The simulator powered down slowly and Shiro took a long breath. He waited for the cadets’ footsteps and laughter to fade before he sank into the pilot’s seat, his muscles screaming in protest.
He checked his watch - forty-five minutes until the next simulation drill. He set an alarm and let his head fall back against the headrest. He would miss lunch, but the thought of moving through the crowded dining hall or making polite conversation made his head swim. He sighed and massaged his wrists, letting his eyes drift slowly closed.
Bad pain days were hard, but he was used to them - pushing past the pain to do what needed to be done. The hardest part was the pretending. Shiro had a lifetime’s experience of hiding his pain - people already doubted his abilities because of his illness, so any sign of pain or discomfort was immediately another mark against him. So he pushed forward with a smile, never letting anyone see the bad days.
He always got glowing remarks for his positive attitude.
But because he hid it so well, some people whispered behind his back that he was faking it. He sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. He was just so tired .
He felt a guilty pang of relief that his lunch breaks didn’t match up with Adam’s, so he wouldn’t have to make excuses for why he skipped. He knew Adam was trying to help, but Shiro hated when Adam acted like his self-appointed doctor.
Shiro went still. “Keith?”
“Hey,” Keith’s voice sounded relieved as he stepped into the simulator. His footsteps rattled against the metal floor. “Are you ok?”
Shiro smiled. “Yeah, I’m fine, Keith.” I’m just sitting in the dark, alone in the simulator like a normal person. Yep, totally fine .
Keith raised an eyebrow and Shiro sighed, closing his eyes. Keith always saw right through him. Ever since that day he missed breakfast and Keith had come looking, eventually finding him in the weight room, curled up by the free weight rack because of the pain.
Shiro had worried that Keith would think less of him if he knew, but of course Keith was nothing but understanding.
Keith always exceeded expectations.
Shiro sighed. “Bad pain day. But it’ll be fine, it’ll pass.”
“Oh Shiro,” Keith’s voice was soft, and his hand rested gently on his shoulder. Shiro sighed, hating how it made him want to fall apart. “Do you want me to get Adam?”
Shiro shook his head. “No.” And that must be weird, right? To not want his fiance, so he added, “He has class right now, and it’s not worth interrupting. He’ll just worry.”
Keith hummed. “Do you want to be alone?”
Shiro swallowed and shook his head again. “You can stay - if you don’t mind. I don’t want to make you miss lunch, though.”
“Not a problem,” Keith said, and Shiro cracked an eye open when he heard rustling. Keith slid into the copilot’s seat, holding out something wrapped in napkins. “Everything looked gross today, so I just made a sandwich.”
Shiro took it from him, unwrapping the napkins carefully. “They let you take food out?”
Keith snorted. “I smuggle food out all the time.” He grinned up at Shiro. “We need to eat something on leftover night.”
Shiro grimaced at the thought of the mystery casserole night. "Matt would be so proud, they caught him smuggling an entire pound of bacon out in his backpack our first year.”
Keith laughed, unwrapping his sandwich. “That sounds like Matt.” He took a bite of his sandwich. “I hope peanut butter and banana’s ok,” he said.
Shiro hummed. “It’s good. I haven’t had one in ages.”
Keith nodded, taking a bite. “My dad used to make them for me. I was super picky, but I would eat anything with peanut butter.”
Shiro’s heart melted. Keith had been so closed off when he first met him, so every memory he decided to share felt precious.
They ate in silence for a bit, and when the sandwich was gone Shiro closed his eyes again. “How long until class?”
“About… 25 minutes,” Keith said.
Shiro sighed. “Ok.”
“Shiro, if you need to cancel…” Keith said, but Shiro shook his head.
“I’ll be fine, I just needed a minute. I just get tired some days.”
“I get that,” Keith said. Shiro heard the squeak of the leather seat as Keith fidgeted. “Thanks for telling me, Shiro.”
Shiro smiled. “Of course, Keith. Just let me know if I get boring cause I talk about it too much.”
“Shiro!” Keith protested. “It’s not boring , who told you that?”
“Nobody,” Shiro said. “It’s just - if I talk about it too much people either get tired of hearing about it or assume I can’t do anything.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “And they’re choosing who’ll go on the Kerberos mission soon, so I can’t let them think that…”
Keith frowned. “That’s bullshit! You’re the best pilot here! If they don’t pick you they’re even dumber than I thought!”
Shiro found himself smiling, hopelessly endeared by Keith’s righteous indignation. “Thanks, Keith.”
“It’s true!” Keith insisted. “And when you get back I’ll be an officer, so I can go with you on your next launch!”
Shiro’s smile turned brittle. “I sure hope so.”
“I know so!” Keith declared, bright and determined. “I’m gonna be the best copilot you’ve ever had!”
“I don’t know, Hotshot…” Shiro said, reaching out to ruffle Keith’s hair. “By then you’ll have broken so many of my records I might be your copilot.”
Keith’s smile turned impish. “That’s true, Old Timer, you better watch out!”
Shiro laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ve been quaking in my boots since your first sim run.” Keith beamed up at him and Shiro smiled. No matter what happened, it was worth it to see Keith succeed. To give him a chance to fly.
Shiro’s watch beeped. “Looks like it’s time for your next drill.” He stood up, flexing his wrist experimentally. Keith jumped up.
“We’ll see if I can break another one of your records,” he said with a wink and a lazy salute. He ducked through the door and Shiro chuckled to himself as he turned on the lights and double checked the simulation settings. He did a quick check in - his pain levels were still high, but he felt lighter now. And the growing chatter of cadets outside didn’t make his head ache.
He stepped out of the simulator just in time to hear Griffin say, “Why weren’t you at lunch, Kogane? Did you get stuck on kp duty again?”
“Just needed a break from your ugly face, Griffin,” Keith drawled lazily. Griffin’s face turned red and that was Shiro’s cue to intervene.
“Alright everybody, divide up into groups of three, you know the drill.” Keith grinned up at him and Shiro bit back a smile.
The door slid open and the guard shoved Shiro inside with a grunt. Shiro stood tall until the door locked behind him and the footsteps faded, and then his knees buckled as he started to shake.
The pain was ever present now without his bracelets. When he was in the arena it sank to the back of his mind in the wake of the need to survive, but the pain came roaring back worse than ever as the adrenaline faded.
He breathed in and out slowly. He knew his chances of escape were almost nil, but he didn’t let himself think about that. If he did, he might lay down and not be able to get back up again.
So he thought about what he would do, if he somehow did make it to earth. He’d go to the gelato place he used to go to with Mom and Baba after doctor’s appointments. He might even get dark chocolate with his usual raspberry sorbet, even if it did make his stomach hurt.
He’d take Adam out for a drink. He knew that they weren’t right for each other and that the breakup was for the best. But he’d still pushed Adam away when he tried to help. They had said goodbye before the launch, but it had been terse and awkward, and he wished he could take it back now.
And Keith. He’d promised to take him out for a hoverbike race when he got back. He imagined the wind whipping through his hair, Keith’s excited whoop as he edged past Shiro to take first place. The way he’d grin up at Shiro afterwards, triumphant.
Shiro sat in his cell, massaging his arm and aching for home. For desert skies and a boy with laughing eyes.
"That was awesome!" Pidge cheered, jumping out of their lion.
Shiro climbed out of his lion a little more slowly, making sure not to put too much weight on his left leg. He'd hit his knee somehow and it was starting to throb. Just another ache to add to the list. At least this one was nothing a little ice in his room couldn't fix.
He pulled off his helmet. "Great flying out there, guys, that was one of the best drills yet."
"You know I hate to brag…" Lance said, popping his hip and leaning against Hunk. "But that was some of my best work."
Hunk rolled his eyes while Lance preened and Pidge pretended to throw up in the background.
"I don't think it's bragging when the bar's so low," Keith said, and Lance glared.
Shiro turned to clap Keith on the shoulder. He grinned up at Shiro, but Shiro noticed the way he braced himself when he touched him.
All of his praise for Keith's flying died on his lips. "Keith, are you ok?"
Keith shrugged - or tried to, but he winced. "I might have banged up my shoulder on that pass through the gorge."
Shiro frowned. "Do you want Coran to take a look at it?"
"Shiro, it's fine," Keith said. "It's really not that bad."
"At least take a break in the healing pod?"
Keith scrunched his nose up at him. "Only if you do too." He nodded at Shiro's left knee. "Don't think I missed the limp."
Shiro chuckled despite himself. "Ok, anyone else need a healing pod?"
The others shook their heads and Shiro sighed. "Alright. Tell Allura I'll bring her up to speed when she's done checking the castle's defense system."
"Yeah yeah, go on, Shiro." Pidge teased. "It's only fair that you two would need a pod at your advanced age."
Keith gave them the finger and Pidge answered with some complicated Altean gesture they'd learned from Coran. "Let's go before they explain what that means," Shiro muttered, herding Keith into the hallway and away from Lance's echoing cackle.
" Advanced age ," Keith muttered. "I'm three years older than they are!"
"Man, must be frustrating to be the oldest one in the group," Shiro said, deadpan, and Keith smirked up at him.
"Don't feel bad, Shiro," he said. "You'll always be the oldest, plus you have the worst Dad jokes."
Shiro sniffed haughtily. "My jokes are great."
Keith barked out a laugh. "Whatever you say, Shiro," he said, his voice fond.
Figuring out how to turn on the pods was hard enough, but Shiro was mostly worried about actually being in the pod. One of his therapists had suggested he try a sensory deprivation tank back on Earth and that had… not gone well. He didn't think the claustrophobia would mix well with memories of the arena.
He didn't mention any of that though. He just helped Keith unbuckle the pieces of armor he couldn't reach with his shoulder, before shrugging out of his own.
Keith held out a white undersuit, almost identical to the black ones they wore under the armor. "I guess we're supposed to put these on?"
Shiro shrugged. "We probably should. We'll probably get a lecture from Coran about the huge significance of white in Altean healing rituals if we don't."
"Right," Keith said, shoving a white undersuit into Shiro's hands and rushing to unzip his suit, as if Coran might pop out for a history lesson any second.
Shiro chuckled. "Here, let me." He unzipped Keith's undersuit, his breath hitching in his chest when he saw the bruises already spreading across Keith's skin. " Keith."
Keith craned his neck to look. "Huh. That bruised fast."
Shiro shook his head. "You need to be careful, Keith." He finished unzipping the suit, watching the bruises spread across Keith's back and ribs. "What would I do without my Red Paladin?"
Keith swallowed. "Not be able to form Voltron?"
" Keith ."
Keith looked at him over his shoulder, something hesitant in his expression. "It's not about Voltron, Keith," Shiro murmured. "I need you to be safe."
Keith's brow furrowed. "What about you?"
Shiro blinked. "What about me?"
Keith gave him a look. "I bet your knee is as bad as my shoulder, but you would never have come to do this if I didn't make you."
Shiro bit his lip, feeling caught out, and Keith's eyes softened. "I know it hurts more without your bracelet."
Shiro reached up to scratch the back of his neck. "You can always tell, can't you?"
Keith nodded. "I can." He tapped against Shiro's chest with his good hand. "We take care of each other, right?"
Shiro didn't trust his voice not to shake, so he nodded. Keith smiled up at him, soft and sweet, and Shiro smiled back helplessly.
Keith shivered suddenly and Shiro said. "Oh you're cold, I guess we should put you in the space onesie."
Keith snorted. "Like I would be caught dead in one of those," but he let Shiro pull the sleeve of the suit down, careful not to jostle his arm.
Then Shiro stripped out of his own suit, trying to get dressed quickly enough so he could help Keith with the sleeves.
Keith eyed the pod warily, rubbing his sore shoulder. "Here goes nothing?"
"Yeah," Shiro said, a little breathlessly. He pushed one of the buttons - he was 75% sure it was the open button. "You're not claustrophobic, are you?
"No. Are you?"
"Definitely," Shiro said as the pod doors slid open with a hiss.
"It'll be fine," Shiro said, more confident than he felt. "And if it's not, I'll just yell…"
"And I'll come get you," Keith said, glaring down at the pod as if daring it to argue.
Shiro nodded. "Yeah. It'll be fine."
He felt Keith's hand on his cheek. "If you don't want to…"
He shook his head. "No, I can't let you do it alone just because I'm too chicken."
Keith frowned, but he nodded. "Ok. But you go in first, so I can get you out."
Shiro took a long, slow breath. "Ok."
He stepped into the pod, and watched Keith press the button. He knew it was silly, but he couldn't stop his heart rate from picking up as the doors closed, separating him from Keith.
Keith gave him a thumbs up, eyebrows raised, and Shiro nodded. He breathed out, letting his eyes fall shut.
Unlike the disastrous sensory deprivation tank experiment, the pod was bright, with a white light that flickered slowly. He could hear the hum of the machine working, and it reminded him of the wind rustling the tree branches outside his window growing up. It was almost soothing...
He woke up to muffled voices. He blinked slowly and saw Pidge pressing their nose against the glass. “He’s awake!” they called, waving over the others.
“Now be ready to catch him this time, Lance,” Allura said.
Lance smiled sheepishly and stood next to Hunk, arms out to catch him. Shiro couldn’t understand why, but then the doors slid open and he tried to step out. A sudden wave of vertigo hit him, sending him sprawling into Hunk’s arms.
“That’s it, we got you, big guy,” Hunk said, patting Shiro’s shoulder reassuringly.
Shiro looked up. “Where’s Keith?”
Shiro looked around frantically until he caught sight of Keith, sitting on the ground with a blanket around his shoulders. He waved and Shiro smiled.
Hunk shifted him so Shiro’s arm was thrown over his shoulders. “Let’s get you sitting down, huh?”
Shiro nodded, still feeling woozy, and let Hunk deposit him next to Keith.
“How’s your shoulder?”
Keith rolled it experimentally. “Better. How’re you feeling?”
Shiro stretched his left leg. “My knee’s better. I feel a little loopy though.”
Coran squawked and came over, squatting down to investigate. “Your pulse is normal,” he said, whipping out a little light and shining it in Shiro’s eyes with no warning. Shiro blinked, but Coran was already putting the light away. “Your pupils aren’t dilated. Anything else unusual?”
Shiro took in a deep breath and did a quick check-in and froze. There was no pain.
“I don’t have any pain,” he whispered.
Keith’s eyebrows shot up but Coran frowned, confused. “But that’s… good, right?”
Shiro nodded. “I can’t even remember the last time I didn’t have any .”
He heard a squeak and looked up to see the others staring at him mournfully. Hunk looked like he might burst into tears at any moment. “I didn’t know it was so bad,” Pidge whispered.
Keith’s fingers traced up his wrist, along his forearm, and then wrapped around his bicep. “That’s great, Shiro!”
Shiro smiled. “It almost feels like I’m high, but better,” he said, and Keith snorted.
“Well, medical marijuana was never going to hold a candle to alien healing technology,” he said with a smirk.
“This is good, right?” Lance asked. “You can do it every day.”
But Shiro bit his lip. “I don’t know,” he murmured, reaching over to wrap his hand around his metal wrist absentmindedly. It had been hell when he lost his bracelet, and he didn’t want to go through that again.
The others looked confused, but Keith just nodded. Of course Keith understood. “Maybe just once or twice a week,” he murmured. “Or on bad days.”
Shiro nodded and Keith smiled, brighter than anything. “So, we did training for the day. What do you want to do next?”
Shiro hummed. “Wanna spar?”
“What?” Lance asked, but Keith nodded.
“Hell yes, come on!” He stood up and held his hand out, pulling Shiro to his feet.
“You feel better than you have in weeks and you wanna kick the shit out of each other?” Lance asked.
“You wouldn’t get it,” Keith called over his shoulder, already dragging Shiro to the training deck.
Shiro bounced on the balls of his feet, marveling at the lack of pain shooting up his calves, or sitting heavy in his shoulders. Keith stretched with a flourish, and Shiro grinned.
The others trailed in behind them as Keith tied his hair back. “Hand to hand, or with weapons?”
“Let’s do hand to hand,” Shiro said and Keith grinned, launching himself across the room.
Shiro ducked (no knee pain), sweeping under Keith and grabbing an ankle (no tension in his fingers). He spun and then let go (no shooting arm pain), sending Keith flying through the air.
Keith caught himself on one hand, spinning like a gymnast until he gracefully dropped into a crouch. He grinned at Shiro, his hair already falling in his eyes, and Shiro grinned back. This was going to be fun .
The Black Lion
Shiro couldn't seem to stay awake - Allura said it was probably a side effect of having his consciousness implanted into the clone's body and that it was perfectly normal.
But Shiro hated it. It reminded him of long hospital stays and being trapped in the astral plane. He would wake up gasping for air, clutching at his chest, and then trying to quiet his breathing so Keith wouldn't hear him.
He was just starting to doze off again when he heard steady footsteps, and he shook himself awake. Keith leaned against the doorway. "How're you feeling?"
Shiro sat up, willing himself awake. Anxious. Lost. Untethered . "Better."
Keith walked over and sat down on the bed, giving Shiro plenty of space. Keith had never felt the need to give him space before, but looking at the new pink scar stretching across Keith's cheek, Shiro was almost glad. Even if it hurt.
"How're you really feeling?" Keith asked.
Shiro did a body scan - old habits do die hard, apparently - and sighed. "I feel - good?"
Keith cocked his head. "That doesn't sound good."
Shiro huffed out a laugh. "Not that I'm not glad Hagar made sure the clone was disease-free, but…" He flexed his fingers, trying to find the words. "It doesn't feel like my body. It feels a little like the astral plane."
Keith hummed. "Like you're disconnected?"
Shiro nodded. "Yeah."
Keith slowly slid closer. He reached out and rested his hand on Shiro's shoulder. Shiro shivered at the touch.
"Do you want me to stop?" Shiro shook his head, because he was selfish, because his body was numb everywhere except where Keith was touching him. Keith hummed, squeezing his shoulder and reaching along his shoulder blades, down his spine. "We take care of each other, remember?"
"Yeah, it's just…" He looked down at his hand, unable to meet Keith's eyes. "How can you even look at me after what happened?"
"Shiro…" Keith whispered. "I didn't think you remembered."
They haven't talked about it. Shiro couldn't bring himself to face it. At first he felt so fragile when he woke up, with memories that felt like his own but weren't. But now he can't stop thinking …
He cleared his throat. "I do. I didn't want to - he - didn't want to… but he hurt you."
"That wasn't you, Shiro. I don't blame you."
"I do," Shiro whispered, his voice too raw.
A long awful, pause, and then Keith's fingers ghosting along his right shoulder, where the Galra arm had been. "Do you blame me for this?"
Shiro shook his head, desperate to reassure him. "No, Keith, never." He dropped his gaze again. "You were trying to save me, I - he almost killed you."
Keith's fingers traced Shiro's jaw, unbearably gentle, and he leaned into the touch without thinking.
Keith tipped his chin up. "Shiro, look at me." Shiro swallowed, reluctantly looking up. To his shock Keith's eyes were full of tears.
"Keith -" he whispered.
"Shiro, I know you. You would never hurt me." Shiro closed his eyes and shook his head. "That's why she chose you, you know," Keith murmured. "You're so good . Everyone trusts you."
A broken whimper escaped Shiro's lips, and he leaned into Keith's chest. It was too much. He didn't deserve to be held like this, to be cared for.
Keith's hands ran up and down Shiro's back. "It's true. We all… we all love you, Shiro."
Shiro froze. Keith reached up, running his fingers through Shiro's undercut, half grown out by now. "I meant what I said," he whispered. "You're everything, Shiro."
Shiro leaned back and stared at Keith in wonder. Keith bit his lip. "You don't have to say it back," he said, all in a rush. "Or feel the same way, it's just, you're so important-"
Shiro crashed into Keith in a clumsy, perfect kiss. It was almost too much, but he couldn't stop even if he wanted too. He reached up to tangle his fingers in Keith's hair and Keith moaned, knotting his hands in Shiro's undersuit, pulling him close.
This was everything. With no pain to center on, Shiro had been lost, adrift, but now Keith was here. Keith was here, kissing him, and the pleasure was cosmic, all-encompassing. And Shiro was ready to drown in it.
Shiro tilted his head, licking into Keith's mouth. Keith fell into Shiro, until he was practically in his lap.
Shiro still wasn't used to balancing without his Galra arm, but he wrapped his flesh arm around Keith's waist, desperate to be even closer. Keith wouldn't let him fall.
Keith pulled back, gasping for air. "Shiro -" he moaned, his voice wrecked. Shiro reached up to brush his hair out of his eyes.
"I love you, Keith," he whispered, and Keith gasped.
Shiro smiled up at him, helpless, and kissed along his jaw, down his throat. "You're everything."
Keith blinked, but the tears fell anyway, and Shiro kissed them away. Keith took in a hiccuping breath. "I didn't think I'd ever get to hear that," he said, burying his face into Shiro's neck.
"Oh Keith," Shiro murmured, squeezing him tight. "How could I not fall in love with you?"
Keith was crying in earnest now, and Shiro kissed his temple. Keith mumbled sorry but Shiro shook his head. "You're perfect, baby. You never have to apologise to me."
Keith froze and tilted his head back to look at Shiro. "Baby?"
Shiro blushed. "Oh, I wasn't thinking…"
Keith sat up, flushed and sweet. "Say it again."
Shiro brushed his tears away. "I love you, baby."
Keith beamed, brighter than the sun, and showered him with kisses, and Shiro fell back onto the bed with a laugh. "I love you, Takashi," Keith whispered against his throat and Shiro shuddered. Keith noticed, of course, and his smile was wicked. "What am I going to do with you, Takashi?"
"Anything," Shiro breathed. "I'm yours."
Keith tangled their fingers together. "I like the sound of that."
He kissed Shiro then, sweet and purposeful, and learning how to live in this new body might not be so bad after all with Keith beside him.