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i think i found myself a cheerleader

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act one. // .crop tops and testosterone passion

 

High school is just one huge, stinking social experiment and Keith is a miserable cog in the inescapable grasp of the compulsory education machine.

Somewhere along the course of history, some wiseass decided it was a good idea to stuff a bunch of pubescent kids into confined spaces for seven hours, demand that they ‘learn,’ and observe what happened. And when the hordes of these ‘high schoolers’ descended upon themselves in a cannibalistic, sexually frustrated frenzy, the idiots in charge patted themselves on the back.

‘Nice work,’ they said to each other. ‘We’re really making progress.’

Keith, for one, has had enough.

It’s bad enough that he has to suffer through inane ‘honors’ classes instead of dual-enrolling fully or, hell, just graduating early and shipping himself off to the magical land of university until that disappointed him as well. No, he has to put up with the social shithole that is high school and play along with the rules of cliques and popularity.

Keith doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand why wearing black and overapplying mascara makes you a goth. Or why the skateboarders can’t talk to the dance team. Or why the nerds are ostracized. Or why the athletes are glorified.

Keith just doesn’t get high school. Mr. Shirogane says he’s an old soul, whatever that means. Pidge seems to think it means he’s a grandpa in a kid’s body and well, Pidge isn’t usually wrong. But at the time he said it, Pidge had been laughing, which makes Keith think he’s being played.

In practice, it means that every morning Keith slouches from the bike racks to the cafeteria, avoiding making eye contact with any of his fellow teens. He doesn’t want to stir up any trouble with the Pokemon players because he accidentally stared one of them down (he has an unfortunate habit of doing that). He doesn’t want to buy pot from the dealer in the knit cap slouching against the brick wall of the athletic shed. And more than anything else, he doesn’t want to draw attention from the so-called popular crowd.

Voltron High, outside of having the world’s coolest high school name, is completely and utterly ordinary. The football players and cheerleaders are worshipped while they get themselves mixed up in incestuous dating drama. The girls claw each other’s eyes out over the hottest boy of the month and the boys flunk out of algebra because they’re doing cocaine on the weekend instead of studying. And yet, somehow, every wide-eyed freshman and half-baked loser at the school wants to be them.

They’re standing in their usual exclusive circle under the outside pavilion. School hasn’t started yet, so the cheerleaders are flashing their shoulders in blatant defiance of dress code. They’re also wearing skirts that won’t magically adhere to the dress code once school starts, no matter how much they tug them down. The seniors on the varsity football team are all wearing their letterman jackets and making no effort at all to disguise the fact that they’re staring down the girl’s shirts.

The only one who probably isn’t guilty of that is the star quarterback, Hunk. Keith doesn’t know his real name, and only knows the nickname through passing conversations in the hallway. Hunk’s got a nice smile and Keith hasn’t witnessed him knocking lunch trays out of the hands of unsuspecting victims, so Keith reserves his opinion of Hunk. Of course, the probable reason that he isn’t ogling boobs is because he’s deep in conversation with Voltron High’s very own pet male cheerleader.

Lance McClain is the biggest enigma of Voltron High. Experience dictates that Lance should be ridiculed. Exiled. Thrown to the lowest rung of the social ladder, never to return. He’s a boy, he’s not white, and he does cheerleading. He should have been slapped with the ‘fag’ label and left for dead. And yet, punches remain unthrown. Racist jokes, untold. Lance has sailed to the top of the social hierarchy without a sweat and, if the high school grapevine is to be believed, he’s lost his virginity. Keith suspects it has something to do with his close connection to Hunk, but his theory remains unproven. As a rule, Keith tries not to think too much about idiots or things that make his head hurt.

Lance throws his head back, laughing at something Hunk said. He’s perched on top of one of the picnic tables, Hunk sitting on the seat beside him. Lance looks like a king in skinny jeans and some salmon-colored monstrosity of a shirt. Actually, all the girls are wearing pink too. Cheerleaders.

Keith gives their group a wide berth and marches through the cafeteria doors. Just seeing the popular pack has put him in a bad mood. He walks into English Lit. with a scowl firmly in place.

“Whoa, who pissed in your cornflakes?” Pidge, master of subtlety, says. He leans forward in his desk as Keith tosses his backpack to the ground and slides into the seat in front of him.

Keith debates telling him about the teenage royalty and decides that if it sounds stupid in his head, it’ll sound stupider out loud. Instead, he twists around and says, “Do you think Chad or Brad or whatever his name is would beat up Lance if he became prom king instead of him and his girlfriend?”

Pidge purses his lips together. “You’re assuming Lance would be going with a girl, which could very well be a false assumption.”

“What does going with a girl have to do with being prom king?” Keith asks.

“Um, because the school board is essentially homophobic?” Pidge says. “There can’t be two prom kings.”

“Are you suggesting that Lance will take Chad?”

“I think his name is Chance.”

“Whatever!”

Pidge leans back in his seat. “I’m not saying Lance would take a guy, but it’s a possibility. The guy’s a mystery.”

“Tell me about it,” Keith groans.

Pidge quirks an eyebrow. “Since when do you give a rat’s ass about Lance-the-cheerleader anyway? Actually, more importantly, what page were we supposed to read to in Hamlet?”

“Fifty-three,” Keith says. Pidge mutters ‘fuck’ under his breath and flips open his book. “And I don’t care about him. He’s just been this annoying bug buzzing around my ear every time he opens his mouth to ask a question in Calculus. What is he doing in Calculus, anyway?”

“Tone down the honors snob a little, will ya?” Pidge asks. “I’m trying to read about Hamlet’s angst over his dead dad.”

“I’m just saying,” Keith says. “He doesn’t belong there. He’s a cheerleader.”

“Dude,” Pidge says, looking up from the play book. “You only have to deal with him for like, one period—”

“Two,” Keith grumbles. They shared hour-long fourth period Calculus which was enough of a pain on its own, but also fifth period gym. Not that Lance ever did anything besides stand at the back with a group of girls and chat.

“Right, whatever,” Pidge says. “But you have me for six periods, so can you let me read the extra twelve pages I missed so that I don’t fail the pop quiz?”

(They had the Honors Kid Schedules™, one of two variations that the honors kids had to accommodate their accelerated and college-prep classes. Keith and Pidge had identical schedules save for fifth period, where Keith took gym and Pidge took art.)

“Coghlan isn’t going to give a pop quiz today,” Keith says, frowning. “He gave one on Friday.”

“He knows,” Pidge says gravely. “He always knows when you haven’t done the reading.”

Keith opens his mouth to argue when their teacher, a mostly-bald Irishman, stalks into the room, scans it, and says, “Pop quiz today.”

Keith’s groans are echoed across the rest of the students who had filed in while he was talking to Pidge. Behind him, Pidge whispers, “He knows.” Well, that was just creepy.

 

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Second period World History might as well have been a nap period for all Keith cared. The teacher turned off the lights to go over a powerpoint on Mao’s China so, snore. When Keith finally drags himself from second period, disoriented and vaguely irritated at communism, he nearly bumps into Pidge on the way out the door.

“Ready for chemistry?” Pidge asks. “We’re getting our tests back.”

Keith’s heart thumps, but it has nothing to do with test anxiety. He schools his face into a scowl. “I don’t even want to know. You know what Jocelyn said the class average was? Seventy-two percent. That’s the average. My mom would kill me if I got a seventy-two.”

“I guess it’s time to see if you’re average, then, Kogane,” Pidge says. He makes double pistols and pretends to blast Keith with a ‘pchoo, pchoo’ noise.

Keith ruffles Pidge’s hair, which he knows Pidge hates. As expected, Pidge squawks and bats away his hand. Keith throws him a half-smile and heads to chemistry.

“Oh yeah, walk away with your backpack slung over one shoulder, you insufferable cool kid,” Pidge mutters.

“What are you even talking about,” Keith says. “Last week you were touting us as the social outcasts of modern society.”

“Yeah, but you’re hot, so you get a free pass,” Pidge whines. “It’s not fair. You could be talking about golf and girls would still come up to me asking if you’re single.”

Keith’s brow furrows. “Why would they ask you about me being single?”

Pidge throws up his hands. “This is what I’m talking about! You’re an alien! And! They! Still! Like you!”

Keith shrugs. “I can’t account for people’s bad taste.”

“Don’t look at me,” Pidge says. “Ace life, dude. Just because I understand social patterns doesn’t mean I understand them, y’know? Besides, I’m waiting on a certain someone to fall for me. I don’t have time for just any hot boy.”

Pidge means Hunk, because he’s worshipped the ground Hunk walks on ever since sophomore year he joined robotics club and saved Pidge’s robot from falling apart at competition. He even took back his oath to never crush on athletes. It’s kind of embarrassing, actually, to watch him watch Hunk with stars in his eyes. Pidge doesn’t stand a chance with a varsity football player who’s on a first name basis with the entire cheerleading team, but then again, Keith wouldn’t have pegged Hunk as a robotics nerd either.

“Well,” Pidge says. “It’s nice to know I’m not the most hopeless case around.”

“Can it,” Keith says. Pidge shuts up, hands held high in surrender.

Keith pulls open the door to their chemistry class and makes a beeline for the lab table right at the front of the room. He doesn’t escape Pidge for long though, given Pidge is his lab partner. He runs into Jocelyn, still packing up her books, and remembers what Pidge said.

“Hey,” Keith says. “How’d it go?”

Jocelyn looks up and crosses herself, shaking her head slowly. “Godspeed,” she says, clapping Keith on the shoulder.

Keith winces. “Study group Wednesday?”

“Not this time, Kogane,” she says. “I’m going to tutoring.” She says tutoring like someone might say death row. Keith knows, objectively, tutoring isn’t that bad. But the potential shame of having a concept explained to him by a condescendingly kind student makes him grind his teeth.

Jocelyn’s face says she’s thinking the same thing. “I’m going tomorrow, if you want to join. It might be fine.”

“Jocelyn, the bell’s going to ring in two,” Mr. Shirogane says, and Keith’s mind goes blank.

“Right,” she says. To Keith, she says, “See you tomorrow, Kogane.” Keith doesn’t like how certain she sounds.

Keith doesn’t smalltalk, so he doesn’t turn to face Mr. Shirogane. Instead he slowly unpacks his bag, trying not to be aware of the teacher behind him. He removes his binder, notebook, and pencil case with the careful ease of someone under supervision by a superior.

Pidge, on the other hand, dumps his bag out on the lab table, pencil shavings and crumpled papers going everywhere. “Told you,” he says to Keith. To Mr. Shirogane, he says, “’Sup Mr. Shiro.”

Sometimes, Keith really, really hates his best friend.

“Hello Pidge,” Mr. Shirogane says. Keith can hear the smile in his voice. “Did you catch the documentary on the ISS on Saturday?”

“Sure did,” Pidge says. “Dragged Keith over to see it, too.”

“Oh, really?” Mr. Shirogane says. “Did you enjoy it?”

Keith is forced to turn and make eye contact with Mr. Shirogane. He wishes he didn’t. Takashi Shirogane is twenty-five, has his Master’s, served in the military, and is spectacularly gorgeous. Really, it’s amazing Keith hasn’t simply combusted from holding his gaze. He sure feels like doing so every time Pidge opens his smart mouth and says something stupid to force them to interact. Mr. Shirogane is everything Keith aspires to be, not that he’s consumed by hero worship or anything.

At least he hasn’t made a shrine to Mr. Shirogane like Pidge has to Hunk. He only has a scrapbook.

“Yeah,” Keith says. “Focused a little too much on human interest and history though, not enough on the actual functionality of the space station.”

“Yeah,” Pidge chimes in. “Not enough conspiracy to keep your attention.”

Keith takes a deep breath. “You watch one YouTube—”

“One video? More like one video series!” Pidge crows. “You’re obsessed, dude.”

“It was two years ago!” Keith cries.

Behind him, Mr. Shirogane is laughing. He has perfect teeth, and his biceps stand out against his button down when he laughs. Keith hates him, or is a little bit in love with him. Who knows which it could be. Pidge is grinning the fattest, smuggest grin Keith has seen in a long time. He allows himself the fantasy of strangling Pidge, just once.

“You guys crack me up,” Mr. Shirogane says. The bell rings and he makes a shooing motion with a wink that sticks with Keith long after Mr. Shirogane addresses the class.

“Do you think we’ll get extra credit now?” Pidge asks.

“We’re fighting, effective immediately,” Keith says.

“Oh, come on,” Pidge says. “I facilitated both a smile and a laugh from Shiro. You should be thanking me.”

“At my expense,” Keith hisses.

“Whatever, he probably thinks you’re totally cute,” Pidge says. “He’s only like six or seven years older than you. He’s not immune to dark and brooding and handsome. That’s you, by the way.”

“Fighting,” Keith insists.

“—I’ll be handing back your tests,” Mr. Shirogane says.

Keith and Pidge exchange glances. The tests are sorted in alphabetical order, so both of them have a short wait until they receive theirs. Pidge chews on the end of his pencil until ‘Holt’ is called and he shoots up from his seat to get his test. Keith is more reserved.

Pidge peeks at the front of his test and his shoulders slump, relief written all over his face. Not a seventy-two, then. Keith turns his test over and takes a moment to register the score.

Sixty-two.

Yes, that definitely was not an eighty-two or even a seventy-two, but a sixty-two. Keith was three points away from failing. He stares at it blankly, trying to conjure up an emotion greater than shock. In the corner of his eye, Pidge is miming his score with his fingers, more and more insistent as Keith refuses to pay attention. He gives up after a while, most likely assuming they’re still fighting.

The entirety of chemistry class, they go over the test. Keith recovers enough to dutifully write down the answers to the questions, but his mind is a million miles away, thinking about how his chemistry grade (already abysmal) was going to sink like a stone, how his mom was going to log onto his gradebook and see his grade, how she was going to then gut him like a fish, or more likely, ground him.

Mostly, he was worried she would take golf away from him. Although doing so would be completely counterproductive to his greatest selling point university-wise, he had also never gotten a grade this low, especially not in a STEM class. By the time the period is up, he’s already concocted a speech to explain what happened and a plan of action to fix it. Mr. Shirogane did test corrections, right? Keith wasn’t above begging on his hands and knees.

“Keith, may I speak to you for a moment?” Mr. Shirogane calls after the bell rings.

One guess what he wants to talk about. Keith would rather see himself to the gallows, but he nods. Pidge gives him a weird look but tosses all his things into his backpack and takes off with a two-finger salute.

“You looked pretty surprised about your grade,” Mr. Shirogane says. He’s doing the kind half-smile. Keith had seen it turned on some other poor soul sobbing about their grade, but never imagined it would be turned on him. At least his frustration manifested itself quietly.

“You could say that,” he says. He shifts his backpack on his shoulder.

“You’re one of my best students,” Mr. Shirogane says. “I really mean that. I appreciate how much effort you put into your work and your studying. Even this test—I could tell you studied very hard for it, you just didn’t grasp the material fully.”

Keith looks steadily at his shoulder so he doesn’t end up looking at his mouth. His fists clench and unclench.

“I really recommend the tutoring program here,” Mr. Shirogane says. “I know—I’ve heard you talk to Jocelyn and I know it can seem demeaning, but these kids really just want to help. Plenty of my students go to tutoring and come back knowing the subject much better than when they started. Besides, my number one student is a tutor there and sometimes I think he’s a better teacher than I am.” He laughs.

When Keith still doesn’t look convinced, he takes a breath. “Tell you what. If you try the tutoring program and you still don’t get it or are in some way unsatisfied with the tutors’ attitudes, I’ll help you personally in the mornings.”

Keith’s heart stops. He must show something even though he fights to keep any expression from rising, because Mr. Shirogane smiles encouragingly. “I come in pretty early anyway and you’re a quick learner,” he explains. “But I’d really love you to give tutoring a shot.”

“Okay,” Keith says. His voice sounds like an echo to him, someone else’s voice speaking for him. He’s still blown away that Mr. Shirogane would offer his time up to Keith. He has a moment where he can picture them, shoulder to shoulder, talking over molecular structures, getting to know each other. It’s too tempting an image to pass up. Keith will put up with a day of tutoring. Somehow.

 

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“Dude,” Pidge says when Keith walks into Calculus. “What happened?”

Keith sits himself in his desk very carefully. His backpack slides to the floor. “I have a study date,” he says numbly.

“You have a what?” Pidge squawks.

“Not like a—it’s not literally a date, shut up!” Keith says, motioning for Pidge to calm down. “But he’s going to tutor me? Personally?”

“That is a date,” Pidge says. “It’s totally a date.”

Then Lance calls out a loud, borderline rude question about the derivatives in the homework last night and Keith remembers why he hates high school so much.

 

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“So,” Pidge says, “this date.”

Keith smashes the B button on his controller a few times and Pidge’s man goes down. Pidge swears.

“It’s not an actual date,” Keith says, but he’s distracted enough by the thought of it that he misses Pidge reincarnating just in time to slice his guy to bits. He glares at Pidge and Pidge flips him off.

“Tell me exactly how it went down,” Pidge says. “I want to know all the gay shit. Did he call you his favorite student?”

“He said I was one of his best students,” Keith mumbles. He’s beyond pleased, but the less fodder he gives Pidge to use against him, the better off he’ll be. “All I have to do is jump through some hoops going to regular tutoring and then I get one-on-one time.”

“I thought you didn’t like tutoring,” Pidge says.

“I don’t,” Keith says. “But Jocelyn’s going tomorrow so I won’t be alone.”

“I go for Calc sometimes,” Pidge says, shrugging one shoulder. “It’s not so bad. It’s like study group, but with people you don’t know.”

Keith makes an unconvinced noise. On screen, he blasts around the corner Pidge was hiding behind with a machine gun.

“God dammit, man,” Pidge says. “Spare the innocent.”

“What about you?” Keith says. “You’re always on my case about Shiro but it’s not like you’ve made a move on Hunk either.”

“Um, yeah, but that’s because I have a plan,” Pidge tilts his controller and sticks out his tongue as he ambushes Keith. “You just moon over Shiro from afar. I’m slowly luring Hunk in with my smarts and cleverly-timed nerd jokes.”

“Please god no,” Keith says.

“Hey, fuck you, man,” Pidge says cheerfully. “He may groan at them but I always catch him smiling. That’s what true love is all about.”

“Whatever,” Keith says. “I’m calling you to complain after tutoring tomorrow.”

“Sometimes I wonder why I’m friends with you, snob,” Pidge says.

“If we’re honest with each other? It’s because you don’t have anyone else,” Keith says. He ruffles Pidge’s hair again and Pidge tries to bite his hand.

 

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It didn’t occur to Keith that he’d be missing golf practice by going to tutoring, so he’s already in a bad mood before he even gets to the media center. Of course, his mom had had no problem with excusing him from golf so that he could right his miserable folly of a grade. He’d been right to plan a speech—the only reason he wasn’t in deep, deep shit was because he had made a plan and talked to a teacher already.

As soon as the door closes behind him, the chatter of kids on their way out of school fades away to the typical quiet of a library. Keith identifies the tutoring group by finding the back of Jocelyn’s head, already engaged in conversation with another girl. They’re pointing at papers.

Damn. Keith had really been banking on being tutored with her. Maybe he could still sneak into her group…

“Hello!” Mr. Binns, the overly cheerful tutoring sponsor catches Keith on his way to Jocelyn. “Are you here for tutoring?”

Keith considers his options. Escape does not seem likely. “Yes,” he says finally.

“Please sign in here, then,” Mr. Binns says. “One of our students will be with you shortly. What subject are you here for?”

“Chemistry,” Keith sighs.

Across the room, Keith spies Lance. He’s leaning back in a cushy chair, feet kicked up on a table. He’s chewing gum. Keith isn’t surprised to see him here for help, but it is weird seeing him without at least one of his athletic posse. Surely one of the football players could use the extra help? No, of course not. That would take away from practice. The coach and principal could cover up their shitty grades as long as they pulled out results in the games.

No one appears to be moving towards Lance to help him. Must be too intimidating. He blows a bubble, pink and translucent, eyes on the ceiling. Did he even care about his grades? Keith hadn’t once seen him take Calculus seriously.

Keith realizes he hasn’t written down his name yet. He scribbles it down near illegibly so that it won’t be easily readable to anyone who snoops on the tutoring roster. Someone like Lance.

He hands the sign-up sheet to Mr. Binns who smiles at him. “Excellent! Well, Mr…uh,” he says.

“Kogane,” Keith says.

“Mr. Kogane,” Mr. Binns says. “We’ll pair you up with Lance over there.”

Keith follows Mr. Binns’ gesture to Lance. He doesn’t understand what Mr. Binns is saying. Was Lance there for chemistry help too? Why weren’t they with Jocelyn, then?

It’s not until Lance raises an eyebrow and hops up, starts moving towards them, that Keith understands Mr. Binns intends for Lance to tutor him.

“Wow, Keith Kogane,” Lance says. “Never thought I’d see the Mullet Prince himself ever bow down and accept help from his lowly subjects.”

“You have got to be joking,” Keith says hollowly.

This was some kind of joke, right? Keith looks at Mr. Binns but his expression hasn’t changed. There was no way…what the hell was Keith going to learn from an airheaded primadonna like Lance? He was probably here for the service hours, not because he was qualified for the job in any way, shape, or form.

“Play nice, you two,” Mr. Binns says, and leaves them to it.

Keith thinks, very clearly, that no amount of personal time spent with Shiro will be worth the next hour of his life.

Lance looks him up and down, a predator sizing up his prey. “I gotta hear this one,” he says. “What grade did you get on Shiro’s test that made you break?”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” Keith says.

“Ooo, as hostile on the inside as he is on the outside,” Lance says. He laughs.

“What do you want from me, man?” Keith says wearily. “Why do you even know my name?”

“Oh, come on,” Lance says. “Don’t tell me I was just imagining that tension.” When Keith stares at him, he crosses his arms. “Um, Calculus, obviously? Lance-and-Keith, neck-and-neck for the best grade on each test? We’re like, archrivals!”

“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about,” Keith says.

“Please,” Lance says. “You’re a painfully easy read. I can read ‘academically overcompetitive’ on you from a mile away.”

“Yeah, so?” Keith says. “What does that have to do with you? It’s always me and Lauren in Calculus.”

“Nuh-uh,” Lance argues. “Lauren’s good, yeah, but she’s solidly number three. It’s always you or me in first place.”

Keith honestly can’t tell if he’s joking. He blinks at Lance. “You’re…joking, right?” Lance had to be messing with him. “We work hard for our grades. It probably seems like fun to you, making light of our accomplishments, but we put in a lot of effort to get where we are.”

Some of the teasing light goes out of Lance’s eyes. His smile shrinks and his eyes narrow. “Okay,” he says, voice lower than Keith had ever heard it. “Let’s talk chemistry instead, then. What’s got you troubled, hot shot?” His smile returns, but this one cuts.

“I am trying to figure out these VSEPR exercises,” Keith sighs. Loudly. “You know, like—”

“Like valence-shell electron-pair repulsion theory?” Lance finishes for him.

Keith stares.

Lance bats his eyelashes and chews on his bubblegum, blowing a large bubble and snapping it right in front of Keith’s face. “What?” he says. “Like it’s hard.”

“Fine,” Keith says, gritting his teeth. “Then can you explain a T-shaped molecule to me?”

“Sure thing, hon,” Lance says sweetly. “A T-shaped molecule is the structure where the central atom has three ligands and two lone pairs of electrons. Two of the ligands will repel each other at a 180 degree angle, and then the lone pairs will repel each other and the final ligand so that it makes a 90 degree angle with the other ligands and the central atom, as such.” He proceeds to draw a flawless model of chlorine trifluoride.

“Making sense yet?” Lance asks. “Not that I would know anything about chemistry, of course.”

Oh, it is so on.

Keith didn’t pull any punches. He dove straight in to the hardest questions on the test, the multi-step, multi-skill testing killers that he always lost a few points on even on his best days. Lance walked him through each step with the ease of a chemistry professor, familiar with each problem like they were old friends and as condescending as possible the entire time.

“Oh, beginner’s mistake there, don’t worry, could happen to anyone…”

“That one was kind of tricky, wasn’t it? It almost tripped me up when I read it the first time…”

“Ha! Typical Shiro, throwing in a trick like that. Pretty obvious once you get used to it…”

And all the while he snapped his gum and stood with arms crossed, hip cocked to the side.

“Looks like you’re out of questions,” Lance says when Keith has drilled him with everything he’s got. He peers over the top of Keith’s test and Keith isn’t fast enough to snatch it away from him. “Maybe with my awesome tutoring skills, you won’t get a sixty-two next time,” he adds.

“You’re so full of shit,” Keith snaps.

“Maybe don’t make assumptions about people you don’t know, sweetheart,” Lance says. “You’ll just make a fool of yourself.”

Keith storms out of the media center, murder on his mind.

 

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“He is the most insufferable, awful fucking prick I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Keith says into the phone. He’s pacing holes into his carpet, unable to release all his pent up rage. He wants to punch something. He wants to punch someone.

Go back to the part where you got schooled by a cheerleader,” Pidge says on the other end. “I cannot believe what I’m hearing right now.”

“The whole time he was ‘helping’ me, he just prattled on in this condescending, sugary tone of voice, like I was an infant or something,” Keith says. He’s gesturing now. Very pointedly.

I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Pidge says again. “You know this is like, the ultimate karma for you, right?

“Karma? For me?” Keith’s voice goes shrill. “I wasn’t the one being a dickhead!”

Uh, yeah, you totally were,” Pidge says. “What kind of blunt, you’re-just-a-stupid-cheerleader comment did you make to provoke him? Oh my god…you provoked Lance McClain. Dude, you are so dead.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Keith lies because, oh, yeah, he kind of did insinuate that Lance would never even come close to his and Lauren’s grades in Calculus. “How was I supposed to know he was some kind of fucking chemistry genius? And—hey! I’m going to be fine!”

You’ve disturbed the peace,” Pidge says. “You’ve made an enemy of the football players and the cheerleaders. You’re doomed. It was great knowing you, Keith Kogane. I’ll tell your story to my children as a cautionary tale.”

“Instead of making fun of me, maybe you want to consider where you fall in all of this?” Keith says. “If I’m the enemy of football players and you’re my friend, then that makes you the enemy of football players, too. Did you forget Hunk?”

Oh no,” Pidge says. “The pact of robotics club is a sacred one. A petty feud between our friends will not tear us apart. Besides, it’s more romantic if it’s a forbidden love, isn’t it?

“I wouldn’t know,” Keith says, “considering my best friend hasn’t shown an inkling of sympathy for me since I called him.”

Oh boo-hoo,” Pidge says. “Your pride is wounded. You made a fool of yourself. Apologize to him and move on with your life.

“Apo—apologize? Apologize. Me. Apologize to Lance.” Keith is so appalled he can’t even formulate a response. “First of all, he’s not an innocent little—”

Alright, alright!” Pidge says. “I get it, you’re not going to apologize to him. Fine then, just let it blow over. The worst that’ll happen is that Lance gets some of the jocks to knock into your shoulder in the hallway or get the girls to point and laugh at you. And then in a week, it’ll be forgotten.”

“I won’t forget it,” Keith mutters.

Yeah, but you’re a bitter little shit,” Pidge says. “You’ll hold onto this fight for the rest of your life. It’ll survive your dementia and old age and on your death bed you’ll still be cursing the name Lance McClain for being More Right About Something Than You.”

The image makes Keith smile, just a little. “Whatever,” he says, but it’s spoken fondly enough that Pidge gets the message.

I’ll see you tomorrow, asshole,” Pidge says. “Try not to like, punch one of the jock’s girlfriends or something equally stupid before I can ground you.”

“Yeah,” Keith says, and hangs up.

 

------------------------------------

 

Amazingly, nothing happens before school. Or in first period. Or in second period, or third, or in the hallways. Against all odds, Keith is alive and kicking when he steps into Calculus. Even Pidge looks a little surprised.

“Okay,” Pidge says. “So he didn’t tell anybody. Maybe he felt like he roasted you enough on his own?”

“Oh look, it’s my favorite overachiever!” Lance calls from across the room. “Hey, Keith! Made any other bad judgements of character lately?”

“Or maybe he’s the judge and the executioner,” Pidge says. “Good luck.” And then he darts into his seat and pulls out a novel, betraying Keith in one smooth move.

Keith ignores both Lance and the curious stares of his classmates. The interaction is kind of an anomaly. No one interacts with Keith aside from Pidge because he gives off very aggressive loner vibes. No one interacts with Lance because he’s the height of popularity. You can’t just talk to someone who was personal friends with both the school president and the defending prom king. Keith and Lance were so far from each other’s circles that they might have been stationed in different galaxies.

And yet, Lance was insistent on collision between their respective worlds.

Keith sees Lance stand up and walk down the row to Keith. He moves with a swagger in his step and ruffles Keith’s hair as he passes by. Keith bristles. So that’s why Pidge didn’t like it.

Lance slings a leg over the seat in front of Keith, facing backwards so that he can meet Keith’s eyes over Keith’s desk. He’s smiling, easy and infuriating.

“The hell do you want?” Keith asks.

“Just to converse with my new friend,” Lance says, shrugging his shoulders innocently. He makes doe eyes at Keith. “You make friends by insulting them, right? I’m just trying to speak loner here.”

“You know,” Keith says coolly. “I was wrong about you.”

“Oh?” Lance says.

“Yeah,” Keith says. “I thought you were an egotistical, self-righteous, airheaded dick. It’s really humbling, finding out that I got one out of four wrong.”

“Ha ha,” Lance says. “You don’t know the first thing about me, freak.”

“And you don’t know the first thing about me, freak,” Keith throws back at him. “Who’s ever heard of a smart cheerleader?”

“You know,” Lance says, leaning back, “I didn’t want to hate you at first.” He’s not smiling anymore.

“Funny,” Keith says. “I’m pretty sure I felt the opposite. Guess we’re both shit at first impressions.”

“All I wanted was a rival,” Lance says. It doesn’t sound like the rest of his words, soaked in saccharine venom. Keith imagines it was something to do with the twist of his lips and the lowering of his voice. He slaps a paper on Keith’s desk that Keith hadn’t noticed him holding.

It’s their Chapter Four test from last week. The grade, circled with a smiley face drawn next to it, is a 94.

“Draw, big man,” Lance says.

Keith reaches into his backpack and his Calculus folder and pulls out his own test. Even as he places it next to Lance’s, he knows what the end result will be. His grade is a 96.

Lance’s face does something complicated, butt in the end he shrugs and picks up his paper, like rolling water off his back. “I guess this round goes to you, Kogane,” he says.

This round? Keith wants to ask. What does that mean? A rivalry? Is that really what you want from me? You?

But their teacher starts talking, chasing kids into their seats, and Lance is back to his ever-smirking persona, probably telling his friends what a loser Keith is, so Keith lets it go.

He wanted it to end there. Right?

He certainly didn’t want to turn over the word ‘rivalry’ in his head for two straight days until Thursday, the next day of tutoring. He certainly didn’t want to mull over the moments Lance’s façade dropped away to reveal a living, breathing human being with emotional modes other than Flirt With Friends and Pick On Outsiders. He didn’t want to be in chemistry class, on the receiving end of Mr. Shirogane’s “So? How did tutoring go? You went Tuesday, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” Keith says. He doesn’t raise his head from where he’s slouched over the lab bench, burying his mouth into his crossed arms. “It was…an experience.” He doesn’t know what else to call Lance other than an experience.

“Who helped you out?” Mr. Shirogane asks, leaning his hip into the lab table and crossing his arms. He smiles at Keith encouragingly. Keith isn’t sure Mr. Shirogane is capable of interacting with a student in any way that isn’t ‘encouraging.’ Keith tries to think of the best possible way to tell his chemistry teacher that his best student is a royal asshole.

“Your best student helped me, and he’s a royal asshole,” Keith says. What? He didn’t exactly pride himself on his tact.

Mr. Shirogane’s eyes grow wide, and then against all odds, he doubles over laughing. Keith watches him, amazed that a teacher could have such a positive reaction to a swear word.

“Oh man,” he says, “did you tell him that to his face?”

“More or less,” Keith mutters, averting his eyes.

“Aw,” Mr. Shirogane says, misinterpreting Keith’s sullenness. “Don’t feel too bad. Someone had to tell him eventually. I’m sorry it had to be you. Am I right in assuming we’ll be doing morning sessions?”

Keith opens his mouth. Closes it.

“I’m…going to have to give you a rain check,” Keith says. “I have a…”

Mr. Shirogane waits.

“A rivalry,” Keith says between gritted teeth.

Mr. Shirogane’s presses his lips together, but his eyes are shining. “Am I allowed to say I approve of this rivalry?”

Keith scowls. “No,” he says. But Mr. Shirogane is already smiling and Keith is but one man under the shining light of his impossible crush’s smile. He hides his face and mumbles something into the desk.

“I’m rooting for you,” Mr. Shirogane says with a laugh.

So Keith marches into tutoring after school lets out, signs his name, and slaps his textbook on the table Lance has his legs propped up on.

“Teach me about Lewis structures,” he orders.

Lance, picking at a hangnail with a scowl, doesn’t even do Keith the service of looking up from his work. “What do I get in return?”

Service hours, jackass, Keith thinks. Aloud, he says, “You get your stupid fucking rivalry.”

Lance looks up at that. He scrutinizes Keith, squinting and making a face. “What changed your mind?” he asks, the height of suspicion.

“You get to prove to me that you’re not a dumb cheerleader,” Keith says, “and I get to prove to you that I’m still better than you.”

“Science and math?” Lance says.

“You’re on,” Keith agrees.

Keith has to change his practice times for golf to later in the evening, but he makes each and every tutoring session on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Mr. Shirogane is happy with Keith and Lance’s competition. Keith’s mom is happy with his grade improvements. Pidge is happy to have the front row seat on drama half the school is talking about without jeopardizing his pursuit of Hunk. Lance is (supposedly) happy to have the rivalry he claimed to want. The only one who is unhappy is Keith himself, who can only watch helplessly as his life turns into the script from a Disney original movie. With a Selena Gomez soundtrack and everything.

He spends two days a week (two days too many!) exchanging grades on tests and quizzes with the single most obnoxious cheerleader he’s ever had the misfortune of meeting. And when they aren’t competing, Lance is passive-aggressively teaching Keith the parts of chemistry he doesn’t understand.

The most frustrating part of it all is that Lance is a really, really good teacher.

Even if he does compliment correct answers with “Duh! It was obvious,” and incorrect answers with “No, you fucking moron.” If Keith has to hear about how totally easy the concept of bond angles is to grasp he’s seriously going to snap Lance’s neck. It’s bad enough that he glares holes in the scores of his assignments, imagining Lance’s smug face whenever he does better than last time.

It’s a Wednesday, three weeks later and mid-Lance Rant, when Pidge finally breaks.

“Dude,” Pidge says. “Come to robotics club.”

“Are you seriously using my moment of emotional vulnerability as a plug for your club?” Keith asks.

“You moved golf practice to six, right? You have time to come to club,” Pidge says.

“I cannot believe you right now,” Keith says. “My entire life has been turned upside down and—”

“Oh, give it a rest, will you?” Pidge snorts. “So Lance has a hate boner and wants to do you. Worse looking people have come onto you before. Do you remember Carly?”

“First of all,” Keith says, “we swore never to talk about Carly again. And second of all, get your mind out of the gutter. Lance wants me to trip and fall on my face, not—not—that.”

“Whatever,” Pidge says. “That’s not even why I was asking. We’re taking apart some old robots for parts and we need a demolition team. I thought you could, like, work out your Lance Stress by tearing shit apart.”

It’s so uncharacteristically thoughtful of Pidge to try and help Keith out with his Lance Stress that Keith is momentarily stunned. Pidge interprets the silence for what it is, shock, and hurries to remedy Keith’s opinion of him. “I mean—! I’m just using you as hired muscle because it hurts my fingers to pull things apart, so really you’re helping me out more than anything—”

“Sounds good,” Keith says, smiling. “I’ll be there.”

Keith takes to his task like a wrecking ball takes to a crumpling apartment building. Wires and plastic and metal scatter the floor as Keith’s fingers work apart circuits and wheels from axles. He grits his teeth and furrows his brow, giving him striking resemblance to a dog with its teeth around a chew toy. It’s not the most brilliant first impression he could have made on the robotics club, but Pidge is too used to his idiosyncrasies to care.

“Yep, that’s Keith,” he says by way of introduction, and turns to the whiteboard to work on preliminary designs for their new robot.

“Hey, you’re Lance’s…friend, aren’t you?” Hunk says, coming up behind Keith.

Keith glances over at him and proceeds to rip a wire from his robotic victim with his teeth. It could be his imagination, but Hunk looks a little nervous.

“He’s not a friend,” Keith says. A friend was someone like Pidge, who offered up chunks of technology to be destroyed when Keith was stressed. But Pidge was also someone who would intentionally humiliate Keith in front of Shiro on multiple occasions. Keith frowns. “Pidge thinks you’re hot,” he says.

“I, uh—yeah, I know,” Hunk says. He rubs the back of his neck. “He told me. Tells me. A lot.”

Keith is aware that as Pidge’s best friend, social norms dictate he should in some way defend his friend against a potential suitor. Keith squints at Hunk.

“Don’t…hurt him…” Keith says slowly, testing the statement for appropriateness.

Hunk and Keith both glance at Pidge. Pidge, who is doing a terrible job of not spying on them, throws them a thumbs up and a beaming smile.

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” Hunk says. “Anyway, I’m really grateful you’re keeping company with Lance. He may not seem like it, but he gets lonely sometimes. He needs a challenge. So, uh, thank you.”

“He basically press ganged me into his stupid rivalry,” Keith says. “And now I’m tearing apart a robot to express my frustration with the shitty turn my life has taken.”

“Um,” Hunk says. “I’ll…leave you to it?”

He scurries off to Pidge’s side and Keith can hear him whisper “your friend is scary” to Pidge. Pidge laughs.

Keith regards them for the rest of the meeting. Pidge is very obviously the president of the club, official or not. He leads the discussions, puts forth the best ideas, and controls the pace of the meeting with an Expo marker that he waves around like an ancient general might wave around a sword. Even though everyone is given time to speak and present their ideas for the robot, everyone defers to Pidge’s opinion.

And Pidge defers to Hunk’s wisdom. While Keith might have suspected Pidge was exaggerating that Hunk saved their robot two years ago, after twenty minutes of listening in on their meeting, he wouldn’t doubt the story. Hunk keeps up with the rest of the nerds despite his occupation as a jock, and a football jock at that. In return, everyone in the robotics club regards him as a friend, and not as the ultra-popular icon the rest of the school saw him as.

Keith also noted, with no small amount of envy, the chemistry between Pidge and Hunk. They bounced ideas off each other, getting more and more excited with each rebound. They were always in each other’s spaces, waving arms and pointing aggressively. Keith could almost see the sparkles and floating hearts around their heads while a magical talking animal started singing about perfect love. And Keith, he can’t even achieve the most basic level of chemistry with Mr. Shirogane. (Haha, he had no chemistry with a chemistry teacher, there was a pun in there, he was sure…oh god, no, Pidge really was rubbing off on him.)

The only person Keith could strike a match with appeared to be Lance, and instead of a tiny flame at the end of a stick, it was an all-consuming forest fire of hate. They had chemistry, alright. The same way a thermite reaction had chemistry. They were a disaster.

And what had Hunk meant about Lance being lonely anyway? He was always surrounded by people. He had a posse of girls at his side 24/7, two entire sports teams he called friends, and the admiration of nearly two thousand high school students. How did a guy like that end up lonely?

(Keith maybe gets it, though. He was friends with Jocelyn, too, but he always felt alone unless Pidge was by his side. Unlike Lance, though, Keith welcomed the solitude.)

“Pidge,” Keith says after the robotics club meeting ends and all the kids start leaving. “I need a favor.”

Pidge’s eyes dart from side to side, very obviously contemplating escape routes.

“Very funny, asshole,” Keith says. “I’m serious. Your boyfriend told me some weird things today.”

“Bye Pidge! I’ll see you next week!” Hunk calls. After a moment of hesitation, he waves and says, “Bye Keith!”

Keith offers a wave in response.

“Yeah, he is the best person in the world,” Pidge says, smiling so hard his face had to hurt.

Keith snaps in Pidge’s face to get his attention. “I’m serious!” he says. “We need to do reconnaissance on Lance. I think he might have a weakness I can exploit. Or at least get him not to mock me every three words during tutoring. It’s annoying.”

“What’s in it for me?” Pidge asks. Keith has a sudden, horrifying thought that Pidge and Lance would either kill each other on sight if they met or be joined at the hip within five minutes of conversation. Both options are unacceptable.

“Lance is friends with Hunk,” Keith deadpans. “You spy on Lance, you spy on Hunk.”

“Hmmm,” Pidge says. “Deal, but only on the condition that I’m James Bond. You can be, like, M or something.”

“I don’t even get to be a Bond girl,” Keith says. “What is the point of this life?”

“Well, I mean, if I was Lance, you would definitely—”

“On second thought,” Keith says, “M is fine.”

 

-----------------------------------------

 

Spying on Lance turns out to be…ridiculously easy. Upon reflection, Keith wonders why he expected it to be difficult in the first place. Lance is basically a walking series of flashing arrows pointing at himself. His ego and charisma make him impossible to ignore.

Also, the cheerleaders’ practice schedule is public knowledge.

Keith and Pidge isolate themselves at the top of the bleachers aside parents and friends and admirers who had come to observe either the cheerleaders or the football players. Their disguises of baggy sweatshirts and sunglasses might actually make them stand out more, but the jury’s still out. Lance hasn’t spotted them, and that’s the important part.

But they certainly have spotted Lance. Keith knew Lance was a bonafide attention whore, but Keith didn’t realize how deeply Lance’s need to be seen and paid attention to extended into his daily life. In short, Lance wore the girl’s uniform.

They had money for a boy’s uniform. Keith was sure of it. And yet, there Lance stood in a crop top and booty shorts. He doesn’t look fazed by it. Neither do the other cheerleaders, talking to him without even sparing a glance at his skimpy uniform. Lance laughs at something one of the girls says, one hand on his hip and pom-poms grasped casually in each hand.

“Obscene,” Keith hisses, unable to tear his eyes away from Lance’s midriff.

“Uh-huh,” Pidge says, eyes on the football players further out in the field.

They start their routine, music blasting from a boombox in front of the cheerleaders. A woman who must be their coach watches them with crossed arms. They do a run through of one section of the dance routine, then stop to critique the cheerleaders’ performance. Some girls have the timing off. A few others have to tweak their moves a bit.

Lance doesn’t have to fix anything. In fact, Keith can see that the coach keeps gesturing to him and an older girl Keith supposes must be the captain as examples. And the funny thing is, when Lance is in the middle of the routine, the smile on his face is genuine. He’s sweating and swinging around pom-poms in almost no clothing, and he’s having the time of his life. Keith can’t keep his eyes off him. He’s mesmerized.

Keith is reminded, painfully, of golf. When he’s in the zone, nothing else matters but him, his club, the ball, and their mutual goal to get in the hole with as few swings as possible. The rest of the world falls away. There’s no smile quite like the smile he wears when he wins a game.

Keith thinks that must be the same smile that Lance is wearing right now—true love of his sport. He loves everything: the music, the dancing, the uniforms, the routine, the stunts, the tumbling. In that moment, Keith understands Lance, even though that hadn’t been his intention. And when they cycle into tumbling, Keith holds his breath as Lance takes off at a run, launches his body into a series of back handsprings, and ends by twisting his body through the air and landing on his feet. Cat-like. The grin on his face is fierce. Keith has to look away.

“Wow, I’d like him to kick me in the face,” Pidge says appreciatively. “Seriously, Lance is welcome to kick my ass any day. And I don’t say that about just anyone.”

Lance’s coach is scolding him now, probably over being a reckless showoff, ahhh your wrists, your shoulders, your knees, your ankles. Lance bows his head and takes the chewing out like a man, but he’s still shining.

“He was like—you ever seen how candy canes are made? He was like the red and the white candy dough being twisted together, but in midair. That was like, the most badass thing I’ve ever seen. You wouldn’t think it, looking at him when he’s being a douchebag with his friends, but he’s pretty hot.”

Pidge, amazingly, is still talking. “I thought you were asexual?” Keith says, frowning. He’s still looking at Lance.

“Asexual, yeah,” Pidge says. “Blind, no.”

They watch the rest of the practice, Pidge providing play-by-play commentary of both the cheerleading and football practice, and Keith mellowed out and humbled by Lance’s authenticity. He’d come looking for a fake and a douchebag, like Pidge said, and he found a human. He’s in a very particular state of melancholy.

“Oh, look,” Pidge says. “Your loverboy is going to talk to my loverboy.”

Indeed, with cheerleading practice over and football winding down, Lance is strutting over to the football players and it’s obvious who his target is. Hunk pulls off his helmet and smiles at Lance. Lance cocks his hip to the side and says something with a wry grin. Hunk rubs the back of his neck. Lance throws an arm around Hunk’s neck, leaning into him. They laugh. They smile. Lance doesn’t stop touching Hunk, and Hunk doesn’t brush him off. When they part ways, Lance blows him a kiss and Hunk catches it, pretending to faint.

Keith and Pidge exchange glances.

“What,” Keith starts.

“Was that,” Pidge finishes.

 

-------------------------------------

 

“This can’t be right!” Pidge says, throwing his hands up. They’re in his room under the pretext of studying for a World History test. Keith flicks a model airplane hanging from Pidge’s ceiling. Pidge is so worked up, he doesn’t even scold Keith.

“We could have made a mistake,” Keith says, but it’s mostly to make Pidge feel better.

“We didn’t make a fucking mistake,” Pidge hisses. “That was gay! 100% all-natural homosexuality! My gaydar was going off the charts! Don’t tell me you couldn’t tell—well, I guess this is you…”

“Hey!” Keith says. “I can pick out gay people just fine!” He’s actually never tried, given that he’s spent four years of high school pining after a teacher.

“You’re right,” Pidge says. “You’re not broken, you just have shit taste. There’s no way a straight man would wear that many tight-fitting shirts or put on mascara.”

“Shiro wears mascara?” Keith asks. So that’s why his eyes were so devilishly compelling…

“Do you live under a rock?” Pidge says. “Wait—don’t answer that. Yes, of course Shiro wears mascara, but can we get back to the part where your archenemy is dating the love of my life? It’s kind of the most distressing thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“Surprise, surprise, Lance is the culprit,” Keith says dryly. “Can we hire a deep web hitman yet?”

Pidge lets out a pathetic whine. “So that’s why he never responded to any of my provocations. Hunk already has a hunk in his life. He has a hot cheerleader boyfriend! It’s like, a bad movie trope, but gay!”

“Dude,” Keith says.

Pidge drapes himself across Keith’s lap, moaning. “It’s over for me, buddy. The end of the line. I’m going to die alone. No way can I compete against someone who can bend like that.”

“Gross,” Keith says, but he obediently pats Pidge’s head. At the gentle touch, Pidge calms down and goes still. Keith feels a little bad. When Pidge was doing his overdramatic ‘end of the line’ stunt, Keith at least knew Pidge held out hope that he could win over Hunk. Now that he was quietly resigned, Keith could tell he was trying to give up on Hunk.

“Hey,” Keith says. “Let’s not give up just yet, okay? Lance is a pretty flirty guy. He’s touchy with a lot of the girls, too. And he’s best friends with Hunk. There’s still a chance it’s platonic. One more day of spying, alright?”

“Alright,” Pidge sighs. “You know, Keith. You may not look it, but you’re a really good friend.”

“Thanks,” Keith deadpans. Pidge giggles.

Besides, although Keith has seen a new side to Lance, it’s still not the lonely side Hunk was talking about. Keith has yet to find a chink in Lance’s armor. But he would. He would.

The next day, they return to the bleachers in front of the football field. There’s just one problem.

“It’s weightlifting day!” Pidge howls. “How could we have forgotten about weightlifting day?”

They stare out into the field, which is occupied by…lacrosse players. The football players were in the weight room and therefore, there would be no interaction between Lance and Hunk today. Pidge starts to bang his head against the plastic seat in front of him.

“It’s not a complete waste,” Keith says. “I still want to spy on Lance a little more.” The cheerleaders are doing their thing on the track running around the football field.

Pidge looks up just in time to see Lance and another cheerleader do synchronized backflips to the delight of the rest of the team. “Ugh,” Pidge groans. “Just look at him. He’s a tumbling angel.”

“He’s a fucker,” Keith says. Pidge grunts, which means he accepts Keith’s attempt to make him feel better. They watch the rest of the practice in sullen silence.

“Hey, whoa, what’s going on there?” Pidge asks towards the end. Keith hasn’t glanced away from Lance within the past twenty minutes, so he looks to Pidge and follows his gaze.

One of the lacrosse players—the girl’s lacrosse players—is marching across the field towards the cheerleaders. She calls out “Lance!” in an accented voice. Dark skin, light hair done up in a bun, arms and legs that could crush Keith’s skull in a heartbeat—she could only be Allura Altea, captain of the girl’s lacrosse and weightlifting teams and modern day princess.

“Oh man,” Pidge says. “Oh man.”

“Think they’re gonna fight?” Keith asks.

“I don’t know, but I’m excited!” Pidge says, shaking his arm.

Lance doesn’t seem fazed by this new development. He walks out to meet Allura. They stand in front of each other, toe-to-toe, sizing each other up, before Lance breaks into a grin and throws his arms around Allura. She taller than him, and she picks him up easily, swinging him in a circle while he laughs. She lets him go, but they’re still holding each other’s arms as they talk. Allura ruffles Lance’s hair at one point. Lance booty-bumps her. When they part, Lance kisses her on the cheek and Allura slaps his ass as he walks away.

“Okay,” Pidge says. “I’m officially confused.”

Keith nods, then shakes his head.

“What the hell is going on?” Pidge says, throwing up his arms.

Keith opens his mouth to reply, but at that moment, Lance turns towards the bleachers. His eyes move up the rows purposefully until they rest, very much not by accident, on Keith and Pidge. He doesn’t even look surprised. Instead, he smiles the smile of a predator locking onto his prey, and blows them both a kiss, winking. Then he turns on his heel and follows the rest of the cheerleaders off the field.

“Oh,” Keith says.

Pidge doesn’t even put up a pretense of being able to deal with the situation when they get to his house. He lies down on his bed, face first with his arms by his side.

“Bury me,” he says, voice muffled by his covers. “Pile dirt upon my dying body and leave me to the worms.”

“He knew we were there,” Keith says, amazed.

Pidge props himself up on his elbows. “That’s what you’re stuck on? Do I need to remind you he has an army of pint-sized girls who he’s probably sworn a blood pact with? They spotted us and told him.”

“Oh,” Keith says again.

“What I don’t get is how Lance is juggling both Hunk and Allura,” Pidge says. “Like, do they know they’re being played? Is he doing this all on the down low? Oh god, is he having a threesome with them?”

“For a science nerd, you sure have an active imagination,” Keith says.

Pidge flips him off. “Is now really the time to be making fun of me?”

“You do realize this is probably just his flirty personality in action, right?” Keith says, leaning back on the bed. “He’s just hitting on them for fun.”

“Well, Hunk and Allura don’t have flirty personalities, so explain why they’re catching kisses and slapping his ass,” Pidge huffs.

“Charisma?” Keith suggests. “It changes the people around you.”

“Even if that’s the case,” Pidge says, “is he into gays or Europeans? We have no way of knowing!”

On his bedside table, Pidge’s phone vibrates. Sighing, he rolls over Keith to grab it and opens his messages still stretched over Keith’s stomach. So when he leaps up, digging his elbows into Keith, Keith also jerks upright, coughing.

“Motherfucker,” Keith sputters. “Bony elbow piece of shit—”

Keith,” Pidge says, all traces of sorrow gone. “Hunk invited me to his house on Saturday.”

“That’s great,” Keith says. “Too bad you can’t go because I am going to kill you.”

“I mean, it’s for robotics club,” Pidge say, ignoring Keith completely. “So the rest of the club is going to be there. But still, Hunk’s house.”

Keith wonders if strangulation would get Pidge’s attention. Probably not.

“Oh, you’re invited too,” Pidge says as an afterthought.

Why,” Keith says.

Pidge shrugs. He shoves the phone in Keith’s face. The text message reads: ‘if your scary friend wants to come along too thats cool.’

“Why am I the scary friend?” Keith mutters.

“I am totally going to interrogate him about his relationship with Lance,” Pidge says. “And if he doesn’t know Lance is cheating on him, I will prove that even if I can’t be his romantic partner, I will be the best wingman ever. And if he’s into polyamory, I’ll see if I can like, steal him for a kiss or something.” He snatches his phone away from Keith and texts furiously.

“I’m not going,” Keith says.

“You’re going,” Pidge says.

 

----------------------------

 

“Why am I going, again?” Keith asks.

Hunk’s house is nice without being over the top. It has a lovingly tended garden, a fountain in the front yard, but it’s also the kind of nice that says ‘you’re welcome to ring our doorbell, but break into this house and we will sue you so hard your grandchildren will feel it.’ Keith glares at the cobblestone path like it might bite him.

“You’re moral support,” Pidge says. “Also, you scare Hunk and I like my men just a little on the side of terrified.”

He rings the doorbell. Hunk opens the door a few moments later, smiling when he sees Pidge. “Hi Pidge!” He sees Keith. “Oh, uh, hi Keith.”

“You did invite him,” Pidge says, clearly enjoying Hunk’s discomfort.

“Yes, yes I did,” Hunk says. He steps back and holds the door open for them to step through. Among the glass and crown molding and glossy wood of his house, Hunk looks completely out of place in an Overwatch T-shirt and swim trunks. Keith finds he likes him a bit more for it.

“Oh man, a pool?” Pidge says. “Why didn’t you tell me? I would have brought a bathing suit!”

“Sorry,” Hunk says. “I could get one of my friends to bring over swim trunks and a shirt, if you want. Although I don’t have a…top…or anything.”

Pidge purses his lips, as if debating whether or not it was worth getting his sports bra wet. “Aw what the hell,” he says. “If you’re offering, I’ll take you up on it. Although I do want to point out that I’m small…”

“He’s tall, but he has a flat ass,” Hunk deadpans. “It’ll be no problem at all. The rest of the club is in the kitchen.”

“No parents?” Pidge asks, peeking around Hunk’s house. They hadn’t seen any nice-looking cars in the driveway either, just the shitty pair of used cars the robotics club carpooled in and Pidge’s red Xterra.

“Nah,” Hunk says. “They trust me to take care of the house.”

Keith watches the struggle on Pidge’s face as he resists making a joke about being home alone. It is a vicious battle.

The robotics club greets Pidge enthusiastically and Hunk even more enthusiastically, as he comes bearing gifts of fruit salad and chips. Surprisingly, they also embrace Keith as something akin to the robotics club’s mascot. Keith often forgot about his own popularity as the ‘dark and mysterious’ type. Well, if that meant he could get away with eating all the watermelon out of the salad, he was down.

The club members, having established that they’re going to work on developing a hovering robot for the competition, have now entered the design stage. They’re scribbling ideas and blueprints on copy paper while Keith sips on a Caprisun and watches them work. He’s not sure when Pidge is going to find time to corner Hunk, but this was Pidge. He always got what he wanted.

The doorbell rings again and Keith turns his head. The robotics club was already all accounted for, so this was…parents? Maybe Hunk’s friend who was swinging by with the bathing suit. Hunk jumps up to answer the door. “It’s open!” he yells from around the corner of the kitchen.

“Hunk, my man,” Lance says, sauntering in through the door. “You’re really bleeding me dry here. How many pairs of swim trunks do you think I own?” He slings an arm around Hunk’s shoulder. “Who’s this for, anyway?”

Keith and Lance lock eyes at the same time.

Of course, Keith thinks at first. Of course there can’t even be peace at robotics club.

Then he thinks, I am going to kill Pidge.

Lance’s body language locks up the same way Keith stiffens upon hearing his voice. But instead of glaring holes into his rival with a scowl on his face like Keith, a smile unfurls across Lance’s face.

“Hey, stalker,” he says.

“Multiple pairs of swim trunks?” Pidge says, propping an elbow up on Keith’s shoulder. “Hunk, you big softie! You thought of Keith too, didn’t you?” To Lance, he says, “’Sup, Crop Top Wonder?”

“Baby stalker,” Lance greets, narrowing his eyes at Pidge.

“Nah, that’s just Keith,” Pidge dismisses. “I’m only in it for the real athletes.” He nods to Hunk.

Lance narrows his eyes further.

It occurs to Keith that this is another interaction that should never have occurred. Lance was ingrained into the lifestyle that was the social ladder and the hoops that had to be jumped through to maintain his status. Pidge was possibly even farther than Keith was off that map by virtue of being voluntarily near-friendless, snarky, and openly transgender. Lance expected people to bow to his will because of his status, but Pidge couldn’t give two shits about someone who didn’t laugh at NASA puns.

It feels a little like being in the middle of a warzone.

Allura breaks the tension, walking into the kitchen and instantly catching the attention of the robotics club. They had been silently watching the showdown between the two social classes of high school students, but Allura tipped the scales in the favor of anarchy because she was a pretty girl. Keith hadn’t even noticed her walk in.

“Your house is lovely,” she says to Hunk. Turning to the already-present guests, she claps her hands together and smiles at them. “You must be the robotics club!”

Allura is dressed in a purple and blue patterned bathing suit top and a full length skirt that does nothing to hide her muscular calves. Her biceps stand out more than Lance’s and her nails are painted. She’s gorgeous and the robotics club, Pidge not excluded, is infatuated with her immediately.

“Pidge Holt,” Pidge says, holding out a hand. He presses his glasses further up his face and smiles. “I’m the president. I got the opportunity to see you practice yesterday. Our lacrosse team looks strong this year.”

“Suck up,” Keith and Lance hiss in unison, then glare at each other for sharing the same words.

Allura ignores them. “Thank you so much,” she says. “Hunk goes on and on about the robotics club, so I knew I just had to see what shenanigans you guys get up to at your meetings. I hope you don’t mind me observing?”

“Of course not!” Neal, the other senior, pipes up. Allura excuses herself from Pidge to introduce herself to the rest of the club.

“I might be a little bit straight,” Pidge says to Keith. “Just putting that out there.” To Hunk, he says, “Although I don’t know what you were thinking, inviting these two over. Everyone’s going to be fawning over Allura and god knows Keith and Lance are going to tear each other’s throats out.”

Lance looks like he wants to protest, but can’t argue with Pidge’s assessment of the situation.

Hunk shrugs, smiling. “What can I say? I hardly do anything without the two of them. And I wanted my friends to meet.”

Keith can see Pidge’s ‘threesome likelihood’ meter rising, but he smiles back at Hunk. “I guess you’re right. Allura wanted to meet us too, right? And we can just lock Keith and Lance in a room to work out their obvious sexual tension.”

“What?” Lance says.

“What?” Keith echoes.

“Sounds like a plan,” Hunk agrees.

That’s how Lance and Keith end up in the upstairs gaming room, surrounded by posterboard and markers in separate corners of the room, glaring at each other while they work on robotics club promotion posters. At least they’ve found something they’re equally terrible at.

Keith squints at Lance’s pile of posters. He’s going heavy on the blue and the ALL CAPS with his pitches. The top poster is a crudely drawn picture of a robot blasting a city with lasers. It reads “AWESOME ROBOTS” at the top, followed by the venue location, time and date of the robotics competition. Keith is disturbed by how the shitty drawing and cheerleader-esque excitement of the poster endears Lance to him.

Lance catches him looking and throws his body over the posters, scowling at Keith. “Trying to steal my ideas now, creep?”

“I like your robot,” Keith says.

“Yeah? Well I don’t like your…your…what is that?” Lance peers at Keith’s drawing.

Keith has been struggling to draw a picture of a roaring lion for the past twenty minutes in red. Even with the use of a picture reference, it’s no easy task. “It’s a lion,” Keith says. “Like our mascot?”

“I know what our mascot is,” Lance snaps. “I’m friends with the guy inside the mascot.”

When Keith refuses to be moved by Lance’s connections, Lance sticks his tongue out at Keith and hunches over his next poster.

Lance must feel how weird this is. In school, Lance has power and friends to back him up. Outside of school, the rules are different. And inside this room, with just the two of them and their shitty art skills as company, Lance is showing more and more of his true self. Definitely more than he’s comfortable showing.

“I don’t think I hate you,” Keith says.

“Whatever,” Lance replies. He still has his back turned. Keith isn’t the expert on holding conversation, but even he can tell that Lance is refusing to play along.

“Your tumbling routine was pretty cool,” Keith says.

Right thing to say. Lance can’t resist the urge to talk about cheerleading. He turns back around and rolls his eyes at Keith. “Like you’d know the first thing about tumbling,” he says.

“I thought we agreed to stop making assumptions about each other,” Keith says, smiling.

Lance’s eyes go wide.

There he is, Keith thinks. That’s the real Lance.

Lance only lets Keith throw him off for a moment. He sniffs and turns up his nose. “I’ve been doing gymnastics since I was six,” he says. “I’ve competed at the national level with my team and I’ve been offered athletic scholarships for my talent. I love everything about the sport—the music, the dancing, the uniforms, the routines, and showing off how strong and coordinated we are. I’ve watched the Olympic gymnasts since I was a baby, so yeah, I think I do know more than you about gymnastics and cheerleading.”

“Why cheerleading, though? You could’ve just stayed with gymnastics,” Keith says.

“Um, Keith, do you fucking have eyes?” Lance says. “The football players are hot, the cheerleaders are hot, and it’s the heart of school spirit. Why wouldn’t I join cheerleading?”

Keith mulls that over. “But if you’re bisexual…then who’re you dating?”

“What,” Lance says. “How do you even get from cheerleading to dating? And why do you care, you—”

“Not a stalker thing,” Keith says. “Pidge cares.”

Lance scowls at Pidge’s name. “I don’t like him,” he says. “You’re a freak on your own, but he’s like…double freak. Triple freak.”

Keith remembers thinking that Lance and Pidge would either kill each other or love each other on the spot. He’s relieved it’s the first case rather than the last. “You just don’t like him because he’s not scared of you. If you knew him, you’d probably get along really well. He’s just like you.”

Lance sneers at him, but doesn’t have enough information on Pidge to qualify that statement. Keith half-smiles. “You two would be invincible together. Maybe it’s for the best that he doesn’t like you.”

“Yeah? Well he’s no prize either. I hate him and you,” Lance says.

“You don’t hate me.” Keith is reasonably sure of this.

“Is that so,” Lance says lightly.

“We’re—different,” Keith says. “I kind of get why you hate Pidge, but our relationship is—different.” He trips over the word ‘different’ twice, getting embarrassed every time he considered their relationship. Or even said the word ‘relationship’ in terms of him and Lance. What the hell was he thinking, using those words in that order?

Keith’s only saving grace is that Lance looks just as embarrassed as him. His cheeks are dark and he turns back to his poster drawing with a muttered ‘freak’ or ‘moron’ or ‘weirdass loner.’ Keith colors in his lion with yellow, mind a steady stream of fuck fuck fuck fuck.

The silence lasts for maybe five minutes before Lance breaks. “So what do you do, Mullet Prince?”

“What do I do?” Keith repeats, tilting his head to the side. He looks over at Lance but Lance is steadily not-looking at him.

“Yeah, what’s your thing? Your little Chihuahua does robotics club, I do cheerleading, Hunk does football, Allura is a certified badass…what do you do.” Lance’s new robot is still blue, but now it’s shooting a monster with a hairstyle eerily similar to Keith’s.

“Oh,” Keith says. “Golf.”

“Golf,” Lance repeats.

“Yeah,” Keith says.

Lance turns to look at him. “You’re fucking with me,” he deadpans.

“No, I’m at the national level, actually,” Keith says. “I got offered a scholarship for it, too.”

Lance narrows his eyes. “Now you’re just making fun of me.”

“I’m serious,” Keith says. “Ask Pidge, he gets to go to my away games across the country because he claims to be my manager. Although I think he only does it for the fancy hotels and free food.”

Lance scrutinizes him. “Golf,” he says.

“Golf,” Keith agrees.

Lance shakes his head. “You are the weirdest person I’ve ever had the misfortune of meeting. What kind of person plays golf at the national level?”

“A weird one, apparently,” Keith says.

He gets a smile from Lance. It’s a fleeting, tiny thing, but Keith feels his own mouth curve in a smile.

Lance, paranoid and over-observant as ever, sees Keith smile and scowls pointedly. “Stop looking at me!” he snaps. “You’re so gross!”

“Just making sure my posters are still better than yours,” Keith says.

“Why you little—” Lance scrambles across the room and snatches some of Keith’s extra posterboard and scribbles angry faces across two of them before Keith barrels towards Lance’s posterboard and draws some very obviously terrible cats across his extra posters. Lance squawks and runs back to his pile, throwing Keith’s posters to the floor.

By the time Pidge and Hunk move upstairs to check on them, posters in various states of scribbled chaos are scattered across the floor, making it impossible to identify which had originally been Lance’s and which had originally been Keith’s. And at the center of the room in a violent, cursing ball, Keith has Lance pinned to the ground and is attempting to draw dicks on his face while Lance swears and shoves his hand back. They’re both covered in Sharpie from their faces to their hands and arms and legs.

“Kogane, you motherfucker—” Lance spits.

“Fuck you, McClain,” Keith says, grinning as he pokes Lance’s cheek with the tip of his marker.

“Should we leave them?” Pidge stage whispers to Hunk.

“Huh?” Lance says, distracted by the newcomers enough that he stops resisting Keith and Keith tumbles down onto him, dragging the marker across his face. Lance howls and then they’re pawing at each other hand-to-hand.

“Get your knee out of my face!” Keith snaps.

“Get your face out of my knee!” Lance retorts.

“We’re just gonna…go…” Hunk says and eases him and Pidge from the room.

When Lance and Keith emerge from the gaming room, the robotics club is gone aside from Pidge and Hunk, and both they and Allura are in bathing suits.

“Oh my,” Allura says.

“You might want to find someone else to do posters,” Lance says, averting his eyes from both Hunk and Keith.

“We kind of ruined them all,” Keith says, averting his eyes from both Pidge and Lance.

“That’s okay,” Pidge says. “We figured it would be a disaster when we walked in on you earlier.”

“Allura volunteered to contact some people she knows and have professional posters done,” Hunk explains.

“Also, I left you the pink swim trunks,” Pidge tells Keith. “You can atone by wearing that monstrosity.”

What?” Keith says, but sure enough neon pink swim trunks are draped over the island in the kitchen. Keith turns a murderous gaze on Pidge, but Pidge is already skipping away and whistling, putting a sliding glass door between them by stepping onto the pool deck.

“Get changed, superstars,” Allura says, doing a bad job of hiding a grin. She and Hunk follow Pidge onto the pool deck. Hunk turns around to throw finger guns at them. It’s such a Pidge gesture that Keith wants to scream.

“You know,” Lance says, “I think you might be right about me and Pidge.” He slaps Keith on the shoulder and grins, moving into a bathroom to change.

Keith grits his teeth and puts on the pink monstrosity.

Lance doesn’t even bother to hide his cackle when Keith emerges, but Keith catches the way Lance’s eyes skip up Keith’s body before he doubles over laughing. Keith thinks the swim trunks are probably not that funny.

“Own it, man,” Lance says, recovering from his fit. “You’re wearing the trunks, so strut your stuff.”

“I hate you,” Keith says.

Lance grins but shrugs one shoulder. “I’m not dating anyone,” he says.

For one horribly long second, Keith thinks Lance is propositioning him. Then Lance says, “You wanted to know if I was dating anyone? Or Pidge did, whatever. That’s reparation for the swim trunks.” And Keith remembers how to breathe again.

“Nothing you say will ever repay the swim trunks,” Keith says darkly.

Lance snickers. “Who did you think I was dating, anyway?”

“Hunk, Allura, or both,” Keith says.

“Are you—you’re joking me,” Lance sputters. “Why?”

“You tell me, Sir Flirtsalot,” Keith says.

“That’s just how I am!” Lance protests.

“Noted,” Keith says. “Please never befriend me.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Lance says, rolling his eyes. Then tilting his head to the side, he lights up and throws the sliding glass door open. “Do my ears deceive me? You’re playing Shakira without me?”

Lance runs onto the pool deck clapping his hands in time with the music. Hunk and Pidge are in the pool, Hunk with an inner tube around him and Pidge on his shoulders. Lance dances to the music in front of them, hands twisting above his head while his hips move. And did he ever move. Keith is mesmerized by the swaying of Lance’s body, all sharp edges and smooth movements.

Hunk whistles and Pidge catcalls, breaking the spell over Keith. Lance laughs and breaks from his dancing to run and jump into the pool, tackling Pidge off Hunk’s shoulders while Pidge and Hunk shriek in unison. They come up splashing and laughing. Keith emerges from the house and then there’s a whole new round round of whistling and catcalling which he counters with a vicious scowl. It doesn’t work very well.

Then Allura pushes Keith into the pool and jumps in after him, going straight for Hunk to tickle him. Pidge proposes a chicken fight, him on Hunk’s shoulders and Lance on Allura’s shoulders. Keith watches from the safety of an inflatable killer whale that he climbs on top of. His peace lasts only until Lance notices him and, unable to resist a challenge, unseats Lance and proceeds to scrabble with him for dominance of the killer whale.

There’s a game of Marco Polo, another game of chicken, and then talking about school and robotics club. Keith tunes out most of the chatter, more interested in the fact that this was…fun. He and Pidge didn’t know Allura and split their acquaintanceship with Hunk and Lance. They shouldn’t have been comfortable amongst these people. There should be some degree of awkwardness. But Pidge and Lance are spitting water at each other and Allura teamed up with Keith for the second round of chicken fights.

Keith’s not entirely comfortable to realize everything he had been missing when he was off on his own.

The sun’s already set by the time they leave, Keith in dry clothes and Pidge still wearing the swim shirt he had loaned from Lance since his bra was wet.

“I’ll see you at school,” Lance had said, waving off Pidge’s concerns. “Just give it to me when it’s dry.”

Pidge is humming Shakira when he turns the keys to his car. “You know…” he says.

“No,” Keith says, already knowing where he’s going with this.

“Lance isn’t—”

“No.”

 “—really that bad,” Pidge finishes.

“He’s a douchebag,” Keith assures him.

“Oh, for sure,” Pidge agrees. “But he’s the good kind of douchebag. And he’s not dating Hunk.”

“No, he isn’t,” Keith agrees.

Pidge pauses. “You know…”

No.”

“If he’s not dating anyone—”

“Drive the car, Pidgeon Holt,” Keith says. “Or the pink swim trunks will be the most minor of your offenses to our friendship.”

Pidge drives, but he’s grinning.

Keith isn’t quite comfortable with that or the beating of his heart, either.