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. . .

 

September twenty-fourth, freshman year.

It was the night of the Homecoming football game.

A rowdy affair in every sense of the word, and, apparently, unseasonably balmy for a gold-hued evening in late September. Lance remembers because of his jacket: an old shabby thing made of denim, soft and worn from years of use, with hand-stitched patches littering the back. His mother had insisted that he bring it along before he could bolt out the door, despite his protests, and, not even an hour later, he had the sleeves rolled up to his elbows while lost somewhere amongst the bleachers, sandwiched between droves of cheering classmates, sweltering in the bright stadium lights and collective body heat.

And maybe all the sweaty discomfort would have been acceptable — fine, even, in an unfortunate, rite-of-passage sort of way — had Lance been attending for any reason other than gathering coverage for the school newspaper. He was an underclassman, still trying to prove himself as a skilled reporter, yet still deemed unworthy to cover anything more provocative than the likes of sporting events and pep rallies. The more sought-after articles were reserved for upperclassmen, who had already served their miserable time doing grunt work, like changing the ink cartridges in the printer, and melting alive beneath what’s left of the afternoon sun, for example. 

But it was quickly approaching halftime, and he still hadn’t accomplished much other than emptying a bucket of popcorn from the concession stand. Lance stared down at the sleek Nikon sitting in his lap, remembering how he’d spent all of his summer lawn-mowing money at the camera store, just to rent it out for the evening. His brow was furrowed. His jaw was set. 

C’mon, McClain. This is your time to shine. 

Lance’s lanky, beanpole-ish frame made it easy for him to maneuver through the masses, unobtrusively. He weaved between the sea of overheated bodies, hurried ‘scuse me’s and comin’ through’s falling lazily off his lips, until he reached the very bottom of the bleachers. He came to a halt at the chainlink fence, intended to separate the boisterous fans from the edge of the field. It was close, but not close enough

A tanned hand gripped the metal barrier, and gave it a shake to test its stability because, in a flickering moment of impulsivity, he decided to hop the fence, and venture farther into the fray. Which he was fairly certain fell under the strictly off-limits category of game time etiquette, but compelling journalism waits for no one. 

At least that was what Lance told himself, quite cheekily, as he scurried toward the field, trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible, camera poised and ready at eye level. The football players were off to the side, tossing balls back and forth, running a few last-minute drills as Coach Kolivan yelled in their sweaty faces. In their place, a formation of perky cheerleaders danced across the neatly manicured grass to a bombastic marching band tune.  

Thank god for the camera’s impressive zoom feature, Lance thought. Again, quite cheeky.

Smirking, Lance squinted into the camera lens, and watched as their mini skirts and long legs focused into perfect clarity. He snapped some photos in rapid succession because what would the evening be without a proper memento? Or six?  

That’s when the crowd started to howl behind him, louder than before, and the thundering noise was enough to distract Lance from his shot. He lowered the camera, glanced to the side, and gasped, frozen into paralyzed stillness. 

Because hurtling straight toward him was an errant football, cutting through the air, aimed right at his face. 

It was all happening so fast. Too fast, and there was nothing he could do. As he squeezed his eyes shut, bracing for impact, Lance could practically hear the devastating crunch of his nose already. And he could practically see the camera store owner’s face, red and wild with rage as he tries to return the damaged Nikon. And he could practically feel the crippling shame of having to drag himself into the newspaper office on Monday morning, woefully empty-handed, and ruining whatever chance he had at earning his place. And —  

Nothing. Nothing happened.  

No crunch, no rage, no shame. 

Lance’s eyelids fluttered open tentatively, just a crack, to find the ball safely nestled in the palms of what would have to’ve been some alarmingly dextrous hands. And then, looking past that, he found himself nestled in the gaze of some alarmingly dark eyes. 

Not dark like a bottomless pit, he thought offhandedly. They were deep blue like the ocean at midnight, or the night sky without stars. They were perfect little galaxies, framed by a thick brow and long lashes, and Lance would’ve been lying if he’d said he wasn’t already a little lost in their cosmic orbit.  

He was on the team. Number ten, according to his red emblazoned jersey. He looked different without his helmet; less like a barbaric brute and more like a real boy. Fair skin, swollen lips, black fringe that clung to the dampness of his forehead. 

“You should watch where you’re standing,” Number Ten said, deep and velvety. 

Lance gawked, flustered. “Ungh.” 

If moonstruck-teenager were a language, it would have included whatever noise Lance just croaked in an attempt to respond to the football player’s comment. It sounded like half-grunt, half-Hungarian. 

And, sadly, Lance didn’t know any Hungarian. 

Number Ten was staring, and so Lance straightened up a bit, desperately trying to combat how self-conscious he felt under that intense gaze with something like good posture. Because he could totally be chill. He could be calm. He could be collected.  

“Cool jacket,” said Number Ten. 

And so Lance internally screamed. 

Then, in the distance, a piercing whistle blew. The crowd erupted once again, the cheerleaders scattered, and the marching band picked up its lively tempo, but Lance noticed none of it. In fact, he missed just about everything except the way Number Ten’s thigh muscles flexed in those tight uniform pants as he turned, and started jogging back to his teammates.  

Lance gripped the front of his jacket, and watched him go, ignoring the deafening roar, the wobbliness of his knees, the beads of sweat rolling down his back.  

September twenty-fourth, freshman year.

It was the night of the Homecoming football game. 

But it was also the night that Lance McClain thinks he sort-of-maybe fell a little bit in love.

 

.

.

.

.

 

Hunk gives three quick warning honks from the McClain’s driveway before he drops his forehead to the steering wheel with an enormous sigh.

“He always does this,” he mutters under his breath. “Why does he always do this?”

Beside him, slumped in the passenger seat, Pidge sits with her eyes closed, and her feet propped up on the dashboard, looking as if she might’ve already fallen back asleep if not for the way her nose scrunches in disapproval. 

“Because Lance Standard Time is on a completely different plane of existence from the rest of human society,” she answers flatly.

Hunk sighs again when the clock on the outdated stereo system ticks forward another minute, blinking its little red numbers at him like he’s being mocked by time itself. Seven-fifteen, the clock sneers wickedly, and Hunk wiggles impatiently in his seat.

“School starts at 8am. It’s been that way for the past three years,” he blurts out, and then sneaks a sidelong glance at Pidge’s frown, searching for — affirmation? Commiseration? Any sign of life, really. “He actually knows that, right? ‘Cause I’m not convinced he does.”

“Since when has Lance ever convinced us that he knows anything?” 

Another minute. Seven-sixteen. The old leather upholstery squelches in protest as Hunk leans back into the seat, thunking his skull against the headrest with a defeated, “Aw, man. If he doesn’t hurry up, we won’t have time to stop for coffee before first period.”

And that’s when Pidge’s eyes snap open, wide as saucers, panicked, and slightly horror-movie-esque.

She struggles against her seatbelt, limbs flailing a bit ridiculously, but somehow manages to lean over far enough to slam her palm down onto the horn, disrupting the quiet morning with a shrill, elongated honk as she wails out the open window, “LANCE! MOVE YOUR ASS!” 

The front door of the house flies open not two seconds later, and Lance goes stumbling across the front lawn like some kind of gangly, floppy muppet. His shabby denim jacket is only halfway slipped on, the mouth of his backpack is unzipped and drooping from the weight of his books, and he’s got about two-thirds of a toaster waffle snatched between his teeth.

A typical morning, it would seem.

“Mmph!” he grunts cheerfully, mouth full of waffle, as he throws himself into the backseat of the beat-up minivan. Hunk wastes no time before careening out of the driveway, nearly back-ending the McClain’s mailbox in the process, and Pidge turns over her shoulder to glare with bitter yet sleepy resentment. 

“Cutting it a little close there, dude,” Hunk says as the car putters loudly down the street. 

“I was going for fashionably late,” Lance replies breezily.

“At school they call that detention,” grumbles Pidge.

“Semantics,” and he grins a bright, toothy grin, waving away the issue with a careless flick of his hand. “Now, what were you saying about my ass?”

“Just that you should stop wearing it as a hat.” 

Lance dives forward to give Pidge’s arm a punishing pinch, but she squirms away — with impressively swift reflexes — and smacks what’s left of Lance’s waffle out of his mouth. It falls to his lap, then rolls onto the car’s rubber floor mat, and Lance rightly shrieks in dismay.

“Wimp,” she guffaws.    

“Hey, hey, watch the crumbs!” Hunk warns desperately. “Mom’s car, remember? We’ll be walking to school next week if we leave this thing a mess.”

With a haughty huff, Lance plucks a piece of indiscernible dirt off his rescued breakfast, and deadpans, “Right, ‘cause that’s this car’s biggest problem. Crumbs.”

They end up stopping for coffee, anyway, much to Hunk’s anxiety. He adamantly advises against it, referencing the time, and sending Lance a squinty-eyed look in the rearview mirror. But then Pidge’s eyes glaze over with honest-to-god tears, and her bottom lip actually starts to wobble, and Hunk — sweet Hunk, darling Hunk, too-good-for-this-world Hunk — grumbles and begrudges his way through the Starbucks drive-thru.

“What good is senior year if you can’t take a little risk?” Lance smirks around the straw of his iced caramel latte once they’re back on the road. 

Pidge whirls around in her seat again to tap her double-shot americano against Lance’s drink in wholehearted agreement.

“Risk makes my stomach hurt,” mutters Hunk.   

The parking lot is nearly full when they arrive, to no one’s surprise. They’re pushing seven-fifty by the time Hunk swerves into one of the last remaining open spots in the back row; a bit crooked but effective. Then the three of them are scurrying across the blacktop, weaving through parked cars as they make their way to the front quad, which is uncharacteristically sparse, with only a few wayward bodies still dawdling about, while the rest of the student population is most likely mobbing the hallways just beyond the front door.

‘Altea High School: Welcome back, students!’, reads the large, swooping banner that hangs overhead like some sort of grand archway. And when Lance catches sight of it, he comes to a jarring halt, sneakers screeching against the pavement, and whips his Nikon out of his bag in one practiced motion because — oh man, how could he forget.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait —” he alerts his friends, hoisting the camera to eye level. “— photo op!”

“Lance, c’mon,” Hunk gripes. “We don’t have time.”

“Go on without me, then,” he says dismissively. “But if I don’t get some halfway decent back-to-school photos shot, edited, proofed, and in Allura’s hands by the end of the day, she’ll literally maul me.” 

Pidge’s lips break into an unscrupulous smile as she nudges Hunk’s elbow. “At least then we wouldn’t always be running late anymore.”

Lance peeks out from behind his camera, and blows an unnecessarily loud raspberry, motor-like and wet.

“Away with you, mutinous miscreants! Away!” 

“See you at lunch, buddy! Good luck not getting mauled!”

Their tromping footsteps grow fainter and fainter, followed by the heavy clunk of the front door as it swallows them up. Lance’s eyes flit back to the viewfinder, vision buoying between blurry and crystal-clear as he surveys the desolate quad. A few vacated benches and picnic tables, an overflowing trashcan, a large flowerbed that’s in desperate need of water. It doesn’t leave him with much to work with, but, fortunately, Lance has always had an uncanny knack for spinning straw into gold. 

Exhibit A: sophomore year. He was a nosy, insufferably over-ambitious underclassman, who was sick and tired of being underestimated, and who couldn’t go a single day without invading the editor-in-chief’s email — always wondering if there were any stories to cover, or leads to follow, or anything at all that would get his name on the front page of that paper. And he was consistently batted away like a fly at the dinner table until — by some stroke of sheer, dumb luck — the campus’ main septic tank sprung a leak, and Lance somehow managed to turn a simple plumbing malfunction into the school’s biggest must-read of the month.

‘All that remains is a rolling river of refuse,’ he had dictated tastefully. ‘A tempestuous torrent of the digested, the discarded, and the dispelled now paints the earth wet with waste; a billowing bed of soiled soil that shimmers, and stinks, and steams.’ 

To this day, his friends still tease him for how he’d waxed three long paragraph’s worth of poetry on literal shit, but all Lance knows is that the very next day he was being asked to conduct an interview with the senior class president about possible themes for the upcoming prom, and well — that’s when he knew he’d finally made his mark.

And it led him to where he is now. A senior — still nosy, still insufferably over-ambitious — with an early-acceptance scholarship to Garrison College’s creative writing program, and with just enough clout to make himself recognizable in the halls. 

(So what if it’s usually something along the lines of ‘that newspaper guy’ or ‘the kid with the camera’? Lance will take what he can get.)

And so will Allura, he adamantly decides as he snaps an arbitrary photo of that lopsided welcome banner. He’s about to take another, just for variety’s sake, when he catches movement in the corner of his viewfinder. A group of young girls whiz by — probably freshmen — and they’re chattering in fast, high-pitched voices, their eyes all wide and aglow with excitement.   

Bingo.

“Hey!” Lance calls out to them with a big, beaming expression of his own. “Smile, ladies!” 

The girls take one look at the camera, and then erupt into a chorus of piercing giggles. They huddle close together, faces bright, and open, and flushed.

And Lance, he watches it all from behind the lens with an expert’s eye, attune to every shift, angle, and burst of sunlight that filters through the nearby trees, bleeding through in shades of honey and bronze. He centers the girls just below the banner, auto-focus whirring into sharpness, and then —

Click. Click, click, click.

“Nice!” Lance cheers, lowering the camera to reveal those jewel-blue eyes. “Keep looking this gorgeous and you just might find yourselves on the front page of next week’s paper.”    

And then, simply because he can, he winks.

More giggling, more blushing. Lance continues to preen, clearly pleased with himself, as the girls scatter toward the front entrance like a flock of twittering finches, giddy and elated.

But their tinny chirping is promptly drowned out by a distant rumble, so low and guttural that Lance feels it all the way down to his core. It rattles, and shakes, and nearly knocks him over where he stands because — he knows that rumble. He knows it too well.

A black motorcycle pulls into the parking lot, all polished chrome and sharp lines. And Lance just gapes, moth to a flame, everything inside of him rippling in electric currents as the engine purrs like an elegant beast. Admittedly, he doesn’t know much about bikes, but he knows this one’s a gorgeous sight to behold. Almost as gorgeous as the person riding it.

Keith Kogane.

Keith “Number Ten” Kogane.

Fuck.

Keith cuts the engine. At least Lance thinks he does. The world kind of mutes itself for a moment, deafeningly silent save for the bass-like thrum, thrum, thrum of his pulse in his ears. In fact, the whole damn world could be shrinking away, or tilting sideways, or collapsing into a pile of rubble and Lance would still be hopelessly transfixed because — Keith. He’s right there; all lean, and toned, and looking every bit as heart-achingly handsome as he does in all of Lance’s wildest daydreams. He removes his helmet, shaking loose a mane of disheveled hair, and Lance’s eyes follow the razor-edged jut of his collarbone, the bulge of his bicep, the flex of his thigh as he straddles his bike.

Oh, Lance thinks reverently, that I were a seat upon that bike, that I might be between those thighs.

Or something like that.

Because, y’know — Shakespeare.

If only he could say that it’s gotten easier, that he doesn’t go all weak in the knees and dry in the mouth and utterly braindead at the slightest glimpse of the school’s dreamy quarterback, but that would be a downright lie. It’s still the same hair-raising, temperature-climbing, gut-wrenching, life-ruining sensation. Three years and two significant growth spurts later, and Lance still finds himself regressing into the bumbling mess of a boy he was on that sweltering September night, at that fateful football game, when he sold his soul to a pair of those mesmerizingly moon-drenched eyes.   

But, really, it shouldn’t come as such a shock. He’s still kind of a mess, and Keith is still Keith. And no amount of time can change the fact that Lance is completely invisible to a guy like him. 

Then Lance’s hands start moving of their own accord, spurred on by how unfairly radiant Keith looks right now as he’s dismounting, lit by the way sunlight reflects off the bike’s surface, showering him in specks of glitter until he gleams. And what a crime it would be to let this glorious moment go undocumented. How shameful, how disgraceful. And before Lance can even stop himself — 

Click. Click, click, click.

So maybe admiring a few unsolicited and very self-indulgent snapshots in the privacy of his own bedroom isn’t quite the same as actually mustering the courage to talk to him, but Lance figures it’s better than nothing. Straw into gold.

Exhibit B: his debilitating and tragically unrequited crush on —

“Keith!” a voice calls out. “Over here!”

A group of football players — James Griffin, Ryan Kinkade, and a few other teammates — are waving at Keith from the front door. Keith’s head snaps toward them, and Lance’s head snaps away even quicker, ducking his gaze, and shoving his camera behind his back, out of sight. In long, agile strides, Keith is sauntering forward, and Lance’s heart makes a mad dash for his throat, like it’s trying to claw its way out, like maybe his poor, weak heart can nudge the words out with enough brute force, if it clambers up fast enough. 

‘How was your summer?’ is all he has to say. Or even a simple ‘hey, man’ would suffice, if only Lance would look up, look up, look up.

So he looks.

Jaw unhinging, limbs going numb, palms clammy and leaking with an obscene amount of sweat that has him cringing inwardly at his own disgusting bodily reactions. His breath hitches, stuttering and tangling inside his lungs until he fears he might choke to death, right here, right now, and then — Keith brushes right past without even a fleeting glance in his direction.

Lance is still a bit dazed and disoriented when he spins around to watch Keith meet up with his teammates. They offer some pats on the back, and Keith responds with some kind of muttered, lackluster greeting, and then they all disappear into the building.

Honestly, Lance doesn’t know what he was expecting to happen. A miracle? A glitch in the system, maybe? His stomach rolls with regret, feeling like he could split in two with the way his heart is throbbing against his breastbone. His tongue tingles behind his teeth, heavy with all the things he could’ve said — should’ve said — if only he weren’t so impossibly captivated, so dangerously spellbound, and so completely —

The bell rings, shrill and abrasive; punching in his ears, sinking in his gut. 

— Invisible. To a guy like him.   

 

 


 

 

Lunch time, Keith thinks, is the literal worst.

For starters, there’s the cafeteria: a noisy, over-crowded hotbed for rowdiness and raving teenaged hormones. Just a horde of restless bodies crammed into one poorly-ventilated room for an hour, with the stale stench of mystery meat and pubescent sweat clinging to the muggy air. How anyone manages to have an appetite in that sort of environment is beyond him. Then there’s the students themselves: a storm of pent-up energy that rages in one mighty swell before they must trudge back to class for the latter half of their day. They shriek, and laugh, and flirt, and gossip, and bicker in the most obnoxious ways possible.   

And, in Keith’s case, they gawk.

Thing is, Keith doesn’t like being gawked at, and he certainly never asked for this kind of unwarranted ogling from his peers. But it’s a fate he’s been unduly saddled with ever since he first set foot on that football field. At the time, he was only a freshman, a few months shy of fifteen, and at least five inches smaller than the rest of the burly boys who had shown up for varsity try-outs. Keith remembers how they had snickered behind his back, and doled out all sorts of unoriginal insults under their breath in between drills.

Keith also remembers how they had stopped snickering and stopped insulting when he became the first freshman in over a decade’s worth of Altea High history to make the varsity team, beating out several upperclassmen for the spot. Coach Kolivan had deemed him a prodigy, and when everyone had gathered to witness a mysterious freshman making the game-winning throw at the big Homecoming game that year, the entire world kind of exploded. Well. Keith’s entire world, more like.

And the blow had been a devastating one, to be honest. Everything still trembles, aftershocks rolling in like waves, dust and debris refusing to settle over the wreckage. Suddenly, he’s a spectacle, a sensation, a fucking legend in the making. The main attraction in this horrifying, fishbowl-like vortex. He can’t even walk to his locker without feeling the unsettling prickle of eyes all over his back. He can’t look at that old graffitied brick wall behind the bleachers without finding his initials in the center of some sloppily-drawn heart. He can’t make it through a single goddamn day at this school without hearing the dumb rumors, and the whispers, and the gasps, and the infatuated swoons. People stare at him as they pass like he’s some kind of messiah, holy and untouchable. People go around with his name on their lips, like they know him.

But they don’t know him. And Keith makes sure of it.

While his fellow teammates seem to enjoy taking advantage of their esteemed position on the social hierarchy, Keith couldn’t care less. He doesn’t attend post-game parties, or school dances, or weekend hangouts. He doesn’t participate in any extracurricular activities that require him to venture beyond the football field. He doesn’t even sit with his teammates at their usual lunch table, strategically positioned in the dead-center of the cafeteria, so that all eyes can easily be on him, like a freak on display.

So, yeah. Lunch time pretty much sucks.

At least, it used to.

But, for the past two years, Keith has spent his hour of freedom in Mr. Shirogane’s classroom, far away from the bulging stares and riotous clamor that makes up the cafeteria. He can’t quite explain it, but Keith knows he prefers the quiet, just like he prefers the classroom’s smell of fresh coffee and fresh paper. Sometimes they chat about school, about football, a little bit about life. And sometimes Mr. S will put him to work; simple, mundane tasks like stapling study packets or clearing the blackboard. It’s a small price to pay for the pleasant company of his favorite teacher.

Today, however, is significantly less pleasant than usual, and it starts with an envelope. And it ends with one, too, actually. Keith scowls and stomps his way into the empty classroom shortly after the bell rings, and drops the damned thing onto Mr. S’s desk with very little ceremony.

Shiro is about halfway finished with his lunch, and halfway finished grading a hefty stack of papers when he glances up, slim wire-frame reading glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose. He manages to catch a glimpse of that patented moody gaze before Keith pivots on the tile floor, and plops himself heavily into one of the desks in the front row. He’s got his arms folded airtight over his chest, and he’s glaring intently as if Shiro is expected to know what all of this is about.

But the seconds creep by, and Shiro keeps blinking with dumbfounded curiosity, waiting for an explanation that sits trapped behind the downward line of Keith’s mouth, and so he swallows his bite of turkey sandwich, and asks, calmly:

“What’s this?”

“What do you think,” is Keith’s ominous reply.

Upon closer inspection, the envelope on Shiro’s desk is no ordinary envelope. The top appears to have already been ripped open eagerly — violently, maybe — and the front of it is embellished with a forest-green emblem that boasts ‘Daibazaal University’ in a neatly imposing font. Shiro’s eyebrows inch up to his white-peppered hairline as he pulls the letter from the envelope, and skims over those dreadfully telltale opening remarks. Keith Kogane, we regret to inform you...

Shiro heaves a sigh, a heavy, depressing sound that rattles around his lungs as he removes his glasses, allowing his fingers to rub away the tension settling into his brow. “Oh, Keith…”

“Don’t do the pity voice,” the boy grumbles, giving a single, twitchy jerk of his head. 

“It’s not pity, it’s —” Another sigh, more dense and resigned than before. “— I’m sorry. I know it’s hard, but don’t let this discourage you.”

“I’m fine,” Keith snaps; too harsh, too not fine.

“You have so much going for you, Keith,” Shiro carries on, brightening his expression, and tossing the letter to the side. “You’re an amazingly talented athlete. I mean, you were the first freshman to play for the varsity team in, what, ten years?”

Keith shrugs. “Twelve.”

“Exactly,” says Shiro, chancing the beginnings of a grin, just a slight curl at the corner of his lips. “And you’re a really sharp kid. Your GPA is solid, your test scores are good, and —”

“And colleges still don’t want me,” Keith grinds out hotly.

That subtle grin quickly withers away. But Shiro still reminds him, “It’s only one college, Keith. That’s very normal. You applied to others, didn’t you?” 

Reluctantly, Keith frees one of his hands, and lifts a finger for every name he lists off. “Besides DU… Galra Tech, Beta Traz, and Naxzela.”

“Right,” Shiro says, nodding slowly as he considers these options. All good schools, but with one very specific thing in common: they all happen to be nestled within the city of Daibazaal. And Shiro, intuitive as he is, doesn’t think this is some kind of coincidence.

As Keith stares a miserable hole into his lap, Shiro clasps his hands together, and lays them primly onto his desktop.

“Have you maybe considered any schools,” he ventures carefully, “outside of Daibazaal?”

“No,” Keith answers, firmly and at once.

“I just think that maybe if your heart wasn’t so set — if you opened your mind to other possibilities —”

Keith finally looks up, eyes gone dark and blustery as he says, “I’m going to Daibazaal, Mr. S.”

And that’s that on that. It’s so stern, and final, and leaves such little room for debate that Shiro wisely decides not to press it. For now. He lets it linger, and land soundly in the space between their gazes. 

“Alright. Well,” Shiro recovers, remarkably unruffled as he reaches for his discarded glasses. “There’s still time. I have faith in you.”

Then there’s a smile — that smile — so kind, and gentle, and supportive, and it makes Keith almost feel guilty for being so stubborn. Shiro bows his head, and goes back to grading his papers, and, for that, Keith is overwhelmingly grateful. Relieved. It makes him squirm restlessly in his seat, muscles clenching and unclenching, his face unfurling considerably, like he doesn’t quite know what to do with kindness like this, or how to process it. So he just mutters:

“Thanks.”

And Shiro understands, just like he always seems to. His eyes remain dutifully trained on his desk, until his mind wanders off in an interesting direction, and he glances up with a low rumble of, “Keith?”

Keith blinks. Waits.

“Have you told your dad yet?”

Oh.

“He doesn’t know I applied.”

A nod.

“You should talk to him.”

A shrug.

“Yeah. Maybe.”

And that’s that on that.

Time seems to resume, then. Shiro gets one more B+ scribbled onto the top of an essay before he hears the sound of a zipper. He looks over to find Keith rummaging through his backpack, and removing what appears to be an apple and a small plastic bottle of Coke Zero he’d gotten from the downstairs vending machine.

Shiro sets his pen down, brow quirking. “No lunch?”

“Forgot,” says Keith.

With one more sigh, Shiro stands from his desk. “I have to go make a couple copies for next period.”

Keith says nothing. He just takes an unhurried swig of his soda, but when he looks down again, there’s the other half of Shiro’s turkey sandwich sitting on his desk, neatly wrapped.

“Eat,” Shiro orders.

“Mr. S —”

But Shiro is already moving across the room with an uncompromising, “That better be gone by the time I get back.”

And when Keith hears the definitive click of the door, he decides he doesn’t have much of a choice. So he unwraps the sandwich, and takes a vigorous bite.

 

 


 

 

Mr. Coran is the kind of teacher who stands outside his classroom before the bell rings, and greets each and every student with a high-five as they file through the door. And Lance appreciates this about the guy — wacky as he is — and usually reciprocates the gesture with equal, if not more, enthusiasm. So when Lance comes barreling down the hall, and rounds the doorway a bit too sharply, nearly smacking his face into Mr. Coran’s waiting palm, it comes as a surprise to both of them.

“Ah! Lance!” Mr. Coran trills. “Nice to see you getting a head start in this class!”

He’s also the kind of teacher who makes terrible puns. Lance appreciates that a little less.

“Uh, my bad, Mr. C,” he mumbles distractedly. “I was just heading over from — I — dammit, now I’m doing it, too. Just one of those mornings. Senior year. Too much coffee. Y’know how it goes.”

“Well, in that case, you better simmer down there, sport,” Mr. Coran calls out to Lance’s retreating back as the boy goes shuffling into the classroom, making a beeline for his seat. “You’ll want to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for this. It’s dissection day!”

Lance looks frighteningly dead to the world when he slides into his spot beside Pidge at their shared lab bench. His backpack slips off his shoulder, dropping to the floor with a thunk, and then his forehead meets the table’s surface with an even louder thunk.

Pidge offers him an arched brow in lieu of a greeting, and asks, “Did you just come from gym?”

“I just came from hell,” Lance corrects menacingly, a single blue orb peeking up through a fan of lashes. Even with his cheek smooshed against the tabletop like this, the downturned line of his mouth is still very pronounced. “Nope. Still there, actually. You’re here.”

Two tiny but powerful fingers flick at his ear. “Way to ditch us at lunch, dummy,” says Pidge.

“S’not like I wanted to ditch,” Lance counters, whimpering as he painstakingly peels himself off the table. “Allura sent me an email with all her editing notes for the front page article. And she wanted them done today.”

“Well, she is the editor-in-chief. So it’s kind of her job to keep your shit in check.”

“It was a six paragraph email, Pidge. Single-spaced!”

“Wow, your article must’ve really sucked, then.”

“Excuse,” Lance all but gasps, “but my article’s a masterpiece, alright? Riveting reportage at its finest. It’s gonna blow minds, rock worlds, make…” and then his voice peters out to a pause, eyelids drooping defeatedly as he flops forward again, draping himself dramatically over the desk. “… ugh, forget it. I’m tapped out. I just spent an hour thinking up different ways to talk about the ‘chess club funding crisis’ without sounding like a total dweeb, so like, my brain’s officially fried.”

Pidge blinks, thoughtful. “I didn’t know the chess club even had funds to crisis about.”

“Told ‘ya,” drawls Lance, muffled by the crook of his elbow. “Riveting stuff.” 

“Right. So, uh… speaking of crises,” she goes on, suddenly a bit wary.

Lance pauses, waiting in suspense for the second half of that statement.    

“Go on,” he finally prompts, equally as wary.   

“Oh, it’s nothing, really,” says Pidge, and doesn’t even give Lance enough time to be suspicious before she’s tacking on quickly, “Except that Keith Kogane just walked through the door.”

What?!”

As his outburst garners a few curious head turns and puzzled glances from nearby classmates, Lance shoots up like an arrow, and throws his attention over to the front door where Keith Kogane is, indeed, awkwardly tapping his palm against Mr. Coran’s. And the little crease between his brows is so adorably bewildered and — no. No, no, no, no… 

“Fuck,” Lance whispers. And then, once more with feeling, “Fucking fuck.”

“People are staring. In case you couldn’t tell.” 

“What is he doing here?” His gaze flicks to her, desperate, foundering, and utterly helpless. “Pidge, what is he doing here.”

“How should I know?” she hisses. “Maybe he got a schedule change. You know, like most people do during the first week of school.”

Mr. Coran is saying something to him now, gesticulating wildly toward one half of the classroom, and Keith looks rather overwhelmed by it all. He nods his head, leans side-to-side a couple times just to avoid getting thwacked by one of Mr. Coran’s flailing appendages, and then he mutters a quick ‘uh, thanks’ before he goes meandering across the room.

Fuck,” Lance says again because Keith is walking toward him for the second time today, and so, frankly, to hell with eloquence. 

When every muscle in Lance’s body appears to go alarmingly rigid, and Pidge genuinely starts wondering if he’s forgotten how to breathe, she elbows him in the side and tells him, “Just be normal.”

And he tries. He really, truly does. He really gives it his all. But then Keith slides himself into the open seat directly in front of them, and Lance responds by making a series of unattractive gurgling noises in the back of his throat, slithering down so far in his chair that he might as well be a puddle on the floor.   

“What,” whispers Pidge, voice strained, “are you doing?”

“Just — being normal.”

She gives his new position a skeptical once-over. “That looks painful.”

“Love is pain, dude,” Lance rasps. “Love is pain.”

The bell rings, and Lance hears it like he’s underwater, probably drowning. Mr. Coran bounces up to the front of the room, toting along a small metal push-cart, and launching into a lesson plan that Lance is only half listening to. The other half of him is distracted — rightfully so — by Keith’s overwhelming proximity, his utter and sudden nearness, and the way he starts stripping out of his red letterman jacket. It flops over the back of his chair, revealing a very plain, very thin black t-shirt that clings to the muscles of his back, and his — god, why are his shoulder blades so sexy? Since when are shoulder blades a sexy thing? 

“Are you ever gonna sit up?” he hears Pidge ask. “Or am I gonna have to do all the work?”

“Think I'll chill down here, thanks.”

“Well, at least put your goggles on.”

Goggles? Pidge hands him a pair. Ah. Goggles.

Keith is wearing his goggles. Keith looks good in his goggles. No one should be allowed to look that good in goggles. Keith’s lab partner is wearing her goggles, too, when she turns to say something, and Lance wishes he could hear what it is because it makes Keith nod, and say something back, and —

“ —ance? Lance?”

Lance turns. Pidge is glowering in her goggles.

“Um,” he squeaks. “What?”

“Wow, you really are gonna make me do everything, huh,” she says, shaking her head. “Just pass me the scalpel.”

In front of him, on the lab bench, there’s a small tray of tools — scalpel, scissors, forceps — and Lance doesn’t remember how they got there. There’s another tray in front of Pidge, but hers has a freeze-dried frog on it, flat on its back, limbs spread, all sickly grey and reeking of formaldehyde. Ew.

Ew,” Lance says out loud. 

Pidge sighs noisily, and steals the scalpel out of his limp fingers. “Get a grip,” she mutters.

Lance gets a grip on the way Keith twirls his pen between his fingers, and how he taps the end of it against his cheek while he thinks, and how he bites down on his bottom lip as he scribbles something onto his lab sheet, and —

“Seriously, Lance,” Pidge gripes. “Scissors.”

“Huh?”

“Scissors!”

“Oh, right, got it —”

Lance does not have it. He’s not even close to having it. He stares, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, as Pidge snips into the frog’s belly, and peels it open like a corn husk to unveil every single winding intestine and bulging organ. She prods curiously at the pink, swollen stomach, and the thing bounces like a goddamn water balloon, and Lance’s knuckles are turning white around the edge of the table before he even realizes he’s clinging to it for dear life.

“First one to locate their specimen’s conus arteriosus gets extra credit on Monday’s quiz!” Mr. Coran sings as he flits around the classroom. 

Jesus,” is all Lance mutters, but it goes ignored.    

Keith and his lab partner are both huddled around their own tray, talking back and forth in low voices as they discuss — boring scientific things, probably. But they’re leaning so close, and their shoulders are almost touching, and Lance figures that science must be pretty fascinating under those conditions. He’s promptly steamrolled by the thought of Keith whispering anatomical vocabulary in his ear as if they were sweet nothings when Keith pulls away. His fingers drag through the thick of his hair, gathering it around his nape, securing it back with an elastic, and — oh yeah. Lance definitely catches a whiff of that. Forget that nasty frog juice because the all-consuming scent of Keith has Lance feeling profusely lightheaded, and slightly woozy, and kind of shivery, and weirdly nauseous, and now he’s starting to wonder if someone turned the heat on in here —

“A-ha!” Pidge whoops victoriously. “Found it!”

A small, slimy frog heart dangles between the prongs of her forceps, and Lance feels the entire room give a harrowing jerk, pulling him down with it. 

“…Lance? Lance!”

It’s the last thing he vaguely hears before the world goes black.  

 

 


           

 

“Hey, Kogane.”

Keith glances up from the shoelace he’d been tying, and finds James Griffin leaning coolly against the row of lockers. He’s wearing fresh clothes now, hair still mildly damp from a shower, with his gym bag slung over the left shoulder. 

“Bunch of us are heading over to Lion’s Den to grab a bite. You in?”

He wonders how many more times he’ll get invited before they get the hint. 

Keith flexes his ankles once, twice, and then hops to his feet. “I’m taking a few more laps.” 

An eye roll doesn’t go unnoticed as Keith brushes past, making his way toward the back door that leads to the field.

“You realize we just had practice, right?” James calls after him, just a tinge of incredulousness.

But Keith’s earbuds are already stuffed into his ear, blasting at full volume to block out James’ voice, and the squeak of the door, and the whipping breeze, and the harsh pounding of his footsteps as he takes off around the track.

His muscles are still sore and weak, trembling from over-exertion, but he chases after that familiar burn. The air is a bit too crisp, pricking his skin and numbing his face, but he keeps charging through. His lungs ache, and his throat has gone raw, but it’s better, he thinks.

It’s better than being crammed into a plastic booth at some cheap, roadside diner with his self-entitled teammates, pretending to enjoy himself.

It’s better than going home, and staring at his dad across the dinner table, forcing conversation and pretending nothing’s wrong.

It’s better than the sound of his mother’s voicemail, and the sting of another rejection letter, and pretending he doesn’t care about any of it.

It’s not good.

But it’s better.      

 

 


 

 

“Lance,” says Allura, with no preamble, and absolutely no nonsense in her crisply clipped tone. “A word, please.” 

She’s a treacherous beauty, he thinks absentmindedly, though not quite absent enough to avoid noticing the way she looms over his desk, smile pulled tight and the bun on top of her head pulled even tighter, with a gripping stare that could frost over the fiery gates of hell. Treacherous, indeed.    

It takes everything in Lance not to flinch as he lifts his head out of his laptop screen, and replies, perhaps too sweetly, “As many as you’d like, princess.” 

Her smile twitches out of place, threatening to crack. “Lance.”

“Is that a new dress?” he tries again. “‘Cause it’s a winner, lemme tell ‘ya. Really brings out the murderous gleam in your eyes.”

“This had better be a joke.”

“Oh, I would never joke about homicide, ‘Lura,” Lance assures, hand to his heart, and severely testing his luck.

There are some unruly snort-like noises coming from behind him, and Lance figures it has to be Hunk and Pidge from a few rows back, fighting off laughter, because the way Allura takes a long, deliberate inhale suddenly reminds him of a sparkler nearing the end of its fuse.    

“I asked you to deliver the photos for the back-to-school issue by eighth period today,” she says slowly, taking care to inflect in her tone just how unamused she is with his antics.

“Which I did,” he’s quick to remind. “By seventh period.”   

“Then would you care to explain how these happened to find their way into my locker?”

Allura whips a small stack of glossy photo paper from her bag, lightning quick. And when she holds them up in front of her, Lance nearly gags on his own spit because staring back at him, right fucking there, is Keith dismounting his bike, and Keith adjusting his bag, and Keith running a hand through his hair, and Keith’s irresistible jawline, and Keith, Keith, Keith

“Oh — my god,” Lance whimpers, slapping a palm to his beet-red face.

“Not gonna lie, dude,” says Hunk, “that’s pretty creepy.”

“You — you — weren’t supposed to see those!”

“That’s even creepier,” Pidge adds with a residual chortle. 

And then Lance’s hands are scrabbling quickly to snatch the photos out of Allura’s grasp, slamming them face-down on his desk as if removing them from sight will somehow undo the damage that’s already been done — his fractured dignity, first and foremost. 

“I… must’ve printed the wrong ones by mistake,” he mumbles. “Sorry, Allura, I —”

“I trust you have the real photos on hand?” she interrupts curtly.

Lance digs through his bag, and brandishes a small flash drive with a pitiful sigh.

“Wonderful,” says Allura as she takes the device, turns on her heel, and almost makes it all the way to the door before: “Oh, and Lance?”

He perks up warily.

“Adjust your shutter speed to one-sixth of a second,” she tells him matter-of-factly, bag hitched high on her back, posture impeccable. “Your exposure is a bit off.”

Something inside Lance tosses and tumbles, so he plasters on a smile that feels too tight around the edges. “I’ll keep that in mind next time I decide to make an ass of myself.”

“Very impressive work, otherwise,” and then Allura clears her throat, soft and polite. “I can tell you have a true passion for the, er — subject.”

More wheezy, snorty, obnoxious ruckus from his friends, and that thing inside Lance is thrashing so savagely that it just might kill him, and — mortification. It’s definitely that.   

“Yeah, uh. Big fan,” he somehow croaks by way of explanation. He pumps a timid, unenthusiastic fist into the air. “Go lions.”

Allura actually has the audacity to squeeze her lips together, twisting them around until they smooth into a neutral line like she, too, is struggling to suppress amusement. Then, fingertips to her mouth quite demurely, she nods once, and leaves the room in a crippling silence.

Nothing but the depressing creak, creak, creak of Lance’s chair as he sinks further into it, wondering how long it’ll take before the floor opens up and swallows him whole, and keeps him there. 

“Aw, man, that was hard to watch,” Hunk eventually mutters. “I’m getting the secondhand embarrassment sweats.”

Then, a fervent whisper from Pidge: “See? I told you it was getting worse.”

“What?” Lance quickly flings himself around in his seat to glare at his murmuring friends, feeling the red-hot flickers of agitation flare to life. “What’s getting worse?” 

Hunk makes a face; a sad, commiserating face. “Pidge said you fainted in AP Bio, dude.”

“Pidge who?” Lance sneers with intentional scorn. “I don’t know any Pidge.”   

“She also said you caught one whiff of Keith Kogane’s hair and keeled over.”

“Slander and lies!” he blurts at once, scandalized. “I passed out because there was a huge plate of frog guts under my nose. Not because I know what Keith’s hair smells like!”

Hunk scoots his elbows down the desktop, leaning in close with poorly-disguised intrigue. “So what does it smell like?”

“Sandalwood and eucalyptus, but that’s not the point.”

“Lance, as your best friends,” Pidge begins solemnly, “we’re concerned.” 

“Oh, gimme a break,” he huffs, arms crossing into a furious knot in front of his chest. “I just have, like… an itty-bitty crush.”

“Yeah, an itty-bitty crush that’s been going on for years, and you still haven’t done anything about it.”

His response is a loud, indignant sniff. “I’d rather save myself the embarrassment, and live in agonizing anonymity, thank you very much.”

“But it’s senior year, man!” Hunk chimes in. He shimmies out of his chair, and slips himself into the empty desk on Lance’s right, imploring him with that big, boyish grin of his. “You said it yourself. What good is it if you don’t take risks? And in a couple months we’re all gonna be leaving so this is, like, now or never.”

Slowly, Lance taps a finger to his chin, feigning deep contemplation until — 

“I’m gonna stick with never.”

“You just have to talk to him,” tries Pidge, appearing in the desk to his left, and Lance can’t help feeling a lot like cornered prey.

“I don’t know what to say!” he whines.

And that prompts Pidge to scoff with a disbelieving, “Since when do you ever struggle with words?” 

“Since Keith Kogane turned those big, gorgeous, window-to-the-soul eyes on me, and ruined my entire life, okay!” Lance hunkers down in his seat, leg bouncing, foot tapping, lip pouting, and becomes increasingly aware of the rising heat pooling at the base of his throat. “Look, it’s just different with him. It’s like my brain short-circuits or something. I couldn’t get a single word out even if I tried.”

A second passes, maybe five, before Pidge’s voice comes out low and conspiratorial beside him.

“Then don’t say it,” she tells him. “Write it.”

“Ooh, you mean like a love letter?” Hunk’s excitement comes out in a gasp as he grips Lance’s shoulder, and gives his friend a little shake. “Oh my god, man, that’s peak romance right there.”

But Lance just frowns, thoroughly unconvinced. “A love letter? What is this, some kinda low-budget, made-for-Netflix teen rom-com?”

“You’re a reporter,” reminds Pidge, breaking into a smirk, and jostling her eyeglasses in a way that always makes her look like some kind of dangerous mastermind at work. And maybe she kind of is. “This is what you do best.” 

Well, Lance allows with bitter reluctance. She’s not wrong. Because, sure, maybe the thought has crossed his mind before. Maybe he does occasionally indulge in the reverie of confessing his feelings in the only way he’s sure he knows how, pouring every bit of himself into the words until the page runs rampant with heartache and want, and the sheer power of prose alone is enough to stir something in Keith’s heart; something deep-rooted, and undeniable, and — dare he think it — reciprocating.

But the truth is that it’s just an immature, lovesick fantasy. And the truth is that Keith probably has at least a dozen hopeful love letters sitting at the bottom of his locker, untouched and unread, right this very moment. And the truth is that Lance could never, not in a million years —

“Okay, so I write the stupid thing, and then what?” he challenges. His arms unfurl like limp noodles, and fall to his lap in a disheartening heap. “Even if I manage to get the words out, s’not like he’d even care. He’s the coolest guy in school, and I’m just… me.”

“Hey, hey, hey, whoa,” Hunk scolds, and Lance feels himself lurch forward when a rough hand thumps him on the back. “That’s my best bro you’re talking about, mister.”

Lance’s mouth flutters into a crooked grin, just slightly.

“C’mon, buddy, you’re awesome!” Hunk goes on. “Keith might be a cool guy, but you’re like…”

The ensuing pause is far too lengthy for anyone’s liking, and Lance watches the mental dilemma play across Hunk’s expression with a dubious pinch of his brow.

“… the newspaper guy!” Hunk exclaims proudly, with a definitive slap against the desktop to punctuate.

A mournful growl writhes its way out of Lance’s lungs.

“You know, Hunk’s kinda right, Lance,” says Pidge, astoundingly confident despite Hunk’s less-than-helpful contribution. “You have something that not many people at this school have.”

“Wit, charm, and devilishly good looks?” Lance guesses hopefully.

And Pidge just levels him with a steely glare that settles into her features far too easily. “Gross. No. I was gonna say a voice. One that a lot of people actually listen to.”

“So?”

Pidge, blithely — perhaps annoyingly so — stands from her desk, and flicks Lance squarely between the eyes before he can even attempt to ward her off. Her gaze shines, her grin grows unapologetically devious.

Dangerous mastermind, Lance’s brain echos a warning. 

“So use it.”