The Nature of Leadership
A fan fiction by Velkyn Karma
Summary: Recent experience has left Shiro questioning a lot of things: his decisions, his abilities, even the bond with his own Lion. There's only one way to really find the answers, but he's never been both so desperate to find and so scared of the truth before.
Warnings: Spoilers for the entirety of Season 1, especially the final episode. Some minor bad language. References to PTSD. A little bittersweet but it has a happy ending, promise!
Note: Written for a prompt exchange with the amazing Bosstoaster over on AO3, who was nice enough to agree to do a prompt trade with me. Go check out her amazing half of this little exchange as well and enjoy! It's called "Spark to Ignite."
Disclaimer: I do not own, or pretend to own, Voltron: Legendary Defender or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs to Dreamworks and associated parties.
"The black lion is the decisive head of Voltron. It will take a pilot who is a born leader, and in control at all times. Someone whose men will follow without hesitation. That is why Shiro, you will pilot the black lion."
Shiro can't put this off any longer.
It's been two days now since they finally recovered the last of the paladins and reunited, after the disastrous battle at Zarkon's main ship. It's been a whirlwind of activity since that rescue mission, and Shiro hasn't had much of a chance to reflect on anything that's happened recently; he'd been too focused on making sure everyone got back to the Castle of Lions safe and sound. Every second he'd been awake had been dedicated to finding the Castle and finding the others however he can, and most of his time he'd been awake. It left little time for anything else.
But now they're finally all together again, safe and sound and in each others' company once more. And Shiro doesn't have a goal to put every ounce of single-minded focus into anymore.
It means he starts thinking, reflecting on everything that's happened recently, now that he can't push it off behind a facade of responsibility anymore. The mistakes he made. The things he should have done differently. His weaknesses, his failures, his inability to maintain focus or control. Ever since the universal station he's made one poor decision after another, failed the paladins and the Alteans again and again.
And the Black Lion is what proves it.
He still doesn't know what happened when they attacked Zarkon. He doesn't understand why the Black Lion locked up, why she refused to listen to him, why she rejected him. He can't get the image of the Galra insignia and garish red alien text surrounding him in the safety of the Black Lion's cabin out of his head; he can't forget seeing her hovering so far above him, staring down at him silently, judging, as he crashes helplessly into Zarkon's ship.
He still doesn't know what happened, but he can take a guess. The Black Lion desires very specific characteristics. The fact that he'd failed at all of them doesn't bode well for his bond with her.
Her presence had been almost non-existent in the battle, disconnected, weak. And ever since that day, that essence of her in the back of his mind has felt withdrawn. Silent. Detached. He's been able to pilot the Black Lion to recover the others, but it doesn't really feel like piloting the Black Lion used to; it's more comparable to driving an ordinary pod. It feels wrong.
So he's been avoiding her, when he can. It's not like it's hard—she can't exactly sneak up on him in the hallway—but he doesn't visit the hangar or fly just for the feel of flying. He doesn't prod at that presence bundled away in the back of his head. He doesn't try to establish that connection at all at first, and he knows its out of cowardice. He's afraid of what he'll find there and what he'll learn about himself, and he can't go down deep like that.
But he can't avoid this anymore, not now that everyone is together. He's already been the weak link recently amongst the paladins, and a damaged bond with his own Lion could hurt their ability to form Voltron.
And as terrified as he is of the answers, he also needs to know.
So he makes his way down to the Black Lion's hangar in the early hours of the morning, when he's positive everyone is asleep. The Lion sits back majestically on her haunches like a creature out of the stories of old, staring straight ahead, and does not acknowledge his presence in any way. Shiro almost feels like he's intruding, entering the court of a queen without permission, and that only highlights just how badly their bond has broken.
But he doesn't leave. He's not sure what answers he'll find today or what it will mean to him, but even if he's scared at the prospect of the unknown, he's so damn tired of running away.
"Why have you been so quiet lately?" he asks out loud, staring up at the massive black and white head of the Lion.
She does not respond. Her mechanical body is perfectly still, and he does not feel the slightest stir of pressure in the back of his mind acknowledging that she even bothered to listen to the question.
He frowns. "Can you even hear me?"
She does not respond.
"Am I just that terrible a paladin?"
She does not respond.
Softly, in a voice so small he's almost surprised to hear it comes from himself, he rasps, "Did…Did Zarkon break something? Did he break us?"
She does not respond.
The thought scares him. The moment that Voltron had been split apart, and the moments after…the overwhelming, invasive presence had been sickening to the point of nearly making him feel physically nauseated. It had been like acid in his mind, like fire in his veins, painful and insidious and wrong. There had been so much subtle force behind it, and he'd felt something crack in his head even as the Black Lion ejected him out into the void. The thought that it might not be fixable, the thought that Zarkon could have permanently ruined him…it's more than he wants to contemplate. Zarkon has already stolen his friends, his arm, his memories…he can't lose the Lion too.
He stares up at the Black Lion, at her massive yellow eyes, currently dim. He thinks back to the first flight training session Coran had walked them through, when they were learning to bond deeper with their Lions. He remembers the pitch blackness, and his slow breaths, and her presence warm in his head. He remembers the way he could see with her, think with her, fly with her.
Shiro closes his eyes, slows his breaths, and reaches for the bundle of thoughts and instincts in the back of his mind that aren't really his.
It's so hard to reach it. It feels like every time he reaches out with his mind that presence slips a little further away. But Shiro is not willing to give up so easily, not when he needs to prove the Black Lion is still there, and he follows. His mind sinks deeper. He's vaguely aware that he can't feel any physical sensation anymore; the metal deck under his feet, the shift of clothing on his skin, the coolness of the air, the tug of the prosthetic at his right arm, it's all gone, all of it. He feels no concern over it, either. It's meaningless compared to his real goal.
Time has no real meaning to him anymore, so Shiro has no idea how long it takes for him to sink so deeply into his own mind that he can reach out to touch at the Black Lion's presence buried so far down. When he does he expects to feel her strength and her warmth, but she feels cool, distant. Her presence, her mind, almost seems to jump in surprise when he reaches out for her. It's enough for Shiro to reflexively jerk back in equal surprise, and open his eyes.
He's not in the hangar anymore. It's completely, pitch black, a solid darkness that he has only ever seen once, just a bare few days ago, when Haggar had coated him in it and thrown him into pure emptiness. He feels a stab of panic, and expects to see hungry yellow eyes staring at him from the darkness any moment.
But it isn't Haggar that emerges from the darkness next. Instead, stars begin to bloom all around him—some pinpricks of light in the far distance, others closer glittering points of red and blue and white. The illumination is comfortable without being blinding, although he's not sure the stars themselves are causing it. He's floating comfortably in space, but he can breathe—or rather, he has no need to breathe, so lack of air isn't an issue—and feels no fear for his life. He stares down at himself and notes he's wearing neither his casual clothes nor his paladin armor, but rather his old uniform from the Garrison. His right arm is flesh again. None of this surprises him exactly, even though he distantly recognizes it probably should. It just is who he is. It is what this place is. He knows this even if he's never been here before or seen it or anything. It's just instinctive.
The Black Lion fades into being on front of him. She's not sitting anymore; she, too, floats, all four mechanical paws curled beneath her, tail lashing gently. Despite being surrounded by the vastness of space she appears even larger than Shiro remembers. Shiro is almost positive it's because he's seeing not what she appears like but what she is, the very core of her presence itself, just like he appears as well.
"So I can reach you," Shiro says slowly, unable to keep an edge of relief out of his voice. "He didn't break us completely…"
Her eyes settle on him, and she stares at him, waiting. He doesn't feel any sort of emotion from her, no thoughts or memories or words fed into his brain like she uses when she communicates with him when they fly together. There's no relief…but she's not exactly judgmental, either. Maybe that's a start.
"What happened back then?" he begins. He doesn't need to expand on what 'back then' is; he can tell she can see his memories of Voltron being ripped apart, of the Black Lion freezing up, of being spat out into space.
She just watches. She does not respond.
He frowns, but tries again. "Why was Zarkon able to cut us apart like that?"
She just watches. She does not respond.
"Why was Zarkon able to split Voltron? Why did you try to go with him? Why is our bond so weak now?"
She just watches. She does not respond.
Shiro grits his teeth in frustration. He's not sure if he should feel scared, hurt, or angry. "Am I just that terrible a paladin? Did I do something wrong? Did I screw up badly enough that I'm not worthy of being the black paladin anymore?"
She just watches. She does not respond.
Shiro squeezes his eyes shut. When he opens them he's still floating in the depths of space, and the Black Lion is still floating in front of him, staring silently. He stares back, and after a moment nearly whispers, "Why did you throw me away?"
She just watches. She does not respond.
The hurt recedes, and Shiro finds it easier to choose 'angry' now. "Why aren't you answering me? I know you can hear me! Why have you been ignoring me all this time?"
She just watches. She does not respond.
Shiro can feel something thick and hot building in his chest now, a cluster of so many things he can feel too fast to register, all jumbled together incomprehensibly. Anger-frustration-hurt-fear-exhaustion-pain-guilt-abandonmentragebetrayal, swimming together in an entangled mess. He's so good at controlling these things normally, keeping himself under careful restraint, but it's like something's breaking in him this deep in his own mind and he's starting to slip. Part of him realizes it's just another reason for the Lion to reject him—control is paramount to the Black Lion and he's losing it.
The rest of him doesn't even care anymore, and he finds frustration and rage clawing their way to the surface of the bitter mess of emotions. He finds his calm facade cracking completely as he speaks again.
"Am I not even worth your time anymore?" he asks angrily. "Am I not good enough anymore? Not strong enough anymore? Am I such a failure as a leader even Zarkon is a better alternative? Or are you just tired of having an inexperienced paladin so screwed up in the head half the time he's not even reliable in combat?"
His voice is raising now, but he doesn't care. "I never asked for this job, you know! I never wanted to get kidnapped by an evil alien empire. I never asked to be enslaved for a year. I never wanted to be forced into gladiator death matches. I never asked to have all my memories taken away, I never asked for my mind to be so screwed up I can't even think straight or figure out where I am sometimes, I never asked for these flashbacks that put everyone else in danger when they have to cover my ass!"
He's yelling now, glaring angrily at the Black Lion's muzzle. "I never asked to be conscripted for some intergalactic war, either! I never aimed for being the leader! I never asked to be your paladin! I never wanted any of this! But I've tried. Do you know how hard I've tried to be absolutely everything that everyone wants me to be? To live up to all those expectations—to be a decisive, in control leader that people would follow? I never asked for it but I've done it anyway. And after all that, after all of this, after the dozens of times I've had to prove myself to you and to everyone, you listen to Zarkon? All this, all this, and I'm still not enough?"
He's panting harshly by the end, even though he's aware that in this space he has no need to breathe. His throat feels hoarse from screaming even if he knows it's not real. His hands are shaking even as they curl into fists. He's startled at his own outburst, at his own lack of control, and he realizes none of this is new. This has been building for over a year. Over a year he's held all of this in, shoved it all as far down as he can, trying to be the best he can be because that's what everyone else needs, until he just can't do it anymore.
It's not like the Lion cares anyway. She's already rejected him, right? Watching him lose control like this can't make things any worse at this point.
For the first time since she arrived in this strange trance-place, the Black Lion moves. Her massive head cocks slightly to one side as she stares down at him, and Shiro is aware of some sort of contemplation from her. Then, for the first time, she speaks.
"Speaks" isn't exactly the right word. The Lions always seem to communicate in pre-thought, imparting images, emotions, sounds and concepts straight into the pilot's brain. It's fairly easy to understand, however, since the pilots and their Lions are supposed to be on the same wavelength, and the combination of sensory information and concept are enough to communicate what the Lion is saying universally, regardless of language.
But this goes even beyond that. This deep into the connection, it's as though the Lion borrows Shiro's own thoughts, memories, senses, and language to communicate with him, and it's even faster than he's ever experienced when in the pilot's seat. It's as though he generates the thoughts himself, even though he knows they don't come from him.
"You have said something very important, paladin," she says-thinks. "You asked for none of this. This is true. You never asked to lead. You did not desire it. So why not refuse?"
Shiro is struck dumb by the question. He opens his mouth to respond, but isn't sure how to answer. After a moment, he stammers, "How could I even do that?"
"By saying you refuse."
"That's not what I meant, and you know it," Shiro mutters back.
"Then you have yet to answer the question. Why did you not refuse?"
He feels thrown off his thoughts at the question, from the Black Lion of all things, and isn't sure how to respond. The truth is, he'd never even for a second considered refusal an option. Running never was, not to Shiro. Not for things that mattered.
The Black Lion is still staring down at him expectantly, head tilted to the side. After a moment, Shiro finally settles on, "Because…because they needed me. Because I didn't ask for it, but….but somebody had to."
The Black Lion's head tilts again. Shiro feels no sort of response from her at all at his answer; her feelings through their bond are completely neutral and reveal none of her thoughts. She does think-speak again at his answer, though. "Very well. I will accept the premise that a leader is needed. There is no need for it to be you. One of the other paladins, perhaps, would have suited me better."
That hurts, especially since she doesn't 'say' it with any vindictive nature, merely as statement of fact. But Shiro shakes his head at the suggestion that Lance or Keith or Hunk or Pidge be forced to take the burden of leadership. "They're just kids. They're all still kids. They've already given up so much just to be here and be fighting in this war. Putting that weight on their shoulders…it's too much to ask. Especially when we first got here."
"The Altean Royal Blood, then. They have the experience. It would not be the first time royalty has flown into battle. The Royal Blood often suits my requirements well. Leadership is in their veins."
Shiro can see Zarkon flash before his eyes again, sees the garish Galra red crawling up the holoscreens in the Black Lion's cabin, and squeezes his eyes shut. Yes, she certainly does have a preference for royalty, and he's definitely not that.
But when he opens his eyes again he shakes his head once more. "Allura? No. No, she…she's a good leader. She's a princess for God's sake. But she didn't know her troops. And they didn't know her. They needed someone out there with them they could trust…especially halfway across the known universe in unfamiliar territory."
"For the first battle, perhaps. Why not give me up after? You had saved yourself. Self preservation is an acceptable reason to fight. Why not stop?"
Shiro is stunned at the question. It takes him a moment to speak, but when he does the answer is a little easier this time. "I couldn't do that. I couldn't just…leave people behind like that to save my own skin. I couldn't abandon an entire universe because I was lucky enough to survive."
"Millions do every day. Survival is not a dishonorable thing. It is life."
"Not when it comes at the expense of others."
"Others you do not know and have never met."
"Ignorance doesn't make it right."
"A belief that not all people share. And they would never know."
"I would know," Shiro says firmly. "And they would know."
"The other paladins?"
"And what do you care if they know you survive?"
Shiro can't believe he's even hearing this. Not from the Black Lion. Not from the head of Voltron, the leader of the Lions, the supposed protecter of the innocent. "I could never ask or expect of them to do anything that I would never do myself," he insists, his voice growing firmer by the second. "Those are good kids. They've been through hell and back. It wouldn't be fair to them to just leave them with this, especially not after bringing this whole mess down on them."
"But have you not been through more? Have you not suffered enough? Isn't it objectively fair that you finally be free of this to live?"
"It's not a matter of measuring suffering," Shiro insists. "They've given up everything for this cause. None of them asked to get conscripted into a universe-wide war either. They're not even legally able to join most armies back on Earth. Every single one of them chose to stick around anyway to do what they could, but they're still kids. They need somebody they feel they can rely on to get them through this." He looks away from the Black Lion's eyes, and says more softly, "I just….don't understand why they think it's me."
He narrows his eyes a little, and turns to glare back at the Lion's eyes with a renewed spark of anger. "And how can you even ask questions like these?" he snaps. "It goes against everything you even stand for!" He's not sure what to think of the Black Lion's strange callousness, her coldness, her suggestions of cowardice and abandonment. Maybe Zarkon had done something to her when he snapped their bond. Or maybe she had always been like this. Maybe there was a reason she'd chosen the leader of the Galra empire over himself when presented with a choice.
But he's unexpectedly overwhelmed with a sudden flood of feeling from her, as the coldness and the callousness and the distance seem to evaporate. She feels warm again, calm, powerful and commanding but not overbearing. Her mechanical muzzle doesn't move, but he can almost feel her smiling. And he can feel something else from her, too. Gratefulness? Relief? Pride? He's not sure exactly what it is; it all wraps into one.
Whatever it is, it catches him by surprise. This is not the reaction he expected from lecturing a massive sentient mechanical cat in a fit of appalled anger. He'd have bet on being eaten, honestly.
"You truly believe these things," she says-thinks. "I can feel your conviction. Everything you have said is a reflection of how you feel and how you think. What you have told me exhibits responsibility. It is dedication to your people. It is dedication to all free people. It is loyalty. It is morality. These are the core aspects of a true leader and a knight of old. These are the core aspects of you, paladin, even if you doubt yourself. This is strength. True strength, not physical superiority and domination. You are genuine. You are real."
This is not the answer Shiro expects. He can feel her respect for him in her words. It sounds nothing like rejection. It sounds like pride. Like she's saying he does fit her requirements as the black paladin. Like she's saying he still has the right to be her paladin now.
But that doesn't make sense. He hasn't earned it. He's failed time and time again, he was too weak to fight Zarkon, he was severed from her so easily, he couldn't even recover her on his own. It doesn't make sense when she's been so silent—why praise him now when she's been so withdrawn, when he clearly hasn't earned it?
He can feel the warmth of her presence around him and supporting his thoughts. After a moment, she thinks-says, "Speak your mind, paladin."
He hesitates, not used to voicing his own concerns and fears. He's never been able to do so before, not when everyone else needs him to be the one they rely on. But it's only him and the Lion here. He's already ranted and raved at her, and she can feel everything he feels through their bond; there's no point in keeping secrets.
So he finally says, "Allura said one of the qualities you want in a pilot is someone who is in control at all times. I'm not that. I can barely keep it together some days. My head's a mess. I'm so scared of making the wrong call, costing someone their life or their chance back home or their family. We nearly lost Allura. We nearly lost everyone, because of my calls. A real leader wouldn't do that."
"There is not a single leader in existence who has not felt those fears, paladin," the Black Lion says-thinks. "Mistakes are made by all. It is the nature of living. And as leaders we must shoulder more of that weight and that burden and that pain when things fail. That is the nature of leadership. But it does not make you any less qualified, or diminish your true strengths any less. You are a true leader in that you will learn from your errors, so you do not encounter those fears in the future, or risk your people."
She feels supremely confident in this, in her borrowed thought-words and in her emotions. It's almost catching, but Shiro can't quite bring himself to believe it. None of it adds up; none of it makese sense.
"I told you I'm not made for this," he says bluntly. "I never asked to lead. I did it because I had to, not because I'm any good at it. Look how often I messed up recently. I couldn't protect Allura, and she was captured. She could have been killed in that time and it would have been my fault. I don't think I've ever seen Coran so furious. I've never seen all of them so disconnected and angry because of my mistakes, and I couldn't control the situation because I was too buried in my own mess. I put Pidge, Hunk, Lance and Keith in danger with a reckless suicide mission to try and rescue Allura and fix my own mistakes, but it cost all of them. Allura and Hunk had to save me.Keith and the Red Lion were both hurt badly trying to protect us. We were split up. At no point did I contribute to that battle." He shakes his head. "This isn't a role I should have had. Allura just assigned me to you and I thought I could hack it, I tried, but I obviously wasn't meant to."
He feels what he swears is exasperation from the Black Lion for a moment. But when she speaks-thinks, her voice feels controlled, calm, and utterly confident even now. "Were you not listening, paladin, on the same day the Royal Blood explained our mission? Our bond cannot be forced. She is the one that assessed you might be a worthy candidate. But I alone am the one who chose you. If you did not have the qualities I respect and revere I can assure you, I would never have let you sit in my pilot's seat. It would not be the first time I rejected a candidate the Altean royal family thought was suitable to my preferences."
Shiro is stunned by this, and doesn't know what to say.
The Lion, apparently does, because she continues. "And your paladins, they are the same. You may think you were assigned to this role, or that you gained it through arbitrary rank on your own world. But they chose you, paladin. They chose to listen to you and to follow without hesitation. They trust you. And trust is never assigned, paladin, or taken against one's will; it is always earned. By your own merits, you have earned it tenfold from all of them. And, from me as well."
Shiro hadn't realized he could be more surprised than he already was, but it's as though he feels his heart stop for a moment at the revelations, even if he knows in this place he has no real heart to beat. She has so much conviction in her words; he can feel it resonating in him. She truly believes in him, and believes that the others—paladin, Altean, and Lion alike—also trust in him fully, and that doing so is fully justified. He's nearly overwhelmed by that confidence, that trust, the strength of her belief in him. And for a moment he starts to believe her, believe that maybe he does really deserve the title of black paladin, believe that he really has earned it. For a moment their bond feels as strong as it was before, when they first connected, before that fateful battle.
But there's still something else holding him back from believing her fully. He hesitates a moment, and then says, "But if you really do believe all of that…if you really do believe I'm meant to be your paladin…then why did you throw me away?" He looks up at her massive head and stares her in the eyes. "Why did Zarkon overwhelm us so easily? If you're so sure I was the right one to choose, why was our bond so weak?"
Shiro's not sure what kind of response to expect. Anger, maybe, or denial, or some kind of excuse. What he isn't expecting is the nearly overwhelming sorrow that rolls over his mind at the name from the Black Lion, or the way her mechanical head hangs low. He's not sure what the emotion ties to—she seems sad at what happened to them, but she also seems to feel some kind of anguish about Zarkon himself, and Shiro can't figure out how to pick them apart.
Her communications become a storm of images and thoughts and senses too fast to follow, with memories shooting by like an out of control slideshow, and the emotions build all the while. His human brain can't figure out how to comprehend it, even in this space where time stands still and the mind is all that exists, and it starts to hurt. "Stop," he gasps, clapping his hands over his ears reflexively, "this is too much. I can't—"
The storm ceases abruptly, and the Black Lion seems apologetic. Her warm presence soothes him, and he winces as the overwhelming sensations fade, dropping his hands to his sides again. When he can focus again, she says-thinks, "See through my eyes, paladin. See and understand."
He can feel how earnest her request is, feel her sorrow on the fringes of his mind, and he can't refuse her. Not when he wants to understand. He closes his eyes and focuses, just like he did during the blind flight exercise. He can feel their minds synchronizing, feels her mind enveloping his gently, and—
She flies at the massive Galra ship as the solar barrier closes behind them. She is Joined with the other Lions in the Voltron form, and can feel their energy resonating with hers, can feel their pilots distantly just as she can feel her own. They must rescue the Royal Blood and she is devoted to the task. Never have they been so strongly merged as at this moment, all ten essences in one.
She is devoted to her task, but she cannot help but feel excited at the prospect of going to the core itself. To where her former paladin is. She has heard the stories that the Royal Blood and the paladins tell, of the subjugation and destruction of the Galra empire, and she has seen firsthand in their few battles the danger of the empire's followers. But she cannot bring herself to fully believe her former paladin is at the head of such a violent beast. He had disappeared from her, and then the Altean King had locked her away; she had never seen any proof of such cruelty herself.
They had not locked her away without explanation. The Royal King had told everything to her before he sealed her hangar with the utmost respect. That her former paladin had attacked violently; that he had hurt millions; that for the protection of the universe she must not fly with him again. But she was never able to fully believe it, and that is not how she remembers him. She cannot explain to herself how he might become a vile creature such as this. It must be wrong. It must be a mistake made by the Altean King and his daughter. They could never know her former paladin as strongly as she did. She had seen into his soul when he piloted, felt his quintessence match hers exactly. He had every quality she respected. He was not a monster.
She respects the Royal Blood and trusts them in most things. That is her duty. But in this, she must find the answers herself.
Answers come quickly. She feels the first touch of power on the Joined form as something reaches out to them. The power is fueled by quintessence, and for just a moment it feels familiar and she is happy, because that his her former paladin reaching forward. She would recognize his quintessence anywhere.
But her happiness turns to dread a moment later as the quintessence-laced power turns into an attack. They are seized and frozen, and the force of energy smashes into them, dematerializing the Red Lion's sword. She can feel her current paladin's shock, and more distantly, the shock of the other paladins as well. The Lions are not shocked—they are angry. They recognize the quintessence too. They know what it means.
The energy pushes forward further, seeping into the mental and magical gaps caused by the paladin's confusion and panic as the uniform thoughts needed to maintain Voltron are shaken. The quintessence fueled attack rips them apart, back into their true forms, and she loses her connection to the rest of the paladins.
But not her own. Her own is still in shock, alarmed and on edge, not knowing how to deal with this new development that he has never encountered before.
She should be helping him. That is what she is made for. She should be guiding him. But she, too, cannot even begin to comprehend what happened. She had felt her former paladin's energy shred them apart. He, who had once been a pilot of Voltron himself. He knows what it means to break it. The fact that he had is incomprehensible.
She is frozen.
She feels her former paladin's quintessence envelop her now as it physically draws her closer to him through space. She is too startled to even call for help from the other Lions, who have already split up to fight. Because now wrapped in it fully, her former paladin's energy feels wrong. She can feel his familiar quintessence, but it feels warped, unnatural. His energy is suffused with the life force of thousands of other creatures, and she can feel the last remnants of torment buried in those little pieces of other lives that tells her none of that energy was given willingly. Even now, she can feel his power being supplemented with several other sources of stolen energy, perverted for a cause she cannot fathom their owners believed in.
This cannot be her former paladin. It cannot be. She cannot believe it, but she can still feel his presence, and it feels so very wrong. She is frozen, unable to move because of his attack, unable to think or reason because of her shock.
It isn't until she feels her current paladin's agony, and hears his cry of pain, that she realizes the unthinkable is happening. Her former paladin is attacking her new one. This is not acceptable. She fights back her confusion and her shock and rallies every part of her strength to try and block it. She must protect her pilot.
She reaches out to her former paladin through their bond, telling him to stop, that this is not right. She offers him her assistance. If he is hurting from this bad energy, the new paladins can help him. If he is forced to do these things against his will they can protect him. This is not you, paladin, I know you, I know you better than anyone—
But he mocks her. "You cannot fight it," he says, "the connection is weak." And she hurts. She can feel her current paladin's hurt and shock and dismay at the words. He doesn't understand they aren't aimed at him at all.
Her former paladin smashes through her bond with her current paladin with the aid of his stolen extra quintessence, and overrides the controls. She can feel her systems being overrun, the corrupt energy seeping into her. She has never, in over ten thousand years, truly felt terror and pain like this until now. It's invasive, creeping in against her will. It feels agonizing, debilitating. She feels powerless to save herself or her pilot. She feels horror. She is not even capable of feeling ill and yet she feels sick. All of it feels wrong, wrong, wrong.
She feels like snarling when her current paladin is forcibly ejected from her. She can distantly feel his pain and betrayal and confusion as he's hurled into space, but it feels so far away. Her former paladin's warped quintessence has interfered with their bond, and makes it difficult to listen. She tries to fly to him, but the same warped quintessence locks her in place. She can only watch as he falls away from her, screaming and roaring uselessly inside her own head.
This close now, with her former paladin's overrides and so much energy at his disposal, she can feel bits and pieces of his emotions and thoughts. He does not feel happiness at being reunited with her. There are no thoughts about flying together again past the stars, no memories of the exhilaration of soaring over lands and seas together. No convictions about the duty of a paladin and the bond with their Lion. He does not think of her as a sentient being he is reuniting with at all. She is only a weapon to him now, a tool, one he believes he owns and has rights to claim.
She isn't a partner anymore. She's a thing to be subjugated. She's just a machine.
What happened to her former paladin?
When the Red Lion and her pilot interfere, knocking her free from the pull of that twisted, disgusting quintessence, she is grateful. She can still feel some of it in her systems, locking her up and making independent movement and thought difficult, but already her repair systems work to cleanse it. It will take time, and it will interfere with her bond with her current paladin for days, most likely, but at least she is free of it.
But the danger isn't over yet. The Red Lion and her pilot try to rescue her, but her former paladin is too close to his perceived prize to let it go, and he follows.
She is stunned when the Red Lion attacks first, fully in sync with her equally furious pilot. There is a code amongst Lions and their paladins—they must not fight amongst each other. They do not attack or strike each other, disregarding clear training sessions and sparring, when intent is to teach and not to defeat. It is a severe breach of trust for a Lion to attack another Lion's paladin, and the same of a paladin attacking another Lion. The current red paladin would not, perhaps, know this code, but the Red Lion once fought alongside her former paladin, and she knows the rules.
But she can feel the Red Lion's fury that matches her pilot's so well, and feel her rage at the memory of Voltron being torn apart at the hands of a former comrade. The Red Lion does not see her former paladin as an ally at all anymore, and fights hard to protect her leader and prove her strength.
But the red paladin is too new, and her former paladin is too experienced. The red paladin fights hard, and the Red Lion loans him what strength she can, but they are clearly outmatched. This is evident, but her former paladin continues to mercilessly destroy them in combat, treating the Red Lion as yet another machine and not a being he once flew beside. And she is appalled. He knows the codes, he knows how important it is for the leader of all beings to follow them as an example. He knows this new paladin is too inexperienced. This is far beyond a training match; this is a slaughter. Yet he continues to attack an ally he fought beside, and a young soldier from his own order who is completely outmatched, without a shred of honor or decency or mercy.
And she witnesses, too, the way her former paladin ruthlessly destroys everything around him just to achieve his goal. The way he tears half of his ship to pieces, the way he blasts entire chunks out of his fleets, without a shred of care for the souls still inside. Those souls are not the enemy to him. They are his men. His duty is to protect them, to lead them, yet he puts them in danger or kills them himself in an effort to further his own goals.
She feels sorrow. She feels horror. This is not her paladin anymore. No matter how much she had hoped that something had been mistaken, that he was tricked, that he had legitimate reasons for waging his war, she knows now that none of it is true. No matter his reasons, at his core, he has changed. There is nothing left to even try to save. He's rejected her, treated her as a machine and not a partner. He's rejected all the codes of a paladin, all the traits of the black paladin, all the qualities of a true leader. Even his very quintessence has been perverted to something dark and indescribably wrong. He has no right to call himself a paladin anymore.
This is not a leader. This is a tyrant.
It enrages her, but worse still, it hurts. Her former paladin…no, Zarkon…he used to be such a friend. She trusted him. She bonded deeply with him. She respected him. He had followed the codes and the way of a paladin with such skill and devotion. He had been an example to his men. And now he was this twisted thing. It's like learning of her old paladin's death, but seeing him standing here as a mockery of himself.
She wants her paladin back. Her real, current paladin, the new one, the one that had been with her for less than a year and is so young, but already exemplifies every core aspect of everything she reveres and respects.
But she can't feel where his presence is, even when she strains at their bond, desperate to find him. Normally she can tell approximately where he is at any given moment unless he is incredibly far away, but she knows he can't have gotten far. She can't feel his location, but she can feel other things distantly, like listening in on a broken, static-filled communications line, except one wired to sensations and not sound. It's broken and distorted, but she can feel the sickly sensation of druidic magic, of warped quintessence. She can feel his sudden spike of frustration, anger, terror, pain.
Her pilot hurts and is in need of her help. Yet because of Zarkon's interference with their bond, she cannot find him, only feel his suffering. Because of Zarkon's twisted allies, her pilot is suffering needlessly, dishonorably attacked with cruel magics. And because of her own foolishness, her desire to find her own answers, her real partner is now paying the price for it.
She can't protect her paladin. The thought alone is enough to drive her nearly rabid with rage and anguish and frustration.
She can't move on her own—Zarkon's quintessence-fueled mental attack has locked up her independent movement, ensuring that she will need a pilot to guide her, a pilot no doubt intended to be him alone. She rages in her own head until she hears the Yellow Lion's roar above. I have your pilot, she says. We are coming. Hold on.
She has never felt so much relief as in that moment.
It doesn't take her paladin long to clamber back into the cockpit once the Yellow Lion touches down next to her. He is shaken and still in pain from what feels like a terrible wound to his side. She can feel a whirlwind of equally terrible emotions rushing through his head now that he is so close: uncertainty and betrayal, confusion and anger, frustration and exhaustion and broken confidence. She is so sorry for her part in his suffering, and wishes she could tell him so, but it's so difficult with their bond cracked like this.
But for all his hurting she also feels his determination and his drive. He is worried for his paladins, and their safety is his first and foremost concern. She can feel that he will do whatever is needed to protect them. She revels in it, takes comfort in his unsullied quintessence and genuine devotion to his men.
This is what a black paladin truly is. This feels right. This being, young and lacking the strength or maturity of her previous paladins, nevertheless exemplifies everything she expects and admires in those she desires as her pilots.
He guides her after the battle against Zarkon, and she does not fight him. The fight has moved farther down the ship, and they arrive in time to see the Red Lion buried in a crater, unresponsive, and Zarkon lunging in for the kill.
Her paladin feels rage, mixed strongly with fear for the red paladin. He does not hesitate. He slams both of her control levers forward to activate her laser cannon, aimed directly at Zarkon.
To attack a fellow Lion's paladin is a severe breach of trust. To attack one's own would have been inconceivable, ten thousand years ago. Why would anyone attack someone they had bonded so closely with, enough to see them at the level of the very soul?
But this was not her partner anymore. This was not the being she bonded with ten thousand years ago. This was no paladin. This was a monster. And she will not stand to see him claim the title of the black paladin anymore, the title that she alone grants.
So when her pilot orders the attack, she does not hesitate. She drains every inactive system she has for more power, more energy, overclocking her attack functions, and pours it all into the laser cannon. She takes her betrayal, her rage, her sorrow, and pours that in as well. Her paladin yells in anger inside her cabin that anyone would dare harm one of his own, and her voice joins his, in a bellowing roar as she fires at point blank range at the being she had once called friend.
It's a direct, perfect hit, and Zarkon looks shocked to see them attacking together even as he takes the full force of the blow. It won't kill him, she is certain of that; he is too skilled for a blast like that to defeat him. But it will slow him, for a time.
She hesitates, waiting to see what her pilot will do next. Now is the moment where he will truly prove who he is at his core, with such a choice in front of him.
But he does not press the attack to try and wipe out his opponent, even though he has every reason to, now on both a professional and personal level. She feels him barely sweep the area to try and locate if Zarkon is still there and a threat before he has her dive for the Red Lion. She snatches the weakened Red Lion up in her jaws like a sleeping cub, even as her paladin pushes for all speed towards the Castle of Lions, already verifying the locations of the rest of his team.
They are all safe, and she has never been so proud of her paladin as at that moment. Despite his gruesome injuries, the heat of battle, and his own confusion and uneasy emotions, he is still able to stay focused and true to his men and to his role as their leader. Not even for a second does she feel his dismay over not being able to finish off Zarkon or end the war here and now, and not for a second does she feel any kind of bloodthirsty drive to win.
And as they settle into the hangar and she sets the Red Lion down gently at his command, she knows this is the right choice. This is her paladin. And she will never doubt her loyalties again.
—and Shiro opens his eyes with a gasp, and stares up at the Black Lion's massive head in shock.
"You never abandoned me at all," he rasps, eyes wide. "He was your friend. You wanted to save him. But he turned on you."
He can't even imagine what that must be like. To watch a friend spiral downward so badly, to want so desperately to help them, to open yourself up to them to try and reach out only to have them lash out at you. He wonders what he would do, if it were any of the paladins, or the Alteans, to turn on him so overwhelmingly like that when he is willing to trust them fully with his life. He tries to imagine what it might be like after being separated from Commander Holt or Matt for so long, only to have his first reuniting moment with them turn into a brutal and violent attack from them instead. Would he really deny at least trying to give any of them a second chance? He's honestly not sure what he'd do, or what he might have done in the Black Lion's place.
He can't bring himself to feel any kind of pity or sorrow for Zarkon himself, not after what the Galra Emperor has done to him personally and not after what he's witnessed since his capture. But he can feel sad for his Lion, who has had to watch a once great friend and partner turn into something so sickeningly wrong.
He can feel her overwhelming sorrow roll over him at his words, and her huge head seems to hang in defeat. "I thought something was mistaken. I thought I could save him. I thought we could save him. That is what we do—we save, we protect. All of the things you stand for, he once did too. Once he was the black paladin, and once I respected him. I thought he deserved another chance."
Her tail lashes, and her eyes flash, and he can feel anger from her now. "But he rejected that. He chose to hurt you, and to hurt those who used to be his comrades. He is no black paladin, not anymore. And yes, the things you have said are undeniably correct—you are far younger, you lack his experience, and this was a terrible burden that you never asked for. But you chose to shoulder it anyway. You took responsibility. You lead. You exemplify every trait I have ever respected. You care. And I have nothing but pride for you."
Something inside of him warms just a little at that. But part of him still wonders—if she was so proud to call him her pilot, why had she been silent for so long? Perhaps the quintessence attack had been a part of it, but…he shakes his head, frustrated.
She seems to pick up on his doubts even if he doesn't voice them, and her head hangs again. "I have been considering for days, looking inward ten thousand years ago, searching deeply…and I do not know where things changed for him. I do not know how I could have missed it. I cannot find the answers. Perhaps if I had been more observant I could have prevented everything that has happened for the past ten thousand years.
"So I am sorry that I failed him. I will shoulder at least part of the blame in this, both for losing him somewhere along the way, and for my part as a catalyst in this war." Her eyes shift to focus on Shiro, and he can feel her sadness as she addresses him directly. "And to you, my paladin, I am sorry I have been silent for so long. The warped quintessence has not helped, but I am afraid I have been distracted in my searching, and in doing so I nearly have forgotten my duties to you. But I hear you now. I will not fail you. I cannot fail you. I cannot let you break. I will not let this happen again. I am so sorry it has taken me this long to see it."
The thought that Zarkon might have been like him once, and turned into such a tyrannical monster, is more than a little frightening. Shiro shudders at the thought. He'd rather be dead than turn out anything like that.
He feels her presence almost wrap around him, supporting, gentle but firm, and it's like his mind has a chance to settle back and rest. He feels…lighter, somehow, than he has in days. In months. In over a year. He has his answers. She hadn't rejected him; if anything she is fiercely proud of everything he's accomplished in so short a time. He's made mistakes, and he still feels those strongly on his conscious, but the weight feels halved, like she's sharing it with him. And that thick, hot feeling in his chest from the start is gone, as are the cloying feelings from all the garbage he's shoved down inside of himself to keep it from breaking.
He blinks when he realizes the last part, and stares up at her in realization. "You weren't being callous at all earlier," he says in surprise. "You were getting me to talk."
"The black paladin traditionally does not talk easily," the Black Lion says-thinks, and he can feel her amusement and her smile, even if it is tinged with sadness. "I have learned many tricks over the years. I was testing you in part, to be sure you truly were who I thought, to feel it. I was not sure, after my former paladin, that my judgements were sound. But also, I desired for my paladin to release some of his hurts. I cannot let you break, paladin. I have sworn it. I will never watch that happen again."
He's not sure if he should feel offended or thankful, and settles on bewildered. He does feel a lot better, after all. "So what, that's it? You trick me into talking and I don't snap?"
"Hopefully I do not trick you in the future. The black paladin is also traditionally quite intelligent, and rarely falls for the same traps twice."
Her amusement changes to seriousness. "But I understand better than anyone your burden. You are the leader for the rest of your paladins. They must lean on you to survive, and you are their support. They rely on you. This, too, is the nature of leadership. But one man cannot hold forever. You cannot be strong for everyone, always. To try is to doom yourself, and one day you will break. I have learned with recent events that this can happen to even the strongest of individuals.
"So, paladin, you must learn to lean on me. Even if you feel you must be strong for everyone else, even if you must always hold fast for their sakes, you can be weak in front of me. Be angry. Be sad. Be frustrated. Scream about the unfairness of fate and what it has stolen from you. Rage against this burden you never asked for and still took. I will listen. I will be here. Always. And I will never abandon you. I will not lose you, not if you let me help you. Not like I lost him."
Shiro feels stunned at her thought-words, her conviction, her determination. The last thing in the world he expects from the Black Lion, the very symbol of leadership and duty, is to hear her encouraging him to rant about how he never asked to be her partner, or to complain about how unfair his life is. It doesn't exactly seem like something he should have the right to do.
But he understands what she means. The weight of this job is heavy in its own right, and heavier still when he carries the burdens of four teenagers, the last two survivors of their race, and the freedom and survival of the entire known universe. It's been steadily building for months, threatening to crush him, but now…now, at least, he feels a little better. And she can see that weight he's taking. Like she said, she's bonded with him deeply, knows his very core, and knows his burdens better than anyone. He already has nothing to hide from her.
"Alright," he says after a moment. "We can try it. But then who do you lean on?"
He can almost feel her smiling again. It's amazing how expressive she can be in this strange mind-place when her mechanical body is still incapable of actual expressions. "I was quite literally built to carry others, paladin. This is a burden I was designed for. Do not worry for me…though your concern only proves to me further that you are indeed meant to be my partner."
She cocks her head, almost as though listening with one golden mechanical ear, and then looks down at him again. "And now I believe it is time for you to return, paladin. If I may be honest, I was not expecting you to come so deeply into the bond so soon. It takes other paladins years to accomplish such a task. But it can be exhausting on the paladin…and I am afraid we may have worried some of your people."
"Oh." Shiro pauses, and glances around the expanse of space and stars, and gives her a helpless look. "Um. Door?"
He can feel her laughter as well as hear the rumbling noises she emits. "More training is in order," she says-thinks, and he can feel her amusement. "Until then, allow me to assist." Her massive head leans in close, and her nose alone is larger than Shiro's entire body. Despite that she nudges him with surprising gentleness and care, and the world seems to fade around him to white—
"—'s moving, I think he's waking up!"
"You shush, I just want to know he's okay!"
The sounds of Keith and Lance bickering are not exactly the best of wakeup calls, but at least it's familiar. Shiro groans slightly and manages to wrench his eyes open, to find six highly concerned faces, plus four sets of worried mice stares, looking down on him.
"See, he was waking up!"
"Whatever, I can see that!"
"You okay, Shiro?" Pidge asks, leaning forward better into his line of vision.
Shiro frowns, and tries to assess exactly what's going on, and why everyone would be worried in the first place. He remembers his full conversation with the Black Lion somewhere in between his mind and their bond, but that had started in the dead of night when everyone was asleep, and he'd been standing for that. Except now he's…
He's able to take in more of his surroundings as he looks past the concerned faces at everything around him. He's lying on the metal floor of the Black Lion hangar, on his back. The slight ache in his head and back suggests he'd probably collapsed at some point when going deeper into the trance he'd needed to find the Black Lion to begin with. He can see her massive forelegs on either side of them, with one of her paws and the four hooked steel claws only a few paces away. She hadn't been that close when he'd started. She must have moved forward protectively at some point in their discussion.
He groans as he starts to sit up, putting a hand to his head, and makes a mental note to lay down the next time he tries any kind of serious communication with his Lion. He feels a hand hook under his left arm, and glances over to find Hunk helping him sit up better, looking worried.
"I'm fine," he says, when he realizes he hasn't answered their question yet. "Why are you all here? What time is it?"
"It's past breakfast," Hunk supplies, as everyone else leans forward, apparently to hear him better or confirm he's really still alive, or something. "You didn't show up for food which was kind of weird, and then you didn't show up for morning training which was really weird, so we all decided to look for you."
"And it's a good thing we did!" Lance adds. "We found you passed out on the floor with the Black Lion standing over you. What gives?" He throws his hands up in the air, and then gestures at the Alteans. "Allura and Coran said you were probably communing or whatever and that we shouldn't be too worried, but you didn't even respond when we moved you. I think at least a few of us were getting ready to get in our own Lions and throw down. And talking to the Black Lion after—"
Keith elbows him hard in the ribs, and Lance cuts off with a yelp, glowering at Keith. Keith glares right back, and a second later Lance seems to realize what he'd been about to say. He looks away and mutters an awkward "never mind," but the damage has already been done. The rest of them look at Shiro uneasily, unsure how he'll take the implication that his Lion can't be trusted or had attacked him, or that something is wrong after the events of the battle at Zarkon's ship.
But he's not offended by it, not really. He'd felt the same things until his discussion with his Lion. Considering the circumstances, he can't blame them for being worried, especially after the experience with the corrupted Castle of Lions. Certainly he can feel his Lion's own amusement at the other paladins rather than offense; she seems to find the entire thing almost funny. And a part of him is deeply touched, that they're so concerned for his safety that they'd be willing to fight on his behalf to protect him when he's vulnerable.
They chose to listen to you and to follow without hesitation, his Lion had said. They trust you. And he can feel it now, recognize it now more than ever. Even after all his recent mistakes, and the danger he put them all in, they are still willing to give him their trust and their loyalty, to follow him without hesitation. It doesn't feel like a burden, and it doesn't feel like he doesn't deserve it. He feels strong again, like he can handle that weight once more.
"I'm fine," he repeats, offering a tired but real smile. "I'm fine, really. I was communicating with the Black Lion. I didn't mean to scare you all. Everything's fine."
They look unsure, but don't pry further. All of them have their own communications with their own Lions, and understand those are very private things. They won't dig deeper unless Shiro himself volunteers. And Allura and Coran look knowing; he suspects, with their knowledge of ten thousand years ago, they may have a guess as to at least parts of his conversation. But he knows they, too, won't pry.
Hunk helps him to his feet, and asks, "Hungry? I put aside a plate for you when you didn't show up at first. I figured you were just busy training or something."
"Food is an excellent idea," Coran adds, tugging at his mustache. "Deep communication tends to really take it out of a paladin at first until you're more practiced at it."
"I'm completely willing to skip training for Shiro's sake," Lance says, as solemnly as he can manage. Pidge nods in equally forced solemn agreement.
"Nice try," Shiro says. "Points for effort, so you get an hour. Then I expect to see you all in the training deck for today's exercise."
Several of them groan, and Lance throws up his hands again theatrically. Keith rolls his eyes. But every single one of them listens, and Shiro finds himself thinking on that in a totally new way as he follows Hunk to the kitchen for a delayed breakfast.
No, he hadn't asked for this role. He hadn't thought for a second, on the day he accepted the Kerberos mission, that he would be enslaved by aliens or conscripted into a universe-wide war. He'd never expected to have so much taken from him, to have so much forced on him. But even if he'd never asked for or expected any of that, it was a burden he'd still taken on willingly in the end. And the weight of it might be heavy, but it wasn't nearly so impossible to lift when there was at least one other to help.
And the rewards—that trust, that loyalty, the knowledge that he was doing everything in his power to do the right thing even if no one else ever knew—well, those rewards, he felt, were absolutely worth it.
That was the nature of leadership, after all.
And now hopefully everyone feels a little better about episode 11?