Shiro stares at the ceiling of his room, unmoving aside from steady breaths, the bare brush of wind every so often against the rest of him.
His memories are hazy; they come in waves, mixed and muddled. This body — his body, now — remembers things he does not, textures, motions. When he closes his eyes there are flashes of images that leave him sweating, nightmarish shocks of purple and magenta, a bright yellow, black and white and grey. Sometimes he sees himself, a mirror image of a doppelganger that comes at him swinging, and then the blink ends and it’s back to a tan wall, empty space.
Everything about this body feels wrong in the smallest of ways.
The flesh of it seems oddly synthetic, the wrong kind of give, cushions him the wrong way. He bleeds like a human, but the red that comes out doesn’t seem like the right shade, off color in the light, and it dries too quickly, heals over too fast. His vision is slightly too sharp, things appear in the distance that he probably shouldn’t be able to see, and his movements are just a little too crisp, knife-like in a bad way. Everything is off texture, his hair and his skin and his teeth, all the way down to his bones, not as soft or smooth or the right kind of sturdy; this doesn’t feel like the body he knew.
He knows it isn’t. But he wants to believe it is, because it almost fits, just a few millimeters off tailor. If he could just adjust it in a few ways, it’d feel like the home it’s supposed to be. He’d feel right, or so he believes, he’d feel human.
Right now though, he doesn’t feel human. He feels…
...He just feels. More than he remembers being able to.
If asked — when asked — Shiro can’t say how long he’s been hanging in the space between life and death, a living soul with no physical place, a ghost trapped in an endless abyss with only the vague pulse of a living thing echoing in the space, bouncing off unseeable walls. It had taken time before he had been able to truly see through the eyes of the black lion, to go to where the others were, to know. He had been able to sense, especially when it came to things interacting with the black lion, specific kinds of energies, the different thrums of life that each person carried — their quintessence, essentially, coming close enough that they were almost there with him, not that they knew. But he had not been able to see in the traditional sense until who knows how long, opening his mind to the abyss and letting everything flow by, the black lion wrapping around him, showing him what it could do.
There was so much he hadn’t ever touched as a paladin, had only scratched the surface of before he had died a strange death, losing the body but not quite dying the full right. Being kept in stasis, watching. Learning, and forgetting habits like breathing, because there was no need to breathe. There was only existence.
And how it had ached, then, to see and not reach out, to be locked in nowhere and everywhere. To yell as best he could and only hit a wall of static. To not be able to reach anyone, to be locked out by walls unbreakable in that state, to be replaced by a thing that had taken his shape. To have to settle for a version of himself, to be sent into a spiral, wondering if he could really call this existing if only he and Black knew of it, to eventually feel pity for something that had no idea it was being used, that truly believed it was real.
What was real, though? Could he say that about himself, having stolen its body? Could he say that it was never real when he had its phantom feelings flashing through his head, when phantom memories, fuzzy with static, kept playing at random when he slept? When the black lion had saved it, despite locking Shiro in her void — had she saved the body for him or had she saved the body for it? Had it been just as much himself as he was now?
He hasn’t found an answer to any of that yet. He’s not sure he wants to.
Being in the black lion’s consciousness had been the most surreal experience he had ever been through. But leaving it was number two on the list of surreality. Having a body again, re-adapting to touch, to movement with real weight, to not being able to phase from spot to spot with a thought, it was all sort of like having to re-learn what gravity was after being in zero.
He looks out the window.
They’ve stopped at a small coalition base, a perfect place to gather supplies and discuss their next move. There’s a lot to process, and so little time. A secret Altean colony. What to do with the Galra empire now, with Lotor out of the picture. How they were going to deal with Sendak, who was apparently stirring up trouble by targeting freed planets. Where Haggar was, what she was doing, what she was plotting.
The thought of Haggar forces him up, retching. The body remembers. So does the soul.
She’s been in here. She’s been in here, she’s seen everything. She’s in my head—she can hear me—she can see everything—she controls me I am nothing her will is mine I must give in I submit—
—he staggers into the bathroom and throws up. Acid and bile rise from his stomach to his throat, disgusting and sour and enough to take away from the panic, to ease him away from the chill of her voice in his head twice over.
He spends a minute hanging over the sink, just trying to breathe. Just trying to remember how to be real, how to be comfortable with that.
When he looks up, he flinches at his reflection. His face is so weary, made older by the silvery-grey hair he has yet to fully accept. The lack of an arm. Pidge and Hunk were working on a replacement, another reason why they’d stopped here, but as he looks at the mirror-like stone he doesn’t know who he’s looking at.
The lack of an arm is jarring in many ways. He doesn’t remember not having one for this long, mechanical or otherwise. When the Galra had taken his flesh, they had stuck the replacement on fairly quickly, jolts of fire as the wires and the energy had shocked him through. He remembers that pain.
He suddenly remembers another kind of pain too, one of loss, the rush of a blade, what it’s like to lose it again, a blurry connection snapping into place, Keith’s face, a metal floor, soundless. He grips his shoulder and tries not to vomit again, fighting off the waves of muted self-loathing.
He manages, like always, and then steps out into the hallway, careful to be quiet. He needs to burn some of this out. Needs some sort of familiarity in a world that he no longer feels connected to.
He reaches, he sees, and the path to the black lion becomes clear as day for a stretch, taking him to her, and then pulling him back.
Careful not to make too much noise, the dimmed lights just enough to guide his feet, he walks. He walks until he’s made it to the garage where the lions sit, until he can rest his head against Black and sigh, go almost limp, reassured by the echo of her energy.
As unsettling as being in an abyss had been at first, he had gotten used to it. Had gotten used to feeling what the black lion felt, an intimate connection beyond the first time they had met or when he had earned her trust. As if their minds were totally shared. To lose it, to return to what it was before, was disconcerting, to say the least. Especially when it had been all he’d had for a long while.
The sound of footsteps come from behind him, and he turns while knowing who.
“Shiro?” Keith says, stopping a few feet away. Shiro turns around.
“Keith.” Without meaning to, his mouth curves up into a tired smile. “What’s up?”
“I heard you walk out of your room.” He fidgets in place for a moment, then gathers himself. There’s a warm swell of something familiar in Shiro’s chest.
Shiro remembers. He remembers having weight in the moment that Keith existed in the astral plane, putting his hand on his shoulder, remembers showing him how to see, remembers the swell of pride that went through him, made bigger by the black lion, watching Keith be the leader that Shiro always knew he could be. Remembers his voice calling his name. Remembers the heat of his hands, remembers—
—he cuts his thoughts off. He feels the faint fuzz of a memory that isn’t his fizzle away.
“Just needed to think. Sorry if I woke you up.”
Keith shakes his head quickly, steps closer, close enough to reach out and touch. “No, I— I was already awake anyways. Couldn’t sleep.”
There’s a pause. Shiro spends it looking Keith over, just...Glad to see him. Against his back, the black lion seems to agree, a sliver of the connection they had when he existed in her nowhere, but one that was there nonetheless.
He really has grown. So much that it almost burns him to look, how bright he seems. How real he is.
“Shiro…” Keith says again, hesitant, “...Are you okay?”
The question throws him off. “As I’ll ever be,” he answers, “after dying and being brought back to life in a clone of my original body.”
Keith twitches at the word “dying” before taking another step. Shiro bites his tongue.
“You’re here now, and that’s what matters.” He says, “It’s gonna be fine, Shiro.”
The thing is, Shiro wants to believe him. He really does, so badly, and when he looks at Keith he thinks he almost can, how full of hope he is. Keith is like that. He doesn’t realize it himself, but he’s brilliant, a burning star. A never-ending glow. He’s so much stronger in so many ways.
But it’s hard to believe his words when Shiro has already cheated death once. Hard to believe with figments and fragments of memories that aren’t totally his rolling around in his head. Hard to believe when he can hardly keep himself upright, hard to believe when he can barely stand to be.
So instead he sighs, slumping into Black a little more, and Keith rushes to his side, worry written into his face.
“Shiro?” He says, and it’s startling to realize how much taller Keith has gotten. How firm his touch is as he slides him down to sit on the floor, careful to keep him against the black lion; it makes Shiro ache inside, the way Keith just seems to know.
“I’m fine. Just...A little winded.” He shrugs. “Still getting used to everything.”
Keith frowns. There’s silence again, with Shiro resting against Black, Keith crouching next to him, a hand still on his shoulder.
They haven’t had a real conversation since he woke up. That’s what it had felt like, when Allura had taken him from the black lion and put him in this body. Like being woken from a deep, painful sleep, only to end up sleeping more afterwards, worn out by waking up. Brief bouts of consciousness he remembers — the need to eat, drink, use the bathroom. But most of the time before they had arrived here he had slept, deep and nearly dreamless, at first.
Once he had finally started staying awake for more than an hour at a time, he had focused on getting used to a physical body again, half leaning against the black lion’s walls while walking back and forth over and over. There hadn’t been any time for them to just talk. Keith had been tense and focused on getting where they needed to go, working out with the others whether to head straight to Earth or to take a minute to touch base with the rest of the universe, prepare everyone else for what might come. It had all been a rush of here to there, this and that. The others had asked questions, and he had tried to answer them the best he could, but Keith had mostly kept quiet, aside from the issues at hand.
No time. Until now.
“...So,” Shiro starts, shifting to look at Keith, “a wolf, huh? You did always like dogs.”
Keith pauses, taking his hand off of Shiro’s shoulder, and Shiro waits.
“...Yeah. He crashed onto Krolia and I’s spacewhale.” There’s another pause as Keith’s face shifts into a complicated expression. “We rescued him from some...Things. On the whale. He stuck around.”
Shiro digs through what he’s been told. “Sounds rough, being stranded like that.”
“Wasn’t that bad, actually.” Keith shrugs, seems to relax, sitting against Black. “There was food and water, oxygen. All the necessary stuff.”
“You were there for a long time though, weren’t you?”
“Two years.” He says, and his eyes go to the floor. “Not that long. I wasn’t alone, anyways.”
“Right. You had a wolf.” Shiro replies, and Keith cracks a small smile, though he doesn’t look up. “And Krolia.”
Meeting Krolia had triggered a headache, the first time. Snatches of feedback, “I’ve — ank you for —“, “It’s an honor— meet you—”, a strong sense of deja-vu. The clone. The body knew. It recognized her grip on his arm, the greeting, and yet Shiro had no recollection at all of who she was, not in a normal way.
That had been...Awkward. Painful. Especially the look she had given him, her eyes darting from his missing arm to Keith’s face and back, staring him dead in the eye.
He knows. He’s had snatches of moments hit him in recent rests, Keith’s face behind blades, a burning sensation in his body, and a chill runs down his spine.
He looks away. Not now. Not now.
“How was that?” Shiro says, mostly to avoid the question in Keith’s voice, because he really isn’t sure he’ll be able to give him an answer. It’s callous, but it’s better, he thinks, than breaking down right now. He can’t. Keith is— has been through— has already—
—in the time he spent in the black lion, he had connected to the emotional state of any person who had sat in the cockpit, whether he had wanted to or not. He remembers the fake, remembers with alarm how much it had felt, how desperately it had wanted to help, all tainted by the twist of dark essence deep under its surface. How Keith had been wrapped up in so much grief, and how much he’d tried to reject the black lion, and how much that had felt like he was rejecting Shiro at that time, and—
—he’s always tried to be honest with Keith, because he knows he can handle it, because he believes in him. But he’s never wanted to hurt him.
Keith pulls back a little. “How was what?”
“With Krolia.” Shiro wills himself to look at Keith. Tells himself nothing is wrong. “Were you...Okay?”
Keith frowns, which is expected, but he’s not withdrawing, which is unexpected. His parents have always been a hit-or-miss subject, either anger or grief or something quiet but pained. Shiro figures by the way he and Krolia get along, it’s not as sore a subject as it was, but the fact that Keith doesn’t even twitch is something to celebrate, maybe.
“Yeah.” Keith shrugs, deflates a little. “I guess it was kind of weird at first, but...It was okay. We had a lot to talk about.”
“I bet.” Shiro says, and then, “I’m happy for you. You’ve really changed, Keith.”
Keith tenses, and Shiro wishes he understood why while already knowing why.
Everything about this, Shiro thinks, is ridiculous. He’s always been good at rolling with the punches, but this — dying, being brought back to life in a clone — might just be the one that breaks the camel’s back. He feels like he’s losing his mind. Maybe it’s already gone.
“Shiro,” Keith says, “I— I know you’re not okay.”
His voice cracks, and Shiro’s heart jerks violently in its cage. There’s a flash behind his eyes, staring out a spacecraft. Static from the communicator.
“Let me— help— It’ll be— I know you’re in there—”
Shiro looks to the floor, avoiding Keith’s eyes.
Keith has changed so much that when Shiro looks at him now there’s a kind of whiplash, the difference in who he was when they had first met and who he is now. At fourteen Keith had been shorter than average, angry and bitter and unsteady. He’d seemed so old and so young all at once, though when Shiro looks back at himself, he supposes he could say the same thing applies.
Now when Keith stands next to him he can meet his eyes without having to stretch, holds himself upright and level. Walks with a kind of grace and confidence that Shiro doesn’t know. It’s like meeting him for the first time all over again, something long buried threatening to arise and set all of him on fire. It’s strange, and if it weren’t for all the other things he’s had to deal with recently, it’d probably be up there in the list of unsettling occurrences.
“...I don’t even know what’s wrong, Keith.” Shiro sighs. “I don’t— I don’t know.”
He leans his head back on Black, closing his eyes. A gentle pulse of comfort washes over him.
Quietly, he says, “I died, Keith.”
He hears Keith’s sharp intake of breath and sighs again, opening his eyes.
“I died,” light floods his memories, “but I’m still here.”
How does anyone even begin to explain what that’s like to someone else? It’s not something a person is meant to explain, he thinks, because dying is supposed to be it. Dying is supposed to be the last moment, dying is when it’s finally over—
—not the right train of thought, that one. Not the way he wants to go.
“You remember when you entered the black lion’s consciousness? And I told you to see through the lion’s eyes?”
“I thought,” Shiro says, and realizes too late that this will hurt, “that would be the last time I saw you. Saw any of you.”
He hears Keith swallow, the soft, “Shiro—”, and continues, because suddenly the dam has broken and the words are rushing out, all muddled and mixed like his thoughts, his feelings, his everything.
“I was prepared for that. I’d been prepared for it. I knew the black lion couldn’t keep me forever. I knew I was running out of time.”
He doesn’t look at Keith. “But now...Here I am. With memories that don’t feel like they’re mine even though they are. And I...”
This time he turns to Keith, helpless, “I’m afraid of what else might be in there, Keith. I don’t know who — or what — exactly I am anymore.”
He shoves his hand through his hair and mutters, “Like this. How I’ve apparently gone grey early. Everything about... This,” he gestures at himself, “is different. It’s mine, but it’s not.”
“I’m sorry,” Keith says, his voice very small, and Shiro shakes his head quickly.
“Keith— This isn’t— None of this is your fault.”
His voice is practically a whisper, the words, “I brought it back.”
Shiro wants to shake him. He almost does, only to remember he’s missing a hand to do that with, and settles for knocking Keith in the shoulder with his shoulder instead.
“And I’m glad you did.” Shiro says, because at the end of it all that is the truth. Even with the identity crisis and the confusion and the loss, he’d rather this, now, than the alternative. Keith has to understand that. “I’m— It’s— This isn’t on you, Keith.”
He shrugs, the corner of his mouth curling up as he speaks. “I think it’s just one of those things that comes with the territory. Saving the universe a dozen times over is bound to cause a couple of issues. Hangups. Nothing I can’t work out with some time.”
Or so he hopes, anyhow. He’s already come out of Hell once, and that had been before Voltron.
But it’s worth believing. It’s worth saying, if only so he can convince himself of the truth within it.
Keith is silent. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, leaning back against Black, tension slowly ebbing out of his shoulders.
“Nothing we can’t work out.” He turns, looking at Shiro, a kind of resolve lighting the way. “You know I’m here for you, Shiro.”
He offers out a hand, the edges of a shy smile beginning to show. “Always.”
Shiro grasps it, voice tight. “Right.”
Keith is the one who pulls him closer, hugs him tight, other arm fitting around Shiro’s torso. His hair tickles his neck, brushes over his skin, warm all over as he buries his face further into the space between Shiro’s neck and his shoulder. Shiro does the same, closing his eyes against Keith’s skin, gentle waves of relief washing over him. A kind of peace radiate from within and reaches out, curling tendrils of a promise. The fact that Keith is real and warm and wholly there, the skin of his palm rough in his hand — he’s a tether to the ground, the world under their feet. A place to be.
“Thanks.” A wisp of a word. Keith holds him a little tighter, the press of his fingers against his back.
Somewhere on the flipside, slowly merging within him, Shiro reaches out to black lion. He leans his forehead against her, murmuring soft apologies.
I didn’t want to hurt them, he says, fragments of memories flickering around him, dissolving into the space. I’m sorry.
She does not speak. But her words reach him in the spaces between.
Memories pass through his fingers, cherished moments, things he can reach out and touch with reverence. So precious, the brief window of life he had actually lived. So small, and so infinite.
He’s going. He’s going, but he won’t be gone. He will simply become who he has always been.
All will be right, in the end.
All will be right.