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The worst part about the whole thing is that Keith had actively wanted to like the new artist, at first.

It had been a veritable shit show trying to find a new tattooer, plodding through portfolio after mediocre portfolio, meeting with shaky-handed sweethearts and frustratingly talented assholes. Keith had been this close to caving and texting James to ask if he wanted his spot back (behind Shiro’s back, of course, because he’d do that concerned older brother thing if he told him; no thank you) when Lance had walked in the door.

His portfolio had been good—very good. And he’d been polite when he dropped it off; laidback but professional, shaking hands with Shiro and Allura in turn, and shooting Keith a smile where he’d been holed up at the front desk, working on yet another flash sheet.

And he’d been handsome.

There’d been that, too.

With all that tan skin pulled tight across that chest, just the suggestion of abs and nipple piercings peeking through his carefully fitted tank top.

With ink flowing up both arms, a cacophony of imagery of varying quality up the left one and a deeply detailed underwater scene taking up the entirety of the right, sea foam spraying up one side of his neck.

With those startlingly blue eyes, crinkled in the corners with his wide smile, and white teeth, and thick brown hair that just must curl when it gets wet…

He’d been thinking that maybe, just maybe, they’d be able to get a new artist in the shop and he’d be able to get one over on James at the same time (not that he’s bitter, or anything; but a carefully taken selfie with the newer, hotter shop guy wouldn’t not be a teensy bit satisfying).

But he’d made a grave mistake:

He’d been sick the day of Lance’s interview, so he hadn’t sat in.

Scratch that, he’d made two grave mistakes:

He’d been sick the day of Lance’s interview, so he hadn’t sat in, and when he’d asked Shiro afterward how it had gone, he’d innocently taken his reply at face value: “Good. Really good. We’re going to give him a try, I think you’ll like him.”

Okay, three mistakes.

Because he’d asked, “What’s he like?”

And Shiro had answered, “Nice. Funny. Surprisingly humble about his work. He has a nice client base already built up, so…”

And Keith hadn’t spotted the deft change in topic; the general glossiness of just what the fuck Lance fucking McClain is like.

He knows, now, that Shiro is getting better at hiding his tells. The scar bridging his nose hadn’t puckered even a little bit, and he hadn’t even thought about reaching for his prosthetic arm. Keith will have to pay more attention. It’s a little worrisome, his being able to pull off a fast one like this.

Especially because, first thing upon walking into the shop Tuesday morning, Allura had asked him if he’d been feeling better, and smiled all serene, and taken his hand in hers, and said with far too much love and enjoyment, “I would say I’m sorry, but I think he’s going to be good for you.”

Keith had blinked. “What?”

The little jewel at the lower left of Allura’s mouth had glinted as she’d kept smiling up at him, somehow vicious in her amused composure. “Keith, darling, just try to be nice, okay? Get to know him.”

And maybe he’d fucked up a fourth time, too, when he’d taken her words as a joke. After all, when Shiro had walked in, there had been nothing in his casual greeting to suggest that he’d been in on anything with Allura. And he’s always obvious when he’s in on something with Allura.

It’s more than a little worrisome, his being able to pull off a fast one like this.

It had been a decent morning. He’d settled in and set up his station, readying his practice skin and chatting idly with Shiro about his assignment for the day. Both his brother and Allura had been setting up for long sessions, themselves, and their piercer, Pidge, had arrived in a surprisingly peppy mood. They’d had a week off for some tech convention or other, and been full of stories that Keith could hardly understand, but that he’d listened diligently to, anyway. Even Romelle’s perpetually sunny disposition hadn’t been enough to kill his good mood as the blonde had kissed Allura good morning and taken her position behind the front desk.

And fine, okay, he admits it, there’d been a fifth mistake, too, and it had probably been the worst one:

He’d been excited for Lance’s first day.

He’d been looking forward to seeing that crinkly-eyed smile close up.

He’d wanted to see those long fingers wrapped around a gun, and wondered what his face looks like while pushing his art beneath the flesh.

He’d hung around the front, checking the schedule and tidying up, waiting to catch a glimpse of those barely-there abs again.

And then Lance had arrived.

And it had taken all of three minutes for Keith to deduce that the dude is a total twatnugget.


First off.

Fucking first off.

He walks in with those irritatingly blue eyes already fixed somewhere around Romelle’s waist. His grin is all salacious and overconfident, none of the reserved interest in his earlier smiles to be seen, and when he says, “Hi, I’m Lance, what was your name again, gorgeous?” it’s with a certain false charm that puts Keith immediately on edge.

Eugh.

Second off.

Romelle is gracious about his obvious come-on, smiling as she says, “Hi, Lance! Welcome here, I’m Romelle. I run the front.”

Pidge pipes up as they emerge from the back and lean over to check the day’s schedule, “She also fucks the boss, so cool it, Casanova.”

But Lance doubles down; leans on the counter and waggles his eyebrows and says, “Oh, a threesome. Hot. You think Shiro would be down?”

Romelle laughs, and so does Pidge, but Keith doesn’t get what they find so funny about it. Ninety seconds into his first day and Lance is already cracking dirty jokes like he knows them.

“Wrong boss,” Romelle corrects, “And before you ask, no, Allura would not be down.”

They all laugh again.

Ha ha.

So funny.

And motherfucking third off.

When Lance clocks Keith’s lack of smile, he shoots him double finger guns (finger guns, like it’s 1994) and says, “You must be Keith, right? I was warned.”

Keith manages to keep his balking to a minimum. “I’m sorry? Warned?”

Lance is still chuckling. “At my interview. Shiro told me the apprentice would be rough with me. But don’t you worry.” He winks. (Ugh, winks.)  “I’m into it.”

Keith blinks. “Right.”

He doesn’t realize until he’s back at his station that just walking away like that may have been rude, but he doesn’t really care.

Especially because it turns out that Lance’s first transgressions are also the least of them.

He chats with every client.

Every.

Single.

Client.

Even the ones stretched out on Shiro and Allura’s tables.

It’s hardly an hour before his voice becomes constant background noise, drowning out the shop’s music, nearly drowning out the shop’s guns, with his incessant flirting and inane chatter.

The only time he shuts up is when he gets to work on a walk-in, nearly silent as he tattoos aside from the odd, “How are you holding up?” But as soon as the wipe down is finished—as soon as the dude has checked out his thigh in a mirror and deemed the work, “Fuckin’ awesome,”—the stream of consciousness is back in full swing.

Get to know him,’ Allura had said.

Not a problem.

Between his introductory conversations and his word vomiting all over the customers, Keith is practically an expert on Lance McClain in a matter of hours.

He knows it’s been a couple of years since he moved to Toronto from Florida, where half his family still lives (the other half is in Cuba, where he’s originally from; so that explains the unfairly gorgeous, sun-kissed complexion). He knows he’s renting a shitty basement apartment with his roommate and best friend (because of course Lance has a best friend, like he’s in fucking middle school), “Hunk.” He knows his go-to coffee order, what kind of car he’d drive if he could afford to, exactly what he thinks of the Tarantino movie before last (but not the most recent one, because he hasn’t seen it yet).

What he doesn’t know is why the guy seems incapable of just settling in and working quietly.

They’re alone in the back for thirty seconds—not even thirty, with Shiro in the bathroom and Allura grabbing a bite to eat and Pidge in their room with a client, the door closed—and Lance can’t even sit still for that long. He meanders over to where Keith is outlining on a piece of fake skin (and internally bemoaning a shaky section he knows Shiro is going to call him on), and looms over his shoulder while he’s trying to work (for fuck’s sake), and says all light and airy like it’s not a total piss off, “Whatcha workin’ on?”

“Geometric patterns,” Keith answers tersely. ‘Give him a chance,’ Allura had said, and he has been. Ignoring him has been his version of giving him a chance. If Lance wants to blow said chance by being the epitome of obnoxious all the fucking time, then that’s his prerogative.

(He’s pretty sure Shiro will disagree. He can practically feel a shiver go through his bones, like a sixth sense to match the one his brother has—the one where he can tell the precise moment that Keith starts retreating into his general dislike of people.)

Lance hums, like he’s judging the minutiae of the vibrations of the gun in Keith’s hand. “Nice,” he says, but it sounds scrutinizing more than complimentary. “How long have you been apprenticing with Shiro?”

Keith touches the skin with the gun again; tries to imagine it shifting beneath his hands with breath and reflex; drags it along and wipes away the excess ink and studies his own work. “Since June.”

Lance hums again. (Like he has an opinion on that, too, the asshole.)

“And are your panties always in a twist, or is that just for my benefit today?”

Keith’s foot lifts from the pedal. The shop is strangely quiet without the buzz of at least one machine. “I’m sorry?”

Lance is grinning down at him. The crinkles are there, but the grin is lopsided; teasing.

Like he knows Keith well enough to tease.

“Aw, it’s okay. All is forgiven.”

Keith sputters. “I wasn’t...that’s not...I wasn’t apologizing to you.”

The grin doesn’t even waver.

“Ah, just not used to people calling you on your shit, huh?”

It’s a frustrating thing, Keith thinks, getting so apoplectic so quickly that it closes his throat. So many downright deplorable things to say go flashing through his head that he can’t pick out any one of them; ends up staring, wide-eyed and enraged, at Lance’s beaming face.

“You alright, there, Kitty-Tat? Did I touch a nerve?”

Keith's inhale is shaky; enraged.

Kitty-Tat?"

“Yeah. Cuz you're like a cat when you’re mad. I can practically see your ears go flat. You gonna yowl at me?”

For a second Keith thinks he’s stepped on the pedal again, but he realizes quickly that the buzz in his hands actually an irate tremble.

“Is everything okay? Keith?”

Shiro’s voice pulls him somewhat out of whatever indignant reverie he’s fallen into. His brother is surveying the situation from the bathroom doorway in the shop’s far corner, arms crossed but expression plainly entertained.

Fuck the both of them, honestly.

But especially Lance.

After a moment’s consideration, he tells them so, and even though Shiro snaps, “Keith,” in a way that’s sharp and lacking humour, he savours the look of genuine surprise on Lance’s face as he gets up and stalks past him.

He hears his brother apologize on his behalf as he heads out the door, but Lance’s response is lost to the noise of the street traffic.

He doesn’t smoke anymore, but he finds himself jonesing for a cigarette for the first time in months. He works his fingers against the bothersome itch in his palms and makes for the cramped shop on the corner for a coke or an Aero or anything to keep his hands busy.

By the time he gets back, Lance is sitting with another walk-in, and Shiro is waiting by his station with a narrow-eyed look that tells Keith in no uncertain terms that there will be words later about his outburst, and he manages to make it through the rest of the day bent over fake skin, conferring with his brother, and generally pretending that the running commentary in the shop is a podcast or a voice in his head or anything but the new artist Keith already knows they should never have hired.


Keith is sneakier than Shiro gives him credit for.

At the end of the day, while Allura is walking Lance through their closing routines, Keith carefully times it so he’s taking out the garbage right as Shiro and Romelle start their cash count at the front. He’s going to catch shit from his brother for ducking into the lot behind the building and walking his bike a half block away so he can start it and ride off without being noticed, but whatever. He’s going to catch shit, anyway, so he might as well make it worth Shiro’s effort.

There’s a text waiting by the time he pulls into his building’s parkade and cuts Red’s engine.

Shiro

Really, Keith? REALLY

 

Keith snorts.

 

Shiro

Really, Keith? REALLY

Really really

 

His phone buzzes again in his pocket, but he waits until he’s ridden the elevator up and let himself into his apartment before he retrieves it and, without bothering to read Shiro’s response, leaves it plugged in and face down on his nightstand.

Usually he considers it—weighs the exact difficulty of his day and figures out if it’s warranted or not—but today he grabs a beer from the fridge without pause on his way to the shower, already halfway out of his clothes. It’s a holdover from his biological father, who’d insisted in that heavy Texan accent of his that there was no better place to work out a problem than in the shower, and no better beverage to do it with than a cold beer. “You don’t understand it now, son, but one day you’ll understand the importance of a good shower beer now and again,” he’d said, and while so many of his sayings and bits of wisdom had been bullshit in the end, this one has held true for Keith every time.

Lance would probably think it’s stupid.

Or he’d be way too into it, making a pit stop at the fridge every morning.

Or whatever.

Something annoying, at any rate.

The water is too hot, the way he likes it, so his beer goes frosty on the shelf and his skin reddens from the chest down in a matter of seconds. He goes through the motions of bathing quickly and then cranks the temperature up another notch, so the steam makes it a little hard to breathe and every sip is an icy hit to the chest.

Another bit of wisdom comes to him, this time from Shiro: “Patience yields focus.” He’d meant it in terms of tattooing, but Keith finds it vexatiously useful in life at large.

So.

As patiently as he can, with his beer going warm and his hair probably breaking at the ends from the heat and lack of conditioning, Keith thinks.

What’s he dealing with, here?

A fucking ass wipe is his knee jerk response, but.

Patience.

He sighs, and sinks deeper into the shower spray, so it hits him at the crown of his head and forces his hair (which does not resemble a mullet, no matter what Pidge says, and he’s going to kill them for sharing that little tidbit with Lance, who'd just run with it) down over his face like Cousin It. He’s halfway through thinking it’s another thing their new artist would find ridiculous before he catches himself and resolutely refuses to consider Lance McClain’s thoughts on any activities he participates in while wet and naked.

So.

Everyone else seems to like him. Even Pidge, and they’re usually his go-to for commiseration. But Lance’d had a Pidge-specific trump card: during one of his diatribes, he'd mentioned that his best friend Hunk had gone to culinary school and had just graduated and moved into Toronto, and Pidge had paused contemplatively before asking if, a few years prior, Hunk had attended the University of Waterloo. They’d made the connection quickly that Pidge had known Hunk during their ill-fated single year pursuing Computer Science in university (before deciding that they’d swap their hobby with their career path). Pidge had pursued piercing, and Hunk had gone after food, and they’d lost contact, and apparently Lance being the missing link is enough to have the piercer on his side.

He means, Pidge had squawked—squawked for fuck’s sake—and shouted, “Hunk is in Toronto?!” all excited like Keith hardly ever sees them. What was that?

(Plus, there had been the moment when Lance had looked at Pidge’s unfinished left arm and asked, “Is that a retro game console sleeve?” 

Pidge had corrected, “It’ll be an all-game console sleeve when Allura’s done with it.”

And Lance had said calmly, “Okay, so you’re the best,” and talked their ear off for an hour about all the gamer things Keith knows nothing about.)

He’s not, Keith will admit, actively unpleasant. James’d had an attitude problem not unlike Keith’s (perhaps the reason they’d collided so hard, like black holes trying to eat each other), but Lance is so far into the other extreme it’s almost staggering. He’s nice to everyone; overly nice, bordering on inappropriately intimate. He talks too much, jokes too much, is too much. It reveals a level of discomfort that makes Keith’s skin crawl, because he doesn’t know how to deal with it in himself, let alone in someone else.

At least he has the decency to tread lightly and shut up about it.

At least he has the decency to call Lance by his fucking name . (The dude can shove “Kitty-Tat” right up his aggravatingly perfect ass.)

The art on him is dizzying. His left arm is hard to focus on, a bunch of ink all jammed in together, and he seems immensely proud of the messiness of it. “Memories...light the corners of my mind…” he’d sung, incredibly off-key, when one of his walk-ins had asked him about them. (Shiro had joked that he should leave Streisand to Streisand, and Lance had joked back that it was both the most homosexual and dad-like thing he could have said.)

The right arm is a Lotor piece. Keith had thought so immediately upon seeing it; had recognized the hyper-realistic detail in the clams and starfish resting on the seabed of his wrist, up through the sea turtle and shark and array of tropical fish Keith doesn’t recognize, and of course the foam at his neck, so real it seems like it should smell of salt and sun. Both Allura’s sleeves—the prairie scene on her right arm that stretches into a sunrise at her shoulder, and the series of family portraits on her left—were done by Lotor, and the two had immediately bonded over it (of course).

If he has any other work done, it’s not visible. Keith kind of doubts any exists, because surely he’d have mentioned it (in detail) by now. He has a couple studs in both ears, and a bar bracketing his left eyebrow, and of course those nipple piercings (still visible through the t-shirt he’d worn, and Keith wonders if he fits his clothes specifically to show them off); he’s already started chatting with Pidge about future additions, and with Shiro about a potential new piece, so okay, Keith has to admit, the guy has good taste.

Especially since (and this had only become more and more obvious as the day had gone on, swelling beneath the first layer of Keith’s skin like a rash) Lance is good.

He’s really good.

His work is surrealist, bold, and almost aggressively colourful. It varies somewhat in style, like he can’t quite settle on any one aesthetic for too long. It’s lively, sometimes almost confusing in perspective, hints of realism sliding in alongside modern, more cartoonish vibes. It’s almost hard for Keith to wrap his head around.

But he likes it.

He really fucking likes it.

And that's...

He’s particular about his tattoos. Despite having lived with Shiro since he was ten, and despite being four months into an apprenticeship with him, Keith only has a handful of pieces. He picks his artists with excessive choosiness, leaving gaps and breaks that he knows seem like mistakes, leaving his body unbalanced. But he waits to get his ink; waits until the urge is undeniable, and the skin is crying for a specific style, and he’s found someone he can trust enough to let them put their work inside him. Piercings are a different matter—he adds willy-nilly to his collection, currently sporting a tongue piercing, an industrial, a triple helix, two 00 lobe gauges, and twin bars through his nipples, though all there is left of his snakebites are two pin prick scars below his lip—but tattoos...

There’s Shiro’s work dotting him, of course: a classic American fireman’s helmet on his back left shoulder, a lioness mid-pounce on his right side, the tiny silhouette of a motorcycle on his left inner ankle that he’d practically had to bribe his brother to give him on his eighteenth birthday (their mother had nearly disowned them both). And he’d asked Allura to design the Korean sword on his back right shoulder (cutting into his flesh with realistic blood drops he’s still not sure how she managed to pull off) and the phoenix taking flight that takes up the entirety of his upper left arm.

(He’d considered asking Shiro to do the phoenix—it’s for him, after all—but it had felt too cruel, in the end, to ask him to put ink to anything referencing the thing they don’t talk about: the months he’d gone missing, years ago, and the way he’d been rescued with a tuft of white hair and a scar across his nose and one fewer arm and all of himself less the important bits he’d left in the jungle prison they’d kept him in.)

Aside from a couple tiny bangers—an itty-bitty hippo Allura had given him on his hip during what he supposes must have been a very memorable night, if it weren’t for the alcohol involved (Pidge has pictures they like to lord over his head at every given opportunity); a scraggly Evanescence logo on his inner left knee that he’d given himself after stealing Shiro’s machine when he was sixteen; a microchip on his inner left wrist for Pidge, the first thing Shiro had given him express permission to tattoo on himself—that’s it. He’s even had the opportunity to have Lotor tattoo him when he's come in for a guest spot, but despite his reputation, Keith is still feeling out whether he deserves a spot on his body.

So it’s infuriating that, having looked through Lance’s portfolio more than is strictly necessary (especially for the shop apprentice), Keith finds himself mentally railing against what he knows to be true:

Lance McClain is a total fucking chode, but Keith isn’t quite sure he doesn’t want the guy’s art on him.

Eugh.

Dark purple spots start to dance in front of his eyes, with little greenish shooting stars between them, so he cuts the hot water and sits naked on the side of the tub to finish his beer, long gone lukewarm. He wonders if the text from Shiro will be a dismissal of his piss-poor Shrek reference, or an order to call him so Keith can be properly chewed out (in Shiro terms: scolded in the perfect disappointed dad tone) for his behaviour.

He sighs; drains his can and crushes it in his fist; grabs a towel and makes for his bedroom to face the music.

At the end of the day, he supposes, what Lance McClain is, notwithstanding anything else, is the newest employee of the shop his brother owns. So, like it or lump it, he’s just going to have to find a way to work with him. Surely, he figures, Lance will get the hint when Keith just keeps on ignoring him as much as is humanly possible.


A month in, Lance still has not gotten the hint.

Or, if he has, he just doesn’t care.

(Keith has his opinions on the matter. So does Shiro. They don’t talk about said opinions so long as Keith keeps his cool in the shop.)

To be fair, there has been some effort on his part. He seems to keep a bit of a wider berth when the shop is busy, knowing very well a client or two isn’t going to stop Keith telling him where to shove his commentary, and he doesn’t take every opportunity to rib Keith that he can.

Pretty fucking close, though.

“Just think of it as an exercise in people skills,” Allura tells him, practically weekly. “You could do with having your buttons pushed a little more. You can’t avoid everyone you don’t like.”

(Keith usually just snorts. “Not with that attitude I can’t,” he says, and Allura gives him one of those deeply caring, genuine smiles of hers that reminds him why, despite all their differences, he likes her so much.)

It’s not as bad as it could be—not as bad as he was expecting, honestly. Most days he only wants to deck Lance in the face, not commit actual murder, so that’s a start. He tries his best to focus on his work over everything else, anyway. He’s never repeated Shiro’s mantra to himself so many times: patience yields focus, Keith; just ignore him, because patience yields focus.

He’s hunched over at his station, working diligently on a design that’s driving him somewhat up a wall (because Shiro is letting him tattoo himself again, and he’s starting to suspect that apprenticing under one’s sibling means his training may be more meticulous and sluggish than most) and chatting idly with Pidge when he hears Lance burst through the front door. (He hears him through the partition wall and over the music and over the sound of Allura calibrating her machine , because you can hear Lance coming over the sound of a fucking freight train, Jesus Christ).

“Guess what day it is?!” he announces as he struts into the back, patented finger guns on show (totally radical, dude).

Pidge doesn’t look up from their phone, just raises a hand so Lance can slap it on his way by and croons, “Hump daaayyyyyy.”

“That, too, Pigeon Pie,” (Keith swears, Lance is physically incapable of calling anyone by their given name.) “But today is a special hump day. Today is Hunk day.”

That, apparently, is interesting enough to have Pidge looking away from their screen. “No way, is Hunk coming in?”

The finger guns again. Of course. Keith doesn’t even know why he’d bothered glancing over upon hearing no verbal response from Lance.

“Ah, the famed Hunk,” Allura says as she pours out her array of inks for the first appointment of the day. “We finally get to meet him?”

“You do not meet Hunk,” Pidge says, “You fall in deep love and wonder how you ever lived without him.”

“Truer words were never spoken,” Lance agrees.

“He’s impossible to dislike. Even Keith will like him, you watch.”

Keith responds with a dry, “Doubtful,” before he realizes that he should probably stop agreeing with them so often when they assume he’s going to hate people. It’s true, but he supposes he shouldn’t, given his attempted profession, encourage the stereotype.

Pidge nudges at his shoulder, uncaring when it makes him fuck up a line and have to go in with an eraser (and a pointed glare their way). “It’s also Lance’s inaugural Adam Day.”

Keith’s pencil freezes. “It’s an Adam Day?”

“It’s an Adam Thigh Day.”

“Okay, I see your point. It is a good day,” Keith laughs.

“Oh my god,” Lance gasps. “He laughs. Who is this Adam and what magic do his thighs possess that they can make Kitty-Tat laugh?”

Usually that would be enough to kill Keith’s good mood. But it’s an Adam Day. It’s an Adam Thigh Day. And what could tamp down his high spirits when hours of sweet, sweet Shiro ribbing lie ahead?

“Adam,” Pidge explains, “is Shiro’s client slash friend slash true love soulmate if he’d get his head out of his ass and ask him out.”

“It is...something to witness,” Allura offers. “I’ve never seen that much man melt into such a puddle. Poor Adam, I don’t know how much more obvious he can make it.”

Pidge rolls their eyes. “Oh, ‘poor Adam’ my taint, he’s just as bad. He needs to stop dropping hints and start dropping trou.”

“Well, he’s going to, today, isn't he," Keith says. “Shiro is going to—”

Shiro is going to choose that exact moment to come bustling in, flustered and wearing his good, fitted pea coat instead of his usual cracked leather jacket. He very specifically keeps it on until he’s in the walk-in back closet, and Keith doesn't understand why until he emerges without it.

He’s wearing a crop top.

It shows off the tattoos covering his chest and arm, especially the stunning black panther on his left bicep from Allura and the dizzying array of doodles and pictures airbrushed over his prosthetic. It’s a mish-mash of artwork, additions from fellow artists, friends, and family alike, and with no sleeves the little picture Adam himself added is visible: a tiny heart, right on the cap of the shoulder (a heart; good god his brother is dense).

And it’s not, like, a serious crop top. It’s simple, tight, black, and ending just above the line of his jeans, offering barely a strip of skin, just the hint of two hip indents and a scar down his side. It’s more a strategically short shirt, really...

But Keith will go to his grave insisting that it is a crop top, because it’s one of the few times he can cherish his brother being even more inept than him. “Shiro,” he says. “Shiro. There’s family present. And you’re in a belly top like some floozy." 

Shiro pinches at the scar on his nose. “It’s not a belly top.”

“Dude, you have your dick neck on display,” Pidge points out.

Keith kicks at the stool they’re sitting on so they go rolling across the shop floor, waving their arms to keep balanced. “Gross, don’t talk about my brother’s dick neck.”

“If everyone could stop saying dick neck, that would be great,” Allura says, nose wrinkled.

Shiro heartily agrees as he trudges back to his station and starts setting up. “Do you guys have to be like this every time?”

“Do you?” Pidge counters.

“I’m not like anything, we’re just friends!”

“I can see your back dimples,” Keith says, “You go home right this instant and put on something decent, young lady.”

“So how’s that design coming along, apprentice-o’-mine?”

Keith laughs, and goes along with the topic change. It’s only as they get back to business, Shiro examining his work, Allura finishing her set-up, Pidge heading to the front, that Keith realizes Lance has been silent since Shiro arrived. His lack of commentary seems suddenly very loud.

When he chances a quick look at him, he finds him concentrated on his phone, tapping out what looks like a text of some kind. Keith can’t place the expression on his face, but as if he can feel the apprentice watching him, he glances up at him from his phone, and the way his eyes flicker between him and his brother sends a stab of hot irritation right through Keith’s solar plexus.

It’s really rich, he thinks as Lance goes back to his phone, one eyebrow raised and fingers flying, that he of all people can have any sort of opinion on someone else being a little harsh on the teasing. He can take that little judgemental look and shove it up alongside “Kitty-Tat.”

It’s not until Shiro is prepping his own space, leaving Keith with his re-draw, that the apprentice realizes he’d been way off base. He has Lance’s number, of course—they all have each other’s numbers, should anything happen in or to the shop—but he’s never used it, and it’s a boundary Lance hasn’t crossed, either.

Until now.

Lance McPain-in-the-Ass

since the fuk wen do u got jokes?
ur actually funny

 

Keith is not surprised at his grammar (or lack thereof).

He is surprised at the fact that, when he looks over at Lance again, he’s prepping like nothing is amiss, chatting with Allura, phone resting innocuously on his light table. If he thinks he’s being subtle when he clocks Keith out of the corner of his eye, he’s wrong. His eyes flit back toward his phone for just a second before he goes back to his inks.

Huh.

Lance McPain-in-the-Ass

since the fuk when do u got jokes?
ur actually funny

Are you just realizing now that
you know nothing about me?

 

He can see Lance’s phone illuminate. It occurs to him that this is dumb. They’re literally feet from each other and texting, like teenagers.

And yet somehow, he thinks, it’s not dumb at all. It’s some other word, something more nerve wracking, like necessary.

His phone buzzes in his pocket.

Lance McPain-in-the-Ass

since the fuk when do u got jokes?
ur actually funny

Are you just realizing now that
you know nothing about me?

no but im just realizing now that
i kinda want to

 

Huh.

Lance doesn’t look at him so hard that he might as well be staring.

Good thing, too. If there’s one thing he wishes he’d inherited from his father rather than his mother, it’s his darker southern complexion. Keith’s blush shows high and clear on his pale, half-Korean skin.

Which is fucking stupid. He shakes his head, and reminds himself to stop letting Lance McClain get these easy jabs in.

Lance McPain-in-the-Ass

since the fuk when do u got jokes?
ur actually funny

Are you just realizing now that
you know nothing about me?

no but im just realizing now that
i kinda want to

Eat my fucking sandbar, McClain.

 

It makes Lance bark a laugh (which is the opposite of what Keith had been going for) but he doesn’t bother responding; just grins and shakes his head and gets back to work.

Huh?


Keith has to grudgingly admit, Pidge was right.

Hunk is impossible to dislike.

He’d walked into the shop, perhaps the largest man Keith has ever seen (save Shiro), and scooped Lance up into a hug that had produced a series of wheezing, high pitched chuckles. He has, quite possibly, the only smile Keith has ever seen firsthand that can be described as “infectious.” He’s wearing a somewhat ridiculous yellow bandana holding back a Jonathan-Taylor-Thomas-circa-1996 haircut, and somehow between his ridiculous stature and his inherent openness, he pulls it off.

He’d picked Pidge up and spun them in a circle, too, and the two had exchanged such rapid-fire tech talk that Keith had wondered, just for a second, if they’d actually been speaking another language. As Pidge introduced him to the rest of the shop, he’d waved good-naturedly (and offered a somewhat suspicious, “Oh you’re Keith!” that Lance had very specifically not reacted to).

He’d even offered a grin to Adam, the bespectacled man laid out under Shiro, his sharp, aristocratic features twisted somewhat in pain as the outline creeped ever closer to his hip. “Hey, there,” Adam had greeted, and then grunted a little and offered a quiet, “Sorry,” to Shiro, who’d mumbled something Keith couldn’t hear (too bad; it had most likely been embarrassing).

It’s not until Lance says, “Alright, Funky-Hunky, kit off,” that Keith even realizes Hunk’s been idly chatting with artists and client alike for a solid fifteen minutes. Keith had even participated; had kind of liked talking with him.

When he takes off his shirt, Keith is kind of surprised to see no other artwork. Adam jokes, “Oh, beefy. I like it,” (which makes Shiro go absolutely scarlet and turn to his reference sheet for an extended period of time, machine quiet) and Keith is just trying to think up something to say to see if he can make his brother go purple, or even white, when Hunk turns around.

Lance hadn’t gone into detail (shocker; Keith should have known something was off right then); he’d only said Hunk was coming in for another session on piece they’d been working on for the better part of a year, whenever they could. Nothing in his expression had hinted at anything like this…

The entirety of his back is covered in what looks to be folds of fabric, carefully draped as though it were pinned at one shoulder and drifting against his skin in an invisible breeze. Within the fabric folds are people—scenes, Keith realizes. Like hieroglyphics with detail and perspective, dipping in and out of view, intensely colourful near the nape of his neck and fading into black-and-grey and outlines waiting to be filled near the bottom.

Keith swallows the holy shit in his throat.

“Nice one,” Allura says, coming in for a closer look. “Very nice.”

Lance doesn’t look at her. “Thanks.”

As he gets to work, Lance is silent. Not quiet; silent. Hunk fills in for him, talking with Pidge in that weird tech-speak, mostly, but for once nothing is open about Lance, not even his mouth. His eyes narrow, his jaw clenches; he doesn’t even look up when Shiro finishes with Adam for the day and stumbles through one of the more hilarious goodbyes Keith has heard him attempt. (“Thighs...I mean, thanks…”)

Intermittently, as Allura or Shiro or Pidge look over his shoulder with a soft compliment, he gives another little, “Thanks.” But that’s it.

“Wow, dude,” Pidge says, a few hours in. Hunk is talking less, tensing more on the table. Keith figures they won’t go for too much longer, the poor guy must be tender by now. “You’re killin’ it.”

“Thanks.”

Finally, Keith gives in. He puts down his pencil; gets up and crosses the shop; peeks over Lance’s shoulder.

He’s highlighting. Hunk’s flesh jumps every time the needle hits it (Keith winces in sympathy; white liners post-shading are brutal at the best of times, never mind on the knobs of the spine), but Lance compensates fluidly.

The colour is…

The composition is…

The depth is…

And Lance still has nothing to say about it; is so deep into the work that Keith isn’t even sure he notices his audience.

This time, he does not swallow the holy shit in his throat.

It comes tumbling out his mouth on a current of shocked air, and his tongue decides to chase it with, “That’s fucking amazing.”

The gun stops buzzing.

Keith blinks down at Lance, who blinks up at him.

Shiro stares at him, wide-eyed. For that matter, so do Pidge and Allura. He’s not even mad about it, because what the fuck, he’d stare, too.

“Was that,” Lance asks, incredulous, “an actual compliment, Kitty-Tat? You gonna let me scratch you behind the ears now, too?”

It won’t be until later, cold beer in his hand and the remnants of shampoo stinging in his eyes, that Keith will realize how hard, in that moment, fight or flight had kicked in. A bright red face and a stuttered curse would have been so much more up his alley, but he’d panicked. He’d needed to save face, so he’d doubled the fuck down in a way he hadn’t considered the long term ramifications of.

“I don’t know about the ears,” he says. “Start with the chin and we’ll see where it goes.”

The buzz of Lance’s gun doesn’t start up again until Keith has retreated to his own light table. Shiro looks like he’s about ready to send Keith home sick, and Allura is smiling in that nearly-but-not-quite-insufferable I am a queen and a guru way of hers, and Pidge is sharing a look with Hunk that’s far too conspiratorial.

He mirrors Lance’s posture, hunching over his work, and doesn’t look up again until Hunk is waving goodbye to everyone, offering Keith a hand and telling him how nice it was to meet him (a sentiment rarely shared so sincerely with the apprentice). His phone buzzes as Hunk turns the corner around the partition wall into the front.

Lance McPain-in-the-Ass

1st u want me to eat ur sandbar nd
then it’s a chin scratch
u sweet on me kittytat?

 

Keith grits his teeth; opens his mouth wide for a second to crack his jaw.

 

Lance McPain-in-the-Ass

1st u want me to eat ur sandbar nd
then it’s a chin scratch
u sweet on me kittytat?

You wish.

 

He’s very, very aware of the sound of Lance shuffling around his station, cleaning up (picking up his phone, tapping a reply, dropping it back on his table…).

 

Lance McPain-in-the-Ass

1st u want me to eat ur sandbar nd
then it’s a chin scratch
u sweet on me kittytat?

You wish.

not no

 

Well.

What the hell.

Keith drops his phone into his pocket and fucks up his design twice more before he gives up on it for the day. He doesn’t look at, or acknowledge, Lance, and for once the other man seems content to return the favour.


Keith is sneakier than Shiro gives him credit for, but Pidge has more respect.

They’re waiting patiently when he tries to escape along with the garbage again, perched on his bike and drumming their fingers on his helmet.

“I’m–”

“Taking me for a drink,” Pidge interrupts, tossing his helmet at him so he’s forced to drop his backpack to catch it against his chest. “Yeah, I know. Get on, loser.”

It’s not a question, and they have that obstinate look on their face that Keith has come to know too well, and it’s still better than going inside and dealing with Lance, so he just sighs, and pushes his now-somewhat-soggy backpack into Pidge’s hands. They put it on and slip into a helmet of their own while Keith throws a leg over in front of them. He starts it up and peels out with a little more oomph than usual, but it’s worth it to feel Pidge scrabble at his waist with an affronted, muffled, “Keith, you douche!”

They don’t speak as they pull up to the closest thing Keith has to a neighbourhood watering hole. It’s a decently busy pub, dimly lit with music just a smidge too loud and “classic English-style food” that mostly consists of various deep-fried items and bland vindaloo. It’s not until they’ve been seated and ordered two gin-and-tonics that Pidge cracks a huge yawn, and stretches their hands above their head, and asks casually, “So, what’s the deal, you gonna fuck Lance, or…?”

He doesn’t know why he expected any form of couth from them, he really doesn’t.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”

“I could say it again, if you like. Do you want to–?”

The server chooses that moment to approach with their drinks. “No,” he insists, and has the good graces to wait until they’re alone again. “No, I do not.”

Pidge gives good snort, Keith will give them that. The sound is sharp, even over the music. “Please, spare me. He drives you up the wall. That’s exactly your type, if James was anything to go by.”

Keith cringes, and resists the urge to down his drink by reminding himself firmly that he has to drive home. “That was different.”

Yeah, it was different. He was a chode, and Lance is actually a decent human being.”

Keith gives good snort, too. “A decently annoying human being.”

“Oh, wow. Nice one, dad.”

Keith presses a hand to his chest, affronted. “I thought we agreed that was a Shiro word!”

They laugh, but it’s not enough to distract Pidge for long. Their eyes are sharp, and far too cunning, behind their round glasses. “Look, Keith, the sexual tension is ridiculous. It’s worse than Shiro and Adam.”

Keith scoffs. “First of all, don’t you dare, no one is as bad as Shiro and Adam. And second of all, that’s not sexual tension, it’s baseline professionalism. You should try it someday.”

“Sure. That sounds like something Shiro would say.”

He sighs. “Barely contained rage, then.”

“More like barely contained raging boners .”

Fuck, he tries not to laugh, he really does—it just encourages them, and he knows it—but he can’t help it. “Jesus, Pidge, that was worse than a dad joke. That was like a dirty uncle joke.”

“You wanna pull my finger?”

He bats thier outstretched hand away with a chuckle.

“Seriously, though. You can’t deny the dude’s good looking.”

Keith slides the side of his tongue in between his teeth; bites down until it hurts a little; shifts his glass back and forth to obscure two rings of condensation on the table. He doesn’t have to look at Pidge to know the adamant look he’s receiving. “I’m not fucking blind,” he admits quietly; bitterly.

“Right. So he’s super hot and super flirty and super nice—do not argue, Keith, he is—and you don’t want to fuck him?”

Keith nods decisively. “Exactly.”

“Why?”

Keith freezes, drink halfway to his mouth. Pidge is looking at him curiously, head cocked, eyebrows furrowed like they’re actually worried; like they’re actually just curious. There’s no teasing in them, and it’s such a stark contrast that Keith finds himself answering despite himself.

“Super hot, super flirty, super nice,” (he rolls his eyes, but doesn’t comment on that further) “super annoying, super coworker.”

“Didn’t stop you before.”

They don’t mean it to hurt, said all casual and nonchalant like that, but it does.

No, it hadn’t stopped him before.

And well.

That had just turned out peachy, hadn’t it?

He’d had his reservations about James at first, too; spent a couple weeks wanting to punch that perpetually arrogant, try-hard expression off his face. And then he’d ended up kissing it off, instead, crawling into bed with him (or rather, into the back of his car with him), heedless of the risk.

He probably should have broken it off that first morning after, when he’d leaned in to kiss him only to be rebuffed with a panicked glance around the (thankfully empty) shop and a firm, “Don’t get it twisted, we are not boyfriends, and I work for your brother.”

Or maybe it should have been when he’d bitten his tongue at James’s casual mention of his weekend hook-up, and then refused to back down when the guy’d copped an attitude at his recounting of Keith's date the previous Friday. (It had gone terribly, but that’s not what he’d told James, and the jealousy had tasted so good that he’d blown the asshole right there in the back closet.)

He hadn’t, though; had clung on to their on-again-off-again secret-not-secret relationship until he’d come in one Sunday while the shop was closed to find James fucking one of his clients, right there on Keith’s light table. He’d never considered himself blameless in the equation—they’d been like bleach and ammonia, corrosive separately but fucking deadly mixed together—but that had somehow felt like the decisive finishing blow.

He hadn’t even confronted him; had snapped a picture and texted it to Shiro and let his brother go about the business of firing him. He hadn’t blocked his number; had read every vicious, creatively brutal text message from his ex-not-ex until, finally, they'd dwindled to nothing. He still has them all; still reads them from time to time to remind himself what happens when he thinks with his fucking dick.

(Or with his heart.)

(Especially with that.)

“You’re right, it didn’t stop me, and it was a terrible idea.”

“Learn to date properly then,” Pidge mumbles into their drink.

“Wow, low blow, fuck you.”

They wrinkle their nose. “Ew, gross, no, thank you. Sorry, I forgot being super mean to you is, like, your on switch. You’re not poppin’ a semi, are you?”

It’s a deft topic change, but one that’s very much appreciated. He can see in their face that they’re still mulling things over—that this will not be the last time they talk about this—but they take pity, and it’s one of the reasons Keith appreciates them so much. They’re a master of toeing the line of “too much” without going over, pulling back before things get too close to the real tender spots.

“I hate you,” Keith says fondly.

“The feeling’s mutual, babe.”

They offer their glass for a toast, and Keith readily clinks it with his own. It’s weird, he decides, being no closer to a solution and yet somehow feeling better about the whole thing. He understands how Pidge and Hunk get along so well; they’re both impossible to dislike.


It turns out the only thing worse than going to work every day with Lance McClain while wanting to break his bones is going to work every day while wanting to jump them.

And break them.

To be fair, that urge hasn’t dwindled much.

It’s not even so much the feelings as the fact that he can feel himself actively fucking up, running hot and cold to the nth degree, constantly teasing at the end of his own increasingly short fuse. He doesn’t need his brother sniping at him about it every two seconds (though Shiro does, anyway, “Keith, please,” becoming a more and more common phrase in the shop) to know that it’s fucked up. It’s unnecessary, even for him.

But he can’t help it. Every time their teasing gets too easy, too back-and-forth, too satisfyin, he finds himself chopping at the threads of whatever they’re fostering with words too sharp to be friendly. Because whatever they’re fostering has far more dangerous implications than what he is to Keith: a coworker

No, better yet, his brother’s employee.

Nothing more.

(What a fucking liar he is.)

So it’s a visceral kind of horror when he walks into the shop one Wednesday morning to find his brother already there, hunched over his phone with his prosthetic buried in his hair, dark circles under his eyes. “The guest spot cancelled,” he explains, before Keith has even had a chance to ask what’s wrong.

“Which one?”

They’re expecting two guest artists to start at the beginning of the following week. Shiro and Allura are off to three conventions, making their way across the prairies over the course of two weeks, leaving Romelle to run the ship and Lance the only full-time tattooer in house. Shiro hasn’t specifically said so, but Keith is pretty sure the guest spots are more to keep him from killing Lance and less to keep the flow of walk-ins unimpeded.

Both of them.”

Yikes.

“It’s not their fault. Zethrid broke her wrist pretty bad and you know Ezor isn’t about to leave her wife with an injury like that. I get it, but no one else can make it. Even Coran is all booked up.”

“You wouldn’t want Coran here without Allura to keep him in check, anyway.”

Shiro sighs. “True.”

“So just leave it. We’ll have to turn away a few walk-ins, so what?”

The look his brother levels at him tells him in no uncertain terms that he’d been right about why, exactly, Shiro thinks a guest spot is necessary.

“Come on, Shiro, it won’t be that bad. Romelle and Pidge will still be here.”

“Really? Pidge? They’re practically egging you two on.”

“...Romelle will still be here.”

Shiro sighs again. Louder, and so raspy it sounds painful.

If he’s being honest, internally Keith agrees with the sound. Two weeks alone in the back with Lance McClain and a hint of Pidge. Fuck him running.

But he can see the way his brother is freaking out. Three conventions in two weeks is enough on its own, let alone worrying about replacing two glorified babysitting spots for his apprentice brother. Were it anyone else, Keith might be willing to deal with the guilt. As it stands, though…

“Shiro, I promise, I’ll be nice. Not even nice by my standards; regular person nice.”

Shiro looks supremely unimpressed.

“...okay, maybe only nice by my standards.”

The door chimes at the front; Lance’s and Pidge’s voices carry in.

Shiro deflates somewhat.

“I guess it’s just a couple weeks. Don’t make me leave the numbers to the hotels we’re staying at like you really do need a babysitter.”

Keith scoffs. “I resent that remark.”

Shiro gives him a slow blink. “You resemble that remark.”

Luckily, Keith is spared any further discourse as Pidge comes around the corner. “Hi dad, I’m Pidge.”

His brother bristles. “Stop calling me dad!”

Keith laughs, but so does Lance, and the sound of it makes him a little nauseous. As usual, he knows it’s a dick move to cut his mirth short and go to his station with barely a nod in Lance’s direction, but it’s better than the alternative.

(He’s not entirely sure what the alternative is, at this point.)


The first day is fine.

And not, like, a sullen, mumbled, Keith-esque fine.

It’s actually, literally just…

...fine.

If anything, Romelle is the downer around the shop, oddly reserved with her girlfriend gone for two weeks. Pidge is absolutely bouncy, waiting for the proverbial shit to hit the fan.

But Keith gives Lance a wide berth, and the other man does the same. It takes half the day before it hits Keith:

He’s nervous.

They’re both nervous.

And evidently their shared nervousness is enough to have them working quietly together all day, hardly more than a word passed between them.

Technically speaking, it's a roaring success.

Keith isn’t sure, then, why it feels like such a disappointment.


The fact that Lance’s hesitant, “Whatcha workin’ on, Kitty-Tat?” the next day burns a hole right through Keith’s discontentment is disorienting to say the least. It’s a fucking relief, the irritation that floods his bloodstream at the stupid nickname in that goddamned smooth voice (that he’d barely heard at all, yesterday, and he’d missed it).

It’s such a relief that he can hear it in his own voice: a hint of eagerness underneath the agitation. He’s sure Lance must be able to hear it, too, and even that's its own sort of disturbing reprieve. “Shiro’s letting me design a banger for Pidge,” he says.

Truth be told, he’s nervous as shit about it, and he’s not entirely sure Shiro didn’t leave him the assignment just to tie his stomach into a tight enough knot that he’d be distracted from feuding with Lance. He gets, now, why Shiro has always told him that tattooing a friend is more stressful than tattooing your worst enemy. He’s restarted the little video cassette tape drawing a dozen times and still doesn’t think it’s good enough.

Honestly, he kind of hates when Lance asks about his art, because he has this way of looking at it. It’s not about his work, he knows; it’s that, while Lance is serious about very few things in life, tattooing is one of them. His face goes keen and serious, eyes glinting as he takes in the details. He doesn’t even have to critique—he never offers much more than a “Nice,”—for Keith to be able to see the cogs turning in his head, his fingers itching to redesign, to take the art and make it submit to him, the way he does with his own pieces.

It might be Keith’s favourite worst thing about him.

This time, though, he just offers a quick once-over and the shadow of a smile, like he’s testing the waters. “That’s cool. My first design on another person was my best friend, too.”

Alright, that gives Keith pause.

He stops drawing; looks up into Lance’s face and finds it surprisingly earnest.

“I don’t have a best friend,” he says. “What am I, twelve?”

Lance laughs. But not at him; that much is clear when he looks deeper into Keith’s face and lets his own chuckles fade. “You’re joking.”

“Why would I be joking? Why would I have a best friend, for that matter?”

“Dude. Pidge.”

This time, Keith laughs. “How old are you? Pidge is my friend, sure, but–”

“Oooooh no. No, no, no, don’t pull that. Romelle is your friend. Allura is your friend. I am your friend. But Pidge is your best friend.”

Hey, so, that’s a lot to unpack.

He wonders if keeping his face so carefully neutral is better or worse than letting some kind of emotion show on it.

Lance is his friend.

Straight from the horse’s mouth, Lance is his friend.

(James, it should be noted, had never even copped to that much.)

(...James, it should be noted, is someone he really, really needs to stop comparing Lance to.)

Lance is the kind of friend who just says that he is one. Just lets it roll off his tongue, like it’s common knowledge:

Lance is Keith’s friend.

Apparently.

Alright.

That, he decides, is something to be considered later in the evening, with a cold beer and a showerhead.

(Jesus fuck, he makes a mental note to never think about shower beers in those terms again.)

Beyond that, Pidge is his best friend.

No, fuck that, it’s juvenile. Pidge isn’t his best friend.

Pidge is just a friend he texts a lot.

And goes out for drinks with.

And commiserates about any given little thing with.

And trusts, unequivocally.

And is best friends with.

He has a best friend.

Fuck, Pidge is his best friend.

He’s a twenty-two year old man with an apartment and a saving’s account, and he has a best friend and it’s Pidge.

“I...I don’t…”

“You, you do.”

It’s that moment Pidge chooses to stroll into the back, having just bid their last client goodbye. “Ooo, finally, what are we arguing about?”

Lance grins at them. “Keith doesn’t think you’re best friends.”

And for one glorious moment, Keith has hope, because Pidge’s expression melts into something confused and a little disgusted. (He almost thinks yes, I knew I could count on you, this is why we’re best fri– before he spots the Catch-22 and banishes the thought.)

“Goddammit, Lance, I wanted to be the one to tell him,” they gripe. “Now our anniversary is between Thanksgiving and Christmas, what a nightmare.”

Keith looks helplessly between the two of them. “We’re...best friends…?”

Pidge sticks out their bottom lip in an exaggerated pout. “Oh, shnookums, don’t worry, you’ll get over it.”

After that, the day goes surprisingly easy. Lance and Pidge take turns digging into him, ribbing relentlessly. And it bugs him, and he ribs back, and sulks the way they expect him to (the way he expects himself to), but it doesn’t bother him as much as it might have on another day.

Because Pidge is his best friend.

(And Lance is his friend.)

(There’s that, too.)

(Shit.)


He never thought he’d be in the position of wondering whether it’s less appropriate to masturbate to the thought of one’s enemy or one’s friend, but here he is.

It’s not particularly appropriate to think of either one, he supposes.

But it’s getting to a point where he kind of has to.

It’s been a trying day, and his shower beer hadn’t helped him parse through any of the shit he’s trying to figure out (had only made him a little drunk and frustratingly lethargic considering the fact that he tosses and turns as soon as his back hits the sheets), so of course he ends up trying to work out a quick orgasm to let off some steam.

And he might be able to, if he could just get there.

He’s gone through all his tried-and-true fantasies, recalled in detail all his favourite porn clips, even tried that thing he’d done as a repressed post-foster kid on the cusp of manhood and pictured the hottest men he could fathom, faceless in a pile in his mind, a cacophony of all the things that turn his crank at once.

The problem is none of them stay faceless for long.

Even when he manages for a while, thrusting up into his palm, spread-eagled on his bed and soaking his comforter with sweat, getting harder, closer, almost... Lance’s face pops up unbidden, despite his best efforts, blue eyes hazy with arousal in his mind, voice rough as he moans, “Fuck, Kitty-Tat…”

It nearly tips him over the edge every single time—is more than enough to make him come over his fist and stomach and maybe even his chest, if he’d let it—but he fucking refuses to get off to the thought of the person who’s stealing his sleep in the first place (let alone the fact it’s Lance fucking McClain).

God, he even almost moans his name; has to cut himself off at, “La–fuck, Lan–hah–!”

(He pulses so hard it hurts, a dribble of precome snaking down his cock, his legs shaking so violently he has to roll over and contort himself to stave off a charley horse.)

Eventually, he gives up the ghost and settles under the covers still hard and frustrated, and it makes almost no difference anyway: when he finally manages to drop off to sleep, he dreams of long, tan fingers shoving their art beneath his skin, and wakes up still twitching with the last vestiges of orgasm.


The dawn of the third day without Shiro and Allura breaks rainy and drab, exactly the way Keith feels. He’s irritated at his lack of orgasm the night before, and even more irritated at the one he’d had despite himself that morning, so of course it’s raining just enough to make him uncomfortably damp by the time he makes it to the shop.

He’s not sure if the sight of Lance, chatting animatedly with Romelle at the front, makes him feel better or worse.

(Yes, he decides.)

It’s a dangerous mood to be in with no one in the shop to keep him in check, so he breezes by both of them with a nod (and tries not to think about what it means when he catches the exasperated look on Lance’s face out of the corner of his eye).

He sets up his station, but he can’t sit still. His legs are restless, his palms tingling; there’s a general discomfort about him that doesn’t want to abate no matter how he sits or fidgets. Lance has the good sense, for once, to comment on it only once after he sits at his own station. Keith’s answering glare must be deadly enough to prove he’s in no mood today.

The annoyances don’t stop; little things that land all over him like mosquitoes.

He spills his coffee over just enough of his drawing that he has to start again.

Pidge comes in for their first client of the day, a nipple piercing, and ii turns out she’s a fainter. And a screecher. It takes them three times as long to calm her down as it does to wake her up.

And then he comes in.

Keith could check with Romelle to get his name, but he prefers to think of him only as Twat Waffle after Pidge texts him from their room: Who’s the twat waffle bending Lance over at the waist?

Twat Waffle is a walk-in Lance shouldn’t even have time for, but his last appointment of the day has cancelled with a cold. He’s young, blonde, thickly muscled, and a pain in the ass from the second Lance sits him down.

He picks a piece of flash from Lance’s sheet, and then spends twenty minutes detailing all the things he hates about it.

He tucks Lance’s hair behind his ear (it doesn’t stay, because it’s too short, the moron) while he leans over his shoulder and narrates exactly how he wants every line drawn.

He insists the stencil go on four separate times, in four separate places, until he finally settles on a shoulder blade.

He moves the entire time, complaining about the pain, Lance’s machine sounding oddly staccato as he stops and starts, contorting himself to compensate.

Keith is just about ready to stab him by the time he’s being wrapped up. When he has the gall to say, “Thanks man...so can we talk about the price? Could you cut me a deal?” the apprentice has to stalk into the bathroom before he really does pipe up with something ill-advised.

Lance, though.

Lance is all “Sure thing,” and “No problem,” and “Let’s see what we can do.”

He’s all white teeth and shrugged shoulders and thumbs-ups.

When Keith has managed to calm down enough to avoid a manslaughter charge, after he’s pressed his ear to the bathroom door and heard Twat Waffle’s footsteps stomp around the front partition, he lets himself back into the main room. Lance is cleaning his station, grin plastered on his face, and it’s not until Keith gets back to his own chair that he sees the shakiness of his tense shoulders.

“Are you–?”

Lance holds up one unsteady finger, then points to the front, where they can just hear Romelle reiterating that no, there’s nothing she can do about the cost. There’s a muffled back-and-forth, during which time Lance continues puttering around his table, smile tugging the corners of his lips painfully back toward his ears. Finally, the door opens and closes.

“Yo, Romy and Michelle, we good?” Lance shouts.

“Free and clear!” she calls back.

In the next second, Lance has flung himself onto the ground. “I’ll take ‘people who should suck a root and die in a house fire’ for a thousand, Alex!” he yells. “What a fucking chunk of smegma, oh my goooooood.”

“Ew. Smegma?”

Mouldy smegma.”

Keith snorts. “Creatively disgusting and accurate. I’m impressed.”

“I have never in my life wanted to punch someone in the fartbox so much.”

“Kinky."

“You have no idea. No lube. That underdone piece of toast should buckle up, I’m goin’ in dry.”

He’s joking—or trying to—but it’s only partially successful. There’s something in his tone, in the way he’s splayed out on the ground but still tight, like Keith could bounce a quarter off his stomach muscles.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

Honestly, he asks mostly out of the common courtesy Shiro likes to claim he lacks. He’s expecting a tired, “Yeah,” or maybe even a couple wobbly finger guns.

Instead, Lance looks over at him (which looks ridiculous—he’s lying with his feet pointed toward Keith, so he has to crane his head to peer over his toes), expression belying nothing the apprentice can understand.

“No,” he answers finally. “This is going to be one of those clients I lose sleep over, I can already tell.”

Truth be told, it kind of feels like another little mosquito landing on him, another little itchy irritation, because what the fuck is he supposed to do with that? Especially when Lance is still looking at him with that odd, blank face, like he’s wondering the exact same thing.

Because they fight, and they tease, and they even sometimes joke, but Keith Kogane and Lance McClain have never had a fucking heart-to-heart.

Or whatever the hell this is.

“That’s…” Keith clears his throat. “I mean, you did really well. You handled it.”

Lance flops back down, but then he’s twisting onto his side and writhing on the floor, maneuvering himself in a silly, lazy circle until he’s facing Keith, propped up on one elbow like some kind of boudoir painting parody. (Keith does not find it endearing; he doesn’t.) “Well yeah I handled it. It’s my job. Doesn’t mean it didn’t suck. I hate dealing with people like that.”

“I thought art was supposed to be our job,” Keith mumbles.

“Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing,” Lance sighs wistfully. “Tattooing without customer service. Jesus wept.”

Keith catches himself curling his tongue in his mouth, running the bottom ball of his piercing back and forth along his bottom lip (a filthy habit that had driven Shiro’s mother crazy). “How do you do it?” he asks quietly.

Lance gives a one-shouldered shrug. “Grin and bear it, same way you do all customer service jobs.”

“I’ve been fired from every customer service job I’ve ever had.”

To be fair to him, Lance’s laughter cuts out when he realizes it’s the only laughter in the room. “Seriously? Every one?”

“There were only, like, three,” Keith says, a little defensive. “And I was sixteen at the first one…”

“How do you get fired from three jobs?”

Keith shoots him as dirty a look as he can manage.

“Oh,” Lance amends, “Right. Like that.”

“Shut up,” Keith grumbles, but he doesn’t really mean it.

What’s more, Lance knows he doesn’t really mean it, and when he keeps talking Keith finds it soothing rather than irritating.

“Well, at least you don’t have to worry about that, here. It’s not like Shiro is going to fire you.”

Something cold and snake-like starts uncoiling in Keith’s stomach.

“I don’t want a job I can only keep through nepotism.”

The thing starts heating as it swells; as Keith expects a jab that’ll land too close to his vitals. Instead, it flips onto its back, goes belly up and lukewarm and limp, as Lance levels him with a contemplative look as asks, “Do you seriously think anyone would ever believe you’re here as a family favour?”

Keith doesn’t answer, because Keith doesn’t know.

It’s something he’s asked himself too many times. There have been more than a few beers gone warm as he’s tried to calculate exactly how far his talent will take him before his inability to deal with people makes him too much of a liability; tried to figure out if this whole endeavour will be a giant waste of time when he starts tattooing actual strangers and finds out he can’t handle the constant interaction.

The only thing he’s figured out for sure is that it’s not Shiro’s responsibility to constantly act as a buffer for his constant social quandary.

“Keith…?”

He wrings his fingers against the pseudo-caffeine-buzz in his palms. “Shut up,” he says, again; doesn’t mean, again.

Lance drops heavily onto his back, then brings his legs up over his head as he shifts his weight onto his shoulders and, with a soft grunt, swings himself up into a crouch. “Look, Kitty-Tat,” he says, voice strained as he stretches his back out, and each leg in turn, climbing leisurely to his feet. “I’ve watched you get better and better every day, and it’s only been a couple of months.”

The feeling that goes galloping up Keith’s esophagus is somewhere between pleasant and nauseating, and it only intensifies as Lance gets closer.

“You’re…” Lance hesitates as he reaches Keith’s chair, leans back for a second as if he’s going to double back across the shop, but thinks better of it with a furrowed brow and momentarily twisted lips. With a determined little exhale, he puts a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “You’re going to be a great tattoo artist. That’s obvious.”

Keith feels like he’s in a comic book; like the moment is pieced together in a series of panels that don’t make sense if he tries to see them all at once.

Lance’s hand is warm, the palm deceptively wide (the length and slimness of his fingers must make it seem, from a distance, smaller than it is).

Keith is still sitting, so he’s looking up at Lance, face level with his dick neck, which is clearly visible through another one of those carefully fitted shirts.

What the fuck—Keith thinks the words dick neck, now, like they’re a viable part of his vocabulary.

Because Pidge is his best friend, and sometimes best friends pick things up from each other like that.

And because Lance is partial to saying it, as well, and Lance is his friend, and sometimes friends (or whatever) pick things up from each other, too.

Sometimes they put their hands on each others’ shoulders.

Sometimes they give a little squeeze that could be missed if not for the panic details being taken in.

Sometimes they smile all wide so their blue eyes do that crinkle-edged thing and their whole face goes dumb handsome.

“If you put half the patience and focus into people that you do into tattooing, you’d be able to do it in no time.”

Keith’s hand lifts from where it’s been lying prone on his thigh, as if he means to...what? Lay it over Lance’s hand on his shoulder (not a chance) or squeeze the wrist at his side (when hell freezes over) or reach up and press a finger to his lips to feel the shape of those unexpected words (when pigs fucking fly )?

Lance notices; gives it barely a second before he pats Keith’s shoulder twice (puh puh; like gunshots) and takes a step back.  “Now I’m going to get some air,” he says, heading for the front. “That dude has my vibe all fucked up.”

“Holy shit.”

It’s a testament to just how much the whole thing has gotten to Keith that he jumps at Pidge’s voice. He has no idea how long they’ve been lounging in their room’s door like that, glasses glinting in the fluorescent lights like a fucking anime villain.

(Fuck, why does he even know that?)

(Because his friend and his best friend are insatiable nerds together, is why.)

(Fuck his life.)

“You’re going to make out with Lance in the shop.”

Keith glares and crosses his arms. “I am not going to make out with Lance in the shop.”


He makes out with Lance in the shop.

This is how he loses control:

Pidge takes the last part of the day off to meet up with Hunk (Lance bemoans his lack of invite until he hears the number of syllables in the tech vlog they’re planning to binge for old times’ sake). Romelle finishes up at the front and chirps an early goodbye (rushing home, Keith is sure, to FaceTime with Allura). So it’s just him and Lance closing up shop, sweeping and wiping down and doing double-checks.

Things have been nice since their talk two days prior; nice, but oddly strained. They’ve taunted back and forth, all humour with almost no bite, but their silences have been a hint too long; the distance between them just that much too narrow, the gap steadily closing.

“Who did the katana on your back? Was that Allura-lama-ding-dong?” Lance asks as he gives Shiro’s station a cursory wipe-down in his absence.

Keith, tying off his garbage, sighs. “Allura-lama-ding-dong?”

“Just testing it out.”

“You’re ridiculous. And yes, Allura did it. It’s not a katana, though.”

“Can I take a closer look?”

Keith freezes; straightens up; opens his mouth and and leaves it hanging while his brain rapid cycles between fuck off and don’t be a tool. But Lance just leans back on Shiro’s table, smiling mellow and drumming those long fingers behind him.

“Okay," he agrees, and turns around. It feels stupid to leave his hands by his side, but he doesn’t know what to do, so he leans forward and braces them on a metal cabinet at his station. It makes him bend over, just a little, but it helps having something to help hold him up as he hears Lance approach.

He’s wearing a loose red tank top, so just the hilt of the sword is visible. The tip of Lance’s finger is cold where it brushes the skin of his back, pulling the shoulder of his shirt aside for a better look.

“What kind of sword is it?”

Keith makes to answer when that finger starts moving. It drags back over to where he knows the ink is; starts tracing what must be the very bottom of the blade.

“Korean,” he manages, after a moment.

The finger creeps down until it reaches the fabric of his shirt again, and starts tugging it down, too, revealing more of the sword and the place right underneath his shoulder blade where it’s slipping beneath his flesh, blood welling with such believable shine he’d been tempted to wipe at it the first time he’d seen it in a mirror.

Lance, apparently, has the same urge, and gives into it. Keith shivers, and he must feel it, but he doesn’t comment, and he doesn’t stop. “Korean, hm? Katanas too dudebro for you?” he asks, and if he’s trying to lighten the mood, he fails.

“It’s for my mom.”

“I thought you and Shiro’s parents were Japanese.”

“It’s for my mom.”

“Your—oh. I didn’t realize.”

When Keith shrugs, he can feel the muscle shift under Lance’s finger. “Most people don’t. Perks of being a half-Asian foster adopted into an Asian family.”

He’s ready for the onslaught of awkward questions, the shuffling between I didn’t mean and I was just, so Lance’s hushed hum kind of throws him off balance.

All he says is: “It’s beautiful,” and then, after a pause and another swipe over the bubbled blood, “It’s cutting you.”

Keith looks at him as best he can over his shoulder, only really getting one blue eye in focus. “It’s for,” he says pointedly, “my mom.”

Lance lets the fabric slip free. Keith is only disappointed for a second, and then it’s back on the other side, pulling his shirt back to examine the fireman’s helmet and clouds of bulbous smoke.

“My dad,” Keith says. “Shiro did it.”

“Nice.”

The finger travels up toward the cap of his shoulder, where the more realistic smoke of Allura’s phoenix starts, and it starts tracing over the flames there. It presses, just once, so gentle Keith thinks maybe it’s just a twitch; until it does it again, harder.

Keith gets the hint; stands up straight; turns to face Lance and has to lean back on his hands again, because the guy is so close. So close Keith can make out the detail in his tattoos, too; so close he could reach out to test if that sea foam on his neck is as cool to the touch as it looks.

This time, when Lance touches him, it’s with all five fingers at once, only the palm hovering, as he traipses over the firebird on his arm. “And this one?” Lance asks. The breath Keith takes is shaky, and he’d be embarrassed if Lance hadn’t let out a matching one.

“Allura again,” he murmurs. “For Shiro.”

The fingers reach the cap of his shoulder again, and finally the palm lowers, so his hand is obscuring the face of the phoenix altogether. Lance looks at him; Keith can see the moment his eyes catch on the snakebite scars on his bottom lip.

“Stunning.”

Keith is pretty sure he moves first, but it’s a close thing. He feels the tension in his arms snap more than he feels it propel him forward; the same way he feels Lance’s hands come up and close in around his jaws more than he feels the way they tilt his head to the side for better access (because of course he’s just got to manhandle Keith instead of moving himself; just got to turn him on that way, too).

Despite his best efforts, Keith has anticipated a lot of things about the way Lance McClain might kiss.

He’s considered the idea that it might reflect his general mood; might be aggressive where Keith is involved, and over-intimate, and teasing.

He’s thought about it being the epitome of his lighthearted, comedic moods; being carefully timed like a good joke, bombastic on both ends, stopping and starting in a mocking rhythm.

It turns out, cheesy as it is (which shouldn’t surprise him, really, because what does McClain do if not make cheesy somehow attractive?), Lance kisses like he tattoos. He leans into Keith like he’s a piece of art; tugs him in close like he’s trying to get the perspective of him just right; shifts him in just the right way to make him feel all brightly coloured in.

Keith finds out that the skin beneath the sea foam on Lance’s neck is, in fact, incredibly warm, and the muscles jump when he puts his fingers there. The cabinet jostles as he leans back against it with Lance’s extra weight against his front, pressed chest to chest (and Keith wonders, were they shirtless, if they’d be close enough in height to have their mirrored nipple piercings clack together).

He doesn’t ask permission, the way he assumes Lance would in his position; Keith just parts his lips and sucks Lance’s bottom one inside before he slots them together with his tongue in the other man’s mouth. There’s a tiny muffled click as his tongue piercing catches for a second on his teeth, and an equally muffled moan as that same piercing runs along the ridges on the roof of Lance’s mouth, and it becomes very obvious very quickly:

They’re good together, like this.

They move in that not-quite-synced way that belies a burgeoning compatibility and the potential for simultaneous orgasms. Lance sucks gently and Keith flicks his barbell against his top lip. Keith tilts his head at a more severe angle to push harder against all of Lance's crevasses, and Lance makes a little warbling noise that pulls its twin from Keith’s throat.

Lance pulls back first. “This is a bad idea,” he pants, even as he slides his hands up into Keith’s hair. “I’m your boss.”

Keith snorts, and reaches down to tug Lance closer by the hips, shifting one leg between both of his so he can feel how hard he’s getting. “You’re my coworker.”

The artist grinds against him, just hard enough to jostle the cabinet again; to make Keith hum low in his throat. “What are we doing?” he asks.

Keith kisses him again instead of answering.

Pushing forward and back, shoving his clothed cock against Lance’s, the cabinet keeps moving, bumping against the wall in a lewd approximation of what Keith really wants to be doing. He can just make out the general outline of Lance through their pants; can only tell that he’s decently sized and dressing to the left. He wants him in his hand, his mouth; wants to see him properly, see exactly what he looks like, and watch all that gorgeous detail disappear inside his own body.

Lance pulls back suddenly, hissing. “Fuck,” he says, “Careful, I’m pierced.”

He’s…?

He’s not fucking fair is what he is.

Keith mutters a gruff, “Shit,” and gets to work on Lance’s belt.

He’s just about got it when Lance grabs at his wrists with a breathy, “Wait, wait, wait…”

Keith looks up, and there are crinkles at the corners of Lance’s eyes, but they’re contemplative instead of mirthful. “What?” he asks.

“Seriously,” Lance says, “What are we doing, here?”

“You need an anatomy lesson? Want me to Urban Dictionary ‘blowjob’ for you?”

He doesn’t even crack a smile. “Kitty-Tat.”

Keith has no choice. Hard, hands frozen in Lance’s grip, lips still tingling, he tells the truth:

“I don’t know.”

Lance’s fingers tighten; loosen; let go. Keith lets his drop back to his sides.

“I think,” Lance says, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea. If you don’t know.”

That, Keith thinks, is a cold, cold fucking chaser, even as Lance’s fingers make contact again, this time far more innocently, against the skin of his forearm.

“You do know?”

It comes out more frustrated than anticipated, and for some reason it makes Lance smile again; puts those crinkles back where they belong on either side of all that blue.

“I know what I’m doing. But I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not jiving with what you’re after…”

“I don’t know what I’m after.”

“So we’ve established.” Lance scrubs the hand not resting on Keith’s arm through his hair. It leaves one curl standing up, right at the crown of his head. “God, Kitty-Tat, you’re fuckin’ infuriating, you know that?” All the same, his tone is good-natured, and his thumb starts trekking back and forth, giving Keith’s arm a miniature, matching cowlick. “Listen, let’s cool it for tonight.” He has the gall to lean in and leave a peck on Keith’s lips. “Give you a chance to think about it.”

And he walks away; doesn’t even look back (and probably thinks he’s being super cool and smooth about the whole thing, what a dick); leaves Keith hard and confused and not even all that mad about it, just frustrated at himself (and that might be the worst part).


He doesn’t want anything about the situation getting under his skin so, of course, it burrows its way there mercilessly.

The just-off-condescending way Lance had told him to “think about it” tugs at his cuticles; leaves hangnails that snag every time he tries to think of the just-off-enamoured way Lance had looked him in the eye and called him (his tattoo; don’t get stupid with sentiment, now) “stunning.”

The way he hadn’t elaborated; had just held it over Keith’s head that he knew what he was doing; had taken it for granted that Keith would be able to figure it out with a little thought...he wishes Lance were here, in his apartment, maybe even in his shower with a lukewarm beer, so he could berate him properly (and maybe do a couple other things, though that’s neither here nor there) about presuming to know anything about the way Keith processes anything.

The way he’d still smiled; still gone all crinkley at the corners of his eyes while he’d blue-balled them both…

He chugs the remainder of his beer and caps it off with an almighty belch that echoes against his shower tile, the last half of it curled into an “ahh-fuck.”

(Gross; Lance would tell him so, too, no doubt. Or worse, he’d go for something like a high-five—no, a fist bump—and try to outdo him.)

(And then maybe he’d laugh and tell Keith he’s still going to blow him, and Keith would scoff and resist and laugh and sink to his knees and find out what noise the piercing in his his tongue would make against the one in Lance’s dick…)

(Except he wouldn’t. He’d ask, “Have you figured it out yet, Kitty-Tat?” And, after Keith would answer with a sour no, he’d look all exasperated and say something maddeningly patient, like, “You’re lucky you’re so cute, or we’d put you in the yard as an outside cat with the other ferals and be done with it.”)

(And Keith would still want to suck him off—among a few other things.)

(He thinks.)

(Probably.)

He throws on a pair of boxer-briefs, heedless of the residual water that makes them cling askew, and texts Pidge as he flops onto his bed with a grunt.

Pidge

I fucking hate you and your voodoo 
black magic fuckery. How did you know?

Ew. Better not have been in my room.

...it was at my station.

Sacred space, Keith. Dishonour on you.
Dishonour on your cow.

😒

😒😒😒

I would bold that if I could.

OK OK what happened?

 

He fills them in with as little intimate detail as possible though it’s difficult when they keep interrupting him with variations on “😈 go on…”.

Pidge

...so what you’re saying is

You’re a dick.

...

HOW AM I A DICK??

Keith

Darling

Honey

Sweetness

Babycakes

STOP THAT

He wants you.

Clearly not that badly. 😒

JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL

???

HE

WANTS

YOOOOUUUUUIUU

???

KEITH

 

Alright, so maybe he’s kind of poking fun, just a little. He’s not that obtuse, he just knows what it does to Pidge when he talks in punctuation marks, and he needs a little pick-me-up.

Even still, he’s not following them.

So what if Lance wants him? He wants Lance, too. Wanting is simple and boring; it’s ninety percent of what had been between him and James. Wanting is mundane without a chaser; it’s what he “wants with” that’s giving him so much trouble.

Pidge FaceTimes him after he sends another series of question marks. They must have their phone resting on their desk; he sees their face at an odd, upward angle. Their glasses reflect the screen in the low light of their room, so Keith is staring at a reflected, ghostly image of himself instead of their eyes.

“I can’t tell if you’re just being an ass or not. Look into the camera and tell me you actually don’t get it.”

Keith blinks into the camera. “I don’t get it.”

He sees his own dumb expression in their glasses instead of what must be an impressively flat look (if the sharpness of their scoff is anything to go by). “Keith,” they deadpan, “Keith you utter—” Something off-screen catches their attention, and for a moment their eyes are visible as they turn away and, judging by the ensuing clicks, type a desktop message. A second later and they bark a laugh. “Hunk says your relationship is the equivalent of a United Way commercial.” They look back at their phone and twist their mouth into a pout, but their eyes are all hazy Keith again. “What would you do,” they say with an exaggerated tremble in their voice and a theatrical chin wobble, “If there was a hot guy right in front of you…”

“Hunk knows?!”

“For just pennies a day, you could be fuc—”

Pidge.”

They lean back out of the phone’s immediate glare just in time for Keith to catch their eye roll. “Best friend code, dude. Of course both your bffs know.” (He’s not quite sure how he feels about that.) “And stop making that stupid sappy face every time I say ‘best friend.’”

He does not make a stupid sappy face, and he tells them so.

“Sure, and you don’t know what you want, either.”

“I don’t.”

Pidge glares. “Really, Keith? What, you really think you were just tryna get fucked in the shop? Really?”

Keith lets his phone drop onto the bedspread at his side. He hears Pidge’s affronted hey, but makes no move to change their view (a straight shot up to his cracked ceiling light, the dead fly caught inside almost dead centre in frame).

He’s getting very, very tired of people giving him shit about not understanding any of these things he’s never tackled before.

“I don’t know,” he whispers.

“Keith.”

He vindictively shifts his phone so the speaker is pressing against his underwear and Pidge’s voice comes out muffled into the meat of his rump.

Keith, come back.”

He waits a beat, just to be obtuse, but gives in and rolls onto his side with his phone focused on his face again.

“Keith, look. I’m your best friend—don’t make the face—I’m your best friend and I will always have your back. I know this is hard for you, but I also know I can’t solve it for you. So I mean this with the utmost love…” They shift their camera, so their eyes fill up the entire frame. “Figure it the fuck out, genius.”

Keith sighs, heartily flips them off, ends the call, and texts them a quick “🤗🖕THANKS.”

He doesn’t figure it the fuck out.


A week since Shiro and Allura left them alone, and Keith finds himself in a compromising position in the shop for the second time. He tightens his jaw against the intrusion pressing into his body, but doesn’t let his teeth clench; manages not to vocalize outside a soft, “Fuckin’...ah…” as finally it penetrates and he’s full and stretched and anticipating that horrible, wonderful pressure

“You wanna unclench, there, Romeo? Capulets are gone, coast is clear.”

Keith just manages to quell the urge to jab Pidge in the side as they tighten a ball onto the end of the new stud in his ear. “Get fucked.”

“You probably should. I feel like it would solve a lot.”

Or not.”

Pidge raises one eyebrow. “Depends, doesn’t it?”

Keith groans and sags in his chair. He touches the new bar bridging the shell of his ear. “This was supposed to make me feel better.”

Pidge slaps his hand away from the industrial piercing with a tut. “That’s because you’re a freak.”

Well, he can’t argue with that.

“Alright, fuck off so I can go home,” Pidge says, aiming a flick at Keith’s tender ear they know very well he’s going to dodge. He glares, but vacates their room all the same (with a creative hand gesture he’s only slightly mortified Lance catches the end of as he re-enters the shops’s main space).

“Don’t ask,” he says, knowing very well that Lance’s muttered, ‘wasn’t gonna…’ is bullshit.

But then, maybe he really wouldn’t have asked. Maybe he would have stayed cordial and distant, the way he’s been every single day since their encounter.

Keith has become keenly, uncomfortably aware that there are an alarming number of things he doesn’t know the first thing about, and he’s starting to think one of them is Lance McClain.

Another is probably Keith Kogane, if he’s being totally honest.

“Nice,” Lance says, with a jerky little motion toward the new jewelry in his ear.

It aches. Usually that would help—would ground Keith—but at the moment it just serves as one more bit of pain he’s put himself in that he’d been naively sure he’d be able to control.

“Lance, about the other day…”

Lance freezes where he’s bent over his station, shuffling through a stack of drawings. Pidge emerges from their room; they open their mouth, but as soon as they clock the tension in the room, they close it again. “Nighty night,” they sing-song, and Lance gives them a couple of finger guns and a wide grin, but his eyes don’t go crinkly at all.

“...about the other day…?” Lance prompts, but there’s nothing right about it. It comes an awkward beat too late; its attempted brevity falls flat; its accompanying smile is uncertain.

“You go first.”

Lance squints at him. “What?”

“Well you said you know, so…” Keith crosses his arms; shifts his weight back so he’s leaning against that cabinet again. “I don’t see why I should have to share first. What were you doing, if you’re so sure about it?” There’s nothing right about that either. It’s too fierce; too caustic; too bare.

Lance laughs. His eyes go crinkly with it.

And there’s nothing wrong about that, even though it makes Keith’s stomach go all wonky.

“You’re adorable.”

Keith bristles, and pushes away from the cabinet, and keeps his arms folded as he crosses the shop and leans into Lance’s space (and the guy doesn’t even flinch).

(And that’s right, too).

“Fuck off,” Keith says.

Lance’s smile is fond. “I like that about you.”

“What, that I tell you to fuck off?”

“That you’re adorable.”

Keith’s eyelids lower, fluttering in disbelief. “Oh my god, fuck off.”

“I mean, I like that you tell me to do that, too. I like a lot of things about you.”

The smile stays.

The crinkles disappear.

His eyes are very, very blue in the shop’s fluorescent light.

“In fact,” Lance continues, and his hands are on Keith’s shoulders again—just the fingertips again—and it’s dangerous; reminiscent; right, “That’s what I was doing, Kitty-Tat. I was trying to show you how much I like you.”

Oh.

“...oh.”

Yeah.

Well.

“Yeah…well...”

Keith keeps his arms resolutely crossed when he leans in to kiss Lance, just so his bony-ass wrists dig into the artist’s chest (just to make a point).

(...pun not intended; Lance would enjoy it too much.)

It’s as good as last time. Better, even, because he’s been thinking about it so much since then; practically torturing himself with it. He’d half-hoped it had been a fluke—that him and Lance aren’t good together at all, that they’d drool all over each other and turn each other violently off if they ever came other again like this. It would make everything so much easier.

But here they are, and Lance’s lips are just as soft as last time; just as pliant and inviting and hot and…

Distant. Just as distant as they pull away. Again.

Fuck, you’re too easy to get carried away with,” Lance says around a couple heavy breaths, hands tight on Keith’s shoulders and eyes closed (not right, that; he wants all that blue back).

“I know I don’t want to stop,” Keith says, and he unfolds his arms because all his standoffishness suddenly feels all kinds of not right, too. He brings his fingertips to either side of Lance’s throat (again; just like last time; right). “I know that much. I know I want to keep going. We don’t have to st–”

Lance groans something as he brings his lips down on Keith’s again, but whether it’s his name or a curse is unclear (and quickly unimportant).

There’s a desperation, this time, that wasn’t there before. Keith doesn’t waste time exploring; just opens his mouth and lets Lance in and marvels at the fact that the taste of old coffee and the remnants of peppermint-coated floss can be so fucking delicious just by virtue of mixing with his spit. He works a thigh in between Lance’s legs and makes sure not to grind too hard (because he’s fucking pierced, and that’s still not fair).

Lance’s hands are in his hair, and he’s manipulating his head as he sees fit with a loose grip, tilting it this way and that to optimize the wonderful things he’s doing with his tongue. It would usually piss Keith off; it should; hell, the fact that it doesn’t piss him off should, in itself, piss him off.

But it doesn’t.

It makes him hard.

And that pisses him off.

And he’s going to suck Lance’s dick about it.

So there.

(God, what is he on about?)

(And Lance’d had the gall to claim it was Keith making him lose his head.)

Lance leans back, but doesn’t make a move to stop Keith’s hands where they’re working on his belt. 

“Are you sure? Maybe we shouldn’t, maybe–”

Keith cuts him off with another kiss. He finally gets the belt open, and gets to work on the button and fly, and all their agains dissolve in a heady rush. This is new, and precarious, and...

And right. Still right, right, right, fuck both their lives.

He shoves both hands down Lance’s pants, but it’s only to work them down around his hips, underwear and all. “Should’ve figured you wouldn’t waste time,” Lance says breathlessly, and Keith is only annoyed at his pulling away to say something so pointless until he follows it up with, “Should’ve known you’d be hot like that…”

He pushes Lance back by his hips until he collides with the laminate of his drawing table. He hisses at the cold against his newly-bared ass, and Keith actually feels a little apologetic about it. (A faint memory nudges at him: vindictively doing the same thing to James and delighting in his discomfort. He can’t decide exactly how inappropriate it is or isn’t to be comparing all the pleasant little differences between James and Lance.)

“Should’ve known you’d be hot like that,” he counters, looking pointedly at Lance’s cock.

He’s sizeable, curved just a hint to the left and more than a hint up toward his belly button, uncut and mostly hard and goddamn fucking pierced. There it is: the little double glint of metal at his tip, teasing just outside his foreskin, making the metal in Keith’s tongue feel heavy with promise.

It bounces a little ridiculously with Lance’s laugh. “Don’t stare, you’re making me blush,” he teases.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to make you do more than blush.”

He’s not positive, but he thinks he might actually get his mouth halfway down Lance’s cock before his knees even hit the floor. The only thing that stops him from taking it all is the resistance of skin-against-skin; the need to pull back and re-wet the seam of his lips for an easier slide.

He glances up, and the crinkles are back on Lance's face, even though the smile is gone; replaced with a dropped jaw and lips pulled back in a silent exclamation. His hands are still in Keith’s hair, like he’s forgotten about their lax grip. He holds eye contact as he sinks lower, and Lance’s exclamation turns decidedly not silent. His grip loses its laxness.

Keith swallows and looks back down to focus properly on the task at hand. He really shouldn’t be surprised when Lance starts rambling above him, wrists jerking in broken off, punctuated reflexes to grab on tighter and fuck his mouth (Keith had hated when James had tried that, and it’s not lost on him that he’s actually bemoaning, internally, the lack of rough treatment from Lance).

“Fuck yeah, that’s it...so good, you’re so fuckin’ good ...that feels amazing, I–...holy shit, yeah, take me just like that…”

It doesn’t stop; folds in on itself and interrupts itself and falls into and out of bouts of pornographic panting and moaning. And underneath it all…

Click-clack. Click-clack. Click-clack .

He has to be careful to keep the collision of their piercings gentle and pleasurable. It takes a stunning amount of concentration not to redouble his efforts and pull Lance’s fucking soul out through his dick, kicking and screaming and shuddering in orgasm. He keeps a steady pace, the metallic ticks of their jewelry counting out a metronomic beat.

As per usual, all the ways they’ve hurt themselves crop up and force them to be cautious together in exactly the way they naturally aren’t.

Lance’s hand slides down between a click and a clack, splaying out over the side of his throat and pressing just this side of uncomfortably, seemingly mesmerized by the recurring feeling of his own cock taking up the space. “Look at you,” he breathes. “Shit, you see what you do to me? See how fuckin’ hard you make me…?”

Keith wants to tell him to shut up; wants to pull back and wriggle his tongue stud against the sensitive nub beneath his head, just above where his Prince Albert emerges, so it hurts and gets him to gasp instead of talk; wants neither of those things at all. He wants Lance to keep singing preposterous, unnecessary praises that are getting him harder than he’s ever been while giving head. He wants to moan around his perfect, pierced cock and get it to explode in his fucking throat, and he wants to do it at this lazy, careful pace.

“Gonna come,” Lance gasps. “Kitty-Tat—you’re gonna make me come…”

It’s absurd, quite frankly, how violently Keith’s dick pulses in his jeans at the nickname when it’s said all breathy like that, directed down at him while he sucks dick like a champ. He takes Lance in deep in retaliation; holds and swallows and holds and swallows

Lance goes silent right before he orgasms. He takes a deep, quaking breath; teeters on the edge of an exhale; stumbles through a series of sharp, stomach wrenching pants…

Comes.

Comes like it hurts.

Comes like he wants it to.

Keith half expects him to talk through it, but he just lets out a streak of groans and puffs and yeahs. There’s the telltale bitterness at the back of his throat, seeping up into his mouth where he can’t swallow fast enough, and he still doesn’t particularly like the taste, but somehow he’s not overcome with the urge to hold his breath and think happy thoughts (the way he’d been with…okay, fuck that, he has more important things to worry about).

He gets in one last quiet click as he pulls off Lance’s cock.

(Lance makes a noise like he’s been shivved, and Keith gives in and palms himself, just once.)

He doesn’t realize until he starts doing it that he has a routine. He wipes his mouth with the side of his thumb and brings one leg up so he’s perched on one knee, tensing and releasing the quad to get the stiffness to go. Usually the other leg would come next, so he’d be in a lackadaisical squat, and then he’d bounce himself up to standing, already in his partner’s space and on the edge of a less-than-polite request to return the favour.

But usually his partner would be someone other than Lance McClain, so he’s barely got his first foot planted before the artist is hauling him to his feet, muttering, “Fuck, fuck, c’mere,” and kissing what little breath he’s managed to catch right back out of him.

“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Lance says, and bites at the stretched lobe of his freshly pierced ear, then just underneath it in a way he must know jostles the Industrial painfully; must know makes him moan and thrust his hips forward against nothing. “I know we shouldn’t. You make me lose my head…”

Lance’s fingers are dexterous and diligent. He has Keith’s pants open in a matter of seconds, biting at his throat all the while, probably leaving marks (he’d have killed James—killed him—and here he is arching his head back until his neck hurts, just to give optimal access). He doesn’t even bother to pull the pants down properly; just shoves at them haphazardly until Keith does it himself.

And then his cock is out.

And then Lance is wrapping his hand around it.

“You make me lose my goddamn head,” he repeats, as Keith feels all the muscles in the divot of his hips contract and he groans deep in his chest.

“But you like that about me.”

Lance lifts his head with a shaky sigh. “Fuck, Kitty-Tat, don't say shit like that, I just came…”

The smoothness of his hands bely Lance’s profession. Keith’s are already calloused, the joints noisy, but Lance’s palms are smooth and warm around him, just a little too tight so he rocks his hips in little overstimulated counterpoints (the exact kind of too much he’s craving). His legs start to shake as he starts to get close, which is startling. He’s usually able to stay strong, to control himself, even through orgasm, but for once he feels in real danger of collapsing.

Lance notices; wraps his other arm around the small of Keith’s back and hauls him closer, so he’s straddling one of the artist’s legs, still thrusting into that too-tight-perfect grip. Keith will be embarrassed, later, for the way he clings; fists his hands in the back of Lance’s shirt and buries his face into his neck and pokes his tongue out to taste the salt of his skin (or maybe it’s the sea foam).

He offers no warning when he gets close. He can’t. His jaw drops open against Lance’s throat, and a mortifying sort of “Lance-ha-ah” comes rushing out of it, and he hardens that infinite bit more so that the grip actually is painful, foreskin pulled tight and Lance’s palm rough against his exposed head…

He comes with a ragged moan, all over Lance’s black t-shirt. He seizes with it, and finds himself thankful for Lance’s arm around his back, effectively holding him up as he trembles from knee to neck. That grip is relentless, fucking pulling his orgasm from him with punishing, persistent strokes, and the look of that dark skin against the pale flesh of his cock (and dripping, now, with pearlescent come) makes him feel like the sensation is originating from somewhere around his sternum.

Lance jerks him into oversensitivity; pulls away with one last slow drag from base to tip that makes Keith hiss; brings his hand up and, heedless of the come on it, tilts Keith’s jaw up and kisses him. It’s a stark counterpoint to his earlier technique: it’s soft and almost hesitant.

And then he wipes his hand on his already-ruined shirt and reaches down to tuck Keith away and right his clothes, even though his own pants are still bunched up underneath his ass.

(And that’s a stark counterpoint, too, to the handful of times Keith had done this here before and made do with a cursory self-wipe-down with paper towels from Shiro’s or Allura’s station—pointedly not from James’s.)

“Is that a hippo?” Lance asks, thumbing over the pudgy little doddle on Keith’s hip as he tugs the pants up.

“Allura. Drunk. Don’t ask,” Keith pants.

Lance freezes partway through trying to button him up backwards and upside-down. “You got a drunk tattoo from your boss? God, I really don’t know anything about you, do I?”

Keith considers returning the favour and righting Lance’s clothes, but he doesn’t know how to go about it without doing something supremely embarrassing, like blushing or running his fingertips over the divots in his hips. So he stands still and lets Lance get him decent again and laces his fingers behind his own neck, letting his head fall back and his eyes slip closed against the now what starting to knock at his temples.

“Nope,” he answers simply.

“God you really are fucking catty,” Lance laughs, and Keith will never admit the way he leans forward for a split second; chases the feeling of hands on him as the artist pulls them away to get himself put away and decent, too.

“Yup.”

“Come on, Kitty-Tat, I just got you off, you still gonna hiss instead of purr?”

Keith makes a lazy claw with one hand and swipes it in Lance’s general direction without looking at him. “Fffft–fffft,” he spits in lethargic imitation.

In the wake of his orgasm, a steady pressure is building just in behind Keith’s spine, and even though Lance’s arms are warm and soft and somehow comforting as they wrap around him, they also stir in him a steadily increasing nervousness: he’s used to exactly none of this, and it’s markedly more difficult to ignore that fact now that the blood is rushing to his brain again.

“Tell you what,” Lance murmurs, and he’s so easy about the way he has his hands clasped behind Keith’s back; the way he leans his weight forward so their stomachs are pressed together, soft and intimate. It’s disconcerting. “I’ll find out more about you on our date this weekend.”

Keith’s throat closes so abruptly on the inhale that the wet, stuttered noise it makes is sharp in the small space between them.

Date …?

“I don’t date,” he says.

Because it’s true. He doesn’t.

He’s gone on dates, sure. Disastrous little things that he’s long since given up on.

And he’d floated the idea with James. Disastrous big thing that was.

He doesn’t even know what dating means.

Pressed together the way they are, from solar plexus to treasure trail, Keith can feel the way Lance tenses up; the way his stomach goes hard and unsure.

“Oh.”

Fuck, okay, whatever is happening, it’s not what Keith is going for.

“I mean—no,” he corrects himself, “I tried before, with the artist before you, and I just don’t want to go through that again.”

What the fuck is he saying?

Oh.”

There’s a shocking bitterness, there. Keith looks down into Lance’s face, finally, and sees it reflected. And it occurs to him as he takes it in—the horrid, sharp, un-Lance-ness of that pseudo-angry expression—that he’s been standing this whole time staring at the ceiling, hands still tucked behind his neck, like he’s not been affected at all (when really it’s just the safest place for the damn things, so they don’t reach out and do more damage by, say, burying themselves in Lance’s hair).

“I don’t mean—” Keith drops his hands; grasps the edge of the cabinet behind him, instead, but somehow that still feels standoffish and exactly wrong for the situation. “God I’m fucking this up, I—”

Lance pulls back. The skin around Keith’s waist feels cold without his flesh pressed there. He wants to reach out, to pull those arms back around him, but he doesn’t know how...doesn’t know if he really wants that or if it’s just what he thinks he should want or…

“It’s okay, Kitty-Tat. I get it, now.”

Keith can’t help the way he bristles at that. “No, you don’t get it.”

He doesn’t like the way the crinkles at the corners of Lance’s eyes go so sharp and pronounced when he narrows them out of frustration rather than amusement. “Don’t tell me what—”

“Don’t tell me you get it when you have no idea what I’m saying,” Keith interrupts.

“Don’t cut me off when you have no idea what you’re saying, either!”

Alright, hey, cool, here’s a sensation Keith could have gone without feeling again: wanting to backhand someone across the face just as bad as he wants to run his lips over that same skin.

Only he’s not even feeling that. It’s just different enough to be even more irritating: he wants to run his lips over Lance’s skin, and maybe backhand himself for getting into this situation. Again. And not “again” at all. (Fuck.)

And Lance stares him down and stares him down and he doesn’t know what to say when all his instincts are totally wrong. Eventually, he hesitates so long Lance breaks. He crosses his arms with an annoyed scoff and let his chin drop to his chest, eyes clenching shut like he’s in physical agony. “God, what the fuck do you want from me?”

As if that isn’t the million dollar question.

“I..” Keith says, and then again, defeated: “I, uh…”

When Lance looks up again, it’s with furrowed eyebrows, and tight lips, and an audible sigh through his nose. He looks hurt, and it’s worse because Keith can see the tension in his shoulders and the anger in his eyes, and he knows intrinsically that, despite everything, Lance is trying to be nice. And that’s horrible.

“See, now,” Lance says with a little disappointed tremor in it, “There’s something.”

Keith can offer nothing but a choked, “Huh?”

“There’s something I really, really don’t like about you.”

And as he walks away, Keith says again, “Huh.” Because he has no idea what Lance could mean.

Just something he doesn’t like about Keith?

Just one?

Funny.

Keith can think of about a million and one ways he’s a total fuck-up.


Pidge, to their credit, lasts two days.

Two agonizingly silent, excruciating days.

Lance doesn’t just ignore Keith after their encounter, he ignores everyone. His version of sullen is still a little more boisterous than most—he offers good mornings and good nights and communicates professionally enough throughout the day. But he’s—at least by his normal standards—practically mute outside of that, and pointedly doesn’t even look in Keith’s direction.

And Keith is pissed the fuck off about it, pretty much constantly pruny and out of beer, because it’s so, so warranted.

If anything, it should be worse.

Lance should be overly antagonistic. He should be biting Keith’s head off at every turn, like the apprentice would be doing.

Like he had with James.

But of course, Lance just has to be all sad and discouraged and still not take it out on Keith (not purposely, anyway), and it just complicates everything. It’d be so much easier if Lance could just go ahead and turn into a giant prick, so Keith could stop liking him.

But he doesn’t.

(The giant prick.)

The second day, Pidge comes in at noon, says, “Good mo—”, clocks the atmosphere, does a single septum piercing, and then drags Keith out for “lunch” even though they’ve only been open for an hour.

“What the hell are you—?” Keith starts to ask, but Pidge rounds on him with a stern glare, glasses glinting, pointing directly into his face (and that should be ridiculous, given how much shorter they are than him, but somehow it’s still intimidating enough to shut him up).

“Don’t you what the hell me,” they snap. “I what the hell you. You are being infinitely more what the hell-able than me, so shut your face.”

Keith shuts his face.

They walk to a cafe/bar around the corner and Pidge orders them coffees with shots of whiskey, and pays no mind to the raised eyebrow and pointed look at the clock from the teenager working the counter. (Well, that’s not, strictly speaking, true. They raise an eyebrow back and say, “Double Irish shot, please and thanks.” And when the teen tries to joke, “Well, it’s five o’clock somewhere,” Pidge just intones, “And it’s one o’clock here and I want those shots.”)

Keith hesitates at the table, but Pidge just snaps, “Shut. Sit,” and he does straight away.

They take a hearty swig of their coffee (Keith doesn’t understand how they do it when it’s still so piping hot) before demanding, “What the hell did you do?”

“Why do you assume it was me?”

It’s a dumb question, and he knows it as soon as it comes out his mouth. Who wouldn’t assume it was him?

“Lance has been quiet, Keith. Quiet. If he’d fucked up he’d be a babbling idiot, but he’s practically mute so what did you do?”

Keith sighs, and recounts the conversation with Lance as best he can. Pidge, to their credit, listens attentively, even if Keith notices the fingers on their left hand shooting up one-by-one, a surefire sign they’re gearing up to unleash hell. (“It’s so I don’t forget all the points I want to make about how bullshit all your bullshit is,” they’d explained plainly the first time Keith had asked about it, and he’d found it incredibly irritating, and immediately started doing it to Shiro at every given opportunity.)

He stops talking, and finds out that the first finger is: “You are a total fuckwit, sometimes.”

Keith sighs and sips his (god awful, frankly, but blessedly alcoholic, so he’ll take it) coffee. He can’t argue with that assessment, tough as it is to swallow.

The second finger, jubilantly held aloft (and returned in kind, with a tight smile) is: “You are the most unnecessarily complicated, obtuse fucking communicator I have ever met, and I use that many syllables to make a point, I’ll have you know. What were you even trying to say?”

Keith groans. He hasn’t eaten yet, and he wonders if the dull ache starting up in his stomach is from the booze and caffeine, or the question. “That I haven’t done this before. That I’m all fucked up after James and I don’t know how any of this shit works. Clearly.”

“So tell him that now. Pull him aside and say, ‘I’m very sorry that I have the emotional depth of a puddle, but I’d like to make it clear that I would very much like to boink you.’”

Keith shoots them a withering look.

Romantically,” they amend. “Tell him you want to boink him romantically.”

Keith looks outside; sucks his lips between his teeth and runs along the seam with his piercing. It’s a crisp, clear day; sunny, but all the colder for it. People are bundled up beneath the glare off of windows, probably freezing in the appendages and sweating from chest to hip. It seems like it should be warm, but it’s all juxtaposed and layered up in the changing of seasons. “I can’t just tell him,” he mumbles.

Pidge clicks their tongue. “Why not?”

Keith lets his eyes flutter shut. “Because I’ve already fucked up and we haven’t even started.”

Screw it, he figures. Stomach ache or not, and just that side of too hot, he downs the rest of his coffee.

“I’m awful at...at people. We all know this. But I’m starting to realize that it hurts people. The something he doesn’t like about me...what if it’s that I can’t go three minutes without fucking up with the people I care about?”

“Keith?”

He opens his eyes, and finds Pidge’s expression soft; empathetic.

“Keith, darling.”

Oh, no.

“Baby.”

Oh, no.

“Dollface.”

He knows better than to dodge what’s coming; knows they’ll make a scene anyway until he lets it happen. They reach across the table and punctuate every word in their next sentence with a firm slap against his cheek, potentially friendly looking if one were to ignore the less-than-gentle noises. He screws up his face at the impacts.

“That. Is. Some. Bull. Shit. Keith. My. Dear.”

“How is what I did not proof positive that I’m right?”

“How is the fact that you’re sitting here with someone you care about, who you haven’t fucked up with at all, not proof positive that you’re wrong?”

“Then what did he mean? How does this work, I—”

“Look.” Pidge lays their hand over his on the table, and it’s so much smaller than his, but it feels so big. “I’m going to give you some advice from someone whose thoughts and feelings you should probably be heavily considering right now: if you put half the patience and focus into people that you do into tattooing, you’d be able to do it in no time.”

“But—”

“So your next assignment, as an apprentice to actual human interaction, is to practice actually asking what people mean, instead of assuming.”

Keith blinks. “What do you mean?”

Pidge flicks at him good-naturedly, and even though he’s dreading the answer he already knows they’re going to give, he’s grateful it’s coming from them. It somehow makes it easier to swallow.

“Talk to him about it, doofus. Talk to him about everything.”


As with most things Pidge says, it’s easier said than done to just “talk to him about it.”

The rest of the afternoon at the shop is as quiet as the day before, hardly a word to break the sound of Lance’s buzzing gun. And all throughout close, Pidge keeps giving Keith these looks; finds ways to keep Romelle at the front; says pointedly, “Welp, I’m going to head out, so it’s just you two, be sure to lock it down when you go.”

Subtle.

And Keith keeps opening his mouth with nothing to say; keeps mustering up the guts to breach the conversation and looking over to catch Lance’s eye only to find him otherwise engaged, and by the time he looks up again the will has left Keith cold. He’s starting to think he’s going to fuck up again, going to let Lance walk out the door without having said anything, and it’s just...it’s all just…

“I fucked up.”

Lance had been on his way to the back closet, ready to grab his coat and head home (out the back door, if the past couple nights have been anything to go by, so he doesn’t have to say goodbye to Keith), but he stops in his tracks at the blunt admission. He doesn’t say anything, but looks over at Keith, confused, and it’s such a fucking relief to see something twisting those handsome features again that isn’t cheap sullenness.

“I fucked up,” Keith repeats, because he doesn’t know how to continue now that he’s started. “I’m still fucking up now.”

Lance’s brow furrows even further. He blinks rapidly, squeezes his eyes shut, shakes his head and rounds his lips with a little “Whuh–?” that he can’t quite seem to force the rest of the way out.

“I’m so bad at this, Jesus Christ. I’m just...I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean anything I said the other night...or, well, I did, but not the way you took it...god, fuck, this is…”

He drops into the chair at his station with a frustrated grunt, elbows on his knees and head in his hands. He takes a breath so deep it hurts; presses at the last lingering bits of his lunchtime stomachache.

“I didn’t mean I don’t want to try... being with you. Or whatever.” He chances a look back at Lance, but he can’t read the expression he finds on his face. He doesn’t know how to feel about the way Lance can go so neutral like that sometimes. “I just meant that I’m fucking trash at it.”

“I knew it. Pegged you for the ‘bad at relationships but let’s still fuck like we’re in one’ type. I told you I don’t like that about you.”

Shit.

Shit.

Keith had no idea Lance was such a good shot. Keith’s quick and cutting with words, a warrior when it comes to lashing out at them hard and fast, but Lance is a fucking sharpshooter. His words hit true and deep. They don’t cut, they bore. They lodge in a gory hole in his chest; he wants to dig them out and shoot them back at Lance, but he has a sneaking suspicion that it’d just make him bleed out instead of helping.

Patience yields focus.

He forces himself to talk.

“No, that would have been James. My ex. Or...not-ex. We were never together. Or, well, we were, but...it was complicated. Messy. He, uh...he was here before you.”

Lance, at least, approaches while he speaks; sits in Shiro’s chair so they’re still a respectful few feet apart. It helps, somewhat. So do the crinkles around his eyes, light and considering. “Have a type, do ya?” he says softly.

Fuck, two bull’s eyes in a row. Double headshot. Keith would be impressed if he weren’t so pissed. It’s that side of too much, and he can’t quite reign himself in before he snaps back, “Fuck you. I’m not into you because...because you...ugh.”

To his credit, Lance looks a little cowed. He licks his lips and rubs at the back of his neck. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to...I was just trying to make a joke.”

Keith’s sigh is explosive. He gets up; paces while he talks; gestures in a way that’s decidedly Lance-like. “Fuck, see, this is exactly why I didn’t want to talk about it. I’m incapable of talking to anyone I want to...want to...anyone I want.”

“You’re not incapable,” Lance says, and his voice is surprisingly soft. The crinkles are still there, but his eyes are wide. Keith feels like a Picasso painting he’s trying to make sense of. “Miscommunication happens.”

“Not for me. For me, communication happens. Miscommunication is my baseline. It’s my default setting.”

Lance says nothing, but the crinkles suddenly deepen all at once. He smiles wide, and his eyes go all soft and incredibly blue. It makes Keith’s heart do this stupid little ba-bump thing in his chest, even though he doesn’t even know what the expression means. He just likes watching it approach as Lance gets up and crosses the shop and puts his hands on his shoulders (oh god, here they go again).

“See, now, there’s something,” Lance says. “There’s something I really, really like about you.”

Keith’s heart does the thing again. Ugh, stupid.

He blushes. Blushes.

Lance is just starting to lean in, eyelids lowering, lips invitingly slack, when Keith pushes him away with a frustrated, strangled, “Goddamn it!” He throws up his hands. “This is exactly what I’m trying to tell you. What am I supposed to say to that? ‘Oh Lance, you’re so charming and funny. You make me swoon, please don’t stop wooing me’?!”

He finds the laugh Lance lets out aggravatingly attractive.

“I mean,” the artist says, “Kind of, yeah. Without the sarcasm, and dialed back, like, several notches, but the basics are there.” He puts his hands back on Keith’s shoulders. “And besides, for all your whining and moaning about your communication, I don’t know if you’ve realized that I was on the receiving end off it before I wanted to bump uglies. We wouldn’t be in this situation if I weren’t a glutton for punishment and didn’t enjoy you being a catty bitch.”

His heart. Ba-bump. It’s...maybe not as stupid as he’d thought.

Still.

“...bump uglies? Eugh.”

Lance’s laugh is still irritating in its temptation.

“Would you prefer do the doobledy-bop?”

“Lance.”

Wham-bam in the ham?”

Lance.”

Use the ol’ ass pass to clean out the cobwebs?”

“You are an absolute frenulum, McClain.”

God, he’s just so open and pretty and Lance when he throws his head back and laughs like that. Keith’s never noticed before, but he has one dimple deeper than the other.

“A frenulum? I don’t even know if that’s an insult or a compliment.”

Keith finally bites the bullet and brings his hands up to rest on Lance’s hips, thumbs teasing hesitantly at the carefully fitted fabric clinging to his waist (god, what a diva, with his meticulous fits; Keith can’t wait to rip it off).

“It’s something I like about you.”

He’s even more open and pretty and Lance when he cuts himself off with a gasp, and a doofy grin, and crinkles from here to kingdom come.

And especially when he leans in and kisses Keith like everything is fine and forgiven and new.

Because everything is, even if it’s a little complicated and grudging and old hat, too.

It’s all just a bunch of things they like about each other.


The second day in, panting against Keith’s back far past close, Lance makes a good point:

“You know, if we’d gotten our heads out of our asses earlier, we could have fucked in the shop for a full two weeks instead of just a few days.”

When he’s right, he’s right.

They do alright, Keith supposes. But god, given an extra week to figure out exactly what Lance likes before bending over his light table in shameless invitation? Keith could have shown Lance things he’d only thought feasible in porn (and a few things beyond even that).

Having said that, though, in general, starting to date Lance McClain has been…

Well, in all honesty, a giant shitshow.

The best giant shitshow.

They’ve bickered no less than three times and fucked twice as much in just over forty-eight hours. It’s invigorating.

“You mean infuriating?” Pidge had joked, and Keith had laughed a dumb, sappy laugh, and corrected:

“Nope. Invigorating.”

(Pidge had mock-gagged. “I take everything back. Please go back to pining and shit, this is gross.”)

It’s a lot, because the two of them independently are a lot, let alone together. But it’s the kind of a lot that Keith tends to thrive on; the kind of a lot he feels when he’s under pressure to produce something destined to go permanently under the skin. And Lance seems to feel the same way, tackling them like a particularly challenging new design.

It’s not until Shiro calls in on the eve of his and Allura’s return that Keith remembers that, oh yeah, this might get a little hairy where his brother is involved, given that the last time Keith had gotten involved with a shop artist...

Well.

“So...are we telling Dad-too, or…?”

Keith sags in his chair. “Dad-too?”

Lance grins. “It was that or Tat-Dad. I haven’t decided which I like better, yet. Stab Daddy is probably too far. Although…”

Yes, Stab Daddy is too far. Anything containing daddy is too far.”

“That’s not what you said last—”

Don’t you dare, McClain.”

He wants to kiss the snicker out of Lance’s mouth. After a moment, he does, just to remind himself that he can.

“I can’t help but notice,” Lance says afterward, against Keith’s lips so he can taste the air from his mouth (ugh, the dude is so gross and romantic and sweet; Keith decides right then and there to show him that thing he does with his tongue that he’s only shown one lucky partner before), “That you didn’t answer the question.”

Keith considers it for a moment. “No,” he answers finally, “We’re not going to tell Shiro.” He lets Lance looks crestfallen, but only for a second; only because Keith still likes to watch him squirm before taking pity. “That wouldn’t be any fun.”

Lance grins, and the sharp edge to it is decidedly Keith-esque.

Poor Shiro.


As it turns out, it’s less “poor Shiro” and more “poor Keith.”

Shiro and Allura arrive exhausted and exuberant, full of stories and woes from the series of cons they’d attended. As much as he likes to poke fun and sulk, Keith wraps his brother in a tight embrace as soon as he's through the door, heedless of the prosthetic digging into his arm. God, he missed him.

He didn’t, however, miss the suspicious, worried looks he keeps throwing between him and Lance. As Romelle runs him through what they’ve missed (from her seat in Allura’s lap, gag Keith with a spoon), he keeps glancing at Keith, and then at the shop, and then at Lance, and then at Keith…

“...and then Lance and Keith burnt down the shop,” Romelle finishes. “This is a meticulous reproduction.”

Shiro’s “huh?” is a full three seconds too late for someone meant to be paying attention.

Romelle laughs, the double V’s of her face tattoos stretching tight, the flowing blue patterns over her arms and hands and chest jumping in her mirth. “Well, it’s what you look like you’re expecting to hear,” she says. “They were fine. I didn’t even have to ground them or take away their toys.”

“Yeah, dad,” Lance says. “We were fine.”

“Don’t call me dad!”

“Okay, Ink Father,” Keith intones, and wordlessly slaps Lance’s offered hand in a sharp high five, and manages not to break a smile while he does it. It’s tough to pull off (he wants to break into hysterics so badly), but the incredulous, disbelieving look on his brother’s face is so, so worth the effort.

It’s even more worth the effort when, a day later, Shiro takes a look at his drawings and announces, “I’m impressed. And not just with these, with the way you handled yourself. I think you’re ready to take some clients.”

Lance covers his excited whoop with a follow-up, “I’ll make the Insta announcement!” and Shiro pinches at the scar on the bridge of his nose.

“It has to be nice, Lance.”

And the artist manages to feign a look of teasing disappointment, even as he then makes very specific eye contact with Keith behind Shiro’s back and flashes a double thumbs up.

Keith shrugs, offers a little smile, goes to the bathroom, and loses his goddamn mind.

He’s going to tattoo someone.

He’s going to tattoo a stranger.

His kind of secret boyfriend is currently in the other room, presumably posting a few of his illustrations available at apprentice rates.

Fuck him running, he practically has to check himself in the mirror to be sure he hasn’t grown a second head. He’s heard that lights don’t work properly in dreams, so he stands by the toilet, flicking the switch, dousing himself in darkness, light, darkness, light.

“How come I wasn’t invited to the lightswitch rave?” comes Pidge’s voice from the other side of the door.

And then, more muffled: “We could have one in here! Just—”

Shiro, more muffled still: “Lance, don’t touch that! No raves!”

Keith takes the opportunity to pull Pidge into the bathroom. He stares at them, wide-eyed, seeing mostly his own frazzled reflection in their glasses in the dimmer lighting. He pulls them in for a hug, then pushes them away, then gathers them up again, until they’re laughing and repeating his name and he’s somewhere between tears and hysteria, his face split in a grin.

“What is happening? I can’t do this!”

“It’s all happening and you can do this.”

He stops his push-pull and holds them at arm’s length.

“I can do this,” he says, and he sounds shocked at his own admission, and then says again like he doesn’t believe himself, “I can do this…?”

Pidge grins. “You’re dating Lance,” they say jovially, “You can do anything.”


I’m dating Lance, Keith reminds himself hours later, I can do anything.

He can even restrain himself from hoofing his first client in the grapes.

Probably.

“I dunno, man. Maybe a little down?”

Maybe.

He’s been re-stenciling this dude for half an hour, and it’s his first tattoo of all time. All he wants is one of Keith’s little tube TVs above his knee, but he’s been steadily inching it around (and inching it around and inching it around and–) to the point that he can even see Shiro, overseeing everything, getting antsy over his shoulder.

Patience yields focus.

He wipes the stencil away, goes to re-stick it a little lower…

“Is that straight, dude?”

He’s actually starting to miss Lance’s nicknames. At least they’re creative. This guy can’t go a sentence without one, and they’re all variations on dude, man, and bro. It’s more than boring—it’s tiresome.

“Looks straight to me,” Shiro offers.

Thank god, he seems to take that, and upon examination in the mirror (and a shopful of held breaths), he finally deems it correct. (Pidge will, in a couple of hours, very correctly assert that the final position had been in the exact same fucking spot it had been to begin with.)

The guy is already tattooed, a few bangers clearly visible on his arms, so Keith is cautiously optimistic as he sets up and leans over new flesh for the first time in what he hopes will be an actual career.

He should know better.

“Jesus fucking ow, bro!”

Keith breathes through his nose; dabs at the minuscule first bit of the first line. “Sorry! You ready?”

The buzz of the gun in his hand is everything. He’d been silly enough to wonder if it would be the same on actual strange flesh, being watched, being judged, but it’s still that delicious buzz in his hand. It’s still all that possibility...

“Ah, ah, ah, you’re drilling me.”

Keith wipes gently; sprays down a paper towel and lays the cool material over the outline he’s managed to get done, even as Shiro steps in on his behalf again: “He’s gotta get in there, man, he’s not going any harder than I would.”

“It’s okay, I’ll go in shorter bursts,” he says. It’s taut at the edges, but mostly steady in the middle. Shiro’s palm lands between his shoulder blades, but he leans out of it a second later, back over the canvas in front of him.

He goes in shorter bursts.

Ow.

Shorter bursts.

Dude!

He sighs, but it’s not audible above his gun.

Bzzt. Bzz-bzzt. Bzzt.

The guy still sucks in a breath at every touch, but he stops yelping.

“Hey, wait, you’re not done, there, are you? I want it more black, like…”

And then there’s an ungloved finger poking around the fresh wound of the tattoo he’s working on. “Hey, make sure not to touch that, okay? You’re not wearing gloves.”

“Whoa, calm down, man, I’m just showing you where you fucked up.”

The breath Pidge takes from across the shop is more audible than the one Keith does.

“It’s all good, man, I just don’t want you to get an infection or anything. Now where are you talking about…?”

In the end, Keith’s first tattoo takes three hours, all told.

“Hey, so I know it’s apprentice rates, but about the price…”

Shiro has to take a photo of the finished product for him. His hands are shaking too badly with rage, but he covers it up by readying a bandage and explaining as patiently as he can, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can really do about that…”

And then finally it’s over. Footsteps fade around the partition and Romelle’s voice floats in as she takes payment, and Keith starts the wipedown process for his first client. His table is more than marginally sweaty. Of course.

“Keith—”

He holds up a finger to silence his brother; waits until the front door opens and shuts.

“Romelle!” he calls, “We good?”

“Free and clear!”

Lucky no one else has a client, because he’s not sure he could stop himself throwing his body onto Shiro’s table and burying his face in his arms with a long, raspy, not-nearly-as-muffled-as-he’d-hoped scream:

What a choooooooooode!

Pidge’s sharp, barked laughter cuts the ensuing tension. “A chode?”

He lifts his head. “A mouldy chode.”

“Gross.”

God, he feels like nothing but skin. Thinner than that, even; like all his tattoos have been peeled off and he’s nothing but the paper thin shavings. He’s exhausted.

But it’s done.

He sighs and drops his head into his arms again.

It’s done.

“Keith, that was...it was...you’ve learned so–”

He hardly has a chance to enjoy the surprise and pride in Shiro’s voice before Lance cuts him off.

“Holy shit, Kitty-Tat, are we ever telling your brother right now.”

His head pops up again. “ What? But I thought–”

“No buts but your butt, he’s finding out right stat now.”

“You ass, it was going to be–!”

It was going to be, in retrospect, probably not as good as this.

Lance leaps from his chair and bends down in front of Shiro’s table, rear end hiked ridiculously in the air due to the awkward height, and cranes his neck to reach and presses his lips against Keith’s in an off-kilter, unrefined kiss. And he does it again and again as he half-hauls Keith up to his feet and says in between, “You are. So amazing. Oh my god. You did amazing. He was such a—and you were so—Kitty-Tat , I—”

Mmah—quit i—mmnoo—Lance, sto—mmmuuh—you’re also a chodemmmph !”

Lance only gives up when he finally gives in, and leans into a kiss properly, arms winding around his neck.

And okay. Fine. He’ll admit it (though not for several years): he’d have always regretted it if he hadn’t felt the way Lance had pressed all his admiration into his mouth in the wake of his first tattoo.

The heating system kicks on as they pull away. The too-intimate noise of their parting (PG-13 as their kiss has been, his brother is still in the room, for god's sake) is layered on top of an industrial hum.

So that’s one way to tell everyone.

He’d been hoping for a little more tension; just those extra few drawn out days to get Shiro’s face that particular shade of red he goes when he’s really trying to figure out where he’s missed something…

But it makes no difference anyway. His brother’s face isn’t red at all; not even particularly shocked.

It’s resigned.

And then he’s reaching into his wallet and tossing a pink bill at Allura, who pockets the fifty with a brilliant smile.

“You didn’t,” Keith says.

Neither Shiro nor Allura acknowledge him. “I don’t know why you’d bet against someone who also found their partner in this shop,” Allura says.

Odds,” Shiro sighs. “What were the odds of it happening again? For my brother, of all people?”

Keith is still stuck on the lack of red in Shiro’s face, so his affronted, “Hey!” takes a second.

“Why don’t you make it happen a third time and hire Adam?” Pidge offers innocently.

“We’re just friends!”

In the bracket of Keith’s arms, Lance laughs, and the vibrations rattle his rib cage. “Yeah, so are me and Kitty-Tat.”

And just like that, it’s normal.

Just like that, Keith has a boyfriend and a promising career at his brother’s shop.

He rests his head against Lance’s shoulder, so the sea foam on his neck obscures half the room.

Well.

That wasn’t so hard.


The honeymoon phase, Keith decides pretty quickly, is bullshit.

Outside the fucking, what kind of deranged honeymoon would entail the nonsense he goes through with Lance over their first few months together?

Lance balks at him the first time he cracks two beers and invites him into the shower.

“I don’t...there’s a lot going on here, and I don’t even know where to start.”

“Don’t start, then.”

Fat chance.

“First of all, why? Second of all...why? That beer is going to be warm in like eight minutes. And third of all, you can’t just be all naked like that and expect me not to get handsy, and how am I supposed to get handsy while holding a can?”

“Maybe I don’t want you to get handsy.”

Lance’s flat stare has improved. “You always want me to get handsy.”

Hey, so shoot Keith for wanting to touch his boyfriend a little after being touch-starved for so long.

(...maybe more than a little, with those stupid fitted shirts of his…)

He switches tactics.

“Maybe I want to keep your hands busy so I can get handsy with you…”

So Lance agrees to his first shower beer.

His can does go warm in eight minutes, but by that point he’s already forgotten about it, mostly full in his loose grip. By that point he’s already got the other hand fisted in Keith’s wet hair (whose beer is going warm on the edge of the tub) while the man does this fucking thing with his tongue…

“Oh that’s nasty,” Lance complains afterward, kneeling on the tub floor, boneless in the wake of his orgasm, watching Keith upend his can into his mouth. Warm.

Keith snickers. “Blow me.”

Lance sighs, and manages to down half his beer with a distasteful wrinkle across his nose, and burps spitefully afterward, the tail end of it twisting into a garbled, “Sure thing.”

“You disgust me,” Keith laughs as he grips the base of his cock, still mostly hard from their earlier activities, and guides it towards Lance’s waiting, smiling mouth.

When Keith finally visits Lance and Hunk’s place, he literally eats himself sick.

He’d been warned about Hunk’s cooking (“Seriously, Kitty-Tat, it’s not human.”), but he’d still been unprepared. And Hunk is still just so friendly; so impossible to dislike...it’s easy for Keith to get carried away until he’s forced to throw himself onto Lance’s bed, jeans undone, batting his boyfriend’s hands away with a laboured, “If you touch me, I swear I will puke all over your pillow.”

The next morning, while Lance is taking a shower, over a breakfast Keith can’t quite believe he has the stomach for (but those eggs, holy shit), Hunk grins that wide, honest grin of his and says, all peppy and upbeat, “If you hurt him, I know how to make cyanide taste like hollandaise. Anyway, please, have some more toast!”

He understands, then, how he and Pidge are such good friends.

Their first real fight comes a scant month into their relationship. Lance pushes just a little too hard; wants to know too much too fast about Keith’s mom, and how he’d come to foster with the Shiroganes, and what had happened when Shiro had gone on that trip to South America and come back a year later, short one arm, after a hostage situation Keith had naively thought could only happen in movies. Lance figures he can get through it all quick; rip off the bandage so it can dry and heal between them. He doesn’t understand that the wounds are too old; that it’s a matter of surgical extraction with Keith, not a one-and-done.

They say things they don’t mean, and don’t talk for a whole day, and just when Keith is starting to think he’s well and truly mucked things up, Lance kisses him in the shop’s back alley after close.

He instinctively moves to deepen it; thinks okay, they’re going to fuck it out, then. That’s familiar territory.

But Lance pulls away, and looks all perturbed, and says, “Nu-uh, Kitty-Tat. We need to talk.

So they talk.

And they make up.

And they argue a couple weeks later, but it’s not nearly so bad.

And they make up again.

By the time summer is rolling around and they’re on the other side of half a year in, it’s not even that hard for them anymore.

Overall, it’s no honeymoon, but it’s good.

Keith is happy.

He’s cleaned up for the day, and is chatting idly with Hunk about the double date they’re planning (he seems pretty serious about this Shay person, and Keith has agreed to tag along when he introduces Lance, to keep his smartass boyfriend in check). Allura is hunched over his calf, measuring from a roll of Saniderm to cover their progress for the day: the beginnings of a beach scene, sand sprinkling down over his heel.

His phone buzzes in his pocket, and he sees that his last client, Acxa, has posted a picture of the piece he’d just finished on her (a Korean sword in the bombastic, sketched style he’s been developing). She’s half-Korean, too, and cold in that specific way Keith likes. They’d gotten along well, and he has the sneaking suspicion he may have just met his first “regular”.

(And fuck Pidge, he does not make a sappy face when Shiro suggests it.)

Shiro is finishing up with Adam, too, carefully peeling the clear film off the Saniderm covering his ribs and then leaning down to press a kiss there. Adam hisses, and chides, “That’s fresh, you know,” but smiles all the same, and gives him a peck to show it’s nothing serious.

Keith knows now how Pidge had felt when him and Lance got together. He agrees with their sentiments: he regrets everything he’d said, and Shiro and Adam should definitely go back to pining and shit, because this is gross.

Lance is readying his station, quiet the way he always is before he tattoos. Quieter, even. His reference drawing sits heavy and innocent beside the table he’s taping sanitary coverings onto.

Keith’s thigh tingles.

“You don’t have to get it,” Lance had said the first time he’d shown the drawing to him, “I just drew it thinking of you…” He’d sounded so hesitant; so obviously nervous in the way he’d tried to come off nonchalant.

And the thing is, Keith’s declined his fair share of art. He’s been to tattoo conventions, known artists through Shiro since he was sixteen, and met a few more through his own burgeoning career. He’s not shy about saying no, given how particular he is about his artwork.

Quite frankly, he wants to say no. He’s not sure it’s the greatest idea to get a tattoo from a boyfriend he’s only been seeing for six months, give or take.

But it’s Lance’s art, so it’s…

“It’s unreal…”

It’s ridiculous and bold: a hippopotamus held aloft with roped balloons, mashing elements of surrealism and steampunk and neo-tradition. It’s Dali-esque, unforgiving in its grandiloquence.

So here they are, Lance about to tattoo him for the first time.

“Jesus, you look like you could jizz about it,” Pidge had intoned that morning, repulsed.

They’re not entirely wrong, honestly. He’d told them so, just to watch them mock-vomit.

The truth is, he’s had Lance inside him, and been inside Lance, and this still feels more intimate. This is Lance’s art, going under the skin forever. This is the delicious pain of what they do everyday, and Lance’s hands framing all that agony and delight.

He’s practically vibrating in place by the time Adam and Hunk say their goodbyes; by the time everyone else is finished closing and it’s just him and Lance, staring at each other like this is the first time either of them has been in this position.

“Ready?” Lance asks, and Keith can’t even answer. He just nods and drops trou and marvels at the strange sensation of that being more comfortable, more familiar, than the all-new way Lance is about to make his way underneath all Keith’s barriers.

He’s half-hard in his boxer briefs as Lance goes about prepping him, but there’s not a lot Keith can do about it. It’s made even worse by the way the fabric has to stay all bunched up around his hip to give Lance room to work, so his dick is propped up on the folds, obscenely obvious.

Lance, though, is a consummate professional. He doesn’t even glance at it; just shaves the front of Keith’s thigh carefully and bites his lip while he places the stencil and belies no arousal when he murmurs, “Take a look.”

The only way Keith can tell he’s affected at all is a quick glance toward his crotch, where the outline of his excitement is clear in his jeans.

“Focus,” Lance says, and his tone is all serious artist. “We’ll get to that later.”

It’s a practiced dance getting into position, stretching out on the table and listening to the choked off buzzing noises of Lance calibrating his gun; watching the way he looks back and forth between his reference and his inks, making little thoughtful tutting noises before selecting colours and dripping them into waiting hexagonal caps. And yet it’s not practiced at all; not this anticipation that’s so much thicker than usual; not this fluttering apprehension that’s partially new ink, sure, but that’s mostly new ink from

And then finally…

Oh god, finally...

The first touch has Keith twitching like a first-timer. It’s not the sting, and obviously not the noise (that delectable high-pitched whirr dipping lower as it delves beneath the flesh); it’s the knowledge that Lance is providing all these sensations, and leaving behind just a bit of himself.

“You’re kinda distracting me, here, Kitty-Tat,” Lance says, and it’s only then that Keith notices how hard he’s gotten; how he’s already leaving a tiny damp spot in his underwear. At the renewed attention, his cock jerks.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, and curses, again, his mother’s influence over his complexion as he goes red, “It’ll go away in a bit.”

He will never get over just how blue Lance’s eyes can look. Lately he’s noticed how intense the colour gets when he stares through his eyelashes like this, light bouncing in from the sides, casting harsh, mesmerizing shadows. “That’s almost a shame,” he says, and there’s a certain heat there; a promise. “Hopefully it doesn’t stay away.”

His cock jerks again.

The wet spot grows.

Lance raises his pierced eyebrow. “Does this happen every time?”

Keith glares. “I’ve been tattooed by my brother.”

“The question stands.”

Well, it helps him calm down, at least, even if it earns Lance a vigorous middle finger. “Of course it doesn’t happen every time,” he says.

Lance squints at him. “I can’t help but notice that was ‘not every time,’ and not ‘never before.’”

This close, under the bright light needed on his canvas, Keith can see Lance’s pupils dilate when he replies, “Shiro wasn’t there the last time I tattooed myself.”

Ever the experienced tattoo artist, Lance keeps his gun well out of the way when he plops his head onto Keith’s shin, well away from the sanitary spot he’s tattooing. “Kitty-Tat.”

You know, Keith’s really grown to like that nickname.

He nudges Lance with his knee. “Back to work, Loverboy,” he says, because he knows how much his boyfriend has grown to like that nickname.

It takes a second, but he does raise his head and get back to work.

The dragging bite and dizzy endorphins keep Keith hard another fifteen minutes before the pain starts to take over enough to kill it. But even as the physical reaction subsides, the one in his head starts to skyrocket. He closes his eyes and focuses on the sure, confident hold of Lance’s hands. He opens them and is equally hypnotized by the technical skill and the look of his boyfriend’s deft, gloved hands, inflicting so much on him in so many ways.

An hour passes, and then two. The euphoria fades into an adrenaline plateau, which fades into the first shaky bits of technical shock. By hour three the shading feels like a lighter being held against his skin, and there’s little arousal left in it, but somehow, still, all the intimacy.

“Hang in there, Kitty-Tat,” Lance whispers, and kisses his kneecap. “Just highlights to go.”

Keith groans.

“Goody.”

The sharp, thin drag of the liner is, as usual, like cutting into a fresh burn with a hot scalpel. And yet Keith can’t take his eyes off the way the hippo seems to breathe with its final touches; the way the balloons float like they might bump together cartoonishly if he moved.

Then it’s done, and Lance is wiping it down with a blessedly cold paper towel, and saying again, “Take a look.”

But Keith shakes his head.

“Wrap it up.”

“You don’t even want to–?”

He doesn’t want to do anything but kiss Lance, so he does. They have to let his skin settle, anyway, so he takes the time to wind his hands around Lance’s neck and listen to the clack of his piercing against his teeth and whisper when he pulls back, “Wrap it up and fuck me.”

The bandage is cut, placed, and peeled in four minutes flat. Lance snaps off his gloves and tosses them haphazardly over his shoulder as he presses Keith back onto the table and kisses him again and imitates certain thing with his tongue (that he’ll never cop to having learned from Keith in the first place). His jeans scrub against his boyfriend’s freshly covered tattoo, and Keith moans at the contact, arching his back.

“Freak,” Lance laughs as he leans down to run his tongue over the shell of Keith’s ear.

“But you like that about me.”

Lance’s huff is loud. Keith is just starting to harden again, but Lance is already there, the outline of him firm and unrelenting as he presses down against Keith’s hips, more mindful, this time, of the artwork on his thigh.

Keith’s hands are still cold with mild shock, so Lance hisses when he slides them up under his shirt. He teases at his nipples with his icy middle fingers, holding the indexes and rings over the balls on each side so the metal cools. The moan he gets in return is unsteady; there might be half a Kitty-Tat in there somewhere.

His time under the needle has rendered Keith languid; sloppy; a little bossy. “Kiss me,” he requests, and leans back and lets Lance do most of the work. He toys with Lance’s nipples and swallows the gasps he gets in return and makes a mess of their lips. He tugs Lance’s shirt over his head and shoves his own up under his armpits and guides his boyfriend’s head down in a wordless order to lick over his own piercings. Lance chuckles, but it’s smoother than usual—airier and deeper—and he complies without further complaint, laving his tongue over one nipple and then the other; twirling the tip around the metal bits and pulling back to blow streams of air until the flesh puckers.

Keith clutches at his shoulder blades, at the minuscule NWH from Lance’s ex-girlfriend nestled there that he’s already started plotting cover-ups for, and presses up into the sensation, and orders, low and thick, “Finger me.”

He’d think it selfish of Lance to take off his own jeans and briefs before he takes off Keith’s ink-stained underwear, but he understands when he sees the way that pierced cock springs free, flushed and bouncing and neglected. Besides, Lance is back in the next moment, tugging his boxer-briefs carefully over his tattoo and off.

Then Lance leans forward again and examines the ink; runs his thumb softly over the bandage and watches the way Keith’s cock jumps; the way he groans in pain and wraps a hand around himself, half-smiling through a few panted breaths afterward. Lance’s cock jumps, too, and he runs his thumb over the tattoo one more time.

“Freak,” Keith teases.

Lance hums.

He doesn’t even have to say it; his grin is enough.

And then he’s reaching over to his table and grabbing the lube they’d set there before and coating his fingers and—

Quick,” Keith demands when Lance’s index finger is buried halfway to the knuckle inside him. “Do it quick, I just want you inside me.”

He wants him inside while the ink is still fresh; while he can still feel it throbbing and new, right beneath the surface. He wants Lance inside until he’s queasy with him; until he bursts like so much colour. He bends both knees and rocks his hips down, but Lance’s deft wrists follow the motion so he doesn’t sink any deeper.

“Put your leg down,” Lance says, and rewards him when he does it by shoving his finger the rest of the way in. With his right leg bent and his left stretched along the table, his tattoo is plainly visible, and Lance stares at it while he goes about the business of fucking in and out of Keith’s hole.

Hah—narcissist,” Keith accuses. Fuck, the burn; the stretch; his body’s tapped adrenaline reserves find a way to give another weak little spike.

Lance stays surprisingly serious. “It’s not my work,” he murmurs, “It’s my work on you, it’s…it’s just...it’s…”

Keith nods; moans at the crook of the finger working inside him.

“It’s…” he tries to help, but he can’t figure out what it is; just knows it, intrinsically. It’s everything, but even that word feels wrong, so he just rocks his hips in counterpoint to Lance’s hand and says, “Fuck, I know what it is, I know, I know, now show me…”

Lance leans back over him as he adds a second finger; kisses him soundly and then settles with his head tucked against Keith’s neck where he can still stare down at his work. Keith bends his knee again to give him a better view, and it’s like karma when those long fingers crook just right in the next moment and he’s gasping, “Right there, just like that.”

Lance puffs out little praises against his neck as he jerks his hips down onto that hand with a series of wet, filthy noises. “You take it so well...keep going like that, keep taking me, that’s so good…” But his eyes are still on the lines of that suspended hippo, and Keith doesn’t know if he means his fingers or his ink (not that it matters in the slightest).

His cock jerks so hard it rubs along Lance’s forearm on his next rock upward, leaving a lewd line of precome over the seascape. The fingers inside him dig in until they almost hurt; until the pleasure is an ache is a twinge that punches right up into his stomach and makes the muscles in his feet convulse. “Gonna come like this if you don’t fuck me,” he warns, and he may or may not be asking Lance to stop, he’s not decided.

Lance, though, has decided, apparently. He leans down and flicks his tongue over Keith’s nipple piercings again, and grinds his fingers in hard until Keith is arching up with a strangled, “Ah- ah-shit-fu-ah !” and then pulls his hand free and reaches for the lube again.

Keith is surging up to kiss him before he has a chance to get the cap open, stealing the bottle and letting lube pool in his own palm and reaching down to spread it over Lance’s cock himself. Usually Lance would let loose another of those airy, loose chuckles—he likes to tease Keith about his obsession with his pierced cock—but he must be too far gone. He just frames Keith’s jaw and moans into his mouth and thrusts a little into his hand and makes that desperate little whining noise that Keith loves when he pulls his foreskin up and runs his thumb carefully over the outline of those little metal balls. Almost immediately he gets too hard for it to work; the foreskin pulls back taut as he twitches, and Keith gets in two more feather-light strokes over the Prince Albert before he’s being pushed away with an oversensitive hiss.

He settles back onto the table with a shiver. He still feels high, just post-shock and unable to regulate anything about the way his body works. Lance braces above him with one arm, reaches the other between them to guide himself between Keith’s legs, and all the spots they're touching are warm and damp and ticklish and making Keith shake. At the first nudge of Lance’s cock, he pants and trembles hard enough to knock him off kilter; the piercing slides sharply off his rim and digs into the crease of his hip. So Lance rears back for his next attempt; sits on his knees and leans back onto his calves and holds Keith’s hip with his left hand and his dick with the other and watches intently the spot where he presses forward...in...further

Keith can just barely feel the metallic variation as Lance slips in. Then it’s the usual stretch; the moment when he’s sure it’s too much, won’t fit, fuck ; the moment when it does, when his body snaps closed over the head and the hot, encompassing knowledge sets in that shit he’s going to take this. It makes him reach down and grasp at Lance’s hips; makes him pull him in with relentless pressure, even though it burns the whole way, because he needs to feel, right fucking now, the way his body is going to take it all.

The nudge of the piercing is there again, just noticeable enough to make him grind his hips against Lance’s pelvis when he’s finally fully seated, just to feel the movement of that filthy hot abnormality. “Fuck,” Lance breathes, and grabs at his thighs to pull him closer, heedless of the tattoo (or perhaps putting that painful pressure there on purpose, to feel the way Keith tightens around him). “Kitty-Tat, fuck…”

And god, the immense burn of Lance’s hand over the ink he’d put there. The immense burn of his cock inside Keith. The immense burn of them, together, looking into each other’s wrecked faces and wordlessly beginning to shift together.

The drag of that cock (that goddamn piercing) as Lance pulls out...

The strain of it as he pushes back in...

The flex of his hips under Keith’s fingers as he fucks him

Lance’s hand shifts, and then he’s pushing Keith’s leg down again. It forces his hip open at a somewhat odd angle; doesn’t let Lance thrust quite as deep. But it puts his tattoo back on display for the artist, and that makes up for it.

Keith is tempted to ask for it harder, faster, more more more, but he knows it’s not the kind of too much he’s after. He wants it just like this, moderately paced but incessant and unwavering, until every touch is a tattoo needle right to his nervous system. He wants to watch the sweat break out over Lance’s skin and ink; wants to watch that pierced eyebrow furrow as he gets closer and closer.

“Ah, fuck,” Lance grunts with a particularly firm thrust, collapsing forward onto his right hand, the other still braced over Keith’s new hippo. “Been thinking about fucking you like this for so long…’m not gonna last…”

What Keith means to say is Come inside me.

What he says is:

“Come all over what you did to me.”

It seems to hit them both at the same time.

Lance groans long and thin, and pulls out as quickly and carefully as he can, and shoves Keith’s leg down flat along the table properly so he can straddle it and start working over his cock at a punishing pace. Keith wraps a hand around himself and matches Lance stroke for stroke, eyes stuck on the way that Prince Albert is appearing and disappearing beneath the foreskin, then not disappearing at all as Lance gets obscenely harder, again, fist sloppy with pre and lube.

“I’m gonna come, Kitty-Tat,” Lance sighs, nipple piercings glinting with his heaving breaths. “I’m gonna—oh shit, oh shit—you’re gonna make me come…”

He does, hard enough that he almost misses on the first pulse, most of his come landing in a streak across Keith’s hip. But the second, third, fourth surges smear across the clear bandage; across the tattoo underneath. It’s warm and crude; debauched in the best fucking way. It’s Lance all over Lance all over Keith, pearlescent come against that bombastic colour, and it does the artist in. When Lance follows it up with a salacious, stinging draw of his still-coming cock—of his come-covered piercing—over the art, Keith’s orgasm hits him so hard he tears up.

He thrusts up into his fist as he comes, because Lance has let his cock go so it’s resting against his tattoo and he can feel the little shifting pressure of his spent dick with every jerk. He can feel a little of his own come start to drip down over the lioness on his side; likes the way Lance’s eyes catch the motion and follow it down, entranced even after he’s spent.

Fuck,” he says; then again, mellower, “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” Keith agrees.

They take long, lackadaisical minutes getting cleaned up and then carefully checking Keith’s tattoo to make sure they haven’t done any damage. “I’d kill a client if they did this,” Lance mumbles, swiping over the surface with a damp paper towel one last time to make sure no come has seeped into any seams.

“I’d kill a client if they did this with you, too.”

The next swipe is less gentle, and Keith snickers, even as the pain makes him inhale sharply.

“I’ve been a terrible influence on you.”

“Agreed.”

“But you like that about me.”

He puts a hand over the sea foam on Lance’s neck; pulls him up into a kiss; doesn’t mind at all when Lance’s palm rests on his sore thigh.

“I like that about you.”