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Fireproof (nothing breaks your heart)

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You keep my secrets
And I keep none
Wish I could go back
And keep some
--fireproof, The National

James tilts his glass slowly from one side to another just to watch the amber of the whiskey slide along the glass, glittering over the stones—wet and slick. It catches the light oddly for a moment. Looks like something else entirely. A shudder jumps down his spine on a four-time count. Memories press in close and James takes a heavy sip to keep from thinking of all the other things that that glitter, wet and slick, in the light.

This is not, he’d like to point out, his preferred coping mechanism: booze in a questionable bar, cigarette hanging heavy between slack fingers, hunched up in a dark corner. It’s not him.

Except when it is.

It’s a thought that twists something self-loathing and bitter inside his gut and he downs the whiskey in a straight shot.

The bartender laughs, one-eye glittering queerly in the dim light, sly and entirely too knowing. “Hard drinker.”

“Not normally,” James says, honest. It’s one of the few personality traits he’s got that he likes. He’s honest. “Been a bit of a shit day.” He taps the bar with two fingers twice. “Hit me?”

That gets him a long look, sharp and contemplative, starting from the top of his head down the length of him. Dwells on the dying cigarette, the empty glass, the sardonic smile. Whatever the man sees, James apparently passes muster. Small mercies. His glass is whisked away into the dark and two shot glasses are thumped down in front of him. James arches an eyebrow, but the man already has got his back to him, muttering as he peers at the cupboard behind the mirrored glass that is supposed hide the high value stuff from the hoi polloi. The bartender turns back to him a bottle cradled carefully in his hands. Silver liquid takes up maybe half the bottle. Silver and black label declares the contents in elegant Cyrillic.

“Vodka is not my normal drink,” James says.

“British,” the bartender sneers. Ah, James thinks, that answers the question as to whether he’s been identified.

“Welsh, actually,” he corrects because he’s a pedantic asshole at the heart of him.

“Well then,” the bartender says around a vicious grin as he pours two shots with a heavy hand, “England, god damn her.”

The phrase startles a bark of laughter out of him. It’s a phrase he’s not heard since his grandfather—old and bitter and twisted from ancient wars—had been alive. He takes the glass, raises it, and downs it all in one go. Taps the bar twice with the glass. “May the Queen burn.”

“Good lad,” the bartender tells him, far more fond than James even remotely deserves.

“If we’re going to be cursing a queen who is long dead,” James says, vodka burning through him like fire, “isn’t whiskey traditional?”

The bartender gives him a long look that James doesn’t quite understand before smiling with all his teeth. “Why don’t you come over here and find it?”

James scoffs. They do this more than James thinks is seemly. James waves a cigarette at him. “I am not the one who keeps confidences in wayward places,” he quotes from some lost bit of poetry he can’t even place. “I don’t belong back there.”

“You certain?” The man asks and his one eye is the center of neutron star. Brilliant, without colour, and burning everything in its path.

James gestures expansively at the gleaming bar and the glittering bottles of liquor behind it. “Like I would even know how to find my way about that,” he says with a grin.

“So Welsh,” the bartender sighs.

“You thought I was British a minute ago,” James teases.

“Ah well,” the bartender says with a sardonic smile. “We all hate empires now, don’t we?”

James laughs at that—harder than the comment deserves. “True enough,” he says with a grin he can feel go crooked. “Iechyd da!”

“Traditional!” The man laughs, low and rumbling. James cocks his head to listen to it. It’s a pleasant sound. The bartender considers him a little longer before pouring himself another shot and then sliding one to James. “Давайте выпьем за то, чтобы мы испытали столько горя, сколько капель вина останется в наших бокалах!”

“Morbid,” James comments before downing the shot.

“Shouldn’t you be celebrating with your pretty squadron?” The bartender asks. “Liberated Earth. It’s been a party for at least the week. Even in this gutted out, forgotten hellhole.”

James takes a final drag from his guttering cigarette and then fumbles for another one. Fussing with it to buy himself time, fingers clumsy with his surprise. It’s not a question he really wants to consider too closely. A question that takes the form of a pale figure in a pale bed in a pale room.

He shrugs.

“Sometimes you need quiet,” he answers without answering. “Sometimes you need to get away.”

That nets him a long, contemplative look. “Warrior-poet,” the bartender comments lightly. The man is tall and grizzled and missing an eye. Long gray hair pulled into a complicated braid that spills down his back. James shivers at his words. “You always go seeking solitude when the rest world has decided to celebrate?”

No. James thinks. Never. But he’s got ghosts now and some of them have decided to come back from the dead. He can’t stand seeing them.

“Sometimes,” he lies with a crooked grin. “Sometimes.”

“Liar,” the man says—and James wonders if he’s a man or he’s something James has conjured up out of the air in this shattered and forgotten city. He wonders if tomorrow morning he’ll wake up with a dry mouth, an aching head, and a sore back in the middle of a bombed-out bar the world has long forgotten. He’s not sure he’d mind. There’s something poetic to it. Besides. Wouldn’t be the first time.

“You’re the one who is never alone,” the man, the ghost, the apparition in a suit the dull grey color of his twisted beard. “Not really. Everywhere you go, you gather all too you, bright shining. So much so that people hope the glow will rub off on them, if even just a little.” The man scratches at his long, scruffy gray beard. “It’d be easier if you were alone.”

It makes James’ skin to crawl to hear the man pronounce on him like that. As if he could look under James’ skin and see how all his veins and blood and sinews spelled out the story of him. The man looks at him like he could twist sharp fingers under James’ ribs and pull his guts free. Read his fortune from the entrails.

James is drunk.

“Do you write fortune cookies in your spare time,” James asks, because he’s got an entire second cerebral cortex dedicated to being an asshole. “Because that was pretty clever way of saying something without actually saying anything. I’ll have to remember it next time I deal with the brass.”

That gets him another sharp laugh—unpretty but compelling, a sharp, braying honk of mirth in the darkness.

“Drink your whiskey, little rebel,” the man says with more affection than James even remotely deserves. “Drink your whiskey and be glad I like your miserable, pedantic ass.”

“A lot of people tell me that,” James says as he takes a long drag from his cigarette before he forgets it exists again. The smoke drags through his lungs, sharp and acidic and burning. Something about ritual of breathe in, tap twice, breathe out, settles him down to his core. “Tell me that I’m a pedantic asshole.”

The smoke climbs out his mouth, moving slow and odd in the dull twilight. When he raises the cigarette to his lips to take a heavy drag it glints golden in his fingers, the entire room glittering like the sun across opals. He blinks. The smoke curls towards the cracked ceiling in heavier spirals than his feeble little cigarette and tattered lungs should be able to produce.

It’s going to be one of those nights.

“It’s not the worst of your failings,” the man says with an odd glint to his one eye.

James cocks his head with an arrogance he doesn’t feel. “Are you going to list my sins?” He asks. “Can I get another drink first?” He waggles a glass he doesn’t remember lifting; the light catches the glass in odd, fracturing splinters. “We could be here for a while.”

“I am not interested in your sins, little rebel,” the bartender says slow and deliberate. “I am not in the business of tallying transgressions.”

“Then what are you in the business of?” James asks and immediately regrets it. Nothing good comes from asking questions like that from people like this.

The man takes his glass from him gently. Every gesture, every word, has been gentle and James aches with it, wants to shy away from it like a spooked horse. “War,” the man says simply as he pours amber liquid into the glass. Each drop seems to hang for a moment before falling in graceful arch. “Death.” The glass slides along the scarred bar top with a soft hiss. “Poetry.” James lifts the glass as if in a trance. He wonders if he’s already fallen asleep and now drifts, drooling on some cracked floor, in an alcohol tinged dream. “Wisdom.”

“Quite the spread,” James says because he is, as noted before, an asshole. He gives a little salute with his glass. “To the glorious dead.”

“May you be long in joining them,” the apparition says with a little salute of his own.

The liquor burns like good whiskey all the way down and lights him with a slow warmth, but if you asked him what it tasted like James wouldn’t be able to tell you. Not a single adjective.

A hand pushes his hair back from his face, single burning blue eye peering at him like he was something to solve, and James blinks dumbly. It earns him a smile. “Best work I ever did,” the man says softly, like he doesn’t mean James to hear. “Last one, I think. Terminarch.”

The hand and the eye and odd mood vanish like a mist at dawn with a cold gust of wind and the bang of the door being thrown open. He shivers. Blinks. Stares at the shattered bar he’s sitting at like he’s never seen it, because he hasn’t. Fuck it. He hates it when this shit happens.

“Griffin!”

He knows that voice, the low rasp and slipshod vowels. It’s been a long, long fucking time since he’s heard it, but James will always know that voice.

“Kogane,” he says, and his tongue feels thick. He wonders if he’s slurring. “You’re late.”

Because he is late. About four years late, by James’ accounting, which is impeccable, thanks. Four years earlier and maybe they’d be sitting in a pretty bar with quaint wood beams that wants to pretend like Beowulf’s mead hall, but, you know, classy. Not staring at each other across a burned out, bombed out place that barely holds the suggestion of a bar. James waggles his glass at Kogane as he glowers—heavy brows pulled down, frown twisting his expression.

“Have a drink?” He offers. “I’ve already started a tab.”

Kogane stares at him for a little longer like he’s not sure what to make of the picture. James shrugs and splashes a little more whiskey over the stones. They’re still cold. How, James doesn’t fucking know and isn’t gonna ask. He’s learned not to ask questions at times like this. James props his chin on his fist and watches as Kogane blinks at him. Blinks and makes a noise like a computer rebooting. His cigarette finally burns down to the filter and singes his fingers. He shakes them out, swearing, as he taps another one out of the pack. Kogane wears an expression as James lights it like he’s never seen James in his entire life.

He taps the pack with two fingers. “I’ll let you bum a few,” he says, magnanimous. “Tobacco is old and stale as shit, but hey, it’s nicotine.”

Kogane sputters out a noise that doesn’t even have the suggestion of words and approaches him like he expects James to disintegrate into mist himself. Or maybe stab him. Something. James nudges the bottle of whiskey towards him, making it slosh heavily, and arches an eyebrow—sly challenge and mockery.

Sure enough Kogane bares his teeth at him and swipes the bottle with an unfair amount of grace. It’s almost too easy to bait him. The expression Kogane makes at the first sniff is hilarious. Nose wrinkles up, eyes narrow in suspicion, mouth twists in displeasure. James cracks up, curls in on himself cackling, cigarette leaving hazy smoke trails as he points and sputters out little hiccupping laughs. Kogane snarls at him. When he moves like he’s gonna take a swig straight from the bottle James snags his wrist. Kogane startles at his touch.

“Heathen,” James says. It sounds affectionate even to himself. “That’s no way to treat good whiskey.”

“How do you even know it’s good?” Kogane asks sharply even as he blinks, flustered, when James pulls the bottle from his hand. “You’re so drunk you don’t know up from down.”

James points towards the ceiling, “up,” and then down towards the floor with its rotting wood and concrete dust, “down. Any other stupid comments?”

Kogane says something uncharitable under his breath that James choses to ignore. He kinda wishes that Kogane hadn’t scared away his phantom bartender because now he’s gotta go find a glass and whiskey stones and probably an ashtray. Fuck. He slides off his stool and sways for a moment. Kogane makes like he’s going to grab for him, but James bats his hands away with a huff.

It takes James a little bit to figure out the entire walking thing, but he gets himself around the edge of the bar eventually. How the fuck anyone found fucking anything in the mess of broken bottles, shattered glasses, and burned bits of wood, James does not fucking know. He sticks his cigarette in his mouth, lets it hang precariously at the side of his mouth. He needs his hands free for this. Bracing a hand on the ashy underbar, James peers at shelves, poking morosely through the ruined glassware.

Wine glass, wine glass, highball, shot glasses. Fuckin’. Ah-hah.

He stands up with a tumbler clenched triumphantly in one hand. The world spins for a moment, tilting heavily on its axis, and he has to catch himself. Brings the tumbler down on the bar with a hard thunk of glass against the wood.

“Woah,” he says. Blinks at Kogane’s worried face. “Little dizzy.”

“Sit down, asshole,” Kogane barks. “Before you fall over.”

James flips him off.

It takes him a little bit to find another set of whiskey stones. But there they are, tucked away in a simple black box in a hidden cupboard. They’re cool to the touch and catch the light queerly. He lets them fall into the tumbler carefully, one after another, with delicate little clinks against the glass. Gestures towards the bottle with two fingers. Kogane frowns at him.

“Give it here, hotshot,” he says patiently. “Let’s teach you how to drink properly.”

“I know how to drink, asshole.”

“No,” James says with absolute certainty. “No, you do not.”

Not a chance in hell little Keith Kogane with his scrapped-up knees, ripped up knuckles, ever had someone to teach him the process and the ritual for whiskey. For anything. James wraps two fingers against the base of the tumbler and measures carefully. The world spins down to the whiskey, the glass, the slick sound of liquor sliding over the stones.

“Right.” James pours himself another two fingers with the same careful precision. “There we are. Two fingers. Neat.”

“What the fuck does that even mean?” Kogane huffs as he accepts the glass. He peers at it like he expects it to do a magic trick.

James sighs heavily around his cigarette. Kogane jerks backwards when James reaches for his hand, teeth bared in an empty threat. James takes a drag of his cigarette before blowing out the smoke between his teeth in a long, slow breath. They stare at each other, paused, with James’ hand outstretched over the bar. Eventually Kogane settles back down. James carefully takes his hand and wraps two of his fingers along the bottom of the glass. Kogane’s fingers are long, slender, and rough at odd places—calluses in strange places for a pilot. James tucks the observation away.

“Two fingers from the bottom,” he says with the cigarette hanging mess from the corner of his mouth. “It’s a measurement. Neat just means without ice.”

“Right,” Kogane says in a choked off tone. He’s staring at where James has his hand trapped against the glass. “I knew that.”

James slides back across the bar, settling on his heels heavily, scrapping his glass along the ruined bar. He snorts. “Sure, you did, hotshot.”

Kogane bares his teeth at him. James arches an eyebrow, an expression he knows drives Kogane insane, and raises his glass, arrogant and lazy, before taking a slow sip. The whiskey is smooth across his tongue, burns down his throat, and lights a soft fire in his guts. He can’t help the way it makes him sigh. He always did like good whiskey. Kogane watches him with sharp, narrowed eyes. The look he shoots his own glass is deeply suspicious. James wants to say something teasing and sarcastic, but words are distant, fuzzy, so he just waits.

There’s a long moment where he thinks Kogane is going to refuse. But Keith Kogane has never backed down from a challenge in his entire life. He lifts the glass with a sneer that shows off an impressive set of canines and tries to down the entire two fingers like a shot.

James curls up laughing. Holds his cigarette loose in one hand as he points at Kogane where he sits coughing, eyes watering against the burn. “I told you that you didn’t know how to drink, hotshot,” James says between wheezing laughs. He snags Kogane’s glass, checks the temperature of the stones—still cold, what the fuck—and pours another two fingers. “You sip it, heathen.”

“The point is to get drunk,” Kogane snaps, but he takes the glass. “Why does it matter?”

James takes another slow sip. Kogane rolls his eyes. “The point, hotshot,” he says slowly, enjoying the way Kogane seethes at him, “is the process. The ritual. Not everything is about getting to the end result.”

“And since when did you give a flying fuck about ‘the journey,’ Jamie,” Kogane spits.

“Since the dead decided to periodically get up and talk to me,” James says without thinking. They stare at each for a long time. James wishes he could reach out and grab the words that hang between them and stuff them back into his mouth. If he had the ability to turn it into a joke, he would, but he doesn’t. The words sit between them like black hole distorting everything around it.

“The dead.”

James twitches a shoulder in something approximating a shrug. He pulls in a hard drag from his cigarette, the smoke dragging through his lungs harsh and grounding, and watches Kogane from under his lashes.

Kogane taps his glass with one finger. Thoughtful. Eyes sharp like he’s looking for a weak point. “How long has that been going on?”

That is … not the response James had been expecting. He blinks. “Seriously?”

Kogane gives him a very flat look. “I know a magic princess who can bring people back to life. My best friend was trapped in an astral plane and now inhabits his clone’s body, which raises a whole set of ethical questions none of us really want to look at too closely. I almost got trapped on the back of a fucking space whale in the abyss on the ass end of the universe. Why not ghosts?”

James just looks at him and then sputters out a little laugh. “When did our lives get so fucking weird?”

“When I fell down a hole and found a giant blue robot lion?”

That makes James laugh for real. He shakes his head. “Drink your whiskey, hotshot, and I’ll tell you ghost stories.”

Kogane makes another face at him, but dutifully sips his whiskey. His face scrunches up in the most perfect expression of bluh James has ever seen. James can’t stop the laughter that rumbles out of him. He’s not sure when the last time he’d laughed so much had been. Before the occupation certainly.

“Why the fuck would you sip this,” Kogane demands. “It’s like drinking dirt.”

“That’s the peat,” James says. “They use it to smoke the barley to stop the germination process. Different whiskies have different amounts of peat. Depends on how long they smoked the barley.”

James peers at the whiskey bottle. Ardbeg An Oa. That explains that.

“Why the fuck do you even know this?” Kogane asks, derailing James’ entire thought process. He arches an eyebrow at Kogane, who huffs at him. “Why is this a thing you know?”

“Because some of us aren’t uncultured heathens?” James says in an arch tone. Kogane flips him off. James settles against the bar, his tumbler cradled high against his chest, and watches as Kogane struggles through another sip. “This is just painful to watch,” James comments to no one in particular. He crooks his fingers at Kogane. “Give it here. We don’t have enough whiskey to waste it on heathens with no taste.”

Kogane bares his teeth at him before taking another swallow. He slams the glass back down, stones rattling around the empty glass like broken bones. “There.” He says with obvious satisfaction. “Finished. There is no way people drink that because they want to. It’s all,” Kogane makes a hand gesture he clearly thinks means something, “showing off.”

“There’s a certain element of performance,” James allows. The whiskey has settled in his bones, leaving him feeling hazy and languid. The evening spills out before him in a slow procession of hours, but he feels more at peace with it now that ghosts and dead gods aren’t the ones keeping him company. It makes him charitably disposed towards his erstwhile guard. Probably the most charitable he’s ever felt towards Kogane in either of their short lives. “What type of barbeque do you like?

“What?”

“Come on, Kogane, you’re from Texas. You’ve got to have opinions on barbeque.”

“I don’t see how that has anything to do with anything.”

James rolls his eyes and gestures with his glass. “Indulge me.”

“I’ve been indulging you,” Kogane snaps back. “I’m here, aren’t I? Drank that shit liquor you foisted off on me. Is this why your squad said to leave you?”

“Nah,” James says with a crooked smile. “They probably told you that because they normally can’t find me when the night goes shit-weird.”

He stubs out his cigarette against the bar. The ash mark indistinguishable from pockmarks of whatever strafing run let this place a broken memory. He pulls out another cigarette and then offers the pack to Kogane. There’s a moment where Kogane seems to struggle with himself, but whatever fight goes on inside his head is over quickly. He accepts the pack without comment, tapping out slender, slightly rumpled cigarette and holding it out for James to light. James smirks at him before leaning forward to press the burning edge of his own cigarette against the unlit edge of Kogane’s just to watch the way his pretty eyes go wide with surprise.

He thinks that’s going to be it, that Kogane will snatch his cigarette back and shout at him, but Kogane leans forward, eyes shadowed, and takes a heavy drag. The fire crackles along the wrapper. The smell of stale, burning tobacco fills the air and James stands back up. Kogane eyes flicker shut for a moment as he inhales. Some of the tension eases out of the hard line of his shoulders. James should have guessed he was an ex-smoker. Should have known.

Kogane looks at him from under his dark lashes, contemplative. There are an entire host of questions burning away in there and James isn’t sure he really wants to answer any of them.

“Barbeque,” he says. Kogane blinks at him, train of thought visibly derailed.

“South Texas barbeque or proper barbacoa.”

“Not cowboy style?” James teases even as he turning to rummage through ash and dust covered bottles. Something sweeter, drier, light on the smoke and heavy on the aging. He can’t help the rough noise that rasps out of him when he finds the bottle, innocuous and half hidden, at the back of the shelf. James mentally begs his ghosts and dead gods forgiveness if they are going to give him gifts like this. He cradles it like a babe in arms. Fucking thing probably cost more than any set of royal jewels.

“What’s that?” Kogane asks, gesturing with his cigarette. He looks good like this, an arrogant slouch of man against the ruined wood of the bar, hair messy, smoke curling around his face.

“Liquid gold,” James says reverently. “Probably worth more than you, me, or either of our first born.”

Kogane scoffs but watches with interest as James fumbles up a pair of fresh glasses. James holds his breath as he pours out one glass and then another.

“If you don’t like this, hotshot, there’s no helping you.”

“What is it?” Despite the heavy skepticism of Kogane’s tone he takes the glass. A stray beam of light from gods only fucking know where hits the glass just right to sparkle off the whiskey, turning it into a warm golden glow in the glass.

“Pappy Van Winkle’s 23yr Family Reserve,” James says as he cradles his own glass. He shouldn’t be surprised that this bombed out bar in some backwoods fucking nowhere town would have a bottle of one of the most expensive and rare bourbons in the world, but somehow, he is.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you be this reverent in your entire life and I was there the day they let you fly a FFR-31 Sylph.”

“Shut up and drink the damned bourbon.”

Kogane cocks his head, thoughtful, but takes a slow sip. He blinks. Holds the glass up to the light so the bourbon catches the light again. “This is good!”

James takes a sip himself and lets the bourbon sit on his tongue for a moment before swallowing. He sighs. “There’s a reason people used hatch crazy ass heist schemes to steal this shit.”

“Not sure it’s that good.”

“Used to sell for over 4k on a good day.”

Keith sputters, disbelieving, and then points his cigarette at James. Stabs it him like a little flaming knife. There’s something comfortable with them like this. Good whiskey, shitty cigarettes, bombed out city. Keith Kogane slowly unwinding from that high-wire tension. “Bullshit.”

James grins, all teeth, and shrugs. He’s comfortably buzzed, humming in his skin, and finally comfortable in his bones. “Rich people, my angry friend, they are crazy.”

“You are rich,” Keith mutters and then looks like he swallowed a bug. “Were rich? Uh.”

“Oh my god, hotshot,” James groans. “Did you just decide your shoe was super tasty and that’s why you shoved the entire thing in your mouth? My family was pretty firmly middle-class. Six gen military doesn’t exactly land you the upper echelons of society.”

“You always acted like—” Keith’s mouth snaps shut with a click.

“Acted like what?” James wants to know. Curiosity burns through him like the whiskey and he’s just itching to know even though it’ll probably do his ego zero favors.

Keith looks mutinous, a muscle along his jaw working like he’s grinding his teeth.

“Come on, hotshot,” James wheedles. He can feel his grin go sharp and mean at Keith’s discomfort. “It’s not like you ever worried about my feelings before.”

The looks Keith shoots him is complicated. He looks away, glaring at the shattered remains of the door. The broken road is barely visible through crumbling wall. James has no idea how the fuck he found this place. Probably the same way he’s found all the other shattered remnants of other people’s lives: the strange one-eyed man that haunts his odd twilights calling him to places where he’ll have to look and know and remember.

His ghosts are assholes. Just like him, he supposes.

“I apologized for that, didn’t I?” James asks while Keith’s still chewing on whatever it is that he doesn’t want to say.

Keith blinks.

James waves his glass at him, trying to take in the whole of him. “The parents crack when we were kids. I didn’t know.” He considers that statement, runs it over in his head, and shrugs. “Also, an asshole. That’s also a thing I was. Am. Will probably continue to be.”

Keith says nothing. Stares at him like James has suddenly turned purple and sprouted horns. Which is funny because if the reports are anything to go by if one of them was gonna go purple, it’d be Keith. He’s not sure about the horns though.

“Hey,” he says while Keith is still obviously processing. “You don’t have horns, do you?” Keith gives him a look of total confusion. “I mean. We haven’t seen any Galra with horns, but,” James shrugs and then has to catch himself against the bar when move knocks him off balance, “space is weird.”

“You are entirely too drunk to have conversation with,” Keith says like he’s come to some sort of internal decision after long deliberation.

“I’m not, actually,” James says helpfully. “I have been, much to Commander Holt’s dismay, way drunker than this. Also, you didn’t give me an answer.”

There’s a long moment where he’s about sixty percent certain that Keith is gonna go stomping out the remains of the door in a fit of temper. There’s a minute where he’s pretty sure Keith is pretty sure he’s gonna go stomping out the door. But they both sit there staring at each other until James’ cigarette gutters out against his fingers. He drops it, swearing, before he grinds it into the cracked floor boards.

“Yeah,” Keith says quietly while James trying to scrape together enough coordination to light a new cigarette. “You apologized.”

James frankly cannot remember when, but he’s getting to the level of drunk that he’s happy to remember his own name. “Oh,” he says dumbly. “That’s good.” He cocks his head. “It’s good that I did that. I meant it.” He gestures with his cigarette, leaving a little trail of smoke. “Good that I apologized.”

“Though,” Keith draws out the word, making James’ eyes snap to him like pulled by magnetic forces. “Does it count when I’m in a coma?”

James opens his mouth and finds precisely zero words to say to that. He closes his mouth with great deliberation and finishes his bourbon. The stones are still cold, so he splashes a little more of Pappy’s Reserve over them and downs that too. “So, who told you?”

“I heard you.” Keith doesn’t look at him. Just runs a finger along the edge of his tumbler as if it would ring like crystal. “You talked a lot. To a guy that you thought couldn’t hear you.”

“Yeah, well,” James says slowly. He feels weirdly numb. Exposed. This is not how he thought his night was going to go. “One of the first things to go during the occupation was confessional services. I had a lot lost time to make up for.”

“I didn’t think about you, either,” Keith says. Just drops that into the conversation like a ten-pound rock. “Not until we were entering atmosphere in that shitty Galra fighter. I didn’t think about you until then.”

James doesn’t know why that feels like an absolution, but it does. Something unclenches from his chest. He cocks his head to the side as he considers Keith through the cigarette smoke.

“Was it a surprise?” He asks. Keith gives him a squinted eyed look. “Seeing me that first time? Because I’ll tell you, it was a fucking shock to see you in your paladin getup a full foot taller and still an arrogant asshole hothead trying to get everyone around you killed.”

Keith’s entire face crumples into tight lines of irritation. “I had that shot, asshole.”

“Uh-huh,” James says. Something in him feels light, gleeful, with the exchange. The weird weight of guilt he’d been toting around dissipating upon impact with the reality of Keith Kogane sitting in a blasted-out bar with a shitty cigarette in one hand and good whiskey in the other. “And did you have the entire swarm of, like, forty drones it would have called up the second you blew it up? Did you have those too?”

“You are such an asshole.”

“Guilty!” James chirps. He takes a long drag of his cigarette, breathing in through his nose to drag the smoke down into his lungs like death and cancer, and watches Keith through the smoke he lets trickle out his mouth in a slow steady stream. Keith’s eyes snap to his mouth. Huh. He does it again. Because it’s not science unless you can repeat it.

Or is that it’s not science unless you write it down? James is fuzzy enough he doesn’t remember, but too damned pedantic, even inside his own fucking head, to let it go.

He takes another sip of bourbon, the taste clean and clear after the acidic rasp of stale tobacco. The weight of the cigarette between his lips feels wrong. Too light and narrow to go with bloom of the bourbon. He studies the cigarette, watching the cherry burn out thoughtfully, and huffs out an annoyed breath.

“What?” Keith snaps.

James studies him where Keith glowers at him across the pockmarked bar. For a moment James can see the bar the way it was before the Galra came—dark, smoke-filled, and full of a rough-edge sort of customer. Can see it, for a moment, the way it had been when he’d first stumbled through the door led by the ghosts of this town.

“I miss cigars,” he says instead of all that. “Do you miss cigars?”

What?

“Haven’t had whiskey, haven’t had cigars,” James says with a tongue click. “This evening is all kinds of educational for you, isn’t it, hotshot?”

Keith says something that doesn’t really register around his current impulse. He walks down the bar, pulled by something right under his rib cage, led by something that’s not even a sixth sense. Just a hope and wistful feeling. But he finds what he’s looking for anyway. His ghosts might be assholes, but at least they’re good about feeding his addictions.

The humidor is tiny. Just a dainty, smooth hewn box fits neatly in his hands like he was meant to find it.

He walks back feeling strange, like he’s floating through fog and fractured memories that aren’t his own. Keith watches him with shadowed eyes. James kinda wonders how the entire thing looks to Keith. He wonders if, to Keith, he just pulled the humidor out thin air. It’s not a thought that can hold his attention around humidor full of Davidoff cigars. Fat little Robusto cut things, the Winston Churchill late hours his grandfather had loved, that have no business being as well-preserved as they are.

Keith asks, tone sharp and demanding, where he found them. James shrugs. Because what is he supposed to say? That dead gods sometimes decide to give him gifts out of nothing but twilight and longing? Best to not study it too long.

Besides, he’s still about seventy-eight percent certain that he’s going to wake up in the morning on a slab of broken concrete with no memory of how he got there with a head full of cobwebs. Keith makes a complicated face when James says this.

“Right,” James says. Sighs it, really, as he smooths his hands along the humidor. “Right.”

“Of course, you know how to smoke cigars,” Keith says, tone full of things that James isn’t really equipped to decipher. “Of course, you do.”

James shrugs, a little twitch of his shoulders. “My grandfather, cranky old bastard that he was, taught me. I think I was, like, fucking nine? Nine. The first time he gave me one and I almost coughed up my entire left lung.”

Keith blinks at him. Stares for a long time like James has just upended his entire worldview. James waits to see if he’s going to actually going to voice any of the thoughts that James can see rattling around behind his pretty eyes. When the silence spins out between them, thick and full of their strange history, James shrugs.

“You have a preference for cut?” James asks as he lifts a cigar from the humidor. It’s fat and, miraculously, perfectly preserved. He rolls it between his fingers, getting a sense of the wrapper. Still smooth and pristine. There should be no fucking way that box of Davidoff cigars, wrappers untouched by time, should be in this shitty, crumbling bar. But here they are.

“I keep saying this,” Keith says faintly, like he doesn’t expect to be heard, “but fucking what?”

“Well,” James says as he rummages around for cutter, “it all comes down to mouth feel anyway.”

Keith chokes on air.

There’s no cutter or punch anywhere that he can find. Fuck his ghosts. Giving him a full box of Davidoffs and no way to cut them.

“You got a knife handy?” He asks, distracted as he pokes around the bar.

Keith magics up a knife. A strange purple thing with runes down the blade. He offers it James without comment, but the look in his eyes is the type of hungry that James really doesn’t want to contemplate too closely for fear of getting the wrong idea. The knife is a bit too big for the job, sits oddly in his grip, but he can make it work. James flips it around in his hand, ignoring the way Keith sucks in a shaking, uncertain breath.

“Okay,” James says, falling back on the tone he takes with cadets learning how to handle the finicky controls of the MFE-Ares, like they’ll accept any pilots besides himself and his tiny squad. “There’s three types of cuts. Punch, which you can’t do with a knife like this. V or vagina—” he grins when Keith makes a noise like a duck dying, “—yeah maybe not that for you? And straight,” Keith makes another of those bitten off choking noises, “I know straight. Hah. But there’s really no difference except for how they feel in your mouth when you take a draw.”

Keith’s wearing a constipated expression as James eyes one of the cigars and carefully makes a clean a cut as he cut across the cigar cap. It comes away neater than it has any business doing. A brutal, spotless cut. Draw should be clean and smooth, he thinks. He finds a thin strip of cedar paper in the humidor, because of course he does, and lights it. The first drag sputters until he twists the paper, getting the cigar to drag firm and strong. He opens his mouth and lets the smoke trickle out like dragon’s breath. He sighs around the feeling.

James takes another slow drag and holds the smoke in his mouth for a moment before offering the cigar to Keith.

Keith takes it the cigar gingerly as if its an unexploded ordinance. James exhales out the smoke in slow breath, letting himself shudder around the feeling of good tobacco wrapped in Dominican leaves. Keith stares at him with the cigar sitting forgotten between his finger.

“Take a draw, hotshot,” James drawls through the smoke, “before it goes cold.”

He almost laughs at the way Keith fumbles to get the cigar in his mouth, brow furrowing at the strange shape in his mouth, and draws in a deep breath. He does laugh when Keith drags in a breath, tries to inhale the cigar smoke, and promptly starts coughing. Keith curls over the bar, glaring as he coughs.

“You don’t inhale cigar smoke, hotshot,” James says kindly as he lifts the cigar from Keith’s numb fingers. The cigar is a little wet from Keith’s mouth. James touches his tongue to the rough edge of the cut and then sucks in a deep breath. The taste of tobacco and smoke and the sharp edge of nicotine fills his mouth. It’s good. It’s so good. He lets the cigar dangle from his fingers as he exhales, open-mouthed and lazy, luxuriating in the feeling.

He offers it back to Keith, lazy and slow, as the smoke fills the air between them. It curls and twines its way up to the shattered ceiling beams. Keith takes it carefully.

“If you don’t like it,” James warns, “I’m keeping the whole box for myself.”

“I’m pretty sure you’ll die if you smoke the whole box on your own.”

James shrugs as Keith takes a drag, watches as he figures out how to move his mouth around the cigar. “There are worse ways to go,” he says. He already misses the feeling of it between his lips, heavy and fat, as he watches Keith gingerly exhale a thick stream of smoke. “There you go.”

Keith pulls the cigar away and eyes it thoughtfully. “Feels weird.”

If James was a different man, one prone to innuendo and sly comment, he’d have so many things to say about that. But he’s always been too honest and straightforward for that. He holds out a hand. “If you don’t like it, give it back. Davidoffs are too good to waste on the ungrateful.”

Keith sneers at him. Puts the cigar back between his lips and takes a heavy draw. This time he doesn’t cough, just goes heavy eyed from the feeling of nicotine sliding through his veins. Blows out the smoke is a long, steady steam before taking another drag.

James laughs quietly. “Quick learner,” he says as he pulls out another cigar. It feels right between his fingers, feels like a memory. “Knew you would be.”

He gets the second cigar lit on muscle memory. Letting his checks go all chipmunked as he drags in short sharp breaths to get the cigar going. His lips and tongue tingle with the feeling and he sighs with the feeling. Leans back with the cigar heavy between his fingers and rolls the smoke in his mouth. Exhales with something close to a moan. It’s a good thing that cigars are so fucking hard to find these days without the help of ghosts or he’d have a whole ass problem.

Keith’s watching him open mouthed and stunned when he opens his eyes. James quirks an eyebrow at him. “Cigar will go cold if you leave it too long, hotshot,” he chides. “And they are way too good to waste on your weird competitive streak.”

Keith narrows his eyes and drags in a deep breath. Miraculously doesn’t double over in a cough fit even though he goes slightly green with the feeling of the smoke. Exhales it on a shaking breath. The next draw goes better. Keith’s eyelashes flutter at the feeling of the nicotine and smoke sliding in his mouth like a kiss. James can tell when the tingle of good tobacco hits Keith from the way his expression goes soft and vague.

James takes a slow sip of the bourbon to clear his palette. The alcohol slides smooth across his tongue and he sighs again. The drag of the cigar is a perfect counter-point to the near sweetness of the bourbon. James does moan now, lost in the feeling of nicotine and alcohol slipping through his system. He should probably worry more than he does at the way his body slowly unknots under the twin forces of his addictions. But fuck does it feel good to finally unwind from days, months, fucking years of running tense and terrified. Memento mori and all that. He takes another long drag off his cigar and tips his head back to let the smoke trickle out his mouth, reveling in how it tingles across his lips and tongue. Chases the feeling with bourbon and then rubs a hand over the back of his head, rolls his shoulders just to feel how they move slow and languid.

“Fuck,” he sighs, groans really. He takes another drag of his cigar before pulling it away to watch the smoke trickling from his lips climb up to the rafters. He tips his head back as the smoke spills from his mouth like some slow-moving bliss. “This is a thing I missed.”

When he finally looks back at Keith through the smoke slipping from his lips, Keith is staring at him with at him with an expression he can’t parse. Before he can ask, Keith slams back his bourbon. Just tips the tumbler to his lips and swallows down the bourbon like he’s been starving for it.

“Careful, hotshot,” he cautions around a mouthful of smoke. “One of us needs to be sober enough to find our way back to behind the wire.”

James tugs Keith’s tumbler back to him on reflex. Checks the whiskey stones, touching one to his tongue to test the chill. It’s cold enough, he decides, and finds the bottle bourbon through sheer luck. He pours another two fingers, floating on a strange feeling of magnanimity, and slides the glass back to Keith. He rattles the stones around in his own glass and contemplates the thin layer of alcohol that they slid around in. He pours another finger in just to give them a better slide. At Keith’s throaty sound, James raises an eyebrow.

“Should I cut you off, hotshot?”

Keith sneers at him, cuddles his glass close to him as he studies it with a closed expression. James takes another slow sip of bourbon just to feel the chill against his tongue. Keith takes another drag off his cigar like he’s trying to come to some sort of decision. It’s fascinating to watch the thoughts and emotions James doesn’t understand slip across Keith’s face. He reaches across the bar, feeling loose and easy, and flicks Keith’s nose.

“What’s going on in there,” he asks quietly, like they are cadets sharing secrets after lights out—a thing he knows Kogane has never done. If anyone has kept their secrets closer, James hasn’t met them.

Keith looks back at him, not nearly as offended as James thinks he should be, and swallows hard. James can see how his throat works around the question. There’s an odd, waiting tension humming between them that James doesn’t know how to break. Between the whiskey and the nicotine all he can do is wait until Keith decides to voice whatever set of questions he’s got burning behind his eyes. James would help, but he doesn’t even know where to start. So, he just waits.

Keith takes another slow sip of bourbon like he’s bracing himself, so James tries to prepare for a question he can’t guess at.

“Why,” Keith starts and then chokes around the syllables of the word. James waits, cigar guttering and forgotten between his fingers. “Why were you there?”

It takes James a solid one hundred and eighty seconds to figure out what the fuck Keith is talking about. Hospital. Coma. Keeping a weird, self-flagellatory vigil at Keith’s bed during the in-between times when the spot wasn’t taken up by Captain Shirogane or Keith’s terrifying mother. The obsessive need to watch Keith’s chest move because otherwise he was half-convinced if he closed his eyes, he’d wake up still moving through those long years of just trying to hold on.

James clacks the stones around in his glass. Shrugs a little.

“I have a very particular masochistic streak?” He offers. Keith snorts.

James takes a short drag off his cigar just to keep it burning.

“It’s going to sound fucking crazy,” he says as the smoke leaks out his mouth.

Keith makes an expansive gesture at the bombed-out space they’ve found. Saying with one elegant move of his hand more than any words could.

“It was like,” James stumbles over his words for a moment, “if I stopped looking at you, I’d wake up and we’d still have, like, three pockets of humanity left, a crazy Galra furry rampaging around, and nothing to do but to try to wait it out.” Keith watches him with a shuttered expression. James doesn’t think he’s explaining himself. He’s normally good at explaining himself. But there’s no way to wrap the weird, directionless anxiety that had rattled around his head like whiskey stones in an empty glass into words. “Everything else felt,” he fumbles for the word, “unreal. Rebuilding plans, reunions, fucking allies. What the fuck, hotshot? Some of your allies are sentient fucking planets. No one told me that I’d have to draft mission plans that included sentient fucking planets--”

“It’s called a Balmera,” Keith interrupts. James flips him off. The words are bubbling up out of him now, no way to shut them off.

“—And now Commander Holt wants force projection estimates that include mystical space cats that turn into a giant robot man. A mega-ship with a neural link our own personal walking miracle. A space princess with magic powers that she doesn’t understand. And command wants me to figure this shit out and put it in a report? What the unholy fuck, hotshot? We went from being maybe a couple of thousand people with scavenged up weapons to a rebellion of millions? And Commander Holt somehow thinks I have any fucking idea how to organize any of this shitshow? Fuck.”

James takes another drag of his cigarette and blows the smoke out between clenched teeth.

Keith watches him with that strange, closed off expression. By James’ reckoning they are way past Keith’s general capacity to deal with any sort of social interaction, much less one that involve a metric fuck ton of melodramatic bullshit. But somehow here they sit, watching each other like poker players in a high stakes game. Tense and watching for the minutest tell.

“Are you trying to tell me that you were,” Keith’s face is twisted up into a disbelieving sneer and he makes a dismissive little gesture with his glass, “just, what, hiding from,” he makes a complicated face, “paperwork?”

“Look,” James says, suddenly exhausted. “I was voted most likely to know what the fuck I’m doing. Twice! Only I don’t know what I’m doing. Not even remotely. So yeah. You can call it hiding if you want.”

Keith leans back, hand curled around his glass, cigar smoking between his fingers. James wants to sneer at the slow way he tilts his head to the side. “I don’t believe you.”

“And you can go fuck yourself.”

“You talked a lot, Jamie,” Keith says. James sneers at the nickname. The corner of Keith’s mouth kicks up in response. “And I know your tells when you lie.”

James studies him over his glass. Tilts his chin up. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says with mock-offended dignity. “I am an honest man.”

“You’re truthful,” Keith corrects with far more certainty than James thinks he has any sort of right to. “But you aren’t fucking honest.”

James opens his mouth to refute that, finds no words, and closes it again. Glowers at his glass while Keith laughs, low and pleased with himself. “Why are you here,” he asks, spiteful. “I can’t it imagine it was easy to get yourself signed out with med-com breathing fire at anyone who looked at you or your team funny.”

Keith gets a distinctly shifty look.

“Did you,” James says slowly as he slots things into place, “break yourself out of medical just to come track my melodramatic ass down?”

“You’re the one calling yourself melodramatic. Not me.”

“You did.” James as to blink at that. Turn the idea around in his head because honestly it just refuses to sort properly. “That’s gonna be a metric fuck ton of paperwork when we get back.”

That’s what you care about?”

“Said like someone who has not had to deal with a command trying to hold onto some semblance of control via creative accounting practices.”

Keith splutters out a disbelieving little laugh.

“I’m serious,” James says, using his cigar like a pointer to emphases his point. “Just wait, Mr. Black Paladin, they’ll be coming with forms for you too. Fucking space furries have nothing on accountants from DLMS. They will find you with their requisition forms.”

There’s a long pause where they both contemplate this.

“How often does this happen?” Keith asks out fucking nowhere because for all of the weird new self-control he wears like new skin, he’s still Keith Kogane, the feral raised by desert coyotes.

“Paperwork avalanches?” James answers lightly, because there is a question he does not want to answer. Ever. “Way more than it should, but command does insist as they need to feel like they have some sort of control over the ever-increasing amount of bullshit that is our lives.”

Taking a long drag off his cigar, Keith gives him a very flat look. This new-found self-control of Keith’s is going to take some getting used to, James realizes with a grimace he can’t hide. He almost misses the hothead that threw a punch because James was being a self-absorbed prick.

“Gonna have to clarify, hotshot,” James says rather than answering.

Keith takes a very pointed sip of bourbon as he surveys their impromptu bar in all its shattered glory. He raises an eyebrow with an arch expression James suspects he stole straight out of James’ own repertoire of sarcastic looks. Jackass.

“I thought you were going to tell me a ghost story,” Keith says in something that’s close to a twangy drawl. “Which suggests you have more then one story. Which suggests that this has happened on more than one occasion.”

“What?” James asks with big, innocent eyes. “Me, being a maudlin asshole? Every other Tuesday, if you put stock into Nadia’s accounting of things. Which you shouldn’t, as she exaggerates wildly.”

“Why are you like this?” Keith demands in a put-upon tone. As if he can’t just get up and walk back out the shattered remains of the doors into the still night. As if he isn’t slung across the one remaining barstool, an arrogant streak of a pilot, like he has no where else to be. As if he isn’t choosing to be here, in this broken-down hellhole rather than being feted as the honored hero of the hour.

There’s a lot of ways James could answer that question, honestly, so many he’s got choice paralysis.

He shrugs. “You’ve known me the longest,” he says in a light, teasing tone that neither of them believes. “You tell me.”

Keith stares at him for a long time, like he can see into the back of James’ head and read all the secrets there like they were printed in two-hundred- and eighty-point font with triple underline. James arches an eyebrow, incredulous, when Keith grabs his whiskey glass and downs the entire thing in one go. He bites back a laugh when Keith coughs manfully at the burn. He gets a glare for his efforts.

“Answers that question,” Keith mutters lowly, like he doesn’t expect James to hear. Unfortunately for Keith, James has wicked good hearing. Thank you, PTSD.

“Which question?” James asks, because he’s an asshole. Because he likes to make Keith squirm. Because … okay, he’s not continuing that line of thought.

Keith watches him for a long time, a muscle along his jaw working as he grinds his teeth. Eventually he looks away from James’ curious gaze, a flush blooming across his cheeks. “Your squad is new. Except Ina. And … it’s just you.”

Ah-hah.

“Military family,” James says with a lightness that he does not feel. “And I am not the universe’s favored son.”

Keith looks like James has just stabbed him. It’s an unsettling look. He refills Keith’s glass on reflex and nudges the glass towards the brooding savior of all the universe with two fingers.

“Don’t get weird about it,” James advises. “I’ve had four years. I have, as they say, moved on.”

The look Keith shoots him could strip paint. “You are,” Keith says with a wondering tone, “a lying sonuvabitch.”

“I thought we all agreed that I was an honest man?”

“Why would you rather make jokes about,” Keith looks constipated, looks like someone has just disemboweled a baby in front of him, “about that rather than just tell me why you are off sulking in some fucking hellhole drinking and talking to ghosts?”

James can see the second when Keith puts the pieces together and then looks like he wants to swallow his entire foot rather than keep talking.

Fuck.”

“That pretty much sums up everything,” James agrees. “Fuck.”

They stare at each other for a long time. Long enough that the intensity of Keith’s gaze, the way he takes in every piece of James like there’s going to be a test on it tomorrow and Keith’s afraid of getting marked down, eats at James.

He shrugs.

“All pilots are superstitious hotshot,” he says into that turbo-charged silence. Keith opens up his mouth like he’s going to argue, and James rolls his eyes. “Okay, present prodigy company excepted, but the rest of us mere mortals tend to be superstitious as fuck. Don’t read into it.”

Keith gets a mutinous expression, like he’s going to read into things. He’s going to read in a lot of things. James is way too drunk for this. It may be possible that he is never going to be sober enough for this conversation. Or drunk enough. Something. All he really knows is that this is a conversation he does not want to have. Not with Keith fucking Kogane. Not with a mouse. Not in a house. He does not want it, Sam-I-am.

Keith stares at him as he taps the ash off his cigar. Stares as he takes a long, slow drag. Stares as he chases the nicotine with whiskey. “You are lying,” Keith says with a certainty he has no right to. “I don’t know what about, but you are lying.”

James opens his mouth. Finds no good answers. Closes it. Keith watches him, smug, while James contemplates his options. James, frankly, isn’t sure what options he expects to find when faced with the universe’s favorite son. But to be fair to his deeply inebriated ass, he didn’t expect to be confronted with Keith fucking Kogane, the perfect pilot, prodigy, favored son of the universe, and savior of all that is Good and Right when he, James, is off having a self-destructive exploration of a city that he’s pretty sure isn’t going to register on any map the Garrison can conjure up out of their archives.

Honestly. It’s more than anybody should be expected to deal with when they are off having a self-destructive bender.

James looks up at the shattered beams of their current bolt-hole. Looks at the pocked and ashy expansive wood that pretends to be the bar. Looks at Keith Kogane’ unfairly pretty face and contemplative expression. Sighs. Takes another deep sip of his whiskey and then frowns when he finds both an empty glass and a nearly empty bottle. Nothing left but honestly now. Gods dammit.

“Why aren’t you with Captain Shirogane?” James asks. Because he knows an awkward question when he says it. Because he knows that the Captain, epitome of everything that is good and true of humanity, is Keith Kogane’s personal north star. So. What the fuck?

It’s fascinating the way that colour climbs up Keith’s cheeks and down his neck until, James is pretty sure, it stains his chest like a brand. The glare he gets is amazing and should, by all rights, set him ablaze from the top of his inebriated head to the bottom of his combat boot-shoed toes. Fortunately, however, despite the many, many, gifts the universe has decided to grant Keith Kogane, pyrokinesis is not among them.

The way Keith’s shoulders cave inward, his chest becomes a black hole, his entire body language becomes writ in pain and self-sacrificial energy tells James far more than any words that might trip out of Keith’s mouth.

“Shiro is,” Keith stutters. James doesn’t quite hear the excuses that trip out of Keith’s mouth. He gets the vaguest sense of them. “He’s busy.” This is comical. Pathetic. The most bald-faced lie James has ever watched someone tell themselves. “He doesn’t,” Keith stumbles over his words like he’s forgotten how to say them, “I’m just.” Keith hunches even more inward on himself like he could turn himself into a singularity from which no light can escape. (James is, he’d like to note for the record, drunk.) And refuses to meet James’ eyes. “He has more important things to do.”

“There is literally nothing and no one who is more important to Captain Shirogane than you,” James says. He says it like he’s noting that sky is blue and that the escape velocity from Earth’s gravity is 11.186 kilometers per second. It is a fact. Nothing more.

Keith huddles around his bourbon glass and refuses to look at James. There’s something pathetic and yearning in the curling edges of him. James wonders which god he’s pissed off that has resulted in him being here, the unwilling confessor of Keith’s obvious and tragic love.

James sighs.

“This is pathetic,” he says as the ghosts ring in thick and pressing around their smoky, shattered refugee from all their responsibilities. James blinks. Responsibilities he supposes he no longer has. Earth is liberated. Paladins of Voltron have charged resplendent into battle. Everyone else is just … superfluous to the effort. It’s an oddly liberating thought.

Keith glares at him. The look has all the force of a fourteen-year-old declaring that their love is real and eternal. Charming, but unconvincing. Childish in its patheticness.

“Shiro—” Keith starts.

“Loves you better than he loves anything else in this universe,” James interrupts. He feels exhausted. Gods save him from awkward boys and their melodrama. “He would, with glee, torch the universe and everything in it for you.” Keith opens his mouth to argue. “Please,” James sighs. “Your pathetic floundering about arguing the point demeans us both. Go talk to him.”

The expression Keith wears is the strangest cross between longing and frustrated disbelief that James has ever seen.

“Do you need more liquid courage?” James asks kindly as he knows how. This is a thing he can do. Perhaps, oddly, a thing he is best suited to doing—grabbing Keith Kogane, boy disaster and beloved son of the universe, and shoving him towards him the glorious destiny that the universe is trying to lay before him.

Keith scowls at him. “Fuck you.”

“I,” James says with absolute certainty as he scrounges around for a new whiskey bottle, “am not the person you want to fuck. Go talk to Captain Shirogane. I’m sure he’d be delighted screw you silly.”

Keith sputters and goes the colours of his grandmother’s heirloom tomatoes—a beautiful red so dark its nearly purple. The blush almost renders the scar reaching up over Keith’s right cheek invisible. James swallows his unkind laughter and arches an eyebrow while Keith squirms. Keith glares at him some more before stealing the whiskey bottle between them and pouring himself a heavy two fingers. He does laugh, loud and cruel, when Keith coughs around his heavy swallow of the burning liquid.

“You’re wrong,” Keith hisses at him even as he cuddles his glass.

“Very, very rarely,” James says gently. “And definitely not about this. Go talk to him, hotshot. You’ve got at least at bottle of whisky in your veins.” James makes a grandiose and incomprehensible gesture with one arm. ”Let its fire give you courage where your stunted socialization has failed you.”

Keith blows out a long breath like James is wearing on his last nerve. Which, James probably is if he’s being honest.

“You’re wrong,” Keith repeats. “And you are being stupid.”

James puts his nose in the air with all the arrogance built into his bones. “I have the highest grade point average of our entire class, hotshot. Valedictorian,” he pauses to mug a thoughtful expression, “or I would have been if there hadn’t been that little problem of marauding purple chinchillas.”

“And yet,” Keith says with the ponderousness of the inebriated, “you are an idiot.”

James is still working to put words all the ways that Keith is wrong when Keith reaches across the bar, snags his fingers in James’ collar and drags him down into a kiss that’s more a sloppy press of teeth and his tongue sliding over James’ lips than an actual kiss. It takes them a second to get it right. Keith hitches himself up further over the bar with one hand until he’s nearly sitting on it and James tilts his head, fumbles his whiskey glass to the bar so he can slide his hand into Keith’s messy hair—so much longer than he ever remembers it being—and fit their mouths together. Keith bites him. James moans, surprised, and Keith slips his tongue into his mouth. This is definitely not how James had thought his evening was going to go.

When Keith pulls back, flushed and pleased with himself, James blinks.

“You’re an idiot,” Keith repeats.

James licks his lips like he can chase the taste of Keith’s mouth. Blinks again. “Yeah, okay.”

Keith manages to leverage himself up onto the bar so he can swing his legs around, bracketing James’ hips, and drags James back to him. The second kiss is better than the first. They slot together better than James thinks they ought to. James doesn’t know where Keith’s cigar goes as Keith fists his hands in James’ hair like he thinks James is going to pull away.

James is absolutely not going to go fucking anywhere.

He presses his free hand to the small of Keith’s back to drag him even closer. Keith hums, low and pleased, and hooks his legs over James’ hips to grind against him. The cigar burns low in James’ hand until he can feel it burn against his fingers. He should grind it out in the ashtray before it burns the fuck out of his fingers, but he can’t think that far ahead with Keith pressing up against him like he can find a way to crawl into the space between James’ ribs.

Keith pulls away from his mouth, flushed, to press biting kisses along the column of James’ neck. He can feel Keith’s little kitten fangs score lines across cross the sensitive skin under his ear, all along the line of his jaw, and his hand spasms against Keith’s back.

“Holy fuck,” James gasps when Keith starts unbuttoning the fussy little clasps of his combat uniform. He can feel Keith laugh against his skin, soft and delighted, which is entirely unfair. “Keith.”

“No?” Keith asks even as his hands are shoving his jacket off his shoulders.

“I,” James tries kicking his brain into something even remotely capable of processing this. “What?”

“How are you so smart and still so stupid?” Keith asks. Fortunately, he doesn’t wait for James to actually say anything in response to that. He’s not entirely sure when Keith managed to get jacket off or his shirt hiked up his chest so he can dip down and bit down on one nipple.

“Holy fuck!” He didn’t think his nipples were an erogenous zone for him. They certainly never were before, but when Keith get his mouth on one and rolls that little nub with his tongue and teeth all his nerve endings light up like a photon flare. His hips jerks of their own accord with precisely no input from James’ at all. “Fuck!

He’s vaguely aware that Keith’s laughing at him as his cigar burns down to its base. His free hand clenches in Keith’s hair, holding him to his chest as James’ mouth works around words that refuse to come out of his mouth. Keith grinds against him. And, okay, that’s definitely Keith’s cock hard and demanding against his own. He feels like he should put a stop to this before Keith does something he doesn’t mean, but the words die in his mouth like ash when Keith finds his belt and undoes it with far more dexterity than he should be able to with half a bottle of whiskey in him.

His hips jerk, lust and surprise tangling inside him, when Keith slips nimble fingers under his waist band to wrap around his cock. Keith’s grip is sure, determined, as he drags his hand down his length and all rational thought flies right out of James’ head.

“Tell me no right now if you don’t want this.”

James can feel his throat working around the words. “I am never,” he rasps, and holy shit does his voice already sound fucked out and wanting, “going to tell you no. You know that.”

Keith grins at him, all teeth, and kisses him again.

He’s not sure he’s ever been this hard in his entire life. He flicks the smoldering remains of his cigar to the shadowed edges of the bar to clutch at Keith’s hips so he can grind them together as best as he’s able with the awkward position and Keith’s hand working him. He’s got precisely two braincells working at the moment and they can’t get into agreement with what he should be doing.

“I want to blow you,” Keith announces like this is an entirely normal thing to say. “Can I?”

James sputters. Keith waits, his fingers sliding soft and sure up and down James’ cock like he’s got all the time in the universe. Maybe he does. There’s something very determined in his expression, like he’s made his decision long before this and is just waiting for James to come around.

“Okay?”

Keith’s grin is quick and feral and there’s the hothead that James knows.

He stumbles backwards against the high shelves, bottles of alcohol rattling with the impact, as Keith slides down from the bar and shoves his way into James’ spaces. Keith makes quick work of his pants. The sound of James’ belt sliding through his pant loops is a high, hissing sound that makes him shiver from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. Keith stares back up at him, all dark eyes and deep red lips. A sound too close to a whine for James’ dignity bubbles out his mouth when Keith licks a slick line up his cock.

“First blow job, Jamie?” Keith asks, lips pressed against his heated flesh. It should look ridiculous instead it’s just obscene. There’s something taunting in Keith’s expression, but it’s fond and amused.

“No,” James answers, startled into honestly. He’s not even bragging. There’s not a lot to do in the long periods of waiting between missions but give into sexual frustration.

“Good,” Keith drags his mouth along the side of James’ cock, all spit slick messiness. “Pull my hair.”

Well. Answers the question of whether or not Keith knows what he likes. James slides a hand into that thick, dark hair and makes a fist. Keith moans, eyes fluttering shut, as James pulls him along his cock. Keith goes, mouth soft and wet, and never looks away from James’ face. He has no idea what expression he’s making, alcohol fogged and surprised as all hell, but Keith must like it for the way his eyes turn molten. James moans and Keith echoes the sound.

“Are you just going to mouth at it, hotshot,” he asks because he is, as noted earlier, an asshole.

Keith’s eyebrow twitches upwards, smug, and swallows him down in one smooth move. All the air punches out of him Keith takes him deep and hollows out his cheeks, sucking hard and tight.

“Jesus, fuck.” James wraps one hand against the shelves and swears he can hear the wood under his fingers splinter with the effort to keep from thrusting into the wet heat of Keith’s mouth. He will not be that asshole. He will not. The corners of Keith’s eyes crinkle like he knows exactly how hard James’ is fighting for control.

“You look amazing on your knees,” he says, honesty dragged out of him by unfiltered lust. His voice is a raw, ragged thing.

Keith drags his mouth back up, comes off his cock with a soft pop and a line of spit between his lips and the head of James’ cock gleaming in the low light. He’s impossibly smug. It’s a good expression on him. James groans, rapidly coming undone, as Keith delicately licks his way around the head of James’ cock. He closes his eyes and shudders as Keith explores him with lips and tongue and greedy fingers.

“I know,” Keith says simply, like he’s noting that water is wet, and fire is hot.

It takes James’ brain a long minute to reboot around the idea of Keith on his knees for someone else, all determination and focus, making them fall apart with his clever mouth and complete lack of a gag reflex. James has half a second to wonder if that’s something he’s trained himself out of, or just a quirk of his Galra genetics, before Keith grabs his ass, fingers digging into the muscle, and swallows him down to the root. James can’t help the tiny roll of his hips as Keith bobs along his cock. Tears spring up around the edges of Keith’s eyes as a moan bubbles up from his throat like he’s greedy for it. Like all he wants is to choke on James’ cock.

“So, fucking pretty down there,” James rasps. Keith groans and James shudders with the sensation. He traces the outline of his cock in Keith’s throat, soft and wondering, as Keith swallows around him. “So good.”

James can feel the way his thighs shake with the effort to keep still, to be a godsdamned gentleman, when all he really wants to do is fist his hands in that silky hair and hold Keith down until he chokes. But he thinks that might be too much for their first—and, is James is completely honest with himself, probably only—time doing this. Keith smacks his ass as he comes off James’ cock with the most obscene sound James has heard in his life.

“I said pull my hair, Jamie,” Keith growls against his dick. He turns his head to lick at the thick vein running up the bottom of his cock. “I like it.”

His brain shorts out around that command and he obeys as if trained to it. Keith groans when he fits his hand against the base of Keith’s skull and fists it there, pulling all that soft dark hair mean and demanding. Keith goes, easy as anything, when James drags him back down. Tears slide down Keith’s cheeks to join the spit and pre-cum making a mess of Keith’s chin. There is no way James can withstand much more of this. He pets along Keith’s face with his free hand, smearing the mess all long his skin.

“Fuck, hotshot,” he groans, his filter completely shattered between the alcohol and lust bubbling in his veins, “just like that. Keep moving just like that.”

Keith slides his hands over James’ thighs, petting him a parody of a soothing gesture, as he stares up at James. His mouth is a perfect circle around James’ cock, stretched to the point of straining. James drags him back up by his hair just enough to let him roll his hips to thrust, tiny and careful, into Keith’s mouth. Keith’s eyes flutter shut as he moans.

The low, guttural sound zips up James’ spine to embed right in his hindbrain. There’s a strong possibility he may spontaneously combust and he absolutely will not be the jackass that comes to early and ruins all of this. James reaches down to grab at Keith’s hand, makes him wrap those slender fingers with their odd calluses tight around the base of his cock, and then rolls his hips. Keith moves with him, tongue working along the underside of his cock, low moans punching out of him like the slide of James’ cock across his lips is the best thing that has ever happened to him.

Shit, James.” Keith pulls off his cock with a gasp, hand still working him, as he rests his cheek against James’ thigh. James pushes his sweaty bangs back from his face just to look at him, all flushed and pretty, as he pants.

“Come here.” He wants it to be a demand, but the words come out of his mouth as a soft plea.

Keith’s lips quirk into a smile and he presses a kiss to the crease of James’ thigh. “What if I want to stay down here”

James twists his hand in Keith’s hair and drags him back up to kiss him. Keith comes with a gasp. James licks into his slack mouth. “You’re wearing too many clothes,” he says as he bites at Keith’s mouth, “get them off.”

Keith laughs as James shoves his tee shirt up. He’s still laughing softly as he squirms against him as they both fight to get his arms free of it. James sweeps his hands up Keith’s ribs to thumb at his nipples and Keith’s mouth drops open in a surprised moan.

“Sensitive?” James doesn’t wait for an answer before he dips down to bite at one while twisting the other. Keith whimpers and the sound has a direct line to James’ cock. “That’s a yes.”

“Fuck you.”

James pulls back to study Keith. “Do you have lube?”

Keith’s eyes go comically wide. “What?”

“That’s a no,” James says more to himself. “Pity. Maybe next time.”

While Keith is processing that James wrestles his belt open. He doesn’t miss the way Keith goes completely still when he tugs open Keith’s pants.

“No?” It’s an echo of Keith’s earlier question. Keith’s eyes slam shut and a shiver wracks through him. James starts to back off. He recognizes a case of nerves when he sees them. He thought they’d been moving too fast. Alcohol and nicotine taking the place of actual thought.

Keith growls out frustrated phrase in a language James doesn’t recognize before grabbing his hand and shoving it down his pants.

His fingers find Keith’s cock where it’s slick and wet and curls neatly around James’ fingers. Huh. Keith’s eyes are stubbornly closed as he shivers. He presses a chaste kiss against the tight line of Keith’s mouth as his fingers explore. Keith’s cock feels soft and firm and slides through his fingers like it’s alive—all friendly hi! what’s up!—and Keith refuses to open his eyes even as James peppers his face with soft kisses.

James thinks of all the times during middle school when Keith had refused to change with the rest of them in the locker room. When he’d snarled and fought and thrown punches when older boys had teased him about his shyness. Huh. Several things about Keith, in retrospect, become crystal clear.

He drops to his knees, awkward and unsteady with his pants tangled around his boots, to tug down Keith’s pants and boxers. Keith moans, eyes still closed, as James takes in the sight of him, breath ghosting along Keith’s cock as it writhes, just a little, in the cool air. It’s long, pale purple, tapered, leaking slick along its sides and if James’ guess is right, prehensile.

He wants it in his mouth immediately and sees no reason to wait.

Keith shouts when James slides his mouth down his cock. It tastes like salt and tang and something just a little alien. James moans when it curls in his mouth, slipping around his tongue like the most obscene kiss he’s ever had, before sliding down his throat without Keith moving his hips at all. Maybe it’s been too long since James has gotten laid or maybe it’s just the fact that it’s Keith, but it’s the hottest thing that has ever happened to him

Who is he kidding? It’s Keith. It’s always been Keith.

He bobs his head, moaning at the taste and pressure against his tongue, and Keith gasps.

James grabs one of Keith’s hands as they flutter above him, like Keith is afraid to touch, and drags it into his hair.

When he pulls off, his mouth a mess of drool and Keith’s slick and Keith’s cock sliding of its own accord across his lips, Keith stares down at him with huge, disbelieving eyes. James licks at Keith’s cock, delicate and careful, before smiling up at him.

“You aren’t the only one that likes their hair pulled, hotshot,” he says. Holy fuck, is that his voice? It sounds like someone had dragged his vocal cords through gravel and then set them on fire.

Keith’s hand shakes in his hair. “Jesus, Jamie.”

James licks at his cock again, gets it sloppy and filthy. He grins at the way a full-body shudder shakes Keith’s entire body. “Haven’t done anything worth that yet.”

Keith’s hand fists in his hair even as he stares down at James mouthing along his cock in unadulterated shock. “How are you real?” Keith asks. James swallows him down with breaking eye contact just for the way it makes Keith whine. “Oh. Oh god. That’s—”

Keith’s voice dies in a guttural moan as his eyes slam shut. If James’ mouth wasn’t stuffed full of Keith’s delightful, prehensile alien dick he’d grin in triumph.

It’s good. It’s so good to make Keith come apart with his mouth and hands sliding along the slick flesh of Keith’s cock. It’s got ridges, tiny ones, all along the sides and James wonders what they would feel like moving inside in him. He groans at the thought and bobs his head to take that dick deeper, eyes watering, until the slender tip of Keith’s cock is nudging at the back of his throat.

The wood of the bar cracks under Keith’s grip as he shakes. “Fuck.” James wants Keith to sound like this all the time. Wants to hear Keith’s voice shattering around the force of his orgasm. “Fuck. Your mouth is so, ugh, I want—”

James whines, displeased, when Keith’s hand slides out of his hair to find his, but he lets Keith tug his hand up between his thighs and oh. Keith’s body is just full of surprises. Keith’s slick and wet between his thighs where James had expected to find Keith’s balls. Keith lets go of his hand as he explores. He slides two fingers along Keith’s slit as he takes Keith’s cock as far as he can down his throat. Keith clenches around his fingers and a sound like a mewl crawls out of his throat.

Keith lays a trembling hand to the top of James’ head as if he’s afraid to touch. Keith shivers and moans when James slides a finger into him, hot and wet, and he was wrong before. This is the hottest thing that has ever happened to him.

“James.” Keith’s hips jerk when James slides another finger into him, just two, but he knows what he’s doing with his fingers. He’s been told he’s got clever hands, good at find secret, sensitive places, and he gets to work learning what makes Keith buck and whine. “Jamie. Oh god, oh fuck, fuck, fuck, fu—”

When Keith comes, it’s with a sound like a hiccupping chirp, straight down James’ throat. James hooks two fingers and presses up, demanding, right where he’d expect to find a g-spot and Keith screams for him. James presses a soft kiss to Keith’s trembling thigh. His mouth is full of sweet, tangy come and his hand covered in Keith’s slick. He feels filthy, disheveled, in all of the best ways.

Keith collapses back against the bar, shaking and panting, as James stumbles up to catch him. James kisses him, breathless with desperate lust, just to taste him—to let Keith taste himself in James’ mouth. From the way Keith licks into his mouth like a man starving, James guess he likes it. Keith whines with over-stimulation when James slides two fingers back into him. James is still hard as diamonds and stunned with how much he wants to lay Keith out on the bar and fuck him silly.

Keith wraps his arms around James’ neck and buries his face in James’ shoulder as he lets James explore his body. He’s a whining, squirming mess in James’ arms and James has never wanted anything as much in his entire life.

“Keith, let me, just—. Holy fuck.” James mouths along Keith’s neck as he tries to figure out how to ask for what he wants. He rolls his hips against Keith, his pants still around his knees trapping him, and groans.

Keith squirms, kicking off his boots in a move James is pretty sure no human could replicate, and returns James’ kisses with a passion that seems unreal.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Keith chants against his mouth. “Do it. In me. Now, Jamie, please. Oh go—”

Keith’s voice gives out in a needy little moan as James, in a move he frankly has no idea how he pulls off, hikes him up onto the bar. Keith sprawls, legs spread in an open display, over the bar. James wants to go back to his knees and lick deep into Keith’s slit. Slick smears across Keith’s thighs, shiny in the low light, as James slides against him.

His cock catches against Keith’s slit before slipping up along Keith’s cock. It squirms against him for a moment before wrapping around his dick, still hard and interested in the proceedings. James, he isn’t ashamed to say, loves Keith’s alien dick. It is hands down the best thing to come out of the whole angry purple space furries thing. James’ mind whites out at the feeling of Keith’s prehensile cock squeezing, so gently, around his dick. He drops his forehead against Keith’s shoulder and thrusts again. Keith whines. His cock continues to squeeze around James and it’s the best thing he’s ever felt. He rolls his hips into that slick grasp, groaning at the feeling of those ridges moving along his cock.

“Keith, fuck, baby, so good.” He’s babbling. James can’t get control over his voice. He’d be embarrassed about that except for the way that Keith is shuddering against him, fingers scrabbling at his back like he’s just as desperate for it. “So fucking hot. Want to feel you come again. Want to see it, baby, want to see you come apart.”

Keith drops a hand between them to grab his cock. He shimmies along the bar, just a tiny move, and James suddenly thrusts up and into him. His shudders as he slides into that tight, wet heat and Keith’s head falls back against the bar hard enough that James worries for a moment.

“James, Jamie, that, just like that.” Keith shakes around him, eyes huge, and then comes again with a little moaning trill. He tries to stop, to give Keith time to collect himself, but Keith locks his ankles around James’ hips and grinds down onto him. Keith spasms, wringing down tight around him, when James thrusts into hard enough to move him up the bar.

As hot as it is to make Keith jerk with each of his thrusts, splinters are probably the direct opposite of sexy and James should do something about that.

James gets his arms under Keith’s thighs and lifts him into the cradle of his arms. He stumbles, just a little, and knocks Keith’s back into the shelves. He hears bottles fall but does not fucking care when Keith’s mouthing at his neck and whining, high and needy.

“Jesus, hotshot, you are going to kill me,” he groans and bounces Keith on his cock, thrusting hard enough to make his thighs burn with the effort. Keith wraps his arms around his shoulders and wails. He’s hot, slick, and tight around James cock, driving every rational, patient thought right out of his head. James bites down on Keith’s shoulder as he groans against the sensation of Keith clenching down tight around him. Lightening fires down his spine, heat pooling in his belly, and he can feel his orgasm building like a tidal wave. Keith quakes in his arms, his cock writhing along James’ abs with each thrust, and moaning against his neck.

“So close, Keith, fuck,” James pants against the sweat slicked skin of Keith’s shoulder.

Keith fists his hands in James’ hair, pulling hard enough to make him see stars, and kisses him like he’s dying for it. “Do it.” Keith bounces in his grip like he can take James deeper. “Wanna feel it. Wanna see you come. Wanna feel it inside. Oh.”

James drags him down his cock hard, body straining and shaking, as he comes. His vision goes dark with the force of it. He stands panting, cock twitching deep inside Keith, shuddering like he’s run a marathon. How he’s still standing is a miracle.

He lets Keith down slow, one leg dropping to the ground and then the other. They stand pressed against the bar, shivering together, panting against each other’s skin.

“Holy shit, hotshot,” he says against Keith’s shoulder. “Mother of the gods.”

James’ legs are shaking so hard he’s not sure he can keep standing for much longer. Keith is oddly quiet in the circle of his arms. James lifts his head to look at him. Keith keeps his eyes closed as James tips his face up from where it’s pressed against his neck. Keith shivers. Something squeezes his heart, hard, and he leans forward to kiss Keith as sweet as he knows how.

It takes Keith a minute before he kisses back.

“Was that okay?” James is taken with a sudden insecurity. They had alcohol and nicotine and the general weirdness of the night singing in their veins and James has a bad feeling that he maybe went too far.

Keith laughs, soft and wondering, before opening his eyes to stare back at him. “I think I should be asking that?”

“Hotshot,” James says seriously, “I just came so hard that in about another forty-five seconds I am going to fall over. That was, easily, the hottest thing that has ever happened to me.”

Keith presses his forehead to James shoulder and hiccups in laughter. “I think your standards are low, Jamie,” he says against James’ throat.

“I think you’re an asshole,” James returns. “Also, going to be the death of me.”

Keith kisses him sweeter than James would have ever imagined Keith being capable of. He’s smiling, small and soft, when James pulls back to look at him. “Wouldn’t let anyone get there first.”

There’s a blanket folded up under the bar where James swears there hadn’t been on before. He tugs it out before he drags Keith down to the floor with him. Every part of him is sore and sated. Keith wrinkles his nose but lets James settle him into the circle of his arms. James is pretty sure he’s going to wake up in the morning with a bitch of a hang-over, no memory of how he got there, and alone, but for now everything is soft and sweet.

“Shut up,” he says instead of all the sappy things running around inside of his head. “Go to sleep.”

Keith pokes at him, pushes him around until he’s arranged to Keith’s satisfaction and steals most of the blanket, but lets him cuddle them into a bundle of blankets that he knows without a doubt hadn’t existed before. Maybe his ghosts weren’t such assholes after all.


James wakes up the sun crawl along the floor of the shattered bar. His pants are still a loose mess around his hips, his combat boots still on, and the smell of alcohol, cigar smoke, and sex thick on his skin. He jolts as his brain comes back online all at once. He tries to jerk upright, but a heavy body has him pinned to the broken ground.

Keith grumbles, smacks at him blindly, and then bites him when James tries to squirm out of his arms.

“Stop moving, asshole.”

Oh. James lays back down gingerly, half expecting Keith and the scene to disappear like morning mist. Keith rolls back on top of him, rumbles out a complaint in a language James doesn’t know, and sticks his cold nose in James’ neck. Oh. Okay then.