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“You're staring again.”

 

Shiro's sigh was the deep, forlornly wistful type that would've sounded better coming from the lips of a windswept regency novel heroine than from a muscular, six-foot-plus, sleep-deprived grad student at the bar of a sticky, sweat-drunk club on New Year's Eve, but he couldn't help himself.

 

He did manage to pry his chin from his palm, where it had been propped the past ten minutes, and threw a look over his shoulder.

 

Matt's face was not impressed.

 

“Seriously man, this is, what, the fourth time? Fifth?” He prodded Shiro's arm. “Just go talk to him already. Or at least save your pining creeper act for nights I'm not here and don't have to feel complicit in it."

 

“You didn't have to come out with me,” Shiro reminded him.

 

“Yeah, well, someone needs to keep an eye on you. Keep you out of trouble.”

 

Shiro huffed a laugh and looked back across at the gorgeous, captivating boy sitting at one of the booths on the other side of the crowded room. He was with his usual friends; a big, smiley guy – Hank? Hunk? something like that – who Shiro was pretty sure was on the engineering track, and the lanky guy with disheveled brown hair, who seemed to get a kick out of playfully winding his friends up. Tonight Hank-or-Hunk appeared to be egging lanky guy on to chat up a beautiful girl with a cloud of pale silver hair, who was sitting nearby.

 

And the object of Shiro's attention – the one who'd been unknowingly holding his heart hostage for the past couple months – was watching them with a soft, enchanting little smile on his lips.

 

His name was Keith Kogane, 21 years old, in his third year of undergrad. Shiro wasn't a stalker, honest – he knew all this because Keith was in the Interplanetary Navigation class he TA'd last semester, and Shiro made it a point to get to know all his students at least a little. Shiro's own battle through higher education had taught him that, often, the best thing you could offer someone who was struggling was simply a little of your time and some individual attention.

 

As for Keith... well, he was quiet. Both in class and out of it, so far as Shiro could tell. A few times Shiro had noticed him doodling during lectures, but he paid close attention when a subject interested him, and his work was always bright and insightful, even if his approach to topics was sometimes unconventional. If anything that just made Shiro like him more.

 

He drove a motorbike – not that Shiro had ever seen it, but he had seen Keith come into class in his leathers and carrying a cherry red helmet, which was kind of a big clue. One time while he was waiting in the corridor for the class reading an old Star Trek novel, which just happened to be among Shiro's favorite shows. His brows got this adorable little wrinkle between them when he was concentrating, as well as the little upwards tick whenever Professor Coran went off on one of his tangents...

 

Everything about him was just so…

 

"Yeah yeah, he's fucking dreamy, we get it," Matt said, rolling his eyes. "So are you gonna make a move or what?”

 

Shiro let out another lamentful sigh. “I don't know.” He fiddled with his empty shotglass, rolling it around in circles on the surface of the bar.

 

Matt nudged him with a viciously pointy elbow. “Well you know what they all say: 'You miss 100% of the shots you don't take'. Corny, but it's true.”

 

It was true, yet Shiro was still reluctant. He and Adam had broken up in summer, almost half a year ago; he was ready to move on, more than ready, but...

 

“It's just… it's been so long since I've done the whole, you know, trying to pick someone up thing.” He huffed a rueful half-laugh. “I mean it's literally been years. So long that I think I've forgotten how to be single. I don't even know how to approach a guy any more, let alone flirt with one.”

 

“That's the easy part, man!" Matt clapped him on the shoulder and shook him a little, encouraging. "Come on, you just go over, say, 'hey, I'm Shiro,' flex your biceps a bit and flash that dazzling smile, and they'll be putty in your hands.”

 

“You're exaggerating.”

 

“I'm really not! I mean, man, you're a freaking Adonis, you know? You don't even need to be charming or interesting – just one look, and pretty much anyone who's even the slightest bit into dudes will be salivating all over you.”

 

Shiro quirked a grin but it was half-hearted at best. “Wow, Matt, I'm so flattered. That's kinda the problem though, isn't it? I'm not looking for anything shallow. So I do need to be charming and interesting. Or at least able to string two words together in front of the guy so I don't completely embarrass myself.”

 

Matt eyed him shrewdly. He pursed his lips and signaled the bartender for another round. “Yeah, I see your point. That might be a problem for you.”

 

“Gee. Thanks for the support.”

 

“You're welcome buddy.” Matt swapped Shiro's empty shotglass for a full one and clinked their glasses together. “Tell you what. Let's forget our boy troubles and girl troubles for the rest of the night, yeah? Until midnight this is a bros-only zone, and then it'll be a new year. You can turn over a charming new leaf, become the beautiful gay social butterfly you were always meant to be.”

 

With all the earned skill of a veteran experienced with Shiro's more mercurial turns of mood, Matt steered the conversation to a new topic. He kept Shiro sufficiently distracted and cheered, kept a drink in his hand and a smile on his face. Shiro stopped staring, but from the corner of his eye he kept track of Keith moving about with his friends. Keith chose not to dance, sadly, though perhaps that was for the best. Shiro wasn't sure how well he'd be able to stand watching that.

 

As the drinks racked up and soaked in, Shiro's anxieties and second-guessing began to fade further away. An hour or so later – at about fifteen minutes to midnight, just as Shiro had worked up the courage to think he might go over and say hi to Keith anyway – some random guy Shiro had never seen before got up in Keith's space.

 

It seemed innocuous at first. Shiro watched as the guy introduced himself, as they started to talk. The guy was standing pretty close to Keith, but it was loud in the bar, and crowded. It seemed fine. Keith seemed fine. Even welcoming, in his own quiet way.

 

Disappointment started to sink in Shiro's stomach. He almost turned away, kicking himself for having probably lost his chance to make a move, when from the corner of his eye he caught the abrupt change that came over Keith's body language.

 

Face falling blank, he stiffened, closing himself off. He crossed his arms and turned his head, like he was getting ready to bolt. Or maybe sock the guy in the jaw.

 

“Looks like your boy's got trouble,” Matt said.

 

“He's not my boy,” Shiro muttered, but the both of them were tense, ready to leap off their seats and intervene if it proved necessary.

 

Keith gave the pushy guy a warning loud enough to be heard over the crowd. People turned to look, but instead of taking the hint and backing off with grace, the asshole grabbed Keith by the wrist and pulled him in uncomfortably close.

 

Shiro saw red.

 

The next moment Keith twisted in the asshole's grip, grabbed him back by the collar of his shirt, and flipped him neat and deadly swift over his shoulder. The crowd parted and he crashed to the ground, though Keith was decent enough to not let his head smack on the hard floor.

 

A sudden rush of arousal bloomed hot in Shiro's belly. His thighs clenched.

 

“Oh shit!” Matt grabbed Shiro's shoulder, but Shiro barely noticed. "Damn, did you see that? This kid's got some serious ninja moves!”



Keith's friends hurried over to him, followed by a pair of burly bouncers. Matt's fingers loosened their grip, and slowly Shiro relaxed again. 

 

The crowd turned away now that the drama was over. As he spoke with the bouncers Keith stood there over the man's sprawled body, sleek and graceful and powerful, his hip cocked but not in a way that was coquettish or posing. He frowned down at the groaning asshole before stepping aside to let the one of the bouncers lift and escort him out.

 

And the sight of him standing there, like a quiet, humble conqueror... it did things to Shiro's blood.

 

“Matt...” he whimpered. “I think I'm in love...”

 

Matt gripped his nape in commiseration. “Shiro. Buddy. I say this with the greatest affection: that kid? He's gonna rip your balls off and stomp on them. He'll thread your dick on a string and start wearing it as a necklace.

 

“Oh, god.” Shiro buried his face in his hands, flushed hot to the tips of his ears. “I'd let him.”

 

“There there.” Matt patted him again. "Listen, I don't mean to alarm you but he's coming over here. Look alive!"

 

Shiro jolted upright on his stool and patted down his hair.

 

Keith stalked past them, muttering under his breath as he headed to an empty space at the bar and slid into a seat.

 

Shiro grabbed Matt's arm. “Matt, what do I do?” he hissed. “He's right there – should I-? Is this my chance? Should-”

 

“I don't know, man,” Matt hedged. “I know I was telling you to go for it, but maybe now's not the best time? He's kinda agitated, and you've got a few drinks in you. Maybe it'd be best to cool it for now and try again another day.”

 

“But–”

 

“Are you even gonna be able to talk to him? Or are you just gonna stand there gawping and drooling like an idiot?” Matt smirked. “Hey, bet you fifty bucks if you do over there, all you're gonna want to say is how much you want him to punch you in the face and step on you.”

 

The challenge only made Shiro more determined. If his wits were about him and hadn't fluttered off somewhere, he might have had the wisdom and foresight to be suspicious of the smirk on Matt's face. He might have recognized the fat, juicy carrot Matt was hanging in front of his nose as a tool of manipulation. As it was, he pressed his palms flat on the sticky bartop and slid from the stool.

 

He gathered his quivering guts into formation. “I'm going over,” he declared.

 

"Good luck,” Matt said dryly. “It's your funeral, or head trauma, or at the very least public humiliation.”

 

Shiro ignored him.

 

Punch me in the face and step on me, he scoffed to himself as he made his way over. As if he would say something like that to Keith. Matt could make fun of him all he wanted – there were so many more things Shiro wanted to say. He just had to remember what they were.

 

Keith's long, lean legs were wrapped in dark denim jeans, tight enough to look painted on his skin. On top he was wearing a simple dark gray v-neck tshirt, as well as the same cropped leather jacket he wore all the time, and his hair had grown long enough to tie into a little tail at the nape of his neck. It left the sharp corner of his jaw exposed, the soft, pale stretch of his neck.

 

Shiro gulped. He was starting to sweat.

 

Just say hi. He already knows who you are, this isn't weird, so just say hi. Just say hi. And whatever you do don't tell him you want him to punch you in the face--

 

Keith's head jerked up when Shiro reached his side. He was scowling, unimpressed and guarded, but when his eyes met Shiro's face they widened, and he froze in his seat.

 

God, Shiro always forgot how stunning Keith's eyes were up close.

 

He opened his mouth to speak.

 

Just say--

 

...And his mind went entirely blank.

 

You're gorgeous, please punch me in the face.

 

No!!!

 

Keith's startled expression started to morph into concern as Shiro just stood there gaping. He edged back on his stool. “Um, hi. Are you... okay?”

 

Shiro's teeth clicked as he snapped his mouth shut. He dropped his face into his hand and groaned, his cheeks burning hot. “Oh god, I'm sorry,” he moaned. “I can't believe this...” He scrubbed his hand over his face and swept his hair back roughly. “Please excuse me, apparently I owe my terrible friend fifty dollars.”

 

He risked a glance over his shoulder. Matt was grinning wildly. “First dibs on your eulogy, Shirogane!” he called out, loud even over the thumping music, and gave Shiro an enthusiastic double thumbs up.

 

Shiro winced. He winced again when he turned back to see Keith's face twisted in confusion. “Sorry, ignore him. He's a menace to society.”

 

Keith chewed on his lip. “Okay, is something going on, or…?”

 

“No! No, no, don't worry about it,” Shiro said, sheepish. “I just wanted to come say over and say hi, but, as you can see I'm an idiot, so.”

 

He took a step back, but was instantly arrested and held in place by the eloquently quirkedbrow and the quick flash of something that could have been a smile on Keith's face. “Usually when guys approach me in bars they like to try out some kind of pickup line,” Keith drawled. “Is that what all this is meant to be? 'Cause if it is, it's definitely the weirdest I've heard all year.”

 

“It's not a line, I swear, I just...” Shiro sighed and threw his thumb over his shoulder at Matt, who was no doubt still watching this trainwreck with delight, and possibly filming it to share with Pidge for future blackmail purposes. “My friend bet me that if I came to talk to you I wouldn't be able to think of anything to say except 'you should punch me in the face', and he was right, and oh god I can't believe I'm telling you this--” He barked a laugh. His face felt burning hot. “Sorry, again, I'll just – leave you in peace, shall I?”

 

He gave Keith a smile he hoped looked more apologetic than it felt – which was constipated – and shuffled back, turning to go.

 

“Yeah, definitely the weirdest line.” Keith sounded almost amused. When Shiro looked again the air of caution was gone and Keith had relaxed in his seat, his hips twisted to face towards Shiro, one foot propped on the footrest of the stool.

 

God, his legs were long. His thighs in that dark denim - - okay, no, focus, Shirogane.

 

Keith leaned his elbow on the bar. “Hey, it's Shiro, right?”

 

“Yeah, that's – yeah.” Shiro cleared his throat. “And you're Keith.”

 

Keith nodded and ducked his head. A long lock of thick, dark hair fell in front of his face. Shiro resisted the urge that gripped him to reach out and tuck it behind his ear.

 

“Seriously though, if I'm bothering you-”

 

“No,” Keith said quickly. “Um. It's fine.” A hint of  his pink tongue came out to lick his chapped lips. “I meant to talk to you, actually, at the end of the semester. After finals. So... I'm kinda glad to be talking to you now.”

 

Shiro's heart leapt like it had discovered zero gravity. “Oh?” He might only mean something about the class, or the exams, calm down, calm down--

 

“Yeah.” Keith shifted on his stool and peered up again. His eyelashes were so long and thick and dark. He took in a breath and squared his shoulders, like he was gearing himself up, and opened his mouth to speak--

 

A loud cheer interrupted him before he could say anything.

 

“Ten! Nine! Eight!”

 

Keith visibly startled and broke eye-contact to glare out at the crowd. Shiro shook himself back to reality.

 

Oh, right, the countdown. Somehow he'd managed to forget it was New Year's Eve.

 

He drummed his fingers on the bar, watching the crowd as they shouted out the numbers in drunken joy. Inevitably the clock ticked down. The minute hand reached twelve and the whole room erupted in joyful cacophany; midnight at last. Goodbye to the old year, hello to the new.

 

A chorus of voices raised to the ceiling in an out-of-tune but enthusiastic rendition of Auld Lang Syne. The only people not singing were the ones sucking face with their neighbors.

 

Well, them and the two men at the bar.

 

Shiro peeked sidelong at Keith, who was frowning slightly. Shiro followed his gaze across the room to his lanky friend – who had apparently succeeded in winning over the silver-haired girl after all, huh. Good for him.

 

Matt was faring better romantically than Shiro, too. Sometime in the past five minutes he had managed to charm a young lady into sitting on his lap, and the two of them looked thoroughly engrossed with each other.

 

Shiro wasn't disgruntled at all that everyone was having better luck than him. He totally wasn't. That would be childish.

 

He sighed. Should he leave..?

 

He looked back at Keith, only to find Keith already looking at him.

 

Keith blinked and quickly turned away. His hair fell over his eyes and he rubbed his ear. A few seconds passed, and those gorgeous eyes swept up to Shiro's again, to steal his breath once more.

 

Shiro leaned in. “It's getting pretty loud in here, huh?” he said. “You want to grab some fresh air for a minute?”

 

Keith's stare was piercing. Shiro waited, holding his breath with his heart in his throat, until the corners of Keith's mouth lifted.

 

“Yeah, okay,” Keith said. “I'll join you.”

 

The air outside was brisk and chilled, prickling on the inside of Shiro's lungs when he breathed it in deep. It sobered him up more, cleared his head, but with sobriety came a foothold for anxiety to creep back in. He blew out a breath that fogged in a cloud around him. “I'll be honest, Keith,” he said, “I've actually been working up the courage to come talk to you for a while now.” He palmed the back of his neck and chuckled. “But I guess I didn't make the best first impression back there.”

 

Keith stuck his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket and shrugged. He looked up at Shiro from under the fall of his hair. The fluorescent lights of the bar sign made flecks of purple shine in the depths of his eyes. “I dunno. It could've been worse.”

 

“Yeah, no kidding. I saw how you handled that guy who was all up in your space. That sort of thing happen a lot?”

 

“To me? Couple times a year, maybe.” Keith shrugged again. “It's no big deal. Just a drunk asshole.” It didn't seem like 'no big deal' to Shiro, but he didn't argue. Keith continued, “Besides, it wasn't your first impression. I mean, you were my TA for a whole semester, so...”

 

“That's true. But it's different outside the context of class, right?”

 

“Not too different.” Something about Keith's smile was shy. “I... actually, that's why I wanted to talk to you? Maybe you don't remember, but – I spoke to you after class a few weeks into the semester, and you gave me some advice.” He went on, halting, “Truth is, that week, all I'd been thinking about was dropping out. I just kept feeling like I didn't fit in, that I wasn't clever enough or good enough and I was never gonna make it to graduation, so why was I wasting all my time and money, you know? But you... you were really encouraging, and – and I knew you meant what you said, and it – uh. I really needed to hear it. So. Thanks.”

 

Shiro remembered the occasion. He'd recognized the way Keith talked down on himself and his abilities, had recognized the tight expression on Keith's face, that particular brand of barely held-back frustration, sadness and shame. It had been familiar to him as his own, back when no one had believed he could achieve anything.

 

“That's good,” he replied. “I mean, I'm glad I could help, Keith. I really am.”

 

“You did,” Keith said earnestly. Was the pink on his cheeks from the cold breeze, or something else? “What I meant is – you were a good TA. That's what I wanted to say.”

 

Shiro bit the inside of his lip and nodded. He glanced up at the festive lights strung above their heads and fought down the premature stirrings of disappointment. He hadn't misread the atmosphere, had he? Maybe all Keith felt was gratitude, or admiration, or--

 

An elbow nudged him gently in the side. “Even if your pickup lines are really strange.”

 

Keith was grinning faintly from under his bangs, his eyes sparkling with barely hidden amusement.

 

Shiro's small laugh came out as a puff of white. “I told you already, that wasn't a pickup line.” He bit his lip and tried out the smile Matt had insisted was so charming. “Trust me, you'd know if I was flirting with you.”

 

Keith huffed a laugh. “Uh-huh, sure,” he said dryly.

 

“You would!”

 

“Yeah, I believe you. It may have been a strange line but it wasn't the worst. Not even the worst I've heard tonight.” He crossed his arms over his chest, one thumb rubbing over the curve of his bicep under his jacket sleeve. “Anyway, that was all last year.”

 

“...It was.”

 

“So. You know.” Keith shrugged. “No one's flirted with me at all this year.”

 

“No? That's too bad. A real shame.” Shiro's heart was starting to beat fast. Despite the chill in the air he felt flushed with warmth. “Did you want to try and change that?”

 

A beat passed between them, and then Keith smiled too. “Maybe,” he said quietly.

 

“Hm.” Shiro pursed his lips, wracked his brain for the most heinous cheesy pick up lines he could think of. “Okay, so, how about this: 'Was your father an alien? Because there’s no one else like you on Earth'.”

 

Keith's lips twitched. “My mom, actually. You got any more?”

 

“Hm... 'Even in zero gravity, I would still fall for you.'” That one got an eye roll. “No? What about, 'Did you set your phasers to stun? Because that's how I feel every time I look at you.'” Keith laughed at that one, soft and low, exposing his teeth. His canines were pointed, like little fangs. “'Do you have a star map? I keep getting lost in the galaxies in your eyes'.”

 

“Okay okay, stop,” Keith groaned, tripping out another little laugh. “Please tell me this isn't actually your idea of flirting? 'Cause if it is maybe I should be worried.”

 

By now Shiro was grinning so hard his cheeks hurt, and he couldn't stop. “Depends. Are you gonna toss me over your shoulder for it?”

 

Keith narrowed his eyes and smirked. “I think you'd like it if I did, mister Takashi 'punch me in the face' Shirogane.”

 

Shiro barked out a laugh, blushing fiercely. “In my admittedly meager defense, you were damn impressive,” he said. “Do you do martial arts?”

 

“Yeah. My mom taught me self defense.”

 

“Oh. Wow.”

 

“Yeah, she's pretty badass.” He scuffed his foot on the sidewalk. “I don't mind, by the way.”

 

“Huh? Mind what?”

 

“If you were flirting. You don't have to make jokes about it, it's fine. I don't mind.”

 

The look Keith fixed him with was intense, but he wore his emotions openly, and there was nervousness in his face too. Anticipation.

 

Hope spread and bloomed in Shiro's chest. He swallowed. “In that case...”

 

He stepped in closer and lowered his voice, said seriously, simply, sincere, “Keith. I'd really like to get to know you better. Do you want to go get coffee with me sometime? Tomorrow, maybe?”

 

Keith's flush deepened. He nodded, cleared his throat, then reached down and brushed his fingers against the back of Shiro's hand.

 

“I'd like that,” he said.

 

Delighted, Shiro beamed. He still owed Matt money, and he was in for a lifetime of Holt-style teasing, but he couldn't care less. Not when the year was only ten minutes old and his heart was already so full of sweet, tender joy.

 

He wrapped his hand around Keith's smaller one and held it close.