Chapter 1: Obtaining Keith
Gaunt might have been the best description for one Keith Kogane, Rosalina thought as she studied him from the doorway. He was sitting at Laura’s desk, a ratty black backpack clutched tight to his chest, face set in a natural scowl as dark hair, obviously greasy and unwashed, tumbled around his head, looking like he hadn’t brushed or cut it in years. Resting Bitch Face, Veronica had explained to her a few years ago.
... Could boys have Resting Bitch Face?
Skittish was another apt description. His eyes studied her as his shoulders curled, hugging the bag even closer.
“They found him in the desert,” Laura had explained yesterday. “Inspectors were looking at the property and called the police. His last fosters claimed he ran away, but...”
Rosalina hadn’t needed Laura to finish that sentence.
“He’s been out there at least a year, as far as we know.”
It was quite possible he hadn’t had a haircut or brushed his hair in a long time.
He nodded, not quite making eye contact with her, but at least looking in her direction.
His file claimed he was Korean-American, his mother had disappeared when he was young, and his dad had died on the job as a firefighter when he was seven. He had no relatives that they could find. He was bounced from home to home due to “anger management issues” that other foster parents hadn’t been willing to try to manage. He had a list of transgressions and altercations so long that she was a little worried, but—
She had become a foster parent because she loved children—loved to love, loved to spread love, or however her husband made fun of her for it. He had teased her about having Empty Nest Syndrome, even though Lance was still about a year and a half from graduating high school. The point was, she knew how many children needed homes, needed a bit of extra care and love, stability, something. She could help. She wanted to help. She hadn’t ever adopted any of them—most of the time she was just fostering until the state could find a child’s relatives or she was an emergency foster until they figured something out. Keith... It had to have been quite a situation if they were placing him with her.
Rosalina didn’t feel up to cooking dinner, so she stopped to grab some pizza on the way home.
“We do have one child still at home,” she rambled to him after placing the pizza in the back seat. Keith still had his backpack clutched to his chest. “His name is Lance—he’s a year younger than you. And then it’s just me and my husband. I work from home and he owns a mechanic shop. Lance is fairly high energy, just to warn you.”
She caught him looking at her from the corner of her eye.
“Okay.” It was the first thing he had said in her presence. His voice was low, gravely, dry from disuse. The poor dear...
But he was quiet, seemed fairly sweet. At least, in Rosalina’s opinion. Sure, his scowl looked pretty murderous, but—
Keith was just a boy. Seventeen, lost, hungry, tired. His posture was defensive, sure, but—
It had been a long time since he’d had a home, probably.
Marcus wasn’t home yet. He would be soon—it was nearing six-thirty. Lance was probably home. Or, at least, he was when she had left to go pick up Keith.
Rosalina pulled into the garage, then shut off the car and closed the garage door. It hummed and creaked as it slid back down. Her headlights stayed on for a few moments, then shut off when she took the key out of the ignition. The keys on the ring clanked and jingled together, tapping against the crown charm Lance had gotten for her as a joke gift for her birthday. Keith kept his gaze out the front windshield, arms wrapped protectively around the backpack.
“There’s no need to be nervous,” Rosalina started.
“I’m not nervous,” Keith grumbled.
“Lance is kind of like an overeager puppy whose limbs grew too quickly and the rest of him is waiting to grow into them.”
Keith’s eyebrows and lips twitched in amusement, but he didn’t comment otherwise.
“Let’s go eat and then see what we can do for that tangle you call hair.” Rosalina shoved open her door, waiting for Keith to get out the passenger side before she closed her door. The pizzas were still warm, the cardboard underneath almost burning her hand as she balanced them in her left to open the door to the house.
“Lance!” Rosalina called as they stepped through the door. “Come here, please!”
Keith stood next to her, hand clasped tight to the strap of his ratty backpack that hung over his shoulder. He shuffled behind her, letting the door swing shut with a soft sound. From somewhere deep in the house, Lance emerged with as much sound as he could, stomping and clamoring down the hallway. Maybe she should have described him as an overeager puppy in a giraffe body. Sweet Mother Mary, had he grown another inch just while she had been out?
“Oh, hi!” Lance grinned his brightest and most charming greeting. “You must be Keith!”
Keith stayed silent, eyes cutting to Rosalina to see how he should react. Rosalina kept silent as well—he needed to learn to stand up to Lance’s energy if he was going to stick around. “Uh. Yeah...” His voice still sounded rough, but Rosalina suspected there weren’t very many things or people to talk to in the middle of the desert.
“I’m Lance!” Lance thrusted his hand in Keith’s space.
“Careful, Lance,” Rosalina warned, brushing past to go set the pizza on the counter. “He bites.”
“Pfft. So did Leo.” A low sound came from behind her. “Did you just growl at me?”
Rosalina left them at it, pulling out plates and cups as Lance tried to goad Keith into speaking. He responded only in monosyllables, which was better than what Rosalina had been able to get, anyway. She interrupted them to lead Keith to his new room—Luis’ old room—right next to hers. He stood there, taking it in with a critical eye. The room wasn’t anything fancy—just neutral greys and blues and brown furniture. It was clean, at least, since the last kid to sleep there was a boy named Shep who had eventually gone to live with relatives two states over.
Keith’s backpack slid from his shoulder and landed with a soft thump next to the door. He looked... sad, almost, if Rosalina could read his expression correctly. Not quite as angry as he was before, anyway.
“Are you hungry, Keith?”
He took a moment to breathe, drawing in a deep breath and tilting his chin up. “Yeah, I guess,” he replied in his creaky voice.
They dug into the pizza. Marcus came in while she was on her second slice—Lance was already finishing his third, guzzling chocolate milk between slices, and Keith was just finishing his first, warily watching them as he sat hunched in his chair next to Lance. Rosalina lifted her head for a kiss, and Marcus playfully nipped her as he walked past to wash his hands.
“Keith, right?” Of course Marcus knew who the new kid was—he had had to listen to her rant about the poor boy all last night. He wiped his hands on the towel, sending her a playful smirk as he took extra care to drape it evenly over the oven handle. Rosalina rolled her eyes. “Nice to meet ya.”
“Likewise, Mr. McClain.”
“Nonsense.” Marcus kissed her again as he sat beside her and pulled some meatlovers onto his plate. He took a giant bite and gave Keith a cheeky grin. While chewing, he somehow managed to say, “Call me Marcus.”
“No wonder our children are animals,” she huffed, trying to hide a smile behind her pizza. She nodded pointedly at Lance.
He was trying to prove to Keith that he could stick an entire slice of pepperoni into his mouth, trying to goad a skeptical Keith into doing the same.
Rosalina wouldn’t have it any other way.
After she sent Lance to clean up (“I spent all afternoon slaving over this dinner, Lance! You can rinse the dishes and put them in the dishwasher.” “Uh huh, sure, mom. Not like it took you five minutes to order it or anything.” “Hush, you.” Cue laughter.) she sent Keith to take a shower. He’d feel better, more relaxed, surely.
“You don’t have to try to comb it, but do try to use conditioner.”
He scowled at that, but stalked off to his room to grab the bag. He brought the whole thing into the bathroom with him.
Rosalina frowned at that, but decided it wasn’t important at the moment as she brought a chair into her bathroom and got out her supplies. Having seven people in the family meant she got fairly good at cutting all sorts of hair. Forking out a few hundred dollars a month just to trim some hair didn’t appeal to her, so she had learned how to do it herself. It was a good way to bond with each child individually, anyway, without all the others trying to get in the way. She wasn’t quite sure what Keith would want for his haircut, but she was at least going to trim the ends and make it look a little healthier. While she set it all up, Marcus took a quick shower to wash off all the grime and grease from the shop, kissing her softly as she handed him his pajamas after he had dried off. Steam coated the mirrors, making the room feel thick and warm and cozy.
She ambushed Keith after he brought his bag back to his room. He sat in the chair without fuss, though looked bewildered at the setup. The steam had left by then, but it was still rather warm.
“I’m going to trim your hair,” she explained, picking up her scissors and snapping them twice in quick succession. “You can’t get out of that. I’m going to guess that you haven’t had a proper haircut in a very long time.” He shook his head. “Alright. So I’m going to help you brush it out and trim it, unless you want something different?”
Keith hesitated, catching her eyes in the mirror. He held her gaze, firm, frowning slightly. “I... like it long,” he admitted after nearly a minute of silence.
“I can do that.”
She started with brushing his hair. It was still mostly tangled, but at least felt clean as she held the strands firmly in hand to keep from tugging too much on his scalp. His eyebrow rose when she pulled the kid’s detangler closer and spritzed his hair liberally. Whatever. It had worked the best for her, so she only shrugged and continued with brushing his hair.
“We can talk about whatever,” she said as she worked the brush. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Just brushing out all the tangles was going to take a while. She’d take a smaller comb later to make sure it was smooth before she started cutting it. When he didn’t respond, she added slowly. “Or we can sit in silence.”
Silence it was, then.
She wasn’t even half-way done brushing Keith’s hair when she could hear Lance stomping towards her room well before he entered. She opened the door before he could startle them.
Rosalina rose an eyebrow at him, crossing her arms, unamused. “I’ll pay attention to you when I’m done cutting Keith’s hair.”
“Is it a life or death emergency?”
“You’ll survive. You know the rules. Go sit with your dad.”
Lance huffed, crossing his arms as well and looking away. He looked like he was right on the brink of a meltdown. At sixteen, he definitely should have been over that, but he had always been a theatrical child, demanding attention. It was as if he believed he would wither away into nothing if she didn’t pay constant attention to him.
“Go, hijo. You know the rules. Your father is out there.”
Lance stomped away, throwing her bedroom door closed with a slam. It did not escape her attention that Keith flinched.
“He’s not really mad,” she said, returning to him to brush his hair. “He believes I need to pay attention to him at all times. He’s the baby, you see. Quite the mama’s boy.”
Keith’s lips quirked up at the corners. “I can tell.”
“And don’t be afraid to be sassy,” Rosalina said offhandedly, eyeing him for his reaction. “We like to tease each other a lot. And if someone goes too far with it, let them know.”
He seemed to mull over her words, eyes lowered, fists clenched in his lap. Finally, he said, “Okay,” and left it at that.
When she was done, he quietly thanked her, pulled off the towel around his neck, and excused himself to bed. Rosalina wished him goodnight and cleaned up her bathroom, going ahead and putting on her pajamas and cleaning off her makeup before venturing out to the living room.
Her two remaining boys were watching reruns of America’s Next Top Model. They were making their own critiques as they shoved popcorn into their mouths.
Rosalina couldn’t help smiling. But then she entered the room, muscling her way in between the two. Marcus shifted so his arm was around her and moved the popcorn into her lap. Lance took his chance to cuddle up to her other side, shoving more popcorn into his face as if he hadn’t been interrupted at all.
Chapter 2: Of Shopping and Feelings
Despite his protesting, Rosalina pushed Lance out the door to go to school without Keith. Marcus was twirling his keys on his finger, eyebrow raised, as Lance complained and whined about how Keith got to stay home, and that’s not fair, mom! and dad, this is an injustice and—
The truck rumbled away, carrying Lance’s whining and complaining with it.
Rosalina loved that boy to pieces—would die to protect her baby, but—
She turned to Keith, still sitting at the table. His hair was disheveled, but not nearly as badly as before. He looked—tired. Gaunt, still. Shadows filled the hallows under his sharp cheekbones, eyes bruised from exhaustion, shoulders so heavy he slouched in his seat. And she wondered how anyone could harm this poor boy, could neglect him, could—
“Come on, Keith,” she said softly, smiling when he looked up at her. She took his empty plate and dumped it in the sink. The dishes could wait. “Go brush your hair and get ready to go out. We’re going shopping.”
Uncertain, eyebrow raised, Keith did as bid and met her back in the kitchen. She was ready just as quick, ushering him to the car and asking where he wanted to get his clothes.
“What?” was his eloquent reply. He paused putting his seatbelt on to stare at her.
“You have, like, three shirts and one pair of pants,” was her retort. “And you’re a stinky boy. You’re getting more clothes. Besides, it’s November and you don’t have a jacket or anything.”
Keith looked vaguely offended. The poor boy even tried to discretely sniff his armpit. “Walmart is fine with me,” he mumbled, hunching his shoulders. He was picking at black fingerless gloves that looked a little small. “I don’t need anything expensive or anything.”
Rosalina frowned at that. “But you do deserve nice things.”
“’m too rough for that.”
Which, honestly, seemed true. “Then I clean them or mend them and if it’s not repairable I buy you new clothes. You don’t have to have subpar clothing just because you think you’re too rough.” Keith didn’t look like he was going to reply to that, so she pushed on. “What kind of clothes do you like? Do you like graphic tees, flannel, pastels? Lance likes pastels and light jeans and things like that. Or shirts with puns.”
She saw him smirk out of the corner of her eye. “I... guess I like flannel? And darker clothes? Hides stains better.” But he must have seen her horrified expression because he quickly spat out, “Like oil stains from working on bikes and stuff!”
Rosalina shot him an amused look. “Do you like working on cars, then? Maybe you can go with Marcus one day and help out, if that’s your thing?”
Keith absolutely lit up at the suggestion. “Do you think he’d let me?”
And it was so... Rosalina didn’t quite have a word for it. Amazing? Awesome? A fucking miracle? That Keith was actually speaking full sentences compared to last night. His voice was still rough, raspy, but maybe it was just that way? He had a nice voice, though, and she hoped that the shower and rest last night had helped him feel less uncertain about them.
“Of course!” Rosalina couldn’t help smiling. “He would love to. None of our children really got into it, so he’d be more than happy to share that with you.”
Even Keith couldn’t hide his smile. And to think, Rosalina thought he was going to be more difficult than this to make happy. He had seemed so... wary and sad, and all she had to do to get a smile and more than three word sentences was to... show interest? What kind of people was he living with before?
She didn’t let the thought fester. It was going to be a good day, damn it!
So, she went to Walmart. If he wasn’t comfortable requesting clothes from elsewhere, she wasn’t going to push it.
And, of course, he got shy when she led him to the underwear. She merely raised an eyebrow and said, “I have three boys and a husband. I’ve seen boxers before. Now pick something.”
Determined scowl set in place, Keith eyed the boxers with startling scrutiny. Like it was a life or death decision. And then he moved down towards the boxer-briefs, eyeing her carefully as he picked up a package and looked carefully at the colors inside. Dark colors, of course. Keeping eye contact, Keith laid the package in the cart. Rosalina lifted an eyebrow. Keith raised one as well.
“Get another package.”
Keith frowned, but did.
Socks were next, and then she pushed him towards the shirts. Keith hesitated, looking back at the Hanes and Fruit of the Loom t-shirts in cheap bulk packaging.
“Alright, alright.” She allowed him to pick out two packages—one black, and one with both dark grey and lighter grey—and eyed the size he picked. “Now you said you like flannel? Let’s get you some jackets and hoodies, too, if you want, and we’ll get you a winter coat, too.”
He gave her an odd look at that, but followed her around the different racks, feeling each item before deciding if he wanted it or not. He ended up placing a red flannel, a grey flannel, and a Gryffindor hoodie in the cart. There was a black hoodie with a very strange galaxy-cat combo that he eyed several times, but did not pick up. It wasn’t something Rosalina would have ever guessed he would have been interested in.
“Do you want it?”
“That cat hoodie. Do you want it?”
Keith hesitated, looking back between her and the hoodie. “I already picked one out, though.”
“You’re allowed to have more than one, Keith,” she said, trying to bite back her frustration. Rosalina had to remember that he was probably neglected before, that he didn’t think he was allowed.
Keith watched her closely, then picked out his size and gently placed it in the cart.
“Now for pajamas.” Rosalina grinned when he huffed behind her, but diligently trudged on. “At least three thin pants and one pair of sweatpants. No excuses.”
The scowl on his face was too funny. Rosalina just smiled sweetly and shooed him away so she could look at shirts for him. If he liked Harry Potter, and he liked that weird space-cat hoodie, and he thought wearing puns was funny, then maybe she could pick something out for him. He was starting to flag already, shoulders hunched again as she spied on him from a few racks away.
Well, now. That wouldn’t do.
She scanned the racks and grinned. That would do.
“Keith!” Rosalina hid the shirts between her and the cart. “What do you think of these?”
The first shirt was dark grey with a hen, white lettering above it reading “Guess what” with an arrow pointing to the chicken’s butt. The second was a black shirt with a cat dressed like a rapper or a DJ or something with sunglasses and earphones and a hat and blue and purple swirls like fire behind it. The caption underneath in bright pink said “Check meowt.” The third was her favorite: black with a fat cat wearing an astronaut helmet, the background a purple and pink, and a taco in front of the cat.
Keith cracked a grin.
Rosalina grinned right back, dropping them into the cart before he could protest. “Chop, chop!” she said, motioning to the pants. “We have more to get!”
He dropped the pants in, rolling his eyes at her but dutifully following as she led him to the jeans.
“At least three pairs,” she said in reply to his blank stare.
“That’s what I said.”
Keith eyed the cart. “Rosalina... You’ve spent enough on me already.”
“Keith.” She waited until he was looking at her before she continued. He was starting to look skittish again, like he might bolt if she said something wrong or moved too suddenly. “Keith. You need clothes. I’m more than happy to provide them for you, no matter how much they cost. I used to buy for five children. You’re no burden on me.”
Maybe something she had said hadn’t been the right thing to say—Keith suddenly looked away to study the jeans, biting his lip, picked at his gloves. Which reminded her—
“We can buy you new gloves,” she offered. “Those look a little small.”
“No, thank you,” he replied quietly, almost distantly. “They were a gift from a friend.”
“You can keep them. You don’t have to throw them away. It’s just... they look a little small.”
Alright. So, that was a battle she wasn’t going to get very far with. So she dropped it and let him pick out the jeans he wanted. While he looked, she picked out a few black coats she found. She had a suspicion that he would be most comfortable in that than a bright color. She brought them over as he scoured through the jeans, and he picked the work coat—a thicker, coarse, jean-like material on the outside and fleece on the inside—over the slick down coat.
Rosalina couldn’t find it in herself to be surprised.
On the other hand, he surprised her by picking out a pair of black skinny jeans. Sure, the jeans he had on at the moment were tight but full of holes and looked one wrong move from bursting at the seams, but she had figured they were just old.
“Now,” Rosalina paused dramatically, waiting for that curious eyebrow, “for shoes.”
His confused look was just... too adorable. It took all her energy not to coo at him. “But... My shoes are fine.”
Rosalina looked down at his shoes. Tennis shoes that were barely hanging together. His big toe was peeking out and the other had a loose sole. She looked up with a cocked eyebrow, arms crossed.
“Fine. But only one pair.”
A pair of black boots later—Rosalina tried very hard not to roll her eyes—and they were finally done.
With the clothing, anyway.
“What are we doing down here?”
“I know for a fact that Lance will not approve of you using his soaps long-term.”
“Wait, all those were Lance’s?”
“Oh.” Keith looked down the aisle, eyes wide. “I don’t...”
“Please don’t be a stereotypical boy and pick Axe.”
Keith hesitated, obviously unsure. “I just... None of the other foster parents let me pick. They just bought me whatever was cheapest.”
“You can smell them,” Rosalina offered. “See what you like?”
They were in the aisle for nearly fifteen minutes as Keith took his time to sniff each soap and deodorant he thought he would like. Rosalina just stood back and let him, smiling softly as he made different expressions. He was so expressive once he got comfortable, and it was just amazing that he was already comfortable with her. Seventeen, in and out of foster homes for ten years, possibly abused and neglected for most of it...
He dropped a few bottles and a two-pack of deodorant into the cart, startling Rosalina from her thoughts.
“Do you need anything else?” she asked.
He shook his head no. Rosalina conceded, since he was looking worn out. If he needed anything else, they could just come back. They could come back for school supplies after they enrolled him tomorrow. Although... As they passed, she grabbed a package of black hair ties. Just in case.
At the checkout, Keith’s eyes grew wider and wider as the total grew. “Rosalina,” he said urgently, fists clenched tight at his sides. “Rosalina. We need to put some of this back. It’s too much—”
Rosalina held his gaze as she swiped her card. “Keith, kindly be quiet. I already told you, and we are not going to argue about this again.”
He scowled at her, crossing his arms and glaring as the total continued to rise.
And she let him. If she knew anything about teenage boys, it was that they were moody and she just needed to let them go through it for a while before interfering.
In the car, Keith slumped in his seat and stared out the window. Rosalina let him, but kept an eye on him. They had been having fun, she had thought, but something had obviously set him off. How would it end? Lance usually ended with tears. Luis had never really gotten upset enough to have an outburst. Marco—Dios, it had been so long that she couldn’t remember. Although she vaguely remembered him taking up jiu jitsu. Hmm. Maybe Keith would enjoy something like that?
Keith helped her unload and take off tags, but then excused himself to his room.
Rosalina stood in front of his door, wondering what she should do. See if he wanted to talk? Leave him be?
No, she should check on him.
She knocked on the door. “Keith?” she asked when she didn’t hear a response. “Keith? Can I come in?”
The door opened. It was dark in the room, curtains drawn shut tight. His hair was a mess already, as if he had been running his hands through it. “Yeah?”
Was his—Was his lip trembling? Shit. “Keith, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t understand why you’re being so nice to me.” His voice cracked and tears lined his cheeks. He pushed them away with gloved palms.
Rosalina cupped his face in her hands, bringing him closer so she could wipe the tears away with her thumbs. His skin was so pale compared to her tan. He was almost as tall as her, too—shorter than Lance by a few inches, since Lance was already taller than her. But Keith looked so small in that moment, so lost and hurt and confused.
How was she supposed to fix this? Could she? She drew him closer, wrapping her arms around him, cradling his head in her hand and resting it on her shoulder. She felt his arms tentatively, gently, wrap around her, as if afraid he would hurt her. Sobs shook his body, and Rosalina’s body shook along with him. Her shoulder was wet.
“Shh, baby,” she whispered into his ear. She ran her fingers through his dark, silky hair. Hopefully she was comforting him at least a little. “It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re gonna be okay, now.”
Keith cried like that for a while, and she let him. How long had it been since he had been held like this? Cared for? Loved? A year since he had last been touched at all, at least. She couldn’t even imagine living like that—no hugs, no kisses, no cuddles. He was just a sweet little boy and—
“None of the fosters were ever this nice. And the last ones—They abandoned me,” Keith muttered into her shoulder. “The last fosters. They got mad because—and they made me pack my things and drove me out to the desert and... and...”
“Shh, baby,” she soothed, rocking him back and forth as he broke out into sobs. “You’re not going anywhere. You can’t do a thing to make me get rid of you.”
“But I’m—” Keith choked on a breath and pushed away, angrily wiping away his tears as he stumbled back into his room. “I’m angry and violent and worthless and—and—and gay,” he spat out, as if it were shameful, dirty.
Fire raced through her veins. Rosalina grabbed his face again, probably gripping a little too tight if his wince was anything to go by, pulling him closer until he looked her in the eye. His eyes up close were almost purple in the dark light, wide with fear. “I don’t ever,” she hissed, “want to hear you say it like that ever again, you hear me? There is nothing wrong with being gay. Nothing. You are a sweet, wonderful, scared little boy. You are not angry, you are not violent, and being gay is not wrong.”
Keith let out a broken sob, clutching her arms so tight she thought she might bruise. But she had to make him understand—
“I’m sorry. I just—”
“You’re safe here,” she murmured, loosening her grip. “You won’t have to leave if you don’t want to.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
Rosalina stared hard at this boy. Damn the world. Damn it all to hell. She was going to keep this boy no matter what it took. “I don’t break my promises.”
Marcus was justifiably concerned when they went to bed and saw the bruises Keith had left on her wrists. She had been able to hide them from Lance, but Marcus was another story. Of course he was. He knew her just as well as she knew herself.
“Rosie,” he murmured into the bruises, brushing his lips against her tender skin. “What happened? Was it Keith?”
Keith—who had fallen asleep after their crying, who had hardly woken up to choke down some lunch and had gone back to bed, huddled under the blankets in his freshly washed pajamas with the space cat shirt just two sizes too large and the space cat hoodie, who had blearily joined them for dinner, who had reluctantly taken a shower, who had stumbled back into bed without a second thought. Keith—who was so sad and broken and lost and alone. Keith—who had been frightened. Because of her.
“It was my fault,” she whispered, failing to hide her tears. “We were having an emotional moment and I scared him. All I did today was buy him clothes, Marcus. And he said no one had ever been that nice to him. All I did was by him clothes and shampoo and deodorant. What kind of—What kind of monsters—” She broke off into a sob. Marcus pulled her close, cradling her head to his chest just like she had done for Keith, surrounding her with warmth and comfort and love. “He said—He said that the last foster parents drove him out to the desert and abandoned him for being gay.”
“Shh, Rosie. It’s okay.” Marcus kissed the top of her hair, threading his fingers into the curls. “You want to keep him, don’t you.”
“I do. I really, really do.”
“Barely twenty-four hours. Impressive.”
“I don’t know if I can wait six months.”
Marcus kissed her hair again. “You’re going to have to.”
Rosalina sighed and got comfortable as Marcus pulled the blankets up and turned off the lights. Six months was a very, very long time.
Altea High was a godsend.
Enrolling Keith was hardly any trouble, which was great because Keith seemed so nervous being back in a school setting. The school wasn’t large by any means—less than four hundred students total—but it was bright and welcoming and had an easy layout that didn’t make kids feel crammed in. They met with Please-Call-Me-Alfor and Hi!-I’m-Coran! to set up Keith’s education. Coran presented a manila folder titled “Keith’s Plan to Success!” and had covered it in glittering stars, to which Keith rolled his eyes and Rosalina had to hide a chuckle.
Each item of discussion they talked through with Keith instead of her. Rosalina was impressed, sitting back with a fond smile as Keith eyed Coran warily. The man was quite rambunctious, rivaling Lance on boisterous levels, and had a... unique fashion sense. Rosalina certainly wouldn’t have paired a blue floral Hawaiian shirt with white slacks and sharp brown dress shoes with that large handlebar mustache and New Zealand accent, but it seemed to work for the counselor. Alfor, the principal, just smiled amiably at the pair and chimed in when he deemed it necessary.
But they let Keith pick out how his school day would go and contingency plans for when he felt overwhelmed. They wanted him to catch up to his peers, after all. And since he had missed an entire year of school, they were going to try their best to get him graduated on time. He was in Lance’s year, but he needed to catch up with the sophomore credits before they could get him started on the junior year.
“We have a specialized acceleration program,” Coran explained, twirling the end of his mustache and puffing his chest out proudly. “We tailor the program to each student and we talk at the end of each week to make sure we’re still on track or if we need to reevaluate our plan of attack.”
Alfor chuckled at this, patting the other man’s shoulder to calm him down. “You’ll meet in Coran’s room every day and do your work in there where you can go at your own pace,” he said in his smooth, rich British accent. Rosalina could listen to him talk all day. But alas, she was married, and there were rumors that he and Coran had a Thing, according to Lance. “Some students bring in music to help them concentrate, but you must wear headphones so as not to disturb the other students. Of course, when the bell rings you’re free to roam the halls and visit with friends during the passing period, and you’ll have lunch with them as well.”
“We’re hoping,” Coran picked up, “that you will finish the sophomore coursework by the end of February so you can complete the junior accelerated coursework by the end of May and thus join your peers for your senior year!”
Keith looked rather stricken at that, sitting back with wide eyes. His eyes darted to Rosalina, gauging her reaction.
That just couldn’t stand.
Rosalina placed a gentle hand over his, clenched tight around his armrests. “It’s okay, Keith. You don’t have to do it that quick if you don’t want to. If you need the extension into the summer or even next year, that’s okay, too! We won’t be disappointed.”
Curiously, his face flushed at that and he looked away from her. “Okay,” he said quietly.
While Coran led Keith on a tour of the school, Rosalina stayed with Alfor to continue the conversation. She didn’t want Keith to hear this part—didn’t want to discourage him or make him think she thought negatively of him.
“I’m sure you’ve seen his school records from before.”
“Yes,” Alfor replied, leaning forward and clasping his hands in front of his mouth thoughtfully. “I am worried about how many... altercations he’s had on his record.”
“He’s been in foster care since he was seven.” Rosalina rubbed at her temple and sighed, closing her eyes to think of how she wanted to explain without giving too much away. “He’s had a very rough life and I’m doing what I can to make it better for him. He’s... He’s a sweet boy. I don’t know much about him, but I know he’s a good boy, Alfor.”
“We’ll do what we can to help him, Rosalina,” he promised sincerely. “I believe he can get past all that and become something great. His grades are phenomenal, really.” He shuffled through a few papers on his desk and pulled out a few pieces clipped together. “I’m mostly seeing A’s and high B’s from middle school and what he had of high school. I think he’ll catch up quicker than he believes he can. We’ll work with him, Rosalina.”
She sure hoped so.
Keith wouldn’t start school until the following Monday.
“To get you used to people again, first,” Rosalina declared as they shared a meal for lunch in celebration of getting him enrolled. He still seemed kind of skittish around larger groups of people, and she wanted to acclimate him before shoving him into tight quarters with four hundred rowdy teenagers.
“Oh,” she said, interrupting him as he went to put a fry in his mouth. He lowered the fry, quirking that eyebrow of his to show he was listening. “We do family dinners every Sunday, so you’ll meet the rest of my children and some of their kids.”
“Oh. Uh... Okay?”
Rosalina shrugged nonchalantly, stealing a fry from the plate between them as she continued, “There will be Luis, my oldest, and his wife Lisa and their two kids, then Marco and Veronica and Rachel, so there will be an extra seven people in the house. I’m just letting you know.”
“Oh. Uh. Thanks.”
She knew her kids would like him. Hopefully he would like them as well, even if they could get loud.
Well. She’d find out on Sunday.
Sunday was chaos. Absolute, utter chaos.
Everyone wanted to meet Keith, so they came three hours early to dinner. And didn’t even try to help make it!
Her kids were interrogating Keith at the table while Lance and Lisa entertained Sylvio and Nadia in the living room. They’d get their turn.
Marcus, the good soul, was at least trying to help run interference. He sat at the table as well, fielding questions like a pro, pretending to be Keith’s lawyer with an upturned nose at his children, telling Keith in a playfully haughty tone after each question, “You don’t need to answer that, Mr. Kogane.” Sometimes he threw in a, “These heathens are bloodthirsty animals.”
But it put a smile on Keith’s face and her children just went along with it, asking more and more outrageous questions as time went on.
“Alright, alright.” Rosalina tapped Luis on the head, mid-question. “That’s enough. Let the poor boy be. Keith, why don’t you go talk with Sylvio and Nadia? I’m sure they’re less exhausting than this group of hooligans.”
Keith seemed to relax at that, almost jumping up and hurrying to the living room as quick as he could without being rude.
“Hey, we were having fun!” Veronica complained, sprawling over the table.
“And Keith was getting overwhelmed,” Rosalina replied, brandishing her dirty spoon in her direction. “You do remember what I told you, right?”
Each kid looked down at the table, properly chastised. She hadn’t told them everything, of course, but they knew that he had been alone in the desert for a year and was still a little skittish of people when it got to be too much.
She touched the fading bruises on her wrists. They were still easily able to be covered up, but she had caught Marco eyeing her suspiciously earlier.
“Keep an eye on the stove,” she asked, handing the spoon off to Luis.
Without another word, she moved towards the living room to see how that was going. Keith was on the couch, both Sylvio and Nadia crowding his knees, an abandoned, pouting Lance on the floor with Lisa looking on fondly from the other end of the couch. Their questions were less intrusive—What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite animal? Do you like to color?
“I don’t think I’ve ever colored before.”
The kids gasped in unison. Blasphemy! Never colored? Keith, you must color with us now.
And so they pulled him to the floor next to Lance and shoved an animal coloring book into his hands. “Pick one!”
Just like with his clothing the other day, he scrutinized each page, going through the entire book before picking one out. Some of the pages had already been colored messily, so he skipped over those and picked out a hippo.
Huh. Not quite what she had expected, though she didn’t know what she should have expected.
He colored it purple with great concentration. Lance was coloring in the Ariel coloring book, and Nadia and Sylvio were sharing a farm one. Rosalina sat down next to Lisa to watch.
“Keith likes hippos, abuelita,” Sylvio said somberly, as if it were a Very Important Fact she needed to know.
“Yeah,” Nadia agreed with her older brother. “You should get him hippo sheets.”
Of course that was the next logical step in knowing Keith liked hippos. Rosalina chuckled. “Would you like some hippo sheets?” she teased, snickering when his pale cheeks flushed a light pink.
“I’m fine without them,” he muttered to the book, diligently coloring in the grass a bright green.
“Why are you coloring it purple?” Nadia asked, ponytail swinging as she crowded his space.
“I had a purple hippo,” he said quietly, tapping the image. “When I was really little.”
“What happened to it?”
Keith shrugged, voice a million miles away when he replied, “Got lost, I suppose.” He slowed in his coloring until he stopped, gazing down at the picture but not quite seeing it.
Nadia frowned, watching him for several moments. Suddenly, she popped up and crawled into Rosalina’s lap. “Abuelita,” she whispered. Well, tried to, anyway. Nadia was still learning volume control.
“Nadia,” Rosalina whispered back, rubbing her nose against Nadia’s and making her giggle.
“Can we go to the store?” Nadia asked.
“I suppose,” Rosalina replied slowly, looking back over at Keith to see he was still staring down at the hippo. There were tears gathering behind his scowl. Oh no...
Rosalina stood, Nadia on her hip. She was quick to put both their shoes on and cheerfully bid the confused others goodbye, please watch the food, we’ll be back!
Surely Walmart would have it, Rosalina thought, but... Maybe not. Sometimes they were weird with what items they had in stock. A baby store for sure would have one, right? They tried there, first, led by a curious employee.
“We need a hippo, please!” Nadia had requested, grinning big and bouncing on her heels. “My new brother needs one!”
“He’s not your brother,” Rosalina quickly corrected. “He is my kid, remember? So that would make him...?”
“Uhm. Like Tio Lance?”
“Yes! Like Tio Lance!”
The employee was notably confused. “Tio? Like, an uncle, right?”
“Yeah! Tio Lance! Tio Keith!”
“He’s... younger than you?”
“No,” Nadia drawled out, as if the employee was being silly. “He’s big! Bigger than abuelita!” Not true, but Rosalina only rolled her eyes and didn’t try to correct her that time. “He’s abuelita’s... uhm... frosted kid.”
The girl snorted in amusement. “I didn’t know they made frosted kids.”
“Foster, Nadia.” Rosalina couldn’t hold back her own giggles.
“Tha’s what I said,” Nadia grumped, tugging Rosalina towards the stuffed animals. “We need a purple one!”
Luckily, the store did indeed have a purple hippo. It was soft and had a goofy smile and little curves for eyes.
“Perfect!” Nadia declared.
When they got home, Nadia burst through the door calling for Keith. He was still in the living room, coloring a new page with Sylvio. Lance had wondered off, but Lisa was still watching over them with a fond smile. Nadia threw herself at Keith, hippo grasped in her arms. Keith just barely caught her without toppling over, eyes wide as he reared back to look at her. His eyes darted down to the hippo.
Nadia pressed it to his chest, grinning cheekily up at him. “I got you a hippo ‘cuz you said you lost yours. Look! It’s purple!”
Oh no. Thick tears were gathering in his eyes again. Nadia frowned, looking down at the hippo still in her hands. “Do you not like it?”
“I love it.” Keith’s voice was thick with emotion he tried to swallow down. He brushed away his tears. “Thank you, Nadia. That was... very nice of you.” He gently took the hippo from her and ran his fingers over the soft snout. “I’m gonna go put him in my room so he doesn’t get dirty, okay?”
Nadia slipped off his lap, and they didn’t see him again until dinner.
Alright, so I had no idea that "Mr. Hippo" was an actual thing. I just looked it up. I have no idea what Five Nights at Freddy's is. The title for this chapter was simply because Nadia gave him a hippo that she creatively helps him name Mr. Hippo, unrelated to FNaF lol
Chapter 4: Boys Have Too Much Angst
Lance got jealous easily. Rosalina knew that, Lance knew that—pretty much the entire world knew that. He made it obvious and pouted and spat out his ire at the source of his jealousy until Rosalina put a stop to it. She usually tried to nip it quick.
Case in point: Lance’s jealousy towards Keith.
What was weird about the whole situation was that Lance didn’t usually get jealous of the foster children that came through their home. Not the babies, not the teenagers—no one. He understood that they were in a rough patch and needed a bit of extra love, so why—
Keith had been there for only a little over a week. It was Thursday of his second week and he was shut in his room, having mumbled something about homework before almost slamming the door shut. Rosalina had winced, but brushed it off and continued with her project. Lance threw his backpack into his room and stomped into the kitchen, grumbling up a storm as he slammed open and shut every kitchen cabinet and the fridge for good measure. He wasn’t using his music, so he obviously wanted to talk about whatever was making him angry.
“We don’t slam doors, Lance.”
“You let Keith slam the doors.”
“And I’ll talk with him about it after dinner,” Rosalina replied, setting her tools aside. This was a conversation she couldn’t be distracted from. “Lance.”
Lance slammed the cabinet under the sink.
He slammed the utensil drawer shut. The silverware inside jingled and clanged together unpleasantly, pretty much like Lance’s anger at the moment.
Lance huffed, crossing his arms as he slumped into the chair across from her. He didn’t meet her gaze. Well, she would just have to pick her battles. A least he was at the table. If he didn’t want to look at her, she wasn’t going to make him.
“Tell me what’s wrong.”
Rosalina sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, digging her fingers into the corners of her eyes to steady herself. Right. Remain calm. Nothing would get accomplished if she ‘lost her cool’ as Marco liked to tease her. Breathe in, breathe out. Right. She needed to get to the bottom of this before it escalated and Keith either had to be moved elsewhere or—
And she couldn’t let him leave. She had made Keith a promise.
“You’re jealous,” Rosalina said quietly, moving her hand away to watch Lance’s lower lip tremble. “You’re jealous of Keith. Why?”
“You let him get away with stuff like slamming doors and he doesn’t join us after dinner and I tried to invite him to play video games with me but he said it was stupid and he had homework and he’s too smart for me and you pay more attention to him than me and you like him more than me and—” He broke off into a sob, hands smothering his face.
Rosalina’s heart broke at the sight. Her baby was always so much more with his emotions, always expressing them, always feeling so much. Everything amped up to a thousand and then turned up again, even when he was little. And even with dealing with it for sixteen years, it still threw her every time he had an outburst. He was usually such a happy boy that his anger and sadness were just that much more.
“Oh, Lance,” she murmured, moving around to sit next to him and pull him close. He clung tightly to her, sobbing into her shirt. It was wet in moments. “He’s still adjusting. You know he was missing out in the desert for so long, remember? Just because he’s here and needs my love doesn’t mean that I love you any less.”
A sound from the doorway brought her attention away from Lance. Keith stood there, peering in, startling when he was caught. He ducked out of sight.
Rosalina wished there were two of her.
But, alas, there was not.
Figuring Keith could wait a moment, Rosalina turned back to Lance. She ran her fingers through his hair, something she knew calmed him. “There’s no reason for you to be jealous, Lance. Yes, your emotions are valid, but you need to remember that you are not the center of the universe.”
“I should be,” he sniffed, ducking his head under her chin as he continued to cry. At least it was much quieter, now. “I know I’m being stupid.”
“You’re not stupid.” She tapped her knuckles harshly against his skull. “You know this. You’re just feeling a lot of emotions right now and it’s clouding your judgement. You know I’m not trying to replace you, right?”
Lance mumbled and looked away.
“Lance. Keith isn’t replacing you. He just needs me to love him. It’s been a very long time since anyone has been kind to him.”
“I tried,” Lance whined. “But he ignores me or tells me it’s stupid or—”
“And I’ll talk with him,” Rosalina interrupted before he could get on another tangent. “Okay?”
Sniffling, he nodded and let her go so she could go talk to Keith. “I’m sorry, mama.”
“It’s okay, baby.” She dropped a kiss to his hair. “I love you. Have a snack, okay? Make sure you have some water.”
Steeling herself, Rosalina made her way to Keith’s room. She paused outside, listening at the closed door to see if she could determine how this was going to go. Silence. Which was a little odd, but she knocked anyway.
Keith was quick to answer. He had a firm, determined gaze, chin tilted up slightly in defiance. “Rosalina,” he intoned.
“May I come in, Keith?”
Instead of replying, he just stepped back and motioned her in. The room was so... bare. No decorations, yet. Clothes neatly put away. Backpack next to the desk, books out and ready to be attended to. No pictures on the dressers. Just a large knife on the nightstand.
She didn’t know he had a knife.
Rosalina sat on the bed and pointed to it. “I didn’t know you had a knife.” That didn’t sound accusatory, did it?
Keith froze half-way into sitting in the chair. He slowly lowered himself the rest of the way down, eyes steadfast on her. Did he think she was going to take it away from him? “It was my mom’s,” he said slowly. “My dad gave it to me when I was young.”
“Do you mind if I look at it?”
Surprised, he blinked owlishly at her. “Uh, yeah, I don’t mind.”
Rosalina picked it up. It was heavier than she imagined, and was wrapped in a grey cloth. Slowly sliding it from the sheath, Rosalina took in every detail. It was sharp, certainly, and had a purple jewel in the hilt. There was a strange symbol as well. The blade was definitely well cared for. “It’s beautiful.”
“Are you going to take it away from me?”
She should—she knew she should. But... “No. I won’t confiscate it, as long as you only use it for self-defense.” She couldn’t take away the only thing he had left of his mother. What kind of monster would she be if she took it?
“I promise,” he said, maybe a little too eagerly.
Rosalina slid it back into its sheath. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“You’re sending me away,” he replied, tone dead.
The knife almost dropped from her hand. She placed it back carefully before turning to him. “No, no! Keith, why would you think that?”
“I made Lance cry.”
“Everything makes Lance cry,” she said, exasperated, rolling her eyes. “He thinks you don’t like him.”
“I like him!” Keith shot forward in his chair, eyes wide and pleading. “I don’t hate him. I just—What he said in the kitchen—I don’t—I gotta get this homework done so I can—”
“You need a break, Keith.” She studied him for a moment, narrowing her eyes. He turned away from her scrutinizing gaze. He’d only been back at school for four days, but she had a suspicion. “How late do you stay up doing work?”
“I don’t see what that has to do with—”
Shrugging, Keith crossed his arms and continued to look at the corner of the room. As if that would give him the answers she sought. “I dunno. Late. Midnight. Two.”
“I have a lot to catch up on!”
“Not at the expense of your health!” she shouted right back. She softened when Keith flinched back. “I’m sorry for yelling, Keith. I’m not mad at you. Just... disappointed. I thought you knew you didn’t have to push yourself so hard.”
And he was huddling into himself again, bringing his knees up to hug against his chest, looking so small and vulnerable. “I don’t wanna disappoint you by not catching up, though.”
The room was small enough that Rosalina could reach out and touch his wrist. Surprisingly, he let her. “I want you to be healthy, first and foremost. I don’t care if it takes you three extra years to graduate. So I’m making a new rule, okay?” She waited for Keith to acknowledge her before continuing, “You will only work on schoolwork until dinner. And then after dinner you are to relax. You will bring me all your homework when it’s time for dinner and it is going in my room until you leave for school in the morning.”
“This is non-negotiable.”
Keith huffed, but Rosalina could see the small smile twitching at the corner of his lips. “Fine.”
Could she hug him? Should she? He was so closed off, but craved touch. At least, he had the last time he had gotten emotional. Was this the same, or should she let him instigate it?
With a quiet sigh, she stood and placed a hand on his head. He blinked up at her, confused. “I just want what’s best for you, Keith.”
He looked away, mumbling into his knees.
“What was that?”
“Does Lance hate me?” he asked louder, propping his chin on his knees instead of hiding behind them. He still wouldn’t meet her gaze.
“Of course not. He just wants you to like him.” She bopped his nose, smiling as he crossed his eyes to try to see her finger. He looked vaguely offended. “The easiest way to get him to like you is to pay attention to him.”
“He’s just so... much.”
Rosalina laughed when he scrunched up his face. “I know.”
As threatened, Rosalina took Keith’s books away. He glared the entire time, staring at the hallway with crossed arms as they watched TV. But not even a half hour later he was out, head back and mouth slightly open, loosely curled up in his corner of the couch. Lance tried to mess with him by poking him with his feet, but Rosalina’s glare was enough to keep him on his side of the couch.
The next night, Lance pushed Rosalina and Marcus into their room. “Me and Keith claim the living room!”
“Huh?” was Keith’s eloquent reply, squeaking when Lance tugged him towards the living room.
Rosalina rolled her eyes, but went to her room anyway. They could read and cuddle, at least. Hopefully Lance wouldn’t destroy the living room too much.
Except there was an awful lot of noise coming from the living room.
Rosalina and Marcus snuck out and hid just out of sight. And. Well. She shouldn’t have expected Lance to do anything less.
They were creating a blanket fort. At least, that’s what she was assuming. There were sheets and chairs still being arranged as Lance jabbered on and on about... Mario Kart? Probably. Keith followed Lance’s directions quietly, making small noises to urge Lance to continue talking. At least Keith wasn’t scowling. He was almost... smiling, really.
Eventually, their fort was complete and Lance dashed off to the kitchen for snacks. Keith stood just beside the fort, running his hand over one of the sheets with a smile on his face. There was an opening facing the TV, controllers for the old Nintendo 64 pulled out and ready for play. All the extra pillows and comforters had made their way inside the fort, making it look extra comfortable.
Lance never did anything by halves.
“Mom! Dad! I said go away!”
Rosalina and Marcus scurried away.
Chapter 5: Like, Really Gay
The front door closed with a harsh thud. The boys passed through the kitchen after taking off their shoes. “Good afternoon, boys! How was school?”
Lance passed right by without a word.
He didn’t slam the bathroom door. He almost never did. But it didn’t take long for Bubblegum Bitch to blast through the wood from the small stereo they kept in there specifically for this purpose. It wasn’t at the highest volume, but it may as well have been.
Rosalina sighed and pulled out the ingredients for garlic knots. From the corner of her eye she saw Keith pause before heading down to his own room. His door shut a little harder. Great. Rosalina hadn’t known him long, he had only been there for about a month, but she suspected he would crack sooner rather than later. How that would manifest, she wasn’t sure, but she hoped the knife wouldn’t be involved. Even if she had told him he could keep it and she wouldn’t confiscate it, she had made him promise he wouldn’t use it unless it was self-defense.
Hopefully, he wouldn’t count retribution for repeating the same song for hours counted as “self-defense.”
To be honest, Rosalina was surprised that this hadn’t come up yet. It was already the first week of December and it had been since October since the last Bubblegum Bitch need.
Sure enough, not even an hour and a half later of Bubblegum Bitch on constant repeat, a door from further in the house slammed open. A moment later Keith started pounding on the bathroom door. “What the hell, Lance! It’s been an hour and a half! Shut up and let me in!”
“Keith, you can use mine.”
Bubblegum Bitch continued blaring. Keith must have decided that her permission was good enough because another door slammed, but it was muffled. When it opened a few minutes later, she called him back to the kitchen. He shuffled in, head low and scowl etched deep. He sat at her request, arms crossed and glare turned towards the hallway where the music was still on repeat.
“Keith.” His gaze turned towards her. “Please let him do this. He had a rough day at school. He...” And this part, no matter how many times she had to have this conversation with fosters, never made her heart feel any lighter. “He used to hurt himself. Some kids weren’t very receptive of him being bi and he’s bullied at school. He’d come home and... never anything permanent, but.” She sighed, shaking her head and running a hand through her hair to settle her nerves. “We came to this agreement. Instead of hurting himself he would turn it into something positive and creative. And how he plays his music tells me what’s wrong if he can’t find the words.”
Keith’s foot tapped against the tile, as if his leg were jiggling with nerves. “It’s annoying.”
“I know you were in silence out in the desert,” she tried to say soothingly. “This doesn’t happen often. Just when it’s too overwhelming for him.”
“Okay,” he replied slowly, glaring at the table. “So what’s this song saying?”
“He was made fun of for liking boys. And if it’s coming from the bathroom, it means it was really bad and he’s doing a full self-care routine. Bath, facemask, makeup, dressing up. The louder it is the worse it is.”
“I see,” he said to the table. “Why hasn’t the principal done anything? I thought he didn’t tolerate this sort of thing.”
Rosalina sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “We tried, but... He can only do so much. It’s a he-said-she-said situation, apparently, and the right people haven’t witnessed it or not enough students have come up. The bullies... their parents have quite a bit of say on the board, apparently. And detentions don’t do much. They just come right back even worse.”
Keith sat in silence for several minutes, staring at the table and tapping his fingers on the wood. Without a word, he stood and went back to his room.
Inevitably, not even a few days later, since these seemed to come in spurts, Lance came home and went straight to his room to blare Bubblegum Bitch again. Keith wasted no time, throwing his bag towards his room and pounding on Lance’s door.
“Open the door!” he shouted. Rosalina turned to watch, ready to move if she needed to intervene. She couldn’t quite see all of Keith, but if Lance opened the door she would be able to see him. “Lance! Make me pretty, too!”
The door opened, the music swelling as Lance watched Keith for several long moments through narrowed eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Make me pretty, too. Please,” he added, disgruntled.
Lance studied him in silence for a long, long moment. Marina and The Diamonds continued to blast behind him. The song started over, and Keith never budged. Lance opened the door wider, bowing and motioning for Keith to come in. The music stopped not long after the door shut, an indignant “hey!” following soon after. Rosalina crept closer—sure, she shouldn’t eavesdrop, but she wanted to make sure she didn’t need to intervene, too. Especially with how unpredictable Keith was—his file listed too many fights and altercations that she was a little wary of, but suspected weren’t completely his fault, either. Besides, they were getting along better, since Rosalina had had that talk with both of them during Keith’s second week.
“I’m not listening to this song again,” Keith grumbled. Rosalina could imagine his arms were crossed and he was scowling. “I get it—the guys were mean to you at school and called you names. Listen up, sweet-cheeks. We’re gonna deal with this but I cannot listen to that fuckin’ song one more goddamn time.”
The urge to reprimand him for his foul language was strong, but Rosalina resisted. Keith was trying to bond with Lance and help him. Their music and makeup solution worked well so far, but... if Keith could actually fix it, who was she to stop him?
“We need montage music, then.”
“None of your pop shit.”
“Fine. Pick something out, then.”
Several moments of silence passed. Presumably, Keith was looking through Lance’s playlists. Panic! At the Disco burst from the speakers. The volume quickly turned down to a manageable level.
“You don’t have The Classic Crime, so yeah.”
“Wow, buddy. You sure are something.”
“Shut up and make me pretty.”
“I kinda figured you were too straight for something like this.”
“Uh, no? I’m gay. Like, really gay.”
“Yeah? It’s not a secret.”
“How come you didn’t tell me?!”
“I thought you knew!”
“How would I know! You’re all—” Lance was probably waving his arms around.
“Wow. Way to be stereotypical, Lance. Do I need to adopt a lisp to satisfy you?”
“No! I just—”
“Shut up. I was joking. Ha ha.”
“You shut up.”
“No. Now make me sexy. I’ve got a plan to get rid of your bullies. And to do that, I need to look sexy. And dangerous.”
Rosalina rolled her eyes, but moved away. They obviously had it handled. Maybe. Possibly. She paused at the threshold of the kitchen, tapping her fingers against her leg. Should she continue to listen? Keith wasn’t going to do something stupid, was he? Oh, who was she kidding. She’d only known him a few weeks but he was an impulsive little shit.
She was just about to call them for dinner when they came out of Lance’s room.
“You boys look lovely,” she said, elbowing Marcus to get his attention.
Marcus turned from where he was washing his hands and whistled. “Wow. Going out to a club or something?”
Both were wearing crop tops that Lance had tailored himself. Keith’s hung off one shoulder and stopped several inches above his belly button. Lance’s fit him in the shoulders a bit better. Both were wearing high rise shorts that barely covered their asses. Their makeup, though, was what sold it. Both had sharp wings and sparkling eyeshadow that made their eyes pop. While Lance had a more neutral lip color, Keith’s were bright red. Keith’s hair was also up in a waterfall braid, one of Lance’s favorites to do.
And, yeah, Keith did look dangerous. And way more confident than she had seen him in the entire month he had been under her roof.
Oh, boy. Did Rosalina want to ask Keith what his plan was to get rid of Lance’s bullies?
... No. No she did not.
Oh, god. Why was there shouting at—she rolled over to glare at her alarm clock—six thirty in the morning?
“Lance!” Pounding followed. “Lance! I need you to do my hair and makeup like yesterday!”
Rosalina rolled out of bed, ready to run intervention. Lance had opened his door by the time she got to the hallway. He was looking at Keith, bleary-eyed and hair a mess. Keith was wearing the same outfit as last night, plus a red and black plaid flannel button up tied around his waist.
“I told you I would take care of your bullying problem. I need you to do my hair and makeup.”
“I don’t see how this is supposed to help.”
“We pretend to date, they corner us, and I beat the shit out of ‘em.” Rosalina cleared her throat. Keith merely glanced at her. “I know how to make it look like self-defense.”
“What?” Keith crossed his arms. “Bullies don’t stop until you show them you aren’t afraid.”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
She needed coffee.
“Wait, you’re wearing your combat boots? With that?”
“You’re right, it would be more humiliating if I beat the shit out of him in high heels. But I’ve never worn them before and I don’t know if I can fight in them and I don’t feel like breaking an ankle today.”
“Not what I meant.”
“Keith, it’s December,” Rosalina implored, glaring disapprovingly at his legs. “You’re going to freeze.”
He waved her off. “I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure this isn’t against dress code?”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waved her off. “I checked. It specifically says girls cannot wear this. It doesn’t say anything about guys wearing something like this.”
Was it too early to pour some whiskey in her coffee?
“Put your hand in my pocket.”
Lance wiggled his hand under the flannel shirt until he found the pocket.
Keith was escorting Lance to his next class. The plan was for Keith to do this for every class until Lance’s bullies showed up. With how many heads were turning and the amount of whispers, it wouldn’t be long. Probably by the next passing period. And, sure enough, when Keith picked Lance up to escort him to his third period, they were cornered at Lance’s locker by three bulky boys.
From the corner of his eye, he saw kids recording them.
“Faggots.” It was the tallest one, Sendak, Lance had said. Stupid name, really. Keith didn’t bother to learn the other two’s names. Sendak was the leader, and that’s who he needed to focus on.
“You seem awfully concerned with us and our bedroom practices. Overly concerned, even. Do you think about guys having sex a lot?” Keith asked innocently, gently pushing Lance away. It wouldn’t do for him to get hurt, after all.
Sendak pushed Keith into the lockers and started spitting insults.
Keith smirked. Without further ado, he kneed Sendak exactly where it would hurt the most and pushed him back. The second thug went down just as easily with a sweep of his foot. The third was downed with a well-placed flannel shirt to the face and a knee to the stomach. It only took seconds. Once they were all down, he took two steps to get even with Sendak. He pushed the boy over onto his back with his foot and kicked his hands away from his groin.
“Make a move,” he warned with a low growl, placing his boot right over Sendak’s junk, “and Junior gets it.”
Sendak stopped moving. His goons didn’t even try to get up. Keith pressed his foot down anyway. Sendak whimpered. “Mess with Lance again and I won’t hesitate. Do I make myself clear?”
Sendak spat at Keith. It landed on his shirt. Keith looked down and cocked an eyebrow. But then Sendak was growling, “Whatever, fa—” He burst into a howl as Keith pressed down.
“I said,” Keith said in a low tone, bending over and ignoring Sendak trying to get him off. His foot pressed harder against Sendak’s trapped dick. “Do I make—myself—clear.”
“Get off me!”
“Are you going to leave Lance and his friends alone?”
“The rest of the students? Are you going to continue to bully them?”
“No! I swear it! Get off!”
Keith suddenly stood back and snatched his flannel shirt back. He tied it back around his waist and plucked one of the phones recording away from a student and made his way to the office before a teacher could stop him. Lance scurried to catch up to him.
“And that’s how I got Sendak and his cronies permanently expelled and didn’t get in trouble for it,” Keith smirked, crossing his arms and looking quite smug with himself.
Rosalina and Marcus clapped as he concluded his story. And Lance was grinning, looking lighter and happier than he had in a long, long time. Her poor baby—she hadn’t even realized what a toll Sendak still being in school took on him.
“This calls for celebration!” Marcus declared, shoving away from the table with an awful screech. “Let’s go! Fancy restaurant time!”
“Let me just change into pants,” Keith said, looking down at his bare legs. “It’s a little cold out there,” he added with a smirk towards Rosalina. “I might freeze.”
“Keith, I swear to God—”
Chapter 6: Bubblegum B!tch
Two weeks before Christmas,
And all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a—
“Keith! Lance!” Rosalina called, knocking on their doors as she passed. “Up and at ‘em! We have things to do!”
Ah, Saturday morning. Usually reserved for sleeping in, but Rosalina wanted to go shopping.
Keith shuffled into the room, hair a mess, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Lance was right behind him, clinging to Keith’s shirt. “What’s goin’ on?” Keith mumbled, looking blearily up at her as she flittered through the kitchen.
“We’re going shopping!” Rosalina called out, setting out plates for their pancakes. “You wanted high heels, right?”
Keith perked right up, all traces of sleepiness gone. “What? Really?”
“Call it an early Christmas present,” Rosalina replied with a raised eyebrow. She pointed her spatula at his plate. “You gonna eat or what?”
Keith immediately shoved half a pancake in his mouth.
Rosalina shook her head. What a weirdo.
“Hi!” The perky saleswoman approached them, eyeing her boys and then her, ultimately failing to hide her confusion. It was probably because the boys were dressed up in crop tops and high rise shorts again and Lance had done their makeup. For Keith, he had no problem strutting about. Lance, on the other hand... “How can I help you... folks?”
Keith looked back at her. Rosalina just raised an unamused eyebrow at him. If he wanted high heels, she wasn’t going to ask for him. He huffed and turned back to the saleswoman. Sadie, her nametag said.
“I’m looking for high heels,” he grumbled, crossing his arms and acting surly. Rosalina cleared her throat. He dropped his arms and rolled his eyes. What was with him? He had been so excited earlier, and now he was acting like he didn’t even want to be there. “Please.”
“Oh.” Sadie looked between him and Rosalina, still uncertain. “Certainly. Do you know what style you’re looking for?”
“Whatever will humiliate men more when I kick their ass in self-defense while wearing them.”
“It’s true.” Dios, she shouldn’t have encouraged him to be so sassy.
Sadie looked back at Rosalina, unsure. “Have... you ever worn high heels before?”
“Stilettoes would be the most... embarrassing, but I don’t suggest those for beginners,” Sadie said thoughtfully, brushing her light hair from her face. It just fell right back where it was. “Especially if you’re going to try to fight in them.”
Keith grumbled under his breath, crossing his arms and looking away. “Fine.”
Sadie walked away, calling out behind her as she walked towards some chairs, “Let’s get your size, first. Some shoes probably won’t go to your size if your feet are big enough.”
“I don’t have to buy you new shoes if you’re going to be rude the entire time,” Rosalina said offhandedly, setting her bag next to Keith as he scowled up at her. She was not dealing with his attitude today. And to think, they had started out so good. Lance was uncharacteristically quiet next to her, huddled close and keeping an eye on their surroundings, failing to tug his crop top down to cover his bellybutton. Maybe she shouldn’t have pushed him into dressing up to go out, even if it was more Keith egging him on. And even though it was December, they had been adamant about wearing these specific shorts. Whatever. As long as they didn’t complain about being cold. “She is helping you. You have no reason to be rude. Fix your attitude or we’re going home and you can come back later by yourself when you can behave.”
Chastised, Keith lowered his head and mumbled an apology. Uncrossing his arms, he kept his head low, hands in fists in his lap. “I would really appreciate if you could help me find some high heels. Please.”
Kneeled before him, Sadie patted his knee with a smile. “That’s alright. Keith, was it?” He nodded, still not looking up. “Perk up! We’re gonna find you a kick-ass pair of heels, yeah?”
“I’m gonna be the prettiest bitch in town.”
Rosalina choked on her laughter. Lance had no qualms letting out a snort, and even Sadie couldn’t hold in her laughter at his deadpan delivery. A tiny smirk peeked out from behind his bangs.
Once they calmed down, Sadie figured out his size and looked around at the displays around them, tapping her lips in thought. “Okay. So we want to humiliate men but not break your ankle. Do you have a specific color in mind?”
“Black will go with most things,” Lance muttered as he examined the shoes on the display beside him. Flats, mostly, but a few wedges. “Red is sexier, but, if you like the color scheme you have going, black will keep it evened out.”
Rosalina looked back to Keith, looking bewildered and small in his chair. His dark hair, then bright red lips, then black shirt and red high-waist shorts and—yeah, black would keep with that color scheme and keep it even. And even if he decided to wear other colors, black would still probably look okay with it.
Sadie clapped her hands at Keith’s nod of acceptance. “How about I go get a few different styles in your size, you can try them on, and we’ll go from there?”
Keith unlaced his boots while she disappeared to the back room. He kept his head low, bangs covering his face. “I’m sorry, Rosalina.”
“I’m sorry, too, Keith.” She sat at the edge of the chair she had placed her purse. “I didn’t mean to be short with you.” Really, she had no excuse for snapping at him. She placed a gentle hand on his bare knee. It was warm, despite how cold it had been outside. “I know you’re probably nervous—”
“But you being ‘short’ with me helped me not be so nervous anymore.” He twisted his fingers together. “Or, at least not be defensive about it. I was just... afraid she was going to make fun of me.”
“What happened to you not giving a damn?” Lance called from a few tables over. He waved one of the ugliest shoes Rosalina had ever seen around, as if that would accentuate his point. “I mean, look at you! You went to school like this and took down three bullies. What’s a little shop lady gonna do to you that they couldn’t?”
Keith huffed, crossing his arms and looking away from both of them, brow set in a scowl. “That was different.”
“How?” Lance was moving back over to them, his own frown in place.
“Because I was defending you.”
With a hand pressed to his chest, Lance pretended to swoon. “My hero.”
“No, but seriously.” Lance flopped into the chair next to him. “Mom’s here to protect us from any unsavory sort. You don’t cross a protective Cuban mama.”
Before Keith could spit out a retort, Sadie came back with several boxes stacked in her arms. She could barely see around them. “Alright! Let’s get started, shall we?”
They started with a smaller heel, “just to get you used to it.” Lance critiqued each one with a thoughtful frown, making Keith stand and turn and walk back and forth. Rosalina sat back with a smile, watching the two boys interact. It was good to see them not fighting quite so much. And it was good that Lance was finally starting to relax, getting into it and becoming boisterous as the discarded pile continued to grow. There were only a few in the ‘maybe’ pile, most of the heels being discarded when Keith figured out he couldn’t balance well in them or he didn’t think they looked threatening enough.
Even Keith had a small smile, swinging his hips back and forth as he modeled down their impromptu catwalk.
Somehow during their shenanigans, Keith had found a piece of bright pink gum. They were going back through the ‘maybe’ pile while Keith tried them on again. This time, he even tried sitting and crossing his legs at his knee, bouncing his top foot and popping his gum obnoxiously.
After the third shoe, Lance lit up. “I can’t believe you! You hate that song!”
“Might as well embody it and go all out,” Keith replied with a shrug, smirking as he popped another bubble.
Seriously? Bubblegum Bitch? Again? Rosalina sighed, hiding her face in her hands. Sadie, the poor soul, looked on in confusion. “There’s a song called Bubblegum Bitch,” Rosalina said tiredly. “It’s kind of their thing and inspired all,” she tiredly waved a hand towards the two bickering boys, “this.”
“Magical song, I guess,” Sadie mused, pulling over another of the maybes. “You’re a good mother, you know that?”
“I certainly try.”
Eventually, Keith decided that he wanted the heels that the straps wrapped up his legs in thin strings. They weren’t the tallest, but they were the most sturdy, he had declared. And they made him as tall as Lance, which was apparently a bonus. Rosalina still wasn’t sure why they had such contention on the three-inch height difference, but whatever. Lance was weirdly competitive that way, and Keith only fed it, much to her chagrin.
And Sadie even let him continue to wear the shoes, cutting off the tags for him once they were rung up. The price made her wince, but the look on Keith’s face—he was happy. So, so happy, wearing stupid high heels and beautiful makeup that made him look just as dangerous as he really was. He had a hip jutted out as he continued to obnoxiously pop bubbles in Lance’s face, much to the younger boy’s disgruntlement. Rosalina tried to give Sadie a tip, but she refused to take it, quoting corporate wouldn’t let them. So, instead, she had Sadie flag down a manager. Sadie blushed the entire time Rosalina sung her praises and her boys were well past ready to leave.
Keith’s heels clicked loudly on the tile as they left, a confident swagger swaying his hips and head tilted high. He smirked as people stopped and stared at him, popping his gum obnoxiously all the while.
Rosalina frowned as she approached her boys after exiting the restroom. They were pressed up against the wall leading to the restrooms, a man standing in front of them, blocking them from leaving. Their bags were at their feet, also blocking their escape. Lance looked confused; Keith was certainly annoyed. Did they know him? He couldn’t be a bully from school—the man had to be at least in his thirties. Surely he wasn’t a teacher?
“Come on, beautiful,” she caught the man simpering, leaning closer to her boys. “Come put that pretty mouth to good use. We all know you whores aren’t good for much else.”
What. The fuck. No one talked to her babies like that! Rosalina stormed forward, purse gripped hard in hand.
Lance’s eyes, wide with fear, caught hers. “Mama.”
No one frightened her baby and got away with it. Before the moron could turn, Rosalina swung her purse with all her might, catching him on the side of the head. He crumpled with a shout, hand to his bloody face. Good.
“What the fuck!” the man shouted, turning to face her, blood already running down his face. “The fuck is your problem, bitch! I’m gonna call the cops on you!”
“My problem,” Rosalina growled, fetching her phone and dialing 911, “is that you just propositioned two minors for sex.” She held an arm around Lance once he managed to sidestep the idiot’s flailing limbs, pulling her baby close as he shook and trembled and held back hushed whimpers.
The man’s eyes widened, glancing back at her boys. “I—I didn’t know! They look old enough!”
“We told you we were underage,” Keith growled, stepping closer. His heels clacked ominously against the tile. “Twice.”
The man tried to scramble away, but Keith, bless him, pressed a heel to his groin, arms out slightly to balance himself on his new heels. “I wouldn’t move, if I were you,” Keith intoned, looking bored. But Rosalina knew him well enough to see the rage simmering underneath. The point of the heel pressed down in warning. The man whimpered. Keith popped his gum.
“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”
“Yes, hello, there is a man, probably mid-thirties, soliciting minors for sex,” Rosalina replied, glaring down her nose at the man as he tried to get up and swat Keith away. Keith just pressed his heel down harder, making the man howl. “I’m afraid he’s going to get violent. My son has him subdued at the moment.”
“What is your location?”
“We’re at the mall, by the bathrooms.”
“Can security not take care of this?” The man on the line sounded snide.
“Did you miss the part where a man was soliciting minors for sex?” Rosalina yelled into her phone. A crowd was starting to gather, whispering between themselves. A few had their phones out, pointed directly at her. She ignored them, seething at the dispatcher. “That’s a little bit more than a mall cop can handle, don’t you think? Send two female officers, now. Not in half an hour, not when you feel like it—now. I expect them here within ten minutes. Do not make me call back.” She hung up, breathing deep to try to control her anger. She needed to be calm, take control of the situation.
A large man pushed through the crowd, looking worried. “Keith?” he said hesitantly, coming to a stop just inside the circle.
“Shiro?” Keith looked confused to see the man. “What are you doing here?”
“Shopping,” the man—Shiro—replied, looking stunned. Huh. He looked a little like Keith, too. Or, well, at least Asian. “What are you doing here?”
“Shopping,” Keith replied with an indifferent shrug. “Or, well, I was. This guy tried to get us to go suck him off in the bathroom even after we told him we were minors.”
The man under Keith tried to use his inattention to break away. He kicked out with a leg, and Keith stumbled, falling hard to the floor. Someone in the crowd screamed—or maybe it had been her. Lance gripped her tighter, trying to pull her back out of the way, even when she tried to go to Keith to make sure he was okay. The man tried to stand, to scramble away, but Shiro was there, pinning him to the floor with his arm twisted behind his back. The man screamed, but Shiro didn’t let go, only twisting harder. Rosalina wasn’t sure what to do. Blood smeared on the tile.
“It’s good to see you, Keith,” Shiro said easily, as if he wasn’t pinning someone to the ground. “I missed you.”
Keith—Keith was stunned, propped up on his elbows and looking at Shiro in awe. “You missed me?”
“Of course I did.” Rosalina couldn’t see his face to see his reaction, but he sounded sad. “You just kind of disappeared and I didn’t know what happened to you.”
“Oh.” And Keith was quiet, unsure. He wasn’t usually, anymore, and it was odd to see him so out of sorts. “Yeah. It’s a long story.”
“We’ll have to catch up.”
“Let me go!” the man was howling under Shiro. “I didn’t know—I didn’t know!”
Shiro twisted his arm harder. “Shut up.”
After the two cops—both women, as requested—showed up and took statements and handcuffed the idiot, Rosalina took Shiro aside. Sometime during the commotion, another man—Adam, apparently—had shown up and was talking to her boys. Lance knew him, probably a previous teacher at school if all the “Mr. Weaver”s were anything to go by, and Keith seemed fairly familiar with him as well. With the look Adam was giving Shiro, they were probably together.
“You know Keith,” she said, no nonsense.
“I do.” Shiro was looking at the small group fondly. “A few years ago we got matched up in that Big Brother’s program so I’ve known him since he was eleven. I did what I could for him, but...” He sighed, looking sad. “He disappeared. His foster parents had no idea where he went, cops couldn’t find him... I can’t believe he would have run away. He came to me for everything.”
“He didn’t,” Rosalina found herself saying in a low, dangerous voice. Shiro, startled, turned back to her. “He told me they dropped him off in the desert and abandoned him. Someone found him at the end of October and he was out there for almost a year. That’s all I know.”
Shiro frowned. “They what?”
“You’ll have to ask him.” Rosalina sighed and dug out her phone. “What’s your phone number? Keith doesn’t have a phone, yet, but I can text you updates and schedule you to come over to talk with him. No offense,” she eyed his bulky, strong frame. It was then that she noticed he had a prosthetic arm. Military? He looked like a military man. “But I don’t trust him alone with you yet.”
“That’s fair, ma’am.” He put his number into her phone and texted himself so he would have the number. “Is he...” He looked back at the group. Lance was doing his best to make the other two laugh with jokes and flailing arms. The crowd had started to disperse since the drama was over with. “How is he?”
“Considering he was way underweight when they found him and he hardly spoke when he first came to my house...” She trailed off to watch as Keith cackled at Lance. Then he turned to them and grinned wide, waving at them but keeping company with Adam and Lance. “Do you have plans for Christmas? You and your...” She looked down at Shiro’s left hand to determine if there was a ring or not. She couldn’t see it. “Boyfriend? Husband?”
She may be overly protective of her children, but she also did what she could to make them happy.
“Just me and Adam,” Shiro replied tentatively. “Neither of us have any family left. Not after...” He gave her a sad smile and lifted his hand to show off a black ring.
“Join us.” Rosalina shrugged at his baffled look. “There will be a lot of us there, but I think Keith would like you there, too.”
Shiro returned his gaze back to Keith. He was soft, open with his smile. “Yeah, I think we’d like that.”
“Rosalina?” a hushed voice asked from the crack in her doorway.
She and Marcus had the lamps on, each reading a book as they cuddled in bed, winding down from the long day. Rosalina lowered her book to her lap, looking up to see a dark eye peeking through the crack.
“What’s wrong, Keith?”
The door slowly swung open, revealing a subdued Keith, clad in pajamas. The shirt was loose, the chicken one, hanging down to his thighs, pajama pants slightly too long and covering most of his feet. He shuffled into the room, pushing the door mostly closed like how he had found it. His feet whispered against the carpet as he drew near. Marcus set his own book on the bedside table, placing his reading glasses on top.
Keith stopped next to her end table. His head was bent, gaze concentrated on his escape route, fingers plucking at his shirt. “I—I wanted to, to thank you for the shoes. I really like them.”
“You’re welcome.” Rosalina suspected that wasn’t what he had come in there for. She patted the bed beside her. “Sit. What’s bothering you?”
“I—” He bit his lip, wringing his hands. Nervous. Unsure. He sat, though facing away. He was tense, probably expecting needing to spring up and run away at a moment’s notice, or expecting a swat. “Did you mean it?”
Rosalina chanced a glance at her husband. He shrugged, just as confused as her. “Despite having five children and several fosters coming through my home,” she said slowly, watching for Keith’s reaction, “I’m not a great mind reader. You’ll have to be more specific.”
Keith flinched at that, bowing his head even further so his chin was tucked to his chest. He brought his feet up, resting his heels on the frame, almost hugging his knees close. “You called me your son. At the mall. And you defended me. Did you—Did you mean it?”
“Yes?” Marcus shrugged at her confused glance. She turned back to Keith to ask, “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I’ve only been here, like, not even two months,” he said to his knees.
“So?” Marcus spoke up, sitting up so he wasn’t slumped over the pillows anymore. He tucked a foot under him and turned fully towards Keith. “You don’t have to be here a certain amount of time for us to love you, Keith.”
A shuddered breath shook Keith’s body. Rosalina wanted to reach out so badly... She placed a light hand on his shoulder. He startled, but didn’t move away. She pressed her hand more firmly. He trembled beneath her hand.
“You love me?”
“Of course we do,” Marcus replied when she couldn’t. Her throat felt too thick to speak through and tears stung her eyes, making her vision swim. “You’re an amazing kid. Why wouldn’t we love you?”
“No one else has. Not for... Not for a long, long time.”
He got up at that and left before they could respond. He shot them a small, watery smile before he closed their door. What? He was just—he was just going to leave? Rosalina started to get up—she needed to go after him, make sure he knew he was loved, let him know that she loved him—
A large, warm hand stopped her. “Let him be,” Marcus’ deep voice implored from behind her. “You can’t force him, Rosie. Let him think on it. I’ll take him to the shop tomorrow and we can hang out for a little bit, okay?”
“Fine,” she grumbled, turning off her lamp and flopping down onto her husband. If he wasn’t going to let her go after their heartbroken kid, then he could at least cuddle her.
Marcus, the good soul, obliged her with only a loving chuckle.
Chapter 7: Christmas Miracles
It was a quiet Christmas Eve. Marcus joked that it was a day of meditation in preparation for tomorrow’s chaos when her side of the family came over. It was a tradition they had every year once all the kids had stopped believing in Santa: prepare the food for tomorrow, snack most of the day, and open presents after dinner.
Now, they were just sitting around the living room handing out the gifts. All of her children were there, along with her grandchildren and Shiro and Adam. Sylvio and Nadia had been enthralled with Shiro all evening, curious as all else about his prosthetic. He was very patient with them and explained how he got hurt in more kid-friendly words. But then the kids were more interested in presents and she delegated Marco and Rachel to hand out the gifts.
They were a quick and efficient team, making piles around them before handing them out. Rosalina watched Keith as the two started handing the piles out. He was watching them with a small, sad smile at Shiro’s feet, but frowned when Rachel handed him a stack.
“You didn’t think we’d forget about you, did you?” Rosalina asked quietly, hoping not to draw the others’ attention.
“I’ve... Shiro’s been the only one to really get me presents before,” Keith replied, just as quietly. “I mean, my first Christmas in foster care I got little toys and whatever, but...”
Shiro nudged him with his knee. “Well, this year is different.”
They all dug into their presents. Wrapping paper flew across the room and chatter and laughter grew the more they delved into their presents. Rosalina watched the mayhem for a moment before opening her own presents. Her kids were always so thoughtful with their gifts and—
To: Rosalina and Marcus
It was a small box, just bigger than her palm. It was wrapped a little clumsily, but she could tell that he did his best to make it look nice. The gold ribbon was a little lopsided, but knotted in a neat, tight little bow that pressed a lined piece of paper to the box. She was careful to unwrap it, tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. She hadn’t expected Keith to get her something—when would he have had time to? Unless he had gone with Marcus last weekend after going to the shop together, or maybe Shiro had brought it for him?
She looked up to see Keith watching her with wary, guarded eyes.
Licking her lips, she turned back to the paper and got Marcus’ attention. It was addressed to both of them, after all.
Dear Rosalina and Marcus,
I wanted to thank you for opening your home to me and making me feel welcome and safe. I really like living with you. You’re the best foster parents I’ve ever had. I hope you like the gift.
There was even a cute little heart drawn next to Christmas. Rosalina let out a watery chuckle and carefully put the note aside.
Inside the box was a little purple-tinted glass hippo. It was small, about the same size as the others on the shelf in her room. How had—
That’s right. Keith had come into her room a few days after Thanksgiving and had caught her kissing the little dog. He hadn’t asked what she was doing, but his quirked eyebrow spoke loud enough for him. She explained the little trinket shop where she had gotten all the glass figures and had explained how when one of her kids (or grandchildren or Lisa) were sick or hurt or needed “extra good vibes” she would hold their little glass figurine, each a different animal, say a little prayer, and kiss it for good luck.
“Rachel is struggling with one of her classes,” Rosalina had told him, replacing it on the shelf between the hummingbird and the shark. She touched a finger to the bear, the cat, the fox, the swan, the penguin, the fish, the hummingbird, the dog, and the shark. Marcus, Marco, Luis, Lisa, Sylvio, Nadia, Veronica, Rachel, Lance.
Was this Keith’s way of asking her to do the same for him? Or was this his way of asking her to adopt him?
“Thank you, Keith.” She smiled brightly at the boy who flushed and turned away.
She knew what she had to do.
“Alright!” Rosalina called once everyone was done unwrapping their gifts. The rustling of wrapping paper and tissue paper paused as they all looked over at her. “I need all my children and my husband and Keith in my room, please, for a family meeting. We’ll be right back!”
She herded them into her room, each one except for Marcus clearly confused. Everyone else left in the living room shot each other confused looks, but did not mess with her glare to stay out. Her room was the furthest from the living room, so hopefully there wouldn’t be any curious eavesdroppers. Carefully, she placed the hippo at the end of the line of little glass figurines, next to the shark. No, Keith was older than Lance, right? She switched the two and nodded, satisfied.
Her children were waiting on her bed, familiar enough with family meetings to have figured out where to sit. Keith stood off to the side, hands clasped tight in front of him. She motioned for him to sit on the bed as well. “You too, Keith. On the bed.”
Nervously, he sat between Lance and Marco.
“So.” Rosalina clapped her hands once to steady herself. She tried to appear somber, but she was just too excited! “I—”
“You’re not pregnant, are you?” Lance interrupted, looking dismayed.
“What? No.” She scowled at him. “Hush.” She then grinned. Marcus put a hand at the small of her back. “I have one more gift for Keith. But I don’t have it yet. I won’t be able to get it for at least four or five more months.” And here, she looked expectantly at Keith, hoping he understood what she meant.
He frowned back at her, slightly shaking his head. “What...” But then understanding lit up behind his eyes and he straightened, eyes starting to water. “You... Are you serious?”
“What? What’s going on?” asked Lance, never one to be left out.
“If you want,” Rosalina replied, ignoring Lance.
“But I’m almost eighteen...”
The others seemed to clue in, looking between her and Keith in turn, each looking excited. But they kept quiet, maybe understanding that they shouldn’t interrupt quite yet.
“So?” Marcus replied. He was grinning just as wide as she was. “That doesn’t mean anything. These other miscreants are still our kids even though they’re over eighteen. Doesn’t make them our kids any less, now does it?”
Tears were streaming down Keith’s face. Rosalina could feel tears run down her own cheeks. Keith just looked so—so happy, so awed. “You want me?”
“Of course I do,” she said at the same time as Marcus said, “She told me the second night you were here she wanted to keep you.”
It was quiet, for a moment, as Rosalina watched him cry. For being such a hardened boy just two months ago and taking a harsh ‘take no bullshit’ attitude, he sure did have a lot of emotions that expressed themselves through tears. It made her own throat thick and she had to choke out, “I’m going to do everything in my power to make you part of this family, Keith. I know—I know it’s only been two months, but I want to give you a home. I want to give you a home with me—with us.”
And then Keith just launched himself at her, arms wrapping around her so tight she couldn’t breathe. The only reasons they didn’t fall was because of Marcus steadying her. But she didn’t care that she couldn’t breathe—Keith was sobbing into her shoulder, thanking her over and over through his gasps. She couldn’t say she wasn’t crying just as hard as she pulled him even closer to her, cradling him close.
Arms surrounded them. Several arms and several sniffles and she was sure Lance was sobbing just as hard as she and Keith were. A large hand ruffled Keith’s hair.
“Welcome to the family, hermanito.”
Rosalina took a moment to watch Keith shyly interact with her family. There were so many cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents all shoved into one house that it was nearly bursting at the seams. But Keith was taking it all in stride, keeping close to Marco and Shiro as everyone introduced themselves and tried to talk his ear off and get to know him. He was positively glowing and basking in all the attention that her family showered him in. Adam was floating around somewhere, probably with her mom. They had seemed to hit it off, earlier, and with her mother’s mischievous smirk she expected at least three pranks by the end of the night.
She remembered, just almost two months ago, when Keith had first looked up at her from Laura’s desk. He had been so gaunt and skittish, hair matted and tangled, scowl firm in place...
It was almost like she was looking at a completely different boy. His cheeks had filled out and his shoulders weren’t hunched in and his hair was up in a style Lance had taught him the other day with about twelve-thousand bobby pins and a light sprinkle of glitter that she was sure to find in her house for years afterwards. He was even smiling, and even if it was small it was there.
“Mama!” Rachel called from the kitchen. “Mama, the ham!”
Rosalina grinned. Keith would be okay without her watching over him for a moment.
She should have known that the peace wouldn’t last.
It never did. Especially around the holidays. In the three years she had been a foster parent, not a single one had passed without her needing to take in a kid or two between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day as they tried to find family members to take care of these kids.
Stupid drunk drivers.
It was just after three in the morning. Marcus was at the kitchen table, nursing some hot chocolate. Rosalina leaned against the doorframe, chewing on her thumbnail as they waited for the social worker to show up with the kids.
“Why do people have to be so stupid?”
Marcus grunted in agreement.
With a groan, Rosalina rubbed her hands over her face. These were always her least favorite cases. Parents suddenly out of the picture, young kids moved in the dead of night... She didn’t want to wake up Keith or Lance. But they would be confused in the morning if she didn’t. Lance was used to it, but Keith—
Well, he would be used to it, too.
There was a soft knock on the door.
Rosalina sighed and pushed away from the kitchen. It wasn’t Laura this time. Chase—strong, soft, always in a suit whenever they met—stood on her porch. A little girl, six and tired and confused, clung to his hand. He held a sleeping baby boy in his other arm.
“Good morning, Rosalina.”
“Good morning, Chase.” Rosalina knelt down to peer at the little girl. “Hi, my name is Rosalina, but you can call me Rosie if you want. What’s your name?”
Roxie, she already knew, but Rosalina wanted to give her a chance to introduce herself. The girl hid behind Chase’s leg. “Roxie,” she said quietly, tugging on her jacket. “And that’s my brother Mikey.”
“That’s a pretty name,” Rosalina smiled, holding out a hand. “Do you want to come in? It’s cold outside, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Roxie took her hand and followed her inside the house. “Misser Chase said my mommy and daddy are gone?”
“Yeah, baby,” Rosalina replied softly. She knelt down again and took Roxie’s hand in hers. “You’re going to stay with us for a little bit until they can find one of your relatives. Is that okay?”
Roxie studied her, wide brown eyes curious, but not scared. “You seem nice.”
That would have to do, she supposed.
Rosalina helped Roxie out of her coat and tucked her into bed. Marcus put Mikey in the nursery and into the crib that also doubled as a toddler bed. Thank the Lord someone had come up with that sort of thing so she didn’t have to buy so much furniture. Chase came back in with a small suitcase and a diaper bag.
“This is what we were able to get,” he explained, setting them just inside the door. “We’re hoping to be able to contact an aunt that lives nearby so they should only be here for a day or two.”
“Thanks, Chase.” Rosalina grimaced. Marcus put an arm around her shoulders. “I hope you’re able to find something—”
Footsteps shuffled behind her. She turned to see Keith looking at them skeptically, almost angrily. “Rosalina?” he asked in a low voice, bordering on fear. His hair was wild, and he looked almost dangerous in the low light spilling from the kitchen.
“Hey, baby.” Rosalina drew him closer and gave him a hug. “What are you doing up?”
“Bathroom,” he replied, warily eyeing Chase. “What’s going on? Is he here for me?”
A sharp pain shot through her chest. “No, baby.” Rosalina turned him back to look at her, cupping his cheek gently. “He was dropping off two kids. You’re staying here, don’t worry.”
Keith kept a wary eye on Chase, but nodded.
But Rosalina could feel his pulse thrumming beneath her pinky. He had obviously been worried that he was being taken away. And right after she had told him she planned to do what it took to adopt him? She would have been terrified, too. To finally have a home after all these years and the threat of someone taking that away?
Rosalina kissed his temple. “Go back to bed, mijo.”
It was with reluctance that Keith parted from her and went back to bed. Rosalina sighed, feeling so heavy and tired, but showed Chase the door and went back to bed herself. Marcus was quick to pull her close.
Lance took the kids in stride the next morning. He greeted Roxie and playfully bopped Mikey on the nose as he passed, eyes half-shut as he rummaged through the wrong cabinet. It took him three tries before he found the cereal above the fridge where it had always been since they moved into the house nearly thirty years ago. Rosalina rolled her eyes, but continued to feed Mikey from the highchair she had dug out that morning. Keith was quick to stroll in, looking like he hadn’t slept a wink, still in pajamas and still eyeing her a little warily as he stole the cereal from Lance.
“You’re in charge,” Rosalina demanded, shoving the baby spoon into Lance’s hand as he sat. “I need a shower.”
The hot water was nice, running through her hair and over her face and down her back. It was soothing, like being in warm rain during a quiet storm. She let her thoughts wander over how... irrationally irritated Keith seemed to be about the whole thing. Surely he knew that she wasn’t going to send him away? That just because other foster kids came through her home that didn’t mean she no longer had a place for him? Had she given any indication that they were going to get rid of him? Maybe that was something she would need to talk to him about, before it got out of hand.
She wiped the condensation from the mirror. Dios, she looked tired, she thought as she poked at the bags under her eyes. But she needed to get back out there. Needed to talk to Keith. Needed—
Needed a lot of things.
Rosalina sighed, bracing herself before she went back out there. Before she left her room, she picked up the hippo and gave it a quick kiss. The kids had disappeared from the kitchen, dishes piled in the sink. At least they had been rinsed out. Cheerful intro music to a kid’s show—Mickey Mouse Club House, if she wasn’t mistaken—rolled in from the living room. A quick peek told her that Lance had pulled out several coloring books and had Mikey in his lap as Roxie divided her attention between the screen and the princess coloring book before her. Keith was missing.
And he wasn’t in his room, either. What worried her the most was that his room was a mess—sheets flung askew, drawers open and clothing strewn about, books and papers dumped onto the floor and backpack missing. So was his knife that he kept on his bedside table.
“Lance?” she called out as she made her way back to the living room. Hopefully she kept the panic out of her voice. “Have you seen Keith?”
“Uh, yeah,” he replied distractedly, trying to keep Mikey from shoving a crayon up his nose. “He went out the front a few minutes ago.”
Her heart beat heavily in her throat. He didn’t run away, did he? She hurried to the front door, pulling on Lance’s coat and shoving her feet into a spare pair of boots. The door hit the wall as she threw it open and she stepped outside—
Keith was sitting at the top of the stairs, backpack on the step below him. His head hung low, elbows resting on his knees as his hands dangled in front of him. The door shut behind her and she slowly sat down beside him. It was cold outside; snowflakes drifted down in lazy swirls and the air was crisp around them. No wind, fortunately. It almost looked magical, and it was quiet around them, like they were the only ones in the world awake to experience it. She pulled Lance’s coat tighter around her, hunching over to try to see Keith’s face, see what he was thinking.
“I don’t wanna leave,” Keith mumbled, voice thick. His hair fell in his face so Rosalina couldn’t tell if he was crying, but she suspected he was or either one wrong word away from it.
“No one said you were leaving.” He didn’t respond to that. “Why do you think you’ll be leaving?”
“’Cause I never get to stay more than a few months,” he replied despondently. “And you have other kids and—”
“Mijo, mijo,” she cooed, pulling him close as his breath hitched. “I will always have space for you here. Just because other foster kids come in doesn’t mean you have to leave. The ones I usually take in are only here for a few days while they sort things out. Like with Roxie and Mikey. Their parents died and they’re trying to find a relative. I told you on Christmas that we’re going to adopt you, remember?”
“Yeah, but—” Keith cut himself off with a hard sigh. His breath puffed white fog in front of his face. Pressing further into her arms, he continued, “What if you can’t adopt me, though?”
Rosalina hummed and kissed the top of his head. “It’s no guarantee, Laura told me, but she seems pretty hopeful. She’s doing what she can to help me keep you here. And even if I can’t, you’re always welcome here. Even if you age out, you can always come back here. Maybe we won’t be able to make it official, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be a family, hmm?”
“I guess...” Keith sniffed and wiped at his face. He was wearing the new leather fingerless gloves Shiro had gotten him. “I just... I’ve just been waiting so long to be part of a family again, yanno? And no one’s ever—no one’s ever wanted me before.”
“I know, honey. I know.”
She squeezed him close, trying to transfer all her love and comfort into him, then slipped her hands under his coat to jab her fingers into his sides. He jolted, shocked. A surprised laugh escaped him, and then he was giggling and trying to wiggle away as she dug her fingers into his sides. But she was relentless, tickling him until he was out of breath and nearly shrieking, cheeks flushed both from the bitter cold and from laughing entirely too hard. She only stopped when he cried, “Uncle, uncle!”
Rosalina pulled him close again, laughing with him as he tried to regain his breath.
She was going to do whatever it took to adopt him.
Of that, she was certain.
Okay, I promise the next chapter won't be so sad. It should be mostly fluff and shenanigans. (:
Chapter 9: Digesting Butterflies
This was not the first time that Hunk had stopped by after school to hang out and do homework with Lance since Keith had joined their household.
What was the first time, however, was Keith joining them at the kitchen table.
Usually, he shut himself in his room and furiously worked on homework until he was forced to give it all to Rosalina at dinner. He would take whatever snack she had made for him, but he did not reemerge unless absolutely necessary. Half the time he never ate the snack, but at least she had provided it and knew he could make that decision for himself whether or not to eat it.
There was a light flush high on his cheeks as he sat himself across the table from the other boys. It was only the first week back at school, so still fairly cold out, but he was sending Hunk small glances when he thought no one would notice.
Rosalina, of course, noticed.
She narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing the boy. She turned her gaze to an oblivious Hunk, then back to Keith.
Did he... have a crush on him?
She wanted to pry—but she wouldn’t. She would just be open to talking about it, is all. Let him come to her, if he wanted.
But she really, really wanted to know.
Hunk was a sweetheart. If Keith did want to date him, Rosalina wouldn’t mind. He and Lance had been best friends since kindergarten, so Rosalina knew him quite well. She was fond of him, and he was like another son to her. He was always so polite and kind, no matter who he was talking too. A little nosy, but that was okay. He was charming enough that people couldn’t stay mad at him.
Of all the boys in that school he had to have a crush on, Hunk was the best candidate.
So, of course she invited Hunk to stay for dinner and to stay the night. She texted his parents to ask, to which they gave their permission, and then she called in a pizza order
Please pick up pizza on your way home :) <3
Marcus sent her several hearts back in response, with a few thumbs up and kissing emojis for good measure.
At the announcement of pizza, Lance and Hunk whooped and hollered and dashed to the living room, pulling a stunned Keith with them to set up another blanket fort. Before they could get started, she heard Keith ask in a small voice, “You want me to join you?”
“Duh,” Lance replied. Rosalina could hear him roll his eyes. “Now come on. This blanket fort isn’t going to build itself!”
Hours later, after pizza had been devoured and many racing tournaments had been lost and won, Rosalina snuck out to the living room. It was quiet, except for the menu screen playing the theme song over and over. The soft light from the TV illuminated their little fort enough to allow her to witness the cutest thing she had ever seen. She took a picture for blackmail—ahem, for a beautiful memory she absolutely had to share with her husband.
Hunk was sprawled on his back, arms flung with abandon. Lance was curled half on top of him, stretching out in what had to be the most uncomfortable position in the universe and arm stretched out above him. He was drooling all over Hunk’s chest. Keith, however, was curled on his side, faced away from the other two, but had backed up against Hunk and was using Hunk’s arm as a pillow. Lance’s outstretched arm draped over his chest.
Rosalina moved the controllers out of the way and turned everything off with a smile.
Marcus cackled when he saw the picture and set it as his lock screen.
It became a regular occurrence that Keith joined them in the kitchen to work on homework after that. Hunk was good at explaining the math, Keith told her seriously when she asked why the sudden change. Rosalina hid a grin behind a picture frame as she asked for his opinion. She wanted to tease him, but she was also afraid that doing so would have him scurrying back to his room quicker than she could blink.
And then another joined her table.
Her name was Pidge, and she was also in Coran’s room for a few hours a day. She was an odd little thing, but no weirder than Keith or Lance. A little snide and condescending at times, but the boys liked her so Rosalina wouldn’t say anything.
“She’s so smart,” Keith gushed one day after Pidge had left to go home for dinner, legs crossed under him as he leaned over the table to work on his history homework. Lance had finished his own and was out watching TV. “She’s, like, fourteen but she’s a junior and she’s taking college credit math and science classes. And,” he added empathetically; Rosalina turned to see him brandishing his pencil in the air, as if proving a point, “she’s making a robot. By herself.”
“Sounds like you admire her,” Rosalina chuckled, stirring the pot on the stove. The spices wafted through the air. Hmm. Chili. It didn’t have jalapeños in it like usual because Keith didn’t like them, but she would split it here in a bit so they would have a little bit of time to cook with the bigger batch.
“Do you have a crush on her?”
“What? Ew, gross,” Keith said a bit too much emotion. Rosalina rolled her eyes. “She’s a girl. She has cooties.”
Rosalina rolled her eyes. “Girls don’t have cooties, Keith.”
“They do too,” he argued back. “Why do you think I’m gay? It’s to avoid the cooties.”
Rosalina laughed. “Sure, Keith.” She tapped the spoon against the pot to get off the excess liquid and set it down in the little fish spoon tray Veronica had gotten her for Christmas. “What about any boys? Do you have a crush on a boy?”
Keith spluttered. “What? No. Why would I?”
“Just asking,” Rosalina replied in a mocking sing-song tone. She ruffled his hair against his protests. He glared up at her as he tried to fix it and push it out of his eyes. “Dinner will be ready in about forty minutes, so you better get what you want done quick.”
He turned back to his homework, determined scowl set and pencil poised to continue filling out the worksheet. He was so, so close to finishing the sophomore coursework. He had fallen behind for a week because ‘math sucks’ which had disheartened him, but with Hunk and Lance and now Pidge helping where they could he was back on track to finish by the end of February.
“You’re doing a good job, Keith.” She pressed a kiss to the top of his head.
He beamed at her, and she couldn’t help loving him just a little bit more.
“Oooh!” Lance crowed, following Keith around the house as he tried to escape. “Keith has a crush~!”
“Shut up, Lance!”
“Tell me who it is!”
Rosalina eyed the cabinet with the whiskey. No, no, she shouldn’t depend on it just because her two youngest were being annoying. Besides, she had work to do. She needed to finish these frames and get them sent out by Wednesday.
“Mom!” Lance yelled. “Keith has a crush on a boy!”
“No I don’t!” Keith hollered back.
“Then why did you ask me for stuff to make a Valentine’s card?”
“Shut up, Lance!”
“Mom!” Lance whined. That whiskey bottle was looking more tempting by the second. “Keith told me to shut up!”
“Because you’re annoying me!”
Keith darted from the living room back to the hallway, Lance hot on his heels with an evil grin. There was a struggle, then the two tumbled into the kitchen. They tussled, minding the table where she was working on a picture frame, but obviously trying to gain the upper hand through underhanded tactics. Keith jabbed at Lance’s soft underbelly and Lance threaded his fingers through Keith’s hair to shove his head down.
“Boys,” Rosalina intoned, calmly pressing down with her wood burner. Wisps of smoke curled through the air, bringing with it the light scent of burning cedar. They immediately stopped. She briefly looked up to take note: Lance still had a hold of Keith’s hair and Keith’s fists were in position to punch out Lance’s spleen. Or something. “Keith, relax your fists. Lance, let go of his hair.”
The two boys hastily shoved each other away.
“So Keith,” Rosalina said, hiding a smirk. “I hear you have a crush on a boy.”
“Shut up, mom! I do not!”
Silence fell over the kitchen and her heart lurched. Rosalina set down her wood burner to look up at him. He was flushed bright pink, mouth gaping.
“I—I didn’t mean—”
He fled from the room and slammed his door hard enough that the dishes in the cabinet rattled.
Calmly, Rosalina turned off her wood burner and brushed past a shocked Lance. She knocked softly on Keith’s door. No answer. She opened it anyway. It was dark, but enough light filtered through the curtains that she could see a lump under the blankets.
He was so dramatic sometimes.
Softly, Rosalina closed the door and made her way towards the bed. She sat on the edge, one leg curled beside her so she could face him.
“Go away,” the blankets mumbled.
“Are you embarrassed because you called me mom?”
A hitched breath, then silence. Rosalina could wait him out. She had enough patience to sit out his stubbornness. While she waited, she placed a hand on his shoulder, rubbing her thumb in what she hoped was a soothing manner. He was tense, breathing a little too quickly for her liking.
“You’re not mad?”
“Why would I be?”
“You can call me whatever you want, mijo,” she replied just as softly. Even though he couldn’t see her, she still smiled gently. “If you want to call me mom, I’m perfectly fine with that. If you don’t, that’s okay, too.”
The blankets fell away as Keith sat up. He was clutching his purple hippo to his stomach. “I kinda wanna call you mom. Can I call Marcus dad?”
“He’d absolutely love it.” Rosalina drew him close for a hug. He melted into her arms, nuzzling as close as he could. She dropped a kiss to his hair. “Now let’s say you go ambush Lance for teasing you.”
Keith grinned and hopped off the bed, hippo abandoned. “Excellent idea.”
She followed him out, laughing as he hurried to find Lance. There was something glittery in his hand—
“No, no! Keith, not the glitter!”
Ah, Saturday. Quiet, slightly chilly, but cozy all the same. Marcus was at the shop for a few hours balancing books, Lance was at Hunk’s house from sleeping over the night before, and Keith had decided to stay home instead of joining Marcus. It was the Saturday before Valentine’s Day and her husband still hadn’t told her what the plan was.
“Uhm. Mom?” a quiet voice asked from the hallway.
Rosalina looked up from her cocoon of blankets, cup of coffee in hand as she breathed in the warm aroma. Her heart warmed from just that simple word from him. “Yes, honey?”
“Could you, uhm.” Keith bit his lip and looked away. “Can you help me make some cookies?”
“Of course!” She struggled out of the cocoon, ignoring Keith’s snickers. “What kind do you want to make?”
He followed her into the kitchen. “I dunno. Uhm.” There was a light dusting of pink on his cheeks. “There for a boy at school...”
She knew it. However, she had to keep her cool. If she was too eager, he might shut down. “Oh?” she asked, pulling out a mixing bowl. “Do you want to tell me about it?” Yes, show interest, but not too much interest. She didn’t want to scare him away, after all.
Keith looked nervous, but nodded. The tip of his tongue poked out to wet his lips. “Yeah, uh... It’s uhm. Hunk.”
She knew it!
“Good choice,” she said instead of gloating.
Keith grinned, and they got to work.
“Mom!” Lance shouted, banging the front door open and then shut. “Mom!”
“What, Lance?” she called back from the kitchen.
The front door banged open again. “Lance!” Uh oh, Keith sounded angry.
“Stop slamming the door!” Rosalina yelled at both of them. Both came barreling into the kitchen. Lance looked positively mischievous, grin wide and knowing, and Keith looked two seconds from murdering him. “What is the problem?”
“I have a knife and I know where you sleep.”
“Mom, he’s threatening me!”
“I’m right here, Lance.”
“Mom, he’s being a little bitch!”
“Tell her or I will!”
“She already knows!”
“What?!” Lance spun to send her a betrayed look. “The betrayal in this house! This cannot stand!”
Rosalina rolled her eyes at the theatrics and started cleaning up. She obviously wasn’t going to get to continue working. Besides, she would need to start getting ready for her date with Marcus soon: dinner and putt-putt. Her husband knew her too well. “So?” she prompted, quirking an eyebrow at Keith. “What did Hunk say?”
Keith smiled shyly and ducked his head. “He said yeah, and he’s going to take me on a date this weekend.”
“Aww,” Lance cooed, reaching over to pinch Keith’s cheeks. Keith was much too quick for him and swatted his hand away with a scowl. “My little Keithy-boy, all grown up.”
“Shut up, Lance.”
That just started another argument. But, it wasn’t her problem. Well, as long as Keith didn’t threaten Lance with the knife again. With a grin, she pulled out her phone and brought up the conversation with Marcus.
You owe me $20 ;)
Chapter 10: Clear Pores and Flourishing Crops
Rosalina looked up from her book. She was curled on the loveseat, Lance happily snuggling into her side as she read her book and ran her fingers through his hair. Keith stood just inside the hallway, rubbing his thumb back and forth over his finger. He was still in his pajamas.
“Hmm?” Lance replied sleepily. It was overcast and a little chilly outside, but warm and cozy in their little cocoon of blankets.
“Can you...” he started, pausing to bite his lip. “I was wondering if you could help me get ready. For my date. With Hunk.”
“Heck yeah!” Lance jumped up, fully awake now. “Okay, what kind of look are you going for, dude?” he asked as he pushed Keith towards his room.
Rosalina put her book aside and stood, stretching and yawning as she made her way to her room. She paused at Keith’s room—the boys had neglected to shut the door all the way. She couldn’t see in, but she could hear them murmuring about what Keith should wear. It sounded like Lance was trying to convince him to wear his heels, “but not shorts because it’s cold and you’ll give Hunk a stroke or something.”
Once in her room, she picked up the hippo with careful fingers. As she cradled it in her hands, she whispered a short prayer, asking for his date to go well. She kissed the snout and set it back between the shark and the dog. The boys had moved to Lance’s room, door latched shut. She could hear their voices, but not what they were saying, as she paused beside the door to make sure everything was still alright. They hadn’t asked for her help, yet, so she went back to the living room to continue her book.
Fifteen minutes before Hunk was supposed to come pick Keith up for lunch, the boys reemerged from Lance’s room.
“I give you!” Lance called out, making a drumroll on his legs before stepping aside and throwing his hands out to present Keith. “One beautiful creature, if I do say so myself.”
Lance had managed to convince Keith to wear the heels. His fingers and toes were painted a bright red for contrast. He was also wearing his black skinny jeans and a green pastel sweater Rosalina had knit for Lance a few years ago. His lips were bright red, eyeliner drawn in sharp wings, and his eyeshadow was a light grey. One half of his bangs had been braided back in a waterfall braid while the other half was just clipped back out of his face with a pastel green clip Nadia had probably left behind, if the cute little bow said anything. The gloves were nowhere to be seen.
“You look lovely, Keith.”
“Thanks, mom,” he replied bashfully. “Do you think Hunk...?”
“I told him that Hunk will think he’s pretty flippin’ cute,” Lance huffed with a roll of his eyes.
“Do you have your phone?” Rosalina asked, ignoring Lance for the moment. After Christmas, Marcus had taken Keith after a day at the shop to get him a phone so he could keep in touch with Shiro and Adam without having to go through Rosalina. “And your wallet, just in case?”
Keith patted his front right pocket, then his back right. “Yup. I—”
A knock on the front door interrupted him. It was quiet for a long stretch as Keith stared, wide-eyed and pale, at Lance, then Rosalina. No one moved; Rosalina wasn’t going to answer the door—she was comfy! Besides, Lance and Keith were closer.
The knock came again.
“Well?” Rosalina raised an eyebrow at Keith.
“I think I’m going to throw up.”
Rosalina tried her hardest not to sigh or roll her eyes as he dashed to the bathroom. Lance opened the door to a nervous Hunk holding a bouquet of colorful daisies. He was dressed very nicely, of course. His cropped vest... thing was nowhere to be seen, thank goodness.
“Hey, buddy!” Lance gestured for Hunk to come in. “Keith is just finishing getting ready. I’ll go get him.”
Hunk stood by the door, giving her a nervous smile as Lance scampered off. “Hello, Rosalina.”
“Hello, Hunk.” Guess she needed to get up anyway.
But before she could move, Lance was pulling Keith back into the living room. Now this, she had to see. Keith still looked a little like he was going to be sick, but hadn’t quite yet. Hunk, on the other hand, almost dropped his flowers. His jaw certainly dropped as he looked awestruck. Rosalina was so glad she was there to witness this.
“Keith... You—You look...” He struggled to come up with the word he wanted. Breathlessly, he finally decided on, “beautiful.”
Keith flushed. “Shut up.” He looked down at the flowers dangling precariously in Hunk’s hand. “Are... those for me?”
“What?” Hunk shook himself out of his stupor. “Oh, these?” He held them up with a sheepish smile. “Yeah. They’re for you. Do you... Do you like them?”
This was the single most awkward thing she had ever witnessed, and Rosalina was thriving. This was better than when Rachel and her boyfriend had gotten their braces caught together. This was better than when Lance had decided last summer to sunbathe naked when he thought he was home alone. This was even better than the time she had found a used condom in Luis’ laundry and had confronted him about it.
As Lance would say, “My pores are clear and my crops are flourishing.”
... Or however that saying went.
Keith nodded quickly. “Yeah. Yeah, I do. Thanks.” And he was smiling so sweetly. Standing next to Hunk, with his heels, he was almost as tall as the bigger boy. Huh. She hadn’t thought Keith was that short.
Rosalina was quick to fetch a vase from the kitchen. She took the flowers from Keith, who had been shyly admiring them, and grinned at the boys. “Alright. Call if you need me. Hunk, please have him back here by ten.”
“Yes ma’am,” he saluted.
And then they were off, Keith grabbing his black coat and sticking his tongue out at Lance’s protests that it will ruin his entire outfit, jerk!
Rosalina put water into the vase and set the flowers in Keith’s room, on his empty dresser. It still looked so... plain. The flowers certainly made it looked more lived-in, but...
Nothing. The boy had only his books and his knife and now the flowers.
Once it was for sure that he was hers, she’d take him out to decorate his room.
Back in the living room, Lance was waiting for her, already curled up in a blanket looking quite dejected.
Of course he was.
Rosalina settled herself in and pulled him close. “What’s wrong, Lancito?”
Lance took his time to get comfortable, snuggling into her side again before answering. “I’m happy for them,” he started, sounding small. Rosalina ran her fingers through his hair to calm him. “Hunk is my best friend. Keith is my brother, or will be. But... Hunk is my best friend. And now they’ll want to spend all their time together. And I know it’s dumb—”
“You’re not dumb, Lance.”
“I know but—” Lance huffed. “It would be the same if Hunk dated anyone else. He’d want to spend time with them, too. And not with me. So I know I shouldn’t be upset about it.”
“You can be upset,” Rosalina reminded him. “But don’t think for a moment that you’ll lose Hunk just because he’s dating. He’s still going to make time for you to be your best friend. Besides—just because he’s dating doesn’t mean he can’t still hang out with both of you at the same time, right?”
Rosalina dropped a kiss to his hair. “Cheer up, sweetheart. Things will be alright.”
Hunk dropped Keith back off by nine-thirty. He even brought Keith to the door, and judging by the red lipstick print just slightly askew on his lips, Keith had granted him a good night kiss. “Night, Rosalina! Night, Lance!” Hunk called with a wave and a dopey smile, fingers brushing his lips as he stared after Keith.
She joined Keith and Lance in the living room. They were both seated on the couch. Keith had a matching dopey smile and Lance was grinning.
“So?” Lance demanded once Rosalina sat in her loveseat. “How was it?”
“It was good.” Keith reached down to take off his heels and rub at his sore feet. “We went to this little diner for lunch. Sal’s, yanno? He knows the owner. And then we got ice cream and walked around the park. He, uhm, we held hands and he was really nice.” There was a light blush on his cheeks as he recounted his date. “And then he took me to the space museum and we ate dinner at the Thai place and then here we are.”
“Ate dinner pretty late, didn’tcha?” Lance teased with a lecherous grin.
Keith’s blush darkened as he stammered. “No! I—We were at the—the museum for a while, okay? We ate late! Shut up!”
“I saw that lipstick you bestowed upon my friend!” Lance crowed, cackling maniacally at Keith’s rising horror. “I know you smooched him!”
“Why are you being so gross?” Keith grumbled, pulling his legs up to hug them close. “Mom, make him stop.”
“Lance,” Rosalina warned. Lance, of course, pouted. “I’m glad you had fun, honey. Did anyone give you trouble?”
Keith shook his head. The clip threatened to fall out. “Not really. We got a few funny looks, but no one said anything to us. I think most of them thought I was a girl, anyway.”
At least he seemed amused by it. Rosalina shook her head as Lance chuckled. “Well, I’m glad.”
“Yeah,” Keith said to his knees. “Uhm. So, uhm. Hunk might... be my boyfriend, now.”
Lance, surprisingly, smiled and knocked Keith’s hip with his foot. “Good on ya, buddy. Hunk is a good first boyfriend to have. He was my first kiss, yanno?”
“Yeah?” Keith set his chin on his knees, but at least he was smiling. “Did you two date, too?”
“Nah.” Lance wiggled down until he could press both feet against Keith. “We were, like, thirteen and wanted to know what the fuss was about kissing. And Hunk was really nervous about it, so we decided to be each other’s first kiss so it wasn’t so scary.”
Rosalina sat back with a smile, content to watch them talk.
Chapter 11: Six Hours Ain't Nothin'
Keith wasn’t eating breakfast with Lance like he usually did. Which was odd, to say the least. He was usually the first one up, usually to watch the sunrise or so he could get dolled up. (After the Incident, as Rosalina liked to call it, the school wouldn’t allow him to wear those shorts or the crop top, but he still liked to wear his heels and borrow nice shirts from Lance sometimes.) Concerned, Rosalina knocked on his door.
Cold fear gripped her. He hadn’t tried to run away again, had he? She thought she had made it clear he would always be welcomed here, that he was her son, even if it wasn’t ‘legal’ yet.
The room was dark, but tidy. Nothing was strewn about like last time.
There was a lump in the bed.
“Keith?” she whispered, sitting down on the edge of the bed. She placed a hesitant hand on his shoulder. He pulled the blanket down only enough to show an eye glistening in the low light. There wasn’t enough light to determine if he had been crying already. “Oh, baby,” she hushed, brushing his hair away from his forehead. He wasn’t warm, at least, so maybe he wasn’t sick? “What’s wrong?”
“Can I stay home today, mama?”
Her heart shattered into a dozen million pieces. He sounded so lost, and broken, voice so thick and wrecked that she hardly understood him.
“Of course, baby.”
There was no way she was sending him to school when he was like this. Something had obviously happened, but she wasn’t sure what. Sure, she had noticed he was quieter than usual this week, but why? Had something happened at school? Surely not—he didn’t take bullshit from anyone (that bully from school last December and the creep from the mall could attest to that). He and Hunk hadn’t broken up, had they?
“Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“My dad died today.”
It was said so quick, so sure, as if the words had been pushing against his lips, waiting for them to burst forth, to be heard, to be acknowledged. Had he been sitting on this all week, waiting to say something?
“I’m so sorry, Keith.” She pulled him up to give him a hug. He clung to her, sobbing into her shoulder as she ran her fingers through his tangled hair and murmured in Spanish to soothe him. He had apparently been holding onto that hippo Nadia had gotten him, since it tumbled to the bed from inside his cocoon. Rosalina didn’t dare tell him not to let his emotions out. She had a feeling he hadn’t gotten chance to properly mourn. He’d been so young, after all. And if he had never felt safe at any of those homes? They probably never let him mourn, either, or he never felt safe to do so.
But for him to feel safe enough to tell her? To cry in her arms?
Rosalina hated to ask, but... “Was he cremated? Buried?”
“Buried,” he mumbled into her shoulder, sniffling into her shirt. “The first foster parents took me to that, at least.”
“Did you want to go visit?” she asked, still running her fingers through his hair as she rested her head on top of his.
“I don’t remember where he’s buried.”
This poor boy. He couldn’t catch a break, could he?
“If I can find out where, would you want to?”
Keith pushed away from her to look at her with watery eyes. “You’d let me?”
“Of course I would.” She tried to smile, but she could feel it wobbling. Tears pooled in her eyes as she tried to blink them back. She cradled his face in her hands. “If you want to, I’ll make it happen, okay?”
Slowly, he nodded. He went to brush away his tears, but Rosalina brushed her thumbs along his cheeks. She kissed his forehead. “Let me make a few phone calls, okay?”
An hour later, well after Lance and Marcus had already left, she came nearly bounding into Keith’s room with a grin. “Get up, lazy-butt! Let’s go!”
Keith stared at her for a moment, then grinned and jumped out of bed to get ready.
Out of town with Keith, she sent to both Marcus and Lance. I’ll let you know if we’ll be back for dinner. Hugs and kisses!
Lance sent back a flurry of texts asking why he couldn’t have skipped school to join, too. Marcus sent her a bunch of random emojis interlaced with hearts and kissy faces.
She didn’t tell Keith until they were on their way that it was a three hour drive. And she knew he would protest, say he didn’t need to go, to turn around Rosalina.
“We’re already on the road and I already told Marcus and Lance we were leaving town. You want to make me a liar, Keith?”
Keith harrumphed and crossed his arms and acted all sullen and annoyed, but Rosalina spied the tiny little smile so she left it alone. For the most part, Keith kept to himself and stared out the window. A soft Spanish station was their background music until the radio fizzled out and Keith fiddled with the dial until he found a jazz station.
It seemed he knew her well enough, then.
Once they got into town, Rosalina stopped them at a restaurant for lunch. Not fast food, because Keith deserved better. Fortunately, Rosalina managed to convince him he needed to eat all of his food before they could go. If she bribed him with Dairy Queen ice cream—well.
They found the cemetery easily enough on the other edge of town, but Keith declined wanting to get flowers before going. They were just going to blow away or get mowed over or rot, so what was the point, he reasoned. The sexton pointed them in the right direction, and they left the car by the office since it was nice enough out for a walk. The air was crisp, but warm enough as spring headed strong towards summer. Besides, Keith looked a few seconds away from vibrating out of his skin if he had to sit in the car for a moment longer.
They paused on the road. The grave was a few rows away, KOGANE etched deep and sharp into the headstone.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
Keith was quiet, mulling over his answer. Birds chirped up in the trees and a burst of wind rustled the leaves. Finally, Keith linked his index finger with hers. “Please?”
He plopped down right in front of the headstone and pulled her down to sit with him. Rosalina sat, grimacing at the thought of trying to get back up again. She wasn’t as young and spry as she used to be! Her joints creaked sometimes, okay?
“Hey, pop,” Keith said after a stretch of silence, voice quiet and nearly being stolen by the wind. He was rubbing his thumb along his finger again, something Rosalina had noticed he did when he was feeling strong emotions. “It’s been a while, huh? Ten years...” He traced the dates on the stone as he said this, fingernail scratching against the last number. “Sorry I didn’t come sooner. No one ever really let me. Mom—Rosalina—she—she’s good. She brought me as soon as she found where you were. I bounced around a lot after you died, but Rosalina—Rosalina and Marcus are the only one who wanted me.” He paused to dig his hands into the dirt. “She said she’s gonna adopt me. I hope that’s okay with you.”
Rosalina tucked a strand of his hair behind his ear to get his attention. “I’m sure he wants you to be happy, mijo. He wouldn’t want you to be miserable. I didn’t know him, of course, but no parent worth their salt would be angry for their child seeking out happiness.”
Keith didn’t reply, but leaned over until he was nestled in her side. And then he started babbling, talking about all the good in his life. Rosalina didn’t say anything when she realized he was mostly talking about his time with the McClain’s. It made her happy that they made him happy, though, and that’s all she could have hoped for. And she had been working so hard with Laura to adopt Keith, and—
Before she knew it, hours had passed and Keith’s voice had gone hoarse a while ago. The afternoon sun warmed them as their butts grew numb from sitting on the hard ground for so long.
But she wasn’t going to make Keith leave until he was ready. He had ten years’ worth of visits to catch up on, after all.
“Let’s go get that ice cream,” Keith muttered, standing and brushing his pants off. He laughed as he tried to help Rosalina up. She swore she could hear the joints protesting angrily.
“Next time I’m bringing a chair,” she grumbled, brushing the dirt from her pants.
“If you want me to come, I’ll come.”
He didn’t reply, but he gave her a quick hug. Pulling away, he grinned mischievously at her. He was finally catching up to her height—probably her height already, and she would probably need to buy him new clothes soon, and—
“Race ya to the car!”
He dashed off before she could gather her wits.
“You know I can’t run, Keith!”
Keith cackled back at her and continued his mad run back for the car.
With a roll of her eyes, Rosalina followed at a brisk pace.
Chapter 12: Of Prom and Q's
With Hunk’s anxiety and Keith’s aversion to anything social amongst his peers, the two planned to go out for a date instead of going to prom with Lance and his date (much to Lance’s consternation).
(“Come on!” Lance tried to cajole in the weeks leading up to the dance. He was on the prom committee and Very Interested in getting his foster brother and best friend to go to prom with him. “It’ll be fun!”
“Neither of us dance,” Keith pointed out in his annoyed monotone.
Rosalina looked up from her picture frame to see Lance scoff and roll his eyes, hand planted firmly on his hip. “So you can just hang out, then!”
“We’re not gonna rent out suits or whatever just to stand there,” Keith spat back. “We don’t want to go. Drop it.”
Keith turned from the counter from making a peanut butter and banana sandwich to glare at Lance. “You’re being very disrespectful of your best friend’s anxiety.”
“... Low blow.”
“Then shut up.”)
Keith still got all dolled up and let Lance help him get ready for his date. It was finally warm enough for Keith to wear his favorite new red crop top again, though he kept with his black skinny jeans and his heels. He asked Rosalina to paint his nails red to match his lipstick while Lance did his makeup. He was definitely being pampered at the moment, but Rosalina thought he deserved it after all he’d been through. Plus, it made him smile so goofily and happily and it warmed her heart to see him enjoying himself.
Plaxum and Hunk arrived minutes apart. While Lance and Plaxum went to prom together (she’s just a friend, mom!) Keith and Hunk were going to go on their date. Although, they were going to go to dinner together as a group with Pidge and would go their separate ways afterwards.
But first, pictures.
Rosalina and Marcus cooed over Lance and Plaxum as obnoxiously as they could. Mostly because it made Mindy, the nine-year-old foster, giggle behind her bear. Laura had dropped her off a few hours before and Lance had offered to do her hair and makeup, too. She had had a blast, of course, being included like that. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a fancy dress, but Rosalina had fashioned something out of one of her old shirts she found in the back of her closet. It worked well enough, anyway, and Mindy and Lance posed ridiculously for the camera.
Of course, in typical kid fashion, Mindy had asked during their makeover if Keith was a boy or a girl with an inquisitive tilt of her head. Keith stuttered and flushed, finally spitting out that he was a boy who liked to wear makeup sometimes. Mindy dropped it after that, but Rosalina couldn’t help watching Keith trying to hide his confused frown.
Keith and Hunk only allowed her to take two pictures of them—one as a couple, and one with Lance and Plaxum. Party poopers, the both of them!
But then the teenagers were rolling out and Marcus came back out in a ridiculous floral shirt, tugging proudly on the sleeves. “Go get changed, Rosie,” he said as he ushered her towards their room. “I even picked something out for you! Chop, chop!”
A matching ridiculous floral shirt and cream colored pants.
A week later, Rosalina bid her children goodbye as they rushed out the door for their double date. Rosalina had smirked when Keith told her that Lance was going with Plaxum while Lance sputtered in the background.
Once the door shut, however, she frowned and pulled out her phone to text Shiro and Adam. They agreed to come over for dinner, but were surprised when it was just her and Marcus and Keith was nowhere in sight.
“I had a few questions,” she started, pausing. “I didn’t really want Keith to be around because I didn’t want to offend him.”
Shiro gave her a grave nod, but sat at the table with his plate. Adam was a bit slower to follow, but kept quiet for the moment.
“What did you want to ask?”
Rosalina waited until they were all sitting. She pushed the beans around her plate, trying to figure out where she wanted to start. “So you know Lance is bi and Keith is gay and Veronica is a lesbian and Marco is ace, right? Like, I understand those. But I came across ‘trans’ the other day and... well.” She frowned at her plate, remembering the facebook post in one of her ‘parents of LGBT+ kids’ groups. She hadn’t wanted to ask questions there—she was more of a lurker, after Rachel warned her of doxing and she wasn’t going to even entertain the thought of putting her family at risk—because there were so many conflicting comments. “I want to be as supportive as I can, but... I don’t know how.”
Shiro and Adam slowly chewed their food as they looked at the other. It was Adam who spoke, first, asking, “Do you think Keith is trans?”
“I don’t know?” Marcus rested a supportive hand on her knee. “I guess... I don’t—we don’t—I saw this post on facebook and I think it sounded kind of like Keith but also it didn’t really? And the foster I had last week had asked him if he was a boy or a girl and he got sort of... flustered? And confused?”
She and Marcus knew a little bit about trans people—after Marco had come out years ago as asexual they had found as many resources as they could so they could understand and support him and eventually their other children who had come out—but hadn’t ever gone into a lot about it since none of their kids had ever said anything about it. And these two were so patient with them, answering their questions and explaining how gender worked, and that there were even people who had no gender or were ‘non-binary’ and what being ‘femme’ meant and—
It was a lot for her to take in.
Eventually, plates were pushed away in favor of talking and talking and talking and talking some more. And for their conclusion—
“You can’t decide for him if he’s trans or not,” Adam said as kindly as he could. “It very well could be that he’s just really hella gay and femme sometimes but he’s still a boy. Or he could be a trans woman or non-binary or agender or anything he decides. But I wouldn’t—” Adam sighed, pulling away his glasses to rub at his eyes. “I don’t know Keith as well as you or Shiro. But I get the feeling that if you tried to confront him about it, you would just scare him off.”
“That’s fair.” Marcus leaned back in his seat with his own sigh. “I get it. He told me he doesn’t like wearing the makeup and stuff to the shop because he doesn’t want the others to ridicule him—” Marcus hadn’t ever told her that, and Rosalina frowned at the information. “—but I told him he could if he wanted to and I’d back him up no matter what.”
“I wouldn’t be dropping hints about being supportive if he’s trans.” Shiro folded his hands in front of him on the table. “You don’t want to make him feel like he has to come out or has to be trans, you know?”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Rosalina said quietly. “I just... I’ve been reading the statistics and... trans teens have one of the highest suicide rates of any demographic and—and I can’t—I can’t. Sometimes I catch him looking so sad, or too quiet, and—”
Shiro’s hands rested over hers, squeezing firmly to get her attention. She realized a few tears had slipped out without her permission. “As far as I’m aware,” he replied firmly, “he’s not suicidal. He might be depressed, but I don’t think that, either. He’s probably anxious because the adoption is supposed to be finalizing soon, right?”
Right. They had finally passed the six month wait, and Laura was doing all she could to get it pushed through.
“Do you have any other questions?” Shiro asked gently, smiling so warmly at her.
Rosalina shook her head, looking to Marcus to see if he had any. He was also shaking his head. “Thank you for being so patient with us.”
“No problem at all.” Shiro patted her hand and stood to grab the plates.
Rosalina squawked at them. They were guests!
Chapter 13: Of Victories and Target Runs
It took Keith until early June before he finally finished his junior year coursework. As soon as he turned in his final packet, he passed out for the rest of the day and didn’t crawl out of bed until noon the next day. Rosalina let him sleep—he deserved it, after all. He had worked so hard to complete two school years in only seven months even with her impeding him working until two in the morning and limiting his schoolwork on the weekends, too.
But he was done, and so, so happy. He gushed about how he could finally go to class with his friends and not be stuck in one room all day every day.
“I like Coran, don’t get me wrong,” he said over his victory cereal. “But I’m done with his room.”
She let him pick any restaurant he wanted to celebrate. He picked a steakhouse and got all dolled up, crop top and shorts and high heels and makeup and hair that he did all by himself (with Lance’s supervision). They met Hunk, Pidge, Shiro, and Adam there, per Keith’s tentative request when Rosalina asked him if he wanted anyone to join them. Keith and Lance threw peanut shells at each other, and all was right in the world.
A few nights after the party, Keith tiptoed into her room as they were settling into bed. He sat on the edge by Rosalina, feet propped on the frame, staring at the wall and away from their gaze. Rosalina and Marcus kept quiet, knowing he would say whatever he needed to say at his own pace. The house was quiet—Lance was at Hunk’s for a sleepover, and Keith had declined so the two could have some “bro time.”
Keith took a deep, shaky breath. “So if you adopt me, will I keep my last name?”
“Not if,” Marcus retorted hotly, startling both her and Keith with his vehemence. Keith spun around to face him, eyes wide. “When we adopt you,” he continued before she could say anything, “you can keep Kogane if you want. Or, you’re more than welcome to have it changed to ours. Whatever you want.”
Keith was quiet for several minutes, moving his wide-eyed stare away from them to stare back at the wall, thumb running back and forth over his finger, knees hugged close. Rosalina bit her lip. They were so, so close to finalizing the adoption. Laura had assured her it would be any day that the paperwork would be signed and handed over to her.
“I think,” Keith said quietly to his knees, “I wanna be a McClain.”
Rosalina pulled him close, kissing his temple, praising him in soft-spoken Spanish until he fell asleep. Marcus carried him back to his bed, and Rosalina wouldn’t have it any other way.
She couldn’t believe it. Even if she had the papers in her hand, Rosalina could hardly believe it.
Keith was finally—finally—part of her family. Nearly eight months of knowing this beautiful, wonderful boy and he was finally, officially, a McClain, last name and everything.
“Keith!” she screeched, rushing through the house to find him. He was putting his clothes away like the good boy he was. Now if only some of those good habits would rub off on Lance— “Keith! Keith McClain!”
Keith paused, wide-eyed and bent over his dresser. “What?”
Rosalina slapped the papers on his dresser in front of him. “It’s officially official!”
First order of business: a Target run.
“Your room is too bare,” Rosalina complained as she pulled Keith after her. Lance skipped behind them as Marcus twirled the car keys on his finger, waiting at the garage door for them to hurry up, please and thank you, I’ve been waiting for ten minutes now. “Now that we know you’re officially staying, we need to decorate it!”
Keith, the stinker, tried to protest, but Rosalina wouldn’t hear a word of it. At Target, she grabbed a cart and marched off towards the home and furniture section. Lance was putting everything he thought Keith needed (Look at this elephant, Keith! And you need this weird geometric thing!) and Keith, exasperated, rolled his eyes and would put everything back (I don’t need that, Lance.). Marcus even tried to sneak in a rug (Why do I need a rug, dad? My floor is carpet. Stop. Ohmygod mom make them stop.). Rosalina just grinned and watched on, sneaking in her own little things she thought were cute, especially the hippo pillow she found.
She was even feeling generous enough to let them pick out new makeup, too.
And then they just wandered through the store, since that was a must when going to Target. They meandered towards the clothing section and Keith stopped to stare at the Pride table they had displayed in the aisle between the men and women’s sections.
“Pride is next week, isn’t it?” Rosalina asked innocently.
“Yeah, I think so,” Lance replied as he looked through the display. There were racks around the table, too, showing off kid’s dresses and a rainbow skirt. He picked up the sequined rainbow tank top and grinned, showing it off.
Rosalina picked up a white t-shirt with “Love Makes a Family” in rainbow colors. Marcus picked up a grey button up with little popsicles all over in the different flag colors.
And Keith eyed the rainbow skirt.
“Do you want to try it on?” Rosalina asked, running her fingers over the tulle. Sure, Shiro said not to try to hint at it so she didn’t scare him, but Keith needed encouragement, sometimes.
“The skirt? Do you want to try it on? I think with a black shirt and your heels it would look nice.”
Keith bit his bottom lip, playing with the ends of the skirt. Finally, he nodded and looked for a larger size. He tentatively asked the employee for a dressing room and shyly showed off the skirt for them.
“Holy crow!” Lance cried when Keith stepped out. “You look good.”
“Yeah?” Keith looked down at the skirt and twisted his hips so the material swished around him. “I kinda like it.”
“Then it’s settled.”
Lance thought he was sly, sneaking in the bisexual bandana he found, but Rosalina let it slide. She had heard one too many rants about the lack of bisexual things and if he finally found something, then she was going to let him have it. She put in the rainbow bandana in the cart behind Keith’s back.
And then Lance gasped, stopping in the middle of the aisle. “Mom! We need rainbow eyeshadow!”
And, interestingly enough, Lance was able to find an eyeshadow pallet with all the rainbow colors. “And glitter!”
She let him get it. She was feeling generous, after all, and so happy, watching her boys just being so happy and Keith smiling like his life wasn’t full of strife and—
Keith was her son, now.
On the way home, Lance was teasing Keith. Rosalina had turned around just enough to see their interaction. “I’m no longer the baby of the family anymore!” he crowed, nose up haughtily and sticking his tongue out at Keith.
Keith, of course, furrowed his brow in confusion. “But I’m older than you.”
“No,” Lance said, bordering on horrified. “No, you’re not.”
“Yeah? I’ll be eighteen in October.”
“You’re still the baby because you’re the newest!”
“I don’t think that’s how that works—”
Chapter 14: ~P R I D E~
Chaos started early in the morning.
And by early, Rosalina meant early.
By seven, her house was completely full. People had to stop by Rosalina to get slathered in sunscreen. In one of the unused bedrooms, Veronica and Rachel were doing people’s hair. In the bathroom, Lance was coating everyone in rainbow eyeshadow and putting whatever flags they wanted on their cheeks while he showed off his sparkly tank top and bi bandana wrapped around his arm. Keith was armed with the body glitter. In the kitchen, Hunk was putting ham and cheese sandwiches together as Marco counted the pre-packaged fruit cups and water bottles and other snacks to last them through the day. People rotated through the house, an efficient machine they had perfected long ago. Throwing a few others into the mix hardly stuttered their progress.
They were out the door by eight thirty.
It took three full cars to get everyone to the park where Pride would be held. Events were supposed to last all day, and they were allowed to bring in their own food and drink. From what Veronica claimed from last year, the food vendors were pretty expensive. They would leave the coolers of food in Luis’ car and carry just a few snacks in his backpack. Marcus and Shiro also carried backpacks with water bottles—all fifteen carefully labeled by Rachel.
Keith stood in the middle of the group, trying to adjust his skirt. His boots were in the car, in case the heels started to hurt his feet. He was wearing his black crop top with the rainbow skirt, the front of which just barely touched his knees as the back fell to his calves. He had shaved that morning, from toe to hip, and had even painted his nails in rainbow colors the night before.
Hunk swooped down and kissed Keith’s cheek. “You look good, Keith.”
Keith smiled shyly. “Thanks, Hunk.”
As Rosalina looked around their rowdy group, she had to pause and think a moment. “Huh.”
“What?” Marcus asked. “What’s wrong?”
The group, overhearing Marcus, turned to her and she eyed them carefully. “I have six children and only two are straight.” She narrowed her eyes at Rachel and Luis. “Where did I go wrong with you two?”
Peals of laughter filled the air.
It took a while before they were calm enough to enter the park. It was still early enough that people were just trickling in. Most of them would come with the parade in an hour or so, but they wanted to be able to check the booths while they could.
Rosalina and Marcus had given Keith and Lance fifty dollars each for whatever they wanted to buy. Most of the small things like stickers and stuff were free, but there were some tables with merchandise that people could buy. It was a struggle trying to convince Lance he didn’t need to buy every single thing he came across. Pidge was quick to smack his hand every time he reached for his wallet.
They moved as one large group, crowding around tables but trying to take up as little space as possible. People tried to make way for them when they could, but fifteen people was a lot to make room for.
At least it was nice out. Her children, she knew, wouldn’t burn too bad. Well, except maybe Keith. She wanted to put more sunscreen on him but he dodged her every effort, hiding behind Hunk or Shiro. But then she went after Shiro—they were just so pale. And Pidge! Pidge was the worst of them. But they managed to dodge her and promise they would put more on at lunch. Rosalina agreed, but grumbled all the while.
Booth after booth, filled with so many colors and pride things she could hardly keep track of. There was one booth handing out small drawstring bags with lots of memorabilia depending on which flag you wanted. Lance happily picked up the pink and blue and purple bag. Inside there was a full-sized flag Lance wanted to wear as a cape but Rosalina convinced him he didn’t want to lose it or ruin it, right?
Adam was also quick to pick up the same bag, showing it proudly to Shiro who picked up a rainbow one. Veronica picked up her pink and orange stripped bag with a grin, waving it in front of Rachel’s face to tease her. Marco nonchalantly picked up his black, grey, white, and purple bag with a small smile.
While Sylvio and Nadia haggled with one of the ladies behind the table into letting them have all the bags please, Rosalina kept an eye on the teenagers. Hunk was fretting over which one he wanted, either the same as Lance or the pink and yellow and blue one (Lance was no help in that regard, making a list of pros and cons for both with wild claims). Keith stood by looking bored, but not picking up a bag yet, interestingly enough. Pidge was eyeing both the pink, blue, and white one and one that was yellow, white, purple, and black. Pidge’s gaze caught hers, and her cheeks flushed brilliantly as she stepped away from the table.
Frowning, Rosalina went up to her. “What’s wrong, Pidge? Don’t you want one?”
Pidge kept her eyes away from her, as if ashamed. “N-No, I was just looking.”
Rosalina tapped her fingers to her leg, thinking. “What’s this one mean?” she asked, pointing to the one with the yellow stripe. “I know what the others are, but not this one.”
“It’s—uhm. It means ‘non-binary,’” Pidge replied quietly, fingers playing with the hem of her large green shirt. “It’s under the trans umbrella. Uhm—”
“Oh!” Rosalina smiled at Pidge, hoping to ease her nerves. “Shiro explained what that one means. Are you—can I ask? Or is that rude? That’s probably rude of me,” she babbled, hiding her warm face behind her hands. Oh, she was just messing this up, she knew it! She was still learning how best to be supportive, but—
“Oh,” Pidge said quietly, smiling shyly up at her. “Yeah. Uhm. I am. Uhm. Non-binary, that is.”
“Oh!” Rosalina grinned and grabbed the bag. “Then you should definitely have it! Oh.” She just managed to keep from thrusting it into Pidge’s face and dropped her smile. “I’m not meaning you have to if you don’t want to—”
Pidge laughed. “It’s fine, Rosalina. I—yeah—I do want it, actually. I just didn’t know if you would be okay with it, you know?”
Surprised, Rosalina blinked at her a few times. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Pidge shrugged, taking the bag from her. “I dunno. Not many people are.”
“Are your parents?”
“I haven’t told them, yet.”
Rosalina nodded. “Okay. I won’t say anything, okay? Not until you tell me. Uhm. May I ask which pronouns?”
“Uhm.” Pidge shrugged, looking away and scratching her nose as she clutched the bag close. “I guess female pronouns are okay for now until I tell my parents, yanno?”
Smiling brightly, Rosalina placed a hand on her head. “Just let me know if that changes, yeah?”
She spied Keith watching them from the corner of his eye. His fingers brushed over the pink, blue, and white bag before he grabbed the rainbow one. If he wasn’t comfortable with it, she wasn’t going to push him. But hopefully he heard her being supportive of Pidge and would be willing to talk about it to her—or at least not be afraid to come to her if he needed. She met Shiro’s eye over him and he gave her a supportive smile and a thumbs up. Good. So she hadn’t bungled that up too badly, then.
Apparently, Nadia and Sylvio had convinced the lady that if they had leftover bags when the day was over that they could have them. For now, though, they were only allowed one bag and they both picked the rainbow bags.
The group marched on.
Lunch rolled around, finally. They picked a spot under a large tree and spread out several blankets to make one large picnic blanket. Rosalina set the sunscreen in Shiro’s hand with a firm glower that had him quickly uncapping the bottle and shoving it towards Keith once he had a good glob of it. They made a large circle with Nadia and Sylvio in the middle so they couldn’t wander off without tripping over an adult. Marco started passing out sandwiches, and everyone passed them down the line, same with the fruit cups and chips. Shiro and Marcus quickly handed out the water bottles. Music played in the background from the stage—Veronica said they were all LGBT+ bands, which Rosalina thought was rather nice.
It was—good. She kind of wondered why she hadn’t come before. From her understanding, though, this was the biggest Pride had been since Altea had started it some years before. Not through lack of trying, but through lack of appropriate funding.
Rosalina looked around at all the colors and all the happy people surrounding her. Even the drag queens were simply stunning. She saw Lance eyeing them and she wondered if maybe that was something he would be into. She could ask him later, though. It was so nice, being surrounded by such joy. Even her little group! Eight of the fifteen of them identified as not ‘cishet’ as Shiro had explained to her a few weeks ago. And she felt so blessed to know each and every one of them, to have them as part of her family.
The group started lagging around dinner time. The kids were getting cranky, and there was absolutely no way they would be able to stay up late when the tables would start packing their things away.
They ate a quiet dinner at Sal’s and headed their separate ways, showering and getting ready for bed quietly, even though the sun barely touched the horizon.
Before she went to bed, Rosalina checked on Lance and Keith. Lance’s hair was still wet from his shower and he was splayed on top of the covers, mouth open and drool escaping onto the sheets. One foot hung off. Rosalina smiled fondly at him, finding a thin blanket to drape over him. If he got hot, he could just push it off. She kissed his still-wet hair and quietly backed out of the room.
Keith was in a similar position, though he had at least crawled under a sheet. Rosalina smoothed back some of his hair, still damp from his shower. His cheeks were a little burned, and his shoulders were a little pink. She would bite back an “I told you so” in the morning when she handed him the aloe. She kissed his temple, smoothing back his hair one more time, and left, quietly shutting his door behind her.
Back in her room, Marcus sleepily blinked up at her. He still had glitter dusting his cheeks.
With a smile, Rosalina climbed into bed. There would be glitter on the sheets in the morning and Marcus would probably make a joke about strippers or Edward Cullen. And she would laugh and roll her eyes and tell him not to worry; she loved him best.
Chapter 15: A Pocketful of Sundays
It was nearing the end of June, hot and muggy and rainy on a Sunday morning. Marcus was sleeping in and Lance had slept over at Hunk’s. Keith, though, was sitting at the table eating breakfast with her. Laura had just picked up Steven, a sullen teenager who had been with them for almost a whole week while they tried to find his relatives and find a time to be able to come get him from a few towns away.
“Mom?” Keith asked quietly, stirring the remaining milk in his bowl. “How come you guys never go to church? Like—I know you pray and stuff, so you’re religious, right?”
Oh. Rosalina hadn’t... ever thought to ask if Keith was religious and wanted to go to church. She felt so bad about that—her faith was so important to her, and to overlook that in someone else? “I—we have a few reasons,” she managed to stutter out. “I’m sorry I never asked if you’re religious? Did you want to go to church?”
Keith shook his head easily, not looking troubled in the slightest. “I mean. I’m not religious. My dad might have been Buddhist or something, I don’t remember. But I wasn’t ever.” He shrugged again, unbothered by it all, apparently.
Rosalina sat back, contemplating her answer. After a moment of watching Keith swirl his spoon through his milk, the metal swishing and making a rather soothing noise against the ceramic, she took a deep breath. “We’re Catholic. Both sides, are. And you know how the Catholic Church feels about the LGBT community.” She ran a hand over her face with another sigh. Keith was watching her, giving her his whole attention. “With Marco, no one said anything about him being ace. It wasn’t anyone’s business to tell that, so no one but us really knew. But when Veronica came out... Of course she wasn’t quiet about it,” she added with a laugh. Keith smirked at that. “We never said anything to anyone at our church, but, word got around. Father Eric stopped us at the door and told us we weren’t welcome anymore as long as we continued to support her.”
“So you just... stopped going?”
“Yes.” It was her turn to shrug. “It was nice to have a religious community, you know? But my family comes first. We’re still Catholic, but... in our own way, now.”
Keith looked back down at his bowl, contemplative. “So everyone in the family is Catholic?” he asked tentatively. “But... no one was hostile or anything to Ronnie and Lance or me?”
“You... haven’t met everyone,” Rosalina admitted sheepishly. “They’re not allowed at the same family functions if we’re there. My mother is very, very protective of her family, and she made that rule—that if we were there, the homophobes weren’t allowed.” She chuckled at the memory of her mother, all of seventy-three, brandishing a hot, emptied skillet and demanding several of her more hateful family to leave before cradling a thirteen-year-old Veronica in her arms to comfort her. “Pretty sure she wrote them out of the will and banished them from her house, too.”
“Go abuela,” Keith said, sounding suitably impressed.
“Indeed.” Rosalina scooped up the dishes to put them in the sink. She’d get to them later. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” Keith came up to the sink and started washing the dishes without prompting. She pressed a kiss to his cheek—he was finally taller than her and quickly approaching Lance’s height. Lance had let his ire be known when he figured that out in a twenty-minute spiel that ended with a pillow to the face, courtesy of Rachel. “I was just curious. Uhm. You don’t expect me to be Catholic, do you?”
“Of course not,” she scoffed. “I’m not going to force you to be anything you don’t want to be. And I’m never going to force you to believe in my faith. That’s not how it works, and if someone does try to force you to believe in something, they’re doing their faith wrong.” She patted his cheek with a smile, hoping he understood that she wasn’t just talking about his faith.
Rosalina hummed in reply and set out to see if they needed anything for dinner later.
“Also curious,” Keith added over the running water. “Can Shiro and Adam come for our Sunday family dinner sometime?”
“Sure.” She looked over her ingredients. Usually she made enough for many left overs, but tonight would be cutting it close. “Maybe next weekend? Do you know if they have any food allergies? Favorite foods?”
When she turned to look at Keith, he was giving her a weird, dopey smile.
“What?” she asked, feeling a little freaked out. She’d never seen that look on his face before. Was he sick?
“Nothing.” Keith shook his head and turned off the water. His hands dripped at his sides. “Just—” He cut himself off, but kept his gaze on the faucet for a long moment. Then he turned to her with a determined spark in his eye. “I love you.”
Tears sprung in her eyes, caught by surprise. He had never once said that, no matter how many times she had told him she loved him. And she had made sure that he knew she wasn’t forcing him to love her or express it, either. She knew emotions were hard for him sometimes, and even harder to express in a positive way.
But he was starting to look a little freaked out. Probably because she hadn’t answered him.
She needed to rectify that. So, she pulled him close into a hug, grinning over his shoulder. Wet hands grasped the back of her shirt, soaking it, but she didn’t care.
“I love you, too, mijo.”
“Shiro! Adam! Welcome!” Rosalina gestured towards the back door as they pulled off their shoes. “Dinner is almost done. Marcus and Luis are out back on the grill and we’ll be eating outside, if that’s alright with you. It’s nice enough weather for it.”
“Sure thing, Mrs. McClain,” Shiro said with a cheeky grin.
Rosalina swatted at him with her towel and a scowl. “How many times must I tell you!”
“I’ll try to encourage him better, Rosalina,” Adam promised with a lecherous grin at his husband who flushed all the way to the tips of his ears at the insinuation.
Rosalina laughed and shooed them away. “Keith! Shiro’s here!”
Keith came stumbling from the hallway, Sylvio plastered to his back as he raced into the room, Lance and Nadia hot on their heels. “Shiro!” He gently put Sylvio down so he could properly greet him.
Well then. It looked like she might have to adopt Shiro, too, if it would keep that happy look on her son’s face.
The kids were, of course, fighting again. And it wasn’t Sylvio and Nadia this time! No, it was Lance and Veronica, because they loved to bicker and argue about anything and everything. Keith looked just plain bored and had probably tuned them out long ago. Good for him. The others were carefully keeping out of their argument. Even Sylvio and Nadia were being good.
“I’m the baby of the family!” Lance shouted, looking two seconds away from flinging his plate of spaghetti at his sister.
“You’re a baby alright,” Veronica quipped back with a smirk.
“Shut up! That’s not what I meant and you know it!” He even had his fingers wrapped around the edge of his plate, as if preparing to throw it. “I’m the favorite because I’m the youngest.”
“That makes zero sense whatsoever.”
“I’m right here, Lance. No need to shout.”
“Who is your favorite?”
Oh dear lord. Why her? Why was he asking her to make a decision when she loved all of them equally?
But, before she could answer, almost as one everyone turned to look at Keith. Even Nadia and Sylvio turned to look at their newest uncle. Keith, the sweetheart, of course wasn’t paying attention and had his head over his plate to slurp up more spaghetti. At the sudden quiet, however, he looked up, noodles hanging from his mouth. With a flush as bright as his shirt, he slurped up the noodles, chewing as quickly as he could without choking.
“What?” he grumped, once he had swallowed.
“Oh,” said Lance, quietly. “That makes sense. He is the baby, after all.”
“For the last time, I am older than you—”
... Crisis averted?
At least she wasn’t being forced to name a favorite.
Because, well, maybe they were right.
“Lance,” Rosalina said one night, about a week before his birthday. “You haven’t mentioned anything about your birthday. How many kids do you think might come?”
Instead of looking excited like he usually was whenever the topic of his birthday came up, Lance looked contemplatively at his brother. Keith was knocked out, sprawled over the couch and limbs invading Lance’s space. Lance had taken it in stride instead of seeking retribution, for once. America’s Next Top Model played on in the background. Tyra was giving the models instructions for their next challenge.
“I think,” Lance finally said, “that I just want to invite the crew over. Just Hunk and Pidge and Plax and Florona and Swirn and Blumfump.” Why her children’s friends had such odd names, she would never know, though she suspected Blumfump was some sort of nickname.
“No one else?” Rosalina asked. Usually it was a couple dozen children that invaded her house for his birthday. For Lance to only ask for six others to join... had something happened?
Lance shrugged, still watching the sleeping Keith. “I want Keith to have a good time, too, and I know he doesn’t like big crowds all that much.”
Rosalina smiled proudly at her youngest. He was always so considerate of others. “If that’s what you want.”
Lance didn’t answer for a moment, instead watching his brother sleep. He looked peaceful, and Rosalina had a hard time trying to remember what he had looked like when he had shown up all those months ago.
“Yeah,” Lance finally said, quiet, reverent. “That’s what I want.”
So, a week later, she had eight teenagers crowding around her dining table, egging Lance on as he tried to stuff as much cake into his face at once, making such a mess that Rosalina was briefly thrown back into memories of his toddler years. He even still had the same cheeky grin and the same blue frosting smothering his face as he laughed.
And, as predicted, Keith was having fun, since he knew these kids well enough. Plaxum, Florona, Swirn, and Blumfump were all a package deal, just as Keith, Lance, Pidge, and Hunk were. And with Lance and Plaxum dating each other, the two groups were bound to get into shenanigans together.
Rosalina wasn’t too worried. They still had a few weeks before school started and Keith joined his peers. At least he had friends to help him through the day.
She was brought back to the present when the shrieking started. Looked like Keith had gotten hold of the glitter again and had upended it over Lance.
With a sigh and a shake of her head, Rosalina dove into the fray.
Super short chapter, but I’ll be uploading the next chapter within the hour.
Chapter 17: For Once, It's Lance
I posted two chapters today! So if you missed ch. 16, it was a very short chapter about Lance's birthday, so go read that right quick before continuing.
“Hello?” Rosalina felt her heart sink when the school’s number popped up on her caller ID.
“Hi, Rosalina.” It was Alfor. Oh no. “Can you please come down to the school? Your son got into a fight, and, well...”
Oh no. Keith. What could possibly have happened? He had promised her he wouldn’t get into any fights and it was barely even September. “I’ll be right there.”
Ten minutes later, she strolled into the office and stopped dead when she saw Lance sitting sullenly in front of Alfor next to a kid she’d never seen before. The kid was holding an ice pack to his nose and a tissue under it to catch the spots of blood. Where was Keith?
He cringed, curling his shoulders and ducking his head. “Hi, mama.”
“What happened?” Rosalina demanded, scowling at everyone in the room.
“Ah, Rosalina, we’ll get into that once James’ parent gets here.”
Rosalina reluctantly took her seat next to Lance so he was to her left and the other boy was a chair away to her right. Lance refused to look at her, instead keeping his head in his hand. It wasn’t long before a smarmy looking man waltz in and took his seat next to her. He sneered down at her and she bristled. She was no stranger to that look. She had seen plenty of entitled white men send that look her way. There was no way this was going to go over well.
“Well then,” said Alfor, once the man was seated. “Your boys got into a fight in the boy’s bathroom during the passing period—”
“Yeah, because he called Keith an emo whore!” Lance spat, fire in his eyes. His hand fell away, an ice pack clutched tight in his fist, to reveal a massive bruise on his cheek. Rosalina wanted to gasp and tend to him, but there were more pressing matters at hand. She could take a better look later.
“He what?” Rosalina spat, aiming a glare at the boy in question. He shrank back. His father even looked taken aback at the accusation.
“I did not,” James retorted hotly after removing the tissue. His upper lip was smeared with blood. “It’s your word against mine.”
“And Lance wouldn’t start a fight unnecessarily.” The boy shrank back further. “And he wouldn’t lie. I raised him better than that.”
“Are you calling my son a liar?”
“It certainly seems that way.”
“Please,” Alfor implored, hands raised placatingly when Rosalina turned her glare to him. “Calm down. We’re all adults here, right? We can speak about this rationally.”
“This boy,” Rosalina spat with as much venom as she could, “called my son a whore. And is lying about it? And you expect me to be rational?”
“I didn’t call Lance a whore,” James grumbled.
“So you admit that you called Keith, who is also my son, a whore.”
James looked taken aback at that information. “That tranny is your kid?” He sneered. “Explains a lot.”
Rosalina made to stand to give him a good whooping with her purse, but Lance’s hand on her arm, gripped so tight she was sure to bruise, stopped her.
“James, you’re suspended for one week for that,” Alfor said, voice low and dangerous. “And we’ll add another week for starting the fight. I would be very careful what comes out of your mouth next. You, too, Mr. Griffin. Don’t make this worse for your son.” Rosalina heard his jaw snap shut and tried her best to hide a victorious grin. Alfor turned to Lance and Rosalina, softening his expression. “Unfortunately, due to you resorting to violence, I will have to give you detention for the rest of the week.” It was Thursday, and she was surprised Alfor was being so lenient.
Lance seemed just as surprised. “Understood, sir.”
Alfor quickly filled out the detention slip and handed it over to Lance. “See me after school. The McClains are dismissed.”
Rosalina stood, sending a smirk to the Griffins. The father looked about ready to have an aneurysm.
“Oh, Alfor,” Rosalina asked before crossing the doorway. “Do you mind if I see Keith right quick? Just for a moment?”
“Sure.” Alfor smiled pleasantly at her. “Have a nice day, Rosalina.”
The two exited the office, closing the door behind them with a quiet snap. The receptionist looked up with a gentle smile as Rosalina approached him. They had quite a long history together, what with Wyatt seeing all of her children come through the school for over a decade.
“Hey, Wyatt. Alfor said I could see Keith McClain for a moment? Can you call him here, please?”
“Of course, Rosalina!” Wyatt smiled kindly at them, giving Lance a sympathetic look as he reached for the binder with the class list to find Keith.
Once Wyatt had called Keith to the office, Rosalina thanked him and pulled Lance over to the chairs. She gently took his chin in hand to look at his cheek. Fortunately, his eye wasn’t bruised, but the area under it looked pretty tender. “Oh, mijo,” she muttered, cupping his other cheek. “Why did you have to fight him?”
“I had to defend my brother,” Lance muttered back. “I couldn’t let him get away with calling him a whore, mama.”
Rosalina pressed a gentle kiss to the bruise. He only winced a little bit. “I’m not mad, Lancito. You’re not in trouble. Thank you for standing up to him.”
The door to the office opened. Keith stopped when he saw Lance and Rosalina huddled in the chairs. He was dressed in his rainbow skirt and high heels today. Ah. That was probably what prompted the comments. “Mom? Lance? What happened?”
So Keith obviously didn’t know what had happened. She stood and drew him into a hug, needing to hold him close, even if just for a moment. Keith, confused, tentatively hugged her back.
Since apparently she took too long to answer, Lance said, only barely hiding his pride, “I punched James Griffin ‘cause he called you an emo whore.”
“What?” Keith tore away to look down at Lance. “What the hell, Lance?”
“I had to defend you,” Lance muttered defensively, putting the ice pack back on his cheek. “I couldn’t let him get away with that.”
“Defend me?” Keith looked... confused, mostly.
“Well, yeah.” Lance shrugged. “You’re my brother. I’m not gonna let some asswipe call you names without retribution.”
Rosalina cleared her throat pointedly, but did not reprimand him. Wyatt was smirking behind his computer.
Keith raised his eyebrows, surprised. “Oh. Uh, thanks, Lance. You didn’t have to, though.”
Lance shrugged. “I only got two days of detention for it and mom says I’m not in trouble. It was worth it.” He paused, contemplative. “He also called you a tranny. But I didn’t get to punch him for that. Mom almost killed him for that ‘cause he said it to her face, but I had to stop her. But he got a week of suspension for it.”
That seemed to get a reaction out of Keith. He crossed an arm over his chest to grab his other arm and tugged self-consciously at the skirt. “Oh,” he said, voice quiet.
Rosalina grabbed his hands and pulled him close. “Don’t let anything they say bring you down, okay? He’s an idiot. We love you just the way you are.” He nodded, face determined. At least he wasn’t about to cry. She kissed his cheek. “Once Lance gets out of detention, we’ll go get ice cream, okay?”
Lance pumped his fist in victory. Keith grinned and rolled his eyes at his brother. “We’ll hang out in the library and wait for you. Come get us when you get out.”
“Gotcha.” Lance pushed himself to his feet and hugged her, pulling a squawking Keith into the hug against his protests. “We better get back to class. See you later, mom.”
“Love you, too.” Keith grinned cheekily at her and walked off with Lance back to class.
Rosalina sighed, shaking her head with a fond smile. “See you later, Wyatt.”
“Hopefully not for something like this again,” Wyatt quipped back.
Rosalina laughed. “We’ll see.”
Maybe she could convince Marcus that Lance deserved a victory dinner tonight.
Chapter 18: Keith's Birthday Shenanigans (+ the required bday pony)
The week before Keith’s birthday, Rosalina asked what he wanted to do. Did he want a party? How many kids did he want to invite over? What did he want to eat? Anything specific he wanted for his birthday?
(“Not really. Surprise me. I don’t care.”)
Which was—odd. She knew he wasn’t big on parties, but not even having his friends over? Or even just a sleepover? No special request of food? No presents?
“You don’t even want your friends over?” she asked over the sound of running water. She was rinsing off the dinner plates and Keith was putting them into the dishwasher. Lance and Marcus were getting the movie ready. Funnily enough, Keith liked doing chores around the house and he never complained when Rosalina asked him to do something for her. Unlike a certain boy whom shall not be named.
She watched carefully as Keith shrugged, slightly turned away from her. “What’s so special about my birthday, anyway?”
“Well, it’s the day you came into this world,” Rosalina answered quietly, turning off the tap to give him her full attention. He stood on the other side of the dishwasher, tense, waiting. “And I think that’s pretty special.”
Keith shrugged, still not meeting her eye. “Okay,” he said quietly, sadly. Something was obviously bothering him.
Rosalina quickly dried her hands so she could reach over the dirty dishes to grab his hands. His thumb was worrying so hard over his finger that she was afraid he would wear the skin and muscle away. “Keith? What’s wrong, mijo?”
He lifted a shoulder, staring hard at the dishes still in the sink. If he couldn’t look at her, that was okay. She knew sometimes he just couldn’t—that it was easier to talk if he didn’t have to try to decipher her reaction or emotions. “My birth mom didn’t seem to think so. She... She left me. So—So how can I be special if she didn’t want me?”
There were several ways she could go about replying to him. But his obvious distress broke her heart, so she went with the fire in her gut and said firmly, “I’m your mom now, aren’t I? Does it really matter what some woman who birthed you and left you thinks? Her opinion was no longer valid the moment she gave you up and disappeared.” Tears pooled in the corners of his eyes. Rosalina could feel the heat and prickling in her own that told her she was about to cry, too. “You’re special, Keith. Special enough that I adopted you, right? I loved you so much I wanted you to be part of my family, right?” Keith sniffed and nodded, but made no indication he would speak. “It didn’t matter that you were about to age out. I may not have given birth to you, and I may have missed out on all but one year of your life so far, but—but that doesn’t mean you aren’t special to me. We just got a late start, is all.”
Keith tugged his hands away. Rosalina let him go, though she didn’t want to. But she could tell he was getting overwhelmed. He crossed his arms, still not looking at her, shoulders hunched up by his ears. Swallowing hard, blinking back the tears, he asked, “Can uhm, Hunk and Pidge and Shiro and Adam come for my birthday? But Hunk and Pidge stay for a sleepover?”
“Not Plaxum and them?” Rosalina had thought they were all friends.
“They’re more Lance’s friends than mine.” He seemed unperturbed by that, so she let it slide.
“Whatever you want,” she replied, smiling as best as she could without letting the tears fall. One slipped through, and she used the towel next to her to dry her eyes.
He sniffled again, but gave her a shy smile. “Can I have a pony?”
“Brat,” she murmured affectionately, ruffling his hair. She let him scamper away to his room to compose himself before the movie and texted Shiro about the birthday plans.
She wasn’t going to cry.
She wasn’t, okay? She’d already had four of her babies turn eighteen. There was no reason for her to get so emotional about Keith turning eighteen.
But she couldn’t help it when he came into the kitchen and stopped in the doorway—Lance colliding into his back with a whiny, tired protest—at his favorite breakfast (a fried egg and a slice of tomato on a slice of toast with a single lit candle stuck in the middle) waiting for him and more on the way. He was dressed up for school, too, in his rainbow skirt and high heels and makeup he had done himself. Lance had done a waterfall braid crown—it was entirely too neat and even for Keith to have done it himself. But he looked so—so shocked and confused with the setup.
It hurt her heart to see him that way. Did he really think she would forget about his birthday? Not celebrate it like she had done with Lance just a few months before?
Rosalina pressed a kiss to his cheek and wished him happy birthday before excusing herself to go wipe away her tears.
Of course the teenagers were rowdy. They had Lance leading the charge, after all, despite it being Keith’s birthday. Late October had brought the chill thick and heavy around them, so they were stuck inside with gallons of apple cider. There were Mario Kart tournaments and wrapping paper and gifts carefully placed in Keith’s room and chocolate cake and enchiladas and hidden teary eyes. Keith confided in her, while the others were setting up the tournament and arguing over the bracket, that it had been a long time since he had had a birthday party like this. Not since his dad, anyway.
And he hugged her and told her he loved her.
Adam discretely passed her a tissue.
Shiro and Adam ended up leaving late, giving her and Marcus and Keith hugs goodbye and a promise to come to Sunday dinner. They waved to the others, and Rosalina decided it was time for her and Marcus to go to bed when the teenagers started building the biggest fort yet. It was going to be a huge mess, but—
Keith was laughing and having a good time. She couldn’t take that away from him.
Before she turned off the lights, she kissed the little glass hippo and sent a short prayer of thanks.
Nadia had ended up buying him a unicorn. “So Mr. Hippo doesn’t get lonely!”
Keith just sent her a smirk and promised Nadia that the two would always stay together and would be best friends.
“Close enough to a pony,” he muttered to Rosalina later with a grin as he pet the rainbow mane.
Rosalina grinned right back. He didn’t need to know that she had suggested it to Nadia in the first place.
Chapter 19: Raincheck on the Heartbreak, Please
TW/CW: Slight transphobia/parents being not-so-kind to their trans kid. Nothing outright, but it's mentioned and dealing with the aftermath.
She looked up to see Pidge standing near her, fiddling with the strap of her backpack that hung off one shoulder. Hunk, Lance, and Keith were cleaning up their homework, carefully keeping their eyes down. Rosalina had a suspicion of what Pidge wanted to talk to her about—a warm June day, under a tent, table covered in colorful bags...
Rosalina set down her paintbrush. This would require her full attention. “Yes, Pidge?”
“Uhm.” Pidge was always so self-assured, never hesitant. It worried Rosalina. “I—I wanna tell my family Friday. About. Uhm. Me being non-binary.”
Fear. Pidge was scared. Was something going on in the Holt house that Rosalina wasn’t aware of? Sam and Coleen were wonderful people every time she had interacted with them, but she also knew that appearances could be deceiving. Especially when children were involved.
“Do you want me to use different pronouns?” she asked instead of the million other questions that pressed against her tongue.
“Uhm. They-them is fine,” Pidge replied shyly.
Rosalina tried to smile warmly up at her—them. It was going to take a while to get used to. “I promise to try my hardest, okay? If I slip up, it’s not malicious.”
“I know, Rosalina.” Pidge grinned back. But then they looked away fiddled with the straps again. “Uhm. I also wanted to know—” Pidge cut off, shifting from foot to foot. Rosalina held her breath, ignoring the boys who had stilled on the other side of the table. “If—If my parents don’t take it well, can I stay here for a few days? Just—Just until I figure something else out. I’m sure Matt won’t hate me, but—but I probably can’t stay with him because he’s in a different town and—yeah.”
Unfortunately, Pidge was not a very tactile person. Rosalina wanted so much to draw her into a hug, but Keith had told her that Pidge only tolerated affection when she initiated it. Instead, Rosalina pulled her phone closer to unlock it. “Put your number in and I’ll text you, okay? So you can have my number. You can stay as long as you need to. Call me if you need me to come get you. Even if it’s three in the morning.” Pidge looked away. “Pidge.”
Pidge sniffed, rubbing at an eye to clear away the tears. “’Kay. I’ll call. Thanks, Rosalina.”
And then Rosalina had an armful of Pidge. The backpack had fallen to the ground with a solid thump and Rosalina was able to get her arms around the tiny frame. Pidge was so—so small. They shook, crying quietly into her shoulder as she squeezed tight.
No child should ever have to feel this sort of fear.
Rosalina ran her finger through Pidge’s hair. “Even if it goes well, please at least text me? So I know you’re alright.”
Pidge pulled away, sniffing and rubbing her eyes. “Yeah. I will. Thanks. Uhm. Shiro and Adam know, already. So.” They sniffed one last time. Their eyes were red, cheeks flushed, but there was a tiny smile underneath it all. “You’re the best, Mama McClain.”
The name was so not what she expected. She spluttered, trying to make sense of it, but then the boys were laughing at her and she was shooing Pidge and Hunk out so they could go home for dinner, all the while pretending her heart wasn’t breaking at the thought of sending Pidge back to where they weren’t safe.
It was almost ten p.m. when her phone rang. Her heart lurched when she saw Pidge’s name on the screen. Marcus paused the TV, and everyone watched as she scrambled to pick up her phone, nearly dropping it twice. They’d all been on edge all evening, waiting for Pidge to contact her, and—
“Pidge?” Rosalina asked, trying to quell her frantic heartbeat.
Sniffling. Pidge was crying. Her heart nearly stopped.
“Can you come get me?” a warbled voice asked from the other side. “I don’t think I’m in danger, but—but—I can’t be here right now.”
Rosalina was already shoving a pair of shoes on her feet—Lance’s sandals were the easiest and closest—and grabbing a jacket and her keys from the hook by the door. “I’m on my way, okay? Where are you?” She ignored her family’s protests and questions, nearly stumbling down the stairs and cursing the garage door for being so slow as she nearly dropped her keys.
“Just—I’m at the corner when you turn to go to my house.”
“You stay on the phone, okay, Pidge?” Rosalina demanded. It was early November and already so chilly at night. She would have to hurry so Pidge wasn’t standing outside for too long. “I’ll be there as soon as I can, but I’m not hanging up, okay? We don’t have to talk, but I need to know you’re okay.”
Pidge continued to sniffle on the other end, but agreed. They didn’t say anything, just sniffled every once in a while, which was fine, because at least Rosalina knew they were still there. Rosalina rolled through stop signs and just barely respected the speed limit signs. It only shaved a few minutes from her drive, but then she was pulling up to the corner where a tiny figure stood under the lamplight, hunched and small and shaking. Pidge dropped their phone, hanging up as Rosalina threw the car in park and jumped out. And then Pidge was in her arms, crying and shaking and apologizing.
“No need to apologize, Pidge,” Rosalina murmured into Pidge’s hair. They barely came up to her chin. Her heart was finally starting to slow down, now that Pidge was safe in her arms. “You’re okay. You’re safe. Let’s get you home.”
The drive was quiet, less frantic. Pidge still sniffed, curled up in the seat and facing the window. They had a backpack and a duffle bag stuffed at their feet. Had Pidge had those prepared, just in case? Or had it been thrown together last minute?
Both were horrifying ideas.
The garage door clanked and rattled and groaned as it shut. Pidge made no move to leave. The garage door opened, revealing the rest of her family, waiting, watching, shrouded in yellow light and throwing strange shadows against the walls.
“They—” Pidge croaked out. “Matt was understanding. But my parents. They asked—if, if this was just a phase, or if I’m sure, that I’m too young, that I’m trying to be different.” It was spat out bitterly, and Rosalina wished she could take their pain away and bear it herself. “And they acted like I had killed our dog or something. I went to my room and Matt started yelling at them and then—I left through the window.”
“Do they know—”
“I texted Matt before I called you and said I was coming here.” They pulled their phone out, tapping slowly on the screen. “And I’m supposed to text him when I got here. So.” They took a deep breath, staring at their knees. “Thanks. For coming to get me.”
Rosalina tried her best to smile. “You’re welcome, Pidge. Are you ready to go inside?”
They hesitated, but then gave a determined nod. “Yeah.”
Inside, Keith pulled Pidge into a firm hug, cuddling them close and practically absorbing them into him. Lance was quick to become the other end of the sandwich, despite Pidge’s wet laughs and protests. Marcus even got a hand in there to ruffle their hair and ask if Pidge was okay.
Finally, they all shuffled off to bed. Rosalina set Pidge up in one of the spare bedrooms and let them know that they were free to make themselves at home for as long as that may be. Pidge only nodded, keeping tears at bay, and quietly shut the door.
Rosalina laid awake in bed for hours after everyone else had gone to bed. She just couldn’t—How could Pidge’s parents—Why? She was definitely going to have a stern conversation with them tomorrow and let them know how out of line they were. Despite how wary Rosalina had been about Pidge in the beginning, they had definitely grown on her and she loved them like another child.
She rolled away from Marcus, who was happily snoring next to her. Her clock read just after one.
With a sigh, she rolled out of bed. Maybe checking on the kids would help her get to sleep.
Pidge’s door was ajar. She was sure it had been closed when they went to bed. The bathroom was still open and there wasn’t noise or light anywhere else on in the house. Had Pidge run away? But why?
Opening the door showed that Pidge’s bags were still there at the foot of one of the beds, the hallway light spilling in. Both beds were empty. So was the living room and garage and kitchen and the other rooms she used for the fosters. So where—
Lance’s room only had Lance in it, sprawled on his bed and music playing softly from the night stand. She pressed a kiss to his temple and pulled the blankets up a bit to cover his goose-pimpled shoulders.
That had to leave only Keith’s room.
Quietly, she shut Lance’s door and moved to Keith’s. Slowly, she opened the door, letting the light spill into the room. There was a much bigger lump than usual in Keith’s bed. With silent steps, she tiptoed into the room to get a better look. Pidge was between the wall and Keith, and Keith was spooning them, almost dwarfing them, swallowed by the blankets so only a tuft of reddish hair poked out.
Rosalina smiled, running her fingers through both their hair, and pressed a kiss to each in turn.
Sleep was easier to come when she laid down again.
Despite Pidge’s protests the next morning, Rosalina drove over to the Holt house and ripped their parents a new one, words so stern and demanding to be listened to that even Coleen—strong-headed, bullheaded Coleen—shrank back with wide eyes. Her accent was sure to be thick, the longer she went on and more heated she got, but she didn’t care. Matt, though, nodded approvingly from his corner.
She ended with, “Think about how you hurt your child with your tasteless, thoughtless words that were more concerned for yourself than you were for them. Pidge is staying with me until you can get your head out of your asses and apologize and learn how to be respectful to your child.”
With that, she stormed from the house, anger still boiling in her veins.
“Rosalina!” Matt caught up to her before she could slam her door. She had wanted to slam their door, too, but she had more respect than to damage someone else’s property out of anger, no matter how well-placed it was.
“Yes, Matt?” She knew he was good, but her blood was still boiling and she was still so angry that she couldn’t keep the heat from her voice.
“Is Pidge okay?” he asked quietly, standing far enough away to not crowd her. “I know they texted me. But—”
“They’re—Okay,” she settled on. “Or they will be. Pidge can stay as long as sh—they need to.”
Matt smiled, even though it wobbled. “Good. Can I—Can I come by later?”
“And thanks for yelling at my parents,” he added with a sad grin. “I tried to talk to them last night but—I think hearing it from another parent will help them understand.”
Rosalina didn’t have anything to say to that, so she waved and drove away.
Pidge stayed for a whole week, only finally going back home the next Saturday with promises to call Rosalina to come pick them up if they needed to get away again. Rosalina wasn’t happy, and made her dissatisfaction known when she dropped Pidge off with a glare to their parents standing in the doorway, waiting. According to Pidge, they wanted to apologize and talk to understand. Rosalina offered to stay, too, but Pidge declined with a grin.
“From what Matt said, you scared them shitless last time. I don’t think they need that again.”
“Fair enough.” Rosalina drew them into a hug a dropped a kiss on top of their head. “I’m here for you if you need me.”
“Thanks, Mama McClain.”
They hopped out, and Rosalina could only pray that things went well.
Chapter 20: The Breakup
Double upload! So if you missed the super angsty chapter about Pidge, go back one and then come back!
I’m so sorry. I’m about to crush a lot of you. But this has been the plan for ages.
Lance had stormed out of the house a few minutes ago. Rosalina hadn’t thought much on it—he might have been in a hurry to go to Plaxum’s to spend what little remained of the Fall Break with her. But then a few minutes later, Keith came storming in, eyes red and cheeks flushed and tears running down his face as he searched the freezer for ice cream. He pulled out the new big family tub and a spoon and moved to take the whole thing with him to his room.
“Just one second, mister,” Rosalina said firmly, frowning at his back. He flinched, but paused in the doorway. “Where do you think you’re going with that?”
“With the whole gallon tub?”
“You’re going to eat the whole thing?”
His shoulders hunched up to his ears, but he still didn’t turn to look at her. “Hunk and I broke up.”
Oh. She was—surprised. Keith hadn’t said that they were having troubles or anything. Hadn’t even looked distressed or anything before leaving for Hunk’s earlier that day. Had he gone over just to break up with him? Had Hunk sprung it on him out of the blue?
First things first, though—
“Well, first of all, you’re not taking the whole tub and getting your germs all in it. It’s brand new. Scoop some out and we’ll go sit on the couch.”
Reluctantly, and with a scowl that could have probably curdled milk, Keith got two bowls and dished up the ice cream, shoving the tub back into the freezer and stomping to the living room. As when Lance needed to be cuddled, Keith curled into her side and angrily started stabbing at his ice cream. Rosalina ate hers a bit less angrily, waiting for him to talk.
“It was mutual,” he finally grumbled before sticking the spoon in his mouth. “Sort of. He likes this new girl at school and I said we should break up so he could date her instead. But he said he still likes me but...”
“You’re still hurt.”
“It shouldn’t hurt this much,” Keith mumbled around his spoon. “I’m the one who suggested it.”
“Emotions are funny things,” she answered as neutrally as she could. This was the first breakup she had experienced with Keith. With five children, she had had a lot of experience with heartbroken teenagers. Lance was always dramatically heartbroken, sobbing into his pillow or her shoulder about his woes. Her other children had been less... theatrical about it, but still keen on wallowing in ice cream and cuddling on the couch. Marco had been pretty upset when the girl he had been going out with his senior year had broken up with him because he didn’t want sex with her. Although, now that she was thinking about it, she remembered Rachel wanting to throw things when her first boyfriend had cheated on her. But, well, that was warranted.
“I don’t even know if I... I mean, I like him. A lot. He’s one of my best friends. But...” Keith trailed off to shove another spoonful of ice cream into his mouth. “I don’t think I’ll get past ‘liking’ him to ‘love’ him, yanno? Maybe with enough time, I could, but... He... deserves that. Deserves someone to love him and not just like him a bit more than other people.”
“You deserve love, too, mijo.”
He shrugged and ate his ice cream quietly, no longer stabbing at it angrily. “We’re still gonna be friends. We promised we wouldn’t make it weird for our friend group.” He was quiet for a few more bites, then said, “He needs someone to give him their full attention. And I—I’ve been distracted and not—not been a good b-boyfriend lately.”
“Is there something you want to talk about?”
Keith shrugged again, hunching in on himself. “Not... Not yet.”
So. Something was up with him. But what? Rosalina wanted to pry so badly, but...
He needed space. Wanted to think on it a bit more. The ‘yet’ suggested he did want to talk about it... But he wasn’t ready.
She could wait. All she could do now was let him eat ice cream until he felt better and hold him.
Chapter 21: On Coming Out
Keith only gave a quick curtesy knock before he barged into their room and flopped across the foot of the bed, almost landing on their feet. Marcus wiggled his feet at Keith’s shoulders and Keith waved an arm at him to get him to stop. Obligingly, they set their books down to give him their full attention. Apparently, Lance had been giving him lessons on how to be Dramatic. Or he was just following Lance’s theatrics just to be a little shit, like usual. He wasn’t sitting beside her, facing away like he usually was when he was truly upset. Although, he hadn’t ever done this before, so Rosalina was unsure where this conversation was going to go.
“What’s wrong?” Rosalina asked, trying to be neutral. No need to freak out yet, right?
“You still like Pidge even though they’re non-binary, right?”
It had been a few weeks since Pidge had come out to their parents. So far, they had only needed to stay at the McClain house that one week, but Rosalina made sure they knew the invitation was always open, no matter what time they needed to come over. Rosalina knew that Christmas was sure to raise tensions, and she made sure that Pidge knew that they wouldn’t be intruding if they needed to come on Christmas, either. She’d even made them promise that they would call her immediately if they were uncomfortable or didn’t want to be around their family because they weren’t being respectful.
“Yes?” Rosalina replied, shrugging at Marcus when he raised an eyebrow at her. “Why do you ask?”
“Would you care if one of your own kids was trans, too?” Keith asked instead of replying, carefully not looking at them. He fingered the edge of the blanket, folding it back and forth and watching it intently.
Huh. Not how she thought he would come out to them, if she were being honest.
“Well,” she answered slowly. “I would care because—” she hesitated, wondering if she should be just a vague or if she should low-key call him out, then continued, “because they’re my child and I always want to help my child be happy and support them the best that I can. So, yes, I would care. But I wouldn’t be mad or upset or anything.”
Keith didn’t respond for a moment, instead focusing intensely on fiddling with the blanket. Rosalina and Marcus let him—it was clear he was struggling with what words he wanted to use. But that was okay. He could take as much time as he needed. She was also glad that they had had that talk with Shiro and Adam and they had been more than helpful on explaining how they could be supportive if Keith ever did come out as trans.
If this was Keith coming out as trans.
“Cool.” Keith stared determinately at the blanket, then popped up and turned to face them, sitting cross-legged and staring intently at them, fingers tapping aggressively on his knees. His violet-gray eyes never wavered, but there was a sort of steadfast determination behind them. “I’m trans.”
“Thank you for telling us,” Marcus said before she could start weeping. He was grinning brightly at Keith, like this was the happiest news he had ever heard.
Damn it, now she was crying. But she was laughing, too, as she brushed her tears away. Keith looked mildly horrified at her reaction but she sniffed and said, “I’m not upset, honey. These are happy tears. I’m so happy you confided in us and—” She screeched when Lance popped up from the side of her bed to hand her a tissue. “What the cheese, Lance!”
Lance, the little shit, was cackling. “Keith wanted me in here for moral support.”
“When did you even get in here?”
“I crawled in after Keith.”
She took the tissue from Lance to blow her nose. She playfully swatted at Lance as he crawled onto her bed to go sit by Keith. “I guess this saves having to call a partial family meeting.”
Marcus cleared his throat. “So... So what can we do? To best support you? Do you want us to use different pronouns? A different name? Make you an appointment for—for hormones?”
“Uhm.” Keith hunched his shoulders and gave a tiny shrug. Lance was quick to wrap an arm around him. “I—I think—I dunno, yet. I’m not, like, dysphoric or anything? I don’t think I want to be on hormones, yet. And I think I’m a girl, so—so could you, uhm.” Keith gave them a shy smile. “Can you use female pronouns for me, please? Uhm. But just at home and with Hunk and Pidge and Shiro and Adam. I... don’t think I’m ready to be out in public like that, yet.”
“We’ll try our best,” Rosalina promised. “Do you want us to let the rest of the family know?”
Keith adamantly shook his—her head. “I don’t think I’m ready for—for like, extended family to know yet. Uhm. But my—my siblings can know.” She had a shy, proud smile as she said siblings, and Rosalina’s heart stuttered when she remembered that Keith hadn’t had siblings prior to just a few months ago. And now she had five. “Uhm. I haven’t decided on a name, yet.”
“That’s okay,” said Marcus. “Just let us know if you do decide you want us to use a different name.”
Keith nodded, still smiling shyly. Then she popped forward to pull them into a hug. Lance was quick to join with a gleeful laugh, tackling them all with a whoop.
On the last day of school before break a few days later, the gang all came over to her house and invaded her living room. As Keith had said weeks ago, the breakup hadn’t affected their friend group any. Keith and Hunk weren’t bitter at each other, and Keith was even teasing Hunk about this other girl he had started liking (and was, apparently, the primary reason they had broken up).
“When are you going to ask her out?” Rosalina heard Keith ask, coming back from her room from dropping her bag off. Rosalina followed after. She wasn’t nosy. Heaven’s no! She just... wanted to ask if they wanted snacks!
“I don’t want her to feel like she’s a rebound or something!” Hunk cried, biting at his nails.
“Gimme her number,” Keith demanded, hand held out. “I’ll ask her out for you.”
Rosalina cleared her throat. The four teenagers looked up at her expectantly. “Do you guys—sorry. Uhm. Does anyone want snacks? Drinks?”
Keith offered to help her bring the requested food and beverages to the living room. “You know,” she said nonchalantly. “Pidge and I don’t care if you say ‘guys’. We know you mean it in a non-gendered way.”
Rosalina heaved a sigh of relief. Thank goodness! She was so afraid of messing up or hurting her due to incompetence or negligence. “Thank you for letting me know. And let me know if I do mess up, okay? Your dad and I are still learning, but we’re trying.”
“I know.” Keith gave her a smile. “Thanks. A lot. I really appreciate it.”
Rosalina pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Anything for you.”
“Still waiting on that pony.”
“You said that unicorn was close enough!”
Keith cackled and raced out of the kitchen with the snacks.
All in all, telling her kids and grandkids didn’t go as badly as she thought it would have. They broke the news at the next Sunday dinner, and Rosalina announced that Keith had something to say before they started eating.
“Uhm.” She ducked her head when the attention was turned to her. “I’m—I’m a girl, now. So. Uhm, please use female pronouns and stuff. I haven’t decided on a new name, yet.” She cleared her throat and looked up at her siblings and niece and nephew. “And, uhm. I’m not ready to tell people, yet, so it stays with everyone at the table, okay?”
Rachel, sitting next to Keith, placed a hand over hers. “Gotcha, sis. Thank you for telling us.”
Keith grinned. Everyone pretended that they didn’t see her tearing up.
“Rowan,” Keith said, umprompted, the Saturday before Christmas.
“What’s that, dear?” Rosalina asked, sliding a plate in front of her husband.
“Please call me Rowan.” Keith—Rowan, now, Rosalina supposed—tapped her fork against the table. “But—but just to the group who knows. I’m not—I’m not ready.”
“That’s fine, dear.” Rosalina kissed her temple and sat down. “What do you say you and I go on a shopping trip after Christmas?” she asked as evenly as she could. “Get you some new clothes?”
“I—I don’t need—I still have plenty of—”
“You don’t have much ‘girl’ clothes, though, do you?” Rosalina knew she didn’t. “If you don’t want any, I won’t make you. But I’m offering to get you new clothes if you want.”
Keith—Rowan bit her lip, playing with the syrup on her plate. Lance was amazingly quiet, watching her. Hopefully Lance wasn’t going to be jealous that they were showing Rowan more attention than to him. “That’s a lot of money, though.”
“Christmas present,” was Marcus’ reply.
Rowan shrugged. “I’ll... think about it.”
Rosalina dropped it. If she didn’t want to go, she wouldn’t make her, but... She was hoping they could go.
Luckily, she had an answer by the end of the day.
“Only if Lance can come, too,” Rowan said, sitting beside her in bed. “I don’t want him to feel left out.”
“Of course,” Rosalina replied. “I’m sure he’ll have a better idea of fashion than the both of us put together.”
Rowan grinned. “Probably.” And with a smile, she bid them goodnight.
Chapter 22: Christmas Troubles
Christmas this year was difficult for a number of reasons.
First, there was that situation with Pidge. Pidge had been texting her for over half an hour now with mild alarm at their extended family being not quite as nice as they had all been hoping. Their parents were apparently doing their best to defend them, but... Pidge was getting increasingly uncomfortable with some of the comments. Matt was going to drive them over before heading back to try to do some damage control.
It was hard to remember going back and forth with Rowan’s new name and pronouns, especially since they weren’t telling the family for a bit.
“Me being part of the family is just too new,” Rowan explained, helping her and Lance in the kitchen while Marcus and the other kids were pulling out tables and chairs for the rest of her family coming in a few hours. “And I—I don’t know if—I just don’t want to confuse them if I’m not actually—”
If she decided she wasn’t a trans woman. Shiro and Adam had been very patient in explaining that to her and Marcus when the kids were all at Hunk’s for a sleepover.
“Exploring your gender is part of the process,” Adam had said. “Lots of trans people try on a few different identities before finding the one that fits them best. She may decide in a few weeks from now that ‘Rowan’ doesn’t fit and she wants to go by a different name. Or maybe different pronouns.”
“Just try not to show if you’re frustrated with it,” Shiro had added. “She’d probably shut down and try to make herself fit into this box she thinks you want her to be in.”
Rosalina and Marcus could do that.
But for now, they had to remember to address her as ‘Keith’ and use masculine pronouns. Luckily, Sylvio and Nadia were understanding about the whole situation.
She had even dressed a bit more masculine for Christmas, too. Rowan had explained that she still liked the ‘boy’ clothes and they didn’t make her uncomfortable. Besides, sometimes they were more practical. But she still had put on some glittery eyeshadow and had pulled back some of her hair with rainbow clips Lance had gotten her for Christmas.
Then Pidge came barging in, unannounced. Lance shouted with obvious glee and went to go tackle them. Somehow, he got even more energy around the holiday. He was even more excited after opening his present from Rosalina: a gift certificate to the spa—just Rosalina and Lance—and a promise to spend an entire day, just her and Lance, together and doing whatever he wanted. For the last several days—ever since Rowan came out as trans—he had been upset about something. She had a feeling that it was because they had been showing Rowan more attention than him, but she hoped that the gift would help him realize that they didn’t love him any less just because of Rowan.
“’Sup, losers,” Pidge called with a grin. “Hi, Mama McClain.”
Rosalina fondly rolled her eyes. Apparently, that was her new name from Pidge. Rowan and Lance spluttered their protests. “Hello, Pidge. I hope you brought your appetite.”
“Did I ever.” They shuffled over to one of the counters were they’d been putting out some of the dishes. They snagged a piece of fruit. “Is it alright if your family knows I’m enby, or will they be upset?”
Rosalina winced. “I don’t know. We’re keeping Rowan’s a secret for now. My mamá is pretty accepting and will put the fear of God into whoever disagrees or is disrespectful, but... Rowan’s not ready yet. My brother Ricardo is coming, though. He... used to be homophobic but apparently he’s changed. But if he says anything negative about you, let me know and I’ll kick him out.”
Pidge nodded. “Thanks. You’re pretty kick-ass yourself, Mama McClain.” They popped another grape into their mouth and trotted away, an overnight bag hanging off their shoulder.
Her brother Ricardo and his family wanted to join them for Christmas this year. He had even begged mamá, but ultimately it was Rosalina’s decision since it was her house. He certainly hadn’t been the worst of them—her Tío Alejandro took that prize—but he had still made Veronica cry back when she was thirteen.
Apparently, he wanted to apologize.
He was on thin ice as it was.
She made it known to all of her kids that if he or his wife or three kids said a single word out of line, they were to get her or abuela immediately to kick them out. No second chances.
Funnily enough, he was one of the first ones there. He even knocked politely and presented her with a bottle of champagne for New Year’s, since they never had alcohol in the house for Christmas. They didn’t want to tempt some of their relatives, after all.
“Hey, Rosie.” Ricardo was younger than her, and still smiled that cheeky little grin from when they were children. “Long time no see, eh?”
“I wonder whose fault that is?” Rosalina replied icily. She wasn’t going tolerate his bullshit.
Huh. He ducked his head bashfully. “I’m sorry, Rosie. We’re sorry. We were out of line, and we wanted to apologize.”
She narrowed her eyes at them, all looking bashful on her porch. It was cold outside, but she was fine with leaving them in the cold for a moment. “What brought this on? It’s been almost ten years. Why now?” Rosalina glared at her brother. “Is this about mamá’s will?”
“Of course not!” he replied heatedly. He shuffled his feet and looked down. “Look, Rosie. Mamá has been trying to convince me that we were wrong ever since. To me and Tío Alejandro and Missy and Claire and everyone else mamá kicked out. And I—I get it, now. Mostly.” He looked up at her—or rather down, since he was so much taller than her—with wide, pleading eyes. “I know I was wrong. I don’t—I don’t remember what I said, exactly, but I know it was wrong. And I want to make it up to you all.”
Rosalina stared at her brother as menacingly as she could. She hoped she was emulating Rowan well enough. She turned her gaze to the other four and they seemed to cower before her.
“Mamá said you have another kid?” Ricardo was so tentative, so hopeful. “I—I wanted to meet him, if I could?”
Rosalina glared at him. “One wrong word from any of you, and you will wish you had never entertained the thought of calling me to beg to come to my home. Do I make myself clear?”
“Good. Now, in you get. Shoes off. Coats can go in the open bedroom.”
Dutifully, they did as they were told. They found Veronica, next to her abuela, and apologized profusely for what they had done. Veronica accepted it with a smile, but shied away from a hug, claiming she was needed in the kitchen.
And then they wanted to meet Rowan. Keith.
“Keith,” said Rosalina, gently guiding her to Ricardo and his family. “This is Ricardo and his wife Cecilia and their children Miranda, Robert, and Seeley. This is Keith. We adopted him in June.”
Ricardo opened his mouth, then shut it again. He was probably about to make a comment about her glittery makeup or feminine hairstyle. “H-Hey, kiddo. Uhm. So I suppose that makes me your Tío Ricardo, then?”
“I suppose,” Rowan replied hesitantly, crossing her arms.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This was the gross kind of awkward where Rosalina just wished it never happened and she could shut it away.
And then Ricardo had to open his big, fat, stupid mouth.
“Are you gay, too, then?”
“Hella,” Rowan replied with an arrogant smirk and crossing her arms.
Rosalina couldn’t wait to open the champagne.
Chapter 23: Spa Day
Rosalina and Lance took a whole Saturday to themselves. They got up early so they could get to the spa when it opened to be the first ones there. Rosalina had said he could do whatever he wanted, that this was a day for him to be pampered. And, with a frown, she realized that they hadn’t had a spa day in a long, long time. Not since Rowan had shown up, at least.
Had she really been neglecting her time with Lance?
Lance was in high spirits through most of it, grinning and making jokes with her and flirting with the employees. Nothing serious, though—he and Plaxum were still a thing, as far as Rosalina was aware.
Maybe she should ask.
“How’s Plaxum?” she asked as they leaned back in their chairs. They had those green gooey face masks on and cucumbers on their eyes and their feet in those tiny little foot Jacuzzis.
“She’s good,” Lance replied. “She’s visiting her family in Greece this week before school starts again.”
“Oh?” She hadn’t realized the girl would have had family overseas.
“Yeah, I think her brother or something and a grandma still live over there.”
“And things are still good between you two?”
“Yeah... It’s not like Hunk and Rowan.”
“Has Hunk asked out that other girl, yet?” Rosalina asked.
Lance chuckled. “Yeah, Rowan said she was going to ask her out for him if he didn’t do it himself. I think he believed her because he did it the next day.”
They lapsed into silence, relaxing into their chairs. The water fountain nearby was soothing, as was the light music that played overhead. Maybe Lance would enjoy working there. He knew enough about self-care stuff like this and loved it. It would be fun for him.
“I’ve been hurting myself again,” Lance said suddenly, softly, as if hoping she wouldn’t hear.
“Lance—” She plucked the cucumbers from her eyes. Lance resolutely kept his on. “Lance, why? Why haven’t you said anything, or—or used your music?”
“We never picked a song for ‘I hate myself and I feel like my mom doesn’t love me anymore,’” he answered wryly.
He pulled his arm away. It stung, but—if it would make him more comfortable if she didn’t touch him, then she wouldn’t. “Lisa talked to me. On Christmas. She—She told me the same thing she told Sylvio. That—That just because Rowan is new and needs extra care and attention and support, just like Nadia when she was born, didn’t mean you love me less. It just means that I have to share the attention, now, and that—that sometimes I wouldn’t get the attention I’m used to and—and that that just meant you were trusting me. But it doesn’t mean you’re replacing me.”
“I thought you understood when we talked about it before?”
Lance shrugged, still keeping those damn cucumbers over his eyes. “But you had to say that. You’re my mom.”
How could she fix this? How could she have been so blind? She thought she knew her children pretty well, but—had she truly been neglecting Lance, like he felt? Was there any way she could make it up to him?
“We could start doing our spa days once a month again?” She cringed at the upturn at the end that made it sound like she was unsure.
“I don’t want you to feel obligated or anything.”
“Would you please take those stupid cucumbers off and look at me?”
For a moment, it seemed like Lance would refuse. But then he huffed and peeled them off. He turned to sit cross-legged and face her, feet dripping water all over the pool chair and the floor underneath. His eyes weren’t red-rimmed like she thought they would be. They were icy, though, like a winter storm. Determined, seemingly unforgiving. Rosalina turned to face him, too, but planted her feet on the floor, grounding her. The tile was warm under her feet, but she was making a puddle she would need to remember to clean up later.
“It’s not an obligation,” she said firmly. “I... I miss doing this with you. And I’m sorry that—that I seemed to have neglected you. I don’t have an excuse. I was able to show all five of you equal attention and then—”
And then Rowan.
“It’s okay, mama.” Finally, he reached out to hold her hand. He gave her a tiny smile, and his eyes were warm again, looking less like a storm and more like the gentle ocean he loved so much. “Like I said, Rowan is the baby of the family. I realize now that she just needs a bit more extra attention for a bit, until she doesn’t need that support so much anymore.”
Rosalina probably should have defended Rowan about being the baby of the family, but she dropped it. It made sense, in a way.
“Lancito?” she asked, tugging on his hand. “May I give you a hug?”
And then her lap was full of gangly teenage boy who giggled wetly into her ear.
They didn’t stay long after that. Lance was hungry, so she took him to his favorite diner. They stuffed their faces full of soup and sandwiches and laughed themselves silly trading stories and—and she realized fiercely how much she had missed this. Lance had been the only child at home for a little over a year before Rowan had come along. They had used to go out on dates like this at least once a month.
“Whatever you want today. Today is whatever you want to do or get,” Rosalina told him as they left the diner. “Within reason.”
She knew how expensive Sephora and Ulta and all those other stores cost. She wasn’t making that mistake again.
Lance grinned that cheeky little grin of his at her, playing up his innocence. “I wanna go to the mall. Can I get a new pair of pants? I was thinking—uhm, pastel pink or something.”
And maybe they browsed too long at the mall and bought a few too many things and ate at an expensive steakhouse and threw their straw wrappers at each other and giggled a bit too loudly until one of the tables behind them cleared their throats to quell their shenanigans. And maybe they snickered under their breath and grinned a bit too wide and went out for ice cream afterwards.
And maybe they brought back some ice cream for Marcus and Rowan, who were waiting up for them in the living room and watching How It’s Made reruns.
And maybe it was all going to be alright.
Chapter 24: There's a Wocket in My Pocket--Wait
Double upload today! Make sure you read chapter 23 with Lance and Mama McClain having a spa day and having a tender moment.
Rowan only gave a quick courtesy knock before she barged into their room and flopped across the foot of the bed, almost landing on their feet. She was nearly drowning in her giant cat hoodie Rosalina had gotten her so long ago, back on her first day in the house.
Talk about déjà vu.
Marcus wiggled his feet at Rowan’s shoulders and she waved an arm at him to get him to stop. Obligingly, they set their books down to give her their full attention once again. Narrowing her eyes, Rosalina moved to her knees to peer over the edges of the bed, looking for a sneaky teenage boy who liked to give her heart attacks. Both Marcus and Rowan eyed her like she was out of her mind.
She turned her scowl to Rowan. “Where’s Lance?”
“You heard me.”
“Uh... I mean—”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This kid was going to give her a heart attack. She swatted at him once she calmed down enough, but he had crawled out of her reach to the foot of the bed, cackling the entire time. He sat the best he could on the hope chest that sat there and leaned an elbow on the bed at Rowan’s chest, grinning like the jerk he was.
“Moral support,” Lance said at her glare.
“What’s up, Rowan?” Marcus asked, finally shifting the attention back to where it needed to be for the moment. Rosalina would have to get back at Lance. She couldn’t do anything mean like switch out his hair or face products, but maybe she could pull a food prank. She would have to think on that.
Rowan flinched and buried her head with a groan.
Lance poked her. “Do you want me to say it?”
With a huff, Rowan lifted her head and held it up with her palms at her temples. “No. I need to say it. Uhm.” She ran her hands through her hair, mussing the strands, and then shuffled so she was sitting at the foot in front of Rosalina. Lance crawled onto the bed to sit in front of Marcus. “I... don’t think I’m a girl anymore? I don’t know. It’s—” She heaved a sigh. “I mean, I am, but I’m not? I don’t know. I’ve been talking with Pidge and Shiro and Adam and, uhm. Maye I’m genderfluid? Or bigender or genderqueer? I dunno.”
Rosalina tried not to feel hurt that Rowan had gone to Adam and Shiro first. They knew more about the community, after all. She didn’t really have a right to feel left out, especially since Rowan was talking to her about it now.
“Well,” said Marcus. “Thank you for keeping us in the loop. Did you—Do you want our help figuring it out? Or...?”
Rowan shrugged. “I don’t know? Uhm. I don’t think I want you to call me Rowan anymore. I still like the name Keith. It doesn’t make me feel weird or dysphoric or anything, so I guess I can go back to that. And like? I’m still a guy? But I’m also a girl? I think? I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t think I’m genderfluid because I feel both at the same time.”
“Bigender means... that you’re two genders?” Rosalina asked. She couldn’t remember if Shiro had ever said anything about that.
“Yeah, but... I don’t really like that word.” Keith shrugged. “Not for me, at least.”
“Genderqueer could mean both and neither or some mixture of the two,” Lance said, tapping away at his phone. He showed the screen to Keith.
With squinted eyes, Keith scrutinized the screen. They all held their breath as Keith looked it over. “Huh. Yeah, I guess that could fit...”
“What pronouns do you want us to use?”
Keith shrugged again, pulling the hoodie up as if hiding behind the fabric would make the conversation disappear. “I don’t know.” Up went the hood.
Oh no. They needed to backtrack, or something.
“Ro—Keith, honey.” Rosalina reached out to touch Keith’s knee. Keith’s grey-indigo eyes peered up at her. “You don’t have to decide right this second. And it’s fine if you keep changing your mind while you’re figuring this out. Please don’t feel like you’re making us frustrated by ‘changing your mind too many times.’” Success! Using finger air quotes made Keith chuckle.
“I don’t think I want, like, neopronouns or whatever. Adam tried to explain them to me but I didn’t get it. So.” Keith hunched down into the hoodie. “I guess since I’m both, we could try using they pronouns?”
“We can do that,” Rosalina said with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “Whatever you want.”
“See, you say that,” said Keith, unraveling from their hunched position with a smirk, “and yet I still don’t have a pony—oh shit.”
Rosalina had no qualms chasing both her children through the house.
They told the rest of her kids and her grandkids at the next Sunday dinner. The others were very understanding. Sylvio and Nadia, of course, were a little confused.
“They’re Keith, now,” Luis tried to explain. “And you’ll use gender neutral pronouns—they, them, their, like you would if you were talking about multiple people or someone you don’t know.”
The two were still confused.
“Pretend like there’s a mouse in my pocket and you’re talking about both of us,” Keith said.
Sylvio asked, “Do you have a mouse in your pocket?”
Keith, confused, brow furrowed, replied, “Well, no,” and they couldn’t understand why their nephew was so disappointed.
(And, if the next time they came over and Keith showed them the little stuffed mouse they had bought and put in their pocket—
Well. Rosalina knew how to hide her chuckles.)
Chapter 25: We Got That Valentine--Valentine ~Madness~
Valentine’s Day. Chaos in its natural form, naturally. Lance had been freaking out about where he should take Plaxum (“I can’t be cliché, mom!”) and it was her turn to take Marcus out for a date this year. Instead of going out, though, she was going to kick Keith and Lance out to make Marcus’ favorite dinner and so they could, ahem, Netflix and Chill, as the cool kids said nowadays.
The kids didn’t need to know that, though.
Between school and dinner, though, the kids were planning to come home to get ready for their evening. Keith was planning to go to Pidge’s house to watch cryptid videos. Rosalina hadn’t been aware that that was what Keith and Pidge were into, but... okay. Apparently, Lance and Hunk were going to go on a double date to—well, she wasn’t quite sure. The aquarium? The park? A café? Lance had said so many things that morning that she wasn’t quite sure. But then Rosalina handed him a condom—in full view of everyone at the table as payback for scaring her so many times—and Lance had short circuited so badly that she wondered if she needed to knock him out to reboot him. Eventually, he found the brain power to throw the condom back at her with a screech as he scrambled to get away.
“You need to have safe sex!” Rosalina called after him. “You’re not getting anyone pregnant until you’re married, mister!”
“Shut up shut up shut up!”
The front door shut and two sets of footsteps clomped around the house looking for her. She stepped from her room, almost running into Keith, who looked... confused? And somewhat shaken.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, guiding them back to the kitchen.
Keith threw their bag into their room, clutching a bottle in their hands as they followed silently. Rosalina set out making some hot chocolate as Lance came stomping in, face set in an angry scowl. Okay... So, something had happened. But Keith and Lance seemed to be having a silent, angry disagreement through scowls and glares and eyebrow twitches.
“Will somebody tell me what’s going on? One of you. I don’t care which.”
“So for Valentine’s Day you can send your crush a Crush,” Keith finally said, setting the glass bottle on the table. Strawberry, unopened, with a tag and a bag of candy attached at the top.
“And someone gave one to you?” Rosalina was having a hard time finding out what was so bad about that. Unless... it was done as a prank? Lance was protective enough to be angry about it, if that were the case.
“Not just someone,” Lance spat, pulling the mug she set in front of him close. “Ryan Kinkade.”
Was... that name supposed to ring a bell?
“I’m failing to see the issue here.”
“Apparently,” Keith spat back at Lance, pulling their own mug closer, “Ryan is a friend of James Griffin—the guy Lance got in a fight with last semester. The—The one who called me a tranny and emo whore.”
Rosalina plopped into her seat, watching the teens across from her. Lance was still angry—seething, really—and Keith still looked confused about the whole thing. Something wasn’t adding up, though, but she wasn’t sure what it was. Why wouldn’t both be angry? Or both be confused? And why was Lance that angry? If anyone should have been angry, it should have been Keith.
“Is there more to the story?”
Keith blew out a breath that made their fringe fly up and flop back on their forehead. Lance sullenly drank from his mug. “I didn’t know who Ryan was at first. I asked Lance, ‘cause he knows everyone. Turns out I have physics and English with him. And Lance got mad and told me they were friends, and then Ryan showed up and tried to ask me on a date. And so I told him no and it was because of James and that I couldn’t go on a date with someone who was friends with someone who was homophobic and transphobic and was okay with using slurs because that meant that they were okay with it, too, and that they might—you know—” Rosalina did know, and a shot of ice burst through her chest at the thought of Keith being murdered, eyes sightless, lying in a ditch somewhere— “and then he just said, ‘I see,’ and walked off.”
“And then,” Lance took over the story, still seething, “everyone could hear him yelling at James for being a dick and being a bad friend and bunch of other bullshit. But this was after school so not as many people were there.”
Rosalina was still confused. “Okay...? So, it sounds like Ryan wasn’t aware of James’ actions and thoughts. Or what happened last semester.”
“But what if he’s just pretending,” said Lance, venom dripping from his words, “and he was just trying to lull Keith into a false sense of security so he and James can beat them up or—or kill you.” His voice wavered and broke, and he hid his face behind his mug. “I can’t let that happen, Keith. You’re my sibling.”
Keith made him put his mug down so they could lean into his side. “I can take care of myself, Lance. You know this.”
“But—” Lance sniffed. “But maybe you wouldn’t be expecting it, and—and they catch you off guard.”
“I...” Keith fingered the Crush bottle. “I think he was sincere.” What was happening? Usually it was Lance who was too trusting and Keith who was reserved and guarded. But she kept quiet, sensing that they needed to work out this argument between themselves. “He told James they weren’t friends anymore. And he didn’t seem to care that I dress femme.” As far as Rosalina knew, Keith wasn’t out at school, unlike Pidge, but still didn’t back down from dressing femme. “I mean, I look pretty girly today and he came right up and asked me on a date. And he can’t think I’m a girl because Keith isn’t a ‘girl’ name.”
“I still don’t think it’s a good idea,” Lance mumbled into his mug.
They all sipped silently from their mugs for several minutes. Keith looked contemplative.
“What if we went on a double date? Or a triple date, with Hunk and Shay?” Keith asked. “Then we’d have backup just in case?”
“You really want to go on a date with him?” Lance asked.
Huh. A light pink tint dusted Keith’s cheeks. “He’s—cute. And he seems nice, I guess. He’s always helpful and nice in the classes I have him in. And he yelled at James and all that. So... surely that means he’s not bad, right?”
Look at Keith, being the reasonable one for once.
“Fine,” Lance grumbled.
Keith hesitated, then asked, “Would you go with me when I talk to him tomorrow?”
Lance seemed to perk up at that. “Yeah, I can.”
The two gulped down the rest of their hot chocolate and rinsed out their mugs before going to get ready. Rosalina was just glad that the two could work together, at least.
“Mom!” The door slammed shut behind her teenagers as they tromped through the house looking for her. She looked up, unimpressed, from the frames she was working on as they tumbled into the kitchen. “Can we borrow your car tomorrow?”
Rosalina raised an eyebrow at the two.
“Please?” Keith added, elbowing Lance.
“We have a date!” Lance exclaimed, seeming much happier than yesterday about the whole ordeal. “Me and Plax, and then Keith and Ryan.”
“Oh?” Rosalina grinned at Keith’s blush. “So things worked out alright, then?”
“Oh yeah.” Lance slid into his seat, diagonal from her, since she was taking up half the table. “So we found Ryan after school. And boy lemme tell ya, he and James are definitely not friends anymore. And James was glaring at Keith all day.”
Keith rolled their eyes, setting down next to Lance to pull out their homework. “We talked with Ryan. Apparently James didn’t know that Ryan was pansexual and James was tight-lipped about why he was suspended last semester and hadn’t ever said anything homophobic or anything to Ryan. So they’re no longer friends. And Ryan seemed pretty happy that I changed my mind.”
“And he agreed to a double date with no protest,” Lance added, shuffling through his homework. “So I guess that makes him okay.”
“I’ll let you use the car on one condition,” she said with a glare between the two. “Lance drives.”
Keith groaned. “That was one time!”
Rosalina cocked an eyebrow. “Shiro says otherwise.”
Sooo if you can’t tell, I really don’t like James lol.
The story is coming to an end sooner than you think. ): I can’t see this going on much past thirty chapters. The last chapter is already written and it’s super sad, but the epilogue will be super fluffy to make up for it!
Chapter 26: Impromptu Concert
Double upload again! So go read chapter 25 which was about Valentine's Day if you didn't, because this is sort of a "part two" for that.
Dance music blasted through the speakers in Lance’s room as the two got ready for their date. A remix of a song that had sounded depressing before, but the upbeat of the remix made it more fun, Lance had told her when she questioned why he liked the remix better.
“Kiss me hard before you go!” Keith was shouting the lyrics into a hairbrush as Rosalina passed. She paused to watch the scene as the two jumped and danced, flinging their arms around and shouting lyrics to the chorus into their hairbrushes.
For Keith not liking Lance’s “pop shit,” they sure were having a great time.
And then Keith was dancing sensually, hands running up and down their body, drawing their red skirt up as their hips swayed slowly. Lance crowed in approval—he’d obviously been teaching Keith how to dance.
Honey I'm on fire, I feel it everywhere
Nothin' scares me anymore
Rosalina smiled at the feeling Keith threw behind the lyrics before returning to jumping and waving their arms with Lance. The two were giggling as the chorus repeated again, barely pausing for breath as the song started again. Keith returned to dancing slowly and sensually again, biting their lip and making adjustments as Lance called them out.
Keith only had half their makeup on, one eye covered with grey eyeshadow and their favorite bright red lipstick to match, looking spectacularly ridiculous. The red dress was new, something they’d gotten during their Christmas shopping trip with Lance. It stopped at their knees, but black leggings covered their legs to protect them from the cold February air. Their favorite black heels were by the door and their nails were painted bright red to match everything else.
Rosalina had a feeling Keith would grab their black coat she’d bought them last year. Lance would probably squawk and complain that it ruined the outfit. Keith wouldn’t care and would strut it about anyway.
Lance looked good, too. He was wearing his new pastel pink jeans with a loose fitting light grey t-shirt he had tucked into the front. His white converse were next to Keith’s high heels. He wasn’t wearing makeup, but his hair only look half-tamed.
Rosalina knocked on the door, grinning with both teenagers screamed in alarm. Keith dove for the stereo to turn it down, flush bright on their cheeks.
“Payback!” She laughed at his indignant look. “Just letting you know that you’re going to be late if you continue your impromptu concert.”
The two scrambled to finish getting ready. They rushed out the door, Lance flashing the keys with a cheeky grin at Keith who pouted but pulled on their black coat. Lance, of course, squawked and protested. Keith smirked and strutted out the door to Lance’s protests. Lance grabbed his own white coat and bid her goodbye, slamming the door on his way.
It took a minute for the garage door to shut again.
Ah. Peace and quiet at last.
“So, how was the date?” Rosalina asked as the two came tumbling in. She looked up from her spot cuddled next to Marcus to see the two shucking off their coats and shoes.
“Good,” said Lance, collapsing onto the couch. Keith collapsed next to him. “We went bowling.”
“Oh yeah? Who won?”
“The girls,” Lance grumbled, shoving a foot at Keith.
“Hey.” Keith shoved a foot back at Lance, smacking at his ankle. “Just because you suck—”
Marcus interrupted before they could continue. “Boys verses girls? How...? But I thought...?”
“Hunk and Shay joined us, too.” Lance grunted when Keith got a good jab into his side. “And Keith joined the girls.”
“I—ow, Lance!—I came out to them. Okay, stop.” Keith glared at Lance who whistled and looked away innocently. “So I offered to be on the girl’s team. They took it pretty well.”
“And Ryan?” asked Rosalina.
“Yeah, he was fine with it.” Keith smirked. “He was a little weirded out that Hunk was there because we used to date, but he didn’t really say anything. And we won, so that was good.”
Lance grumped from his side of the couch. “You cheated, is what you did. You and your—your—your womanly wiles!”
Keith shrugged. “Not our fault you were distracted by us.”
Rosalina laughed at Lance’s protests. Keith didn’t look shaken at all, and Lance didn’t look truly angry. And there was no mention of Ryan being transphobic or anything. Maybe they’d have another date, but Rosalina was too content to listen to her kids tease each other to bring it up.
For the most part, the rest of the school year passed quietly. When the anniversary of Keith’s dad’s death came, Keith asked for Marcus to go with them that time. Rosalina stayed home, just in case, but wished them a safe trip and sent them off with a chair for Marcus’ old bones.
Keith still didn’t want to go to prom, Ryan accepted that, Lance not so much, but they all went out as one big group for dinner. Plaxum’s group and their dates and Lance’s group with their dates and Pidge had all squished into cars after loads of pictures had been taken in her backyard. Surprisingly, Hunk was going to attend prom with Shay. Lance had tried to cajole Keith and Ryan to join them at prom with no success.
Instead, they were going to go do an escape room.
Either way, it gave Rosalina and Marcus a quiet night in.
But then graduation was upon them.
And no. Rosalina was not going to cry. She wasn’t! She wasn’t even going to get teary-eyed!
“Okay, dear,” Marcus had said in reply to her protests. She pretended she didn’t see him stuff a few tiny packages of Kleenex into his pockets on their way out the door.
Her two kids graduating were already at the school, texting her with how utterly bored they were. Lance had even gone so far as to make a giant group chat with everyone and their dog, apparently. It was going so fast that Rosalina didn’t even bother to try to keep updated. It got so annoying that she eventually muted the chat. The rest of her children were going to meet her at the school, and then the rest of their family was going to meet them at the Holiday Inn’s smaller ballroom they had reserved just for this with catering and all the works.
There was no way she was putting the Martinez and McClain families all in her house. There was hardly enough room for the Martinez family. And she definitely wasn’t going to cook for all of them.
Lance, of course, was the valedictorian. Funnily enough, he and Keith had had the same GPA and everything, but Keith was knocked down to salutatorian simply because of their earlier transcripts being so rocky. It had been fine with Keith—they just grinned and fist-bumped Lance in congratulations.
And to think—no one had thought Keith would graduate on time. And they were the salutatorian.
Finally, they found their kids and grandkids. Unfortunately, Lance and Keith were only able to save a few seats in the immediate family section. Fortunately, the kids all offered to sit up in the bleachers together to save from a fight. Also fortunately, they were able to sit next to Hunk and Ryan’s parents.
Both of their speeches were lovely. Lance talked about moving forward and branching out, even if growing up seemed scary. Keith talked about acceptance and came out, officially, as genderqueer.
Marcus didn’t tell her, “I told you so,” as he handed her tissues.
It was a good thing that they had reserved the ballroom. There were so many people that Rosalina could hardly keep them straight. Gifts for both Lance and Keith were piled on a few tables (red for Keith, blue for Lance, obviously) that groaned under their weight. From what she could see, there was already a lot of Boston University memorabilia for Lance and Altea Tech for Keith. She was mostly just trying to make sure that the water and tea and lemonade jugs were never empty while Hunk and his family took care of making sure there was always food out.
Ricardo was there, keeping nice and quiet in his little corner. He hadn’t been doing too badly, actually. Christmas hadn’t gone nearly as bad as she had thought it would, so they had extended the invitation for him and his family to join them for their graduation.
Not even an hour in and she was exhausted. She found a table and collapsed, nursing a large cup of lemonade. People could go thirsty, for all she cared.
“You okay, mom?”
Rosalina sighed and leaned into Keith’s side. “Just tired. You doing okay?”
“Yeah.” They wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Thanks, you know?”
“Just—everything you’ve done. Fostering me, adopting me, putting up with me...”
“Keith, baby.” She turned so she could face them, grabbing their hands in her own. Keith looked down at her, hair done up in their favorite waterfall braid to keep it out of their face. They were wearing their red dress that, funnily enough, matched their table of gifts. She was sure Lance was somewhere wearing a blue shirt he bought so he would purposefully match his table. “It’s been my pleasure. And I’m not ‘putting up’ with you. I love you. You’re my child. I want you to be happy.”
“Still.” Keith smiled and kissed her cheek. “Now excuse me—I need to go shove some cake in Lance’s face.”
“You will do no such thing. Keith! Keith!”
The next day they spent opening all their gifts. Keith had their pile on one half of the living room and Lance had his on the other so they wouldn’t get mixed up.
Of course, almost everyone included money in their envelopes—fifty dollars, one hundred, gift cards, etc.—which, when added up because of all the family, ended up being quite a hefty sum for each.
Then again, almost everyone included little Boston University memorabilia for Lance—and if it wasn’t Boston University, it was something marine animal themed. Keith had been a little trickier to shop for, apparently, because they’d mostly gotten gift cards and a few Altea Tech memorabilia. Keith wasn’t bothered, though.
“At least I don’t have to pretend to like stuff they thought I’d like,” they had explained with a smirk.
Lance frowned. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much ocean stuff in my life.”
“Get used to it,” Keith quipped back. “You’re the one who wanted to do Marine Biology.”
Lance threw tissue paper at them, and it was all Rosalina could do to keep them from destroying the living room any further.
Lance’s eighteenth birthday was bittersweet. They were celebrating with one last hoorah before they took two weeks to drive him up to Boston to help him get settled into the dorms. They had even helped him buy a gently used SUV he affectionately named “Blue” that would surely hold most of his stuff as they traveled across the United States.
And Rosalina was so proud of him. He had gotten a full-ride scholarship to such a great school that would help him with a career he was sure to love. He hadn’t decided if he wanted to do research or be a teacher or work at an aquarium or what, but he was adamant that he wanted to work with ocean animals in some capacity.
Keith joked that he just wanted to be Aquaman.
Lance replied that there was nothing wrong with wanting to be a mermaid, thank you very much.
The only problem was that he was so far away. Really, he would only be able to make it back for the breaks, which broke her heart. He was her baby. But Lance promised to skype every Sunday for Sunday dinner and call her at least once a week.
That would have to do, she supposed.
But then right after his birthday, he came sobbing into her room and collapsed against her. Through his crying she was able to decipher that Plaxum had broken up with him because she didn’t think they could do long distance.
It was a long time before she could calm him down, and longer still before he allowed her to get up to get him a glass of water. Keith wandered in at some point, left, and came back with the family tub of ice cream and three spoons.
In. Her. Bed.
With a sigh, she took a spoon and ignored Keith’s victorious smirk.
They took two vehicles up to Boston. They switched drivers every few hours and stopped at a couple hotels along the way. Each day someone different rode with Lance, getting one last long day with him before not seeing him again until November.
Rosalina only cried for ten minutes when saying goodbye to her baby.
The car ride home was too quiet.
Keith was still going to live at home while they went to the tech college and worked at the garage. Rosalina could also brag that they had gotten a full-ride scholarship, too. Her kids were just too smart, and she liked to think that it came from her (though Marcus would argue that it obviously came from both of them). Soon enough, Keith would have their degree and could work with Marcus and—as they had talked with Rosalina and Marcus before, back several months ago when the school was making seniors decide where they wanted to go to college—they wanted to keep the garage in the family as long as they could. None of her other children were ever interested in mechanics like Marcus was, but Keith—Keith loved it. They loved the problem solving and building and working with their hands that went along with the shop.
Rosalina didn’t say anything when Marcus had gotten teary-eyed at Keith wanting to carry on his legacy.
And Keith was the only one at home, now. They had offered to move out, to have their own place, but it was Marcus who convinced Keith that they didn’t need to leave—they needed to save up their money, didn’t they? And they still had plenty of space in their home for them. Their other children weren’t in the house because they were in colleges in different towns or had started their own families, so why did that mean Keith had to leave, too? Keith hadn’t had an argument for that. They just shut their mouth with a private little smirk and agreed they could stay for a couple more years.
Rosalina didn’t think she could take it if Keith had moved out, too. All those years of hustle and bustle and then—so quiet.
She just wanted to hold onto her baby for just a little bit longer.
Today will be a double upload day! I've had this next chapter written for a long time, so it just needs editing. It's also the last chapter and then the epilogue will come out hopefully sometime this week.
Chapter 28: The Big Bang
It was a quiet year, for sure. Especially with Lance out of the house. Still, he called almost every other day and they set up the laptop at the head of the table for Sunday dinners so he could still be part of it, too. It was hard, with him gone and so far away. The house felt... empty, without him. But he came back for every break the second he was able to get away.
He was having fun, though, up in Boston. He told her tales of all the wild dates he went on his first semester before buckling down to focus on his studies his second semester.
He also brought home a boy during spring break. Rosalina hadn’t been too impressed by Lotor’s snobbish attitude, but bit her tongue. Lance needed to grow up and learn on his own, and she would be there to mend his heart three weeks later when Lotor broke up with him.
Keith, on the other hand...
Ryan and Keith broke up not long after Keith’s nineteenth birthday. They shrugged it off, but she could still see the sadness in their eyes when they explained that Ryan was hurt that Keith wouldn’t give him a reason for why they refused to go visit him out in the desert at the Garrison.
Rosalina didn’t blame Keith for never wanting to step foot back out there.
Keith only had a week of being a teenager left. In one week, they were going to be twenty, and that was okay. That was fine. Rosalina wasn’t going to cry about it.
It was just... they were growing up so fast.
Sometimes it was hard, just having them in the house, but Keith was always a welcome, quiet presence. They were much, much quieter now that Lance wasn’t there to goad them into things. Keith was sad, more often than not, but hid it behind homework and work and entertaining Shiro and Adam and Pidge when they came over.
Keith was even great with all the fosters who came through. They would take them to school on their way to class or babysit for Rosalina and Marcus so they could go out on a date from time to time. They were especially great with the older ones because they had been there. They knew the anger. They knew the sadness. They knew the hopelessness.
None of the kids ever stayed for longer than a week, though. Their house was just a pit-stop for them until they could get where they needed to go.
And then one day, they were coming home from picking up a pair of twins—Amelia and Abigail, identical twelve-year-olds down to the freckle at the corner of their left eye—who had taken a shining to Keith and their ‘bad-boy’ air of coolness. Marcus had had to go into the garage for a few hours to do payroll so he wasn’t able to join them. But before Rosalina could pull into the driveway, Keith urged her to go around the block.
There was a woman sitting on their porch. There was a bag at her feet, worn and old and falling apart.
Keith wanted her drop them off around the corner, but she refused and pulled into the driveway and into the garage. Keith darted inside, slamming their hand on the button to close the garage door. Rosalina ushered the girls inside to see Keith stalk from their room, knife in hand. The girls cowered away, shuffling behind Rosalina.
“Keith,” she admonished, putting a hand to their arm to make them lower the knife.
“Mom.” Their voice was low—dangerous. “I’ve seen her before. At work and at school. I don’t know if she’s stalking me—or us, but—”
“Then let me talk to her.”
“She could be dangerous.”
One of the twins whimpered.
Rosalina urged them to go into their room, bidding them to stay put until she came to get them. She followed Keith to the door and made them put the knife back in its sheath. “If she is dangerous, you still have it,” she replied to their scowl. “No need to antagonize her first.”
They stared at her, hard, glaring and grinding their teeth. “Fine,” they growled out, sheathing the knife and putting it in their back pocket where they could reach it.
The woman was still sitting on the top stair when they opened the door. She turned, smiling faintly when she saw them.
“The fuck do you want?” Keith growled, stepping in front of Rosalina. The screen door shut with a soft click behind them. “Why have you been following me?”
“You noticed,” the woman intoned, sounding almost proud. “I wondered if you would.”
The hairs on Rosalina’s arms stood on end. That wasn’t creepy at all, as Lance might put it.
The woman stood, then, towering above them both, probably as tall, or even maybe taller, than Shiro. She was smiling a familiar private, small smile Rosalina had seen somewhere before. Her eyes shined with a familiar determination—
Rosalina understood a half-second before the woman said, “I expected nothing less from my child.”
Rosalina could almost hear the record scratch in Keith’s brain. They stiffened, arm going back to their pocket to draw out the knife.
Their voice was still low and dangerous when they growled, “You’re not my mother.”
“I am,” the woman insisted, stepping closer. “You’re Keith Kogane—”
“Keith McClain,” they bit out. “The McClains adopted me after dad died. You’re not my mother.”
“Keith—” Her brow was furrowed, oozing confusion.
“You lost that title the moment you abandoned me,” Keith growled, unsheathing the knife and pointing it at her. “The McClains are my family, now. They at least wanted me around.”
Rosalina could see the moment the other woman just—shattered. “Keith, I never abandoned you. I—”
“You left. I’m almost twenty! I’ve never known you. Where were you when dad died, hmm?” they asked mockingly, an ugly sneer on their face as they stepped closer, knife up and ready to plunge into the woman before them. Rosalina called to them, but they ignored her. “Where were you when I went through fifteen foster homes before I found a family that wanted to keep me? Ten fucking years!” They were so close that she had to step down a few stairs or risk being skewered. “Where were you when the family before the McClains dropped me off in the fucking desert to die? Where were you when I was eight and lonely and scared and wanted my mom because my dad died?” They were yelling, now, prowling after her until she was no longer on the porch.
Then they reached down, grasping her bag, and flung it hard at her. It landed against her chest with an exhale of breathlessness. The knife just barely missed her when they threw it at her feet.
“You’re not my mother. Now fuck off before I show you how angry I really am.” They turned to face Rosalina, eyes wild and fierce and terrifying. They didn’t even wait to see if the woman would leave. They glared at Rosalina, telling her to get back inside. She hurried to comply. She wasn’t—afraid, exactly. Not of them. But of how outrageously angry they were. Had they been bottling this up the whole time?
The front door slammed so hard that the dishes rattled in the kitchen. They sank, just inside the doorway, to their knees and screamed. Screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed until their voice was raw and broken and they were clutching at their head, pulling at their hair, hunched over—
And Rosalina was there, gently tugging their hands away. They fought against her only briefly until a sob choked them and they fell against her, sobbing into her chest as she held them tight and close. Their arms around her made her ribs creak and breath short, but they were so hurt that she could take this little discomfort from them if it made them feel better. They screamed some more, the sound muffled in her shirt, and pounded their fists to the floor, careful not to hit her.
But then they were pulling back and punching at their legs, screaming and crying and—
Rosalina gripped their fists in such a way that if they continued trying to hurt themself, they would hurt her. They immediately stopped trying to hit themself, but kept on screaming and crying. Their voice was so hoarse that it hurt her throat to listen to the sound.
“Is he okay?” one of the twins whispered once their screaming had died down to whimpers.
“No.” Rosalina wasn’t going to sugarcoat this. “That woman on the porch hurt—him.” She stumbled over the pronoun, almost forgetting, for a moment, that Keith would rather the fosters just use masculine pronouns for them just because they didn’t want to explain how they were genderqueer every time.
“Do you want us to call the cops? An ambulance?” the other twin asked, perking up. She was just trying to be helpful.
Rosalina shook her head. “No, thank you. It wasn’t a physical hurt. It was an emotional hurt. Like your mom did to you.” She shushed into their hair, carding her fingers through the strands. “Could you get my purse, though? Please?”
The girls scampered off to find it and bring it to her. Keith continued to cry in her arms. Her knees and hips were going to hate her so much for this, but—Keith needed her more. The girls brought back her purse and she shuffled through it with one hand to find her phone. The other hand held Keith as close as she could.
“Hey, Rosie—” Marcus was entirely too cheerful for this conversation.
“I need you home. Now.”
For some reason, Marcus had a way of getting through to Keith when they were feeling inadequate, or like they weren’t worth their time or love. Maybe because he reminded Keith of their own father, who knew. She knew she needed him to be here, be their rock, steady them. But she also knew that she wasn’t going to get very far without Shiro there, too. She could apologize to Marcus for being short with him later.
“Rosalina?” Shiro sounded tentative. She never usually called. “What’s up?”
“I need you to come over as soon as possible.”
There was shuffling on the other end. “Did something happen?”
“Keith needs you. His... birth mom stopped by. She’s been stalking him for a while, apparently.”
“Shit. Shit shit shit.” Something clattered on the floor. “I’m on my way. Is Keith okay?”
“No. No, he’s not. We have fosters here, too, so please be mindful.”
She hung up, not willing to part her attention much more. Shiro knew what he needed to know. “Come on, Keith,” she muttered, trying to stand. “Let’s move out of the door, okay, baby? My old bones can’t sit on the ground much more.”
Keith was reluctant to move, but they sniffled and coughed and winced until they were standing and shuffling towards the couch. She set them down, told them she’d be back, and went to get ice packs. One of the girls stayed on the couch with them, gently holding their hand. The other—Abigail, maybe—helped her wrap the ice packs in towels. Back in the living room, Keith had their head hung low, hair falling around their head to hide their face. They flinched when she put two of the ice packs on his legs where they’d hit themself. The other two ice packs she cradled in her hands and rested Keith’s hands in hers. The ice packs were cold in her hand, even through the towel.
“I’m sorry, mama,” they croaked painfully. Their voice was absolutely destroyed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
She shushed them, kissing their temple. “Don’t apologize, mi corazón.”
“Sometimes I wanna scream, too,” said Amelia, the one who had held their hand. “My mom was mean and I wanted to scream at her all the time.” Abigail nodded in agreement.
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” they barely managed to croak out.
Abigail spoke this time with a gentle, “You only scared us a little. But that’s okay. You were scared, too, right?”
“And sad,” added her sister.
Slowly, Keith nodded, suddenly appearing shy.
The garage door whined open, and a few moments later was shutting again and Marcus was storming through the door, searching franticly for them. He spotted them, finally, and hurried over, falling to his knees in front of Keith. “Corazoncito,” he muttered, taking Keith’s hands from Rosalina. “What happened? Are you okay?”
“His birth mom has been stalking him,” Rosalina replied quietly. “She showed up here, and—it didn’t go well.”
“Did you call the cops? Ambulance?”
“It won’t do any good.”
Marcus closed his eyes, breathing deeply for a moment. He cradled the back of Keith’s head and pressed a tender kiss to their forehead. Keith shuddered at the contact, listing to the side until Rosalina was cradling them in her arms. Not long after, the front door opened and Shiro came hurrying in.
“Oh, Keith.” He knelt down beside Marcus.
“Are you okay with me taking care of the girls?” Rosalina asked them, carding her fingers through Keith’s hair. “Will you be okay with Marcus and Shiro?”
Hesitantly, Keith nodded, sniffing and wiping at his eyes with a gloved hand.
Rosalina herded the twins to the kitchen. She might be their mother, but right now Keith needed that stability Marcus and Shiro could give him. She had done what she could, and she would bring him some tea with lemon and honey to help soothe his throat.
To the girls, she said, “Let’s get you settled in, alright?” and she pretended she was okay.
Glancing out the window, she saw that the woman and her bag and the knife were gone. Rosalina almost wanted to talk to her, to see what her reasons were for abandoning Keith and not coming back until almost twenty years later, but...
Her child was hurt, and that took priority.
Someone knocked on the door. Keith stiffened, then glanced at the time with wide eyes. Shiro gave him a comforting squeeze.
Right. They were supposed to have a date tonight with a guy from one of their classes. Accounting, she thought distantly. The twins peered up from their board game with Marcus, looking almost frightened.
“I’ll take care of it,” Rosalina muttered, kissing their temple as she stood. “I’ll just say something came up. No details.”
Keith nodded their thanks, flushing a light pink and hiding their face. Distantly, she heard Marcus comforting the girls, promising it wasn’t the woman again.
At the door stood a tall boy, easily as tall as Shiro. Did Keith just have a thing for tall boys? He had flowers in his hand—something purple, but Rosalina couldn’t tell very well what kind they were—and shuffled shyly when he met Rosalina’s eye. He was dressed casually, but nice, too, in dark greys and purples. It looked nice on him.
“Oh, hi,” he said, grinning charmingly. “I’m looking for Keith McClain?”
“Keith lives here, yes,” she replied, eyeing him up and down. He looked strong, but his face was kind, at least. She wasn’t sure how ‘out’ to the boy Keith was, so she was trying to stay as vague and neutral as possible. “Are you Regris?”
“Yes ma’am.” His smile faltered. “Is everything alright?”
Huh. Intuitive. He hadn’t hit on her, either. Two points for him. Not like Lance’s last date he had brought home. “I’m really sorry,” she said, actually sincere. The boy seemed nice. “We’ve had a bit of a family emergency pop up rather unexpectedly.”
“Oh.” And he was frowning, but not in disappointment or anger. He was—concerned. “Is everything alright?”
She only hesitated a second. “Yes—it’s just, Keith won’t be able to go on the date tonight. Maybe once this has died down you can reschedule?”
Regris nodded. “Of course. Please let them know to take their time and they can text me when they’re ready. Family comes first, after all. Uhm.” He shifted from foot to foot. “Are they going to miss class? I can make copies of notes and drop them off.”
Super nice, apparently. And even knew which pronouns Keith liked best. “I’ll let them know you offered. I don’t know if they’ll be missing class yet.”
He nodded again. “Sure. Uhm. These are for them.”
The flowers were hyacinths. Just a few bundles, but they were well-picked and very pretty. She took them from him and smiled up at him. “I’ll make sure Keith gets them.”
“Thank you.” He bowed his head, bending slightly at the waist, then gave her a lazy salute and wandered off the porch. She closed the door and turned to go give the flowers to Keith, but they were suddenly behind her, startling her.
“He brought me flowers? What’d he say?” They gently took the flowers from her to admire them.
“He said to take your time because family comes first and to contact him when you’re ready to reschedule. He didn’t pry or anything,” she replied, subtly stepping away from the door. “He also offered to copy notes for you if our ‘family emergency’ would keep you from class. He seemed—”
Yup, there they went, scampering out the door and waving to stop Regris from leaving. He stopped his car, half-way out the drive, and cautiously pulled back in so he wasn’t hanging out in the street. The car shut off and he got out with a soft smile. Rosalina stood just inside the door, watching with a grin as Regris’ smile turned soft, then turned into a frown as he reached out to brush away the leftover tears. And then he tucked Keith’s hair behind their ear and smiled again, agreeing to whatever Keith was saying.
Keith had to stand on their toes to give Regris a kiss on the cheek, but then they were making their way back to the house, startling on the porch when they saw her hanging in the doorway. “Mom!” they shouted, waving an arm. She could see Regris grinning from his car, watching. “Stop being a creep!”
“I was making sure he wasn’t going to take advantage of you!”
“Not until next week you’re not!”
“You’re my baby!”
She could hear Regris laughing, deep and joyful, at their theatrics. Keith’s cheeks flushed a brilliant red and they flipped the other boy off, which only made Regris laugh harder as he pulled out of the driveway.
And maybe, maybe, things would be okay.
It had been ten years to the day Rosalina and Marcus had promised Keith that they would adopt them. It had been a long ten years, too, full of grief and strife and joy.
Her mother had died, not long after Lance had started his master’s program. They had all taken it hard, but... Mamá had been tired and ready to go, anxious to see her husband up in Heaven again. She wasn’t hurting anymore, Rosalina knew, both from heartache and from her old body just slowly failing on her. Her aunts and uncles were quickly following in her mamá’s footsteps, unfortunately.
Lance, too, hadn’t escaped unscathed from heartache. His wife had died in childbirth, leaving him and Ariel (because of course that silly boy was so obsessed with mermaids that he named his child after one) alone in California where he had been working doing research with sharks. After the funeral, he had moved back home so Rosalina could help take care of Ariel (and him, too, though he refused to see it that way). And finally, finally, after four years, Lance had moved on from her death and was bringing home Sebastian to meet the family. Nothing quite like throwing him into the pit to see if he could make it, Lance had joked.
Rosalina had given him a narrowed-eyed look. He had better not name his next kid Flounder or Scuttle or Triton or Eric or any other Little Mermaid names.
Lance swore it was just coincidence.
Keith called bullshit.
And Rosalina’s house was full to bursting. It was almost every Christmas Eve, now, with all her kids and their kids and Shiro and Adam and their kid and Hunk and Shay and Pidge thrown in the mix as well. Somehow, without her knowing, she had pulled these stray kids into her own flock, inviting them every year to celebrate with them.
Christmas Day was spent much more quietly, now. There was no way anyone’s house was big enough to fit the whole family with aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins and grandkids and—
But that was okay. They were still near enough that Rosalina could go visit, or they could come to her.
Sylvio and Nadia were finally in high school. Sylvio was about to graduate, excited to join the ranks of adulthood. Rosalina wasn’t about to burst his bubble. Nadia, on the other hand, had shown interest in mechanics like Keith and Marcus. More often than not, she spent her weekends in the garage, waist-deep in the guts of a vehicle as Keith patiently showed her what to look for.
Marco, though, had surprised her the most. He had been so adamant that he would never, ever date. “No one wants to date someone who’s ace, ma,” had been his reason. But then at the last Sunday dinner he had sheepishly asked her if he could bring a man he had been dating for a few months. Liam, apparently, Marco told her privately, didn’t care if they never had sex. He was nervous, sure, but hopeful. But most importantly, he was happy.
Rosalina had smiled approvingly and had drawn him into a hug.
Somewhere in the house, pulling her from her thoughts, Rachel was admonishing her six-year-old for being too rough with the younger kids. She was just starting to show, and her and Ruben were excited for their second child. Roman was impatiently awaiting his sibling, constantly asking when they would be born.
Maeve and Benjamin went tumbling past, herded by their mother to the bathroom. Acxa sighed, raising her eyes to the ceiling, and muttered something about potty training. Her and Veronica had just adopted the two siblings, six and two respectively.
A few years ago, Veronica and Acxa had finally gotten their acts together and had gotten married. It had been a small ceremony—just their immediate family and a few friends, but no expense had been spared for the after party. The two had looked positively beautiful in their dresses and hadn’t been able to keep their eyes off each other the entire night.
Shiro and Adam’s daughter, Sarah, passed by Rosalina on the way to the kitchen, giving her a cheeky grin that was much too mischievous for Rosalina’s liking. She was Nadia’s age, and the two constantly got into trouble together.
Before she could see what they were planning, Hunk came barreling past, Pidge grinning and hot on his heels.
“Don’t you dare touch my chicken, Sarah!”
“But I’m hungry!”
“You can wait like everyone else! Pidge! No! Not the cookies! You heathens. ”
Rosalina shook her head at Shay who fondly rolled her eyes at the trio. Hunk and Shay had yet to have kids—something they weren’t interested in yet, but Shay had confided in Rosalina that they were thinking of adopting soon. Someone older, someone like Keith.
Speaking of Keith—
Keith had come such a long way from the angry boy she had first fostered ten years ago. Keith was strong in their gender identity, now, dressing in a mixture of femme and masculine or one or the other, even to work. At the garage the employees had a quiet respect for them, especially once Marcus had slowly started backing off after a knee replacement a few years ago. He was still there to guide Keith and to help with the books, but within a few years they were planning on Marcus fully retiring. Together, though, they were painting the front of the building in rainbow colors and putting Safe Space and support stickers in the windows. Any open homophobe had been turned away, but many more people ended up becoming loyal customers. An employee or two had quit due to the change, but—Well, it was no loss to them.
Rosalina looked from her spot near the kitchen for Keith. It had been a while since she had last seen them—
Ah, there they were. Regris had stolen Keith’s attention under the mistletoe and had Keith pressed close, putting on quite the show. The rest of her children jeered and hollered, but Rosalina could see Keith grinning into the kiss.
It had been almost ten years since the two had started dating. Eight, maybe, if Rosalina could do her math right. There had been no open talk of marriage, yet, but everyone had been placing bets—pieces of candy, babysitting duties, etc. Half the family was already out—they had thought that the two would have gotten married years ago. Only a handful were still in the running. Some thought it would be a few more months. Others thought they were already engaged and hiding the truth so they could spring it on them as a Christmas present this year.
Only Rosalina and Marcus knew the truth, and they were keeping their lips shut tight with secret grins.
Hunk signaled that the ham was done.
With practiced ease, Rosalina was able to coral everyone into the kitchen to get their plates.
The shelf in her room with all the little glass figurines had grown to accommodate for nearly thirty different animals, and maybe now they had nametags so she could keep them all straight, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
After dinner, they all crammed into the living room. They didn’t do a real tree anymore—it took up too much valuable floor space. For Christmas, Rosalina and Marcus took out the coffee and end tables, putting them in a spare room, and brought out as many chairs as they could cram into the space. The younger kids sat in the middle on the floor, but with clear dividing lines so no one could fight that presents had been stolen. Rosalina and Marcus took the loveseat, and Rachel had graciously been given the couch. The others fought over who got the rest of the couch, Shiro and Adam just managing to slide in with wide grins while the others fought. The others huffed defeated sighs when they realized and scattered about.
Since it was too much to ask for everyone to get everyone something, they all did Secret Santa. Her kids all still got her things, and Rosalina and Marcus got each family something, but for the most part they stuck with Secret Santa to keep from spending too much money. The adults had their own pool, and the kids got each other. It worked, for the most part.
Marco and Sylvio handed out the presents this time. In short order, everyone had their piles and started throwing wrapping paper at each other, laughing and teasing and forgetting all their troubles for a moment.
Regris was getting antsy over in his corner with Keith. And Rosalina wasn’t the only one to notice. One by one, all the adults and older kids slowly started keeping an eye on the pair. Pidge was slapping Hunk with the back of their hand, nearly vibrating out of their chair as they pulled out their phone to record. Rosalina was pretty sure they were muttering, “It’s happening! It’s happening!”
Finally, Regris cleared his throat and stood. He sought her out, looking nervous. Keith looked confused below him, sitting in the chair Regris had offered to them earlier.
Rosalina gave him a thumbs up. He could do this.
“Excuse me, everyone,” said Regris. He stood tall, arms clasped behind his back. “I have one more Christmas present I need to give out.”
Lance squealed, “It’s happening! Holy crow.”
Keith still looked confused. They opened their mouth to question Regris, or Lance, or someone, but Regris swiftly turned back to them with a nervous smile.
“We’ve been dating for a while,” Regris started. He fumbled with something in his pocket. “Too long, some might say, without me putting a ring on your finger.”
Keith’s eyes widened. “Regris—what—”
Regris smoothly lowered himself until he was kneeling in front of Keith. Someone started shrieking. Several voices hushed Lance. Regris pulled out the black box and opened it to show off the ring to Keith. Rosalina couldn’t see it from where she was sitting, but she knew what it looked like from Regris asking the week before if he had their permission to marry them. He’d proudly shown off the ring to her and Marcus, seeking their approval.
It was a rose gold metal ring, but rough and branch-like that didn’t close all the way. Instead, the two ends overlapped but went in separate directions, twisting like vines or roots. Small jewels branched off like leaves, pink tourmaline for Keith’s October birthday, and green peridot for Regris’ August birthday.
And no, Rosalina hadn’t teared up when Regris had showed her the ring, thank you very much.
Shut up, Marcus.
“I’ll keep it short,” Regris said, smiling shakily at Keith. “You know I love you, more than anything. You know I love your family and how they made me one of theirs since I have none left. And I know how important it is to you that you’ve set your roots down with them and...” Regris pulled the ring out of the box, hand only shaking slightly. “And I was hoping you would set your roots with me, too. Or—Or that you would let me set mine down with yours.”
There was a hushed moment where Keith just stared at the ring. They looked at Regris, eyes wide, searching for—something. But then Keith shoved their hand towards the ring and said, “Of course, Regris. What took you so long to ask?”
Regris spluttered in indignation, but put the ring on their finger. Amidst the cheers, Keith pulled Regris forward for a kiss, cupping his cheeks and letting the kiss linger.
Somewhere, someone asked who won the bet. Arguments started anew, and Rosalina settled back into Marcus’ arms with a smile.
Rosalina thought that maybe, just maybe, she didn’t do a half bad job at raising these kids.
Thanks everyone for sticking with this! I hope the ending was suitably fluffy for you.
I have no plans to continue this. Headcannon what you will of what happens now.
Edit: oops. I lied. Now there’s Keith’s side of the story!