Graduation became decidedly less exciting as soon as Lance learned the awful truth. The reality that had been kept from him for four solid years. The dark secret nobody wanted him to know. The Great Deception of the Universe. Though graduating, he would not receive his diploma today.
“What do you mean the certificate holders are empty?”
“I mean they’re empty,” Matt replied as the pair of them funneled down the hallway crammed with other students in white gowns and mortarboards headed for the large rehearsal chamber in Quintessence Hall. “The school sends your diploma in the mail once grades are final.”
“Are you kidding me?”
Some of the strands on the bright blue tassel that hung from Lance’s hat got caught in his mouth as he reeled his head around for emphasis, so he spit them out with a huff.
“How did you think this worked?” Matt chuckled, accepting a slip of paper and a golf pencil from an attendant as he passed through the door to the rehearsal chamber. “We can sit wherever we want. They can’t be expected to sort everyone’s certificates on the spot.”
Lance scowled and accepted a slip and golf pencil himself. Now that he knew, he supposed it made sense. They did have to group with their colleges for the ceremony—vocalists with vocalists, orchestra students with orchestra students—but other than that, arrangement was fair game. Lance had remarked to Matt that it was crazy that New Altea didn’t have to assign them seats in order to get their diplomas to them, thus the ugly revelation. Per the usual, Matt found Lance’s frustration hilarious.
“Didn’t they do the same thing at your high school graduation?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Lance replied, a little defensive. “I didn’t go to my high school graduation. I was in Cuba.”
He’d been given the option to walk in the ceremony or accept a (dirt cheap) ticket to Havana leaving the same day. His mother had tried to convince him that “he was only going to graduate from high school once”, but sitting on a beach in the Gulf with his cousins had sounded astronomically more appealing than putting on a stupid cap and gown and parading for his parents. Walking at New Altea, though, had been his choice—and one he’d been excited about until ten seconds ago.
“I just wanna hold that stupid piece of paper in my hands,” he said, crumpling the slip he was supposed to write his name on as he gestured emphatically.
“I know, my dude,” Matt replied. “Believe me, I know.”
With a reassuring smile, Matt turned his attention to filling out his slip, so Lance followed suit. Lance Ramón McClain. Bachelor of Music, Tenor Trombone. Cum laude. He was particularly proud of that cum laude part, and the accompanying gold cord around his shoulders.
He almost couldn’t believe the day had finally come. Today, he would graduate with honors from the finest music school in the country. He was an official alumnus of The New Altea Institute of Music. What came next? He didn’t know, but neither did he care. Not right now. No, now was for celebrating. Now was for being proud of his achievements.
Looking up, Lance spotted Hunk working his way toward them through the crowd. As soon as he arrived, Lance threw his arms around him and the pair embraced.
“Big day,” Lance said.
Hunk let his breath out. “Can you believe it?”
Pulling back, Lance laughed and offered Hunk a smile. “Honestly? No.”
Once the room filled, some event organizer wrangled them all into groups by college. Matt and Lance parted ways with Hunk and shuffled to the band corner. Then they all stood around and congratulated each other until the ceremony started, at which time the lot formed orderly lines and left the rehearsal chamber to go up to the concert hall. Lance took a deep breath as the lines came to a stop at the theater threshold. He nervously twisted his bracelet—a simple leather band with that guitar pick Keith had given him attached.
From inside, a muffled voice announced their entrance and the doors opened to release the reverberating applause from those in attendance. Lines of graduates swept into the orchestra seating level.
The acoustics in Quintessence Hall were incredible. Though the adulation wasn’t intended solely for Lance, the sound washed over his soul like a warm wave. A beaming smile radiated from his face. His heart swelled. He couldn’t help glancing around the back of the orchestra and the loge and balcony and box seats, looking for his family and Keith. He knew he wouldn’t find them, but he did know that those people were cheering just for him.
He and Matt took their seats, tapped their feet through the speeches and commencement traditions. A decade passed before anybody got down to business announcing names and presenting empty certificate holders. The orchestra students went first, then vocalists, and Lance hollered about as loud as was physically possible when Hunk walked across the stage. Then it was time for band.
Lance really couldn’t believe it. This was it. After four years of hard work, four years of theory and history and concerts and intensives and rehearsals and practice and playing, he was finished. He’d actually done it, actually graduated from college with a degree in music. How wild was that? His heart beat hard and fast and happy as he lined up at the side of the stage and down the aisle with his classmates, with Matt, as he passed the reader his slip of paper. So what if the certificate holders were empty and the ceremony was mostly a glorified photo-op? He was graduating. Him.
“Lance Ramón McClain, Bachelor of Music in Tenor Trombone. Cum laude.”
A corner of the loge absolutely erupted with thunderous applause, cheering, tongue trills, and raucous Cuban Spanish—so much so that most everyone turned to look. Laughing, Lance blew a kiss to his family as he headed across the stage to collect his diploma holder and shake hands with the school’s president and have his picture taken.
“Ay, va a la Habana y apaga fuego!” Veronica shouted.
Lance answered her with a tongue trill of his own.
Back at his seat, Lance cradled the empty holder in his hands, brushed his fingers across the silver embossing of New Altea’s coat of arms and the name of the school in an elegant block font. The inside, though lacking a diploma, had a gorgeous sketch of the Alfor Memorial Building. Lance ran his fingers across that, too. He’d spent countless hours in that building, and those hours had brought him here.
He found himself proud and nostalgic and hopeful and a little bit sad all at once when the president stepped up to the microphone and pronounced them graduated, told them to move their tassels to the other side of their caps. He held onto those blue strands for a moment after flipping them to the left.
This was it.
The next chapter of his life would start as soon as he let go.
Lance did so with a smile as big as the sky.
Outside, under the blinding sun typical to Altea’s late spring, Lance met up with his family at their predesignated tree on the quad. Pidge and Sam and Colleen were there, too, along with Hunk’s family and Shay, and Krolia. And Keith. Lance’s family swallowed him into a gauntlet of hugs and flowers and necklaces made out of money, so it took him a hot second to reach his boyfriend, and he was one hundred percent ruffled by the time he did. Still, the sight of Keith with his hair pulled back, wearing a red velvet blazer, black skinny tie, and tight-fit suit pants more than made up for it.
“Congratulations, Boy Scout,” Keith said, smiling a smile that made Lance feel some kind of way while he wrapped his arms around Keith for a hug. As Lance pulled back, Keith pecked a modest kiss to his mouth. “I’m so proud of you.”
“Thanks,” Lance replied and kissed him again. “I’m glad you came.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
They smiled at each other like a couple of idiots until Pidge broke them up to give Lance a hug of her own and complain that she still had a year left at New Altea. The others cycled in after her: Shay, Hunk, Matt, their families, Krolia, Lance’s parents again. Pictures were taken. More congratulations were flung around. Even more pictures were taken. Eventually, the group broke up to find their cars and head to Santiago de Cuba, which the McClains had booked for the rest of the day for a big party with all the people.
“You riding with me, Boy Scout?” Keith asked.
Lance took his hand and pressed a kiss to his knuckles. “You know it.”
Keith grinned. “Good answer.”
Hand in hand, they fell into step with Krolia and walked toward her van and Keith’s motorcycle, both parked on the street behind Quintessence Hall. Lance tried not to think too hard about the fact that this would be his last time on campus as a student, focusing instead on the sunshine, on the warmth of Keith’s hand in his, the light weight of his certificate holder in the other. When they reached the van, Lance went to shed his cap and gown and other accoutrements, but Keith grabbed his hands to stop him.
“Wait, wait,” he said. “Let me admire you some more.”
Lance chuckled and struck a dramatic pose. Keith laughed—and laughed harder when Lance started voguing.
“Stop,” Keith said, the grin on his face an unconvincing accompaniment to his imperative. “Never,” Lance replied, but Keith snatched both his arms before he could dab.
“You make me absolutely crazy,” Keith said.
“Too bad,” Lance replied. “I already signed my rental contract with Ryner, so you’re stuck with me for a year at least.”
The reminder that the pair of them would very shortly be living together brought grins to both their faces. Hunk and Lance’s lease for their apartment in Tower 1 would expire now that they’d graduated, and Hunk already had plans to bunk with his parents to save money, so Lance had kicked around a couple of ideas, eventually deciding to move in with Keith and Krolia. Ryner had approved, insisting she was more than happy to be Lance’s landlord, and Krolia was thrilled over splitting rent three ways. Lance still couldn’t believe how chill she was about the whole arrangement.
“Okay,” she said, opening the back of the van. “I didn’t bring our present inside because I didn’t want to carry it around, but…” She grabbed a box wrapped in paper decorated with mortarboards and held it out to Lance. “This is from us.”
“You didn’t have to get me anything,” Lance said, accepting the present.
“Are you stupid? Of course we did. Not a typical graduation gift, granted, but…”
“Practical,” Keith submitted and earned a nod from Krolia.
Curious now, Lance peeled back the paper, then set the box down to go after the tape, accepting Keith’s keys to cut it open. Inside, he found a brand new motorcycle helmet with gorgeous custom artwork that wrapped around the sides—the album cover from Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell. Lance actually gasped.
“Now you can finally stop wearing mine,” Krolia said with a chuckle.
“Oh my god, oh my god, it’s beautiful,” Lance gushed, lifting the helmet from the box with reverent fingers. “Thank you so much.” He didn’t care if Keith wanted him to keep his cap on, Lance had to try this helmet now. Dropping the mortarboard in the box, he smoothed his hair and slipped the helmet on his head. It fit like a glove and, holy shit, was it comfortable. He released an involuntary groan.
“Fits okay?” Keith asked.
“My ears are so happy,” Lance replied. Krolia’s helmet had always been a squeeze, particularly on the sides of his head. “Is this why you wanted those creepy measurements?”
Keith had come at him with a tape measure a few weeks ago and wrapped the thing around Lance’s skull in every conceivable combination, but refused to explain why. Rising, Lance moved to admire his reflection in the van’s side mirror.
“I told you I couldn’t explain,” Keith replied. He chuckled as Lance turned his head side to side to see more of the art. “I wasn’t being creepy.”
“Measuring my head and refusing to give any reason is creepy, Keith.”
Keith’s eyebrows fell into a pout as Lance straightened and turned to look at him, so it was Lance’s turn to chuckle. He unzipped his graduation robe and folded it before putting it and all his other goodies in the box. Krolia placed in the back of the van and said she would take it back to “our place.” Lance could not have been more pleased to be included in that first person pronoun, but when he glanced at Keith with a grin, the guy was still scowling.
“What’s that look for?” Lance laughed.
“I’ll meet you boys at the restaurant,” Krolia called, climbing into the driver’s seat.
“I wasn’t being creepy,” Keith insisted.
Lance removed his helmet as Krolia started the engine and pulled away from the curb. He stepped up to Keith and stroked his cheek.
“I was teasing, beautiful,” Lance said. Keith’s eyes sparked, and his lips curled into a smile. Lance drew a little closer, arms around Keith’s back. “The helmet is perfect. I love it. And you. Especially you. I’m so excited to share a house.”
“You mean you’re excited to use Ryner’s piano whenever you want,” Keith replied, his voice low. His gaze flicked ever-so-subtly to Lance’s mouth.
“Believe me, there’s plenty I’m excited to do whenever we want.”
Laughing lightly, Keith draped his arms across Lance’s shoulders while Lance tightened his hug. Their lips met, and Lance was amazed still at the fire between them. Keith, it seemed, would always make him woozy, warm him, stoke his hunger for more. Somehow, each kiss was exactly suited to its situation. This one was an expression of excitement, of affection, of looking forward. It was also a promise.
Of what, Lance didn’t fully comprehend yet.
But he could sense it.
“You’re still willing to sit through all this rigamarole again in two days?” Keith asked.
Lance had agreed to go with him to Shiro’s graduation ceremony. The Master’s students got their own because they were fancy like that. Lance pressed another firm kiss to Keith’s mouth.
“Hell yeah,” he said. “It’s the perfect chance to embarrass him.”
“Maybe I’ll try to sneak in an air horn again,” Keith replied.
“Wait, did you try to sneak one in today?”
Laughing, Keith nodded. Lance released another involuntary groan.
“I love you so much.”
Packing up for good was a bizarre experience. Every time Lance had piled all his shit into boxes to leave Tower 1 before, he had done so with the knowledge that he would be back, that it was just for the summer. Now, though. Now he would not be back. He’d reached the end of the railroad tracks of education and a vast, shapeless wilderness lay before him. He didn’t have a schedule anymore, didn’t have a checklist to reach a goal. He was well and truly in charge of himself.
That was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating.
“Lance?” Shay called from the kitchen. “Do you have a second?”
“Sure!” Lance replied, leaving his room, where Keith was throwing garbage bags over his clothes, to help Shay in the kitchen. She looked up at him from the chair she’d pulled up in front of the fridge.
“What in here is yours and what do you want to keep?” she asked.
By then, the fridge was mostly condiments and leftovers. Lance and Hunk had been careful not to buy a bunch of groceries before move-out day, which meant their existence food-wise had been pretty pathetic for a week or two. Bending, Lance cast a glance around the contents.
“The only thing I want is that jar of pickles,” he said. “The rest can go.”
“Is there ketchup?” Keith shouted.
“Yeah?” Lance called back.
“Take that. We’re out.”
“You got it.” Lance grabbed the ketchup thing and put it next to the pickles. “Okay.”
Shay chewed her lip for a second before speaking. “Would it be all right if I took the rest? Not the leftovers, but—everything else? It seems like such a waste to throw it out.”
“Shay, please take whatever you want,” Lance replied.
“Are you sure?”
“Take the food, Shay,” Keith said, appearing in the hallway with an armful of garbage bags with hangers poking out the tops. He dumped them on top of a pile of boxes of Lance’s stuff. “You’ll be doing Lance a service by relieving his guilt.”
Shay blushed, and Lance gave Keith a hairy scowl, but Keith just smiled and slipped off down the hall. Even after that, it took another two rounds of questions and reassurance to convince Shay that Lance really did want her to take the food. She started sorting through it all, tossing leftovers and making a pile for herself in one corner of the fridge. Hunk emerged from his room with a massive stack of papers for recycling.
“I don’t know what I kept all these assignments for,” he said. “I’m not gonna need them.”
“Sentimental value?” Lance chuckled.
Shaking his head, Hunk dropped the stack into their recycling bin. “I dunno, man. I think maybe I just wasn’t ready to let go.”
Lance clapped a hand on the guy’s shoulder. “Only you could get philosophical over homework.”
Hunk frowned, but nodded, which prompted a chuckle from Lance before he returned to his room. There, Keith was putting the finishing touches on the closet, stacking shoes neatly into a box while he knelt on the floor.
“You can just toss those in,” Lance said.
“No,” Keith replied. “We have to keep them organized. Otherwise we’ll have to do twice the work when we unpack them.”
“If you say so.”
The Avenues house was only like ten minutes away, which made packing particularly annoying. They didn’t have to move any of it that far, but it still required the same amount of prep work. Lance leaned against the doorframe and watched Keith stack shoes for a minute, admiring his care and precision.
“You gonna stare at me all day or are you gonna help?” Keith asked, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
“Oh, I’m gonna stare for sure,” Lance replied.
He opened his eyes wide and got down on all fours to creep across the floor. Keith tried to ignore him and keep working, but that only lasted for a few seconds after Lance stuck his face within an inch of his, eyelids peeled back. Laughing, Keith turned his head to the side and pecked a kiss to Lance’s lips.
“Rethink your answer,” Keith said.
“Don’t reinforce my behavior, then,” Lance replied.
Keith worked a blank expression onto his face and reached for a couple more pairs of shoes. Lance followed, keeping his eyes glued to Keith’s face and his nose a hair’s breadth from his cheek. Then he got smacked on the head with a Converse high top.
“Ouch,” he laughed, tipping over. “You’re violent, anybody ever tell you that?”
“Yeah, my parents every time they drove me to taekwondo practice.”
“Oh my god, you did taekwondo?”
“All the way to purple belt,” Keith replied. “My parents tried to enroll me in karate with Takashi, but I was a brat and refused to go because I ‘wasn’t Japanese.’ Mostly I wanted to learn spin kicks.”
“Can you still do them?”
“Probably not without practice,” Keith laughed. “But a high kick maybe. Here…” He passed Lance the shoe he’d hit him with and encouraged him to stand. “Hold that up.”
He positioned Lance’s arm in the air, fully extended, the Converse atop his flat palm, then pulled up his leggings and pulled down his shirt, tucking his arms low but close to his body. His whole top half leaned back as he kicked, legs almost perfectly perpendicular to the floor, his foot flicking out on the end to knock the shoe from Lance’s hand. Flushing, Lance let his mouth drop open.
“Holy shit,” he said.
Keith just laughed, rubbing his hip and stretching a little. “Ow.”
“I am so hot for you right now.”
“Hey,” Hunk said, knocking on the doorframe as he came in. “You guys hungry? I think I’m gonna order a pizza.”
“Hunk, watch Keith do taekwondo,” Lance said. He scrambled after the shoe and thrust it into the air again. Chuckling, Keith shook his head.
“Is that a yes or no on pizza?”
“Keith, kick the shoe.”
“Yes on pizza,” Keith said, prepping his stance. He leaned back and kicked again just as Hunk started to leave the room. Something popped that time, but he did hit the high top. Hunk’s eyes widened.
“Wow,” he said. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
“I think that might have been the last time,” Keith replied, doubling over and gripping his hips while he laughed. “Should’ve stretched first.”
Chuckling, Hunk nodded and left the room, off to order pizza. Lance stepped up behind Keith and took over massaging his hips. Keith let out a little vocal sigh and leaned against him. Lance touched a kiss to his shoulder.
“You should take lessons again,” he said.
Keith shook his head. “I’d like to, but I think it would just remind me too much of being a kid under my mom’s thumb.”
“Won’t know until you try.”
Quiet for a moment, then, “No.”
Such a deceptively simple answer. It left no room for further discussion, nothing for Lance to pursue. He decided not to push. That wouldn’t have been wise, and it wasn’t his place. Not when there was clearly more behind the word than a simple lack of interest in picking up an old hobby. He kissed Keith’s shoulder again.
“Forgot to ask. Toppings,” Hunk said, reappearing in the doorframe. “Speak now or forever hold your peace.”
They finished up at Tower 1 by late afternoon. Lance and Hunk tearfully hugged and said goodbye in the parking lot after checking out with their RA. Keith and Shay chuckled at them, seeing as they’d be all of half an hour’s drive from each other, but the tears were more for the end of an era than anything else.
“I’m gonna miss living with you, buddy,” Lance said, patting Hunk’s back as they separated.
“Me too,” he replied. “But you’re gonna have fun, I bet.”
Both of them glanced to where Keith and Shay were loading the last of Lance’s boxes into the back of Krolia’s van. Lance’s heart pinched, and he couldn’t help a smile. Letting his breath out, he nodded.
“Yeah, I think I am.”
Grinning, Hunk patted Lance’s shoulder and drew him in for another hug.
“You have some fun yourself, buddy, okay?” Lance said as they embraced.
Hunk blushed—Lance could feel the heat of it on the side of his own face—and cleared his throat before pulling back. Lance laughed, which only deepened the color in Hunk’s cheeks and made him turn his face toward the ground.
“Ready when you are, Boy Scout,” Keith called, shutting the van’s back doors.
“Well, I’ll see you,” Lance said. He and Hunk hugged one last time. “Double date soon?”
Parting, both of them released deep breaths and nodded, then stepped away from each other. It was beyond weird to think that Lance wouldn’t return to Tower 1 that night to detox the day with Hunk, that Hunk wouldn’t be in the kitchen eating cereal in the morning when Lance got up. They’d always be best friends, but that relationship was changing now.
Lance traded places with Shay, and he and Hunk waved at each other from across the parking lot. Pursing his lips, Lance did his best to hold back tears as Hunk climbed into Shay’s truck. Keith laced their fingers together and brought Lance’s hand to his mouth for a soft kiss. Comforted, Lance relaxed. He had somebody to help him learn to embrace the changes, at least. Keith gave his hand a squeeze.
“We don’t have to go yet if you don’t want to,” he said.
Lance shook his head. “No, I do.”
“Kinda weird to say goodbye, huh?”
A nod this time. “Yeah… Yeah, it is.”
He looked at Keith and smiled, then let go of his hand to walk around the side of the van and climb into the passenger seat, where he lifted his blue hydrangea into his lap. Keith followed suit, starting the car, pulling out of the parking lot, heading toward the Avenues. Both of them were quiet on the drive, quiet as they arrived at the house and unloaded boxes. Pretty soon, the back of the van was empty, and a corner of the living room was full. Pickles and ketchup stored in the fridge. Lance nestled his hydrangea among the collection of plants near the window well.
“I was thinking we should organize my shit to make room for your stuff,” Keith said. “And, like, clean the whole place and purge everything. Help it feel like your space, too.”
He went to a particular box that he’d labeled SUITCASE, which they’d packed first, that had everything an actual suitcase would, and picked it up.
“We can do this stuff now,” he said.
“Hang on,” Lance said, gently drawing him to a stop. “Let’s just…sit for a second.”
He took the box from Keith’s arms and set it down, then pulled Keith over to the couch. Lance flopped, sinking so low he swore he could feel the floor. Chuckling, he tugged Keith’s arm until Keith climbed on and settled alongside him.
“We should get a new couch,” Lance said. “Like a sectional or something.”
“You wanna pay for a sectional?”
“Not a new one, but maybe secondhand. I’m gonna be rolling in dough once all my relatives finish sending graduation cards.”
“If you ever say ‘rolling in dough’ again, I’m disowning you.”
“You’re cute when you’re mean.”
“Go to hell.”
Squealing, Lance wrapped his arms around Keith and kicked his feet and cooed until Keith wrangled himself free. He positively glared at Lance. Lance laughed and reached up to brush some of Keith’s hair from his face, but Keith knocked his hand away.
“I will spin kick you into the sun,” Keith replied.
“I thought you couldn’t do spin kicks anymore.”
The comment earned a snort and a smile, at least. Keith grabbed Lance’s cheeks in one of his hands and squeezed.
“I’ll make an exception for you,” he said, then got up.
Rolling over, Lance watched Keith return to the suitcase box and carry it down the hall. The thought of doing more moving today kind of made Lance want to die, but he didn’t want to leave Keith to do it himself, so he hauled his ass off the couch and followed. Back in the bedroom, Keith had already opened the box and removed a good portion of its contents.
“Here,” he said, holding up a pile of toiletries. “Put these wherever you want.”
“Perfect. The fridge it is.”
Keith rolled his eyes, but the expression came with a smile. Lance took the toiletries and went to the bathroom to put them away. Permanently adding his toothbrush to Keith and Krolia’s novelty Grand Ole Opry mug next to the sink was satisfying in a weird way. Same with finding a home in the shower for his soap and shampoo. He made some space in a drawer for his skincare stuff, and his mind buzzed. He lived here now.
By the time he returned to their room—their room—Keith had gathered all the laundry off the floor and stuffed it in a hamper. He’d started pulling things from the closet and tossing them into two piles on the bed.
“Oh, okay, we’re really doing this,” Lance said with a laugh.
“You need space for your clothes,” Keith said. “I don’t want you to live out of boxes.”
“I can live out of a box for a day, Keith,” Lance replied.
But Keith didn’t dignify him with a response, continuing to pull hangers from the closet instead. He made decisions with surprising speed, barely glancing at each item before choosing whether to keep it. The closet was packed, but he cut it in half after fifteen minutes. Lance just stood and watched him in awe.
“Let’s hang your stuff,” Keith said, pushing sweaty hair from his eyes. He left the room briefly and returned with a garbage bag full of clothes. He popped the hangers poking out the top onto the rack and slipped the garbage bag off with a swoosh.
“You’re so efficient, it’s sexy,” Lance remarked.
Laughing, Keith went to his keep-pile and hefted it into his arms to return it to the closet. Lance admired the lean curve of his muscles as he worked.
“Go get the rest of your clothes,” Keith said.
“Yes, sir,” Lance replied, giving him a salute before heading to the living room.
Between the two of them, the task only took twenty minutes. Lance’s clothes fit just fine in the closet after Keith’s purge, and they used the garbage bags from moving for all the stuff he wanted to get rid of. After filling one of them with hangers, and taking the bags into the living room, the pair of them returned to the bedroom and collapsed on the mattress.
“Okay,” Keith breathed, “I have officially done all I can today.”
Swallowing, Lance nodded. “Ditto.”
Keith’s head lolled to the side, and he smiled at Lance. “Welcome home,” he said.
Heart racing, Lance returned Keith’s smile, scooting closer to touch a kiss to his lips. Keith kissed him back, rising a little to snuggle their bodies together before settling. They were both tired and sweaty from a day spent moving and cleaning, but Lance could only identify his mood as indescribably happy. He got to share another part of his life with Keith now—a big part. Living together was a pretty sizable milestone, but Lance’s instincts told him that this was the right time.
“When’s Krolia off work?” he asked, stroking Keith’s hair.
“Eleven,” Keith replied. “I’m picking her up.”
“Okay. And what time do we have to leave for Shiro’s graduation tomorrow?”
“Ten.” Keith pressed a deep kiss to Lance’s jaw. “You’re in charge of setting your own alarm for how much time you’ll need.”
Nodding, Lance brushed his fingers down Keith’s side. Back up. Slow and lazy. After a moment he rested his hand on Keith’s bottom. They laid together quietly, breathing, listening to the leaves on those old Avenues trees outside rustle in a May breeze. Things were peaceful. Then Lance’s little-shit instinct kicked in, and he decided it was absolutely necessary to snap Keith’s underwear elastic against his butt, but try as he might, he couldn’t find it.
“Oh my god, are you wearing a thong?” Lance asked, already blushing.
“Yeah?” Keith laughed. “You know I hate lines.”
“Have you been wearing it the whole time?”
“The whole—what the hell?”
Keith sat up, but Lance did not want him to see how red he was, so he did the super subtle thing of clapping both his hands over his face. Keith just chuckled.
“Can’t believe I still make you nervous,” he said.
“I’m not nervous,” Lance replied, though the pitch at which the sentence came out did not help his case. “I’m not—you don’t—you’re—ugh.” Eyes shut, he dragged his hands down his face. “You’re just effortlessly sexy, all right?”
Lance cracked open an eye to find Keith smiling down at him, soft and warm and beautiful. He’d never been happier to have someone in his life, never been more grateful for the aligning of the universe that had brought them together. Lance was about as sappy and sentimental as they came, and he knew that, but it didn’t stop that happy little ping he got in his heart every time he looked at Keith for more than a second.
Leaning down, Keith brought their lips together. “I didn’t think it was possible for me to love anybody as much as I love you, Lance McClain,” he said.
“I’m glad you picked me,” Lance replied.
Keith hummed a gentle note and kissed him again.
Their fingers found the hems of each other’s shirts and teased at them a moment, brushing up and under, across skin. Keith climbed over Lance, his knees tight on either side of Lance’s hips, and he pitched himself downward to bring their lips together again and again, pausing only to let Lance slip his shirt off over his head.
Lance’s hands went to Keith’s leggings next. He couldn’t help giving Keith’s thighs a squeeze anymore than he could help snapping the waistband on Keith’s underwear against his skin. Keith huffed.
“Jerk,” he said, breath warm across Lance’s mouth.
“That’s what you get for wearing a th—”
Keith cut the taunt short by guiding Lance’s hand further down, under his leggings along the silky fabric of the underwear in question. Lance melted, and the rest of the word turned into a soft moan.
Next thing he knew, Keith had unbuttoned and unzipped his pants and shimmied them far enough down Lance’s legs that he could slip a pair of fingers underneath the waistband on Lance’s underwear and pull it back. He let go with a snap. It didn’t hurt, really—more surprising than anything, and Lance quickly forgot even the surprise as Keith cupped a hand over his dick and applied pressure.
“And you say I make you crazy,” Lance breathed.
“You do,” Keith replied.
He kept his hand firmly planted as he leaned forward and down to link their lips again. Lance parted his, and Keith took the cue, passing his tongue across them, deft and light. Sighing, Lance lifted his hips to press harder against Keith’s hand. Keith responded by running his palm up Lance’s length and sliding a couple of fingers under his waistband again.
“What do you think?” Keith asked.
“I think I wanna take your leggings off and finger you. What do you think?”
“I want you—” He traced a finger around Lance’s tip. “—in my mouth, like, yesterday.”
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t do both.”
Keith grinned. “Me either.”
He rose with a parting kiss and started removing his leggings, but Lance sat up and beckoned him closer so he could do it. He slid the slippery fabric down Keith’s hips and thighs, pausing to press a kiss to his bottom. Keith laughed, squeezing Lance’s hands, then freeing the rest of his legs and climbing back onto the bed to pull Lance’s shirt off over his head. He kissed his way from Lance’s lips to his waist, where he went after the pants with little decorum. Both in their underwear and blushing, they regarded each other for a moment.
They were so lucky.
How many people had something like this? Lance had to figure that not many did. He knew, as Keith drew him up to sitting and pushed him back against the wall, that they would fight for each other. Always. This was an always thing. This was a stand by each other and defend to the death thing. They were a team.
Lance’s fingers opened the drawer in the bedside table and located the lube by muscle memory. Keith found a position where he could reach Lance and Lance could reach him, pitched forward on his hands and knees with his ass in the air. Between that view and his easing Lance’s underwear down to take him into his mouth, Lance couldn’t keep his eyes from rolling back in his head. Even better was the humming of Keith’s vocal cords when Lance slipped the thong out of his way and slid in a first finger.
Lucky, lucky, lucky.
They wanted the best for each other in every aspect. Their ridiculous libidos were somehow in sync. They had so much in common, and yet some how seemed like opposites. Complements, that’s what they were. Or maybe the same note in different keys.
The blowing and fingering lasted only until Keith was relaxed and ready, then Lance put on a condom and flipped Keith over and stretched one of his legs into the air. He let it rest on his shoulder as he entered him, then pushed Keith’s leg closer to his head as he loosened up—and consequently pushed deeper.
Keith let out this absolutely mind-numbing moan. Lance kissed him, and Keith kissed back as the two of them fell into their rhythm.
Keith’s tongue in his mouth. Keith’s sounds in his ears. Keith’s heat in his arms.
Lance had not lied when he’d said he wanted to go to Shiro’s graduation. He did. He wanted to catcall Shiro from the audience when they announced his name. He wanted to shout and whistle and be disruptive. What he did not want was to sit through another two hours of speeches and professors prancing around in pompous outfits. As a result, Lance may not have set his alarm to go off early enough.
“I. Will. Leave. Your. Whole. Ass. Here,” Keith said, clapping between each word as he hovered in the bathroom doorway.
“It is completely unfair that you got up later than me and—”
“Less! Talking! More! Grooming!”
“All right, all right! Sheesh…”
Turning back to the mirror, Lance finished washing his face and bent over the sink to rinse. When he looked up next, Keith was gone, so he patted his face dry and slapped on moisturizer in a rush, then ran to their bedroom to throw on his suit and tie. Keith was literally kicking up the stand on his motorcycle when Lance arrived at the top of the outside stairs.
“Helmet,” Keith called.
Lance flipped around and hurried back to grab his helmet, which he placed over his head as he returned. He climbed on the Suzuki and patted Keith’s waist once he’d settled. Keith revved the engine and turned the bike in a circle to head down the gravel drive.
Between the heat radiating from the sun and off the road, Lance was good and sweaty by the time they reached New Altea, which rendered most of his grooming null and void. Keith parked the bike and killed the engine.
“Did you remember the present?” Lance asked as he dismounted.
“In the storage compartment.”
“And the air horn?”
“Same,” Keith replied.
He got off and the two of them locked their helmets up with a little bike lock Keith had added. Then he shed his gloves and shoved them into the compartment after grabbing the air horn and Shiro’s card and gift. Though Shiro was still technically waiting to hear back, he was basically a shoe-in for the Altea Philharmonic, so Lance and Keith had bought him the ugliest baseball hat they could find embroidered with the orchestra’s logo. Keith tried to pass Lance the card and gift, but Lance shook his head and made a gimme motion at the air horn.
“You failed last time. My turn.”
“You’re such an asshole,” Keith replied, tossing him the canister.
“I know,” Lance said. He tucked the air horn into his inside jacket pocket, then made Keith link arms with him on that side to hide the bulge. “Perfect.”
Rolling his eyes, Keith led the charge for Quintessence Hall where they shuffled into a crowd filing through security. Lance’s elaborate plan came to an end when he and Keith had to separate for one of those wavy wand searches. The guard found the canister and gave Lance a look that Lance did not at all care for, then waved him through. On the other side, Keith found him pouting.
“It was never gonna work,” Keith said, linking their arms again and starting for the stairs to the loge.
“Then why did you bring it?” Lance replied.
“Because you insisted,” Keith laughed. “I was joking when I said we should try again.”
“You think I’m cute when I’m mean.”
Keith had him there. Lance flashed a glare, but Keith didn’t pay any attention, instead accepting a program from an usher at the theater door and heading inside. He picked out a spot right in the front row and sat down.
“How long is this?” Lance asked, glancing at the program over Keith’s shoulder.
“Same as yours, I’d think,” Keith replied. “Maybe shorter. There are fewer graduates.”
“Are we doing anything after?”
“I don’t know. Takashi was weird about it. He made it sound like there was a party, but he wouldn’t give me any details.”
“You think he doesn’t want you to come?”
Keith shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
Brows drawing together, Lance gave Keith a searching look, but Keith offered a small smile in response.
“He’s my older brother, Lance,” he said.
Lance frowned as a series of vignettes played through his mind—bringing glasses of water to Veronica and her friends on the trampoline, laying under the coffee table while Marco watched a movie even though he’d blocked Lance’s view of the screen with a blanket, holding Luis’s buddy’s box of matches so that when their mom came out to yell at them Lance could run away because he was the fastest.
“Siblings are the worst,” he said.
Keith took his hand and laced their fingers together. “Mostly Takashi feels bad for telling me no, but…” Another shrug. “We’ll talk to him after.”
Thankfully, the ceremony started on time. The Master’s graduates filed in while people applauded. Different professors and different students gave equally dry speeches as had been given at Lance’s. A string quartet played. Then they got down to announcing the names, which included a slideshow of each candidate and details about their studies at New Altea. It was all very involved.
A thought struck Lance when they finally announced Shiro. He cheered and applauded and made an air horn noise with his mouth, but his mind was somewhere else. Even before the fanfare had finished, he’d leaned over to Keith to ask a question.
“Is this hard for you?”
Keith had been a student at New Altea. He’d been enrolled in two majors. Quitting had been his decision, sure, but college was kind of the thing everybody did. It couldn’t have been easy to sit through two graduation ceremonies and not wonder what if? Lance found himself wondering what if right then. What if Keith had stayed at New Altea? What if he and Lance had met under different circumstances? What if Keith had graduated with a pair of degrees in violin and contemporary composition? Where would he be? Where would they be?
Keith was quiet for a moment as he thought. Down on the stage, the reader announced Adam as the next graduate.
“I don’t know,” Keith said. “I’ve thought about it, but, honestly, I’m not sure how much of New Altea was my choice. So I don’t really know how I feel.”
He smiled when Lance offered an expression of concern.
“I like my life,” Keith said. “I don’t regret my decision.”
Something about the way he said it didn’t entirely convince Lance. Keith wasn’t lying, but the assertion still came with doubts. With what ifs.
There wasn’t a question in Lance’s mind that Keith would be playing with the Altea Philharmonic if he’d finished his violin degree, and if not Altea then New York or Los Angeles, or hell, even Berlin.
It wasn’t exactly fair to compare world-famous orchestras with Blade Base, and Keith was certainly better suited to rock music than classical, but nevertheless, the curiosity remained.
Who would Keith be if he’d stayed?
More importantly, would he have been happy?
Lance couldn’t stop running scenarios through the rest of the ceremony, and he was still thinking about it as he and Keith left Quintessence Hall to meet up with Shiro. They found Adam first, at the top of the steps outside the building, and exchanged hugs and handshakes.
“Hey, congratulations to you, too,” Adam said, putting a hand on Lance’s shoulder. “Any big plans now that you’ve finished your Bachelor’s?”
“Oh, uh, sort of? Not really.” Lance chuckled. “I just moved in with Keith and Krolia, and I’m planning on going full time at the record store where I work so I can kick some of my student debt to the curb.”
Adam nodded in approval.
“Other than that, just trying to get some more traction for the jazz band.”
Smiling, Keith wrapped his arms sideways around Lance’s waist. “It’ll happen.”
Lance let out a breath. “We hope.”
Adam chuckled, and Shiro materialized from the crowd, looking frazzled. He’d probably been mobbed by fellow graduates and their families wanting autographs and pictures. The guy was already pretty famous, and this was a classical music crowd. He huffed a sigh as he joined their group and gave Adam a hug.
“Happy graduation,” Keith said when Shiro turned to embrace him.
“Thanks,” Shiro breathed. “Thanks for coming.” He turned to Lance next, and they hugged. “I’m really glad you guys could be here.”
“Of course,” Keith replied. “I’m the good brother.”
Shiro shook his head, but it was good-natured.
“I’m sorry I missed your graduation, Lance,” he said.
Lance waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. It’s a busy season.”
“Oh, here,” Keith said, holding out the baseball cap and card. “These are from us.”
Accepting the gift, Shiro blushed. “We don’t even know if I got in yet,” he whispered.
“You’re gonna get in,” Keith replied, laughing. “They wanted to poach you from the Master’s program, they’ll take you now.”
Though Lance did not recognize the voice, it caused an immediate change in Adam, Shiro, and Keith. It was almost like time stopped for a second. All of them went rigid. Keith went pale. Lance turned around and found two people standing a few feet behind them. One a middle-aged man with glasses and dark hair streaked with silver. The other a tall, slender woman whose expression was as severe as the tight bun her brown hair had been pulled into. Both wore black. Both looked vaguely like Shiro.
“Mom, Dad,” Shiro said, breaking the time-stop. He stepped forward as if to guide Keith to them, but he didn’t really get the chance. Keith grabbed Lance’s hand and swept off. “Keith—”
But Keith didn’t reply. He just kept walking—well, not so much walking as clearing a warpath. He flew down the steps with Lance stumbling behind him and immediately rounded the building to head for the Suzuki.
“Keith!” Shiro called.
Again, Keith stayed silent. His jaw clenched so tight, he probably couldn’t have spoken even if he’d wanted to. He picked up the pace. His hand started to tremble around Lance’s wrist.
Lance forced him to stop once they made it to the strip of trees and green space behind the building. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but quickly forgot even what the question was as he saw the state Keith was in. He looked about three seconds shy of throwing up, his face completely drained of color. Rapid, shallow breaths huffed in and out through his nose. He was shaking—like his whole body was vibrating with absolute fear.
“Woah, hey, okay. Babe. Breathe.”
Keith swallowed, but the pace of his breathing increased. He was gonna hyperventilate.
“Not like that.” Lance put his hands on either side of Keith’s face. “Look at me.”
Keith didn’t react. It was like he couldn’t hear anything. Scared, Lance smoothed his thumbs across Keith’s cheekbones and pulled him into a hug.
“It’s okay,” he said softly. “Hey, it’s okay.”
The situation was anything but okay. Keith hadn’t seen or spoken to his parents in three years. Three. Years. Though Lance lacked all the details, he knew they’d parted on really bad terms. They hadn’t looked surprised to see Keith here today, whereas Keith had been caught completely off-guard.
At the sound of Shiro’s voice, Keith tore himself away from Lance and stalked down the sidewalk. Lance glanced between the two of them as Shiro approached at a jog, then opted to follow after Keith. Lance had never seen Shiro look so desperate.
Keith whirled around.
“Get the fuck away from me, Takashi.”
Shiro startled to a halt. Keith fixed him with a stare that could have stopped a heart.
“You told me they wouldn’t be here today. You told me they weren’t coming.”
“NO!” Keith shouted, loud and powerful and terrifying. Tears filled his eyes, but he pushed them down fiercely. “I don’t give a fuck what you have to say, Takashi. You lied to me. You fucking lied. I know you want everything to be okay between me and them but you don’t fucking get it, do you?” Straightening, Keith pointed back over Shiro’s shoulder toward Quintessence Hall. “Go tell them you’re gay.”
That time, the sound came out harsh and shredded. Shiro stood still. Keith huffed and shook his head.
“Until you experience the bullshit I took from them, the fucking bullet I took for you, don’t you dare interfere in my relationship with those people. Because you don’t. Fucking. Under. Stand.”
Keith let out a frustrated snarl, like he was mad at himself for being on the verge of tears, then turned and headed for his motorcycle. Shiro glanced at Lance, his expression seeking sympathy, but Lance didn’t know what to think anymore. He shook his head and hurried after Keith.
Shiro didn’t follow.
Lance caught up with Keith at the Suzuki. He was fighting the lock on the bike chain that secured their helmets, but he couldn’t get the key to turn and couldn’t untangle the chain well enough to get a better angle on the lock. Growling, Keith hurled the key at the gutter where it bounced off the concrete and landed in the grass. Then he thumped down on the curb and put his face in his hands.
After retrieving the key, Lance took a careful seat next to him.
“You can’t drive like this, babe.”
Keith’s head popped up. “You wanna fucking do it?”
Lance jolted, and Keith’s expression shifted immediately to deep remorse. His nose wrinkled and his bottom lip trembled, and Lance didn’t hesitate to take him into his arms.
“That’s okay,” he said. “Hey, it’s okay.”
“I’m sorry,” Keith blubbered, finally breaking down.
Lance shook his head and kissed the top of Keith’s. “Don’t be. It’s okay.”
Tightening his grip, Lance rubbed Keith’s arm and hugged him close. Keith tucked his face against Lance’s neck. His tears were cold on Lance’s skin.
After a moment, voice soft, Lance asked, “You wanna talk about what just happened?”
Keith sniffed. “I don’t know where to start.”
Lance leaned back to lift Keith’s chin and touch a kiss to his mouth. His lips were salty.
“Wherever you want,” Lance replied.
Keith was quiet for a long time. Lance didn’t prompt him. He simply sat and supported Keith’s weight, brushed his fingers up and down his arm. Luckily, few people had decided to park behind Quintessence Hall for the ceremony, so the road and sidewalk were quiet. Lance resisted the urge to lean back and check if Shiro was still there.
“Um,” Keith said, reaching up to wipe his nose, “so I told you about how Shiro and I came out to each other when I was in high school?”
Lance nodded. He remembered. Shiro had just moved out and started college, and Keith had been nervous to confide in him, because coming out was terrifying, so when he told Shiro and Shiro replied that he was also gay, Keith had thought he was making fun of him and tried to wrestle him and lost.
“Neither of us told our parents because we knew they wouldn’t take it well,” Keith said. “We were already pretty good at keeping secrets from them, especially me, but by the time I started at New Altea, I was kind of sick of hiding, you know?”
“Yeah, definitely.” Lance had reached that stage, too.
“So I talked to Takashi and told him I wanted to come out to them, and he said he wanted to, too, and we agreed that I would go first because I was already the screw-up black sheep in their eyes, and they reacted…worse than either of us imagined. They kicked me out of the house, publicly disowned me. Told me I could ‘be their son again’ if I went to conversion therapy.”
“Yeah. And after seeing how they treated me, Takashi decided not to tell them. I was pretty bitter about it.” He huffed a humorless laugh. “I guess I still am.”
Keith sat up and glanced at Lance and shrugged. Lance tilted his head.
“By then I’d gotten in contact with Krolia and she’d taken me in, so I decided just to cut my parents out of my life. Dropped out of school, you know the rest.”
Lance startled. “I thought you dropped out because you hated composition and couldn’t manage the double major?”
“I thought you stopped talking to your parents because they were mad that you dropped out, not—Keith…” Lance cupped his hands around Keith’s face and lifted it to look into his eyes. “I had no idea. I’m so sorry.”
Keith shook his head. “I don’t like talking about it. Not your fault.”
Lance could only purse his lips and frown. He didn’t like this information. He didn’t like learning that Keith’s parents had ousted him for something completely outside of Keith’s control. Being angry at your kid for making choices you didn’t like, still shitty, but more reasonable than being angry at your kid for being gay. He’d always kind of figured that Keith just hadn’t fit in at New Altea, that his parents had forced him to be there, and dropping out had been a stick-it-to-the-man move. Now he got the feeling that all the shit that had gone down with his family might have been the reason Keith had gotten overwhelmed and quit.
“Okay,” Lance said, standing up and offering Keith a hand. “We’re gonna walk to Sal’s and order a big-ass pizza and a whole lotta beer and make the cashier give us all their quarters so we can have complete control of the jukebox until we’re sober again. Sound good?”
Keith took his hand and let Lance pull him to his feet. “Yeah,” he said.
Lance slung an arm around Keith’s shoulders as they started off and pulled the guy close so he could kiss his temple. “I love you, you hear me?”
Keith reached up to lace his fingers with Lance’s over his shoulder.
“I hear you,” he replied.
Lance pressed another kiss to his forehead.
Now that school was out, Upright & Respectable had a little more time to practice. Rehearsals between nine people were a bitch to coordinate, but they had one standing appointment at least—ten AM Saturday mornings at Blade Base.
Matt, Rizavi, Griffin, Kinkade, Leifsdottir, Pidge, Rax, and Shay all showed up on time and shuffled around the stage, messing with the drum kit and piano to get them into position, assembling their other instruments. The group chatted while they worked, catching each other up on their weeks and congratulating Matt and Lance on graduation.
“Oh, I meant to ask,” Matt said as he dropped his mouthpiece into his trombone, “how was Shiro’s thing?”
Lance pulled a face that instantly garnered Pidge’s attention.
“What happened?” she asked. “Did he fall down? Did they mispronounce his name?”
“No, um…we ran into Keith’s parents after.”
Pidge’s mouth dropped open. “Oh my god…”
“Wait, like, parents parents? Like, ‘we haven’t spoken in years’ parents?” Matt asked.
Kinkade let out a low whistle. Matt and Pidge exchanged glances. Shay came over and put a hand on Lance’s shoulder.
“Is Keith okay?” she asked.
Shaking his head, Lance shrugged. “Not really. I guess Shiro told him they weren’t going to be there, and then they were. It was pretty bad…” The image of a pale, trembling Keith came to mind and Lance frowned. Shay returned the expression.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Lance replied. “It’s in the past, at least.” He offered her a smile, then turned to the group. “You guys ready to warm up?”
Everybody nodded, so Lance went to the piano and started playing scales. The others followed him for a bit, then broke off to do their thing.
The group had really come together over the last four months. Pidge had picked up saxophone pretty smoothly with Kinkade’s help. Shay was a perfect foil for Griffin, patient and flexible. Rax’s percussive ability was honestly startling given how quiet the guy was, and though it had take him a while to get used to criticism, he had warmed. Leifsdottir—well, she was maybe the most bizarre individual Lance had ever met, but she was easy to work with and gifted.
After warmups, they got down to business practicing their set for Blade Base that week. They performed Wednesday nights. The crowd was usually good, and the weekend slots were reserved for rock and pop, so Lance wasn’t complaining, but he had started to wonder what they could do to move forward. Move up.
They messed around with a couple improv sets to finish, which was really where Upright & Respectable shined. The group had worked out a great give-and-take. Everybody lit up during improv, but improv was not a thing most people who came to Blade Base enjoyed, so they’d never really done it on stage.
Griffin approached Lance after practice finished and everybody started to pack up.
“What are your intentions for the band now that you’ve graduated?” he asked, tone and expression matter-of-fact.
Lance laughed. “Truth be told, I want this to be my full-time job,” he replied. The answer seemed to both surprise and satisfy Griffin. “I’m open to suggestions, if you have any ideas on how to do that.”
Nodding, considering, Griffin looked down. He still had a year left at New Altea, as did Pidge. Rizavi and Shay and Leifsdottir had just been accepted as freshman to start next fall. Matt was going back for a Master’s in music teaching. Kinkade worked two jobs, and Rax worked three. Honestly, making the band a full-time thing probably wouldn’t happen, at least not anytime soon, but Lance wasn’t anywhere near ready to throw in the towel.
“I’ll give it some thought,” Griffin said.
“Thanks,” Lance said. “And thanks for being here.”
A flicker of a smile passed across Griffin’s face, and he nodded before stepping away. No sooner had he moved than Rizavi bounded up to the piano bench and plopped next to Lance.
“Okay, so, I have to register for fall by the end of the month, and Matt refuses to tell me what professors are crazy and which classes are good and can you please, please help me?” She clapped her hands together over her heart and pouted her lips.
“Sure,” Lance chuckled. “I’ve got stuff through the weekend, but maybe Monday?”
He didn’t really have stuff, but he was worried about Keith. They were both early risers, but Keith hadn’t gotten up that morning before Lance had left.
Rizavi threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you!”
She zipped away to rub Lance’s help in Matt’s face. Lance stood, and Rax waved him over to the drum kit as soon as his feet had hit the stage.
“Our family is having a barbecue with the Garretts this afternoon,” Rax whispered, apparently trying to keep it a secret from the others. “I’m sure you and Keith would be welcome to come. If you feel like that would help…”
Lance tilted his head in a grateful smile. Compassion really did just run in Rax’s family.
“I’ll ask Keith, but I wouldn’t plan on us,” he replied. “I think he kinda wants to be alone right now, but maybe getting out of the house would be good.”
Rax nodded. He understood.
“Let Shay know,” he said. “If you decide to come.”
Lance moved away and finally made it to his bag. He took a long drink from his water bottle to start with, then checked his phone. The McClain family group chat had exploded with discussion over Sunday dinner. Rolo had texted him to ask how many hours a week Lance wanted on the new schedule he was writing. No word from Keith, but a missed call and voicemail from Coran of all people.
Lance lifted his phone to his ear to listen.
“Hello, Lance, this is Dr. Smythe—or Coran, now, I suppose—regardless, I wasn’t certain if you had my phone number, but you do now, so it doesn’t really matter, does it? On to business. A friend of mine from the old days recently moved back to Altea, and he’s opening a jazz club. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Blue? No? Either way, he asked if I might know any wind musicians who would be interested in auditioning, and I remembered that you and some of the other students started that jazz band last winter, so I mentioned you and he seemed quite keen on bringing you in for a test. I guess he knows how good my students are, hm?”
Coran’s recorded voice laughed, and then started rambling about how if Lance wanted to get in contact, he could call back and ask for details, but Lance wasn’t really paying attention.
A jazz club?
“Oh my god.”
Half the group had left by then, only Leifsdottir and Kinkade having stayed behind with Matt and Pidge who were waiting to give Lance a ride home. All four of them turned to look when Lance spoke.
“Everything okay?” Kinkade asked, legitimately concerned.
“Keith?” Leifsdottir guessed, but Lance waved for both of them to be quiet as he listened to Coran’s message again.
“Lance, you’re freaking me out,” Pidge said. “You gotta talk, my dude.”
“Listen, listen,” Lance replied, breathless, hitting the replay button followed by the speaker. He turned the volume up, and everybody leaned in.
His heart beat so hard as he watched them take in the information. When Coran got to the part about auditioning for his old friend, all four of them straightened up. Pidge grabbed Matt’s arm. Kinkade’s mouth fell open as he laughed. Leifsdottir nodded appreciatively. As soon as the message ended, Pidge grabbed Lance instead.
“Call him back! Call him back!” she shrieked.
“Should I?” Lance replied, giddy. His arms tingled into numbness like they’d floated away. Pidge shook him heartily.
Lance glanced at the others, and they nodded too, so he dialed Coran’s number and listened to it ring. He held his breath, prepping his message, trying to chill out and sound cool, sound professional, but then the line clicked and Coran boomed into the receiver.
“Ah, Mr. McClain! I’m ever so glad you called. Did you get my message?”
“Yes,” Lance squeaked. He cleared his throat. “Yes. Yes, I got it. Thank you, Dr. Smythe—”
“Oh, um, Coran. Thank you. Yeah, I’m actually with a few members of the band right now. Um, we’d love to audition for your friend. I can’t believe you thought of me.”
“You’re a wonderful musician, Lance. Of course I thought of you.”
Lance’s heart swelled.
“I’ll pass along Blaytz’s information, then. Would a text be all right?”
“Yeah, definitely. More than all right.”
“Now, he’s a bit of a strange one. Has his own way about things. He’ll probably ask to meet with you, Lance, before auditioning the band. He likes to make sure he’ll get along with his band leaders. So don’t be put off if he asks you to coffee.”
“I won’t. Thank you, Dr. Smythe.”
“Coran,” he chuckled.
“Not a problem at all. Bye-bye, now.”
Coran disconnected and Lance looked up at his bandmates in awe. Two seconds later his phone buzzed with the contact info. All five of them screamed.
Pidge did not shut up the whole drive to the Avenues. She made Lance walk her through exactly what he was going to say to this Blaytz character when he called, and made him repeat it like a thousand times. The only thing with the power to stop her was the sight of Keith in front of the house carrying the entire kitchen table to the curb by himself. She rolled down her window to wolf whistle at him.
“Who gave you permission to be that pretty?” she called.
Keith looked up with a grin and a laugh, shielding his eyes from the sun. He had on a pair of workout shorts and a t-shirt and, by the size of the junk pile on the curb, had been at this activity for a while.
“Who gave you permission to be that charming?” he replied.
Pidge leaned her head back to look at her brother. “Hear that, Matt? I’m charming.”
Matt gave her a hearty shove. Lance got out of the car as the wrestling match ensued.
“What are you doing?” he asked Keith, shouldering his bag of sheet music and junk.
“Spring cleaning,” Keith replied.
“Okay, but where are we supposed to eat?”
He hopped up onto the curb and accepted the hello kiss Keith leaned over to give him. Lance put an arm around his back and looked at the collection of stuff, mostly the table.
“I got a new one,” Keith replied.
“Ryner,” Keith said. “The tenants in that house she owns up the street abandoned the property and she said we could have whatever we wanted if I clean it.”
“Sheesh,” Lance replied.
“I’ll need your help bringing the new table over. And the couch.”
Startling, Lance looked down. Keith grinned at him. While Lance was thrilled at the prospect of a new couch, the timing seemed strangely coincidental. And Keith seemed unnaturally perky.
“Wait, are you getting rid of all this stuff?” Pidge asked, sticking her rumpled head out the window. Keith nodded. “Can I have that desk lamp?”
Keith chuckled and picked it up and passed it to her through the window. Pidge cradled it on her lap and giggled like a gremlin. Then she slapped Matt across the shoulder and shouted, “Quick! Before he changes his mind!” and Matt gunned it, so they took off down the street. Keith laughed, watching them go.
“How are you?” Lance asked. He ran his fingers through the hair at the nape of Keith’s neck. Keith nodded, and together they started across the lawn.
“Okay,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “How was practice?”
“Oh my god, I have to tell you. Coran hooked me up with some old buddy of his who’s opening a jazz club.”
“Seriously? That’s great! Oh my god.”
Keith drew him to a stop so they could hug. Stomach flipping, Lance hugged him back.
“I haven’t called yet, but hopefully it’ll go well.”
“You’ll knock it out of the park.”
Linking their hands as they separated, Keith led him back to their apartment. The inside looked like a bomb had gone off. Every last kitchen cabinet was open, most of their contents spread across the counter. The containers in the instrument corner were open and spilling various cords and things all over the floor. Alongside them was a half-assembled shelving rack. The couch had been pushed to one side of the room, and a stack of assorted knickknacks and other objects sat in the center of the rug.
“Keith, what on earth?”
“You have to make a mess first, you know?”
“Not in every part of the house all at once.”
“I don’t want you to feel like the space doesn’t belong to you,” Keith replied. The tone of his voice turned a little dark.
Chewing his bottom lip, Lance looked at Keith. He knew it wouldn’t help to tell him that he liked the space just fine, that he wasn’t fussy, that he was sure he’d settle, that he’d spent countless hours practically living there before even considering moving in. Keith was stubborn, but Keith was also more considerate than anyone gave him credit for. So Lance pulled him closer and pecked a kiss on his lips instead.
“I appreciate it. How can I help?”
“Can you finish that rack?” Keith asked without a second thought. “It’s for the instruments.”
“Sure thing,” Lance replied.
He gave Keith’s hand a squeeze and put his bag down before getting started. Keith turned on some music, then resumed whatever he’d been doing in the kitchen. Lance noticed he had the box of Lance’s kitchen items open at his feet.
“What did Coran say about this jazz club guy?”
“Not much,” Lance replied. He sat down and glanced over the abandoned assembly instructions for the shelving unit. “Just that he was a little strange and would want to meet with me before agreeing to audition the band. Oh, and the club’s called Blue.”
“Do you know where it’s gonna be?”
Lance shook his head. “Somewhere downtown, I’d think. I’ll ask Blaytz when I call.”
Keith nodded, and the pair of them settled into companionable silence to work. Lance kept an eye on Keith as best he could while building a shelving rack. Keith moved with speed and accuracy like some kind of cleaning machine. It was almost…manic. Like he had some massive store of energy he needed to burn off. Before too long, he’d finished wiping down and reorganizing half the kitchen cabinets—and sorting Lance’s plates and things into the mix.
About an hour later, Keith’s phone rang. By then Lance was sorting amp cords, so he scooted over to grab the phone off the couch and pass it to Keith.
“If it’s Shiro again, I don’t want to talk,” Keith said without turning around.
Lance looked at the screen. It was Shiro. Pursing his lips, he let the phone ring until it went to voicemail. As the screen changed to the standard time display, Lance saw that Shiro had already called three times that day. His own phone went off two seconds later.
“He’s calling you now?” Keith snorted, tone harsh.
Lance fished his phone from his bag. Mr. Margaritaville scrolled across the screen.
“It’s Coran,” he lied, getting up and heading for the door. “Just coincidence. I’ll be right back…” He made sure he was at the top of the back stairs before he answered. “Hello?”
“Oh, thank god,” Shiro breathed, his breath huffing across the receiver. “Lance, are you with Keith?”
Lance swished his way across the grass in the backyard all the way to the fence and Ryner’s little vegetable garden. “Yeah, I am,” he replied.
“Is he okay?”
Obviously, Shiro hadn’t wanted that to be the answer, so he didn’t respond. Lance let him suffer in that silence for a second, mostly out of spite. Maybe Shiro didn’t deserve it—god knows he was probably punishing himself enough already—but Lance was upset with him, and he wanted him to know it.
“Did you actually lie to him about yesterday, Shiro?” he asked.
“About our parents?”
Shiro sighed. “They want to reconnect with him, Lance. Especially our dad.”
“So tell them to call!”
“Keith would never answer!”
“And you think there’s a better chance of that now?”
Again, Shiro stayed silent because he didn’t like the answer. Lance took a seat on the edge of a raised garden bed.
“The move you pulled was super shitty, Shiro,” he said. “I’ve never seen Keith like that, and I know I haven’t known him as long, but… I mean, you saw him. He was, like…like the life got sucked out of him, I don’t know.”
“I know, I just…” A long pause. “I want things to be all right between them.”
“I don’t think that’s really your call.”
“No, I get it, man. It sucks to be the one in the middle. It sucks to see people you love fight, but you can’t, like, make decisions for them. From what it sounds like, and from what I saw, your parents hurt Keith really bad. Like, really bad. And I know you want things to be okay, but you can’t decide when Keith’s ready. You don’t get to decide that, Shiro.”
Then, “You’re right.”
Lance let out a small sigh of relief.
“I want to apologize to him, I want to explain…”
“I wouldn’t bother explaining. It’s only going to sound like excuses.”
Shiro chuckled, but there wasn’t any mirth in it.
“He’ll come around when he’s ready to yell at you again, and you can apologize then.”
Lance listened as Shiro shuffled around on his end. Jesus, the guy must have felt like shit. Lance would have had he been the cause of Keith’s breakdown yesterday. There was no way Shiro didn’t realize what he’d done. Otherwise he wouldn’t have tried to call so many times.
“I don’t know what to do, Lance.”
“You don’t have to do anything, Shiro. Let Keith figure it out.”
Shiro sighed, and Lance imagined him shaking his head. “You’re right… You’re right. Thank you.”
“I’ll…wait for him to call me back.”
Another sigh, then Shiro said goodbye and they hung up. Lance lingered outside for a little bit, taking in the sun. Thinking. His own life could have been totally different if his parents hadn’t accepted him when he’d come out. His heart twisted over how much that would hurt. Granted, Teresa and Ramón were totally different people to begin with than—
He didn’t even know Keith’s parents’ names. Keith had literally never said them. Lance couldn’t resist texting Shiro to ask.
Annette and Akihiro. Why?
Nothing, thanks, was Lance’s quick reply.
He went back inside, then. Puzzling.
“What did Coran say?” Keith asked.
Lance startled. “Oh. He just wanted to check that I got the info he sent. And then…you know…he’s kinda chatty, so…”
Chuckling, Keith nodded. Lance got back to work sorting amp cords, trying to decide if he’d been hypocritical or not.
By the time Krolia rolled in for the evening, Lance and Keith had largely finished the common space. The kitchen was spotless, the instruments stacked on their new shelf. The pair of them was halfway up the stairs with the old couch when Krolia got out of her van.
“What the hell are you hooligans doing with our sofa?”
“Got a new one, Mama,” Keith replied. He muttered, “Keep going, keep going,” at Lance when they reached the top of the stairs as Lance had tried to set it down to take a break, so they cruised by Krolia, Lance’s fingers screaming. “We’re taking this one to the curb. Can we borrow the van?”
Krolia blinked at him. “Sure—what—Lance, knees, love. Not your back.”
She hopped on to take some of the weight at Lance’s end, and Lance heaved a sigh of relief. Together, the three of them carted the couch to the curb and set it down.
“Where’s this new couch coming from, then?” Krolia asked.
“The Fletchers abandoned their property. I’m cleaning it in exchange for furniture.”
“Oh, shit, we get the Fletchers’ couch?” She put her hand up and the pair of them high fived aggressively. “Good trade, baby.”
“Thanks. You wanna go with me to pick it up?”
“Hell yeah I do. Right now?”
“I’ve got the keys.” Keith patted the pocket on his shorts.
Krolia trotted up the gravel drive like she hadn’t just spent eight hours at work. She made a living laying backing tracks on rhythm guitar for this little recording studio in the city, a fact Lance had only learned just recently. Kinda like Keith’s parents’ names. Weird how stuff like that could slip through the cracks.
“Why don’t you start on our room, Boy Scout? Krolia and I can get the couch and table.”
“There are better ways to say ‘you’re bad at carrying furniture and my mom is stronger than you,’” Lance replied.
“If you wanna learn to be a roadie, I can hook you up,” Krolia called.
Lance laughed. “Tempting.”
When he glanced at Keith, Keith’s brows drew together, so Lance offered him a reassuring smile.
“You go snag us some furniture. I’m happy to start our room.”
He was not, but that was beside the point. Keith wanted to clean today, so Lance would clean. If he wanted their room picked over and rearranged, Lance would pick and rearrange until there was nothing left. Or, at the very least, until Keith had worked through the bullshit from yesterday. Lance gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“I’ll help you guys unload when you get back.”
“Beep, beep,” Krolia hollered from the van as she backed out. “We’ve got a ten o’clock set tonight, baby. Let’s get a move on.”
Laughing, Keith rounded the front of the car and got in. Lance gave him a thumbs up as Krolia backed the rest of the way down the drive. He let his breath out, though, once they’d gone up the street.
He just—jesus, he was at a total loss on how to help.
He was also at a loss on where to begin with the bedroom, so he stood and stared at it for a couple of minutes before deciding to strip the bed. He put the sheets in the wash, then dusted. After dragging in one of his boxes from the living room, he found homes for his little knickknacks among Keith’s collection of clutter, then grabbed his box of shoes and stacked those in the closet, but the room didn’t really feel any different, and Lance knew Keith was after different.
Time to rearrange the furniture, he guessed.
Though Lance didn’t consider himself in possession of a spatially-oriented mind, he was good at Tetris, so he didn’t doubt that he could get all the furniture to fit if he moved it. He’d put the head of the bed on the wall adjacent to the closet and shift the bookshelf down, move the turntable next to the bed—maybe the Fletchers had a cool bedside table set… He sent a quick text to Keith, then got down to business.
The smaller pieces were easier to move on his own, and Lance was annoyed Keith wasn’t there to watch him redeem himself. When it came to the bed, however, the frame got stuck the second Lance pulled it away from the wall.
“Of course,” he grumbled, getting on his knees to look underneath.
Unsurprisingly, a massive tangle of black clothes had nested under the bed—along with a collection of high heels and a couple of jackets. Lance fished them out and tossed them on the bed for Keith to sort through later. Behind all the clothes, however, were two big, flat storage containers. Curious, he slid one out.
Dust coated the lid. Inside, he found stacks and stacks of notes and sheet music, class syllabi, and textbooks. Keith’s materials from New Altea.
“Oh my god…”
Given the sheer quantity of paper, Lance had to assume this was everything. Every test, every essay. Lance reached for the other container and pulled it out, thinking he’d find more of the same, but that one held something different.
Lance’s jaw dropped. The container was full. He knew Keith’s notation as well as he knew his own, and a quick sift through the copious amount of staff paper revealed that very notation all over it. Song after song. A sprawling seventy-page cantata. Bits and pieces of movements for complete orchestras. He couldn’t believe how much there was.
A particular book at the bottom caught his attention—leather-bound red cover, thick, worn. He picked it up and flipped it open.
The notation in the book was different from the rest of the container. It looked like rock music, but, like, art rock or maybe pop rock or baroque pop. Lance couldn’t quite make sense of Keith’s scrawled notes. The book held maybe ten or fifteen songs, but none of them were complete and several had multiple titles. Only one had lyrics.
Lance glanced over the words.
I used to show you
How I felt
Who I was
What I thought
I used to show you
Wore it on my sleeve
Nothing to hide
An open book
I told you what to read
And where to look
But you picked me up and slammed me shut
And judged me by my cover
Because you didn’t think you’d like what my book was about
You shut me out
I used to show you
How I felt
Who I was
What I thought
I used to show you
Wore it on my sleeve
Nothing to hide
So I cut the cloth
(We’re not cut from the same cloth)
Scissors and slicing and tearing through fabric
A feeble attempt at self-preservation in panic
I threw my sleeves away
Heart and all
And you wonder why I don’t call
I won’t show you
How I feel
Who I am
What I think
Won’t wear my heart on my sleeve
Everything to hide
But the book’s still there
With the heart I used to wear
A phantom feeling of sleeves upon my skin
Would I let you in?
That was all there was, though the instrumental continued for another page before petering out. Lance read the lyrics again and again, matching them with the notes and trying to make mental music from Keith’s marks. He was certain he wasn’t doing the song justice, but even a rough approximation sounded incredible in his head.
He’d had no idea Keith could compose like this. Arrangements, sure, but composition?
Bewildered, Lance sat and cradled the red book in his lap.
After a few minutes, he forced himself to his feet and finished moving the bed. He secured the lids on both containers and slid them underneath. Then he fiddled with the rest of the furniture on autopilot, trying a couple combinations until he heard the van pull up outside. He went to meet Keith and Krolia.
“What did you want bedside tables for?” Keith asked, disembarking the vehicle and opening the back.
“You’ll see,” Lance replied.
Keith hauled a bedside table from the van the next second—some super fancy contemporary piece that was like a thick slab of marble with metal wires underneath for legs. He passed it to Lance, so Lance hurried down to put it next to the bed in their room. It actually looked pretty damn cool. He went back for the other one and arranged Keith’s record player and a couple other knickknacks on the pair, then made the bed while Keith and Krolia unloaded the couch and table.
“We’re ready for your help now, Boy Scout—oh my god.”
Lance turned and found Keith in the doorway. His mouth was hanging open.
“Surprise,” Lance said, lifting his arms wide to display his work.
Keith laughed—shocked, but happy—his eyes sparkling like one of those people on a home makeover show.
“Oh my god, it’s great! It’s like a whole new room!”
“You like it?”
“I love it.” He pecked a kiss on Lance’s cheek and wrapped his arms around his neck in a hug, still laughing. “Look at us, real adults with our bed in the center of the wall.”
Lance chuckled. He could have held onto Keith longer, but Keith slipped away to take himself on a little tour of the room, pointing out Lance’s things and saying they should get a picture of the two of them for the new bedside table. Lance smiled until Keith located the pile of clothes and shoes that had been under the bed. Keith gasped.
“Where did you find these?” he asked, sorting with eager hands.
“Under the bed,” Lance squeaked. He braced himself for Keith’s reaction, but the guy only nodded, not fazed in the least. He gasped again.
Keith flew to the closet the next second and grabbed a pair of shiny, black high-waisted shorts, a couple of shirts, and his combat boots. Then he started stripping out of his clothes like the door wasn’t open and Lance wasn’t standing right there.
“Different kinds of naked, Keith!” Lance shouted, blushing.
But Keith just laughed and pulled on the fishnets, heedless of however long it had been since they’d been washed. He tossed on the shorts and a shirt and swept over to the closet to check his reflection in full-length mirror on the back of the door. Krolia poked her head into the room two seconds later.
“Y’all want me to levitate the damn couch down here with my mind powers? Come on!”
Lance and Keith scrambled from the room and up the stairs, Krolia at their heels. Together, the three of them hauled the pieces of the new couch—an immaculate white leather sectional—into their basement apartment, struggling around the corners. The table went next, and by then they had to abandon the furniture to get to Blade Base on time.
At the club, Lance parted ways with Keith at the dressing room, then made his way through the halls to the employee door, from there to their usual table. Unsurprisingly, Matt and Pidge were already seated, a few empty glasses between them.
“You just missed Romelle,” Pidge said, clapping Lance on the shoulder as he sat.
“Yeah, she was on one. Apparently Keith changed their entire set last-minute?”
“What? When last-minute?”
Pidge shrugged. “She just said ‘today.’”
Lance blinked. That wasn’t like Keith. That wasn’t like Keith at all. Matt and Pidge moved on to other things, namely pestering Lance about calling Blaytz, but he ignored them for the most part. Cleaning. Refusing to take Shiro’s calls. Changing Luxite’s set. Lance might have been puzzled by the behavior if he didn’t know the exact root of it.
When the lights dimmed and Luxite took to the stage, the energy was different, but it wasn’t exactly bad. Lance knew Romelle well enough by then to recognize that she was nervous. He didn’t blame her. The set was keyboard-heavy. He wondered how long they’d been rehearsing these particular songs. Though, as the set progressed, he did not wonder why Keith had decided to play them.
Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”. “King of Pain” by The Police. Pink Floyd and “Hey You”. The somber set hurt to watch, knowing what Lance knew. It was crazy to think how differently he might have perceived the performance six months ago.
Keith was still a sexpot. It was impossible for him to play without passion, without his whole body and his whole heart. He was still so goddamn beautiful on that stage, so unreasonably talented that Lance honestly couldn’t comprehend what he was still doing playing in a cover band every other weekend.
Then Luxite played a song Lance had never heard. Matt did, though. He leaned over and claimed two points with, “Cyndi Lauper. ‘Hat Full of Stars’. Dunno the album.”
Lance just nodded.
The song was a major departure from Luxite’s usual style, and Lance was certain it was the main reason behind Romelle’s nerves. And seeing Keith sing it, well…Lance’s throat cinched tight in his neck, but he forced himself not to cry.
After that, the set bumped back toward the expected—the songs seemed so joyful, almost triumphant in comparison.
Lance would have been lying if he’d said it wasn’t a relief.
Back at home, in their reorganized room, as he unbuttoned those shorts and slipped off the fishnets and fell into bed with Keith, as he pressed him into clean sheets and their mattress, buried his nose against his neck and grazed his skin with his teeth—Lance couldn’t help thinking of all that music underneath the bed. As he pushed himself inside Keith for the nth time, and Keith sang one of his gorgeous notes of pleasure—Lance couldn’t help thinking how much he loved him.
And how much he had yet to understand.