Keith nurses a hot cup of coffee as he leans against the counter at Balmera Beans. He uses his apron as a placemat for his drink, at the spot on the counter closest to the wall, farthest from the register, where Lance is still on his shift, taking orders and chatting up customers. He’s been watching Lance for a good ten minutes now, watching him attend to the patrons, make drinks, ring people up. Old ladies. A young man carrying a daughter on his shoulders. Multiple middle schoolers, faces flushed from the cold outside. Lance has been smiling the whole way through.
Keith admires it. Lance is the Energizer bunny, always going. His social batteries are the complete opposite of Keith’s; they seem constantly charged, never in need of a break. Not like Keith. Keith can barely keep his false Customer Service Smile on his face on longer than two customers, and those are the good customers that don’t make him want to take a straw and stab himself in the eyeball.
How do you do it? Keith wonders, and sips his drink again.
Business picked up almost immediately once his break started, and Lance has been taking things like a champ. There was one customer, five minutes ago, that probably would’ve had Keith twitching. Aloof, rude, no tip, impatient. Lance took it all in stride and ended the exchange with the brightest have a nice day, sir, he could muster.
The bell above the café entrance jingles, and Keith swivels in his seat. A group of high schoolers Keith vaguely recognizes as juniors enters the café, talking and laughing as they turn their attention to the menu boards high above Lance’s head. Keith eyes all of them, and something knots, deep in his stomach. The group is comprised of attractive people, Keith will give them that. Then a girl breaks away from the group, apparently ready to order, and approaches the counter.
“Hello!” Lance greets the girl, when he wraps with his previous customer. “What can I do for you?”
Keith watches the girl with no small measure of unease. Her smile isn’t normal for someone ordering a cup of coffee—not like the countless other customers Lance has served that afternoon. She looks at the menu boards, practically bouncing on her feet, shifting from side to side, biting her lip shyly. If Lance notices anything amiss, he doesn’t say anything. He just smiles pleasantly back at her and waits with fingers hovering over the keys at the computer.
Cool it, Kogane, Keith thinks to himself. You’re overreacting. This is how the real world functions.
The real world. Full of people who don’t know him and who don’t know Lance, who don’t know how cheeky and insufferable Lance was several years ago. All they see now is the person Keith sees every day: happy-go-lucky, laid-back, unbearably handsome, just so damn lovable. The kind of person with the ability to light up a room just by putting a foot in the door.
There will be people who develop crushes. People who flirt. College will be full of those people. They’ll be in Lance’s classes, they’ll be roaming the commons, they’ll be behind the counter at the campus bookstore and in coffee shops not unlike this one and everywhere, and Keith can’t stop them. They won’t know better.
He can’t just lock Lance away from society.
Keith takes another sip of his coffee, a twinge of guilt striking him in the heart. This is wrong—it’s plain wrong to be this possessive, and Keith won’t ever voice his thoughts to anyone. Least of all Lance. It’s Keith who needs to fix himself, to shove down his insecurities and learn how to function like a real human being.
His focus returns to Lance and the girl. She’s ordered something, something Keith missed but doesn’t really care about. He cares more about how easily Lance jokes about something or other with her while he punches in her order. And while he does that, eyes on the keyboard and the computer screen, her eyes are wandering over him. Keith clutches his coffee cup tighter in his hands.
It’s the same admiring look he gave Lance before they started dating. The same look he still gives Lance because he’s just so damn mesmerizing.
I wonder if he’d hit it off with her.
It takes meeting a person to become acquaintances, takes being acquaintances to become friends, takes being friends to be lovers. There are plenty of people on this Earth that he and Lance haven’t met. Plenty of people that maybe, just maybe, they’d click better with than they do each other.
But Keith can’t stop.
He’s heard of couples experimenting, taking breaks, seeing other people. Sometimes they end things. Sometimes they come back together. And what if they do the same? College isn’t that far off. Those people are coming. One of them has to be better for Lance—it’s inevitable. Keith’s got to be a pity case that spiralled out of control, that’s it. A friend Lance made begrudgingly that accidentally became more, and now they’re too far into things for Lance to own up to his feelings and break things off without drowning in guilt.
Because he’s selfless. And Keith’s heart hurts.
It would be easy. Go to college, take a break. Let Lance meet someone new. End things officially, and let Lance live the life he’s meant to live—with someone better. Someone who isn’t so terrified of abandonment that they latch onto someone and refuse to let go, even if things turn toxic.
Breathe, Keith. Stop. You’re overthinking, and it’s the middle of the fucking afternoon. Chill.
The thoughts keep coming.
Images of a dorm, half-empty while Lance is away on some date, and Keith’s busying himself with homework. Images of a solitary walk along a snow-covered quad, chilled to the bone and without a hand to hold. The promise ring is gone from his finger, because what does a hasty promise made in senior year matter? What does any of it—
Keith’s eyes snap to him, again, you got distracted again, Keith, as he crosses from the register to the wall with the menu boards. Lance catches his eyes and smiles, dazzlingly bright. It’s contagious, absolutely contagious. Keith smiles back, and Lance winks at him, mischievous and adorable and I can’t do it.
He can’t let him go.
Keith twists his promise ring around, fingers running over every groove, every gem. Sure, he was the one who bought these rings in the first place, but there’s no way Lance would wear it if he doesn’t feel the same.
Lance loves you.
He loves you.
How would he react if he could hear your thoughts right now?
He’d be disgusted, is Keith’s first impulse. He’d hate Keith’s clinginess, his possessiveness, how weak and dependent he sounds. His first thought would be I need to get rid of him before it’s too late, obviously.
That’s wrong and you know it, is Keith’s second impulse. Lance’s heart would be on the verge of breaking. He’d sit with Keith. He’d hold him. He’d work through all of his fears and then some, until he’s sure Keith’s alright.
He loves me repeats over and over in Keith’s head like a broken record as he looks back at the girl, and then back at Lance. For all of the girl’s staring, for all of her wandering eyes, Lance is oblivious. He returns to her with the same smile he’s given every other customer today and hands off her drink, while she hands him money. There’s a paper slipped between the dollar bills, and Keith’s stomach clenches.
He loves you now, but what about college?
Maybe you should take that break. For a week—just one week. See how many new people you two can meet. See how many numbers Lance gets. See how many people he calls back. How many dates he’ll arrange—
Lance tucks the slip of paper beneath the cash as he puts it into the register, and then takes out the girl’s change. Then he hands the slip right back without even once reading it, and sends the girl on her merry way with her coffee. If she’s dejected, she doesn’t show it as she returns to her group of friends.
Keith can’t help but grin.
Maybe it’s a little malicious. Cruel.
He said no to her without putting her down. If he didn’t like you, he’d do away with you in the same way. And he hasn’t.
Keith sips his coffee again to swallow back the incredulous laughter trying to rise out of him, even as his eyes burn with tears threatening to spill. He turns away from the big crowd, toward the wall, and takes out his phone to occupy himself.
He really thinks Lance would leave him? Really?
And he would try and give him that chance?
He can’t deal with not being able to kiss those soft lips for a week, can’t deal with not being able to sleep side-by-side with someone so warm and familiar and safe, can’t deal with watching him talk—no, flirt, there’s a distinct difference and Keith needs to fucking learn it—with other people. He’s promised himself to Lance, Lance has promised himself to him. They’ve talked through a future together, a future that would break Keith’s heart to see thrown away.
“Hey babe,” Lance greets quietly, and Keith jumps in his seat.
He hadn’t even heard Lance open the little door that leads to the area behind the counter, to the kitchen.
“Hey,” Keith says.
Lance pulls over the stool next to him and sits, untying his apron and slapping it down on the counter, and Keith realizes that Lance’s break has just started, which means he’s got about five minutes before his ends.
Lance cocks his head and studies Keith, and Keith’s chest aches. His fucking heart, again. Lance always knows when something’s wrong, no matter how well Keith conceals it. On some deeper level, call it soul connection or sixth sense or whatever you will, Lance can pinpoint the exact moment Keith’s moods shift.
The thoughts try flooding back, and Keith realizes then that he must be having an episode. It’s the only explanation he can think of. And if he can name it, he can control it.
“Yeah,” Keith says, and feigns confusion, casually taking Lance’s hand. “Just exhausted. Dreading getting back on my shift.”
He nods toward the growing crowd of people. Lance glances back at them and smirks at Keith. “Good luck with that, Mulletman.”
And he goes with it.
Just like that.
It’s not fair of you to do this to him. Just tell him what’s wrong.
“So,” Keith says, “I saw that girl tried to give you her number.”
Yes, an excellent, not-blunt-at-all way of broaching the topic.
“Oh, her?” Lance nods to the girl, and then wraps an arm around Keith and leans back, the most casual thing in the world, and Keith relishes in every second of contact. “Yeah, well. Not interested. There are plenty of prettier people out there for me.” He winks, and adds, “Some of them even have mullets and sparkly eyes.”
He kisses Keith’s cheek, and then breaks their hands apart and reaches for Keith’s coffee. “Lemme get a sip of this.”
So Keith does. Lance sips it and grins, and holds the cup up in front of the two of them.
“Damn, I did a good job.”
Of course he did, and Keith tells him as much. Keith falls into silence as Lance starts talking about something that his sister told him this week that he’s been meaning to tell you, Keith, like it was WILD and you need to hear this. Keith does his best to listen, even as the thing squeezing his heart and knotting his insides continues pulling, and pulling, and fucking pulling.
And Keith doesn’t speak up.
You can get through this on your own, Keith tells himself, as his break ends, and he painstakingly asks Lance to let go of him because I need money, Lance, now move your butt. He excuses himself to the back room and puts his apron back on there, away from prying eyes. Once it’s on, tied snugly around his waist, Keith takes a few minutes to himself, hands braced against one of the shelves.
Get it together.
You love Lance. Lance loves you. You’re a valuable person in his life. You’re valuable period. Stop trying to make yourself a martyr.
Keith goes into his breathing exercise until his heart rate is something close to normal. He blinks; his eyes are dry as they can be, and that’s good enough for him. He slowly lets go of the shelf. Flexes his fingers. Straightens his back. Makes sure his hair is secure in its stubby little ponytail.
That cloying helplessness is still there, clinging to his back, to his legs, but he can ignore it. He can push through the rest of this shift, and then he can go home and deal with this properly.
“Just a few more hours,” Keith promises himself. A few hours of distraction with coffee and customers, and whatever antics the crew might pull.
He can do it.
Keith rolls his shoulders and steps out of the back, face calm, cool, neutral. When Hunk tells him that someone needs a peppermint coffee, he makes it without complaint. He lets the thoughts of Lance, of college, of abandonment all fall away, in favor of listening to the hustle and bustle of the café’s afternoon-evening rush.