On Tuesday, Keith parks his motorcycle behind the museum, five minutes before seven AM. Inside the giant dome-shaped building, empty of visitors, he feels like a ghost. His sneakers with their peeling soles squeak all the way down the entrance steps, up the fire escape, and down the hallway of the office wing.
“So you’re the young man who will be working with us this week,” says the floor manager, a red-haired man with a handlebar mustache named Mr. Coran, from behind his desk. In his tone, Keith feels the implied invitation to sit in the visitor’s chair. He doesn’t. “Director Altea tells me your apology letter was adequate.”
“Fine,” Keith mutters, because what is he supposed to say to that?
Mr. Coran narrows his eyes, but only slightly. “She was kind not to press charges. I hope you realize that, Mister…” He squints at the information sheet in his hand, adjusts his glasses on his nose. “Kyoo…Van C—”
“Keith,” Keith interrupts. The man has one of those almost-perpetual-motion ball things sitting next to his computer, tiny steel marbles going click, click, click as they swing. Keith focuses his gaze on it instead of on him, even though the sound makes him want to punch a hole in the wall.
“Of course. Keith.” Mr. Coran nods, and then breaks out a smile. Like all of this is so normal. “All right, well! We have two hours before the museum opens, so that should be enough time to get you up to speed. You will be allowed to keep your belongings in one of the spare lockers in the staff room. I will, however, be holding onto the key—so if you need to place anything in or retrieve anything from your locker, you will have to ask me first.”
The manager holds out two brand-new T-shirts in plastic sleeves. “If you’ll follow me to the staff room, you can stow your backpack and get changed into your uniform, and then I’ll give you the grand tour.” Keith takes the shirts and trails after him, heel-toeing carefully in an effort to not make a sound as he walks.
It occurs to Keith at this point that he could tell this Mr. Coran that he’s sorry, too. But if he does, he’ll only think Keith’s doing it to get out of cleaning duty. Typical behavior, for someone like him.
Besides, it’s not like the guy actually cares about him. The floor manager gets paid to run the museum, not to have feelings.
Keith already knew this place was huge, which is why he didn’t expect it would be so noisy.
All the museums he’s ever been to—during regular visiting hours, that is—were dull, whitewashed-wall and labels-in-fine-print affairs, where no one ever raised their voices above a whisper. But this one is full of music and colored lights, and apparently encourages kids to run around and touch things.
Before it opened earlier this morning, Coran explained the museum’s mission-vision (showcase the wonders of our galaxy and beyond, cultivate a culture of curiosity blah blah blah) and showed Keith the wings of the museum. There are ten in all, spoking out from the central hub, which is painted floor-to-ceiling in midnight blue and has a giant moving replica of the solar system suspended in the air. Then Keith was introduced to the real custodians, most of whom just squinted suspiciously at him from beneath the brims of their visors.
The senior custodian, a grizzled old man with a white unibrow named Vincent, gave him a broom and a dustpan instead of actual instructions—so for the next two hours, Keith swept the main walkways of all the wings in order, starting from the Earth Wing, its life-size dioramas of caves and rainforests eerily lit and teeming with sound effects. The last wing, which the name plate said was called the Travelers Wing, he swept as quickly as humanly possible without looking up from the floor, before returning the supplies to their closet.
And now it’s nine AM, and the visitors are starting to pour in—entire scout troops on field trips, senior citizens in matching tour shirts and caps, couples on dates who are more occupied with sneaking kisses than looking at any of the exhibits. Since he can’t be seen polishing and mopping during visiting hours, Keith gets tasked to patrol the museum with a walkie-talkie and keep an eye out for a while, to make sure no one gets hurt or tries to break anything. He is also being hawk-watched by Vincent, however, so he’s not even sure how he’s being helpful here.
(The rubberized print on the front of Keith’s new shirt reads, in a font that is entirely too cheerful, I’M A COSMIC DUSTER! Keith wonders if the custodians go around pointing at their fronts and saying Get it? GET IT? all the time.)
Keith is standing by the remote-controlled replica of the lunar rover, responsibly supervising the snickering teenagers who are using it to draw a penis in the sandbox, when he hears a voice echoing from somewhere behind him. “There he is!” the voice hisses, in an unsuccessful attempt at a whisper. “The criminal, returning to the scene of the crime!”
“This isn’t the same thing as returning to the scene of the crime, you lamebrain,” another voice responds, higher and exasperated. “He got caught, so now he’s working here to make up for it.”
Keith turns around. The whispering is coming from three of the museum guides, who are sitting at the nearby Lego table fixing their microphone packs. They all look to be about his age—there’s a lanky boy with a wide mouth, whom Keith guesses was the first to speak; a taller, broader boy who has a star-patterned bandanna tied around his forehead, and a girl with unruly hair and glasses who doesn’t even have to hunch over to fit in the kid-sized chair.
“Well, excuuuuse me, Genius…” The rest of Loudmouth’s words are drowned out by the shrieks of a passing toddler. “…not all of us have the...call me a lamebrain…”
The other boy is glancing around nervously as he loops his headphone cord around his finger. “Wonder what the guy did…Mr. Coran didn’t want to say…”
The girl shrugs. “Remember last year…spray paint…senior prank…maybe like…”
Just then, someone smacks a hand down on his shoulder, and Keith yelps as he whirls back around to find himself face-to-face with Vincent, who shoves a broom into his chest.
“Smooth out the sand in the rover sandbox,” he snarls. “And if I catch you slacking again, you can be sure Mr. Coran is going to hear about it from me.”
Keith is told to eat lunch an hour early, so that during the actual lunch rush he can wipe down the tables and collect the garbage. Everything the food court is selling has Clever Space-Related Names, none of which inspire much confidence. “Do you have any salads, or,” Keith tries once he gets to the counter.
“Of course we do! Try our Stellar Salad,” the girl in the hairnet chirps, indicating a bowl of shredded vegetables pre-smothered in a goopy orange dressing. Keith sighs in defeat and picks the safest-looking thing on the menu instead, which has the misfortune of being labeled as the Apollo One-ton Noodle Soup—and, he soon finds, the even greater misfortune of tasting exactly like seawater.
He sits alone at a table near the door, nibbling gingerly at his wontons and looking around at the smiling cartoon murals of famous astronomers that cover the walls. The lunch crowd starts coming in a little sooner than expected, so Keith doesn’t get much time to eat, which in hindsight is probably a good thing. People are pigs, Keith thinks viciously, as he picks up trays sticky with gravy and ice cream. Whatever. He just has to suck it up for a little while longer, and then he can forget that any of this ever—
“Dude. You’re not segregating,” a voice says from somewhere above his head.
Keith looks up. The loud boy from earlier is standing over him, hands on his hips, his face scrunched-up and annoyed. (Annoying, too.) He has brown hair that for some ungodly reason is parted in the middle, and a pair of eyes he can only describe as beady. Up close, Keith can see his laminated nametag is so covered in Pokemon stickers that they obscure his name, completely defeating its purpose—and that his T-shirt reads, irritatingly, I’M A JUNIOR SCIENCE EXPERT!
“Excuse me?” Keith doesn’t mean to sound as icy as he does, but the second the words leave his mouth, he realizes he doesn’t care.
Loudmouth points at the small mound of popsicle and satay sticks Keith has just swept into the recycle bin. “The trash. You’re not segregating it right. Wood is biode-gra-dable, hellooooo.” He raps his own temple incredulously.
“Mind your own business,” Keith snaps. “And last time I checked, people run wood through chippers so it can get reused, so these things are recyclable.”
Loud looks like he’s going to pop a vein in his forehead. “They are not!”
“Are t—oh my god, I can’t believe I’m even having this conversation.” Keith grabs a couple of disposable chopsticks off the table and swipes his cleaning rag over the surface. “Don’t you have better things to do than pick on the new guy, jerkwad?”
“Hey!” The other boy’s voice goes up several octaves, turning into a squawk. “Listen, maybe you don’t care about what we do here, but part of the museum’s mission-vision is educating people on saving the planet. Which includes trash segregation!”
“No, you listen, frog face. I’m only here until Sunday, and then I’m gone forever, okay?” Keith yells. “So you won’t have to put up with a criminal in your stupid-ass space playground for much longer.” He grabs the other boy’s hand and shoves his handful of chopsticks into it. “Here. Since you’re so sure about where these go, why don’t you put them in yourself.” With that, Keith stomps off, relishing the way the boy’s mouth fell open like a broken mailbox door.
Compared to this, the rest of the day is blissfully uneventful. New groups come and go, just different occurences of the same basic tropes he has up to now observed. A kid throws up inside the fake space shuttle, which thankfully someone else gets assigned to clean up, and Keith sits through the last film showing inside the IMAX dome just watching the old people fall asleep.
“I hear there was an incident in the food court earlier,” Mr. Coran says casually, as he’s unlocking Keith’s locker later that evening at six-thirty.
“Yeah. I put the popsicle sticks in the recycle bin,” Keith mutters.
Mr. Coran tips his head sideways. “That’s not exactly what I was referring to.”
“It won’t happen again,” Keith says—and that’s a promise, because he plans to stay as far away from Captain Planet and his two sidekicks as possible.
“See you bright and early tomorrow,” the floor manager says kindly, as Keith picks up his helmet, shoulders his backpack, and pushes his way out of the staff room. Keith wishes this Coran would stop pretending and just treat him the way everyone else around here does. At least then he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone.
The summer night air is like silk on his face, a blessing after the artificial cold of the museum. Keith can’t get to his motorcycle fast enough. He slumps onto the seat, giving it all his weight and letting out his tension in a slow exhale.
“Long day, Red,” he whispers to his bike, glancing over his shoulder at the three JUNIOR SCIENCE EXPERTS! who are exiting the back door behind him, now arguing loudly about the merits and demerits of the new Star Trek movie. “C’mon. Let’s get outta here before we catch something.”
On Wednesday, Keith opens his locker (or rather, stands by while Coran opens his locker for him) to find something already inside it. Coran takes one look at the mysterious package and sighs gustily. “Those kids,” he says, “are entirely too talented for their own good.” He chuckles when he sees Keith’s confused expression. “Picked the lock,” he continues, as if that explains everything, and stands back to let Keith see.
The package turns out to be a flimsy plastic bag full of assorted muffins, the handles double-knotted together. Attached to the bag is a sticky note, the kind that they sell in the museum gift shop, with a picture of a little rocket blasting off in the bottom left corner. The note reads:
When I got home last night, I Googled “are popsicle sticks biodegradable.” Turns out the answer is still up for debate.
I also Googled “what gift do I give a total stranger to apologize for yelling at him about recycling,” and the suggestions I got were all crap. So here’s a bag of muffins.
P.S. I do not have a frog face.
P.S.2. Bread is biodegradable. The plastic bag is non-biodegradable. Just FYI.
After lunch (Fried Saturn-ip Cake; even more of a disaster than the wontons), Keith finds the three of them in the central hub of the museum, sitting on the railing that runs around the black hole diorama. “I got your…bread,” Keith says, and they all turn to look at him. “Um. Lance?”
“That’sa mee.” Lance hops off the railing, dusting his hands and strolling over. He folds his arms and hums, actually pronounces the word “hmmmm,” and starts walking all around Keith in a tight circle, leaning in to inspect the side of his face or the back of his jacket. Keith can feel himself reddening, and he hates it.
“What,” he says, “are you doing.”
“Just checking to make sure you’re fit for polite company today.” A wide grin spreads across Lance’s face. “You’re at about sixty percent right now, maybe sixty-five, but eh, it’ll do. Hey guys,” he yells suddenly, sticking an arm in the air and waving, “he’s all clear! It is now safe to approach!”
The other two guides glance at each other warily, but they come over anyway to be introduced. Apparently Nervous Guy’s “real” name is Hunk, and Only Girl is called Pidge. “And you’re…” Hunk trails off.
“Oh, uh. Keith.” Keith the Delinquent, he amends mentally, suddenly aware of his own arms hanging dead at his sides. What the hell are they all supposed to do now?
From across the hub comes the sound of someone deeply clearing their throat. Vincent is standing in the entryway to the Discovery Wing, at least fifty feet away, but his phlegmy cough is as loud as though it were happening right next to Keith’s ear. (The acoustics in this place are weird.)
“It’s okay, V-Man, he’s with us,” Lance yells. Vincent just grunts and shuffles off. “Okay,” Lance says, turning back to Keith and rubbing his hands together, “now that the awkward intros are out of the way, it’s time for you to get the grand tour.”
Every fiber of Keith’s being is screaming at him to just turn and walk away. This guy’s tone and body language reek of friendliness, and the mental whiplash this is giving him notwithstanding, Keith has absolutely zero interest in making friends here.
A week’s worth of cleaning floors and keeping his head down. In and out—that was the deal. But what Keith finds himself saying instead is, “I already got a tour from Mr. Coran yesterday.”
“Yeah, but he just showed you the stuff. We’re going to show you the stuff,” Lance says emphatically. “For example. Coran probably told you the hub is called the solar system chamber. We, on the other hand, call it the baby mobile.” Grandly, he points up at the slowly spinning planets on their sturdy wire orbits. “Get it?”
“I get it.” Keith rolls his eyes.
“All the tours start from here; we’re expecting another group in about ten minutes.” Lance glances down quickly at his Little Einsteins watch. (Is this guy for real?) “Mostly munchkins, but we’re also expecting a few bigshots from Taiwan that we’re currently in the middle of wooing for donations, soooo, the Director herself is gonna be giving the welcome speech.”
“Speaking of which, we’re gonna go wait for the guests by the entrance,” Hunk says, thumbing towards the foyer. He and Pidge look all too relieved to have an excuse to escape, leaving Keith and Lance alone in the hub.
Lance proceeds to rummage around in his fanny pack (fanny pack) and—after pulling out a crushed package of crackers, and something wrapped in foil that Keith manages to avert his eyes from before he can think too hard about it—extracts another sticky note and a fat Sharpie. Scrawling KEEEEETH on the note, he presses it to the front of Keith’s shirt like a nametag; his palm is warm even through the thick polyester.
Lance’s eyes are gleaming now, a confident deep blue. “You don’t believe me now, but—after seeing this place for real, you’re gonna love it.”
“I’ll believe you if you stop breathing in my face,” Keith says, glancing away.
Lance steps back, raising his hands defensively. “Okay, Mister I-Like-My-Personal-Space-So-Much-I-Might-As-Well-Be-Living-In-A-Giant-Plastic-Hamster-Ball.”
Keith starts to splutter. “You’ve known me for like, five minutes,” he begins heatedly, but just then Hunk and Pidge come in leading the next tour group, and a tall woman in a perfectly pressed pantsuit is descending the spiral staircase from the second floor.
“Good afternoon, friends,” Director Altea says, in a voice that rings out clear as a bell even without a headset and microphone. She has waves of soft hair, pulled back from her face in a ponytail, but something deep in her eyes definitely brings the words could cut through steel to mind. Her gaze passes over Keith in the back as though he’s just another member of the audience, even though he’s sure she saw his custodian shirt, sure she knows who he is despite never having met him face-to-face. “And welcome!” she calls. “Welcome to the Rex Alfor Memorial Space Museum.”
The Director spreads her arms wide with a beatific smile, and for a second it is like she is already showing them the vastness of the entire universe. A respectful hush falls over the group as they cluster around her, standing directly beneath the glowing model of the Sun.
“You may think you already know everything you need to know about our earth, and what lies beyond,” Director Altea begins, lifting a graceful finger. “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Stars twinkle, and planets do not.” Bending down to level with the faces of the children in the front, she smiles again. “But oh, believe me when I tell you there is so, so much more we all have to learn.” Straightening up, she beckons, leading the way into the first wing. “Now come along, and let us explore the universe!”
Keith lags a little behind the crowd, tuning the voices out as he lets his gaze wander to the exhibits he never permitted himself to look at before this. Ptolemy and Copernicus, rotations and revolutions, moon rocks and meteors. It all seems so knowable, so within reach, neatly printed out like this on Fun Fact plaques, when he knows that’s not the case at all.
Explore the universe, he thinks, pausing by a floor-to-ceiling photograph of Orion, the first manned spacecraft to ever go to Mars and back. For a brief moment, he allows himself to imagine it—floating up there, in space, tumbling slowly in zero gravity as he looks down on their little blue-green planet, no bigger than his hand. So close to home that he can still see it, yet millions of miles away from everything he’s ever known; secured to life by nothing but a cable and a prayer. Against his will, he imagines the line snapping, imagines spinning far out into the cold, flailing helpless and alone as the air is slowly, slowly crushed from his lungs and his vision goes to black—
He pulls himself back into his body and shudders. Jesus. Get a grip.
“Stay with the group, Keith,” Lance says in a teacherly sing-song, as he casually goose-steps past. “Don’t lose your buddy.”
“Shut up, lamebrain.” Keith shoves his hands into his pockets and hurries ahead.
“So we’re stealing insults now, are w—oh, wait, shoot, this is my part.” Lance has switched his headset on and squeezed out to the front of the pack, hopping up onto a small platform before Keith even realizes he’s gone.
“Hey there, space explorers! How y’all doin’?” Lance bellows into his microphone, striking some kind of pose from the Internet. The kids scream in delight, and one of the Taiwanese businessmen mouths woohoo, pretending to punch the air. Keith can see Pidge face-palming all the way on the other side of the room.
“So, the Moon, right!” Lance leans against the giant model of Earth’s moon, patting it lovingly. “You all know what this does. Big round thing, pops up in the sky at night, made outta cheese.” One little girl giggles, and Lance winks at her. “Okay, just kidding, maybe not cheese. It does turn people into wolves sometimes, though. I’m still kidding,” he reassures quickly, as Director Altea frowns and opens her mouth.
Lance clears his throat. “Anywho, satellites! A satellite is anything that orbits around a planet or a star. Moony here is the only one we’ve got right now, but scientists keep hoping that’s gonna change. Who knows? In our lifetime, it just might.” He then quickly cycles through the phases of the moon, which are simulated by spotlights hitting the model at different angles.
“Now, let’s check out our super-cool tide table.” Lance slides over to a setup that resembles a billiards table covered with real water, tiny waves spiking its surface. Encircling the table is a wire, on which is positioned a smaller model of the moon. “Because the Moon has a gravitational pull, and it orbits around the Earth, he makes our sea levels rise and fall. Like this.” Lance presses a button, and the moon begins to move around the table, dipping closer and then pulling farther away. As it does, the water on the surface begins to move, and over the speakers comes the sudden whoosh of waves, rolling in and out. The children let out a collective gasp.
It’s blindingly apparent to Keith, watching him, that Lance really belongs somewhere else. Somewhere out in the real world, out where he can thrive annoyingly well and stick his bony elbows into the ribs of all humanity. And yet he seems completely at home here—sending a plaster moon zipping around a cable, putting lights in kids’ eyes as he conducts the tides with a wave of his hand.
Where am I this at home, Keith thinks, and then shakes the question away, because it’s not one he can afford to try and answer.
“So?” Lance whispers once he’s jogged back to Keith’s side, and the tour group has resumed moving into the Starlight Wing. “Was I not amazing?”
“Yeah, you were not amazing,” Keith whispers back.
“Again, weak.” Lance shakes his head. “Seriously. Where’s the guy I met in the food court yesterday?”
Keith looks up at the simulations of the red and blue giants filling the ceiling, overlapping and casting a purple haze over the length of the corridor. “I thought you hated that guy.”
“Nah, he was pretty entertaining, when it came down to it. Plus, I bet I could totally take him in a rematch,” Lance grins. Keith wants to peel that grin off Lance’s face and stuff it down his throat.
In the Technology Wing, Hunk does an elaborate routine with the museum’s resident robot, making it wave and tell a few knock-knock jokes. Then he shows them the inside of the fake spacecraft and demonstrates what the basic controls do. (Keith notices, with a smirk, that even the businessmen can’t resist pushing a button or two.)
To Keith’s surprise, Pidge takes over for the final leg of the tour. He expects her to be nervous, but she is completely professional, sounding for all the world like a museum guide twice her age. “This is called the Travelers Wing, because it’s where we keep all the special exhibits, usually ones that are just on loan from outside organizations or other museums,” she explains. Part of the hall is entirely devoted to framed paintings of the night sky, which Keith figures must have been donated by some artist who was stuck in a rut.
“There are plenty of things to see here, but I’d like to show you all our newest exhibit.” Pidge directs the crowd’s attention towards the platform against the far wall, and cautiously, they approach. Six portraits have been printed directly onto the clear wall panels, in two rows of three. Beside them is a flat television screen, and beyond that, several real spacesuits on stands.
Pidge then stands in front of them, facing the visitors, and begins to recite a list of names. As she says each name, one of the photographs lights up on the wall. “Mission Specialist Isa Miyamoto. Mission Specialist Gemma Chowdhury. Payload Specialist Jiahui Liu. Payload Commander Anton Federov. Pilot Naoko Fuchida-Johnson.“ The final photo to light up shows a broadly built man nearing the end of his twenties, with an unusual streak of gray hair amidst the black. He’s standing underneath a clear sky, holding a space helmet under his arm, a gentle smile on his face as sunlight washes over him. “Commander Takashi Shirogane. These brave men and women were the crew of the famous Space Explorer Blacklion. Over the course of just eight years, they embarked on no less than fourteen missions for the International Space Exploration Administration—the longest of which was to the planet Mars, and lasted 394 days.”
Lance whistles, even though he’s probably heard these numbers a million times before. “Incredible, right?” he says, when Keith looks at him.
“Shh.” Keith tilts his head toward Pidge. “I’m trying to listen.”
“However, just last year, SLS-307 would turn out to be the tragic final mission of the Blacklion.” Pidge moves towards the TV as overhead, the lights dim. “On June 10, 2021, the spacecraft was set to return to Earth, after having spent ten days in low orbit. It was supposed to be an easy trip; nothing the crew hadn’t handled before. But something went wrong. Upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, Space Explorer Blacklion caught fire and disintegrated, just over the islands of Japan.” A video clip of the launch finishes playing silently on the screen behind her, and then a new clip begins.
At first, the video shows nothing but empty blue sky. And then there is a spark, far away, that becomes a white, white streak—too long across the expanse of the sky, splitting crookedly into two, four; a warped, wrong shape that continues hurtling down and down until it disappears completely beyond the horizon. Keith sucks his breath in as the video fades out. One of the kids whimpers softly.
“The cause of the disaster remains unknown. The International Space Medal of Honor was posthumously awarded to all the crew members of the Blacklion.” Pidge gestures to the heavy medals hanging below the astronauts’ pictures, now all encased in a soft yellow glow. “Their years of service and bravery, and their courage in these final moments, will always be remembered.” A moment of silence falls over the group, and slowly, the lights come back up.
This appears to conclude the official tour—which seems to Keith an incredibly depressing note to end on, after the whole let’s go space explorers thing. After every tour, the visitors are free to wander back to exhibits they want to spend more time with, so while Director Altea occupies herself with talking to the businessmen, the kids disperse in every possible direction. Keith is back to not knowing what to do, so he parks himself in a corner and just watches, for all intents and purposes the Catcher in the Rye. Hunk has engaged a few of the adults in conversation and is answering their follow-up questions about the tech, and Pidge is lost somewhere among the children, some of whom are even taller than she is.
Lance, inexplicably, is sitting at a low table helping the youngest kids make crayon rubbings. He holds down the edges of their sheets of paper, reminding them to share and not to get any wax on the table itself, as they color over wooden carvings of Halley’s Comet and the Hubble Telescope. Without realizing it, Keith has already edged closer to them.
“So?” Lance doesn’t even turn around. “Do you love it, or what?”
“Eh. It’s okay.” Keith smiles to himself as Lance lets out an indignant screech.
Watching the kids make their pictures is an oddly soothing sight, and Keith is so lulled by it that he’s surprised when the PA system announces that there are only ten minutes left before closing time. “Did you enjoy the complete tour?” Coran asks in the staff room later, as Keith’s zipping up his backpack. “Our volunteers are quite enthusiastic. They keep asking me if they can work here full-time, but I always tell them, studies first.”
Yippee for them, Keith is tempted to respond to the latter remark, and if by ‘enthusiastic’ you mean ‘loud and annoying as hell,’ then sure to the former. His hand brushes against something on his shirt front; when he looks down, he realizes he’s still wearing Lance’s makeshift nametag. He peels it off, looks at it in his hand, before folding it in half and sticking it in his pocket.
“I enjoyed it,” he says quietly. “The tour.” Coran beams at him with an intensity that would put the sun to shame, because of course this is Progress.
Keith is mounting his bike in the darkened parking lot, ready to go when he hears someone shouting his name. He looks up to see Lance, Pidge, and Hunk waving at him from underneath a streetlamp. Lance is standing with his legs apart and bent at the knee, his hands cupped around his mouth.
“I expect you to have some higher-quality comebacks tomorrow, bubble boy,” Lance yells, and Keith yells back, “If you’re sure you can handle them, muffin man,” before speeding out of the lot and away.
That night, Keith dreams he is made of metal and falling through the sky, his body splintering into a hundred white-hot pieces that crash into the roiling sea. He is all of the pieces at once, drowning beneath a hundred different waves—and he wakes up panicking and gasping for air, only to see a thin ray of sunlight sneaking through his bedroom window and to find that, once again, his cat has chosen to fall asleep on his face.
On Thursday, Keith walks into the staff room to find Hunk and Pidge having a heated argument. Lance, who is sitting cross-legged on a bench with his Sharpie wedged between his nose and upper lip, appears to be moderating.
“—stupid to get your hopes up, nobody’s going to fight for this,” Pidge is saying as she opens her locker.
“Well, if it hasn’t been proved, it hasn’t been dis-proved, either,” Hunk says, folding his arms. His bandanna today is covered with UFOs and little green aliens—funny, Keith thinks, the first thing he’s seen around here that isn’t based purely on science fact.
Pidge stops looping her lanyard around her neck long enough to goggle at Hunk. “Buddy, you need a reality check. Look, if Cruithne isn’t even counted as Earth’s official second moon, what in Carl Sagan’s name makes you think they’re going to look at this chunk of rock and think, hey, yeah, that’s more than a quasi-satellite!” Slamming her locker door shut, she waggles a finger in Hunk’s face triumphantly.
Lance points his Sharpie at Pidge, nodding sagely. “Excellent smartassery, Miss Holt. Ten points to Ravenclaw.” He sees Keith, grins, and stands up, stretching luxuriously. His shirt rides up, exposing a strip of golden skin and the waistband of his boxer shorts. Keith averts his eyes—something that is quickly becoming a habit where Lance is concerned. “Well, I believe that concludes our nerd-off for the day,” Lance declares, buckling his fanny pack securely to his waist. “Ready to roll out, VDs?”
“Ready,” Pidge responds, with a backwards smirk at Hunk.
Hunk tips his head back. “It’s okay, 2022 Fortriu,” he whispers mournfully at the ceiling. “I believe in you, no matter what the mean people at NASA say.”
They’re insane, Keith thinks, retrieving his broom and dustpan from the closet. All of them are actually certifiably insane.
This morning’s visitors are kids from a summer school program whose curriculum obviously does not include manners, so Keith and the other custodians do end up having to run around cleaning up immediately after them. By the time the teachers herd the screaming students out to the McDonalds’ across the street, everyone is exhausted. Even Vincent, whose face is normally devoid of any expression other than a scowl, looks greatly as though he would like a cup of tea and a fuzzy pair of slippers.
Of course Lance chooses that exact moment to appear, brandishing a mop and a bucket like a gladiator with his sword and shield. “Need a hand, fellas?” he asks. Vincent actually looks like he might give Lance a hug.
While they’re sopping up the water and corn syrup that covers the floor around the Make Your Own Comet station, Lance appears to decide that the work will go faster if they turn it into a competition. “Bet I can clean faster than you,” he says, running a circle around Keith while pushing the mop handle in front of him.
“This isn’t a contest,” Keith retorts, wiping a puddle of liquid that he really hopes isn’t pee off a seat. “We just have to get it done.”
“Life is a contest, my friend,” Lance corrects him, dipping the mop like a dance partner. “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in a fight. To the death.”
Keith sighs, because at this point it’s probably less stressful to just agree with him. “Okay. What are we playing for? Like five bucks?”
Lance gasps overdramatically. “You cheapen this bet with talk of money,” he sneers. “Don’t you know it’s all about the fame? The glory!” He does a slow fist clench. “The ladies.”
Keith genuinely wants to know where Lance gets all his enthusiasm for mundane things like this. While he’s wondering, though, Lance wins the cleaning contest, so Keith retaliates by unleashing his spray bottle of lemon-scented water into Lance’s open mouth.
When the museum finally looks presentable again, and the other custodians are taking their visors off and going on their respective lunch breaks, Lance turns to Keith and says, “About time. C’mon, I’m starving,” like he automatically assumes Keith will be eating with him. Not even an invitation. Just let’s go.
Hunk and Pidge are already waiting, sitting next to each other at the table right smack in the center of the food court. Keith, therefore, has no choice but to sit across from them—which means both that he’ll have to spend the rest of the meal pretending not to notice the wary way they look at him, and that unfortunately, he is seated right next to Lance.
(Today’s real lunchtime torture, however, comes in the form of Spaghetti and Meteorballs. Keith closes his eyes and dreams of fresh lettuce.)
“Dude,” Pidge is saying to Lance as he unpacks his lunchbox, “this is like the millionth time in a row you’ve brought spaghetti. What gives?”
“It was my little sister’s birthday last week, so my mom cooked enough to feed our family, our extended family, the neighbors, our dogs, about fifteen of my sister’s school friends, and the lady who does my mom’s hair.” Lance dashes off a quick sign of the cross before using his spoon and fork to cut up (cut up) his homemade spaghetti, which to Keith’s eyes looks unnaturally orange.
“Which sister is this again?” Pidge asks, dumping a small container of bacon bits over her potato salad. “The one with the glasses, or the one in the choir?”
“Neither. The one whose current goal in life is to make a grappling hook out of Loom Bands.” Lance puts a hand over his heart. “Bless her. She’ll be leading the country one day.”
Being an only child and an orphan (he doesn’t like using the word, but there it is) to boot, the concept of a little sister is foreign to Keith—much less the concept of little sisters, plural. He gets a sudden mental image of an entire horde of children all with Lance’s face, hanging off Lance’s arms like a jungle gym, ambushing him the minute he walks through the door every evening. The thought makes the breath catch in Keith’s throat for some reason. (Or maybe it’s just a piece of Meteorball lodged in his windpipe. The stuff is going down like cement.)
“Hey,” Lance says suddenly, swallowing. “I bet you won’t be able to stomach half of that crap.” He makes a face at Keith’s plate. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, the museum’s great, but even we have to admit the food court food sucks worse than a black hole.”
“This,” Keith says, pointing his fork down at his plate while actively trying to not stab it, “is perfectly fine. And by the way, Mister Fame-Glory-and-Ladies, you have tomato sauce all over your face,” he adds, chucking a pile of napkins at him.
“I bet I wear tomato sauce better than you, too,” Lance says belligerently, but he’s laughing now. He takes a single napkin and throws the rest back at Keith.
“Wow,” Hunk says.
Lance raises his eyebrows at him. “What?”
“Nothing.” Hunk looks away.
A loaded silence follows this cryptic exchange. Keith suddenly feels annoyed again, because it’s like he did something wrong and he doesn’t even know what—but he tamps the feeling down. “So, um. Do you guys get paid? For working here?” he asks, even though he has a horrible feeling he knows what the answer will be.
“Nah. We do it ‘cause we like it,” Hunk answers, and there we go, Keith thinks, rolling his eyes, of course they do.
“We’re all part of the museum’s VD program. Volunteer docents,” Pidge explains, her mouth full of potato. She must see the look on Keith’s face, because she swallows and adds, “A docent is what you call a tour guide in a museum.”
“I knew that,” Keith mutters, even though he didn’t. “So did you guys meet here, or…”
“Same school. Hunk and I go way back; gym partners since the fifth grade.” Lance bumps fists with Hunk without looking. “We only know Pidgey here because her head is so big, the principal thought she was four years older than she really is and put her in the junior class with us.” He accompanies his words by reaching across the table and patting the head in question; the owner of the head swats angrily at Lance’s hand.
“It’s going to be our last year of high school.” Hunk puts his thermos of soup down and stares glassily into the distance. “Can you believe it?”
“We’re taking college entrance exams in the fall.” Lance polishes his fingernails on his shirt front. “Pidge and Hunk are panic-studying already, but I don’t plan on it myself. Already got it all up here.” He taps his forehead and winks; and despite how arrogant he sounds, somehow Keith doesn’t have trouble believing him.
“Um, how about you, Keith?” Pidge looks like she’s really trying, so even though he knows he shouldn’t, Keith decides to try back.
“Uh. Same situation as you guys. Getting ready for the exams, not limiting myself to any one school. I’m trying to, y’know, keep all my options open.” The lie is vague enough while managing to sound believable, so Keith hopes the line of inquiry will stop here.
It doesn’t. “Oh yeah? What’s your first choice, though?” Lance asks.
“The International Space Academy.” The words are out of Keith’s mouth before he can stop himself.
Lance’s eyes threaten to pop out of their sockets and go ricocheting off the walls. “One day in my presence and I’ve converted you into a wannabe spacer? What powers do I have that I don’t know about?” He lifts his hands and stares at them in wonderment, then raises both his arms and looks around the table. “Am I, in fact, God?”
“Please don’t be God,” Pidge says. “I was just thinking about trying to believe in Him again, but if He looks anything like you, I’m staying an atheist forever.”
“No,” Keith interrupts, and he’s telling the truth this time. “It’s not you. It’s been my…dream, I guess you could say, for a while. Way before this week, anyway.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Lance grabs at his hair. “You’re kidding, right? What are you aiming for? No way you’re gonna be a payload specialist, not with that hair. Shit, you want to be a pilot, don’t you?”
“You got it.” Keith tugs at a stray lock of his own hair. “Pilot.”
Hunk is looking at Keith like he’s trying to do a jigsaw puzzle in his mind. “I’m surprised this is your first time visiting the museum, then,” he says slowly. “I mean, your first…real…time.”
Keith shrugs. “Always had other stuff going on. You know how it is.”
“Well, we’re all planning on taking the Academy tests, too,” Pidge says. “Hunk and I just like the technical side of things…but Lance here is already a flyboy in his mind.”
“The flyest.” Lance cracks his knuckles and stands up, narrowing his eyes at Keith. “Just so you know, we're not done talking about this. But first, I need a soda. Anyone else in the mood for junk?”
Pidge scrunches her face up. “I was going to get a Milky Way, but then I thought maybe I just want M&Ms, but I haven’t had a Milky Way in forev—“
“Oh my god, Pidge, just get both, you’re young, you’re not allowed to worry about diabetes.” Lance grabs Pidge’s arm and hauls her off to the vending machine, leaving Keith this time with Hunk.
There is no chance that Hunk’s not going to say anything now, so Keith just waits. When Hunk finally speaks, it’s straight and to the point. “The rumors vary, but…the most common one is that you tried to steal something from here.” Hunk folds his hands together on the tabletop.
“That is the word on the street,” Keith replies, pushing a lump of meat around his plate.
“And you’re not planning on telling us what actually happened?”
“What actually happened is I killed somebody,” Keith says.
“Be serious, man,” Hunk retorts, his eyebrows furrowing underneath his bandanna.
“Look, I just—I don’t want to talk about it anymore, okay?” Keith presses his thumb into the handle of his fork. “I’d really just like to put this all behind me.”
Hunk lets out a small breath. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Look, the truth is, Keith, you seem like an okay guy, even if you did…whatever it is you did. I mean, you’re here now, making up for it.” He drums his fingers on the table. “I guess I just wanted to say…this place is like a second home to us. If you’re serious about the Space Academy, then—it’d be nice to know that you respect that. Us. Everything.”
Keith is silent for a moment. “I respect you,” he says finally.
“Okay,” Hunk replies, and that’s it.
Keith looks up at Lance when he and Pidge get back to the table. “You were right,” he says.
“About what?” Lance blinks.
Keith points at his Meteorballs. “This really is terrible,” he says.
“Aha!” Lance slams his can of soda down on the table. “I knew it!”
“You could save yourself the stomachache and bring lunch from home,” Pidge suggests.
Keith looks down. “At home, my grandmother cooks most of our meals. I think she’s convinced herself that if she doesn’t pack me lunch when I come here, then it’s not really happening.” He winces as he tries not to recall that morning two weeks ago, when he went down into the kitchen and saw his bà nội sitting there, phone receiver to her ear, a look of horror on her face as she listened to the terms of Keith’s community service. His ông nội’s stony silence at the dinner table that night, and every night since.
“Well, here, have some of mine,” Lance says, and before Keith can protest, he’s transferred a small mound of pasta from his container to Keith’s plate.
The sauce on Lance’s spaghetti is sweet, and there are chopped-up bits of hotdog in it. It’s the weirdest variety Keith has ever had, but he is surprised to find he likes it. (And it is better than the food court’s, by a long mile, although he would never say it aloud.)
“…hope we get some new blood this summer,” Pidge is saying.
“I know, right? I’m long overdue for taking a rookie under my wing. What,” Lance says when Keith snorts, “this is the King of VDs you’re talking to.”
“I’m inclined to agree, since in your case, VD probably stands for ‘venereal disease’,” Keith replies dryly.
Lance just looks at him, approval written all over his features. “You really did bring your A game. This is so much better than yesterday,” he says, and with that, pushes his lunch container into Keith’s hand. “Go on, pal, take as much as you want. Man, I love being right.”
Lance continues to talk to the group at large, speculating whether they’ll all get title changes should new volunteers apply (“I could be Superior Docent, or like, Assistant to the Director, just think!”). Keith looks down and concentrates on the minced pasta and hotdog in front of him, and definitely not on the way Lance’s knee is touching his under the table, or the way he hasn’t quite pulled back his hand.
On Friday, the museum is surprisingly quiet. There’s no big morning tour group today, just a couple of straggler guests, which seems to be putting Vincent in a good mood; so after the usual routines—sweep, polish, reset—Keith is allowed to find one of the VDs and assist them with whatever needs doing. “But if you get up to any shenanigans—“ the senior custodian begins.
“Mr. Coran will hear it from you. I know, sir.” Keith breathes a sigh of relief and tries not to skip as he rounds the corner from the supply closet.
After having seen pretty much everything in the museum, Keith has found there’s one area he really likes—the Constellation Station, which consists of a black wall covered in small round lights and a touchscreen computer. Tapping a picture of a star cluster or a constellation on the screen turns on the corresponding lights on the wall—the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, Canis Major—creating a backdrop for people to take pictures with. The lines for this station are always long, but right now there’s no one there—except Pidge, who is standing on her toes and straining to reach one of the tiny lightbulbs. “Can I get it for you?” Keith asks.
“Nah, there are so many, you won’t know which one I need, even if I try to point.” Pidge’s cheeks go pink. “Um, do you think you could give me a boost, though?”
“Yeah, I can do that.” Keith gets down on one knee, laces his fingers together, and holds his hands out palms-up for Pidge to step on. The girl is so light, when he pushes her up it’s like she could take wing and fly away. “I thought the museum had, I don’t know, technicians to do this kind of thing.”
“They do, but I think they’re all slightly pissed at me for offering them my help when it’s not wanted. So now I do this stuff when they’re not around.” Pidge hops off, holding the bulb to her eye and squinting at its insides. “I was suggesting we make this station freeform, so the visitors could make up their own constellations. But Mr. Coran said we couldn’t risk people using it to draw ones that were—ha, impolite, was the word he used. So now I want to see if I can put some safety measures in to prevent that from happening.”
“You can do that?” Keith can’t even begin to imagine how; his computer skills are limited to PowerPoint and deep-cleaning his search engine history.
“My dad’s an electrician whose hobby is tinkering with computers, so I grew up learning. It’s a lot of trial and error, mostly error, but—occasionally you take a chance, and you find something that works.” Pidge taps a note into her phone and then hands the lightbulb to Keith.
Reaching up and feeling for the space, Keith carefully screws the light back in. “Must’ve been nice. Your dad teaching you, I mean.”
“Yeah, I know I’m lucky. Hey, thanks for the leg up. You’d be helpful during astronomy camp in August,” Pidge says. “A lot of the kids we get are too little to even reach the telescopes.”
“That’s me, the human footstool. Always crawling around on my hands and knees for you people.” Pidge grins, and Keith takes a deep breath. “Um…is Lance around?”
Pidge purses her lips. “He’s in the gift shop, bugging Daniel. The guy’s frazzled enough with organizing the stockroom as it is, so he’d probably appreciate you saving him from our resident doofus.”
The gift shop is brightly lit, in contrast to most of the museum, and crowded with shelves of science toys and picture postcards. Lance is bending over one of the endcap displays, stacks and stacks of jigsaw puzzle boxes on the floor around him. His face lights up when he sees Keith. “I knew you couldn’t stay away from me for too long. Here to challenge me?”
“You’re on.” Keith picks up one of the puzzles; the picture on the front of the box shows a lone astronaut standing on the surface of the moon. “What’s the game this time?”
“Hey, hey, guys,” says the harried-looking guy behind the register whom Keith guesses is Daniel, “if you’re here to help, really help, okay? Lance, make the pyramids like I showed you, don’t get all creative and start trying to build Stonehenge like last time.”
“You heard the man. Pyramids it is.” Lance indicates the endcap next to his. “You take those moon puzzles, I’ll do the star map ones.”
“Okay.” Keith’s hands hover over the nearest stack. “Ready…”
“Go!” Lance grabs four boxes at once and dumps them onto the table.
“What happened to set, you moron?” Keith demands, taking a box in each hand and kicking Lance’s ankle.
“Oww! Ref, foul! Interference!”
“That doesn’t count as interference, I didn’t kick your hand!”
Lance is attempting to construct his pyramid at the speed of light, but as a result, when he turns to place a puzzle, he keeps accidentally knocking away another one with his own elbow. Keith is fast but careful, and in the end, is the first to crown his display with a final box and step back. “Boom,” Keith says, turning smugly to his moaning opponent—at which point Daniel kicks both of them out, and tells them to come back when they’re no longer in kindergarten.
“Worth it, though,” Lance says as they’re walking away.
“I got you to play the game.” Lance crows triumphantly. “Smiles look good on you, Grumpy Cat.” Keith punches him in the stomach, and relishes the howl of pain that follows.
At lunch, Keith walks right past the food court girl and her Stellar Salads, and opens up the giant Tupperware from his backpack in the middle of their table. “I thought your grandma wasn’t making you lunches,” Hunk says.
“I said she was the cook most of the time.” Keith hands each of them a pair of disposable chopsticks. “This was me.” Lance’s eyebrows threaten to disappear into his hairline, he looks so impressed.
Over the next half hour, Keith teaches the three of them how to assemble their spring rolls and dip them in fish sauce. Hunk gets the hang of it right away; Pidge doesn’t look like she likes her roll much, but she makes the effort to finish it anyway, which is oddly touching to Keith.
The whole time, he watches Lance struggle to tuck in the edges of his rice paper. He firmly resists the urge to just reach over and do it for him.
“Lunch was great, hot stuff. Thanks," Lance says as they’re getting ready to leave for the afternoon shift. "Oh, by the way—know which bin the chopsticks go in now?”
“Ha,” Keith responds, which he knows is not witty at all.
The afternoon crowd in the museum is considerably bigger, so Keith gets assigned to clean the men’s restrooms. He’s just about to go check on the ground-floor one when he feels a tug on the back hem of his shirt.
It’s a little girl, probably no older than six, with a shock of orange hair. “Hey, can I ask you a question?” she says.
“I’m not a—uh,“ Keith stalls, glancing around in search of one of the docents. Dammit, Lance, of all the times you pick not to be around. He sighs. “Okay, what’s your question?”
“If Venus is the twin planet of Earth, does that mean everything on Venus looks like everything on Earth?”
“Ah…no. Venus is, they call it the twin planet because it’s about the same size as Earth.” Keith shows her a chart on the wall.
The girl scrunches up her nose. “So the people living on Venus don’t look like us?”
“There aren’t any people living on Venus. It’s closer to the Sun, so it’s a very hot planet. Very, very hot,” Keith says desperately. “It’s covered with volcanoes, and also the air is poisonous.”
To Keith’s surprise, the girl guffaws in delight. “Cool,” she says, and just like that, dashes off. As she goes, Keith can hear her yelling, “Mom, guess what! When I grow up, I’m going to be the first person to go to Venus!” Chuckling, he shakes his head and runs his fingers through his hair.
“I’m impressed.” Keith freezes at the familiar voice issuing from behind him. Director Altea is standing at the foot of the spiral staircase, arms crossed, but she’s smiling.
“I listen to the VDs a lot,” Keith says awkwardly as she approaches.
“Perhaps I should put them on the payroll, then,” the Director remarks lightly. She gives Keith a once-over. “They seem to have had a good influence on you.”
Keith presses his arms close to his sides. “Um, Director Altea. I know I already wrote you an apology letter, but…I just wanted to say I’m sorry. Again.”
“Apology accepted.” The Director pats his shoulder lightly, and with that simple gesture Keith feels a giant weight lift from his chest. “We’ll make a space explorer of you yet, Kiều Vân Cảnh,” she says as she walks away, and of course she would know how to correctly pronounce his full name.
Lance is still screaming about it after closing time, when they’re changing out of their uniforms in the staff room. “The Director! Was impressed! With you!”
“Why is it you’re making a bigger deal out of this than I am?” Keith wriggles out of his custodian shirt and reaches for his tank top.
“It’s just because you’re pretty,” Lance grumbles from inside his shirt. “Has to be. I’ve been here for almost two years, and she still thinks my name is Hans.” He yanks the shirt over his head vindictively.
Shrugging his jacket on, Keith finger-combs his hair away from his face. “Back up. So you’re saying I’m pretty and you’re not?”
“I’m saying you’re pretty, but I’m manly,” Lance elaborates. He sticks his head through his clean shirt, frowns down at the front when he realizes he’s put it on backwards, and pulls his arms back in so he can swivel the shirt around without taking it off completely.
“Give it up, Lance,” Pidge calls from inside the restroom. “She’s way too old for you.”
“Says the only person among us who’s still going through puberty. And Allura’s only ten years older than me, not like, ten thousand.”
“Ooooh, I’m telling the Director you call her by her first name when she’s not around,” Hunk sings, and Lance tackles him to the floor.
“Where is it you’re taking me again?” Keith asks, after they’ve said good night to Coran and stepped out into the parking lot.
“Just this small restaurant-and-bar we go to sometimes. It’s a little far from the museum, but the bus route has a stop that’s pretty close to it.” Hunk has his arm around Pidge’s shoulders, and they’re doing that thing where they’re walking in step but also trying to trip each other up.
Something occurs to Keith, and he immediately feels stupid for not thinking of it sooner. “I can’t leave my motorcycle.”
“Weeeeee, can, give you directions?” Hunk suggests.
“Or.” Keith looks at Lance. “Bet you’re not brave enough to ride with me,” he teases liltingly.
“Oh, you are so—“ Lance stops as his ringtone (“Gangnam Style”; Keith makes a face) goes off. “Hold that thought. Hi, Ma,” he says into the phone; what he says after that is in what Keith has by now guessed is Tagalog. “Yeah, just with the others.” Lance scratches the back of his ankle with the toe of his other sneaker. “Yep, him too…what, no, he’s not going to mug me…okay…yup, before twelve…’kay, love you too, Ma.” He hangs up, looking apologetically at Keith. “She worries.”
“S’okay. Given my past record, I’d worry, too.” Keith throws his leg over the bike and taps the seat behind him. “So? You getting on, or not?”
“Um, I don’t have a helmet.”
“So wear mine.” Keith presses it into Lance’s hands before he can think about the logistics of any of this, about how the entire thing is quite possibly a terrible idea. “What, don’t you trust me?”
“Fuck no,” Lance says, but he puts the helmet on.
“Ooohhkaay,” Hunk says. “I, uh, guess we’ll see you there?” Pidge waves, and she and Hunk take off for the bus stop.
As Lance sort of dances around the taillight in his attempt to figure out how to get on, Keith snaps on his goggles, pats the handlebar and says, “Red, this idiot over here is Lance. Lance, this is my girl, Red.”
“Huh. You don’t look like the gives-names-to-inanimate-objects type.” Tentatively, Lance sits, slides his arms around Keith’s waist.
“I don’t look like a lot of things. I’m full of surprises, don’t you know.” Keith revs the engine loudly on purpose. The bike sputters and Lance yelps; Keith just laughs. “She says you’re adorable when you’re nervous.” After showing Lance where to put his feet and warning him about the pipes running hot, finally, Keith kicks the stand away, and the two of them roar out of the parking lot and onto the street.
They weave through the city, taxicabs and traffic lights around them dissolving into kaleidoscopic blurs. Without his helmet, Keith glories in the wind on his cheeks, in his hair, and finds he’s started smiling without even realizing it. He hasn’t felt this way in a long time. Like he could fly if he just breathed a little deeper.
Through it all, Lance’s voice is in Keith’s ear, scratchy and slightly strangled; but guiding him, telling him where to turn. At first, his arms are crushing his waist—then Lance adjusts and moves them perpendicular, hands fisting in the lapels of Keith’s jacket. His breath is uneven and warm on the back of Keith’s neck, and amidst all his scattered, wordless thoughts, Keith still manages to think, this was definitely a terrible idea.
When they get to the bar, the bike has barely stopped before Lance wobbles off the seat, wrenches the helmet off his head, and stabs a finger into Keith’s chest. “You, gago, drive like you’re already drunk,” he informs Keith.
“What does that even mean?” Keith shakes his hair out, grinning.
“Gago means like…stupid, crazy, asshole.”
“Thanks.” Keith slips his backpack off Lance’s shoulders.
“But I’m using it affectionately,” Lance explains. “’Cause you’re a nice asshole.”
“I always had a feeling you only liked me for my asshole,” Keith says as they make their way through the crowded entrance. “Now I know for sure.”
The run-down bar is called the Castle, and it’s got a half-hearted medieval gimmick going on, fake cobblestones painted on the floor, electric torches in the walls, but otherwise is just your average bar. Its tables extend into a courtyard in the back, which also has a small stage and a karaoke machine, and which Lance insists on sitting unnecessarily close to. About ten minutes later Pidge and Hunk join them, faces flushed from the run from the bus stop, and they proceed to order several dishes that definitely do not sound like they contain vegetables.
“Whoa,” Keith says when Pidge pulls a bottle of beer from the ice bucket as soon as it arrives. “Aren’t you like, twelve?”
“You know, that used to be my reasoning, too,” Pidge muses, a mischievous spark in her eyes. “But then I thought, hey, all high-schoolers drink, and I’m a high-schooler, too. Why kill the cat before the box has even been opened? And I’m fourteen, by the way,” she adds dryly, taking a sip.
“The good girl has a bad streak,” Keith says approvingly, elbowing Lance’s arm out of the way so he can claim his beer.
Pidge shrugs. “We could say the same about you. Bad boy has a good streak, I mean.”
“I’m a good boy,” Keith protests, which makes them all burst out laughing, and sets Keith’s face on fire.
The heaps of fries and nachos, despite the fact that they’re slathered with the exact same cheese, are so good that for a while, none of them talk. While the other three are plugging their ears and moaning about the guy onstage who’s currently murdering Aerosmith song after Aerosmith song, Keith lets the last dregs of his beer go flat as he sits looking down at the pair of initials carved into his end of the table, enclosed in a ragged heart.
“I lied,” he says quietly, just as the speakers start blaring “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing.”
“What?” Hunk yells over the music.
“I lied.” They all turn to look at him. “I’m not.” Keith pokes a blob of congealed cheese with the end of a french fry. “Taking entrance exams in the fall.”
Pidge’s forehead creases. “For the Academy?”
“For anything.” Keith closes his eyes and exhales sharply. “Failed three subjects. No way around it—I’m going to have to repeat junior year.” And there it is, his shame laid bare for all of them to see. Keith the Delinquent. Keith the Washout.
“Man. That sucks.” Lance is quiet, presumably because he’s starting to realize just how much it sucks.
“It’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay, my grandfather’s not too happy about having to pay an extra year’s worth of tuition, but…I can’t do anything about it now.”
“Well, at least it’ll be a little easier the second time around,” Pidge says optimistically, setting down her empty beer bottle.
“Yeah! Get a jumpstart, you know, go over all your notes and stuff again. In the meantime, uh…got any plans for the rest of your summer vacation?” Hunk gives him a smile that says chin up. “Hang out with your friends, or like, your girlfriend…?”
“No girlfriend.” Keith’s laugh comes out in a small chuff. “And, uh, no friends. Pretty much.”
“Oh my god, you’re actually pathetic,” Lance says incredulously, and Keith socks him in the shoulder before they all burst out laughing again.
“Do we count, though?” Hunk asks, once they’ve calmed down.
Keith blinks. “Do you count what?”
Hunk suddenly looks bashful. “Do we count…as your friends?”
“My—oh. Uh, sure. I guess, if you want.” And it’s a revelation, suddenly, how much he cares about these near-strangers, these guys sitting right in front of him. Hunk. Pidge. But something clenches inside Keith’s chest at the idea of linking the word friend to the word Lance, like it’s not computing. Like that’s not what they are, not what they ever were or will be.
“We better count,” Pidge scoffs. “I don’t stay out this late on a weeknight for mere acquaintances.”
“Oh, geez, that reminds me. I’m planning an overnight beach trip sometime this summer,” Lance says. “Well, uh, it’s gonna be my immediate family and these two, but…if you don’t mind a bunch of under-twelves screaming about who gets the top bunk. You could tag along.” He tips his head quizzically at Keith. “Would your grandparentals be cool with that?”
“Maybe,” Keith answers—his default response to things he can’t immediately imagine his grandparents agreeing to, things he doesn’t like to give himself space to hope for. But just then a mental image of the beach offers itself up to him like a gift—green waves stretching into the distance, then washing all the way back to wet the sand; white clouds piercing the blueness of the sky, cliffs shrouded in spray, air that tastes like salt and sunlight. And at night, the moon—like a spell, painting everything in silver as it sways the tides.
He wants it. He tries not to think about how much he wants it. “Maybe,” he says again, but just to himself this time.
“Finally!” Lance slams his palms down on the table, making Keith jump, as Aerosmith Guy finally stumbles off the stage to raucous applause. He winks at Keith. “It’s karaoke time.”
“No,” Keith says, raising his hands, “no karaoke, I don’t do karaoke.”
“Who said you were invited, pretty boy?” Flicking Keith under the chin and grinning, Lance kicks his chair back and leaps up. “This stage is all Lance, all night.”
“Or at least until they kick you off it,” Pidge hollers after Lance as he marches to the front. Which, Keith quickly discovers, has about zero chance of happening.
Because fuck everything, Lance can sing.
(Okay, so he sings “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” and he ruins it even further with his dancing and hand movements, and his facial expressions—but damn, he sounds good. Lance’s singing voice goes places that his talking voice never does—growling the low notes, zigzagging all the way up to the high notes, holding them so unwaveringly they’re almost solid. The applause that greets him as he straight-leg jumps off the stage is anything but sarcastic.)
“Not amazing,” Keith says when Lance gets back. Hunk has run to the toilet, and Pidge has her head nested in her arms on the table, half-asleep. (Keith is strangely relieved to see that despite Pidge’s massive brain, she’s still a kid where two or three things are concerned.)
A knowing smirk creeps its way across Lance’s face. “Heyyyy. But just a while ago, you said I was adorable.” He points an accusing finger at the spot between Keith’s eyes.
“That. Was Red, not me,” Keith manages. He tries to focus on Lance’s finger and fails, blinking hard. The words stick in his throat, underneath his tongue. Shit. What?
“Riiiiight. Because your bike can talk, it’s sooooo smart.” Lance draws circles in front of Keith’s nose with his finger.
“Well, what about you?” Keith retorts, grabbing Lance’s hand and pulling it away from his face. “Calling me pretty all day…”
“Yeah, and you should be flattered.” Lance takes his seat, and Keith realizes he’s still holding Lance’s hand. LET GO, IDIOT, half of his brain is screaming at him, violently ringing bells inside his head. “Lance doesn’t use the word ‘pretty’ lightly.”
What’s so annoying about this is that Keith isn’t even drunk. Not even a little. This is baby stuff, what he’s feeling—light and bubbly and stupid and not even worth worrying about driving home with.
But what if you had to drive Lance home, the other half of his brain pulls out of freaking nowhere, and Keith grinds his molars together.
Lance scoots his chair closer. His face is half in shadow, half bathed in the pink and blue lights from the stage, and the contrast brings out things Keith’s never noticed before. The way his brown feathery hair sticks out all over his forehead, and in front of his ears. The precise point of his chin and the line of his jaw. The stupid, stupid dimple in his left cheek that deepens the more he smirks. The way Keith’s ears are ringing and he still doesn’t even know what this is. This is crazytown. This is a three-alarm fire. This is…
“I bet you wouldn’t…” Lance’s lips are moving. Way too much. Keith wants to tell them to stop.
“Wouldn’t what?” The words come out rough, half-stripped of breath.
“Guess.” Lance lowers his eyelids.
And they’re so close, so fucking close, Keith has to tear himself away by lashing his foot out at the plastic leg of Lance’s chair, sending him crashing to the floor with a yelp, before he says—or does—anything more he’ll regret.
On Saturday, just after closing time, when Vincent and the other custodians are gathering up stray water bottles and turning off the lights, Keith walks through the solar system chamber to find Lance lying on his back in the middle of the floor, head pillowed on his arms.
Keith holds his walkie-talkie to his mouth but doesn’t press the button. “Vincent, it’s Keith. Someone left their trash in the hub again. Should I dispose of it, or will you?”
“Ha ha.” Lance doesn’t move, so Keith sits down an arm’s length away from him, just looking at him, before lying down on the floor parallel to him and turning his face up to the baby mobile.
It’s completely different, lying down and seeing it like this. In the silence, Keith can almost believe what he’s looking at is the real thing—the planets, colossal and indifferent, making music no one else can hear as they trace their slow orbits around the sun. On the ceiling beyond, the stars twinkle merrily—and beyond them, forty-six-point-five billion light-years away, are the edges of the observable universe, still expanding every second. Keith suddenly feels guilty and selfish at the same time, in this moment, having all of this for himself.
“I used to be afraid of the sun dying,” Lance says unexpectedly. He kicks one leg up and crosses it over the other, wiggling his foot. “When I was eight, my older sister came home from school one day and told me about it, and I freaked. Nightmares for weeks. The sun one day just swelling up and melting the Earth. Like plastic in a microwave, y’know? Before it shriveled up and gave out, and everything went cold and dark, forever.”
“How’d you get over it?” Keith turns his head sideways to face Lance. The floor is cool and smooth against his cheek.
“My mom finally sat me down and asked me—‘Don’t you know the sun isn’t going to die for another five billion years?’ She explained it to me properly, she’d Googled all this stuff just for me. Then she said, ‘And even if the sun does die, remember, Lance, our sun is just a star. There are trillions and trillions of stars out there. All we have to do is find another one.’” Lance chuckles, once, a low sound. “That’s when I decided I was gonna become a space pilot. So I could fly out there and find new suns for all of us. One for my mom. One for each of my sisters, and one for me. So together, we’d have enough light to last until the end of the world.” He lifts his hand, fingers splayed, holding it against the model sun’s electric glow.
“You were a really fucked-up kid, you know that,” Keith says.
“Hey, I was a smart kid. If it ends up happening five billion years ahead of schedule, I’ll be safe sipping space coladas on my own little asteroid, and you’ll be screaming LANCE WAS RIGHT even as your perfect face sizzles and sloughs off and turns into goo.”
“Nice details, with the goo. You should be a poet.” Keith sits up, picks at his shoelace for a while before speaking again. “Hey, Lance. I’ve been thinking…I want you to know. What I did...why I’m here. I—”
“I don’t need to know,” Lance interrupts, sitting up too. “Look, man, I never asked because even though my curiosity was killing me, I know it’s none of my business. You don’t have to feel like you owe us, or anyth—”
“Listen to me, dumbass.” Keith forces himself to look Lance straight in the eyes. “I want to tell you.”
With that, Keith pulls his phone out of his pocket and opens his folder of photos. Scrolls down, watches all the months fly by in reverse, until he reaches sophomore year. Passes the phone to Lance and closes his eyes, waiting.
For a long while, the distant hum of the airconditioning is the only sound. Without even trying, Keith can see in his mind’s eye what Lance is seeing on his phone screen. A high-school classroom, windows open to the late afternoon; the entire class crowded together in front of the blackboard, grinning or flashing rock-n’-roll signs at the camera.
Half-sitting on the teacher’s table in the photo is Keith—his face a little rounder, his hair a little shorter, but unmistakably Keith. And in the middle of the group, towering above the rest—a gently smiling man with a streak of light hair, wearing a T-shirt with what is clearly a spaceflight mission emblem printed on it. SLS-306, and underneath, the words Space Explorer Blacklion.
“Holy shit,” Lance murmurs.
“He’d just been made commander, then,” Keith says softly, lying back down. “He came to our science class to talk about his mission to Mars. Then he told us what it was like up there—floating in outer space, looking down at the Earth millions of miles away. After the talk was over, I went up to him, like my legs just started moving on their own. It’s weird—astronaut was never something I thought of becoming, not even when I was a little kid. But suddenly it was like…he’d opened a window, and I’d seen something on the other side.
“So I asked him if it was hard, becoming a space pilot. He said yes, it was. The hardest and most frightening thing he’d ever done. But then he told me—“ Keith takes a deep breath before continuing. “He told me that…if I was too worried about what could go wrong, I might miss a chance to do something great. And then he looked at me and said—Maybe I’ll see you up there someday. Those exact words. I remember.” Slowly, Keith’s hands curl themselves into fists.
“So I told myself that after I graduated, I was going to go to the Academy. Before that I’d been so done with school, I almost didn’t even care, but suddenly I was staying up late researching astronaut training, and stuff like the Space Launch System. School was getting harder, but I really fought to pull my grades up. Math, science, everything.” His mouth twists involuntarily. “Didn’t work out, obviously, but I kept going. And then—“ He stops, heaves a breath, before speaking again.
“I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news.” Keith’s voice is shaking, now, and he can’t do anything to stop it. His hands are shaking. He’s twisting the hem of his shirt between his fingers, he’s staring up past the ceiling at nothing at all. “We were going into computer lab when one of the guys in my class said it. The rocket exploded and they all just blew up, he said. Their guts are probably raining down on all of Japan right now. I wanted to punch him in the face. The entire period, instead of working on my project, I was looking up articles online… And then I saw the video.” Keith slings one arm over his eyes, blinking against his skin.
“Keith,” Lance says. He slides forward and touches Keith’s open wrist, two of his fingertips lightly resting on the vein.
“I’m not gonna say that like, it’s because I never knew my dad, and I wished he was my dad, or whatever. Because that’s not what it was, at all. And Takashi Shirogane was a real astronaut who probably forgot my name five minutes after he learned it. Just, for those five minutes, I felt like…like he really saw me. Like because he didn’t know me, he really saw me. He thought I could do it. And because of that, no one else could ever—ever see him the way I did.” Keith swallows hard.
“Two weeks ago I got my report card, and the same week the Blacklion exhibit opened here. I saw a picture of the medals in an article online.” Lifting his hands into his hair, Keith drags them down over his forehead, rests them over his eyes. “I wasn’t trying to steal it. I just, I wanted to touch it, or something, just for a second. Just to…shit. I don’t, I don’t know.”
The fake stars are blurring in Keith’s vision, swallowed up in the darkness of the museum, and he can’t seem to breathe. He remembers the words Pidge used during the tour—what seems like decades ago, even though it’s only been a couple of days. He sees the spacecraft make its hopeless journey earthward, dropping thousands of feet in a fall that grows steeper every second—white against blue, breaking apart, flaming out. The cause of the disaster remains unknown. The cause of the disaster remains unknown.
Keith forces himself to sit up again. Slowly, he pushes himself around until he’s facing Lance cross-legged, his head inclined towards the floor. “I know it doesn’t make sense,” he murmurs. “But at the time…it was like it was the only thing I could do to make things right.” He laughs, the sound harsh even to his own ears. “God. I’m the fucked-up kid.”
“Nah, no, I get it.” There is a pause, as Lance seems to be carefully choosing his next words. “I think you were fighting a battle, back there,” he says finally. “Everyone deals with shit in different ways. Maybe that was just the way you needed to deal with what you had.”
“But because of how I chose to deal, I screwed everything up,” Keith says. “Don’t you get it? My life is a mess. What am I supposed to do now?”
“Well, do you still wanna do it?”
“The Academy, the Space Explorer program, everything. Do you still want it?”
“I don’t know anymore. I—I feel like I’m a cheat,” Keith gets out miserably. “Hunk and Pidge are smart, they’re doing it because they want to understand the universe, to make things that’ll help them get there. You’ve had this dream of flying and finding new stars since forever, and me—I just talked to some guy for half a second and thought I could put my A in phys ed to good use. I don’t deserve this.”
“Oh, boo-fucking-hoo. Forget about that, forget about us.” Lance lunges forward and grabs Keith by the shoulders. His eyes hold Keith’s own, his fingertips digging into his skin, and he’s too stunned to look away. “Now it’s your turn to listen to me, okay? Listen. Do you really think all the scientists and astronomers and astronauts there have ever been, since the beginning of time, started out with the full intention of making the world a better place?”
“…Yes?” Keith ventures.
“Uh, heck no! Scientists do stupid shit all the time, like try to test Bigfoot’s DNA or, I don’t know, put stilts on ants!” Lance flails his arms wildly in the air in vague gestures, his face a complete picture of incredulity. “They fail. All. The time. But we’re still sending them out there, to pick at the edges of the galaxy like it’s a freaking scab, to try and shove back the boundaries of everything we know just because we can. That’s what makes us human.”
Lance pushes his palm into Keith’s chest. “So stop whining because you don’t have some deep reason to do this thing. You don’t always need it. You do it even if you don’t understand why you want to, even if you think you don’t have a chance in the world of making it, you just keep doing it because it’s what makes you feel alive.” With that final pronouncement, Lance folds his arms and lifts his chin, like it’s another one of his challenges. “Now get your head out of your ass and think about that for a goddamn second.”
Laid out like that, it all sounds so simple. Like the Fun Fact plaques on the walls, or a tide table that’s meant to stand in for all the water on the planet. Maybe that’s what being in this place does to you, Keith thinks, looking back up at the baby mobile, the spinning model Earth that from this distance is just about the size of his hand. Maybe it’s a dangerous thing.
“So,” Lance says. “Do. You. Still. Want it?”
“Yes! Okay? Yes,” Keith yells, looking back at Lance. “I still want it. But there’s no chance, is there, because I have to spend an extra year stuck in high school, on top of the fact that my entire transcript up to now probably already sucks ass, and two weeks ago I almost got arrested for trying to touch a stupid necklace!”
“Uh, in case you really are that stupid, no criminal charges means no criminal charges, so you’re totally exaggerating with the the almost-arrested thing. And so what about repeating one crummy year of high school? That white colonel guy’s chicken recipe got rejected like over a thousand times before he finally started KFC. Fuck, man, I don’t know! All I know is, we’re playing vinyl in outer space now, and bell-bottom jeans are making a comeback, so anything is possible. Freaking anything.”
Keith snorts, shakes his head. “You really think so?”
“Yeah, dude! And just think, when we’re at the Academy, you and me and Pidge and Hunk are all gonna be together 24-7.” Lance gasps. “Oh my god, you and me could be rivals. Real archnemesisses.”
“You and I, archneme-ses. Also, don’t think there’s much of a chance of that. Remember? Even if I do get in, I’m going to be at least a year behind you.”
“Even better. I love picking on underclassmen,” Lance gloats, and finally, Keith laughs.
For a second, he allows himself to imagine it. It’s only the start of summer. He can start studying now, get a math and science tutor. Buy some books on astronomy and space travel to read in his free time. It’s going to be a long while yet before he can think about applying to the Academy, but it just gives him more time to prepare. Then he imagines being in outer space—not panicking and gasping for air, the way he does in his nightmares—but being at peace, carefully steering his ship through the stars.
He can’t quite see it yet, but almost. Almost.
“Okay, you nimrod. Okay.” Keith reaches out and pushes the side of Lance’s head. “What’s that stupid thing you say? Anything worth doing…”
“Is worth doing in a fight to the death.”
“Well, then,” Keith says, and pounces, grabbing both of Lance’s wrists and slamming him to the floor. Just then, the overhead lights in the Discovery Wing are shut off, leaving them in even more darkness than there was before. Under the ruby-red glow of Jupiter and his own shadow, Keith sees Lance’s face change. Like defenses slipping.
“I’ll fight you any day, anywhere,” Keith says hoarsely—and he means it, he needs it, he wants to tear Lance apart. “Right now.” He feels his breath moving through his lungs like water, like the ocean moving with the moon, rushing in, emptying out. His hair falls over his ears, and he dips his head, just a little, not close enough to touch. Just succumbing to gravity, the most natural thing in the world.
“Race you to Mars,” he whispers.
“You’re on,” Lance whispers back, and Keith feels a shudder run all through him.
He’s known Lance less than a week, but he knows this. Lance is loud and weird and doesn’t just push people’s buttons, he mashes them until they’re at breaking point. Lance always smells like coffee and clean laundry; is horrible at wrapping spring rolls, but pretty okay at singing karaoke. Lance shows every single thing he’s feeling on his face, completely incapable of hiding them even if he wanted to, and Lance has a way of quirking his eyebrow or pushing out his lip that makes Keith’s insides turn over. Lance likes to insert himself in every corner of every single thing, while Keith would rather just be left alone; Lance is taller than him, just by an inch or two, just enough that Keith has to tip his head up when he wants to look in his eyes, Lance—
Lance cannot be his friend.
Keith rolls off.
The other boy lies prone on his back for a long time, not saying anything. Then slowly, deliberately, Lance draws his walkie-talkie out of his belt and presses the button. “Hunk O’Burning Love, this is Lance-a-nova. Come in. Over.”
“Lance, whaaaat,” Hunk groans a second later.
“I need you to kill the cameras and alarms around the Blacklion exhibit. Five, no, ten minutes max.”
There is silence. “Is there something wrong with these walkie-talkies? Because I could’ve sworn you just asked me to kill the security around the Blacklion exhibit. The extremely, especially special Blacklion exhibit that is on loan to us from the IS-freaking-EA, that is worth more than both our lives combined. But of course you didn’t just ask me that, right?”
“You’re gonna do it, bro. Or else I will tell everyone about—this is a dramatic pause, by the way—the Piñata Incident.” Lance wiggles his eyebrows at Keith.
“Oh my god, Lance, you’ve been threatening me with the Piñata Incident since we were in middle school, for the last time, nothing happened with the stupid piñata! THERE IS NO PIÑATA INCIDENT!”
“Okay, then I’ll tell Pidge you were the one who spilled root beer all over her laptop last month.”
More silence. “Starting my timer now,” Hunk says. “You don’t get a warning. If the alarms go back on, and you’re not done with WHATEVER IT IS YOU’RE DOING THAT I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW ABOUT, EVER, you’re on your own.”
“Roger, Lovebug. Over and out.” Lance jumps up. “Stay here. I’ll be right back,” he says, and jogs off. Keith sits there, utterly confused, until Lance comes running back, panting even though he’s clearly trying not to. He’s holding something in his right hand, but in the darkness Keith can’t see what it is.
“Less than ten minutes. Come on, let’s go.” Lance’s fingers are locked around his wrist, hauling him to his feet, and suddenly Keith is stumbling after him, across the hub and into the empty stillness of the Travelers Wing.
The Blacklion exhibit is there waiting for them, like it’s the only thing in this entire museum, the only thing in the entire world. The squeak of their sneakers echo off the high ceiling as they approach the platform. The TV was turned off hours ago, leaving only the soft yellow lights surrounding the spacesuits and the portraits on the wall.
Ushering Keith forward, Lance holds his right hand out to him. In it is half a sheet of recycled paper, and a red crayon from one of the wax rubbing stations. “You know what to do,” he says. Keith takes them from him, and squaring his shoulders, turns and steps onto the platform.
For the second and last time in his life, Keith picks up Takashi Shirogane’s International Space Medal of Honor and lifts it off its hook. The gold is cool and heavy in his hand, the red-and-white ribbon thick like the lining of a king’s robe. The clear diamond in the center twinkles up at him.
Kneeling, Keith lays the medal on the platform in front of him. “This is so stupid,” he says, but he’s laughing. He positions the sheet of paper on top of the medal, and carefully, starts to rub the worn-down nub of crayon back and forth across it. He screws it up at first, his crayon skipping all the way to the edge—but he wills his hand not to shake, rotates the paper and tries again, slower this time. Gradually, the imprint of the medal starts to form—the five-pointed star and gem in the middle; the rank and name Commander Takashi Shirogane, engraved in gentle capitals; and then finally, the winged lion at the top.
Keith sits back on his haunches, the piece of paper in his hand, and closes his eyes. If he thinks hard, he can imagine a hand on his shoulder, a voice saying his name like a question, a kind pair of gray eyes. In his mind, he sees the gigantic spacecraft lifting off from Earth and rocketing into the clearest, most peaceful of skies, up and away into the atmosphere forever.
Thank you, he thinks. And goodbye.
Lance helps him put the medal back, and they step back and watch as one by one, the spotlights around the exhibit wink out. There’s still a single overhead light left, so they’re not totally blind as they make their way back to the solar system chamber.
“Hey, um, thanks,” Keith says when they stop walking. Blinking wetly, he folds the piece of paper into a small square. “This is…nice. Something to remember this place by.” Lance looks confused, so Keith adds, even more self-consciously, “I mean, tomorrow’s my last day, so…”
“Right.” Lance’s facial features rearrange themselves at a commendable speed. “Hey, yeah, this time tomorrow you’re gonna be a free bird! Congratulations, man. Keith.”
Lance thumbs towards the hallway that leads to the back door. “So, uh, anyway, it’s kinda late, and my mom’s probably left me a bazillion missed calls by now. I’m gonna jet.”
“Right, of course.” Keith bites his bottom lip.
Lance swivels around, “Well, see ya tomorrow,” and with that, trips off down the hall, sticking one arm in the air like the guy at the end of a teen movie. Keith watches him go, feeling like his intestines have tied themselves into knots, wondering what the hell he could have said or done so that it wouldn’t be ending this way.
“Night, Lance,” he murmurs belatedly, but of course by the time he says it, Lance is already too far away to hear.
On Sunday, Keith doesn’t even have to report to Coran’s office. The floor manager’s already standing in the foyer, waiting for him, arms folded primly behind his back. “I hope you know that today isn’t just a formality,” Coran says, as he’s opening Keith’s locker.
Keith grits his teeth, pushes his backpack in and closes the door. He decidedly does not slam it, very hard. “I know.”
“Keith.” Coran touches his shoulder. “I want to thank you for this past week. You’re a hard worker, and a fine young man. Wherever you go after this, I hope you remember that.”
“Okay,” Keith says. He pauses. “Thank you, I mean,” he amends. The floor manager just nods, his eyes glinting behind his glasses.
Keith performs his duties impeccably throughout the rest of the day. For instance, he stays in the men’s restroom for three straight hours, and wipes down the toilet seats and sink counters after every single time someone uses them. He sweeps and mops the staff corridor, too, because nobody ever really seems to do that. He cleans the undersides of the tables and chairs in the food court. He’s a machine.
At six-thirty, Keith turns his walkie-talkie in to Vincent. “Thanks for keeping an eye on me this week, sir,” he says. “Sorry to inconvenience you.”
“Don’t get into any shenanigans out there,” Vincent grunts, by way of farewell. Keith decides he’ll take what he can get.
Hunk and Pidge are sitting on the bench in the staff room. They’re having a conversation in low tones, but fall silent as soon as Keith walks in.
“Well, uh, see you guys around. You have my number now, so—“ Keith breaks off as, to his complete surprise, Pidge rushes forward and throws her arms around his waist, burying her face in his stomach. He bends his head into her hair and puts his arms around her shoulders, squeezing her tightly enough to lift her slightly off the floor.
“Bye, Pidge,” Keith says quietly, just before letting go. He looks around. “Where’s—“
“Helping Daniel close up the gift shop. Not that he needs it.” Hunk rubs the back of his neck with a small, apologetic smile. “The guy’s always sucked at goodbyes. Cried for a week when his hamster died, and that was just last month. He didn’t say anything, but. I know him.”
“It’s okay.” Keith clasps Hunk’s shoulder. “See ya around, Hunk.”
“Take care, man.” Hunk clasps his hand, and they’re okay. They really are.
After Pidge and Hunk leave, Coran stands by as Keith empties out his locker. Backpack. Jacket. Motorcycle helmet. It’s weird, to think just a few days ago he was standing here wishing he could count down the minutes to all of this being over.
The last thing out of the locker is a worn folder that looks as though it was horribly crumpled previously, but was left under a heavy textbook or two in an attempt to flatten it out just the night before. Keith turns and hands it to Coran. “I didn’t have time to get an ID picture printed, but. I figure you already know what I look like.”
Coran smiles. “Welcome to the volunteer docent program, Mister Vân Kiều.”
“Good inflection,” Keith tells him, just before he walks out the door.
Even from afar, that slouch is unmistakable. Lance, still in uniform, is sitting alone in the foyer, on the bench just outside the gift shop. His elbows are resting on his knees, his head hunched down between his shoulders.
“Hey,” Keith yells, breaking into a sprint. Startled, Lance jumps to his feet.
He does it so fast, neither of them even has time to close their eyes. Keith crashes into Lance, their foreheads colliding so painfully hard he knows there’ll be bruises come morning, and his fingers tangle in Lance’s collar, gripping him and pulling him down. His aim is slightly off, his upper lip mashed into the space just underneath Lance’s nose more than anything else—but Lance’s mouth is warm and yielding, so it doesn’t seem to matter. When Keith pulls away, he feels both of them breathe out, just once, like the ending to a prayer.
“See you on Tuesday, gago,” Keith whispers, and runs. He can still hear Lance laughing behind him, even as he jogs up the steps and the front door slides open for him with a whoosh, releasing him onto the sidewalk and into a warm, clear night full of stars.
1) This is an AU set in a near future wherein, among other things, the Space Launch System, beginning with the Orion, totally took off, and resulted in the foundation of the International Space Exploration Administration and a specialized Space Academy; and Pidge’s dad and brother were not members of Shiro’s crew, because I’m not THAT heartless. (???)
2) I don’t know what country this is set in though, don’t ask me
3) As research for this fic, I watched some footage of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s final re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, and it just about broke my heart. I can't imagine what the astronauts must have been feeling, or the horror and grief that followed, and I hope against hope that nothing like that ever happens again. (Needless to say, don’t watch if you don’t like getting things in your eye.)
4) For those of you who are curious, my Keith’s Vietnamese name is Kiều Vân Cảnh (last, middle, first), partly because I wanted a lot of K sounds to mimic his canon name, Keith Kogane. Also, because “Keith” means “forest,” I wanted his first name to mean something similar, so I picked “Cảnh” which is not a common name at all but which translates more or less to “endless landscape with trees.”
That said, I want to give a shoutout to everybody who has ever hc’ed Keith as Vietnamese and/or Lance as Filipino. I have roots in both cultures, and I just want to say it means so much to me that people want more representation for us.
5) I would be remiss in not acknowledging the influence of robpatFF’s the creation of ursa major on this work; although nothing from it was copied directly, the uninhibited joy of that fictional museum was never far from my mind. Also the Food With The Space Names.
6) I think that’s about it; so if you’ve made it this far, I just want to say, from the bottom of my shriveled heart, a million and one thank yous. Originally, this was supposed to be just a really short fluffy oneshot about Keith and Lance working as volunteer docents, 4-6k max, and then it just evolved into this monstrous feelingsy thingy-thing that is the LONGEST fic I have ever written in my life—but one that, in spite of all the sleep I lost in the process, I am happy to say is mine.
(Also, my original notes for this fic had Shiro as a museum guard. That obviously didn’t happen……..I’m so sorry. This is the only time I will have Shiro be not-alive, I swear. Save Shiro 2K16. Peace.)