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Present Time: Houston, Texas

 

Keith thinks if he blinks, the other man will disappear.

 

One.

 

Maybe if he blinks twice.

 

One.

Two.

 

Three times?

 

One.

Two.

Three.

 

Maybe he should blink slower. Maybe he should just shut his eyes and keep them like that for the rest of the night. Maybe he should fall asleep at the bar in an embarrassing “I’m too drunk to function and probably need assistance getting home” sort of fashion, because even that seems more dignified than the consequences of acknowledging the man just down the bar from him.

 

Yet there he is, tugging at the corners of Keith’s peripheral vision like an incessant child who won’t stop pulling your hand until you satisfy their need for ice cream. Except he’s not actively trying to get Keith’s attention—he’s literally just there. That’s enough to get Keith’s skin crawling in ways he’s been trying so hard to let go of.

 

Frustrated, Keith flags down the bartender and orders another vodka shot. The bartender eyes him in questioning, her eyes flickering to the untouched shot glass currently set in front of Keith, then to the empty ones that are littered around it. Keith reassures her that he knows exactly what he’s doing, but he’s betting that it’s the silent plea in his eyes as his gaze flickers to the other man and back that convinces her to pour another one.

 

Keith focuses on the two full shot glasses in front of him until he’s blocked out all activity in the corner of his eyes, then tosses back both in immediate sequence, reveling in the burn that threatens to overwhelm his throat and engulf his nostrils.

 

Any day before, he would have been ecstatic to see Lance. Today, he’d give anything to forget him.

 


 

Summer 2006: Middle-of-Nowhere, Utah

 

Keith struggled to keep his mouth closed and his breathing regulated as he pushed his way through the brush. He wasn’t sprinting, per say, but he wasn’t walking either. He was rushing, much like Daniel Boone probably did when he realized he was blazing a functional trail through the Appalachian Mountains.

 

Except, Keith wasn’t here forging a path for himself and his posterity, nor was he taking a lovely stroll through the forest deep into the later hours of the night. He was running away. Running from the hell he was sent to, running from the hell that sent him there, running from simply existing.

 

His breathing became more erratic and forceful with anger just thinking about it all. He still couldn’t fathom the fact that his parents sent him all the way here to a space camp for the summer just to get rid of him. Sure, he wasn’t particularly fond of them or 80% of his home life, but still. Dumping him off in the middle-of-nowhere Utah so they could focus all of their attention on Shiro’s SAT prep was a new low for them.

 

Keith angrily swatted at a branch that had gotten the best of him while he stewed in his thoughts, barely registering the stinging sensation on his cheek where the branch left its mark of victory.

 

“It’s a space camp,” his mom said. “You like that kind of stuff.”

“You need to do something with your free time,” his dad said.How else do you plan on getting into college?”

 

They’d conveniently failed to tell him that the camp was two and a half months long, and there would be absolutely no cell service or nearby transportation service, which only cemented the probability that this space camp was indeed the Keith Shirogane dumping ground.

 

It didn’t help that he had absolutely no idea where he was at the moment. Every tree had started to look the same almost 15 minutes ago, and only freckles of the night sky were visible through the canopy of evergreens. Why there was such a dense growth of evergreen trees in Utah, he’d never understand. Utah in general, he’d never understand. What the hell was a Utah anyway? Irrelevant, that’s what it was. That’s probably why he got tossed here. Irrelevant Keith in irrelevant Utah.

 

Maybe if he kept ranting about Utah in his head, he’d delay the panic over how lost he was that was starting to seep into his chest in tiny, but numerous, rivulets.

 

He should have thought this through a lot more. Sure, the whole point was to run away; yet, for some reason, it never occurred to him to perhaps have a destination. At the time, it didn’t seem important, a miniscule detail he’d figure out later because all that mattered was getting away. So now he was here, away from everything like he’d wanted, only to be absolutely nowhere. He had no idea which way was out and which way was going back.

Keith finally stopped and assessed his surroundings, running a hand through his hair in frustration. There were just trees, trees, and more trees, and, at this point, they were starting to look more like walls than anything else. His nostrils flared with his increasingly irregular breathing, and he kicked a nearby rock out of anger, grunting in pain and aggravation when it turned out to be bigger than he thought it was.

 

 He was starting to feel just as trapped on the outside as he was on the inside.

 

Just when it seemed as if Keith’s lungs would explode from the concoction of anger, confusion, rationale, and panic, a voice broke through the dense, dark barrier of spindly leaves and branches.

 

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

Keith whipped his body around so quickly, the evergreen trees probably got whiplash. The muscles in his shoulders knotted together with the tension of a rubber band ready to snap, and his legs bent in a makeshift fighting stance. Not that he knew how to fight or anything, but he wasn’t damn well going to let whatever bear popped out of the darkness know that.

 

In the second before registers who exactly he’s facing, he thinks, wait...bears can’t talk.

 

It was good to see that Utah wasn’t so out there because, indeed, instead of there being a talking bear in front of him, there was a boy. A scrawny, brown skinned boy with hair cropped too close to his scalp and a nose so long and pointy, it looked like it wasn’t meant for his heart shaped face. The boy was about an inch shorter than Keith was and incredibly disheveled looking—cheeks marred with angry scratches from the unforgiving forest, and clothes turned into a pincushion for thin, brisk leaves and twigs. On his back was a camouflage backpack that was a bit too big for his torso.

 

“Who the hell are you?” Keith threw back, stance still guarded and voice laced with the boiling over frustration from earlier.

 

The other boy scowled and placed his hands on his hips indignantly, as if not recognizing him were as bad as not knowing who Angelina Jolie was. Admittedly, it was a bit difficult for Keith to take the boy’s demeanor seriously.

 

“Lance,” the boy replied. “I’m the camp counselor for Cabin Uranus.”

 

Keith snorted before he was even aware he was doing so. He may have been a frustrated thirteen-year-old boy with a lot on his plate at the moment, but he was a thirteen-year-old boy nonetheless. The tension in his shoulders eased slightly.

 

Lanced narrowed his eyes.

 

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard every Uranus joke in the book, buddy. I came up with half of them. But the point is, you aren’t supposed to be here. “

 

The tension returned, coiling its way through the tendons in Keith’s back, and his frown deepened.

 

“I can be wherever I want.”

 

“No, you can’t,” Lance said, folding his arms in a smug gesture. “Camp rules. No one’s allowed to leave the grounds after curfew.”

 

“Oh yeah? And what if I don’t care?”

 

“Doesn’t matter. I’m gonna haul your ass back to camp whether you like it or not.”

 

Lanced seemed incredibly satisfied with his answer, the corner of his lip twitching ever so slightly, as if he were silently patting himself on the back for that one. Keith straightened to his full height and raised an eyebrow, giving Lance a quick, unimpressed once-over.

 

“You’re, like, twelve,” he said.

 

Thirteen,” Lance corrected, visibly bristling as some of his bravado evaporated at the shot fired. “As if you’re any older! Besides, I’m a counselor, and I’ve been at this camp way longer than you have, rookie, so I’ve got the authority here.”

 

It was as if all the arrogance radiating off the other boy pooled into his heels and elevated him because he suddenly seemed an inch taller, and it was pissing Keith off to no end. This wasn’t what he needed right now.

 

Except he couldn’t deny the tiny part of him that was engulfed by relief amongst all the irritation. He was frustrated, confused, and hopelessly lost, but he was no longer alone. No longer being swallowed by the merciless Utah brush, no longer sinking in the darkness of midnight and the vertigo of the unknown. He hated the idea of going back to the camp, but he hated being lost even more.

 

Fatigue rose up over his stubbornness and crashed over Keith like a tidal wave overcoming the levies of a city, flooding his body until his vision swam. He stumbled forward, having lost his balance in the sudden rush of exhaustion, but never hit the ground.

 

Instead, he was anchored by slender but firm hands on his shoulders.

 

“Woah, hey there buddy, don’t faint on me. I may be dragging your ass back, but I’m gonna need your help doing it. These biceps can’t do all the work.”

 

Keith grunted and steadied his feet, brushing Lance off quickly in order to hide his embarrassment. He was starting to feel more and more foolish by the minute about running off like this.

 

Lance didn’t seem to take notice. Rather, he simply craned his neck skyward, then to his left and right.

 

“Well,” he started, sounding sheepish, “I suppose now would be a good time to figure out how to get back.”

 

“You don’t know how to get back?” Keith asked incredulously, internally groaning at the idea of both of them being lost in the woods.

 

“Hey! It’s dark, okay,” Lance exclaimed defensively, taking another long look at the canopy above them. “And I can’t see the stars, so it’s hard to even guess which direction to head back in—wait!“

 

Lance’s eyes gleamed, and he quickly shrugged the large backpack off his shoulders, barely flinching when it hit the ground with an ungraceful thud. Keith watched closely and skeptically as Lance fumbled with the zipper and rummaged through what sounded like a variety of who-knows-what until he stood back up, triumph lighting up his face.

 

“Satellite phone!” he cried out, holding a bulky looking device into the air. “I can call the senior counselor on call for the night, and we should be able to get some help soon.”

 

Relief tugged at Keith’s lungs as he let out a breath. Maybe this boy knew what he was doing after all.

 

The warm feeling never had a chance to settle in Keith’s gut, however. A few seconds after Lance started working the satellite phone, Keith saw the victory leave his eyes.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

Lance hesitated. “The battery is dead.”

 

What?

 

“I mean, it’s solar powered—“

 

“Who the hell carries around a solar powered satellite phone?”

 

“I do! I made this baby okay, it functions perfectly when it’s on. Well, I guess Katie helped me make it, but still—“

 

Keith cut him off with a growl, feeling all of the despair and hopelessness returning, filling him up inside like helium in a balloon that was ready to burst. His body taking charge over his mind, he turned and whacked his foot into the trunk of the closest tree. The evergreen rustled ever so slightly, the leaves whispering in their sleep, but they didn’t wake, and silence resumed as if nothing ever happened. It only made Keith feel worse.

 

“Hey, Angst Hat,” Keith heard Lance hiss as he was grabbed by the shoulders and swung around. “Listen, you kicking trees isn’t going to help us right now. We’ve got to stay calm and make a plan. Right now our best bet is finding somewhere we can sleep for the night, probably somewhere near water because that’s what they always do on Discovery Channel. So you can kick nature when we find some, but right now, I need you here with me.”

 

It was too dark to make out the details of Lance’s face in front of him, but it didn’t escape Keith the way the other boy seemed to be brimming with energy where he should have been quaking with panic. Though it was evident that this stranger was arrogant, scatter-brained, and loud, he’d never looked as alive as he did right now, like he was thriving off of not knowing where he was.

 

“How are you not freaking out right now?” Keith croaked, his eyes glued to Lance’s face by a mixture of irritation and fascination.

 

A grin with a mischievous undertone spread across Lance’s expression, like he was a five-year-old who’d just found the cookie jar.

 

“It’s an adventure,” he said, hoisting his backpack over his shoulder and taking hold of Keith’s wrist. “Now come on, let’s go.”

 

As it turned out, Lance had passable hiking and tracking skills, which he’d accredited it to his many years spent at the space camp. They’d wandered for almost twenty minutes, with Lance occasionally leading them in one direction, then abruptly stopping, muttering to himself, turning around, and marching back the way they’d came.  

 

Keith never bothered to break Lance’s grip on his hand.

 

Though it was debatable as to whether or not they’d happened upon it by Lance’s leadership or pure luck, the two of them finally pushed through dense brush to find themselves at the rim of the smallest of lakes.

 

Fortified by an army of thick evergreen trees, the lake was no bigger than the length of a soccer field and was a still, pitch black save for the clear reflection in the center of the half-moon hovering in the sky above.

 

Lanced whooped in celebration, going on about his prowess as a tracker. Keith merely breathed in the air, finally inhaling a freshness to counter the overwhelming and claustrophobic scent of pine needles, and was tempted to smile for the first time that night.

 

Soon enough, Keith and Lance both found the softest patch of ground they could, and Lance rummaged through his backpack once again, pulling out a quilted blanket, laying it over the both of them.

 

The fatigue he’d felt earlier caught him again, and, as soon as Keith laid his head on the ground, he drowned in it.

 

The next morning, Keith woke to Lance trampling around the lake, a sharpie in his mouth and a map in his hand. Every so often, he’d pause, examine something Keith couldn’t identify, and scribble on the map. At some point he cheered at the completion of whatever it was he was doing, picked up the satellite phone that he’d laid out in the sun to charge, and quickly set on contacting the camp.

 

Keith hardly said a word that morning. He spent most of his time picking at his shoe, drawing patterns in the dirt, and casting furtive glances at Lance when he was sure the other boy wasn’t watching. The occurrences of the night before spun in his head over and over again—his decision to run away, his getting lost, his being found. Keith didn’t want to think about what would have been the result of his recklessness had it not been for Lance. Lance, the peculiar, overconfident, excited boy who seemed perfectly content with being stuck in a forest at ungodly hours. He baffled Keith.

 

When he finally spoke, it was after they’d been found by the senior counselors and safely escorted back to camp. The two of them had been given a stern warning by the camp’s director, then sent back to their cabins, excused from the day’s activities in order to get some rest.

 

“Thanks,” Keith uttered softly as the two of them approached Cabin Mars.

 

“Hmm?” Lance asked, cupping his ear in Keith’s direction. “Could you repeat that?”

 

“I said, this is my cabin,” Keith huffed, folding his arms.

 

“Uhuh, sure Tree Hater,” Lance said, grinning and beginning to walk backwards away from Keith, giving him a two-fingered salute. “Later.”

 

“You mean, never,” Keith retorted.

 

“You totally just jinxed it, buddy,” Lanced called out before turning and jogging towards Cabin Uranus.

 

Keith pursed his lips and flared his nostrils, keeping his head down as he made his way into Cabin Mars and towards his bed, letting the grin he’d stifled spread across his face only after he was sure no one was looking.

 


 

 

Two days later he got exchanged to Cabin Uranus because two of its campers had gotten into a fight and needed to be separated.

 

“Told ya. You jinxed it, my man,” Lance remarked when Keith trudged through the door with his belongings in tow.

 

“Keep laughing and I’ll make a Uranus joke,” Keith replied.

 

Lance made a noise of annoyance, but promptly shut up.

 


 

A week had passed when Keith ran away again.

 

This time, he’d been prepared. Diligently making sure the rest of the cabin was sound asleep, Keith had rifled through Lance’s camouflage backpack that was stashed underneath his bed and discreetly pulled out the map, the satellite phone, and a handy flashlight. He barely registered that Lance’s bed was empty.

 

Shuffling to the darkest corner of the cabin, Keith had spread the map out in front of him, gaze tracing over the sea of red and gray scraggly lines until he had managed to pinpoint the location of the space camp and a bus stop 20 miles away.

 

Sure, the week had progressed a bit better than the beginning of camp had, but Keith still felt out of place, closed off and irrelevant. The other kids were getting letters from their families and packages of homemade sweets to remind them how much they were missed. Sometimes a lucky kid’s family drove into camp and spent the day going through the activities with them. Keith, on the other hand, hadn’t heard a peep from his parents.

 

Not that he wanted them to check on him or anything. He’d been attempting to convince himself that maybe space camp was actually a great idea. After all, he wouldn’t have to deal with constantly watching his parents fawn over Shiro and either look at Keith like an afterthought or dump all of their expectations of Shiro onto him. Yet, Keith still felt the air leave his lungs a little every time another camper opened a package from their mother, eyes glowing. He wished that at least Shiro would send him something, but he quickly dismissed that thought. Shiro was too busy enduring the weight of his parents’ dreams. There was no way he’d have the time.

 

Keith was suffocating and he needed out. Now.

Regardless of all his forethought and planning, Keith only got a couple of miles into the forest before he realized he didn’t have a bus ticket. He had no way of getting on the bus at the stop. Even if he managed to play on the heartstrings of the bus driver, he had no idea what the bus schedule looked like. Would a bus even come at this god forsaken hour in Utah?

 

So Keith did what Keith did best. He turned, growled, and kicked the nearest tree.

 

“You really don’t think these things through, do ya?” came an obnoxiously familiar voice.

 

Keith landed his flashlight on Lance’s face and met his gaze with disbelief.

 

“What is your problem? How the hell do you keep finding me?”

 

Lance merely shrugged, adjusting his camouflage backpack on his shoulders. “You’re not exactly the stealthiest person out there. I saw you leave, and I followed you again.”

 

“But you were aslee—”Keith began before pausing, realization dawning on his face. Lance’s bed had been empty when he’d been going through the backpack. What had Lance been doing? Had he been waiting for Keith to leave? If so, how could he have possibly known?

 

“What were you doing?” he asked suspiciously, jutting his flashlight out and nearly blinding Lance with its light.

 

“Dude!” Lance exclaimed, batting at the light as if he could cause it to disperse. “Watch it!”

 

Keith lowered the flashlight, but only increased the scrutiny with which he was glaring at the other boy now. Lance shrugged dismissively.

 

“I don’t sleep a whole lot at night. There are other things to do.”

 

It was a subtle but clear attempt at diversion, and Keith had no intention of letting it go. But in that moment, Lance outstretched his hand and cocked his head to his left, nudging in that direction.

 

“Come on, I got the way to the lake memorized! I made Hunk scope it out with me during lunch breaks this week so we could go back whenever. Follow me.”

 

Keith stood frozen, staring at Lance’s face in confusion. There was no sign on the other boy’s face that he’d even considered the possibility of Keith refusing to go with him. And while the seams of Lance’s silhouette were practically stitched together with obnoxiousness, Lance’s body language didn’t read of the same overconfidence and exertion of authority as it had last time. Instead he was excited. He was anticipating something. He had his own idea of what he was doing out here in the forest, and it involved Keith going with him, whether Keith knew it or not.

 

Keith lifted his hand, hesitated, and then met Lance’s outstretched one. He figured there was no reason not to follow the other. His bus escape plan had been foiled, and he was nowhere near ready to head back to the camp. An image of the still, black water illuminated with the slightest of silver light floated into his head, and he decided it was something he could live with for tonight.

 

And as Lance’s hand closed around his, an electric grin spreading across his face, Keith forgot that he’d meant to run away that night. Instead, it was like he was in the dark faced with a giant neon arrow. He didn’t know where it was pointing to, but it was a direction nonetheless—a small, subtle thing that Keith just didn’t seem to have very much of. He’d take it for now.

 

Lance weaved the both of them through the trees, hopped over fallen trunks, scuffed through dried and scorched leaves, dipped into little valleys on the paths, and skipped back up to level ground like it was all a game. All the while, Keith made a persistent effort to learn every branch, every twig, every rock and pebble. He was never going to get lost in this forest ever again.

 

It was only a matter of time before the two of them broke through the woods and onto the shore of the mini-lake. Scanning the sight before him, Keith felt like he’d taken the world’s deepest breath. The landscape looked untouched since he last saw it about a week ago, as if it existed outside of time in its own little pocket of the universe: the dark water so still it could have been glass, the moonlight daintily resting on the surface, the tall and thick evergreens standing like sentinels guarding a most precious artifact.

 

Except, this time, the moon wasn’t as prevalent in this scene as it had been last time. It was a thin crescent in the sky, and its reflection only barely clung to the lake. The waning of its light, however, gave way to a sky of dazzling stars, their radiance raining down onto the water, shining like diamonds amongst coal. Keith felt his breath catch in his throat. He felt that he could come back here a million times and drown in a different beauty with each visit.

 

Beside him, he heard Lance drop his backpack down on the grown with a thump and sigh deeply. “Isn’t it incredible?”

 

Keith nodded, only now realizing that he was smiling. “Yeah.”

 

He turned his head to look at the other boy, who was now standing with his hands on his hips, surveying the landscape like he’d just discovered the moon.

 

“Well, that’s one small step for Lance,” Lance started, his voice deep with dramatic effect. He looked over at Keith, his expression deadpanned. “But the whole world probably just crapped its pants.”

 

And then he started cracking up, Keith gaping at him with disbelief.

 

“You ruined it,” Keith said, shaking his head and plopping onto the ground, sitting cross-legged. “You just fucking ruined it.”

 

Lance flopped down next to him, still snickering at his own joke.

 

“Okay, but the opportunity was there, the rhyme was there, I couldn’t not jump on it.”

 

Keith snorted and shook his head again. “Anyone told you yet that you’re nuts?”

 

“Hey pal,” Lance replied, reclining backwards until his back was on the ground, head cradled by his palms, “I’m not the one who keeps running away.”

 

“I’m not the one who keeps following the guy running away,” Keith retorted.

 

“I wouldn’t be following if you weren’t running, so it just comes right back around to you.”

 

Keith grunted, reluctant to give up the argument but feeling fatigue creep into his bones. He mimicked Lance and came to rest on his back, eyes trained on a sky so littered with stars he wasn’t sure how everything managed to fit.

 

The two of them lay in silence for a few moments, shifting here and there so their backs could mold to the lumpy ground better. Eventually, Keith turned his head again.

 

“You know you’re gonna get in trouble again tomorrow, right? For following me again?”

 

Lance’s eyes met his.

 

“Nah, don’t worry about it. Now that I know the way back, I’ll get us to camp before everyone wakes up. Besides, I dunno about you, but I just...I needed to be here right now.”

 

He held Keith’s gaze for a few more seconds before turning away again, this time leaning over to open his backpack and bringing out a blanket.

 

Keith didn’t answer. He didn’t know how to answer. He wasn’t sure if he needed to be here right now—all he knew was that he needed to be away. Tonight, here just happened to be away.

 

He kept his eyes on Lance, observing all the details he could in the darkness.

 

“I wouldn’t be following if you weren’t running.”

 

Lance was too comfortable considering where they were and what time it was. He’d memorized the way to the lake and back. He’d practically planned on coming to the lake tonight. He’d just needed an excuse.

 

It dawned on Keith that, while Lance marched under the bravado of his camp counselor banner, maybe, just maybe, he was just a boy looking for any reason to simply go somewhere. Anywhere. Everywhere.

 


 

The third time Keith ran away, he went straight to the lake.

 

He was sitting close to the lake’s edge, tossing pebbles into the water to see just how much he could distort its perfection, when he heard the rustling of trees and footsteps approaching. He didn’t want to admit to himself that what he felt when Lance sat down next to him was relief, because that would mean he’d been expecting the other boy to join him in the first place.

 


 

The fourth time Keith ran away, he brought a sleeping bag.

 

Lance appeared a few minutes later with a battery-powered lantern and cookies.

 

In the still and calm of the Utah summer night, the only noise coming from trees rustling as if giggling amongst each other, Keith listened to Lance tell the most absurd of campfire horror stories and laughed in a way he hadn’t in a while.

 


 

The fifth time Keith ran away, he opened the constellation coloring book he’d taken from one of the classes for the younger campers and made Lance teach him which stars were which.

 

He figured that there was something he was missing when it came to the stars. Every time he laid on his back and absorbed the the drops of light twinkling across the blackness, all he could sense was mystery—an unknown he and most people in the world had accepted they’d never solve, and they were all okay with that.

 

Yet, every time he glanced over at Lance, the other boy gazed at the heavens as if he were reading a map, eyes trailing and navigating until he one day found where the X marked the spot. He knew something. Keith found himself wanting to know too.

 

The constellations became a secret only he and Lance shared.

 


  

The sixth time Keith ran away, Lance asked,

 

“What’re you running from?”

 

Keith didn’t want to answer, so he replied with a question.

 

“What’re you running to?”

 

Lance blinked a few times and shrugged.

 

“No idea.”

 

A pause. Then,

 

“Are you gonna come back next summer?”

 

Another pause.

 

“Sure.”

 


 

 

Present Time: Houston, Texas

 

Keith fidgets with the empty shot glass in front of them, glaring into it like it’s just committed the worst act of betrayal. In a way it has—he’s had a good number of those little things full of straight vodka over the course of the night, and yet, he’s barely over the tipsy line.

 

Curse his liver for rapidly adapting to his adult-life drinking habits. The one day he really needs to stop thinking is when his tolerance is all “hey buddy, I gotcha, no worries!

 

The glances over at the man down the bar are becoming more and more frequent, and it’s getting to a point where Keith can’t even look away for two seconds before wanting to take another peek. And each time he does so, the ache in his chest sharpens just a little more.

 

Lance is as beautiful as Keith’s always remembered him being, and maybe even more so—all tall and lean, dark-hazel eyes glistening with contagious energy, lips comfortably resting in an effortless grin, nut brown skin practically glowing in the ambience of the bar. He’s leaning all of his weight on one elbow against the bar, and is surrounded by four other people, all of whom are chattering amongst each other. Occasionally one of them will say something that causes Lance to burst out into obnoxious laughter—a sound that tugs at Keith’s heartstrings.

 

His slender, pointy nose scrunches up as he attempts to stay his lungs, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his index finger each time.

 

Huh, that’s new, Keith notes, studying the thinly framed rectangles that now decorate the other man’s face. It’s cute.

 

Keith mentally slaps himself. You’re supposed to be ignoring him.

 

But how can he? This is the man he’s tried to move on from so many times, yet Keith somehow finds himself in this position over and over again.  Lance just has the audacity to keep popping up wherever Keith goes, and it drives him up the fucking wall each time.

 

Gritting his teeth, Keith forces himself to stare at his hands as he counts to five in his head. Good, he’s made it to five, now to ten. Fifteen. Twen—

 

His eyes move of their own accord, flickering right back to catch a glimpse of the unholy magnet that is Lance. He barely has time to curse himself for it before registering that Lance is staring right back at him.

 

Keith’s heart and brain start racing, and he doesn’t know whether he’ll die from a heart attack or an aneurysm first. He quickly drops his gaze back down to the shot glass in his hands, fighting the urge in his muscles to swivel his entire body in the direction opposite Lance. He can’t be too conspicuous, though—he has to hope that Lance didn’t actually register him as Keith, that his eyes were simply wandering. If that’s the case, then he doesn’t need to alert Lance to his presence.

 

His body sits as rigid as a statue for the next few seconds, his brain playing the anthem of fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck on repeat. Keith’s not sure how long he stays like that, but it feels like an eternity. And if an eternity has truly passed, then it must be safe to look up again, right?

 

Keith lets out a breath and dares a peep out of the corner of his eye.

 

Lance is still looking in his direction, his face awash with so many emotions, Keith can’t tell exactly what he’s thinking. It’s like when you mix a whole bunch of different paints together and get a color that really isn’t a color, and then you wonder if there really are colors in it in the first place. That’s exactly what’s happening with Lance’s expression right now.

 

Shit, Keith thinks, well, if he does the smart thing, he won’t come ove—

 

No, fuck, Lance, stay with your friends! Stop! What are you doing, I’m not Keith, turn around, oh my God, you idiot.

 

Despite all of his silent admonishments, Keith still has to watch Lance excuse himself from his group of friends and weave through the various other people around, making his way to where Keith is sitting.

 

Keith’s brain is going into panic mode right now, and it’s not because he’s dreading this. He’s never felt dread around Lance, and he’s probably never going to. What he’s feeling at the moment is much, much worse because he’s never been able to put a name to it. He has no idea what it is—this thick, unknown sensation that’s like warm honey pooling into his stomach, like hot, melted chocolate seeping into his veins, like the addictive smell of gasoline and freshly mowed grass filling his lungs. It’s like licking the tips of your fingers to turn the page of the Sunday newspaper, like hearing wind chimes laugh while you’re sitting on the porch in the summer rain, like—oh God, he’s so overwhelmed.

 

He hates not knowing what this is because it means he’s defenseless against it. Seeing Lance—energetic, arrogant, compassionate, determined Lance—heading in his direction, Keith knows he always has been.

 

When was the last time he’d seen Lance? What had they last said to each other?

 

“I can’t be another something you keep running away from.”

 

“I can’t just be an excuse for one of your adventures.”

 

Except he can’t remember who said what, and when. All he can think of is how he might drown in Lance’s hesitant smile before him.

 

“Hey.”

 

Keith makes sure to widen his eyes by a fraction to indicate some surprise, though he knows it’s futile to pretend at this point.

 

He clears his throat and nods, mirroring the same small and cautious smile on Lance’s face.  

 

“Hey.”

 

Lance plops himself down on the bar stool next to Keith without any sort of “mind if I join you?”, which doesn’t surprise Keith one bit. It’s typical Lance, making an entrance like he owns the moment, and the familiarity of it all causes the corner of Keith’s mouth to quirk up a bit more.

 

“Rough week, am I right?” Lance says, tilting his head in the direction of Keith’s empty shot glasses. His expression starts to slowly move away from hesitance, though it’s clear he’s still testing the waters.

 

“Oh, er...yeah,” Keith admits a bit sheepishly, running a hand through his hair in the hopes of hiding how difficult of a time he’s having trying to tear his gaze away from the other. “I just started a new job, so it’s been...a week.”

 

His hair is longer, Keith notes, eyes trailing down to where the soft ruffles of Lance’s hair are curling at the nape of his neck.

 

Lance throws his head back, slumps his shoulder, and groans.

 

“Tell me about it. It’s close to holiday season, and the kids know they’re gonna be on break soon, so they don’t want to concentrate on anything. The amount of effort I had to put into my lesson plans this week—“

 

Keith blinks, brow furrowing because he’s not sure he heard correctly.

 

“Wait,” he interrupts. “Kids?”

 

Lance blinks back, his mouth still in the shape of the last word he’d said, before his face brightens. He straightens his back and leans forward unconsciously. The image of thirteen-year-old Lance gearing up to passionately describe something or another flashes in Keith’s head, and its effect goes straight to his heart. His fingers curl around the shot glass just a little tighter.

 

“Yeah!” Lance begins, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I’m trying to get a Masters of Arts in Teaching at the moment, and part of that is the whole Student Teaching thing, which is what I’m doing right now. So I’m like teaching, but not really? Like a teaching internship. I’m with a fourth grade class right now at one of the local public schools, and let me tell you, nine year olds are some really sassy motherfuckers.”

 

Keith snorts. “You’re one to talk.”

 

“Hey, I resent that,” Lance replies, jabbing a finger in Keith’s direction. “I’ll have you know that I carefully cultivated my sass until it was truly ready for the world. Thirteen-year-old Lance was a true beauty.”

 

“Thirteen-year-old Lance also had a terrible haircut.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, keep talking Mullet Man.”

 

Keith frowns and raises his fingers to thread them through his locks protectively. It’s true that he hasn’t gotten a haircut in a while, but he’d looked in the mirror before work and thought he looked just fine.

 

Of course, Lance bursts out laughing.

 

And Keith is torn between the urge to punch the guy or kiss him. Instead, he ducks his head and wears a mixture of annoyance and “I don’t know this man” on his face, trying not to notice how many people have stopped their conversations to glance over at them.

 

But Lance looks so carefree right now—body loose, head thrown back, crow’s feet adorning the corners of his eyes—and Keith is secretly reveling in it. The part of him that he’s been trying so hard to suppress is thriving, knowing that he caused Lance to laugh. It’s been a guilty pleasure of his for so long, he has no idea why he’s been living without this.

 

No. He knows exactly why he’s been living without it.

 

He just can’t seem to remember it too well in the moment because Lance’s laughter is contagious, and, soon enough, Keith’s chuckling as well. He’s relinquished his grasp on the shot glass, and his hand somehow finds its way to Lance’s knee. Suddenly, he’s not in the bar anymore trying to drown the week and his feelings away. He’s at the lake, sitting on his sleeping bag in the dark and watching the moon’s light dance on the surface of the still black water, Lance’s laughter so bright next to him, it could have been the stars’.

 

He is so fucked.

 


 

Summer, 2007: Middle-of-Nowhere, Utah

 

Lance yawned for what was probably the 15th time that Thursday night, and it was becoming hard for Keith not to notice. Granted, it was pretty late—they normally met up at the lake anytime between midnight and 3am—but Lance was looking worse for wear.

 

His eyes were watering and slightly red, which only became worse when he vigorously rubbed his eyes while speaking. His cheeks were looking a bit hollow, and the bags under his eyes had become more and more prominent throughout the week.

 

Keith had even taken to staying awake and keeping an eye on Lance’s bed to find out what was going on. He already knew that Lance was never in his bed when Keith got ready to sneak out to the lake, but he had never actually seen the other leave the cabin. He always fell asleep before that happened.

 

Tonight he’d attempted to fight the exhaustion from the day’s activities and zeroed in on Lance’s cot. They’d both climbed into bed 9pm, and, after fifteen minutes, Keith had started to drift off. Lance hadn’t moved one bit. Keith had jolted alert, however, just a few minutes later when he heard rustling coming from the general area where Lance slept. Careful not to give himself away, Keith trained his gaze on Lance’s silhouette, frowning as the other boy shrugged on a light jacket, put on his shoes, and tiptoed out of the cabin. A few seconds later, Keith checked the digital clock set just above the cabin door’s entrance. 9:35pm.

 

It was becoming increasingly clear that Lance wasn’t sleeping at all at night.

 

“Why aren’t you sleeping?” Keith asked, folding his arms.

 

“What?” Lance replied, stifling another yawn with the back of his hand. “Of course I’m...(he yawned)...sleeping.”

 

Keith raised an eyebrow, pouring as much scrutiny and “I’m onto you” in his glare as he could.

 

“No, you’re not. Look at how tired you are. You’re barely functioning.”

 

Lance waved a hand in dismissal, turning away to smooth the corners of his sleeping bag.

 

“Calm down, Brace-Face, of course I’m gonna be tired. We keep coming here like every other day at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

 

Keith felt his frown deepen, and he unconsciously ran his tongue over the godforsaken brackets glued to his teeth. Even after having them for two months now, they still felt so foreign and uncomfortable. He hated the way they made him salivate while he was speaking, the way they muddled his words with a weird lisp, and, most of all, how Lance didn’t appear to need them. Every other teenager in the world probably had to endure them, but, no, apparently—according to Lance—his entire family was born with perfect teeth.

 

“Don’t call me that,” Keith protested, feeling his face heat a bit when he saw the beginnings of a shit eating grin on Lance’s face. “Besides, you’re lying. You’re never in your bed when I leave to come here, but I always get here before you do.”

 

Lance shrugged, reclining so that his back was on the ground, arms behind his head. He didn’t look at Keith, though, and kept his eyes fixed on the sky.

 

“I just like to get a head start, you know? Explore the forest a bit and clear my head before I have to deal with your ass.”

 

Keith scoffed. “And again, no one asked you to follow me into the forest. Yet here you are, one summer later, doing it again.”

 

Lance tilted his head to look up at him, smirking. “Let’s be real here, you totally enjoy the company.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Keith resigned with a little hmph and continued to sit there with his arms folded. Lance went back to gazing at the sky, seeming like he’d be fast asleep within the next second or two. Hopefully he wouldn’t sleep through their customary 6:30am alarm so they could head back to camp without being noticed.

 

Sighing, Keith remained still for a few more moments before stretching his limbs, yawning, and laying down in his own sleeping bag.

 

Lance was too stubborn to confess exactly what he was up to in the earlier hours of the night, but Keith wasn’t about to give up. He was going to get to the bottom of this, one way or another.

 


 

“Come on, Keith, it won’t be so bad,” Katie said, nudging Keith lightly in the ribs to get him to scoot over a little. Keith shuffled an inch down the bench so Katie could see the instruction sheet more clearly, but didn’t take his eyes off of the daunting pile of equipment and junk heaped in the plastic bin in front of them.

 

“Katie, I dunno about you, but I barely know how telescopes work, let alone know how to build one,” he replied, gaze flickering back and forth from the materials to the single instruction sheet.

 

How the senior counselors decided a good activity for the older kids on Fun Fridays would be a telescope building exercise was beyond Keith. Not only did they have to make a telescope, their true objective was to construct one that could focus perfectly on a target some distance away from the pavilion they were in. Thankfully it was a team project, and Keith had been assigned to work with Katie, which he was still thanking his lucky stars for. It was very well known around the camp that the tiny, but formidable, counselor of Cabin Earth was nothing short of pure genius.

 

“That’s what telescope in the bin is for!” Katie exclaimed excitedly, standing up to reach her arm into the pile of metal and glass to pull out an in-tact telescope. “We have to take it apart so we can figure out the mechanisms and the exact distance between the lenses and stuff.”

 

Katie was brimming with excitement—something Keith was lacking at the moment—and grabbed the calculations log set next to the plastic bin.

 

“Okay,” she began, flipping it open and pulling out a pencil, “I’ll handle the calculations. You go ahead and start taking that telescope apart. We can inventory the parts as we go, so we know exactly what we need to replicate!”

 

Keith eyed the telescope apprehensively, still unsure of it all.

 

“Hey, Keith!” a familiar and obnoxious voice called from one table over. “That telescope scaring you already?”

 

Keith turned his head to face Lance, who was sitting opposite Hunk, their team’s telescope in his hands while Hunk sat with the calculations log.

 

“Bet you guys we’ll build the better telescope and finish first,” Lance said, his lips stretching into provoking sort of grin as he ignored Hunk saying, “You know it’s not a competition, right Lance?”

 

Katie leaned forward to look around Keith and scoffed.

 

“Hunk’s right, not everything’s a competition, Lance. We’re just supposed to be learning how to make cool things—“

 

“It’s alright, Katie,” Keith said, placing a hand on the other’s shoulder, a smirk of his own growing on his face. “A competition won’t be that bad. Because even if we lose, we’d only really be losing to Hunk, let’s be real here.”

 

Lance squawked as Katie cracked up, and Hunk hid a giggle behind his hand. Keith met Lance’s glare with a full on smirk now, an engine in him revving to life as Lance squinted back.

 

“Oh, it’s on,” Lance replied, and Keith felt his nerves sing with newfound resolve.

 

He turned back to Katie, who now looked more determined than ever.

 

“Let’s kick their asses,” she said, pencil ready.

 

“You got it, boss.”

 


 

 

“There’s like no way we could’ve won,” a dejected looking Hunk said to a pouting and defeated looking Lance. “Not only did they finish before us, but Katie managed add three different magnifications. Which, I still don’t know how you did that by the way.”

 

He jabbed a finger in Katie’s direction, and Katie, who was sitting opposite him and next to Keith, responded with a grin.

 

“A magician never reveals their tricks,” she said triumphantly. “Besides, we only really finished first because of Keith. He dismantled and inventoried that telescope in record time.”

 

“Yeah, probably because he was angry or something at it and decided to punish it by taking it apart,” Lance interjected, folding his arms and looking quite sour. “He likes doing that a lot.”

 

“Hey, at least I’m not the one being a sore loser here,” Keith said, mouth full of the mashed potatoes he’d just scooped up. “It’s not my fault I just happen to work faster than you do.”

 

Lance stuck out his tongue and was about to retort when Hunk let out a cry of glee. The rest of them turned to see a look of pure, undiluted happiness flourish on the dark skinned boy’s face.

 

“These sweet potato fries...the chefs really outdid themselves today,” he managed, wiping a fake tear from his eye.

 

“Hunk, you say that every day,” Katie replied, but not before stealing a sweet potato fry from Hunk’s tray.

“Hey! Get your own sweet potato fries! No—Lance stop—Keith, not you too!”

 

Hunk frowned as his three friends each stole a few of his fries, and proceeded to try to build a fort around them with his empty mini mashed potato tray.

 

Keith found himself in this situation more and more nowadays—eating dinner with Lance, Hunk, and Katie, participating in the day’s activities with them, and so on. Lance had introduced him to them at the beginning of space camp this summer after being unabashedly pleased—though he’d never admit it— that Keith had kept his promise and come back, and they’d adopted him as part of the clique ever since.

 

He found it odd, being around the three of them so often and having this sort of routine. It wasn’t like Keith didn’t have friends back home in Boulder or anything, but those were simply school friends. Friends he never felt compelled to meet with after classes and on the weekends, and they didn’t particularly take the initiative to ask him to hang out either. This was usually fine by Keith, and he often found he needed a little rest from the constant social exposure at school.

 

However, here and now at the space camp, it was different. Sure, he was still sometimes incredibly overwhelmed and exhausted after having spent a whole day with his three new friends, but he’d started to look forward to mealtimes and activities where they were paired amongst each other. There was a peculiar sense of familiarity to it, something he’d really only felt when he was with Shiro.

 

Lance was a different story, though. With Lance it was...something he couldn’t really put his finger on. Something like the doorbell ringing when you weren’t expecting it to, like opening the curtains of the window in the morning and squinting into the sun while also reveling in the light, like toast popping out of the toaster slightly charred, but that’s what made it taste so good.

 

To be honest, it was all starting to scare Keith just a little bit.

 

“Lance, you really don’t look so good,” Katie remarked, placing both hands under her chin and studying Lance with the gaze of a scientist.

 

“What?” Lance asked, absentmindedly looking up from his dinner tray.

 

Hunk nodded, putting his spoon down and swallowing. “Yeah man, even I can see the bags under your eyes, and I’m 200% convinced I need glasses. I can barely see the clock in my cabin.”

 

Lance’s expression underwent a transformation from alarm to frustration to calm, but it only lasted about a second or two.

 

“Pshh, you guys worry too much,” he replied with an exaggerated bravado. “Utah’s pretty different from back home in Arizona, so my skin is probably just taking a hit. No big.”

 

Hunk and Katie both exchanged an unconvinced look, which they both turned to share with Keith, and Keith immediately turned that scrutiny onto Lance. He was very well aware that Lance was definitely hiding something, and, whatever it was, it was really starting to take a toll on the boy. Good thing he’d resolved to find out what exactly it was tonight.

 


 

The minutes ticked by incredibly slowly as Keith fought to keep his eyes open. He checked the clock above the entrance of the cabin again. 9:15.

 

It wasn’t even that late, yet Keith was finding it difficult to stay awake. The camp’s schedule often wore him out enough to knock him out so he could get at least 3 hours of very deep sleep before he woke to go to the lake. How Lance snuck out every night before him, he’d never be able to comprehend.

 

Why he was so concerned about Lance and what he was doing was truly beyond Keith. Somewhere between last summer and this one, Lance, this space camp, this Middle-of-Nowhere, Utah, had created its own little corner in his life, like a tiny bean sprout poking its head up above the soil amongst other crops and several weeds.

 

His parents had almost shipped him off to Japan to stay with his grandparents this summer because Shiro was now applying for colleges, and they needed Keith out of the way again. The thought still frustrated Keith, and he hated being pushed away from Shiro. But his brother was shouldering the burden of preparing for the future his parents so badly wanted him to have, and Keith felt guilty about being an extra headache for him.

 

So Keith hadn’t put up as big of a fight this time when his parents announced they’d be sending him away for the summer. Instead, he stubbornly refused the Japan plan and suggested he go back to the space camp in Utah instead. Luckily, his parents had been more than happy to go down the cheaper route and ship him back to the camp.

 

Luckily. Keith turned the word over in his head. As hard as it was to admit it, Keith was kind of happy that he was back, even if it was merely by extension of his parents not wanting him around. He’d told Lance the summer before that he’d return, and he was now happy that the boy had asked him to do so.

 

The itch to run was still painful some nights, suffocating Keith until finally pushed the covers down, thrust his feet into his shoes, and ran at full speed to the lake. Yet, he never ran away. He simply ran to the lake. Where Lance would eventually be. Somehow, having that to look forward to grounded him, enough so that he’d started making other friends, taking actual interest in the camp’s daily occurrences, and learning that there was more to life than kicking trees when you were angry.

 

A discrete rustling of fabric interrupted Keith’s thoughts, and he brought his attention back to his mission. Turning ever so slightly so that he could see Lance’s cot without giving himself away, Keith watched as the other boy slipped on his jacket and shoes, gave the cabin a quick scan, and hurriedly tiptoed out.

 

Keith gave Lance about a 45 second head start before he too slipped out from underneath his covers, tied his shoelaces, and exited the cabin. As he went out, he saw the outline of Lance’s figure jog into the surrounding forest, though he was going in the opposite direction of the lake, which struck Keith as odd. He’d never been in that part of the forest before.

 

Shivering slightly in the summer night’s chill, Keith began to make his way towards the direction Lance had just gone in, careful not to run too close to any of the other cabins so no one would hear or see him. Soon, the dense evergreens enveloped him in a now familiar sort of welcome, and he didn’t have to wander for too long when he heard the shaking of branches and a soft grunting.

 

He ducked behind the closest tree, surveying the scene before him until his eyes adjusted and saw Lance making his way up a flimsy rope ladder that was hanging down between two large tree trunks. Soon enough he disappeared into compact brush, leaving Keith to stealthily scout the area. As he approached the rope ladder, he looked up, scoping its path up through the leaves to just barely make out the partial outline of an old tree house.

 

A tree house. That struck a familiar chord in him. He knew of this tree house. Everyone at the camp did. It was one of those things you quickly learned about just by hanging around the campers for a few days because it was apparently haunted. Keith had never seen the tree house—most of the campers hadn’t—but the more veteran members did a pretty good job of pointing at this part of the forest, lowering their voice, and whispering menacingly, “Don’t ever go in there. Don’t go to the tree house.”

 

Not that Keith was chicken or anything, but the supposed legend behind the tree house had given him the heebie jeebies. Something about white people using a Ouija board and dying in a sudden hailstorm of sharp pine needles. Maybe some rabid, ghost squirrels too. Trust white people to ruin a good tree house.

 

Weirdly enough, Lance was one of the most vocal about the legend back at camp. It was his number one go-to ghost story. And while he embellished it a little more each time he told it, the basis was the same: don’t go to the tree house.

 

Yet here he was, going to the haunted tree house. And no matter how much the thought of Ouija board demons was made him shudder, Keith was going to follow.

 

Sucking in a breath, Keith took a hold of the fragile looking rope, tugged on it lightly to test it, and began to hoist himself up to the tree house.

 

Though the climb was much harder and shakier than it had looked when Lance was on the ladder, Keith managed to reach the bottom of the tree house. Steadying his feet as well as he could on the worn out rung, he lifted a hand to assess the wood and find any trace of an entrance that his eyes couldn’t discern in the dark. Finally, he located what seemed to be the outline of a trapdoor and immediately applied pressure, pushing it up until it swung all the way on its hinge and thudded onto the floor of the treehouse.

 

“Wha--?” he heard Lance’s voice call out, startled, as he popped his head into the interior of the treehouse, then pulled himself up all the way into it.

 

At last, Keith sat opposite a cross-legged, wide-eyed Lance, who was huddled in a corner of the treehouse.

 

Keith folded his arms, dawning on the glowing smugness of victory.

 

You aren’t supposed to be here,” he said, mimicking Lance’s haughtiness from when they’d first met. He then jabbed a finger in Lance’s direction. “I knew you were up to something!”

 

Lance sat frozen for a few more seconds, opening his mouth, blinking, then closing his mouth again. Finally, he shrugged and leaned back into the corner.

 

“Woohoo, congrats, you busted me,” he replied, grim and unenthused.

 

This took Keith aback, and the triumph he wore so confidently ebbed away, replaced by concern. That was definitely not how he’d imagined Lance reacting.

 

Then he noticed the rather heavy textbook sitting open in Lance’s lap, and the large flashlight in his hand. Scanning the rest of the small treehouse, Keith now noticed the other various textbooks, notebooks, and pieces of loose leaf paper scattered throughout.

 

“What are you—what’s going on?” he questioned, squinting at one of the books. Was that algebra?

 

“I’m reading, duh,” Lance answered defensively, and Keith swore he saw the other pull the textbook in his lap towards him in a protective manner.

 

He reached out and picked up the textbook he was eyeing.

 

“Yeah but...” Keith started, flipping through it, “Algebra 2?”

 

He reached for the next closest one, turning the title over in his hands.

 

“World History? And is that Chemistry in your lap? Lance, what’s going on?”

 

Lance looked ready to shoot 1000 excuses out of his mouth, but he bit them back, looked down at his lap for a few seconds, then met Keith’s eyes. His face was a defeated one, like that of a child’s who’d tried to put a toy back together and realized it was never going to work.

 

“You have to promise not to tell anyone, okay?”

 

Keith crossed his legs and nodded firmly. “Yeah, okay.”

 

Lance sucked in a breath, then let it out incredibly slowly, like he was trying to stall for time.

 

“Okay, so, I have ADHD and dyslexia.”

 

Keith blinked. “Oh. Well...that’s not a bad thing, right?”

 

“No, it’s not. It just kinda...” Lance trailed off, running his hand through his hair and scrunching his nose in a slightly frustrated manner. “Kinda makes school and learning hard. And Keith, I like learning. I don’t want school to be hard.”

 

“So you’re—wait a second...” Keith began, looking down at the various textbooks again, scrunching his brows. “You’re from Tucson, right? It might be different in Arizona than what we do in Colorado, but this is some of the stuff I’m taking next year. Lance, are you—“

 

The other boy nodded and ducked his head, rubbing the back of his neck in an attempt to appear nonchalant and hide his embarrassment at the same time.

 

“Yeah, I got my next year’s teachers to let me have the textbooks over the summer. I did it last year too—been doing it for a little while, actually. I just store all the books up here and try to, like, take notes and teach myself some of this stuff. Because at least I don’t have the pressure of homework and deadlines, you know? I can read as slow as I need to. And trying learn everything up here and stuff, it’s...not great, but it’s a little easier to focus for some reason.”

 

Lance dropped his hand to his lap and began to fidget with the corner of the page the Chemistry textbook was currently open to.  Why his face was painted with shame and embarrassment, Keith couldn’t fathom. In fact, it contrasted with Lance’s usual cocky and confident demeanor so much, Keith wondered if this was truly Lance.

 

But that was a stupid thought. This was exactly the Lance he knew. Only he would dedicate every one of his summer nights—the ones he should be using to sleep for 12 hours straight or stay up all night eating snacks and gossiping with friends—to the excruciating task of trying to learn all of his subjects so school wouldn’t be as hard. Only he—determined, resolved, stubborn—would challenge his disabilities so head on. Keith believed he’d probably butt heads with a bull if there were one in front of him.

 

Never had Keith felt such a strong surge of admiration kick him in the gut. He thought he’d fall over.

 

“Lance that’s—it’s—“ Keith attempted, unable to find the right words.

 

“Weird?” Lance supplied.

 

Keith shook his head immediately.

 

“No. Incredible.”

 

Even in the darkness, the only light being the one from the flashlight, Lance’s face visibly brightened, the shade of embarrassment lifted to reveal the shine of relief and joy.

 

A feeling fluttered through Keith’s stomach, the kind of feeling you get when you open your eyes to the sun filtering in through the curtains in the morning, the dust in the air dancing in its rays, the warmth kissing you good morning, and you think yes, let me stay here forever.

 

 It caught him off guard, this feeling that, try as he might, he just couldn’t seem to name. He needed to suppress it immediately.

 

“I could, um...” Keith started, clamping down on the weird emotions to stay the rising panic, “I mean, if you needed it ever, I could, you know, help?”

 

Lance shifted in his spot to sit up straighter, biting his lip in uncertainty. Keith immediately doubted his words, wondering if it had been the right thing to say. After all, Lance had only just shared this with him. Maybe the last thing he needed to do was impede on something the other clearly kept private.

 

“Um, maybe? I mean, I guess it’d be good to know if I was actually learning all my stuff right, but...” Lance met Keith’s eyes, a mixture of hesitation and hopefulness in his own. “Would you really?”

 

A small and effortless smile graced Keith’s face—genuine smiles were becoming more common around people who weren’t Shiro these days—and he nodded, stacking the two books he’d picked up in a motion of resolution.

 

“Yeah, of course.”

 

Lance met his smile with a sincere grin of his own.

 


 

“So were you actually scared that there were demons in the treehouse?”

 

It was later on in the night and the two boys had left the treehouse to trek to their customary spot at the still, black lake. Lance was flashing Keith one of his signature, obnoxious shit-eating grins that made a person want to throw something at him to get him to stop. There was nothing in Keith’s hand at the moment, but he was quite content with the idea of tossing the other into the lake in front of them.

 

“I wasn’t scared!” Keith exclaimed with an emphatic huff and a crossing of his arms. “I was just being cautious. Plus, it’s an old treehouse. It could have rotted or have rabid squirrels nesting in it.”

 

His response did absolutely nothing to quench Lance’s grin. If anything, it only fueled it because it seemed to get wider somehow as Lance waggled his pointer finger at him.

 

“You were totally scared, oh man, that’s golden,” Lance cackled, then sat up straight, furrowed his brow, and frowned in an exaggerated manner. “Look at me, I’m brace-face Keith and I’m Too Cool For Space Camp, but I’m scared of a treehouse.”

 

“I’m gonna smother you with your sleeping bag, I swear,” Keith threatened, attempting to wear a most serious expression on his face. Lance only howled with laughter.

 

Now, Keith’s pride could only be wounded so much before he needed to take measures to protect it, and he was no left with no choice but to do just that. Lance had forced his hand, and now it was time for payback.

 

His strategy, of course, was what any other fourteen-year-old boy would resort to when he needed to defend his ego: a full on tackle.

 

Lance yelped as Keith pounced, too startled to fend off the attack, and he soon found himself pinned to the ground with the full weight of a triumphant looking Keith Shirogane planted on his stomach.

 

Keith grounded both his knees on either side of Lance and watched with glee as Lance, with disdain etched all over his face, tried to sit up and push him off unsuccessfully.

 

“Come on, that’s not fair,” Lance whined, leaning up on his elbows with one last attempt to throw Keith off. “I’m too skinny for this.”

 

“What’s not fair is you making fun of me for being afraid of demons,” Keith replied, folding his arms.

 

“Ha! So you were afraid,” Lance exclaimed.

 

Keith settled even more of his weight on to Lance’s stomach in response, which earned him a loud “Ow!”

 

“Oh come on,” Lance complained, letting his back fall to the ground in defeat, “the legend wasn’t even that scary.”

 

“Dude, it was about white people summoning spirits from a Ouija board. I don’t trust anything white people do,” Keith replied.

 

Lance glanced off into space, a pensive look on his face. “Oh, true. You got me there.”

 

Keith hmphed at the small victory and released some of his weight, though he didn’t get off Lance.

 

“Anyway, how did you find out the treehouse wasn’t haunted?”

 

Lance froze, then proceeded shrug and look anywhere except at Keith.

 

“Well, ya know, I kinda already knew? I mean it was just so obvious that the legend was made up and—“

 

“Lance, you’re an awful liar, you know that right?” Keith interrupted, giving the other his “don’t even start with me” look. But that’s when it hit him, and his eyes widened. It’d been right there (literally) in his face the whole time, and he hadn’t caught it until now. But everything suddenly made a lot of sense.  

 

“Yep, there it is,” Lance said, raising an arm and booping Keith’s forehead repeatedly with his index finger. “You finally got it, didn’t you?”

 

Keith swatted Lance’s hand away and pointed an accusatory finger down at him.

 

“It was you! You made up the myth about the treehouse being haunted, didn’t you? So nobody but you would go!” he exclaimed, though whether he was blaming him or in awe, he couldn’t tell. It was probably a mix of both.

 

“Came up with it like four years ago, and I had to make sure I spread it in a way that no one knew it came from me,” Lance answered, a grin of pride now adorning his face. “You gotta admit, it was pretty genius of me.”

 

Keith contemplated it for a bit, then tilted his head in acknowledgement. He couldn’t bring himself to justify it not being a good idea. In fact, for Lance’s purposes, it was an absolutely brilliant move, even if he himself fell for it.

 

With a huff of acquiescence, he lifted his right knee and let gravity pull him back over Lance and onto his back. He laid there for a bit, taking a deep breath and allowing the the crisp summer air to line every inch of him, wrapping himself in a thin shield of the one place he was starting to feel he could truly be himself in.

 

When he turned his head and looked over at Lance, he was surprised to see the other already looking at him, his face calm but unreadable.

 

“Are you ever going do something that doesn’t surprise me?” he asked quietly.

 

Lance smirked, then closed his eyes and hummed, low and content. He then turned to face the night sky, taking a deep breath of his own. Keith could practically see the way the air tickled and danced around his pointy features. There truly was something about this place, something in the stillness of the black water and how it captured the moon, the stars, and the way the pine trees danced in whispers in a slight breeze, that made the world glitter in a way Keith had never known it to.

 

“It depends,” Lance finally said. “Are you ever gonna do something that makes me not want to surprise you?”

 


  

“Woohooo, hey, Earth to Keith!”

 

A loud snapping of fingers under his nose broke Keith out of his momentary reverie, startling him back to the present. He was sitting opposite Lance in the little treehouse, a notebook full of disarrayed and repetitive handwriting open on his lap.

 

It’d been a few days since Keith had first discovered Lance’s little secret, and he’d since been back twice more to help Lance correctly and thoroughly learn sophomore level Algebra 2. A lot of what they’d done together consisted of Lance taking and rewriting notes, then Keith checking them for mistakes and quizzing the other boy.

 

“Uh, right, what was I asking you?” Keith asked, shaking himself out of the absentmindedness.

 

“The quadratic formula,” Lance replied, a little peeved. “Which I sang to you like three times. Dude, you okay?”

 

“Hm? Yeah, I’m fine,” Keith responded, his usual answer rolling off his tongue just as it had been conditioned to do. He was nowhere near meaning it—there were a lot of things plaguing his mind at the moment—but it was all just dumb thoughts, nothing serious.

 

Lance looked thoroughly unconvinced, and as Keith was readying a follow up response to assuage the other’s concerns, Lance shuffled his body forward until his knees were touching Keith’s.

 

“Okay, listen up. So you’re in my territory. This treehouse here is like, my sacred grove. It’s the safe place, the happy place. I’m not saying you have to be happy here 24x7 or anything, but if you’ve got something troubling you, here’s a good place to get rid of it. Just let it out. “

 

Keith blinked and ran his eyes over Lance’s face in the dark, taking in the utter sincerity with which the other boy had spoken and letting that ground him.

 

“I was just thinking about home back in Boulder and family and stuff, that’s all,” Keith said, hoping his voice didn’t sound like it was working around a giant lump in his throat. As soon as he spoke the words, he felt the familiar rush of frustration, anger, confusion, and the impulse to run started to rise up his stomach and through his chest.

 

“Huh,” Lance remarked, regarding Keith with curiosity. “You know, I think that’s the first time you’ve mentioned your family, now that I think about it. Do you...do you miss ‘em?”

 

His voice wavered almost undiscernibly, but Keith had listened to Lance reminisce at the lake about home, his parents, and his siblings enough to know that the full question was really, “do you miss them like I do?”

 

His gut clenched with guilt, knowing that there was no way he could lie and say “yes” and give Lance the chance to empathize with him. He’d say “no,” and Lance wouldn’t understand how someone could truly not want to be with their family.

 

Though Keith supposed that wasn’t entirely true. He did miss Shiro. He missed beating him in Mario Kart, and it would bother Shiro so much that he’d stomp out of the room, and Keith would have to drag him back, promising that they could race the Coconut Mall track because it was the only one his brother was good at. He missed messing with Shiro when he had to do chores, like spraying him with a hose every time the other had to mow the lawn. He missed sleepily wandering into his brother’s room during a thunderstorm and curling into Shiro’s bed, falling asleep in the dim light of Shiro’s desk as he studied for an English test. He missed when Shiro wasn’t already one foot out the door.

 

So that’s what he said.

 

“Yeah, I miss my older brother, Shiro,” Keith answered, softly. “But he’s really busy right now, applying to colleges and stuff. That’s why I’m here.”

 

“Wait, Shiro?” Lance questioned, tilting his head in thought. “You mean like, from your last name?”

 

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Keith replied sheepishly. “I, uh...When I was a toddler and trying to learn how to speak, my family was trying to get me to learn how to say everyone’s names. I could manage saying my first name alright, Keith being one syllable and all, but Shiro’s? Takashi Shirogane. According to my mom, that was a real struggle for me. So I just started calling him Shiro. My parents hated it and tried to keep teaching me to say his name right, but Shiro apparently loved it and started getting all his friends and teachers to call him that. Eventually it just stuck, so now he’s Shiro.”

 

“Awwww,” Lance cooed, lips puckered and voice high. “Wittle Keef calling his big bwother Shiwo. Your brother must be a really generous guy if he actually ran with that.”

 

Keith swatted at Lance’s knee with the back of his hand, exclaiming “shut up!” in the process, but that didn’t stop the smile from spreading across his face. It lingered for as long as Lance cackled at his own joke, then faded when he remembered just why he was missing Shiro in the first place. Being away at camp for the summer was only part of it.

 

“Yeah, he is really generous. He’s a really good person, and it sucks that I barely get to hang out with him anymore,” Keith said softly and looked down in his lap, suddenly becoming engrossed in the way his fingers fidgeted with one another.

 

Lance let his laughter die down, and a silence ensued. It wasn’t an awkward one. In fact, there was an atmosphere of sincerity to it. Lance rarely ever stayed quiet for extended periods of time, and Keith had learned that when he did, it meant that he was going to sit and listen no matter what.

 

Keith drew in a breath, exhaled as slowly as he could, and continued without looking up to meet the other boy’s eyes.

 

“Shiro’s the golden boy of our family,” he mumbled. “He’s not just a good person—he’s smart and good at basically everything he does. And he’s the oldest, so my parents...they like to focus on him a lot. Everything’s about Shiro’s future. You know like, Shiro’s GPA, Shiro’s SAT scores, Shiro’s college apps, Shiro’s career.”

 

“And I mean, I get that. Shiro’s the one they can put all of their dreams on. But they just...focus on him a lot. Everything else is just an afterthought. I’m—I’m an afterthought, I guess. It’s always ‘what do we do with Keith?’ I’m just kind of there. And it sucks because it’s never felt like home—I just live there.”

 

He shrugged, glancing up at the ceiling, now beginning to talk to himself more than Lance.

 

“Sometimes I fail my tests in school on purpose just so they’ll think about me for more than two seconds. Even if it’s a ‘how do you plan on getting into college if you keep this up, Keith?” Because that’s more than what I usually get from them, especially since Shiro started high school.”

 

Keith finally brought his head to level and scanned Lance’s face. In all honesty, he hadn’t realized how much he’d had to say, how much more there was left to say. He was just rambling now, and he wouldn’t have blamed Lance for not wanting to listen anymore. But the other boy hadn’t moved an inch. He was tapping his fingers restlessly against his knees, yet it was evident from his face that he was putting every ounce of effort he could to focus on Keith’s words. A sense of gratefulness trickled down Keith’s shoulders, relieving some of the tension in his tendons. He wasn’t going to be able to stop talking now, but knowing Lance was still listening made it much easier to keep going.

 

“Shiro’s always been the one to make me feel safe, to make me feel like I belong. He’s always made time for me somehow or another, and it just sucks because for the past two summers, he hasn’t been there as much. And I know it’s not fair to him at all because he’s really busy now, and my parents are putting a lot of pressure on him, but...I don’t know what to do when he isn’t there. And he’s going to college in a year, so he won’t be home at all, and I...the further away he goes, I just...lose a grip on everything.”

 

“I know I shouldn’t rely on Shiro so much. But growing up just being there at home, I never had anywhere else to turn to. I grew up never knowing where I really am, what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go—and it’s overwhelming. When I don’t know things. Because I just constantly feel lost and that’s...that’s why I keep running away.”

 

Keith let his chin fall again, his voice dropping a mumble once again. There was a heaviness constricting his throat, and the familiar, yet painful, itch to run was creeping up the linings up his stomach.

 

“It’s not a good thing, and it doesn’t help me at all. But sometimes, it’s just so strong, I—I can’t help it.”

 

He let his voice trail away, allowing a tide of heavy silence rise up around them. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on trying to push the urge to run down, taking deep breaths, nostrils flaring as he did so.

 

All the while, it didn’t escape him that this was the first time in a little while—since he’d started space camp that summer—that he’d felt it this strongly. Somehow, he’d managed to keep it at bay the whole summer until now. Maybe that meant something.

 

A hesitant warmth hovered over his knee, then settled on his shoulder. Keith opened his eyes to Lance reaching an arm out, looking unsure of if he was doing the right thing. But there was a determination lining his face, a sign to show Keith that he was still here, and still listening.

 

There were three butterflies fluttering around in Keith’s stomach. Maybe four.

 

“You feel better?” Lance asked, his voice soft but steady.

 

Keith’s eyes flickered across Lance’s bright, hazel ones, down to his pointy nose and the little mole sat just on his right jawline, then back up to his eyes.

 

The butterflies started to overwhelm the urge to run.

 

“Yeah,” he answered, nodding and trying not to show his disappointment when Lance pulled his arm back.

 

“Awesome,” Lance replied, beaming. “I told you it’d help. The treehouse is a great place, man.”

 

“It is,” Keith agreed, the corner of his mouth rising into a half smile. “Thanks.”

 

The other boy hummed in response, then turned his head to face a wall of the treehouse, falling into a deep, pensive thought. Keith merely looked on, not daring to break the silence.

 

A few moments had passed when Lance spoke again.

 

“Hey, Keith?”

 

“Hm?”

 

“Have you ever had a dream? Like, a really big one that you just really wanna make come true?”

 

Keith frowned lightly. “I...guess not. Why?”

 

Lance remained silent for a few seconds longer before finally sitting up and facing Keith again. 

 

“I guess just, for me at least—and this might sound dumb—but I wanna change the world. I don’t know what I’m gonna do or how I’m gonna do it, but I know I want to change the world in some way. And just thinking about it, it kinda makes it easier when school and learning get really frustrating. Because I know that if I keep studying during the summer, and do good in school, then I’ll be closer to getting to that goal.”

 

He shrugged, beginning to tap the sides of his thumbs rhythmically against his knees again.

 

“So I was thinking, focusing on something like that, maybe it could help with the whole running away thing?”

 

Keith furrowed his brow, a ghost of frustration sliding up into his muscles again.

 

“No, I’ve never had anything like that. I just told you I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never had a direction like that, Lance.”

 

“Okay, okay,” Lance quickly backtracked, holding his hands up in a weak surrender pose, then dropping them back into his lap. He hooked a portion of his bottom lip with his teeth and chewed on it in a pondering manner.

 

“What if it’s something else then? Maybe...well, hm. You said you’re always running away, but you don’t run to nowhere. That’s impossible. Even if you’re running away, you’re always gonna end up somewhere, you know what I’m saying?”

 

“Sure?” Keith replied, eyebrows still knitted in frustration as he motioned for Lance to get to the point.

 

“Maybe there’s a place you keep ending up. Like a place you keep running back to. Because, if there is, then maybe that’s the answer.”

 

It made sense theoretically, but Keith’s frown deepened regardless. It was just too idealistic of an idea, and Lance didn’t understand what it was like to constantly want to run away. That just wasn’t how things worked. Most of the time, Keith just got himself lost, spiraling into confusion and anger until he somehow grudgingly meandered back to wherever he was supposed to be.

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever run back to anything,” he said.

 

Lance blinked and deflated slightly. “Oh.”

 

Keith held Lance’s gaze for a few moments longer, the battle between the butterflies and the frustration buzzing throughout his body. The weight of the treehouse and the notebook in his lap impeded his thoughts, as if they’d caught him in the act of perjury.

 

Though the words had already left his tongue, their aftertaste felt dishonest in his mouth. Sitting across from Lance in his treehouse—the boy who had as many ideas as he had constellations memorized, the boy who’d run into a dark forest if it meant he’d find a way to change the world—Keith began to wonder if what he’d said were actually true.

 


 

Present Time: Houston, Texas

 

Keith feels a warm and heavy presence settle across his torso: two lithe legs loosely intertwining with his own slack ones, a long and pointy nose burying itself in the crook of his neck. Any glimmer of regret instantly vanishes. He’d give the world to be here, like this, every day.

 

Slowly, he opens his eyes and turns his head so that his lips are against Lance’s hair, just above his ear.

 

“Hey,” he whispers, trying to keep the smile he’s holding back out of his voice.  

 

Lance hums, sending pleasurable vibrations down Keith’s spine, and tilts his head, brushing his lips up Keith’s neck until they’re just beneath his jaw.

 

“Hey,” he breathes back, his voice small but content, and Keith can feel the corner of his lips twitch before quirking up into a smile.

 

This is by far one of the worst cuddles Keith’s ever had considering their cramped positions, but he’s still thoroughly disappointed when Lance lifts his head and props himself up with his elbows on either side of Keith’s head, taking some of the warmth with him.

 

“Hm,” Lance says, crinkling his nose in thought. “Where do you think my glasses went?”

 

Keith can’t stop himself from snorting. The two of them are cramped in the backseat of a car, and Lance is worried about the whereabouts of his glasses.

 

“Maybe they’re on the floor somewhere,” he mumbles, lazily reaching up to rest his right hand around the back of Lance’s neck, fingers threading through the curled hair there. “Or actually, maybe they’re outside? I can’t remember when you took them off.”

 

Lance groans and flops back down onto Keith, nuzzling his face back into Keith’s shoulder.

 

“I can’t believe you made me lose my glasses,” he whines. “How am I supposed to drive home now?”

 

“Calm down. They’re definitely around here, you drama queen,” Keith says, snorting again and running his fingers further into Lance’s hair. “If anything, I’ll drive.”

 

“Uh-uh, no way pal,” Lance answers almost immediately. “I saw how many shots you downed in the bar. There’s no way in hell I’m letting you near my girl’s steering wheel.”

 

Keith huffs, ready to argue back, but quickly realizes Lance is probably right. He’s by no means drunk, per say, but his mind is a little wobbly, head a little heavy, and, considering his new job, he probably should be a little mindful of the driving blood-alcohol limit.

 

So he stays silent and lets his body slacken even further under Lance’s, all of his stress from the week and worry from earlier in the evening evaporating. He slides his hand out of Lance’s hair and rests it on his left shoulder, middle finger drawing lazy circles into his skin.

 

Then he remembers the tattoo he saw earlier.

 

“Lance,” he says, nudging the other man. “Lance, get up.”

 

Lance snorts, as if to say “hell if I’m gonna move,” and doesn’t stir one bit.

 

Lance,” Keith repeats, this time wiggling his body as much as he can to break Lance’s comfortable state.

 

The other finally lifts his head, grunts incoherently, and pushes himself off Keith, appearing incredibly peeved.

 

“The hell, dude?” he grumbles.

 

Keith sits himself up, back against the car’s door.

 

“Turn around.”

 

Lance grumbles under his breath a little more, but complies nonetheless, turning his body while trying not to hit his head on the car’s roof. When his back is finally facing Keith, Keith reaches out, hands resting on both of Lance’s shoulders, and pulls the other back towards him. Lance settles between Keith’s legs, back lined up with his chest, and folds his arms.

 

“If you wanted to cuddle like this, you should’ve just said so,” he mumbles.

 

Keith doesn’t respond. Instead, he skims over the tattoo with his fingertips, blinking so his eyes can adjust to the darkness. The faint light of the streetlight some meters away in the bar’s parking lot coming through the car’s window helps a little as well, and soon, Keith can see well enough to discern what the tattoo is.

 

Across Lance’s shoulder is a series of birds. Or rather, Keith finds out as he traces the ink, it’s a single bird drawn multiple times. The bird starts off standing still, then leaps into the air, ready to fly. But for some reason, it’s unable to, and falls, as if about to crash into the earth. Then, just before it meets its ill fate, the bird swoops back up, wobbles, then soars away.

 

Below this story is a line written in Spanish: No hay mal que por bien no viene. Keith traces each letter with dedication. As he does so, he can make out a faint redness across Lance’s skin from where he’d bitten the tattoo earlier.

 

Heat rises to his cheek when he thinks about that impulsive action. Seeing the tattoo had stirred something within him—a possessiveness over the idea that someone else may have known this part of Lance and he hadn’t. This man had explored some of Keith’s deepest crevices, was aware of more of his corners than anyone else, and it was only fair that he knew the same.

 

“What does it say?” Keith asks without looking away from the tattoo.

 

“No hay mal que por bien no viene. There is no ill that doesn’t result in good,” Lance replies, voice soft with a hint of embarrassment. “It’s this Cuban thing my mom used to say to me when I was a kid and things got a little hard.”

 

It then hits Keith that the bird with one wing is Lance.

 

A surge of emotion rises within him, an overwhelming fondness for this man mixed with the ache of missing him over the years, and it compels Keith to lean forward and kiss the image on Lance’s shoulder, soft and lingering.

 

Lance shudders, and Keith doesn’t bother lifting his lips from his shoulder.

 

“It’s weird, seeing you here in Houston,” Lance says, voice still quiet.

 

“Hm?”

 

“I mean, it’s just that, the last time I saw you, you were getting on a plane to Vegas. University of Las Vegas, right?”

 

Keith doesn’t respond right away. His breath is hitched in his throat, and he has to close his eyes and take a deep breath before he can answer. The conversation isn’t there yet, but Keith knows that it’ll soon go down that road. The road where they evaluate what exactly it is that they’re doing, and it’s never easy.  

 

“It was in Tucson,” he finally answers, lifting his head from Lance’s shoulder. “The last time we saw each other was at the music festival in Tucson.”

 

“Oh yeah!” Lance exclaims loudly, but his body doesn’t go alert with recognition. “At the Blink-182 concert. That was also the summer I got this old lady, Franny.”

 

He pats the old, faux leather seat, and, as he does so, his back lifts up and away from Keith. It’s the slightest of movements, but laced with hesitation nonetheless. Keith isn’t too sure, but judging this and the forced excitement in Lance’s voice, he thinks Lance, too, has been trying to forget him. He’s probably regretting bringing the whole thing up, and Keith doesn’t blame him.

 

Props to Lance, though, because he tries valiantly to break the awkward silence that ensues.

 

“So, you still went to UNLV, though, right?”

 

 Keith nods. “Yeah.”

 

“So...” Lance starts, picking at some of the fake leather that’s peeling off the seats. “You know, you’re from Colorado and were in Vegas. How’d you end up in Houston?”

 

Keith hums, taking his hands from Lance’s shoulders and down to his waist, encircling it loosely in a gesture to seek comfort. The last two years had begun like the first fall of a roller coaster, everything before that having built up to a peak that Keith was bound to fall from at some point or another. Just remembering the whole journey puts his stomach through a knot of twists and turns.

 

But he’s here with Lance in his lap. Lance who had told him that he could say whatever he wanted in the treehouse because it was safe, but in reality it had been Lance who made him feel safe. Lance, who’s like your comforter that you wrap yourself in even during the warmest parts of the summer because you know that even if things are wrong in the world, you’ve still got this little crevice that’s yours.

 

So he holds Lance’s waist just a little tighter, just a little closer.

 

“I dropped out just before senior year, at the end of the same summer we met in Tucson,” Keith begins, voice wavering just slightly. “Things weren’t really working out, and it just wasn’t where I needed to be. Of course, like every other time in my life, I didn’t really think it through, and I didn’t really know where I wanted to be.”

 

He snorts to himself, shaking his head. As he does so, he feels Lance lean back into him and settle a hand over his arms.

 

“Anyway, Shiro was in Houston,” he continued. “He’d graduated college and was fresh out of the Houston Police Academy, a choice that has forever puzzled and disappointed our parents. But he was doing pretty well, already becoming the top rookie at the HPD. It was probably unfair of me, but he was the only person I had to turn to at the time. So I called him, and he let me move in with him.”

 

“After that it was just about getting my life in order. Having a routine. Doing what other people do. So I finished up at community college, and Shiro helped me get a job at the precinct he works in. That’s the one I started this week.”

 

At this bit of information, Lance perks up, turning his head as best as he can to try to see Keith behind him.

 

“Woah, you work at the police department?” he asks. “Officer Keith Shirogane. Eh, it’s a little bit of a mouthful, but I suppose there’s a ring to it.”

 

Keith rolls his eyes and leans forward to knock his forehead into the back of Lance’s head playfully.

 

“It sounds just fine,” he huffs. “And, anyway, I’m not actual police. I didn’t go to the academy or anything. It’s like a receptionist job for the captain.”

 

“So like Gina,” Lance supplies. “From Brooklyn 99.”

 

Keith blinks, slightly taken aback.

 

“Uh, I guess?” he replies, then scrunches his brow together and frowns. “Okay, but I’m definitely not like Gina. She’s so...out there. How is she even keeping her job?”

 

Lance emits a loud and overdramatic gasp.

 

“How can you say that? Gina’s the best character on the show!”

 

“Uh, no. Disagree. Terry is, hands down.”

 

“Pal, you and I are gonna have some words right now,” Lance, says, attempting to turn around as best as he can.

 

Before he can maneuver any further, however, Keith locks him in by the waist and hooks his chin over Lance’s shoulder, effectively blocking off any attempt to break their current position.

 

“Oh, come on,” Lance whines. “I’m too skinny for this.”

 

“You use that excuse way too much,” Keith says, humming contently.

 

Lance lets out a little hmph! but concedes the victory to Keith, though not without his own conditions. He immediately leans all of his weight back onto Keith in retaliation, draping himself in the hopes of being an inconvenience. Keith, however, welcomes it. At this point, he’s beginning to accept that they’re here, that he’s holding Lance, and that it will soon be for the last time. They probably only have a few more minutes before they both wake up from this reverie and acknowledge that this can’t happen again. Keith will take what he can get before they both go their separate ways.

 

“What about you?” Keith asks, because it only seems fair to now. “You were at the University of, um, Oklahoma? How’d you end up in Houston?”

 

Lance seems to hesitate for a second before he shrugs.

“I dunno. I was doing Physics at OU, but none of the job prospects were jumping out at me. I was probably gonna end up in research, but I think I would’ve hated myself if I did. I wanted to do something. Not that researching isn’t doing something, but, you know me. Research takes a long time for anything to actually happen, and I’m just too impatient to wait years to feel like what I’m doing is meaningful. No offense to researchers, because holy hell are they doing a shit ton.”

 

He pauses, takes a breath, and continues.

 

“Anyway, while I was at OU, I volunteered at a middle school supervising kids during detention, and I ended up really clicking with them there. Everyone saw the kids in detention, especially the ones who were there regularly, as these Mess Ups who couldn’t do anything right. But that’s not true. They’re just kids, and sometimes life is really hard. They’re doing the best they can.”

 

Lance takes another pause, but this one is full of words he isn’t saying. Keith thinks he can guess, though. “They reminded me of me.”

 

“It seemed a lot more meaningful, working with them than what I was actually studying. So I was like, fuck it, applied to a bunch of Masters programs, and got a solid offer from Rice University. So here I am, doing Science Education.”

 

 As Lance finishes, Keith feels his insides warm up in that familiarly unfamiliar way that he enjoys and dreads at the same time. He doesn’t respond because he’s too busy wrestling with the heat, and he really, really doesn’t need to start panicking right now over feelings he can’t control. Lance, however, interprets his silence differently.

 

“You’re probably pitying me right now, aren’t you?”

 

Keith blinks, startled. “What?”

 

“Don’t worry, everyone does it,” Lance says, a hint of bitterness and guilt lacing his voice. “Like I get it, I had all these goals to change the world and took out student loans to achieve them, and at the end of the day, I decided to become an underpaid teacher. I threw a lot of that hard work away.”

 

Keith ultimately loses the battle with his emotions because they’re suddenly fueled by something that feels like anger and protectiveness at the same time. Lance has never been one to devalue the choices he’s made. He’s the boy who worked past every limitation thrown at him. The boy who’s never taken no for an answer. Seeing society and other people’s opinions starting to erode Lance hurts him in ways he can’t explain.

 

“Bullshit,” he finally says, voice a little louder than he’d intended it to be. “I don’t pity you one bit, Lance. I admire you. I always have. Because I’ve seen you sit and read through text books for hours even though it was probably one of the hardest things ever. I’ve seen you be so passionate about school and learning that you let nothing get in your way. You think you’re not going to change the world anymore? Bull. Shit.”

 

He unhooks his chin from the other’s shoulder and settles his lips in the junction where Lance’s neck and collarbone meet.

 

“I think you’ll show kids that they’re worth more than what everyone says they are,” Keith continues, voice going soft now. “You’ll change their world, Lance.”

 

Lance stays still, and neither of them breathe another word. This silence isn’t heavy, but contemplative. It’s a decrescendo, a thoughtful closing to the night’s events. In the distance, an old pickup truck roars to life and speeds out of the parking lot. Lance laces his fingers in with Keith’s at his waist and squeezes tightly.

 

When Lance finally stirs and turns to face him, Keith knows that this is it.

 

“It’s late,” Lance says, not really meeting Keith’s eyes. “I’ll drive you home, just tell me where you live.”

 

Keith nods, sitting up, his back groaning in protest. “Can you pass me my clothes?”

 

Lance looks over the edge of the seat and begins to rummage through the pile of fabric they’d haphazardly thrown on the floor. He tosses Keith his jeans before continuing to look for his shirt, exclaiming a small, “oh, that’s where my glasses went,” at one point.

 

It’s incredibly difficult to get dressed considering the little space they’re sharing, but Keith manages to pull his jeans up his legs by the time Lance holds out his shirt for him. As he reaches for it, Lance hesitates, then finally looks Keith in the eye.

 

“Keith, about us...you know...”

 

He trails off, too many different emotions flitting across his face to read.

 

A lump forms in Keith’s throat. He thinks about the warmth and holding Lance in his arms. He thinks about Lance laughing and how he’d made him laugh. He thinks about the feeling in his gut that encompasses him when all he does is look at Lance. He thinks about how it humbles him and consumes him and makes him feel secure and drowns him like he’ll never know oxygen again. He thinks about the panic that follows it because, after all these years, he’s still doesn’t know what it is.

 

He thinks about all that he’s been trying to fix in the last two years. He thinks about his need for order instead of his regular chaos. He thinks about his new job, and the stability it’s supposed to bring him.

 He thinks about how he really, really, can’t not know things anymore.

 

“I can’t be another something you keep running away from.”

 

“I can’t just be an excuse for one of your adventures.”

 

The words echo in his head. He has to finish Lance’s sentence.

 

“Yeah,” Keith says, hoping he doesn’t sound too hoarse. “This can’t happen again.”

 

Lance continues to hold his gaze, a conflict playing across his face, one similar to what’s broiling inside Keith right now.

 

“Yeah,” he repeats eventually before turning back to find the rest of his clothes.

 

When they’re finally fully clothed and seated at the front of the Rover, Lance in the driver’s seat and Keith in the passenger’s, Keith pulls his phone out, squinting in pain at the bright light. After his eyes finally adjust, he opens the internet and Googles the population of Houston.

 

2,099,451.

 

That’s big enough for him and Lance to exist in the same city and never run into each other ever again, right?

 


 

Summer, 2008: Middle-of-Nowhere, Utah

 

It was towards the end of the summer, and Keith found himself alone for the third night in a row at the lake. The sky was coveted in splatters of cirrus clouds, the stars occasionally peeking out from behind. Keith laid on his back, arms behind his head, peering at the stars and hoping to find the answer he was searching for.

 

His time at the camp this summer had been an absolute whirlwind, and never in a million years would he have imagined that he’d end up where he currently was. It all started at the opening campfire earlier in June.

 

“I, Lance, counselor of Cabin Uranus, nominate Keith for the position of counselor of Cabin Mars.”

 

A slew of murmurs rushed around the circle of campers around the blazing bonfire as Lance lowered his hand and sat back down on the bench. He looked up and over two benches to catch Keith’s startled gaze, and delivered an encouraging smile and a thumbs up.

 

The senior counselors glanced at each other, nodded, and one turned to address the campers again.

 

“Is anyone willing to second the nomination?”

 

Before Keith could protest and put a stop to the occurrences all together, Hunk stood up from his spot beside Lance with his arm raised.

 

“I, Hunk, counselor of Cabin Neptune, second the nomination of Keith as counselor of Cabin Mars.”

 

Keith let out a strangled noise. He looked down at Katie, who was settled on the ground near his leg with her back against the log bench, and silently sent her his signal of distress. Katie, however, merely grinned up at him and patted his calf.

 

So she was in on it too.

 

He glanced helplessly over at the senior counselors, who were now discussing his nomination. How it got to this point, he didn’t even know. One minute he was enjoying s’mores and sabotaging Katie’s marshmallows so that they kept burning, only vaguely paying attention the the senior counselors’ addressing the vacant Cabin Mars counselor position, and the next, Lance was throwing his name out.

 

The same senior counselor who had asked for a seconding now turned from the other counselors and addressed Keith.

 

“Keith, how about it? You up to be the counselor for Cabin Mars?”

 

“Huh?” Keith answered intelligibly. “Oh, I mean, uh...I’m not sure.”

 

He tossed a glance over at Lance and Hunk’s bench, where both boys were looking at him encouragingly and expectantly.

 

“What I mean,” he continued, sitting up a little straighter, “is that, I’ve only been here at camp for two summers. I’m not sure if I’m really the most qualified.”

 

“You kidding me?” Katie interjected. “No one else volunteered to supervise the 6 year olds on the rope course. You even talked a little boy down the ropes when he was scared he was stuck.”

 

“Yeah!” Hunk joined in, nodding. “And you took responsibility for the crafting class last summer. You were covered in glow in the dark paint after every class, but you still kept doing it.”

 

“Oh! And when you lead the nighttime search party to go out and find Timmy’s security blanket? I’d say you’ve got some good things on your resume, dude,” Katie finished, nudging Keith’s leg with her shoulder.

 

Keith sat still, the heaviness of everyone’s gaze now settling on his shoulders, and he was weighing this against the pure belief that Katie and Hunk are looking at him with.

 

“It’s true,” Lance added. “I mean, you weren’t my first choice—Hunk and Katie strong-armed me into it—but you’ve really stepped up since you first came here. Doesn’t really feel much like a dumping ground now, does it?”

 

Hunk proceeded to softly jab Lance with his elbow, but, if Keith didn’t know any better, he’d say Lance actually seemed embarrassed when he spoke.

 

“So what do ya say, Keith?” the senior counselor asks. “Cabin Mars?”

 

Keith looked back at his friends—Katie, Hunk, and Lance—and turned Lance’s words over in his head. “Doesn’t really feel much like a dumping ground now, does it?”

 

And truth be told, it didn’t anymore. It felt like a choice that he got to make, one that wasn’t based on an impulse that he’d later regret. He’d found some happiness here, and if he looked harder, it was very possible that he could dig up more.

 

“I, Keith, accept the position of counselor of Cabin Mars.”

 

From then onwards, Keith had been swept into the camp more than he ever really thought he would. Space camp went from a place he attended every summer to something he cared about and was now giving back to.

 

It was difficult to settle into this new routine at first. Keith had never really been handed much responsibility outside of taking care of himself, so the prospect of leading an entire cabin of people around his age was daunting to say in the least. He had to follow schedules, make his own schedules, attend counselor meetings, keep track of and get to know his fellow campers on a more personal level—he was quickly overwhelmed.

 

But he still had the nights at the treehouse and the lake, the little moments that kept him grounded even when his head felt like it was going to burst. So it wasn’t too long until responsibility became purpose, a reason not to run.

 

Except, he was now starting to question if it was really the scenery he shared with Lance that kept him on his feet.

 

Keith shifted restlessly atop his sleeping bag, frustrated that he was finding little to no peace in the stars. Something just wasn’t right. And maybe it was because it was less about the secret places he always ran to and more about the with Lance part.

 

For a second, his chest constricted.

 

Three days ago, Lance’s parents had driven up from Arizona out of the blue. As it turned out, his grandmother had just passed away, and he’d ended up driving back home with them for the funeral and spend some time with his family.

 

He was only supposed to be gone for a week, but Keith was already feeling his absence in a magnitude he definitely wasn’t expecting. The first night after Lance left had been alright. Keith made straight for the lake instead of stopping by at the treehouse, sleeping bag in hand, only to find that the quiet was louder than he ever remembered it being. The still, glass of a lake and the rustling pines still calmed him down from the day’s activities, but there was an incessant buzzing in his ear and a denseness in the crisp air that he couldn’t ignore.

 

On the second night, Keith realized being lonely and being alone were two different things. He’d known loneliness—it was too prevalent of a feeling back home in Colorado—but being alone was feeling the absence of other people. Other people whom you wanted to be with you at that moment. He kind of wanted Lance there with him.

 

On the third night, Keith realized that he missed Lance. It wasn’t in the way that he missed Shiro, who was like a rubber life saver drifting away from him in the rough ocean waters. Lance was like the one puzzle piece that, if you couldn’t find, you couldn’t finish the rest of the puzzle.

 

Keith shifted again in his sleeping bag, this time because a heaviness began to climb into his gut, the sensation that had begun to creep up on him more and more these days when he was with the other boy, but this time less warm. It felt a little like yearning for another hug just as soon as one’s ended, like trying to curl up next to the fireplace when it’s late at night and the flames have died.

 

It wasn’t overwhelming, and it definitely subsided during the day when he paraded around as a counselor and spent time with Hunk, Katie, and the other campers. But in the pockets where he had a breath to himself, when his attention was allowed to wander, he could feel the spot around him where Lance would be. Where he wished Lance would be.

 

Keith shifted once more, this time until he’d made a complete 180, now laying on his stomach, back to the sky.

 

He really missed Lance. And that, combined with the multitude of feelings in his chest that didn’t have a name or origin, was making him incredibly restless.

 

It was when Lance returned another three days later that Keith registered the familiar urge to run had slowly begun to climb up his spine like ivy. Escapism was always a part of Keith’s life, but it turned into but a small buzz in the corner of his brain when he was here at camp, then revved up as he left for home again.

 

So feeling that urge shrivel and retreat when Lance made it back in time to join him, Hunk, and Katie for dinner on the sixth night brought the importance of Lance’s presence in his life to Keith’s attention. And this only opened the floodgate to a barrage of questions.

 

What made Lance so special? Why did he miss him so much? Is this what having a crush felt like? Did Lance miss him too?

 

“Lance, you eat like a heathen,” Katie said. “There’s mashed potatoes all over your cheeks.”

 

“Yeah?” Lance answered, reaching over, dunking his left hand in Katie’s mashed potatoes, and smearing it over the right side of her face, causing her to yelp and slap his hand away. “I dunno man, you look worse than I do.”

 

Hunk burst out laughing, only barely managing to duck in time as Katie flicked potatoes off of her plastic spoon in his direction, then immediately stuffed his hand in his mouth to muffle his snickering as Katie’s projectile hit a boy at the table behind them.

 

Lance bit his lip and planted his face into Hunk’s shoulder to stifle his own unapologetic laughter.

 

And Keith caught himself grinning so widely, his cheeks hurt, and his heart beat four times faster.

 


 

 

“I really missed being here,” Lance murmured quietly into the still summer air, his gaze attached to the glittering velvet sky. “I know I’ve only been gone for a week, but, it felt longer.”

 

Keith barely caught the words. He’d been too busy searching Lance’s face for signs of what the other boy was searching for in the stars.

 

“Hm?” he responded moments later, only just comprehending what the other had said.

 

Lance shrugged and stretched his arms out behind him, leaning his weight back onto his palms and casually stretching across his sleeping bag.

 

“I mean, it was nice to be home and see my family and all,” he continued, eyes not leaving the sky, “and the whole service for my grandma was really well done and stuff, but it just felt like something was missing, you know?”

“Yeah,” Keith answered quietly, nodding and hoping his voice didn’t sound as hoarse as he thought it did. It really didn’t help that his heart was suddenly in his throat, racing like a horse. He did know what Lance meant. Or maybe he didn’t. Should he hope that Lance meant what he was thinking?

 

“It was really weird too because, I mean, I obviously miss camp every time I go home, but not like this. It was more like I was missing out on some huge adventure, and I couldn’t wait to come back to it,” Lance said, voice sounding a little timider with every word he spoke, like he was on the verge of doing something reckless and was considering his course of action one last time.

 

Keith didn’t move a muscle, trying to ignore that the odd sensation leaking slowly into his bones. There were semblances of words settled at the back of his mouth, but they’d yet to form into something coherent. His voice was stuck and all he could do was wait and see if Lance would continue any further.

 

The other boy hesitated, probably contemplating the same thing. Then he sat up straight and finally tore himself away from the stars, focusing on Keith’s face, jaw set like he’d found the answer he was looking for.

 

“I think I wasn’t missing camp. I was missing all of this,” he spoke. “I...I was—“

 

He stopped short, uncertainty clouding his features again. Keith, however, doesn’t miss a beat this time. Words had taken shape at the tip of his tongue, and he finished Lance’s sentence for him.

 

“Missing you.”

 

He barely breathed the words, but they were now there out in the open between the two boys. At first Lance’s eyes widen, causing panic to jumpstart in Keith’s gut, but then his features smoothed over, lips twitching and joy cautiously lighting his face.

 

Somewhere inside Keith, a dam burst open, and the leaks in his bones are overcome with a torrent of feeling. That feeling. The one he’d started to experience every time he was around Lance nowadays. The one that was like the comfort of wearing socks to bed in the middle of the winter, like opening the window for a gentle breeze in the dead of summer, like watching the leaves of the tree in the backyard turn crisp and yellow in the fall and trying to guess which one would shed first. The one that didn’t seem to have a name. The one that scared him a little.

 

Keith’s first instinct was to go on lockdown, to turn away and suppress the sudden flood until it subsided and he could ignore it again.

 

But Lance had laid himself out in the open. He was one to hold his heart in the palm of his hand, and Keith couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if he did the same.

If, this once, he let the feeling overtake him.

 

Sitting up and facing Lance, crossing his legs as he did so, he took in a deep breath, and cautiously loosened his muscles, welcoming the foreign feeling.

 

“Lance, I—“ he started, but stopped short, realizing the rest of his words had drowned in the feeling. All he had left were actions.

 

He’d never really be able to pinpoint whether he’d made a conscious decision to do it or if the feeling was what compelled him forward, but he found himself leaning in nonetheless, too late to think about what he was doing. Half a second later, he was kissing Lance.

 

For a moment, Lance didn’t move, and Keith felt doubt start to swarm in his head. Had he mistaken what Lance was saying? Did he move too fast? Was he a bad kisser?

 

Then he felt the hesitant touch of Lance’s fingers on his cheek, then Lance also leaning in, kissing him back, just as unsure as Keith.

 

Whether Keith was drowning or soaring, he didn’t know.

 

It was short kiss, only lasting for a few seconds, but as he pulled back, Keith was buzzing with elation, and Lance was grinning unabashedly.

 

“That wasn’t an awful first kiss,” Lance remarked, breaking the silence. “But maybe next time, you should kiss me when you get your braces off.”

 

He dodged too late as Keith’s shove hit him solidly in the shoulder, causing him to lose his balance and topple over onto his back.

 

Keith laughed at Lance’s bewildered face, lungs feeling unrestricted and free as he did so, fully welcoming the challenge that was sure to follow as Lance muttered, “oh, it’s on.”

 


 

Present Time: Houston, Texas

 

Keith wakes to the sun glaring into his room, warming his legs under the thick covers like he’s stuck them in an oven. He’ll never get over how Houston manages to be 70 degrees when it’s supposed to be winter time. It’s really throwing him off.

 

Grunting, he squeezes his eyes shut and tosses the comforter over his head, hoping that he’s right and that it really is Saturday. There’s a tiny pounding in between his eyes, but he’s yet to experience a full-blown hangover, and he’ll be damned if this actually is one. He’s got this theory about Asians not having awful hangovers, and he’s praying his Japanese genes have got him covered this morning.

 

Aside from the mini hangover, though, he’s actually feeling rather content, which isn’t a sentiment he normally wakes up to in the morning. His bones seem as if they’re filled with air, light, like he’s floating. If it were a work day, he feels as though he could suddenly garner the motivation to get up and be productive. But it’s not, so he’s perfectly satisfied with sinking back into his bed, enduring the sunlight, and not moving for a really long time, but the smell of pancakes wafts into his room and penetrates his comforter.

 

The smell of slightly burnt pancakes.

 

Keith pulls the covers back and sits up, wincing in the whirly dizziness that follows, and wills himself out of bed. The pancake part of the pancake smell is making his stomach rumble, letting him know how hungry he is. The burnt part of the pancake smell means that Shiro is cooking, which means someone needs to be supervising the kitchen.

 

Slipping into his house slippers, he bends backwards, outstretching his arms, and stretches out all of his joints, a giant yawn following suit. Then he slowly shuffles out of his room and into the kitchen just down the hall.

 

“How did you get Allura to let you cook breakfast by yourself this morning?” he says heavily through another yawn, settling his right shoulder against the wall of the kitchen entryway.

 

Shiro is bustling around the small kitchen—opening and closing the fridge for small ingredients here and there, mixing more pancake batter, and hurrying back over the stove periodically to make sure he didn’t fully burn the current pancake in the skillet.

 

“Oh, hey, morning Special K,” Shiro answers, looking over his shoulder. “Allura had a rough day at the school yesterday, so she’s sleeping in. Besides, you just finished your first week at the precinct, so I figured I’d surprise you guys.”

 

Keith frowns momentarily at the nickname, but doesn’t comment on it. His brother’s got a plethora of nicknames stashed away, and if Keith protests one, he always manages to pull a new one out to replace it. Instead, he stands on his tiptoes in an attempt to look over Shiro’s shoulder and survey the cooking.

 

“Hey, watch it, you’re letting that pancake burn,” he remarks and smirks when Shiro mutters “oh, fuck,” quickly turning around to take care of it.

 

When Shiro finally manages to flip the pancake and realizes it’ll probably cook better if he turns the dial down on the stove, he allows himself to turn and face Keith, his back leaning against the kitchen counter.

 

“So you came back pretty late last night,” he starts casually.

 

Keith’s breath hitches, memories of the night before returning to him in flashes.

 

“Uh, yeah, I just went out for a couple of drinks after work,” he answers, keeping the tone of his voice as neutral as Shiro’s.

 

Shiro nods, folding his arms. “I woke up to get some water and saw you get dropped off by someone. You make a friend?”

 

Lance, Keith thinks, heart skipping a beat. Right, Lance is in Houston. Fuck.

 

“Just a guy I met at the bar,” he says, shrugging. “He volunteered to drive me home.”

 

Shiro merely looks at him and continues to nod, and Keith holds his gaze while attempting to stem the mixture of excitement and panic bubbling up his spine.

 

But then Shiro’s face softens into one of brotherly concern, the emotion underlying his neutrality.

 

“Was it an okay first week though?” he asks, a hint of worry threaded through his voice. “You’re happy, right kiddo?”

 

The question strikes a chord within Keith. Is he happy right now? Yes, in this moment, he’s feeling rather elated. Is he happy with his life in general? Well, it’s a little too soon to really tell. He’s definitely changed a lot of the way he’s been living, but he’s yet to see the payoffs. But Shiro’s seen him go from bad places to worse, has helped him through the toughest of situations whenever Keith asked for it. He’s letting Keith stay in his apartment and got him the job at the precinct. Saying anything but “yes” would be like letting his brother down, but so would lying.

 

“Yeah,” Keith manages. “I’m trying to be.”

 

Shiro gives him a soft but encouraging smile, and Keith returns it, soft but thankful.

 

“That’s not the smell of something burning, right? Please tell me it’s not.”

 

Allura rounds the corner of the kitchen entryway, her voice muffled by the pin she has clenched between her teeth, hands settling a silver headscarf around her head. She heads straight for the fridge, bending slightly so she can see herself clearly in the magnetic mirror they’ve put up on it, and smirking as Shiro yelps and jumps up to attend to the burning pancakes again.

 

Keith can’t help but laugh at the scene.

 

“We’re not that lucky, Allura,” he says. “One day, Shiro’ll cook something and it won’t burn, but it’s not today.”

 

“Hey! The pancakes aren’t that bad,” Shiro exclaims, turning and pointing his spatula at Keith. “And if I weren’t cooking, you two would be breakfast-less this morning. “

 

“Hmm,” Allura hums, finishing up with wrapping her hijab and pinning it to perfection, then walks over to the countertop right next to the stove and peers at Shiro’s finished products so far.

 

“Babe,” she says, putting her hand on Shiro’s shoulder and pecking his cheek, “maybe we should just get a waffle maker.”

 

Shiro frowns and is ready to protest, but he’s met with another kiss, this time on the lips, and he decides to accept his defeat and labors on as Allura crosses the kitchen towards the coffee pot.

 

“Coffee, Keith?” she questions, opening the cabinet just above the coffee maker and pulling out ground coffee beans. “You look like you could use some.”

 

Keith is about to turn the offer down, but the baby hangover nesting between his eyes decides to pulse just then, and coffee really doesn’t sound too bad.

 

“Actually, yeah,” he responds, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “I could go for some.”

 

Allura beams at him knowingly and continues with prepping the coffee maker.

 

“What about me?” Shiro asks, flipping his last pancake onto a plate. He proceeds to turn the stove off and wipe his hands on the mini kitchen towel hanging on oven’s handlebar.

 

“Hon, you drink like three cups a day,” Allura muses, turning to face him. “There’s no point in asking if you want coffee anymore because I already know.”

 

Shiro grins, joy radiating across his face. It’s a look he wears incredibly often nowadays. Not that he’s spent a lot of time before being unhappy, but this look is different. It’s one of comfort and freedom, one of peace and belonging, one of someone sitting in front of a fireplace, wrapped in a blanket, content because they know they’re home.  And Keith’s found that that look can be directly attributed to Allura.

 

Something tugs at Keith’s gut as he continues to lean against the kitchen entryway, watching Shiro reach over and wrap his arm around Allura’s waist, pulling her towards him and placing a wholehearted kiss on her lips. Allura closes her eyes and raises a hand to caress Shiro’s jaw, and Keith knows she’s just as content with Shiro.

The tug’s there again, a little more insistent than before. It’s a combination of happiness for his brother and his girlfriend, as well as envy over the fact that they both seemed to have found whatever they’d been looking for in life in each other. If only finding his path were that easy.

 

Somehow, he finds his mind wandering to Lance and the night before and immediately squashes the thought. There’s no way that can be the right road. He knows that.

 

But something about that memory—or rather, a feeling from the memory—invigorates him, like a ball of electricity is bouncing around inside of him. Keith thinks of Lance and his decision to pursue something other than what was expected of him despite the risks, of how he still didn’t know if what he was doing was the right way to go, but he was doing it anyway. Keith thinks of how much he admired that conviction and how much he wanted Lance to know that he did. If Lance could take that kind of chance, what was stopping him from doing the same thing? What’s chaining him to just a desk job?

 

Keith briefly wonders if last night is the reason he was so energized this morning before he hears Allura speak.

 

“Keith. Earth to Keith.”

 

Keith blinks himself out of his thoughts and finds Allura standing in front of him holding out a mug of coffee.

 

“Oh, thanks,” he says, taking the mug from her. He blows a thin stream of air across the surface before taking a gentle sip. A shit ton of milk and no sugar. Just how he likes it.

 

“You were seriously spacing out there for a bit,” Shiro comments, taking sip of his own coffee. Allura returns to stand next to him, mixing sugar into her mug. “What’s on your mind, li’l dude?”

 

Keith takes another, this time longer, sip of his coffee, echoes of thoughts still racing through his head.

 

“Nothing, I was just thinking...what if I became a firefighter?” he finds himself blurting out.

 

He hears the startled klank of the spoon Allura’s using against the rim of her mug as Shiro’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline.

 

“Well, that’s pretty sudden,” Shiro responds, setting his coffee down. “Not that I don’t support it, but what’s got you thinking about it?”

 

Keith shrugs and takes another long sip, giving himself some time to figure out the answer because even he doesn’t know where exactly it came from.

 

“I’m not too sure,” he finally answers, furrowing his brow. “I just feel like I could be doing more than just being a desk jockey my whole life. Even if it’s not now, just to have that plan to work towards in the future, I could do something more and pay you guys back for all of your help.”

 

“Nonsense,” Allura says, turning around to face him and fitting herself into Shiro’s side and taking a sip of her coffee. “Not the firefighter part because that could definitely be good for you, but the paying back part. You don’t have to do that. We’re happy to help you out whenever you need it.”

 

Shiro nods firmly. “What she said. If you’re thinking of becoming a firefighter, Keith, then do it for yourself. Don’t think about us. We’ve always got your back.”

 

A deep sense of gratitude fills every inch of him, and Keith can’t fathom how he’s managed to have people like Shiro and Allura in his life considering how messy it is. He’s not really a man of luck, but it seems like luck had decided to take pity on him this once.

 

“Thanks guys,” he murmurs into his coffee mug, unsure of what else to say.

 

He doesn’t need to say anything else, though, because Allura suddenly exclaims, “Shit!” and whips around to check the time on the oven’s clock.

 

“I’ve gotta bounce, boys,” she says, gulping her coffee down in a way that makes both Keith and Shiro wince and wonder how she isn’t burning her throat, and quickly placing it in the sink. “All of the teachers are meeting to bid on who’s gonna host this year’s annual holiday party, and I’ll be damned if I don’t win the privilege this time.”

 

Shiro picks up his coffee mug again and looks on, amused.

 

“That’s what you say every year,” he remarks.

 

Allura gives him a glare before crossing the kitchen to check her makeup and hijab again in the fridge’s magnetic mirror.

 

“Well, this time, I’m definitely getting it. Just you watch. Babe, save the pancakes, I’ll eat them later, I promise.”

 

“You always say that, too,” Shiro grumbles into his coffee mug.

 

“I promise,” Allura reassures him, kissing his cheek before hurrying out of the kitchen. As she passes Keith, she ruffles his hair affectionately and says, “Have a good one, Keith.”

 

“You too,” Keith calls after her. “Good luck.”

 

“Fuck,” Shiro curses under his breath as he watches Allura go. “If she actually gets it this year, I’ll have to decorate the place. I don’t need that stress in my life.”

 

Keith snorts. “Your life is a real tragedy, isn’t it?”

 

His brother groans. “You have no idea.”

 


 

 

Summer 2009: Middle-of-Nowhere, Utah

 

The year had been a really, really rough one. School was a pain in the ass, and Keith was having an increasingly difficult time dedicating his time to it. He was awful at being a student, and it didn’t help that it was now his turn to prep for the necessary standardized tests. His parents were now breathing down his neck, and there was no Shiro around to serve as a buffer. He’d packed all his things and moved to Houston for college, only visiting during the holiday season.

 

It sucked, but Keith didn’t blame him. His brother finally had an out from the pressures he faced at home, and he was taking full advantage of it. It just left Keith stranded in a place he never felt he belonged in.

 

That’s why his heart was thumping as he scrambled out of his parents’ car, lugging his camp suitcase out with him. Returning to space camp this summer was like a breath of fresh air after drowning for months. He couldn’t wait to eat mashed potatoes at the slightly splintering wooden picnic benches, tell ghost stories at night with his cabin-mates in Cabin Mars, tell Katie about the girl in his school who built a robot that successfully decorated their school’s Christmas tree, make up ridiculous space puns with Hunk, visit the treehouse with Lance.

 

Space camp was freedom. He’d give anything to stay here forever.

 


 

 

It was amazing how much things had changed. Going from 15 years old to 16 was only a year, but it was clear, when Keith finally got to meet his friends at dinner that night, that they were, indeed, growing up.

 

For one thing, Keith had finally gotten his braces off.

 

Hunk’s voice had deepened so much that Keith was startled every time Hunk asked if he could take one of his sweet potato fries.

 

Katie had cut her hair really short, and insisted they call her Pidge now.

 

“Just say ‘they,’ they said, taking a bite of their turkey burger. “Being a girl wasn’t really working out for me. Neither was being a boy. Gender is one of the weirdest social constructs, let me tell you.”

 

And Lance had gone from being two inches shorter than Keith to being an inch taller. His face was now longer and more defined, making his once too-long nose now look the perfect size. His hair, originally close-cropped, was now a little longer, framing his forehead well.

 

As the four of them joked and caught up with each other, a warmth settled into Keith’s gut, like a cat circling its resting place before finally curling into it. He’d come see Pidge, Hunk, and Lance as his best friends, and it only now hit him just how much he’d missed them. And as dug into his mashed potatoes, he found himself stealing frequent and fervent glances at Lance, wishing that it was past curfew so they could make their way to the treehouse and then the lake already. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t miss Lance the most, and that added something to the warmth resting in his stomach. Something he didn’t know.

 

“Oh!” Lance exclaimed, shaking Keith out of his head. “By the way, around the end of the summer, my parents are gonna come take me home for a week for my grandma’s death anniversary, and I convinced them to let you guys come with! A road trip for the four amigos plus a week of good food from my mom. What do ya say?”

 

Keith blinked, his spoon halfway to his mouth. “Are you sure? I mean, it is for your grandma’s death anniversary.”

 

“Pshh, yeah of course I’m sure,” Lance replied, waving his hand dismissively. “It’s just supposed to be a fun week with the family, and you guys are my best friends. I’d love for you guys to be there.”

 

“It would be pretty cool to go to Arizona,” Hunk mused, rubbing his chin in thought. “I’ve never really been outside of home except for coming here in Utah.”

 

“Hunk, you live in Southern California. How are you complaining?” Pidge interjected.

 

“Hey, Southern California is a bubble. I need to expand my horizons,” Hunk said, opening up his arms in demonstration as he did so.

 

“Well, I’m definitely down to come, too,” Pidge added. “I’d do anything to see something other than Wyoming and Utah. Especially if there’s good food.”

 

“Yes!” Lance cheered, face glowing with excitement. “So you guys are down. What about you, Keith? You’ll come, right?”

 

Keith didn’t answer right away. Rather, he found that he couldn’t. That extra, unknown feeling in him was starting to swell, and that scared him a little. He had no idea why, though, since he’d started to accept it last summer. But it felt stronger now, especially with Lance’s proposal, and he was afraid of being overwhelmed. He was afraid to say yes.

 

But this was Lance. Lance with the infectious grins, the never ending enthusiasm, the boy Keith took pride in making laugh. How could he not say yes?

 

Hoping his smile didn’t look as uneasy as it felt, Keith answered, “Yeah, of course.”

 

Lance beamed at him, light hazel eyes dancing with joy and affection. Keith’s stomach did five somersaults.

 


 

 

Lance had been talking for the past half an hour straight. As soon as the two of them snuck out of their respective cabins and met up at the treehouse, Lance began to ramble. He started with the overarching general things like how his sophomore year went, and slowly progressed to details, like how his sister tripped over a speed bump while riding her Razor scooter and needed 5 stitches on her chin and she asked to hold his hand through the whole process, which really warmed his heart.

 

He’d always been a talker, but there was something in his words that felt different to Keith. Lance wasn’t just telling him what was going on in his life, but was laying out every emotion that ever coursed through his veins that year right onto the floor of the treehouse. He didn’t hesitate one bit to open himself like a book to Keith. It was disarming, intimate, and heartwarming.

 

It made Keith want to hold him, something he’d been dying to do since they finally met earlier in the day.

 

It also made that feeling—the one he didn’t know—creep up his spine like shadows spreading in the evening.  

 

Keith attempted to swallow it. He was in the one place he wanted to be right now. He shouldn’t be scared.

 

“Lance,” he finally interrupted, scooting closer to the other boy.

 

“What?” Lance asked, looking peeved that Keith didn’t let him finish whatever story he was currently telling.

 

Keith’s eyes raked over the other, drinking in the face he’d found himself missing during the days that life felt particularly unbearable, the days he found himself yearning for comfort and liberty the most.

 

“I don’t have braces anymore,” he mumbleed, feeling the heat rise to his cheeks.

 

“Huh?” Lance responded, confused.

“I don’t have braces anymore, you idiot,” Keith repeated, this time a little louder, as if the added volume and the “you idiot” part would clarify his statement.

 

Which it did, apparently, because Lance’s face transitioned from confusion to an all-out grin.

 

“Wow,” he said. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice.”

 

“Well, now you know,” Keith retorted, biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself from smiling.

 

“Yeah,” Lance repeated softly. “Now I know.”

 

He leaned over, hesitation marking his path only for a second, before he rested both hands on either side of Keith’s faced and kissed him. Keith didn’t stop to think. His hands went straight to Lance’s fingers overlaying the other boy’s as he kissed him back. They started slow, unhurried and tender, but the kiss soon gave way to a yearning the two boys had held inside them for a whole year.

 

Keith found himself leaning in more and more, and Lance kept pulling him forward until his back was flat on the floor of the treehouse and Keith was arching over him, elbows on either side of his head. And Keith kissed him with every fiber of his being, pouring in every bit of emotion he felt when he was with lance and every bit of longing he felt when he wasn’t.

 

He could feel Lance smiling into the kiss, and Keith knew he was doing the same.

 


 

 

The summer breeze whistled through the panels of the old treehouse, playing a melody that harmonized with Keith’s breathing and Lance’s heartbeat. A sliver of moonlight shone through, illuminating the cramped area, filled with scattered textbooks, as well as Lance’s face, now resting on Keith’s chest, his head atop Keith’s bicep.

 

The two of them had laid there for quite some time, talking about plans for the rest of the summer, stories behind different constellations, pranks they could pull on Hunk and Pidge, until Lance drifted to sleep. His arm was loosely draped over Keith’s torso and his breathing was deep.

 

Keith, however, was having a much harder time falling asleep. A concoction of things was brewing inside of him, and it made him jumpy and restless. Laying there with Lance peaceful in his arms, his breath flitting across his collarbone, so trusting and open to Keith—it was so surreal. It was an intimacy Keith had never known, had never expected to know.

 

He thought back to the elation in Lance’s eyes the moment he said Keith had agreed to join him on the road trip. He thought of the invitation and the expectancy with which Lance looked at him. He thought back to last summer when Lance came back from his grandmother’s funeral, admitting that, of all things, he’d missed Keith the most. He thought back to when Lance first revealed he had dyslexia and ADHD, trusted him enough with the truth, and let him into his safe place.

 

Lance had welcomed and integrated Keith so deeply in his life, and thinking about it made Keith’s toes tingle. And there it was again, that feeling, like warm molasses flowing into his veins and up his legs. Lance breathed something incoherent into Keith’s chest and the feeling morphed. It was like the laughter of children riding their bikes down the street late in the summer evening, like the patter of familiar footsteps coming down the stairs, like twisting the blinds open in the morning and feeling the sun seep through the glass of the balcony and onto your face, wishing you a good morning and a bright day.

 

Keith curled his arm around Lance, heart racing and skipping beats at the same time. It wasn’t just Lance who’d let him in, but Pidge and Hunk as well. They never once hesitated to embrace him with open arms the moment Lance invited Keith to eat dinner with them. He thought back to their mini competitions during camp activities and their dinner shenanigans. He thought of how he never let Pidge roast a proper marshmallow, and how Pidge poured sugar in his mashed potatoes in retaliation. He thought of how Hunk always clutched his hand during camp-wide open mike ghost story sessions and how Keith would always save his last sweet potato fry for Hunk.

 

He thought about how Pidge and Hunk were adamant about his qualifications for cabin counselor. He thought about how much Lance believed in him too.

 

Lance stirred and shifted closer. The feeling was now rushing over him like a tidal wave, pushing his heart into his throat and drowning him in a buzzing warmth. It felt like curling up on that one corner of the couch that you couldn’t let go of, like falling asleep to the sound of the TV in the background, like waking up and succumbing to the illusion that nothing else mattered in the world except you and your blanket. It seeped into his bones, melting them and leaving his inhibitions out in the open.

 

The feeling was too overwhelming, and he still had no name for it. He hated the way it made everything seem more unpredictable than it already was. He hated the way it snuck up on him at the worst times. He hated how it made him feel like he had no control. He hated how it made him worry what would happen if he suddenly lost it all.

 

Keith’s breath hitched. He’d only be at camp for at most another summer. After that they’d all go to college, all go their separate ways. He was already in so deep, he’d break if he sank any further and had to rip himself away from it all.

 

The unknown feeling clenched at his gut painfully. Maybe it wasn’t worth it, trying to accept this feeling only to deal with the pain of leaving it all behind. Maybe he should drop it before it progressed any further.

The familiar itch was now buzzing through his muscles, reminding him of the one alternative he’d always known: to run.

 

Keith looked down at Lance, chest heaving like a 100-pound dumbbell was settled on it, muttering a silent apology. He knew what he had to do.

 

As slowly and quietly as he could so as not to disturb the other boy, Keith untangled himself from Lance, climbed down the ladder of the treehouse, and made his way back to the camp.

 

He stopped at one of the camp’s payphones just outside his cabin and dialed his parents. It was around midnight, and they weren’t the happiest considering the hour, but they listened anyway.

 

When he was done, Keith made his way into his cabin, still trying to swallow his heart.

 


 

 

His parents arrived at camp while the other campers were at breakfast. Keith hadn’t bothered to go with everyone else at the picnic tables, mumbling something about not feeling well when his cabin-mates asked him about his reluctance to join them. In truth, he didn’t want to face Lance, Hunk, and Pidge. Not after he’d left Lance in the treehouse last night. Not after he’d made his decision.

 

It helped that his parents drove in when everyone else had gone to eat. Keith had fed them something about how he was suddenly anxious about standardized tests and how he wanted to have the summer to study for the SATs. That had been an easy enough story to get them to swallow.

 

“I hope you’re serious about studying this summer,” his dad said as Keith pushed his camp suitcase into the car and ducked in behind it. “It took Shiro a lot of practice to get the score he did. It’s about time you started thinking about your future.”

 

“Yeah, Dad, I know,” Keith replied, and left it at that.

 

His dad started the engine as his mom began to talk about something else from the passenger seat, but Keith tuned her out. Instead, he gazed out the window, trying to breathe evenly, already attempting to convince himself that space camp had simply been the illusion of freedom and nothing more.

 


 

 

Present Time: Houston, Texas

 

The continuous tick, tick, tick of the retro Mickey Mouse clock he’d got on a family trip to Disneyland ticks like a metronome to Keith’s thoughts. He taps the pen in his hand on the desk, following the clock’s ticking with a half-second faster beat, like he’s trying to encourage time to speed up. This desk job is boring and monotonous, but he figures that’s what he signed up for when he decided he was going to try to restore order in his life.

 

Keith doesn’t realize just how much he’s drifted off until he hears someone clear their throat beside him and feels a weight settle on his desk.

 

“You good, Keith?” the captain asks, halfway sitting on his desk, arms folded and a dark eyebrow raised. She’s a middle-aged woman, but you couldn’t discern that from her face no matter how hard you tried. Her black hair is pulled into a sleek ponytail and her dark brown skin is smooth, marred only by the furrow of her brow and the stress lines across her forehead. She’s fantastic at her job, but all Keith has to do is pull up her schedule on his desktop to know just how difficult being captain is, and he respects her for it immensely.

 

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Keith answers, sitting up straight in his seat and turning his office chair to face her. “Just spaced out for a sec. What’s up?”

 

The captain nods and unfolds her arms, revealing the manila folder she’d been holding in her hand.

 

“Could you go ahead and log this into the database? I feel like I’ve been working on the Bruno brothers case for years. It’s about time to close it.”

 

Keith accepts the file and casually thumbs through it.

 

“So was it the third Bruno brother, like you thought it was?” he asks.

 

“No, actually! Turns out, there was a fourth Bruno brother involved,” the captain answers, shaking her head. “Can’t trust a single Bruno these days.”

 

Keith looks up from the file and grins at her.

 

“At least any remaining Bruno brothers in the city won’t mess with you anymore,” he says. “I’ll go ahead and log it in now.”

 

The captain gives him a firm pat on the shoulder and lifts herself off the desk just as Keith turns back to his computer.

 

“Oh, by the way,” she calls just as she’s heading back into her office, “when Shiro gets back from his patrol, tell him to step into my office for a sec. I think it’s about time I promoted him to detective.”

 

Keith’s eyebrows shoot to his hairline and he blinks in surprise.

 

“Really?” he asks.

 

The captain nods, professional and kind at the same time.

 

“Your brother’s a good cop with a lot of potential. He deserves it,” she answers. “And you’re not far behind, Keith. I know you’ll do something great, too.”

 

With that, she heads into her office and closes her door, leaving Keith with his eyebrows raised in surprise and the manila folder in his hand.

 

He can’t express how happy he is for his brother getting a promotion. But, more than that, he’s still trying to decipher the captain’s words about him. It’s not really a sentiment he hears often from others, and it’s got him feeling like this desk job really isn’t that bad.

 

Feeling lifted out of the ditch of boredom and unproductiveness that he’d been in before, Keith shakes his mouse to wake up his desktop in order to log the case in. As he does so, his computer illuminates to reveal several pages open on Google Chrome, and Keith’s reminded of just what he’d been doing before he started spacing out.

 

He immediately sinks back into the pit.

 

Each tab is open to a website researching Texas firefighting academies and volunteer fire departments in Houston. The pages had been open for the whole week since he’d proposed to possibility of becoming a firefighter to Shiro and Allura. It was Friday now and all Keith feels now, looking at the open pages, is stagnant, as if someone has dropped a weight into his stomach and he’s stranded.

 

With each passing day since last Saturday, the sudden motivation that had filled Keith to the brim had started to leak out of his system, now settling at an all-time low while his inhibitions and anxieties about his future run high.

 

Keith’s unready to jump into this unknown. It seems too early and he’s afraid that he’ll lose any semblance of order he’s finally managed to grasp because he doesn’t know how it’ll turn out. He doesn’t know if that’s what he really wants to do. He doesn’t know if he’d be any good at it anyway.

 

How did Lance do it? How did he find the drive within him to abandon his original path and take a leap of faith? Then again, there’s no point in asking such questions, Keith thinks. Lance has always been the one to chase adventures and ride them to wherever they may lead.

 

Keith hovers his mouse over the X in the upper left hand corner of the Google Chrome window. His thoughts are now wandering to the last Friday, the night he spent with Lance, and it doesn’t escape him that it was the morning after that when Keith suddenly felt reenergized and empowered.

 

Maybe it’s not wrong to say that Lance brings out the best in him. Has always brought out the best in him.

 

Keith immediately shakes his head, waving all thoughts of Lance out. Lance being in the same city as him is messing with his head, but he doesn’t need Lance in order to live his life because he’s clearly been living fine on his own. He’s gotten this far, and he can’t afford to fall off the current train he’s on.

 

Lance has always been his biggest distraction, and he Lance’s. Running back to him is a mistake he isn’t planning on making again.

 

Taking a long and deep breath, Keith closes all of the open tabs on Chrome and opens the precincts case database.

 


 

 

Summer 2010: Boulder, Colorado

 

In the end, Keith regretted leaving space camp the year before. He spent the entire rest of that summer at his desk, taking different iterations of the SAT over and over again while telling himself that he’d done the right thing.

 

It never felt like the right thing, though. Leaving behind everything he’d spent so much time yearning for just because he was afraid of loving it more felt really shitty, but he told himself repeatedly that it was best in the long run.

 

Shiro had stayed in Houston that summer to pursue and internship, so Keith’s parents had no one else to push their expectations on except him. Expectations and comparisons to his older brother. The number of times he heard something along the likes of “Shiro did this, so you need to do it too” was exponentially more than what he was used to, but the suffocation was soon commonplace nonetheless.

 

Then junior year began and Keith found himself climbing out of holes only to fall into deeper ones. School had never been his favorite time of the year, but enjoying the summer at space camp had always served as a buffer of sorts. A high that he could climb down from instead of just going from low to lower.

 

The more trapped he felt, the more he found himself thinking of camp. The more he found himself thinking of Lance.

 

He’d pondered the option of going back to camp this summer, but his parents denied it, claiming it was time to focus on college and scholarships applications. It may have been for the best, though, because even if Keith went back, what was he going to say? How would he explain his sudden disappearance to his friends? Would they even want to be his friends anymore?

 

Keith lay in his bed, restlessly turning this way and that, mind racing. It may be a year late, but he needed to talk to them. At least give them an apology. He owed them that much. Maybe he’d feel less restless after that.

 

What was it Lance had said to him one summer?

 

“Maybe there’s a place you keep ending up. Like a place you keep running back to. Because, if there is, then maybe that’s the answer.”

 

Without thinking any further, Keith leapt from his bed and pulled the home phone off of its stand on his dresser. He stared at the keypad, blinking and trying to figure out his next step. For some reason, he’d never bothered to ask any of his friends for their phone numbers, home or cell phone. The thought had simply never occurred to him. He had just assumed he’d be seeing them again no matter what. He never fathomed otherwise.

 

So he dialed his only hope. The number of the payphone just outside Cabin Mars was etched into his brain. It was the number he’d constantly repeated, particularly to his younger cabin-mates, so they could tell their parents where to reach them at.

 

Keith chewed his bottom lip in nervous anticipation as the phone rang, brain swimming in everything he could say, attempting to decipher what was best to say.

 

“Hello?” came a familiar voice on the other end.

 

It was a senior counselor.

 

“Hey, Steve, it’s Keith,” Keith responded, voice sounding breathless as if he’d just run a mile. Did the senior counselors even remember him anymore?

 

“Woah, Keith, hey, what’s up?” Steve asked, pleasantly startled. “It’s been a while, dude, we’re missing ya.”

 

“Yeah, sorry about that. Things just sorta came up and I had to leave,” Keith said sheepishly.  “Um, is Lance free by any chance? Could I talk to him?”

 

“Sorry man, Lance isn’t here. He didn’t come back this summer.”

 

Keith blinked, taken aback.

 

“Wait, what? Why?” he asked, words thrown out in a flurry. His heartbeat began to pick up its pace. Lance loved space camp more than anything else in the world. Why wouldn’t he be there?

 

“Not exactly sure,” Steve replied. “He called and mentioned something about having other priorities this summer. I’d give you his home phone, but we’re not allowed to out that kind of information.”

 

Keith made a noise of frustration. What did that mean?

 

“Lance was pretty broken up, you know. After you left last summer,” Steve continued.

 

“I—“Keith cleared his throat, trying not to sound so hoarse. “That’s why I called. I wanted to apologize.”

 

There was a moment’s pause.

 

“I think you may be a little late for that, dude,” Steve finally said.

 

A lump formed in Keith’s throat and his chest tightened. It had been a year. Of course it was too late. What was he thinking?

 

“Do you want me to put Pidge or Hunk on the phone?” Steve asked after Keith didn’t respond. “I think Hunk’s out canoeing, but I can go grab Pidge from the robotics seminar.”

 

Keith shook his head, then realized Steve couldn’t see him.

 

“No, it’s okay,” he mumbled, shoulders slumping. He could talk to Pidge, but what would the point be? In the end, he’d hurt Lance the most, and there was nothing he could say to Pidge to make up for that. It was probably better that he disappeared from their lives all together at this point. “Thanks, Steve.”

 

“Take care, Keith. I hope you’re doing alright.”

 

Keith hung up without answering, which was rude and he probably shouldn’t have done it, but his mind was too preoccupied with a myriad of racing thoughts to form a proper farewell greeting.

 

He flopped back down onto his bed, tossing the phone some ways away from him. What if it was his fault that Lance didn’t go back to camp? He ran Steve’s words over in his head. You might be a little late for that. If he were the reason Lance didn’t go back, then he wouldn’t blame him. Keith wouldn’t have gone back to a place where a person he’d opened himself up to had suddenly vanished without saying anything. It’d be too painful.

 

Keith swallowed, the lump in his throat making it painful to do so. He’d made a mistake. Many mistakes. The best thing he could do now was to make sure he never made them again.

 


 

What Keith Doesn’t Know

Spring 2010: Tucson, Arizona

 

Lance braced his back against the wall at the top of the stairs, straining to catch as many words as he could. A heated conversation emanated from the kitchen downstairs, and Lance quickly identified his parents’ voices.

 

He frowned. His parents rarely ever fought. When they did, it was too important of a matter to stay out of.

 

The words were too garbled to make out the topic of conversation, so Lance crept down the wood paneled stairs one by one, staying on his tip toes so as not to make a sound.

 

“We’ve got to give up something, Elisa,” he heard his dad urge. “We’re raising four kids, and one’s about to go to college. And the fund we have set up for Lance isn’t enough to put him through four years.”

 

“I get that Fernán,” his mother countered. “But we’ve already cut down a lot of our spending. We don’t have cable anymore, I’ve stopped buying all of those snacks the kids like to have in their lunchboxes, and just last week I called Spring to cancel our data plan altogether. We can’t take everything away from them.”

 

“Then what do you suggest we do?” his father asked, frustration mounting in his voice. “Neither of us earns enough to support this family in the next few years.”

 

“We can do overtime. I can get a part time job, get a few hours in at the Walmart nearby or something,” his mother answered, determination set in her voice. “We have options. We don’t need to take away space camp from Lance or ballet from Isa. And Leya and Julio love soccer too much to let it go.”

 

Lance’s stomach lurched at her words. He pictured his mother in a baggy blue polo, scanning items for customers with heavy shadows under her eyes. He shuddered at the thought.

 

His father sighed.

 

“I get it. But...maybe we should ask Lance to stay home this summer. He’s got to start thinking about college and scholarships. He’s bright, but it’s still not going to be easy for a kid like him, working on the essays and getting scholarships.”

 

For a kid like him. Lance almost snorted out loud bitterly. He knew his parents were supportive of him, but sometimes they had a hard time hiding their frustration at his disabilities. His grades had turned out alright. His SAT score was okay. They’d be enough to get him into some college or the other, but not nearly enough to earn him scholarships. And colleges wouldn’t give two shits about how he had to work five times as hard just to get to where he was. All they saw were the numbers.

 

His insides twisted with guilt. No matter how hard he tried, he still didn’t accomplish enough, and now his parents were considering working more than they already did just to make ends meet for him and his siblings. Lance didn’t find that to be fair one bit. They were the type of parents who dedicated every minute of their lives to their children, and it was wrong to ask them for any more than that.

 

Lance was also the oldest of his siblings. If anyone should help alleviate their burden, it should be him. Maybe that would make up for the scholarships he wasn’t going to get. Besides, space camp wasn’t looking like an incredibly exciting prospect this summer. His shoulder slouched as he thought about it, and the hurt that he’d hoped he’d gotten past.

 

Try as he might, the image of Keith still managed to snake into his head from time to time, bringing with it a plethora of emotions, some of which Lance cherished and some of which he’d really hoped to bury. Even after a year, he still missed Keith. More than he cared to admit. But he couldn’t let go of the summer before, of waking up to an empty treehouse the next morning, waiting for Keith expectantly at breakfast, being told later on that day that Keith had left abruptly without saying goodbye.

 

Lance still had no idea why he did it. He wasn’t sure if he did something wrong or if Keith had other priorities. Either way, it didn’t matter. He never came back. Never called. What was it that Keith had said to him one summer?

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever run back to anything.”

 

He’d taken Keith for granted, just like how he continued to take his parents for granted. He constantly assumed that he could do as he pleased and things would still remain as they were, scamper off looking for adventures in the world without thinking about the other people in his life. How it would affect them. It was selfish of him. Lance wanted to blame Keith so badly, but he couldn’t pin 100% of the blame on him no matter how hard he tried. Part of it was his fault too. Maybe something serious was going on with Keith last summer, and he never bothered to notice because he was too caught up in his head to ask.

 

Lance couldn’t afford to be caught up in his head now. His parents couldn’t afford it. He had to bring himself back down to the ground and not be so frivolous anymore. He had to get into at least one college. He had to go to school for four more years and get a good job after that. He had to support his siblings and make sure they could go to good colleges too. Space camp could wait.

 

“Mom, Dad, I think I wanna stay home this summer,” he called out as casually as he could as he made his way down the rest of the stairs and into the kitchen.

 

His parents looked up from one another and turned in their barstool seats at the kitchen counter to face him.

 

“Mijo, no, we were just talking, it’s not—“his mother started.

 

“Nah, I have no idea what you guys were talking about,” Lance lied, putting his arms out and bending his back in a full body stretch as he did so in an attempt to seem as casual as possible. “I was just thinking about college apps and stuff because the school counselor gave a speech about it today, and I think having the summer to write my essays will be a good idea. I might need some time to write them, and I don’t want to add to senior year stress, ya know?”

 

His parents glanced at each other, and his mother frowned as his dad asked,

 

“Are you sure, Lance? That means you’d be giving up space camp.”

 

Lance nodded. “Yep, I’m sure. I’ve gone for years, Dad. I’m probably too old for it, anyways.”

 

His mother furrowed her brow. “Won’t you miss your friends, though?”

 

“Mom, I pretty much Skype Hunk and Pidge every day. I can manage not seeing them in person,” Lance answered, though it hurt a little to do so. Skyping Hunk and Pidge was fine and all, but the both of them had mentioned this would be their last summer at camp, and he’d give anything to see them in person one more time.

 

Well, not anything, apparently.

 

“What about Keith?”

 

Lance felt his heart leap, and he had to swallow it to keep up as convincing illusion as possible.

 

“Keith’s got other priorities.”

 


 

 

Present Time: Houston, Texas

 

“Keith. Earth to Keith. Wake up, Special K.”

 

Keith jolts awake to a wet eraser end of a pencil in his ear, and bumps his knee under the desk as he does so. He groans in pain and clutches his ringing kneecap, glaring daggers at his older brother, who’s standing in front of his desk, pencil in hand, looking quite pleased with himself.

 

“Why do you always wake me up like that?” he complains, incredibly ready to wipe that smirk off of Shiro’s face. “It’s disgusting.”

 

“And it always wakes you up,” Shiro replies, plopping the pencil back into the pencil holder on Keith’s desk. “You’ve got some dry drool on your chin, by the way.”

 

Keith angrily rubs his chin, still trying to shoot fire out of his eyes at Shiro.

 

“What do you want?” he grumbles, sitting up in his seat. He tosses a glance over at the door of the captain’s office behind him, hoping she didn’t see him sleeping at the desk.

 

Shiro holds up a file and places it in front of Keith.

 

“I need the captain to take a look at this case when she has the time. We might have to team up with the guys over at arson on this one.”

 

Keith peers at the file, frowning.

 

“Arson? Aren’t you on vice? What would you need the arson guys for?”

 

Shiro folds his arms, a grim expression settling over his face.

 

“I’m not sure, to be honest. But I think this case goes deeper than we originally thought.”

 

Keith’s frown deepens, which causes Shiro to smile again.

 

“Aww,” he says, reaching over to ruffle Keith’s hair. “You’re worried about me.”

 

Keith swats his hand away immediately and leans away.

 

“Only Allura’s allowed to do that,” he states. “And of course I am. You’re my brother.”

 

“Well, don’t worry, kiddo. We’ve got it handled,” Shiro reassures him. “And speaking of, I’m worried about you too. Sleeping on the job? Are you sleeping okay?”

 

Rubbing his eyes and taking a few seconds to stifle a yawn, Keith nods.

 

“Yeah. Kind of,” he answers vaguely. “There’s just been a lot on my mind is all.”

 

Shiro raises his eyebrows. “Like the firefighting stuff?”

 

“Among other things,” Keith says, fidgeting in his seat.

 

“Keith, you know you can talk to me, right?” Shiro asks, face overlaying with big brotherly concern.

 

“Yeah, I know,” Keith says, sighing and dropping his gaze to his desk. His head hasn’t really cleared since the night at the bar with Lance, and he figures he can’t hide it from Shiro any longer. “Remember the guy who dropped he home from the bar?”

 

Shiro nods, but doesn’t say the word, giving Keith a silent “go on.”

 

Keith takes a deep breath through his nose, bracing himself against whatever kind of conversation is bound to follow.

 

“It was Lance.”

 

Shiro’s heavy eyebrows are now at his hairline, and Keith can tell that he’s calculating what the best way to react is.

 

“Lance? That’s...he’s in Houston?”

 

Keith nods. “Yeah.”

 

Shiro doesn’t respond, which prompts Keith to look back up at him in curiosity. He finds his brother looking down at him, slightly amused.

 

“You guys hooked up, didn’t you?” he asks knowingly.

 

Keith feels the heat rise to his cheeks, and he’s once again hit with the urge to reach up and just slap his brother.

 

“Yeah, we did, congratulations Detective Shirogane,” he says before sighing heavily and leaning forward on his elbows, holding his head in his hands. “And now I can’t stop thinking about it. Normally I can get past it, but, knowing he’s in the same city, it’s messing with my head. It’s the last thing I need right now. He’s the last thing I need.”

 

“Keith...” Shiro starts slowly. “Have you maybe considered that he’s exactly what you need?”

 

Keith looks up at his brother and frowns. “What do you mean?”

 

Shiro shrugs.

 

“It’s just that, you go through all this trouble to push him away and move on, but you guys keep meeting at the most random times. Then you hook up, then do the whole pushing away thing again. Don’t you think that’s kind of silly? I mean, maybe it’s not just a coincidence that this keeps happening.”

 

“We’re not meant to be together, Shiro. We both know that,” Keith replies, closing his eyes. Bringing this up to Shiro was a mistake. He doesn’t want to talk about this right now.

 

“How?” Shiro challenges. “How could you possibly know that?”

 

“Because things happened, Shiro,” Keith exclaims, unable to keep the frustration out of his voice, though whether it’s directed towards Shiro or himself, he’s not too sure. “We’re not kids anymore. We grew up and realized we had other things to worry about, and all we do is distract each other.”

 

“Everything good here?”

 

The captain is standing in the entryway of her office, sternly facing the two brothers. Keith swallows, clears his throat, and straightens in his seat, seeing Shiro go equally as alert out of the corner of his eye.

 

“Shiro, if you have a moment, I’d like to talk to you about a case you just closed. And Keith, could you find a way to reschedule my meeting with the captain of the 89th to later this evening?” the captain says, eyes going back and forth between the two of them. “Whatever it is you two boys were discussing, I suggest you take it home.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Shiro says, giving Keith a sideways glance before following the captain into her office.

 

Keith sighs once more and rests his cheek on the palm of his hand, trying to tune out the cluster of thoughts bouncing around in his head as he pulls up the captain’s schedule.

 


 

End of Summer 2012: Salt Lake City International Airport, Utah

 

Keith raked his fingers through Lance’s hair, pinning his head to the stall door as he dipped his own to press kisses down Lance’s jaw, then down the expanse of his neck before pulling back up and taking in the other’s lips for another passionate kiss, which Lance responded to equally as passionately.

 

Lance’s hands were at his waist, fingers dancing at the small of his back as he pulled Keith closer to him. Warmth filled Keith’s blood, and, as Lance nipped at his bottom lip, Keith couldn’t help but laugh breathily, joy singing in his ears as if he were the luckiest person alive, as if everything wrong in the world were righting itself.

 

“What’s so funny?” Lance asked, just as out of breath as Keith was.

 

“Nothing,” Keith answered, grinning. “Just your attempt at growing some stubble, that’s all.”

 

“Hey, fuck you, my face is trying, okay?” Lance retorted.

 

Keith never got the chance to respond because Lance’s lips were on his again, and he was pretty alright with that. He had to catch a flight soon anyway, and he’d hold onto this moment and Lance for as long as he could.

 

Keith was on his way to Las Vegas for his second year of college, and had a two-hour layover in Salt Lake City. He’d spent the better half of two summers ago convincing himself that Lance was a part of his past, a lesson to learn and move on from. And he had to pat himself on the back, because he’d believed it enough to be thoroughly startled when he spotted the other boy at the gate adjacent to his in the Salt Lake City Airport.

 

At first he attributed it to a trick of the mind and quickly looked away. It was just someone who looked similar to Lance, that was all. Then he snuck another glance. Yeah, there was no way that was Lance. He wasn’t skinny enough. Then he snuck another. He was a little too tall, too. Then he snuck another.

 

This time, Lance was staring back at him, hazel eyes widening with recognition. They both sat still for many moments, staring at each other across the sea of busy, noisy travelers, short circuiting from the possibility that the other was right there, then wondering what to do about it.

 

Somehow, they found themselves here, in the far corner stall of the nearest public restroom, bags jammed into a corner while they made out like there was no tomorrow.

 

“What are you doing here?” Keith asked in between kisses.

 

“OU,” Lance managed, arms tightening around Keith. “Got a decent scholarship to go. You?”

 

“UNLV,” Keith breathed, moving his hands to cup Lance’s jaw. “Not sure what I’m doing, but—“

 

He felt Lance’s arms around his waist slacken, then fall to his side altogether. Keith pulled back, brow furrowed, to see Lance looking at him with a practiced neutral expression.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

Lance opened his mouth, then closed it again, forcing himself to smile.

 

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong, don’t worry,” he answered, bringing a hand up to stroked Keith’s cheek. “I’ve just...missed you is all.”

 

The warmth in Keith’s bones starts to cool over and an uncomfortable weight settles in his stomach. The sentiment may be true, but Keith knows Lance is using it as a lie to his question.

 

“Lance,” he states, eyes searching the other’s face. “You can’t pull that shit on me. What’s wrong?”

 

Lance sighed and ran a hand through his hair, looking reluctant to answer.

 

“It’s stupid. It’s just that I applied to UNLV too,” he finally said. “They waitlisted me because I had no way of paying the tuition and they didn’t give me any scholarships. Just like a lot of other colleges. And it just reminded me...”

 

Lance sighed again, a mixture of guilt and nostalgia and yearning and determination clouding the cheerful face Keith was so accustomed to. Then he grasped Keith by the shoulders and gently pushed him back until he was an arm’s length away and straightened against the stall door.

 

“I can’t do this,” he continued, avoiding Keith’s eyes and looking down at his feet. “You left, Keith. You left without saying goodbye or calling later, and I spent months wondering if I did something wrong.”

 

Keith took a step back, heart hammering in his chest, dread constricting his chest like a thousand tiny vipers. He wanted to laugh at himself. There was no way he and Lance would meet again and not have this discussion. Logically, he knew that. So why did it still hurt so much to think about it?

 

“I’m sorry,” he said, cursing himself for having nothing better to say. “There was just a lot going on and, and I know it wasn’t fair to you and—fuck.”

 

He ran a hand through his hair. Why was it so hard to apologize and explain? Lance was standing in front of him, deflated like he’d been trampled upon by a stampede of wildebeests, and nothing sensible was coming out of Keith’s mouth.

 

“No, Keith, you don’t understand,” Lance spoke, face scrunched as he tried to find the right words. “I get it, you were going through stuff, and maybe I should’ve known better. I’m sorry. For not asking you if you were doing okay or not. It’s just, right now, I’ve got a lot on my plate.”

 

He paused, looking skyward, then meeting Keith’s eyes.

 

“This probably sounds really selfish, but I have a lot of things to worry about, and I can’t afford to be distracted. I can’t afford to think about you, think about us. You ran away, Keith. I can’t be another something you keep running away from.”

 

Lance gazed at Keith expectantly, waiting for him to say something. Anything. But Keith didn’t say a word. His mind was racing at a million miles an hour, but it gave him no words to use. All he could do was stare back at Lance and hope that his body language was conveying the apology that was swimming through every fiber of his being.

 

When he realized Keith wasn’t going to say anything, Lance pushed himself off of the stall door and reached around Keith for his backpack. He slung it onto his shoulder, then paused, reaching out as if to caress Keith’s cheek. But he thought better of it and turned to unlock the door.

 

“See ya around,” he called, doing his two-fingered salute and exiting the bathroom altogether.

 

Keith stood frozen to his spot for a moment longer. Whereas his mind was speeding only a few seconds ago, it was no blank, devoid of any thoughts, any sentiments. All he could think of was how stupid he was for assuming this would go any other way.

 

He finally knelt to pick up his own bag and hoist it over his shoulder, following Lance’s path out of the bathroom.

 

See ya around. The words echoed in his head as he headed back to his gate, the words Las Vegas boldly lit on the screen behind the boarding counter. Keith glanced back in the direction of Lance’s gate.

 

Oklahoma City.

 

The both of them flying in two different directions, heading down two different paths—maybe that meant something. Maybe it meant that they weren’t supposed to be together, that they were meant to diverge and trying to go against that would only make things worse.

 

See ya around.

 

I hope not.

 


 

 

Middle of Summer 2014: Tucson, Arizona

 

Blink-182 roared outside the Rover, the vibrations from the live music and the cacophony of cheering from the fans rattling the car like a mini earthquake.

 

Keith groaned, tilting his head so that the back of it hit the car window.

 

“I really hate Blink-182.”

 

Lance, who had somehow laid himself on the floor of the Rover in between the backseat and the front two, reached up to lazily patted Keith’s bare arm.

 

“You’re the only other person I know who thinks that, and I really appreciate it,” he murmured.

 

“I don’t recall you liking rock in general,” Keith responded, looking down at Lance and smiling fondly.

 

“Yeah, true, but I’m not crucified if I say I don’t like, I dunno, Motley Crew,” Lance argued.

 

“Motley Crew is classic rock.”

 

“Literally, what is the difference.”

 

Keith merely snorted, then gazed up at the ceiling of the car, taking in a deep breath. The dry heat of the Arizona summer permeated through the car, and he was incredibly grateful that he’d decided not to put his shirt back on.

 

He blinked, trying to remember what exactly led him here. What led him to the backseat of Lance’s Rover, to the hook up that the two of them had agreed upon in the airport wouldn’t happen again, to the both of them now sprawled out in the car, hiding from the Blink-182 fans, from the rest of the world.

 

It was the summer after his third year at UNLV, which had been nothing better than a train wreck. If anything, that was enough to describe his entire college experience so far.

 

Colleges constantly touted that you had the liberty to explore and do what made you happy, but they also expected you to know exactly what you were going to do throughout your four years. Sure, you could cruise as an undeclared major for your first year. But they started breathing down your neck in the second year. You had to declare your major in the third year. Get a job in your fourth.

 

For someone like Keith who never really knew where he belonged and what he wanted from the world, college was excruciating. In the last three years he found himself bouncing around from Chemistry to Philosophy to Mathematics to Asian Studies, until he finally said fuck it near the declaration deadline and picked Criminal Justice.

 

Because he was so busy just trying to keep up with everything college demanded from him, friends and a social life never became a huge priority. He ended up sticking with his freshman year roommate, a guy named Rollo who had a penchant for smoking weed in their room and forgetting to open the window, which caused a lot of problems with their RA. He was cool enough, though, and Keith decided to call him, along with another girl, Nyma, his best friends.

 

They were the ones who dragged him to the music festival in Tucson.

 

“The system’s breaking you, dude,” Rollo said.

 

“Take a break. Live a little,” Nyma added.

 

So Keith climbed into the back of Rollo’s questionable pick-up truck and decided to make the best of the road trip from Las Vegas to Tucson. His friends were right. He did need a break. He needed to get away from the future.

 

And somehow the universe decided that meant dipping into the past.

 

He’d bumped into Lance as Rollo and Nyma attempted to push their way to the front as Blink-182 took the stage, not particularly sharing his friends’ enthusiasm. It turned out Lance was in a similar boat, and the two of them spent a good few moments simply staring at each other, brains short circuiting while trying to compute whether or not what they were seeing was real.

 

“Lance,” Keith managed, though his voice was drowned out by the music and the cheers, and he suddenly remembered that Lance fucking lived in Tucson.

 

Lance blinked rapidly as if trying to clear away an illusion, mouth slightly open, and Keith definitely did not think about kissing it.

 

“Wanna get out of here?” Lance finally shouted over the noise.

 

Keith nodded in return, and the two of them weaved their way out of the crowd and trekked towards the open field where all the cars were parked, fingers loosely intertwined, constantly looking over at the other to make sure that they were still there.

 

Maybe it was the adrenaline coursing through the air and the sounds of the music festival enclosing this particular area of Tucson in a little bubble of time—no burdens to worry about, no future to ponder—that made Keith feel like he was bathing in warm honey when Lance smiled at him and told him about how he impulse bought an old Range Rover that he named Franny, short for Francesca. That made Lance laugh when he realized Keith was eyeing his feet and trying to outpace him and gladly accept the challenge, causing the both of them to trip over their feet because neither wanted to lose. That pushed Keith into the backseat of the Rover, Lance following suit.

 

Even now, as Keith lay sprawled out on the faux leather of the car, the familiarly unknown feeling swam leisurely in his gut, but the summer was hazy, he was lazy, and he wanted to savor this pocket of time where he didn’t have to worry about what was going to happen next.

 

“Hey, Keith?”

 

“Hm?”

 

Lance grunted as he coaxed himself into an upright position.

 

“How long are you in Tucson for?”

 

“Hm,” Keith hummed. “I’m not sure, actually. Why?”

 

Lance didn’t answer right away. He hesitated for a second, then reached out to skim the back of Keith’s hand with his fingertips. Keith curled his fingers instinctively, the feeling inside of him jolting awake.

 

“There’s this place on the outskirts of the city not super far from here. It’s basically a patch of open desert and there isn’t a streetlamp around for almost two miles. It’s kinda like back at the lake at space camp, except with no trees, and it’s probably the biggest area of clear sky I’ve ever seen,” Lance said, gazing up at Keith tentatively. “I was wondering if you wanted to go with me.”

 

Keith didn’t respond. He was too busy drinking in the other’s all too familiar face—brown skin, dark hair, too pointy noise—and picturing it under the stars again. He thought back to the lake and could practically hear the laughter echoing in their little oasis, back when times were much simpler.

 

“I’ve missed you, Keith,” Lance whispered, as though he’d only now realized it.

 

Keith thought back to the treehouse, to the textbooks and notebooks he and Lance went through, to the night they kissed like they were the freest people in the world, to the morning Keith ran away.

 

The words I’ve missed you, too are swirling at the base of his throat, dipped in that feeling that was like shelter in the midst of darkness, ready to roll off the tip of his tongue. It’s threatening to overwhelm him as it always does when he’s with Lance, except he’s already choking on something else. Guilt. Regret. The memory of Lance telling him at the airport that he couldn’t do this.

 

So, instead, he asked, “What are you doing, Lance?”

 

Lance furrowed his brow, as if trying to recall a distant memory.

 

“I’m not sure,” he admitted.

 

Keith sat up straight, shifting his hand away from Lance’s fingers.

 

“That’s not fair,” he said. “If you don’t know, then I don’t know, and that’s not fair. You were the one who said you couldn’t do this.”

 

“I know,” Lance answered, running his hands through his air. He was looking down now, speaking to the seat rather than Keith. “And maybe I still can’t. It’s been a rough couple of years.”

 

“Then why—“

 

“I don’t know, Keith,” Lance said, deflating. “I’ve just...I dunno, I’ve been spending all of my time worrying about other people, and what other people want, and I guess I’m just...exhausted. Seeing you was like a breath of fresh air.”

 

He looked up, hazel eyes raking over Keith’s face.

 

“It’s hard to explain, I don’t really know what it is,” he continued. “But I saw you and though ‘this is what freedom feels like.’

 

Hard to explain. Keith’s mind wandered to the feeling tugging at his insides. Yeah, he understood that. But that didn’t make up for the sudden “I miss you” two years after the “I can’t do this.”

 

“Look, Lance, I get it, I do,” he started, resisting the urge to reach out and brush his knuckles against Lance’s cheek. “God knows I’ve had the worst couple of years, too. And that’s why I can’t do this. My ass is already dying from not knowing what I want to do with my life. I can’t not know about this either.”

 

Lance remained silent, so Keith went on.

 

“I think you were right, back in the airport two years ago,” he said, voice softer now. “You can’t afford any distractions, and neither can I. You’re looking for freedom, but you can’t just me for it when you don’t know what you want. I can’t just be an excuse for one of your adventures.”

 

Lance still didn’t say anything, but Keith could see a conflict underlying his expression. It was all too likely that he was battling the same forces Keith was, and that only strengthened Keith’s resolve. He couldn’t build his future on shaky foundations, and his current ones were ready to collapse. He needed order.

 

“I should go,” he murmured, breaking the heavy silence that filled the car despite the noise outside.

 

“Okay,” Lance said, nodding. He peered around him, then picked up Keith’s shirt, which had been thrown onto the floor earlier. “Here.”

 

Keith took it, tossed it over his head, then scrambled out of the car.

 

As he walked away from the Rover, he chanted desperately to himself,

 

Don’t run back.

 


 

 

Present Time: Houston, Texas

 

“Keith.”

 

Allura’s voice breaks Keith’s reverie, and the stress ball he’d been mechanically tossing up into the air and catching misses his hand, falling straight onto his nose.

 

“Ow,” he mumbles, rubbing his nose—more out of shock rather than in pain—and pushes himself into an upright position on the sofa. “What’s up?”

 

Allura is standing at the door of the apartment, purse slung over her shoulder, keys dangling from her fingers.

 

“I’m about to head out to get some stuff for the staff holiday party. Thought I’d ask you to join me,” she says. “You look thoroughly bored out of your mind. You’ve been tossing that ball for hours.”

 

Keith lets out a loud yawn and stretches his stiff back. What she says is true. It’s Saturday and he’s got absolutely nothing to do. Well, not necessarily. Shiro asked him to help out with some chores around the place while he was out for the day, but fuck if he has to clean the bathroom today. Allura’s proposal sounds like a much better alternative, and it’s a good excuse to get out of cleaning.

 

“Yeah, sure, let me just grab my shoes,” he answers, propelling himself off the sofa to go search for them.

 

“Sweet,” Allura replies, stuffing her feet into her boots and bending down to zip them up. “I think we’ll stop by the supermarket first, then swing around to Party City.”

 

She unlocks the door and walks out, waiting for Keith to join her so she can lock the door behind them. As soon as she does so, they make their way down the hallway and take the stairs to the apartment complex’s parking lot. Keith frowns as the Texan heat swarms him. He’s a Colorado boy, born and raised, so having anything other than freezing temperatures at this time of year is extremely disconcerting.

 

“I thought you lost the bid for the holiday party. Why do you still need to buy things for it?” Keith asks as they approach Shiro and Allura’s silver Toyota Corolla.

 

“I’m in charge of snacks and party favors,” Allura answers. “Here, you drive.”

 

She heads over to the passenger side of the car and tosses the keys over the top of it, which Keith manages to catch just in time. He unlocks the car with a beep beep and steps into the driver seat. As he pulls his seatbelt over his body, he asks,

 

“If you’re so dedicated to the holiday party, how come you never win the bid?”

 

“You know, that’s a really good question,” Allura says pensively as Keith sticks the key into the side of the steering wheel and turns the ignition switch. “I have a feeling it’s because everyone thinks I won’t be able to throw a decent Christmas party because I’m Muslim. But I’ll just rock their socks off with the party favors, and then they’ll realize how utterly wrong and ignorant they are.”

 

She says all of that with a bright smile, but Keith catches the indignation and determination undertones in her words. He grins and begins to reverse the car out of the parking lot.

 

“You should come, you know,” she prods. “Just hang out, meet new people. Eat some cake.”

 

“Do I have to?” Keith responds. “I’m not really a holiday party kind of guy.”

 

“Right. You’re a broody, enigma-at-the-bar kind of guy,” she teases and lightly punches him in the arm. “Come on. Shiro’s going too. You’ll be alone in the house while we’re off popping champagne, and then an hour into tossing your stress ball up and down in solitude, you’ll realize that you wish you had something to do. And then you’ll remember that I invited you to a most glorious holiday party, which you declined, and you’ll be forced to recognize the next morning that I was right all along.”

 

Allura is really, really good at wrapping her threats in an ultra-sweet tone, which terrifies Keith, Shiro, and probably anyone else who knows her. Keith sighs, knowing there’s no way he can worm his way out of the holiday party.

 

“Fine, I’ll come,” he relents. “On the condition that I don’t have to wear an ugly Christmas sweater.”

 

Allura does a cha-ching motion in victory and pats him on the shoulder.

 

“It’ll be great, Keith. Besides, no one’s gonna bite. We’re all just teachers.”

 


 

What Keith Doesn’t Know

Present Time: Houston, Texas

 

“Lance, I told you to get an electric mixer. You’re gonna hurt yourself trying to mix that cream cheese with a whisk.”

 

Lance sets down the large bowl of barely melted cream cheese down on the counter top, moving his arms around in a fan-like motion to release the tension from his biceps. He’s been trying to get the cream cheese down to a soft meringue-like state for twenty minutes now, but he’d forgotten to let the cream cheese sit in room temperature so it would soften before he started mixing it. He now has only hours before the holiday party and is seriously pressed for time.

 

Huffing, he turns to his iPad, which is propped up against a couple of textbooks on the counter, and leans on his elbows, cradling his chin in his hands.

 

“It’s not my fault I forgot to buy it,” he says defensively. “I had a lot of other ingredients and things to worry about.”

 

“That’s what you get for setting aside baking the cake for the party until the last minute,” Hunk replies.

 

The screen of the iPad is split between Hunk and Pidge, Pidge on the right side, slightly distracted by building who knows what, and Hunk on the left, currently instructing Lance now how to bake a red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting.

 

Lance groans and runs both of his hands through his hair.

 

“Why am I even trying to bake this cake? I’m awful at baking. Who put me up to this?”

 

“You did,” Pidge answers, looking up from their work, “when you decided to volunteer to make the cake for the party.”

 

“Ugh, I make life too hard,” Lance complains. “Well, in my defense, I had the intention of pleasing the faculty because they might be my future colleagues one day, but still. I made life too hard.”

 

“Lance, don’t worry,” Hunk reassures him from the left side of the screen. “The cake won’t be that bad, I promise. If you get started on the red velvet mix now, the cream cheese will thaw out by the time you’re done, and it’ll be easier to mix.”

 

Lance pushes himself off the counter top and sighs in relief.

 

“I don’t know what I’d do with you, Hunk.”

 

“I’m not really either, to be honest,” Hunk answers, grinning.

 

“Okay see, you say that,” Lance starts, pointing an accusatory finger at Hunk, “but then you always say no when I ask you to date me, so what’s the truth here, hmm?”

 

“Hey man, I have valid reasons, “Hunk replies, holding his hands up in surrender. “For one thing, you’re my best friend.”

 

Lance contemplates that and nods, conceding that point.

 

“And two,” Hunk continues, “I don’t date guys who are hung up over someone else.”

 

Lance blinks at that.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Back me up here, Pidge,” Hunk calls, to which Pidge answers, “he means Keith.”

 

Lance blinks again and immediately goes into defense mode.

 

“What? I’m not hung up over Keith. What are you guys talking about?”

 

“You guys hooked up like two weeks ago, Lance,” Pidge points out, their full attention now focused on him.

 

“Yeah, it was a one-time thing. It’s not gonna happen again,” Lance argues, brow furrowing.

“You said that after you guys hooked up two years ago. And then again two years before that,” Pidge fires back. “Do you see what we’re getting at here?”

 

Lance bites his tongue and doesn’t respond. He wants to say “no,” but he’d have to be really dense not to see what Pidge is hinting at.

 

“Well, we can’t be together,” he finally says. “We both agreed on that. He’s busy trying to get his life together, and so am I. It’s not gonna happen.”

 

Pidge looks like they’re about to facepalm, but Hunk manages to hold his patience.

 

“Have you ever wondered why you guys keep meeting?” Hunk asks. “After he left without saying a word, and there was absolutely no way for you guys to get in touch, but you still somehow met after that. Twice. And now you live in the same city. Are you gonna call all that a coincidence?”

 

“Come on, you’re not gonna try to sell me some fate and destiny bullshit, are you Hunk?” Lance questions, exasperated.

 

“I dunno, man. I might be,” Hunk says.

 

“Listen, Lance,” Pidge interjects. “The one thing you’ve been trying to achieve is stability, right? You’re trying to do your parents proud by being a straight arrow instead of a financial burden. You rarely ever act on impulse anymore, which is fine and warranted, sure. But have you ever considered that maybe the most stable thing in your life right now is Keith?”

 

Lance freezes. He feels like Tom from Tom and Jerry when Jerry drops a bowling ball on him from out of nowhere.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean that you guys hung out in your little niche every summer, and even after he left, you guys still bumped into each other every other summer. And every time you meet, you hook up, because you still, after all these years and after everything you put yourselves through, you still have feelings for each other,” Pidge says. “What else in your life is that consistent, Lance?”

 

Lance opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again, and closes it again. He’s rarely one to lose words, but it seems to happen more frequently when the subject matter is Keith, because he’s got a whole lot of emotions toiling around in his gut, and it’s hard to think with all of that going on. But despite all of that, Pidge is making some sense. No matter how hard he’s tried to forget Keith and move on, something keeps tugging him towards the other man. One day he’ll wake up and go on like Keith was merely a figment of his imagination. The next day he’ll wake up with a yearning to deep in his bones, all he can think about is Keith teasing him and laughing at the lake under the stars.

 

Keith, the boy who runs and doesn’t care where he’s going, the boy who feels so deeply and passionately that he’s like a beacon shining in the middle of desolate blandness, the boy whose laugh sounds like fun and freedom. The boy Lance has never gotten over.

 

“You guys keep saying that you’re a distraction for each other, that being together will stop you from finding the thing that’ll keep your life together,” Hunk begins, “but maybe the only thing really in your way is yourselves. You forget that you’re supposed to be happy. You two are so caught up chasing some metaphysical goal that you overlook the possibility that maybe what you’re searching for is right there in front of you. He makes you a better person, Lance. He makes you happy. And even if you’re trying to sacrifice bits of yourself to help your family, you still deserve that happiness.”

 

Lance mulls his friends’ words over, every one of them striking true in his heart. If anything, he knows all of this, but he’s chosen to bury it all because he’s too stubborn looking to the future to see the best things in the present. Knowing Lance, being that obstinate isn’t really out of his character, but it seems to have royally fucked him over at the moment. He wants Keith. He wants to be with Keith. But he’s had three chances and gave away all of them.

 

“Well guys, this has been an amazing revelation, but it may be too late,” he says, trying to salvage his dignity and keep some of the dejection out of his voice. “I had a chance two weeks ago. Guess I’ll have to wait another two years.”

 

“There’s like, what, two million people in Houston?” Pidge says. “Your odds aren’t awful. If there is really some destiny bullshit at play, you’ll probably bump into him sooner than you think.”

 

“Also, I’m really sorry to break this up,” Hunk interrupts, “but you’re running out of time, Lance, and you need to get that cake done.”

 

Lance lets out an “oh fuck!” and scurries around the kitchen to grab his other ingredients, eyeing the oven clock. His thoughts about Keith are tucked away into their usual pocket in his brain, though that pocket has now grown to be ten times the size it originally was.

 


 

 

Present Time: Houston, Texas

 

Keith ends up wearing an ugly Christmas sweater to the holiday party.

 

Shiro wrestles him into it by threatening to cook all of his meals for a whole week. Somehow the guy has as many Christmas sweaters as he does nicknames for Keith, and Keith spends a good fifteen minutes trying to pick the least ugly one to wear.

 

It could be worse though. He could be wearing reindeer antlers and a red nose like Allura. Shiro and Allura are an oddly festive couple, he observes.

 

Keith has no idea who the host of the holiday party is, but they’ve got a nice enough house. It’s a quaint and typical suburban ranch, decorated so extensively with multicolored lights—every bush, tree, and inch of the porch is covered—that Keith figures the host is either close to retirement or has young children.

 

The three of them are greeted warmly when they’re let in. It seems the party is already in full swing, but not too far gone that the food is gone and everyone is close to drunk. Rather, the appetizers are still out and people are on their second glass of wine.

 

A good number of guests come up and hug Allura cordially and greet Shiro like they’re familiar with him. Allura introduces Keith to a few guests as well, but Keith can barely remember their names, let alone their faces. They shake his hand, some ask him what he does for a living, one—an older lady—asks if he’s single and would like to see a picture of his daughter.

 

At some point he meets whoever the host is because he’s directed to the entertainment sort of dining room just off of the living room where the food is set out. The table is littered with an assortment of fruit plates, cheeses, chips and salsa, spinach and artichoke dip, amongst other snacks. Allura’s party favors are set aside on a side table, colorful ribbons catching the eye, which Allura had spent hours curling to perfection with scissors.

 

Someone mentions a red velvet cake as dessert. This piques Keith’s interest. He’ll have to stick around for that.

 

After he’s wandered the house for a bit, saying his hellos and letting the guests know that he’s Shiro’s brother, the guy dating Allura, Keith settles into a corner, observing the ongoings of the party. Allura and Shiro have been swept away to who knows where, so Keith merely lounges against a wall, sipping from the glass of red wine that someone placed in his hands as he was making his rounds, hoping that it doesn’t take too long for the cake to come out.

 

He’s about done with his glass and ready to look for a bottle to fill it up again when he hears Allura’s voice call out,

 

“Keith! Come here a second.”

 

Keith peers around to discern where her voice is coming from and spots her peeking out of the kitchen, waving her hand in a beckoning motion. Curiously, he makes his way over, silently praying she isn’t setting him up to have small talk with the lady who clearly wants him to date her daughter.

 

“I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet,” Allura says as he approaches.

 

“Okay, if it’s the lady who was telling me about her daughter, I’d rather not—“

 

There are two other people in the kitchen: a woman—the host, probably—washing her hands at the kitchen sink, and a man with his head in the fridge saying something about how his cake may be a bit too big to fit in the fridge.

 

Allura clears her throat.

 

“Lance.”

 

Keith’s stomach drops to his feet and he freezes on the spot.

 

“Yeah, gimme a sec. Hey, Allura, can you make sure—ow!” Lance exclaims as he bumps his head on the fridge while standing up straight. “Can you make sure this cake fits in the fridge?”

 

He turns around, rubbing the sore spot on his head, still not realizing who exactly is standing in front of him.

 

“Yeah, sure,” Allura replies. “But first, I want you to meet someone.”

 

Lance finally looks up, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, eyes landing on Keith’s face, and he, too, freezes.

 

“Lance, this is Keith, my boyfriend Shiro’s younger brother,” she says, looking between the two men. “Keith, this is Lance. He’s the student teacher for my class.”

 

A million tiny puzzle pieces start to fit together in Keith’s head, and he can tell from Lance’s expression that his brain is going through the same process. Neither of them speak as they try to process just what the hell is going on and that they’ve managed to bump into each other again and it’s only been about two weeks, not two years.  

 

“Kathy!” Allura says, breaking the silence as she addresses the other lady in the kitchen. “Would you mind showing me pictures of your grandchildren? You always speak so highly of them.”

 

The other woman—Kathy—gives her a very enthusiastic “of course!” and wipes her hands on the kitchen towel before gently taking hold of Allura’s elbow and steering her out of the kitchen. As she passes Keith by on her way out, Allura gives him a Look, and Keith immediately deduces that she knows. Shiro must have told her something about Lance. That was why she was so insistent on him coming to the party in the first place.

 

It’s Lance who breaks the awkwardness of the situation a few seconds later.

 

Allura’s dating Shiro? Wow.”

 

Keith can only nod. “Yeah.”

 

Lance searches his face. Whereas Keith’s mind has gone blank, registering only a vague sense of betrayal, Lance seems the in the process of making a decision. His jaw is tight and he’s chewing his bottom lip, which Keith recognizes as a familiar habit.

 

Finally, he stands up straighter, decision apparently having been made.

 

“I need to talk to you,” he says.

 

Before Keith can agree or back out, Lance takes hold of his wrist and pulls him out of the kitchen. Keith doesn’t resist, but he still frowns as he follows the other.

 

“Lance, what are you—“

 

He’s only halfway through his question when Lance opens a door in the hallway and pulls them both into a bathroom. He immediately shuts the door, leaving Keith pinned against it.

 

Keith throws his hands out, holding Lance at arm’s length.

 

“I thought we agreed we’re not gonna do this anymore,” he says, frown deepening, mind racing.

 

Lance doesn’t move closer; in fact, he steps back, leaning against the sink counter.

 

“We’re not,” he responds, sounding breathless all of a sudden. “Not unless you want to.”

 

It’s an incredibly vague response, and Keith really isn’t here for it. But something’s going through Lance’s head and he wants to know what.

 

“What do you mean?” he asks, frown deepening.

 

“I mean that we don’t have to keep doing the thing where we hook up every two years or so, then pretend like it never happened,” Lance answers, folding his arms. “Because, if you think about it, it doesn’t really make any sense, and the “forgetting each other” part really isn’t working out, is it?”

 

Keith doesn’t answer, but there’s a buzz in his toes moving slowly up his limbs, and he hasn’t had nearly enough wine to attribute it to alcohol.

 

“So I did some soul-searching. Or, at least, Hunk and Pidge helped me do it,” Lance continues. Then he pauses, hesitancy marring his body language before he takes a deep breath. “Maybe it’s not a coincidence that we keep bumping into each other. Or maybe it is, who knows? But what definitely isn’t a coincidence is me remembering just how much I miss you every time I see you.”

 

Keith’s heart skips a beat, then starts pounding wildly at twice its speed. He looks up at Lance, unconsciously absorbing every detail—the longer hair, the glasses that compliment his too-pointy nose, the now well-formed jaw, the inch and a half height difference. Yeah, he’s missed him too.

 

“Hunk and Pidge,” he finally says, throwing Lance a little off guard because that’s clearly not the direction he expected Keith to go in. “You still talk to them? Because I owe them an apology. I owe you one, too.”

 

When Keith sees the confused expression on Lance’s face, he clarifies,

 

“For leaving suddenly that summer. Without saying anything. It was...probably the worst decision I ever made in my life, and I shouldn’t have done it. But I’m so sorry that I did, Lance.”

 

Lance is the one who can’t seem to find words now, but Keith really can’t blame him.

 

“I called camp the next summer,” he continues, filling the silence. “My parents didn’t want to send me back, but I was regretting leaving, and I had to talk to you, apologize, say something. But one of the senior counselors told me you didn’t go back. Said something about other priorities. I thought that...maybe it was my fault. That maybe I’d hurt you so badly that you didn’t want to come back and face me. And I don’t blame you, to be honest. I’m sorry.”

 

Keith’s surprised he’s managed to word the apology he’s had seared into his veins all these years with a straight face. But they’re here, having this conversation. Lance looks ready to put all his cards on the table. He may as well do the same.

 

“It did hurt,” Lance says, voice low. He grasps the sink counter in his palms and leans back in an attempt to appear casual, though Keith can see right through it. Even now, Lance is still hurting—a phantom pain from events past. “And I think it did make my decision not to go back to camp a little easier. But that’s not why I didn’t go back. Nowhere near it. I didn’t come back because my parents couldn’t afford it.”

 

“Oh,” Keith breathes, blinking at the other. In truth, it feels odd to hear that it wasn’t his fault after having believed that it was for so many years. He doesn’t know what to do with that information. The guilt seems tattooed into him.

 

“Yeah,” Lance muses, folding his arms. “Turns out we were in a financial slump, and my parents were really worried about how they’d support my siblings while sending me to college at the same time. I wasn’t supposed to know about this, but I overheard them talking, and I dunno, I felt responsible for some reason.”

 

Lance’s gaze drops to his feet. He suddenly looks sheepish.  

 

“I spent a lot of my life up until then doing whatever I wanted and not really caring about the consequences. Life is an adventure. It’s just an adventure that costs a lot of money.” His voice is bitter, like he’s taken a sip of Truth and can’t seem to wash the taste out of his mouth.

 

“Anyway,” he carries on, still not looking up from his feet, “after that, I decided that everything I was gonna do from then onwards, I’d do keeping my family in mind. I went to the college that gave me the most money instead of my dream school. I worked two part-time jobs while also trying to keep my grades up. I rarely went out with friends. I barely spent a dime. And that’s why I kept trying to push you away. That’s why I said I couldn’t afford distractions. I couldn’t. I think I was just really wrong in assuming that you were a distraction.”

 

Keith is leaning his full weight on the door opposite Lance, and he doesn’t realize that he’s been holding a breath in until Lance finally looks back up and meets his eyes. He has absolutely no idea where this conversation is headed, but there’s a lot that Lance is attempting to get off of his chest, and it doesn’t feel right to say anything at the moment.

 

“Do you remember when you told me that you couldn’t just be an excuse for one of my adventures?” Lance asks, hazel eyes searching Keith’s, a hint of nervousness swimming around in them.

 

Keith nods slowly. “Yeah.”

 

“Well, you were never an excuse for an adventure, Keith. You were an adventure, and the greatest one I’ve ever known.”

 

At this, Lance pushes himself off of the sink counter, and he takes two steps forward. Tentatively, he lifts a hand, letting his fingertips trace the outline of Keith’s jaw, only barely touching him. Keith sucks in a breath and keeps his eyes trained on Lance. The feeling has reached his stomach now, and it’s rising into his chest. He’s caught in the middle of swimming in a haze and being alert, the world and Lance’s face in front of him looking clear as day.

 

“I don’t think I really knew what it meant to chase freedom until I followed you into the forest that one night,” Lance murmurs, taking another step closer. “Every time I found myself boxed into my own limitations and expectations, you pulled me out. You made me feel like I could do anything, and even if I couldn’t, you helped me hope that I one day could. And even when I haven’t seen you in a year, and I come home feeling like I’ve made a bad decision, or made things too hard for myself, I find myself thinking of you. You make me happy, and somewhere along the way, I forgot that I deserve to be.”

 

Lance takes one more step, and now he’s really only a few inches away from Keith.

 

“I think I want to be with you, Keith. Well, scratch that, I want to be. That’s kinda why I pulled you into this bathroom. I just wanted to tell you that.”

 

Lance doesn’t say anything more, and, for a few moments, he simply stands there, not moving an inch. His breathing is heavy, and his eyes are flitting all across Keith’s face, searching for answers Keith isn’t sure he has at the moment.

In fact, he has absolutely no idea what to think right now, no idea what to do. He wants to hold Lance’s cheek, run his fingers through his hair, lean over and kiss him and never let go. But his instincts are telling him not to. That feeling, the unknown one, it’s encroaching over his heart now, squeezing his lungs. It’s warming him up and killing him slowly at the same time. He’s only ever given into it once in his life, and it was too long ago, back when things were a little simpler, and he could afford not to know a thing or two. He can’t now.

 

His instincts are telling him to run. Run from this feeling that he only experiences around Lance. He’s tired of wanting to run.

 

“I can’t, Lance,” Keith finally says, hands coming up to Lance’s chest and pushing him away gently. “I just can’t.”

 

Lance tries valiantly to hide the fact that only a few words have managed to hurt him, but he’s someone who wears his heart out in the open, and Keith can see right through it. A dull ache grips his heart.

 

“Why?” Lance asks, voice soft and small.

 

“Because...because— “Keith tries to speak around the lump in his throat. This is too much. He needs to end this now so they can both move on. “You wanna know why I left you, Lance? Because there’s this feeling that I only feel when I’m around you. And sometimes it makes me feel like I’m dancing on the moon, and sometimes I can’t breathe and I’ll never be able to again. Every damn time I see you, I feel it. I felt it all those years ago. And no matter how much I try, I can never figure out what it is.”

 

“I was afraid of what it was. I’m still afraid of it. I’m afraid to feel it, and I’m afraid of what’ll happen if I accept it, then lose it. If I lose you. So I ran, because that’s what I always seem to do. And that’s what I’m trying not to do anymore.”

 

Keith meets Lance’s eyes and puts all of his resolve into his words as he can.

 

“I don’t want to run anymore, Lance. And the only way to do that is to stop feeling whatever this is. That’s why I can’t be with you. Because I might just end up running again.”

 

“But isn’t that what you’re doing right now?” Lance asks, forehead creased and face scrunched like he’s trying to understand what a math problem is asking him. “Isn’t this running away, too?”

 

Keith frowns. “How? I just told you I’m trying not to run.”

 

“But you are, though,” Lance insists, stepping backwards. “You’re running away from your feelings instead of facing them head on. I’m not gonna try to convince you to be with me if you don’t want to be, but you’re deluding yourself if you think avoiding a problem is going to make it go away.”

 

“Huh,” Keith scoffs bitterly. The buzz is wearing off and he’s, instead, feeling defensive. “Facing your feelings head on? That’s always been easier for you than me. I’m just trying to figure out how to live my life, Lance. I’m sorry that it’s not the way you’d prefer to live it.”

 

As soon as he says the words, he knows they’re stupid and are less sensible than everything Lance just said. But Keith can’t bring himself to take them back, because he thinks that would invalidate everything he’s been trying to do until now to achieve order. Dropping out of college, moving to Houston, getting a desk job at the precinct: all of it could just be a result of a cowardice he isn’t ready to admit to yet.  

 

Lance looks ready to argue. Keith always did think he’d butt heads with a bull if he got the chance, but he looks right back at the other man, eyes imploring him not to pursue the subject any further.

 

It’s a few tense seconds before Lance finally takes the hint and steps away completely. He sighs, and Keith tries not to think about the hurt written all over his face.

 

“I’m sorry,” Keith says.

 

Lance shakes his head and runs a hand through his hair. When he meets Keith’s eyes again, he’s smiling, masking any sadness he’s feeling.

 

“Happy Holidays, Keith,” he says. Then he reaches around Keith to unlock the bathroom door, gives Keith his two-fingered salute, and heads out.

 


 

 

Keith hears voices outside of his bedroom door and closes his eyes, pretending to be asleep. He’s pretty sure it’s Shiro and Allura out there debating on whether or not they should come inside and try to talk to him. He’s really hoping that they’re leaning towards leaving him alone.

 

He’d left the holiday party early, drained of any holiday spirit he had in him after his conversation with Lance. Sensing that things hadn’t gone as planned, Allura had tried to talk to him about it, but he’d shrugged her off and told her he’d catch a bus home or something.

 

“It’s my fault,” he hears Allura say. “I shouldn’t have tried to force them together. I should go talk to him.”

 

“You were trying to help,” Shiro says. “Besides, I’m his brother. I should go.”

 

So one of them is gonna come in. Great. Keith briefly wonders who’s the lesser of two evils at the moment.

 

He doesn’t stir when his door finally opens, and he hopes one last time that whoever it is will leave when they see that Keith is asleep.

 

Except that he forgot to turn off the lights. Wonderful.

 

Two sets of footsteps wander in. A weight settles onto the side of his bed next to where he’s laying down, and the second set of footsteps halts about a foot away from him.

 

So they both decided to come talk to him. Lovely.

 

“You know,” Allura starts, and Keith discerns that she’s the one sitting on his bed. “Whenever I said I didn’t feel like a boy when I was younger, I was told to start acting like one. Then I’d be a boy. But what did that even mean? To act like a boy? It made absolutely no sense to me.”

 

“My mother eventually figured out what I was trying to say. But she also told me that I couldn’t tell anyone else. Because when people saw me, they saw a boy, so they expected a boy. I could defy those expectations and live a life of uncertainty and face intense scrutiny at every corner I turned. Or I could keep this part of myself to myself—lock it away and lead the life everyone wanted me to live. The life everyone told me would guarantee me stability and order because I wouldn’t be pushing their boundaries. I’d be staying within them.”

 

Allura pauses here, and Keith opens his eyes. It feels rude to keep pretending he isn’t listening, even though he’s yet to see why Allura is telling him this.

 

When she sees that Keith truly is awake, Allura gives him an encouraging smile. To her left is Shiro, standing with his hands in his pockets.

 

“The thing is, Keith, leading the life that was supposed to bring me order didn’t bring me happiness,” she continues. “It made me feel stifled. I was killing a huge part of me just to satisfy what the world wanted from me. And I deserved better than that. I deserved to be happy. Sure, life was hard when I decided to hell with everyone’s expectations. It was really hard. But I’m now the woman I always knew I was.”

 

She briefly glances over at Shiro.

 

“I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

 

Keith lifts himself up and scoots back until his back is leaning against the headboard of the bed.

 

“Why are you telling me this?” he asks.

 

“Because we think you’re sacrificing your happiness for what you think is an easier life,” Shiro answers. “Lance makes you happy, but you keep pushing him away because you think acknowledging that will make life hard. But he’s not what’s making life hard, Keith. Life is making life hard. It has a tendency to do that.”

 

“That’s really easy for you to say, Shiro,” Keith says, anger lacing his words. “You’re not the one had to deal with Mom and Dad acting like I barely existed. You’re not the one who dropped out of college right before your last year because you couldn’t handle the pressure. You’re not the one who keeps running away from their problems because you were too afraid to face them.”

 

He vaguely realizes that that’s almost exactly what Lance had said earlier.

 

“That’s not running away, Keith,” Allura replies gently and patiently, and Keith can see she’s a teacher. “That’s you trying to find your place in the world. Trying to see where you fit. Not everyone lives their life in the same way, and you wanting to walk away from the life everyone kept wanting you to lead doesn’t make you a coward. The only thing you’ve ever run away from was the thing that promised you happiness. Why? Because it felt too good to be true?”

 

“Because it was the one thing that scared me because I didn’t know what it was, and it was the one thing I was too afraid to lose.”

 

Keith looks away from Allura and Shiro and down at his hands. His fingers are fidgeting, and he tries to still them.

 

“Every time I see or think of Lance, there’s this feeling. And I don’t know what it is.”

 

“What does it feel like?” he hears Shiro ask.

 

Keith shrugs and scrunches his brow together. He’s never really put the feeling into words before. No one’s ever really asked him to, and he’s not sure if he can find the right way to describe it.

 

“It feels like...how we felt when our neighbors asked us to dogsit their two labs that one time. Mom and Dad weren’t happy, but we were ecstatic to have these furry balls of joy follow us around the house everywhere we went,” Keith starts, smiling fondly at the memory. He hears Shiro chuckle next to him.

 

“It feels like when I built a pillow fort, and the only way I’d let you in is if you acknowledged me as General Keith. It feels like...staying awake on nights when it’s raining and listening to the raindrops hitting the window, knowing they can’t get to you because you’re inside and safe. It feels like when you have to wake up really early and go into the kitchen, and there’s already a pot of coffee waiting for you. It feels like—“

 

Keith looks up to see Shiro and Allura glance at each other, something silent pass between them.

 

It feels like what they must feel like when Allura is in Shiro’s arms and Shiro is kissing her forehead. It feels like everything Keith seems to yearn for when he sees the two of them together. If only he could put his finger on it. It’s right there on the tip of his tongue. It has been for years. It feels like—

 

“Home,” Keith says aloud, eyes widening. “It feels like home.”

 


 

 

The sound of children laughing, screaming, competing, and imagining echoes throughout the playground. It’s sunny and slightly chilly, though nowhere near what the temperature should be at this time of year. Not that the weather is of any concern to any of the kids. They’re too busy chasing each other around the playground, tossing up mulch in their wake, fighting over who gets to go down the slide next, and coming up with a new rendition to hide and seek.

 

The scene tugs the corner of his lips into a smile. He’s never been too great with kids, but they warm his heart nonetheless.

 

“Who are you?”

 

Keith glances down to see a child no more than ten years old looking up at him, curiosity lining his face.

 

“Oh, uh,” Keith points to the “Hello, my name is” nametag they’d given him at the front office of the school. “I’m Keith. I’m a friend of your teacher’s.”

 

The kid blinks up at him, assessing the man in front of him, then turns and yells,

 

“MS. ALFOR! There’s a weird guy here to see you.”

 

Keith follow’s the kid’s line of sight to see Allura and Lance standing at the edge of of the playground’s boundary. The two of them turn their heads when the kid calls Allura, and Keith raises his hand in a weak wave. Allura nods at him. Lance looks startled.

 

The kid looks back over at Keith, then runs off back towards the playground. Keith watches him go, then treks over to where Lance and Allura are standing.

 

“Hey,” he says as he approaches him.

 

“Hey Keith,” Allura greets back, smiling like it’s totally normal for him to show up at the local public school during the day.

 

Keith hesitates, then faces Lance, who’s still looking like he’s seeing a ghost.

 

“Can we talk?” he asks.

 

Lance glances back at Allura, who nods.

 

“There’s ten minutes of recess left,” she says. “I can watch them.”

 

Lance turns back to Keith and nods.

 

“Sure.”

 

He walks off, heading towards a tree with one of the thickest trunks Keith had ever seen over on the other side of the playground, and Keith follows him. Many of its leaves are browning but still attached to its branches, which is actually pretty disturbing considering it’s December. Lance leads him around the trunk so that they’re still near the playground but out of everyone’s line of sight.

 

“What’s up?” he asks, putting his hands in his pockets, trying to sound nonchalant.

 

Interestingly enough, it’s only about 40 degrees, but Lance’s cheeks are reddened by the chill, and his shoulders are hunched over, trying to preserve some warmth. Keith mentally shakes his head. Arizona boys.

 

“I realize it probably isn’t the best idea to ambush you where you work, but...I thought about what you said. At the holiday party over the weekend,” Keith answers, clearing his throat.

 

Lance shuffles his feet, expression remaining neutral.

 

“And?”

 

Keith takes in a deep breath, running through everything he wanted to say again in his head for the hundredth time.

 

“And I think you were right. About me running away from my feelings. I have been running away from my feelings for you for a long time now, but that obviously hasn’t gotten me anywhere because I still have them.”

 

Lance is still looking at him with a blank face, but Keith thinks there’s a hint of hope in his eyes.

 

“And I also realized that, even though I keep running away, you’re the only thing I’ve ever run back to, Lance. Every time I convince myself to get over you, and every time I see you, I just come running back. I called camp because I couldn’t bear the thought of not talking to you. Hell, I kept coming back to space camp because of you.”

 

As Keith speaks, he can’t believe that it’s taken him this long to figure it all out. All the pieces were right there in front of him the whole damn time, but he was too busy chasing a different life to see it.

 

“That feeling I mentioned that kept popping up whenever I saw you? I finally figured out what it is,” Keith continues. “I could never pinpoint it because it felt like something I didn’t think I really had. But the more I think about it, the more I realize...home isn’t really a place, is it? It’s a feeling. It’s whatever you don’t want to leave, and whatever you find yourself coming back to when you need comfort and safety. That feeling whenever you’re around...it’s home, Lance.”

 

He steps forward, not daring to take his eyes away from Lance’s. He wants the other to know the brevity of his realization.

 

You’re home, Lance. And I want to keep coming back to you.”

 

Lance looks dumbstruck as if his brain has overloaded and he needs to reboot his systems to handle everything Keith just said. Which Keith finds kind of funny considering how much Lance himself had confessed only a few nights ago. Lance is an emotionally sensitive dork, and Keith will never stop loving it. He just hopes his own confession isn’t too late.

 

Lance’s glasses have slipped down his nose again, and he doesn’t seem to have registered it. Unconsciously, Keith reaches over and pushes them up his nose for him, fingers lingering at the edges of Lance’s face.

 

“So you’re saying that...” Lance finally breathes, but doesn’t seem able to finish the sentence.

 

“Yeah,” Keith says, nodding. “I wanna be with you too.”

 

When Lance breaks out into a grin, it’s like dawn breaking over the horizon after days of rain and clouds. The air is suddenly warmer than it actually is, the breeze is humming violin scales, and thousands of butterflies have made a home in Keith’s stomach. His eyes are lined with crow’s feet, a dimple appears on his left cheek, and all Keith can think of is how much he wants to keep making Lance smile.

 

He takes another step forward and cups Lance’s face in his hands, leaning in to kiss him, and Lance doesn’t hesitate to kiss him back, cradling the back of Keith’s neck and gently pulling him against him, falling against the trunk of the tree. It feels like a first kiss, and in a way, it is. It’s the first one they’ve shared since they’ve both managed to get this part of their lives together, even if the rest of it may still be a mess. But that’s kind of what life is. It’s an utter shit storm, and all you can do is find the one thing that makes you happy and never let go of it.

 

“I can’t believe it took us almost seven years to get our shit together,” Lance says when they pull apart, his head leaning back against the tree. “I swear, we’re the epitome of human error.”

 

Keith grins and leans forward in Lance’s arms, relishing in the comfortable warmth.

 

“When you become a teacher, make sure you teach your kids not to make stupid decisions like we did.”

 

“Oh, that’ll be lesson number one, no worries.”

 

In the distance, a shrill whistle blows, and the two of them hear Allura call for her students to form a line so they can head back inside.

 

“That’s my cue,” Lance says, looking reluctant to leave.

 

Keith presses a quick kiss to his nose.

 

“I’ll see you later,” he says.

 

Lance smiles at him like he’s been given everything he’s ever wanted in his life and more.

 

“Yeah, you will.”

 


 

 

Epilogue

 

Keith thinks if he blinks, he’ll be able to stay awake.

 

One.

 

Maybe if he blinks twice.

 

One.

Two.

 

Three times?

 

One.

Two.

Three.

 

His fingers type away furiously on the keyboard. He’s only got fifteen minutes left on his shift, but there are three more casefiles on his desk, and he’s set himself against the clock to try to get them all logged in before he clocks out.

 

His odds aren’t looking great, though, because his brain is shutting down, already having used up all the caffeine he’d fed it throughout the day. He probably should be getting more sleep than he is, but between this job and working at a local volunteer fire department during the week, he’s feeling a little stretched. It’s a good thing he dropped this desk job from a full time one to a part time one, much to the captain’s chagrin. Working here part time allows him to dedicate time to the volunteer fire department, which has given him a good test run over the last couple of weeks. He figured it would have been too hasty to enroll in a firefighting academy right away, given that he’s not 100% sure it’s exactly what he wants to do. But volunteering’s been getting him there slowly and steadily.

 

“You almost done there, Keith?” the captain asks from her doorway. She’s slipping on her winter coat and turning off the lights in her office.

 

“Yeah, I’ve just got three more files to log in,” he answers, only barely glancing at her before returning to his screen. “I’ll get them done before I leave.”

 

The captain studies him for a few moments.

 

“Well, don’t log in any overtime. It’s Friday, Keith. It’s okay if you’ve still got one or two files leftover for next week.”

 

Keith continues to type, but the fatigue is encroaching on him faster than ever. He finally slows his fingers, saves the database, and slumps into his chair.

 

“Alright,” he says, turning his chair around to face the captain. “I think I’m done.”

 

The captain grins at him and closes her door, pulling out keys from her coat pocket to lock her office.

 

“Got any plans for tonight? You’ve been working pretty hard all week,” the captain comments, pocketing her keys. “Think about treating yourself tonight.”

 

As she speaks, Keith feels the phone in his pocket buzz for the sixteenth time in the past twenty minutes. He smiles fondly. Lance is probably complaining about how bored he is and how Keith needs to leave work immediately. He’ll probably suggest take out because he’s had a long week haggling with little children and would rather be a canvas for a two-year-old with finger paint than walk into the kitchen right now.

 

When they finally do get take out, Lance will lean over and steal all the mushrooms out of Keith’s fried rice despite Keith’s protests. He’ll claim he savors them more than Keith does. Then he’ll suggest a movie, and Keith will choose Spiderman 3, knowing Lance always dies in a pool of secondhand embarrassment every time he sees Tobey Maguire strutting down the street, because he wants revenge for Lance stealing all of his mushrooms.

 

And despite the not-great-at-acting-in-a-superhero-movie trio of Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco, Lance will lean in and rest his head on Keith’s shoulder, and Keith will pick a blanket up off the ground and throw it over them. He’ll thread his fingers with Lances under the blanket, and Lance will raise their hands to brush Keith’s knuckles with his lips. Someone will say “I love you.”

 

And Keith will feel cozy, soul at rest because it’s found the one place, one person that it doesn’t want to leave. He’ll wake up next to Lance the next morning, their legs intertwined, Lance’s feet slightly cold, and think about how he doesn’t want to get up because he could lay here forever and never get bored of watching Lance’s chest rise and fall steadily. He’ll finally have to leave bed, and when he does, he’ll grab the weekend newspaper from the doorstep of their shared apartment, absentmindedly remembering that he needs to finish moving all of his stuff out of Shiro’s place. When he’s not paying attention, Lance will steal the newspaper from him and thumb through it until he finds the comics section. Keith will complain because he wanted to read the comics first, and Lance always hogs the comics. Lance will grin at him and kiss his lips, then his nose, then his forehead, and will promise that, this time, he’ll be done soon, he promises.

 

“Nah,” Keith responds, his phone buzzing in his pocket again. “I think I’ll go home.”

 

Fin.