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Of Boba and Fake Boyfriends

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The sunlight was filtering in through the open door to the boba shop’s dining area and Lance was counting down the minutes until his shift ended. He could see the oranges and reds of the sky and the way the golds hit his register made it hard for him to see what words were displayed across the screen. Customers were muttering orders Lance was straining to hear, but he was marking them down frantically, thrilled at the prospect of missing the eight o’clock rush, when people hit the boba shop for dessert after they finished their dinner. Finally, the register displayed his desired time, a blaring six, zero, zero at the top of the border, and Lance finished his line of customers before clocking out.

Knowing they still had a few hours before the wave of customers came, two of his coworkers signalled him over to talk. He grabbed his phone from the back area, then met them behind the one employee that was actually working, Kyle. Lance was friends with the man running the other register, even though he was a bit too touchy for his tastes, and he was confused by the shushing fingers his other coworkers were putting to their lips. Was there something they didn’t want Kyle to know?

Candice, taking the initiative in the silent conversation, took her finger from her lips and pointed it at Lance. The brunet nodded, slowly and defensively, then furrowed his eyebrows when her finger next went to Kyle’s unaware backside. She brought her two hands together to form a heart. Lance whipped his head back and forth, while his confusion began to wane and his anger began to wax. Yanking her hands apart, she repeated the succession of motions with more fervor and received a negative response that mirrored the increase in energy.

This continued for another thirty seconds and Lance was getting exasperated. The unspoken argument was rising tension levels in the room, so much so that Kyle had even asked what they were doing a few times, though he luckily hadn’t turned around. Neither he nor Lance had ever made any implication they were dating and Lance was at his wit’s end in trying to explain to Candice that her assumption was very much off base. And, sure, Kyle was an attractive guy and he seemed to have a kind personality to go with it, but he wasn’t at all who Lance was pining after. For a moment, the heated motions of his coworker’s hands went unnoticed as he thought about who he was interested in.

He glanced out at the sunset that drew sketches of warmly lit watercolor paintings along the glass front of the shop. For a split second, he thought he saw the silhouette of his crush framed there by the sunlight; the dangling spindles of his charcoal locks that ticked the flesh of his shoulders, the way those same shoulders often rolled back in an inkling of a stretch, the faint outline of his chiseled features through the shadows across his face. But Lance blinked and the figure was gone. He turned back to his coworkers, but not before checking the time again on his phone.

They hadn’t stopped the hand motions, though now they had changed the message behind him. No longer did they imply a mere romance between Kyle and Lance, now they’d begun to make a loop with one hand and they were shoving a finger of the other hand through the middle of it. The brunet got hot, his fingertips beginning to go numb with the anxiety and embarrassment coursing through his hands. He hadn’t so much as considered a sexual relationship with any of his coworkers. To be completely honest, the idea of thinking so lewdly about any of them made him physically ill. He shook his head, more firmly than any of the other times, and he shoved past them to make his way out from behind the counter. Candice followed him to the dining area, she followed him out the front door of the shop, and she followed him to his car. Finally, having had more than enough of her persistence, Lance whipped around and angled his car keys at her face.

His words were seething and pooling against his tongue before they fizzled out in a cloud of steam in the January air. “What, Candice?” He slapped his hand over the trunk of his car, leaning his whole body weight against the VW Beetle and hoping, praying, for some other vehicle to race past and take his coworker with it on its hood. Lance checked his phone for the time again, sure to note how he had exactly twenty minutes to get to dinner if he wanted to keep his promise to meet his friends at the restaurant in time. And there was no way in hell he was going to be late. Not when dinner meant seeing Keith.

“Lance, please date him.” The brunet raised his eyebrows, reinterpreting the hand motions he’d seen earlier. So, they weren’t asking if they were having sex or dating, they were asking if they would have sex or date. Not that that changed Lance’s response in the slightest. He swung his key chain around his finger, leveling a gaze with Candice.

“Why would I?” It was a harsh question with a brutal tone, but Lance figured he’d already made it abundantly clear that he was, under no circumstances, interested in dating any of his coworkers. Unless, by some stroke of luck, Keith decided to abandon his job in favor of making boba, that is. Candice looked back to the boba shop briefly, probably gauging if she had enough time away from the influx of a random crowd to explain an answer. Gripping Lance by the shoulders, she swung him so she could look at his face while her back was directly to the incoming view from Kyle.

“You didn’t hear this from me, but Kyle likes you.” Anxiety was starting to spark along Lance’s spine now. He hated that he’d been put in such a compromising situation. What was he supposed to say? Hadn’t he made it perfectly clear? He’d said no to every motion, he’d phrased his question as bluntly as possible, why the hell would she tell him about a crush that wasn’t her news to tell? And she was wearing such an expectant expression. There was a half baked grin on her face, a smile that was one positive response away from popping out of the metaphorical oven, fully cooked. She was looking at him as though he’d burst into tears and exclaim that her news was the best thing he’d heard all week or that he’d felt the same way for years.

He sucked his cheeks in for a second, nibbling on the insides to combat his wave of nerves. “I don’t know what you want me to say to that, to be honest,” he muttered as he shifted one elbow to rest along the roof of his car and cast his gaze to the dust accumulating there. Candice stared back, the same wordlessness portrayed in the darting of her eyes and the opening and closing of her mouth. Finally, she stuffed her hands into her pockets and spun back to face the shop. Heading back to her shift, she raised one arm in a lazy goodbye.

“Do with that information what you will.”

Lance opened the driver side door and swung one leg inside. His heart was still pounding with a tempo that was faster than what was healthy and he could feel it in his throat. It made his hands shake as he put them on the wheel. He felt so out of place; like he’d been given a glimpse into something he shouldn’t have seen, which, in all honesty, wasn’t that far off of what actually happened. It seemed like Candice had put an extra weight on his back and thrown the ball into his court with a declaration that it was his move, when there was no move he wanted to make. He couldn’t tell Kyle he wasn’t interested, since it wasn’t Kyle who’d asked him out. But at the same time, he couldn’t just go back into work tomorrow like nothing had happened, could he? His head fell against the horn of his steering wheel and a parking lot full of people glared at him and his impending dilemma, upon hearing the noise his car emitted.

For now, though, Lance just had to worry about dinner.

He drove to the restaurant while holding back his stressed tears and, when he pulled up, he spotted Keith’s motorcycle already parked nearby. His heart was still thrumming too hard in his chest, but now it was for a different reason. After making certain his car was locked, he carried himself to the door of the restaurant and opened it. Bells chimed. The place was mostly empty; a booth in the corner full of elderly people were the only inhabitants, other than his friends, who sat at a separate table. Of his friends, Keith was the one to look up first. He smiled and waved at Lance as he entered, patting the empty seat next to him as an invitation to sit down.

The brunet swore he was about to swoon. Keith had seemed to hate him when they first met in high school, and Lance had returned the spite tenfold, but since they both graduated college, Lance had begun to consider him the friend he was closest with. And the friend he was most attracted to; a fact he was reminded of when he watched Keith drag his bangs away from his eyes. The setting sun lit his pale skin so it shined gold and made his eyes twinkle as they squinted in a smile directed at Lance. He was wearing a black, leather jacket with a grey t-shirt underneath. He was truly the picture of a man who was edgy and cool, but not a man who’d outgrown his emo phase. It was really a stark contrast to the faint curve of a smile to his pale lips.

Lance tossed himself into the empty seat Keith was offering, acting as though he hadn’t just fantasized about having that edgy jacket being lent to him. He also pretended not to enjoy the smell of Keith’s generic, storebrand shampoo and the scent of the cologne clinging to his skin. Swinging his arms over the back of his wooden chair, he eyeballed the rest of his friends, none of which were looking up from their phones. Shiro, upon further scrutiny, didn’t even appear conscious and his device had begun to hang limply from his drooping fingertips. Lance turned to Pidge, attempting to read the reflection of an article in her glasses to no avail. Finally, he peered at Hunk, who was typing a hasty message with a grin splitting his face in two. Lance slouched and turned his face to Keith.

Reaching a hand weakly up to prod the cup of his hand at his attractive friend’s cheek, he murmured, “Keith, at least you love me.” The man smiled back, lifting his own hand to press against Lance’s with a tenderness that he’d really grown into. Man, Lance would have fallen so much faster and so much harder had Keith always shown this compassionate side. There was a shadow of a blush on his cheeks, so Lance thought, but he set it aside as an illusion of the rays of winter sun streaming in through the windows at the front of the restaurant.

Keith hummed as a sort of agreement to Lance’s statement of love, which had the brunet quickly dropping his hand and facing the rest of the preoccupied group so his crush hopefully wouldn’t see his burning skin. His palm landed against the top of the table and his eyes stumbled across the glass of iceless lemonade at his spot. He wrapped his fingers around it, flitting his stare back to Keith in question. “Oh, they came by and asked for our drink orders before you got here. You like lemonade, right?” Lance nodded, flushing hotter. A swell of joy and embarrassment was swimming behind his eyes and in his chest at the way Keith knew what he liked to drink. It was really such a simple, platonic thing to know, but he couldn’t help but to be flattered by the mindfree action. “And drinks that are too cold make you cough, right? Was it okay for me to say no ice?” The brunet buried his nose in his hand, smothering the gleeful smile that was slowly beginning to part his lips. That fact had been a little more specific, almost bordering on a romantic level of attentiveness, and it had Lance feeling lightheaded. But it was completely correct, so he made sure to nod again. The movement stuttered with the oppositional force of his palm against his chin.

“Yeah. Thanks, Keith.” Upon turning to give the man in question a grateful smile, Lance saw the proud grin cracking across his face and the way he pumped his fist once, in a celebratory manner. Almost as though he’d been trying something and he’d succeeded. Tilting farther back, Lance tried to spot a lit phone under the table displaying some game or app, but he saw nothing, for there the phone was, face down and unlit on the glass table. He furrowed his brows in confusion at the seemingly unwarranted excitement. Brushing it off, he started to complain about his day. “You’ll never believe what my coworkers did today,” he shouted, getting the attention of Keith, the now fully awake Shiro, and the table of elders in the back. Shiro looked like he was seconds from drifting back off, with his squinting eyes and wrinkled nose. Keith cocked his head to urge Lance to continue. “They kept telling me I should date one of them! And they, like, kept doing the sex hand motions, you know the ones, and it was so uncomfortable! Like, Jesus, mind ya damn business!”

The man to the right of Lance formed a cute pout with his lips, choosing to focus on all the wrong details. “Well, do you want to date him? Or have sex with him?” The brunet gave Keith an incredulous look at the implication. He stuck his tongue out in disgust, crinkled his nose, and drew a line with his finger across his neck. At that, the pout mysteriously left Keith’s lips and he leaned his cheek against his palm and his elbow against the smudged tabletop. He looked a little too relieved by Lance’s answer to be considered strictly normal, but there wasn’t much time to pay attention to that before Pidge began to reply.

With a gaze that didn’t lift from her phone, she said, “Lance, it’s not really that big of a deal. People will always be assholes.” He slumped again, disappointed by the lack of sympathy amongst his friends. His face fell back against his palm and he sighed into it. It only lifted when he felt an even warmer palm against his shoulder blades and his spine went rigid reflexively. God, his back might be straight, but he most certainly was not. No, not a chance in any universe with the gentle sheen to Keith’s eyes and his hot fingers tracing simple circles in the dips between his ribs.

“That was awful of them to pressure you like that,” he said, his voice shimmering just as kindly as his eyes. And just as easily as those words seemed to come to Keith, Lance seemed to calm down. The bitterness that had settled deep in his stomach had seeped and leaked back out into the air to leave him feeling worlds better than he had on his way here. He gave Keith a thankful look.

That was really the highlight of dinner. Food had come as usual, Keith having ordered Lance’s meal before he arrived, which filled him with an even greater sense of joy. He even knew to ask for extra garlic knots on the side. And then the hour had gotten late and Lance headed home with the knowledge that, tomorrow, he had to go to work and handle the problem his coworkers had passed so rudely into his lap. The dread was back, crawling to his lungs and leaving each breath coming out as a squeak. He started to cry on the way home, unbearably anxious at the prospect of more pressuring and uncomfortable conversations. His only consolation was the possibility that maybe his boss, Allura, would take pity on him, should the teasing start again, and that, maybe, she’d tell them to stop. Maybe.

So, when he went into work the next morning, he made sure to clock in and greet Allura with an extra large smile and a pleasant compliment to her shoes. She chuckled, thanking him, before heading to the kitchen in the back with a quick request for Lance to wipe down the tables at the front. He was hasty to listen to her order, not wanting to get on her bad side when she might just be his saving grace. Candice tossed him the wet rag from the sink and Lance ignored the way she hadn’t wrung it out first, so the water sloshed wetly against his eyelids. Man, he wouldn’t have bothered to do his eyebrows this morning had he known he was going to get splashed so early in the work day. He bent over the table, his fingertips stretched at the far corner, and he brushed the rag over the spilled drink there.

“Hey, nice ass, sweetheart,” Kyle shouted from behind the counter. Lance stood up quickly, one hand hovering above the tight fitting fabric of his jeans along his behind. His ears flared red and itchy. The hairs at the top of his neck felt like they were tickling his skin and needed to scratched, the form of his pants around his thighs suddenly felt too exposing, and the dripping of his rag wasn’t noticed seeping through his sneakers. Kyle had always had a habit to jokingly say lines like that and, until now, they hadn’t bothered Lance, but, with the information he learned yesterday evening, they were suddenly immensely uncomfortable. This was a start to what would undoubtedly be a very long day.

The bell of the shop door rang. Lance raced over to it like a lifeline, a warning of the shop not being open yet climbing to the tip of his tongue. Then he saw who’d come in and the air in his lungs could no longer pass his lips. Keith was the one standing there, looking the epitome of awkward, but simultaneously the epitome of hot. His hair appeared some mix of windblown and helmet head, probably from his bike ride over there and the force of the chilled wind outside. His shoulders and muscled arms were exposed, the scarlet cloth of his tank top leaving a lot of his skin completely visible and worth drooling over. Under one arm, he had his fiery, red helmet, paralleling the shade of his bike and Lance’s quickly warming ears. Under the other, he had his leather jacket and some cloth wrapped item the brunet couldn’t name. His ebony pants were torn in a way that screamed badass and his combat boots completed the image. Needless to say, the sight had left Lance’s words to shrivel up and die at the end of his tongue.

“Hey, Lance.” The man in question waved shakily, so the water from his rag slapped against his cheek. “Can I talk to you for a sec?” He nodded quickly, throwing the washcloth to the half dirty table and speedily making his way to Keith’s spot by the wall. The taller man had shoved everything he was holding into his helmet so he had one free arm and he was leaning that one arm against the wall, body slanted and face pressed against the palm of his hand. Lance was left with a dry mouth and a speeding heart. He looked an unfair amount of suave. Truly. When Lance got close, Keith deemed it not close enough and he curled an arm around Lance’s waist to pull him even closer. Flicking a cruel and calculating eye to the people scurrying behind the counter, he whispered a hushed inquiry. “Are these the ones bothering you?” Lance merely nodded, mouth still parched and voice still broken. He could feel the body heat that was positively dripping from Keith’s chest and it was intoxicating. So was his smell. “I have an idea on how to get them to leave you alone. It we pretend to be dating, then you’ll be ‘taken’ and they should leave you be, right?”

His voice finally began to reboot. “I mean, probably, but do you really wanna have to be with me? Pretend or not, that’s a big burden to shoulder,” he breathed, thanking whatever Gods he could think of for the blessing that was Keith Kogane because there he was, nodding firmly in answer to Lance’s shy question. The brunet’s whole body was practically vibrating with the idea of dating Keith, even if it would all be a ruse. And the fact that it had been offered by Keith himself and as an effort to help Lance made the taste of it even sweeter. He was high off the feeling of it; both the elation in his stomach and the adoration running up and down his spine leaving him shuddering and blushing.

“I mean,” Keith said, bringing his elbow off the wall to slide his hand shyly under the waterfall of his tangled hair and to let it rest against the back of his neck. “It’s only for a little while.” And just like that, Lance came tumbling down from his high. He choked on the remnants of joy settling along the sides of his lungs. He spat the sour taste of rejection out of his mouth with the stuttering of his tongue. Right. Keith was doing this out of the goodness of his heart, the platonic goodness of his heart, and he never had an ounce of romantic attraction towards Lance. The sparkle in his eye was just the glow of the sun outside, the red to his cheeks was just the reflection of his shirt across his features, the nervous way he licked his lips was something casual and innocent, definitely not some sign of attraction. If they did this, this was going to be nothing more than an act.

And it would be an endless breath of torture for Lance.

But would that stop him? Hell no.

He nodded determinedly, flinging the last droplets of the sorrow of rejection off his hair. Keith nodded, too, and Lance was on his way back to washing the tables. Before he could make it very far, though, his newly appointed fake boyfriend swung an arm about his waist to let a hand settle hotly against the flat of his stomach. It felt like the skin beneath his shirt was bubbling with discomposure and he was overwhelmed by the mere fire of the temperature in Keith’s palms. The action had been enunciated by a quick call of, “babe,” just loud enough for all the other employees to hear. They stared, shocked, at the duo. Lance was twirled around, pressed solidly against Keith’s chest, and suffocated by the unexpected affection of the action. “Don’t forget your lunch!”

The wrapped item Lance couldn’t name earlier was placed gently in his arms with an exaggerated wink. He was stumbling to catch up with everything Keith was throwing at him. He was abruptly very thankful for the hand that had slid to the small of his back to keep him upright because he was confident he was about ten seconds away from his knees buckling under him. Those seconds, while already few in number, were whittled away when Keith bent forward to press an entirely random and entirely too sweet kiss to the swell of his cheekbone. The ginger way Keith’s lips brushed against the flushed heat of his skin felt wholly too genuine in its levels of affection and Lance crumpled. His fake boyfriend seemed concerned, but a glimmer in his eyes read smug. Either way, he helped Lance back to standing upright, before slipping back to the door of the shop with a careless wave tossed lamely behind him, as if he was chucking some sort of litter over his shoulder. But Lance was left with eyes that clung to the movement regardless. Part of him wanted to scramble to the floor in search of the mystery, invisible item that had been thrown.

“I’ll catch you later, baby,” Keith sang, clearly prideful in every respect, and Lance’s entire body went numb, save the one square inch of skin that Keith had kissed and the lingering outlines of his hand along the brunet’s spine and stomach. He slowly let his hand flop one way and then the other in a mocked wave, with starstruck eyes that followed the retreating figure of his crush. When he turned around to return to work, he saw the confused and gawking faces of his coworkers and boss. But to be completely fair…

He was just as startled and awestruck as they were.

Chapter Text

It had been a week since he and Keith started pretending to date and it had worked near flawlessly. Kyle had stopped making comments about his ass, his coworkers no longer made obscene hand motions, and Lance sat happily at the register each day, content with hiding in his little nook between the service counter and the shelves of machines. This was just a temporary job, one he’d had in college and was keeping until somewhere better accepted his application, but he was thrilled to know he wasn’t going to spend every waking moment of it hating the other employees.

Today was the official one month anniversary of his relationship with Keith, as far as his coworkers knew, and it was raining. A cute drizzle with a grey sky of a shade that reminded Lance of Keith. Maybe it was the smoky color of his foggy eyes, maybe it was just the partially drab color he loved to wear, but Lance found it hard to care. He could only care about the warmth it made him feel. In his chest when he breathed, in his fingers as he passed people their change, in his throat when he swallowed, and in the small of his back where Keith’s hot palm still seemed to remain.

He worked until only three this afternoon and when he read that time on his register, he wasted no time in clocking out. Happy to get to spend the rest of the day by himself, and maybe with Keith if he chose to visit him at work, he flitted joyously out the door. There hadn’t been any close parking spots this morning, so he had to park on the corner, but he didn’t mind the walk. He stared at the clouds and watched the raindrops fall along the ridge of his nose and felt them slide down and past the dip between his lips. It was all so relaxing. Of course, life could never remain that simple.

He realized the foolishness of parking on the corner of the lot far too late, when he stumbled across the totaled remains of what was once his seafoam blue VW Beetle. The police officers surrounding the car asked him if it was his and he begrudgingly nodded, already anticipating the headache his lack of a car would give him. How he was going to get home to his apartment was far beyond him, so how he was going to get to work for the rest of the week was absolutely unfathomable. He lived miles away and he didn’t have a bicycle, but the buses in this city were too atrocious to use. They were rarely on time and he couldn’t handle the anxiety of being stuffed so close to so many strangers.

The police informed him that some asshole had gotten drunk, despite the early hour of the day, and had decided to drive himself home. He ended up jumping the curb and rolling straight into the parking lot and Lance’s poor, unsuspecting ride. The drunk driver’s vehicle was quasi unharmed, since it had been a truck and, thus, about twice the size of Lance’s beetle. The brunet was bitter over that. To make matters worse, his coworkers had clocked out now, since their replacements had come in for the rest of the day, and they were all jogging over to witness the sad state of both Lance’s car and his mood. Candice, ever the menace, decided it was time to reinstate her previously paused game of harassing Lance.

“Hey,” she said, swinging a pointed elbow swiftly into Lance’s ribs. “You should get Kyle to take you home. He has a car.” Kyle had heard the suggestion and he grinned. His eyes looked entirely too hopeful, glinting in a borderline feral way beneath the light of the clouded sun. Lance felt an unpleasant shudder trickle down his spine from between his shoulder blades. The rain had picked up, now completely pouring and thundering, so his shirt was thoroughly soaked through and he was shivering. Even through the discomfort, he felt no draw to share a ride with any of his coworkers.

“No, it’s alright,” he muttered through chattering teeth. “I can take the bus home!” He was glad his coworkers didn’t know him like Keith did. Keith would have known he was terrified to ride the bus alone and he would have called bullshit on his claim. He knew what he ordered at restaurants and he knew what sodas he liked, surely knowing what made him anxious was among his heaping pile of achievements. His coworkers, however, didn’t seem to care all that much. That didn’t mean they were giving up, though.

Oh, no, that would have been too easy. Kyle decided to dig his grave deeper.

“Really, Lance, it’s fine!” The brunet felt is stomach gurgling and his arms shaking. Kyle was harmless—he was all around a pretty lanky and muscleless dude—but Lance couldn’t help being scared of being alone with him. It wasn’t like he thought the guy would try to force him into anything; he just didn’t want Kyle to take the opportunity to confess to him because Lance was notoriously bad at rejecting people. And it would be incredibly awkward to have to see him at work the next day, should he find the courage to turn him down. “We could even hang out at my place for a bit!” Lance palmed the sides of his face, head spinning in terror. This was his worst nightmare. He cupped his cheeks as if to check if he was even still there, or if he’d withered away into horrified oblivion. He needed an excuse and fast.

A swallow slipped from his trembling lips and chattering teeth to the depths of his stomach and it carried the wave of shuddering with it, until Lance’s whole body was vibrating. He had a hard time saying no to people he cared about and, as a coworker, Lance cared about Kyle a lot. How could he possibly deny his kind offer? It’s not like it could really even be that bad. But then the brunet started to picture unwanted advances and all the different ways they could start. He started to imagine the embarrassed look on his acquaintance’s face when he was rejected. He started to think of how even the if of the situation was terrifying. The mere possibility of Kyle confessing had Lance scrambling for his phone.

“Uh, actually,” he began, thumbing the print scanner of his device. It opened to the screen of a text conversation he’d been having with Keith on his break and the aesthetic contact photo of his crush gave him an idea. “I promised my boyfriend we’d hang out,” he concluded, lifting a bashful eye to the collection of coworkers watching him expectantly. Lance scrambled to the overhang of the closest shop in the parking lot with a quick addition of, “I’m just gonna go call him to pick me up.”

Once safely under the cover of a roof, the brunet began to debate whether or not he actually wanted to call Keith. He was already doing so much for Lance, pretending to be his boyfriend and all, so it felt almost wrong to ask him for even more assistance. He briefly considered calling Hunk instead, but the ever present form of Kyle in the parking lot told him if he was going to ask anyone, it had to be Keith. Unless he wanted to switch over to pretending to date Hunk, that is, but some selfish fraction of his heart preferred bothering Keith with this particular issue. Especially if he’d get to have more lingering touches and feathery kisses.

Keith was so unabashed in the way he showed pretend affection and it made Lance wobble to think about. He’d given Lance lunch a few times in the last week, each sandwich better than the last, until Lance began to wonder if his fake boyfriend was trying a little too hard. He also wondered if this would be what dating Keith for real would be like. He hoped so. Each kiss to his cheek left him dizzy and, after each kiss, the impure manner in which Keith smirked at his flushed face had him stuffing the sides of his head into his palms. Even now, the slinking rise of red was blooming across the back of his neck and climbing to the tips of his ears. His lips felt hot when he darted his tongue skittishly along them.

But Kyle was still staring at him and Lance realized he couldn’t dawdle lest he get suspicious.

He smeared the raindrops along the screen of his phone, trying to discern the placement of the phone icon next to Keith’s name. Dipping his fingertip into a small pool of water, he tapped the icon, before bringing the cold and clammy device to his ear. It didn’t even ring once. Keith was already panting into his ear. It was an odd, unexplainable noise. He could almost feel the air of his breaths rushing against his ear down his neck, and he shivered harder at the flustered warmth it gave him a taste of, then took away with a gust of stormy wind. There was a clatter of something metal on the phone line, then a grunt. Lance steadied himself against the supportive pole of the underhang he was hiding beneath, willing his dirty thoughts to fade.

“Hey, Lance,” Keith damn near groaned into his ear. His spine fluttered again at the sound of his gruff voice. “I’m at the gym, what’s up?” Ah, so that was why he was out of breath. Lance’s unsavory train of thought finally stuttered to a stop and the humiliation of having to ask his friend for yet another favor took its place. Mortification filled his body, replacing of his blood with its backbreaking, uncomfortable liquid.

“Um.” His voice shook more than he’d wanted it to. The nerves were palpable in his tone, the anxiety was legible in his single, wavering syllable. “I know this is kinda annoying of me, to ask a favor when you’re already doing so much.” There was an audible whine forming in the base of his throat from the sheepishness climbing its length. He swallowed it with a thick, noisy gulp. “But there was a drunk driver, and an accident, and my car is totaled and,” he trailed off, brushing his hands bashfully over the wet hairs along the back of his head. Though it was an action he knew Keith couldn’t see, Lance hoped it was portrayed in the way he spoke, so it was apparent how guilty he felt about asking.

There was a shaky breath from Keith’s side of the phone, a noise clearly different than his exhausted huffs from exercise. “Holy shit,” he heard, before the phone was presumably fumbled with. Thumping noises forced Lance to push the speaker away from his ear and, by the time he’d brought it back, Keith was halfway through another exclamation. “—my God. Lance are you alright? Holy shit. I’m on my way now, are you at work?” There was a panicked tone to his fake boyfriend’s voice that he couldn’t find a reason for. Of course he was fine; he wasn’t even in the accident. He was still so embarrassed and he couldn’t remember if he’d mentioned that part, though. “Lance? Lance, answer me.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. I’m at work.” He could hear an affirmative sound from Keith.

“Stay safe, don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right there.” His words were urgent in a way that had Lance simultaneously concerned and flustered. He didn’t like how upset the man sounded, but the fact that, if nothing else, he was upset because he cared made him forget his worry in favor of feeling flattered. He hummed, an unintentionally soft sigh that fogged the air in front of his lips, and there was a click of the call ending.

It took a few minutes for Keith to whip around the entrance to the parking lot on his motorcycle, but when he did, Lance poked his head from under the overhang to watch. He’d parked his bike haphazardly, close to Lance’s wrecked car, and he’d ripped his helmet off immediately after stepping off his ride. The brunet watched Keith press a palm to his mouth and steady himself with a hand to his seat upon seeing the dishevelled state of the beetle. He swore Keith’s cheeks turned green at the sight. Holding his stomach, he lifted his sight from the cars and onto Lance. His eyes widened in shock, before he scurried to meet Lance a little out from the overhang.

He was met with a wave, but it wasn’t returned. Keith had dropped his helmet to the street and was cupping the brunet’s face the moment he was close enough to do so, tilting his dripping head to one side and then the other. Fingers were brushed along Lance’s cheeks gingerly, his neck was prodded, and his eyes were watched with an attentive gaze, as if Keith was expecting some flinch of pain. After a minute of nonstop and silent fretting, his shoulders slumped slightly in a relieved sigh. He dipped Lance’s head forward to pepper a few all-too-realistic kisses along his hairline.

“You’re not hurt?” Keith’s question was answered with a shaken head and he pressed another lingering kiss to Lance’s watery forehead. “Sorry, I saw the car and I thought you would… Nevermind.” He slipped his hands from the sides of the brunet’s face to the small of his back, and tugged him closer. Ducking his head so Keith could place his chin atop it, Lance breathed in the welcoming scent of Keith’s clothes. It was something between the damp smell of the pouring rain he’d ridden his bike in, and the standard stench of his post workout sweat. The ends of his hair were tickling Lance’s temples and dripping rainwater into the grooves of his cheekbones. A few of the droplets slid down to his lips, so he could taste the same thing he was smelling. The fresh, comforting waft of rainy air and the salty aftertaste of sweat. It was tiptoeing dangerously close to being disgusting, but Lance realized he could never really find any aspect of his crush gross. That perfect bastard.

He brushed his own hands along Keith’s spine, letting them settle between his shoulder blades. Reveling in the warmth of the embrace in the frigid cold, he sighed. “I wasn’t in my car when it happened, don’t worry.” The man in his arms merely squeezed him tighter. More of the water saturating Lance’s shirt was seeping into Keith’s with every second, and soon, his body heat seemed just a lingering memory. He shivered again, bunching up Keith’s workout shirt in his fingers. The taller man noticed one of the two movements, though it was unclear as to which, and the heartbeat Lance could feel beneath his fingertips sped up. Thinking his fake boyfriend was getting uncomfortable, he drew himself back. The grip along his spine seemed reluctant to pull away, but it did.

“Jesus, Lance,” Keith breathed, ruffling the darkened chestnut locks along Lance’s forehead. “You’re shivering.” He started to rub his palms up and down along the brunet’s shoulders in some childish attempt to heat them up. “And you’re soaked.” Lance gave a weak smile with chattering teeth, praying he didn’t look as miserable and unattractive as he felt.

Luckily, but unbeknownst to Lance, Keith didn’t think he looked unattractive in the slightest. Maybe his wet hair made him look a little like a kitten in the bathtub and maybe his purple lips made him look a little like he’d had a slurpee, but none of that was ugly in any way. Not to Keith. He’d come to Lance’s work expecting injuries and a potential bloodbath, so just a pair of shuddering shoulders was certainly bearable. His hair was askew and tossed around as though he’d just tried to dry himself off like a dog, but it was strictly something out of an adorable daydream for Keith. His lips were trembling around his chattering teeth and it struck a nerve within Keith. He wanted to pull him close and keep him safe, inspired by some intense drive to protect, and he felt almost guilty for actually wanting to fulfill the role of fake boyfriend he’d been assigned.

“You’re one to talk,” the brunet muttered, carding his own soft fingers through Keith’s bangs. It took everything in him not to lean into the gentle way Lance was stroking the skin of his scalp. “You should have kept your helmet on, Keith! Now you’re all damp and stinky and gross. Like a wet dog!” Keith pouted, but reached down to the road to retrieve his abandoned helmet. It had a few inches of water in it and he dumped it out, before holding it towards Lance.

“It’s alright. I would have had to take it off anyway, after all.” Lance’s fingers went tentatively around the smooth paint job of the helmet, too light to hold the item, so Keith kept his grip firm as well. Their fingertips were touching and it seemed like the heat of the shorter man’s fingers was crawling up his arm and sinking its teeth into his heart. He wanted nothing more than to lurch his hold forward and to cup the warm flesh beneath his own. Lance’s gaze flitted from the helmet up to him.

“Keith, you need this!” It was nudged entirely back into Keith’s hold and the man huffed at the stubborn resistance he was being given.

“Lance, please, I already thought you’d been injured in an accident once today, just let me have this peace of mind.” The brunet frowned, but let Keith slide the gear over his head. “Thank you. Now, let’s get you home.” He dragged his temporary boyfriend towards his bike, hands firmly locked in a rain soaked grip. If Lance hadn’t laced their fingers together, he was certain they would have easily slipped away from each other, with more raindrops slipping between their palms and wedging them apart. But the tightened grip of the brunet’s fingers was both intoxicating and solidifying.

He swung one leg over his bike and situated his grip on the handles. His eyes locked onto Lance’s and his head rolled back in a point at the space behind him, a smirk stretching across his lips as a mask for the nerves that were swarming his lungs. He suddenly felt immensely religious when the red of Lance’s cheeks was visible through the glint of clouded sunlight on his helmet’s visor. And then the brunet hesitantly occupied the offered space and placed his wavering palms along Keith’s waist, so gently and bashfully that Keith felt like falling to the asphalt of the parking lot and swearing loyalty to whatever god he thought of first. He settled for gripping Lance’s wrists and tugging them more snugly about his stomach. The man behind him locked his hands together there, between the bottom of his ribs and the dip of his belly button.

Keith revved his engine. Lance’s hold tightened and a squeak squeezed past his lips and seeped from the bottom of the helmet. “Never ridden a motorcycle before?” He could feel the back and forth movement of Lance’s covered head between his shoulder blades. Part of him relished the fact that he was the one to give his crush his first ride on a bike, but most of him just yearned to be able to take him for ride whenever they wanted. Yearned to be his cool, biker, badass boyfriend. That tumbled around in his mind as he started off in the direction of Lance’s apartment.

There wasn’t a doubt in his whole body that he could get used to this. The desperate cling of Lance’s arms about his middle, the dependent tightening of Lance’s grip each time they made a turn, and the shrill cries of his name whenever he sped up past the speed limit. And he would certainly appreciate the heat from the closeness, should it come again. Lance was cold and shivering, the wind from the high speeds was new to him and the soaked status of his clothes was clearly doing nothing to help. But under no circumstances was Keith complaining. Oh, no, no. Every shiver brought the brunet clinging to him even closer and, despite the icy chill of his clothing, his form was very much warm and very much welcome that close to Keith.

When he slowed to a stop at the base of Lance’s apartment, Lance seemed just as reluctant to part from Keith as Keith was reluctant to part from Lance. But he did anyway, standing at the curb in front of the stairwell for a dragged out moment and looking into the sitting man’s eyes. He tugged at his dripping sleeve nervously, before letting his fingers trace a line down Keith’s equally drenched sleeve. He took the helmet off, resting it on his hip and under his arm, then turned to face a direction other than Keith. For some reason, that shift of attention left a taste of jealousy in the taller man’s mouth. It was bitter and sour and entirely unpleasant. Keith impulsively reached a hand out to grab the brunet’s chin and to angle his gaze back on him, but before his fingers hit the softened butter skin of his face, Lance started to speak.

“You’re drenched. Do you,” he watched his Adam’s apple bob, “I mean, do you want to come inside?” He didn’t need to be asked twice. He quickly—like, with more speed than he’d ever done anything, quickly—stepped off his bike and onto the curb Lance occupied. When his gaze finally met the other man’s, they were both smiling. “Race you!” The brunet started up the staircase and Keith nearly slipped and fell in his haste to follow him.

Needless to say, he lost that race. But that was about the only loss he suffered that afternoon, since everything else seemed to be going swimmingly. He’d gotten to share warmth with his crush, after all. And being invited into his apartment was also a huge victory. The smell of Lance and all his fancy products wafted throughout the whole of the front room and Keith could tell it traced all the way back to his bedroom, even though he rarely set foot in there. A few of Hunk’s things were scattered about, too, since he was Lance’s roommate, but his scent didn’t linger in the air quite as strongly as Lance’s expensive shampoos. Or maybe Keith just had a selective nose.

The duo grabbed towels, then situated themselves on the couch, a little too close to be platonic, but a little too far to be romantic, either.

“Ya know, Keith,” Lance began, leaning closer. He placed the helmet Keith had forgotten about across the towel lain along Keith’s thighs. “You really didn’t have to make such a fuss earlier with all the kissy, protective boyfriend mode and all. It was probably a bit much.” The brunet wasn’t nagging him, he could tell. There was a soft, appreciative smile thrown carelessly along his lips as he rubbed his own towel around his wet hair. The locks were extra mussed when he pulled the cloth away. Keith wished he’d been the one to ruffle it into disarray.

He hummed, hoping Lance couldn’t see the flash of heat along his cheeks. “No, I know. Sorry, I got carried away.” It was an excuse that came easily to him because, in a way, it was true. He’d gotten carried away by his own protective instincts and by the illusion of being Lance’s boyfriend. He’d acted upon what he wanted, not what was required of him. The brunet waved a hand carelessly at him in forgiveness, but Keith still felt terribly guilty.

Even though it was an act, he was enjoying “dating” Lance. More than enjoying; he was thriving. He and Lance chattered until the rain stopped and, as Keith left his apartment, he wondered if his enjoyment of his favor made him an awful human being. If the way his heart stuttered at being allowed to kiss and hold Lance was okay. If it made him just as awful as the man Lance was avoiding.

He hoped not, because he didn’t think he could keep from enjoying it at least a little.

He also hoped that, one day, he wouldn’t be enjoying an act.

Because he’d be enjoying something real.

Chapter Text

A day after the car accident, Keith had taken Lance to work on his bike. Driving from Lance’s job to his own on the first morning made him realize just how close the two buildings were to one another. After coming to that realization, he found an intense desire driving his feet forward when his lunch break rolled around, pushing him to pace in circles around his cubicle and drum his fingers against the foil wrapped about his meal. It was a two minute ride, tops, to Lance’s work and he wanted so fiercely and urgently to spend his break with his fake boyfriend. He was fidgeting an embarrassingly large amount and, after about a minute of whiling around his office space, he’d given into his desire. Stuffing his wrapped sandwich into the inside pocket of his jacket, he’d hopped onto his bike and ridden to the boba shop.

He’d stepped into line, hiding a smile with his downturned head, and he’d fiddled with the zipper of his jacket. He could only imagine how surprised Lance would be to see him and he imagined all the ways it could go until his heart felt like it was being tossed about in a washing machine of emotions. The vision of Lance swooning upon seeing Keith in line was positively delightful, albeit unrealistic, if Keith was honest with himself. The thought of Lance kissing him was just as unlikely, but also just as delicious. The idea of Lance blushing was still pretty unbelievable, but it made a certain flushed excitement settle in the pit of Keith’s stomach and, as he thought of it, the whole world seemed tinted the same rosy color as Lance’s pictured cheeks. The imagined scenario, the most plausible one, was a cute call of his name and an enthusiastic wave and it stirred Keith’s heart the most. It was so simple but so perfectly Lance that his cheeks got hot and his throat went dry at the thought. But as Keith neared the register, the envisioned events faded because reality was coming into view and the sight of Lance’s fluffy bed head was even sweeter than anything he could have fantasized about.

Lance had seemed so thrilled when his line of customers whittled away to just Keith. He’d been fiddling with the cash he’d received from the last cluster of people in line and he’d held a twenty up to the light to check if it was authentic. The bill had passed right in front of the brunet’s eyes, so a few moments had passed before he saw Keith. When he shifted the money back to the drawer in the counter, he caught a glimpse of who his last customer was, and his mouth fell open, just slightly. There was a flush of pink to his face, like someone had taken strawberry syrup and smeared a bit along his cheekbones. He looked a little like the berry smoothie his coworker had just called out from next to him. Keith had the fleeting thought of tasting his lips the same way he would that beverage.

Taking a little bit of confidence from the fluster he’d caused, Keith leaned his palms on the counter and tilted over the register to inch his nose closer to Lance’s. He could feel the stutter of the other man’s breath along his lips and he returned the favor when he spoke. “Hey, baby.” A flimsy grin passed the brunet’s lips at that. He wore soft eyes and gently curved eyebrows; a passing look that gave him precisely the lovestruck and contented look that was to be expected of a boyfriend. Keith commended his acting because he was almost falling for it, too. The same way he’d fallen for Lance.  “Have you taken your lunch break yet?” The brunet shook his head, then nudged it closer to Keith’s until their noses touched. It seemed to have smeared the same strawberry syrup across his skin, since there he was, feeling just as hot.

“No, would you like me to?” Keith lifted a palm from the counter to slip it down the back of Lance’s head until it landed in a curve about his nape. This was a game of chicken, he decided. A challenge of how far he could push this clash of pretend and genuineness, before he felt excessively ill from ignoring the latter. He ducked his head a little further in a nod, sure to brush his lips in an airy drag against Lance’s mouth. There was a shudder from the skin beneath his palm and he pulled back, concerned he’d gone too far, but the face he saw didn’t depict any discomfort. It was the same gentle furrow of brows and the same awestruck undertone, only with half lidded eyes and lips that seemed to follow his like a magnet. It was a sight he wished he could see every day. Every hour. Every second.

Lance reopened his eyes and they took a few seconds to shift back to a gaze that actually had the ability to see. His cheeks flared more when he was no longer blind. His fingers scrambled and shook on their way to the register to clock out. Keith had waited for him to reenter the other half of the room, the public half, and when they’d both sat themselves at a booth, they’d sat on the same side. Not to mention Lance had situated himself as close as physically possible to Keith, his cheek pressed snugly against Keith’s shoulder. The comfortable sensation solidified this lunchtime visit as a staple of Keith’s daily life. There was no way in hell he’d miss it after tasting the sweet closeness it brought. It was his newest and most dangerous addiction, and he made sure to take a dose of it daily.

And today was no different. It had been half a week since the accident and that first lunch meeting, and he fully intended to continue the new tradition they’d created. He’d gone to the boba shop on his lunch break, hoping to catch a glimpse of the feigned love of his life, while his mind flitted between all the different things he could do to redden Lance’s cheeks this afternoon. When he stepped into the shop, though, there was no pair of sparkling eyes to startle wider, no ears to turn rosy, and no lips to peck. Lance wasn’t at the register, and Keith didn’t bother waiting in line to ask where he’d gone. He stepped instantly to the counter. There was a steady, dripping sink in the back of his head, the hastening tick of his heartbeat and the leak of his nerves throughout his body. It started a shudder in his neck and it trickled down his spine.

“Where’s Lance?” The worker at the register, a woman whose name Keith hadn’t bothered to remember, shrugged. She hardly spared his question a glance, but it was clear she’d heard and understood it, so he didn’t ask again. He paced anxiously back to the open door of the shop, hands stuffing into his jean pockets aggressively. The drip of a shudder down the back of his neck got even faster. It felt almost like something liquid, something palpable, was slipping down his spine and it started frigid, then heated into a boil by the time it had hit the small of his back. He was quaking.

He worried something had happened to Lance. Not that he thought he had to coddle the brunet at every hour of the day, but Keith knew the person he was hiding from was at work so his mind was running through all the ways that coworker could have hurt him or scared him or forced him into something. It was an unbearable train of thought and it left a strong pulse in his throat so solid that it was clogging his airway. His whole mind was thrumming with panic at the knowledge that something could have happened to Lance when he wasn’t there to stop it or help him. The knowledge that Lance could have needed him and he hadn’t been there.

Once outside, he scurried around the corner of the building. He’d decided to round the building once, to be safe, before he checked nearby fast food places, because it was possible that Lance had decided to eat by himself today. And he was glad he’d chosen to take that precautionary once-around because Lance was curled in on himself along the curb of the parking lot. He was hiding in a nook on the side of a building, blended into pavement around him. His face was pressed between his knees, which he’d drawn to his chest, and a jerk or a quake would trace his back every few seconds. Keith couldn’t hear his breaths, but he could see the way they were stumbling over themselves and trembling. Even without his face in view, it was obvious Lance was crying.

Finding his fake boyfriend was supposed to diminish Keith’s nerves, but instead, Keith found the concern skyrocketing. It felt like needles had been driven into every bit of muscle he had, buried deep until they were prodding at his bones. He practically fell from the momentum he used to fling himself towards Lance. His hands drooped immediately to hover anxiously over the skin between his shoulder blades. The brunet seemed to have sensed the influx of heat from Keith’s presence and his tearstained face lifted, in a rush, to lock eyes with him. He crawled backwards at the eye contact, curling into a ball again as soon as he was a few feet from the other man. He tugged the back of his wrist along his dripping nose and his chin stuttered back to land atop his bent knees.

“Sorry,” he choked. “I didn’t hear you come up.” The man looked small like that, all crumpled and curled, all shaken and wet. He looked helpless and scared. The fear and pain were legible and tangible in his leaking stare and Keith abandoned all concept of eating his meal upon spotting the stubbornness that joined the collection of emotions in his red rimmed eyes. While the emotions remained obvious, his eyes were still calm and steady, a startling display of willpower that made it seem as if nothing was bothering him. Or it would have seemed as though nothing was bothering him, if his eyes weren’t also red and glassy with swollen lids. His lips were flattened and emotionless, as if Lance was indifferent to the way they were nibbled raw and trembling. Keith scooted his kneeling form closer, ignoring the clammy concrete he could feel between the torn holes in his jeans.

“What’s wrong?” He’d bypassed Lance’s apology and he was now diving head first into the real issue at hand. The brunet huffed a nervous laugh, half baked in every regard, with both an ingenuine sound and shaky lip movements. His nose pressed deeper into his knees and a shrug shifted his chin along the groove between them. Keith watched the reclusive action with furrowed brows. Lance saw his concerned expression, he calculated it, and he mirrored it with a guilty frown of his own. He sniffed again, a few more teardrops puddling on his lower lashes. It tugged at Keith’s heart harrowingly. His fingers twitched with the desire to hold him. “Lance.”

The brunet unfurled his legs and inched closer to Keith, slow and anxious, before he looked at him with a gaze that spoke the words he could not. It was thick with a deeper meaning, a silent question that, despite his ineptitude in terms of people, Keith could decipher. His arms lifted, so his chest and stomach were the only things in Lance’s path of travel and, as a result, the only things Lance hit as he crumpled forward into Keith’s hold. He stuffed his nose into the crook of Keith’s neck. His closeness didn’t bring as much comfort as usual.

As his arms wound comfortably around the small of his fake boyfriend’s back, Keith waited for any explanation he could get. He had a sliver of an idea where this conversation was going, but he stayed silent. All he’d been wordlessly asked to do was to rub his hands in soothing circles about Lance’s spine, not to play a round of twenty questions. His palms slipped up to the back of Lance’s neck, a place he was beginning to find he rather liked to hold, and the heat there wasn’t its normal pleasant ache. It was sweltering an embarrassed and upset temperature, as hot with bubbling, tear soaked blood as the lips Keith could feel shifting in sobs against his shoulder. A hushed squeak of a wail slipped past those fluttering lips.

“My coworkers haven’t stopped.” That sentence was already enough to make Keith hold Lance more firmly. He felt genuinely awful for Lance. While he had no issue telling an asshole off, he knew the brunet in his arms had a much harder time starting a fight over serious issues; he was far more inclined to shut up and bear it. He considered coherency with his coworkers his top priority, rather than his own comfort. “First, they’re calling me disloyal and a cheater,” a whimper broke the sentence in two. Keith could feel a trickle of snot against his neck, but he found it hard to focus on that, with the miserable noises flooding the air. Even if he could focus on it, he doubted he’d care about the unsanitary event. “Then, they’re pushing me into Kyle’s lap!”

Keith shoved Lance back before he could consider it a poor choice. The brunet was yanked from his neck so hastily, his arms were still curled around the absent curve of Keith’s waist. He looked confused and betrayed, like he was a sleeping child torn from his pillow. “They fucking what? ” His hands gripped the waves of short, brown fuzz above Lance’s temple. “It that legal? Isn’t that sexual harassment or something?” He wasn’t really sure whether or not that would be considered harassment, but he was sure he didn’t like it. Even as just a friend, and not a fake boyfriend, it made his skin crawl. They had no right to call him nasty names and they had even less of a right to force him into physical contact with someone when he’d already made it clear he wasn’t interested in touching.

There was a certain soreness in Lance’s eyes from being torn away so harshly and the moment Keith loosened the hands holding him a foot away, he tumbled right back against his chest. Keith’s shirt collar was drenched with saltwater and snot. Once again, that was the least of his present concerns.

Though he hated his reaction, he was crumpling the back of Lance’s shirt in an iron grip, wrinkling the fabric in an aggressive display of fury, rather than the affectionate soothing he’d wanted to do. The blood in his wrists felt too hot, like he’d just done twenty reps with three hundred pounds. His heart felt like he’d just swallowed scalding tea and he was waiting for it to sink down into his stomach, burning his chest as it passed. Except it wasn’t sinking; it had settled against the heavy, speeding drumbeat of his heart. And the overwhelming heat of Lance’s tears against his collarbones just burned him further.

Squeezing Lance closer, he clenched his jaw and buried his nose in the knots of Lance’s hair; it was hair he could tell had been tugged and yanked about in stress. In a lapse of thought, he kissed the spot. It was a heavy and firm press of his lips, overly harsh because he was still distracted by the anger filling his ears. He’d stopped being able to hear the unsteady pitter patter of Lance’s hiccuping due to the thrum of irate blood in his ears, but he was dimly aware of of his crying when he felt the stutter of Lance’s back beneath his fist, which still curled about the brunet’s shirt. His ears had been swarmed with frantic, furious thoughts and his sense of touch was just barely hanging on. He was subconsciously clinging to it because, somewhere deep, he knew that the moment he lost the last thing grounding him, he’d be up and storming to give Lance’s coworkers a thrashing. The tremble against his chest was the only thing keeping him from blowing up into an outrage. Lance was the only thing keeping him soft.

He was prepared to nudge Lance back again, seconds away from pushing him off to fulfill his need to kick someone’s ass, but when he unbunched the brunet’s shirt and smoothed it out with his hands, he felt the man in his arms push closer. Without realizing it, he kept flattening the fabric over Lance’s back long after it was unwrinkled. His hands continued to rub gentle circles until his anger dissipated and ebbed away into something gentler. Obviously, there was still an inkling of fury making his fingers twitch and his ears ring, but his priorities had been placed solely in the calming motions he was giving the crying man.

But he did eventually push Lance’s head back, slightly, to get a look at his face. His head had been tilted to the side, so the tears had run down his temple and wet his hair, until the locks clung to his cheekbones. The tufts along his forehead did the same, glued down with sweat that was unnatural in the cold weather, likely brought on by how hard he’d been shaking and sobbing. Now he had stopped, though, and all that was left of the visible sadness was the slight wobble to his bottom lip and the ruby tint to his skin. If Keith hadn’t been driven to stay with him before, he certainly was after seeing his miserable, drained expression.

The fractured sight of the brunet compelled him to tug them together again, after smoothing Lance’s hair back and stroking his cheek. And then the breaths against his neck had been steady. No shaking inhalations or wobbly coughs; just a calm succession of normal breaths. That went on for about a minute, before the air slowed even more and the arms about his waist loosened slightly. Lance slipped from his hold, just for a second, but it was enough for Keith to see how his eyes were shut and his lips were parted to let gentle snores slip past.

It gave him both a sense of pride and a sense of guilt. On the one hand, he was happy to be the one to get to hold him while he was like this; happy to be the one Lance trusted and happy to be the one who got to see how cute he looked. His face wasn’t stressed or upset or crying, it was blank and at ease. There wasn’t a crease between his brows or a frown to his lips. He looked so comfortable and beautiful that Keith didn’t even mind the kink in his spine he was getting by craning his neck to look at him. Any amount of pain was worth it for that serenity. On the other hand, though, he felt guilty that Lance had been crying alone long enough to tire himself out this much. His heartbeat stumbled a bit when he thought about how plausible it would have been for Lance to pass out, alone and on the side of the building, had he not come when he did. He was horrified to think about what could have happened if he’d decided not to come here for lunch. How Lance could have been suffering alone and he would have been none the wiser. How Lance could have been unconscious and defenseless in a busy parking lot without Keith even knowing. He pulled the brunet close again at that thought. Fake or real, he wasn’t going to let his boyfriend suffer like that. If he was going to fake date, he was going to do it right.

And he was fully content with that. Content with letting Lance nap against him for the remainder of his lunch break and content with neglecting the sandwich he’d stuffed into his pocket earlier. He would have willingly, gladly even, sat like that and bruised his knees against the concrete of the sidewalk, for hours, without a single noise of complaint. But an alarm rang from Lance’s phone and the brunet went flying out from the crook of his neck. He scurried back, eyes darting and heart throbbing in a way that Keith could easily feel from his hold on the small of Lance’s back. Then, he stood on wobbly legs and Keith followed.

Lance groaned, disappointed that his allotted lunch time was over. “I’m sorry, Keith, I didn’t mean to waste your lunch break like that.” He stumbled back a bit more, rubbing his eyes, and Keith reached his arm out to his shoulder. Once it landed there, he slid it down to the spot between Lance’s shoulder blades and tugged the brunet forward again, into another hug. It was returned, nose burying in Keith’s shoulder again, and there was a gentle bulge of Lance’s cheeks against his neck as he smiled softly. “And thanks for listening.”

“If you want, I can sneak you off to my work so you don’t have to deal with your coworkers again,” Keith offered as he returned to his habit of running his hands down Lance’s spine. There was a shift against his shoulder, a motion he was sure represented a negative answer to his suggestion. Even with that answer, the hold on his waist didn’t loosen. He was glad, though, because any second he could get to smell Lance’s lavender soaps and fruity shampoos was a second he’d readily and merrily devour. His scent was so strong when he was this close, like Keith had wandered into a perfume store. His head was spinning like he was in a shop and surrounded by the strong aromas, too, but not nearly as unpleasant. He was dizzy only because the scent was from Lance who was willingly lingering in a hug with him. Really, if he got down to it, it was never the smell he liked, only the associations he made with it.

The days he smelled of lavender and like warm, fresh laundry—like today—gave him a vision of Lance in a cozy jacket or under a soft blanket, just entirely at peace and comfortable. The days he smelled of lemon, like a warm dessert or a cold, refreshing drink, were the days he thought of Lance’s laughter, his happiness, and his terrible jokes. The days he smelled of cloves and cinnamon had Keith feeling the plush of his hair beneath his fingertips, even when it wasn’t there. It was a nice change of pace for the lavender scent’s visions to be reality, too, as Lance was just as snug in his arms as he’d seemed in Keith’s imagination.

“I’d love to, but I can’t afford to miss out on hours. Rent’s expensive.” Keith was displeased by the answer, but he understood the reasoning behind it and he pulled away from Lance to guide him back into work. Pulled back mostly because he was still addicted to Lance’s warmth and he kept an arm around his waist, as a result. Luckily, the brunet didn’t seem to mind and he was still leaning deliberately into the comfort.

When they got into the shop, Lance rushed into the bathroom to clean the stains off his cheeks before any of his coworkers could notice them. Keith was reluctant to bid farewell to his heat, but he welcomed the freedom it gave him because Lance hadn’t left just Keith in his wake. No, he’d left a seething Keith behind; a Keith with lingering frustrations from hearing Lance’s awful story. The aggravation climbed to the forefront of Keith’s mind from wherever it had hidden itself earlier, and the man leaned himself decisively against the counter Lance’s coworkers were scuttling around. They all turned to face the resounding slap he’d caused. The customers at the tables did the same.

“Hey,” Keith said lowly, dangerously, and in a way he was glad Lance wasn’t around to hear, because it would most certainly scare him. He slung himself farther over the counter, so his jaw jutted out pointedly onto their side of the barrier and he was thoroughly invading their space. “I heard about what you did to Lance.” The workers started to display nervous tics and the customers pretended they weren’t eavesdropping on the fiery projectile of a drama Keith was about to launch. One of the employees opened his mouth as if to frantically explain their foolish decision, but Keith smacked his palm across the surface of the counter and no one else made an effort to speak. “If you ever do that to my boyfriend again, I will personally kick your ass. Got it?”

There was a line of frantically bobbing heads—which filled Keith with a cruel, vengeful sort of satisfaction—before Lance reemerged from the bathroom. He still looked a little too fragile for Keith’s liking and it made him hesitant to leave, but he rushed over so quickly, it reassured him some. The brunet was smiling and wrapping Keith in a hug and it made it impossible to think about anything other than his touch. And then he was pulling back to stand straighter and press a kiss to Keith’s downturned face, and suddenly focusing became infinitely harder. It was a struggle not to slide his hands to the back of Lance’s head and hold him there, firmly against his mouth, so he could revel in the tenderness of the moment as long as he could. It was a struggle not to dart his tongue out along those lips to fluster Lance and to taste even more of him. It was a struggle to keep himself from overstepping the boundaries that had been set. “See you after work, babe,” Lance muttered, loud enough so the entire room could hear and so the entire room believed the act they were putting on. He pushed closer to his lips, though, and in a voice only Keith could hear, he added a quick, “thank you.”

Keith was in a rush to get out of the shop after that. He’d nodded shakily and muttered some sort of affirmative response, but he’d done it while smothering his whole face with his hands. His cheeks felt like they’d suffered a second degree burn; he was simultaneously immensely thrilled and horribly flustered. He’d already gotten a kick out of being able to pretend to be Lance’s boyfriend, out of being able to stand up for him and defend him like he actually was his boyfriend, and now he was getting rewarded for it. And the reward he had gotten was sweet and oh, so addicting. This game of pretend was making him want too much and he had to get out of there quickly, if he wanted to stay sane. If he wanted to keep from ruining the fragile friendship he and Lance had been able to forge.

He felt fantastic knowing that, even though he and Lance weren’t dating, he could be the one to tell Lance’s coworkers off for all the awful things they’d done. His heart had pounded at how natural it had been to call the brunet his boyfriend and how easily the instinct to protect him had come to him. Being Lance’s fake boyfriend felt so right and it made him feel so completely, entirely whole. And that feeling of completion was addicting.

Or maybe it was simply Lance who was addicting.

Chapter Text

The evening after the lunch incident, Lance told Keith he had the next day off of work. It was a lie and Lance felt guilty for fibbing to someone who was doing so much for him, but he was tired of feeling atrocious for mooching off of Keith for a ride. He wouldn’t accept gas money and he hadn’t even let Lance buy him lunch or a gift, swearing that he didn’t mind the extra minutes getting Lance added to his morning routine. Lance had a sneaking suspicion Keith’s supposed contentment with the added responsibility was just as much of a lie as his assurance of not having work the next day. So, when they pulled up next to his apartment that evening, he’d told his fake boyfriend he wouldn’t need a ride. He decided he could suffer through a day of public transportation if it meant he wasn’t going to be a bother to Keith. Upon informing his friend of his feigned self sufficiency, Lance had received a concerned look. Keith had furrowed his brows and squeezed his grip around the handles of his bike, so the leather of his fingerless gloves tightened and the worry along his features became even more prominent. It was unclear as to why he’d given such a negative reaction, but it was very much obvious that’s what it was, since his mouth opened briefly in some silent protest. He never spoke what was on his mind about the matter, though, instead nodding reluctantly, face scrunched in even more concern. He’d looked almost as though he was going to attempt to pick him up anyway.

Even so, he hadn’t shown at Lance’s apartment the next morning. There was no whir of his motorcycle’s engine and no bing of a text message announcing his arrival. Lance had stepped out into the icy, January air, completely alone, and when he did, he found himself almost wishing Keith was there. Traveling in the cold was better when they could huddle together on his bike, like usual. But he’d trudged himself to the bus stop without too much issue. The bus ride ended up not being as thoroughly horrible as he’d assumed it would be; the vehicle had been on time, he made it to work about ten minutes early, and the woman who’d sat next to him was wearing enough sweet smelling perfume to mask the rotten stench of public transportation. He found the satisfaction with the morning’s success waning and his loneliness waxing during his lunch break, though, when Keith failed to greet him at the end of his line of customers. He also missed the sweet kisses he would have gotten, had his fake boyfriend been waiting there.

He knew it was all an act; he knew Keith wasn’t kissing him out of a sense of affection or desire, but it was such a comfortable feeling regardless. None of the kisses were pushy or aggressive, which he’d almost expected to be true of Keith’s kisses. He’d expected, should he ever get to kiss his crush, it would be hot, fast, and full of movement; he’d always imagined it would be a passionate argument, like the intense back and forth of their high school friendship. He’d assumed it would end with one of them against the wall and caged by the other’s arms. But Keith was just so gentle. All the kisses just felt sweet and tender and so comfortable, like a familiar, nostalgic song or a worn, fuzzy sweater. They made him feel like he was exactly where he was supposed to be. So, when he was thrown from his normal groove of lunchtime visits and kisses, it left his stomach hollow and his legs heavy, like he was swimming in a pool of molten iron. It left him feeling out of place because his place now seemed to be against Keith’s lips.

But he’d made it through the day and he was now closing up the boba shop. He and Kyle were the only ones in, mopping and doing dishes, so it took half an hour or so to actually make it out of the building. It was significantly past ten and all the nearby stores had already closed, so when Lance started gathering his stuff to leave, he was anxious at the prospect of heading out alone into the dark. The sky was pitch black, most of the stars shrouded by thick, billowing clouds; the moon was only a sliver and it didn’t provide much light, either. The same ebony of the sky was mirrored in the shadows cast by the streetlights, long and eerie. There was no way he wanted to walk alone in that.

In some overrated and exaggerated display of feigned chivalry, Kyle lingered around the door of shop to keep Lance company and to walk him to the bus stop. How he’d figured out Lance wasn’t being picked up by Keith today, the brunet didn’t know, but it seemed he was dead set on spending every waking moment possible with Lance. Somehow, going out late at night with Kyle was even more terrifying than going out alone, so, under the disguise of forgetting something in the back of the shop, Lance scurried to the kitchen of the shop and out the side exit to avoid his obsessively and obnoxiously attententive coworker.

Before now, he’d been staring out the front of the building, where there were streetlights and the occasional headlight of a late night driver to outline the objects he might run into, but now he was in the alleyway that ran around and behind the building, which meant no light and definitely no visibility. After a few seconds, his eyes compensated so he could finally make out the shaded, blurred edges of dumpsters and leafless trees. Shifting his wallet to under his arm, he stepped further into the darkened space. There was a shuffle, like a rustle of a plastic bag, from around the corner of one of the dumpsters, but Lance looked to his phone for a reading of the time, rather than finding the source of the noise. He assumed it was a stray cat or that it could be attributed to the faint breeze against his cheeks, until the noise came again and this time it brought a figure with it.

Someone had jumped in front of him and Lance spent a moment hoping, for the only time in his life, that the person who’d stepped into his path was Kyle. The unfamiliar, but clearly feminine shoulders told him the stranger was, if nothing else, not Kyle. He never thought he’d reach a day where he disliked that fact, but here he was, heartbeat present in every ounce of his body and head spinning to the same rapid rhythm, until the only thing in his mind was his fear and the dangers that had caused it. He couldn’t make out the stranger’s face, but he caught a gleam of silvery moonlight along something in their hand.

The woman said nothing for a moment and the two had a blind staredown, where neither of them could truly see the other, discern an expression, or identify a threat, but where neither dared to move, either. And then Lance did. He took a half step backwards, a barely audible stutter of his heel against the asphalt of the road the only indication of the movement, and the woman lunged forward. She managed to knock the brunet against one of the dumpsters, so he was sure the jagged corner tore through the back of his shirt and into his skin. He pushed himself off the metal bin, ankle twisting painfully, which made him hesitate just enough for the woman to pick up on his plan to escape. The metal object between her fingers glinted again, reflecting the speckles of stars for a mere second, before it was pressed roughly against Lance’s neck. A knife. There was a temptation to scream, but with no one around to hear it, it wasn’t worth the risk of having his throat split open.

“I want your cash,” she said. Lance didn’t know how to respond. The only sound he was confident he could produce was the one ear piercing scream he couldn’t manage to shake from inside his head. He wanted to tell the woman that he couldn’t give her money, that he didn’t have any cash, but the knife against his windpipe might as well have been shoved down it, too, because he couldn’t get any words past the pit of his stomach. They seemed to get lost at the point they his his collarbones, dying at the base of his throat in a hoarse, terrified whimper. He was fiddling with the wallet he’d shoved under his arm, hoping for any form of cash. Finding none, not even so much as a spare penny, he ripped out his debit card and passed it over with trembling fingertips.

His nails were clacking ever so slightly against the plastic of the object. His heartbeat was such a booming sound and such a thick, heavy feeling in his veins, it was compromising the grip of his fingers by shaking them until they could do almost nothing. The woman didn’t grab the card; she slapped it to the ground with a harsh motion that had Lance shrinking further back. “I want cash. ” Tears welled behind his clenched eyelids, ones he hadn’t recognized he’d even slammed shut so harshly, and the water started to spill from the corners of his eyes. His mind kept repeating the word cash, because he knew he needed it and he knew he didn’t have it. The repeating realization was causing a panic and a dilemma so intense he couldn’t find the focus or strength to think of anything else. All he knew was he possessed no solutions to go with his heaping pile of shitty problems.

The press of the knife got more urgent against his skin, pricking the swell of his Adam’s apple. He swallowed enough of his tears to manage a weak, broken, “please,” but it didn’t yield the merciful result he’d hoped. While one of the mugger’s hands stayed firm around the knife, the other clenched a fist and rammed against his eye socket. He felt a bruise starting almost immediately. It was the increased awareness of blood along the ridge of bone beneath his brow, it was the thickness of the feel of the flesh under his eye, and it was the sting of more tears rising in his throat. He opened his mouth—to scream, to plead, to explain, to do anything —but the only thing that seeped past his lips was a shaky, humid, tear salted breath.

Lance was near certain he was going to get stabbed here: pinned against a dumpster, defenseless, and because he was without what the mugger was looking for. He’d probably die from hypothermia overnight, if he didn’t die from blood loss or an infection of his predicted stab wound first. He could practically already feel the warm trickle of blood, the heating of his skin, and the pain shooting signals of danger up and down his spine as a warning. There was certainly the drip of something warm on his cheeks, but even while delusional from terror, he was aware that it wasn’t blood. It was the petrified bubbling of saltwater down his face and he was suddenly glad it was so dark because he didn’t want the criminal to know how much she was scaring him.

It had been a few seconds of silence, so the woman shoved closer to Lance in a display of threatening behavior. He could feel the icy edge of her blade nick his skin harshly and he made a certain amount of peace with death right then. His eyes were shut and his vision was clouded black as a result, but suddenly he could see the bright and warm tones of the insides of his eyelids. They fluttered nervously to meet his eyelashes with the furrow of his brows and he could see the shine of a phone’s flashlight farther down the alley. And so could the mugger. She released her hold on Lance, slinking back and running away so quickly it sent the brunet against the dumpster tumbling forward. His knees hit the ground and his hands followed, scraping along the uneven, barblike stones in the asphalt.

The light of the smartphone came closer and Lance was left flinching away from whoever had shone it. Until this stranger spoke, that is, and was thus revealed not to be a stranger at all. “Lance?” The brunet’s gaze flew up. “Lance, what were you doing out here?!” The stranger was Keith who, by some miracle, had known of Lance’s lie about work. Who, by an even greater miracle, had just stepped in at the most opportune moment imaginable. Who, with his seemingly infinite kindness, didn’t mind the way Lance’s only answer to his inquiry was to cry. Who, as a response to that, brought his hand to the bruises forming along one of Lance’s bottom eyelids and brushed the pads of his thumbs across the spilled purples and reds. His mouth opened in a wordless, quaking sentence; a horrified movement of an, “oh, God,” and Lance could read it on the tremble of his lips.

It made him cry harder.

Lance couldn’t think about much of anything, as he was. The adrenaline was winding down and leaving him a shaking, ill feeling mess, only able to hold himself upright on his hands and knees because his joints had locked in place. He was still terrified. He hadn’t had a way out of the previous situation and that fact was ringing in his ears like a police siren; repetitive and droning and painful. If it weren’t for Keith, he wouldn’t have had a solution. He might have actually died. His fingers were a bowl of jello in an earthquake; his head was a glass of milk in the back of a truck. Everything was oscillating back and forth and his whole body was a feather’s touch away from crumpling.

Usually, Lance tried to keep himself as close to composed as possible around Keith, too stubborn to embarrass himself so openly in front of a man he so desperately wanted to impress. He’d always been intent on portraying himself as the one with the upper hand: the one who knew more, the one who could do more. But in the last forty eight hours he’d displayed himself as a crying, helpless heap and seemingly nothing more. The image he’d created was humiliating and composed solely of a side he wasn’t comfortable showing to anyone, let alone Keith, but with the numb tingle of a blade still present as a ghost of an imprint on his neck, he couldn’t bring himself to stop projecting the miserable persona. He was too far gone, too worked up, to calm himself from his sobbing.

Lance managed to settle himself enough to start dragging one palm in circles on the asphalt. If he could do nothing else as a uselessly crying disaster, he could at least struggle to find his debit card. The mugger hadn’t taken it, after all; she’d knocked it to the ground somewhere nearby. Keith’s phone was on the road, screen down and flashlight up, the brightness from it shining into Lance’s eyes and further blinding him, instead of illuminating the ground he was searching. Keith, being more conscious of his surroundings and not half blind with tears, found it first. He pushed Lance’s shoulders so he was off his scraped and bleeding hands and onto his knees, before he grabbed the other items Lance had dropped when he fell. Placing the stack of the phone, wallet, and debit card into one of the brunet’s hands, Keith took the other one and ran his cold fingertips along the shredded, gravel dusted palm. He brought the dirtied and bloodied flesh to his lips in a fluttering kiss, before he tugged the rest of Lance forward, too. The recently gathered pile of items scattered about the space between their laps.

Keith wrapped his arms about the brunet’s back, making hushing noises and running his palm in preoccupied shapes along the tear in Lance’s shirt. There was a fleeting sensation of Keith tracing the wound underneath for a moment, slow and calculating, but it was overwhelmed by the soothing sounds he was making. His hands had shifted to rub his shoulder blades shortly after, anyway. Absentminded mutters of reassurance, that everything was okay and that he was here now, made Lance tremble more and sob harder. The air around him suddenly felt cold and unwelcoming, so he pushed further into Keith and wailed against the leather collar of his jacket. He felt a hand tangle in his hair, brushing through it easily, while the other hand settled and stilled between his shoulder blades. Keith continued to whisper words until the tension left Lance’s shoulders and the panic left his wet, distraught noises. Until his bawling changed to sniffling and a few dewdrops of tears.

The warmth of his fake boyfriend had crept into his whole form, now, and it grounded him. It was the last thing he needed to solidify the fact that everything was alright, because Keith had made sure of it, in his brain. He still felt the ache of his injuries and fading panic, but he’d stopped fearing the irrational thought that he was only a few seconds from death. And Keith pushed him away, easing him back, so Lance’s lingering fingertips, tangled in his shirt, were the brunet’s only source of heat and the only point of contact between them. He felt a sweep of frozen fingertips along the nicks on his neck, tracing them like a gentle dance and swiping the pooling blood off. The gentle caress was juxtaposed by the bitter tone Keith used to speak next.

“Lance, what the hell were you doing out here? You said you didn’t have work!” Keith looked a passive kind of angry. Where his lips moved aggressively and hastily to spew harsh sounding words, but the glow of his eyes was soft, due to welling tears, and the distance between his brows had shrunk in a concerned furrow. Lance pulled his fingers back from the hem of Keith’s shirt, curling in on himself by hunching his back over his crossed arms, so all Keith could see of his eyes were the fluttering of his lashes and not the steady stream of tears that was beginning again. He looked both defensive and guilty, he was sure, but he couldn’t bring himself to look Keith in the eye.

“I could ask you the same thing. You don’t have work here, why are you here?” His voice was more hoarse than he’d expected, scraped raw by his spilled tears and whimpers. His fingers dug into his upper arms as he heard himself, marking crescents in the flesh there. Eyes staying glued to the ground, he had no knowledge of the hand Keith was reaching towards his chin, until it got there. It pulled his gaze to Keith’s steaming expression. The softness had left his eyes and now he seemed downright furious.

“Well, I texted you about seven hours ago and you only take that long to answer when you’re on the clock, so I pieced together where you were.” A flash of fury passed through his eyes in a downward twitch of his brows that had them furrowed farther down his forehead. “I found Kyle by the door and he told me you hadn’t met up with him out front, so I checked back here.” Lance’s lip shook with an influx of guilty tears. The look on his fake boyfriend’s face was so angry, so betrayed, and as charged as his frustrated tone was; it had him crying again. He tugged his chin from Keith’s grasp and angled it back down so he could wipe at his eyes and nose without being seen. The harsh tone he’d been hearing softened. “Lance, why didn’t you just ask me for a ride?” His hand slipped back into Lance’s hair, resting at the hairline by his temple, and the brunet leaned into its calming touch.

“You’re already doing so much for me,” he breathed. The sounds trembled, as if their own soundwaves were too powerful and had knocked them about on their trip to Keith. “And you don’t accept my gas money or anything. I feel like such a burden and I just wanted to give you a break.” He managed, just barely, to flit his gaze up enough to see Keith’s. It was soft, understanding, and like the hand he was slipping down the side of Lance’s face. He made contact with his chin again, easing him calmly up until he could fully make out the sympathetic curves along Keith’s face. The concerned dip to his brows, the pensive frown to his lips.

“Oh, for the love of God,” Keith said, airy and pleasant, but sounding utterly terrified. He tugged Lance forward again, sighing and pressing a kiss to the crown of his head in a manner that was reminiscent of the way a lover or a family member would kiss a soldier returning, injured, from war. The way that unwittingly conveyed the emotions that come with almost losing someone. The emotions of faded panic, having died down after seeing the loved one alive. Of soaring affection packed tightly within the pucker of pecking lips and of deep worry running thickly down both of their necks. “I’m insulted you think I’m so stingy with my money that I’d rather let you get attacked and mugged, than spend a few extra bucks on gas.”
Lance let out a wet chortle. “Okay, well when you put it that way,” he trailed off. Keith smiled and stood up. He offered a hand to the kneeling brunet and, when Lance accepted it, he yanked him up and close to his chest. Dipping forward slightly, he brought their lips together in their normal facade of a tender kiss. His grip slid up from Lance’s hand, brushing his arm so he shuddered happily into the touch, and finally it rested along the arch of Lance’s back. Lance kept the kiss going and pressed back with as much fondness, until he realized Keith tasted like something he couldn’t describe; he tasted like a glass of ice water after chewing mint gum, like a cold kind of spice, or like the soothing, repetitive trickle of water from a leaky faucet. It was intoxicating and the crumple of his fist against Lance’s spine was just as dizzying. Lance dug his nails into the leather of Keith’s jacket, forgetting that this wasn’t real and forgetting that they should have pulled apart at least twenty seconds ago. Forgetting that this taste wasn’t his to taste.

Keith pulled back for a moment, seemingly having come to the same conclusion Lance was too inebriated by Keith to remember. There was a pensive look in his eyes, one Lance could barely make out with the needy buzz of his brain, telling him to chase after the other man’s lips. He could hardly see past the dip of his eyelashes over his half lidded, Keith crazed line of sight. The man in front of him hesitated and observed the haze of Lance’s expression for a moment, before he leaned back towards his mouth. His kisses got more intense, proving the brunet’s initial assumption, that Keith’s kisses would be aggressive and passionate, closer to correct than previously believed, and he pulled their bodies closer together. His tongue slipped past his lips to brush Lance’s, and the brunet was suddenly starkly aware of the fact that they shouldn’t be doing this. Still, a sort of mewl left his lips at the sensation regardless. He denied his fake boyfriend the satisfaction of his open mouth and, in response, the man took his lips away from his mouth and started to trail them towards Lance’s neck.

The kisses hadn’t strayed too far from innocent, yet. Lance was struggling to come up with a platonic excuse for the affection behind the motion of Keith’s lips, which were parting to lick a patch of the skin on his neck, but the swelter of a blush clogged his already addled brain and he came up with nothing. There had to be something. Maybe Kyle was peeking around the corner and Keith wanted to tell him off for good. Maybe he was starting to nibble and mark the flesh in a mere attempt to keep him safe. Maybe it was to remind his coworkers that he wasn’t available to Kyle, to get them to knock it off for as long as the bruise remained. That had to be it. Before the nibbling could turn to actual biting and sucking and marking, Lance let out a strangled whine, gripping Keith’s jacket harder and willing himself to stop this before he lost his mind. “You know,” he panted, getting Keith to stop for a second. “You don’t have to pretend to be my boyfriend right now. There’s no one around.” Something akin to flustered alarm widened Keith’s eyes. He pulled back from Lance’s neck with a stern expression and Lance cursed himself for tearing away the pleasant feel of Keith’s smooth, talented lips, even if it was the morally right thing to do. Why did he have to be a good person? Was it really worth it?

“Right.” Keith rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly, ducking his head so Lance couldn’t read his expression. “Sorry, I,” he gulped. “I forgot no one was here.” His voice seemed something short of honest, a waver in it revealing some form of a lie Lance couldn’t pick out; like Keith wasn’t exactly lying, but wasn’t exactly telling the truth either. The brunet wasn’t focused on that, though, he was only thinking about how badly he’d wanted that kissing to be real. The feelings it stirred in him were so utterly and overpoweringly genuine, it wasn’t fair for them to be inspired by an act. He wished, begged, for it to be real, but Keith stood there, still very much the unattainable crush. The man who had only kissed him so thoroughly out of a sense of responsibility. The man who felt nothing romantic for him at all, yet had still had him weak at the knees under his scalding, delicious touch. How unfair of him.

He’d somehow thought, in a sort of fantasizing haze, Keith would respond to his observation of the kiss being superfluous with something indifferent. That he’d merely shake his head or shrug his shoulders, before resuming his kissing along the brunet’s neck. He wished so vividly and futilely for Keith to truly be his boyfriend and, in the heat of the moment, it felt as though that wish had come true. For a moment, just a moment and nothing more, it had been real. And having such an intensely falsified reality torn away was like taking a vital organ, leaving Lance gasping for air and feeling like he was drowning in the few mouthfuls of oxygen he managed to gulp down.

But he simultaneously supposed he was lucky as he was, too. He was lucky to have a friend, though he wished for more, who so attentively and actively tried to assist. A friend who, upon hearing of his coworker struggles, was immediately willing to listen and help as best he could. A friend who had not only known him well enough to tell something had been off with his “no work” excuse, but also, likely literally, saved his life as a result. A friend like Keith.

His platonic companionship alone was somewhat addicting to Lance. In a different way than his kneading palms and wandering lips, sure, but still very much a part of his life he valued. Whenever his life went south, it always seemed to be Keith who picked him up and told him it would get better, that he was important, that he had people who cared about him and could rely on, or whatever it was Lance needed to hear in the moment. Keith always seemed to know what to do and, just as frequently, seemed to deliver.

Lance’s stomach was rolling in a boiling mess. He was exhausted from everything and he had no self control as a result; he couldn’t help the giddy feeling rising in his throat. More tears welled in his eyes, tears of gratefulness and an unyielding swell of feeling lucky, blessed, and damn near unworthy of everything his friend had done for him in the past week. His hands, still shaking like a shredded plastic bag on a fence during a storm, lifted to the sides of Keith’s face. The pads of his thumbs drew the dull corners of rounded squares along the soft flesh of his cheekbones. “Thank you.” Lance continued to grip his face, but angled his own at the abandoned and scattered pile of his forgotten belongings. He traced the outline of his phone with his gaze as he said, “I don’t deserve you.” It was said in a gentle tone. Not a sad, self conscious tone, but a tone that expressed so openly all the appreciation he was feeling. “Thank you,” he repeated, even softer this time.

Beneath the curves of his hands, Lance could feel the swell of Keith’s cheeks as he smiled. He turned his head to press his nose and lips against one of Lance’s palms in a movement not quite a kiss, since he never pursed his lips or purposefully touched them to the skin, but in a movement just as heartwarming as a kiss. He tugged away only to pick up the phone, wallet, and debit card along the ground, passing them onto Lance the moment he managed to grab them. “Alright, you oughta get home. That cut on your back felt nasty and you should probably clean it out. A tetanus shot might even be in order.”

The brunet shuddered and not because of the possibility of a needle. He had to walk to the bus stop, after just being mugged, and he had to do it injured and alone. Alone. The word rang in his head, over and over. Beginning to shake again, Lance retracted in on himself, crossing his arms over his chest and ducking his head. It had begun to feel like he was alone already. He thought about how unlikely it was that the mugger had gone far. He thought about how she could be around any corner, waiting to finish what she’d started. He thought about having to face her again and alone. And as he thought, he clenched a fist and started back down the direction of the alley he’d been traversing before. Before he’d taken so much as a step, a leather bound hand gripped his wrist.

“My bike’s this way.” Lance tilted his head, slowly craning his neck to face Keith. His mouth flickered between open and closed, shock painting shades of red along the bridge of his nose and the tips of his ears. “Did you think I was gonna make you take the bus after all this?” Lance pouted at the smirk Keith was wearing. His mouth was skewed in a lopsided, toothy smile; it was a look he might have found sexy, had it not been the mocking way it was worn and the gleam of a tease shining as brightly as the clouded moon’s reflection on the ivory grin. “I’m not gonna make you go anywhere alone,” he said, smile losing its teeth and curling into a simple, soft tilt of his lips and voice melting to the silkiness of liquid butter. Lance felt like crying again.

He was directed to Keith’s bike, sure to stay as close to his companion as possible. The idea of doing anything without someone else there, even if it was nothing more than walking, was terrifying. A downright nightmare, honestly. He huddled himself close against Keith’s side, eagerly following the pace he set. It was slower than his usual, rushed pace and Lance wondered if he was slowing down for his sake, setting a speed he could keep up with, even with his shaking legs and wobbling ankles. It was a purely selfish thought, so he shook it from his head, deeming it foolish to think something so wishful and delusional. Part of him kept hoping, though.

When they reached the bike, Lance hesitated sitting behind Keith. He didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want to be alone there. The helmet—one of them, since Keith had bought a second helmet for Lance to use during their semi permanent carpool situation—hung heavily off his index finger and he passed it from hand to hand. Keith noticed his reluctance and lifted a palm from the handle of his motorcycle to slip it against Lance’s cheek. The brunet absentmindedly itched his arm, finally stilling the helmet into one hand, and pointedly avoided Keith’s gaze. His heart was pounding at the very idea of sleeping with the lights off in an apartment vacant of company. It sent fear to sit heavily in his atop his heart and against his lungs, like someone was stepping on his chest and restricting his airways. Keith brushed a fingertip against the hair behind Lance’s head and it grounded him enough to breathe again.

He heard the man suck in a lungful of air, motivation to speak clear enough, but words failing momentarily. “Lance, if you’re scared,” Keith started, causing Lance to turn his stare harshly upon him with a look of offense. He was right, but he didn’t want Keith, of all people, to know he was mortified of being alone. How pathetic was that? “Which is okay and completely understandable, by the way.” The brunet lost the defensive squaring of his shoulders, so his back slumped into a shuddering curve, instead of its previously fierce stance. “I don’t mind you staying at my place for the night. You can even borrow one of my shirts for work tomorrow.” Lance was looking at the man on the bike with a lovestruck expression. It was obvious even to Lance, who couldn’t see his own face. He could spot it in the stretch of his cheeks and the droop of his eyebrows into a malleable, pizza dough type of gentle expression. Like if Keith pressed into his skin more, even just slightly, he would curl around the motion affectionately, searching for as much of the feeling and intimacy as possible. Like he was a literal putty that would eagerly embrace the mere poke of his finger.

Crawling onto the bike, he stuffed his helmet over his head and curved his arms around Keith’s waist as easily as he’d expected. The movement was liquid and natural, his voice something inaudible and fragile when he ducked forward to rest the top of his helmet between Keith’s shoulder blades and he whispered, “I’d like that.”

The ride had been just as comfortable as the others, maybe even more so, since Keith hadn’t teased him by speeding at all that evening. Lance had felt seconds from falling asleep the whole ride. The heat of Keith’s back was like a blanket and the knowledge of him driving made Lance feel secure and safe because, if there was anyone he trusted to drive him on a motorcycle, it was Keith. And when they’d finally reached Keith’s apartment, Keith had looked ready to carry the groggy brunet up the stairs himself. Lance almost asked him to, too.

He stumbled a bit on his way up the staircase, but he ultimately reached the top without falling. When Keith unlocked his door and let Lance take anxious steps inside, the front room had been just as messy as Lance had expected of Keith. The man had blushed upon seeing the disarray of his own apartment and he hastily apologized and scurried to clean it up. The brunet bent over to pick up some stray garbage he’d seen on the carpet, but the gash on his back had him straightening his spine with a muted hiss. Keith heard the faint sound, head turning at an alarmingly fast and attentive speed, to look at Lance’s pained face.

“Oh, God. Right. I’ll get some rubbing alcohol.” Keith dropped his pile of gathered trash, racing down the hallway to the bathroom. He reemerged seconds later with a first aid kit. When he stopped in front of Lance again, the brunet turned to bare his injured back to Keith. The hem of his shirt was taken gently between his fake boyfriend’s thumb and forefinger, peeled slightly, no more than an inch, up. “Can I?” Lance smiled at the soft spoken inquiry, though he knew his companion couldn’t see it, and nodded strongly enough for his hair to sway and alert Keith of his answer. He sucked in a harsh breath of air when his torn shirt was lifted and Keith’s hands brushed the wound. “Sorry.” There was a faint kiss to the back of his neck. It seemed someone had already forgotten he didn’t have to pretend at the moment. Not that Lance was complaining; he unwittingly arched his back into the innocent brush of Keith’s lips and sighed.

Having soaked a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol, Keith ran it down the slice over Lance’s back. It wasn’t deep, so he didn’t take out any bandages, but he did land another kiss against the skin above it after it had been thoroughly cleaned. He dropped Lance’s shirt and the brunet turned back around. Dabbing the shallow scrapes on his neck, he kissed above them, too. Finally, he took Lance’s hands and cleaned the scrapes along them, before kissing his palms. Though he felt guilty, Lance said nothing to remind Keith he didn’t have to do that; he let himself melt under the affectionate attention until his knees were wobbling and his cheeks ached from how long he’d been grinning. Keith straightened his spine to pull the brunet into a long and tight hug.

“I’m glad you’re alright,” he murmured against the tufts of chestnut hair, “I was worried I was already gonna be too late.” Lance wrapped his arms about Keith’s waist, nestling his nose into the front of his companion’s neck. He found himself laying a kiss there without thinking. Maybe Keith wasn’t the only one who had forgotten how alone they were. The two seemed to stick together as they pulled apart and the brunet had to swallow the inkling of a whimper crawling the expanse of his throat at the action.

Keith picked up his dropped garbage, throwing it away, before he guided Lance to his room. He pulled out a shirt for the brunet to wear the next day, one that was plain and black and most certainly smelled like Keith and had his normal, head spinning, addicting scent that undoubtedly clinging to every fiber. With a nod, Keith moved to leave the room. Lance stumbled on his way to grab his wrist. His brain had been calm seconds before, but Keith was about to leave him alone in a dark and unfamiliar room and he felt his heart shudder at the thought. “Where are you going?” His voice was pleading and terrified. He wanted to beg Keith not to leave, but he managed to shove the urge into the pit of his stomach.

“To sleep on the couch?” Keith put his free, not clutched by Lance, hand onto his hip, furrowing his eyebrows concernedly. He stepped back towards Lance a little to scan his eyes for a sort of answer as to why he was still gripping his wrist.

Lance flushed. “Can you,” he ducked his head to hide the burning of his cheeks, “can you maybe stay in here? I don’t think I’m gonna be able to fall asleep on my own.” He was embarrassed. How embarrassing was it to have to ask someone to stay like some nightmare ridden toddler? The few moments of silence his request elicited were overwhelmingly painful. What was Keith thinking of him? Did he think he was pathetic? A baby? He tugged his hand back and slunk back to settle himself on the edge of Keith’s bed. His eyes welled with humiliated tears, before Keith followed his step back and sat next to him.

“Of course.” And then Keith crawled into bed, completely clothed and wearing his shoes like some sort of heathen and Lance laughed because that was far more embarrassing than having to ask him to stay and he was so exhausted, everything had begun to seem funny. Shoes? In bed? He stuffed his mouth into the palm of his hand to stifle his giggle. And, though he couldn’t see it from behind his squinting eyes and smothering hand, Keith smiled gently at the sound of his laugh. He’d kept his shoes on intentionally, to make Lance laugh, and now, knowing their purpose had been fulfilled, he finally took them off. Lance kicked off his own shoes, before inching his way up next to Keith with wrinkles beside his eyes and at the corners of his grinning mouth. Keith was on his side with open arms which he found stuffed with a fake boyfriend almost instantly. He squeezed his arms around the form with just as much haste, happy to feel the flop of Lance’s arms over his sides, too, in a lazy, easy hug.

Lance’s fluttering laughter was fading quickly, turning into quiet wavers of air within seconds, and when it finally shrunk into silence, he yawned. His nose was pressed between Keith’s collarbones, so his slowing breath brushed against the man’s shirt and heated the fabric comfortably. When the taller man leaned his head back to catch as much of a glimpse of the brunet’s face as he could, but all he could make out were his closed eyes and curled eyelashes. His fingers were opening and closing slightly around the back of Keith’s shirt, so it was obvious that he hadn’t fallen asleep, but the way he was mindlessly pressing closer made it equally clear that he was right on the cusp of passing out. A few more seconds teetered along—a surprisingly long time when Keith considered how tired he’d be, if he were in Lance’s shoes—before his breathing became hushed, near silent snoring.

Keith curled himself back forward to envelop the sleeping man. He was content with getting the cuddling, even if it was stress induced and done while he had the title of fake boyfriend. Thinking about how desperately he wanted to change that title, though, it became very difficult to follow Lance to sleep. The feel of Lance in his arms was heart wrenching. He fit so perfectly there, snug and peaceful, and he looked just as perfect; his hair was ruffled and his back was scratched, but it was obvious he felt safe, which made all the flaws he’d been given fade away. Keith couldn’t tear his eyes away by shutting them and he couldn’t tear his mind away by falling into unconsciousness. That wasn’t the heart wrenching part though. No, that part could never be anything other than perfect. What was painful about it was that it wasn’t real.

His heart was warm and cold at the same time. He could feel how right the illusion of Lance being his boyfriend felt and that steeped in his chest cavity like a warm kettle of tea. But the reminder that it was an illusion and nothing more, that as soon as Lance’s work situation got better, it would be torn away, was a trickle of ice water down his spine that soaked into every bone and organ he had. His affection was warm and true, but the reciprocation was cold and fake and it made him want to sob. He slammed his eyes shut, finally ripping his obsession back from Lance’s dozing form.

Worse still was the other thing that had a lump forming in his throat: the way Lance had been attacked and hurt and Keith hadn’t been there to stop it. That he’d been ready to abandon his work only one hour after Lance had failed to respond to his text, but that he’d stopped himself because he didn’t want to seem too worried, too hasty, too much like a real boyfriend. That his decision to wait another six hours was what allowed someone the opportunity to attack Lance. That he could have easily prevented all of this from happening, but he didn’t. That he was thirty seconds from, quite possibly, finding his friend and crush dead. That he could have lost him and it would have been his fault.

It had him feeling the desire to shrink away from Lance with guilt pooling in his stomach like an illness.    

Even so, he let his head slip forward, slowly and deliberately, to rest his lips against the tangled hair of the man in his arms. Quietly, so he wouldn’t wake Lance and alert him of his distress, he breathed one more, “I’m glad you’re okay, Lance.” He puckered his lips in a silent, lingering kiss against his scalp. His heart slowed in his chest, anxiety easing to a less painful throb in the fingertips tracing lines into the brunet’s shoulder blades. He gently, lovingly, added, “I promise, you’re gonna stay that way.”

Chapter Text

A shrill alarm woke Lance in the morning. He’d tried to toss himself into an upward, sitting position upon hearing it, but a firm hold on his waist kept him down on the bed with his face buried somewhere he couldn’t see. It was warm against his nose, though, and it smelled like Keith, so he had a decently developed idea of where he was and he wasn’t entirely opposed to staying there. The spot was comforting, with an enveloping, hug feel. The faint caress of fingers against his lower back scrunched his shirt and held him so he fit just right. So he fit in a way he didn’t want to abandon. Even so, he shook his head because the alarm still hadn’t been turned off and it was grating on his eardrums. Groaning, he shifted his arms around and slapped his hands against—what he assumed was—Keith’s back. There was a grumble from above him, a familiar grumble, and a tug that pulled him more tightly against—what he now knew was—Keith’s chest.

Said man tried to reach over Lance, without letting him go, and slam the snooze button on his alarm clock. His fingers ended up falling limply against the brunet’s back in failure and the repetitive droning of the clock continued, proving his attempt utterly futile. Another groan came from Keith and the fingers along Lance’s lower back inched to his waist. They gripped there, pushing Lance onto his back so Keith could clamber on top. “Pardon me,” he murmured. His fingers could finally reach the snooze button from where he was and Lance watched him hit it with such a violent motion, he was certain the button would be permanently stuck in the down position. And then Keith’s focus shifted from the early time on the clock to Lance.

His hair was knotted and tangled and ruffled, slipping down around his cheeks like dog ears as he looked at the stunned man beneath him. Beneath him. Oh God, that’s where he was. Lance was suddenly able to feel, with overwhelming heat and striking detail, every goddamn muscle of Keith’s thighs as they straddled his hips. There was one of Keith’s hands above each of his shoulders and he was looking tiredly, but so determinedly and with such intensity, into Lance’s eyes. His own fluttered briefly, like he wasn’t even aware of the intimacy in his gaze, in the subtle way it flicked down to Lance’s mouth, and in the absentminded way he slipped his tongue along his lips immediately after. Like he had no idea what the sight of that did to Lance.

The brunet swallowed. Even before he did, he knew it would be an audible gulp, but he hoped that, by some blessing, it would be as silent as the breaths he could feel fanning across his cheeks. It wasn’t. It was loud and thick, like he was chugging a drink or forcing a pill down his throat, and it drew Keith’s attention from his lips to the bob of his Adam’s apple.

Lance shifted uncomfortably; the back of his neck suddenly felt an unwelcome amount of hot. How could it not? Keith was tracing his upper body with a half lidded, content gaze, as though Lance was the most delectible thing to ever exist. As if he was seconds from bending over to pepper kisses along every inch of skin he could reach. As if he wanted to wake up like this every day.

Lance thought that wouldn’t be so bad.

Keith lifted both his arms and sat upright, moving the fingertips of one hand to the hair brushing along Lance’s forehead. He played with them for a bit, not moving his line of sight from the depths of the blue eyes in front of him, before he slipped the locks back, smiling gently. Lance shut his eyes and leaned into the touch without thinking. While he couldn’t see it, his barely discernible motion had Keith smiling even more and he scratched his fingers along the brunet’s scalp in response. Lance hummed.

“What time is it?” His eyes reopened as he asked the question and a hand lifted to slip some of Keith’s hair behind his right ear. The man along his hips waited for his locks to be tucked snugly in place before he turned back to the clock. It wasn’t long before he turned his look to his fake boyfriend, once more. He slumped forward, his nose pressed into the space of pillow beside Lance’s head, and the hair that remained untucked was tickling the brunet’s ear. Lance shuddered once at that, then once again when Keith began to speak and he could feel it buzzing both in the chest atop him and right against his ear.

He’d turned his head to whisper, “too early,” directly against the burning tips of his ears. And then he’d gotten up and left Lance a blushing tempest on the bed, with a spinning world around him. Everything in his line of sight was caught in a storm, blurred and dizzying, save for Keith who stood in the center of his view, completely unaffected and in focus. Keith was the eye of his whirling hurricane.

It took him a moment, but the brunet eventually managed to work himself into a sitting position, despite the way his stomach was stirring with the feeling of Keith’s hips still lingering as a ghost against his own. He watched his fake boyfriend pad across the room and dig through his closet for a shirt and Lance remembered his previous thought, that waking up like this every day might not be so bad. Seeing Keith like this, in his wrinkled, slept upon clothes and with his tangled, but unbearably soft, hair tossed about his head like he’d been rolled around in the dryer for half an hour. Seeing Keith with sleepy eyes and the folds of his pillowcase written into the skin of his cheeks. Seeing Keith with lopsided pants and clumsy hands, flipping through the hangers in his closet and knocking a few loose.

No, he decided it wouldn’t be bad at all.

“How’s your back?” Lance stretched it, then prodded the wound through the hole torn in his shirt. He hissed quietly, but not quietly enough for Keith to miss. Upon hearing the noise, he turned to face Lance, a shirt hanging off one of his fingers and a frown dangling off his lips. “And your eye?” Placing one knee back on the bed, he leaned over enough to cradle the curve of Lance’s face and to prod the spill of wine beside the bridge of his nose and beneath the flutter of his eyelashes, as he blinked away the invasive touch. “It doesn’t look very good.”

“Wow, you’re awful! Telling your boyfriend he doesn’t look very good. What a jerk!” Lance smiled, regardless of the bite to his words, and he nudged Keith’s hand away from his face. He kept his hold on the icy palm for more time than was probably normal and socially acceptable for two friends, but he had to work himself up to letting it go and that wasn’t something he could do quickly.

“What? I,” Keith struggled to find the appropriate response. “That wasn’t what I meant and you know it!” The brunet bent forward in a laugh, hitting their foreheads together gently. The other man, perhaps acting on some kind of instinct, caught the back of Lance’s neck and laughed as well, albeit with less excitement. When Lance lost the happy sheen of laughing tears in his eyes, Keith kept his hand along the heat of his nape. His chosen shirt sat, long since abandoned and forgotten, in the space between their knees. “Do you want me to run to the store and buy some makeup for you or something? To cover the black eye?”

“No, you’ve already done so much.” Keith made a noise to protest that statement, to insist, even without actual words, that he didn’t mind everything he was doing for Lance. He gripped the hair at Lance’s neck and jutted his bottom lip out in a frustrated pout when the brunet ignored his sound. “ Besides, ” he pointedly said. “If I show up to work with a black eye, maybe my boss will feel bad for me and relieve me of toilet cleaning duty!”

Keith had rolled his eyes and agreed at that, leaving Lance so he could head into the kitchen and prepare some semblance of breakfast for them both. And while the man he’d left behind was tugging the shirt he’d been given over his head and sniffing Keith’s cologne on the fabric, he could smell the stench of something burning in the other room. He buried his nose further into the shirt, trying to sketch the scent of it on the inside of his nose and in the deepest parts of his brain, instead of the nasty smell of charcoal and burnt bread. And the scent stuck. When he went to check on Keith in the kitchen, he could still smell it. When he ate the charred toast and pretended to like it, he could still smell it. When he chugged a glass of orange juice to wash the taste away as soon as Keith wasn’t looking, he could still smell it. Even throughout his whole workday, he’d occasionally tug the collar of the shirt up to meet his nose so he could smell it again.

Needless to say, he didn’t give that shirt back.

Luckily, in the week or so he’d had it, Keith hadn’t asked for it back, either.

It had been a decent week, without any uncomfortable Kyle incidents, and the way Lance’s black eye had now completely faded made this day start well and seem like it would end well. It was now a Friday, and Lance was chatting comfortably with his coworkers during one of the lapses of customers between lunch and dinner. No one else was in the shop, save the employees and Allura, and they were all babbling about their weekend and Friday night plans. Coincidentally, none of Lance’s coworkers seemed to have any at the moment, and they had all come to the conclusion that they’d do something together. Allura excluded, since she insisted she had some plan, though she wouldn’t divulge what that plan was and Lance had his suspicions about its authenticity.

Kyle tilted his head one way, then the other, visibly straining his mind for a suggestion of what to do this evening, after the shop closed. “So, a movie, then?” Lance was seated upon the counter, despite the nasty look Allura was giving him at the action, and he sipped the boba he’d made himself. It was a lemon smoothie with strawberry boba, so when he hummed, it was both at the pleasant flavor and in agreement to the aforementioned suggestion. The rest of the room reacted similarly, with mirrored positive answers. Kyle spun his head in an invasive bit of direct eye contact with Lance. “Great, it’s a date!” The brunet choked on the next bit of boba that climbed his straw.

Oh, God, he didn’t wanna hang out with Kyle under the title of a date. What kind of unwanted advances had he just signed himself up for? “Speaking of dates,” he squeaked, pounding a fist against his chest to free the bit of his drink that had lodged itself in his throat. “Can my boyfriend come, too?” Kyle had slumped at the question, slipped a hand into his pocket, and trained his glare frustratedly at the tile floor. He tugged the end of his apron and huffed, but it was ultimately Candice who shot Lance’s plan down.

“Well, I was hoping this could be a sort of workplace event. No outsiders allowed, ya know?” Bitch. They’d had this all worked out from the start, hadn’t they? They probably knew from the beginning Lance would ask to bring Keith and they’d cornered him into agreeing by neglecting to mention the just them rule. He bet they were going to find an excuse to leave him and Kyle alone. His eyes were locked onto the boba stuck at the end of his straw and they were starting to water as he dragged his bottom lip between his teeth nervously.

“No,” Allura said, casually inserting herself into the plan making process she was previously left out of. “Lance, weren’t you talking about how you wanted to see that new romantic comedy with him just the other day?” What? He hadn’t been-- ah, that knowing look in her eyes. She’d caught onto his plan. How, he didn’t know, but the wary gaze she’d locked onto Lance told him she was completely aware of the way he was avoiding Kyle’s advances. He owed her a big birthday present this year. “I think it would be a good idea for him to come!” Yeah, definitely a big birthday present.

The room voiced a reluctant agreement and Lance hurriedly asked his boss if he could rush to the bathroom to call his fake boyfriend. She waved his request off, an unspoken approval, and Lance scurried into the side room. It was only three in the afternoon; Keith was most certainly still at work, but he anxiously dialed his number, one of the few he’d bothered to memorize, and awaited the end of the ringing anyway. There was a click and the brunet immediately began to ramble. “Help, my coworkers invited me to the movies tonight and I think they’re planning to leave me alone with Kyle and it’s gonna be late. God, I really don’t wanna be alone with him,” he paused to suck in a breath, fully intending to speak again and voice his request for Keith’s assistance, but the other man cut him off before he could.

“I’m coming,” he said, lowly and with a type of aggression he could practically envision in his mind. When he shut his eyes, he could see it. The way Keith’s eyebrows would come together and the way he’d scowl and cross his arms over his chest, like he thought the action made his shoulders seem broader. Well, actually, the action did make his shoulders seem broader, but it was somewhat irrelevant because Lance already thought he looked tough regardless. With his leather jackets and his combat boots and his badass motorcycle, could anyone really fault him? Keith looked like he could, and would, beat anyone up. And the thought of him doing so for Lance had the brunet weak at the knees and grinning like a child.

“I didn’t even ask, yet,” he muttered, feigning bitterness through the grin on his lips.

“But you’re uncomfortable, I can tell. Do you want me to tell the rest of the gang to ‘coincidentally’ show up to see the same movie?” He sounded reluctant at the second offer, like he was a child being told by a parent to do something he didn’t want to do or like someone was taking his favorite toy away. Like going to the movies with Lance was something he didn’t want to share. Lance smiled, the kind that showed no teeth, but that made his eyes water and his cheeks hurt. Because, to be honest, he didn’t want to share going to the movies with Keith, either.

“No.” His voice was soft, quiet enough he would have thought Keith had missed it, had it not been for the relieved release of air on the other side of the line. “No, just you is fine,” he murmured, considering how fine didn’t even begin to cover it. His lips twitched into a larger smile. “Thank you.” Keith hummed in response, a pleasant and gentle sound that left Lance covering the microphone of his phone to sigh unabashed. He loved the pensive, distracted things Keith did.

As he and Keith hung up, he thought about more of Keith’s mindless actions he’d become fond of. He left the bathroom with a grin. The first of Keith’s actions to come to mind was when he’d drag his bangs out of his eyes, so his head would lean slightly back, before whipping forward and back to attention. Lance liked it most when he was the thing Keith refocused on. Next, he considered the way Keith would unintentionally stand close to Lance; it was always almost unbearably close, like the times he’d peer over Lance’s shoulder and his breaths would caress the often exposed flesh of Lance’s neck. His final thought was his favorite. He spent the majority of his remaining time at work thinking of the way he said Lance’s name. The way he seemingly obliviously softened his voice whenever he said it. And the corners of his mouth would always curve, too, like his lips were a ribbon and Lance’s name was the edge of a blade that slipped along them and curled their ends.

The smile he continually pictured was the same one he found waiting outside the shop once his shift ended. It was a smile partially obscured by an overly large bouquet peeking from the top of his jacket, where he must have tucked it for the ride over. The roses and lillies tickled the tip of his chin and managed to reach, just barely, the swell of his bottom lip. The flowers were stunning—though Lance couldn’t name very many of them and he doubted Keith could, either—and they shone his favorite shades of blue and lilac. Even so, he couldn’t keep his eyes trained on the plants very long because, no matter how much he adored them, the real sight to behold was the man who held them. The soft, pastel, cool colors did wonders for Keith’s complexion and made his already heartstopping eyes shine even more vividly. The eyes that crinkled cutely upon seeing Lance leave his work.

He looked an illegal amount of sexy at the same time, though. His back was pressed against his bike. His hands were stuffed nonchalantly in the pockets of his jacket. One left the leather against his stomach to drag through his hair, the very same way Lance had swooned over imagining earlier. He would have looked like he belonged in the background of a men’s cologne ad, if the viewer could ignore the gentle shades of the flowers zipped up in his jacket. Oh, and the adoringly benevolent smile he had pressed firmly against his lips. And the soft curve of his eyebrows. And the way he pushed off leaning against his bike to meet Lance’s lovestruck gaze with one of his own.

“Aw, babe,” Lance murmured, feeling his legs stutter in his approach of Keith. “Flowers? For me? You shouldn’t have!” Keith slipped the plants from inside his jacket and passed them over to the brunet. Their fingers brushed. Lance brought the flowers under his nose, smelling their sappy, airy aroma, but he somehow picked up on the lingering scent of Keith’s chest against their stems even more glaringly. Keeping the plants in one hand, he swung both arms over Keith’s shoulders under the disguise of a loving hug, but with the real intention to whisper half harsh words against Keith’s ear. “A bit over the top, don’t you think? What if they get suspicious?”

Keith rested his hands on Lance’s hips in a return of their falsified hug. He spoke for everyone to hear. “Let a man pamper his boyfriend!” His mouth dipped to press an innocent kiss against the skin of Lance’s neck and he trailed them upward until he was sighing hot air against the brunet’s ear. Lance unwittingly and shakily sighed at the feeling, cursing how sensitive his neck was to everything Keith was doing; how much it seemed to blister beneath the brush of his lips. It made him sag forward into Keith and grip his shoulder with the one free hand he had. God, he’d do anything for that kiss to be real. His words were barely a breath when he spoke again. “Sorry, Lance,” it was the buttery, silk way he always spoke his name, “I’m not very good at being a fake boyfriend.”

Lance supposed that, no, he wasn’t good at being a fake boyfriend.

But the past few weeks had taught him that Keith was fucking perfect at being a real boyfriend.

He forced a laugh from his lips, trying to cover the way he was still overwhelmed and distracted by the lips lingering next to his ear. There was a touch of hands climbing his spine and they tugged at the loop of the apron he’d forgotten remained snugly around his neck. “Oh,” Lance breathed. He pulled away from Keith and shoved the flowers back into his jacket, anxious to hurriedly remove the out-of-place garment along his front. “Sorry, lemme go run this back inside.” Keith nodded, but slipped his grip into Lance’s hair in order to pull him forward for a kiss, instead of letting him go. The brunet dropped his apron in his haste to mimic the action. He didn’t know when he’d started to repay the affection so eagerly, or when Keith decided he’d hand it to him so easily, but he found he didn’t care. Recently, they’d both been more carefree in their attention of one another, giving kisses and hugs whether they were with Lance’s coworkers or not. It had made the whole facade seem starkly genuine and, for a second, Lance had let himself wonder if maybe this was all real, after all. He didn’t let his mind wander there for long, though. What if he was wrong? If he believed in a false love, having it disappear would be utterly excruciating, so the possibility of believing in it wasn’t a possibility Lance let himself have.

Eventually, Keith did release his hold and liplock, though, and Lance took his apron and bouquet back from where he’d put them. He figured he could set his flowers in water while he was in the shop. They could pick them up after the movie. Spinning on his heel, he waved at Keith, then scurried through the doorway, which Kyle was standing next to. Lance didn’t notice, but Kyle watched his ass as he jogged past. Keith, however, did notice and he felt an anger begin to form fiery butterflies in his stomach.

Watching someone ogle his boyfriend— fake boyfriend—like that made his skin crawl. He had licked his lips as he did it, too. Like he was staring at a slice of cake he was about to devour or as though he was suddenly parched. He didn’t really even know Lance. Keith had known him since high school, and not even he was allowed to stare at Lance like that. No one was, because Lance was single and he hadn’t asked anyone to or given anyone permission. So, what made Kyle think he had the right to look at him like that? And so openly. Like he fucking owned Lance and didn’t care if anyone saw him passing inappropriate looks. Keith wanted to kick his ass because who did he think he was?

For a moment, he thought he was about to lose the battle with his impulse; he thought he was going to lunge forward and punch the man’s nose in. The smirk Kyle shot him, the silent inquiry as to what Keith was going to do about the thorough rake of his eyes along Lance’s body, had his leg swinging forward and his fingers twitching into a fist for a fight. But he could see Lance coming towards him again, blissful smile along his lips, and he settled for a simple bout of harsh eye contact and an intimidating crack of his knuckles. Kyle seemed to get the message and he gulped while turning hastily in an escape to his car. Keith curled his lips in a vicious grin that reeked satisfaction. It softened as he let his eyes lock onto Lance’s face.

As the brunet approached, Keith took note of the lack of an apron on his form, and the way that drew attention to his shirt. His tank top dipped low and exposed his collarbones and neck, but those weren’t the patches of skin he was focused on. His arms were entirely uncovered and exposed to the frigid, night air, which was emphasized further by the way he rubbed his palms up and down the quaking bits of flesh and the goosebumps traced along them. Keith briefly, and without thinking, brushed a finger against the raised skin. Lance shivered more, an action Keith would have liked to believe was a result of him and not the icy temperature of his fingertip. Nonetheless, he focused back upon Lance’s apparent coldness, thinking primarily about the fact that riding his motorcycle was not likely to help him keep warm. A frown passed his lips at the image of the brunet feeling miserable, but he had to stifle a smile from the resulting image of Lance huddling closer to him in response. Maybe a tank top in this weather wasn’t a bad idea after all?

No.

True to his boyfriend role, he slipped his leather jacket from his shoulders—he was wearing long sleeves, so he was confident he’d remain warm—and draped it atop Lance’s. It seemed to have ruffled the smaller man’s feathers because he huffed and peeled it off. “I’m fine, ” he muttered, eyes shifting aimlessly to the asphalt beneath his feet. When his face lifted, though, Keith saw realization flit across his eyes as he noticed Kyle pausing from his steady pace walking away, ears visibly strained to hear the kindling of an argument. Lance let his fingers fall into place along the leather of Keith’s jacket and he pulled it back on. “Thanks, I guess.” There was the faint puff of a pout to his cheeks and an even gentler jut of his lip, but it was all tossed aside at the telltale glimmer of contentment in his eye. Keith grinned and passed his spare helmet to Lance, before he swung a leg over his bike.

  The brunet was distracted by a powerful sense of regret, though, because the jacket he’d accepted smelled so perfect. Like the generic scent of soap and the homey, ocean smell of the cologne Keith had been purchasing lately. He thought of how the reason the ocean reminded him of home had become a blurred line, recently. He couldn’t tell if he pictured home because of the summers he’d spend there with his family or if it was because of the artificial swarm of its salty breezes that washed over him every time he got close to Keith. It seemed Keith had become just as much his home as any one of his memories, as of late. And the jacket smelled like all of that rolled together. Like soft, ugly, ebony locks. Like cheap, phoney gusts of sea wind. Like the laughter of his family, like the dreamy image of Keith meeting them, like the flutter of his heart at the pretend scenario. Like Keith.

Lance had shut his eyes and buried his nose in the popped collar of the garment, shamelessly inhaling the memories soaked into the leather there. But when those eyes reopened, he caught Keith watching him do it and suddenly there was an overpowering amount of shame. He flushed and hastily climbed onto the bike behind Keith. There had been a terribly smug look on his fake boyfriend’s face; it was a look as though he’d gotten some satisfaction out of Lance’s obsession, but there was no explanation as to why. None that Lance could think of, at least.

The helmet Lance had been given was still tucked in one hand and the other palm came to rest against Keith’s hip. Before he stuffed the helmet over his head, he decided to sweep forward and nestle his nose into the hair hanging over Keith’s nape. It was a poor decision. The smell he’d been so keen on earlier, the smell he’d chased after, and the smell he’d never wanted to let go of was right there. It came in abundance from the faint tickle of flesh he managed to reach through the thick hair, not to mention from the hair itself, and it had him swiping the hair away to kiss the skin underneath. And, God, it was instinctive and impulsive and stupid, so he hoped, desperately, that Keith hadn’t noticed the way no one else was around when he did it because, if he had noticed, Lance would be completely busted. Keith would be firmly aware of how authentic the affection had been.

It seemed he hadn’t realized because he didn’t swat Lance back or make a disgruntled noise. No, he hummed low in his throat and waited for the brunet to slip his helmet on, before tugging his own over his ears. He’d also twisted back to make sure the protection was on Lance correctly, eyes attentive to detail and palms pressing it thoroughly against his skull. From the shaded glows of his eyes Lance could make out, he looked adorably protective. The brunet grinned a smile hidden under the same shade as Keith’s eyes. The man in front nodded, satisfied with the safety atop Lance’s head, then spun back around to drive them both to the movie theatre.

Though Lance had become relatively accustomed to being on a motorcycle and this close to Keith, he was still reluctant to pull away when they finally reached their destination. Luckily, upon standing up next to him, Keith tugged Lance against his side and he could resume his deliciously and snugly close position. All of Lance’s coworkers were already there and they’d already bought their snacks and drinks, so the brunet was comfortable with heading straight for the theatre and skipping refreshments entirely, but his fake boyfriend was insisting. He’d dragged them both into a line and Lance started to open his wallet as the line crept slowly forward. The man next to him snatched it away, leaving him chasing after the object with wiggling fingertips. Keith held it above his head, higher than Lance could reach.

“Asshole,” Lance huffed. His lungs squeaked from his attempt at leaping to reach the item. “Let me pay, dammit!” Keith was grinning and his eyes were shining with an adoration that would have caused a shudder in Lance’s heart, had it not been for the cruel way he was behaving. The brunet let out an aggravated noise and flung his arm upwards in one final, failing attempt.

“Not happening, sweetheart,” Keith chortled in a self-congratulatory tone, with squinting lids and lips that trembled into a grin strained by the effort of shoving a loud laugh back into his stomach. “I make more than you, Mr. Minimum Wage, so I can afford to pay for this.” Lance gasped at the offending nickname, placing an open palm to his chest in an overdramatized signal of indignation. Despite his slack jaw and gawking eyes, though, he took a step back and let Keith stay in line to pay. He was an asshole, but his intentions were decent enough.

Lance watched Keith for a moment; the two made silly faces at each other across the room, until Keith had to pull away to order their snacks. No longer occupied by the cute wrinkled nose and stuck out tongue of his fake boyfriend’s immature faces, the brunet slipped his phone from the back pocket of his jeans to scroll around on social media. Not even a minute after he’d focused on a cute cat video, a hand waved between his eyes and his screen. His gaze flew up immediately, expecting to see Keith waiting there, but his smile fell when he saw Kyle instead. Feigning a level of excitement, though, he forged a polite wave, before turning back to his phone with hopes his oblivious coworker would get the message. He didn’t.

No, of course he didn’t.

He stepped to stand next to Lance, to invade any semblance of personal space he’d previously had, and to peer over his shoulder at the screen of his phone. Lance took a wobbly step away to compensate, no longer focused on the video displayed upon his device. His eyes watched it, but his mind was whirring with danger signals. He glanced up to gauge about how long he had until Keith came back; how long he had to find excuses to stay away from Kyle. Keith was still busy reciting the order. The employee at the register hadn’t even turned to scoop the popcorn yet, oh God, Lance had at least another minute to last. There was no way--

A palm slipped to his waist and he cringed, arching his back away from the contact. Kyle had stepped closer again, and he placed his chin atop Lance’s shoulder in a way that was probably meant to be cute and charming, but just felt entirely too invasive. The brunet tensed, but found himself without a subtle way to escape the face by his ear. Hurry, Keith.

His eyes glanced up again to land on the man, until the hand on his side tugged his stare away. “Look at that,” Kyle said, pointing at something Lance could not, for the life of him, come to focus on. No, no, no. His face had crashed against the other man’s chest and he was being held there with a steady hand to the small of his back he couldn’t seem to squirm out of. No, no. He was panicking, he couldn’t even get a good look at Keith like this. If he strained his eyes, if he pushed them as far to the side as they could go, shifted his gaze until it was physically painful to go further, he could make out Keith accepting the items he’d purchased and pulling a twenty dollar bill out of pocket-- oh, God, no. The hand against his spine felt like it was slipping lower. This wasn’t happening; it couldn’t be. Not when Keith was right there. Lance was begging him to turn around in his head.

As if an angel had heard his silent prayer, the man happened to turn and spot Lance, right as he was putting the twenty on the counter. Lance could read the startle in his eyes and the hurried movements of his lips as he snapped, “keep the change,” at the woman running the concession stand. He had the popcorn balanced against his chest and a drink in each hand, but he was able to practically sprint to reach Lance. It hadn’t seemed nearly fast enough, but he made it there in seconds.

Hearing Keith clear his throat, Kyle immediately released his hold on Lance. The brunet stumbled back and towards Keith. He hurriedly took the drinks from Keith’s hands, leaving his fake boyfriend with a bag of popcorn in one hand and an open arm to wrap around Lance on the other side of his body. Lance shoved his face into Keith’s neck, aware of the way the taller man’s hold tightened as he released a quaking breath against the spot. The way he swore he heard a faint grumble, like an aggressively protective grunt, rising from the chest against his own.

“Thanks, babe,” he murmured, under the ruse of gratefulness for the food, but softly enough he knew Keith would get what he was really showing his gratitude for. The chill of their soft drinks was turning his fingers an icy cold, but the fear pumped into his blood was numbing the area and keeping everything feeling warm. And he was losing track of time. He couldn’t count the number of seconds it had been, how long he’d been there, cradled steadily against his nook in Keith’s neck. How long he’d felt a tight grip around his back, eventually sliding up to rest against the back of his head to fiddle with the hair there. It had to have been at least a minute now; it had to have been far past when Kyle left. Keith didn’t seemed bothered by keeping Lance close, though. His hold was entirely unfaltering, even with the fleeting, judgemental glares Lance could feel against his back and spot around them when he lifted his face from Keith. “Sorry,” he said, before he tucked his nose against the curve of Keith’s neck once more. There was no audible response, but the hand against his hair pressed with just a slight increase in pressure. “I’m good now.” A moment passed, then Lance was released.

The brunet met Keith’s eyes, attempting to read the clearly meaningful, but fairly illegible, words in his gaze. “You okay?” His eyelids fluttered, then the skin around them crinkled as easily as tissue paper. While that was a little soothing to Keith, he still found himself seething. It was a temporary slowing of his mind, like his anger was a stove that had momentarily been shut off. It didn’t take long for it to heat up again, though, and Keith could feel the flames licking at the tips of his ears and climbing along the back of his neck. Kyle was one more incident away from having his ass kicked. The bastard didn’t even care about Lance’s alleged relationship. In fact, he’d been more aggressive about his advances tonight than he’d been in any of the stories Lance had told. It had a sense of dread puddling in the pit of his stomach. Was he trying to assert some sort of primitive dominance? Was he trying to get Keith to give up on his own boyfriend by acting brash and trying to snatch him right out from under Keith’s nose? He wondered if Kyle knew that Lance wasn’t really his boyfriend, wondered if the reason he was making a show out of his harassment was so he could send the message that he knew.

It was a sickening thought. Either he didn’t know the truth, but simultaneously didn’t care about respecting Lance’s relationship; or he did know the truth and he was plotting a move.

At that terrible fork in the road, Keith figured tonight was as good a night as any. His status as a fake boyfriend had run its course—it was no longer doing anything to stop Kyle, after all—and he was left with a choice. A choice to either let the boyfriend scheme die off entirely, or to act upon his desire for it to be real. He wanted to choose the latter, no doubt about it, but he also didn’t want to end up seeming as bad as Kyle. He didn’t want Lance to think he’d only offered to help as an excuse to kiss him and huddle close to him because that wasn’t true at all. That hadn’t even been on his mind when he’d suggested the idea; he’d come up with his offer because of how atrocious the idea of Lance being harassed was to him. It would have been awful for Keith to hear any of his friends were being treated like that. There was nothing romantic about his intentions. Maybe he’d gotten carried away in kissing Lance a few times, but first and foremost, Lance’s safety was always the focus of his mind. And the idea of Lance thinking otherwise was a jackhammer into his skull. A succession of blows that had his head aching, throbbing, and his anxiety spiking.

His thoughts were unpleasant, sure, but they weren’t around for long. They were cut off when he was stirred from his pensive frown as he felt fingertips prodding his own gently. Lance had shifted both their drinks to one arm and he was reaching his hand tentatively to poke and brush against Keith’s. He was hiding his face, nose turned at the ground, but Keith could see the sweet shade of red along the tips of his ears and a tickle of pink on the visible bits of his cheeks. There was a shy twitch of his fingers again, swinging forward briefly, then pulling away from Keith again. It repeated, but this time, Keith caught it. He linked their hands together and watched Lance lift his head with an opened mouth and a wide grin, gripping back with just as much fervor. And with the look in those gleeful blue eyes, he thought that maybe, just maybe, telling Lance his feelings wouldn’t go completely south.

Lance’s coworkers were gathered around the condiment station, buttering and seasoning their popcorn, when Keith managed to spot them. They left before he and Lance could get there, having moved ahead to save enough seats together for their whole group. Before the duo could join the rest of the party in the seats they’d saved, Keith pulled Lance to the side of the theatre room doorway. There was no one else in the hallway; it was late at night and the room the movie was in was in a branch off the main hallway. He was alone with Lance and he supposed this was the most perfect opportunity he would get to do this. His hands had begun to sweat, which he could feel between the skin of his and Lance’s palms, and he would bet Lance could feel it, too.

That fact was ascertained and made obvious by the concerned look the brunet was giving him. He’d turned his head up, furrowed his brow, and nervously slipped his fingers back around a cup when Keith slowly took his touch away. How was he supposed to do this? He ducked his sight down and away from Lance’s desperately soft one. With a shaky sigh, Keith muttered, “Lance, I--” Something tangible seemed to rise up through his throat and he forced it back down with a noisy gulp. “I’m not sure I’m cut out for this.” He heard a subdued whimper from Lance at that and he lifted his unsteady gaze to face off with Lance’s; his heart broke when he saw the same water glistening in the brunet’s eyes, too. “I just feel like I’m wronging you.” This wasn’t how a confession was supposed to go. He was talking like he and Lance were already dating and they were breaking up, a scenario which the tears forming in front of him certainly seemed to indicate. And it really wasn’t that far off. This would inevitably mark the end of their fake dating, after all. One way or another.

He was still meeting the watery stare in front of him, somehow, but it was hard with the way it made him want to kiss the tears and cradle the reddening cheeks that were starting to look blotched. Keith managed to hold his intense look, keeping it from fulfilling its desire and stuttering away, even when Lance started to respond. “But you’re great at this! If I were an outsider, I’d totally believe you meant all the mushy, cheesy shit you do!” It was a response that hit close to home because he did mean all of it. Every last kiss, hug, compliment, utterance of a pet name, and lingering touch was wholly, completely, and unbearably genuine. But, surely, Lance was saying he believed it out of desperation. He didn’t mean Keith was good at giving the affection, he merely didn’t want to go without a friend to save him from his coworkers. A friend.

Keith was wrong about that assumption. Lance hadn’t said it as a lie or a desperate plea not to be alone; he’d said it because he wished, so strongly, for it to be so. He said he might believe the affection because he hoped that one day he could. He hoped that one day it would be true, that Keith would mean all the emotion behind his actions. That every last kiss, hug, compliment, utterance of a pet name, and lingering touch would be wholly, completely, and unbearably genuine. Of course, that was already the case, but both he and Keith were skirting around admitting that fact. For now.

Lance was already close to the wall; there was the telltale sense of an object being close to his spine, at least. Like the hollow sense of direction that guides you through your kitchen in the dark. He was indeed close, but he got closer still when Keith took an uncertain step forward and Lance leaned back to reimburse the waning distance between their faces. The taller man’s eyes were clear and bold; his stance was inexorable, as his hand reached out to tuck a soft, chocolate curl of hair behind Lance’s ear. “Well that’s because,” Keith stopped to dart a tongue across his bottom lip and tug his teeth against the same spot nervously. All the confidence he had worn only seconds ago had now seemed to have faded. He took a hesitant step back, eyes fluttering quickly to the floor, then to the doorway, then to anywhere that wasn’t Lance. His eyes flashed with something that could be read as recalculation. “What would you say if that’s because I do mean all that ‘mushy, cheesy shit’ I do?”

Lance’s heart felt like it had stopped in his chest, but really, it was going inhumanly fast. He could feel it against his chest, his wrists, the insides of his head, the pads of his feet; he could feel it everywhere. It was as though he’d become his heartbeat; shaky, uneasy, but thrilled. And it was invigorating. Intoxicating. His fingers still thrummed as he pulled his occupied palm to his lips to cover his quivering, starstruck grin with his drink, stifling the squeal he so desperately wanted to release. Eyes stinging as if he was already an hour into crying, the brunet began to murmur his response. “I’d say you should ask me to be your real boyfriend.”

Now it was Keith’s turn to feel his body pounding with far too much excitement. The look in Lance’s eyes was so lovestruck, so vulnerable, and for the first time, so visibly and accurately sincere. Keith wanted to dip forward now, to pepper tickling kisses all along his cheeks and his eyelids, and to show him just how ecstatic he was to have gotten a positive response. Out of breath from withholding his expression of excitement, he whispered, “Lance, will you be my boyfriend?” And the reaction he got was divine.

He’d thought the face he’d seen the brunet wearing before was the most gorgeous one he’d ever have the privilege of seeing Lance wearing, but his face at his newly posed question was worlds better. His eyes had shut the rest of the way from their squinted state and his eyebrows had come together in a soft bend that made his happiness pure and easy to read. His lashes were wet with enamored tears. His teeth were shining through his parted lips in a wide and delighted grin and Keith mirrored it when he realized that smile was for him and the question he had asked.

There was a tearstained squeal of a laugh and suddenly arms were draped over Keith’s shoulders in half a hug. He could feel the condensation of their cups wetting a patch on the back of his shirt, but that was the last thing on his mind with Lance so close and his answer even closer. “Duh,” he heard next to his ear, where Lance had stood on his toes to place his chin. Keith nearly lost his grip on the popcorn when he heard it and brought his arms around Lance’s waist in response. The face in his neck pressed further and there was a flutter of teary lashes against his skin.

He was euphoric. And he could tell Lance was, too. The air still filled with his cute giggles every few seconds and, though there was a tremble of Lance’s ankles just as often, his hold was so tight atop Keith’s shoulders. He was holding on like, if his grip faltered for even a second, he’d find himself waking up from a dream. Like, if he took his nose from Keith’s neck, the whole thing would fall apart and he’d be trapped in a disaster. To reassure him of the reality of the situation, Keith slipped his free hand to Lance’s hair, yet the man clung tighter as a result.

“So,” Keith said, battling down his own exhilarated laughter. “Can I kiss you for real?” He felt the face against his neck get hot, before it peeled away. Lance looked starstruck, his cheeks flared red, his eyes wide, his lips still turned upward. When he balanced back on his feet, his head clonked against the wall behind him, but it didn’t stir his attention away from Keith’s face. His inhabited hands settled around Keith’s waist and soaked the shirt there, instead of his upper back. There was a shy nod rocking his head and a legible curl of the word always to his lips. Not needing to hear it aloud, Keith followed Lance to the wall and dove forward.

He tasted sweet. Lance always tasted sweet. But tonight, as a real boyfriend, he tasted even sweeter. There was a persisting taste of his favorite boba flavor on his lips and the stronger edge of his fruity gum rushing over all of Keith’s senses when he breathed in through his nose. And he couldn’t get enough of it. His kisses were sloppy, but gentle, because he’d waited too long for it to be perfect. He’d almost had it too many times to beat around the bush now. His mouth was working feverishly to chase after what had been out of reach, unattainable, for so long. The best part was how Lance was trying just as eagerly.

There was a whine from his mouth and a bump of the cups against Keith’s back when he’d swiped his tongue along the brunet’s bottom lip. Another desperate noise came when he dragged his teeth over the spot. Lance pulled back, just briefly, to hoarsely mutter, “I can’t.” He panted. “My hands, I want to,” at the reminder of hands, Keith let his free one slide to the hem of Lance’s tank top, along the hip, and cut the choked sentence in half. “Your hair, I can’t.” Keith could understand Lance’s mangled English—he clearly wanted to let his hands wander, to play with Keith’s hair—and yet he could only bring himself to make a mocking smirk at the whining. He swung forward again, catching Lance’s lips as he strangled out another discouraged, whimpering sound. He swallowed it in heated kisses.

He tugged back, pulling Lance with him like they were velcro, said, “I can,” with a smug scoff and grin. Squeezing the shirt and hip beneath his fingers, Keith resumed his kisses. It was driving him insane, the way Lance was arching into his lips and palm. He felt almost like he wasn’t doing enough because he was dizzy with excitement and high off of the taste of his fake—no, real —boyfriend, while the brunet pinned to the wall was still so steady in the way he was kissing back. How was it so easy for him to kiss back when Keith was losing his mind? How was it fair for him to feel on the brink of passing out simply by Lance clinging closer? And was he even making Lance feel good when he was too out of it from his own emotions to focus? A mewl into his mouth told him he must be doing just fine.

Lance seemed flustered by his release of the noise, his cups sloshing again as soon as it happened. Well, Keith thought that was the reason they splashed, at least. Really, they’d made the noise because Keith’s body pushed Lance harder against the wall when he’d made his contented sound. And God, that drove Lance mad. There was so much eagerness in the kiss, so much emotion expressing their exhaustion in waiting. All of Keith’s movements were unabated, caging him to the wall like he’d expected, but still so much better. Lance gripped the cups rigidly at the sensation because, now, the edge of his tank top had come up, so Keith was gripping his flesh now, not his clothes, and it was so much warmer. His thumb was rubbing circles into Lance’s hip, sending tingles up the brunet’s spine and heating the flesh until he couldn’t feel it anymore. The drag of his nails around the spot, circling and scribbling mindless drawings, was the last Lance could take and he pulled back to sigh and pant.

It was here Keith stepped back, too, smile wide across his lips to mirror Lance. They made eye contact and laughed, Keith pulling Lance closer so he could kiss his hairline. Where his boyfriend couldn’t see his smile, below Keith’s chin and with a nose to his collarbone, Lance shakily, with fear in his voice, asked a weakly squeaked question. “So, this means we’re real boyfriends, right?” Keith landed a few more kisses to his head, before he pushed Lance away so he could see his firm, excited nod. Lance’s face split into a bright grin. “Can I keep your jacket, then? It smells like you.”

Snorting, Keith kissed Lance’s lips and whispered, “Lance, you dumbass!” The brunet brought a hand to his lips to smother a laugh, dropping his drink in the process. It didn’t spill, but the shock of the noise made the smothering process just as much of a failure as the drink holding process. There were bubbling, uneven chortles dripping from his mouth like liquid. His face pressed closer, until Keith could make out every striking detail of his expression, and the brunet let out a heartier laugh. The way his cheeks squished his eyes as he smiled, the way his nose brushed Keith’s chin as he swayed forward in his laugh, the way his newly emptied hand came to cup Keith’s cheek; he could see it all. The sound of his laugh, the stutter of his shoes as he took a stumbling step closer to Keith, the slosh of ice in Keith’s drink as he brought it behind his back in another half baked hug; he could hear it all. The lingering taste of his lips, the scent of his fruity soaps, the faint trace of strawberry gum in his airy chuckle; he could taste it all.

The feel of Lance finally being so close was overwhelming.

Better still was knowing it wasn’t just Lance.

It was his boyfriend.

Leather jackets were expensive, but how the hell could he say no to all that?

“Obviously.”

Chapter Text

July twenty eighth, Lance’s birthday, fell on the weekend this year. A Saturday, to be specific. Keith had been dating Lance for a little over six months by the time that date rolled around and, since the rest of their friends were fully aware of their relationship by then, he’d asked them if they would help him plan something for Lance. After they agreed to assist, he asked Lance if he’d be okay with it. He wasn’t too good at planning surprises, so he figured it would be better to just come out with it and ask Lance straight up.

And the reaction had been positive. Actually, positive was the understatement of the year. Lance had been ecstatic; he’d leapt towards Keith, laughter tumbling from his lips, which were sprinkling kisses along Keith’s cheeks, as he incredulously asked the man if he was serious. He’d given a thoroughly clear number of positive answers when he was told that, yes, Keith was serious. The sight of his boyfriend so thrilled over something so simple was adorable, to put it simply, but it was also a huge weight across his back. Clearly, Lance’s expectations were lofty and he didn’t want to let him down. Luckily, he thought his plan for the twenty eighth was damn close to flawless.

Lance was none the wiser, though, and the Friday before his birthday, he went into work as usual. His coworkers had seemingly become better people over the past six months, since they’d stopped forcing him into uncomfortable situations. Something finally seemed to have clicked in their heads, solidifying the fact that Lance was not on the market in their minds. Instead of pestering him with pressure to date Kyle, now they were pestering him about birthday plans. They wanted all the juicy details about what he and Keith were going to do together. Lance told them, nervously, he didn’t know and that all he did know was that his friends had something planned for tomorrow.

“You mean like a surprise party,” Candice had said, not lifting her eyes from her phone. Finally pressing the button on the side, so the screen clicked and shut off, she slipped the electronic onto the counter behind her. Lance nodded in a sort of shrug motion, where his shoulders rolled as he bobbed his head. “Gross, that’s cheesy. Are we invited?” He thought for a moment, then supposed that, since his coworkers had become more bearable over the prior months, he could ask Keith to invite them, too. If he did the puppy eyes just right, he was sure the man would cave easily. “I’ll even get you a gift. I’m just really craving cake; throw me a bone here, Lance.”

The brunet finally nodded.

After work that night, Keith picked him up. He’d finally gotten a new car, with the help of his insurance because of the accident, but he and his boyfriend would still ride together sometimes. It was under the disguise of lessening their carbon footprint, but they both knew they were really doing it as an excuse to see each other and huddle close. When Keith had picked him up, he’d asked about inviting his coworkers to the party and the scowl he was met with left a tangible dread in his stomach. Like he’d eaten gravel and it had settled at the base of his stomach, so every time he moved, it shifted and jostled his organs uncomfortably. It was the kind of dread that had heat pooling at the base of his spine because he worried he’d done something, asked something, wrong. Lance was certain his face reflected his discomfort at that sensation.

He could feel his lip quivering slightly, as an inconsolable need to cry started to climb from the pool of heat in his back. It scaled his spine and doused his eyes until they stung and he opened his mouth to take back his request. Keith had huffed, though, his expression softening. He slipped his fingers through the hair above Lance’s ears, so he could tenderly cradle the sides of his face and bring their noses together. With just a hint of bitterness in his voice, a faint trace clearly not directed at Lance, he said, “if that’s what you want.” The brunet’s cheeks twitched as he started the wavering movements of a smile. “But if you’re doing this because they threatened you or something, I’m happy to--” Lance shook his head and Keith leaned his elbows back onto the handles of his bike, his eyes turning to glance forlornly away from his seat atop the back. “This include Kyle?” The sour aftertaste of Keith’s words had become more prominent.

The smaller man stepped around the front of the bike sothe two could make eye contact again. “Probably, I don’t wanna invite trouble by leaving him out.” Keith stuffed his face into the raised palm leaning on the handles of his motorcycle, which shrouded any reading of emotion Lance could get from his mouth. He’d smothered it while a scowl remained palpable in the downturn of his brows and the wrinkle of his nose. The brunet let a palm rest across the hand against Keith’s lips, before he peeled it back and urged his boyfriend to speak while his own brows fell into a similar, sad curve.

“Lance, I don’t trust him,” he muttered. His chin fell into the cup of the hand Lance wasn’t holding and he turned his gaze away. “He doesn’t know the word ‘no’ and I just.” His eyes slammed shut, his chin jutted farther away from pointing at Lance, and his lip was dragged between his teeth briefly. “He’s someone I can see hurting you and it scares me.” He looked up to meet Lance’s eyes, finally, as though he were gauging the brunet’s response while ready to cringe and look away at a moment’s notice, should Lance’s reaction be negative. But it wasn’t. It was passive; his eyes had lax lids and his mouth remained in a neutral position, which drove Keith to speak again. The haste with which he avoided silence painted his words with a tone of desperation. “But if you don’t think he’s that kind of guy, I trust your judgement.” His lips still peeled back in an almost indiscernible grimace, but it was clear he meant what he’d said about trusting Lance’s judgement.

And thus, from then on, all of Lance’s coworkers—and his boss—had been officially allowed to attend his party the next day and from the moment Keith begrudgingly emailed them their invitations, they were already more informed about what was going to happen than Lance was. Lance hadn’t been told anything. He didn’t know where it was going to be, what they were going to do, or even what time of day it was to take place, and it was all a lot less whimsical than he’d thought it would be. Lance believed himself the type of man who’d enjoy the romantic mush of having a boyfriend plan his party for him, but now that he was here, he realized his curiosity was eating away at the mystifying nature of his surprise. Now he was just anxiously awaiting the reveal.

Keith had insisted Lance spend the night at his place because, had Lance been at his own place, Keith would have had to tell him when he was going to be picked up, which would ruin the surprise of when the party was occuring, as a consequence. Keeping him over at Keith’s apartment was the easiest way to avoid that. Though that wasn’t to say the suggestion was entirely without ulterior motives. After all, Keith fully intended to pamper Lance from start to finish on his birthday and he couldn’t do that if they were in different apartments. He wanted to pepper kisses along Lance’s cheeks at exactly midnight until he woke up, so he could be the first person to wish him happy birthday. He wanted to be the one to see his bedhead and drooping eyelids when he woke up for the day. He wanted to let Lance sleep in late, snug in the loop of his arms and pressed lightly against his collarbone. He wanted to get the last smile in this year of Lance’s life and the first in his next.

Lance had been eager to give him the former, smiling smoothly the whole night. When they crawled into bed next to each other, hands meeting in an easy grip between them, he’d had a simple smile pressed to his lips like a stamp, rounding his face into a pleasant collection of curves. He’d lost his usual, angular features; they softened into a liquid expression of love and affection. It was a very obvious assortment of emotions. It was visible in the soft slipping of his eyelids into a comfortable droop that covered half of his lovestruck gaze. It was tangible in his lips as he brought them up to meet Keith’s. It was a vivid taste when he began to steadily move those lips in a way that allowed Keith to still easily feel the smile along them.

As they pulled their mouths apart and started to fall asleep, Lance had his forehead leaned against Keith’s and they shared a pillow. He found himself wondering if this moment alone was his gift and his party. The swell of affection in his chest certainly felt like a hefty gift, after all. He would have been completely content with just a day of cuddling with Keith as his present because, truly, their relationship alone was far more than he could ever express gratitude for.

And he’d never thought of Keith as a romantic type of guy, but he made it very clear, very early on, that he was.

He was the type of guy who’d send Lance random texts throughout the day, just as an excuse to talk. They were sweet, short, little things, like a sappy I love you or a short, unpunctuated I miss you. There were times he’d text Lance with a random story from the middle of his workday, with an underlying message of I wish you were here, because my coworkers are insufferable. And there were the times, quite possibly his favorite times, when Keith would come across a meme—where his grandpa ass got them, Lance honestly didn’t know—that he thought Lance would like and he’d send it.

He was the type of guy who’d get him things, without an occasion, just because he’d thought of Lance when he’d seen it. Like the time he’d stumbled across a single flower at the grocery store and brought it home for Lance because, he’d said, the way it was wilting reminded him of Lance. It had been unbearably offensive, but the way he’d barely been able to choke out the statement over his suffocating laughter made it clear he was kidding. And even though the rose was an ugly shade of dirtied pink and its stem was a wilting, reddening green, Lance was flattered Keith had thought of him when looking at anything. Because, while he was sure Keith didn’t think he was as ugly as a dried up, shrivelled up, thirty cent plant, he’d clearly thought about how Lance might get a laugh out of the mock gift and that alone was a gift.

He was the type of guy who’d always try his best for Lance.

And it seemed Lance’s birthday wasn’t an exception to that rule. Not that he’d expected it to be underwhelming or born from a lack of Keith’s effort, but at the strike of midnight, it was already far more heartwarming than he’d thought possible. Keith woke him up just to kiss along his cheekbones and tell him happy birthday; having set an alarm in his dedication to pamper Lance. It would have annoyed the brunet, had it been anyone else. But his boyfriend ruining his already barely functional schedule further, just so he could make certain Lance felt loved was too sweet to be mad at. And even with the heavy drag of his lids and the fog in his head, it was easy to read the love behind the action and impossible to feel anything negative as a result. His love had been made so tangible.

It was written in his tired eyes, watching Lance wake with a gentle sheen to them, as though he was excited just to see Lance exist. It was written in his kisses when he bent forward to pepper more along his forehead and nose. It was written in the smile he had as he did it, wide and kind and steady. It was written in the motion of him running his hands through Lance’s hair to lull him back to sleep before he’d ever even truly woken up. It was written in his words when he wished him happy birthday one more time. It was written in the way he pulled Lance to his chest so they could find themselves asleep again.

It was starkly present in his breath when he told Lance he loved him.

It was just as obvious when Lance said it back.

And then, before the brunet even noticed the moment was over, a new one was beginning when he woke up to the smell of something surprisingly good.

There was a lack of heat next to him, only a lukewarm imprint of his boyfriend occupying the folded back sheet. It left Lance feeling cold, but when he smelled the heated scent of blueberry pancakes, his stomach filled with a pleasant burn again. His toes curled and cracked before he folded his own half of the bedsheet to place them along the wooden floorboards. They seemed to turn to ice against the frigid substance, but he swung his weight atop them regardless. He padded towards where he knew the kitchen was, squinting at the light streaming in through the open windows.

The front room was filled with the sounds of the summer. There was a buzz of cars passing the street outside, the tingling of the wind chime along Keith’s windowsill, the matching chirps of birds in the tall oak tree nearby, and the sizzle of bacon in the pan across the stove. He honed in on the last one, following it to find Keith huddled around the source, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Lance thought he looked cute like that, intent and focused on succeeding at something. His mouth was drawn tight, like it was a stretch for it even to be pulled along the length of his face, and his eyes hadn’t shifted from their intense stare at the slice of meat on the pan. His mouth opened, forming around silent words—numbers—as he counted out how much longer the bacon had to cook. His head bobbed in a wordless nod, before he dumped the food onto a plate from the pan.

Lance waddled up, with no intention of being stealthy, and laid his nose in the divet between Keith’s shoulder blades. He hadn’t tried to be sneaky, but it seems he’d caught his boyfriend unaware anyway, and the man dropped his spatula into the grease pooling and crackling against the pan. The brunet slipped his arms underneath Keith’s, squishing them between the other man’s sleeves and the shirt wrinkled about his waist. His hands came together loosely around Keith’s front and his nose pressed deeper into the soft fuzz of the wear in the shirt. He felt the hum of Keith’s words tracing the man’s spine, then passing into his face, still pressed close, and then down his back, too.

“Sleep okay?” Lance dragged his forehead up and down the fabric he was nuzzled against in answer. He breathed out a muffled question of the time, his lips sliding steadily along the cover of Keith’s skin in a way that made the taller man shudder. “It’s like two fifteen,” he answered. Lance nodded again, curling his lips to kiss the spot he was nestled in, but Keith shifted away. The man passed Lance a plate of mouthwatering—surprisingly so—breakfast and slipped a finger into the nook right behind the brunet’s ear. Lance eagerly accepted both actions, loose grip coming around the dish and head tilting into the gentle, but heated and numbing, touch. His eyes shut, yet he could still see the twitch of Keith’s smile as he laughed, even from under the cover of his eyelids. He’d seen it for real so many times, after all. With a partially snuffed out chuckle, so it only wafted towards Lance as a quiet huff of smoke and not a full blown wave of a giddy flame, Keith spoke. “And don’t worry, Hunk taught me how to make pancakes without burning them, so they should be at least halfway decent.” Lance didn’t doubt that; they looked divine.

And to be fair, so did Keith. His hair was ruffled with the tousled locks of someone who’d been running his hands through his hair in concentration. There was a smudge of raw pancake batter along the swell of his cheekbone and another slipping down the dip of his nose,  as though he’d dragged his bangs out of his eyes without realizing his fingers were dirty. His lips had a trace of the batter as well, with just as small a fraction of a smile along the flesh, too. His eyes were focused on Lance, welling with a look of love that filled the surrounding air with something palpable.

The love was thick in the oxygen flowing into his lungs and it fell heavily against his shoulders. His spine felt like it was about to bend under the pressure of it and pass the responsibility of keeping Lance upright to his wobbly ankles and jello knees. His lungs barely managed to force the lead air back out past his lips on the back of a heavy, awestruck sigh. Keith brushed his fingers in slow circles behind his ear, an absentminded repetition of a movement that had Lance on the verge of sighing again. He was so fucking smitten.

And when the taste of breakfast was just as addicting as the love he could feel in waves from the man who’d been touching him, his heart swelled even more. The food was delicious. And not the feigned kind of delicious, where Lance pretended to like it because he knew his boyfriend was trying; it was genuinely and completely perfect. Once again, Lance found himself totally content with the idea of the events thus far being his only gift today. He couldn’t put a price tag on the joy he felt bubbling in his stomach by the time he placed his fork back down on the plate. The ease didn’t last long.

The clinks of silverware against plates had just ended, and Lance slumped back against his chair, full and content. But before Lance even had a chance to settle back into listening to the surrounding summer sounds of the warm breeze rustling leaves and the cicadas singing, Keith was dragging him out of his chair and telling him to get dressed. “C’mon only ten hours of your birthday left,” he murmured, nudging Lance back to his bedroom, where he stuffed Lance and then left him. He stumbled off to the kitchen to do the dishes.

When Lance reemerged from his room and was wearing something other than the shaggy fabrics of his pajamas, Keith smiled and initiated the next part of his birthday plan. He was executing an extremely admirable amount of focus, if he was honest with himself. Between observing Lance, asking around for any tidbit of information about what he’d like, and the actual putting together of the event, he’d been working on today’s events for nearly half a month now. It was taking everything in him not to just gush about the whole thing because, truly, he believed he’d outdone himself and all he wanted to know was whether or not his boyfriend agreed.

A smile still raising the corners of his lips, Keith passed a strip of cloth to the brunet in front of him. The man’s eyes scanned the cloth uncertainly, swiping over the item slowly, before flicking to Keith and back quickly. He had yet to accept it, so Keith dragged a tongue across his bottom lip nervously. “Put it on,” he said, shaking the cloth shortly, so Lance’s eyes refocused on the length of blue in his palms. They weren’t glued there long, though, rising to meet Keith’s face as the brunet wrapped his fingers around the item to retrieve it.

“Put it on? On what?” He lifted the fabric up, twirling it in his fingers as he did, and it was held between his eyes and the source of light in the room. His throat released a contemplative hum and he brought it closer to his eyes. “I see,” he murmured, a smug sort of realization rising to his lips as he flashed a devious grin. “Oh, Keith.” His words were buzzing airily now, low and dragged out, falling almost to the pitch of a moan. His eyelids fell in a slow, sensual blink. “I didn’t peg you as the type of guy who’s into that,” he purred. His words were scalding and Keith was glad he was covering his eyes with the cloth because, dammit, if he’d shot a look as sultry as his words, Keith would certainly be done for. Whether he’d faint, or whether he’d give into whatever fantasy Lance was having about that makeshift blindfold, he didn’t know; but he did know he wouldn’t be able to resist anything Lance asked for, if he asked for it with that eager tone of voice. And should it combine forces with the strength of his puppy eyes, he might as well order a coffin now.

His ears had gone hot. So had his neck. There was what felt like a spill of boiling water climbing his spine and pooling along the back of his neck, turning the flesh fiery in both color and feeling. The beginnings of the back part of his scalp were being invaded by a heavy batch of molten something-or-other and he couldn’t identify anything except the way Lance was dragging his bottom lip between his teeth as he focused on tying the blindfold. The way his flesh gave way easily beneath the bite. The way Keith was losing his two week long focus so easily, now that Lance was here, getting up close and personal in the process. “That’s not,” the man squeaked, correcting Lance’s dirty minded assumption.

“You’re not into it? Too bad,” Lance quipped back, quickly, but deliberately so. His mouth was curling into an obviously feigned pout.

“Wait, no, that’s not what I meant.” Keith’s ears had cooled a bit.

“Oh? So you are into this?” His ears flared again.

Lance, ” he huffed; an exasperated, scolding noise. “That’s not what we’re doing right now.” Lance was still fumbling with the cloth and it slipped from one hand to fall over one side of his nose, so a single eye was uncovered and shown to be crinkled at the edges in a villainous grin. It squished further when he, undoubtedly, took in the flustered shades of pink and red to his boyfriend’s cheeks and smiled wider. When he saw the leak of rose colored stains dripping and bubbling on the surface of his skin. He licked his lips and it was slow and heavy and seductive, whether he meant it to be or not. Keith resisted the overwhelming urge to rush forward and abandon his two week long mission. It almost seemed like it would be worth it, just for a taste of those lips. And for a whiff of that freshly shampooed hair, a lick of that flesh beneath his jaw, a bite of that dip above his collarbones, a nibble of one of those ears, and certainly for a sucking mouthful of that strip of skin between his neck and shoulder. Anything that would give him an earful of noises as sultry as the gaze he was being fed so eagerly.

“Not now? So later?” Lance took a step forward, letting the other end of the cloth slip from his elegant fingertips. He swept them up to hold the ends of Keith’s hair again, just as he licked his lips; it was obvious this time he meant to be sexy, as he let his eyes turn pleading and his mouth fall open after. A breath of hot, toothpaste scented air landed across Keith’s lips, so he licked them as eagerly as Lance had his own earlier. His hands went instinctually to the small of Lance’s back, his brain went fuzzy, and his fingers slipped just slightly up the sides of Lance’s shirt to rub his waist.

Heart stopping, he realized he was giving in, and he started to stutter. “Obviously.” His boyfriend raised a smug eyebrow. “ Not. Obviously not, ” he choked. Lance released a disappointed whine and Keith relented again. “Maybe. I mean, that’s not the point right now!” His hands reached swiftly for the cloth Lance had abandoned. He motioned for the man to turn around, and when he did, Keith began refastening it against the bridge of his nose and over the curls of his eyelashes. A shame it was, he mused, to hide any of the glisten in his deeply blue eyes or any of the sheen along his golden skin. As if he’d lost all self control, he swung himself around Lance and pressed his lips lightly to each swell of his hidden eyelids. They were fluttering kisses, feathery like the salty breezes that swept in from the ocean on a calm day and full of all the tender affection he felt every time he spotted Lance. And they were also fleetingly airy like the laugh Lance let drip from his lips in answer, so light Keith swore the sound would accumulate as a cloud or a mist before he truly got to savor it. He wondered if Lance thought the same about the motion of his lips dotting easily across his closed eyes.

They weren’t, however, soft like the knock at the door.

Because that wasn’t soft at all. It was stark and startling, like a punch directly against Keith’s eardrum that he’d been too focused on Lance to see coming. The man stumbled back, as though he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t be doing, and rushed to the door. Lance made a drawn out, half-authentic, quiet scream; it was a weak noise to express his panic at being blinded and feeling his only source of direction, Keith’s body heat, slip away. Keith laughed and saw the brunet whip around to face where he was, his hands coming out in front of him as he groped the air in search of Keith. Like a game of Marco Polo, the man slipped away before Lance could reach him and headed for the door to answer it. As per his birthday plan, Hunk was at the door, car keys in hand and snickers peeling his lips back—though the latter wasn’t laid out ahead of time. Keith had his own collection of excited noises stuffed silently in his throat, so his lips curled, too.

He’d packed a bag of things Lance would need for today a while ago—his plan had been two weeks in the making, after all—and it sat in wait in the closet by the door. Snatching it, he passed it to Hunk and stumbled  back to his boyfriend. His eyes locked on the man just in time to see him hit a wall with his forehead and, ever smitten with the idea of playing the role of Lance’s hero, he swooped in. It was done with all the speed of a hawk diving to snatch its prey, but the way his palms gripped Lance’s thighs and spine, pulling him up into his arms, was anything but that display of viciousness.

“Whoa, whoa, what’s going on? Who was that at the door?” Lance tried to wrap his arms around Keith’s neck for stability, but he ended up slapping along his cheeks with his lack of sight. The taller man smiled wider at the smacks, content with the way they morphed into hands gripping his face and sliding down to find his nape. Shuffling the man in his arms, he kissed the crown of his head, but gave no answer. There was an indignant squawk in response. “Keith, c’mon, just tell me! I’m dying of curiosity, here!”

“We’re going to the party, obviously,” he said, relishing the way the brunet in his arms squirmed and tugged on Keith’s hair in frustration. Lance threw his head back and huffed, while he knocked his knuckles against Keith’s temple in a scolding manner. But then he lifted his fingertips to the hem of the blue cloth drawing a line over his equally blue eyes, and it had Keith panicking. “Hey, no, no, you can’t do that!” His hands were full, so he swung his forehead down to bat the wandering fingers away. There was a grin stretching across the smaller man’s lips, smug and shining, like a feral grin crossed with the twinkle of the Milky Way on a clear night. His scolding did nothing and Lance merely wiggled his fingers closer to the fabric. “Stop it!” A mangled curse word dribbled from his lips as he turned to Hunk with a pleading, desperate, soggy dog stare.

The man at the door moved until he was a foot away from Keith, having dropped Lance’s bag at the entrance, and he opened his arms to the prospect of being passed the brunet. Keith agreed to the unspoken suggestion, nudging his boyfriend over as if he weighed nothing more than a sack of rice. Lance stopped reaching for his blindfold when he found himself in different arms, instead stretching his fingertips towards the new face above him. His lips were parted in concentration, his thumbs traced over the curves and edges of Hunk’s face, and only after he’d mapped every inch of flesh along the bridge of the man’s nose and cheeks, did he let a smile tug at his lips. Well, sadly, that was one surprise ruined, but at least it had saved the rest from being revealed.

Keith had been reluctant to give the task of holding Lance away. In fact, he hadn’t even wanted Hunk to be the one to take Lance to the party; he’d wanted to have the man wrapped around his waist and drenched in his presence when they pulled up. And yet, it was a necessary sacrifice because there was no way he’d let Lance ride his motorcycle blindfolded. It would have been cute for him to cling to him, but it wasn’t worth the risk. No, none of it was worth chancing an injury on his boyfriend. Not even the swelter of added heat in the already scorching summer sun, the bubbling in his stomach at the idea of Lance depending on him so openly, the ache of his boyfriend’s helmet pressed nervously and desperately against the muscles of his shoulder, or even the feel of his fingers grasping the front of Keith’s shirt.

So, just as reluctantly, Keith trailed behind Hunk and Lance, scooped up Lance’s bag, and followed them into the former’s minivan. He got his boyfriend back when his fingers reached goallessly towards him in the back seat. He got him back when those fingers found his own and the black leather covering them, and he got him back when the grip immediately latched onto him. He got him back when the brunet turned to flash him a bright, albeit slightly incorrectly aimed, grin. It sparkled with an undying appreciation for everything Keith had put into planning this and the man realized that one simple smile had already made every last hour of his overworked time utterly worth it. There was no universe where that wouldn’t be enough. Not with the way it glowed, beamed, positively radiated adoration. Like the embers of a flame that did nothing more than soothe and warm the viewers palms as they reached out towards it; like the same embers that were steaming all around Keith’s throbbing heart.

And if he thought that wisp of a smile was radiant, the smile he got when he finally revealed the location of the party was a solar flare.

He’d let Lance grip his wrists with jittery, excited fingers as he lifted his hands towards the blindfold. His heart was pounding so hard his arms were shaking; his nerves had been so loud, he almost didn’t hear his boyfriend eagerly calling his name and urging him to take the cloth off already. He hadn’t been able to do anything but hope he’d made the right choice in what he’d planned for Lance’s birthday. Steadying the pulse climbing to the ends of his fingertips, the man let those tips dance across the fabric over Lance’s eyes and take it off.

And then that smile.

And then that smile.

That open mouth, teeth glinting in the sunlight, bunched up cheeks smile. The kind that had his heart revving up and crashing into a startled halt all at once. Because he was the one to elicit such a heart warming, stomach churning, breath stifling smile.

Lance’s eyes, once uncovered, reflected the whole scene around them. Keith could see himself in the focus of those pools of darkened blue, but he could also see the sand of the beach, the lighter blue of the cloud dotted sky, and the inky greens of the ebbing and returning tide. And sprinkled in various colors against the mirror-like surface of his favorite eyes, was the collection of Lance’s friends and coworkers Keith had assembled. There was a white tabletop there, too, crowded with the gifts said partygoers had brought, and the beginnings of a campfire for cooking dinner. It all had such positive reactions from Lance and it placated Keith, but then Keith was the only thing on that surface and his heart shuddered again. Was Lance’s smile truly an indication of a success?

“This is,” the brunet breathed, eyes twinkling more with a few dewdrops of tears bubbling from his eyes. “This is so much. You worked really hard, huh?” And Keith was beginning to think this was a pity-filled expression of gratitude. A bunch of apologies swarmed his mind and started to clamber up the length of his windpipe, but luckily Lance let a softer smile drip along the crevice between his lips, like the flesh was a lukewarm wax pooling into a malleable curve. “Thank you, it’s… you outdid yourself. It’s perfect.” He inched forward and pressed a kiss against Keith’s own pair of shapeshifting, wax lips. The stress left the ladder it was climbing inside Keith’s throat.

Then the tender moment was over and the party began, instantly in full swing. Keith had passed Lance his bag of the day’s items and pointed him at the public restroom he could use to change into his swimsuit. He followed Lance there, opting to change and partake in the swimming festivities as well. His boyfriend linked their fingers together and he flashed another succession of grateful grins Keith’s way, so his skin reflected the sunlight on different parts of his cheeks. Keith wanted to kiss every sprinkle of glowing sun on his golden skin; he wanted to kiss them until his lips were as warm as the flesh along his own neck, which was under the attack of the brutal sun. He almost did, but then Lance pulled away to enter a bathroom stall and Keith was left watching him trail away, lovesick smile crept up into the crow’s feet crowning the corners of his eyes.

They went back to the party hand in hand, too, just the same as they’d left.

Since they’d just eaten breakfast, dinner was pushed off until later and the gifts were deemed the first festivity of the afternoon. Much to his anxiety and dismay, Keith watched as the name tag on his gift was read, then the whole bag pushed to the end of the line of presents. There was a wink, then a gentle, bubbly cry of, “I’ve gotta save the best for last!” And he, without complaint, watched Lance open every other gift before his own. Nearly every gift, since Lance’s boss had texting saying she’d be an hour or so late.

As impatient as he was, as overwhelmed by the nervous tapping of his foot as he was, Keith had to admit everyone’s gifts had been excellent. Even Kyle, the asshole he was still convinced had not a decent bone in his body, had gotten Lance something nice. Keith was smug, though, because Lance had put his coworker’s personal card aside to read—or, more likely, burn—later.

Finally, the line of presents whittled down to just Keith’s, like Lance’s line of customers dwindled down to just Keith every lunch break at work. It felt like everyone was holding their breaths for this gift, drumming their fingers, silencing their words, until the splash of waves on the sand was loud and painful in Keith’s ears. This gift was just a placeholder, the real gift was tucked away in Lance’s bag to be removed at only the most opportune moment, yet Keith felt his palms get clammy with anxiety. It was like he’d wrapped his hands tightly around an ice cube and it was thawing against his flushed skin, reddening it further and causing a steady drip of cold sweat. Lance twisted the covered object in his less clammy grip and Keith felt his breath hitch when he began to peel the wrapping paper back.

It didn’t even matter, he tried to remind himself. This gift was an extra, an add on, a facade for the gift he had planned for later. But it didn’t help any of the twitches of his own fingertips as he watched Lance’s unfurl the outer shell of the gift. As it peeled back completely, so did his lips, revealing a leather jacket and a smile, respectively. Lance lifted the former in front of his face, spinning it and observing each neatly stitched seam. He was about to place it back on the table they’d set up, a phrase of gratitude already reaching out past his curving lips, but Keith stopped him with a gentle hand to his wrist. Lifting Lance’s digits from the gift he’d been given, Keith peeled back one unzipped flap over the front of the garment. The inside was lined with some silky substance, though he wasn’t knowledgeable enough to know what exactly the fabric was, and hand sewn onto the soft insides was a patch he’d found online. He revealed the patch to Lance and watched the man read the delicate, swirling, red lettering, while Keith’s shoulders and cheeks were glowing the same ruby shade.

And Lance just smiled.

No, no, not just.

He beamed. His lips managed to pull even farther back from his teeth to sparkle an even brighter grin. His smile was shining the same way as his eyes and as the reflection of sunlight on the crests of nearby waves. Keith wiped his sweaty hands against the plastic-feeling cloth of his swim trunks; they didn’t wet again after, as he’d stopped his nervous sweating because his boyfriend was still smiling. Lance looked at him gleefully and he swore he saw the entire universe reflected across his features. The stars, the earth, whole galaxies, the universe . There was the glow of the sun mapped across his flesh, the smell of the fruits of the earth slipping from the wisps of his hair, and the galaxies reflected heartily in the shimmer of his wrinkling eyes. Lance was his universe.

“This is such a meme, I love it,” he squeezed past his laughs. The rest of the party crept closer, huddling around the gift in an attempt to read the neatly scrawled, lace handwriting. Keith didn’t bother; he’d sewn the patch on himself and he knew perfectly well what it said. You’re the ‘yee’ to my ‘haw’ . He honestly hated it. Entirely. He’d seen it online, one of his coworkers having sent it to him with a string of laughing emojis, and immediately upon reading it, he’d wanted nothing more than to burn it. He thought it was stupid and deplorable, its existence so completely and utterly insulting to the entirety of the human race, he wanted to smite it off the face of the earth. But, he groaned because it was exactly the kind of moronic item Lance would love. Just as quickly as he’d wanted to watch it sizzle into ashes, he tugged his debit card regretfully from his pocket. And he’d watched videos on how to sew. And he’d worked extra hard on that stupid meme of a gift, all because he knew it would get that universe bending smile to tumble across Lance’s cheeks.

And, he supposed, it was worth the self inflicted torture to watch him smile like that.

Thus, the gifts ended and the food began. It had been a few hours since they last ate, but neither he nor Lance were all that hungry—a flaw in Keith’s daily plan he was loath to admit—and they barely touched the barbecued goods being handed around. The same food would be there later, though, so Keith didn’t consider his flaw to be too glaring a failure.

He and Lance went straight to swimming and, while he couldn’t vouch for his boyfriend’s thoughts on the matter, he believed the brunet looked excellent. Greens and blues and whites, all present in abundance on the horizon behind him, did wonders for the glow of his complexion. His eyes were like someone had taken all the colors in the depths of the ocean and dumped them into a blender, then poured them over stark white as two circles of beautiful smoothie around his pupils. His arms were toned, his legs were long, and his stomach poked forth with the bulge of their heavy breakfast underneath; he was stunning.

Lance thought the same of Keith as he watched the flow of traffic behind his boyfriend and over the hill of the beach. His hair matched the dark onyx of the road, his skin twinkled a lovely peach color in the yellow sun, and his eyes were dark and endless, flecked with a drizzle of the same sunny gold as his skin. His gaze was as if it were the result of someone who had taken pieces of obsidian and twirled a spoonful of honey atop each. Cracking his neck to either side, the man’s shoulders were suddenly the view worthy of a postcard or a statue: broad and muscled and mindlessly exposed to all of Lance’s gawking. His chest was firm, but just like Lance, his stomach swelled under the pressure of the whole day’s worth of food he’d consumed at breakfast. And just like Keith thought of Lance, Lance thought Keith was stunning, too.

By the time they’d each finished their subtle eye sweeping and ogling, nearly everyone had moved to the water. Keith and Lance went to join the rest of their close friends, leaving a few more distant friends and Lance’s coworkers chatting along the sand. Before the taller of the two actually let his foot drift to, and touch, the swiping waves along the damp sand, however, he called out to Lance, who’d long since bounded in. “Hey, babe, I’m gonna go grab a soda,” he shouted, hoping it reached his boyfriend over the loud sounds of waves crashing along the rocks nearby and the ocean breeze against his ear canals. The brunet waved once in acknowledgement, then he pressed a kiss against that hand and waved it again towards Keith. With a lovesick smile, the man asked, “Lance, do you want me to get you anything?” He was given a thumbs up—nothing else was needed, since he knew what Lance liked to drink—and then his boyfriend was back to aiming harsh splashes of water at Hunk and Pidge.

Keith tried not to let his mind dwell on all the negatives of the day as he padded towards the drink cooler farther up on the sand. It had been a success, after all. It didn’t matter that he’d forgotten to remind Lance to put on sunscreen or that he’d subsequently likely get an earful tomorrow for it. It didn’t matter that the temperature was just a little too hot or that there were just a few too many clouds in the sky. It didn’t matter that Lance’s swimsuit hadn’t fit quite right. None of that made any difference because, ultimately, Lance was over in the water, having the time of his life. As he pulled the lid of the cooler back and dipped his fingers into the ice cradled inside, he chose to think about that: the successes, the spoils, and the smiles.

Until he couldn’t.

There was a snippet of a conversation tugging his attention away from his Lance muddled considerations of the party’s merit. And it tugged it harshly. Behind a nearby umbrella, he heard the hushed whispers of a private conversation and he’d fully intended to leave it as such—none of his business and hidden away from him in a secluded patch of sand. And yet, he heard Lance’s name in the fray of other loosely tossed words and all his intentions went out the window. Still out of their sight and behind the umbrella, he stepped closer to listen in.

“God,” a voice breathed. It made Keith’s scalp itch uncomfortably. It was like someone had mentioned lice and all his skin began to crawl instinctually. Not to mention, that voice was jarringly familiar. “He looks so good in that swimsuit.” There was a sprout of an identity in his mind—the name of which was Lance—and with it came an even itchier feel to his skin. A shudder ran up his spine at the mere idea of someone talking about his boyfriend like that, with a tone that dipped into something primitive: a growl, a husk of anything even remotely human. And then the tone swooped into something more flowy and easy as the man on the other side of the umbrella said, “maybe I can get him to take it off for me, too.”

Keith whipped away from the umbrella and stumbled back to the drink cooler as though it was true to its name; he needed to cool his head. He wanted to tear that umbrella down and deck the man who sat behind it in the face. He had a sneaking suspicion it was Kyle, but he didn’t know the man’s voice well enough to ascertain anything. His ears began to tune out the awful conversation, but a new speaker made herself known and yanked his attention right back. “I mean didn’t you say you saw him meet with his boyfriend behind the shop one night and then come out with a black eye later? Maybe he needs you to intervene, Kyle.” There was an agreeable grumble from the man he now knew was Kyle. “But, I mean, I dunno how you’re planning to get him alone. He and Keith are pretty much always within arms’ length of each other.”

Keith was livid. They were insinuating he gave Lance that black eye and he knew it. He knew every bratty, little lie they were spilling and the gossip it would inevitably spread. He took his fingers out from being buried in the ice and brought only a bottle of Sunny-D with it for Lance. He’d lost his thirst upon hearing all the disturbing rumors; his stomach was too stirred to digest anything, he suspected. With a kick to the sand, he was turning on his heel and heading towards his boyfriend. He wanted nothing more than to bring him his drink and warn him of the threat his coworkers were presenting. Making Lance’s work life awkward was very high on his not to-do list. He didn’t want to pick a fight with the two strangers behind the umbrella, he didn’t want to say a word to them, but then Kyle said something unforgivable.

“I mean,” he’d begun, stirring Keith’s attention dimly back to the sounds seeping from the fabric of the umbrella. “I could always slip something in his drink.”

And Keith’s heart stopped.

Genuinely, truly, it did.

He swore the world was oscillating back and forth; it all felt too fast, too loud, too heavy. Either the sand beneath his feet caved in or his ankles turned to jelly and he very nearly broke his nose against the mucky, grainy powder. But he managed to stumble back to the cooler because under no circumstances would this menace be allowed anywhere near any of the drinks. No fucking way. That was the firmest declaration of a threat Keith had ever heard and he had no intention of letting him follow through. He dug his feet into the sand next to the cooler, knocking a few ounces of the substance along the towel it sat upon, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care. Nor did he want to. The bigger concern was rounding the bright colors of the umbrella, after all.

Keith leveled a knowing glare with Kyle immediately and he clenched Lance’s drink so hard the plastic of its container bent under the weight. There was a broken, white line across the bottle’s neck when he finally unfurled his fingers again; he had the ill-conceived thought to do the same to Kyle’s neck. Said man was approaching warily, seemingly trying to piece together whether or not Keith had heard his threat. The taller man watched him reach into the cooler to grab a Sunny-D that mirrored the one in his own palm, sure to crack his knuckles so Kyle could hear. He was trying to slink back past Keith, towards the water’s edge and the vulnerable form of Keith’s boyfriend there.

The man’s shoulders were bunched up around his neck as he tiptoed around Keith’s towering form. They crept further up his neck when his waking nightmare placed a tight, painfully tight, grip around his shoulder. “I hope you don’t plan on giving that drink to anyone,” he growled, aiming the statement pointedly so Kyle would know he knew his intentions. That bastard, had he packed some drug earlier? Had he, from the start, fully intended to drug Lance on his birthday? What an asshole.

“Uh.” A weak look passed his features for the duration of the silence following that absentminded stutter. “Yeah, I was just gonna give it to Lance. ‘Cuz it’s his birthday and all.” No shame, either, it seemed. Keith felt his tongue get hot against the roof of his mouth, as though the muscles were straining to keep it from lashing harsh, protective words out at Kyle. He ground his teeth together, composing himself enough to refrain from snapping the bastard’s neck.

His teeth remained pressed tightly, frustratedly together when he responded. “That’s not necessary,” Keith snarled. “I’m already bringing him a drink.” He shook the sugary drink halfheartedly so it drew attention to itself with the faint slosh of the orange liquid. It swished too loudly in his ears, crashing with all the force of the ocean’s waves in a storm, because his brain was fuzzy and all he could focus on was that drink. That and the excuse, explanation, or rebuttal clinging to Kyles lips as he opened them in preparation of a statement. “Look, I overheard your conversation and--”

“And what? ” Keith took a wary step backwards at the hiss in Kyle’s tone. “You’re mad because we caught onto the way you gave Lance a black eye?” The accused’s mouth fell open. He knew that was what they thought, or were pretending to think to ease their consciences, but he hadn’t expected them to straight up throw it in his face like that. It felt like someone had spat right between his brows and he was so caught up in the way he could imagine the insult rolling down the dip in his nose as a drip of the vicious slobber it felt like, he found himself at a complete loss for words. It was as though someone had stolen every bit of air from his lungs and every shuddering thought from his skull. He was filled with the urge to do something, but he’d lost any idea as to what that something could be.

And then another form joined the group.

Lance.

His hair was wet and so were his cheeks, sparkling just like the surface of the water he’d just emerged from. Those soaked locks were ruffled about his head and curling; they were the picturesque kind of sloppy Keith had become accustomed to seeing traced along the edges of Lance’s form. His colors were those of a watercolor painting, something that suited Lance well, with pastel shades of the orange sun illuminating the tips of his ears and the washed out, tan color of his barely sunburned flesh. And then there was the white sheen of his toothy smile, like he truly was a painted sketch along ivory paper and the shining canvas was poking through the whites of his eyes and the glow of his immaculate teeth. Those teeth parted to speak to Keith. “Hey, you’ve been over here a while, everything alright?” Keith was still too focused on the danger emanating from Kyle to answer. “I know you don’t do well with crowds, so if you wanna step out a minute, I get it!” Another beat of silence. “I can come with, if you want?”

His smile had slipped into a concerned downturn of his lips and his hand reached out to brush a thumb along Keith’s grimacing features. Before he could make contact, though, Kyle’s hand tugged his touch away. “You don’t have to go with him,” the asshole muttered, pulling Lance a few inches closer, so a confused opening appeared between his lips. A silent word of confusion was legible on his mouth, but Keith was still frozen. “I know he hurt you, but you don’t have to go with him if you don’t want.” The brunet was yanking his wrist back, but Kyle was stronger than he looked and his fingers would not release their hold.

“Kyle, what?” Lance gave a particularly harsh jerk of his arm, but his coworker merely pulled him closer in response. There was a yelp at that. “I have no idea what you’re saying! Keith didn’t— wouldn’t ever —do that!” Another tug, another hand along his skin. This one landed against the bare curve of his spine and Lance tried to squirm back. He called Keith’s name weakly, flicking a quick look to his boyfriend. And yet, Keith was too dizzy; he hadn’t even registered that he should be doing something. Lance needed him, but he was too occupied with panicking to move. “Let go of me,” the brunet pleaded.

The plea was met with the shift of both of Kyle’s hands to his shoulders. And tears were pooling in the smaller man’s eyes, making the orbs shimmer in the way Keith most certainly did not like. He fired one more begging look to Keith and finally, finally, the man woke up. He took a hasty step forward, fist clenched and readied before the first foot had even hit the sand. His arm drew back, then swung forward with more momentum than he even knew he was capable of producing. It collided and it was, undoubtedly, the most satisfying moment of the whole day. There was a deliciously sickening crack of Kyle’s cheek when it hit and the asshole let go of Lance as he tumbled backwards from the force, allowing the brunet to rush to hide behind Keith. His back hit the sand and a rush of choking air was forced out of his lungs like he was a popped balloon. The other person who’d been behind the umbrella came scurrying out upon hearing the ruckus. It was Candice and she got there just in time to hear Keith shout, “Lance told you to let go, shithead!”

Kyle groaned, sat up, and cradled his swollen cheek. He sprang to his feet again with his trembling hand clenched into a furious fist, like he was liquid and he’d absorbed the shock of Keith’s punch with nothing more than a ripple to his form. And yet, he still wasn’t a match for Keith and all his pent up, tied back anger that he was finally letting loose, whose knuckles bashed his nose in this time. And the action was met with another fumbling step back, then an ass on the ground, and Keith was taking a hasty step forward to land a few more hits. His foot was angled to stomp viciously on Kyle’s crotch when there was a tug of Lance against his arm to make him reconsider. “Keith,” he’d breathed. And just like that, Keith was refocused on what really mattered. Was Lance injured? Did he need anything?

There was a figure behind Lance, too, clad in a pale, pink, flowery sundress, and she was carrying a neatly wrapped gift over her stomach. The woman shifted her sunglasses from the bridge of her nose to the top of her head and her lips pulled back to reveal a feral sneer. Keith’s back straightened, as though he’d been the one caught guilty in this scene, as though he’d been the one in the wrong, but Allura whisked past him entirely and towered over Kyle’s form instead. Swinging her gift for Lance under one arm, she began to hiss quietly, like her stinging words were nothing more than the buzz of an insect flying next to Keith’s ear. “Don’t bother coming into work on Monday, Kyle.” Her narrowed gaze landed heavily across Candice’s shoulders next. “You either.” Her expression was appalled, disgusted with the way two of her employees had been found sexually harassing another, and Keith smiled because, as the two fired employees scurried off like scuttling, desperate crabs, Keith knew his boyfriend would be safe at work from then on.

And that was the last hitch in the party.

It all went smoothly after that, when Keith and Lance finally had dinner and dug into cake, then helped everyone clear their table and umbrellas off the sand. Everyone else had left, including their ride—still Hunk—who’d slipped out for a bathroom break, and the sky was past the oranges and yellows of a setting sun, now. The ocean had turned inky, suddenly nothing more than a shaky reflection of the moonlight coming from the crescent framed by stars in the sky. And Lance was framed by the same twinkling pinpricks of white, looking far more elegant and far more attention snatching than the meager moon. At least, it seemed meager with Lance’s face glowing under its light. He was sat with his legs sprawled along the sand and toes dipping into the water each time it lapped at his feet, looking like an ad for a tropical beach—his hair was the salt-dried, crinkled style that would be standard in such an ad, his skin was sunkissed, and the sprinkle of sand across his lips looked like a kind of seasoning, intentionally placed there. His eyes were trained on the sea.

Keith’s were trained on him, though. He admired the way his new leather jacket hung loosely over his shoulders, sleeves empty, so a strip of Lance’s back remained completely visible in the late night glow. He smiled at the way Lance rubbed the pad of his thumb over the patch on the inside of that jacket, not observing his movements, but just feeling every loving loop of thread Keith stitched into it. Lance looked wonderful, it was romantic, and it was as opportune a moment as they were ever going to get.

He slipped the cloth sack out from inside its nook in Lance’s beach bag. He twirled his true gift around in his hand, before tossing it lazily into his boyfriend’s lap. The brunet lowered his gaze from the horizon to trace the sack’s drawstrings and bunched up corners. “Babe, you already got me a gift,” he breathed, fingering the felt wrapping. “You didn’t have to--”

“I know.” Keith turned his head to the side opposite Lance and hid his flaring cheeks behind the palm of his hand. “I just wanted to give you something romantic that you could remember. Or some shit. I dunno.” There was a giggle and he turned back to face his boyfriend. A zip of the drawstring loosening. A dip of Lance’s digits into the bag. A slip of the jewelry out of the sack. And then, to Keith’s dismay, there was a snort.

“Babe, this earring’s real nice, but like, did you get it half price? There’s only one.” Keith groaned and stuffed his cheeks into his palms. From between his fingers, he could see Lance fiddling with a single star earring in the cup of his hand. He was smiling, pulling its back off to stuff it into the piercing of his right ear. He smiled, despite his teasing, and leaned towards Keith for a kiss.

Keith dodged the attempt to swiftly tuck one side of his hair behind his ear. And there, on that ear, sat the other half of Lance’s jewelry. “I thought it could be, like, a couple thing?” Lance’s jaw was slack and his sand dusted lips were parted. He was clearly tracing the crescent shape of Keith’s earring with his eyes, as a painfully loving grin split his face in two. “You like that kinda bullshit, don’t you?” His boyfriend nodded, eagerly, and when he swept forward again, Keith let their lips touch. He could feel the thrumming of Lance’s heartbeat against his mouth, fast and uneven; he was flustered and clambering to get as close to Keith as possible.

“Oh, my God, Keith. You’re even cheesier than I am!” Lance had settled himself in Keith’s lap, peppering flaky kisses along as much of the taller man’s face as he could. He let out an almost frustrated squeal. “Gah, you’re the best.” Keith let his fingers spread across Lance’s shoulder blades as he caught one of the countless kisses Lance was sprinkling. He leaned them both back and tugged Lance down so he could brush his lips over the hair on top of his head. Lance leaned into it. “Man, maybe Kyle isn’t a total waste of space.” Keith scoffed, squishing his lips over and over against his boyfriend’s scalp. “I mean, he’s the reason I have someone as amazing as you, if you think about it.”

And Keith did think about it. He thought until he realized that he did, in a way, have Kyle to thank for everything. For the man in his arms, for the kisses that man was dotting along his collarbones like the were freckles, for the smile he could feel bubbling in his stomach and slowly climbing up his throat. The muscles around his mouth were seconds away from giving in when he gave into Lance’s theory.

Even an asshole like Kyle had some use, he supposed.

“Thank you, Keith. For everything.” No, thank you. “I love you.” The muscles around Keith’s mouth collapsed under the intense need to curl. A simple smile tugged Keith’s lips up, just gently, just slightly, and just for Lance. He kept his lips against the chestnut hair that tasted of sea salt and rubbed grains of sand against his nose. Lance lifted his head from Keith’s chest to press their lips together again. His taste was as genuine as always; as indescribable, as overwhelming, and as unique. It was still hard to believe the kisses were real, but the way those lips smiled when he spoke his next words reminded him that his boyfriend was as real as he’d been all of the last six months.

“I love you, too.”

And he finally found the words to label those kisses, floating somewhere in some warming crevice of his love addled mind. The lingering flavor of some fruit drink against his tongue, always present and always sweet… he knew it. The genuine, tender swell of his heart… it had a name. That mouth, those lips, that kiss, that previously indescribable kiss… he’d found what they tasted of.

Of boba and a real boyfriend.

And he was more than okay with that.