Shiro stumbles out of the warmth of the Science and Engineering building and into the stinging cold of the night, rubbing his temple against the dull throb he can already feel pounding behind his eyes. Maybe it was wishful thinking to hope that a little vodka would keep the migraines at bay, if only for a short while. What he really needs is sleep, but that’s in short supply at Altea University, especially when you’re a Physics professor specializing in astrophysics, sponsoring too many clubs to count, and tenured, as of today.
Shiro heaves a sigh. He’s imagined this moment for years, and it came sooner than he expected – he’s well aware, based on the condescending remarks from his many older colleagues, that it’s rare for a thirty-year-old to get tenure. Allura told him they were just jealous, but they’re also right. He’s only been at Altea three years.
Well, he thinks sourly, it’s not his fault that he was a child semi-prodigy who writes fucking excellent theoretical papers. Maybe if they spent more time experiencing actual passion for their field instead of enviously gossiping, they would be more successful in said field.
Shiro gets kinda bitchy when he’s drunk. And bitter. Mostly bitter. It’s not that he doesn’t like his job. He loves his job, or at least, the part of it that includes researching and mentoring students eager to learn. The other part, the one that involves socializing and dealing with the dreaded Administration...not so much.
He’s so caught up in his swirling, drunken reflections on life that he doesn’t notice the shadow barreling out of the darkness until it slams into him, sending him crashing to the ground with a grunt, blood streaming from his nose where the person – Shiro’s fairly sure it’s a person – clocked him in the face with their face.
“Oh, no,” Shiro wheezes, laying on his back on the freezing pavement and blinking blearily at the cloudy sky. He briefly debates yelling for help and hoping someone at the faculty party inside hears his cries, but if this mugger is the violent sort, then he doesn’t want to be tangentially responsible for anyone else getting hurt. He’s already lost one arm; what’s another one, right?
But he doesn’t get mugged. Instead, the person kneels down beside him, flailing their hands around – they’re wearing fingerless gloves; has Shiro been sent back to 2005? – and gasps, “Oh, shit. I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
Shiro blinks up at him, disbelieving eyes slowly adjusting. Because…
The man peering owlishly down at him is the New Professor. Shiro immediately hates himself for the thought, because what is this, high school – okay, yeah, it kind of feels like it, sometimes, but that’s besides the point. The point is, the man who just gave him a bloody nose is the professor who started working in the Fine Arts department this year, and despite his fingerless gloves and baggy black hoodie to match, he also happens to be the most beautiful being Shiro has ever seen in his goddamn life.
At the thought, his fuzzy brain panics, and he blurts, “I’m drunk.”
The art professor stares at him, a worried line forming between his brows. “Right,” he says. “Um – oh. Wait. Hey. Do you – do you work here?”
There’s a panicked light in his eyes, suddenly, or maybe Shiro is just projecting. Either way, he nods and hiccups, “Uh-huh. Physics.” He weakly reaches out his hand, not realizing it’s the metal one until Keith’s eyes get somehow wider. Shiro debates offering the other one, then decides, no, he’s committed, he’s gotta go through with this choice. “Dr. Shirogane.”
A gloved hand gingerly shakes his. “Nice to...meet you. I’m Keith. Listen, do you need some help, or –”
“Keith,” Shiro croaks, “wow,” and promptly passes out on the sidewalk.
He wakes up on an unfamiliar couch in an unfamiliar office with an awful crick in his neck that worsens when he lifts his head and blinks at the figure sitting at the desk in front of him. There’s also an ice pack on his face, which slides off as he sits up blearily. Once his vision is no longer obscured, he realizes – he’s in Keith’s office. It’s much smaller than the Physics offices, which Shiro is sure says something about funding for the arts, but that’s a little too complex of an idea for him to grasp, currently.
“Oh,” Keith says, looking up from the laptop he’s typing away at. His expression is pinched; probably because a drunk stranger passed out in his office. “You’re awake.”
Shiro winces and rubs his nose; thankfully his fingers don’t come away red. “Yeah,” he rasps. “Did you – carry me here?”
Keith’s ears turn red and he ducks his head. “Um. Maybe?”
Shiro groans and covers his face.
“Listen, I’m really sorry, again,” Keith starts, and Shiro peeks at him incredulously from between his fingers. “I should have been paying more attention to where I was going. Thankfully your nose isn’t broken, so it should be okay, but if there are any problems I can give you compensation –”
Shiro shakes his head. “What? No. That’s not – Keith, it’s fine, really. I wasn’t looking where I was going, either…” He slumps back down on the couch and sighs, rubbing his nose again, over the scarred bridge of it. “Anyway, I’ve had worse, so. Don’t worry about it, really.”
Keith frowns, but relents, and thankfully doesn’t ask any questions. He just says, “Oh, I’ve got water and Ibuprofen,” before scrambling to his feet and rifling through what look like atrociously organized drawers. It’s a pretty messy office, Shiro notes, but not in a hoarder kind of way. It looks lived-in. Lived-in, with possibly too many file folders tossed every which way.
Shiro takes the offered water and painkillers numbly, still not completely sure this isn’t an elaborate fever dream. He’s still – not sober. And Keith is still very, very pretty.
After he’s swallowed the Ibuprofen, he pauses, squinting at Keith as the thought occurs to him. “What were you running from?”
Keith freezes, then slowly leans back in his chair, an assessing glint in his eye as he looks at Shiro. There’s a long, long pause, and then he says, deadpan, “A ghost.”
Shiro blinks at him. It is at this moment that Shiro, deep in his tipsy id, realizes he has a decision to make here. Either he politely brushes off this clearly absurd ghost comment and forever leaves the office of Keith the Hot Art Professor, or, he pretends to be interested and asks to know more, science be damned, and hopefully gets the honor of gazing into Keith’s dreamy eyes again.
It’s not really a choice. Keith has very dreamy eyes, and it’s not really pretending when Shiro thinks he could listen to Keith talk about how the Earth was flat and still be charmed.
God, he fucking hopes Keith doesn’t think the Earth is flat.
Shiro forces his face into something vaguely resembling a smile and asks, cautiously, “Sorry, a ghost? Like, here, on campus?”
Keith nods solemnly. “In the Communications building,” he says. “It’s haunted. It used to be a mortuary, and I knew there would be activity, but I didn’t know it would be so, um…”
“Spooky?” Shiro offers weakly. He’s never liked the Comm building, admittedly, but...a haunted former mortuary? Hm.
Keith snorts, and scratches the back of his neck. “Uh, yeah. It was pretty spooky. Turns out, they’re not the nice kind of ghosts, so...I had to get out of there. Then I ran into you.” He winces. “Sorry, again.” Shiro opens his mouth, then closes it. Keith’s face falls. “You don’t believe me,” he says.
Shiro backpedals. “No, that’s not –” Keith frowns at him, clearly not buying it, and Shiro decides honesty is the best policy. “Well, okay, so I don’t know that I believe in ghosts.” Keith’s shoulders slump. “But!” Shiro hurries to add, “But, it’s definitely possible that there are, you know, phenomena we don’t yet understand, and it sounds like you do this stuff a lot, so, you’re probably the ghost expert here, not me.”
Keith tilts his head. “Huh,” he says, half to himself. “Yeah, okay. I can work with that.” He smirks, and Shiro is glad he’s laying down, because his knees turn to jello instantly. Keith leans forward, finger on his chin. “Lemme guess. You’re the kind of guy who wants proof. Right?”
Shiro shrugs. “I mean – in science, yes, you kind of need evidence to support your claims. Are you saying you have proof of ghosts?”
Keith grins, and turns his laptop to face Shiro. The screen is covered in files, some of them video, some picture, some text, and all are labeled only with numbers. It gives Shiro a headache just to look at it. “Um,” he says. “Is this…?”
“Proof,” Keith declares, and clicks on one of the videos. “This is some of the best evidence I’ve found so far.”
At first, Shiro isn’t sure what he’s looking at, but then – it’s a stairwell, and on the wall is the faint impression of a towering shadow with a single grasping hand, reaching out towards the camera. Shiro is about to argue that it could just be a person standing out of sight, Occam’s razor and all that, but there’s something...off, about it. It sends shivers down Shiro’s spine, even if the video is only a few seconds long, before abruptly cutting off into static.
“Okay,” Shiro admits, “that’s...I’m intrigued. I’ll give you that. You said there are nice ghosts, and not so nice ghosts – what kind was that one?”
Keith’s grin widens. He spins the laptop back around. “Shadow people,” he says. “Also known as a black mass. But I’m pretty sure this one was a shade. It had shade vibes.”
“What, exactly, are shade vibes?” He has to ask. Keith might be crazy, but Shiro’s into it.
“Mm…” Keith considers this. “They feel, uh, colder. And not angry, but just kind of frustrated. They don’t want to be in our world, I think. They feel stuck. Also, they make the EMF reader go nuts.”
“You have an EMF reader.” Shiro can’t believe this is his life.
“Of course,” Keith says. “That’s the most basic ghost hunter’s tool out there.”
“So you’re a ghost hunter.” Shiro feels giddy. “How did you get into that?”
Keith hesitates and bites his lip, glancing at the clock. “It’s...a long story, and I don’t want to keep you up…”
“I’m not sleepy, and not exactly in any state to be going anywhere,” Shiro sighs. “So…?”
Keith eyes him doubtfully. “Do you really wanna know?”
Shiro nods. “Sure, why not? Only if you want to, though. If you want to kick me out on my ass into an Uber home, that’s okay, too. I’ll forgive you.”
Keith’s mouth twitches. “You’re pretty funny for a Physics professor, Dr. Shirogane.”
Shiro’s face burns. “Shiro,” he croaks. “Um. Just – Shiro is fine.”
Keith smirks again. Yeah, Shiro is definitely into it, whatever it is.
“Okay, Shiro,” Keith drawls, chin in hand. “Well...it all started when I found out my mom was a witch…”
Shiro doesn’t know how long they talk, or at what point he stops talking and starts sleeping. He just knows that he wakes up warm and hungover, with a fleece blanket draped over him and his arm hanging off of Keith’s couch. While it is a damn comfortable couch, it is unfortunately made for normal-sized humans. At least he didn’t fall off. A small victory for a large man.
Keith isn’t asleep. He’s pinning newspaper clippings to a corkboard with feverish intensity, and connecting them with red string. So, he is real. Wild. That means his witch mom is also real. Granted, she’s not a flying broomstick witch – if Keith had argued she was, Shiro’s not actually sure what he would’ve done – but she practices Wicca and has always been into the paranormal. She sounds like a cool lady. She definitely has a cool son, even if he is...a bit weird.
Shiro can get behind a bit weird. It’s better than insufferably boring and pretentious, like most of his coworkers. Nothing about Keith is boring or pretentious. He’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
God, Shiro thinks, am I boring and pretentious?
Keith turns around at his long sigh, and gives him a sheepish smile. “Good morning,” he says. “Sleep well?”
“Yeah.” Shiro sits up, rubbing his eyes. “Did you sleep at all, Mr. Ghost Hunter?”
Keith blushes. It’s a good look on him. “Oh,” he says. “So you do remember that.”
“Most of it.” Shiro attempts to smooth down his hair and clothes, to no avail. “Uh – thanks for letting me crash in your office. I promise this isn’t a regular occurrence for me.”
Keith purses his lips. “Oh, I know,” he says. “You have a reputation.”
Shiro gawks at him. “What – excuse me?”
Keith just chuckles. “Let’s just say I definitely didn’t expect to meet you drunk with a bloody nose...not on campus, anyway. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. Not that Science and Engineering really talks with Fine Arts.” He raises an eyebrow. It’s a challenge.
Shiro has always been competitive. “We’re talking,” he says. “Aren’t we?”
Keith’s lips quirk. “Mm.” He plucks something from his desk, and Shiro realizes with a start that it’s his phone. “My number’s in there. Just in case you ever wanna know more about ghosts...or find yourself in need of a fireman carry again.”
He tosses Shiro his phone, and Shiro blinks dumbly at the screen. He can’t decide whether it’s creepy or impressive that Keith unlocked his phone. “Uh...how did you know the passcode?”
Keith’s eyes flicker. “Lucky guess,” he says.
Shiro wants to believe him. It is, after all, the only logical explanation.
Occam’s razor, he tells himself.
But, as Shiro quickly finds out, nothing about Keith is simple or easily explained. He really is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He’s a twenty-five year old professor, adjunct, but quickly settling into the ranks as if he’d always been there. Shiro sees him around Science and Engineering occasionally, and it catches him terribly off-guard every time. The third time he chokes on his tea when Keith suddenly sidles past, Allura corners him and demands to know what is up.
“Nothing,” Shiro croaks, “is up, what the hell.”
She squints at him and shakes her head. “A little bird in Fine Arts told me that someone stumbled out of Keith’s office the morning after his tenure party. Is that why you didn’t reply to my texts and several calls?”
Shiro winces. “Are we really considering Lance a reliable source of information, now?”
Allura raises a cool eyebrow. “Is he wrong?”
“Nothing happened!” Shiro splutters. “I mean, I — fell. I fell, and Keith happened to find me, and let me stay the night in his office because he had, um, work to do. Overnight.”
Allura folds her arms. “How nice of him.”
“He is,” Shiro says, “nice.”
“Uh-huh,” Allura says, knowing.
Of course she knows. She always knows.
As it turns out, Keith is in Science and Engineering so often because he’s friends with Hunk, an engineering professor with a heart of gold who Shiro finds incredibly intimidating because it seems impossible for someone to be both so nice and so brilliant. It makes sense that he gets along with Keith.
Hunk is friends with Dr. Holt, who is probably the youngest professor at Altea by far. She’s a computer science whiz whom Shiro respects not only for her brains but for her ability to shut up any of the senior faculty with particularly cutting retorts. She’s a very take-no-shit kind of person, so it’s no wonder that she gets along with Keith, too.
Then there’s Lance. He’s the head of the Theater Department and is not so secretly in love with Allura, which at first made Shiro wary of him on her behalf...but he approaches it more like a schoolboy crush, which becomes more exasperating than worrying. Allura entertains it, and sometimes outright encourages it. They’re friends, in any case, and Lance is always eager to talk her ear off about the newest drama at Altea.
As far as Shiro knows, Lance and Keith are not friends, per se. He’s heard vague rumors of squabbles between them concerning the props department after some students decided to repurpose clay from Keith’s studio class for a production of Hamlet. (Shiro saw the production and had to admit that Yorick’s skull was impeccably made. He doubts that was Lance’s handiwork – the man is much better at acting than visual arts.)
In any case, Keith is often around. It isn’t until departments begin to put up strands of lights shaped like bats and painted pumpkins because they’re all too lazy to actually carve them that Shiro is accosted by the sight of Keith in his office one afternoon. It’s his office hours, but he’s been helping students with homework about the Hayashi track and general stellar evolution for the entire afternoon, so his brain is more or less mush and it takes him a good ten seconds of gaping at Keith before stammering, “Can I help you?”
Keith chuckles and leans against the doorframe. “You look stressed.”
Shiro leans back in his chair and folds his arms. “It’s midterms. Everyone is stressed down to their damn atoms.”
Keith peers at him. “You need to get off campus more, Dr. Shirogane.”
“We both have our doctorate,” Shiro says pointedly. “Shiro is fine.”
“Technically, I’m still working on mine,” Keith replies easily. “So, you’ll excuse me if I slip up sometimes.” He tilts his head. “So? Want to get off campus with me?”
Shiro blinks rapidly at him, hating himself for focusing on two of those words a little too much. But – surely Keith doesn’t mean – what does he mean? “What?” Shiro says, eloquently.
Keith’s brow furrows. “It’s not too far off campus, if that’s what you’re worried about. There’s a graveyard in a park a few blocks away; people have been reporting activity there.” When Shiro continues to gawk at him, he frowns. “I’m sorry, I just thought maybe...you were interested.” He fiddles with his jacket, bravado fading. “In, uh, the ghost...stuff.”
Shiro pauses. “You want me to go ghost hunting with you?”
Keith glances up, cheeks pink. “Only if you want, I guess it’s kind of a silly thing to ask –”
“Not silly,” Shiro says immediately, and Keith blinks. “I mean – yes. Yeah. Let’s do it. I just don’t want to scare all the ghosts away.”
Keith beams at him. “You won’t,” he says. “I promise.”
That is how Shiro ends up wandering through a graveyard at one in the morning with Keith, the night before Halloween.
“Why not Halloween night?” Shiro had asked as they walked through the quiet city streets together from campus. Shiro kept glancing to and fro, sure that they looked like Suspicious Characters in their mostly black clothes and Keith’s hefty backpack, but this was before he knew they were going to be actually breaking and entering.
Keith had looked clearly shifty when he replied, “I have other plans for tomorrow night.”
“Oh? A creepier graveyard?”
Keith shook his head. “It’s just – there’s a family tradition, for Halloween. That’s all.”
“It doesn’t by any chance involve your witchy mom, does it?”
Keith had eyed him, and shrugged.
A mystery wrapped in an enigma.
Currently, Shiro is more concerned about the broken padlock on the gate behind them. Keith pulled out a pair of honest to God wire cutters and just – cut it. He ignored Shiro’s hissed protests, waved a hand, and claimed people snuck in all the time.
Shiro is pretty sure those people are bored teenagers, not tenured professors. Still, he follows Keith around the cracked headstones, taken aback by the sheer size of the place. It’s nestled in the middle of a large city park that Shiro has gone on runs through more than once, but he’s never seen the graveyard in its entirety. Its sculpted hills are unnerving in their smoothness, like a golf course dotted with the dead.
Keith picks his way through them like he belongs here, like he has a map Shiro cannot see and a destination in mind. He’s not looking at any map, but he is staring intently into the darkness, holding his flashlight just high enough to see. Keith seemed ready to jump right in without any flashlight at all, but that was where Shiro drew the line, so they walk together with the thin beams slicing through the gloom. They’re ineffectual as far as illumination goes, but they make Shiro feel a bit better.
He can’t say the same for the traffic-light-colored illumination of Keith’s EMF reader. At first, he thought the device was a little ridiculous, but the flickering begins to creep him out in no time.
“So what are we looking for, exactly?” Shiro asks to break the thick silence. It hangs in the air like a veil between them, and Shiro finds himself hurrying to catch up, something in him unwilling to let Keith get even a few feet away from him.
Keith glances over, his crooked smile strangely comforting. “A Gray Lady,” he says. “They’re common apparitions, but people usually see them in museums and old houses, so it’s weird that there would be one here.”
“Good or bad ghost?” Shiro asks.
Keith scrunches up his nose. “Hard to say. People reporting activity here lately have been saying they feel physical touches; hair pulling and pinching and stuff, which usually means...not great.” Shiro blanches and he hastily adds, “But, don’t worry too much. Gray Ladies are...usually fine.”
Shiro is suddenly hyper-aware of how the cool night air brushes over what little skin is exposed. He tells himself it’s not possible for a ghost to touch him, because ghosts aren’t real. It is easier, however, to convince himself of that in theory – when he’s strolling through a supposedly haunted graveyard with a seasoned ghost hunter, it’s significantly more difficult. He shoves these thoughts aside and focuses on the conversation desperately. “Why are they called Gray Ladies?”
“They’re ladies...who are gray,” Keith says slowly. Shiro huffs at him, and Keith laughs quietly. “I mean – that’s what they are! I guess...hm. Usually they look kind of old-fashioned. Like you!”
Shiro splutters at him. “Pardon?”
“Exactly,” Keith says with a sage nod. “Who says ‘pardon’ these days? Also, you’re always so dressed up at work. I was afraid you didn’t own any casual clothes.”
Shiro looks self-consciously down at his Henley, jeans, and worn leather jacket, and frowns at Keith. “I’m being professional.”
“I don’t like that word,” Keith declares, and keeps walking.
As they walk, Shiro can’t help but notice that the EMF reader is beeping with increasing frequency. “Is that normal?” he squeaks when it suddenly flares to the highest reading, a glaring red.
Keith studies it. “Hm. No.”
“Yeah.” Keith actually looks excited, and starts glancing around at the headstones. Then his gaze falls on one of the largest, a hulking granite obelisk. As soon as Shiro sees it, he knows he doesn’t want to go anywhere near that thing. Of course, Keith jogs right up to it.
Shiro waffles for a painful moment before deciding he would rather continue to stay close to Keith than potentially get lost in the dark. The graveyard is incredibly disorienting; it must be an old one because the layout is a mess of haphazard rows that almost seem to spiral inwards to some unseen central point. The obelisk is flanked by standard-looking graves of moderate age, both from the early 1900s. Shiro can tell just from looking at the worn, soft edges of its stone that the obelisk is much older.
Keith kneels down in front of the obelisk and fishes out a piece of paper and a crayon, of all things. Shiro stares, uncomprehending, as he puts the paper over the epitaph and scribbles over the paper with the purple crayon.
“Um,” Shiro says. “Is that allowed?”
Keith snorts, finishes his impromptu art project, and holds up the paper. “Technically, no, but this is just a small grave rubbing, and I don’t think Miss Ives has any living relatives around here.”
It’s a fair assumption – the obelisk is one of the only graves in this area without an offering of flowers or otherwise, and judging by the disrepair of the grave itself, it isn’t regularly looked after. It makes Shiro suddenly, awfully sad. He stares at the epitaph. Beyond the name – Miss Violet Ives – he can’t even tell what it says. There’s a pit in his stomach, and it hurts , hurts like nothing he’s ever felt before, like – like the hurt wants to get out.
Keith’s warm fingers close tight around his wrist. “Shiro,” he says urgently.
Shiro jolts and looks down at him, heart pounding, hurt fading as quickly as it came. “I – sorry, I don’t know what came over me.”
“Behind you,” Keith whispers. Shiro freezes, and lets Keith slowly nudge him into turning around.
It’s only there for a moment, but in that single moment there’s a shape between two of the nearby graves, and in the shadows, Shiro’s eyes play tricks on him, because it almost looks like a floating woman, staring at them with unseen eyes. When he blinks, it’s gone, and Keith swears softly.
“Did you see her?” Keith asks.
Shiro shakes his head numbly. “It was just a weird shadow.”
Keith turns on him in disbelief. “What?”
“Pareidolia,” Shiro says, breathless. “Seeing – seeing patterns, faces, figures, when they aren’t really there. Your brain just...makes things out of nothing, sometimes.”
Keith gives him a long, searching look. “You really believe that?”
“It’s the most ghostly thing I’ve ever seen, I’ll give you that,” Shiro admits, “but yes, I do. Science can explain a lot of these things.”
Keith raises an eyebrow and lifts the EMF reader, still burning red. “And this?”
“There’s a cell tower a block away,” Shiro points out, but gently, because he doesn’t want to be here to discourage Keith.
Maybe Keith realizes this, because he takes it in stride. “Fair enough,” he relents, and shoves the EMF reader back into his bag. “They’re not very reliable, I’ll give you that.”
“Why did you take the grave rubbing?” Shiro asks in the ensuing quiet. Keith seems reluctant to leave the obelisk.
“It’s…” Keith hesitates. “Sort of like a souvenir, but not that trivial. It’s a way to remember them. To carry them around with me.”
“Do you have a...a scrapbook or something?”
Keith bites his lip. “Or something.”
They lapse into silence again, but it doesn’t feel oppressive this time. It’s almost...comfortable. Somewhere, not far off, an owl hoots. Shiro didn’t even know owls lived this far into the city. It makes him smile, and Keith meets his eye when he smiles, which makes him duck his head and cough loudly. “Um,” Shiro says. “Can I ask – I know you said your mom is a witch who likes the paranormal, but why do you specifically...you just, uh, seem really interested in death.”
Keith’s eyes are darkly luminous when he glances up, thoughtful. “Yeah,” he says. “Do you think that’s weird?”
Shiro shakes his head. “No,” he says honestly. “No, it’s...I find it interesting, too.”
Keith’s smile is small and secretive. “You study space,” he murmurs. “The stars. Right?”
Shiro hums. “I do my best.” Lots of dead things in space, he doesn’t say.
“What do you do if there’s something you – we – don’t know?” Keith asks.
Shiro is curious as to where he’s going with this. “Try to figure it out, I guess.”
Keith purses his lips. “And what if you can’t? What if – it’s not something we’re meant to understand, to know at all?”
“Hmm.” Shiro casts his gaze skyward. It’s a cloudy night, but between the gaps, past the light pollution, he can see the faintest glimmers of distant supergiants. “There’s a lot of that in space, some might say.”
“What do you say?”
Shiro’s lips quirk. “Keith, I’ve been researching dark matter in some form for almost ten years. Clearly I’m not very good at listening when people say things are unknowable and beyond our reach.”
“You’re drawn to it,” Keith whispers. “To the unknown.”
“Sure, you could say that,” Shiro replies. “Is that why you’re drawn to death?”
Keith looks back at the obelisk. “Not exactly,” he sighs. “I think it might be the other way around. Death is drawn to me.”
Shiro blinks at him. Keith’s profile is stark, his mouth a thin line and brow furrowed as his eyes trace again over the epitaph. “I’m sorry,” Shiro offers, because it feels like the thing to say.
But Keith just shakes his head. “Don’t be,” he says. He meets Shiro’s eyes again. “I like space, too. Much cooler than death.”
“That’s a fair guess,” Shiro replies before he can stop himself, “considering space is roughly 2.7 Kelvin, or -454.81 degrees Fahrenheit, and I don’t know how cold the human body gets but it’s probably not that –”
Keith’s laughter rings out through the empty graveyard, something like relief loud and clear in it. “You are such a nerd,” he wheezes, snorting when he looks at Shiro. “But a good nerd. A funny one.”
Shiro cocks his head. “How about a ghost hunting partner? Am I any good at that?”
Keith clicks his tongue. “Fishing for compliments, Dr. Shirogane? I see you.” He smiles. “But, you’re not half bad.”
Shiro rolls his eyes, face hot. “I bet you tell that to all the awkward science professors you take ghost-hunting.”
Keith blinks. “No,” he says. “You’re the only one.”
And really, how is Shiro supposed to respond to that?
Shiro Googles Miss Ives. He doesn’t mean to, not really. But he also can’t shake that feeling, the agony twisting in his belly and the wave of sorrow that nearly brought him to his knees. He has to know – what it meant. Not that it really meant anything, obviously, that’s not possible. Just a coincidence.
But he still sucks in a sharp, startled breath when he finally finds her obituary and discovers that she died in childbirth. His hand flies to his stomach, remembering that eerie hurt, and he immediately feels foolish. He closes the window and sits in front of his laptop with a frown, hands steepled under his chin. There has to be a logical explanation for this. Surely.
He doesn’t tell Keith about it, but he does start researching “ghosts,” and after discovering orbs, he works up the courage to text Keith out of sheer exasperation.
Shiro: Aren’t orbs just pieces of dust on film...or bokeh?
Keith: yeah idk about orbs
Shiro: ?? Explain ??
Keith: I think some are the real deal but most are faked
Shiro: Huh. How can you tell
Keith: why do u text exactly how u speak
Keith: well played
Keith: idk, real orbs look...weirder. They don’t obey the laws of physics
Shiro: OH THIS SHOULD BE GOOD
Keith: well, they don’t. They go thru walls & float on their own
Shiro: smh. Sir Isaac Newton is rolling in his grave
Shiro: You’re right, Einstein is better
Shiro: But, seriously? How do they do that?
Keith: they’re not from this world so they don’t obey our laws
Shiro: Are we talking the Multiverse Theory here? bc that still obeys the laws of physics
Keith: they don’t. they’re rebels
Shiro: By that logic I could float too if I just tried to piss off admin a little harder
Keith: follow your orb dreams
Shiro: Nah, I like keeping my job
Keith: I’ve heard horror stories. Just lmk if they give you shit
Shiro: Are you gonna fight admin in my honor? Aw
Keith: with my bare fists
Keith: (I mean it, tho. Admin are the worst)
Shiro: Thanks, Keith.
It’s weird, texting Keith. It feels too casual. It’s definitely too casual. But Keith...makes it easy to act that way. He lets Shiro relax, for once, and it’s nice – to put it lightly.
It’s especially nice as a distraction when he has to put up with admin continuing to breathe down his neck with a vengeance. When paired with the looming threat of finals week and the stress which seeps from his students and settles in every lab, classroom, and office in an anxious miasma, Shiro is constantly on edge. Maybe this translates in his texting, because one afternoon, after Shiro made some offhand comment about how many hours he had spent grading papers that day, Keith outright says:
Keith: stress kills, shiro
Shiro: Who knows, maybe I’ll be the next haunting for you to investigate.
Keith: don’t joke about that, Shiro
Shiro frowns at his phone as he remembers what Keith said in the graveyard. Death is drawn to me. Shiro hadn’t said it then, but sometimes he feels the same way. He doesn’t know what Keith’s background is, but he does know that there’s been a truly disproportionate amount of death – and near-death – in his own life. Maybe that’s why he’s so blasé about it.
Shiro: Sorry. It’s not that bad
Keith: sounds like you need some catharsis
Shiro: Sounds like you have smth in mind?
Keith: meet me in my studio @ 5? (finr room 113)
Shiro squints at the message with mounting panic. What. Does. That. Mean.
Shiro: That’s cryptic
Keith: i thought you liked cryptic
Shiro folds his arms with a huff, then replies on a whim,
Shiro: Fine, it’s a date
Keith sends him back a goddamn winky emoji. Shiro gives up on trying to finish grading for that day, because his brain is no longer capable of focusing on anything except Keith. What could Keith possibly be planning in his studio? Come to think of it, Shiro’s never really been in the art studios on campus, so his only reference is the very creative and very cheesy scenarios his brain summons up. They may or may not involve nude modeling and inappropriate uses for clay, but Shiro would never admit it.
When Shiro packs up and heads out at five, Allura peeks out of her office and stops him dead with a pointed stare. “Good to see you’re going home at a reasonable time.”
Shiro clears his throat. “I’m heading over to Fine Arts, actually.”
Allura’s eyebrows disappear under the effortless fall of curls over her brow. “Are you, now.”
“Uh-huh,” Shiro croaks. “Guess so.”
Allura’s eyes narrow. “Do I want to know what you’re doing in Fine Arts?”
“Keith, hopefully,” Shiro says under his breath, and Allura squawks and throws a scrap of paper at him in mock indignation, though she’s struggling not to cackle.
“You’re awful,” she informs him. Her expression softens. “But I’m glad you’re taking a break, for once.”
“Keith kind of made me,” Shiro admits.
“Good,” Allura says. She gives him an assessing look. “You’re not actually doing him in the Fine Arts building, are you?”
Shiro splutters at her. “I – no! That’s not. We don’t. It was a joke. I don’t – he’s a friend. Barely even a friend, really, just...” He trails off. He doesn’t know what the equivalent of “ghost hunting partner” is in layman’s terms.
Allura folds her arms. “Please tell me this isn’t going to end up being a tragedy in three parts, Shiro.”
“Probably more than three,” Shiro sighs, and scurries off down the hall before Allura can throw more paper at him.
The last of Keith’s class is leaving as Shiro arrives, and a few students give him sidelong glances that only serve to make him fidget more. He recognizes one of them, a junior named Nadia Rizavi who took a couple of his labs before switching her major to Film – though she was very clear that it wasn’t Shiro’s fault, bless her. He wonders if she’s decided to go the Visual Arts route instead.
Shiro hovers awkwardly outside the studio until all the class is gone, and when he ducks in through the door, Keith is washing off his hands. They’re caked up to the elbows in red clay, and objectively Shiro finds the messiness of sculpture unappealing, but not on Keith. It helps that Keith’s hair is tied back in a short ponytail that has no right to look as good as it does.
Keith smiles at him from the sink and dries off his hands. “You actually came.”
“I said I would.” Shiro starts towards him, and stops, blinking at the displays on the shelves, endless arrays of sculptures of all sorts. “Are these yours?”
“Students,” Keith corrects, coming to stand beside him. “It would be kind of a dick move to just display my own stuff, don’t you think?”
Shiro shrugs. “You’re the professor, aren’t you?”
Keith laughs softly. “Art is a little different from physics, Shiro. They don’t emulate my art. They find their own.”
“I mean, physics students do that, too,” Shiro murmurs. “Though there are...admittedly stricter parameters – is that one made of pennies?”
“Oh, yeah. That’s a good one.” It’s a human torso, feminine, made entirely of the shiny copper discs, though some are stained with green patina. Keith grins at it. “Took her ages to make it, but I think it was worth it. She’s working on another one in nickels.”
“Do you have any of your own work here?” Shiro asks him. There’s a fleck of clay drying on Keith’s cheekbone, and Shiro’s fingers itch to brush it off. He doesn’t.
Keith nods. “That’s why I wanted you to come by,” he says. “C’mon, it’s in the kiln room.”
Shiro follows him with a kind of wary curiosity, across the studio to the small room attached that Shiro initially assumed was some kind of supply closet. It seems to have some supplies, but against one wall are shelves lined with drying clay projects, and against the other wall there are several giant kilns.
“Are your kilns haunted?” Shiro asks offhandedly.
Keith snorts. “That would explain some things,” he says, “but no, think they’re just finicky.” He reaches into one of the open ones and takes out a perfectly round pot. It’s mesmerizing to look at, grooves spiraling all around it, circling the perfect bowl opening. Keith hands it to Shiro without preamble and starts digging around in the kiln for more. He brings out three more pieces, all some kind of dishware, all carved and shaped in subtly esoteric ways.
“Um,” Shiro says, now holding two of the pots gingerly, “are we painting these or something?” That sounds kind of nice, actually. A simple, relaxing activity –
Keith hands him a sledgehammer. “Not exactly.”
Shiro looks from the sledgehammer to the pots, eyes wide. “No – really? But – you made these – and they’re really good!”
Keith shrugs. “Doesn’t matter how good they are. Sometimes I make things just to destroy them later.”
“Why?” Shiro exclaims, a bit appalled.
Keith just looks amused. “It feels like a healthy thing to do,” he says. “It’s a way to not get attached to creations, to art, I guess. I used to get so upset when I broke pieces, but now...I know that sometimes it just happens, and that’s okay. It’s even more okay when I’m the one in control of the breaking.”
They head back into the studio and Keith sets his pots down on the floor, gesturing for Shiro to do the same. “Don’t think about it too much,” he advises. “Pottery, clay, is all just dirt. You’re just making it into dirt again.”
“Very poetic,” Shiro says. He hefts the sledgehammer, but still he hesitates. “You’re sure you’re okay with me doing this to your work?”
“We’ll do it together,” Keith says, and lifts his own sledgehammer with a smile. “On the count of three: one, two –”
They bring down their sledgehammers in unison, and the musical crunch of shattering pottery splits through the quiet studio. Again and again, the pottery shatters into smaller and smaller pieces, and with each blow, the looming threat of admin seems a little more distant, and the far more welcome presence of Keith is so much closer. They don’t stop until Shiro’s ears are ringing in the best way and the pottery at their feet is reduced to little more than dust.
Keith grins at him. “Better?” His cheeks are flushed with color, eyes bright in a way Shiro never wants to forget.
“Yeah,” he breathes, and immediately cough-chokes on pottery dust.
Keith smacks him on the back and grabs a dust bin to clean up their mess, which is definitely less fun than causing the mess, but as they clean up, Shiro’s gaze keeps straying to the pottery wheels. Eventually, Keith notices, and makes a questioning sound. “Have you ever thrown on the wheel? That can be cathartic, too...or frustrating. Depends on the person.”
“I’m game to try if you’re willing to teach,” Shiro says, aiming for casual. “Though I can’t promise I’ll make anything good.”
Keith shrugs. “Good is subjective. Anyway, I can help you center the clay; that’s the hardest part.”
Shiro eyes the very small stools in front of the pottery wheels. “What, like Ghost -style?”
Keith gives him a blank look.
“Oh my god,” Shiro whispers. “You’ve never seen Ghost? That wild movie from the 90s with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg – ?”
Keith looks even more puzzled. “...No?” He pauses. “Do you want to watch it while I show you how to throw on the wheel?”
Shiro blinks. This is a terrible idea. “It’s an experience,” he manages. “Not necessarily a good experience, but, uh…”
“I have a projector,” Keith points out, and walks over to yank it down, then sign into the computer. “I’m sure we could bootleg it somewhere.”
“You’re really going to risk incurring admin’s wrath by giving the whole system a virus via bootlegged Ghost?” Shiro is almost impressed.
Keith shrugs. “Does it have bad ghost CGI?” Shiro nods and Keith grins. “Then it’s worth the risk.”
This is how Shiro ends up rewatching Ghost on a school projector in impressively low quality while sitting at a pottery wheel with Keith sitting way too close behind him, showing him how to center the ball of clay on the wheel. This is more or less a failure, and becomes a definite failure when That One Scene begins, and Keith pauses, his already slippery hands slipping further where they’re covering Shiro’s.
“Oh,” is all Keith says when Demi Moore starts unsubtly rubbing her hands all over the Definitely Not Phallic pot while Patrick Swayze casually lurks in the background without a shirt.
“See what I mean?” Shiro says, as if his heart isn’t racing and Keith’s chest isn’t pressed all up against his back.
“Wow,” Keith manages when Patrick Swayze starts tickling Demi Moore and fucking up the pot. “How does she finish any pottery pieces with him around?”
“Great question,” Shiro wheezes as they both start fondling the clay and getting muddy water everywhere. “He’s not even helping, just covering her arms with more clay.”
“Press down harder,” Keith orders, and suddenly his breath is hot on Shiro’s neck and his palms are flat against Shiro’s knuckles, cradling his hands against the straining mound of clay as it fights against friction and gravity. Shiro can really only feel his touch on his left hand, since his right is covered in a latex glove to stop any clay from getting in hard to reach joints, but it’s still almost too much. He tenses and presses down on the clay so hard that it makes a sad splort of protest, and the top bit breaks off, torquing away from the rest and splattering Shiro’s face with wet clay.
“Blargh!” Shiro yelps while Patrick Swayze gives Demi Moore a very unhelpful hickey. “It got in my mouth!”
“Yeah, that happens,” Keith chuckles, releasing him to toss him a semi-clean towel. Shiro finds he can’t do much with it, though, considering both his hands are covered in clay. Needless to say, he’s pretty sure he’s just got more clay on his face when all is said and done.
“It tastes like really bad chalk,” Shiro bemoans, miserably patting the resistant clay.
“You say that like you regularly lick chalk,” Keith remarks, and then makes a strangled noise when he looks at the screen again and adds, “please tell me they washed their hands before fucking.”
Shiro is utterly unprepared for the word fucking to come from Keith, and his hands spasm on the clay, which, infuriatingly, actually seems to finally center it.
“Oh! Good, you got it, that’s perfect,” Keith says, and Shiro grits his teeth against the praise. Cool. Great. This is fine, as the kids would say.
But, honestly, the rest of the movie is more bearable. Once the clay is centered, it’s more enjoyable than frustrating, and once Keith is satisfied that Shiro has it figured out, he backs off and gets his own pottery wheel set up. Shiro immediately misses his warmth, and immediately kicks himself for thinking that.
They make a series of simplistic bowls, plus a little vase that Shiro is perhaps unreasonably proud of – but Keith is as gleeful about it as he is. Keith is much less gleeful about the movie’s depiction of ghosts.
“Oh, I see,” he muttered when the first bad guy gets dragged to Hell, “this is a Christian take on it. How original.”
Shiro eyes him. “Is the Christian take wrong?”
“Not necessarily. But it’s not like this. This is very dramatic.”
“Well, yeah. It’s a 90s movie.” Shiro carefully smooths over the rim of his littlest bowl yet, which is also his favorite. “But, explain?”
Keith purses his lips. “Real ghosts aren’t...well, full-bodied apparitions are very rare, for one thing. If you died and stayed around, it wouldn’t be...you, exactly. Just a shadow of yourself, a simplified version, kind of. Like...say the projector fell on me, but before I died, I had some huge desire to...to…”
“Protect someone?” Shiro suggests lightly. Keith eyes him. “Like, uh, Patrick Swayze.”
Keith wrinkles his nose at the screen, where Whoopi Goldberg is pretending to be Patrick Swayze. “Yeah. Sure. So, Ghost Me wouldn’t have...all the other stuff that makes Keith, Keith. He would just have that desire to protect. He wouldn’t really be human, anymore.”
Shiro considers this. “So ghosts don’t have...a self?” Keith shakes his head. “Where does that self go, then?” Shiro presses.
Keith artfully rounds out the base of his vase, which is much prettier than Shiro’s, but unfortunately also looks far too phallic for Shiro’s comfort. “Remember when I said the Christian take wasn’t necessarily wrong? Neither are all the other takes. I don’t know where we go when we die. I just know there’s...another place. Whether or not it’s meant for us, or for the spirits that may have never been human, I have no idea.”
“Sorry, the what?” Shiro demands, almost ruining his bowl. “Not human? Then what are they?”
Keith’s face closes off. “I don’t know,” he says. “Some questions are best not to try to answer, Shiro.”
Ominous comments aside, by the time the movie ends, they have six decent pottery pieces between them. It’s sweet relief to wash the drying clay off of his hands, and they’re both relieved to see that the latex glove served its purpose well.
“Thank you for this,” Shiro says after they’ve loaded their pieces onto the kiln rooms shelves to dry. “It did help...both the destroying, and the creating.”
Keith shoots him a small smile. “You seem like more of a creating guy, anyway,” he says. “But, I’m glad. Thanks for the bad ghost CGI – you’re welcome to smash things with me anytime, Dr. Shirogane.”
Shiro cannot possibly be expected to respond to that, so he just gives Keith a thumbs up, an aborted half-wave, and wishes him a good night before fleeing out of the studio, heart in his throat.
The next day, Shiro is apprehended by an expectant Allura on his way to his office. He gulps, sets aside his pride, and ducks into Allura’s office. She closes the door. “Spill,” she orders, and Shiro buries his head in his hands.
“Have you seen the movie Ghost?” he manages. “It was like that, but platonic.”
“Oh, good grief,” Allura says with as much despair as Shiro feels.
Their next ghost hunting gig isn’t one that Keith finds on his own. Apparently, he’s mentioned an interest in the paranormal to his students once or twice, which is why two of them approach him one day after class to tell him one thing he already knows and one thing he most definitely did not: one, the Communications building is haunted; and two, there’s a body chute in the basement which is super haunted.
“What is a body chute?” Shiro isn’t sure he wants to know, especially as they head down the narrow staircase and into the silent basement of said Communications building.
“They used them to send bodies uphill to the nursing building, back when this place was a mortuary about a hundred years back,” Keith replies, taking the steps two at a time, headlamp beam much stronger than the graveyard flashlights. “Some kind of winch system. I thought they closed up the chute, but Rizavi and Kinkade claimed that it was just covered, and badly, since they opened it pretty easily.”
“What were they doing down here?” They reach the end of the stairs, and find themselves in the large basement, which branches off into classrooms and more hallways. The building is mazelike, disorienting and cramped. Shiro feels like he has to hunch down to avoid hitting the ceiling, even if he has clearance. It’s just the way the place feels – like he’s trapped.
“They’re both in Film, so probably filming,” Keith retorts. “I think it was for some piece in the school paper, a compilation of hauntings on campus.”
“There are enough hauntings on campus to make a compilation?” Shiro hisses.
“Yeah, I believe it. I mean, there’s a haunted dorm building, there’s at least a dozen stories just for that one. Then there’s nursing, the library, admin, and –”
“This one,” Shiro finishes grimly. “Great. Do you think there’s any truth to the others?”
“It’s not really about truth,” Keith admits. “It’s a spectrum, with hauntings. Some are more intense than others. Some people are more sensitive to ghosts than others.”
“What about me?”
“Are you sensitive?” Shiro asks, and adds hastily, “To ghosts, I mean?”
“In a different way,” Keith murmurs. “I can sense them, to a certain extent. Communicate with them, sometimes. But it’s...complicated.”
He says no more on that, and Shiro reluctantly falls quiet. Each footfall echoes through the space, and every shadow seems longer, darker than it should be. Shiro blames this heightened awareness of his senses for his shriek when he brushes against a large cobweb.
As soon as he leaps back with a cry, scrabbling at the back of his neck where it touched him, Keith is at his side with – a knife. Shiro forgets his panic and stares at the knife. “What is it?” Keith demands, knife raised and jaw set. “Are you okay?!”
“WHY DO YOU HAVE A KNIFE?” Shiro exclaims, voice pitching high.
Keith falters. “I –” He looks down at the knife, like he didn’t even realize he was holding it. “I use it for – art?” Shiro gawks at him. Keith huffs and sheathes the knife in a hidden sheath under his jacket. “Fine, it’s my ghost-hunting knife.”
Shiro opens his mouth, closes it. “But they don’t...have...bodies…”
Keith puffs his chest out indignantly. “Well – well, it’s better than having no knife, isn’t it?”
It’s solid logic. Shiro lets him have it, even if he keeps glancing at Keith in disbelief. How many other concealed and unexpected weapons does he have on him?!
Maybe this is yet another thing he’s better off not knowing.
They find the body chute behind a ripped plastic tarp at the end of the creepiest hallway, and it looks about as horrifying as Shiro expected.
“You’re sure we aren’t going to get murdered in there?” Shiro asks, just to check.
“Pretty sure,” Keith mutters. “At least ninety percent...but I’ll go first, just in case.”
“Right,” Shiro says. “You’re the one with the knife.”
Keith fondly flips him off and takes the lead.
Their footsteps echo through the chute, which is made of concrete with some metal supports. If this were in a more public area, Shiro is sure there would be graffiti all over the walls, but the chute isn’t exactly accessible to the rest of the city, so the walls are just bare gray concrete, unsettling in its uniformity. Keith’s EMF reader blinks steadily in his pocket, wavering uncertainly between green and yellow. Shiro supposes that’s better than red.
“So, what kind of ghost is this one?” Shiro asks, whispering because any volume sounds too loud in the long, dark tunnel. “Another Gray Lady?”
Keith shakes his head. “Don’t think so. The students never saw an apparition, just heard it and felt it.”
“How do you feel a ghost?” Even as Shiro asks it, cold prickles down his spine and his stomach roils in discontent. Shadows whisper in his peripherals, and he draws his jacket closer with a shudder, telling himself it’s nothing.
Keith frowns into the darkness ahead and turns up the strength of his headlamp as the darkness grows impossibly darker, heavy, like smog. “Hard to explain,” Keith mutters. “Like someone’s watching you.”
And damn if Shiro doesn’t feel it, so strongly that he keeps glancing over his shoulder, but of course, there’s no one there. Regardless, his nausea worsens, and with it, slow waves of – not anger, not quite, but frustration, bitter and relentless. The walls, again, seem closer, and the end of the chute is a black pinhole, forever out of reach. Shiro’s hands curl into fists, nails biting into his palms. He feels – stuck. He wants to leave...no, he needs to leave, desperately. But – how? Where can he go? He’s been here for a long time, too long, and –
Shiro shakes himself and walks straight into Keith, who has stopped short. He grunts and hastily apologizes, but Keith stays standing, silent. “Listen,” he whispers.
At first, all Shiro hears is their own labored breathing and the distant sigh of wind. But then it happens, a low and unmistakable thud from behind them, followed by another, and another.
Shiro whirls and shines his flashlight with trembling fingers, but there’s still no one there. No one, save for the footsteps, thud-thud-thudding their way closer and closer. Keith looks sharply at him. “Calm down,” he says.
“What, can it smell fear?” Shiro mumbles.
“Maybe.” Keith shakes his head. “It’s agitated, if it’s manifesting enough to make noise. Best not to provoke it.”
“By walking through its body chute, you mean?” Shiro feels awful, a steady throb behind his eyelids that worsens with every step, mirroring every thud of the approaching footsteps. It’s different from the graveyard in that the pain is not acute, but it is a sensation of utter wrongness nonetheless, a sense that on some fundamental level, he is not supposed to be here.
Keith nods. “Possibly. I think the spirit is tied to this place...it makes sense that it might be territorial.”
“What does that mean for us?”
“It means, stay close to me,” Keith murmurs. “Though...I’m not sensing any powerful negative energy.”
Shiro wants to shout at him, because how is it possible that he doesn’t feel – whatever this is? It’s an anxious, thorny thing crawling up his throat, scratching at his tongue and deep within his chest, repeating like a mantra, Out, out, out. But there is no escape. Shiro’s breath is shallow. The footsteps are louder, closer. Then, they stop.
Gradually, Shiro becomes aware of a smell, the rising, sickly-sweet scent of rot. He almost gags, but holds his head high, glancing at Keith. Keith gives no indication that he smells anything, and in fact looks unperturbed, even though the EMF is now blinking red. His expression is calm, and his steps are even and measured, and as they continue up the chute, he begins to hum a song.
It isn’t a song Shiro knows, he’s sure of that, yet it’s...familiar. Calming. He falls into step with Keith, relaxing, letting out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. The rotting smell fades into dry concrete and rust, and something sweet without the sickness: peppermint, Shiro thinks, like the hard candies his grandma used to like. It soothes his senses, almost like an apology, and the chute is quiet, almost expectant, as if the walls themselves are listening to Keith hum the slow, sweet song.
The wind sounds like a sigh by the time they reach the end of the chute. That end is blocked up, so they walk back the way they came, and this time, all Shiro smells is peppermint candy.
“What just happened?” Shiro asks as Keith replaces the tarp and stops humming, a faint smile on his face.
Keith turns to him, his eyes luminous in a way Shiro cannot quite explain, shining from within. “The Communications building is a little less haunted,” he says softly. “It didn’t want to be here, either...it just needed a nudge in the right direction.”
Shiro blinks at him. “The ghost...moved on?”
Keith nods solemnly. “Just like Patrick Swayze.”
After that, Shiro starts researching more than just the paranormal.
He researches, well, death. Death customs, death lore, death culture. It’s fascinating, and he knows the research librarian helping him out, Romelle, is probably a little worried, but he can’t seem to stop. It’s an actual discipline, called thanatology, after the Greek god of death, Thanatos. He was not an evil god. His touch was as peaceful as his twin brother’s – Hypnos, god of sleep.
Shiro doesn’t tell Keith about his studies; he thinks Keith would worry, but he doesn’t have to. The research doesn’t make Shiro upset; it makes him giddy. He used to be so afraid of death, of dying. As he grew up and went to school, that fear softened into resignation, into the knowledge that there was nothing beyond this world; he would simply cease to exist. That seemed to be the only logical end.
But now? Now, he doesn’t know. He still smells peppermints, sometimes, and he wonders if it’s possible that Keith is right. If there really is a place where people... go, after.
They go ghost hunting a few more times before finals week hits and everyone goes their separate ways. Shiro treasures each outing, even when he’s scared out of his wits. It’s getting harder to separate the fear from the excitement – he understands why Keith enjoys it so much.
It’s thrilling, to traipse down the roads less traveled with only vague, spooky stories to guide the way. It’s also completely out of character for Shiro. He doesn’t tell any of his colleagues, not even Allura – he’s not sure they would believe him. He likes to have plans, to know his endpoint, and he doesn’t like mysteries. But he wasn’t always like that.
Being with Keith makes him feel kind of like a kid again. It makes him curious and daring and all the other things he was before the accident. The accident didn’t really take away those parts of him, but it sure as hell made him suppress them. The Shiro who emerged was cautious and meticulous and preferred to guide his beliefs about the world with science, with data and observations and evidence. It’s not a bad way to go about the world, but it can be a boring one – and with Keith, Shiro is never bored. Even if he sometimes wonders if Keith truly believes everything he says, he recognizes that Keith is at least passionate about it.
He’s not quite as passionate about ghost hunting as he is about art, though. He and Shiro have a few more studio sessions, and Shiro jokes about paying tuition, and Keith says if he’s worried about that, he can just give Keith physics lessons while they glaze their pots and smash old ones. Shiro agrees, and Keith looks surprised, like he didn’t expect Shiro to actually want to.
But Shiro loves physics. You kind of have to love physics to devote your life to it.
So he explains particle theory and string theory to Keith as best he can with clay-covered hands, and to his delight, Keith listens raptly. Sometimes he even takes notes, and he always asks questions. Keith’s smart; Shiro knew that. But he didn’t know how smart. Sometimes Keith poses questions that Shiro has to actually think about for a while before answering. Sometimes Shiro doesn’t have answers at all.
Keith is so into their physics lessons that Shiro offhandedly jokes that he maybe should have gone into the sciences. Keith frowns, and shakes his head firmly. “No,” he says. “No, it was always art, for me.”
“Why?” Shiro ventures to ask.
Keith considers this. “It was the only thing I knew I was good at,” he admits. “And it makes me feel good. To create stuff. And destroy it, sometimes. And I just…” He trails off and scratches his head sheepishly. “I like sharing that with people.” He searches Shiro’s gaze. “Like how you like sharing the stars with people.”
Shiro smiles helplessly. “I do,” he agrees, “like that.”
“What’s your favorite thing in space?” Keith asks, suddenly.
“Saturn,” Shiro says at once.
Keith’s brow furrows. “All the weird shit in the Universe, and you chose Saturn?”
Shiro nods. “It was the first planet I ever actually saw,” he explains. “Through a telescope, I mean. It made me want to study space. It just – didn’t seem real. But it was, it was out there, so far away, but it felt like it was just out of reach. It made me wonder what else was out there. I had to know.” He chuckles. “Plus, the rings look cool.”
“They do,” Keith agrees, chin in hand. “I take that back. That’s a good choice.”
“Thank you,” Shiro says, and gives up with his newest pottery project, smashing it back into a muddy ball and taking simple satisfaction in its malleable temporarity. Keith watches with something like approval, and Shiro feels warm.
Keith goes home over winter break, and home for him is far away. He lives in the desert, which is incongruous to Shiro – Keith seems to belong in some land of eternal night and shadow, not below the blazing sun. Maybe that’s why he moved.
Their winter is probably milder, anyway — the city’s snowfall is heavier than usual, and Shiro wakes up to silent white streets and frosted buildings, the sky tinted a silvery blue like the whole world has become one giant daguerreotype. He stays in bed for a lazy hour with his cat, Calypso, who purrs and kneads his chest, oblivious to the falling snow outside.
It’s only later that morning when he’s making coffee and a bagel that he realizes he never would have done that, a year ago. He would have gotten up in a panic, checked his email to see if work was cancelled, or at least started on his new lesson plans. But he doesn’t. He lets himself relax. He reads a book about Mayan burial rites and eats his breakfast in peace, and he doesn’t actually realize he forgot to put on his prosthesis until he absently reaches for his mug and finds he has nothing to reach with.
Eventually, he does have to make lesson plans and book lists and get his shit together. But most of the break is, for once, a break. He still texts Keith, which is a pleasant surprise. He worried they might be silent in their separation, but on the second day of break, Keith sends him a picture of a giant black and gray dog curled up at his socked feet with the caption, I think he missed me.
The dog’s name is Kosmo, and Keith treats him like a very large and furry child. Shiro sends him pictures of Calypso, who manages to look bored and tired in every single one. He asks if Keith is ghost hunting in Arizona, and Keith gives him updates on that, because the answer is a resounding yes. Apparently Arizona is haunted as shit. Who knew?
Between pictures of ghost towns and questionable mine shafts, Keith asks Shiro about his life, which makes Shiro feel obliged to actually go out and do things. It’s nice. He’s prone to staying in when he doesn’t have prior engagements, but he manages to explore parts of the city he’s never seen before, and sends Keith pictures of the snowy parks and dogs in coats and sunrise at the pier and once, an ice rink, when Allura convinces him to give it a try. Shiro isn’t great at skating, but they have fun, and Allura manages to make it look effortless. She poses with him and Shiro sends the picture to Keith, the two of them beaming like dorks with snow all in their hair.
Keith replies kindly enough, but he texts Shiro less after that. Shiro doesn’t understand why until a week later, when Christmas is only a few days away:
Keith: I hope you enjoy new year’s with Allura
Shiro: Wait what?
Shiro: Oh god did you think we were a thing??
Shiro: She’s just a friend!!
Shiro: Definitely not my type.
His fingers hover over the keyboard, debating an addition to that, but eventually he shakes his head and leaves it be.
Keith: O h
Keith: got it
Keith: sorry. are you doing smth for new year’s then?
Shiro: Not sure. Might meet up with some friends. You?
Keith: my mom and i always do smth fun, yeah
Keith: kinda wish i was there to celebrate with you tho
Shiro peers at his phone. He looks at Calypso. She yawns, and meows with evident irritation when he continues to stare at her. He imagines if she could speak English – or Japanese, who is he to decide – she would be saying, You, Takashi Shirogane, are a gay disaster. Or something like that.
Shiro: I’m sure you and your mom will have a fun time!
Shiro: But it would be nice if you were here :)
Keith: thank you
Keith: plus the emf reader is xmas colors. spooky AND festive
Shiro smiles helplessly at his phone. Calypso squints at him. “Don’t judge me,” he tells her, and tosses his phone onto his bed before he says something stupid.
He had hoped to spend Christmas and New Year’s with Allura, but she’s flying back home for the holidays to be with her dad and uncle. All of his other colleagues who he knows well enough to spend the holidays with are also busy, and that’s why Shiro ends up sitting on a couch he has far too many memories of making out on, eating badly-decorated Christmas cookies with Adam sitting across from him.
They’re both lonely, and with this in mind, Shiro realizes it’s maybe not the best decision he’s ever made. But they’re also both adults who are firm in their promises, and when he looks at Adam now, he doesn’t feel what he felt a year ago.
“Has it been a year, already?” he asks Adam, as they both sit and watch the snow fall heavier outside.
Adam nods slowly. “Just about. Why?” He eyes Shiro warily. “Any regrets?”
“No,” Shiro sighs. “No, I...well, maybe I wish I had been nicer about it.”
“Neither of us were nice about it,” Adam points out. “It was a breakup.”
“Yes, but I panicked.” Shiro chews his sugar cookie pensively. “You meant a lot to me for a long time and I just wish...I had handled that with more grace.”
“Same goes for you,” Adam says quietly. He leans back against the couch. “But people move on, and that’s okay.”
“Have you moved on?”
Adam purses his lips. “Maybe,” he admits. “I’m sort of seeing someone. It’s not – official.”
“You, having a hookup?” Shiro wiggles his eyebrows. “Who are you?”
Adam eyes him, unimpressed. “We don’t all put out on the first date, Takashi,” he retorts. “It’s just casual. We’ve been on a few dates, dinner and lunch. We talk. And kiss afterwards. Sometimes we hold hands. It’s nice.”
“Wow,” Shiro says. “You really have become a boring adult.”
Adam huffs. “And you’re not?”
Shiro smirks. “Nah, I go ghost hunting now.”
Adam chokes on his cookie. “Fucking pardon?”
“You heard me.” Shiro takes a sip of his ginger beer, which he’s possibly had too much of. “I go ghost hunting with the cute new Sculpture professor.”
Adam sets down his cookie. “Wait. Are you – don’t tell me you got into his pants by pretending to believe in ghosts.”
“What – no!” Shiro squawks. “It’s not like that! I think it’s interesting, I think he’s interesting!”
“You think he’s hot and you want to bang him.” Adam is a merciless bastard.
“He’s a friend,” Shiro snaps. “Just – a friend. And a coworker.”
“Like that’s stopped you before,” Adam says under his breath. (He’s in the Stats department. Shiro is thankful he never had to pretend to like Stats.)
Shiro scowls. “He doesn’t even know I like guys,” he argues. “He just wanted a ghost hunting partner. And I needed a hobby that isn’t related to my soul-sucking job.”
Adam folds his arms. “Takashi,” he says, more gently, “I’ve seen the guy. I know your type. It’s kind of stupid how much your type he is: wide shoulders, tiny waist, pretty face, weird vibes. Don’t lie to yourself, here.”
“I really do think the ghost stuff is interesting,” Shiro says, frantically deflecting, because he is not going to think about Keith’s tiny waist right now. “Don’t you think it’s interesting?”
“It’s fake,” Adam says. “Come on, Shiro. You don’t actually believe it, do you?”
“It’s not all fake,” Shiro protests. He sighs. “I just – have you never wondered about, I don’t know, an afterlife? Or things we can’t explain?”
“I’ve wondered,” Adam relents. “But I don’t believe in it. I mean. You know how I feel about it all. Being raised a fundamentalist Christian didn’t make a great impression on me.”
“Not like Heaven and Hell,” Shiro says. “Like...just another place.”
“A spirit realm?” Adam sighs. “There’s no proof to support that, Shiro. Probably never will be.”
“Maybe it’s not the kind of place you can get proof for,” Shiro suggests. “Or maybe it’s like dark matter – so hard to find and grasp that we just haven’t done so, yet.”
Adam is quiet. Finally, he says, “If anyone can get scientific evidence for the existence of an afterlife, it would be you.”
Shiro smiles. It isn’t happy, exactly, but it’s something. “Thanks, Adam,” he says.
Adam just nods, sighs, and hands him a reindeer cookie.
Shiro is alone on New Year’s, but that’s okay. He thinks Adam is spending it with his new beau – he didn’t ask. Allura does Facetime him for the better part of an hour, but there’s so much chaos in the background that it’s hard to really talk much...and he doesn’t want to distract her from her own festivities.
He enjoys the quiet, even if his chest aches a little as he pets Calypso and curls up on his couch to watch the ball drop in Times Square. It was something his parents always used to do, and he has no attachment to it personally, but it feels like he ought to continue their tradition. It’s something they would have wanted. He thinks, anyway. He hopes.
He doesn’t expect to get a phone call a couple of minutes before the countdown. It’s Keith. He fumbles before picking up, hoping he doesn’t sound as breathless as he feels.
“Keith? What’s up?”
“Shiro. Hi.” Keith sounds a little out of breath, too. “I, um – how are you?”
“Good,” Shiro replies automatically. Calypso digs her claws into his thigh and he glares, though he continues to pet her. “You?”
“Yeah, good,” Keith says. He pauses. “I just wanted to wish you a happy New Year’s. Are...are you doing something fun?”
Shiro doesn’t laugh, but it’s a near thing. “Oh, yeah,” he chuckles. “Me and Calypso are holding down the fort. It’s a real party.”
“You’re alone?” He can hear Keith’s frown through the phone, and winces. Maybe he should have lied to make himself sound a little less lame.
“It’s fine,” Shiro says. “I don’t mind. Are you doing something fun?”
“My mom and I went fishing,” Keith says, a little shy, almost. “We made a big dinner out of it, set off some fireworks...nothing much.” He hesitates, and when he speaks again, his words tilt into tipsy blurriness. “I wish you were here.”
Shiro’s heart pounds. “Why?” he asks, mouth dry. “Is there a ghost?”
Keith snorts. “No. No ghosts. Do you think that’s the only reason we’re friends?”
“Friends,” Shiro repeats, startled. “I – huh.”
“Aren’t we?” Keith asks hurriedly. “I mean – I just thought…”
“Friends,” Shiro agrees, firm. Keith’s breath is hazy-soft through the phone. Shiro looks at his own half-finished glass of champagne and feels sure he can’t blame that for the dizziness.
“I’m glad,” Keith whispers. The TV screen begins to flash, bright and colorful, with the numbers that will bring in the new year. “Oh – it’s starting!”
Shiro grins, the ache in his chest forgotten. “Are you watching Times Square, too?”
“Yes – count down with me?”
Shiro can hardly refuse. And as they count down over the phone, giggling like tipsy fools when they reach zero and Times Square erupts into a cacophony of cheers and confetti, he lets himself imagine holding Keith close and kissing him as hard and sweet as he wants to.
Unfortunately, school starts back up with a call to the admin offices.
Shiro braces himself for any number of possibilities; they’ve been petty enough in the past that he wouldn’t be surprised if they got on his case for not wearing a tie every day. He doesn’t expect what actually happens, which is twofold: they tell him they know about his past relationship with Adam, and that if he does not “keep his personal choices and professional life separate,” then they will have to reconsider his position or at least his power within the university.
Shiro leaves both fuming and numb. It’s a Catholic university, sure, but he didn’t think they would stoop this low. He wonders how they found out; which snoop told them. Or maybe they’re just that nosy.
Either way, it pisses him off, and it’s both a relief and a reminder of his frustration when Keith ducks into his office with a new ghost-hunting location. Shiro puts on a happy face, one that isn’t entirely fake – he did miss Keith – and tries to get as excited about ghosts as he usually is. Keith does ask if he’s okay, so he must not be acting as well as he hoped, but doesn’t press the issue when Shiro dismisses it with a smile.
They drive out that weekend further than they usually go, to a wooded area with a haunted cabin, according to Keith. Shiro barely listens as he explains the backstory and lore of the place. He feels bad for drifting, but it’s hard to focus, staring out the window as the darkening pines whip past in a jagged blur, like so many sharp teeth. His right hand flexes in phantom muscle memory. It was on a road like this one. A dark road, a quiet one. They were laughing. Until they weren’t.
The song on the radio was different, though. Keith likes classic rock ‘n roll. Shiro’s parents were more into blues. He relaxes against the seat, listening to the opening chords of Don’t Stop Me Now while Keith’s fingers tap against the wheel.
“You good?” Keith asks, and Shiro realizes he’s been quiet for too long.
He nods, jerky and robotic. “Yeah,” he whispers. “Just looking at the stars.”
It’s a lie. He didn’t even notice the stars until he said it. But for the rest of the ride, he stares up at them, far away from the dark road, and lets himself get lost in the cosmos and the soothing timbre of Keith’s voice, rising and falling like his chest with each steady breath.
Shiro doesn’t like the woods from the start, but the further they traipse through the crackling pine needles and stifling silence, the bigger the pit in his stomach grows. His jaw is clenched tight, and in his peripherals, he swears he keeps seeing things. There’s never anything there, only the clinging frost and cold wind which plucks at Shiro’s jacket like chill fingers. Hardly paranormal. Just uncomfortable.
But the further they walk, the more upset he gets. It isn’t a sorrow nor a claustrophobia; more like a building anger, one that curls intrusive and hot as a smoldering coal in his gut. When they reach the cabin, Shiro is fuming, hands curled into fists at his side. It isn’t fair. He doesn’t know why that’s his first thought, but it’s true. None of it is fair — not admin, and not the accident.
“They say the homesteader’s grave is somewhere around here,” Keith says, nudging at the heaps of pine needles in front of the ramshackle cabin with the toe of his boot. “Though, I doubt he’d have a headstone.”
“Why not?” Shiro mutters, distracted, nails digging into his palms.
Keith frowns at him. “Because he hanged himself after his wife died — were you listening to a word I was saying?”
“You were saying a lot of words,” Shiro retorts before he can stop himself.
Keith’s frown deepens. “Oh,” he says. “I thought you wanted to listen.”
“I —” Shiro takes a deep, shuddering breath. The rage, the grief, gnaws at him, wraps around his throat like a sturdy rope. “No.”
Keith’s brow lowers and he takes a step back. “No? What d’you mean, no —”
“Will you stop?” Shiro snaps, and sits down heavily on the nearest boulder, head in his heads. “Just — stop.”
Keith sucks in a sharp breath and kneels down beside him. Shiro wants to shout at Keith to leave him alone. Just turn around and go back to the car, leave him here in the dark where he belongs. Please. Please. His throat burns. His lungs scream. He didn’t think it would hurt so much to fall —
“Shiro, what’s wrong?” Keith whispers. He doesn’t touch Shiro, keeps a wary distance, but when Shiro looks at him, Keith’s eyes are fixed upon him, concerned and intent.
“I was dating Adam,” Shiro blurts, words spilling from his frantic lips hoarsely, uncontrolled. “He — he’s a Stats professor, and we were together for years, and we thought it was fine, but admin found out, they called me to their offices on the first day of the quarter and threatened —” He takes a shaky breath. “Threatened me. Us. I thought — it was stupid, but I thought we were safe. That they wouldn’t —” His eyes sting, and he rubs at them angrily, turning away so Keith won’t see.
Keith is quiet. Then he stands, and when Shiro looks up, Keith is offering him a hand. His expression is solemn and unreadable. “C’mon,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.”
Shiro stares up at him, uncomprehending. “But we didn’t find the ghost.”
Keith just shakes his head. “The ghost doesn’t matter.”
Shiro takes Keith’s hand uncertainly, Keith pulls him to his feet, and they walk back to the car in awkward silence together. Shiro tries not to look at Keith, but he wonders what Keith thinks of him. Probably not highly.
“I’m sorry for snapping at you,” Shiro says when they’re back in the car. The radio is mostly static, and finally Keith just turns it off.
“It’s okay,” Keith says. He hesitates, chewing on his lip as he looks out at the road, illuminated in the pale wash of headlights. “They shouldn’t treat you like that. Admin, I mean.”
Shiro lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “No,” he agrees. “But it’s not like I can do much to stop them.”
Keith doesn’t reply, but a line appears between his brows that suggests he doesn’t like that fact, even if he can’t argue with it. After a few miles, he nods to the upcoming turnoff and says, “Let’s stop here. Just for a bit.”
Is this when he murders me? Shiro wonders as Keith drives off down the winding dirt road through close tangles of trees. Then the trees end and they are on a cliff’s edge overlooking the black expanse of sea, a slumbering giant snoring with low rolling crashes of waves on stone.
“It’s a good place to think,” Keith offers, leaning back and glancing at Shiro. “Or talk. If you want.” He pauses, then twists around to retrieve a case of beer from under one of the backseats. “Want one?”
Shiro takes a beer numbly. He waits for Keith to take one, too, but Keith just sets the case down and taps the wheel pointedly. “Someone’s gotta drive.”
Shiro opens his beer, takes a sip, and stares down into its amber depths. “I really am sorry for snapping,” he mumbles.
Keith ignores his apology. “Have you told anyone else about this?”
Shiro shakes his head. “Wasn’t planning on telling anyone.”
“Nothing to be done about it. I didn’t want to drag more people into it. This is my problem —”
“You don’t have to be alone, Shiro.” Keith folds his arms. “In fact, you shouldn’t be.”
“I’m used to it,” Shiro argues, and takes a swig of beer, staring out at the sea.
“Doesn’t make it okay,” Keith retorts. “I was used to it after my dad died, and it still hurt like hell.”
“I’m sorry,” Shiro says, because he is. He had hoped the Universe might be kind enough to let a guy like Keith keep both parents. At least he still has one. That’s better than nothing.
Keith shrugs. “As long as you didn’t set the fire, nothing to be sorry for.”
“Is…” Shiro hesitates. “Is your dad why you got so into ghosts?”
“Kind of.” Keith fiddles with his sweatshirt. “I got mad. After he...yeah. My mom wasn’t around then. I never expected her to be. I thought it was just me. I wanted to know why it had to happen that way. Why he died, and not some other firefighter. Why I kept...having dreams. About him, in the flames.”
“Keith,” Shiro whispers. Keith keeps his head bowed, but he jolts when Shiro’s hand covers his. He doesn’t know what else to do.
“It was a long time ago,” Keith says. “But it made me think about death and ghosts. I guess everything happens for a reason. That’s what my dad would’ve said.”
“Mine too,” Shiro admits. Keith glances up at him, curiously wary. “Sorry. Wish I had a happier story for you.” He drinks half the bottle in one go, because he knows he’ll need it, even if no amount of liquor in the world can prepare him for what he’s about to say. “You never asked about my arm. Nice of you, honestly — takes most people a few days, tops.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Keith says immediately, his eyes widening. “That’s not — it’s your business. Not mine.”
Shiro exhales. “Yeah. Well. Nice of you. You’ll get more of a story than the others get. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s still hard to talk about it. My memory has — gaps.” He sighs. “Don’t know if it’s the brain trauma or the trauma trauma that did that. But I don’t remember it all. Just bits and pieces. I was fourteen and my parents were driving me to summer camp. They were really excited. I was nervous; I’d never been before. They wanted me to have fun so badly. They kept telling me how many friends I was going to make, how many cool things I would do. All I could think about was how much — I was going to miss them.”
Shiro closes his eyes. Keith makes a soft sound and moves his hand palm-side up, so he can weave his fingers between Shiro’s.
“It was a freak accident, I think. That’s what they said. I don’t know. Whatever we hit, we hit it hard. My arm got — caught. In a seat belt, on a piece of metal or something. It was fast, it must have been, but in my head it felt slowed down. Too slow to be real. I hope it was fast. My parents were — they were gone when the EMTs arrived. And I was just…” Shiro swallows. “I was stuck there in the car with them. I don’t know for how long. I thought — they were in shock. Not — but they were. I knew after a few seconds. And I remember that. I remember looking at them and knowing they were gone, and being afraid.”
Keith squeezes his hand. “Afraid of dying?”
“Afraid of them,” Shiro whispers. “They didn’t look like my parents anymore, suddenly.” He glances at Keith. “It’s a lot. I know. I used to dream about it a lot, get night terrors where it just kept happening, and I just kept staring into the eyes that weren’t theirs anymore. Adam, he…” Shiro sighs. “He couldn’t handle them. I don’t blame him. They were bad, and I was always a mess, after. I’m sick, and the meds only do so much. That’s part of why we broke up.” Shiro snorts. “He also doesn’t believe in things like ghosts, so that’s a dealbreaker.”
Keith peers at him. “I thought you didn’t believe in things like ghosts, either.”
“It’s more fun to believe in them,” Shiro admits, “with you.”
Keith’s gaze flickers, and he leans a little closer, across the divider, so that his forearm brushes Shiro’s and their shoulders bump together. “Shiro,” he whispers. “If you have those dreams again...call me. You can. I can handle it. And I know...I know sometimes, you just need someone else there with you. Even if it’s just my voice.”
Keith is so close. Shiro looks at him, at the feathered shadow of his lashes over his cheek, at the parted curve of his lips, and wonders if he’s imagining the flush on Keith’s face, warm amidst the cool blue moonlight. It would be easy, to lean in. To close the space between them, and press Keith down, back against the leather seats. But Shiro keeps his hands to himself. He leans away, and drinks more beer, and Keith watches him, head tilted. “I’m going to make things right,” Keith promises softly. “You shouldn’t have to hurt like this.”
“Thank you,” Shiro tells him, wishing he could say it with kisses instead.
That Monday, Shiro gets called to the admin offices again.
He leaves them...bewildered. What just happened doesn’t make sense. They apologized to him. Admin never apologizes. In fact, he doesn’t remember a single time that they didn’t stand by their bad choices. This time, though...they were falling over themselves to assure him they were wrong to single him out and promising fervently that it would never happen again. They were all pale and sweaty, eyes darting around nervously like they expected to be attacked at any moment. By Shiro?
No, he realizes. Keith. What did he do? He said he would make things right. But how — he can’t shake the feeling that whatever Keith did, it was something awful. The look in admin’s eyes had been downright haunted.
Keith brings him coffee later that day, and frankly, he looks like shit. “How are you?” he asks Shiro, like he doesn’t have dark circles and a strange pallor to his skin.
Shiro takes the coffee with a mumbled thank you and eyes him. “Good,” he says. “Are you feeling okay?”
Keith waves a hand. “Just tired.”
Shiro squints, unconvinced. “Uh-huh...you wouldn’t know anything about admin calling me in today, would you?”
Keith’s eyes flash with unexpected ferocity and Shiro almost drops his coffee. “What did they say to you?!”
“They apologized!” Shiro exclaims. “It was weird. They never apologize. Did you... say something to them, Keith?”
Keith shakes his head and turns to go before Shiro can ask anything else. He falters on his way out and gives Shiro a small smile over his shoulder. “I’m glad they left you alone, Shiro,” he says.
When he’s gone, Shiro frowns at his coffee. “What the hell,” he tells it, and takes a sip. Keith remembered his order.
Keith is out sick for awhile after that. Shiro texts him to make sure he’s okay, that he wasn’t struck by some mysterious plague, but Keith assures him everything is fine. Shiro doubts that’s the truth, and even when Keith does return, he buries himself in work, taking on more classes for the spring quarter and busying himself with his dissertation in the meantime. Shiro realizes he’s never asked what Keith’s doctorate is about, and when he asks over text, Keith doesn’t reply.
Later that day, Shiro is halfway through a box of questionable grocery store sushi when Hunk, of all people, knocks on his door and peeks in. Mouth full of nigiri, Shiro gives him an awkward wave and swallows as elegantly as possible before croaking, “Dr. Tuala – how can I help you?”
“Hello.” Hunk clears his throat. “May I close the door, Dr. Shirogane? I wanted to talk to you about something...personal.”
Shiro gives him a pained smile, pulse racing. “Of course. Go ahead.” Hunk closes the door and takes a seat in the chair across from him, his expression troubled, to say the least.
“Right.” Hunk opens his mouth, then closes it, then frowns. Shiro braces himself. “So – you’re friends with Keith, right? In Sculpture and Art History?”
Shiro blinks. “Uh,” he says. “I...yes? Aren’t you his friend, too?”
Hunk raises an eyebrow. “I know him,” he says, “as a coworker. We chat sometimes, we get along well enough. But he doesn’t really seem to have friends here, Dr. Shirogane. Besides you.” Shiro’s eyes narrow and Hunk holds up a hand. “I’m not here to spread any rumors. I just wondered if you could check up on him. He’s in a bad place, and I don’t know why, but having someone to talk to couldn’t hurt.”
Shiro’s chest pangs with worry. “A bad place?” he whispers. “I thought he was ill. Is...did he say something to you?”
Hunk shakes his head and sighs. “He didn’t have to. He looks exhausted; someone needs to tell him to slow down and take care of himself. Might be ironic coming from you, but…”
Shiro huffs. “Good to know even the Engineering department knows about my self-destructive work ethic.”
“Just me,” Hunk chuckles. “Anyway. Can you just see how he’s doing? He should be in his studio, I know he has a night class...ends around six.”
Shiro can take a hint. “Yes,” he says. “Don’t worry, I’ll check on him. Thanks for telling me.”
“Sure thing.” Hunk rises from the chair and gives him a nod. “I’m glad he has you to look out for him, Shiro.”
“I think he’s the one who looks out for me,” Shiro admits.
“Good friends do that for each other,” Hunk says pointedly, and leaves him with that.
Shiro finds Keith where Hunk said he would. His studio is empty, but Keith remains at his desk beside a mountain of papers, chin in hand as he scribbles with a red pen over a thick manuscript. He jumps when Shiro walks in and says hello, almost tearing a hole in the paper with how hard he presses the pen-tip in.
“Sorry,” Shiro says, quieter. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
Keith looks at him from bloodshot eyes. His hair sticks up every which way and his shirt is untucked; he looks like an even bigger mess than before, somehow. He definitely doesn’t look like someone who’s getting a healthy amount of sleep. “Shiro,” he says, his voice a listless rasp. “I can’t go ghost-hunting for awhile, sorry.”
“Not here for that,” Shiro replies. “Here for you.” Keith’s eyes widen in confusion. “How are you?” Before Keith can reply, he adds, “And don’t say ‘fine,’ because I know that’s a lie. People who are fine don’t have their shirts inside-out.”
Keith turns red, glancing frantically down at his shirt and then down at his paper, shoulders hunched. “I – no, I’m not fine. I...I’m tired. I don’t know what I’m doing. I need to finish this, but –”
“Slow down,” Shiro murmurs. “It’s okay to take a break, Keith. You made me take breaks, now it’s your turn.”
“I can’t,” Keith sighs. “I can’t, I need to figure out these sources, what my thesis is even – even about, I –”
Shiro steps forward and squeezes his shoulder, and Keith goes rigid under his grip. “Don’t,” he says. “Leave it. The dissertation will still be there in the morning. You might not be – not in one piece, anyway. Rest, Keith.”
Keith slowly looks up. He looks miserable. “I don’t know if I can, Shiro.”
“Yes, you can.” Shiro makes sure the page is marked, then closes the book Keith has been furiously leafing through. Keith makes no attempt to stop him, even when Shiro gently pushes the pile of papers away from him. “Come on, Keith. I want to show you something.”
Keith furrows his brow, but after a moment of hesitation, he follows Shiro out of the studio and through the quieting university halls as sunset fades and the sky grows dark. They walk together through the Fine Arts building, down the quad and cobblestone paths, past the trees budding with springtime. Keith inhales, exhales. Shiro wonders how often he’s been outside, lately.
He takes Keith back to Science and Engineering, and Keith gives him a questioning look, but doesn’t press further, not even when Shiro leads him up several flights of stairs ending in a locked door. Shiro is one of the few faculty with access to it, and he swipes his card, opening the door for Keith.
Keith walks in and gasps, turning on Shiro with an expression of awe and disbelief.
As university observatories go, theirs is pretty humble, but it gets the job done. They have a six-inch refractor telescope, which basically means they can see the moon and plenty of planets clearly, and lots of constellations. It’s an impressive sight, Shiro supposes, especially on a clear night like this one. He silently thanks the Universe for being on his side, for once, and gives Keith a smile. “I can show you Saturn,” he offers. “If you want.”
Keith’s lower lip quivers, and for a long and terrifying moment, Shiro thinks he might cry. Instead, he takes a shivery breath and says, “Yes. Please, Shiro.”
It takes some finagling to find Saturn, but once he does, he magnifies it as much as possible and turns it over to Keith. Keith swears under his breath, shoulders trembling as he peers into the lens for a long time.
“What do you think?” Shiro asks.
“Beautiful,” Keith whispers, pulling away, his eyes still wide and stunned. “I...how is it real?”
“It’s real,” Shiro assures. “Do you want to see Jupiter?”
Keith nods frantically.
Shiro finds Jupiter for him. He would show Keith every planet, every star in the sky, if he could. If they had eternity to do so.
It feels like an eternity up there with him, in the best way. There is no time, no passage of minutes into hours into deadlines. There’s just Shiro, Keith, and the wonder shining on Keith’s face every time he looks up.
After a while, Keith seems tired in a different way. He sits back on the bench opposite the telescope and stares at the starry sky above it. “Sit with me?” he asks, soft and tentative, so unlike his usual self; Shiro is helpless to obey.
He isn’t sure what he expects, but it isn’t for Keith to sigh and lean his head against Shiro’s shoulder. It’s such a small movement, but it changes – so much. Shiro blinks down at him, afraid to say a word, afraid to break the spell.
“Thank you,” Keith whispers. “For this. You were right. I needed to rest.”
Shiro makes a quiet sound. “Why didn’t you?”
Keith closes his eyes. “Bad dreams,” he says. “Couldn’t sleep.”
“You could have come to me,” Shiro says. “I know how that goes.”
“I didn’t want to upset you,” Keith mumbles.
Shiro pauses, then slow enough for Keith to push him away, he wraps an arm around Keith’s shoulders. Keith shivers, but doesn’t pull away. He turns his face into Shiro’s shoulder, instead. His ears are pink. “You wouldn’t have,” Shiro promises. “You’ve already done so much for me, you know?”
Keith scoffs. “What? Like what?”
“Besides letting my drunk ass crash in your office –?”
“I hit you and gave you a bloody nose!” Keith exclaims.
“And then introduced me to ghost-hunting,” Shiro finishes. “It might sound silly, but it means a lot to me.” You mean a lot to me. “I’m just...I’m glad you ran into me that first night, Keith. I’m glad it was you.”
Keith lifts his head, eyes dark in the shadow of the telescope when he gazes up at Shiro like he’s seeing Saturn for the first time all over again.
It’s not an expression that can be misinterpreted. Shiro is sure of that. That’s why he cups Keith’s jaw, draws him closer, and slowly, carefully, kisses him.
For a few seconds, it’s perfect. Keith trembles in his palm and presses back into the kiss, the slightest give, the slightest reply of soft lips. Shiro feels the moment that Keith freezes, and something in him knows Keith is going to pull away, so when he does, the devastation is greater than the surprise.
“I’m sorry,” Keith gasps, leaping off the bench and scrambling away, hands held up as if in placation. “I can’t – I can’t do this.”
Shiro stares, heart heavy, anchoring him firmly to the bench. “Oh,” he says, feeling numb and stupid when he adds, perhaps a little petulantly, “why not?”
Keith shakes his head, eyes shining with horrified apology. “It can’t be like that between us,” he whispers. “It just – can’t.”
He flees, then, and Shiro lets him go. He stays with the telescope, listening to Keith’s footsteps echo down the stairs.
He has his first bad dream in months that night. He wakes up with a cry on his lips, the lips Keith kissed, and when he rolls over and hugs his pillow to his chest with the arm he didn’t lose, he tries to remember the sensation of clay between his fingers, of a warm body enfolding him, of a soft voice in his ear telling him he doesn’t deserve the hurt he has been given.
Keith avoids him for the rest of the school year, and Shiro gets the message loud and clear.
He debates smashing the pots he and Keith made, but in the end, he can’t bring himself to do so. He kept three of them, one glazed red, one purple, and one black, and he’s proud of them all, even if they make him think of Keith every time he looks at them. He keeps them at home; he can’t bear to have them in his office. If Calypso accidentally breaks one, then, well...good riddance.
These are things he tells himself to feel better, but they don’t really work.
He doesn’t even try to text Keith. Maybe that makes him a coward, but he’s trying to preserve what little dignity he has left.
“I’m kinda mad at him,” he admits to Allura one night after midterms, when they’re both laying drunk on the floor of her apartment, drinking too much wine. (Allura is a good friend.)
She turns her head to scrutinize him. “Why’re you mad? Because he ran away?”
Shiro scowls at the ceiling. “Because – you didn’t see the way he looked, Allura. I don’t – it wasn’t the look of someone who isn’t into…” He heaves a dramatic sigh. “He looked like he wanted to kiss me. And he did, he – but it doesn’t matter.”
Allura hums thoughtfully. “Maybe he just isn’t ready for a relationship. You should respect that.”
“Then why not say that!” Shiro squawks, flailing his hand for emphasis. “If he had said, ‘Oh, Shiro, I’m flattered, but I’m not in a good place to be with someone,’ then that would have been fine.” Shiro exhales forcefully through his nostrils. “But he didn’t do that, Allura.”
Allura pats his head. “Don’t pretend like you can’t be dense, too. He probably just panicked.”
“There was no reason to panic,” Shiro mutters. “It was just a kiss.”
“It was only a kiss, how did it end up like this,” Allura sing-songs under her breath. Shiro smacks her lightly on the arm, and she casually splashes the rest of her wine on him. He takes it with grace, meaning, he splutters loudly while she eyes him, unimpressed.
“Ghosts are stupid,” he tells her, wiping wine off his face. He already updated her on the ghost-hunting shenanigans, much to her incredulous amusement. He didn’t tell her everything – that he felt strange emotions and sensations on some of the excursions, or that Keith claimed to really be able to sense them. Those details seem somehow too private, even with Allura.
But she shakes her head at him now. “No,” she says. “I don’t think you really think that, Shiro.”
“I do,” Shiro grumbles. “They’re – hic – stupid, and I was stupid to ever get into it. Or him.”
“No, you weren’t,” Allura insists. “I saw how happy you were with him, Shiro.”
Shiro swallows back bile. He doesn’t have anything to say to that, because it’s true. He was.
Allura sighs, and curls into his side, throwing an arm over his chest and mumbling into the crook of his elbow, “Don’t give up on him, Shiro. You never know.”
He does know, but he forces a smile and says, “Yeah. Guess not.”
Maybe Allura is a goddamn psychic as well as a genius chemist, because on the last day of classes, just before Shiro packs up and leaves for the night, Keith shows up at his office door.
Shiro sits stiffly in his chair and eyes him politely. “Hello,” he says. “Can I help you?”
Keith’s face falls; though, Shiro notes, he does look much better. He’s been sleeping, at least. His shirt is still untucked. He shuffles forward, halfway into Shiro’s office, then stops short. “I...I should have done this sooner. I know that. I’m sorry.”
Shiro folds his arms. “What? You have nothing to be sorry for.” He’s moved on. Really, he has.
Keith frowns at the floor, then rummages in his bag awkwardly, and pulls out a small cardboard box. He holds it gingerly out to Shiro. “I just – it’s an apology gift, I guess. But also just a gift. I know I did a shitty thing, and I’m sorry I can’t explain why. But I wanted to give you this, because I do...I do care. You’re my friend. Or, or were my friend. I…” Keith hunches his shoulders. “Just take it. Please.”
Shiro does, if only to make him stop rambling, because it makes his heart ache. He opens the little box, and stares at its contents. “Saturn?”
It’s a miniature model in clay, glazed with scientifically accurate coloring, surrounded by thinly beaten copper rings, and, to Shiro’s disbelief, tiny moons strung around it on thin wire. It’s delicate and beautiful and Keith made it for him.
“You said it was your favorite,” Keith says, not meeting his eye.
Shiro cups the planet in his hands, unable to look away. “I did,” he agrees. “You remembered?”
“Of course,” Keith whispers, and he sounds as pained as Shiro feels. He watches Shiro set the tiny Saturn back into its box with open uncertainty. “I thought...I don’t know what I thought.”
“Thank you,” Shiro says. “It’s...you didn’t have to.”
“Yes,” Keith sighs. “I did.”
Shiro clears his throat. “I’ll have to find some place to hang it up.”
Keith doesn’t leave. He bites his lip and says, after a silence that stretches thin, “I wanted to ask if you wanted to go ghost-hunting. One last time, before summer.” Shiro blinks at him, utterly caught off-guard by the invitation. Keith winces. “Only – if you want, obviously. But it’s at an old church, and I just thought it would be nice to go with you.”
“Nice,” Shiro repeats. “Really?”
Keith shrugs miserably. “If you don’t want to, just say so. I’ll leave. You won’t have to see me again.”
“But I want to see you again,” Shiro says. “As a friend.” The words are bitter on his tongue, but he says them, for Keith’s sake.
Keith relaxes a little. “You do?”
Shiro nods. “Let’s do it,” he relents. “Our last hurrah, right?”
“Right,” Keith agrees, but there’s a sadness etched into his smile.
Keith wasn’t kidding when he said it was an old church.
It’s Roman Catholic, and though it must have been well-attended once, it’s since fallen into varying states of disrepair. It’s still open to the public, but in desperate need of remodeling, so it’s laughably easy to break in. Shiro doesn’t make any quips about going to Hell for breaking and entering. It’s kind of a moot point.
He’s never liked churches – for a list of reasons too long to name – but this one is particularly eerie. Its vaulted ceiling soars too high above them, dust motes drifting through the moonlight as they pick their way between the creaking pews. “What are we looking for?” Shiro whispers, though he’s loathe to speak in this place. It feels like some higher power is listening, and whatever it is, it doesn’t feel like a loving God. His skin has been crawling with paranoia since they stepped inside.
“Not sure,” Keith admits, shining his flashlight around. “Some reports from the confessionals, saying they heard someone knocking on the other side when no one was there...also sounds like a choir singing hymns, but muffled and distant. Nothing too concrete.”
Shiro doesn’t know why these reports freak him out more than any of the other stories they’ve encountered. “So what kind of ghost is this, then?”
Keith’s expression grows genuinely wary the further they walk into the cathedral. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I...I think maybe we should go back.”
No sooner has he said it, the floor gives out from underneath them.
The floorboards were rotten, Shiro thinks as they fall, but he knows that isn’t the truth. The floorboards were firm underfoot. They just – snapped, suddenly. As he falls with Keith into the dark maw below, he knows this with awful certainty. The floorboards were firm, until they weren’t.
Until something broke them.
They land together in a heap, Keith’s shocked cry still ringing in Shiro’s ears. The air down here is stale and cold and wrong. Shiro stands, shaky and sore, and helps Keith up so they can get their bearings. They fell a long way, longer than seems possible. The square of broken floorboards is far above them, at least ten feet. Out of reach, in any case.
The tunnel that stretches before them is made of packed earth and old brickwork. They exchange looks. In the weak flicker of Keith’s flashlight beam, the tunnel looks endless.
“Crypts,” Keith whispers, voice traveling too far, echoing outwards, but never coming back.
“Did you know this church had a crypt?” Shiro asks.
Keith shakes his head. “It looks old. Probably not in use, anymore.”
That’s not comforting. Nor is the nausea spreading through Shiro like the cold, dry air seeping into his nose and mouth, making it hard to breathe. “I don’t like this place, Keith,” he admits. “We need to get out of here.”
“Boost me up?” Keith points to the hole above them. “Maybe I can find some rope, or something to help you climb out…”
The nausea intensifies, and Shiro shakes his head frantically. “No, don’t – don’t leave me down here alone.” Keith gives him a strange, alarmed look. “Besides,” Shiro adds, forcing himself to calm down as best he can, “it’s still too high to reach.”
When they look up again, Shiro swears it’s gotten even further away. Keith frowns up at it. “Damn,” he says. “Okay, then we’ll have to explore a little.”
Shiro cannot imagine a less appealing idea, but he reluctantly agrees, and they start off down the tunnel.
Immediately, Shiro feels sicker. With each step, his gut roils and his head pounds and his heart beats fast, faster, faster. He thinks he should tell Keith, this time, but he doesn’t know how. He isn’t sure he needs to – Keith is agitated, glancing to and fro and frowning down at his EMF reader, which remains a steady, unnerving green. It hasn’t beeped even once.
“Did anyone on your ghost forums say anything about these crypts?” Shiro asks, if only to distract himself from the overwhelming urge to vomit.
Keith’s jaw works. “I don’t remember,” he mutters. “Don’t think so.”
“That’s weird, isn’t it?” Shiro continues desperately as his abdomen twists in agony, as if trying to wrench him away from this place. “This is the spookiest place we’ve been, prime hunting ground –”
“Please be quiet,” Keith grits out, glaring now at his EMF. “I need to – think.”
Shiro opens his mouth to protest, but finds himself doubling over and retching, bracing himself against the wall and gasping as he chokes on bile and spit. “Augh –”
Keith hurries to his side. “Shit – Shiro, are you okay?”
“No,” Shiro groans, wiping his mouth and feeling somehow worse than before. “Obviously not.”
Keith peers at him, a steadying hand on his arm until he realizes and snatches it away, shuffling back guiltily. “It’s this place, isn’t it?” he murmurs. “It doesn’t feel right. You feel it too?”
“There’s something bad here, Keith,” Shiro manages, waiting until the nausea ebbs enough to stand and continue onward. “Really bad.”
Keith just nods, grim. “We need to leave.”
After a few more minutes of walking and trying not to panic, they reach a fork in the tunnel. Keith starts towards the right fork, but Shiro pulls him back. Keith raises an eyebrow. “Not that way,” Shiro whispers. “We go left.”
“Why?” Keith demands, but follows him to the left.
Shiro can’t describe how much the right-hand tunnel repulses him. It wants them to go down that one; that’s for certain. Whatever it is. “The right way feels wrong,” Shiro says. He feels like he might be sick again, and the pressure in his skull is near-unbearable. But he refuses to stop walking. He needs fresh air, that’s all.
Except...as they continue down the left tunnel, when they emerge at last, they’re back at the same fork. The right fork mocks them, beckoning. Shiro clenches his teeth and turns on his heel, yanking Keith with him, back into the left-hand tunnel.
“What – Shiro, this is back the way we came, it’s just a circle!” Keith exclaims, breaking free of his grasp. “We need to take the right –”
“Let’s just try this one again,” Shiro interrupts, his chest tight, his breath shallow. “We must have missed a turn. It doesn’t make sense. It can’t be a circle. It can’t be.”
But when they walk down the left-hand tunnel again, even after Shiro searches thoroughly with his flashlight beam and confirms that there are no bends in the tunnel, no turns, and definitely no way it could be a circle...they’re right back where they started. He stands there, focusing on each breath, hands curling into fists. What is this? Maybe a third time –
Keith starts towards the right-hand tunnel. “Enough, Shiro, that one doesn’t go anywhere.”
Shiro’s eyes widen. “Keith, no!” he hisses, catching his shoulder and pulling him back. Keith stumbles and falls into him, and there’s a long second where they stare at each other, panting and sweaty and scared, before Keith tears away with a frustrated grunt, glaring at him and shaking him off.
“I’m going this way,” Keith snaps. “Keep going in circles if you want, but you said it yourself, Dr. Shirogane – we need to get the hell out.”
“Back to ‘Dr. Shirogane,’ really?” Shiro calls after him as Keith stomps down the right-hand tunnel. It curves sharply away from the entry, so after only a short while, he vanishes, and so does his light, and Shiro regrets letting him go. Standing alone in the tunnel, the walls feel closer, hungrier, creeping towards him. He breaks into a run after Keith, flashlight beam bouncing wildly ahead of him.
It hurts to breathe, here. The air is cloying and thick, a miasma of dread that wraps around him and squeezes tight and vicious. It isn’t like the graveyard, the body chute, the cabin, or any of the other haunted places. This is something Other. Something awful. The shadows that dance in his peripherals are real, and they are coming for him. For them both.
“Keith!” Shiro shouts, pushing through the pain in his head and chest and belly and – everywhere. It’s everywhere. There’s no way to localize it when it feels like his very atoms are on the verge of implosion. He’s never felt pain like this before. He doesn’t think humans, or any living being, is meant to feel pain like this. It hurts so much it almost isn’t pain, anymore. He feels raw, slashed-open and strung-up and flayed-alive all at once.
The walls which have been closing in suddenly open wide. He’s standing in a large, circular chamber lined with doors, and Keith is at the center, turning to look at him with wide eyes. Too wide.
“Shiro,” Keith whispers, and then both of their lights go out.
The EMF blinks from green to red to black.
Shiro freezes. In the darkness, all around them, doors creak open. He bites back a scream. It’s just a draft. It’s just a coincidence. It’s not real. It’s a dream. A bad, bad dream.
“Keith,” he whispers, taking a step forward, fingers trembling around his useless flashlight. “Keith…?”
A hand closes around his wrist, and he exhales in relief. “Oh, good, you’re here,” he gasps, just as Keith shouts from the other side of the room, “Shiro! Where are you?”
Shiro stops breathing. The thing on his wrist tightens. It is not Keith’s hand. It is not a hand at all, but it has caught him, and it is not letting go.
He screams, and it throws him backwards, into the air, suspended. There is no air left in his lungs, though he hears himself screaming as if from underwater. The pain returns tenfold. He’s burning. He’s freezing. Electricity and venom course through his veins and as he hangs there, held by things that should not exist, the hands that are not hands rip off his arm.
It’s the right arm, the one that is meant to come off, but he understands then in the gray static terror of his mind that it is going to kill him, and it is going to be easy. It won’t matter what Shiro has survived, all the bad dreams and phantom pains. It doesn’t know that he lost that arm already. It doesn’t care. He doesn’t think it cares, really, because what he feels then – is nothing. He is an empty void, a cold and starving singularity. He will die, and it will not matter.
The room erupts into violet light and it drops him.
Shiro lands hard on the stone floor, breath knocked out of him, ribs bruised as he struggles to sit up, to get away though there is nowhere to go, and then he sees Keith. Keith stands at the center, but his feet do not touch the ground. He, too, is suspended – but not by the shadows.
His head is thrown back, black hair floating around his face in an impossible wind, violet light pouring from his eyes and open mouth and fingertips and him, so bright it verges on blinding. He’s saying something – chanting, low and sharp and strange, no language Shiro has ever heard before. He cannot make out any of the words over the howling wind that is not wind – it is a dull roar, the screams of the shadow creatures as they rush towards Keith, stretched thin from their open doors, clawing at the stones of their crypt to no avail.
They look like people in their general shape, but they are poor facsimiles, twisting away into amorphous ribbons of nothing as they reach Keith, wrapping around his arms and legs, burned by the writhing purple runes over his skin, drawn into his open mouth and glaring, glowing eyes. As the violet light reaches it peak, so brilliant it is nearly white, the shadows are swallowed up, and Shiro has to look away, covering his eyes against the burning radiance.
If the shadows are black holes, Keith is a supernova.
The light fades, though Shiro is left with an afterimage when he opens his eyes, and the two flashlights are back on. The EMF reader is within reach, busted and burnt-looking. Shiro shoves it into his pocket and runs to Keith, who lies collapsed on the stone floor, unmoving. Shiro fumbles for his pulse, terrified by how cool Keith’s skin is to the touch, and how pale; all ashen and colorless. “Keith,” he pleads, lifting Keith’s limp head up, cradling it in his palm and leaning over him. “Hey, c’mon, wake up, Keith, you…”
He finds a pulse, and lets out a sob he cannot help, folding over Keith’s unconscious body in relief. “We’re gonna get out of here,” he promises, rubbing his thumb against Keith’s cheek, bruised where he hit the stone. “It’s gonna be okay. Stay with me, yeah?”
Keith’s breath is dull and rasping, but there. Shiro doesn’t look away from him for a moment as he hurries to retrieve and reattach his prosthesis. Thankfully, it’s in better shape than the EMF reader, and the metal fingers respond once the sensors are in place. He takes a deep, steadying breath. He can do this. He has to do this.
He picks up Keith, holding him close to his chest so he can see his face, see if he wakes up. How do you possibly wake up from – whatever Keith just did? Shiro shoves those thoughts away. Unhelpful. It doesn’t matter what Keith did, what Keith is. Shiro’s keeping him safe no matter what, and this place isn’t going to stop him.
Shiro knows the shadows, the spirits, aren’t gone. Not all of them. The nausea ripples through him anew as he staggers forward, taking another second to breathe, to examine his surroundings. The doors all feel wrong, just like the right-hand tunnel...except for one of them, which stands cracked-open, its bone-white surface slightly more yellowed than the others. Shiro starts towards it. The shadows gather at the edges of his vision again, but he grits his teeth and ignores them.
The yellowed door slams shut as his fingertips touch the handle, and he ignores that, too. He presses forward with all his strength, the shadows swirling and reaching for him, but never quite touching. They don’t want to, he realizes. They may not care, but they do feel one thing – fear. And they fear Keith.
At the epiphany, Shiro grins, sharp and unafraid. “Get the fuck away from him,” he snarls, and in a rush, they do, a tidal wave halted, a moon struck from orbit. Shiro walks through the door with Keith, slams it shut behind him, continues up the stairs, and does not look back.
The stairs end in the churchyard. It is dawn, though they could not have been in the crypt for more than a couple of hours. Keith does not stir in his arms, and in the light of the rising sun, he looks even more pale and still than before. Shiro doesn’t stop to look for long. He carries Keith to his car, and with a deep breath, takes Keith’s keys, and turns them in the ignition.
Shiro hates driving, but he has never been so happy to hit the gas as he is then.
He gets Keith up to his apartment before any of his neighbors wake up, and as the sunshine fills his bedroom, he wraps Keith up in blankets, heating pads, anything he can find to bring up his frighteningly low temperature. Calypso slinks out of her hiding spot under the bed and hops up, sniffing at Keith’s face and meowing low and unhappy before curling up next to Keith’s head. She doesn’t even whine for Shiro to feed her – it must be serious.
Shiro may have gotten them out, but the truth is, now he has no idea what to do. Keith isn’t responding to anything he’s tried so far. Maybe he just needs to sleep it off.
Or maybe he’s dying. It’s hard to know. Shiro is an expert in physics. Not...ghost magic.
Because that’s really the only explanation, isn’t it? Ghost magic. Shiro sits down on the edge of the bed, head in his hands. All along, Keith had...this. What is he?
Shiro is so focused on puzzling over Keith that he almost misses his phone buzzing with an incoming call. He doesn’t recognize the number, but after a moment’s hesitation, he picks up.
"Hello. Is this Takashi Shirogane?"
He remains silent, bewildered. It’s a woman’s voice, low and urgent and somehow familiar.
"My name is Krolia. I am Keith’s mother. Is he in danger?"
Shiro sucks in a sharp breath. “Oh,” he whispers. “Oh, I – hi. No, he’s – well, he’s here, he’s at my apartment, but I think something’s wrong with him because he won’t wake up.”
A beat of silence, then a low curse. "I see. I will fly up as soon as possible."
“On a broomstick?” Shiro croaks.
"...No. On a plane." She pauses again. "You had better tell me exactly what happened."
Shiro tells her everything, or well, almost everything. She doesn’t need to know how he feels about her son, even if she probably reads between the lines well enough. After he tells her about the crypt, the shadows, the violet light, all of it, she tells him how to save Keith. He is, she informs Shiro with eerie calm, dying. There is nothing Shiro can do to stop that; that is why she is coming to the city as soon as she can. What Shiro can do is stay with him, keep him warm and comfortable, and keep them out.
“What are they?” Shiro ventures to ask.
Bad, Krolia says simply.
Shiro sweats. “Okay, then. How do I keep them out?”
Candles, sigils, I can send you references. Salt might help. Salt usually helps.
“Will they hurt my cat?” Shiro asks anxiously, eyeing Calypso, who is in full loaf form next to Keith, peering at him with slitted pupils.
You have a cat? Forget the sigils. A cat is all you need.
“O...kay,” Shiro says. Calypso yawns. “But they won’t try to, um, rip, her tail off or anything?”
No. They would be foolish to even try. She sighs. If he wakes...please tell me. I should arrive tonight.
“Of course,” Shiro murmurs. “I’ll keep you posted.”
Thank you, Takashi Shirogane. You are a good man and my son is lucky to have you.
She hangs up, and Calypso blinks at him, and Keith sleeps on.
Shiro doesn’t leave Keith’s side. He sets up his air mattress next to the bed but finds himself unable to sleep. It isn’t even about the dreams, or the fact that the sun is high in the sky and he’s been nervously drinking tea since he got back. It’s just that he doesn’t want to look away for even an instant.
It’s his fault, he thinks. Keith found the church, sure, but he was the one who wouldn’t boost Keith out of the crypt. He was the one who let Keith go ahead, who let them get separated. He was the one who the shadows caught. He was the reason Keith did what he did. If Keith dies...that will be his fault, too.
Shiro is well-acquainted with guilt, but this time, it’s different. Their last conversation was an argument. And he knows, he knows it was just that place getting in their heads, making them snap at each other in their desperation to escape...but before that, there were no evil spirits to blame. Shiro ghosted him for weeks, maybe months, and for what? Pride? Hurt feelings?
He thinks of the little Saturn, sitting hidden in his desk drawer, and wants to cry. It hurt too much to hang it up, but now he wishes he had, because it hurts so much more to look at Keith lying there, so close and yet so far away.
He apologizes when Keith can say nothing in reply, and maybe that makes him a coward, but maybe Keith can hear him, wherever he is, somewhere Shiro cannot reach.
Krolia is both exactly and nothing like what he expected. She certainly rocks the witchy vibes in her all-black outfit, sharp cat-eye liner, and short choppy hair dyed a dark purple. But she’s like Keith in her mannerisms, awkward and aloof verging on rude without meaning to be, at times. She’s kind, though – she makes Shiro sit down and starts making him pasta without preamble, despite his weak protests. “You need to eat,” she tells him when she hands him a bowl of spaghetti.
“Keith needs to eat,” Shiro mumbles when she sits across from him, arms folded. “I...I should keep an eye on him –”
He starts to rise from his seat and she holds up a hand, lifting an eyebrow. “No. Sit. Eat. There is nothing you can do for him at the moment. I will do what must be done once the moon is risen.”
“And what is that?” Shiro asks, hardly expecting an answer.
But she gives him a long, searching look, then says, “What do you think it is?”
Shiro wets his lips and sets down his fork. “Keith said you were, um. Into Wicca?”
She doesn’t laugh, but her brow creases. “Ah. It is not Wicca.”
“I figured not,” Shiro replies. “Right around the time he started floating and glowing purple.”
“Does the word ‘necromancer’ mean anything to you?” Krolia asks.
Shiro blinks at her. “Like – like, in D&D?”
“Probably not.” She sighs. “We are a family of necromancers. The power runs through our veins – the power to harness the power of spirits, ghosts, the like. What you saw in that prison was such a harnessing, but one of great magnitude. We call it a harvest.”
“Wait – a prison?” Shiro furrows his brow. He can only focus on so many of these words at once. “It was a crypt, not…”
“It was built to contain the shades you discovered,” Krolia retorts. “They did not wish to be contained.”
“And Keith...what did he do to them by harvesting them?”
Krolia leans forward. “Keith tells me you are a physicist, hm? So you understand particles, the fundamental bits and pieces of everything there is.” Shiro nods. “Right. Well, you might say Keith broke them into those particles, then broke those particles into smaller ones, altering them irreparably.”
Shiro gapes at her. “You’re saying he’s a goddamn particle accelerator.”
She shrugs. “If you like.”
“But he – he should be dead,” Shiro wheezes.
To his horror, Krolia nods. “Yes. That is often the result.”
“Then why did he – !”
Krolia’s stare is calculating. “For a good reason, I hope.”
Shiro’s shoulders slump. He returns to his pasta, though his appetite is gone. Krolia clears her throat. “I will stay with him until I can perform the ritual that will stabilize him, if that will ease your mind.” Shiro glances at her and gives a small nod. “Very well.” She stands, then pauses. “There was something in what you told me that did not make sense,” she adds. “The door. How did you know which one was the right one?”
Shiro blinks at her. “I – I just felt it. Like I felt the tunnels. And...all the other places Keith took me ghost-hunting.”
Krolia sits back down, hands steepled under her chin. “Explain,” she orders.
“An empath,” Shiro says flatly, after Krolia gives him her diagnosis. “No. That can’t be.”
“Yet, it is,” Krolia murmurs. “It is what you are. It may also be why my son was drawn to you. It is not uncommon for us to sense others of our kind.”
“Our kind?” Shiro shakes his head. “I’m a physics professor, not –” He flaps a helpless hand at her.
She folds her arms. “Denying it does not reverse it. It is a gift, Takashi Shirogane.”
“If this was why I felt so awful all those times, how is it a gift?” Shiro exclaims. “It made me throw up, it made me snap at Keith, it made everything hurt…”
“It showed you the way out,” Krolia adds gently. “It may have also kept Keith alive, and that, that is a great gift indeed.”
Shiro swallows. “Really? But I...I didn’t do anything.”
She smiles, small and sad, just like Keith’s. “You may not float and glow purple, Takashi Shirogane, but you have the power to feel what others feel and shape it into something new – good or bad, that is your choice, but I think you have used it for good.” She tilts her head. “When you took my son from that place, what did you feel?”
“I felt…” Shiro exhales. “I felt like I wasn’t going to let him die. I felt like I was going to get us out.”
“And you did,” Krolia finishes. “You did that, Takashi Shirogane. You saved my son.”
Shiro sits on one side of the bed, with Krolia on the other. They look down at Keith’s still face. “Remember what I told you,” Krolia murmurs. “Be calm. If you find hurt, do not drown in it. There is healing within it. Find that, instead.”
“Will this hurt him?” Shiro asks as he lays his hands on Keith’s left arm while Krolia takes his right, and lays her other hand over his forehead.
“I hope not,” Krolia whispers, and as the moonlight spills across the bed, she begins to chant. Shiro is sure it is the same language Keith was speaking, but even without the shadows’ roars, the words twist away from him as if they are not meant to be heard. He is not here to listen to what is spoken, anyway. He is here to listen to what remains unsaid in Keith.
His arms begin to glow with the strange runes from before, but this time they are steady, not violent in their brilliance, almost soothing. Shiro closes his eyes. He doesn’t know how to do this. He thinks for a living, but his power is feeling.
But he wants to help Keith. He understands that feeling, at least.
The emotion that washes over him isn’t grief. It isn’t pain, or frustration, or anger. For a moment, he thinks it’s the same nothing he felt from the shadows, but then it clicks: loneliness; aching and quiet.
Keith is – lonely.
Shiro’s fingers curl on his arm. He finds himself leaning closer without a thought – his thoughts are filled with Keith, fragmented impressions of their moments together, of ghosts, of clay, of stars, of Saturn in the palm of his hand.
You are not alone, he thinks, as loud as he can, and with it he feels a warmth in his chest, a give, as if something long-bound has come free of its mooring. The warmth does not fade, but lingers like spreading honey, sweet and golden-bright. He doesn’t hear Krolia, anymore. Just Keith. Loneliness does not have a sound, but it feels like a cold wailing wind, like the wind on the night they met, the night Shiro saw Keith’s face and didn’t even feel the pain anymore. The night Keith told him about ghosts and magic and Shiro listened.
Adam was wrong, he realizes then. It was never that he listened, stayed, believed, because he wanted something from Keith. He did all of those things because Keith was what he wanted. Keith, and everything he is, ghost magic and all.
Keith wakes up, and Shiro feels it, a nudge, a bloom of awareness and shocked recognition.
Shiro opens his eyes, and finds Keith looking back at him. Krolia lifts her hand from his forehead. “Welcome back to the world of the living,” she murmurs, and presses a kiss to his brow.
Keith doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. Shiro feels the relief settling over him like a soft blanket as if it is his own, and maybe it is.
Keith doesn’t bounce back immediately. He remains bedridden for the next several days. Krolia stays with him for the first day, but leaves on the second, content that he will be okay.
“I know he is in good hands,” she tells Shiro at the door, “but if anything worries you, do not hesitate to call.”
“Thank you,” Shiro tells her. “I will. I promise.”
“Good.” She regards him a moment longer. “He can be stubborn, my son...not to mention self-sacrificing to a fault. That may be my doing. I raised him to be cautious. Our kind must remain hidden, for obvious reasons...but it does him no good to isolate himself.” She sighs.
“I’ll keep your secret, both of you,” Shiro swears. “He doesn’t have to worry about that, from me.”
“No, I expect not.” She inclines her head. “Take care of him, Takashi,” she says, and this time, Shiro actually feels like he can.
He returns to Keith’s bedside and finds him asleep, not the eerie repose of near-death, but slumbering peacefully curled on his side, drooling on Shiro’s pillow. Shiro doesn’t mind. It’s one of the cutest things he’s ever seen, rivaled only by Calypso, who remains vigilantly snuggled against Keith’s back.
Shiro watches for too long, because Keith stirs awake, soft snore catching on a softer breath, and his eyes open to meet Shiro’s.
“Sorry,” Shiro whispers, aware of how creepy this must be for Keith, waking to the man who once kissed him standing over his bed while he was sleeping. “I can go –”
“Don’t,” Keith mumbles, his fingers curling as he reaches out. “Come here? I...I feel better, when you’re touching me.”
Shiro makes a strangled little noise, but sits dutifully on the edge of the bed and holds out his hand for Keith to take hold of. “Like this?” he asks.
Keith’s brows draw together. “Come here,” he repeats, almost petulant, and scoots away, leaving space for Shiro and disturbing Calypso, who rises with a disgruntled stretch and gives Shiro a dirty look before relocating to the foot of the bed. Keith pats the bed, as if his meaning could be misinterpreted. “Here.”
Shiro, slowly, lays down beside him. He watches Keith’s face closely, but there is no uncertainty there. None at all, because then Keith shifts closer and throws his arm over Shiro’s hip, shuddering and sighing, eyes falling shut again. “Good,” he mumbles, and drifts almost instantly back into sleep.
He feels like peace and the kind of dreams Shiro always longed for, the kind that you don’t want to wake up from, and it is easy to fall asleep like that, bathed in contentment beside him.
Shiro awakes to Keith looking at him. “Hi,” Keith murmurs, eyes wide and too clear for someone who has just woken up. Quid pro quo, Shiro supposes, though he doesn’t exactly feel creeped out by the idea of Keith watching him sleep.
“Hi,” Shiro echoes cautiously. “How do you feel?”
Keith nods absently, and shifts closer. “Yes,” he says.
It makes no sense, but it makes Shiro smile. “I’m glad.”
“You’re okay?” Keith touches his cheek, a quick brush of fingertips that leaves Shiro reeling.
“Uh-huh,” he manages. “You – are you?”
Keith’s lips part. “Yes,” he says again. He blinks up at Shiro. “I didn’t want to leave, that night,” he says, halting. “You need to know that, even if you don’t – feel that way, anymore.”
Shiro’s breath hitches. “What way?”
“Whatever way made you want to kiss me,” Keith says, and Shiro can’t wait any longer, he kisses Keith, like the first time but better, so much better, because Keith sighs against him and falls into it, into him, relieved and giddy and pleased all at once.
“I wanted to stay,” Keith says on a breath, “with you, Shiro,” and Shiro chuckles and draws him in again and murmurs, “Yes, I got that,” and Keith says, “Well, I had to check, you can be so dense,” and Shiro kisses him harder in fond retaliation.
Then he pulls away to gasp, “Keith, you’re a human particle accelerator!”
Keith blinks at him, nonplussed. “...Does that mean you can’t kiss me?”
Shiro considers it for less than a second. “Nope, I think I’m into it,” he admits, and kisses Keith amidst his laughter, a joy that flows through him as Keith pulls him close.
Shiro gets back from grocery shopping that afternoon to find Keith standing in his kitchen, admiring the little Saturn, which is strung up between Shiro’s struggling basil and aggressively healthy mint plant. It catches the light on the windowsill, and when a breeze drifts in, it turns lazily on its axis, so much closer to the Sun than the real Saturn will ever be.
“I never thanked you properly for that,” Shiro says, setting his bags down and leaning against the counter across from Keith. “It’s beautiful, you know? It’s...probably the best gift I’ve ever gotten.”
Keith barks out a laugh, startled, and shrugs sheepishly. “You said you liked Saturn, and I fucked up. That’s all.”
“No,” Shiro corrects, gently, stepping away from the counter’s edge and closer to him. “You did what you felt you had to. Your mom kind of mentioned that dating is frowned upon for necromancers.”
Keith looks away, blush bright across his face. “Yeah,” he says. “You could say that.” He glances up at Shiro.
Instead of answering, Shiro reaches into one of the grocery bags and tosses him something. Keith catches it, eyes wide. Shiro grins. “Thought you might need a new one. Just in case.”
It’s an EMF reader, and when Keith hurls himself into Shiro’s arms in a bruising hug, it flares bright red and beeps up a storm – which probably means it works just fine.
Keith goes home that day, and things return to normal.
Well, not normal. Not exactly.
They start texting again, for starters. Keith sends Shiro more pictures of himself and Kosmo, who Krolia brought up with her. He has a feeling Keith’s “dog” is also not quite what he seems, after Krolia’s comments regarding cats and some research into familiars. Figures that Keith would have a wolf – badass, like him.
(Keith protests at this, claiming he is not ‘a badass,’ just ‘doing his job.’ Shiro tells him his job is badass, considering he can project electromagnetic fields with enough force to generate highly localized gamma rays, and Keith gives up.)
They don’t meet up for awhile after the church. Keith needs space, and Shiro understands. Keith knows Shiro’s there if he needs him, and that’s what’s important. He spends his days researching at the library, writing up new theories and drawing from old ones. He’s devoted so much time and effort to dark matter, but now his attention is captured by its hypothetically far more common and far less understood counterpart, dark energy.
Supposedly, it could explain the rapid expansion of the Universe, create a kind of constant negative pressure, forcing everything ever outwards, everywhere, all at once. He finds himself drawn to the theoretical existence of quintessence, a form of dark energy so understudied that he’s practically compelled to learn more about it.
He meets up with Allura, who doesn’t study dark matter or energy, but focuses on the biochemical makeup of the world closer to home. He doesn’t tell her about the ghosts, but he thinks she knows, anyway. She’s enthusiastic, and always a welcome research partner, even when she elbows him, knowing and grinning, whenever she sees he’s gotten a text from Keith. She’s been spending too much time with Lance — but maybe that’s not a bad thing.
It’s been a long time since Shiro felt so close to a breakthrough or been so excited about a research project. There’s an explanation here, somewhere. Krolia said the shadows were made of particles – and they were real, observable. Shiro felt them. It doesn’t seem possible, and yet – he’s learned to stop limiting possibility in the last few months.
Keith is supportive, albeit confused. Shiro assures him that even the most senior physicists are lying if they say they know what the hell dark energy is. Nobody knows. That’s the point.
(Shiro plans to be the first.)
It isn’t until July that Keith texts him one sunny morning:
Keith: you wanna go ghost hunting?
Shiro glances at Calypso, who flicks her tail as if to say, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Shiro: Are you sure?
Keith: yeah :) trust me?
Shiro beams down at his phone.
Shiro: Yes. I ain’t afraid of no ghost.
Keith: nerd. <3
Keith takes him ghost hunting on an island.
They kayak out to the island with their camping gear, which is an adventure in and of itself. It’s something Shiro never would have dared to do a year ago, but now when Keith suggests it, he finds himself agreeing without hesitation. The weather is perfect as they paddle out to sea together, through rolling waves with choppy whitecaps that lick at the edges of their neon yellow kayaks and rock them gently onwards. It’s so clear that Keith swears he sees an orca fin slicing through the surf more than once, then the breach of a waterspout that they both glimpse only a little ways off. The sunshine catches the fine mist of whales’ breath like a shower of golden coins into the sighing sea.
Keith carries no map, but he gets them to the island in one piece as the sun begins to set and stain the ocean burnished red. It’s a small island, forested with pines and firs, each treetop crowned in the golden wash of dying sunlight by the time they reach the shore. The beach is all dark pebbles and silky black sand and scattered driftwood, the warped skeletons of trees stripped clean by saltwater.
They make camp at the treeline, out of high tide’s reach, but not so far in to disturb the island’s residents. There are no people here, Keith tells him as they pitch the tent – a small tent, Shiro notes to himself – only birds and deer and otters, and the occasional fox. It’s part of an archipelago, but so far from its neighbors that any other land is a dark smudge on the horizon.
“Do you like being so far away?” Shiro asks him as they gather driftwood for a fire on the beach together. “The isolation, I mean – being alone out here.”
Keith shakes his head. “I didn’t come here alone,” he says. “My dad brought me with him. He showed me this place.” He looks up at the moon, full and luminous. “I tried going here once after he died, but I couldn’t stay.” He glances at Shiro and sets down his armful of driftwood with Shiro’s pile. “I missed him too much, I think. It was harder to ignore that he was gone, here.”
Shiro sits down with him. Keith fishes out his lighter and they both assemble a haphazard bonfire. “What about now?” Shiro asks. “Is it better?”
Keith shrugs. “I’ll always miss him,” he says. “But it’s, um, healing, you know? I think all you can really do with grief is try to heal from it, even if it won’t ever leave you.”
“Yeah,” Shiro agrees in a whisper, looking out at the sea as the bonfire roars to life, casting their shadows long, spitting sparks against the starry sky. “Yeah, I think you’re right about that.”
They make dinner together over the bonfire, kebabs and s’mores, and Shiro wonders if this is what summer camp might have been like. He never got to go, but he thinks it turned out okay, in the end. Shiro brought some cider, and it isn’t long before they’re both warm despite the chill air, leaning against each other just enough to feel the other’s heat.
Keith shifts closer to him. “I told you we were going ghost hunting,” he says, “but that’s not exactly true.”
Shiro raises an eyebrow and elbows his side playfully. “What, this isn’t a haunted island? Damn.”
Keith just giggles, and covers the smoldering driftwood with sand before offering Shiro a hand and hauling him up, gesturing for Shiro to follow him into the woods.
The trees are close and the undergrowth is lush with ferns and moss, dew shining silver under the moonlight. Keith leads him through the pines, hand in hand, until they reach a small clearing. In the middle of the clearing is a small hill, and Keith sits atop it, and motions for Shiro to come join him.
He does, sitting hesitantly atop the little hill and eyeing Keith. “Close your eyes,” Keith says, and squeezes his hand. “You have to be patient. You’ll know when they’re here.”
Slowly, Shiro closes his eyes, grateful for the anchor of Keith’s hand as he lets his mind drift. The air smells like salt and damp wood and growing things, and the breeze that curls against his cheek is a soft caress. Gradually, Shiro becomes aware of something else, a soothing coolness from within, numbing without taking anything away. The feeling intensifies, but never tips over into unpleasant. It is a simple, pure feeling of safety, of comfort.
Keith squeezes his hand again and whispers, “Look.”
Shiro opens his eyes and finds the clearing filled with stars.
No, not stars – but lights, bobbing and swirling around them like a hundred thousand fireflies. Yet they shine a pale silver-blue, and when one alights in Shiro’s cupped palm it is a uniform sphere of pulsing light, not a firefly at all, not alive, but so bright, and so very beautiful. “Are these what you meant by physics-defying orbs?” Shiro whispers.
“My dad called them will-o’-the-wisps,” Keith murmurs as more alight on him, painting his skin in streaks of unearthly silver glow. “Neither of us knew what they were, just like my dad never really knew what I was.” He smiles and looks up, the ghostly stars reflected in his eyes. “But they made me happy, and that was all that mattered to him.”
Shiro looks at him, a lump in his throat, and says, “You make me happy, Keith.”
Keith sighs and cups Shiro’s cheek. “Yeah,” he whispers. “You make me happy, too.”
Keith leans in first this time to kiss him softly, and when Shiro lets himself sink down to the earth, dragging Keith down, Keith goes easily atop him. Shiro draws his fingers through Keith’s hair to curl around the nape of his neck, holding him there as they kiss, as Keith makes soft sounds and strokes his hands down Shiro’s sides and shoulders and waist like he’s not sure where to start.
Shiro wraps his arm around Keith, unyielding metal tucking him into the curve of his body as he rolls ‘til they lay side by side in the swaying ferns, amidst the ghosts of so many stars. “Shiro,” Keith gasps, shaky against his lips when Shiro presses them together, slots a flexing thigh between Keith’s legs where he can feel Keith wants it. “Shiro –”
“Shh,” Shiro whispers back, dragging kisses away from his gasping mouth, down the sharp curve of his jaw and the needy arch of his throat. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you, Keith.”
Keith moans and yanks at Shiro’s jacket, shoving it away like it personally offends him. “Take your fucking shirt off, please,” Keith hisses, and Shiro draws back, brows lifted, just to see his indignant expression and his red swollen lips.
“I’m sorry,” Shiro chuckles, “did you want my shirt off? I couldn’t tell.”
Keith scowls. “How dare you,” he says, “wear button-ups and goddamn tweed every day when I know you’re jacked under there.”
“Oh, you know?” Shiro echoes. “Did the ghosts tell you? Do I have a phantom voyeur –”
“I just have theories,” Keith snaps, fumbling with the hem, then pausing, his hands fisted in the fabric and gaze turning uncertain. “Can I…?”
Shiro hums and leans back with a nod, his amusement falling away into ever hotter want as he sees Keith’s expression shift with every new inch of revealed skin. “Fuck,” Keith says simply, his voice low and rough.
Shiro wants to say that he used to have much better abs before grad school, when he actually had time to regularly go to the gym, but the words die on his lips when Keith leans down and licks a line up his belly and bare chest without even bothering to take Shiro’s shirt off fully. The Henley stays caught under Shiro’s armpits as Keith explores Shiro’s chest with his mouth, and Shiro groans, hand sliding through Keith’s hair, resisting the urge to pull only to immediately give in when Keith mouths and licks at his nipple, teeth grazing it hard enough to sting.
“You’ve thought about this, huh,” Shiro manages, tipping his head back when Keith’s fingers dip under the hem of his pants and find coarse hair.
Keith lifts his head, eyes dark. “Yes,” he breathes. He falters, hair falling into his face as he adds, “Have...have you?”
Shiro sits up in reply, and Keith shies back, his breath shallowing when Shiro reaches out to unzip Keith’s jacket, taking off his own shirt the rest of the way before doing the same to Keith’s. He can only tease Keith so much, because he finds himself touching Keith with slow wonder too, rubbing his fingers into lean muscle and peaked nipples, smiling when Keith gasps and twitches and slumps against him, draping his arms desperately around Shiro’s neck to haul him in.
“Lay down for me?” Shiro murmurs, popping the button of Keith’s pants as he asks it, letting his fingertips graze over bulging fabric. Keith whimpers and lets Shiro guide him down, sitting back on his elbows and blinking when Shiro unzips his pants and draws his cock out with a low sound of approval. He’s already thick and flushed, heavy with every slide through Shiro’s fingers.
“Ah –” Keith bites his lip, hips jolting up with even a single stroke. “Shiro, I – I won’t –”
Shiro shushes him and kneels down, bringing the messy tip of Keith’s cock to his mouth reverently. Keith moans in despair and throws an arm over his face while Shiro gets his cock wet in long, slow laps of his tongue, working his way up to sucking kisses before finally wrapping his lips around the crown and sinking down. Keith swears and shudders under him, valiantly holding on even though he’s leaking down Shiro’s throat nonstop, his cock twitching when Shiro hollows his cheeks and takes as much as he can, until his jaw aches and Keith’s voice cracks.
It’s then that Shiro has an idea. His lips curl, and he closes his eyes before working up a steady rhythm, one he can keep without thinking as he opens himself to Keith’s emotion, a flood of want tangled with desperation and frustration as he struggles not to come too soon.
Too bad, Shiro thinks gleefully, and plucks on the strings of Keith’s feelings until the desperation swells, overtaking Keith’s frustration entirely, his voice a choking cry when his cock pulses over Shiro’s tongue slick and hot and perfect. Keith is still shuddering and gaping when Shiro pulls off, licking his lips and peering down at him. Keith glares at him half-heartedly. “You cheated,” he pants.
“You liked it,” Shiro counters, and kisses him deep and filthy. Keith squirms and clings to him, a fleeting moment of vulnerability before he ruts up hard against Shiro and Shiro’s own want comes spiraling back to him all at once.
“You can’t prove anything,” Keith laughs, breathless, and wastes no time in manhandling Shiro out of his pants.
“You know we aren’t working with a deadline here for once, right?” Shiro laughs as Keith glares at his briefs in exasperation, as if he expected Shiro to go commando for Keith’s own convenience. (Honestly, that’s not a bad idea, but not while kayaking.) “We have time, Keith. It’s okay to slow – oh –”
Keith cups his dick through the fabric and squeezes, eyes glinting. “I’ll take my time,” he promises, making good on his promise as he feels Shiro up, rubbing at the swell of his balls and rolling his thumb up and over where the cloth is already damp. “Why d’you think I brought you here?”
Shiro can’t help it, he bursts into laughter and flops onto his back, still wheezing. “You brought me to Ghost Island to seduce me? Keith! You could’ve just asked.”
Keith huffs at him. “I wanted it to be special.”
Shiro stops laughing. He eyes Keith. “You’ve really never…?”
Keith shrugs and ducks his head, but he doesn’t let go of Shiro’s dick, which is encouraging. “Death magic tends to be a turn-off,” he jokes weakly. “And..I never really wanted to.” He glances back up at Shiro, guarded gaze challenging him to contest this, but Shiro doesn’t.
Instead, he touches Keith’s hip, head tilted, and murmurs, “What do you want, now?”
Keith’s exhale is shaky, but his touch is firm on Shiro, and his eyes shine with resolution. “You,” he says, and hurries to add, “however you want. Any way. I don’t – I don’t care.”
Shiro hooks his thumbs in his own briefs and slides them down. Keith jerks back, wide eyes darting down, then makes a soft, involuntary sound, shuffling closer again. “Any way?” Shiro raises an eyebrow. “You sure you want me to make that call?”
Keith peers at him. “Wha – are you into something really weird, or…?”
“Yes,” Shiro says with as much solemnity as he can muster. “It’s always been my number one fantasy to recreate the scene from Ghost, naked.”
Keith stares at him for a full second before snorting, bowing forward into Shiro’s chest to smother his snickering in the crook of Shiro’s neck. “Only if we wash our hands first,” he says.
Shiro grins and nuzzles into his hair. Keith’s getting hard again; it’s good to know his bad humor isn’t going unappreciated. “Well, that’s no fun.”
“Gross,” Keith says, and pokes him in the stomach, then very smoothly grabs his dick, and that’s definitely better without clothes in the way. Shiro wheezes like he’s been punched, Keith smirks at him, and Shiro suddenly realizes that, one, Keith is straddling him completely naked; and two, he needs to do something about that.
He settles on kissing Keith and testing the waters, because Keith may have said ‘any way’ but surely he doesn’t mean any way, and Shiro prides himself on making sure his partner is comfortable. He’s careful when he pulls Keith more fully atop him and smooths his right palm down Keith’s spine, petting over his ass and squeezing when Keith bites at his lip and grinds onto his belly. Keith doesn’t tense or flinch away, so Shiro ventures further, teasing between his spread thighs, ignoring his cock to nudge behind his balls and circle at Keith’s hole with sure metal fingers.
Keith’s breath catches, and he draws back a little, pupils blown wide. “Do you want to fuck me?” he asks, like he’s asking if Shiro thinks it’s going to rain today.
Shiro’s fingers still. “Yes,” he admits, and Keith shivers like that was somehow a secret. “Do you want me to?”
“I said anything, didn’t I?” Keith’s voice is barely a whisper, but from anticipation, not fear.
Shiro hums, fingers stroking again, until Keith’s thighs start to tremble. “You said you didn’t care,” he murmurs, “but I don’t think that’s true.” He has a hypothesis, here, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t thoroughly test it. “I think you want me to decide because you want me to take control,” he says. Keith reddens, a flush that spreads over his chest. “Is that it, Keith? You don’t like to be helpless, to be caught between and possessed by things you don’t understand – but you understand me.”
Keith’s heartbeat pounds against Shiro’s chest. He doesn’t move, except to give a tiny nod, and whisper, “Yes.”
All around them, the will-o’-the-wisps have settled on the curling ferns, the mossy earth, and the overhanging branches like so many lanterns. Shiro kisses him again under their pearly radiance, and gently rolls so that Keith is beneath him, hitching their hips together in a slow grind. “We have time,” Shiro reminds him, because here it really does feel like they have eternity, alone together on an island with ghosts made of starlight. “I’m not going anywhere, Keith.”
The sound Keith makes is nearly a sob, and it is one of raw relief. Shiro kisses him again, then nudges him onto his side and spoons up behind him, fitting himself to the curve of Keith’s spine and petting his hip until he relaxes, albeit with a questioning mumble. Shiro kisses the nape of his neck and lifts Keith’s thigh, guiding his cock between until Keith groans in realization and closes his thighs tight around Shiro’s cock. “Good?” Shiro murmurs, reaching around to tease at Keith’s cock as he begins to move in shallow thrusts, fucking Keith’s thighs. Keith nods and leans back into him, head lolling onto Shiro’s shoulder and eyes half-lidded.
Shiro knows how it feels this way, even without delving into Keith’s emotions. It is lazy, easy, and warm. The angle might be awkward at first, but it soon becomes smooth as they both settle into it, into each other. Shiro moves away from Keith’s cock to stroke Keith’s thighs, up over his taut stomach, hand meeting the bruises he’s left on Keith’s neck with his lips and tongue and teeth to admire his handiwork. When Shiro slips two fingers between Keith’s parted lips, he whimpers and sucks them sloppily, arching into Shiro as he does so, hips squirming, cock begging for contact Shiro does not give him.
Shiro just thrusts harder, chasing the friction of Keith’s thighs and groaning into his shoulder as his cock swells between them. With every thrust, his cock catches over Keith’s hole, and his grip turns bruising on Keith’s hip when Keith suddenly squeezes his thighs even tighter, milking Shiro’s cock as he finally comes.
Keith is still hard, but Shiro has a plan, swatting Keith’s hand away only to press two fingers into the mess between Keith’s thighs, and into Keith. Keith whines, but it is utterly without protest. Shiro hooks his chin over Keith’s shoulder, cradling him in the sated bow of his body and listening to the way his breathing changes and his pulse leaps when Shiro’s fingers curl, searching unhurried and methodical until Keith jerks in his arms and his breath stutters on a startled gasp. Shiro does not relent after that, kissing Keith’s neck sweetly as his moans break apart into breathy cries and he comes untouched to Shiro’s fingers stroking deep within him.
Shiro holds him through it. “I’m here,” he tells Keith, and Keith trembles all over again. “I’m here, with you.”
Keith lets Shiro hold him for awhile, until his breathing evens out and he’s so quiet that Shiro wonders if he’s fallen asleep. Then he mumbles, “I never told you.”
Shiro hums. “Told me what?”
“That you’re the best ghost hunting partner,” Keith sighs. “I really like you, Shiro.” He closes his eyes, and Shiro can tell he’s smiling from the curve of his cheek.
It makes Shiro smile, too. Over Keith’s shoulder, through the dark pines, he can see a golden star, burning brighter than the others – yet not a star at all. “I like you to Saturn and back,” Shiro whispers, and he means it.