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Would You Like Fries With That?

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Would You Like Fries With That?

            Lance has had what is probably the worst day ever in the history of worst days ever. While most bad days include one or two things that make them slightly less horrific, some brief pleasant incident that makes them less crushingly awful, this one had no such thing. This was a day with no redeeming value.

            Honestly, Lance is kind of in shock as he drives home.

            He didn’t know days could be this bad. For a perpetual optimist like him, it’s a little life-altering to be confronted with a day this dreadful in all its terrible glory.

            It’s coming up on eleven pm on a school night and it’s definitely past Lance’s curfew, but when the bright lights and neon signage of a Burger King come into view he finds himself pulling into the drive-thru like a zombie. He’s still numb, but now he’s numb and wants French fries. Hurrah for advertising. Feeling down? How about a bunch of high-calorie food!

            When he pulls up he presses the little red button on the sign and a bored voice answers, “Hello, welcome to Burger King, can I take your order?”

            And that’s about when it all comes crashing down on him, and like a tidal wave of terrible, Lance realizes, on an emotional level, how truly shitty his day was. For no good reason at all other than here’s a human voice – steeped in apathy perhaps, but not overtly antagonistic – and literally all he wants is a little human comfort… he starts sobbing in the Burger King drive-thru.

            Keith is not having a terrible day. Keith is having an average day. Which is to say, mildly annoying but not too soul-crushing. He’s sitting behind the counter, wearing the stupid employee smock-shirt thing, waiting for customers who just aren’t coming (it’s nearly 11pm on a Monday, nobody wants cheap burgers that much) and doing his calculus homework.

            Yes, he kind of hates working at Burger King as a concept. The day shifts he takes on the weekends fill him with nothing short of homicidal rage. But working the weekday late shift isn’t that bad, honestly. Technically there should be at least two people on each shift – one of them a manager or something, but with the exception of his first day of work Keith has never, ever seen the other guy supposedly on his shift. The dude’s either a ghost or just not coming to work. Keith wonders if he’s still getting paid – he has to be, the owner seems to be under the impression the guy still works here. But Keith’s not going to complain about his MIA shift-mate. He’d rather the franchise be empty for the late-night shift anyway. It means he can do his homework behind the register and revel in the silence. Sometimes he plugs his iPod into the speakers and blasts My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco really loudly while he deep-cleans everything (fast food joints may be disgusting, but Keith’s empty Burger King is spotless, thank you). It’s weirdly nice, just hanging out.

            Every now and again the buzzer sounds and he meanders over to the drive-thru window to field a customer with the late-night munchies and sometimes a bunch of high college kids wander in but that’s about it. Except for now, when he dutifully answers the drone of the buzzer with a listless “Hello, welcome to Burger King” (the script is typed out on a laminated card over the microphone, it’s a pretty difficult interaction to fuck up, this customer-server thing) and is met with uncontrollable sobbing.

            Keith experiences a single moment of blind, utter panic.

            Then he thinks ‘what would Shiro do?’, chokes back the urge to text his older brother in a panic, and refocuses on the matter at hand. “Sir,” he tries, “Sir. Valued Customer?”

            No response. Other than the crying. Which has been previously established.

            Keith sighs and runs a hand through his hair, accidentally dislodging the hairband he’d been using to keep it out of his face. What would Shiro do? What would Shiro do…

            Lance realizes, through his sudden and intense fog of utter despair, that the apathetic guy on the other end of the drive-through microphone is trying to talk to him.

“Dude,” the guy says, sounding a little at a loss and kind of exasperated, “if you're going to cry, just come inside and do it, I can barely tell what people are saying in these speakers even without the, you know, awkward sobbing. So just...if you want food, you're gonna have to come in."

Lance sniffles and makes a decision. He parks the car (not in the drive-thru, he’s not that much of an idiot) beside somebody’s red motorcycle and goes inside.

...

            “Hello, welcome to Burger King do you want some napkins?” Keith offers from behind the counter when the guy comes in. He’s about Keith’s age – high school, maybe a freshman in college – skinny, a little taller than Keith, with messy brown hair and a too-big canvas jacket with too many pockets and a sweatshirt hood. He’d be pretty attractive if his eyes weren’t red and puffy and he didn’t look a bit like life had chewed him up and spat him out like a used piece of gum.

            The guy laughs at little wetly at Keith’s offer, “Sorry, man, this is really embarrassing. I’ve just had the worst day. Like, no redeeming value whatsoever. None.”

            Keith shrugs, “Could be worse, though, right?” What is he saying? He doesn’t know this guy’s life. He could have lost both parents in a freak accident and found out he had cancer or something. Keith doesn’t think that’s a very likely combination of events, but you never know.

            The guy shrugs right back, rubbing at his nose with his sleeve, “Sure, probably. I mean; I could have been abducted by aliens or something.”

            “I dunno, judging by Thor, aliens are pretty hot.” Why does Keith keep saying things? He is so horribly ill-suited for customer service of any kind, “So there’s a bright side to alien abduction.” Why does he keep talking? Why?

            But that’s actually dragging a chuckle out of the guy. “Can I just have all the fries you have? Like, all the French fries.”

            “Sure,” Keith taps out an order for three extra-large things of fries. No way he’s giving Sad Boy all the fries he has. That’s like ten pounds of potatoes no human needs to consume. He looks up. Sad Boy is just sort of standing there forlornly so Keith makes a vague gesture, “You can sit anywhere you want.”

            “Oh, uh, sure. Thanks.”

            Keith shrugs, “Not my chairs. I don’t control if they get sat on.”

            “Ok, I’ll just…go over there, then.”

            “Grab some napkins, your face is a mess.” Keith needs to not talk to people. That is the only solution.

            But the guy tries to grab a whole plastic dispenser of napkins and just take it with him, so apparently it’s solid advice. The guy’s face is also pretty hilarious when he figures out that they’re screwed in place.

            “What the - ?”

            “We had a problem with people stealing them.”

            “Who the fuck tries to steal napkin dispensers?”

            “Says the guy who just tried to steal one.”

            “Yeah, but I was gonna put it back.” The guy looks really disturbed by the thought that he lives in a world where Burger King management has to nail down their napkin dispensers.

            Keith shrugs. “Other people don’t put them back.”

            Sad Boy gives him this look of utter nonplussed shock and betrayal, like the world has massively let him down by being peopled with the sort of folks who would walk off with napkin dispensers that don’t belong to them.

            Keith doesn’t laugh, but it’s close. He instead hides his smile as he turns around and begins to load up three jumbo orders of French fries.

            Hunk and Pidge are back at school the next day, a sure sign that no matter what else happens today, at least it won’t be as horrible as yesterday.

            “Well you guys missed out on the worst day of my life,” Lance grumbles at his two (traitor) friends.

            “Wow, great greeting Lance,” Pidge says sarcastically, “How about you ask us how we did in the tournament instead?”

            Lance rolls his eyes, “I know how you did in the tournament. You won; I already knew you’d win. You’re the best.”

            “The intensely flattering nature of that comment does not mean you can get away with being rude,” Hunk says gently.

            Lance sighs dramatically, “Hi guys, how was the robotics tournament I told you you’d definitely kick ass at? Did you destroy the competition or just settle for annihilate?”

            “Total obliteration,” Pidge says, grinning like a maniac, her ferocious smile not wobbling a millimeter as she receives her hot lunch (which is a sure sign of a psychotic break, the school’s hot lunch program is awful). It’s a casserole day and Lance can’t tell whether or not the green bits in it are supposed to actually be green.

           “We rocked it,” Hunk agrees.

            “Rover blew all the competition out of the water. It was epic!” Pidge exults and Lance can’t help but grin at her enthusiasm.

            “Congratulations, guys, seriously, you’re amazing. And your robot is disturbingly versatile. Remember me fondly if and when you finally create AI and your mechanical child takes over the world and ends all life as we know it.”

            “Thanks,” Hunk beams because Hunk is a marshmallow.

            “Thanks, jerkface,” Pidge grumps with a crooked smile because Pidge is like an espresso shot – tiny and bitter.

            “So what’s this about you having the worst day ever?” Hunk asks as they exit the over-crowded cafeteria with their trays to go hide on the west side second floor landing with their lunch. Only freshmen eat the cafeteria. There’s just not the space and upperclassmen know the school well enough that pretty much every group has some territory staked out, even losers like them.

            Lance groans theatrically, “The fucking worst, I swear to god. At this rate I’m gonna fail everything and die a hobo.”

            “I don’t think either of those is likely,” Hunk says supportively and Pidge nods.

            “Yeah, to be a hobo you’d have to have a lot more socio-economic disadvantages to start with – and you’d have to live during the Great Depression, you know, when hobos were a thing.”

            “And by some railroad tracks,” Hunk muses, then shrugs when Pidge and Lance give him funny looks, “What? Hobos used to travel around in boxcars. You can’t hobo if you don’t have a train to bum around the country in.”

            “Ugh, you two need to stop being geniuses,” Lance groans and hunches up his shoulders, “I failed my English test,” he admits, “and Haggar, that bitch, hacked all the school accounts and gave them all viruses so I couldn’t print my econ paper so I’m probably going to fail that too. But she didn’t get caught so now the school’s investigating everyone and all our accounts are still on lockdown. And Sofie threw my phone in the toilet and apparently it’s my fault for not keeping a closer eye on my things, but seriously, she’s seven years old, she should know better! Ugh, I hate being the middle child. Mom’s out of town, going to some panel Val’s presenting a paper at because of course my sister’s a super-genius and is going to graduate with honors. And Mama’s got a million cases going to court all right now and, oh, Jamie’s going to drop out of college and grow organic produce on a co-op so the pressure’s on for me to be a ‘success’ and with Mom away and Mama working like crazy I’m the oldest at home so every time something goes wrong I’m the one they go to. And Andrea’s getting picked on and Carly has boy problems and oh, yeah, Nyma broke up with me because she was only dating me to get her chemistry grade up and now that she’s gotten a B on the last test she ‘doesn’t need a nerd boyfriend anymore’!” he buries his head in his folded arms and groans, “Madre de dios, I hate everything.”

            He doesn’t look up, because he doesn’t want to see his best (and only) friends’ reaction to his pathetic outburst. He instead sighs into his arms, “The only good thing about yesterday was Burger King. Burger King was the highlight of my day.”

            “Burger King?” and Hunk has his ‘I’m so sorry, buddy’ voice on and Lance really wants a hug.

            “Yeah,” he sighs gustily, and leans into the hug Hunk’s offering, why pass up a free hug? “When I was driving home from Nyma’s I pulled over at this Burger King and kind…uh…totally freaked out in the drive-thru. Started crying and couldn’t stop, it was really dumb and gross. And the drive-thru guy was kind of nice about it.”

            “Kind of nice?” Pidge says skeptically.

            “Yeah. I mean; it probably freaked him out a little bit when some random dude started bawling in his drive-thru. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t really want any customers around, y’know? It was totally empty in there and I think I saw a textbook behind the counter. He’s probably trying to study and suddenly there’s some crazy person crying at him. But he brought me three orders of fries and didn’t get weird or yell at me when I used, like, a whole container of napkins. He was pretty cool. And hot, like, stupid hot. Buuuut, I’m a crazy person who cries in drive-thrus and he’s a hot Burger King employee so that’s not going to happen.”

            “I’m sorry buddy,” and there’s Hunk, putting an arm around him and hugging him, “Sounds like yesterday sucked.”

            Lance exhales heavily, flopping his head on his best bud’s shoulder, “Yeah, it totally did. I missed you guys. You make shitty days less shitty.”

            “Glad we’re good for something,” Pidge says, smiling crookedly, “and I bet I could totally hack Hagger right back. Bitch wouldn’t know what hit her.”          

            “Pidge,” Hunk says warningly, releasing Lance from his comfort-hug to cross his arms and look at Pidge chastisingly.

            “You guys could help! It would be a fun bonding exercise!”

            Hunk groans, “When you two say ‘fun bonding exercise’ I always hear ‘Hunk in the principal’s office’.”

            “Hey, that’s not fair,” Pidge protests, “We’re all in the principal’s office together when that happens.”

            Lance smiles weakly, “You guys are the best.”

            “I did a good thing yesterday,” Keith announces when he comes through the door to his and Shiro’s tiny apartment, tossing his backpack on the couch.

            His brother looks up from his laptop, his glasses trying to slide down his nose and getting caught on the ridge of scar tissue that bisects his face. “Why hello, Keith. How was your day?”

            “I’m trying to tell you about it,” Keith points out, going to the fridge and grabbing a pair of juice boxes. He carries them over to the table, viciously jabbing straws into both of them and pushing one towards his brother. The kitchen table wobbles slightly when he forces the straw in. They’ll have to fix it this weekend.

            “Oh, my mistake, please continue. I figured you were just doing that thing where you act like we’re continuing a conversation that never happened instead of greeting each other like polite, normal people.”

            Keith rolls his eyes at ‘normal’, “Be nice or I’ll take that juice box back.”

            “It’s a juice pouch, thank you,” Shiro says huffily, and takes a long swig of whatever apple juice blend is in their current batch of Capri Suns. That’s the secret of Capri Sun – they’re all cleverly disguised apple juice.

            “Whatever. So,” Keith kicks off from the table, letting himself gently spin on the adjustable stools they’d gotten for the high-top, “I did a good thing.”

            “Good job?” Shiro raises and eyebrow, “I figured you always did good things. Because I raised you to be a socially responsible person.”

            Keith snorts, “You raised me to believe that bitch-slapping my problems is a totally justifiable coping mechanism.”

            Shiro shrugs, “Sometimes violence is the answer.”          

            “And to think they let you shape the minds of tomorrow.”

            “Hey, I’m just a TA. The real mind-shaping isn’t on me. I’m just there to support. And make sure no one eats any glue.”

            “Good to know you have a realistic understanding of your job requirements.”

            “Yep. So, tell me about your ‘good deed’. What’s my baby brother done for the greater good?” Shiro is grinning at him around the juice box/pouch straw and Keith rolls his eyes.

            “Some guy came in during my shift last night. He was really upset; he’d had a really bad day or something. Anyway, he started crying in the drive-thru so I told him to come inside and I gave him French fries and napkins.”

            “Aww, you did your job.”

            “Shut up,” Keith huffs, “I comped one of the three orders of fries he ate and was generally not an asshole. You should be proud of me.”

            “Aww, such progress,” Shiro coos, “So sweet.”

            “I hate you, why are we related?”

            “Our mom liked to sleep around.”

            “Ew, no real answers. Gross.”

            “Hey, you asked,” as pause as Shiro scrolls through stuff on his laptop; he’s taking online classes, trying to get his degree in education, presumably because he wants to work all the time for terrible pay because he loves children and wants them to succeed in life. Keith’s brother might be a headcase but never let it be said that he doesn’t care about people, “So, are you going to see this guy again?”

            “Um, what?” Keith asks, “Why would I care if I saw him again? Why would you care? I didn’t tell you how old he was. Maybe he’s ancient. Maybe you’re being really creepy and gross right now.”

            “He’s not ancient,” Shiro says blandly, “He’s probably in high school or college.”

            “But how do you know?” Keith’s being annoying, but Shiro deserves it for butting into his social life.

            “You said drive-thru, so he’s old enough to drive. But you work the late shift, so it’s probably around midnight – old people aren’t awake that late, but teenagers and twenty-somethings typically are. It’s a school day, prime time for teenage heartbreak, and he’s eating fries as comfort food. Someone older would be eating something more substantial like a burger.” Damn, Shiro’s logic is impeccable, “Also, you’re all pink when you talk about him,” Shiro lays out his trump card with a smirk.

            Keith crumples up his now-empty juice pouch and chucks it at his brother’s head. “Jerk.”

            “I’m right.”

            “Jerk.”

            “I’m totally right.”

            “Shut up.”

            “I’m right, though, right?”

            “…yes.”

            “So, are you going to see him again?” Shiro looks so stupid-hopeful Keith feels a little bad. Shiro wants him to be happy so badly. It’s not Shiro’s fault that Keith’s bad at being social and making friends. It’s not Shiro’s fault that Keith’s a loner freak. All Shiro has ever done is try to do his best.

            “No, Takashi,” Keith says, gentle as possible, “I’m probably not. I don’t even know this guy’s name. He’s just some random sad person who needed some help.”

            Keith’s totally wrong about seeing Random Sad Boy again, but he has no way of knowing that.

            It’s dangerously close to becoming a pattern, Lance thinks. But he’s had a long, annoying day and he just really, really wants some French fries and if he sees Hot Burger King Boy again, that’d be kind of cool too.

            He doesn’t go through the drive through this time; he actually parks and walks inside. It’s just after 11pm and he’s discovered that with Mom out of town Mama is only kind of enforcing the idea of curfew and he’s pretty sure he’s convinced her his is midnight anyway. He walks right up to the counter, where, to his low-key delight, Hot Burger King Boy (Pidge has started calling him HBKB to Lance’s utter embarrassment) is sitting hunched over a textbook, his long-ish black hair pulled away from his face in a stubby ponytail.

            “Hey, can I have some fries? I noticed when I said ‘all the fries you have’ the other day you didn’t actually give me all the fries,” Lance says because he apparently cannot manage to start a civil conversation. No, he has to jump in feet-in-mouth first.

            HBKB looks up and raises an eyebrow, “You really want to eat ten pounds of fried potato, be my guest, but I’m not calling 911 when you need your stomach pumped.” Cute and mean. Shit, he’s totally Lance’s type.

            “And I could totally sue you for that.”

            “Sue Burger King, not me. I’m just trying to do the bare minimum here.”

            “I can totally see that.”

            “Minimum wage, minimum effort.”

            “Okay, but can your minimum effort get me some French fries, stat. I’m sad and hangry.”

            “At least you’re not crying in the drive-thru anymore,” HBKB mutters, but he busies himself dumping fries into paper sleeves.

            “That was a one-time thing, I swear.”        

            “And here I was thinking you just drove around town sobbing at drive-thrus recreationally.”

            He’s so hot and sarcastic. Lance sneaks a glance at the textbook sitting behind the register. Shit, calculus. Hot, sarcastic and smart. So he’s basically Lance’s Kryptonite and totally out of his league. That’s…cool…it’s whatever.

            HBKB is back and shoving a tray forward. “Three large orders of French fries. That’ll be $7.17.”

            “I feel like it was cheaper last time…”

            “You were more pathetic last time.”

            Lance could argue the point but he is seriously starving and unhappy so there’s that. He hands over the $7.17. While HBKB is sorting his change out he tries to subtly see if the guy’s wearing a nametag. And by subtle he means cranes his neck really obviously.

            “What are you doing?” HBKB asks flatly, glaring at him through his hair.

            “You aren’t wearing a nametag.”

            “No, I’m not. Enjoy your meal. Thank you for your purchase.”

            Lance retreats to his corner table and eats his fries. Damn, he still doesn’t know HBKB’s name.

            “So now you’re just going to Burger King at midnight and binging on French fries whenever anything bad happens?” Pidge asks flatly in chemistry the next day. She’s his lab partner, for which Lance is eternally grateful. He’s actually good at chemistry – as proven by Nyma dating him exclusively for his chemistry knowledge – but Pidge is great at pretty much every math-science thing ever (except for biology, it’s pretty hilarious, cell structures piss her off, she says they’re dumb and illogical). Together they’re a pretty solid team. And Hunk, as great a guy as he is and how freakishly smart he is (he can do sig figs in his head at the speed of light and has the periodic table memorized), is a little too clumsy to be much help in an actual lab environment.

            “I’ve done it twice, okay?”

            She raises an eyebrow at him, “What happened last night?”

            He sighs, “I got suspended from the team until I can pull my English grade up.”      

            “And what did you do?”

            “I drove around in a depressed stupor until I saw the Burger King again.”

            “And?”

            “I ordered ‘all the fries you have’ and HBKB gave me three large orders of fries. Apparently that actually costs seven bucks, he went easy on me when I freaked out in the drive through.”

            “Not surprising. I’d give the crazy person crying at me whatever he wanted too,” Pidge mutters and the only reason Lance doesn’t elbow her is that she’s pouring something highly volatile into something else highly volatile and he doesn’t want them to screw this up. He can’t afford another failing grade. His dismal scores in English are what’s keeping him off swim team – his one true love.

            “So, yeah, I went to Burger King and binged on fries.”

            “A pretty dumb thing to do,” Pidge points out, “Since you’re off swim team. You’ll lose your delicate figure, Lance. However will you attract a suitable husband without your looks? Hunk and I have already raised your dowry as much as we can.”

            “My dowry last time we counted is a Bunsen burner and a pack of gum.”

            “Hunk actually wants to keep the burner so you’re just worth a pack of gum.”

            “Seems legit.”

            Pidge nods sagely and they go back to filling out their observation sheet.

            Keith looks up a week later and yep, there’s Sad Boy again. “What the fuck, dude? Do you just have a really terrible life?” Keith asks and immediately regrets it but is too stubborn to back down now, “You only ever show up here when you’re upset and you’ve been by three times in the last two weeks.”

            “Shut up, I’m not sad this time, I’m just really, really stressed and I can’t focus at my house so I’m here looking at your dumb face.” And hey, Sad Boy is carrying a backpack the size of a small child and looking pretty frazzled so it’s probably true, “Is it okay if I study here?”

            “Are you going to buy something?”

            “Seriously, dude? I bought like, fifteen bucks’ worth of fries last week.”

            “It’s just good manners!” Keith protests, “If you’re going to take up space at a business you’d better at least spend some money there so you’re not just wasting their space.”

            “Oh yeah, because it’s sooo crowded in here,” Sad Boy rolls his eyes at the vacant Burger King.

            “Just buy a soda or something!”

            “But why?”

            “Because it’s the right thing to do!”

            “It’s the right thing to give my money to multi-billion dollar company that contributes to the national obesity epidemic?”

            Keith huffs, too irritated to think straight, “Ugh…just, YES! Yes, you should buy something stupid and unhealthy from Burger King if you’re going to waste space at Burger King. It’s the decent thing to do! Otherwise you’re just some…some…squatter!”

            Sad Boy rolls his eyes – they’re hazel and bright and Keith is not noticing this stuff because Keith doesn’t care, Keith is annoyed – “Fine, whatever. I’ll get some apple slices. Happy?”

            “Fine,” Keith snaps and then realizes, “…you can’t actually get apple slices.”

            “Why not?”

            “They’re part of the kids’ breakfast menu. They’re not sold separately.”

            “Seriously?”

            “You could get an apple pie?”

            Sad Boy gapes at him, “There is something really, really wrong with this system.”

            “Yeah.”

            “Like, that is incredibly fucked-up that I can get an apple pie but not actual apples.

            “They’re not very good apple slices if that matters?” Keith offers and the guy stares at him for a long moment before bursting out laughing.

            “Not very – oh my god – dude, are you trying to be funny? You’re not even trying, oh my god.”

            “Are all your emotions this extreme?” Keith asks flatly as Sad Boy (who isn’t actualy sad right now – Keith may need to give him a new identifier) continues to laugh hysterically.

            “No,” he wheezes, “I swear I’m normally a pretty stable person – you keep catching me at really bad times.”

            “You walked in here. I put absolutely zero effort in this ‘catching’ process other than showing up for work today.”

            “I know, I know,” the guy straightens up, wiping tears of mirth out of his eyes, “Sorry about that, man, I’m just…really frazzled.”

            “Uh-huh,” Keith says skeptically. And then, because he doesn’t think things through, “I’ll get you some fries, okay? I think you need them.”

            “I really do, I guess,” the guy sighs gustily, drooping a little under his enormous backpack.

            He doesn’t seem inclined to leave the counter this time. Keith watches him out of the corner of his eye as he shovels greasy fries into paper sleeves. “What subject?”

            “Huh?” Sad Boy looks up from where he’d been studying his shoelaces.

            “What subject are you all,” Keith waves vaguely, “Freaked out about?”

            Sad Boy chews on his lip, looking at his feet, “English,” he admits, “And no, before you ask, it’s not because it’s my second language.”

            “Um? I wasn’t? Going to ask that?” Keith says awkwardly. He wasn’t – going to say anything like that, that is – but the defensive way the guy says it kind of suggests some assholes have and that makes something dark and ugly twist in his chest. He wants to make it better, but doesn’t know how.

            “Oh, uh, sorry. Just some people are assholes.”

            “Yep,” Keith can second that. He got detention today – fighting again, and the bruises on his ribs hurt in a dull, distant way. He’s not going to tell Shiro.

            “My Mama’s Cuban, but my Mom’s from Minnesota. I’m bilingual,” he says it brightly, with pride. “But…my English grades still suck.”

            “You should take Spanish,” Keith says, “Like, Spanish one, and pretend you don’t know anything and ace everything. That’s what I did.”

            “You speak Spanish?”

            “Latin. My mom was an archeologist. We used to travel around the country working digs and making sure remains and artifacts were returned to their people if the tribe was still around.” It had been his mom’s favorite part of her work, returning lost things to their homes. It had been holy to her, the calling of ancient things, the past touching the present.

Keith isn’t sure why he’s saying any of this – rule number one, he doesn’t talk about Mom. No even with Shiro. It’s still raw, even four years later. But there’s something nice about bragging about her to this random stranger. It makes him almost feel like he’s not here, working in a crappy Burger King, that he’s just grabbing burgers and fries before running back out to the car and on to their next adventure. “I can speak a little bit of a bunch of different languages and name all the bones in the human body.” Keith doesn’t brag about the bones thing either – the first and last time he did that, in middle school, he was teased mercilessly. He was ‘Zombie Keith’ for two years. The most annoying part of the whole thing was the fact that zombies don’t have anything to do with bones other than the dead thing. He’d rather be called ‘Yoric’ or ‘Hamlet’. At least those would be kind of related to skulls.

            The other kids hadn’t liked it when he pointed that out either.

            But Sad Boy is staring at him with wide, impressed eyes, “Dude, that is so freaking cool.”

            Keith shrugs and looks away, not sure what to do with so much positive attention, “Yeah, it was pretty cool. Anyway, I took Basic Latin freshman year and pretended not to know anything and then aced all the tests,” he sighs, “I acted too dumb, though. The teacher thought I was cheating and brought me up in front of the principal and they called my brother.”

            “What happened?” The guy actually seems genuinely interested. It’s pretty nice.

            Keith laughs. “Uh, it was actually kind of funny. My brother gets there – and he’s a pretty big buy, ex-military, has this freaking huge scar across his face and he folds his arms and is like ‘What’s all this about’ and my teacher’s going on and on about how I’m cheating because obviously I don’t know shit about Latin, right? And my brother’s getting more and more confused and finally he’s like ‘Ma’am, I think there’s been a mistake’ – because he’s polite like that. And she’s like ‘No, there can’t possibly have been a mistake’. And Shiro looks at her and says ‘Keith’s in Latin I?’ and she’s mad by now, thinks he’s slow or something. ‘Yes!’ she shouts, ‘that’s what I’ve been saying!’ And Shiro nods slowly and says, ‘Ma’am, I’m sorry, our mother taught us both Latin when we were toddlers. Keith is fluent. It looks like there was some kind of enrollment error.’” Keith chuckles, “I thought her head was going to explode. I mean, it kind of sucked because Shiro got me stuck in Advanced Latin – he totally knew I did it on purpose, the jerk. But it was really funny.”

            Sad Boy is laughing incredulously now, “Dude, I can’t believe you got away with it.”

            “I didn’t, though,” Keith points out, “My brother caught me.”

            “Yeah, but he’s your bro so he covered for you, right?”

            Keith shrugs, “I guess, yeah.”

            Sad Boy grins, “I’d cover for my little sisters if they did that. Hell, I’d back them up too. Maybe help them stay in the easy class.”

            Keith shakes his head; “Shiro’s too upstanding for that.”

            “Sounds like it,” the guy agrees, “Oh, sorry, I should pay for those fries and aww, man, you got me a soda too! Thanks!”

            Keith raises an eyebrow, “You still have to pay for it.”

            Sad Boy hums thoughtfully, “What would you have done if I got really mad you got me something I didn’t order and refused to pay for it?”

            “Drank it,” Keith says with a shrug, “and paid for it myself.”

            “I can get you a soda too, if you want,” the guy offers, “Since you gave me free fries that time I cried in your drive-thru.”

            Keith smiles, it feels real, “Nah, don’t worry about it. You were having a really bad day.”

            “All time worst,” Sad Boy agrees and Keith should really ask his name before this conversation gets any more surreal.

            “Um, what’s your name?” Keith asks as he’s counting out change because Keith is the king of terrible conversational transitions.

            “Lance,” Sad Boy says easily, “Yours?”

            “Keith,” he admits, “It probably came up in my Latin story. My brother’s name is Shiro – if you hadn’t figured it out by now.”

            “Now that you mention it, yes, there were some names thrown around in that story,” Lance grins, “Thanks for the brain fuel, Keith, I’ll be other there, at my corner table, resisting the urge to throw a Literature Anthology out the window.”

            “It’d bounce off,” Keith tells him, “The windows are plastic.”

            “Wow, way to ruin the Burger King mystique dude. Nailed down napkin dispensers, plastic windows. You really don’t trust us customers.”

            “Not really, no,” Keith agrees easily, “Good luck with your literature anthology.”

            “Thanks,” Lance says with a grimace, “I’m gonna need it.”

            Two hours later Lance is facedown in his lit textbook and wishing for death. All hope has fled his body. It’s one am and he’s still at a 24 hour fast-food joint, wrestling with 11th-grade English. Fuck everything.

            The shriek of a chair against linoleum wakes him from his stupor. He looks up blearily to see Keith spinning the chair around until he’s sitting backwards on it, arms braced on the back, chin resting on his wrists. “Okay, what are you reading?”

            “Huh?” Lance says because he is so very smooth and intelligent in the face of classic literature and beautiful Burger King employees.

            Keith raises an eyebrow, “What are you reading? I finished my physics homework. Now I’m helping you.” He punctuates the statement with a milkshake slid across the table towards Lance. Its frosty twin sits at Keith’s elbow.

            Lance blinks stupidly at the gesture and wishes his brain would work faster. God, he’s tired. “What?”

            “It’s a milkshake with zero actual milk in it. Welcome to fast food.”

            “Uh, thanks,” Lance takes a sip, the cold bursts against the roof of his mouth, freezing his sinuses and jolting him awake, “That’s pretty good. And uh, Julius Caeser.

            “Otherwise known as the second gayest Shakespeare play,” Keith mutters around his milkshake straw, startling a laugh out of Lance.

            “What?”

            “Oh, come on, all those lines about ‘brotherly love’? Please,” Keith rolls his eyes extravagantly, “The only play gayer than Caesar is Hamlet and that’s because Horatio is obviously in love with the hero.”

            Lance almost chokes on his milkshake, “Oh my god, what? I did not get that when they made us read it last year.”

            “Really? It’s not subtle,” Keith raises an eyebrow, “Watch it sometime, it’s more obvious on stage.”

            “Yeah?”

            “Well, yeah,” Keith shrugs, “They’re plays, right? So they aren’t supposed to be read. They’re supposed to be performed. If I wrote down our conversation with no body language, no indicators of what was actually going on and had someone read it, they’d be really confused, right?”

            “Yeah? But it’s not just that…”

            “It’s the language, right?” Keith is warming to the subject; his eyes are bright, his hands cutting through the air as he talks. He leans forward, hair sliding into his eyes as he gesticulates. He brushes his bangs back carelessly and Lance catches sight of a smattering of small white scars across his fingers and the angry red of split knuckles before the hands are ducking away again. “It’s super dense and complicated. It’s because this is before realism was a thing. Back then plays were partially about the story but also about showing off how good you were at using language, it was like a,” Keith pauses, searching for a word, “Riff-off? Or slam poetry? Maybe? That’s not right…I don’t know if we have a modern equivalent. Anyway, English was a pretty new language and people were adding words to it all the time. Shakespeare alone gave us dozens of new words. But plays weren’t about showing realistic conversations so much as using words in really clever, complicated ways. People didn’t really talk like this – I mean, hell, most of Romeo and Juliet is in fucking iambic pentameter. That’s not normal. So reading it seems really unnatural for two reasons – one, they weren’t meant to be read, and two, no one ever spoke like this! It’s super fucking weird!” Keith grins and Lance may not get Julius Caesar any more than he originally did, but at least he knows why he doesn’t get it.

            Keith is still talking. “Here,” he says, reaching over and grabbing the literature anthology, “Lemme see…” he flips through it, “Yeah, this’ll work.” And then he jumps on a fucking chair and starts reading “‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…’”

            Okay, Lance might be a little bit in love.

            “You’re home late,” Shiro says from an armchair like a goddamn sitcom dad and Keith nearly has a heart attack.

            “What the fuck, Shiro?”

            Shiro levels him with a look, “I was getting worried, Keith.”

            “Worry about giving me heart failure next time and don’t lurk in the shadows like a psycho.”

            Shiro raises an eyebrow, “It’s three in the morning, Keith. You have school tomorrow.”

            “I know, I know,” Keith waves him off, then pauses, realizing, “Wait, so do you! Why aren’t you in bed?”

            Shiro rubs the bridge of his nose the way he does when his scar is making his sinuses hurt, “I was up late working on my presentation for my early childhood development class and when you weren’t home at your usual time I figured I’d wait up for you.”

            “Why?”

            “Because it’s a nice thing to do?” Shiro sighs, “You’re an hour late; I was about ready to call the police.”

            “You wouldn’t have this problem if I had a cell phone,” Keith mutters, despite the fact that he knows they don’t have the money for it. He winces when his brother’s face twitches painfully. Shiro tries so hard. “Sorry, that was shitty of me. But seriously, don’t worry about me. I was helping a friend with English.”

            Shiro’s face clears immediately, “A friend?”

            Keith rolls his eyes because he’s tired and he’s a teenager and it’s allowed, “Just the sad guy at Burger King. He needed help with Julius Caesar.

            “You hate that play.”

            “Wrong, I hate how historically inaccurate it is. I don’t hate the play.”

            “Whatever. You stayed late to help someone with their homework.”

            “Ew, stop sounding like a proud soccer mom.”

            “But I’m so proud of you.

            “Ugh! Shiro, don’t hug me! I take it back; I was street racing stolen cars and chasing the dragon! Put me down!”

            Shiro just squeezes him tighter, the jackass, “You don’t even know what ‘chasing the dragon’ means.”

            “It has something to do with drugs, now quit it, you sap!”

            “Pidge.”

            “What.”

            “I understand Julius Caesar now.”

            Pidge blinks at him. They’re back in chemistry lab. Lance is pretty sure they did this experiment back in tenth grade. It’s feeling suspiciously like a re-run of a tv show you only half paid attention to the first time.

            “Congratulations?” Pidge says uncertainly, “Did you break down and use Sparknotes like I told you?”

            “I tried Sparknotes, my teacher is on to Sparknotes. She literally wrote ‘Sparknotes and Wikipedia will only get you so far’ in the margins of my last paper.”

            “Shit, I’ll have to re-write my English paper,” Pidge mutters, “So where’d the Shakespearean miracle come from?”

            “Hot Burger King Boy.”

            “What?!” Pidge shouts, then realizes half the class is staring at them and overcompensates by yelling “Baking powder is a base?! I had no idea!!!” really theatrically.

            “Real smooth, Pigeon,” Lance mutters in her ear.

            “Shut the fuck up, Lancelot,” Pidge mutters right back.

            A few quiet minutes later, Pidge looks at him, “But seriously, HBKB is a Shakespeare guy?”

            “Yeah, I guess. Oh, and we should probably stop calling him that, I actually know his name now.”

            “Aww, Lance gets a name and homework help all in one Burger King visit!” Pidge bats her eyes at him and he gives her a gentle shove.

            “Stop. He’s actually pretty cool. And he does a mean Mark Antony.”

            “Wait. What?”

            “Okay, I’ve got to show you this.”

            Lance totally took a video of Keith standing on that chair and reciting the ‘Brutus is an honorable man’ monologue.

            Keith sees Lance next a week later when he shows up at the Burger King with a backpack that looks, if anything, heavier. “Okay, I need all the fries – quit skimping, I know there are more than three things of fries back there – and someone to tell me why the fuck I should care about The Old Man and the Sea.

            “One, no, I’m still not giving you all the French fries. And two, you shouldn’t.”

            “What?” Lance looks utterly betrayed.

            Keith shrugs, “Old Man and the Sea is not thematically relevant to our age demographic.”

            Lance actually face-plants on the countertop.

            Keith pats him stiffly on the head and says, “I haven’t cleaned that yet; just so you know.”

            “Ughhhhh,” Lance groans, “Now I have to sanitize my face.”

            “How about I get us milkshakes and try to explain how my brother explained the book to me?”

            “That sounds good,” Lance mutters, still on the counter.

            Lance’s luck had to run out at some point. It’s been weeks since Mom returned from Val’s conference. Eventually she had to clue into his late-night wanderings. He could only depend on using his sisters’ many diverse activities, needs, and problems as a distraction for so long.

            He pads through the door after midnight, shoes in hand (he’d taken them off on the doorstep in a token effort to keep silent), only to be confronted with him mom in the kitchen…and oh, god, she’s cleaning. Mom only cleans when she’s pissed. She and Mama made a deal when they got married – literally every kid in the family has heard this story by now – Mama cleans and Mom cooks. Except when Mom is pissed. Then all bets are off.

            “I see you’re home,” Meg McClain bites out, attacking the stovetop with way more ferocity than it warrants.

            “Uh, yeah. Hey, Mom. I see you’re up late…cleaning…” Lance says uncomfortably.

            “I see you’re out way past your curfew,” Mom narrows her eyes at him. Mom has always reminded Lance a little of Molly Weasley without the red hair. She’s curvy and soft, with bright, laughing eyes and somehow always smells like chocolate chip cookies. She’s basically every good mom cliché in one cuddly package. Lance loves her like crazy.

            But heaven help you if she’s mad.

            “Uh, yeah…about that…” Lance hedges and he doesn’t know why, but he’s scanning the room for exits, like running away from her wrath is going to work somehow.

            “Do you have any idea how worried we were about you?” she doesn’t raise her voice, because, well, it’s midnight and the rest of the house is asleep, “I asked your sisters where you were, and what did they say? They said they didn’t know – probably swim team. And then Carly tells me you’re suspended from the team? Why? How? You didn’t tell us any of this! So now I’ve got you keeping secrets from me? Huh? And you’re out late doing god knows what, god knows where and I’m scared out of my mind that you’re tangled up in something terrible or that something terrible has happened to you, and – get in here, let me check your pupils!”

            “Check my? Mom, I’m not doing drugs!” Lance protests, but goes willingly enough and lets her check for herself. “I needed help with English – that’s why I got suspended from the team, okay? I was failing English, and I’ve got a friend, but he works and can only meet me late at night! I was getting tutored!”

            “And I’m supposed to believe that?” Mom huffs, and, apparently satisfied that his pupils are normal-sized, just sets about fussing, smoothing his hair and plucking at his t-shirt, running her hands over his shoulders and upper arms fretfully like she’s not sure he’s all there. “You, out roaming the streets all night, not telling any of us where you were.”

            And Lance shouldn’t say it, he really shouldn’t, but she’s smothering him and he’s had a really shitty few weeks and now he’s getting crap for the one thing that’s actually improved in his life lately and it’s too fucking much. “I didn’t think you’d care!” he snaps, pulling away sharply and straightening his t-shirt himself despite it not needing the attention, “I didn’t think anyone would care! It’s not like I’m all that important around here! I’m just the one in the middle, right? I’m the one that’s smart enough not to be a problem but dumb enough that he’s never going to do anything important so why bother paying attention to him? Lance doesn’t need it. Lance is average! Lance is fine! Well fuck, Mom, maybe I’ve been hanging out at Burger King during the graveyard shift because hey, at least there I’m just one of two people in the room and someone has to pay attention to me!” His eyes are filling with tears as everything he’s been bottling up the past month comes pouring out like an oil spill. He’s not looking at his mom because while a small, mean part of him wants to see, wants to watch her face crumple, most of him knows that he’s hurting her and can’t bear to watch. His eyes burn, he feels like someone shoved a softball down his throat and left it there.

            “Oh yeah, I’m really, really fine, Mom. Totally okay! Flunking English, kicked off swim team, and hey, my girlfriend broke up with me a few weeks ago after, hey, revealing that she’d just been using me for a better chemistry grade! I’m a loser, I’m lonely, and I’m apparently the go-to guy for other people’s problems because every time something goes even the tiniest bit wrong in Carly, Andie, or Sofie’s lives they come running to me! And I have to fix it for them? I’m sixteen years old, Mom! I can’t…” his chest is tight, he’s being crushed to death, it’s like the trash compacter in Star Wars, he’s just garbage being slowly compressed into smaller garbage until he’s finally small enough that he won’t bother anyone anymore.

            He drags in one more breath and it’s a struggle, “You know what, I’m grounding myself. I’m preemptively grounding myself because I don’t want to be in this room anymore and I really don’t want to get yelled at, so I’m just gonna go to my room now and think about what I did. Bye.”

            And then he leaves, nothing but stunned silence in his wake.

            He’s too messed up to feel guilty about it.

            Keith sees Lance next on a Saturday. It’s the day shift and Keith is hating the universe. His co-workers are more annoying than usual, he burned himself dunking a basket of fries in the deep-fryer, and he’s desperate to study for his physics test on Monday (he hates Monday tests, hates them so damn much because while the rest of his class has all weekend to study, he’s stuck working at the stupid Burger King – at least with weekday tests he can study the night before). The oil got him pretty good – he’s not surprised it used to be poured on invaders from castle turrets back in the dark ages, that shit hurts. He’s sitting off to the side, where the first aid kit is, struggling to smear burn ointment on the injury, which is harder than it sounds when said injury is basically a splatter of blisters tracking up his arm from wrist to elbow. He’s swearing (quietly, Saturday lunch is prime time for families with little kids) as he tries to wrap gauze around his dominant arm when he hears a familiar voice.

            “Uh, yeah, two kids’ meals, Whopper jrs? Yeah, those things, and uh, what did Carly want?”

            A little kid’s voice, too soft to make out the words, whispers the answer to Lance’s question.

            “And a twelve nugget meal. That’s a lot of nuggets. That’s way too many nuggets.”

            “Do you still want them?” One of Keith’s co-workers, a slightly ditzy girl named…um…Sherri? Carrie? Larry? Keith doesn’t know…asks.

            “Oh, yeah, totally. Just. What the fuck, Burger King, right?”

            “It’s a really great deal!” Cherry/Mary/Barry says, trying to recover some of her bubbly pep.

            “Oh, sure, yeah,” Lance sounds totally caught off-guard by her earnest attempt to actually sell him on Burger King merchandise. Keith smirks. Lance’s exposure to Keith has obviously not prepared him for people actually invested in this job. “Sooo…I’ll have that and…um…three orders of fries and a milkshake.”

            “Sure thing!” the girl – fuck it, Keith’s not gonna remember her name, chirps, typing it all in, “Will that be everything?”

            “Uh,” Lance chuckles, “Could I…could I get apple slices too?”

            The girl is nonplussed, “Sorry, sir, those only come with kids’ breakfast meals.”

            “Oh, okay,” Lance laughs awkwardly, “Just thought I’d check.”

            He finishes his transaction and Keith is relieved when he hears Lance confirm that they’ll be dining in.

            Awesome. Keith can catch him…if he can figure out how to make this gauze stick…

            Lance is not expecting the small plastic bag of apples when it comes flying out of nowhere and smacks him between the eyes. “What the fuckshit!” he yelps, flailing as the package drops onto his tray. His sisters giggle and he glares at them, “You did not hear that.”

            Carly rolls her eyes behind her mountain of nuggets – Lance is only 50% sure they’re chicken – “They’re not going to remember what the word is.”

            “Yeah, but they can always get me in trouble.”

            “More trouble than you’re already in?”

            “Shut up and eat your nuggets.”

            Then his brain catches up with his mouth and he realizes that he’s holding a package of slightly distressed-looking apples. “What...?” he looks up and, “Keith!” He did not mean for that to come out like that. He is a manly, fine-ass gentleman who does not squeak when confronted with hot Burger King boys.

            Keith raises an unimpressed eyebrow. “Lance. I heard you wanted sub-par apples. You realize you could buy an actual apple for less than I’m paying for those, right?”

            Lance blinks, “Well, yeah, but these apples taste like rebellion and rule-breaking. And that’s worth every penny.”

            Keith rolls his eyes but he’s smiling a cute little smile so everything’s okay. “Whatever.”

            Lance opens his mouth, undoubtedly about to say something dumb, that’s all he ever seems to do these days, he thinks wryly, when he catches sight of Keith’s right arm. “Holy sh- crap! Holy crap, Keith! What the he- holy guacamole did you do to your arm?!”

            “Nice save,” Carly mutters at him from the side of her mouth and Lance is not too mature to stick his tongue out at her while Andrea and Sofia giggle.

            Keith looks at his arm like it’s somehow a surprise that it’s attached to his body and swathed with an unholy amount of gauze. “Burned it,” he says blandly.

            “On what?!”

            Keith shrugs, “The fryer. It’s not that bad. Stovetop burns are worse.”

            “Sit down and let me fix –” Lance gestures vaguely at him, “you” he finishes lamely but emphatically, “Let me fix you.”

            Keith blinks at him like this is a strange thing to say or do in a Burger King and hey, maybe it is, but that doesn’t change the fact that Lance is a mother hen at heart and Keith needs to sit his ass down and be nurtured.

            Remarkably, Keith sits his ass down and allows himself to be nurtured.

            Lance zeroes in on the arm immediately, gently, gently unspooling the gauze that was haphazardly bunched around it. “Oh, by the way, these are my little sisters, Carly, Andrea, and Sofia,” he says casually, “Little sisters, this is my buddy Keith.”

            “Hi,” Keith waves with his free arm and the littlest two chorus back a cheerful “Hi” while Carly watches with a skeptically raised eyebrow.

            “Buddy?” she asks archly.

            “Yeah,” Lance says through his teeth, “Buddy.”

            Carly snorts but returns to her nuggets. “Nice to meet you, Keith.”

            “Sure,” Keith replies awkwardly as Lance digs through his (Lance’s) backpack, “What are you doing?”

            “Getting my first aid kit,” Lance pulls it out triumphantly, “I’ve got little sisters. And a klutzy best friend. I’ve always got my kit on hand. Speaking of little monsters, why don’t you two go play?” Lance suggests to Sofia and Andrea and they’re off to the Playland like they have rockets in their pockets.

            “Make sure they wash their hands after they’re done,” Keith says, “I haven’t cleaned it in a while.”

            Now it’s Lance’s turn for a skeptical eyebrow-raise, “Uh? Dude? I don’t think you’re solely responsible for all Burger King sanitation.”

            “No, but sometimes I get bored and deep-clean everything late at night.”

            “You’re so weird.”

            “I don’t think you really understand how little there is to do when there aren’t any customers.”

            Lance rolls his eyes and focuses on the blisters marching up Keith’s forearm. “You really did a number on yourself.”

            Keith shrugs, “It happens.”

            “Stop talking and let me heal you.”

            Keith laughs at that. Lance ignores the straw wrapper Carly shoots his way and the significant sisterly eyebrow wiggle that follows it.

            Keith mentions what’s been bothering him since he first heard Lance’s voice during the despicable day shift when Carly gets up to throw away her trash.

            “You haven’t been around recently. Are you okay?”

            Lance chuckles awkwardly, “Uh, yeah, totally.”

            Keith squints suspiciously at him.

            “Okay, no, not really. I kind of got caught sneaking back into the house really late the night we worked on Old Man and the Sea – ha, another reason to hate that book – anyway, I kind of blew up at my mom and vented a whole bunch of stuff I’d been brooding about for a long time and now everything’s super tense at home. She hasn’t said anything, but I think I really upset her and everyone’s shooting each other significant looks and avoiding talking about it now. So I’m just…being really careful to follow all the rules. I guess.”

            Keith is pretty sure it’s not appropriate to tell someone he’s only met a few times that he misses them and they were kind of the best thing about this crappy job. Then again, he’s not really sure where the boundaries are in their bizarre friendship. Everything about their relationship seems kind of elastic. Or maybe temporary. But Keith doesn’t want to think about temporary things.

            “Oh. Okay. That sucks.”

            Lance sighs heavily, “It really does, man.”

            Lance has been avoiding his mom for a week and it’s getting really hard. Plus, Hunk keeps shooting him concerned looks at school and Pidge won’t stop furrowing her brows in his general direction like he’s a really complicated math problem she needs to solve and it’s just too much. So he volunteers to pick Sofie and Andie up from school not because he’s a good son prone to random acts of kindness but because he’s been staring blankly at an excerpt from the Iliad so long his brain has turned the random squiggles on the page to just that – random squiggles.

            Also, he heard his mom come in the back door with groceries and he doesn’t want to see her when he’s the only person home (his school gets out at a different time than the littles’ and Carly had a debate team meeting after class).

            So he yells “Going to pick up Sofie and Andie!” over his shoulder and bolts for his car because he doesn’t handle confrontation well. Or at all.

            He pulls up to the elementary school and immediately feels like an idiot. He doesn’t actually know where to go. He parks the car and walks in mostly because he’s not sure what else to do. Maybe if he stands in the lobby looking like a moron long enough someone will steer him in the right direction.

            Remarkably, it works.

            “Hi, are you looking for someone?” Lance turns around to see probably, objectively, one of the most beautiful people he’s ever seen, looking at him with concern. He’s tall, taller than Lance, with dark hair interrupted by a shock of bright white, built like Captain America, with a…scar…across his face. Shit. It couldn’t be.

            “Are you Shiro?” Lance blurts out because Lance has no filter.

            The guy blinks, “Yes? I’m sorry, do I know you?”

            “Uh, yeah, no, actually no. I know your brother Keith? He talks about you a lot.”

            “All complaints, right?” the guy – Shiro – laughs wryly.

            “Uh, no. Not really. Except he’s still mad you made him take Advanced Latin in ninth grade.”

            “That’s my kid brother – he can hold a grudge. So, Lance, I’m assuming you’re Lance, why are you here?” Shiro is looking at him with bright, curious eyes and Lance is having a hard time thinking past the warm rush of ‘Keith talks about me when I’m not there’.

            “My sisters,” he blurts out, “My little sisters, Andrea and Sofia McClain-Sanchez, are in after-school-care and I’m here to pick them up.”

            “Oh, sure, that makes sense. Here, I’ll just turn these in to the office - ” and that’s the first time Lance realizes Shiro is holding an armful of manila folders “- and we’ll go get your sisters.” He smiles kindly and Lance kind of gets why Keith obviously looks up to this guy so much.

            “You did a good job on Keith’s arm,” Shiro says conversationally as they meander down the hall to the gym, “He needs to be more careful.”

            “Oh, thanks,” Lance says, “I took a first aid course in eighth grade and really liked it. I’m a lifeguard at the pool during the summer.”

            “It was kind of you to patch him up.”

            “Ah, well, he was kind of the only thing I could patch up these days, so I went for the easy job,” Lance says ruefully and he’s not sure why he’s saying this to Shiro, but there’s something about the guy’s face that just invites confidences.

            Shiro tips his head to the side in a kind of general ‘go on, I’m listening’ gesture.

            Lance sighs, “I kind of really fucked up with my mom last week. I got caught coming home late and she was pissed and I’d kind of been bottling up some pretty messy stuff for a while and when she pushed it all sort of came pouring out all at once. I didn’t mean to yell at her but I sort of did and now I don’t know what to do. Because I meant what I said but I wish I hadn’t said it like that. Not in that way, you know? Like, I wish there had been a mature, adult conversation about it instead me screaming at my mom, who’s awesome, just, she’s a really great mom, in the middle of the night because I was tired and stressed and just snapped.”

            Shiro hums thoughtfully and Lance is suddenly deeply embarrassed.

            “Oh my god, I’m sorry I said that. I’m sorry I said any of that. God. You’re a stranger. You really don’t want to know my stupid problems. I’m so sorry.”

            “It’s okay,” Shiro gives him a gentle smile. Without Lance having realized it Shiro’s steered them over to a bench and is now sitting them down, “Sometimes it’s easier to unload to a stranger. People tell me their problems all the time, and I try to help them deal.”

            “Is it hard for you?” Lance asks, “Because ever since my older sisters left home the younger ones keep coming to me every time they have a problem and half the time I don’t know what to do with it!”

            “That’s just life,” Shiro says bluntly, “Life hands you problems and you can either deal with them or just break down. I wouldn’t recommend the ‘breaking down’ option.”

            “Are you some kind of Jedi Master?”

            “No, I’m just a guy who’s had some tough breaks and decided to learn from them.” It should sound cheesy, but coming from Shiro it seems profound. “Talk to your mom,” he suggests, “I hate to be that guy, but you’ll regret it if you don’t. Try having that adult conversation you wanted. There were a lot of things I didn’t tell my mom, a lot of issues we didn’t address. I regret it now.”

            “Keith said – ” Lance begins, but then stops, suddenly unable to remember if Keith said his mother is and archaeologist or was an archaeologist.

            “I don’t know what Keith said,” Shiro acknowledges, “But our mother has been dead for four years. I’ve had custody of Keith since he was twelve.”

            “Oh.” Lance tries and fails to imagine having custody of Andrea or Sofia, “How old were you?”

            “Twenty-two.”

            “Oh.”

            “It is what it is,” Shiro says simply, “It’s how life happened for us. But I’d talk to your mom. Don’t let stuff fester. You only get so many chances to talk about things,” he chuckles but there isn’t much humor in the sound, “I’ve been avoiding talking about any number of things with my father for years. It makes life harder than it needs to be.”

            “Why don’t you talk to your dad about whatever it is?”

            “I let it go for too long. It’s his normal now, not talking. And I can’t get through to him.”

            “That sucks, man,” Lance says for lack of anything better.

            Shiro actually laughs at that. “Funny. That’s exactly what Keith has to say about it. Now,” he claps Lance on the shoulder, “Good talk. Let’s go get your sisters.”

            There’s a storm that night. Heavy rain, rumbling thunder, lighting cracking across the sky, splitting open the clouds and leaving them to bleed torrents of water. Keith sits at the window and watches it and tries to swallow the taste of mud rising against his tongue.

            It’s all in your head. It’s all in your head. It’s not that storm.

            “Hey,” Shiro says, his hand falling heavy on Keith’s head, “You okay, buddy?” Shiro doesn’t call him ‘buddy’ or ‘kiddo’ much anymore. Keith misses it but will never tell him. He misses Mom calling him ‘Chickadee’ and wrapping him in her sun-kissed arms and hugging him tight. He misses the way she’d grab his hands and pull him into an impromptu dance whenever they found something that caught her spirit in a particular way. He misses her dusky, dusty voice singing old songs half-forgotten as they walked the desert.

            The taste of mud is heavy on his tongue and he flinches the next time lightning cracks.

            “Hey,” he forces out, “I’m fine.”

            “I saw a friend of yours today,” Shiro says, apparently willing to believe Keith for now, but doesn’t move his hand from the top of Keith’s head.

            Keith almost says ‘I don’t have friends’ but then remembers someone. “Lance? How?”

            “He was at the school to pick up his sisters. We had a good talk.”

            Keith pulls a face, “You didn’t say anything weird, did you?”

            “None of your business,” Shiro says smugly, “But no, we didn’t talk about you much at all. He’s just having a rough time right now. I think he needed to vent to a stranger. I gave some advice and sent him on his way. No harm done.”

            Keith snorts but doesn’t argue.

            “You know, Keith,” Shiro begins haltingly, “If there’s anything you need to talk to me about you can always say something. Always. I’ll listen.”

            “What brought this on?” Keith asks teasingly but he feels like he knows what Shiro’s talking about.

            “Just thinking.”

            Keith sighs and flinches again when thunder splits the sky. “I have nightmares,” he admits to his folded hands. “About the storm. And the mudslide. The one that killed Mom.”

            “I have nightmares about Afghanistan.”

            “Huh. We match.”

            “I guess we do.”

            They stay together and watch storm.

            Lance isn’t sure when he became the go-to guy for this littlest sisters whenever there’s a storm or something equally scary like monsters under the bed and spiders on the ceiling, but they’re at his door at 11pm, blankets and pillows in hand.

            “Lance?” Sofia whisper-shouts, “Are you awake?”

            “No,” he mumbles into this pillow, “I’m sleeping.”

            “We’re scared,” there’s a quaver in Andrea’s voice that goes straight to his heart, “The thunder’s really loud.”

            “I’m not scared,” Sofia says fiercely, despite the tremor in her voice, “Just, the lightning’s really bright and I keep seeing it and…I can’t sleep.”

            “Are too scared,” Andrea mutters at her. Andrea’s the older of the two but has less of Sofie’s brashness.

            “Am not,” Sofie sounds like she’s about to cry so Lance intervenes.

            “Get over here, I can’t sleep if you keep talking,” he sighs, dramatic, like they’re a huge inconvenience.

            They don’t seem bothered by his theatrics, judging by the way they rush his bed and immediately crawl up next to him, one on either side, and cuddle close. He wraps an arm around each of them and sighs deeply.

            “You know it’s not going to hurt you. It’s just noise.”

            “Sonic booms can bust your eardrums,” Andrea mutters into his sleep shirt, “Mrs. Crawford said in science class.”

            “Well these aren’t sonic booms. They’re just really angry clouds.”

            “Lightning can so hurt you,” Sofia protests, “It can hit you and fry you up like a French fry. And then you’re extra-crispy dead.”

            “Okay, way to make me not want to eat French fries,” he grumps, “You know lighting only hits really tall stuff, right? The tallest thing it can find. And you,” he squeezes her, “Are extra-extra short.”

            “Am not!”

            “Like an elf. Or a dwarf. You’re going to have to go live with Snow White in the woods you’re so short. Work in the mines like Sleepy and Dopey.”

            “No I won’t!”

            “Oh, I change my mind. You’re not Dopey, you’re Grumpy. A grumpy little dwarf.”

            “Am not,” she protests and kicks him.

            “Hey, no kicking,” he says, “Flannel pajama pants are not armor. I can still bruise, y’know.”

            Sofia huffs and doesn’t apologize, but hugs him tighter as if to say ‘I’m sorry but not that sorry’. He’ll take it.

            “So don’t worry, hermanita, you’re not gonna get struck by lighting.”

            “Okay.” In the way of little kids – zero to sixty in half a second – she sounds drowsy already. She emphasizes this with a huge yawn soon mimicked by her sister on Lance’s other side. And within five minutes they’re out like lights.

            But Lance is wide-awake now, lying on his back, staring at the old glow-in-the-dark stars stuck haphazardly to his ceiling. Thinking. Thinking about his mom and his sisters and Keith and Shiro. What had Shiro said? “You only get so many chances…”

            Lance sighs. He really doesn’t want to deal with this. But he wants to keep living like this even less. He misses his mom, despite her never having left.

            Andrea and Sofia are dead to the world, gone totally limp on top of his arms. He extricates himself carefully and leaves them snoozing. Immediately after he leaves they migrate to the middle of his bed and curl up around each other like puppies. Filled with a sudden, weird rush of warmth he kisses them each on the forehead before shrugging on a hoodie against the chill of his room, shoving his feet into slippers and heading downstairs.

            His mom is sitting at the kitchen table. She’s wearing the puffy pink robe Mama got her last Christmas, sipping herbal tea and skimming a magazine, her delicate fingers tracing the lines as she goes. She has small hands; artist’s hands with small round nails painted a soft baby pink like her robe. He light brown hair is pulled up and away from her face in a messy bun.

            He knew he’d find her here. His mama sleeps like the dead – she sets three different alarms on her phone to force her to wake up on time every morning. But his mom is a light sleeper, always has been. During storms she goes downstairs and makes herself tea. When Lance was little and Val and Jamie were still at home, before Andrea and Sofia, Mom used to make a blanket fort in the living room and they’d all camp out there while thunder boomed. Lance has never been afraid of storms and he doesn’t know if it’s because he loves them or because his mom taught him from a young age that good things happen when it rains. They haven’t done that for a while. After Andrea and Sofia happened things were too busy, there were so many of them in the house going in all different directions, there wasn’t time.

            “Hey, Mom,” he says uncomfortably, going to the cabinet and pulling out the hot cocoa, “Can’t sleep?”

            “No,” she agrees softly. He doesn’t want to look at her, he can already feel her eyes on his back, but he can’t help it. He turns around and she’s looking at him with big, sad blue eyes.

            Lance goes back to making cocoa but his hands are shaking a little as he measures out the milk and cocoa powder and drops a round red and white peppermint in the bottom of the soon-to-be-full mug.

            “Lance, honey,” his mom is still sitting at the table, still looking at him, “Come sit down.”

            “I’ve gotta watch the pot.”

            “No you don’t. Let the milk simmer and sit down.”

            Lance sighs and settles across from her, slumping a little. “What, Mom?” He’s suddenly tired but not sleepy. He wonders if this is what ‘weary’ feels like.

            “We need to talk. What you said the other night – ”

            “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that,” Lance interrupts, “I’m sorry.”

            “Apology accepted,” she says in that ‘terms and conditions apply’ tone of voice moms tend to have when accepting half-assed apologies, “But there’s obviously a lot still to talk about.”

            Lance laughs nervously, “Is there? Is there really? We’re fine now, right? I said I’m sorry, I am sorry, and you said it’s okay, so there, yes, we’re good. Do you think the milk is ready?”

            “Stop worrying about the milk and quit changing the subject.”

            Lance slouches in his chair and presses his lips together.

            “Lance, look at me,” she says, “You’ve obviously been very unhappy the last few weeks and yes, we missed it. We thought you were – ”

            “- Fine,” Lance finishes for her with a little grimace, “Cause I’m always fine, right?”

            “You never said anything. We’re not mind readers. If you’re unhappy or need help or someone to talk to – ”

            “What? You’ll be here? Mom, you were out of town at Val’s thing, Mama was working all the time and I had nine million other things to do. When exactly was there a good time to tell you about my problems?”

            “You could have said something before I left. Or after I got back.”

            Lance shook his head, “It wasn’t a big deal.”

            “It obviously was to you.”

            “No, I mean, there were…bigger…you know…things. I spent all that time listening to Andie and Carly and Sofie’s problems and they’re a big deal. They needed you more.”

            “Oh honey,” Mom reaches out and touches his face, “You did beautifully when I was out of town. I came home and asked Carly about that boy she was having problems with, and she said you told her how to handle it and whatever you said, it worked. She’s much happier now. And Andrea stuck up to those bullies and Sofia…well, I’m sorry about your phone, honey. But you did good; you didn’t yell at her, you showed her how to dry out a phone and she is very, very sorry. I came home and all your sisters were talking about how great a job you did and your Mama was so impressed and you didn’t have much to say and we all just…assumed.”

            “Just assumed I was fine,” Lance mumbles, blinking rapidly, “But I wasn’t, Mom. High school sucks and everyone was taking me for granted. I was losing my mind.”

            “I know, baby, I’m sorry.” His mom comes around the table and wraps her arms around his shoulders in a tight mom-hug, stroking his hair and kissing his forehead, “I know.”

            He sighs. “I’m not smart like Val and Carly, Mom. I’m not tough like Jamie and I’m not creative like Andie and Sofie. I’m just…Lance. I’m failing a language I’ve been speaking since I was a baby and I don’t know why. The only classes I’m any good at are home ec and chemistry and people make fun of me for taking home ec. My friends are all super-genuises and I’m just…Lance. My best chance at passing English is sneaking out and going to Burger King at midnight so a super-hot Burger King employee can explain Julius Caesar to me while I try not to drool at him. Oh yeah, and I have a hopeless crush on my English tutor/junk food supplier. He’s my age and super hot and I have no idea why he even talks to me. The day we met I was crying in the drive-thru because my day sucked and I was sad. He gave me free French fries.”

            “Mmmhmm,” Mom is stroking his hair and rocking them back and forth gently.

            “I just…I don’t know,” he slumps in her arms, unable to articulate further.

            “Oh sweetheart,” Mom says, “You are so much more than you think you are. You are so kind and so smart – don’t argue with me, Lance McClain-Sanchez, I’m right and you’re wrong. And you are so important to this family. You hear me? We love you so much. And we’re here for you, okay? We’re here.”

            “Okay, Mom.”

            “Don’t ‘okay, Mom’ me like that. I don’t need you to just say ‘okay’ like that, I need you to hear me and believe what I’m saying, hon.”

            “I believe you, Mom. I’m sorry for yelling at you.”

            “I’m sorry you were so unhappy, honey. Just know that you’re my baby too, you and all your sisters, you’re all my babies. And I will always listen, Mama too. No matter what, we’re here.”

            “Thanks, Mom.”

            “And that boy at Burger King you like so much? Ever think he might like you too?”

            “What!” Lance sputters and tries to pull away, “Noooo, no way! He just feels sorry for the crazy drive thru guy!”

            “Hmm,” Mom pulls away after smoothing his hair one last time, “I don’t think people with plenty of other, better things to do, take time to tutor someone they ‘just feel sorry for’ until one in the morning.” She grins, blue eyes sparkling, “Just a guess.”

            Lance opens his mouth to respond, to say something, anything, when she interrupts him.

            “I think your milk’s about to boil over.”

            “Shit!” He leaps up and tries to save his cocoa while his mom laughs.

            The morning after the storm dawns soft and grey, a slight blush of pink staining the clouds. Water drips off the trees outside Keith and Shiro’s apartment, the bare branches like fragile black finger-bones against the smoke-colored sky. The whole world smells clean and fresh, like clear water and stone.

            The morning after the mudslide everything had looked and felt dirty. Every sense clogged with mud; mud smells, mud tastes, mud that wouldn’t wash off his skin no matter how raw he scrubbed it. Keith felt like he’d escaped a grave, cracked open his coffin and clawed his way to the surface through miles of muck and grime.

            He doesn’t like to think about it much, it’s part of a passel of memories he’s tied up, locked up, hidden away in the back of his head.

            But this morning feels clean, unnaturally, unusually clean. The air feels fresher when he breathes it and his chest doesn’t feel locked up quite so tight.

            He reaches under his bed and pulls out the shoebox, undoes the belt he’d wrapped around it to keep it closed. Inside are Mom’s field notes and postcards and photos. Dusty orange rocks and smooth grey pebbles and shards of razor-sharp obsidian he’d collected since he’d learned to walk. A fossil the size of his palm, the imprint of an ancient sea creature left behind in stone. A bird skull and whatever fragments of its skeleton he and his mom had managed to find. The box smells like wilderness, like dirt and dust and clean air and ancient history.

            Keith breathes deep and digs through the contents, fingers skimming over each item, sometimes pausing and resting somewhere before moving on. A handwritten transcription of Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ in his mother’s writing on the back of a gas station receipt. A bundle of clay, glass and wood bead bracelets – handmade, strung on leather strings, that she’d picked up at a roadside stand in Mexico. A well-thumbed packet of maps of the North American southwest with notations in his mother’s messy scrawl and his messier hand.

            He finds a faded photo – and there they are. His mom; her dark hair a riot of competing cowlicks, just like his; her eyes the same violet-blue-black he sees in the mirror every day. She’s wearing cargo pants, a broad-brimmed hat, and a dust-colored shirt, sitting on a rock somewhere in the desert. Keith is young, maybe seven or eight, standing on the rock beside her hip. She has an arm wrapped loosely around him, her other arm draped over a grinning, teenaged Shiro’s shoulders. Shiro, sunburnt and smiling without a scar interrupting the pink peeling skin of his nose. He crouches on the ground beside their mom’s rock, pointing at something in the ground, but whatever they’d found is cut out of the picture, the frame is locked around the three of them instead.

            Keith flips it over and in place of an explanation he finds another poem on the back. ‘America’ by Walt Whitman.

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

            Keith reads it, mouthing along with the outdated words and has no idea what it means. But it rattles around the echo-chamber of his brain and when he puts the box away he slides the photo into the inside pocket of his jacket, beside his heart, as if he’s hoping somehow proximity will give him clarity.

            “You fix things with your mom?” Hunk asks in gym class. They’re playing kickball, again, because they have last period gym and by that point the teacher has run out of fucks to give. Their team is on outfield duty which basically means if you stand around far enough away you don’t have to do anything and the less you try to get people out, the longer you can just stand around. Lance is pretty sure he saw a girl texting on first base. The guy on third is definitely on Snapchat. He and Hunk are just chatting and watching Pidge (who’s on the other team) speed around the bases and kick the ball like it’s personally offended her.

            “Yeah,” Lance says. He feels lighter today; the ordinary high school bullshit isn’t ticking him off nearly as much as usual. He got an A on his chemistry test and he still got a B- on his economics paper even with the points knocked off for being late. School lunch was definitely toxic and possibly radioactive, but a brief recon mission to the teacher’s lounge during free period won them free donuts and one of Hunk’s long-suffering sighs.

            It’s been a pretty good day.

            “We’re starting a new book in English,” Hunk says.

            “Yeah, thank god we’re finally off of the Iliad. I had to cheat and get the prose version, that poetry shit was tripping me up.”

            “Keith tell you to do that?”

            Lance flushes, “No, I haven’t seen him since last Saturday. I came up with it on my own. I was thinking about what he said, you know, about Julius Caesar and how that’s not how people really talk. So I found a version of the book that’s not in poetry.”

            “Dude,” Hunk gives him a look, “You could have shared that with me.”

            “You get good grades in English!”

            “Epic poetry. Just. No.” Hunk pokes him in the shoulder and it almost knocks Lance over, “Share next time you have a smart idea.”

            “I shared the donuts Pidge and I stole!”

            “A smart idea.”

            Lance just grins in response. Hunk called one of his ideas smart and he gets to see Keith tonight, his moms said it was ok. It’s a good day.

            Keith is ignoring his stupid physics homework (he hates that class with the fire of a thousand suns) in favor of sitting on the counter at his empty, late-night Burger King and re-reading the Whitman poem on his mom’s photo when Lance comes in.

            “Wow, you’re not working when I’m not here? The illusion is shattered.”

            “Oh yeah, I’m totally giving my full attention to the hundreds of customers gathered here. Can’t you see them, they’re everywhere,” Keith says dryly, not looking up from the poem.

            “Now that you mention it…no, no I don’t. All I see is an empty Burger King and a slacker.”

            Keith grabs a paper cup from the counter-dispenser and chucks it in Lance’s general direction.

            “Hey, rude and uncalled-for!” Lance yelps. The cup makes a faint pop-clopping sound as it bounces off of him and onto the floor.

            Keith just smirks.

            “So,” and Lance is suddenly there, hopping up on the counter beside him. “What’cha reading?”

            Keith startles slightly, turning to look at his new companion. “What are you doing?”

            “Trying to read over your shoulder like a creeper. So, you know, you might want to hold still. I’m a slow reader, and that handwriting is definitely fucking with my brain, this might take a while.”

            Keith rolls his eyes and bumps Lance’s shoulder with his. “Or I could read it to you.”

            “Or you could do that,” Lance grins and he’s really, really close. Keith leans away out of self-preservation.

            He clears his throat and reads out his mother’s poem; “ ‘Centre of equal daughters, equal sons, All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old…’

            Lance surprises him by listening to the whole thing. Keith half expected him to get bored and wander off, although that’s not necessarily fair. Lance is a good listener when he wants to be.

            “I just,” Keith huffs, “Don’t get it.”

            Lance gives him a puzzled look, “But you’re so good at this,” he says, earnestly, like Keith’s amazing reading comprehension is a fundamental law of his universe. It’s both flattering and intimidating.

            “Well,” Keith huffs irritably, “I don’t get this one.”

            “What’s it on?”

            Keith raises an eyebrow at him as if to say ‘if I knew that, I would get it’ and Lance rolls his eyes.

            “No, I mean, what’s it written on?”

            Keith pauses, the photo shaking in his hand slightly. He looks down and realizes he’s actually pulled it away from Lance, towards himself, defensively without meaning to. “It’s just…a thing,” he says lamely.

            “Oh, sorry, dude, if you don’t want to show it to me,” Lance has his hands up in the classic ‘I mean no harm’ pose and he’s scooting down the counter, away from Keith and the photo he’s still clutching.

            Keith shakes his head. This feels wrong; he doesn’t want this. He breathes out, one harsh, sharp gust of air. “It’s just…it’s an old picture,” he mumbles at his feet, “From back when my mom was alive. That’s her handwriting on the back. She loved poetry. Whenever she saw something she liked she’d write it on whatever was handy. She used to say she was a magpie; she collected shiny, interesting things. She was always saying stuff like that – nicknaming people after birds and saying things were colors when they weren’t actually but kind of were? I don’t know how to explain it. It always made sense when she did.” His mom had made everything make sense.  

            He shrugs, and thinks about birds, the utter freedom of flight. “You can look at it, if you want.” He holds it out, arm stiff, still not looking up, not sure he wants to see what’s on Lance’s face.

            Lance takes the photo gently, carefully, like it’s fragile. There’s a long moment of silence as he examines it.

            “I think I get it,” he finally says after a small eternity. “Yeah, I think I get it.”

            “Huh?” Keith looks up, nonplussed.

            But Lance is grinning at him and there’s something soft in his eyes, “I mean, I don’t think it’s what this Walt Whitman dude meant when he wrote it but I think I get what your mom saw in it.”

            Keith blinks at him, “What?”

            “It’s about all that stuff that’s too big for words. Like, that whole line ‘Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love’ line. It’s about everything and how it’s so much bigger than us but it’s in us. It’s how we feel about people, about each other. Like, we’re temporary, right? But we’re part of something bigger, so we’re ‘All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old’, we’re ‘Chair’d in the adamant of Time’ too. He suddenly flushes and looks away, the light in his eyes dimming slightly. I mean, that’s just what I think. I dunno, I’m no good at this stuff.”

            But something is unfurling in Keith’s chest, something bright and beautiful that had closed up, been plastered over by the mud that morning after the storm. “No, that’s it. That’s exactly it.”

            And Lance’s smile is like the sun.

            “Okay, so new book today,” Lance is trying to tell Keith about his new English assignment, but Keith’s so distracting. There’s something different about his face, it’s just as beautiful as before but there’s something more settled about it now. He doesn’t seem so distant and impossible as before. And he’s smiling more.

            “What book?” Keith is automatically getting the usual fries and milkshakes, practically on autopilot at this point.

            “Uh, The Outsiders? By S.E. Hinton? Never heard of it before but at least it’s short.”

            Keith’s eyes light up and Lance is pretty sure he just took a javelin to the heart. “That’s one of my favorites, move,” and then he’s jumping over the counter, skidding across the smooth plastic surface like he’s on the run from the law, a milkshake in each hand. “Grab the fries,” he says over his shoulder like this should be the obvious action to take in this situation, “Now siddown and gimme the book,” he mumbles around the straw he’s already using to gulp down a healthy (or catastrophically unhealthy) amount of milkshake.

            “Uh, what? What is going on?” Lance asks, dumbfounded.

            Keith looks at him like he’s a tap-dancing moose. “I’m going to read it to you.”

            “What?”

            Keith shrugs, “You can take notes or zone out or just listen, whatever. Just, this book, it’s really amazing and it’s kind of important to me and I want to share it with you. Plus it’s written in a pretty conversational style. It sounds better out loud.”

            “Really?” Lance says, settling himself across from Keith at their usual table, “And you know this from personal experience?”

            “Uh, yeah,” Keith colors slightly, “I was a pretty…uh…adventurous kid and the only way to get me to sit still on long car rides was when my brother read to me. When he was in Afghanistan he’d call and sometimes we wouldn’t even talk, he’d just read to me.”

            Lance blinks, “I’d make fun of that, but that’s legitimately adorable and I’m not that much of an asshole.”

            Keith rolls his eyes, “Good to know. Now shut up and let me read to you.”

            “Aye, aye, captain,” Lance salutes extravagantly and pulls out a notebook, fully intending to take notes.

            But then Keith cracks the book’s spine and reads: “ ‘When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind – Paul Newman and a ride home – ’ ”

            And Lance is gone.

            Two weeks and several passionate arguments about The Outsiders characters later (“Dallas Winston speaks to me” “Pfft, no way, Keith, you’re totally Ponyboy” “What?” “Yep, 100%.”), Lance bursts into Burger King during the graveyard shift shouting for joy. Keith looks up from the AP US History textbook he’d been ignoring in favor of a book of Walt Whitman poetry and raises an eyebrow. He even opens his mouth like he’s going to ask Lance what the fuck he’s doing running through Burger King shouting like a madman, but then Lance is right there, in his personal space and…they’re kissing? Like, really kissing and Keith’s pretty sure his brain just died.

            It’s pretty incredible, brain dead or not.

            But then Lance is pulling away, hands braced on the counter on either side of Keith, looking up at him with bright eyes. “I got my first A in English, ever and it’s totally your fault.”

            “So is this a ‘I’m so happy I could kiss you’ sort of kiss? An accidental, ‘let’s not talk about this ever’ kiss? Or did you lose a bet? Am I missing something?” Keith says because his most basic response when confronted with that which he does not understand is to distance himself with words.

            ‘This is a ‘I’m really happy and you’re really amazing and I totally want to date you and maybe get food and fight over books somewhere other than Burger King’ kiss.”

            “Oh okay,” is the best verbal response Keith can come up with but then he’s looping his arms around Lance’s neck and kissing him again so that’s just fine.

Epilogue – freshman year of college, two years later

            “Come on, loser, we’re going shopping!”

            “That’s both a misquote and a blatant lie,” Keith says, not even looking up as first Lance then Pidge fling themselves onto his dorm bed, Hunk settling gently on the end because he is a nice person who doesn’t try to flatten their friends. Pidge bounces beside Keith, narrowly avoiding elbowing him in the head, Lance is half on top of him and Keith has to lift his book out of the way of his boyfriend’s flailing limbs.

            “Hi,” Lance rests his chin on Keith’s chest, “how are you?”

            “You guys don’t even go here!” Keith whines, but he’s smiling so the complaining doesn’t work.

            “Dude, our campus is across town. And this town has like three people and a cow,” Lance points out.

            “And a shit-ton of snow,” Pidge agrees from where she’s now sitting on Keith’s pillow, her sharp elbow resting on top of his skull.

            “Very true,” Lance agrees sagely, “And we, being bored and stir-crazy and wanting for entertainment deigned to trek all this way to visit you, you ingrate – ”

            “Lance was whining about not seeing you and we needed something to do,” Hunk interjects, “So we brought him to you.”

            “And movies because it’s Saturday, prime marathon time. And popcorn. Lots of popcorn. And candy. And red vines,” Pidge grimaces, “fucking red vines. Fake-ass licorice.”

            “Heeeey, I like red vines,” Lance protests. He hasn’t really bothered to do much other than roll over to Keith’s other side so he’s squished between boyfriend and wall, one arm thrown over his boyfriend, his back against the wall.

            Pidge sticks her tongue out at him and Keith is torn between defending the honor of black (real) licorice and backing up his significant other when his roommate walks through the door and immediately grimaces.

            “I see you’re fraternizing with the enemy again.”

            Seriously, this school rivalry thing is dumb as shit, but it’s what happens when you live in a tiny town stranded in the middle of Minnesota with nothing but the two college campuses on either side of town for entertainment.

            “Oh Keith and I do more than fraternize –“ Lance begins but Keith flicks him in the forehead to shut him up, “Ow, babe,” he complains, but goes back to resting his head on Keith’s shoulder and glaring at Uptight Roommate.

            “They’re my friends, they don’t touch your stuff and they clean up after themselves,” Keith says.

            “Well, I do,” Hunk admits, because Hunk is very aware of what slobs the rest of them can be.

            “Hunk does,” Keith amends, “They’re here; they’re behaving themselves. Deal with it.”

            Uptight Roommate grimaces, “You know this is a men’s floor. No women – ”

            “Listen, can you hear that?” Pidge says lightly, “That’s the sound of my boobs not caring. Now get lost if you’re just gonna hate.”

            Uptight Roommate scrunches up his face and stalks off to the sound of Lance’s choked-off laughter and Keith’s soft chuckles.

            “He’s a pill,” Pidge grumps, “Now we have to watch Mean Girls just so I can see evil bitches get their comeuppance.”

            “Not to mention Lindsay Lohan learning a valuable lesson about becoming the monsters you’re trying to slay,” Lance puts in, uncharacteristically insightfully.

            “Yeah, that too,” Pidge waves him off and Keith laughs again, “Hunk! Movie magic please!”

            And Hunk is sliding the DVD into the small TV they lugged across town just to watch movies in Keith’s room and Lance is snuggled up against his side and it’s going to be a pretty great four years, isn’t it?

            “Hey,” Lance says from Keith’s collarbone, “Who wants french fries after this?”

            “Oh my god,” they all chorus, knowing full well they’re probably going to make a fast food run in two hours.

            Yeah. It’s going to be a good day.