“What do you mean I need a license to drive a motorcycle?”
Lio crossed his arms, petulant as he stared down at Galo, sitting in the driver’s seat of his own vehicle.
Galo blinked up at him, for once seemingly lost for words. The genuine shock wormed it’s way past Lio’s indignation and melted the stern expression on his face, letting it fall before it sprung back up in frustration. Brows knit he looked down to the floor, feeling the same pent-up form of confusion and anger he’s been feeling more and more since the departure, no, the loss of the Promare. Every since that day he’s felt like he had been walking the world blind, never knowing where the holes in his knowledge lay until he fell right through them. He felt stupid for it, but there were so many things that weren’t relavant to him as a Burnish, or just as a man on the run.
Don’t touch plates and bowls right out of the microwave.
You need a job to get money to survive properly.
Use a cup sleeve when you get coffee.
You need proof of education, not just the assurance that you know things.
Wear sunscreen outside in the summer.
Leader of a terrorist organization doesn’t count as job experience.
Everything is so much colder, so much hotter, and so much more complicated than Lio had ever expected a real, normal life to be.
“Hey,” Galo interrupted, grinning reassuringly as he reached out to place a large, gentle hand on Lio’s shoulder. “It’s ok! You can ride with me for now! We’ll figure it out!”
Lio sighed, deflating as he shrugged away from the hand and got on the motorbike behind Galo. “I can’t call you every time I need a ride. You have a job.” He fitted the spare helmet on and wrapped his arms around Galo’s impossibly slim waist. “And a life,” He smirked. “Presumably.”
Galo started the bike and pulled out from the station’s parking lot. “I do to have a life!” He laughed, “And driving you to and from class is part of it now!”
Lio hummed with distracted agreement.
“And going shopping with you, and hanging out at the station after work, and helping Lucia test things with you, and helping the rest of the Burnish with you-”
“Alright, I get it. You have a life.” Geeze. Did he really spend so much time with him? Lio thought. Well, it made sense, he was either with Galo or doing school work pretty much every waking hour worth mentioning. It would make sense that, therefore, Galo didn’t really have a lot of time for anything else but work and him. A squirmy sensation of unease settled over his spine, reminding him how much he was taking away and how instinctively wrong it was. He was so used to giving and giving without question, taking up as little space and as little resources as possible to leave more for his people. Now he had the slightest excuse to receive in turn and already he was being selfish.
He needed to fix this. Immediately.
Galo sat in the garage after his shift, black paint smudging his pants and arms as he inspected his work.
“Whatcha got there?” Aina said, announcing her presence as she leaned over him to look over his handiwork.
“My old bike.” He shook the can of spray paint and gave it another blast.
Aina sat next to him, “Isn’t it a little small for you?”
He nodded emphatically. “Way too small! I’ve had it since I was a kid.”
“And you’re painting it because…?”
“Oh! It’s for Lio.”
Aina laughed, clapping him on the back as she let the humor wash over her.
Galo stared at her, questioning and at least a little hurt.
“Oh.” She paused. “You were being serious.”
He nodded. “Is… Is there something wrong with it?” His lower lip stuck out in what was dangerously close to a pout. “I painted it black and magenta and cyan and everything! Those are like all his favorite colors!”
“Galo, he just… How do I put this?” She tented her hands in front of her face. “Lio does not seem like the kind of person who would ride a bicycle. Especially not as his main form of transportation. I mean…” She chuckled humorlessly, “He likely isn’t all that concerned about his carbon footprint and all that.”
“Well! He can be the judge of that.” Galo popped onto his feet, capping the spray paint. “Lio said he wishes he could have his own motorcycle again and drive around. But he’s too busy with the Burnish and taking night classes trying to get his G.E.D have much time left for getting a driver’s license right now. So, for now-” He pointed the can to the bike.
Aina shrugged her shoulders, seeming to give up. “Whatever. Speaking of your boyfriend, shouldn’t you be picking him up from class like a half hour ago?”
“He’s not-” A glance at the clock. “Oh my god he’s gunna kill me!” He tossed the can of paint to Aina as he sprinted to the parking lot. “HIDE THE BIKE FOR ME! I’ll be back!”
The community college had been pretty damaged by the almost-end of the world. The entire gymnasium was rubble and only half the buildings had electricity yet. Most of the decorum that Lio imagined it once had was all but chipped away by the overzealous resetting of the Promare. But, in some way, it was comforting to see. Almost endearing. The Promare had tried their best to leave the world intact, borrowing from Galo’s desire to protect and save, but what they, or maybe what Galo, included as being worth saving was a bit lost in the details. So, in the end, everywhere he looked Lio was reminded of them both.
And how lonely it was to be without.
He sat in the lobby with his notes balanced on one knee, headphones on to drown away the sensation of being alone with his own thoughts. They were yet another thing he had Galo to thank for. Respite from the all-consuming silence of his own mind
He checked his phone for the time. 9:45. Almost an hour late. That wasn’t like him. Lio nibbled absently on the string of his hoodie, sending another text.
[class is out]
[where are you?]
[are you ok?]
[please tell me you’re alright and you just forgot]
Exhaling hard through his nose, he put his phone away in exchange for his notes once more, knee bouncing so hard he could barely read what he was looking at. Galo was fine. Galo was always fine. What would even happen to him? It’s not like he would have actually burnt to a crisp in a fire, or crashed his bike, or done any of the millions of things that Lio was now intimately aware that the human body was vulnerable to.
His phone buzzed and he nearly flung it to the floor trying to pull it out of his pocket.
[so sorry!!! I’m outside!!! Please forgive me!!! I brought donuts!!! 😭😭😭]
Lio sighed, the tension in his chest unfurling as he packed his bag and headed out to the pickup loop.
Galo was standing beside his bike, waving Lio down frantically. He waved through the glass door before pushing outside, the night chill like needles through the fabric of his hoodie. He hissed, but kept moving anyway, watching as Galo started jogging towards him.
“I am SO SORRY! I totally lost track of time and then I felt bad so I went to grab you something to eat because I figured you’d be hungry and I am so so so late-”
Lio held out a hand to stop his tirade. “Galo. It’s ok, I’m just glad you are okay.”
He tilted his head, not unlike a puppy. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I dunno, just-” A shiver, both natural and metaphorical, ran up his spine. He looked away, huffing out a breath. “You worried me, that’s all.”
“Liiiiiiiioooo!” He whined, wrapping his arms around him and lifting him gracelessly off the ground. “I am so sorry! I never want to worry you! I was fine! I promise!”
Lio struggled for only a moment of shock before going dramatically limp, letting the moment pass before Galo noticed his head lolling back and his spine bowing out to follow gravity’s lean. When the shouting and rocking back and forth paused Lio smirked. “You squished me.” He said in a matter-of-fact monotone. “I am dead.”
"NoooOOOOOOOOO" Galo protested, setting Lio back on his feet and earning a flat chuckle as Lio straightened back up. “You have to be alive.” Galo assured him, as if it really was a question of needing to be reminded. “Here, have a donut.” He shoved a bag into his hands. “And I brought you another jacket because you only took one. It’s under the bike seat! Here!”
Lio smiled indulgently, letting himself be lead back to the bike and then letting Galo make a show of pulling out the jacket and draping it over his shoulders.
“Better?” Galo asked, expression concerned.
“Much.” He assured, pulling out a glazed donut and taking a bite before handing the bag back to Galo.
He put it back in the side bag and waited for Lio to climb on behind him. “You still should get your own wheels soon though. This wouldn’t happen if you did.”
Lio hummed, resting his head against Galo’s back. “Agreed.” He yawned. “Can we go back to the station now? I’m cold and I’m tired.”
A pause. “Sure thing, Boss.”
Lio had been living at the station ever since the day they saved the world. It had been Galo’s idea, of course, because he couldn’t stand the idea that Lio didn’t have anywhere else to and Lio was too proud to take the offer of sleeping on Galo’s sofa for more than one night. He could understand that. Lio was a private person, he liked his alone time and a small corner of space to call his own. It was a luxury he had no idea how long Lio’d been without and he was not about to deny him it.
Besides, it was easy enough to push an overnight shift bed into the spare office and throw everything else into the supply closet to make room. It was small, and kind of dull, but Lio had looked at it like it was the Ritz. Like he couldn’t believe he was allowed to have something as basic as a room to call his own. So, Galo made sure to respect those four walls diligently. The station might be his place of work, but that room was entirely Lio’s.
But, it also meant Lio was almost always around. Working on the bike took time and finding time to work on it when Lio wasn’t lurking around was proving to be an exercise in working miracles.
Aina suggested recruiting Lucia which, granted, was not a bad idea. She’s probably make the bike super cool and fast and better. But, better wasn’t the point. Galo wanted to do this for Lio. He didn’t want to share it with anyone else.
But he still needed help if he was going to get it done anytime soon.
“No! Give me one good reason I should spend some of my, very limited, free time with him?” She slammed her locker, arms crossed as she stared Galo down. “We don’t even know each other, really. I’ve literally never been in the same room with him without you.”
“That should be reason enough!” Galo pouted. Lio was part of the team now! Even if he wasn’t a member of Burning Rescue he should at least be counted as an honorary member! Or something!
“It isn’t.” She assured him.
Galo slowly closed his locker, giving Aina a distraught stare as he ran through his list of possible reasons. “Please?” His shoulders drooped. “For me? I really want to get the bike done and it’ll take forever if I only do it when Lio is at class.”
She paused, seeming to war with herself, before sighing. “Fine. I’ll try- but I can’t guarantee anything.”
Math was Lio’s least favorite subject. It was actually quite fair to say he hated it. He hadn’t needed math, of all things, out in the desert. It was something that had as little to do with his old life as possible. Which is to say he was fascinated but beyond infuriated by it.
His notes and textbooks were sprawled across the kitchen table, a massive beast of a piece of furniture meant to seat an entire firehouse. He could have sat so much of his team around this table. He tried to imagine it. A hall with a few of these tables, all of the Mad Burnish who survived and any Burnish who were still proud enough of their old identity to want to be seen in public with him all gathered around a huge meal. He had discovered that his conventional cooking skills were meager but he was doing his best to learn. He had no doubt that he’d be able to figure something out. That was always his specialty. Making things work. Providing. Protecting.
Now? Well, now the same things that had made him a strong leader of the Burnish made him an absolute wreck of a normal human being. Without the Promare, forced back into a society he hadn’t been properly integrated in for as long as he could remember, he was just another weak, dependant person. One who had relied so fully on their flames that without them he was floundering to cope with the gaps. What could he do for anyone else when he could barely say he was handling himself?
He exhaled sharply, leaning back in his chair and shoving his workbook away. It was only then that he noticed there was someone standing by the coffee machine, watching him.
Lio didn’t exactly have any strong opinion on her yet other than a vague sense that he did not like how close she and Galo were. Which was something he didn’t like feeling and shoved down whenever it creeped up.
“Hey.” She greeted, holding up the coffee pot. “Want a cup?”
Lio sighed. “Sure.” He muttered, swinging around to face her more fully.
“Cream and sugar? Or no? You look like someone who likes their coffee black.”
He crinkled his nose. “Wrong. Both, please.”
She nodded, not commenting further as she made two cups, one pale the other pitch dark, and brought them to the table.
Lio thanked her as he took the cup. Carefully, he reminded himself. Only by the handle, test the sides with two fingertips before picking it up with both hands. Tiresome. He took a sip and scrunched his face at the bitterness, grabbing two more sugar packets and stirring them in before taking an appraising sip and humming happily.
“You’re worse than Galo.” Aina observed matter of factly, taking a sip of her own as she sat down.
“Mmm.” Lio hummed around another long sip. “I’ll take that as a compliment. Galo makes good coffee.”
She rolled her eyes, looking away as she set her chin on her hand. “I’m sure he does.” She said flatly.
There it was again. That unpleasant feeling.
Lio looked down to his cup, tracing the lip of the edge with a finger as he contemplated his thoughts. “I… we didn’t have a lot of stuff like this out in the Burnish groups.” He started slowly. “It was not necessary. Sugar was a waste of calories so we didn’t raid any to start, and it wasn’t available when we started sourcing our own resources. Coffee was the same. Dairy would have been fine if not for the heat.” He smiled fondly. “We tended to spoil milk just by being around it, not to mention the desert didn’t have good storage for it anyway.”
Aina looked at him, almost lost, and he simply smiled, holding his cup up. “So, I like to think I am making up for lost time.” He took a sip. “Besides, black coffee is gross.”
There was a beat of silence, then Aina started to laugh. Lio looked to her, skeptical, trying to judge the reaction.
She set down her cup and shook her head. “You two really are just alike.”
Lio chuckled dryly. “You thought we weren’t?”
“Oh, absolutely not!” She leaned back, rocking her chair onto two legs. “You give off a cool, calm, and collected badass vibe from like a mile away, you know? You don’t really talk much and you keep to yourself mostly, and with the way you dress and the fact that you, literally, burned the world to the ground don’t really help!”
Lio’s expression pinched, but she wasn’t done.
“Just by looks you and Galo would be two total opposites but you both have zero idea how insane you seem to the rest of the world.” She took a long sip while Lio stared wide-eyed.
“You think I’m wrong?” She challenged, watching Lio squirm.
“Uhhh…” Lio looked away awkwardly, feeling seen in a way that felt scrutinizing rather than warm and accepting. “Sure.” A beat. “I mean, no. Not really.”
A long silence fell over the table, neither of them really looking to one another as they drank their coffee in peace. Lio pulled over one of his workbooks and started picking apart the problems again with a frustrated patience. For a bit he could block out the fact that Aina was even there.
“Why don’t you wear earrings anymore?”
Lio sighed, pushing the book away again. “Why do you pay so much attention?”
He deflated, leaning back in his chair. No use in fighting. “It was a fake.” He hadn’t exactly had money for jewelry and he was not about to tell Aina about the homemade solutions he’d settled on before giving up. “My ear isn’t actually pierced.”
“... do you want to fix that?”
“I can pierce your ears. Like, right now.”
It was a shuffle of dismissal and reassurance that dragged Lio from the kitchen, to Aina’s locker, then to his room. By the time he was laying on the floor with his head laid on a pillow in her lap he was questioning every choice that lead up to this moment in his life.
“Are you sure this is safe?”
Aina rolled her eyes. “I used to do this at slumber parties when I was a kid.” She wiped a wicked looking sewing needle on her shirt. “I know what I’m doing.”
Somehow he doubted that. But he still accepted an ice cube from a little bowl, flinching when he felt the familiar bite to his skin, not so unlike the all consuming frost of a bullet, and held it to his earlobe.
He scowled, petulant. “I’m already holding the ice.”
“Other hand, you have two.”
Grumbling, he obliged, taking what turned out to be a lighter. He stared at it for what was likely too long, not sure how to name the constriction he felt in his chest, before Aina snapped him out of it.
“Light it, I need to sterilize the needle.”
They both looked to the lighter. “I, uh…” Lio looked to the ceiling. “I don’t know how.”
“Oh, now that’s ironic.” Aina chuckled.
He huffed, “It’s not exactly like I needed to use one, you know?”
“Ok, ok, fair. I see your point. Here.” She pointed to the wheel. “Run your thumb quickly over that part so it rolls, then hold down the button. Be careful to keep your thumb tip away from the flames or you’ll burn yourself.”
It took a few tortuous tries, each failed spark feeling like a personal affront. Was he doomed to always be without flames? Like there was some cosmic quota he surpassed years ago? It had been so easy to conjure up flaming constructs, magnificent and powerful weapons, but now even this smallest flame eludes him?
But made all that much more anticlimactic when the spark caught, when a dancing flame, yellow-orange and natural, lay flickering in his fingertips. It was so familiar but so hollow that it hurt. He never really knew how connected to his flames he was until they were gone. Until he was staring at this tiny, captive blaze and wishing, willing, himself to feel something more. For it to be something more.
Aina passed the needle through the fire a few times before satisfied. “Ok put it out.”
And he did.
And he felt nothing.
[He’s heading downstairs, either hide the bike or be ready to present it.]
Galo looked down at the neon yellow bike bell and matching horn on the floor in front of him. Panic rushed his choice as he quickly attached the bell and threw the horn to the other end of the room with a comedic crash and honk.
With that he tossed a sheet over the bike and turned just in time to watch Lio speed down the stairs, hopping two at a time. He landed at the bottom of the stairwell with a definitive slap of his boots and looked up from where he had been watching his footing to shoot Galo a glowing smile that made his heart do a series of convoluted flips.
Warm. It was all he could think of feeling when faced with that wide, overjoyed grin. Warm enough to melt all semblance of sense and reason he already struggled with. Melt away every worry he’d ever had about this. About them.
“Galo!” Lio ran up to him, practically aflame with the blinding brightness of his joy. “Look!” He pointed to his ear, quickly running a tuft of hair behind it to reveal a plain black stud earring.
“You got new earrings?” He guessed, already eager to match Lio’s enthusiasm. “They look cool!”
Lio shook his head, “Not just that. Aina pierced them!”
“They weren’t before?”
“No, the Promare healed, remember? It would have closed up. I used... “ He waved his hand dismissively. “Clip ons.”
Galo nodded emphatically. “Well, they look great!” He grinned. “They suit you!”
Lio’s matching grin lit up the whole room. “Thank you.” He looked past Galo to the covered mass of the bike. “Were you working on something? I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“No, no! You’re just in time!” Galo shuffled away, scrambling behind the bike to let Lio see, mapping his curious expression as he listened diligently. “Presenting! Burnish Bike Two-Point-Oh!” He pulled the sheet off with a flourish, letting his handiwork speak for itself for only a dramatic moment while he posed before looking to see Lio’s reaction.
Lio blinked. “It’s… a bicycle.”
“Yeah!” Galo grinned, “It’s a 6 speed, 3 elevation, fully updated, completely de-rusted, custom painted bicycle.” He rung the bell. “With upgrades.”
Hands shoved into his pockets, he gave the bike a cautious appraisal before looking to Galo. “Is…” He pointed to himself. “Is this for me?”
Galo nodded. “Yeah!”
He tried to parse the quick flicker of emotions and expressions that danced across Lio’s features. None of them were a beaming grin or him leaping into his arms with zealous gratitude. Slowly, painfully, Galo deflated. “Do… uh... do you like it?”
Lio nodded, hand tracing the handlebars as he seemed caught up in his own contemplation. What Galo wouldn’t do to get just a glimpse into that mess of thoughts that always seemed to catch Lio at the most unexpected moments. Slowly, with a soft, genuine smile, Lio looked up from the bike. “Thank you.” He said, voice quiet.
Lio chuckled, almost humorlessly. “I guess you won’t have to drive me to class anymore.”
“I can still do that. If you want. I mean, I don’t mind.” Galo kicked at one of the screwdrivers laying beside the toolkit. “Really, I don’t. I…” He sighed, looking up at Lio with what he hoped was a telling smile. “I like spending time with you.”
The flash of shock, of understanding, that flickered through Lio’s eyes was unmistakable. For another torturous moment he seemed at war with himself. It was everything Galo could do just to keep himself from interrupting, explaining. Laying everything out in a torrent of word vomit, letting loose everything that has become so clear to him since that day.
He couldn’t imagine a life without him.
He wanted to spend every single moment with him.
He loved him.
“I-” Lio started, arms crossing defensively as he took a step back. “I think I’m going to move out of the station.”
“What?” Galo stepped around the bike, closing the gap even as Lio took another step to further it. “Where? Why?”
“Meis and Gueira just got an apartment in the new housing a lot of the Burnish-” He paused, brows pinched, “ex-Burnish, are moving into. Government subsidy. They offered and, well, It’s closer to the college and,” He exhaled slowly, “I just think it’s for the best.”
“Lio, no!” Galo forced himself still, not wanting to chase if Lio wouldn’t let him. “You can just forget the bike if you want, I wasn’t trying to get at anything! Nothing like that!” He reached out and stopped himself, drawing the hand close instead. “You don’t have to go. You’re always welcome here.”
Lio looked away, his voice small. “I know.”
“I don’t mind, really! Please, Lio. I want you here!”
His bangs fell into his face as he whispered again. “I know.”
Galo froze. Understanding piercing his armor like a lance. “Oh.” His shoulders shrunk, stepping away as he looked to the floor. “Ok.” He felt so small. So stupid. He always knew he was, everyone told him, but he’d never actually felt it before. To think that Lio would ever like someone like him as much as he liked him. Stupid. Stupid for hoping. Stupid for trying. Stupid. Stupid.
“Thank you.” A pause. “For the bike, I mean.” Lio shuffled awkwardly. “I’d understand if you don’t want-”
“No.” Galo cut him off so fervently Lio startled, and he immediately felt bad for it, lowering his voice again. “Keep it. Call it a… housewarming gift.”
The smallest hint of a smile, gone as fast as it came. “Thank you, Galo.”
“I…” Galo sighed, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. “I think I’m going to head home for the night.”
“Have a good night, Lio.”
Galo turned away and as he heard Lio wish him a good night too he didn’t turn or wave. He couldn’t look back or he’d fall apart and he couldn’t Not for the terrible, long walk back to his bike, the longer, worse drive to his apartment. Not until he closed his door did he let the burn seep in and splinter at the cracks.
He was burning alive and there was nothing he could do about it.