Shiro inhaled, pulling the barbell toward his chest. He pushed up on exhale and cast a glance toward the source.
The cadet slouched forward on the adjacent bench, a slash of black in an otherwise sterile room, distinctly not in uniform—which, fair enough, this was the gym. He peered at Shiro, arms draped over his split knees; a bottle dangling between his index and middle fingers; his hair damp and a thin sheen of sweat specking his skin, breath yet to settle from his own workout.
Behind him, on the wall, a placard: Don't monopolise the equipment.
Shiro's mouth twitched at a smile.
Ah, well. Let him sit. No harm done. Inhale-pull; push-exhale, pause. "Why 'Keith'?"
Keith frowned. He straightened his posture and lifted the bottle to his mouth, seizing the cap to snap it open with his teeth.
"Why the face?" said Shiro, who was innocent.
If it was possible to condense condescension and boil it down to one reply, it would be this one: "Uh, 'cause it's my name?" Steamed with you know what I meant.
Which he did, but this cadet was bad at using his words. Inhale-pull; push-exhale, pause. "Mine's not?"
Water shot from the bottle. If Shiro had been closer he might have felt the splash damage: Keith tipped his head and drank like he swallowed with his skin. Liquid poured down his chin, splitting into two streams—one that jumped from jaw-to-chest and another that bled down his neck. Together, they worked toward a wet front. Hard to believe any had gone in his mouth.
"Dry spot," said Shiro. "Lower left." Inhale-exhale, pause.
Keith ignored him, thunking the bottle on the bench with an empty plap. "Isn't your full one." He dragged the back of his hand across his lips, reaffixing his stare. "Not even the first."
"Well..." Couldn't argue that. Inhale-exhale, pause. "I didn't exactly pick it."
Shiro completed two more reps before the silence broke, cautious: "...what?"
Inhale-exhale, pause. "It was hard to pronounce."
"Takashi Shirogane?" Keith arched an eyebrow. "That's easy."
"I thought so, but—nh-"
—he lifted the barbell back into its brackets, where it belonged.
Lifting wasn't prime-time for conversation, but he didn't mind humouring this particular cadet. His was a special case.
Overview: orphan. Summary: passed between hands like a destructive pet adopted by those who knew little—if anything—about caring for it; possessed by brilliant talent. General consensus: aloof and difficult; landed in the Galaxy Garrison by virtue of aptitude, not attitude.
It wasn't a fair conclusion. The kid took well to iron-clad rules and respected solid decisions; demonstrated no issue upholding the Code of Conduct (and if Shiro were the betting sort, he'd wager his hard-earned status that he'd never so much as glanced at it); and might have flown through every class with all-around solid marks if not for one problem: he wasn't the only cadet in existence.
Keith forgot things. Rules, in particular, although not the Garrison's. He forgot specific rules set by individual officers and instructors, who had particular preferences he didn't understand. They were there to enforce the established rules and teach standard material, so why should their preferences matter? Why couldn't they just do their damn jobs?
Shiro sat up and swept his hair from his eyes. Keith watched with his head cocked just-so. What, exactly, was he looking at? What did he see? Certainly didn't feel like he saw his sweat-slick senior more than he was searching, grasping for something far beyond them, long out of their reach.
"Sooo, like...Takashiroganymede or something?"
"Wh-" The word vanished, erupting in half-a-laugh-sputter. Was that...a joke? Judging by the faint-but-self-satisfied curve lounging on Keith's mouth...it was definitely...something that somewhat resembled a joke.
It was also progress. "Way, way too good! Worse."
"By how much?"
Solemn, as if speaking at the memorial service for a dearly departed friend who happened to be named Proper Pronunciation: "Tuhcashy Shyrogain."
Silence stretched in what might have been awe. Then, horror: "No way."
"Way. I'm lucky Shiro made it out alive."
"You didn't correct them?"
"At first I did, but I gave up."
"Why?" Like he didn't understand the concept.
Shiro stifled his smile. "It wasn't that important. Besides, I kinda liked having a nickname."
He saw connections being made; ideas being had—thoughts snapping like errant electrons that couldn't decide where they wanted to be, each one sparking in his eyes. Trouble was Shiro didn't know where any of them were going. Keith failed to enlighten him, but he accomplished standing and snatching his empty bottle from the bench, heading for the exit. His brows jumped while he turned, speechless, following Keith with his stare because that Was Not How Conversations Were Supposed To End.
Five steps later, Keith said: "Well, m'gonna hit the shower."
"Oookay." Did that just happen?
The thin figure stopped, framed like a shadow in the doorway, pausing like he forgot something—because he had. He tilted a glance over his shoulder and sought eye-contact. Once he had it: "Later, Shiro."
Dumbstruck, Shiro replied, "See you around, Keith."
And then he was gone.
They spoke every so often.
As time passed, they spoke often enough.
When more time passed, they spoke fairly often.
At some point they spoke more often than they didn't—about a lot of things. Keith's classes, if Shiro brought them up. His hobbies—which didn't exist beyond an obsession with physical hand-to-hand combat, like the career path "fighter pilot" was a perk. They spoke of his disregard for his physical limits—how he needed to learn when to retreat and come back to succeed later. How he should rest once in a while.
Mostly they spoke of Shiro, because Keith was good at strong-arming the topic back around. What were Shiro's hobbies—you know, outside his obsession with flying? ("It's a healthy interest.") Did Shiro ever rest? Come to think of it, Keith seemed to recall some solid advice he'd heard recently, from a guy who knew what he was talking about. He had it on good authority that Shiro should take it. It was— ("Okay, okay. I get it.")
Many times they spoke with silence, pursing their individual interests with a degree of closeness that said: I like being around you, and heard I like being around you, too in turn.
Sometimes they left the Garrison. Other times, like today, they stayed nearby.
The surrounding desert was dotted with enough tall hills and stubby mountains to lend a view to star-seekers who preferred not to do such things from the top of the Garrison, where there was always light. Not that it made much difference beyond providing a place to exist without prying eyes, ears, or unwelcome interruptions. As alone as you could get on Garrison property. A place where-
"We out here for anything?" Keith stood at the top of the ruddy slope, hands crammed in his uniform's pockets.
Shiro wondered when he'd fallen behind—and why he hadn't noticed. He put his best thoughtful face forward. "I thought it'd be a nice change of scenery."
"That why the Garrison's right over there?" Keith jerked his head to indicate.
"This is different," said Shiro, who wouldn't be deterred. "Instead of being in the Garrison looking into the desert, we're in the desert looking into the Garrison."
Keith looked at him like he was hopeless—but he was smiling. "Real philosophical."
"You think so?"
"Yeah, but I almost failed that unit, so, probably not a compliment."
"Philosophy of Physical Sciences? We can work on that."
"If you're sure." He paused once he caught up, dropping a hand on Keith's shoulder. "But really, I thought this would be a good place to talk."
He heard Keith's footing shuffle-stamp as he walked by, which wasn't too concerning because he hadn't had a choice. Not with the way Shiro had firmly—cordially—jostled him before moving on. "Let's find a spot first."
He couldn't see the look pinned on his back, but he imagined it had a lot in common with a harassed cat.
They had asked for his opinion.
First, they told him, due to his skill and experience. Second, he'd tested the set and provided feedback before the roll-out a year ago. Third, he had a good relationship with the boy but could be trusted to render fair, if not impartial, judgment to his performance. Fourth and most important: Kogane had glitched DCIV-NVE-033—short name, V33—in a way they'd never seen.
Crashing them wasn't unheard of. One pilot, they'd noted, had a talent for it even and he wasn't even fighter class, but they digressed. This was different: the mission was suspended in a state of neither incompletion nor completion and had to be shut down externally once the instructor realised something had gone wrong. They flagged it for higher review, unsure what to make of it. Higher review wanted to know what Takashi Shirogane thought—which was why he was in one of the Garrison review rooms, watching several monitors, each one telling him something different.
Right now he was most interested in the audio.
I said 'hang right'!
He glanced to the monitor at his left, mouth ticked down. That—
I heard you.
Because I'm right! Just shut up and let me do this!
He didn't hear himself sigh. Good headphones will do that—but the exasperation he felt toward their lack of communication vanished when he saw their trajectory. He pressed his mouth in a tight, firm line while he lifted his hands to the headphones, pushing its cups against his ears, like that might help him hear beyond the sound of the boy who wasn't Keith yelling, urging his co-pilot to fall back; the sound of the craft taking and returning fire. One look at another monitor confirmed the lack of answer: Keith refused to respond even while they wrestled with their gears, fighting for control.
After a while—past the rattling, the shouting—he identified noise that must have come from him: low, dark rumbling that rolled into growling like the snap-snarl of bared fangs. Keith whirled his head and lanced the boy beside him with a hard stare, visibly grinding his teeth—which was enough to cow him, stop him from trying to interfere. He didn't have full control for long before the sound died.
...only to rise again in the form of confusion a few seconds later, the intense fury-driven focus wiped away as if he'd undergone a hard reset.
Uh... I don't think this was supposed to happen.
The transmission ended. Shiro stared at the blank monitors.
He watched it again—and a third time, just to be sure. Afterward, he removed his headphones.
"Well," he said, quietly, to no one: "He wasn't wrong."
Your thoughts? they asked, after he'd seen what he wanted to see.
The teamwork needs to exist. From there, it could use some work.
They all agreed: Kogane had done the equivalent of hamstringing his co-pilot and dragging him through hostile territory toward some ambiguous victory. All but Shiro found his frustration remarkable.
Not your standard cadet. Most would gloat if they pulled that off in their first year.
He'd been about to comment before another voice spoke.
Can you give a rundown of V33?
The scenario, he explained, was the first in a series built to gauge a pilot's response to imminent danger. There were two paths: the first involved a so-called safe route that would come under fire the moment the pilot veered too close to designated enemy territory, which was part of its design. The pilot was supposed to believe they'd miscalculated. The second was trickier. It was a blind spot in the enemy's defense and required unforgiving accuracy to pass without triggering an attack. It was engineered to identify analytical cadets so their training could be modified accordingly. Few found the blind spot. Kogane completed V33 without doing either.
Then it's safe to say Kogane sliced a third path directly through enemy airspace—while struggling to control his ship, no less.
Were you aware this path was possible?
For a moment, silence.
Do you have any recommendations?
The sky was pink-purple, cooling to deep blue with the threat of evening. It brought a brand of cold that was pleasant through the warmth of a uniform, but promised discomfort the later they stayed out. Keith didn't seem to notice. He sat with his back slumped against a large rock, one leg folded and the other stretched out, his eyes shut. "That's bad, right?"
"I'd say it's more 'unprecedented.'" Shiro sat with his own back to the rock, facing the dying sun. They weren't beside each other, but their arms almost touched. "I wanted to talk about a few more things. Let's move on to your co-pilot."
No reply. Shiro checked over his shoulder. Keith's posture had become an aggressive slouch, which he took to be an invitation to continue: "Keith, listen. His concern was warranted. You're supposed to talk to your co-pilot. If you were wrong, it was his performance on the line. He had to try to stop you."
"I know that."
Which perhaps explained why he didn't lash out against his co-pilot despite his displeasure at the time. Shiro made a mental note and moved on. "Next time, you have to talk to them."
"That was one mission," Keith snapped.
"I watched more than one mission."
"I have talked to them."
"All right, all right. You've talked to them—and if they don't understand, you might yell at them, but then you ignore them."
Conspicuous, sulk-sullied silence.
Shiro invaded Keith's personal space, inching along the rock to nudge their shoulders together. "Look, I get you. Even if it takes a few seconds to explain, this isn't life-or-death. If those seconds cost you your mission and you told your officer your intent, they'd let you redo. Probably solo."
"They don't do it for anybody."
How to word this? "All right, preface: I don't like saying stuff like this, so I'm saying it as myself, not a Garrison official. Understand?"
Keith opened one eye, tipping a glance in Shiro's direction. "Understood."
"They aren't you. Tell me, when the other cadets say they were gonna do something else, what do the officers say?"
"They ask what they were gonna do."
"And how do they respond?"
Silence—ah, there's the lightbulb. Keith opened both eyes, surprise rising in them like high water, drowning the last belligerent flickers of anger. "Usually keeping on about how they could do differently while blaming somebody else."
"If you told them what you intended to do, they'd let you." He didn't say and if they wouldn't before, they sure as hell will now. "They've got their preferences, but first and foremost: your program is about trial and error. Learning what works and what doesn't. It's also about communication and cooperation. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but you've gotta focus on communication."
The flat-line of Keith's mouth sagged into a scowl. Shiro pressed on. "I know what you're thinking. 'The real deal isn't like that.' And you're right, it's not, but Keith—as far as the Garrison's concerned? You're beginners. They wanna make sure you guys are in the same book first, let alone the same page, you get me?"
Keith looked back to the portion of sky he'd staked out. "I guess."
No good. "And what's that got to do with you?"
"I'm thinking ahead."
Better. Affection overwhelmed him—a foreign, prickling warmth that began to swell with every breath. He watched what he could see of Keith's expression, trying to ignore the tightness in his chest. "Way ahead. Impressive work in there."
His company cast him a sidelong glance. "You've seen me pilot before."
"Not like that. Which, second thing: you think you could recreate that path?"
"Yeah, easy. Why?" Confidence—but not arrogance, like he'd been asked 'Can you breathe?' and he'd replied with the only factually correct answer.
He couldn't figure out why the warmth was churning itself into something feverish. "I'd like to see what you can do without the..."
"Yelling? Arguing? Complaining? Fighting? Interfering?"
"...without all of that, yes."
"Should've stayed in the Garrison," said Keith, knocking their shoulders together. "Could show you now." His smile was gentle; made Shiro feel like a rabbit locked in headlights, trapped by someone who appeared happy to be there, not at the Garrison, looking at him.
They were in a place where they could speak without prying eyes, ears, or unwelcome interruptions. As alone as they could get on Garrison property. A place where the sun buried itself in the horizon and surrendered to night. Nothing but them, the rocks, the desert, the hovering moon, and a sky beginning to burn with stars.
"Hindsight," said Shiro. "You know how that goes."
"How'd you pass V33?"
He couldn't recall a time he'd wanted to talk less about anything connected to the Garrison. "Went through the blind spot."
'There was a blind spot?' would have had the same effect. The corner of Shiro's mouth crept into a smirk as he leaned back, turning his focus to the dimming sunset. Nix that previous thought. Talking about this was fine. "You saw the other way, right?"
"The long way around?"
"That's the one. I forgot to ask—why didn't you take it?"
Without delay: "I figured if we were gonna get shot at anyway I'd take the shortcut."
Take the... Shiro's exhale staggered into a chuckle. He allowed his eyes to drift shut, grinning to nothing and everything.
It wasn't until the sun was gone that Keith broke their silence: "Why do you bother?"
A strange tone dogged the question. Shiro blinked at what he could see of the form not-quite-beside him—the curve of his jaw, black hair. "With what?"
Hesitant. "Yeah." Then, faint: "You do."
Well. He never expected to hear confirmation, but there it was. "I'm glad I can."
Keith's voice took a sharp turn, bitten by impatience. "You didn't answer my question."
"About why I bother?"
"The one and only."
"Think about that for a second."
He spun like violence, twisting to snarl at Shiro, irritation flickering like wind worrying candle flames—the trick kind that don't go out easily. "I have thought about it! You don't get paid for this. You're not even my officer." The arm furthest away from Shiro bent itself into an aggressive half-shrug, fingers spread and half-curled like he was grasping at the air.
It was to his greatest credit he didn't laugh, electing to speak with even, calm words. "Think a bit harder. If I'm not being paid and I don't teach you, why would I bother?"
He stared like Shiro had taken Pandora's box, chopped it into pieces, assembled it into a Rubik's cube, and asked him to solve it.
"Come on now."
The stare intensified, like he'd been informed of his ten-second time limit.
Getting harder and harder to keep his mouth still. "It's not that difficult."
"You..." Keith scrunched his face with confusion, pausing before the rest of the words fell from his lips. "...never stop working?"
Which was where Shiro lost it: laughter roared, barking a handful of loud notes before he wrestled it back under control—but he couldn't curb his grin. "It's not that! Here's a hint: I don't bother."
Keith lowered his indignant half-shrugging arm, flattening its palm on the rough earth beneath them. The air around them was thick with gravity, anchoring him back to a reasonable place. His eyes—blue? Gray-blue? Blue-on-the-verge-of-violet? Violet-blue? What colour were they? Too dark to tell now—searched Shiro's, guileless; filled with some forget-me-not fervor that kicked him in the chest and tied his lungs in knots. "I guess we're friends, huh?"
Another kick. For a different reason. "Few months late on that. What'd you think this whole time?"
He watched Keith melt into the rock; noted the exposed line of his throat when he dropped his head back; the way his eyes closed again instead of seeking stars. There was something sly in his voice when he answered. "That you're weird."
Shiro scoffed. "Spending time with you isn't weird."
"Hot-shot top pilot-turned-officer, praised as a living legend, hanging out with a first-year he doesn't teach?"
"Okay, maybe it's a little weird without the friendship part."
"It didn't bother me."
Heartbeat: intrusive, pounding the rhythm of...something like panic, but not quite. "Okay, third thing," he said, perhaps too quickly. "Heads' up: your schedule's going to change soon and you'll report to me twice a week." Focus on the sun. "Not sure how they're splitting it yet, but you'll know soon." On the sun. Not on Keith. Not yet.
Not even if he looked incredulous, like some mistake was being made. "What?"
"C'mon." Shiro inhaled a deep, silent breath; dividing himself from the feeling that threatened to consume him, clawing up the steep face of victory, where he found solace in teaching. If he focused on that, he wouldn't have to think of anything else. "You know you're good."
"Not like you."
"I'll decide that. Twice weekly, after the change."
Keith puffed a pffff. "Gunning the whole 'authority figure' thing already?" Somehow, he didn't sound displeased.
Another smile breached Keith's voice. "Thought you knew how to stop working."
It was contagious. "I don't remember saying that."
"Guess I gotta get used to this."
No one would blame him for delighting in such things: the sound of heavy breath panting from between parted lips; the way the glare tried to crush him, like the concept of annihilation was all it understood; the smoldering focus—
—and how easy it was to demolish by asking, "So, how's it going?"
Shiro ducked left, narrowly dodging the blur of black-clothed arm. Through gritted teeth, a reply: "Ffffffffiiiiine-" followed by another strike.
No-go that time either. "Really?"
It wasn't that Shiro didn't take him seriously. The trouble was this was getting nowhere—rather, Keith was getting nowhere. He also wasn't giving up. Third round was supposed to be the charm, but all Shiro had managed to say was 'All right, let's ca-' before Keith lunged, trying to swipe victory through the element of surprise and a nigh-silent flank attack. It might have worked if exhaustion and frustration hadn't made him sloppy.
Which did nothing but make him more frustrated, shouting: "You already kn-
The sound wrenched from his throat when Shiro took him down. Keith's back hit the mat but he was slow, unable to escape the quickness with which a knee struck his abdomen.
"Give," said Shiro.
But the wild look hadn't fled his dark glare, like something had snapped and he understood nothing but the instinct driving him to win under pain of death. He struggled beneath Shiro, thrashing hard enough he almost threw him—and subsequently forced him to do something he didn't want to do: he drove his weight harder into Keith's stomach, pinning his arms to the floor.
Keith's eyes screwed shut, gurgling with pain.
"Give," Shiro repeated, voice firm with warm command.
The lithe body weathered pain and shortness of breath for longer than he'd expected, but he didn't let up when Keith's muscles slackened. He began a silent count: one. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Sev—six-and-a-half seconds was all it took for Keith to flare with frustration, setting off another round of struggling. In time, tension drained in a way Shiro hadn't observed him able to fake.
Fondly, then: "Finished?"
That was all he needed to disengage, pushing himself to a stand. He'd been about to turn to leave when he noticed Keith failed to exhibit interest in doing the same. He'd gotten as far as sitting up, but he sat with his eyes still shut, mouth wrecked around a deep frown; brows furrowed while he shook his head like someone shaking off a daze.
That seemed...off. "You all right?" Had he been too...? Whatever the reason, he stooped to offer his hand. "Anything hurt?"
Keith reached as if he sensed him, but overshot his grip. Shiro felt the surprise in his pause as fingers met muscle instead of the unmistakable structure of a palm. Even so, he dug his fingertips in as if to say this way's fine. "Nah, just dizzy."
His grip was gentle around Keith's forearm as he—helped him up wasn't correct, if only because he felt no weight pulling on him; no evidence he wasn't just fine to stand on his own. Held his arm while he stood up? Not much time to think about before another thought presented itself: Keith hadn't let go. Shiro looked to their hands—their arms—and then to his face, where his dark lashes were beginning to shiver, opening part way while he sighed.
He was aware of his pulse, how it felt like his heart was trying to run away; to take off to some place where it could hide or escape deep into the desert, up one of those not-quite-mountains; to fling itself off a ledge; anything to avoid confr-
"Good job," he said, because despite Keith's difficulty with winding down, it was true. More than that: it was the only thing he could think to say.
Keith, who could be tricked by someone telling him they had a bridge for sale (even if he would wonder why they thought he cared about their real estate), leveled him with half-lidded skepticism. "I barely touched you."
"You'll get there." Shiro broke away, patting his back in passing.