Shiro barely managed a wan smile before pointedly turning back to his drink. The club was hot and oppressive, the thumping dance music and flashing lights doing more to make him feel nauseous than get him in the mood. Going out to gay bars hadn’t really been his idea, but he’d let himself be convinced that it was better than spending another weekend on his couch waiting to die alone. Ouch. When his friends put it that way, it was hard to say no.
Saying no to the guy leering at him from down the bar was relatively easier. Shiro knew he shouldn’t be so judgmental, but the guy clearly had too much to drink and was looking worse for wear. It didn’t help that the mark from his wedding band was obvious on his finger, like he’d slipped it into his pocket to pick up some cute guy on a business trip before going home to his wife. Those types seemed to be almost as common as the cute club kids that made Shiro feel old and out of touch. It was a testament to how long it had been that he was even considering it.
A one-night stand wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, though he’d take a pass on Mr. Drunk Cheater. It wasn’t what he was looking for. The quick hookup scene had gotten old years ago, and Shiro hoped to find something a little more lasting. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like his drunk companion picked up on his signals.
“I said, hey there.” The businessman slid closer into Shiro’s space. This close, it was impossible not to breathe in the reek of cheap beer.
“Not interested, sorry.” Shiro gave the man another smile, trying for the polite brush-off.
“Handsome guy like you is practically begging for someone to take him home. C’mon, let me buy you a drink.” The businessman wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I’m only in town for a couple of days and I was really hoping that I could find someone to show me all the…local sites? I’m sure you know all the best ways to have fun around here.”
“Not interested.” Shiro said again, with more emphasis as he tried to lean away.
The jerk only leaned closer. “Don’t be like that, it’s okay if you’re shy. I can take it slow. Just give me a chance.”
Shiro grimaced. God this was painful. Mr. Drunk Cheater was still looking at him expectantly, like he thought aggressive dislike was an invitation. Suddenly, take out and reruns didn’t seem like such a bad idea now. At least take out and reruns didn’t cause a scene.
“Babe, there you are.”
Then there was an arm around his waist, grounding and familiar, and Shiro smiled before he even turned around, shoulders sagging with easy comfort. Gentle knuckles brushed against his cheek, an old gesture that still left Shiro shivering, and he moved into a kiss without a second thought. Keith was there to catch him, pulling him in, holding him close. His mouth was soft and warm, moving against his like they had all the time in the world, and Shiro sighed sweetly, moving to drape his arms around Keith’s shoulders. Shiro almost forgot they had an audience, until Keith pulled away and glared. Loudly .
“Who the fuck are you?”
Keith let off annoyance like he was radioactive, annoyed, unimpressed and unapologetically so. It was like every line of his body had been calibrated for maximum judgement. Mr. Drunk Cheater didn’t stand a chance. He sputtered embarrassingly and tripped over himself in his haste to get as far away as possible. Keith didn’t stop glaring until he was out of sight, and Shiro burst out laughing.
“I think he pissed himself.” He wheezed, miming wiping a tear from his eye, but Keith still hadn’t moved. Shiro followed his gaze just in time to watch Drunk Cheater race out the front door, and he cackled. “Oh god. Oh no. That was completely worth it oh my god.”
Keith’s scowl slowly eased up, but he hadn’t moved his arm. Shiro was not inclined to complain. “He looked like he wanted to jump you.”
“I would not have put it past him.” But Shiro’s mood had swung up quickly, and it wasn’t coming back down. “Score one more, for the Cockblocker.”
“Hmph.” Keith snorted irritably about the nickname, but he couldn’t keep the glow of satisfaction from his smile. “Someone had to rescue you from bad pickup lines and old drunks.”
“My hero.” Shiro teased, leaning into his best friend and sliding off his stool. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Dinner’s on me. Just don’t tell the rest of them I gave up early.”
Keith settled in beside him and Shiro relaxed, letting himself enjoy the night now that the ‘find a date’ part of the evening was over. Pidge was going to be disappointed that he’d given in so early, but his heart wasn’t in it. He’d tell her honestly that he’d tried, but it hadn’t worked out and he’d be off the hook until she and his other friends pressured him into trying again. Keith always came with him as backup, the best sort of wingman. Instead of herding available dates his way, Keith had declared himself the one to drive away the creeps and the ones who didn’t want to take no for an answer. Lance had declared him the Cockblocker, and the name stuck, no matter how many times Keith protested.
For his part, Shiro couldn’t have been happier. It was always a better night with his best friend, though staying in and enjoying takeout while catching up on the backlog of tv shows they’d been putting off for weeks sounded a whole lot more fun than this pageantry. Spending the entire night with Keith curled up in his arms sounded even better.
Shiro wrenched his thoughts away from the danger zone like he’d done a thousand times before, repainting the boundaries between friendship and a deep-seated crush that he’d been nursing since he and Keith were in the Garrison together. He’d thought that after all these years, the lingering embers would burn themselves out, but all it took was Keith’s wicked, smug smile or the sound of his laughter when his walls were down for it to flare up again. It didn’t help that Keith drove away the unsuitables by pretending that he was Shiro’s boyfriend, complete with the feigned public displays of affection.
He didn’t want to admit to himself that he agreed to these find-Shiro-a-date nights more for Keith than for actually finding a new relationship. It was dishonest and underhanded. He should definitely stop… right after tonight.
Shiro had no reason to keep Keith so close. He still held his hand all the way out of the club.
They found themselves at Doodlebugs, a twenty-four hour breakfast place that they’d been visiting at three in the morning for as long as they’d known each other. Shiro remembered dragging Keith out when exams felt more like monsters than bits of paper, and Keith returned the favor whenever Shiro fell asleep in front of a report he needed done before dawn. There’d been five separate birthday celebrations, and one fateful evening, after a party that went on for too long, Shiro had fallen asleep in the staff bathroom. He was sure someone still had pictures.
They knew the waitress on duty had three cats and three times as many grandkids, and she knew both their orders before they sat down. They found a seat in the back, and Shiro hid a grin when Keith didn’t say anything as he squished into the booth beside him, vinyl seats squeaking when he moved. An extra fluffy pile of pancakes had his name on it, and Shiro wondered if Keith wouldn’t mind a few shakes to go with it.
“Are bars the only place we can go?”
And just like that, Shiro’s bubble popped. Right. This again.
“Not you, too,” he groaned, reaching for the toothpick dispenser, just looking for something to do with his hands. “I promise I won’t die alone tomorrow or adopt cats. I’m just looking for the right person.”
And if Shiro was honest, the right person was already right beside him. It just never worked out right.
They’d met in college, but it felt like they’d known each other their whole lives. Keith had turned heads from the get-go, a cadet with too much skill and a too sharp tongue. He had a sense of humor that was as dry as it was biting, but his biggest problem was that he cared too much about people who didn’t care enough. People called him prickly because they couldn’t see past his bluntness, but once Shiro had fallen into his orbit, he’d never wanted to leave. Respect turned to admiration, and then something more. Shiro couldn’t remember a time he’d known Keith without feeling this way. The timing had never been right. Shiro had been an upperclassman, and any advance felt like he’d be taking advantage. Then he’d landed a position on the Kerberos mission right out of graduation, and he’d spent the long months in space psyching himself up for the chance to tell Keith everything only to find that Keith was dating someone when he returned. Then Keith was chosen for the first manned extrasolar flight, and the list went on and on. Whoever Shiro ended up dating would have a lot to measure up to, and that just didn’t seem fair. So maybe he was going to end up alone with only the company of a dozen cats to keep him warm, and maybe he was only going through the motions to keep his friends from worrying.
It was a good thing Shiro didn’t feel like being honest.
Keith wrinkled his nose. “That’s not what I meant. I meant, maybe we can go somewhere the music isn’t shit, and the tables aren’t sticky, and you can just tell Pidge you tried.”
“I don’t mind the tables and the music.” Shiro laughed, sticking one finger to old maple syrup stains to demonstrate. “It’s more about the company. You think there’s something weird that I just keep attracting the same kind of person?”
“The loser guy on business looking to pick up some young guy before going home to his wife? Nah, that’s their problem.” Keith was always quick to leap to his defense and Shiro smiled.
“Somedays, I’m just about ready for them to stick me in some shuttle and launch me back to Kerberos. Don’t tell Pidge.” Shiro paused. “Or any of them. I know they’re just trying to help.”
“They should stop pushing so much.” Keith huffed irritably, not caring how good everyone else’s intentions were. His mood brightened considerably when the waitress set two heavy plates of sympathy pancakes down in front of them. Keith stuffed his mouth full, realizing it was much harder to glower when he couldn’t swallow. Meanwhile, Shiro took his time to carefully drizzle maple syrup over each layer, making sure it soaked through.
“They’re just worried, it’s what friends do. I can’t even say they’re wrong, I know I work too much sometimes.” Shiro chewed thoughtfully on his comfort food while Keith sputtered.
“That’s because you’re trying to get back into the pilot program. They know how hard you’re working!” After Shiro had lost his arm and his medical qualification to pilot a Garrison mission, he’d thrown himself into training, trying to find ways to compensate with his prosthetic. His times were still off, but Keith had been training with him just like they’d used to back in the Garrison when Shiro had been the one mentoring a young, hotheaded pilot with too much skill and no patience.
“Which doesn’t have anything to do with my love life. It’s fine, it’s over for tonight. The only thing I need to do is relax, kick back, and buy the best Cockblocker I know some thank you breakfast.” Shiro was more than grateful. He knew he failed at the bar, but he’d still managed to spend the night with the best guy in the place. “Besides, I wouldn’t need the Cockblocker if I walked around sleeveless.”
It was supposed to be a joke, but the fire in Keith’s eyes was enough to make Shiro stare. It was too late. Keith was shoved up against him, jabbing him in the diaphragm with a surprisingly harsh finger. “I’ve seen that gun show, Shirogane. You’d have people throwing themselves at you, and any asshole who doesn’t is a piece'a crap, good-for-nothin-”
All too gleefully, Shiro slung an arm around his shoulders and shoved a soggy glob of pancake into Keith’s face. Keith squeaked through his annoyance, aggressively chewing around gooey goodness. Keith tried to glare, really he did, but he was also scooping bits of pancake into his mouth. It wasn’t as intimidating as he probably hoped, but Shiro wouldn’t stop smiling at him, inching closer until he could hide his smile against the side of Keith’s head, eyes crinkling as he laughed.
Keith sighed from the vicinity of Shiro’s collarbones, tucked under his chin like he was made to fit against him, and it was a daily struggle for Shiro to remind himself that Keith wasn’t. “Stop selling yourself short.” His best friend murmured. “You’re a great guy, Shiro. Anyone would be lucky to have you.”
Shiro swallowed thickly, wishing he could tighten his grip, just a little. Just enough that Keith knew how much he meant to him, but it tangled in his throat, and he didn’t know where to begin unravelling it.
“Isn’t this cozy.” The waitress returned with a large plate of fried bacon, putting it in the center of the table and completing their order. The perfect comfort food combination.
Shiro laughed and snuggled in deeper when Keith tried to sit up straight, not the least bit apologetic. “Hi, Dolores. No cozying here. Just owe Keith another one. He got me out of a bad date.”
Dolores looked him dead in the eye, her mouth pinched at the corners. “You don’t say. I’m shocked.”
Shiro ignored the sarcasm and the huff that went with it. He thanked Dolores and breathed with relief as she shook her head and moved on to serve another table. “You know.” He said, turning a wicked smile on Keith. “I’ll bet I can eat more pancakes than you can.”
There was no way Keith could ever resist a challenge. The battle was on and by the end of it, their stomachs hurt too much to care about who won.
Then when Shiro was too full of laughter to move, Keith bundled him into his car and drove him home. They spent half the night watching television before Shiro was forced to dig out some of Keith’s clothes. They spent so much time together, and sometimes driving home was just too much of a hassle so there was always something in the laundry that belonged to him, and Shiro kept a designated Keith blanket in his linen closet. Just in case.
But Shiro never noticed the way Keith watched as he walked away, or the tired sigh that came with it.
It was the perfect end to the day. The next one, however, wasn’t so great.
The next morning was Sunday brunch, a tradition the old gang held twice a month, usually at Doodlebugs unless someone was feeling creative. Even if sleeping off a pancake gut and a lazy morning sounded nice, Shiro always looked forward to the time his friends set aside to spend together. Now that Shiro wasn’t able to fly missions like he used to, it was getting harder and harder to have these moments when they were all constantly blasting off to the far parts of the solar system.
It had started when Shiro was a student at the Galaxy Garrison, back when it was just him, Allura and Matt, and they needed a way to keep their eyes open as 4 AM dawned. Allura called it Hell Hour, too late to go to sleep and too early to want to be awake, but good cadets didn’t get to slack off. Towards the end of their course, they picked up Keith, and then Lance and Hunk, classmates and students and colleagues at one point or another. After graduation, they switched one Holt for another as Matt went off to ‘find himself’ somewhere in Asia, but his younger sister, Pidge proudly claimed she was an upgrade anyway.
By the time Shiro sat down, Pidge had already had three cups of coffee, and Allura was watching her warily in case she vibrated off her seat. Lance and Hunk were debating the merits of brunch versus linner with a singular focus, though Shiro suspected it was only so Lance could hear Hunk talk so passionately about something he loved. Even Keith seemed to be in a good mood, which was unusual with so large a crowd around.
There was only one downside to a wonderful morning like this.
“So Shiro.” Pidge chirruped brightly. “How did it go last night?”
That immediately got everyone’s attention as Lance leaned over the table and all but leered. “ So Shiro , you have any luck at that place I was telling you about? It’s literally crawling with singles, I’m betting you had quite the night, right dude?”
Shiro winced, casually stuffing his face with a mouthful of omelette to buy himself some time. Keith didn’t even let him get that far.
“If by singles you mean sleazebags, then yeah, crawling with them.”
Lance booed loudly, and Pidge lobbed a rolled up tissue at Keith. It landed about a foot away from him, and Keith watched it with a pointed stare the entire time he chewed.
“It’s because you brought that dicknugget, isn’t it.” Lance huffed, gesturing rudely in Keith’s direction. “How’s a night supposed to go any way but terrible with him around?”
“I literally haven’t said anything, Lance.” Shiro said, taking his dear sweet time. He half-hoped that if they thought he wasn’t interested, they’d drop the subject. It hadn’t worked yet. “You don’t know anything was terrible because of Keith.”
“It was terrible because you have shitty taste in clubs.”
Before the table could devolve into indignant squawking, Pidge held up her hands impatiently, with the sort of ease that made Shiro wonder how she was doing in the Garrison’s R&D department. “Wasn’t the whole point of this thing to find someone? Not chase everyone away.”
Shiro made a noncommittal noise and shrugged. “It wasn’t a good crowd anyways.” The rest of the table just groaned as Shiro stood up and retreated with an excuse about using the bathroom. As soon as he was out of earshot, every eye was locked on Keith.
“What did you do?”
“You seriously should just tell him.”
“I swear, I’m going to duct tape the two of you together if you don’t get your act together.”
Keith glowered at them all, sparing one quick glance towards where Shiro disappeared. “I keep telling you, he’s not interested, so stop pushing. I was just there to help. And it was lucky I was. The only people there were gross. It’s all your fault for suggesting it.” He turned his ire on Lance, an easy target as Allura rubbed her hand against her forehead.
“Fine.” She said. “You know we don’t mean to push, we’re just worried about him lately is all.”
“Yeah, he needs to get laid.” Pidge said, earning a pinch from Hunk. “Well he does . Prove me wrong.”
They bickered amongst themselves, familiar and without any anger. Every get together was like this, boisterously loud and argumentative. No one respected anyone’s privacy, determined to meddle and give advice even when it wasn’t wanted. Especially when it wasn’t wanted. But it all came from a place of love and respect that somehow never managed to go too far, Keith thought this must be how a family would act. They were annoying, but they were his, and he’d learned to accept their good-natured prodding.
“Hey, Keith?” Hunk tapped him gently on the arm to get his attention. “I think you might need to use those special powers of yours.”
The whole table turned as one to look. Subtlety was not their strong point. Shiro had been caught coming out of the bathroom into a conversation with a pretty young girl who already had her hand on his arm. Keith could see from the table how uncomfortable that made Shiro.
“You know, instead of cockblocking him, you could just cock him.” Lance said, almost too seriously, and was met by a chorus of shushes that he valiantly fended off. Keith wasn’t paying attention, his focus already realigned to fit Shiro in his sights.
The table watched as he got up, all but leering at the stranger before slinging an arm around Shiro. Like putty in Keith’s hand, Shiro melted, leaning into him too readily and proudly baring his cheek for a kiss.
“Not interested. Right.” Pidge grumbled, and threw her orange juice back like she was taking a shot. “February 30 guys. February fucking thirty.”
“Oh enough with that silly bet.” Allura snorted, even if she knew she had next summer down for her money. “How’s that nice RA from Engineering doing, Pidge? The one with the robot you like so much.”
Pidge flushed all the way to the tips of her ears. Just like that, the herd moved on.
Shiro thought he was in the clear by the time he got back. Keith pulled out his chair for him, and Shiro had to remind himself that it was all an act, like the way their knees bumped under the table, or how Keith couldn’t seem to move without his elbow knocking against him. It was all an act, but it was Shiro’s favorite one. “What are we talking about?”
“The Cockblocker strikes again.” Lance piped up dryly.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Shiro said, preemptively defending Keith, even if his best friend sat up a little straighter, unapologetically pleased with himself. “She just needed to be let down easy.”
“You’re too nice for this game, buddy.” Lance said darkly, or as darkly as one could around a mouthful of waffles, with ketchup on his chin. He slung an arm around Hunk, before casually adding, “You and Hunk. Way too nice for this. Good thing I’m here. I’ve got a plan. What’d you guys do without me?”
“We could find out.” Pidge grumbled, loud enough for everyone to hear. Lance generously ignored her.
“Check this. Online dating.”
“That’s your big idea?” Keith deadpanned.
Allura clasped her hands in delight. “Oh, I think this could be a great idea! I know that you’re uncomfortable in all those bars, Shiro, but this could work out really well. You’ll be home and comfortable, you’ll only have to meet the people you think are interesting, there won’t be any real pressure!”
“And there’s only like, a teeny tiny chance someone is going to turn out to be a serial killer and murder you.” Hunk offered helpfully as everyone turned to shush him. “What?”
“I’m serious.” Allura ignored Hunk and smiled at Shiro, always the persuasive diplomat. She took his hand, her fingers squeezing around his prosthetic. “You know we only want you to be happy. Maybe this could be a way to meet someone without feeling so uncomfortable. Besides, everyone tries it. Keith has, Pidge has, and how do you think I met my girlfriend?”
“Keith does?” Shiro asked, genuinely surprised.
Keith’s expression soured, but Shiro had already looked away, brows furrowed like he was considering his breakfast in a new light. This was trouble. Shiro took the time to actually consider the idea. It had always seemed like such a real step. At least in a bar he could pretend that he hadn’t found anyone suitable. Online, there wouldn’t be that same excuse. This felt too much like moving on and he wasn’t sure he was ready.
“I’ll think about it a bit, we’ll see.”
“If you don’t, I can make a profile for ya.” Lance offered helpfully. “Pidge and I can make you sound irresistible, people will be knocking down your door!”
“How about instead of that, we talk about that hard landing you had on the base the other day, you almost clipped the wing right off your ship!” It hadn’t been that bad, but Lance squawked at the gentle teasing just like Shiro knew he would. The group let the topic drop.
They always called it brunch, but they ended up staying until the lunch rush came and went. If it wasn’t for all the good will they’d earned over the years, Doodlebugs probably would’ve kicked them out by now, but they’d unlocked regular privileges. It might’ve taken them a couple of years, but it was well worth it. Shiro always left their meetings a strange sort of exhausted. He doubted he was the only one, yet there was something comforting in knowing that after they all went their separate ways, Keith still stayed with him, even if it was just because they were riding together.
Conversation tapered off after the radio station was chosen, and mostly that was just Keith asking if Shiro was okay with what they already had. After that much food and such enthusiastic company, the silence was normally a welcome balm. This time, Shiro broke tradition.
“So…” He started, his eyes pointedly on the road, even when he saw Keith shift in his periphery. “Online dating.”
Keith hunched in on himself, his lips pursed, but when he spoke, his tone was even. “What about it?”
“I just didn’t know. Are you-, did you have any luck?” Shiro asked because he was a friend and friends asked things like this. They didn’t hope the answer was no or feel a strange punch to the gut at the thought of Keith falling for some stranger when Shiro hadn’t yet managed enough courage to say the words. He was supportive, the way he felt had no bearing on Keith’s heart and Shiro knew he had no right to it. He wasn’t going to be possessive or jealous, even if it hurt. This was his own pain and his own problem, Keith never had to know.
“Not really. I was just checking it out, I didn’t spend much time on it. I’m too focused on training up for space travel anyways.” Keith didn’t seem worried about it and Shiro felt the small guilty knot in his stomach ease slightly. Even if Keith should have been talking about Alpha Centauri.
“When you’re ready, you’re going to find someone amazing. You deserve it, Keith.”
Color flooded into Keith’s cheeks as he huffed his disagreement, but it was clear he was pleased. People didn’t ever offer Keith praise, Shiro had recognized that years ago when they first met. He’d been too much of a loner. No one had gotten close enough to say they were proud. Shiro had promised himself he’d change that. After all these years, the strategy remained.
“I’m going to head back to my apartment for a nap after all that food and try to get a handle on the new exercises from the physical therapist.” Shiro held up his prosthetic and flexed. “ Hand led, get it?”
Keith only rolled his eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow at work then, right?”
They stopped in front of Keith’s apartment. In another world, in another life, Shiro could’ve leaned across the clutch between them and reached out to kiss Keith goodbye. In this one, he watched him go with a wistful smile because even if it wasn’t exactly how he wanted, he still had him in his life. That was enough.
It had to be enough.
Later that night, between far too many reports and schematics, Shiro opened his email to see Allura had sent him a website recommendation. He ignored it, convinced himself there were better things to focus on, like television, or a news update, or contemplating the color of his apartment’s walls. He might even be able to ignore it forever, but two hours later, Shiro found himself staring down the sleek blue-grey lines of close2u.com . He told himself that it was better he do it than let his over-enthusiastic friends try their hand at creating a profile for him, but a sort of morbid curiosity had gripped him and refused to let him go.
It’s not too late, he thought. Still time to turn around.
But he’d already found the register button. There was no turning back now.
There was no harm in trying. It was time to really move on.