Actions

Work Header

Keith Kogane and the Hufflepuff Enigma

Work Text:

“Lance is an enigma, wrapped in mystery,” Hunk informed Keith sagely, reaching across the crowded table for the butter crock. “He’s not for we mere mortals to understand.”

“In other words, whatever he said, he was probably trying to get a date.” Pidge didn’t look up from the intimidatingly large tome in front of them, ink stained fingers tracing the inverted lines of an ancient rune with something like reverence. They plucked their quill from beneath the plate Hunk was stacking with buttery toast and scribbled a translation on the tail end of a strip of parchment that stretched across the table and spilled onto the floor. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”

“I’m not worrying about it,” Keith protested. It was a total lie; his eyes were dry and burning and the dark bags under them had accentuated how red they were in the mirror that morning. His reflection had grumpily informed him that so little rest was bad for their skin and had tried, futilely, to convince him to skip morning classes in favor of a few more hours of beauty sleep. Keith had ignored it but found himself wishing that he hadn’t because as it turned out, tossing and turning in bed thinking about Lance was infinitely preferable to being in the same room thinking about Lance, even if that room was as big as the Great Hall.

The enigma in question was on the far side of the hall at the Slytherin table, a bright spot of yellow in the sea of green. His hair was a wild mess, his scarf lopsided and drooping down to reveal a stretch of long, dark neck, and he was gesticulating wildly, his brows furrowed in indignation. Keith had watched him burst into the Hall a few minutes before, Allura following at a more sedate pace. Lance was almost constantly in trouble for something, particularly with the Head Girl, but whatever that morning’s transgression was the result had managed to dampen his usually sunny disposition. Temporarily, at least. Keith had no doubt that by their shared Charms class he would be blinding everyone with that obnoxious smile, cracking jokes and adding dramatic flourishes to the animating spells they were set to work on that day. Lance was nothing if not resilient, after all.

“He said we make a hell of a team.” Keith watched Lance take an aggressive bite from a bagel and then continue his tirade with his mouth full. A tall, pretty Slytherin girl with long hair put her hand on his shoulder. Keith scowled. “He called me his friend.”

A clatter of cutlery drew Keith’s attention back to his companions, who were staring at him in blatant disbelief. Hunk’s mouth was wide open, his jaw slack, and even Pidge was lowering their quill. “What?” Keith snapped. He could feel himself flushing.

“Wait. Wait, wait, hold up.” Hunk brandished a strip of bacon at Keith. “You’ve been acting like-”

“A brooding cloud of emo teenage angst?” Pidge offered.

Hunk nodded. “Thank you Pidge. A brooding cloud of emo teenage angst since dinner yesterday because Lance complimented you?”

“And said they were friends!” Pidge’s expression was a mixture of glee and outright mockery.

“Dude, you seriously lost sleep over that? Of course you guys are friends. How many years have we all been hanging out? We've spent holidays together!”

Keith was pretty sure his cheeks were as red as his scarf, he was blushing so hard. “He’s never even implied we’re friends,” he muttered defensively, averting his gaze to the untouched pile of eggs on his plate. He prodded at them with his finger. “He’s definitely never had anything positive to say about us working together. He’s always shouting about that rivalry he’s so obsessed with.”

It was the truth. It had only taken as long as their first Herbology test results to be posted for Lance to announce that he and Keith were arch rivals. Keith had beaten him out for the best grade in the shared Hufflepuff-Gryffindor class by what had appeared to be one question, and while it hadn’t initially mattered to Keith how well he did, Lance’s declaration and subsequent promise to leave Keith in his dust had ignited a flame of competitiveness in Keith’s chest that had been burning ever since. In every class, shared or not, it was always Lance and Keith, neck and neck. Even the classes Keith found the least interesting saw him spending long hours in the library, bent studiously over books and parchments, trading quips and glares with Lance across their table until the librarian kicked them out.

Hunk interrupted his train of thought. “Huh.” He took a large bite from the strip of bacon he was still holding, chewed thoughtfully. “Lance did ask me last week if it was possible to be both friends and arch rivals.”

Keith’s heart, for whatever reason already beating faster than was probably healthy, tripped over itself. Pidge groaned and scrubbed a hand over their face, leaving behind a smear of ink on their cheek. “For as many N.E.W.T.-level classes as you two are in, you’re still fucking idiots.”

“Pidge! Language!” Allura snapped and Keith and Pidge jerked around to see the Head Girl behind them, hands on her hips and a disapproving frown on her face.

Pidge opened their mouth, presumably to spit out a retort that would cost Ravenclaw a breathtaking amount of points, but Hunk nearly hurled himself over the table, cups and plates flying, hollering, “Allura! I’m glad you’re here! I’ve really been struggling with transfiguring birds into rats and I was hoping-” Keith hastily packed up his and Pidge’s things while Hunk provided a distraction, glaring a warning at them to keep silent.

By the time Allura finished explaining the complicated mechanics of turning hollow bones solid without rendering them immobile, classes were about to begin and Keith finally managed to put Lance out of his mind.

 

XX

 

Keith’s prediction about Lance’s improved mood turned out to be spot on. He spent their Charms period flirting shamelessly with the Ravenclaw beside him, drawing giggles from the people around them, and cracking ridiculous jokes and appalling puns that earned him groans and laughter in equal measure. Lance oozed confidence and an easy charm that had made a younger Keith irritated and jealous - and then more irritated because he was envious of Lance of all people. Time, exposure, and honestly getting to know Lance - loud, obnoxious, determined, hardworking, loyal to a fault Lance, who sometimes struggled with his self-worth and relied way too much on humor to smooth over any situation - had eventually lead to understanding and then acceptance.

Not that Lance was never irritating, because he absolutely could be when he wanted to be, but every word out of his mouth didn’t set Keith off like it once did.

Getting over his jealousy of Lance’s social graces had taken longer, and more introspection than Keith was generally comfortable with. He was still awkward and uncomfortable opening up to people, but Keith had come to accept that part of himself. He knew he was an exceptional wizard and a kickass Quidditch player, with two awesome, close friends and an arch rival (and quiznak but that sounded more and more ridiculous the older they got) who had recently revealed that they were, maybe, friends. He figured things were going pretty damn well. So no, there was no reason to be jealous of Lance, who thrived off of attention and who probably couldn’t stay quiet if his life depended on it. Even if it had taken him a few years of basically-therapy with Hunk and Shiro both to reach that place of self-affirmation.

Keith was suddenly startled by a shout and the arrival of a heavy brass candelabra  on the desk in front of him. He berated himself for getting so completely wrapped up in his thoughts and blamed the lack of sleep. The candelabra bowed low to him, arms sweeping out in a grand gesture. Even if Keith hadn’t been watching Lance’s antics the entire class there would be no doubt who had control of that particular piece of animated decoration.

Bonjour!” the candelabra trilled in what had to be the most offensive fake French accent the world had ever heard. “You look in need of a smile, non? The most handsome, hilarious monsieur Lance has sent me to turn that broody frown upside down!” Before Keith could stop it, it spun a graceful pirouette and proceeded to dance around his desktop, rolling on the rounded rim of its base in looping circles, scattering Keith’s notes and spewing a constant stream of nonsense French words. Lance’s control really was impressive; even across the large room his spellwork was precise and spectacular. Keith let the little display go on for a moment, but when the heavy brass fixture hollered “Hon hon baguette!” he lifted his wand and sent it soaring back to its owner. The corners of his lips tugged upwards as he watched Lance’s laughing face, and with a flick of his wand, Keith wrested control over the candelabra. Lance’s answering shout was bright and excited. Keith’s almost-smile turned into a real smirk and the candlestick waved its arms threateningly at Lance before pushing the tottering stack of his textbooks to the ground.

The expression on Lance’s face was part delight and all challenge when he raised his own wand. “Bring it on, Mullet!” he called, and the teapot on Keith’s desk shuddered to life.

They carried on harassing each other and laughing, to the amusement of their classmates, until the professor called the class to order and announced, “I expect each of you to demonstrate complete proficiency of this animation spell by our next meeting. Keith, Lance, since you’ve already shown us all your mastery of this particular charm, you may each write me five feet on the history, practical application, and technical mechanics of lending life-like qualities to otherwise inanimate objects.”

Keith groaned and Lance sputtered a protest. “That’s totally unfair! We were just practicing-”

“Lance, let it go,” Keith murmured in frustration, knowing Lance was too far to hear.

“-which is what you asked us to do!”

“I can make it six feet.” The professor was trying not to smile, his lips twitching at the corners, but Keith knew he was serious. For the most part the teachers adored Lance, but they’d learned early on to take a firm stance with him. Give Lance and inch and he’d take a mile, every time.

Lance shut up, thankfully, and Keith hurried to gather his scattered supplies, hoping he wasn’t missing anything. The teapot had been a lot more feisty than the dancing candelabra and had sent Keith’s things flying with angry puffs of steam.

Lance waited at the door for him, a disgruntled frown on his face. He looked as tired as Keith felt; his appearance was more ruffled than it had been at breakfast: his scarf had been entirely unwound from around his neck, his tie was missing, and a bruise was blossoming on his jaw from an overenthusiastic swing of a brass arm. Keith winced and started to apologize for hitting him so hard, but Lance spoke first. “I can’t believe this,” he whined. “We’ve still got that Defense essay to finish tonight and you know Coran’s getting ready to hit us with that research assignment he’s been muttering about.”

Keith bumped Lance with his shoulder as they turned towards the Great Hall. “Maybe you should have thought of that before you attacked me.”

“Attacked you? Whoa now buddy, I was just trying to get rid of that frown. The broody-vibes were distracting the ladies. You were the one that turned things violent!”

“I just knocked your stuff off like you did to my notes. There was no violence.”

Lance responded by sticking his jaw out and throwing his arms into the air, nearly dropping his haphazard pile of books and parchment and narrowly avoiding giving Keith a bruise to match the one stretching across his cheek. “Why the face, Keith? I need this to attract admirers, it’s like a love spell all its own.” As if to demonstrate, Lance turned a dazzling grin on Keith. “What, are you jealous?”

Keith almost tripped. “What? Why would I be jealous?” Why would he be? Lance hit so much on basically everyone that by that point it was just part of the Lance Experience. A part that Keith had yet to find himself the focus of. Like, seriously, Hunk swore he once saw Lance flirting at the Headmaster. But never, not once in six years, had Lance used any of his lines on Keith. Not that Keith cared because again, why would he? He was suddenly horrified by his own inner dialogue.

Oblivious to Keith’s discomfort, Lance continued in magnanimous tones. “I guess I don’t mind giving you a handicap in that department. It’s hard to compete with all this,” he waved a hand in the general area of his own face, “on a regular basis after all. I can let you have some of the ladies’ attention for a few days.”

'Since when have I wanted the ladies’ attention?’ Keith thought but was fortunately prevented from saying anything by their arrival at the Great Hall. Lance flung the doors open and strutted inside, turning unerringly in the direction of the Hufflepuff table and Hunk’s wide shoulders. Keith let him take the lead, still reeling from his unwanted revelation. Just the night before he’d found out he and Lance might actually be friends, and now he felt what - left out because Lance never hit on him? It was way, way too much for one day and Keith resolved to do what he did best: shove that newest feeling deep down inside himself to never again see the light of day. He dropped onto the bench on Hunk’s left and piled his plate with enough food to keep him from having to talk the rest of lunch.

Fortunately, Hunk and Lance were used to his taciturn behavior and had no problems leaving Keith to himself. Lance bitched to Hunk about the sheer volume of coursework they were all suffering under that year and mourned for their fifth year, when their biggest problem was preparing for O.W.L.s. Hunk excitedly filled them in on a particularly complex arithmancy equation he’d been working through, talking over Lance’s tried-and-true accusations of ‘dude you’re such a masochist’ and ‘who does math for fun?’ with practiced ease. The thread of their conversation eventually drifted to Pidge, who had skipped lunch in favor of hiding away and working on one assignment or another, and then to the place it inevitably always reached - Quidditch.

“With the regular season cut in half, every single game has to count, dude. We’ve gotta bring one hundred and ten percent every time we get on our brooms or there’s no way we’re ending the year with the Cup.”

“Lance, the Cup is the little picture this year! It’s finally time for the Q.I.S.Q.I.T. and you’re gonna be on the team, you’ve gotta save yourself for that.”

The Quadrennial International Student Quidditch Interscholastic Tournament, Keith’s brother’s brain child and legacy, was set to take place for the second time that spring. During Shiro’s seventh year he’d apparently heard talks of bringing back the Triwizard Tournament. After the fiasco of ‘94 it had been discontinued again, but several decades of peace later the wizarding community had evidently been getting itchy to prove their alma mater’s superiority the best way they knew how: by making current students compete with the neighboring schools for a title that ultimately meant very little. Shiro had been horrified, and had used his clout as Head Boy to propose a safer alternative in the form of a Quidditch tournament. It had gone over dazzlingly well, as Quidditch knew no borders, and by the time the first match had been arranged nearly every wizarding school in the world had put forward a team.

The first tournament had been a roaring success, giving the students opportunities to visit schools all over the world and prompting the various magical governments to interact peacefully. Hogwarts had won in a nail-biting last minute catch of the Golden Snitch against Ilvermorny, who’d been up by a staggering one hundred and thirty points after an early-match injury to the Hogwarts Keeper. Nobody had died, over a half-a-dozen schools had intermingled with no major international incidents, and Shiro finished his seventh year a hero.

The only thing he’d asked was that a better name be found for the tournament, but by then Q.I.S.Q.I.T. had stuck.

Serious deliberations over what students Hogwarts would put forward as part of that year’s H.O.S.T. - Hogwarts Official School Team - had been ongoing since the end of last season but nothing was to be officially decided until the Hogwarts inter-house competition had been completed. That being said, as captains of their respective teams there was little question that Keith and Lance would make the cut, and not only because their positions gave them substantial input on the roster. Keith was by far the fastest Seeker on any team, with excellent reflexes and a reckless, go-with-his-gut style that made it difficult for competitors to outmaneuver him. Lance’s sheer drive and dedication had earned him a place on Hufflepuff’s trio of Chasers early on, and since then his cool-headed analysis of the pitch and surprisingly astute tactical plays had transformed the lackluster Hufflepuff team into a force to be reckoned with. The Gryffindor-Hufflepuff match-up had been the most anticipated one the year before and people were already buzzing about the upcoming face-off in December despite the greater thrill of Q.I.S.Q.I.T. that overshadowed the regular season.

“Hunk’s right,” Keith interjected, speaking up for the first time. “What’s the point of going hard during the regular season if you injure yourself and can’t play for the H.O.S.T.? You’ve got to get your priorities straight.” Hunk nodded along eagerly and Lance’s expression turned sly.

“Why Keith, does this mean you’ll be relaxing this season?” he practically purred. “Gotta take it easy, save yourself for the Q.I.S.Q.I.T. after all. Keep those priorities straight.”

Keith snorted, leaning around Hunk to retort. “As if I need to push myself to kick your team’s ass. We’ll wipe the pitch with you and I won’t even break a sweat doing it.”

“Says the guy who led his team to defeat against yours truly and the Flying Badgers last year!”

“Big words from someone who still couldn’t clinch the Cup from us.” Lance’s cheeks were turning red, and Keith smirked, knowing just how to provoke the other boy. “It was a great effort though, I give you guys an E for exceeding everyone’s expectations.”

Keith could see the anger building behind Lance’s eyes and braced himself for the shouting and gesticulating and challenges that usually followed but Hunk interrupted them desperately. “Guys please. Keith, the Hufflepuff table is not the place to be trashing Hufflepuff. Lance, you’ve already lost us ten points just today and it’s only lunchtime. Try not to pick any fights until at least tomorrow.”

A long stretch of tense silence followed where Keith stared Lance down and Lance returned his gaze, intense and clearly unwilling to let Keith have the last word. And then it broke and Keith exhaled and backed down, Lance following suit. Hunk was right, after all. The generally easy going Hufflepuff students had become increasingly competitive over Quidditch the last few years, more than likely a direct result of Lance’s influence. Keith had no desire to get jinxed or ganged up on in any way and the loss of the previous year’s Hogwarts Cup was a surprisingly delicate subject for the usually laid-back House.

With the silent understanding of a truce, Lance and Keith fell back into comfortable conversation, discussing ideas and strategy for their ideal H.O.S.T. and groaning any time Hunk pointed out any danger or risk involved. Hunk had been against Quidditch since the day he was born, if Lance was to be believed, and had thrown up just watching his friends zipping around on more than one occasion, so his protests held little weight.

It was comfortable and easy and familiar and ‘Yeah,’ Keith found himself thinking, ‘this could be friendship.’

Hunk left a short time later for his Magical Theory class and Lance packed up some food to take to Pidge. He possessed an innate skill for finding their wayward underclassman and had made it his mission to make sure they ate regular meals only a week after meeting them. He and Keith weren’t set to begin their Herbology class for another few hours and Keith intended to spend the free time catching up on the sleep he’d lost the night before.

They walked together in the direction of the Gryffindor tower, Lance humming to himself. His posture was relaxed but he still looked tired. Keith frowned and nudged him. He intended to say ‘Hey, you seem pretty exhausted, is everything okay?’ but what came out was “You look even more awful than usual today.” He could have kicked himself.

“You’re one to talk, Eyebags McMullet!” Lance’s face was all righteous indignation but his blue eyes were smiling and even Keith had to snort.

“Aren’t you tired of the mullet jokes by now?”

“Aren’t you tired of getting your hair styled in a mullet by now?” Keith was glad for the familiar back-and-forth, far safer territory than declarations of friendship or sudden irrational bouts of jealousy.

“Seriously though, you look like you haven’t slept at all. You should probably get a nap in after you see Pidge before your T-zone dries out or whatever it is you’re always going on about.”

Lance looked aghast, his fingers flying to his forehead. “My T-zone would never dry out, Keith!” His voice was nearly an octave higher in horror, and Keith couldn’t help but laugh. Lance took his skincare regimen so seriously, it was almost endearing. Lance watched him, disgruntled, but Keith just laughed harder until the other boy couldn’t help but join in. They were both gasping for breath when they passed a large marble staircase that ascended to the sixth floor, bypassing the main path up through the castle that Keith was taking to the Gryffindor Tower. Lance came to an abrupt halt.

“Pidge is that way?” Keith asked him, because Lance was staring up at the landing with narrowed eyes.

He furrowed his brows, turned in a complete circle, then stopped again, facing the staircase. Then he nodded confidently. “Yeah, they’re definitely hiding up there somewhere. Ha, Pidge. You can’t escape me or my mothering!” Lance shouted that last part up the stairs and a group of first year Slytherins stopped to look at him in concern. Keith waved them off.

“Dinner and then the library after Herbology? We should get some sources for the new Charms essay and I know for a fact that the bottom half of your Defense essay needs revision.” Lance nodded absently and offered Keith a quick smile before setting off up the staircase, intensely focused on whatever sense allowed him to track Pidge down in the huge castle. He’d tried to explain the feeling a few times - Pidge was especially curious about it - but hadn’t had much success. Pidge had been hiding in more and more elaborate locations recently, testing the bounds of Lance’s uncanny ability.

Keith realized he was lingering, watching Lance climb the steps, when the other boy stopped near the middle and turned back to look at him. He felt himself flush, watched Lance’s own cheeks turn bright red. Something shifted, a slight altering in the air between them. Lance’s mouth opened, lips just beginning to form the shape of words. His name? His pulse sped up a little in anticipation.

The strange moment was abruptly interrupted by a great, harsh grinding noise as the staircase Lance was on suddenly began to move position. The high color on Lance’s cheeks drained to white. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he yelled as the stairs turned nearly ninety degrees and began to lower. Keith laughed himself nearly to tears as the noise of the castle shifting drowned out Lance’s shouts of offense.

 

XX

 

Between the frankly ambitious number of N.E.W.T.-level courses they were taking and the accompanying out-of-class assignments, the sixth years were busier than they’d been their entire Hogwarts careers. Even Lance had had difficulty finding time to get into trouble. A string of detentions following a particularly spectacular prank had left him nearly thirty feet behind on essays during the early days of October and it had taken him an entire weekend of mainlining coffee (acquired via a timely care package from his family) and begging Hunk to take over writing for him when his own wrist gave out (also known as bribing Hunk with the specialty Cuban candies that had been sent with the coffee) to catch back up. He’d been toeing the line of rule-breaking ever since.

Lance maintained that those two tumultuous hours during which every toilet stall in the castle had loudly and musically announced everything that took place within them had been more than worth both the punishment and the frantic catch-up. Keith was inclined to agree, primarily because he’d risen early that morning to use the bathroom on a tip from Pidge and had thus been spared any embarrassment. Life with Lance was certainly never boring.

In the midst of the monumental amount of coursework, there was Quidditch. Tryouts had been hectic and selecting candidates for the open positions on the team had been surprisingly difficult, the competition steeper than Keith had been expecting. In anticipation of Q.I.S.Q.I.T. the Hogwarts season had been shortened to only four matches - two for each house team - and the Gryffindor-Slytherin match to kick off the season had been a full two weeks earlier than it normally would have been. With less time to prepare and an entire match less in which to earn points towards the Cup, Keith had begun team practices the day he posted the official roster. All of his free time afterwards had been spent on the pitch, running drills with his teammates or just practicing by himself.

Lance proved himself just as devoted to his own team, sketching out potential play formations in the margins of his notes and occasionally rearranging the cutlery during meal times to visualize a maneuver he was struggling with. It was Lance’s second year as captain to Keith’s first, but he seemed far more obsessive than he had the year before. Keith wasn’t sure if it was the shortened season, the impending Q.I.S.Q.I.T., or their loss of the last year’s Cup due to a shortage of earned points rather than a shortage of victories that had Lance pushing himself so hard but whatever the cause, it had been paying off. Two weeks after Keith’s team had stomped Slytherin into the ground with a staggering three hundred point lead, Hufflepuff had practically knocked Ravenclaw from the sky with a near-perfect game. Watching Lance’s Beaters and Chasers shooting across the pitch in precise and practiced formations had been a surprising thrill and Keith had screamed himself hoarse cheering them on. He was looking forward to facing off with the Hufflepuff team just before the Christmas holidays, the final match of the year.

The competition for the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup was more intense that year than ever with the loss of two games but, barring any exceptional scores at that weekend’s match, Ravenclaw and Slytherin were out of the running. Keith’s team was ahead of Hufflepuff in points courtesy of their utter annihilation of Slytherin in the first match; the badgers played one hell of a game during the second, scoring over two hundred points, but Gryffindor had racked up over a hundred and fifty more beyond that. It was still far too close to take the match anything other than deathly seriously, though. Lance’s philosophy of turning every inch into a mile had clearly been adopted by his teammates and if Gryffindor wasn’t careful they’d find their brooms nailed to the stands while Hufflepuff easily made up the point deficit.

Outside of Quidditch, Keith and Lance had fallen into a comfortable pattern perfected by years of studying together. While originally they’d grudgingly shared a table out of necessity (first years were at the bottom of the pecking order in terms of prime library realty), it had become first habitual and then a benefit to sit together. Lance’s uncanny ability to find whatever he was looking for seemed to extend to books and even specific sources within them, and Keith’s time management skills were far and away better than anything Lance could ever hope to achieve. They’d never outright addressed the sudden increase in their marks on anything they’d worked together on but, with the exception of a few weeks in their fourth year, neither had completed an assignment without some input from the other since they were twelve. They’d been assigned an essay as punishment after an argument in Potions had distracted them from the Swelling Solution they’d been brewing and it had exploded all over the classroom, causing mass havoc. Keith had been struggling with the complicated topic he’d been given when Lance had grudgingly pushed a musty tome over to his side of the table.

“You need more help from this than I do,” he’d told Keith, disdain dripping from every syllable. Keith had been fully prepared to fire back a retort about Lance’s lower marks on their last practical exam until he realized that actually yeah, there was some really good information about a particularly obscure ingredient he’d been fretting over on the page Lance had left open. Later, Keith had quietly offered to read over Lance’s essay. The other boy had a write-it-and-forget-it style that left his explanations feeling scattered and difficult to follow. Lance had met his eyes in surprise, but had hesitantly agreed.

Four years later, Keith and Lance sat at their usual table, Hunk and Pidge with them. Hunk’s sudden wail of despair broke the silence in the almost-empty library. “Why oh why is potions so difficult? It’s like cooking, right? I’m good at cooking. I’m a great cook! This is actually the worst.”

Keith reached over the empty seat between them to pat Hunk’s shoulder comfortingly. “Cooking is something you feel Hunk. Potions is more precise. Exact.” He might as well have been reading a script: Hunk had this exact breakdown at least once a month. The bigger boy’s marks were excellent, he’d even received an Outstanding on the O.W.L.s last year, but Hunk wasn’t used to genuinely struggling in a class. Particularly one Lance did so well in.

On cue, Lance added his lines. “You’re doing great, buddy. Don’t take it to heart that you can’t be as awesome as me, we can’t all have these skills. You’ve got other talents.” Lance leaned cockily back in his chair, raising his arms as if to rain fanfair down upon himself, but was interrupted halfway up by an impressively loud cracking noise. He whined and hunched over, rubbing his shoulder. “Okay no, this is actually killing me. When was the last time we did something fun?”

Pidge turned a page in the tome of ancient runes in front of them. “This is for fun, something I have time for since I don’t even have to worry about O.W.L.s yet. Adulthood sounds like it sucks.” Apparently cross-referencing a set of particularly obscure runes against various gatherings of stars outside of widely-accepted constellations was Pidge’s idea of a diverting activity. Keith had stopped questioning Pidge years ago. “Though I would hardly consider Lance an adult,” they added under their breath.

“Hey!”

“Lance, buddy, you’re so right. Why haven’t we gone to Hogsmeade this year?” Hunk visibly perked up at the idea of Hogsmeade, and even Keith felt a little excited. Being trapped in the castle for such an extended period of time had left him feeling restless, a sentiment compounded by the amount of mental and physical strain he’d been enduring in recent weeks.

“I went last weekend,” Pidge informed them without looking up. “Honeydukes was having some huge sale and I got a nice journal at Tomes and Scrolls.”

Lance and Hunk looked scandalized. “Pidge! ” Hunk shouted at the same time that Lance whined “And you didn’t get us anything?” but Pidge just shrugged. They turned their astronomy book sideways, as if a different view of the stars printed there would reveal the answer to whatever puzzle they were working over.

“You didn’t ask.”

Lance draped himself over Hunk’s shoulder and the bigger boy sobbed pitifully. Keith could feel his lips twitching, wavering between annoyance and amusement and settling on the latter. “Relax guys. We’ll go to Hogsmeade this weekend. All work and no play and all that bullshit. If Lance gets any duller he won’t be able to pass these classes anyway.”

Lance opened his mouth to retort, but paused and then gave a disappointed sigh. “I can’t this weekend, guys. There’s a lot of, uh, work to do, yeah? I’m way behind on that research assignment from Coran anyway. Hunk, get me some of those sugar quills with the glitter?”

Keith’s smile slipped off his face. Almost every weekend since the term began, Lance had been offering some excuse to avoid making plans with Keith and the others and then disappearing. Frankly, the behavior was getting old but when he’d confronted Hunk and Pidge about it they hadn’t seemed concerned. “Lance is an enigma,” Hunk had begun - his usual speech when Lance was acting strange even for Lance - and Pidge had just waved him off. “N.E.W.T.s are probably just kicking his ass and he doesn’t want you to know how much he’s struggling so he’s trying to get some extra study time in,” they’d suggested. That hadn’t sounded right to Keith. Lance was keeping up just fine grade-wise and his essays had been surprisingly insightful and increasingly well-organized and thought through. Academically, Lance was fine. This was something else and Keith was getting more than a little frustrated.

'But what does Lance have going on outside of class and quidditch? His home life, maybe?’

Out loud, Keith asked, “Lance, how’s your family doing?” Lance jerked at the abrupt change of topic but recovered quickly and graced them all with a dazzling, genuine smile.

“Everything’s going great! Miguel and Mirana started at Castelobruxo this year and Mama-” Lance cut himself off, eyes wide. “Fuck, I almost forgot! You’re all invited to casa de Sanchez-McClain for the Christmas holidays this year!” Lance bounced in his seat, excitement pouring off of him. “Mama said she’d make that shoulder roast you like so much Hunk, and Pidge, Dad dug up some old Magizoology journals in the attic he thinks you’ll enjoy. And Keith obviously you have to come so I can show off how great my family is!”

Keith frowned, considering. “When? I’m spending Christmas Day with Shiro, but I doubt he’ll get any other time off.” His brother had written the week before to apologize that he couldn’t make it to the Gryffindor-Hufflepuff match and to reiterate his promise to spend Christmas together. As an auror, Shiro’s life was all over the map at the best of times and he’d confided in Keith before school had begun again that he and his partner had caught a promising lead tracking down a suspect that had been evading authorities for a few decades. Spending Christmas Day with his brother was not something Keith would miss for anything.

“Same here,” Pidge stated firmly, finally looking up at them. “Matt’s promised Christmas Day, no matter what. Mom will murder him if he misses it.” Pidge’s brother Matt was Shiro’s partner. Keith had never been sure if that was a coincidence or if Pidge had allowed Keith and the others to befriend them for an extra source of info on their brother but whatever the case, Keith was grateful. He enjoyed Pidge’s company, even with their excess of sass and attitude.

“Yeah, for sure, no problemo. Mama already knows Hunk wouldn’t miss Christmas de la Garrett. She’s not planning on any of you arriving until the day after. Dad’s arranging portkeys.”

“You rock Mrs. Lance’s Mom!” Hunk grinned and it was settled. Keith would be spending a good portion of his Christmas holiday at Lance’s home. With Lance. He ruthlessly crushed the strange stirrings of excitement in his chest and focused again on the dry text laid out in front of him.

It wasn't until he was settled into bed later that evening that he realized he'd been entirely distracted from the mystery of Lance’s strange behavior.

 

XX

 

There was an uncomfortable chill in the air the following weekend that did nothing to deter Keith or his friends from their planned Hogsmeade visit. The morning’s Quidditch match had been a short one and had gone about as Keith had expected: Slytherin caught the snitch early on in an ill-advised move that had won them the game but knocked both them and their Ravenclaw opponents out of the running for the Hogwarts Cup. Gryffindor had scored more in the first match than either team had the whole season and Hufflepuff was barely more than a catch of the Snitch behind. The upcoming showdown between the two would decide the winner of the year’s league and while Keith had already eagerly been awaiting their rematch his anticipation had nearly doubled. It felt right that everything would come down to his team against Lance’s.

Hogsmeade was exactly as Keith remembered it - the bustle of people down the main street, the warm golden glow of the shopfront windows, and the sweet scent of roasting nuts and cider in the air were all comfortingly familiar to him. He hadn’t realized how badly he’d been needing a break from his responsibilities before then but he could feel knots he hadn’t even been aware of unwinding as he followed Hunk and Pidge from one shop to the next.

They stopped in nearly every store, usually just to look but occasionally for specific items. Hunk wanted some colored inks for a study guide he was compiling and Keith was almost out of a bruise balm the local apothecary specialized in. They were all eager to stop by Zonko’s, but Keith and Hunk regretted the decision when Pidge strode up to the counter armed with what looked to be half the store’s stock.

“Lance keeps charming my books to seal themselves shut at midnight,” they explained, a dangerous gleam in their eyes that had Hunk instinctively stepping behind Keith. “Yesterday evening my quill started drawing dicks all over my notes when I didn’t break for dinner early enough. I can’t let this stand. He’s going to regret messing with me.”

Keith watched the intimidating pile of enchanted prank ammunition be rung up and briefly considered warning his rival. ‘No,’ he decided as Pidge paid and accepted their overflowing bags from the grinning clerk. ‘It’s not worth the risk of incurring Pidge’s wrath. Especially not for Lance.’ Hunk seemed to agree and kept silent.

The trio spent nearly an hour (and more money than was strictly advisable) in Honeydukes after they left the joke shop. Hunk bought Lance more sugar quills than the boy would need in a year and Keith quietly added a few extra chocolate frogs to his own purchases for the absent teen. He was frustrated that the Hufflepuff had chosen not to come but would feel guilty if he returned to the castle without something to cheer him up. Afterwards, they joined a rowdy group of Keith’s housemates in The Three Broomsticks for dinner.

All-in-all, Keith had a fantastic time. He laughed until his sides hurt at a series of jokes from Hunk and offered Pidge suggestions for exacting their revenge on Lance but he couldn’t help but feel the other boy’s absence keenly. He could practically hear Lance’s aggravated huffing every time Pidge called him a new name and caught himself absently wondering what awful pickup lines Lance would bust out for the pretty Slytherin girls in the corner booth before he remembered that the other boy wasn’t there.

It’s my first visit to Hogsmeade without him,’ Keith realized suddenly. The other teen had always loved the village and never missed an opportunity to “get out on the town” if he could help it. In the past, only detentions had kept Lance in the castle during visiting weekends and historically, if Lance was being punished for something there was a good chance Keith was right there alongside him. The sudden awareness of just how integral a part of his life Lance was hit Keith like a stunning hex and left him reeling, and though he returned to his dorm that night exhausted, his thoughts kept him awake until the early hours of the morning.

If possible, Keith saw even less of Lance over the following two weeks. With the term drawing to a close the professors had seemingly collectively decided to double up the workload, leaving little time for conversation in the boys’ nightly library sessions.

Lance had taken to eating his meals with his Quidditch team in the Hufflepuff common room according to Hunk, and it was stupid but Keith felt like the Great Hall seemed a little colder without Lance’s sunny presence. It was that ridiculous thought that finally ignited the smoldering embers of Keith’s temper.

“Why is that idiot avoiding me?” he snarled one afternoon, slamming his bulging bookbag onto the table his friends were seated at. Not especially subtle, but Keith was done with Lance’s behavior and the way it was stirring up feelings he did not want to deal with.

Hunk shrieked in surprise, jumping, and Pidge shot him a look as they pushed their glasses up their nose before scowling at Keith. “To which idiot are you referring?” they snapped, not in the mood for his attitude. Keith sneered.

“You know exactly who I mean, Holt.”

“Lance isn’t avoiding you, Keith!” Hunk tried, but he’d never been very good at lying.

Pidge held Keith’s angry stare without blinking. “Why do you think, dumbass? What possible reason could Lance, the Hufflepuff Quidditch captain, have for avoiding you, the Gryffindor captain, three days before the biggest match-up of the season?”

“That’s not-,” Keith began, but Pidge cut him off.

“Frankly, I’m surprised it took him as long as it did to figure out that maybe it was a bad idea to have that ridiculous playbook of his out in front of you all the time.”

The fire of Keith’s anger was suddenly banked, Pidge’s words thrown over him like water. “I wouldn’t do something like that.” Keith hated how small his voice sounded. “I wouldn’t take advantage like that.”

“Lance knows you wouldn’t do it on purpose.” Hunk put his hand on Keith’s shoulder and guided the smaller boy into the open seat beside him, his tone soothing. “All it takes is one wrong glance though, you know? One formation to settle at the back of your brain and then BAM!” Hunk slammed his open palm on the table, nearly tipping his drink over. “You’re on the pitch and you recognize the placement of the Hufflepuff Chasers and you know what’s gonna happen. And then you, what, you just let it happen because you feel bad about how you identified it?” He patted Keith’s shoulder and took a bite out of his sandwich. “It’s a tough place for you guys to be in.”

Everything his friends were saying made sense but it still felt wrong to Keith. He and Lance had been competing since they’d met, in pretty much every aspect of their lives (when it became clear Lance would likely always be taller than Keith the Cuban boy had been insufferable for months) and not always in the most friendly of ways, but neither had ever felt the need to avoid the other. Keith didn’t like it, the wedge being driven into the middle of a relationship he was beginning to realize was very important to him, and when did that even start?

“There’s not much I could do about Lance’s attack patterns as a Seeker anyway.” It was a weak defense and Pidge didn’t even try to disguise their rude snort.

“You and I and literally every person in this castle know that’s a load of bullshit. You’re a genius on a broom, even if you’re a hopeless idiot off of it, and the plays you seemingly pull out of your ass pay off nearly every time.”

“Besides,” Hunk butted in before the surly Pidge could spew any more double-edged compliments, “It’s only for a few more days.”

That much was true and Keith found himself somehow even more impatient for Saturday’s match. “I’ll just have to kick his ass fair and square so he can stop overthinking and making things even more irritating than they have to be,” he grumbled, resolved. It was settled, then. Keith could handle a few more meals without the idiot’s obnoxious laugh and endless challenges. He would think of it as a vacation, even.

Keith made the conscious decision not to dwell on Pidge’s long-suffering moan in response, or the possible reasons behind it.

 

XX

 

Heavy clouds gave way to the season’s first intense snowfall late on Friday and by Saturday morning the castle and surrounding grounds were coated in thick, fresh white. Keith was one of the first of his teammates to reach the Gryffindor common room, joining the other early risers on the squat red couch someone had pulled close to the fire. He’d arranged for breakfast to be brought up to the tower so the team could enjoy some privacy before the match, a page borrowed from Lance’s book, and sent up a silent prayer of thanks as he made himself a plate of toast and eggs. The stillness in the room was nice, the calm before the proverbial storm, and Keith took the opportunity to center himself, breathing deeply and idly watching fat flakes of snow drift down past the windows.

Hogwarts didn’t generally host Quidditch matches in the deepest months of the winter, and for good reason: the day’s weather would cut both ways for Keith’s team. Hufflepuff’s Seeker was good at what she did, but her track record over the years she’d been playing showed the way she struggled to maneuver in weather conditions that impacted visibility. It was a weakness Keith could take advantage of but it would make things difficult for him as well. Gryffindor was far from going onto the pitch unprepared but a lot of their strategy involved running a hard defense and ending the game quickly, before their opponents could fall into a rhythm and close the gap between their earned points. If the snow or wind picked up, Keith would have a hard time finding the Snitch and shutting Hufflepuff down.

The fragile peace and quiet was short lived, obliterated by the arrival of his more excitable teammates and the first trickle of other members of their House. The large room was suddenly flooded with crimson-covered bodies and the flurry of excitement that only Quidditch could generate. Keith watched the members of his team chatter amongst themselves, ensuring they all ate and feeling like a mother hen. The title of captain was a lot less glamorous than it had looked as an underclassman and sometimes Keith found it a little overwhelming. He snatched a flask of something that stank of alcohol, ‘for courage!’ from his seventh year Beater with a long-suffering groan. If only he’d known what he was signing up for when he’d been offered the position.

Another hour later saw him herding his team down the stairs and towards the Quidditch pitch amid shouts and cheers. As they neared the towering structure Keith heard a brief snatch of Lance’s loud laugh over the noise of the crowd and his heart kicked into overtime. He’d been waiting for this moment, this match, since the final whistle had blown on Gryffindor’s loss in March and it had finally arrived.

The time between their entrance to the stadium and those first steps out into the knee-deep snow that coated the field passed as a blur for Keith. He didn’t remember suiting up or giving the traditional captain’s speech before following his team out onto the pitch but he was certain it had been suitably awkward and underwhelming. Nevertheless, the Gryffindor players were fired up, shouting and hollering as they strode out to the center circle to meet the referee and the Hufflepuff team. Around them, the stands were packed to capacity, the noise of the crowd a cacophonous roar as Keith took his place at the front of his team.

Lance’s blue eyes met his over the referee’s shoulder and he offered Keith a tiny, quick salute. Keith could see how excited Lance was, the way every muscle in his long body was taut with anticipation despite the way he leaned casually on his broom. Keith nodded at him, returning the gesture with a predatory grin that prompted a huff of a laugh from the other captain. While the referee droned through the familiar spiel about clean matches and respecting the other players, Lance bared his teeth at him, just a little bit, just enough to say challenge accepted.

Keith’s blood thundered through his veins. Neither he nor Lance would hold back, not in this encounter or any. They and their teams would give each other all they had, no holds barred, may the best one win. It was the purest form of competition, the kind Keith craved, the kind he lived for. The kind only Lance provided. He held his rival’s gaze until the shrill of the whistle cut through the air and yanked the entire pitch into sharp focus around them. The balls were released and Keith kicked off from the ground in a flurry of snow and red and brilliant yellow. The match had finally begun.

Keith climbed upwards swiftly, leveling out when his height matched the snapping red and yellow pennants that lined the pitch. He turned his gaze down to the field below him, watching critically as the thirteen other players zipped around. One of his own Chasers had snatched the Quaffle and was swiftly closing in on the goal posts, her fellows spiraling around her in a living barrier and slamming their brooms bodily into the Hufflepuff Chasers attempting to intercept.

The sharp, syncopated crack of a Beater's bat on iron reached Keith over the howl of the wind and his Chasers were forced to drop their formation to avoid the Bludger screaming towards them. The yellow-clad players descended immediately into the scattered Gryffindor ranks and Keith could hear Lance’s crow of victory as the players on the field turned an abrupt about-face and raced towards the opposite end of the pitch.

Moments later, Hufflepuff scored and Keith watched Lance's distant figure salute him, the cockiness recognizable even from so far away. His team had drawn first blood.

Keith briefly closed his eyes and drew in a slow breath; the cold of the air cut at his lungs. ‘Patience yields focus,’ he reminded himself. He and his team had been working hard for months now. They knew what needed to be done and had the skills to see it through. He needed to trust them; he needed to focus on his own task. He needed to find the Golden Snitch.

It was a task far easier said than done. As if to spite him, thick curtains of snow began to shroud the pitch and Keith was forced to drop down lower, where the rise of the stands provided some shelter from the buffeting wind. A roar went up around him and a quick glance revealed that Gryffindor had evened the score, but Hufflepuff had already recovered the ball. Keith could tell just from the way the other player looped through the air, riding the gusts of wind for that extra boost of speed and evading Keith's teammates, that Lance had the Quaffle. His eyes strained against the cloak of white obstructing his vision, desperate to see a hint of gold. This was not going according to plan.

The match dragged on. His team was holding their own, but Hufflepuff was slowly pulling ahead. The individuals that made up the Gryffindor team were all damn good at what they did, passionate and driven to win, but as a unit Lance and his Chasers were just better. They anticipated each other's moves with almost eerie precision, reacting to one another swiftly and decisively. Keith could appreciate their skill, if a little grudgingly, as they slowly but steadily picked his team apart.

His fingers were numb around the freezing wood of his broomstick and his face felt scraped raw from the wind but he'd yet to catch so much as a glimpse of the Snitch. His only consolation was that the Hufflepuff Seeker had had no more success. He'd occasionally spotted her looping around the outside edges of the field, avoiding the frenzied movement of the other players and squinting into the wind.

And then, he saw it. The Hufflepuff and Gryffindor jerseys swirled below him, colors intermingling and dancing like a flame as the players raged around the pitch and there, just below the fray, hovering close enough to get burned, was the Golden Snitch. Keith's heart leapt and the entirety of his world narrowed down to that flash of gold. It was obscured, briefly, by a sudden whirl of snow and the swish of a jersey but Keith's eyes picked it out from the crush of bodies again easily. He turned his broom downwards, intending to make his way over slowly, without alerting the much closer Hufflepuff Seeker to his find-

Only to flatten himself over the handle as a Bludger broke away from the throng to soar straight towards him. It passed harmlessly over his head but upon nearing the boundaries of the field, looped back around and plunged straight back in his direction. Keith cursed, as loudly and colorfully as he knew how, and shot like a comet down to the other players. He passed one of his own team’s Beaters, presumably on his way to recover the wayward Bludger, but there was no time to slow down. The iron ball was going to hit someone and Keith had no intention of being its victim.

He zipped downwards, streamlining his body and aiming himself at a cluster of yellow jerseys. There was a brief moment of guilt, a nagging reminder that he actually liked these people and didn't want them to get hurt, but Keith didn't have much of an opportunity to dwell on it before he rolled his broom mid air and dropped, backwards, towards the ground. The position left him facing above himself long enough to watch the Bludger hurtle into the tight formation of Hufflepuff players and rebound, sharply and suddenly, off of someone's body before he was forced to twist around and right himself.

Keith’s first instinct was to look for Lance amongst the sudden flurry of yellow players. He’d been among the group Keith had led the Bludger to, protecting one of his Chasers as they streaked towards the goal posts, and it was a very real possibility he’d been struck by the iron projectile. Keith jerked his broom halfway back towards them, but forced himself to focus on his goal. He needed to catch the Snitch, needed to end the match there and then while the opposing team was finally in disarray. The Hufflepuff Beaters soared by him on either side, intent on regaining control of the loose Bludger, and after they passed he spotted the Snitch again, several feet above and to the right of where he'd seen it before.

Keith poured on the speed, veering around and between bodies and broomsticks, intent on the victory shimmering in the air, reflecting the sunlight that was finally breaking through the clouds -

In time to watch a gloved hand close around it. The other Seeker had beaten him to the Golden Snitch.

A glance at the scoreboard confirmed what Keith already knew. Hufflepuff had won, with just enough extra points to surpass Gryffindor’s for the season.

Hufflepuff had secured the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup.

 

XX

 

Lance was carried from the pitch (which had been immediately flooded with what seemed like every student attending Hogwarts) on the shoulders of his victorious teammates. His left arm hung uselessly at his side, a result of the impact with Keith’s rogue Bludger, but it didn't appear to dampen his spirits at all.

Someone somewhere had started up a chant, “I say Huffle! You say Puff!” and Lance was screaming along, pausing between shouts to wink and smile at the students surrounding him. He pointed the index finger of his good hand at people as they cheered him past, extra fingers and thumb curled inwards in a ludicrous gesture he called ‘finger wands’. (Merlin, Keith had regretted showing Lance those Muggle movies almost as soon as he'd put them on.)

A long, hot shower later Keith found himself in his own common room, surrounded by his dejected team members and housemates. He shared their disappointment over the loss; Gryffindor had worked their asses off for months in a bid to win the Cup again and the failure stung, but he couldn’t bring himself to be despondent over it. Lance and the Hufflepuff players had worked just as hard, had been just as devoted to victory as their opponents, and from what Keith had seen and heard, they’d played a clean game.

To Keith, it was just the nature of his relationship with Lance - a steady give and take. They were constantly driving one another to greater heights, urging each other to go harder, reach further, achieve more.  He’d won the year before, and Lance had pushed himself fiercely to surpass him. Keith would do no less in anticipation of their next face-off.

Somehow he didn’t think that sentiment would be of much comfort to his downtrodden team, so he went with a different approach. “I know today’s match and this season didn’t turn out the way we all hoped,” he began. He clambered onto the back of the tallest armchair and settled there, accepting the warm mug of Butterbeer handed up to him. Keith willed his voice not to crack, ignored how totally awkward he was in any kind of social situation, and looked over the small crowd of faces surrounding him. “Believe me, I wanted the Cup pretty bad. I’ve been trying to tell myself that at least we lost it to Hufflepuff and not Slytherin.” Keith made a face, and a quiet chorus of agreement went up around him. He smirked. “Listen, they got us, fair and square, but we have nothing to be ashamed of. Those Chasers were straight up nasty today but we held them off and even lead them in points a few times. I mean, I have no idea what was going on with their Seeker though, some kind of weird fluke or bad juju -” Keith was cut off again, this time by slightly more enthusiastic shouts and light-hearted ribbing.

Keith took a swig of his Butterbeer, offered a rowdier group of his audience a few choice hand gestures, and plowed on. “Losing sucks ass, I get it, I’m right there with you guys. But it was one game, in a shortened, half-assed season, in one year. It barely even counts. It’s not gonna go down this way next year. I know I've been encouraging everyone to avoid talking about the Q.I.S.Q.I.T.” in reality he’d outright banned any mention of it amongst his team, which they were quick to point out, “but it's finally time to bring it to the forefront.

“So for tonight, we're going to party, we're going to brag about our better moments this season, and we're going to have some fun. Because when Christmas Holidays are over, it will be time to bring everything we've got to the pitch again and show the whole wizarding world what a bunch of badasses we are.” Speech complete, Keith fished between the cushions of his seat and withdrew the flask he'd confiscated that morning. He took a long draw of it amidst shouts and cheers from his revitalized companions before tossing it in the direction of its owner. His throat burned, but it felt like a victory.

Keith didn't stick around for too long after his rallying pep talk. The part of him that had wanted to check on Lance the moment he’d feinted the Bludger into the flock of Hufflepuff players was nearly frantic with the need to make sure his rival hadn't been injured too badly. He knew if things had been serious Hunk or Pidge would have sent word to him but his concern lingered. The hot shower and the shot of rum hadn't been enough to ease the tension in his shoulders and he had a sneaking suspicion that only seeing Lance whole and grinning and exaggerating his daring deeds would be enough to allow Keith to finally relax.

It took almost more willpower than Keith had left not to outright run to the infirmary ward. He heard Lance before he reached the doorway, his familiar voice rising above the chatter of the Hufflepuff Quidditch players who were still crowding the long room. It looked like the entire team was present, some showered and changed but many still in their uniforms, all clustered around one bed at the center of the room.

The people closest to Keith whistled and clapped when he entered, clapping him on his shoulders and telling him it had been a great game. There was no spite or arrogance on their faces, just typical Hufflepuff amiability and self-satisfied smiles. Keith returned the sentiments distractedly, pushing through the small crowd.

“Keith, you made it!” Hunk called and then Pidge was elbowing the Hufflepuff Beater - a boy twice their height and broader than Hunk - in the gut.

“Alright, shove over, make way for the arch rival,” they grunted and then the boy was moving away and Keith got his first clear view of Lance, lounging in the small hospital cot like a prince surrounded by his adoring subjects. The image made Keith snort.

Lance was shirtless. His shoulder and chest were tightly bound, wrapped in crisp white bandages that contrasted sharply against the darkness of his flesh. Bruises reached out from beneath the wrappings and the smooth skin glistened slightly, presumably from whatever balm had been used to soothe them. Keith jerked violently when he realized he was staring at Lance’s bare abdomen and yanked his eyes upwards in time to meet the other boy’s gaze. Lance’s face lit up, his smile dazzling, and Keith’s stomach flipped.

“Keeeith!” Lance whined, making grabby hands in his direction. “You finally came! Ha, were you embarrassed to face me after getting your ass kicked?” The people around them laughed, parting to let him reach the bed, and Keith blew an exaggerated sigh.

“One catch of the snitch does not an ass-kicking make,” he informed him, and if his tone was fonder than it needed to be it was only because Lance was looking a little pitiful, trussed up like a turkey and clearly under the influence of some strong pain-relieving potions.

Lance scrunched his face unhappily, lips poking out in a familiar pout, before his eyes slid down to Keith’s hands and that blinding smile broke through again. “You brought me presents!” Keith winced at the other boy’s volume but dutifully handed over the small offering of Chocolate Frogs he’d purchased in Hogsmeade a few weeks before. He'd nearly forgotten he had them and had grabbed the lot on his way to the infirmary as an afterthought. Lance crooned happily, gathering the pile of small boxes to his injured chest and smacking at Hunk's hand when it strayed too close. He missed, his reflexes skewed by the potions in his system, but Hunk retreated with a whine anyway.

“These are my present from Keith. They're just for me!” he declared, loudly and adamantly, and Keith felt himself flushing. Fortunately, the Hufflepuff Seeker took the opportunity to offer Lance a gift of her own, the winning Snitch from the match, and everyone was quickly distracted. Keith drew several deep breaths and tried to push the look on Lance’s face, the sheer unabashed joy shining in his eyes when Keith had presented him with those few pieces of chocolate, out of his mind. He very consciously refused to dwell on how much more excited Lance had been about simple candy than he had been about a keepsake from the match that had finally won Hufflepuff the Cup and he outright ignored the voice in his head that whispered that Lance had been so overjoyed because the frogs had been from Keith.

It was a voice that was taking more and more effort to disregard as the weeks marched by, but Keith wasn't ready to face what that meant just yet.

The gathered students dispersed slowly after the gifts were exchanged, gradually trickling out with promises to visit the next day until only Keith, Pidge, and Hunk were left. Keith and Hunk each took a chair on either side of Lance, Pidge seated on the bed by his knees; the room was cozy, fat snowflakes brushing the outside of the window and a fire cackling in the corner. They chatted with each other in soft tones, just enjoying the opportunity to hang out with no pressing schoolwork or time constraints. It was familiar and comfortable, even though Lance's voice was a little hazy and hard to follow and Keith was struggling to keep his eyes open.

When the nurse stopped by to give Lance another dose of potion and inform the others that visiting time was past, Lance turned the full force of his pleading face on her and begged her to let them stay. Hunk and Pidge added their pouting expressions to the mix and even Keith poked out his lip and widened his eyes at the older woman. Caught under the power of not one but four wounded puppy looks, the nurse didn't stand a chance. She pursed her lips in disapproval but retreated without mentioning their leaving again.

Keith dozed off a short time later, feeling warm and content, surrounded by his closest friends.

 

XX

 

Keith dipped his chopsticks into the box of rice perched on his knees and eyed his brother over their traditional Christmas meal. Shiro looked tired, but well. He was as built as ever, muscles developed from a lifetime of sports and a physically demanding job, snuggled up warm in his old school scarf and shoveling sauteed vegetables into his mouth with a speed that suggested he hadn’t been eating as regularly as he should have been. Shiro flushed when he caught Keith noticing and scratched the shaved back of his head sheepishly. Keith raised an eyebrow.

“So what’s with the haircut?” he asked his brother, fishing a strip of beef out of the take-out box on the table and popping it into his mouth.

“We’ve been meeting a contact a lot in a popular muggle nightclub. Apparently my longer hair was too out of style. I didn’t want to be attracting any more attention than necessary and I guess this is how a lot of muggles are wearing it these days.” Shiro frowned a little, lips turning down into what could almost be a pout. “I know it’s pretty funny looking-”

Keith waved him off. “Nah, man. I think it looks good. It suits you.” He smiled, and Shiro returned the gesture, his shoulders relaxing a little. “Just maybe don’t let Lance see it. The last thing we need is that idiot shaving his hair off. He’d probably catch a cold or something and he goes on about his appearance enough as it is.”

“That sounds like Lance. How’s he doing lately, anyway?” Shiro’s tone was a little bit indulgent when he asked but Keith ignored it. He’d been bitching to his brother about Lance since day one and considered himself immune to Shiro’s teasing about it.

“He’s doing great in classes. I mean the N.E.W.T. shit is hard but we’re keeping up okay. And winning the Cup was huge. Shiro you should have seen the way Hufflepuff played. You wouldn’t believe it’s the same team you swept the pitch with a few years ago. His shoulder’s mostly healed up from the Bludger attack thank Merlin, because if he asked me one more time to carry his books because I’d rendered him one handed - which, okay, that totally wasn’t my fault that’s just the nature of Quidditch dude get over it - I’d lose it.” Keith recognized he was rambling but Shiro was listening intently, a smile at the corners of his mouth while he quietly ate his meal. It gave him the encouragement he needed to keep going.

“I’m a little worried about him, actually,” he revealed to his brother. “I don’t think he’s been getting enough sleep. He always looks tired. And he’s been refusing to hang out on the weekends which is dumb. I never thought I’d see the day that Lance had to be forced to take a break, but I think we’re about there. I was hoping it was just preparation for the Quidditch match but since he got out of the infirmary he’s been pretty absent again.” Keith bit his lip. The weight of long months of worrying for Lance was heavy on his shoulders and he knew his brother could see it.

“Hey,” Shiro said in his best I’m-the-oldest-and-I’m-encouraging-you voice. “I’m sure he’s fine. Sometimes you get in that place where you get too caught up in everything going on and it’s hard to remember to step back and relax. Going home to his family and taking some time off will probably do wonders for him and he’ll have all you guys to chill with. You probably all need the break, Lance isn’t the only one who looks tired.” Shiro eyed him critically. “Are you okay with how the Cup turned out?”

Keith nodded. “I really am. I mean, winning the Quidditch Cup my first year as captain would have been awesome, but Lance and his guys played hard. They really earned it. Besides,” Keith grinned mischievously, “the Hogwarts Cup is small potatoes. This year, the real prize is the Q.I.S.Q.I.T.”

Shiro groaned, covering his face with his free hand. “Why couldn’t they have come up with a better name? It’s going to haunt me forever.”

Keith laughed.

 

XX

He met Pidge early the next morning outside their family’s townhouse. Hunk was already there, having arrived the night before. He was shivering on the sidewalk, dressed in a thin muggle shirt and a pair of shorts. Keith raised his eyebrows at him.

“You g-guys are going to have a heat stroke the second th-the portkey touches down,” Hunk forced out through his chattering teeth. “Varadero barely cools down at all, even for C-Christmas.” Pidge snorted but shook their head at Keith; it was likely they’d already had this conversation with Hunk and had failed to convince him of anything. Keith wisely kept his mouth shut, checking his watch instead.

“What time are we supposed to head out?” he asked Pidge, who held out a wide straw hat.

“About twenty seconds, give or take.”

Keith yelped and reached out to grab the brim of the hat, fitting his hand between Pidge’s small fist and Hunk’s much larger one. In a matter of moments, he and his friends were whisked away.

Keith, like basically every wizard in the world, hated traveling by portkey. The harsh yanking behind his navel made him nauseous and the world spinning and whirling around him didn’t help matters. Getting anywhere in the world via portkey didn’t take much time but it was long enough for Keith to curse both Lance and himself for ever agreeing to visit Lance’s family home in Cuba.

He fell bodily from the sky, landing face-down in the warm sand, and just lay there for a moment, trying to recover. Nearby, he heard Hunk’s own disastrous landing, almost immediately followed by the poor boy’s retching. Keith winced.

Pidge, damn them, descended slowly from the sky, a smug smile on their face. Keith groaned and forced himself to sit up just as their feet touched the sand. “How do you do that?” he asked them, irritated. They just cackled.

“It’s because Pidge is better than you, obviously.” Keith turned his head and offered Lance a rude gesture. The other boy laughed. He was standing next to a slightly shorter man who Keith recognized as his father - an older, lighter version of him, with sand and salt hair and Lance’s smiling blue eyes. Lance was dressed casually in a pair of worn muggle jeans and sandals, chest covered by a soft-looking red hoodie. A very familiar one.

“Is that mine?” Keith asked incredulously, staring at the faded Gryffindor crest on the front. “I’ve been looking for that thing for a year!”

Lance scratched the back of his head, a flush appearing on his cheeks, but the sound of Hunk gagging again distracted him. “Oh man, buddy you don’t look so good. Let’s get to the house so Mama can get you something to help. Don’t wanna spend the holidays portkey-sick.” He and Keith helped their friend to his feet and the small group began their trek across the beach.

Varadero, Cuba was a bustling muggle resort town but it also boasted a surprisingly thriving magical community based in the furthest point of the long peninsula. The entire area felt like a dream, with sparkling blue waters and long stretches of uninterrupted beaches. The shops were quaint and small and tropical flowers grew over buildings and around walkways and in any place they could. Everything was so vivid and bright, the sun warm despite the time of year, and it was easy for Keith to imagine Lance growing up there.

The other boy chattered nonstop as he led them through the small town, pointing out landmarks and locations. He promised to take them to an ice cream parlor he boasted put Fortescue’s to shame and asked Keith to accompany him later to the new Quidditch shop that had evidently opened since they’d been at school. Hunk groaned weakly between them but fortunately didn’t throw up any more.

Lance’s father was as excitable as his son, regaling Pidge with stories of the local merfolk population and his most recent book on their unique habits. “Very different behavior from what we see in Europe!” he declared. “I argue that they’re a totally separate species! I’ll take you to meet them before you leave.”

Keith was man enough to admit that Hunk had been right; he was sweating under all his layers of clothing by the time they reached their destination - a three-story stone home boasting several verandas and wide open windows. The bottom floor was supported by stone arches, opening into a courtyard full of exotic plants, and the trim around the windows and balconies was painted a bright, cheerful blue. The entire home was built upon a hill, framed by the endless stretch of the sea until it blurred into the sky. Green exploded from every free surface, potted plants spilling over and down from windowsills and balconies and clustered around the bases of the arches. A long paved-terra walkway started at the end of the street where they stood and wound its way invitingly through the lush yard to the front door, which was almost wide enough for all of them to enter abreast and painted the same blue as the trim.

They were greeted halfway down the path by Lance's mother, who was already armed with a steaming cup of something fruity-smelling that she immediately offered to Hunk. He moaned pitifully but moved his arm from around Keith's shoulders to accept the concoction and slurped it down, color returning quickly to his cheeks.

Mama Sanchez-McClain was a tall woman with Lance's coloring and sharp features. She'd served for several years as the South American ambassador to the British Ministry of Magic, where she'd met her husband. Her low tolerance for bullshit was legendary: a necessary trait for anyone who had to raise Lance, Keith supposed.

Once she was satisfied that Hunk would finish the mug of curative, Lance’s mom turned her attention on Keith. “Oh my dear, look how much you’ve grown!” she stepped forward, sweeping him into a firm hug. She smelled like spices and sea air and Keith immediately relaxed into the embrace, soaking up the physical affection like a sponge. She held him for several long moments before stepping back and smoothing her hand over his hair. “I was so disappointed for you when I heard you lost the Quidditch Cup, darling.” Her eyes sparkled with mischief and she ignored Lance’s indignant ‘Hey!’ with practiced ease. Keith let his lips pull into a smile. “I hope my Lance hasn’t been giving you too much trouble this past term.”

“What? Me give him trouble, Mama? How could you even think that? I have done nothing wrong ever in my life!” Lance sounded so offended, clutching the front of the hoodie he was wearing with a wounded look on his face. His mother raised her eyebrows at him.

“Don’t worry Mama Sanchez,” Pidge piped up. “We’ve been keeping him in line.”

“Of course you have been, Pidgey. I would trust no one else to do so.” Mrs. Sanchez-McClain stepped away from Keith to embrace Pidge and Lance quickly moved to take her place beside him.

“I cannot believe this,” he grumbled. “Not even here half an hour and you guys have already turned my own mother against me. Hunk is the only one I can trust.” As if in response Hunk let out a loud belch, flushing bright red when everyone turned to look at him. He gave a little wave, sheepish, and Lance blew out a long-suffering sigh. “I’m experiencing some regrets regarding inviting you guys here.”

Lance’s family home existed in a perpetual state of barely-contained chaos. Between his father’s career as a magizoologist, his eldest sister’s interest in Herbology (particularly in plants with carnivorous tendencies), a set of twin siblings just old enough to have begun school, and the wild assortment of magical furniture and household charms, there was something happening in every room of the house. Usually, several somethings that occasionally didn’t interact well and lead to some small-level crisis or another. The din was constant and just shy of overwhelming, but the frenzy of activity gave the house itself the impression of being alive. Keith wasn’t sure whether he wanted to turn around immediately and leave or stay and explore every nook and cranny.

He stopped to look at one of the dozens of pictures decorating the wall of the family room. Inside the frame a younger Lance and his siblings appeared to be attempting to wrestle each other into a human pyramid, their bodies a tangle of dark limbs and wide smiles and silent laughter as their magical images vied for the top spot. An ear-splitting shriek had Keith whirling around to find both of Lance’s parents with their wands drawn and pointed at a pair of small bodies, suspended in mid-air by their ankles. The twins Mirana and Miguel were cackling maniacally, apparently completely unconcerned with the blood rushing to their heads. They were still clutching their wands, small sparks from aborted spells fizzing in the air around them.

“We were so close that time!” Miguel hollered, swaying back and forth, and his twin sister grinned wickedly.

“We’ll get you next time, Lance!” she screeched, and Keith had to admit that her threat was pretty intimidating, despite coming from an eleven year old. “Mom and Dad won’t be around to protect you from us forever!”

“Leave my hair alone!” Lance squeaked, covering his head with his hands. “They’ve been trying to hit me with color changing jinxes since I got home,” he explained to his friends pitifully.

“Trying?” a new voice interjected, and Lance’s closest sibling (in age and everything else that mattered) Deysi strutted into the room, smirking and drying her hands on a flowery yellow dish towel. She tossed it at Lance’s head. “By my count they’ve hit you at least half a dozen times so far. The pink was my favorite.” She grinned beatifically at her brother, an expression Lance had turned on Keith more times than he could count. Keith liked spending time with Deysi, it was nice to watch Lance’s own tactics turned against him.

“Don’t be jealous because I pulled the pink off,” Lance sniffed. Deysi chuckled and moved to hug Hunk and then Pidge, kissing each of their cheeks and welcoming them warmly. She did a double-take when she reached Keith, however, dragging her eyes up and down his body in a way that made him squirm.

Dios,” she purred suddenly. “Boy, you got hot. No wonder Lance won’t shut up about you.” Keith might have felt his cheeks spontaneously combust. He was dimly aware of choking sounds originating somewhere in Lance’s general area.

“Don’t listen to her!” Lance yelped, suddenly jumping between Keith and his sister. “Deysi likes girls, she has no taste in men whatsoever, she has no idea what she’s talking about!” Keith could barely keep up. Lance won’t shut up about you kept echoing in his ears.

Deysi laughed. “So what you’re saying is that Keith isn’t hot?” Were Keith’s cheeks melting off yet?

“That’s not - I mean - how is that - the relevance - I’m just!” Lance sounded like he was dying, wheezing for air and unable to form a coherent thought. “Keith is the single most attractive human being alive, okay?!” he shouted suddenly, so loudly that his voice rang in the high ceiling of the living room, echoing just a bit. The entire house suddenly fell still. Keith thought he might be hallucinating. This couldn’t be reality.

The silence stretched onward. Poor Lance looked horrified, like his own mouth had betrayed him. “Seriously,” he whispered to himself, distraught. “Seriously out of all those sentences, that’s the one…” he trailed off. And then he bolted, hollering about remembering he had to pull the garden gnomes.

Keith felt a little dizzy, like the whole world had tilted on its axis. Single most attractive human being alive. Single most attractive...most attractive. His brain was a broken record.

“Okay so uh, what just happened?” Pidge asked. They sounded shell-shocked.

“I think she broke Lance,” Hunk whispered, awed. “And then I think Lance broke Keith.”

Keith was pretty sure Hunk’s summary was accurate.

By dinner it was clear Lance had opted to take the pretend-nothing-happened-and-hope-for-the-best approach to his interactions with Keith and the others, an idea Keith was totally on board with. He kept hearing Lance’s shrill voice, over and over, most attractive human being alive, and any time he attempted to follow that thought down the rabbit hole he found himself freezing, face blazing hot and mouth dry. His poor heart hadn’t settled down to a regular pace, jumpy and frantic whenever his mind wandered to Lance’s declaration. Clearly he needed some time to process.

Fortunately, the domestic chaos of the Sanchez-McClain household offered plenty of distractions. Lance’s mother came through with his promises of a full Christmas spread, including the Diricawl shoulder roast Hunk had been singing praises about for weeks. Feeding eleven people, most of whom were teenagers, required a lot of preparation though and she had zero qualms about enlisting the aid of both her children and her guests. She kept the twins in line through sheer force of will and whenever Pidge turned to speak to Keith with a teasing glint in their eye she’d cut in and supply Pidge with a new task to work on, as if psychically alerted every time Pidge’s innate need to give Keith shit outweighed their sense of decency.

Keith was kind of in love with Lance’s mother.

By the time everyone gathered on the back patio to eat the sun was setting, its dazzling, colorful rays reflecting off the calm waters of the sea and setting them alight. It was a breathtaking sight and Keith was grateful, so grateful, to this family for opening their home to him. He’d originally assumed his holidays would be spent alone, likely back at Hogwarts with the few other students who stayed behind, wandering around the empty hallways like unwanted ghosts. Instead he was squeezed between Hunk and Miguel, seated at a table so overflowing with fresh, home-cooked food that he half expected it to be bowing inwards, passing around plates of zesty Cuban dishes and more traditional British Christmas staples.

Dinner was a tumultuous affair, everyone carrying on multiple conversations at once, talking and reaching over one another without hesitation. Miguel and Mirana got in a small food-fight, somehow managing to involve Lance despite his place at the opposite end of the table, but their mother shut them down quickly with a threatening glare and a click of her tongue. Lance’s face was as sulky and guilty as his little siblings’ and Keith snorted at him. Lance flashed him a glare, a pale shadow of the one his mother had just turned on them, and he seemed to know exactly what Keith was thinking because his expression soured even further. Pidge was deeply involved in a conversation with Lance’s eldest sister Alysa about a carnivorous plant thought extinct until only recently and simultaneously arguing with Hunk about the viability of using said plant in a potion they were planning to brew once school began again.

At one point, a wild yowling noise rose over the cacophony of conversation a moment before something large and furry slammed onto the tabletop. The Sanchez-McClain family didn’t bat any eyelashes, lifting their plates up off the table to safety before the creature could barrel past them. Keith, Hunk, and Pidge weren’t so fortunate. Great furred paws knocked their dishes flying, splattering all three of them with chunks of food and dripping sauces. And then it was gone, whatever it was, leaving behind a wild mess and three gaping teens.

“What the quiznak was that?” Keith was aware that he was losing his cool but seriously. Pidge wiped savory Diricawl sauce off their glasses, looking just as confused. Poor Hunk was quietly weeping, staring down at his overturned plate like it had once held all his hopes and dreams.

Deysi waved them off, setting her dishes back onto the table. “That’s just Romeo. Don’t worry, he’s mostly harmless.” She offered a bright smile as Lance dissolved into hysterical laughter.

“You look ridiculous!” he crowed, overjoyed. Keith felt his anger growing.

“What in Merlin’s bloody quiznak is a Romeo?” he shouted and then immediately shrank in his seat when Mama turned her angry glare on him.

“Keith!” she snapped. “Language!”

Lance’s hysterics degenerated further, until he was howling, tears tracking down his cheeks. “Your faces!” he gasped out. “You should have seen your faces!”

Alysa scowled at them all and Lance’s father offered a sheepish grin. “We should have warned you. Romeo likes to make an appearance at least once a meal. Miguel and Mirana, why don’t you help them clean up and Deysi and Lance can make them new plates, hm?”

It appeared that was all the information they were going to get about the mysterious Romeo. Keith groaned and stood to go rinse the juice from his hair.

 

XX

 

Keith was woken at an ungodly hour the next morning by Lance and Hunk bounding into the room he was staying in and shouting about presents. He assumed it was early at least; jumping across the globe had skewed his body’s perception of time. It would likely catch back up around the time they left to return to school. Pidge entered a few moments after the boys did, clutching a tottering stack of wrapped gifts to their chest and glaring murderously. Lance and Hunk had apparently charged into their room first and if looks could kill both boys would have been six feet under before they’d had the opportunity to bother Keith. Keith flopped backwards onto the bed with a groan.

“Keith come ooon,” Lance whined, tugging on his wrist. The events of yesterday hit Keith like a freight train, Lance’s - declaration? confession? - suddenly ringing in his ears as if the other boy had shouted it all over again and he sat up so quickly that he startled Lance, who promptly fell backwards off the bed. He managed to keep his grip on Keith’s arm, however, and before Keith could completely discern what was going on he was pulled to the floor, tangled up in Lance’s gangly limbs. Lance shrieked in surprise and squirmed, trying to free himself from beneath Keith’s weight, and Keith got a facefull of elbow and a knee to the gut before he could drag himself off of the other boy’s flailing body.

“Keith what the quiznak?” Lance yelped, backpedaling quickly while Keith tried to recover his breath. The knee striking his stomach had left him winded and the entire encounter had done little to improve his mood.

“Guys it’s too early to be fighting, come on.” Hunk helped Lance to his feet and Pidge stepped up in front of Keith, leveling him with their most unimpressed glower.

“If I’m awake at this unholy time, I’m going to get my gifts out of it,” they intoned. “And I will not be subjected to your pitiful attempts to flirt with Lance before I’ve had several cups of coffee. Now get up so we can get this show on the road.”

Keith considered arguing, debated kicking all of them out so he could mope in peace and maybe catch a little more sleep, but he knew his friends well enough to know how well behavior like that would go over. The boys wouldn’t be dissuaded from exchanging presents now that the opportunity had arisen, and Pidge would not allow themselves to be awake so early with nothing to show for it. So instead of climbing back into bed he dragged himself to his feet and fished around in his luggage for his own stash of wrapped gifts. “Let’s go,” he sighed. Lance and Hunk cheered and Pidge led them out of the door.

They wound up in Lance’s bedroom. The walls were painted blue and covered with various posters and pennants for an assortment of Quidditch and even muggle sports teams and a pair of sliding glass doors opened to a balcony that overlooked the open sea behind the house. It was surprisingly neat, the only mess being a scattering of Lance’s clothes across the floors and on the desk in the corner. Keith assumed Lance hadn’t been home long enough to really trash the place.

Lance kicked aside what looked to be a dirty school robe and a tangled pair of jeans with boxers still trapped inside and dropped himself into the newly-cleared space on the floor. He leaned back on his hands, stretching his long, pajama-clad legs in front of him, and beamed up at his friends. His feet were bare and he was still wearing Keith’s Gryffindor hoodie, the sleeves pushed up to reveal his forearms, and something about him in that moment triggered an answering curl of warmth low in Keith’s belly.

'He looks good in my clothes,' Keith caught himself thinking. And then, 'Oh. I’m in trouble.'

It seemed like a distant revelation as he watched Hunk plop down next to Lance, the Cuban boy’s entire body wiggling with excitement. Keith lowered himself to the ground slowly on Hunk’s other side, trying to regulate his breathing. He wanted to run away, wanted to be literally anywhere other than sitting across the floor from Lance. Lance, who looked deliciously rumpled in the old hooded sweatshirt he’d stolen from Keith and then kept. Lance, who’s toes just brushed against Keith’s bare knee when he scooched over to make room for Pidge in the last spot in their little circle. Lance, who had admitted to finding Keith attractive.

“Keith buddy, are you okay?” He looked up and met Hunk’s eyes, soft and full of concern, and forced himself to nod. What was he going to say? ‘No Hunk I’m not fine I’m in the middle of a crisis, I just discovered I kind of want to eat my best friend and rival alive right now and definitely in the sexy way not the I’m-a-closet-cannibal way’? That would be a disaster.

Lance, bless him, had always had a knack for recognizing when Keith needed the attention off himself because he was feeling uncomfortable or awkward or overwhelmed and knew to steer the conversation away from Keith without asking questions. “He’s just pumped about presents! Come on, let’s give Pidge theirs first. I may have missed the mark the past three Christmases but I know I nailed it this year,” he stepped in smoothly. Keith had always appreciated Lance’s strangely selective intuitiveness but something about it this time, in this situation, added fuel to that smoldering fire in his belly. Keith, again, seriously considered running.

It was their tradition that they would go around the circle, presenting one person at a time with the gifts from the other three. Generally, Lance would insist he be given his presents first but he handed his gift for Pidge to them without complaint, sharp eyes fixed on Keith. When Keith reached across the circle to offer his own present to Pidge - a time-weathered old German tome, chock full of ancient, obscure runes that he’d had Shiro track down when a case had taken him to Berlin - Lance leaned forward and curled his fingers around Keith’s wrist. Keith’s heart flipped and his skin burned and he wanted to yank his arm back but Lance was staring at him so intently, and with so much concern that he froze.

Are you okay?’ Lance’s eyes seemed to say, and he tilted his head sideways, scouring Keith’s face for any clues as to the reason behind his suddenly skittish mood. Keith swallowed, sucked in several deep breaths, and nodded slowly and deliberately. His pulse gradually evened out, thrumming strongly against Lance’s fingertips, and the other boy watched him for a moment longer before releasing him and turning back to their younger friend, seemingly satisfied.

If Hunk and Pidge noticed the exchange they kept quiet about it, critically examining the clockwork lion Lance had presented Pidge with. “Lance, I,” Pidge said, voice dull and remorseful, and Lance’s entire face fell. “I love it!” Pidge shouted. In their hands, the little green creature roared, tiny motorized joints whirring as it paced around their palms and lashed its tail. “This is amazing! The way the parts all fit together, and is that a long-term animation charm or-” Lance laughed, happily answering Pidge’s eager questions, chest puffed out with pride.

“Told you I’d nail it this year!” he gloated. Pidge giggled as the lion batted at their thumb with a miniscule paw and didn’t disagree.

“You sure did!” Hunk was grinning, wide and excited for his friend’s success. “You sure set the bar high for next year too!” Lance groaned and dropped his face into his hands.

“Merlin’s old-ass beard I didn’t even think about that,” he whined. Pidge cackled and covetously set their new lion in their lap to open Hunk’s gift.

They went around the circle that way. Lance was overjoyed with the leather-bound book Hunk presented him with, his coveted Quidditch Playbook meticulously transcribed into the enchanted pages. The book was charmed to keep it from being damaged by even the worst weather conditions. “We’ll be needing this for Q.I.S.Q.I.T. practices!” Lance’s smile was as bright as the sun that was just beginning to peek over the edge of the sea outside.

Hunk was as ecstatic about his gifts as the others, pulling Lance’s latest home-made, lumpy, knitted tragedy over his head with pride and thanking them all enthusiastically for their thoughtful presents.

And then it was Keith’s turn. His friends were watching him with a weird intensity that made him a little uncomfortable and he took Pidge’s offering just to avoid their eyes. He unwrapped a small book, Unique Communique: A Charmed Guide to Sending Messages, and raised his eyebrows at them for the interesting choice. They just rolled their eyes and Keith thanked them for the odd gift. Hunk’s present was even more mystifying: a heavy muggle sweatshirt that proudly proclaimed ‘I don’t give a HOOT’. Keith was really confused - and mildly concerned. Were his friends pranking him? He didn’t want to seem ungrateful, and the sweatshirt was kind of cute, but their gift selections were really out of left field this year. He turned to look at Lance, who was very deliberately not looking at him, his face pinched in anxiety.

“Lance?” he asked, inexplicably nervous. Lance closed his eyes and visibly steeled himself before standing to retrieve something from the balcony outside. It was tall and square-ish, a knitted red blanket draped over it, and Keith’s heart flip-flopped.

“You uh, you remember that time when Shiro disappeared?” Lance asked him. His voice cracked with nerves. Keith couldn’t take his eyes off of the thing in the other boy’s hands as he carried it closer. “You couldn’t get ahold of him, we didn’t know what had happened. You were kind of a wreck.”

Keith nodded. “In fourth year, yeah. He had to go undercover suddenly.” Lance carefully lowered himself back into his place on the floor, placing his cargo at the center of their little circle. Pidge and Hunk remained silent, watching them.

Lance’s fingers twitched, knotting into the thick fabric that hid his gift from view. “After that, Hunk and I uh, we really wanted to make sure that never happened to you again.” Lance was watching his fingers pick at loose threads in the blanket, more nervous than Keith had ever seen him. “So we did some research and we found the solution. Uhm. A solution.” And then he was pulling the covering away from the wire cage beneath.

Keith stared. Inside the cage was an owl. She wasn’t very big, probably not even a foot from the crown of her head to the curves of her talons. Sharp slashes of white struck down between her large yellow eyes, stopping abruptly above her short beak, and the feathers on her breast were a rusty shade of red that Keith hadn’t seen before. She ruffled her wings, dark brown and speckled liberally with white, and tilted her head curiously. Her enormous eyes stayed fixed on him, unblinking.

“Her name’s Red,” Lance whispered. Keith reluctantly broke eye-contact with the owl - his owl - to look at Lance. The other boy had a strange, soft expression on his face as he watched him.

“She’s beautiful,” Keith told him honestly. His voice was a little hoarse, and he looked back to his owl to hide his awkwardness. She was still watching him and let out a soft, guttural noise when he met her gaze again.

“She’s an Ochre Hawk Owl,” Hunk explained. “They’re pretty special, and bred exclusively in an Owlery in Chile of all places. Lance and I learned about them when we were trying to find a way for you to keep in touch with Shiro if he ever had to drop off grid again.”

“They’re unique,” Pidge piped up, “in that they only ever connect to one person. It’s kind of a mystery, but they link up to their person’s magic somehow. She’ll always be able to find the person you’re trying to get mail to, as long as that person is someone who has been touched by your magic fairly frequently.”

“Like Shiro,” Keith breathed, the full reality of what his friends - what Lance - had given him settling over him. A lump formed in his throat and his eyes burned and he was overwhelmed with the sheer force of his gratitude as he stared into Red’s luminous eyes.

“Like Shiro,” Lance replied, voice equally soft. Keith rubbed the back of his hand over his face and drew in a shaky breath.

There was a rustle of paper and Keith turned his head to see Pidge once again offering him their gift, opened now to a page so covered in annotations that it was almost illegible. “This is a charm that will disguise any letters you send to look like common ads from the Prophet.” Their tone was smug. “Matt and I have been tweaking it for a while now. To reveal the actual message you scribble this old swedish rune,” they pointed to a complicated swirl drawn in the book in green ink, “and tap out this constellation with your wand.” They slid their finger across the book’s page to an obscure formation marked in the same ink. “And voila! A secret message safely delivered to Shiro without blowing his cover.”

Keith felt like a collapsing star, being crushed by a pressure from inside himself, falling inwards. He bit his lip, scrabbling frantically to contain emotions he didn’t know how to handle, but a sob clawed its way up his swollen throat and punched out from between his lips, outside of his control. He could barely hear his friends over the roaring in his ears and his vision clouded over with moisture until he could only make out the brilliant yellow of Red’s eyes.

“Keith, don’t cry,” Hunk wailed. “If you cry I’ll cry!” It was clearly too late for that, Hunk was already bawling.

Long, lean arms folded around Keith’s shoulders, pulling him into a hard chest, and gentle hands guided his face into the crook of a warm neck. Keith drew several sharp, shuddery breaths, burrowing his nose into the bunched fabric of the familiar red hoodie. It smelled like the sea, and salt, and Lance. “It’s okay to cry,” Lance whispered into Keith’s hair, just for him to hear. Fingers slid over the back of his neck, up into his hair. “We’ve got you, Keith. It’s okay.” Lance’s voice was so soft, so full of compassion, and something inside of Keith, something that had been winding tighter and tighter as the school year had progressed - as his feelings for Lance had grown bigger and more out of control, as Shiro went more and more time between responses, as his workload stacked up on itself until it felt like he’d never overcome it - that something just ... snapped.

And Keith cried. He cried and cried into Lance’s shoulder, into his ratty old hoodie and that ocean breeze smell while warm hands stroked his back and carded through his hair. He cried like he’d never allowed himself to cry, ugly and desperate, overwrought and overworked. Two more sets of arms joined Lance’s around him, and he lay there in the circle of his closest friends and wept while they anchored him in the storm, kept it from washing him away.

He didn’t know how long they stayed like that, in a comfortable and comforting tangle of limbs and hearts and shared tears but gradually, Keith cried himself out. He was left feeling achy and empty and somehow so much lighter, like the moisture that had spilled over his cheeks had taken with it a physical weight of weeks, months, years of strain. He felt hollowed out, but in the best way, warm and safe and supported on all sides by people that genuinely cared about him. Above him, Lance gave a little sigh. Keith could feel the other boy’s breath ruffling his hair, and he clung just a little tighter to him. The fabric of his hoodie beneath his cheek was soaked entirely through, tacky with moisture. Red made a soft chirruping noise into the stillness, as if she were concerned.

“So I guess you can know now that Lance definitely wasn’t avoiding you,” Pidge spoke up. Their voice was a little rough but nobody commented on it. “The Owlery he got Red from is really exclusive; even with his dad’s professional recommendation and his mom’s status as a former ambassador they wouldn’t just let Lance have an Ochre Hawk.”

“You thought I was avoiding you?” Lance asked. He sounded horrified, and Keith finally lifted his head to look at him. Lance’s eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, tear tracts drying on his cheeks, and he was staring at Keith in disbelief. Keith nodded, a little thrown off by the force of Lance’s reaction. “Keith! I wouldn’t do that!” Keith raised an eyebrow and Lance adopted a sheepish expression. “Okay, I wouldn’t do that without making damn sure you knew why,” he amended.

“The Owlery refused my initial requests to adopt from them. Luckily, I was charming and persuasive even at the tender age of fourteen and eventually convinced them to let me work for them to earn the right to buy the owl. An internship, of sorts? A kind-of paid apprenticeship, where the payment was one of their fancy owls.” He motioned to Red, his chest puffed up with pride.

“So that’s what you've been doing? And seriously, it took two years?” Keith sat back, staring at Lance while he awkwardly scratched the back of his neck, deliberately not meeting Keith’s eyes.

“Yeah uh, funny story. They’re actually pretty expensive owls? I guess that makes sense because they’re badass and all. Anyway I basically decided this summer that I had to get Red for you; she was the one, trust me. And they told me they could only hold onto her until Christmas. So I got permission from Coran and the Headmaster and on the weekends I’d portkey all the way to Chile to get extra time in. So that’s why I had to keep turning down invites to hang with you guys.” Lance looked genuinely apologetic. Keith was blown away.

“You’ve been working on the weekends? With everything going on? Lance!” he shouted, mortified. “I’ve been worrying myself sick about you! You’ve looked like a zombie for weeks now. What were you thinking?” His tone was harsher than he intended it to be, and Lance scowled, immediately answering the challenge in Keith’s voice.

“I was getting you a bomb-ass owl, Keith. Maybe try to be a little thankful, I sacrificed a lot of beauty sleep for that little lady.”

“Keith,” Hunk cut in, sensing that things were spiraling quickly. “We knew what Lance was doing, we weren’t going to let him go too far. But he was right about Red, right? She imprinted on you instantly, which was better than we could have hoped. It usually takes weeks. She was definitely the one, and Lance couldn’t just let her slip away.”

Keith closed his eyes and drew in several deliberate breaths. He was still feeling raw and overwhelmed, unused to such emotional displays and very much off-center as a result. He didn’t want to fight with Lance, not really. He felt a little guilty that Lance had given up so much to give him the ability to communicate with Shiro and the peace of mind that came with that, but mostly he just felt grateful. He realized with a start that he hadn’t said as much. “I don’t know what to say,” he began, his voice small and unsure. “Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, guys. Lance, thank you for Red. She’s perfect, she really is. Thank you guys for giving me a way to talk to Shiro without endangering him. You guys really are the best. I’m,” he paused, licked his dry lips. “I’m really thankful to have you guys as my friends.”

It was almost certainly the most heartfelt thing he’d ever said to them and suddenly three sets of arms were wrapping around him again.

“You’re welcome, buddy,” Hunk whispered, and he could feel Pidge nodding against his shoulder.

“Of course we’re the best,” was all Lance said, but his fingers returned to card through Keith’s hair.

Keith parted ways with his friends a short time later, needing some time to himself. They seemed to understand; Hunk only stopped him at the door to squeeze him into a hug and Pidge walked beside him, quietly supportive, to his borrowed room before continuing down the hall to their own. Lance had already climbed back into bed, and his quiet snores had filled the room before they’d even reached the door.

Keith settled Red in her cage on his bedside table and carefully opened the door. He’d wanted an owl for as long as he could remember but it had never seemed like a justifiable investment, given his and Shiro’s limited funds. Red was more than he ever could have hoped for, and he thought he could understand what the others had meant when they’d said she had chosen him.

He could feel a connection to her, a new, foreign tug at the heart of himself. ‘It’s my magic,’ he realized, awed. There was a bond between him and the owl, something fragile and new. Something special.

He reached for her almost reverently and promptly received a sharp bite on his finger. Keith let out an undignified yelp and jerked backwards, blood welling up almost instantly and dripping into his palm.

“Red, what the hell?” The owl blinked at him and he could practically feel her reproach. He flushed. “I guess it was kind of rude to just grab at you without asking.” She watched him. “I’m sorry.” Still no response. He wasn’t sure why he even expected one from a bird. Keith rubbed his forehead, sheepish. “May I please hold you?” Red turned away, rustling her feathers disdainfully, clearly unimpressed. “Right, no, you’re totally right. You need some time. I get it. We’ll try again later.” Red ignored him. With a sigh, Keith climbed back into bed and resolved to treat her with the utmost respect in the future. She clearly had a temper.

 

XX

 

The holiday felt more like a summer vacation than the Christmas break it was, passing in a warm, colorful blur of beaches and laughter, sweet fruits and spicy, exotic dishes. Keith adjusted to life in the manic Sanchez-McClain household fairly quickly and by the end of the third day had managed to save his dinner from Romeo, sidestep a dozen ambushes by the twins, and figured out that arguments between Alysa and Deysi were to be stayed out of all costs. (Somehow, despite having grown up with the pair, or maybe because of it, Lance hadn’t learned that particular lesson and had ended up with a faceful of magical zits that had driven him into his bedroom for nearly twelve hours, wailing in horror.) Keith and his friends visited a variety of local shops and spent an entire afternoon beneath the sea a few miles off the coast, meeting the colony of merfolk that had built their home there. It had been a holiday to remember, Keith’s favorite in a long time if he were being honest, and he almost regretted that they would soon have to leave, to return to Hogwarts and N.E.W.T.s and Quidditch.

He maybe didn’t regret that last one so much.

The evening before they were set to portkey back to King’s Cross Station, Keith went looking for Lance. He eventually found him down on his family’s private beach, seated backwards on his broom and flying in lazy, looping circles, his bare toes dragging in the sand. His slumped posture and aimless spinning made a melancholy picture against the sea behind him, gleaming with sunset flames. Keith briefly considered leaving the other boy be but seeing Lance so still and quiet felt jarring and wrong.

“Are you sad about having to leave your family?” Keith barely refrained from slapping his own forehead. 'So comforting,' he sneered at himself. 'You truly are a master wordsmith.'

Lance looked up at him in surprise, planting his feet in the sand and halting his broom’s directionless wandering. His expression softened when he met Keith’s eyes and the corners of his mouth tipped upwards into a warm curl of a smile. “Yeah.” His voice was hushed, barely carrying to Keith over the soft sshhh of the tide’s endless climb-and-retreat dance with the shore.

He watched Keith take a few hesitant steps closer, until they could reach out and touch one another if either felt they wanted to. Or maybe, if they were just brave enough. Keith swallowed and the moment stretched onward, a little sad, a little hopeful.

Lance was the first to break the silence, the gentle smile still warming his mouth. “They’re a little overwhelming, but I miss them when I’m gone. Even after all these years it feels strange to be so far away from them.” Keith knew Lance had elected to go to Hogwarts rather than Castelobruxo like his siblings, but he’d never gotten a clear answer as to why. He didn’t think anyone had. ‘Hogwarts has a killer Quidditch program. Everyone at Castelobruxo is so obsessed with plants - boooring. I was just fated to be a badger.' Of the many and varied explanations Lance had provided over the years that last one had always rung the most true. Keith had long since chalked it up to Lance being Lance - a little bizarre but well-intentioned. Looking at the longing expression on his face, though, Keith wondered for the first time if the other boy regretted his choice. The idea left a sour feeling in his stomach.

They didn’t speak for several long moments; Keith stayed silent because he wasn’t sure what to say, what words were appropriate for their conversation. He’d never had any skill for conversing and the fear of saying the wrong thing and shattering that fragile something behind Lance’s eyes rendered him mute.

It was fortunate that Lance had a gift for speaking, particularly to Keith. Those blue eyes dragged over him and Keith got the distinct impression that they were seeing more than his new sweatshirt and rattiest pair of jeans. Lance’s tiny smile grew into a broad grin, familiar and reassuring.

“I’m excited to get back to Hogwarts, though. The first Q.I.S.Q.I.T. meeting is Friday and we’ve got a lot of work to do before the spring!”

Keith blinked, thrown by Lance’s sudden enthusiasm. “How do you know that?” He lowered himself to sit in the sand. Lance’s broom drifted upwards just enough for his feet to clear the ground and he kicked his legs as he spoke.

“Coran told me the day before we left. In detention.” His brow furrowed, his lips poking out in a dramatic little pout. “My third one in two weeks. I think he’s out to get me, Keith! He keeps accusing me of filling my essays with bad words.”

Keith bit his lip hard to keep from snickering, remembering Pidge hunched over a table in The Three Broomsticks, armed with a mug of Butterbeer and an agenda. “I saw that last one,” he fought to keep his voice even. “You had that entire line describing your ideal dick. In explicit detail.”

Lance’s entire face turned an alarming shade of red that rivaled the color of the stolen hoodie he was still wearing. In fact, Keith had only seen Lance out of his old sweatshirt when they’d been swimming. It had grown less distracting with repeated exposure but not by much. Keith was torn between never wanting to see Lance in anything other than his clothes again and being desperate to return to the safety of yellow scarves and shapeless black robes.

“That wasn’t me!” Lance shouted, voice pitched higher than usual. It took Keith a moment to remember what they’d been talking about. Coran, detention. Right. “Keith, buddy, you were there when I wrote it! You looked it over for me! Come on.”

Lance was whining, face still a violent scarlet, and Keith had to cover his smile with his hand to avoid giving the game away. It was a wasted effort; Lance’s eyes narrowed in on Keith’s mouth. “You know something.” Keith shook his head in denial but it was too late. Lance’s expression darkened in understanding. “Pidge.” The word was both a grim realization and a dire curse.

Keith flinched. Oops. 'Well, he would have put it together sooner or later,' he reassured himself. He did consider warning Pidge though. Everything about Lance’s demeanor promised retribution.

Keith fished around for something to say, eager to derail the furious plotting his companion was throwing himself into. He needed to get Lance to take a little time to cool off before he did anything too rash.

“Did we both make the H.O.S.T.?” was what he came up with. Lance jerked and almost fell off his broom; he’d clearly completely forgotten Keith was there.

“Uh, yeah,” Lance finally responded. He was still frowning faintly but he was looking at Keith again. “You’re the Seeker for the Hogwarts Official School Team.” Lance’s smile was sudden and blinding. “Congratulations!” Despite having known him for years, his mercurial moods still gave Keith whiplash.

Still, Lance’s enthusiasm was contagious and Keith had been dreaming of playing the Q.I.S.Q.I.T. since he’d watched Shiro and his team dominating the pitch four years before. Those dreams were finally being realized and the feeling wasn’t something he could put a name to. It was an undefinable mix of excitement, pride, a dozen things that Keith couldn’t even identify.

Keith didn’t need to be able to describe what he was feeling. The look on Lance’s face told Keith that he understood, that he was experiencing the same emotional cocktail. They sat together in companionable silence, watching the sun sink below the horizon, swallowed up by gentle waves.

Keith stared up at the stars as they appeared, heart beating steadily in his chest. “Did Coran mention who would captain the team?” he asked eventually. Lance lowered himself back to the ground and settled beside him, burying his toes in the still-warm sand.

“No. At least, I don’t think he did. I didn’t pay much attention past our names.” Lance scratched the back of his head and grinned. Silvery moonlight slid over his face, softening his sharp features and highlighting the edges of his smile.

'He’s beautiful.' Keith didn’t quash the thought immediately, instead he let it linger. His heart continued beating, its rhythm uninterrupted. The stars didn’t wink out, the sea didn’t swallow him. It felt monumental. It felt natural.

“I think it should be you,” he said. Lance started almost violently.

He gaped at Keith. “Me?” The crack in his voice made Keith grin. “You think I should captain the H.O.S.T.?”

“Sure,” Keith smirked at him, leaning back on his hands and tapping his bare foot against Lance’s. “That Playbook of yours has to have at least a few useful tricks in there that will help the team win and you’re more suited to playing mother hen than I am.”

Lance continued to stare at him, entirely still, for a few long moments. And then he smiled, so bright and blinding Keith had half a mind to check and see if the sun had somehow risen again. “Of course I’m a better mom than you are, Keith. You’re way too much of a hothead. You yell and scare the children.” He clicked his tongue. “And I’ll have you know my Playbook is one hundred percent quality. It is the supreme guide with which Hufflepuff kicked your team’s ass, remember?”

Keith gave an ungentlemanly snort. “Right. It had nothing to do with me worrying about you after you decided to catch that Bludger with your shoulder.”

“I stopped it, didn’t I?” Lance was still smiling, it stretched across his face and shined from his eyes. “It’s so sweet that you cared, though.”

Keith bumped his shoulder into him, nudged his foot against Lance’s again. “Don’t tell anyone,” he mock-whispered. “Pidge would be so ashamed.”

 

XX

 

The second term did not begin with the gentle easing-in to the crippling workload of N.E.W.T. courses that the first term had. Instead, Keith imagined his professors took sadistic glee from throwing them all into the academic deep end.

Between the sheer amount of classwork and his confused body still adjusted to Cuban time, Keith was struggling. He wasn’t the only one; he’d had to wake Lance a full three times in the library the night before and Hunk had nodded off during lunch, something Keith would never have believed if he hadn’t seen it himself.

While the sixth years suffered (and the seventh, Keith supposed, the eldest students in the school had the same inhuman, mildly tortured expressions on their faces that Keith saw on his classmates), the school was buzzing with excitement for the Q.I.S.Q.I.T. The H.O.S.T. roster had been posted when the students had returned from their holidays; Keith’s name had topped a list that had included Lance and only five other students from the various houses.

Keith had known he would be on the team. What he hadn’t expected was the sudden popularity that came with playing on the H.O.S.T. There hadn’t even been a team meeting yet and already Keith was being approached by people he didn’t even know. Students from every house and every year were suddenly eager to speak to him and Lance and while Lance ate the attention up, basking in the spotlight, Keith was ready to pull his hair out.

On Wednesday, when his conversation with them had been interrupted no less than four times, Pidge finally took pity on him and offered him their scarf. It had actually helped - most of the students only knew him as the Gryffindor with the mullet (and did Lance ever have a field day with that) and the change from red to blue was enough to throw most of his new admirers off his scent.

Keith felt the five points he’d cost Gryffindor for not adhering to the dress code were a small price to pay.

Keith met his new Quidditch team after dinner Friday evening, bumping fists with Gryffindor’s seventh year Beater as they clustered together in the room designated for them. Several small wooden chairs faced a chalkboard that took up nearly an entire wall, and the remaining walls were draped with banners from all four houses, centered around the Hogwarts crest. Lance affectionately referred to the area as the War Room.

Lance strutted around like he owned the place as the rest of the team trickled in. “Pretty nice digs,” he declared to Keith and the others, draping himself over two of the stiff-backed chairs.

Professor Coran hustled in a few moments later. “Sorry, sorry!” he called, looking flustered, his trademark mustache twitching. The rest of the team joined Lance in the seats as Coran handed the only Ravenclaw in the room, their Keeper, a sheaf of parchments. “Pass these around, please and thank you. Just a few basic waivers in case any of you are maimed or killed over the course of the tournament.” He stilled when he saw their faces and smiled encouragingly. “Ah, not to worry, though! The maiming bit is far more likely than any of you actually dying.”

Keith took a copy before handing the stack off to Lance. He was old enough now that he didn’t need a guardian’s permission and he quickly scribbled his signature across the bottom before passing it back towards the front.

“Thank you, thank you,” Coran hummed, cheerfully accepting the signed waivers as they made their way up to him. “I have one, two, three - thank you - four, fiiiive…” he expertly plucked the last one, wadded up into a ball, out of the air before it could strike him and winked at Lance, “six! And you get that one signed by your parents and returned to me just as soon as you can, alright?” He was speaking to one of the Chasers, a Slytherin boy who looked to be about Pidge’s age. He flushed when everyone turned to look at him but held his chin high. Keith’s housemate clapped him on the shoulder and the other new H.O.S.T. members offered him smiles and high-fives and congratulations for making the team.

“I’ve seen you playing,” Lance exclaimed, excited. “You’re a weapon on the pitch. Ravenclaw’s Chasers are no joke and you snatched the Quaffle right-”

“Great to see you’re all getting along!” Coran cut in before Lance could really get going but he was smiling under that impressive mustache. “There’s just a small list of things to get through before I turn you all loose.” He cleared his throat.

“Traditionally, the players coach themselves and the Q.I.S.Q.I.T. is no exception. I will be serving as your adviser, so any issues you encounter may be brought to me. I will also be required to approve of all funding and expenditures so you will certainly benefit from keeping me in the loop.” Coran stroked the corners of his mustache and peered down at a strip of parchment he was holding. “Let’s see, covered that and...Oh! The matter of team captain. It was established four years ago that the team would select their own leader. I know you don’t all know each other personally yet, but you should at least know of each other-”

Keith snuck a glance at Lance. The other boy was watching the professor intently, brow furrowed. There was an uncharacteristic tension to his posture. His long fingers picked absently at the edges of his new Playbook.

Keith steeled himself to speak in front of so many strangers. “It should be Lance.” He caught the Cuban boy’s eyes and offered an encouraging smile.

There were murmurs of assent around them. “I second that,” the Slytherin Beater spoke up, and Lance’s fellow Hufflepuff clapped him on the shoulder.

“Obviously it has to be Lance,” the Chaser laughed. “He’s going to boss us around either way.”

Lance looked shocked, listening to everyone agree to Keith’s suggestion easily, his mouth trying and failing to form words and his cheeks flushing.

“Don’t be so surprised,” Keith snorted. “Hufflepuff won the Hogwarts Cup this year, after all.” He was outright grinning by that point.

“And we’ve all been playing Hufflepuff for years. We know exactly how far they’ve come. You transformed them from a lackluster collection of players to a real threat. We’re counting on you to do the same thing here,” their Keeper added. She was the long-time captain of her own team and had the most experience leading. Her vote of confidence was enough to snap Lance out of his silence.

“You bet your quiznak I will!” he shouted, leaping up from his seat. “We’re going to be unstoppable, the best Quidditch team Hogwarts has ever seen!”

The second ever Hogwarts Official School Team cheered, clapping and hollering and circling around their new captain. Keith had no doubt that they were going to be amazing.

 

XX

 

Unfortunately, the road to amazing was paved with blood, sweat, and absolutely no free time.

Keith’s body adjusted to the time change fairly quickly after that first week, which was fortunate because the weeks and months that followed were some of the most intense of his life.

Monday and Wednesday evenings were reserved exclusively for Quidditch and on Saturdays they gathered at the pitch before dawn, not returning to the castle until dark had descended again.

Lance’s first act as captain had been to send for every student who had been a member of a Hogwarts Quidditch team the previous term.

“We need people to practice against,” he’d explained. “And if one of us gets injured in a match and can’t play the next one then their replacement will already know exactly how we work and how to fit into our dynamic. It’s like that muggle concept. Uh...second…”

“Strings,” Keith supplied. “Always have a second string to your bow, and all that. There are no substitutions in Quidditch, of course, but the idea is the same.” Lance nodded enthusiastically.

“Yup! We’re the big players but if we’ve got a strong Plan B we really can’t fail.” He beamed at Keith. “It was Mullet’s idea way back last summer.”

Keith flushed as everyone clapped him on the shoulders and marveled over his ‘brilliant’ strategy. “It’s kind of obvious, muggles have been doing it for forever,” he groused, but was cheerily ignored.

In addition to full team practices, Lance had insisted that the players for each position meet at least one morning a week for more specialized training. And so Keith found himself joining the three other Hogwarts Seekers on the freezing pitch at ass o’clock early every Thursday. Keith’s only consolation was that Lance and the Chasers had drawn the short straw and were forced to meet early on Fridays. Lance was still whining about it, complaining that Fridays were supposed to be sacred and that Quidditch ruined everything.

“It was your idea,” Pidge finally informed him after a few too many tears had been shed at dinner one evening.

Lance reeled back as if struck. “Don’t put that evil on me, Pidge!” he wailed.

“It was literally your suggestion.” Pidge dropped their head on the table with a thunk. “Why are we even friends?” they grumbled.

“Don’t worry, Pidge,” Hunk soothed, snatching a peanut butter cookie from a dessert platter and offering it to them. “Lance is suffering far more than we are.” Keith wasn’t clear if it was the cookie or the encouraging words but Pidge perked right up, grinning when Lance’s answer was a dramatic sob.

“It’s true,” he wept. Hunk just passed him a cookie of his own, not bothering to respond.

 

XX

 

Beyond the technological and physical aspects of training, Lance’s biggest concern was team building.

“Everyone here knows we’re all kick-ass players,” he’d explained, unusually serious, “but most of us don’t even know each other. Quiznak, I’d never even spoken to half of you before the roster was posted. We’ve spent our entire school careers separated and competing.”

That much was true, Keith had looked around the War Room and realized that he could only name a handful of the players outside his own House. Despite having taken great strides towards unity since the Second Wizarding War, inter-house competition was a very prevalent part of Hogwarts culture. The Gryffindor-Slytherin feud, especially, was still very much alive and agreeing to set those feelings aside for the sake of the Q.I.S.Q.I.T. didn’t magically dispel years of ingrained tension.

“We can draw up strategies and run drills until our brooms fall out of the sky but it’s not enough. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being forced to watch Keith play for years, it’s that sometimes you’ve gotta go with your gut and improvise. When we reach that point, and against teams like Ilvermorny and Mahoutokoro we will, every one of us needs to be able to react and respond as a unit.

“Sorry Keith, but no amount of lone-wolf grandstanding is going to put us at the top of this tournament. Teamwork makes the dream work!”

That last bit was soon to become the most hated phrase anyone in history had ever been repeatedly subjected to but Lance’s point was valid.

It had been Hunk’s suggestion to have the team study together. With so much time devoted to practice their grades were at risk. “Everyone can help out with checking assignments and quizzing one another on material, and the older students can even help the younger ones work through stuff they’ve already done,” he’d explained, making notes in his ever-growing N.E.W.T. study-guide. He’d uncorked a bottle of yellow ink and added a notation in a careful script. “You all spend some time together, working with and helping each other, and your grades hopefully don’t take a hit because of the Q.I.S.Q.I.T. It’s a win-win.”

“Hunk, buddy, you're a genius!” Lance had shouted. He’d only looked mildly chastised when the librarian had shot him a Look.

Lance had gone to the team with his proposal. By the next week, they’d had to push several library tables together to accommodate the sheer number of students gathering to collaborate on their studies. Keeping the noise contained was nearly impossible and the pinch-faced librarian looked apoplectic the entire duration of their meetings, but Keith had heard that the Headmaster himself had forbidden her from interfering.

It was a Hogwarts first - all twenty-eight Quidditch players and an ever-growing number of their friends and classmates, all coming together to help and encourage one another.

The amount of people had been overwhelming to Keith at first but he’d begun to look forward to those nights. He eventually stopped seeing scarf colors and ages, and instead learned faces and names. He’d met a Slytherin who was as avid a reader of The Quibbler as Keith himself was, and a Ravenclaw second year who was also a student of the sword. “Wands are great, don’t get me wrong,” they’d explained, “but swords, man. You get me?” Keith got them.

Despite how much Keith enjoyed Team Library Time, he couldn’t help but resent it, too. For six years those nights in the library had been his time with Lance. Suddenly, he was lucky if he could even see the other boy from his seat, much less speak to him.

Four weeks in, Keith could admit to himself that he missed Lance.

He was seated at the Gryffindor table with Hunk and Pidge, a cold plate of eggs in front of him, watching Lance wildly gesturing his way through a story that had the Slytherins around him laughing. He watched one of them lean into Lance, seemingly so overcome by the boy's hilarity that he couldn't even sit up straight. Keith scowled.

“This feels familiar,” Hunk announced, sliding a plate of buttery toast over to Pidge. “Anyone else getting the vibe we’ve done this before?”

Pidge didn’t look up from their book. “The two of us enjoying a quiet breakfast while Keith broods and glares in Lance’s general direction?” They reached out and snatched a slice from the top of the stack. Keith stuck his tongue out at them.

Mornings had always been Lance’s opportunity to spread his social butterfly wings and he rarely sat with the same people twice in a row. It hadn’t ever bothered Keith before but he’d been getting nightly one-on-one sessions with him then and with those meetings effectively hijacked by what seemed to be half the student body, he was feeling Lance’s absence at their breakfast table.

“Well, yeah, when you put it that way,” Hunk shrugged agreeably and piled his plate with bacon. “So what’s the deal this time, Keith? Lance call you his friend again?” He chuckled at his own joke.

What Keith meant to say was something deadpan and sarcastic. What came out was, “He’s been too busy to call me anything.” He really, really needed to work on his brain-to-mouth filter. He kept his eyes on Lance to avoid the stare he could feel Pidge burning into the side of his face.

“You’re not even trying to be subtle at this point, are you?” There was definitely amusement in their dry tone. Keith watched Lance knock over a goblet of juice, saw the people clustered around him jump away. He could hear their shouts and laughter from across the hall.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He winced at how unconvincing he sounded, even to himself.

Hunk made a strangled sound and suddenly grabbed Keith by the shoulders, hauling him bodily around to face him. “Hunk, wha-”

“You’re finally admitting it?” his voice was high-pitched and breathless, his brown eyes wide with disbelief.

“Admitting what?” Keith asked, confused by Hunk’s reaction.

“You’re admitting that you like Lance!” his volume rose dangerously and Keith could feel the eyes of the people nearby suddenly on them. His cheeks heated.

“Keep your voice down,” he hissed. Hunk had the grace to look apologetic, but he didn’t relax his grip on Keith’s shoulders, his gaze laser focused on his face. It was on the tip of Keith’s tongue to deny, deny, deny, but there was something about Hunk’s expression, something soft and vulnerable, something hopeful.

Hunk had been Lance’s closest friend since before they’d learned to walk. He meant the world to Lance, and Keith knew the feeling was entirely mutual. He couldn’t bring himself to lie to him about this, his feelings for the boy Hunk cared about more than probably anyone. So he didn’t.

“I...I like Lance.”

It was his first time admitting it, even to himself. Saying it out loud eased a weight in Keith’s chest he hadn’t even been aware he’d been carrying. 'I like Lance.'

Hunk’s eyes roved over his face, watching his mouth as it shaped the words, his eyes as he confessed, for the first time ever, his feelings for someone. He was silent long enough for Keith’s shoulders to begin to tense and then he exhaled slowly, heavily, and gave a solemn nod.

“Good,” was all he said. Pidge snorted.

“Finally!” they threw their hands up. “I’ve been waiting literally months to hear you say that; watching you figure it out has been torture like you wouldn’t believe.”

Keith scowled. “Oh yeah, because you’ve just had it all figured out for so long.”

“Of course I have! You couldn’t have been more obvious if you enchanted your scarf to light up like a marquee and announce it.” Keith blinked, temporarily thrown by the strange image. “Whatever.” Pidge waved a pale hand. “What’s important now is what you’re going to do about it.”

“Do about it…?” Keith asked, confused. “Why would I do anything?”

That seemed to shock Pidge into silence. They and Hunk were gaping at him, seemingly unable to even form words.

“Why would you…” Hunk trailed off, mystified. Pidge rallied.

“What do you mean why would you do anything? Are you seriously going to sit there and say you like Lance and then do nothing? What’s your plan, to gaze longingly across various rooms at him until the end of time?” When they put it like that it sounded ridiculous. Pidge buried their hands in their hair and groaned, as if dealing with Keith was physically paining them. It probably was.

But in all honesty, Keith had never even considered acting on his feelings. He’d spent a lot of time straight up denying them, shoving them down deep inside of himself and avoiding even thinking about how bright Lance’s smile was, how his laugh warmed him up even out on the icy Quidditch pitch, how -

Quiznak, he had it bad.

“Look, that’s not important right now,” Hunk butted in. Pidge made to protest but Hunk waved them off. “We’ll file what you plan to do about liking Lance under Long Term and table it for the time being.” Keith opened his mouth but Hunk made a slashing motion with his hand. “Let’s focus on the now. Your problem is that between Quidditch, N.E.W.T. classes, and ‘teamwork makes the dream work!’” the last phrase was parroted in an eerily accurate impression of Lance and bracketed with finger quotes, “there’s no extra time for Keith-and-Lance-Special-Time. Right?”

Keith flushed, ducked his head. “I wouldn’t put it exactly that way,” he tried, but Pidge kicked him and he flinched and sighed. “Okay, yeah. That’s it.”

Hunk nodded and took a bite of bacon. He was right, the whole scenario was eerily familiar. “Now far be it from me to speak for Lance,” he began, waving the strip of bacon in the direction of the Slytherin table where Lance was furiously scrubbing at his soaked robes, “but he misses hanging out with you too. But he’s got all that stuff going on, just like you do, and he’s the captain so there’s that extra load, and really, dude, the Quaffle is kinda in your hands at this point.” Keith frowned, unsure what Hunk was getting at. The other boy sighed.

“What Hunk is trying to politely tell you is that if you want time with Lance you need to take some responsibility and make time,” Pidge explained in clipped tones.

“What time?” Keith growled, his temper finally flaring to life. “Literally what time do we have free? I have spent exactly every waking minute busy for the past month, and you just said Lance is in the same boat!”

Pidge shrugged. Hunk appeared mildly sympathetic but didn’t offer any suggestions.

“Figure. It. Out.” Pidge told him, and then they packed up their books and left for class, Hunk trailing behind them. Keith snarled in frustration at his friends’ retreating backs.

By the time Charms rolled around he was able to admit they had a point. What was the use in moping about and whining? If he wanted more time with Lance he had to reach out and take it, just like everything that was worthwhile in life. And so he thought. And thought.

If you asked him, under penalty of death, what had been discussed in any of his classes that day, he would be flat out unable to tell you. He probably wouldn’t even be able to venture a guess. But by dinner time he’d come up with a solution to his more immediate problem.

He cornered Hunk outside the Great Hall. He was going to be late for Quidditch practice, but this was more important. “Hunk,” he told the other boy, and hoped the intensity in his expression conveyed the urgency of his request. “I need you to tell me how to get into the Hufflepuff dorms.”

 

XX

 

The next morning was a Thursday so Keith was forced to put his plans on hold, unable to justify keeping himself or Lance up late on their earliest days of the week. Waiting felt like pure torture now that he’d made up his mind to act and Saturday seemed to drag on into eternity.

By the time Keith stumbled into his common room after an entire day spent on the pitch he was nearly overcome with exhaustion. There were blisters on his palms from his broomstick and a nasty bruise ached on his shin, a momento from a brush with a Bludger. Keith was battered and tired. In spite of his bone-deep weariness, sleep was the furthest thing from his mind.

The time to initiate Operation: Make Alone Time with Lance (he was as bad at naming things as Shiro) was almost upon him. A glance at the clock on the mantle told him that curfew was about to begin. A few short hours, then. He would wait for the castle to settle down for the night, then he would make his way down to the Hufflepuff Basement. Keith climbed the steps to his own dormitory on legs that trembled with fatigue and resolved to try to take a nap. He needed to recoup some energy, it wouldn’t do to waste his hard-earned time with Lance because he was too tired to enjoy it.

When his wand buzzed an alarm in the early hours of the morning Keith jerked out of his light sleep like he’d been stung. He reached out and snatched the thin piece of wood before it could vibrate its way off the bedside table and rushed to dress himself in the dark room, taking care not to wake the other residents.

Keith shoved his feet into his boots, wrapping Pidge’s borrowed scarf snugly around his neck and tugging a knitted cap over his messy hair. He tucked his gloves into his pockets for later; it was nearly three in the morning in early February and temperatures were still well below freezing (thank Merlin for warming charms). With a last glance to ensure he hadn’t woken anyone, Keith set off.

He eased his way out of the Gryffindor common room, slowly and deliberately settling the portrait guarding the entrance back over the doorway. Inside her frame, the Fat Lady snored loudly and didn’t stir. This wasn’t his first rodeo; Lance got a peculiar thrill from sneaking around after lights out and had roped Keith into joining him on multiple occasions. They’d been caught by Allura the last time and the tongue lashing they’d received from the Head Girl had been more memorable than the punishment that had followed.

Keith had no intention of being caught, however. He didn’t have time to serve a detention and he’d put too much planning into the night’s activities to screw it up by being careless.

It didn’t take him long to reach the kitchen corridor Hunk had described. He stepped into the nook stacked with large wooden barrels and drew his wand. He repeated the other boy’s instructions to himself, sucked in a deep breath, and tapped a careful, deliberate rhythm on one of the barrels in the middle row.

Keith held his breath; if his plan was going to fail, it would likely be then, trying to gain access to a common room that wasn’t his own. The moment stretched just a bit too long and Keith was struggling to restrain himself from trying the tapping again - maybe he’d gotten the barrels confused? - when the lid of the largest barrel swung open, granting him entrance to a short, narrow tunnel.

Keith had never been in the Hufflepuff common room before and he took a moment to look around after stepping through the entrance. The dying embers of the fire set the room awash in a soft golden glow, gleaming off of copper fixtures and casting warm shadows over fat yellow armchairs and cushy black couches. The stars were visible through the large, round windows and every surface was covered in plants, spilling down the walls and curling around the furniture. The flickering light from the flames made the badgers carved into the mantle seem almost alive and above them the portrait of the Hufflepuff Founder was snoozing in her frame.

Keith pulled out the scrap of parchment he’d noted Hunk’s instructions on. “The dormitories are a bit like a maze of tunnels. If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up in the wrong ones and that will be a disaster. Like, a big one,” Hunk had warned him. With a deep breath and a small prayer that he’d copied Hunk’s directions accurately, Keith tugged open one of the round wooden doors lining the wall and crawled into the narrow tunnel beyond.

Keith carefully followed the branching passages until he reached the doorway Hunk had described. Painted black letters on the door proclaimed ‘Sixth Year Boys’ above a small group picture of the residents. Lance’s image was trying to give Hunk’s rabbit years but kept tripping and laughing at himself. Keith took a moment to gather his nerve and pushed his way into the dormitory.

Despite the late hour there was a cheery fire crackling at the far side of the cozy room. Keith crept between the large four-poster beds, looking for Lance. He stopped at the furthest one, where a familiar head of messy brown hair peeked out from beneath the colorful quilt.

“Lance,” Keith whispered, crouching near the foot of the bed. “Lance.” There was no response and he bit back a groan of frustration. Of course Lance slept like the dead. “Lance!” Keith repeated, louder this time, and grabbed the lump of a foot beneath the blankets.

Lance jerked upright with a shriek, kicking outwards and catching Keith in the jaw. Keith grunted as he was knocked back onto his butt.

“Keith?!” Lance yelped, obviously confused. But not as confused as Keith was.

“Lance? What happened to your face?” His friend’s usually brown skin was a ghastly shade of white, thick and cracking like clay.

“My face? It’s a moisturizing mask!” Lance’s voice was caught between fright and outrage and was entirely too loud.

“Lance? What’s going on?” someone asked and suddenly the room was lit by several small copper lamps. The increased light level made it easy to recognize that Lance’s gruesome facade was, in fact, some kind of pale mud and that it was crumbling under the weight of his puzzled frown.

“Why are you in my room, Keith?” It was a perfectly legitimate question; Keith could feel himself flushing. His jaw ached.

“Keith.” Hunk was awake, sitting up in the bed next to Lance’s and rubbing his face. “I really hope your plan wasn’t to wake us all up in the middle of the night to witness you freaking out, because if it was I regret my part in it.”

Keith wanted the ground to swallow him up. He couldn’t even form words past his mortification. He opened his mouth but closed it, his heart rabbiting in his chest.

Lance still seemed to have no clue what was happening but he recognized that Keith was panicking and climbed out of his bed. He tucked his feet into fluffy blue kitty slippers and knelt down at Keith’s side.

“Hey,” he said, voice pitched low so only Keith could hear. “It’s alright. Relax.” He raised his voice. “It’s fine. I forgot Keith and I had plans. Sorry everyone! Please continue with your regularly scheduled sleep.” There was a loud series of groans but the boys had been sharing quarters with Lance for years and were familiar enough with his antics to not feel the need to ask any further questions.

Keith concentrated on slowing his breathing as the lamps around them clicked off and the sounds of rustling blankets and shifting bodies slowly died down. Hunk’s light was the last one to go out, and he shot Keith an encouraging thumbs-up before he turned it off and laid back down.

“Keith, what’s going on?” Lance whispered in the near darkness, close enough that his breath washed over Keith’s face, warm and a little stale. The mask on his face smelled like mint and wet earth. Keith couldn’t stop himself from leaning into the other boy, feeling a little vulnerable and needy after his almost-panic attack.

He let himself enjoy their positions for a few heartbeats before reminding himself he’d come for a reason. “Get dressed,” he breathed into the quiet, warm space between them. “Let’s go to the pitch.” He’d half expected Lance to protest - because he was tired, because of the hour, because he didn’t want to brave the cold just to hang out with Keith - but the other boy stood immediately. “Let me find something to wipe my face.”

Keith hadn’t really been thinking beyond jumping at the first free night to go out with Lance but he couldn’t have picked a better one. The sky was cloudless and clear, affording the pair a dazzling, unobstructed view of the seemingly endless tapestry of stars and the moon was bright and swollen, not quite full but close.

The air was crisp and cold but still; no frigid winds cut at their exposed skin as Lance and Keith trekked together out towards the towering skeleton of the Quidditch pitch. Snow blanketed the ground but the paths the team had cut through earlier remained clear.

They didn’t speak as they collected their brooms. Lance picked up a Quaffle, passing it casually between his hands as they made their way to the center circle. He tossed the ball into the air and Keith sent it soaring with a flick of his wand before they mounted their broomsticks and kicked off into the sky.

Keith beat Lance to the Quaffle, faster on his broom than the other boy was, but promptly caught a bony elbow to the gut for his trouble. He grunted despite the padding provided by the thick layers of their clothing and his grip on the Quaffle loosened. Lance snatched it expertly, looping back above Keith to rocket off in the other direction, his joyous laughter trailing behind him. Keith smiled, wide and so happy, and shot after him.

Keith didn’t bother trying to keep track of how long they chased one another, grappling over the Quaffle. Keith fought dirty, slamming bodily into the other boy and even resorting to tickling to force Lance to relinquish the ball. He was at a disadvantage and had no qualms about employing a little cheating to come out on top. Lance just laughed good-naturedly and utilized some dirty tactics of his own.

They soared around the field together, their wrestling and chasing eventually giving way to lazily passing the Quaffle between them. When Keith’s fingers slipped, clumsy from cold, and the ball fell neither boy went after it. Lance moved closer, flying alongside Keith so that their knees brushed. “Thank you,” he said. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes wide and sparkling. The moonlight washed over his face, brighter than it had been on that beach in Cuba and no less beautiful. He took Keith’s breath away.

“I really needed this, you know?” he continued, oblivious to the way Keith was incapable of doing anything other than stare at him. “Everything’s been piling up lately, and it’s all so serious, and don’t get me wrong, I love it, but it’s a little overwhelming. I needed a few hours to catch my breath, and just be Lance, not Lance the Badass and,” he hesitated, bit his lip, searched Keith’s face. “I’ve really been missing you,” he finished, so quietly Keith would have missed it if he’d been any further away, or listening less intently.

But he wasn’t further away, and he was listening, and he heard Lance clearly. His heart beat strong and quick against his ribs and his cheeks filled with warmth despite the frigid temperatures and his tongue curled against his teeth, suddenly heavy with words that wanted to spill out of him. ‘I like you. You’re my best friend but I think you’re more. I think I want you to be more.’

Keith forced himself to swallow, to shove those words and those thoughts and those feelings back down his throat, back inside of himself where they belonged. It was too much, too soon, he needed more time to figure out what he wanted. When he was sure he could open his mouth without exhaling confessions and pleas he told Lance, “I’ve been missing you too.”

They returned to the castle a short time later, parting ways to sneak back into their individual dorms. Keith expected sleep to stay well out of reach but he drifted off before his head fully settled on his pillow.

 

XX

 

The second Quadrennial International Student Quidditch Interscholastic Tournament kicked off the first weekend in April. There would be six rounds of matches before the championship match at the end of May and the teams who participated would be chosen through a double-elimination style contest. As former finalists, Hogwarts and Ilvermorny would be given passes during the first round of games and would instead play the winners from those matches in round two.

In the meantime, the students were given the option of which of the two beginning matches they would attend. Lance had initially wanted to go watch Castelobruxo but Keith had stopped him.

“This could be our only opportunity to watch the Japanese team in action before we play them,” he’d explained, remorseful but determined. “Mahoutokoro and Ilvermorny are our biggest competition and we need every edge we can get.” Lance had bitten his lip, eager to see his family, but had eventually agreed.

Keith had been right to want to watch Mahoutokoro. The Japanese school’s official team dominated Uagadou, tearing them apart with callous precision. They had no qualms about injuring their opponents and every member of their team seemed to possess an uncanny awareness of everything that was happening on the pitch. It was almost an act of mercy when their Seeker caught the Snitch several hours into the match, putting the Ugandan team out of their misery.

Keith couldn’t help but be relieved when it was announced that Ilvermorny would be facing Mahoutokoro in the next week’s match rather than Hogwarts.  He had confidence in his team but a few weeks of preparation would go a long way and injuries this early in the tournament could spell disaster. He was genuinely surprised when the American team came out with a win. The H.O.S.T. wiped the pitch with Durmstrang with little difficulty that same day.

The third week was dedicated to elimination rounds between the previous losing teams and Keith and his teammates used the two weeks between their first and second matches to train even harder. They attended the game between the Japanese team and Beauxbatons that weekend and took careful notes of their attack formations and general strategy.

Keith couldn’t even remember what sleep felt like. Twice during the week leading up to their fifth round match-up with Ilvermorny he ran drills with his teammates until he literally fell asleep on his broom, waking to Lance’s arms snug around him and his face tucked up into the other boy’s neck. Lance finally put his foot down that Thursday and they spent the entirety of Friday resting, not even attending their classes.

Whether it was thanks to the intense preparation or how refreshed they all felt after a day dedicated to relaxation, they managed to defeat Ilvermorny with surprising ease, securing their place once again in the Q.I.S.Q.I.T. championship match.

Keith watched the sixth week matchup, the one that would decide Hogwarts’ opponent in the final game, seated between Lance and Hunk. Around them, the rest of the members of the H.O.S.T. were rigid and tense, eyes focused intently on their position’s counterparts whipping around the pitch.

They were in America, somewhere in the desert, and the heat in the middle of May was intense. Keith blinked dust out of his watery eyes, grateful that no matter the outcome of this match the championship would be hosted in France. Many of the players on the pitch were wearing goggles to protect them and as a Seeker, any kind of eyewear impaired vision. It wasn't a handicap they would be able to afford against opponents like the ones they would be facing.

Hunk let out a pitiful groan as one of Ilvermorny’s Chasers leapt from her broom to shove the Quaffle through the posts, the action startling the generally cool-headed Japanese Keeper enough that he missed the block and Ilvermorny scored.

“Why?” Hunk wailed, covering his eyes. “Seriously why? Where’s your sense of self-preservation?”

“No risk-it no biscuit, Hunk,” Lance informed his friend, sharp eyes trained on the blue-and-cranberry clad figure as she dropped through the sky. Another of the American Chasers caught her, returning her to her broom where she struck off again after the Quaffle. “To beat a team like Japan, you’re gonna have to be willing to give it all.”

“Not your life!” Hunk shouted but he was ignored. Keith understood where Hunk was coming from, even if he agreed with Lance that some risks were necessary. Still, Lance and the other Chasers had been practicing similar maneuvers for the past several weeks and every time Keith watched Lance plummeting towards the ground his heart seized and climbed into his throat. He’d had a hard time focusing on the Snitch during those particular sessions and genuinely hoped that they weren’t necessary in the next week’s match.

Keith’s trained eyes caught a glint of gold circling around the tallest hoop on Ilvermorny’s goal moments before Mahoutokoro’s Seeker arced above the rocketing path of a Bludger and shot towards it. The American Seeker whipped around, spotting the Snitch a split second later. He was half a pitch closer and, for a moment, Ilvermorny’s victory seemed to be secured.

And then a pair of Bludgers were careening towards him from above and to his right and there was no time for warnings or interference from his team. Thousands of spectators yelled and screamed, the noise deafening, as the iron balls slammed into him in quick succession, the first snapping the bones in his outstretched arm, the second knocking him from his broom as his teammates surged forwards to catch him.

The jade-clad Seeker snatched the Golden Snitch, winning Mahoutokoro the match and their place in the championship.

“We're going to have to watch for that,” Lance murmured low in Keith’s ear. “The Beaters are going to have to keep an eye on you.” Keith nodded distractedly, watching Ilvermorny’s players gather around their fallen companion.

“No risk-it, no biscuit,” he parroted Lance’s words back at him, but he felt a little sick. It was an ugly way to win.

 

XX

 

The French Quidditch Stadium was unlike any Keith had played in before. Constructed in gleaming white stone, the entire thing was built into a palace. The stands sat atop the castle towers and the keep itself overlooked the pitch above the home side’s hoops. The field was covered in an opulent garden, sectioned off with hedges in a geometric pattern and centered around an intricately-carved fountain. Flowers bloomed in shades of gold and white, stirred by only the faintest of breezes, and the weather was flawless: the sky bright and broken only by giant, fluffy clouds and the temperature warm but mild. A better day for the championship couldn’t have been asked for and Keith idly wondered if one of the higher-ups had splurged on a weather-modification charm as he and the rest of his team warmed up.

The stadium was packed, the lines of bleachers filled to capacity. Every participating school was present along with their associated governments, and tickets had been opened to the public as a sort of fund-raising event to benefit the various sports programs. Most importantly, somewhere in the Hogwarts section, Shiro was watching. Red had arrived with a letter from Keith’s brother two nights before promising he would attend and Keith’s heart had soared.

It had been an incredible morale boost when he’d informed his team. Shiro had led Hogwarts to victory in this match four years ago and was a hero to his successors. They were all excited to show him what they could do.

“It’s the last time I'll say this,” Lance started solemnly, addressing his team as they suited up in their golden Hogwarts jerseys. Keith laced up his boot and turned to watch his captain, standing tall and proud at the front of their locker room. “But teamwork makes the dream work.” A chorus of groans filled the room and Lance’s serious facade cracked.

“Listen, guys. We all know why we're here. We all know what’s at stake and what it's going to take to secure a win today.

"Mahoutokoro is fierce, and they’re good, but we’re better. We’ve seen them play, we’ve prepared for it, and they’re going to have to pull out their nastiest moves to beat us. Look out for each other. Stay close to your teammates and have each other’s backs. Our school, our families, our friends, they’re all out there watching. Quiznak, the entire wizarding world is out there watching. So let’s give them a show they won’t stop talking about for the next four years, alright?”

“I yell Hog, you yell Warts!” the Slytherin Chaser shouted. “Hog!”

“Warts!” Keith’s voice joined in the cheer.

A short time later, Keith followed behind Lance as he led their team through the gardens on the field towards the fountain at its center. Lane was muttering directions to himself, guiding them through a series of turns, and Keith fervently hoped that Lance didn’t get them lost in a hedge-maze on the most important day of their Quidditch careers.

Fortunately, they reached the center ring without incident and lined up around the fountain with their brooms over their shoulders, facing the Mahoutokoro team over the gushing streams of sparkling water. Keith looked over each face carefully. All were solemn and serious, their postures straight, their uniforms impeccable. They were a startling contrast to the relaxed stances and excited smiles of the H.O.S.T. but Keith knew every member of his team was taking this match just as seriously as their Japanese counterparts.

Lance strode around the fountain to clasp arms with the Mahoutokoro Official School Team captain and then returned the other boy’s respectful bow before returning to take his place at the center of the line of Hogwarts players. The referee climbed a short series of steps that rose up out of the gleaming waters that made up the center circle and stood on a small platform in the middle of the spraying jets. They circled around to meet the eyes of every player gathered around them before magically projecting their voice to the entire stadium to begin the familiar script of ‘clean game’ and ‘respect’ that Keith had heard dozens of times before.

He started slightly when Lance’s hand crept into his own, long fingers curling briefly between Keith’s and squeezing. His heart, already thrumming with anticipation, jumped,and after a moment’s hesitation he returned the gesture. He felt heat rise in his cheeks and tilted his head just enough to catch Lance’s eyes. The other boy was already looking at him, and he offered Keith the tiniest of smiles before turning to face-front again. His fingers stayed in Keith’s for the duration of the referee’s speech, only pulling away when they were ordered to mount their brooms.

Keith kicked off into the air at the whistle, the rest of his team rising rapidly around him. Keith kept low, sticking close to his team’s Beaters as the second Q.I.S.Q.I.T. Championship Match commenced.

Lance secured the Quaffle first and Keith tailed the Gryffindor Beater as he moved to cover their captain from the Bludger fired his way. Lance was forced to pass the ball to the younger Chaser a moment later as a pair of Jade-clad players slammed into him from above and below, nearly knocking him from his broom. Keith grit his teeth at the rough treatment and scanned the air above the pitch, eager to find the Snitch and end the match before anyone could be seriously injured.

His housemate swooped upwards, golden robes flaring around him, to intercept another Bludger, this one seemingly aimed at Keith, and sent it soaring with a backhanded swing across the pitch towards his partner. The Slytherin girl anticipated his move perfectly and raised her bat to hurtle the iron ball into the tight formation of Mahoutokoro’s Chasers. They scattered but quickly shored up their ranks again and for a long moment it seemed as if the Japanese team would be the first to score.

And then Lance and his Chasers were there, Lance and his housemate forcing themselves between the two defending Japanese Chasers from below and driving them apart like a wedge. The Slytherin Chaser darted upwards, small and nimble on his broom, and ripped the Quaffle from the third opponent’s arms, plummeting suddenly downwards before shooting off towards the hoops guarded by Mahoutokoro’s Keeper. The Hufflepuffs didn’t immediately move to follow him, fending off the other team’s Chasers with sharp movements and blocking them bodily from giving chase. The Hogwarts Beaters drove forward to flank their youngest member as he raced to score, providing protection from the Bludgers screaming in his direction and escorting him to the goal.

Keith darted forward to swoop around the opposing Keeper, his own robes spreading wide behind him and providing enough of a distraction for the Chaser to fire the Quaffle through the hoops, giving Hogwarts the first points of the match.

It was risky, using their Seeker to score regular points instead of focusing entirely on the search for the Snitch, but the team had agreed it was worth it. Keith was skilled enough at multitasking that he could provide cover while scanning the skies, and the other team wouldn’t have predicted it, would not have known to prepare for defending against a sixth player on the Quaffle.

The match progressed quickly, a rapid-fire series of plays and maneuvering that left little room for the participants to catch their breath. The M.O.S.T.’s legendary situational awareness made them formidable opponents; they seemed to always know the placement of the Hogwarts players, making surprising them with attacks from above or below or with craftily aimed Bludgers nearly impossible. They recovered quickly from the surprise of Keith’s participation in the H.O.S.T.'s tactics and were frequently able to account for his distracting spins and attempts to block their paths.

Everyone played their hearts out, reading one another’s movements and body language in a way that had been impossible when they’d begun. The Hogwarts team was just that, a team, and they presented an intimidating unified front. Each play was calculated and perfectly executed, everyone where they needed to be to intercept or defend or provide support. They responded quickly to the Japanese players' tactics and Keith was fiercely proud of his teammates and how far they had all come.

The scores stayed low, the teams nearly perfectly matched, neither able to get the Quaffle past the other very often and thus keeping most of the play towards the center of the pitch. Keith remained near one or the other of his Beaters; a big part of the Mahoutokoro strategy seemed focused on knocking Keith out of the equation, leaving them free to find the Snitch and secure a win at their leisure. He and Lance had predicted as much after watching the Ilvermorny match and had planned their tactics accordingly. It kept Keith more a part of the action, which tied into his role as a sixth body to distract from the Chasers’ movements.

Keith stilled as he caught sight of a flash of gold near the Castelobruxo section of the stadium, glinting brightly against the green of the Brazilian school’s banners on the far side of the field. He veered off towards it and his Beater, who had been aiming to fire the Bludger towards the Japanese Keeper to distract him, was forced to break away and follow Keith. He could vaguely hear the girl curse as the crowd roared in disappointment, Lance’s attempt to score thwarted, but Keith ignored it, his entire awareness narrowed down to that wavering spot of light.

It was definitely the Snitch, he realized, and a heartbeat later set off into a dizzying series of zig-zags down towards the center of the field, his jersey snapping out behind him.

It had been the other Hogwarts Seekers’ idea: “If we’re going to use you as a distraction, then let that serve as a disguise. Make the other Seeker think you’re just trying to draw their Chasers’ attention while you move closer to Snitch.

The Beater kept up, having practiced the maneuver with him more times than either could count, and swiftly moved to intercept a Bludger that would have caught him in the ribs. Suddenly, Keith was surrounded in a flurry of gold jerseys; his Chasers had caught on to his pursuit of the Snitch. Another Bludger screamed towards them and Keith was forced to drop several feet to avoid it. The Quaffle soared past his nose, briefly distracting him as Lance’s dark hands snatched it inches from Keith’s face, and he momentarily lost sight of the Snitch.

Keith kept close to his Chasers as they hurtled around the pitch, acting as both disguise and escort as they subtly followed his lead and turned towards the hanging green banners on the far side of the stadium. He scanned the air desperately, unable to participate as much in the whirling movement around the Quaffle, trying to catch sight of that tiny winged ball again, but it was gone. His heart dropped.

A booted foot caught Keith in the jaw without warning, and he reeled, his broom spinning out of his control briefly. By the time he righted it, Lance and the other Chasers had closed ranks around him, surrendering the Quaffle in favor of making sure he was okay. Keith waited for a penalty whistle but none came and the colorful curse that spilled from Lance’s lips would have had his Mama hexing his mouth shut in horror.

Keith squeezed his eyes shut against the ringing in his head and struggled to get his bearings. He could feel his teammates around him and the roar of the crowd was almost deafening as Mahoutokoro scored. He couldn’t tell if the sudden increase of noise was in disapproval against the Japanese player’s dirty tactics or the way the Hogwarts team did nothing to stop their opponents from scoring.

He blinked his eyes opened, flinching slightly from the sudden brightness, and rubbed his aching jaw. It wasn’t broken, Keith finally decided, but it would need to be tended to after the match. He nodded at Lance, who was very still in the air, watching him with sharp eyes. The other boy offered him a small, relieved smile before his expression hardened. “They’ll pay for that,” he promised Keith, promised his team. The others screamed their agreement and, as one, surged off to receive the Quaffle as it was returned to play.

Keith wiped at the tears that had tracked down his face, careful of the bruise rapidly forming there, and guided his broom back towards the flurry of grappling Quidditch players. The Chasers were speeding around the other team in a particularly daring maneuver that Keith knew would culminate in one of them leaving their broom to knock the M.O.S.T. player holding the Quaffle out of formation so it could be safely intercepted. It was the job of the Beaters to catch the falling Chaser and return them to the safety of their broom and back into play and the one hovering near Keith would be needed to keep any Bludgers from interfering.

Their strategy worked, fueled by the H.O.S.T.'s fury over Keith’s injury and their determination to wipe the field with the Mahoutokoro team who had made things personal when they had attacked him. Keith’s heart felt like it was trying to hammer its way out of his chest as Lance free-fell briefly, successfully kicking the Quaffle from the Japanese boy’s hands on his way past before being caught by the Gryffindor Beater. The Slytherin Chaser snatched it and shot off in the direction of the goalposts, passing it down to their third Chaser while slashing across in front of the hoops, his golden robes blocking the Keeper’s line of sight and granting the opportunity to score another ten points.

Japan was leading by twenty points and Keith needed to find the Snitch. Things were getting out of hand quickly; Mahoutokoro was beginning to employ more and more dangerous strategies, aiming to injure the Hogwarts players and throw off their plans, and Keith’s team was forced to respond with increasingly risky maneuvers to keep pace. It was only a matter of time before someone was seriously hurt.

Lance looped around the pitch, heading back in Keith’s direction, Quaffle gripped tight to his chest and the Japanese Chasers in hot pursuit but whatever his intention was, Keith missed it because he'd finally found the Snitch again.

It was hovering, almost serenely, at nearly the exact center of the pitch, several feet higher than the pennants that fluttered in the still wind at the top of the stadium. There was no time to catch his team’s attention and Keith didn’t want to risk being distracted from the Snitch again by their attempts to cover for him anyway. When Lance and the rest of the team rocketed past him Keith gave his broom all the speed he could and fired himself straight up towards the fluttering golden ball like an arrow.

He was distantly aware of the Beater currently guarding him lagging behind; they’d been momentarily caught up in defending the Chasers as they’d carried the Quaffle through and had missed Keith’s sudden change of direction. There was no time to slow down for them, though. Keith’s entire existence narrowed down to that glint of light, rapidly closing the distance between himself and the ball that would secure Hogwarts’ second Q.I.S.Q.I.T. victory. He couldn’t see the Mahoutokoro Seeker but he knew they weren’t anywhere nearby. He was going to win this.

A sharp crack of wood on iron rent the air followed by another, closer and from the opposite direction. Everything slowed down, noise and sensation falling away. There was no chance for Keith to dodge the Bludgers that had been fired towards him, he realized. They would intercept his broom a few feet shy of the Snitch - chances were good he wouldn’t be able to secure it before they crashed into him. That was unacceptable. Keith sucked in a desperate breath and felt his racing mind calm. He knew what needed to be done.

Quickly, with practiced movements, Keith hauled himself up on his broomstick so that he was standing on it, feet carefully spread and balanced. He lowered his chest, keeping his center of gravity as close to his broom as possible, his heart racing so fast he was nearly dizzy with it, or maybe with the way the wind tore at him from his speed and precarious position. The crowd was so loud but Keith could barely make out the sound of shouting, cheering, screaming. The only thing that existed was his broom, the Bludgers about to hit him, and the Snitch, which hadn’t moved, as if it was waiting for him.

Keith took one more breath, held it, and pushed himself upwards and forwards, leaping off of his broomstick, arms outstretched. He reached, reached, reached out with both hands and his fingers brushed warm metal. He curled both fists around the Golden Snitch, feeling its wings crunch in the tightness of his grip, and then his forward momentum was spent and he was falling.

The wind screamed in his ears, louder even than the slamming pulse of his heart, and Keith squeezed his eyes shut to avoid having to see the ground looming up to meet him.

And then a body slammed into his, lean arms wrapping tight around him, and he was soaring upwards again. Keith was manhandled into position until he straddled the broom that had caught him, facing Lance, their bodies pressed close together on the short length of the broomstick. Lance, whose face was dark with fury.

“What in the name of quiznak were you thinking?” he screamed, and Keith couldn't stop smiling. The Snitch was warm in his hand, bent wings fluttering against his fingers, and the rest of the team was flitting around them, bright flashes of gold and whooping voices and triumphant faces, and Lance was holding him, still, keeping Keith upright on the broom, and it was all so much and so good.

“I knew you would catch me,” was what he shouted over the overwhelming noise of the stadium and something in Lance’s expression shifted and then he was gripping the hair at the back of Keith’s head and hauling him forward those few inches between their faces and suddenly Lance was kissing him.

Lance was kissing him like there was nothing in the world but Keith, violent and desperate, teeth scraping together and lips dragging and his tongue prying into Keith’s mouth without patience or finesse and Keith couldn't get enough. He fisted his free hand in the front of Lance's Quidditch robes and tugged him as close as he could and the broom under them jerked sharply to the left before the other boy regained control of it, bringing it to a stop and hovering there aloft while Keith kissed him back with equal fervor.

He bit at Lance's lips and curled his tongue alongside the other boy’s and his heart beat faster and harder than it had during free-fall. Keith raised his arm, presenting the stadium with the captured Golden Snitch, proof of Hogwarts’ triumph, that they'd won the Quadrennial International Student Quidditch Interscholastic Tournament for the second time while he kissed the boy he loved, finally, in front of God and Merlin and the entire wizarding world.

 

XX

 

“And don't forget, the portkey activates on Wednesday at eight sharp. You can't miss it!” Keith rolled his eyes at Lance.

“Being H.O.S.T. Captain elevated your mother henning to new heights,” he said dryly, settling his school trunk and Red in her cage on the trolley. He was standing with his friends at King’s Cross Station a month after the tournament, final exams and the end of term safely behind him. He needed to be scanning the crowd for Shiro but as usual Lance was hogging his attention.

Lance had been hogging his attention for years, so that was nothing new. The long fingers curled around his own, however, were a new development, one Keith couldn't be happier about. He offered his boyfriend a tiny smile, distracting him from his dramatics mid-outraged squawk.

“You guys are so disgusting,” Pidge moaned miserably. “It was so much better just watching you pining at one another. I regret so much.”

Lance stuck his tongue out at them. “You quiznacked up, Pidge,” Keith agreed, unable to contain his grin.

“Yeah!” Lance shouted. “Now that I've had a taste of Boyfriend Keith I'm not letting him go. You're stuck with us.”

“Well I, for one, am glad,” Hunk interjected. “As long as you keep any and all PDA to yourselves. After that stunt at the Q.I.S.Q.I.T. Championship I've seen enough of you two making out to last a lifetime.”

Keith felt himself blushing but Lance just grinned, shameless. “No promises, buddy. Once I get Keith on the beach again I might not be able to control myself.”

Keith sorted. “You can't control yourself anyway. I am fully convinced you single-handedly lost Gryffindor the House Cup just with the number of points you cost me dragging me into impromptu makeout sessions.” Lance squeezed his hand.

“It takes two to tongue tango, Mullet. I regret nothing.” But Keith was hardly listening. He'd caught sight of Shiro waving at him from down the platform, mouth stretched into a wide grin.

“Time to go.” Lance sounded so disappointed Keith pressed a kiss to his cheek.

“Eight o'clock Wednesday. You can survive until then.” His smile turned teasing. "And then you can have me for the whole summer.”

Lance’s eyes darkened, but before he could respond, Keith was pushing his cart away, towards his brother. He cast one last look at his friends when he reached him, memorizing Lance's pout, Hunk’s smile, the distraught look on Pidge's face. He was already counting the hours until he'd see them again.

Wednesday couldn't come soon enough.