A fan fiction by Velkyn Karma
Summary: "You may refuse all you like, Champion, but I have found the one thing in the universe that can be absolutely counted on is that everything that exists desires to survive. Even you. Perhaps especially you."
Something's not right with Shiro, but it may go far deeper than anybody anticipated.
Warnings: Some spoilers for the entirety of Season 1. Some bad language. References to PTSD. References to blood or injury (in later chapters graphically). Emotional manipulation/abuse. Starvation (kind of).
Note: Hey all! The seed of this fic started as a discarded theme idea for Routine Maintenance, but it grew into sooooo much more than that. It's also heavily inspired by a few interesting details we see in the show that I don't think I've seen anyone comment on. And also a lot of Bosstoaster's works. Like, a lot of them. Like, basically blame BT for 50% of this okay.
This fic is gonna be 100% done before Season 2 drops, so expect daily or every-other-day updates. You lucky ducks, you.
Disclaimer: I do not own, or pretend to own, Voltron: Legendary Defender or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs to Dreamworks and associated parties.
Those little slices of Death.
How I loathe them."
~Edgar Allen Poe
It starts with the fatigue.
If he's being honest with himself, Shiro has to admit that's the reason he doesn't even notice anything is wrong at first. These days he's no stranger to exhaustion. He hasn't been since the Kerberos mission. Rest is hardly for the weak, but it is a luxury he can't really afford these days, before as a gladiator slave and now as a defender of the universe. Between constant battles, tense high-stress situations, and difficulties sleeping when he does get a few spare hours, Shiro doesn't think he's been fully rested in well over a year.
Which is fine, really. He's long since learned to function on limited to no hours of rest, and he's long since taught himself how to keep functioning and fighting even when he's tired. He can't afford to fail—not with the universe resting on his shoulders, not with the rest of the paladins looking to him for leadership and guidance, not when the Alteans and the Black Lion have handpicked him as a commanding officer. He won't fail, not when he's needed.
So he pushes through the difficult fights. He does whatever he can to protect those under his command, and those innocent civilians from dozens of planets that trust him to help save them. The team is getting more used to working together and entering combat, learning to work with each other to achieve their mission goals. Shiro is learning too—he's getting much better at charging up his Galra arm in combat and learning its limits. He's able to light it up much faster, push more power to it for more devastating attacks against opponents, use it for more prolonged periods of time. Every strike he makes with against a sentry or Galra equipment is spitting in the face of Zarkon and Haggar, and he revels in the ability to tear down their defenses with their own weapon.
If he's a little tired after the fights, well, that's to be expected. Everyone is tired after major fights. They're only five combatants after all—seven at most if the Alteans also assist—trying to do the work of an entire army. It's going to be exhausting. There's no use complaining about it, so he doesn't.
So the fatigue doesn't stand out to him by itself. But after numerous battles and several freed planets he starts to notice other things. Like how, in the heat of battle, his prosthetic starts to take just a little bit longer to light up each and every time he calls on it. The way it takes just a fraction more concentration than before, the way it takes just a tiny bit more willpower and focus to keep it going, and more still to maintain his energized fist once it is activated. The way it seems to weigh on him a little more every time he does, the way he can feel that exhaustion creeping up on him in mid battle every time he goes particularly wild in combat with his Galra arm.
It's only in little fractions at first. But the more battles he finds himself in, the more that time increases, and the more he has to break his concentration from the fights themselves to activate and use his prosthetic. It's not safe—he learns that very quickly when a sentry nearly beheads him, when he's not focusing on where his opponents are because he's focusing on his arm. Shiro finds it a little worrisome.
Worrisome, but not alarming, exactly. The Galra prosthetic is an amazing piece of technology, but it is technology, and it has to have limits somewhere. The paladins of Voltron have been very active since reuniting after the battle at Zarkon's ship, harrying supply lines, freeing planets, and gathering allies. They've all been running themselves ragged trying to get as much done as possible in so little time, and Shiro is no exception. He wonders if he's been overclocking the arm too much, activating it and charging it up as often as he has been recently. He has no idea how this thing works, but he knows Earth computers can get fried from sudden power surges, and they definitely don't take well to being used like battering rams and bludgeons. He wonders if the arm is struggling to keep up with how much he's putting it through recently. It's definitely designed as a weapon—there's absolutely no question about that—but even weapons need to be used carefully and responsibly or they break.
When he thinks about it, it's foolish of him to have grown to rely so heavily on the arm to begin with. He's always hated it, but it's too useful a tool to disregard completely, even assuming he could. It has too many convenient combat and espionage uses, and he's found himself relying on it more and more, even when regular combat will suffice. He has to remember he doesn't know or understand the full extent of what this thing is capable of, and it could be very dangerous, for himself or his allies, if he gets careless. The Galra aren't known for their kindness, and this prosthetic is not a gift—he knows that instinctively even without having the memories to corroborate it.
Shiro resolves to be a little more sparing in his use of the prosthetic, especially in combat. He's not sure why it's stopped responding as well, but easing off of pushing it to its limits might help, especially in regards to activating it. And forcing himself to rely on it less often is definitely something he needs to put into practice sooner rather than later, before it ends up getting him or somebody he cares about hurt. Better safe than sorry.
It's a more difficult resolution to hold to than Shiro would like. Difficult combat situations come up often, and Shiro will absolutely use whatever weapons he has at his disposal to protect his team, even at the cost of some of his concentration, even if it leaves him more tired than he'd like at the end of the day. And its espionage and interface abilities are still too crucial to their mission to cut off completely.
But he starts letting Keith or Pidge take the lead cutting into ships or difficult places with their bayards when possible. He trains a little harder with the gladiator in one-on-one scenarios to improve his left side and reduce his reliance on his right arm. He starts using his left hand more for everyday things, like eating, typing, and using tools, just to try and reduce a little more wear and tear on the prosthetic. He alters some of his combat strategies so that if he does need to light up the arm, at least he finds a safe place to do it first so he can concentrate. And he's very careful to cut down any prolonged use of the prosthetic's ability, restraining himself to only calculated hits and final shots at just the right moments.
It's not perfect, and it's a bit of a setback. But it's a manageable one. He's a little more tired, but that's hardly new; it's just another thing to overcome. The adjustments seem to help, and eventually that tiredness fades into the background like it always does, and the new routines become normal.
He moves on, and doesn't think about it again for a while.
Shiro doesn't think the others really notice, at least not at first.
That is to say, all of the paladins, and even Allura and Coran, notice that he's tired a lot. That's nothing new, either, and a few of the more vocal members of Team Voltron will even speak up or chastise him on how often he rests.
But he's pretty sure they assume it's because he just doesn't sleep all that often. Shiro will get regular lectures about the importance of a good six to eight hours of sleep a night, or about the importance of not overworking oneself. They always watch him like a hawk whenever he gets injured to be sure he doesn't push himself too hard.
And he appreciates that they care. Really, he does. It's just that he's pretty sure none of their suggestions will actually do anything for this particular problem. And he doesn't feel like worrying them further, not when every single one of them already has so much on their shoulders, so he just doesn't say anything at all.
And for a while, they don't seem to pick up on it. Especially when Shiro is pretty sure he's good at dealing on exactly no rest in tense situations, and half the time he's good at burying any of his own discomfort and presenting a strong, confident mask for the rest of them.
But none of them are stupid, and they do start to notice little things eventually. None of them miss the way he's been using his arm less and less, both in training and in real combat situations. During a stealth mission, Pidge gives him a strange look when Shiro orders her to take the extra five minutes to hack into the database with his arm used only as an interface, rather than the full power source for the console. He disarms sentries or uses the environment to his advantage or kicks them out windows or airlocks, and Keith frowns, and Lance questions why he doesn't just "glow up and smash their heads in." He asks Hunk to cover him with his laser cannon while he powers up and welds a door shut behind them to prevent pursuit, and doesn't miss the concerned frown Hunk gives him when activating the arm takes almost as long as sealing the door.
It doesn't help that it's starting to get a little worse, too. Shiro had felt a little more tired after battles before, but nothing he wasn't capable of managing. Now, he finds himself feeling more and more fatigued after major fights. And he doesn't think it's a coincidence that he feels the worst when he's forced to use his prosthetic more heavily than usual, whenever he repeatedly lights it up or uses its abilities significantly. It means he tries to compensate more and use it even less, but that in turn means the rest of the paladins take even more notice.
It becomes something that can't be ignored anymore three months after they were reunited. They've just finished liberating their twentieth planet, Koromok, which gratefully joins the Voltron Alliance. Twenty feels like a paltry number compared to the tens of thousands of still-enslaved planets, but it's an impressive feat for a team of five inexperienced pilots and one support ship, and Lance insists on celebrating.
"We've all got to be there. Really appreciate all the great stuff we've done so far," Lance says brightly. "Can't let the job get us down. Right? Shiro?"
Shiro's heart isn't exactly set on a party at the moment. The battle today had been rough at the end, and even if the decisive blow had been finished with Voltron, it had required a lot of foot work to free prisoners and sabotage Galra equipment. He'd been forced to go all out in combat, his right arm hurts, his whole body feels worn down, and he wants nothing more than quiet and a chance to just sit for a bit.
But Lance is watching him so eagerly, and the others are staring at him with looks that seem both begging and hopeful, and Shiro finds he can't deny them. Lance isn't wrong—it's so easy to get bogged down with the weight of the mission that they need any chance they can get to emphasize their successes.
"Right," Shiro agrees. "Why don't you guys get all set up?" Their eyes light up, and all of them scurry off to prepare, chatting amongst themselves about what exactly is needed. Even Keith looks interested, and doesn't keep himself distant from the rest of the group, which is a sure sign that this is needed.
Shiro sighs, glances at Allura, and adds, "This isn't going to be a problem, right?"
She and Coran both stare at Shiro intently, and for a moment Shiro is sure that she's not too happy about them taking any type of break, even for one night. Shiro has a feeling that Allura feels the weight of the mission more strongly than anyone—partly from the guilt of being absent for ten millennia, if he has to guess. She can be very insistent on constantly staying active, as a result.
But after a moment she says, "This is acceptable. I agree with Lance. While there are still a vast number of battles ahead of us, it is important to remember our victories, too. All of us can use such a reminder."
The way she emphasizes it, Shiro has a funny feeling she's directing that last line at him specifically. Especially the way she and Coran are still staring at him. He'd be a fool to think they haven't noticed his recent difficulties either, but he does his best to ignore it.
The party is a smaller, personal affair, with just the Castle residents—all of them had learned their lesson after Sendak's attack during the Arusian farewell party. Even so, it's impressive. Hunk outdoes himself creating a delicious-looking spread from Koromok food supplies, Pidge has managed to produce decent music from somewhere, and all of them, even the mice, are in an altogether better mood as they gather for what is supposed to be a night of victorious celebration.
Shiro remembers none of it, other than sitting down at one of the tables for a moment. When he opens his eyes next he finds he's stretched out on one of the lounge couches, with a couple blankets tossed over him, and it's the next morning.
He wishes he could attribute it to a bad blackout hangover, but he knows better than that. Nothing at the little celebration had been alcoholic, and he's never been a blackout drunk to begin with. The concerned looks the paladins give him, when he finds them during breakfast, only confirm it.
"You fell asleep at the table," Hunk tells him, as he sets a warm drink and something hot to eat down on front of Shiro and pushes it at him insistently. "Allura carried you out to the lounge to let you sleep more comfortably. You really gotta try to get more rest, Shiro. Please? You had us worried." The others nod in agreement, and stare at him with varying expressions of concern and uneasiness over their own breakfasts.
Shiro's sorry he scared them, and likely ruined the otherwise good mood of the little victory celebration. He's not the type to fall asleep in front of others, or appear in any way vulnerable if he can help it, and it had probably alarmed them.
He doesn't blame them. He's just alarmed himself, too. He knows he has more control than that—he'd been exhausted, but he shouldn't have passed out after a single fight. He doesn't even remember falling asleep, or being carried to the couch. And that's what really scares him—that he'd been so dead to the world and lacked so much awareness that he could be manipulated so easily.
Suddenly, this newfound exhaustion doesn't feel quite so manageable as before.
Things seem to start spiraling from there.
Shiro's used to feeling tired on a day to day basis, but he finds himself feeling progressively more and more so as the days go on. At first, he only really feels it more than usual after a particularly active battle, when he pushes his prosthetic to its limits and uses it far more than he knows he should. But after another few weeks, he finds himself feeling just as exhausted even when he deliberately cuts down on how often he uses his grafted weapon, or eliminates its use in combat completely.
Soon, he feels a continual haze of exhaustion even on days when they haven't been in a fight, when the Castle of Lions is traveling to its next destination or when they're in hiding while letting one or more of the paladins to recover. And that's when Shiro starts to get the feeling that something is a little more off than he first thought.
He's not sure why exactly he's suddenly always feeling so tired, even when they haven't done anything strenuous. But he hasn't forgotten the way he fell asleep at that little victory celebration weeks ago—and it's not the first time it's happened. A few more times since then, Shiro has found himself starting awake on couches or chairs around the Castle, where he presumably fell asleep the moment he stopped moving. Sometimes he'll wake with a blanket tossed over him or a pillow wedged under his head, and he knows someone else caught him while passed out, which is just as frustrating as the actual act of passing out itself.
He knows the others are getting worried about him. He's just not sure what he can do about it.
The whole thing feels a little surreal, and Shiro doesn't have much of an explanation for it. He's used to living tired, and he's gotten into the habit of living on only four or five hours of sleep a night. But he doubts his constant exhaustion and newfound narcolepsy are the result of that, or he's sure it would have started happening a while back. And while they have all been working hard and pushing themselves to save as many planets as they can, he doubts they've pushed themselves to such extremes to warrant this. Especially when Shiro's been more careful about how he handles himself in combat for weeks now.
Still, he does what he can to combat it. He actually takes the others' advice and tries to get a little more rest when he can, forcing himself to lay down earlier and try to sleep a little longer. It's not exactly easy—even not taking his often dark and disturbing dreams into account, he's always been a restless and light sleeper, and it's not easy to do a solid six to eight hours with no interruption. But he tries. He can't afford to let this put the others in danger, after all, and if things keep going as they are at some point he's going to pass out in combat when somebody really needs him. That would be unacceptable.
But he finds that sleep, even when he enforces it in his schedule, isn't really restful. He spends more and more time asleep, or tries fitting in naps in between training sessions when he can, but it doesn't feel like it does anything. For that matter, when he thinks about it, even the moments he falls asleep against his will don't really feel like they help. He wakes disoriented and feeling uncomfortable more than anything else, and more often than not he feels more tired than when he first laid down.
It's like it's beyond normal fatigue, beyond any kind of exhaustion he's ever dealt with before. He has no real explanation for it, but it does disturb him a little.
And Shiro starts noticing other things too, things he's not really sure how to explain or put to words. As the weeks pass he starts feeling…not hungry, exactly, and not thirsty, because Hunk and Coran between them never let their teammates want for healthy food or drink. His stomach never rumbles and he never has that dried out feeling like he's desperate for water. He knows he's getting the nutrients his body needs, because Hunk is great at keeping their meals balanced and Coran is very careful about checking on human dietary needs after the way the paladin lunch was so thoroughly rejected.
But he feels…he feels hungry. He doesn't know any other way to explain it. He's not starving for food, but he feels hungry in another sense, and he can never quite fulfill it. He doesn't know how. He's never felt anything like this before back on Earth, and if he did with the Galra he certainly can't remember. And the more days pass, the hungrier he feels.
Another week passes, and in addition to that not-quite-hunger, Shiro starts feeling…well, he's not entirely sure how to explain it, but emptier is the closest word he can think of. He's not sure if it's an extension of that unfilled not-hunger or something new. It's becoming harder to pick apart the symptoms, and it's much harder to focus on them, anyway.
But he doesn't notice the other things until he starts noticing the reactions of the others around him.
Keith asks him why he didn't show up for their one-on-one sparring matches, looking confused and concerned. Shiro tells him he forgot, that there had been a lot on his mind, but the lie feels flat on his tongue. In truth, he had remembered, but hadn't had the energy or the motivation to make his way to the training room. He's vaguely aware that this isn't like him and it's definitely not good for Keith—who needs some kind of structure and support for his role in the team—but it doesn't bother him as much it maybe should.
Keith's hurt look doesn't hurt as much as it should, either.
Their usual Voltron-forming practice is interrupted by some deep-space travel, and Lance, grinning hopefully, asks if this means training is cancelled. Allura and Coran argue that they must continue their training in some other form, and ask Shiro which kind of training session they will replace it with. Shiro is aware that this is a fairly simple question, but it takes him far longer than it should for him to register it and come up with an appropriate answer. He stares at them blankly while he tries to make a choice, and almost misses the way Lance's grin slides slowly into a frown. It's hard to tell, but Shiro doesn't think it's from disappointment at getting assigned new work to do that day after all.
Pidge and Hunk come to him together, rambling enthusiastically about some technological improvements they think they can make to the Lions and to their equipment that might help better serve in the fight. They want his opinion as the leader and overall tactician which of the project ideas they should focus on, and if he has any other ideas they think they can improve on. Their excitement is normally so warm it's overwhelming, and normally Shiro finds himself telling them to calm down and explain it all in layman's terms. This time he can barely bring himself to focus on what they say at all, and just tells them to do whatever they think is best. He doesn't even try to volunteer any of his own ideas—he doesn't have any, and it'll take too much thinking to make some. Somehow this answer isn't acceptable. The enthusiasm drains from both of them—something Shiro thinks he should probably feel bad about for causing but can't quite bring himself to actually do. Hunk actually asks if Shiro is feeling okay.
He isn't, really, and that's the first indicator that maybe something is more off than Shiro realizes.
He tells them he's just tired, and they leave him to rest. Almost immediately he just wants to ignore the entire situation and forget it happened, but something at the back of his mind insists that no, something about this is important. He should try to hold onto this, as much as he doesn't want to bother.
And it really hits him, two days later, about exactly what's happening. He watches all of the paladins clowning around and arguing about the best ice cream flavors, to the confusion of Allura and Coran, who are demanding explanations for this 'ice cream.' The atmosphere is relaxed and amused, not unlike the time all of them argued over laser sounds, and it should feel fun and entertaining. But Shiro just feels…nothing, really. He can't dredge up any enthusiasm or goofiness or even the exasperated need to tell them to quiet down and behave themselves. He has no desire to join in. He just feels listless. Empty. Hungry.
Something is very wrong. He knows this for sure now, and yet at the same time, it's like he can't even bring himself to care.
But looking back, now that he's more self-aware, he realizes he's had this problem for days. It's hard to spot unless he's interacting with one of the others and can see how differently he's acting. If left to his own devices he doesn't notice because he can't bring himself to bother. But now he's starting to realize how drained he feels. How empty. He feels gray, washed out, like only a part of him is really there. And it's making it more and more difficult to interact with his friends, or perform his duties as the black paladin.
Even piloting the Black Lion is far more difficult than before. What once used to come so naturally to him is now a struggle. He flies more out of muscle memory than the inter-connection between human mind and Lion presence. Listening to her guiding imagery and thoughts is so difficult, like she's trying to yell the answers at him from the other side of the Castle of Lions. She feels so distant, and trying even the basics of flying takes more willpower than he feels he has some days. Trying to see through her eyes is almost impossible now.
That does scare him, and is the one thing that manages to crack his otherwise gray indifference. He's not sure why, but losing his connection with his Lion is definitely a sure sign that something is wrong.
The worst by far is forming Voltron. If connecting with his own Lion is difficult, maintaining the bond needed to connect to not just her, but four other individuals and their Lions, is grueling and exhausting. It's a little scary, that something that used to give him so much exhilaration is now such a struggle. Every time Voltron strikes a decisive blow against the Galra, Shiro can feel the others' victory, but he can't feel it himself—just exhaustion.
All of it is so tiring to maintain, and there is a part of Shiro that is rapidly growing that doesn't want to bother anymore. It's too exhausting to keep pushing forward when whatever is happening is getting worse, and he's so empty and hungry, and he's not even sure why he should care to begin with. Why does any of this matter to him? It's nothing he asked for. Leading? Making all these calls? Forming Voltron? It's not the job for him. He's terrible at it. Undeserving of that role. He's tired. He's starving. He wants to be done.
But another piece of him—an insistent voice that keeps getting a little softer every day, but hasn't given up yet—fights that growing indifference and fatigue. You're the leader. You need to keep going for the universe, for Earth, for the paladins, for Allura and Coran. You can't be the weak link here. Keep fighting. Don't. Stop. Fighting.
So he doesn't. Exhausting as it is, drained and unworthy as he feels, he hangs onto that little voice and keeps fighting. He forces all the willpower he has left into concentrating on their battles, making the calls that are needed, and on forming Voltron and masking his thoughts and feelings—or lack thereof—from the others. He forces some degree of interaction outside battle, trying to maintain some semblance of what passes for 'normal' for them all these days. Most of all, he stresses to himself over and over the need to just hang on and keep going. If he maintains this charade long enough maybe he can make it real. Don't stop fighting. Keep going.
And he does. For a little while longer.