Keith had finally deleted every single picture, text, and voicemail stored on his phone, albeit with hesitation and the slight hope that maybe, just maybe, his partner would change, would warp his personality to become a better person.
It sank like an anvil in his chest, the guilt festering in his gut and stirring into nausea the more he stared at his almost-empty phone and lack of any communication whatsoever. He was astounded, in fact—since he hadn't been in a relationship before his previous one, he thought his partner was doing everything right. Keith thought he was doing everything right. He thought that was what love was, restriction, slight control; he saw the control as care and nothing more.
But then came the arm-pulling and the shoving, arguments never seeming to cease even when they went to bed. On multiple occasions, Keith had to walk over to Shiro's apartment in the middle of the night to find solace, and sure enough, it was right there in open arms as he sobbed his throat raw, always returning to his partner's apartment the next day with a dehydration headache.
They'd ask him where he'd been, take money out of his wallet, and drive his car to work, leaving Keith stranded.
He could still remember the smell of his apartment, and it festered like a migraine, fogging his mind and making him both physically and mentally exhausted.
It wasn't until Shiro noticed the bruises over Keith's arms and the black eye he received that he finally took action, despite Keith's awful reasoning. He knew Shiro had told him to find someone new over and over again, but Keith's excuse would always be the same thing: "He said sorry, it's okay."
Over time, Keith learned that his personality had warped into something completely different. Now, without someone taking control of everything he did, he had time to rebuild, for the bruises to fade, and for his mind to be full of new memories.
However, ever since he'd been in an awful, unhealthy relationship, he seemed timid towards anyone who wanted to talk to him, and flinched even when Shiro raised his hand to scratch the back of his neck, often resulting in a quiet 'sorry.'
Now, he was sat on Shiro's bed dressed in a fluffy robe and a pair of briefs, thinking about how to rebuild both his mental and physical state. He barely had anything to wear, but luckily, Shiro had made emergency journeys to multiple stores when Keith was in need. He was stocked up with everything from painkillers to condoms, but they were never used.
In fact, Keith was sure Shiro had kept more than one first aid kit when situations became a little too much.
"You're going to do fine," Shiro hummed, clutching his mug and yawning wearily. "He's nice, I promise. He's nothing like the guy you were dating, Keith."
"How can you be so sure?" Keith murmured. "He'll see the bruises, Shiro, it's not like I'm desirable anyway."
"You're good at lying, but it's not a good idea," Shiro smiled sympathetically, tilting Keith's head upwards to look at the three deep, almost parallel scars running along his neck, evidence of fingernails raking along his skin, something Keith wanted to forget. "Here, you can say you went to a zoo and held a baby tiger or something."
Keith mustered up a small smile, something he hadn't done in a while. "No, that's ridiculous. Do you not have any makeup?"
His thumb ran along a small wound in his cheekbone, secured with stitches and medical tape. Shiro hummed, examining the evidence of a black eye—luckily, it'd faded slightly over time—while Keith took a sip of his coffee and welcomed the warmth that seared through him, fighting the cold loneliness in his chest.
"I still have makeup from when Matt did theatre," Shiro suggested. "We could maybe match your eyes by applying a little bit of eyeliner or something. Just wear long sleeves, I'm sure you'll be okay."
"Promise?" Keith asked, staring at his contact list, empty apart from his mother, Shiro, and Matt Holt. "It's barely been a few weeks."
"Then you don't have to date the guy straight away," Shiro smiled. "He's much, much better than that shithead. I promise."
Keith took a deep breath, confiding in Shiro, trying his best to rebuild all of that trust he strove to work for. Despite this, he still made a million excuses in his mind not to go.
"I don't have any money, I don't get paid until next week," he mumbled.
"I'll lend you some."
Keith pouted. "I don't have any nice clothes."
"We'll shop before we go," Shiro shrugged. "You'll look great, you'll feel great, you'll have fun."
Keith sighed again. No matter what excuse he made, Shiro would always counteract and solve it instantly. But somehow, Keith knew this was for the better. It was going to take time, surely, regarding his trust issues and apologetic mindset, rebuilding his physical and mental state was bound to take time.
He still had a tiny plush hippo keyring on his keys for comfort. He'd never leave the house without it.
"Okay." Keith nodded, glaring at his reflection in the last drop of coffee in his mug. "Yeah. Okay."
"I'll get you something to wear."
After a shower and a small pep talk, Keith emerged with a towel wrapped around his waist and his hair dripping and tousled, watching Shiro pull outfits from his closet and drawers in an attempt to make Keith feel more confident. He was lucky Shiro almost had the same fashion sense, and had no problem dressing in a red sweater and a pair of black jeans.
Makeup was next, and Keith had no problem wearing it. He had to apply foundation for work, covering up obvious marks and scratches, but since this was for a better reason, he was even more prepared to reconstruct his confidence. He trusted Shiro with his gentle hands as he grazed brush bristles over bruises and scars, taking extra care around his injured eye.
And when Keith finally looked in the mirror, it was as if he was looking at a completely different person. Even the scars running along his neck had disappeared. The medical tape had been peeled off with care, revealing a tiny scratch, barely noticeable.
"Is that okay?" Shiro asked, ruffling Keith's hair. It'd dried fluffy and tousled, but at least it looked alright. "I've tried my best to cover things up, they're barely noticeable. Do you like what you're wearing, or would you like me to buy something different?"
"No, it's fine," Keith shook his head, grabbing his phone and wincing when Shiro slid dollar bills into his wallet. "Shiro."
"I'm helping you out," Shiro said. "I'll stop when you're financially stable."
During the car journey, Keith's mind refused to rest.
Shiro had told him to walk towards a little café situated outside of the mall, where his apparent 'blind date' was supposed to be sat, and since Shiro had made sure that they left and arrived on time, Keith had no excuse anymore but to turn up. Part of him wanted to. Another part was totally unsure, but all he could do was trust Shiro.
After all, he hadn't been independent for quite some time, and it felt refreshing to be walking in a mall on his own, at his own pace, without anything holding him down.
"I'll just be walking around, so shoot me a message if you want to leave," Shiro said, shoving his car keys into his pocket. "You okay?"
Keith's palms were sweating. "Yes."
"Good luck, relax, have fun," Shiro smiled. "You look fine. He's sat by the window overlooking the fountain outside. You can't miss it."
When Keith walked through the mall, he was irritated by the way he carried himself.
He was a lot quicker than the other shoppers, walking in quick, hurried steps, flinching at simple noises and actions and cursing at himself for doing so. It was something he'd learned to loathe about himself; he wanted a new relationship, and every single touch that came with it—but he didn't want anxiousness of being touched in a way that threatened him.
Keith tried slowing his steps and holding his head high, though his eyes darted from left to right now and again, and he'd tense when someone near him lifted a cellphone to his ear.
He was doing fine. Just fine. He was sure.
Smile. Be confident. Talk slowly. Deep breaths.
And he did so, while taking a left turn and pushing open the door.
The first thing he noticed was how some people lifted their heads to look at the new customer, but Keith ignored that, and instead scanned the room for a boy beside a window, overlooking a fountain outside—
Keith let out a ragged breath as his gaze laid upon a mahogany-haired boy scrolling through his phone wearing a red flannel shirt and a relaxed smile.
Once he sauntered over, he lifted his head, his eyes bright and blue, and gestured for Keith to take the seat opposite, his smile widening still.
"You must be Keith!" he beamed, teeth pearly-white. He held out a hand for Keith to shake, albeit loosely. "I'm Lance!"
Once Keith was sat down, not only was he absorbed with Lance's sapphire eyes, but he couldn't understand how Shiro managed to find a guy so laid-back.
Keith had doubts. He didn't want to share anything just yet.
"I'm willing to pay for everything," Lance began. "Of course, you're always welcome to chip in, but you don't need to."
"It's fine," Keith murmured, placing his phone face-down on the table. Conversations were never his expertise. Luckily, Lance seemed to enjoy talking. "Coffee isn't that expensive, surely."
"I guess so," Lance shrugged. "But this isn't about the coffee, this is about you. I wanna get to know you. Shiro told me fuck all."
Keith swallowed roughly, unsure of where to start.
"Well, first off," Lance laughed, "we're wearing red, did Shiro tell you what I was wearing?"
"No," Keith shook his head, wishing he was better at holding a conversation.
"Coincidence," Lance shrugged. "Are you looking for a long-term relationship?"
Keith almost wanted to say no, in fear of getting hurt again, but he nodded, wanting to trust his gut feeling for once.
However, as Lance gestured a hand for a barista, Keith flinched. From then on, he focused on trying to forget the past.
"Did I make you jump?" Lance smiled. "Sorry, man."
"You're so casual about this," Keith swallowed thickly, watching his coffee get placed in front of him, complete with a small jug of milk. "How are you not terrified?"
"I am," Lance snorted. "I talk too much."
"I don't mind," Keith shrugged. "At least you're giving us something to talk about."
"Very true," Lance winked. "It got me at the aquarium, so I'm happier about that."
Keith cocked a brow, his interest suddenly piqued. "You work at an aquarium?"
"Sure do," Lance hummed, stirring his coffee with a small spoon. "With the sharks. Everyone else is scared of them, so I like to make sure they look a little more friendly."
Despite not wanting to gain a lover, let alone a friend straight away, Keith found himself wanting to ask questions about everything, from his job, to where he was from, how tall he was, where his apartment was—
"Did you know," Lance grinned, his mug almost empty. "The odds of getting attacked and killed by a shark are almost one in four million? They have bad eyesight, it sucks, but I enjoy being with them."
"I didn't know." Keith nodded, his lip quirking into a small smile. "How long have you been working there?"
"Year and a bit," Lance placed his empty mug on the table and leans back into his chair. "For our next date, I should take you to our stingray nursery."
Keith hadn't even thought about a second date, but the possibility made his heart sing for the first time in months. Suddenly, he was very thankful for Shiro organising it for him.
"I-If you want to go on another date, of course!" Lance sat upright quickly, and Keith tensed at the movement. "We don't have to, I just think you'd be interested and I enjoy your company and—"
He was rambling, unable to take a breath, and this made Keith smile, which felt good.
"If you want to go to an aquarium and take me with you," Keith looked at his mug, stroking his thumb along the handle. "I won't say no."
"I-Is that a yes, then?" Lance beamed. "Can I give you my number?"
With a little doubt festering in his gut, Keith picked up his phone. He had to text Lance at some point, and hopefully, they won't be overly nasty ones he deleted this morning. If Shiro knew Lance was the right person, he had to trust that decision.
And so, on the way home in Shiro's car, he refused to make eye contact and didn't even attempt to hide the stupid smile stretching his lips for the first time in forever.
"So?" Shiro grinned. "How was it?"
Keith couldn't get those blue eyes off his mind as he kept checking his phone, finally feeling excited for a text message, rather than dreading one. "Yeah."