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Broken Souls

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At first, he doesn't think about it.

At first, he doesn't think about much of anything. Not about where he is, or why, or how long he's been there. He doesn't think about his team, what they're doing without him. He doesn't think about what new memories he might have lost.

All he thinks about is survival.

It's nearly a full day before he comes down off his adrenaline high, his desperation, his animalistic prowl, and starts to think again. He's found some meager shelter for the night, on this cold, dismal little planet he's stranded himself on, and he's built a fire.

The wound in his leg reopened at some point; he doesn't know when. But he knows that it's bleeding again, and he's lost too much blood already. He knows he hasn't found food yet and the painful ridges of his ribs beneath his prison uniform tell him he hasn't eaten in a while. Probably they kept him alive on some kind of nutrient solution, or by keeping him halfway in stasis whenever they weren't poking and prodding at him and talking about--

The sharp stab of pain halts that line of thought, as does the sudden swirl of vertigo that follows. He's not sure if that's the blood loss or the hunger or the horror at what he knows he has to do. He activates his hand and stares at it for a long moment.

Then his eyes drift to the other arm, to the little red mark on the back of his wrist. Hoverbike accident. He still remembers it like it was yesterday; somehow all his time in Galra hands hasn't stripped this memory away from him. He'd taken Keith out to the desert to fly, and something about the smile on Keith's face, the laughter he'd seen too seldom from the teen, stripped away the pull of regulation and responsibility. They stayed out past curfew, until Keith was falling asleep behind the controls and neither of them could see the canyons around them.

He's still not sure if it was a rock or a tree or just a freak accident, but the bike suddenly pitched sideways beneath him, spilling both its riders into the dry riverbed. Keith cried out in pain, quickly stifled, as he clutched his arm to his chest.

(It wasn't broken, but it hurt like hell, and they'd been new enough to the whole soulmates thing that Keith had persisted in lying about the severity of his injury for the entire trip back to the Garrison, right up to the door to the infirmary, where Shiro finally pulled back his sleeve and held up his wrist for Keith to see the angry red badge across his skin, a mirror of Keith's own gash. He went quietly after that.)

Well, it's not like he hasn't been hurting all day, he thinks. He doesn't know what happened; his recapture is a complete blank in his memory. He doesn't know if the others assumed him dead, or if they've been looking for him. He doesn't remember hurting in the long, patchy fog of his imprisonment, but he supposes that doesn't mean he didn't. He has no clue how long he's been gone, even.

Keith deserves better than having him for a soulmate, with as often as he gets maimed. Maybe he should just... wait. Let himself bleed out. It won't be entirely without pain, but he figures it's a merciful way to go, comparatively speaking.

But Keith never resented the pain. He hated what it meant, he hated that Shiro had suffered all that and more. But Keith told him, time and time again when he sat beside Shiro after a flashback and the guilt became too much to contain--when Shiro tried to apologize for making Keith go through all the torture, making him live with the things Shiro had blocked out.

"It's not fair to you," Shiro said. "I got captured, but you're the one who had to cope with it all. I don't even remember the pain."

Keith stared at him, bewildered. "It isn't a competition, Shiro. You went through hell, and okay, sure, I felt some of it. But that kind of pain goes away. It hurt, and then it was over with, and I got to hold on to knowing you weren't dead yet. It's--I don't want you to hurt. But if it's a choice between hurting for a while and losing you forever, for me, there's no contest. I'll take whatever pain I need to as long as it means I get to see you again."

Shiro's stomach turns as he looks back at the weeping wound on his leg, and he hesitates again, knowing this will probably all be for nothing in the end. He'll just die of infection instead of blood loss, and Keith will feel it all the while.

But he has to take the chance. Keith will understand.

With one last breath to steel himself, Shiro presses his hand to the wound, his screams echoing back to him through the night.

He has the Marks.

He doesn't know why that seems so important to him, that he still has the Marks he's had all his life. Keith's scars. Matt's Mark on his wrist, mocking him. He's wondered, all this time, whether Matt hasn't replied because he's dead. Now he thinks maybe it's just that the universe is big and cruel and callous and wherever Matt is, whether he's still sitting in prison or whether he escaped already--maybe he just doesn't have a pen to write with.

He'd give anything for a pen right now, even if Matt isn't in a position to come save him.

He doesn't want to be alone.

He's dying. He knows that. He's stuck in the cockpit of a fighter that's slowly running out of fuel, that didn't have food in the first place except two ration bars the rebels reluctantly gave to him as he left. The water's gone now, too, and the oxygen level drops a little more with each passing hour. His leg's infected, he's pretty sure. It hurts like hell, but he keeps forgetting the pain as the dizziness sweeps through.

Nothing feels real anymore. Maybe that's why the Marks matter so much. They're something real. He thinks they are. Even though he hasn't felt anything from Keith in a week and he hasn't heard from Matt in a year and in the dim, dying light of the cockpit the colors seem duller than they ever were before.

He pulls up the ship's log to record one last entry, too tired and dehydrated for tears as he apologizes to Keith. He made him suffer all this pain, and they won't even see each other again before the end.

They did something to him.

He doesn't know what. None of them know what. Pidge keeps saying it shouldn't be possible. Nothing in the universe can break soulbonds. Lance laughs at that, for some reason, but Allura agrees with Pidge. Not even Haggar's own magic can touch the threads that connect souls.

And yet.

Keith figures it out before Shiro, of course. The haze of reunion wipes away the fears of the dying man. The reunion, and the cryopod's frigid nightmares. He agrees to go because he knows he needs it, but the first blast of cold takes him back to the ice planet, to the crash and the skeleton of a beast long dead and the fire he had to guard all night lest the wind put it out. He feels the panic attack coming on, but the pod forces him under, trapping him in dreams of ice and infection and monstrous beasts out for blood.

He wakes still in the throes of panic, and it takes Keith twenty minutes to talk him down. The others have all filed out by then, their fearful expressions sticking in his mind.

Keith knows by then, surely. That something isn't right. Shiro was delirious with pain when Keith found him, but Keith felt none of it. He doesn't have a Mark to match the new, smooth scar on Shiro's thigh.

"It doesn't mean anything," Keith says, leaning against the wall inside Shiro's bedroom door. His face is stormy, his arms folded tight across his chest, and Shiro isn't so lost inside his own head that he doesn't see the uncertainty in that pose. "Pidge is trying to figure out what they did to you this time. Allura says if it has something to do with Quintessence, that might have disrupted the bond, in which case it'll clear up in a couple of days. Probably."

Shiro smiles despite himself. Keith's honesty is comforting, even when it's not.

Keith doesn't stay long that day. They have battles to fight, and they need him in Black.

Shiro wonders, again, whether he really exists, or whether he's a ghost who hasn't let himself move on.

It's two days later, while the team is out flying another mission and Coran is up on the bridge trying to keep them in the air, that Shiro steals out of his room for the first time since emerging from the cryopod. He goes only as far as Keith's room, because he knows Keith has been writing to Blue. (To Lance. Right. So much changed while he was away.)

Well, now that they have that sorted out, Keith doesn't really need his pen anymore, right? Shiro grabs it, his heart pounding in his throat like he's back with Ulaz, running for the escape pods and expecting a laser in the back at any moment, rather than borrowing a pen from his best friend.

He retreats to his own room and sits on the bed, staring at his arms for long minutes while he works up the courage to put the pen to his skin.

Sorry I've been quiet for so long. It's been

He hesitates, running through a million ways to end his sentence. "Rough" doesn't nearly cover it, and "busy" is pure bullshit.

It's been hell.

He laughs, choking on the first tears he's cried in--god, how long? He blinks, adding an "I love you" to his message before tucking the pen away in his drawer and curling up in bed, his blanket pulled up to his chin so he doesn't check his arm for an answer every five minutes.

(It doesn't work, and he loses more sleep waiting on an answer that never comes.)

Weeks pass. He pulls himself back together. He writes to Matt every day, even though he knows it's useless. Matt hasn't been able to respond so far, and Shiro's soulbonds still aren't working, but he needs this. He needs to feel like he's still connected to someone, because he's drifting, coming untethered a little more each time Keith returns with a new scrape or burn that he didn't feel.

Lance comes to him one night, without any of the concealer he usually wears, even now that the team knows the truth. A hundred Marks are laid bare on his skin.

He says nothing, just sits with Shiro and puts an arm around him when he bursts into tears. Shiro tries not to think of it as two broken things taking solace in each other. He may be broken, but not Lance. Never Lance.

It's one month later, and things are bad. Keith's pulling away, spending more and more time with the Blade, returning only when they need him in Black. Dark circles gather beneath his eyes, but he says nothing, and Shiro can't figure out how to say that he's scared. More than scared. Terrified. Terrified that Keith's going to get hurt out there with the Blades, and Shiro won't even know because he lost something when the Galra took him.

They fight.

Shiro never means for it to happen, but he's tired, and he's scared, and he wakes up every day feeling a little more like he's not even real. An anger burns inside him, uncontrollable. It feels like someone else's anger, but maybe that's just because it's the only thing about him that has any substance.

The other paladins take on mission after mission, and Shiro tries to hold it together while they're gone, tries not to micromanage over the comms, tries to let go and let Keith be the black paladin, but he can't, and he hates that about himself. He's arguing with Keith, again, about the risks he's taking inside a Galra base when the pain catches him in the side, driving the breath from his lungs.

Shouts ring out on the comms, and Shiro assumes the worst. Keith was hit. Keith was hit because Shiro distracted him. He can't speak, and it's long seconds before he realizes that he shouldn't have felt anything at all.

His bonds.

They're working again.

He staggers, the relief flooding through him, then rushing back out as Hunk's voice cracks over the furor on the comms, panic pitching it high. "Get him back to the lions! I'll hold them off!"

"What happened?" Shiro demands, seizing the edge of the console in both hands to keep himself upright. "Keith--"

"Lance got shot."

Keith's voice is tense, but there's no pain in it. Not like the pain in Lance's laugh--wet and faltering as Allura hisses out a string of curses.

"I'm fine," Lance says, though he hitches on the words. "Barely grazed me. Don't look at me like that, samurai. I'll--"

He cuts off at the same moment as a fresh spear of pain cuts Shiro to the bone, and in the next instant Shiro's knees hit the floor.

Keith leaves.

Not that day, and not the next. Not for almost another week. He's hurting, and he's trying not to show it, but Shiro knows it stings. He knows, because he's aching, too. It's not that he doesn't want Lance for a soulmate, because he does. They click in a way Shiro never expected them to, with the Marks on their skin that don't match up to the ones on their soulmates and the dead-end bonds that could never reflect all the things they feel. They click, and Shiro finds himself going to Lance when he starts drifting because Lance always knows how to ground him. It's nice. It's...comforting. Even if Lance sometimes looks at him funny, like Shiro's a puzzle he's trying to figure out.

The problem is that they have proof, now, that Shiro's bonds aren't broken on a fundamental level.

But his bond with Keith is.

Keith doesn't say anything. Shiro thinks that's because he doesn't want to seem selfish, or because he doesn't know how to express his hurt without saying he'd rather Shiro really was broken.

But Shiro gets it. It was easier, in a way, when the problem was in him and not in their friendship. He'd rather take the blame on himself than make Keith doubt one of the few stable things in his life.

But the truth is they have been growing apart. There's friction, and there's fighting, and Shiro knows he hasn't been acting like a soulmate. He wants to be surprised that their bond isn't working right, but he can't be.  He can't feel anything other than resignation the day he finally slots back into his bond with Black and Keith packs his belongings.

"I need to do this," Keith says, standing apart from them all on the bridge. He's wearing his Blade armor, not his paladin armor. He's carrying his mother's knife, not his bayard, which he surrendered to Lance along with the Red Lion, and not Shiro's bayard, which neither of them quite feels comfortable with yet.

Shiro tells himself it's not forever. Keith still has Lance and Pidge here, if nothing else. He'll be back. He just needs time to sort out his feelings. He's always needed space when things get bad.

He's never needed space because of Shiro before.

Matt still doesn't respond, but Shiro keeps writing. He talks about the stars, about the Garrison, about Pidge. He tries to keep things positive, and right now his team is a tripwire to his emotions, so he doesn't talk about the team.

Neither does he talk about the new Mark that's showed up over the last few days, overlapping Matt's. A bold blue beside which Matt's sepia looks faded and dull, the same way Keith's Marks fade beside Lance's. The Y-shaped symbol seems familiar, but Shiro tries not to think about it too hard.

He does take care not to delve into specifics after it shows up, because he doesn't trust Haggar not to have tried to overwrite his bonds with something that serves her.

(He starts to feel not real when he thinks about that for too long, though. He tries to put the possibility out of his mind, and he finds it's all too easy to do so.)

He doesn't manage to ignore the new Mark for long, though--especially once the stranger with the cobalt Mark writes him back.

So you do exist. I wondered.

Shiro doesn't write again for weeks, and he switches back to long sleeves to hide the questions that show up at odd hours. Who are you? What is this Garrison you mentioned? Who is Pidge? Why do you keep speaking as though you know me? Have we met? Where are you?  Do you know who I am?

Are you still there?

Were you ever?

The questions stop, eventually, and Shiro breathes a sigh of relief.

It doesn't last.

Pidge finds Matt, and Shiro's world shatters, comes back together, and shatters again all in the space of an hour.

He's older than he was when they last saw each other, with new scars and a limp that he tries to hide and shadows in his eyes that say Shiro didn't protect him as well as he thought he did, and his heart breaks when he sees Matt standing there, one hand clutching his staff even as he puts on a show of smiling and joking like he used to.

(The jokes ring hollow to Shiro's ears.)

And then Matt sees him and freezes, and Shiro doesn't breathe. He's afraid, for a moment, that it's fear or anger that stops Matt in his tracks. But those are tears in the corners of Matt's eyes, and the grin that breaks across his face is genuine and bright, and it stops Shiro's heart in his chest.

But Matt stumbles to a stop just before they would meet, his grin faltering, his eyes closing off. He cuts Shiro's legs out from under him with a single syllable.


Like that's all they are to each other--pilot and engineer, officer and enlisted man. Comrades, but not soulmates.

He tries to laugh it off, pulls Matt into a hug, and for a moment as Matt relaxes he thinks everything's going to be okay. Then Matt turns his head, resting it on Shiro's shoulder with his breath ghosting over his neck.

"You stopped writing," he said. "I thought--I don't know what I thought."

Shiro holds him tighter, resisting the truth that settles into his bones. But he knows what this means. He's known it since his bond with Keith failed.

And Matt deserves to know.

To Matt's credit, he doesn't let the broken bond stop him. Things are hesitant between them, but that's more because of the year of trauma and war that separates them, and Matt still holds his hand and kisses him, and if those small gestures are all they can steal between battles, Shiro will take it.

He's starting to feel like he doesn't exist again, and the cobalt words burned into his skin twinge every time Matt's hands come near. This feels like a lie. It feels like a betrayal. He doesn't even know which one of them he's cheating on.

It's almost a relief when Matt gets called back to the rebels. Pidge is sad to see him go, but Shiro feels as though a weight has been lifted off his chest.

(He hates himself for that, a little bit.)

He hates himself more when, later that same night, he goes automatically to write to Matt to say he misses him and he sees instead a delicate script, not so foreign now as it once was.

Do you ever find it difficult to trust people?

He stares at the words for a long time, pen in hand, fighting the tug in his gut that says this is his lot now. He might as well embrace it.

Lately? I mostly find it difficult to trust myself.

The stranger on the other end of the bond doesn't respond for a long while, and Shiro stares at his own words, bile rising in his throat. He stands, his breath coming shallow, and hurries to the bathroom to wash the words away.

As he reaches for the sink, though, new letters appear.

Perhaps whoever chooses these bonds knows what they're doing after all. It seems we're the same, you and I.

Sometimes I don't even know who I am.

He tries not to think about the words, but they stick in his head, echoed back to him in his own voice at night when sleep eludes him. The writing has long since faded, but he sees the shadow of it on his skin each time he checks to see if the stranger has written him again.

They don't, though. Not until the day before Naxzela, when a single sentence appears in small letters on the inside of his wrist.

I think I made a mistake.

Shiro comes out of the next battle feeling much the same.

Shiro does not trust Lotor, but then, Lotor doesn't expect to be trusted. There's something comforting about the dance, as though they're all on the same page, even if none of them have quite figured out which page that is.

They settle into a routine. Shiro and Allura go to speak with the captive prince. He provides them a target and the intel they need to make a clean hit. The paladins carry out the plan, chip away at Zarkon's power, return home to start the cycle all over ahead. Shiro reaches out to Keith, to Matt, to the stranger behind the blue writing.

None of them responds.

Lance reaches out to him, but Shiro only snaps at him, angry and hurt and frustrated at the constant reminders of all the ways in which he's broken. The flash of pain on Lance's face pulls him up short, but by then it's too late. Lance flashes a smile and sees himself off the bridge, and Shiro doesn't even know anymore how not to hurt the people he cares about.

He sees the Mark by accident as they're handcuffing Lotor, ready to make the exchange for Commander Holt. The armor Lotor wears normally covers his arms from elbow to wrist, but Allura expects a trick and she orders him to remove it. He complies with venom in his eyes and biting comments muttered under his breath, but Shiro hears none of it, because there on his skin in a delicate silver-white is the same Y-shaped sigil that's all but eclipsed the old Mark on Shiro's own wrist.

In all honesty, Shiro had never considered that someone like Lotor might have a soulmate. He certainly never entertained the possibility that that soulmate might be him.

For a moment he's perfectly, blindingly certain that this is Haggar's doing. Allura was right from the start. Lotor can't be trusted. He hasn't reformed in the slightest; this whole thing was a farce meant to gain their trust so Lotor could steal Voltron back for his father. Lotor didn't ruin Haggar's plans at Naxzela--it was all a feint. Haggar doesn't want to destroy Voltron. She wants to claim it for her own. What better way to accomplish that than by getting an agent of her own inside the castle-ship?

Shiro's hands shake, and for a moment, he considers summoning his bayard and killing Lotor then and there before he can betray them all.

And yet--those words.

I don't even know who I am.

It could be another trick. Something Haggar told him to say to get under Shiro's skin. A knife aimed straight at Shiro's weakest point. A crippling strike from someone he's supposed to trust implicitly.

But he can't forget the cadence of the words as they appeared on his skin, hesitant at first and then all in a rush. It was the doubt in the writing that plucked at him as much as the words themselves, and surely--surely that can't have been an act. Surely Haggar doesn't have the power to craft soulbonds. Surely he can hold that much as true.

He holds himself back as they finish their preparations for the trade, Allura finally relenting and letting Lotor keep his armor. Shiro watches, and the resignation in Lotor's smile strikes him in the chest. Do you ever find it difficult to trust people?

How can they, when neither of them trusts themself?

He makes his decision in an instant, summoning his bayard while the others aren't looking and pressing it into Lotor's hand.

"Keep it hidden," he whispers. "And don't lose it."

Lotor goes rigid, his eyes darting down once, and that's genuine surprise in his parted lips, it must be. He recovers quickly, and nods to Shiro before feigning disinterest as Matt and Pidge climb aboard the shuttle with them.

Shiro feels Lotor's gaze burning into the back of his head as he flies them to the rendezvous, feels Lotor's Mark burning a hole in his skin, and he's all too aware of Matt beside him and of the broken bond between them.

Betrayal. It seems like that's all he's capable of these days. Even when he has the best of intentions, he only ends up hurting the people closest to him.

But it's too late now. He's made his choice.

He only prays it wasn't the wrong one.

Lotor is more watchful after that--of Shiro, of Allura, of all the paladins. Shiro can't tell if he knows about their bond or not. He seems more friendly now, but that might just be because he's no longer a prisoner. Shiro knows all too well how different things look from inside a cell. It was far easier to trust Ulaz in hindsight than in the moment.

The thought makes his stomach turn, and not just because Lotor is, apparently, his soulmate. (He still doesn't know how to feel about that, actually, but he knows that he's been in Lotor's shoes, and though he knows they had to be careful, he can't help wondering whether they really needed to lock Lotor up.)

The others are beginning to loosen up, too. They still aren't totally comfortable around Lotor, but he did kill Zarkon. It's hard to accuse them of being in league after that. There's still the question of what Lotor wants, but...

Shiro doesn't know. He feels a certain kinship with Lotor. It's one of the only real connections he has anymore.

That terrifies him.

Lotor must know.

Shiro writes to him nightly now, philosophical debates in abstract that offer up nothing either of them wouldn't want to surrender but nevertheless fill his evenings with the kind of inquisitiveness that forces the existential dread to take a back seat. Lotor is a scholar at heart, beneath the shell of military command. Shiro sees it in the questions that pop up on his skin at odd hours. Can a title make a leader, do you suppose? Can a man learn to be that which people call him? Or will he only ever be himself, no matter the trappings you pile atop him?

They say history repeats itself, but is that only for the ills sentient beings have wrought on themselves? Or do you suppose the glory of the past will return again, presuming we haven't destroyed ourselves by then?

Is atonement a goal to be obtained, or can it only inform your actions as you chase the horizon?

It's... bizarre, to say the least. To spend the day planning battles with a man who, not so long ago, built a ship that came closer than anything before it to destroying Voltron. And then, at night, to muse about morality, existentialism, and the meaning of forgiveness.

And always, always, he has to wonder if he's being set up. He always assumed Haggar was loyal to Zarkon first, but what if she discarded him in favor of his son? Zarkon's single-minded focus on the Black Lion proved to be a weakness, and Lotor takes a far broader view of the war. They might very well be working together.

That thought terrifies him, and not because of the danger it poses to his team.

He doesn't know what drives him to strike a deal with Lotor behind his team's back. The Kral Zera--a tremendous opportunity, to be sure, but also a tremendous risk. Lance was right about that.

He should listen to Lance more. He knows he should. Lance is his soulmate and his right hand among the paladins. He's the one Shiro should trust--more than he trusts Lotor, surely. But it hurts. It hurts to look at Lance and remember that Keith still hasn't come back, not once since he left. They haven't talked. They haven't seen each other except when Kolivan calls to confer with the paladins and Keith stands at his shoulder, stoic and withdrawn and so, so guarded.

(It's not Lance's fault. None of it is Lance's fault. But Shiro feels sick to his stomach every time he indulges in a bond he gained at the cost of his bond with Keith.)

(He should feel sick indulging in his bond with Lotor, too, but he doesn't. Sometimes, alone in the darkness of his room, he has to wonder why.)

The Kral Zera is an impulse. A hook in his gut that yanks him right off his feet. He doesn't know if it's him, or if it's Lotor, or if Haggar really does have her claws inside his head. He just.

Does it.

It turns out okay in the end. He doesn't let himself think about anything else except the smile in Lotor's eyes when he unveils the banners that mark his ascension to the throne--banners that bear the same symbol painted in cobalt blue on the inside of Shiro's wrist.

He really hasn't been fair to Lance. He knows that, and he knows that Lance is trying--trying to fill Keith's spot, trying to be there for Shiro, trying to hold the team together when half of them are infighting at any given moment. Lance doesn't like Lotor and Allura leaving to visit Oriande without the rest of them. Shiro doesn't like it, either, if he's honest. He wishes he could take Allura's place, and he's not sure if that's because he doesn't trust Lotor, or because he does.

His head hurts.

It has on and off since he returned, and he usually tries to ignore it, but sitting there in a failing castle for endless hours, painfully aware that there's nothing he can do to help, the pain comes flooding back in.

He doesn't do well with inactivity. Never has.

It's worse since he was recaptured, though.

He tells himself later it was oxygen deprivation, because he feels like a different person standing in the hallway with Lance. His thoughts drift back to Olkarion. To the panic. To the darkness. He hasn't noticed anything off about his bond with the Black Lion since they reconnected, but he doesn't remember the void the others talked about.

He opens his mouth, and the words don't come.

Lance leans his head against the wall, every line of his body slumped. "It's okay," he says. "You don't need to babysit me."

And Shiro realizes Lance is another person he's failed. They're soulmates. They're supposed to be. It doesn't feel like they are, though, and Lance has obviously picked up on it if he thinks he's a burden. Just someone for Shiro to babysit.

Everything in him tells him to keep his mouth shut, to ignore the doubts swirling inside him. He shouldn't burden anyone else with his own paranoia.

He almost listens.

Ironically enough, it's his conversations with Lotor that convince him otherwise. They talked two nights ago (in writing, always in writing; they both know by now but neither has said a word aloud) about self doubt.

What do you do when you know something that you can't let yourself admit?

Something like what? Shiro asked, his head pounding and his thoughts in a fuzz.

Something that would change the way you see yourself. The way others see you. Something you know is true--you know it is--but there's a corner of your mind that keeps saying you've made it all up. It's so easy to listen to that voice and go on pretending, but I'm not sure that serves any real purpose.

Shiro stared at the words in silence, the faux wisdom of the black paladin failing him. What did you do when the truth was staring you in the face but you were too afraid to stare back?

I used to have someone to talk to, Lotor admitted. But I burned that bridge well and truly. I wish now I hadn't. She would have known what to do.

Once, Shiro might have taken this to Keith. But, like Lotor, he's burned his bridges. He's burned his bridges with everyone.

But Lance is here, and Shiro thinks that--maybe--

The words spill out of him, and Lance gives no response, just stares at him, his jaw slack, his eyes pained, and when Shiro finally runs out of words, Lance puts and arm around his shoulder and helps him sit down, side by side against the wall.

"You must think I'm crazy," Shiro says, staring at his hands.

Lance says nothing.

"I'm sorry, Lance." He shakes his head, bile rising in his throat. His head is pounding again, making it hard to think--so hard to think. "I-I shouldn't have said anything. Just forget about it."

Lance puts his hands in his lap and stares at them for several seconds before his fingers find the catch on his left gauntlet. "I didn't want to say anything. I know this is a touchy subject for... Well, for a lot of people. And we already knew they did something to your soulbonds when they took you. I figured this was all part of that, but--"

He pulls off the gauntlet and pushes back the sleeve of his undersuit, revealing a swath of brown skin peppered with colorful Marks. Shiro's eyes find his own immediately. They had a close call last week, and Shiro took a hit to the arm. The cryopod healed it overnight, but it left him with a teardrop-shaped burn scar on the back of his wrist, just below the Mark from Keith's hoverbike accident so long ago.

Both Marks are there on Lance's skin, of course, Keith's a far more vivid red than the Mark on Shiro's skin. And below it is the burn Mark in a glistening silver-white.

He looks up, mind utterly, horrifyingly silent, and meets Lance's eyes.

"Maybe it doesn't mean anything," Lance says.

But Shiro knows--he knows.

The Marks on Lance's skin don't lie.

"I'm... I'm not Shiro, am I?"