A loud, angry growl from the usually quiet Kosmo interrupted Keith's reading as he looked up from the well-worn pages of his paperback to see his dog staring out the cafe door. He gently closed his novel, being mindful of the battered cover and sections of the book that were starting to fall loose from so much use, and left it on the counter as he walked around it, pulling his apron off as he went. He peered through the glass door into the cold December night to see what was happening outside that had Kosmo's hackles raised.
"My friend," Ryou whispered, the same way one would call for their beloved, "I don't think I can keep going." His strength left him in that breath and he fell forward, but Akira stepped swiftly in front of his fall to catch his weight against his chest.
"Yes you can," Akira said as he looped Ryou's arm across his shoulders and wrapped his own around Ryou's back. "Look how far we've already made it."
But Ryou could barely take a step even with Akira holding him upright, their pace slowed to a crawl as Akira all but dragged him onward. He laughed, the sound sad and broken and too small to echo in the great emptiness they journeyed through.
"The longer you help me, the less time you have to get out of here yourself. Please... Akira—"
"If you don't get off this planet, then neither do I."
"Easy, buddy," Keith soothed, gently stroking between Kosmo's ears. But Keith could hear the tense voices from outside now, too, and his eyes locked on to the figures standing at the bus stop.
"...and you show up here, looking like this, to what? Guilt me?"
"What I do and where I go has nothing to do you with you anymore, Adam," said the taller one with his back to the shop. His voice was composed compared to the upset man in front of him, but even from his silhouette Keith could see anger radiating from his posture.
"Sirs, if you could take this somewhere else—" someone, likely the bus driver, was trying to say as he helped other bus passengers step off with their luggage. It was clear this was a shuttle from the airport, the holiday visitors already beginning to arrive.
"Well right now it feels like it does, Takashi," the louder one—Adam—continued as if no one else had spoken.
"Well that's weird, because it should've stopped feeling like that when you dumped me."
Even at a distance, the bitterness and anger in the man's voice was startling. There was immediate silence after that, the crowd now awkwardly trying to get away from the confrontation as quickly and quietly as possible, and Keith decided he had to move. Tossing his apron on the back of the nearest chair, he pushed open the door.
Trying his best to appear casual and familiar—which was a bit difficult, since Keith didn't really do familiar with many people—he jogged up to the taller man and placed a hand gently against his shoulder.
"Hey, sorry I'm late."
It took a few moments for the pair to turn their angry eyes away from each other and look for who had interrupted. Under the streetlights and now face to face with the figure, Keith could finally see what he looked like properly—and he was gorgeous. With scruffy facial hair and long, unkempt hair with a stark streak of white that fell over his shoulders, he was one of the most handsome men Keith had ever laid eyes on, the distinctive scar across his nose making his face even more striking. Keith was so gobsmacked that it took him a second to remember what he'd come outside to do.
"Um. Ready to go?" he asked, hoping his intent was clear and welcome.
Without missing a beat, the taller man smiled warmly at him—and it was with great effort that Keith kept his knees from going weak at the sight of it—and said in a relieved voice, "Perfect timing. Let's get out of here."
"Takashi..." Adam began, sounding less indignant and more embarrassed now.
But Takashi had already slid his left arm across Keith's shoulders and pulled him tight against his side as he turned their backs to the bus station.
"Have a nice new year, Adam. I promise I won't be a part of it," he said, tone ice cold without looking back.
The hand on Keith's shoulder squeezed tightly and Keith knew it was his cue to start walking, leading them to the cafe before anything else could be said. Kosmo was there waiting with his nose pressed to the glass and tail wagging gently, but he obediently stepped back for them to enter. Keith held the door open for Takashi to bring his luggage inside—only one rolling bag besides the backpack he wore—and after walking in behind him, locked the door and flipped the sign to 'Closed' despite the hour or so left of usual business hours.
"Who's this?" Takashi asked as Keith turned around.
Kosmo, being an alien breed, came up to most people's chests or even shoulders, but sitting with his chin held up for scratches he barely reached the top of Takashi's waist. Marveling a bit at how tall he was, Keith's eyes kept moving upwards, taking in the broadness of the man's shoulders, too. Maybe because he'd just been reading it again—for the thousandth time—Keith's favorite book came to mind and he couldn't stop the thought that if Ryou was a real man, this is what he'd look like. It was as if he'd walked right out of Keith's dreams and into his coffee shop. A blush began to warm up his cheeks at the idea just as Takashi looked up at him, still waiting for an answer.
"Oh," Keith said, shifting awkwardly from one foot to the other, "that's Kosmo, he's family. And also unofficial mascot of the shop."
Takashi raised an eyebrow as he glanced between the large blue dog rubbing up against his leg and the name Red Lion Café painted across the glass windows before letting out a laugh. It sent a shiver up and down Keith's body. Was there anything about this guy that wasn't the most attractive thing on the planet?
"Well nice to meet you, Kosmo." he said with one last affectionate pat between the ears. Then he held out his hand to Keith. "I go by Shiro, by the way. And who do I thank for stepping in and rescuing me from that horribly awkward reunion?"
Takashi Shiro? Keith wondered to himself. Something about the name struck him as familiar, but there was no way he would've forgotten meeting Shiro before. But the nagging thought kept him standing still by the door for just a moment too long and Shiro's expression faltered, his proffered hand beginning to fall.
"K-Keith," he stammered, forcing himself to speak. "I-I'm Keith. And, uh, bad at conversation. Sorry..."
The heat was already spreading across his face and creeping up his neck, tinging even his ears purple as he blushed. He wasn't good with people or attention, and that was fine most of the time because he didn't need or want either of those things, but this person and his attention made Keith's stomach do flips and his brain short circuit. For all that he read and daydreamed about falling in love, Keith had no idea what it felt like. Was this all it took? Nothing as grand as an interstellar adventure or a destiny-defying battle, but merely a handsome face and a gentle voice?
Shiro looked at Keith curiously before his expression eased into a teasing smile. "I never would've guessed with how smoothly you handled things outside. Mind if I sit down?"
Keith shook his head and Shiro moved towards one of the tables by the window, Kosmo sticking to his legs as he went. While Shiro removed his backpack and coat to fit easier into the small booth seat, Keith's frozen body finally managed to kick into action and he rushed behind the counter.
"Would you like to order anything?" he asked, wincing at his own stiff waiter voice.
"Sure, it's a cold night I could use something warm." From where he sat with Kosmo's head rested on his thigh Shiro picked one of the teas off the menu and Keith hurriedly got to work brewing it up. "Do you always rescue dudes and damsels in distress like that?"
"No, it used to be my dad who did," Keith answered, pouring the hot water over the leaves to steep. "Sometimes it was someone having an argument or not taking no for an answer, but he always knew how to step in and calm things down. When I try, I make things worse..." Keith frowned as he remembered the first time he attempted to break up a brewing fight outside the cafe, only to get punched for his trouble and start a bigger brawl. Something about his face just bothered people, so he stopped bothering with them. Rubbing his cheek at the memory, unconsciously his expression soured into a grimace and he glared at the pot of tea as if his discontent could speed up its boil.
"You saved me tonight, though."
Keith startled, so caught up in his sinking mood that he nearly forgot who was behind him. Blinking up from the kettle, he looked over his shoulder to see Shiro watching him seriously, head tilted to one side. After a brief moment, the white-streaked bangs of his long, shaggy hair fell over his eyes, breaking their gaze, and he turned towards the window with a sudden sag in his shoulders.
"First time anyone's helped me in ages," he muttered, so quietly Keith almost didn't catch it.
Keith said nothing, but it was easy to hear the loneliness in Shiro's voice. He went to the crate of clean mugs and grabbed one, then hesitated as he held his hand out for another. It was difficult to believe his company would be welcome when it so often wasn't, but Shiro's words made him feel brave, and if Keith had helped him already maybe it would be easy to do it again. He grabbed a second mug and a tray, carefully loaded it with the steeping kettle, then brought it over to Shiro's table.
Wordlessly Keith set both cups down but only filled one. When Shiro sighed and straightened back up in his booth, he saw the second cup and smiled right away, gesturing at the seat across the table for Keith to join him. Kosmo's tail slapped happily at Keith's leg as he sat down, but he refused to move from what was apparently his new favorite lap. Keith would've felt betrayed if he didn't totally relate to the feeling.
There was something about Shiro that just made him crave to be near.
"Thanks," Shiro said and took his mug by the handle as Keith poured his own. He seemed content to watch the steam dance off the top of his tea while he leaned back into his seat and waited for their drinks to cool.
Keith didn't mind the silence. Usually he'd prefer it, too. He was used to spending his quiet time alone with his favorite book to better ignore anyone around him but now, with someone who was the walking embodiment of his dream man sitting in front of him, instead he had the utterly foreign craving for conversation and attention.
As if reading his mind, Shiro suddenly laughed, getting a surprised jump out of Keith, and nodded his head at the window and the decorative writing scrawled over it.
"Okay, I have to ask. If your giant blue dog is the mascot, why is your place called the Red Lion?"
Keith had grown up always hating that question. Tonight he was happy it was the first thing to interrupt the quiet even though he could already feel himself blushing about the embarrassing truth.
"It's named after me. When I was a baby, my parents always put me in a red onesie that came with a little tail and a hood with a mane, and my dad used to carry a ton of pictures of me wearing it and show them off. After my dad had to retire from firefighting, he'd already settled on the name before he'd actually bought this place and he even put some of those pictures on the walls around here, but I took them down when I took over. This place opened when I was eight or so, but Kosmo didn't join our family until I was a teenager."
Fondness for his dad and the memories filled Keith's voice and made him smile as he explained, and he watched Shiro's amused grin grow wide to mirror it, though he did flash a brief, fake pout of disappointment at not getting to see the photos himself.
"Ah, I see. Kosmo was too late to win the naming rights, but easily earned the promotion to mascot, huh," Shiro laughed, giving Kosmo a few loud pats on the back when he woofed quietly in response to his name. "That's wonderful, your dad wanting to share how much he loves you with the world. Does he still come by?"
Keith's face fell just a bit, shaking his head. His eyes dropped down to his drink and he took a long sip before answering. "No, um. He passed away a few years ago. Lung stuff."
"Oh, I didn't mean to—... I'm sorry, Keith. Really."
He shrugged the way he always did when people offered him sympathy. It rarely felt sincere and he hated sharing any of his grief with people who obviously didn't care. But from Shiro at least he didn't sense any fake concern or pity. The somber quiet that passed between them for a few moments wasn't awkward, and instead seemed considerate and communal, though Keith wasn't sure why at first.
"It's important to be grateful and celebrate what they leave you with," Shiro said softly. Immediately, Keith understood, recognizing the loss in his voice. Keith brought his head back up, catching the way Shiro's gaze lingered on his own hand, opening and closing around the handle of his mug. Then he was looking back at Keith, smiling sadly. "I used to watch the first sunrise of every new year with my grandpa when I was growing up here. It was our tradition for moving past whatever bad fortune we'd had the previous year and inviting better luck for the next, but I haven't bothered since he passed away."
"I'm sorry about your grandfather. That's a nice tradition."
Shiro's smile brightened just a bit at that. "I definitely didn't appreciate it when I was younger. I was mostly groggy or cranky that I had to get out of bed in the middle of the night to do it, even if he let me sleep on the drive to wherever the best view was. It was an amusing change when I started being the one who had to wake him up to go. Something about doing it without him felt... pointless, but he was always a wiser person than me so here I am to give it a shot again. Couldn't hurt to try, anyway."
"Aren't you here pretty early? There's almost a whole month left before the new year," Keith pointed out curiously.
Shiro shrugged and took a drink of his tea. "There wasn't much difference between flying out now or flying on New Year's Eve so I just bought the cheapest ticket. Whether I'm here in a hotel for three weeks or in my apartment back in the city, I'll be hounded by my editor and still not get any writing done."
Keith leaned forward in his seat with interest. "You're a writer?"
"Supposedly," Shiro answered, with little enthusiasm. Keith wasn't sure what he meant by that. Before he could figure it out, Shiro sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes and corrected himself, "I mean, yes. I write articles for science and astronomy papers, and I write novels in between those. Haven't had much success lately, though."
"That's amazing," Keith said in awe.
When he'd first read Across the Rift and became immediately enamored with Ryou and Akira, Keith tried to write stories about them too, just to have more time with them. It wasn't very satisfying and he discovered he had much less fun having to produce a story rather than be swept up in it, so he stopped pretty quickly and went back to rereading the book instead. After that, he admired anyone who could create those stories even more.
Shiro raised an eyebrow at Keith's response. "Which, the articles or the novels?"
"Oh, uh," Keith hedged. He didn't want to seem rude and admit the non-fiction stuff bored him, but fortunately, he didn't have to lie when he continued, "Science is cool, I guess, but I really like reading novels so anyone who is good at storytelling is amazing to me. What kind do you write?"
Hesitation was clear on Shiro's face. Whether he didn't know how to answer or just didn't want to, Keith couldn't tell. But eventually he did, his voice uncertain when he muttered, "Well... Romance."
Keith's eyes went wide and he swallowed loudly. Then, leaning even further over the table, he whispered as if this was an extremely private conversation despite the only other audience in the cafe being Kosmo.
"Like, young adult romance, or romance romance... with the hot guys on the cover and sex in it?"
Shiro's conflicted expression was blown away by Keith's question, replaced by an unfairly attractive look of amusement that gave Keith a burst of butterflies in his gut.
"The latter, though I have to point out it's not all smut. There are tasteful fades to black in some of them." Keith's momentary disappointment must have immediately shown on his face, because Shiro smiled knowingly and gave him a wink. "A lot of it is still very smutty, I promise."
"Is there, um, a title of yours that you'd recommend or is a favorite? Maybe I've read it," Keith said, knowing he was blushing quite hard. It wasn't every day he admitted to a gorgeous man sitting across from him that he read smut and took recommendations.
But the amused smile fell again from Shiro's face and Keith snapped back upright immediately, putting as much space between them in their booth as possible.
"Sorry, if that was weird to ask, nevermind—" he backpedaled, embarrassed and annoyed with himself.
He always did this, managing to find the worst thing to say and shoving his foot in his mouth just a moment too late. Of course he did it with Shiro too, despite how easy it felt to talk to him, so completely different from everyone else.
"No, no," Shiro sighed with a wave of his hand to interrupt Keith's guilty spiral.
He grimaced, then shook his head at whatever he'd been thinking and reached for his bag where it was shoved into the corner of the seat beneath his coat.
"It's not what you asked, I'm just bad at talking about my own work. But you can have this," he explained, and after rummaging briefly through his bag he held out a business card. Keith was slow to reach for it, still wanting to berate himself for ruining the conversation. When he finally did, he noticed the name printed on it was neither of the names he'd heard so far tonight.
"'Sven Garrison'?" Keith read aloud to himself.
"That's my pen name for the publisher I work with. I'm not a big author or anything, but if you search that, you'll find all the things I've written." As Keith carefully and curiously examined the card, Shiro finished his tea and reached for the pot to pour some more. "I've got the next three weeks to dwell on work, though, so I'd rather not talk about it tonight. What about you? Besides running this cafe, are you going to be busy with the holidays?"
Nervously, Keith brought his eyes up from the business card to look back at Shiro. There was a stiffness to his posture and expression, a sign even Keith could read that he wanted to change the subject as soon as possible. But he hadn't gotten up to leave, or berated Keith for the way he spoke, or groaned about how he'd wasted his time being here, instead offering an avenue for the conversation to continue as he waited patiently for Keith to answer. Why Shiro was willing to stick around and keep talking, Keith didn't know.
He wasn't about to be an idiot and ask Shiro to reconsider, though.
"I don't know about busy," Keith began as he pocketed the card for later, "Even with the holiday crowd that comes, we're still not a big town. I only take night shifts here since most of the customers are around during the morning and lunch time, so even when I'm working I mostly just sit around and read. Managing the cafe is my only job, so my free time is usually spent at the bookstore or taking Kosmo out for hikes."
Shiro nodded as Keith spoke, taking another sip of his tea. "Is it just you and Kosmo here who'll be bringing in the new year?" The question was much more cautious and tactful this time after how Shiro found out about Keith's dad, and it was a bit of a surprise how nice it felt to have someone be conscious and courteous like that.
"This year, yeah. Usually my mom and sometimes my uncles come back to Earth around this time but they're prosecutors on that huge Zarkon Industries case that's finally going to trial, so they wouldn't have time to travel back and forth."
"Oh wow, the one that's always in the news?" Shiro let out an impressed whistle when Keith nodded. "That's amazing. But it's being held on Altea which is a long trip, I can see why they can't make it back."
Pride swelled in Keith's chest the way he always did when people were familiar with his mother's work. It wasn't suited for him—from the few times he'd been brought along as a child and the year he'd interned at the Marmora firm, he'd found the long wait for justice that sometimes never came too frustrating—which only made his pride in her that much stronger. Long stretches of time where she couldn't come back to Earth were common, but she always kept in touch and he'd had his dad with him when he was younger.
This year wouldn't be the first that would just be him and Kosmo. Being used to the loneliness didn't make it suck any less, though.
"Well I wish your mother luck, and a toast to being alone for the holidays," Shiro said cheerily and held up his mug. Keith lifted his own to tap against it, and all he could think as they each sipped at their tea was how he wished he could have Shiro's company for more than just tonight.
But he wasn't brave enough to say that. They fell into a companionable silence again, Shiro's head dipping down as he focused on Kosmo while Keith refilled his cup. But knowing Shiro's only other acquaintance in town had picked a fight with him in public tonight, he pushed himself to speak up once more.
"... Um, can I ask you something?"
"Hm?" Shiro hummed, eyes drifting up to Keith's face from beneath his bangs. Keith sucked in a breath, skin tingling with heat from something other than the steam drifting up from his mug.
"Are... are you going to be okay? If you run into that Adam guy again while you're in town, I mean."
"Oh, yeah. I think it'll go better the next time it happens. Instead of getting blindsided by the nasty surprise, we'll both be anxiously anticipating it." Shiro ran a hand through his hair to pull it out of his face and took a deep breath before letting out a laugh, the sound joyless and defeated. Keith's hands squeezed tightly around his mug in reflex despite the almost painful heat of it. "I honestly forgot he had family here. I might not have come if I'd thought about running into him, but it's been so many years..."
"Someone like that shouldn't stop you from doing anything. He sounded like a dick," Keith said flatly.
Shiro blinked in surprise, then burst out into genuine laughter that made Keith's toes curl in his boots.
"Thanks, I needed to hear that," he said, still chuckling as he took a sip of his drink. "He certainly was a dick tonight. He thought I showed up looking like this just to spite him specifically, which tells me he's still as self-centered as he used to be."
Keith frowned at that, his indignance at Adam pushing the words out before he could stop to think about them as he grumbled, "But you look really good, what's his problem?"
Shiro stared into his mug, not answering right away. Gradually he brought a hand up to his chin and rubbed his fingers across the unshaven stubble, looking lost in thought. The sound of skin dusting over whiskers did weird things to Keith's stomach and he focused intently on his tea until Shiro shook himself free of whatever daze he'd drifted into.
"I used to care more about how I looked around other people. Adam would get on my case about it, actually. Called me uptight when he just wanted to do some errands and I made him wait til I was properly presentable. I always shaved, never let my hair grow out, dressed to impress every day," he listed off, glancing down at the loose navy sweatshirt and faded jeans he wore now while tucking a strand of long hair behind his ear. Keith couldn't exactly picture it, but he didn't think Shiro could look anything other than handsome no matter how he styled himself. Shiro gave his chin one last thoughtful scratch before dropping his hand to the table and looking out the window again.
"But it didn't change anything and took more energy than I had after a while, so I stopped caring."
That sharp bitterness Keith had heard from the argument outside at the bus stop now returned to Shiro's voice, harsh enough that Kosmo whined and nudged his nose against Shiro's belly to offer comfort.
"Sorry," Shiro said sheepishly, eyes dropping down to his lap. He gave Kosmo a vigorous scratching between the ears in apology. "I shouldn't unload all my baggage from my love life on a stranger."
Keith was glad Shiro's attention was on Kosmo when he said that, the word stranger—while not quite untrue—piercing like a knife with jagged edges through the numbness he'd developed to rejection and striking deep into his chest. He wobbled forward a bit in his seat at the strength of it and ducked his head, letting his bangs hang over his face to cover the way it crumpled. There was no cruelty in Shiro's voice or his intent. Keith knew that. He knew. The immediate distance forced between them and dismissal as a stranger stung worse than it should have only because Keith had confused being friendly with being liked.
"I was the one who asked," Keith protested, though his voice was still small with hurt he couldn't hide. "And I don't mind listening."
He continued staring into his cup as he waited for the reflection in his cooling tea to look less wretched, but schooling his features was not a skill he had. Whatever he felt was always readable on his face—and maybe that's why Shiro had chosen to call them strangers, to squash what he easily recognized as Keith already pining for him despite having just met.
Shiro was quiet for only a moment or two, but for Keith it felt like ages. Every possible scenario of Shiro leaving and never returning seemed to run through his head in those few seconds, and in all of them Shiro was painfully kind but disinterested. A friendly stranger, nothing more.
"You've got a point. And it's not fair of me to say we're strangers."
The words snapped Keith out of his thoughts. Surprise replaced the hurt look on his face but he stayed hidden behind his hair.
"You know me better than anyone in this town, including Adam, and that's after chatting for twenty minutes," Shiro said with a warm laugh. There was another quiet pause, and it stretched as Shiro waited for Keith to finally sit up and meet his eyes again. Once he had, Shiro gave him a serious look. "Thank you, Keith. For everything tonight. I mean it."
He stopped himself before he could say didn't do anything. If Shiro said the same about their evening together, Keith would insist otherwise because just having him here for company was such a rare pleasure and he would hate to hear it dismissed.
So for once, he knew exactly what someone else was thinking as he nodded and replied, "You're welcome."
The pleased look on Shiro's face then was so thrilling that Keith briefly feared his heart would burst. As his heart pounded, Shiro turned to Kosmo and gave his apologies for having to leave before beginning to gather his things. Kosmo whined in an attempt to guilt Shiro into staying put—that Keith quietly hoped would work—but when Shiro continued to put on his coat, the pouting pup stood abruptly and walked off behind the counter, heading towards the back of the cafe where Keith knew he would remain until it was time to lock up and go upstairs to their apartment for the night.
"Don't mind him," Keith said when Shiro gave him a guilty look. "He does that to me when I won't share my dessert."
"Does it work on you?"
"Not every time."
Shiro laughed at that as they both stood, Keith gathering the mugs and kettle to bring back to the sink in the kitchen. He hurried back to the front, greedy for every last second of Shiro's company, and was startled to see Shiro at the counter with his wallet in hand.
"Oh! No, you don't need to pay for tonight, it was just some tea," Keith insisted, rushing forward.
He expected some push back, and maybe even to be persuaded, because it would be hard to deny Shiro anything. But to his growing confusion, Shiro said nothing. He wasn't even looking at his wallet or the cash register or Keith at all. Instead he was staring quite hard at something else on the counter, his brows drawn together into an expression Keith had no idea how to read.
Bewildered, Keith followed Shiro's gaze and saw his tattered copy of Across the Rift, sitting exactly where he'd left it when Kosmo's growling had caught his attention. He looked between his favorite novel and Shiro, trying to puzzle out why it had Shiro frozen, but couldn't figure it out. Unless he was particularly upset at the state of its binding...?
"Um. It's my favorite," Keith offered in explanation. For whatever reason, that managed to snap Shiro's focus from the book on the counter, and now he was staring at Keith, his expression just as unreadable but the intensity of his attention flaring a blush across Keith's skin. "That's why it's, uh, like that. My dad gave it to me years ago and I've reread it so many times since then it's started falling apart, even though I've always been careful with it. I know it looks pretty bad but... that's what happens when you love a book, right?"
The whole time he spoke, Shiro's eyes were fixed on him and Keith managed to recognize something akin to disbelief in them. Why he had that reaction, Keith had no idea. That particular novel wasn't exactly a well-known best seller but it wasn't infamous either.
"... Right," Shiro said, though he sounded doubtful.
He blinked, then looked down at the wallet in his hands as if just remembering what he'd been doing. Keith was too perplexed to protest this time when Shiro placed some cash on the counter and turned to leave, and he wouldn't have managed to say anything at all if Shiro didn't stop at the door and give him a small wave and quiet good night.
"You can come back," Keith blurted out, the blush still on his cheeks burning hotter instantly. "I-I mean. We're open, tomorrow, and every day, uh, through the holidays and everything. And Kosmo would be happy if you did. Come back, that is. So. Good night."
He was an idiot. He was an awkward, desperate, incredibly embarrassed idiot. But Shiro chuckled softly as he opened the door and replied, "I'll be sure to," before stepping out into the cold December chill, so at least he was an idiot with something to look forward to.
Keith's legs began to feel wobbly as the adrenaline he didn't realize had been keeping him upright suddenly ran out. He fell lazily into the chair he kept behind the counter and let out a deep sigh, staring up at the ceiling as he wondered what now? What was he supposed to do after meeting the man of his dreams? One who, by the sound of it, had long grown tired of relationships after too many went wrong.
For all that he read and dreamed of romance, Keith was... quite inexperienced when it came to it in reality. He'd never actually found someone he craved to be with before, and no one else had shown much of an interest in him either, for that matter. He knew his ideas of what love should be like were grand and dramatic, the way it was in stories, and that real love was what he saw in his parents: simple but joyous, caring and dedicated. He could imagine a lot, but he struggled to picture how someone like Shiro could've failed to find the simple, beautiful kind of love again and again when he made Keith crave it within moments of meeting him.
Slumping forward, Keith pocketed the cash on the counter with the intent to return it to Shiro if he did come back, then gently lifted up his novel again, flipping through it until he reached the exact page where another of his favorite parts began.
Keith's chest squeezed with satisfaction as he reread the passage of Akira's confession, grinning to himself as he flipped the page. He wished he could be that brave, the words of Ryou's response bringing Shiro back to the forefront of his mind.
Ryou knew his metallic fingers were cold to the touch and he could feel no sensation through them, but Akira covered them with his own and held them tighter against his skin.
"If this doesn't work—"
"Don't," Akira hissed. "I'm sick of you telling me to leave you behind."
"I won't. Akira, you have to listen to me," Ryou said, thumbs stroking comfortingly over Akira's cheeks. "If this doesn't work, and we end up separated again, I know you'll come find me. But I need you to know that I can wait. There are things that only you can do, that you have to do, and you don't need me to do them. You are so much more than you tell yourself you are, and I see it, so clearly, brighter than any star in any sky."
But his words brought a cloud to Akira's face, exhaustion and regret filling his eyes.
"But you don't see. I wonder if you ever have?" Akira was shaking his head, arms now reaching past Ryou's sides, wrapping around his back to grip tight at his uniform. "I do need you. I have always needed you. Not because I can't do these things without you, but because I don't want to."
Akira's hold around him was loose enough to easily break out of, yet Ryou could hardly breathe.
"I love you," he continued as he dropped his forehead to Ryou's chest, voice small but with no less conviction. "Across every universe, through every rift, I find you because I don't want to be without you."
He paused then, closing the book and frowning at its front, still curious what could've bothered Shiro so much about it. This was a particularly old copy with fairly generic sci-fi space patterns on the cover instead of any kind of illustration, the title embossed at the top and the author's name, T. S. Shirogane in bold, white letters along the bottom. He flipped the book over to examine the back cover, then peeled it open to give the author's blurb a passing glance before his brain screeched to a halt seeing the full name spelled out and he stared in shock.
"No fucking way," he whispered aloud.
The next few minutes were a frenzied blur as he hurriedly locked up the cafe for closing and rushed to the back stairs where Kosmo was waiting and led them up to the apartment above the shop. He didn't even bother to turn the lights on as he rushed to his computer and pulled out the business card Shiro had given him, searching for the works of Sven Garrison to buy every single one he could find.
Keith had been looking for anything else written by the Across the Rift author for years and never found anything, so he'd long assumed they had never published a story again, much to his disappointment.
Not once in all those years had he imagined he would actually meet them, let alone be handed a ticket straight to their whole library.
"Shit," he grumbled, dropping his head back down to his pillow.
Kosmo was not licking eagerly at his face so Keith could safely assume he had popped downstairs hours ago to be fed by Acxa or Ezor—the day shift staff who were also known to give his dog way more food than he was supposed to get for his meals—and then stayed to get his daily attention from cafe customers. Keith's schedule never required him to be awake earlier than mid afternoon and he rarely bothered to set an alarm because he had no trouble waking up early most mornings.
But it had been a long time since Keith last stayed up all night reading. It was rare to find anything that engaged him like that... and much to his dismay, nothing he'd read last night had been that engaging. There was an impressive number of books under Shiro's pen name, and with each one he purchased, Keith read the first few chapters only to quickly grow disappointed as he skimmed the rest and moved onto the next, hoping to feel that same spark he got from his favorite novel. By dawn he'd tried reading nearly twenty books and failed to find it in any of them.
None of them were unpleasant to read by any means. Even as he flipped through the newer releases, Keith could instantly recognize Shiro's same writing style from the only title under his real name despite being released nearly a decade apart. But whereas Across the Rift was more of a sci-fi story that was also the most romantic thing Keith had ever read, all of these supposed romance novels lacked... passion? Wonderment? Love? They had all the things Keith expected to find in smutty literature but were still somehow unsatisfying. They were perfunctory, like a melody played exactly on tempo by an instrument missing everything but the most basic notes, while the story Keith loved so much was like a symphony performed by an orchestra that adored playing the piece as much as the audience craved to hear it.
Keith couldn't claim to know everything or even much of anything about Shiro. He'd spent a very brief part of one evening with him. But he'd spent years with his writing, and looking at what he'd published since then it was obvious something had changed, and from that short time talking with him, it was just as obvious what that was.
At some point, somewhere along the way, Shiro had forgotten how to write what it was like to be in love. And worse, he'd fallen out of love with writing, too.
Keith laid in bed for a few minutes longer, this sad realization making his body heavy. Shiro's work was the reason Keith had turned into such a romantic in the first place. What bothered him, more than not getting another story that could captivate him the same way as his favorite book, was not knowing how Shiro could become so disillusioned—with his work, with storytelling, with love itself! It was simply unfair.
With a sigh, he finally kicked out of bed and got himself ready to head downstairs. He wasn't going to have his usual amount of free time today before taking on the evening shift, but at least he could take Kosmo for a walk. One he would probably need after guilting whoever he could into feeding him extra treats without Keith's supervision.
As he showered and dressed, he mulled over what he could do for Shiro if he saw him again. Keith knew he wasn't great at reading other people, but he also wasn't so oblivious to not figure out that Shiro didn't want to talk about his work. He'd overstepped enough times during their conversation last night to know not to bring it up anymore. Which made his new goal of helping Shiro rediscover the joy and love of storytelling that much more difficult.
He failed to come up with any kind of plan by the time he made it down from the apartment and stepped into the back of the cafe. But fortunately, he knew Shiro was going to be in town at least through the new year, so Keith had a few weeks to make it happen.
"Woah," Ezor greeted with surprise when he walked past the kitchen. "You were still up there? I thought you'd gone on one of your all-day drives or something when you weren't here at open."
"I had a late night. Where's Kosmo?"
"With his adoring fans, of course," she said, waving towards the front. Sure enough, Keith could see a long, blue tail wagging vigorously through the break in the counter while a pair of customers were cooing and breaking off bits of their large cookies for him.
"Please don't feed the dog," Keith called out as he walked up to the register, startling the older women. They looked from Keith to Acxa, who was giving him an annoyed eye roll.
"But, um, she said we could."
"He's had enough for today."
At Keith's stern tone Kosmo sank to the floor and let out a single grumble, his swishing tail now going still. He knew the steady stream of free food was over—at least for today—and had accepted defeat, leaving the two customers with no reason to try and argue with Keith. That didn't stop people from doing it anyway a lot of the time, but much to his relief, these women weren't willing to cause a scene and simply turned to leave, muttering under their breath as they went.
Once they were out the door, Acxa let out a sigh and threw her hands up in the air. "You are terrible for business, you know that? They bought those cookies just to feed the dog. He's a money maker."
"He's going to get sick," Keith said flatly, glaring back.
Most of the time Keith didn't mind Acxa's various methods for improving business. She was great at reading customers compared to the way Keith was woefully inept at it and could talk a lactose intolerant patron into ordering milk without the coffee if given the opportunity. Keith was fine with it except when she used his dog. Kosmo was family, not a prop for boosting sales.
But Acxa was just as smart about handling Keith as she was with the townspeople and knew when to back off. "No more cookies for the dog. I got it," she said with a placating hand gesture.
Turning towards the overfed pup, Keith was about to suggest a walk when someone pushed through the door and caught his attention. Normally he would ignore customers when the girls were on shift, leaving the whole "interacting with other people" part of working in a cafe to their much more capable hands, but the chance that it could be Shiro coming back made him look up fully—only to see Adam, Shiro's argumentative ex from the bus stop last night, standing at the entrance.
Immediately Keith stepped in front of the register before Acxa could.
"Oh come on, I'm not going to use Kosmo for another sale. The guy looks like he doesn't even like dogs," she whispered at him, thinking Keith was still upset with her. Her ability to peg a lot about people from just a glance only made Keith's distaste for Adam grow with that small comment. But he shook his head and waved her off again.
At her bewildered look he whispered back, "Just let me handle this one." Her confusion turned to outright suspicion and she narrowed her eyes to look between the two of them but stepped back once Adam made it to the counter, albeit without any subtlety as she observed, clearly expecting Keith to start a fight.
"You want to order something?" Keith asked, his words tight and clipped. He wasn't a master of subtlety either.
"Just a black coffee to go, please," Adam said casually. Too casually. Keith narrowed his eyes as he punched in the order on the register. He told Adam his total and took his payment, the whole time silently threatening him not to ask about Shiro, and handed the receipt off to Acxa to prepare it.
For a minute, the two just stared at each other in silence. Well, Keith glared and Adam stared impassively back. He was a good actor apparently, because he stood there waiting with an air of boredom for his coffee order as if he didn't recognize the person standing across from him or notice the very obvious animosity being directed at him. But there was no way Adam didn't realize exactly whose cafe he'd stepped into, and Keith didn't doubt for a moment that he had a very specific reason for stopping by.
It wasn't until Acxa had placed his to-go cup on the counter that he finally sighed and gave Keith a tired grimace.
"You're his current boyfriend, right?"
Keith's angry glare faded as he tried to parse the question. It took him just long enough to figure it out—and turn a bright purple as he blushed instantly—that he couldn't get a response in before Adam spoke again.
"Tell Takashi I'm sorry, I know I was out of line last night. I just... wasn't expecting to see him again, at least not looking like that."
That comment, despite the earnestness of his tone, was just enough to push Keith out of his surprised embarrassment back into his indignant anger.
"There's nothing wrong with how he looks. And you have no right judging anything about him, anyway."
"No, but you'd understand my reaction if you'd known him very long and you're clearly a new fling," Adam shrugged. The dismissiveness didn't bother Keith that much. He was used to that being directed at him. What did bother him was that Shiro had said something similar yesterday. Keith didn't stand a chance against someone with such a long, shared history, but he wasn't willing to back down either. Shiro deserved better, whether he thought so himself or not.
"I've known him longer than you think," Keith said, a not-quite lie as he thought of Shiro's writing and how long he'd adored it, "and he doesn't have to dress the way you expect to impress me."
Adam's casual mask slipped for just a moment, genuine surprise in his eyes as he sized Keith up again, seeing something he hadn't noticed the first time. Then, just as quickly, he was back to looking bored and grabbed his coffee order off the counter.
"Well. Tell him what I said. Or don't, he's your boyfriend, not mine. I'm not going out of my way to see either of you again while I'm in town."
And as casually as Adam strode in, he waltzed back out, leaving a frustrated Keith and two extremely curious coworkers in his wake. Keith barely had time to take a breath before Ezor and Acxa were in his space, crowding him up against the register.
"You. Have. A boyfriend," Ezor gasped. "I have to tell Zethrid. Oh my god, we can go on double dates!"
"Where the hell did you find one? When the hell did you have a more active dating life than me?" Acxa asked in disbelief.
"I. Um. Kosmo, walk time!" Keith called out, holding out his hand. Kosmo scrambled up off the floor in his excitement at getting to go outside and pressed his snout up against Keith's palm, poofing the two of them out of the cafe and away from any and all interrogations about his nonexistent-until-this-moment dating life. He hadn't meant to give off that impression... but he didn't dislike the idea of it either. At all. In fact, he could still feel the giddy warmth in his face despite the chilly, early evening air.
That Adam so easily believed Shiro would date him was a thrill Keith had never experienced before.
Kosmo led the way towards the local park and Keith followed, knowing he'd have to correct the girls once he got back, but happy to indulge in the fantasy for now. He imagined more evenings like the one last night, but in a more intimate place than the cafe floor and with more hand holding, sharing blankets, cuddling, kissing. Keith was so lost in his daydreams of reading Shiro's latest book while snuggled up with him on his apartment's cozy couch that he didn't notice Kosmo had bounded much further ahead until he heard a surprised voice call out the dog's name.
Snapping back to the present, Keith jogged forward towards the park entrance, shouting ahead, "Kosmo! Down, boy. Um, sorry, he usually leaves people alone, I don't know why he—" until the words died on his tongue when he caught up and found Kosmo rubbing happily up against Shiro's legs, woofing softly and wagging his tail about rapidly.
"Hello again," Shiro greeted with a small wave.
He was wearing the same overcoat and jeans as the day before, but the sweatshirt he wore underneath the open flaps of his coat was a slate gray one this time, words splashed across the front in orange with black outlining that Keith could only make out a few letters of. He was familiar enough with the Galaxy Garrison pilot program to recognize the logo, though.
Keith's measured look up and down Shiro's appearance did not go unnoticed and Shiro looked away, focusing on giving Kosmo some affectionate pets when neither of them tried to make light conversation.
And Keith really wanted to talk to Shiro, but he was having a hard time adjusting on the fly from his daydreams to dealing with the real thing, because he had so many things he wanted to say with no idea how or where it was appropriate to start. Shiro looked equally uncomfortable, one hand stuffed in his pocket and his shoulders pulled back tight, probably trying to decide how best to escape this encounter. The knowledge of who he was and what he'd written and how much he didn't want to talk about any of it was painfully apparent in the awkward, silent air between them.
So, the only thing Keith could think to say was, "Your ex thinks we're dating."
The statement crashed through the stilted atmosphere like a battering ram and Shiro's eyes snapped up to Keith's face in surprise.
"Yeah. He came to my cafe a little bit ago to apologize about last night, but um, he seemed to think I could get his word to you because I'm your boyfriend."
"Wait, wait, wait. He actually admitted he was wrong and apologized?" Shiro asked. His mouth was agape with shock.
"Well. Sort of. He said to tell you that he says sorry and knows he was out of line, but then blamed you again for why it happened in the first place."
There was a quiet beat as he took in the news, and then Shiro laughed with his head thrown back and brought a hand up to cover his eyes.
"Now that sounds more like the Adam I know." Keith watched the way Shiro's chest slowly expanded and shoulders loosened as he took a deep breath then released it, pulling his hand away to watch the steam that formed in the cold air. When he looked back down, his smile was bright enough to make Keith's skin tingle just from having it aimed his way. "He's not a bad guy, just an incredibly obtuse and frustrating one sometimes so I'm sorry you had to deal with him. But... is it terrible if I admit I'm glad I didn't have to?"
"No, no, not at all, I'm glad he didn't get a chance to bother you again," Keith insisted, shaking his head rapidly. Perhaps he shook his brain a bit too hard though because his mouth continued, "And I'm sorry I didn't correct him about us dating. My coworkers overhead so they think we are too. Um."
Immediately, he wanted to kick himself. He was so bad at lying and letting things lie even when he probably should, and admitting to essentially tricking Shiro's ex into believing they were in a relationship was probably up there with prying into his work on a list of "quickest ways to get Shiro to hate being around you." But much to his shock, the heavy, uneasy atmosphere didn't return. Shiro's head tilted a little at the admission, his long hair slipping into his face as he did it. He reached up a hand to run through it and pull it back out of his vision, then dragged his fingers thoughtfully against his stubble.
"Actually... that kind of works out for me. Instead of hiding in my hotel room to avoid people recognizing me and asking nosy questions about my life, I could just dodge them all saying I have plans with my boyfriend... Would it be a problem for you if we let people think we're going out?"
Keith blinked, his heart suddenly pounding so loud in his ears he wasn't sure he heard that correctly.
"Y'know, just fake it for the few weeks I'm here. I've lived here too so I know how quickly gossip gets around, so it'd be easy to pull off. But... I get to head out in a few weeks and you'd be the one who has to deal with the rumors once I'm gone and that's not really fair." He sounded like he was beginning to change his mind. "I can probably track Adam down and—"
"No!" Keith interrupted, louder than was strictly necessary. Kosmo's ears jerked around in surprise at the volume but he stayed put at Shiro's feet. "I mean," Keith continued in a much quieter voice, hoping the heat coming off his face wasn't turning into visible steam, "it's fine with me. If people think that."
Shiro raised an eyebrow. "Only if you're sure. You'll have to deal with me hanging around and sitting in your cafe a lot. We might even have to go around in public together a couple times."
He was explaining these things as if they were terrible burdens. If Keith wasn't so stunned at his absurd good fortune, he probably would've laughed in Shiro's face. Instead, he gave a quick shake of the head.
"I'm sure. I'm just happy I can help you somehow, and Kosmo will be happy to have you around, too."
Shiro's smile was absolutely blinding. "You really are my hero."
Keith's head starting swimming, Shiro's attention and soft-voiced praise turning his bones into jello and he abruptly dropped into a squat to keep from falling over. The sudden movement and meeting Kosmo at eye-level finally prompted the large dog to leave Shiro's side and bound over to give Keith a curious, concerned licking.
"Woah, hey, you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm good," Keith insisted. He didn't know what kind of excuse to give so he tried to change the subject while he let Kosmo sniff and nose at him. "Um, we were going on a walk so if you have other stuff to do, this is probably your chance to get back to it before Kosmo gets in the way again."
"Oh, well, truth be told I was out here to avoid the stuff I should be doing," Shiro admitted sheepishly. Keith let his gaze drag upwards for a moment and the perspective from being so close to the ground only served to make Shiro look even bigger than he already was. Several thoughts flashed through Keith's mind at that moment and he quickly averted his eyes back to Kosmo while he willed himself to ignore what his imagination had just come up with. Not noticing Keith's sudden intense staredown with his dog, Shiro continued, "I was going to go up the hiking trail but I got a late start on the day, probably from the jetlag, so I had to turn back pretty quickly since the sun is already going down."
Keith brought his hands up to ruffle the fur around Kosmo's neck as he tried to regain his cool. "Were you looking for a spot to watch the sunrise?"
There was a pause before Shiro answered, sounding a little confused. "That was the idea, yeah. How'd you know?"
"We just talked about it last night," Keith shrugged and gave Kosmo one last head pat before pushing back up onto his feet. His bones had recovered and he wanted to be able to actually look Shiro in the face again. "Easy thing to remember."
Shiro let out a small laugh and as Keith finally met his eyes, he saw a similar kind of disbelief as he had the previous night.
"You'd be surprised," Shiro said, so quietly he may not have intended for Keith to hear it. Before Keith could think of a way to reply, Shiro was clearing his throat and moving on. "Anyway it's been so long since I've been back I don't actually remember how to get to the best spots for watching the sun come up. Hopefully when I do manage to wake up early enough I can get up there to try and find one."
Keith glanced upwards at the rapidly darkening sky. He never went out at dawn but he did go up the trails with Kosmo quite often, and spent his free time during the day taking long rides on his dad's old hoverbike out across the desert of cliffs and caverns that surrounded the small town. Maybe he didn't know the best spots but he at least had a good idea of where to start.
"I might know where to look. I can show you around tomorrow or whenever you have time earlier in the day, and I've got a bike so we wouldn't have to walk. Um, if you'd like to," he added, not wanting to push his luck.
Kosmo whined at the word bike, recognizing it to mean he'd be getting left behind, and Shiro gave him an apologetic chin scratch but winked happily at Keith.
"That sounds fantastic. It's a date."
Keith could probably pass for a full Galra with how deeply his face flushed purple in that instant. He could only hope the evening light was dim enough to hide it somewhat.
"We should swap numbers if we're planning to start doing things together," Shiro pointed out as he rummaged through his coat pockets.
"Okay," Keith agreed in a dull tone, too stunned by everything else that had already happened in this one conversation to feel any more surprise. Really, he had no idea how this was happening so quickly. But obediently following suit, he fumbled around until he found his phone and the two exchanged numbers. Shiro even sent him a short text with just a smiley face to confirm they'd entered the info correctly, giving Keith proof to stare at later if he needed to convince himself he hadn't dreamed the whole thing.
"He looks ready to get going," Shiro commented, making Keith finally drag his eyes away from the text on his screen.
Keith immediately looked down and saw his dog was no longer at their feet demanding attention from Shiro but instead had walked several feet away, stopping to look back at the two of them every so often before continuing, no longer content to sit and wait for them.
"Oh. Right. I should, uh, go with him."
"Mind if I join?"
Keith blinked. Okay, maybe there was something else that could happen and still surprise him today. He wasn't used to people asking to spend more time with him than was necessary. And despite the unspoken truth that had hung between them and made the air unbearably awkward when they first ran into each other, twice now Shiro had ignored the opportunities Keith gave him to leave. Quickly Keith shook his head, knowing he was almost certainly going to embarrass himself the longer he was in Shiro's company, but greedy to have it all the same.
"He knows his way around. I just kind of follow."
The lamps along the pathway turned on as the two fell into quiet step together, trailing behind Kosmo who kept his pace walkable with the occasional pause to sniff at something or relieve himself on a particular spot. Keith stole glances at Shiro every so often and noted that this was the first time Shiro wasn't facing him fully. The way he wore his long, disheveled hair made it impossible to see his eyes or much of the rest of his face from this angle. His hands were also hidden, shoved deep into his pockets, but that didn't stop Keith from wondering if they'd get to hold hands on one of these pretend dates Shiro had suggested.
"Can I ask you something?"
Shiro's sudden question startled Keith, making his back straighten and his gaze focus forward on Kosmo as if he'd been caught imagining something he shouldn't and now tried to pretend he hadn't been.
"Why is that book your favorite?"
Keith hadn't expected to be asked about what he thought was a sensitive subject so directly. He frowned and his hands balled into fists in his jacket pockets.
This was his chance—he wanted to talk to Shiro about his work and hopefully bring back his love for it—but the way Shiro had frozen and fled last night after only seeing the book made Keith hesitate. He didn't know what had happened to rob Shiro of his love for writing. He didn't even know why he'd only published one novel under his real name before turning to a pen name, as if separating himself from it. And even though it was Shiro bringing it up on his own, Keith hedged, uncertain and unprepared.
Keith had figured out why Shiro had reacted that way but not from Shiro himself, and now it felt like he had invaded something private, something meant to keep hidden or forgotten, and guilt began to claw at his belly for uncovering it.
As the moments ticked by without a response, Shiro laughed, though the sound was mirthless. "I know it's a vain question, but I'd like you to humor me."
The admission there, that Shiro realized now Keith had already learned the truth, made his heart start pounding and his eyes flicked up to try and read Shiro's expression. But he could see nothing. Shiro's long hair still shielded his face as he looked straight ahead and his broad shoulders in his puffy overcoat were pushed forward, seemingly against the cold air but more obviously to keep himself closed off, unreadable. Briefly, Keith wondered if the reason Shiro had let how he dressed and wore his hair become this way—so different from how he used to be that one of the people who knew him then reacted so negatively—for exactly this purpose. To conceal and protect himself from others after whatever had hurt him so deeply.
But he didn't dwell on the thought long. Shiro had asked him a question and he knew he needed to answer.
"It's my favorite for a lot of reasons," Keith began honestly. He wasn't used to explaining his thoughts like this but he hoped Shiro would understand. "How the scale of the story is both grand and personal, Ryou and Akira's relationship, the robot fights."
Shiro hummed quietly as he listed things off, but it was a painfully neutral reaction. Keith shivered, suddenly feeling much colder.
"But um, I think it's not just what's in the story and more... how it's told, if that makes sense. Whenever I read it, I feel like there's so much love in the way it's written. Not just love between the characters but for them, and for the universe they're in, and the book makes you love them as much as they love each other because of it. There's this... love and joy for every part of storytelling that comes off every page so clearly, I don't know how else to describe it." He paused to let out a breath and watch the fog it formed. "I dunno, maybe it doesn't make sense after all."
"... No, I understand what you mean."
They came to a stop as they reached the end of the park path. Kosmo had already turned around to start heading back the way they had come and didn't pause to wait for them.
Keith watched as Shiro let his shoulders sag and he finally looked at Keith again, his bangs still messily hanging in his face but no longer hiding his features. His eyebrows were drawn together while his eyes were unfocused, pointed at the ground but not really seeing, and his mouth was turned down in a small frown, a mix of thoughtfulness and disappointment. Keith had no idea if his answer had been a good one, a bad one, or the right one. But it had at least gotten through Shiro's wall of indifference.
"Thank you, Keith," Shiro said eventually, blinking away his thoughts and giving Keith a small smile. "I'm gonna head this way so I'll see you tomorrow."
"Sure. See you..."
As he stepped off the path and into the parking lot, Shiro pulled one of his hands from his pockets and, for just a moment, touched it to Keith's shoulder, giving him a gentle squeeze. Whether it was thanks for speaking honestly with him or an apology for bringing it up in the first place, Keith didn't know. Shiro gave him one last small wave before jogging off and leaving Keith to stare off in his wake until Kosmo's impatient barking from the other direction finally grabbed his attention. But even through his jacket, he felt his skin burn where Shiro's large hand had been long after they parted.
"Sorry, boy, but we'll take you when we go up the trails, I promise. There's just no room for a dog your size with the two of us on the bike. Behave for the girls, okay?"
Ezor and Acxa, who had been furiously whispering behind the counter since Shiro walked in, abruptly went quiet, stood up straight and gave Keith simultaneous salutes. He narrowed his eyes at them both.
"No cookies for the puppy, sir," Ezor said in mock seriousness.
Keith sighed in exasperation but he didn't dare say anything else. After the heavy interrogation about his new boyfriend he'd gotten yesterday when he returned from their walk, he was afraid to spend too much time around them and give them a chance to move onto Shiro for questioning next.
Giving Kosmo one last scratch between the ears—in spite of his pouting, he always accepted scratches from his favorite people—Keith hurriedly led Shiro out of the cafe and around the back of the building where delivery trucks drove through and employees of the various shops on the block could park their vehicles. The hoverbike he'd inherited from his dad was an old model and had a seat big enough for two, even though it had been quite some time since Keith last had someone to ride with. Growing up he'd often see his parents riding it together to go on errands or dates while he was left with his uncles, and when he was old enough, his dad would take him out for long rides to teach him how to drive.
While he was fond of it, he didn't think it was very impressive compared to the newest brands and styles so he wasn't expecting Shiro's expression to light up so brightly when he laid his eyes on it.
Shiro let out an appreciative whistle as he climbed on. "Been a while since I've seen one of these."
"Yeah, I know it's kinda old, but it runs well. Rarely gives me any trouble and the few fixes it's needed were easy to do myself," Keith explained as he handed over his dad's old pair of goggles and riding gloves before pulling on his own.
"Drives faster than a lot of newer models, too, if you use your weight to balance it right. Most people don't know or notice enough of a difference to care, but that's just because they've never gone fast enough to begin with."
Keith watched as Shiro tied his hair back into a bun and continued rattling off the differences between older and newer bikes by the same manufacturer, surprised at how much he knew and how eagerly he explained. Keith waited to get onto the seat and start the bike, knowing it'd be too loud for them to talk much once the wind was blowing in their ears and he didn't want to stop or interrupt Shiro.
He also wouldn't be able to see Shiro for the duration of their ride while sitting in front of him, and his eyes had been hungrily glued to Shiro's outfit almost every minute since he'd arrived after their text exchange that morning. Compared to the past two days of hoodies underneath a winter coat and faded old jeans, today he wore a tight black jacket and an even tighter white shirt beneath with black slacks that he'd tucked into the tops of his boots. His broad shoulders had still been apparent underneath the loose fitting clothes he'd worn but now it was impossible not to notice just how big and fit he was.
Keith had been very vigilant to keep from openly drooling over him.
"You know a lot about bikes," Keith said, impressed when Shiro had finally noticed he was rambling and stopped.
Bashfully, Shiro slipped his pair of goggles on and gave a shrug. "Used to ride 'em a lot. You know how it is living out here, the bigger towns are all at least an hour's drive away, desert all around... Sometimes driving for the sake of it is all there is to do."
Keith nodded. He knew what that was like, probably a little too well.
"We should get going, huh?" Shiro prompted, patting the seat in front of him. Keith let himself steal one last lingering look while Shiro zipped up his jacket and put on the borrowed gloves, then slung his leg over the seat and turned on the engine, waiting for the familiar lightness as the turbines lifted them off the ground. When Shiro's hands suddenly touched his sides—nearly wrapping around his middle entirely—Keith gasped and shuddered, then went very still. Neither of them said anything for a second. Breaking the mortified atmosphere, Shiro called out over the rumbling engine, "Sorry, did I startle you?"
"Yes. Sorry. Just," Keith stammered, trying to keep his voice from sounding too squeaky. Somehow, in all the thinking he'd done last night about where they'd go and how long they'd be out there together and what they might talk about, it hadn't occurred to him that sharing a bike meant Shiro would be touching him. He cleared his throat and hoped the sound of the bike warming up would mask any shakiness in his words as he continued, "It's been a while since I've ridden with anyone."
It wasn't a lie. But it was also, very obviously, not the whole truth. Shiro's hands fell away from his sides, much to his relief and his regret, before one found purchase on Keith's shoulder and the other gripped the seat behind him.
"Whenever you're ready," Shiro said loudly. For the first time, Keith was grateful that he wouldn't be able to Shiro's face as he drove them out of the alley and onto the road. Maybe by the time they reached a place to stop, the pounding of his heart would calm down too.
But heading east, the calming sensation of wind in his hair and people fading from view as he drove them away from town made it remarkably easy to forget his embarrassment. He felt a familiar sense of peace as he turned off the paved highway and took them over the bare dirt and rocky ground towards his favorite spots to stargaze, figuring they would be just as good for catching the sunrise. The sun was still rising in the sky by the time they reached the first set of cliffs that Keith wanted to show Shiro.
"Wow," Shiro said once the roar of the engine quieted, "I think I remember these cliffs. Pretty high up."
"And not much blocking the view of the east horizon," Keith pointed out, lifting a hand to block the sun out of his eyes as he scanned the shapes of smaller cliffsides and the occasional highway sign.
Shiro nodded, then glanced behind him at the edge of town where houses were still visible in the distance. "Not a long trek, either. I wouldn't have to wake up too many hours before dawn to make it in time." He made a thoughtful noise, then shook his head. "But this might be too close to town, could still get some of those nightlights blocking out the stars while waiting for the sun to come up."
"We can do better then," Keith shrugged, pulling his goggles back on. Shiro laughed and gave him a soft, encouraging slap on the shoulder before pulling his on, too.
The next spot was another short distance away, this time on a path between two rocky formations that opened up towards the east. The cliffs behind would block out the light from the town, but being in one of the caverns meant other than looking straight out, the view of the sky was limited, too. This time, before Keith could kick the engine on again to drive to another possible location, he felt Shiro lean in close to his ear.
"You can drive a little faster, if you want," Shiro whispered.
Keith's hands clenched hard around the handlebars while his stomach did somersaults. His mouth suddenly dry, he could only nod to let Shiro know he'd heard him.
The hoverbike jerked as Keith struggled to ease his grip on the break smoothly, and for the first couple minutes as they picked up again, he was too unsteady to go at a regular speed let alone faster. But as they left the more uneven parts of the desert behind and sped towards the flatter, open land, he calmed down again and let himself turn up the throttle until the wind was whipping hard against his face. Shiro's hand on his shoulder squeezed tight as Keith heard him cheer from behind him, his laughter muted by the air rushing past his ears but still clear enough to make Keith's skin tingle.
As they came up on an especially flat stretch of ground, Keith brought them to a stop. Shiro got off the bike this time, pushing his goggles up to his forehead as he looked around.
"I think this might be perfect."
There were a couple notable rocky shapes to the south to use as a landmark, but otherwise the area was fairly empty. They weren't as high up as the cliffs so the sun wouldn't come into view as quickly, but the sky was as unobstructed as the horizon and that seemed to be what Shiro was looking for.
"Did you come out here with your grandpa when you were younger?" Keith asked, climbing off the seat but staying with the bike.
"I don't think so," Shiro said, walking around and picking up stones to toss away into the dirt. "He didn't like to go too far out of town for the sunrise because we'd have to get back quickly to make our new year's meal afterwards. So it was mostly going up the hiking trails or the roads up north since they've got benches and rest stops and things, which was good for him to rest at and helpful for taking care of a bratty grandson." He turned around and flashed Keith a smile. "I definitely drove around here myself, though."
He wandered back and leaned up against the bike beside Keith. "Thanks for taking me out to these spots, by the way. How often do you come out here?"
Keith blew at the bangs hanging in his face as he thought about it. "Maybe once a week. I don't really have a destination in mind when I go on my rides, I just... go. Sometimes I come out this way, sometimes I go up in the direction of the airport, other times I drive west, towards the Galaxy Garrison campus."
Shiro hummed casually but Keith noticed the way his head turned away out of the corner of his eye. Keith didn't want to push—but he was curious, and he at least had an honest way of bringing the topic up this time. If Shiro didn't continue the conversation, he could easily let it drop.
"I don't like going near there, though. They kicked me out when I trialed for the space pilot program so I kind of. Stole a car to drive home. They're never happy to see me after that."
Shiro's head whipped back around and Keith glanced up at him, the surprise on his face making a laugh bubble out of him.
"They kicked you out? For what?"
Keith shrugged, the memory so old it didn't sting anymore. "'Disruptive behavior.' I got into a fight with pilots further into the program who were mad I scored better than them on a trial simulation, and the higher ups weren't going to side with some random applicant over their rising stars. They reasoned that as a half Galra, I could also apply to a pilot program with Galra or other intergalactic organizations so it wasn't an official expulsion, just a 'shuffling around' as they called it. But those programs are just as up their own ass with strict rules and I flunked out there, too."
"That's absurd," Shiro said, and he sounded actually angry. "If I was still there, I never would've let them do something that stupid. How long ago was this?"
"I was eighteen, so just over ten years ago."
"Shit, I think I left just the year before," he grumbled, his arms folded across his chest. He glared out into the empty desert unhappily.
That they had been so close to meeting, both at the garrison and coming from the same home town, yet continued to miss each other before now made Keith wonder if there was some element of fate doing it on purpose. But he told himself to dismiss the thought. His imagination and the stories he read gave him a habit of picturing much grander, romantic journeys when it came to love when reality was more about random chance. What mattered was that he'd finally been able to meet Shiro at all.
"I wasn't that upset about it, to be honest," Keith admitted. He was pleased to see Shiro get angry on his behalf, but he didn't want their time together marred by his bad experience. Shiro's grimace softened and he looked back at Keith. "It wasn't like I wanted to be a pilot or anything. I just gave it a try because my parents said I should try something and the campus is close by."
"What did you want to be?" Shiro asked then, eyes sparkling curiously.
It was Keith's turn to look away, dropping his gaze down to his boots. "I don't know. I never had a thing I wanted to do."
And that was the truth. Keith had never pictured himself being a lawyer like his mother or a firefighter like his father, though he'd certainly played pretend at both when he was little. When his dad had retired and opened the cafe, Keith had jumped at the chance to work there—not because working in the service industry was his ideal, but having a place that his family treasured that he could take care of was what satisfied him. Because while other kids may have dreamed of being a space pilot or a rockstar or whatever their parents happened to be, Keith's dream had only been to be happy. To be happy with someone, the way he read about in his favorite books.
What he dreamed of was being in love and he didn't really care what he ended up doing besides that.
But admitting that to the guy whose book gave him that dream in the first place felt too daunting. Especially when Keith was pretty sure he was in love with him already.
"What about you?" Keith asked in a bit of a rush, his cheeks burning from Shiro's attention. "I saw your hoodie yesterday. Were you a pilot there before you were a writer?"
"Well... technically I was a writer before I was a pilot. And then I ended up not being a pilot at all," Shiro said with a sigh.
Keith had first read Across the Rift when he was in high school and he knew it had been a fairly new release at the time, but he hadn't put together until now just how young Shiro must have been when he'd written it. That impressed him even more. But hearing that the garrison hadn't let Shiro of all people pass their program just made him exasperated.
"From what I remember, the people who run the garrison can't recognize a good pilot even if they punch 'em in the face, so if they didn't let you qualify to fly, it's because they're morons. Their loss."
Shiro peeked down at Keith out of the corner of his eye, then bumped his arm playfully with an elbow. "Hey now. You haven't even seen me behind the controls. Maybe I was really bad at it?"
"Were you bad at it?"
"No, I was damn good," Shiro laughed. He brought a hand up to his face and dragged his thumb along the scar that cut across his nose. "But it didn't matter how good I was. I was a liability, so they couldn't let me fly the real thing."
Keith waited, wondering if there was an explanation for that scar coming, but Shiro didn't continue so instead he offered, "Like I said, they're morons," which got another chuckle. "But you must really love space, right? You said you write astronomy articles still and you wanted to fly up there. And... y'know, in Rift, there was a ton of detail on everything about the universe, the various systems they passed through, and all the differences between every reality they hopped into. I could tell there was a lot of care and attention put into it."
Remembering his favorite part of the novel, Keith pushed away from the hoverbike abruptly before Shiro could say anything and swung around so they were standing face to face. "Wait, do you know if there really is a way to push stars around like when Ryou made his own constellations?"
Shiro blinked down at him in surprise. Keith realized too late in his excitement that he'd just touched on several things Shiro obviously didn't enjoy talking about. But before he could backtrack and apologize, Shiro's lips turned up in an impressed grin as he gave a shake of his head.
"No, that part was definitely the fictional quasi-magic of the Black Lion and quintessence letting him do it. Although..." He tilted his head and furrowed his eyebrows as he considered something. "It's possible there are alien populations out there that can manipulate black holes and dark matter to move heavenly bodies en masse and we just haven't met them yet. But we've met a lot of aliens and the Alteans are pretty much the most advanced out there and they haven't come up with a way to do it, so pretty unlikely, sorry to say."
"I figured," Keith mumbled, kicking at a rock in disappointment. "Still my favorite part, anyway."
"Really? Most of the reviews I remember thought that part of the ending was too corny and criticized it."
Immediately, Keith was indignant.
"What? The ending was amazing because it was the payoff that showed how powerful Ryou and his bond with the lion had gotten, and it was the proof that he'd taken Akira's words to heart, that he believed his promise to come find him in any part of the universe in any reality. And it was just really romantic! He remade the stars until they spelled out Akira's name, over and over across the galaxy he was trapped in, so he'd know to come find him when he looked at a star chart."
In his anger at these faceless critics, Keith failed to notice he was rambling off all these details at the person who'd written the book in the first place and certainly already knew about it. By the time he'd finished his rant, Shiro was hiding a grin behind his hand. Now somewhat out of breath, Keith blushed and cleared his throat.
"And so what if it was corny and unrealistic? If I wanted something unromantic with nothing made up I'd just read a textbook."
That made Shiro laugh, his whole body bending forward as his shoulders shook with it. He let his arms unfold and stepped away from the hoverbike to reach forward and clap Keith gently on the back, though there was still enough force to make Keith stumble a couple steps
"I wish I could've read your review instead," Shiro said, somewhat wistful. "But man, it's been so long since I thought about that book, hearing you talk about it is bringing some of it back." He squinted up at the sky where the sun was now almost directly overhead. "We've been out here a while and I think we've found the perfect spot already, so why not head back for some lunch? Maybe over some burgers I can find out your opinion on the villain."
And just like that, Keith had won his first big victory. Shiro was inviting him to talk more about his writing, the discomfort and avoidance from their previous conversations now melted away. Keith hadn't figured out a clear plan to make it happen yet and to have already managed it somewhat gave him hope that maybe Shiro hadn't completely lost his love for writing after all—maybe he'd just needed someone to remind him of it.
Thrilled, Keith nodded with enthusiasm. Once he'd made note on his phone's map of their current location to easily find it again, Shiro lowered his goggles for their drive back, but before he could hop onto the back of the seat Keith held out the keys.
"You can drive us back."
Shiro stared at him but didn't take them. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah," Keith said easily, giving a shrug. "You obviously know a lot about riding and know the area." When Shiro still didn't move to accept, Keith added, "Besides, I want to know how fast this thing can go."
Immediately, Shiro grinned and held out his palm.
This time Keith slipped onto the back of the seat once he'd passed over the keys, and fortunately it was raised upwards along the body of the hoverbike so he would be able to see over Shiro's much taller frame as they drove. He gingerly grabbed onto Shiro's shoulders as the engine started up, but almost as soon as he'd placed them Shiro took both of his hands and pulled them around his sides. He didn't let go until Keith's entire front was pressed flush against his back.
"You're gonna want to hold on tighter than that," Shiro called behind him, and obediently Keith took hold of Shiro's jacket and squeezed his arms tight around Shiro's chest.
Keith could only hope that the frantic, heavy pounding of his heart that Shiro could undoubtedly feel would be mistaken for excitement for their ride.
"You sure you trust me?" Shiro asked, giving Keith a chance to change his mind. Maybe his heart rate had been mistaken for panic instead.
He took a deep breath, hoping to calm the rapid beating in his chest. "Yes," he answered honestly, "I trust you."
"Okay. Don't let go."
Shiro didn't need to tell him twice. Keith's grip was firm as the engine roared and they took off, already accelerating faster than Keith thought the bike could go. Just like Shiro had rambled about before their drive, he used their weight to shift the balance of the craft from the back to the front, giving the turbines more of an angle to push them forward with more power. From his own experience, Keith could feel the difference and realized there was a chance of tipping too far forward and flipping the entire hoverbike if the balance wasn't kept perfectly, but he wasn't afraid as Shiro sped even faster across the flat terrain and towards the rising cliffs. The path grew narrower and the bottom of the desert floor looked far away the higher and higher along the rocky outcrop they drove, never slowing down.
Once they reached the highest point, Keith could see the town growing steadily larger in the distance over Shiro's shoulder. He could also see the edge of the clifface coming closer and closer. Abruptly, he realized what Shiro was about to do.
Keith didn't flinch when they flew over the edge, his hands still held onto Shiro's jacket and his arms squeezed possibly painfully tight around him. The sensation of weightlessness was exhilarating even as his stomach did backflips and his heart, still hammering, felt like it was seated on the back of his tongue. The jump was a small one compared to the largest cliffs out this way, but while they may have been in the air for only a few seconds, those seconds stretched out into ages, Shiro's joyous yell as they soared lasting so long in his ears Keith was amazed he still had any air in his lungs.
But the moment didn't last forever. Once the world around Keith returned to normal speed, the ground rapidly came up to meet them and Shiro shifted their weight again to pull the nose of the bike up just as they reached the bottom and landed with a smooth swoop, never decelerating.
Shiro did slow to a stop shortly after, his heavy breathing moving Keith's arms along with it as his chest expanded and contracted. He looked over his shoulder with a wide beam on his face, but his hands had let go of the handlebars to cover Keith's and hold them, offering comfort and stability.
"Yeah," Keith answered, dazed and awed. He'd never thought to use the hoverbike that way. "Can you teach me how to do that?"
"Absolutely," Shiro grinned, reaching back to give Keith's thigh a hard, approving smack. It sent a shudder rocketing up Keith's spine but blessedly, unlike the touch Shiro had given him at the start of their ride, his reaction to it this time went unnoticed.
The engine rumbled to life again but Shiro kept the speed low, and for a moment Keith was disappointed by it, his awakened hunger for thrill frustrated at the lazy pace. But he quickly realized they were at the edge of town already and became grateful that their arrival back at the cafe would take a few minutes more, letting him sit this closely pressed against Shiro for a little while longer.
"Yup. Just as fun as I remembered," Shiro said when they reached the back alley and parked. Keith regretfully released his hold on Shiro's jacket so the two could separate and get off the seat. "Thanks again for letting me drive around a little. Sorry if I got a little carried away, I've just... missed it. More than I thought."
"It was nothing. You promise you're gonna show me that, right?"
Shiro laughed as he handed back the keys and his borrowed riding gear. "Sure. I'm here for a few weeks and I've got nothing but time, but I bet you can learn how to do it really quick."
"Great," Keith said with a nod. The excitement and bravery from doing something so daring was still rushing through him when he added, "It's a date."
"A date," Shiro agreed, running a finger along his bottom lip. Keith's eyes followed it, his stomach doing a flip not too different from when they'd flown off the side of a cliff when Shiro caught his gaze and gave him a wink. He immediately turned away, using the need to stow away the goggles and gloves as an excuse to hide his face and try and regain his cool. When he turned back around he didn't think his blush had calmed any but at least Shiro's hands were away from his mouth and Keith could keep his attention elsewhere.
"Um. By the way, for new year's, you can borrow it."
"The hoverbike. Unless you already rented one or something, I just figured—"
"Oh. No, I hadn't since I thought I'd be using the hiking trails. Are you sure?"
Keith nodded. He was about to ask if he could come along that morning too when the joy that had been on Shiro's face suddenly seemed to fade away, his face going somewhat blank as he regarded Keith carefully. The question died on his tongue and instead he waited quietly, pushing his hands into his pockets to hide any shakiness.
"Would you—..." Shiro began, but thought better of whatever he was going to say. He smiled, weaker than before, and mirrored Keith by tucking his hands into his jacket. "Nevermind. Thanks for the offer, I'll take you up on that, and I promise I'll take good care of it. No big jumps in the dark."
Keith gave a small laugh at Shiro's words, but desperately wanted to know what question he was going to ask before changing his mind. The momentarily chilly atmosphere between them also halted all the adrenaline and courage he'd felt up until then and he couldn't push himself to ask to accompany Shiro for his sunrise tradition.
"Anyway, I'm starving. Got any recommendations for places to eat? I'm not sure the restaurants I used to go to are still around," Shiro said, changing the subject.
"Yeah, I know a few. Follow me," Keith said as he led them towards the street. He was relieved as the conversation quickly returned to its earlier ease and friendliness, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd missed an important opportunity. He just hoped there'd be another chance to talk about Shiro's new year plans and join him.
Keith was happy to play along of course—the chance to spend time with Shiro was worth it regardless—but he didn't think anyone would be convinced for very long that he could get a boyfriend, let alone someone like Shiro, when he'd been known as the unpleasant son of the nice cafe owner since he was younger. And while Keith didn't have to fake anything to come off as head over heels in love, he had his doubts that others would think Shiro had that kind of interest in him.
But, as it turned out, Shiro was a very good actor.
On their own in the Red Lion Cafe or during walks around town with Kosmo when no one was around, Shiro didn't act any different. The moment anyone else appeared, however, he went into a new boyfriend mode that Keith was still struggling not to get overwhelmed by. Shiro's body language would shift, immediately getting close to Keith and touching him in some way as if to prevent whoever had appeared from coming between them. If they weren't already holding hands—which was one of Keith's favorite perks so far of the whole charade—then Shiro would put his hands on Keith somewhere else like his shoulder, the base of his neck, his waist, or the small of his back. It didn't really matter where Shiro decided to touch Keith because every time it lit up his nerves and made his stomach explode into butterflies, even when he'd learned to expect it.
For his part, Keith didn't have to act any different whether there were people around or not. All he had to do was let Shiro press up against him or say his name in a quiet voice and immediately his feelings showed on his face, in his eyes, in the quickening of his breath, in the sway of his shoulders as his whole body instinctively leaned in closer to Shiro's.
If Shiro thought he was an equally skilled actor or was just kind enough not to point out how obvious Keith was about falling for him, Keith couldn't tell. He was just grateful that he'd been chosen to be his fake boyfriend to make fake plans with.
And very quickly, Keith had learned why Shiro wanted to have an excuse to avoid the people in town.
The same day they had gone on their hoverbike ride out into the desert, Keith was still with him when somebody recognized him. They immediately broke out into questions about why he'd vanished and what had happened at the Garrison and what he was doing now, and while their reaction to his disheveled appearance wasn't to the same degree as Adam's, Keith could tell the shock was there, too. He had no idea how well this person had known Shiro years ago, but after knowing him for barely half a week, Keith already understood how invasive it was to ask those things and how eager Shiro was to get away from the conversation. Claiming they were on their way to a movie and the show time was beginning soon, Shiro had taken Keith's hand and wished the old acquaintance a happy holidays before fleeing quickly in the opposite direction of the theater.
It didn't take long after the first few townsfolk realized Shiro was back that word got around and more and more people would come up to him—now that they knew the long haired, shabbily dressed man in town was the Shiro they remembered—stopping them on their walks through the park with Kosmo or bothering him where he was seated in the corner of Keith's cafe. What baffled Keith the most was how little history most of them personally shared with Shiro when he asked later who they were, yet they still felt compelled to call out to him just to ask into his business.
With how much pestering he got, Keith felt guilty that they couldn't spend all their time driving around in the desert, far away from all the nosy ex-neighbors and old classmates, but Shiro had been right. It took less than a day to teach Keith how to make big jumps and land safely on his hoverbike, and he couldn't spend every day out there and leave Kosmo behind. He did offer to let Shiro take it out by himself, but he'd turned it down.
But the good news was their arrangement was serving its purpose. Whenever Shiro was on his own, he could easily slip away from unwanted conversations with an excuse about meeting up with Keith, and whenever they were together, they would always happen to be on their way to some date they'd planned so they couldn't stop to chat. By the end of their first week as an official fake couple, most not-quite-strangers had given up on getting more than a quick greeting out of Shiro and started leaving him alone.
Keith briefly worried that with their plan working so effectively he wouldn't get to spend as much time with Shiro anymore. After all, if the act had fooled everyone, why keep it up? But Shiro continued to come to the cafe and go on walks with Kosmo, and Keith felt brave enough to believe that Shiro was enjoying their time spent together as much as he did.
Because while the romantic part of their relationship was just pretend, the rest of it was real, and getting stronger with each passing day.
And even through his struggles at dealing with other people, Keith did have people he would consider friends or at least friendly. Acxa and Ezor were certainly among those he'd consider his friends—possibly thanks to how much Kosmo also liked them—despite any headbutting over work. He'd been friendly with a guy named Hunk in high school, who wound up going to the Galaxy Garrison too but went on to become one of their star engineers, and still got yearly holiday cards from his family. Some of the other Galra interns he'd met thanks to his mother's work had been easy to talk to and would still message him now and again, just to catch up.
Okay, maybe it wasn't a long list, but he definitely had experience with friendships to compare things to. So hanging out daily with Shiro and talking for hours on end while they walked Kosmo, while they ate, while they simply sat together and enjoyed each other's company, it was a very real friendship—and a deeper one than he'd ever had before—even if the dating part wasn't.
Before, Keith never thought he had much to say about himself. At first didn't think he'd be able to keep conversations going very long with how few interesting things there were about his life. But over the week, he never seemed to run out of things to say. Shiro ended up learning about the way his parents had met; the old house he'd lived in before his dad had died and he turned the cafe office into an apartment to shorten his commute; how many planets Keith had visited with his mom back when he was still little; what his few weeks with the Galra space pilot program was like; the names of his many uncles—who were really just coworkers of his mother's but he'd grown up calling them that and never stopped—and on and on. The amazed reaction Shiro had to many of his stories, no matter how boring they seemed to him as he told them, filled him with a satisfaction he'd never felt before.
"So being half Galra, that's why you turn purple sometimes?" Shiro had asked early on. When Keith immediately flushed purple again at being reminded how often he blushed, Shiro laughed and did one of his boyfriend things, sliding his arm over Keith's shoulders and pulling him tight against his side as he teased, "Don't worry, purple looks good on you."
At the same time that Shiro learned about Keith, Keith eagerly listened to all the stories Shiro shared in exchange, from life with his grandpa to his days as a pilot to his current routine where he lived on the coast. Keith discovered Shiro was a little over six years older and had actually gone to school in the city and stayed in dorms while his grandfather lived in town, which explained how they'd managed to miss meeting each other when they were younger. The reason he got into writing romance novels in the first place sounded like it was just an accident: something he'd written in his downtime between his work on astrological papers got discovered by a coworker who had family in publishing, his first release sold decently well and so he'd just rolled with it. They talked about Across the Rift occasionally too, and Keith was always smug when Shiro gave some tidbit or explanation for events or characters that Keith had figured out long ago. And it turned out the name Sven from his pen name was also the 'S' in T.S. Shirogane, and the middle name was something the sons in his family inherited from a great-great-grandfather on his grandma's side.
Keith was giddy that he got the privilege to learn all these things, whether they were goofy school days anecdotes or private memories with his grandfather, and there was a sense of pride in knowing that compared to the various people in town who tried to nose into Shiro's life, Keith was the only one who Shiro considered worth opening up to.
But there were a handful of obvious things about himself and his past that Shiro didn't offer—and Keith never asked for. How he got his scar, why he wasn't a pilot now despite how much he clearly had wanted to be one, and anything to do with his past relationships were never touched on. Sometimes Shiro would start on a story before realizing it involved one of those things and abruptly go quiet, and each time that happened Keith would change the subject or call Kosmo over to distract him and let the bad memories get pushed away.
The one thing that kept nagging at the back of his mind, despite how much he was enjoying everything else, was that Keith had yet to figure out how to reawaken Shiro's love for writing.
While he'd gotten over the hurdle of getting Shiro to talk about what he'd already written surprisingly fast, whenever Keith asked about what he was working on currently, Shiro would deftly ease the conversation into a different direction or just shrug and admit he was avoiding it. He was well aware of the same problem Keith had with his current writing and they talked about it now and then, but there was a difference in knowing the problem and knowing how to tackle it. A few weeks probably wouldn't be enough to fix things anyway and he told himself that he could keep helping Shiro even after he left town since they planned to stay in touch. But he didn't want to think about going back to daily life without Shiro in it, so he would often leave the nagging thought alone.
It wasn't until near the end of their second week as a couple that Keith did finally learn why Shiro left the garrison's pilot program.
On another of their late nights in the cafe, Shiro brought his laptop with him for once. Keith sat at the counter to give him space to concentrate and hopefully get some work done. Kosmo's new favorite spot was curling up at Shiro's feet and he refused to move even when Keith tried to bribe him with some muffins. He was well-behaved and quiet though so eventually Keith just gave up and let him be. But whenever he wandered over himself to offer a bite to eat or refill Shiro's drink, he could see the document on the screen was still blank and no progress had been made.
"Wait. Please stay and distract me," Shiro pleaded after Keith had come by to check on him for the tenth time so far, grabbing onto Keith's sleeve when he moved to walk away.
Keith laughed softly. "I don't think you need help with distracting, but I'll stay."
Shiro pushed his laptop to the side and laid his face down on the table with a groan, his long hair fanning out as Keith slid into the booth seat beside him. Kosmo's tail slapped at Keith's leg as he got up to rearrange himself around the new pair of feet in his resting spot. There was no one else around to put on an act for considering it was close to nine at night and he could've easily sat across from him instead, but Keith never passed up a chance to use some of his boyfriend privileges when he could.
"No luck?" he asked, gently bumping their shoulders together.
"No luck," Shiro sighed. "And Coran won't stop sending me emails about the deadline."
Coran was Shiro's editor, who he liked but also dreaded getting emails from. Shiro had shown Keith one a while back when complaining about them, and Keith had immediately understood why. There was something oddly terrifying about the long-winded messages that were signed with only a moustache emoji.
"Well, didn't you brainstorm a bunch of things yesterday?"
Shiro nodded against the table, then sat up to look through his files on his laptop until he could pull up a document with character outlines and plot ideas. "I've got the pieces but I just can't think of a way to start. I don't want to work on this anymore tonight."
Keith didn't point out that he hadn't done any work on it at all so far. He wasn't about to protest when it meant he could have Shiro's attention again, but he did feel a bit worried that if Shiro didn't get his work done, or at least start on it soonish, he would be in trouble with his publisher.
"Maybe you just need a break from staring at the screen. You could take Kosmo out for a walk," Keith offered.
There was a flurry of movement beneath the table that knocked their knees together as Kosmo scrambled out from his curled up position to look at them expectantly from beside the booth.
"I guess you don't have a choice now," he corrected, making Shiro laugh.
"Come with me," Shiro said, closing the laptop and giving Keith a reciprocal nudge with his shoulder.
There was still another business hour left, but the cafe rarely got customers this late. And besides, as owner he felt no guilt in closing up a little early. If Shiro wanted him to keep him company, he wasn't going to say no.
Once he'd flipped the closed sign over and locked the door, Keith jogged to catch up to Shiro and Kosmo who had already begun his walk. They didn't get snow out here in the desert, but with the sun long set it was still cold enough to be unpleasant without proper winter clothes and while neither of them had grabbed a pair of gloves, the insides of their coat pockets were warm enough. Keeping one stuffed in his own jacket, he let Shiro entangle their fingers and pull their joined hands into his bigger coat pocket.
Even if no one came up to them this late in the evening, it had become a natural habit to hold hands on their walks anyway.
"So," Shiro started, looking down at Keith, "Any plans for Christmas? It's only a couple days away."
"Not really. Gonna give my mom a call, but that's about it. What about you?"
"I'll be desperately trying to make my deadline, but otherwise, no plans." He sniffled a bit against the cold breeze. "I was wondering. Does your Galra family care about Christmas? I've met a number of aliens through my astronomy writing jobs who don't think it's anything special and even get a little cranky around the holiday season when people seem to disappear from work."
Keith snorted. "Sounds like some Galra I know. But I think it depends, really. Ezor loves it, because she loves holidays and days off in general. My mom and I used to celebrate it because my dad did but she doesn't take any time off work for it. Kolivan would probably chew her ear off if she asked."
"Used to?" Shiro echoed.
"Well. If I get something for my mom for the holiday, it usually takes so long for her to get back that it's nowhere near Christmas anymore so it may as well be a welcome home gift instead. I like the holiday music and the lights the town puts up, and I usually buy something small for the girls at the cafe and a new toy or something for Kosmo every year, but that doesn't really feel like a big celebration, y'know? I don't set up a tree myself or plan anything for the day anymore."
Shiro hummed thoughtfully as they paused to watch Kosmo rummage through a bush along the sidewalk. "Makes sense."
Keith wondered if Shiro was thinking of making plans for the two of them for Christmas. And that idea was nice, of course, but it was a bit late to find a gift for an exchange and he didn't want to give him something with little thought behind it. And more than that... Keith had been wishing to join him for the new year's sunrise. A tradition that meant something to Shiro, and that he would be honored to share. Thinking this was finally his chance to ask, he jumped on it.
"But um, I don't have any plans for New Years either," he said, hoping his palm wasn't too sweaty where Shiro held it tight. "I don't know how early you planned to head out to watch the sunrise, but I wouldn't mind getting up before dawn. If, uh, if you would want the company, I mean."
Immediately, Shiro's focus swung away from Kosmo and turned to Keith, his intense eyes pinning him to the spot. His mouth was drawn tight and eyebrows lifted high with surprise quickly furrowed into doubt and distrust. Fear that he had overstepped and pushed for more than was offered made Keith's blood run cold. For one horrible, miserable second, he thought he had ruined everything and wanted to tear his hand away and flee, not knowing what else to do.
But the fear kept him frozen in place just long enough to see the dark cloud on Shiro's face vanish.
Shiro's expression turned carefully blank, and it reminded Keith of that first walk they'd taken, when Shiro turned his whole body into a defensive wall. The difference now was Shiro stayed facing him while their hands were still joined together in his coat pocket, and Keith could feel Shiro's thumb running curiously across his own. Suddenly he couldn't tell whose palm was sweatier or who was more nervous.
"You'd go with me?" Shiro asked, and his voice was flat and careful in a way Keith hadn't heard from him before. It stung, to be held at a distance again after how close they had become. But he wasn't denying Keith outright either, the question coming out so quiet it was almost like Shiro didn't think he was allowed to ask.
"I'd love to. If... if it's not intruding."
There was a pause as Shiro searched his face. And right away, Keith realized Shiro's reaction and expression that had terrified him wasn't actually aimed at him. Someone else—maybe many someones—had turned a treasured tradition into something painful and now Shiro couldn't believe anyone would willingly join him. It baffled Keith how anyone could suck the joy out of it when watching a sunrise was so simple and easy to do, but he was all too familiar with the way others could deny and hurt someone just as casually, not realizing what importance things held.
"Okay," Shiro said, breaking the silence with a shaky breath that turned to steam in the cold air.
He nodded, as if confirming it to himself, and then gradually smiled again, the sight of it flooding Keith with relief. The blank, protective mask crumbled almost as quickly as it had slipped on and now there was a bright excitement in his eyes.
"Yeah. We'll go together. Okay," he said again before turning his head away. Keith felt Shiro's hand squeeze his just a little bit tighter. "We should probably catch up. Kosmo's leaving us behind."
Keith glanced ahead of them and could see Kosmo in the distance beneath one of the park lamps lining the pathway.
"Right," he agreed and allowed Shiro to set the pace when they began to walk again.
This felt like an even bigger victory than all the others. They could've been silent the rest of the night and still Keith would've felt like he was floating on clouds.
So it was a surprise when Shiro spoke up again soon after.
"Y'know, no one's ever wanted to go with me. I've asked every boyfriend I've had, every year, and they never would."
Through his momentary shock at Shiro bringing up his past relationships when he never had before, Keith remembered what Shiro had said on that first night they'd met. How he hadn't bothered with going to watch the sunrise since his grandfather passed away. And now Keith understood that he had tried. But after being denied again and again, he'd finally given up and come back to try it alone, even when he so clearly craved company for a tradition he had grown up sharing with someone he loved.
"Some of them at least offered to do it the next year when turning me down," Shiro added with a laugh. "But I was always dumped before then. Because it turned out I wasn't who they imagined I was, and I hadn't been since they told me I could never fly."
And then, as if a dam had broken, Shiro went on to tell Keith about everything at the garrison. About the disease he'd been born with and still had, how his muscles and nerves couldn't always communicate, and about the day they failed him on a casual drive on a hoverbike. He recalled the accident that scarred his face and got him permanently removed from the pilot program, his voice turning rough. He explained how his grandfather dying right before he went into the intense training made him push himself too hard, unwilling to slow down and take any serious treatment for his condition out of fear that he'd miss his chance to fly, not realizing what it would cost him in the end. There were mentions of the men he'd been with here and there between his recollections of moving from pilot to research department before he'd left the garrison completely, and while each mention was brief, it was still easy to tell how the breakups chipped away at Shiro at a time when he was already close to shattering.
While he talked and Keith silently listened, Kosmo came to Shiro's side as if sensing his need for comfort too, no longer rushing off to explore the park at his own pace and staying glued to Shiro's legs for the rest of their walk. Keith's face felt nearly frozen by the time they returned to the Red Lion, but Shiro's stream of memories continued pouring out of him and the two of them stayed awake in the corner of the cafe late into the night.
It was nearing dawn when they finally said their goodbyes.
"Sorry. For talking your ear off," Shiro grinned sheepishly. The air around them was light and relieved, if a little raw.
"No, thank you for letting me listen," Keith insisted with a shake of his head. Feeling brave, he stepped closer and opened up his arms. Shiro's smile grew wider and he leaned in to let Keith reach up around his shoulders as he returned the hug, his big hands spreading along Keith's back and pulling him in tight.
When they pulled apart, Keith knew he was blushing quite brightly, but he could swear he saw a pink dusting on Shiro's cheeks as he adjusted the strap of his bag, too.
"I'll see you tomorrow. Or, uh, later today."
"Yeah. Good night, Shiro."
Shiro waited a second, his eyes flickering down at something before snapping back up and he laughed, pushing the door open. "Right. Um. Good night, Keith," he said and lingered in the doorway a moment more, then gave a small wave and headed off to his hotel.
As Keith locked up and turned the lights off then groggily made his way up the steps to his apartment with Kosmo at his heels, he felt victorious, saddened and intimidated all at once. Over the course of hours, through all the stories and expressions and body language Keith had witnessed, all of the pieces to the Shiro puzzle had clicked into place.
Shiro was heartbroken, in more ways than one.
His love for his family, his love of flying, his love of space, his love for his partners. All of them had been torn from him in quick succession, and even if his love of writing still remained somewhere in him, it was hard to find it beneath the ripped and shattered remains of the dreams he'd had and the loneliness it left him with. It was no wonder the stories he wrote now were so different from Across the Rift, something he'd finished and released before things began to fall apart like dominoes.
But Keith's goal to reignite Shiro's joy and passion for writing suddenly felt dwarfed by everything else.
How could he truly help Shiro find any kind of love again when the things that had stolen it were so dear to him and Keith was just a friend? Keith had love to give if Shiro wanted it, of course. He'd fallen in love that very first night and it had only grown stronger since. But while it was on offer, he couldn't do anything with it if Shiro wasn't looking for it, or at least not looking for it from him.
All Keith could do was continue to keep Shiro company as long as he was willing to accept it.
The sky was getting brighter outside his window when he reached his bed and promptly passed out, Kosmo stretched out beside him. For the second time in as many weeks, Keith slept well into the afternoon. When he blinked awake, he reached for his phone immediately to check for any messages from Shiro. Finding none gave him a brief sensation of disappointment, but he dismissed it since he hadn't been the only one who stayed up all night. He rushed to get dressed and get down to the cafe, ready to wait for Shiro to walk through the door.
But as the hours ticked by and the sun vanished to be replaced by glimmering stars, Shiro never came.
It wasn't as if they had made concrete plans for the day. A casual "see you tomorrow" didn't mean Shiro was obligated to come by, after all. But the longer Keith waited, the harder it was to reason away his worry, especially when the girls told him Shiro hadn't popped in earlier while he was asleep, either. Kosmo looked unhappy for much of the day, too, and whenever Keith offered a walk he would only go far enough to relieve himself on one of the trees along the sidewalk before rushing back to the cafe, as if afraid to leave and miss a chance to see Shiro. Usually he couldn't work up the nerve to message Shiro first, but as it neared closing time with still no sign of him, Keith typed out something simple and short and sent it, hoping for a reply.
Keith waited until an hour past the cafe's usual hours before he started locking up.
Their long talk yesterday had been heavy, but Shiro had clearly looked refreshed by the end of it. Was he embarrassed now? Did he regret it? Or had it exhausted him so much he slept through the whole day? Keith just wanted to know rather than be left wondering. Hopefully Shiro would come by the next day...
Just as Keith moved to turn of the lights for the night, he heard his phone buzz and Kosmo bark loudly before vanishing. Rushing to check, he saw Shiro had finally texted back, I'm so sorry Keith, I'm swinging by now if you're still up, and Keith immediately went to the door to unlock it and push it open. From down the block he saw Shiro jogging over, Kosmo bounding alongside him.
"Sorry, I'm so sorry," Shiro said as he came to a stop in front of Keith. He kept apologizing between heavy breaths until Keith shook his head, eyes focused on their feet, and shoved his hands into his pockets to keep from latching on to Shiro's coat.
"It's fine. I just wanted to know if something was up. If, after yesterday, you didn't want to come by or something."
"No, no, I'm so grateful for yesterday," Shiro insisted, touching Keith's shoulder. It made Keith relax instantly and his head turned upwards to see the genuine smile on Shiro's face. "I ended up sleeping in really late, and then when I got up, I was hit by inspiration. A lot of inspirations, actually. I got so caught up I didn't realize what time it was until fifteen minutes ago."
Now Keith felt sheepish, thinking only about himself all day while Shiro had finally broken through his block. "Oh. That's great."
"Yeah, yeah, it is. And all thanks to you," Shiro said with a wink that made Keith shiver. "But I think, to beat this deadline, I'm going to be pretty busy getting this done. And I think if I come by the cafe, I'm not going to be able to focus and get it done as quickly, so I'm going to stay at the hotel for the next week. I'll definitely swing by for a bit on Christmas tomorrow, but I probably won't be able to come again until it's time to drive out for the sunrise."
Keith wanted to feel elated. This was what he'd wanted from the start, after all. Shiro was finding his passion again, and Keith had helped him.
But all he could feel in that moment was loneliness.
"Okay, good luck," he said, hoping it wasn't showing on his face. He wasn't very good at hiding things though, and Shiro's bright expression faltered.
"Did you... want to change your mind?"
"No! I can't wait for New Year's Day with you," Keith corrected immediately. He sighed then, embarrassed but knowing he had to be honest if the alternative was letting Shiro think he was no longer interested. "It's just... You've been keeping us company every day. Kosmo and I are going to be lonely this week."
Kosmo let out a whine as if on cue, making Shiro laugh. He gave Kosmo an affectionate head scratch and said quietly, "I know what you mean. But it'll be worth it, I hope."
"I'm sure it will be," Keith assured him.
Shiro grinned, then reached up to ruffle Keith's hair, something he'd never done before. Keith squawked a bit in surprise, then inhaled sharply as Shiro's hand lowered to the nape of his neck and gently pulled, Keith instinctively moving forward with his touch. Shiro tugged him against his chest and it felt like he fit there perfectly, made to be held there. Keith melted into him, his face tucked into Shiro's neck as his arms slipped around Shiro's middle to return the hug.
Keith had no idea how long they stood there out in the cold, kept warm by their embrace. He wouldn't have let go if Shiro didn't release him first.
As they pulled apart, Shiro chuckled softly. "I'm not sure if that's enough to hold me over for a whole week, but it'll have to do."
Keith's palms tingled, desperate to reach out and grab hold of Shiro and not let him go. But Shiro had work to do and a deadline to meet and finally the inspiration and energy to get it done, so Keith wasn't going to get in the way.
"Good night, Keith," Shiro said with one last lingering stare.
"Good night, Shiro," Keith echoed. He didn't move until Shiro was nearly out of sight down the block and looked back to give Keith a wave. With a small wave in response, Keith finally went back inside.
The wait leading up to New Year's Day, by comparison, was agony.
Shiro did come by for Christmas, which was the one bright spot before the long drought without his company. Keith kept the cafe open but was the only one working for the whole day and he'd been dealing with the few customers who stopped in as best he could. Shiro's visit was brief, much to Keith's disappointment, though he did bring a gift.
"I didn't get you anything," Keith said glumly as he took the bag. Maybe it would've been a last minute gift, but he should've gotten something.
"You've given me more than enough already," Shiro waved him off, though Keith wasn't very satisfied with that. His gloomy thoughts were forgotten though when he opened the bag and he recognized the cover with wide eyes immediately.
When his head whipped up in shock, Shiro grinned, looking pleased.
"I managed to find a copy in the bookstore a while back. All your talking about it made me curious to reread after so long, so it's a little used but..." He paused, tilting his head to regard Keith for a moment. His eyes were sparkling with something Keith couldn't recognize when he continued, "That's how you show that you love a book, right?"
Breathless, Keith could only nod as he held the new copy of Across the Rift against his chest.
After that, Shiro offered his apologies for having to leave already and Keith was left alone with the swelling affection in his chest that he could barely contain. Desperate to hug someone, he cuddled Kosmo, who didn't seem to mind, every moment he didn't have a customer to serve.
For the remainder of the month, Keith spent much of every day staring at a clock or the time on his phone, bewildered that the minutes never seemed to jump more than one or two at a time whenever he did manage to briefly look at something else. Walks with Kosmo, even the longest that went up the highest part of the hiking trails, only took an hour or two at most, barely putting a dent into the long wait in front of him. And reading, his usual distraction of choice, was impossible. Even when he grabbed his newly gifted copy of Across the Rift and went to one of his favorite scenes right off the bat, he couldn't keep his attention on the words long enough to get through a single paragraph. His eyes would constantly flick over to the nearest clock and he wound up rereading the same sentences over and over, unable to get lost in the story and forget his impatience.
Miraculously, time did continue to march forward despite its efforts to cause Keith as much misery and loneliness as possible.
His sleeping had been fitful for much of the week leading up to new years. If he managed to sleep for more than two hours straight he considered himself lucky. So when New Year's Eve finally arrived, he wasn't surprised when he found himself unable to fall asleep at all once the clock hit midnight, too jittery and excited. Shiro had texted him earlier, warning him that he'd be coming by sometime close to four in the morning. Keith did his best to distract himself with whatever he could on his phone until, at long last, he felt it buzz in his hand as a new message arrived.
I'm in back waiting by the bike. Wear something warm.
Keith leapt off his bed and quickly got dressed, making sure to wear multiple layers. Kosmo obediently stayed behind but gave a pouting grumble as Keith gave him a smooch on the head before he rushed out the door.
When he reached the back alley, he saw Shiro looking at his phone nervously.
"Hey," he greeted, Shiro's attention immediately turning to him as a smile spread on his face. "Happy new year."
Shiro beamed back at him, pocketing his phone. "Happy new year, Keith. You want to drive or should I?"
Keith was already handing over the keys. "You remember how to get there, right?"
The drive was smooth and involved no jumps over any cliffs. Keith felt a bit disappointed, but he wondered if Shiro hadn't slept either and didn't want to do anything risky while they were driving in the dark. Shiro didn't seem to be in any rush and Keith was comfortable and content to stay cuddled up against Shiro's back for the ride. Even driving at slower speeds, it didn't take too long to arrive at the spot out in the flat part of the desert they'd found weeks ago, the familiar rock formations in the distance confirming they were in the right place.
"So," Keith started, hopping off the bike and pulling off his goggles. He felt himself yawn and shook his head, hoping he wasn't going to start feeling tired all of a sudden. "How long until the sunrise?"
"A little over two hours, I think," Shiro answered, looking down at his phone. He was typing something and Keith was curious what, but he turned away, not wanting to be nosy. "The sky starts getting lighter closer to six, but the sun will come over the horizon around seven. So this is our chance to do a little stargazing."
"Sounds good. Been a while since I did that."
But it was hard to focus on anything when he glanced up at the night sky. He was here with Shiro after the longest week of his life, starving for Shiro's attention, conversation, shared heat, everything. He stood awkwardly a few feet away with his head tilted upwards but his eyes darting constantly back down for a few moments until Shiro slid off the seat and leaned up against the hoverbike, then held out his arms.
"Wanna help me keep warm?" Shiro asked.
It was like one of those boyfriend things Shiro did back in town when there were people around. Sometimes he'd wrap Keith in his scarf or take off his coat to pull it around Keith while they waited for their takeout order or a bus to arrive on one of their pretend dates that had felt all too real for Keith. But there was no one else out here to perform for. Keith didn't point that out as he closed the distance and let himself fall back against Shiro's chest. His heart was hammering and he was sure Shiro could feel it, but Shiro said nothing and just pulled the open sides of his coat around Keith's front before wrapping his arms on top, hugging him tight.
If Shiro needed a way to stay warm, Keith was confident he was doing the job since his whole body was now burning at possibly a thousand degrees.
"Huh?" Keith asked, so overwhelmed he didn't understand what Shiro was asking.
"In the stars, I mean. Any constellations you recognize? Any new ones?" Shiro's voice was a bit shaky and Keith figured he must really be cold so he tried to press closer into Shiro's space. But he didn't want Shiro to think he was ignoring him and he focused his eyes up at the sky again, wondering what he should look for.
The same familiar stars were shining, some brighter and some dimmer this time of year compared to others as Earth moved closer or further away. Keith recognized the same constellations he could always see from this chunk of the sky and as his eyes traced across the ones he remembered, he was about to start naming them when he noticed something... different.
Frowning, Keith was now paying closer attention. There was something bright in a part of the sky that had never been there before. As he looked for what was new and what was the same, he began to realize there were a lot of new things in the sky. They couldn't be stars or planets to be this numerous and this bright, so he knew they had to be some kind of spacecraft. What he didn't understand was why there were suddenly so many, or what pattern they were flying in, until all at once he could see.
Up there, blazing across the night sky, was his name.
He had no idea what to say. And he couldn't speak even if he did know what to say, all the air in his lungs pushed out of him as if he'd been knocked off his feet. His throat was tight and his whole body was shaking, except... the shaking didn't seem to be entirely coming from him. He could barely feel his legs but somehow he managed to turn himself around inside Shiro's grasp, desperate to see his face.
A shy smile tugged at Shiro's lips once Keith was looking up at him and he realized Keith had seen it. His long hair fell around them like a curtain, blocking out the rest and reducing the world to just the two of them.
"I can't move real stars, but... I thought this might still get the same message across."
Keith just stared at him in disbelief.
Of all the fantastical, grand romantic dreams he could come up with, he never would've imagined anyone could make this one come true. But that first night Shiro had walked into his cafe, Keith had known he was the man of his dreams, and here he had accomplished what even Keith thought was impossible despite the strength of his imagination. Just like Ryou had done in Keith's favorite story, Shiro had rewritten the sky for him.
While he couldn't form the questions of how and why, Shiro could read them from the look on his face.
"I didn't get to become a pilot, but I still know a ton of them from my days in the program. I think I had to call in every favor ever owed to me and then some, but I wanted to do this. For you. Even if it took me all week to arrange it." Shiro's shy smile faded and he regarded Keith seriously. "I've been stuck for years, held down by my grief for... a lot of things. Everyone who knew me was so used to me pushing through anything, or at least me convincing myself that I could, that they just left me be thinking I was strong enough to handle it alone. And for a long time, I thought I wanted that. It felt easier to go through the motions on my own instead of dare to try anything difficult, even if it didn't feel good, because I wouldn't feel any more grief that way."
Shiro sighed, and then brought up one of his hands from where they were now resting on Keith's back to cup his cheek, his fingers gently tucking some of his hair behind his ear.
"Then I met you. And like the hero in a storybook, you saved me."
"I didn't—" Keith gasped, his voice pushing out of him. Because how could that be?
But Shiro chuckled and shook his head. "You did. You've saved me from all of my fears, one by one. I hadn't written a thing I felt any joy in or touched a hovercraft in years, Keith. I couldn't even come out to watch the sunrise anymore. And I've never talked to anyone else about a fraction of the things I felt safe enough to share with you. But you make me so brave. The way you look at me, the way you make me feel when I touch you, the things you say—everything about you turns me into the bravest man in the universe."
Shiro took a deep breath and his thumb brushed against the edge of Keith's lips, making his whole body jerk with the intensity of want that surged through him.
"So, because you make me so brave, I'm just going to say it: I'm in love with you."
Keith's hands gripped tight into the material of Shiro's jacket, hoping his hold was strong enough to keep himself from floating away.
Shiro was still confessing, "I forgot that our relationship was supposed to be fake about an hour in, and I've wanted to kiss you since probably the first day we met," and finally Keith couldn't wait anymore. He pulled hard, using as much strength as he could muster with a body that felt like it was made of air, and brought Shiro down for a kiss. Instantly, Shiro's hands were in Keith's hair, on his neck, sliding down his back to keep him pressed into his chest.
"I don't know— I've never— I love you—" Keith was gasping between kisses, each one blurring into the next, his mind and heart racing so fast he couldn't keep up.
"Trust me," Shiro whispered back, "just follow me," and Keith let himself be led, by Shiro's touch, by his tongue, by his warmth, by his everything. Shiro held him tight in their shared coat as Keith proved again to be quite the quick learner, easily figuring out where to touch and how to kiss to make Shiro moan back against him. Keith's name along with the rest of the stars were becoming hard to see with the lightening sky by the time they had to slow down to catch their breath, but Keith was unsatisfied.
"More. Please, more," he hissed, pressing his forehead into Shiro's collar. He was hard in his jeans and Shiro's hard length had been pushing against his stomach for some time now, making his mouth go dry. His skin felt raw where Shiro's stubble had pressed into his skin while they kissed and he relished in it, grateful for the sensation.
"There's still a little while til the sun comes up," Shiro said between heavy pants. He dropped a hand from Keith's hair to rummage around for his phone and check the time, making Keith whine unhappily. "Less than an hour. I want to greet the first dawn of the new year with you. And then I want to take you back to your place and watch you come undone."
Keith moaned, shivering in Shiro's warm embrace.
"Okay. Okay, okay." He could wait. He'd wanted to share this tradition with Shiro from the beginning, and he wasn't going to ruin it now. But he also couldn't stand still for the next however many minutes without having his mouth on some part of Shiro. "Kiss me again."
Shiro laughed and the pure joy in it sent a thrill up Keith's spine. He obeyed, leaning back in and gently peppering kisses against Keith's lips, then his cheeks, over his nose, and all the way down his neck. Keith was convinced that Shiro had the patience and self-control of a god, because even if he could last the remaining hour til sunrise and the whole ride back to town without needing to release, Keith was halfway to making a mess in his pants every time Shiro's breath blew across his skin.
By some miracle, they made it to dawn without Keith embarrassing himself. With some reluctance, Keith turned his face away from Shiro to watch the sun come over the horizon, but he was glad he did. It was beautiful and bright, the way he felt this year—and every new year after—was destined to be.
He glanced back up at Shiro and caught the way he breathed deep, then let it out, refreshing himself with the new light of a new year.
"Okay," Shiro said, still staring off at the horizon. "I don't think I can wait anymore."
Keith was already pressing the keys and a pair of goggles into Shiro's stomach as he pulled himself out of the sides of Shiro's coat and scrambled onto the seat of the bike.
Shiro drove faster than he ever had with Keith, avoiding the bumpier terrain and cliffsides with no time spared for jumps. They made it back to town in record time, the sun still barely peeking over the horizon behind them. Stumbling up the stairs to the apartment was a struggle, neither of them able to keep their hands off the other. Kosmo howled in surprise when they burst through the door and he continued to grumble when Keith shut him out of the bedroom, but he seemed to take the hint and didn't pop inside.
The layers Keith had pulled on to stay warm in the cold desert night were tossed aside as Shiro ripped them off like they were the wrapping paper and he was the gift inside. And just like he'd said, Shiro watched Keith come undone, again and again. Though it was easy to do when it didn't take more than a soft touch against any part of his bare skin to push Keith over the edge in the first place. When he was spent, Shiro simply spooned up behind him and held him tight, promising more to come when they were less sleepy and had more time to prepare.
"Time..." Keith repeated, hands squeezing over Shiro's where they were stroking along his arm and his stomach. "How much time do we have before you head back?"
"About that," Shiro mumbled groggily into Keith's shoulder, "I think I'm going to cancel my flight." Keith's heart soared and he lifted one of Shiro's hand up so he could press a kiss to his knuckles.
"Don't stay at the hotel. Stay with me," Keith whispered. When Shiro nodded against his neck, he sucked in a breath, almost afraid to believe this was real and not a wonderful, wonderful dream.
"After all, I can do my writing from anywhere."
And, as it turned out, that was true. While the inspiration that had hit the week before was more about his grand plan to write Keith's name across the sky, Shiro had also started writing again in between calls and emails to the various pilots and space crew to help enact his plan. Now that they were officially dating and Shiro was basically moving in a few weeks into the new year, he'd found a spot in the cafe and the apartment above where he was able to sit and work happily, Kosmo always contentedly curled up beside him. He let Keith read the draft if he asked to see it, and there was a surge of joy and relief when Keith could feel the love coming off the pages.
Keith's excitement at Shiro's renewed enjoyment of his work prompted him pick up his gifted copy of Across the Rift again while Shiro concentrated.
It was the first time he was able to properly give it his attention, now that he wasn't distracted with his own impatience, and as he flipped open the crisp cover, he paused at the writing he hadn't noticed before.
There, written across the title page, was a note:
To Keith, Thank you for being my Akira. You make me feel like a man worthy of having dreams again. Love, Shiro