The Burnish were solar powered now. It was slowly but surely becoming a fact of life that when the sun was hidden away the Burnish apartments would sink into a lull.
“It’s like seasonal depression, but you can feel all of it in an afternoon” Meis grumbled, pulling himself into the kitchen to start the coffee maker for the 3rd time that day.
They all couldn’t help but perk up when the sun shone bright and warm and they could feel the kiss of it on their skin. It made for early birds, caffeine addicts, and near-blinding serotonin highs when the sun came out for the first time after hiding away for a while. Lio was no different, he’d even go so far as to say he had a rougher time of it than Meis and Guiera. It was just hard to ignore the way that bright, warm sunshine could make him feel like he was soaring. A drugless high that, while not as satisfying as burning, made the whole world feel crisper around the edges.
It even made BIKING enjoyable. Which was an impressive feat to start out, though after a while Lio didn’t need any help enjoying feeling himself fly through traffic, sneaking up the sidelines or dodging and weaving when he really knew he shouldn’t. It felt all too familiar to the way he could zip across the desert on Detroit, wind howling at the sheer speed and not a single destination in sight.
Freedom, he thinks, is what it feels like.
Which is why the screeching sound of car tires is the last thing he wants to hear as he goes barreling through an intersection. He sees movement more than he sees a car. Feels the sudden jolt of his front tire colliding and lets his body take over as he tucks into a tidy shoulder roll over the hood of the vehicle, landing on the other side with adrenaline singing in his ears.
He blinks for a second, trying to process what happened as he stares owlishly at the car. He had done far more daring things in his hayday, had been through worse and come out better, still it had been a while and the rush of a near miss was foriegn to him now. But, he was always one to recover quickly.
The long honk of another car, trying to pass through the now blocked intersection, snapped him back to reality. “What the fuck is your problem?!” He spat, leaning into the words as he stared down the driver, stalking his way around the hood to gather his bike. “You had a fucking RED LIGHT, motherfucker, you colorblind or something?”
The driver rolled down his window, quickly apologizing in a stuttering crash of please-don’t-sue-me-are-you-ok. Which, by nature of the order of concerns, was less than heartening. Lio picked his bike up, looking at the crushed front wheel with disdain as he bounced it up onto it’s rear wheel. He glared at the driver and pointed at the now green light. “Pay. Attention.” He seethed, his face already hot with simmering anger. The driver nodded, passing him a phone number ‘to replace the front wheel’ before driving off and leaving Lio to walk his upright bike to the sidewalk while a few other cars honked for him to move a little faster.
“Lio!” A familiar voice shouted and Lio turned to see Galo running over. A fluster of emotions ruffled through him, but he kept it all below the surface as he set his bike down and let it flop pathetically over. “Lio! Oh my god are you ok?”
Galo’s hands hovered, caught between the need to check for injury and the consideration to respect Lio’s space. It was charming, but-
“Why are you here?” He blinked, shocked at his own unfiltered brain-to-mouth conveyor belt. “No, I mean, how come you’re here? I’m fine. Obviously. I’ve done way worse, I’m okay, but, I mean-” Holy shit does he normally talk this much? Galo’s eyebrows pinched in concern and Lio took a long breath, a stressed line of a smile highlighting the action. “I’m fine.”
“Good.” Galo muttered, hurt clear in the shifting of his feet, the uncomfortable way he shuffled, keeping himself gathered close. “I’m glad.” It was almost too painful for Lio to watch, knowing he was the one to blame.
“Oh, your bike!” Galo’s attention snapped to the ground, picking the bike up with one hand to assess the damage. Something he was allowed to fret over, to touch, to make a show of. Lio felt stupid for wishing that he’d been able to laugh and assure Galo he was fine, show him the unscraped elbows and knees and be turned this way and that. But instead it was the bike who was the recipient of differed worry.
“Yeah, she got pretty banged up. The guy said he’s going to pay for her to be fixed.” He pulled out his phone and flipped it open. “I was headed to campus, but I guess I’m going to the bike shop instead. Never gunna make it in time on foot.”
“You don’t take morning classes.” Galo blinked.
Lio offered his hands out to accept the bike. “Study group.”
“Ah.” Galo handed it to him, careful not to let the weight drop too suddenly. “I could, uh, call a cab? Or drive you, if you don’t mind that. I know we’re not, like, doing that-” Lio winced. “-but, I mean, I can still help.”
No- was the simple, impulsive response that laid vicious on Lio’s tongue. He didn’t need Galo’s help. He didn’t deserve it. But, still, in that awful pit of himself, he wanted it. Galo was brighter than the sun itself and Lio could, even now, feel something in his heart that had been wilting without him perk up and unfurl in his glow.
He sighed, shoulders slumping in defeat. “Thank you, Galo. That would be very helpful.”
Galo brightened, nodding enthusiastically. “Of course!”
They locked up his poor bike and then rode in silence, the wind whistling in his ear as they sliced through the streets. Lio held tight to Galo, willing the emotions that welled up to lay quiet once again. He hopped off the bike when they reached the campus and offered a weak smile that Galo returned. “Thank you.”
“It’s no problem, Lio.” Galo smiled, “Really.”
Lio shook his head, “Let me pay you back after study group.” He said, quiet and hopeful. “Coffee? We can go to the campus coffee shop?” He crossed his arms, holding himself against the chill as he looked away. “We should… talk either way.”
Galo’s expression grew enthusiastically serious, nodding. “Yeah, of course! Totally. I’d like that a lot! What time?”
“I should be out by 11?”
“See you then!”
Galo didn’t know much, but he did know that second chances don’t just go falling from the sky on the regular. He couldn’t mess things up this time around. Well, to be completely honest, he still wasn’t one hundred percent sure what he had done wrong the first time. But! He wouldn’t do it again! He’d been patient, just like Aina said to be. He’d waited until Lio pretty much fell directly into his lap! How much more patient can a person be than that!
He was waiting outside the coffee shop, texting frog memes to Lucia, when Lio walked up and offered him a tired wave.
“Lio!” He grinned, hopping off his bike. “How was study group?”
Lio gave him a distant, pleasant smile, “I’m going to fail my algebra final.” He adjusted his bookbag and chuckled as Galo made a distressed noise. “It’s fine. I only need a 70 to pass the class. I could crumple that test into a ball and do a free throw into the trash bin with it and still pass.”
Galo frowned. “At least put it in the recycling.”
A moment passed before Lio laughed. “True. But, I think I’d be better off trying to actually do my exam.” He waved them both into the shop and Galo nodded as he followed dutifully.
“You really should.”
They walked up to the counter and Galo smiled brightly at the barista. “Hi. Tall light roast with room for cream, please. And-” He looked to Lio. “Same?”
Lio shook his head. “Caramel Macchiato, one extra pump of vanilla. Tall. Please.” He amended, paying before Galo could insist on splitting. Sure it was supposed to be his treat but, I mean, Lio didn’t exactly have stable funds.
They got their drinks and sat down, Galo watching Lio fidget a bit with the cup sleeve.
That. That right there, was new. Lio doesn’t fidget. Doesn’t get nervous or awkward or unsure. Or at least he HADN’T. Not in Galo’s memories of him. In his memories Lio was always cool, calm, and collected or mid-rampage. No in between. It was one of the many, many things he liked about him. How strongly he expressed himself, how strongly he felt things.
“Galo.” Lio pulled his attention, a gentle concern and reservation hanging in his expression. Galo offered a smile which was only returned in a perfunctory sense, gone as soon as it came.
Lio grasped his coffee with both hands, sapping the warmth as if it could give him a sense of peace, or strength. “Galo, I owe you an apology.”
The breath left him, his heart aching. “Lio, no you-”
“Stop.” Lio held out a hand, firm but not unkind. “This is not easy for me, please just let me finish.”
Galo closed his mouth, nodding a little too quickly.
“When you offered the bike and attempted to, well, to level with me emotionally.” Galo supposed that was one way to word ‘gave you a gift and told you in a roundabout way that I love you’ but hey, to each is own. “I reacted poorly and, to be honest, I panicked. I didn’t give you a response or an explanation. I just ran.”
Lio gave him a sad smile. “I’m good at that, I suppose, but it doesn’t make it right. I owe you more than that, so I am very sorry for having done that to you. It was wrong.”
“Lio.” Galo breathed, the word in itself an acceptance and an olive branch. “Thank you.” He fiddled with his cup lid. “I really should have thought about it better too. I know I rush into, like, everything, but I should have stopped to, like, suss the whole thing out.”
“Nah, you went with your heart. It suits you. Besides,” Lio chuckled hollowly, taking a sip. “I’m not that easy to read.”
Galo tilted his head to the side, trying to understand why Lio would think that. “Uh, yeah you kinda are?” He leaned forward, “It’s not hard to see when you’re, like, upset or have something on your mind. Just hard to know why.” Lio gave him a startled look and Galo shrugged, sitting back once more. “I’m good at paying attention but I’m not a mind reader, Lio.”
He took a sip of his coffee, watching the thoughts play clearly across Lio’s face while he processed. He really thought he was a closed book?
Finally, Lio sighed, leaning into the table to rest his head in the palm of his hand. “You’re right, you aren’t. I just… I think that people just won’t GET my shit, or, like, they shouldn’t HAVE to get it or handle it. But... I shouldn’t keep you in the dark. That’s not fair to you.”
Galo nodded, a little taken aback by Lio’s willingness to talk but he was not about to question it. It seemed like a fragile thing he didn’t want to disturb. “Thank you.” He paused, letting the silence settle over them both.
“Lio?” He waited for him to hum in acknowledgement before continuing. “Have you been… alright?”
Lio exhaled, seeming to expect this question. “No.” He smiled weakly, meeting his eyes. “Not for a while.” He looked down, almost shy. “But, I’m getting better.”
“The Promare leaving, the Burnish resettling into society, me having to build a new life… It’s all been very difficult. I never really had a life before the Promare. I was so young when I manifested as a Burnish that I really can’t remember what it was like before. It’s all… so new. So different...” He smiled to himself. “I built my identity on being Burnish, on being their leader. Helping them, protecting them, and wanting to build ourselves a new life where we could just be who we are. But, when the Promare left… I didn’t know who I was anymore. I wasn’t a strong fighter, or a leader, or a protector. I was just… me. Whoever that is.” He took a sip of his coffee. “I’m still learning who that person is, really.”
Galo nodded, trying to understand. “But, you’re still Lio? I mean, you can’t make fire but you’re still you.”
“In a way.” Lio shrugged. “I’m a different me though, and that’s ok.”
“And,” Galo smiled, “If it’s not ok now it will be.”
“Exactly.” Lio smiled in return, a weight seeming to leave his shoulders as he settled into his seat more fully.
Galo followed suit, making himself comfortable “So,” He started. “Tell me about the new Lio. What do we know about him.”
Lio laughed, a sound Galo didn’t know exactly how much he’d missed until hearing it just now. “Well, where to start?” He sipped his coffee.
“Ah.” Lio smirked, “The new Lio still sucks at math. But, I think I’m starting to enjoy the challenge. I like my literature classes a lot, we just finished reading Frankenstein and I think it’s my new favorite. But, I am sure that will change. Chemistry though, really, is my favorite class. By far. It makes the math all worthwhile.”
“What else do you like?” Galo smiled, happy to listen as long as Lio was talking about things that made him happy.
“Not plain coffee.” He laughed. “Turns out I am really just in it for the sugar. Who’d’ve thought, right? I’ll be drinking macchiatos all year round, I think.” He grinned. “I like my lab partner, Layne- she reminds me a bit of Lucia I think they’d get along. I like it when Meis makes grilled peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwiches. I like transcendental music, old movies, and hanging out with Meis and Guirea. Really, I just like them, they’re the best.”
He grew quiet, warm. “They’re my family, you know?”
Galo nodded, grinning. “I feel the same way about my team. Our Burning Rescue souls burn brighter together.”
Lio paused, the shocked silence dissolving quickly into giggles. “I like that too.”
“What?” Galo tilted his head.
“That! You say those silly things so seriously! And you are so… so…” He flicked his hand at the wrist, like he was loading the right word. “Honest.”
“Of course I am.” Galo sat straighter. “It’s not good to lie. Or hide things. I mean, why would I?”
Lio shrugged. “It’s just easy for you like that I guess.”
“Not for you.” Galo surmised.
“No.” Lio leaned back, swirling his coffee. “Not really. It’s... hard to say what you feel sometimes.”
Galo nodded, thinking as he rested his hands on the table. “Easier to say things in a roundabout way?”
“Sometimes.” Lio smiled, looking to the window. “Until I’m ready to say it directly.” He looked back to Galo, his expression unmistakably fond. “But, to offer a belated proper response to what you said… back then.” He played with the cup sleeve, but didn’t dare drop his gaze. “I like spending time with you too.”
A smile, like he was suddenly lighter for having heard it, returned by Lio’s own, suddenly lighter for having said it, warmed the room.
“I mean it.” Lio brightened further. “I really like your company. I… I’ve missed you. A lot.”
And Galo knew, under the surface of those words, was a sea of things yet unsaid. Things Lio was not ready to say yet. But, that was ok. For now he was holding a light out for Galo and that spark, that small beginning, was more than enough for him. For now.
“I missed you too.” Galo beamed, and from Lio’s small smile at hearing it he knew he heard what echoed in the spaces between the words.
I love you.