When Voltron falls, there is nothing Shiro can do.
He's still aboard Atlas, stood on the control deck as he watches the mecha begin it's descent from the sky. He watches, jaw slack and heart racing, as the world slows around him. He's aware that somewhere, the Garrison crew are shouting in a panic and asking him what their next move should be.
All he can do is stare.
"Shiro!" a voice calls, over the comms. It's all static and crackle, but Shiro would recognise that voice from anywhere.
"Keith!" Shiro shouts back, yanked harshly from his reverie as he leaps into action. "Keith, are you okay?"
A loud drill of static pierces the Atlas bridge, and the world starts to move at it's normal pace again. Voltron is falling through the Earth's atmosphere, there's absolutely no way the paladins will be able to survive the impact, not even encased in their lions. While arcane and ancient, the Lions are not indestructible.
"Sh-i..." Keith's voice is cut off. He's trying to call for Shiro, he needs help; and there is absolutely nothing that can be done. Atlas is too big- too lumbering- it doesn't have the speed needed to fly down and catch Voltron before it falls. Besides, they would run the risk of all killing themselves too- a sacrifice Shiro doesn't know if they'd all be willing to make.
"Keith!" cries Shiro, desperately. His first and foremost worry is to ensure Keith's safety. "Paladins? Can you hear me? Are you there?"
The bridge is harrowingly silent, considering what is going on beneath them.
"Help us!" Allura screams, so suddenly piercing through the tension that it makes everybody recoil. Shiro's heart wrenches in his chest at the unadulterated fear in her voice. It's a beg, she's begging Shiro to do something- to help them. Yet here he is, stood helplessly watching the monitor as Voltron swallows up more of the atmosphere and approaches Earth at high velocity.
Tears prick his eyes before they've even made impact.
"Coran, do something!" he screams in desperation.
"I'm trying!" he replies, fingers flying over the control buttons. "There's-there's nothing-"
The sound of collision is heard even in the Atlas; the unmistakable sickening crunch of metal and the almighty tremor of the ground. Every crew member is frozen still, looking up at the monitor with their mouth's wide open in shock. Veronica curls in on herself, sobbing quietly.
All Shiro can do is stare.
"Paladins?" Coran asks, voice heavy with desperation. "Can you hear me? All you all right?"
They're alive. They're in a bad state, holed up in the hospital wing until necessary, but they're alive. And that is all that matters to Shiro.
Of course the first thing he wants to do is check in on his Paladins, but his newfound role of captain brings new duties he was never accustomed to while leading Voltron.
While the medics are recovering the Paladin's bodies-alive- Shiro is called in for a meeting with Commander Holt, Commander Iverson and the other Garrison governors who have survived the war with the Galra.
Iverson announces him to be the captain of the Atlas, not that this was officially needed, and requests Shiro to write a memoriam for the fallen pilots. As selfish as it sounds, this is the last thing on Shiro's mind. All he longs to do is go to the hospital wing and check up on his friends- more importantly he wants to see Keith. Wants to tell Keith how thankful he is for him saving his life against Sendak, for giving Shiro the strength to be able to transform Atlas into the brand new Altean mecha, and mostly, to thank Keith for being the only person who has never given up nor doubted him ever.
Shiro sits through the meeting, fidgeting on his seat. He knows they've suffered a heavy loss today, the final battle between them and the Galra is something that will always be burned into his mind; something that he will relive in his nightmares until the end of time. He doesn't need to listen to Iverson count up the casualties in a mournful voice, because Shiro is well aware of the impact of their loss.
It isn't that Shiro doesn't care, it's more that he would rather focus on the future of the Earth rather than what it has suffered in the past few years.
Eventually, he is permitted to go. But for all his troubles, he's cornered by Commander Iverson, who looks rather teary-eyed.
"I'm proud of you, Shirogane," he utters gruffly. "I knew you had greatness in you from when you first stepped into the Garrison."
"Thank you, Sir," Shiro acknowledges with a nod.
"I know you want to see your Palaidns, but first, there's someone who wants to speak to you."
With a frown, Shiro tries to peer over Iverson's shoulder to see who this could possibly be- and who is cutting his time with his team short. In the days to come, Shiro knows he's barely going to have any time to see the Paladins; especially since the Garrison are already organising their mass memorial next week for those who have lost their lives in the battle.
A timid figure appears from behind Iverson's back, and Shiro cannot help but emit a gasp.
He'd know those big, brown eyes anywhere.
"Shauna!" he exclaims, with a blink, amazed to see Adam's sister be stood here in the flesh. He'd only ever met Adam's family once, which was during their Officer ceremony at the end of their fourth year. Shiro had no family of his own to attend, so he had gravitated towards Adam's family. He remembers very clearly Adam's little sister chattering excitedly about how she too wanted to become a pilot, and wanted to join the Galaxy Garrison the moment she turned fifteen like her brother; and his equally heroic boyfriend.
"Hi," she says, voice as soft as her brother's. The years have changed her, as has the grief of war. Her kind, dark face is lined with worry lines that someone her age should not have to bear, and her eyes have lost the youthful dazzle they possessed when she was thirteen. She looks worn, she is beaten- defeated. And with a scar running from her chin to her eye to match.
"It's been a long time," Shiro says, watching Iverson slowly back away to give them privacy.
"Yes, I haven't had chance to speak to you since you got here. It's all been so busy..." Her voice trails off, as her hand falls limply to her side. "Would you care to talk a walk?"
Shiro casts his mind to Keith's lifeless body laid in a hospital bed as medics fight to keep him alive, yet he nods nonetheless, offering Shauna the smallest smile he can muster.
"Lead the way."
There is no mistaking, Shauna knows exactly where their destination is. This is no aimless ramble, she's taking Shiro somewhere very specific. Before they've even reached there, he knows exactly where they're headed.
The memorial monument isn't somewhere Shiro ever ventured during his years at the Garrison. He went there a few times, at the end of each school year, to humble and motivate himself. These great, fearless pilots risked their lives to pave the way for the future; Shiro always wondered whether his name would end up carved into the golden plaque.
Never did he imagine Adam's name would be one of them.
Both pilots are humbled into silence, bowing their heads respectfully as they remember Adam. It's been years since Shiro last saw him, but he can remember every detail about him as if it was only the other day. He remember how there was always one strand of hair that fell behind his glasses, how he had a mole on the corner of his mouth, how he had a scar on his shoulder- Shiro never did find out what it was from.
He regrets not asking, now.
"It was last year," Shauna whispers, voice wavering. "During a reconnaissance mission. Shot down by Galra cruisers... just like the rest of them," she adds, bitterly. Then, she turns up to Shiro, wide brown eyes earnest.
"You saved us."
Shiro cannot help but splutter. "I-I didn't save you. You all fought hard to save yourselves, and of course Voltron helped-"
"No," Shauna is stubborn, of course, just like her brother. "You saved us. If you hadn't done what you did to Atlas, we would all be dead. And you fought Commander Sendak..."
Shiro shifts awkwardly on his feet. Something unsaid hangs in the air.
"I miss him every day," she says, reaching up to touch the tarnished metal. Adam's student ID picture staring them down makes the situation so much worse.
"Yeah," Shiro echoes, hollow. "I miss him too. I had no idea what had happened."
"You weren't to know."
Shiro is glad she holds no grudge against him.
"We left on bad terms," he admits. "We argued. He didn't want me to leave. I didn't listen."
"He still loved you, I know he did."
This makes Shiro only feel more guilty. Because, as the years have passed, Adam has become something of a distant memory to Shiro. Nothing but a learning curve- a red flag- a reminder to him that Keith treats him so much better.
As Shiro looks down at his picture, it feels like he's speaking about a long-lost brother, someone he didn't really know, not someone who he was in love with.
"I'm sorry it happened, Shauna," Shiro shakes his head, feeling his throat close. Even though he doesn't love Adam any more, he is still very, very sorry about his death. He didn't deserve to die, he was a good man. They just had their differences, which only stemmed from Adam loving Shiro too much and Shiro not loving him enough...
"I'm sorry you lost him too," she replies. "He'd be so proud of you."
"He'd be proud of you too. You always wanted to join the Garrison."
Shauna gives him a watery smile, scarred cheek wet with tears.
"Thanks, Shiro," she says. "I wanted to speak to you... wanted clarity. Thank you, for everything you've done."
"You don't have to thank me," replies Shiro, rather firm. "Like I said-"
But she's not listening to him- just like her brother.
Shiro is in Keith's hospital room within the hour. He manages to slip away from all the Garrison pilots congratulating him and thanking him for saving his life. Of course Shiro is always happy to help, but their gratitude is becoming a little overwhelming. The only person in his world who understands him is Keith, but-
"He's in a coma?" Shiro repeats, mortified.
"It's medically induced," the doctor iterates. "We had no other choice. The swelling in his brain was severe, he hit his head very hard when they reached Earth."
It feels like ice has been injected in Shiro's veins. Keith is in a coma, and it's all his fault.
The doctor leaves the room, allowing them some time together. He gleans from Shiro's reaction to hearing the news about Keith that he cares very deeply for the unconscious boy, and doesn't wish to impose.
For a moment, all Shiro can do is stare at Keith's limp body. He's so pale that he matches the colour of the tightly folded bedsheets he's wrapped up in, he looks so fragile that if Shiro even attempted to touch him he'd fall apart.
Shiro pulls up a chair, swallowing hard, trying to keep the tears at bay. It's been a long, exhausting day. All he wants to do is sleep, but duty calls. He knows he won't be able to sleep until he's visited all his Paladins. And he isn't stupid, he doesn't allude himself into thinking he'll be able to sleep any time soon. The horrors are too fresh in his mind.
There are many things Shiro wishes to say to Keith in this moment, but they're all lost in a painful tangle in his throat. All he can do is reach forward, clasp one of his cold hands tightly to his chest, and press a shaky kiss to his knuckles.
"You did it," whispers Shiro, even though he knows Keith can't hear nor reply. "I always knew you could."
Sitting with Keith's comatose body is too painful to bear any longer, so Shiro continues to make the rounds. Lance is awake, but only just. He cracks a weary eye open to see Shiro there, and a weak smile spreads across his face.
"We did it," he remarks, then emits a hacking cough.
Shiro doesn't visit Hunk, as his room is full of sobbing family members. He has no right to intrude on their moment, the Garrett family probably wouldn't want to see him anyway after everything they've gone through. And, honestly, Shiro wouldn't blame them.
The Holt's are sat around Pidge's bed side. Colleen is curled up beside her daughter in bed, cradling her to her chest and whispering into her hair. Shiro lingers in the doorway, watching the scene with a sad smile across his face, feeling tears prick his eyes. Sam Holt looks up to catch his eye, giving him a small nod- an indicator that everything is going to be okay.
And maybe it will.
Allura is awake, but very weak. Coran sits by her side, holding her hand and brushing hair off her clammy face. There's a Styrofoam cup of ice chips on her bed side table, and Shiro guesses that Coran has been devotedly feeding them to her whilst they wait for the doctor.
"Shiro," she croaks, blue eyes fluttering sleepily. "We did it."
"You did," Shiro remarks, resting his Altean hand over her own flesh one, causing her to look up at him. The light is missing behind her eyes, but this is probably a side effect of the heavy dose of drugs the medics have given her. Coran alerts him that she should be out any moment soon.
Allura is midway through protesting that she doesn't feel tired at all when she shudders and goes limp, then begins gently snoring.
"How are the others?" Coran inquires.
"Hunk and Pidge are with their families, Lance's family are going to visit him. And Keith..." His voice trails off, suddenly finding it very hard to talk again. The lump returns, along with the knot in between his eyebrows. A throbbing start to build at his temples.
"He's in a coma."
Coran gives a small nod, having nothing to say. He knows nothing he can say will console Shiro. The captain leaves him by Allura's bedside, knowing she's in good hands.
Shiro wanders back to his dorm, feeling more empty than he had when he'd first gone into the hospital wing. He's never been more relieved in his life to see his Paladins alive after their tremendous accident, but he still feels.... unsatisfied. Perhaps it's because they're surrounded by family and loved ones, and Shiro has to suffer this on his own. Keith is the only person who Shiro has ever had by his side, and even he isn't here now. Shiro, for the first time in years- since before he met Keith- is truly alone now.
Obviously, not in a literal sense. There's an endless stream of people popping into his dorm wishing to speak to him, yet he remains thoroughly apathetic at their presence. He wants nothing more than to speak to Keith- or any of his team. Hearing their voices would reassure him through this time.
He starts on writing his speech straight away, while his emotions are still running high. There's no way he can commemorate every pilot who has lost their life, but feels the need to say something about Adam. He doesn't know whether his family are still alive, Shauna never specified, but if they are, Shiro knows they will be in attendance at the memorial. It's only expected of him to talk about his old lover, right?
Shiro labours over the speech for the rest of the day and well into the night. He hears the sounds of other people retreating to their dormitories and going to bed, yet he doesn't follow. What's the point of trying to sleep when he'll just be losing valuable time staring at the ceiling in desperation? He'd rather use his time wisely, like getting a start on this speech. He has five lines so far. All together, there's about half a page of content, but the majority of it's scribbled out. Shiro doesn't deem it tactful enough.
It's unusual. Shiro can speak so freely without second thought, but writing his thoughts down on paper is a lot harder than he anticipated.
The next day, he runs on no sleep. He's shepherded into a meeting by Coran, who hands him a cup of instant coffee. The bitterness curls his toes and burns his tastebuds, but invigorates his cells and makes him feel more alive and jittery than he has done in days.
Commander Iverson alerts everyone that there's going to be a UN meeting next week, and expects everyone present- especially Shiro. The organisation want to begin rebuilding the earth as quickly as possible, and the Garrison outstretched their helping hand. Rebuilding earth is something Shiro is looking forward to. There are so many people that need their help, and he's determined to do whatever he can to help.
Commander Holt then stands up, telling the governors that there's still a few missions that need to be carried out, before they can get ahead of themselves. There's an area in the Yukon that he has a suspicion might house a Galra outpost, which needs to be eliminated as soon as possible. Shiro and the MFE pilots are given the task of clearing it out, which the captain doesn't argue against. He now has the Paladins and MFE pilots under his command, which, when he thinks about it, is a rather large responsibility. One he isn't sure he's ready for. If he can't keep his five Paladins safe, he surely won't be able to keep the other four pilots safe either. They're just risking their lives being under his care...
"We won't let you down, Commander," Shiro promises, before his tongue can stop itself.
"I have no doubt," Sam Holt smiles. "There is still the matter of your ceremony to discuss."
Shiro freezes, ears pricking up. "Ceremony?" he repeats, faintly.
"Yes," Iverson interjects. "The Garrison want to hold a ceremony in your honour. For all the work you've done for the school." Then, he adds with a twitch of a smile, "It's not every day a pilot like you is born."
Shiro is stunned into silence, unable to even respond. He doesn't want a ceremony, there isn't anything to celebrate. He survived, like anyone else would have tried to have done. Shiro has done nothing outstanding, in fact, he's lost his place as a Paladin (he isn't bitter at all.) And as for the records he broke whilst he was a pilot in the Garrison, that was a different lifetime ago. That life doesn't matter now, not now the war is over.
"I don't know what to say," he says, eventually.
"You don't have to say anything," Sam tells him. "We've already discussed it with a number of people, and they're all in agreement that your bravery and sacrifice should be celebrated."
Shiro wants to know who these people are, so he can knock their heads together.
After the meeting, he goes down to the hangar to meet the MFE pilots. Surprisingly, they've very willing to accompany him on the mission, which obviously means Holt has spoken to them beforehand. Rizavi congratulates him on their victory, to which he merely brushes off. They all agree it's best to hunt down the Galra base as quickly as possible, reducing the risk of another army building up under their noses. James suggests they head out tomorrow, and Shiro, who has no other pressing arrangements, agrees. The mission itself shouldn't take long. A day, at most, if they're lucky. Hopefully, there won't be any Galra left in the outpost, and it'll just be a matter of disposing of it before anyone else finds it.
Shiro spends the rest of the day avoiding anyone who comes into his path, occupying his time in Keith's hospital room. The doctor gently tells him that there's been no improvement in his condition, but he's responding well to the treatment. This sparks a flutter of hope in Shiro's chest. Maybe he won't have to lose Keith for the- he finds it difficult to keep count- fourth time.
People know to leave the two black paladins alone when they're in the room together. Even Coran keeps a safe distance, alerting Iverson and Holt to give them a few hours alone with each other. Iverson doesn't understand, but Holt has an inkling why.
Slowly, Shiro begins to feel more comfortable sitting with Keith. He tells the unconscious boy about his day, speaking soft and slowly; the voice he reserves for Keith and only him. He tells him about the mission to the Yukon to destroy the leftover Galra outpost, then tells Keith he reckons there'll be many more like it across the globe.
"I hope you recover soon, Keith," whispers Shiro, brushing the hair out of his closed eyes. "I could really use your help in all this."
Keith remains unmoving, untouched by the sentiment or speech, but Shiro isn't disheartened.
Shiro can't take Atlas on their mission with him the next day, as the metal titan is far too obvious and imposing for their undercover mission. The Garrison want to keep the mission as hushed as possible, not wanting to further worry earth's population who are still in mourning and being released from labour camps.
Then, the idea comes to him. It's crazy, makes his heart race just merely thinking about it, maybe he can take Black with him on the mission.
It's been months since he's sat in the piloting chair of the black lion, after having graciously step down and let Keith resume his position of Black Paladin. He was in no fit state to be flying anyway- with only one arm and his clone body weak after the fight between him and Keith- which is something he doesn't think he'll ever get over.
The cockpit still smells like Keith, which is a surprise even though it's only been two days since he was last in here. The lion has been repaired and cleaned, even the cockpit has been hosed down, but there's still the slight tang of blood in the air every time Shiro inhales.
With a sigh, he sits down and closes his eyes, knitting his eyebrows together in concentration. He grasps both of the control handles, focusing his entire might onto connecting with the black lion. She trusted him, he was her Paladin once, she can trust him again. She has to. Shiro has lost too much, he can't bear to lose Black as well.
"Hey, girl," he murmurs, still keeping his eyes shut. "It's me, Shiro. I know you probably don't trust me after... everything that's happened, but I could really use your help now. Keith isn't very well and..." His voice trails off. And what? He wanted to be in the only place left that reminds him of Keith, now the Castle of Lions is destroyed? He wants to know that Black hasn't given up on him, because his heart still aches to be back in the cockpit? He wants to feel some- any- attachment to Keith, who is laying cold and comatose in a hospital bed?
"Please," begs Shiro. "Please believe in me again."
He's met with stony silence, as Black remains unresponsive. With a sigh, he leans his head back in anguish, feeling what's left of his heart fluttering away in tatters. He had such high hopes that one day he'd be able to fly Black again; that she'd be able to forgive him, and learn how to trust him again. He's still the same Shiro, this he's sure of, he's just in a different body with new hair and a new arm. Before his accident, Keith adamantly retained this fact as well.
Shiro's grip unintentionally gets tighter on the lion's control handles, in one last bid of hope she will change her mind and respond. To no avail. The black lion is just something else Shiro has lost in this fight, and for what?
Just as he's standing up to leave, a humming noise catches Shiro's attention. Confused, his eyebrows raise up his forehead as he tries to pinpoint the sound. It's probably something the engineers have refurbished in the lion, it'll be a new system shutting down or something. Or it's Black shutting down on Shiro forever.
Then, to his utter amazement, Shiro feels something hook-like in his chest. He recognises this feeling, his heart races in tentative joy.
No, it can't be...
Gently placing his hands back down on the control handles, Shiro screws his eyes shut yet again and tries to reach out to the lion, which is somewhere in the very back corner of his brain, just waiting to be reclaimed.
"Come on," he urges under his breath. "Please, Black."
Before Shiro can register what's happening, he's being hurtled back onto the astral plane- the place where he was trapped for so long before Keith brought his consciousness back. He stands in the spot he always did, though, instead of facing the black lion like he assumed he would, he's faced with Keith.
"Keith!" he exclaims. "Are you all right."
Immediately, Shiro knows something is wrong. This Keith is cold and frigid, not even realising Shiro is stood before him. His feet are glued to the vast expanse of nothing he's stood on, so there's no way Shiro can go over to see him. To hold him.
"Accept him," Keith says into the void, to no one in particular. "He's here to help."
"Keith," Shiro tries again, more desperate now. "Can you hear me?"
And just like he was made out of mist, Keith dissolves into the infinite starry night without leaving a trace behind.
When Shiro is thrown back into reality, the black lion is vibrating beneath him, quivering with anticipation. Shiro places his hands back on the controls, and the mecha springs to life. With a delighted gasp, and a triumphant whoop, Shiro pushes the control gear forward, in which the lion responds by throwing its head back and emitting a triumphant roar.
Engineers working on fixing the other lions look up in astonishment, squinting hard to see who is controlling the lion in the cockpit. They see nothing, only the lion crouching down low to the ground then throwing itself forward into a leap. For an awful second, they expect the mecha to fall to the ground, but it takes off clear and high into the sky.
"Captain Shirogane!" Leifsdottir shouts through the comms. "Is that you in the black lion?"
"I don't believe it!" Rivazi breathes.
"Come on, team," Shiro says determinedly, unable to wipe the victorious smug off his face. "Follow me."
There is little time to tell Keith about their successful mission in the Yukon and him flying the black lion, because as soon as Shiro touches back down onto Garrison property, he's swept into yet another cluster of meetings that last until two o clock in the morning. He's too exhausted to do anything but drag himself into his dormitory and collapse onto his bed, letting fatigue pull him into a dreamless and disturbed sleep.
The next morning, there are UN representatives waiting for him in the meeting room. They all shake his hand enthusiastically, thanking him profoundly for his service and bravery; while Shiro insists that it was the actual Paladins of Voltron who did all the dirty work. Still, he allows himself to take some credit.
Their meeting is nowhere near as strenuous as all the other ones have been. Shiro finds it easy putting his ideas forward, telling the UN leaders what their next moves should be in restoring planet Earth. Holt forewarns them that there's still Galra outposts they're hunting down, though they pose no real threat. The Galra fleet have retreated back into space, for now. Shiro has no qualms that one day they will return for revenge.
There is still time to visit Keith that day, which Shiro is relieved about. Deep down, he knows he should be preparing for his memorial speech; he simply cannot find the heart to tear himself away from Keith. He's certain that their encounter on the astral plane had something to do with Keith yearning to see him as much as Shiro wishes to see him too.
In between meetings, sleep and eating mechanically, there's been little time to dwell on the subject of flying the black lion again. When Coran heard, he was absolutely delighted, clapping Shiro so hard on the back that he almost face-planted into the table. As over the top as Coran's response was, Shiro cannot help but feel he was more relieved about the fact that if Keith doesn't make it out of this coma alive, then there's a back-up black paladin to form Voltron with.
It's much less hassle than finding someone completely new to do the job.
Whilst Shiro is heading back from the hospital wing-with a heavy heart due to Keith's condition- he bumps into Kinkade, the MEF pilot. And, secretly, Shiro's favourite member of the team. He's quiet, reserved and stoically brave, but beneath that; a quick-thinker and takes initiative when James is too overbearing. He reminds Shiro a lot of himself during his days in the Garrison.
"Captain Shirogane, can I have a word?" he requests.
Startled, and mildly apprehensive, Shiro agrees and motions for the pilot to lead the way. Kinkade leads him into a nearby classroom, which looks like it hasn't been inhabited in months. Dust an inch thick covers every visible surface, and there's an infinite sadness and emptiness about the place.
"What's on your mind, Kinkade?"
"I want to talk our mission the other day."
"Go ahead," smiles Shiro. "You were great. I was very impressed."
Kinkade smiles- or is it a grimace?- and continues. "I wanted to talk about the black lion. How you were flying it."
Shiro pauses, cocking his head in interest.
"How did you fly it? I thought the other guy was its paladin."
"Well, I was the first Black Paladin," Shiro tells him, ignoring the pain in his chest. Was. A reminder of the good days when they first formed Voltron and the future looked nowhere near as bleak as the one they're living in now.
Kinkade's eyes widen in what Shiro assumes is admiration.
Although Shiro doesn't mind answering the pilot's questions, he cannot quite shake the feeling of apprehension. Kinkade has barely said five words to him, bar on their mission, so why is he suddenly so interested in the black lion? Why is he probing further into Shiro's history with it?
"Well... I died," replies Shiro, simply. Because, really, it is that simple. It shouldn't be, but it's the only way to dress it how it is.
"I died, and my conscious was placed in the black lion," Shiro explains. "I helped Keith pilot it, and enabled their bond to form. I was made into a clone by a Galra witch, and my old clone died and my consciousness was transferred from the black lion into a new body. Hence the new arm," he lifts his Altean arm up and wiggles his fingers.
Kinkade's eyes bulge in disbelief, his admiration turned into utmost awe.
"Woah," he breathes.
Shiro shrugs. "It is what it is."
There's a brief pause.
"James wants to fly the black lion," Kinkade says quietly, barely even audible.
"Really?" Shiro chuckles softly. "I don't think he's made for that, somehow. If anyone was going to pilot Black, I think it would be you."
Kinkade now wears astonishment on his countenance.
"Me?" he repeats, like he can't believe what he's hearing.
"Yeah. She doesn't really respond well to hotheads," he smiles. "No, I think you'd make black paladin material, Kinkade."
"Hypothetically, of course," the boy adds quickly.
The memorial is tomorrow, and all Shiro has to show for his efforts in a scrappy piece of paper that's been scribbled and crumpled so much that it's torn and tattered round the edges, with a large rip running down the middle. Shiro has still had no luck, which technically isn't his fault. He's been so busy in the past week, it's all gone by in a blur of meetings and hospital visits, that there's hardly been any time for him to write anything down. Shiro knows that the fallen pilots deserve more than some cobbled together speech that hasn't been well thought out, but that is all he can offer them. It's a disservice to their bravery, and it's tearing Shiro apart, but he doesn't know what else he can do.
He doesn't indulge this secret to anyone, not even Coran. Somehow, Coran's disappointment would be worse than anyone else's.
On the morning of the memorial, he dresses in his uniform and tries to flatten down his hair in the most presentable way he can manage. He's still struggling with his new arm, it's too big and clunky for menial tasks like this, though it wasn't any better when he was an amputee, so he will just have to suffer.
Shiro manages to squeeze a quick visit in to Keith before he heads out. For the past week, Shiro hasn't really checked up on anyone else apart from Allura, who was so out of it on most of his visits that he doubts she even realised he was there to see her. No, Shiro doesn't feel like it's his place to intrude on the paladin's sacred time with their families. They've waited years to see them again. Truthfully, Shiro is no longer needed in their lives. They don't need their Paladin family any more. Even Keith has found family- this is evident by Krolia and Kolivan sat by his bedside. Shiro has no one.
"Shiro," Krolia stands up to greet him. She throws him off guard by sweeping him into a particularly maternal hug. This is the first time Shiro has seen her since she went off with Kolivan to rebuild the Blades, she's probably been worried sick about Keith. Just like Shiro has been.
"It's good to see you, Krolia," Shiro half-smiles, as she rests both her hands on either of his biceps. Her eyes- so like Keith's- search his face intently. Then, Shiro's eyes slide over her shoulder to acknowledge the other person in the room. "It's good to see you too, Kolivan. I'm glad you've made a full recovery."
"Thanks to Keith," Kolivan nods to the limp boy in bed. His heart monitor beeps away reliantly, the only reminder that Keith is actually still alive and not some lifeless corpse.
"How goes your mission?"
"Good," Kolivan nods, always recitent. "We're slowly building up our membership. The Druids delivered a fatal blow but..." His expression softens slightly as he looks up at Krolia. At first, Shiro is certain he imagined it. "We will survive. We have done for millennia."
"Thank you for staying by his side," says Krolia, lowering herself back down onto Keith's bed. "I was so worried about you all. I knew..." She stops herself mid sentence, realising it's not tactful to continue. "Coran told me about the memorial. Good luck, Shiro."
"I'll come back after," he promises.
Krolia's lips upturn slightly in a smile. "Then we will make ourselves scarce."
The crowd is huge. It's almost like every remaining person on Earth has amalgamated on the Garrison grounds to be witness the memorial. On the makeshift stage, the five newly refurbished lions sit still and indomitable- looking out onto the crowd, still protecting them. Chairs have been set up, each one commemorating a pilot who has lost their life in the past year. On each seat, there is a framed photo of said pilot. Shiro can't seem to take his eyes off the chair that depicts Adam, feeling red hot guilt surge through his stomach.
He can't immediately spot his family in the crowd, no matter how hard he surveys. Yet he's almost certain he can feel their presence, feel their doe brown eyes burning into his skin.
Iverson solemnly places an enormous wreath of white lilies onto the stage, saluting one final time to the departed. That is Shiro's cue to stand up to the podium, swallowing hard.
Casting his eyes down onto his blank piece of paper, he crumples it up in his hand. The things he needs to say cannot simply be transferred onto paper, they need to come from the heart.
"Today, we're here to celebrate the life of these brave souls who fought endlessly hard for our liberation." Shiro begins. Sweat beads down his temple. Has it been this hot all day, or is the sun only beating down this hard on Shiro?
"Today, we look back at the lives that have been lost, and the sacrifices that have been made here on Earth and across the universe. There isn't one of us here today who hasn't experienced the tragedy of losing someone close. It truly feels like a light in has gone out in our lives and the sun itself couldn't reignite it. But that light, that fire, has not gone out completely. It is fuelled within each of us by the memories and the love of those we've lost. And now we must move forward in their names. And shine that light onto a new path for future generations. Today is a solemn day, but it is also a day of hope. Earth is now stronger than ever, and it stands as a beacon of light to help guide those fighting against tyranny and oppression. From here, we will spread peace, and together we will hold strong... as the defenders of the universe."
Applause so loud it shakes to the very core of the earth follows. The makeshift stage trembles beneath the tumultuous gratitude, as people clap. They applaud for their liberation, they applaud for the end, and they applaud in memory of their loved ones who couldn't make it here today, but will live on forever.
Shiro steps down from the podium to let Iverson resume talking, though it isn't for long. Five minutes later the memorial ends, the crowd begins to sparse and Shiro is finally free to visit Keith in the hospital wing like he promised he would.
As he walks down the corridor, he chokes back a sob. It's been much harder today remembering Adam than he anticipated. Seeing his earnest face in the photograph look at him during the whole speech is what spurred him on, helped him continue to plough on even when his throat was so dry he didn't think he could speak and tears stung his eyes so painfully that there was nothing he could do but blink hopelessly. His family weren't there, he doesn't think. Shiro likes to think they're somewhere safe and hidden, the other alternative is unbearable to think about.
Before he reaches Keith's room- the last on the corridor- a soft voice calls to him from a doorway. On the threshold is Mrs Mcclain, Lance's mother. Worry lines have deepened in her face, making her look much older than Shiro previously assumed.
"Captain Shirogane, I'd like to speak to you."
Dutifully, Shiro ducks into Lance's room to be greeted by the whole Mcclain family surrounding his bedside. The TV at the end of his bed is on, depicting the memorial stage. Clearly, they were watching his speech.
"Shiro," Lance smiles, blue eyes sparkling. "I never got chance to say thanks."
"You don't need to, Lance," says Shiro, feeling his throat tighten. The Mcclain family are looking up at him with such awe and admiration he feels uneasy. He doesn't deserve this acclaim at all.
"You brought him back," a young girl says, who must be a sister. Veronica rests her hand on her shoulder, looking up at Shiro with an adoring smile. Like he's some kind of saviour.
"No," Shiro says firmly. "Lance brought himself back. He's an excellent pilot and..." He looks to the boy laid in bed, and his lip twitches into a smile. "The best sharpshooter I've ever seen. You should be very proud of him, Mrs Mcclain."
Mrs Mcclain takes Shiro's hand and wrings it admiringly, a few of her tears splash down onto their clasped hands, yet Shiro doesn't pull away. He shakes her hand for as long as she feels appropriate, and she lets go when she feels stable enough.
"We will be forever grateful, Captain Shirogane. Whatever we can do to help your efforts..."
"Thank you," Shiro bows his head. "For now, I think you should spend some time Lance." He claps a hand on Lance's shoulder, and the Red Paladin looks up at him with a grin, laying his hand atop his. "He's missed you guys a lot."
"What about you?" Veronica asks. "Are your family here?"
Shiro freezes, his brain racing. Then, he pulls himself to full height.
"The Paladins are my family. Wherever they are, I'll be."
There's an obscure trumpeting noise from the thick of Lance's family. They split apart, all frowning in confusion, which reveals an old woman-who can only be Lance's grandmother- blowing her nose loudly, with tears pouring down her cheeks.
"So brave!" she wails, mopping at her face. "So handsome!"
Shiro sidles out of the room while the Mcclains console their abeula. He thinks better of going to see Keith, realising he needs to check up on the other Paladins whom he hasn't visited in a while. Like expected, the Holt's are glued to Pidge's bedside, each of their faces light up when they see Shiro come in.
Matt springs up from his chair, rushing over and embracing Shiro into a hug.
"It's good to see you again, man," he mutters into his broad chest. When they pull apart, Shiro smiles down at him. The years have been kind to Matt. There are a few cuts and various battle scares littering his pale face, his hair is now longer than Keith's, but all things considering he looks great. Shiro always valued Matt's bravery, working undercover right under the Galra's noses took serious guts; and Shiro has never forgotten all Matt has done for them.
"You too, Matt," he pats his shoulder, walking over his sister's bed. "How are you doing, Pidge? Feeling any better?"
"I feel great, actually," she tells him, casting a glance at her parents. "I keep asking if they'll let me out, but they want me to stay a few more days. There's a few more tests they need to carry out. But I should be back in fighting shape soon."
"Hopefully there will be no fighting for a long time," Colleen interjects, firmly. Her gaze catches Shiro. "Your speech was very moving, Shiro. It was just what the people needed to hear."
"I just spoke from the heart," he tells her, truthfully. It was what he needed to hear more than anything.
Shiro stays with the Holt's for a while, bantering back and forth with Matt and laughing at him and Pidge's squabbles. Sitting in the hospital room with them is just like being included in a real family, something Shiro has never had. However, he doesn't allude himself into thinking this is how it can be for him. When the family affection gets too overwhelming for him, he politely excuses himself, telling them he has a few more stops to make, to which they totally understand.
Shiro thinks the reason him and Keith always got a long so well is because they understood each other, due to them being very similar people. At first glance, this is hard to believe. Keith is a hothead, sometimes impulsive and lets his emotions run high. Shiro, on the other hand, is a lot more placid, down-to-earth and can shoulder burdens a lot more easily than Keith. Peeling back the layers, they're more alike than they ever anticipated. Both of them lost their parents (Keith, unlike Shiro, got one of his back) and the Garrison was their true home. They understood how each other felt- they were both lost and trying to find their way- which is what truly cemented their bond. Keith clung to Shiro because he was the person he aspired to be, and Shiro gravitated towards Keith because he was the person he used to be.
They've both lost, they've both been down; but they've always been there to uplift each other. Keith has never left Shiro's side, even when everyone else did. His undying devotion has never wavered, which Shiro will eternally be thankful for.
Hunk is the next port of call. The Yellow Paladin is sat with his father, deep in conversation about the hospital food they've been served. Hunk pushes his tray away to greet Shiro properly. The captain bends down to hug the him, ruffling his hair as they pull away.
"You're looking a lot better," remarks Shiro, pulling up a chair.
"Yeah," Hunk smiles at his father, who smiles back, resting a hand on his knee. Shiro sees burn marks and deep, white scars running across his knuckles, and looks away, with a sick feeling in his stomach. "What about you, Shiro? How're you holding up?"
"I'm okay," Shiro tells him, because he will never tell the truth about his bottled up emotions as long as he lives. "Are you going to be released soon?"
Hunk and his father relay everything the doctor has told them. By the sound of it, like Pidge, Hunk will be out of the hospital wing and fighting fit again very soon. Shiro is glad to hear it. When he saw Voltron fall, he was certain he'd lost his Paladins forever. Never did it occur to him for a second that they would still be alive, especially not ready to be flying and helping again.
"We have a lot of work to do," Hunk says, dutifully. "I just want to get started."
"Focus on getting yourself fully better," chuckles Shiro. "The Yellow Lion is waiting for you."
"What about you?" Hunk asks, shooting him a very specific look. "The other day I saw the black lion fly past my window. Was that you?"
Hunk grins, widely. "Good to have you back."
Allura is next. She's sat up in bed, talking to Coran, her attention turned to a vase of pretty pink flowers on her bedside. Shiro sees a glimpse of a card propped up against the white vase. He doesn't get a good opportunity to look, because as soon as Allura sees him she turns his focus.
"Shiro!" she exclaims, sitting up quickly, then wincing at the pain in her side, before slumping back down in bed. "It's so good to see you! Your speech was beautiful."
"She's finally coherent," jokes Coran, which earns him a glare from the princess. Shiro sits down on her bed, seeing as there's only one chair in the room and Coran is the one occupying it.
"How are you feeling, Allura?"
"Oh, a lot better," she replies, earnestly. "I can't really remember a lot of this past week..." She trails off thoughtfully. Coran catches Shiro's eye and smirks. Shiro turns to the princess, with a smile that is steadily becoming more genuine.
"Good to hear. I take it you've seen Lance?"
She flushes to the roots of her hair, side-eyeing the vase of flowers. "Yes, I have. I'm so very glad we're all okay." Her face drops when she sees Shiro's expression fall. "What?" she asks, anxiously.
"Well, Allura, not all of you are okay," he informs her. "Keith is... in a coma."
Allura's hands fly to her mouth in horror, her eyes widening in pity. "Shiro, oh my goodness. I'm so, so sorry. Have you seen him?"
"I've seen him every day. He's... not getting better, but he's not getting worse either." Shiro tries to make himself sound hopeful and upbeat, yet sounds lame and pathetic. Allura's eyebrows furrow in concern, and he knows he doesn't need to hold any pretences in front of her. Aside from Keith, Allura is the paladin Shiro has the best relationship with.
"I hope he makes a full recovery," she says, sincerely.
"He will," Coran sounds very sure. "He's a fighter is Keith. He'll come back ready to bite Lance's head off."
After Allura grills Shiro for information about Atlas and his new Altean arm (he's very surprised she remembered all of this, as the other paladins don't appear to remember a lot before their fall) he finally has time to visit Keith. He wholly expects Krolia and Kolivan to be nursing him, but the room is empty. Clearly, Krolia's offer about making herself scarce wasn't just a joke.
"Hi, Keith," Shiro announces his presence, not that Keith knows anyway. "I've just come back from the memorial and seeing the others. They're all okay. Allura says she's coming to see you soon." He perches himself on the end of Keith's bed, engulfing his cold hand in his own sweaty one. "They all want you to get better, but none of them more than me."
Shiro bows his head, emitting a sigh he didn't realise he'd been holding in for so long.
"Everywhere I go here reminds me of you," he admits. "I wish you would have been here today. It was really tough. I had to speak at the memorial, and it was... yeah," he's at a loss for words. There aren't any words available to him to describe the myriad of emotions swelling in his chest. Guilt is the most prevalent, Keith doesn't want to hear about that.
"I've been coming to see you every day, but I don't think you realise," his grip on Keith's hand tightens involuntarily. "I want you to wake up so I can tell you how proud I am of you. You've become such an incredible leader, I couldn't have asked for anything more of you."
Shiro must imagine Keith's eyelids twitching.
"I just miss you," he continues. "Ever since we found each other again I've never wanted to be parted from you again. Yet here we are..." He sighs, feeling even more sorrowful. "This is my fault, Keith. If I had just moved, if I had got Atlas to do something-"
A small noise from Keith's chest causes Shiro's head to snap up. Keith groans, very weakly, but it's certainly something. Shiro freezes, his heart thumping painfully erratic in his chest. He leans forward slightly, wondering if Keith is going to try and say something.
"Shhhh-" Keith groans, resmebling a zombie moaning. Anyone else but Shiro would not have been able to decipher what he was attempting to say. He's trying to talk to him.
"Keith," Shiro says, desperately. "I'm here, Keith. Please wake up."
The heart monitor begins to beep rapidly, indicating Keith's heart rate is spiking. Shiro gasps, as the machine starts to emit a high-pitched sound that falls muffled. All Shiro can focus on is Keith in front of him, who looks like he's in great suffering. His heart race only increases, to dangerous levels.
"Keith!" Shiro says loudly over the sound of the monitor.
To his absolute horror, the machine lets out one long, mournful beep. The green line no longer wavers, it is entirely flat. Shiro's heart drops to the floor, as he lets out a pained yell. He can't let Keith die, he cannot lose him again-
Lunging forward, Shiro lands on top of Keith and presses his Altean hand to his cheek. Heavy footfall indicates the doctors and medics are rushing in to try and revive him. Are they too late? Is Keith really dead?
As soon as Shiro's palm comes into contact with Keith's skin, his fingers start to emit a faint blue glow. It begins to grow more phosphorescent, soon becoming so blinding that the doctors stumble backwards by the sheer force of it, squinting. The room pulses with such energy that the glass rattles in it's panes, the floor vibrates, and the paintings on the wall fall off their hooks.
The light is cut out quickly, leaving the room in darkness. Every body turns to glance at one another, each looking for an explanation. Shiro lays limp on top of Keith's body, curling into his chest. Tears leak down his face, rolling down the bridge of his nose. Keith is gone- as frigid as ever.
A loud beep catches everyone's attention. And then another one. And then another. In confusion, Shiro looks up with a sodden face, to see it's Keith's heart monitor that is making the noise.
"Shiro!" Coran yells from the doorway, elbowing his way through the crowd of astounded doctors, with Allura in tow. "What happ-" He cuts short, upon seeing the scene on the bed.
With a splutter and choke, Keith opens his eyes and gasps for air. His eyes are bloodshot, and he's so weak he's trembling, but he's alive and breathing and that is all that could ever matter to Shiro.
"Shiro," he manages, with great difficulty. Even though he is alive, Shiro cannot help the tears flowing freely down his face. "I love you."
Everyone is stunned silent with the confession. Apart from Allura and Coran, who smile at one another. Although it has always been heavily implied Keith is unquestioningly in love with Shiro, neither of them have never uttered the words to one another; not in this context anyway.
"Keith," is all Shiro can manage, caressing the side of his face carefully with the backs of his fingers. "It's okay, you don't have to talk."
Keith, always true to his stubborn nature, gives a small, defiant shake of his head. "I love you," he croaks. "More than anything. I was dreaming..."
Haven't they heard that one before?
"Captain Shirogane," one of the doctors steps forward. "We really must treat Keith. You can come back later."
"No!" Keith argues, showing the such gumption that Shiro almost doesn't move. "N-no! Don't go!" His words are not a command, but a beg. His eyes are wide and watery with his own unshed tears, his grip on Shiro's forearm is vice-like. Neither of them want to let go, afraid they'll lose each other again.
"Come on," Coran says quietly, right into the shell of Shiro's ear. "We'll come back soon."
Allura, too, looks torn, her hands clasped at her chests. She looks like she wants to remain by Keith's side, like she's going to demand that the doctors let her remain present. But when Coran gently takes her wrist and begins to pull her away, she complies, still casting her eyes back to Keith, who has now fallen lifeless on his bed once again.
Shiro doesn't sleep in his dormitory that night, he curls up in Keith's hospital bed. Really, it isn't big enough for both of them. But they've both comfortably merged together to make it work. Keith is practically laid on top of Shiro, not that it matters. His chest is pressing against Shiro's, their heart beats are in sync, and he still isn't close enough.
"I heard everything you said," Keith mumbles, his fingers curling a strand of Shiro's hair around them. "I tried so hard, but I just couldn't talk back."
"It's okay," Shiro replies, pulling him in tighter. "I wanted you to know I was there."
"I know, and you always will be there." In the dark, Keith's smile illuminates his face. "I was dreaming about you."
"Yeah?" Shiro asks, with a lilt of amusement in his tone.
"Yeah. About the Garrison. About Voltron... about everything you've ever done for me. I know I'll never be able to repay you-"
Shiro presses a finger to lips to step his preamble. "You don't need to. Besides, you've saved my ass more times than I can count. I would have died if you hadn't killed Sendak."
"It was the least I could do," Keith trails a finger down Shiro's jawbone. They've never been this intimate before. Sure, they've shared beds before and had their fair share of tender moments and lingering touches, but it's never felt like this. Love throbs in Keith's heart, as he feels endless surges of affection for this man.
"I meant what I said," he says, quietly. "I love you, Shiro."
"I love you too. You're all I have left, and all I want." Shiro presses a kiss to his forehead, and Keith melts into his touch.
"Well... not all you have left."
"I heard you talking about Black," Keith smiles, tiredly. "You finally have her back."
"She's yours," Shiro tells her, feeling a stab in his heart as he says it.
"I'm sure we can share." Keith pauses.
"I saw you in the astral plane, I told her to let you back in, and she did. I tried so hard to talk to you there, but it was like there was this invisible barrier stopping me and-" he's stopped when Shiro leans forward to kiss him, catching him completely off guard.
"You don't need to apologise," the captain tells him. "I understand. I'm just glad you're okay."
"We're okay," Keith reiterates. "We're going to be okay."
Shiro pushes a strand of hair out of his soft, violet eyes. "As long as we have each other, of course we are."