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Something Blue

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. . .

He’s staring.

It’s his third night in France, and he’s at a bar with some classmates, and the champagne is flowing, and the air is stale, and the lights are foggy, and his gaze locks onto a blonde cocktail waitress across the way, and his heart jumps up into his throat.

Because she’s staring, too.

"Bonjour, jolie madame," he finally sidles up next to her, slurs the mottled French into her ear, and thinks himself quite suave.

Her grin is downright wicked as she asks, "Is that meant to impress me?"

"I — you — English?" he stammers dumbly.

"Better than you, apparently."

They tuck themselves away in a small vinyl booth against the back wall, and spend the rest of the evening talking.

He tells her that his name is Lance, and he’s studying abroad for three months, and he thinks her accent is the cutest thing he’s ever heard.

She tells him that her name is Nyma, and she’s an artist, and she works as a waitress to pay the bills, and she thinks his eyes are even bluer than the ocean. 

She makes him blush.

He makes her smile.

She lets him hold her hand under the table.

They fall fast. 

And then, for the next three months, they’re absolutely inseparable.


 

She’s laughing.

It’s two and a half months later, and they’re lying on their backs in the middle of the green countryside on a warm afternoon, and the sky is cloudless overhead, and her face is drenched in sunlight, and her laughter sounds like his favorite song, and he thinks that she’s never looked more stunning.

"That looks nothing like me," Nyma says through her giggles.

Lance’s gaze ping-pongs back and forth between her glowing grin and the primitive portrait he’d scribbled out on a blank page of her sketchbook.

"What do you mean?"

She pokes a finger against the paper as it hovers a few inches above their noses. "You gave me claws."

"They’re hands," he corrects, reaching out to lace their real, non-scribbled fingers together in the air.

"And antennas!"

"Your hair!" he defends, snorting when she turns her face to chuckle into the crook of his neck. "Alright, Miss Picasso, let’s see your masterpiece, then. Unleash the magnum opus!"

Oh, she will. And he knows she will by the delightfully impish smirk that claims her cherry lips as she snatches the sketchbook, and the small pack of pencil crayons, and rolls onto her stomach. She goes to work, fingers nimble, and shields her progress with her forearm.

Not that Lance is necessarily trying to steal a sneak-peek. He moves onto his side, head propped up by an elbow, but he finds himself irrevocably more taken with her beauty than any makeshift portrait could ever hope to capture. He’s familiar with the way she works, the way she concentrates, whether she’s lounging against a tree in the Parc de Valrose, or curling up on the shoddy sofa in his temporary flat, wearing nothing but one of his oversized shirts, sketchpad cradled in her arms. Sometimes the tip of her tongue will poke out from the corner of her mouth. Sometimes strands of blonde hair will fall into her eyes, and she’ll be too focused to tuck them away. Sometimes she glances up for reference, and Lance will twist his face into an absurd expression, and she’ll press her lips together to stifle her amusement.

He loves her best like this, he thinks. When she’s lost in her passion, savoring every stroke, painting her heart onto the page. She’s a vision. She’s his vision.

And he’ll never tire of looking.

"How’s this for magnum opus?" she says, retracting her arm to showcase the finished product.

"Whoa."

It’s a marvel, really, how she manages to create anything decent with what limited supplies she brought along. But 'decent' is a gross understatement, as is 'marvel', when Lance admires the drawing that bears a striking resemblance to himself, right down to the charming crookedness of his smile, and the vivid blue of his eyes.

"Still think you can beat me?" she teases.

"You know what?" Lance grins, cheeks flushed and warm. "I think I can."

He flips to the next page in her book, reveals a small box from his back pocket, and scribbles only two words in blue pencil.

Marry me.        


     

He’s smiling.

It’s the last night of his trip, and he’s holding her in bed, limbs sated and intertwined beneath a mass of wrinkled sheets, eyelids heavy with a post-coital haze. He watches her watch him like he’s made of glass. Like he’s slipping from her grasp, soon to shatter against the hard floor. She’s been doing that quite often lately.

She cards her fingers through the front of his tousled hair, and he catches her wrist, kisses each of her knuckles, asks her what’s on her mind. Please let me in. Let me see you.

"I have to tell you something."

"You can tell me anything."

She does.

His name is Rolo. He’s a figure model that she met at her art studio. They’ve been seeing each other in private for about a month. They’re not in love, but she thinks they could be.

She’s so, so sorry.

She never meant to hurt him.

But she just can’t go through with this.

What did I do? What did I do?

Nothing, nothing.

He cries. He breaks. He really does shatter like glass.

She places her ring on the bedside table, and leaves.

 


  

TO: [Lance McClain]
FROM: [Veronica McClain]
SUBJECT: Re: GETTING HITCHED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

OH MY GOD LANCE!!!!!!!!! IF THIS IS A PRANK I’M GOING TO KILL YOU. We hardly hear from you at all during your trip, and then you come back engaged?? Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally not surprised. This is the most 'Lance' thing you’ve ever done since that one time you dabbed so hard you gave Marco a bloody nose. But anyway — OH MY GOD!!!!!!!

You better not be thinking you can keep this special someone all to yourself! We were going to spend the summer in Varadero again this year, but now that there’s a wedding to plan… Guess what? The whole McClain clan is shipping out to see you!!! Mom’s going to call you later about the exact dates, but isn’t this awesome? It’s been way too long. 

P.S. Mom’s pissed you didn’t send any pictures of your Mystery Bae. Seriously, what kind of son are you?? Guess we’ll have to wait in suspense until we meet them in person!

xoxo, Ronnie        


 

"Do you think he’s dead?"

"Definitely not dead. I can see him breathing."

"Yeah, but it’s all slow and weird… Has he always breathed that slowly?"

"Probably not."

"Aw, man — c’mon, Lance. Fight the urge! Stay away from all tunnels and bright lights!"

When Lance manages to creak open his heavy eyelids, he finds two pairs of inquisitive eyes hovering over his face. One, a bit panicked, crinkled around the edges with concern, but somehow still soft and deep brown. The other, curious, calculating, and nearly masked by the bright glare from some big circular glasses creeping down the bridge of a nose.

"Hey, there he is!" says the pair of brown eyes, relieved. "Man, is it good to have you back, buddy."

The pair of glasses throws their head back, fists raising toward the ceiling. "It lives!"

And then Lance ducks beneath his blanket, burrowing himself away from all of humanity — or, at least, his two best friends. The blanket trembles where his mouth should be as he grumbles something unintelligible at the pair.

"Uh, what was that, dude?" Hunk asks. 

"I said," Lance pulls the blanket down just enough to reveal half of his face — the brow-furrowing, bitch-stare-glaring half — and the way his voice croaks hoarsely in his throat suggests that he probably hasn’t used it for much lately, other than crying. "How did you two even get in here?"

Pidge brandishes something small, gold, and shiny from her pocket. "Spare key, obviously. I made one for your place a long time ago. I also have spares to Shiro’s place, and Allura’s, and Matt’s…"

Lance scrunches his nose. "That’s so not normal, Pidge. That’s, like, a creepy friendship power move." 

"It’s not creepy," she argues. "I only use them for emergencies."

"Then why are you here?"

Hunk pats his friend’s leg, still cocooned beneath the blanket. "You’re the emergency, bro."

"Me?" Lance tries to sound offended, but it comes out like a childish whine at best. "That’s rude as fuck. I’m not an emergency. I’m not blinking red. I’m not even at defcon two! I’m just… slowly dying on the inside, but it’s chill. I’m chill."

"Lance, you haven’t left your apartment since you got back," says Pidge. "I mean, have you even been feeding yourself?"

He tosses a forlorn glance in the direction of his nightstand, littered with soda cans, empty pudding cups, and half-eaten bags of microwave popcorn. Hunk gives a scandalized gasp, and Pidge lowers her forehead into her palm.

"This is worse than I thought," she frets.

Suddenly, a rogue pillow collides into Pidge’s face with a muted fwap, and when she straightens up, glasses all askew, she finds Lance sitting up in bed, the blameworthy pillow clutched tightly to his chest. "I’m wallowing!" he cries indignantly.

"He’s becoming hostile. Hunk, initiate immediate evasive maneuvers."

"What —"

"Sorry 'bout this, buddy —"

They each seize one of his arms, and begin tugging with all their might, fighting against how Lance wriggles, and squirms, and desperately tries to slither back into his blanketed hideaway. But he’s no match for their joint efforts — Hunk is a certified tank, and Pidge is surprisingly strong, despite her size.

"Didn’t you hear me, you heathens?" he squawks as he’s dragged to the edge of the mattress. "I’m wallowing! Friends let friends wallow!"

"No," Pidge grunts. "Friends let friends wallow for a little bit, and then they kick their sorry asses out of bed for some much needed human contact."

Lance’s limbs go limp, drained of all strength and motivation to do much of anything other than surrender. He sits at the edge of the bed, shoulders slouched, gaze fixed at the floor, and feels overwhelmingly bare. Naked. Stripped raw.

"I don’t wanna," he mumbles miserably.

"We’re just worried about you, man," says Hunk. The mattress squeaks as his friends join him on the bed, flanking either side. "Laying around being sad isn’t gonna make you feel better."

"I know, I know," Lance cedes, because he does. He does know. But that doesn’t stop the throbbing ache in the center of his chest where his heart should be, or the sickening churn of his stomach, or the stinging prickle of his eyes. Just when he thought he’d finally emptied himself, shriveled and dry, more tears cling to his lashes, threatening to fall.

"I just —" Sniff. "— I really miss her… y’know?"

A gentle, supportive palm comes down on Lance’s right shoulder. Then his left. A single tear betrays him, and slides off his lash, dropping soundlessly into his lap.

"Yeah," Hunk says, low and soft. "We know, buddy. We know."

"At least come out with us tonight," Pidge tries, and gives his shoulder a squeeze. "Just for a couple hours, and if you’re not feeling it, then I promise we can come back here and play video games. And Hunk can make us his world-famous salted caramel blondies."

Lance perks up, blinking away tears, wide-eyed and hopeful. "With chocolate chips?"

"Is there any other way?"

He considers. No. No, there absolutely is not.

"'Kay," Lance finally says, almost garbled behind his wrist as he swipes it beneath his runny nose. "Fine." 

"That’s the spirit, dude!" Hunk jumps to his feet, and totes a decidedly unenthusiastic Lance along with him, but one glance at the boy’s tragically disheveled state has Hunk biting his bottom lip to suppress a wince. "So… you might wanna put on a change of clothes."

"And shower," adds Pidge, appearing at Hunk’s side with a more poorly-contained wince. "Please. For the love of everything, please shower, Lance."

He looks down at himself — a pair of boxers with cartoon dolphins swimming across the fabric, an old grey hoodie with unidentifiable stains, and a single tube sock on his left foot.

Right. A shower might be best.


 

The bar that Hunk and Pidge end up dragging him to isn’t one of their usual retreats. It’s small, but not uncomfortably so. The lights are still dim, and the music is still loud, but Lance almost feels like he’s loafing around someone’s lavish parlor rather than drinking his troubles away on a Saturday night. Under normal circumstances, he’d be the first to suggest they leave to go find someplace with more action, more excitement, more thrill. But these are far from normal circumstances, and, for once, Lance is perfectly content to station himself at the bar, nursing what’s left of his vodka cranberry while his friends are off mingling.

Lance sighs, swirls his straw around his drink, and wonders when he’ll start to feel like himself again. Because he knows that a part of him is still back in France, and, if he tries hard enough, he can still remember how it feels to laze under the Parisian sun, to count the stars from the streets of Marseille, to kiss her perfect lips, and hold her in his arms —

He flops over the bar top, face smooshing against its lacquered surface. God, he feels pathetic.

"Hey, you."

It takes a moment for Lance to realize he’s being spoken to, but, eventually, he peels himself off the counter, and glances at all the unoccupied seats that surround him. The bartender, however, is staring him down with the kind of glare that would normally ignite his insides, if he weren’t already so gutted.

"You mind?" the bartender prompts when Lance remains speechless.

"Uh," he gawks. "'Scuse me?"

Bartender Guy looks impatient, like Lance should already know what he’s thinking without having to explain himself. "You’ve been sitting here moping for like an hour."

"I’m not moping," Lance defends, feeling the subtle beginnings of a slight rekindling. "I’m wallowing. There’s a difference."

"Right," Bartender Guy says, unimpressed. "Well, you mind wallowing somewhere else, then? You’re scaring people away from the bar, which means I don’t get tips. See how this works?" 

Oh, the flames are definitely flickering now. Lance narrows his eyes, and gives the other male a thorough once-over because, honestly, the nerve. Who does this guy think he is — with his messy ponytail, and pierced ears, and fingerless gloves, and that lame tattoo of a wolf inked beautifully onto his toned bicep, and that black v-neck t-shirt stretching tight across his broad chest, and those dumb skinny jeans hugging every curve.

Like, how actually dare he.

"Oh, boo-hoo," Lance mocks viciously. "Worried you won’t make enough cash to pay for your latest Hot Topic shopping spree?"

The bartender furrows his brow, eyes steely, and turns back to a row of wine glasses that need polishing. "More like my rent, idiot. Eviction isn’t cheap."

Lance blinks, and feels slightly bad — but just slightly — and takes another gulp of his drink. "I thought bartenders were supposed to be all friendly and hospitable and offer their guests sage wisdom about all of life’s problems, or whatever."

"Only the guests who aren’t being a pain in my ass."

"A pain in your —" he slams his glass down onto the bar with the kind of indignant fervor that has Bartender Guy rolling his eyes prematurely. "Listen here, pal, if anyone has a right to be a pain in the ass tonight, it’s me. I’m wading through the waters of despair over here. Practically suffocating on the fumes of heartbreak, okay? I got dumped by the love of my life… And I know what you’re probably thinking — who in their right mind would ever give up a guy as handsome and quick-witted as me —"

A deadpan drawl: "Yeah, can’t even imagine."

" — But she did," he finishes, and he hates that his voice wavers on the last word, like a deflating balloon, losing air, losing steam. Beads of condensation drip down the side of Lance’s glass, and he watches them fall, just to give himself something to stare at that isn’t Bartender Guy’s deep, dark eyes. "Left me for somebody else. Just like that. Didn’t even think twice. We were gonna get married and everything…" The breath he sighs is almost enough to make his lungs collapse. "I guess… she found something better."   

There’s nothing but the sound of pulsing music, idle barroom prattle, and the tinkling of glasses as the bartender continues to wipe them down. He’s quick, but thorough, and so focused on the task that Lance is certain he’s already tuned him out, utterly disinterested by Lance’s depressing tale.

Until he says, very matter-of-factly, and without averting his gaze, "If she hurt you that bad, then she’s probably not really the love of your life."

And then Lance is back to indignant, looking up from his empty glass with a scowl because, no, this guy’s not allowed to be right. "Who asked you, Edward Cullen?"

"I thought you wanted me to offer you sage wisdom about your problems."

"I thought I was just a pain in your ass."

"You’re more of a dull ache. Here —" From somewhere behind the bar, he procures a freshly poured vodka cranberry, and sets it down on a cocktail napkin in front of Lance. "Sounds like you could use another." And then, as an afterthought, "On the house."

Lance’s wide eyes bounce back and forth between the drink and Bartender Guy, who has now returned to polishing glasses with avid indifference. Then he squints, suspicious, and asks, "Are you actually trying to be nice or are you just trying to liquor me up in the hopes that I’ll eventually pass out and stop talking your ear off?"   

"Does it matter?" he says. "Free alcohol is free alcohol."

Well, he does have a point.

Lance takes the first sip, and smacks his lips together. "Mm, tastes like sweet, sweet pity."

"There’s a fuck ton of vodka in there, too," the bartender eyes him with a quirked brow. "So don’t be a brat about it."

Lance continues to slurp in silence. And as he slurps, he leans an elbow on the bar, cheek cupped in his palm, and watches. Bartender Guy goes about his business — wiping down shelves, restocking bottles, chopping up lime wedges — and he does it all with a set jaw, a faint frown. Lance makes a mental note: broody. He watches Bartender Guy take a customer’s order on the other end of the bar, pull bottles from the rack as if he were drawing a gun from its holster, and then shake the ingredients into frothy perfection. Lance makes another note: dexterous. He watches Bartender Guy lift up onto his toes, reaching for a bottle of top-shelf scotch, ass muscles flexing as he stretches. Another note: fit. Then he watches Bartender Guy glance over his shoulder, puzzlement wrinkling his brow as he catches that shameless stare. Lance promptly turns away, feigning innocence, and makes a final note: more observant than he looks.

It’s not Lance’s fault for spending an inordinate amount of time admiring this guy’s impressive assets. It’s the alcohol’s fault. And this dumb bar for being so boring, and not having anything else interesting enough to look at.

Yeah. He’ll go with that.

"So now that I’ve basically bared my entire soul to a total stranger," Lance pipes up again after a considerable amount of watching. "What’s your damage?"

Bartender Guy looks up from the glass he’d just finished filling with ice cubes, thick bangs feathering down into his eyes. "Damage?"

"Yeah. Can’t pay the rent, stuck working on a Saturday night," laments Lance. "Rough times, huh?" 

He shrugs with a specific brand of apathy that Lance is quickly learning to associate with him. Then, while pouring bronze-colored liquid over the ice, he says, darkly, "Not like I have anywhere better to be, I guess." 

"Well, shit, dude," Lance balks, gesturing to his drink. "You sure you don’t need one of these things?"

"I’ll wait until I’m off the clock."

"When’s that gonna be?"

"One."

"Then can I buy you a drink at one ‘o clock?"

Bartender Guy’s hand pauses, mid-reach for a slice of lemon. "Buy me a drink," he repeats dubiously. Not a question.

"I mean," Lance reasons, "you got one for me, I get one for you. Seems fair, right?"

And then he smiles. Stoic, aloof, tight-assed Bartender Guy actually cracks a smile. And even though it’s subtle by anyone else’s standards, it’s progress, and Lance finds himself feeling accidentally accomplished.

"You want to pay me to make my own drink?" Bartender Guy is very mildly amused.

"Hey, free alcohol is free alcohol."

He smiles again, bigger than the last, and even chuffs out a noise that Lance swears is a chuckle. "Guess you’re right," he says.

"The name’s Lance, by the way," and he extends a hand across the bar. A gloved palm meets him halfway.

"Keith."

They don’t go home together right away. Keith finishes up his shift, and Lance tells his friends to head off without him, that he wants to hang for a little while longer, and, against their better judgement, they leave. At precisely one ‘o clock in the morning, Keith fixes himself his drink of choice — straight whiskey on the rocks — and rips a real, full-bodied belly laugh when Lance contorts his face in disgust. They sit side by side at the bar, and talk about dumb things, like some of Keith’s most horrifically humorous customer experiences, and some of Lance’s best, most-used pickup lines. Some of them even make Keith laugh again. They have another round. And another. They stumble outside when it’s time for the bar to close, and wait by the curb after deciding to split a cab.

And then Lance gets his mouth on Keith’s neck, whispers what he wants to do to him, and Keith shivers as he alerts their driver to make only one stop instead of two. 

They barely make it through Lance’s front door before they’re shedding clothes, chasing lips, searching for skin. It’s messy and unpracticed, hungry and fevered, impatient and needy. Keith’s tongue tastes like whiskey, and his hands feel like fire as they roam over every exposed inch, and his hips are restless against his own, and he’s kissing him hard and senseless.

And, for a little while, Lance can pretend.

He pretends he isn’t numb. 

He pretends he doesn’t care.

He just pretends to forget.       


 

Lance doesn’t find himself in his bed when he wakes up the next morning. Instead, he’s sprawled on the living room couch, covered by a leather jacket from the waist down, with various other discarded articles of clothing strewn around the floor. Apparently they hadn’t even made it to the bedroom last night.

He doesn’t remember the jacket, but that isn’t entirely surprising, considering how intensely his brain is throbbing against his skull. Curiously, Lance brings the jacket to his nose, and gives it a sniff, inhaling an unmistakable combination of sex and woodsy cologne.

Speaking of sex. 

Lance glances around the space, spots Keith’s boots still laying haphazardly by the door, and then registers the distant sound of the running shower. His grip on the jacket loosens considerably. Relief. Content, maybe? It’s too early to deal with this, he thinks.

Or maybe it’s not. The clock on the wall tells him it’s almost noon, and Lance is grateful that it’s the summer, and that time doesn’t have him making a mad dash for class. For now, he can relax. Maybe sleep off this hangover and then —

Bling. Bling. Bling.

His phone is crying for attention from — somewhere in the room. Scrambling to his feet, Lance chases the incessant ring, jumping from one article of clothing to the next, giving each one a good shake, until the noisy device falls out from the back pocket of his jeans. He steps into them, and, without thinking, answers the call.

But before he can lift the phone to his ear, the screen is filled with the faces of his siblings, all three of them, bright and beaming.

Shit.

"Lance!" they cry in unison, three tanned faces coming into view.

"H-Hey!" he croaks, hoping that they’ll interpret his shock as some sort of excitement. "Guys!"

"Sorry, did we wake you?" Veronica snickers, her dark, curly hair taking up a majority of the screen.

"Uh…"

"Give the man a break, Ronnie," Marco wiggles his way to the forefront with the kind of mischievous grin he’s known for. "I wouldn’t be sleeping much either if I just brought myself home a French hottie, know what I mean?"           

Her hand covers Marco’s entire face, and pushes him out of the way. While the two of them struggle, Luis seizes the opportunity to speak.

"Congrats on the big news, little bro," he says warmly. "We all knew the trip was going to be life changing, but this is definitely a surprise."

Lance’s smile feels tight and unnatural, like his cheeks are being pulled by strings. "Yeah. Huge surprise. Listen, you guys —"

"Oh, Lance, guess what?" Veronica is back, and she’s grabbing the phone out of Luis’ hand. "I’ve been doing some research, and I found the cutest little bakery, like, right down the street from you, and they do all these incredible-looking custom wedding cakes, and I was thinking we could taste some samples next week. I know it’s last minute, but I think we can still —" 

His jaw unhinges gracelessly. "Wait — we? Next week? I — wait, wait, wait, wait, what —"

"Lance," she scolds, the spitting image of their mother, frighteningly enough. "I replied to you days ago! Don’t you check your emails anymore?"

"Nobody checks email anymore," Marco grumbles. He’s long since lost interest in the conversation, and has, apparently, now regressed to making snide comments in the background while his thumbs type away at something on his phone.

Veronica lunges for him. "Marco! Cállate, carajo!"

"Basically," Luis chuckles at the camera, in spite of his siblings' antics. "Everyone was planning on spending the summer in Varadero — you know, like always — until we found out about you. We thought it’d be nice to spend a week over there to help plan the wedding, and to meet our new family member."

Lance’s stomach plummets straight down into his shins. "E-Everyone?"

"Yeah, get this, Lance —" Marco has somehow escaped his sister’s wrath, and pokes his head up next to Luis. "The whole gang is flying out for this. Us, mom, Mariana, all the 'lil rascals — like, when’s the last time we were all together?"

"I —"

"OH, MY GOD!" Veronica screeches at full volume, wedging herself between the two boys. "Is that him? Ohmigod, it’s him! Ohmigod, ohmigod!"

They all start babbling enthusiastically, fighting for the best view, and, at first, Lance doesn’t understand why. He stares blankly, just as he has for most of their conversation, until he detects movement in the corner of his screen, and —

Keith has emerged from the bathroom, and has unintentionally positioned himself right over Lance’s shoulder. In plain sight. In front of his siblings. With nothing but a towel wrapped around his hips.

Double shit.

"Wait, he’s actually, like, not ugly."

"I wanna meet him before mom does!"

"Introduce him, dummy!"

The phone suddenly feels like it’s going to slip right out of Lance’s sweaty palms, but then he whirls around, heart hammering as aggressively as his head, and calls out, "Uh, Keith —"

"Keith!" the siblings echo joyously.

"C'mere… babe."

Keith’s dumbfounded expression might have been funny if Lance weren’t currently in the throes of complete and utter panic. With his back to the camera, he gives Keith a very distinct look from across the room: Please just do this.

Keith responds with a creased brow: No.

And then Lance, with his eyes: Get. Over. Here. Now.

Thankfully, Veronica interrupts their wordless conversation with a delighted chirp of, "Bonjour, Keith!"

He glances at the phone, then at Lance, then back again. "Bon…jour?"

"Whoa, dude, awesome tat," says Marco, eyeing Keith’s arm. "She must’ve hurt like a bitch."

"Not really."

"Ooh, he’s a tough guy! Good job, Lance!"

"Okay, well, uh —" Lance quickly shifts the phone so that Keith is hidden from view, just his red-cheeked face filling the screen. "Sorry not sorry, but I — we gotta go — got a late start and everything —"

"Hell yeah you did —"

"Marco, don’t be gross —"

"'Kay, bye!"

The call ends. Lance’s screen goes dark. He seals his eyes shut, bites down hard on his bottom lip, and tries not to crumble when he feels Keith’s stare boring into his back like bullets.

"What… the fuck just happened?"

Lance pivots around, sheepish. "Don’t be mad."

"Do they —" Keith snarls. "— think that we’re —"

"Okay, you’re mad — shit — Keith, look —"

He makes toward the bathroom, but Keith moves away, fingers dragging incredulously through his damp hair. "Do they think I’m that girl you proposed to?"

"Technically," Lance squeaks out hesitantly, "they think you’re the guy I proposed to."

"What the fuck, Lance."

Keith stomps past him, and begins an urgent rampage around the living room, collecting the scattered clothing pieces that belong to him. And Lance trails behind him like a hopeful puppy with his metaphorical tail tucked between his legs.

"Keith, my buddy, my man — just — think of everything we’ve been through together," he implores, and Keith gives a callous snort. "Remember all the drinks? All the laughs, all the good times? The mind-blowing sex?" 

With an armful of clothing clutched to his chest, Keith stops and sneers, "Don’t flatter yourself."

"Listen, not trying to guilt trip you or anything, but my entire family is flying out in a week. I can’t even remember the last time we were all in the same place together. And they’re gonna expect to meet the person they think I’m marrying," Lance is still following annoyingly close behind Keith as he hurries back to the bathroom. "It’s a big fucking deal! Not to mention that I’m extremely fragile right now. Like, seriously, my heart could rupture at even the slightest —"

"Just tell them the truth, Lance," he says harshly, turning on him. 

Lance’s face is flushed, and twisted with emotion, but Keith can’t read any of it. It’s almost as if the boy’s muscles haven’t quite caught up to his thoughts yet, and now he’s floundering, stuck wondering how to force the words out.

"I… can’t. Not yet. It still hurts too much," he breathes, a swill of air ghosting through his lungs, resigned and painful. "I’m not ready to look my family in the eye and tell them that their son is just some… unlovable loser."

He’s taken to staring at the floor, to avoid Keith’s ruthless glower, but then chances a peek upwards through his long lashes, feeling pitiful. Keith is still glowering, ruthlessly, seemingly unaffected by Lance’s vulnerable display, and takes a step back to pass through the threshold of the bathroom.

"That’s not my problem." And he swings the door shut with a resounding slam.

"Keith!" Lance protests, a few seconds too late. But that doesn’t keep him from pounding a fist on the door, over and over, until his knuckles tire or his knees give out in defeat. He can’t decide which happens first, but, either way, he sinks down, sitting with his back against the closed door. "Keith, open up… Please? Pretty please?"

Nothing.

And then somewhere in the cacophony of his mind, he’s struck with a moment of clarity, bits and pieces of last night’s conversation poking at his hazy memory. Lance sits up, alert and, dare he say, inspired.

"Hey, last night…" he begins, lips aimed at the cracks in the door. "Didn’t you say something about eviction?"

There’s a pause, and then a brief, unamused, "So?" 

"So you’re being evicted."

"Good guess, genius," Keith’s voice scoffs.

Lance just grins. Bingo

"So you must need a place to stay, right?"

He nearly tumbles backwards when the bathroom door flies open again. Keith stands in the doorway, fully dressed and looking skeptical. "What are you getting at?" he demands.

"You need an apartment, and I need a fake fiancé," Lance scrambles to his feet, still grinning eagerly, and even has the audacity to playfully bump his knuckles against Keith’s shoulder. "You pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down over here?"

"No," Keith blinks, and then furrows his brow. "I mean, yeah, I am, but — no to the fake fiancé thing."

"Aw, c’mon!" Lance groans in desperation, blue eyes almost pleading. "If you do this, I’ll let you stay here, free of charge, until you’re back on your feet. Scout’s honor! You can’t beat the low price of zero, Keith, and it’s a helluva lot better than living out of your car or something." 

Dark eyes narrow, and the wary beats that pass have Lance nearly vibrating with anticipation. "This," says Keith, gesturing vaguely between them. "What does this entail, exactly?"

"Putting on a show for my family. Just for one week, until they’re gone, and then you’ll never have to gaze lovingly into my gorgeous eyes ever again," and he holds out a hopeful hand. "Deal?"

A pause.

A hesitation.

A treacherous stillness.

Until: "Lovingly is a stretch."

"Is that a yes?" Lance beams.

Keith’s nostrils flare unfavorably, but he grips Lance’s hand in halfhearted agreement. "It’s a fine, but I’m not happy about it."

"Yes!" he tosses his head back, and practically howls a celebratory cry. Then he’s yanking Keith forward by their clasped hands, dragging him into a crushing embrace. "Thank you, Keith! Thank you, thank you, thank you —"

"Alright, alright," Keith wriggles away, sloughing the boy off of him like dead skin. "So, now what?"

Lance gazes over the apartment, untidy and still littered with the rest of his clothes. "I guess we turn this bachelor pad into a newlywed love nest."

Keith makes a noise of disgust, as if to say: Is it too late to back out?

"But first," Lance rounds on him again, looking somewhat contrite. "We gotta work on your French, dude."

Chapter Text

. . .

“That’s it? That’s all your stuff?” 

Lance is pouting quite impressively.

Because when he swings open his front door the following day, he’s, frankly, a bit disappointed to find Keith on the other side with his belongings. And here Lance is, bright-eyed on a Monday morning, wearing his favorite, most butt-defining joggers, in the hopes that he’d have to do some heavy-lifting — or that he and Keith would be partaking in one of those cute, flirty moving montages, like a scene straight out of a romantic comedy — only to discover that Keith’s possessions are meager enough to fit comfortably in what amounts to a large duffel bag and one cardboard box.

So unfair.

Keith looks down at his things, a little bewildered, and remarkably unashamed. “Yeah?”

“Huh,” says Lance, trying to remain positive. “A minimalist. I can dig it.”

“No,” Keith objects. “Just dirt broke.”

“Hey. You said it, not me, buddy.” 

And before Lance can even offer to carry the cardboard box the entire two steps into his apartment, Keith is brushing past him, without so much as a passing glance. Already exasperated, Lance blows a puff of air past his lips, shuts the door, and trails behind Keith as he moves to the center of the modest living space.

“Right, so… Welcome back to casa de Lance. My pad, my crib. My top-secret headquarters, if you will,” Lance catches Keith’s eyes, looking expectant, checking to see if the humor is well-received. 

It isn’t.

“…Aaaanyway,” he recovers. “Make yourself at home. Kitchen’s that way, bedroom’s over there, and you’re already acquainted with the bathroom. Uh — Figured I’d set you up on the couch, since we’re not working with a lot of personal space here, but maybe we could take turns with the bed. Switch off every other week or something. Sound good?”

Keith shrugs. “Sure.”

But he’s already so far removed from the conversation that his attention sits on the complete opposite end of the room. Literally. Keith’s gaze sweeps the area, taking in his new surroundings, from the archaic gaming system that seems sloppily rigged to the television set, all the way to the wooden bookcase that houses a chaotic array of novels, textbooks, comics, and everything in between. But it’s the back wall that renders him curious because its brick surface is adorned with very tasteful pieces of artwork, and it strikes Keith as starkly contrary to the apartment’s otherwise frat-boyish charm. He wanders closer, almost so that he can distinguish the various brush strokes that make up a sunny countryside, an idyllic cottage, the Eiffel Tower. His fingertips ghost along one of the painted canvases, and, in the bottom corner, he notices the artist’s signature, written in cursive so curly and stylized that he struggles to make it out. 

Nyma.

“Hey.”

Keith quickly recoils his hand when something swats it away from the painting, and then he turns to find Lance glaring daggers at his startled expression.

“You break it, you buy it, dude,” he warns, suddenly stern. 

Blinking once, then twice, Keith mutters a hurried, “Uh, sorry.”

And then Lance looks over at the paintings, glare softening with all the tender fondness of reuniting with an old friend. It’s an unusual way of regarding a piece of artwork, Keith thinks, but he doesn’t question it. After all, that would give off the impression that he cares.

“S’okay,” says Lance, still a bit faraway and dreamy. His eyes indulge in a final, lingering gaze before veering back to Keith, swiftly, like the flip of a switch. He’s back to bright, brassy, and booming. “So! What’re you in the mood for?”

Keith frowns. “What?”

“Yeah, I mean —” Lance’s smile is downright blinding, and Keith doesn’t know what to do with it. “Since moving in took way less time than expected, I was thinking we could go do something. Together. Y’know, just two bros hanging out and — ooh — wanna do brunch? I guess, technically, it’s still early enough for plain ‘ol breakfast, but, hey, it’s not every day you get to celebrate a make-believe engagement, so we might as well be as fancy as we want, right? You don’t really strike me as a mimosa kinda guy — no offense — but there’s this place that has —”

Whoa. Keith’s brain momentarily short-circuits, and he’s blurting out the first excuse that pops into his head. “I — have to go. To work.”

Lance’s excitement dies an inglorious death on the tip of his tongue, expression wilting. “At ten-thirty in the morning?”

Goddammit.

“Yeah…” he reaches for the back of his neck. “Got a lot of cleaning to do at the bar.”

Lance inhales, and starts lifting an inquisitive finger with, most likely, the intention of further contradicting this faulty story, but Keith is already moving — hurrying, more like — across the room, back toward the front door. And Lance is hot on his trail, blabbering on with insistent calls of, “Okay! Well, uh — guess I’ll catch up with you later, my man. Amigo. Partner in crime.”

“Great,” says Keith, with no attempt to mask the dryness in his tone.

“Maybe when you get back we can play some —”

Keith disappears through the front door, and it swings shut in Lance’s face.

“ —video games. Awesome. Good talk.” 


 

 

Pidge watches, with avid disinterest, as Lance’s long, lanky arms drape over the formica tabletop like overcooked noodles, and senses, within every avidly disinterested bone in her petite body, an imminent meltdown. Because Lance has been going on like this for at least fifteen minutes, and she knows her friend well enough to know that that’s more than enough time to induce a detonation of epic proportions.

Also because he was dumb enough to wrangle some poor, unsuspecting sucker into posing as his fiancé while his family is in town, and out of all the unanimously sticky situations that Lance has managed to stumble into, this one is certainly meltdown-worthy.

So, really, Pidge should’ve seen this coming.

“He hates me,” Lance grumbles for what feels like the millionth time this afternoon. “Literally hates me, Pidge.” 

She remains a perfect portrait of apathy, standing table-side in her green work apron, with arms crossed and eyes so narrowed behind her round lenses that they’re nearly slits. “He doesn’t hate you,” she drawls.

“He loathes my very presence.”

“He doesn’t loathe you, either. Because it means the same thing as hate.” She hesitates. “I hope you know that.”

“Fuck semantics!”

“You know the word semantics, but you don’t know that hate and loathe are synonyms?”

“Piiiiiiidge.”

“Lance,” she tries again, feeling her agitation levels threaten to breach the surface, while simultaneously thanking all the higher deities that today is a slow shift at work, because losing her temper in the middle of a full café never seems to end well for her. “Keith doesn’t hate you. He doesn’t even know you.”

“But that’s the whole thing! He doesn’t even want to know me!” Lance bolts upright, eyes flashing with something that can only be described as a frenzy. “You should’ve seen it — he just slammed the door in my face and split like a bat outta hell. It was a total do-you-wanna-build-a-snowman moment, and guess what, Pidge?” He pauses for what she assumes to be dramatic effect, and then pounds his fist against the tabletop to accentuate each impassioned word. “Keith did not. Wanna build. That snowman.”   

They hold each other’s stare for longer than necessary, until Pidge surrenders to the troublesome ache of an oncoming migraine. She pinches the bridge of her dainty nose, and pivots on the spot.

“I can’t deal with him when he gets hysterical like this. Hunk, please give our problematic son some caffeine while I go clean the cappuccino maker.”    

“On it!” responds Hunk’s voice from somewhere behind the front counter. Pidge takes her leave, and, almost as if he’d been anticipating such a turn of events, Hunk appears in his matching apron, offering a cup of warm coffee and an even warmer grin. “Here you go, buddy.”

Lance brings the drink to his lips, and takes a much-needed sip, heaving a mental sigh as the delicious aroma wafts into his nose. Caramel blonde roast with double cream, double sugar, just the way he likes it. Hunk is a saint among men, he thinks reverently.

But as the sweet liquid trickles down the back of his throat, he’s left with a bitter aftertaste that has very little to do with coffee, and almost everything to do with a haunting realization, born from uncertainty and self-consciousness. Lance lowers the drink back to the table, brow furrowed, stomach swamped with dread. Suddenly he doesn’t have much of a craving for creamy, caramel goodness anymore. 

“Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the common denominator here,” he speaks down into his cup, commiserating with its contents. “My real fiancée left me… And now my fake one doesn’t want anything to do with me.”   

“Hey, hey, whoa, whoa, whoa —” Hunk swiftly slides into the seat across from Lance, and holds his hands up, palms facing out, as if to stop any further self-deprecation in its tracks. “Don’t say that, man. Just try cutting this Keith guy some slack. I mean, in his defense, he probably wasn’t expecting some one-night-stand to turn into… y’know… marriage,” and then, after a brief consideration, amends, “Fake marriage.”

“Well, it’s not like I was expecting it, either. I wasn’t trying to lure him into my clutches like some kind of creepy… serial monogamist,” Lance glances up, leaning forward on his elbows. “Seriously, Hunk. I was totally fine just hitting it and quitting it with a hot bartender for the night, and then going back to eating my feelings until all traces of my ex are banished from existence — y’know, like a normal person.” 

Hunk’s face brightens, struck by inspiration. “Yeah, not too good with the whole pretend relationship part, but I definitely got you covered with the eating your feelings part.”

He rises from his seat, and sneaks back to the front counter, where he ducks and disappears behind a large glass display case. Lance can only imagine what kind of misdeeds might be unfolding that require so much stealth, but then Hunk reappears with a platter of baked goods in hand, and even Lance’s downtrodden spirits can’t keep him from perking up at the sight. The plate is placed gingerly on the tabletop, as if it’s been here all along, and then Hunk is back in his seat, fingers laced innocently in his lap.

“Are those —”

“Freshly-baked powdered donut holes? Why, yes, they are.” Hunk’s prideful smirk only wavers for a fraction of a second as he adds, voice low, “Don’t tell Allura.”

“Oh, my god, Hunk, I love you.”

“Back ‘atcha, buddy.”

Lance grabs the first one, pops the whole thing into his mouth, and chews rather thoughtfully, until: “I still don’t know what to do, though. We’re just wasting time.” Swallow. “I mean, he’s gonna have to meet my family in less than a week, and they’re gonna expect us to know more about each other than just our skills in bed.” 

Ugh,” comes Pidge’s appalled groan from all the way on the other side of the café.

“Which, by the way,” Lance adds, raising his voice out of spite, “are top notch!”

“UGH.”

“Oh, hey, maybe you can tell your family that Keith tripped on the sidewalk, and cracked his head open,” says Hunk, and he sounds a bit too delighted to be speaking of something so morbid and disturbing. “Then he had to undergo emergency surgery, and ended up losing all his memories.”

Lance scrunches his nose. “That’s dark, dude,” he says through a mouthful of cakey, powdery perfection. 

“No, no, no — just think about it. It could be romantic! Like —” Hunk slaps a hand over his heart, bats his lashes unnecessarily so, and swoons to the left. “— ‘Oh, how you ignite a fire in my fragile soul… but I don’t even know who you are’! And then you can be all —” He swoons to the right. “— ‘I don’t care that you have a busted brain, you abbed Adonis of a man, I’ll never leave your side for as long as we both shall live’!”

Chew, chew, chew. And then:

“Uh… Yeah, no.”

“Well, then how about —”

“I hate to break up a good brainstorming session,” says Pidge, who, at some point, had abandoned her post at the cappuccino maker in favor of talking some inevitable sense into her friends. Lance and Hunk both look up to find her standing by the edge of the table again, this time with a damp, coffee-stained rag tossed over her shoulder, and a bit of foam clinging to the spot on her cheek where a dimple should be. “But Lance, have you tried just talking to him?”

Lance snorts with such aggressive resentment that sprinkles of white powdered sugar nearly come flying out of his nostrils. “Of course I have,” he says defensively. “What else do you think I was trying to do before he stormed out on me?”

“I mean actually talking, dummy,” Pidge sighs. “Without going full-out Lance on him.”

Had Lance’s jaw not already been fully unhinged to make room for an incoming bite of donut hole, his mouth would’ve fallen open in this moment, shocked and thoroughly affronted by his friend’s blunt insinuation. Because even in his self-proclaimed demoralized state, he knows the ugly sound of a backhanded insult when he hears it.

“What do you mean by that?” Lance demands, and then he shifts to face Hunk, jabbing an accusing thumb toward Pidge. “What does she mean by that?”

“I mean you can be a lot to handle sometimes.”

“I can be what?!”

“For some people,” Pidge clarifies with an astounding amount of calm. “Maybe Keith is one of those people.”

“So then what do you think I should do? Pop a sedative and chain him to my sofa?”

“Just take things at his pace, Lance,” says Pidge, boasting a subtle glimpse of her foam-covered dimple. “Get through to him, get through the week with your family, and then you can both go your separate ways.”

Lance slumps down in his seat, chomping furiously on the last donut hole while his eyes fix themselves on an arbitrary spot on the table’s surface, and, without warning, his mind is transported to the beach where he grew up, and all of those hot, sprawling days that somehow feel like yesterday and forever ago at the same time.

He’s suddenly sitting on the kitchen counter in his childhood home, the smell of sea salt and fresh laundry breezing in through the open window, and his mother, gentle and kind-eyed, is placing a bandaid on his knee, all swollen and scraped and freshly disinfected after a day of roughhousing too close to the jagged rocks that line the shore. His older brother Luis had scaled them effortlessly, while Lance was still too young, too scrawny to keep up, but that hadn’t stopped him from trying. And she kisses the top of his disheveled head, and her thumb wipes along his tear-stained cheek, and she says, fondly, “Oh, mijo. How is anyone supposed to keep up with you, hmm?”

Or ninth grade, third period, AP Chemistry. His lab partner is Jenny Shaybon, and Lance can’t believe his luck, because even though their interactions rarely stray beyond the scope of electrons and bunsen burners, he knows that they’re meant to be. Because sometimes she giggles at one of his well-timed jokes, and lets him copy her notes from class without making him feel dumb for not understanding something right away. But then, one day, as they’re measuring out twenty-five milliliters of sodium chloride over the beaker, he asks if she’d like to go with him to the homecoming dance, and she gives him a pitying smile, and tells him that she just doesn’t feel the same way.

Or sophomore year of college on a crisp spring evening. Lance is in bed with a guy he’s been on three dates with, and his roommate is out of town for the weekend, and they’re shedding clothes fast, fooling around beneath the sheets, and Lance has never gone this far before. Through the pale blue glow of a lava lamp, the guy trails fingertips down the front of Lance’s bare chest, and asks him if he’s sure he’s ready. And Lance smirks something coy before whispering yes, even though he isn’t sure. But the guy’s kisses taste like cherries, and his arms are strong when he holds him, and his smile makes his stomach flutter, and surely that must be good enough. And it is, until the morning comes, and the next, and the next, and Lance finally realizes that he gave himself away to a guy who isn’t going to call him back. 

Because he tries too hard. He wants too much. He moves too fast. And how is anyone supposed to keep up with him?         

Maybe no one can.

Maybe no one ever will.

His dismal reminiscing is interrupted by Pidge’s stare, which has suddenly gone steely again as she gazes back and forth between Lance and the empty plate before him.

“Did you eat all of the donut holes?” she interrogates.

He quickly licks his lips clean of any white residue, and mumbles, “No.”

“Then what’s that on your pants?”

Lance looks down at his lap, and the light dusting of powdered sugar sprinkled atop the dark fabric. 

“Cocaine?”

Pidge closes her eyes. Oh, yeah, that’s definitely a migraine coming on.

“Hunk,” she says, breathing slow. “Please escort our problematic son to the nearest exit.”

 


 

The realization hits Lance like a wave hits the shore. He’s not just being ignored — he’s being avoided.

Thankfully, though not by any willful choice of his own, he can handle the ignoring. It’s not preferable, but Lance comes from a sizable family, with a single mother, so he learned at a young age what it feels like to yell and have nobody even hear him. The avoiding, however, is something that Lance cannot handle. Because the thing about avoiding is that it hurts. It stings. It’s not just a silent scream or an unheard voice. It’s an insult. It’s a slap in the face. It’s a nonverbal, but crystal clear I would rather be anywhere else in this city than right here, right now, with you.

And by some cruel trick of irony, while Lance is particularly bad at being avoided, Keith seems to be particularly good at doing the avoiding.

Later that afternoon, when Lance comes home from the café, Keith is back in the apartment. He’s laying on the couch, and doesn’t even glance up when the front door opens, too engrossed in the book he’s reading. Lance is very curious to know what it is, but the cover is hidden against the crook of Keith’s arm, so he takes a tentative step closer, and offers a very amiable, very noninvasive, “Whatcha’ getting into over there, buddy?”

He’s met with resounding silence. It’s then that Lance notices a pair of earbuds wedged into Keith’s ears, and the muffled sound of the loud music blasting out of them. Lance frowns, defeated again, because he knows this strategy.

It’s the universal signal for: fuck off, annoying roommate.

A few hours later, before Lance can work up enough courage to try again, Keith emerges from the bathroom in a set of workout clothes, grabs a water bottle from the fridge, and then leaves. Lance flinches when the front door slams shut behind him, and he swears he feels a gust of chilly air drifting through in his wake.

Take things at his pace. His pace.

Lance repeats Pidge’s words inside his head like a mantra. So maybe Keith isn’t quite ready to become bosom buddies, to be attached at the hip, to revel in their newfound holy fake matrimony. Fine. Lance will relent. But at this point, he’ll gladly settle for anything. A smile, a nod, a hello or a goodbye. Any indication that Keith is, in fact, his roommate, his pretend fiancé, his possible friend — not his unwilling prisoner.

So Lance fixes up two mugs of steaming hot chocolate that evening, and almost spills them all over himself when Keith cuts the corner, nearly colliding right into Lance in the kitchen doorway.

“— Shit. Sorry,” Keith mumbles.

“Hey! Perfect timing!” Lance chirps happily. “I was just about to come looking for you.”

“Why?”

Lance flounders for a moment. “Oh, I, uh — made you some hot chocolate.”

Keith’s scrutinizing gaze travels downward to Lance’s hands, wrapped firmly around two colorful mugs, each one piled high with mini marshmallows. His pinched expression suggests confusion, maybe even disgust, but Lance knows that can’t possibly be the case — otherwise he may have to severely reevaluate the whole fake relationship thing.

“It’s cocoa, not arsenic, dude.”

Keith’s brow pinches even more. “What?”

“Uh, sorry, just — weird joke. My bad. Go ahead and try it.”

There’s more staring on Keith’s part, and more waiting on Lance’s, until Keith carefully accepts the red mug into his skeptical grasp. The cocoa warms his palms in an admittedly pleasant way, but he still hesitates before finally bringing the rim to his lips, and taking a modest sip.

“Well?” Lance prompts eagerly. 

Keith runs his tongue over the roof of his mouth a few times before stating, nonplussed, “It tastes like a melted candy bar.”

Exactly.”

Lance may have imagined it, but he swears he spots the vague beginnings of a grin tugging at Keith’s lips. He hopes that it’s real. He likes Keith’s smile.

“So listen, man. I just wanna say…” he sighs, and starts wandering slowly toward the small two-person table in the middle of the kitchen, taking a seat at one of the folding chairs. “I get it. I get that this is a pretty awkward situation and that I can come on a little strong sometimes. I’m not trying to freak you out, but like — we’re supposed to be convincing people that we’re engaged, and you’ve barely said ten words to me since you moved in.”

“I agreed to the fiancé thing when your family is here,” Keith says gruffly, still lingering in the doorway. “You didn’t say anything about the week before.”

Lance hums in protest as he swallows down some hot chocolate. “Hey, I’m not saying we gotta start planning the honeymoon or anything! But… I’d like to get to know you better.”

Keith is staring a stubborn hole into his mug, counting the tiny marshmallows, one by one. They’re getting softer, soggier, the longer they sit there floating atop the light brown liquid.

“Please, Keith,” says Lance, a sad, broken plea. “I can’t do this without you.”

And much like those marshmallows, Keith’s resolve begins to melt. He’ll never admit aloud how that despairing tone, that helpless gleam in his blue eyes, makes him feel something resembling sympathy, because Keith gets the feeling that allowing Lance that much power would be a very dangerous mistake. And so, without a word, without even so much as an irritated huff, Keith carries his mug over to the table, and sinks down into the seat across from Lance.

“What do you wanna know?” 

“Uh —” Lance draws himself straighter, doing a poor job of disguising how delighted he feels in this moment. “Anything, really! Couple-y things, y’know? I guess we can start with the basic stuff, like…” He blinks his wide, hopeful eyes. “Where are you from?”

“Texas,” Keith says automatically.

“Cool! What part?”

“The boring part.”

Another blink, as if waiting for something to happen, and then, “…Got it. Um… So do you like being a bartender?”

“No.”

“What kind of music do you like?”

“I dunno — good music?”

Lance’s forehead drops into his palm with a miserable whimper. “You’re killing me here, dude.”

“What?” Keith snaps, as if he’s honestly this oblivious. “I’m answering all of your questions.”

“Yeah, but like —” he waves his hands for emphasis. “—it’s like someone’s got a gun to your head and they’re gonna shoot if you accidentally say more than five syllables!”

Keith, deadpan and unamused, looks Lance straight in the eye, and replies, flatly, “This is six syllables.”

Oh, so now he has a sense of humor.

If he weren’t playing such an integral role in this family-fooling charade, Lance might’ve lunged for him across the table right then and there. But he doesn’t. Instead he flushes red with frustration, and scowls deeply. “I — that — you —” he stammers before collecting himself enough to target Keith with a ferociously narrowed gaze. “Okay, listen up, hubby. Sunshine of my life. Apple of my fucking eye. Just try to wrap your mullet head around the fact that my family’s gonna expect to hear three month’s worth of sickeningly sweet anecdotal fiancé crap, and, so far, all I know is that you hate your job, you come from the middle of bumfuck nowhere, and you listen to music that maybe doesn’t completely suck!” 

Keith’s eyebrows steadily make their way up to his hairline as he asks, “Three months?”

“Uh, yeah,” Lance says stiffly, a little bit thrown by the unrepentant interruption. Then his scowl softens into a frown, and he’s rushing through an explanation, trying to sound as detached as possible even as his heart constricts beneath his breastbone. “Her name is Nyma —” Keith recognizes the name from the paintings hanging on Lance’s wall. “ — We met in France when I was studying abroad this past spring. Locked eyes across the room, love at first sight, fate, destiny, whatever you wanna call it.”

“Wait,” says Keith, with a hint of incredulousness. “You proposed to someone you only knew for three months?”

Lance, picking up on his tone, folds his arms over his chest in defense. “So?”

“So that’s fucking insane.”

“It’s not insane!” he barks. “It’s romantic!”

“She could’ve been a serial killer for all you know,” Keith goes on.

“Look, man, I dunno what kind of traumatic dating experiences you’ve been through,” says Lance, temper boiling, “but I think I’d know if the girl I was madly in love with is a coldhearted criminal.”

At this, Keith scoffs so viciously that Lance nearly winces. “You can’t fall in love with someone in three months,” he grumbles.

“Why not?” Lance flings back. “It’s not something you can just strap a timer on. It’s a feeling. It’s about sharing a connection —”

“Right, and obviously that worked out real well for you.”

There’s an abrupt, jarring screech as the bottom of Lance’s chair scrapes against the linoleum floor. He stands with such a start that the flimsy piece of furniture almost topples over from the force of it, and then he’s storming out of the kitchen, no witty repartee, no final comeback. The entire scene hardly even registers in Keith’s mind until he hears the bedroom door slam shut, and he’s left to suffer alone in a particularly unbearable silence. His ears focus on the soft hum of the fridge, and his eyes zero in on Lance’s abandoned hot chocolate, then downward at his own, untouched. The marshmallows have now completely dissolved into shallow pools of mush, and, again, Keith can’t help but think how he feels very much the same.

But, with a heavy sigh, he tries his best to snuff out the flames of guilt that flicker and burn inside every restless muscle. He refuses to feel bad about pointing out the veritable — albeit cruel — truth of the matter. Because this is Lance he’s talking about. Loud, obnoxious, not-his-problem Lance. Lance, who doesn’t even have the courage to admit to his family that he’s been mercilessly dumped. Lance, who thinks he actually has a shot at tricking people into thinking some random hookup is the love of his life. Lance, who, even in the short amount of time Keith has spent in his company, has proven himself to be a certifiable halfwit. Because what kind of idiot falls in love after only three months? And what kind of idiot keeps his ex’s artwork hanging on the walls like he’s living in a shrine? And what kind of idiot invites someone he barely knows to live under the same roof? 

Keith pauses, tension fading, brow unfurling.

The same kind of idiot who says yes to living under the same roof with someone he barely knows.

A lonely idiot.

Well, damn.

Now he feels pretty bad.

And he allows that badness to sit with him for an unforgiving beat, just clawing at his conscience and churning in his gut, thick and awful, like a disease. Then, when he can barely stand it any longer, he rises out of his chair, and walks numbly over to Lance’s door. There’s no noise on the other side, from what Keith can hear, but he’s wise enough to know that real chaos is a silent storm, one that rages mutely within hidden catacombs of the mind.

His knuckles gently knock against the door, just once, before he’s turning the knob and stepping inside. “Lance?”

It’s dark, but Keith can still make out the back of Lance’s shadowy form as he sits on the far side of his bed, on the edge of the mattress. His head hangs low between his shoulders, which appear to be collapsing in on themselves, hunched and hurting. If not for the slow, careful undulations of his back as he breathes, Keith might’ve thought he looks more marbled and statuesque than flesh and blood.

Keith cautiously moves closer, and sits next to him on the bed, and the subtle clenching of Lance’s fists in his lap is the only indication that he’s aware of Keith’s presence at all. Lance’s face is aimed toward the floor, but Keith can still see that his eyes are sewn shut, his lips pulled taut into a straight line, and Keith is familiar with the struggle that distorts his expression — like he’s willing himself to stay whole, to not fall to pieces.

“Abilene.”

Keith’s voice sounds too harsh, too thunderous for the fragility of this moment, even though he’s barely above a whisper.

“Abilene, Texas. That’s where I grew up,” he continues, regardless. “The summer’s there were brutal, but at night it would get so quiet. Like when you walked outside, all you could hear were your thoughts. I think that’s the only thing I miss about living there.”

He racks his brain for something even more trivial, feeling a bit silly. “Um. I’m allergic to shellfish.”

Lance’s back stops moving, holding his breath.

“When I was ten years old,” Keith begins, staring down at his hands, “I broke my thumb from getting into a fight with some kid at school, and I was too impatient to wait for it to heal properly, so now it’s a little crooked.”

A pause, a heartbeat.

“And… I’m not very good at talking about myself because I’m not used to people asking.”

Steadily, Lance’s lids part ways, revealing a pair of glossy blue eyes. Then he’s turning his head, just a small slant, and, much to Keith’s utter surprise, he’s smiling. It takes a keen eye to notice, because it’s delicate and subdued, but the corners of his mouth are undoubtedly curving upwards toward the apples of his cheeks.

“Thanks for telling me that,” he says, exhaling the breath he’s been holding for a while now.

“Yeah.”

Lance sniffs, and it’s almost like it brings him back to life. His spine straightens, and his fists unclench, and it’s such a deliberate, practiced way that be pulls himself back together that Keith idly wonders how often it must be done.

“Hey, Keith?”

“Hmm?”

“Did we —” His growing grin is somehow both smug and affectionate at the same time. “ —just have our first fight?”

Keith wants to roll his eyes, chuff it off, or tell Lance he’s being exponentially ridiculous again. But, instead, he finds the decency to laugh, a breathless chuckle, as he replies, “I guess we did.”

Chapter Text

. . .

Keith concludes — quite begrudgingly and from the deepest, darkest, most cobwebbed depths of his mind — that Lance McClain makes for a rather intriguing housemate.

And by intriguing, he means weird.

And by weird, he means insufferable.

Because one of the first things that Keith has managed to glean during the initial days spent in his new roommate’s company is that Lance falls under the very unfortunate category of Morning Person. And Keith, a firm fixture in the realm of Non-Morning Person, is brutally reminded of this fact every day at precisely six-thirty in the morning, when Lance’s alarm blares Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ at top volume. Then Lance is prancing out of his bedroom, still humming the catchy tune as if he doesn’t notice Keith on the sofa, grouchily smothering his head with a pillow, and begins rummaging around in the kitchen with a chipper proclamation of:

“Alright, Keithy-boy, what’ll it be? Omelette or pancakes?”

Keith always picks pancakes. Because fuck Lance if he thinks he’s dragging himself up at the crack of dawn for a pile of soggy eggs.

His second observation is that Lance can, and will, bust a move to anything that makes successive noise. Keith quite literally stumbled upon this observation in the laundry room, where he caught his roommate zealously pop-and-locking to the annoying jingle that their washing machine sings when it’s time to unload.

His third observation is that, for someone who takes great pride in the immaculate condition of his hair, Lance owns an excessive amount of snapbacks. He almost always perches one atop his head before walking out the door, and what Keith finds most curious is how none of them are embellished. No symbols, no logos. Just colorful, blank canvases.

His fourth observation is that Lance’s indulgence of choice is a steamy mug of hot chocolate, reserved for instances when he’s upset or stressed — which Keith inwardly knows is more common than Lance would like to admit.

His fifth observation is that Lance loves the sound of rain. When the clouds open up to a warm drizzle, he sits by the window, leans his head against the jamb, and listens to the soft pitter-patter of droplets against glass, as if they were whispering secrets in his ear. Sometimes Keith wonders what he thinks about in those quiet moments. 

Six: Sometimes he speaks broken Spanish to the small fern plant that sits on the windowsill in the kitchen.

Seven: Sometimes he leaves his shoes laying haphazardly by the front door, and Keith almost trips every time he walks inside. 

Eight: Sometimes he snorts when he laughs too hard.

Nine: Sometimes Keith catches him staring at his own left hand, directly at the finger where he probably envisioned a ring would be, and his eyes get glossy, and his shoulders start to sag. 

Ten: And sometimes, when he feels Keith watching, he’ll just smile it all away.


It’s relentless, and downright criminal, how the sun beats down in a blistering haze. A summer heat that rivals the ones in Abilene, Keith thinks, though that doesn’t make him any more accustomed to the skyrocketing temperatures that are currently plaguing the city. Weather reports are calling it a record-breaking heatwave, the likes of which haven’t been documented since the late eighties. But Keith, already feeling the sticky beads of sweat gathering along his hairline, simply calls it hell.

And maybe all the unfavorable sweatiness would be more manageable if he weren’t crammed in the backseat of Hunk’s roughed up Jeep at present, which is too archaic for functioning air conditioning, and reeks of stale potato chips and collective body odor.

Keith leans against the windowless door, allowing the breeze to wisp through the dampened tendrils of hair around his face as they speed down the roadway. But the air is hot, like an oven door swinging open, even at fifty miles per hour, and does absolutely nothing to counteract the sweltering sun as it burns his skin in pin-pricking discomfort.   

Why is he here again?

“Why am I here again?” He echos his thoughts aloud this time because, apparently, he’s too cranky to brood in silence. 

“Because it’s hotter than satan’s asshole, and we want ice cream,” Pidge answers to his left, right before a devious grin blooms across her face. Keith hasn’t known Lance’s friends for very long, but he’s already fairly certain that he has good reason to fear that particular grin.

“Also because we’re supposed to be helping you guys be the best fake fiancés you can be, remember?” Hunk adds from the driver’s seat, one hand on the steering wheel, the other flopping out the window. 

Lance’s face appears over the shoulder of the front passenger seat, gold-rimmed aviators slipping down the bridge of his sweat-sheened nose just enough to reveal his eyes, blue and riled. 

“Yeeeah,” he drawls petulantly. “But, in my defense, when I asked you two for help I was imagining us just sitting around the nice air-conditioned apartment with a twelve pack while we play some of those dumb newlywed trivia games or whatever. Not… this.”

This being exposure to heatstroke, and road-tripping in some dilapidated clunker to the other side of town for what Hunk deems to be the best ice cream known to mankind, hands down, seriously you guys, I’m not making this up.

So, upsettingly enough, Lance actually has a point.

“Any idiot can memorize a list of arbitrary facts about someone,” argues Pidge. “But the truth of the matter is that you guys aren’t going to fool anyone just by knowing each other’s shoe size.”

An intrusive finger peeks around the passenger seat, and jabs sharply into Keith’s knee, accompanied by Lance’s swift interjection of, “Mine’s nine and a half, bee-tee-dubs.”

“Great. So glad I have that piece of information hogging up space in my brain.”

Hunk’s grin reflects in the rearview mirror, and Keith thinks he looks far too optimistic for the situation at hand. “Yeah, so, Pidge and I were thinking that you just gotta spend some more time together — like totally normal buds who just so happen to be pretending to be in love with each other for a week. Y’know?”

“Right,” agrees Pidge, nodding once, a few strands of wind-blown coppery fringe fluttering against her glasses. “Because let’s be real — right now you two have about as much compatibility as a diamagnetic flux field in a faulty superconductor.”

Lance squints. “English, please?”

“Basically you two suck at getting along.”

He understands layman’s terms, at least. That much is made obvious by Lance’s scornful huff, and the way his jaw unhinges gracelessly, whipping around so aggressively in his seat that Hunk begins muttering some unheard reminder about seatbelt safety.

“Excuse you, but speak for Sulky McSourpuss over here,” Lance accuses with an antagonizing thumb pointing in Keith’s direction. “I get along with everyone. ‘Cause Lancey-Lance is a man of the people, okay? I can turn heads with my charismatic charm!”

“Heads turn because you probably just have something on your face,” Keith deadpans.

Lance’s focus reroutes to Keith’s frowning face so abruptly that he feels it in his neck. “Yeah, my charming smile.”

“I…” Keith sighs. His mind, for once, is starkly blank. He blames the heat exhaustion. “…don’t even know what to say to that.”

“Because you’ve been charmed!”

Pidge’s entire palm presses against Lance’s face, and she shoves, sending him tumbling back into his seat, sunglasses askew, and yelping indignantly. The very corner of Keith’s mouth twitches. He thinks he likes her.

“If you two can’t even behave for an hour-long car ride together, then good luck getting through an entire week with your family,” she tells them sternly, and yet still impressively monotone.

Keith’s attention drifts sideways, averting his gaze away from the others in favor of watching the roadside landscape blur into colorful obscurity. And he spends the remainder of the ride like that, in a sullen silence. Pidge’s thumbs tap away at her phone screen, Hunk and Lance playfully bicker for control over the radio station, and the sun continues to blare like this burning, ominous presence. It’s heavy and suffocating and grips tightly at Keith’s insides. Or maybe that’s just the full weight of the situation finally bearing down on him.

Hunk’s car gives an unruly screech as he veers to the right, pulling up beside an old wooden sign that reads ‘Crazy Cones’ in sloppy orange paint. The name is almost ridiculous enough to make Keith chuckle — a true testament to just how dangerously braindead he’s become in this weather — but the establishment itself is even more ridiculous. Crazy Cones appears to be nothing more than an unassuming lopsided shack, with an assortment of wooden picnic tables scattered around the dirt field that it sits on. The line, however, easily stretches a mile long, and the waiting customers all seem perfectly content to wait in the stifling heat for a taste of the ‘best ice cream known to mankind’.

Keith steps out of the car, and starts gathering his disheveled hair into a ponytail. He watches as Hunk and Pidge scurry across the field to join the rest of the eager patrons, but before he can follow suit, he feels something firm and slick with sweat slide against his palm.

He glances to the side, where Lance has sidled up next to him. Then he glances down, where their fingers are now intertwined.

Oh.

“What are you doing?” asks Keith.

Lance’s lips split into a grin. “Compatibilicizing.”

“That’s not even a word.”

“I’m not marrying you for your brains, Kogane, so quit being such a know-it-all.”

“You’re not marrying me at all —”

A sturdy shoulder knocks into Keith’s with such force that he nearly loses his balance, staggering backwards a few steps. Then he whirls around, glowering as a burly oaf of a young man passes by. He has an unfortunate buzzcut, a chocolate ice cream cone in his beefy grip, and a gaggle of equally neanderthal-ish friends cackling around him.

“Watch where you’re goin’, twerp,” the man taunts before disappearing amidst the line of parked cars along the road.

Something hair-raising and fire-like muscles its way through Keith’s veins so rapidly, so unabashedly that he swears he sees mottled phosphenes dancing across his vision like clouds of arid smoke. His fist clenches and, without missing a beat, he makes to storm after the dimwitted brute, only to be yanked backwards, heels scuffing against caked dirt, by Lance’s iron grip.

“Whoa — not so fast, fight club,” cries Lance. “That guy looks like he ate two of you for breakfast.”

“So?”

So,” he says pointedly. “No one’s going to take me seriously if I show up with a broken fiancé.”

Keith glares cruelly. “No one’s going to take you seriously, period.”

“Just let it go,” and then he’s toting him in the other direction, away from the cars, and over to where the line of customers continues to extend. “C’mon, we’re already way behind Hunk and Pidge —”

“You don’t have to protect me, Lance,” Keith seethes as they join the back of the line.

“Protect you?” Lance snorts incredulously, and his fingers are still knotted tightly with Keith’s, fearing, most likely, that he’ll try to make a break for it at even the slightest hint of weakness. “I’m just trying to keep you from getting your face bashed in.”

“Well, I don’t need your help,” he spits. “I’m not a damsel in distress or some spineless princess —” and then his finger points threateningly into the center of Lance’s chest. “— and you’re not a knight in shining armor. I can take care of myself.”

Despite the scorching temperature and the sweat dappling their furrowed brows, the air suddenly chills between them. Keith can feel it, like a shiver down his spine, as Lance’s eyes search his hardened face for something — although he can’t even fathom what that something could possibly be. Regret? An apology? He won’t find anything like that. The seconds start to pulse by like hours, and a lifetime’s worth of emotion wrinkles every dip and crevice of Lance’s expression. Anger, confusion, hurt, annoyance, and then — surrender.

Keith isn’t sure if he’s reading that one right.

But then the tension is sliding off the slope of Lance’s shoulders, and his mouth stretches outward into a lifeless line, and he says, simply, “Okay.”

“Okay?” Keith practically stammers, utterly mystified. “What does that mean?”

“It means okay, you’re a big kid. You don’t need my help. You can take care of yourself.”

Keith blinks, frozen where he stands, still ramrod straight and poised for an argument. This has been far too easy of a win, and so, naturally, his gaze narrows intently, digging deep for the underlying jest or sarcasm, but comes up alarmingly empty-handed.

He breathes, dumbfounded. “Okay.”

More life-spanning seconds tick by, and the line grows steadily shorter with every shuffling stride. Lance’s hand still rests snugly against Keith’s, but hardly even a sidelong glance is exchanged, convinced — at least on Keith’s part — that eye contact will reveal that this is all some bizarre, heat-induced mirage, and they’ll go back to squabbling at any moment.

But they don’t. And before Keith can think about it too hard, they find themselves at the front of the line. Keith mutters his order, still in a daze, and the cashier rings him up. His hand reaches for his back pocket, then the other side, then the front pockets, and then —

Nothing. Wallet nowhere to be found.

The beginnings of panic creep up the back of his neck as he mentally retraces his steps. Did he have it in Hunk’s car? No. Did he have it at work last night? No. Then he’s overcome with hazy images of Lance’s apartment, on top of the shoe cabinet, right by the front door. That’s where his wallet sits, forgotten, neglected, disregarded…

Ahem.”

At the same time someone clears their throat, Keith feels something discreetly pressing into his palm. Looking down, he sees a ten dollar bill. And looking up, he sees Lance glancing innocently in the opposite direction, trying to mask the little smirk on his lips.

Keith’s face flushes with what he’ll later try to pass off as sunburn. And then he’s snatching the bill, handing it to the cashier, and grudgingly growling, “Make that two.”

With cones in hand, they start a casual amble toward the picnic table where Hunk and Pidge are already halfway finished with their own treats. Keith still isn’t looking at Lance, and just when his ice cream begins dripping over the edge of his cone, he sighs in spite of himself.

“Thanks,” he mumbles, barely audible, “for the help back there.”

Lance’s smile is now full-fledged and beaming as he drags his tongue along a heaping scoop of mint chocolate chip. Then, with his free hand, he tangles his fingers with Keith’s again, solid and warm.

“Anytime, princess.”


The following evening, when Keith is midway through brushing his teeth, Lance meanders into the bathroom wearing his blue robe and matching slippers, and it’s such a frightfully normal sight that Keith doesn’t even bother glancing up from the sink. 

“Hey, man,” says Lance.

“Hmf,” replies Keith, through a mouthful of foamy toothpaste.

Lance sidles up to the sink, and Keith side-steps, making room. Then they both stand there, shoulder to shoulder, in a bathroom meant for one, while a comfortable silence settles over them. Just the pitter-patter of water streaming out the faucet, the scritch-scratch of toothbrush bristles, and the smell of sea breeze — fresh laundry, maybe — wafting from Lance’s pores. It’s calm. It’s painless. It’s nice. And Keith idly wonders when it started feeling so nice, so easy, to live in some stranger’s space and not be too weird about it. Maybe it all started when he least expected it to — when Lance began slowly creeping over the threshold between stranger and actual roommate. Or actual friend? Or actual fake fiancé? Alarmingly enough, Keith is finding it increasingly complicated to differentiate between all these different thresholds.         

And then he catches Lance staring a profound hole through the mirror at his own reflection, and, for a brief second, he chalks it up to vanity. A wrinkle, an out-of-place hair, a microscopic zit? Keith has heard enough whining and fretting within the confines of this particular bathroom over the past few days to know that Lance probably spends an immoderate amount of time studying his own face, gaping and ogling until his imagination starts forming a running list of all the imperfections that seem to sprout like phantom limbs.    

But after another fleeting glance, he determines that Lance isn’t scrutinizing himself at all. He’s scrutinizing Keith. His eyebrows furrow, demanding explanation, until Lance splays both palms onto the porcelain countertop, levels Keith with a squinty-eyed gaze, and says, with great weight:

“Keith.”

“Hm.”

“I think we should make out a little bit.”

A startled burst of minty saliva sprays past Keith’s lips, and he frantically wipes his wrist over his chin, clearing away the rest of the mess. “What?” he chokes.

Lance, unaffected, shrugs his shoulders. “Just, like, real quick.”

“I’m not making out with you real quick.” And the mischievous grin that starts curling Lance’s mouth has Keith hastily amending, “Or real slow! I — pace doesn’t matter because it’s not gonna happen.”

In the face of this stubborn resolve, Lance abandons his air of nonchalance, and falls into something more accusing. “Quit acting like it’s so terrible when you know, from firsthand experience, that it’s definitely not.”

“That —” says Keith, mulling things over, until he finishes with a grumbled, “— was different.”

“How come?” Lance insists.

“Because we were kind of drunk when we hooked up,” he firmly reminds. “And not living together. And not wrapped up in some ridiculous con.”

Lance breathes a sound of frustration, swiveling where he stands to implore Keith head-on. “But it’ll break the tension! Loosen us up, y’know? Get rid of all the kissing and touching weirdness in one go, so that it’s way less awkward around my family.”

Keith knits his brow. “You seriously want us to make out in front of your family?”

“Well,” Lance sputters defensively, “we’re supposed to be young, freshly engaged, and madly in love!”

“And exhibitionists, too, apparently.”

“Come on, Kogane, where’s your commitment?”

“Not in your fucking tonsils.”

Another noise of frustration, more lengthy and petulant than the last. Keith bows his head into the sink to rinse his mouth with water, and when he lifts up again, Lance is still staring, arms crossed, looking very much like a child who has just been sentenced to an unjust timeout.

“How about just a regular, boring ‘ol kiss, then,” he suggests tersely.

Keith mirrors his posture, stoic and rigid. “This isn’t a compromise.”

“Welcome to marriage, dude. It’s literally all about compromise.”

They hold each other’s gaze for what feels like an eternity. Waiting, unbending, testing. It’s a stand-off, right here in the cramped bathroom. But then Keith gets sick of all the glaring, and the inexplicable betrayal of his subconscious as he debates whether Lance’s eyes are more cerulean or cobalt, so he shakes his head, ridding himself of the mutinous thoughts.

“Fine,” he spits, breath curt and clipped behind the clench of his jaw. “But no tongue.”

“Minor tongue?” 

Zero tongue, Lance,” he emphasizes gruffly. “Non-negotiable.”

“Sheesh, okay, okay,” and then Lance raises his palms, wiggling his long fingers in question. “What about hands?”

Keith swats at them. “Keep them to yourself.”

“Why don’t we just wear hazmat suits while we’re at it?” Loud, scathing sarcasm. It’s not a pretty sound. “‘Cause lord help us all if some of my skin happens to come in contact with your —”

“Just shut up,” Keith snaps, and then tacks on a reluctant, “Hands can stay above the belt.”

“Front and back?”

“I —” Don’t strangle him, don’t strangle him, don’t strangle him. “ — yes, front and back!”

Ugh. This is exhausting,” Lance gripes, limbs drooping as if he’d just run a marathon instead of bickering over terms and conditions for a makeshift marriage. “So are we done hashing out the fine print? Can we just get our smooch on now?”

Keith blanches just a little. “Now? Right now?”

“What, you got somewhere to be?”

“Well —” he flounders tactlessly. “ — I — no.”

And that’s when Lance steps forward, a single confident stride that sews up a majority of the distance wedged between them. Keith feels himself leaning away, a deep-rooted instinct that sends all kinds of warning signs and red flags to every nerve in his body, until there’s something bold and steady pressing against the small of his back. A hand — Lance’s hand, to be more specific — and it keeps them both anchored in place.

“See?” he grins, looking down at the respectable sliver of empty space still lingering between them. “Hands above the belt, plenty of room for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The whole gang, really. Look at me, following the rules.”

Keith relents, slightly, and allows himself to roll his eyes. “We wouldn’t need the stupid rules if you weren’t so obnoxious.”

“Aha!” Lance crows. “So you admit the rules are stupid.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be kissing me right now?”

“Well, jeez, mullet,” he gibes sweetly, “if you wanted a piece of this so bad, you should’ve just —”

And that’s when Keith steps forward. More of a lunge, really, because he’s so done with being diplomatic, and listening to Lance blabber on when they could be getting this over with. So he lunges, and it’s with such unanticipated force that Lance is now the one leaning back, until Keith’s hands grip the front of his robe, pulling him in enough for their lips to collide. It’s a little bit awkward at first, the way their mouths don’t slot together like they should, and the way neither of them dares move their hands, for fear of violating their carefully discussed boundaries.

Lance’s lips feel soft, if not paralyzed, beneath Keith’s, and he finds it slightly annoying. This is what he wanted. This was Lance’s idea. He yanks tighter, wrenching their chests flush together, heartbeat to heartbeat, and only then does Lance seem to get the memo. His senses come back to him like an electric jolt, prompting his lips to part, gliding smoothly over Keith’s. It’s gentle, and unhurried, and all-encompassing, and —

It’s nice.

Until Keith is shoving him away, fingers untangling themselves from the lapel of Lance’s robe.

He blinks, and mutters a dismissive, “There.”

“You taste like toothpaste,” Lance says dumbly.

“Yeah. Thanks,” Keith says back, equally as dumb.     

A second passes. The faucet drips. Keith kind of wants to die.

“Cool. Cool, cool. So,” Lance fidgets. “We good?”

“We’re good.”

Lance nods stiffly. Then he offers up some kind of lame, half-hearted attempt at finger guns, and brushes past Keith to flee the bathroom.

Well. That happened.

Keith’s hands clutch at the edge of the counter as he glares at his reflection in the mirror, definitely not thinking about how his lower back prickles with warmth where Lance’s hand used to be. Or how Lance’s mouth isn’t so bad when he’s not talking non-stop. Or how Lance’s eyes are, in fact, more cerulean than cobalt. Yeah. Nothing like that.

But, for good measure, Keith bends over to rinse out his mouth, just one more time.


“… You’d think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs…

When Keith is pulled rather unceremoniously from his peaceful slumber, with the final dregs of a remarkably nondescript dream still clinging to the edges of his brain, he is vaguely coherent enough to make note of three key details.   

“… I look around me, and I see it isn’t so…

One, there’s drool smeared all across his cheek. 

“… Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs…

Two, there’s an agonizing crick in his neck that can only be attributed to the old, lumpy monstrosity that dares to be called a sofa.

“… And what’s wrong with that… I’d like to know…

And three, there’s no Shakira blasting out of the bedroom.

“… ‘Cause here I go… AGAAAAAAIN…

Instead, there’s singing.

A half-decent attempt at Paul McCartney, from the sounds of it. And unless Keith’s ears are deceiving him (a slight chance of this, seeing as part of his subconscious is still trying valiantly to fall back asleep, with little success), the inevitable perpetrator is in the kitchen.

Keith’s eyes are hazy and heavy-lidded as he squints — a fruitless effort to ward off the too-bright sunlight streaming in through the nearby window. The golden beams are slanted just so, bouncing its twinkling rays against his face, so merciless that his sleep-muddled mind is almost certain he’s being mocked by Mother Nature herself. He glares at the offending window, whose blue-and-white flannel curtains flutter unconcernedly in the gentle breeze of a floor vent.

Odd.

A quick glance at the clock on the wall confirms his suspicions. It’s nine in the morning — an astoundingly acceptable hour to be awake, compared to his very strict and very involuntary six-thirty wake-up call as of late. Though unfortunate to admit, he’s gotten quite accustomed to the murkiness of dawn, the gray skies of daybreak. And now the mid-morning prattle of a lawnmower, the melancholic chirp of a mourning dove, is as confounding to his ears as a foreign language.

Singing. Sunlight. An utter lack of kitschy pop tunes.

This is not a typical morning.

But there is some hint of familiarity when Keith’s nose gives a curious sniff, detecting the unmistakable aroma of cinnamon and maple wafting from the other room. And so, wincing through the pain of cramped muscles, Keith brings himself to a somewhat vertical position, and follows the smell of breakfast toward the kitchen. The scent intensifies with every tired step, but not even the sweet allure of pancakes can keep him from staggering to a halt just inside the kitchen entryway.

Because there, in all his stylishly disheveled glory, is Lance. His back is turned to Keith as he stands vigil by the stove, wearing pajamas, and tapping a slippered foot against the floor as he bobs along to the music flowing through a small bluetooth speaker, belting out a mildly impressive rendition of ‘Silly Love Songs’ to an invisible audience — complete with a spatula-turned-microphone prop. He begins dancing in place as he sings, wiggling his hips side to side, and Keith is suddenly, and unexpectedly, rendered speechless.

Because it’s official: Lance McClain works the pajama look.

Especially when this look includes very loose, very low-riding sweatpants. So loose, in fact, that they slide half an inch as Lance, who has yet to notice Keith’s quiet entrance, reaches for something in the cupboard above him. An unintentional sliver of tanned skin makes the briefest of appearances as Lance’s cotton t-shirt rides up with the movement, and —

No. Nope. Not going there. Keith will be steering very clear of there. Because he’s already been there, and done that, and look where it got him — engaged.

Fake engaged.

To the guy who is currently serenading a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips.

This is his actual life now.   

Truthfully, the scene is quite endearing — in a strange, secondhand-embarrassment sort of way. Keith almost feels as though he’s accidentally stumbled upon something he shouldn’t have, something private and not meant for onlookers, but, even so, he makes no effort to leave. He simply leans a shoulder against the entryway, a silent spectator to the boy’s inconspicuous crooning, because there’s something that keeps him tethered in place. Something foolish. Something else that Keith is certain he should be steering very clear of. 

Because Lance is always freshly showered, freshly groomed, and freshly clothed by the time Keith forces himself off the couch, and joins him in the kitchen for breakfast. Squeaky clean, and performance ready. But right here, right now, in this very kitchen, he’s something else entirely. He’s unkempt, and unprepared. He’s without the trendy clothes, the meticulously primped hair, the stupid french lavender body wash. He’s… He’s…

Something.

And Keith’s mind will try to pick that apart to presumed death at a later date, but, for now, his lips inch upward into a grin as Lance sways, and starts spinning around on his heel.

I… loooooove… yooooouAHHH — uh, Keith!”

With a yelp, the spatula is startled right out of his grasp, and clatters clumsily to the floor when Lance realizes that his invisible audience isn’t so invisible anymore. His blue eyes are blown wide, flustered, and a bit bashful. 

“Morning,” says Keith.

Then Lance seems to discover something in his roommate’s expression that stirs him back into effortless ease. He smirks, exaggerating the way he bends over to retrieve the spatula, and asks, smug, “Enjoying the show?”   

Immediately, Keith fixes his mouth back into a neutral frown. Had he really just been standing there? Watching? And smiling? Like a creep?

“No,” he retorts quickly, much too quickly. “Just, uh — making sure there’s not actually a dying cat in your kitchen.”

“Ooh, listen to you,” Lance trills, still beaming even as he flattens a palm over his heart in mock-offense. “And here I thought you weren’t even capable of making jokes before noon.”

Keith huffs. And, just to be a little petty, grumbles an offhand, “Smells like the pancakes are burning, too.”

Now you’ve gone too far, Kogane. Dare I say sacrilege,” Lance warns as he points the spatula right at Keith’s formless stare, flicking the utensil with such gusto that a small blob of uncooked batter plummets onto the linoleum. “Insulting my singing ability? Sure, knock yourself out. But I have it on good authority that these babies are fluffy, golden perfection. Authority being you, by the way, you little pancake-guzzling fiend.”

A pair of frowning lips begin to pucker. Damn Lance, he thinks bitterly. And damn his undeniable pancake wizardry.   

“So if you’re just gonna stand there checking out my ass,” Lance tosses another grin over his shoulder after twirling back around to the stovetop, popping a hip just for show. “First of all, I don’t blame you. But second of all, you might as well make yourself useful and go pour us some coffee.”

Keith balks, sputtering ineloquently, “That — I’m not — I wasn’t checking out your —”

But then Lance is snickering as he flips the sizzling pancakes over in the pan, and Keith decides it’s probably in his best interest to avoid confrontation until he’s been properly caffeinated.

And so, pink-cheeked and disgruntled, he trudges toward the countertop, and says testily, “ — Whatever. Fine. How do you like it?”

“Double cream, double sugar,” comes Lance’s reply. “And double love.”

“Cream and sugar it is.”

“And you?” he ventures casually. “Black like your soul?”

“Normal cream, normal sugar,” says Keith, fetching the cream out of the fridge. “I actually like to taste my coffee.”

Lance makes a noise, a displeased scoff in the back of his throat. “I guess I’m willing to overlook that terrible character flaw for the sake of our relationship.”

“Fake relationship,” Keith corrects automatically, and then pauses. “Where’s your…”

“Sugar? Second cupboard to the right.” 

Keith swings open the cabinet in question to find a better-than-expected array of baking ingredients. All-purpose flour, kosher salt, vanilla extract. Some appear to be unopened, but the bag of sugar is more than halfway empty when Keith grabs it off the shelf. On the other side of the cabinet there’s a small selection of mugs, all in varying sizes and color. He snatches the first two he can reach — one with the design of the Cuban flag, and the other that simply reads, in bold text across the front, ‘Blow me, I’m hot’. He gingerly sets that one aside for Lance.

Steam rises in soft, billowy clouds as Keith pours coffee into both mugs. And he watches, in a silent, shivery daze, as cream swirls into the rich brown, churning until its color resembles that of a honeyed bronze sunset. And then he waits, just until the liquid stills, before adding an extra dollop to Lance’s mug. Honeyed bronze sunset lightens to sun-kissed Caribbean sand. Just the way Lance likes it.

And he feels strangely satisfied for knowing the way Lance likes it.

And then he feels stupid for feeling strangely satisfied for knowing the way Lance likes it.

“ —Keith?” Lance calls, effectively dragging his roommate out of whatever absurd stupor he’d stumbled into. “How’s operation caffeine going over there, buddy? You fall back asleep already?”

“Uh, no, it —” Keith hooks his fingers around the mug handles. “ —coffee’s ready.”

“Nice! So are the pancakes.”

They sit across from each other at the small kitchen table. Two mugs, two plates, two sets of silverware, and a hefty stack of chocolate chip pancakes placed between them. Lance is busy dousing his portion in a thick layer of syrup when Keith cuts into his first bite.

“So what gives?” he eventually asks. “Aren’t you usually eating lunch by this time?”

Lance shrugs, though he’s smiling something almost secretive. “Just thought you’d appreciate some extra sleep before the big day. ‘Cause, y’know, I’m such a considerate and understanding fiancé like that.”

“Fake fiancé.”

The correction goes ignored, and Lance adds, “—Even if you did ruin my whole plan.”

Keith pauses, suspicious. “Plan?”

“Yeah, well,” Lance moves his hands in big, swooping circles over the table, gesturing to their admirable spread, “this five-star dining experience was supposed to be a breakfast-in-bed situation, but of course you chose today, of all days, to wake up before I could surprise you.”

Any wonderment that might be legible on Keith’s face as he considers being treated to such an unexpected luxury is skillfully disguised beneath the practiced crinkle of his brow. Instead, he reaches a hand behind his neck to knead at the knots forming there. “I think you mean breakfast-in-couch. Old, lumpy, neck-destroying couch, by the way.”

Lance’s eyelids fall to half-mast, and his hands flop onto the table with a thwarted thud. “Y’know, dude, you have this uncanny knack for sucking the romance out of all my grand gestures.”

“Fake romance.”

“Right. Got it,” Lance heaves a noisy, open-mouthed sigh, sounding genuinely exasperated for the first time all morning. “Fake romance. Fake fiancés. Fake relationship… Any other important distinctions you wanna make, captain obvious?”

Keith stills his hand, and levels Lance with a serious gaze. “I’m just keeping you in perspective.”

“What, you’re saying that a guy can’t bring another guy breakfast-in-bed without it being weird?”

“No, I’m saying that the minute you start believing this is even a little bit real is the minute the whole plan goes to shit.”

Lance leans his elbows onto the tabletop, grin going crooked and downright impish as he says, “Worried I might accidentally fall for your irresistible broodiness, Kogane?” 

Keith huffs, dismissing the cheekiness. “Perspective, Lance.”

“Yeah, yeah, I hear ‘ya loud and clear, buddy,” he says flippantly. “And in the spirit of all this perspective, I happen to have something for you.”

Before Keith can even ask — or, and perhaps more likely, refuse — Lance is scooting out of his chair, and making his way toward the window. He retrieves something from the sill, right next to the little fern plant he adores so much, and then sets it down in front of Keith’s plate, sinking back into his seat as calmly as if Keith had imagined the whole thing.

But he hadn’t. Because waiting right there on the table is a small black box.

Keith regards it the way someone might regard a rotting animal carcass on the side of the highway — bound by intrigue, and yet overwhelmingly disturbed. “What is that?” he demands. 

“Only one way to find out,” replies Lance, reaching across the table to tap the box’s velvety surface.

Intrigue beats out discomfort by a larger margin than Keith would care to admit, and he really wishes it hadn’t, because now his fingers are carefully creaking the box open by its tiny hinge, and, in a flash, his delusional, still-partially-sleep-muddled mind thinks he spots something shiny inside. It’s simple and delicate, but shimmers like morning light reflecting off the ocean’s ripples. Lustrous silver with a string of blue jewels embedded into the band. Keith blinks, clearing the image from his fuzzy eyes.

But it doesn’t disappear. It’s still there, really there, no matter how many times he flutters his lids like a crazy person.

“Uh —” says Keith, throat dry, because that’s all he can say. “Is this…”

“It was hers, yeah,” and Keith would be an idiot not to notice the drop in his pitch, the way he very pointedly does not speak her name. “Real blue diamonds, too. I read somewhere that they’re supposed to symbolize eternal devotion or whatever — which kinda just proves what a total bitch irony can be.”

Humor. An attempt at it, at least. But the joke doesn’t quite land, and the chuckle doesn’t quite make it past Lance’s lips, and he fidgets in his seat during the strained second that follows.

“I figured you two wouldn’t be the same size, so I put it on a chain. Might be a little less, y’know, invasive that way, too…” 

Keith has yet to lay a finger on the fine piece of jewelry, probably because he knows he was never meant to, and touching it feels too much like disrupting some ancient, sacred artifact. A mysterious relic that definitely does not belong to him, with so much history encrusted into every little diamond. The distant words of some dying love story that Keith has not been written into.

Looking up, he finds that Lance is waiting, cautious, as if he’s already anticipating some push back, some rebuttal, or refusal. As if that ring is destined to be left on his bedside table forever.

“Um — sorry,” he mutters at last. “I know it’s kinda creepy, wearing my ex-fiancée’s engagement ring, but — this was all pretty last minute, and I didn’t really have enough time to work something else out, and they might get suspicious if there’s no ring, so —”

“Lance —”

He stops, swallowing down the rest of his garbled speech. 

“ —it’s fine.”

His eyebrows raise a fraction of an inch. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Only then do the tips of Keith’s fingers pinch at the thin, silver chain, lifting it up, higher and higher, out of its velvety confines. The ring dangles in front of his face, slowly swaying thanks to gravity’s pull, sending flecks of blue light dancing across the table, the pancakes, Lance’s wide, hopeful eyes, and that…

That, he thinks.

That feels pretty damn real.

Chapter Text

. . .

The official countdown begins promptly at three ‘o clock.

T-minus one hour and thirty-five minutes until the McClain family touches down at Altea National Airport. T-minus one hour and thirty-five minutes until Keith goes from surly roommate to doting fiancé. T-minus one hour and thirty-five minutes until Lance has to hug his family, accept their sincerest congratulations, and then lie right to their smiling faces. 

And t-minus right now until he starts freaking out about it.

Keith watches him oddly from the kitchen while nibbling on a cold strawberry pop-tart, eyes darting back and forth as Lance hurries at an alarming pace around the living room, straightening books on the shelf and wiping dust off the television screen in his wake.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

Lance glances up from the couch pillow he’d been aggressively beating back into shape, looking very much like he’s been caught mid-crime.

“Yeah! Yeah, yeah, tooootally, my dude. This is cool. I’m cool. Everything’s cool like ice, you feel?”

Keith stops chewing, and just stares warily. “No, I… don’t think I feel.”

“Dude, crumbs!” Lance wails when he notices the snack resting precariously between Keith’s fingers. He stomps forward, snatches the pop-tart right out of Keith’s grasp, and starts rooting through the kitchen cabinet. “Don’t they use plates in Texas, you animal?” 

“Lance,” says Keith, a stern warning. “Seriously. Calm down.”

“I am calm!”

Keith whirls around in time to watch as Lance tosses the pop-tart onto a ceramic plate, a little too roughly, sending crumbs and sprinkles scattering in various different directions across the countertop, and that, miraculously, is all it takes for Lance to break. He roars in frustration, but loses steam partway through, and the cry peters out into more of a pitiful whimper than anything else. Then his legs give out, his back presses into the fridge, and he slides down the length of the appliance until he’s sitting on the floor in a pile of pastry crumbs.

A single brow travels to Keith’s hairline as he eyes the miserable sight. “Yeah, looks like it.”

“It’s just — I’ve never lied to my family before. I mean, not like this,” says Lance, words slow, heavy and weighted with guilt. “What if they just know?”    

“They won’t. We’ve been working on this all week,” Keith counters. This. As if they’ve been rehearsing for a play or studying for an exam.

Lance shakes his head. “I don’t mean us. I mean… me.”

“What about you?”

“What if they know? What if they take one look at me and it’s just — they know. They know that I’m pathetic. Just as pathetic as I already feel.”

In three long strides, Keith is standing in front of him, hovering over his deflated form like an angry storm cloud.

“You’re not pathetic,” he tells him at once.

“Oh, really?” Lance must feel some eagerness to argue because, suddenly, he snaps his attention upward, and his eyes imply a challenge. “I’m bribing some guy I took home from a bar to be my fake live-in fiancé for the week because the girl I was supposed to marry left me for some six-foot-gorgeous model she met in art class. So excuse me for not feeling like I’m on the top of my game here.”

Keith is riled, but his expression remains the same, as does Lance’s. But it’s a short-lived staring contest when Keith snorts in disapproval, offering nothing but a pithy and pitiless, “If you’re gonna sit there feeling sorry for yourself, then maybe you are pathetic.”

The blow lands harder than it should, harder, perhaps, than he’d intended. Just another twist of the proverbial blade. A callous, gut-wrenching jab that Lance doesn’t even have the strength to call untrue. And just when the wound starts manifesting itself along the horrid, downward slope of his mouth, Keith sighs something that almost ripples in his chest, something that falls short of an apology, peculiar.

“Look, you — you got dealt a bad hand, Lance. And you can either give up or keep pushing through,” he tries again with softer words that just don’t sound quite right in the harsh strain of his voice. “So say whatever you want to your family. I don’t care. But just know that… if you’re in, I’m in.”

Lance stares on with a bewildered gaze, and Keith holds out his hand, palm up.      

“Your call,” he mumbles, a somewhat anticlimactic finale to what amounts to a rather lackluster pep talk. 

But that doesn’t seem to bother Lance so much as he breathes a reverent, “Damn,” and repositions himself on the floor so that his legs sprawl limply out in front of him. “Bad cop’s a pretty sexy look on you, Kogane.”

Lance.”

“Okay, okay,” he cedes, grabbing Keith’s hand, and pulling himself back up. “I’m in.”   

 


 

At four twenty-eight, they’re standing in the terminal, in front of gate 13b, as a large Delta airplane rolls up to the jet bridge from right outside the window. Lance fidgets, tapping his fingers against his denim-clad thighs, and so Keith, without thinking, without really knowing why, takes his hand.

And it seems to work — or do something, at least — because Lance squeezes their palms together, takes a deep breath, and asks, “Ready for this?”

Keith fixates on the warm press of their hands, the messy tangle of their fingers, the heavy weight of a fake engagement ring hanging from his neck, and thinks: who could ever be ready for something like this?

“As I’ll ever be,” he says finally, squeezing back.

Then they’re interrupted by two matching high-pitched shrieks, and the rapid patter of footsteps as two tiny bodies break through the crowd of departing passengers.

“Uncle Lance!” the children shout.

Lance heeds the cry like a soldier’s creed, nerve endings set aflame, and all fear or hesitation is promptly replaced by a visceral, unbridled joy. It transforms him. A breath punches out of his lungs before he’s releasing Keith’s hand, and rushing forward. 

“Gabe! Izzy!”

He meets the kids halfway, falling to his knees, and they collide into him with such enthusiasm that they nearly knock him backwards. There’s laughter, and lots of hugging, and Keith thinks that he’s never seen Lance look so alive

“Jeez,” says Lance, pretending to grunt and struggle as he stands, a child in each arm, which makes them giggle with glee. “When’d you two get to be so big, huh?”

The slightly taller child, the boy, is restless for Lance’s attention. He wiggles around, regaling his uncle with an endless stream of compelling anecdotes (“I came in second place at the science fair! I got a new bike for my birthday! My friend let me touch his pet lizard!”), while the other child, the little girl, nuzzles her face into Lance’s shoulder, clinging with such might that it seems like she’d simply stay in place even if Lance were to drop his arm.

Gabe has a missing tooth and a dinosaur bandaid on his left knee. Izzy has a bow in her hair and a miniature Barbie backpack strapped to her back. But it’s nearly startling how similar their faces look. Twins, Keith determines. It’s the only explanation.

That’s when a young couple emerges from the jetway, looking tired and just a bit flustered with suitcases in tow, and the unanimous relief that washes over them when they spot Lance leads Keith to believe that they’re the children’s parents. The man is none other than Lance’s older brother, Luis, assuming that Lance’s brief description during their car ride to the airport is, indeed, accurate. The McClain golden boy, he’d deemed him earlier. And it shows. Luis wears a green collared shirt, clean and unwrinkled, as if he’d just stepped out of a J. Crew catalogue rather than a four hour flight. His hair is neatly trimmed, and a pair of thick-rimmed rectangular glasses sit on the center of his chiseled face. To his left is Mariana, and she cradles Lance’s newest little nephew, Nico, against her chest. She’s petite, pixie-like, almost, and she smiles with so much warmth that Keith can feel it clear across the terminal.

“Hey,” Lance calls out to the pair. He sets his niece and nephew back onto their feet, with much reluctance on their parts. “Looks like you guys lost some luggage.”

Luis laughs as he pulls his brother into an embrace, and the timbre of his voice is like a matured, more baritone version of Lance’s. “We don’t mind if you want to hang on to them for us,” he jokes.

“Yeah,” agrees Mariana, leaning into Lance’s side hug and cheek kiss, careful not to disturb the napping baby. She gazes fondly at the small bundle in her arms. “Our hands are already full with this little guy.”

That’s Lance’s cue to dip his head, and gently tap the pad of his finger against the infant’s button nose, as he coos, “Hey there, sunshine. Remember me?”

Keith suddenly recalls a framed photograph that sits on Lance’s bookshelf. It’s of him, surrounded by the translucently white walls of a hospital room, and he’s holding his new nephew for the first time. It seems as though the picture had been taken without Lance’s knowledge because he’s not even glancing up, far too spellbound, hopelessly endeared by Nico’s puckered face, and the way he extends a chubby hand to tenderly touch his uncle’s chin. 

“I see them, I see them!”

More vaguely familiar faces push through the crowd. There’s Veronica, tall and lanky, with a bright, red-lipped grin. Her voluminous curls are somewhat tamed into a loose french braid that tumbles down to the middle of her back. Then there’s Marco, who, in Keith’s opinion, looks decidedly the most like Lance — if Lance were a few inches shorter, bulkier, edgier. He wears his hair a bit longer than his brothers, with an undercut on the right side of his head, although it’s mostly hidden beneath a black snapback with a sports team logo on the front that Keith doesn’t recognize.

Veronica reaches him first, nearly lunging for him, blubbering an affectionate, “Oh, Lance! I missed you so much!”, into his ear. Seconds later, Marco is wrapping his arms around them, and hugs with such intensity that he lifts them both off the floor to the sound of their playfully choked protests.      

It's delightful chaos — all carefree chatter, and ear-to-ear grins, and hearty laughter, and affectionate horseplay — and Keith can’t help but feel like an outsider. An intruder to something so intimate as if they were gathered around an antique dining table, sharing a home-cooked meal, rather than standing in the middle of a bustling airport. As if time were meaningless. As if they’ve never aged a day. As if they’re all just the bright-eyed, big-hearted, rambunctious McClain kids from Cuba. Strong apart, but stronger together. A unit. A family.

Not that Keith knows anything about that, anyway.

“Hey, you guys, come meet Keith!”

Oh, right.

He nearly forgot about this part. 

There’s a war drum pounding a soundless rhythm beneath Keith’s breastbone as the McClains round on him like a pack of hungry wolves, and it’d be a far more intimidating sight if not for their infectious smiles, and, thankfully, lack of all claws and fangs. And yet Keith still gets the impression that they’re fully prepared to maul him. His eyes find Lance, but the boy merely stands there, hands stuffed into his pockets, with all the unconcerned poise of someone who knows — maybe too well — that any effort to quell his family’s enthusiasm would be a fruitless endeavor. So he shrugs, and supplies a look that seems to say, sans words: you’re on your own, buddy.

And then they pounce.

It’s impossible to know who grabs him first; everyone’s tanned limbs and beaming faces all look the same from this close up. He sees flashes of dark hair and blue eyes, and hears an infinite outpouring of greetings and exclamations as they pass him around like a game of pinball. The twins dance around his feet, tugging curiously at the leg of his pants. And then Keith lands against someone’s chest, chin tucked over a shoulder, arms too stunned to do anything other than hang uselessly at his sides while he’s being squeezed breathless.

When he’s finally peeled away, Veronica’s face is blinking back at him.

“Oh my god, you’re even cuter in person. I mean — ugh — that jawline!” Her hands cradle either side of Keith’s face, smooshing his cheeks together until his lips pucker, quite involuntarily. “You wouldn’t happen to have any brothers, would you? Cousins? Attractive male friends of the straight or mostly straight persuasion?”

Marco appears over her shoulder, and he fake-coughs around a poorly disguised murmur that sounds suspiciously like, “Thirsty.” It earns him a smack from Luis, sending his snapback flying off his head, and an onslaught of high-speed reprimands from Veronica, who, mercifully, releases Keith’s face. 

And then the tugging at the bottom of his jeans becomes too aggressive to ignore. He glances down. 

“Hi, Keith. I’m Gabe. This is my sister Izzy —” The top of the little girl’s head pokes out from behind her brother’s slightly bigger frame. “—She’s really shy, so I have to say hi for her. We both turned six last week because we have the same birthday.”

Keith stares. “That’s — cool.”

“Do you like dinosaurs?”

“Um, sure?”

Gabe reaches out his tiny hand, and, in the center of his palm, sits an unopened bandaid. Through its thin wrapper, Keith can see that it’s decorated with brightly colored dinosaurs to match the one on the young boy’s knee.

“You can have my extra, if you want.”

It’s as touching a gesture as any six-year-old could ever offer, and even Keith realizes this as his lips start a slow climb into a subtle grin, soft and hazy around the edges. He accepts the bandaid, holds it tight in his grasp, and says, “Thanks. I’ll hang onto this until I need it. Okay?” 

Gabe nods vehemently, and then he and his sister go scurrying back to their mother, who had been standing aside to witness the entire endearing exchange. “Mom,” Gabe whispers excitedly into her hip. “Keith likes dinosaurs, too.” 

“I heard,” says Mariana, ruffling her son’s messy hair. “It was very thoughtful of you to share with him, baby.”

As the little boy beams with pride, she leans forward to shake Keith’s hand. Her voice sounds the way a new book smells. Freshly baked cookies. A hug from a warm sweater. “So nice to meet you. I’m Lance’s sister-in-law, Mariana,” she smiles, and pats Nico’s back with her free hand. “And you’ll have to excuse the little one — it’s nap time.”

“If only we still had that excuse,” Luis teases, approaching his family. He, too, extends a hand toward Keith, and when they clasp, he pulls him into a firm hug. “You better get used to this, Keith. We like to hug around here.”

I noticed, Keith wants to say, but, instead, just breathes a soft chuckle because he actually doesn’t hate it as much as he thought he would.

“Hey, hey, whoa — quit hogging the new kid!”

Then Keith feels himself getting wrenched apart from Luis by the youngest McClain brother, Marco. He swings a muscled arm around Keith’s shoulders, and leans into him with all his weight, which, for someone who can’t be more than five-foot-nine, is actually rather impressive.

“Yo! ‘Sup, dude!” Marco greets, loud as a foghorn, with a dopey grin, holding out his fist.

Keith tentatively bumps it with his own.

“So, hey, listen, you gotta gimme the deets, man,” he’s prattling on, motioning to Keith’s tattooed bicep, leaning in close as if they’re already the best of friends. “‘Cause I’m trying to get some sleeve action going, know what I mean? I’m talkin’ some full-on David Beckham shit. Real talk, he’s kinda my hero. Last year I got this sick piece right on the rib cage, and it’s like — dude, you gotta check it —”

And then, in the amount of time it takes for Keith to blink, this whirlwind of a boy takes a step back, and begins shamelessly lifting the bottom hem of his shirt up to his shoulders. The family grumbles their disapproval, the twins burst into giggles, and he manages to reveal about half of his toned torso before Luis smacks him, yet again, right in the back of his skull.

“What?!” cries Marco, letting his shirt fall back down.

Somehow, amongst the commotion, a familiar voice reaches Keith’s ears, followed by the equally familiar slide of a hand as Lance appears at his side, and settles a palm against the small of his back. Keith stifles the knee-jerk urge to send him a pointed look because this is supposed to be normal. So he leans into the touch, tells himself to stay there, tells himself to breathe like it’s natural.

“It’d be really cool if you could keep your clothes on around my fiancé,” says Lance, and Marco throws his hands up with an incredulous, “We were bonding!”

Then, from aside, another voice.

Pleasant, silvery, and yet commands the family's attention.

“I know that’s not my son exposing himself in public,” the voice scolds lightly, and despite the unmissable fondness, it has Marco snapping up straight, then recoiling in an instant.

“Sorry, mama,” he mumbles.

Of all the informative earfuls that Keith has endured over the past week, he thinks he’s heard the most about Celia McClain — the unstoppable force to be reckoned with, who raised a family of four without ever dimming her smile. Keith knows about her cooking, her exceptional hugs, how she gives the best advice, and tells it like it is, and how she sings old boleros, loudly and poorly, without a care, as she tidies the kitchen. She’s a superhero, he recalls Lance’s words. Well, my superhero, at least.

She’s petite and curvy, with shallow wrinkles and a thin dusting of grey smattered along her hairline, and her eyes — deeply cerulean — go right to Lance when she emerges between Luis and Veronica.

Mom,” Lance breathes, and then it’s like a flood gate opening, or a dam bursting, as he rushes forward and melts into her open arms.

“Oh, mijo, look at you —” and she pulls him away, smoothing his hair back. “You get more handsome every day. What are we going to do with you, hmm?” 

Lance laughs. “Don’t worry about me, mama. I’m a taken man now, y’know.”

“Ay, Dios mío!” Celia gasps. “Yes, yes! Let me see him!”

When Lance spins his mother around, Keith is standing there a little helplessly, arms crossed, then moving down to his sides, because what does someone do with their hands when coming face-to-face with one’s fake-future-mother-in-law? Celia’s eyes are wide, and kind, and burn straight through Keith’s flesh, all the way to his bones. The nerves flare hot against his cheeks, and even though he can’t explain it, he just – he really wants Celia McClain to like him. 

“Um,” he begins lamely. “Hi, Mrs. McClain –” 

The embrace that interrupts him nearly punctures a lung, he imagines – but in the very best way possible. He’s being enveloped by the warm swell of the tide, and kissed by sunlight’s soft glare, and — Lance is right. His mother really does give the best hugs. It’s like she opens her arms, and her heart, and even when she steps away, the touch lingers, more than skin-deep, a pleasant itch that can’t be scratched away.

“Celia. You call me Celia now, cariño,” she rubs circles into Keith’s back with a slow-moving palm. “Welcome to our family.”

Family, the word echoes. Family, family, family. As they part, Keith thinks about that dining table again, and how he still can’t picture himself there. Instead, he’s watching through a window, an unsolicited spectator to the way they blossom in each other’s luminous company, caught up in wondering what it might feel like to step inside, only for a moment.

“Yo, can we go find some food now?” Marco asks, and the twins begin chanting their whole-hearted agreements in the background. “All they had on the plane were those stale-ass peanuts, and I’m starving.”

“Can I sit next to Keith?”

“Hey, I want to sit next to him!”

He’s carried across the terminal like debris in a flood as Veronica hooks her arm around Keith’s, and Gabe grabs his other one. It sounds as if there are fifty conversations filtering in and out of Keith’s ears, and, once again, it’s best described as delightful chaos. Only this time, he’s in the center of it, the eye of the storm. It rages all around him, a flurry of nonsense and laughter, but it sounds nothing like the calamity that it should.

It sounds as gentle as a door creaking open, and they’re inviting him to step inside.        

 


 

Based on, apparently, a very extensive investigation via Yelp, Veronica directs them to a restaurant called La Petite Fleur. It has an overwhelming amount of praise from online reviewers, she assures, but Keith knows that the real reason for her decision-making has little to do with ratings, and a lot to do with being respectful towards Keith’s nonexistent French ancestry. He’d be flattered, maybe, if there was even a modicum of European blood coursing through his veins.

The next thing he knows, they’re sitting at a large circular table in the center of a candlelit dining room, surrounded on all sides by tinkling silverware, nasally dinner prattle, and rows upon rows of giant chandeliers, sparkling, convoluted, and swathing the tablecloth in an imposing golden glow. They dangle overhead like glitzy beehives, and Keith squints at them, half-expecting them to drop, sending behemoth chunks of crystal plunging onto the carpet.

Veronica interrupts his mildly morbid musings.

“Keith,” she says, cracking the spine of what appears to be an intimidating leather-bound menu. “Why don’t you do the honors and pick out a nice wine for the table. You probably know more about that stuff than we do.”

“Right,” he croaks.

And then he desperately calls upon every scrap of alcoholic knowledge he’s ever collected during his time as a bartender. Because the unfortunate part is that Keith’s establishment primarily serves cocktails, with the occasional tap beer, and, even more occasionally, a two-option selection of wine: nondescript red, and nondescript white. And so the beverage list before him reads much like gibberish to his uneducated mind. He hunches over the menu, searching quick for the fanciest sounding name when —

“We’ll get the Châteauneuf Du Pape for the table, thanks,” Lance tells the coat-tailed waiter. Then he turns back to Keith, smiling something lazy, and says, “That’s the one we liked, right, babe?”

Keith smiles back, relieved. Thank you.

“Yeah,” he answers. “That’s the one.”

Attentions drift downward to the list of entrees printed in heavy cursive script inside the menus. There’s the sound of Marco as he taps the tines of his fork against the tabletop, and Luis as he helps the twins pick something from the kid’s section, and Mariana as she feeds Nico what appears to be small chunks of mango from a plastic tupperware container, and Veronica and Celia as they debate between two different salads. And then there’s Lance, wrapping an arm around the back of Keith’s chair, hovering so close that Keith can feel his warm breath against the side of his neck. 

“Wanna split something?” he asks.

Keith’s gaze scans the page. “What were you thinking?”

“Well, you probably know more about this stuff than I do,” Lance snickers, mimicking his sister’s words from earlier, and Keith kicks his ankle under the table.

“Okay, how about —” Keith’s finger lands on the first dish that sounds decent enough, though he can’t be certain; a majority of the words are in French. “— that.”

Lance reads over Keith’s shoulder, and then promptly hums in disagreement. “That’s a no-go. S’got shrimp in it, and there’ll be no allergic reactions on my watch. Let’s do the duck à l’orange instead.”

Keith glances up, baffled. “You remembered that?”

“I remember things.”

Their expressions break at almost the exact same time, and then Keith is bowing his head to hide a grin, rolling his shoulder to parry Lance, who chuffs out an easy chuckle.

Dork.”

Their waiter returns moments later to take their orders, and fill their glasses. And as soon as the wine begins to flow, so do all the questions. 

Keith has never been interrogated before, but he imagines that it might feel a lot like dinner with the McClains.

“So how did you two meet?” Mariana wonders a bit dreamily, a pink-tinged cheek leaning against her palm. “I always love hearing those stories.” 

Well,” Lance begins grandly before swallowing down the rest of his wine. “Thanks to some mysterious twist of fate, Keith here was hanging out at the same bar that I was. I swear the whole world froze when we saw each other across the room. Couldn’t keep your eyes off me, could you, babe?”

Keith lowers the rim of his glass away from his lips, and pretends to look contemplative as he replies, “Pretty sure you noticed me first.”

“Pretty sure I didn’t,” says Lance, tilting his head, smile going slightly tight.

“Pretty sure you came up to me and asked if it hurt when I fell from heaven.”

Good-natured laughter makes its way around the table, and the hand that Lance had been resting on Keith’s thigh grips tighter in warning. “Pretty sure — you’re just joking.”

“I don’t know,” Luis interjects, stifling amusement into his napkin. “Sounds like something you’d say, Lance.”

“What?” he squawks, scandalized. “No way! My lines are much better than that.”

“Then he wouldn’t leave me alone until I agreed to give him my number.”

Even more laughter, and Lance tries to drown out the noise with an indignant cry of, “Determination is an attractive quality, okay!”

Celia asks the next question: “Where did you go on your first date together?”

“The Louvre,” Lance answers immediately. “It was N—” and then he clears his throat. “— Keith’s favorite place in the city.”

Luis follows suit: “Where were you when Lance proposed?”

“Taking a walk through the countryside. It was… a big surprise.”

Then Marco: “So whose last name are you gonna use?”

“Mine,” the boys say in unison, and then turn to glare at each other. Marco nearly snorts cassoulet out of his nose.

Lance pulls a grin, a little too sugary sweet, and explains to his family, “We’re still discussing.” 

“Alright,” Veronica announces once their plates have been cleared from the table, and the wine bottle has dwindled down to a few measly drops. “I’ve held out for as long as I can. Let’s see the ring!”

Everyone’s eager eyes zoom in on Keith, who polishes off his wine glass with a quick toss of his head. But it’s not until Lance gives him a subtle nudge with his elbow that the request dawns on him, and the small band of silver begins tingling beneath his shirt.

“Oh, uh — yeah,” he scrambles to pull the chain over his head, passing it across the table to Veronica. She and Mariana stick their noses in close, swooning over the ring’s undeniable beauty, and then the others adjust in their seats to get a better look, to express their admiration. The twins even leap out of their chairs, bound by curiosity as they try clambering into their mother’s lap.

You picked this out, Lance?” Veronica asks, and he ignores the wild disbelief coloring her tone, far too bolstered by his family’s unanimous approval. 

“Yeah, of course,” he says. “It’s pretty great, huh? I knew I wanted something a little special, but I didn’t know what, at first. Then it came to me.”

Keith catches a glimpse of Lance’s face from the corner of his eye. His lips are curled wistfully.

“I remembered all the times we’d go sit by the Riviera and just — watch the waves together. And every single time he’d tell me how blue is his favorite color. How it made him feel safe, and calm, and… stable.” Then his eyes go a little hazy with memory, but only Keith is close enough to notice. “And I think that’s probably when I realized — that’s what I wanna be for him. Y’know? Something dependable, something he can lean on. Something blue. Forever.”

“Eternal devotion,” Keith’s mind supplies, and it’s after the fact when he realizes that he has, indeed, spoken aloud. “That’s what the blue diamonds mean.”

The air grows palpably taut around the table, all the way up to the high dome of the gold-encrusted ceiling, or maybe Keith just imagines that it does as he churns with regret for spitting out those words, now that Lance’s hand turns stiff and rigid atop his thigh. It’s such a subtle shift, one that Keith might not’ve even paid much attention to had he not spent the past week studying the way his roommate often frowns at his left hand, or stares out the window on a rainy day, or gently picks at the raw edges of the scabs on his heart, as if he wants to feel the pain — as if he wants to feel something.

Keith chances a look, and when he turns his head, Lance is watching him, eyes slightly misty and lips slightly parted.

“Yeah,” he says, but it sounds tenuous, a million miles away. “Yeah… that’s —”

All at once, the hand is withdrawn from Keith’s leg, and Lance is out of his chair, on his feet.

“Uh, sorry, I’m just gonna — bathroom. Real quick.”

And then he makes off in the other direction, swiftly weaving through the maze of tables, and Keith has the stupid impulse to follow him. But he doesn’t. Because Lance’s family is still fawning over the ring that doesn’t really belong to him, and Keith is supposed to be pretending like nothing is wrong.

So he pretends. 


 

The sun is just beginning to dip below the dusty rose horizon when Keith and the McClains file out of La Petite Fleur. They gather by the street corner, tired and satiated, as Marco stretches his arms high over his head.

“What’s next, familia?” he asks, chipper, seemingly immune to the effects of both jet lag and food comas. “Sight-seeing? A movie? Dessert?”

“Bed time,” answers Luis, who has Izzy curling into his chest, and Gabe clinging to his right hand, swaying like he may topple over from exhaustion at any moment. “We should get the kiddos to sleep if we want to be up and out early tomorrow.”

“What’s tomorrow?” Lance pipes up as he pops a complimentary mint from the hostess stand into his mouth.

Veronica perks up, grin widening, as if she’s been anticipating this question all evening. And the truth is that she probably really has. “Oh, you’ll see,” she sings in Lance and Keith’s direction. “We have a very action-packed itinerary for this week. And I have it booked down to the minute, so stay alert, boys.”

Lance smirks. “Control freak.” 

Organized,” she corrects, pinching her brother’s shoulder.

Then Marco heaves a groan, drooping dramatically against a nearby lamp post. “Come on! It’s barely even nighttime, and you guys wanna just sit around the hotel? Can’t the fun people go out and do something while the fun haters go back and — I dunno — soak in their lameness?”

“You can come with me to the bar, dude,” Lance offers. “Keith has to work, so I was just gonna hang out there and keep him company, anyway.”

Keith blinks, and asks, “You were?” But Lance ignores the question, just reaches for his hand.

“Wait —” Veronica whines, glancing between the boys, frowning at the mere thought of being left out. “I want to hang out with Keith, too.”

“But Marco isn’t twenty-one yet,” comes Luis’ abrupt reminder.

“No worries, bro, I brought my fake I —” A particularly jarring throat clear from Celia has Marco sputtering over his words, and then promptly spilling out, “I — I mean, I’ll just sit in the corner and drink Shirley Temples all night. Yep.”

The eldest brother looks spectacularly unimpressed — Keith gets the feeling that this happens quite often — but before he can open his mouth to utter what can only be another paternal-esque reprimand, Celia places a hand on his arm, and Luis subsides at once.

“Oh, let them be kids, mijo,” she says. “This is their vacation, too, after all.”

After Marco and Veronica share a victorious high-five, Celia gives them each a kiss on the cheek, including Keith, and when she reaches Lance, her palms pause against the sides of his face, holding his gaze, and telling him, “Keep them safe.”

“Yes, mama.” 

Te amo. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

 


 

It’s a quiet night, as usual, at the bar.

But it’s significantly less quiet with three McClains situated at the far end of the counter.

They’re hard to ignore, Keith thinks every time he walks by and overhears them bickering fondly, or reminiscing about silly childhood escapades, or trying, in varying degrees of success, to tie a cherry stem into a knot with their tongues. Keith tends to his other customers, and realizes, with bewildering clarity, that he doesn’t mind their vivacious presence.

Not even a little bit.    

“So, Keith,” Veronica peeks over the rim of her glass, and, combined with the wine from dinner, she’s already bordering on tipsy. “Did you know that Lance was a cheerleader in high school?”

There’s a definitive clink as Keith abandons the cocktail he’d been in the middle of pouring, and then he’s pivoting to face the bar with an unscrupulous smirk, and says, with intrigue, “I’m listening.”

“Aw, man, yeah! I almost forgot about that!” Marco whoops loudly, nearly toppling off his barstool as he shakes with laughter. If his sister is bordering on tipsy, then he’s already falling, face first, over the ledge. “Remember that homecoming game?” 

“Oh my god, the pants!” Veronica cries, smacking a hand over her face.   

“He goes to do one of those crazy flippy things, and lands in the splits —”

“— And his pants rip straight down the middle, in front of the entire school —”

“— And this dumbass wasn’t wearing any underwear!” 

They’re both flopping over the counter, practically screaming with amusement, so much so that Keith even dares to join in, but Lance, sandwiched between the pair, looks thoroughly unperturbed by the growing ruckus. 

“I told you,” he begins, almost entirely drowned out by his siblings. “You couldn’t wear underwear with those uniform pants. They were way too tight!”

His explanation is met with even more riotous laughter. 

“If you guys are trying to embarrass me, you’re gonna need stronger material than that,” he tries again. “I’m not even ashamed of that one. I had the best front aerial on the squad. And I was cozying up to nine of the cutest girls in school.”

“Yeah, and d’you know how many of those cuties he actually scored with?” Marco forms little circles with his fingers, holds them up to his eyes like binoculars, and mouths an exaggerated ‘zero’.

“Okay!” Lance is finally piqued enough to warrant a shove, and it sends Marco careening off his stool and onto the floor. “We’re done! That’s enough of that!” 

“Just trying to liven this place up a little,” the younger brother gripes, springing back up like a disoriented wind-up toy. “Feels like I’m boozin’ it up in a fucking graveyard right now… Keith, dude, is it always this lame here?”

Keith shrugs. “Sometimes we have open mic nights on Friday.”

“Well, whoop-dee-fuckin’-doo!”

“Marco, you can be such a brat,” says Veronica. “This is an easy fix. So you two stay here while we go have words with the deejay.”

With that, she grabs her brother’s reluctant wrist, and they both go prancing across the room. Lance watches until they eventually disappear somewhere amongst the dim lights and mingling guests, and then swivels back around to find Keith’s face contorted into some uncharacteristic expression that he can’t quite make heads or tails of. A dull hanging lamp sways precariously over their heads, casting Keith in pale shades of bronze, yet that, too, reveals nothing. So Lance leans in, props his chin up with a fist, and demands:

“What?”

Keith’s faint grin is instantaneous. “A cheerleader, huh?”

“Don’t start with me, Kogane,” he parries, finally pinning down that perplexing display of emotion tugging at his features. Smug. Definitely smug. “I may have retired after only one semester, but it made me a bonafide legend at that school.”

“Mhm.”

Then it’s Lance’s turn to look smug, and it’s such a well-worn expression on the boy’s face that Keith doesn’t even notice how quickly they swap roles until Lance is sneering, “You’re totally imagining me in the uniform now, aren’t you?”

“What?” Keith erupts, the drink he’d just finished pouring sloshing to and fro. “No!”

“I always had you pegged for a leather kinda guy, but who knew that spandex and cheap polyester would do it for you.”

“Lance. Cut it out. I’m not —”

Suddenly, the room starts vibrating with a peppy beat, a lively melody, and Keith can say, with great certainty, that he’s never heard these speakers blare such an upbeat tune before. And the other patrons seem to concur as they halt idle conversation, lift their heads, and glance around to make sense of this drastic change of pace. Keith squints, trying to spot the deejay stand through the darkness, but all he sees is Veronica bursting through the crowd, hands waving, moving closer in time with the rhythm.

She yells something, but it’s lost in the music. She cheers again, and points in Keith and Lance’s direction. Still nothing. But when she bellows a third time, it carries over all the noise, and Keith swears it sounds just like:

“They’re — getting — married!”

Every head turns toward the bar.

…Oh no

“It’s a beautiful night, we’re looking for something dumb to do…
Hey, baby, I think I wanna marry you…”

Veronica prances and twirls her merry way across the floor in a style that might’ve been graceful if not for the alcohol pumping through her system. She’s loose-limbed and a bit ungainly, but there’s something enchanting about the way she’s grinning; so bright and effervescent that even the most confounded patrons are now smiling back, some even tapping their feet to the beat, turning around where they stand or sit to watch the impromptu performance. She shimmies her shoulders, reaches out her hands and waggles her fingers, a silent invitation for the boys to join her.

Keith would much rather grab the nearest liquor bottle and smash it over his own head, but Lance is already swaying in his seat. He glances over his shoulder, tilts the corner of his mouth, raises a questioning brow: You in?

Frowning, Keith ducks his head, and picks up a nearby glass that doesn’t need polishing, and begins polishing it anyway, with great concentration: I’m working.

Lance shrugs — suit yourself — and hops off the barstool, bounding his way to the center of the floor with a whooping cry. He takes his sister’s hand, spins her around, multiple times, until she’s teetering into him in a fit of giggles, and a few onlookers even offer a supportive cheer or two. And then they’re dancing — sometimes coordinated, sometimes not. At a glance, they look just like kids, jumping around their living room to the sound of their mother’s records, windows open, curtains fluttering, sea breeze wafting through. Apparently breaking into spontaneous dance is a McClain family trait that Keith just can’t relate to.   

“Well, I know this little chapel on the boulevard,
we can go… No one will know…
Oh, c’mon, girl…”      

From somewhere in the crowd, Marco parades through, and joins his siblings without ever missing a step. His dance moves are easily the most ridiculous, but they also garner the most attention from the audience. People begin applauding, and shouting encouragements, which only seems to egg him on even more, every groove even more outlandish than the last. Veronica and Lance are laughing, near crying, and struggling to remain upright through it all.

And Keith is struggling not to stare. He really is. He just mills about the bar, searching for even the most mundane tasks to complete — anything to distract him from the invasive feeling of a dozen pairs of strangers’ eyes gazing curiously in his direction. He prefers it when he blends in with the shelves of alcohol behind him, when eye contact is only made when there’s a drink order to tend to. But now, there seems to be rabid interest surrounding the mysterious bartender who, apparently, is in the middle of being serenaded by his future husband. If only they knew. 

“Don’t say no, no, no, no, no…
Just say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…
And we’ll go, go, go, go, go…
If you’re ready, like I’m ready…”

Keith’s gaze wanders at just the wrong time, catching a glimpse of Lance, mid-twirl, and their eyes meet. He points directly at Keith, his other hand flattened over his heart, and rolls his hips just provocatively enough for the crowd to roar with praise. And Keith feels something get lodged inside his throat — most likely his composure — swallows heavily around it, and shakes his head. A few patrons whine disappointedly.

But Lance is not discouraged. Far from it, in fact, as he abandons his dancing siblings, and sashays over to the bar. Keith pretends not to notice, furiously looking down into the ice bin, even as Lance leans his elbows onto the counter expectantly. Keith begins counting ice cubes in his head. Lance is having none of that. He reaches out a hand, and it hovers in the space between them for a moment, as uncertain as a baby bird’s wings, until two gentle fingers tap the underside of Keith’s chin, begging for his attention.

“Is it the look in your eyes, or is it this dancing juice…
Who cares, baby, I think I wanna marry you…”

Keith steps away, back pressed up against the lacquered liquor cabinet, just far enough out of Lance’s reach. He looks up, then, and can’t see anything but the glare of dim lights overhead, the glow of cell phone screens as endeared patrons capture the moment on camera, and Lance’s blue eyes, swamped with playful mirth as his gaze flicks downward at the bar top that separates them, and then upward again.

It clicks, and Keith’s brow furrows in warning. “Lance, don’t.”

Lance does.

He hoists himself up, and starts climbing over the bar, much to the delight of the audience, who then bursts into a chorus of hoots, hollers, and whistles. But Keith doesn’t hear any of it — just the thrum, thrum, thrum of his pulse inside his ear as Lance swings his legs over the counter, and sits there, watching him like they’re the only two in the entire bar. In the entire world.

“Just say I do…
Tell me right now, baby…
Tell me right now, baby, baby…”

Run, Keith’s mind seems to beg his rooted feet. This isn’t what you’re meant for. But then Lance is reaching for him again, and there’s nowhere for Keith to run anymore, so he falls forward, led by the white-knuckled grip that Lance has on the front of his shirt. And then Lance is smirking, and Keith’s palms settle on top of Lance’s thighs, because there’s nowhere else to put them, and Lance leans forward, and just when there’s only a breath of space left between their mouths, he whispers low, “Let’s fool ‘em all.”

And as their lips crash, the crowd screams, cameras flash, the music blares, and Keith’s heart picks up a turbulent tempo of its own.

“Oh, it’s a beautiful night, we’re looking for something dumb to do…
Hey, baby, I think I wanna marry you…”

They did it, Keith’s mind thinks again, arms circling Lance’s neck. They really did it.

For a brief, pulse-pounding, skin-tingling, head-reeling moment, they really fooled every single sucker in the room.      


 

When they leave the bar about two hours later, Marco almost twists his ankle trying to parkour off of a nearby fire hydrant, and that’s about the time when Lance decides that his siblings should just spend the night at his apartment instead of stumbling their way back to the hotel.

Marco doesn’t seem quite cognizant enough to tell the difference as he limps along down the street, but Veronica, who is far less intoxicated, but still giggling profusely, and clinging tightly to Lance’s left arm, murmurs, “You sure we won’t be a nuisance?”

Keith shoots Lance a look, and he doesn’t even bother being subtle about it because, given his current company, he’s certain that neither of them are anywhere near the right state of mind to pick up on even the most blatant of social cues. Lance combats the look with something softer, and then answers, “No way. Not at all.”

Keith just sighs.

Because then they’re entering the apartment, and Marco makes a beeline for the couch, flopping over the armrest, face-planting into the threadbare cushions, and doesn’t move for, presumably, the rest of the night. 

“Guess I get the floor tonight,” says Veronica, kicking off her shoes by the front door.

“Lemme grab you some extra sheets,” Lance whips open the small storage closet next to the kitchen entryway, which appears to be stuffed to the brim with household essentials. “I think there might be a sleeping bag in here somewhere, too…”

She appears at his side, bumping him out of the way with her hip. “Don’t worry, I got it. You and Keith can just head to bed.”

“You sure?”

“Definitely,” she assures, eyes twinkling even in the darkness. “It’s been a long, exciting night and I’m sure you two would like to — celebrate.”

Lance takes one glance at his sister’s wily grin, and nearly chokes on his own spit. “Ronnie —!” 

“Go, go!” she grabs for Keith’s wrist, and ushers them both toward the bedroom, leaving no time for protest. “I’ve got everything under control out here, okay? Have a great night, boys.”

She even has the audacity to wink before herding them into the room, and closing the door behind them. It’s pitch black inside, with only thin ribbons of pale moonlight peeking through the cracks of the window blinds, painting luminescent stripes across Lance’s navy bedsheets. Veronica’s muted footsteps can still be heard just outside the door as she prepares a makeshift bed on the living room floor, but other than that, a restless silence blankets the evening, and it doesn’t take very long for the realization to seep into their minds. 

Keith looks at Lance. Then he looks at the bed.

Lance looks at the bed. Then he looks at Keith. 

And then he’s whispering, “Dibs,” and leaping onto the mattress like a child at his first slumber party.

“What?” Keith hisses, hushed but dangerous. “You can’t do that!”

“Watch me, mullet,” says Lance, limbs sprawling in every direction, taking up as much space as his gangly appendages will allow. “My apartment, my bed.”

“The first week is over,” he snarls, and stands threateningly by the edge of the bed frame. “So now it’s my turn to sleep on something that won’t give me permanent spinal trauma.”

“Then you should’ve done something about it sooner,” and in an act of rebellion, Lance somehow manages to press himself even firmer against the mattress, fingers curling into the sheets as if to claim his territory. “’Cause now I’m here, I’m comfy, and I’m not moving.”

Keith lifts an unamused brow. “There’s nothing keeping me from literally throwing you off this bed. You know that, right?” 

Lance springs up onto his elbows, staring Keith down with those blue eyes that almost seem to glow, eerie and ominous, in the splashes of moonlight. “You do that, and — swear to god, Keith — I’ll moan so loud that Ronnie and Marco will never let you live it down.”

“You wouldn’t.”

And it takes Keith approximately three stutters of his hummingbird heart to realize that saying that had been a terrible mistake because, suddenly, Lance’s lips are curling, and his gaze is still gleaming, and he throws his head back with an outrageous cry of: 

“OHHH, KEITH —” 

With impossible speed, Keith launches himself onto the bed, and Lance doesn’t even see the attack coming — and so there’s absolutely no hope of evasion by the time Keith tackles him. The bed springs creak beneath their struggle, though Lance’s attempts are all in vain, tragically outmatched by Keith’s strength. The clumsy wrestling match comes to a premature end when Keith finally manages to wrangle Lance into submission, sitting on his hips, pinning his hands above his head, and Lance’s wiggling legs go limp with overexertion.

“The bed is mine, Kogane,” Lance sneers, chest heaving.

Keith’s eyes narrow just inches above Lance’s. “In your dreams, McClain.”

“GOD, YES, RIGHT THERE —”

And then one of Keith’s hands relinquishes its hold in favor of clamping down over Lance’s mouth, smothering yelps and chortles alike.

“What is wrong with you?” Keith whispers harshly, leaning in closer, nearly nose to nose.

Lance replies by swiping his tongue, swift and shameless, against his captor’s palm. Like the mature individual that he is.

Jesus, Lance —” Keith recoils, rubbing his hand across the leg of his pants, while Lance seizes what could be his one and only opportunity for escape. He wriggles out from under Keith’s weight, and rolls over onto his side, over and over — 

Until he barrels off the side of the bed, and hits the ground with an emphatic thud.

That’s when peals of sputtering laughter start ringing off the walls, and Lance is rightly stunned when he scrambles back onto his haunches, peeking over the edge of the mattress to find that the jubilant noise is spewing out from Keith’s lips. The boy is red-cheeked and flattened onto his back, every boneless muscle quaking with the tremors of mirth. His hands are covering his watery eyes, dark hair splayed around his face in casual disarray. Genuine and happy

Lance’s own lips break into a grin, nose perking up in amusement — more, seemingly, from Keith’s reaction than their ridiculous tussle.

“Laugh it up, you menace,” he goads. “I may be down, but I am not out.”

Keith struggles for air. “You seriously think you still stand a chance after that?”

“Let’s just share the stupid bed,” says Lance as he climbs back onto the mattress. “You stay on your side, and I stay on my side. We can even stick a pillow between us if you’re really gonna be annoying about it.”

“Whatever,” Keith answers with aching lungs, hands sliding off his face, eyes remaining shut. “I’m too tired to care anymore.” 

“And whose fault is that?”

“Just stay on your side, Lance.”

As Keith shifts onto his side, he can hear the other boy rummaging around behind him, tucking himself comfortably beneath the sheets, and he idly wonders if Lance is as accustomed to sleeping with someone as he is to sleeping alone. He wonders if Lance misses the snug fit of another body, nestled against his chest or engulfed by the drape of his arms. Or if he misses the smell of a familiar perfume that has long since been washed off of his pillowcases. Or if he longs to reach out a hand, skin skating against smooth cotton, seeking out the warmth of someone who isn’t there anymore.

Keith doesn’t know why he wonders these things. But he does. And the thoughts sprint around his mind for at least another hour.

Until, eventually, he falls asleep to the sound of Lance’s quiet exhales, soft and steady.

Chapter Text

. . .

When Keith was a kid, his dad used to take him stargazing.

He still remembers the sound of the screen door swinging shut behind them as they trudged outside onto the brittle, dying grass of their backyard. Keith would shiver in the desert breeze, and so his father would slough off his jacket, and drape it around his son’s tiny frame. The fabric nearly drowned him, and it always smelled of cigarette smoke and campfires, but Keith didn’t mind. He’d sit in his father’s lap, head tipped back against the man’s steady heartbeat, and follow his finger as he traced invisible patterns across the sky.   

He’d grow drowsy listening to his father’s husky voice rumbling in his chest, listing off the names, the shapes, their history. And Keith would yawn, but his mind would fight it, because he was committed to counting every single sparkling speck that twinkled overhead.

One, two, three, four…

“That’s Orion, the bravest hunter in the galaxy.”

…Five, six, seven, eight…

“Cassiopeia… a beautiful queen of the northern skies…”

…Nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

“And Monoceros… means unicorn in Latin…”

…Thirteen. 

Thirteen freckles. 

Most of them are delicately dotted along the curved slope of a nose, but there are a few rebellious specks that dare to dribble as far as the apples of soft cheeks. A bronze constellation smattered across a sun-kissed sky.   

But Keith isn’t a kid anymore. And he’s not seated on the draught-ravaged lawn of his childhood home in Abilene, Texas. And he’s definitely not counting stars against a backdrop of darkness.

Instead, he’s here. In the present. In a warm, rumpled bed. And he’s counting the freckles off of Lance McClain’s sleeping face.

For some reason.

They lay facing one another, noses no more than five inches apart because, apparently, the pillow that was supposed to be dividing the mattress had accomplished an astounding load of nothing, and somehow managed to find itself at the bottom of the bed, bound up with Lance’s feet in a haphazard heap. But the rest of him is peaceful; muscles still, eyelids wilted, bottom lip sagging against his pillowcase so small, noiseless gusts of breath can freely pass through his lungs. And his face is freckled. So, so freckled.

It’s something that Keith has never noticed before — never thought to notice before — and now he’s wondering why he even cares to notice at all. Because it’s not as stunning as a beautiful queen or as exhilarating as a daring hunter shooting arrows through the sky, and yet Keith still fights against the bleariness in his eyes to stay awake, so he can memorize the mottled motif that dapples along tanned skin as if it’s a constellation of stars all its own.

Lance hums in his sleep, the softest little mewl of sound, and something searing hot starts to boil in Keith’s gut, all the way up to the shells of his ears.

After all, he’s always had somewhat of a thing for celestial bodies. 

“Hey.”

Keith lifts his gaze a fraction of an inch, just enough to watch a lazy eyelid flutter open, a piercing blue moon staring at him through a fan of dark lashes.

“Hey,” Keith says back.

“You’re still here.”

“Should I not still be here?” 

Lance laughs at that; an airy chuckle, raspy with fatigue. “S’just nice not waking up alone.”   

“Oh.”

“Even if you are a world-class blanket hog.”

A brow crinkles with annoyance. “Am not,” he argues.

“Uh-huh,” Lance drawls, and gives a sharp tug to the blanket that is still cocooned around Keith’s lower half, tightly twisted. “So these bedsheets just magically gravitated over to your side because of that bright and sunny disposition of yours, right?”

“Well, you don’t look too upset about it.”

With a quick jut of his chin, Keith gestures to Lance’s slackened body, which is currently surrounded on all sides by a strategic formation of pillows — one beneath his head, one to his right, one flattened beneath his belly, one tucked between his legs, and the one bunched up by his feet. A ridiculous human marshmallow.

“Do you really need all of those pillows?”

“Every single one.”

“Weirdo.”

“Better than a blanket thief.”

Their laughter mingles, soft and sleepy.

It’s a pleasant sound, Keith thinks. Like waves lapping onto the shore. Or the distant tinkle of those old wind chimes that used to hang above the front door of his childhood home. The sound of memories. Good memories, happy memories. And it’s almost pleasant enough to lull him back into a calm, dream-filled slumber when —

Slam goes the front door, from beyond the bedroom wall, followed by a voice so chipper that Keith can physically feel it dragging its nails down the chalkboard of his soul.

“Rise and shine, lovebirds!” comes Veronica’s shrill wake-up call. Then there’s the muffled noises of her placing a paper bag onto the kitchen counter, most likely breakfast.

Lance reaches for one of his many pillows, and smothers his own head with it. “Oh god, she must’ve figured out how to use the coffee maker,” he groans. “Now she’s too powerful.”

“I thought you liked getting up early.”

“Pipe down, mullet, would’ya?” says Lance. “‘M trying to enjoy this beautiful moment of fake pre-marital bliss.”

Keith stares emotionlessly at Lance’s head, still desperately buried beneath the girth of a pillow, and then begins untangling himself from the sheets. “Right. Have fun with that. I’m going to get some food.”

“Hey —” A tuft of his tousled brown hair pokes out from his fluffy hideaway. “— there’s no pre-marital bliss if you ditch me!”

“Then get up,” Keith sighs, standing by the edge of the bed.

A pair of disgruntled blue eyes poke out next, soon accompanied by a bottom lip, curled into the kind of playful pout that simply begs a challenge.

“Make me.”

Keith scowls. “Not doing that.”

“I dare you.”

“No.”

Double dare you —”

And that’s it. It’s literally that easy.

Keith’s pillow comes walloping down onto Lance’s exposed face, and, for a split second, Lance just stares, dazed and maybe a little disoriented from the blow. But then he starts laughing so much that he doesn’t even care. Lance grabs one of his own cushioned weapons, and takes a swing to definitively mark the beginning of a full-fledged war. Flailing limbs, crashing pillows, and pink, flushed faces with grins that make their cheeks ache.

And they don’t end up leaving the bed for a good while after that.

 


 

As it turns out, Veronica hadn’t been kidding about their action-packed itinerary for the week. Not that she would ever even consider kidding around about schedules and routines. Because as soon as the boys emerge from the bedroom — looking suspiciously disheveled for all the wrong reasons — she corners them with a knowing glare and a bag of fresh bagels from the mini-market across the street, and tells them to get themselves together because they’re already running late.

Not even Lance dares to question for details as they scarf down breakfast in record time, all while his sister barks orders at an overwhelmingly hungover Marco, who is spread-eagled on the living room floor, more or less dead to the world, save for the few miserable moans that blubber off his lips. 

In a word, it’s mayhem.

And yet, somehow, in an impressive display of bossiness, Veronica still manages to rally them out of the apartment and down to the street corner, where they hop into a waiting Uber, and take off down the road. Only then, in the backseat of some stranger’s SUV, does Lance remember to ask:

“So why do I feel like we’re being kidnapped?”

“Kidnappers don’t usually bring their victims breakfast,” says Veronica, distracted by her reflection in her cell phone screen. She passes a hand through the front of her hair, taming stubborn frizz and fly-aways, then adds, with a frown, “You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Victims don’t usually express gratitude to their kidnappers for keeping them alive long enough to torture them.”

Dramatic,” she accuses, tucking her phone away with a huff. “It’s just one dance lesson.”

Marco sinks down so far in his seat that he nearly slides right off the leather upholstery. “Ay, Dios mío, mátame —”

“Wait — dance lesson?” Keith repeats, appalled. “For what?”

“For your first dance, obviously,” and she takes one look at the boys’ befuddled expressions before prompting, “You two are going to have a first dance, aren’t you?”

They share a glance of unspoken panic. Because of course they haven’t taken the time to hash out the finer details of their non-existent wedding reception. “Uh,” utters Lance. “Maybe?”

“You have to!” Veronica wails incredulously. “Not only is it tradition, but it’s also, like, one of the very first things you’re going to do together as a married couple, so it has to be perfect!”

“Jeez, no pressure or anything.”

“Yes, pressure. It’s not like you get a do-over if you mess it up, Lance!”

Literally yelling,” gripes Marco, yanking on the brim of his snapback so it falls down over his bloodshot eyes.

Lance sighs, and mumbles under his breath for his brother’s sake, “Ronnie, you’re doing that thing you do. That crazy-borderline-tyrannical-my-way-or-the-highway thing.” 

“Well, you’re doing that acting-like-a-complete-dummy thing,” the girl retorts tartly. “You two are going to be thanking me on your wedding day, when everyone’s there watching, and taking pictures, and you don’t look like a pair of bumbling idiots on the dance floor.”

Keith feels an outrageous urge to inform her, loudly and with fury, that her efforts are a colossal waste of everyone’s time. Because there will be no dancing. Or pictures. Or actual wedding days, for that matter. And even with Lance’s thumb rubbing soothing circles against the top of his thigh (does he even realize he’s doing this?), Keith still has to painfully grit his teeth to keep from blurting out such a catastrophic slip-up, all the way down the street, until they reach their destination.

Atlas Dance Studio is, in essence, all of two things: spacious and garish. It sits unassumingly amidst a rather drab industrial complex on the outskirts of town, but, beyond its wide, garage-style doors, the space itself appears to be a refurbished warehouse of sorts — refurbished by a very meticulous, very eccentric kindergartener, more like. The concrete floor has been replaced by polished hardwood, not a single scuff or chip to be seen, and extends the full length of the building, a decent-sized basketball court, at least. The ceiling is lined with strings of twinkle lights, and swooping garlands with colorful flowers, each one hung with love and care. Paper stars embellished with swirls of glitter glue also dangle from pieces of yarn overhead, spinning and swaying in the breeze of a small ceiling fan that goes round and round. But if all that whimsy weren’t enough to make Keith inwardly cringe, then there are the walls — each one painted a different but equally as vibrant color, and littered with handmade posters that advertise an array of inspirational quotes. 

‘If you dream it, you can do it!’

‘Play nice! Work hard! Stay kind!’

‘Happiness means your soul is smiling!’

Keith’s soul is doing something right about now, but it’s definitely not a smile.

The rest of the family is already puttering around the studio by the time they arrive. There’s Luis, walking in slow strides around the room with Nico in his arms, and the baby stares at his multi-colored surroundings with eye-bulging curiosity. Marco finds a spot on the hardwood to plant himself, facedown, still suffering. Veronica joins Mariana on a small bench near the shoe cubby, and the two girls titter and giggle over something on Veronica’s phone screen. The twins are already in the middle of the dance floor, bouncing and shrieking with joy, and it doesn’t take Lance very long to join them. He grabs their little hands, and spins them in circles. He lets Izzy stand on his feet as he waltzes her around the room. He hoists Gabe onto his back, and runs at full speed to the opposite wall, making absurd airplane noises with his lips.

Keith takes a seat at one of the benches against the offensively bright fuchsia wall, and tries not to stare. He even bends over, pretending to fiddle with the laces of his shoes, hoping no one will notice the upward slant of his eyes, the way he peers through his long, feathered bangs. 

But he’s still totally staring.

In his defense, how can he not? Even with all the blinding color and bedazzled crafts adorning every inch of space, the playful scene in front of him is easily the brightest, most eye-catching thing in the room. Keith has always known Lance to be a big child at heart, but the way he frolics with the twins is different, somehow. His antics aren’t ridiculous or obnoxious or insufferable like he knows them to be. Instead, he’s sweet. And gentle and silly and protective and magnetic and adorable and handsome —

“Would you look at that face…”

Keith sits up with a start, hands falling uselessly into his lap, wondering how long Celia has been here occupying the empty seat beside him. She sounds pensive, maybe just a bit wistful, but no less endeared as she, too, watches her son spin around the floor with the children.

“Someone must be making him very happy these days,” she continues, shooting Keith a very knowing sidelong glance. 

He shrugs, and feels weirdly self-conscious under her gaze. “I guess.”

“I know, cariño.”

She knows nothing, Keith thinks cryptically. All she knows is a lie.

“I thought it was foolish, you know,” Celia speaks again. Then she pauses, and her mouth curls, and her head shakes, as if enjoying some private joke with herself. “Engaged after only three months. Ay, mi niño… Que ridículo!”

The words are eerily familiar, and they tug at some neglected heartstring buried deep inside Keith’s chest in a way he can’t explain. “Yeah, it — it all happened so fast,” he settles on, because it’s technically not untrue.

“Mm, he hasn’t changed. Always charging ahead. My sweet boy…” and there is no disapproval or disappointment to be heard; just a specific kind of affection that can only be pulled off by a mother. “When he loves, he loves with his whole heart. And I — I used to worry that one day he would give that big, silly heart away to someone who wouldn’t understand how truly special it is.”   

Keith falls silent, racking his brain for something that a deeply smitten fiancé might say to that, and the words come quicker than they probably should.   

“It’s not just his heart,” he says, slightly cotton-mouthed. “All of Lance is special.”    

Then he feels a hand slip into his own — warm, soft, and just slightly wrinkled. It squeezes tight, and then releases, and Keith turns his head to find Celia’s fond eyes now trained directly at him.

“Thank you,” she breathes, “for loving my son.”   

His pulse throbs against his neck, his palm feels clammy against Celia’s. Guilt. It swamps him in one mighty swell.

But before it swallows him whole, the door opens once again, and a slim, elegant woman hurries inside. Her dainty ballet flats tip-tap against the wood flooring, and the wispy edges of her skirt flow around her ankles as she whirls around to close the door behind her. Half of her blonde hair is piled neatly atop her head in some sort of elaborately braided style, and the rest tumbles down her back like a cascading, golden waterfall.

“Oh, goodness!” she exclaims, breathless, pale cheeks rosy and flustered. “Please excuse my tardiness. I’m not usually this… well. Anyway! Everyone gather ‘round. Come, come, don’t be shy!”

A few uncertain glances make their way around the room, but they do as they’re told. Luis places Nico into Celia’s waiting arms, and Veronica drags Marco off the floor, and then they meander to the center of the room, all while the woman encourages them with a disturbingly bubbly grin.

“Welcome!” she greets, clasping her hands together. “My name is Romelle, and today I will be your dance instructor. But more importantly, I will be your spiritual guide into the realm of physical interpretation and the language of the body.”

Marco snorts loudly, and Veronica elbows him in the ribs.

“Now, tell me,” Romelle continues, her doe-like eyes darting to and fro. “Where is our blissfully betrothed couple?”

Lance and Keith awkwardly lift their hands, which prompts an unearthly squeal from their instructor.

“Oh, I should have known! Your shared aura is very powerful… Names?”

“Uh… Lance?”

“…Keith.”

“Lance and Keith, yes, of course,” Romelle prances forward, and reaches for their arms, eyes fluttering to a close when her fingers curl around their wrists. “Can you feel the flow of spiritual energy?”

Keith’s expression is so utterly confounded that Lance has to bite back his amusement for several seconds before he’s able to respond, as earnestly as possible, “We so can.”

Romelle bounces in place, giggling happily. “Excellent! Lovely! Alright, everyone — pair up, and find your own space on the floor. Let the room speak to you!”

From the corner of his eye, Keith can see that the twins have cleared the dance floor, and now sit obediently beside their grandmother. From the corner of his other eye, he watches Mariana bump her hip against Luis’ as they head off to one side of the room. Veronica is with Marco — who looks like he’s very actively trying not to puke — on the other side, and so Keith and Lance stay where they are, turning just a few inches to face one another.

“Remember — a wedding dance is a vulnerable form of expression. You must trust your partner,” Romelle explains as she nudges Keith a bit closer to his fake fiancé, then takes Lance’s hand and moves it to Keith’s waist. “To dance is to communicate!”

Off she scurries to assist the other couples, leaving Lance and Keith dumbstruck where they stand. Lance’s palm is pressed firm to the small of Keith’s back, and it sends warmth racing all the way up Keith’s spine, so aggressively that he has to redirect his gaze to the floor. The hardwood is glossy and pristine beneath their feet. And he studies each floorboard with the utmost intensity until Lance cracks a grin.

“My eyes are up here, mullet.”

“I know,” Keith grumbles to the floor.

“Then, c’mon, you heard her,” Lance prompts. “We’re supposed to be expressing ourselves through our spiritual energy. And our bodies. Or whatever.”

Keith really, really doesn’t want to be thinking about Lance’s body right now, or any of the things that could be expressed with it.

“I’m expressing that I don’t want to be here.”

Lance scoffs, inoffensive. “Look, the sooner we start groovin’, the sooner we can —”

“I don’t know how,” Keith erupts at once, looking up, and immediately regretting it. “…to dance, I mean.”

“Wait — you mean — for realzies?”

“Yes, Lance, for —” He rolls his eyes. Nope. Choking on his own spit sounds better than validating that dumb word. “—I’m serious.”

“Dude, haven’t you ever been to a party before? Like, high school prom — oh, no, wait. Lemme guess,” Lance lifts an accusing eyebrow. “You were totally that kid in school who was too cool for prom, right? Probably stayed home watching Donnie Darko on repeat instead. Sticking it to the man? Conformity is for squares? Rebellion, thy name is Keith?”

“I — the tickets were unnecessarily expensive, okay!”

Lance tosses his head back, and crows, “I knew it! You really are a walking cliche!”

Just then, over the sound of Lance’s laughter, a small stereo system at the front of the room starts vibrating with music. The opening notes to Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You’ carries through the entire studio, along with Romelle’s enthusiastic cry of, “Begin! Allow the music to move your bodies and your souls!”

But Keith doesn’t allow the music to move anything. He scowls, and tries to pivot away, but Lance’s hand is still lingering on Keith’s lower back, and pulls him back in. 

“Where do you think you’re going, runaway groom?”

“I just said I don’t know how to do this.”

“Well, lucky for you,” Lance grins, teeth gleaming. “I do.”

The song continues to play. The other two couples are already traveling and stumbling across the floor. Keith looks on, wry.    

“Hey,” says Lance, smile going soft. And then, as if he can sense Keith’s apprehension, “You trust me, right?”

Music fades out of Keith’s ears, and it’s replaced by the beat of his heart, pounding warnings inside his skull, short and harsh so that he might understand through the fog polluting his brain. It’s thick, and dense, and dizzying, and makes him question if he even really knows the meaning of such a word.

Because, to Keith, trust is a car parked in the driveway, packed suitcases sitting by the front door. It’s his mother’s voice telling him that they’ll see each other soon, and the pain that comes five years later when he realizes they never will. Trust is his father coming home late, the stench of sweat and smoke that follows him in. It’s his father’s voice telling him that he’ll always be there to protect him, and the ashes of a burning building that he never makes it out of.

Trust means leaving.

But maybe it’s also a pair of blue eyes watching him from the other side of the bar. Maybe it’s the smell of hot chocolate, and freshly cooked pancakes. Maybe trust is also having someone to drink coffee with at the kitchen table. And shared beds, and dinosaur bandaids, and warm hugs, and kisses that taste like toothpaste.

God. He wishes that, for once, trust would mean staying.

Keith doesn’t answer — can’t answer — but he settles his hands on Lance’s shoulders, and hopes that the point gets across, regardless. And Lance seems somewhat content with the wordless response, or, at the very least, he seems to understand it.

“Don’t gimme that face,” Lance chides halfheartedly. “Dancing is supposed to be fun.”

“If you say so.”

More laughter, the kind that has Keith’s heart skipping beats, and his cheeks glowing pink. This is quickly becoming a problem.

The music picks up tempo a bit, and Lance hums along to the iconic tune as he plucks one of Keith’s hands off his shoulder, lacing their fingers, tugging him into position. And then they’re off. To the swing of the driving rhythm, Lance leads them confidently across the floor, and Keith’s inexperienced gait struggles to keep up. His legs feel stiff, like he’s forgotten how to move them, but Lance is keeping him trussed, holding him, guiding him, ignoring every time their feet tangle or their knees knock together.

Keith is nimble by nature, and the repetitive pattern of their movement is easy enough to memorize after a while, so when the speakers explode with the sheer magnitude of a full orchestra, he isn’t entirely thrown off when Lance decides to fling him out to the side, and then spin him back into his chest. A laugh bubbles up from Keith’s throat, and comes out warm and fine against Lance’s cheek, because it should feel ridiculous. But it doesn’t. It feels like they’re gliding — flying, even — with stupid paper stars swaying above their heads.

Another quarter turn, and Keith is nearly winded, clinging to Lance like he may not ever let go. The music pumps through his veins like adrenaline, seeps into his brain, makes him lightheaded. And then, with no other warning than a fleeting smirk, Lance lunges, and pulls Keith down into a dip, which, admittedly, stumps him. With a silent gasp, Keith’s fingers grip into the fabric of Lance’s shirt, and he blinks up at those blue eyes, twinkling just above his own.

“You —” he begins, until Lance is bowing his head, dragging a hot trail up the side of Keith’s neck with his lips, and there really isn’t much to say after that. Keith tips his head back, allowing better access, but, if asked, he’ll adamantly blame it on gravity.

The edges of Lance’s mouth lift up into another smirk when he reaches Keith’s earlobe, pausing there long enough to murmur, low and breathless, “Having fun yet?”

He’s going to kill him. Keith decides it right then and there.

As long as Lance McClain doesn’t kill him first, that is.

 


 

The next order of Official Wedding Business (or Official Wedding Bullshit, as Marco has taken to calling it, only after they stop for a quick lunch, which bolsters him sentient enough to start cracking jokes again) leads them to a quaint little flower shop because, apparently, bouquets are the focal point of the entire wedding ceremony.

According to Veronica, anyway. And nobody is foolish enough to cross her when there’s a dangerously detailed day planner in her grasp.

So that’s how Keith finds himself wandering the aisles of a sunlit garden, potted saplings to his left, begonias to his right, with the smell of damp leaves and freshly packed mulch all but assaulting his nose. It’s a lush, technicolor labyrinth, as far as he’s concerned — a distant cry from the shriveled, ashen foliage native to the desert wastelands of home. He pauses before a bundle of daisies, mulling them over with keen indifference. 

“Babe,” says Lance, sneaking up from behind, resting his chin on Keith’s shoulder. “You do know that daisies are, like, the weeds of the flower world, right?”

“You’re a weed of this world.”

Lance looks to his mother as she passes by. “Do you see how he hurts me? You approve of this treatment?”

Celia raises an eyebrow, barely glancing up from a forsythia bush. “A handsome boy is trying to pick out flowers for your wedding and you called them weeds, mijo.”

“Well! Because they are!”

She shakes her head fondly at the pair, and continues down the aisle until she reaches the end, where Mariana and Izzy are crouched beside a ceramic pot, examining the bloom of a licorice plant. The little girl giggles and squirms when she extends a timid hand, fingers stroking along the plant’s fuzzy leaves.

When no one is left within earshot, Lance mutters, “Y’know, I don’t think I can marry a guy whose taste in flowers is just as unfortunate as his taste in hairstyles.” 

“Good thing you’re not, then.” 

“But don’t you want our wedding to be cooler and swankier than everyone else’s?”

“The only thing I want it to be is imaginary.” 

Lance huffs, and Keith feels it against his skin. “Lame.” 

The spot on Keith’s neck is still warm where Lance’s breath had been. It should be cool by now, he thinks, but it still throbs like a bruise. He needs a distraction before the flush can reach his face, so he blurts out, without preamble: “I don’t get it, anyway.”

“What, weddings?” asks Lance.

“No. Flowers.”

“You don’t get… flowers?” Lance’s mouth twitches and wiggles, trying not to laugh. “Like… in general or —”

“I don’t get why people think they’re so romantic,” and Keith shakes Lance off with a shrug of his shoulder. “They’re just gonna die and end up in the trash a few days later. So I don’t see what’s so special about them.”

Now Lance is staring. Or maybe gawking is more accurate.

So Keith blinks, and says, “What?” 

“Sorry, I just —” Lance’s eyes are blown wide with bemusement. “— I can’t believe you did it. You freakin’ did it. You actually outdid yourself. You’re even less of a romantic than you were, like, two minutes ago. I’m talking subnuclear levels of —”

“Even you have to admit that I have a point.”

“Have all the points you want, my dude,” says Lance, “but you’re still looking at it all wrong.”

He reaches a hand toward Keith’s face, and — for a brief, embarrassing moment — Keith thinks he’s going to caress his cheek, or cup his chin, or something else alarmingly tender that he’s just not prepared for. Keith holds his breath, lets it sit heavy in his lungs, but then Lance’s fingers skim past him, reaching even farther so that he can pluck a pure white magnolia bloom off a spindly branch, hanging low, right behind Keith’s skull. Keith feels like he can breathe again.

“It’s not really about the flowers,” Lance admits, eyes doing something subtle as he twirls the petals between his fingers. “It’s like, having someone — knowing that someone is out there, living their life, minding their own business, right? And then they walk by a flower shop, and they see something beautiful, and it’s like — they think — huh. Y’know who I wanna make smile today?”

Lance reaches out again, and this time he does aim for Keith’s face. He tucks the magnolia behind Keith’s ear — a striking contrast to the dark shade of his hair — and says, “You.”   

Keith swallows. Then again. And again, but his throat feels just as dry. His legs are a little wobbly, too, now that he thinks about it. But, still, he smiles. Because he can’t help it. Because —

Huh.

Suddenly his point seems very, very stupid.


 

“Red velvet.”

“Yep.”

“Lemon meringue.”

“Right, again.”

“Mm… chocolate with raspberry filling.”

“Wow.”

“That’s… caramel — no! Hazelnut.”

Jesus.”

“What’d I tell you, babe?” Lance beams, eyes still sewn shut, as he polishes off the final sample from their tray. “Me and cake — we have a very intimate relationship. You should totally be jealous.”

After flower shopping had come cake tasting, and now they sit in an extravagantly posh bakery — the kind that makes pastries look like pieces of art, and takes custom orders months in advance — at a dainty bistro table, so tiny that their kneecaps touch beneath the marbled surface. The silver platter before them is all crumbs and smears of frosting at this point, but moments ago it housed a variety of different cake samples, cubed into perfectly bite-sized pieces. And it hadn’t lasted very long. Not after Keith dared to challenge Lance’s cake flavor expertise.

“Hn,” hums Keith, swiping a finger through a leftover dollop of frosting, and letting it hover in front of his lips. “Right. Consider me threatened.”

“Ooh, someone’s confident.”

“I’ve got insurance.” 

“Well, cake has delicious vanilla buttercream.”

Keith lifts his frosting-tipped finger, and Lance laughs.

There’s no reason for them to be talking this way. Or sitting this way, feet entwined, elbows bumping as they rest against the small tabletop. Or smiling this way, soft and golden in the afternoon sunlight that spills through lacy, pastel curtains. The rest of the family is sufficiently preoccupied — discussing cake toppers, and marveling at the other alluring desserts on display. No one is watching, no one is listening. It’s just them.

Keith licks the frosting from his finger, leaving a spot of sugary residue on the corner of his mouth. Lance reaches out to wipe it away, but his own frosting-stained thumb ends up smudging the mess even farther along Keith’s bottom lip. They both begin snickering helplessly.

“Nice job,” Keith snorts.

“C’mere —”

Lance kisses him. He rises an inch out of his seat, leans across the empty tray, and holds Keith’s jaw as he kisses him. It’s sweet, and slightly sticky, but Keith likes it, anyway.

And he’s not even a dessert person.       

 


 

That night, when Keith enters the bedroom after brushing his teeth, he finds Lance already in bed, asleep, with his hoard of too many pillows.

“Lance,” Keith calls from the doorway.

Nothing.

He tries again: “Lance.”

More nothing.

Lance does wriggle a bit, pillows rustling around him, but then he stills his body again — too exhausted, too deeply unconscious.

And Keith doesn’t have the heart to wake him, to remind him that it’s his week to suffer on the couch. He can’t do it, and he feels a disgustingly large knot in his stomach just from thinking about doing it. 

So he climbs into bed, tugs on the sheets as he settles onto his carefully designated half of the mattress, and tells himself he’ll feel better in the morning.

 


 

He does not feel better in the morning.

Keith accidentally wakes up early, and starts counting Lance’s freckles again.

Still thirteen of them, each one adorable.

Lance’s nose crinkles, and he grunts softly, but his eyes remain shut; impossible to tell if he’s still asleep or just delirious.

“Lance,” whispers Keith.

Nyma,” mumbles Lance.

The knot in Keith’s stomach coils and constricts, tangling violently, growing so large that it shoves against his insides.

Keith rolls over, away from Lance, and pretends he didn’t hear it.

Chapter Text

. . .

It takes an entire day for the ring around Keith’s neck to stop suffocating him. It hangs there, ablaze against his bare chest, strangling him, feeling like a trillion-pound anchor that sinks him down to the bottomless depths, leaving him as good as drowned. 

And it takes another day for it to stop feeling like anything at all.    


 

Lance gets the sensation that he’s being watched.

But it’s not nearly as creepy or spine-tingling as it should be because he already knows exactly where the watching is coming from.

He glances down at the formica tabletop. A cardboard cup sits in front of him, with only a sip or two of caramel blonde roast left at the bottom. He glances to the side, gaze flitting across the quiet café. It’s calm, with only a handful of patrons occupying the other booths — which is to be expected for a late afternoon on a mundane Thursday. He glances to his other side, where Keith’s head is resting on his shoulder. They’re huddled close on the same side of the booth, and Lance’s arm is lazily snaked around Keith’s waist, and Keith’s eyes are just as lazily skimming the book he has laying open on the table’s surface.         

Then Lance glances over his opposite shoulder, toward the front counter, just in time to see the tops of two very familiar heads disappear behind the espresso machine.

He fucking knew it.

“You okay?” Keith asks when he feels Lance shift beside him.

“Yeah, just gonna grab a refill,” says Lance, whirling back around, and reaching for his near-empty cup. “Want anything?”

“No, thanks.”

A smile, and then Lance goes, feeling ridiculously light on his feet for some reason. He strolls up to the cash register, right where Hunk and Pidge are now suspiciously loitering in their matching green aprons, and places his cup gingerly onto the counter. His friends turn, sporting vaguely guilty and not-so-vaguely bewildered expressions.

“Okay, so, uh — gonna be honest here —” Hunk scratches the back of his head. “— I’m confused.”

“Well, y’see, I have this addiction to caffeine, and my cup is pretty much empty, so…”

Pidge leans her elbows onto the counter conspiratorially. “He’s referring to you and your darling hubby over there.”

From behind the glare of her over-sized glasses, Pidge’s eyes travel the length of the café. Lance follows her gaze, and it leads him straight to the sight of Keith, sitting there, hunched over his book.   

Lance’s eyebrow twitches. “Yeah, and?” 

“It’s just that I thought you two were supposed to be pretending to be into each other,” says Hunk, wary.

“We are pretending.”

“Mm,” Pidge tilts her head in disbelief. “Is that why you’ve been cuddling the shit out of him for the past hour?”

Lance outright balks, spluttering a series of incredulous huffs and scoffs, most likely in an effort to distract from the color tinging his cheeks. Because he’s shocked — not flustered. Yeah. Definitely not that. 

“Whoa-ho-ho. Whoa. Pump the breaks. Time out. Pause. That’s what this is about?”

“Are you denying it?”

“Yes! As a matter of fact, I am. So lemme just… First of all — coffee me good, Hunk,” and he shoves his cup so close to his friend’s nose that Hunk has no choice but to take it, and skulk over to the coffee pots. Lance continues with an indignant sniff, “Second of all, that’s — totally not cuddling. Okay? We’re just sitting really close with our arms around each other.”

“So cuddling. But go on.”

“And third of all!” Lance barrels on. “Even if we were cuddling — which we’re not — what’s so wrong with a little dude-on-dude casual snuggle sesh every now and then? I mean, we’re already sleeping together —”

You’re sleeping together?!”

Pidge and Hunk nearly combust at the exact same time — the former’s chin almost hitting the counter, and the latter almost throwing hot coffee all over himself. And Lance shushes them like a pair of rowdy children, flapping his hands, clambering to amend his unintentionally poor phrasing before his friends really do combust.

“As in sharing a bed,” he hisses sharply. “Like, to literally sleep, you nasties!”

And it’s true. They sleep. They always tuck themselves away beneath the sheets without much conversation. Maybe it’s exhaustion, or maybe it’s because they both feel that the banality of smalltalk is just too indelicate to handle when slipping into bed with another person. But it’s always a comfortable silence. And Lance always sleeps soundly. And he always notices how Keith hugs the very edge of the mattress, careful to avoid any accidental touching or brushing of limbs. And yet, somehow, when morning comes, they always seem to wake up in each other’s faces, bodies curled toward one another. Still not touching, but so close that they might as well be. Close enough to feel breath on their skin, and heartbeats in their ears.

“Lance, how can you be this dense?” Pidge interrupts his musings. “You’re sleeping in the same bed. You’re snuggling in public.”

“Because we’re pretending.”

“Yeah, but if there’s no one around to watch you pretend, then the pretending isn’t really pretending anymore, dude,” says Hunk, thoughtfully, returning with a freshly refilled cup. “Then it’s just kinda… doing.”

Lance takes a moment to be impressed, and then shakes his head, remembering that he’s miffed. “This is no time to quote fortune cookies, Hunk! I’m being serious!”

“So are we,” Pidge sighs, and levels Lance with a withering stare, searching for nonexistent cracks in his stubborn resolve. Eventually she deflates a bit, and says, regretfully, somberly, “Look, Lance… Keith isn’t Nyma.”

Plunk. His stomach nosedives all the way down to the soles of his shoes, hollow and aching, and he winces because the words are as swift as a paper cut, but as intense as a freight train plowing him down on the tracks. It feels like his skin is suddenly too tight around his bones, like he’s shriveling, shrinking, and he hates it.   

“I know,” he somehow manages to croak.

“Then stop treating him like he is before he gets hurt. Or you get hurt. Again.”

Lance throws another look toward the booth, and Keith is still there, reading. His bottom lip is gently clamped between his teeth, just like it always is whenever he gets lost in the pages. His messy hair is pulled back with a piece of elastic, just like it always is whenever he gets involved in something that requires concentration, little distraction.

Lance blinks, and in that split second of darkness, he sees her. She’s sketching, under a cloudless sky, and blonde tendrils are falling around her face, and the tip of her tongue is peeking out from between her lips. 

Lance breathes, lungs heavy.

He’s doing it again.

He’s trying too hard. He’s wanting too much. He’s moving too fast.

And nobody can keep up with him.

 


 

“You’re acting weird,” Keith points out bluntly on their way home, as they round the tree-lined street corner to their block, because their trips around town aren’t usually this quiet. Lance is usually chatting up a storm, going on about his day, or a joke he read on the internet, or why he thinks pigeons are smarter than everyone gives them credit for, as a small flock of them coo and waddle along the curb.

And Keith will usually smile, or hum in acknowledgement, or argue that pigeons are just sewer rats with wings, or sometimes, on occasion, he’ll even laugh at one of Lance’s dumb internet jokes.

But right now there’s none of that. They trudge through a thick swamp of silence — just the faraway rumble of car engines, cooing pigeons, and heavy footsteps on concrete.

And it’s weird.     

The accusation makes Lance flinch a little, just a small shudder of movement, as if he’s being pulled abruptly from a daydream. As if he’s forgotten that Keith is here at all, and the sound of his voice is as jarring as a blaring siren. Like he said — weird.   

“Am I?” Lance says distantly, oddly. 

“Yeah.”

Huh.”

And the chuckle that follows is so tinny, so artificial, so utterly un-Lance-like that Keith has to snap his head to the side, brow furrowing as he observes Lance looking very much like a shadow of himself. Hands are buried deep into the pockets of his worn jeans, and he’s staring ahead, into the orange horizon, with every muscle in his jaw held perfectly taut.

Really weird.

“Are you feeling okay?” Keith ventures.

“M’fine.” 

Keith just frowns.

He manages to keep his mouth shut for the remainder of their walk home — an impressive show of restraint for someone who runs on rampant impulse. But he worries about saying the wrong thing. Or saying the right thing, and having it come out much harsher than intended. Or — perhaps worst of all — saying the perfect thing, and risk laying his heart open bare, exposing all the desirous feelings he has for Lance once and for all; the ones that ache, and thrum, and, secretly, want to be seen.    

God, he really sucks at this.

Keith’s thoughts, and their mutual silence, carry them all the way to their apartment building. Lance ducks his head as he bounds through the front door, almost letting it swing back into Keith’s face as he makes a beeline for the elevator. Side-stepping the backswing, Keith ambles inside, taking note of every jerky movement, every shallow breath, the way Lance pounds an impatient thumb into the illuminated button.

He hesitates, unsure. “Are you — upset about something?”      

“Keith,” Lance says at once, spinning around so suddenly that, this time, Keith is the one who flinches. “Dude. Buddy. Compadre. I’m fiiiine. More than fine — fantastic, actually. Fine and fantastic. Fine-tastic.

Keith squints doubtfully.

The elevator interrupts them with a groan, stirring within the paint-chipped walls, and Lance whips back around to jab his finger into the button again, repeatedly, with vehemence. 

“Stupid piece of junk,” he mutters under an agitated breath. 

“Lance.”

Then the elevator stutters from a few stories above, and Lance groans an unintelligible noise before pivoting on his heel. “I’m taking the stairs,” he announces brusquely.   

In a frustrated flurry, he makes a break for the stairwell, and Keith hurries after his retreating back, led by the dread pooling in his gut. He climbs the steps two at a time to keep up with Lance’s longer strides. 

“Lance,” Keith calls out again, the sound of his own voice pebbling the skin on his arms as it echos eerily off the walls, along with their racing footsteps. He reaches out, nearly stumbling in his haste, and seizes Lance’s hand. “Hey. Talk to me.”

God,” Lance cries, halting on the top step, anchored by Keith’s grip. “It’s like you want me to be having a mental breakdown!”

The pad of Keith’s thumb sweeps, unthinkingly, along Lance’s knuckles, quick and featherlight. “I want you to tell me what’s wrong.”

“What are you doing?”

When Keith takes a moment to actually notice, he catches Lance eyeing their laced fingers. Glaring, more like.    

“…Holding your hand.”

“Why?”

It comes out so sharp, so pithy, and still so un-Lance-like that it sends Keith tripping over his words, wrestling with his tongue, gone tangled with confusion.    

“I — It’s just… a thing we do. I guess.”

“But why?”

Then Keith wrenches his hand away when he can no longer stand that demanding tone, and thinks he sees Lance’s fingers twitch in response, silently protesting the loss of contact. But he chalks it up to imagination, a cruel trick of the mind, and growls, “You tell me.” 

“You can’t just —” Lance, at least, has the decency to look riled, arms folding stiffly over his chest. “— I asked you first!”

A scoff. “Real mature.”

“I’m not — you — just shut up, Keith!”

His sneakers screech unforgivingly against the tile floor as he, once again, turns his back on Keith, and exits the stairwell, bursting into the second floor hallway. And Keith, once again, being the fool that he is, follows him.   

It’s a slow, depressing chase to the end of the hall, and Keith thinks about staying quiet again; how easy it would be to just let Lance win this round, and forget this ever happened. But those aching, thrumming feelings are getting harder to ignore, harder to stifle. So he gives in, allowing the satisfyingly familiar warmth of impulse to simmer in his veins, and grabs for Lance’s shoulder right as they reach their apartment door.

“It’s —” Keith blurts. “—It’s because I like it.” 

Lance is startled into stillness, fingers paralyzed inside his pocket, mid-search for his keys, and fixes Keith with an unblinking gaze. “What —”

“Holding your hand. I like it,” says Keith, because he can’t not say it now that it’s hanging expectantly in the space between their locked eyes. “So that’s why.”

His heart throbs, counting the beats of passing silence like a stopwatch.

And Keith kind of wishes that Lance would go back to blabbering about pigeons. Because literally anything is better than this. 

Lance hangs his head, and says, hushed, “Keith…”

But just then, right as Keith’s stomach feels like it’s trying to claw its way up his throat, the door to the apartment bursts open, creaking on its hinges, and the beaming faces of Lance’s family members are gathered ceremoniously in the entryway.

“Surprise!” they shout in unabashed, oblivious joy.

Keith’s hand slides off and away from Lance’s shoulder, creeping back to his side despite the longing. And Lance sways on his feet, looking, for a moment, like his legs might just buckle beneath the weight of his shock. But, as usual, he recovers quite seamlessly, banishing all traces of panic from his wide-eyed stare until Keith can’t tell where Real Lance ends or Fake Fiancé Lance begins.

“Guys! What the fff —” Lance steals one hesitant look at his giggling niece and nephew, and clamps down hard on his tongue. “— fudge nuggets… What are you doing? And how’d you get in here?”

Veronica, who stands at the forefront of the group, a willing ringmaster to their enthusiasm, waves an unconcerned hand. “Easy. Marco sweet-talked your landlady into unlocking the door for us.”

Ew, dude,” Lance makes a face. “Mrs. Haggar is so old she can barely chew her own food.”

Marco leans against the doorframe, not-so-subtly flexing his other arm, and sounds entirely too proud of himself as he retorts, “Age is just a number at the gun show, Lancey.”

The twins giggle even more riotously, and nobody is even surprised when Luis’ palm goes smacking against the back of Marco’s skull. Again.

Shaking off the disgust, Lance drawls, “‘Kay. Fascinating. So you made Marco hit on a ninety-year-old senior citizen because…?”

“Because,” Veronica huffs on the tail-end of a sigh, as if it should already be obvious, “we needed to get your place ready for the engagement party before you got home.”

“Our what?” Lance stares dumbly. “But — we didn’t know anything about a party.”

Luis chuckles, quietly amused. “Hence the whole surprise, little bro. Three guesses whose idea that was.”

“Well, you know how much I hate being right.”

“Everyone refocus!” Veronica bellows, in lieu of a proper segue, when the boys begin to snicker at her expense. Then she bends over just enough to ruffle the twins’ hair, whispering into their ears, “Wanna do what we practiced?”

The pair nearly start vibrating in their skin, the anticipation far too great for their small bodies to contain. And it’s undoubtedly charming how consciously rehearsed their movements are as they skip forward, revealing two red roses from behind their backs. Lance accepts Izzy’s rose with a smile, and a “Why, thank you, pretty lady”, while Keith looks down fondly at Gabe’s toothy grin, and says, “Thanks.”

Lance and Keith are led inside by the tug of those tiny hands, only to discover that every inch of the apartment has been lovingly embellished by what appears to be every single piece of celebratory paraphernalia that Party City has in stock. There are streamers, willowy and silver, dancing overhead, along with bulging balloons, and a large, swooping banner that reads ‘congratulations!’ in a fancy, curly font. It’s makeshift, at best, and world’s away from the caliber of engagement party that Veronica is probably capable of throwing, but it’s a valiant effort, nonetheless. Touching, even.

But wholly unnecessary, Keith thinks glumly, watching a poorly-inflated balloon drift slowly to the floor.

Celia emerges from the kitchen with Nico wiggling happily in her arms, followed by Mariana with a tray of bubbling champagne flutes, and two plastic cups of apple juice for the kids. Both of them are trailed by a delicious aroma wafting from the other room, and Keith can’t recall an instance when this kitchen has produced anything that’s been considered appetizing and home-cooked at the same time.

“Grab a drink, everyone,” Mariana says. “Does anybody have any words before we toast?”

“Shouldn’t that be you and Luis’ job?” Marco smirks, swiping a glass off the tray. “People expect you to know stuff after being married for, like, a thousand years.”

Luis sidles up to his wife, falling into place at her side so naturally that it’s near impossible to imagine one without the other. “It’ll be seven this fall.”

“Yeah, but you two have been dating for way longer than that,” Veronica reminds them. “I mean, Mari, you’re basically the sister I never had.”

“You’re right,” and Mariana leans into Luis’ shoulder once the tray has been emptied. Her eyes flit around the room, lingering on Keith as she explains, “Luis and I have been together since junior high, if you can believe it.”

Luis’ angular face lights up with a bright, playful spark that reminds Keith so much of Lance that it makes his chest flutter.

“We were in the same homeroom,” he adds, remembering. 

“Mhm, and I had a huge crush on him.”

“Which she did nothing about.” 

“I was shy,” Mariana argues, lips puckering around a giggle. “Besides, you were no better. You ignored me every time I tried talking to you.”

“Because I was terrified!” Luis argues back, and then turns to his family with a resigned shrug. “Look, you guys, Mariana was the prettiest girl in school, and I was just some math geek with a unibrow.”

Marco tosses his head back, and guffaws loudly at the memory.

“But then he finally worked up the nerve to ask me out,” Mariana continues. Her delicate nose scrunches in amusement. “And do you know what we did on our first date?”

Luis’ fingers pinch prematurely at the bridge of his nose. “Oh, god —”

“He made me help him study for his algebra test.”

The McClains splutter with laughter, sharing head shakes and eye rolls in a way that suggests to Keith that this isn’t unexpected behavior from their resident golden boy.

“Hey,” Luis tries to interrupt, unembarrassed, though his cheeks do appear to be glowing happily. “We also went out for ice cream.”

Mariana pokes a finger into his chest. “Yeah, after we sat in your room and read your entire textbook from front to back.”

Luis raises his eyebrows at her, and she responds by raising hers back just as high. A wordless exchange, Keith notices. A lover’s language. 

“And for some reason she still agreed to a second date.”

“You really want to know why?” she asks, soft. “It was because you made time for me, even when you were busy and stressed out. You wanted me there, when you could’ve easily blown me off.” 

A hand slips around her waist, resting there comfortably where it belongs. “And you stayed and supported me, when you could’ve just gone home.”

“We’re not claiming to know everything about marriage, but that’s our advice. Support each other. Life will continue to throw hurdles your way. The only difference now is that you have to figure out how to jump them together.”

Luis nods in agreement. “It’s about spending the rest of your life with the person you want by your side through the lows and the highs.”

“The person you’ll wake up next to fifty years later and still feel like that shy thirteen-year-old girl doodling hearts on her homework.”

He ducks his head, and she lifts up onto her toes, and they meet somewhere in the middle for a gentle kiss. It’s fleeting, with a practiced swiftness about it, but the twins still erupt in a rowdy chorus of eww’s, which makes their parents break apart, and the rest of the family chuckles.

“Anyway!” Mariana grins, giving her husband’s rosy cheek a quick pat before pinning Lance and Keith with her honeyed gaze. “Lance, Keith… We know your marriage will be full of endless happiness, for many years to come.”

“Lance, I’m so proud of you. And Keith?”

Keith looks to Luis, overwhelmed.

“I can never thank you enough for taking care of my little brother,” he finishes.

Mariana hoists her drink into the air. “To Lance and Keith,” she announces.

“To Lance and Keith,” everyone echos.

They all take turns toasting. Congrats’ and thank you’s are exchanged. Keith pauses when his glass makes it around the room, circling back to Lance. Something falters in his smile, Keith notices, but his eyes have never burned bluer.

Tink, chirps the rim of Keith’s glass as he taps it against Lance’s.

Lance turns away, and swallows down all of his champagne in one large gulp.

 


 

The rest of the evening passes as expected. The other family members take turns giving their own congratulatory toasts, full of heartfelt words and sincere well wishes. Lance smiles through it all.

The siblings regale Keith with countless stories about many of Lance’s past romantic endeavors; good-intentioned teasing that highlights some of the more amusing blunders and mishaps. Lance smiles through it all.

Later, when the children begin growing drowsy, Izzy crawls into Lance’s lap, nestles against his chest, and quietly asks if he’ll still love her even after he marries Keith. Lance smiles, kisses the top of her head, and promises that he always will.

And now, Keith lays in bed, fatigue-beaten eyes glaring at the ceiling, and thinks about all of it. The toasts, the teasing, the smiles that fall a few inches shy of Lance’s eyes. Each one plays over and over inside his head until they start to feel more like nightmares than memories, and no amount of tossing and turning can hope to chase away the fear — and Keith would know. He understands fear as that smoldering flame inside his gut, burning him from the inside out, and igniting all the fragile, more vulnerable parts of himself that he’d much rather snuff out. But this fear is different. This fear coils angrily around his heart, almost suffocating, demanding to be felt. It rips, and snarls, and bares its ugly fangs like the monster that it is. And Keith wants nothing more than to gather Lance up in his arms, kiss every faulty smile off his lips, and keep him safe.          

The sound of the air conditioning unit whirring to life startles him. His eyes widen and, through the darkness, the alarm clock’s big red numbers blink back at him from the bedside table. It’s well past midnight, and the other side of the mattress is still empty and cold. Keith squeezes his eyes shut, trying to ignore it, but his mind is restless, and his eyelids are sore, so he tosses the bedsheets aside, and pads quietly over to the door.

There’s a single lamp still aglow in the living room, and it swathes half of Lance’s face in golden hues from where he sits on the couch. He’s no longer smiling. Instead, he lets his shoulders sag, and stares glumly into a mug of hot chocolate cradled between his palms. It looks untouched.

“Hey,” Keith says from the doorway, throat raspy and dry. “It’s late.”

Lance perks up slowly, and glances toward the bedroom, hiding his face in the shadows. “Midnight snack,” he explains weakly.

Keith walks closer, knees shaky. 

“Can I sit?” he asks.

Lance nods.

Their shoulders brush as Keith lowers himself down beside Lance, couch springs whining beneath the added weight. Neither of them speak at first, but Lance kind of looks like he wants to as he continues peering down into his drink, as if the floating swirls of melted marshmallows will somehow help him find the right words.

But when nothing seems to be forthcoming, he murmurs, “Keith?” 

“Yeah?”

“You —” He swallows, closes his eyes, starts again. “—If you wanna leave, you can leave, y’know.”

Keith gives a small, determined shake of his head. “I don’t mind sitting here a while.”

“No, I mean — you can leave,” and Lance swallows harder, opens his eyes, and continues, “Like, this. Us, I guess. If you want out… Just say it. I won’t try to talk you out of it.”

Keith waits for a punchline that doesn’t exist, a sarcastic quip to spin Lance’s words around, and make them softer to digest. But nothing happens, and Keith’s brain is left reeling with the dreadful notion that Lance might actually be serious. 

“What—” he breathes, air punching out of his lungs, “—are you saying —”

When Lance no longer trusts the stability of his grip, he sets his mug onto the coffee table, mouth still trembling out a slipstream of awful words. “No hard feelings or anything. I get it, okay? I mean, I wouldn’t wanna pretend to marry me either.”

“Lance, I’m not —”

“And if you still need a place to live — we can figure something out — s’not like I’m just gonna toss you out on the street —”

“Do you want me to leave?”

Lance finally pulls his gaze up from his lap, eyes glossy, lips frowning.      

“I know you wanna leave,” he whispers, breath hitching. Moisture creeps to the edge of his waterline, dangerously close to spilling, but a hasty swipe of his hand clears it away. “‘Cause why wouldn’t you wanna leave? You never asked for this — you never asked for any of this, Keith. When you went home with some random guy from the bar, you didn’t know you’d be dragged into this fucking mess. My fucking mess. And — god, I’m so sorry, Keith —”

That coiling fear in Keith’s chest starts to expand, running like molten lava through his veins, down to the tips of his fingers.   

“Lance — c’mere. Listen to me,” and suddenly those fiery fingertips are curving around Lance’s cheek, desperately holding him together before he can fall apart, catching a stream of hot tears as they run down the length of his face. “If I didn’t think I could go through with this, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

“Maybe you can go through with it, but —” His bottom lip wobbles, so he bites down hard until it hurts. “—maybe I can’t. I thought I could do it. Like, I seriously thought —” A strangled sob. “—but I can’t. It’s just… it’s too much…”

Keith holds his breath, heartbeat bruising against his breastbone, as the pad of his thumb smooths along the corner of Lance’s watery eye. Keep him safe, keep him safe.

“A-And then tonight… When Luis and Mariana were talking about support and… spending the rest of your life with that one person, it was like — it really hit me. I want that. I want that so bad, Keith. And I was supposed to have it with — with Nyma, but she didn’t want me. Me. It was me, I’m the problem.”

“You’re not a problem,” Keith whispers. The fear thrashes violently.

Ashamed and embarrassed, Lance recoils, just enough to break away from Keith’s gentle touch. “No. I’m weird, and clingy, and desperate, and — god — I don’t know how to turn my fucking heart off for a change!” 

Keep him safe, keep him safe, keep him safe.

“I wasn’t good enough for her. I’m not even good enough for something fake,” he inhales a wet sniffle, eyes glistening with fresh tears. “So… just say the word. We can end it all. It’s okay.” 

And then something hideous and unruly threatens to burst at Keith’s seams, tearing his body in two. He feels himself overflowing with it, drowning in it — but, this time, it’s not the fear. This monster is quicker, stronger, more feral, and it rises to the surface like a plume of smoke.

It’s rage.

And this, too, is something that Keith understands. It’s the kind of rage that blurs his vision in shades of red, curls his hands into fists, and rattles so intensely through his bones that he’s nearly lightheaded. His blistering stare singes straight through Lance’s tear-stained skin, and, for a brief second, Keith isn’t sure whether he wants to scream in his face or cradle him in his arms.

He does neither of those things.

Instead, he stands, nostrils flared and lips pressed into a rigid line. Then he turns over his shoulder, and, without a word, walks away.

“Keith?” Lance calls after him, a little despairingly, as he watches him disappear into the kitchen.

There’s the sound of frantic rummaging, then the slamming of a drawer. And when Keith marches back into the living room, it’s with blinding chaos clouding his eyes, and a large carving knife in hand.

“H-Holy shit!” Lance shrieks, scrambling so quickly to his feet that he almost cracks his skull on the edge of the coffee table. “Keith, what the fuck —”

Keith says nothing. He just keeps stomping forward.

“Dude, when I said ‘end it all’ I didn’t literally mean —”

He still doesn’t stop. Lance backs away, terrified, and Keith storms right past him, sights set on the far end of the room, where Nyma’s paintings hang on the wall.

“Keith, I’m serious, what are you —”

His arm swings back over his head, and, in one deft, barbaric motion, he stabs the knife into the first painting. A hair-raising, ear-splitting rip fills the room as Keith drags the blade down the center of the colorful canvas.

Lance’s damp eyes are blown wide in horror. “Are you fucking crazy?! Like, are you actually insane right now?!”

Keith whips around, breathing heavy, voice low and sinister like a volcanic rumble. “Why do you have these?”

“W-What?”

“The paintings, Lance!” Keith erupts, pointing furiously at the wide, gaping gash cutting through a once perfect landscape. “Her paintings. Why the hell are they in your apartment?”

“I —” Lance sounds like he’s choking on the words, like they can’t quite make it past the lump rising in his throat. “— I wanted something… to remember her, I guess.”

“Right. And how is that working out for you?”

Lance’s brow pinches into a scowl, or maybe it’s a wince. Either way, the brutal comment manages to cut even deeper than the blade still held tightly in Keith’s grasp. Lance feels it, severe and agonizing, all the way down to the marrow.

“You really think it’s helping anything?” Keith demands when Lance remains silent. “Do you? Clinging to the past? Hanging memories on the fucking wall so you’ll just keep feeling bad about yourself day after day—”

With a grunt, Keith pierces the canvas a second time, slashing another sizable wound perpendicular to the first. Lance goes slightly pale, but doesn’t even flinch — just stands there, transfixed, and feels the knife rip through him again.

“You’re better than this, Lance!”

Keith roars, pupils blown wide with frenzy, and it vibrates the entire apartment, ricocheting off the floor, the ceiling, Lance’s skull. Lance watches, still dumbstruck, as Keith takes a deep, ragged inhale, and continues to shout until his throat is raw.

“It’s so fucking obvious, but you’re too blind to see it! And why? Because of some girl who was cruel enough to hurt you? Let go, Lance. You don’t deserve that. You don’t fucking deserve to feel like you’re not good enough for her or for anyone else — because you are good enough! God, you’re —” He rakes a hand through his untamed hair, and tugs. “— you’re so strong, and you have so much love, and you give it all away without expecting anything in return, and you care so fucking much about everyone, and you’re — you’re so much more, Lance! You’re more than the way some girl looks at you, or the way your family looks at you, or the way you look at yourself! You’re —”

Lance gasps. It’s silent, but it’s there. It hovers in front of his parted lips.

And Keith pauses, as if he can hear that inaudible gasp. As if the sight of Lance standing there, wrecked and beautiful, is enough to make him lose his train of thought. Keith’s voice goes soft, tenuous but earnest, when he finishes, “… you’re just — more.” 

Their hearts beat.

Their chests heave.

The ground shifts a little bit beneath their feet.

And then… It settles.

Lance finally blinks. “Keith…”

But Keith is interrupting him, holding the knife out by the hilt. “Your turn.”

“I don’t…” Lance starts to say. “…think I can…”

“Do it, Lance.”

Step by wobbly step, Lance moves closer. Past the couch, past Keith, until he’s face to face with the breathtaking French countryside, all sloping hilltops and purple lavender. He examines the brushstrokes, so smooth and masterful, the way they fill the canvas with color, with life, with memories. They seep like a slow poison through every crevice and aperture in his mind.

He sees her, holding his hand under the table at some seedy bar.

‘I’m so, so sorry, Lance…’

He sees her, eyes shimmering, as he slides the blue engagement ring onto her finger for the first time.

‘I never meant to hurt you…’

He sees her, standing by the doorway as he begs her, with everything he has, not to go. 

‘…But I just can’t go through with this…’

He sees the painting again, now just a jumbled mess of shapes and curves.

He’s more.

Sloppy swirls of color, bleeding together, ugly and distorted.

He’s more than that.

Because fuck that.

Lance cries out, an anguished, almost primal noise of frustration, as if he’s ridding himself of the poison through his voice alone. His vision filters in and out of clarity, and he isn’t sure if it’s due to a fresh round of tears or a powerful deluge of emotion. It’s most likely both as his hands clench, trembling at his side, and then he’s driving his fist into the heart of the painting. The thin canvas material breaks easily behind the strength of his blow, edges jagged and frayed around the hole where his fist punches through to the other side and —

—forcefully collides with the brick wall.

There’s a loud thump, and, simultaneously, a sickening crunch.

“Fuck!” Lance cries out again, still anguished, but this time about three octaves higher, and with a throbbing, searing pain shooting up his right arm. He quickly withdraws the hand, clutching it to his chest, and staggers backwards before crumbling to his knees. “Holy fucking — shit, fuck!”

“Lance, what the hell —” Keith rushes to him in an instant, knife clattering to the floor as he goes to kneel by his side. “You — c’mon, stop — hold still so I can look at it!”

“ —Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god —”

Keith manages to pry Lance’s hand away from his contorted body, now doubled over in pain, and examines the injury with a surprisingly soothing touch. The smooth, soft skin of his knuckles is already red and inflamed, swelling at an alarming rate, with a small but bloody abrasion near his middle finger. Certain areas are already starting to bruise in familiar shades of black and purple — a dark, twisted palette that reminds Keith of schoolyard scuffles and stolen bandages from his father’s medicine cabinet. 

“Jesus, Lance,” mutters Keith. “What were you thinking?”

“Me?” Lance squawks. “You’re the one who got me all fired up with that big emotional speech!”

“Well, you’re the one who decided to punch a brick wall!”

“I wanted to hit the painting! The wall just got in my way!”

“That’s the whole point of walls.”

“Stop being right!” Lance half-cries, half-whimpers. “It’s making the pain so much worse!” 

Even later, when they’re climbing into the car, en route to the hospital with a bag of frozen green beans pressed diligently against Lance’s hand, they don’t really stop bickering. 


 

“Mr. Kogane.”

With great effort, Keith blinks open his bleary eyes. The first thing he sees is a bright fluorescent light. 

“Mr. Kogane?”

Then, a person. The petite frame hovering over him slowly but surely comes into focus. Chestnut eyes, olive complexion, a stark white uniform. Keith vaguely recognizes her as the young nurse’s assistant from behind the front desk when he and Lance had barreled into the emergency room very late last night. Or maybe it had been very early this morning. Keith remembers how kind she’d been, how sweetly she’d explained that it might be a few hours before they can be taken back.

He also remembers collapsing into one of the stiff, plastic waiting room chairs, with Lance sniveling loudly at his side. And he’d been whimpering and whining so pitifully, apparently, that the poor nurse’s assistant had come over to offer a lollipop — the ones that are typically reserved for children under the age of twelve, Keith is certain. But Lance had appeared grateful as he plucked two from the bowl. He promptly stuffed the blue one into his mouth, and offered the red one to Keith, who quirked a questioning brow before accepting it. Then they continued to wait, sucking on their candy in silence.     

He remembers when one of the nurses had finally come to collect Lance, and then a clipboard with all sorts of meticulous paperwork had been shoved into his hands. Keith had glanced up just in time to see Lance before he disappeared around the corner. His eyes had still looked watery, but he was smiling, at least slightly, and gave Keith a little wave with his good hand.

Keith remembers his heart fluttering as he waved back.

However, he doesn’t remember falling asleep, curled up in the waiting room chair, with the clipboard still tucked under his arm. But apparently he had. Keith jolts to attention, unfurling his cramped limbs, and the clipboard slides off his lap, clattering to the floor.

“Where’s Lance?” he asks at once. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine,” the nurse’s assistant assures him, bending over to retrieve the clipboard, and looking very much in desperate need of a strong coffee. “But… he has some visitors.”

When Keith hears the rapid patter of footsteps stampeding down the hall, followed by the even more rapid sputtering of bombastic voices in a convoluted mess of both English and Spanish, he almost feels a twinge of sympathy for the young employee. Because while Lance’s incessant blubbering might’ve been considered a minor debacle, Keith happens to know that the arrival of the McClains is one impending fiasco that simply can’t be resolved with free lollipops.

A soft-spoken query: “Papa? Is Uncle Lance in trouble?”

A reassuring response: “No, sweetie, he just hurt his hand a little bit, that’s all.”

An annoyed interjection: “Oh, he’s in trouble, alright! Y’know, sometimes it’s like he doesn’t even give a shit about our schedule —”

A scandalized gasp: “Mom! Aunt Ronnie said a bad word!”

A weary sigh: “Yes, she certainly did…”

An amused chortle: “Yo — ten bucks says Lance is faking it just so Bridesmaid-zilla over here’ll get off his back —”

And, cutting through the commotion, a stern command: “Niños! Basta ya!”

Keith stands there, looking unkempt and dazed in the middle of the waiting room, when the family rounds on him like the unbridled flurry that they are. Celia reaches him first, pulling him into a bone-crushing hug, and murmuring words into his ear that Keith only half-understands as relief. Then the rest of them offer their own greetings and affection, passing Keith around as if he were the one just admitted into the hospital.

“Cariño,” Celia says, her forehead wrinkled with worry. “What on earth happened?”

Keith’s subconscious wails fiendishly in the background of his mind. 

‘Well, Celia — your son just pulverized his fist against a brick wall in a fit of pent-up, liberating fury against the girl he was supposed to be marrying until she left him for another man, leaving him heartbroken and desperate enough to recruit me as a replacement fiancé so you wouldn’t think he’s some pitiful sad sack who’s unworthy of love!’

But instead he blurts out, with astounding ineloquence, “Door.”   

Confusion makes its way around the room. 

“The door,” Keith elaborates awkwardly. “He closed the door… on his hand. By accident.”

Hopefully his floundering comes across as a concerned fiancé. Or, at the very least, a sleep-deprived one. A second passes that Keith swears feels more like an eternity, and then Celia is shaking her head, sighing with more relief. “Ay, that boy…”

Keith is beyond grateful when a tall, dark-haired doctor steps into the waiting area, and the McClains make him their next target, swarming him, and spewing questions that are much better suited for a professional. A fracture in his second metacarpal bone, the doctor tells them calmly. Severe bruising, and four stitches on his knuckle. Everyone bustles with concern, but Keith does his best to tune it out. He had been there. He had seen it all — every bruise, every drop of blood, every battered painting, every wet, shimmering tear.

“Family only,” the doctor instructs when someone asks to be taken back.

Veronica immediately loops her arm around Keith’s to drag him along, and Keith only feels slightly weird about it.

The halls are blindingly white, and smell strongly of lemon-scented disinfectant, but the closer they get to Lance’s room, the less Keith seems to notice his prickling eyes and stinging nostrils. Because there, in room 105, is Lance, sitting on the edge of his hospital bed, looking offensively handsome even beneath the harsh fluorescents. He grins when his family walks inside, arms open wide, welcoming the inevitable barrage of hugs. Keith lingers by the doorway, waiting.

His cheeks are dry, he notices. Not a single trace of that blue, heartbroken boy.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” Marco waves four of his digits annoyingly close to Lance’s face.

“I hit my hand, not my head.”

“How ‘bout now?” Marco lifts only his middle finger.

Lance swats it away, laughing. “Little shit.”

Celia pinches her son’s chin, and whispers something low that has Lance nodding obediently. Then she kisses him, once on either cheek, and once in the center of his forehead.

“Hey, guys, can I talk to Keith for a sec?” Lance asks when the room begins chattering again. “Alone?”

Marco smirks impishly. “Whoa, dudes, in a hospital? That’s kinky with a capital —”

Veronica shoves her brother’s back, ushering him, along with the others, toward the door. “We’ll be waiting outside!”

They offer smiles at Keith as they file out of the room, but Keith is a little too bewildered to return them properly. Luis is the last one to leave, and pats Keith’s shoulder before closing the door behind him with a definitive click.

Then the boys are left to stare, blinking back and forth like they’re seeing each other for the first time.

“Um,” says Keith, scuffing the toe of his boot against the floor. “How’s the hand?”

“Eh, y’know. It’s definitely seen better days,” and Lance gives his bandaged fingers an experimental wiggle, trying to make sense of how they work again. “It’ll probably hurt way more once the pain killers wear off, huh?”

“We’ll pick up some ice packs on the way home.”

“Yeah,” says Lance. “Thanks.” 

This can’t be it, Keith thinks. This can’t really be the reason why Lance had to dismiss his family — to have a private discussion about pain killers and ice packs. There’s something much heavier in the air, more potent than the lemon disinfectant, and it sends pangs of guilt right to Keith’s stomach as he watches Lance struggle with his swollen, slow-moving fingers. 

“I’m sorry for last night,” Keith mumbles when the sight makes him too restless and on edge to remain patient.

Lance goes still, then, and sighs with what Keith believes to be resignation.

“No, don’t be. What you said… I’ve been thinking about it all night,” Lance’s other hand tenses, gathering fistfuls of cheap, hospital-grade bedsheets at his side. “It's just -- nobody’s ever really said anything like that to me before… y’know?”

At this, Keith feels his jaw ache, biting back what’s left of the ardent flames that still burn within him. “Somebody should’ve,” he whispers.

“Did you mean it?”

When Keith looks over, he finds Lance offering his gaze. It’s meaningful, and intimate, and so fucking earnest that Keith pushes himself off the wall, and strides forward to take a seat beside Lance on the mattress.

“Of course I did,” he says, suddenly desperate for Lance to understand. He has to understand. “Lance, I — of course I did.” 

And Lance does understand. Or seems to, at least, as he nods his head, and smiles softly. Embarrassed, maybe, under the intensity of Keith’s eyes. “Okay. Cool. Cool, cool. Just checking.”

They’re angled toward each other, knees knocking together, and Keith wonders when that had happened, or why he doesn’t feel that invisible tether, that northward arrow that always, somehow, leads him to Lance.

“Hey, can I say something kinda crazy?” Lance nibbles on his bottom lip. “And I swear it’s not just the meds talking.” 

“Shoot.”

“I know it’s fake. Us. The whole fiancé thing, I mean. But… being with you, just being around you… it’s —” Lance traces along the curves and angles of Keith’s face with his blue eyes, slow and deliberate, memorizing as he goes. “— sometimes it feels real.”

Keith opens his mouth, but no air passes through. Just a hoarse, bewildered, “Oh.”

Lance winces. “Too crazy?”

“No,” Keith responds at once. “I think, maybe — some parts are real.”

“Which parts?” Lance whispers.

Keith feels the back of his neck prickling with heat. Then, with a tentative hand, he rests his palm against Lance’s cheek, stroking a thumb over the line of his jaw. “This part,” he answers.

Lance leans into the touch.

“And,” Keith breathes, “this part.” 

He dips forward, and Lance’s mouth is already there, waiting and wanting. They come together for a tender kiss, lips barely brushing until they’re both dizzy with the anticipation of it. A gasping breath — from who, neither can say — and then lips meet again, more firm this time, savoring and slow. Keith’s other hand reaches out for the back of Lance’s neck. He finds him there, warm beneath his touch, like magnetism.

Like a compass pointing due north.

Chapter Text

. . .

Once it’s determined that the swelling is under control, Lance is released from the hospital with a fresh bandage, another lollipop from the friendly nurse’s assistant, and very strict orders from his doctor.

“Apply an ice pack for the swelling, and take naproxen every twelve hours for the pain, if needed,” the doctor had instructed during his final check-up. “But above all — do yourself a favor and just take it easy for the rest of the day, alright?”

Needless to say, Veronica is not very pleased with this news.

“You were supposed to get fitted for your tux this afternoon!” she huffs childishly on their way out to the parking lot.

Lance yanks the lollipop out of his mouth with a crude pop, and huffs back, “Well, sorry that my hospitalization is a big inconvenience for you!”

His sister purses her lips, whips out her phone, fingers tapping away as she mumbles down at the screen, “I guess I can reschedule…”

“You guys should do something fun instead. Go out, hit the town, have a ball,” Lance suggests breezily, waving his bulky, bandaged hand into the air, as if any of them need a reminder. “Just ‘cause I have to sit around and suffer doesn’t mean everyone has to.”

There’s deliberation among the family, with a few restaurants and activities tossed around for the sake of suggestion. Keith, however, remains dutifully at Lance’s side — just as he has been ever since one of the nurses accidentally walked into the hospital room to find them joined at the lips, faces red, hair mussed — making it abundantly clear through his body language alone that he’ll be staying with Lance, regardless of the family’s decision. After all, it only makes sense that he should be the one to keep vigil at his fiancé’s bedside during the recovery period. 

Or, fake fiancé.

Or, guy-he-kissed-after-days-of-excruciating-and-confusing-pining-but-hasn’t-had-a-chance-to-define-things-with-yet-because-it’s-all-so-new-and-still-kind-of-excruciating-and-confusing.

Something like that.

As the McClains continue their messy forum, Luis and Mariana share a wary look. It hangs, unspoken, between their gazes for a moment, and then settles downward at the wiggling baby in Mariana’s arms. Another secret language, gifted to them by nearly seven years of marriage, Keith suspects. 

“I don’t know,” Mariana sighs regretfully, hollow exhaustion suddenly visible in the subtle droop of her eyelids. “Nico has been fussy all morning. Luis and I should probably take him back to the hotel for a nap —”

“Make way for the lame parade!” Marco gibes, followed by a higher-pitched, gigglier echo from Gabe, who currently rides piggyback on his uncle’s sturdy shoulders.

“Nah, c’mon, Mom and Dad — you guys deserve a break, too,” Lance frowns. And then, inspired, “How ‘bout you leave Nico with us?”

It takes Keith an embarrassingly long second to realize that ‘us’ includes himself. His eyebrows shoot like arrows up to his hairline, and he says, with poorly-concealed horror, “What?”

“Yeah! Since Keith and I are basically gonna be prisoners in our own apartment for the afternoon, might as well be helpful prisoners,” Lance is saying, nothing short of thrilled as he wraps an arm snugly around Keith’s waist. “Plus it’ll be good practice for the future, when we’re up to our necks in our own little precious, slobbery bundles of joy. Right, babe?”

Keith makes a concerning, choking sort of noise, tries to disguise it as a cough, and then gives another equally horrified, but slightly more assertive, “What.”

“See?” chirps Lance, undeterred. “We’ve already got the whole passive-aggressive, not-really-listening-to-each-other thing down, so we’re already, like, halfway to parenthood.”

Luis adjusts his glasses with a sigh, and Mariana holds back a chuckle from behind the press of her lips.

“Well,” Luis finally says, “As long as you’re sure.”

And just like that, baby accessories are gathered, packed, and exchanged. It seems excessive, in Keith’s opinion, with all the bags, and toys, and equipment, all for one tiny, miniature-sized person. But then again, Keith is no expert on the subject. He can’t even pretend to know the first thing about babies, or keeping them alive and happy for any length of time.

So it’s understandable when he reaches out a hand, gripping Lance’s elbow, and gives him a low, succinct warning of, “Lance.”

And Lance glances back, tongue swirling casually around the head of his lollipop, daring to meet Keith’s skeptical glare with a wink.

“Don’t sweat it, man,” he says, mouth pulling up on one side. “We got this.”

And Keith believes him.

At least for a little while.

Because, as it turns out, the first hour is easy enough. It involves a lot of silly noises and insufferable baby-talk on Lance’s end, and a lot of awkward standing around on Keith’s. He loiters by the kitchen entryway, watching from afar as Lance sits cross-legged on the living room floor with Nico in his lap. Lance puffs up his cheeks, sticks out his tongue, and contorts his face into a variety of ridiculous expressions like he’s made of elastic — and each one manages to pull a gurgle-y little baby laugh out of Nico.

“Is something leaking or is that just the sound of your heart melting over there?” Lance peeks over his shoulder, snickering.

Keith grows flustered, and retreats back into the kitchen.   

The second hour proves to be significantly more trying when Nico decides to become inconsolably upset, and wants everyone within a ten-mile radius to know about it. Keith spends the majority of this hour face-down in the sofa while Lance soothes, begs, and, at one point, even tries to reason with his screaming nephew (“I don’t want you to cry, and I know you don’t want you to cry, so why don’t we just help each other out here, huh?”). But nothing seems to work.

The manic wailing carries over into the third hour. Now they’re both hunkered around the bassinet, with Keith’s face buried in his palms, and Lance’s fingers dangling a small stuffed dolphin in front of Nico’s damp, scrunched up eyes. The bawling baby simply bats it away with his foot so mightily that he ends up tangled in his fluffy yellow blanket.

“How can something so small be so loud?” Keith grumbles miserably into his hands.

“Yeah, he’s got a nice pair of McClain lungs in him, that’s for sure,” Lance sighs, watching as the stuffed dolphin goes flying out of the bassinet. “Do you think he’s, like… sick? Or hurt?”

“How should I know? It seemed to be fine this morning.”

“Well, we gotta do something.”

Keith slowly lifts his head, fingertips dragging down his cheeks, and offers an empty, unhelpful gaze. “Maybe you should… pick it up?”

Feeling desperate and at a loss, Lance reaches into the bassinet.

“Okay, c’mere, buddy,” he says, carefully cradling the unhappy baby in his arms. “Uncle Lancey-Lance is gonna take you on a little walk.”

“A walk?” Keith snorts, scathing. “It’s screaming bloody murder and so you’re just gonna pace around this shoebox?”

Lance tries to keep up a soothingly steady pat against Nico’s back even as he narrows a scowl in Keith’s direction. “Got any better ideas, oh powerful baby whisperer?”

“I dunno — change its diaper, feed it, stick a cork in its mouth…”

“Keith!”

“I wasn’t being serious!”

And then Nico shrieks louder than both of them combined, so painfully shrill that Keith can actually feel the sound waves ricocheting against the inside of his skull like a maddening game of pinball. 

“Shh… I know, it’s okay, ‘lil guy. Don’t listen to grumpy Uncle Mullet,” Lance is cooing sweetly despite the pandemonium. “He’s just jealous that he’s been demoted to third cutest in the apartment.”

“Don’t pin this on me, Uncle Lancey-Lance,” Keith angrily clambers to his feet. “Your idea of a solution is to walk circles around the room while it wails its head off. If it were that easy, then babies wouldn’t cry — ever.”

“I’m just trying to calm him down, which is more than I can say for you!” Lance flings back. “He’s in a strange place with strange people, and he’s obviously freaking out about it. I want him to feel at home here!”

Another deafening screech. Keith inhales sharply, nostrils flared. “Really? ‘Cause I want it to pipe the fuck down so that we can take a second to breathe.”

“Fine!” And with a definitive huff, Lance holds the baby, writhing and red-faced with exertion, out toward Keith. “Then you can figure it out.”

“Wha —” he immediately recoils. “Don’t give it to me!”

“Quit calling him ‘it’, Keith! He’s a real, human baby!”

“Well, I still don’t wanna hold him!” 

Lance throws his head back, roaring, guttural and unintelligible, at the ceiling. “Yeah. Great. Awesome. Just leave all the work to the invalid,” he scoffs once his neck re-aligns. “We have to take turns!”

“You just picked him up,” snaps Keith. “Your turn’s not over yet!”

“Un-fucking-real, man!” Lance explodes, eyes flaring dangerously with something that Keith can’t quite distinguish as fury or utter exhaustion. “Keith ‘fights-anything-with-a-pulse’ Kogane is running away from the first whiff of adult responsibility just because it’s a little intimidating —”

“Look, you’re the one who volunteered us for babysitting duty,” Keith says, biting. “And I’m not intimidated by an infant.”

“Then do us all a fucking favor and take Nico on a walk around the room!”

“Fine!”

Fine!”

And then…

Nothing. Not a peep. 

Through all the mental clutter and boiling tempers, it suddenly dawns on them that the room has fallen deadly quiet.

Two pairs of frantic eyes dart down to Nico, who is now snoozing peacefully, his little fist gripping at the fabric of Lance’s shirt. And aside from the wetness trailing down his chubby cheeks, he leaves absolutely no evidence of the anguished turmoil happening moments before.

Lance breathes, cautious. “He… stopped?”

“Is it —” Keith fumbles over his words. “—is he broken?”

“I think our yelling actually put him to sleep,” concludes Lance. 

They look over at each other, eyes meeting, wide and bemused. 

Keith blinks.

Lance’s mouth quivers.

“Oh my god —”

Then, spurred on from either relief or lack of sanity, they both start laughing — soft, sputtering noises that they try desperately to keep clamped behind teeth and tightly pressed lips — while Nico snuggles soundlessly into Lance’s arms.

 


 

 

When Lance hears three gentle knocks on the door, he answers it with a finger held up to the curve of his mouth. On the other side, Mariana obliges, and lowers her voice to a whisper before asking, “So how’d it go?”

Lance wrinkles the bridge of his nose. “Halfway to parenthood might’ve been a little bit of a stretch.” 

She chuckles against the back of her palm, and peeks around the doorjamb to peer into the apartment. “I hope he didn’t give you guys too much trouble.”

Their gazes are drawn to the center of the room, where Keith is collapsed on the couch in a rather endearing state of repose. He’s fast asleep and snoring softly, every bit of him gone sated and slack. Nico lays flat on top of him, belly to chest, their breaths rising and falling in perfect sync. One of Keith’s arms hangs off the side of the couch, fingers loosely curled around a blue stuffed dolphin, while the other arm is draped over Nico’s tiny back, keeping him steady and safe. The sight is not unlike a lion and its cub, Lance thinks, though neither of them look particularly ferocious right now, all limp-limbed and snuggled close.

A sigh escapes through Lance’s lips, and it comes out sounding a little sappier than he would’ve liked. God, he must be more sleep-deprived than he thinks.

“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” Lance replies, turning back to Mariana.

She smiles something warm — as warm as Lance feels inside his chest — and says, “You two make a good team.”

The toys are collected. The bags are re-packed. The apartment is transformed back into its usual baby-less existence. Lance peels Nico away from Keith, mindful not to wake either of them, and hands the infant over to his mother’s waiting arms.   

“Thanks again, Lance,” whispers Mariana. “See you in a couple hours for dinner?”

“We’ll be there.”

A chaste kiss to Mariana’s cheek, and one for the top of Nico’s round head, and then Lance shuts the door behind them with a quiet click of the deadbolt. He leans back, feeling like he might crumple, or simply fall asleep right there with his back against the door. On any other day, Lance would be quick to rattle the walls with some music, or crack the window just to get some of the urban ambient noise sifting through — anything to overpower the almost eerily tranquil state of the apartment — but, right now, he doesn’t mind basking in the calm. He has a newfound appreciation for calm. He and calm might be able to see eye to eye, just this once. Calm is good. Calm is nice. Calm is — 

Keith, asleep on the couch.

Lance goes to him, crouches down where Keith’s arm is still flopping over the side of the cushion, and carefully slides the forgotten dolphin out of his limp grasp. Keith doesn’t stir. And Lance doesn’t think about fields of lavender, or the smell of watercolor paints, or the French countryside, or the winding streets of Marseille. His mind is still. And he doesn’t hear ringing bells, or crashing drums, or singing choirs, or any of the other raucous warning signs that tell him he’s falling. His heart is silent.   

This, Lance thinks, with fervor, with profound momentousness. This

This is something calm. It comes in on tip-toe, and whispers soft and sweet into his ear. Tells him to breathe. Tells him to slow down.

For once, Lance thinks again, maybe he isn’t moving too fast.

He sweeps some dark fringe away from Keith’s face, fingertips dragging over the relaxed slope of his lips.

And maybe when he finally gets to where he’s going — steady, in his own time — Keith will already be there waiting for him. 


 

 

He’s beaming.

It’s a gorgeous summer evening, and they’re at the local park, spread out on stolen blankets from the hotel room, and maybe it’s not a white-sanded beach off the coast of Varadero, where the ocean’s warm swell nips at his toes along the edge of a pearlescent shoreline, but Lance is still glowing brighter than the dusky moonlight overhead because his family is here, and, for the first time in a while, he finally feels like himself.

He thinks, giddily, that he could get used to this.

There’s Luis and Mariana, cooing softly at Nico, who gargles happily every time they tickle his belly or boop his nose. There’s Veronica, smiling and chatting away while her mother sits behind her, cross-legged, and braids her spiraling hair.

And then there’s Keith, off to the side, sitting on a grassy hilltop. He has Izzy in his lap, and Gabe to his right. And Keith’s head is tipped back, an outstretched finger pointing up at the sky, lips moving subtly around a string of quiet words. He’s stunning, bathed in starlight, illuminated in a way that Lance has never quite noticed before — almost as if from the inside out. 

Lance thinks, maybe too giddily, maybe too dangerously, that he could get used to this, too. 

Grass crunches beneath his shoes as he climbs the hill, the sound of their voices coming in clearer, louder with every approaching step. 

“… look close enough, you can see his bow and arrow right there. See?”

Whoa,” Gabe gasps aloud, his eyes wide and entranced by the pictures that begin to take shape in the black sky.

“You guys aren’t having fun without me, are you?” Lance grins as he reaches the top, and then Gabe scrambles to his feet, nearly bouncing in place.

“Uncle Lance! There are people in the sky! And unicorns! And dragons!”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah! They’re all up there in outer space! In the stars!” the boy squeals, delighted. “Keith showed me!”

Keith bows his head, as if bashful, and bites his lips against a smile. But the same can’t be said for Lance, who allows the width of his grin to stretch even bigger across his face as he sings, “Oh, he did, huh?”

Gabe really is bouncing now, excitement shaking his scrawny body, rattling him limb to limb. “It’s the coolest thing ever!”

“What about dinosaurs, bud?” Lance asks innocently, and lowers himself down beside Keith a bit clumsily, mindful not to put any weight on his bandaged hand. “I thought they were the coolest thing ever.”

“Space is cooler,” he decides after a brief moment of face-scrunching contemplation. “I’m gonna be an astronaut, and live on the moon with aliens.”

“You’re gonna need a rocket ship to get to the moon,” Lance reminds him, playing along.

“I’ll build one!”

And then Gabe is zig-zagging down the hill, arms flung out to his sides, whooshing and zooming to mimic the sounds of a blasting rocket. Izzy clambers out of Keith’s lap, and chases after her brother with a high-pitched, “Wait for me!”

Lance chuckles once the children’s voices are just muffled cries in the distance. He stretches his long legs out in front of him, leaning back onto his elbows. “Hope you’re happy, Kogane. Next thing you know he’s gonna be living on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, hunting for meteorites and mistaking airplanes for UFOs.”

“I thought all the constellation stuff would bore him, honestly.”

“Well, now I know who to blame if he throws a tantrum when Luis and Mariana don’t send him to space camp next summer.”

Keith snorts.

Gabe and Izzy are laughing now, fighting off aliens with invisible laser guns at the bottom of the hill.

Then Lance bumps his shoulder into Keith’s, smirking something lazy and playful. “Didn’t realize you were such a space cadet.”

“Yeah, I’ve always been into that sort of thing,” says Keith. “My pop taught me everything I know about it.”

By the time Keith hears Lance rustle against the grass, sees him sitting up with intrigue out of the corner of his eye, the realization has already dawned on him. Keith has spent the past few days learning everything there is to know about the McClains, but this is the first verbal acknowledgement of his family. It’s strange, Keith thinks, how mindlessly he’d let the reference slip. It’s even stranger how quickly his tongue rebounds, beginning to form unspoken words. And it’s the strangest of all when his throat doesn’t tighten around them before they can be pushed to the edge of his lips, poised for flight.

“We’d spend hours staring up there, looking at the stars. Wasn’t much else to look at in the desert, I guess. That’s kinda why I decided to study aviation in school,” he says, idly picking at the blades of grass by his knees. “I wanna be a pilot.”

“Really?”

It’s more a gust of audible air than an actual question. And so Keith doesn’t respond. He just tilts his gaze skyward again, studying the constellations he already knows by heart, distracting himself from the terrible, skin-pricking thought that maybe he’s shared too much. Maybe Lance thinks he’s weird. Maybe Lance doesn’t give a shit. Maybe —

“That’s… amazing, Keith,” Lance says. Sincere. Almost awestruck. Like he gives a shit. “I mean, wow.”

Keith finally turns to find Lance’s eyes all over him, bright and glinting, and he feels himself flush.

“Your dad must be really proud of you.”

“He died.”

Again, it spews out before Keith can hope to stop it. And if he could undo anything, it’d be that because the look that washes over Lance’s face, so helpless and terror-stricken, is probably the most awful thing he’s ever seen.

Oh. Oh… fuck,” Lance croaks, breath trembling. “I — God, I’m an asshole — I’m sorry —”

“It was a long time ago,” Keith says at once, as if that makes it better. Easier. He glances away again, because Lance still has that look on his face, and it’s making his stomach churn. “My mom left us when I was just a little kid, so when I lost my dad they just… tossed me around to different foster homes. Nothing ever stuck for very long, though. Too much of a — disciplinary case. So the day I turned eighteen I knew I wanted to get the hell out of Texas. I applied to some schools — anywhere far away — and that’s how I ended up here. Full scholarship. But that didn’t stick for very long, either. I got booted after my third year because some prick was talking shit about my — my parents, and I… I just lost it. It wasn’t good.”

They’re both very still. Keith swears he can hear Lance swallow.

“But,” Lance whispers, “what about being a pilot?”

“I was supposed to get transferred into the space exploration program after I graduated, but —” Keith shrugs. He doesn’t know what else to do. “— never made it that far.”

Lance is squirming, fidgeting, like a frigid-cold breeze had just passed through. At least that’s how it looks out of Keith’s peripheral. “Well, what about now? Can’t you reapply or something?” Lance is saying.

“Maybe if I could afford it,” Keith scoffs quietly.

“But what if you got another scholarship?” Lance is talking a little faster now, maybe a little desperate.

“It’s not that simple, Lance. No school’s gonna give money to a kid who got expelled from his old school for assault and battery charges.”

“But there has to be something you can —”

“Would you just drop it?” Keith looks, and Lance’s expression has changed again. It’s less horrified, more crushed. He can’t decide which is worse. “It’s over, okay? I had my shot, and — I blew it. I know I did. It was just one of those dumb childhood daydreams, anyway. I thought… If I didn’t have a place in this world, then maybe I could just…”

Lance’s voice is impossibly soft, just a tremor of sound as he finishes, “…go find another one.”

“Yeah. Something like that,” mumbles Keith. Then he inhales, and, firmer, “So now I just have to figure something else out. I don’t… really know what yet, but — I gotta keep trying.”

“Y’know,” Lance begins, when his pinched brow unfurls, “I still think your dad would be proud of you, Keith.”

Bitterly, Keith says, “For getting kicked out of school?”

“No, for pushing forward, in spite of that,” Lance’s hand reaches out to cover Keith’s, a tangle of fingers and prickly grass blades. “I wish I could be that brave.”

The touch brings a surge of thoughts, as if he’s absorbing them through Lance’s palm. He thinks about Celia’s hugs, and Marco’s jokes, and Veronica’s stern but well-intentioned advice. He thinks about Luis and Mariana, grinning warmly, with their arms around each other, and the twins with their wonder-filled eyes and gleeful giggles. He thinks about Lance.

Just Lance.

And he thinks that maybe he doesn’t have to travel light-years away just to find a place where he belongs. A place that’s warm, and happy, and his.

Maybe it’s a little closer than he thinks.

Keith’s thumb brushes against the thick, coarse material of Lance’s bandage, and says, with great certainty, “You are.”

 


 

 

Something feels markedly different when they return to the apartment that evening, but Keith can’t quite pinpoint it. So it sits there, taunting, like an itch he can’t scratch. 

First, Lance roots through the kitchen cabinets for a late-night snack while Keith brushes his teeth in the bathroom. Keith finishes just in time to watch Lance get smacked in the nose by a chocolate-covered almond as he tosses the little morsels into the air, trying to catch them with his open mouth. And Keith, rather regrettably, finds it slightly more adorable than obnoxious.

Then, Keith helps Lance re-wrap his bandage. His touch is gentle, uncharacteristically delicate for someone as frightfully impulsive as he is. When Keith is done, he presses his lips to the center of Lance’s palm, and those freckled cheeks glow warm and pink.    

Later, Lance pushes Keith back into the couch, and peppers his face with a bombardment of sweet, kittenish kisses. They lay like that for a while until Lance starts yawning enough for the both of them, and so Keith suggests they go to bed and —     

Ah. There it is. That unscratchable itch.

And Keith doesn’t understand it. Because it’s not like they haven’t done this before. He’s familiar with the smell of Lance’s pillowcases, and the squeak of his mattress, and the sound of Lance’s soft exhales when he sleeps, and the stifled, gut-clenching urge to wrap himself around the curve of his body, and just hold him until sunlight peeks through the curtains, tickles their skin, and wakes them up with each other’s names on their lips.

Except, Keith thinks with dizzying wonder, now it’s not just an urge. It’s a possibility. Now he can finally grapple for the warmth of Lance’s skin beneath the sheets, and curl into his chest so that their heartbeats become one, and kiss each one of those thirteen freckles that he so enjoys to count.

He’s allowed to do all those things. 

Isn’t he?

Keith thinks about it, frets about it, obsesses about it, as he lays on his side of the bed. He’s hugging the very edge of the mattress, just like always, and staring at the minutes blink by on the nightstand clock, creeping steadily toward midnight. His insides buzz, his muscles twitch, and every inch of him feels like he’s teetering on the brink of something just beyond his reach until —

“Hey,” Keith flips over onto his other side, and watches Lance’s motionless back through the darkness. “Are you —”

“Like, dying to touch you right now?” And then Lance flips over, too, already grinning and eager, like he’d been waiting in just as much torturous anticipation as Keith. “Yes. Absolutely yes.” 

Keith makes a noise, some kind of groan-sigh hybrid, and rolls himself on top of Lance. “Thank god.”

And it’s then Keith learns, in the thick of clumsy undressing and zealous lip biting, that, yes, he is very much allowed to do those things. 

He also learns that Lance’s pillowcases still smell the same, only now they’re tinged with a strangely intoxicating combination of sweat and tropical shampoo. And the mattress still squeaks, only now it’s from under the weight of their entwined bodies, the fervent, rhythmless roll of Keith’s hips. And Lance’s soft exhales still sound the same, only more rapid, mingling with breathy moans, and sweet, prosodic whispers of Keith’s name against his ear. And that gut-clenching urge is still there, bubbling right beneath the surface, only now it doesn’t have to be stifled.

It’s all the same, and yet so, so different.   

Keith holds him as his teeth graze that spot just below Lance’s jaw; the one that arches Lance’s spine and pulls a whimpering growl straight out of his throat, low and heady. He holds him as Lance gasps, coming undone and riding out the pleasure, legs trembling where they’re wrapped around Keith’s waist. And Keith holds him as their hearts settle, all tangled and woven together, with Lance’s fingertips tracing thoughtlessly along Keith’s tattoo until their breathing slows, melting into each other for an open-mouthed kiss. 

“Stay,” Lance whispers into the small breadth of space between their lips when Keith tries to shift off of him. And Keith doesn't protest, sinking back into him, bringing his dampened forehead to rest against his, while their minds edge closer toward the temptation of sleep.   

Keith holds him as they dream.

And there he stays.                

 


 

 

He slowly wakes up in a late morning stupor, feeling the mildly clammy beginnings of perspiration dappling along his hairline. It probably has something to do with the fact that Lance is half-spilled over him, bound up by a mass of sun-drenched sheets, with his face smooshed into the crook of Keith’s neck, breath ghosting against his pulse, and a nicely toned thigh hooked over Keith’s middle.

Not that he’s complaining.

At all.

It’s a good feeling — an amazing feeling, actually — knowing that hours could pass, and he’d never be the wiser, like he’s still dreaming, somehow. But then Lance is wriggling against him, stretching his limbs, skimming his fingertips over a blossoming bruise above Keith’s collarbone in a way that reminds him he’s very much awake, and this is very much real. Keith lets his head loll to the side, muzzy with the revelation, lips relaxed and lazy as they brush Lance’s forehead.

It stirs him again. And maybe Keith would feel worse about the disturbance if Lance’s mouth weren’t breaking through the drowsiness with a small smile that makes him look so goddamn angelic under the filtered daylight.

Two slivers of blue appear beneath his weighted lids, and then, quiet, like a psalm, “My feet are cold.”

Keith wants to laugh, actually does laugh a little, and idly wonders how that’s possible when he himself is running a similar internal temperature to that of a radiator.

“Good morning to you, too,” he chuckles, groggy. 

“Morning, gorgeous.”

Keith’s hand takes its time on its way down the length of Lance’s thigh, sliding over bare skin that still leaves a thrumming tingle in his palm, even after the fact. He cups behind the knee, and lifts up to tuck Lance’s foot between the press of his own heated legs, saying, “Better?”

Mm,” Lance hums, almost purrs, and adjusts himself so that his chin rests on Keith’s shoulder. “S’nice.”

Then he’s reaching out with his un-bandaged hand, absent-minded in the way he pushes Keith’s bangs away from his face, as if he’s learned this gesture by rote, and has been doing it for years. That’s a long time, Keith thinks, and it scares him a little, but at the same time, it doesn’t, to the point where he’s beginning to wonder if he’s actually just afraid of the fact that it doesn’t scare him as much as he thinks it should.

“Barely recognize you without all your pillows,” says Keith, and Lance gives a sharp, fond reprimanding tug to his hair that makes him grin.

“Ha-ha,” Lance grumbles. “You’re better than a pillow.”

“I’m flattered.”

“You should be,” and it’s slightly muffled against the spot on Keith’s neck where Lance latches on with his mouth. “You know how I feel about pillows.” 

A tender sense of impatience bubbles inside Keith’s chest as Lance’s lips work along his sensitive skin. Like maybe it’s really not a long time. Maybe it’s not enough time. Maybe there will never be enough time in sleepy, unhurried moments like this. Maybe Keith will selfishly cling to every lovely second in Lance’s company, and still crave more and more and — 

The nightstand rattles from the vibrations of Lance’s phone, shaking Keith out of his mind-wandering trance.

“Your phone…” he starts to say, breath thinning out as Lance’s wet kisses trail over his ribcage, down to his navel.

But there’s not even the slightest hitch in Lance’s ministrations as he mutters, “Don’t care.”

“Lance—”

“Leave it.”

The last thing Keith sees before he’s staring, dumb and slack-jawed at the ceiling, is the top of Lance’s head disappearing beneath the wrinkled sheets, sinking down between the spread of Keith’s legs.

The buzzing, along with everything else, eventually tunes itself out.   

 

 


 

 

Keith has never worn a tuxedo before.

Technically, that’s a lie. He’s worn one once before. It belonged to his father, and traveled with him in a dingy cardboard box, along with a few other menial belongings, to his first foster home. Keith had been young and curious at the time, and tried it on in front of the bathroom mirror. It was many sizes too large for his childlike build, and kind of smelled like mothballs, and the sight of it made him feel so awful that he stuffed it back into the box, and never touched it again.

But other than that? First time.

And in the span of five minutes, he already decides that he hates it.

The collar is too tight, and the fabric is too thick, and the shoulders are too puffy, and — seriously — what the hell is a pocket square supposed to do? Not to mention that Keith feels like a freak on display in the middle of the tailor shop, standing on a wooden pedestal in front of an extravagant three-way mirror while some lady with too much lipstick fondles her way around his limbs with a tape measurer.

But just as Keith is starting to think he’d much prefer to see the tape measurer wrapped around this lady’s throat instead of his thigh, she waddles away in her three-inch heels, muttering something about needing more pins.

Feeling as if he can breathe again, Keith glances into the rightmost panel of the mirror. He spots Lance on the other end of the shop, caught in a similar situation, only he seems to be enjoying himself. His lips are grinning, moving quick as he spews smalltalk and jokes that occasionally make his dresser giggle into her palm. In the center panel, Celia and Mariana are milling around near the back of the store, admiring racks upon racks of discounted wedding dresses. And in the leftmost panel, he notices Veronica. She’s standing in the corner, away from the others, and frowning at her reflection in a much smaller floor-length mirror, with a bridal veil perched atop her head.         

Keith continues watching. Veronica tilts her head to one side, squints her eyes, and frowns some more.

Then Keith steps off the pedestal, and walks closer.

“That better not be for me or Lance,” he says, appearing over her shoulder.

Veronica nearly jumps a foot in the air, gone red-faced with surprise, and clutches the veil to her chest. 

“Oh! No, it’s not, don’t worry. It’s — for me,” she scrunches her nose, recognizing the poor phrasing, and hastily amends, “I mean, not — not for me. I was just… Sorry. It’s dumb.”

The corner of Keith’s mouth twitches, like a glitch on a screen. 

“I was just kinda wondering what it’d look like,” Veronica lifts the accessory back to her head, and goes back to staring at herself in the mirror. “What do you think?”

Keith considers. A crystal-studded headband sits on her crown, and a sheer blanket of lace billows out behind her, draping down her back. There’s some sort of elaborate flower embroidery at the bottom that probably speaks volumes of the veil’s fine craftsmanship, but Keith wouldn’t know anything about that. It’s pretty, he supposes.

“Looks nice,” he settles on, a little underwhelmingly, but Veronica seems pleased enough by the response as her frown redirects itself into a small, sheepish grin. Her fingers tug at the embroidered hem floating around her waist, and then she’s removing it again — fast, like a child caught playing dress-up in her mother’s closet without permission.

“Everyone thinks you two are totally batshit crazy for getting married so young,” she says out of nowhere. “And so soon.”

Keith furrows his brow, and folds his arms over his chest, rustling the annoyingly thick fabric of his suit jacket. “Well, people can think what they want.”

I don’t think it’s crazy,” Veronica is quick to add. “I think it’s kinda romantic, actually.”

“You sound like Lance.”

At this, she giggles, and nods like it isn’t her first time hearing such a comparison.

“I guess we are both pretty hopeless that way, huh?” she says wistfully, eyes flickering over to where Lance is still posing on his pedestal, adjusting a bowtie that circles his neck. “Only difference is that he actually knows what it feels like to be in love.”

Then she looks back at Keith, fingers fiddling almost embarrassedly with the lace veil. “It’s so lame, right? I mean, Lance has been in love like a hundred times — no offense — and I haven’t even gotten close.”

“It’s not a contest,” says Keith.

“No, I know, it’s just —” More fiddling. “—sometimes it feels like I’m not supposed to feel those feelings. But I want to. It’s like my insides are broken or something.”

Another look at Lance. Another look at the veil. Another frown.

“So if I can’t have my perfect love story, then I want to do everything I can to make sure Lance gets his. You know?”

A bit forlornly, she places the veil back where she found it, along with the others of its kind. The lace droops, and so do Veronica’s eyes, and Keith observes it all with a firm crease in his brow.

“Nothing about you is broken, Veronica,” Keith says at once, startling the both of them. “Everything you’ve done this week has been for your brother. Because you love him. Selflessly. And he’s lucky to have that. Someone like you, I mean. So is your whole family — your mom, Marco, Luis. Even —”

Even me, he tries to say, but lets it sit behind his teeth.

Keith glances at the floor, at the wall, at the display of veils. “I, um. I’ve never had a sister before so —”

All the air is abruptly squeezed from his lungs as Veronica falls forward, and hugs him tight around the waist. A true McClain embrace. Fierce, enthusiastic, and all-encompassing. Keith goes stiff from surprise, but quickly finds himself unraveling beneath her touch. 

“Thank you, Keith,” Veronica mumbles into the too-puffy shoulder of his suit jacket.         

Keith grins against her curly hair, and wraps his arms fully around her.   

 

 


 

 

Up ahead, Keith can see the Olkarion Eye, its massive height looming over the center of downtown. The flashing neon lights paint the world around them in brilliant bursts of color — pinks, and purples, and greens, and blues — exploding like fireworks as Lance tugs him by the hand through the crowded streets.

“Lance,” says Keith, and it tastes as smooth and sweet as honey on his tongue.  “What are we doing?”

Lance swivels his neck, tossing a full-hearted grin over his shoulder, but doesn’t respond. And he doesn’t need to, honestly. Because just then, when Keith catches a glimpse, Lance’s entire face goes amber-rimmed, haloed by the ferris wheel’s shining bulbs in the background.

He’s just like fire, Keith thinks. He’s fire, and gold, and glittering sparks.

And Keith is just hopelessly lost in the afterglow, bewitched by some kind of spiritual transcendence that he still doesn’t fully understand. But he knows that, whatever it is, it begins and ends with Lance.

A winding path, filled with unabashed laughter and rushed apologies to whomever they might’ve bumped in the wake of their giddy stumbling, leads them to the base of the attraction. It’s even more of a blaring spectacle up close, and Keith has to bend his neck almost painfully to look up at it all, feeling like he may fall backwards. Meanwhile, Lance hands the operator enough cash for two, and whispers something that Keith can’t hear. And it’s unclear whether the operator hears it either, until he nods something apathetic, snaps his bubblegum against the back of his teeth, and gestures for them to board the waiting passenger cabin.

Then, like floating through a sea of glimmering color, they ascend to the sky.

The city shrinks below them, and Keith can’t help but find it strangely comforting how the noises fade, the ground blurs, until it’s just the two of them in the tiny cabin, noses pressed against the glass so they can peer down at everything they’ve left behind. Keith’s stomach swoops in a satisfying way as they approach the top. He listens to the gentle groan of the wheel, every ounce of its mechanical strength carrying them higher and higher until, in one stuttering jerk, they stop. Like the flip of a switch. Dangling there, swaying, four-hundred feet in the air.

Keith leans away from the window, and turns to Lance, who looks remarkably unalarmed.

In fact, he looks downright triumphant.

“Did we —” Keith tries to ask, but Lance is stopping him with a glimpse of his phone. The screen lights up with the current time.

“We’ve only got five minutes up here,” he tells him calmly, “so make sure you get a good look.”

“Of what?”

Lance’s grin tilts crooked, making Keith’s stomach swoop again for very different reasons, and then he’s pointing a finger skyward.

Obeying the cue, Keith’s eyes follow the gesture up to the glass-covered ceiling of their cabin, and a delayed gulp of air clings to the lining of his throat because, right there above their heads, closer than Keith has ever seen them before, are the stars —

So many stars.

And they glitter in all their luminescent beauty against a backdrop of sprawling darkness. The bustling city is far enough away for them to feel as if they’re defying the laws of gravity, suspended in the middle of the galaxy for a mind-numbing, pulse-racing moment. As if Keith could simply reach out and touch those shivering bits of starlight, warming the skin of his fingertips like an ardent flame.

“I can’t take you all the way to the stars, flyboy, but this is as close as I could get you.”

At the sound of his voice, Keith lowers his gaze. Lance is still sitting across from him, with that same lopsided smile, and he’s watching Keith the same way that Keith was watching the stars mere seconds ago.

Reverential. Floored. Enamored.

Keith holds his breath.

And then, slowly, as to not disrupt the balance of their cabin, he moves forward.

It’s clear by the way Lance squirms ever so slightly in his seat, the way his eyes go a fraction of an inch wider, that he hadn’t been expecting this turn of events. His grin finally falters, twitching just enough to make him look curiously bemused as he murmurs, “—Keith.”

Wordlessly, Keith steps closer until he’s hovering over Lance, who cranes his neck in an effort to maintain eye contact, and ends up thudding the back of his head against the cabin wall. One knee comes down, then the other, until Keith is straddling Lance’s hips, conveniently positioned in his lap like it’s the most logical seating arrangement in the close-quartered cabin.

“Keith, you —” Lance says, hoarse, and licks his lips glossy before trying again, “—you’re not even looking.”

“I am looking,” whispers Keith, so low that Lance can barely hear it even with their mouths an inch from collision. His hand drifts past Lance’s face, skirting across his temple to thread his fingers through the front of his brown hair, eyes never blinking or losing focus. “It’s beautiful.”

Just one subtle jut of his chin, and then Lance is sewing up the distance between them, throwing his mouth onto Keith’s, forcing his lips apart. And Keith responds as if shocked by electricity, kissing him back, hard and wild, as fingers bury into the hair around Lance’s nape. Two persistent palms lay flat on Keith’s back, gliding up and down his spine, keeping their bodies plastered against each other where they’re already drawn so impossibly close.

And even from behind the sealed lids of his eyes, Keith swears he can still see stars.

 

 


 

 

“—And my cousin owns this pizza shack that has — I’m not kidding — the best pepperoni pizza of your life. Oh, and the garlic knots! Damn, how could I almost forget. They’re like little bits of soft, garlic-y heaven —”

Keith is grinning, probably like a fool, and he hasn’t really figured out how to stop since they started walking back from the ferris wheel. Doesn’t think he can stop. Doesn’t think he wants to stop. And Lance hasn’t stopped rambling about Varadero beach, and Keith doesn’t think he wants that to stop that either. The words, the memories, tumble fast out of Lance’s upturned lips, one after the other, as his impassioned eyes go glassy in the glow of the lamp-lined street. It’s fascinating, Keith thinks, how he’s able to recall every seemingly trivial detail as if the heartbeat of his hometown is always there, nestled right against his own pulse for safekeeping.        

“—Aw man, and the water… Lemme tell you — you haven’t lived until you’ve taken a swim in the Cuban surf. It’s so blue, you can see straight to the bottom, and — ahh. I gotta take you some day.”

Even in the crisp chill of nightfall, Keith goes a bit red as his imagination humors the thought: crashing waves, velvety sand, and kisses — so many kisses — in the warm-tinged light of a blood-orange sunset. His hair is wind-wild from the ocean breeze, and Lance is in his arms, all freckle-faced and tan-skinned, looking gloriously homeborn and happy under the Cuban sky.      

“You’d get to see my family again. The McClains, au natural, in our native habitat,” Lance keeps going on, swinging their clasped hands between their bodies, carefree, like a pendulum. “Plus you’d get to see me after a day on the beach, when I’m even more bronze and beautiful than I already am, if you can believe it.”

And just like that, the daydream shatters like fragile sea glass. Keith can feel the shards slicing skin on their way to the ground.

“Your family,” he repeats in some distant, indecipherable tone. “They’d probably think we were on our honeymoon.” 

Lance halts the momentum of their hands, and lets them hang back down at their sides, limp and lifeless with harrowing realization.

“Oh,” Lance breathes. “Right. That.”

Suddenly, Keith already misses the salty-sweet air, and the sun-kissed shoreline. He can feel it in his bones, aching him to his core — homesick for a place he’s never even seen with his own eyes. 

Or maybe he’s just homesick for a family he knows he’s never really been a part of.

“What are you gonna tell them?” Keith asks.

“The truth. Eventually,” and although his words are soft, Lance sounds steadfast in this, like he’s already thought it all out. “Maybe when they’re back home, and all the engagement hype wears off.”

“Yeah.”

A few firm beats tick by in Keith’s chest; short, sporadic, drum-like pangs that seem to match their deliberate footfalls against the concrete. The reverb rattles him from head to toe, shakes something loose inside of him that feels a lot like dread. It’s unmissable, and rises up like bile in the back of his throat, despite how valiantly he fights to swallow it down. Because dread has no business being here, making him long for things that aren’t his, and mourn the endings that haven’t even begun.   

Perspective, he warns himself, perhaps a few days too late.

And when Lance starts to sense the growing unease, the palpable heaviness bearing down on a once calm summer evening, he squeezes Keith’s listless hand, and says, “I wanna tell them about you, too, y’know. The real you.”

Keith twists at the neck, offering only half of his moonlit face. 

“I mean, how hard can that be, right?” Lance continues, lighthearted, and with newfound resolve. “They already love you, so no pressure there. And it’s not like it’ll be weird for them to see us as a couple.” 

The beats inside his chest tick by even faster now. A hummingbird’s restless wings. 

Carefully, Keith pinches his bottom lip between his teeth, afraid, perhaps, that not doing so will send his heart leaping out of his mouth at any given moment. A couple, a couple, a couple.

“A couple,” he repeats aloud when his mind just won’t shut up about it. “So is that what we are?”

“Well,” Lance grins something coy, nudging Keith’s flank with the back of his hand. “We’ve already established that you’re definitely not my fiancé. But I wouldn’t really call you my friend either.”

“Ouch.” 

“Shut up! You know what I mean!”

“I know what you mean.” 

Somewhere amongst all the pulse-pounding and mind-reeling, Keith’s shoulders lose their tension. Now they sag in relief, and their interlocked hands start to sway once more to the tune of some unheard melody, and that terrible, throat-burning dread gets washed away by an imaginary blue tide. 

Perspective, his mind warns again, but his heart doesn’t quite hear it.

“Y’know,” Lance begins, drawing it out, letting the warmth of the moment soak in like sunshine, “normal people would usually go on a first date before they become a couple, but I guess normal’s not exactly our style, huh?”

“We’ve been going on dates all week,” Keith reminds him.

Lance barks out a scoff, loud and non-threatening. “No, no, no — I’m talking about a real date, Keith. Like without family supervision. Like the official textbook definition of a wine-and-dine, pick-you-up-at-eight, woo-your-socks-off first date.”

With an amused curl of his mouth, Keith asks, “Don’t you think we’ve already moved past the point of formalities?”

“C’mon!” Lance whines, forgoing his hold on Keith’s hand, and opting, instead, for his entire right arm. “Let me woo you!” 

“You missed your chance. I’m already sufficiently wooed.”

Those blue eyes twinkle delightedly beneath the gleam of lamplight, and then narrow at Keith with some sort of mock-challenge. “So you’re saying you wouldn’t wanna catch a movie with me? Something extra shitty that neither of us have any interest in actually watching so I could kiss you silly when the lights go down? Or how about a round of mini golf to show off my physical prowess, which, by the way, is far superior to yours? Ooh — or maybe some fancy restaurant that we can’t even pronounce. Hmm? How ‘bout then? What do you say to that, you little anti-cupid?”

Keith blinks, and then, matter-of-factly, “There’s no way you’d ever beat me at mini golf.”

“Seriously?” An incredulous sputter, and Keith turns his head to laugh into Lance’s cheek. “I offer you movie theatre make out sessions, and an expensive five course dinner, and that’s the part you focus on? Unbelievable.”

A whiff of that delectable shampoo gets caught up in Keith’s nose, and it’s such a pleasant aroma, and Keith is already single-mindedly tipsy off of everything Lance-related, so he allows himself an unrepentant lapse in self restraint. He nuzzles a bit closer than is probably necessary, lingering where the baby-soft hair around Lance’s ear tickles his grinning lips. “I guess that sounds kind of fun,” he whispers.     

Kind of, he says. Just you wait, sweetheart, you’re not even gonna know what hit you,” sneers Lance, playfully smug about it. “I’m gonna date you so good, Keith — I’ll date you into oblivion. Mark my words, I’m gonna —”

“Are you asking me out or threatening me?” 

In response, Lance leans away, and the tip of Keith’s nose chases after him for a second, until Lance is leveling him with a stare that yearns just about as much as it’s meant to intimidate. 

“Date me. I dare you.”

Keith, laughingly stubborn, lifts a brow.

“I double dare you,” Lance tries again.

It’s an easy win, if only because Keith is far too smitten for his own good, and far too impulsive to bother with a teasing refusal. He breaks into a new grin, and drags Lance around the corner to their block with a buoyant spring in his step. “Guess I don’t have a choice, then,” he says.

“Yeah, yeah,” Lance hums, reeling him into an unhurried pace by hooking his fingers through Keith’s belt loops, and tugging him back. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, Kogane —”

And then, as faint as the dwindling breeze, a voice:

“Lance?”

Sneakers skid to a jarring halt right before they’re met with — 

Silence.

Keith’s ears ring in the unbearable stillness. He feels Lance’s hand go rigid and cold against his hip. And when he chances a look, Lance is sickeningly pale, jaw hanging uselessly, pupils bleeding wide like a drop of black ink, blocking out the blue. 

Because holy shit.

— Holy fucking shit.

Standing right outside the door of their building, beneath a murky strip of lamplight, with nothing but a small suitcase in tow, is a young woman that Keith doesn’t recognize.

And her glistening eyes are flitting to every point on Lance’s face, like she’s done this before, waiting for him to shatter, or scream, or run away.

But instead, his chest heaves. Then, finally, with all the violent, devastating force of a gunshot to the gut, Lance empties his lungs in one ragged breath.

“…Nyma.”

Chapter Text

. . .

It’s like watching a car crash, Keith concludes morbidly. Those nauseating split seconds right before collision, when the earth tips madly off-kilter, and everything seems to move in slow-motion — but not slow enough for the mind to catch up, or for the eyes to see through the blinding panic, or for the wheel to turn; to swerve in another direction.

Swerve, idiot, Keith wants to yell at Lance until his throat is raw. Swerve! Swerve!

Lance does not swerve.

He careens, head-first, heart-first, into the wreckage.

One catastrophically delayed second at a time.

Something should’ve happened next — anything, really — but it doesn’t. No skidding tires, or crunching metal. Just the penetrating silence of two pairs of eyes, gone hazy beneath the street lamps, staring each other down, with the weight of an entire universe hanging between them. Even Keith can feel it bearing down, flattening his lungs until it’s a little bit harder to breathe than it was about a minute ago.

Lance,” Nyma says again. A gentle plea.     

And there it is. The inevitable moment of impact. It plows through, and Lance takes it like a battering ram to the chest.

But he remains upright and intact, somehow. He chokes, hoarse, “Nyma… you — what — you’re here.

“I’m here,” she nods.

Lance keeps staring, still in shock, like he half-expects her to drift away in the breeze. A ghost. A waking dream. A trick of the moonlight.

She twists her fingers together, and admits, “I know that maybe I shouldn’t have come —”

“So why did you, then?”

The words snarl out of Keith’s mouth before he can catch them between his reckless lips. The air around them trembles in fear, and even Lance is shaken enough to avert his gaze, gawking at Keith’s blazing eyes with unbridled, unspoken alarm.

Nyma looks much the same, surprise coloring her cheeks a mighty red. She takes several small breaths, as if readying herself to speak, but nothing comes of it. Then she’s casting her gaze downward, just a fraction of an inch, timid but curious as she asks, “Who’s this?”

Lance suddenly realizes, with startling clarity, that she’s goggling very specifically at his hands — and how they’re still fastened to Keith’s hips. Slowly, he starts peeling them away. Keith goes stiff, his entire body bristling.   

“Uh, this —” Lance’s head swings frantically back and forth between the two. “—this… this is my — Keith. This is just… Keith.”

Your Keith?” Nyma whispers, eyes starting to glisten again.

Nobody’s Keith,” comes another interruption, low and harsh, in Keith’s gravelly growl. “Right, Lance?”  

And when Lance offers up nothing but a slow, shuddering exhale that seems to ripple through him, limb to limb, Keith stomps out his own wounded heart, pivots on his heel, and storms off without comment.

“Keith!” Lance shouts after him. His head is still swiveling in both directions, battling against dual urges that threaten to split him in two. “Nyma, gimme a sec, I just — I’m — I gotta — Keith, stop!” 

The sound of his racing footsteps approaches from behind, but Keith keeps a hurried stride, only stopping when Lance is close enough to tug his arm, and beg breathlessly, “Keith, wait, c’mon —”

He whirls around, and jerks away. Demands, “Just Keith? Seriously? That’s the only thing you could think of?”

“I wasn’t thinking! I was panicking!” Lance blurts out in a strained octave. He looks wind-blown and overwrought as he flaps his arms, gesturing to the madness that seems to be seeping in from all sides. “I mean, it’s a fucking miracle I managed to even stay conscious for that long ‘cause — in case you couldn’t tell by the way I totally spazzed out back there — this isn’t exactly something I was prepared to deal with tonight!”

“Well, what’re you gonna do?”

Lance doesn’t respond right away. His hands, even his bandaged one, spasm into fists at his side in a way that must be painful, and his chest moves erratically like he’s reminding his lungs how to breathe with every rise and fall.   

“Look, she — she flew all the way over here,” says Lance, words going quiet with resignation. “The least I can do is hear her out.” 

“No, the least you can do is tell her to get lost,” Keith flings back.

Lance just frowns. “You’re biased.”

“I’m right.”

“I can’t just leave her out here all night, Keith —”

“Then do whatever you want,” Keith spits dryly, turning over his shoulder to continue trekking down the sidewalk.

But Lance grabs his arm again. “Hey — where are you going?” 

Keith pins him with a withering glare. “I’m not gonna wait patiently in the other room while you and your ex have a heart-to-heart, Lance.”

Lance’s jaw clamps shut around nothing. Well. When he puts it that way.   

“Right. Uh. That’s fair, I guess,” he concludes lamely. “But where are you gonna go?”

“I’ll call Hunk and Pidge,” says Keith. And with that, he makes to leave once again, but Lance’s grip is still tight and unrelenting — maybe even more so now — keeping him rooted to the concrete.   

“‘Kay, but —” Lance is saying deliberately, poignantly. “—promise me you’ll come back in the morning.”

Keith’s eyes start to sting, and so he blinks them vigorously, blaming the moonlight. “Why?”

“So I can take you on that perfect first date we were just talking about,” he answers at once, with something akin to childlike defiance. Naive and endearingly mulish all the same. “We can ditch my family — tell ‘em I got sick or that you had to work or something — and then we’ll spend the whole day together doing — doing anything we want. I’ll even let you beat me at mini golf, I swear, just — just you and me. Some quality Lance and Keith time, okay?” 

Okay, okay, okay, yes, please, please, one half of his mind chants wildly. Because it’s Lance, and he’s standing here, so earnest, making promises with those shimmery eyes, looking nearly vulnerable as if Keith could actually say no to him, with any certainty, which is unthinkable, because it’s Lance, and he wants this. He wants him.

And the other half of his mind, apparently, only wants him to suffer. Because he’s suddenly reminded, like a video stuck on loop, of all the longing glances at a bare left hand, and all the midnight murmurs of a name that isn’t Keith’s, and all the tears that have been shed over lukewarm mugs of hot chocolate. And a fist of battered knuckles, bruised with all the shades of heartache.

A heartache that is currently standing right outside Lance’s front door. Waiting for him. Pleading with him.

And Lance is heeding the call like he’s drawn to it, possessed by it.   

Keith can’t decide if it’s worry or jealousy that is brutally ravaging his insides, but then he figures that it doesn’t really matter. It all hurts the same. His eyes skirt to the wayside, feeling naked and exposed beneath that unflinching blue gaze, and looks anywhere but at Lance.

“What about her?” he mutters, attempting to keep his tone emotionless, detached, while his stomach is busy churning like sea water. 

Lance must pick up on something that Keith isn’t even aware of — a slight crinkle to Keith’s forehead or the faintest skip of a muscle in his jaw, perhaps — because then his expression loosens to a heartening note. “First flight back to France,” he assures, inflexible. “Even if I have to fly the stupid plane myself.”

Keith peeks up through his bangs, brow knit. “I don’t like this.” 

“Babe,” says Lance, barely above a whisper, but Keith still hears it buzzing in his ears, drowning out the rest of the neighborhood’s white noise. “You gotta trust me. Please.” 

I already do, Keith wants to tell those limpid blue eyes. Or maybe, I wish I knew how to stop.    

But the dread pooling in his gut won’t let him. It flails and thrashes at the very sight of Nyma’s shadow in the distance, lean and lithe, as she awaits Lance’s return. And it kind of makes him want to scream, so loud that the tree leaves rustle above their heads, how persistent she must be for Lance’s attention to have traveled across the globe, and how all too eager Lance is to give it to her, and how quickly things have gone sour after what has easily been one of the happiest nights of Keith’s — 

“Just be careful,” he finally relents, and his heartbeat pounds a warning against his chest. “Remember who you’re dealing with.”

Lance’s head bobbles a bit dumbly, like it sits loose on his neck, and then Keith’s arm is slipping from his weakened grasp. Off he goes, starting down the sidewalk at a clipped pace while Lance just stands there, weary and spent, wishing he had the strength to do anything other than stare at Keith’s retreating back until he’s almost completely swallowed up by evening shadow. 

“Hey,” Lance calls out to the darkness, almost desperate. “Tomorrow morning. Bright and early. You better be here, Keith.”

Oh, Keith will be here. Bright and early, just as requested. Because the thing is — Keith is tired of running away. He’s been doing it his whole life, and, for once, he yearns to breathe without gasping, and move without exhaustion weighing heavy on his limbs. He yearns to plant his feet into the ground, and trust, without a doubt, that there will be something formidable beneath him. Something worth coming back to.

Maybe Lance could be that something, he thinks softly.

Maybe Lance is that something, he thinks, even softer.

But still — that doesn’t stop the hot, viscid unease from rising to the top of Keith’s throat; sitting, waiting, seething. The firm concrete turns to sludge underfoot, slowing him down with every painstaking stride until he pauses at the street corner, and, against his better judgement, looks over his shoulder.

Lance is already gone.

 

 


 

 

Keith is five years old when his mother leaves. It happens all at once, quick as lightning. One second she’s there, and the next she’s not. He’s barely old enough to understand it, but definitely old enough to feel it.

At six, he still clambers out of bed at the sound of a car engine rumbling down the street in front of their house. He thinks — he believes — that tonight is the night she’ll return. Because they’d see each other again soon. That’s what she’d told him. She had smudged away a fat tear rolling down his cheek, taken his tiny hands in hers, and told him that. Keith peeks through the curtains of his bedroom window until the headlights are just murky specks in the distance, and the rumbling fades into shivering silence.

He’s seven when the passing cars stop waking him.

Eight when he realizes he’s forgotten what his mother’s perfume smells like.

And he’s barely nine when he starts to feel foolish for holding onto hope.

 

 


 

 

“I remember this one.”

She sounds like a wistful sigh, or a melancholic love song. Her finger slides down the spine of a textbook, tugs it off the shelf, and turns it over in her hands. Discovering Art History.

Lance remembers that one, too. He remembers reluctantly signing up for the course at the beginning of the semester, only because he needed the fine art credit. He remembers walking through galleries and sculpture gardens, staring and staring at historic masterpieces that he just didn’t understand until Nyma would wrap her arms around his torso from behind, and whisper all about color theory and composition right in his ear. He remembers how certain pages in that textbook have notes scribbled in the margins — little affectionate reminders and words of encouragement, all in Nyma’s elegant scrawl.

From the couch, Lance nods slowly, feeling like his brain is rattling against his skull. He sinks back into the cushion, and mumbles, “Probably would’ve failed that class without you.”

Nyma has the book cracked open in her palms, skimming through a page that nearly brings a dewey-eyed smile to her lips. “I miss this,” she whispers down at the words. 

But Lance gets the distinct feeling that she’s not just referring to Art History 101.

“S’this why you came all the way over here?” he asks abruptly. “Just to snoop through my things?”

The book snaps shut, and Nyma has the decency, at least, to look sheepish. “Would you prefer if I sat down?”

“I dunno,” Lance says quietly with a dull, half-hearted shrug. “Maybe.”

She moves across the room like a shadow grazing the wall, or a haunting spirit, soundless and nimble. And when she lowers herself onto the sofa, Lance can feel every muscle clench in response, all the way down to his toes. He ducks his face, hyper-focused on the small amount of space between their knees, and thinks about how weird it is that he can just reach out and touch her if he wants, without fear that she’ll dissolve into dust and slip through his fingers like she has in so many of his recurring dreams. She’s flesh and bone, and really here, and Lance’s mind can’t quite seem to grasp this realization. Or what to do with it. Or why it makes him feel lightheaded and oddly sick to his stomach when, just two weeks ago, he would’ve given anything to be captivated by her bewitching gaze once again. 

Now it’s like he can’t look away fast enough.

Nyma lets her hands settle in her lap, back ramrod straight as she ventures, “How are you?”

It’s just a short, strangled gust of breath that blows past Lance’s lips at first. His shoulders twitch violently with the sound. Then again — and again, and again, and again — until he’s slapping a hand over his face, heaving these humorless, sob-like peals of nervous laughter into his palm like he’s unraveling. And maybe he kind of is, just a little bit, as he tries to stipple something together that might make him feel less insane, less punch-drunk from the sheer incredulity of it all.       

“Oh, I’m just peachy, thanks,” he finally says after clearing his throat, hand sliding down the length of his face.

Nyma remains very still. Too still. 

And so Lance, perhaps spurred on by her silence, scathingly adds, “How’s Rolo the boy-toy wonder? You still, like — doodling his junk and stuff?” 

She seems to hesitate, her lips quivering with the restraint, and then, very soft, “I broke up with him last night.”

“Oh,” Lance practically wheezes. It doesn’t sound like him, but he knows it must have been his voice because Nyma’s gaze has lowered, staring forlornly at her hands, tendrils of blonde falling around her flushed cheeks. He repeats himself, as if saying it twice will miraculously diffuse the tension. “Oh.”

“He…” she goes on, throat thick, “wasn’t the guy I thought he was.” 

With a subtle hitch of his brow, Lance drawls forebodingly, “Sucks pretty bad when the people you love turn out to be different than what you thought, huh?” 

“I never loved him,” Nyma insists, and gives him her eyes once again. Throws them on him, all hardened and glossy like polished glass. “I love you.”

“Yeah, but that’s —” Lance catches his outburst with a drag of his hand, moving rough and restless through his hair, reaching all the way back to his nape. He needs to pause. He needs to breathe. He needs to figure out how to put this terrible, nightmarish sensation into words before it rips what’s left of him to shreds. “— that’s what hurts. That’s what really — just — gets me about it, y’know? You love me, but… it’s like that wasn’t enough to keep you from leaving.”

Nyma shakes her head, rapid and resolute. “I never should’ve left you, Lance. I know that now. And I’m so sorry for not knowing it before. I just… I made a mistake, okay? Haven’t you ever done something that you’ve regretted?”

From behind the sheath of his pinched eyelids, Lance can see his family, and their beaming, overjoyed faces as they lift their champagne glasses to toast his fraud of an engagement.

He also sees Keith, purposefully avoiding his gaze, looking scorned just moments before he walks away, and vanishes down the darkened street. His brain throbs with every blaring flash of memory.    

“Nyma, I…” Lance whispers, overwhelmed.

“Lance. Please look at me.”

But he doesn’t, and so she reaches for his hand, to make him.

“I don’t expect you to ever forgive me,” she laments. “Just like I’ll never be able to forgive myself for hurting you.”

He doesn’t remember her skin ever being this cold, but, then again, he’s seconds away from boiling in his own blood, and it feels something like an entire lifetime since the last time he held her hand, kissed her knuckles, and lost himself in the cherished tangle of their fingers.   

“But… I had to come see you. It felt like I was falling apart, and I… I knew I had to be here with you.”

His eyes filter out of focus as the room starts spinning around him, obscuring her into a mottled swath of color, just like the careful brushstrokes of one of her paintings. Distorted, messy, bleeding. 

“I — begged you to stay,” Lance whispers, breathing deep to swallow the lump in his throat and all of its bitter taste. His hand trembles in hers, and he hates it so much. “I would’ve done anything to make you stay.”   

“I want to stay now,” she whispers back.

Lance doesn't want to face the reason why she says it, or why he decides to listen.

“Please, Lance. Let me stay.”

But he does.

 

 


 

 

‘Tomorrow morning. Bright and early. You better be here, Keith.’

The echo of Lance’s words is loud and overbearing to match the heaviness of Keith’s footfalls, and lures him down the hallway of the apartment building like a puppet on its strings, limp and useless to anything other than… whatever’s on the other side of that door.

‘Babe. You gotta trust me. Please.’

Keith remembers those words, too. Quite vividly, in fact, because Keith spent the majority of his night with his face smooshed between the cushions of Hunk and Pidge’s couch as he pondered those words; repeated them, considered them, and tried so very hard to obey them. And he’s still trying, if he’s really being honest with himself. 

He tries to trust that when he opens that door, everything bad will be left behind in the hallway. And Lance will be there, and Nyma will not, and they will pick up right where they left off as the memories of last night drift away like nothing more than hazy vestiges of a bad dream. And they’ll go on their date, and it’ll be perfect, and Keith will be so transfixed by how unbelievably handsome Lance looks in a candlelit glow that he’ll just have to kiss him — and kiss him, and kiss him — and Lance will kiss him back, and hum against his lips in that way that does things to Keith’s poor besotted heart. And then maybe they’ll plan a trip to Cuba, and Keith will get to marvel at how the blue of the ocean matches the blue of Lance’s eyes. And he’ll sit next to Celia while she shows him an old leather-bound photo album stuffed with all of Lance’s childhood pictures, and maybe she’ll even let Keith keep a few of his favorites. And maybe there’ll be an extra chair at their dinner table, and it’ll be rowdy, and cozy, and bounding with laughter, and free of lies, and Lance will grab Keith’s hand under the table just because he can.   

God. He has to trust in this. He has to. 

Because this is Lance. And this is the only thing keeping him from falling to pieces. And this could maybe, possibly, potentially be love. And — 

Oh. Wow. Okay.

So there’s that, too, apparently.

That train of thought comes at him fast, furious, and seemingly out of nowhere. But it flutters around his skull like the manic buzz-beat of wings, swooping low into his chest, and even lower into his stomach until he feels his entire body vibrating with the intensity of it. Like the pulse of a live wire, it propels him forward, and he barrels through the apartment door, undeterred by its creaking hinges and conclusive thunk as it swings shut behind him.

Almost immediately, there’s shuffling in the kitchen. It’s abrupt, maybe a chair scooting against the linoleum, and so Keith rounds the corner, and stops dead in the entryway when he finds Lance. He’s on his feet, standing by the kitchen table, muttering a self-deprecating “shit” under his breath, with a flicker of something dark — fear? shame? pain? — flashing behind the blues of his eyes. Then it disappears so quickly that Keith might’ve believed it was just an illusion — might’ve accepted as much, too, with anyone else but him. But Keith knows Lance, and Lance knows Keith, and they both know that something is looming, ugly and evil.

And Keith knows exactly what it is. He can read it right off the downward slant of Lance’s silent lips.

“You forgot,” says Keith. It’s not an attack. It’s not even an accusation. Just a bitter observation that twists and strangles all the soft, delicate feelings that might still be blossoming inside his gut.

Lance just stands there, a shell of his former self, staring back in a mind-numbing trance, as if all of Keith’s wounds are on display, unapologetically carved into every inch of exposed skin. And Lance can’t bring himself to look away, trapped by the disconcerting sight of it all. Because he shouldn’t be able to hurt Keith like this. Except he can. And now he knows he has.        

“I —” he tries. 

“Where is she?” Keith demands at once.

“Sleeping.” He’s quiet. Ashamed.   

Keith tosses an impatient glance behind him, and scowls at the way the bedroom door is closed and, presumably, locked. His head swivels back around, stiff and robotic. “In your bed?”

“Don’t,” Lance whispers, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Come on, Lance.”

“I said don’t, okay?” Lance bursts out. His eyes snap back open, and they’re suddenly a shadowy, midnight blue, like the deepest depths of the sea. “We were talking, and it started getting late, and… she had nowhere else to go.” Lance waits, maybe for a glimmer of understanding, but Keith remains steely, and so he rushes to add, “And I slept on the couch, by the way. Just — FYI.”

It’s unnerving how Keith doesn’t move, doesn’t even give the slightest twitch of emotion as he growls, “What’d she say to you last night?”

“Um, just that —” Lance swallows hard, feeling small and boneless on the other side of Keith’s chilling glare. “— she’s sorry. That she regrets… leaving.”

“So she wants you back.”

“She didn’t — she never said that,” Lance pushes out an exhale, and nudges the chair leg with his foot for no real purpose other than to maybe tear Keith’s gaze away from his wilting expression for a goddamn second. It’s unsuccessful. “Apparently things didn’t work out with the — the other guy —”

“Yeah, no shit,” Keith grumbles.

Lance flinches, but continues: “And she’s just really torn up about it right now — which I can totally relate to, in case you’ve forgotten — and so she just wants to —”

“Fall back on her second choice,” he interjects rashly, “now that she screwed up her first.”

There’s a choked, stuttering noise in the back of Lance’s throat, like the air stops short, and the words sit tight behind the gate of his mouth. It’s a simple matter of opening up, and brute-forcing them out, but Lance hesitates, gaze falling from Keith’s eyes as if knocked loose with the sheer momentum of his shriveling posture, his slumping shoulders.

“No,” is all he can muster, and feels quite pathetic for it.

Yes, Lance,” Keith argues, his bite merciless. “Open your fucking eyes. That’s exactly what’s happening here.”

“No,” he says again, voice rising.

“And you’re letting it happen.”

“No, I’m not —”

“Then why is she here? Why did she come back?” Keith takes an angry step forward, like a beast closing in on its cornered prey. “And why the hell is she in your bed right now?”

Lance grinds his teeth. “Because I —”

“What? Love her?”

It strikes him across the face. Sharp and vicious.     

“How can you even ask —” Lance rasps, lips parting, eyes narrowing. “— just — shit, Keith.”

Keith’s voice rumbles like thunder. “That’s not an answer.” 

Lance feels it shiver behind his ribcage, and that — that seems to do something to him. Like something snapping. Like something breaking. Like something punching through all the cracks that have been so precariously stitched together. It was only a matter of time before he was bound to burst, and then everything comes spilling out in one flooding wave. With a gruff lift of his chin, Lance is tromping forward; just enough so that Keith has to swallow a gasp, and draw himself straighter.              

“I loved her,” Lance waits until they’re maybe one infuriated stride apart before he finally speaks, so resonant and nearly affronted that it frightens the tremor right out of his voice. “Loved. You hearing me through all that mullet? Past tense. Ancient history. Water under the fucking bridge. It’s —” He throws his hands up in a fit of frustration, only to have them slapping back down against his thighs. “—I don’t know how to make it any more clear.”      

“Clear?” Keith scoffs around an aggrieved puff of air, almost with the sick urge to laugh. “Nothing about this is clear. Your ex-fiancée shows up at your door without any warning, and now you’re just inviting her in, letting her cry on your shoulder, and rack up pity points when you should be — I mean, god, Lance — how many more times does she have to take advantage of you before you finally realize she doesn’t give a shit about you!”

“If she really didn’t give a shit about me,” Lance retaliates quickly, “then she wouldn’t have come back.”

Lines dig deep between Keith’s brows, flint creeping back into his eyes as he counters, “And if you really didn’t give a shit about her, then she wouldn’t still be here.”

Lance reels back from the verbal blow as it smothers his scalding temper to a pile of ashes at his feet. But Keith’s is still burning enough for the both of them. He watches as the color drains from Lance’s face, hollowing him out until he’s ghostly, and wide-eyed, and sobered. Keith barely blinks, barely even breathes as he stares Lance down with an unvoiced challenge:

Tell me I’m wrong.

But the blues of Lance’s eyes are dim and sparkle-less. He continues saying nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Keith waits. 

Please — please — tell me I’m wrong.

Then that looming, ugly thing returns with a vengeance. It gapes back at Keith through Lance’s transparent gaze, and, in the oppressive silence that follows, wrenches away the last remaining dregs of everything that Keith has been so foolishly clinging to. Every gut-deep instinct flickers back to life inside him, pumping through his veins to the beat of urgent reprimands. Reprimands that sound like run, and perspective, and trust means leaving. Reprimands that he should’ve been listening to from the start.

And Keith feels like a downright idiot for letting himself believe that this time could maybe be different.

“Admit it,” Keith says flatly.

Lance swallows dry, talks soft, “Admit what?”

“Admit that you’re no better than she is.” He’s lost control of his mouth at this point, allowing every cruel, terrifying thought to breach the firm press of his lips. He keeps taunting, “This is what you wanted all along, right? A second choice. A back-up plan. Someone to pass the time with until the girl of your dreams comes crawling back —”

“You —” Lance trips over his words with quiet, simmering outrage. “ — you think —”

“Someone to live out all your precious wedding fantasies with just so you can keep lying to yourself —”

“Keith, stop.”

“This whole thing between us was only ever supposed to be fake,” Keith goes on. “Just — fuck — I’ve been wearing her fucking ring around my neck for the past week!” 

Lance surges forward, sewing up the rest of the distance between them, and latches onto Keith’s shoulders. “Keith, seriously, I need you to just shut up and listen to me so I can tell you how messed up all of this sounds.”

“The only thing that’s messed up is how we fooled ourselves at our own fucking game,” he spits without remorse.

And then Lance is shaking his head, digging his fingers into the fabric of Keith’s shirt, and muttering a desperate stream of no, it’s real, it’s real, it’s so real, again and again, until Keith is yanking himself free with so much force that he bumps into the wall. 

“Then say you don’t have any feelings for her,” he dares to demand, leaning back into the solid drywall as if he could melt right through. “Say it.”

Lance breathes slowly. In and out.

“I… I don’t love her,” he says adamantly. He looks at the floor. He looks at the wall. He continues, “But I used to. Okay? And caring about someone like that, it’s… I don’t think it just goes away whenever you want it to. It’s like — god, it’s just complicated.”

Keith’s jaw begins to ache from how hard he’s been clenching it. So does his heart. So does his everything, really.

“Well, figure it out, Lance,” he snaps. “Because I’m done being her replacement.”

Briskly, Keith slides around the corner, out of the kitchen, with Lance hot on his trail.

“Look, I get it, okay? I fucked up big time,” he’s calling out to him. “But don’t think you can shove words in my mouth, and get away with it. I meant everything I said — this feels real, Keith, because it is real. And that’s what I want. With you.” 

“But if I can’t have that with all of you,” Keith stops, spins around, and tosses a spiteful glance at the bedroom door, “then I don’t want anything.”

“So that’s it, huh? We’re done? Game over?” Lance sneers, just for the sake of masking the hurt that drums brazenly inside his chest. “’Til death do us part’ had a pretty short fucking run, don’t’cha think?”

Keith’s eyes gleam, black and bottomless. “More like no run. We didn’t — It was — doesn’t matter. It’s over. We’re… divorced. Or whatever.”

“Doesn’t count if we never really got married,” scoffs Lance. 

Fake divorce, then.”

“You can’t fake divorce me!” Lance cries, indignant. “I’m fake divorcing you!”

“That — Do you hear how stupid you sound?”

“You started it!”

There’s a muted popping sound as Keith tugs on his necklace, breaking the thin silver chain at the base of his nape. “And now I’m ending it,” he growls, and chucks the engagement ring, letting it hit Lance’s feet with a tinny thunk.

At that, Keith storms out, slamming the door shut so aggressively that the walls can’t stop shaking. And Lance can’t stop either.

 

 


 

 

Keith is ten years old when his father dies. It’s wildfire season, so his dad works extra shifts, sometimes late ones. Keith tells him that he’s scared of fire. So his father promises that he’ll always be around to protect him. Then he ruffles Keith’s hair, reminds him to heat up the leftovers for dinner, and leaves in his uniform, looking every bit the hero that Keith has always believed him to be.

He doesn’t come home that night.

There was an incident, says one of the police officers.

Keith sits in front of grown-ups with clipboards, who smile too much, and ask him too many questions. He tucks his legs into his chest, buries his face into his knees, and refuses to answer their smiling faces.

He’s in shock, some of the grown-ups say.

He’s depressed, say the others.

No, thinks Keith. He just wants his family back.

He’s still ten years old when he learns how easily a promise can be broken. 

 

 


 

 

A yellow taxi idles by the curbside outside the apartment building, its back door swung open wide. 

Nyma hoists her suitcase into the trunk, and shuts it with a shuddering slam. The car rattles on its wheels. And Lance, with his arms folded tightly around his chest, loiters on the sidewalk.

He’s only vaguely aware of how she saunters toward him, far too focused on the assortment of cracks in the pavement below his shoes. But the taxi still waits patiently, and Nyma is still trying to catch his lowered gaze, and so he glances up with a frown.

“So, uh,” Lance begins stiffly, still not quite meeting her eyes. “Good luck with — life, I guess.”

Nyma’s smile is small. “You, too.”

“Yeah.”

“I really am sorry, you know.”

Then Lance sees her — really sees her — and it’s that same awful, tentative look on her face that he remembers from so many nights ago, when she’d broken his heart. At least, he thinks he remembers. It’s fuzzy in his mind, static on a television screen, like he’s watching a scene from somebody else’s life, and that, he thinks, is maybe a good sign.

“I know,” he says. “But I think I deserve better than that,” and then he’s glowing a little pink beneath his freckles, explaining, “I — had to say that out loud, at least once.”

Her smile goes soft and solemn around the edges. “I think you do, too.”

Ever so carefully, Nyma reaches out a hand, and cups the side of Lance’s warm cheek. Her touch prickles his skin, stinging like a paper cut. “Au revoir, Lance,” she says.

He rests his own steady hand atop hers, lets it linger for a moment longer than he should, and then pushes her hand away with a curt, “Bye, Nyma.”

The car door shuts, and the taxi takes off down the street, and Lance watches it carry her away, a bone-crushing weight sloughing off his shoulders with every added mile that stretches between them. It’s like coming up for air. It’s like winter collapsing into spring. Lance inhales with newly revived lungs, feels himself expand, pivots on his heel, and then it’s a startling:   

“Uh… Bro.”

Because there, on the sidewalk, only a few paces away, are his three siblings. And their faces are all contorted into varying expressions of staggering bewilderment.

And then it’s a very profound, exceedingly eloquent: Oh, shiiiiiiiiiiit.

Lance nearly leaps out of his skin, and would give just about anything to slither down the storm drain — or somewhere equally as depressing — to avoid their expectant gazes. Heat burns all the way up to his hairline as he jabs a reluctant thumb over his shoulder, pointing at the spot on the street where a taxi cab had been parked just moments before.

“Uh,” Lance croaks. “Any chance you maybe didn’t catch all that?”

“You mean that unsubtle never-let-go-Jack moment you just had with some random-ass chick?” Marco crows. “We saw the whole thing, dude.” 

A deep, rumbling groan bubbles up from the depths of Lance’s throat, and then he covers his face with his hands, mumbling into his palms, “Ohh… Cool. Awesome. Great. Cool, cool, cool…”

“Lance?” one of them says. Maybe Luis. Maybe Veronica. Lance didn’t pay attention.

“What are you guys even doing here?” he asks helplessly through the cracks of his fingers.

“We were going to surprise you, and take you out for a siblings-only lunch,” answers Luis.

Lance peels his hands away to reveal a pinched, sad excuse for a smile that, actually, turns out looking more like a pained wince. “Surprise?” he squeaks pitifully.

“Who was that, Lance?” Veronica pipes up with just a twinge of premature disapproval creeping into her tone.

“Um,” Lance falters.

“Yeah, and more importantly,” Marco’s eyes go huge, “does Keith know you’re out here on a secret sidewalk date with someone else?”

That wince scrunches tighter. “I, um… Not exactly?”

“Lance!”

“Oh my god, how could you do this to him!”

“And ya’ll thought I was the family douchebag!”

They all explode in one fiery detonation, and Lance flaps his hands, raises his voice, just tries not to get singed. “Hey, whoa, guys! I — ugh, god — I’m not cheating on Keith, okay!”

Veronica, with a hand on her hip, says, “Well, it sure looked like you —”

“‘Cause Keith and I aren’t… together.” 

Lance swears he can hear his stomach plummeting to the concrete, and his gaze aimlessly drifts around to spot the nearest storm drain. Just in case.

Luis is the first to regain composure, just enough to mutter a hesitant, “Excuse me?”

“That girl,” Lance begins with a labored sigh. “She’s the one I proposed to in France.” 

“But then why are you engaged to Keith now?” wonders Veronica.

Another sigh, heavier than the first. “I’m not engaged to Keith.” 

“What happened?” Luis furrows his brow, concerned. “Did you two have a fight?”

“No, we — well, yeah, but I mean —” Lance hates this. He wants to chew up his words, and spit them into the ground. “I was never engaged to Keith.”

Veronica gives him a squinty-eyed glare, clearly baffled. “What do you mean? He’s your fiancé.”

“He’s not. He was just pretending to be my —”

“Holy shit! Is Keith a gigolo?”

Lance whips his beet-red face over to Marco, and splutters, scandalized, “A what — no! He’s — would you just let me bare my guilty conscience for a sec?!”

His siblings fall remarkably silent, watching him with a desperate need to understand, and Lance thinks, with heart-pounding panic — this is it. But the broken shards of this woeful charade are already scattered around Lance’s feet, and so there’s really nothing left to lose. The damage has been done, and Lance feels it like a fatal stab to the gut.

“‘Kay, look, I —” Lance takes a gulp of air, holds it hostage in his mouth, and then lets it pour back out in one almighty rush. “I asked this girl to marry me, and right before we were supposed to come back here together, she left me for another guy. And next thing I know, everyone’s on a flight to come meet her, and she was gone, and it kinda — killed me a little bit, but I… didn’t know how to tell you guys. So I met Keith and convinced him to act like my fiancé for the week. But — big surprise — I end up screwing that up, too, because Nyma came back, and Keith got pissed, and when he left it was like — god, it was like nothing else mattered. Keith is the only one who matters, but I don’t know what to do ‘cause he probably doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore, and — yeah. Now we’re here. That’s where we’re at.” 

He chances a rueful glance at those three familiar faces. None of them have changed very much. In fact, Lance starts to wonder if they’d heard him at all. Or if he’d even spoken those words aloud at all. Or maybe his humiliating tirade had been a wicked trick of his imagination.

“Can somebody just — say something already? Please? I’m gonna die over here,” Lance whines, antsy with dread. “Seriously. The one time you guys decide not to have an opinion on my life —”

“Lance,” Luis interrupts slowly. Even from behind the thick rim of his glasses, Lance can see the stern, paternal wrinkle around his brother’s eyes. “Why didn’t you just tell us the truth?”

“I dunno,” Lance chokes, but it’s not what he means to say at all. It’s a nothing excuse, even in his own ears, and certainly to his siblings’, so he licks his lips, and tries again, “It’s just — you guys were so excited, and I didn’t wanna disappoint you, or ruin the whole trip because I was too busy wallowing like some kinda… heartbroken sad-sack.”

He doesn’t know when it happened, but, at some point, his eyes begin to sting around the edges, and so he swipes his knuckles beneath his damp lash line with a sniff.

“It was like… If I didn’t have to admit it to you guys, then I didn’t have to admit it to myself. And then I could just keep on pretending that it didn’t hurt, and it wasn’t really happening, and everything was fine. It was… a really dumb idea. Like, maybe my dumbest. Which is really saying something ‘cause you guys have about twenty-two years of proof that I can make things really, really dumb.”

Sniff. It’s loud, and wet, and just about as dignified as Lance feels in that moment, and then —

“Oh, Lance.”

They ambush him in the fiercest, sweetest way possible, swarming around him, and wrapping him up in one enormous embrace. Lance blinks his eyes in surprise, but falls into their warm bodies, regardless, not even realizing how badly he’s been needing this until right now.

“Wait, so,” he whispers into someone’s shoulder. “You aren’t mad that I lied to you?”

“Well, we’d definitely prefer if you didn’t lie to us,” Luis chuckles quietly from somewhere over Lance’s head. “But we just want you to be happy, little bro.”

Marco’s voice booms loudly in Lance’s left ear, “Yeah, man, we don’t give a flying fuck if you end up alone, like one of those weird old dudes who talks to pigeons in the park and has some seriously questionable facial hair.”

Lance heaves a mournful sound, and somebody pinches Marco’s flank, making him yelp.

“What Marco is trying, and failing, to say,” Veronica intervenes, “is that we don’t care about the wedding, or the flowers, or the cake. We care about you.”

Something white-hot and decidedly pleasant — relief, most likely — bursts inside Lance’s chest like a sunrise. He chokes a little bit on a stuttering exhale, and then Luis is ruffling his hair, and Marco is laughing against his ear, and Veronica is squeezing him tighter, and it’s just so — good.

Eventually, they break apart, but they remain huddled close, and Lance gives one more noisy sniffle to keep the tears at bay once and for all.

“So not to be insensitive or whatever,” Marco says, “but what’s the dealio with Keith? Are you actually into him or not?”

Stupidly into him,” Lance mumbles miserably. “And only him. I just… didn’t realize it in time.”

Veronica puckers her lips in protest. “Who says it’s over? There’s no time limit on love!”

“Oh, boy, here we go,” Luis utters under a wry breath.

If she heard him at all, she chooses to ignore it, and slings an arm around Lance’s shoulders with newfound resolve. 

“The siblings-only lunch is back on,” Veronica announces proudly, after offering a flash of her bright, gleaming canines. “We have some serious planning to do.”

 

 


 

 

When Keith turns eleven, he makes his first and only friend at his new school. James Griffin sits next to him in Social Studies, and doesn’t think Keith is weird for living in a foster home. He and Keith pass notes during class, play kickball on the same team at recess, and read books about astronomy in the library together. Sometimes Keith goes over to James’ house after school, and his mom makes them snacks while they play video games and laugh at dumb television shows in his basement.

At twelve, Keith comes to the startling realization that he would very much like to kiss James, and doesn’t really understand why. But he feels it down to his core.

He’s thirteen when he actually tries. They’re walking home from school, and James is babbling on about the new Transformers movie, and Keith is only half-listening because the glaring afternoon sun suddenly shimmers around James’ eyes just so, and Keith feels like he might actually die if he doesn’t kiss him right here and now. 

So he does. Hasty and clumsy.

James pushes him away, calls him a freak, and then they stop talking after that.

Keith is on the cusp of fourteen when he learns that people can’t hurt you if you don’t let them close enough to try.        

And Keith is twenty-three when he walks out on a gorgeous blue-eyed boy, and learns that sometimes, even after years of practice, old habits can still die hard.

Chapter Text

. . .

There’s something merciless trying to push its way through his skin, Lance realizes. Right through every microscopic pore. Like his body just can’t contain this much of — whatever it is. This thing. This indescribable something.   

So he tries to pinpoint it by sifting through his vast emotional archive. It’s not quite as painful as the heartache, he concludes, or as heavy as the guilt. But it’s debilitating, and all-consuming, and decidedly Keith-sized. It rummages around the empty spaces between his bones. It cries out into the endless abyss of his mind. It slithers, and smolders, and shoves until Lance feels like he’s toeing the edge of something both dangerous and spectacular. He’s hanging on by the tips of his fingers. He’s leaning over the cliff. He’s —

He’s sitting outside on a sun-drenched patio at some Italian-style bistro, sharing a basket of complimentary breadsticks with his siblings, and his attention is neither here nor there. It filters in and out like sunlight through the trees.

Veronica has that telltale twinkle in her eye, and she’s babbling on about all of her fantastically romantic schemes — something involving a dozen red roses, and a string quartet, frighteningly enough. Marco chimes in with an occasional idea, too, flailing his arms, and mumbling excitedly through a bulging mouthful of breadstick. Luis just leans back in his chair, and half-covers his face in a way that very fondly states: despite how it looks, I’m not actually related to these hooligans.

And Lance — well.

Lance chugs down three refills of iced tea, and thinks about this strange feeling inside him, and why he’s never felt it before, and what exactly awaits him at the bottom of that precipice he still feels himself inching toward.

It’s all very odd. And alarming. And, somehow, he doesn’t really hate it.

But it lingers. Oh, does it linger.

In fact, it chases him around like a bad dream. It peeks over his shoulder as he eats his lunch. It taps him on the back as he nods, and hums, and pretends to be involved in a conversation that he’s, admittedly, only vaguely aware of. And by the time they leave, this feeling — this maddening thing — is getting worse, pounding away at Lance’s skull, demanding the spotlight.

At some point, apparently, they stop for smoothies on the way back. Lance must’ve missed that decision because the next time he fades back to reality he finds himself trailing behind his siblings with a cup of mango-strawberry-something-or-other in his grasp. And he’s staring so intensely at his frozen treat that Luis, apparently, feels the need to slow his pace, and fall into step with his younger brother until they’re shoulder to shoulder. His paternal instincts must be going haywire, Lance assumes a bit grimly.

“You’re looking awfully introspective back here,” he observes after taking an innocent sip of his own blueberry-banana concoction.

Lance glances up, and just quirks his brow at the sight of Luis’ patient eyes drilling into his face. Like he’s searching for something. So he asks, “Is that just the supportive big brother way of asking me if I’m having a meltdown?”

Are you having a meltdown?”

“No,” says Lance, scrunching his nose as he considers the bitter aftertaste of that word. And then, relenting, “Probably not. Like, eighty-six percent sure I’m not.”

“That’s too bad,” Luis smirks. “I think Marco was really looking forward to the meltdown.”

“Yeah, well, Marco’s an asswipe.”

“You’re not wrong.”

Lance allows a snort of amusement, and Luis quickly joins in, their little bursts of laughter mingling like a perfectly-tuned duet. Up ahead, Veronica and Marco are still chatting animatedly, oblivious, and even though Lance can’t make out much of their exchange, the sight alone seems to provoke the thing once again, and the pounding resumes.

Luis can tell. Of course he can. Stupid instincts. “So you wanna talk about it?” he asks. 

“Maybe if I actually knew what it is,” Lance sighs just short of frustration, and goes back to staring at his hands, and the way droplets of condensation leak onto his palms. “It just — it feels…”

“Yeah?”

One of the droplets slides down Lance’s wrist, and splatters on the top of his shoe. 

“I dunno,” comes Lance’s miserably resigned conclusion. “But it feels… big.”

Luis just nods, and tells him, “Love is big.”

Lance turns his face toward the line of shops that stretches down the sidewalk, hiding a frown, and the thing inside him gives a knowing wiggle. “I guess I always kinda thought love was easier than this.”

“It can be,” Luis says gently. “It’s usually the falling part that makes it so difficult. You know?” 

And that’s when Lance’s frown twists into more of a scowl, deep-set and confounded, because — no. He doesn’t know. And he’s never been more viscerally aware of just how much he doesn’t know until right this very moment. And the realization of it all backhands him across the face. It grabs him by the shoulders, and shakes him silly. And the thing inside him keeps shoving his defenseless husk of a body closer to the edge until just half a step more will certainly send him —

— Falling.

Then the thing inside him starts raging like a wildfire. Good job, bonehead, took you long enough.

So, as it would seem, maybe he does know something, after all. 

He knows what love feels like — intense. warm. enormous. — because he’s been there before.

It’s just that he’s always been moving too fast to even realize how he got there.

“It’s more like a…” Lance starts musing aloud when the thoughts inside his head become too overwhelming to deal with on his own. “…nosedive. For me. Or a really brutal face-plant. Just —” He watches another drop hit the dry pavement. “— splat. It’s like I meet someone, they rock my world, and boom. Suddenly I’m head over heels. Or doing something really dumb like proposing after three months.”

Luis huffs lightheartedly in response.

“But with Keith it’s… different,” Lance goes on. “Not saying he didn’t rock my world, but — I don’t think I love him. Yet. But I think I could. I definitely could. And I want to. One day. Eventually. Y’know, when the time’s right, and —”

His palms are stinging where they’re wrapped tightly around his icy-cold cup, so he loosens his grip, and turns back to his brother, who is pressing his lips together in a very impressive display of self-restraint. The bastard. Lance frowns again.

“Oh, shit,” he breathes helplessly. “This is the falling part, isn’t it?”

Then Luis breaks into a grin. “Yep.”

God,” Lance clutches at his chest. “Is it really supposed to feel like this?”

“Yep.”

“Are you sure I’m not just going crazy?”

“Sometimes there’s not much of a difference.”

Lance tosses his head back, and groans, and Luis chuckles quietly, which, in Lance’s opinion, is wildly unhelpful to the situation.

“You couldn’t have unleashed all this wise, life-changing older sibling knowledge on me, like — I dunno — before I screwed everything up?” he demands.

“I didn’t really do anything,” Luis reminds, and gives him what is probably intended to be an encouraging nudge with his elbow. “You figured it out on your own.” 

Or maybe there hadn’t been much to figure out at all. Maybe this thing has been growing — falling — for longer than Lance even realized. And only now, when he feels everything slipping through his fingers like fine-grained sand, does it finally come to light, and seep, thick and syrupy, through his veins until he’s drowning in it.

Because irony is a real bitch like that.

“I gotta talk to him,” mumbles Lance, pushing a hand through his hair, and just holding it there. “I gotta — make him listen.”

“Well, if you need a hand with that, I’m sure Ronnie would be more than happy to rent a skywriter for you,” Luis snorts. “Or choreograph an interpretive dance or… something.”

Lance’s petulant gaze bounces between his brother, and his sister, who still loiters a few feet ahead of them with an excitable — suspicious, Lance inwardly corrects — spring in her step.

“She can’t steal my big, heartfelt apology moment!” he whines.

“Try telling her that,” mutters Luis.

An aggravated sigh, and then Lance is saying, “Look, Keith deserves better than some lame gimmick, okay? He deserves something real. He deserves —”

More, his mind finishes.

The fingers of his right hand twitch into a fist, knuckles throbbing beneath the bandage, without warning. A memory. A reminder. 

Lance finds himself stopping in his tracks, gaze inexplicably drawn to the understated jewelry shop to his left. He doesn’t know why it catches his attention, or continues to hold it for any significant amount of time, but it does. Wandering over to the storefront window with eyes blown wide, the tip of his nose almost presses against the glass as he peers inside. The display is an artful arrangement of golden baubles and colorful gemstones, glittering under the light fixtures like gilded bits of starlight plucked straight from the sky itself.

He stares, and stares, and stares. Mesmerized.

And then his nose really does bump the glass as his siblings curiously crowd around him, leaning in as they, too, shove their faces close to the window display to get a good look at whatever happens to be so important.

“What are we looking at?” Veronica asks.

“Is it happening?” Marco does a poor job of whispering, and an even poorer job at attempting not to sound too delighted. “Is he having the meltdown?” 

But Lance is feeling something blossom inside his chest when he says, “Guys. I think I know where to start.”

And the little bell above the door jingles hopefully as he steps inside the shop. 

 


  

“Keith, my boy!”

After something like an embarrassing four second delay, Keith’s hands freeze around the highball glass he’s been wiping down for much longer than necessary. He lifts his head like it weighs a ton, and blinks his eyes like he honest-to-god forgot where he is right now.

“Huh?” he says, throat thick, choking on nothing. Pathetic, really.

His manager, Coran, gives him a concerned furrow of his brow, and a twitch of his big, orange mustache. Then he’s setting a full martini glass onto the bar, and saying, “Looks like we got another flub. The woman on table twelve says she ordered a cosmo with no limes and extra cranberry. But it appears you made her one with extra limes and… no cranberry.”

Keith stares blankly at the offending cocktail like he’s waiting for it to do something particularly awe-inspiring.

But to nobody’s surprise, it doesn’t. It just sits there. Still incorrect.

“Right,” he finally sighs, shoulders deflating. “Uh — sorry, Coran.”

“Just wondering where you left your head tonight.”

“I know. I…” Another sigh. A growl, maybe. Demoralized, and self-hating for it. “Just gimme a minute. I’ll make another —”

Keith whirls himself around, and the highball glass slips right out of his careless grasp, shattering to bits across the floor in one ear-splitting crash.

A few nearby patrons glance toward the commotion, startled. Keith feels the smash clang around the pit of his stomach like church bells, glares resentfully at the fragments of his third glassware casualty of the evening, and then gives a resounding, “Fuck.” 

Pathetic, really. 

“Oh, bugger…” Coran mumbles, already rounding the edge of the counter to step behind the bar.

“I’ll grab the broom,” Keith is also mumbling, but doesn’t get very far before Coran catches his arm. 

“Not so fast there, mate,” he chirps. “Why don’t’cha call it a night instead.”

Keith falters. “But my shift’s not over yet.”

“Things are quiet enough ‘round here. Should be able to hold down the fort on my own.”

“C’mon, Coran, you know I need the money.”

“And I need the customers,” reminds Coran, though there’s a hint of sympathy as he adds, “But I’m afraid there won’t be any left if you keep botching orders and breaking our inventory.”

Shame forces Keith to duck his head, and look helplessly toward the scattered shards of glass surrounding them, thinking how he feels very much the same — broken. Jagged. He grumbles, quiet, “It’s just… been a long day.”

“Then I’m sorry, my boy, but you’ll be better off at home,” Coran says. “Go clear that wandering mind of yours. Re-align your chakras or whatever the kids are doing these days.”

“But —”

“I insist!”

And insist, he does. Coran tosses Keith his bag, and practically drags him to the back door, all to the drone of babbled protests and disgruntled pleas. They spew out of Keith’s mouth like he’s ashamed of the way they sound — so feeble, and less-than-heartfelt — but it’s all he can muster before Coran is offering him one last flicker of sympathy — which Keith mistakes as pity, and promptly grimaces — and then shooing him into the back alleyway, shutting the door, and leaving him there. Alone. Dismissed.

Keith curses under his breath, kicks at the ground, and then leans back against the cold brick wall.

Pathetic.

Really.

You’ll be better off at home, Coran had told him. Keith thinks, and thinks. He thinks about going back to Hunk and Pidge’s, but quickly brushes off the thought when he figures he doesn’t currently possess the mental capacity to ward off a full-fledged interrogation; one that has inevitably been percolating ever since Keith wound up at their doorstep the other night, looking about as weary and spent as a ten-year prisoner of war.

He thinks about his old apartment — empty, and locked, with an eviction notice still taped to the door.    

He thinks, oddly enough, about his childhood home back in Texas, with all its wind chimes, and creaking floorboards, and smoke-scented rooms filled with sad, sad memories.        

Then he thinks about Lance. Just Lance. Lance when he smiles, and Lance when he listens to the rain, and Lance when he rolls around with his niece and nephew. And Lance when he hurts him, and prods at Keith’s bruised heart.

Maybe it was never a home.

Or maybe it was almost a home. 

Keith can’t decide which one feels the most terrible.

But as he tips his head back against the wall, breathing in all the terribleness and heady summer air before it can suffocate him, he hears a very familiar, very distinct:

“Cariño?”

His head turns — snaps, more like — toward the sound of that honeyed voice, and then right there, near the end of the alley, is…

“Celia,” Keith croaks, and practically jumps away from the wall. “You — what — what are you doing here?”

His posture has gone rigid in the wake of her gaze, but there’s no need for it, because her eyes, he notices, couldn’t be more soft. They’re calm, and perfectly blue, and Keith is suddenly reminded of a desert rainstorm. Those rare, sprawling days when the clouds would open up to a steady drizzle, and empty themselves over the barren land. The drops would tickle his skin; gentle as a kiss, warm as sunlight, and just as soothing and disarming as the woman before him.

“Lance said you’d be working tonight,” says Celia.

When her gaze reaches the bag slung unceremoniously over his shoulder, Keith stares down at his tired feet. “I, uh — got off early.”

“Ah. I see.”

For a moment, the night grows quiet enough for Keith to imagine that Celia must’ve left him by now. Surely she has better things to do than stand around sad, lonely alleyways on sad, lonely evenings, waiting for some sad, lonely boy to work through all the sad, lonely thoughts inside his sad, lonely head. But when he peeks up through dark lashes and feathery fringe, he finds her there, still waiting, still patient.

“Everyone missed you at dinner,” she tells him softly, and begins striding forward, further into the alley where Keith is mostly swathed in shadow.

His heart sinks. “Yeah, I — sorry about that. I was —”

“It’s alright, cariño,” Celia gives him a meaningful look, one that Keith doesn’t quite understand until she’s explaining, solemnly, “I know.”

Down, down, down his heart keeps plunging fast. Past his stomach, past his kneecaps, all the way down to the hard, cracked pavement, spilling out in a million directions. A bomb exploding. A tower collapsing. Another glass shattering.    

“You know,” echoes Keith, dazed and dry-mouthed.

“The truth,” Celia clarifies, as if Keith’s dumbfounded expression doesn’t speak volumes on its own. “Lance told us everything.”

“Oh,” is all Keith can manage through the dizzying fog clouding up his brain. Everything

She’s standing close now; close enough to smell the sweet scent of vanilla that always seems to be radiating from her very presence, and Keith, though he stands a good four inches taller, feels like he’s shrinking. Maybe with guilt, maybe with fear, maybe with humiliation — or maybe with some crippling combination of the three.

“He’s driving himself mad about it, you know,” she says simply. 

And Keith bristles, like his entire body is rejecting the thought. “Then shouldn’t you be with him right now?”

Celia moves her head — a knowing, motherly tilt — and tells him, “I have a feeling that my son isn’t the only one hurting.”

“I don’t —” It stirs something up in his soul; awful, fiery, and sharp enough to cut sound. His hands start to shake, so he balls them up tight until they can’t anymore. “— I don’t need to be checked up on.”

“Of course you don’t, cariño,” she says, so unfailingly tender, despite his tone, “but that’s just what families do.”

All at once, Keith is struck by the startling epiphany wrapped up in those words, so blunt and aggressive that it nearly bowls him over on the spot. Maybe that’ll do the trick, he thinks darkly. Maybe if he falls over, and smacks his head hard enough, he’ll shake himself free of this delirious fantasy — the one that’s playing out before him like it’s meant for someone else. Because certainly it isn’t his. It can’t be. Not after this, not after everything. The McClains are supposed to say their goodbyes, fly back home, and Keith is supposed to never see them again. He’s not supposed to feel like he belongs to something, or that something this wonderful could ever belong to him. They’re not supposed to care

And Keith isn’t supposed to care, either.       

“Well?” Celia prompts patiently. “Are you okay?”    

Keith heaves a ragged breath, still recovering. “I’m —”

“Don’t you dare lie to me, young man.”

And then he’s pulling himself up, straight as a soldier, because — oh. So that’s what that feels like. A mother’s command. It’s stern, and compassionate, and makes whatever flimsy untruth he’d been planning to garble out just crumble and die on the tip of his tongue. He feels like he’s being tugged by a loose thread, threatening to unravel a whole lifetime’s worth of hurt and hardship, but he grapples and clings to the comfort of stoic silence until the stitches start to bulge, and the wounds start to ache, and the scars start to bleed anew.

Keith bites down on a wobbling lip, and gives a stiff shake of his head in response. 

Because no. He’s not okay.

And he cares so fucking much.

Gravity yanks him down. Or maybe it’s Celia that yanks him down. Either way, he ends up gathered into the woman’s chest, all loose-limbed and listless, with his ear on her heartbeat, and her arms enveloping him like the balmy desert sun, burning deep to his core. He melts beneath her scorching rays, her pleasantly cloudless warmth.  

“Ay, mi niño,” she whispers into the crown of his head. “The world has been cruel to you, hasn’t it?”

“I’m just — sick of being alone,” he mutters behind tight lips. It comes to light like expressions of vulnerability often do; without consciously meaning to. 

“You’re never alone now. You have us,” Celia says, raking her fingers through the tangled ends of Keith’s hair. Then she whispers again, like a secret between the two of them, “And a very silly boy who doesn’t want to lose you.”

Keith fights against a rebellious shiver sprinting up his back. “Me and Lance, we — It’s not… It was never real.”

“Lying to yourself won’t make it any easier to walk away, mijo.”

Steady hands peel him away, holding his shoulders at bent arm’s length, and she smiles, then. Something small, and subtle, but something to be remembered, he thinks. And so Keith blinks his miserable eyes, as if he can capture this feeling of immeasurable softness like a photograph, to look back on when he needs it most. 

“Celia, I —” he begins.

“I know,” she says. “You want to run. You want to protect your heart. We all do.”

Keith glances to the side, loathing the way he feels so exposed and transparent like a specimen under a microscope.

“I’m not here to stop you. That is not my place,” Celia continues, and squeezes his broad shoulders. “I’m only going to tell you that we’ll always be here — should you ever choose to come back home.”

You’ll be better off at home.

Almost a home, nags the voice inside his head.

Eventually, Keith nods. It’s slow, and forced, but he figures he has to do something.

“Here,” says Celia, procuring a thick, white envelope from the mouth of her handbag. “He wants you to have this.”

“What is it?” Keith asks faintly.

She smiles again, a bit more fond. “You’ll have to open it.”

He accepts the envelope, turns it over a few times, considering its weight against his clammy palms. It’s loosely sealed — perhaps even hastily sealed, or nervously sealed — but Keith can’t bring himself to pull at the fragile seams just yet. His grip tightens, wrinkling the crisp paper, calling upon any strength that remains.

“I don’t know what to do,” he admits.

And then Celia is sweeping a hand against his cheek in a way that would wipe away the tears, had Keith allowed any of them to fall. But he keeps them trapped inside, along with all the fear, and gratitude, and embarrassment, and longing.

“You’ll figure it out, cariño,” and then she’s leaving.

Keith starts to miss her before she’s even out of sight, but that, too, stays inside. Moonlight paints the ground pale where Celia had been standing mere moments ago, and Keith stares at the emptiness until the envelope grows heavier in his hands. His back meets the discomfort of the wall once again, and a finger slides beneath the front flap, lifting it up with ease.

Air races out of his lungs as he takes it in, dizzy and disoriented all over again. Because, cradled in the body of the envelope, is a neat bundle of hundred dollar bills. Keith thumbs through it, counting as he goes, eyes spreading wider and wider with every flick of green paper that passes over the pad of his thumb.

… Six hundred, seven hundred, eight hundred, nine

Keith stops short. His fingers stop, his heart stops, the earth stops. The blood running cold through his veins stops.

For one excruciating, soul-numbing moment, everything just — stops.

 


  

It’s early the next morning when Lance arrives at Hunk and Pidge’s apartment complex on the other side of town. He bounces on his toes as the elevator slowly carries him to the fifth floor. He’s wearing his favorite shirt — the soft blue one that Keith had drunkenly admitted to liking on the first night they went home together. His hand is gripped tight around a modest bouquet of flowers. And — as if the stars are finally aligned in his favor — he’s having a fantastic hair day, if he does say so himself.

He’s ready, he’s ready, he’s ready.

A bit breathless — and, admittedly, nauseous — but ready.

He paces the hallway outside their door once, twice, three times — oh, a fourth time won’t hurt — just to calm some of the nerves that are twitching through him like an electrical current. Just to take his mind off of everything he still doesn’t know. Because that’s the thing about falling — the not knowing. Not knowing where or how he’ll land. Not knowing whether or not someone will be there to catch him at the bottom.

But it’s a risk he’s willing to take. He’s ready.

So he knocks on the door.

And he waits.

There’s shuffling, maybe. Footsteps? Tired, heavy, possibly Keith-sounding footsteps trudging closer and closer until Lance just panics. He makes some kind of unattractive squeak, and hoists the bouquet in front of his flushed face right as the door creaks open, and then it’s:

“Aw, dude, you shouldn’t have!”

Lance peeks around the bundle of flowers to find a half-asleep but grinning Hunk standing in the doorway, and it’s enough to make him release the breath he’s been holding in his lungs.

“You know I’m crazy about you, big guy. Seriously. My love knows no bounds. But my type’s a little more buff, dark, and broody.” Lance aims his gaze a bit impatiently over Hunk’s shoulder, and asks, “Speaking of which — where’s Keith?”

Then Hunk’s expression drops, and so does Lance’s stomach.

“Uh,” says Hunk, crinkling his brow. “He already left, man.”

“Left?” Lance splutters. “Where’d he go?”

“Y’know. The train station.”

“The what now?”

“He said you already knew!”

“Does it look like I already knew?!”

Hunk’s eyes suddenly bulge like they’re trying to pop out of their sockets, and whispers, “Uh-oh.”

“Hunk,” says Lance.

“Oh, man. Oh, jeez,” and now Hunk has his hands pressing against either side of his horror-stricken face. “This is bad. I knew it. I knew it was bad. I told Pidge we shouldn’t have believed him —”

“Hunk, buddy, I need you to focus for a sec,” Lance implores, desperately grabbing one of his friend’s wrists, and leveling him with a clear-blue stare. “How long ago did he leave?”

He winces, struggling to recall and remain calm at the same time. “Like… an hour? Hour and a half? I dunno, I fell back asleep after he —”

Lance interrupts with a wail. More like a strangled garble of frustration, really, as he kicks at the doorframe, and starts stomping through the hallway again, with all the manic, pent-up intensity of a caged animal. “God, he’s so — he’s such a —” Another irritated grunt, and a scuff at the ground for good measure. “I’m gonna smack him upside his stupid mullet head, and then — apologize profusely.”

“Lance, you’re mumbling,” Hunk tells him warily, and then goes “oof” when Lance thrusts the bouquet into his unready hands.

“Hold onto these for me, would’ya?”

“Lance,” Hunk says again, wariness edging on fear. “Dude, you have that crazy eye thing going on like when you’re gonna — what are you doing?”

He’s not listening.

He’s taking off down the hallway.

He’s nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste.

He’s falling, and he’s so, so ready for it.  

 


  

Keith hitches his bag higher on his back, and strides up to the ticket window, feeling as ornery and naive as he did at ten years old, when he’d threatened to run away from his first of six foster homes with nothing but a sweatshirt, a water bottle, and two peanut butter sandwiches. He wonders if the kind-faced lady behind the glass can see the splintering of his skin, or the damage behind his dull, unvarnished eyes as she hands him a boarding pass.

Keith melts into the crowd, and weaves through the station, lungs burning like he’s choking on sea water, and bones aching like he’s been running for miles and miles. He wonders how much more of this he can take before his lungs burst, or his bones snap in two.

Keith arrives at his platform an hour early, and watches the throngs of people pass him by with purpose in their gait, coming and going. He wonders if they can tell that he’s not like them, with no real purpose, and no real destination. A wanderer, not a traveler. A runaway, not a visitor.

A faraway train whistle cries, sharp and shrill, and Keith tightly grips the straps of his bag. Closes his eyes even tighter.

He wonders why he can’t seem to catch his breath, even when he’s standing perfectly still.   

He wonders when he’ll stop imagining a pair of blue eyes with every rapid flutter of his pulse.

And he wonders when he’ll finally learn. When he’ll finally stop making the same mistakes. When he’ll finally realize that maybe he’s not meant for the kinds of things that his heart craves.           

So maybe he just has to keep running until he finally stops wondering.

 


 

The wheels of the rental car screech horrendously as Luis steers them into the train station parking lot, and Lance starts wiggling in his seat before they even make a complete stop.

From the backseat, Veronica huffs disapprovingly. “I can’t believe you didn’t bring the flowers.”

“He’s about to get on a train and leave, Ron,” Lance snaps, yanking impatiently on the strap of his seatbelt. “What the hell are flowers supposed to do?”

Also from the back, an apathetic drawl: “Yo, if there’s a Starbucks in there, can you grab me a venti cold brew with —”

“A little busy here, Marco!”

More yanking, and tugging, until Luis takes pity on his bumbling brother, and clicks the release button for him. Lance’s seatbelt zips back, slapping him in the face as he tumbles his way out of the passenger door, disgruntled, and wobbly on his feet like a baby deer. He begins a clumsy sprint across the pavement, and Veronica is already halfway out the back door by the time Luis reaches around, and jerks her back by her big, bouncy ponytail.

“Don’t even think about it,” he warns. Veronica pouts.

And Marco leans his head out the window with a booming cry of, “Go get ‘im, tiger! And don’t forget my coffee!”

Lance’s retreating back, and his raised middle finger, disappear into the station as the automatic doors swallow him up.

 


 

Admittedly, Keith can’t even pronounce the name of the town printed in that bold, imposing text on the front of his boarding pass. But he’s seen it on the map before, sandwiched in between two towns that he actually does recognize, and he knows for a fact that it’s small, quiet, and — most importantly — not here.

Here is dangerous. Here is too much. Here is where Lance is, and that’s just — It’s dangerous.

Because if Keith allows himself to think about anything other than that stupidly impossible town name on his boarding pass, his traitorous mind starts drifting toward everything he knows he definitely shouldn’t be drifting toward. Like creamy hot chocolate, and ferris wheel rides, and the most delicious pancakes Keith has ever had. And overplayed pop music, and a face full of freckles, and drinking coffee at the kitchen table, and wanting nothing more than to go back to sleep because it’s too fucking early to be awake, but he doesn’t really mind because the company is nice, and Lance’s smile is so cute, and his eyes are so bright, and they’re looking right at Keith like he’s the only thing in the whole world that’s even worthy of being looked at, and —

Very dangerous.

So, anyway. About that town name. 

Keith glares down at the ticket pinched tightly between his fingers, and tells himself to stop being dumb, to stop missing things that probably weren’t even real. And that’s that.

“You!”

Or so he thought.

When Keith turns toward the far end of the platform, he’s convinced that all this internal sulking must be playing tricks on his eyes because, standing there, is Lance. A bit windswept, and halfway between relieved and furious, but still — utterly and unapologetically Lance. And he tramples the rest of the way forward like a man on a mission, muscles so clenched and eyes so stormy that Keith’s heart leaps up for an impromptu visit with his molars.

“You thought — you could just — run away?” Lance is panting between words, clearly beside himself, and comes to a screeching halt a mere foot away from Keith’s steeled expression. “And not even tell me?”

“I’m not running away,” Keith snarls. A bold-faced lie, and they both kind of know it. “I’m moving on.”

“Do you even know where you’re going?” Lance flings at him.

He turns again, staring out at the vacant tracks, and spits brusquely, “Away.”

“Keith.”

“Away from you.”   

The sentiment lands brutally, as intended. A perfect kill-shot. Lance’s eyes flare up yet again, still swimming with conflict, like he’s feeling so much that he doesn’t know how to feel it all at once. So he staggers back a stride or two, flaps his arms uselessly, and erupts with some kind of exasperated, whimper-like noise.

“This is — so unfair!” he cries. “You’re not even giving me the chance to apologize!” 

“Apologize, then,” says Keith, pulling his phone from his back pocket, and checking the time with a harsh air of indifference. “My train’ll be here in two minutes, so make it quick.”

In the distance, something small and fast careens down the metal tracks, and it jolts Lance into a flustered, frenzied blather of, “I — shit, okay — I-I’m sorry, Keith. I’m sorry for breaking my promise. I’m sorry for making you lie to my family. I’m sorry for giving you any reason to think that I didn’t really want you. And only you. All of you. I —”

“One minute,” Keith announces abruptly. 

Lance furrows his brow. “Don’t — count it down, jesus, I’m pouring my guts out over here!”

“Fifty-four seconds.”

The approaching train gives a loud, joyless whistle that goes straight to plucking at Lance’s battered heartstrings. 

“Keith, please, I’m so fucking sorry —” 

He reaches out, and Keith moves away with a vicious, “Stop.”

Lance can hear it even over the roar of the train as it whizzes past, knocking a powerful gust of wind in every direction, and shrieking on its wheels as it gradually slows down to line up with the edge of the platform.

“And before I forget, you can take this back,” Keith says bitterly as he removes the envelope from his bag, and slams it into the center of Lance’s chest. “I don’t want any handouts.”

Lance’s bewildered fingers fumble for the envelope before it can slide down the front of his shirt. He looks at it, still full of cash, and then back to Keith. “What?”

“The money, Lance!” Keith erupts. His chest is heaving for a breath that still manages to escape him. “Did you seriously think I was that desperate?”

“No, that —” Those blue eyes widen at the exact, horrifying moment it all dawns on him. “— fuck — I wasn’t trying to insult you or —”

“Thanks for your services, take some cash, and have a nice life?”

“Keith, no, I —” Lance chokes back on something that feels like bile rising in his throat, but instead it’s, “— I sold the ring.”

Everything goes a little bit fuzzy, then. A little bit sideways, and upside-down, and every which way until Keith is so turned around he isn’t even sure he can stand straight anymore. He takes an absent-minded toddle to his right, and bumps shoulders with someone passing by, who, presumably, has just de-boarded the parked train. Keith doesn’t even seem to notice.

“The ring,” he repeats, low and incredulous. “The engagement ring.”

Lance nods slowly. “Yeah.”

“You sold it.”

“Yeah.”

Keith openly gawks. Lance stares back. And then:

“Why?” 

“Because I don’t want it,” Lance says bluntly. “I don’t even want what’s left of it. I’m pretty sure that thing was cursed or something, but — anyway.”

There’s shuffling all around them as the crowd of passengers begins to thin out, but the two of them remain rooted, locked, bound to each other’s permeative gazes like moths to a flame. But Keith’s mouth refuses to budge, so Lance continues.

“It’s always gonna remind me of — everything, and I… just want it to be over. And I want you to have the money so you can maybe go back to school, and be a pilot, and make your dad proud — I mean. If you want,” he says. His tongue is unfurling, and his heart is unwinding, and it’s spilling its contents into one big, sweet-sounding mess. “You told me that I deserve more than Nyma, but you deserve more than me, Keith. You deserve — every fucking star in the whole universe, and you should go get it.”   

Silence keeps trickling by, drip by agonizing drip. It feels like Keith hasn’t moved in ages.

And so Lance twitches awkwardly, unsettled by all this nothingness, and holds out the envelope, determined but embarrassed as he mutters, “Just take it, man, I feel like an idiot just standing here so please just —”

Keith lurches forward, and snatches the envelope, but still — there’s something very fundamental about all of this that Keith just doesn’t grasp. Can’t grasp. Because he knows, perhaps too well, exactly what this ring meant.

And because, even now, he can still recall the glimmer of hope, the goddamn sparkle that had ignited in Lance’s eyes at the kitchen table that one morning, when Keith had hoisted the ring out of that little black box for the very first time, admiring the undeniable way it shimmered and shone in the daylight. And the wistful, wanting way he told his family about the blue diamonds — how they symbolize love, and stability, and eternal devotion. And all the times they’d accidentally cross paths in the bathroom during their morning routines, when Keith would be dutifully donning that silver chain, and Lance would be pretending not to notice, and Keith would be pretending not to notice him noticing, but then he’d catch a glimpse of him in the mirror, fixated on the ring dangling so prettily from Keith’s neck.

The blue-studded memories of a cherished, but ill-fated romance. The last remaining tether to Lance’s broken heart, and to the girl he thought he’d love forever.

Now all that’s left of it sits in Keith’s hand, in a wrinkled envelope, and he thinks that maybe he gets it. Maybe, somehow, he understands what this is.

This is Lance finally letting go.

This is Lance choosing him.

This is Lance deciding to stay.

But Keith is still reeling, forcing his lips apart, and whispering, “You’re not supposed to be here, Lance.” 

“Yeah, well, guess what — I am. Okay? And get used to it ‘cause I’m not planning on going anywhere,” Lance takes a small step forward, and, this time, Keith doesn’t flinch away. It’s progress, even when Lance is yearning — practically dying — for so much more. He wants to feel Keith’s heartbeat, just as ragged as his own, and smooth his windblown fringe out of his eyes. “I don’t care how many times you try to run away, Keith. I’m never — I’m never gonna stop trying to bring you back.”    

“Why would you want to?” Keith asks, almost a challenge.

And, at that, a lopsided smile claims its rightful place on Lance’s lips. “Isn’t it obvious?”

Keith senses the back of his neck prickling with anticipation.

“I’m — falling for you. For real.”

Oh.

“And I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I’m not looking for a lifetime commitment or some huge declaration of love or whatever. I — I don’t want that right now. All I want — I just want… to be with you. And then we can see where it goes from there.” Lance’s voice has gone soft, soft, so unbelievably soft, and then he’s shrugging, all bashful and boyish, and says, “As far as wanting goes, I don’t think I’m asking for too much. Y’know?”

Another pause rolls by. The kind that looms. The kind that feels like forever.

Keith is frozen solid. And Lance is boiling alive.

“So, yeah,” he ducks his head, grin fading, and aims a hand for his nape to fuss with his hair, even though all he seems to grab is sweat. “I guess that’s what I came here to say. Maybe you have some thoughts? Questions, comments, concerns?”

The train whistles again. Interrupting. Beckoning. Keith tosses a glance toward its waiting doors.

And still says nothing.

“Right,” Lance mumbles hoarsely. “I mean, I’m not really surprised, but — right. I’ll just, uh…”

Lance waits, and it’s — wow. More nothing.

Then it’s a slow, humiliating pivot over his shoulder until Lance is making a break for it; across the platform, back up the stairs, and back into the bustling station. And as he steers through the traffic of moving bodies, he is walloped over the head by the stark reality of it all because — yeah, he should’ve known. He really should’ve fucking known. 

Just because you’re falling doesn’t mean you won’t crash and burn.

His eyes are glossy by the time he reaches the door, but he can still spot the rental car parked in the middle of the lot, waiting. With his head hanging low to avoid the expectant gazes of his siblings, Lance’s stomach roils when the hears the train give a final, forlorn chime. It’s happening. He can hear the engine whir, and start chugging away, and then, out of nowhere, he hears:

“Hey, loverboy.” 

Lance spins around to find Keith gripping his wrist, standing there with his bag still on his back, and his hair still a little wild. Eyes blazing. Lips curling gently. Stealing the breath right out of Lance’s lungs.

“You seriously think I’m letting you get away with that?” Keith asks.

“I, uh — maybe?” croaks Lance, feeling slightly silly when the glossiness of his eyes only gets worse. “I wasn’t thinking as much as I was just… rambling, so.”

“Then shut up and let me do something. Something that I want.” 

His fingertips drift, trailing over the pulse of Lance’s wrist, bringing them palm to palm. He holds his hand tight, steadfast and warm, sinking himself lower and lower until he’s —

“Keith —”

— getting down on one knee.

“Lance McClain,” he says, smooth as velvet, looking up through those dusky lashes. 

Fuck,” Lance chokes. Gasps, maybe.

“Lance McClain,” Keith repeats, softer, reverently, like some might whisper a prayer under their breath. “Will you go on a date with me?” 

So much air rushes past Lance’s lips that he has to slap his free hand over his mouth just to keep from deflating like a balloon. Then he’s flushing bright pink, eyes definitely glossy, and trying to bury his entire face into the center of his palm.

And when Keith dares to start chuckling at the sheer adorableness of it, Lance mumbles into his hand, “Oh, fuck you! Who gave you the right! You’re not supposed to be the romantic one!”

“Couldn’t let you win this round.”

“You’re the worst!”

“And I’m still waiting on an answer.”

Lance hoists him to his feet, and stumbles into him, arms looping around his neck. “Yes. Fuck. Let’s go on a date. Let’s go on twenty dates. Fifty. I want all the dates, Keith.”

“You have them,” Keith tells him, bringing his hands to the sides of Lance’s flushed face, thumb catching along a delicate burst of freckles beneath the apples of his cheeks. “They’re yours.” 

Foreheads come together first, then the tips of their noses, and then, finally, lips. Warm, and pliant, and welcoming, and starving. Their hearts keep skipping beats, and their hands can’t seem to reach enough of each other, and, from somewhere behind them, Lance is certain he hears his siblings erupting into a chorus of obnoxious wolf-whistles, but it’s fine because Keith is here, and holding him like he won’t let go, and the entire world just fades away.

And they’re falling, falling, falling.

Chapter Text

Five months later.

. . .

They usually go about this sort of thing with a bit more tact. A bit more finesse, even.

“Lance —”

Mmf.” 

And other times it’s like this. Tucked away in some nondescript storage closet, surrounded by cleaning supplies and the aggressive stench of bleach that, surprisingly, doesn’t seem to ruin the mood too much. And Lance’s back is pushed up against one of the shelving units, and a long, limber leg is hooked around Keith’s waist, and his lips are nibbling at that one spot where Keith’s neck meets his collarbone, and it’s driving Keith insane, with his breath stuttering in Lance’s ear, and his hand dipping into the waistband of Lance’s neatly tailored dress pants, and well

Sometimes these things just happen.

Lance tugs on the end of Keith’s tie where it already hangs loose and crooked around his neck, and practically mewls. Keith’s insides promptly burst into flames.

“Always figured you have a thing for suits,” he manages to rasp around the breathy sound of a chuckle.

“Correction — I have a thing for the guy in the suit,” Lance mumbles against skin, lips warm and ghosting up, up, up to Keith’s jaw. “The fact that you’re all wrapped up in two hundred dollars’ worth of designer fabric like the world’s sexiest Christmas gift is honestly just a bonus.” 

Another chuckle, or something intended to be, but it collapses into a moan as soon as Lance’s tongue reaches the corner of Keith’s mouth.

“I don’t know,” whispers Keith. “Seems like you’re pretty eager to unwrap me.”

“I’ve been a really good boy this year, babe.”

There’s almost enough cheekiness in his tone to distract Keith as Lance rolls his hips, rubbing against Keith’s thigh, and the shelf behind them gives a precarious rattle of protest when Keith nearly loses his grip right then and there.

But he’s determined to maintain composure — as much as one can in the midst of an impromptu tryst with a very attractive, and very handsy boyfriend — so he drags a hand through Lance’s hair, fingers curling, and grunts, “Mhm.”

“My sweetness, my honey-bear, the sunshine of my life.“

Lance.”

Soft laughter fills the tiny space, muffled by kisses, and the pitter-patter of happy heartbeats. Restless hands, and rumpled clothes, and swollen lips, and quiet murmurs, and —

The sound of the door clicking open.

Lance notices it first, and yelps, and Keith nearly drops him as he throws a startled look over his shoulder, blinking into the unwelcome light that now floods their dark hideaway, revealing them like a pair of compromising criminals.

“Real classy, you two,” Pidge says from the doorway, deadpan and, perhaps, a bit unsurprised.

Lance groans, and drops his forehead onto Keith’s shoulder. “Pidge, c’mon.”

You c’mon! I’ve been looking everywhere for you guys,” she chides. “Need I remind you that this wedding literally can’t start without you.” 

“Alright, alright — Calm down, short stuff.” 

It’s with a big, exaggerated pout that Lance plants both feet back on the ground, and untangles himself from Keith’s strong limbs. He side-steps into the outpouring of light, unashamed, it seems, with a little self-satisfied smirk on his face, even as his hair sticks up in the back, and he struggles to tuck the bottom of his shirt back into his trousers like he hadn’t been two seconds away from ripping it off completely.

“See?” he holds his arms out, showcasing the sloppy glory of all his hasty adjustments. “Good to go.”

Pidge sighs.

“And you —” Lance swivels back around to aim that smirk at Keith, poking a finger into the center of his boyfriend’s half-unbuttoned shirt rather coyly. “—We are not done here.”

“Ugh!” Pidge cries. “You can be gross after the ceremony, Lance.” And then, under her breath: “Shiro owes me big for this…”

Lance’s fingers delicately clasp one of Keith’s undone buttons, and then he tells him, soft, “I’ll see you out there.”

“You better,” says Keith, even softer.

A peck on the lips is exchanged, followed by a wink from Lance, and then he’s flitting out the door, humming something mindlessly cheerful as he rounds the corner.

Keith just clears his throat, smooths out the lapels of his jacket, and flushes red when he notices Pidge still glaring disdainfully in the doorway.

“Animals,” she declares with a shake of her head. “Both of you.”      

 


 

 

By the time Lance makes it outside the banquet hall, and into the garden where there are rows upon rows of seated guests — and waiting guests, Pidge reminds him with a pinch to his flank — he can already hear the quiet drone of instrumental music, and he can already see Shiro’s raised eyebrow staring at him from the altar.

Lance scurries down the aisle, flattening out the back of his stubborn hair, and offers Shiro a sheepish thumbs-up gesture, which is reciprocated with a fond eye roll. Ah, what a lovely day to appreciate his great, understanding, and high-tolerating friends, Lance thinks.

As he sidles up next to Hunk, falling into line with the rest of the groomsmen, Lance can feel his friend giving him a sidelong glance, trying to be inconspicuous about it, but failing when he has to bite back a knowing grin. 

“You, uh — had a good time there, buddy?” whispers Hunk.

“Jeez, does gossip seriously travel that fast around here?” Lance whispers back, and then flashes a glimpse of his teeth. “Or am I just that popular?”

“Actually it’s ‘cause I noticed that your fly’s still down.”   

A quick peek downward, and — yep. That’s embarrassing.

He scrabbles for the zipper, yanks it up, and huffs out a half-embarrassed, half-smug, “Whoops.” 

Just then, a shaggy mop of black hair emerges from the back of the garden, and Lance smirks. His shaggy mop. So romantic. Keith slips into one of the empty seats, wiggles the knot of his tie until it’s no longer crooked, and then glances up to meet Lance’s gaze, as if he can feel it trained on him. Lance gives a little wave, and the way Keith’s mouth blooms into a sweet grin is totally worth the admonishing jab from Hunk’s elbow.

And when Adam makes his way down the aisle in a striking white suit that seems to take everyone’s breath away as much as his future husband’s, the entire audience falls silent. The music swells. Shiro and Adam join hands at the altar, with matching smiles that appear too big for their faces. Hunk sniffles, and Lance pats him on the back. And when Lance looks back out into the crowd, Keith’s eyes are still all over him, like they hadn’t strayed even for a second. 

“Dearly beloved,” the officiant begins. “We are gathered here today to celebrate the union of this happy couple…”

A shiver crawls along Lance’s skin, trembling from the soft intensity of Keith’s stare. Dark, endless, and gleaming — a galaxy all their own. And Lance thinks he wouldn’t mind getting lost in their orbit for a little while.

So he does.

Meanwhile, Shiro and Adam recite their vows.         

“… to have and to hold…”

Lance smiles. 

“… to love and to cherish…”

Keith smiles back.

“… I give you my hand, my heart, and my love, from this day forward for as long as we both shall live…”

I do, Lance says with his eyes.

I do, Keith repeats in his head.

“I now pronounce you lawfully married. You may kiss your groom.”

And the applause that follows is deafening.   

 


 

 

“Are you gonna drink the rest of that?”

There’s just a mild edge of hysteria in the way Veronica plops herself down into the chair beside Keith at one of the banquet tables. Almost enough to warrant concern, Keith thinks, but then she’s grabbing his champagne, and chugging down what remains of it before he can even mutter a response.

“Uh,” Keith says as Veronica winces from the stinging aftertaste burning down her throat. “Guess not.”

Around them, the reception is in full-swing. Lively music, platters of decadent appetizers, and not a single centerpiece out of place — not that that’s even a possibility with Veronica at the helm. And yet she still seems intent on frowning, gnawing her bottom lip, and tapping a manicured finger against the tabletop to an erratic rhythm, most likely to match the frantic flurry of her pulse.

“Everything’s going great,” Keith assures, and when she turns to throw her overwrought eyes on him, he clarifies, “With the wedding, I mean. People look like they’re having a good time.”   

“Of course they are,” she says offhandedly. “I planned the whole thing.” 

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Problem? There’s no problem.”

Barely even a whole second passes before Veronica is slumping in defeat. The no-nonsense tilt of Keith’s head has that uncanny effect, apparently. 

“Okay, fine,” she mutters, and scoots her chair closer until she’s leaning in, elbows on the table, and admits cautiously, “I kinda… met someone. I think.”   

Keith’s eyebrows disappear up into his hairline. “Here?”

“We were in line at the bar, and then we just started talking, and… I don’t know, this is so confusing! Maybe I’m just making it all up in my head, but — I definitely felt something —”

“Who is it?” Keith asks. 

She allows her gaze to wander, just a slight, covert drift toward the bar, and Keith begins to slowly turn in his seat. On the other side of the room, Adam and Shiro are just beginning to make their social rounds, and appear to be chatting boisterously with a young woman, and a tall, well-built man with dark skin, and a chiseled jawline that Keith can make out even from such a considerable distance.

Amusement rumbles in Keith’s chest as he faces forward, lips curling around a very innocent question of, “What’s his name?”

And Veronica scrunches her nose with a very feeble reply of, “Nadia.”

Keith blinks. Pauses. And then whirls around again, but, this time, his eyes zero in on the young woman. She’s cute and petite, with a thin-rimmed pair of glasses, and a cascade of black hair piled atop her head in some fashionable up-do.

Oh,” says Keith, bemused.

“I don’t know what I’m doing!”

“Just go talk to her,” Keith suggests simply.

“Really?” Veronica squeaks.

“Sure.”

She fusses with the neckline of her lavender dress, and gathers all of her voluminous hair to drape over her left shoulder, and asks, “Do I look okay?”

Keith sighs. “Veronica. You’re fine. Go.”

“But what if I —”

“Go or I’m texting pictures to Marco.”

Veronica is taking off so abruptly that her chair almost topples over in her wake.

And then Keith watches her move through the throngs of mingling guests, fix her hair one final time, and march resolutely toward the bar until he hears, coming up from behind:

“What are you texting to Marco?”

Lance slides into Veronica’s abandoned chair with a grin, one hand cradling a glass of wine, and the other snaking around Keith’s middle, and he’s glowing beneath the golden light of the hanging lanterns overhead, and he’s looking so unfairly handsome in that blue striped tie, and — god, maybe Keith is the one who has a thing for suits.

“Pictures of your sister trying to flirt,” says Keith, leaning back into the crook of Lance’s arm.

His entire face brightens with intrigue. “Ooh, I love a good train wreck.” 

“Eight ‘o clock.”

Lance twists around, resting his chin on Keith’s shoulder, close enough that Keith can smell the shampoo in his hair, the cologne on his skin, the wine on his breath. And he can hear the small hum of approval vibrating off Lance’s lips when he spots, presumably, the strapping adonis standing by the bar.

“Why, hello there, Mr. I-Never-Skip-Arm-Day,” Lance purrs into Keith’s ear.

Then, with a snort: “Actually —”

They’re both still staring as Veronica saunters right past the young man, and makes a nervous beeline for Nadia, who appears to perk up a bit when they lock eyes. Nadia says something, and Veronica laughs — maybe a little too hard — but it’s endearing, nonetheless.

Oh,” Lance chirps.

Keith nods. “That’s what I said.” 

Another hum, a bit more thoughtful and lazy, as Lance turns to bury his nose into the warmth of Keith’s neck; just right there against his pulse. “Well, I hate to miss out on quality entertainment, but I just realized I haven’t had the chance to dance with my Mr. Arm Day yet.”

Keith laughs.

Lance laughs, too.

It’s the best sound in the world, Keith decides. 

Hands clasped, Lance leads them onto the dance floor, and Keith kind of feels like he could be floating. Like even if the wooden floorboards were to give out beneath their feet, it wouldn’t even matter because Lance’s hand is firm in his own, keeping him trussed, keeping him steady. And that very hand is what pulls him in, nearly chest to chest, and tugs him into a gentle sway, minding the passionate lilt of the music. It’s so easy, so intrinsic, just like most things are when it comes to Lance. Like how he melts under his touch, or how he loses himself in the depths of his eyes, or how he hasn’t — not even once — felt that inborn urge to run, like maybe he doesn’t want to anymore. Maybe he doesn’t need to anymore. And maybe he’s —

“What?” Lance smiles.

Keith smiles back, returning from his daze. “What?”

“You’re staring at me, weirdo.”

The palm he has splayed on the small of Lance’s back brings him closer. Because close just isn’t close enough. “You look nice tonight,” he tells him earnestly.

“Mm,” Lance considers. “That’s why you can’t keep your hands off me, huh?”

“Says the guy who dragged me into a storage closet.”

“No proof, no case.”

Keith lifts a brow. “There’s plenty of proof under my shirt collar.”

This has Lance’s smile spreading to the far corners of his cheeks, and Keith is struck by the overwhelming impulse to kiss it off his lips.

“And there’s more where that came from, sweetheart,” Lance warns — promises — while framing either side of Keith’s face with his hands.

“Yeah?” 

“Yeah,” says Lance. And then, “But later.”

It makes Keith’s grin soften, all hazily peaked.

“Right now I don’t wanna go anywhere,” and Lance trails his hands back, fingers burrowing into the hair at the nape of Keith’s neck. “I like it right here.”

Here is my favorite place to be. Here is the only place I want to be. The thoughts swarm him like the desert heat, searing and white-hot, and Keith almost allows himself to be singed, but then he’s plunging deep into that blue gaze, cooling him, soothing the burn, and all he can muster is a low, breathless, “Yeah.”

And it makes Lance all but whimper, feeling it clatter around behind his ribcage. “God, you’re gonna kill me,” he whines, but there’s more adoration than accusation as he goes on, “You’re gonna kill me dead. You know that? You’re gonna turn those big, gorgeous eyes on me one morning when I’m all sleepy and vulnerable, and my heart’s just gonna go —”

“I love you.” 

Lance’s throat gets stuck around the rest of his words, jaw going just a little bit slack, but Keith doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, if that enduring dear-god-I-am-so-gone-for-this-boy look is anything to go by, one might even assume he finds it cute.

“ —You,” he finally breathes.

“So much, Lance,” whispers Keith, more faint than the music that’s still guiding the idle sway of their bodies.

“I love you, too. I —”

But Keith is still looking at him like that, and it’s doing things — peculiar, flip-flopping things — to Lance’s stomach, and chest, and head, and he’s pretty sure he can feel it creeping into his limbs now, and —

Keith manages to catch a fleeting glimpse of Lance’s flushed pink face before it’s getting pressed into his shoulder, hidden from view, with a pitiful grumble of something that’s definitely not a real language dwindling off his lips.

“Are you okay?” Keith asks, amused.

Let me die,” is all Lance mumbles into the suit fabric.

More laughter. The quiet, just-for-you kind that Lance is used to hearing against their pillow late at night, or used to feeling against his lips, buzzing pleasantly when Keith kisses him goodbye in the mornings. 

Keith tucks a finger under Lance’s chin, lifting his face out of concealment, and bows his head until only the tips of their noses are brushing. Their lips are an inch from collision, and just the slightest tilt upward would bring them together, and Lance is so tempted to give in. He wants to stitch up the distance, and capture his breath, and stay there until the room starts to spin. And the heated anticipation of it hits him in the face like a —

— Well, like something literally hitting him in the face.

It’s gentle, a little bouncy — and strangely prickly — and drops into Keith’s hands when they jump apart. From the direction it was hurled, they find Adam and Shiro standing on two chairs, in front of a crowd of applauding guests. Shiro is laughing heartily, and Adam looks a bit apologetic for his aim.

Because laying daintily in Keith’s hands is a bright blue bouquet of flowers, with a silky silver ribbon tied around the stems.

Lance looks at it.

Keith looks at it.

They look at each other for a moment, and then:

“Nice catch,” Lance grins.

And that’s when Keith finally kisses him. Like he needs to. Like he physically can’t stand not kissing him any longer. Keith pulls him in by the front of his jacket, and Lance goes willingly, like he always does. And somewhere amidst the lovely Keith-induced haze of his mind, he finds himself wondering how long it’ll last — this lightweight giddiness, this persistent flutter that seems to live inside his chest now. He wonders how it’s possible for every moment to feel even more special than the last.     

And he wonders how he could’ve ever been so foolish. 

Because this? This right here?

Something like this couldn’t ever possibly be fake.

 

. . .