It’d have been a mundane day for Shiro – boot camp drills, sand and starched desert air in his mouth and the searing glare of the noon sun in his eyes - the usual, until Iverson drops beside him at break and slides an envelope to him. Beyond, soldiers not on their break continue to patrol. Cigarette smoke flutter over the air from a sergeant leaning against the wall behind him.
“To: Lt. Takashi Shirogane From: Keith Kogane” is on the front of the envelope. It didn’t seem like the usual correspondences they’d get from the other bases. Surprisingly, it’s not printed out in block characters. It was handwritten, in a slightly wonky and uneven hand.
Shiro raises a brow at Iverson, who shrugs, before deciding to open it.
It’s from the garrison’s pen-pal service, the sticker evident on the corner of the envelope. He’s heard of this program, once or twice – whenever they pass by medicals and see the flyers on acrylic stands by the major’s tables.
“If you make a joke about our last names, I’ll kick your balls.” Shiro mutters, knowing the other lieutenant was reading over his shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re so fun, aren’t ya?” Iverson waves his threat away, clapping a hand on his shoulder as he walks off. Shiro’s not bothered by it, not really. Years of friendship with Mitch Iverson has helped him realize the man needed a sharp tongue once or twice. Iverson never took it to heart, though. That was just the way he was.
Shiro still has about a quarter left to his recess, not in any hurry to go back to facing patrol schedules. Taking note of the time, he opens the beige-colored stationary, raising a brow at the length of the content. It was very…composite, to say the least.
Dear...sir? Or Lieutenant, is it?
I haven’t even started and I’m already fucking up...
Fifteen minutes and several mental repetitions of ‘no, I’m not smiling’ later, Shiro finds the sender’s ramblings adorable.
Never mind the constant tangents, the lines that often curved upward or downward, the spill of coffee on the side or things like ‘hahaha’ in between sentences.
Keith’s twenty three, works from home and hails from the same place Shiro had left so many years ago and swore to never look back.
Irony, he finds, is just a little bit cruel.
I mean, I guess that’s it for me. I hope I didn’t bore you to death. So, here’s to hoping that this reaches you.
Shiro doesn’t think about the fact that Iverson is looking at him over the top edge of the letter, seeming all too satisfied for some reason.
“That’s the third time you read it.”
“Shut the fuck up, Iverson.”)
Dear…sir? Or Lieutenant, is it?
I haven’t even started, and I’m already fucking up. Apologies on that, by the way.
It’s been a while, a very long while, since I last wrote something that wasn’t entirely academic in nature. I mean, it is part of my job. I write articles for a few research circles here, usually on astronomy. It’s entirely self-indulgent, because I’ve always loved space, even as a kid. Not that I’m still a kid, I’m twenty-three.
And – I totally forgot to introduce myself. I’m sorry. Again.
I’m Keith. Keith Kogane. I’m twenty-three, I know I said that already, but I guess I’m just repeating it to give me some semblance of time to think of what else to say. I had no idea why I decided to do this, if I can be honest with you. Have you ever had one of those moments in life where you choose to do something completely left field and, even though it might have been weird in retrospect, you feel like it’s the right thing to do?
I guess this is one of those things. I don’t usually talk to a lot of people, and I only have a handful of friends – maybe this is the universe’s way of telling me to go out and do something out of character for once. Well – I guess this is it.
I hope you are doing quite well, over there. I’ve never been to that part of the world before, so talking about the weather or the climate is a no. I’ll move on to the things I can relate, perhaps. What are your hobbies? What do you like to do in your free time? You don’t have to share them with me if you’re not comfortable with that.
Other than my love of space, I guess I’m just your usual guy. I love comic books, and video games. Not much, to be honest.
I mean, I guess that’s it for me. I hope I didn’t bore you to death.
So, here’s to hoping this reaches you.
He also doesn’t think too much about how he spent the next day’s recess barely eating. The paper in front of him is blank - and he hates it.
“You want me to write one for you?” Iverson threw overhead. Shiro rolls his eyes - Iverson was oddly invested in this.
Grabbing his pen, Shiro starts piecing in things slowly.
It’s nice to meet you. No need to be so formal. ‘Shiro’ would do. ‘Takashi’ reminds me too much of my parents reprimanding me when I used to sneak out at night to bunk at my friend’s place. I hope you’ll allow me to call you by your name? Or if not, perhaps you can supply one you feel comfortable for me to use.
I’m doing quite well, thank you for asking. It has been a relatively easy day – nothing more than patrols, boring reports and stock checks. I’m sure your time there is a lot more exciting, please tell me about it if you don’t mind.
I will not lie, I was taken by surprise when I received this letter yesterday. I have to understand that the garrison does have this program, though I feel it’s not often utilized. We rarely get letters this far out, perhaps you can forgive me if I have yet to adjust to this. A completely pleasant surprise, to be sure – please do not feel that I do not care for your letter. It’s heartening to receive one, and I hope we can continue this indefinitely.
Well, if introductions are to be made – you already know my name. I’m twenty-seven years old, I’ve been stationed here for two years and counting now. Surprisingly, I come from the same city, though it has been so long since I’ve last returned.
I understand where you’re coming from. When I was younger, I never imagined myself enlisting. It never came up, it wasn’t in any of my plans when I was studying. I felt it was the right thing to do the moment I took a step out of school. Of course, this worried a lot of people important to me. This career isn’t meant for most, and a lot of sacrifices are made. Still, I was happy to enlist and even happier when I graduated from the military academy.
I’ve had a fascination with space since I was young, if our correspondence continues, I do hope we can broach that topic. It’s been so long since I last talked to someone about celestial mechanics!
Ah, hobbies. I’ve had a fair share of hobbies growing up – I never played a lot of video games. My parents were strict with my use of them, and they refused to buy me a GameBoy when all my friends had one when I was eight. Comic books, however, I do love!
Honestly, Keith, I didn’t feel bored at all. It’s also been a while since I last wrote a letter, we’re on the same boat, it seems.
I won’t keep this long, so I’ll leave all this in for now.
P.S. You don’t have to apologize for cursing – and I would be the last person to call you out on that.
+ Also, what comic book series are you into, in particular? Now, you have my curiosity up!
When Shiro leaves his letter at Administration, he bumps into Iverson and found the man haranguing the poor corporal manning the desk.
“C’mon, boy, can’t you get this out,” Iverson pressed the letter to the man’s chest, “today?”
“Stop before you kill the man.” Iverson rounded on him, scowling until he saw the letter in Shiro’s hand. His best friend’s eyes positively glowed - all earlier irritation gone.
Swiping the letter off Shiro’s hand, he turned back to the corporal. “Now you have two letters to deliver. GET ON IT.”
Shiro breathed out, running a hand down his face as the poor recruit - Corporal J. Griffin - paled and ran down the corridor, trying to catch up to a now departing courier.
Well, at least his letter got sent out early.
Keith describes himself as boring - only into video games and comic books but, apparently, Lieutenant Shirogane is also into that stuff. Shiro, the man asks Keith to call him. His handwriting is pretty, neat and clean. He adds smileys after every other sentence.
Keith bites his lips, but the smile grows regardless.
He’s not used to this kind of communication, but when he received Shiro’s – he likes the way it rolls off his tongue, warm cheeks be fucked – letter, all he felt was excitement. Sure, there was a formality to the way they communicated. Sometimes, Shiro sounded a bit distant at times, with the way his penmanship seemed more and more like an elegant scrawl compared to Keith’s chicken-feet scratches.
He doesn’t really mind, though. It was the first – and Shiro said he wanted them to continue their letter exchanges! Something about that has Keith smiling as he puts his earphones in, taking out a pen while he starts to write. He’ll be meeting Lance at Pidge’s bar in an hour – enough time to pen down a word or two.
Even through the soft croons of Johnny Cash, he can hear the chirps of the birds resting on the outdoor cafe's arches. Sunlight fell on to the table in spots, the wind brushing gently against the leaves. Did Shiro miss this?
Keith's letter arrives on Wednesdays, quite distinct in the pile of white-colored envelopes. His comes in varying colors, in different stamps and Shiro notes the pens change from time to time. It's a quirk that has him smiling to himself, nodding at a few second lieutenants saluting him.
He doesn’t notice the confused looks on their faces, unsure of what had their usually austere superior smiling.
The letters arrive on Sundays, after every two weeks. Keith's made visiting the post office part of his routine, where the clerk Matt already knows him by name, an all-knowing look in his eyes when he hands Keith the envelope.
Shiro it is, then! Yeah, you can call me ‘Keith’! I don’t know what else you can call me, though, so I’m open to suggestions.
It’s good to know that you’re not some uptight as—guy. God, that didn’t sound right at all! Stop laughing.
Ah, well, I wish I could say that my week has been a lot more exciting than yours but I’d be lying. Other than doing a bit of work, I usually hang with my friends Lance and Pidge at Pidge’s bar. Not that kind of bar, mind you. Most of her clientele are older people – those who love to get together for a beer and talk, you know? It’s cozy there, and I could spend hours without even noticing it. Not drunk, not at all.
I know you mentioned that you were from here, and it got me curious. I was at a café the other day, somewhere near Rhodes St. and Gainesville Avenue – you know that old fountain near the park that’s been there forever? Have you been to that café? I asked the owner, and she mentioned that they’ve been here since the 50s. It was a nice place, and I always love going there on Thursdays and people watch.
Please tell me if there are places around that you’ve been to – it’d be cool to see them.
Looking forward to your next letter!
P.S. Heard that, this Friday, Betelgeuse will be shining brighter on your side of the planet! I’ll write down a small guide to spot her.
+ I have a lot! I guess there are the usual superheroes, and a few indie series. I’m on Avengers Infinity right now!
Shiro doesn’t really think about the letter as he goes over his work: running drills, scheduling shifts, perimeter patrols, logistics check—
Okay, so he might be thinking a little too much of it. He’s checked the calendar too many times in the last few hours.
He didn’t know what to make of it. He honestly thought he’d be put off after the last letter he had received from the city he used to call ‘home’.
“It’s not gonna be like Adam’s,” he said aloud to no one but himself. “He’s not Adam.”
Even thinking of the name sends a spike of hurt through him. It was impossible not to feel that way – Adam was—
He was everything Shiro had. Past tense.
Shiro has to start thinking past tense. It’s been two years, and Adam wasn’t coming around anymore – that final letter confirmed that.
It was unfair to pit everything in comparison to someone no longer there. It might not be so bad to talk to someone new, for a change. Iverson’s always saying that, anyway.
(He sometimes gets tired of the too-cutting gazes Iverson throws his way when he thinks Shiro doesn't notice.)
I got your note, Keith! It was lovely! I had a bit of a difficult time trying to spot it – but if my calculations were correct, and if I’m sure I followed your directions clearly, then it must have been Betelgeuse. It did shine brighter than the rest.
Despite the monotony that can grow when you’re in the desert, do you know what’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen here?
At night, with no city lights to distract you, the sky comes to life. It’s a dazzle of purple and black, and a hundred dots of white from east to west. When there are no clouds and all is clear, I’d climb to the roof, and watch for hours. Almost a life ago, I could have named every constellation then and there – funny how things change over the course of a few years, no?
Ah, but that’s not the point. For someone like you, I’m sure you’d enjoy the stars just as much as I do.
P.S. You wouldn’t happen to have read Spiderman’s Died in Your Arms Tonight? It came out the day I was shipped off to my first tour. If you have, please let me know how it went.
+ Also, the place you mentioned. That wouldn’t happen to be Citrella? It is a lovely place, and I remember taking someone there, once upon a time. He didn’t enjoy it as much as I did, but that’s probably because one of the birds dropped shit on his shirt.
Keith can’t deny the certain investment he’s had in the letters he exchanged with Shiro. More and more often does the feeling of excitement come when Sunday glares at him from his bedside alarm clock, knowing that the post office was three blocks away – opens at nine, with Matt already setting Shiro’s letter aside for Keith to pick it up.
A run to the office, and Matt delivers the letter with an impish smile that has Keith rolling his eyes.
Keith reads the letter as he walks back, turning the corner to stop by a flower shop. He stands under the shade of the building, smiling as he leans against the red brick wall.
"What have you been up to?" Shiro asks, in more or less twenty sentences and four thousand words and Keith denies counting any of it.
"I've been good, I hope you're OK there. I missed you." He manages to write back, in barely acceptable metaphors and slightly shaky lines. Baby blues follow him, the scent wafting through the air like a trail.
So, Shiro knows Citrella then – and he brought a date there. A guy.
Keith denies the spark of interest at that thought, walking on. He thinks of it all the same.
Spring wind, sunflower fields and clear blue skies – Keith doesn’t know why those images filter through his mind as he holds Shiro’s letter close, the scatter of colors from the shop’s flowers swaying. He wonders what kind of flowers Shiro likes, or if he even likes them at all.
He eyes the stargazer lily, fingers feeling for change in his pocket.
Here. It’s called a Sorbonne stargazer, I think.
I hope you’re not allergic. Please tell me I haven’t given you an allergic reaction. I knew it, I should have asked beforehand.
It was one of those in-the-moment things again. I’ve been having them more and more lately.
P.S. Look out for my next letter, it’s a bit heavier than the usual.
+ I had a thought, today, over coffee.
Your letters carry the scent of the desert, and the paper is sun-kissed and warm. When I hold it in my hands, I can see sand in the air and feel the squint in my eyes form lines to a parched throat. The other day, I passed by a flower shop and I smelled spring and saw crimson and blue dance together. I heard old guitar strings and a smoky voice of a song in my head, and for a moment: I could imagine us in the back of a truck driving to nowhere, with the noon sun beating on our heads as sunflower fields run lines behind us.
Shiro chuckles to himself, leaning against the HQ walls by the south end where it was only him and another soldier smoking.
Keith jots down his day to day life in colorful phrases, words casual and easy - it wasn't difficult to feel like Shiro was talking to an old friend.
Shiro tries to match the cadence, falling short sometimes on how easy it was to fall back into stoicism. Still, he tries.
(The fact that Keith keeps the communication going means he must be doing something right.)
Shiro reads the post-script note, and stills. Keith was very…eloquent. The thought was both surprising and not – and rereading the lines, the images that flickered to life seemed tangible enough. Enough for him to remember that there was a world beyond the sandy dunes.
A year in the desert made it too easy for Shiro to forget that he wouldn't always be here, and that he had a life before it.
Not much of a life - parents long dead, friends in God-knows-where, ex-fiance and a Dear John letter burning a hole in the drawer of his bunkside table. The thought stings, like a jagged bat whacked across his face.
Keith’s words blur in his vision, but he feels for the flower flattened between the sheets. Sorbonne stargazers, the other had written. He brings the letter close, and breathes deep.
And if he wonders if Keith smells like it, that’s a thought only he would know.
The contents of the letters run from new issues of comic books that Keith promised to send, an itinerary of confectionery Shiro's missed eating, inquiries into families and past relationships that has Keith's hands sweating.
It must have been because of that Citrella thing, Keith thought. There was no other reason why Shiro was inquiring about it. Or maybe, it was just normal conversation – completely normal and not out of the blue.
What can Keith say, anyway? He’s never been in a relationship before – not if you count that one time he may or may not have stuttered his feelings for a guy he had a crush on in highschool. Keith’s not even sure if that was an actual thing, since he pretty much breathed all the words in one go, turned tail and ran immediately after.
Shiro sounded intelligent. He sounded intelligent, and confident and he was better at this whole correspondence thing than Keith was. Granted, he knew he had at least one eloquent bone in his body, but prose was different from truth sometimes.
Or, at times, they were truer than the truth – and Keith wasn’t ready to deal with that. Not with how he stumbles, face-forward, through the things he wants to say. It’s different when he was writing for work. Academic papers were easy, not in the general sense, but in the way that words meant what they did. It was more difficult when it was something personal, when a phrase or two – an expression – could mean one thing and another.
Keith doesn’t even know what he and Shiro were. Were they friends, now? Do friend send each other things that sounded almost like poetry?
His cheeks flushed, remembering the post-script note in his last letter. Shaking his head, Keith looked down at the one in his hand, chin resting on his forearm.
That was beautiful, Keith. I’ve been here shorter than some of the others, but at most times, it almost feels like there’s no other world than the sand in my vision. You made me remember that there were oceans beyond what I can see, grass fields longer than I could estimate and flowers of too many colors that I couldn’t even begin to name.
A ride on the back of a truck with the tune of a guitar seems a lovely idea. Humor me, if you will, but that sounds like a lovely time to share. We could talk for as long as we want, and turn our heads to see the sunflowers bobbing towards the sun.
Keith’s cheeks reddened, darkly. It did sound like a lovely thing to do.
“Oh my God.” He breathed out, locking the door behind him and leaning against. “Oh my God.”
The next time Shiro swings by Administration to pick up Keith's letter, corporal Griffin hands him a bigger envelope than usual. On the front, next to his name, there's a doodle of a man in an acrobatic pose, a thin line rising to the top edge of the envelope.
A line below it: "died in ur arms tonite ;)"
It was issue 600 of The Amazing Spider Man - something he once wrote Keith he missed reading.
"God, he's such a dork." Shiro says, smiling wide to himself. He forgets that he's not alone, and that corporal Griffin was looking at him in curiosity.
Clearing his throat, Shiro thanks the man and repeats to himself that, no, he did not run back to the Mess Hall.
(He just walked - confidently. Seriously. Just a bit faster than usual.)
("I hope you enjoyed it! I only managed to find one issue of the prequel, but I'll try to check the other bookstores if I can find more." Keith said, on the letter. Shiro laughed to himself, disbelieving.
He started writing his own response while reading Keith's.
"No one's ever done this for me before." Shiro paused, pen tip an inch away from the paper. "Not in a long while, anyway. Thank you, Keith. You don't know how much it means to me.)
He wonders if the last sentence was too personal, and too direct.
The cover of the graphic novel gleams under the base's fluorescent lights. He thinks 'fuck it' and keeps it in, and adds one more.
("Really, thank you for your letters. We haven't even met, but you already had me smiling more times than I can count.")
"Why's your face all red?"
"Shut up, Iverson."
Shiro wondered how Keith looked like. It's not that he's preoccupied with what people usually look like but he couldn’t help it: he wanted to put a face to the name, trying to imagine him smiling, laughing.
Did Keith smile when he got Shiro's letter? Did he laugh when Shiro recounted the time Iverson lost a bet and he had to run through the Mess Hall in his boxers?
Did he count the days in his head, until the moment he got Shiro's letter?
(Did his hands sweat when he finally got the letter - the same way Shiro's did?)
“Have you ever seen the man?” Keith turned in his seat, eyeing Lance next to him. It was slow Friday night at the pub, and only the corner table by the door was occupied. A few regulars, like Thace and Koli, who had waved in greeting at him when he arrived.
“Who’s seen what man?” Pidge asked as she does inventory of the liquor. The music was low and easy, some indie band only Pidge would know about — pleasant enough to hear, without forcing them to raise their voices.
“Shiro!” Keith raised a brow at the curious tone in Lance’s voice. “Dude, you’ve been talking to him for a month now. Have you ever gotten a picture from him?”
Keith didn’t mean for it to happen — the humiliating things that often happened to him were usually beyond his control, like the way his cheeks reddened at Lance’s query. “What? No!”
“What’s wrong with asking for a photo?” Lance prodded, eyes roving over him with a look Keith wasn’t entirely happy with.
Keith shook his head, turning back to face his drink and taking a sip from his long island iced tea (Pidge had scrunched her nose at him when he surreptitiously asked her to put iced tea and none of the alcohol involved in it). “It’s weird, okay. You don’t just ask for someone’s photo — and you make it sound like I only care about what he looks like—”
Which wasn’t entirely wrong, Keith didn’t really care about the looks of the people he talked to...but, okay, a thought to his own: he had been curious. Damn it, he still was curious.
The pen-pal service didn’t give him a photo of Shiro when he first signed up, and at the time — he didn’t particularly mind it. Now, it got him thinking. Was Shiro a tall guy, or a short one or someone with average height? It didn’t matter which was which, but it did help in putting an image to the mind whenever the name popped up.
Which happened often. Not because Keith was thinking of Shiro, nope, not at all.
Lance just kept bringing him up — more and more like a broken record, for all the times Keith’s had to roll his eyes at every iteration of the lieutenant.
“Why is your face all red?” Pidge asked, and Keith groaned. Lance’s shit-eating grin was unmistakably shameless.
“Looks like someone has a crush,” the dead man next to him sang, causing Keith to bury his face into his elbow and groan.
“Shut your fucking face, Lance.”
Hey, Lance said something the other day and it was utterly stupid and typical garbage — the same kind that spewed out of his lips, anyway — but I can’t really stop thinking about it?
I’m not one to really judge based on looks, but is it weird that I want to see how you look like? It’s weird, right? Even me asking sounds so weird, but it’s a thought I couldn’t help but think and now—
“Ah, fuck.” Keith growled to himself, crumpling the paper and setting it aside. It joined four similarly crumpled-up balls of paper next to his coffee, and the fact that there was more than one of them was enough to put a damper on Keith’s mood. “This sucks.”
“Problem, hun?” The barista called from the counter, and Keith looked up at Allura — shrugging.
“Of the literary kind.” Allura gave her a thumbs-up with one hand while she held a flask to the coffee machine with the other, steaming.
“I’m sure you’ll handle it. I’ve yet to see you fail in getting an article down.”
Keith had to smile at that, leaning his chin on a hand. “I wish I had your optimism. If it were a research article, I would have finished sooner. I don’t have the same luck when it comes to personal writing.”
A fine, light brow rose, blue eye curious. “Oh, well, that I may not be able to help with.”
Keith threw a hand up, watching her call for the customer who ordered the drink. Once the guy had left, Allura leaned over her elbows, giving him a wide grin. “But, Dad did say I was a good listener. Maybe telling me all about it can help you sort it out?”
“Why are you never this nice to Lance?” Keith teased. Citrella wasn’t particularly busy that day — save for him and few other customers, the afternoon was mostly quiet.
The corner of Allura’s lips quirked. “If I do, he’ll be unmanageable. Nice to make him work for it, sometimes. Now, enough diversions. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
He breathed out a laugh, turning in his chair to face her. Thinking of the letter held safely in the pocket of his jacket, Keith ignored the warmth in his chest as Shiro’s words echoed in his ears. “Well, I told you I did this pen-pal service thing, right? I got paired up with this guy, a lieutenant. His name’s Takashi Shirogane, but he likes to be called ‘Shiro’. Stop giving me that look. Anyway...”
One time, Shiro returned to the bunk he shared with Iverson, coming off early from his shift. There had been a desert storm, and all the patrols were called back in before they got lost in it. They’ve had to deal with this particular hassle time and time again, and it did not stop the worry from growing. Desert storms were crazy — sand in the air, skies overcast, and in a place where there were no mountains, an easy arena for mini tornadoes. It didn’t help that it was so easy for someone to sneak on them — though, they had to be insane to go through a desert storm.
But if you’re used to this place, you’d know how to navigate one. Shiro quashed the thought, no need to string himself anxious with imaginary attacks.
Iverson was in his bunk, a wide smile on his face as he held a letter in one hand and a photo in another. Shiro plopped on his, prodding Iverson with a boot. "Missus sent you a good one?"
The other's laugh echoed loudly, unsurprising in the shoebox they were placed in. Still, it was better than what they when they were privates. Shiro will never miss bunking with five other people. It’s a wonder he got even a wink of sleep then. “Nah, man, that was last week. She looked hot as hell. Here, check this one."
"Sorry, man, girls don't do it for me. You know that." Iverson rolled his eyes, pushing the photo in his face. Shiro glared at him over the photo, leaning back to get a better view.
It was his best friend's kid — and that’s a fact nobody could deny. It was like someone shrunk Iverson into a mini-version of himself. Josh grinned wide at the camera, ball under one arm, hair all over the place and streaks of mud all over his uniform but there was no denying the glee on his face. A trophy was beside him.
"He just won his first soccer game! How amazing is that? That's my kid, man!"
Shiro reached out to bump his fist against Iverson's shoulder, smiling gently at the proud, wet look in the man's eyes. "Congratulations, soccer dad."
Iverson never denied wanting to be a family man, and that was still something that surprised Shiro. The first day they met, when they were paired up during his orientation so long ago, he thought Iverson wasn’t the type to want to be attached to anything and that Shiro would be the one shoving photos of Adam down the other’s throat.
He shook his head, thinking of other things. Pleasant things. Keith’s last letter comes to mind.
I went by the old church ruins you told me about. You were right. On the east side, down a ledge and to the right of it — there’s a hollow tower that I could climb. The window from that side gave me a great view of the cliff sides near the port. It was the blind spot from the main street below, and I could pretend that there was nobody else but me, there. It’s funny — I’m here, and you’re there but, in a small way, it’s like you’re here, too.
The wind blows differently here, I noticed. It whistles upward, and you can only hear the crinkle of the leaves after. The city noise is muted, and if I stare at the sea long enough, I can almost hear the waves crashing against the cliff walls. Now I understand why you mentioned you loved going here.
Hey — if you ever visit the city again, I’d love to hang out here with you.
"Fuck," Iverson growled. "Can't wait for this tour to end. I miss 'em."
Shiro squeezed his best friend’s shoulder, sharing the feeling. The thought of going home - huh, when did he start calling that city 'home' again? — though and meeting Keith has him nervous. "Soon. Soon."
Iverson peeked an eye out. "You should send him a photo."
Shiro frowned. "Why?"
The other gave him a look as if Shiro was dumb. "To get him hot and bothered, y'know. Please, I see the way you look when you get those letters."
Before Shiro could refuse, Iverson had opened his drawer, pulled his own wallet out and started rifling through it. He threw a photo at him, Shiro managing to grab it before it fell to the floor. It was Shiro's military graduation photo - in full uniform, beret on, hair swept back. He looked younger, then. Happier.
Iverson had taken that photo, and Adam had promised him that night that they'll always be together, no matter the distance.
"Why this?" Shiro asked, and he knew Iverson recognized the weight of the question.
A hand fell on his shoulder, fingers pressing deeply. "You're still that man, and he deserves to get to know him."
Shiro doesn't know why - why he sends the goddamn photo that has his vision blurring. Maybe to appease Iverson, maybe to spite some long-gone ghost or maybe he just wants to try to move on. He doesn't know why but he does send it, and before he stepped into Admin, he pulls out a pen, tears the envelope open and writes on the back of the photo.
Because thinking of the photo has him thinking of Adam, and how much it hurt. He doesn’t want to think about Adam anymore. That was a part of his life long over. He had new things to look forward to — someone to look forward to.
"I want to see you."
A photo falls from the next letter he gets, and there's a brightly-smiling man that's too beautiful for him to describe. "I want to see you" is written on the back, and Keith's heart oscillates from beating too fast to not beating at all.
He almost doesn't send the next letter, because he's too afraid: of disappointment, of disinterest, of the constant rejection he's had to face over and over. He's nothing extraordinary, he's never amounted to anything - but he sends it anyway.
(he immediately regrets it when Matt smirks at him, puts it on the earliest courier out even when Keith screams at him to give it back.)
(he also tries to chase after said courier, but twenty blocks in, his legs give out and he's too tired of running. He fucking hates Matt)
Keith tried to calm himself down, justifying things to himself. The letter wasn’t what worried him, it was just the photo. Seeing Shiro was a surprise. No, not a surprise. God.
God, Shiro was — he was magnificent. Dark hair combed back, gold-tan skin and eyes the color of the sky’s reflections on rain-soaked granite. Keith had to pause, holding the photo in one hand and having none of the courage to look at it again because—
Because his chest was running at twice the speed, and he had no idea it could even run. There was a drumming that mirrored a marching war band and a battle song, and it grew louder as he ducked and caught sight of Shiro’s silver eyes.
The original letter was lying in a box inside his cabinet, perhaps not meant to be read.
You leave me breathless. You look like a dream, the best one. Your eyes remind me of petrichor, and summer storms on the horizon. I had imagined jagged sharp lines, angles that could cut — but yours are tempered by a gentleness I never expected. I want to run my hands through your hair, and feel for the short strands on the back of your neck. I’d like to press my thumb into the hollow behind your ear, down the line of your jaw and up the slope of your nose. I could stare at you forever, and wonder if this is what Paris had felt when he first saw Helen.
He told himself he wasn’t bothered by it, not at all.
On Monday, Keith boots his computer up. A cup of coffee sits next to his keyboard, steam curling in the air. A headache lingers somewhere in the back of his head, borne from a night of heavy reading. He stifles a yawn with one hand and rubs his eye tiredly with the other. Shiro’s photo rests next to a framed one of his parents — and the headache disappears, overtaken by the drumming. He leans over, and traces Shiro’s smile with a finger.
“Good morning, Shiro.” Keith mumbled, lips quirking up.
The Friday before that, Keith opened his wallet to pay Pidge for the drink. It slipped from his hand, hitting the counter and his bank cards and a photo came sliding out.
“Is that him?” Pidge asked, eyeing the silver-eyed man. Keith nodded too fast, cheeks red. Lance was, thankfully, not around. A hand grabbed his just as he was about to hide the photo, and he looked up to find Pidge smiling at him gently. “He’s really handsome, Keith.”
Keith bit his lips, clearing his throat. “Right?”
Lance finds the photo on Sunday, as Keith’s about to head to the post office to drop his letter. The other man wanted to tag along with him, and while preparing to leave the apartment, Lance’s eyes squinted at something on his living room table.
“Is that Shiro?” He pointed out and, alarm bells clanging like death knells in his head, Keith turned to watch him walk over and pick the photo up.
Before Keith could make some sort of excuse, Lance looks from the photo and to him, face pensive. A smirk finds its way, and Keith groans loud — already walking away after swiping the photo from Lance’s hand.
“Hey, I was just about to congratulate you on the catch!”
“Shut your fucking face, Lance.”
Keith's next letter opens in stutters and shaky strokes: "You look really good. Really, really, really good. Ack. I hope I'm not being weird."
A photo falls from the envelope, and when Shiro picks it up, he can't ignore the way his heart skips at the fall of dark hair over mauve eyes, the gentle smile. Light seeped into wherever Keith was at the time, and he looked dazzling — outlined in silver and bronze. The cut of his jaw was soft, and his cheeks bunched when he smiled and Shiro wanted to know how they felt, under his thumb.
Were they as soft as he believed them to be? Did red flush once he grazed his thumb outward, like a trail of heat following his touch?
Did the same softness linger in the hollow of his neck, down to the space between his collar bones? Shiro couldn’t stop himself from thinking what hid under the black shirt, at the skin under it. Skin Shiro wants to touch, wants to caress — wants to slide the tips of his fingernails down and see if Keith would tense, or if he would shudder. Or sigh aloud, pink lips parting gently.
There's a line below: "I actually look decent here."
Fuck that, Keith looked good enough to EAT.
(Iverson told him to send Keith a photo to get him 'hot and bothered'. The only one feeling that way right now was Shiro. Jesus Christ.)
Shiro's letter doesn't come in until a month later - and Keith's worked himself up into a tightly-wound ball of anxiety, stomach long gone and dreading that Shiro's lost interest. Pidge had to roll her eyes and push an entire glass of vodka for him to calm down.
(He managed to take a sip and gag, because alcohol tastes like shit and he can never work the edgy drunk image to save his life.)
A week later, there was an attack on the base. At four PM, just when purple dusk started to overtake the orange sky, there was a hail of gunfire, screams and a chain of explosions around them. Nobody's really prepared for an attack, no matter how many times they train for it. Shiro could count with both hands, and still run out, all the times they’ve been doing drills and emergency practices but none of that will ever fully equip someone with what to do when it happens.
It's always chaotic, muddled in almost blown eardrums and the terrifying rattle of guns. Commands are shouted, alarms blare over and over and the blood in his veins turn to fire as he and Iverson barked orders — waiting for the enemy’s response.
It wasn't even a skirmish, though. Suppressive fire kept most of the attackers at bay, and only the outer walls were damaged. Still, the next few weeks passed with tightly-held breath.
Shiro's not able to send his letter until a month later, when security finally eased a bit.
He writes lines and lines of apology for the delay, and he can already imagine the frown on Keith's face. Dark brows furrowed, eyes worried and lips pursed - the image of Keith has something in Shiro's belly upending and twisting in both discomfort and elation. It must be that pretty mouth, curling downwards — unsure — when three weeks pass and there’s no letter; maybe he’d chew on them as he wondered, and Shiro bites his own lip, unwilling to acknowledge the heavy tension of interest somewhere in between his legs.
He throws caution to the wind, and writes the one thing that's been plaguing his mind ever since he got the photo.
He's too afraid to open it, but when Lance threatens to burn it, Keith locks himself and rips it open. The first line is an apology - asking for his forgiveness for the delay of the letter. Nevermind the heart attack when he reads that there was an attack on Shiro's base - the man expected him to care about a four-week delay of a letter when he could have died? Shiro assures him he's okay, and he's not hurt or anything.
There’s no explanation for the tremble of his hand, or the tightness in his chest, or the way his fingers press deep into the letter, it tears a bit at the edge. Shiro’s fine — and he has proof now, but the reminder that the other man was in a veritable war zone refused to fade away from his thoughts.
The next line did not help at all.
"God, you're beautiful."
Maybe his heart is somewhere over yonder, or maybe it's somewhere in space. Maybe it's somewhere in the desert, in a country in the far reaches of the planet, in the hands of a man in army green fatigues and dusty skin and gentle smiles.
Keith almost doesn't let go of the letter, and when he gets home, he sets it on his desk. He lays down on his bed, eyes not really seeing the ceiling, trying to process it. He gets up and reads it again, hand over his mouth and does the same thing over again. Rinse and repeat.
"Oh, this is gonna be good. You only call me that when you need something from me."
"Asshole. Do...do you think I can get a phone call in during next week's Liberty?"
A beat of silence, and Iverson mutters. "Lovebirds."
"Shut the fuck up, Iverson.")
One time, Shiro asked for his home phone number and, considering Keith works as an article writer, he doesn't find it unusual to give it away. He's almost always home, anyway.
It’s nothing, he thought. Friends — that’s what he and Shiro are, right? — exchange numbers all the time. Nothing unusual, Keith nodded to himself. Just friends.
Wednesday morning, his phone rings. The way his hands started sweating was definitely not something that happened to just friends.
When he picks it up, there's background noise on the other end. Chatter, wind maybe, and he could hear breathing - until a baritone voice, warm, speaks. "Hello?" An old song plays in Keith's head, and he manages to get a response out. "Hi?
The person on the other end doesn't speak for a moment, and Keith can only hear his breathing. His finger taps against the plastic, and Keith bites his lip - unsure of the hope in his heart.
Until a voice in the background shouts. "For fuck's sake, talk to him, Shirogane!"
"Shiro?" Keith wants to be sure, because he's learned to view things cautiously. Never mind the way he felt heady and light at the thought of Shiro on the other end, or the way the air in his lungs turned to molasses and honey that trickled upward instead of the other way around. Butterflies did not exist in his fucking stomach, that was medically impossible. Must be a screeching crow, anyway, with how much his belly twisted and turned.
The man on the other end laughs - and it's more breath than laughter, tone lilting like bells overhead.
"It's me, Keith. It's me. Hi."
Keith blinks far too fast, he sounds too wonderful.
Voice warm and low, two octaves off whatever charts his mind is trying to identify but failed to do so. He wasn’t particularly well-versed in all that, anyhow. He’s just trying to find things to say and words to use to describe Shiro’s voice, how it tingles in his ears and down his spine — tries to find a way to put quantity to it, because with quantity, there’s a limit. Otherwise, he would get lost in the timber, vowel slips and Shiro’s staccato cadence.
There's not much to do during liberty — the down time soldiers get — not a lot you can do when your outpost is in the middle of the desert. Most usually find something to keep spirits high - like a makeshift soccer game competition that lasted weeks. They made do with what they had, kept score on the walls of the HQ and even some of the senior officers participated, while the others merely enjoyed watching from the sides.
For those not on liberty, there was still work to do but Shiro’s learned a thing or two about the people here. He’s quite sure there should be a secretary still on her shift in this office — his commander’s office — but with the game in the semi-finals, he’s sure she found some excuse to go through the Mess Hall and out to the field. It made things easy for Iverson to sneak him in, the coast clear for the meantime.
"One minute only," Iverson growls. "If Holt comes in and finds us, I'm burying you in the desert."
Shiro nods, agreeing, before pulling the paper out of his pocket.
Keith's phone number was scrawled hastily on it, and his hands were wet. Shiro prays their squad commander doesn't decide to turn back and work instead of watching the game.
Iverson glared. "Hurry up!"
"Okay, okay, jeez." Shiro muttered back, pressing the buttons.
(Heart in the air, sand in his throat - his stomach felt like it was flying in space. It's not a crush, it's not a crush, it's not a crush.)
The call gets picked up, and Shiro pauses for a second before greeting. "Hello?"
A curious drawl reaches his ears. "Hi?"
(Desert dunes sifting in the wind, running down slopes, sliding easy. Fuck, it's a crush.)
Somewhere in his traitorous mind: nope, it's more than a crush.
Shut up, Iverson, he thought. He got used to it, anyway.
Think of the Devil, and he shall speak. Or curse loudly. "For fuck's sake, talk to him, Shirogane!"
Shiro may have wanted to elbow the man, preferably in the mouth but the voice on the other line perks up. "Shiro?"
God, he could listen to Keith say his name all day, leaning his head against the wall.
"It's me, Keith. It's me. Hi."
"Hi," Keith repeats, because he's a dumb fuck like that when someone gorgeous deigns to even glance at his direction, more so when they want to talk to him. "Hi."
"Yeah. Hi." Shiro repeats, voice wobbling a bit.
("Did you say 'hi' twice?" Someone in the background asks. "Shut up, Iverson.")
Something about his voice, about the honey-warm drawl and the way Keith breathes his name out has Shiro's legs feeling like jelly, his hands slippery and his face red and his entire body too warm for decency. It must have been the accent, or the easy consonants and vowels, or the way Keith’s voice just slipped around it.
He’s now thinking of other things Keith’s tongue could do, and he’s rendered dumb.
He might have said 'Hi' twice, and when Iverson made a comment of it, the automatic response was more for formality.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm shutting up," Iverson muttered.
He wants to sound confident, and sure. Not like a stuttering teenager with a first crush — hands sweaty and neck red, feeling ten degrees hotter inside his clothes and swoon-worthy words jumbled into rubbish.
He ends up sounding like one, anyway. "I-It's really nice to hear your voice." He knows he shouldn't be breathing this close to the receiver, but he can't help it. Keith was on the other line.
Keith with his dark hair, purple eyes and pretty smile. Fuck.
Keith, who sends him issues of comic books that he missed while on tour, who refused to accept Shiro sending him money to pay.
("You're there, and I'm here," Keith once wrote, "this way, it'll feel like I'm there with you.")
Keith, who sends him little square polaroids of cookies and brownies and things he's baked.
("Please, please, please make me one when I go back," in fine even strokes.
"Already got a list ready, only thing missing is you," retorted in uneven scrawls and coffee stains.)
Fuck, Keith’s got Shiro wrapped around his little finger, and Shiro’s only too happy for it.
"It's, uh, it's really nice to hear your voice." Shiro speaks, breathing too loudly into the receiver. Keith can't say he's not doing the same thing, or that he's saying the same thing. He’s a bit too dumbstruck, a bit too much in awe.
The wood of the table feels warm and cold under his hand, and he’s quite sure that more than half of his weight was leaning against the door jamb than on his own feet. It was a good thing — he didn’t really think he had the strength to keep standing, deeply fascinated by Shiro talking , no not writing, not writing at all, on the other end.
"You sound," Keith clears his throat. He honestly didn’t know if Shiro said anything after that line — he was not paying attention at all. "You sound really good."
Shiro laughs, and Keith wonders if he can play that sound over and over until it's engraved into his memory. He sounds like gold, crimson and clover. Summer storms and spring wind. A sunflower field under a clear blue sky. Bluer than blue. Lord.
"You sound," Keith said, a hitch in his voice that turned into a canyon in Shiro's chest, his heart almost failing to jump over, "you sound really good."
It should be illegal — the way Keith says things like that. Mundane things that were so commonplace, they seemed lackluster at first. Still, the way Keith says them — the way the words dance and skip, tumble down and into Shiro’s veins, tangerine dreams and saffron wisps of air.
It should honestly be illegal, the way Shiro plucks and trembles like a lyre, an instrument, and Keith’s voice plays him like a key and he’s up and dancing to the tune of it.
You make me feel good. It was embarrassing how the words almost escaped his lips, Shiro had to bite his tongue. It was stark honesty, as clear a promise as the sun rising over the horizon. I want you to keep making me feel good.
"I can't keep this call for long," Shiro continues, and the regret is thick enough for Keith to cut. He wonders when the phone will slip from his too sweaty hands. "But my tour's ending soon, and I...really want to meet you. I mean, if you want to."
He sounds so awkward and unsure, like Keith will reject him. It's funny how life operates, because Keith's suddenly giggling to himself and breathing out 'yes' with suspiciously bright eyes. That single stroke of temerity must have been enough, because Keith’s still standing and the morning light hasn’t turned into vermillion hellfire.
Keith’s taken a step, admitted a long overdue truth and the world kept going. Then, it was a good thing, right?
"Y-you will?" A choked-out guffaw, or maybe a shy chuckle. "T-that's great."
Courage, surprisingly, takes hold of Keith, and he grips the phone tight. "I can't wait to see you."
It’s undeniable — what the words mean. Keith can see it, even with his eyes shut and sewn backwards. Shiro can hear it, distinct and impossible to miss, and the only thing Keith has to show for it are bumbling cheeks, reddening grins and biting lips. He doesn’t even know if that made sense.
None of this made sense. Somehow, that was extremely comforting.
Shiro's voice falls an octave lower, and it sends shivers down Keith's back and paints blood-rouge and heat over his cheeks. "I can't wait to see you, too.”
If you weren’t mine, I’d be jealous of your love.
"I can't...I can't keep this call for long." Shiro managed to get out as Iverson elbowed him, gesturing to his watch. The other lieutenant then pretended to hold someone and made kissing noises. Shiro kicked him in the shin with his steel-toed boot. "But my tour's ending soon…”
"Yeah?" The hopeful tone in that single word was almost too much, and Shiro pressed his thumbnail into his palm, no idea of what he'd be saying if he didn't hold himself back.
"I really want to meet you, if you want to."
There, he said it. It's out. He can't take it back anymore.
Once in the air, once he's verbalized it - it's real, and if it's real, then there's possibility. Once it's possible, he'll never be able to not think of it and not want to see it through. That’s the thing — when it’s just in your mind, when you’re just twisting and playing with the thought, it’s just that, a thought. Once Shiro made the choice to say it, to put weight to it, then it can’t be anything else but real.
And real means it’s something he can have, and that terrifies the fuck out of him.
A second doesn't even pass when Keith chuckles, bright and easy and before Shiro could overthink what that meant, the other is breathing out 'yes'.
So, this is how flying without a parachute feels like, huh.
"I can't wait to see you," Keith continues, voice low.
The rest of the world doesn't linger, it fades and passes and Shiro's only standing by himself with a phone to his ear and the voice of the only reason that's waiting for him back home. He believed he didn’t have a reason to come home anymore, that wherever he was was home enough — be it in the middle of the desert, three hundred miles from the nearest speck of civilization, or up north where the ice bites deeper than skin or in the farthest corners of the world — that the moment Adam up and left his life in a blaze of words penned in one letter, Shiro no longer needed or wanted to look back.
He has one, now. More than a reason, and a destination. It’s a need...and a want.
He has Keith, now.
It's just them, through static and choppy noises.
"I can't wait to see you, too."
(He doesn't hold back, he can't - he lets all the longing, the sadness and the fondness. All of it - the smiles and chuckles Keith's given him, the warmth in his chest and the hope that Keith's resurrected with so simple gestures. It all comes leaking out into his voice, then.)
Liberty only allows Shiro that single call, but the letters never stop coming.
The awkwardness is no longer there, and Shiro's started putting in words like 'darling' or 'I miss you', or drawing hearts in the margins beside twenty-four hour time formats. White-hot lightning strikes through him for every moment Keith thinks about it, and he grips the letters too tight in his hand and he has to stop himself from looking across the table and at the empty chair and imagine.
Shiro would sit there, gorgeous and beautiful and bright, larger than life — silver-taupe eyes gleaming brightly as he leaned over to whisper something in Keith’s ear, hair falling over his eyes, lips grazing the side of his lobe.
Honeyed words and molten gazes. Shiro’s nose would be too close for comfort — or too far away for comfort. It would slide against Keith’s, and he’d look up as Shiro meets his gaze. Maybe a hand on Keith’s knee under the table, or Keith resting his ankle against Shiro’s, connected by sight and touch.
Keith couldn’t stop himself from imagining — Shiro pressing into his side, chin on his shoulder, whispering the same words. Darling, why don’t you and I get out of here and visit the sea?
Standing in that old bell tower at the church ruins on the outskirts of the city, Shiro’s arm around his shoulder as he pointed to the cliffs with the other. Let’s go there, one day. Just us.
Keith’s hand sliding down, fingers locking with Shiro’s and the man would turn, a bit surprised — and, hopefully, eyes glowing with pleasure. Miss me, doll?
Keith lets the letter fall to his face, groaning as his eyes fall shut and desire runs through every vein, pooling in between his legs.
He wants Shiro.
Things change, it's impossible to keep them from changing.
When some things are spoken, and words are written - when you let these things go, they circle back and return to you, a whole new being in its place.
He doesn't start his next letter with 'Dear Keith'.
(It's ' my darling', 'sweetheart', ‘baby doll’ , punctuated with 'I miss you', 'I miss your voice' , 'I dreamt of you, you know ' and it ends with: ' Counting down the days', 'I'm almost there' and 'yours '.)
There are letters Shiro's brave enough to send.
Would you happen to know if the Wonder Wheel is still there? I miss that. Would you want to ride that with me? We can get ice cream after, play with those toy gun booths that wins you stuffed toys. That thing.
There used to be a cafe down Madison, where they make cute strawberry petit-fours. I dunno if that's your thing, but it's a nice place to chat and the family that manages it is very nice. I think you'd like it there.
When I was eighteen, my friends and I used to go to this cliff overlooking the city. We'd spend all night looking up at the stars, trying to guess their names. If you'd like, we could have a picnic there. Just us, and the city lights below and starlight above.
And there are letters Shiro's too afraid to send, letters like:
Two years ago, I loved someone so hard and so completely, I thought he'd be the one I'd spend the rest of my life with. I guess he didn't feel the same way. I didn't know how to move on from that, until I met you."
Some nights, I wake up with my hand on my chest because it hurts to breathe. I just think of all the fear and all that I've lost and I can't help feel like I'm drowning. I take your photo out, and I stare at your face until dawn. You make me feel safe.
When I was seven, my mother and I used to go to a river and dip our feet in the water. She'd tell me about a girl she once loved, and it felt like a second and a lifetime. I don't know what that means, but if you’d let me, I'd love you a lifetime.
After much prodding from a supportive Lance and Pidge (that still managed to creep him out), Keith sends Shiro a photo of him at the beach with his friends. He's in his trunks, hair in a braid over his shoulder and the roaring waves in the background. It had been a good day for a swim, and the waves rolling high into the shore had been wonderful — a welcome respite from the heat. The three of them had a picnic on the sand, watching the waves roil and the sky shift into varying reds and gold.
Pidge had brought some of her alcohol, while Lance played with a camera in his hands. Buzzed, on a high he never knew where it came from, Keith stood — turning to Lance after Pidge finished braiding his hair.
“Take a photo of me.”
Lance raised a brow. “But you hate getting your picture taken.”
Keith pulled him up, running down the bank and making sure there was nobody in the background. He moved his braid to rest over his shoulder. “Make sure it’s a good one, then. This is the only time I’ll be willing to ask for one.”
Too rarely, Keith thinks he can be considered attractive. Maybe it’s the giddiness of the alcohol, or the wind-swept hair in his face, or the sand in his eyes. Maybe it’s the sunset-seared waves that turned into silver-taupe upon reaching the shoreline.
Whatever it was, Keith wanted Shiro to know what, and who, was waiting for him.
As the summer fades away, nothing gold can stay. But you’re my Norman Rockwell, you paint me happy and blue. Over and over, honey. Over and over. You’re cottonwood and summer, and you’ve left me beckoning.
I’m walking this empty northern hemisphere wide, calling for you in the steeples above the church yard.
Keith sends him a photo, one time. It's him at the beach, with his friends Lance and Pidge. The waves are roaring behind him, his dark hair in a braid over his shoulder. Sun-kissed skin, red cheeks, bare chest and that wonderful smile. Scarlet-tinged outline, puce eyes glittering — and with the way the sand lingered in the air even inside the base, Shiro can close his eyes and almost pretend to see the way Keith’s hair shifted, the water clinging to his shorts, the sand up his bare legs.
Shiro can't hold back the groan of desire.
(What he’d give to hold Keith in his arms, gently lay him on the sand and trace him clean with his tongue. What he’d do to paint Keith in vermillion, stapled bitemarks and lovelorn-lovelost kisses, tracing his name from end to end, over and over.)
How would Keith feel in his arms? How would Keith react to Shiro’s lips tracing the contours and lines, the ends and the beginnings that met? Would he shiver, or pant softly against Shiro? Would his hands find their way to his back, nails tracing red lines on the skin, each one exorcising a mewl from Shiro?
Shiro would — he’d sing and moan, he’d let Keith know how good he could make Shiro feel. He’d never hide any of that, Keith deserved to know how good he made Shiro feel. Every caress and graze, every intelligent touch or instinctive contact — all of it, Shiro would let him know how good it’d feel.
Keith sends white-hot lines of lightning, suffuses them in Shiro’s veins with ink on paper alone. Keith was his pied piper — dressed in shades of red lent by Shiro’s lips — and he’s long surrendered, perhaps without even knowing it, then.
He pressed the photo against his lips, turning in bed. Eyes closed, inhaling sea salt and the feeling the wisp of dark hair over his skin, Shiro mouths at the feel of the paper. Groin pressed against the bed, his hips undulated and he whispered Keith’s name over and over.
He wants Keith, in his bed, in his arms, in his life. Not just for a second, or a year or a hundred years. A lifetime. Nerves afire, Shiro would love him a lifetime.
“Keith,” he whispered, hitches and cracks in his voice.
Oh God, I miss you on my lips. I miss your sighs, whispered over my skin. I miss your honey-gold drawl, the hitch in your throat and the cherry red marks on your lips.
I cut through avenues, tiptoe past highway boys sleeping in with their dirty mouths and broken strings, fumbling round in the smoke, spending time chasing ghosts. You’re a bird’s eye-view of San Luis, my little Venice beach.
I haven’t met you, and yet I miss you and your dandelion wine, your churches and trains, your cliffs of Dover and Sylvia Plath. Hold fast, don’t let me go — you’re the end of the line for me.
Shiro's next letter opens with: "Fuck, you look so good."
It shouldn't make Keith feel this wonderful, right?
Shouldn’t have him trembling under the covers, hot to the bone, bare feet sliding against the sheets. Should he tangle his legs with Shiro’s? Will they catch on the fine hair down his calves, or would they be bare?
He paints a picture of Shiro, naked gold skin and sleep-tousled hair and slumber-strewn lines over his face, bleary silver-taupe, searching for him. Curl of his lips, gratuitous and brazen. James Dean gloom gone, Johnny Cash smoky syllables. Afternoon delights.
Keith shuts his eyes.
A whimper escapes his lips, and his hand slips into his boxers.
It's liberty, and Shiro was coming back from a game with the other team. Sweat was pouring off him and he took off his shirt, using it as a makeshift towel. He slapped hands with the guys on the other team, walking over to the shade by the infirmary.
"Smile, Lieutenant!" He looks up, watching as Major Holt raised a polaroid camera. It wasn’t surprising, the major did like taking photos of his men. He kept a large board where all the photos he took were on display. Maybe he could ask for one.
Thought in mind, he gave it his best. He didn’t bother wearing his shirt. Shiro fixed his fringe and smiled at the camera, unusually excited at what he was planning.
Holt’s about to turn when Shiro speaks. “Sir, can I have that?”
The major pauses, blinking. The corner of his lips rose. “Sure, son.”
Clapping him on the shoulder for a good game, Holt walked away, leaving Shiro to look at the photo in his hand.
He can say he looks good in the photo, and he bites his lip with the thought of how Keith would react to it. That photo of him at the beach was a calculation, and Shiro can play two at that game.
The hope in his chest — that it’s not just him who’s wanting, that it’s not just him who’s thick and heavy with desire for it — has him grinning wide, bumping into Iverson on the way to the showers. The man’s self-satisfied grin was unnoticed, Shiro whistling an upbeat melody as he slips the photo into his pocket.
Shiro responds by sending Keith another photograph of him. It must have been liberty, and his squad was playing some sport game, because Shiro's shirtless and in combat pants and hair over his face and his muscles gleam. There was more to the photo — there must have — but Keith doesn’t notice that. His eyes land over the gentle fall of Shiro’s hair, the light glinting off the slant of his nose. Lips quirked in a confident smile that has Keith’s fingers curling into his palm. Under the sunlight, Shiro’s eyes almost seemed like gold — and, Jesus Christ, there was no denying the hot-heavy desire in them.
Dusky nipples hard, maybe from exhilaration or the wind cooling off his sweat (or the thought that Keith was going to be looking at his photo, get turned on and bothered). His combat jeans were low on his hips, and Keith could see every cut and plane, every line pointing down south.
(Would his skin taste like clear sweat or sea salt or sand when Keith traces the line with his mouth? Would Shiro breathe out sighs, or stifle whimpers, or sing sonnets in clumsy phrases like ‘yes, that’s it, baby’ or ‘you’re doing so good for me, darling’ or ‘fuck, Keith, don’t stop, I feel so good’)
Keith turned to his side on the couch where he had been reading Shiro’s letter, a pillow in between his legs. Shiro’s arms were thick — like tree trunks. Powerful, strong. Shiro could hold Keith down with one hand and have his way with him using the other and Keith would let him.
Shiro would part his legs gently, fingers pressing deep into his thighs until they’re purple and blue, and he’d lean down and kiss the bruises, asking for forgiveness. Silvery-taupe under dark hair, and if Shiro kept looking like that — if Shiro looked at Keith liked that and ask for the moon, Keith would pull the stars down, too.
He can imagine him — bigger, wide over him — and taking Keith into his mouth, pink lips around an erect cock.
Keith pulled the photo close, and pressed it against his lips. He ignored the hardness in his pants, desiring something more than the physical. He shuts his eyes, feeling oddly sleepy — dreaming gold-silver dreams on a July afternoon.
Shiro opens his bedside table drawer, one night, and sees the letter Adam sent him. It's no longer in pristine condition - so many times he's held it, crumpled it, pressed it against the tear tracks down his cheeks, smoothing it out once more because he's not strong enough to let it go, to throw it away, to burn it.
He knows it, word for word, sentence by sentence.
That one line that's tattooed into his brain: "I can't do this anymore, Takashi."
Shiro holds the letter he just got from Keith. "Don't laugh, but I reread your letters before bed."
Shiro walks to the incinerator in the Mess Hall, and with no hesitation, throws Adam's letter in it. Immolate. It becomes cinders in a second flat. A weight, mountain-heavy, grew wings and took off — leaving his heart free.
Keith's the only one in there now.
"I dearly hope there aren't nudes in here." Matt says that one time Keith sends his letter, his face red.
The woman in the line of the counter next to Matt's turns to Keith, face aghast.
"I hate you so fucking much, right now." Keith mutters darkly.
("You do know that Administration reads the letters before sending them out, right?”
"What's your point, Iverson?"
"I'm just saying, if you're gonna send nudes, make it a good one.")
"Shirogane, Takashi. First lieutenant, junior-grade. Here." He thanked the senior officer, taking hold of his updated dog tag, name plate and rank. It was just the same — there really wasn’t anything to change, save for the clarity of the details on it. The new one shone brightly, contrasting heavily with well-worn tag around his neck, under his shirt.
The old man glanced at him. "You want us to melt that or send it to someone home?"
"Home." Shiro answered.
No hesitation. Easy. He smiled at the major. "Got someone waiting for me back home."
Old dog tag in one hand, paper in another:
I know we haven't met yet, but that's okay. I'm already yours. You have me.
Would you keep this safe, for when I come home? Come home to you.
Crumpled, and thrown.
I'm not going to ask you to wear it, but if you will, I know that at least a part of me gets to touch you.
Sounded wrong. Scratched.
I have no one there waiting, except you. That's how important you are to me.
It's not what he wants to send, but it'll do.
The next letter Keith gets is heavier than the usual. He feels something sturdy inside, and he's curious - Shiro once mentioned they weren't allowed to send anything other than letters. Everything else was taken care of by the quartermaster. Security, he says.
At home, he opens the letter. Keith settled himself on the couch, where the two photos of Shiro rest next to his mom and dad, in clear sight. When Keith looked up from work to find the photo, all the exhaustion disappear and he’s left smiling.
What falls out is a dog-tag and Keith's gasp echoed throughout the empty room. His hand trembles and he grips the letter too tight before he spies the writing.
He shakes his head, refusing to believe until he reads the letter. It was from Shiro, and not from some faceless officer Keith doesn't recognize.
The first line:
Before you freak out, I'm okay, alright? I'm not dead or anything, so please don't worry. Smile for me, alright baby?
Our dog tags get updated every quarter, to make up for wear and all. We usually give the old one back to the quartermaster, but some of the guys here have this tradition, where we send it to someone back home that we really care about.
They send it to their wives, or parents, or girlfriends or boyfriends. You know, that kind of thing. I just...wanted you to have it. There's nobody waiting for me there, except you. That's how important you are to me.
What Shiro wants is inside his table drawer, in neat lines.
I love you. I know that it might be too soon, or that we still don't know each other completely, but you're the first thing I think of when I wake and you slip into my dreams and keep me safe in the dark.
I know we are worlds apart, and I know that I sometimes miss you with an ache so hard it leaves me shaking, but all I have to think of is you and your gentle smile waiting for me and I know I can do this.
You send me comic books and photos of cookies. You visit the places that I once thought I could no longer return to because the memories hurt, and you slide into the cracks and crevices — fixing what’s broken and reminding me of all the beautiful things I’ve forgotten.
You make me dream of August afternoons where hours and seconds blur into nothing, where I spend a lifetime and one undressing you with my hands and my clumsy fingers and my kisses and everything else I can offer. You make me look for you in places I’ve never known before: in the space between my arms when I wake, in the slip of sheet and against my chest — inside the drum that’s sitting, beating and marching between my lungs.
You make me brave — brave enough to step past what’s gone, brave enough to turn to the sunrise and a new beginning. You make me brave enough, and you make me believe I’m enough, that I’ll always be enough. You paint with oil and acrylics, strung with prose and honesty and you play every key and note, and you’ve had me since then, since always.
You make me want to try, for you.
I was lost at sea, battered on the waves, smashed into the craggy rocks and bent on drowning, but I found you - or, maybe, what's been true all along was that you found me .
You saved me, even when you didn't know it, and the gift of my heartbeat sounds like a symphony.
You're my harbor, and with you, I know it’s safe to come home.
"How's lover boy?" Lance asked over lunch, one time. The rare times that he manages to wrestle Keith away from his apartment, anyway.
Keith looks up from his food, hand unconsciously feeling for the dog tag under his shirt, pressed over his heart.
It’s an echo of a heartbeat, a memento of pulsating veins and it’s a part of Shiro — a part Keith can touch, can press against his lip, can hold on to before he falls asleep. It’s the part of Shiro that Keith looks for when he wakes, when the shower head water rains down on him, when his reflection looks back at him. He’s chasing the sun, Eastward and it falls from the sky and over his heart.
For Shiro, he’ll always try.
He doesn’t know how Shiro does it — with just words, a feeling and a dog tag — how he makes Keith feel, like he is Keith’s earth and ceiling. His heart beats against the skin of his chest, and against the dog tag and it sounds like a symphony.
(He smiles to himself, not bothering to hide it from Lance's all-too-knowing gaze. "He's good, he's coming home soon."
Lance looks at him for a moment, before smiling wide. "That's great. We should have a welcome party for him.")
"My friends are excited to see you," Keith worded out, "Lance, especially. He wants to throw you a welcoming party."
Shiro chuckles to himself, penning down his own. "I'm nervous that your friends won't like me, to be honest." That’s not the whole truth. Even if the world was against me, I’d choose you. If it’s you, it’s alright. If I get to be the other half of you, it’s alright.
The boughs could break, and it could all come crashing down around him — it didn’t matter. For Keith, he’ll string together a lifelong love letter.
"They love you." Keith responded, two weeks later.
(Scratched out so hard, it was impossible to see what was written underneath it: "But do you? Love me?")
Shiro's not sure if he's more terrified of 'yes' than 'no'.
"You seem different." Iverson said one time during lunch. The man was sitting across him, eyeing him warily. Their tour was ending in two weeks' time and Shiro can already see the excitement in the man's eyes at the prospect of reuniting with his family.
"No, I don't."
Iverson's eyes squinted. "No, you seem less...uptight. Like you don't have a stick shoved up your ass."
Shiro frowned at the comment, not bothering to reply.
Iverson grinned, then. "What happened, letter sex? Phone sex? How does letter sex even work?"
Shiro opened his mouth, but the other man beat him to it. "Yeah, shut the fuck up, Iverson. Guess I was wrong, you're still uptight."
With that, they continued their lunch...until Shiro mumbled something into his food.
"What?" Iverson repeated, frustration on his face. Shiro glared at him, looking around a moment before leaning close.
"I...dreamt of him last night...doing things. I woke up with my boxers wet. Happy?"
Iverson's bellowing laughter could probably be heard throughout the base.
(Shiro doesn’t tell Iverson the complete truth. If he had slipped his hand into his boxers, breathing tight — still heaving from the dream he had of Keith, and felt the wetness of his cum on his fingers, then Iverson didn’t need to know. If he had gathered what was left and pressed it against his lips, tongue tasting himself and wondering if Keith tasted the same, or something entirely different, then that was his own secret to keep.
“The things you make me feel,” Shiro whispers into a night sky full of glittering mauve. The only person who gets to hear all that was miles away, and he’s tired of crawling all the way.)
You know how life can be one fine line down the road, and then a shitshow, tits up, the next?
In retrospect, Shiro should have expected that, but that’s what life does, yeah? You can make a million preparations, stock up a hundred times and overthink contingency plans that start from A and ends at AZ and things will still find a way a to fuck it all up. Isn’t that a law somewhere? Murphy’s law?
It’s not a surprise, but maybe he just gets to say that because he has the benefit of hindsight. His life had been a line of things going wrong, one way or the other, until he met Keith and that, in itself, must have blinded him, must have made him forget that he’s not exactly picture-perfect.
Or maybe that’s just how things are — no matter how much you lock your doors, cross your fingers and over your heart, you’ll still trip over the ice and bash your head into the frigid waters below.
It was a simple routine, preparing for another desert storm. The patrols were being called to base, and Shiro was out making sure the rest of his platoon was in. The gates were being shut, slowly, and he stood by — making sure none of his men failed to check in. Even if they’ve been here for the last few years now, things can change quickly in a blink of an eye.
"Better get in, too!" Iverson shouted, voice almost lost in the burst of wind. It cut through the air and made it impossible to hear. Wind whipped, howling, and Shiro looked up at the reinforced glass serving as windows. He can already imagine the sound of the wind beating against it, an angry tempest giant knocking repeatedly.
“You too!” Shiro manages to call over to Iverson, thankful for the goggles he had on. Feeling the sand slip into his mouth the moment he opened it, he didn’t want to imagine how difficult it would have been to keep his eyes open if he didn’t have them attached to his head.
"Storm's bout to blow over. Main gate’s about to close, any—“
Shiro was walking up to him, intent to get both of them in-doors when there was a shout and a cry that froze him on the spot. He turned in place, trying to find the source. Was someone hurt? No, it sounded angry, violent. There were silhouettes moving in the dust storm, but it was impossible to see clearly — sand pummeled at his goggles without mercy.
Machine gun fire erupted nearby, and Shiro took a step back, gripping his rifle close as he lowered himself, keeping an eye around. With the howling storm, it was impossible to determine where it came from — the normally loud noise diminished to something as light as a knock. Iverson crept towards him, putting his rifle up as he scanned Shiro’s three o’clock.
“We have to get out of—” Shiro turned, shouting at Iverson’s direction as more angry screams and gunfire cut through the storm.
"Shiro, LOOK OUT!" He felt Iverson pushing him away, covering him from behind. The surprise had Shiro on his knees, tumbling as he scrambled for purchase while keeping a hand on his weapon. Something metallic clicked in his ears, and he felt it before he heard it.
A flash of white, and terrible heat and nothing.
Keith's at Pidge's bar, his usual Friday night haunting, at the counter and minding his own business. Lance wasn’t present — finally managing to score a date with Allura, and he had spent the better part of the afternoon panicking at Keith’s apartment. After managing to calm him down somewhat (a frying pan to the head worked in a movie, so he improvised), Keith decided to head over to Pidge’s. Excitement thrummed in his veins, grinning to himself.
“What are you smilin’ about?” Pidge asked, returning to the counter after delivering a couple’s drinks to one of the booths. Keith shrugged — he once offered to help her out, but she had a stubborn streak that ran deeper than the Grand Canyon.
“Just excited for the weekend.”
Pidge rolled her eyes, but there was a genuine smile on her face. “Love letter. You mean love letter.”
Face still red, Keith tried to glare at her. “Shut up. It’s not a love letter.”
She raised a brow after rising from under the counter, placing a tall unopened bottle of bourbon. “Yes, it’s not a love letter, and you don’t talk about it four times a week, your face isn’t red and you don’t look like an idiot with that wide smile on your face everytime you open your wallet and see Shiro’s face. How could I possibly be wrong?”
“You made your point,” Keith muttered to himself, ears practically blaring like a fire truck’s light. Pidge’s teasing smile softened, pressing her index finger into his cheek.
“Hey,” Keith looked up at her, lips pursed. “It’s okay. You know Lance and I have your back, always. You’ll always have our support, and if you really like Shiro, then we’re happy for you.”
Keith didn’t say anything, unsure of what might come tumbling out after hearing Pidge’s words. She didn’t press him on, leaning back to jot down a few of the orders on her pad. He played with his wallet for a bit, eyeing the sides of Shiro’s photo — the one in full uniform, the other is safe at home, on his bedside table — now worn, corners dog-eared. It said a lot on how many times Keith’s pulled it out to look, some days during breakfast, others when he’s about to sleep. Lately, he pulls it out on the ride back home, feeling the tram hurtle forward — rushing.
“I just—” Keith started when Pidge returned to his side, and she continued to jot down notes but he knew she was listening. “I just really, really like him, Pidge. Not just physically. He’s handsome, I mean—”
Keith had to chuckle. Shiro was more than handsome, more than just the physical (and the physical certainly did help). “He’s beautiful, and he’s kind and he’s intelligent. He makes the wittiest comments, and he says things like ‘forgive me’ and ‘attest’ and ‘magnificent’ like he’s some guy from way back. He wants to take me to the carnival, and the sea and the cliffs. He wants to have picnics with me under the stars. He’s—”
Keith swallowed, heart thudding hard against his ribcage. He could feel Pidge’s gaze on the side of his face, her voice warm. “He sounds really nice, Keith. I’m happy for you, really.”
“I’m just—” Keith turned to her, gesturing with a hand to his face and his body. “I’m just afraid that, you know, once I admit it, it’s real. If I say it out loud, then there’s the possibility. I’m just afraid because what if it’s just me? What if I’m just seeing things that aren’t there?”
Pidge stood close, hazel-green eyes mapping over his face. “Do you really believe that — that he doesn’t like you?”
Yes, Keith wanted to say but what comes out was different. “No.”
Because ‘yes’ was just a lie to keep himself from hoping further, and it was just the fear that he wasn’t good enough, and that he was already sabotaging himself before the game even started.
His mind knew better, but his heart already had the answer before he could even find some way to justify it. “No, I don’t believe I’m the only one who has feelings in this.”
Pidge then did something extremely unlike her — she bopped him on the nose. He reared back, surprised, eyes blinking. She grinned at him. “Then, silly, it must be true. ”
Keith didn’t know what made him do it, but he started laughing, not loudly, but enough to make a few heads turn. Someone ambled up the counter, and Keith — still snickering — looked up at Koli (Kolivan, he once introduced himself but only his mother, who was dead for forty years, called him that). “Hey.”
Pidge turned to her regular, smiling. “What’s up?”
Koli reached with a hand up, scratching the back of his neck — cheeks red. “Uh, I was wondering if you had a thread and needle?”
Pidge frowned, Keith turning back to his wallet, finger on the edge of Shiro’s smile. “What do you need it for?”
“Thace ripped his pants.”
“How did that happen?”
Keith hummed, curious. Wait, was Koli blushing even harder. “He was kneeling under the table when it happened.”
Pidge’s brow disappeared into her hair. “Why was he under the— oh.”
Koli’s face was as red as Keith’s sweater, and a million expressions ran across Pidge’s face as she tried to mumble out an answer, turning around to head somewhere in the back, looking for that thread and needle. Keith had a hand to his mouth, unsure of how to even react but Koli looked miserably embarrassed enough that he kept his eyes down and on the bottle he was holding, looking for an excuse—
“Hey, can anyone turn the TV volume up?” — like that. Keith threw a response over his shoulder, face still red as he leaned over the counter and grabbed the remote, looking up as he increased the volume.
There was a live news report playing on, and Keith listened to the reporter as he read the moving lines below. “—rteen hours ago. Eleven were confirmed dead, while forty-two more soldiers were injured during the explosion at—”
Both the bottle and the remote fell, the former catching on the edge of the top and breaking on hitting the ground. Keith didn’t really notice, no, he didn’t care at all as his vision tunneled out to the name of the base on the TV screen.
“What happened?” Pidge must have asked. Keith didn’t know, ice filling his veins. All heat was gone, and his hands started to tremble as the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
“Shiro.” The name came tumbling out. “Shiro’s base. Bomb—there was—his base. Shiro.”
Keith doesn't really remember much about what happened after. There must have been stumbling, and he does remember running into the bar's restroom and heaving his guts out on the toilet, on his knees, uncaring of God-knows-what has been on the floor. He tried to stop, he really did. It was getting hard to breathe, and his stomach was hurting and the bile in his mouth started getting to his head and he felt close to fainting.
Bomb. Bomb. Bomb. Bomb. Shiro was in that base, there was a bomb. There were dead people. He could be dead. Keith placed his hand over his mouth, but the vomit came spewing out and through his fingers. It wasn’t even disgusting anymore — only saliva left his mouth, there was nothing left in his stomach.
He didn’t know how to stop.
"What's wrong?" Pidge kept asking, hand on his back and pushing his hair up as he vomited.
"Shiro. Shiro was in that base." He managed to stutter out, and Pidge's face falls. He tried hard not to break, his vision blurring as the warmth that had been around him all month long turned to stone, all air gone from his lungs. It was so hard to breathe, and it was so difficult to think of anything else but finding Shiro’s dead body—
No light in his silver eyes, no warm smile quirking the corners of his mouth. Nobody walking down the airplane ramp, a hand up as he waved at Keith.
A body bag, no name tag, dumped in a hospital somewhere.
Keith felt the saliva run down his chin as he dry-heaved.
"H-He could be fine, he might not have been injured." She tried to reassure him, but he shakes his head, too terrified to even think of it a second longer. "We'll call them, alright? We'll make sure, okay?"
Keith can only close his eyes, breathe through his mouth like a dog. His hand, disgusting and wet, vomit and spit and shit and whatever else was on the ground sticking to his skin and nails, grasped at his chest.
(He grips the dog tag too tight, and he can't think of anything else or he'll feel like the ground disappeared from under him and he can't hold on to anything.)
Keith doesn't know how Pidge does it - maybe she's just amazing like that, because she calls the Military Affairs office and they don't hang up on her. The bar is empty — Pidge must have asked everyone out, he’s not sure. That’s bad for business. He should just go, he’s making it worse by staying here, he’s now affecting Pidge’s bar. He doesn’t know how to walk though, not when he feels like he’s going to slip and break his skull the moment he tries to.
It takes everything he has to keep himself up right, leaning against the arm of one of the booth couches.
There were car lights streaking by, blurred out scatters of red and yellow, indistinct through the fog of the glass windows. He didn’t really care — all he could think of was the way his stomach continued to upend and tumble, his hands didn’t know how to stop shaking and if he breathed too loud, and said a word, he might break.
Pidge slipped into the booth he was in, and he turned to her. He wanted to apologize, ask her to call her customers back. He can just go home, if he can find his way, but he couldn’t stay here and burder her even more.
He didn’t do any of that — his entire body froze as he took in Pidge’s expression. Brows furrowed, worry in her eyes, she took his hand and squeezed.
It felt like a million knives stabbed themselves into his skin.
"He was too close to the explosion and they had to fly him to a proper hospital, but he's alive."
Keith didn’t move, didn’t even breathe. He looked at Pidge, trying to see if she was lying — if she was just saying that to make him feel better, to ease his worry. She stared back, eyes worried but not looking away.
Then, like the final crack in the stone base, Keith melted into her and sobbed, relief pouring out in waves.
He wakes up, three weeks later - and for the first day, he doesn't remember who he is, where he is - he doesn't remember anything at all. It’s that moment when he stared at the white ceiling and the shaded light bulb, and it took him a bit to realize the two were different from each other. It doesn't really matter, he was only awake for a minute before the painkillers kicked in.
The next time he's awake, three days down the end of the week, he wakes to find himself missing a right arm and Iverson's scream echoing in his head.
"Shiro?" He looks up at the man standing by his bed, at the army green uniform and the glasses. It was Major Holt.
"Mitch?" Shiro managed to croak out, still disbelieving, still unable to really understand and accept the phantom weight on the right side of his body. It felt different. Of course it was different.
That didn’t change the fact that it felt different. He couldn’t even find the right words to describe it — no anesthetic-borne synonym or painkiller-induced wit brought any sort of understanding. He felt like himself, but not. Whole, but not. There was a weight to it, but not and he’s not sure if there really is, or his body is just playing tricks on him. He’s not sure if it’s just his body, or his perception or if it’s both.
It looked...weird, only a chunk of his arm from the shoulder down left to it. Like an uncanny parody. That imagery of a doll when you pull its arm too tight and it breaks cleanly? It was like that, but not. When you break a doll’s arm away, it didn’t really make anyone feel weird. This looked just like that, so why can’t his mind comprehend it? Why was he staring holes into the bed sheet and not the chunk that was missing over it?
He can't wrap his mind around it. He can think it but he can't understand it. "Is Mitch okay?"
Major Holt doesn't say anything, looking over Shiro's body. Shiro tries to sit up, but the absence tips his balance over, and he's twisting to the right, a cry of pain out of his lips as the IV lines on his left arm are pulled. The weight, the proportions thrown out of place — everything felt wrong — and pain lanced up and down his arm and over his entire body. Like a million needles striking at his nerves in every fucking direction, like lightning coursing up and over the ice running down and the black-white flashing that threatened to leave him faint.
"Don't." He growled, through the tears, as Holt was about to steady him. His voice was barely louder than the ECG machine, but it grated at his throat like jagged spikes. "Don't touch me."
"Shiro," Holt's voice was gentle - reminiscent of a man speaking to an irate beast, "please take things slowly, alright? You're still injured. The wound’s still fresh, and you’ve only been fed fluids. Moving isn’t something you should—"
"Where," Shiro bellowed, or as much as his damaged throat could, as he sat back. The mere act of it took more air than what was in his lungs, and he started hacking. Sweat poured down the side of his face, and into his eyes, "is Mitch?"
The last image he had of Iverson was his best friend shielding him from the ensuing blast.
"Iverson's," Holt pauses, unsure. The pause has Shiro's insides turning to ice, and it takes everything he has to not get up and throw himself at the man. Please, please, please, please, please. He’s lost so much. He’s lost his family, he lost Adam, he lost his arm. He can’t lost Iverson, he can’t.
Holt clears his throat. "He's alive, but not out of the woods yet. He's in ICU."
"H-he's alive?" Shiro asks again, breathing too hard around the glass shards in his throat. It’s not just glass — but sand, and gunfire, grenade fragments and blood. It crunches in his throat, catches on the muscles lining around it and it scratches everything bloody and raw. It’s impossible to breathe, and he doesn’t know how to take all of it out.
He can't - he doesn't know what to do if Mitch isn't, if he's not—
Iverson was the only one to pick him up from the mess when Adam left him, Shiro can't deal if—
Holt's worried gaze lingers too long over Shiro's face. It’s not anger that spikes in Shiro — it’s terror and anxiety and loss. "ANSWER ME!"
It didn't matter that he was screaming at his commanding officer, it didn't matter that the ECG was beeping hard, it didn't matter that he was shaking from head to foot and he felt cold and hot all over. The glass shards break into sharper, tinier pieces that made it all the more impossible to remove. It swam in his veins, tearing cells and capillaries apart, and his heart beating sends thorns all over his body.
"Shiro," Holt said again, stepping close. "He's alive. It's okay, he's alive."
Shiro shook his head, vision blurring again, and he can't see Holt. He can't see the white walls of the room, or the red-yellow-green of the ECG monitor or the blue IV line. Everything is a dulled-out, too-bright and too-dark and too-unfocused miasma of so many colors — gold, red and blue and black and death and damp and disease. Everything hurts to see and the flash of the grenade, the terrible heat of the explosion, the slam of it against him, the spider web lines of broken glass and the sand piling over and over, slipping into the too-small places, catching in his lungs and drowning him from the inside out — it’s too much. Everything was too much.
Is this what he is? Loss? Is that what he’s all good for? Losing and losing and losing and losing and nothing and floating in emptiness and big, dark and empty and is that what’s waiting for him?
He felt too much, feeling too much and feeling nothing at all.
"You're lying," he mumbles wetly, through the tears. "You're lying."
He can't see Holt like this, and he can't see the space where his right arm should be. He can't see, oh my god he can't see what's happening, he can't see, is he going blind, why is everything wet and cold — he can't breathe, he can't breathe, someone help him breathe, help, help, it hurts, why does everything hurt so much, why can’t he make it stop hurting, it hurts too much, where’s his arm, why is he here, where’s Mitch, Mitch, Mitch, he can’t, he can’t see, too much flashing, too much black and white, why is it hot, why can’t he stop thinking , someone make him stop, stop, stop, stop—
"Shiro, breathe," A voice orders him, and Shiro automatically follows. He doesn't know if the hand on his back or the shoulder his face is pressed against is real, but the voice tells him to breathe.
He's good like that, he can follow orders like that. In and out, in and out. Five ounces in and a breath out. He’s used to following orders — he remembers now. He’s lived that life for so long, he can do it automatically. In and out. In and out. Back, ramrod straight. Arms on the sight. Eyes forward, no eye contact. Ignore the itch by his balls. In and out. Orders. Orders. Orders. Sir, yes, sir.
"Good, good, just keep breathing, alright?"
Shiro nods, following Holt's voice - even if snot runs down his nose, falls into the hook of his commander's uniform. Breathe. B-R-E-A-T-H-E. Six-letter words, air. Oxygen. Black and white fading, beeping normal. ECG. ECG. White. White.
In and out. Orders. Orders.
Sir, yes, sir.
Warm. Holt is warm. Breathing, breathe. Air, in. Air, out.
Holt smells like gunpowder and soot. Room smells like alcohol and death.
Six letters. Six letter words.
"Seven," there was a hint of a smile and an understanding tone. "Seven letters, Shiro. B-R-E-A-T-H-E."
Shiro paused, eyes still seeing grey and white, nodding.
"B-R-E-A-T-H-E. Seven. Seven. S-E-V-E-N."
He makes it through the word, and finishes with a sob that pulls his lungs out. Holt kept holding him the entire time, rocking him back and forth. Hands find his way over his back, and into his hair and holds him close. Holt hugs him too tight, and he’s not used to it but he doesn’t pull away. He doesn’t know how.
Pulling away is the furthest thing from his mind. Shiro doesn’t know how to hold back. How? One arm, only. How does one arm hold? It can’t. It can’t hold anything else, only what’s not there.
One arm can’t hold Keith.
One arm can’t hold Mitch.
One arm can’t even hold himself.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
Seven letters. I'm sorry.
Keith doesn't hear anything from Shiro for a while - a really long while. He's tried calling the office, but they won't give him details since he's not family. All he has to go on is Pidge's word that he's okay.
He feels too scared, too wound-up and too angry and heartbroken. Some days, he feels sick in his stomach. Other days, he wakes up cold and his hands shake and he's terrified of what will come knocking on his door.
The weeks run by so slowly, and it takes everything in Keith not to scream. He doesn’t know what’s happening over there, what’s happening to Shiro. Is he okay? Is he safe? Is he still in the hospital? What was hurt, how was he injured?
The questions that kept popping over and over were too restrictive. He couldn’t stay at home, surrounded by all the ‘what ifs’ and not finding a single resolution for any of it. He had to get out, had to go somewhere he could breathe and not feel like he’s drowning the moment he does.
How does he breathe again?
Keith bumped into so many people in the streets, laughing faces and smiling faces and none of them the one he wants to see. He looks over the flowers by the shop he passed by, and when he looks at the blues and vermillions — the only color he sees is scarlet dripping into the red.
Keith looked away, he had to. Otherwise, he’d have fallen and spilled what measly scrap he managed to scrounge up for breakfast.
Tall skyscrapers and busy city blocks slowly fade from his vision, movement sluggish as he walked forward. The city grew fainter and smaller and lonelier until what was left was only a lone road running up a slope towards the cliffs.
What was he going to do?
How did he breathe again?
The city does look amazing from this view. Steel-lined skyscrapers turning into stick-thin silvers, and the sea continues to rush into the shore. There’s no starlight, tonight. The clouds are heavy and overcast. It’s lonely, cold and no matter how much I pull the jacket closer, I can’t get warm. I want to keep my arms around me — hold tight — because if I don’t, I’m afraid I’ll never be able to pick up the pieces that come crumbling down. But I want to write, and I want to write to you and I’ll let the pieces fall and let the wind take them adrift and beyond the cliff’s edges.
Maybe they’ll fall into the ocean, where they’ll float on the wreckage and gravity will take them to where you are. Maybe if they do, a part of me will get to you. If they do — if they float to where you are, please send them back.
Send them back to me with an answer to my question. How do I breathe again?
It's like time doesn't really move when you're in that listless, languid limbo - Shiro finds. The stark whiteness of the walls remain the same, so does the absence of his right arm. Apparently, the repetition of 'Mr. Iverson's alive, but his condition is still unstable' can become its own mindless mantra. Shiro doesn't really find it in him to be surprised.
There was this feeling. Insidious. Silent. Deathly cold.
It gnawed at his insides, straggled up his veins and placed its vice-grip tight hands around his heart and squeezed until it drew blood. He had learned to live with it: live with the pain, live with the near-endless grasp in his chest — like inky darkness just oozing out of his pores and his skin — and know that each breath he took ended up drawing more and more of the ugliness out.
It’s staggering - painful - impossible to breathe through, on the nights where the sky resembled none of the nighttime blanket of stars but only an infinite road on the way to nowhere, on the nights where the shadows in the crevices and corners of the hospital room were pits he could fall into forever.
It’s a feeling he’s both familiar and unfamiliar with, a feeling that he knew better than most — in every tear-stricken sob he’s had to hold on to, with a letter pressed to his cheek, with that gaping maw bigger and deeper than anything he could imagine, the hacked-off phantom presence of what’s no longer there — in every subtle shake of the head and the crushing disappointment, the constant echoing of broken broken broken broken barrelling through the spaces between I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
It was loss.
It felt like loss. It feels like loss. It feels like the widening of a bullet-hole wound in his heart that’s grown to half his entire chest. It feels like earth slipping from under him, free-falling, no end in sight in. It’s loss and it isn’t. It’s the needle-sharp precision of an acute absence and the blunt echo that thrummed across every skin of his body. He’s not sure. Shiro’s not sure of anything anymore.
Holt visits. Every day, almost.
Shiro, before, would have been heartened by that. Their commanding officer was a family man, and he got too attached to his subordinates. There are bags under Holt's hazel eyes, and he has a letter in his hand.
"This came for you. It's from the garrison penpal service, from a Keith Kogane."
Shiro eyes the letter, heart in his throat, need and want and fear pushing him up to reach with his right hand and—
It had been the only thing that kept him moving, going – kept the ugly head of regret from clogging his veins, kept the ice from reaching his heart and turning it to stone as each step had taken him forward and onwards, sifting sand and kaleidoscope auroras and the north star heralding him home.
His shoulder moves pathetically, but no arm comes up.
Shiro stills, and he looks away and refuses to say a word about the envelope.
He could hear Holt sigh - in frustration, maybe. Shiro doesn't really care. He can't find it in him to care about what his commanding officer—
Fuck. Ex-commanding officer. A laugh wants to escape him but he's terrified of how it'll sound like.
(ugly, pathetic, worthless, unimportant, useless, liability, half, incomplete, shut up, sHuT Up, SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP)
("I can't wait to see you." Keith once said, and Shiro felt like it was only the two of them in the world.)
Keith doesn't want to see a broken man. He doesn't want to see Shiro carrying the broken, bloody pieces of he used to be over his shoulder.
Keith doesn't deserve that. He deserves someone who could come home to him, hold him with both hands - without the worry or the fear that he'll let go. Shiro can't give him that, not anymore. He's just half of what he was, carrying a ghost of what's no longer there surrounded by his own fucking ruin, looking up at the white ceiling light and wondering if death was kinder.
You have to eat more, Keith. Lance once said. Shiro would want you to take care of yourself.
Keith had nodded, promised he would. The only thing sitting in his stomach was coffee. He was this close to throwing it up, but he holds it back in.
Everything was greyed out, blank — lackluster. The sun failed to warm him, and the sounds of the birds chirping above failed to reach him. Everything was unfocused, distant. It took minutes for things that should only take seconds to reach him.
A chair is pulled back from a table near his, and he doesn’t really hear the sound until much later, where he jumps in his seat and stares wide-eyed at the thing.
Allura had immediately known something was wrong the moment he walked in, when he stood by the counter for minutes without saying a single thing. He did that a lot, now.
He’d sit on the one of the chairs outside, and he’d look out and watch the cliffs in the distance. Keith would blink, and he’d look up as Allura stood beside him, hand on his shoulder — concern in her gaze — and he’d realize that the sun had already set.
“At least a bite?” She prodded, and Keith looked from her eyes to the fork she was pointing in his direction. He wanted to say no, refuse, shake his head but he’s tired of arguing.
He took a bite of the chicken pot pie she offered and chewed. Keith couldn’t taste anything.
He drank the now-cold coffee and he tasted only cement.
Is this how loss felt like?
Is this hacked-off absence, the bone-deep phantom clinging to his skin and dulling his senses, siphoning the color and wonder away until what’s left was just a repetition of why why why why why — is this loss?
The questions that had gone so long, still unanswered, had festered and turned to rot. A month had passed, and still no news from Shiro.
Keith’s seen the reports, and he’s read the papers. The base was now being repaired, and they were expecting it to be back up and running in another month. Shiro’s name was not in the obituaries.
He checked it, every day. The newspaper is cold under his hand, just like the coffee and the pie.
“Keith,” he looks up at Allura. She’s hazy in his vision — and he feels his eyes wet. “You’re always welcome here, no matter what, but it’s pretty late. Do you want to head home?”
It struck him then, on a glance at his watch, that it was already nearing ten in the evening. Citrella opened at six and closed eight. Regret and shame filled the absence and Keith stood, voice wobbly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t notice. I didn’t mean to make you stay longer—”
The shame covered every inch of his skin, and Keith blinked away the sting in his eyes as he grabbed the newspaper and the unwritten letters, crumpling them and trying to fit them into the pockets of his jacket. Jesus Christ, he didn’t mean to—
“It’s okay,” Allura took hold of his hands, stopping him in his frantic movements. Keith nods at her, refusing to meet her eyes. He was afraid all she’d see was the shame pouring out. “Hey, hey, it’s okay, alright. I mean it.”
Her tone was forgiving, and she squeezed his hands tight.
Forgiveness tasted like soot, and it crumbled into dust in his hands.
There are a million things I should have told you.
A day turned into two, and two turned into a week and the weeks turn to months that feel like years. Before you, before all this — I was fine being alone. I was fine being by myself. I was fine knowing that there was nobody out there wondering about me, thinking about me, asking about me, the same way I wondered about you and thought about you and asked about you. I wasn’t lonely, but I was alone and it had been okay.
Then you came into my life, with the full force of a star, and I was left blind. Lance tells me that I should let things go, accept that life happens and not everything happens the way it happens — but he also tells me to hold on to hope, because you’re alive and you’re out there, and you may not be able to write back. I wish that were true, and I hope that were true. I have to — to think otherwise would be too much.
You’ve become so ingrained into my life, it’s become impossible for me to think of it without you. There’s an imprint in my wallet where your graduation photo rests. It’s what I pull out when I feel like I’m about to fall apart when I think of the pain and the hurt, and then the shame of it comes like an avalanche because you’re out there, hurt, and it terrifies me.
I wish I could run to you. I wish I could step out my door and put one foot after the other, keep it going because that’s what every great epic ever written was all about, right? Putting one foot after the other, and I’ll keep doing it — over and over — until the city asphalt turned to earth turned to water and snow and desert sand.
I wish I could run to you, and hold you and keep you safe. Jesus Christ, it hurts to know I can’t and I can only squeeze my hands tight until my palms bleed and suck in a breath so hard, it’s the only way I can keep going. I wish I could come to you, to protect you — to make sure nothing ever hurts you again.
I wish I could. I can’t. I can’t and the unfairness of it all has me waking up at night with my fingernails scratching on my chest because it’s sitting too heavy on it and makes it impossible to breathe.
Why can’t I protect you? Why can’t I run to you? Why can’t I breathe at the thought of losing you?
The days go by, the doctors come and prod and prick at his wound. "Amputation was clean, neat," they said. "Once it's healed, there'll barely be any scars."
Barely? His entire body was one fucking scar as bright as a red light in the middle of a dark sky.
The letters pile up, and every time he sees them, his heart gallops and turns to stone at the same time - there's no fucking scientific explanation because it hurts, and it wants and he hurts and he wants and they just don't get, he just doesn't get it— why does this happen?
He doesn't really talk anymore, not even when Major Holt swings by the hospital. He doesn't visit as often as he had before. Shiro's heard that the base repairs were finishing up, and soon, Holt will have to get back full-time.
He can hear the pity in the man's voice. More than that, he hears the pain.
"Son," Holt breathed, and Shiro bit his lip at the rawness of the major's voice, "please let me help you."
It takes everything in Shiro not to turn around and cry out for him when Holt had to leave.
It's better this way.
Two months and a week had gone, and none of the days carried a word from Shiro. Newspaper obituaries had long become a permanent residence in his trash can, none of them containing the name ‘Takashi Shirogane’. There were some names, from soldiers he did not recognize but came from the same base — but that had been three weeks ago. There were no new deaths from the garrison after. Only eleven were confirmed dead, and eleven names Keith’s read. That meant Shiro was alive, at the very least.
Was he injured? Too injured to write back? Was it impossible for him to write back?
Or was he alright now? If he was, why didn’t he write back? Where did he go?
Pidge kept telling him that it must be the former, that Shiro must have been too injured and it stopped him from writing back. Keith would like to believe that — he honestly would, and he wants to.
But summer was about to end, and autumn was ready to set in. He’s almost forgotten what it was like to feel warm, and each day that got crossed off the calendar set the cold deeper in.
Keith’s managed to scrounge a bit of routine, a bit of sanity into his life. He’d do the same things he’s always done, and on Sundays — when his body automatically readies to prepare to head to the post office — he shuts his eyes tight, ignores the weight on his chest and tries to go back to sleep.
He goes to Pidge’s bar every Friday, with Lance by his side and Pidge at the counter and he sees none of it and hears none of it. He goes home, tab paid — his friends’ worried glances growing heavier — and he didn’t even realize he had not taken a single sip.
He still keeps his apartment clean, of course. He goes grocery shopping every Tuesday. He sends his articles on time. He still functions — but just so. He just functions. He just exists.
The only time he feels alive is when he pulls the paper out and writes all the things he should have said when he had the chance and it’s only then that he feels his heart beating. A page turned to two, and into ten and he kept going. He had missed his chance, before.
Maybe this way, he can pretend he still has one.
Holt doesn't visit anymore, called back to the base, and days at the hospital turned to weeks to months. Everything is still, fragile - crystalline. If he breathes too loudly, it'll break. He's safe in this limbo where questions are unanswered, unasked, unthought.
Shiro can walk around now, and the doctors are setting him up for physical therapy when he gets back home. They'd still like to keep him for a few more weeks, for observation. Shiro doesn't really care.
But now that he can walk, he can stand and he can step close.
He can almost reach out and grab hold of the letters with one hand.
Why does it hurt to touch it, then? Why does the spike of hurt ache in him like someone ran a truck through his chest and left him for dead?
It's been two months, now. Keith must have moved on. He must have. He should.
It's better this way.
The park bench was cold under him — most things were to Keith lately. Lavender skies, stars clear through the gaps in the sunset-tinged clouds. A long line of trees stood before him, but above the dancing leaves and branches, he could make out the Wonderwheel. It moved slowly, up and down and up and down.
There was something comforting about that — about the constant movement.
In his hands were two tickets to the carnival, today’s date. People passed by him, families going to the fair or leaving it. Children laughing, carrying cotton candy and over-sized teddy bears. A couple took a seat on the bench next to his, and he watched their ice cream drip into their fingers. The guy laughed, holding it away with one hand while he held his girlfriend’s hand, bringing her knuckles to his lips as he cleaned the ice cream off them.
Keith looked away, standing. He stuffed his hand into his pocket, and threw the tickets into the next garbage bin he could come across.
(He did this yesterday and the day before, and today, and tomorrow — he’ll buy two tickets, and sit on the bench and wait for someone no longer coming home.)
The door opens, and Shiro breathes out. The doctors and nurses have been bursting in and out of his room over and over, it was beginning to piss him off.
"Can I please have some time alone?" He asks, in a voice that brooked no argument.
"Fucking deal with it."
Shiro jumps at Iverson's voice, unsteady on his feet.
Iverson is thinner than he last remembered. He was in a wheelchair, half of his chest in bandages, hair shaved bald and incision marks by his temple. The nurse pushing him looks between them for a moment, before she tells him to call for her when he wants to leave.
Shiro doesn't really care about that.
All he's seeing is the space where Iverson's right leg was supposed to be.
"We make a sight, don't we?" Iverson commented, eyeing Shiro's absent right arm.
He can't really recall who said what, or who started first, but Shiro remembers falling to his knees and pressing his face against Iverson's shoulder and crying his guts out. If the arms around him, tight enough to squeeze the living daylights out of him, were any indication - he wasn't the only one.
Somewhere in between, an apology was asked and an apology was given.
Keith stopped in his tracks, pausing to look up at the cafe to his right. It was older looking, but homey. Whitewashed walls, clear glass panes, French windows. Little series lights hung from the arch above the door, next to wooden bird boxes and wind chimes. Was this the cafe Shiro talked to him about?
He stepped back, and peeked in and eyed the glass display at the far end of the room. There were strawberry petit-fours on top of porcelain plates, distinct even from this far away.
Keith swallowed the lump in his throat, and kept his gaze down, walking away.
"Why haven't you read them yet?" Iverson asked, one morning. They were in Shiro's room, the TV was on but nobody was paying it attention.
"You think I haven't tried?" Shiro asked back, voice bitter. "It hurts, Mitch. It fucking hurts."
A hand grabs his as Shiro's about to turn away, for Iverson not to see how much he's been crying over the past few days, the past few weeks — every fuckign day in the last three months — every time the letters catch in his vision.
The image of Keith waiting and worrying, bright eyes dimming until they’re miserable, and that small smile long gone and replaced with a tired frown that lent pain on his features, it plays over and over in his head every time he fails to pick a letter up. It kills Shiro, it wrings the air from his throat and lungs and it makes him want to tear his hair out and punch the wall until it breaks or until he breaks. Either.
Keith was a bright star, his Polaris and Betelgeuse and north star. He was the Venus in the sky just when dawn was crawling in, and the polaroid photo he kept by the table beside him, next to the pamphlets of prosthetics that made him want to bash his head into the floor. Keith deserved more than the broken hands and the missing arm and what Shiro is, was, and isn’t.
He’d be better off without Shiro, who was lost and kept on losing and losing and losing.
But, God, does the thought fucking hurt — a fucking truck’s weight of bricks hitting him point-blank, a hundred-tonne agony that outclassed any tank in density running him over.
Seared together as a bitter “ whoever gets to love you better fucking deserve it, Keith Kogane ” wraps its tightrope wire around his throat and cut it open.
"It's supposed to hurt," Iverson's voice was rough, and the hand around Shiro's locked him from pulling away. "It's supposed to hurt, because you care about him and you miss him. It's supposed to hurt, because you're only human, and you feel guilty and you think letting yourself feel all this hurt is your way of looking for forgiveness. You can't change anything that's happened, Shiro. You can’t unmake the bomb, and you can’t give me back my leg and your arm."
"If I had been faster," Shiro's voice echoed in the room, bouncing off the walls, angry and bitter and ashamed and just missing Keith so much it broke his words into sob-ridden mewls and gasps. "You wouldn't be in that wheelchair. How is that fair, huh? HUH?"
"It's NOT!" Iverson roared back, and Shiro jumped but Iverson kept his grip on him, pulled him close until Shiro found himself pressed against his best friend’s shoulder. "It's not fucking fair! But it is what it is, and if it meant I get to save my best friend's ass, I'd do it again and again!"
Maybe that was it, once everything was in the air.
“It didn’t have to be this way.” Shiro mumbled, breathing the words out and into Iverson’s hospital gown.
“I know,” the other responded, keeping his grip firm, but the fingers of his other hand swept through Shiro’s hair, comforting. “But it did. Things don’t change just because it’s tearing us apart. It won’t bring back what’s gone.”
Shiro pulled away, brows furrowing as he gestured angrily at Iverson’s legs. “How can you say that so easily?”
The other didn’t say anything for a moment — and it took Shiro that pause to realize the wetness in his best friend’s eyes, or how the grip on his shoulder was trembling just a bit, as if by keeping Shiro together, Iverson could keep himself in one piece.
“It’s not easy.” It was the only thing Iverson said and it struck Shiro then. The fear of never being enough for his family, the terror at knowing he might never be able to share a soccer game or run with his son, or that he can no longer stand and put his arms around his son, put Josh over his shoulders like any proud father would.
Shiro loses the fight in him.
"I'm so scared, Mitch. What if he doesn't want me anymore? Look at me, at us. I’m just half of what he could have had. He doesn’t deserve crumbs, Mitch. He deserves—"
Keith deserved the world, deserved a man who could be there for him — through thick and thin — a man that could keep him up without asking for help. Shiro didn’t think he was that man. He might have been, once, but the absence on his right answered that question by itself.
Iverson doesn't let go of his hand. "Then he's an idiot."
"But I assume he's not," the other man continues. "I know you're not. If you're so scared, we'll do it together, then. We got through military, together. We got through Adam, together. We’ll get through this, together."
Shiro breathes, vision blurry. Iverson’s grip was tight, and it kept him on the ground — not lost in the a deluge of despair.
“And if Keith doesn’t want you anymore, we’ll get through this — together.”
Once, twice. Shiro nodded, squeezing his hand back.
Iverson takes hold of one letter, the earliest, with one hand and opens it.
"Oh." Iverson paused, reading the first paragraph. "Boy, you're gonna want to read this."
He gets the letter, three months later.
He's numb, and he's scared and he's feeling too many things and nothing at the same time.
For months, he’s waited for this. For months, he’s crawled and staggered and jumped over hot coals and dragged himself for hope — an inkling of hope, any kind of hope. Everyday, the sight of the post office takes a bit more out of him, takes one more piece that leaves him feeling less and less. Every Sunday, Matt’s despondent look has him running back to his apartment before his legs give way.
The letter is here, now, and Keith feels like he’s about to throw up, cry, scream, rip it apart, burn it and press it against his chest and sob until he’s numb.
It's from Lt. Takashi Shirogane, but it's typed out - printed. There's none of his charming penmanship, or the heart-shaped doodles on the borders. He can't breathe right — he’s forgotten how, and the letter is one more ton over a chest that’s long stopped beating.
An excerpt from Keith's letter, read by Takashi Shirogane as he puts a hand to his mouth and leans against Iverson:
I heard the news.
I can’t even begin to describe the fear in me when I learned what happened. I can’t even remember half of what I did the moment I knew.
All I could think about is that you were there, and I was here and there was nothing I could do.
I didn’t want to think of losing you and knowing that I wasn’t able to say half, if not all, of what I wanted to.
It’s funny how I never realized how strong you’ve intertwined yourself into my life. I’m a hundred things at first sight, and a hundred more the moment you look away. All I could think about when I think of myself now is simple:
Twenty-three. Purple. Waiting for you.
I think of the last one, and my heart’s a drum that doesn’t know how to stop marching.
It gets louder when I catch sight of you in that polaroid.'
Shiro's eyes blink too fast as he heads to the nurse's station, asking for help. For Major Holt's number. For the major. A letter is clutched in his hand.
'I think of all the ways I could have cherished you more.
Sundays pass, and all I could think of is your letter waiting for me at the post office. Funny how it’s become routine now – and it’s a part of my life that I can no longer imagine living without.
I could have written you more, sent you more comic books, sent you more photos.
Come home, please.
I want to cherish you the best way I know how: I want to touch your shoulder hello. I want to call you those endearments you call me and watch as red overtake your cheeks. I don’t know if I can, if I’m allowed to do that.
You are the first that I want to do that with.
I’ve been so scared of that realization – that I withheld everything I wanted to say because of it.
I want to know how your eyes look when the four PM sunlight catches on them from my bedroom window.
I want to know how your skin smells when I press my nose against the crease where your neck and shoulder meet. Would you smell like pinewood, or granite after the rain? Would the desert stick to your skin, bringing with it a million stories we can talk over all night long – for all nights we can have together?
I wish we could. I hope we could. I want that we could.
Would your laughter really sound like church bells, the way it did when I first heard it over that phone call? I sometimes stare out of my window just when the sun is about to rise, and all I can see is the silver of your eyes and your smile and your laughter. You move me, in so many ways and in such depth, I can’t even begin to describe it. Is this what beauty sounds like?
You’re beautiful, in the most simple and most complicated ways. You have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen, your voice plays lyres and keys in my soul and your words have me finally comprehending what love-dumb metaphors mean.
And you’re just beautiful – in the way that you make me want to know you all the more, with stumbling, shaky, love-dumb fingers. If you’d let me, I’d cherish you forever.'
Shiro tries to keep his wits about him, trying not to sound too frantic or insane. Iverson just laughs from the side while a confused Major Holt sits in front of a computer and starts typing whatever Shiro's saying.
A letter lies on top of a packed bag.
'I know that I don’t know you.
I know that there will be a part of you I’ll never be able to understand.
You’re living on one side of the world, and I’m here and all I could ever hope for or want is miles away.
I’m scared, but at the same time, I’m not. I have hope.
I dream of you, and in the morning, I’m not afraid to wake because I know you’ll never turn to salt and fade. You linger in places I never even knew existed in me, and you breathe air into the veins that have long dried over.
Is this what love feels like?
I don’t know.
I have never loved someone before, not in the whirlwind way, the tempestuous way. Not in the way that poets and writers have, that cause them to spill litanies and sonnets from ink-stained fingers on papyrus scrolls.
But if it is, I would want it to be you.
I would want to love you.
If you’d let me, I’d love you.'
'Keith, I'm sorry that it's taken me this long to write to you. I'm sure, by now, you've heard of what happened. I can say 'don't worry' but I know you did, and I can't imagine what you're feeling right now. I can't even begin to apologize for what I put you through. I could write a thousand words — all of them iterations of the same fucking useless phrase: ‘I’m sorry’ — and I know it won’t be enough.
It all happened too fast, and before I knew it, I was waking up in a hospital three weeks later. I'm so sorry, baby. I'm so sorry for worrying you, and I'm so sorry for not getting to you sooner. I just. I'm just a mess, Keith. I don't know how I'll ever face you like this. It’s not an excuse — it’s not an excuse for what you’ve had to go through, and I’m not asking you to forgive me. I don’t have the right.
I wanted to get you this letter as fast as I could but I don't know what to say, what to tell you. I pull your photo out when the hospital room gets too lonely, and when my commander tells me that some of my squad mates didn't make it and it feels too difficult to even breathe. There’s a mountain inside me, and it’s poison and thorns and everything horrible. I’m not the man I used to be — and there’s a part of me I’ll never be able to get back.
I’m half a man, half of what’s deserving of you. God, I wanted to be that man. Jesus Christ, I want to be that man so fucking much I can’t sleep at night because the hurt and the pain keeps me awake, even when they pump me full of drugs to put me under. I can’t feel numb, I thought I could. I hoped I could, because feeling numb means I won’t have to die every day at the thought of someone else getting to hold you, to touch you, to kiss you — the idea that someone else could spend the rest of their life loving you and being loved by you and it’s not me. It kills me. It kills me because I want it so much, even when I don’t have the right to it anymore.
But I can’t stop. I can’t stop wanting and needing you. I know I don’t have the right anymore, but I can’t. Tell me, please, how do I unlove you? How do I pretend that you’re not everything I want to be with right now? How do I keep on going knowing that I shouldn’t be around you — when I’m no longer a hundred miles away, but somewhere I could bump into one morning?
They're sending me home next week, this Friday. I've been discharged because of my injury. I don't know what that means for me, or what I'm gonna do next. I just - I just don't know, Keith. I wish you were here right now, even if I should feel ashamed to ask for it, for what I’ve done to you. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I love you so much, it aches, and I know I don’t deserve you.
But, God, I want to. I want to be deserving of you. I want to be the man that could hold you up, give you the world — be the one to hold your hand and kiss you on the lips and make love to you every fucking day for the rest of my life. It’s selfish of me to ask, and it’s wrong but, Christ, I want to be that man. Please, give me one last chance to be that man.
Please, give me that one chance to prove to you that I can be that man, that I can be the one you can wake up to in the morning and every morning after and I’m the man you go to bed with at night, and every night and that I’m the man that will be with you through hell and back and through every second you need and want me.
Please give me one chance. It’s all I ask. I’m coming home this Friday.
There are no doodles on the margins, no little drawings or smiley that Shiro would have done. There are spots on the letter, though, mingling with characters. Dried out. Teardrops. A schedule is set next to it — the time of Shiro’s flight. There’s another envelope, thicker than the rest.
There’s a line on it, still printed out. Letters I should have sent long ago, letters I thought I was not brave enough for.
When Keith finishes, the sun has set and the tears have not stopped running.
“Idiot.” He growled, voice hoarse and broken. “Idiot. Fucking idiot. Fucking, fucking idiot.”
He holds the letter to his chest, and all the pain — the pain, the heartache, the anxiety and shame, the regret and the loneliness, the months-long terror — all of it took wing, and soared into the night.
He takes a breath of air, and another — and he finally remembers how to breathe again.
Keith doesn't know how he manages it but when he visits the office to drop the letter, Matt walks out of the counter and pulls him into his arms. "I heard. You're here, so that means he's okay."
His voice is choked and Keith nods and keeps breathing right.
You’re the only one I want. There’s nobody else, not now, not ever.
I'll be waiting on Friday, in the airport. I’ll be waiting, every day, until you’re home — until I get to wake up in the morning to you, until I get to fall asleep at night beside you and with my arms around you and until I get to hold you, kiss you on the lips and make love to you every day for the rest of my fucking life.
There’s nobody but you.
I love you.
"Get 'im, alright?" Iverson says, raising a fist to bump into Shiro's side.
"I'll see you there in two months. You better have your shit sorted out or I'll wear your guts as a necklace." Shiro laughs, and it's wet and free. People around were boarding the plane.
He still finds it awkward, the balance and the gait, and it's hard to shake off the stares from people around him.
He steps close and hugs Iverson.
"I'll see you there, Mitch."
"Hey, don't start crying on me." He grumbled, letting Shiro go.
"Okay," Shiro agreed. "I'll cry when your wife decides to kill you for making her worry with that stunt."
A look of fear ran across his best friend's face, and Shiro had to stifle a laugh. "You think it'd be better if I changed my identity and live here?"
Friday comes, the sun is bright and the sky is clear. It's warm out, but Keith doesn't feel that as he stands in the airport's waiting area.
Shiro's flight was set to arrive at 1:15 PM. It was 1:30.
A throng of passengers walk out to the waiting area with their baggage, and the murmur of the crowd grows. Families are reunited, a daughter runs up to hug her mother. Lovers kiss once they're in each other's arms. All around him, people re-affixing the missing pieces in them.
There’s only one person who could fill that empty space in him. There could be nobody else.
Takashi Shirogane left a hole that shape of him inside Keith, and in a minute or two, he’ll be here.
The plane ride on the way home was relatively boring. The usual thing, bags up, seat belts locked, some asshole deciding to fart instead of going to the restroom. Funny how his heart was hammering all the way, hand clutching the last letter he got from Keith.
"He loves me." Shiro whispered to himself. He’s been whispering the same thing ever since they left the hospital — that same disbelieving tone. It hasn’t sunk in yet — hasn’t even dented the tip of the iceberg of the whole fucking thing, but it staggers him all the same.
Shiro whispers it again. A passing stewardess paused to turn to him, but he shook his head.
Keith loves him. Love. LOVE. L-O-V-E. Present tense, singular. Keith (noun) loves (verb) him (object). Subject verb agreements. SVA.
Keith loves him.
And he loves Keith.
("He won't." Shiro pauses. "He doesn't love you.
He'll take one look at your missing arm and think 'no, that's not a can of worms I wanna get into' and he'll run as far away from you as possible." You're damaged goods, you're broken, and you’re secondhand smoke and a cancer—)
There’s nobody but you. I love you.
Funny how everytime Shiro thinks of that line, all his demons vanish. He asked for a chance, and he had gotten the world instead.
When the plane lands, the rest of the cabin stand and rush to exit the craft. Shiro's content to wait until everyone was gone - trying to give himself the courage to actually do something.
Keith was here. Keith was here, and he was just meters away. Not miles, not anymore.
He's been broken and beaten, and he's had to crawl through all the miles of the distance.
Shiro's here, now and just the gravity of it all. How after everything that's happened, after jumping off the edge of a mountain, everything is just zilch. Nonaction.
The sun continued to shine, the sky was blue and when he stood, the earth continued to keep him up. Life went on.
The realization has his mind spiraling — after all the shit and tar and ugliness, things just kept on. The world continued to revolve, and his life had spiralled out of his hands and back into them, a whole new being in its place, and people just kept walking.
One foot after the other, like every fucking great epic written in the past — just one step after the other. Runway tarmac to granite and into waiting room tiles, and finally — into Keith’s arms.
Where he belonged.
He makes it to the waiting area, where a hundred people are reunited. All around him, love affairs and he can't really fault them, not when there's only one face he needed to see.
He clutches the letter, tight, in his hand.
Please, please, please.
A lone figure makes up the tail end of the group. He's taller than the rest, larger than life. A military jacket is over his shoulders, a backpack over his left. He's walking slowly, eyes on the ground and it's such a stark difference to the photo burning a hole in his pocket.
He’s everything Keith’s imagined, and more. He’s every dream Keith’s had, and a personification of everything he’s wanted, and more. He’s mere steps away, and it’s both the shortest and longest thing he’s ever had to walk through.
There are too many faces, too many voices and maybe the explosion damaged his sight or hearing because he can't seem to spot Keith's face and he only heard his voice once and maybe he had it confused—
Shiro stops, looks up, and sees him.
Dark hair in a braid, resting over the red jacket. Purple-mauve eyes positively glowing. He looks — Jesus, he looks better than all the fantasies he’s had, all the dreams he’s wanted to linger in. Better than the photos, than the aurora-bright starry skies and the wide moon glowing like a goddess. He’s everything Shiro’s wanted and wants, and everything he’s crawled through and up and at and he’s here, and he’s a pace and a heartbeat away, and Shiro just needs him
Shiro just needs him and loves him and wants him.
The bag falls from his shoulder — he doesn't give a shit — because he just needs Keith—
Keith finally notices — the right sleeve of his jacket hanging listlessly by the side, and the awkward way Shiro holds himself up as he walks up — because Keith will recognize him anywhere and everywhere, no matter what.
All of it hits him then, and there. The distance, the length, the months of silence and fear and doubt and the terror Shiro confessed and admitted to in that one letter, the letter that Keith will hold on to with the full force of a supernova, with searing-red hands and fire-lined heart and just so much fucking love.
The man looks up, and Shiro's taupe eyes scan the crowd, hope vivid in the sadness in them, looking for someone who promised to be there. He’s beautiful. He’s beautiful and perfect and I love him. I love him.
Keith takes a step forward, and Shiro's eyes snap to him.
It's funny how life operates: how time stops the moment you least expect it, or that a simple letter could kickstart your heart into the adventure of a lifetime.
Funny how Keith's never expected anything from it, the moment he first got that address.
Because that one second it took, for their eyes to find the other - Keith's heart had jumped, tumbled, crawled and staggered through the waves and finally found safe harbor.
He whispers a name - 'Shiro' - and he's running into his arms.
— and Keith tumbles and crashes into him, like a freighter truck's weight and somehow, when the pieces fall - they fall in place, set in the shapes they belong.
He's come home.
Shiro's bag doesn't even make it to the ground when Keith barrels into him. An arm wraps itself around his waist, pulls him too tight - so tight, it should hurt, right? This shouldn't be comfortable at all, right – and a shaky breath escapes the chest his face is pressed against.
Are his own arms tight around Shiro's? Is it hurting him? If so, he's not saying anything. Keith's not saying anything. There's nothing to be said at all, and it's funny how his heart, that's been skipping and stuttering for so long, starts beating normally in his chest.
Everyone else fades into the background, he literally hears none of their noise - no chatter, laughter or tears. He's breathing deep, and Shiro's warm and he feels it through the jacket, like a candle that refused to go out. He feels Shiro breathing against his ear - and it's wobbly, wet and it sounds too rough to be comfortable but Shiro's arm doesn't let up.
He doesn't let Keith go.
Maybe a minute passed, or maybe an entire lifetime did.
Maybe none of it ever mattered, but when Keith decides to part with just the thinnest of spaces, a sliver of a sliver and he looks up at Shiro's too bright, too wet eyes, he's run out of words.
(It's easy to say that things will be alright, that this is just one bump on the road to a happy ending. It's easy to THINK to say that, he corrects himself. The absence on Shiro's right is something they'll have to get to, eventually.)
It's not going to be pretty, and for most things in life, Keith's known that it rarely comes in pretty forms and shapes. He doesn't know how they'll go from here, or what he'll do or how he'll even begin dealing with all this.
But Shiro is here, and he's warm and he's real and he's alive. He's here and the light plays off the taupe-silver in his eyes, and the scar over his nose is healing and when his eyes fall to the dog tag hanging from Keith's neck, the grip around his waist tightens.
"You're wearing it." Shiro says, whispers. His voice is too low, but Keith hears it across every cell and vein and nerve in his being like lightning rout through synapses afire.
"Always." Keith answers, and it's funny how he used to be so scared of this.
But not with Shiro, never with him. For the first time in his life, his heart's beating well in its groove in between his lungs.
Shiro blinks again, too fast, and he says nothing of the sniffling, or how he turns his head away for a moment but Keith reaches up gently turns his cheek back to look at him in the eyes.
"Let's go home."
Shiro nods, and he picks his bag up with his left arm, a bit awkward, still adjusting to the changes. Keith waits, patiently, and he stills himself even when he wants to do it for Shiro.
This is a mountain Shiro will have to climb, one day, and Keith can't pretend to understand or know how it feels like - what he can do is promise himself to be there when Shiro feels like falling to his knees.
He intertwined his fingers with Shiro's. The other pauses, looking at their joined hands with such a heartrendingly vulnerable look on his face that Keith has to bite his lips.
He tugs at their hands and Shiro looks up, smiling that one smile - so reminiscent of that photo.
In spite of what's happened, that Shiro is still here. Beaten, and broken, and burned - but not buried this time.
Another tug has Keith turning back, and there's a shyness on Shiro's face and he's walking closer.
"I, uh." Shiro starts, flushing red, and God, he looks so beautiful like that. Keith can't even begin to describe, and it's a wonder his eyes haven't failed him then. Shiro shone with the full force of a newborn star. Shiro breathes in deep, and takes a step closer. This close, they're pressed - chest to chest, heart to heart.
"I know I said this in the letter but you deserve to hear it from me, from my lips," Shiro disentangles his hand and his fingers wrap oh so gently over Keith's nape, thumb over his jaw.
"I love you."
Keith blinks once, twice - maybe a third time. He's not sure. What he's sure of, though, is that the smile on his face is painfully wide, the scent of cedar and sandalwood slides in deep and Shiro's lips feel wonderful against his.
It’s every single thing Shiro was stupid, so fucking idiotic, enough to hope for, to dream of, to outline in his imagination—and he never should have; it’s like he made this moment possible by dignifying it with the content of his thoughts, the contents locked under the cavities that kept his heart beating, into the marrows of his bones and the tracks of his lungs, and this wasn’t—
What he was—he wanted, he resolved, he fought for—is curling into flakes of ash and smoke, like the scraps of parchment and the blocks of wood held to a poorly made fire, burning bright and red and golden against the eternal white, catching and roaring, the tendrils of warmth rising like the hope bridging past the snow—
What he was holds nothing against what he is right now.
Engulfed, enflamed, encompassed—the heat runs through him, past him, skittering and dancing and slaving down widening veins and igniting through the gasped-in breath, suffusing his skin, filling every centimeter of his being—
Demolished, destroyed, dominated—the inferno explodes from beneath his skin, an eruption bursting through the veins and his soul catches fire, engulfing him in a torrent of bright, burning, bellowing light like every particle of his being was gasoline set aflame—
Resurrected, recreated, reborn—every bone, every atom, every helix strand in his body is split apart in a molten explosion, the synapses torn at their fucking edges, the phantasmal blast of purity reforming the blocks and the debris, criss-crossing over into something new, something good, something bright—
Keith’s mouth fits against his perfectly that it should be a crime, a fucking injustice— it is, it damn is and they should lock him up, put him in chains, and bind him for what he’s doing with his goddamn tongue—
And if Keith had enough control – if some tangible, physical part of him still even exists at this point – he’d realize it’s not even just the tongue; it’s the whole fucking thing—the press of Shiro’s lips, the graze of his teeth; the nudge of his nose against Keith’s cheekbone; shouldn’t that be weird and suffocating?
The pad of his thumb smoothing down along Keith’s jaw; the warmth of his chest pinning Keith’s arm in between them, closer and closer, like he doesn’t even care, like he doesn’t even have half a mind to care that the spaces between them exist only in the frissons of their ghosts, like—
Is it always like this? Is kissing always a—not a mere pull, or a measly push but a maelstrom of gravity upturned in compressed time and space? A rip, a tear, the entire fabric of what’s real torn in two—an envelopment; oscillate and fluctuate, nip and give and twine and take and a fucking planet-heavy weight of something starkly and distinctly alcoholic and addictive and adulatory; a benediction and a godsend and a painless surrender?
Keith draws back, panting softly, and stares at Shiro for a long second, a fucking forever of a second—and there’s something damn urgent in the depths of purple and mauve, in the lavender-puce and north star and dusk—before he presses their foreheads together. Both his hands lift, and one flattens itself along each side of Shiro’ neck and wraps his fingers around his fucking heart.
“I love you, too.”
To you, from me, with love.
And, for the first time, things finally make sense in Shiro’s world.
It was a mundane day for Keith, strolling down three blocks from where he usually did — there had been street repairs, and the metal scaffolding kept him from crossing Madison to New Hawkes Avenue. Still, it wasn’t like the detour was a problem — at least it provided him a chance to see if something new popped up in this part of the city.
He stepped to the side, letting a few taller men — with buzz-cut hair and dog tags around their necks — pass and, curious, turned to the building beside him. There was a poster on the austere-looking walls, and, as if his body took control for once, he climbed up the stairs and walked in.
An hour later, he closes the door behind him, the pen-pal program poster swinging with it. There’s a slip on his hand — a name and address. He’s still not sure what compelled him to go for it, but Keith didn’t really mind. The best he could get out of it was a new friend, at the very least.
“Watch out, lieutenant Takashi Shirogane.” Keith mumbled to himself as he sat on the bench outside the military affairs office, pulling a paper out of his bag. He uncapped his pen with his teeth and started penning down words. “You’re about to meet Keith.”