Keith had never exactly been an ideal child. He was too thin, too haggard and shrewd in a way that made his foster parents constantly check to be sure their wallets were as they left them. Keith was small too, a wisp of a creature that was more versed in landing a good kick in someone’s teeth then spreading his arms for a hug. He never made friends, not with the way his hair hung in his face to cast an ominous silhouette over his eyes. Keith was scary, and that was that. Then, naturally, Lance came along. Keith found him one day in the forest, hanging upside down from a branch by his knees that somehow seemed to blend in with the bark.
“Who are you?” Lance had snarked with crossed arms and an upturn to his nose that was dismissive enough to make Keith want to sock him in it.
“Who are you?” Keith fired back. Lance lifted his chin contrarily.
“I asked first, fleshy.” Keith, at eight years old, could not argue with that logic.
As there would often be in future squabbles as well, there was silence for several lingering moments. Then Lance asked if Keith had washed his hair recently and so he spat in his eye. Lance smacked him and then they rolled into a nearby brook in the fight that followed. Keith returned to his foster family sopping wet, pissed as hell, and swore vengeance the next day.
Lance and Keith grew to be fast friends in the process of carving slingshots and chasing each other with mud stolen from the banks of the stream. Keith never asked why Lance wasn’t at his school, or why when he looked at him out of the corner of his eye he could see a creature that was not at all human. In return, Lance called him fleshy less and started clipping him on the shoulder instead of the back of the neck with various ammunition he sent flying with eery accuracy from those slingshots he was so very good at making. At nine, Keith had run to the forest he was sure to find Lance in with angry tears on his cheeks. Lance sat with him in terse pause while he waited for Keith to explain. Keith didn’t notice the way Lance’s shoulder brushing his felt more like a mass of thorns then skin and bone.
“I don’t get it,” he muttered, his voice pulled taut with fury. “Why are they so mean, Lance? I just want to play with them. Not always, not even every day. Just enough so that recess doesn’t feel so lonely.” Keith hated the way the gum in his hair stuck to the back of his neck, hated the brown grit spread all over his face and shirt because they’d shoved him into a rain puddle and he’d gotten a worm stuck to his cheek. Lance gripped his hand, and when Keith stared at he could swear it pulsed and shimmered with golden light, and that where Lance’s fingers normally were there was instead dark oak, wound through with the deep emerald of vines. His voice was not so boyish, not so human when he spoke.
“Keith, I will always let you stay with me,” he promised with a sound like the gales that assaulted Keith’s house in particularly brutal storms, and Keith shed more searing tears that Lance dutifully wiped away. Lance said nothing more, and Keith turned his face into his familiar embrace to cry in the shadows cast by the foliage
The next day it rained hard, and within a recess that was only permitted with a wary glance cast towards the sky in its moment of reprieve, Keith saw the boys who had pushed him down get their ankles scratched by thorns that had somehow grown overnight. He knew it wasn’t very nice, but when he walked into the forest that day after school a smile was back on his face.
Lance was a constant, growing as he did with his ivy touch and eyes that sometimes seemed more like knots of tubers and jewels then muscle. Keith could come crying to him with anything and everything, and the next day he’d be happy again by some miracle or another. He finally had a foster family that stuck, though they didn’t understand why Keith so devotedly ran off to the woods every day. It was when they were older, after an afternoon spent bemoaning school work while Lance complained of his older sister that Keith was prepositioned for a dance. Lance was a flushed, nervous mess as he suggested that he come to where they were currently later that night, and that he would be waiting. Keith was wary, naturally.
“You’re not going to kill me and dump my body in the creek, right?” Lance was indignant.
“It pains me to think you think so low of me. You, my dearest fleshy, deserve much better then a hasty midnight murder.” They’d both laughed, but then a calm had settled over Lance. “Keith,” he began very slowly, very carefully, in that voice of his that sounded so very strange.
“Tonight, you might see something you don’t like, okay? A-And if you really don’t like it, you can leave. I won’t mind. All I want, all I ask, really, is just one dance.” Keith had only snickered, and shoved Lance into the water. By the time he’d come back up with a glare that could kill, Keith was laying back on a rock with his tongue stuck out at his chain of sloppily strung together expletives.
“It’s just you, Lance. No matter what you do, I’ll never think of you any differently.” Keith was too busy clinging to his rock in an attempt to stay dry to make note of the adoring relief on Lance’s face at his words.
That night, Keith slipped out of the window of his home and past his sleeping foster parents as well as the fluffy bundle of hatred they called a cat, to the forest. It was different without the light of day. Patches of moonlight were his only guide, stepping nimbly down the path he knew by heart. In the clearing he normally found Lance in, there was something odd. At first he thought it was a rock, or perhaps a tree. It was tall, dark, and foreign in the night. It made Keith’s skin pucker, but he took a hesitant step forward.
“Lance?” he asked carefully, cautiously. He didn’t want to be the white person in every badly done horror movie, but Lance had promised he’d be there and he never let him down. Besides, it was their forest. It wasn’t dangerous. Keith listened to his voice echo before dying out, and then the thing moved.
Keith was a scrappy kid. He had no problem punching someone, enjoyed it, even. Fighting was fun, but when the seven foot tall beast of unknown origin stirred there was a certain fear he had never felt before that gripped him tight with unyielding force. His feet felt like they were encased in cinder blocks, trapped in place. An embarrassing whimper escaped him, his amethyst eyes blown wide. The thing was enormous, with limbs that hung loose and gangly from their misshapen sockets. In what Keith barely recognized as a face there was nothing but a tangle of roots, with two sapphires pulsing deeply somewhere inside. There was no nose, but there was a mouth. Spindly, finely sharpened teeth were shoved inside, about as inviting as the jagged stab of rocky mountains piercing the sky. Keith could swear that in the moment they appeared to be tinged red.
Keith screamed, and then the creature lunged. Suddenly there was a hand, bark and leaf all at once clapping over his mouth with brutal power that still managed to remain gentle. Keith could not even have blinked in the time it took.
“It’s okay,” the monster cooed, and Keith stared at it in wonder and no small amount of fear because he knew that voice. It whistled like wind through the treetops, comforted him when he cried about things it never understood. That was Lance’s voice.
“I-I-” Keith stuttered, and Lance drew back with what might’ve been a wince. He was draped in a rotted conglomeration of honey comb and ivy, a cloying smell wafting unpleasantly into Keith’s nose.
“I’m sorry,” he told him. “You can leave if you want. I just needed you to know the truth,” he admitted softly, looking at the moon. Keith stared at him, at how long and strong his limbs were, acting faster then anything natural should be able. When he looked back to Keith he thought Lance looked scared. Even without the features he knew so well there was a certain set to his jaw and waver in his stare that made him recognize such insecurity. Keith did not run, despite that his body screamed at him to do so. He mustered the frankness that often left Lance sputtering excuses and shoving him to the floor for a good wrestling match, the latter more so when they were younger.
“I always knew you looked weird,” he teased, and just like that the tension melted away. Lance laughed, and Keith ignored that it sounded more like a woodpecker chipping away at a tree then a human sound.
“Shut up, fleshy,” he snapped, but his tone was arch and Keith paid it no mind. He settled in next to him, forcing himself not to flinch at the broad, solid expanse of timber that had replaced his skin.
“What are you, anyways?” he demanded to know. Lance’s enormous head swiveled, and Keith couldn’t help but to swallow thickly under such a gaze.
“A faery, you heathen. You’re telling me you didn’t have any idea?” Keith scoffed, looking away with a roll of his eyes.
“You don’t have wings,” he protested, and Lance made an offended squawk that rumbled in the back of his throat.
“Most of us don’t. That’s a myth, by the way. Wings are completely impractical, if you really think about it. Trying to lift yourself up into the air when you can already do pretty much anything more quickly than the eye can register? Dumb.” Keith spread his hands in a placating motion, already regretting his words, or more accurately, that they’d incensed the ever opinionated Lance.
“I get it, I get it,” he was quick to tell him, and Lance stilled. The moon had lowered a little, but they still had time. There was a quiet again, and Keith squirmed under the weight of Lance’s jeweled stare.
“I asked you for a dance,” Lance reminded him, and Keith nodded.
“Yeah. You did.” The words were flat and lacked verve, presented awkwardly with dead weight. Lance chuckled nervously, that same inhuman sound.
“A dance is important to us, Keith. It’s, well-” Lance broke off, and had he looked human Keith would guess he’d be blushing “-it’s like a claim. If you dance with a faery once, you have to come back to dance again. That way the cycle keeps repeating, and we never lose those we love.” Keith stared at Lance incredulously.
“You want me to keep coming back?” Lance looked away and twiddled his thumbs, which was an interesting look coupled with his current appearance. Keith could care less, and felt a telltale wetness at the corners of his eyes.
“I don’t want you to ever leave, Keith.” Again, a hush, and then Lance offered a lengthy, wooden limb to him. Keith was proud to say his hand only trembled a little as he took it, and had Lance pull him into his vine ridden chest. They twirled under the light of the moon, swaying and bowing with the wind. Keith liked the moss damp on Lance’s palms, the softness there that couldn’t be found in the version of him he’d more commonly known. He thought they’d had an unspoken agreement to not mention the tears leaving fat tracks on Keith’s cheeks, but then Lance had to clear his throat and open his mouth
“Are you crying?”
There was a beat of dead space, and then the faint sound of Keith bashfully placing his forehead on Lance’s chest to hide the heat to his cheeks.
“A little.” Lance tossed his head back to laugh in his own unorthodox way, and though he was more alien and more different and more dangerous then Keith had ever known, he still found comfort in his happiness. When he glanced at his arms he could see the faint outline of flesh and blood, but he didn’t mind knowing the truth of what laid underneath either. It wasn’t perfect and Keith still had plenty of questions but Lance was still Lance, and Keith wouldn’t want him any other way.