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Garrett & McClain's Day Off

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“I’m just not ready to go back” Lance murmurs through muted sounds. His eyes glossy with a malaise that only a mother could catch without him speaking on it. The tone of his voice keeping her from saying “No, you need to get up and go.” Instead, she rests both hands on his shoulders and leans in to kiss the top of his head. 

“Don’t force it, Lancito. Stay for one more day if you must.” Her voice is like a sweet hum to him, and envelopes him like a thick comforter around his body. 

“But I’m supposed to be having near-perfect attendance.” He mutters softly, a slight strain in his voice.

But his older sister, Veronica is less like his mother’s comforter and more like a different type of heavy blanket at this moment. She aims a look at him that makes him feel a tingling sensation under his rear as though he were kicked there by phantom means, and guilt for not fighting harder despite having had a near-violent episode of food poisoning over the weekend. The spring quarter began last week. As an officer at the Garrison Military Charter, she was not having it. 

“You do this once a month. This is more than you being sick, it’s just senioritis.” the tone in her voice is curt, with a slight undercurrent of sympathy.

“Veronica, one more day is not going to hurt anyone.” After giving her sage wisdom, the matriarch gave everyone her love before going downstairs. 

After his sister watched her leave, she came back to Lance with a much softer look, “So, you’re really are still down for the count?” 

Lance finally turned around to face his sister, who was still standing in his doorway reluctantly. “I’ll try to get it together today, and then show up bright and early tomorrow, okay?” he offered with sorrow laced in his words. 

At last, she smiled warmly and turned on her heels “Fine. And not because you are a charmer, little bro. Oh and don’t eat at that ice cream place anymore, the health inspector marked it down to a ‘C’. Water temperatures aren’t consistent, and some soiled scoops have been lying out on the counter for hours at a time before they used them again.” 

What the hell? He was going to sue them for the damaging shit he went through! Trying not to think about that place, he held out his hand and returned his big sister’s fond smile.  She reached over to him and gave him an emphatic fist bump.

“Thanks for always having my back.” He muttered softly, yet genuinely.

“I still love you, peanut.” 

“Love you, too.” He cackled mockingly at her childhood nickname for him. At almost 19 years old, he was now at least a head above her standing up. 

With that, Veronica finally left his room, her rapid stair climb lowering in volume until the closing of the front door swept out the sound of her footsteps. But that wasn’t enough, he had to hear the engine start and fade miles from the driveway.   

After finally getting his way, he exhaled loudly and fell back on his pillow. 

It was a little before 7 in the morning before Lance found himself sitting on his side humming a small tune before getting ready for his day. The suns rays were creeping in, signaling that the time for the world to be sleeping was over. He still had some homework to do from Physics, just 2 problems that would take up half a page each. Big fun. And he needed to call attendance to tell the nice lady there that he was still sick from the weekend.

But first…

Beautification: that meant having his favorite mint-musk body wash on hand to start indulging in his 30-minute bath. With so much time to himself, he opted to wear his facial mask in the tub, just to get half of the regimen out of the way. 

So much silence thickening the air gave him much unsolicited time to think and reflect. Lots of young adults made goals, achieved those goals, then went on to the next goal. Science and math was his strongest suit, but he also had a flair for communications and he had been this way since the 3rd grade, and these days he just wanted to switch gears. Be a renegade before going out into the real world. How ironic that he was forced to take a sick day from Garrison today. Some seniors were still taking a day or 2 off this week for last minute college visits, many of which happened this month. Good thing he got them all out the way over spring break. 

It was time to stop thinking about work, so he started crooning to himself. Something slow and retro he heard from the radio last night, and mid-note he yelped in response to a loud banging on the door.

“Lance, I have 15 minutes to get ready!” 

Rachel. He slumped his shoulders in annoyance, making a medium splash with his clenched fist and scowled. He forgot all about the time it took for her to get ready in the mornings. An hour, which is one of the things that they had in common aside from the same tall, slender build and respective good looks.

“Can’t you use the other bathroom?!”

“All my stuff is in there, Lance! Let me in!” her pleading carried the usual sibling indignance. 

He scoffed loudly and ducked out long enough just to unlock the bathroom door, jump back in, and ram the shower curtain shut. She was wearing a tank top and loose shorts with a silk house robe, and Lance had to do a double take to make sure that wasn’t his robe. She strutted straight to the counter and started scanning it with a scowl.

“Did you use my cleanser again?” 

“No, Rae. I used my cleanser! Your bottle was peeling, remember?!” He made sure the curtain was closed all the way as he waited for her to find what she was looking for. There was definitely Vaseline and maybe some shampoo that he borrowed one day… 

“Anyway, mama said for me to check up on you before I take off.” His twin still had her back turned away from the bath area despite the curtain separating them. 

“I’m good. Just the usual post-puking fatigue. Nothing a few vitamins, herbal tea, and couch rest can’t fix.”

“I guess you sound healthy enough…just stay away from dairy for a bit!” 

Well, yeah. Just thinking about grabbing another of that death trap’s waffle cones threatened to trigger a gag reflex. “Thanks, Rae.” 

Lance sighed with relief after the commotion of his twin gathering her shit ceased and followed with the door closing.  He couldn’t wait until they moved away from each other. Having the shower curtain closed made the room swelter like a sauna. It was either turn on the air and catch pneumonia, or ride with it and pretend to be at a spa. He squinted his eyes in suspicion over to the counter and exhaled when he saw the toothpaste and another item he didn’t care about were gone. A happy hum bounced from his lips.

~~~~

“Did you call the attendance office?” His best friend, Hunk was on a camera chat, a way for him to be invited to his little getting-his-shit-together wellness party.” 

 “Yeah, man. Covered all my bases. And if anything happens, Veronica’s already got my back.” He said matter-of-factly. “So, what’s your itinerary?” He bopped his head side to side, dancing to a Carly Rae Jepson song playing on one of his background apps. His body should have been fighting fatigue and not wanting to literally lift a finger, but he guessed his immune system got tougher with years of gymnastics, and upper core work he had done at Garrison. 

I should be at the university for most of the day. I’m sitting in on a day class for their engineering program there.” 

 “Can I come over?” 

“You mean, over to my house?”

“No, Hunk, over the rainbow. Of course I mean over your house.” 

“Right now? Aren’t you still fighting a food-borne stomach bomb?” 

“Oh, I’m weak, but it’ll be alright as long as I don’t have to walk over there.” 

Are you home alone?” worry seeped into his voice. 

“Yeah, it’s just me. Mom and Veronica left for work, Rae finally took the car to school, so I’m gonna Uber in your direction.” 

“A warning, Lance. I’m only going to be over here for an hour more.” 

“Count me there in 10!” He rushed up from the couch with gusto, then closed his eyes as he allowed himself to stand still waiting for the dizziness to subside. “Okay, make that 15.”

~~~~~~

“Mama said there’d be days like this one…” Hunk needed one missing ingredient for his famous Belgian waffles, and his mother must have used that for a stir fry last night. He was just going to grab a breakfast sandwich from the freezer, but company was on its way in the form of a certain tall, lanky best friend who probably should have stayed his ass at home and recovered.

Lance would be here in a few minutes even though Hunk nearly urged him to just wait and let him drive over to his house instead. He texted Lance to tell him that the door would be unlocked and to just stroll on in, like always. Hopefully he remembered to bring some baking powder…

“Lucy! I’m home!” a sing-song voice called from the front room. Lance was strolling to the kitchen, waving a small canister around, which meant that there would be breakfast for the both of them. Hunk probably should record “I Love Lucy” later this week… 

“Thanks a lot, man! Now for the candied pecans...” Wait, we ran out of those too.” he began searching his brain, unaware of his friend’s crestfallen pout. 

“Should I go to the store after all?!” Lance moaned and draped his long body over the kitchen island. 

“Wait, I lied, here they are!” 

“Yay.” 

It was the driest whoop that Hunk ever heard from the boy, and he leaned over him with concern in his eyes. 

His voice softly vibrated against the marble. “This counter top is pretty cozy, you should totally grab a pillow and blanket, and spend the night up here one night.”  

“You don’t have to come with, you know.” Hunk crossed his arms, and though Lance was facing away, he could feel his friend’s overprotective gaze burning a hole in his cranium.

“I’ll nap in the car! Won’t it take, like, 2 hours to drive up there? God willing traffic cooperates?” Lance could hear the refrigerator door open and close, then a rattle of plastic speed up and come to a stop near his ear. He looked up to see a very empty bottle of nothing. “Um, buddy. I’m not just going to take a swig of air to replace my nutrients. Unless you know something I don’t…” 

“Fill the bottle with water, add 1 tbsp lemon juice, a tsp of salt, and just enough honey to make it sweet.” Hunk looked at his friend’s not-so-amused, fatigued eyes, “Replaces electrolytes. My mom used to make it for me all the time when I was getting over the flu.” 

Judging by Hunk’s peppery disposition, it couldn’t hurt. Every ingredient in the Garrett’s pantry was organic, which meant super-foods galore. Lance set out to find the honey, that was…until the counter top's hard surface decided to dig into his skin. Nope, still too comfortable. So now he chose to remind himself that they would be using this surface to eat on. Finally, his body slipped down as he landed to his feet. He briefly recited the ingredient measurements long enough to type them in his phone. While he waited for the water from the refrigerator door to fill the bottle with about an inch from it, he started to ask Hunk a question about something and quickly forgot…

Cinnamon, combined with the toasty aroma of the pecans, just like spring mornings should be. Hunk opened the window and allowed the dewiness of the morning to glisten on his skin. Something about the crispness of it all made his skin vibrated with a welcome chill. Thank God that seniors were excused today for college tours, and today only. He smiled thankfully with his hand cradling the large body of waffle syrup. 

“Still don’t think I should go?” Lance consulted while vigorously shaking the bottle of water, honey, salt, and lemon. He paused long enough for his tongue to salivate upon looking at his friend’s finished product. 

“Drink that first.” Hunk suggested. 

“Fine.” He whined. The potion tasted similar to God nectar. 

At the island there was a small stack of hot waffles for the two of them to binge on if they wanted to. Syrup in a small teacup, melted butter on another small tray. Whipped cream in a smaller serving dish. Lance made a mental face at the third item. Dairy probably wasn’t a great idea right now… 

“Hunk, I must say, you sure know how to create a brunch atmosphere”, he said excitedly as he forked a giant waffle. He knew he was pushing his luck with the syrup, and he didn’t care. His stomach was just going to keep growling in any case.

Hunk watched in fascination as he started gobbling up everything on his plate. “Hey, slow down, I’m not going anywhere yet.” 

“Let me come with you!” 

“No, Lance. You need to rest.” He said sternly. 

“Honestly, Hunk. You let me worry about my returning health, because your food is literally life right now.” He rolled his eyes in ecstasy with another bite. 

After breakfast, they were both cleaning up, and Lance felt less tired. But he still yearned for just a tad more pep in his step.

“You’re still going, huh?” 

“What did ya think? Staying at home is too boring” he slung his shoulder around Hunk’s large frame, mostly as a teeny bit of support, “and how can you resist my company? Would you have wanted it any other way?” 

“I gotta warn ya, we’ll probably be in the car for 2 hours and on foot for twice that long.” He looked at Lance’s high-tops with a grin of approval. 

~~~~~~~~~~~

The same 13 people showed up in this giant auditorium filled with 200 total seats, just like every other week. Even though this aerospace lecture met once every Monday, it was a 3-hour endurance. Among the scattered placing of scholars, a raven-haired young man was upright in his chair, sitting in the back row on the corner closest to the door’s exit. His head rested drearily on his hand as he struggled to whet his appetite for any of this monotonous, seemingly rote material. 

“So, when you begin to use this equation, N will always stand for something that represents velocity, in this case.”

“Shouldn’t it be V, then?” he muttered under his breath. He whispered to himself to just focus despite his thoughts barking and aggravating the dull ache already present in his temples.  Instead his eyes fell to his phone’s screen and fixated on the notification written. He rapidly punched in a few keys and slipped it in the pocket of his leather vest.

With a louder sigh than he planned on exhuming from his body, he eventually gathered his journal and pen, and rubbed his temple with his right hand while trying discreetly to leave. 

“I hope you understand that it is for your benefit to stay and listen. Miss a lecture like this one and I will not cover this again during office hours.” His legs locked up as the professor was leaning against her desk, with a peeved glare. It was almost hard for him to take such a mousy voice so seriously, and from a woman whose blazer hung off her body like an over-sized lampshade. 

But Keith swallowed out of genuine sorrow for being such a distraction. Then he remembered that while she was getting overpaid to drone on about nothing eye-opening, he was the one paying out of his own financial aid to sit there and listen to her monotone style. He could probably go to his older brother and absorb the essentials in less than a week! 

“Well, then please don’t stop on my account.” He responded, face stoic and arms hanging relaxed by his sides. He wasn’t in the mood to get into it with anyone, so he continued to the exit, ignoring the annoyance emitting in his sternum. 

Now he had time to make a phone call. 

“Yeah? I’m done for the day. No, I’m not staying for the rest of this term because I’m dropping the course.” He rolled his eyes. The voice on the other line was trying to get him to reconsider, but he wasn’t having any of it. “I’m not chancing my GPA for someone who won’t teach to save her damn life!” He ducked behind a wall to make sure his voice didn’t echo off the walls.

“I’ll call you back.” He frowned, and marched out of the building, echoes of his boots amplifying in the vacuum of the building’s silence.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

1 hour and 30 minutes later, Hunk and Lance managed to make it to the Balmera University with only minor traffic inconveniences. 

Hunk recalled with a bad taste in his mouth that within the first 5 minutes after getting on the on-ramp, Lance screamed a curse out the window at someone who inched their way in front of them without a signal, and then held up traffic by driving 10 miles below the flow of conditions. 

“I’m serious, that asshole must have dropped something in their seat or something! Like, wait until you get into a parking lot.” He threw up his hands wildly as he expressed his leftover frustration.

“Well, we’re here and that event is behind us, right? If I have to massage your shoulders in the middle of campus, I swear I will.” He warned him dryly. 

“Maybe later.” His voice dragged three octaves lower, knowing he would fall asleep on the spot if that happened. 

Lance secretly wondered why Hunk wanted to go to a private university and still commute from home. Seemed much more cost-effective to just live on campus.

But after the two of them attended an hour-long lecture about plate tectonics, Lance understood the enthusiasm, but not enough to refrain from making sketches on the back of a receipt he had in his cardigan pocket the remaining 30 minutes. Hunk remained upright with his laptop keys drumming at what had to be about 70 keys per minute. He shook his head, bobbing along to the young professor’s key words as if he were listening to a tempo that only he could understand and resonate with. At 10:30 a.m., it was over, and definitely the fastest hour ever spent in a classroom. 

“Amazing! I know that it’s going to be a bitch to commute here back and forth every day, but it’s so worth it!” Hunk was still just as awestruck, like he came from a screening of an academy award-nominated movie. Lance asked him if would go here should he be accepted, and his determined seriousness in his features told him everything. 

There was a slight hint of gardenia in the sky that morning. The atmosphere was warm and bright enough to wake up nature, but still cool and crisp to be wrapped up in mid-March freshness. The campus seemed somewhat empty during this time, with only a few scholars decorating what must have been the main courtyard. Others were standing around on the walkway, and there was another group somewhere else playing badminton. Lance could not tear his gaze from the game and noticed a few unaccompanied rackets on the lawn. 

Hunk didn’t have to open his mouth to ask what his friend was going to do. His eyes beamed with such an enthusiasm that Hunk silently pushed forward some of his own energy towards the group of the students, hoping that they would open up to Lance. Sometimes he could be such a kid

“I’ll only play for, like, 10 minutes or so, is that okay?” 

“Okay, while you have fun, I’m going to find some grub for us.” He walked away with a smile as the group nodded and motioned for Lance to join them.

~~~~~~~~

Clouds became absent to make way for a bright blue sky, and the wind picked up just a little bit. Lance rested against a tree after deciding that he did not want to spend an extra 30 minutes needing a shower. His navy-blue cardigan was folded against a tree and he sniffed his white t-shirt discreetly for odor. Still good. His heart fluttered at most of the women sauntering around in mini-skirts and tight micro shorts. But his gaze would fall most gently on the ones who downplayed with sweatshirts, skinny jeans and sneakers. He appreciated a girl who could wear her wavy hair up in a ponytail with no make-up and still look gorgeous. One of the girls fitting the later description was one of their teammates. She stopped to come over and talk to him and brought the thumping in his chest back to a lively tempo. They chatted while she was giving him a stationary tour and asking him questions about classes. With a flush on his face, he mentioned truthfully that he was still finishing his senior year of military charter, but that he was 18 years old. She was a very youthful 21-year-old. But they could still date? 

“Not with someone who can’t drink in public with me,” she said gingerly. 

He half opened his eyes and tilted his head with a seductive smirk, trying for another angle, “No private drinks?”

With a patronizing giggle, she called him ‘adorable’ and said, “I have class in 5 minutes, but maybe I’ll see you around?” 

“Yeah, maybe.” Lance knew that meant “not likely”. He pouted in sad acceptance as he watched her grab her bag and disappeared from view. His shoulders fell as he dragged himself off to meet Hunk at the outdoors dining tables. 

Hunk returned with two Styrofoam trays and a sizable brown box that looked like it could have pizza. He motioned towards a shaded area at a table under a tree. Hunk opened the box after giving them their Styrofoam boxes. 

“Who were you mingling with just now, she was pretty cute.” 

“Name was Ariel. And apparently thinks I’m too young to date the likes of her.” He folded his arms and rested into them, a discouraged squint in his blue eyes.

“Let me guess, upper class man, probably has her own apartment?” 

“I’m only, like-“ he threw up his fingers and mentally counted. “2 and-a-quarter years younger!” 

“And she’ll be in grad school by the time you’re her age, if not officially sucked into the real world.” 

“Or living back at home, which I could have made an excellent distraction!” he was staring out into the sky with a naughty smirk marking his face. 

“Or married! Face it, buddy, it probably wasn’t meant to be.”

“Who knows?” Maybe being done with high school would open up the path to his forever love, or so he hoped. He had some short-term success in high school. He made girls laugh, yet maybe that’s all he was good for past a month tops. He secretly considered dating guys, but many of them at school were way too macho and sensitive about their masculinity. And the homophobia…. 

“Hunk, buddy? What the hell?” he peered into the open pizza box and tilted his nose away into his hand. 

“It’s a poki pizza.” It was as saucy and cheesy as a regular pizza, but with… fish, pieces of random seafood, and…spicy mayo? So this was sushi pizza? Normally he appreciated a good seafood dish, but something about this made that unwarranted nausea return to the pit of his stomach today. He opened the Styrofoam box instead and sighed in relief at the very familiar boat of fries inside. 

Hunk flinched as he watched his features melt into a distrustful grimace. Getting French fries was a smart backup plan, he had to admit. Lance was an adventurous eater most days but had a toddler’s appetite on other days. 

“Sorry, man, but gastro senses are tingling, and they are saying ‘nope’, not today!” he breathed in a shallow manner. 

“Suit yourself.” One day post-food poisoning might have been a little ambitious. Which was why Hunk ordered a small pizza instead of their usual large to split. 

“Where’d you get that book?” Lance pointed out through a mouth full of fries. He spotted Hunk putting it away in his laptop bag. 

 “Oh, yeah. Some poor person must have dropped it in the food court. It was on the floor. I’ll have to return it to the nearest lost and found.” 

About ten minutes later, they went to the elevator, and Lance asked to see the book for some identifying marks like a name or a class professor. The penmanship was medium-sized, upright, and thick, with loops on every ‘g’ and ‘y’ It emitted an energy of calm and control.

“Whoever this is has pretty handwriting. They must be having a heart attack right about now.” 

The elevator froze to the second floor and opened its doors wide. A figure wearing a black leather hoodie with a red thermal came in and took his place in the corner. 

Lance’s stare followed him, and he flashed him a smile. The stranger glanced at him coolly then his eyes darted to the wall nearest to him. Lance noticed that he was fidgeting with his bag, fingers pulling the zipper to his messenger bag open and closed. 

“Are you-“ 

The man was out of the elevator just as quickly as he came in, jet black hair waving against his neck as he marched to the front desk. Lance opened the journal back up for some more clues. Something thick pressed against the next page of a hastily sketched model. Behind it was a school ID that said Balmera University with the logo of a Volcano, and a handsome mugshot of the young man wearing a mild smirk. That was him!

Nobody dropped off or retrieved any journals here?” They heard him pleading with the receptionist. His tone was formal, with a familiar cadence of someone on the verge of a mental breakdown. 

Hunk’s heart sank for this individual who clearly lost something important, was late for class, or both. It was time to act now, “What color was it?” 

“Red, about half an inch thick.” 

“It isn’t this, is it?” 

His mouth fell open, then his face went serious as Hunk gave it to him. “Thank you.” He continued back to the elevator with a look of “just business”, then stopped before he could press the button. He turned around like a soldier being dismissed from his duties and went back to the receptionist, ignoring the two boys completely. He spoke to her briefly, then stuffed his book in his inner vest pocket. 

After exchanging a very perplexed look with Hunk, Lance frowned, very unsatisfied with how cold this stranger was, and decided he was not finished with him. 

“Where are you going?” 

“To follow that ungrateful ragamuffin and see to it that he shows better gratitude than that!” 

“Raga-” Hunk shook his head, caught off guard by such an insult. “He thanked us, so let’s just allow him to stew in whatever he needs to stew in.” He knew Lance. Already loud enough, he became straight up outspoken when something bothered him. So, he followed the “boy on a mission”, who was huffing with his lips pursed tightly into a frown. 

Their little trip led them into a game room that was painted dark purple and aqua, several hang-out stations were situated in the rear half of the room, while taking a few steps down revealed a section with four pool tables, a pinball table, and some change machines.

“Heeyyyyyy!” Lance switched up from his confrontational flare and decided to wave flamboyantly to the young man while flashing his most charming smile. 

Notebook Guy screwed his face to an annoyed glare, tucking his lips in. “Can I help you?” 

“Well, you know…looks like you have a lot on your mind, judging by how you brushed off my friend who recovered “your precious!” 

“Lord of the Rings fan…” he muttered as he started chalking a pool stick. 

“One of my top 10’s by the way.” He was leaning against a panel that separated the pool area from the rest of the room and took his place as his audience member. He just realized that Notebook Guy was trying to shoo him away now. “So, umm, what’s your deal?” 

“Nothing that I’d talk to you about.” He bent over and broke the balls on the table without so much as a blink. 

But Lance was chuckling internally at this lone wolf playing pool by himself. “let me guess, you wanted to just practice by yourself, no date or friends? What kind of fun is that?” 

“I don’t need to have a social life to have fun with myself.” Lance let out a loud snicker, earning him another glare. Notebook Guy pushed the stick effortlessly into a solid ball, knocking 2 into their own side pockets. He was just about to make another move until Hunk caught up and started watching them. He mentally acknowledged him and continued playing. 

Hunk made mental notes in his brain looking at the 7 balls on the table. If this guy wanted to hit one of the ones in the corner pocket, that would leave him with 3 more balls that he could hit in the adjacent corner pockets with enough finesse. Lance glided over to where he was standing and was trying to follow his train of thought, Hunk could tell by the way he glanced at him with his chin resting under his hand and scanned the table. 

Notebook guy captured both of their glances and set off the very shot that Hunk was contemplating, a smirk coloring his face. Lance could hear him scoff playfully as he hit another ball in one by one, with no intention of stopping. Heard him pleasurably utter “not bad” under his breath. 

“Damn, he did it!” Hunk whooped. 

“Show off.” Lance muttered cross-armed with his back hunched. With his faux leather vest hoodie and his fingerless gloves, was he trying to channel his parent’s decade or something? Either way this guy knew he was hot shit, so aware of his audience. Well he could shoot just as well as he could. By the time that the last ball went in, Lance knew he had to show this guy a thing or two. He swiped a stick from the wall and chalked it real good. “That’s it, Mr. Turbo Balls! I challenge you!” 

“Oh yeah?” there returned that cocky smirk again, the same one that was starting to rub on Lance like a peculiar massage. “Got a dollar?”

“Please.” Lance huffed his chest. “I can bet a LOT more than that, sir!” 

He deadpanned. “I mean it costs a dollar to play.” 

“Oh.” He found his hand behind his neck, feeling sheepish. “We need quarters, right?” 

“Right.”

“By the way, name’s Lance.” 

“Keith.” Mr. Notebook finally revealed with a much more rested face. He saw Lance smirking before heading towards the front desk. And your name?” he asked, facing Hunk. 

“Hunk.”

“Thanks a lot again for finding my journal." 

“Don’t mention it. And sorry about my friend, he just has a certain picture in mind of model behavior.”

“I didn’t mean to come off that way earlier. Just been having a real crappy morning.” His gaze was furrowed downward in unease with his arms folded tightly against his chest.

“Yeah, I get it.” Hunk looked at him in sympathy, then rose an eyebrow, “can I ask what year you are?”

“Finishing my second year.”

“Is college really as rigorous as they say it is?” Lance asked, coming back with quarters to put into the machine.

“When you’re majoring in Aeronautics, yes.”

Lance finished chalking his stick, interrupting the conversation. “Alright, are you ready to have your ass handed to you?”

Keith decided to let Lance break as a courtesy, then faced Hunk. “Be prepared to take his place after this game is over.” Keith shot back spiritedly. 

Hunk cheered for them both and gave some hints when solicited. Lance’s aim was spectacular, and Keith worked swiftly with the pressure of the stick on the ball. At the very end of the game, Keith had 1 solid left on the table, while Lance had one more stripe. Unfortunately, the high school senior lost by default of using the striped ball to knock in the 8 ball, which sent him retreating to a corner table to binge eat the pizza that Hunk saved from an hour ago.

“Rigged!” he muttered.

“Sorry, buddy. Don’t even try to blame this one on a ‘cheating computer’.” 

“Ha ha!” he responded sarcastically.

“Still a hell of a game though. Keith smiled at him. “We gotta do this again sometime.” 

“Yeah, we gotta.” Lance sighed and swallowed his hurt pride, returning his smile 

“You want some of this, Hunk?” Keith asked. 

Hunk reluctantly played Keith, and almost just as reluctantly beat him with 7 of Keith’s solid balls on the table. Where Keith’s weakness was in tunnel vision, Hunk made up for in force and aim.

“Well.” The raven-haired boy’s voice trailed off, unable to form a proper expression or gesture after Hunk’s landslide victory.

The three gathered to the table to take a snack break, eventually whipping out their phones as they finished off what little pizza there was between them.

“Hey, wasn’t there something school-related happening Downtown this week?”

“Our school was planning a parade back home to honor the 50th anniversary of the school now that I remember.” Hunk was contemplating something apprehensively, looking to Lance to jog his memory about something else he might have missed. 

“Well, let’s stay away from Downtown on the way home, in case we run into one of the officers there. Potentially James Griffin.” Lance’s mood deflated to annoyance once he mentioned their Junior officer’s name. Hunk though that James Griffin was kind of a hard ass, and Lance could not stand him. He mentally prepared himself for another one of his rants soon to come up in a moment. 

“Are you guys from a military school?” Keith inquired. 

“Are you familiar with a school called the Garrison Military Charter? It’s, like, 50 miles east from where we are now.” Hunk realized Keith’s slight surprise flashed in his eyes. “I guess you though we were freshman here, huh?”

All Keith could do was respond with “umm…”

But the other boy was so caught up in his own drama about Griffin and vocalizing “Yeah, but this guy is a pain! He would kiss the butt of a cigar if you gave him the chance!” 

Hunk allowed a snicker to escape from his throat. “What Lance is saying is that he brown-noses the senior officers there and is such a stickler for the rules. “

“He’s an asshole is what he is!” Lance recalled loudly the time that Griffin noticed him jogging instead of sprinting like the other cadets, then yelled at him for not responding with his last name. Or when Lance and a female cadet was accused of cheating on a math test in the beginning of the year (which he never did), and he tried to plead his case to the senior officers on the board. Griffin angrily defended the officers, asserting that” fraternizing” led up to it or something like that (Lance and the girl broke up amicably days later.)

Keith was staring at him with a scrutinizing stare and a slightly beleaguered pout, with Hunk rubbing his temples: cues to stop talking. “Okay, so you’ve gone to school here for a while, any fun stuff to do in the city this time of year? 

“Don’t have time to be anyone’s tour guide.” He folded his arms firmly. 

“You don’t have to escort us anywhere, Mr. I-can-have-fun-with-myself-without-a-social-life, or people, or pets, or a Club Penguin account-“ 

 “You made your point! God forbid you ever become a guest lecturer at this school!” He settled back into his seat and massaged his temples in a circular motion with his pointing and middle finger, clearly annoyed. “Maybe we could all use an escape.”

“Really? Because you really don’t have to.” Lance blinked a few times, anticipation flickering in his eyes.

“I’m sick of campus today, and you clearly need some fresh air.” He got up and pushed in his chair.

“Now we’re talking!” Lance bounced up, Keith’s backhanded comment flying over his head.

“No, Lance!”

“Oh, you’re no fun, Hunk! We have 2 hours, what are you worried about?”

“We need to be back at the car in 30 minutes! That’s not enough time to hit the freeway, and you know how packed it’s gonna be.” Hunk folded his arms as he watched Lance emit a whimper and tuck his hands into his pocket.

“But, Huuunnnnkkk!”

“Sorry, but no buts!”

Keith’s face melted into a serious one. “I understand. Better beat it before it beats you. Nice meeting you two.” Keith was about to stroll away, leaving Hunk cleaning up his own area while Lance was frantically scrolling his phone for more events in the area that would make the larger boy change his mind.

“What’s the matter?” Lance whispered to him.

“We can’t just hang out and travel Balmera County with someone we met less than 2 hours ago!”

“What about his ID? He’s clearly a student here, like a real scholar with a hunger for knowledge.” True…it was a little unordinary for a college kid to just invite high school seniors to hang out. But isn’t that what they would be doing in college? Mingling, expanding social horizons? 

Hunk was never one to trust strangers easily without knowing much more information about them, like where they lived, who their family was, their blood type, their murder record, etc. But Lance felt drawn to the guy with the mullet and the fit, grizzled body, maybe because of that beautiful smile of his. And Keith warmed up to them, too, in that hour they got to know each other.

Hunk received a look from his friend that was reminiscent of one of his nephews. Longing, with sad puppy eyes and with an eclectic mix of conviction and excitement. And just like with his nephews, he had to remain firm.

“You have two choices, McClain! Either we leave in 30 minutes, or you find yourself an Uber back home!”