Actions

Work Header

O True Apothecary

Chapter Text

Popping an obnoxiously large bubble in front of his face, Lance reached into his jacket pocket as he reclined against the sun warmed wall behind him. He pulled out his phone to check the time and snapped his gum loudly. 330pm. He twisted, cracking his back and reaching for the sky before dropping his hands to his sides again. Standing up straight, he pushed back his hair from his face, annoyed at the sticky, sweaty texture. On his way, he leaned over and spat out his gum, the flavor having run out awhile ago. It was honestly too hot out for a jacket and he wasn't sure why he'd put his on in the first place. Something about always feeling cold when he first woke up, exacerbated by the slight hangover still pounding annoyingly in his temples. He shrugged off his army green jacket and tied it around his waist, shoving his phone carelessly in his front pocket. He was in the habit of taking better care of his appearance so although he likely appeared fine, he felt disheveled. It made him snappish.

“You can go.”

The guy currently watching the corner, a rundown looking brunet with dark bags under his bloodshot eyes blinked stupidly at Lance. What was this guy’s name again? Hector? No way he didn’t at least know who he was. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Lance by reputation. He made sure of it. Just because he could feel the stubble coming in on his jaw didn’t mean he was unrecognizable. Maybe it was Harold. Lance squinted and made the universal sign for get lost.

“C’mon. I’m relieving you. Scram. Vamanos amigo.”

The guy finally got it, fumbling quickly in his pocket. He pulled out a wad of bills and furtively counted some off, handing Lance the rest. Turning his shoulder away from the streets to their side, Lance hurriedly fanned out the bills and did a few sums. He narrowed his eyes at…Hosiah?

“Don’t even think about skimming, kid.”

The kid, Hank?, paled and shook his head rapidly, gulping.

“Nope! Never jefe!”

Maybe Hayden hunched his shoulders, flipping his hood up like the stereotypical drug distributing teenager he was and power walked away. Lance snorted as he pocketed the money. He’d never get tired of being addressed with respect. It’s not like there was any risk of skimming off the top anyway. But it was always good to instill a healthy fear in any youngster. That’s how his mama had kept him out of trouble anyway. Or tried to.

He cracked his neck and adopted a similar position to the one he’d held earlier, reclining against the wall. Normally, he was a much more cheerful kind of man, but the hangover didn’t leave him enough energy for anything outside of curt interactions. He’d partied hard at Hunk’s place the night before, well into the wee hours of the morning. Not that it hadn’t been an opportunity to celebrate. For one thing, Hunk had finally taken the initiative and asked out Shay, the buxom babe of his dreams. She’d gone from trying to subtly hint that he should take her out to flat out telling Pidge, when she knew Hunk was in the next room eavesdropping, that if Hunk didn’t shape up and ask her to be his girl, she’d forget him and date Pidge. Lance grinned at the memory of Pidge animatedly retelling the story last night.

Between supporting Hunk’s family and Hunk himself, there hadn’t exactly been much money to throw around. However, Hunk had managed to convince Allura to bring an innovative idea to the upper management of The Lions. She assisted in procuring a loan so Hunk could open up a bakery. Hunk didn’t have the credit history to accomplish such a thing by himself. Allura probably could have, but even if she was the leader of the sizeable drug division that Lance and his closest friends occupied, she didn’t have access to The Lions’ funds outside of drug supply and demand. Someone higher up evidently thought that a bakery would be a good cover for an operation cleaning and cutting drugs so they made the financial decision and The Lions formally invested. Whatever the reason, Lance was glad. The bakery meant that Hunk would have a safer place to cook, both drugs and food. Not to mention the extra income he’d make legally by selling his delicious baked goods. He’d always stress baked so there was an excess that had previously gone to waste. Lance was thrilled for his best friend and his best gal.

Lance noticed the reason for his sudden desire to take over corner duty bounding over enthusiastically. He smiled winningly, trying to hide his increasingly painful headache. He hadn’t actually been assigned corner duty for over a year and this only reminded him to count his blessings. The young kid skipped up to him, backpack flouncing lightly on his shoulders.

“Tito Lance?”

“Hey Carlos. Don’t worry about the corner today okay? Get on over to the store and help your mama out. I’m sure she could use it.”

“You sure Tito?”

“Sure I’m sure! And if you help out a lot, maybe she’ll let you go play afterwards.”

Carlos grinned brightly, exposing his newly lime green braces. He jumped in place excitedly and Lance couldn’t help but return the enthusiasm.

“Thanks! See you later!”

Carlos turned and started running to his mother’s shop, only a few storefronts over from the corner. Lance tried to remember what grade Carlos was in that year. Opening the door to the store, Carlos turned and waved at Lance again. Lance jokingly saluted him back. Once he was gone, Lance let the smile drop from his face and sighed, scrubbing his face with his hand and wincing at the stubble. Shit, he probably looked like a hobo.

Some days Lance really hated his job.

Noticing the homeless lady across the street, talking to her invisible boyfriend, Lance reconsidered. It could be worse, after all. He made enough to live comfortably by himself, no mean feat in a city of a certain size. He could help his father support their family and they all enjoyed The Lions’ protection. Lance had benefited from that protection, growing up in the neighborhood he did. The neighborhood he was in at the moment was considerably more upscale than his own, but that wasn’t saying much. Mom and Pop stores, like the one Carlos’ mom, Sofia, owned were losing business slowly but surely to big box marts setting up in convenient locations with bargain basement prices. Many neighborhoods suffered because of it. Lance’s was no exception. Luckily, Lance’s older brother, Joseph, was also a valued Lion. It ran in the McClain family. Because of those connections, Lance had been given a choice in his own participation, with the gang leaving him alone to focus on his studies and not pressuring him to work like Carlos. Lance had studied hard, desperately searching for something more than he could find in watching his sad neighborhood fall decrepit. But he’d gotten cocky. Pride goeth before a fall and all that. He’d been so confident that he only applied to one university; his dream school The Garrison. His face twisted into an ugly smirk. Of course, he hadn’t gotten in.

That’s not to say that he couldn’t get in now if he wanted to. Allura had offered, multiple times in fact, to assure his admittance. It was her day job after all. Prestigious research scientist funded by The Garrison. Lance wasn’t sure how that translated into having the authority to admit or deny student entrance, but she seemed to think it did. If he had a little less anxiety and self-deprecation issues, or a little less pride maybe, he might have taken her up on the offer. But, he didn’t. Allura was a nice woman, as long as you stayed on her good side. The few times she’d lost her patience with Lance had been…frightening, to say the least. After one particularly catastrophic screw up, he’d been tied up in an abandoned building and left for 6 hours, alone and helpless. It might not have been Allura who acted out the scenario, but he had no doubt that she’d engineered it.

Allura wanted him to be happy, so that he’d be a better lieutenant for her. Sure, he was successful on the street, but he’d be equally useful peddling to rich students. Street buyers were loyal, but often lacked the resources for large buys. Students grown up in the lap of luxury, who threw parties on weekends and wanted to impress the popular kids, had much more cash to throw around. Honestly, Lance would see a salary bump if he went to The Garrison, not to mention he’d get to follow his dreams of studying astronomy. Not that he could be an astronaut with his juvenile offenses, assuming he didn’t get busted running for Allura in school. They say that juvie offenses are wiped when you turn 18, but NASA didn’t seem like the type to play by the rules. You can’t afford to when you send people to space. Lance didn’t blame them.

“Hey! Snap out of it? You high right now?”

Lance suddenly focused on the shaking fingers snapping repeatedly in front of his face. Startled, he tilted his head down, sunglasses slipping a little further down his nose. A scrawny, dark-skinned girl stood in front of him, one hand rubbing at the crook of her opposite elbow. Her eyes darted both ways rapidly before refocusing on Lance.

“Hello? Look if you wanna zone out, you can in a sec. My girlfriend needs some Sandman. You got it or not?”

“Relax, Chrissy. Of course I got it. Who do you think you’re talking to?”

“Some idiot who spent more money on his sunglasses than the rest of his clothes.”

Lance gasped in playful affront, rifling through his pants pocket for a slip.

“How much she need? The usual?”

“Yeah. Here.”

She thrust a fist at him and Lance carefully removed the stained and crumpled bills. Sliding them into his other pocket, next to the money he’d been given earlier, he thumbed out a crisp, blue 50. He thought that The Lions’ system was kind of cute, if not original. The buyer gives money to an easily found collector, often standing on a corner. In return, the buyer gets a Monopoly money bill matching the amount they paid for. They would then take that bill to one of several better hidden distributors. It was harder for cops to track the transactions that way and decreased the chances of any member of The Lions being arrested actually carrying. Because of his elevated status, sometimes he was a distributor, sometimes a collector. Lance didn’t mind either way, although distributors usually were indoors, which meant air conditioning. A definite bonus.

As she turned to leave, Lance gently hovered his hand near her shoulder to stop her. He knew better than to touch anyone that hopped up. He had some pretty nasty scars from learning that lesson.  

“Chrissy. I thought you were in a clinic uptown?”

Chrissy sneered.

“It wasn’t for me. Whadda you care? I’m a paying customer.”

Lance’s hand lowered to his side and he casually shrugged one shoulder.

“Just curious.”

Chrissy hurried away. Lance leaned back against the wall. Clients came and went throughout the afternoon without much of note happening. The afternoon cooled off marginally and he slipped his jacket back on. It was sweltering, but he still felt better with it on. It was his lucky jacket after all.

“Dude. Get out of here. You’re scaring off the real customers.”

The guy huffed and stuck out his chest, strutting forward like an overgrown rooster. Lance raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t think you heard me punk. Stop smoking your taquitos for a second and give me some Sand. Now!”

The man shoved a meaty finger in Lance’s face. He twisted his mouth into a moue of displeasure. The immediate urge was to bite the finger, but it stank something terrible and Lance ran out of gum. Sighing loudly, he pulled his left hand from his jacket pocket. One of his smaller pieces was nestled securely inside and Lance nudged the big man’s muscled chest.

“You might want to reconsider. People call me Sharpshooter. Wanna know the truth though?” Lance smiled slightly and leaned closer, breathing through his mouth to avoid the man’s rank breath. “I’m a good shot at a distance, but close up? I never miss.

Eyes widening at Lance’s intonation and increasingly bright grin, the guy glared harshly but backed off.

“You can come back when you actually can pay for what you want. Got it, amigo?

The guy bit out some unflattering response and backed away. Lance snorted and pocketed his gun. There were always people who thought they could bully their way into their drug habits, but rarely were they all bark and no bite. There had been a few unpleasant situations involving other firearms and Lance was glad he didn’t have to deal with that. Usually, those happened with people distributing, but some morons didn’t know the system or didn’t care. Lance crossed his fingers that the racist jerk wouldn’t come back with some of his Aryan brothers, spoiling for a fight. There just weren’t enough Lions to give backup to every single Lion on a corner, but it might be something Lance would bring up to Allura the next time they talked. Just as a precaution.

As the sun began to set, a bunch of scantily clad girls strode past Lance to leer at passing drivers. Lance put his hands on his hips and wolf-whistled, giving them all a long look up and down. He smirked, eyes lingering on one girls’ fishnet clad legs. Most of the girls were too skinny for his taste, but some of them sure looked good.

“Ignore him, Tiffany. That’s just Lance. He’s a tease.”

“Yeah, always cat-calling us, never paying!”

Lance wrenched his gaze upwards to meet the eyes of the girl he’d been checking out and his heart sank. She was a few years too young. Just barely managing not to wince, he threw some finger guns her way. He felt sleazy and not in a good way. The other girls must have seen his hesitation though and laughed.

“Oooh! Maybe Tif will change his mind. She’s not as young as she looks you know. Whaddya think? Huh Loverboy?”

Mastering himself, Lance gave them a winning smile.

“Sorry ladies. I don’t pay for it.”

“Sure, that’s what they all say! We oughtta charge for looking.”

“Nah Giselle, they already do that. It’s a peepshow.”

“Ooh, but look his face. Very nice. Catch me on one of my off days and I might give you something sweet for free. You like sweet things?”

“Baby, I love them. And much as I’d like to know the feeling of that tight ass, I don’t think I want it that much. You’d eat me alive.”

Teasing and shoving each other as they waved and blew kisses at cars, they moved down the street a little. Lance let out a sigh of relief. Most of them he’d known for years and he wasn’t lying when he said they’d eat him alive. Back when he was young and stupid, he thought that losing his virginity to a professional was exciting and avant garde. He didn’t know what he was getting into. 3 days and more orgasms than he could remember later, he’d woken up sore and bruised, tied facedown on a shitty bed in a flea-infested motel. With yellow fuzzy handcuffs. And a ball gag. Not to mention the heckling he’d had to endure for months after the incident. He kept the ball gag though. Just as a precaution.

Lance shuddered, trying to put the memories out of his mind. A police officer cruised by on a motorcycle, mistaking his shudder for one caused by the lowering temperature.

“Hey kid! If you’re cold, maybe you should invest in a nicer jacket. Not like you can’t afford one.”

“I don’t know why you call me that. You’re only a few years older than me, Matt.”

Lance whined.

“Hey that’s Officer Holt to you. Can’t you see the uniform?”

Lance rolled his eyes, flapping his hand at the cop.

“What, you looking for another kickback? Didn’t we just pay you guys a few days ago?”

“Nah, I’m just heading back to the station. Wanted to see if you’ve been keeping your nose clean.”

“My skincare regime is impeccable, especially compared to a dirty cop. Thanks for asking though.”

Matt giggled, reminding Lance strongly of Holt’s little sister, Pidge. Speaking of whom…

“How’s the gremlin?”

Matt quirked his lips.

“Last I heard, she was still bugging Hunk to upgrade some of his equipment to make a better product, but you never know. She might have gotten bored and decided to hack the Pentagon. It’s hard to say.”

“I guess I’ll have to look in on Hunk soon then. Make sure he survived.”

Matt saluted and swung a leg back over his motorcycle, revving the engine and gunning it down the street. Lance flipped him off and decided to take a break. Not like anyone would approach him right after a cop had been there anyway. Resting his hands in his pockets, Lance strolled a few doors down to one of his favorite taco shops. As he stood at the counter, waiting for his order, he craned his head back to peek into one of the back booths. Carlos was sitting there, next to a smaller girl with similar facial features and lovely cornrows. He couldn’t see what they were doing, but he saw the calculator out next to them and probably a textbook next to their backpacks. He smiled a little. Carlos would probably be out later, shooting the shit and littered bottles in some dark alley, learning his way around a gun. But there was always a chance he wouldn’t. A slim chance, but a chance nonetheless. That’s what he had to tell himself.

Steadying himself with a deep breath, Lance headed back out into the night, tacos in hand. He munched on them quietly as he waited for more buyers. He was just licking his fingers clean when he saw someone, out of the corner of his eyes. Even in the encroaching darkness, the bright red jacket stood out and he’d recognize that mullet anywhere. He hated this particular client. Every time he hoped the guy wouldn’t show up. And every time, Keith materialized anyway. Keith wasn’t a good client. He rarely had all the money he needed for the orders he placed, kept a running tab with The Lions, (which Lance thought about revoking every other day, did he know how much trouble Lance would get in if they ever were caught?), and had a terrible personality to boot. Not to mention the travesty of that haircut. But, when he managed to snag a shower, Keith was Lance’s best looking client. Lance was weak.

That and Lance loved their banter. He hated himself for looking forward to Keith’s visits, but it was hard to control emotions. He honestly didn’t know where Keith came up with the money for his buys, the times when he could pay. Usually, Keith could pay some of it, what he called a ‘down payment’, and other times he’d be flush, paying both for his current purchase and paying off his debts. Until the next go round. Lance assumed that Keith boosted wallets or just straight up mugged people. He wasn’t sure. But there was always at least one knife on the guy at all times. Plus, Keith was too short tempered for any kind of job involving customer service and someone with his kind of habit couldn’t maintain a steady career.

“I’ll take a hundred.”

“Wow. Not even a ‘Hi’ or a ‘Good evening Handsome’?”

Keith huffed, hunching his shoulders.

“Whatever.”

“Well you can shove your whatever up your ass! My guess is you’ve only got about half of what you should be paying me for it. I think I should at least get some polite small talk out of this deal! Ask about my health or tell me how cute I look today”

“Fine! Hi Lance. I need some Sand now and I don’t have any money at all for you. So either give me the bill or get your cute self the fuck out of my face because my heat is gonna start in a few days.”

Ignoring the way his face wanted to blush at Keith calling him cute, Lance focused on the more important part of the statement.

“You have no money? None at all? I can’t give you something for nothing! I’m not exactly moneybags over here!”

“Lance, you’ve covered for me before!”

“Yeah for some of it. And you usually come after payday. I can’t afford to cover everything right now.”

“Well when do you get paid? I-I can pay you back sooner this time! Please Lance. I’m gonna get a big score this time so you don’t have to worry about the money.”

Lance regarded Keith steadily, appraising him. Keith’s brows furrowed and he cocked his hip to the side angrily.

“You know I’m good for it.”

“Baby, I’m sure you’re good at a lot of things.”

Lance replied flippantly. As long as Keith had been badgering him for Sand, Lance had been hitting on Keith. It wasn’t serious; just part of Lance’s customer service for buyers who stuck around for longer than the few seconds it took to fork over a wad of cash and leave. That’s what he told Allura, anyway. It hardly mattered. Keith had never even noticed, much less responded to the provocation. But that night seemed different. The darkness was inky and chill, enticing anyone out in it to huddle a little closer beneath the halo of flickering street lamps. Just the barest hint of something lurking in the shadows, breathing danger into the air. Lance thrived on it and maybe Keith did too.

Lance watched as Keith’s throat bobbed in a swallow, arching backwards to better take in Lance’s appearance. Lance raised a single, well-groomed eyebrow. Keith blatantly let his eyes rake up and down Lance, too slow to be accidental. By the time they made eye contact again, Keith wore the faintest hint of a blush, high on his cheekbones. Lance raised both eyebrows at the suddenly bashful expression.

“You…aren’t very good at this, are you?”

Lance hadn’t meant to sound accusing; he was taken aback at the idea that a perfectly good looking, unmated omega had no experience with flirting. If he was an omega, he’d be abusing those Omegan Wiles all the time with unsuspecting alphas. Keith, however, took the statement as a challenge.

“Better than you. I’ve seen you panting over every gender and secondary gender under the sun. You think it’s attractive?” Keith sneered. “Whistling like a frat bro or some old pervert?”

Lance gaped at him.

“I’ll have you know that I am a fantastic lover! Better to be ‘panting’ and actually appreciate the beauty around me than to be a cold fish! Like you!” Lance gestured frantically. “Tch! What am I saying? You can’t be a fish man. The fish guy in Shape of Water got more action than you!”

Lance relaxed against the wall, confident that he not only established his point, but also his superiority with that sick burn. Good one, Lance. Glaring at him, Keith argued back just as fervently. In a futile attempt, Lance assumed.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Lance casually examined his freshly manicured nails.

“Gonna need some water for that burn, fish boy.”

“Am I a fish? You just said I’m not?!”

“Semantics, Keith.”

“Look, are you gonna sleep with me or not? Just! I don’t know. Let me blow you or something for the Sandman? That’s what you want right?!”

Offended could not even begin to describe the look on Lance’s face.

“No! I mean, yeah that sounds like a great-No no no! Nope. I refuse to trade sex for drugs. Uh uh.”

Keith tried to not tear his hair out in frustration. Or Lance’s.

“Why not? I have something you want, you have something I want! We trade!”

“I don’t know you! What if you have some weird disease that you’re trying to give me in an attempt to slowly murder me to steal all of my possessions?”

“What?! That doesn’t even- Hrrg! It’s me. Keith. I’m your buyer! I’m not sick!”

“No can do. You want Sand, you pay me in government recognized currency. And since prostitution is illegal and our laws say there is no inherent monetary value in a human body, sex doesn’t count.” Lance paused at Keith’s expression of mounting anger and dismay. “Buuuuuuuuut, if you want me instead. Well. Then, no drugs. No money either.”

Keith folded his arms, resisting the urge to pat down his sadly empty pockets. He needed that high yesterday. He could feel the stickiness from where the sweat had dried against his forehead and left him chilly. If he didn’t get something soon, he’d be feeling a lot of much less pleasant withdrawal effects. Biting his lip, Keith considered his options as calmly as was possible. He shivered and pulled his jacket closer. Contrary to what Lance implied, Keith was no virgin. But since he’d discovered Sandman, he hadn’t bothered. Why should he? He could get that relief whenever his body cried out for it. Everyone knew an alpha could only sphere when an omega was actively in heat. So where else could he replicate the spheres outside of heat? Artificially, of course. He made good work of his Sand, verging fast into abusing it. His dosage for a high hadn’t increased, but he needed it more frequently. He wasn’t so strung out that he didn’t notice. His rapidly depleting funds had been obvious. But, did that mean that he had developed a tolerance for the hormones involved? What if a normal alpha’s natural spheres didn’t do anything for him anymore?

While he debated, Lance took the opportunity to check out their surroundings. It wasn’t known for being a safe neighborhood and he wanted to make sure there weren’t any surprises. He checked his phone quickly, squinting at the sudden brightness. His shift was just about over. The next corner person would be there soon for the hand off.

“Yeah.”

Lance blinked, caught off guard.

“Excuse me?”

“I said yeah. Okay. Let’s do this.”

At the end of the day, Keith knew he’d only be more useless as time went on without that drug. He wasn’t going to be able to get it off of any other corner guy, not without money. Plus, he had a sneaking suspicion that Lance knew exactly what he did for a living and would warn the rest of The Lions to prepare for any impending thefts. Keith was well acquainted with the hangout spots for the actual carriers of Sandman, but he was no fool. Lounging amongst the crowd in whatever semi-public area they picked were thugs, ready to catch any shaking fingers, desperate for a high they can’t afford. So, even if Lance couldn’t sphere him, maybe the pheromones from getting fucked hard could take the edge off enough for him to relieve someone of their wallet. And maybe, he trusted Lance. A little.

As if on cue, the greaseball set to take over watching the corner showed up. Lance could feel his pores expanding at the approaching mess of old food stains and outrageous amounts of acne. Lance tried to school his face into anything other than a disgusted grimace. He hoped he managed something resembling polite disinterest. Shiny Forehead slithered up next to them, not bothering to be discreet at such a late hour. He held out an imperious hand to Lance. Lance extracted the bills and the money, carefully handing them over with the tips of his fingers to minimize contact with the pale, clammy palm. Fuck, he needed to wash his hands after that. Satisfied, the guy made a weird shooing motion at Lance.

“Okay. I know you’re dying to get out of here. So leave already. But hey, uh-“ The guy cut himself off with a chuckle. “Lemme know if that ho is any good. I got a buddy could use something nice. His birthday and all. He’s into the whole scrawny and brooding little whore thing.” He directed his next comment directly to Keith. “My friend’s a real nice guy you know. Might tip ya your poison of choice. And he won’t stiff you. Well, you know what I mean.”

He laughed heartily for a split second. The next, he’d been shoved harshly against the unforgiving wall. You didn’t have to be a genius to recognize an on-edge drug addict and know it was a dumb idea to mess with them. Keith snarled and pushed his knife into the meat of the guy’s throat. Snorting in fear, the guy’s eyes flashed to Lance. Lance rolled his lips together, flicked his gaze away, and pulled out his phone. For sure, Keith was going to have to wash his hands too now, if he thought he’d be putting those hands on Lance.

“I don’t wanna hear it from a slimy omega who’s dipping into his own product. What kind of shitty moron cheats The Lions?”

The guy’s eyes widened in fear, darting around anxiously, and he tried to retract his face from Keith’s dangerous snarl. It was honestly kind of hot.

“You just gonna stand there? And let this slut kill me?!”

“Doesn’t matter if I do or not. Cheating your own gang means you got a death wish.”

Lance sighed and tugged gently at Keith’s shoulder, urging him away. To his surprise, Keith obeyed, backing away, but not letting up with his furious glare. Pretending that he had absolutely known that would happen, Lance turned to the guy casually.

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that. We don’t need any trouble right now. What’s your name?”

“Marcus.”

“Marcus what?”

“Marcus Liebowitz…”

Keith snorted inelegantly by his side. Lance managed to contain himself a little more.

“O-kay. Well, Marcus, the name’s Lance. And now, you owe me. So, jot that down. For future reference? I’d leave this guy alone if I were you.”

Nodding quickly, Marcus shrank back from them. Lance let his arm naturally fall to Keith’s waist and forcefully pulled him in the direction of his apartment. Keith watched Marcus through slitted eyes and, that close, Lance could feel him shaking in suppressed rage. Or the beginnings of withdrawal. Sometimes, it was hard to tell. They’d gone a block when Keith finally burst out.

“You’re really going to keep his secret? Won’t The Lions just take it out on you too?”

“Of course I won’t keep his secret. The guy is a creep. Probably never even heard of laundry detergent. I’ll get my favor first and then I’ll turn him in. Maybe even get a reward out of it. Win win.” Keith grinned at that so Lance continued. “Plus, he insulted your honor. I can’t let that stand.”

“My hero.”

Keith’s tone was drier than any desert Lance had ever visited, but he chose to magnanimously ignore it. Lance was struck by the thought that, regardless of well he knew the neighborhood, he was suddenly very glad that his apartment was close by. It was one of those nights when you couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that if you wandered too deep down one of the beckoning alleys you’d never go home. A nameless, primal fear of something lurking. Probably baseless too. He knew every monster by name or reputation; always made sure to introduce himself properly when he bumped fists with the devil. Didn’t mean he was stupid though. His mama raised him to follow his instincts and to have a healthy respect for his surroundings. He slid his opposite hand into his pocket and fingered his weapon unconsciously.

Keith wasn’t oblivious to the atmosphere either and leaned closer to Lance. When a bottle smashed a few feet from them, Keith jumped, a hand going to his knife. Lance hadn’t been expecting either the noise, nor Keith’s reaction, and he stumbled, his gun falling to the ground with a rough clatter.

“Oh shit!”

Keith knelt down and picked it up, head turned towards the sound. Immediately, a yowl followed and he caught side of a small tail flashing deeper down the alley, outside the edges of the streetlights. As he stood smoothly from his crouch, he noticed the gun was lighter than he expected. He was a knife guy, always had been. But, he had held a gun before. He knew how heavy it ought to be. The fact that this one, small and elegant as it was, seemed lighter suggested that something was missing. Like ammo. He handed it back to Lance with a nod, biting his tongue against asking why Lance bothered to keep a gun on him if it wasn’t loaded. It brought up questions. Made him wonder if Lance really was the man Keith had imagined.

“I saw it run. It was just a cat. Whew! Kinda spooky out here tonight huh?”

Lance laughed at his own joke, purposefully trying to lighten the mood. Keith gave him a strange look, but nodded. The walk to Lance’s continued in silence, though they both walked a little faster. Keith turned over the new fact in his head. Street punks always carried weapons, no matter their age. Guns were typical because they were easy to get and it was a good assumption that most people toted them. Side-eying Lance subtly, Keith was torn between amusement and disbelief. Was he so cocky that he thought an empty gun was all he needed in this life?

Upon climbing the short staircase to his apartment, Lance began to feel some trepidation. After the scare with the cat, Keith had been more agitated, giving him not-so-subtle looks from the corner of his eye. Lance wasn’t sure what had changed; no way was Keith giving him the stink eye for carrying. Maybe he thought the gun was less than impressive? Lance scoffed to himself. Keith had better not think that gun was a reflection of what else he had to offer because Lance was packing some serious heat.

Inside, Lance turned to drop off his keys in the bowl next to the door, wincing at the loud clinking. Flicking on the lights, he gestured widely around the living room, inviting Keith to take a seat. Lance slipped into the bathroom to piss like a champion and to gargle some mouthwash. Just as a precaution. Outside the door, Keith waited until he heard the stream before opening the only other door in the apartment. It was small and cozy, the kitchen and living room crowded into one space and the coffee table littered with odds and ends and a stray dirty plate. Peering into the other room, Keith flipped the light switch and blinked. He rolled his eyes at the sight. Most of the room was pretty normal for a bedroom; some books on the floor by an overflowing bookcase, a messy desk, and a drawer only half shut in the bureau. What drew his attention, though, was the bed. For one thing, Keith didn’t know many people who made their bed every morning, but apparently Lance was one of those people. But the bed was so…tacky. The duvet was thick, dark, and had a fur throw at the foot. It was turned down at the top to make room for pillows, covered in the same saxophone inducing crimson silk as the sheets.

“Hey whoa! You’re not allowed in there!”

Keith craned his head out of the doorway to stare at Lance in sheer bewilderment.

“I’m not allowed? Wait. Did-did you bring me back here to fuck me on your couch?

Lance groaned, speaking louder to cut off the burgeoning tirade.

“No, just listen!”

Keith stopped talking and sullenly waited for Lance to continue. Lance sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

“Okay. Here’s the deal: I wasn’t lying at the corner. If you want me, you’re not getting any drugs. Now, maybe you just want a quickie. I don’t mind; I know I’m irresistible.” Lance winked. “But, that’s not really what I had in mind.”

Keith raised an eyebrow, but didn’t interrupt. Lance cleared his throat nervously.

“I mean, I was hoping that you’d want something a little more long term.”

“Long term?”

“Yeah! Obviously, I get that giving up an addiction is hard, so I would make allowances for set backs and I always give second chances. But not more than that, so it would need to be a real commitment from you. And I would want to start drug testing you after that just as a precaution.”

Keith threw up his hands finally.

“What are you talking about?!”

“Being with me.”

Keith grit his teeth and closed his eyes for a second to try and clear his thoughts enough to be coherent.

“I came here for a quick fuck. Now you’re talking about what? Dating? No, wait, that’s not the point. You’re also demanding that I give up Sand for you? Are you high?”

Lance crossed his arms, frowning.

“It’s not so impossible! I know all of the suppliers in town, remember? Even if you didn’t buy from me, I’d know if you were buying from anyone else. The Lions own this place. Most of them owe me favors. I can put a moratorium on you. No one will sell to you. You’ll be persona non grata.”

Keith tried to quell the rising panic.

“Are you threatening me?” He rushed forward, unsheathing his knife and holding it in front of him to ward of Lance. They both stood, barely a foot between them, breathing faster and regarding each other. “This is an abuse of power. I thought you were different from those other guys, Lance! I trusted you!”

Keith snarled, defensive. But anyone listening could hear the anguish in his tone; see the betrayal on his face.

“I came here to take the edge off until I can get some money. To get the real thing.”

Lance huffed angrily.

“The real thing?! Maybe you’ve tricked yourself into thinking that, but your body knows it isn’t real. You’re being prickly about it, but don’t tell me you’re totally satisfied with Sand. That you haven’t dreamed of lips on you? The warmth of someone else’s hand on your body? Drugs can’t replace that.”

“What do you know? Stupid alpha, thinking everyone wants you all the time. Must be a real blow to your pride to know that an omega doesn’t need you!”

Lance’s face contorted into something harsh that made Keith take a step back. Lance managed to get his face under control again, after a moment, and continued more quietly.
 
“You’re a fool if you think I can’t tell how much you want to have a life. A real one. Not one that revolves around getting your next fix. I’m not saying you can’t ever relax with a little something-something again. Something a little less addictive, take the edge off? Fine. I can appreciate that. But think about what I’m offering here. This isn’t about my dick, believe it or not. I have connections; I can get ahold of methadone for you. I can help you get off of Sand a lot safer than if you tried it on your own. Between that and my own spheres, you should be able to get to a point eventually where you can be more functional. I mean hell! If nothing else, you’d have more options in life!”

Lance was really working himself up explaining. Keith felt a combination of withdrawal’s haze and befuddlement gently sink into his brain and he let his guard down a little, lowering the knife slightly. Nothing was making sense. Blinking rapidly, Keith decided to focus on a concrete detail first. He couldn’t begin to wrap his brain around the bigger picture yet.

“Methadone isn’t enough and you know it! The chemicals from Sand aren’t only an opiate. I’ll be in a constant awful dry heat! Even if you can sphere me occasionally, it won’t be enough. I need it every couple of days. Maybe you could satisfy me once a month, if I’m lucky. Why would I choose that? I’m doing fine! I’m fine!”

“You’re not fine. Tch. You’re so dumb, I can’t believe it. I heard Sand dulls your senses, but this is ridiculous. I’m standing right here. Fucking idiot.”

Lance jeered and sprang forward, pulling Keith’s face forward to scent Lance properly. Keith’s nostrils flared. He jerked back instinctively, but not before he’d taken in the scent. His eyelashes fluttered. Lance was an alpha alright, but his scent was much stronger than any alpha Keith had ever smelled. What the hell? Keith wasn’t in heat so Lance’s pheromones shouldn’t be that responsive.

“What?”

Keith would have been ashamed at how his voice cracked a little on the word if he wasn’t too busy trying to swallow his own saliva.

“Double alpha. I dunno the scientific term, but uh, whatever. Point is, I can sphere any time, for anyone. Omega or not, heat or no heat.”

Keith couldn’t contain the small groan that escaped his mouth at the thought. Lance relaxed his grip on the back of Keith’s head in surprise and Keith used the moment to yank his body away from Lance, backing up with growing apprehension. He could feel the pull of his body’s protests. Lance’s gravity called to him and he swayed forward.

“What is…? Is this a fucking DARE outreach? Trying to save me from myself and raise me from my sinning perdition with your goddamn magical prick?”

Keith managed, weakly. Lance snorted inelegantly and Keith stabilized himself against the wall.

“Seriously! Why are you doing this for me?”

Lance eyed him suspiciously. He chewed on his lip for a moment before shrugging in a why not gesture.

“I used to hate you. A lot.”

Keith waited, unimpressed.

“I used to see you in high school, hurrying along between classes, brushing off everyone who so much as tried to smile at you. You were practically at the top of almost every class, but anyone who congratulated you or asked for your help was totally dismissed. I thought you were arrogant and didn’t want to associate with any of us plebs.”

Keith noticed that Lance said us. He wondered if Lance was one of the people he’d inadvertently ignored. He couldn’t believe they’d gone to the same school and he’d never remembered. Lance seemed like someone even he would recall.

“Yeah. You didn’t even recognize me huh?”

Lance commented wryly. Keith looked away.

“Anyways, my big dream was to go to the Garrison after school. I’ve always wanted to go to space. But they only accept a few lucky candidates every year. And you beat me. Made sure I wasn’t one of the top ten at our school, the ones who get their pick of universities.”

Keith made eye contact again, frowning deeply. He opened his mouth to…what? Reassure Lance that he hadn’t done it on purpose? Because he didn’t even know who Lance was? Yeah, that would go over well. Lance waved his hand dismissively.

“I was pretty miffed, yeah. But at the same time, what could I do? We were rivals, neck in neck, and the best man won. It just happened to be you. That wasn’t the problem. I knew I could take online courses to prepare me and apply again the next summer, in the May submissions for post-high school prospective students. They probably would have taken me actually. But imagine my surprise when, come April the next year, I saw you, bumming a smoke off of Rodrigo, all dirty and shift-eyed. You weren’t in school; you were skinny and shaking like a leaf. Like an addict. Like someone who’d thrown it all away when I didn’t even get in!

Lance stopped, realizing that he was red-faced and yelling. He took a few calming breaths while Keith processed the information. He didn’t want to give Keith a chance to respond yet.

“I’m petty. I figured that if the world was that unfair, I’d have to manufacture some revenge myself. I would never be able to catch up to you in the stratosphere, finally winning your respect or anything. We’d never be space ranger partners, like my dumb ass thought. It was time to be realistic. Online courses are one thing, but scholarships aren’t easy to come by and my familia needs the money. I need the money. I had an in for The Lions and I took it. Sure, I liked selling to you. Made me feel powerful I guess. But I…got tired of that.” That didn’t sound the most romantic.  “And I got to talking to you finally. I knew you, but it was like I didn't know you. Started to think that it didn’t have to be like this.” That sounded marginally better.

Lance was in the process of spilling his guts, but he wasn’t quite ready to discuss his change of heart. He wasn’t altogether sure that his motive was altruistic. He’d always wanted Keith, even while he cursed his name in the hallways and locker room. Originally, he’d thought that maybe Keith would want him to get more Sand and he was torn between wanting to see the devastation on Keith’s face when Lance shut him down and wanting to take advantage of whatever he could to keep Keith as his own. Lance did want to help Keith, really sincerely. He also wanted Keith to need him. He’d thought long and hard about this; he could live with himself this way.

He remembered the conversation he’d had with Allura once, when he had brought up his desire to reapply to the Garrison, where she worked, in the spring. She warned him against the idea. He’d been outraged, assuming the warning was just because Allura wanted him to work for her instead. But she’d retorted with some information about the legal mire the Garrison was currently embroiled in about its scholarship students. Apparently, as a supplement to their pitiful book money, they’d offered spots in developing drug trials to scholarship students, specifically targeting them. At the time, they’d been working on a new drug, similar to the effects of other black market heat suppressants for omegas. It was originally developed to help unmated omegas feel satisfied during their heats if they were unable, or unwilling, to seek out an alpha. The drug was to be a fake sphere, filled with synthetics to reproduce the chemicals involved in pleasure and comfort.

Unfortunately, the compound they’d chosen was too similar to the black market heat drugs. Those drugs had been banned due to their severe side effects of infertility and addictive nature, the Garrison’s drug was no exception. They’d discovered the addictive nature when all of the scholarship students involved in the trial either overdosed and needed to be hospitalized or became irrevocably addicted. Scrambling to save face, the Garrison promptly expelled all of the students, citing behavioral issues. Lance hadn’t needed to ask to know that Keith had been one of those students. Allura had sighed that the issue was handled poorly, but Lance hadn’t felt much pity. She and a few other researchers with dubious ties had capitalized on the drug and, within a few months, was turning a tidy profit for The Lions. When confronted, she'd tittered that the Garrison hardly paid its researchers anything and she needed the extra income. Lance scowled at the memory and shook his head, trying to reorder his mind like an Etch-A-Sketch.

Keith had been feeling like an episode of The Twilight Zone while Lance had been talking, but the way his sentence had drifted off and the subsequent emotions flitting across his face gave Keith an altogether different idea.

“O-kay. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you, but I think you’ve got some issues and you think I can help you or whatever. But I can’t. I’ve got my own problems; sure I like you and we’ve talked a bit, but you’re my dealer. And I’m an addict! Of course we’re on good terms!”

“I think we’ve gone beyond the whole addict dealer relationship, Keith.”

Internally, Lance was celebrating. Keith liked him! Lance had a serious case of the warm and fuzzies, brushing off Keith’s rising tone as part of being so hot-headed and currently jonesing for a score.

“That’s not the point! You’re acting like a stalker!”

“I am not. That is just rude!”

Keith threw up his hands in exasperation. So Lance wasn’t going to acknowledge his weird behavior? Fine. Keith could still make the best of the situation. Lance wasn’t exactly wrong; they had progressed past a casual relationship. Keith even considered them sort of friends. Lance didn’t know, but Keith had discovered a month prior that Lance had beat a guy to a bloody pulp after he’d threatened Keith. He also couldn’t deny that, although knowing Lance’s actions were worthy of concern, it was sort of…flattering. That someone remembered him for so long and cared about him. Keith knew Lance didn’t mean him any harm and he was a pretty attractive guy after all. Keith figured that either, he could disillusion Lance about himself and just leave, or, if he played his cards right, he could get laid. Once he was satisfied, he could just tell Lance to fuck off and leave if he wanted. His throat felt a little tight at the thought of losing Lance and their funny conversations. Lance and Sand were the only constants in his life since he’d been kicked out of the Garrison.

“What if I decide to get high again? With Sandman? What’re you gonna do?”

Lance pursed his lips, trying desperately not to pout. He crossed his arms over his chest.

“Well, I guess if you tell me that you don’t want my help and leave me first, nothing. I’d let you go.” Lance prayed that Keith couldn’t tell that he was lying through his teeth. “I told you before, I’m a big believer in second chances. Everyone messes up. If you go get high and come back and still want my help, I’ll help you again. But if you do it a second time?”

Lance uncrossed his arms and fished out his gun, looking down at it.

“I’ll kill you.”

He raised the gun so it was pointed at the space between Keith’s eyes and pretended to shoot.

“Pow.”

If the situation had been different, Keith would have immediately questioned Lance’s bad sound effect.

“Fine, maybe I’m just a little bit obsessed with you. Just a bit! But I just want you to be mine. I’m a great catch! You should be honored. I have a steady job, friends in high places, protection, and I’m saving up to get a nicer apartment. I can afford methadone, or whatever you need to get better. I can take care of you.”

Keith swallowed, throat suddenly dry. He clenched his hands into fists and rubbed his thumb over his knuckles in a self-soothing movement. He didn’t want someone to take care of him. But maybe having someone around who cared about him so much wouldn’t be a bad thing. Someone who knew him well and still wanted him. Lance said he could always leave if he wanted to. Keith struggled to croak out a question.

“Why me?”

Lance sighed explosively and lowered the gun.

“I’m lonely. You’re loyal, even if in small ways. You refuse to buy from anyone who isn’t me, even though you have the option. And you’re the only person who really stuck around to just talk sometimes. In my line of work, I need people who are loyal. And, back in high school, you were so independent and determined. I read some of your papers and the one about Alpha Centauri was really cool.”

Keith blushed. Stepping forward, and eyeing Lance and the gun in his hand, he figured that he had very little to lose. He liked the idea of someone desiring him so much, taking the time to watch him and learn about him. Especially when Keith never so much as noticed the guy. He hadn’t been even trying to get his attention; Lance thought he was worthy of attention anyway. He took a chance. Smirking at Lance slightly, he reached out and wrapped his fingers around Lance’s, tugging the gun gently back up towards his face. Keith licked his lips and made sure to maintain eye contact. His heart beat faster. Keith was undeniably turned on. He parted his lips and guided the barrel of the gun into his mouth. The cool metal tasted like blood on his tongue. Working his jaw a little bit, Keith bobbed his head slightly, fellating the gun. Lance turned bright red, his eyes lidding in lust. Pleased by his reaction, Keith hollowed his cheeks, applying more suction to the barrel. He hoped to rile Lance up and it seemed like it was working.

Lance shuddered and was simultaneously turned on and bizarrely jealous of his own gun. His adrenaline spiked and his alpha instincts roared to put that omega to better use than on a weapon. Keith’s dark, intense stare only enhanced the overall feeling of danger he naturally radiated. It was part of why Lance wanted him so much. Lance grinned wickedly. Wrenching the gun from Keith’s mouth, he watched the thin strand of saliva stretch and break from where it connected Keith’s lips to the end of his gun.

With a hand around Keith’s waist, he guided them both into his bedroom, depositing the gun on the top of his nightstand. He shrugged off his jacket and toed off his shoes, seeing Keith do the same. Stepping back into his space, Lance leaned in close to whisper against Keith’s lips.

“When I’m through with you, you won’t even be thinking about Sand. Just me.”

“That’s a tall order. If you can satisfy me, you’ll earn my respect.”

He stood on tip toe to press his mouth to Lance’s. Lance kept it chaste for a moment, but Keith was too far gone to abide by that for long. He opened his mouth and swiped his tongue along the seam of Lance’s lips. Lance indulged him, letting Keith suck his tongue hungrily. His alpha instincts wasn’t pleased about letting the omega take control, but Lance hazily promised himself that he was just lulling Keith into a false sense of security. Unlike most omegas, Keith was used to being independent. Lance didn’t want to come in with a full domineering attitude and either scare him off or piss him off. Keith was skittish already; best to let him be in control until his own instincts took over. Lance would be what Keith needed and Keith didn’t need someone to dominate him, not yet.

When Keith paused for breath, Lance asked “What do I do with that?”

“Huh?”

“With your respect?”

“It’s the first part of gaining my loyalty.” Keith answered breathlessly and resumed ravaging Lance’s reddened lips. Lance felt uncertainty flare up inside of him, before he quelled it ruthlessly. Keith was just being coy. There was no way that he would betray Lance. Nothing to worry about. Lance would be Keith’s everything. There’s no way Keith would give up what Lance would give him. But he had to start somewhere and a good first impression never hurt anybody.

Seizing the idea, Lance let his hands drop from where they had been soothingly stroking Keith’s sides while they kissed. He teased his fingers along the skin just over Keith’s hips, feeling the shiver he caused. Lance deftly undid the buttons on Keith’s jeans, not pushing them down at all, just brushing the backs of his knuckles over Keith’s lower abdomen. Keith made a small noise of approval and pushed closer. Lance turned his head to the side and inhaled deeply as he smoothed his hands over Keith’s hips and around to his behind. He subtly pulled the waistband of Keith’s jeans away from his butt and rolled his hips forward, enjoying the dulled sensation against his half hard cock. Lance could smell the arousal in the air. He dipped his hands into Keith’s boxers and massaged his ass. It was a little scrawny, but Lance could feel the muscles and the sparse extra fat there. Once Keith had a steady diet and ate on a daily basis, Lance had no doubt that he would fill out a bit. He had high hopes for that ass.

Keith groaned and tipped his head to the side, allowing Lance access to his neck. Lance eagerly took advantage, pressing wet kisses down the pale column and quietly spitting out some of Keith’s hair that got in his mouth. Keith giggled. Lance’s heart melted at the sound. He nipped at Keith’s neck, craning around to nuzzle at Keith’s scent glands behind his ears. He licked them and could feel Keith’s accelerated pulse when he pressed closer. Keith inhaled sharply. Everyone’s scent glands were sensitive, but it had been so long since anyone else had touched him that he’d forgotten just how sensitive. As Lance lapped at the glands, he could feel them swell. He felt a little mischievous. He opened his mouth against them and sucked. Keith wailed, his hips jerking backwards to grind against Lance’s hands. Lance kneaded the cheeks he held and let up the suction, not ready to overwhelm Keith. As his fingers moved down to the tops of Keith’s thighs, he felt the tell-tale wetness of slick. That was all the invitation he’d been waiting for.

Keith gasped and widened his stance, arching his back to push his ass out further as he felt Lance’s clever fingers deftly brush over his pucker and circle his hole. Goddamn, but that felt different than when he fingered himself. He’d never had the extra money for heat toys, but he was no stranger to exploring his own body in the throes of Sand. It hadn’t felt like this in quite some time though. Not since he was first getting hooked. Maybe he had built up some kind of tolerance. He’d been worried that sex, even with a sphering alpha, wouldn’t satisfy his cravings, but that worry was dwindling fast. When Lance’s finger first breached his entrance, Keith grunted and tucked his face against Lance’s shoulder. He pushed his ass out as much as he could, hoping to appeal to the alpha’s nature and get him to hurry up.

Watching his hands moving underneath Keith’s jeans over his shoulder, combined with the tight heat surrounding his finger was euphoric. Lance had to close his eyes momentarily to take a steadying breath. He was fully hard by that point and his hips rolled without his knowledge. Everything in him demanded that he shove Keith’s pants down to his knees, pin him against the wall and take him. Lance resisted with difficulty. Keith wasn’t in heat and he wasn’t high so he needed to be opened up before he could even think of taking Lance’s alpha-sized dick. Keith whined against Lance’s neck and nudged against Lance’s scent glands, just under his jaw. He hoped to exact some revenge and that Lance’s glands were as sensitive as his own.

Keith wasn’t aware, but in many Latin cultures, the act of an omega nosing at an alpha’s scent glands was incredibly intimate and submissive. Some of the Mexican girls Lance knew from working his corners swore by the move, saying it was sexy and never failed to get an alpha going. It certainly worked on Lance and on his next twist, he added a second finger inside of Keith. Riled up as he was, Lance couldn’t help his stomach dropping a little. Keith wasn’t Latino, so he might have learned that move from some of the whores who frequented his hang out spots. The idea of Keith using a whore’s technique made the whole act feel cheap.

Keith felt the hitch in Lance’s breathing and his body tense up against him. He was about to pull away when Lance added another finger. He wasn’t sure what had happened, but the air around them changed. It was still sexually charged, but there was a hint of something else. Something he didn’t like. His heartbeat increased and he pressed apologetic kisses to the base of Lance’s neck. When Lance got to three fingers, stretching Keith wide and listening to the squelching noises, Keith had grown very impatient. Lance tried to distract him by twisting his fingers and stroking over that spot inside that pulled moans from Keith’s panting mouth. But Keith would not be deterred. He pulled away and Lance reluctantly let him go. They both hurriedly stripped out of their remaining clothes. Keith tripped over his pants and had to sit down to fully remove them, prompting a snicker from Lance. When Lance was finally able to free his cock from its confines, it sprang forth, proudly jutting forward. Sitting down as he was, Keith was suddenly confronted with the penis. It was huge. He wanted it inside of him immediately.

After giving Keith a moment to fully appreciate the cock that would be wrecking him in short order, Lance smugly stepped forward. He put his hands on Keith’s shoulders and pushed until he was laying on his back, splayed out over Lance’s crimson sheets. He tugged Keith’s pants and boxers off and tossed them to the side, unconcerned. He tried to climb in between Keith’s legs, but Keith had bent his knees, holding his legs together stubbornly and frowning.

“C’mon babe. Let me show you a good time. Spread your legs for me?”

Keith scoffed “I’m not your lover.”

The uncertainty from before came screaming back. Lance remembered that Keith had never consented to actually belong to Lance, just to get laid. He’d even said that Lance didn’t have his loyalty! And that slutty move from before, well, that had obviously been calculated. Keith had no intention of being Lance’s; he just wanted an alpha dick. Any alpha's dick. Furious anger coursed through Lance’s veins and his face twisted into something cruel. He snarled something and got off the bed, stomping over to the corner of his room. Keith watched in open mouth shock. All he’d meant was that he wanted it a little more spicy than traditional missionary. He was willing to give Lance a try, but he wasn’t ready to lie on his back for gentle love-making, whispering sweet nothings, and holding hands. Was that too much to ask?!

Lance dragged his full length mirror over to reflect his bed and walked briskly over to his nightstand. He grabbed the bottle off the top and clicked the cap open, drizzling some lubricant onto his hand. He smeared it over his dick with quick, uncaring strokes, determined to not take any pleasure from the action. He didn’t make eye contact with Keith as he sat down on the edge of his bed and spread his legs for stability. When Keith didn’t react, Lance gestured sharply to his prick, still standing at attention.

“Come on then. This is for you.”

Lance bit out. Keith was bewildered at the heavy bitterness in his tone, but scrambled to obey. He had no idea why Lance was suddenly so cranky, but he wasn’t going to say no to a nice, thick cock and the promise of spheres. Levering himself up, he crawled over to straddle Lance’s lap. Lance sneered and stopped him.

“No.”

Keith’s brows furrowed together. Lance yanked his arm and Keith put a foot down on the floor, stumbling and off-balance. Lance utilized the opportunity to turn him around and pull Keith onto his lap, facing away from him.

“Fuck yourself on my cock. We can watch.”

The words thrilled Keith and he eagerly positioned Lance at his entrance. The gravely tone of voice seemed off, but Keith could ignore that in favor of finally getting more. Lance had stretched him well; he slowly slid down until Lance had bottomed out. He was so deep. Keith felt like the breath was punched out of him and all the worry that an alpha wouldn’t satisfy him evaporated completely, along with his self-control. He moved his legs a little to situate himself and he felt his body clench and release a gush of slick. He yelped as the first orgasm of the night shuddered down his spine. He rocked in Lance’s lap, unwilling to lift off of him completely. Lance wrapped his arms around Keith’s waist and propped his chin on Keith’s shoulder, leaning forward to whisper ferociously into his ear.

“Open your eyes, dammit. You’re gonna watch this too.”

Keith blearily opened his eyes, not sure when he’d closed them. He nearly recoiled at the awful expression on Lance’s face. It was somewhere between a desire for vengeance and heartbreak. He tried to turn his head away, but Lance grabbed his chin, quick as a snake, and forcibly held Keith facing forward. He had no choice but to watch and listen, unable to still his hips’ movements either.

“You want this to be quick and dirty? Feel like a fucking slut about it?”

Lance punctuated his question with a rough jerk and Keith’s response was cut off with his moan.

“Maybe you’ll wait until you’ve come down from the spheres. While I’m taking a piss or something. That’s when you’ll sneak out, pants barely done up and hickeys on your neck, like you’ve got a wedding ring in your purse? Is that what you want?”

Keith shook his head frantically, trying to voice his denial. Lance’s hand had let go of his chin in favor of squeezing around his throat, choking him enough to make speech impossible. When Keith shifted and tried to lift a hand, Lance pinned both of his arms against his sides. The change in angle was unintentionally perfect and Keith keened, eyelashes fluttering in pleasure. Lance kept growling into his ear.

“Your way of saying ‘Screw you’? That I should mind my own business? That you’re a big, bad omega who doesn’t need no stinking alpha taking care of you? No matter how much of a fucking shambles your life is?”

Keith stopped struggling, locking eyes with Lance in the mirror. Lance wasn’t cutting off his air enough to make him pass out, but the combination of being fucked, being restrained, and going through withdrawal made him feel much more vulnerable than normal. He blinked rapidly in growing horror. Lance wasn’t just being a dominant, sexy alpha. He was angry. Why was he so angry? What had Keith done to make him like that? Were his initial suspicions that Lance was off his rocker coming true? That Lance was a crazy stalker waiting to kill him? Was Lance going to kill him?

Sensing that Keith was actually listening and focused, Lance let go of his throat and arms. Instead, he snaked his hands under Keith’s thighs, gripping them harshly and spreading them wide. Keith grunted in pain at how wide his legs held, but his hips continued to roll, seeking friction. Lance lifted them higher and leaned back, cold anger glinting in his eyes.

“Look at us. Really look at us.”

Keith did. He saw himself, skinnier than he remembered, being held and spread over an alpha’s lap. He saw the darkening red spots on his neck and his swollen scent glands. The glimmer of slick on his ass and the red blush staining his cheeks and chest. His nipples peaked out with his heaving breaths and the contrast of his pale skin and Lance’s rich, caramel skin. His eyes skittered quickly over Lance’s face, unwilling to spend too much time there, and dropped to the spot where they were connected. Lance’s sac hung, large and heavy, beneath where he was splitting Keith wide. Keith’s cock, by contrast, was small and slim, flushed in arousal and curved up towards his stomach. Keith panted at the sight.

“If that’s what you really want, then look hard and tell me now. I’ll give you what you want, don’t worry. This is for you. I’ll sit here while you bounce on my cock to your heart’s content until I sphere. And when you’re done, I won’t stop you from leaving.”

Keith looked away from the mirror, his hips rolling desperately. With his legs in the air, he didn’t have the leverage to actually lift himself up and down and Lance’s demeanor didn’t make it seem like he would sphere any time soon. Keith could come like that, over and over, but he wasn’t sure that Lance could. Apparently, Keith’s lack of response wasn’t what Lance wanted because he growled aggressively.

“I’ll give you a hundred-no, five hundred too. Free of charge. Like the prostitute you’re aspiring to be, I guess.”

Keith spluttered in indignation.

“You’re too much of a coward to say anything huh? Not so brave now. Just keep grinding on my prick, trying to get my spheres? Fine.”

Lance snapped his hips up in a few irregular, rough thrusts. Keith’s mouth dropped open and whatever he was going to say died on his tongue.

“I guess you haven’t changed at all since school. Getting kicked out, being on the street, being a junkie, didn’t make you humble. You still think you’re better than me. Filthy slut. If you take my spheres, bills, and leave, you’d better not ever come near me again. Or I will kill you.”

Lance leaned forward and Keith yipped at the sensation.

“You were so confident it wasn’t loaded. Putting your dirty mouth all over my piece like that that? Stupid.” Lance shook his head with mocking sympathy. “Did you ever stop to think I might keep a shot chambered?”

Keith stiffened, fear shooting through his heart even while he came again, leaking around Lance’s cock.

“Yeah. I’ll kill you if I ever see you again and somehow? I don’t think anyone would miss you.”

Keith finally met his eyes in the mirror. The anger was visible, but so was the look of betrayal underneath, now that Keith knew to look for it. He had no illusions about Lance; The Lions weren’t known for their forgiveness. But he knew this wasn’t Lance. Keith could see the pain etched deeply on his face, the weariness in his eyes. If Lance cared about him half as much as he flat out said, Keith knew that this was a facade. Lance would let him leave and was only saying this stuff to protect himself from the heartache of Keith rejecting him. He saw Lance’s eyes widen in surprise and he looked at the mirror again. Lance felt Keith trembling around him and felt a stab of guilt at the couple of fat tears he saw roll down Keith’s face. He knew he’d gone too far, but he couldn’t help expressing himself. He had looked forward to wooing Keith, cultivating their friendship until it could deepen into the love he so desired. It would have been one thing if Keith had shot him down at the corner, had never accepted his offer at all. It meant that Lance needed to try harder, wait a little longer. Lance could have been patient for him. Even having Keith tell him that he just wanted to be friends would have been better. Lance could have pined in silence, respected Keith’s wishes, and been a good friend to him.

But this?

Keith was using him. Lance had wanted loyalty and Keith betrayed him in the worst way possible. Taking advantage of Lance’s feelings to get his spheres and some Sand. Lance felt the righteous indignation bubble up in his blood again and felt less guilty about Keith’s tears.

“Lance! Please. Please, sphere me. Please. I need it. I need you!”

Keith begged, not wanting to have the discussion while his brain was mostly offline. He couldn’t think, needed to think. Lance regarded him stonily, refusing to move. Keith saw even the passion of anger dying in his eyes and Keith panicked. He could work with anything, even that burning fury. But not indifference. He couldn’t do anything with that. Keith broke down at the thought of Lance sitting, statue still, as he chased his pleasure. At how Lance would sit there and watch Keith awkwardly clean up and put his clothes back on, snagging a 500 Monopoly money from Lance’s stash. Of how Lance would stand up and watch Keith leave, emotionlessly shutting the door behind him and locking it.

“I want you. I want you! Not just your spheres. Please. I don’t want to take a bill and leave. I don’t want to never see you again. Please, don't make me go. But I don’t want you to take care of me; any alpha could pamper me. I want an equal. I want someone who cares about me. Who knows me. Who wants me anyway.”

Keith sobbed, letting his eyes close as he wilted, hanging his head. He felt his cock softening and tried to draw away. To his surprise, Lance didn’t let go of his legs, although he did bring them down to a less painful height. Lance started thrusting gently, flexing his arms to bounce Keith on his dick. Keith’s cock twitched at the stimulus. Lance's eyes were warmer, when Keith peeked through the curtain of his bangs at the mirror and his voice was a good deal softer when he spoke again.

“Show me then. I’ll prove to you that I can satisfy you better than Sand and you prove to me that you want more than my prick.”

Keith gulped in a few breaths, planting his hands on Lance’s thighs and lifting himself fully. Lance’s arms tensed and held him steady, allowing Keith to finally move the way he’d been craving the whole time. He whimpered, oversensitive and vulnerable. Lance stretched his legs out in front of him and released Keith’s legs slowly, shifting his hands to wrap around Keith’s waist like he’d tried before. Keith moaned weakly and shivered uncontrollably. Lance built up a rhythm quickly, grinding and thrusting in turns. Keith hummed and surrendered himself to Lance’s strength, letting himself be used like a fleshy hole. When he felt the beginnings of Lance’s knot swelling at the base, he squirmed, yipping excitedly. Lance murmured soothingly to him, telling him to let go. Keith thought that maybe, Lance could take care of him, just this once. Lance pulled him down hard and managed to shove his knot inside of Keith. He felt the most powerful orgasm of the night wrack his body and he shrieked with the force of it. He clenched tightly around Lance and Lance groaned throatily. He pet at Keith’s cock clumsily and Keith yelped, thin cum spurting out and covering Lance’s hand. His thighs were soaked with Keith’s fluids and he relished the evidence of Keith’s enjoyment.

Keith felt boneless and limp, his mind drifting off. He slumped back against Lance, letting his head rest against Lance’s shoulder. Lance carefully laid down, easing Keith down on top of him and rolling them onto their sides, doing his best not to jostle Keith too much. Keith cried out in alarm when Lance started moving, but Lance shushed him quietly and Keith settled. Lance ground against his ass, feeling the first of his spheres moving up his cock. Keith wriggled in anticipation, feeling the widening and the pulse of Lance’s prick inside of him. Lance massaged his abdomen, hoping to move the process along and grunted as the sphere left his tip. They waited together with baited breath, until Keith felt it enter his passage, sliding its way up towards his uterus. When it attached to the wall and released the rush of hormones, Keith curled in on himself in ecstasy, keening loudly. Lance tried to blow the hair out of the way, exposing the nape of Keith’s neck, but when Keith bent forward a bit, Lance followed. He sank his teeth into the back of Keith’s neck, growling like an animal.

Keith howled in pleasure at being marked and then another sphere attached itself. His body jerked in pleasure, Lance giving him everything he promised and more. He felt like he was floating, all of the problems and anxiety fading away. His limbs felt fluffy and the sheets were so soft. It was like being cradled by warm water, a submersion into a spa. Giddily, he thought that Lance had been right; it did feel better with someone's arms around you, warming you from the inside.

“Yeah sweetheart, just like that. ‘M I satisfying you?”

Keith wailed wordlessly. He was incoherent, but Lance had expected that. His knot pulsed, again and again, shooting spheres into Keith’s expanding uterus. Keith adored the feeling of spheres slipping up his channel into him and the tingle when they first attached. He looked down and saw his stomach had expanded just bit, trying to accommodate everything. Lance's rubbing may have felt nice, but Keith's body knew what he needed and milked Lance's cock for all he was worth. Lance obligingly filled him up, just to the edge of pain, before his knot went down. Lance relaxed with a long sigh and slid out of Keith, rolling over to watch his face. Keith’s lips were parted and slick with drool, cheeks shiny with the remainder of his tears. Lance thumbed them away. Keith turned instinctively and nuzzled Lance’s hand. Lance smiled like a total sap, gazing adoringly at the midnight black hair and the indigo eyes, currently rolled back into Keith’s head in pleasure. Lance felt the first stirrings of true happiness for the first time since he’d received the rejection letter from the Garrison.

While Keith writhed in euphoria, Lance stroked his back in thought. He wasn’t sure that he believed Keith just yet about wanting him. Sure, Lance wanted to believe Keith with all his heart. But he just couldn’t. Keith was jonesing, he probably just needed the high. Lance had learned all too well that you couldn’t trust a junkie at their word when they were jonesing. But it was a step in the right direction. Keith could have taken the bill and left. If Lance could keep him for long enough, he could make sure Keith got what he needed. Between his own short refractory period and some methadone, whatever Keith said about it, he could wean Keith off the addiction.

He got up, patting Keith’s leg when he rolled over, whimpering. Lance walked the short distance into the bathroom to get some washcloths and came back, carefully wiping Keith and himself down a little. It was impossible to get Keith totally clean; the spheres would shrivel and leak out once they’d lost their potency. Lance tutted at his sheets, figuring he’d need to slip out at some point in the coming future to the laundromat. Kneeling by the bed where his jacket had been tossed, he fished out his phone and plugged it in next to his nightstand. He turned it on and swiped over to Hunk’s contact. Lance bit his lip. He considered calling Hunk immediately to ask Allura for the methadone. She’d need at least a day to get it, so Lance ought to get the process started as soon as possible right?

Some rustling drew his attention to Keith, rubbing his face against the pillow and rolling around in mindless pleasure in his bed. His alpha instincts rumbled appreciatively. Glancing back down at the phone, Lance waited until the screen went dark from lack of use. Maybe the methadone could wait. Having Keith addicted to him for awhile would be nice.

He scurried around the apartment, hiding the bills and locking the door with both bolts. He’d had Pidge install them almost immediately after moving in when he discovered that his door was set wrong. Or the doorknob was. Whatever the reason, his door locked from the inside. He’d ended up locking himself inside his own apartment a few times and needing to wait for Pidge to let him out, but the heavy bolts kept anyone else from entering. Naturally his landlord had been putting off fixing the door for over a year and Lance no longer held out hope that he ever would. Lance had never found a way to use the reverse lock, but now he locked the door and hid the key. Keith probably wouldn’t change his mind and try to sneak out while Lance slept, but it never hurt to make sure. If Keith wanted to leave, he was damn well going to tell Lance when he was awake. Lance felt that he deserved that, at least. But Keith had been alone for so long, he might wake up in a panic and want to sneak out before thinking about the consequences of doing so. Lance would make sure Keith thought about something for once in his life. So he locked the door. Just as a precaution.

Chapter Text

Keith woke suddenly, the way he always did, consciousness of the world ripping away the already hazy remnants of drowsy musings. One second he might be safely ensconced in dreamland, but the next he’d be disoriented and thoroughly awake, unable to go back to sleep until the following night. His waking that morning was noticeably easier than expected. Wrapped up in silky sheets and a warm blanket, not shivering or curled up on a wooden surface. His whole body relaxed from a good score. He remembered Lance and everything that had happened and he tensed up a bit, untangling himself as he listened. Lance seemed to be puttering around a nearby room, likely the bathroom since the bedroom shared a wall with it. Keith sighed and scrubbed a hand through his messy hair. He’d have to make a decision about Lance’s…offer soon. Keith was on the fence about it. Lance had certainly talked a big game the night previous, assuring Keith that he had connections to God-knows-who and could help Keith get off Sand, that Lance made a decent salary and could support them while Keith got clean and when he eventually looked for a job, etc. Just the offer of someone to rely on and a warm bed to sleep in, not to mention a consistent source of food, was enough to turn Keith’s head. And his heat was coming soon, which meant he’d need to bunk down for a while in a nest and get his hands on all the Sand he could afford, or an alpha. Not that he’d ever had an alpha for a heat, but it seemed to be on the table now. 

The main problem was that it was too good of a deal. The night before, emotions had been running high and Keith had been pretty strung out. They hadn’t discussed any logistics of Lance’s proposal. But Keith was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Surely Lance wouldn’t offer so much without asking anything of Keith in return? Well, anything for Lance’s benefit. Getting sex regularly couldn’t possibly be enough, considering Lance’s looks and status within the neighborhood, as well as his position within The Lions. He’d have no trouble finding someone else. Keith liked Lance just fine; liked that Lance seemed to have his back both when helping Keith pay for his habit or when some upstart got in Keith’s face. Keith snorted at Lance’s declaration last night of ‘protecting your honor’. In spite of all that, though, Keith was wary of deals that were too good to be true. Of becoming dependent, however temporarily, on another person. Keith strove to be self-reliant in as many ways as possible and he was loathe to give up even a modicum of control over his life. As a foster kid, he’d had practically zero control over anything, bounced around families, some better than others, but all of them just fosters, not looking for something permanent. And Keith himself hadn’t been enough to change their minds. 

Then the Garrison, a place Keith had chosen. What a choice that turned out to be. There had been someone in high school, someone Keith had grown to care for and partially relied upon, and even that partial reliance had bitten him in the ass because Keith hadn’t been enough to get them to stick around either. Sort of. They’d been the one to persuade Keith to follow his dreams and work hard to get into the Garrison in the first place and then they had the nerve to not be able to follow Keith there. Something about deferred enrollment. It wasn’t their fault, it was Keith’s for becoming so dependent on them that he was miserable without them at the Garrison. And then, after the fallout, he did blame them for telling him to pursue the Garrison. The small betrayal of losing them had been vastly overshadowed by the actions of their shared dream school. Idly, Keith wondered what became of that person and whether they had ended up finally attending the Garrison; if they were still there now, looking for him. He still felt somewhat guilty that they might be, but not worried. They were smart and, based on the oddly pungent scent of their notes, an alpha. Keith had always somewhat resented alphas for being biologically programmed for self-reliance, but it meant that they had nothing to fear from the Garrison’s morally bankrupt experiments. 

The pattering footsteps on the other side of the wall paused and Keith tensed. A loud banging sounded and he jumped nervously, before pressing his ear to the wall. He heard water falling. Shit, the pipes in the apartment building must really be on the fritz to sound that dramatic. He smirked and rolled out of bed, determined to make the most of Lance’s apparent trust in him. Or not. Keith was stark naked and had no intention of actually leaving, but he’d wrapped a blanket around himself and tried the front door. He’d wanted to get a better view of the kind of building Lance lived in, if Lance was proposing that Keith live there too. The door was locked. Keith frowned and twisted the handle in vain. The door locked from the outside? What the hell? More importantly, how did someone manage to ever leave the apartment? Lance must have rigged up some way to unlock the door from inside or his window climbing skills were far greater than Keith had given him credit for. Huffing and letting go, Keith shuffled back into Lance’s room, uncomfortable with being trapped, but partially understanding. Lance was too kind for his own good, inviting him in, but Lance wasn’t stupid. If he didn’t want to have to watch Keith like a hawk, or physically restrain him, locking them in would make sure Keith couldn’t escape. The real question was: why?

Why was Keith even considering taking him up on it…shit, was Lance for real? His offer? He was a nut-job, that much was certain. Locking them both in the apartment and knowing Keith had a weapon on him that he wasn’t afraid to use? Lance couldn’t be that good. Could he? And besides! Lance was a dealer; he had plenty of clients to obsess over. Keith knew some of them in passing and none of them ever mentioned such special treatment from the man. Luckily for him, there was a messy desk and a disorganized dresser, covered with such clutter that it was a wonder Lance found anything, ever. Keith paged through some papers and a notebook first. They’d known each other for a while, since high school apparently, though Keith didn’t exactly remember. Who was Lance, really? The kind of man who took it personally when his supposed rival dropped out of his dream school. And then fixate on him, to the point that he basically kidnapped Keith, threatened to kill him, and wanted to help him fix his ruin of a life. Keith was no fool, junkie or not. When Lance had said that if Keith decided he didn’t want him and he could leave at any time, Keith knew it was bullshit. Now that Lance had claimed him in so lewd a manner? Keith would never get away, not unless Lance was dead. 

Under normal circumstances, Keith might be alarmed about his casual contemplation of murder, self-defense though it may be, but he was no innocent. As long as he was trapped with a possible psycho who wanted Keith to live a better life, though, he should take the opportunity to learn as much as possible. Ignoring the dark thoughts, Keith rifled through the notebook’s pages. Notes about night schools and online classes, illegible scribbles, and calculations for classes, estimating cost per credit. Distantly, Keith was happy for Lance, thinking about going back to school and furthering his education. Most of him, though, had to wonder what benefit school might lend to a career drug dealer. Flipping backwards through the pages, Keith raised his eyebrows at the discovery that the notebook was originally a high school one, for calculus probably.  He flipped to the end to see what else he might find and his arm jerked suddenly. Cursing, he bent to pick it up from where it landed on the floor and came face to face with a folder chock full of notes written on red construction paper. Keith frowned, forgetting the notebook in his hands and reached for the folder. 

The top note fluttered out and Keith snatched it out of the air. It was dated near the end of Lance and Keith’s senior year. His eyes scanned over the note, heart nearly stopping in recognition. Fuck. He knew he’d recognized Lance’s handwriting, but he’d never imagined that Lance was the note writer. Shitshitshit! All of the warm fuzzies from waking up vanished and Keith choked back a hysterical laugh. What were the odds? Hadn’t he just been wondering what became of the note writer from high school? And felt the twinge of guilt that they might be scouring the Garrison now, looking for Keith to resume their tender, if one-sided, relationship? He’d never expected to find any closure on the matter, much less be confronted with the actual note-writer. 

The note read that the writer was so proud of Keith for getting into the Garrison, but some of the words were smudged by stains. Long-dried wet spots. Tears, undoubtedly. Keith swallowed the bile rising in his throat. Unbelievable. Keith had longed for the note writer, had missed them so dearly during his brief stint in college. Still harbored feelings of resentment, betrayal, and an aching desire for the person who had lovingly left him cheerful and encouraging notes throughout high school. Who had promised to be with Keith forever and then vanished, like a dream. This explained why he’d never received a note when his name went up on the board at school, proudly announcing his acceptance into the Garrison. The note writer had praised even tiny achievements of Keith and he’d always been a bit hurt and mostly confused as to why something so huge hadn’t been acknowledged. Especially since he’d stared long and hard at the other nine names on the board, trying to figure out which one was his writer. They’d promised him, for years at that point, that they would both go together. That’s where the note writer would reveal their identity, if Keith could just be patient. Of course, that was before everything went to absolute shit. The whole situation, a hopeless drug addict learning who had supported him years ago and them ending up together, was so saccharine and ridiculous that Keith wanted to laugh and throw up. But it’s the kind of romantic thing that the note writer would love-that Lance would love. Keith sat back on his heels, clutching the crumpled note to his chest and breathing heavily, the old smell he had loved so much flooding his senses. 

He remembered. 

The first time, Keith had been utterly convinced that it was a fluke. He’d sat down in his assigned seat in Ninth Grade Honors English, only three days into his freshman year, and he’d noticed a neatly folded piece of red construction paper on his desk. He’d looked around, furtively, trying to see if anyone would try to flag him down. No one so much as glanced his way. He frowned, waiting for more kids to file into the room and begin the pre-class chatting. Still, no one noticed their error, with an apologetic smile, in giving the note to Keith. He couldn’t imagine that anyone actually meant it for him; he didn’t know anyone. And he wasn’t accustomed to receiving anonymous notes. He’d put the note in his bag when the teacher finally quieted everyone down, not wanting to draw any undue attention to himself by opening and reading an obnoxiously red note while sitting near the front of the classroom. Especially since it wasn’t for him. Not that he particularly cared if he ended up inadvertently revealing someone’s secret crush, but what if the note didn’t name names? And people assumed that he was the intended recipient? It’d embarrass the hell out of the sender, and Keith, and, shit, what if they bashfully confronted him after class? Or angrily confronted him? Keith had gotten into plenty of trouble in primary and middle school for fighting, but he’d been warned numerous times, by counselors and therapists alike, that fights in high school were treated much more seriously and he couldn’t risk that on his record if he wanted to go to college. Which he did.

It wasn’t until later that night, long after he’d forgotten about the incident in the midst of teenage angst and homework procrastination, that Keith found the red note once more. He’d let his fingers linger on the creased edge, wondering if he ought to read it. After a moment, his curiosity got the better of him. It had been short and simple, written carefully with loopy handwriting. Later in his high school career, Keith had done some research into handwriting styles and had come to the conclusion that the writer was female because of the swirling nature, but, at the time, he’d been more concerned with the fact that the note was, in fact, addressed to him. No mistake about it. 

Keith,

Your shirt tag is sticking out. The GAP’s a classic.

~

Keith had reread the note a few times, wondering what the fuck his life had come to. He instinctively reached behind his head and blushed, finding that his tag was sticking out rather prominently. He yanked off the shirt impulsively and checked it. Sure enough, The GAP. He squinted at the shirt speculatively. Why bother to write an elaborate note and leave it on his desk for a turned out tag? The person could have just leaned over and told him, if it bothered them so much. Did they think it would humiliate Keith? Had they noticed that he was trying to keep a low profile? No, that was nonsense. It had only been a few days. Someone would have had to know him before and that was impossible; his last foster family had lived in a different school district. People couldn’t tell who you were that quickly. Which meant that a classmate had noticed his tag hanging out before class and left him the note. But why the construction paper? Would someone just have that with them? Maybe from an art class? 

And what about the comment about The GAP? Were they showing real solidarity or making fun of his clothing brand? It wasn’t like his foster families were going to spend a ton of money on his wardrobe, especially since he usually only stayed for a year or two. His latest family, the Johnsons, were perfectly generous, but no one cared much for fashion and his foster mom, Anna, had been too busy with work to take him shopping since he’d moved in with them a few months prior. She kept promising to, but they hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Keith hardly minded. He liked his black tee shirts. As long as his jeans fit and he could keep wearing his combat boots, fingerless gloves, and signature red jacket that he’d saved up for himself, Keith didn’t care if he never went shopping again. An unrealistic expectation, he knew, considering that he was still growing, but he could hope.

In any case, he hadn’t yet decided whether the note writer was a genuine do-gooder or had made a subtle dig at Keith. There wasn’t any way of responding to the note and, since it was addressed to him and unsigned, all Keith could infer was that the note was meant for him. He went on thinking the person was just super shy and had wanted Keith to tuck in his tag, not to mention that it would be a one-time event, but, a few days later, another identical red note showed up on his desk. He flinched and reached for the back of his shirt, but his tag was safely tucked away. Wondering what they could have to say, Keith surreptitiously opened the note while the teacher’s back was turned. 

Hey Mullet,

I just noticed your edgy fingerless gloves. Normally your sleeves cover them. Nice.

~

Keith frowned heavily. Well, that answered his question. It had to be a prank of some kind. He couldn’t understand why someone would do that, or what possible entertainment it could bring them, but teenagers were strange creatures and Keith didn’t claim to understand them. After that, Keith decided not to read the next note when it came a few days later. In fact, he made a big show of crumpling up the note in his fist upon seeing it and walking across the room to the trash can, (which was especially obnoxious considering that a second trash can was available only a few feet away from Keith’s desk). He did the same thing for the next note. The note after that, however, had bolded letters, all in caps, on the outside of the note, breaking the previous pattern. It read: PLEASE READ. Keith took pity on the note-sender and pocketed it, figuring that since Keith was such a spoil sport and not participating, this note would end the game. If he was lucky, he might get an apology, but Keith wasn’t that optimistic. Instead, he opened the note during lunch and found that it was far longer than the previous ones.

Keith,

I don’t know why you’re throwing away my notes, but I wish you’d stop. I really want to talk to you, but I can’t for…reasons. You don’t have any reason to do this for me, but it makes me so happy to see you get my notes and know that you read them. Maybe I’m asking for too much. I don’t know what happened before to make you not want to read anymore. Was it something I wrote? If so, I’m sorry. 

Please let me keep talking to you?

At the bottom of the note, the writer had drawn a crying face, which was presumably the author weeping overdramatically. Unfortunately, they had little artistic talent, so Keith couldn’t see any defining characteristics to clue him in on the author’s identity. He sighed. If it was so damn important to them that he and they talk, why bother just leaving notes? Why not just come speak to him? Keith guessed, a few years later, that he was pretty unapproachable at the time and likely would have punched first and asked questions later if someone had commented on his gloves that way in person. But, at the time, Keith was utterly baffled. The person was obviously in his class and had seen him either take the notes or throw them away and clearly took a lot of pleasure when Keith kept them. It wasn’t a big deal; before this one, all of the notes had been a couple of lines long at most. Keith wasn’t sure why, but it seemed pretty harmless, overall, and he didn’t mind taking the notes home. He didn’t have to read all of them and there didn’t seem to be any expectation of response, so it wasn’t any skin off of his nose. 

He did though. He read every single one over the next four years. He kept them, too, in a binder that he lugged from one foster home to the next, arguing fervently with his case worker to keep him in the same high school. He claimed he’d made a friend and didn’t want to be uprooted and, miracle of miracles, she managed to keep him there for the entirety. He kept the note that accompanied the package of Spiderman bandaids that he’d received the day he’d returned after the end of his one and only suspension for fighting. The note berated him for losing his temper like a brute and hauling off on some bully, even though the guy totally deserved it. The author went on to explain how Keith would never get into a good university with a record and, even though it was the same, tired sentiment he’d always heard from guidance counselors, Keith found himself listening to the notes. He tried to keep his nose clean, after that. Most of the time, the notes were short and sweet; even the criticisms managed to have a positive twist and were constructive. 

A few months into freshman year, Keith had found a note in his biology class and had excitedly realized that he could compare the class rosters between any classes he found notes in. That way he could winnow down the candidates. His stomach sank, though, when he actually looked. Even going by class period, each class had about thirty-five kids and, for the most part, those same kids were all in honors courses like him. Even if he received a note in every single class, there would still have been about fifteen people to choose between. Eventually, Keith stopped trying to suss it out, having decided that knowing the person might ruin the fun of waiting for and reading the notes. They changed seats after winter break in Algebra II and Keith was put next to an unusually nosy girl, Jennie Franco. She introduced herself to everyone in the immediate vicinity within two seconds of sitting down; as if Keith hadn’t met her earlier in the year and wasn’t in three of her other classes. She caught him pocketing a note and sighed loudly. When Keith gave her a quizzical look, she smiled wide enough for her neon pink braces to be fully apparent.

“Aww, you have a secret admirer! That’s so dreamy!

Keith had guffawed at Jennie’s longing expression, settling quickly when the teacher cleared her throat and called for the class’s attention. So far, the notes had been pretty casual and vaguely complimentary. Nothing like the flattering sweet nothings or lewd fantasies that he was sure Jennie had imagined. The very next day, however, in Biology, he got another note.

Keith,

You laughed in class yesterday at something Jennie Franco said and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. I can’t decide if I’m happy that she made you laugh, desperately curious about what she said, or insanely jealous. Probably the last one. 

~

Keith rolled his eyes good-naturedly and carefully stowed the note in his book bag. He became accustomed to the notes and, though they started more and more frequently, he treasured every word. Even in sophomore year when things took a turn for the weird. By then, he’d come to expect the notes and had missed the little jokes and petty snark over the summer. So when a note was waiting, still on bright red construction paper, in third period, he nearly tore it in his excitement. It was a simple greeting, hoping he’d had a nice summer. Nothing special, but Keith impulsively hugged it to his chest, before remembering that he was in public and stuffing it down into his bag, face burning in embarrassment. He glanced around, hoping no one had seen his outburst, but he didn’t notice anyone giving him a strange look or laughing. He checked the next note just as eagerly, (after he’d shut himself in a bathroom so his reaction couldn’t catch him off guard again). That was when something clicked for Keith.

Previous notes, not many, but a few, had skirted the line of knowing or predicting things that the author, even someone who shared multiple classes with Keith, shouldn’t have known. Nothing too bizarre. Sometimes, it would be an encouragement for an upcoming test, complimenting the way Keith had been studying so much and how they were sure he’d do well. Or, when they got the test back and Keith smiled proudly at his A-, a note simply read 

Sharp work, Samurai.

Keith could usually brush off the notes as the author assuming Keith studied hard or seeing the test scores on the teacher’s desk before the class. Something like that. Other days, when Keith hadn’t had time to eat breakfast in the morning, the notes would be accompanied by a granola bar or a piece of fruit. His grumbling stomach always appreciated that. Later on, the snacks escalated into carefully packed lunches, some with gummy vitamins included when the note-writer apparently concluded that Keith’s nutrition was in dire peril. The writer always knew about things. That day, locked in a cramped bathroom stall and staring blankly at the stupid penis graffiti scrawled on the wall, Keith realized that the notes weren’t just lucky or perceptive. He had a hunch that the note-writer was actually stalking him. Surprisingly, he wasn’t overly concerned about it, though he still wasn’t positive. His suspicions were confirmed a month later.

He’d been worried; he always received a note second period, Honors Pre-Calculus. His bike had gotten a flat tire on his ride to school and he ended up being pretty late, barely made it to the end of third period. The whole thing had been completely disorienting. He’d been biking along his usual route to school and, in the middle of the road, a llama had come out of nowhere. It leapt in front of his bike and he swerved to avoid it, nearly crashing into a tree in his haste. The llama had simply smirked at him and flicked its tail with no small amount of self-importance. Keith shouted at it, but had been too distracted with the tire puncture to give chase. It meant that he had his bike as proof and none of his teachers cared enough to question him about it. During lunch, he snuck over to his math classroom, searching for the note he was sure would have been waiting on his seat or under his desk. He clenched his fists angrily when he didn’t see anything. The bright color should have been obvious. Someone had probably thrown it away. Keith wasn’t quite desperate enough to start rooting through the trashcans, though he did glance in both of them before leaving. He was still pretty depressed about missing the note when he discovered one slipped into his gym locker, seventh period. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. He’d never received a note before gym and had figured that it was one period he didn’t share with the author. 

Keith,

That really sucks about your bike. I don’t have much, but here’s a little something that should be able to help when you get it fixed.

~

:(

There was ten dollars and fifty cents in a baggie with the note. At the time, Keith had been grateful for the assistance, (and still bewildered by the llama), so he didn’t think about how there was no fucking way the author could have known he wouldn’t be in his earlier classes or that there had been a problem with his bike. Unless the author was following him. But, even after reaching that conclusion, Keith still wasn’t bothered. So far, the author had been totally harmless, sweet even. He decided to monitor the situation and, if it started to escalate, he’d do something about it. The thing is, it never did. 

It wasn’t long after the bike scenario that the notes started mentioning the Garrison and how it was the author’s dream school. They encouraged Keith to also consider it and, as time went by, became emphatic that they should go together. They’d compete and be the best rivals in the whole school, constantly pushing the other to do better. Keith had smiled at the image of him and some unknown person mocking each other, pushing each other’s buttons, maybe passionately arguing over something, until they’d end up giggling and translating that passion into something more romantic. The author explained that maybe, at the Garrison, they wouldn’t be as shy and insecure and Keith could finally meet them in person. Outside of the author’s insistence, Keith did his own research into the university and found that he could major in astronomy, the only subject he’d ever loved with true intensity. He found himself following the note-writer’s advice and pursuing the Garrison, much to his deep regret later. But education wasn’t the only type of advice he followed. The author also scolded Keith frequently for not taking better care of himself, that the dark circles under his eyes and the way his stomach would growl sometimes during class gave him away. One note in particular, junior year, finally convinced Keith to start eating breakfast in the morning on a more regular basis.

Keith,

I really do wish you’d remember to take care of that beautiful body of yours. I do love looking at you.

~

P.S. I think I love you. I don’t really know much about being in love, so maybe I’m not. Please don’t be freaked out. I’m not even sure. 

P.P.S. Isn’t it silly? You don’t even know me. I don’t even know if you would like me.

It had come with strawberry pop-tarts and Keith had blushed for the rest of the day, smiling softly. Of course he would like the author! It didn’t matter who he or she was. Keith was in love too and he only wished that he could tell them so. Tell them that he desperately wanted to be their rival-in-love. Make sure they knew their feelings were returned. His heart was so full that he couldn’t help leaving a note himself. He had no idea if they’d see it or anything, but his note simply read: I love you too. The next day, it was gone, of course, but he had no way of knowing if the author had received it or if a janitor had cleaned it up. And the notes never mentioned anything about Keith reciprocating their feelings so he had guessed they hadn’t. 

 After that, the notes contained more and more compliments. Keith knew that, under ordinary circumstances, the notes were tantamount to harassment, but he couldn’t deny the fluttering in his pulse every time he read a new one. Occasionally, they devolved into complete smut, dirty enough to arouse a teenaged Keith into the school bathrooms to take matters into his own hands. The note-writer was Keith’s sexual awakening and he started having wet dreams imagining a dark shadow as the writer, doing the things the notes talked about. After one particularly graphic dream, Keith had reached out for a handful of notes, desperate to be closer to the author in any way possible. He sniffed them delicately, and was rewarded with a lingering heady, almost salty scent. It smelled distinctly of alpha, which made all of Keith’s omega instincts go wild. He was only human, after all. The strength of the smell was unusual, considering it was paper, but in retrospect, Keith understood that it was due to Lance being an augmented alpha, or whatever he wanted to call himself. Even though Keith’s sense of smell was dulled considerably by his addiction now, he hoped that, in the future, he’d regain it. He missed the sense of comfort the note-writer's scent had given him. It had been there for him even outside of his rushed fumblings under the bedsheets, hoarding a handy packet of tissues, and panicking over any slight panting that slipped from his bitten lips.

Sadly, Keith hadn’t been able to keep most of the notes he’d received, ignominiously expelled from the Garrison as he was, and then spending so much time with only the clothes, (and knife), on his back and any wallets he could boost in his pockets. He still had one, though, that he always kept tucked away in his inner zip pocket of his prized jacket. The last note he’d ever gotten. He’d been worried for weeks, having heard nothing after being admitted to the Garrison, something he’d been sure the writer would congratulate him on. It was honestly due, in part, to the notes’ encouragement and support that Keith had managed to keep his temper in check and grades high enough to be admitted and he wanted desperately to be able to convey his gratitude. But the notes had stopped. Keith couldn’t imagine what had happened and was in an almost panicked state of worry most of the time. Could something have happened to the writer? How would Keith ever know if it did? Had he upset them in some way? Had they found someone else to love? It all seemed ridiculous, but, with each passing day and no note, Keith’s mind became frantic. Then, the last note came, and everything made sense, with a devastating sort of clarity. 

 

He’d received it the day of high school graduation. It had been waiting innocently inside his cap, a feat which Keith never figured out how the writer had managed, considering that Keith hadn’t put the cap down for even a second while the graduates all milled around, waiting to line up in alphabetical order before the ceremony. By now, the note had been unfolded and refolded so many times that small pieces of it had ripped off and the ink had long been smudged with both angry and desperate tears. He’d come close to tearing it up in a fit of frustration, had gotten as far as tearing it once down the middle, before screaming in agony and clumsily scotch-taping it back together, mumbling scattered apologies to the note and stroking it. He took it out before he went to sleep most nights, hating himself for never finding the writer and hating the writer for inserting themselves into Keith’s life and then wrenching themselves out again. For never trying to find him again. Or trying and failing. The writing was almost entirely illegible, but it hadn’t mattered for a long time. Keith memorized the words within seconds of reading them. 

Beloved Keith,

I’m so sorry. For lots of things. That I didn’t leave you more notes, that I never had the courage to introduce myself properly, that I always chickened out of signing my name at the bottom…But I am so, so proud of you for getting into the Garrison. Our dream. I promise, I’ll see you there someday. I got deferred. But I'm not giving up on you, on us!

I won’t be able to write you for a little while, but please don’t give up on me, or yourself. You have such amazing potential and I’ve always known that you have the makings of greatness. Please wait for me at the Garrison. We’ll be together then. 

With love,

Your Future Space Ranger Partner

Keith had walked across the stage and shaken hands with the principal in a dazed state. He honestly couldn’t remember what else had happened that day. People had come up to him, strangers congratulating him, (one of them could have been Lance, probably was him, teary-eyed and anonymous in a sea of students in black robes and tassels, trying to muster up the courage before he went a year without seeing or writing to Keith, fixated on getting into the Garrison so he could find Keith again). Keith had probably gone to dinner with his foster family or something, but he didn’t care. Nothing mattered. That night he’d burned some of the notes he’d been carefully preserving in a binder, raging at the writer and their insistence that Keith care about them. How dare they do something so horrible?! Declare their love for him and then not get into their dream school with him? What was even the point of attending? Sure, Keith had wanted to go independently, but everything was so mixed up with the notes and the support and the love that everything seemed so hopeless without the writer. 

He’d cried himself to sleep and, the next morning, gathered up every scrap of ashes and zipped them reverently into a baggie, tucking them in with the rest of the notes and berating himself for having lost control and ruined something so precious. That summer had been awful. Keith spent most of the time locked in his room and wallowing in his misery. It was only near the end that he managed to channel his aggression and despair into utter conviction for the future. The note-writer would find him. No matter what. Present-day Keith giggled somewhat hysterically at his determination to be exactly where the note-writer expected and to fulfill all of their plans for the future.

And, of course, Present-day Keith remembered the last time. The last time he thought about the red construction paper notes or the writer for quite some time. Despite the last note he’d received, he hadn’t been able to help himself; peering around corners and holding his breath when walking into a classroom, hoping against hope that there would be a new note, crimson and pristine, waiting for him. Maybe he dreamed about the writer now and again, entertained sad thoughts of them finding him and taking him away from the miserable life he’d wound up in. But never for more than a moment or two. The last time he’d really hoped for them, had any faith left that they’d appear, was a fateful evening near the end of his first semester at the Garrison. He braced himself, exhaled, and then let himself sink into the memory.

Keith remembered scanning the list of textbooks he’d compiled for the classes he’d registered for in spring semester. Then he glanced over to his laptop screen, where his alarmingly empty bank account glared back at him menacingly. He groaned and scrubbed a hand through his hair. He let his eyes close, tilting his head back before storming out and down the hall to the bathroom. He washed his hands and splashed water in his face. He returned to his room, dejected. Half-heartedly, Keith hoped that someone had squirreled away a note encouraging him, that he’d spy a corner of bright red paper beaming from under his ancient laptop. He wasn’t surprised when he didn’t, though. Viciously kicking himself for never trying to find out who the note writer was during the four fucking years of high school, Keith moused over to the Student Jobs page and tried to find something. He couldn’t afford to pay for textbooks, let alone food, at the rate he was going. The scholarship stipend just didn’t cut it. He tabbed over to check his email and saw that one of the jobs he’d inquired about, working as a teacher’s assistant to a Dr. Takashi Shirogane, had responded. Dr. Shirogane wanted more information about Keith’s class schedule and his available hours, warning him that being a TA was a fair amount of work and Keith might be called upon to stand in for Dr. Shirogane during non-lecture classes, like tests. Keith groaned aloud again. So much more work! On top of his studies! How the hell was he supposed to manage all of that?

While he waffled, he also noticed an email from campus about an experimental drug trial open to scholarship students. He clicked on the email and raised his eyebrows nearly to his hairline. That was…a lot of money. For doing what? The email explained that the medical research department had been researching a new drug for unmated omegas who experienced bad heats, defined as intolerable cramping, excessive days in heat, and oversensitive senses of touch and smell. It acted as both a suppressant to dull those senses as well as a pain killer and hormone reducer. To be honest, taking a drug and having a weekly check up wouldn’t be nearly as strenuous as working for Dr. Shirogane and seemed much more manageable with Keith’s high levels of stress. It would pay almost the same, too. And, if the trial was sponsored by the renowned Garrison’s medical facility, and they’d progressed to human test subjects, it must have gotten all kinds of special approvals for safety. So, even if it didn’t work, no harm done. If it did, though, Keith would be very happy. 

His last heat had been abnormally difficult, being in a strange place and surrounded by people he didn’t know. All he had for nesting materials were his clothes and the notes he’d obsessively hoarded. Even the most recent ones were starting to lose their smell, though. They were only paper, after all. Since now the notes were over and done with forever, Keith might as well get some assistance any way he could. Impersonal though the trial may be, at least he’d get paid. Finally pushing away his thoughts of notes and the desperate need for the sense of belonging and care they’d instilled in him, Keith had decisively answered the drug trial email. 

Presently, Keith shook himself out of his deep reverie when he noticed that the sounds of the shower had stopped. He replaced the notes on the shelf and padded back to the bed, listening intently. He heard the squeaky bathroom door open and Lance began humming to himself as he moved around the kitchen. Keith’s stomach rolled at the implied domesticity of it. He wanted to confront Lance immediately, but nature called so he got dressed and shuffled quietly out to the bathroom, moving as stealthily as possible behind Lance’s back. Lance probably heard him, but did him the courtesy of feigning ignorance as he continued to merrily rinse some dishes in the sink. Keith took his time, rinsing his mouth with some of Lance’s toothpaste, and borrowing some soap to wash his face. 

There was a polite rap at the door and when Keith cautiously opened it a crack, Lance was out of sight, but, folded neatly on the floor, lay a towel and some sweat pants. Obviously Lance’s. Keith only had the clothes on his back. And, judging by the smell of them when he checked, they were due for a wash. He wrinkled his nose at the rank scent wafting from his armpits. God, he couldn’t believe anything about the entire situation, but Lance being willing to roll around the sheets with him in such an unwashed state was the least believable of all. The notes Keith remembered, (an especially graphic one describing dirty pores and why Keith needed to wash his face on a regular basis that had almost made him gag), and the sheer amount of different cleansers lined up on the counter, had indicated that Lance was normally fairly fastidious about hygiene. Keith snorted to himself as he stripped and started the shower up again. Guess it showed just how much Lance was willing to sacrifice for Keith’s sake. And, given Keith’s own trash-goblin habits, something they would continue to argue about if Keith decided to stay.

That was the question. Not even would Keith stay because, if it were that simple, yes, of course he would. Locked in and held at gunpoint, but still wanting to be there. Lance had said that he used to hate Keith, but that had obviously been a lie. Maybe Lance still wasn’t ready to talk about the notes, but Keith was. But could he? Forget the internal argument he’d had less than an hour ago; it wasn’t about weighing the pros and cons of their situations anymore. It was about Lance being the note writer who had supported him through high school and then, unintentionally or not, abandoned him and left him vulnerable to the Garrison’s machinations. Keith grasped the sides of the sink and tried to even out his breathing. It wasn’t entirely Lance’s fault; honestly it wasn’t his fault at all. The past couldn’t be changed, no matter how shitty, and dwelling on ifs and maybes had never been Keith’s style. Not while he was sober, at least. 

He clenched a fist, unable to help picturing a world where he hadn’t been paid to become an addict by the school he’d idolized, a world where he could hold down a steady job at least. It didn’t have to be perfect. It could have been a data entry job paying a little over minimum wage, it would have sucked and Keith would have complained bitterly, but it could have been better. The school he'd paid for and slaved away for had carelessly ripped the only career he'd ever wanted from him and tossed him away like so much garbage. He only barely stopped himself from throwing a fist through Lance’s wall and, instead, angrily stepped into the shower. When he’d finished getting cleaned up and settled his emotions somewhat, he figured he had to confront Lance soon. If he waited too much longer, he’d start losing his mind a little in his need and he couldn’t afford to have that clouding his judgement. 

Not that he needed it. In his heart of hearts, there had never been a question. It would be unimaginably hard, nigh impossible, to kick a habit as serious as Keith’s. Any relationship between him and Lance might not make it. Hell, Keith might not make it. Lance was looney-toons and Keith wasn’t much better. There’d be slip ups and set backs and brutal, knock-down, drag outs, he had no doubt. He and Lance were hardly saints. They might even end up killing each other. He hadn’t forgotten Lance’s words the night before, about the gun or his ownership of Keith himself. But the second he’d put two and two together with those tear-stained notes on Lance’s dresser? It was all over. Keith would stay, willingly, and try, for the sake of Lance, his support in high school, and for his own sake. The kind of love and care Lance offered was twisted, without a doubt, but it was more than Keith had ever hoped for. Maybe they couldn’t be the rivals/lovers they’d aspired to years ago, but they could be together. Exactly what he needed. A lover who regularly supped with the devil. 

Maybe it didn’t have to be that way forever, though. A fool’s dream, perhaps, but there was always the possibility that he and Lance would complete each other. They both had suffered greatly and hardly trusted each other, but if they could build that trust over time, their mutual dependence could blossom into something like love. If they were lucky, they could be good for each other. They’d never be space ranger partners, the way they’d both originally hoped, but they could be partners in all other definitions. A fresh start, just over the horizon. His body quivered in anticipation, of the future and the looming memory of Lance assuring him that he didn’t give more than second chances. Keith knew he was safe as long as he was loyal. The second he betrayed Lance, he knew, Lance wouldn’t hesitate to turn him into a corpse. But, the thought warmed him, strangely. To keep Keith under that kind of surveillance meant that Lance would always be with him, watching him. Just like in high school, the last time Keith really felt safe. For the first time, Keith wasn’t afraid. 

For the first time in months, Keith genuinely smiled.