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Shiro can remember the exact moment Atlas was born.

It hits him as soon as he has a moment to rest. The Paladins are in the ICU and he only has an endless wait in front of him. He breathes deep and lets it out again, some half-assed attempt at mindfulness. He crosses his arms, his entire body tensed. Exhaustion and fatigue weigh his body down.

And that’s when he feels her, that anchor in the back of his mind. It’s tentative at first, curious more than anything. It prods at the worry that twists through his mind. It’s only once this happens that Shiro realizes the feeling’s been there all day.

Shiro is already familiar with someone in his head. But this is nothing like Haggar, who felt like claws digging across the surface of his mind. She scraped hard against the inside of his skull, left him as scarred on the inside as the outside.

It’s nothing like the Black Lion, either. Black was expansive, timeless, an entity so old and knowledgeable, that even Shiro living inside her consciousness couldn’t allow him to fully understand. He was like a raft in an endless ocean, bobbing and pulled along, helpless against the tide.

In the moment when he feels Atlas’ presence, he knows not to fear it. The weight in his mind skitters, less like a mighty, ageless lion and more like a feeble-footed kitten, following a beam of light across the floor. She chases his thoughts, bats at them, and spins around. She asks him what he is.

Shiro’s mind flashes with too many thoughts at once, unraveling before the presence in his mind instantly: an oddly existential question. He considers it, his mind flipping through anything he can use to call himself. He’s a human. He’s a man. He’s Japanese. He’s broken. He’s a pilot. He’s a clone. He’s alive. More and more descriptors unspool before he can push them back in.

As these words float inside him, she studies each of them, absorbs them all. He can feel that— the deep well of her inquisitiveness.

She knows some things, but not a lot. The ship has an informational database and she’s combed through it already, but it’s military-focused, focused on fighting, on battle, on protection. She is not meant to destroy but to protect, but she doesn’t understand everything.

She wants to know what she is.

Atlas, Shiro thinks, not quite a question but more affirmation. It occurs to him that the name was given to her and can’t help but ask, Is that name alright?

A moment later, all Shiro can feel is another’s joy washing over him, an undeniable happiness to have been named.

 

-

 

Hours later, Shiro’s still hovering in the waiting room of the hospital for hours, pacing back and forth, as he waits for the Paladins to get out of the ICU. It’s touch and go for a time. Shiro is exhausted but he’s ignored anyone’s suggestions to go home and rest.

Pidge’s parents clutch hands as they sit in the corner of the waiting room, staring at the wall and murmuring to each other. Coran’s following Shiro’s pacing with his eyes, his heels hitting against his chair’s legs. Veronica is speaking in a low voice with her mother and grandmother. The room feels packed with them all and Shiro’s mind is racing with all the possibilities, all the what-ifs, all the fears and uncertainties.

And the entire time, while his mind circles in a whirlpool of anxiety, he feels Atlas observing him. She is in his mind and yet outside of it, watching each of his thoughts as they flutter by. He agonizes over each one, turns it over and examines it. She has a front-row seat to anxiety in action and Shiro feels a distant pang of regret that her first hours of sentient life include such fear, worry, near-death, and regret.

She sees these thoughts, too, and Shiro gets no sense of her reaction to it. That’s something he’ll need to figure out, too. He could always get a sense of how the Black Lion responded to his thoughts— that steady stream of approval and disapproval, of concern and of support. Black could be withholding when it suited her, she could hardly be commanded in the end, but even then he could usually make a logical guess to what she’s thinking. Atlas is such an open book that it almost obscures her.

With Atlas, it’s clear she’s young. She’s born from a crystal that was once the Castle of Lions, thousands and thousands of years and experiences, but her sentient mind is new.

Shiro thinks that she might have more luck studying the database again. She seems to agree because he feels her presence in his mind lessen, her focus turning elsewhere. Shiro lets her go.

It’s just as well, since a moment later Coran catches Shiro by the wrist and stills him, then pulls him to sit down beside him.

“They’ll be alright,” Coran tells him, but there’s a waver to his voice. An attempt to convince himself as well as Shiro. Shiro knows what the paladins mean to them, to Coran and to everyone, to Shiro himself. Shiro knows what it means for Coran that Allura is in a danger he can’t help her with.

Shiro nods but his mind strays to the memory of Keith in the Black Lion, sprawled out and bleeding from a head wound. He didn’t even stir when he was pulled out of there, his body limp. For a moment, Shiro’d feared Keith wasn’t even breathing until he saw the shallow rise and fall of Keith’s chest beneath his armor.

He feels the moment Atlas realizes what blood is, watching this memory unfold.

 

-

 

She prods deeper, later that night when Shiro is trying to sleep. She follows the trail of memories associated with blood. Shiro’s aware of that feeling of her digging around, finding a thread and tugging on it.

She pulls and she pulls and she pulls— and she snags on a memory deeply buried. Shiro, standing in the middle of a pit, body hunched, gripping a blade dripping with blood. People cheering all around him. Lifting his eyes and—

Don’t look, Shiro’s mind screams and he imagines shoving her away. He pictures slamming a wall down in front of those memories. Don’t look. Don’t look.

Atlas withdraws, as if stung, and Shiro feels the answering call of her own guilt washing up against his own. Shiro doesn’t drop the wall.

He’s only grateful he has some experience with meditation and visualization. It makes the wall steady, unwavering. She can’t push past even as the memories seep into his mind. Nothing could ever get in. He grew used to that, on the trip home: that endless emptiness. His mind, vacant and void of anything but himself. All his resounding, lingering thoughts, both the good and the bad. Nothing could get through in the wake of Black’s severance from his mind.

He feels her apology and knows she didn’t mean to hurt him, didn’t mean to upset him. But it still hurts, something aching deep in Shiro’s chest, a plane of experiences he isn’t ready to dismantle yet.

“It’s okay,” he says aloud, body exhausted. He presses a hand to his temple, ducking his head. “You didn’t know.”

 

-

 

When Keith opens his eyes, Shiro is there. He smiles down at Keith, feeling breathless when he says, “Hey, you.”

Keith smiles, blinking up at him. “Hey.”

“Your mom told me you’d woken up earlier,” Shiro explains. “How are you feeling?”

There’s a million other things he could say or ask— How could you have been so foolhardy? What would have happened if you’d all died? Do you know how close you came to dying? Do you know what I would do if you were ever just gone, because I don’t?

It must show on his face— Keith’s always been too good at reading him— because he looks at Shiro and murmurs, voice scratchy from disuse, “I’m okay. I feel fine. Just sore.”

Shiro gives him a faint smile, lifting his hand to push the hair away from Keith’s face, unbearably gentle. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

Keith’s hand lifts and curls around Shiro’s wrist before he can lift it away. He doesn’t do anything once he’s holding it, just lets his hand rest there, fingers circled around Shiro’s wrist. Somehow, Shiro only feels a flood of affection run through him as he looks at Keith’s hand, then up at him. Keith always did know what to do to get Shiro to feel all twisted up inside, to focus on something else.

“We won?” Keith guesses.

Shiro smiles. “We won.”

“Everyone is safe?”

“Everyone is safe,” Shiro agrees.

Keith breathes out, eyes closing. His thumb shifts against Shiro’s wrist, traces the line of tendons running up towards his palm. It presses there, close to his pulse point. Shiro smiles and pauses, then shifts so that they’re holding hands instead. He squeezes once and Keith sighs.

“There’s… something I have to tell you. I wanted— I need to tell you,” Shiro says and Keith’s eyes snap open to look up at him. His eyes burn, intense and waiting. “It’s important.”

Keith looks at him a moment, assessing. He doesn’t say anything, just nods his head.

Shiro swallows, feeling overly exposed under such an intense gaze. He glances away and fumbles, “I— I have a meeting with Sam and Iverson about it, but…”

Keith’s shoulders immediately sag and he leans back in his bed with a sigh, not letting go of Shiro’s hand. “Oh.” He’s quiet for a beat, a moment too long. Then he asks, “What is it, Shiro?”

“Do you remember the Atlas transforming?”

Keith nods, recognition lighting his face. “Yeah. Yeah! Shiro, that was—”

“The Atlas is alive,” Shiro says quickly, before Keith can start praising him. He blushes. “I mean. She’s in my head… kind of like Black.”

Keith studies his face, frowning. Shiro can feel Atlas stirring, curious to see Keith’s reaction. Shiro’s curious, too.

“Are you okay?” Keith asks, and really Shiro shouldn’t feel surprised that this would be Keith’s first response. Keith’s brow furrows. “Something in your head…”

Shiro shakes his head and squeezes Keith’s hand. “Thank you, Keith.” Something warm and soft glows in his chest that he ignores as he smiles at Keith. “I’m okay. She’s, the Atlas is… Well. Young. She’s really curious about everything. But she doesn’t mean any harm. I bet it’s not so different from the way the Green Lion must feel… I should ask Pidge about it.”

Keith continues to study his face, searching, perhaps, for any sign of unhappiness or distress. But he must be satisfied since, after a moment, he only sighs and lifts his other hand to cover Shiro’s, cupping Shiro’s hand between both of his.

“So what does this mean? You just… have a sentient ship now?” Keith asks, and his mouth hints a smile.

“I— when I saw you all fighting, I felt…” He doesn’t know how to put it into words, not in a way that won’t leave him entirely exposed. He presses on. “I wanted to help you all. I wanted to do more than I have. I didn’t— want to be useless.”

“You’ve never been useless,” Keith murmurs, a quiet but fierce protest. Shiro squeezes his hand.

“Atlas responded to it. I mean— she woke up and then she was able to transform.” He looks down and sighs, looking at their hands. “I think… I want to get better at it. I almost— lost you all.”

He goes quiet on the tail-end of the words, voice paper-thin and reedy. He swallows down any urge to cry. It’s absurd. They’re safe now. They made it. He needs to be stronger. (He feels Atlas nudge at the back of his mind and he ignores it.)

Keith’s thumb traces over Shiro’s knuckles, a gentle, repeating sweep. Something eases in Shiro’s chest.

“I wanted… to protect you,” Shiro says. He coughs. “All of you. I couldn’t just stand by.”

“Thanks, Shiro,” Keith answers, thumb pressing in the divot between two knuckles and resting there. He squeezes his hand. “I’m glad you’re here.”

He looks sleepy, smiling gently up at him. Shiro smiles back. “I should let you rest. We can talk more later.”

“I don’t mind,” Keith protests. “Stay. Don’t sneak off before Mom comes back.”

Shiro laughs and doesn’t protest, content to spend as much time as he can beside Keith’s bedside. He still has time before his meeting with Iverson and Sam, anyway.

“Okay,” he says and doesn’t let go of Keith’s hand. He senses Atlas’ curiosity and as he and Keith sit quietly together, Shiro lets Atlas prod around in his mind to figure out what hand-holding is and why it matters.

 

-

 

Atlas waits until Shiro leaves the hospital before asking him what love is. Shiro only narrowly avoids running into a light post.

“Wow,” he says, startling himself when he speaks aloud. “Hitting me with the big existential questions already?”

It’s a deflection, and certainly one that doesn’t work very well when the thing you’re trying to deflect from is currently sitting in your consciousness.

Shiro sighs and scratches the back of his neck with one hand, looking around. All the around him, the world carries on, trying to rebuild after everything. The streets are flooded with aliens, all the incoming coalition members and refugees, human and alien alike.

“Okay,” Shiro sighs. He closes his eyes right there in the middle of the sidewalk and tries to think of everything and anything that he loves.

People first. The quiet, stable love for his grandfather, back in those fuzzy memories of his youth, making him fluffy pancakes and whistling to himself. The distant, faded love for Adam, sleep-mushed after falling asleep on his textbook, his disbelieving laugh the first time they completed a touch-and-go, the first time they ever kissed and Adam’s glasses got knocked askew. The burning, protective love for his friends, all of them lounging in the Castle of Lions’ common room, explaining what roller skates are to Allura while she tries to explain byntarbo shoes. All of them laughing, all of them safe.

He thinks about Coran for Allura. The paladins for their families. The space mice for adventure. Fairytales. Myths. His childhood pet, an old cat that used to bite his fingers if he didn’t pet her enough.

The stars. The first time he ever drove a hoverbike. The first time he ever flew out into space. Green beans, rabbits, kaleidoscopes, old action movies, honey bees, men doing pull-ups at the gym, comets.

He tries not to think, specifically, about what must have prompted Atlas to ask the question in the first place. But trying not to think of Keith is near impossible. Shiro’s made it an Olympic sport, practically, to think about Keith at any moment of any day. His smile. His laugh. His scowl. The way he flips his hair. The way he fights. The way he looks at him. The way he says his name.

Keith, bathed in sunlight, his hair falling in his eyes. Keith, hands deep in Kosmo’s fur. Keith, the first time he ever flew. Keith, hugging him tight the night before Persephone launched for Kerberos, promising he’d be here when he got back. Waking up, over a year later, to see Keith hovering over him, concern flaring in his eyes. Dreaming of Keith. Thinking, You saved me—

His heart thunders. He feels exposed, vulnerable in a way he’s never been before. He’s never admitted any of this to anyone, and he’s not saying it now, only feeling it. But now someone else is seeing it, too, experiencing it. Feeling it.

When he’s finished, he can sense that she’s still confused.

“It’s a complicated emotion,” Shiro tells her. “It takes time to understand it. But you will.”

She’s only been awake for a few days. It’s understandable that she can’t know everything yet. She considers this as Shiro walks, heading back towards the Garrison. He can sense her thinking deeply.

Keith, she declares.

“Yes, that was Keith,” Shiro agrees.

Feelings?

“Happiness,” Shiro agrees, or at least thinks that’s what he’s agreeing to. He’s not sure. Her way of communicating with him is going to take some getting used to.

Then she asks him what a kaleidoscope is and what its purpose is and Shiro laughs, relieved she hasn’t locked onto memories of Keith, that she isn’t prodding and pushing further, that she isn’t trying to unravel what feels too delicate to examine. It’d be far too easy, to unravel too far, to leave him frayed, never fully whole again.

 

-

 

“So what you’re saying,” Lance says, slowly, “is that you’re basically Atlas’ Dad.”

The Paladins are out of the hospital, with strict instructions to take it easy. Clearly Lance is testing that, as Shiro’s initial thought is to throw something at him in response to the statement.

“That’s not what I’m saying at all,” Shiro says, nearly shuddering at the thought. “I’m not anybody’s dad.”

“If anything, it’s Coran who’d be the dad,” Pidge decides. “He put the crystal in, after all. And then I guess… my dad is also a dad since he built the Atlas.”

“Okay, so the Atlas is Pidge’s half-sister now,” Lance declares.

“And Shiro’s her life-coach,” Hunk says. “Teaching her all the ways of the universe and how to live to her authentic, true self.”

Shiro snorts. He covers it by taking a long drink but Keith’s giving him an amused side-eye. Keith shrugs back at him, mouth tilted in one of his half-smiles, crooked and lovely.

“Stop,” Shiro tells the group, trying to sound firm and cranky but not quite managing it. “Now she’s asking me what a life-coach even is.”

“Tell her that a life-coach is Shiro,” Pidge teases, nudging her foot against Shiro’s shin under the table.

They’re sitting around that table, eating food prepared by Hunk’s family to celebrate their release from the hospital. Most of the Paladins are on their way to making a full recovery, although Keith still has some sore ribs and Hunk a sprained ankle. Otherwise, it’s the regular bumps and bruises that come with being a defender of the universe. Shiro’s never been more grateful that they’re all okay and here and laughing, even if at his expense.

“Nobody wants me as a life-coach,” Shiro decides. “I’ve died too many times to have any qualifications.”

The others laugh, more surprise than actual amusement, as is usually the case with Shiro’s darker jokes. But he feels Keith tense beside him. He leans in, nudging his shoulder against his.

“Keith’s the real life-coach here,” Shiro decides. He smiles at him, wants to see the tension ease from Keith’s brow. “Expert on bringing people back.”

“Stop talking like that,” Keith commands. His expression does gentle, though, and the corner of his mouth twitches, betraying and almost-smile. Shiro will take it.

“Yes, sir,” he says.

“So, what’s going to happen next?” Pidge asks as Shiro turns back towards her, breaking his eyes away from Keith. “You said you had a meeting with Iverson and Dad.”

Shiro shrugs. “Yeah. There’s not much that we can do. Atlas is awake and here to stay. We can’t just make her… not exist, you know? And she’s locked onto me. I’m the only one that can pilot her.”

“So not unlike the lions,” Allura clarifies, looking amazed. “Who knew that something could come of the sacrifice of the Castle of Lions.” She looks to Coran, who smiles at her, gentle. “I’m so happy this can be its legacy.”

“It’s really thanks to you both,” Shiro says to both Coran and Allura. “If it weren’t for the arm you made for me, Allura, I’m not sure if the Atlas would have responded to me.”

“I’m sure it’s more than that, Shiro,” Allura says, kind as always. “It takes a powerful mind to bear the weight of a sentient ship, after all. We all know this. It isn’t simply the possession of an Altean crystal.”

Shiro has his doubts. He feels Atlas’ presence in his mind, reassuring and pressing down against the misgivings that surface. He gets the distinct impression that she’s trying to reassure and nurture him, too. It’s an odd realization. Odder, still, to balance the conversation around him and Atlas’ presence. It’s a lot at once, a split-attention.

Still, Shiro isn’t about to take credit for something that anybody else could do in the right circumstances. He just happened to be there at the right time and have the right desire to protect his friends. While also using a technologically advanced arm powered by Altean alchemy. He’s not about to call himself a master pilot or formidable captain in this case; he doubts he’s the only one who could do this.

“Anyway,” Shiro continues, shoving past the praise, “There’s still a lot of work to be done. But if the Atlas can work alongside Voltron, that’ll put us in good shape to finish this fight. She’s large enough to house Voltron, too, and repower them as we travel. Once we need to travel.”

“In the meantime, we’re still trying to figure out the Robeast’s power source,” Allura agrees, nodding. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

“Later, though,” Shiro insists. “You’re all still recovering.”

He turns towards Keith and finds Keith’s eyes already on him. He smiles at him. After a moment, Keith smiles back.

“I’m really proud of you all,” Shiro says, voice quieter. He looks at Keith for a moment too long and then reminds himself to look around the table at them all. “You’ve come so far. You’ve all done amazing things… you deserve to take a moment to breathe.”

“Look who’s talking,” Lance says in a stage whisper to Pidge, who grins at Shiro.

Shiro laughs. “Well. You got me there.”

Keith’s hand slides and curls over Shiro’s forearm. It makes Shiro shiver, pleasantly from head to toe. “We’ve all come a long way,” Keith says, addressing the group but looking at Shiro. “We’re all going to be okay.”

Keith’s hand lingers well after the conversation moves on. Atlas points it out to Shiro, as if he isn’t aware. Shiro doesn’t respond to her prodding.

 

-

 

With the Paladins out of the hospital, rebuilding efforts well underway across the world, strategizing for future battles beginning, researching the Robeast and its potential power source, and training of new recruits and coalition members, the Garrison is plenty busy.

Once the Paladins are steadier on their feet, moving a base of operations onto the Atlas begins in earnest. It’s a slow process, as anything in bureaucracy always is, but they make small steps each day. The Paladins have their own quarters on the ship now, and the Lions their own carriers.

“Shiro,” Iverson sighs during a meeting. “Will you please tell the Atlas to stop switching hallways around? We can’t make a decent map of each floor if it keeps changing every day.”

“She thinks it’s funny,” Shiro says, helplessly. And it’s true. Every time he feels something shifting on the ship, it’s accompanied by Atlas’ trilling amusement flushing through his mind. She thinks it’s hilarious, especially when humans start getting red-faced.

“Yeah, well, it’d be pretty convenient if she could find organization and order hilarious,” Iverson mutters.

The door to the conference room groans as it suddenly expands into four doors all lined up in a row. Iverson looks like he’s seen a ghost.

“I haven’t actually seen it happen in front of me,” Iverson says.

Shiro sighs and presses his face into his palm. “She wants you to figure out which one is the real door.”

One of the cadets closest to the door hops up and approaches. One door slides open into a wall. Another refuses to open at all. The third opens to the hallway but when the cadet tries to step through, he’s met with a barrier. The last door also refuses to open.

Shiro sighs. It’s not funny, he tells her. We’re just stuck in here. We don’t even have a window.

The Atlas shifts and shimmers bright Altean blue for a moment. Then, there’s a window, opening out into the wide expanse of desert. A remarkable feat, given that the conference rooms are internal rooms at the center of the ship.

Iverson stares out the window as if staring out into the expanse of his soul. “Did she just move the room while we were in it?”

“Looks that way,” Shiro decides. It’s taking all his mental energy not to start laughing. Okay. Maybe it’s a little funny. He feels her excitement and amusement grow exponentially, now that she can sense his encouragement.

One of the doors transforms again, this time with a sign that says, Captain Shirogane Only.

“Lucky me,” Shiro tells Iverson as Iverson gives him a deeply haunted look. He stands, hands on the table. “Okay,” he tells the Atlas, using his best commanding, captain voice possible: “That’s enough. There’s work to be done, Atlas.”

Internally, he focuses on his amusement, lets it coil around her own. She isn’t in trouble. But she needs to focus. The window disappears and the door returns to normal.

“Should be fine now,” Shiro says. Everyone looks a little green in the gills from the sudden shifting and moving of the room itself, from starboard of the ship to center of the ship again. Shiro hardly even notices it anymore, considering how often the Atlas likes to switch and turn him around. He’s walked into Keith’s room thinking it was his own quarters about three times in the last week.

“If we could please get back to the task at hand,” Iverson sighs.

 

-

 

Tell me about happiness, the Atlas asks him.

Keith, is his first thought. He pushes that gently aside. Atlas likes it when he sends her a barrage of thoughts and memories, a collection of rapid-fire images. Databases are always faster for her, but she likes Shiro’s experiences the most.

Since her sentience, the Atlas’ database has been loaded up with as much information as Earth has access to. Arriving masses of coalition forces bring with them their own information, too. By proxy, Shiro feels he knows more about other planets and alien races than he ever has before, including Altea. He’ll be working on paperwork and suddenly the Atlas will be thinking about Altean Glowworms and then Shiro will be thinking about them, too.

“Why do you ask?” Shiro wonders as he starts thinking about what makes him happy— similar, perhaps, to the images of love he’s sent her countless times now: sunny days, hoverbike racing, piloting, stars, Keith, a good workout, miso soup, cats, Keith, his friends, his grandfather, his birthday, Keith—

She doesn’t elaborate. If Shiro were being honest, he’d say that the Atlas is being coy. She studies the images and memories as they whip past, prodding at each one and committing them to her own considerations.

Once she seems satisfied, Shiro returns to his own paperwork. There’s a request he needs to approve from Colleen Holt to expand the herbology department and introduce butterflies and other pollinators into the greenhouse to promote healthier plant specimens for the deep-space journey.

Shiro sighs as he sends the approval, trying his best not to think about butterflies and how they give him the heebie-jeebies sometimes.

He senses the Atlas’ curiosity even before the thought has fully developed and passed on. She wants to know what heebie-jeebies are.

Shiro pauses, then lets himself think about butterflies, their little legs tiptoeing up his body. They’re beautiful— he tells her that much, lets her see all the varying colors of their wings— but then he thinks about their little antenna, their crawly legs, their spindly eyes as they crawl up his arms. He shivers and then gives a little shudder.

That. Those’re the heebie-jeebies.

He feels the rumble in his head and a quiet understanding wash over him, assessing and practical. Then, a moment later, Shiro feels Atlas come to the conclusion that she has seen this before: she has seen and felt Shiro respond in such a way to Keith.

Shiro smiles and says, aloud, “Keith doesn’t give me the heebie-jeebies.”

“Lucky me,” Keith says behind him and Shiro nearly startles himself into a heart attack because he didn’t hear Keith come in.

“Keith!” he gasps, turning towards him. Keith’s smiling at him, head tilted, amused by Shiro’s obvious reaction. “God. Sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

He looks devastatingly handsome, dressed casual with loose pants and a tight shirt. Shiro reminds himself to breathe. He absolutely does not shiver and even if he did, it wouldn’t be because of any heebie-jeebies.

Keith shrugs, sympathetic. “You were concentrating. Talking to Atlas again?”

“Yeah,” Shiro sighs. “She’s… really got a lot on her mind.” He adds, “Pun intended.”

Keith’s smile tilts at one corner. “Are you busy?”

“For you?” Shiro asks. “Never.” He covers his embarrassment with a little cough, leaning back against the table and smiling at him. He ignores Atlas in his mind. “What’s up?”

“I’m trying to get to the gym,” Keith says. “But I keep getting turned around. Think you can help me?”

“At this rate, I’m less the captain of the Atlas and more the tour guide of the Atlas,” Shiro laughs. “Okay. Hold on.”

He closes his eyes, trying to visualize how the Atlas is right in this moment. He follows the hallways and the twists and turns. Just to bother him, Atlas pointedly changes one hallway so it’s pointed bow-side instead of stern-side. Shiro ignores it.

“Okay,” he says after a moment, opening his eyes and finding Keith watching him. “I could draw a map. Or I could lead you there. If she changes things, I’ll be able to sense it.”

“Sure,” Keith says. “I was hoping you might want to join me. We haven’t been able to spend much time together lately.”

“Yeah,” Shiro sighs. “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” Keith dismisses with a shrug.

“Should you be exercising, anyway?” Shiro asks. “You’re still recovering.”

“Doctor says some light physical activity won’t hurt me,” Keith says. “You can be my chaperone and make sure I stay in line, if you must. Captain.

Keith’s teasing. He’s joking. He’s being friendly. This is what Shiro tells himself as his face turns red and he packs away his datapad. He clears his throat and hopes, prays, begs the universe not to have the Atlas ask why he’s suddenly feeling a little warm all over just because of the way Keith said that.

“Give me a second to change and we can head out,” Shiro says, retreating deeper into his quarters so he can get into some sweats and a tank top. As soon as he’s out of Keith’s sight, Atlas asks him what blushing is.

 

-

 

Shiro is working on paperwork, drafting up a tentative training schedule for joint Voltron-Atlas drills when Atlas pokes hard at the center of his mind and sends one word towards him: Keith.

Shiro pauses, rubs at his eye, and sighs. “What about Keith?”

He’s hit by a flurry of words at once. She’s excited, he can tell that much. Eager and excited and wanting to show Shiro what she’s learned. LoveFriendHappyBrotherCloneSaveSafeHoverLoveStarsFightVoltronKeithKeithKeith.

Shiro’s quiet for a moment. She’s practically buzzing in his mind. He sighs, smiling. “Yes. Keith’s all those things to me.”

Shiro to Keith.

It takes a moment and then Shiro recognizes what she’s asking and sighs, powering down his datapad. Training specs will have to wait. He scratches the back of his neck, stalling for a moment.

“Brother. Friend… Best friend,” he says, voice quiet and tentative. “That’s what I am to Keith.”

She squirms inside his mind, flipping and flickering around, like she’s caged in.

Love. Happiness.

“I should… explain,” Shiro sighs. “Not everyone is going to think of Keith first when thinking about what makes them happy… Those are emotions that everybody can feel, but the reason you feel them is different for each person. But, yeah, for me… that’s Keith.”

She’s quiet for a moment and then she folds him with a set of images. It’s odd— it’s the first time she’s returned the favor, and it’s a conglomerate of data and images pulled from her expansive database: old movies, old tv shows, pictures, observations of people on board the Atlas. Shiro doesn’t hear any words, but the images all center around two people, facing each other, embracing. A confession.

“No,” Shiro laughs. He blushes, shaking his head as the reality sets in: his ship is gossiping with him about his love life. “No, no,” he laughs. “Keith and I aren’t like that. I’m not going to do something like that.”

Atlas seems disappointed in this answer, not for the lack of gossip, though. Shiro can feel her disappointment in him. It’s a decidedly odd feeling.

“We’re just friends,” Shiro tells her. “And that’s okay.”

Help?

“Yeah,” Shiro agrees. “He helps me. We help each other. He’s a good friend.”

He senses her frustration. He must have misunderstood her, but it’s difficult to communicate with a relatively young sentient ship when communicating through thought and images. He waits, but she doesn’t elaborate. Shiro turns back to this datapad.

 

-

 

Atlas goes quiet whenever Shiro is with Keith. At first, Shio doesn’t notice.

He doesn’t realize until, one night, another nightmare drags him awake with a gasp. The first thing out of his mouth is, “Don’t look.”

An automatic response. Atlas obeys, skirting at the fringes of his mind but not pushing past into the memories of the dream: haphazard and sharp-edged, memory and fear-fueled images, an arena and a battle and a clone facility and dead eyes and his hand around Keith’s throat—

She doesn’t look. She’s quiet as Shiro pants for breath, bowed into himself and gripping his shoulders. He tries to breathe. He tries to steady his heart.

Once, during a nightmare, she tried to pull him gently into the plane of her existence, guiding him. But it’d felt too much like waking up in Black’s consciousness, taking too long to realize he was dead. It’d made it worse; he’d started shouting.

Since then, she touches the corners of his minds in these moments but never presses too hard. She’s learned. He’s only sorry she has to see these dark edges of him.

He hears the groaning and shifting of the ship around him and he doesn’t fully register what is happening until his wall blooms open like the unfurling of petals and Keith’s bed lurches into Shiro’s room, the floor pushing up to shove Keith out of his bed and down onto the floor.

“Ow, fuck,” Keith mutters and sounds sleepy. He blinks as the wall closes behind him and he looks around. “Shiro?”

Shiro tries to apologize, tries to scold Atlas for the rough treatment of Keith, but he can’t find the words. And, a moment later, Keith is in his bed anyway, reaching for him and pulling him into his arms.

“Hey,” Keith whispers. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Shiro.”

Shiro doesn’t believe him even though he wants to (how can it be okay, how can he ever be okay—) but he presses his face hard against Keith’s shoulder and clings tight to him. It’s a lot like the early nights of the Black Lion, after Shiro woke up again in a new body. He’d wake Keith and Krolia up every night. And Keith would always hold him until he could sleep again.

“Sorry,” Shiro whispers, once he can catch his breathing again.

One hand presses against his back and the other cups the back of his neck, fingers scritching at the softer, shorter bits of his hair.

“I’ve got you,” Keith says, which is better than don’t apologize or it’s okay. This, Shiro believes and trusts— Keith’s got him.

Keith doesn’t ask him what the nightmare was about. He doesn’t ask him if he’s okay or if he wants to try to sleep again. He just holds him and doesn’t stop holding him. Shiro breathes out, following the steady rise and fall of Keith’s breath, the swell of his chest pressing to Shiro’s, and that’s enough.

The entire time, Atlas is quiet. But he can sense her watching, almost protective. It reminds him, for a moment, the way Black used to feel— watching over him, protecting him. His chest twists up. He clings to Keith even tighter.

 

-

 

Helping, Atlas announces to him one second before a literal wall slams up in front of Shiro while he’s making his way down a hallway towards the meeting rooms.

Shiro avoids crashing into it, but only just. He frowns. “What are you doing?”

He turns, and a moment later, another wall presses up towards him. He’s boxed in. He sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Atlas,” he sighs. “I’m already late to a meeting. This isn’t helping.”

She doesn’t answer him. In fact, for the first time since she’s awakened, he has the distinct sense of her not in his mind. She’s completely ignoring him. It’s an odd feeling and realization, even odder than the thought that the emptiness in his head is actually distressing.

“Atlas!” he calls out. She doesn’t answer. He taps his foot. “Let me out? Come on.”

A moment later, a wall drops.

“Finally,” Shiro says, taking a step. But a moment later, Keith’s getting conveyed into the space, the floor moving to shepherd him in like he’s on a conveyor belt. Shiro only has time to say a surprised, “Keith?”

And then the wall slams up again, boxing them both in.

It’s only then that Shiro realizes what Atlas meant by helping.

He groans. “Oh my god. Atlas.

She doesn’t respond. Keith’s frowning at him. “Shiro?”

“Sorry,” Shiro sighs. “I could try to explain, but it’s just— a lot.”

The walls seem to close in on them. They actually are closing in on them, pressing them closer into a tighter space. The ceiling drops down, too, until they’re both forced to sit down in the little space. There’s barely any light and Shiro can only be grateful that he and Keith aren’t claustrophobic. It’s almost like being in the cargo bay of the Black Lion again, only fundamentally smaller.

“Another Atlas trick?” Keith asks. At least he doesn’t sound annoyed, only perplexed. “Does she do this to you a lot?”

Now he sounds concerned. Despite Atlas’ “help,” Shiro feels the need to defend her before Keith draws the wrong conclusions. “No. This is the first time. She usually does all the switching around on other people.”

“Tell me about it. I keep ending up in your room instead of the gym every time I set out. I don’t know how she does it.”

“Sentient ship magic, I guess,” Shiro sighs. He rubs his face. “Keith. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay. She’ll get bored eventually,” Keith dismisses. He pushes his foot against Shiro’s. “At least we have a really good excuse for being late to the meeting.”

“Dragging your feet, Paladin?” Shiro teases.

“It’s a miracle I made it this far,” Keith teases back, laughing. He leans back against the wall, thumping his head back against it. “Not sure if this is better.”

Shiro snorts. “I’m so mad at her.” He tilts his head back and tells the low-hanging ceiling: “I’m mad at you.”

“Is she listening?” Keith asks, laughing.

“Decidedly not.”

They go silent. Shiro hates to think what would have happened if he’d gotten stuck in here with anybody else. Keith is still and comfortable beside him. He’s taking this relatively well, Shiro thinks. He can at least guess at Atlas’ intentions. As far as Keith’s concerned, this is random and a little concerning. He almost apologizes again and only just manages to swallow it back down. He knows how Keith would respond.

Shiro considers telling Keith he should try calling the wolf to get them out. He’s about to say it. And then he tilts his head back down to look at Keith and finds Keith already looking at him, something dark and glowing in his eyes.

And that’s the thing— “Your, uh. I didn’t know your eyes glowed in the dark.”

“It’s a Galra thing,” Keith says, voice quiet and low. He doesn’t pull his eyes away from Shiro. Shiro could get lost in Keith’s eyes on any given day. And now, with so little light, it’s the only thing he can focus on.

He knows this is what the Atlas is aiming for. It’s absurd to him to even consider his ship is trying to matchmake. But Keith is here, pressed too close near him, his eyes glowing and beautiful.

Keith’s eyes are so pretty in the dark, he thinks.

A moment later, the wall Shiro’s leaning against lurches forward, as if shoving, and Shiro goes flying, crashing into Keith’s space in a tangle of limbs and a muffled shout of surprise.

“Shiro—!”

Shiro ends up splayed up against Keith, Keith’s arms curled protectively around him. He’s cracked his chin against Keith’s shoulder and Keith’s forehead against his shoulder port. His arm feels tweaked at the sudden position shift and Keith’s legs scramble away to make room for Shiro in his space.

“Sorry,” Shiro groans. “It’s… Atlas thinks she’s helping, I guess.”

“Helping with what?”

“Uh,” Shiro mutters, unsure what to say. He pulls back, as much as he can. Atlas has sent the walls in even closer. There’s no way to move without being pressed up against Keith in some way. Shit, he’s practically in his best friend’s lap.

It’s only the dark that keeps Shiro feel more embarrassed, even though he can feel his cheeks heat.

“Shiro?” Keith prompts.

Shiro shakes his head as he adjusts so he’s not pressing so heavily against Keith. His body aches. “It’s… hard to explain.”

He doesn’t elaborate and Keith doesn’t press him on it. But it hovers between them, awkward. Now it’s awkward. He’s too close to being full-bodied pressed to Keith so of course now it gets awkward. He can hear Keith breathing.

“How… are things? For you and Atlas?” Keith asks after a moment.

“It’s fine,” Shiro says. “I think I’m used to her now. I think it’ll help her response time in battle and—”

“I don’t mean that,” Keith interrupts. “It’s… Look, okay. Voltron’s a lot to handle when it’s five paladins at once handling it. But it’s only you for Atlas.”

Shiro’s quiet for a moment. “Keith,” he says, a note of disbelief in his voice. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”

“I don’t want her to exhaust you,” Keith says. “I don’t know. It’s stupid. You get lost in your head lately and I know it’s cause you’re talking to her. But you look really tired. I mean… you always look tired. I just… You know. That.”

“I’m sorry,” Shiro says, quietly. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“I worry about you cause we’re… friends,” Keith says, quiet. It’s only because they’re in the dark and Shiro can barely see Keith’s face that he can even pick up on that brief little pause, that strange weighted silence. Something squirms in Shiro’s gut. Keith’s eyes glow.

“We are,” Shiro agrees. “And I’m telling you that I’m alright. It’s… hm. How to explain it.” He pauses, thinking. He fiddles with his hands, shifts his feet, unsure what to do in this limited space when all he wants to do is reach out and touch Keith.

As if responding to his thought— and she probably is— the ground swells up and sends Shiro toppling into Keith’s arms again. They both squawk in surprise but then Keith grabs onto him before he can knee him in the crotch or something equally as mortifying. His arms are strong and sure, holding Shiro up but holding him against his body. It feels, almost, like all the nights Keith’s held him after a nightmare.

His heart starts racing.

“Sorry. Atlas,” he mutters.

“It’s okay,” Keith answers. He doesn’t let go. Shiro doesn’t try to get away.

“Anyway,” Shiro resumes, a moment later, “It’s… What does the Black Lion feel like to you? When she’s in your head?”

Keith frowns— Shiro can see it as his eyes adjust to the darkness. He’s still a faint outline, his eyes glowing. Keith says, “Kind of like the way a windstorm feels? But gentler?”

“Oh,” Shiro says, surprised. “Yeah.” It hadn’t felt that way to him, more like the way a cloud looks like it’d feel, fluffy and supporting but still capable of powerful storms. “Well. The Atlas isn’t quite like that. She isn’t as… surrounding? She’s definitely nosy but she’s also… kind of like a butterfly.”

“You hate butterflies,” Keith says. Shiro senses, distantly, Atlas’ scandalized reaction to being compared to a butterfly for the same reason. Serves her right, Shiro thinks.

“I don’t hate them. They’re just kinda creepy sometimes. And anyway, I mean more like the feeling of it, not the gross leggy thing they do.”

Keith snorts. “Okay. So a wind storm versus a butterfly. Got it.”

“My point is that she isn’t as exhausting to maintain a connection with. It’s just kind of… there.” Shiro shrugs. “I’m okay, Keith.” He doesn’t mean to sound quite so wistful when he sighs, “She’s not the Black Lion.”

Keith peers at him.

“Shiro,” he murmurs.

Maybe it’s the dark that prompts Shiro to say what he says next, but one moment he’s content to stay quiet with Keith until Atlas gets bored and the next:

“You know that connection is gone.”

“I know. You told me,” Keith says. And that much is true. It was the first thing Shiro noticed, after waking up from the healing pod to Keith’s concerned face.

“I haven’t felt her since,” Shiro says. “Allura says it’s a consequence of transferring my essence. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if Black knew that’d happen and did it anyway.”

“She wanted to save you,” Keith answers.

“I wonder sometimes why Black held onto me for so long, you know?”

Keith frowns at him. He’s so quiet and so still for a moment— Shiro must have actually shocked him. His eyes flicker as he blinks at Shiro.

“Because she loves you.” Keith looks down and bites his lip. “She didn’t— want to give up on you, either.”

Shiro smiles, faintly, something pressing at the back of his eyes, threatening tears. He feels Atlas shift inside his mind, pressing heavier against him. It’s comforting.

“No wonder you two get along, then,” Shiro says, aiming for lightness and landing firmly in watery, his voice wavering. He swallows thick, his throat feeling tight and barbed.

Keith looks up at him, eyes bright and fierce. “If we do, it’s only because of you.”

Shiro doesn’t know how to respond to that. He shakes his head in the dark. Keith’s arms twist tight around him, holding him close. For the first time, the little box of a room feels suffocating. Shiro wishes Atlas would let them out so that Shiro could run away from this entire conversation. He’s the one to crack the conversation open, and yet.

“Sorry,” Shiro admits. “I don’t know where that came from. I didn’t— realize I was thinking about it.”

“You miss her,” Keith says. “Right?”

“Yeah,” Shiro admits, after a moment. Atlas doesn’t feel offended, so he continues, “I mean… when I first woke up and she wasn’t there, it was almost a comfort, you know? After being stuck in her for so long.”

“Right,” Keith says, voice wooden. His hand lifts and cups the back of Shiro’s neck, holding tight to him, as if anchoring him down into his body, as if afraid he’ll disappear all over again. His voice always goes like that, whenever Shiro tentatively breeches this subject. Neither of them talk about it a lot. It’s— a lot, to talk about being dead.

“But now, I guess… It feels strange not to feel her. Traveling in the Black Lion back to Earth… it felt weird not to feel her,” Shiro admits.

Keith nods. “I figured it would. I mean… how couldn’t it?”

“Right,” Shiro agrees. He shrugs. “It’s over now.”

Keith shakes his head. He almost laughs. “Shiro. It’s not over.”

Shiro must look disbelieving because Keith sighs, squeezing the back of his neck.

“Shiro,” Keith says, quietly. “You just— have to let her in again. You aren’t cut off from her forever.”

“No,” Shiro protests, voice quiet. “She’s— you’re the Black Paladin now, Keith.”

“I still feel Red, sometimes,” Keith dismisses. “That doesn’t make me any less the Black Paladin. You were the Black Paladin, too. That doesn’t go away.”

Shiro shakes his head. “It was a struggle, to fight back against Zarkon when he had his connection with her still. It’s better if you don’t have that intrusion.”

Keith’s face twists up. “I know you didn’t just compare yourself to Zarkon. Shiro.

Shiro knows it’s an absurd thought, that it’s stupid to make a comparison, in the end, but still his mind flashes back to the arena, all those fights, the blood running down his arms. Everything he’s ever done, everyone he’s ever hurt—

Unravelling, he’s unravelling—

He feels the sensation of a veil draping over the memories, the Atlas surrounding him. He sucks in a sharp breath and feels his eyes well up again. He clenches his eyes shut and forces it back down again. Don’t look.

“Shiro,” Keith says again, voice quieter this time. Shiro’s eyes snap open when he feels Keith cup his face, his fingertips tracing his jaw and palms pressing to his cheeks. He holds him steady and their eyes meet. “Let her in.”

He’d never considered before that he was the cause of it. When he woke up in his cloned body, disconnected and severed from Black, he assumed it was her doing. That he was no longer the leader and he accepted that, needed those months traveling back to Earth in order to rest, in order to remember what he was on his own, who he was. To fade into the shadow and let Keith take charge.

It never occurred to him that he was the one to cut her off, after so long spent in the astral plane, surrounded and engulfed by her— never fully alone. Never fully formed. A spectral force just waiting to fade away, once the energy needed to keep him faded, too. Never able to reach anyone. Just waiting to die, fully. To die properly.

And isolating, crushing loneliness. Of course he’d run away from it.

“Let her in,” Keith says again.

Shiro sucks in a breath. Something inside him wants to fight back against it, but another part of him is already racing forward, his mind opening up. He feels Atlas. He feels something else.

He closes his eyes and whispers, “Keith.”

And he feels his mind open. He feels the Black Lion on the outskirts, and then she roars. He hears her, rattling the inside of his body. He knows this feeling. He knew this feeling for so long, only this, only weightless existence in nothingness. At first, he wants to resist— too familiar to being dead, to being forgotten, to being separated from everyone.

He feels her. Her presence in his mind is a welcoming return, something he knew so well and lost. What even his clone knew, if different. Shiro closes his eyes and gasps quietly as the Black Lion circles him and then returns to him.

He realizes he’s crying only because he can feel Keith’s thumbs swiping over his cheeks.

And beyond Black— he feels it. That connection to Keith. No direct connection, but a distant echo. Both of them, connected through Black. The swelling strength of Keith’s determination, his power, his kindness, his sincerity. His dedication. His loyalty. His love.

If Atlas is a butterfly and Black a windstorm, then Keith is everything else in existence. He sweeps in, the air that Shiro breathes. Impossible for anything else to live without him there, too.

Shiro can’t help but feel it all— Atlas, Black, and Keith. He focuses on Keith. Grasps that connecting line and pulls. It buoys him. It pulls him in closer.

I love you, Shiro thinks, before he can stop it, and he thinks he hears it echoed back at him, across that distant connection. Keith feels at once far away and close. Keith is right there in front of him, touching him. But he feels his mind, his thoughts, the feelings that thrum between them through Black. He thinks he hears Keith gasp, but he can’t be sure.

Suddenly, he isn’t afraid. Let Keith feel it. Let Keith know. He feels Keith echoing it back towards him, shouting it— closer and closer still.

He leans forward to meet him. He feels Keith’s hands on his cheeks. He feels the tears spilling down, only for Keith to catch them. As Keith always catches him. He feels Keith’s breath. He feels Keith’s lips as he kisses him, tentative and uncertain.

Shiro breathes and pushes closer. The darkness swallows them but Shiro can feel it, the curve of Keith’s body in his arms. The slant of his mouth against his own. The sound of Keith’s hitching breath. He can feel Keith, pressing against his mind. He can feel the Black Lion. He can feel Atlas.

Most of all, he can feel the way he’s supported, shored up by the universe— surrounded and protected. Keith has him in his arms and nothing else matters. His heart gallops away from him and it doesn’t matter. Keith is the air he breathes and that’s the only thing that’s ever mattered.

“Keith,” he whispers into the kiss and Keith answers him, mouths his name against his lips before chasing into his mouth. Shiro melts and drags him in close. Breathes I love you as if it can be ever enough, lets every thought, every fear, every hope, every little snippet of happiness unfurl across the bond. He feels Keith shiver. He pulls him in.

 

-

 

“I’m mad at you,” Shiro tells the ceiling once the walls drop away. He takes Keith’s hand and smiles at him.

He can sense Atlas’ delight and amusement. Also, just a little bit of smugness. It tumbles through Shiro’s mind.

“You’re much too young to feel so superior,” Shiro says and Keith snorts beside him. He turns to Keith and says, “She wanted to help.”

Keith grins at him and then yanks hard on his hand, pulling Shiro in and tipping up to kiss him. Atlas quiets in his mind and withdraws to give him that moment of privacy.

A moment later, though, she starts sending him images of couples proposing. Worst still, distantly, fondly, he feels the Black Lion’s approval and amusement. Further still, like a welcoming whisper, he feels Keith. He’s warm and steady and present, and just as embarrassed by the images of the proposing couples as Shiro is.

And Shiro knows he’s doomed. But he also knows he’s going to be okay.