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crime and punishment

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Keith,

How many times will it take for me to redeem myself? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? More than the stars in this galaxy?

You knew, even before everything started, my weaknesses. Then, when I came back the first time, my sins. But I was somehow enough for you. The way I could never be, with my family, with the Garrison, with the world. It was just enough that I was there and alive. I’m not sure, still, how you time and time again defy the odds.

My luck has run out, it seems. I survived when I shouldn’t have, from the moment I walked out of that hospital with a stuffed animal and a diagnosis. Perhaps it means something, the universe trying again and again to kill me. Maybe I’ve used up all my chances.

You asked me to not do this to you, not again. But I cannot undo what I’ve done to you, to the innocents, to reach out to you, to touch you with blood-stained hands. I know you forgive me, like you always do. As many times as it takes. But the universe isn’t so forgiving.

I’m sorry. But thank you for everything.

Always,

Shiro

He puts down the pen. Folds the letter into thirds. Scribbles Keith’s name on the outside. And waits.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Allura’s statue is taller than New Altea’s castle. Already, juniberries and candles and handwritten notes are piled at her feet, with an occasional personal token—a simple gold ring, a child’s toy, a jeweled earring, a scrap of cloth. The hair flows to her waist and is fastened back with her crown, the jewel Shiro now carries in his arm, with her eyes staring straight ahead—towards where Oriande was, Coran said. A faint smile plays on her lips, but overall, she looks solemn, timeless, god-like.

She would have hated it.

“Shiro.”

He turns. Keith’s walking up the grassy hill, in his Blade robes and hair pulled back. He’d made a short speech, as the leader of Voltron, about sacrifice and courage and hope. There is goodness in your hearts and in your actions, he had said, and Shiro had froze, remembering Allura’s last words. May we usher in a new era of peace. For Princess Allura. For Altea.

Keith now moves to stand at his side, hands clasped behind his back as he tilts his head to peer up at the statue. He doesn’t say something stupid, like, The war’s over . They both know, keenly, that it won’t be—for a very long time.

“They’re meeting inside,” Keith says instead. “Lance and Coran, they’re talking about this being a yearly festival. In honor of Allura.”

Shiro doesn’t say anything. No one should forget Allura, and regardless of what she said, the universe needs to know her sacrifice. The universe is at peace because of you, he’d thought the whole way back to Earth. But you don’t get to see it.

“Do you think there’s another reality out there?” Shiro finally asks. “One where Allura didn’t have to die to make it better. Perhaps peace can’t be achieved without sacrifice. But why her? Wasn’t there another way?” He laughs, harshly. “Listen to me; I sound exactly like Slav.”

“I think there are,” Keith says. He’s still staring upwards. “There have to be. But now…they’re waiting for us.”

Normally, Shiro would obediently turn back to his duties and responsibilities, but he can’t make himself move. 

Coran had been the one to carry on, bravely moving each event forward. A part of Shiro wanted to be that teenager again, content to lay burdens on an adult’s shoulders, but he’d stood by his side throughout everything, hands clasped together to keep them from trembling through the Altean prayer, the only line he recognized was something he’d heard her say countless times after a battle: May the lights of the ancients guide her home.

“Give me ten minutes,” Shiro says, “please.”

Keith’s head dips into a nod. He looks as if he might touch Shiro’s shoulder, but instead, turns away and walks back down the hill.

Shiro stays behind. He’s sure that much more than ten minutes goes by, as the sky turns deep purple, then dark, as the stars begin to blink on.


The weeks after the funeral pass in a blur of celebrations and funerals and speeches. The Paladins—and Shiro—all have to go on this circuit tour of victory. All of them had imagined statues, parades, going back to families, but not without a cost. Not without someone missing.

Guilt eats him up every time he looks at Coran stoically leading them like children through each planet. He calls them heroes and defenders of the universe in every speech, and Shiro remembers Coran, fierce and heartbroken, turning on him after the first of many battles against the Empire: No, Shiro lost Allura!

He wishes there was anger. Beatings. Flagellations. But Coran never gives him—or anyone—that. She saved the world, he only says, and stands back for them to receive their cheers.

No one wants them. Pidge cries, head muffled in Matt’s or Sam’s chests. Hunk throws himself into talking with locals or ducking into kitchens. And Lance—Lance slips away within the first hour, a shadow of his former self, sometimes with Keith or Coran or alone.

Keith and Lance have become friends, Shiro realizes. How long? He casts his mind backwards, but it’s full of generalizations and blurs and battles. Only a year ago, he would have been overjoyed: the rivalry ended at last, Voltron stronger together.

But now, he only feels frustration, a pang in his chest that feels like loss the more he tries and tries. It’s not like when the druids erased that one year, of hollow blanks and gaps that he’d recognized should be filled. It’s not like when the clone reboot overwhelmed every corner of his mind, dumping over him like a rush of cold water. It’s not even like when he’s able to recollect fragments of old memories—the smell of his grandfather’s cigarettes, his mom’s long and heavy sigh, the elation when he’d opened the acceptance letter to the Garrison, the feel of the controls in his palms during his first sim, the dull ache in his muscles.

Shiro remembers the events, of course. But there’s no feeling behind them, as if he had been a bystander, watching his life happen to someone else. And they’ve all blended together, like a slideshow, like the time Adam’s parents showed him the over two-hundred pictures of their vacation to the Caribbean, swiping through the albums with brief explanations and apologetic, hurried smiles.

It’s like he’s jumped forward in time—and he’s missed the whole thing.


And just like that, everyone is seemingly tired of grief. The world moves on.

There are promotions, parties, more celebrations. Keith refuses a position at the Garrison and goes with the Blades. Pidge gets a building named after her—“the Katherine Holt Observatory”—and a sponsorship with Killbot Phantasm , along with opportunities to rebuild the Garrison’s tech and transportation units. Hunk gets offers from Veprit Sal’s to Coran to help rebuild Altea, but decides to stay with his family for a bit and show Shay around Earth. Lance leaves with Coran, Romelle, and the other Alteans to rebuild their planet and spread Allura’s message of peace.

And Shiro—

Shiro waits. He’ll slow down this time, he promises himself. He’ll make Allura’s sacrifice worth it.


In peacetime, it feels like waking up.

He’s twenty-six years old, but feels like his actual age of six, as he and Matt used to joke about during their Garrison days. He notices things with tiny, startling bolts of realization—Pidge’s change of glasses; the golden stripes on his uniform; Matt’s new haircut; the Unilus running the open air market of Plaht City; Iverson’s brief groan when he gets up from his seat; the faint humming of his right arm; the shy, periodic glances of one of his bridge crew members.

Shiro does his best to navigate this new world. He explores Atlas, with her gleaming walls and endless hallways and shivery presence in the back of his mind. He hops from planet to planet, following the paladins, from diplomatic mission to diplomatic mission. He speaks up during meetings he’s required to attend, has another promotion, then another.

We should form trade alliances with other planets and combine our strengths. We have the Earth-Altean technology for defense, we have carbon-based plants some want for a change, we have beautiful places to explore. We are a member of the Galactic Coalition, and we should provide aid to those who need it; that’s what we were founded on. 

We will abide by the paladin code: no one gets left behind. 


Even several years later, the transitional period from war to peace is not done. No one knows whether to lay down their weapons completely or keep them tight to their chests, and hotbeds of conflict and rebellion pop up on a daily basis.

But in between, there’s rebuilding. 

It definitely feels like that: lining up brick by brick, scrambling to seal the cracks, and watching them tumble down. There’s no big final battle, no quest to undertake, no mission to complete. Instead, peace is wading, tiptoeing, shaking hands, and looking over shoulders, with rules to follow, customs to insult, food to pick at, quorums and paperwork and meetings. 

He envies Keith, being able to be in control of his own team and jump from planet to planet to put out fires, instead of staying in one place to call in for meetings, where hardly anything gets done. Shiro feels like that man forced to push a rock up a hill for eternity while he’s mostly sitting in the same chair and repeating the same words for hours. 

You’re doing something, he always has to remind himself.

 

CHAPTER TWO

“The endgame is reuniting families,” Pidge says. She’s taller now, though not by much, and stands assuredly at the head of the table with her datapad balanced in her right hand. Her hair’s slightly longer, parted to the left, glasses perched on her nose. 

They seem innocuous, playful, even, with their blue tint and wide, plastic-like frames, but Pidge told Shiro they were prototypes, designed to alert her to new information, and scan details about others with facial recognition against the Coalition database. They’re still in beta testing , she reassured him, and he’d gone away with the sense that he should report them as his duty as a senior officer and Earth representative, but never got around to it. 

He’s not sure how the Coalition will take it, even if every new piece of technology that springs from the Holt labs is treated like an act from above. Long ago here, though, he remembers there were revolts about privacy concerns and virtual policing and safety technology that ended in eventual shrugs. 

“Color-coded, because we’re not animals,” she’s saying, and Shiro turns his attention to the screen behind her. “But the concept is simple and a classic use of tidy data. Each missing person is given an ID number, along with as many details from their appearance to which planet they’d be on. When their ID is run through the database, they can establish contact and go from there.” 

“Your ambition is far-reaching,” Ryner says, voice still steady and calm as the day they first met, and Pidge beams. “This is a massive undertaking.” 

“But worth it,” Pidge fiercely replies. “I spent every free minute I had trying to find my brother and dad, even before Voltron. If it could give people the same peace I had, knowing that their families are out there…” 

There’s silence around the table. Even now, there are so many memorials from the Galra occupation, overdue ones from the war where no one could stop to take a breath to mourn, mass ones for entire cities and planets, with flowers, speeches, coffins being lowered into the ground, and other strangely, breathtakingly beautiful traditions—ashes scattered across the stars, bodies released into volcanoes or oceans, even remains scattered in the form of fireworks that could be seen from planets away. 

And that’s not counting those lost in the shuffle of colonization, of desertion, of everyday tragedies. What Pidge is trying to do...it’s something Shiro wishes he’s thought of himself.

There are more questions, of practicality and expense and time, but the idea is taken up with enthusiasm. 

After all, everyone wants to find someone. There’s no one in the universe who hasn’t lost a loved one.


They’re soon flooded with requests, pleas from across the galaxy. Pidge and Matt try their best to sort through the data that they have, pooled records from official government databases to volunteered information; everything’s thrown in with the hopes that any detail, no matter how tiny, could lead to answers. 

“But some might be in hiding, under new names or on hideaway planets like Romelle had been,” Pidge says desperately during a check-in meeting. “Or disappeared, without any records. The factors we’re not counting...if only we had more information to go on.” 

Someone speaks up: “This would go better if the Galra would volunteer theirs.” 

Shiro’s learning to recognize the signs: The Galra or The Empire instead of Daibazaal, a slight shift away from Krolia or Kolivan, a few muttered words in alien tongue. Diplomats are seemingly civil, but everything is under a thin veneer of politeness, and even then…

“Daibazaal is still in chaos,” Krolia says on screen. She’s wearing her Senior Blade robes, and there’s a new scar on her cheek, a shallow slash that nearly meets the bridge of her nose. “After the fall of Zarkon, then Lotor, the Empire was scattered. Warlords and anarchy: much information was sadly lost.” 

“Or buried,” Shiro hears. 

Krolia is perfectly calm. “The Empire was...organized. But you are right; some may have tried to obscure any damning information, especially after Honerva’s defeat. We’ve turned over what we have acquired to the Coalition.” 

“Which is not a lot. Barely useful—” 

“That’s enough,” Shiro says firmly. He looks the mutterers fully in the eye. “I ask you all to remember our alliance. The Blade of Marmora have been valuable friends to us from the beginning, and our very own leader of Voltron, the Black Paladin, has Galra parentage.” 

Luckily, no one seems to protest further, though sour looks are thrown his way. Krolia gives him a side raised eyebrow, which he’s come to know is a sign of approval. 

Shiro resists the urge to rub his forehead. “Motion to adjourn this meeting?” 

“I second,” Ryner says, and one by one, screens flicker off. 

Except for Krolia’s. “Thank you,” she says. 

“I’m only doing the right thing,” Shiro replies, folding his hands. 

Only,” Pidge scoffs. 

“I apologize,” Shiro interrupts, shooting her an unamused look. “Tensions are...high, with this anticipated launch. Understandably. But as I said, we all should remember that the Blades also gave their lives in the war, just like them.” 

Krolia smiles, yet there seems to be something not quite insincere but doubtful in it. “Thank you, Shiro. But matters are unsettled, lately, with the reappearance and re-establishment of Daibazaal. There’s...uneasiness. The Blades suggest a leader, to calm fears.” 

“A leader,” Shiro echoes. 

“Someone who’s Galra, but free of the bloodshed of Zarkon’s and Lotor’s reigns,” Krolia says. “Someone who’s well-respected across the galaxy, someone who both the Galra and the rest of the universe can trust to not retread old paths, someone who can cross borders.”

Pidge’s eyes light up. “Keith.” 

Shiro tries not to react, though he’s sure Krolia can read every emotion on his face. 

“Yes,” Krolia says, “but Keith...objects. And Kolivan and I cannot make him see sense.” 

Shiro knows what she’s getting at: “You want me to talk to him.” 


The thing is, they had talked about it, during the first Allura Day. After dinner, everyone quietly excused themselves: Pidge getting a call from Matt about a robot project they were working on, Hunk turning to Coran and asking about various ingredients, and Lance slinking off with a sad smile. He spoke to Keith briefly, before leaving, and Shiro watched as Keith placed an encouraging hand on Lance’s shoulder before moving on to go back to his ship.

“This is a hard day for Lance,” Shiro said.

“He likes being able to honor her,” Keith said, falling in step with him, “but he’d rather have her alive to do that.” He gestured to the nearby statue. “I can’t imagine what it’s like, having to wake up to this…reminder. Every day. For him and Coran.”

“I can’t, either.” Shiro looked up at it, too. He hadn’t thought about it like that—instead of a gaping hole, a neon sign, and right outside the castle. 

“And he gives tours to the kids that come here, to visitors and…” Keith sighed. “I wouldn’t be able to do that. But he does.” He laughed, briefly, clearly trying to move the subject forward. “Lance had to answer a question from someone today, about being able to see the good in everyone—even Zarkon. Said he handled it okay, but…”

Shiro winced. “Yeah. That’s…hard.” An understatement. Zarkon and the Galra are not the same; of course he knew that. But he couldn’t help but feel resentment, bitterness that he knew Allura didn’t want anyone to feel, but if it weren’t for him, weren’t for Honerva, Allura would still be...

“It’s like that, trying to get people to move forward,” Keith’s saying. “I had a speech on Daibazaal, and…I’m proud of my mom, of the Blades, but trying to create this new era of peace while balancing acknowledging what happened before…” He shook his head. “I have no idea what's going to happen. They seem to want peace, but it won’t be easy.”

“At least they want peace,” Shiro said, choosing to focus on the positive. 

“For now,” Keith warned, a tone Shiro wasn’t used to. Keith had always been pessimistic or thoughtful, often times both, but this seemed foreboding, something that reminded Shiro that he spent most of the year eating Hunk’s feasts amid civilized meetings while Keith had been out in space with the Blades full-time. “The warrior culture’s so ingrained into everything. Victory or death, Kral Zera, expansion, even before Voltron. The Galra Empire has always operated under some form of a monarchy—dictatorship, later. They’re used to some sort of direct leadership. And the Blades say if that doesn’t happen…”

Shiro knew the rest: “Direct leadership? They’re thinking of you, aren’t they?”

Keith flushed. “I know Kolivan wants me to. But I don’t believe an absolute leader is the right way,” Keith said stubbornly. “I might have the Empire’s best interests at heart, but what if I didn’t? Zarkon believed what he was doing was right.”

“What if there’s elections?” Shiro asked out of curiosity. “Your name is put forward. What do you do?”

“Refuse it,” Keith said immediately.

“Emperor Keith,” Shiro said, just to try it, and it brought to mind Keith in a flowing purple cloak and armor, standing in what he remembered of Lotor’s headquarters, shadow-filled and metal walls and rows of bots standing at attention. He felt a pang of something he couldn’t name, like seeing a date on a calendar with a row of red X’s leading up to it. 

Keith nudged him, hard. “Stop. That’s—I’m not even full-Galra; I know nothing about the Empire or much of the history or culture or anything—”

“That’s not your fault. But you’re the Black Paladin, the leader of Voltron. From the beginning, you saw the damage done by the Empire, but also the strengths and resistances and the people—Acxa, your mother, the Blades, and Lotor, even. You can bridge both worlds, Earth and Galra, and so much more. You’re steadfast, you’re devoted, you’ve saved the universe multiple times, and if that’s not good enough for anyone—”  

And he stopped, not just because he was overcome at that moment about what Keith meant to the universe, meant to him , but because Keith’s lips were suddenly on his.

Shiro closed his eyes, and it was like a remembered dance, them being pulled to each other as easily as gravity. Automatically, he settled one hand on Keith's lower back, Keith holding onto his left shoulder. It was surprisingly chaste, but full of longing that he’d bottled up—both of them, he realized—all this time.

How long had they felt like this? Had they known? Of course they did, but neither of them dared, not even once. Now that there was peace, did they know what to do, once they got what they wanted?  

And just before Shiro was about to pull away, they both heard familiar roars in the back of their heads, and hand in hand, began running towards where the lions were.


Keith looks weary when he appears on the comm, but his eyes light up at the sight of Shiro. He’s been growing out his hair and experimenting with it. Some days, it’s pulled back into a ponytail or knotted into a messy bun. Today, it’s a braid thrown loosely around his shoulders that reminds Shiro of Kolivan. 

But it’s not Keith’s appearance that really catches his attention. Instead, it’s the surroundings: vaguely familiar, all bright, glass-like walls and a window showing green meadows and purple-and-pink flowers, the looming stone statue. 

“You’re on Altea?” Shiro asks, surprised, forgetting to even say a proper hello. 

Keith takes it in stride. “Occasionally.”

“What are you doing there?”

Keith’s then silent, and Shiro worries that he offended him. Keith might not have direct ties to Altea, but Allura had been his friend as much as anyone’s.

“Visiting Lance,” Keith finally says. He twists the end of his braid around his fingers. 

That’s all he’s getting out of him, Shiro senses. “Tell him hi for me,” he says instead. “And your mom says hi, too, by the way.” 

“And she wanted you to talk to me.” 

Shiro nods ruefully. “And she wanted me to talk to you.” 

“I keep saying no. Even threw in a few governing system ideas of my own, like a council instead of a monarchy or a dictatorship,” Keith says, but he didn’t sound too confident. “In addition to having a representative—or representatives—of the Empire to the Galactic Coalition, there can be a ruler here, with checks. I don’t think it went over well. I mean, we don’t even do it anymore.” 

Shiro has to smile; they’ve debated this multiple times, all the way back when Keith was in cadet orange, sometimes idly between simulation practices, or hotly with Matt during two a.m. cramming sessions. Some things don’t change. “Daibazaal with federalism, that’s an idea. President Keith Kogane.” 

“Absolutely not,” Keith scoffs. “Anyway, you had that meeting. Catch me up?” 

Still smiling, Shiro does, carefully omitting some of the comments the representatives made about Daibazaal, but Keith seems to know about these things, either because Shiro’s terrible at lying or Krolia briefs him beforehand. 

“It’s like that out here, too,” Keith mutters. “Only the Galra don’t like it if you’re not pure Galra. Axca’s the only one able to just, I don’t know, take it and move along; I have to hold back Zethrid and Ezor...to keep them from punching those guys myself.” 

“I won’t blame you,” Shiro says honestly. “But uh…” 

“No punching. Sort of not conducive to the whole diplomatic process. Man, I miss the old days. Get in, get out, save the day. If we were lucky.” 

“Well, now, we can’t tear the entire system down all at once,” Shiro says, though the war had been exactly that. “Change isn’t always a snap of the fingers.” He sighs, deciding to move along to the rest of the meeting details, not sure how much time Keith has before he has to dash off. 

Keith nods along, finally placing a hand on his chin and suggesting, “My mom told me to mention that the Blades have an extensive database. Mostly blueprints and war plans and different...dissenters still out there, but maybe something in there would be helpful.” 

“That would be great,” Shiro says enthusiastically. “This is so important, and it would mean a lot to Pidge, personally.”

“Happy to help, and I’d love to see her; it’s been a while.” Keith then ducks his head. “And you. It’s...sorry. Reorganizing some of the former colonies and hunting runaway warlords kind of eats your schedule.” 

“Don’t apologize for having a more exciting life than me. It’s mostly…meetings, lately. I could use another Atlas mission. Not that I want any trouble happening in the galaxy—” 

Keith laughs, waving his hand. “I get it. Maybe I can find something. But aren’t you busy yourself, Mr. Representative of Earth slash Atlas commander?” 

“I have time,” Shiro says, then laughs, touches the tips of his fingers to the screen, right on Keith’s face. “And isn’t that a weird thing to say.” 

“All the time in the world,” Keith replies, doing the same.


“What seems to be the problem?”

Matt looks up from his screen, sighs. “It’s just...people are missing. A lot. More than we thought.” 

“People want answers,” Pidge says, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. On her own screen, dozens and dozens of files are crowded together, and Pidge is swiping through the air, forehead creasing more and more. “Understandably.” 

Matt looks at Pidge, then Shiro. “We think…”  

“No,” Pidge says. 

“It’s a possibility. We’ve always thought…” 

“How can we tell them?” 

Matt hesitates. “Maybe…” 

“If you tell me to take a break, I’m going to rip apart that robot girlfriend you’re building with my bare hands. And destroy all the coffee makers in the Garrison.” 

Shiro wants to break in, but senses this is between Matt and Pidge, something that’s likely been going on since they launched the project. There had been successes, yes, but very few and far in between; there were counts and tallies in the media, endless speculations and comments and pleas, a steady stream of messages, so much that they had to get a separate datapad so their regular ones wouldn’t stall. 

Matt sighs, tone serious. “Katie. Finding each other again was a miracle, and I want that for everyone as much as you do. But what if...you never found me or Dad, or found the worst? Realistically. What would you have done?” 

“What would I have done?” Pidge seethes, turning on Matt, and her eyes are glistening behind her glasses. She furiously takes them off, swipes a sleeve across her face. “I…I would want answers. No matter what. No matter what I had to hear. I would want something. ” 

“Some people can’t handle that.” 

“Open transparency, Matt!” 

“All right,” Shiro says gently, holding up a hand. “Answers won’t come overnight. You both are working so hard.” 

“Yeah,” Pidge says, not looking at him or her brother, “but I feel like I’m letting everyone down. That I promised them, and I can’t…” 

Matt looks stricken. “Katie. This isn’t on you.” 

“I promised, though! I promised !” 

“It’s not your fault, Pidge,” Shiro says. He knows this feeling, this utter helplessness. “Matt’s right. You found a problem, and you’re trying to fix it, but you didn’t cause it. People know there’s going to be...unwelcome news, but they also know you guys are doing the best you can with what you have. Keith’s sent you the data, right?” 

“It’s still processing,” Pidge admits. 

“So you’ll have more to work with.” Shiro takes a seat next to her, and together, he and Matt squeeze her hands. “We know it.” 

 

CHAPTER THREE

PRISONER ID: 117-9875

SPECIES: Unknown 

NOTES: Captured by Commander Sendak during scouting for the Blue Lion, near System X-9-Y. Attempted to escape multiple times, yet tenacious, stubborn, and adaptable. Cool head, could be useful, if properly trained.  

DESIGNATION: Arena.


“Hey, Keith. Another meeting. Here’s another contender for Daibazaal: Bogh, still at Omega Shield. I’ll stuff the ballot box.”


FOOTAGE: OBTAINED FROM ZARKON’S ARENA

PHOEB 4, VARGA 5, 2313

Spotlights, too bright. Pillars standing tall, anchoring the ceiling shaking with the thuds from below, or the cheers. Shadows in the seats, but grainy, ever so grainy, with faces, features familiar to some, fangs and fur and markings and cloth and armor, identifiable enough. Hopefully. 

A feral growl. A cry. A blow. 

Blood soaking into the sand below, absorbed like a sponge. 

More cheers, and this time, thunderous applause


“Process still going slowly. Same back on Earth. Iverson’s thinking about getting a dog, but keeps talking about your wolf. Any chance of space puppies?”


REPORT

MEDIC ULAZ: Prisoner 117-9875’s arm seems to be working well. The appendage is taken for further examination. Pain tolerance has increased, but a muzzle had to be issued halfway through the procedure and cut deeply into Prisoner 117-9875’s face. May require further examination but appears to be superficial. 

Arm meanwhile has proven to be a valuable asset in arena. Emperor is pleased with progress. Prisoner 117-9875’s bodily weakness remains, but druids communicated that it was of little consequence. 

Prisoner 117-9875 is allowed to have privileges: dull shaving blade, cleansing, food of higher quality. Will be able to have more if he uses the arm.


“Keith, haven’t heard from you in a while; hope everything’s going okay. Pidge and Matt are still working on that data you sent us. They have a whole team now, did you hear? Hunk’s asking me to show up at Reiphod for another diplomatic summit; he’s also testing out some new recipes he got from Shay. If you’re in the area, we can see each other. If Hunk gets to bring Shay...”


FOOTAGE: OBTAINED FROM ZARKON’S ARENA

Out of focus, but still clear: moving seamlessly, hand crackling alive with purple sparks, advancing on someone else crawling towards the end of the arena. Begging. Hands lifted up, palms empty. 

A pause. A flash. 

A body falling.


“Keith, I’m really worried. Just message me.”


STATUS: DECEASED. 

CAUSE OF DEATH: ARENA. 

ADDITIONAL NOTES: CHAMPION KILL #274.

 

CHAPTER FOUR 

PIDGE: Shiro, don’t look at the news. DON’T. Message me ASAP. 

BREAKING NEWS: SHOCKING FOOTAGE OF ATLAS GENERAL SHIROGANE. GRAPHIC: VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED. 

PIDGE: Not sure how this happened, I’m sorry, looking into it immediately!

EMAIL ALERT: Subject: PRESS REQUEST: Dear Mr. Shirogane...

PIDGE: Seriously, dude, don’t look at the news. Or social. 

IVERSON: Shirogane. Please report to headquarters immediately. 


“Your trip to Reiphod is cancelled.” 

It’s a small assembly, considering. Iverson. Sam Holt. A few of the brass he hasn’t officially met yet. A cluster of security guards. The Garrison’s press official. 

“I don’t understand,” Shiro says slowly. “Is there a conflict I’m not aware of?” 

“Representative Shirogane,” says one of the strangers, “Some...disturbing items have come to our attention, and it may be best to cancel your appearance with Garrett and his team.” 

“We’re not blaming you,” adds another. “We just want to get your side of the story, as quickly as possible. Nothing leaves this room without preparation.” 

“I was warned not to look at the news,” Shiro says, a pit sinking in his stomach. He still hasn’t heard back from Keith; all the messages were from his friends, or alerts from news sites. “What’s going on, exactly?” 

No one seems to want to say anything. One of the guards shifts. The press official has a hand clutched around her small datapad. The door, Shiro notes, is closed. He wonders if it’s locked behind him. 

This is too much like when Admiral Sanda came to visit him a long time ago. But it was only her and Sam. The presence of all these people unnerve him; what’s wrong? 

Iverson looks to Sam, who has his datapad ready. 

With a few taps, he hands it over to Shiro, who, within five seconds, almost drops it on the floor. 

The body falls to the ground, and with that, he’s their Champion. 

“It’s not doctored,” Shiro manages to admit. He’s sitting down now, hands gripping his knees and taking shallow breaths, with Sam’s hand on his shoulder. 

Someone sighs. One of the brass, he thinks. 

“All right,” Iverson says, too calmly. “Tell us what this is.” 

I was their executioner. Their champion. Theirs. 

Shiro clears his throat. Looks at the press official, fingers poised above her keyboard, speaker on his datapad facing forward. At Sam, a ghost of an encouraging smile. At the officials surrounding him, tensed, eyes flickering to his Altean arm, to Sam’s datapad, paused at a certain moment of the footage. 

“It started on Kerberos…”


His throat feels dry, and his datapad’s been silently buzzing against his hip the whole time. He wonders if one of them is from Keith. How many are out there? He hasn’t eaten at all today, but something has a gnawing hold on his stomach, his chest, his hands. They’re stiff from not moving, and his legs are falling asleep, pins and needles prickling painfully down to his toes. Champion. Champion. 

And the silence from everyone: shocked, afraid, disgusted? Either way, it’s worse than what anyone could say. 

“What’s going to happen?” Shiro finally asks. 

“Temporary lockdown,” one of the officers says. “No one getting in or out, or talking to the press. Another statement will be put out, and when things calm down, a press conference. No responding to media requests or any members of the public; we’ll handle those.” 

“Right. Okay.” 

“Your friends are correct: don’t look at the news. No watching, no reading, no clicking.”

Shiro nods dumbly. 

“This is a sticky situation,” another adds. “You’re one of our top brass, Shirogane, and at such a young age, too. Your reputation as both a Galaxy Garrison officer and as Earth’s representative…” 

“His reputation is stellar,” Sam cuts in. 

“Which is why it needs to remain that way. I trust all of you remember our decision about the late Admiral Sanda.” 

Shiro does. The memorial. The plaque. A martyr of the war. It would be too chaotic, they said, and too damaging to internal and intergalactic affairs if it came out that one of their own had betrayed Earth to the Galra. Trust in the Garrison would be lost, their position in the Coalition shaky, not to mention in the foundations of American government—anarchy, in the worst possible scenario, just when they were beginning to recover. The revelation would do more harm than good.  

It made sense at the time, of course, which is why he agreed to it. He wonders if the Garrison held a meeting like that one, without him, discussing whether to cut and run. They did after Kerberos—and to his shame, Shiro’s relieved this isn’t going to be a repeat. 

You’re valuable this time, Shiro thinks. 

In response, Sam grits his teeth. “These two are not the same.” 

“Exactly,” the official says bluntly. “It’s almost worse.”


“Source of the leak is unknown, but includes clips and reports obtained from the then-Emperor Zarkon’s gladiatorial pits a few years ago, set shortly after the infamous Kerberos Mission. An expert panel is joining us today…”

“THE SHIROGANE LEAK: HERE’S WHAT TO KNOW”

“The Galaxy Garrison has released a brief statement that they are verifying the content of the leaked footage and reports on Representative Shirogane, and to direct questions to their public information officer. Shirogane has not responded or released a statement…”

“...is now trending on multiple social media sites, including the graphic footage. Accounts are being asked to adhere to the sites’ guidelines of conduct…”

“BREAKING: FOOTAGE OF SHIROGANE IN GALRA ARENA, NEGOTIATIONS ON HOLD”

“For those of you joining today, we’re discussing the recent leak of Earth Representative Takashi Shirogane, current general of IGF-Atlas and former Paladin of Voltron. Reports say…” 

“Caller on the line, from Quadrant…”

“5 THINGS ABOUT THE SHIROGANE LEAK. 1. SHIROGANE WAS A FORMER PRISONER OF THE THEN-GALRA EMPIRE, CONTROLLED BY EMPEROR ZARKON, NOW DECEASED...”

“Has to be faked, can’t imagine…” 


Before their reconciliation, before the lions disappeared, before the Coalition started sending requests for intergalactic representatives, Shiro had been promoted to general in a stuffy room with a gray beret that tilted over his eyebrows, and sweaty handshakes and salutes. 

There were photos of him and the newly-promoted lined up in a row, either unsmiling or lips stretched into something approximate, then a portrait of him in front of the Garrison’s flag, staring straight into the camera, eerily reminding him of the headshot taken before Kerberos. And of course, the grand exit procession, air pumped with another round of the anthem and rhythmic marching and salutes. 

At the after-party, Shiro took the opportunity to slip away, tired of the champagne, the solicitous congratulations, the calculating looks of the other higher-ups, proposals that needed to be read immediately, the agenda everyone promised to send him. He’s the youngest general in history, he knew, and he anticipated the nights of going over notes, writing out what he must say, sitting up and looking as if he knew what he was doing.

He felt numb to it all. Someone normal would savor the moment of triumph and recognition, and a sensible one would panic, a little, at the outpouring of sudden responsibility. (Shiro, even years later, doesn’t remember what happened or what was discussed—just him being passed like a parcel to an intended destination, stamping him at each checkpoint without a blink.) 

Shiro had slipped to the memorial wall, looking up into Adam’s frozen face and row of stars, when a voice said, “Congratulations, General.”  

“Keith,” he said, savoring the missed, familiar syllable. “You could have been up there, you know.” 

Keith raised his eyebrows. His hair was longer, Shiro remembered, though not enough to do anything with except tie a small ponytail at the nape of his neck, for which Lance mocked him for. Rat tails, haven’t seen that since the twenty-first century. Lava lamp era, am I right? “I’m not even a cadet.” 

Shiro flushed. “All the same,” he tried, weakly, “you should be recognized. There are civilian-specific medals, public service ribbons. A Medal of Honor—”

“I don’t want anything from the Garrison,” Keith interrupted sharply. “I think I’ll be more useful out there. With the Blades.”

“The Blades? So you’re not staying here.” 

“No,” Keith said, “what’s left for me to do? I don’t want to re-enroll. I don’t have family here like Lance and Pidge and Hunk. I’m not a tech genius or a diplomat. I’m...nothing here.” 

“Don’t say that,” Shiro said. “You never were nothing.” 

Keith’s smile was more sardonic than he’d seen before. “Yeah?”

This bothered him; he’d never seen Keith so down on himself, not since their early Garrison days. “I mean it,” he said. “You have so much to contribute; you’re still the best pilot in the Garrison. You could teach, if you wanted. And they’re talking about installing an Earth representative for the Coalition; you’d be perfect, and I can put your name forward—” 

“No,” Keith interrupted. “That’s not me. I’m a paladin; I don’t need some fancy title.” He probably meant nothing by it, but Shiro still felt stung. “I never really belonged here. Not like you.”  

It was true; even back then, he’d been painfully aware Keith seemed to be counted out before being officially met, all while Shiro’s star kept rising. Shiro had hated it, though loved it, too: the spotlight was the best place to hide. 

“You can do anything,” Keith continued. “Nothing can stop you. After all,” he said, looking at Shiro, unusually serious, with something Shiro knew but had buried deep, deep down inside once again, “you’re easy to love.”

 

CHAPTER FIVE 

In her lab, Pidge flicks through Shiro’s inbox. 

You should have died at Kerberos. Monster, puppet of the Galra. You thought your life was worth more than theirs?

Those are the kindest ones. But the pictures, the descriptions of the lost, are the worst. Look at them, they demand. Look at what you’ve done.

Names and ages and stories haunt his nightmares, along with memories that used to be long buried. He remembers some, but not all, and those are the ones he’s most ashamed of—that he can’t even recall his own complicity, the weight of a life being crushed in his fingers. 

Finally, she looks up at him. “I’m creating a filter, so you stop receiving them.”

“No,” Shiro says. 

Pidge narrows her eyes. “I called you here for a reason, Shiro. These showed up with red flags. There are death threats. At least report them! Or go after them for harassment.”

“I’m not ‘going after’ any of them, Pidge,” he says firmly. “Think about what it looks like.” 

For a few seconds, she looks like she’s about to argue further, but instead, hangs her head. “I’m so sorry. If I hadn’t—”

“No,” Shiro tells her. “Don’t blame yourself. You’ve helped so many people with this project. You can’t think of just me.”

He’s kept inside, obsentisbily for his own safety. Even then, it’s hard to ignore the whispers, the articles, the reports, the faces of the victims being broadcast around the universe. 

Pidge bites her lip. “I’m so sorry,” she repeats. “If I had known…” 

“I would have told you to release the information,” Shiro says calmly. “People deserve to know what happened to their loved ones.” 

Pidge soon delivers another blow: “My dad, Matt, and I were going to speak to the press. Give you some defense. But the Garrison ordered us to not talk.” She bites her lip. “Even came to our door and mentioned me, specifically.” 

They’re thinking of Kerberos, he guesses, and the efforts to crank out the Garrison’s secret records throughout the years. Matt and Sam had been willing to let that go, but Pidge had steadfastly campaigned for them to be released, for the Garrison to take responsibility. 

And now, it must be ironic: Pidge, advocating for transparency and not protecting anyone, regardless of their position or public image, then this. 

“Don’t risk anything for me,” Shiro warns. “I mean it, Pidge. This needs to be handled delicately. The Garrison…” 

“Is probably working to make sure it doesn’t make them look bad,” she spits. “They don’t want anything to taint them.” 

“I’m not surprised,” Shiro says. He understands, in a way. Someone always has to be blamed, and it can’t be the Earth’s only military, the one people look up to for protection. A leader must be strong, invulnerable, untouchable. A leader is someone to be leaned on, not the other way around. He understands that more than ever.

Earth is in a steady position of trust, and it would be stupidly precarious to risk that, for him. 

“But it shouldn’t be that way!” she exclaims. “They have to defend you!”

“What do you want them to do? Pidge, they can’t sweep this under the rug, and I don’t want them to.”  

Pidge shakes her head. “I don’t know. But I know what you did for my family, and Matt definitely does. We’ll raise awareness through the media, through the Coalition. Someone to stand up for you.”

Shiro’s chest tightens, and without a word, embraces Pidge.


Keith still hasn’t been in contact. He’s already sent messages to Krolia, to Kolivan, but so far, nothing. 

Shiro’s worried more for him, especially now. The footage had undone, it seems, most of their work of keeping the peace. At the fresh reminder of the Empire, there have been cancelled diplomatic meetings, protests and riots in various quadrants, even threats of violence to Blade members, to ordinary former citizens. There’s talk of official retribution.

He reads the news. There are debates about justice, about the Galra’s military (what’s left of it) being dismantled, soldiers and citizens alike not being able to carry weapons, paying hefty reparations, calls for blocking trade, even other military being installed on Daibazaal to patrol. There are features and longform articles about the various destructions of environments, cultures, technology, lives. Tickers of the missing and the dead, with profiles and interviews with the remaining family and planet representatives. 

There’s one terrible op-ed, one that everyone warns Shiro not to read, that drags Keith into it. About Shiro’s defense of him, of Daibazaal, in official diplomatic meetings (where did they get that information, he wonders), of “siding” and “lenience” and “willful blindness to the damage of the Empire.” And, the article insinuated, their closeness made all negotiations unethical…

“Bullshit,” Matt tells him after catching him reading it for the tenth time. “No one believes that.” 

“It doesn’t matter,” Shiro says, putting away his datapad, “because there’s talks of an intergalactic trial.”  

Matt frowns. “That can’t be right.” 

“I’m the representative of Earth, and I killed civilians,” Shiro says softly. “I should be held accountable.” 

“You’re not a criminal,” Matt protests. “It’s not like the Galra rebels the Blades keep going after; you were—” 

“Still complicit.”


He’s technically excused from work, both the Garrison and the Coalition, but keeps going, swimming through the hurricane of news stories and analyses and whispers from his colleagues. Other officers, especially from Atlas and the MFEs, have the decency not to ask about it, except for an occasional coy, how are you doing? 

But some, especially the cadets, have no such reservations. There’s the newscast playing daily in the officer’s lounge; every time he walks in for a cup of coffee or to heat up his dinner, there’s another red banner across the screen exclaiming BREAKING, even though it’s the same story, with rehashed arguments and interviews. He sees datapads: muted audio amid informative videos with bright text and photos, more newscasts and articles with highlighted links, even his own profile page. And of course, social media. 

He wonders how many of them have passed around his name, trying to one-up each other: I knew Shirogane; he was in my flight class...taught my year...is in my section down the hall...

It’s not out of malice, he senses, just simple curiosity. But it’s eager, page-turning, and it feels like everywhere he goes—down the hall for another meeting, walking back to his quarters, out in town just to get out of the Garrison—there are eyes on him. 

It was one thing when he was the star pilot, the darling of the Galaxy Garrison. It’s another to be a potential war criminal, a murderer in the simplest terms. He even turns away when commercials for a new action movie come on: all punching and bloodied knuckles and bones shattering. Not me, he thinks, it’s not me; it’s not. 

It could be anything, he reminds himself. It’s not always about you. 

But he hears, or thinks he does: His bare hands. All that blood. I could never. Completely savage. Trained by the Galra themselves! Did you see...


It could be worse, Pidge told him, with a minute level of optimism neither of them felt. It could be Kerberos. 

He knows, from the brief mentions around the table in the Castle or from Keith’s muttered explanation about his expulsion, after an argument with Lance. They threw you under the bus, Keith had said. They treated you like...well, like me. 

Shiro never looked at articles or anything like that upon his return to Earth, especially after the Garrison welcomed him back with open arms (after they tied you to a table, a voice reminds him, and they wouldn’t have if it weren’t wartime, would they?) . He hadn’t dared. 

Now, though, Shiro thinks, it must have been this. The arguments: whose fault was it, who was responsible, could this have been prevented, what exactly went wrong, who held the majority of the blame? The constant stream, as if nothing else in the world was happening: profiles, pseudo-psychological articles, timelines, the inner workings. And the demands: of defense, of justice, of what to do next. 

You could ask me, he thinks. But no one does, not really, and he’s not allowed to respond, anyway.


He hands in his resignation the next day.

Shiro chooses the time very deliberately, when he knows Iverson will be teaching the piloting class, while the office staff are on their lunch break. He places the letter on his desk and walks away.

He knows that Iverson will be beating down his door, demanding that he change his mind. He knows Matt and Sam will try to confront him in their own way, through drinks or through a family dinner. He knows the word will spread across the Garrison, whispers of shock and dismay and maybe a little relief.

So, Shiro does what he hasn’t allowed himself to do in a long time—run.

The soft purr of the hoverbike vibrates through his palms, fingers closing around the handlebars and boots pressing down hard on the pedals.

He and Keith used to do this, a long time ago when he thought his life was his own. When the race, the thrill of zipping through the orange-touched canyons, was enough to take his mind off his responsibilities. When everything was stripped away but the joy of flying, freedom.  

The Galaxy Garrison told him: there were calls for Shiro to resign.

It’ll send a message, Pidge suggested, with fear in her eyes. You’re sorry, and with that, you might be spared. And, she’d added bitterly, It lets the Garrison off the hook. Washing their hands of it all. 

He remembers signing his name on the form, feeling like when Haggar blasted the quintessence out of his body, yanking it out and leaving him weightless, at the mercy of Zarkon. 

This time, though, he’s at the mercy of the universe. 

He always was, of course, through his ticking clock of a body. But Shiro could always reach for the stars, race against time, and make it matter. He’s climbed ladders and shattered records and done things not even people twice his age have accomplished, worked harder than anyone else he knew. He’s always tried to have a semblance of control.

Now, it’s like being in that waiting room, extending his arm for needles and closing his eyes as his body was carried into another machine. It’s out of your hands. 

Signing up for the Garrison was his chance. His only chance, one of his only triumphs. And now, it’s all dissolved into nothing.


Shiro believes in alternate realities; it’s nothing new, compared to how he grew up: muttered prayers, explanations, excuses of what could have been prevented and how and what this meant due to a specific time or place. His mom looking at the calendar, refusing to make appointments on certain dates; his father, thinking back to all the signs of the disease that would eat his life away; his grandfather, talking about this disaster and the next and weaving it into fragmented philosophies to predict the future. It drove him crazy, and hearing a similar thing from a crazed, fast-talking alien never improved his mood. 

But still, Shiro wonders: if he hadn’t been chosen for the Kerberos mission at all, if he’d told Lance to pull the Blue Lion back to Earth, if the Black Lion hadn’t chosen him, if he’d simply died before everything… Even the tiniest choices, when he lays in bed after midnight: what if he hadn’t released Sendak during his panic attack, his moment of weakness, in the Castle? Didn’t he indirectly cause the Earth invasion that took away so many? Adam’s? 

What could he have done? 

His justifications bubble out from his lips, useless as dandelion puffs floating away in the wind. I was trying to survive. I was trying to get back home. I did what I had to do.

He could have injured himself so he could go to a work camp. He could have refused, declaring his principles. He could have died, millions of miles away from home.

I could have died, he thinks. I could have died. 

But Shiro knows he couldn’t have. He was too weak for that.


Despite everything, the Coalition confirms that there will be a trial. 

They also tell him that Atlas is grounded.

They tell him it’s a potential weapon of war, that there aren’t defenses strong enough to fight against it, that their citizens have become fearful of retaliation. The Garrison agrees with this, which is news to him. 

“But what about the summits? The diplomatic missions?” he asks, even though there’s suspicion brewing in his head, calculating what this is leading up to. Because there wouldn’t be a com call with all of the representatives in attendance just to tell him that he can’t fly Atlas. 

And he’s right. Horribly right. Because out of ethical and public image concerns, he’s no longer the Earth representative for the Galactic Coalition.


Without the Garrison, too, Shiro loses his quarters. He also no longer has a paycheck, save what the Garrison gives him as “restitution,” but it’s nowhere near enough to live out the rest of his days comfortably. 

He should be glad that they haven’t taken his arm. It’s Garrison-built and Garrison-given and counted as a weapon he should have to turn in, like Atlas, but either no one thought of that or simply decided it would be too cruel.

It’s the first time, really, he has to think about going and finding a place of his own. A job, eventually. Shiro thought he was alone before securing a pilot slot in the Garrison, but he had been armed with grandfather’s inheritance and Garrison support. Now, he’s completely reliant on his own resources.

At age thirty, it’s a humbling experience. He could get a job working at the corner store, selling hiking supplies to people who want to trek through the desert. He could be a secretary, answering phones and filing papers. Or he could wander the streets, live like the vagabond he’d dreamed about before signing up for the Garrison. 

You can be anything, Shiro’s grandfather had told him. He probably didn’t think of Shiro ending up like this.

Keith, he thinks, alone in the cramped guest room, trying to ignore the whispers from the Holts in the kitchen and the guilt of their food in his stomach, the nights he’s going to spend in their bed. Where are you? I need you.