Part 14 of a fan fiction by Velkyn Karma
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.
"I discovered I always have choices, and sometimes it's only a choice of attitude."
~Judith M. Knowlton
Shiro spends most of the next week sleeping.
The first two days he's basically always asleep, waking only in small intervals to eat and drink. By the third day he's a little more active, enough to finally leave the cot, which is comfortable but something he's truly starting to get sick of. But he still finds himself napping almost constantly in little areas around the ship—his bunk, the lounge couches, the black paladin's seat at the bridge. Once he falls asleep at the dining table, head resting on folded hands, and Hunk has to shake him awake and urge him to go somewhere a little more comfortable.
After that he feels a little more active, at least, and spends more of his time awake. He still takes long naps when he feels like it—and he feels like he's making up for a year's worth of sleep, honestly—but he's also able to spend more of his time being conscious.
And, while he does still feel tired, he does also feel better, at least a little bit. That empty hole inside of him fills up a little more every day, and gradually feels less and less oppressive, its weight not dragging his mind down constantly. His thoughts feel sharp again, and he can make decisions once more without freezing up or forgetting the very concept of how to choose anything. He's not permitted to physically train yet (and the team has kept a very close eye on him to prevent it). But he does feel more physically fit, and as the days pass he starts taking slow, exploratory walks around the castle hallways. In another week he thinks he really will be capable of handling basic training exercises, at least.
And he can feel again. And that, of all the things Shiro has regained, is probably the one he regrets the most. Because the more time he spends awake, the more time he has to think. And the more time he has to think, the more time he has to dwell on everything he's learned about himself since this quintessence deficiency began, to run through the new memories he's regained, to think about the words she said. And they hurt. They hurt so bad he wishes he couldn't feel it at all. That was, perhaps, the only blessing about being as low on quintessence as he had been.
It isn't so much the knowledge that he's killed in the ring before that really bothers him. It's unsettling, to have the memories of at least two violent kills to his credit, and strong implications of others, but it isn't unexpected. It had been a Galra gladiator arena—death was inevitable there. Even before this whole debacle, shortly after he reclaimed his first memory of the fight against Myzax, he had honestly suspected it as a strong possibility for quite some time.
But back then, he had felt safe in the knowledge that he at least knew he never would have done it willingly. The Galra had forced him into the arena and had never given him an option—he had to fight or he'd die. Given the opportunity, Shiro knew he would never have willingly fought to kill, and he'd felt safe in the knowledge that maybe he had done some truly awful things, but only because he'd never had any other choice. He knew he'd escaped as soon as he could to get away from that hell. And he knows he's since done everything in his power to try and prevent anything like that from ever happening again, for himself or for others.
But that isn't the case anymore. Shiro thought he'd known himself, but he realizes now he never has. He'd honestly craved the most dangerous fights in the arena. He'd wanted them, because he'd wanted that thrill of feeling alive. Of taking life. His own brain had fueled the violent impulses that drove his prosthetic to drain and kill. And maybe he hadn't known what he was doing at first, but that's hardly an excuse. He'd wanted to beat them at the end of the day, hadn't regretted killing the worst of the worst he'd met in the ring for a second. He'd been disappointed every time he let innocent slaves and prisoners live, even though it had been the right thing to do, because he hadn't been able to steal their quintessence. And he'd taken the energy of several other fighters even after he'd learned what his arm could do, was doing, before he'd finally managed to escape. There's no excuse for that, no way to justify it.
In the end, he's simply as bloodthirsty and battle-hungry as the Galra that had kidnapped him, still as selfish and wild and determined to survive at any cost. The prosthetic isn't an excuse anymore, just the tool that let him do it. This thing doesn't make him a monster. Haggar didn't even do that. He made himself one.
He doesn't deserve to be here.
It's the only answer he can come to, after days of wandering by himself in the hallways, replaying his new memories over and over again in his mind. Re-examining his actions. Thinking of everything from every possible angle until his head hurts. He doesn't deserve to be the black paladin, not knowing what he knows about himself now. They can't have something like him leading them, not when he's capable of actions just as heinous and cruel as the opponents they're facing. The team deserves someone they really can follow without hesitation, someone who is in control at all times, without having to wonder if his instincts and his actions will lead them all to their deaths or into something unknown and truly dangerous.
He considers the decision for well over a day. He has to be sure it's right. It's the last decision he'll make for them, and he has to be sure. But nothing comes to mind that could possibly make him consider changing it, and he finally decides to make his choice.
It means he'll have to tell them what he's done. And that's going to hurt. But they have to know why he can't lead them anymore. They have to understand why this is important. Because they won't, otherwise. Shiro knows because he's felt their loyalty and their protection of him firsthand. He has literally seen into their souls, seen how they think and feel, and he knows they won't back down without a good reason.
So it will hurt, but he has to do this. He can't be there to endanger them, and he can't be a parasite feeding off their loyalty and love any longer. It's not right of him and it's not safe for them. He can't lead them into the dark blindly. He won't.
He makes the announcement just before dinner, when all seven of them are together. They're joking and laughing together, but quietly, enough to not disturb him. They've been so careful and patient with him recently, giving him space if he needs it, letting him rest, but always being around nearby just to remind him he isn't alone. It's been comforting. It will be sad to lose that.
"I need to say something," he starts, a little awkwardly, but it works. The other six cut off their conversations and joking, and Coran sets down the bowl of food goo in his hands on the table to give Shiro his full attention. They're all staring at him, waiting, and Shiro feels his heart pang uncomfortably in his chest.
Well, he's already begun things. He may as well end them.
"The past couple of weeks have been…difficult," he says slowly. Carefully. He doesn't want to meet anyone's eyes, but he forces himself to do so anyway, looking between all of them as he speaks. Strength. He can present that much. For this, it's important that he does so. "You've all worked very hard to help me. The sacrifices you made were incredible. You fought hard, bent rules and ideals, and literally gave pieces of yourself, all to save my life. And I can't tell you how thankful I am for that."
They'd been smiling at first at the praise, but by the end none of them are, and they all look solemn….solemn, and a little worried. After a moment Lance prompts slowly, "But?"
Because of course he knew there was something else. The blue quintessence spots those little details in people too quickly. And of course they were all picking up on it now. They work so well as a team, trust each others' instincts and skills where it matters. Shiro knows he can't get anything past them now, not after having felt what each of them was really capable of.
"But," he says, with a slight nod to Lance in acknowledgement, "Considering recent developments, I…I have decided I'm no longer a fit candidate as the black paladin."
For a moment, there is a stunned silence, as everyone stares at him. Then all at once, everyone is speaking.
"Not a fit candidate?"
"No way! Shiro, you're the best paladin—"
"—can't possibly think you're bad at this—"
"—no way we can do all this without you man—"
"Not a fit candidate? How do you even—you're the best leader ever Shiro—"
"Enough!" Allura yells, loudly enough that everyone else quiets. Once there is silence, she turns to look Shiro in the eye, and says firmly, "I do not believe there is any evidence to support this decision. Not once have I seen you fail at your duties, and your paladins—" she gestures around the table, "—are clearly upset with your choice, so you are not leading your men improperly. Illness is certainly not grounds for failure. You are permitted to be ill, Shiro—especially when it is in no way your fault."
Her eyes fall on his prosthetic as she finishes speaking. He clenches his metal fist automatically in reaction.
"It's not that my quintessence was drained," he says slowly. "And before you try it, it isn't that I'm not thinking clearly because of that, either," he adds, cutting her off when she looks like she's about to speak again. "This isn't a decision I'm making lightly. It isn't a decision that's being warped by my quintessence levels or anything else. It's an informed decision based on other developments."
"Memories," Keith interjects suddenly. His eyes narrow slightly as he frowns. "You remembered something, didn't you?"
Keith cuts to the heart of the problem quickly and efficiently. Shiro expects nothing less after witnessing the sharp instincts of the red quintessence firsthand. He swallows slightly, but nods. "Yes."
"It doesn't have to do with the draining thing, does it?" Pidge asks, also frowning. "Because we fixed that, Shiro. And it wasn't your fault anyway. It's not like you asked for them to install quintessence draining hardware. You can't blame yourself for that." The others nod insistently in agreement.
"It isn't that either," Shiro says slowly. "Not exactly that, anyway." He sighs, closes his eyes for a moment, works up the nerve to speak. Just do it. Get it over with. Cut fast, cut deep, sever yourself quickly. Don't draw it out, it will hurt too much.
"I…regained a few memories of my imprisonment. Arena fights. Conversations with…with Haggar. The druid. They…revealed some things about me that were disturbing. Not things that were acceptable for a defender of the universe. Not things that are acceptable in general. Considering this new information, I don't consider myself fit to lead. Or to even be here. It's dangerous."
There's silence, for a moment. Then Hunk says slowly, "Can you…can you tell us what you saw? If that's okay? It's hard to understand when we don't know what you're talking about…"
Shiro doesn't want to. But they deserve to know that much. So he nods, and he tells them. He tells them everything he remembers, now. The conversation with Haggar after his arm is taken and replaced. His first fights with the prosthetic, when he leaves the slaves alive and feels the worse for it. His defeat of Harronox, and how alive it made him feel. The way he all but craves the deadlier fights, the way he doesn't regret putting down those monsters, the thrill he gets at living. His fight with Dagger-in-the-Dark, when he discovers what his prosthetic really does, the way he couldn't help himself and stole her life away even when he didn't intend to. The way there were still other fights and still other stolen quintessences even after he knew. He lays it all bare in front of them, and the longer he goes on, the less he meets their eyes, and the more he stares at the bowl of food goo on the table.
By the end he's not looking at any of them at all, and he's aware his voice shakes slightly as he speaks. It hurts so badly to dredge up those terrible memories, that knowledge of what he's done. But they have to understand why he can't be here anymore. Why he's dangerous. And this is the only way. So he digs in the dagger deep, and then waits for more wounds to come.
"That's why I can't be trusted as a leader any longer," he finishes finally. "I'm not capable of making acceptable decisions, either to fit the Altean paladin code or just in general. The prosthetic might have exacerbated it, but those decisions to fight for the thrill and to steal that quintessence were ultimately still mine. No one else's. And I can't claim to be any kind of leader, or even a member of team Voltron, if these are the kind of thoughts that drive me. So. That's…that's everything. You can leave me at whatever port we find next on whatever planet. It might even be safer. The Galra are looking for me especially, but if we split up it might take some of the pressure off of the rest of—"
"Are you out of your freakin' mind?" Lance interrupts, his voice nearly a high pitched shriek.
The noise jerks Shiro out of his thoughts, and he glances up in surprise. Lance is wearing an incredulous look mixed partly with horror, and the others have similar stunned expressions.
"No," Shiro says, slowly, frowning. "This was all me, like I just—"
"Expression, Shiro, it's an expression," Hunk says. "We can't believe you are honestly even considering leaving is all and Lance just chose to pick a terrible turn of phrase to express that—"
"What he said," Lance says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Hunk. "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that, I just…you can't think you seriously have to leave?"
"Of course I do," Shiro says, as reasonably as he can. "It's the only option. Based on all of the things I've done—"
"Because they forced you to," Keith interrupts. "It wasn't you that did any of that, Shiro. It was Galra. They forced you to do all of that."
But Shiro shakes his head, insistent. He needs them to understand this. It's important. "It was me," he stresses. "I know you want to believe otherwise, but these were my actions. The Galra may have forced me to make a choice, but I'm the one that chose. I chose to go for the kills. I chose to survive. It was my impulses that caused this thing to act." He holds up his metal arm, and stares at it for a long moment before clenching his fist closed.
"That was Haggar's whole point," he says, almost in a whisper. "And she was right. She was right. I thought I'd been resisting the whole time. I thought I wasn't like them. But I am. I am. She was right. Sendak was right."
"I can't believe I actually just heard you say you think Sendak and that creepy witch lady were right about you," Pidge says incredulously. "Listen to yourself, Shiro. Are you even hearing yourself?"
"Yes," Shiro says firmly. He hates it, but it's true. "I am. I've been trying to deny it ever since we first formed Team Voltron, but this isn't something that can be ignored anymore."
The rest of the paladins look ready to argue, but Allura cuts them off. "Shiro. I understand that you feel very strongly about this. But might I ask you a question?" He nods slowly, unsure, and Allura looks him straight in the eye as she says, "If this was truly you, your actions and your choice, as you are saying—why would Haggar have to go through so much trouble to manipulate you?"
Shiro opens his mouth to answer—and pauses.
"By your own admission," Allura says slowly, "she admitted to your morals not matching the Galra Empire's own, and she claimed she wanted you to be theirs. She admitted that your mind would still be your own at the end of the day even through the use of skills like mental control or enforced kills, and that this did not satisfy her. You deduced yourself that she deliberately manipulated the roster of opponents you would face in the arena to force you into situations where you would be desperate enough to fight and distracted by your own quintessence deficiency, even if you didn't understand what that meant at the time. It's all very clever, but it is also all smoke and mirrors, just like the illusions she favors in combat. If you were really like them, Shiro, you would have accepted their offer of power on the first day. There would be no need to use such an elaborate scheme to trick you into fighting to begin with."
And Shiro…doesn't quite know what to say to that. He hadn't…considered it that way, exactly. But now that it's put in front of him like that…why had Haggar been forced to manipulate him like that, exactly? Because Allura is right, in a way…they did offer him power and rank and freedom from the arena. He doesn't remember the offers, but he remembers the memory of refusing, and that's enough to tell him he'd been given the offer and refused it initially. That Haggar had been forced to trick him at all is a big hole in his argument, but…
"Even if it was through manipulation…I still chose to attack those opponents," Shiro says slowly.
"I don't remember hearing at any point your story where they actually gave you a choice in the matter," Lance says, arms crossed. "If you didn't fight you'd have been slaughtered."
"And if you hadn't chosen to fight at least one of them, my brother would be dead," Pidge adds. She looks serious. "And, based on the sounds of it, a lot of other innocent people who never asked to be there would be, too. But they're all alive, and maybe we can rescue them one day and they can go home. Because of you."
Keith nods. "They never gave you a choice, but you damn well chose anyway. You chose to fight them. You chose to resist. That makes all the difference."
Shiro shakes his head. "I still stole that quintessence. I'm no better than them."
"No, the hardware stole the quintessence," Hunk says with a frown. "I don't believe for a second that you would have considered something like stealing the life force from others, even your opponents,on your own. You might not remember it, but we were there to see how badly you freaked out when you thought you'd hurt us with it. There's no way you'd do something like that on purpose."
"But I did," Shiro insists. "I wanted that energy. I don't think you understand how badly I needed it. I…I actually tried to kill you, Hunk. And Pidge. You too. Because I wasn't strong enough to resist it. That was me."
Lance shakes his head. "No way, Shiro. I don't know if you remember it, but I actually had to coach you into taking Hunk's quintessence because you straight up cut yourself off from it, even with Allura feeding it to you. You know what that means? That means you were starving for energy and you still refused to take that it when it was offered. Because you didn't want to hurt one of us. You know how much willpower that takes? I don't think I could be strong enough to do that. And you want to honestly tell us you don't deserve to behere?"
"I don't," Shiro says. Why aren't they getting this? "I did take quintessence on purpose. I wanted those fights with those opponents so badly. I might not have known why at the time, but it was because I wanted their quintessence. I needed it. And…even after I learned what this thing did, I still…I still stole that energy from several other opponents. Willingly. Knowingly."
"Do you remember those fights?" Keith asks, frowning. "Because you didn't tell us about those."
Shiro frowns as well. "No…no, I…I don't have the memories of the battles, I just…I know. There were more."
"So you have no proof that you willfully and deliberately stole any quintessence after learning what your arm did?" Pidge presses, eyeing Keith. The two are clearly on the same page.
"And did you know how to control the draining thing? Because it didn't seem like you knew how, based on your stories. Or while you've been sick recently," Pidge continues. "You could never get your fingers to unfasten from whatever you'd grabbed onto when it was trying to find an energy source."
"I…I don't know," Shiro says slowly. "I'm not sure if…I don't know if there's a way to control it…"
"Do you know how many fights there were after you knew?"
Shiro stares at his hand. "Not…not too many. I must have escaped at that point."
"So what you're saying," Pidge concludes, pushing her glasses up, "Is that you were in a scenario where you were, essentially, starving, with a piece of hardware programmed to operate independently from your own conscious actions that you didn't have the ability to control, and put into fights that you couldn't evade because you weren't permitted to. You were given literally no control over the situation. But you want us to blame you for the outcome?"
"And you escaped as soon as you could," Lance adds. "So you obviously didn't want to stick around and keep fighting and draining opponents. The moment you had an opportunity and the tiniest bit of control back, you got the hell out of there."
"I…" Shiro supposes he shouldn't really be stunned by the way they all rally to defend him, or the strength and conviction of their words. He's felt their convictions and their loyalty first hand, from all of them. He almost wants to believe them. But… "It's not right," he insists. "I should have been stronger. I should have fought harder to resist them. I should have realized what was happening. I shouldn't have wanted those fights so badly. I shouldn't have made those choices."
"Shiro." And now it's Coran speaking, but not with his usual chipper tone and bright smile. He looks serious, now, arms folded behind his back like a servant, but his eyes are old and knowing, and Shiro sees a soldier in them. "If the situation was different—if it was one of the paladins, perhaps, or one of the other humans you were captured with, or even one of the other prisoners—would you be this hard on them?"
No. No. Of course he wouldn't. Just the thought of imaging Hunk or Lance or Pidge or Keith struggling to survive day after day in the arena is enough to send ice up his spine. The thought of Matt or Commander Holt or one of the other prisoners berating themselves for being so weak in the face of such emptiness makes his heart ache. He doesn't want to imagine them suffering like that. Punishing themselves like that. Not when they couldn't control what happened to them.
Coran seems to know exactly what he's thinking, because without waiting for an answer, he finishes with, "Why are you being so harsh on yourself, then?"
Because Shiro knows himself. He knows he can be better than that. And he'd just…he'd just failed. He'd let himself become a parasite, literally feeding on the lives of others to sustain himself one more day.
"Shiro." Allura again, only this time her voice is soft and patient. "I understand that you feel you'e made the wrong choices or done reprehensible things as a prisoner. But there was never a choice before you, no matter how much you've been convinced to see that there was. This was not a matter of choice. This was another form of torture. You were a prisoner and you were starving—not just for food, but for fundamental life essence itself. That was being withheld and stolen from you. It put you in a terrible situation where you were severely sick and did not understand why, or understand what was happening to you, and they used that to manipulate you.
"That is the truly monstrous action here, that they took advantage of your situation and abused your energy starvation, to force your hand and corner you into taking actions you would never have considered in your right mind. Considering the circumstances, you not only survived as best as you could, you still took whatever action you could to resist the Galra, from protecting those other prisoners in the ring to escaping. That is a frankly incredible feat that only a truly honorable paladin could manage. And I do not think for a second that trying to stay alive in those conditions was wrong, or punishable, or selfish, as you are implying. There is no crime in wanting to live."
Coran nods in agreement. "It might be difficult to see it," he says, "but you aren't at fault, here, no matter how much it might feel like it. The only ones responsible for what happened in that arena are the Galra. The fact that this is hurting you as badly as it is seems indication enough that those things were never you at all. You've already begun to do everything in your power to resist them and make things right again. No one is less like the Galra then you. You're allowed to move past this." He smiles. "And certainly, I think you're allowed to stay."
"Yes!" Lance and Hunk chorus at nearly the same time. "Don't go, nobody wants you to leave!"
"You're a great leader," Pidge says stubbornly, nodding. "The best leader. I don't want to follow anyone else."
"None of this is your fault," Keith agrees. "I'll face anyone who says otherwise. Nobody's got the right to accuse you of that."
And Shiro is just…overwhelmed. At their fierce loyalty, at their absolute dedication, at their protectiveness. They absolutely believe everything they are saying. They've heard everything he's said, all the memories that he's regained, and still he can feel that warmth. That kindness. That caring. They all show it in their own, unique ways, but it's still there.
They've seen his soul laid bare, seen the exposed, worst, rotting parts of it—and they're not disgusted, not afraid, not angry. They offer support and protection instead. They offer validation. They grant him permission to move on, to forgive himself, to recognize he's only human. And he feels…he feels relief. Gratefulness. Love. He feels trusted. He feels wanted. Needed.
He doesn't…feel less than human. Like a rabid animal, uncontrolled and wild, dangerous to those around him.
He doesn't feel like a parasite. Because they give him their trust and loyalty and warmth and kindness, but even if he can't see it, or know for certain what it is, he can realize now that he's giving them something back.
And he realizes that he doesn't really want to leave at all. He never did. He just felt like he had to. Like he wasn't worthy of being a paladin with all these things in his past. And maybe he still isn't, but…but he doesn't want to go.
Does he still have a right to make a choice like that? Even if he's not at fault for those actions?
He doesn't realize his voice his shaking until he speaks. He doesn't realize his hands are shaking until he hears the gentle tremble of metal on metal, or sees his left hand shivering slightly on the table. But he does feel when the other paladins surround his chair, not crowding him but offering support all the same. He can feel Hunk's hand on his shoulder, Lance's nudge at his arm, and Pidge's and Keith's more distant presences on either side of him.
And they don't say anything at all, but he feels stronger for it all the same. It's almost like he still has a piece of each of their quintessences still with him, even if he knows he's burned through all their donated energy days ago. He can still feel that closeness, that dedication, that loyalty. Like a memory. Like an echo. Yet, like something still alive, still here, right now, burning in each of them.
"You know…when I said that raw quintessence was full of echos?" Shiro says slowly. He's still staring at his metal hand on the table, not quite looking at any of them, but it's not avoidance. Just thoughtful.
He can almost feel the rest of the paladins exchanging looks anyway, before Lance says slowly, "Uh…yeah?"
"Those were just pieces of people. Little fragments that were lost in the whole Galra process. But your quintessences were a lot…sharper. More crystal clear. More alive. Stronger."
He finally looks up at them all. They're all giving him confused looks. He offers them a tired smile. "When you all donated quintessence. I could feel it. Feel all of you. How you thought. How you saw things. The things most important to you. The things most important to your Lions. I understand all of you a little better now, I think." He feels closer to them than he ever has before, really, even when forming Voltron. Even now he has a better understanding of Keith's fiery instinct and determination, Lance's fluid adaptability and skill with others, Pidge's lively curiosity and stubbornness, Hunk's sturdy kindness and protectiveness. And most of all, despite all the differences in the ways their quintessences form, he can recognize their loyalty and their support.
Every single one of them believes in him. It's…difficult to understand against the backdrop of his own past actions, but even knowing them it's still there, and he can feel it.
"I don't know what I was expecting with this," Shiro continues. "I probably should have known better than to try. I've thought the way all of you think, now. None of you would approve. I've seen that. All of you…all of you care so strongly. All in different ways, all for different reasons, but you're all so passionate about the things most important to you. It's just…it's been confusing to think of myself as one of those things. It doesn't seem right. It doesn't feel right. Not up against what I know about myself. But that really doesn't matter to you, does it? To any of you. I felt it, but I didn't really understand it. Not until now."
" 'course it doesn't matter," Lance says, as if this was obvious. "You're Shiro. You're part of our weird little space family and a defender of the universe with us and you're our fearless leader and you've gotten us through more crap than I can count. Obviously you're one of the most important things to us. What else would you be?"
"What the Galra did to you or made you do against your will doesn't define you," Keith adds with a low growl. "That's never going to matter to us."
"What does matter is what you do," Pidge adds. "Your choices. Your real choices. And we know better than to doubt you."
Hunk doesn't say anything at all, but his hand on Shiro's shoulder squeezes gently in agreement. And…it's almost crazy, but Shiro swears he can feel the warmth and kindness and solidity of Hunk's golden quintessence in that single reassuring movement. It's just his imagination, he knows, but that energy is still there and alive in Hunk himself, just under the surface, recognizable in Hunk's actions and movements and words even if Shiro never sees the swirl of smoky gold again.
And he sees it in the others, too. Lance half drapes over his other shoulder in a standing hug, and he can all but feel the coolness of the blue quintessence, see the energy flowing in Lance's friendly, reassuring movements and cheerful grin. Keith doesn't come closer, not crowding, but Shiro can recognize the fire burning inside him, the red quintessence smoldering and ready to aggressively defend, aware of every movement and ready to counter. Pidge pushes Lance aside and burrows into Shiro's left under his arm for a hug, and he can envision the green quintessence just under the surface, feel that stubbornness and desire to protect her family in her touch. The energy itself is never visible, but he knows them. He knows it's there. He knows what's most important to them all.
He knows he's a part of that.
"Yeah," he says after a moment, wrapping his left arm a little more firmly around Pidge, and shifting slightly in his chair to allow Lance and Hunk closer as well. "Yeah, I think I'm starting to understand that."
"Good," Keith says. "Then you're not going to leave, are you?"
"I…" Shiro hesitates. He doesn't want to. And he knows now, stronger than ever, that the paladins certainly don't want him to, either. He can feel that even now in their closeness, the warmth of their embraces and their smiles and their clear, obvious worry for him.
He doesn't want to go, but he's not sure he can stay, either. Maybe the things he's done weren't his fault, and maybe they're right. But it's still difficult to accept that fully, and it still doesn't feel right, exactly, like he has to be responsible for some of it. Even if what they say is true, they're still actions he's taken, and they don't seem like the actions of a paladin.
He swallows, and lifts his head slowly to stare across the table at Allura, and at Coran standing by her shoulder. He doesn't imagine the paladins almost instinctively drawing closer around him, like shields. It feels so familiar. He can feel their warmth. He can envision what it might look like in the blackness. He can see it in person.
They'll defend him no matter what. No matter what the verdict is. He's still not sure what he's done to earn this kind of loyalty, but it feels…it feels good. It feels safe.
Allura watches him and the paladins for a very long moment before she speaks. "If you truly, willingly desire to leave," she says slowly, "Then I cannot stop you, even if I can plead against your decision. You are one of five paladins, and we need Voltron. More than that, I believe that you belong here. That you are worthy of being a defender of the universe, and that you fulfill the paladin code honorably. But if your only reason to leave is because you think you are no longer worthy of the title of black paladin…then I think you had best bring your case to the Lion. I do not have the authority to give or take that name."
Black. Go to Black? Shiro's eyes widen slightly at the thought. He hasn't been to see her since his arm has been fixed. It terrifies him, the thought of possibly being rejected for his actions, for letting her be the ultimate judge and jury.
But at the same time…at the same time, he doesn't want to leave. And he needs to know if he can still stay. Because this is his fight. That was his choice, to fight when there wasn't a choice at all. He has resisted the Galra with everything he has, even if maybe he wasn't strong enough to do so fully when he was their prisoner. Even if they were able to trick him. And being a part of team Voltron gives him meaning. He doesn't want to abandon the others, not after feeling their loyalty and trust in him. He doesn't want to give up the fight, not now. He has to try.
"We can go with you," Lance says, nudging his arm again. The others nod in agreement, clustering closer. "If you want. Back you up. And if the Black Lion gets too judge-y just tell Keith. He'll punch her, just like he said."
"Don't think I wouldn't," Keith grumbles under his breath.
Shiro can't help but smile at that—weakly, but smile all the same. "I know you would," he says. "I felt it." I'll fight for you, Keith's quintessence had said. It had really meant it. He can envision that burning red quintessence in the red paladin's heart even now, see it in his stance and in his eyes.
Shiro continues before anyone can ask questions. "I know that all of you would back me up in a heartbeat. I felt that. I've seen that now. And I appreciate it. But this…when I speak to the Black Lion, I need to do it by myself."
He stands, closing his eyes for a moment. "And I need to do it now. Before I lose any of this."
"We'll be waiting," Allura says confidently. "And for what it's worth, Shiro, I happen to be a very good judge of character. I don't believe you have anything to fear."
Shiro hopes not.
When he steps into the Black Lion's hangar, the first thing he feels from her is relief, followed shortly by joy-happiness-contentment. The Black Lion is happy to see him, he gathers. She has been worried because she could not feel him. He had disappeared from her mind's eye, and then he had not come to see her. He is still weak now—has he been ill? Where has her paladin been?
"I need to…to show you some things," Shiro tells her slowly. "And I…need to know if I've still earned your title."
He's not sure, even now. The conviction and trust of his friends has been so strong, but even the journey from the dining room to the hangar has left him with a few new growing doubts. He clings to the memories of his friends' loyalties, their words, their insistence that he is not at fault for the things he'd been forced to do against his will, no matter how badly he feels he must bear the responsibilities for those actions.
But the Black Lion will end this, one way or another. She alone can give him the title of paladin, and she alone can decide if he is still truly worthy of it. If his actions were those of a knight, or those of a parasite.
She senses his confusion and his hurt and his unease, and her impressions and thoughts grow silent and solemn. She waits. And he takes a deep breath, and gives her all his new memories—everything from the past few weeks, everything he has recently recovered. He gives them all, and he waits.
He doesn't wait long. Within moments he feels a cascade of images and thoughts and voices—his own memories of Allura's and Coran's words of assurance and insistence from just moments ago, the words of the paladins as they argued in his defense, the feeling of each of their quintessences as they protected him. Overlaying it all is a strong feeling of confidence and pride and contentment. No fault, the feelings and voices and images all tied together seem to say. Never any fault. You may be tired, you may hurt, you may struggle, but you are not at fault. You fought to resist. You fought to protect. The hurt you cause hurts you in turn. You are a paladin. You are my paladin, the black paladin. Nothing I have seen will tear this title from you. You are worthy.
Shiro has never felt such relief before. He feels stunned. And then he feels home, because he'll remain, and he has purpose, and he hasn't broken everything he's supposed to stand for. That he wants to stand for. She's seen into his soul and judged him worthy. He has nothing left to argue against but himself.
And even that, in time, may pass.
The Black Lion's massive metal head lowers, as she crouches down on all fours, until her huge head rests just in front of him. And he feels from her, Let us fly, paladin. Soar through the sky and the stars and know freedom. Be yourself once again. Live, truly.
And he smiles, for the first time in a long while—a real, full smile. Maybe it might take him a while to fully accept what the others have said—that he's not completely at fault, that he'd done nothing wrong, that he'd fought his hardest and that was all that could be asked for. That he doesn't have to bear the responsibility of all of this. That he's not a monster just for the crime of living. But they've all accepted him, all of them. They know what he's done and have found him worthy anyway. They know who he is, in the end.
And as he settles into the pilot's seat and the Black Lion soars into the air and roars, as he feels her contentment and the first rush of joy and knows the thrill of flight again and knows this, not that battle rush,is what it really means to live—Shiro thinks that maybe, just maybe, everything will be alright after all.