Drifting in and out of consciousness, I tried to hold onto the flashing images in my mind. It was as if I should know what all of them meant, but they remained too out of focus for me to see anything.
If those were my memories, how come I couldn’t place even a single one of them?
More than once I tried to hold onto a single frame, putting all my strength into recognizing the tiniest of details.
But it was as if it constantly stayed under water.
Above was the deep blue sky.
Too far for me to reach.
The cold had made a home within me, chaining me to the ground just like my mind was locking me away. Still, my heart was still fighting, refusing to give into this sweet temptation…
Just… let go…
Moving my head slightly I looked at my right arm for the millionth time. It was still this ugly piece of metal attached to my shoulder.
Or was it always like this and I just couldn’t remember?
And why couldn’t I shake the feeling of returning.
But going back where?
There was no place for me to go.
Patience yields focus.
And just like that my world exploded into a million colours.
The sunset was beautiful – the tones painting the sky, slowly giving way to the stars and the moon.
I had always loved the hours of sundown the most. The slow transgression, the passing of one day and the beginning of a new one. It always calmed me.
They promised something new.
This time, however, I felt nervous.
Time was running through my fingers and there was nothing I could do to prevent the inevitable. It was as if I could only stand there and watch.
Looking over my shoulder, I saw a lean boy getting off his hover-bike and walk over to me, his gaze never once leaving the horizon.
“This is beautiful…” he whispered, finally looking at me, his eyes illuminated by the sun.
I swallowed hard, trying not to let any of my emotions break through, “I told you there would be something amazing at the end of the race, didn’t I?”
“You say all kinds of things and it’s up to me to decipher their true meaning”, the younger one replied teasingly before he moved so he could lean next to me against my own bike.
For a moment, we both remained silent, before his calm voice sent shivers down my spine, “I still can’t believe you’re going to leave me behind…”
“I am not leaving you. I will be back before you know it”, I tried but the way his head turned away made me aware once more of the gravity of my decision.
A decision made so long ago I had almost forgotten about it.
I wouldn’t be considered anyway.
Wasting away, soon there would be nothing left of me but a tormented body.
Why did they agree to this?
Why did I even ask in the first place?
Faster than I had ever thought he could move, he threw himself at me, wrapping me into a tight embrace. Without thinking, I pulled him in even closer, inhaling his familiar scent. It reminded me of the sunset. Of every promise there was.
He reminded me of home.
“I will come back”, I whispered, feeling his heart race against mine.
Lifting his head so he could look me in the eye I could see my whole world swimming, “Promise me… Promise you will always find your way back to me...!”
I gently wiped a tear away, before I leaned in, “I promise I will come back to you, no matter what. I will never leave you, Keith.”
How could I forget?
How could I forget that one person that meant the world to me?
Despite the waves of pain and nausea crashing over me, I managed to get up to standing.
My belly was heaving but there was nothing inside, resulting in nothing more but painful coughing.
A few red drops tainted the pure white snow.
My limbs felt like lead but somehow I managed a few steps before I stumbled over a covered stone and falling down a slope.
By the time I came to a full stop my clothing had been teared up a good amount, giving the cold an even better access to my weakened body. One wound was looking bad already, blood and dirt mixed together.
I should’ve rested.
Come up with a plan.
But instead I got up and started walking.
I needed to find a way back.
I needed to go home.
There was hardly any air left, pure oxygen starting to burn my lungs. My eyes had lost their focus long ago, my vision getting dimmer and dimmer with each passing hour.
I felt my heart racing in a constant state of desperation, pumping adrenaline through my veins as if that would be the magical cure.
As if there was a way out of this.
But I’ve been out here for so long already, there was nowhere to go, nothing to gain.
Just the endless open universe, swallowing me, one minute at a time.
It was just a matter of a day or two before I would finally become stardust myself.
Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad…
After all, it would finally stop.
All of this would finally be over.
There would be no more fighting, no more pain.
But also, no more laughter, no warmth, no love.
The days after I fell down the slope have been filled with memories crashing down on me, almost drowning me in their intensity.
Names, Places, emotions, everything came back to me at once.
It had been hard to keep the past and the present, the dreams and reality apart.
And it hurt.
As I drew a shaky breath, reading the charts that stated that I should basically be dead already, I started to hear someone calling my name.
But of course that was but a mere illusion.
A hallucination caused by the lack of breathable air.
There was no one there.
I was all alone.
“I am sorry Keith… I love you…”
The darkness swallowed me whole.
I saw them dancing.
Four coloured dots performing the most extravagant ballet.
I heard them laugh.
A symphony of light.
And I saw Keith smile.
“You’re safe now, Shiro.”
I woke with a start, my heart hammering against my chest, my breaths coming too quickly. My throat was on fire as if I’d spent my night screaming and ever next sound I’d produce would rip it open, just as my whole body felt as if it had been slashed open and forcefully rebuilt.
Tugging at my shirt, I dug my nails into my chest, trying to get a hold of myself.
What had I been running away from?
What had I been running to?
The thought hadn’t even really left my mind when I looked up and frantically scanned the room.
Why was there a room?
Once more, my brain refused to give me any answers straight away as to how I ended up in this chamber that I remotely recognized. I felt as if I’ve been here before, but the past days had cost me some of my sanity.
At least I was sure about that.
As I felt my body slowly calming down again, I closed my eyes and started to sort through the mess my head had become.
I went back all the way to the moment I’ve woken up below the grey sky and slowly worked from there. I held on to that image, afraid of losing track once more.
Casually, one picture at a time I pieced the events together, relieved that my mind was finally back online. Somewhat functioning.
When I arrived at the moment I had passed out while drifting through space – and which magically made me wake up in my own room – I tried to work around how I ended on the strange snowy planet. Whenever I had tried that before, only pain erupted behind my forehead, making it impossible to concentrate. This time, however, nothing happened.
I remembered the final battle but then there was nothing for quite some time it seemed.
Something must’ve been wrong with my memory.
It was nothing new.
My thoughts were interrupted by the doors sliding open, letting in the warm light from outside. It wasn’t until then that I realized that I could see pretty well in the dark…
Waving these strange thoughts aside I focussed on the person entering the room, the door closing silently behind him.
“You’re finally awake… I thought we’ve lost you for good…” Keith sat down on a chair next to my bed, his face a mask of perfect composure.
But even as he tried his hardest to keep calm, I could sense that he was everything but.
It pained me so much to see him like that.
“How long…?” my throat hurt with each syllable but I needed to know.
He didn’t answer straight away, fumbling with his fingers as if he wasn’t sure how to interact with me. My heart winced.
“After we’ve finally found you, you’ve been out for two days in the healing pod. We moved you here just a few hours ago though.”
Shaking my head I was trying to convey that this was not what I wanted to know. It took Keith another few moments and several deep breaths before he silently replied.
“Shiro, you’ve been gone for over two months.”
I would never be able to pinpoint down when or how it had started.
But from that day onward I felt as if I moved through water. Everything I knew seemed somewhat distorted and somewhat out of focus.
As if this world wasn’t my own.
At one point I started to feel as if I wasn’t even myself anymore; my body moved, but my mind seemed to be somewhere else entirely.
There was a small blackout, then another, but we all agreed that this was nothing but an aftermath of my latest escape… or trauma, if you will.
While I really hoped that this would be the answer, the alienation with my own body and mind left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I tried to wave these thoughts aside and go on with my days. To find my place within the team again, just to find out that I would never be a paladin again. I stood there in front of the lions and I could feel my heart shatter in a way I never thought possible.
Not because I wanted to be a hero so bad.
Or because I wanted to have fame and fortune.
But because without the lion I wouldn’t be able to protect Keith.
While I watched my team train and go on several missions, I didn’t fail to see how they would sometimes look at me.
As if I was someone completely different.
Especially Keith seemed to have a hard time to adept to the fact that I returned after two months of believing I had died.
I couldn’t blame him.
And still, it hurt when he pulled away the moment I tried to come closer or how he deliberately avoided being alone with me.
I vowed to talk to him after they returned from their recent mission. This was no way for me to live – being hurt over and over again, maybe inflicting the same amount of pain within him.
The thought of letting him go, so shortly after I’ve come back, hurt. But with the same token I knew that I had to put his feelings first.
And maybe things weren’t as bad as my mind made them out to be.
As I saw my team off, Lance asked something, which I couldn’t understand and asked him to repeat it. Instead of doing so, he just looked at me with big eyes, asking whether I was alright. For a split-second I felt dark flames flicker up inside of me – something I had never known I was able to feel – before I shut my mouth, turned and walked away.
“There’s no need to shout, Shiro…” Pidge said just as the doors closed behind me, leaving me to my own devices on the corridor.
What did she mean by that?
Replaying the scene in my head, I realized that I did not talk normally, but instead bellowed something incomprehensible.
I hadn’t even been aware of him asking the question in itself, much less responding in such a manner… Had I really zoned out for that brief moment?
Leaning against the wall – the cool metal surface doing wonders against my forehead – I realized that this hasn’t been the first time something like this had happened.
I heard the doors once more, followed by shy steps towards me.
“I told them you were tired…” Keith whispered, not sure what to say.
Moving so I could look at him, I saw a brief expression of fear crossing his tender face. Instinctively I stretched out my hand to touch him, but it only caused him to take another step back. I winced and let the arm drop, hanging lifelessly by my side.
There was no mistaking it. It was all the confirmation I needed – or feared – that something happened while I was gone.
And it scared me.
My voice carried every last doubt when I said, “Keith… I think… I think I’m not myself anymore.”
Of course, Keith declined, repeatedly saying that I was just tired and still out of it – after all I had travelled across the universe for days without real food or water, let alone breathable air. No wonder I was not feeling like myself.
When he saw me off that night, he placed a small kiss on my cheeks, promising me that everything would be alright.
I wanted to believe him.
I kept to myself the following days, avoiding the others as much as I could. It worked fine, but it still felt as if reality was slipping through my fingers.
More and more each day.
And I wasn’t able to keep it.
To hold onto it.
Maybe I wasn’t even allowed to have it.
That night, I woke with a scream on my lips and panic in my chest. I felt every last fibre of my body as if someone had poured fire over it. Even the prosthetic felt as if someone was ripping it apart from the inside.
Trying to muffle my cries I bit my lips until I could taste my own blood. In a meagre attempt I held my head, trying to prevent it from being forced in two.
And then I felt it.
I am not alone.
I am not myself.
Finally, I remembered.
It hurts so much I wish for it to end, one way or the other. It feels as if my head is about to be split in two, as if my eyes are going to implode… Or explode, I can’t tell.
It hurts so much I cannot even scream.
I try to remember what it feels like to not be in such a state.
How it feels to be without this numbing, agonizing pain trying to drown me once more.
I can hear the darkness calling for me, promising me warmth.
Promising me an end.
Every fibre within my body is screaming, blood, too hot, too cold, pulsating through my veins, resonating within my skull.
There’s no escape.
I try to find some part of my body that is not numbed yet. Something that will anchor me within reality, helping me not to be sucked back into the void.
Then again, why am I resisting?
What do I hope to gain from this?
This thought is not letting me go, I am trapped by it, as my body is by the pain.
Slowly, just as my breath becomes more and more shallow, images start to flood my mind, too clouded to understand anything yet. So many colours, so many faces… Something within me was trying to name them all. Memories I somehow know I should be able to come up with on the spot, but which only evoke the familiar blankness.
A low growl escapes my throat, distorted, warped.
I hardly recognize it as my own voice. It sounds like the pain is trying to find a valve, gluteal, animalistic sounds to may find relive. It sets my throat on flame, the taste of iron making its way down my gut.
For how long I lay there before my heart starts to give up on me, my mind finding more and more loopholes to escape this, I don’t know. But just as I am ready to let go, to leave this last question unanswered, I hear a voice from far, far away, telling me that my time has not come yet.
And then everything goes black.
It hurts and I can’t feel my right arm anymore. But not from the pain, not from the injections. But because it feels empty…
I try to force the fingers of my left hand to move, biting my lips to muffle the scream, tasting blood.
Somehow I manage. Somehow I can bend and extend the index-finger if I try to ignore the shots of electricity it causes with each fraction of a centimetre.
Releasing my hand brings some sort of relief – but only until I try the same with my right hand.
I try to re-focus. To be patient.
This action causes my brain to come up with yet another blurry image.
And then it’s gone.
The moment I open my eyes I expect the pain to return to me, as it always has for as long as I remember. I try to brace myself for the impact.
But nothing happens.
Since pain is all I know, I wait.
And wait some more.
But still, no wave of red energy gushes trough me. No black coat being thrown over my consciousness.
It is strange, really.
Trying to move my head a little, to shift it from one side to the other finally results in pain exploding behind my eyes, making the lights dance. It only lasts for a moment before my vision becomes clear again. However, it leaves me with more questions than answers.
Blinking a few times I try to place the endless grey stretch of colour above me. It takes me a whole while until I realize what I am looking at.
It’s the sky.
I try to remember how I got here, lying on my back, staring at the unmoving ceiling above me. Surely I have never seen anything like it before… So why does it spark a feeling of remembrance?
As I’ve done so many times before, I try to move my fingers. The left hand responds without problems, small shots of pain working their way up the arm, but nowhere near the shocks I’ve come to know so well. And despite knowing that there is nothing to gain from it, I try the same with my right arm.
To my greatest surprise I feel something move.
I actually feel something.
Without thinking twice I move my head to look over, only to be repaid with another wave of nausea I need to fight through.
When the blurred images become sharp again, I notice for the first time that it is snowing.
The weightless dots dance from the sky and land on my arm.
Only, it isn’t.
After what felt like an eternity, I am able to lift my right arm to thoroughly look at it.
It moves when I want it to move.
It feels when I touch something.
But it isn’t mine.
As I lay there, amidst a myriad of snowflakes, with nowhere to go, I stretch my arm as if I wanted to reach the sky.
And let out a silent wail.
The pain was finally subsiding and I started to come back to my normal self.
Whoever that was.
Dropping my hands onto my lap I helplessly stared at the wall, as if some sort of answer would magically appear.
I was not who I think I was.
I was one of many.
I was an imposter.
I was nothing more than an experiment – someone who survived the trials and labs and who did not break down before being dropped of some alien planet. To what end I had been created was beyond me, but it didn’t really matter at that moment.
All I knew was that I was no one.
I had no history, no past. No story of my own.
Those friends were not mine.
A groan escaped me as I realized what that might imply.
Not only did I steal someone else’s lover, I couldn’t even be sure those feelings were mine!
But how should I ever be able to tell them apart when I never learned how to be myself?
How to be A self ?
“Who am I...?” I heard my own voice break.
I knew I had been given a name. But it was not the one who was linked to it. Not more than a cat given a new name by each of their owners. There really was nothing that bound me to this name.
Or this personality.
And maybe that was why the others had looked at me with such bewilderment.
Because I was not who they thought I was.
Henceforth I felt the weight of this realization drag me down more and more as the hours passed. To not frighten the others more than I already have, I remained silent for the most part, only talking when absolutely necessary. Still, it was if they could feel that something wasn’t right.
And I couldn’t blame them.
From the memories I’ve inherited, Shiro must’ve spent a lot of time with them. They had forged a very close bond.
It only made me feel even more of an imposter. Not only did they lost someone they cherished, they now had to come to terms with the fact that I looked like him, that I sounded like him…
But I wasn’t him.
And I was pretty sure that they all felt that something was off without putting a finger to it.
I was a liar.
And a bad one at that.
More than once I overheard one of them say, “He’s not himself.”
I tried, I really did. I analysed the pictures in my head, tried to match them with the way I should feel and acted as such, but somehow it still fell short. But what should I do? The whole mission was at stake, the universe even. And on top of that I wanted to keep Keith safe.
Not that he wasn’t able to do that on his own – he was by far the most capable fighter I’ve ever come across – but I could feel it in Shiro’s memories that he cared for him. More than anything else, he loved him.
Like a deviant, I could look at their relationship from the most intimate viewpoint imaginable.
And I hated it.
I was trapped.
It had been like that for a few days.
I had been like that for a few days.
Obviously, this didn’t pass the rest of the team by.
I was on the training-deck, trying to tire myself out by going through the same routine over and over again, avoiding the others in the process. It wasn’t until Keith jumped to avoid one of the drones hitting me, that I noticed that he had entered the room.
My breath caught in my throat as I watched him dance around the drones wielding his knife.
As soon as the last one went down he turned and looked at me, his eyes betraying his cool demeanour.
He was hurt.
And I just knew.
I was the reason for it.
“I thought I’d find you here”, he casually tried as he walked over, closing the distance between us.
“Why were you looking for me?” the question was out before I even had the chance to think about it.
The shadows in his eyes and around his lips were more than enough to make me wish I could take this back. That I’d never said it in the first place.
Why wouldn’t he look for me?
“You seem… distant lately”, Keith mumbled and averted his gaze. “I thought… maybe you wanted to talk about it with me?”
I looked at him in silence, wrecking my brain.
What should I do? What was the right thing to say?
Should I confide in him, sharing my pain, my turmoil with him to potentially throw him off the rails as well? Should I jeopardize the relationship Shiro and he had shared?
Could I ever live with knowing that I betrayed both of them on such a deep level?
Or should I stay silent?
Living a lie bigger than myself?
As if he could read my mind, Keith sighed deeply, “I know that something’s up… You act as if…”
“As if I am not myself. I know”, he looked at me in confusion. “I overheard you guys talking about it several times by now. I know.”
The silence between us stretched on and on, binding us.
At that moment I realized.
There really was only one way forward for the both of us.
Gently touching Keith’s cheek I felt his warmth as I answered, “I am sorry I made you worry… But I am fine. It’s just… I am missing two months of my life and it makes everything so alienating… And Black rejected me… I am sorry, Keith.”
What a filthy liar I am.
The following days I pulled myself together in an attempt to really bond with my team. Even though they knew me – or the person I should be – I personally did not know them. I took the opportunity to get to know them and to form my own connections. At the same time I needed to act as I remembered it, perfecting the mask I ought to wear.
It seemed to work for the tension between us slowly evaporated and the normal liveliness came through again.
That culminated in a chilled afternoon playing Monster and Mana, a game similar to one I saw students at the Garrison play. Or rather, Shiro saw them play.
Whenever such thoughts crossed my mind I couldn’t help but sigh inwardly. It was exhausting enough to pretend to be someone else, but the knowledge and the impossibility to differentiate between him and I was truly driving me insane.
I could have easily passed as a schizophrenic.
Some days though I felt as if I would never be able to live up to it.
When things started to shine through that were not connected to Shiro but me.
Keith – the one I wanted, maybe needed, to deceive most – seemed to be the one who least believed me. I could see it whenever he hesitated for a second before hugging back. Or when he had to force himself to come close to me at all. All the same, he came over to my room multiple times and we talked, maybe share a kiss or two.
We both felt that it wasn’t right.
The perfect play.
And yet, he remained silent and bought every little lie I told him. Watching him smile and his eyes light up was reward enough for my struggle. It made it easier, almost manageable.
Maybe, just maybe this would become easier over time.
That was what I was trying to tell myself.
Just, moments like playing games with the whole group – Lance and Pidge being wonderfully engaged while Hunk tried to be the voice of reason – made me realize what my situation truly was.
I was trapped within my own mind within a body I shouldn’t inhabit.
“Shiro! You really want to be a paladin, again!?” Coran smiled as he assigned me another character-sheet for the recent quest.
For one reason or another, I wasn’t that great at that game. But it was fun and watching the others acting their age and not like some soldiers was really refreshing.
“Yes. What’s more fulfilling than being a paladin?” I replied, trying to sound upbeat while my heart broke.
Coran just shook his head while the others playfully groaned, trying not to laugh out loud. The corners of my mouth cracked, my lips trembling as I hid behind the screen, entering my data for the third time.
Just let me be a paladin again…
“No way, Coran was the bad guy all along!” Keith chuckled as he snuggled up closer besides me. “How does anyone come up with such a feeble scheme?! I would never be able to deceive my friends and family like this!”
I prayed that he wasn’t able to feel how I winced and withdrew my hand from his back for just a split-second. Or how my breath caught in my throat as I thought of a way to affirm his claim.
How my voice was barely my own when I replied.
As I watched Keith sleep peacefully curled up next to me, his chest slowly moving with every breath he drew, I couldn’t help but wish for all of this to end.
I was sick and tired of pretending to be someone I was not, an intruder in this close circle of friends.
An imposter in this beautiful relationship.
It hurt me more than anything to see this small hint of doubt in their eyes whenever I would say something or just act. Because that’s what I was doing.
I was acting.
And everyone knew.
But to make the whole situation worse, I recently noticed that my mind went blank for longer periods of time by now. Minutes, sometimes hours passing me by without leaving a clue of what had happened. The only thing remaining was a throbbing head.
I knew this feeling just too well.
It was the same when I woke up in one of the labs. A piercing pain in my head, agonizing pain in my limbs. My throat on fire, iron the only taste I knew.
Gently stroking Keith’s cheek I felt my fingers tremble.
Not only was I not who I should be, but I was also not alone in my head.
And it scared me.
I was falling.
There was no way for me to tell whether I would ever make it out of here.
I felt the darkness calling for me.
Promising me an end.
Promising me warmth.
I watched as the small spot of light above me slowly grew distant. All I could hear was the sound of the endless deep ocean and my beating heart.
Still beating, despite the odds.
Despite the lies I’ve told and the lives I ruined.
Still, amidst all of this – knowing fully well that there was nothing I deserved but this prison of mine – I wished for someone to come and save me.
Stretching my arms, trying to reach the surface all I could think of was his smile.
There was no sound underwater.
But I knew he would hear me.
“Keith… I’m here…”
“Lotor had been lying to us all this time…” Coran was more angry than shocked. “We were nothing but pawns in his game!”
Allura looked as if all her energy had left her, “I still don’t understand what all of this means…”
I knew I should reassure her that we would certainly find a way out of this. That everything would be alright and that we could still fulfil our mission to save the universe.
But not a single word left my lips.
Instead, I felt a twitching in my gut, a whisper in my ear and I knew.
My time was up.
I played my role the best I could. I only stepped in when I knew how Shiro himself would react. I never intervened when I wasn’t sure how I would handle the consequences. Yet, more than once did I blacked out during such a discussion and when I came back to me and the eyes of the team wore that sombre expression, I knew what had happened.
No matter how much time I’d spend with them, and got to know them, there was this invisible wall we were all able to feel.
When I heard that one of the others was in distress I almost always kept my mouth shut.
It wasn’t my place to console them on such a personal level after all.
This line I drew was painful.
I came to know all of them fairly well. I learned what they loved and hated most and what made them smile. From the memories I possessed I knew all of this already, but it felt so different to sit down with Pidge and talk physics all night or to screw up the simplest instructions Hunk gave me when I helped him out in the kitchen. It was something else entirely when Lance invited me to a round of video games and Coran told me one story of his grandfather after another and Allura chimed in to add some funny details.
Because these memories were mine.
The time I’d spent with Keith, exploring different planets whenever out demanding schedule would allow it, made it clear to me that the feelings I harboured were also mine.
Keith made my heart race in a different way than Shiro’s.
As time went on I started to feel more like myself and less like someone who tried to be Shiro. Of course, I still did, but I started to get a feeling where the line was between his memories and my own.
So when I felt my mind shifting, my vision to slowly dim and I began to understand that I had to leave, all I could think of was how this time, the end was not the beginning of something new.
It was simply over.