Sorry for the delay on the last chapter. Life has awful timing.
When Shiro staggers out of the healing chamber, Hunk and Lance are there to catch him. His mind is foggy, his thoughts plodding along until his brain finally connects to his mouth.
"What happened?" he asks as they sit him down on the steps. Hunk goes to get food while the others pour into the room, alerted by some signal Shiro hadn't heard. Shiro looks around and doesn't see Pidge, but Allura inclines her head and Shiro turns to see Pidge still in one of the tubes, her eyes closed and her expression peaceful. He can't see any signs of obvious injuries, and he relaxes.
"Pidge was the most wounded of all of us," Allura says. "But she will be waking up early tomorrow."
Shiro glances around, seeing that everyone else appears healed. So he was the second worst; somehow he isn't surprised, though he wishes Pidge hadn't gotten the worst of it. She hadn't deserved any of it, especially after Shiro dragged her into such a dangerous situation.
"You should've seen me chase away that Galra ship!" Lance says, sliding in front of Shiro and distracting him from his thoughts. "I was incredible!"
"I was there too," Keith says, frowning at Lance. "I was the one that stopped the fighters from tearing you to pieces."
"Yeah, but did you see Blue rip the ships apart? I was so awesome!"
"I was better!"
Shiro watches the two settle into familiar banter with a smile on his face. Seeing them argue so normally after such a tense situation is reassuring in a way he can't properly explain.
The mice run circles around his feet, and when Shiro reaches down, they scramble onto his arms and up to his shoulders. Hunk returns moments later with two plates of goo, and Shiro takes them gratefully. His stomach rumbles even at the sight of the oddly colored substance, and once he starts digging in he realizes how hungry he is.
He watches as Coran intercedes on Lance's behalf, only to get dragged down by Keith. Then Coran is his own side, somehow holding up against an assault from Keith that is all angry gestures and loud words while Lance appears to be playing charades.
Despite their tones and postures, Shiro can see the easy sets to their shoulders, the smiles just barely not breaking through the mock frowns.
He realizes what they're doing—or trying to do. They want to distract him.
He doesn't fault them for their efforts, so when Keith drags him into the argument, Shiro goes in with a smile.
Despite getting a full day and a half of rest in the infirmary, Shiro still feels exhausted by the time he gets to his room that night. He's already made sure that the other paladins—save Pidge, who is still healing—are in their rooms and, if not sleeping, then getting there.
He sits on his bed with the weight of the world on his shoulders and tries to breathe.
They made it.
Everyone is okay.
The Galra are gone.
With the lights on he can pretend as though the past few days haven't happened. He knows they will get into worse situations in the future, that the Galra will keep coming until they're dead.
Success or death.
But everyone—Lance, Keith, Pidge, Hunk, Allura, and Coran—have all known this for a while. They know what it means to be paladins of Voltron. They know the risks.
Shiro rests his elbows on his knees and breathes deeply.
He wants to protect them. He doesn't want any of them to wake up screaming or in a cold sweat and even though some of them already do he doesn't want it to get worse.
He was the one who crashed the ship on Earth, who brought the Galra straight to their planet.
He was the one who failed to protect the Holts when it mattered most.
He was the one who couldn't warn the rest of humanity about the approaching storm.
A knock on his door. "Shiro?"
"Come in," he says, standing.
The door slides open and Allura walks in, her hair down and neutral expression on her face that belies the concern in her eyes.
"Is something the matter?" Shiro asks.
"Well, I was going to ask you that," she replies. She sits on the small trunk by the door usually reserved for putting clothes in.
"Me? I'm fine."
"Shiro, it's halfway through the castle's night cycle and you're still awake."
Shiro blinks. It's been that long? He hadn't noticed. Allura must see his expression because the concern in her eyes pulls at her mouth.
"Please, be honest."
Honest. He's always been honest—he hasn't lied. Just…hidden some things. Downplayed a few others. But he hasn't lied to hurt the team or anything like that.
But Allura is looking at him and he realizes that he has been dishonest.
Shiro sighs, staring at the floor. "I haven't been sleeping well," he admits. "Every time I close my eyes, I can see them. The Galra. And what I—what they do, what I've done…" he shakes his head, and he has to sit down on the edge of his bed because his legs don't want to work. "Before the Galra attacked us I was avoiding sleep. I…would've done better, if I hadn't been so scared of what goes on in my head."
"Shiro," Allura says, her tone hard enough that Shiro looks up, "none of those memories are your fault. And no matter what could have happened when the Galra attacked, the outcome is the same. We're all alive. You have every right to be scared, and I know what it means to be unable to sleep."
Shiro frowns. "You—"
"My last memories before I went under," Allura says, and her hands are neatly folded in her lap but Shiro can see the way her fingers are gripping each other, "are of fire, our ship falling apart around us as Zarkon gets ever closer." She smiles, but the expression is bitter. "I've been sleeping for ten thousand years, but I still wake up tired."
"Allura," Shiro starts, but the princess holds up a hand.
"My apologies. I came here out of concern for you. Tell me, is there anything we can do to help?"
"I can handle this," Shiro says, appreciating her concern. But he doesn't want to be a burden to anyone on the team, so the least he can do is solve his own problems. "Thank you, though."
"I will not accept that answer."
Shiro can only blink. "Huh?"
Allura leans forward. "I know you bear a heavy burden as the leader of Team Voltron, both mentally and emotionally. You are the head of the team, the leader charged with directing the rest even in times of great stress and danger. But that is a responsibility you do not have to bear alone. We are all here, Shiro. Any of us can and will help you with whatever you need, even if you don't realize you need it. It is not wrong for a leader to rely upon those he commands. Do you understand?"
Shiro swallows. He needs a few seconds to respond, but Allura simply waits.
"Thank you, Allura," he finally says. "Really, thank you. I—I don't even know what to say. I guess I just…didn't want to burden any of you, but if you don't think it's a burden—"
"We would never," Allura says firmly.
"Right. I'll ask for help if I need it, I promise."
Allura smiles, but Shiro looks her straight in the eyes. "Only if you do the same," he adds.
"Of course," Allura says, but Shiro can see that he caught her off guard.
"I mean it."
Her smile is softer this time, and for just a moment she truly does look like one of the last Alteans alive. "I know."
For a minute, they sit in silence. But it is a companionable silence, and though it fills the room it is not oppressive.
Allura stands. "I must go. Coran and I have been identifying any areas in need of repairs." She pauses in the doorway and glances back. "Get some sleep, Shiro."
Shiro does a mock solute. "Roger that, ma'am."
When his door is closed and his room empty, Shiro stares at the opposite wall for a long time. Then he shuts off the light, gets into bed, and settles into a deep sleep that the nightmares can only scratch at.
When Pidge wakes up, she gets an even grander reception than Shiro did. And if she cries a little when she sees everyone alive and well, no one comments.
Hunk produces a cake. It's gone in minutes.
"I've been meaning to ask," Lance says at breakfast, one forkful of green goo pointedly pushed in Shiro's direction.
"Hm?" Shiro asks, his meal already finished.
"What's up with your armor?"
"My…armor?" Shiro repeats. He glances down at it; it's a little scuffed from early morning training, but he can't see anything obviously wrong with it. He glances at the others. Keith and Pidge shrug, and Hunk waves his fork.
"He's probably talking about your lights."
"My lights?" Shiro repeats.
"Yes!" Lance says. "Thank you, Hunk. Why are your blue light thingies off? And Pidge's, too. Did they break or something?"
"The lights on the paladin armor would not break," Allura says, miffed.
"Indeed!" Coran says. "In fact, those lights will keep shining long after your bones become dust!"
"Comforting," Keith deadpans.
"Then why are theirs out?" Lance asks, turning his fork on Coran. A glob of goo splatters onto the table.
"I disabled them," Pidge says. Lance turns to face her, and the rest of the food goo slides off his fork, missing Keith's hand by inches. "The castle's power was off, so I figured we'd be harder to spot without them."
Lance lowers his fork. "Oh."
"Watch where you're pointing your silverware, idiot," Keith says when he isn't in imminent danger of being hit by collateral goop.
"Oh, are you scared of a little food goo?" Lance asks.
"No, I'm scared of your lack of spatial awareness," Keith counters. "It's terrifying."
"Guys, enough," Shiro interrupts. "Can't we get through one breakfast?"
Lance and Keith exchange look. That's all the warning Shiro gets before two plates of jiggling green goop are shoved in his face.
Without the cuffs, the food fight is vicious. Pidge goes down early, her wiry frame no match for the others' accuracy. Lance and Keith soon turn on each other, and Hunk takes them both down, but Allura, Coran, and Shiro call a truce before they run out of goo entirely.
Shiro counts it as a victory anyway.
Two days later he finds Pidge in the observation deck. It's a small room, but with windows that make the walls look invisible, leaving nothing but space stretching beyond.
"Hey," he says, sitting on the floor next to her. She's got her laptop out, though the screen is dark, and the headphones she wears are wrapped around her neck.
"Hey," Pidge replies. Her eyes are fixed outside, where the cosmos drift by with silent grace.
"Looking for asteroids?" Shiro asks.
Pidge shifts, only then seeming to notice that her laptop has turned off. "Yeah. I was just…listening, I guess. For old time's sake." She pauses, but Shiro waits. He can tell that she wants to say more. "I used to do this a lot. Er, not flying around in a spaceship, but…listening, with my gear. Sitting on the roof of the Academy and pointing my equipment at the stars. It's what I was doing the night you appeared."
Shiro's memories of the escape and subsequent crash are fuzzy, so he decides to steer the conversation away from that topic. "Did you ever hear anything interesting?"
Pidge perks up, a small spark entering her eyes. "Yeah! Besides all the Voltron stuff, though. Someone was once broadcasting a story on every frequency I tried. I think it was some kind of intergalactic prank? But it went on for hours."
"What was the story?"
Pidge bites her lip. "It's long."
Shiro stares out the transparent walls. "We've got time."
Pidge takes a minute to compile the story in her mind, and then she starts speaking. Shiro listens with quiet attention, none of the names or places sounding familiar and he thinks that's a small blessing. There are places and people the Galra have not touched.
He has to stop her at one point. "How did this alien survive after he ate his friends' leg? How did his friend survive?"
Pidge pushes up her glasses, flashing a quicksilver grin. "Well, from what I could tell, they come from a species known for its incredible regenerative capabilities, and so—"
But Shiro isn't listening. His mind has snapped back, flashes of an opponent in the ring that kept getting up no matter what, blood staining the sand and he just wanted it to be over but they wouldn't stay down and the crowd was roaring his bones vibrating his hands sore on the hilt of his weapon—
He blinks, and Pidge is staring at him with concern. "Are you okay?"
He opens his mouth to do his usual "I'm fine", but pauses. Then he sighs, leaning back and bracing his palms against the floor.
"I'm tired, Pidge," he admits. "And I didn't come down here just to chat about space. How are you holding up?"
"Me? I'm fine."
"Pidge." Shiro looks at her, really looks, and Pidge ducks her head. "Don't lie to me," Shiro says softly. "We're a team. You can trust me. What happened isn't something you can or should shove under the rug."
Pidge's shoulders rise and fall as she takes a deep breath. "My leg still hurts," she says after a beat. "It's healed. But…it just throbs, sometimes. And sometimes I wake up thinking everyone is gone, and it's—it's awful."
"So you come here?"
"It's nice. Peaceful. Can't be a prison with this much to see."
Shiro focuses on his breathing. "I get the same feeling, sometimes," he says. "The scar on my face—I don't even remember how I got it, but some days it burns worse than anything I do remember. And the nights can get longer than the days."
Pidge doesn't say anything for over a minute. "This sucks."
Shiro's lips quirk. "Yeah. It does." He adjusts his weight to take some of the pressure off his left palm and put more on his right. "If you ever need anything, Pidge, I'll always be around to talk. Anything at all."
Pidge nods. "Thanks."
The room is silent, but Shiro pretends he can hear the Castle humming around him. And if he tries hard enough, he can sense his lion.
Shiro lies on his back. Even the floor is transparent, and the feeling of falling without falling is dizzying. Not enough to cause nausea, but his senses hover right on the edge of actual alertness.
He shifts his head. "Yeah?"
"There's…something I've been meaning to tell you."
Shiro sits up, giving Pidge his full attention.
"That day during training, when you—when we all saw that thing." Shiro remembers, mouth tightening. "I was the one poking around in your head."
Pidge glances up and sees Shiro's stare, and she swallows and the words pour out.
"I'm sorry, really, but I just thought I could find something about my family and I'm sorry for causing that I should have known it would hurt you and I'm so sorry Shiro I didn't mean—"
Shiro puts one arm around Pidge's shoulders and pulls her close, stemming the flow of apologies. "It's okay, kiddo," he says. "In the future, just ask, alright?"
It's not okay, not really. That incident had led to nightmares and cold sweats. But it hadn't been anything he hadn't dealt with already, and he can't blame Pidge for trying. She's young, and Shiro had never said anything about off-limits areas of his brain.
So he and Pidge stare out at the stars.
Hunk finds them two hours later, asleep against each other.
He grabs a blanket, drapes it over them as best he can, and then lets them rest.