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An Intermission

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The screen flickers with static, and Keith has to choke down the snorting into his hand when the bi bohs playing Zarkon and Haggar enter the rink. He’s using his own resources, on his own downtime, not jeopardizing the mission, not technically doing anything wrong, but it still feels like he’s breaking some unspoken rule. He’s done his part, he’s been sitting here for almost two vargas and there’s nothing he can do now but wait. He turns the volume down almost to mute.

When Allura comes in, playing the role of him, Keith can’t hold it in anymore -he laughs, and it feels like a cough in his chest, like something he hasn’t done in a while. He’s sure it wasn’t that long ago, the last time he was watching Pidge and Lance arguing over their game, but it’s hard to keep track of days here when there’s always something to do, somewhere else he needs to be.

Then Shiro comes in. And Shiro does even this , ice skating for with a Voltron-painted cardboard box on his head, the same way he does everything -intensely, passionately, his lines clean, his flips sharp, playing his role with that same focus and earnestness as if the immediate survival of the quadrant depended on him skating through this performance well enough.

It’s the cutest thing Keith has ever seen. He feels himself warming up in the empty cold of the ship’s venting tubes, and the smile that lights up his face comes from somewhere very deep, and very distant now, in his heart. He wants to rewind, turn the volume up, hear Shiro’s voice again, hear him say it - form Voltron! - but not here, not now. Later, when it’s just him, and he can pretend Shiro’s right there by his side again.

“Extraction in thirty,” Kolivan’s voice calls from his earpiece, and Keith turns the feed off on his comm pad and leaps to his feet. He owes a few favours around to get his hands on this vid, he can enjoy the whole thing later. He’ll need to remember the lines he can’t let each of them live down the next time he sees the team, after all, but that’s later -right now, he needs to outrun a blast and survive this morning, first.

 

***

 

He dreams of something he hasn’t thought of in a long time, that night.

He and Shiro are young, younger than now. It was two or three years ago (maybe four? he doesn’t know how long they’ve been here anymore), but it feels like it was in a different lifetime. Keith is wobbling on top of a bicycle with a frame that’s slightly too big for him, his feet only just reaching the pedals, his hands gripping on the handles so tight he feels like he might break them. And behind him, Shiro is laughing, even as he holds onto the seat and strolls along with him.

“I still don’t know how you can pilot a fighter jet, but you can’t ride a bike,” Shiro teases him, getting under his skin in that way that only Shiro manages to.

“Flying a jet’s not like riding a toothpick on wheels,” Keith snarks back, still wobbling as he tries to find the right pacing of his pedalling, but every time one foot moves his hands move with it, and he almost tips the bike over again. “If I crash one, I’m not gonna end up under a car.”

“No, you’re just gonna blow up in a ball of fire,” Shiro laughs, a clean, boyish laughter Keith hasn’t heard in forever, and damn it he sounds so young, ”But yeah, I guess that’s better than getting run over by a truck?”

“See, you get me,” Keith answers with a half-grin that’s just this side of cocky, that makes Shiro shake his head and grin at him too.

Focus, Keith. You can do this.”

It’s not a big mystery -Keith can’t ride bikes because he’s never learned to. Dad couldn’t afford one when he was a kid, and as soon as he was old enough to steal his first hoverbike, he didn’t need to learn how to pedal anymore. It is what it is.

He thinks back to that feeling. The first time he felt air billowing up under his feet, how he struggled with the handles to keep the bike afloat without tipping over on his ass, how he had to stare straight ahead the whole time he bolted back to the house and not think about the sand and the small rocks hitting the side of his boots, how the wind on his face told him when to accelerate and when to slow down, and how that -learning to fly on his own, just feeling the rumble of the motor from the tips of his fingers to the sole of his feet and making it up as he goes- somehow’s made him the second best pilot in the Garrison.

“It’s not technique,” Iverson told him once, and Shiro would repeat so many times later. It’s not knowing how to -it’s trying. It’s getting in there and giving it all until you make it, it’s letting your instinct tell you when it’s time to move and when it’s time to stop, it’s focusing on doing what you can, it’s learning you can do so much more.

“It’s knowing who you are,“ Shiro had told him, “And being the best version of you that you can be.”

“Keith,” Shiro calls him, gently, and when Keith looks up from his daydream, he finds Shiro beaming at him, hands in his pockets as he still strolls along beside him. “You did it.”

He looks down at himself, and yeah, it looks like he did. Somewhere along the way his feet found the right pace while Shiro held him up -now he just needs to find the right balance to make sure he can stand on his own.

“I should take you ice skating next,” Shiro wonders aloud, tapping a finger to his lips with the most innocent look he can play at, and Keith risks a swerve and near fall when he lets go of one handle to punch Shiro in the arm. He barely avoids tipping over and bringing both of them down, but it’s worth it.

“Is there anything you’re actually bad at?” Keith snorts, knowing the answer is probably no, not really, even if Shiro likes to play modest at everything until he crushes your ass at it.

Shiro shrugs, smiling down to himself more than Keith now, and Keith can’t help following Shiro’s eyes more than the pavement ahead. “I’m kind of a jerk sometimes?”

They go on in silence for a few seconds, Shiro staring at his feet and Keith looking straight ahead, until the air shifts around them and they start cracking up at the same time, a snicker that bursts from one, a snort that escapes the other, and soon they’re both almost giggling together, trying to hold back a laughter that ends up coming out anyway, loud against the empty highway and the open plains around them.

“‘fraid I can’t help you with that,” Keith shrugs, and they’re both laughing again, young and silly, like this is the happiest they’ll ever be.

Keith wakes up the next morning feeling happier than he’s been in -who knows how long now.

 

***

 

The screen flickers with static and white noise once, twice, until the feed settles on Shiro’s face again. This time Keith can see him well: his hair is growing a little again, he looks like he’s been sleeping -not much, but he’ll take it. Shiro’s smiling at him, a real, genuine smile, not whatever that was that he’d seen Shiro try to pull through those couple of weeks before he left.

“Shiro the Hero, huh.”

It’s just light-hearted teasing, and Shiro knows it, but he still flushes a deep red and looks mortified, hiding his face in his hands. “I was hoping you wouldn’t see that.”

Keith laughs, his heart feeling lighter than it has in months, to see Shiro like this again -earnest, having a little fun, taking a joke in stride. “You had to know I would sell my liver to an unilu for footage of you guys skating with boxes on your heads.”

Shiro glares at him, but it’s a joke too and it doesn’t last two seconds before he’s laughing too. This is Shiro to him again - the man who takes his mission so seriously that he’s willing to have a laugh at himself for it.

“I never did take you ice skating, did I?” Shiro asks, and it’s meant to be part of the joke, Keith thinks, but it comes out a little too wistfully, and for a second his heart races and something feels off beat inside him. He wonders if Shiro’s been having dreams of happier days, too.

Keith shakes his head, still smiling, in that way that he can never quite stop smiling a little bit when Shiro’s there beside him, even when “beside him” means fifteen or more quadrants away. No, he never did, and if they ever make it back to Earth in one piece, that’s one on the list of many things he and Shiro promised each other that he fully intends to make good on, one day.

“Listen Keith,” Shiro calls, in that gentle tone he uses far too much these days, that tone that sometimes breathes life into Keith and sometimes grates down to his soul. “I know I’ve been-”

“It’s fine,” Keith cuts him, before he can open this can of worms any further.

And it’s kind of fine, and it’s kind of not, but he hasn’t seen Shiro in weeks except for that one tiny footage, he hasn’t heard Shiro talk to him or joke with him or laugh with him in longer than he can stand, even if he has his mission and Shiro has his own too, and he doesn’t want to do this conversation right now. It’s fine. He just called to tell Shiro he looked both gallant and a little ridiculous in that press tour, and that he misses the sound of his voice and that hand on his shoulder, the small of his back more than he ever should, but that part he can’t bring himself to say, and the rest of it they can leave for some other time.

“It’s fine,” he says again. “You’re kind of a jerk sometimes, but so am I, so we’re good, right?”

Shiro’s face has that look like he wants to say something, but then it’s gone, and he’s shaking his head too, sighing that little sigh he saves for Keith when he knows there’s no point beating this horse.

“Two vargas to boarding,” Kolivan’s voice buzzes through his channel, and Shiro watches him as Keith closes the channel, listens and acknowledges his orders.

There’s a question in his eyes for a moment -he wants to know, he wants to ask how Keith is doing, how his training is going, what’s he been up to, is it dangerous, can he help; he wants to worry, but he knows he can’t. The training wheels came off years ago, he needs to let Keith do this for himself. Keith is grateful, and knowing that Shiro trusts him to pick himself up even should he crash his own ass down does make things easier, even if he’ll always miss having that safe hand at his back.

“I have to go,” Keith excuses himself as a second voice buzzes on his private channel, and Shiro nods with a little mock-salute and something of that old Garrison charm back in his smile.

“Do the best you can,” Shiro tells him, and to Keith that means more than apologies between them could say. He still doesn’t know quite how to get there, but -he’s trying.

They stay there a tick anyway, watching each other and thinking over things they still want to say, but then the minute’s over and they move almost as one as voices call them from both their ends. There’s one thing Keith forgot to say, though, and Shiro’s almost hanging up when he calls out one last time.

“Hey, Shiro the Hero,” and it’s worth the look on Shiro’s face when he cringes and cracks up at the same time, looking back at Keith with that face of one who’s about to punch him through the screen if he must. Keith grins and gives him one last salute before hanging up with, “Save an autograph for me, when I’m back.”