It happens with less fanfare than he expected.
The Paladins of Voltron defeat Zarkon.
It’s not as though Shiro anticipated an intergalactic parade, or some sort of medal ceremony. He didn't become a pilot or a soldier for the glory; he became a paladin to help people.
Still, as the tense negotiations for peace come to a close, the treaties signed and prisoners released, Shiro can't help but feel like the whole thing was rather… Anticlimactic.
Sure, victory came with more than its fair share of joy, and he's happy for it. Never has he seen Pidge smile as brightly as she does when her brother and father stride down the ramp of a recovered Galra ship and into the hangar of the Castle of Lions. Matt and Samuel together catch her in an embrace when her knees buckle, and not even Keith can keep tears from escaping as he watches the reunion. Not long after, Lance stands up at the dinner table, wraps Keith’s hand in his, and announces in a loud but shaking voice that they are in love, and have been hiding their relationship for over a year. Keith rises, slow and unexpectedly shy, and leans his body against Lance's. All of the others in the Castle had known for months, or course - how could they not, as obvious as those two were? - but each one of them knew that war was never the ideal time to question the nature of a relationship. Keith and Lance had their reasons for keeping things as secret as they could.
Shiro is happy for them, as he is happy for the Holts, and happy for Hunk when he tells the rest of Team Voltron that, now that the war was over, he was going to be working with Shay and her people to coordinate with those living on other Balmera. There’s talk of a United Balmera, and the prospect of being the first new coalition recognized under the Galactic Alliance.
Things roll out with a strange normalcy after that, with a kind of ease that belies the fact that they just won a war. Their return to Earth is met only with the excitement of those who had thought them dead the past six years; no one planetside was even aware of the vicious battle waged and won by five of their own species. If anything, the trip is taxing for Shiro who, lacking anyone to come home to, relegates himself to the headache of dealing with The Garrison. Three days into paperwork and bureaucracy, Shiro gives up, informs Iverson that he's just going to have to file to become a member of the Alliance if he wants access to more information (“Alliance? What Alliance?”) and retreats with Kuro to the dark side of the Moon. He remains until Allura summons him back to the Castle to meet with the other paladins, newly returned.
They eat one final meal together in the hall of the Castle of Lions.
Hunk and the Yellow Lion head off to the Balmera as envoys of the Alliance. With Allura’s blessing and a shiny set of badges christening them as official Diplomats, Keith and Lance set off to make contact with some of the outermost edges of the galaxy. In private, Shiro questions the rationale between sending the two most impulsive paladins to set up an embassy on a planet too far-flung for Shiro or the Castle to reach on enough time to avert a political disaster. Allura just smiles and asserts the responsibility will be good for them.
Pidge leaves for Earth the next day. Hers is the first announcement since the end of the entire conflict that he registers with shock. The latter half of her teen years had been spent in space, surrounded by information and technologies far more advanced than anything that had ever been conceived of on Earth. It had been a given in his mind that she would continuing travelling with him and Allura, adding mastery of each new planet’s tech to her repertoire. As insatiable for knowledge as she is, he’d expected her to stay.
Instead, Shiro stands motionless by the side of the Green Lion and watches as Pidge wraps Allura in a clinging hug. The women hold tight to each other for a long time, voices mixing in a hiccuping symphony of laughter and tears. Coran worms his way in between them and sweeps Pidge up in his arms, spinning her around a few times before setting her down on unsteady feet. While they discuss setting up a long-range transmission between Earth and the Castle, he beams down at her and runs a hand over her hair as if she were still a child.
Pidge gives Coran and Allura one final hug, then turns to Shiro. As she approaches him, the Green Lion kneels down and drops her jaw, readying herself to take Pidge back to Earth.
Stopping in front of him, Pidge crosses, then uncrosses her arms. The skin around her eyes is puffy from crying, and her smile watery.
“Ready to go?” he hears himself say. She nods.
And then she throws her arms around his neck and buries her face into his neck.
When Shiro was a child, maybe six or seven, his mother had taken him to Okinawa on holiday. He remembers nothing from the trip but for their day at the beach. Further out than he should have been, he’d been alone when a wave rose and broke above his head, alone when the water clawed him down below its surface. For a moment, time had seemed to stop. The world around him was no more than a muted roar, blue and weightless. Not until his lungs began to ache did he start to struggle, flailing against the water’s pull. When his head finally broke the water’s surface, his senses were unprepared for the painful clarity of what waited above: the sun, too bright in his eyes, the crash of waves, deafening, the sting of salt like crushed glass down his throat.
It is like that now. Shiro resurfaces from a depth he hadn’t known. He takes a gasping breath. Pidge’s low sob pounds harder than his heart against his ear drums, and the hangar lights are blinding. He blinks against them, feels dampness there. He’s not sure which way is up as Pidge pulls away long enough to say, “Come visit, okay? Mom, Dad, and Matt all want to see you.”
“Be safe, Katie,” he says. The sound wobbles on its way up.
“I’m always safe,” she protests.
Her pout is unconvincing, and she lets loose a fractured chuckle a beat later. It’s too much. He tugs her to his chest, giving himself a moment of respite from the torrent of emotions that whips across her face and floods their shared paladin bond.
“If you were safe, I’d never have to tell you that,” he murmurs. “Please try to keep Earth and yourself intact while we’re away.”
Pidge looks up at him. Through the tears that gloss over brown eyes, there’s a hardness there, the resolute determination of a soldier. Shiro knows it in her unwavering gaze, in the premature lines that have settled along her brow, in the square clench of her jaw.
“As long as you promise to take care of yourself while I’m away,” she says.
She frowns. “I mean it.”
Her order is stern and commands compliance; his “Yes ma’am” is automatic. Shiro wonders when she’d picked up that tone from him, marvels at how three short words could make him feel like a cadet again.
“That’s more like it,” Pidge says, softening into a smile. “I’ll miss you,Takashi. Don’t be a stranger.”
Before he can respond, she raises up on her toes and presses her lips to his cheek.
Pidge pulls away without another word.
Watching the taut line of her body disappear as the ramp to the Green Lion begins to retract is like feeling the water slowly close over him once more.
The messages are frequent at first, as Castle, Earth, and paladins have yet to put millions of lightyears between them. Pidge is accepted to graduate school; Shay and Hunk have begun strengthening psychic and political ties between the various wandering Balmera; Lance and Keith haven’t been blown up yet.
Maybe a month into their travels, Hunk and Shay begin picking up rumors about a Balmera allegedly being harvested by a group of Galra Sentries that, by some glitch or defect, had started an autonomous mining operation and were unaware of the fall of the Empire. Their investigation takes them further than the reach of the Castle’s transmission system; it takes ten, then sixteen, then thirty-one quintants for them to receive messages from the two. And then Shiro and Allura get the message that Hunk and Shay are safe, the sentries wiped out and the Balmerans back in control, and that they are staying to aid in the recovery and eventual joining of the Alliance. Shiro and Allura replay the message three times on the bridge, and even as he watches the worry crease in the corners of Allura’s eyes, he sees the brightening of Hunk’s smile.
Lance and Keith report back in with more regularity - part of their official function - but like with Hunk and Shay, eventually they too succumb to the limitations of their technology. The Castle is in near-constant transit: Kolivan and a handful of the other Senior Members of the Alliance had convinced Allura that a tour of each of the Alliance systems would be beneficial for upholding the image of fair unity that the founders of the coalition had promised even before the end of the war. The millions of lightyears between them are ever-increasing, and Keith and Lance’s check-ins become less official and more hearsay as rumor of their shenanigans - and rising popularity - travels faster than the formal diplomatic missives.
And Pidge, well. Earth’s technology and communications infrastructure was always the weakest link in the chain, and despite her best efforts, the communications dwindle. Video messages take weeks, and then become voice messages, and then become nothing at all. They’re two full systems from Earth when they receive their last one. A faint “Happy Earth Birthday, Shiro!” rises meagerly over vicious static. The rest comes in pieces “Of course… not as much time… seven now, right?... ruined Coran’s recipe… doctor… hopefully without fire… approximate limit of these… miss you all anyway…” and then loses its battle to the white noise.
If it happens once, it happens a thousand times. Long after Allura has collapsed in bed, Shiro sits on the bridge and replays his favorite messages. He listens to Pidge and Lance and Hunk and Keith on repeat, until they sound like a conversation, until he falls asleep.
Each system, each planet, has something new for him. His mouth learns to shape itself into greetings of peace in forty-two different languages. His tongue fumbles over coarse warnings of violence in three.The exhilaration that coursed up his spine and leapt from his throat the first time he saw the ice planet Jum’s incandescent purple sunrise is one he’ll taste for the rest of his life. He’d brought Kuro down from the upper atmosphere and broke cloud cover just as the ultraviolet sun erupted over the horizon. High peaks of translucent ice catch and bend the light.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it guys?” he breathes.
Only Kuro is there to respond, her purr soft and reassuring against the radio silence.
The Alliance is not an Empire. It’s not a Kingdom, or a Territory - it’s not even a Democracy, and it’s barely a Government. The Alliance is an Alliance.
When Allura first explained it to Shiro and the other paladins, she’d tried to liken it to Voltron.
“It’s like multiple units, all coexisting and coming together to work for one common good, while still maintaining their independence, their freedom to live they way that’s best for them,” she’d said. “Just like the five of you and Voltron!”
“Except we actually trust one another,” Keith pointed out.
“And have been cooperating for years,” Pidge added.
“Also, not to like, totally undermine your whole premise,” Hunk started, at which point Allura slumped forward and gave him a flat-eyed death glare, “but I’m pretty sure whatever weird magical paladin bond we’ve got going on kinda negates the entirely free and independent thing.”
All of the other paladins had nodded in agreement. Lance, with more sense than all of them in the moment, wished Allura luck with her big, dysfunctional Voltron.
To the surprise of all beyond the Castle walls, Allura succeeded. Persistence, sleepless nights, negotiations, and the occasional coercive appearance of Voltron culminated in The Galactic Alliance: over 4,000 planets and 9 prospective coalitions across 239 systems, gathered in the hopes of resetting balance to a universe shaken into submission by Zarkon thousands of years ago. 4,000 planets, little unity, and even less trust. Allura aged more in the first six months than over the half-decathebe that Shiro had known her.
She hasn’t slowed down since. While the tour wasn’t her idea, she’d plunged into the venture headfirst, and by the third year of their travels, they’ve covered over 180 of the total systems. Most of the time, they’re met with ambivalent hospitality. On occasion, there’s outright hostility. Millennia of brutal occupation is not always conducive to allowing a castle cum warship to land on one’s planet.
Even when Allura is permitted to land, most delegates prefer to meet them at The Castle of Lions, claiming a desire to experience the technological wonder firsthand. It’s not often that Shiro and Allura can so much as step foot outside of the Castle without being bustled back in by the delegates’ security. Shiro doesn’t blame them for being so guarded, but after long stints of such treatment, he starts to miss getting to see the sky.
As such, to be planetside is a rare pleasure. He indulges in it now.
There’s technically a gala going on inside, but ever since dinner ended, Shiro has spent most of his time leaning against the external wall of a wide rampart, staring out over the landscape. The planet is lush and lovely, a stark contrast to the hideous edifice that he, Allura, and Coran are being hosted in. It had been a Galran construction, the longtime home of the commanding officer assigned to rule the planet. Kolivan, who had arranged to meet them by teludav, had insisted that the steel and stone monstrosity was nothing like traditional Galran architecture.
Shiro can’t find much room to care, though: the crisp dusk air fills his lungs with a pleasant sting, and from where he stands, looking up at faint stars in a deep lavender sky, he can almost convince himself that he is back on Earth.
“Tired of the formalities?”
Kolivan’s voice no longer sends a zip of alarm up his spine - they have been allies far too long for that. Instead, Shiro turns and offers a limp smile. The expression on Kolivan’s face mirrors his: a little taut, a little tired, a little long gone with the intricacies of diplomacy. His eyes glow faint gold in the growing dark. They were soldiers, predators, out of place.
“If you’ve been to one fancy dinner party, you’ve been to them all,” Shiro says with a slight shrug. “Being present and socializing at events like this was only ever my job because the other paladins couldn’t be guaranteed not to start an interplanatary riot. Now that I’m basically on patrol duty things are much more relaxed.”
Kolivan chuckles and joins him against the rampart wall. “You mean Pidge and Keith weren’t star socialites?”
“If by star socialites, you mean challenging each other to see who could keep down the most nunvil during state dinners or offending planetary figureheads by purposefully speaking in Pig Latin the entire time then yes, they absolutely are.”
If Kolivan catches Shiro’s present tense, he doesn’t comment on it. After his laughter fades, they stand in silence, wrapped in their own thoughts and aware of the other. It’s been long enough now for Shiro to know that Kolivan was not one to initiate without intention. His straightforward nature was a trait Shiro both appreciated and respected in the being tasked to share with Allura the joint leadership of the Alliance. Shiro knows he won’t wait long for Kolivan to reach his point.
“It’s been well over nine drozaks since we first met, Shiro,” Kolivan finally says. “I don’t know the Terran equivalent, but in all that time, you’ve gone back home just once. Don’t you miss Earth?”
The question is one he’s asked himself before, on those rare nights when he does sleep, only to wake up in a cold sweat. He dreams of Earth in muted colors: he dreams of the swell of a wave curling overhead, dreams of ume in full bloom, of hot coals in the setting sun and cool dirt beneath bare feet. It’s a question he’s never allowed himself to answer.
“Don’t you miss Galra?” Shiro returns. “How often have you been back since you left with the Blade all those decathebes ago?”
Kolivan chuckle-hums. There’s enough light streaming out from the adjacent banquet hall for Shiro to see his nose wrinkle.
“Zarkon destroyed much of Galra well before my mother’s ancestors were born. There was not much to miss from the beginning. Why do you think so many resettlement applications have come through the Alliance since his fall?”
He gazes up at the stars and continues. “Space and the Blade of Marmora are more my home than any lump of rock. But Earth was spared Zarkon’s wrath. Why not return?”
“Did Allura put you up to this?” Shiro asks instead.
Kolivan raises an eyebrow, but Shiro doesn’t backtrack on his evasion.
“She did,” Kolivan says.
“Is she worried about me?” Shiro know the answer, but doesn’t know why he needs to hear it out loud.
“She is. Allura mentioned to me earlier that she was uncertain how much of an impact being separated from the other paladins has had on you. As she explained it, the five of you had some sort of psychic, emotional bond?”
Shiro shifts from foot to foot. All logic tells him that Kolivan means well, that Shiro is perfectly safe out on the open air rampart. But his stomach twists and his muscles clench, baser instinct warning him that he’s about to be cornered: flee to the Castle, get to safety.
“The Galra aren’t known for their emotional perception, but I would imagine you must be feeling like you’ve lost your pack, your tribe. It’s a weighty loss.” Kolivan’s voice grows distant, as if he’d lost track of his words while counting his own dead. Shiro might feel more sympathetic if he weren’t so on edge.
“Is Allura concerned about my performance? My ability to pilot the Black Lion, or protect The Alliance?”
At that, Kolivan snorts. “Hardly. I’ve heard her reports, and seen your flying with my own eyes. If anything, you’ve become more precise as a pilot and more exacting as a soldier these past four drozaks. She calls you The Alliance’s greatest asset.” Kolivan’s features soften. “But that doesn’t mean she’s not worried. I believe she brought it up to me because my crew and I are planning on teludaving to a system much nearer to Earth once this meeting has concluded. We wanted to offer you transit.”
The information passes over him in small ripples. He could go back to Earth. See Pidge, visit the Holts. Coran would call it the vacation he’s been long overdue in taking.
Shiro sees two possibilities:
One. He returns to Earth. The Holts welcome him into their home with open arms. The Garrison, perhaps, offers him a position. He watches the sun rise over Earth’s horizon and decides never to return to space again. The others are left to fill his absence, to maintain The Alliance and everything they fought for, without him.
Two. He returns to Earth. The Holts welcome him into their home with open arms. The Garrison, perhaps, offers him a position. He watches the sun dip below Earth’s horizon and the emptiness sweeps over him like the dark of night. He decides to return to space immediately, filled with the knowledge that the home he fought to return to for so long is no home to him at all.
“I can’t thank you enough for the offer, Kolivan,” Shiro says with a smile, “but I think I’m still probably more useful up here than anywhere on Earth.”
Time, Coran explains over dinner one evening, is little more than a matter of perception. To try and measure it by the passage of light and dark is unreliable at best. Consider the planet Urukul and its four hundred quintants of relentless sunshine. Consider quintants, how they stretch slower than Earth-days. Consider “dinnertime” and “evening” in the black dead of space, where the Castle’s carefully calibrated computer system dims and brightens light in a facsimile of passing time.
Of course, Coran, Allura, and Shiro have just returned from a diplomatic meeting on the moon of Myjorn, where Coran had found a particularly expensive and potent bottle of nunvil. He’s three glasses in to Shiro and Allura’s one, and by now they’re used to his uncanny brand of inebriated philosophy.
Even after all of this time, Shiro hasn’t quite figured out the Terran to Altean equivalents, and asking Coran now is likely to lead them down a rabbit hole that neither Allura nor Shiro have the patience for after the day’s negotiations, but he does know that it has been 1,137 quintants since last visiting Earth. Maybe something like three years, or forty months. Maybe more, maybe less. Maybe unimportant, if what Coran has to say about time holds any bearing. For time to be no more than a trick of the brain holds strange merit, since the longer that time has passed since the end of the war, the more that is has seemed to slow. Sometimes Shiro feels as though he’s wading through it.
Coran pours Shiro a second glass of nunvil without asking. He barely feels its burn on the way down.
It's not the first time in his life that Shiro's woken up alone. Over the last two years or so it's become the rule rather than the exception. Changes in the universe move too fast for regular sleep schedules.
It’s not the first time that Shiro has woken up alone in the Castle either, but the void feels more like a vacuum tonight than usual. Although he knows it’s pointless, he spreads his mind across the Castle, letting it slip through sealed doors and drift from room to empty room. There’s no brush of living consciousness to trail its warmth along his, no elastic thrum of a paladin bond snapping to life. In the motionless dark of the Castle, Shiro allows himself a confession: he has not felt the ache he expected when the other paladins left, because he does not feel as though some part of him has been separated from his whole. Instead, he is no more than a fraction of himself, a piece ripped away from a complete unit. He is four raw edges stinging for totality.
He sits up and swings his legs over the edge of the bed, letting his sheet slither to the floor.
Allura and Coran were staying on-planet, escorted by a handful of the Blade of Marmora, whose insistence that Shiro stay behind had ceased to raise his ire ages ago. For as many planets and peoples had suffered under Zarkon, there were just as many that had flourished, or at least found a peaceful sort of normalcy in their situation. Such planetary governments were hesitant to meet with the heads of the new Alliance, and outright refused to host the Black Paladin of Voltron and his weapon.
Even the mice had gone with Allura.
Shiro stands, stretching out the sleep pains. His joints pop, his back twinges. He is getting old, perhaps, a concept he’d never had a chance to reconcile with when he was in the middle of fighting for his life. The lights in his room rise to a dim glow now that he’s up and moving. His reflection catches in the mirror, revealing the touches of silver that start at his temples and stretch up to meet the shock of hair that trauma had blanched years ago.
None of them were immune to the passage of time, of course. The video transmissions they still got were evidence enough of that: laugh lines were beginning to show at the corners of Lance’s eyes and mouth; Hunk had grown a moustache. Coran had taken to coloring his hair, though he’d deny it endlessly if questioned. The pink markings perched above Allura’s cheeks had taken on a bluish hue, a sign of middling Altean adulthood.
Shiro slips out of his room and pads barefoot down the hallway. Lights perk on ahead of him, unnecessary as they are. He could cross this whole ship with his eyes closed, or plunged in the blackest dark.
No destination calls to him, so he wanders. The energy that spurs him on isn’t anxious, isn’t the need to work himself past exhaustion on the training deck, isn’t the nervous force that kept him up for years, monitoring system maps for incoming Galra fleets. It’s more like the resigned sensation of starvation, the knowledge that the body will succumb before finding nourishment, but the brain persists, driving on. It’s more like the slow struggle against the ocean’s ancient gravity.
How long Shiro walks, he can’t be sure, but he’s eventually stopped by Kuro’s metallic chirp. Her wordless question echoes through the otherwise unoccupied hangar and laps gently against his mind.
Years ago, she’d asked him about Earth. All she knew of the planet was from Blue’s time there, back when it was a young, tumultuous shard in a cold sea. He had shared with her images of the desert as it took on the orange blush of dawn. He had shared the warmth of his mother’s hand as she led him down the sidewalk, the rich softness of her voice, calling after him as he toddled through his first snowfall. He gave her the sight of Earth, blue and green below, as he stared down after breaking the atmosphere during his first spaceflight.
It’s these images she sends back to him now, each picture accompanied by that same question.
He tries to remind her: he’s needed here. His mother is no longer. The sun will rise over the desert with or without him.
Kuro persists, though, projecting Earth as she knows it: Pidge, running her toes through the grass in the clearing near the Holt’s home where they’d decided to land the lions; the rush of sand and cliffs as they raced over the desert; the blue-green pearl of a planet nestled in the blanket of space.
A painful jolt smacks up his spine. His hands hit the cold floor. His knees will sting tomorrow, but he’s too distracted by the small globules of water that bead on the floor below him.
“Are you sure?”
“We hardly ever use the teludav anymore, Shiro. We’ll have more than enough power to get you to Earth, even from here.”
His heart pounds so loudly in his ears that he almost doesn’t hear Allura’s assurances through the speaker in his helmet. This is a terrible idea, and although Allura must be doing her best to conceal her disappointment, he’s sure she’s taken his weakness and tacked it into her impression of him, like a footnote leering at the bottom of the page. Maybe he’ll decide to come back and she won’t want him, won’t need a broken Black Paladin who-
“And before you start tearing yourself apart,” Allura breaks in, “know that I think you’re making the right decision, Shiro.”
There’s a soft click; Allura cuts Coran and anyone else listening out of the communication channel.
“If there’s any flaw of yours, it’s your transparency,” she continues. “You can try and tell me that you’re not beating yourself up over leaving, but I know better.”
Shiro doesn’t respond. He knows he doesn’t have to.
“But there’s something you’ve been missing. Maybe it’s the others. Maybe it’s something else. Go there and find it, Shiro. And when you’re ready, come back.”
He nods, even though he knows she can’t see it. The cracks had come out in her voice, the slightest sob, and he knows that when he speaks he'll sound the same.
“Thank you,” he manages.
“It’s less than a fraction of what I, what we all owe you. Take care.”
Allura flips the comm channel back open, and when she does, her voice is clear and strong.
“Hangar doors are clear, ready when you are. Initiating teludav in ten… nine…”
Kuro charges out of the hangar; her controls move under his hands, but the motion is automatic.
They dive into the wormhole. The fabric of space rips and ripples around them, white, blinding. Shiro feels the breath clench in his chest. His ears ring, and were he not harnessed to his seat he thinks he might be flung from the cockpit. The wave of dizziness that hits him might be vertigo, if he had any sense of which way was down. He feels like he’s swimming against the very air, uncertain if each stroke is taking him closer to the surface or further into the depths.
A red-black haze skirts the edges of his vision, and then everything stops.
The familiar canvas of space surrounds him once more.
Ahead, a gloss of blue-green disrupts the dark.