know what it's like to sneak out from duties to run to Altea for my beloved."

"I didn't sneak out." Keith grumbles. "I finished early."

The older men chuckle, then King Alfor says, "You'll find Melinor and Honerva with Allura. They've been ecstatic to try on her dress. I'm sure they'll appreciate your input, Keith."

.

Allura looks ethereal in her wedding dress. Melinor and Honerva are both still fussing slightly at the tiny details, but really, she looks perfect.

Keith says as much, and when he looks at Shiro, the man is just a tiny bit teary-eyed.

"See? You look so amazing, Shiro is crying."

Shiro quickly wipes his misty eyes, sniffs, and then looks at Keith with a look of utter betrayal, because then the three women turn to him as one and they all coo at him.

Melinor looks touched, a hand flying to her chest. "Oh, sweetheart."

"You're always such a nice boy." Honerva adds.

"Awww, Shiro!" Allura strides across the room and wraps her arms around him. "I love you so much, baby brother."

Shiro's tears are gone now, but he's still left with blushing cheeks. "Since when did you call me baby brother?" 

"Since now!" Allura says, laughing.

"You didn't even know me when I was a baby." Shiro points out.

She shushes him. "Ssshhh... Why were you crying?"

"I wasn't crying." he insists. "I'm just... happy for you."

He knows, even though Allura had grown from the mischievous princess to a picture of dignity as a queen-to-be, that she had been worried about this arrangement. She had doubts, but now she does look happy, excited, and he's glad that this has worked out for her.

"Thank you." Allura says, squeezing him tight before letting go. "I'm happy for you too." Then she grins. "Keith?"

Keith looks surprised to suddenly be addressed. So he just smiles tentatively and says an awkward "Hi?"

Allura steps back and regards both of them. "I was going through some old things of mine, you know, trinkets, mementos... just to find some I'd like to keep with me after the wedding. And... I found something I want to give to the two of you! If you like it, of course. It's there in my dresser. Can you fetch it for me?"

"Oh. Sure." Keith nods easily, then goes to get the item.

Now, Shiro grew up with Allura. He knows, in his gut, when she is up to something.

He looks at her, eyes narrowed. "Princess, what-"

"Is this the thing?" Keith's question cuts him off, and they both turn to look at Keith-

Oh.

Shiro freezes. "Is that-?"

Allura sounds very happy as she claps her hands together, "It is!"

Oh, no.

In Keith's hands is a very familiar item that Shiro hasn't seen in years. 

"Keith!" he calls, running to the other as fast as he can. "Keith, no..."

"What?" Keith blinks, alarmed.

Shiro quickly snatches the little pink box from Keith. "No- No, okay, I'll be taking that, thank you." 

Keith is left looking at his empty hands, then at Shiro. "What is it?"

Shiro only tucks the box behind him. "It's... Uh... N-Nothing-"

"Then let me see-"

"No, Keith."

"Come on, Shiro, let him see!" Allura chides. Behind her, Queen Melinor is whispering something to Honerva, and then they both giggle.

"No..." Shiro says, slowly backing towards the door. Keith stalks after him, now bewildered and curious.

He turns to Allura. "Is that it? That's for both of us, right?"

"Yes, Keith. I'd like for you to have it." Allura says through her laughter.

Now morbidly curious, Keith chases after Shiro with a newfound resolve. "Shiro. Give."

Shiro squeaks at his tone, then scowls at Allura. "I can't wait for you to go live in Daibazaal!"

That just makes her laugh harder.

But he has other problems, namely Keith now latching on to him and trying to take the box back. "Shirooo.... Don't make me take it from you. You know I can!"

Shiro switches hands, raising the box out of Keith's reach, taking advantage of his height. "Keith, please, Allura just wants to embarrass me-"

And then he stops, because he feels and hears a 'click!' and he realizes that he had pressed a button. The button.

The momentary pause is more than enough for Keith, who's always been the quicker one between the two of them, and he manages to successfully grab the box and look at it.

"Hey, it's glowing! And moving!" he says, fascinated. "This is so pretty- Oh. Something's written on it."

Shiro swallows. That stupid box will say the things about the garden, the flowers, and the eyes- And Keith will remember that, and he'll remember Shiro dumbly asking a stranger if he is his true love, and Shiro just being... a weird disaster of a boy-

Honerva calls out, "What does it say, Keith?"

Keith hums before answering. "It just says... 'Your best and dearest friend'."

The room falls quiet.

"Oh..." Allura whispers, and this time she looks... fascinated, and very, very soft. Melinor and Honerva both smile knowingly.

Shiro gently takes the box and looks at it for himself.

"What does that mean?" Keith asks him. When Shiro just stares down at the words, he turns to the others. "What does this box do, exactly? Wha-"

He stops because Shiro's arms are suddenly around him and he is being squeezed an inch away from his life. "Shiwo. What."

Shiro just hugs him, long and tight, and nuzzles his hair, before he looks at Allura again. "Thanks for the present."

"Oh, you like it now?" Allura asks airily.

"It's still silly." Shiro says, when he loosens up, he tucks a very ruffled and confused Keith to his side. "And you're still a bully."

"I love you!" Allura chimes happily, watching as Shiro gives the box to Keith, who, like a curious child, turns it over and tries to make sense of it.

Shiro is still too flustered to say it back, so he just gently leads a distracted Keith out the room.

He closes the door to the women's giggling chatter, then he and Keith walk into the castle's halls.

Keith studies the box, looking at the marks, trying to figure out what it does. "So... it has only one button and when I press it, it just says the same words."

Shiro blinks. "R-Really? The... exact same words?"

"Yes. I've done this four times now." Keith says, frowning down at the mysterious box.

The realization dawns on Shiro, and he couldn't help the chuckle that escapes after. He leans down and presses a kiss on top of Keith's head.

"I love you, Keith." he says, casual. He relishes at the ease of it.

"Love you too." Keith answers just as easily, distracted by the marks moving again, and when the same words appear, he finally looks up. "Is this just a fancy message box? What were you panicking about back there?"

Shiro looks at him, and it must show how affectionate he feels, because Keith raises an eyebrow at him, and his cheeks are turning a lovely pink.

"W-What?"

Shiro shakes it off - now's not the time for melting. He composes himself. He replaces whatever sappy look he has with one of challenge. "Maybe I'll tell you if you beat me in our race."

Keith begins to grin. "What race?"

"The race we're having."

"And when is this race we're having?"

"Did you bring Red?"

"Of course I did." - Keith rarely went anywhere without his trusted hoverbike.

"Then I'll go get Black."

He sees that fiery glint in Keith's eyes and lets himself be pulled into a playful kiss.

"Landing pad?"

"See you there."

.


.

Shiro had never been very interested in romance.

(Until that little box.)

But he had always wanted to be an explorer.

(And Keith’s eyes hold galaxies.)

.

.

.fin.