The issue with loving a hero is that the hero will never love you more than his cause. There are gods with tendencies more selfish than the conventional hero, and through their good deeds, those aligned with the hero tend to be punished crueler than the rest. Hercules killed his wife and children, and Odysseus left Penelope at the loom for twenty years. Patroclus died in Achilles' armor to preserve his pride, and so on and so forth. Where there is glory, there will be guts, but the guts are never mutually exclusive to enemy bodies.
Takashi Shirogane was a hero, and while a close second, Keith had never kissed the hand of Proper Fate. Instead of becoming a hero alongside the man, he was simply at Shiro's side.
This infallible truth haunted Keith throughout every detail of his life. Long before Shiro was imprisoned by the Galra, he'd known the disparity between them to be as tangible as the skin on his bones, the minerals in the dirt beneath his nails.
Every time he launched himself at Shiro during their private training—back when Keith still believed he had the disposition to be a cadet—Keith planted a single hand against Shiro's broad chest, scraping along his bird-caged heart. At that point, Shiro was usually thrown onto his back, and he habitually allowed Keith to apply most of his weight so that the trainee could soar over him. Like a dance, Shiro grappled onto Keith's forearm, but he always hesitated to toss him.
A split-second of Shiro's rough thumb grazing along Keith's vein accented by a shared lightning gaze; Shiro always flung him on the eight count.
So close, and yet Keith never understood how the distance between them could be so intergalactic. Plumes of the universe stood between them in starry swirls, milky and distracting like cream dribbled into the blackest cup of coffee. Keith fought for everything he had, and he'd become talented at making sure he got what he needed, even if it meant an expulsion of blood. Shiro, though. Shiro was someone he'd never stepped into the ring with. Not really, anyway.
Watch yourself—and then Shiro's breathless laughter.
Keith could still recall the throbbing pain from awkwardly landing on his shoulders, how he groaned and rolled over onto his side just to watch Shiro's boots step closer to him. Instead of leaping to his feet, he preferred waiting for Shiro to extend his hand to help him.
Solely so that he could yank him down.
Not in the open, Keith.
It's not like anyone can see us.
—and then Keith's breathy desperation to love the very hero the world had predetermined would never be his.
The morning Keith woke to the news about Shiro's disappearance, there was yelling down the dormitory hall. Another student, someone who'd idolized the premature graduate as much as the rest, had found out about the failed mission through the morning news.
Keith stoically tossed his legs over the side of the twin bed and dragged his cold feet toward the sliding door. It opened with a whir, but the other pilot-to-be came to a screeching halt when he spotted Keith standing in the hall, pale as a snowcap and unwavering.
The words 'Shiro' and 'dead' glided past him like a wind-tossed leaf. Without looking to the messenger, Keith pushed away from the door and let it slide shut, draining the room of light. He stared at the door and the only sound was electricity.
Keith returned to bed. He didn't cry, but he heard Shiro's voice. It was crystalline, light with amusement and the patient tenderness patented by Shiro alone. Keith heard his name, and the final syllable rang down his tightening throat. It reverberated like a gong, suddenly setting off Keith's gag reflexes. With clenched teeth, he clamped his hands onto his ears and heaved.
Shut up. Shut up. You're dead.
You are dead.
Impulse told Keith to find Shiro. If he had to, then he'd turn every planet inside out for even a fragment of the man, but for some reason, Keith could only turn himself inside out. He was collapsing, a supernova begging for an assisted suicide. Every scream that toyed with his tongue was choked down in hopes that maybe he'd finally collapse within his final threads of energy.
How had he survived?
"Keith!" Lance barked, and he brought his hand in front of the fellow Paladin's face before he snapped his fingers. Once, twice, and like a spell— Keith was suddenly sitting at the sterile table, his teammates expectantly gawking at him. "Keith, are you alright? You here with us, buddy?"
"Uh," Keith stalled and brought the spoonful of gelatinous green to his lips. He paused as his brain jerked through the cyclone of conversation he'd entirely missed.
"You did hit your head pretty hard in the training deck yesterday," Pidge said, her concern real and vivid compared to Lance's amusement. "Maybe you should go to the infirmary."
He blinked at the gleaming bowl of chloroform and tried not to lurch. Brain dripping like wet paint as his chest seared, Keith dropped his spoon and pressed his index and middle finger to his figurative third eye. He scooted himself back from the table and stood too kinetically.
Don't look at him.
"Keith," Shiro started. He sounded concerned. "Keith, are you okay?"
The voice was a misfired laser gun. A kind of unfriendly-friendly fire that nailed him in his fleshy abdominals and demanded he hit his knees. Open your gore for him like a split melon, it said, and complacently catch the blood in your hands again and again. Clean up the mess he made. Don't complain. Don't complain. Don't complain. This doesn't fucking hur—
Keith shook his head and sucked air through his clenched teeth. He walked toward the sliding doors, and the exit stood postured like salvation. He was running out of air.
"I'm going to the training deck," he announced without eye contact. "I'll eat later."
"Oh, that sounds like a great idea," Hunk muttered beneath his breath before shoveling another bite between his teeth. He rolled his wrist and pointed his spoon at Keith's striding form. "Let's all go back to the training simulator where we got the sense beat out of us just hours ago. Maybe we can start giving our concussions muscles."
Pidge's frown reached for the tabletop. "Maybe now's not the best time for—"
She didn't finish her warning. A stinging clap resonated throughout the dining hall, stilling everyone's eating and stunning tongues like moles.
It was Shiro's cool robotic palm latching onto Keith's wrist. The Black Paladin hadn't left his chair, but the sheer command in his touch had immobilized Keith. "Don't go back in there until you've been checked out in the infirmary."
The wavering pitch in his vowels gave him away.
Keith clenched his fist and violently ripped it from Shiro's clasp, nostrils flaring. Like a gust of winter air, he realized what he'd done and cut Shiro an apologetic side glance, but it was too late. The concern in Shiro's face had dispersed into a neutral gaze. His anger was expertly knitted amongst his unwavering self-control as The Leader.
"We should let him cool off," Princess Allura suggested and then set down her spoon to watch Keith's distancing back. "He was thinking all through dinner."
"He's constantly angry lately," Lance said and furrowed his brow, trying to make it sound as if it were Keith's fault. He knew better. "Why is he so angry?"
Hunk shrugged and also tried being dismissive. "You can't look good in that jacket he wears unless you're angry. That's how it works. It's the Science of Cool."
"Stop," Shiro said, and he was breathy in his mounting impatience. Appetite clearly lost, Shiro stared ahead and past the princess' head. "We've all been through a lot lately. Sometimes what we do out here will make us lose our cool for no reason. It could happen to all of us, and as a team, we have to be patient and understanding."
His words promptly put a stop to the discussion, and eyes lowered from guilt. A silence draped across the dinner table. It wasn't until Coran dropped his spoon on the tabletop did anyone look up from their bowls.
"Dessert, anyone? I whipped up something extra special tonight."
Several floors up, Keith had found solace in barreling at the training droids. With a backdrop of the glimmering universe cycling past like a mobile, Keith threw himself at the simulator using his full bodyweight. He was sweat-drenched and sucking in gulps of air when he swung his Bayard for a pseudo-deathblow. The robot stuttered on its circuits and staggered backward only to slump forward in a handsome defeat. Keith stared at the figurine and then exhaled like a bull.
"Level Nine," he shouted, but the AI didn't respond. Keith cleared his throat and repeated himself. "I said, 'Level Nine!'"
She took an infuriatingly longtime to respond, and Keith had to wonder if she'd been programmed with the aptitude for irritation. "Cannot begin Level Nine without authorization from all parties."
"What?" he muttered, but then from behind him, he heard a throat clear.
Keith spun around and his Bayard dispersed into its grip-form.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt."
Shiro was leaned against the doorway with both of his tree trunk arms folded across his chest. His smile was apologetic and entirely void of his displeasure from dinner. Keith's forehead wrinkled, and he tucked his weapon into his jacket so that he could subconsciously mirror Shiro's stance, a single hip slumped downward and stare half-lidded.
"Have you given up on hand-to-hand combat?" Shiro asked. It was then Keith realized he'd been watching him for a long time.
Keith's face slackened in mock annoyance. "Not exactly. The sword is just Plan B."
"Plan B," he echoed, and for a reason Keith didn't understand, Shiro had found that funny.
"Plan B is always the sword," he reiterated.
"Be honest. It's more like Plan A.5."
Keith tried not to smile. He resented himself when he did and sucked his expression in like a vacuum, nearly becoming a fish.
"You don't have to," Shiro began as he pushed himself off the wall and slowly meandered toward the other Paladin, "but you can talk to me about what's bothering you if you ever need to. It's not a weakness to be upset by the things that've happened since we arrived here."
Since we arrived here…
Keith's smile organically faded into a deadened frown. He parted his lips as if he had something to say, but he decided against it. Keith turned on his heel and let his back face Shiro. He gazed at the moving spacescape. It stood framed by the room's floor-to-ceiling window that made up one of four walls. The window was why this particular training deck was Keith's favorite, and his teammates always knew it was where they could find him if he wasn't lounging in the control room with Shiro.
Two hands grasped onto his shoulders.
Keith fought the urge to reach up and touch them in appreciation.
Bygone days ghosted through his ribs, and the hairs along the back of his neck lifted in habitual yearning. Keith imagined hot breath tearing across his throat's pulse. He ached for Shiro's ability to turn dead legging into the artful motion of gathering him in his arms and tossing him onto the bed. The very bed where he learned that maybe there was a God swimming amongst the stars, and maybe he hadn't been entirely abandoned by Higher Power.
Only God could be responsible for making him feel the way they had together.
Bigger things than us are about to happen, Keith. We can talk about it after everyone is safe.
"There's nothing to talk about," Keith said, and whatever thought he might've had about them shifted into a quiet thrum. "Not when we have the entire universe to think about."
Shiro dropped his hands from Keith's shoulders, and Keith squeezed his eyes shut in internalized frustration.
There was that distance again.
It fucking hurts.
"Make sure you check into the infirmary," he said, that authoritative voice stacking even more bricks between them. "Everyone else is going to."
Because you're not worth singular compassion, it reminded him. No one is, but especially not you. You're the liability.