Actions

Work Header

Rise from Here

Work Text:

The first time Galo cooked for Lio was the night he arrived. It was early November; there was snow on the ground. Galo had been nervous, and had channeled his nervous energy into making chicken tikka masala from scratch with basmati rice and a salad. After the Burnish Rights Foundation people brought Lio up and made introductions, after Galo gave him the quick tour and showed him his room, after Lio put his meager bag of belongings down on his new bed, Galo had sat him down at the table and served him dinner.

Lio had poked at it suspiciously while Galo slid into the chair across from him with his own plate. Then Lio stabbed a piece of chicken with his fork and examined it critically. Then he tentatively put it in his mouth.

The next minute and a half was the most egregious display of awful table manners that Galo had ever seen in his life. Lio, holding the fork in his fist and stabbing every bite like he was murdering it, had wolfed down the chicken, salad, and rice on his plate like Galo was going to take it away from him any second. He ate like a wild animal. Rice scattered. A piece of lettuce fell on the floor.

“You like it?” Galo had asked, a little taken aback, when Lio had lunged across the table and grabbed the serving bowl, scooping out another helping of chicken onto his plate, splattering the table with sauce in his haste.

“It’s fucking delicious,” Lio had said. He sounded angry. He ate his second helping with as much alacrity and as little grace as he’d eaten his first. Then he stood up.

“Do you have the phone they said they’d give me,” he had demanded. 

The BRF had arranged for some basic necessities. Galo handed over the cell phone, still in its box.

Lio opened the box and examined the phone. Then he closed the box. Then, without another word, he disappeared into his room, leaving Galo alone with the messy table and all the dirty dishes. Despite Galo knocking on Lio’s door the next day with offers of breakfast and lunch, Lio hadn’t come out again until the late afternoon. It turned out that Lio knew how to use the phone, but Galo had to teach him how to use the dishwasher. He had to teach him how to use the laundry machines. He had to have a talk with him about hoarding food in his room. Once, he startled Lio by touching him on the shoulder without warning and got punched in the eye for his trouble. Their first month living together was pretty difficult.

Promepolis, the country Lio came from—escaped from, really—had a few different language groups inside its borders when it originally formed; English ended up as the lingua franca, so at least there wasn’t a language barrier. But there’s a lot of things about Lio that Galo still doesn’t understand.

He gets angry about weird things: Galo once asked him what he thought was an innocent question about what kinds of food Burnish people liked to eat, and Lio slammed his door in Galo’s face so hard that Galo’s teeth rattled. Lio once flipped through a clothing catalog for a while and then threw it into the trash can with such force that he knocked the can over. When Galo asked him what was wrong, he just grunted, “Ridiculous. You people are ridiculous,” and then went and hid in his room. His reaction to his first trip to Target was similar; the aisles of appliances and racks of clothes had shocked him into a red-faced, sullen silence, and Galo was pretty sure he’d heard him punch the wall in the dressing room when he was trying on outfits.

Galo had originally characterized him as “ungrateful,” but then he talked to Ignis. “Should he be grateful?” Ignis had asked thoughtfully. “Sounds like he’s being treated with basic human dignity for the first time in his life. Would you be grateful for that?” On reflection, Galo can see where Lio’s anger is coming from. Galo just wishes it didn’t feel like that anger was directed at him personally. 

Lio gets sad about weird things, too. In the early days after he first arrived, Galo caught him in the kitchen turning the water off and on, a tragic expression on his face. Galo had asked him if he was okay, and he looked at Galo for a long time and then asked, “It always comes on?”

“The water?” Galo said. “I mean, yeah, unless I stopped paying the bill, but the bill isn’t much.”

“Oh,” Lio had said mournfully. He looked like he was on the verge of tears. Galo wanted to do something to comfort him, but by that point he knew enough not to try it. Lio had turned, brushed past him, and holed up in his room for another long while after that.

The only time he seems happy is when he’s talking to his friends—Meis and Gueira, Galo managed to get their names—on the phone. Lio is constantly texting or video-chatting them, talking to them in a musical language that Galo doesn’t recognize. Galo tries to ask him questions about them sometimes, but he never gets much of a response. 

Galo knows Lio has some details about Galo’s biography; there hadn’t been time to set up a meeting, but Galo’s BRF caseworker had him fill out a bunch of questionnaires to make sure there wouldn’t be any dealbreakers between them. Galo had written in depth about how much he loved being a firefighter; he was very clear about being bi because he didn’t want that to be a problem; he mentioned not being religious in particular. He got some info back in the form of similar questionnaires returned to him, but Lio’s answers were terse and his handwriting was nearly illegible. When Galo signed on the dotted line he wasn’t entirely sure who he’d be hosting in his spare room. All he really knew was that the need was urgent and he could help. 

If it doesn’t work out, there are options. He and Lio can talk to their caseworker and find Lio a new place to stay. But despite his cantankerousness, Lio hasn’t brought up the idea, and Galo is willing to wait and give him time to adjust. He’s not going to kick the guy out just for being angry and kind of hard to live with. He’s clearly been through some stuff. Patience isn’t one of Galo’s strengths, but he does his best to make Lio feel welcome and tries to give him space. 

A lot of space, after the eye-punching incident. Galo isn’t good at taking hints, but that, he understood pretty well.

***

The night things start to change starts off like a lot of nights they’ve had. Lio ensconces himself in his room after Galo drags a few details of his day out of him over dinner. Galo plays a video game in the living room for a few hours, then goes to bed. He reads a mystery novel for a bit, turns off the light, and is just starting to doze off when he’s startled out of his hazy reverie by a loud, wild banshee wail.

The scream is like nothing Galo’s ever heard. It’s unearthly. It’s terrifying. The hair on the back of Galo’s neck stands up and he jolts upright in the bed as the scream fades away into a low moan and then suddenly chokes itself off.

He knows where that scream came from. Galo leaps up, heart galloping in his chest, throws his door open, and runs down the hall to Lio’s room. Galo knows better than to try to open the door; he’s pretty sure Lio always keeps it locked, anyway. But he pounds on it. “Lio!” he yells. “What’s wrong, are you okay?”

There’s a brief silence, but then Galo is deeply relieved to hear Lio’s voice come through the door, muffled.

“Everything’s fine,” Lio says. He sounds hoarse, though. “I just had a nightmare.”

“Oh geez, that sucks. Sounded like a really bad one,” Galo says.

“I’m sorry,” Lio says. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”

“You’re not bothering me, Lio,” Galo says. “Do you need anything? Is there anything I can do?”

There’s a long pause.

“No. I’m fine,” Lio says, and Galo furrows his brow in consternation.

“You didn’t sound fine,” Galo says to the door.

“It was just a nightmare,” Lio says. “That’s all. I’m fine.”

“Can I come in?” Galo asks.

There’s another long pause.

“Why?” Lio asks.

“I don’t know, to see if you’re okay?” Galo says, frustrated. “To give you a hug or something?”

“A hug,” Lio’s voice says, and he sounds completely incredulous. Galo bonks his head softly against the doorframe, cursing himself for an idiot.

“Okay, that was stupid, I’m sorry,” Galo says. “Look, I just want to help. But I don’t know how. Usually when people are sad or upset I can give them a hug or… I don’t know, I’m good at hugs. I know you don’t want that, though, so I don’t know what to do.”

“I don’t want you to do anything,” Lio says, and Galo realizes, with a sinking feeling, that this isn’t about him or his feelings of helplessness. It’s about what Lio wants. Which is for him to go away.

“Okay. I’m sorry,” Galo says. “I’ll go. Just… let me know if you need anything. I’ll be in my room.”

There’s no answer. Galo’s eyes sting. He turns and walks away, toward his own room down the hall.

Then Galo hears a click as Lio’s door opens. He stops, half turns. Lio has cracked his door just enough to stand half in the hall, dim light from his desk lamp spilling out around him. He looks pale and drawn, dark circles under his pink eyes.

“Wait,” Lio says. His eyes are sharp and intent on Galo. Galo stands very still, barely breathing.

“Galo, why did you take me in?” Lio asks.

That’s not a question Galo was expecting just then. He takes a moment to consider his answer. He has a feeling it’s important to get this right.

“Well,” he finally says, “it just made sense. One,” he holds up a finger, “I had a spare room and you guys needed places to stay. Two,” he holds up another finger, “living alone was getting kinda boring. Three, I wanted to help when I heard about what was going on. And four… I’m not gonna lie, the stipend the government is paying me is a pretty solid chunk of change. So. That’s why.”

There’s a pause. Lio’s eyes narrow in the dim light of the hallway.

“No other reason?” Lio asks, guarded and suspicious.

Galo furrows his brow, at a loss.

“Does there need to be another reason?” he asks. “I mean… is that not enough?”

Lio stares at him for a very, very long time; long enough that Galo starts to get mildly uncomfortable. Then Lio looks down at his feet.

“I…” he starts. Then he stops, takes a breath. “I guess… I would like a hug,” he says softly.

“Yeah?” Galo’s heart stutters. He opens his arms. “You got it. Bring it in, bud.” Lio makes a little snorting noise without looking up, but then he takes a step in Galo’s direction. Galo doesn’t move; he doesn’t want to startle. He lets Lio come to him, and Lio does, one hesitant step at a time, until he’s finally close enough to slot his arms awkwardly around Galo’s sides. Galo wraps his arms around Lio’s thin frame, pulls him close, and squeezes him, very gently, petting his back just the tiniest bit with one hand. He holds him like that for a long moment before Lio responds.

“Oh,” Lio says softly. He sounds surprised.

“Hm?” Galo says.

“You are good at hugs,” Lio says softly. Then he starts crying.

“Shit,” he says, and sobs hard into Galo’s shoulder. “Shit, goddamnit, fuck.”

“Hey,” Galo says, and holds him tighter. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

“Sorry,” Lio hiccups, “this is stupid, I’m being stupid.”

“No you’re not,” Galo says. “You wanna talk about it?”

“No,” Lio says testily, but then he says, “It’s just… I… I miss… I miss Meis and Gueira.”

“Your friends?” Galo says gently. “From, uh, from the camp?”

“They’re more than that,” Lio says fiercely. “We grew up together. None of us had any family left, so we took care of each other. We shared a tent. I can’t sleep here. I don’t have anyone to… watch my back.”

Galo’s heart breaks a little. He resists the urge to protest that he’ll watch Lio’s back; Lio doesn’t trust him with that yet, clearly.

“They got sent to Dallas,” Lio says dolefully. “That’s so far.”

“Why couldn’t BRF send you to Dallas too?” Galo asks, concerned. Lio shrugs.

“Just… how it worked out. Meis and Gueira got taken to the camp together and told the registrar they were brothers. They’re not, but that’s how they show up in the paperwork. That’s why they got to stay together. I didn’t get to the camp… until later. I was younger than they were, they took me in. But… a lot of things happened and we got… separated. For a while. We didn’t find each other again until a couple days after they got to Dallas, through BRF. I was worried about them. For a long time.”

“That sucks,” Galo says.

“Yeah,” Lio says, voice hoarse. “It does. It really sucks.”

“I’m glad you found them,” Galo says. Lio hiccups into his shoulder.

“Me too,” he says. “I just wish I could see them.”

“Could you take a trip?” Galo says. Lio snorts.

“With what money?” he says. “I’m just starting to save up from work. And I don’t start getting vacation time for another month, anyway, I can’t take off, I just started. I mean, I get some time over Christmas and New Year’s, but not a lot.”

“Hm,” Galo says, concerned.

Lio takes a deep breath. “It’s okay,” he says. “I can talk to them on the phone. I’ll get out there someday. I’m just glad they… made it.”

“Yeah,” Galo says, brow furrowing. “Me too.”

There’s a long, slightly awkward silence. Then Lio stirs restlessly in Galo’s embrace.

“Okay,” he says. “You can stop hugging me now.”

Galo lets him go immediately. Lio backs away a few steps, eyes downcast.

“Sorry about that,” he says to the floor. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I’m fine, it’s not a big deal. We’re all fine. It’s fine.”

“Lio…” Galo starts.

“I’m going back to bed,” Lio interrupts. “I have to work tomorrow, I should try to sleep. Goodnight.” And without another word, without looking away from the floor, Lio shuffles back to his door, slips inside, and closes it behind him, leaving Galo standing alone in the hall.

Galo sighs. At least he helped a little. Maybe. And Lio talked to him, and told him about his friends. If only Lio could see them, he might feel better, more grounded and more secure… 

Right then, standing in the dark hallway, Galo has maybe the best idea of his life.

***

Galo forms a plan based on his idea. He never really does much for Christmas, and he hadn’t been planning anything this year except the annual Burning Rescue holiday potluck; it’s not actually his favorite time, for various reasons. But he can make an exception for Lio and his friends. He initiates Phase One of the plan the next morning, as Lio is getting ready to leave for work.

“Lio, will you do me a favor and write out Meis and Gueira’s numbers and stick them on the fridge?”

“Why?” Lio asks suspiciously. He seems to be back to his usual guarded self. Galo takes a calming breath and forges ahead.

“For emergency contacts. In case something happens and I need to get in touch with them,” Galo says. “Look, I’ll put mine up too. You should have Aina’s number just in case.”

“Okay,” Lio says, somewhat grudgingly. “I guess that makes sense.” Galo hands him some sticky notes and a pen. Lio scribbles on two of them and puts them on the counter while Galo writes out Aina’s number and sticks it on the fridge.

“There,” Galo says happily, “now we can…” He turns around and discovers he’s talking to himself. Lio has already left the apartment, slipping out silently. Galo sighs, but his spirits rise a little when he looks at his prize: two phone numbers, in Lio’s messy handwriting.

***

Galo initiates Phase Two of the plan once he’s sure Lio is out of the building. He grabs his phone, picks one of the numbers at random—Gueira’s—and dials it. It rings for a while, then someone picks up. 

“Yo,” says the person on the other end.

“Is this Gueira?” Galo asks.

“Who’s askin’?” the voice says suspiciously.

“Uh, you don’t know me, but I’m Lio’s housemate? Galo,” Galo says. “Lio gave me your number. As an emergency contact.”

There’s a pause.

“What happened to ‘im,” Gueira says, and he sounds terrified, and Galo’s heart stops.

“Oh shit,” he blurts, “no, I’m sorry, nothing happened to him! He’s fine! I just! He’s totally fine, that’s just how I got your number, because I wanted to get in touch with you! Nothing happened!”

There’s another pause.

“He’s okay?” Gueira says, voice intent.

“Yeah! Yeah, he’s totally okay.”

“JESUS!” Gueira bellows into the phone, so loud that Galo has to pull it away from his ear. “Don’t give me a heart attack or nothin’! Fuck!”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t realize how that would sound!” Galo says, mortified.

“Damn, dude, okay,” Gueira says, at a more normal volume. “So you got my number. Whaddaya want, aside from making me shit a brick apparently?”

Galo decides he probably likes this guy.

“Well,” he says, “Lio’s been… bummed out. We’ve been talking, kinda. He told me he really misses you guys.”

There’s a pause. “Yeah,” Gueira says, “I miss that little sonuvabitch too.” Galo almost laughs at the language, but there’s definite hurt in Gueira’s voice, so he doesn’t.

“I think he’d feel a lot better if he could see you,” Galo says. “But he’s trying to save money, and he can’t take vacation time yet, because he just started at his job, so I was calling to see if… I could invite you both… here? For the holidays? I’ll pay for the plane tickets, and I have an air mattress, you could stay at my place, we’ll all fit.”

There’s another pause.

“You’d buy plane tickets for two total strangers to come crash at your house for Christmas?” Gueira says incredulously.

“Well, when you say it like that, it sounds weird,” Galo says.

“Hell yeah,” Gueira says. “I’ll fuckin’ do it. Hey, Meis!” he yells, away from the phone. “Hang on,” he says to Galo, and then Galo hears him talking to someone else—has to be Meis—in that language Galo doesn’t recognize. After a little back and forth with Meis, Gueira gets back on the line.

“Yeah, we’ll come,” he says. “One hundred percent. We’re both just doin’ gig work right now, we can make our own schedules. But listen up. Anything we’d owe you, that’s on us, not on Lio, okay?”

“You wouldn’t owe me anything?” Galo says, perplexed. “I’ll take it out of the government money. That’s what it’s for, right? For you guys’s, you know, well-being.”

“Huh,” Gueira says. Then he says, “How soon can you get us there?”

“How soon do you want to come?”

“When’s the next flight?”

“Okay, maybe let me look some up,” Galo says. “I’ll see if there’s a good one in the next couple days.”

“Cool, see if we can get extra legroom, Meis has legs. I’ll throw down for that if it’s more money. Yo… have you talked to Lio about this?”

“Not really?” Galo says, uncertain.

“Don’t tell him. Gonna surprise the fuck outta that little motherfucker,” Gueira says, and Galo snorts out a startled laugh. He decides he definitely likes this guy.

***

Galo initiates Phase Three of the plan after getting off the phone with Gueira. Phase Three is pretty boring and involves a lot of logistics. But the results are two plane tickets and a date three days in the future, the day before Christmas Eve.

Phase Four of the plan starts when Gueira texts him as they’re getting out of the Lyft in front of Galo’s house. Galo gets downstairs just in time; two people who have to be them are walking up to the door. One has a wild mop of hair that’s brunette on top and red underneath. He’s walking with a forearm crutch; his leg on that side is oddly shaped, the foot twisted inward. The other man is tall, thin, and elegant, with a long loose fall of dark hair. He’s wearing a backpack and pulling a small roller suitcase through the snow.

“Yo!” the shorter man says. Definitely Gueira. “Are you Galo?”

“Yeah, hey!” Galo waves them into the entryway. “You must be Gueira!”

“That’s me!” 

“And that would make you Meis.” Galo smiles at the taller man.

“Correct,” Meis says, giving him a little smile back.

“Cool to meet you!” Galo says excitedly. “Welcome to the Casa de Galo. I can’t wait for Lio to get back, he’s gonna flip. He’ll be home from work in about an hour, we can just chill until then. Come on up, I’m on the, uh… second floor?” Oh god. Galo’s stomach sinks and he tries very hard not to look down at Gueira’s leg. He hadn’t thought about accessibility when he planned this. 

“Ugh,” Gueira says, “fuckin’ stairs.” He doesn’t hesitate, though; he hauls himself up them very fast and with very little grace, Meis following more sedately behind him with the luggage. Galo breathes a quiet sigh of relief and trails them up the stairs.

He ushers them through the door of his condo. The door opens into a big combination kitchen/dining room/living room, the kitchen on the left, separated from the rest of the space by a built-in kitchen island. A door leads out from the kitchen onto the little balcony that had sold Galo on the place when he first saw it. The small dining table and chairs are closest to the front door; the couch divides the rest of the room, back to the table, facing the two windows and the TV between them. On the right, a hall leads to the two bedrooms. There’s a full bathroom with a tub at the end of the hall; the “guest” room—now Lio’s room—has its own half-bath with a shower. Galo has Meis and Gueira leave their luggage in his room for the moment, so there won’t be any evidence of their presence. Then he offers them drinks, which they accept, sits them at the table, and tries with moderate success to make small talk for a while. He learns that Gueira is working as a taxi driver and Meis is cobbling together pet-sitting gigs through Rover, of all things, while they try to save up enough to buy their own car. They’re living in a detached garage that the homeowner turned into a mother-in-law apartment a few years ago and offered up much as Galo offered up his spare room. Gueira is much more talkative than either Lio or Meis, and supplies most of the answers to Galo’s questions until Galo’s phone alarm goes off.

“It’s almost six, Lio should be home any minute,” he says, turning it off, and Meis and Gueira grin at each other. “Here, let me take your cups. You guys should get ready to hide in my room.” He takes Meis and Gueira’s cups and brings them to the sink. The two of them stand up, Gueira grabbing his crutch and getting ready to move, and their timing couldn’t be better; Galo hears Lio’s key in the lock.

“He’s here!” Galo hisses, gesturing frantically. “Go go go!” Meis and Gueira dash down the hall and disappear just as Lio opens the door, stepping into the condo with his usual world-weary air. Galo stands behind the kitchen island and tries to look both normal and innocent. 

“Hey! How was your day?” he asks cheerfully.

“Meh,” Lio says non-commitally. He looks tired.

This is it. The culmination of Galo’s plan. Galo feels a bubbling excitement under his breastbone that reminds him of being a kid playing hide-and-seek.

“Lio,” Galo says, “I think I know something that will cheer you up. I have a surprise for you. Kind of an early Christmas present. Go sit on the couch and close your eyes and I’ll bring it out to you.” He can’t repress a smile, even as Lio looks at him sourly, hanging his coat up by the door.

“I don’t really like surprises,” Lio says.

“I know,” Galo says, “but you’re gonna like this one. I promise.”  

Lio sighs, but he does as Galo suggested, walking over to the couch, sitting down heavily, and closing his eyes.

“Okay,” he says wearily. “What is it.”

“Hang on one second,” Galo says, and goes down the hall to his room. Meis and Gueira are hovering expectantly by the door. He gestures to them. They all sneak back down the hall. Gueira can be surprisingly stealthy on his crutch. Galo stops in the hall and lets them go forward on their own. They sneak up almost silently to the back of the couch. Lio tilts his head.

“Galo?” Lio says quizzically.

“Hey boss,” Gueira says. Lio straightens, stiffening. His eyes fly open.

“Hey boss,” Meis says.

“Wha…” Lio says. He turns, staring, eyes wide. “Meis… Gueira?!”

“Who else would it be, shorty?” Gueira says, grinning at Lio. Meis holds out his arms.

Lio makes a noise that, under other circumstances, would have made Galo think he was having a seizure or something. He stands up on the couch, facing Meis and Gueira, fists clenched.

“You…!” he starts. Tears spring to his eyes. He yells something in their lilting language, voice choked, following it with “…you fucking asshole jerks!”

Gueira holds up a shaky middle finger at Lio. He has tears in his eyes, too.

“We come a thousand fuckin’ miles and this is the thanks we get? Up yours, boss,” he says, grinning fiercely.

Lio flings himself over the couch back and into their arms. They all overbalance and fall to the floor in a laughing, sobbing heap, clinging to each other. Lio presses his face into Meis’s chest, one arm around Gueira. Gueira shucks off his crutch and rubs his hand over Lio’s back. Meis nuzzles the top of Lio’s head.

“Okay cool!” Galo says from the hall. “I’m gonna, uh. Go get some stuff. From the store! I’ll see you all later!”

They don’t even seem to notice as he leaves.

***

Promepolis was a small country, far to the north. It grew rich off sales of its large fossil fuel deposits, then invested heavily in geothermal energy. It was widely acknowledged to be an oligarchy in all but name; President Foresight, oil empire heir and geothermal energy magnate, had barely bothered to hide the way he bought all the elections. But the international community didn’t do anything. By all accounts, Foresight was a benevolent dictator.

Then the Burnish started appearing, in the northern reaches of Promepolis.

There had been a flurry of news about it, back when Galo was a kid. Strange lights and unexplained “mutations” that left people physically changed. Very rarely, the mutations were rumored to manifest as something more than physical. “Pyrokinesis” and other big words Galo hadn’t understood at the time were bandied about. A Promepolitan researcher named Deus Prometh, who some people dismissed as a kook, had been closely studying the phenomena. He spoke excitedly and at length at a conference about opening up new frontiers for harnessing the power of the human mind. He might also have said something about aliens, Galo can’t quite remember.

Then he disappeared.

Shortly after that, Foresight locked down Promepolis’s borders. Hardly anything, news or otherwise, got in or out for nearly fifteen years. 

There was little anyone could do. So the world forgot, mostly. Some Burnish who’d been outside the country when the borders closed banded together and formed the Burnish Rights Foundation. They didn’t get much traction—were usually dismissed as alarmists and crackpots—until a video of the inside of one of Foresight’s Burnish detention camps got out.

Things had moved surprisingly fast, after that. Galo didn’t really follow international news, but he couldn’t help hearing about the way Foresight’s regime literally went down in flames. And about all the people who needed safe havens after the Burnish Rights Foundation got them out of the country.

Galo is the kind of guy who sees a problem and immediately wants to solve it. So he put his name down to provide housing. It was kind of impulsive. He hadn’t been sure they’d actually place someone with him. But then he got interviewed, and background-checked, and someone came to inspect his condo, and it all got very real, very fast. And now he has three Burnish people crowded onto his balcony with him, drinking beers, oblivious to the winter chill, sitting practically in each other’s laps in their folding chairs, talking in their musical language like it’s going out of style. He didn’t know Lio could smile so hugely, or laugh so hard. It makes him happy and it makes his heart ache, at the same time. He’d been a little hesitant to join them out here, once he got back with snacks and beer after dawdling for a solid two hours, but to his surprise Meis and Gueira had insisted, and Lio hadn’t protested, so he’s out here. 

Gueira finishes a long story in their language, and Lio snorts with laughter. Then he eyes Galo with a bit less suspicion than usual. Lio kicks Gueira lightly. “Be polite to our host and speak English,” he admonishes.

“Oh shit, sorry,” Gueira glances at Galo. “I was just telling Lio about one of the weird cab passengers I had. You would not believe the shit people say. She was like,” he affects a high-pitched, mocking voice, “‘I love your haaaaaaair, you’re so luuuuuuucky, I wish miiiiine was like that.’ Lady… you would not believe what happened to me because of this hair.”

“Is it… a Burnish thing?” Galo asks.

“My hair? Yeah, it’s a Burnish thing.”

Galo looks at Lio, startled.

“Wait, yours too? Is that your natural hair color?”

“Yes?” Lio says.

“I thought you dyed it. Like mine.”

Lio snorts. Then he starts laughing.

“Galo, where would I have gotten hair dye? What do you think these are?” He points to his pink eyes. “Did you think I had contacts?”

“I don’t know!” Galo sputters. “I thought you were part albino or something!”

“Is this guy stupid?” Gueira says to Meis.

“I think he might be stupid,” Meis says.

“Hey!” Galo protests. “I don’t know what Burnish whatevers look like! I didn’t want to ask and be rude!”

“Yeah, bro, it’s our mutations!” Gueira says, laughing. “You didn’t know that?”

“Well, I’m not really, I dunno, I wasn’t really following the science!”

Gueira laughs again, but he looks mollified. “So you were just like, ‘Yeah, whatever’?” he asks.

“I mean. Basically,” Galo says, somewhat embarrassed, but then he glances at Lio and sees an uncharacteristically noncombative look on his face.

“All I really knew was that the way you guys were being treated was fucked up,” Galo says seriously, and Lio’s expression softens a hair more. 

“Well, hey,” Gueira says, “if there’s anything you want to know, ask. I don’t got a degree in genetics or nothin,’ but the way they were always pokin’ and proddin’ us, you couldn’t help picking up some stuff.”

“So are the mutations all different?” Galo asks.

“They show up in hair and eyes mostly, but there’s some different kinds, yeah.”

Galo regards the three of them. “So, okay, I see it for you guys,” he says, gesturing to Lio and Gueira. “But what’s yours?” he asks Meis. Meis shrugs. 

“My mom was Burnish,” he says. “Mine is guilt by association.”

“Oh,” Galo says. A brief pall sinks over the balcony.

Lio breaks the silence by saying, “There’s more to mine than how I look.” Gueira startles.

“Boss,” he says.

“I think I’d like to show him,” Lio says to Gueira.

“Really?” Gueira says.

Lio raises an eyebrow. “It’s not dangerous here, right? Plus I think he should know, since I’m living in his house.” He shoots Galo a pointed look. 

“I should know what?” Galo says with trepidation. That had sounded vaguely like a threat.

“Get me a piece of paper?” Lio says. 

Galo digs in his jacket pocket and pulls out a crumpled grocery list. “Here,” he says, offering it. Lio doesn’t take it right away; instead, he rolls up his sweatshirt sleeves and presents his hands for inspection.

“Nothing in my hands, right?” he says. Galo nods, puzzled. Lio takes the piece of paper. He holds it out in one hand. Then he closes his eyes.

They all sit in silence. Lio looks like he’s concentrating. Nothing seems to be happening, though. Galo takes a sip of his beer.

The piece of paper bursts into flames.

Galo spits beer across the balcony.

“Fuck shit damn!” Galo yells, and upends his beer bottle over the paper and Lio’s hand, pouring beer all over everything and extinguishing the flames. “Waaaugh!” Lio protests, dropping the charred piece of paper and pulling his hand back, shaking beer off it.

“What the hell!” Galo shouts. “You can’t light fires out here!”

“Hey! No yelling!” Gueira yells.

“No fires anywhere in this house, I’m a firefighter!” Galo yells with slightly less volume, waving his hands and sloshing more beer onto the balcony. “You can’t be lighting fires without giving a guy some warning! Geez! What the heck!”

They all stare at each other, defensive.

“How’d you do that, anyway?” Galo says, peering cautiously at Lio’s empty hands.

Lio narrows his eyes.

“I did it with my mind,” he says, and that definitely sounds like a threat.

“That’s why he’s the boss,” Gueira says proudly.

“Burnish people can really light fires with their minds?” Galo asks. “I thought that was propaganda!”

“Nope,” Lio says. “Some of us can really do it.”

“Holy shit,” Galo says, impressed despite himself.

“The BRF convinced the UN we aren’t dangerous,” Lio says matter-of-factly. “Anyone with a pack of matches could do what we do. They got us some protections. We don’t have to divulge. And no one can study us without our consent.” Lio looks thoughtful for a long moment. “I’ve seen some research requests on Burnish message boards, though,” he continues. “They seem legit. I might sign up for one.”

“Boss!” Gueira looks horrified. Lio turns his head to look at him, an intent light in his eyes.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out how it works? I’d like to know what I’m capable of.” He glances at Galo. “I think I could do more with it, if I hadn’t had to hide it,” he says. “I had to really repress it. Especially during the stress tests.” 

“The stress tests?” Galo says. Lio shudders. 

“They had ways of trying to induce pyrokinesis, or make us show it. I don’t really want to talk about it,” he says. Gueira puts an arm around him.

“Just a routine annual physical,” Gueira says in a high, snotty voice, obviously imitating someone, and Lio chuckles. It’s not a very happy chuckle, though.

“So you had to hide it this whole time?” Galo asks sadly.

“Yeah. If you failed the stress test, you got hauled off to somewhere way worse than the camp. People disappeared and never came back. Foresight was trying to figure out what made us tick.”

“Like… how?”

Lio snorts. “How do you think?” he says darkly. Gueira absently pets his hair.

Galo picks at the label of his beer. “I never heard anything about that on the news,” he says.

“I don’t think it’s been confirmed. No one wants to confirm it. There were rumors, though,” Lio says. “And… that big underground complex Foresight was holed up in when he died. The one where the fire destroyed everything.”

“Yeah,” Galo says.

“They’re saying it should never have burned like that. And that the epicenter of the fire was Foresight’s body. I think he was Burnish. I think he was using the rest of us to make himself more powerful. And I think he burned up all the evidence of what he was doing, when he was about to get found out,” Lio says.

“Wouldn’t put it past him,” Gueira says, glowering. “That guy was a piece of work. Fuckin’ sadist. I heard he showed up in person sometimes, for inspections. Prolly got off on it or somethin.’ Our camp was kinda in the boonies, though, he never came.”

“He’s lucky he never showed up at our camp,” Lio says.

“Why?” Galo asks.

“Because I would have killed him,” Lio says softly, and Galo feels a chill run down his spine.

There’s a long, icy silence.

“Well,” Meis says finally, “shall we try to have a normal conversation, for a change? Galo. What do you like to do for fun.”

“Oh! Uh!” Galo shakes himself. “Yeah, I mostly just…” He’s about to say “watch cartoons” and then realizes how dumb that sounds in context. “Uh, ride my motorcycle? And Burning Rescue does lots of volunteer events in the community, I like helping with those. And, uh.” He trails off awkwardly.

“I’ve been getting into knitting,” Meis says, deliberately casual. “It’s relaxing. And I really like doing the pet-sitting gigs. Walking dogs is great.”

“You should see the scarf he’s makin,’” Gueira says to Lio. “Ugliest shit I’ve ever seen,” and Meis leans over Lio and thwacks Gueira on the back of the head as Gueira guffaws, and the tension drains slowly from the balcony as Meis and Gueira start trading increasingly creative and bilingual insults. 

The conversation wanders casually for the rest of the evening; they avoid touching on any more painful subjects. Galo tells some of his favorite stories about Burning Rescue; he’s been Lucia’s guinea pig more than once, testing out applications of her inventive firefighting tech that range from heroic to dumb. He even makes Lio laugh a couple of times, which secretly makes him very proud. Finally, the cold starts to get to him.

“Guys,” he says, “I’m getting chilly, I think I’ll head in.”

“Yeah, sounds good, what say we head in too?” Gueira says, and Meis and Lio nod. They all stand up; Galo slides the glass door open and they start crowding through after him, jostling each other on the way in.

“Hey Galo,” Gueira says once they’ve all gotten through the door, “check it out, betcha didn’t notice I stole your wallet. And your phone.”

Galo instinctively pats at his back pockets. They’re empty. Gueira grins and holds up Galo’s phone and wallet in one hand.

“Whoa, what the fuck,” Galo says.

“Gueira, quit that,” Lio says, scowling. Gueira cackles.

“Hey, gotta stay sharp!” he says, handing the phone and wallet to Galo.

“How’d you do that?” Galo asks, bemused, taking them back. “I didn’t feel anything?” Gueira cracks his knuckles.

“I have my ways,” he says smugly.

“Man,” Galo says, bemused, “you guys have weird skills.” Lio snorts.

“You can say that again,” Lio says, smiling a little. “C’mon,” he says, gesturing to Meis and Gueira, “I’m gonna get ready for bed, it’s late.”

They all sleep in Lio’s room. Gueira just scoffs when Galo offers them the air mattress. Galo tries not to feel weird about it, and mostly succeeds. 

***

Galo and Lio both have the day off on Christmas Eve, but Galo leaves Lio, Meis, and Gueira be, staying home and doing chores while Lio takes the other two out sightseeing. Galo is out on the balcony when Lio finds him late that evening. It’s cold, but Galo still likes to stand out there sometimes before he goes to bed and look out at the city and the night sky. Lio slides the door open and comes out onto the balcony without a word. There’s still beer bottles and folding chairs scattered around from the previous night. Galo’s going to have to pick them up later.

“Hey,” he says to Lio. Lio steps forward and leans against the railing.

“Hey,” he says back. There’s a silence.

“Howya doing?” Galo asks, to fill the silence. Lio smiles a little.

“I’m great,” he says. Then his smile fades. “I want to talk to you about something, though.”

“Yeah,” Galo says.

“I don’t know if I should ask you this,” Lio says.

“Well, you can’t get what you don’t ask for,” Galo says.

Lio eyes him. “It’s not about getting anything,” he says. “The opposite, really. You set this up, didn’t you? You brought Meis and Gueira out here.”

“Yeah,” Galo says.

“Why?” Lio asks. He sounds suspicious again.

“You’re always asking me ‘why’ like I have some weird ulterior motive!” Galo says, irritated. “I just… I knew you were sad and I thought this would help! That’s all!”

Lio looks at him like he’s a particularly complicated and frustrating math equation.

“You don’t even know me, but you’ve done so much for me, and you don’t ask for anything in return. And now this. I don’t really get it,” he says.

“I just want to help, Lio, I don’t know what else to tell you.”

There’s another long silence.

“I don’t like being in your debt,” Lio finally says.

Galo, offended, opens his mouth to protest. Then he closes it again. 

Ignis is always telling him to listen and think more before he speaks. He takes a moment.

It stings, how guarded Lio is, how little he trusts Galo. But Galo might be coming at it from the wrong angle. No-strings-attached generosity doesn’t seem to be a thing in Lio’s world, at least not for people who aren’t Meis and Gueira; it just makes him suspicious. If Lio needs to square his debts to feel like they’re equals, to build any kind of trust, then Galo will swallow his own rebuffed feelings and let him do it.

“Lio,” he finally says, carefully, “I don’t consider you in my debt. But I get it, I think. Would you feel better if you could pay me back?”

Lio shoots him a very weird look that Galo can’t parse.

“I mean,” Galo says, a little thrown off, “you’ve got some money from your job now, right? So we could set up a payment plan for back rent. And you could start chipping in monthly. It wouldn’t have to be a lot, because we can subtract all the money I get from the government. That’s kind of your money, really. And we could start trading off paying for groceries. You really don’t have to. But if it would make you feel more comfortable. We could work all that out?”

Galo sees the moment when something wound tight in Lio finally starts to relax. Lio’s shoulders creep fractionally away from his ears.

“Yes,” Lio says to the balcony railing. “That would make me feel more comfortable.”

“Okay,” Galo says. “We’ll do that, then. Whatever you think is fair. We can work it out.”

Lio looks up at him with a strange, hesitant expression. Then he reaches out a hand toward Galo. Galo stops breathing and doesn’t move. Lio’s hand hovers over Galo’s shoulder. Then it touches down lightly, a hesitant pat. 

“Thank you,” Lio says softly. Then he turns and flees.

Galo stands on the balcony for a while, lightly stunned. That’s the first time Lio has ever said “Thank you” to him for anything.

Maybe Galo is finally starting to do something right.

*** 

Christmas is uneventful. Galo never makes a big deal out of it. He doesn’t even have a tree. He does go to the usual Burning Rescue potluck, though. When he gets back, Meis, Gueira, and Lio are cuddled up on the couch heckling a Hallmark movie, Chinese takeout containers scattered all over the coffee table. Gueira yells at Galo to join them, and he does, brushing off Gueira’s offer to squeeze in next to them on the couch and sitting on the floor instead. He’s happy, listening to them chatter and laugh together. It makes him feel oddly wistful. But he likes seeing Lio smile. It’s a great Christmas present.

***

The day after Meis and Gueira reluctantly head back to Dallas, Lio and Galo figure out their finances, with a notepad and the calculator on Galo’s phone at the kitchen table. Lio insists on including half the groceries for the last few months, so Galo digs some receipts out of the trash and does a bunch of estimating. They work out a back rent payment plan and a fair contribution from Lio going forward, considering the stipend Galo is getting from the government. Ten minutes after they finish working it all out and Lio has retreated to his room, Galo’s phone dings. It’s a Venmo payment for the first installment.

Lio has put a smiley face emoji in the “notes” section, which startles Galo so much he laughs out loud.

Lio makes an extra payment at the end of December, completely squaring up his perceived debts for groceries and back rent. He’s very proud in January when he Venmos Galo the next rent share they agreed on. Galo gets a whiteboard where they can write grocery shopping requests. Lio writes weird stuff like “crunchy noodles” that Galo has to translate as best he can (Lio has apparently never cooked ramen noodles; he just eats them raw, which Galo finds simultaneously horrifying and hilarious). They start falling into a rhythm, slowly figuring out what household chores better suit each of them. Galo does most of the shopping, for instance. Sometimes Lio gets freaked out by the grocery store. The first time Galo took him there, he stared at the stacks of produce and aisles of food in silence and then sank into a simmering rage that lasted for the rest of the day. He’s not the biggest fan of grocery shopping. He does the laundry instead, and the dishes, and some of the cleaning, when he remembers. 

Galo cooks. It’s so much more fun, now that he has someone to cook for. Lio still eats everything Galo puts in front of him like it might run away, but his table manners have gotten a lot better since that first night.

Lio… relaxes. That’s the only way Galo knows how to put it. He stops hiding in his room so much. He hangs out in the living room after he gets home instead of immediately disappearing. He starts (mostly unsuccessfully) trying to cook things from recipes he finds on the internet. He talks to Galo a little more, even asks him about his day. He listens to Galo’s stories of Lucia’s scientific exploits and Burning Rescue’s everyday heroics with bemusement, but he seems at least mildly entertained. He sometimes even lets Galo say hi to Meis and Gueira when he’s video-chatting with them. Their third month living together is much more pleasant than the first two.

Galo donates most of the money Lio pays him to the Burnish Rights Foundation. He absolutely does not mention this, ever.

***

Their fourth month living together starts out with a Thai peanut noodle stirfry that Galo cooks with tofu and vegetables. Lio is a little hesitant about the tofu, but he steals a piece off the cutting board, munches on it, and declares it “inoffensive.” And he happily serves himself a big bowl of stirfry when Galo brings it to the table. Galo watches him take a bite.

“You like it?” he asks.

“Yeah, i’s really goo’,” Lio says, mouth full. His table manners are better lately, but that’s not actually saying much.

“How’s the spice level?” Galo put some hot pepper in it, but he went pretty easy. Lio generally just inhales everything without discrimination; Galo realized while cooking that he doesn’t actually know if Lio likes spicy food. 

Lio shrugs. “Could be spicier,” he says. “I like it, though.”

“There’s a bunch of hot sauce in the pantry,” Galo says. “You should grab some if you want.”

“Okay, sure,” Lio says, and pushes his chair back, standing up. He walks down the hall to the pantry and Galo hears him rummaging around for a minute. When he comes back, he has a couple of bottles in his hands. He puts them on the table, sits down, squints at them, picks one up decisively, unscrews the cap, and upends it over his food. Galo takes a closer look at the bottle and nearly has a heart attack.

“Whoa, whoa, bud, go easy on that!” he says urgently. “It’s ghost pepper, it’s super hot, Remi got it for me as a joke!”

“Fuck off, I want to try it,” Lio says, putting the bottle down and grabbing his fork. He shovels a huge bite into his mouth.

He chews. His face flushes pink and sweat breaks out on his forehead. He swallows. Tears spring to his eyes.

“Lio?” Galo says with trepidation.

“Oh god,” Lio wheezes.

“You want some milk? Lemme get you some milk.”

“My head is going to explode,” Lio hisses, and stabs another huge bite of stirfry with his fork. Galo stares, aghast, as Lio wolfs it down. His eyes start watering, tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Uh, Lio?” Galo says.

“This is fucking delicious,” Lio says. 

“Are you okay?” Galo asks.

“Hell yes. This is so fucking spicy. I feel alive,” Lio says. He takes another bite.

“Holy shit,” Galo says, deeply impressed. “I can’t believe you can eat that. When I tried I ended up on the floor.”

“You’re soft,” Lio says dismissively. “Like a delicate flower.” His face gets even redder and he takes another bite.

“I am not!” Galo protests. “I’m extremely tough and manly! You’ve seen my badass scars!” He rolls up his sleeve and flexes his scarred arm. Lio makes another wheezing noise.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, big brave firefighter saving lives,” Lio says, waving a hand, but he’s smiling a little. 

“I do save lives,” Galo says, puffing up. “It’s all in a day’s work for a hero.”

“And yet you can’t handle the ghost pepper,” Lio says, and there’s a note in his voice that makes Galo grin incredulously.

Lio is teasing him.

“I guess there’s different ways of being super-tough,” Galo says happily. “And we’re both tough in our own ways!”

Lio snickers. “I’m very tough,” he says. “Can’t kill me. And I can eat anything. Like a roach.”

Lio says it with pride, but Galo doesn’t think that’s a very flattering comparison.

“More like a firebug,” he says, and Lio snorts so hard he almost spits out the bite of food he just put in his mouth.

“Yeah. Firebug,” Galo says thoughtfully, theatrically raising an eyebrow and tapping his chin. “That’s a cute nickname.”

“If you ever call me that I’ll burn this place to the ground,” Lio says with a smirk, and he kicks Galo lightly under the table, and Galo feels his heart swell.

Maybe things are starting to work between them. Maybe they’ll be okay after all.

***

Galo has a tough day later that week. Burning Rescue gets an elderly man out of a burning house; the fire started in the kitchen, where he forgot a stove burner was on. The guy clearly shouldn’t have been living alone. Despite smoke inhalation and barely being able to talk, he keeps trying to get up off the stretcher. They find out later he had a dog. The dog didn’t make it.

Sometimes, when he has a bad day at work, Galo thinks about his parents. When that happens, he puts on his show and zones out for a while. It’s a show he watched as a kid. Before the fire. He picked it back up later. It always makes him feel better. He’s ensconced on the couch late that night with a beer, watching it, when he hears a soft voice from over his shoulder.

“Hey,” Lio says. 

“Oh,” Galo says, turning to look at him, mildly startled. “Hey, Lio. What’s up?”

“Can’t sleep,” Lio says shortly. “What are you watching?” He comes around the couch and sits down on the opposite end from Galo. 

Galo pauses the show, self-conscious. “Is it too loud?”

“No, that’s not what’s keeping me up,” Lio says, but he doesn’t elaborate. “What is it?”

“It’s, uh, just a dumb cartoon I like. ‘Gigantotron.’ It’s about fighting mechs. I can put something else on if you want.”

Lio is silent for a moment. Then he says, “It looks fun. Can you turn it back on?”

“Uh, sure.” Galo unpauses the show in the middle of some back-and-forth between the main character and his best friend/rival.

“What’s this guy’s deal?” Lio asks after watching for a few minutes. “He’s being a dick. I thought they were on the same team?”

“Well, there’s kind of a lot of backstory,” Galo says, bemused. “This episode is from season five. You really wanna know?”

“Yeah, tell me,” Lio says.

Galo doesn’t usually get a chance to enthuse about this show, so he really hams it up, giving Lio the run-down of all the characters’ tragic backstories and complicated relationships. He’s gratified whenever a particularly juicy tidbit makes Lio laugh, or snort disbelievingly, or ask surprisingly pointed questions about motivations and plot holes. And by the end of a couple of episodes accompanied by Galo’s enthusiastic commentary and hand-waving, Lio has moved almost imperceptibly from the far end of the couch all the way to the other side, next to Galo. Galo starts to run out of steam, and Lio starts to run out of questions, about five episodes in, and Galo lets a comfortable silence stretch out between them. Toward the end of episode six, Galo feels something press against his shoulder and looks down, startled. 

Lio has fallen asleep, and his head is tilting to the side, his cheek resting lightly on Galo’s shoulder. Galo feels blessed, as if a shy cat chose to sit in his lap. Lio should probably go to bed, though.

“Hey, Lio,” he whispers, nudging him gently. “Time for bed, bud.”

“Huh…” Lio blinks back into wakefulness. Then he sits up so fast he almost whacks Galo in the chin with his head.

“Sorry!” he says. “I… sorry. I fell asleep.”

“It’s okay,” Galo says. Then he takes a little bit of a chance. “You can lean on me if you want, I don’t mind,” he says.

“You don’t?” Lio says. 

“No, it’s cool.”

“Hm.” Lio regards him, but he seems more curious than suspicious, which is a big improvement. “I didn’t think you Americans were very… physically affectionate, generally speaking.”

“Well, not all of us,” Galo says. “But I’m kind of a huggy guy. I dialed it way back around you after you punched me, though.”

“That’s fair,” Lio says. He might even sound a little remorseful. “Sorry I was so jumpy. I didn’t really trust y… anyone.”

Galo waves a hand. “Nah, no biggie. I’m sorry I didn’t get that you, like, needed more space.”

Lio makes a weird little noise that might be a chuckle. “It’s funny you put it that way. Space isn’t something I ever had. Meis and Gueira and I… we lived in each other’s pockets. We didn’t have a lot of ‘personal space.’” He puts air-quotes around the words. Then he glances sidelong at Galo. “I think we’re more… demonstrative? Then you all normally are.”

“Yeah, I kinda, uh, noticed that,” Galo says.

“I miss it,” Lio says softly. “It’s hard not having them around.”

Galo frowns, concerned. “Yeah. I’m sorry, bud,” he says.

Lio looks at his feet.

“It would be nice if I could… lean on you. Sometimes,” he says softly.

Galo, startled, sits with that for a second. Then he starts to smile.

“Lio,” he says, smile widening, “does this mean you trust me now?”

“Whu…” Lio looks flustered for a second. Then his face starts to turn red. He scowls.

“Don’t get full of yourself,” he says severely. “You seem to clear the low bar of being a minimally decent human being, that’s all.”

“Haha! Nice!” Galo crows, pumping his fist. “You can totally lean on me, I’ll even hug you some more if you want.”

Lio’s face turns even redder. “Don’t push your luck,” he mumbles, and stands up. “I should go to bed,” he says, but doesn’t move. “Thanks for…” He pauses awkwardly. “Thanks,” he finishes, and Galo grins at him.

“Any time, firebug,” Galo says, and Lio huffs.

“Don’t call me that. Goodnight, I’m going to bed.” He’s still blushing furiously. It’s kind of adorable. He shuffles around the couch and starts marching down the hall. “Goodnight!” he calls again over his shoulder.

“Goodnight, Lio!” Galo yells after him cheerfully. He’s still grinning as he turns back to the denouement of the episode they were watching. He feels a lot better. He’s not dwelling on old memories or burning buildings any more. He might not even have nightmares tonight.

He’s really glad he put his name down on that list. He’s happy Lio’s here.

***

The days pass, and they grow ever more comfortable with each other, settling into a casual routine. Galo’s hours sometimes overlap with Lio’s, sometimes not, depending on when they’re both on shift at their respective jobs. Sometimes he’s just getting home when Lio is leaving, sometimes they have almost the same schedule. But when they can, they eat dinner together, sometimes watching an episode of Gigantotron or a movie before going their own ways for the evening. They talk more; Galo knows better than to ask Lio anything about before he got here, but he’s more than happy to trade Burning Rescue stories for coffee shop customer shenanigans. Lio gets a library card and starts bringing home stacks of books and DVDs; he tells Galo he’s got catching up to do. His taste in movies is omnivorous; his reading tends to the abstruse. Galo often finds him on the couch, watching hokey stuff like “Back to the Future” or reading dense books by Haruki Murakami or David Foster Wallace. The rhythm they’ve started improvising around each other grows more effortless as time goes on.

Galo comes home one snowy afternoon to find Lio sitting on the couch, the TV off, no books in sight; he’s just looking out the window, watching the snow. He turns his head when he hears Galo come in and gives him a little wave. Galo shakes the snow off his coat in the entryway and hangs it up. It’s the very tail end of winter; this is probably going to be the last snowfall of the year. 

“Snowing pretty hard out there,” Galo says, just for something to talk about.

“It’s beautiful,” Lio says, smiling. Galo smiles back. Lio’s been smiling a lot more lately. It’s nice to see. It makes Galo happy.

“You like it?” Galo says. He takes his boots off and leaves them by the door, wanders over to lean on the back of the couch next to Lio.

Lio looks thoughtful. “Snow’s always been part of my life,” he says. “Long winters up north. I don’t know if I like it. But it feels familiar.”

“You wanna go out in it?” Galo asks. “Build a snowman or something?”

Hell no,” Lio says happily. “I want to stay right here where it’s warm and watch it come down.”

“Haha, nice,” Galo says. 

“I think I want… a blanket,” Lio says slowly, thoughtfully. “And a book. And some hot chocolate. That’s what you all do in the winter, right? I wish you had a fireplace.”

“Well, three out of four ain’t bad. Wait right here,” Galo says, grinning, and dashes down the hall to his room, where he grabs a spare blanket out of the closet and then turns to consider his bookshelf. He’s not going to go into Lio’s room to get any of his library books; that space is still sacrosanct.

“What are you doing?” Lio calls.

“What kind of book do you want?” Galo yells back. “I got stupid mysteries, uh, more stupid mysteries, science fiction short stories, and how-to books on firefighting?”

“Um, short stories?” Lio says. Galo grabs an anthology and dashes back down the hall.

“Here,” he says, handing the book to a very bemused-looking Lio. Then he shakes the blanket out dramatically and wraps it around Lio’s shoulders, tucking it in around him.

“Wha…” Lio starts. Galo just grins at him.

“Stay right there,” he says, and bounds to the kitchen, where he rifles through the cabinets until he finds the instant hot chocolate packets. He gets one out, tears it open into a mug, gets a spoon, and then grabs the electric kettle off its base and puts it in the sink to fill up.

“Are you making me hot chocolate?” Lio asks from the couch. He sounds faintly annoyed. “Galo, I was being hypothetical, I didn’t mean you actually had to do all this stuff…” He starts to stand up.

“You sit back down, Lio Fotia!” Galo yells, brandishing the spoon at him. “I am gonna make you hot chocolate and I’m gonna be nice to you, and you are gonna sit on the couch and deal with it!”

“O-okay,” Lio says, sitting back down. Galo, satisfied, grabs the electric kettle from the sink, puts on its base, and clicks the button. When he looks back at Lio, Lio is bundled back up under the blanket, and he looks toasty; his cheeks are flushed pink.

“It’s not anything special, it’s just instant,” Galo warns him.

“Okay,” Lio says. “That’s fine. That’s great.”

“Cool.” Galo waits for the water to warm up. When it gets close to boiling, he pops the kettle off the stand and pours the hot water into the mug, stirring thoroughly. Then he brings it over to Lio in his blanket nest, his cheeks still pinkish. Galo hands Lio the mug, then steps back and assesses the scene critically; Lio looks very cozy. But there’s something missing.

“Okay, hold up,” Galo says. “One more thing.” He grabs the TV controller, turns the TV on, navigates to YouTube, types in “10-hour Yule log,” and clicks the first video that comes up. A crackling fire fills the screen. “There,” Galo says. “It’s not the real thing, but no way am I getting you a fireplace.”

Lio stares at the screen for a long moment. Then he bursts out laughing. His laugh is great; surprisingly deep, like his voice. Its gravitas is ruined by the way he snorts intermittently, though. “Oh my god,” Lio wheezes. Galo hasn’t seen him laugh this hard since Meis and Gueira were here.

“Dude, what?” Galo says. He’s laughing, too, a little. It’s infectious.

“You have…” Lio is laughing so hard he’s practically doubled over, clutching his hot chocolate. “You have videos… ten hours… ” he manages.

“Yeah, YouTube has all kinds of stuff?” Galo is still laughing, confused. Lio laughs harder. Then Lio swipes at his eyes, and Galo realizes that he’s crying a little bit. And even though Lio is still laughing, Galo can’t tell if they’re tears of laughter or just… regular tears. Galo stops laughing. Lio takes a deep breath, and then chuckles a few times. He wipes his eyes again. 

“Hoooo. Oh, man,” he says.

“Lio, you okay?” Galo asks, concerned.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Lio says. He pulls his blanket around himself, takes a sip of his hot chocolate. He smiles into the mug. It’s a shaky smile, but it’s genuine. “Thanks, Galo. This is nice. I appreciate it.”

“Yeah,” Galo says, “no problem.” He stands there awkwardly for a second, uncertain. 

“We used to have fires, back at camp,” Lio says suddenly.

“Mm?” Galo makes a questioning noise. Lio never talks about the camp.

“We all had these canvas tents,” Lio says. “We’d build snow walls around them for insulation in the winter. We had stoves. They’d send work crews into the woods around camp to collect firewood. Do you know how long winter lasts up north?”

“No,” Galo says quietly.

“Five months. The days get really short. My people are good at surviving winter. But it was hard. Every year it was hard. Sometimes the roads closed and we didn’t get food shipments for a while.”

“Jesus, Lio,” Galo says, heartbroken.

Lio shrugs. “We got creative,” he says. “We helped each other. It wasn’t all bad. The stars are beautiful at night. Have you ever seen the northern lights?”

Galo shakes his head.

“They’re like a living thing. Like a being of light. I’d watch them for hours.” Lio sighs. “I kind of miss them.” He smiles wryly. “The sky here is really boring.”

“Hey,” Galo says after another moment of silence, “I bet YouTube has ten hours of northern lights.”

“You think so?” Lio says, eyes lighting up. 

“I bet they do,” Galo says, and they spend the rest of the evening watching clips of the northern lights and drinking hot chocolate while the snow falls softly outside.

***

Spring comes. Detroit shakes off the slushy remains of that last snow and puts on flowers. Lio takes more shifts at the coffee shop; he’s trying to save money. Sometimes he’s gone all day; he has weird hours. Galo is half-napping on the couch one afternoon when Lio bursts out of his room, stumbling down the hall. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Lio is muttering to himself, hopping on one foot and pulling his shoe on.

“Lio, what’s wrong?” Galo calls, sitting up on the couch.

“I’m fucking late, is what!” Lio yells. “And I’m gonna miss the bus and be really late to work and they’ll fire me, and then I’ll be destitute and you’ll throw me out on the street and—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Galo interrupts. “Take a breath, bud.”

“Hhhhhh,” Lio wheezes, which is not quite what Galo meant, but okay.

“None of that’s gonna happen!” Galo protests. “They’re not gonna fire you, and even if they did, I’d never kick you out like that.”

“But I’m late,” Lio repeats, a panicked note in his voice, starting to pull on his other shoe. “I’m gonna miss the bus, I gotta go…

“Do you want a ride?” Galo says.

Lio stops in his tracks like the thought of getting a ride from Galo had never occurred to him. Which it probably hadn’t.

“On your motorcycle?” Lio asks. “Can you take a passenger?”

“Sure, I have an extra helmet.” Lio’s already wearing long sleeves and jeans, so that works. Galo would have him borrow the motorcycle leathers but they would be comically big on him. Plus it’s not that far—the coffee shop where Lio works is only about a fifteen minute drive, and they wouldn’t be going that fast in the city.

“Uh… okay,” Lio says, and Galo leaps up off the sofa. 

“Lemme grab the helmets and put my shoes on!” he yells, bounding down the hall. “I’ll get you there on time! Don’t worry, Lio, you won’t regret it!”

Lio doesn’t look sure about that when Galo gets back with the helmets. But he takes the one Galo hands him and gamely follows him to the garage. Galo has him climb up behind him on the bike.

“You’re gonna have to hold on,” Galo says, and Lio hesitantly wraps his arms around Galo’s waist.

“Just hold on tight and lean into the turns, okay?” Galo says, starting up the bike.

“Okay,” Lio says, and Galo guns it out of the garage and into the labyrinth of neighborhood streets. Cognizant of having a passenger, he thought he was going slower than usual, but Lio yelps when Galo takes a tight corner and clamps his arms around Galo’s waist so hard that Galo can’t breathe for a second. Galo slows down a little more. Lio loosens his grip fractionally but maintains a tight hold on Galo for the rest of the drive. Galo pulls up to the front of “Brewtopia” with five minutes to spare. As soon as the bike settles next to the curb, Lio jumps off the back and then just stands there. Galo turns to look at him, concerned. He mentally prepares himself for a tongue-lashing about going too fast and being too stupid and reckless, even though he was totally being careful. Lio pulls off the helmet. 

He doesn’t look mad.

His face is flushed, hair tousled, and he’s grinning, a feral, manic grin that takes Galo completely by surprise.

“That was awesome,” Lio says breathlessly, eyes wide with furious excitement. “Can you teach me how to drive this thing?”

“Uh,” Galo says, taken aback, “yeah, totally.” 

He’s going to ignore the weird flip-floppy thing his stomach just did. 

Probably that dollar burrito he ate last night or something. Yeah.

***

Lio picks up motorcycle riding faster than he has any right to. Galo’s motorcycle is big for him, but he handles it like a champ, quickly learning everything Galo has to teach him. Lio is reluctant to actually borrow the bike and go ride it on his own outside the big parking lot they practice in, but he clearly wants to. He starts researching; Galo finds motorcycle magazines scattered around the house. Lio excitedly shows him YouTube videos of people doing ridiculous tricks and jumps. The crazier the tricks get, the more relieved Galo feels that Lio seems to want to get his own bike instead of borrowing Galo’s. It gives Galo another great idea, though. 

“Lio, you’re not doing anything right now, right?” Galo asks, throwing the motorcycle keys down on the counter. 

“Not really, why?” Lio is in the kitchen, making something unidentifiable that might have started out as breakfast for dinner. The condo smells faintly like burning.

“I’m gonna take you somewhere I think you’ll like,” Galo says.

Lio turns to smile at him. “Oh yeah?” he says.

“Yeah!” Galo says happily. “If you like riding the motorcycle, I bet you’ll like the amusement park. Have you ever been on a roller coaster?”

Lio’s eyes widen in excitement.

“No,” he says, “I haven’t.”

***

Lio insists on riding the roller coaster three times in a row.

“Lio,” Galo says after the third time, laughing at Lio’s happy, manic expression and wind-blown hair, “there’s other rides here, you know, we can try something else!”

“Okay, okay,” Lio says. He’s laughing too, walking a little unsteadily so that his hip bumps into Galo’s occasionally. They’re wandering away from the roller coaster exit.

“What about that one?” Lio says, and points to the Ferris wheel.

“I dunno, that one might be a little boring, you wanna go, though?”

Lio watches the Ferris wheel critically for a minute.

“Does it do anything?” he asks. “Like flip you upside down or anything?”

“No, it just goes around,” Galo says, bemused.

“That’s so stupid,” Lio says, and laughs. 

“Maybe a different one,” Galo says. “Or we could get some food or something? Whatever you want.”

Lio peers around. “I want… that.” He points. Galo turns to look. 

“CHILI CHEESE FRIES,” blares a marquee over a midway booth.

“Hell yeah,” Galo says.

The line isn’t long; they acquire one container of chili cheese fries each. But as they’re walking back toward the rides, three kids come running pell-mell down the sidewalk right at them. Lio, normally so graceful, swerves to avoid the running kids and trips. His chili cheese fries fly from his hands and land on the ground with a splat.

“Hey, watch it!” Galo yells at the kids, but they’re already gone into the crowd.

“Oh no,” Lio says, and Galo turns to him and he’s staring at the spilled fries with such a tragic expression that Galo immediately holds out his own.

“You can have mine,” he says, but Lio doesn’t seem to hear him. He kneels and starts shoveling the fries back into the container messily. He stands back up, holding the defiled container of fries, and picks one up out of the chaotic pile. He stares at the fry. There’s definitely some sidewalk dirt on it. 

“Lio, what are you doing, don’t eat that,” Galo says urgently. Lio looks up at him, his eyes wide and hurt in his angular face, and Galo suddenly sees the ghost of the hollow-cheeked skeleton he’d been when he first arrived.

“I don’t want to waste it,” Lio says. He looks like he’s about to cry.

“Lio, you don’t… we can get some more. Or you can have mine.”

“I…” Lio says. A tear escapes his eye and rolls down his cheek. He puts the fry back in the container and scrubs the tear away angrily. “I’m sorry,” he says, almost in a whisper. “This is stupid. I’m being stupid. I just. I hate wasting food.”

Galo has a lump in his throat. He holds out his hand. “Give it to me,” he says. “I’ll waste it. It’ll be on me.”

Lio, barely looking at him, presses the carton of fries into his hand. Galo hands Lio his own fries and Lio accepts them without looking up.

“Thank you,” Lio says. His voice is rough. “I’m going to go sit down for a second. I’ll meet you over there.” He gestures with his head at an out-of-the-way bench.

“No worries,” Galo says in what he hopes is a bracing tone, and turns, giving Lio a moment. Then Galo strides to the trash can and places the fries inside with a little more care than he would normally give ruined food.

When he joins Lio on the bench, Lio is despondently eating Galo’s chili cheese fries, shoving one after another into his mouth absently. He looks up when Galo sits down next to him.

“Thanks,” Lio says around his mouthful of fries. He holds out the fries to Galo. Galo shakes his head at the fries and Lio pulls them back, setting them down on the bench.

“You okay?” Galo asks, concerned.

“Stupid,” Lio mumbles, looking away again. “Crying about fries in the middle of the sidewalk. Sorry.” 

“It’s not stupid,” Galo says. 

“I don’t know how to be a normal person,” Lio says mournfully.

“Hey,” Galo says, “that’s fine. Nobody’s normal.”

Lio looks at him incredulously. “You’re normal,” he says.

Galo snorts. “Not really,” he says. “I mean, I guess you could see it that way. But I’m a little weird by most people’s standards.”

Lio cocks his head questioningly.

“You know. I like dyeing my hair blue. I’m bi. I have really bad ADHD and didn’t get diagnosed until I was like twenty. I’m nerdy about cartoons. I spent a lot of time in foster care. It’s nothing like what you went through. But I kinda know what you mean, and there’s one thing I know for sure. Being normal is totally dumb and overrated.”

“Huh,” Lio says.

“I’ve seen people try to get to normal,” Galo says. “I’ve tried it myself.” He waves a hand. “You just squash all the parts of yourself that matter. Don’t do it, man. Just be who you are.”

“But who I am is a fucking mess,” Lio says.

“Lotta stuff happened to you,” Galo says. “You’re allowed.” 

“I guess,” Lio says grudgingly. He sounds irritated. Galo rubs the back of his neck, thinking about the thing he wants to say next. He has to be careful about this one. 

“Look, like I said. Normal is dumb. But I do want you to feel better. I don’t want to be that guy, but have you thought about therapy? It might help. It helped me a lot.”

Lio looks startled. “I thought you were a big tough hero,” he mumbles.

Galo flexes an arm. “I am,” he says, and kisses his bicep theatrically. “Big tough guys aren’t scared of talking about their feelings.” 

Lio chuckles, cracking a little smile. Galo smiles back at him.

“They offered, through BRF,” Lio says. “I… thought about it. But it seemed so… self-indulgent.”

“Nah,” Galo says. “I went for ADHD stuff. It can be kind of a pain in the ass if you don’t get the right therapist. I had to try a couple times. But in the end it helped. It’s not self-indulgent to want to feel better.”

Lio sniffs wetly. He quickly scrubs at his eyes. Galo pretends not to notice. “Okay,” Lio says. “Maybe I’ll try it. I’ll think about it.”

“Cool.”

“Thanks, Galo.”

“Yeah.”

They sit on the bench in silence for a while.

“Do you want to go?” Galo asks gently. “We can go, if you don’t want to be here anymore.”

“No,” Lio says, and he sounds more like his usual stubborn self. “I just needed a minute. I want to ride the roller coaster again. I want to go on the stupid dumbass Ferris wheel.”

They go on the Ferris wheel. At the top, Lio stares at the amusement park lights and the city in the background and then says, “You know what this looks like?”

“What?” Galo asks curiously.

“It looks a little like the northern lights,” Lio says. “In its own way, the city is a being of light, too.”

“Oh,” Galo says.

“The northern lights always meant home to me,” Lio says. He looks back out at the city, a fierce, determined look in his eyes. “But I’m making this my home now.”

“Right on, I’m glad,” Galo says. And he’s not going to worry about the jittery feeling just below his ribs. Probably vertigo from being up so high. Yeah.

***

Lio comes home a few days later while Galo is flipping through one of the motorcycle magazines on the couch. “Hey!” Galo calls in greeting when Lio opens the door.

“Oh good, you’re here,” Lio says, kicking his boots off and hanging up his bag. Galo leans his head back and watches upside down as Lio rummages around in the bag. Lio glances at him.

“Don’t look,” he says severely.

“Okay,” Galo says, tilting his head back to a normal angle and staring straight ahead, puzzled but amused. He hears Lio’s footsteps behind him and then Lio comes around the couch. He has one arm tucked behind his back.

“Galo, remember when I punched you in the eye?” he asks.

Galo raises an eyebrow. “How could I forget?” he says. “You’ve got a mean right hook for a little guy.”

Lio snorts. “Call me ‘little’ again and I’ll show you my left hook,” he says, but there’s no real anger behind the jibe. Galo grins. “Anyway,” Lio continues, “I got you something. As an apology. To try to make up for it.”

“Aw, bud, you didn’t hafta do that, you already apologized,” Galo says, touched. “But that’s super nice of you!”

“Well, don’t get too excited, it’s not much,” Lio says. “I just found it at the thrift store. I needed some pants. I saw it and it made me think of you. I’ve been trying to keep an eye out for something you might like.” Lio pulls his hand out from behind his back and holds it out to Galo. In his hand is a model mech, all garish colors and shiny plastic.

Galo stares at it. Then he takes it gently out of Lio’s hand and examines it.

“This is a special edition gold Colossurama. From season two of Gigantotron,” Galo says.

It’s not in the best shape; it’s scuffed up, and one of the wings has a chip out of the plastic. But it’s definitely a special edition gold Colossurama from season two of Gigantotron.

Lio looks confused. “Is that good?” he asks.

“Hell yeah, it’s good!” Galo crows. “These are super-rare! Mint ones in the box are going for like three hundred dollars on eBay!”

Lio’s eyes widen. “Oh,” he says. “Wow. It was in the dollar bin.”

“Well, to be fair, this one is definitely not mint in the box,” Galo says. “But it’s still awesome! I’m gonna give it the best spot!” He stands up and takes it over to his model mech shelf, shuffles them around a little, and happily puts the special edition gold Colossurama right in the middle. He stands back and admires the new addition.

“You like it?” Lio asks.

“Lio, I love it,” Galo says, glancing over at him, grinning. “I can’t believe you found this.”

“So we’re even?” Lio asks.

“Yeah! I might even give you a free pass to punch me in the eye again, that’s how much I love this thing.”

“Cool. I’m glad you like it.” Lio smiles softly and tucks his hair behind his ear, and Galo’s not going to think about the fluttery feeling happening in his stomach. Probably just gas or something. Yeah.

“I also wanted to say thank you,” Lio says. “For being so understanding, even when I was being so…” He shrugs eloquently. “You know. And for the amusement park and stuff.”

This isn’t making Galo’s stomach settle down any. “It’s no problem, Lio, I like hanging out,” he says.

“Yeah. Me too. I have a lot of fun with you,” Lio says, and Galo’s stomach swoops like he’s back on the roller coaster. Lio seems to see something in Galo’s face and pauses. “I’m sorry, is that dumb to say?” he asks, concerned. “I just think you’re fun.”

Galo swallows. “It’s not dumb,” he says. “I mean. Maybe not something that American dudes say that often. To each other. But it’s not dumb.” 

Lio looks vaguely puzzled. “Huh. Okay,” he says. “I’m not sure how else to say it. This is all kind of new to me still. I just wanted to say thank you. Living in the camp… it wasn’t all bad. But generally the fun level was…” He gestures, pushing his palm down. “Pretty low. Now, I would say, the fun level is consistently higher.” He flips his palm up and raises his hand. He looks almost comically serious. “I’d still like it better if Meis and Gueira were out here. But I feel lucky I ended up with you.”

Galo’s stomach is definitely doing a lot of weird stuff. 

“I’m glad too,” he says nervously, and Lio smiles like the sun, and Galo realizes, belatedly, that he might be in big trouble.

***

Galo takes Lio on a few more outings, when they both have some free time. He takes him to the aquarium, which Lio likes, and to the best/worst dive bar in town, which Lio also likes, and to the art museum, which Lio is less sure about, somewhat to Galo’s relief (he’s not sure about the art museum either). Galo studiously ignores the weird feelings he gets in his stomach all the time now. Lio has enough to deal with. Plus Meis and Gueira would probably kill him. It’s normal to feel protective of your roommate, right? If your roommate is a guy who’s been through a lot of hard stuff. It’s normal to goof around just to see him smile, and to spend a lot of time planning new things he might find fun, and to think he has a great laugh. Galo’s not totally fucked. He’s fine. It’s fine. Meis and Gueira have been making noises about relocating to Detroit, once they all have enough saved. Lio will move in with them and Galo will probably never see him again and that’s fine. Galo doesn’t have a crush. Getting a crush on Lio would be stupid, reckless, and irresponsible.

In other words, exactly the sort of thing Galo might do.

He tries really hard not to think about it. He’s pretty good at not thinking about stuff. This is just one more thing to add to the list.

It’s fine.

***

The night everything changes starts out like a lot of nights they’ve had. Galo is watching Gigantotron in the living room, drinking some tea that Aina swears helps her sleep and secretly hoping Lio will come out and join him. Sure enough, Lio does, padding barefoot into the room and giving Galo a little wave when Galo hears him come in and turns. Galo grins at him and waves back. Lio smiles faintly, but he looks pensive. He comes around the couch and curls up in his usual position next to Galo, knees up to his chest, feet tucked neatly together. He doesn’t say anything for almost an entire episode. It’s not until the end of the climactic fight scene that he speaks.

“Would you say we’re even?” he asks softly over the sound of the TV. Galo’s only half paying attention to the show; he’s seen all the episodes before, after all.

“Like, square? Debt-wise? Yeah, Lio, totally. I never really thought you owed me anything, anyway.”

“Yeah, but still. Considering I punched you. And you taught me how to drive the motorcycle. And stuff like that. Would you still say we’re even?”

“Yeah.” Galo is mildly puzzled by this line of inquiry. “I mean, at this point, we’re just kind of bros, right? We can do stuff for each other without keeping track, it all evens out in the end.” That makes Lio smile a little, but it fades.

“Okay,” Lio says, serious again. “I don’t owe you anything, and you don’t owe me anything.”

“Nope!” Galo says cheerfully.

“In that case, can I ask you something?”

“Absolutely,” Galo says.

“It’s… don’t feel like you have to do it. I’ve just been thinking, and I thought I’d ask,” Lio says. “I won’t be upset if you say no.”

“No problem, ask away,” Galo says.

Lio scrubs a hand over his face, sighs. “You might think it’s weird,” he says. “You might even be offended. I’m not sure.”

“Try me,” Galo says.

Lio just sighs again, looking down at his bare feet. Galo takes a sip from his tea, giving Lio the pause he sometimes needs to make up his mind about things.

“…Would you like to have sex?” Lio says.

Galo chokes violently on his tea. He hacks the majority of his sip explosively back into the cup. The rest comes out his nose. He starts coughing.

“Oh my god!” Lio exclaims, and starts slapping the flat of his hand hard against Galo’s back.

“Would I like to what,” Galo manages after he stops coughing.

“Never mind,” Lio says, removing his hand from Galo’s back, eyes skittering to the side. “I’ll just, uh, nothing, never mind.” He starts to get up.

“Hold up, hold up, hold up,” Galo says. “Lio. Wait.”

Lio freezes, half off the couch.

“You want to... have sex? With me?”

“I thought… never mind, forget about it,” Lio says without turning his head.

“I am not gonna forget about it,” Galo says, incredulous. “What… why do you wanna… why are you asking me?”

“Look, it doesn’t have to be a big deal,” Lio says, finally glancing back at Galo. He looks flushed, embarrassed. “I just thought… you’re really sweet, and… we have a good time together, right?” 

“Yeah, of course, Lio, but I mean… what about Meis and Gueira? I thought you guys were…”

“Oh.” Lio’s eyes widen. Then he looks away. “No. We don’t do that with each other. It’s complicated. I don’t really want to get into it.”

“Oh,” Galo says, brow furrowing. Lio settles back onto the couch.

“It was more of a… a business thing, back at the camp. There wasn’t a lot of currency,” Lio says. “And sometimes we needed things. Food. Or medicine. There was usually a guard or an officer willing to trade. Meis and Gueira were older than me, but Gueira… you know, his leg. Wouldn’t have been a good idea. So Meis, um… handled all that. Mostly. But sometimes he couldn’t. So.”

“Oh,” Galo says again, stomach sinking. “I’m sor—” Lio holds up a hand, stopping him from saying anything else.

“Don’t pity us,” he says firmly. “A lot worse happened to a lot of other people. It’s just. All the times I’ve done it have been kind of…” Lio makes a sour expression. “Meh,” he finishes, shrugging, and manages to fill that small sound with so much disgust and world-weariness that Galo’s heart breaks all over again. “So I was thinking… I’d like to try it with someone I like,” Lio continues, looking back up at Galo. “Don’t worry, there wouldn’t be any strings attached or anything. I just thought… maybe you could show me… maybe it could be… fun?” Lio’s eyes are wide and sincere and worried and Galo wants to punch the whole world in the face.

“Yes,” he says.

“Yes…?” Lio says hesitantly, surprised.

“Lio, I’m gonna treat you so good,” Galo says with determination. “What do you want to start with, you wanna kiss? You wanna cuddle? Or we could totally do more, I’m up for whatever. You like back rubs? I do really good back rubs, we could start with that.”

Lio starts turning a delicate shade of pink.

“R-right now?” he says.

“I mean, yeah, if you want!” Galo says.

“Huh,” Lio says. He looks a little shocked. “O-okay, a back rub sounds… nice?”

“Cool!” Galo grabs the remote and turns the TV off. “Do you want to lie down, or do you want to sit here?” Galo spreads his legs and pats the couch between them.

Lio looks at him as if both those options are discomfiting. Galo realizes he might be going a little fast, considering.

“Okay, hold up,” Galo says. “You might need to tell me, like, some rules.”

“Rules,” Lio repeats. He still looks kind of shocked.

“Yeah, like, things you don’t want me to do. Like for right now, do you want to keep it above the waist? Shirts on? Shirts off? Yes or no on kissing?”

“Hhn?” Lio says, and Galo stops for a second.

“Lio?” he asks hesitantly.

“I don’t know,” Lio says, and he sounds slightly panicked. “I wasn’t really expecting you to say yes, I guess, I hadn’t thought that far ahead!”

“Okay, hey, I’m sorry, we don’t have to do anything right now,” Galo says, concerned. Lio doesn’t move for a long moment, perched on the edge of the couch. Then he sits back a little, settling.

“No,” he says, “I want to. I’m the one who asked. Sorry. I’m not really… good at this.”

“Hey, no worries,” Galo says. “Just tell me what you feel like doing and that’s what we’ll do.”

“Okay,” Lio says. “Thank you. Let me think for a second.”

Galo waits. Lio glances at him, his pink eyes sharp. He assesses Galo for a long moment. Then he nods, a quick tilt of his chin. 

“Okay. A back rub,” Lio says decisively. “Keep it above the waist, shirts on, I’ll sit here.” Then a small, mischievous glint sparks in his eyes. “And maybe if you do it good enough, I’ll kiss you,” he says.

Galo laughs and cracks his knuckles. “Lio,” he says, “you’re about to get the best back rub of your goddamn life.”

“Big talk, Thymos,” Lio says, and turns so that he’s facing away from Galo, offering up the slim lines of his back. “Let’s see if you live up to it,” he says with shaky bravado.

Galo reaches out. “You ready?” he asks, so as not to startle, and when Lio nods he lets his hands touch down gently on Lio’s shoulders and then squeeze lightly. When that doesn’t get a bad reaction, Galo gets down to business.

“Hnf,” Lio grunts as Galo digs his thumbs in, firmly but not too hard, and starts working at the tight cables he can feel in Lio’s neck and shoulders. 

Galo’s big, calloused hands aren’t suited for delicate work; he makes all kinds of fat finger typos on his phone, he’s useless at sewing buttons or doing the kinds of precise welds Lucia can pull off in her sleep. But kneading out the knots in tense muscles; this, he’s good at. He concentrates on trying to get Lio as comfortable as possible. He works his way slowly down Lio’s back, trying to ease out all the knots he finds as he goes, gradually starting to feel Lio relax. 

Galo slips into a mild trance as he works. He’s shaken out of his reverie when Lio makes a little noise. “Hah,” Lio grunts as Galo presses his thumb into a particularly tight knot. Galo kneads at it. “Hff,” Lio exhales, “Ah,” and oh, that’s a nice sound. Galo’s all the way down to Lio’s lower back, and he tries not to think too hard about how neatly his hands wrap around Lio’s waist, fitting into the indents above his hipbones as Galo’s thumbs massage the muscles on either side of his spine. Lio has grown yielding under Galo’s hands, letting Galo move him a little. Galo works his way back up to Lio’s shoulders. Then he concentrates on Lio’s neck for a while, and is rewarded with more quiet, amazing noises as Lio leans back into his hands. Galo massages the base of Lio’s skull, then takes a slight liberty and runs his fingers through Lio’s hair. It’s soft, like strands of silk. He finishes up with his hands on Lio’s shoulders again, squeezing gently. “There you go,” Galo says. “One back rub, courtesy of the great Galo Thymos. There’s more where that came from, too, if you liked it.”

Lio leans his head back, tilting it so he’s looking up sideways at Galo, and his cheeks are flushed, eyes half-closed and a little glassy.

“Yes,” Lio says. “That was very good. I’d like to kiss you now.” And he reaches up and tangles his fingers in Galo’s hair, pulling his head down. Galo lets him, lets their lips slot together and their tongues meet, gently, not pushing, just brushing against each other warm and wet and easy. It feels so good. Galo loses himself in the kiss until Lio pulls away to breathe, face even more flushed.

“Oh,” Lio says softly, and he sounds surprised. “It’s nice. Kind of weird. But really nice.”

“Uh,” Galo says hazily, eyes blinking open, “Lio, have you not… kissed anyone before?”

“I never let them,” Lio says, and Galo feels like a long, thin knife has abruptly been driven between his ribs. He swallows hard.

“If you like it, we can do it some more,” he says hoarsely. “But only if you want to.”

“Yes,” Lio says softly, and his eyes flutter closed, face tilting up, mouth slightly open, lips soft. Galo bends to meet him.

The next hour or so is a revelation.

Galo has always liked kissing. For some people he’s been with, it’s just been a means to an end, a formality to get through before the real action. Those hook-ups never lasted more than a night. Galo liked it better when he found someone who didn’t rush, someone he could build heat with slowly over long necking sessions. 

He’s never found anyone who kisses like Lio, though.

Lio kisses like it’s something he’s been starving for. He learns Galo, cautiously at first, a little clumsy. He explores with his tongue, tracing Galo’s teeth, the roof of his mouth. He experiments, trying long, slow kisses open-mouthed and then quick pecks, just lips against lips. He bites; he nips Galo’s lower lip and then when Galo makes an involuntary soft noise, he worries it between his teeth, tugging a little as he pulls back. He watches Galo, assessing his reactions, and quickly picks up on Galo’s favorites and then pursues them relentlessly. He doesn’t stay clumsy for long.

Galo mostly keeps his hands to himself, just carding his fingers gently through Lio’s hair every now and then or stroking his face. But god, he wants to touch Lio; wants to wrap his hands around that slim waist again, wants to feel the warmth of Lio’s skin under his palms. Maybe next time. If there is a next time. He tries to match Lio kiss for kiss, tries to figure out what he likes, too, and give it to him. Galo is more of a question-asker; he likes to talk.

“Do you like this?” he asks between pressing kisses to the corner of Lio’s mouth and then down his jawline toward the juncture of his ear.

“Yes,” Lio breathes.

“Is that okay?” Galo asks after the first time he slips his tongue into Lio’s mouth, just pressing it between his lips a little.

“Yes,” Lio says.

“Do you want more?”

“Yes,” Lio growls impatiently, and pulls him down, claiming his mouth with surprising ferocity, sucking on his tongue when Galo pushes it gently back between his lips. Lio’s mouth is hot, and he tastes faintly of toothpaste. They kiss for a long time. Galo keeps waiting for Lio to get bored or restless, but he doesn’t; he caresses Galo’s face and explores his mouth as carefully and as thoroughly as an archeologist uncovering a lost city. When he finally pulls away for more than a few seconds, he leaves Galo dazed and dizzy.

“Can we… stop here for the moment, is that okay?” Lio asks, a hint of nervousness in his voice. “I should… go to bed. I have work early tomorrow, I’m opening.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Galo says, still dopey from kissing, and Lio gives him a smile.

“Thank you,” Lio says shyly. “This was really nice.”

“Yeah,” Galo agrees breathlessly. “I’ll, uh, walk you to your room?”

Lio laughs a little. “Galo, it’s ten feet away,” he says.

“I’m trying to be chivalrous,” Galo says, and Lio laughs again, slowly getting to his feet.

“Okay,” he says, holding out his hand, “walk me to my room.”

Galo takes his hand, pulls himself up off the couch, and walks Lio to the door of his room with as much gravitas as he can manage.

“Okay,” Lio says when they get there, letting go of Galo’s hand. “Goodnight, Galo. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Yeah, for sure,” Galo says. “See you in the morning, Lio.”

“Wait, one more,” Lio says, and twines his hand into Galo’s hair and pulls him down and kisses him. When he lets Galo go, his face is flushed again.

“Okay. Goodnight,” Lio says, reluctant but firm.

“Goodnight,” Galo says, stepping back. Lio takes a quick breath and says, “Sleep well.”

“You too,” Galo says, and Lio turns on his heel, takes the last step to his room, and disappears into it, shutting the door softly behind him. 

Galo stares after him for a long moment. He shakes himself. He walks to the end of the hall, opens his own door, steps inside, shuts it behind him, and then leans back against the inside of the door and takes a long, bracing breath.

Time to deal with the inescapable fact that he has a raging boner.

He’s so hard it almost hurts. He unzips his pants and breathes a sigh of relief as some of the pressure lets up. He tugs his pants and underwear down, letting himself spring free, and then morosely contemplates his own erection.

He feels slightly chagrined, getting so turned on just from kissing, but in his defense it had been a long dry spell even before Lio moved in, and after, Galo didn’t want to have random people over, so as not to make Lio uncomfortable. It’s not that Galo can’t get laid; it’s just that he’s not really into casual sex, and once people get to know him, they tend to… leave. Which is fine, it’s whatever, Galo knows he can be kind of a lot. He watches kid’s cartoons, he has poor impulse control, he collects model mechs, he’s nerdy about firefighting technology that hardly anyone outside Burning Rescue cares about.

Lio’s probably going to leave, too. His fiercely independent streak, the weight he puts on paying his own way… he’s going to want to go off on his own, eventually. Or he’s going to figure something out with Meis and Gueira. He said it himself; no strings attached. 

He’s probably going to break Galo’s heart.

God, this is such a bad idea. But Galo’s already committed. He’s not going to let Lio down. If his heart is the price he has to pay… Galo thinks of Lio tilting his head back, lips open and soft. He thinks of the little noises Lio made under his hands. He thinks about the flush on Lio’s cheeks as he pulled away reluctantly from their last kiss of the night. He decides it’s worth it. 

He takes himself in hand, imagining Lio’s slender fingers instead, his breathless sounds, his sweet, spaced-out expression. Galo wants to make him look like that again. Galo wants to make him feel good all the time. He strokes himself slowly, and it doesn’t take long; he’s been incredibly turned on for an hour, all he has to do is imagine a soft mouth against his, a pale hand caressing his chest and then slipping lower…

“Lio, Lio,” he gasps almost silently, coming helplessly into his own fist, and he doesn’t have any regrets.

***

Galo doesn’t see Lio the next morning; Lio leaves early for work, before Galo is even awake. Galo spends the whole day in a nervous, distracted haze, so much so that Aina slaps him on the back of the head and asks him what’s up. He stutters something about not sleeping very well and she gives him a suspicious look, but relents. Fortunately they don’t get any serious calls.

When Galo gets home, Lio is sitting on the couch in the living room. He turns his head when Galo opens the door, watches in silence while Galo hangs up his coat and then bends down to take his shoes off. Galo straightens. They stare at each other awkwardly.

“Hey,” Lio says.

“Hey,” Galo says in return. Lio fidgets.

“H-how was your day?” Lio asks.

“Oh, you know! Good! Fine! You?”

“Yeah, fine. Um.”

There’s a fraught silence.

“So—”

“Do you—” They start talking at the same time. They both cut themselves off.

“Go ahead,” Lio says.

“No, you go,” Galo says.

“Okay,” Lio says. He inhales. “Do you… maybe want to kiss some more, sometime,” he asks, turning a delicious shade of pink.

“Hell yes,” Galo says, letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“Okay great,” Lio says nervously. “I… was afraid I wasn’t any good at it, and you wouldn’t want to anymore and it would be weird, and then I would have messed everything up and you wouldn’t w—“

“Lio,” Galo interrupts, “you were great at it. You’re a great kisser. I’ll kiss you any time.”

Lio exhales. “Okay,” he says, sounding relieved.

“You wanna kiss some more right now?” Galo asks eagerly, and Lio laughs, startled.

“Sure!” he says, and Galo has to restrain himself from running across the room and leaping over the couch back. He manages to walk over at a normal pace and sit down on the couch like a normal person. Lio turns to face him, smiling and looking up shyly through his pale eyelashes, and Galo gets that fluttery feeling in his stomach again. He reaches out and cups Lio’s chin, and Lio tilts his face up obligingly, and Galo kisses him. Lio kisses back, and Galo stops thinking much. After a few slow, lingering kisses, he feels Lio start to relax into him, leaning closer, reaching out and, tentatively at first, stroking the back of Galo’s neck. Then, to Galo’s surprise and delight, Lio’s hands start to wander, smoothing over Galo’s biceps, then traveling over his shoulders, down his chest, and around his sides to his back. His hands knead at Galo’s shoulder blades, then wander back to his pecs, groping them gently through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. Lio pulls back. His eyes look even bigger than usual, pupils blown.

“Will you take your shirt off?” Lio asks hoarsely, tugging at the hem of Galo’s shirt, and Galo grabs the hem away from Lio and whips his shirt off so fast he almost rips it, throwing it across the room where it ends up draped over the TV. When he looks back at Lio, Lio is staring at his bare chest with an expression that Galo can only describe as hungry.

“Wow,” Lio says, and swallows.

“See something you like?” Galo says, flexing his arms so his pecs pop a little.

“Yes,” Lio says, eyes glued to Galo’s chest.

“You can touch if you want,” Galo invites, flexing again.

“Yes,” Lio says, sounding dazed, and he reaches out a hand toward Galo, brushing his fingertips over Galo’s chest. They graze one of Galo’s nipples. Both of them watch as Galo’s nipple tightens into a hard nub.

Then Lio growls deep in his throat and suddenly his hands are everywhere. He grabs Galo’s pecs and squeezes, eyes intent and manic, then rubs his thumbs over both of Galo’s nipples. He runs his hands over Galo’s abs, then up his sides, and then wraps his arms around Galo’s shoulders, pulling him in for a long, ravenous kiss. Then, planting kiss after kiss on Galo’s open mouth, Lio climbs into his lap.

“Lio…” Galo starts, but it’s subsumed in a wheeze as Lio presses their bodies together, shifting so his legs are wrapped around Galo’s waist. Holding himself in place with his legs, Lio pulls his arms from around Galo’s shoulders and puts his hands back on Galo’s chest. Then he grinds their hips together, thighs squeezing Galo’s waist, and Galo lets out an involuntary moan. Lio stops moving, hands resting on Galo’s pecs.

“Oh, wow,” Lio says. “I can feel your dick through your pants. You’re really turned on right now.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Galo gasps. “I’ve got a hot guy in my lap kissing me and playing with my tits. You don’t have to do anything with it, but my boner is definitely going to be here for the foreseeable future.”

Lio looks startled. “You think I’m… hot?” he asks, as if the possibility hadn’t occurred to him.

“Yeah, dude, is having a huge hard-on for you not enough proof?” Galo asks.

“But you’re all… hnnn.” Lio makes a vague yet complicated gesture that seems to indicate that Galo is a circle, or maybe a sphere. “I know I’m not. I didn’t think I’d really be… your type.”

“Lio, I think you’re really cute,” Galo says.

Lio gives him an incredulous look. Okay, maybe “cute” is not a word he should use to describe Lio Fotia.

“Like those cats!” Galo blurts. “The ones with the spots and the long legs. They were on Nat Geo the other night when we were watching.”

“The servals?” Lio asks, only slightly less incredulous.

“Yeah!” Galo says. “Lanky, but elegant. And fierce. You’re like that.” 

“Elegant,” Lio says flatly, and Galo flashes back to a recent memory of Lio eating a raw Thai chili for fun, tears and snot streaming down his face.

“In a way,” Galo qualifies. “Sometimes.” Then he can’t help himself. “And you’re also kinda little and cute! It’s not a bad thing!”

“I’m gonna kick your ass,” Lio growls, but then he kisses Galo instead, so probably Galo’s in the clear.

“Will you take off your shirt too?” Galo asks eagerly once Lio lets him come up for air.

Lio shrugs.

“Sure,” he says. “Not much to see, though.”

Galo frowns. “Let me be the judge of that,” he says, and Lio shrugs again, but he pulls his shirt off over his head and drapes it over the back of the couch, looking up with an expression that’s part fierce and part trepidatious. Galo takes a moment just to look at him.

Lio’s still so thin. His ribs show, his hipbones jut like knives above the low waistband of his pants. Galo could drink out of the hollows in his collarbones. Still, he looks so much healthier than when he first got here. Galo loves the little pink peaks of his nipples, the pearly delicacy of his skin with its calligraphy of veins just below the surface, the slim, elegant lines of his body. 

“You’re beautiful,” Galo says before he thinks too much about it, and Lio flushes pink from his cheeks to his chest.

“Shut up,” he says.

“I will never,” Galo says, and Lio snorts, chuckling. 

“I’m not beautiful,” Lio says dismissively, laughing a little. “I’m just convenient.”

Galo’s stomach lurches horribly. 

“Who said that,” he growls, and Lio stops laughing. His eyes widen.

“No one,” Lio says. “I don’t know.” He looks away. “They said a lot of things. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” Galo says, a lump in his throat. “But I’m not just doing this because it’s easy or convenient or something. I really like you.”

“Oh.” Lio’s blush gets darker. “I like you too, Galo.” Galo’s heart stutters a little, but he focuses on what he wants to say next.

“And I mean it. You’re beautiful.” He reaches out and tilts Lio’s chin up. “You have beautiful eyes. And a great smile. I like your whole face, actually. I like the way I can see it when you blush, and the way I can wrap my hands almost all the way around your waist, and your hair is so soft and pretty, and—”

“Stop,” Lio interrupts, voice hoarse. Galo cuts himself off, drops his hand from Lio’s chin and lets Lio look away.

“Sorry,” Galo says after a minute. “Too much?”

“I… I don’t know,” Lio whispers. He sounds distressed. Galo’s stomach knots. “You don’t have to… you don’t have to say things like that.”

“I know,” Galo says. He doesn’t know what else to say, so he doesn’t say anything; he just sits and lets Lio collect himself. Lio finally looks up.

“Can we go back to kissing?” Lio says, with a shaky half-smile. “That’s easier than talking.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Galo says, and kisses him again. Galo tries to let the kisses speak for him; tries to tell Lio without words how he wants to be good to him. He feels Lio relax again, softening back into him. Galo kisses Lio’s sharp cheekbone, his jawline. He reaches out a hand and trails it down Lio’s chest. Lio shivers a little.

“Let me kiss you here?” Galo asks, and Lio nods. 

Galo leans down and presses his lips to Lio’s sternum, starts laying gentle kisses across his ribs and stomach. Lio shivers again, strokes a hand through Galo’s hair. Galo starts working his way up, and Lio’s other hand joins the first, fingers tangling in Galo’s mohawk. Galo nuzzles Lio’s neck, and Lio obligingly tilts his head back, letting Galo kiss the pale column of his throat. Galo sucks small, short-lived marks into his skin, careful not to leave a real hickey. He brushes his lips over Lio’s collarbone, then leaves kisses scattered across his chest as he zeroes in on his ultimate target: Lio’s left nipple, already tantalizingly hard. Galo sucks the little nub into his mouth, flicks his tongue over it.

Lio makes a noise that’s absolutely gutted, and his hands tighten suddenly in Galo’s hair, pulling sharply.

Galo closes his eyes, takes a deep breath in through his nose, and reminds himself that he’s too mature and manly to come in his pants.

“Shit!” Lio says, letting go. “Sorry, I… sorry, I didn’t mean to pull, I’m really sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Galo says faintly. “I liked it.”

“You did?” Lio asks.

“I like when people pull my hair,” Galo says, face heating up.

“Huh,” Lio says. He strokes Galo’s head, threading his fingers back into Galo’s hair, and then tightens his grip and pulls a little, tilting Galo’s head to the side.

“Like this?” Lio says quizzically.

Galo has to clear his throat before he can answer.

“Yeah,” he says weakly.

“Huh,” Lio says, examining Galo sharply like he’s an interesting curiosity. Galo swallows.

“Do that again,” Lio says softly. Galo obediently dips his head and swipes his tongue over Lio’s nipple, then sucks on it. Lio pulls his hair hard, holding his head in place, and Galo moans.

“You do like this,” Lio whispers, and Galo opens his mouth and gives Lio’s nipple another sloppy lick, then, very gently, closes his teeth around it.

“Hhn,” Lio breathes, and tenses. “Don’t…”

Galo immediately pulls away. 

“Sorry,” he says, apprehension jabbing his stomach.

“Don’t bite me,” Lio says. “I… I don’t… I don’t like it.” He sounds uncertain. Scared. But he straightens his back and looks Galo in the eye determinedly.

“Okay, I won’t,” Galo says. 

“You won’t,” Lio repeats. It doesn’t quite sound like a question, but it still sounds uncertain. Galo reaches out and cups Lio’s face in his hand, trying to be reassuring.

“Yeah, no problem. Anything you don’t want me to do, I won’t. I shoulda asked.”

“It’s okay,” Lio says. He still looks tense. “I… I pulled your hair, I shouldn’t make you walk on eggshells with me, I’m sorry, I’m messing this up, I can’t—”

“Hey,” Galo interrupts, before Lio can talk himself out of whatever they’re doing, “it’s okay. It’s totally okay, bud. If I do something and it turns out you don’t like it, just tell me to stop, I won’t be mad or upset or anything.”

“And you’ll stop,” Lio says, that strange not-quite-a-question uncertainty still in his voice.

“Yeah,” Galo says, heart clenching. “Of course I’ll stop.”

“Okay. No biting. And… can we still keep it above the waist for now?” Lio says, eyes flicking away. “I’m sorry, I… I think I need to go slow, is that okay?”

“Yeah, of course,” Galo says. “We can go as slow as you want.”

Lio swallows. “Thank you,” he says. He takes a breath. “For being so kind,” Lio finishes softly, and Galo flashes back to Ignis. Sounds like he’s being treated with basic human dignity for the first time in his life.

“You don’t have to say thanks for that,” Galo says, a bit more angrily than he intended. “That’s how it should always work, that’s just basic stuff.”

“I know,” Lio says. He smiles faintly. “You’re very… idealistic,” he says. “I appreciate that.” Galo, lost for any more words, just kisses him again.

He gets to touch Lio, this time; he gets to trail his fingers over Lio’s smooth skin, gets to feel Lio’s breath hitch under his hands when he kisses Lio’s neck, the way he shivers when Galo touches his nipples. Galo is more careful, checking in whenever he tries something new, and Lio rewards him with kisses, hot little gasps and moans, and hungry touches, letting his hands wander over Galo’s torso and then tangling his fingers in Galo’s hair again. They make out for a long time, and when Lio pulls away, hands resting lightly on Galo’s chest, there’s a small smile pulling up the corners of his mouth.

“I like this,” Lio says, thoughtful, skimming his fingers over Galo’s chest. “I like doing this with you.”

Galo swallows. “I like it too,” he says.

“You’re very hot,” Lio says, and Galo feels his face heat up furiously.

“Lio!” he protests, embarrassed.

“What?” Lio says. “You can say it but I can’t? You’re really hot. I always thought so. Right from the moment I first saw you.” Galo’s cheeks are burning. Lio chuckles drily. 

“It made me really mad,” he says. “I was so afraid you’d try something, and then I’d have to hate you. I really wanted you to be… different.”

“Oh,” Galo says.

“And you are,” Lio says, stroking a hand over Galo’s flushed cheek.

When they finally go their separate ways for the night, Galo walks Lio to his room again, then goes to his own room, throws himself on his bed, undoes his pants, shoves his hand into his underwear, and comes almost instantly, Lio’s name on his lips. He lies there afterward, breathing hard, thinking muzzily about Lio’s hands, his lips, his legs, his everything. Trying not to think about how he’s definitely in big trouble.

It’s fine. It’s great. This is going to be great, and Galo’s going to be good to Lio as long as Lio will let him.

***

They’re making out on the couch again, Lio in what, after a few days of this, has become his favorite spot in Galo’s lap, Galo’s hands stroking his back as his fingers tangle in Galo’s hair, pulling none-too-gently every once in a while. Galo is trying hard not to let his hips buck too much whenever Lio does that; it turns him on to an insane degree, but he doesn’t want to accidentally be too pushy. God, he would love it if Lio wanted to touch his dick, but he’s not going to do anything that has even the possibility of making Lio uncomfortable. Galo is determined not to screw this up for Lio; he’s going to be the most conscientious and careful lover ever. Because that’s the least of what Lio deserves. Galo desperately wants to make Lio feel good, to bring him to the edge panting and shaking, to make him come. He wants to offer his hands and his mouth and his body in worship, for Lio to use. But more than anything, he wants to do what Lio wants. So he tries to always ask before he does something Lio might not like, he has rigorously respected the boundaries Lio has set, and he has jerked off furiously in the shower a lot more often than usual.

They’ve discovered some things together. Lio has sensitive nipples; his stomach is ticklish; his ears are unexpectedly potent erogenous zones. Lio likes to pull Galo’s hair. While he doesn’t like to be bitten, he likes to bite. Galo very much enjoys being on the receiving end of both those activities. He’s always liked the adrenaline rush of a little pain. Lio exploits this weakness mercilessly. Right now, for example, he’s nipping at Galo’s lower lip. Then he shifts around in Galo’s lap and starts nibbling his neck.

“I like the way you taste,” Lio whispers in between nibbles. He’s started talking a lot more while they’re doing this, and it’s extremely hot. “You’re so fucking sexy,” Lio mumbles into Galo’s neck. Then he kisses his way down Galo’s chest to his nipple. Galo’s aren’t as sensitive as Lio’s, but Lio gets around that by biting them or pinching them roughly, which once almost made Galo nut in his jeans. He doesn’t bite hard this time, though; he just nibbles a little, and then runs his hand down Galo’s stomach, resting it tantalizingly close to the waistline of his pants. He looks up at Galo, and he looks serious: that determined wrinkle he gets is back between his eyebrows.

“Galo,” Lio says, “do you want to… do more. Tonight.” A little of his early hesitancy has returned to his voice. Galo’s heart kickstarts itself and starts racing in his chest.

“Yeah, whatever you want. You have something specific in mind?” Galo asks.

“Not sure.” Lio gives him a quizzical, assessing look. “If… if I said you could go below the waist… what would you do?”

“I’d give you a blowjob,” Galo says immediately. “I want your dick in my mouth.”

Lio’s eyes widen. “O-oh yeah?” he says, surprised.

“Hell yeah,” Galo says eagerly. “Lio, that would be awesome. Will you let me? Please?”

“Well!” Lio says, voice slightly higher than normal. “Okay! Since you asked so nicely!”

“Yesssss.” Galo pumps a fist in triumph and Lio laughs at him incredulously.

“You are… ridiculous,” he says, shaking his head.

“Ridiculously good at blowjobs!” Galo crows. “You wanna come to my room? My bed is bigger!”

“Yeah,” Lio says, still looking a little disbelieving. “Yeah, let’s go to your room.”

***

Galo has imagined Lio in his bed a bunch of times by this point. Watching Lio sit down gingerly on the edge of it, though, after pulling the blanket off, makes a whole different tender feeling bloom in Galo’s chest. Galo shuffles to the side of the bed and slowly kneels, positioning himself carefully between Lio’s legs. He rubs his hands over Lio’s thighs, glancing up at Lio to watch his eyes half-close. Galo tugs at the hem of Lio’s shirt, and Lio wordlessly helps Galo shuck the shirt off over his head, revealing his pale, wiry torso. Galo taps at the button of Lio’s fly.

“Can I take these off, too?” Galo asks.

Lio takes a deep breath. “Yes,” he says. “Kiss me first, though.” Galo eagerly stretches up to meet Lio as Lio leans down, and tries to put all the tenderness he feels into the kiss. When they pull away from each other, Lio looks reassured.

“Okay, go ahead,” he says, and Galo carefully undoes Lio’s fly and pulls his jeans down and off, Lio lifting his hips to help. Then, to Galo’s surprise, Lio tugs his underwear off without prompting, tossing them to the side and sitting back naked on the bed. Galo stares at him; he’s gorgeous, all porcelain skin and sharp lines, a treasure trail of pale hair leading down from his bellybutton to his small, perfect cock, half-hard between his thighs.

“I cannot wait to give you a blowjob,” Galo says sincerely, and Lio snorts out a little laugh, then reaches out and runs his fingers through Galo’s hair. Galo leans into the touch, turns his head and kisses the inside of Lio’s wrist. Lio strokes his face and then leans back, propping himself up on his elbows, watching Galo with an expression that’s partly bemused, but mostly warm.

“Anything you don’t want me to do?” Galo asks.

“I don’t think so?” Lio says.

“Let me know,” Galo says. “You can call it anytime. If you start to feel weird or anything just kick me.”

“I’m not going to kick you,” Lio says.

Galo waggles his eyebrows. “What if I’m into that?” he says, and grabs Lio’s foot, planting a sloppy kiss on the delicate arch of the sole.

“Oh, gross,” Lio says, half-laughing. “Don’t kiss my foot if you’re gonna put your mouth on my dick!” Galo grins at him, letting go of his foot.

“Sorry,” he says, not very repentantly.

“Idiot,” Lio says, and his voice is fond. Galo kisses him on the thigh, then pulls back to readjust.

“Here, put your legs…” Galo runs a hand down Lio’s thigh to his calf, lifts it, and puts Lio’s leg over his shoulder. Lio lets him. He gets Lio’s other leg over his other shoulder, but then he feels Lio tense fractionally.

“You okay?” Galo asks.

“Are you?” Lio returns the question. “I feel like I should be doing something, I don’t know… Are you sure about this?”

“Lio, I’m one hundred percent sure. I’m more than sure. I’m super sure. I want to make you feel good,” Galo says sincerely.

“O-okay,” Lio says, still a little hesitant.

“Relax,” Galo says gently. “Let me take care of you.”

“Okay,” Lio says, more firmly, and there’s that determined wrinkle forming between his eyebrows again, and Galo wants to cherish and protect him, wants to erase every bad thing that’s ever happened to him. Galo runs his hands up Lio’s sides as Lio lays back. Then he nuzzles the soft skin of Lio’s inner thigh, starts kissing his way up slowly, giving Lio time to acclimate. When Galo reaches his destination at last, he mouths at Lio’s dick, running his tongue along the shaft and kissing the head. Lio gasps, and Galo feels him starting to get harder as Galo sucks the head into his mouth.

Lio makes a choked noise as Galo pulls him in deeper. His cock is filling out rapidly, fattening up inside Galo’s mouth. It fits so perfectly against the soft curve of his tongue. Galo wraps his lips over his teeth and gets to work, laving Lio’s dick with his tongue. 

“Hhh!” Lio gasps, and his hands scrabble against the bed for a second, ending up gripping two handfuls of the bedsheets. Galo wants to remind Lio that he can grab his hair like that and pull it, but his mouth is busy and he doesn’t want to interrupt the way Lio’s hips have started undulating gently, the way his breathing has grown rough and broken.

Galo tries some things, sucking at Lio’s dick and then pulling off slowly, licking down the shaft to kiss the base and then drawing first one, then the other of Lio’s balls into his mouth. Lio tastes like salt and soap, with a faint clean hint of rising bread. Galo pulls one hand away from Lio’s side, slips it between his legs, and wraps his fingers loosely around Lio’s erection, gently pulling back Lio’s foreskin so he can run his tongue over the tender pink skin underneath. He sucks the head back into his mouth and then takes in as much as he can, working his tongue around Lio’s dick as he lets it slide wetly in and out, focusing on the motions that draw little gasps and moans from Lio’s throat. He wants to make this so good for Lio. He’s gratified when, after some experimentation, he finds a pattern that makes Lio start losing control. Lio’s stomach jumps under Galo’s hand, his heels jitter against Galo’s back, digging in. Galo smiles to himself as Lio’s thighs start to tremble. “Ah,” Lio moans, “ah!” His voice is soft and breathy, spurring Galo on. Galo flicks his tongue over the tip of Lio’s dick, sucking harder. The musky taste of precum fills his mouth.

“Galo, I, I… Ah!” Lio jerks under Galo’s hands. Galo hums in appreciation and strokes his free hand down Lio’s side. “Wait!” Lio yelps frantically. “Stop!”

Galo pulls off immediately, nerves jangling in consternation. “You okay?” he asks. “Something wrong?”

“Hah, no,” Lio pants. He’s breathing hard, face flushed. “I just… I might… I don’t want to come in your mouth.” 

“Why not?” Galo says. “I want you to.”

“You do?”

“Hell yes,” Galo says. “That’s like the whole point of this? Let me have it, Lio.”

“Fuck,” Lio says helplessly, fists gripping the sheets, “okay.” Galo gets back to work, licking Lio’s dick a few times to get it nice and wet again and then letting it slip back between his lips. He bobs his head, letting the silky length slide slickly over his tongue.

“Oh fuck,” Lio says, thighs starting to tremble again. Galo sucks, cheeks hollowing, swirling his tongue around the tip.

“Galo!” Lio gasps, and Galo has never heard his own name sound so good. Lio’s cock twitches in his mouth and a burst of bitter salt hits his tongue. Galo swallows as Lio’s thighs clamp together against his ears, squeezing his head. “Fuck!” Lio screams. “Ah! Hah!” He’s shaking under Galo’s hands. Galo hums, swallowing again as Lio shudders and then gradually starts to come down, breathing hard. Once Lio has settled, stilling completely with a long exhale, Galo pulls off slowly, letting Lio slip gently out of his mouth. Galo’s neglected hard-on throbs in his pants, an unimportant distraction. He nuzzles Lio’s softening cock. Lio makes a breathless little sound. Then Galo sees a weird flicker out of the corner of his eye. He looks up. 

The sheets bunched up in Lio’s hands are on fire.

“OH SHIT!” Galo yells. Lio shrieks in startlement as Galo leaps up and grabs him up in his arms, lifting him off the bed and depositing him on his feet on the floor. Lio’s eyes widen as he sees the fire. Galo turns back to the bed, grabs a pillow, and quickly smothers the small flames with it. Smoke puffs out from under the pillow as the flames extinguish. Then the bedroom smoke detector starts blaring. Lio yelps and slaps his hands over his ears. Galo checks to make sure the fire is completely out, then stands up on the bed, pulls the smoke detector off the ceiling, and rips out the battery. The noise stops.

“Lio, are you okay?” Galo asks. There’s a long pause. Then Lio nods, slowly removing his hands from his ears. Galo gets down off the bed and lifts the pillow to survey the damage. The whole room smells like smoke, with undertones of sex.

“Holy shit,” Galo says, staring at the two holes charred in his sheets, “I didn’t think I was that good at blowjobs!”

Lio sits down cross-legged on the floor, buries his face in his hands, and starts crying.

“Lio!” Galo exclaims. “No no no, hey, it’s okay, it’s okay!” Lio just cries harder. Galo turns and pulls the blanket (undamaged) off the bed. He rushes to Lio’s side and wraps the blanket around Lio’s shoulders, bundles him up in it. Then he picks him up gently and carries him out to the couch. He sits down on the couch, Lio in his lap, and holds him while he cries, stroking his hair and kissing the tears off his face.

***

“Sorry,” Lio says a little while later, once his sobs have quieted and he’s been still in Galo’s arms for some time. “That was just… kind of a lot.”

“It’s okay,” Galo tells him.

“Is it?” Lio asks dubiously. “I burned your sheets and set off your smoke alarm. You told me not to start fires in your house. I know you don’t like fire. You’re a fucking firefighter.”

Galo pets Lio’s hair absently, thinking.

“Have I ever told you why I became a firefighter?” Galo asks. Lio shakes his head.

“When I was eleven, there was an electrical fire. Burned our house down,” Galo says.

“Oh,” Lio says softly.

“I lost my parents. Went into foster care. Foster care was okay. Not great, but okay. I had something to work toward, so I got through it. I knew I wanted to be a firefighter. I wanted to save people like I couldn’t save my parents.”

“I’m sorry,” Lio says. He sounds ashamed. Galo pets his hair again.

“But it’s not that I don’t like fire. I couldn’t do this job if I hated fire, or if I was afraid of it. I just know fire. I know what it can do, how it behaves. Fire isn’t good or bad. It just is. It can keep you warm, or it can burn your house down. I’m not here to pass judgment on anything. I’m just here to keep people safe.”

Lio sniffs. One more tear trickles down his cheek. Galo wipes it away with his thumb.

“You know you’re safe here, right?” he says.

“Yes,” Lio whispers. “I feel safe with you.”

“Good,” Galo says. 

“…I don’t know that you’re safe with me, though,” Lio says softly after a long pause. “I didn’t mean to do that. What if I… can’t control it. What if I burned you?” Lio sounds horrified.

Galo just shrugs. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been burned,” he says, flexing his scarred arm. “Probably wouldn’t be the last time, either!”

“You’re ridiculous,” Lio says, still teary-eyed. He sniffles.

“Lio,” Galo says sincerely, “I don’t think your flames would ever hurt me. Because I know you wouldn’t hurt me. I trust you.”

“Oh.” Lio stares at him. He looks stunned. Then he says, “Thank you, Galo. That means a lot.” He leans his head over, nestling it into Galo’s chest. “I’ll try to be worthy of your trust.”

“I know,” Galo says, heart in his throat.

Galo holds Lio against his chest on the couch for a long time, until Lio’s eyes start to slip closed. Galo kisses him on the forehead.

“You look exhausted, firebug,” Galo says. 

Lio’s mouth twitches up into a little smile. “Don’t call me that,” he says sleepily. 

“Want me to take you to your bed?” Galo asks.

“But I didn’t… I didn’t do anything for you,” Lio says, brow creasing.

“Don’t worry about it,” Galo says. “There’s always next time, right?”

Lio nuzzles his face back into Galo’s chest. “You’re too sweet,” he says. “I’ll make it up to you. I promise.”

“You don’t owe me anything, remember?” Galo says. “Seriously. Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re not the boss of me,” Lio mumbles, but he relaxes in Galo’s arms.

Galo carries Lio into his room, lays him down gently on his bed, kisses him one last time, and then backs out, shutting the door softly behind him. He retreats into his own room and changes his sheets, balling up the burned ones and throwing them in the trash. He crawls into the freshly-made bed and falls into a fitful sleep, dreaming restless dreams of Lio’s delicate hands trailing fire down his chest.

***

Galo’s definition of “safe sex” never included the fire extinguisher before, but at Lio’s insistence, he brings it into the bedroom the next time they end up there after another long, heated make-out session on the couch.

“Just in case,” Lio says. “I think I get what happened, I’m pretty sure I can control the fire now. But better to have it.”

Galo sets the fire extinguisher carefully on the nightstand, then sits back on the bed.

“So what do you feel like doing?” he asks.

“I want you to get naked,” Lio says, and Galo feels his face abruptly heat up.

“Y-yeah?” he stutters enthusiastically. “Really?”

“Yes, really,” Lio says. “You’ve seen me naked, now it’s your turn.”

Galo doesn’t need to hear anything else. He flings his shirt off and shimmies out of his pants and underwear, then sits back down, turning to Lio and presenting himself for inspection. Lio examines him. His mouth quirks up just the tiniest bit at the corner.

“You still have your socks on,” Lio points out.

“Oh,” Galo says, and pulls them off, embarrassed. When he looks back at Lio, Lio’s smile has grown into a full grin.

“Wow,” Lio says, and raises an eyebrow. “My theory was correct.”

“What theory?” Galo asks.

“You’re fucking huge,” Lio says.

Galo knows he’s fairly well-endowed, but Lio saying it still makes him blush hard. He waves a hand.

“It’s all because of you! I get really turned on when we kiss!” he says with as much bravado as he can muster. “You stoke the blaze in my burning firefighter soul!”

“Galo, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say,” Lio says, still grinning, and starts unbuttoning his shirt. Galo watches hungrily as Lio shrugs his shirt gracefully off his shoulders, and then undoes his fly and pulls his pants off, leaving just his black briefs. Then he leans forward onto all fours, gives Galo a wicked smile, and crawls the short distance across the bed to him.

“Oh,” Galo says as Lio crawls forward far enough that his hands are on either side of Galo’s thighs, “hi.”

“Hi yourself,” Lio says, smirking up at him, and then kisses him. Then he pulls back and sits back on his heels, leaving Galo slightly breathless. He runs his eyes over Galo’s body in a way that makes Galo’s face heat up even more. Then he reaches out a hand toward Galo’s dick, but stops himself halfway there.

“Can I—”

“Yes,” Galo interrupts.

Lio snorts. “I didn’t even tell you what I wanted to do,” he says.

“You can do whatever you want,” Galo says. 

Lio raises an eyebrow. “That’s a dangerous thing to say, Galo Thymos.”

“Well, okay, you can do whatever you want within reason,” Galo concedes, and Lio laughs.

“I imagine touching you is within reason?” Lio asks archly, eyebrow still raised.

“That’s very much within reason,” Galo says eagerly, and Lio reaches out the rest of the way and wraps his hand around Galo’s dick. Galo gasps as Lio starts moving his hand, stroking Galo, grip loose. His hand is warm, but dry, and the friction is a little painful despite the delicious shock of Lio finally touching his dick.

“Ah, hang on, let me get some lube,” Galo says, and leans across the bed, opening the nightstand drawer and pulling out the lube bottle that’s been gathering dust inside. 

“Sorry,” Lio says, looking concerned and pulling his hand back.

“No! No problem!” Galo says hastily, brandishing the lube bottle. “Just, this stuff is good, I like it! We should try it on you too!”

“Okay,” Lio says, smiling again, and he reaches back out, palm up; Galo pops the cap on the lube bottle and pours some into Lio’s palm. Lio slicks it along the length of Galo’s dick and starts stroking him again, slow and luxuriant, leaning forward to nibble at Galo’s collarbone. Galo takes a deep breath, tilting his head back to let Lio mouth and lick at his neck.

“Lio,” he manages, “I wanna touch you, too.”

“Mmm,” Lio hums into Galo’s skin, and pulls away, quickly shucking off his briefs and freeing his erection. Then he strokes himself, leaving his cock slick with the same lube he was using on Galo. For some reason that’s incredibly hot; Galo’s dick twitches. He reaches out and follows Lio’s hand with his own. Lio feels so good against his palm, his skin hot and silky. Galo’s big hand practically engulfs his dick, just the tip poking out of his fist. Galo strokes him, watching rapt as the pink head of Lio’s cock slides in and out, disappearing and reappearing in the circle of Galo’s thumb and forefinger. Lio closes his eyes, teeth worrying at his lower lip. He makes a soft sound, and he sounds so good.

“Yeah,” Galo says. “Let me hear you.”

Lio says, “Shut up,” and leans forward and mashes his mouth into Galo’s. Lio’s lube-slick hand strokes Galo’s shaft as Lio kisses him, open-mouthed and sloppy, distracted. Galo starts to feel an orgasm building as Lio lays wet kisses along his jawline; his abs tense, his breath catches in his throat.

“Hah, Lio, gonna come,” Galo gasps.

“Good,” Lio growls into Galo’s ear, “do it,” and Galo comes, shaking, into Lio’s hand. Lio moans and bites Galo hard on the side of the neck, making a second wave of shivers wrack his body. Galo whines, oversensitive, and Lio lets him go, leaning back and gripping the bedsheets instead, thrusting his hips up in quick little stuttering motions into Galo’s hand. Galo finds his voice again.

“Fuck, that felt so good,” he says, moving his hand in complement to the twitches of Lio’s hips. “You feeling good, too?”

“Hhh,” Lio breathes, nodding.

“You look so hot right now,” Galo says. “I wanna make you come.”

“Ah,” Lio says, thighs starting to tremble.

“Give it to me, beautiful,” Galo says. Lio shudders and throws his head back, and his dick pulses in Galo’s hand, spilling into his palm. Galo keeps his hand moving gently until Lio stops shaking, then wipes it quickly on the bed. He strokes Lio’s thighs as Lio comes down. Lio visibly pulls himself together and lets go of the sheets, sitting up straight.

“Check it out,” Galo says. “Nothing’s on fire.”

Lio looks dazed and happy. “I was ready that time,” he says. Then he shifts forward to wrap his arms around Galo’s shoulders and drape himself against Galo’s chest. Galo puts his arms around Lio in return, thrilled. He really likes it when Lio gets cuddly. It’s so cute.

“That was awesome,” Galo says, and Lio chuckles into Galo’s neck.

“Yes,” he says. “It was. Awesome. Thank you.”

“Literally anytime,” Galo says cheerfully, and Lio chuckles again, but then his grip on Galo tightens a little.

“Um, can I ask a favor,” he says.

“Yeah, sure, what’s up?”

“Can I. Stay,” Lio says, face still in Galo’s neck, and Galo’s heart flips over in his chest.

“Yeah,” he says. “Of course.”

“Okay great thanks,” Lio mumbles without looking up, and Galo kisses him on the top of the head.

They fall asleep spooned together in a muzzy, sex-drunk tangle.

***

Galo comes awake slowly. The room is dark. The digital clock reads 2:37. Lio is on his side, facing away from Galo, back pressed against Galo’s side. He’s warm. It feels really nice. Galo lies there on his back, trying to figure out what woke him up. Then he hears it—Lio is making little noises in his sleep. 

“Hn, nnn,” Lio mumbles, twitching. Then he says, “No,” faintly into the pillow.

“Lio,” Galo says, and reaches out and grips his shoulder, gently shaking him.

Lio shifts, rolling onto his back. “Don’t put me in there,” he says with chilling clarity. “Please don’t put me in there again.”

“Lio,” Galo says urgently, and shakes him again, harder.

“MMMF!” Lio says, and suddenly his eyes fly open and he’s awake, flailing his limbs in startlement. The back of one of his hands whacks Galo in the chest.

“Oh!” Lio seems to wake up fully, and he looks horrified, jerking his hand back. “I’m sorry! I… shit, what, what happened?”

“Hey, it’s okay, I think you were having a nightmare?” Galo says.

“Yeah,” Lio says, eyes wide and dark, and he doesn’t elaborate. After a moment he says, “…I didn’t scream again, did I?” He sounds embarrassed.

“No,” Galo says, brow furrowing. “You were, um, talking.” Lio makes an irritated noise, looking away.

“Ugh. Fuck. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked to stay, I should have known I’d bother you, I’m not good to sleep next to, I—”

“Lio.” Galo put a finger to Lio’s lips. Lio stops talking.

“You’re not bothering me,” Galo says gently. “I want you here. Even if you have a nightmare. Especially if you have a nightmare. I’m glad I can be here to wake you up.”

Lio stares at him in the darkness for a long moment. Then he slowly curls over and wraps his arms around Galo’s shoulders, pressing his face into Galo’s neck.

“You’re sweet,” he mumbles. “You don’t have to be so sweet.”

“Aw, firebug,” Galo says, running a hand over Lio’s back, “I wanna be sweet to you.”

Lio makes a weird hiccuping noise. “Shut up,” he whispers. “Don’t call me that.” Galo doesn’t say anything. He rubs his hand repetitively over Lio’s back, pretending not to notice the way Lio’s breath is hitching slightly or the wetness of tears on his neck. He just holds Lio until Lio pulls away a little, taking a deep breath and letting a hand trail down Galo’s chest.

“Okay,” he says. “I’m okay. We should sleep. Don’t you have work in the morning?”

“Yeah,” Galo says. “It’s fine. You sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” Lio says, pressing himself back against Galo’s chest and wrapping an arm around him. Galo’s heart speeds up. Lio relaxes against him, settling.

“Good night, Galo,” Lio says, very softly.

“G’night,” Galo says. “I hope you have good dreams this time.”

“…Thank you.”

“Mmm.” Galo squeezes Lio a little, and then gradually lets sleep pull him back under.

***

Galo has a long shift the next day; when he gets home Lio’s door is closed. Galo eats cold pizza from the fridge, showers, and retreats to his own room. He’s surprised when, just as he’s about to climb gratefully into bed, there’s a knock on his door.

Galo opens the door to the welcome sight of Lio, wearing the oversized t-shirt and faded boxers he uses as pajamas. He looks adorable, but Galo’s not about to mention that.

“Hey,” Galo says cheerfully. “What’s up?”

“I heard you come in earlier. Just wondering if you wanted company,” Lio says. Galo raises his eyebrows.

“Oh ho! You feeling frisky? I might not be up for much tonight, I’m kinda tired. We can still mess around, though!” 

“Oh, we don’t have to,” Lio says, uncharacteristically bashful. “I mean. We can if you want. But I just thought I’d see if I could… sleep here again? If that’s okay? It was… nice.”

“Oh!” Galo’s heart speeds up again. “Yeah, of course! C’mon in, I was just about to get in bed.”

“Thanks,” Lio says.

“Yeah,” Galo says. Lio steps over the threshold.

Later, after they’ve brushed their teeth and cuddled up together companionably, after Lio has fallen asleep, Galo looks down at him, curled up against his chest snoring softly, and gets that vertiginous, dizzy feeling in his stomach again, the one he’s been ignoring because it’s too dangerous to think very hard about. No strings, he reminds himself. Lio said it didn’t have to be a big deal. They’re just having some fun, and that’s fine. It’s fine

Galo wraps an arm carefully around Lio’s slender shoulders and holds him close.

***

Neither of them have work in the morning, and Galo lets Lio wake up slowly, bringing him a cup of coffee and laughing at his chaotic bedhead. The coffee wakes Lio up enough to tease back, and then to Galo’s surprise Lio sets the coffee down on the nightstand and pulls Galo in for a kiss. Galo’s certainly not going to complain about that; he kisses back enthusiastically, and gradually the kisses get more heated until Lio’s hands are wandering under Galo’s shirt, then tugging at it impatiently. “Can we get naked again?” he asks, and Galo laughs.

“You know it,” he says.

Lio throws his own clothes off in a flurry; he seems to have lost all his early shyness. He pulls off Galo’s sweatpants, Galo lifting his hips to help, and tosses them over the side of the bed, then presses himself against Galo’s side, trailing gentle fingers over Galo’s chest. Despite the haste with which he stripped them, he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry anymore now that they’re naked; he just plays with Galo for a while, nibbling his neck and tweaking his nipples. Then he looks up with a little smile.

“Galo, you remember when I set the bed on fire?”

“Yeah, I’m gonna remember that forever,” Galo says, chuckling.

“I’d like to return the favor.”

“What, like… you want to make me set the bed on fire? I don’t think—”

“I want to suck your dick, dumbass!” Lio says, laughing.

“Really?” Galo says, flushing.

“Yes,” Lio says earnestly. “You make me feel good. I want to make you feel good too.”

“You don’t have to do that, though, you could just, you know, touch me.”

“No, I want to,” Lio says, and kisses Galo on the sternum. Then he plants another kiss a little further down Galo’s ribs. Then he shifts onto his hands and knees over Galo and starts pressing kisses down Galo’s stomach.

“Hhh,” Galo breathes, watching wide-eyed as Lio works his way down Galo’s body until he’s between Galo’s legs, overseeing Galo’s substantial erection. Lio makes as if to lean down, but pauses, glancing up.

“Just don’t grab my head, I don’t like that,” Lio says, like it’s an afterthought. 

Sadness and anger give Galo’s heart a quick one-two punch. He tries not to let it show on his face. His boner deflates slightly, though.

“Sure thing. I won’t,” he says.

Lio starts to dip his head down again, then stops and looks back up.

“Don’t pull my hair, either,” he says. “I know you like it, but I don’t think I do.”

“Lio, I promise I won’t do anything like that,” Galo says. “Look, I’ll keep my hands up here.” And he reaches over his head and grabs the bars of the headboard.

Lio’s eyes widen a little. Galo swears he sees his pupils dilate. Lio swallows.

“Yes,” he says, “good. That’s… good.” Lio stares at him for a long moment. Then he says, slowly, as if testing it out, “If you move your hands… I’ll stop and you won’t get to come.”

Galo’s dick is suddenly fully invested again.

“O-okay. I’ll be good,” he says, and Lio’s pupils seem to dilate further, his eyes darkening.

“You’ll do what I say?”

Galo takes a little bit of a chance.

“Yes, boss,” he replies, “I’ll do what you say.”

Lio inhales sharply.

“Spread your legs,” he commands, and there’s a note of steel in his voice that Galo hasn’t heard before. Galo spreads his legs wide, knees up and apart. “Now don’t move,” Lio says. “I want you to stay as still as you can.”

“Yes, boss,” Galo says, and Lio dips his head down, with no hesitation this time, and nips Galo’s thigh. Galo shivers as Lio presses a kiss to the bitten spot. Then Lio spends a long time kissing and sucking marks into the insides of Galo’s thighs, working his way slowly closer to Galo’s dick until his lips graze the shaft. He mouths at the hard length, then wraps his lips around the tip, drawing Galo in.

“Hhhh,” Galo exhales, gripping the bars of the headboard as Lio gets to work. Lio is enthusiastic and shameless, drooling on Galo’s dick, gripping Galo’s hips hard as if to hold him in place. Galo holds himself still as Lio sends sparks and heatwaves through his body with every bob of his head and swirl of his tongue. Lio shifts one hand between Galo’s legs, still sucking him, and fondles his balls, and then, agonizingly slowly, he pulls off, sucking hard and finally letting Galo’s erection slip out of his mouth with a wet pop. He looks up at Galo with a smug, self-satisfied expression.

“You’re being very good,” Lio says. “Do you think you can keep staying still? Even if I make you come?”

“Yeah,” Galo says, determined. “I won’t move.”

“Okay,” Lio says. “Then I’m going to do something I think you’ll like.”

“I like everything you’ve been doing,” Galo says. Lio graces him with a smile that’s surprisingly wicked.

“Just wait,” he says, and licks a stripe up the underside of Galo’s dick, then sucks at the tip. Galo shivers a little as Lio slowly eases him back into the wet heat of his mouth. He takes Galo in what seems to Galo to be dangerously far. He stops for a second and takes a deep breath in through his nose.

Then he keeps going.

“Holy fucking shit!” Galo yelps as he feels the head of his cock slide over the back of Lio’s tongue and into the tight passage of his throat. Lio’s tongue flutters against his length and he swallows, throat clenching around Galo’s tip. Lio pulls back, breathing in. Then he takes Galo down his throat again.

Galo knows some people don’t have a gag reflex. He was not expecting a demonstration, however. He takes a really deep breath, gripping the bars of the headboard and willing himself into stillness as Lio bobs his head. Galo watches, awed, as Lio swallows him so deep his nose almost touches Galo’s pubic bone, then pulls off, leaving Galo’s dick slick and glistening with spit. He continues, repeating the motion, deepthroating Galo with a slow but steady rhythm. Lio’s eyes are closed; he’s clearly concentrating, and he’s doing it for Galo, to make Galo feel good. Galo feels a surge of—something—that pushes him right to the edge of orgasm.

“Lio, fuck, you’re gonna make me come,” Galo says desperately. “Do you wanna… do something else, do you not want me to come in your mouth?”

Lio doesn’t answer; he pulls back until Galo’s dick almost pops out. Drool is coating his chin. He looks incredibly lewd. Galo whines. Lio opens his eyes; his eyes flick up and meet Galo’s. Without looking away, Lio takes Galo’s dick back in, deep into his throat, and, eyes still locked on Galo’s, swallows around him again.

Galo’s orgasm hits him like a tsunami. He tenses, clutching the bars of the headboard white-knuckled, using all his willpower to keep his hips still as he spills down Lio’s throat, shaking. He trembles through a few quaking aftershocks as Lio lets him slip out, dragging his tongue over the length of Galo’s dick as he does. Galo wants to say something like, “That was amazing,” but what comes out is just a breathless whimper as Lio sits up and wipes his mouth, his chin. “Very good,” Lio says approvingly, and Galo shivers at the huskiness of his voice. “You were very good for me.”

“Hnnn,” Galo whines, still unable to form an actual word. Lio crawls up Galo’s body and nestles against Galo’s side, propping himself up on an elbow. Galo can feel Lio’s erection pressed against his hip. Lio looks… smug. Definitely flushed. “I liked that,” he says. “I liked doing that to you.”

“I liked you doing that to me too,” Galo finally manages, still a little out of breath. Lio snickers. Then he hides his smile in Galo’s chest. He mumbles something.

“What?” Galo asks.

“Can I. Um.” Lio stops.

“Lio, basically anything you want to do to me right now, I’m down. Holy shit.”

“I want to come on your tits,” Lio says.

“Oh, hell yeah,” Galo says. Lio pushes himself up to sitting, then swings a leg over Galo so he’s straddling his torso. Galo lets go of the headboard and starts to reach out for him.

“No,” Lio commands. “Keep your hands there. No touching.” 

Galo huffs, but he reaches back over his head and grips the bars again. Lio gives him a slow smile. Galo watches hungrily as Lio runs a hand over his own chest, down his stomach to his erection. Lio starts languidly stroking himself. He reaches out with his other hand and gropes one of Galo’s pecs, squeezing lightly. Galo might not be allowed to touch, but he can’t help talking.

“You look so good,” he says. “You’re so sexy like this.”

“Like what?” Lio says, lazily moving the hand on his cock.

“Telling me what to do,” Galo says, and Lio chuckles.

“I could get used to it,” Lio says, voice unsteady.

“Me too,” Galo says, mouth going dry.

“Talk to me,” Lio says. “Tell me what kinds of things I could tell you to do.”

“You could sit in a chair and spread your legs and make me kneel in front of you, and you could tell me to suck your dick,” Galo says immediately. “You could tell me that I have to get you off two or three times before I can touch myself. Then you could tell me exactly how I’m allowed to touch myself. Make me do it slow.”

“Jesus,” Lio says, flushing an even deeper shade of pink. “That’s fucking hot.”

“You could stand over me while I’m on my knees and do what you’re doing now,” Galo says. “Make me watch while you touch yourself. You’re driving me crazy, I want to touch you so bad.”

“But you won’t,” Lio says. “You’ll be good.”

“Yeah,” Galo says. “I wanna be good for you, Lio.”

“What else could I tell you to do,” Lio says, a little waver in his voice.

“You could tell me to open my mouth while I’m kneeling there for you,” Galo says, “and you could come on my face,” and Lio groans deep in his throat and comes messily all over Galo’s chest. Galo makes a small noise in sympathy as Lio trembles above him, panting. After a long moment, Lio leans down and presses a breathless kiss to Galo’s lips. 

“You can touch me now,” he says next to Galo’s mouth, and Galo unclenches his hands from the headboard and runs them gently down Lio’s back. Lio slumps forward and Galo holds him as he shifts around, nestling back in against Galo’s side, exhaling gustily as he settles. 

They lie there for a long time until the morning sun finally rousts them. In the shower, Galo massages shampoo into Lio’s hair and says, “Hey, next time, you can tie me up if you want. If that would make you feel more comfortable.”

“Huh?” Lio says.

“Yeah, you know. If you wanted to tie me to the headboard.” Galo chuckles. “Then I really wouldn’t be able to move my hands.”

There’s a very long silence. Then Lio says, “You’d let me do that?”

“Sure,” Galo says.

“Oh. Huh.” Lio sounds intrigued. But he doesn’t say anything else about it. He just reciprocates washing Galo’s hair, and Galo makes him a huge stack of pancakes for breakfast that he eats with gusto, and Galo can’t think of a better way to start a day.

***

Galo is back from a quick run and drinking a post-shower glass of water in the kitchen, just wearing his boxers, when Lio gets home the next evening. 

“Hey!” Galo says cheerfully as Lio hangs up his jacket. “You’re home late, where’ve you been?” He chugs some more water.

Lio walks over and sets an opaque orange plastic bag down on the kitchen island with a thunk.

“I went to the sex shop,” he says.

Galo coughs his water forcefully into the sink.

“Oh shit!” Lio says. “Are you okay?”

Galo sputters, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and setting the water glass down hard on the counter.

“You went to the what,” he finally manages. Lio eyes him sidelong.

“The sex shop? It’s a place called Kumquat, it’s on 35th. It’s women-owned and queer-friendly, Anjani from work told me about it.”

“Anjani from work,” Galo repeats stupidly. He can feel the back of his neck heating up.

“Yeah, I told her we were fucking,” Lio says casually. “Anjani likes to talk about guys. She said you were a ‘snack’ when I showed her your picture.”

“Hhhh,” Galo wheezes.

Lio fiddles with the handles of the bag. “I hope I’m not overstepping,” he says warily, “but you said I could try some things.”

“Lio,” Galo says with equal parts anticipation and fear, “what did you get at the sex shop?”

“Okay, this is for you,” Lio says, and reaches into the bag and pulls out a classy-looking minimalist blue box with two lines of gold text printed on it. “Andromeda Co.,” says the first line. “Versatile Restraint Set,” says the second line. Galo swallows.

“I sprang for some of the higher-quality ones,” Lio says, opening the box and pulling out a blue leather wrist cuff. He eyes Galo’s hair. “Plus the color. You know. Matches. I think you’ll look nice.” A faint flush is dusting itself over Lio’s cheeks. Galo swallows again.

“We’ll also need this,” Lio says, and pulls a huge bottle of lube out of the bag. He glances at Galo. “I know you have some, but this kind came highly recommended. I don’t want to take any chances.”

Lio’s matter-of-fact tone shouldn’t be this sexy. But Galo can’t ignore the way his cock is chubbing up in his boxers. The thought of being tied down and methodically fucked into the mattress is… wow. Yeah. 

“Lio, uh, do you wanna try this stuff out right now? I mean, I’m ready.” Galo gestures to his mostly undressed state.

Lio looks slightly put out. “Now?” he says. “I was going to wait until I had the day off in case I was sore after. You’re kind of ridiculously huge. I mean, I can handle it, but still.” 

“Wait, hold on,” Galo says, confused. “Who’s doing what to who here?”

“Huh?” Lio says.

“Why would you be… aren’t you gonna tie me up and fuck my brains out?”

Now Lio looks confused. “I was going to tie you up on your back and ride you,” he says. Galo’s dick jumps against the front of his boxers.

“Okay!” Galo says, voice slightly high-pitched. “If that’s what you want! But I was kinda looking forward to you railing the hell out of me.”

Lio looks taken aback. “You want me to fuck you?” he asks.

“Yeah?” Galo says. “Hell yeah. I thought that’s what you were planning on.”

“No? I didn’t think you’d want to do that,” Lio says, a wrinkle between his eyebrows.

“Why not?” Galo says, and then he’s struck by a sudden flash of memory. Lio sitting next to him on the couch, sour expression on his face. All the times I’ve done it have been kind of… meh.

Galo’s stomach sinks.

“Lio, do you want to do it?” Galo asks.

“What, get fucked?”

“I… yeah.”

“Well. I mean.” Lio’s brow wrinkles further and he suddenly looks uncertain. “It’s fun making you feel good? I don’t not want to do it.”

“But you wouldn’t really like it,” Galo says despondently, stomach sinking even more. Lio’s eyes slide away from Galo’s.

“I don’t know,” Lio says softly. “I might. It’s different with you.”

Galo’s heart throbs painfully in his chest.

“Lio, I need you to promise me something,” he says.

Lio looks back up at him. “Okay?” he says. Galo reaches out over the kitchen island and takes Lio’s hands.

“Don’t ever do something with me that you’re not one hundred percent, no, one million percent on board with,” Galo says.

“It’s not that I’m not…” Lio says, furrowing his brow. “I wasn’t…”

“Promise me, Lio,” Galo says, squeezing Lio’s hands. “I need you to promise me. If I ever did something to hurt you…” His stomach curdles just thinking about it.

“I know you wouldn’t,” Lio says. “I wanted to try it with you. I did it before and it was fine. It was fine! I handled it.”

“Lio, I don’t want you to handle it. I want you to like it.”

Lio looks away. “I…” he starts. Then he stops. Suddenly his eyes fill with tears. He opens his mouth as if to say something, then closes it again.

“Lio, talk to me,” Galo says.

“Never really mattered before if I liked it or not,” Lio mumbles.

“It matters to me,” Galo says, heartbroken.

“I know,” Lio whispers. “I know. I’m sorry. I promise.”

“Okay. Thank you,” Galo says quietly. He squeezes Lio’s hands again. The tears escape Lio’s eyes and leak down his cheeks.

“Hey,” Galo says, “can I just hold you for a little bit?” Lio nods, mute. Galo lets go of his hands and comes around the counter, takes Lio into his arms, and holds him close. Lio wraps his arms around Galo’s back and presses his face into Galo’s shoulder. He sniffles a few times, fingers digging in. Then he shamelessly wipes his face on Galo’s shirt and looks up, studying him.

“You’re very good,” Lio says earnestly.

“I’m trying my best,” Galo says staunchly. Lio is still studying him.

“What?” Galo says to his quizzical gaze.

“Do you really want me to fuck your brains out?” Lio says, and the way he says it is so incongruously serious that Galo snorts out a startled laugh.

“I do,” he says, “but we should maybe ease into it, talk about stuff a little more first. We’ve been kinda winging it, you know? I wanna get really clear on some things. Maybe write it all down. We could do a ‘Yes, No, Maybe’ list.”

“What’s that?”

“You just write down all the things you’d be into doing, all the things you definitely don’t want to do, and then the things you’re not sure about.”

“Ah,” Lio says, looking thoughtful. “That makes sense.”

“Then we trade lists, so we each have the other person’s. That way we’ll be really clear on everything.”

“Okay,” Lio says, determined wrinkle back between his eyebrows, “let’s do it.”

***

They sit on the couch for list-writing, each with a notepad from Galo’s stockpile of things Aina has given him to help him be more organized that he never remembers to use. Lio stares at his notepad, tapping his pen thoughtfully against his lip. Then he glances at Galo.

“So, the ‘No’s. You want me to write down all of them?”

“Yeah,” Galo says. “Even if you think they’re little things. Like, you told me not to pull your hair. Write that down.”

“What if I don’t think it’s something you would ever do?” Lio asks.

“Write it down anyway,” Galo says firmly. “Just in case.”

“Okay,” Lio says, and stares at his notepad for another long moment. Then, abruptly, he puts pen to paper and starts writing furiously. Galo turns to his own pad, letting Lio be. First, he writes “Tie me up and rail me” in his “Yes” column. That’s an easy one. He thoughtfully writes down a bunch of other things Lio can do to him while he’s tied up. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Lio scribbling madly. He writes down a bunch of things Lio can do to him when he’s not tied up. Then he writes down his “No”s. He imagines those are all pretty standard, though he does include “Wax play.” He tried that with someone once and it made him more nervous than horny. 

The “Maybe”s require a bit more thought. “Roleplay,” he writes, then glances over at Lio. Lio is still scribbling, tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth. “Threesome,” Galo writes, then scratches it out. “Foursome,” he writes, then scratches that out too and writes “Including other people” instead because he’s not positive about if or how any of that would work. He writes down some other things he’s not sure about and hasn’t tried.

Lio finally runs out of steam and sits back, putting his pen down on the couch and frowning at his list, reading it over. Galo puts a few finishing touches on his. Lio looks up and Galo catches his eye.

“You ready?” he asks, and Lio nods decisively, holding out the notebook. Galo trades with him.

Lio’s handwriting is still really awful. His list looks like a third-grader wrote it, which is extremely jarring, considering the content. He has a lot of “No”s. Some of them are tough for Galo to read, because he has the deeply unpleasant feeling that Lio wasn’t being theoretical when he wrote things like “choking” and “calling me a whore” and “being spat on.”

Galo likes Lio’s “Yes” column much better. He particularly likes the way Lio wrote “KISSING” in all caps and underlined it.

Lio also has a lot of “Maybe”s. Galo likes those too. He hopes they’ll get a chance to explore some of them. For the moment, though, he just makes them instant hot chocolate and cuddles Lio on the couch. They eventually doze off as an episode of Gigantotron plays in the background.

They decide to take a breather from doing anything sexy for a few days. They talk through a lot of the list items. The conversation ebbs and flows, starts and stops. Lio doesn’t want to give a lot of detail about some things, and Galo respects that and doesn’t push. He’s just happy to have a better sense of Lio’s boundaries and the things he truly does or doesn’t want to do. He reads over Lio’s list a bunch of times to make sure he doesn’t forget anything important.

When they start making out again, it feels new. Lio seems more confident; more sure of himself. More sure of Galo. At the same time, he becomes more casually affectionate, generous with touches and kisses. Galo soaks up the attention. They’re creating a new equilibrium; an ease with each other. They laugh a lot. They’re having fun. 

That’s all it needs to be. It’s enough. 

***

“Check it out,” Lio says, getting home one day, holding up a paper bag. “I closed and there were some day-old pastries left so I got to take them.”

“Oh nice!” Galo pecks Lio on the cheek and takes the bag. “Any bearclaws?”

“Yeah, a couple.” Galo peers into the bag, pulls out a bearclaw, and starts munching it happily. He looks up just in time to see Lio bent over, taking off his black boots. Galo admires the view. Lio is starting to develop kind of a weird fashion sense. He’s wearing tight black high-waisted pleather pants with at least fifteen belts on them in various places, which seems excessive, but Galo is not complaining: the pants hug the subtle curves of Lio’s ass very nicely. Lio doesn’t exactly have a lot of ba-donk-a-donk, but his butt filled out really cute once he started getting three squares a day. Boots removed, he straightens up, and Galo squints at his bright orange crop top. It says “Kumquat” across the front in yellow letters.

“You got a shirt at the sex shop?” Galo blurts, aghast.

Lio gives him an unimpressed look. “I like it,” he says. “It’s a good sex shop, Galo.”

“You’re terrible,” Galo says ruefully. “I like that outfit, though.” He eyes Lio’s butt. “Can I slap your ass? It looks really slappable in those pants.”

“Absolutely not,” Lio says. Then he smirks. “You may respectfully touch my ass,” he says grandly.

“Can I respectfully eat you out?” Galo says, and Lio flushes pink.

“Maybe,” he says. “Let me go shower and I’ll come find you?”

Galo waggles his eyebrows. “I’ll be looking forward to it,” he says.

Lio finds Galo in his room; they’ve never actually done anything in Lio’s room. Galo doesn’t know if it has more to do with Lio’s need for privacy or the size of Lio’s bed, but he doesn’t ask any questions. Lio eagerly strips him, kisses him for a while, and then gives him an assessing look.

“I’d like to try something,” he says.

“Oh yeah?”

“You remember those cuffs I got?”

“Yeah?”

“I’d like to get them out,” Lio says.

“Hell yeah,” Galo says.

Lio leaves Galo for a moment to fetch the blue box from his room. He sits down on the bed with it and opens it, taking the cuffs out. They’re fastened together with long metal clasps attached to a ring in the middle. Lio gives them a long look. Then he looks up at Galo.

“You sure about this?” he asks, brow furrowed.

“Pshyeah,” Galo says. “Are you kidding? I’ve been looking forward to this ever since you brought those things home.”

Lio gives him a slow smile.

“Lie down, then,” he says. “And put your hands over your head.”

Galo assumes the position eagerly. Lio fastens one of the cuffs around Galo’s wrist, threads the other through the bars of the headboard, and repeats the process with Galo’s other wrist. Then he sits back on his heels and studies Galo for a long moment.

“Try to get out of them,” he says. Galo tugs at the cuffs, pulling them taut. They clank against the bars.

“Pretty solid,” he says approvingly, pulling them in a few different directions. “I’d have to try really hard to get out of these. You’ve got me.” That delicate flush is creeping over Lio’s face again as he watches.

“I was right,” Lio says, something deep and hungry in his voice. “You look nice.”

Galo pulls against the cuffs again in a way he knows makes his biceps bulge. “Yeah?” he says, letting the hint of a challenge creep into his voice. “So now that you’ve got me, what are you going to do with me?”

Lio starts to smile. The smile grows wider and wickeder as he leans forward until his mouth is right next to Galo’s ear.

“I’m going to do whatever I want with you,” he breathes into Galo’s ear, and Galo shivers. “I’m going to sit on your face, and I’m going to fuck your mouth, and I’m not going to let you come until I say you can. Sound good to you?”

“Fuck yes,” Galo says.

Lio keeps every one of his promises. He makes Galo get him off twice. He makes Galo writhe and pant and curse. He makes Galo come so hard he whites out for a second. And then Lio takes the cuffs off him and cleans him up and pets him and praises him, cuddles up next to him and stays with him, and as Galo starts falling asleep with Lio’s hand softly stroking his hair, he finds himself wishing they could just stay in this room forever, where none of the complications of the world could bother them.

***

Galo comes awake very slowly in the dark, blinking his eyes open, shaking off the remnants of a wistful dream. He looks around, trying to figure out what woke him up.

Lio is sitting up in the bed, knees to his chest, one arm wrapped around them, the other hand held up in front of his eyes. Tiny flares of flame are sparking up from his fingers, almost immediately winking out. The flicker of the little flames just barely illuminates his pensive face.

“Ooh,” Galo says admiringly before he thinks about it.

Lio startles and closes his hand into a loose fist, snuffing out the flames. His eyes flick to Galo’s with a guilty expression.

“Sorry. I didn’t know you were awake. It’s not dangerous, when I do that. The fire needs something to catch hold of before it burns.”

“It’s okay,” Galo says. “It was beautiful.”

Lio stares at him in the darkness for a long time. Then he slowly opens his hand. A few seconds go by. Then another little flame dances across his fingertips.

“Hm,” Galo hums sleepily, and watches in silence as Lio makes patterns with the fire, flicking it from one finger to another. Galo falls back asleep watching the play of light and shadow across Lio’s hand, the sparks reflected in Lio’s eyes. 

When the morning sun wakes Galo up again, Galo opens his eyes to find Lio staring into them from discomfitingly close.

“Oh, good, you’re awake,” Lio says without even giving him a chance to blink, and then leans forward and kisses him, deep and hungry. He barely lets Galo come up for air as he throws a leg over him and shimmies on top of him to sit on his hips, ass pressed against Galo’s suddenly growing erection.

“Haha, you’re demanding this morning,” Galo says cheerfully when Lio lets him talk, lips leaving his to press kisses against his jawline and then down his neck. “You wake up horny or something?”

“Just want you,” Lio says into Galo’s skin.

“Don’t worry, firebug, you got me,” Galo says, and Lio kisses his neck again and doesn’t say anything about the nickname, and Galo is late to work.

***

Work shifts make them miss each other for a few days and they just share quick kisses (and a few surreptitious butt gropes on Lio’s part) in passing until their orbits synchronize again over dinner.

“You want to watch a movie tonight or anything?” Galo asks Lio after they’ve chatted for a bit over the simple spaghetti bolognese Galo made. 

“Not really,” Lio says, raising an eyebrow. “I’d rather fuck your brains out.”

Galo almost chokes on his spaghetti.

“Oh! I mean! If you want!” Lio amends hastily as Galo coughs into his napkin.

“Yeah!” Galo says when he has his breath back. “That sounds awesome! Sorry, I just wasn’t expecting you to say that! I’m totally in!”

“Okay, great,” Lio says. “I’ve been reading up on how to do it right. I got some instructional videos, too.”

“Instructional videos,” Galo repeats.

“Mary Beth from Kumquat gave me some recommendations when we went for coffee last week.”

“When you went for coffee,” Galo repeats again.

“We hit it off the first time I went in there,” Lio says. “Anyway. You’ve done that before, right? You can tell me what you like.” He gives Galo a very serious look. “I don’t want to mess it up, okay?”

“Lio,” Galo says with absolute certainty, “this is going to be great.”

***

Lio has Galo sitting naked on the bed. They’ve gone over everything Lio learned; Lio wanted to check it against Galo’s experience, and Galo was impressed by his thoroughness. Galo was also surprised to discover that discussing technical details was kind of a turn on—the anticipation is killing him, and he’s sporting a substantial boner already. Lio is currently smirking at it, standing by the side of the bed, looking gorgeous with no shirt and his pleather pants, the ones with all the belts. Galo is really looking forward to the part of the evening where Lio will have no pants, but he’s going to be patient because he agreed to let Lio tie him up again and take things at his own pace. 

“Tell me how you want me,” Galo says eagerly.

Lio reaches into the nightstand drawer and pulls out the cuffs.

“Lie down. On your back,” he commands, voice husky. Galo hurries to obey, lying down with his hands over his head. Lio kneels on the bed next to him and tenderly fastens the cuffs around his wrists, cuffing him to the headboard, a sweet, sly smile curling up the corners of his lips. Lio runs his hands down Galo’s arms to his chest.

“There,” he whispers. “You’re so gorgeous. So good for me.”

“Mmm,” Galo hums, hips rocking gently in response to the praise. 

“Spread your legs,” Lio says softly, smoothing his hands down Galo’s sides, and Galo does. 

Lio plays with him for a while, with his hands and his mouth, never doing one thing for very long, never letting Galo get too worked up. Then he retrieves the lube bottle from the drawer, and Galo watches with anticipation as he pours some over his fingers and slicks them up thoroughly.

“Please,” Galo says before Lio can ask him if he’s sure, and Lio chuckles.

“So impatient,” he says fondly, but he puts the lube bottle down within easy reach and finally slides his slick hand behind Galo’s balls and presses the tip of one finger gently against Galo’s asshole. Lio takes a deep breath. Then he starts pushing in.

Galo relaxes into the feeling, opening up for him, welcoming him. “Ah,” he breathes. It’s good, but Lio’s finger is so slender, it’s not enough. Galo moans in want.

“Oh,” Lio says softly. He curls his finger. “You feel good. You’re… really hot inside.”

“All for you, firebug,” Galo says breathlessly, and Lio gives him a smoldering look, eyes hooded.

“Gimme more,” Galo demands.

“Wait,” Lio says, and the command in his voice makes Galo inhale sharply and bite his lip. Lio starts moving his finger, carefully stroking it against Galo’s inner walls until he finds the bump of Galo’s prostate. Galo’s hips buck, and Lio zeroes in on the spot with unnerving accuracy. He makes Galo tremble that way for a while, expression intent. 

“Now you get two,” he says, sliding his finger out, adding more lube, and slipping two back in.

“Oh god,” Galo whimpers as Lio’s fingers find his prostate again. “Please, Lio please, you’re driving me crazy, I want you, please.”

“No. You’ll take three first,” Lio says, and Galo moans long and low. Lio scissors his fingers a little, stretching Galo open. Finally Lio seems satisfied; he pulls out again, adds even more lube, and then presses three fingers into him, stretching him open even further. There’s so much lube in play that Galo can feel some of it dribbling down the crack of his ass. A part of Galo’s brain is amused by Lio’s concern. But most of his brain is simply on fire with need.

“Please, please, please,” Galo gasps finally, reduced to monosyllables.

“Alright,” Lio says, voice throaty, “since you asked so nicely.” And he starts unbuttoning his fly with his free hand, fingers still in Galo’s ass. He works his pants open and down off his hips a little, freeing his cock; he’s not wearing any underwear. He upends the lube bottle over his dick, pouring some onto himself, and slicks himself up one-handed. Then he positions himself, kneeling between Galo’s legs, pulls his fingers out slowly, and presses the tip of his cock to Galo’s hole.

“I’m going to give you what you want,” Lio says.

“Haaaaah, please,” Galo moans, and shifts his hips at the same time that Lio pushes gently forward, and the head of Lio’s cock pops in, slipping inside easily.

Lio stops there, hand clenching on Galo’s thigh.

“Tell me how it feels,” Lio says through gritted teeth.

“Fucking awesome,” Galo gasps. “It feels so good, firebug, don’t stop, don’t stop.” Lio’s hips hitch, and his slick cock slides in a little more.

“I’m… I want…” Lio says, and Galo says “Please” like it’s the only word he knows. Lio pushes in further, agonizingly slowly, until he’s sheathed to the hilt in Galo’s body. He breathes deep, then starts working his dick slowly in and out, hands firm on Galo’s thighs, intermittently hitting Galo’s prostate and making soft, incredible noises that go straight to Galo’s cock. Lio fucks him with an unpracticed, keen intensity, watching Galo with half-closed eyes.

“Does it feel good?” Lio asks.

“God, firebug, so good,” Galo gasps, and Lio breathes in sharply through his nose, stills.

“Mmm,” Galo moans. “You getting close?”

“Yes,” Lio says, “but I want to make you come first. Could you come just from this?”

“Yeah,” Galo says, and Lio starts moving his hips again, aiming himself more carefully, a furrow of concentration between his brows. “Oh fuck,” Galo gasps as Lio’s cock rubs over his prostate, “I’m so close already, don’t stop, like that…”

“Galo,” Lio says, and leans forward to lick a stripe up Galo’s chest, between his pecs, “you are so…” He leans to the side and sucks a nipple into his mouth, then pulls off hard with a wet pop, sending a shock from Galo’s nipple to his dick. Galo arches his back. “So… fucking…” Lio mouths at his neck, bites down gently, nuzzles the bitten skin, then raises his mouth to Galo’s ear. “Delicious,” Lio whispers, and Galo comes, shaking, streaking both their stomachs with ejaculate and making a noise that, were he not distracted by seeing a million stars, would have embarrassed him.

What feels like a long time later, Galo drifts back into his body. He feels Lio’s weight resting on him lightly. Lio’s cock is still sheathed in Galo’s ass, a satisfying fullness. Lio is still, face buried in Galo’s neck. Galo can feel him breathing. Galo makes a soft noise.

“Do you want me to stop?” Lio asks.

“No,” Galo says. “Keep going. Want you to come inside me.”

Lio shudders. Then he lifts himself onto his hands and starts moving again, slowly. Galo, limp from his orgasm, lets himself relax as Lio rocks into him, moving his hips gently to meet Lio’s thrusts, shuddering a little every time Lio’s cock rubs over his sensitive, wrung-out prostate.

“Galo,” Lio says hoarsely. “Eyes on me.” Galo opens his eyes and focuses on Lio, who is staring at him intently. “Galo,” Lio says again, “Galo, I—” Lio bites his lip and then he’s shaking, coming hot inside Galo, still staring into Galo’s eyes. Galo swears he feels himself reach a second, gentler peak, pulled along by the intensity of Lio’s gaze. Lio shudders and curls forward, collapsing onto Galo. 

They lie there for a long time in a muzzy post-orgasmic haze, just breathing.

They pull themselves together slowly. Lio lets his softening cock slip out, making Galo shiver. Lio plasters himself against Galo’s side and they lie there a little longer, basking in each other’s warmth, until Lio sits up and unfastens the cuffs. He takes Galo’s left hand in both of his and gently massages Galo’s wrist. He rubs his thumb into Galo’s palm, massages his fingers one by one. “You were so good,” he murmurs as he does the same thing to Galo’s right hand. Galo swallows.

“You’re a natural,” Galo says, voice husky. “I told you you’d be great at it.”

Lio gets a washcloth from the bathroom and cleans them up. He finally pulls his pants the rest of the way off, leaving them carelessly on the floor. Galo pulls Lio into his arms after Lio tosses the washcloth into the laundry basket, nuzzling the top of his head. Galo feels giddy and sated. But he forces himself to focus for a second; he wants to check in.

“How are you feeling?” Galo asks. Lio considers the question for a long moment. Then he looks up at Galo with a small, soft smile.

“I’m happy,” Lio says simply, and Galo’s heart skips a beat.

They fall asleep together, curled up in each other’s arms.

***

Their routine has shifted. It still includes chores, and cartoons, and dinner, but now it also includes fucking.

Regular fucking. A lot of fucking. Lio seems to be making up for lost time by becoming insatiable. Lio ties Galo up and plays with him until he begs, Lio puts him on his hands and knees and fucks him mercilessly, Lio pushes him against the inside of the front door and blows him without even letting him take his shoes off, Lio dry-humps him on the dining room table. Galo is elated. Aina asks him if there’s any particular reason he’s so chipper lately, and he has to wave it off and say he’s just excited for the upcoming theatrical release of Gigantotron: Space Force III.

“You and Lio getting along still?” she asks, and when Galo nods enthusiastically and says, “Yeah! Great! Super great!” she only looks a little suspicious.

Lio is sitting at the dining room table when Galo gets home, a bunch of papers spread out in front of him. He looks really happy.

“What are you smiling about?” Galo asks as he pulls his shoes off by the door. He loves seeing Lio smile.

“I finally got my papers back! The interim government and BRF have been digging them up for us. Look, here’s my birth certificate.” He holds up a piece of paper. “I’m twenty. I thought so but I wasn’t totally sure. I kind of lost track for a while.”

Every time Galo thinks he’s come to some sort of terms with Lio’s past, something new punches him in the gut. Galo’s smile wavers, but he fixes it in place.

“Oh, that’s great,” he says. “I’m stoked for you! Uh, happy birthday?”

Lio laughs. “How old are you?” he says curiously. “I realize I’ve never asked.”

“I’m twenty-four,” Galo says.

“Ooooh,” Lio says, voice teasing. “I’m shacked up with an older man!” Then he furrows his brow. “How did you buy this place? Wasn’t it hard to get a downpayment? Didn’t you have to pay for college and everything?”

Galo pulls out the dining room chair across from Lio and slides into it.

“I got an inheritance from my parents’ estate when I turned 18. Managed to cover the downpayment and put myself through the fire science certificate and the firefighting academy. I didn’t really do regular college.”

“Hm,” Lio says. “That makes sense. I might, though. I’d need to get my GED first.”

“You’re smart, you should do it,” Galo says decisively. “What would you study?”

“Political science,” Lio says immediately. He scowls. “I wouldn’t become a useless bureaucrat, though. I’d actually change things. Seems like someone has to.”

Galo gets a weird feeling in his chest that he might characterize as pride. “You’d be great at that,” he says. “You’ve got a fire in you. I mean. Literally, but also, like, metaphorically.” He smiles at Lio, and he’s sure he looks a little dopey, but Lio smiles back.

“What have you been up to?” Lio asks, stacking up his papers and shifting them to the side. “I feel like we haven’t caught up in a few days.”

“Oh, well, speaking of being a smarty-pants, I wanted to tell you,” Galo says. “I’ve been reading up on the Burnish. And Promepolis. I didn’t want to be an ignoramus anymore.”

“Oh?” Lio says.

“Yeah, there’s not a lot of information about Foresight, but he was obviously a total dick,” Galo says. “You guys did amazing stuff, though. There’s one Burnish… wait. You probably already know all this. Do you even want to talk about it? I can shut up.”

“No,” Lio says, “it’s okay. Tell me what you learned.” He sounds cautious but curious, so Galo continues.

“So the founder of BRF is a total badass,” Galo says enthusiastically. “She’s like you, she’s got some pyro-whatsit. Thyma is her name. A Foresight loyalist tried to assassinate her once. They’re real bad news.”

“Yeah,” Lio says.

“He had terrible aim, though, fortunately. Just winged her in the arm. Didn’t slow her down any. She was at the UN last year trying to get them to do something. Before she even started talking one of the reps said Foresight was a legitimate president or whatever and they couldn’t interfere, Dr. Prometh was a scammer, and Burnish powers were a ‘party trick.’ She got so mad she set the podium on fire. Burned up all her notes. Then she gave this off-the-cuff speech that was so good the UN actually started poking around. They couldn’t really get things going until they got the video, though.”

“The video?” Lio asks softly.

“Yeah! This is the wildest story. There was another Burnish—the BRF won’t give out any identifying information because of the Foresight loyalists, which is fucked up—but anyway, they were in a camp and they managed to get their hands on a cell phone with a camera in it, somehow. There wasn’t any reception in there, but they filmed what was happening until the battery died. They probably would have gotten killed if they got caught, you know? That was super brave.”

“Uh huh,” Lio says.

“And then they smuggled the footage out? They got the phone to the BRF, and that’s what started the collapse of the regime. It was crazy, apparently they walked like a hundred miles in the middle of winter to cross the border in some wilderness area.” 

“Oh,” Lio says.

“They’re a real hero, whoever they are,” Galo says, awestruck. “That must have been brutal.” He shivers. “Can you imagine? I wonder how they made it.”

There’s a long silence. Galo looks over at Lio, and his heart suddenly stutters. 

Lio is pale and still, eyes focused somewhere very far away.

“They figured they had a better chance because they were one of the only people left in camp who could start a fire,” Lio says, his voice odd and distant, and Galo stops breathing.

“Security was always more lax in the winter,” Lio says. “Where would anyone have gone? There were fewer guards, and fewer inspections. His friends saved up half their rations for as long as they could, even though they were already starving. They scavenged old clothes and blankets. Supply trucks were few and far between, but the next time one came, one of his friends caused a distraction while the other tied him to the undercarriage of the truck. He was small enough to make it work. But if he had fallen…” Lio shudders.

“He snuck out from under the truck at a crossroads. He navigated by the sun and the stars,” Lio continues. “He had an old scrap of a map, and they’d been planning something like this for years, just waiting for the right moment. It was a long, lonely walk, though. The fire was the only thing that kept him alive in the cold. And when he finally crossed the border, he’d been living on bark and pine needles for a long time.”

“Lio,” Galo whispers, heart squeezing itself into a fist in his chest.

Lio shakes himself and his eyes snap back from some distant, invisible horizon, focusing on Galo.

“He’s somewhere safe now. Don’t ask me anything else about it,” Lio says softly. “That’s all I can tell you.”

Galo swallows. His eyes are burning. His throat is dry.

“Okay,” he says, voice rough. “I won’t ask you about it.” 

“Thank you,” Lio says, even softer, looking away.

There’s another long silence.

“That Burnish…” Galo says hoarsely. “He must have been really brave. And selfless. And… he really loved his people. He saved them. I hope he knows… that he’s a true hero.”

In the dim light, Lio suddenly looks deeply, painfully exhausted. He stands up slowly, then comes around the table to Galo and bends down, kisses him on the forehead, then on the mouth, just a gentle brush of lips.

“If I ever get to meet him,” Lio says softly, “I’ll tell him you think so. I’m going to go to bed. Sleep well, Galo.”

“Yeah. You too, Lio,” Galo says around the lump in his throat.

Galo cries silently at the table for a while after Lio shuts his door. Then he takes a deep breath, wipes his eyes, and thinks. Mostly, he makes a mental list of all the things he knows Lio likes. And then he thinks about how to make sure Lio will always have those things as long as they share a home.

Neither of them have work the next morning, which is great. Galo brings Lio pancakes in bed, and coffee with extra cream and sugar the way he likes it. And then Galo makes love to him so tenderly and so thoroughly that they don’t get out of bed until noon.

***

The days pass. Galo gives Lio as many kisses as he wants, and makes him pancakes whenever they have time in the morning, and buys him bottles of hot sauce that are frankly terrifying. He purposefully doesn’t examine why he does any of these things very closely. Maybe they can just keep going on like this as long as he doesn’t name it.

It works until Meis and Gueira come back.

They’ve managed to get their own car. It’s a used Toyota Corolla. Lio tells Galo, with a broad, excited smile, that Meis and Gueira are planning to break it in by taking a road trip to Detroit.

“It’ll be so good to see them,” Lio says, and Galo gets a weird feeling in his stomach that he won’t identify as apprehension, or jealousy.

“Yeah!” he says. “That’ll be great. I’m happy for you.” He leaves it at that, and Lio doesn’t mention any potential… changes, or complications, so it’s probably fine. If there’s things they’re not talking about, well, that’s okay. They’ll cross that bridge when they get there. Lio shows Galo Meis and Gueira’s route on the map, and gives him updates on their progress once they get started. Galo doesn’t name any of his emotions as nervousness, or dread. He likes Meis and Gueira, they’re fun. This is fine. It’s going to be fine.

***

The day Meis and Gueira plan on reaching Detroit is a quiet day at Station 3, and Galo leaves right on time. He’s glad; he’ll get to have Lio all to himself for a little while before Meis and Gueira are supposed to arrive, later in the afternoon. Sure enough, Lio is in the kitchen when Galo gets home, putting dishes in the dishwasher. He turns when Galo comes in.

“Galo!” Lio says happily, smiling. “You’re back! I need to tell you something.” He comes around the kitchen island, wiping his hands on a dish towel, as Galo closes the door and kicks his shoes off.

“Hang on,” Galo says, smiling back and walking over to put his keys on the counter. “Lemme do this first.” And he reaches out, gently lifts Lio’s chin, and kisses him, soft and lingering.

There’s the click of a door opening.

“What the fuck,” someone says.

Galo barely has time to break the kiss, startled, and turn his head before Gueira is on him. The world goes white and starry as the side of Gueira’s forearm crutch connects with his nose. A horrible crunching noise fills Galo’s skull. Next thing he knows, he’s on the floor, Gueira kneeling over him, crutch discarded, face twisted with rage, fist cocked back.

“Gueira, no!” Lio shrieks. He darts forward and hooks both arms under Gueira’s armpits before he can swing, hauling him off Galo.

“He’s fuckin’ you?” Gueira shrieks back, struggling. “I’ll kill ‘im!”

Lio stumbles backwards, pulling Gueira with him until he trips and sits down hard on the floor, still holding tight to Gueira, who falls back on top of him, legs flailing.

“Bastard shitass!” Gueira howls.

“Gueira, no,” Lio says, “it’s okay, I want him to, I asked him to.”

Gueira’s eyes widen and he stills.

“It’s okay, Gueira. He’s so good to me,” Lio says, voice softer. “He’s so gentle with me. It’s okay, Gueira, it’s okay. I want him to. I asked him to.” He starts murmuring things to Gueira as if chanting an incantation, things that Galo can’t quite make out over the ringing in his ears.

Galo’s nose is throbbing. He hesitantly touches his face, which sends a burst of pain up his sinuses. His fingers come away covered in blood. He looks up and Meis is standing in the doorway of Lio’s room, wide-eyed and frozen.

“…Din’ know you guys were here already,” Galo says. It comes out a little garbled.

“Galo, are you okay?” Lio calls to him, peering out from behind Gueira.

“…No?” Galo says, staring at his bloodied hand.

“Goddamn it, Gueira,” Lio says.

“Well what the fuck? How am I supposed to know shit?”

“You can’t just—”

“You didn’t tell us,” Gueira interrupts accusingly.

Lio closes his eyes, pained. “It’s not… I just didn’t…”

“Okay, whatever,” Gueira says. “You can do what you want. Just…” He turns his glare on Galo. “You better not be makin’ him do anything just ‘cuz he’s living in your house,” he says, pointing a finger in Galo’s direction. Painful tears spring to Galo’s eyes; he’s not sure if it’s due to the throbbing in his nose or the accusation.

“He’s not,” Lio says. “He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s not doing anything I don’t want him to do.”

“Okay, boss,” Gueira says, glare softening.

“Apologize for hitting him,” Lio says, gesturing from Gueira to Galo. “Right now.”

“Sorry, big guy,” Gueira says, somewhat reluctantly in Galo’s opinion.

“…You broge my dose,” Galo says.

“Well, I thought you were bein’ a fuckin’ rapey creep.”

“Dat’s the worst apology I’ve ever godden,” Galo says miserably.

“Okay,” Lio says, voice shaky. He lets go of Gueira. “Galo, come with me, I’m gonna drive you to the hospital. Gueira, Meis, stay here. Clean the house or something, I don’t care, just don’t get in any trouble while we’re gone.”

Meis finally comes into the room, taking a few long, decisive strides over to the dining room table.

“I got this,” he says. He turns a dark scowl on Gueira. Gueira wilts.

Galo lets Lio hustle him out the door.

***

Once they get Galo checked in at the hospital front desk, they sit in the waiting room in silence. Lio stares at his feet and fidgets.

“I’m really sorry,” he finally says. “They got in early because they decided not to bother stopping for a break in Toledo after all. I was about to tell you.”

“Okay,” Galo says. His nose throbs. “You, um… didn’t tell them?” He almost adds, “About us,” but realizes just in time he doesn’t know what “us” means in this context.

Lio sighs deeply. “I should have. I just… didn’t know how.”

Galo’s stomach does some weird and unpleasant things. He ignores it.

“Well, they know now,” Galo says. “Is it… going to be a problem?”

Lio straightens his back. “I’ll talk to them. I’ll make sure it’s not a problem. I’ll take care of it.” He sounds a little ominous. Then he says, “Listen. Don’t hold this against Gueira. If you’re going to be mad at anyone, be mad at me. It was my fault.”

Galo thinks about this.

“I’m not mad at Gueira,” Galo finally says. He looks at Lio out of the corner of his eye. “He was protecting you. I can’t blame him for that.” He pauses for a second. “I’m not mad at you, either,” he says, and Lio’s eyes flick to his. “I’m just—”

“Galo Thymos?”

There’s a nurse calling his name. Lio jumps to his feet.

“That’s us,” he says, and grabs Galo’s hand, and Galo forgets what he was about to say.

***

The nurse sits Galo down in an examination room, Lio hovering at his shoulder, and takes stock of his injury.

“So what happened?” she says. Her tone and expression indicate that she has seen things today. Lio swallows.

“Misunderstanding,” Galo says, waving a hand. There’s a silence.

“That’s all you want to say about it?” the nurse asks.

“Yeah,” Galo says stubbornly, and he sees Lio’s shoulders slump a little out of the corner of his eye.

“Okay,” the nurse says, not any less world-weary, “let’s get you fixed up.”

They leave the hospital an hour or so later, Galo’s nose set and bandaged, his arms wrapped around Lio as Lio navigates the bike deftly through Detroit’s streets. Lio grabs his hand again on the way up the stairs and only lets go when he has to unlock the door. They enter the condo to find Gueira and Meis sitting at the dining room table. Meis’s backpack is hung over the back of his chair. Meis has pulled another chair around to his side of the table and has his feet up on it. He’s eating chips straight from the bag. Gueira is sitting slumped on the other side of the table, arms crossed. They both straighten when Galo and Lio enter. Meis takes his feet off the chair. 

“Hey boss, hey Galo,” he says. Lio nods at him. Galo looks around the condo. There’s no sign of the altercation. In fact…

“It looks, uh. Really clean in here,” Galo says.

“Meis made me mop the floors,” Gueira says petulantly. Then he sighs. “Look,” he says, “I’m really sorry. I flew off the handle. I shouldn’t’ve… done that. If you don’t want me here anymore, I can go somewhere else. We can get a hotel room or something.”

“No,” Galo says. “Stay.”

“…Really?” Gueira says.

“Yeah,” Galo says. “You were protecting Lio. I get it.” He looks Gueira in the eyes. “I’d do the same,” he says.

“Oh.” The hard line of Gueira’s shoulders softens a little.

“If anyone hurt him, I’d punch them in the face too. If I hurt Lio, I’d punch myself in the face,” Galo says sincerely. 

“Oh. Okay. Right on,” Gueira says, raising his eyebrows.

“Do we have a truce, then?” Meis asks.

“Yeah,” Galo says, and Gueira nods.

“No more punching. Shake on it,” Meis orders, and Gueira sticks his hand out. Galo takes it and shakes it firmly.

“Good,” Meis says. “Thank you, Galo.” He looks at each of the three of them in turn. “Okay. I think we all deserve to chill out a little, now that that’s out of the way.”

“What do you mean?” Lio asks suspiciously.

“I took the liberty of purchasing this,” Meis says, and reaches into his backpack and pulls out a quarter-ounce of weed in a plastic baggie.

Lio’s eyes widen. “I told you not to get in any trouble while I was gone,” he hisses.

Meis regards him levelly. “And I didn’t,” he says. “It’s legal here.” He gives Lio a wry smile. “Just like us.”

“Wow,” Galo says. “I haven’t smoked weed since high school.”

“Well, Boy Scout,” Meis drawls, “I guess we know what’s on the agenda for the rest of the evening.”

***

Meis proves his skills at joint-rolling. Lio lights the joint for them. They pass it around. Galo coughs a lot but manages to acquit himself pretty well in the end. He quickly gets a spacey, floaty feeling behind his eyes. They all start getting kind of dopey. They order a couple of pizzas before they get too far gone and eat them around the dining room table. Galo takes a quick trip to the bathroom; when he gets back, the other three have relocated to the living room. Galo joins them, sitting down on one end of the couch. Lio and Meis are talking softly on the other end, leaning on each other. Gueira wanders over from where he’s been examining the model mech shelf and plops himself down next to Galo. He sets his crutch on the floor, then casually swings his legs up onto the couch and lays them across Galo’s lap.

“We’re friends now,” he declares. “Punch-friends. I owe you one, you get a free hit.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Galo says, amused despite himself.

“No? Lio punched you and now you guys’re fuckin.’ I punch you and I don’t even get sloppy seconds? That’s a rude double standard.”

Galo snorts. “You’re such a jerk,” he says.

“Yeah,” Gueira agrees, face suddenly darkening, “I am.”

Galo’s not sure how to respond to that, so he doesn’t say anything.

“Look,” Gueira says after a moment, “there’s not a lot of people worth trustin’ in this crapsack world. But if Lio trusts you, that’s good enough for me. I get it if you don’t wanna return the favor, though. I kinda suck.” He starts to take his legs off Galo.

“Quit it,” Galo says, grabbing Gueira’s legs and holding them in place. “I don’t think you suck. You’re kind of a hothead, but, yanno. Same. I’m always doing stupid stuff that I don’t think about. So if you suck, I suck too.” Galo nods decisively.

Gueira stares at him.

“You’re pretty alright,” he says finally, then twists to look over his shoulder at Meis and Lio. “Yo, assholes,” he says fondly, “stop bogarting the joint, me and my friend here want some too.”

Meis raises an eyebrow, then takes a long, deliberate hit before passing the smoldering joint to Gueira. Gueira takes it, chuckling. “Asshole,” he repeats. He takes a quick hit, then offers it to Galo. Galo feels like he’s being inducted into a weird club. He takes the joint and does his best with it; he doesn’t cough nearly as much this time.

The rest of the night passes in a series of hazy, disconnected vignettes.

***

Gueira tries to teach Galo how to roll a joint. It’s a massive failure.

“I’m disowning you,” Gueira says, staring in horror at the monstrosity Galo has created on the coffee table. “Friendship ended.”

“Aw, maaaaaan,” Galo whines dramatically.

“I will take care of this,” Meis says very seriously. “And we will never speak of it again.”

***

Galo has acquired a bag of chips. Gueira reaches for them. He has his legs in Galo’s lap again.

“You can’t have my chips,” Galo protests, slapping at Gueira’s hand. “They’re mine. Get your own.”

“But then I have to get up,” Gueira whines. “This is racism and also homophobia. Xenophobia. Whatever.”

“It is not,” Galo says. “This is a you thing. Get your own.”

“Imma get some,” Meis says, standing up and stretching. “I’ll get you a bowl.”

“Aw, thanks, babycakes, you’re the best,” Gueira says happily, and Meis raises an eyebrow. Gueira grins at him, unrepentant. Meis shakes his head. 

“Idiot,” he mutters, and heads for the kitchen.

“Hey,” Galo asks Gueira, “have you ever uh. Done a heist.”

Gueira snorts out a laugh. “The fuck are you talking about,” he says.

“You know. You’re good at stealing stuff. Have you ever done a cool heist.”

“I’m a pickpocket, not a cat burglar,” Gueira says. “This isn’t the movies.” He seems amused though.

“Got us a big bowl to share. Don’t hog it,” Meis says, coming back and sitting down next to Gueira with the promised bowl. Lio scoots over next to Meis on his other side and reaches a hand in, grabbing a handful of chips and stuffing them into his mouth inelegantly.

“Jesus, boss,” Meis chides. “Leave some for the rest of us.”

“Fuck off,” Lio says around his mouthful, and Meis laughs. Gueira grabs some chips from the bowl. Meis says something to Lio in their language and Lio laughs. Galo impulsively upends his bag of chips into their bowl so he can share too. For some reason this strikes Gueira as funny and he starts a four-way giggle fit that leaves them all with aching sides.

***

Meis is telling them a story.

“That’s when I stole the dog,” he says.

“Wait, what?” Galo says, tuning back in.

“The dog that was chained up outside. In February. His water bowl was frozen. I stole him.”

“Whoa,” Galo says.

“I got one of my Rover clients to adopt him,” Meis says. “Now he has a dog bed with a name tag. Inside. I get to walk him sometimes. I walk him by his old house. If his old owner ever calls me on it I’ll kick his ass.”

“This is why I like this guy!” Gueira says proudly. “He’s an agent of chaos! But secretly a big softy.”

Meis ducks his head. He looks embarrassed. His curtain of hair falls across the side of his face. Gueira reaches out and tucks Meis’s hair gently behind his ear. 

“Hey, don’t hide,” he says. “You’re always hidin’ in your hair. Whaddaya need all this hair for anyway.”

“Hah?” Meis makes a questioning sound. Then he smiles wryly. “I have to look good for my fans,” he says.

“Pfff. Dude, you could be bald as an egg and I’d still be your biggest fan,” Gueira says.

“Hm,” Meis says. He looks pensive. “Do you think…” Then he eyes Galo. He switches to his other language and says something to Gueira.

Gueira’s eyes widen. He says something dismissive and waves a hand. Meis says something else. There’s a long pause. Then Gueira stands up abruptly, grabbing his crutch.

“Okay y’all,” he says casually, but it seems a little forced. “I’m starting to get paranoid as fuuuuuuck. I need to go sleep it off.” Meis gives him a disgruntled look, but he settles back into the couch.

“Hey Lio, where ya sleepin’?” Gueira asks abruptly, and Lio suddenly looks panicked. He looks at Galo, then looks back at Gueira, then looks at Galo again. 

“I… uh…” he starts.

“Obviously,” Meis drawls, “he’s gonna give us his bed and sleep in Galo’s room. Don’t be an asshole, Gueira.”

“‘M just askin,’” Gueira mumbles, and Lio looks shamefacedly at Galo.

“Is that okay?” Lio whispers. “If I stay in your room?”

Galo is having a lot of complicated emotions he doesn’t really know what to do with.

“Yeah,” he says, “if you want. Of course that’s okay.”

“Okay,” Lio says. “I’ll sleep in Galo’s room,” he says to Gueira. He adds something in their language, and Gueira gives him a half-smile, says something back, and then turns his gaze on Galo. He points two fingers at his eyes and then at Galo, scowling lightly. Then he turns and heads for the hall, vanishing into Lio’s room.

***

“I think… I’m going to fall asleep,” Lio says. He’s next to Galo on the couch now, leaning against him.

“Ready for bed?” Galo asks sleepily. He’s getting tired too.

“Imma stay out here for a little while,” Meis says. “Y’all go on.”

Galo stands up, holds out his hand blearily. “C’mon, firebug,” he says. Lio doesn’t move. He flushes red.

“Firebug?” Meis says. Galo glances at him and his eyebrows are up in his hairline, his mouth quirked in an amused smile. Lio stands up.

“I keep telling him not to call me that,” he grumbles, “but he won’t listen.” He sounds irritated. But he takes Galo’s hand.

***

There’s an unaccustomed silence between them as they settle into Galo’s bed, both sitting up.

“Do you really mind it? When I call you ‘firebug’?” Galo asks sadly. “I can stop.”

Lio is silent for a long time.

“No,” he finally says. “I don’t really mind.”

“Okay. Cool,” Galo says, relieved. There’s another silence.

“Are you sure you don’t want to, you know… go be with them?” Galo says, tilting his head at the door. “It’s okay, I know you guys aren’t… I mean…” Galo trails off when he remembers that, technically, it’s not his business what Lio and Meis and Gueira are or aren’t doing. No strings.

Lio shakes his head. “I don’t want to make things more weird,” he says softly. “Gueira is pissed at me. I don’t really blame him, I should have told them.”

“Okay,” Galo says. Lio looks away, but he tentatively scoots over and nestles lightly against Galo’s side. Galo wraps an arm around him and pulls him closer, and Lio sighs, relaxing against him and putting a hand on his chest. He looks up at Galo, studying him for a moment in the dim light. Then he reaches up.

“Your poor nose,” Lio says, gently touching Galo’s cheek. “I’m sorry this is all so… complicated.” He looks deeply sad.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Galo says. “Complicated is… is okay.” Lio looks very doubtful.

“Let’s just get some sleep,” Galo says, squeezing Lio. “Worry about it in the morning.”

“Okay.” Lio presses his face to Galo’s chest. “Thanks,” he mumbles against Galo’s skin.

Galo falls asleep with his arm around Lio, Lio’s face in his chest, and an ache in his heart.

***

It’s late in the morning when Galo and Lio emerge from Galo’s room; they find Gueira at the dining room table, tapping nervously at his phone. Gueira looks up when he hears them come in; he doesn’t bother with any pleasantries.

“Do you guys know where Meis is?” Gueira says. He sounds faintly panicked. “He said he was going for a walk this morning. That was three hours ago and he hasn’t answered my texts.”

Lio’s brow wrinkles.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Did you…” He’s barely started the sentence when the front door opens. Gueira jumps to his feet. Meis strolls in casually, closing the door behind him. Gueira stares at Meis as he takes his shoes off, not looking up. He’s wearing a bulky knit hat. He straightens and takes his coat off. Then he finally raises his head, meeting Gueira’s eyes for the first time since he came in.

“Meis. Dude.” Gueira sounds completely bemused. “Where the fuck have you been.”

“I got a haircut,” Meis says defiantly, and pulls the hat off.

His long fall of hair is completely gone, buzzed short and severe. It makes him look ethereal, his dark eyes huge in his pale face.

Gueira’s mouth falls open.

“Meis,” he says slowly, “is… is everything okay?”

“No,” Meis says, glaring. “I’m done doing things I have to do. From now on I’m only doing things I want to do.”

“Uh, yeah, okay,” Gueira says. “I support that. But wh—”

Meis interrupts him by taking one long stride forward, grabbing Gueira’s shirt in his fist, pulling him in, and kissing him.

“W-what are you doing?” Gueira says when Meis lets him go and breaks the kiss.

“I’m doing what I want,” Meis says. “You in?”

Gueira’s eyes are wide and terrified.

“Meis, I promised you, though,” he whispers.

“That was a long time ago, G,” Meis says. “Things were different. I release you from your promise.”

Gueira looks away, face red and twisted in shame.

“You shouldn’t. I haven’t… I don’t deserve to even look at you.”

Meis narrows his eyes. “None of us deserve anything,” he says. “We didn’t deserve getting thrown in camp. We didn’t deserve coming here. We certainly don’t deserve each other. Fuck all that. You’ve always been a thief. Steal some happiness for once. You can't tell me you don’t want to. You in?”

Fuck, Meis, I’m not… I can’t.”

“Why not? You wanna punish yourself forever or something?”

“How can you even want me?” Gueira wails. “I failed you. All the time. I let you…” He trails off miserably.

“What could you have done, G?”

“I don’t know! Something!”

“Tell me, specifically, what you could have done.”

“I coulda punched them all in their stupid fucking faces,” Gueira mumbles.

“Yeah,” Meis says, “you could’ve. And now you’d be dead. We did what we had to do to survive. Can you stop feeling guilty about it? It’s getting old.”

“Fuck you!” Gueira spits. “At least you were useful! Not a stupid broken piece of shit trash pile who had to lie there in the dark waiting for you to come back—” 

Meis slaps Gueira on the side of the face, not very hard, but probably hard enough to sting. Gueira raises a hand to his face, stunned. Meis glares at him.

“Don’t you ever say that about yourself,” Meis growls angrily, drawing himself up to his full height. “Don’t you dare. You think I have bad taste or something? You insult me. Who was it that saved my ass the summer I got sick? And during the ration riot? You remember what I told you then?”

“Meis,” Gueira whispers, hand still on his face. “Yeah, I remember.”

“You get one more chance,” Meis says, glowering. “Are. You. In?”

“Hell yeah, Meis, do you think I’m stupid?” Gueira blurts desperately. “Do you think I’m dumb? Do you think I’m an idiot? Hell yeah I’m in, I’m in for whatever you wanna do, you crazy motherfucker, you wanna put bunny ears on me and slap my ass? You wanna steal a hot air balloon? You wanna do it on top of the Empire State Building? Hell yeah. I’m in. I’m in.”

Meis breaks into a fierce grin.

“There’s my Gueira,” he says, and holds out his arms. Gueira folds into them, collapsing against Meis’s chest. He buries his face in the side of Meis’s neck. Meis wraps his arms around Gueira, reaches up and tangles one hand in his hair.

“Okay cool!” Galo says from the living room. “I’m gonna go, uh. Get some stuff from the store! Lio, you wanna come?”

“Yeah for sure,” Lio says.

“Oh shit,” Gueira says into Meis’s neck. “I forgot you guys were here. Yeah, get the fuck out.” Meis laughs softly.

“It’s not your house, Gueira,” he says.

“No, no,” Galo says hurriedly, “it’s cool, we’re going.”

Meis and Gueira are still holding each other, standing in the dining room, when Galo and Lio leave quietly.

*** 

Things are a little awkward after that, honestly. They’re all very careful with each other for the rest of Meis and Gueira’s visit. Galo mostly leaves the three of them to their own devices. Lio sleeps in Galo’s room every night, though, which is… nice. Galo doesn’t think too hard about it. He tries not to think too hard about anything. When he comes home on Meis and Gueira’s last day in town, he finds they’re already gone, the rest of the weed left on the couch with a little note that just says “Thanks.” He doesn’t see Lio. He’s not sure if Lio’s even home; the door to his room is closed, and Galo doesn’t want to knock and disturb him if he’s there. Galo waits for him that night, in his bed, hoping he’ll come and sleep there again. But he doesn’t. Galo falls asleep alone.

***

The day everything changes again is the day after Meis and Gueira leave. Galo doesn’t see Lio in the morning; it seems to be one of those days when their schedules don’t overlap. But when Galo gets home from work, Lio pokes his head up over the back of the couch when Galo opens the door.

“Hey Galo,” Lio says. He sounds a little tired, but okay. Galo feels a wave of relief.

“Hey!” Galo says. “How are you? Have an okay day?” He kicks his shoes off and crosses the room.

“Yeah, not bad,” Lio says. “Just work. How about you? How’s your nose?” Galo comes around the couch. Lio is stretched out on it, one of his impenetrable books open on his chest.

“The nose is fine! Meis and Gueira got off okay yesterday?”

“Yeah, they wanted to head out before rush hour. They said to tell you goodbye. Sorry I didn’t see you. I was feeling kind of…” Lio shrugs. “Eh,” he says descriptively.

“No worries,” Galo says. “You feel a little better today?”

“I think so,” Lio says. He smiles at Galo, a small, tired smile. “Thanks for asking. You’re sweet.”

“Mind if I join you?” Galo asks.

“Of course not,” Lio says.   

Galo plops himself down on the couch and, without thinking about it too much, pulls one of Lio’s slender socked feet onto his lap and starts massaging it. Galo sees Lio cock his head to the side out of the corner of his eye. When he glances up at Lio, Lio is staring at him quizzically, brow furrowed. Galo looks back at Lio’s foot and keeps massaging it.

“Galo… you don’t have to do this kind of stuff for me, you know that, right?” Lio says. He sounds concerned.

“I know,” Galo says, confused. “But I want to? I like spoiling you.”

“I don’t expect you to… I don’t expect it,” Lio says. “I know that’s not… what we’re doing. I said… no strings.”

“Yeah,” Galo says, not looking up from his hands massaging Lio’s foot, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t like doing nice stuff for you.”

“…Why?” Lio asks, and even though he doesn’t sound suspicious anymore, the question hurts in a lot of ways that Galo wasn’t really prepared for.

“You deserve it,” Galo says softly.

Lio scrubs a hand over his face. “I don’t know,” he says. “Do I? You put up with a lot of bullshit from me. How long… I mean. Maybe you shouldn’t have to.”

“Lio, I’ve been living with your bullshit for like a year, and I’m fine. I’m great. Don’t worry so much.”

“You’re fine? You got a black eye and a broken nose because of me,” Lio says. He looks away. “I’ve brought a lot of pain into your house.”

“Lio,” Galo says, hurt, “it’s your house too.”

Lio pulls his foot out of Galo’s hands, sitting up.

“You say that like you don’t own it. Like this didn’t start out as charity. Like I’m not…” He huffs, running out of words.

“Do you not feel at home here?” Galo says. He feels like he’s been stabbed.

“I do, Galo. I do feel at home,” Lio says. “That’s… that’s the problem.”

“I don’t get what you’re saying,” Galo says, deeply distressed.

“I’m not sure either,” Lio says. He looks frustrated. He stands up. “I’m going to go for a walk. I need to think about some things.”

This is it. Galo’s stomach sinks. 

“O-okay,” he says. 

He watches Lio walk to the door and pull his shoes on. 

“I’ll be back soon, okay?” Lio says, frustrated scowl still lingering on his face.

“Yeah, no… no problem,” Galo says, and Lio opens the door and slips out, closing it silently behind him.

Galo turns around and stares vacantly at the window for a long time. His eyes sting. He knew this was going to happen. He knew. It’s what always happens. He rarely finds out why. Maybe he did something wrong. He’s not sure what it was, but maybe he did. He feels sick to his stomach. 

He takes a deep breath and steels himself to wait.

***

It’s late when Lio gets back. It’s dark outside. Galo cooked dinner but he was too nervous to eat it, so he just packed it up in Tupperware. Lio slips in as quietly as he left, but Galo hears the door from his room, where he’s been pacing and jittering for who knows how long. He comes out and peers around the corner of the hallway into the dining room. Lio is taking his shoes off.

“Hey again,” Galo says. Lio looks up.

“Hey, Galo. Sorry about that. I needed to clear my head a little.” Lio takes a breath. “Can I talk to you about a couple things?”

“Okay,” Galo says.

“Come sit on the couch with me.”

“Sure,” Galo says, resigned.

They sit down on the couch in silence, unaccustomed space between them. Lio fidgets for a moment, hands on his knees. Then he looks up at Galo. His gaze is level. Galo’s leg starts jittering. He forces it still. 

“What… did you want to talk about,” Galo makes himself say.

Lio takes a deep breath. Galo braces himself.

“I think I should move out,” Lio says.

Galo knew this was coming. But somehow, he hadn’t expected it to hit him this hard.

“Okay,” he says, devastated. 

“I need to… not… I need to live on my own. I can afford an apartment on my salary at this point. It wouldn’t be much, but I want to have a place that’s all mine, you know? I’ve never had that before.”

“That makes total sense,” Galo says.

And it does make sense. Lio is braver, kinder, and stronger than Galo ever had any right to want. 

“I was thinking I’d stay in the neighborhood, though. I really like this area, and it’s pretty close to work.”

There’s no way Galo was going to get to keep him. It still hurts, though.

“Is that okay?” Lio asks.

Galo can at least be honest enough to admit it to himself. It hurts because he’s stupidly, profoundly, hopelessly in love with Lio.

He knew. He’s known since their first kiss. He’s just been trying not to name it, so it wouldn’t hurt so much when this happened. It’s not working.

“Of course,” Galo says. “You should do what’s right for you.” He wants to scream.

“Okay, great,” Lio says, as if he didn’t just slice open Galo’s abdomen and leave his guts in a messy pile on the floor. “I’ll get the process started. If all goes well, I might even be out of your hair by the end of the month.” Galo’s head fills with static.

Then Lio fidgets again, crossing and uncrossing his legs.

“The second thing is. I was thinking,” Lio says. “Once I get settled and you… have your own space back.” 

“Uh huh,” Galo says absently.

Lio takes another deep breath. “I’d like to take you out?” he says. “On a date. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?”

“What?” Galo says.

“If you want to,” Lio says, brow furrowing. “You know how complicated things are, with me. So I understand if you don't want to get more serious.” He looks away. “No… no hard feelings. I just… I couldn’t go on like this without at least asking.” He looks up shyly. “Can’t get what you don’t ask for, right?” he says with a wobbly smile.

Galo is mildly stunned from snapping back into his body with the force of a shotgun recoil.

“Huh?” he says. “Wait. You… what?”

Lio’s brow wrinkles again.

“I’m asking you out?” he says hesitantly. “You can just say no. It’s fine.”

“Lio,” Galo whispers, and slides off the couch so he’s on his knees at Lio’s feet.

“Galo?!” Lio exclaims, startled. Galo reaches out and grabs one of Lio’s hands in both of his, buries his face in Lio’s lap.

“G-Galo?” Lio says, softer.

“Lio,” Galo says into Lio’s thighs, “I’ll take you on a date every night of the week. You want chocolate and roses? I’ll get ‘em for you. You want poems? I’ll write ‘em. Just. Please. Stay with me.”

Galo,” Lio says, shocked.

Galo knows he’s being ridiculous, too messy and too dramatic, too impulsive, too much at once, but he can’t help himself. He’s never been able to help himself. “I love you, firebug,” he blurts. “I love you so much. I’ll totally go on a date with you. All the dates you want.”

“Oh,” Lio says softly. “I… Galo.” There’s a silence. Then Galo feels a hand on the side of his face, gently tilting it up. 

Galo lets Lio lift his head. He meets Lio’s eyes. They’re wide and teary. Galo’s own eyes fill with tears in response.

“You love me?” Lio asks. Galo blinks and a tear slides down his cheek.

“Yeah,” he says. “Sorry, I know I just skipped a bunch of steps.”

“No, it’s okay, I just… I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t wanna say anything,” Galo says, sniffling. “I didn’t wanna mess it up. Or make you feel like you had to do anything. And you definitely don’t have to do anything. Sorry. I still maybe shouldn’t’ve said it. It just came out. Do you still want to go on a date?”

“Yes, you idiot,” Lio says, miraculously, and then he leans down and kisses Galo on the lips. The kiss is gentle, lingering. Real hope blooms under Galo’s ribs.

Lio pulls back, lips parting softly from Galo’s.

“You love me,” Lio says wonderingly.

“Yeah,” Galo says. “Totally.”

“I… I think I… feel the same,” Lio says, and Galo’s heart leaps so hard he starts feeling a little light-headed.

“I think I need to work up to saying it, though,” Lio says.

Galo nods. “That’s okay,” he says, voice rough. “Take your time.”

“I don’t think I’ve felt like this before,” Lio says. “It’s… you know how I feel about Meis and Gueira. I’d die for them. But you.” Lio takes a deep breath. “You make me glad I’m alive.”

“Lio,” Galo says softly, and then, lost for any more words, cups Lio’s face in his free hand and kisses him again.

“I’m really glad you want to go on a date,” Lio says shakily when they break the kiss.

“Yeah,” Galo says. “I definitely do.” He feels another tear escape his eye and track down his cheek.

“I want to take you on all kinds of dates,” Lio says.

“I’m in,” Galo says. Lio presses his forehead against Galo’s, cradling the back of Galo’s head.

“I want to take you on a date to that fancy restaurant downtown,” Lio says. “The one that has escargot. I want to get them for you.”

“I don’t know if I want those,” Galo says, chuckling. “But sure.”

“I want to take you on a date to the amusement park and get you a funnel cake,” Lio says, still pressing their foreheads together. “I want to take you on a date to the movie theater to see Gigantotron: Space Force III. I’ll get you popcorn.”

“Sounds great,” Galo says hoarsely.

“Good,” Lio says. Then he gives Galo a wry smile. “I’m still moving out, though,” he says. “I want my own place.”

“Yeah, okay, that’s fair,” Galo says. “Maybe someday we could get a house together, though. Like, a bigger place. With a yard. And a dog.”

Lio starts laughing. “Oh my god,” he says. “Definitely maybe. Maybe someday. Let me take you out to dinner first, at least.”

“You got it,” Galo says, his heart swelling until it’s so big and so heavy and so full of love and hope and tenderness that he thinks maybe he could fit the whole world inside.

***

Lio finds a one-bedroom apartment three blocks from Galo’s condo. It’s one-third of a triplex; the rugs are that horrible rental-apartment beige. It has a skylight. Lio loves it.

Meis and Gueira fly back up to help Lio move. They stay for a few days in an Airbnb that they refer to as “the honeymoon suite.” They seem happy. Galo tries to figure out a way to say it: as long as there’s a home for him in Lio’s heart, he doesn’t mind other people living there too, or begrudge them anything they might end up wanting to do together. He can’t quite manage it. Maybe that’s a conversation for another day, when they’ve all settled more comfortably into each other’s orbits. They have time to figure it out.

The first night Lio sleeps in his new place, Galo spends the early part of the night out on the balcony. He has his phone with him, in case Lio needs anything. Lio doesn’t call, but around 10 he sends a string of emojis—a bed, a moon, a kissy face, a heart.

He hasn’t managed an “I love you,” yet, but he’s started adding a lot of heart emojis to his texts. Galo sends a few hearts back, smiling. He sits on the balcony for a while longer, looking out over the city. Then he goes inside and gets ready for bed. The condo feels very empty. But he doesn’t mind as much as he was afraid he would. He has his first date with Lio tomorrow, after all. 

He’s really looking forward to it.

***

Life can be cruel. Sometimes it takes everything from you in fire and catastrophe. Sometimes it makes you fight for every breath, every step forward. Sometimes it gives you impossible choices.

Life can be kind. Sometimes you open your home to a stranger and find the deepest, truest love you’ve ever known.

Life isn’t good or bad. Life just is. Sometimes fire saves you, in the dark cold of a winter night. Sometimes you keep fighting, and you keep putting one foot in front of the other, and you make it somewhere beautiful. Sometimes you get to choose joy, despite everything.

***

Their first date is pretty simple. Galo invites Lio over. Lio makes a big show of checking out the condo like he’s never seen it before while Galo laughs at him. Galo cooks Lio’s favorite: green curry with enough hot peppers to blow the top of your head off. He sets the table, complete with candles. He lets Lio light the candles. And then he serves Lio a bowl of curry with rice, and watches him take a bite.

Lio’s face lights up, eyes closing as he chews. His cheeks flush, like they always do when he eats spicy food.

“Mmm,” he hums, swallowing his bite.

“You like it?” Galo asks.

“It’s fucking delicious,” Lio says, looking at Galo with heat in his eyes, and Galo steps, joyfully, into the fire.