The day before the launch—his last one on Earth—Keith is restless. It could be the mission ahead, of course, but he's not too worried about that. It feels weird to say, especially out loud, but he trusts his team. And not just the Paladins either, but the whole ragtag team of humans and aliens and robots alike, all currently boarding the Atlas.
Watching them scurry around, with boxes and crates and equipment, Keith knows that while the battle ahead may be scary, they've all done everything they could, prepared to the best of their abilities. And more importantly, they're all aware of what's at risk.
So, they will be fine.
Keith just wishes they would stop calling him Sir. And not just because it makes Pidge laugh hysterically and Lance fume dramatically in the background.
It makes Shiro smile too, discreetly and deceivingly enough that no one would actually believe he's enjoying Keith's suffering even if they saw it.
Keith knows Shiro though. Knows just how much of a brat the golden boy truly is at heart, how adventurous and wild. He's witnessed personally the many rules Shiro had broken so cheekily, with a finger to his lips and a wink over his shoulder. From sneaking into the sim rooms in the middle of the night to taking Keith out into the desert to teach him heart-stopping things the teachers would definitely not approve of, he's done it all.
Teenage Keith never stood a chance.
But then, neither does adult Keith, as he is painfully reminded when a gentle hand squeezes his shoulder and he sees Krolia smiling teasingly at him, his face no doubt an open book.
"We're almost done here," she tells him, and doesn't mention Shiro, because she doesn't have to. Maybe it's a superspy thing, or maybe it's mother's instinct, but she always seems to know things when it comes to Keith yet always waits for him to be ready to tell them himself anyway. "We can handle the rest without you."
From the corner of his eye, he spots the bridge crew scattered around a hustle of crates, chatting animatedly while enjoying a late lunch. Shiro, of course, is notably absent. Probably stuck in another meeting. "It's fine, mom. I've got no places to be."
Her smile doesn't waver, and it's the kind of smile that makes Keith want to go to her and let her baby him the way she wants to. "Keith, it's your last night on Earth. Go."
The thing is, Keith doesn't do sentimental. Nor does he hold any particular fondness for Earth itself. His home—his family—will be boarding the same ship tomorrow morning. But as Krolia's hand squeezes his shoulder a little tighter, nudges him gently forward, Keith does exactly as he's told.
Maybe there is a place, after all.
Black greets him like an old friend, with a soft, comforting purr that fills Keith's mind with an immense sense of comfort and gratitude. He hasn't been able to fly her since the battle against the Altean, first because he'd been stuck in the hospital, people refusing to let him go even when he was perfectly fine, dammit, then because Paladins duties now included a lot more paper and teamwork and a lot less actual flying.
"Hey, girl," he whispers warmly in return, fingers gliding over the glowing controls, the soft leather of a now familiar seat. "Been a while, huh? I'm sorry about the crash. Hope it wasn't too bad."
The lion purrs again, indulgent.
It still sometimes amazes Keith how much he's come to love Black. How much he trusts her.
After all, she's always been Shiro's in his mind. Still is, to some extent.
But maybe that's precisely why, he thinks as they shoot for the cloudless sky, both truly coming alive, the thrum of Black's core matching that of Keith's heart.
Maybe that's exactly why she had accepted him, too. Even way back then, when he was anything but ready to lead, too harsh and jagged to rely on others the way they needed him to. Too lost without Shiro to guide him.
Keith likes to think he's grown from that.
He still needs Shiro. Always will. It's a constant, a truth that Keith has no intention of fighting. But now that need is different. Now they are different.
Now Keith think he could stand equal by his side. To support him, to protect. To love as unconditionally as he's always had.
And out of everyone else, Black understands that.
The sun is setting when Keith hears footsteps, the desert painted in burning reds and oranges. Black lays silent underneath, basking in the glow, the metal of her snout hot beneath Keith's palms.
"You're just in time," he says, knowing exactly who is standing behind him. Even if he hadn't expected Shiro to come—not tonight, of all nights—he just knows. And the rattle in his chest settles, eases into a soft hum, a gentle vibration that feels good and familiar.
The space wolf raises from his lazy curl, head cocked and tail wagging. He shares affection so easily, particularly when it comes to people who matter to Keith. Something Keith is still learning to do himself.
In a flash, the wolf is gone, and then Shiro is sitting down next to Keith, with a half-laugh that is equal parts nerves and apologies. Thankfully, Keith knows just the trick.
"Three… two…," he counts down, forefinger pointing at the horizon, just as the last ray of sunlight disappears completely, "...one."
Shiro's smile is warm and soft.
"I can't believe you remember that."
Keith shrugs, not about to voice that there's very little when it comes to Shiro that he doesn't commit to perfect memory.
"Do you remember the last time we did this?" he asks instead. "Stayed up looking at stars the night before Launch Day?"
The word doesn't stir the kind of terror it used to inside Keith's chest. The kind of pain. The kind of helplessness.
Instead, it fills him with determination. A sense of purpose.
Because now he doesn't just know, with startling clarity, what exactly Shiro is to him—now, he also has the means to protect it. Protect Shiro. Cross any galaxy and the universe itself, just to get to him.
And when Shiro says, "I died," Keith simply nods. Accepts the truth for what it is: yes, Shiro had died. But Keith has found him. Again and again. Just as he would find him again, and again, and again. Because Keith would never stop looking.
Because Shiro is the one person he would never give up on.
"I almost…" The stars are bright tonight, turning the night sky into a galaxy. Out in space, there had been marvellous things, breathtaking things, yet none quite like the quiet desert nights down here on Earth, where Keith could name every constellation, now without Shiro's help. "I almost thought maybe you weren't going to make it..."
Their last sunset. It seems fitting, somehow, to be right here, in this moment, in this place. Still looking for Pluto despite knowing they wouldn't find it.
"Well," Shiro says, "I did say to spend this last night with the ones you love."
Keith isn't sure whether he means Keith or Black, but in the end, it doesn't really matter. Because sitting there under a blanket of stars, surrounded by those who love him, Shiro looks utterly serene. Happy, like Keith hasn't seen him in a while. Content.
Keith never wants him to be anything but.
"I was thinking about maybe spending it at your shack."
And when Shiro finally looks back, Keith is ready. He takes one easy breath, and says, "Can our first kiss be here, though?"
The night before the launch—his last one on Earth—in an old, rundown shack, Keith is not alone. He loves and he's loved.