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The first time Keith sees Shiro again after the battle, something’s wrong. Shiro does not go up to hug him, although it has been weeks since Keith had been in the hospital. No hand on the shoulder, although it was their thing, as an act of best friends, as brothers-in-arms, as maybe-someday-something-more. Instead he stood there barely looking at him in the eye, standing tall and poise with the sort of cold professionalism Keith had never seen from him before, not even on the first day they met.

“Shiro? Is everything okay?”

A shadow crosses Shiro’s face, like he’s about to crack, but it’s gone after a moment.

“Everything’s fine. Glad you’re back on your feet, paladin. When you’re all rested, there are a few tasks we have for you.”

“Um, sure.”

Now that Keith thought about it, Shiro had never visited him. He assumed work with the Garrison had tied up his hands; his mother had said as much. But there was something in Shiro’s eyes. Something had happened while he’d been out cold.

“Shiro?” He took a few steps closer. “Please...talk to me. Did something happen?”

After what happened in the cloning moon, after their strengthened bond in the astral realm of the Black Lion, did Shiro think he couldn't talk to him about anything at all?

“Keith…we can’t do this anymore,” Shiro said with such firm coldness that Keith physically recoiled.

It would be the last time Keith would hear his name from Shiro’s lips for a very long time. He watched, grief-stricken and shocked, as Shiro marched away without another word.

*

Shiro’s heart was breaking. Shutting off his best friend—his dear Keith—was akin to shattering his own heart into a million pieces. He sealed the door of his private quarters shut behind him and leaned back, letting the tears finally fall.

He didn’t wish to do this. But he was only trying to protect Keith.

His left hand shook and he had no idea if it was due to the illness or the emotions.

That was one thing he couldn’t tell Keith. Being in the clone body had, despite the strangeness of the situation, been for all the better. He knew the witch was obsessed with making him stronger. She knew of his disease and she tried everything to burn it out of him, even if it meant removing an arm. But this body was strong, incredibly strong, and so healthy.

Or it used to be.

He felt ill again not long after a meeting with the Garrison council. He kept silent about it, thinking the symptoms, rare and infrequent as they were, were just some hiccups from having a new arm. A new arm which had made him feel stronger and the best he had felt since as long he could remember.

And then he learned he had a link to the Atlas like that of the Black Lion, and then he witnessed Keith falling down and crash into hard desert ground (and his heart froze as smoke issued from the lion), and then he swept in and dug him out all the while screaming for his bloodied friend to open his eyes, and then—

*

Curtis had found him while in a weakened state.

After delivering Keith to the Garrison’s emergency department, Shiro paced the corridors, ignoring the blood stains on his coat. He had sent a message to Keith’s mom right away; with the medics declaring Keith’s condition “critical but stable,” Shiro knew Krolia would like to be by his side, as Shiro himself would. He found an empty hallway with a view to the parking lot. The sun shone brightly, mocking how he felt, but he was alone, and he did not wish to speak with anyone right now.

A moment later, a man appeared. Shiro remembered him as the communications officer in the Atlas but couldn’t recall the name. He was at a couple of meetings…maybe? He was easy to miss, no striking features that would make him stand out in a crowd. Internally groaning, Shiro hoped the man wouldn’t stop to talk. Everyone in the Atlas had seen how distraught Shiro was over Keith. Maybe he’d just leave him alone.

“Is he doing better, sir?” he asked.

Fuck. Shiro nodded. The man didn’t need to know any more than that.

Suddenly the man kicked Shiro’s legs, taking him off guard, and lunged at him, sending him crashing against the wall. He pinned him with his hand crushing against Shiro’s neck, cutting off his windpipe.

“You will not visit him at all during his stay, understand?” he demanded darkly, as if entitled to.

“Wha—get off me!” Shiro choked and pushed back, but the man was strangely more powerful than him. A sickening thought crossed Shiro’s mind—was he even human?

The nameplate on his chest read “D.W. Curtis.”

The man grinned wickedly, and his pale blue eyes gleamed a bright, sickly green. Shiro felt bile rise in his throat when the assaulter tilted his head to the side, lips shifting to form a smile that could almost be sweet if not for the twisted words that followed. “I’ve wanted you since the moment I laid eyes on you in the arena.”

What? Shiro’s mind reeled—arena? The gladiators?

“Imagine my surprise when I came to your planet and learned you once fucked another human? I took care of him. I always bend luck to my side.”

What are you?

“Been feeling a little feverish? That’s my blessing to you. Stay near me and you’ll continue to live.”

What do you want from me?

“Keith was meant to die, but nothing I do seems to get him killed.”

DON’T YOU DARE! Shiro’s mind screamed, but no words could come out. He clawed at the hand squeezing his throat.

“If Keith survives this accident, it’ll only be his luck. But it’ll run out. It always will with my enemies. I always get what I want, Champion. And if I ever catch you, and I will know, within a ten mile radius of him, then he will die. Understood?”

He let go, and Shiro fell to the ground, gasping for breath.

*

He never meant to be the reason for Keith’s regression. Watching him slouch off to spend their final day alone before the launch had hurt more than words could ever describe. He knew exactly where Keith would go, and he wanted nothing more than to mount on one of the Garrison’s hoverbikes and meet him there, spend the dusk and night with him, and maybe confess how he felt before the dawn.

But Curtis was watching.

“Have you gotten into a fight?” Krolia demanded, her eyes threatening to cut him down if he was the reason for Keith going back to calling her by name and not “Mom.”

Shiro winced. He wished the Galra, any of them, had the ability to read minds.

To his relief, Lance sensed something. Always a friend to everyone, he must have discarded his old one-sided animosity towards Keith to sought out his company more frequently. At least Keith wasn’t completely alone. But something’s changed in him.

Even if Curtis couldn’t kill him, Shiro suspected he had other ways to destroy his enemies.

*

He tried to kill Keith so many times. Killing Adam was easy. Sending unencrypted messages to space had drawn in the Galra. Of course Adam would have been among the first sent to battle; he was their top pilot, but puny human jets were no match for Galra fleets. Adam blew up in flames in the sky, fireworks in broad daylight.

He pretended to be as affected as everyone else, but he was nearly vibrating with excitement.

The Atlas had the power to withstand the syphoning from the robeast, but he had willed it to remain offline, hoping it would give time for the lions, and Keith, to die in the explosion, but Keith had somehow survived. The Champion had run out of the Atlas just to fish the man from the rubble at risk of the lion exploding with both of them in it. He had nearly set the Atlas aflame in his jealous rage.

But, he had to be patient. He knew his time would come.

He had purposely ignored the transmissions from the paladins when they were to meet at the rendezvous point. He knew they were false. Someone was after them; Keith had many enemies, and if he was just patient and lucky enough, Keith would soon be out of the picture without him bothering too much.

The Champion was getting restless, but he couldn’t even voice what was on his mind. Still, it killed Curtis he couldn’t read his mind. Did he still worry about Keith? Think about him? The very thought boiled in the pit of his stomach. He considered his options: grab the Champion, take him to his quarters to imprint on him now before Keith could take up more of his thoughts, but then--

Luck, again, ensured Keith’s survival.

It wouldn’t matter. The Champion would be his.

*

Shiro’s heart ached as he put on a soft smile for Keith and encouraged him to enjoy the carnival, although he knew he could not enjoy the day with him. Not with Curtis watching. Even if he was pretending to be hanging out with others, he was controlling Shiro’s every move. Even if Shiro tried to defy him now, he worried what would happen to Keith; his own death could be triggered at any moment, and he would not be there to defend Keith.

After leaving Keith’s side—and it killed Shiro. He wanted nothing more than to embrace Keith, to brush his lips with his and tell him how much he means to him—he got a notification on his phone.

There’s an arm wrestling match going on on your left. Just like the good ol days, Champion.

Shiro sighed heavily. Being in the center of attention of crowds cheering him on to win was the very last damn thing he wanted. But he put on an act.

*

Everyone was anticipating something to kindle between Shiro and Keith, hoping the carnival would thaw whatever strange sudden tension between them since before they left Earth. They had assumed it was due to the stress of locating Honerva; Shiro hadn’t been particularly close to any of them recently. In fact, he didn’t seem close to anyone. It wasn’t like him.

They were eager to leave Shiro and Keith’s sides, snickering behind their hands that the two had finally a moment alone together. But nothing ever happened. Hunk ended up running into Keith and had to pretend everything was fine.

The relationship between Shiro and Keith remained as cold as the day they left Earth.

And then, not two years after Allura’s sacrifice, Shiro made an announcement: he was getting married.

*

“Who the heck’s Curtis?” Lance blurted, nose scrunching with a frown almost comically.

“Yeah, and why are you retiring?” Hunk demanded. “Can’t you do both? Be married and be the Captain of the Atlas?

“Seriously, weren’t you making plans regarding the Atlas just last week?” Pidge added.

Shiro sighed heavily. “Curtis was the communications officer on the Atlas. That is how we met and fell in love. And I have my reasons for leaving. I have found happiness and I wish to step away from…everything.” He hoped his tone was convincing enough.

Coran just regarded him in silent shock.

Lance, Hunk, and Pidge glanced at one another and then at Keith, then at Shiro again. Shiro didn’t wish to look at Keith’s direction. Couldn’t bear it. And even in the safety of the Altean Castle, Curtis still had eyes on him.

“But, Shiro…if you retire, that means you won’t get a chance to go to space,” Pidge said slowly.

“I know,” Shiro said flatly. “I told you. I'll be happy if I never have to step foot on a spaceship ever again.”

He wished he could tell them more. Tell them the truth. He didn’t want to give up the Atlas. The ship could become a robot because of him, because he had an intimate link with the ship just as he once had with the Black Lion. Snipping him away from the Atlas, and from space, for his friends, and especially from Keith, was just too much. Just too much.

But Shiro couldn’t fight any longer.

Let Curtis have him, for crying out loud, it didn’t matter anymore. After all, Shiro was dying.

*

“I don’t understand,” Sam said. “Your physicals, your labs…everything came out excellent before you got your new arm, but…everything is now different. You’re losing body mass at an alarming rate!”

Shiro winced and gripped his side. “I’m just not…destined to live, I guess?” The tone of humor typically accompanying his wry remarks wasn’t there.

Sam regarded him with furrowed brows.

“Shiro, is there something you need to tell me?”

Yes. “No…” Shiro managed. “Sam…Please, don’t tell anyone about my condition.” Wincing again, he put on a dry smile and spoke, though the words came out flat and soulless. “I’m getting married tomorrow. It’s a time to celebrate.”

*

Even Acxa noticed, her eyes drawn into thin slits each time she saw Admiral Shirogane. She had known Keith the least, but she considered him as something like family. If it had not been for his kindness towards her, she would never have considered that there may have been other paths for her to choose.

But she sensed his heart was in Shiro. It was hard to miss. And the way Shiro acted, from being obvious protective of Keith to suddenly cold was just…too sudden. They had a rescue mission together, and the entire time Shiro had behaved too oddly, like he was retrieving a crewmember of the Atlas who he had never met. Acting on duty alone and not by heart.

And now this…wedding? She informed Keith not to go. Even if he acted like he was over Shiro, she knew better.

And really, the issue was haunting her.

What the hell was going on?

*

Hunk always cried at weddings, it seemed, even if one was marrying some venomous eldritch snake from outer space. Shiro pretended this was the best day of his life, fighting back the bile that threatened to burn his throat. He hadn’t even eaten breakfast. Or the dinner before. Or any meal for a while, now that he thought about it.

Keith wasn’t best man. Curtis wouldn’t allow him to. By then it seemed everyone had just accepted the once intimately warm friendship between Keith and Shiro was no more. He stood behind Shiro with his arms folded, and the only time Shiro had glimpsed his face, he was frowning and clearly trying to bite his feelings back.

But how beautiful he appeared in that suit! If only he wasn’t obviously upset, Shiro could pretend it was Keith he was marrying, as it should have been.

Curtis had his claws all over him. When it was time for the kiss, the man had leaned into him in such a manner that sent a jolt of fear through Shiro. He leaned back defensively before quickly recovering and putting back on the act of being in love.

The kiss made his stomach churn.

Keith didn’t stay long after.

Later that night, as the claws drew blood over his back, Curtis lovingly detailed all of his ordeals, how he had led to Adam’s death, ensured Allura remained dead, and Keith? Keith was good as gone. He had retreated into himself such that the last anyone’s heard, he was working far off in space, far away where Shiro could never see him again. Not even the Galra who worked with Keith would get much out of him.

He won, Curtis keened as he pounded painfully into Shiro. He won, he won, he won.

Shiro kept it together, even if Curtis was hurting him in every possible way. It wasn’t until he was sure Curtis was sound asleep that he allowed himself to cry and wish for death to take him.

*

Death continued to elude him. For three more years Shiro suffered as the sick and dying husband of Curtis. The last time he had—was allowed—to see his friends, he needed to wear glasses. They had all watched him in confusion, all possibly thinking the same thing:

The clone body was so strong. Why did he need glasses?

Keith seemed odd, like he was perfectly fine not looking at him in the eye. Like he didn’t even see Shiro was there. It crushed Shiro beyond words, and part of him wanted to yell out how Curtis was hurting him every night, as if the Champion was a toy to drag around and rip apart.

But all he did was what he had learned to do all those years ago: hide his agony behind a smile.

*

The door burst open as someone flew inside, turning towards Shiro.

“Shiro?” The voice, so recognizable, drew a soft gasp out of Shiro just as another blast shook the house.

He struggled to sit upright in bed. His arm trembled; his muscles had thinned out so much since the last time he was allowed out of the house.

“Keith—”

“Why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you tell me?” Keith demanded tearfully, gesturing to his chest. “Acxa was the one who told me!”

Shiro studied him in confusion, squinting. “What?”

Keith sighed and lowered his head. “She’s been wondering why you’ve been acting like this, but out of everyone she did something about it. She broke into the Garrison and sifted through your medical records. She showed me everything.”

Another hit. Shiro gripped the bed weakly as the ground shook.

“Keith, it’s okay,” Shiro said. “Just, please, leave. I don’t want him to—”

“To hurt me?” Keith finished for him. “More than he already has? He’s out there, Shiro. He’s not going to hurt you any more. Listen, Shiro...he’s the entity we’re now fighting. I saw him transform myself.”

He motioned towards the window. “We don’t know what he’s doing out there. It’s worse than when we fought Honerva. He’s an entity but…worse, somehow. We don’t have a name for it, he’s just…”

“Senseless hate,” Shiro sunk into himself. Eventually, all monsters will show their true colors. It was only so long before Curtis grew tired of playing around with Shiro and left him to wither away as he turned to destroying all of Earth, even with his prized Champion in it.

“We need the lions,” Keith stated.

“I can’t walk,” Shiro said weakly. “I can’t pilot the Atlas anymore. I’ve lost use of my right arm. And we don’t have Allura…”

“There was…something else the Holts have been building, but it’s not as strong as Voltron…but they were taken out after the first battle. And we can’t get out; he’s surrounded the planet with some sort of poisonous vapor. Any attempt to pass through disintegrates the ship…Shiro, I’m sorry…I would have tried to get you out of Earth, but I can’t…we don’t even know if the rest of the universe is safe!”

Shiro winced in sympathy. Keith settled on the bed before him. “Shiro…we’re not going to make it.”

“I would rather it was just me,” Shiro said. He fell back in the bed, regarding Keith through a layer of tears. He could barely make out his shape, his eyesight having nearly gone.

“I never stopped caring for you,” Shiro rasped. “It was always you. I never meant to hurt you. I was forbidden from seeing you for your own protection. As it were, he had also made me sick again. I don’t know with what. The doctors could never figure it out. But he has the power to will any evil onto others.”

A particular blast knocked off a few framed photos from the walls. They were getting so close.

“The sky’s falling…” Keith said. “We’re at the end.”

“Keith…I want to spend the end with you,” Shiro said. “I love you.”

He leaned forward, struggling as he did. Keith helped him to a comfortable sitting position. Keith’s hand was warm and soft in his own, strong but not cruel. The other guided his right shoulder.

Shiro could feel his heart slowing. Either his illness or the world collapsing would soon claim him, but in this moment, he could lose himself in this one final bright moment.

Just one bright moment, after all the years he had suffered, after all his agony, his pain, his wounds…finally, a bright moment his very soul had cried and yearned for so long, at last rewarded, reunited with Keith, his dearest friend, his soulmate, and just before the world and all of existence came to an end: a kiss.