The words come to Shiro days later— I love you, too. It rattles into his sleep-addled mind and lodges itself there, a glowing, warm kind of assurance even in the sea of uncertainty he feels.
Shiro sleeps for days, waking in fits and starts with the startling stutter of a nightmare scraping inside his mind. He feels no sense of rest, every waking and unwaking moment full of memories that are at once his and not his, sleeping in a body that is at once his and not his. He never fully regains consciousness in those first few days, only distantly aware of voices around him— Keith speaking over the comms as he pilots the Black Lion, the other Paladins discussing everything as they travel across the galaxy back to Earth, points where they stop to rest and he hears Pidge’s concern hovering near his side, Lance’s jokes, Allura’s quiet and calm reassurance, Hunk’s concern coloring his words. Shiro blinks his eyes open and closes them again several times over those days, unable to fully drag himself into consciousness, only aware of the thumping of his heart as another nightmare flicks away from him. Sometimes he hears phrases, questions, and he wants to respond but his body is too weak, too tired to fully articulate that he is here, that he is present, that he can hear them. He sees their faces in starts and finishes, never enough to grow fully lucid, to say anything. Their words hover around him, recognizable language but incomprehensible.
Sometimes, he opens his eyes and the view of the cosmic sky outside the Black Lion’s view-screens startles Shiro, fearing for a moment that he is back in the astral plane, that he is dead and gone. His body feels so disconnected from himself that he can’t summon that automatic assurance of his limbs. His right arm aches with phantom pain.
The nightmares are bad enough, and they come unrelenting and unforgiving, a flurry of all his deepest fears simmering under his skin, coupled with memories housed in this body he’s now adopted, another Shiro that was him but then not him, with his face, his voice— convincing enough that no one even realized he was gone, housed inside Black.
Sometimes, when he blinks his eyes open, Keith is over him, watching him, a searing scar across his cheek and concern in his eyes. Shiro looks at him in those moments before he’s pulled back into sleep again, unsure if he’s dreaming the feeling of his hand in Keith’s or not.
When he finally regains consciousness, fully, without dropping back into sleep, Shiro stares up at the cockpit’s domed ceiling for a long moment. It feels strange to be here, not part of Black, not observing from a distant plane. He glances at the display and finds no stretching onward of stars but rather metal and paneling, some carrier or base the Black Lion’s docked in.
He must have shifted or groaned when regaining consciousness because Keith is already hovering over him, frowning at him, hand reaching out to touch Shiro’s shoulder.
Shiro’s mouth feels brittle and chapped and it hurts to smile, but he does it anyway, a reflexive action seeing Keith’s concern. He says, voice raspy with disuse, “Keith.”
Keith nods a little, a quiet acknowledgement, and he’s so solemn and serious, hovering over him, his hand a comforting weight against his shoulder— some sort of proof that he is real, that he is solid, that he is here. Shiro’s eyes flicker to Keith’s scar and then shutters away again, looking around him.
“Where are we?” he asks, and tries to sit up with some effort. His body feels heavy, and a moment later he feels Keith’s hand splayed over his back, helping him sit up. His entire body aches.
“With the Blade of Marmora,” Keith explains, “We’re still a ways away from Earth. We’re resting for a day or two before heading out again. The Lions need to recharge.”
Shiro nods, although he feels fuzzy on all the details, a weird conglomerate of his own observations from Black, and the distant memories of the clone whose body he now inhabits.
He must have spaced out again, his mind wandering or disassociating, because Keith shifts a little and asks, “Shiro?”
And there’s always that way Keith says his name, like he’s calling out to him, like he’s anchoring him— and it’s both familiar and unfamiliar, a tenuous connection between them, so much unspoken.
“I’m okay,” he answers on reflex, before Keith can even voice the question. It’s in Shiro’s nature to swallow it all down, even now when he knows the lie is an obvious one, can see the way Keith watches him. Shiro sighs, ducks his head, and rubs his hand over his face, scrubs his way up and twists his fingers into his hair. He says again, if only to try to convince himself, “I’m okay.”
His body is not his own, but he houses memories as if they were his own— or are his own. He doesn’t know how this all works now, doesn’t know the protocol, doesn’t have the easy answer, feels untethered and unsure in a way that leaves him reeling. He’s spent too long bodiless, spent too long distant and disconnected. And now—
“Shiro,” Keith says again, a little more firmly, and draws Shiro out of his thoughts. Keith stares at him, meets his eyes with that same fierce perseverance Keith’s always had but feels just a touch desperate here. He can see the way Keith struggles, trying to put what he wants to say into words, but unable to find what to say.
Shiro doesn’t know what to say, either. He doesn’t like to flounder, doesn’t like to seem so uncertain or unprepared. But it’s Keith, and he knows he can trust this with him, can trust this uncertainty. Can trust that Keith will be there even after all of this is over. He swallows thickly, suddenly feeling a little breathless, suddenly feeling on unequal grounding.
“Guess we need to talk about everything,” Shiro says and offers a small smile, something brittle but no less genuine.
Keith’s brow furrows. “Later,” he decides. “You need to rest. Sleep in a real bed.” He pauses, his frown deepening. “Can you walk?”
“Yeah,” Shiro says, although he doesn’t really know— his body feels weak and aching but serviceable. He shifts, pulls his legs out from beneath the thin blanket he’s slept under for days, and plants his feet on the ground. He’s painfully aware of every movement, how foreign it feels.
When he stands, Keith reaches out to wrap his arm around him anyway, just in case. In the end, Shiro’s grateful for the assistance, and together they descend from Black. Shiro’s focused on trying to walk steadily, but up close like this, all he can see when he glances at Keith is the scar scraped across his cheek.
“Does it hurt?” he asks before he can think to swallow it. Now isn’t the time, really, but the words are already out and his eyes are on Keith’s cheek and he can’t take it back.
Keith looks up at him, frowning, before he seems to realize what Shiro means.
“Oh,” he says, looking uncertain. He ducks his head, focusing on where they’re stepping, and the pause is enough to make Shiro fear it runs much deeper than the burn, that something has lodged between them and will never repair, that he shouldn’t even ask this. Then Keith says, “Not really. It’s a little sensitive when it’s touched but… it’s fine.” He frowns again, and the scar tugs over his cheek, and he looks frustrated with his words, as if they’re inadequate. “It doesn’t hurt,” he says, with confidence. He looks up at Shiro again, his eyes sadder but gentle. The smile he manages is a gentle one. “I’m okay, Shiro.”
There are many things Shiro could say to that, but he already feels on weaker footing, like he should feel more sure of himself, should put on some sort of face to this— and so he stays silent, lets Keith lead him into the Blade’s base. It’s modest in size, but will suit for a day of rest. There’s a flurry of attention, the Paladins speaking with him, checking on him, fetching fresh clothes and soaps for a shower and food for when he can stomach it and water to help his parched throat. He doesn’t see anyone from the Blades of Marmora, but he doesn’t blame that lack of trust— isn’t sure if he should be trusted with anything, either. He knows there are plans, deeper plans, but there are secrets already being held to him and it’s for the best. Shiro would insist on it, really, that he’s kept in the dark for now, unsure if he’s really free of any sort of control, unsure if he can be trusted. They’ll need to run tests once they get to Earth. Run a physical. Take care of the remains of his right arm. Shiro can already foresee the forced bedrest that he’ll hate, the debriefing that will be necessary. But it’ll be necessary. A strange thought, to think his body could turn to weapon at a single moment.
Through it all, Keith barely leaves his side. The memories return to Shiro in slow waves and his nightmares replay their fight again and again, the moment Shiro burns the blade too close to Keith, the slice across his jaw. Keith calling to him. Keith saving him. Everything else feels distant or fuzzy, like a dream through the memories. But this is in sharp focus, likely because of how recent it is, likely because of how much it unsettles Shiro every time.
“I’m sorry,” Shiro says the next morning, after Keith’s helped him get settled, after he’s clean and managed to swallow down some food, take a few sips of water.
Keith looks up at him, the spot between his eyebrows pinching. “It’s no problem. You should be comfortable.”
“Keith,” Shiro says, with just a touch of his usual fondness seeping into his voice despite himself, “That isn’t what I mean.”
He knows that Keith understands. Wordlessly, Keith lifts a thumb and touches at his burn and watches Shiro’s eyes skitter to the movement and then dart away again. Keith heaves a quiet sigh and shifts, sitting down on the edge of the bed next to Shiro.
“You did nothing wrong,” Keith tells him, voice quiet, strangely calm.
“I should have found a way to—” Shiro starts.
Keith cuts in, “Shiro. You did everything you could. You did more than anyone else could have managed. It’s not your fault.”
Shiro, unconvinced, falls quiet. Looks down at the hand resting in his lap. His right arm, phantomed, aches again.
“We’re both here now,” Keith tells him. “We’re okay. You’re okay.”
Shiro’s mouth twists into a small smile and he sighs out a soft chuckle, almost without amusement but not quite without fondness. He looks at Keith again, studies his face— so familiar, but older now.
Keith is quiet for a moment, before he must read what Shiro isn’t saying, and his mouth turns upward into a small smile. “I’m not giving up on you.”
“Yeah,” Shiro agrees, and a flush of warmth pushes through his chest. It’s a distant echo, but one that centers him.
“Here,” Keith says, and with a kind of boldness different from Keith’s own brand of boldness, reaches out and takes Shiro’s hand, guides it up so his fingertips skirt along the edge of his burn. Shiro almost jerks his hand back, but Keith’s hold is firm and Shiro knows he’d never pull away from him. Keith meets his eyes and guides Shiro’s hand to press to his cheek.
Shiro, with a hand unfamiliar and distant, feels as if through great distance the way the skin puckers under his fingertip, the edged difference between skin and scar. Keith’s cheek is warm. He can feel the shift of his jaw as he relaxes beneath Shiro’s touch. Shiro feels Keith unwrap his fingers from around Shiro’s wrist and drop away from his skin. It leaves a strange phantom warmth behind. He feels all this, as if simply observing.
“See?” Keith says again, and his jaw and cheek shift beneath Shiro’s fingers as he speaks. “It’s just a scar, Shiro. That’s all it is. I don’t blame you.”
Shiro swallows and his smile is a wobbly thing, but feels more centered all the same. Keith returns it, another small, tentative thing— but theirs, between them.
Keith continues, with quiet, calm force: “I could never blame you.”
“Yeah,” Shiro says, quietly, because even in all this mess, even in all his uncertainties, he knows he never doubts that. Never doubts Keith.
Keith’s smile grows, and it tugs his cheek, pulls the skin taut. Shiro doesn’t draw his hand away, even once Keith shifts and tilts his head, presses his cheek fully against Shiro’s palm rather than just his fingertips. Shiro leaves his hand there, not quick to pull away from the touch— the feeling of skin to skin, of the warmth in Keith’s cheek, this anchoring proof that he is solid, that he is here, that he is present and not lost to death.
The guilt still simmers, but it’s a feeling Shiro is used to, another weight to add to his shoulders.
“Shiro,” Keith says. “It’s going to be okay. I’ll make sure of it. I won’t let anything happen to you again.”
Shiro doesn’t answer right away, lets the declaration wash over him— and that, at least, has always been a constant. That he can trust Keith. That even when everything else around him changes, feels unfamiliar, uncertain, this is at least a constant— Keith, here in front of him.
It’s inadequate but all Shiro can say in that moment is, “I’m really proud of you, Keith.”
Keith’s expression softens and there’s a flush to his cheeks. He chuckles, embarrassed but clearly pleased. It makes Shiro smile more, deeper and deeply felt.
“I missed you,” Keith says, suddenly, as if he’s been trying to hold that in. “I mean, it’s been two years for me. Er, that’s a story I’ll have to explain later. But… I’m glad you’re back.”
He traces his thumb across Keith’s burn, a soft enough touch that it’s barely there. He doesn’t know what to say, the lump in his throat preventing words. But he trusts Keith, has always believed in him, and so, he thinks, he can let himself believe in that, too.
“It’s good to be back,” Shiro answers and smiles. An old calling, something familiar. They lapse into a silence, a quieter, easier silence this time. But the words are there and Shiro knows he should answer it, no matter how late. “Hey, Keith?”
Shiro follows the line of Keith’s scar with his thumb, less a tracing and more a quiet, repeated touch, swiping slowly over his skin. He says, quiet: “I love you, too.”
Keith makes a soft noise, a hitching of his breath, and something simmers beneath his eyes. And then he lurches forward and pulls Shiro into a hug, arms around him. Shiro sinks into him and closes his eyes. Rests, if only for a moment.